Legal disclaimer: There's no Xena and no Gabrielle, just a few people who happen to share an amazing likeness to them (wink wink, nudge nudge)... the characters were borrowed for my own amusement only, with no intention of making any profit from this, and I'll put them back when I'm done playing with them.

Explicit content and sex warning: This story features consensual sex between two adult women. The works, OK? If this kind of love bothers you, please read some nice general fiction story instead. If itís illegal where you live, move. Bondage, domination, sadism, masochism and all their pals featured as well. Nothing too perverted and/or illegal though, and no sexual violence.

Drug usage warning: Drugs, their use and effects are possibly featured here. Nothing glorifying and/or disturbing.

Extreme violence warning: Whereís Xena or one of her descendants, thereís violence. Canít help it. If her batting average gets worse than two cracked skulls per day, sheíll get all aggravated and nasty. And we donít want that, right? Right. In this story, extreme violence and its aftermaths are depicted in a realistic, graphical way. Lots of anatomy and blood, since I'm that kind of gal.

Language warning: Proper English, featuring the f-word, the s-word, the c-word and the rest of the alphabet soup. I wonít go on the bleepiní bandwagon even if Scully does it.

The Kink and How to Work It

© Penumbra 1998

Bile. Even the word was ugly. It fit the taste perfectly. It brought back a flash of a memory, her first bottle of cheap wine back in high school. She had spewed her guts in Robby Nielsenís car, on the new black upholstery. He had been furious, she too nauseous to care. Since then, her favourite intoxicant had been knowledge, having learned the nasty side effects of alcohol.

This time the bile was the nasty side effect of her chosen addiction, information. In this case, she learned that the human gastrointestinal system was a huge mass of gelatinous, dark lumps lined with endless miles of colon. The organs were neatly arranged in a pile, the thin tube that was the small intestine circling them and then trailing down the dirty alley. Their previous owner was laying next to her innards, the remains of her peritoneum hanging in shards from the gaping hole that spanned from lower ribs to her groin.

A bobby was retching into a garbage container. Della felt an urge to join him but resisted the temptation. Instead, she bravely swallowed the pungent liquid in her mouth. Her feet felt a bit unsteady in her Bruno Magli Oliviaís but a few deep breaths helped. Carefully avoiding the dark lakes of the victimís blood, already coagulating at the edges, she made a beeline to a haggard-looking plump man, her boss.

At this ungodly hour of 4 a.m. Det. Chief Inspector Haggis looked not unlike his namesake, a stuffed lambís stomach. He was a ruddy-faced, genial-looking man who was always the Santa in the districtís Christmas parties. Looks can be fooling, many a criminal had learned that the hard way. Haggis was one of the youngest DCIs and for a good reason. The red colour on his face was deepening every moment as he yelled to a little slip of a man, a reporter evidently, who tried to get his camera lens past the bulky officer but to no avail.

"... aní haul yer bloody carcass off thí alley! Now!" the DCI yelled and for the first time in his life the reporter recognized good advice when he heard it. He turned and took off, reluctantly first but gathering speed. Della was envious, she wanted to get off the dank alleyway as well. The smell of urine, excrement, garbage and death was not her cup oí tea. Not that she drank tea anyway. It was beyond her how some of her colleagues could start the morning with tea diluted with milk, forming a light brown sludge.

The DCIís face assumed its usual warm smile when he heard the faint clicking of heels against asphalt. The London Police Department was egalitarian and worked according to the anti-discriminatory laws but in most of the units, especially Violent Crimes, the gender scale was still heavily tilted towards male. Of the few women in his team, Delaney Covington was the only one who wore high heel shoes. Has to be her upbringing, he always thought. But he liked the young woman. She was quick, enthusiastic and sharp as a Royal Guardsmanís bayonet. Not to mention beautiful, which always threw people off. Most people still thought beauty and brain couldnít co-exist in the same head.

"Hullo, Dee," he grumbled, knowing well she hated the nickname. He also knew he was the only one that could get away with it.

"Top oí the morniní tíya, sir," she intoned in her best imitation of British snot-nose drawl, as she called it. Her American Southern accent was clear in the bad imitation and in stark contrast to her bossí perfect East Londoner. She produced two styrofoam cups of hot, steaming coffee and earned the DCIís everlasting gratitude.

Della sipped her coffee. It was a bit thinner that she wouldíve made it but it was coffee. "So, whatís the story on her?" she asked, indicating the corpse with her thumb but carefully avoiding looking at it.

"Aye, thí poor woman there." He explained the few facts that were available. A wino had found her just hours ago and stricken with horror, he had ran away from the alley and straight into the waiting arms of a bobby. "Thaí poor lad there," he whispered, pointing discreetly at the sickly pale man who had ejected his stomach to the bin and was now sitting on the asphalt with his head between his knees. He had found the woman, after the wino had managed to spew out some comprehensible words.

She had been killed on the spot, the amount of spilled blood but no signs of carrying or dragging the corpse told as much. Police was now canvassing the neighbourhood but thus far they had come up with nothing. Zip. Zilch. Thatís very little, even from angry Londoners at 4 a.m.

Della really hated Dutch tiles and the underground corridor was lined with them. Floor, walls, even ceiling. She was surprised the doors werenít. The tiles and the stinging smell of desinfectant that was ever-present at the morgue reminded her of the three months she had spent at Ceder Sinai Hospital, after a riding accident that had resulted in a broken leg and three smashed ribs. The ribs had healed fine but the leg had taken a long time to heal. In that time, she had grown to detest both horses and hospitals.

The morgue was no hospital, its patients were beyond any help and stored in freezers instead of beds. But doctors looked like doctors everywhere. As was the case, Dr. Melinda Dawson was clad in light blue scrubs and a matching bib that kept her hair off her eyes. She was briskly scrubbing her hands and arms when Della and her assigned partner, Detective Saunders, entered through the swinging double doors.

The doctor nodded to them and brushed an errant strand of dark brown hair back under the bib. "Hello, Detectives. What can I do for you?" She had a slightly nasal tone in her pronunciation that spoke of a very expensive public school. Della couldnít imagine how and why a brilliant doctor like Ms Dawson had ended up as the Queenís Coroner. She was a bit morbid and very thorough and they were fortunate to have her, yes, but still...

"Morniní, Doctor. Came to see the Jane Doe that came in during the wee hours," Det. Saunders said, loosening his tie.

The good doctor nodded, put on a new pair of latex gloves with an efficient snap and gestured the detectives to the first of the autopsy tables. The rest of the steel pallets were empty, it spoke of a quiet weekend. Dawson grabbed two corners of the white sheet that covered the body. You ready? she asked with one raised eyebrow. They nodded.

The woman was, if possible, an even more gruesome sight that she had been at night. Under the fluorescent lights her skin was a pasty white, as if the body was bloodless. In fact, it was. Della remembered the pints of the thick crimson liquid that had pooled around the corpse. She tasted the bile again and tore her eyes off the gaping hole in the womanís midsection, concentrating on what the doctor was saying.

"...done with a very sharp, big blade. A cookís knife or some close equivalent. A large, oval-shaped patch of skin was cut off and lifted away. The intestines were piled on it next to the body." The doctor sniffed reflectively and focused on one of the fluorescent tubes that blinked irritatingly. "Whoever did this took his or her time. All the organs were neatly severed from blood vessels and such and laid out with care. The small intestine was carefully uncoiled and stretched out to its full lenght."

Dabbing one finger absentmindedly against the edge of the wound and then pointing inside the cavity, the doctor continued softly. "The only thing missing is a section of her spinal column. Of the 33 vertebra in the spine, a section of ten is missing, here," she said, jabbing a latexed finger at the brownish red mush. Della peeked in. It felt funny, looking into someone. She gulped down her nausea.

Saunders looked green around the gills. Mercifully, the doctor shifted and moved to point at the womanís ankles. "These bruises were made prior to death. A set of similar ones can be found on her wrists and her neck. I also found older bruises and..." she trailed off, snapping off one glove and walking a few, brisk paces to her cluttered desk. She held out a photo.

"Lash marks. Also old and new. Scarring all around." She put down the 10x8 glossy of the poor womanís battered back. "Iíd say the deceased was severely abused. For a long time."

Della harrumphed, her blonde eyebrows furrowing in concentration. Something didnít click right here.

The doctor promised them a full report by Monday morning and Della led her younger partner outside, to the thankfully sunny mid-afternoon London.

"Címon. Letís grab some late lunch." The words were out of her mouth before she could think and if Saundersí African heritage hadnít prevented him from paling, he wouldíve been white as a sheet.. She smiled a sheepish smile to the poor man, his Adamís apple undulating wildly. "Sorry. Maybe just some soda then."

Nothing more could be done until the forensics lab and ëDoc Dawdyí, as the prissy coroner was affectionately known, delivered their full reports. So, Della called it a day soon after five.

Smack in the middle of the busiest area in London, St. Christopherís Place was a haven. A small, no more than two feet wide alley off Oxford Street widened into a small square with a pub, a few eccentric shops selling lava lamps and the likes, a cozy Italian restaurant and some very expensive real estate. She lived in a comfortable three-room flat on the top floor of a 19th century block of flats, in her familyís holiday house in London.

The Covingtons were not merely rich, they were wealthy beyond imagination. Her father was a retired Chairman of the Board of a Wall Street financing company, her mother a plastic surgeon so even if her mother hadnít been the heiress to a considerable sum of money, theyíd still be rich. Now they were filthy rich. Della was the eldest of the children and thus, the apple of her fatherís eye. Nothing was too good for her. So, when she came to England the ownership of the flat was relinquished to her with her fatherís usual flourish. They even promised not to visit too often.

Della was forever grateful that her parents had brains and respected her independece. With the kind of money her family had she couldíve just spent the rest of her life lounging and partying but alas, she was not that kind of person. She had a strong sense of duty, a certain amount of liking for strong discipline and a highly evolved sense of justice, as well as one more property, a truly rare streak nowadays. She wanted to help people, not sit on her hands.

FBI had been an ideal solution. She got just the right mix of adventure and learning there and also, she worked for the greater good. She had graduated from NYU quickly and with flying colours, double major in psychology and sociology. The Bureau had grabbed her two days after graduation and in the five years after the Academy, she had proven her employers they were lucky to have her. She was eager, smart and one helluva profiler. She had an uncanny knack at making seemingly separate leads interconnect, a talent she had utilized to good extent on the Hamilton case. Theyíd grabbed the famous East Coast serial killer and she had had much praise sowed on her psychological evaluation.

She kicked out of her shoes and shucked her Donna Karan to the floor. A few steps later the matching skirt followed the jacket, joined by the pearl grey silk blouse. Sheíd shed her underwear by the time she reached the bathroom and once there, she opened the bronze lionhead faucets of the big enamel tub with matching bronze feet shaped like giant paws. Draping a soft terrycloth robe around her, she sat on the toilet seat to wait for the tub to fill.

Flashes of the Jane Doe plagued her, the murky reflection of herself she had seen in the dark crimson pools of blood. She buried her head in her hands and took a deep, shuddering breath. Damn. Something about this case I donít like.

While the steaming water flowed she fished the latest FBI mag from underneath the sofa, poured a glass of Chablis and, her laziness battling with her very faint neat streak and the latter winning, set the said items on the toilet seat and went back to the hall and put her fiery red Karan on a hanger and into the closet.

The bath was wonderful. Della was not a very tall woman, about five feet five from toe to the top of her strawberry blonde head so she could immerse herself completely in the herb-scented water and foam. Despite her height disadvantage, she evened the odds in a physical confrontation with some well-toned musculature and her black belt in Tae Kwon Do, an admittedly ugly martial art but nonetheless very effective one. Quality and effectivity were her middle names in everything, especially when it came to clothes. Since money was not a problem, she shopped at Saks Fifth Avenue, the designer floors. Here in London, she had found Harvey Nichols to be of her taste. She sipped the pale yellow, almost green Italian white wine and leafed through The FBI Bulletin, looking at the articles but not seeing any of them. She was again amazed how fast-paced her life had been and how quickly she had ended up in the Old Country.

Some time back, the Bureau and their cross-Atlantic pal the Scotland Yard had started an exchange programme. Della had been one of the first few lucky ones to be granted the privilege to work in another country and she had jumped at the opportunity. And here she was, her title changed from Agent to Detective and doing her orientation period in the LPD. A mere month and a half in the city, she had come to like London. Despite the fact that people drove on the wrong side of the street.

After a relaxing hour in the bath she got up, just before she was about to turn into a huge, pink raisin. She ate and then padded around her flat, trying to find something to do. After a while, she sighed and sat in front of her computer.

The LPD had moved to the digital age not long ago and so, all case files were available in electronic form as well. She retrieved Case 17859H-6253DE-2, the new Jane Doe. The initial reports were the same as they had been a few hours earlier. No new information, nothing. Della was frustrated. Patience was not one of her virtues.

After some more restless pacing she dressed in a pair of designer jeans and one of her endless silk blouses, this one in rich cream that went nicely with her hazel green eyes. Grabbing her keys and her favourite jacket, a deep plum number by Armani, she was off.

Owning a car and living in the middle of a city with 12 million inhabitants was sheer madness. True, Della had a car but she rarely used it since she preferred walking. The parking costs were a killer but she didnít mind. Platinum Card had its advantages.

She stepped on Oxford Street and turned left. Deep in though she negotiated the throngs of tourists, last minute shoppers and street urchins. London was a crowded, pulsating city with streets full of the infamous red two-decked buses, comfortable black taxis and cyclists with serious suicidal tendencies. She sauntered slowly down the wide footpath and at Oxford Circus, turned to Regent Street and in no time, she was at Piccadilly Circus. Theatregoers were hurrying to the shows at the September twilight, the evening still warm but promising a colder night. Della shoved her hands deeper into her jacket pockets.

Her unconscious mind took another left turn that took her into Soho. She didnít pay attention to where she was going, she let her feet guide her body while her mind wandered in random thoughts, occasionally of the disemboweled Jane Doe and then flicking to the two irritating lines in Pucciniís Tosca she could never remember. It was the one bit at the end of Vissi díarte when she sang of...

Her feet slowed down unsteadily and stopped. Her subconsciousness had brought her to a very spesific spot. It was the entrance to the dark alley where Jane Doe had met her gory end. The blood had been cleaned away and the yellow police lines removed but in the dark asphalt, traces of the white chalk the forensics team used could still be seen. And the passage, no wider than Dellaís armspan, still stank of death and pain. No more than ten feet of the alley was lighted, the rest bathed in inky shadows. She stepped one tentative step into the darkness. Her sneakers made almost no sound.

One of the shadows, or that what she had though it to be, moved at the small scraping noise. A head whipped to her direction and as her eyes grew accustomed to the darkenss, she saw it was a human, crouching. All Della later remembered was a flash of bright blue eyes, luminescent as if lighted from inside and then the figure rose and ran towards the other exit. Della snapped into reality and started after the mystery man.

"Hey! Wait up! Police!" she yelled, her sneakered feet pounding at the dirty ground. She came to the other end and turned right where the mystery man had disappeared. That alley was a dead end, ending in a fence. She got a glimpse of a black leather coat and long gleaming coal black hair that were just flying over the fence and then there were just quickly fading bootsteps.


She eyed the wooden fence. The eluding figure had apparently jumped it with ease. How, for the life of her Della couldnít figure out. It was twice as high as she was. A sigh. All that remained of the mystery man was a feeling and a... scent. Leather and something primal. Musky. Della sniffed the air uncomfortably. She didnít like this. Not one bit.

"Get outta my hair, Henderson," she grumbled. But unfortunately, the persistent detective was not so easily discouraged. Every week, every goddamned week she had been here the freckle-faced, flaming carrot-haired detective had asked her out. And every time she had said no. This time he had picked a bad moment for his advances, the first few minutes Della was in but still without her morning coffee.

"Aww, címon. Jusí some lunch?" he continued, smiling at the cute detectiveís grumpiness. He found it endearing.

"Go íway," she barked and grabbed her cup from her desk. In size, the cup was equivalent to a small chamber pot and it read FBI in bold Preussian blue letters.

"Another time then," he called after her, his cheeriness never wavering.

She sighed and poured a cup of Robertís Special Blend. She didnít mean to be rude. In fact, Det. Henderson was not a bad looking man and an intelligent investigator. A bit too young perhaps but the real problem lay in Della. She didnít feel like dating, hadnít felt the urge to go out in a long time. She lived for her work and that was all she needed besides a bubble bath now and then and some good books. Detective novels usually. Figures.

Besides, she had a rule of thumb: never date a colleague, for many reasons, boredom and difficulties in and after separation being the topmost.

She sipped her morning poison and sat to her desk. On top of the In-pile lay a thick folder with the Coronerís name in bold. Doc Dawdy kept her deadlines, so to speak. Sella settled her cup gingerly on top of another file and opened the autopsy and toxicology report. Her eyes skimmed through the usual red tape, the cup lifting to her lips. It stayed there. The hand started to shake a little.

According to the toxicology report, the amount of free histamines in blood indicated that the mutilation was done prior to and most likely being the main cause of death.

Christ. Della set the cup down and tried to block away the images of a screaming woman. Jane Doe had died a painful, gruesome death, bleeding dry in a dingy alley. Her hands still shook a little when she reopened the fawn folder. The tests also showed that her blood alcohol level was 1.7 and traces of cocaine and ecstasy were found in her veins. So, Jane had been partying. She probably didnít feel that much. The thought helped Della a bit.

The eagle-eyed Doc had found another possible clue. In the folder, there was a hugely magnified glossy of Janeís chin. Someone had struck her there prior to death and so forceful had the hit been that there was a visible knucklemark and an impression from a ring. Della peered at the odd bruise. It was roughly hexagonal in shape and there was some pattern in the surface that had hit the poor woman. She filed away that information for later use.

The rest of it was standard, nothing notable. She flicked the distressing file away and opened the extended autopsy report. It said more or less what the doc had told them the day before. Most of her sacrum, the lower part of spine, had been removed but the rest of her was present and counted for if not intact. Della took a look at the facial photo.

Jane was a young woman, no more than 25. Blonde, shoulder-lenght hair and blue-green eyes. A normal, young girl not unlike Della. But unlike the healthy, tanned detective, Ms Doe had a thin complexion and multiple needlemarks on forearms and lower legs. She had been wearing - Della fished for the correct paper a few frustrating seconds - black PVC trousers, high heels, a short PVC top and nothing else.

Blonde brows scrunched. An odd outfit to wear, even in Soho. Nights were already cold. Anyway... she had had few items in her pockets, no purse. Two ten-pound notes, a small black scarf and a small key. No ID. That was a problem, identifying the victim was their first priority. Fingerprints and dental records had turned up a big nothing so lots of footwork was in order. A little luck would go a long way.

Some of the neighbourhood around the crime site had been combed through but as usual, resulting in nothing. No-one had seen anything, heard anything or even smelled anything. So, the search area was extended. Della got a strip of a street as her assigned area. The street was deep within the maze that was Soho of London, in the eastern part. The red light district of Soho was one of its well-known and best-avoided places, narrow streets lined with porn movie theatres and sex shops and at night, people of all races, genders and those in between, selling themselves or looking for a quick fuck.

In the daytime, it seemed almost sad. The shops and bars were mostly closed, dusty black plastic the main decorative motif in all windows. The garish neon lights were subdued in the warm light of the sun that bathed the street in a golden haze. Della walked down the street, avoiding animal excrement lest she stain her brushed suede pumps. Virtually no-one was in sight. One wino slept off his intoxication in a gateway and no amount of shaking could rouse him.

After two blocks and one clueless rubbish lorry driver later she found a pub that was already open. The cool air was a welcome relief and the pint of Coke she got did wonders.

"You recognize her?" Della asked the young, paunchy man behind the bar. He took a look at the picture and eyed the detective suspiciously. She smiled her best disarming smile and produced her LPD card. The suspicious look mellowed somewhat but was still there. Polishing a glass with a rag, he hummed, pondering. A small, unconscious nod moment later told Della she had a winner.

"Yah. Came íere on Saturday, jusí before closing time. Wanted to use the phone ícause the one there," he pointed across the street at another bar, "wasnít working propíly. Thaís all. Busy night, Saturday. I remember jusí because mií usual customer isnít into weariní plastic." He leered at the memory but the smirk soon disappeared as he focused on the glass again, looking at it against the light to spot any smudges.

Della downed her Coke and thanked the íkeeper. Outside, the sun felt even hotter than before. It was just typical of London. The whole summer had seen nothing but rain and come autumn, allís sunny and hot.

The bar on the other side of the street looked very foreboding. All windows were covered with black plastic, even the longish doorhandle was encased in rubber. The small sigh in the door held just two words: Hadesí Hole. That was apparently the name of the joint. She grabbed the sturdy grip and pulled. Locked. She pounded at the door.


Della turned around to see the pubkeeper standing outside his establishment, polishing another glass. "No sense in makiní a racket. They donít open until midnight or so." Blushing, Della shouted a thank you. She took a cab to the station to report her findings.

Della was pleased. After dissuading the DCIís attempts at transferring the lead to some fellow detectives, it had taken her the better part of an hour to persuade her stubborn boss to let her go investigate on her own, without a partner. Granted, four eyes were better than two but after some arm-wrestling she had convinced that one new face is less conspicuous than two. She promised to pack some heavy artillery and yes, sheíd be extra careful. She had initially fumed at the DCIís attempt at protecting her, as if she was a fragile female. No frigginí way, Jose, she had commented. It was her lead, she would follow it and thatís that. Sir.

It was maddening, really. People took in her good looks, blonde hair and youthful air (despite her attempts at disguising it in designer clothes) and put together two and two. They came up with five and a half and Della felt she had to prove herself over and over again. But this time she had gotten what she wanted and so, with her mercurial moods, she was back in high spirits.

She was going clubbing then. The problem was, what to wear. Her assortment of silk blouses, power suits and cashmere sweaters was not exactly the normal dress code in places like Hadesí Hole, she guessed. Something skimpy and seedy was in order. When she got home, Della rummaged through her wardrobe but the best and smallest she could come up with was a pair of black jeans, boots and a white tank top. After all, she lived in London and her previous place of residence had been Boston, neither being the hot weather central of the world.

She re-read the slowly thickening case file again while eating sandwiches for dinner and sooner than she realized, the clock struck 11. It was time to go. This time she took a cab to Soho. The driver raised a thick eyebrow that Della thought looked like a catepillar stuck to his forehead but drove to the given address anyway.

It was another world at nightime. Garish red neonsigns blinked and hummed in the cooling night air and people were on the streets. Della got off the cab two blocks before her destination and as she stepped out of the spacious taxi she almost stepped on a womanís toe. No, it was probably a man, she corrected herself, he was over seven feet tall in the stiletto heels that he wore. Della mumbled her apologies to his sequined fake breasts and started down the street.

The pub she had visited that day was already closed but apparently Hadesí Hole hadnít been open long. There was a line to the door and gulping down her nervousness and willing her hands to stop shaking, she stepped in the queue behind a man in black leather shorts, a matching vest and cap. She was soon followed by another man, in somewhat more covering and thus sensible clothing. Well. This should prove to be interesting, Della thought and felt very much out of place.

The queue diminished quickly and soon, she stepped into the club. After two paces, her feet stuck to the floor and on every step they made a small, slurping sound. She kept her coat on to disguise her trusty Colt Python she was packing and paid the entrance fee. A deep breath and she stepped through the foyer.

The music was deafening. She liked opera and some soft pop but ambient techno was definetely not her thing. Nope. The dancefloor was at the other end of the longish room, strobes and colour lights bathing the writhing dancers in wild shapes and shadows. She could feel the floor thrumming underneath her feet, the immense bass speakers churning out the beat in volumes usually reserved for jet airplanes and such. The bar was her target and she negotiated her way through the mass of swaying, waving, shouting and undulating people. Upon reaching the long wooden bar that spanned an entire wall, she got a pint of cider and a seat. Hiding behind the glass she took mental notes.

Granted, in her wilder youth she had done some partying but underground scenes had never been her stuff. The wildest place she had been to was Hammís in Boston and that was a kindergarten compared to this place. Most of the crowd were men, she noted with interest until it hit her. This was a gay bar.

She coughed out the cider she had inhaled into her lungs as discreetly as she could. Now that she had had her necessary eureka, she could see the signs. The couples on the dancefloor were of the same sex, men grinding various parts of their anatomy together to the primal beat. A couple with matching moustaches was kissing in a booth. She bet she wouldnít want to visit the toilet.

To work then, she decided, shaking off the feeling of being out of her element. Discreetly she adjusted the gun holster that was resting against the small of her back and beconed the bartender closer. He was a young, thin man in a white shirt and striped vest with neatly combed hair that had absorbed at least two tubes of gel. Della had to shout to be heard over the din of the music.

"Looking for a friend," she yelled.

He smiled. "Well, then youíre in the wrong place, Iíd say," he quipped.

Della smiled her best flashy smile back. "Not that kind of friend. She was here on Saturday. Blonde, my height, thin, wore PVC." While the man racked his brain Della kept her fingers crossed. Not that many women came here, it seemed, so with luck she could get some new info. She just hoped he hadnít noticed she didnít know the mystery ladyís name.

"Yah. Think I remember one girl like her. Hangs out wií Roger," he mused and after some more pumping Della got a description on Roger. Dark, slender, in his thirties and that night he had had on a pair of jeans and a sleeveless white t-shirt, to the bartenderís recollection. Alas, he was not there that night and Della had to get out of there before sheíd get an anxiety attack or her claustrophobia had a chance to resurface.

She went through four other bars that night, after calling out an APB on Roger. The night produced exactly zip and zilch, discounting a migrane attack and wasted money. When she finally reached her bed at five a.m., Della was exhausted and slightly disappointed. The lead had led nowhere.

The next morning was horror. Her hair and clothes smelled of cigarette smoke and she was nauseous. A glass of orange juice settled her stomach somewhat but not quite enough. The Master of Misery was not through with her yet.

When she dragged herself to work, the newly updated casefile stated that Det. Saunders had found a Roger that matched the given description but it had been a false alarm. His friend, Joyce Something-or-another, was alive and healthy. A dead end. Della muttered a short string of curses and regretted her rather limited language skills. At times and days like these, spewing expletives in multiple languages could be very relieving.

The day was a catastrophe otherwise as well. Henderson spilled coffee on her during a very boring team meeting that went on so long that even the ususally mellow DCI Haggis showed impatience and snapped at his underlings. The press was screaming about the murder in mile-high headlines that read "Slaughter in Soho: Woman Brutally Gutted in a Dark Alleyway. Police is Clueless" and the likes and even the weather was foul.

After six, Della flapped the case file shut with a determined smack, threw it into her In-basket and propped her feet on the desk. A few deep breaths helped her concentration that had otherwise been shot to hell that day. She knew she was on tonight, another round at the murkiest of watering holes London had to offer. Sheíd rather wrestle a herd of wild elephants.

Night came and it was time to go, again. With a weary sigh she put on her party clothes, loathing the smell of dank sweat and smoke and delved into the pulsating night. The clubs were a blur to her, drunken faces and nasty bartenders who all seemed to have glass polishing as their raison díêtre.

When the clock neared two in the morning Della was almost ready to give up. She ordered her umpteenth glass of coke that night and sat heavily on a bench that went along the walls of the club whose name Della couldnít remember. Candy Bar? No... Silver Moon? Or One over the Moon? Who cares... she twirled the glass and blinked her too tired eyes.

"You OK?"

The voice brought Della out of her haze. She was addressed by a small, red-haired woman who was sitting next to her. Della smiled wanly and replied. "Yeah. Just tired."

The woman smiled and Della found her smile to be pretty, with even white teeth and twinkling gray eyes. "Partying tends to do that to you. You here alone?"

On this question Dellaís brain clicked. Odd vibes emanated from the woman and she was sitting just a bit too close. Then Della got it. She was out, alone and in a gay bar and this woman was definetely hitting on her. Dear me. Back to business.

"Actually, Iím looking for someone." She spilled her fictional backstory flubber about searching an old aquaintance and someone having said that Jane Doe had been seen with her imaginary friend. The redhead who had introduced herself as Greer took it in and after one suspicious glance and a disarming Della-smile later, she opened her mouth.

Sinead Keffen was Janeís real name. Della did a mental high-five and reminded herself to give a grand victory whoop once outside.

Sinead was a semi-friend of Greerís, they bumped into each other in bars now and then. "... but this isnít her usual place. Her regular venue is The Rapture. Never been there míself." Not wanting to prod Greer any more since she didnít seem to have anything more relevant to say, Della made some idle chit chat, extracted herself from the woman and headed for the bar. She had learned that when it came to knowing the in-places of the town, bartenders were the ultimate source of information.

The bartender was a buxom woman in a white t-shirt that advertized a local micro brewery and she had a toothy smile. Della had earlier asked her about Jane Doe but she hadnít known her and if anything, she was more interested in Dellaís breasts that what she was saying.

"What can I do for you now, Miss Snoop?"

She let the comment pass. "Do you know a place called The Rapture?"

"Hmmm, lemme think... heard the name somewhere. A rough place I think. Nothiní more in meí head."

Della thanked the woman and downed the rest of her coke. Now there was a name to go with the face and another lead.

No party index or club guide even mentioned The Rapture. She threw the London Guide to her already overflowing desk and turned to her computer. Clicking the Greater London Metropolitan Policeís database index she got the little hourglass and headed for the coffee machine. When she returned to her desk with her third cup of the day, the hourglass was still there. LPDís transfer to the 20th century was still a bit glitchy.

She sipped her coffee and waited, blinking away the last shards of sleep from her eyes. She was not a very good morning person, on her days off the day didnít start before noon. Today, after her late-night investigation she hadnít come to the station until right before lunch. Slender fingers thrummed the desk, the only visible sign of impatience.

Finally, after a quarter of an hour, several curses and another cup of coffee later, she got through. It was worth the wait. Efficiently cross-indexed and housing all past cases since 1989, the system was a mountain of information. And the mountain came to Muhammad, search on keyword 'Raptureí produced results. It seems the club had been raided a year back in search of drugs but aside from a few pops of E, nothing conclusive was found. But the report was there and as brief as it was, it gave an address.

The trade register told little more, only that the club had been established in 1994 and was owned by one Ghislaine du Plessis.

Du Plessis. What a strange name, Della thought. The name pricked some dormant part of her brain, she was sure she had heard it before. When she searched with that name, she came up with a big zero, an íAccess Restrictedí ñseal was on all files concerning her. Search on governmental files produced the same flashing red letters. Even stranger.

It took yet another hour of convincing the DCI to let her go alone again. She had strong arguments, biggest of them being that even though the case file told little about the club itself, the one fact it mentioned was that its clientele was 'mostly femaleí. Satisfied of her victory, Della returned to her desk to find what the investigating team had found on one Sinead Keffen.

Sinead Keffen neé Smythe, 25. Divorced, no children. No college either, since her 16th birthday she had worked in odd jobs, most recently as a cashier at Selfridgeís. Co-workers didnít know any friends of hers nor living family members, her parents had been killed in a car accident when she was 20. Della leafed to the next page where the unitís professional psychologist had jotted down his findings after questioning her past and present colleagues. No big surprises there either, she was the epitome of the neighbourís daughter. Quiet, shy, dressed in flower skirts and jumpers. She had lost some weight recently but when questioned at the lunch room she had just mumbled something about a stubborn cold.

Della put down the folder and rested her chin on her palm, bracing the elbow on top of a sixth form picture of Sinead. What on earth was this plain, mum girl doing in an alley at the worst part of Soho, dressed in plastic, high on a combination and dead by evisceration? The detective shook her blonde head, the fiery red highlights catching the sunlight that streamed through the windows of the large squad room. What, indeed. She hoped the night would bring some answers.

Since the description of The Rapture had been so slim, she donned the same clothes that she had wore the previous night. After all, she reasoned, they already reeked of cigarette smoke and other odors of club air. Her nostrils crincled at the pungent odor but she willed the dull, nauseating feeling of stale air and excitement down.

She walked this time, taking the scenic route down Oxford Street all the way to Tottenham Court Road. She stopped to glue her nose to a few bookstore windows before taking a right turn into Soho. It was Wednesday, íSmall Fridayí as it was also known and the weather was warm. As expected, the narrow streets were lined with coffee shop and restaurant extensions, people sitting at improbably small and stained tables and idly looking at the throngs of people flowing past them. A few blocks and she was on the right lane.

12, 14, ... 18? She checked her photographic memory. Yes, the report had said number 16. She backtracked until she got back to the bronze letters that spelled 14 and went slower. A few yards and she was back to íClub 18í that was, fittingly, housed in number 18. The blonde brows crincled and she stopped scratching the side of her nose. What the...? Her eyes raked past the blue neon lights of number 18, searching in vain for number 16. She hoped the club hadnít moved.

The only possible location for number 16 was one narrow dark slit between the two 19th century houses. Della could see the first few steps that led down but darkness swallowed the rest. She adjusted her holster, felt the reassuring weight on her back and rolled her head around, relieving the tension in her neck. A deep breath and she went for the stairs.

The concrete steps led to a forbidding metal door. Della laid her fingertips against the cool, smooth surface and felt it tremble to the muted bass tune that drifted through the thick panel. In the darkness her hand searched for a grip but they found just a small button. A buzzer. The pace of her heart picked up when she pressed the plastic circle. It was sticky and for once, Della was glad of the darkness so she couldnít see what had smeared her fingers. Curiously enough, the alcove didnít smell of urine as such places in cities tend to.

A small sliver of the door slid aside and a flood of music wafted to the street. A pair of surprisingly gentle and sad eyes, tinted red in the feeble light, regarded her through the slip.

"Whadíja waní?" The voice belonging to the eyes asked.

"To get in," was all Della could think of to say. The disembodied eyes raked up and down her as far as they could see.

"Whoís yer refírence?"

The question threw the young detective off balance. She didnít know any clubs besides the golfing ones that needed applicants to have references. But her quick wits came to help and with barely perceptible hesitation she blurted out the first name that came to her mind.

"Sinead Keffen."

Small lines formed around the big brown eyes as the man smiled and the door swung open. A barrage of smells and smoke hit her when she stepped inside and the door was slammed shut behind her. The air wasnít stale and there was less of cologne fumes than at the last place. Those scents were replaced by something akin to a... feeling. The smell of rubber and leather and chain oil and the flaunting odor of sex. The scent made Della feel a bit out of place.

"Firsí time íere?"

She turned back to the doorman. He was a giant of a man with wavy dark-blonde hair that stopped just above his shoulders and to Della it looked as if he was at shoulders almost as wide as he was tall. He was clothed in some kind of rubber shorts and a tank top, the black tight material straining over bulging muscles. The outfit was completed with a thick leather collar that had sturdy rings in it and matching bracelets. She tore her eyes away from his biceps that were as thick as her thighs and refocused on his words.

"Yeah," she yelled back to be heard over the music.

"I need tífrisk ya," he rumbled back and before the words had had time to sink in, his hands were on her. It was quick and professional and in no time he was on the bulge in Dellaís back. With trepidation she waited but instead of making a fuss, he calmly extracted the gun and checked the clip.

"Yíwant tíleave the jacket too?" he asked and in daze, she handed the said item to him. When he gave her the slip for the items and her entrance ticket he accompanied them with an offhand smile.

"Here yígo. Itíll be ten quid." A thought hit him and he reopened his mouth. "Whereís lilí Sinead anyway? Mistress Rivaís bín missiní íer." Della mumbled something about a bad cold and willed her feet to move.

References? He didnít even blink at the gun. And whoís Mistress Riva? Mistress?

She shook her head and ambled down a corridor towards the source of the music, a pair of heavy black velvet curtains flanked by two enormous candlesticks that looked like chandeliers stuck on poles. Brushing her fingers across the soft surface of the massive drapes and then grabbing an edge, she made some last brain prods and thankfully, her mental vertigo lessened somewhat. She stepped in to The Rapture.

Now, Delaney Covington was not a very naive person. She had had her share of life in the rough but extreme things had never held any interest to her. Her passion was directed to learning and her only major vices were chocolate and excessive jogging. But one could call her sheltered and despite the fact that her psychology training had told her lots and lots about Marquis de Sade and Count Sacher-Masoch and their followers, the text had been clinical and rarely discussing the practical arrangements for such things. Well, she got the idea now.

The Rapture (as she later learned) was one of Londonís top underground BDSM venues and one of the few ones that insisted on strict dress code every evening so it attracted most fetishists as well. Della figured that she had gotten in only because sheíd had the brain to say a right name.

Even on weekdays The Rapture was packed from floor to rafters and this warm Wednesday was not an exception. There was enough rubber to satisfy the need for tires of the entire Detroit car industy and more than enough leather to make a herd of cows nervous. The exotic scent of the materials and excitement were more pronounced now, the dry acrid smell of fake fog not enough to drown it.

The bar was her safe haven again and she squeezed her slender frame between a man in a PVC jumpsuit and a woman wearing a very uncomfortable looking rubber reproduction of a nurseís outfit. The man was sitting quietly, fingering the chain that trailed from his leather collar to another womanís hand. The woman, a peroxide blonde with heavy make-up was talking animatedly with the woman on Dellaís right, gesturing with her hands and making the chain jump and twirl. It wasnít very long so when Blondie waved her arms above her head the chain was pulled taut and the man had to lift his behind from the seat. Blondie didnít even notice.

The flailing arms made Della nervous so she got her drink (a Bloody Mary, she was feeling brazen) and slipped past the two women. She got another seat a few yards farther and sat with her back to the wooden bar. She drank in all the details and the odd clientele of the place while pretending to sip at her drink.

The place was interesting. The ceiling loomed a good two stories above the dancefloor, the first floor was merely a balcony that circled the big room. Della could see no stairs to the floor above but they were bound to be somewhere, maybe behind one of the many doors in the back wall. Now and then, someone either entered or exited through one of the doors. The light in the rooms were usually darker than in the main room and that was an eerie blue glow that pulsated to the music.

This place was markedly different from Hadesí Hole. That joint had been a close resemblence of what Della envisioned a gay bar to be but this was something else. True to the report, most of the people were female, a few men could be seen but as far as the detective could tell most of them were in subordinate position. The music was not what she had expected. It had a heavy bass but it wasnít some run-of-the-mill techno. It reminded Della of some jungle rhythm, live drums with a primal beat that went straight to her spine. She felt an irrational urge to dance, to join the sea of flesh on the dancefloor that spanned most of the room.

Craning oneís neck discreetly is something of an artform and Della had it down to a pat. Thankfully the stream of people that flowed past her payed no attention to her aside from a few curious glances at her out-of-place clothes and she was left alone. Until someone stumbled on her foot and grabbed a steadying hold on her shoulder. That move made her lose her grip on her still almost full glass and she watched as if in slow motion as the glass impacted on the floor, miraculously not breaking, just spilling its contents on someoneís thigh-high latex boots. Della dived for her glass, careful not to kneel in the red sludge.

"You idiot! Look what you did!"

Della started at the yell but a moment later she realized it wasnít directed at her but instead at the cowering woman kneeling next to her, a nondescript girl with light brown hair and leather trousers and bra. The detective craned her neck up above the smeared boots and leather-clad torso to a raised hand next to a head that had high cheekbones and a close-cropped blonde hair. At the end of the latex-encased arm was a short lash and as Della watched, the hand went down and the braided leather impacted on the girl between shoulderblades.

"Iím sorry, Mistress! I tripped...," she whimpered.

"Youíll be sorry..." the other woman hissed and forcefully pushed the girl so that she fell to the pool of tomato juice and vodka face first. One stiletto heel was placed on her buttock and the lash rose again.

"Hey! Donít hit her! She didnít mean it!" Della yelled and shuffled on her knees closer to protect the shivering girl, bending over her protectively. Too late did she realize her error. It was dark, the blonde with the buzzcut was intoxicated and it was too late to shift the lashís trajectory anyway. It descended straight at her and Della watched as if in slow motion as the menacing black stripe got closer and closer. She managed to turn her face away before it impacted.

Buzzcut noticed the blockade between her and her slave a fraction too late. She tried to stop the lash but only managed to make it strike in a ripping, brushing motion, the thin strips of toughened hide slicing into Dellaís shirt and skin. The detective gasped in pain, it felt as if someone had poured a line of molten lead across her back. Blood trickled from the wound and stained the white fabric crimson. Buzzcut stood frozen, the lash no longer in her hand. A millisecond after it had struck, something long and dark had snaked around the lash and snatched it from its ownerís hand.

"Now now, Eppie. Play nice. You know the rules."

It was a dark voice. A deep voice that purred somewhere behind her. The lash was thrown back and the woman addressed as Eppie caught it smartly and smiled a thin smile aimed somewhere way above Dellaís head.

"Yeah. Sorry about that, Riva. An accident."

"Mmmm," was the answer, the deep rumble of the voice thrumming in the detectiveís head. Buzzcut turned her attention back to the girl under her boot.

"And you. Iím not through with you yet. Clean up this mess," she grated, gesturing at her soiled boots with the lash. Promptly and to Dellaís astonishment, the girl smiled while she crawled closer and started licking away the goo from the plastic. The pair now focused on each other so Della, still on her hands and knees, turned around, cringing at the throbbing pain in her back.

She was greeted with the sight of two impeccably polished boots, the rubber spit-shined to a mirror-like surface. The tight boots ended just below knee where black rubber continued in the form of black jodhpurs with a white stripe. Up, up along the impossibly long and evidently muscular legs her gaze rose, to a matching black rubber tank top straining over a washboard abdomen and two perfect, round breasts. Muscular, tanned shoulders emerged from the rubber and the detectiveís eyes followed the tight flesh and rippling muscles of two arms to the long whip the hands attached to the arms were coiling. At last her eyes wandered to the head that crowned the wide shoulders, across high cheekbones to a pair of pale blue eyes so intense Della felt her knees turn to water. Luckily she was still kneeling on the floor.

The eyes, they were ancient. The face that they graced was not but the brilliant clear blue reminded Della of something eternal, old as civilisation. She found herself staring, not being able to turn her head away.

The woman grabbed the shaking detectiveís shoulders and effortlessly lifted her upright as if she was light as air. A warm palm resting on the detectiveís shoulder she guided her through the thick crowd. She had no trouble, the sea of humans parted before them like the Red Sea. Looks ranging from warm smiles to worshiping stares were directed at Dellaís savior, pacing close behind her. Across the floor to a door that revealed a flight of stairs and up the wooden steps they went, every step a jarring jolt that Della felt in her maligned back. She could feel the blood slowly find its way down the inside of her shirt and pool at the waistband of her jeans.


The voice boomed down the balcony and seemingly out of thin air a young woman appeared. She wore only black rubber panties and a matching set of collar and ankle bracelets made of thick rubber strips. Her brown hair was pulled back, making the overall look very severe.

"Yes, my Mistress?"

This addressing, carefully pronounced in an undyingly reverent voice, made Dellaís eyebrows rise again.

"Patch her up," was the answer and the girl bowed and ran, barefoot, down the longish balcony. It was too dark to see what she did but in no time, she returned with a small, white box. Della was guided into a room and to a wooden footstool. By this time she was feeling dizzy and nauseous from the pain and loss of blood and she sat down ungraciously, resting her head between her knees. The initial pain had mellowed down to a painful humming feeling in her nerve endings, the ache pulsating to the beat of her heart. Her shirt was removed and she focused on the finely polished parquette floor, tinted reddish in the feeble mood light, while the almost naked young woman carefully cleaned and bandaged the long but superficial wound.

Her migraine was coming in full force. Bright white jagged lines danced in her eyes and she felt like vomiting. Gulping down the feeling she let her head loll down, stretching the aching neck muscles. A vertebra popped audibly and it helped some and when the small, gentle hands left her back she could sit upright, a bit disoriented and weak but otherwise fine.

"Here. Drink this."

A glass of some bubbly, reddish liquid was thrust under her nose and consciously forgetting her motherís stern advice about never accepting a drink from a stranger, she grabbed the glass, downing the contents in four big swallows. It tasted of artificial sweetener and musky orange. She rolled the cool cylinder to her brow and sighed deeply.

"Better?" the voice asked, nearer. Della twisted her neck to the source of the sound. She was once again bathed in the brilliance of the blue eyes and for once, the talkative detective was speechless.

"I, uhhh..."

Rubber creaked and the eyes came closer, to her level. "You OK?"

"Peachy keen," was all she had time to say before vertigo hit her again and she swooned dangerously on her low seat: Just as she was about to topple over, the warm hands came to her shoulders, steadying. Della was feeling sick again, small keening sounds escaped her throat. The curious surroundings, the pain and nausea almost overwhelmed her and tears were a hairís breath away. She shut her eyes tight to ward off the salty drops.

A strong arm snaked under her knees, another under her arms carefully minding her injury and she was lifted up, to a wonderful place that was warm, soft and just divine. The mystery woman cradled her to her chest and Della leaned against the slick rubber surface, feeling the taut muscles under it, subconsciously knowing for sure that the skin between the two would be soft and smooth as silk. Inadvertently she hummed, the feeling of utter safety was so nice. She felt at peace, as if... as if she belonged here.

The control freak part of her mind was screaming bloody murder at these thoughts. Youíve been reamed with a lash, youíre in a strange place, held by a stranger. Snap out of it! But she just couldnít. Something clicked to a place in her mind and she had a strong feeling of deja-vu. It canít be right. Iíve never met her, she contradicted herself. But...

She traced a finger down the gleaming surface of the rubber bodice at one shoulder, brushing away the long strands of night black hair that rested there. She hadnít even noticed that during her treatment the woman had let her hair down and now it was cascading on her shoulders and over, pooling in Dellaís lap. The feel of the silken hair on her fingers brought another spout of deja-vu and she frowned. It was funny. The woman holding her reeked of danger, of darkness. She held an odor that was a mix of the silicone spray used to condition the rubber, clean sweat, leather and then some undescribable essence that reminded the detective of pure musk and untamed wild animals. It was primal, it was exotic and it shouldíve scared her shitless but all it brought her was a sense of... coming home.

Rubber creaked again and she was gently put down to a comfortably padded leather chair. She sank down and with a conscious effort, opened her eyes.

To a face so beautiful and so ancient she forgot to breathe. She hadnít gotten a good look at her saviour before, being too concentrated in bleeding but now, mere inches away crouched the most perfect woman she had ever seen. There was mild curiosity in the pale blue eyes that gazed at her, and nothing more. The cold, steely look that had been there before was gone.

"Viv. Out."

On cue, the small woman rose from her position, kneeling next to the booted feet af the dark woman. She bowed, murmuring her 'yes, Mistressí again and made a beeline to the door. It closed silently behind her and they were alone.

The room, Della noted for the first time, was an office. She was sitting in an executive chair next to a massive desk made of some black wood. Lighting was low, tuned down and moody, casting warm shadows to the divan on the other wall. Opposite it was a wall of steel netting. From it hung various shelves and hooks that housed all kinds of whips, lashes, chains, binders, cuffs, harnesses and contraptions Della couldnít identify and only vaguely guess at their uses. Her eyes toured around the room and came to rest on the dark woman again.

"Thanks for the rescue," she grated, her throat suddenly dry. A cough helped.

A nod and the ghost of a smile. "You donít belong here."

Della suddenly remembered that she was, in fact, Det. Delaney Covington, here on a mission and she straightened in the chair. A flash of pain shot through her but she ignored it. "Why not?"

Another smile and a shrug and the woman rose. She was tall, very tall, the detective noted. Over six feet, with a wide margin. The sound of rubber slithering against rubber came again as the dark beauty paced to stand at the other side of the desk.

"You mentioned Sinead. Where is she?" Short sentences, a voice that was meant and used to commanding. It was low, deep and sensuous and had a slight rasp to it. To Della, it was the sexiest voice she had ever heard. It distracted her way too much and she had to make some severe mental prods to concetrate on reality again.

Truth was ususally a powerful weapon and she had this gut feeling that it was the only possible way with this woman. She played her hand. "Sheís dead."

No emotional reaction, no sign of surprise, just a 'hmmmí and the piercing blue eyes turned to hers again. "Youíre police." A statement, not a question. Della remained silent. "What do you want?"

"All the information I can get. A name would be nice," she added as an afterthought.

The dark woman at on the edge of the desk, resting one meaty thigh on the polished surface. Della could see the thin material of her trousers strain when she flexed the limb. The large thigh muscle stood out in relief against the rubber.

"You first," the voice rasped.

Della fished out her ID and handed it over.

"Delaney Covington. Detective, LPD." The woman glanced at it and handed it back to Della.

"Nice tímeet you, Delaney." The way the woman pronounced her name, drawing out every syllable, made Dellaís cheeks burn.

"Iím Mistress Riva."

As if that explained everything, the detective frowned. "Real name, please."

"Ghislaine Karayan Riva Elektra du Plessis" A white, predatory smile. "Satisfied?"

Wow. Her parents mustíve had a flair for the dramatic. "Yeah... so, you own this place?" A nod. Della started her mental tape recorder. "What was your relationship with Ms. Keffen?"

Another diabolical grin spread slowly on the planed face. Della could swear the two blue chips of ice that stared at her had a light of their own. The gaze was hypnotizingly steady, almost smoky. Everything about this woman seemed so primal, so wild Della could swear she could see an aura. The woman was like a big black cat, her moves very feline as she rose to stand and slowly started around the table. The blue eyes never wavered as she came closer. In a blink she was back near Della, towering over the detective. Two hands came to rest on the arm supports of the chair when she leaned in close.

Della felt her hot breath on her cheek when the womanís ruby lips came closer. They came to rest near her ear, so close she almost felt them. "I owned her," the voice breathed. The rest of the room, the low pounding of the music downstairs, the chair and all faded away and for Della, the world was the woman so close to her.

After a few moment of the bliss her brain lurched to action. "Owned?"

Smiling like the proverbial cat that caught the canary, Mistress Riva sat on her desk. "Mmmh-hmmm," she hummed. Dellaís forehead crincled and she bit her lower lip, pondering the meaning of the sentence. "What do you mean?"

A shrug. The long, nimble digits were fingering the long bullwhip she had in her lap, caressing the thin strips of hide. "She was my slave. I was her Mistress."

The ridges in the detectiveís forehead stayed there. Memo from myself. To: Myself. Brush up on Applied Psychology; Sadomasochistic practices. End memo.

"Have we met?"

The unexpected turn in conversation made Della stutter. "Eh, well... I donít think so. Though I have a strong feeling that Iíve seen you before."


Della tried the direct approach. "Where were you on Saturday night, between 10 pm and 4 am?"

"Canít tell."

The blonde brows scrunched. "What do you mean you canít tell? Iím and officer of law and-"

"I said I canít tell and thatís that." The intense eyes burrowed into Della, making it clear that the statement was final.

Behing the dark womanís back the door opened silently, letting in the somewhat diminished beat of the pounding music. Viv, the young woman, still clothed in just the panties, creeped in, eyes fastened to the floor. "What," the Mistress growled, not turning her eyes away from Della.

The young woman just whimpered something unintelligible and sooner than Della could react, the bullwhip had been uncoiled and it struck the brunette in one breast with a mighty crack, leaving a red stripe. A small cry escaped the girlís mouth. With four swift steps the tall woman was at her.

"Speak up!"

"Itís, uh, Mistress Eppie got carried away again, she, um, had an argument with Mistress Soli and it sort of heated up and now theyíre fighting in the Blue Room."

A curse in some foreign language rolled off the tall womanís tongue, a sharp bark that made the brunette flinch. A grunt. "Iíll be right down." She turned and ambled back to the desk. The almost naked woman stood as if frozen so when Mistress Riva reached the desk again she reamed the girl with another lash, the red stripes now forming a perfectly balanced X.

"I donít like repeating myself. Go!" she hissed and the girl bowed hastily and exited with shaky legs. The intense eyes came to rest on the detective again and a small smile played on the perfect lips. The bedroom eyes took on an even sultrier look. "I have to go. Iíll send someone to escort you out. Hereís my card," she handed over a slip of paper, "if you have any more" her fingers brushed Dellaís, gliding over the sensitized skin there, sending a small jolt of electricity down the detectiveís spine. "... questions." And then she was gone, only the exotic scent lingered.

Wow. Twilight zone. Now that the commanding presence of the strange woman was gone, she snapped into reality. How odd in contrast to her normal life this had been. A usual Wednesday night wouldíve seen her catch some light dinner, read a few chapters of a good book or perhaps slouch in fromt of the TV and an early bed. Definetely not getting striped at an SM club and then taken care of by the most... curious person sheíd ever met. She shook her head, clearing away the last remnants of her dizziness.

She got up from the chair with a groan, feeling the battering sheíd gotten and paced gingerly around the dark desk. Ebony? Nahh, canít be... The door opened again, as silently as before, and admitted another young woman, this one dressed in a contraption made entirely of an inch-wide leather bands and silvery studs. The woman approached Della and bowed slightly.

"My Mistress told me to escort you out," she whispered and stepped aside to let the detective out of the massive office and into the pounding noise and scent of the club. Down another set of stairs and they reached another metal door. It opened with a faint groan and cool night air that carried the smell of a city and spices from some Indian restaurant assaulted Dellaís heated skin. It felt good.

A taxi was waiting for her, silently purring in the back alley the door had led to. Della turned to thank the young woman but she was already closing the door, eyes fastened to the ground. Shrugging, Della stepped into the waiting black car.

A London taxi is a spacious old-fashioned Austin that houses seats for five in the back. So, Della had the luxury of space. She leaned back to the leathered seat, careful of her injury and rested her eyes on the scratched plexiglass window that separated the driver from the passengers, fingering the small slip of cardboard in her hand. The small red numbers on the meter ticked away when the car lumbered to motion and sped away.

A man extracted himself from the rubbish bins he was hiding behind. His long black cloak fluttered slightly when he stepped into the silvery moonlight. He stood silently for a minute, staring at the taxi until it rounded a corner and disappeared. Then the lone figure made a snappy turn and walked briskly to the opposite direction.

In narrow opening that was a window on the first floor a pair of blue eyes flashed at the sight of the man. The razor-sharp mind behind the eyes pondered for a moment and then the figure retracted back inside the foreboding brick building.

Della woke up with a start. Air rushed out of her lungs in a soundless cry as she bolted to sit upright. For a moment she just sat there, focusing on the opposite wall.

Picture. Picture of me with daddy. At the boat. Steel frame, on a plaster wall. Home. The message got through to her brain and the last shards of sleep dissipated. Her skin felt clammy and the sheets of the luxury double bed were soaked. The detective shuddered at the cold, dank feeling and the dreams that had brought out the sweat. They were a swirl of blood, rubber and darkness. She remembered reliving the pain of the lash and fingered the bandage on her back. The dream had rewinded to that point over and over again, her on the floor and then the eyes. The blue eyes, like two enormous sapphires that shone in the darkness, lighting up her soul. On her retinas there was an afterimage of them, etched to the delicate membrane as if they had burned themselves there. And they had.

Knowing that sleep was not forthcoming soon, Della exhaled noisily, scatched her tousled blonde hair and got up. Her toes cringed on the contact with the cool parquette.

After flicking on her beloved Krups cappucchino maker and waiting for the machine to heat up the water, she went back to her study and flicked on her computer. The soft humming of the fan and the hard drive mixed with the gurgle of the Krups pressurizing the water and Della fidgeted in her robe. She wrapped the soft fabric around her tighter, the scent of her laundry detergent bringing some safety.

The updated police report on Sinead Keffen said little more than it had said that morning, besides a few facts about her neighbours and that her ex-husband, a pediatrician, was nowhere to be found. Though the last detail was a bit odd, she let it go and hungry for more information on the mysterious club and its more than mysterious owner, she resorted to the Internet.

Calling the 'Net an Information Superhighway is an overstatement of massive proportions. Information, yes, tons of it but the highway was usually so trafficky that the speed was a close equivalent to snail pace. It took Della almost three hours and four cups of cappucino with chocolate sprinkles to find and then shift through the jumble of data she got. Not that there was much and most of them were about the club, all the underground sites in Europe and some in America praising the venue. The name 'Rivaí was mentioned a couple of times, all equally praising and sowing adjectives like 'fuckableí and 'gorgeousí with a generous hand but barely no information was on her before the club. One picture was all she found, surprisingly at a Gulf War veteranís site. A field photo of a group of seven men and a woman, bunched together. The woman was unmistakably Ghislaine du Plessis. The eyes were there and shone bright even in the grained jpeg.

So, a soldier. She squinted at the insignia but didnít recognize it. Unsurprising, since she wasnít British but she made a mental note to check it first thing in the morning. A soldier who has seen war. Hmmm.

Della picked up the card sheíd gotten. It was actually a piece of transparent plastic and on it read just a name and an address. Nothing more and as was her habit, she turned it around before her mind processed that there could be nothing more written there. A snort of a laugh escaped her and she sat back in her expensive computer chair, flicking her even, white teeth with the sliver of plastic.

Letís see. So, poor Sinead was Mistr-, Ms. du Plessisí... what did she call her? Slave. Yeah. So that explains the lash marks and the bruises on her, most likely from the restraint thingys they use when- Della stopped her train of thought there, not willing to speculate any further on the uses of the various objects in the office. So... The threads in her head arranged themselves. It was also her I saw at the alley on Sunday. Canít be wrong about the eyes, she thought wryly. But then at the club she didnít seem to know the girl to be dead. But she wasnít surprised, either. No other people linked to Keffen, no other leads. It all pointed to the raven-haired beauty and Della was surprised to find that her mind was reluctant to accept the fact.

A glance at the window told her the sun was rising. She decided to try to get a few more hours of sleep. A detour to the bookshelf got her a recent psychological publication titled 'The Pleasure in Pain: A Psychopathological Analysisí. She got to page 12 before sleep claimed her.

When the day began it was just the end of another for some. Mistress Riva, Ghislaine, leaned back, resting her shoulderblades on the cool tiles in the shower. The warm water washed away the talcum powder that coated her skin, the flour-like stuff necessary for getting the rubber clothes on. The sweat and stench of smoke drained away, as did her tension.

She couldnít find herself to grieve over Sinead. She had been her sub for a few years but no love was lost between them. Sinead did odd jobs for her, served her and as salary, received a session with one of her employees now and then. This was why the dark woman had begun to suspect something was amiss, when Sinead had missed her Sunday appointment with Soli. Things had unraveled from there and culminated in the strange visitor sheíd gotten that night.

Delaney Covington. She rolled the name around her tongue, trying to place the face and the intelligent mist -green eyes. She was sure sheíd seen the woman before but despite her photographic and always accurate memory, a search bleeped a big zero. It was maddening. She hit her powerful fist to the white tiles with a mighty thump, the sting in her hand drawing away her attention from the nagging feeling in her head. Her irresistable fascination with the detective was so unlike her but something very ancient and much forgotten was tugging at the fringes of her synapses.

She dried off and proceeded to wash and carefully dry her outfit, something she rarely did nowadays anymore, she had help for that. But tonight, she needed something to fiddle while thinking. While spraying silicone on the rubber, her mind inadvertedly turned back to the young blonde woman and to the feel of the young, nimble body cradled in her arms, the warmth she had felt then. Sheíd never felt such a feeling with someone sheíd just met. A small smile spread on her lips as she remembered the look of confusion and something more on the admittedly cute detectiveís face. Though she suspected that the detective was batting for a different team than herself, she found that she wanted to see the spunky Ms. Covington again. Sheíll be back.

Della yawned so hard the constable at the front desk thought the young woman was going to get her jaw dislocated. But she survived and nodded a good morning to the constable who smiled back. The detective was tired, her rhythm shot to hell by the late-night investigations and nervous sleeping, but nevertheless she dragged herself to the station before ten.

When she got to her desk there was a small slip of thin pink paper wating for her. In the DCIís secretaryís handwriting it asked the detective to come to see him ASAP. Scrunching the paper and making a three-point throw to Johnsonís rubbish bin she started for her bossís office. She knocked on the frosted glass on the door and entered.

"Take a seat, Della," the DCI said, looking very serious but the tone of his voice was gentle. Alarm bells went off in Dellaís head.

"What is it, boss?" she asked.

He opened his mouth and then closed it, pondering on how to start. Take the bull by the horns, always, had been his motherís advice in situations like these and he took it. "Iíve bín orderíd... nae, politely but firmly askíd to instruct ye to cease yer investigations on Ms. du Plessis."


He sighed. The blonde detective was a persistently stubborn person and very quick-tempered as well. This was not going to be fun. "Me superior callíd me early this morniní to let me know yer snoooping on the woman was 'very unwelcomeí" He lifted a pudgy hand to silence Della before she could bellow out her outrage. "Wait. I doní like it any more that ye do, but itís an order."


"No buts." A sly smile creased the DCIís reddish face. "But then again, nobody told that some... informal inquiries would be counted in." The fire in Dellaís eyes lessened somewhat and she sat back to the chair she had half-risen from. The DCI became serious again.

"All Iím telliní ye, go on as ye did but tread very softly. OK?" Della nodded and the DCI dismissed her.

If anything, the detectiveís curiousness was increased twofold. Not only had someone somehow spied on her, but that someone was a person who had influence, lots of it. This is getting more and more ominous, she thought. And it all seemed to revolve around one dark-haired mysterious beauty. Della shook her head when she sat down and pondered what to do next. A visit to Ms. du Plessis was in order but first things first. Some coffee and a few calls.

Her jumbo cup firmly in her hand and filled to the brim with the black sludge, she perused the Greater London Area phonebook and found what she was looking for. Her digit danced over the numbers and after three hoots, the phone on the other end was picked up.

"Army Press Office, Henderson."

Della introduced herself and stated her business and she was transferred to someone called Sergeant Nordstrom. The same litany again, she described the badges and insignia on the grainy jpeg picture she had printed out that night. She could almost hear the wheels turn in the Sergeantís head.

"Iím sorry but your description doesnít match any of our units as far as I can tell. But try the Royal Navy. The badge sounds like a fishie thing." Della thanked and after some leafing and a few calls, she got to Nordstromís Navy counterpart. This time, there was a match.

"Yes, thatís a Royal Marine Commado badge and the rank insignia depicts the wearer as a Warrant Officer. The one other badge is the unit designator, in this case obviously number 45. You said this was from Gulf War?"


"The marines worked there at least in Op Haven, a humanitarian relief op for the Kurdis. Would you like to have the number for the contact person of the Marines?"

Della said yes but unfortunately, the Marine could say little more. The curious thing was, again, that according to his database, there had never been a Marine by the name of du Plessis. When Della put the phone back to the cradle, she was more confused than before.

At six oíclock, just as Della was about to call it a day, a new report had arrived. A detective had tracked down herc, the doorman and according to him, Ms. du Plessis had left the club at 11 pm on Saturday. I got answers and I got questions but none of them seem to match. She rose and grabbed her coat. Time to make that visit.

The weather in London is well known for its capriciousness and as was the case, by the time Della had walked from the station to Oxford Street the sunshine had switched to a gentle rain that threatened to get worse. She turned up the collar of her cream-coloured trench coat and quickened her pace. Instead of Soho the address in the plastic card pointed to eastern Mayfair and to Dellaís knowledge, that was not one of the most inexpensive living areas in London, not by a mile.

At Hanover Square the sky opened up and started to pour in earnest. Lightning flashed, followed by a distant clap of thunder and Della estimated the weather was going to get much worse. Wind was already whipping at the trees and the blonde detective ran the last few yards and she came to the given address, a big 19th century house plastered entirely white. Five white steps led to the front door, painted gleaming black with a lionís head knocker. The door was sheltered from worst assault by a small ledge that was supported by two white pillars.

Della shook her head to rid her clinging wet hair of some of the water and brushed the soaked strands away from her eyes. The bronze knocker felt cool to her touch and a small shiver went through her. She banged the thick ring to the door. Nothing. She banged again and still no answer. The detective cursed at not calling in beforehand and rested her wet forehead on the smooth door in defeat. This was not her day.

"Something I can do for you, detective?"

The voice made her jerk her head up so hard it collided with the sturdy ring of the knocker. Della grimaged in pain and her hand flew to the top of her head when she turned around. Under a big, black umbrella, wearing a pair of comfortable-looking faded jeans and a black mid-thigh long leather coat over a black turtleneck sweater, stood Mistress Riva. Ghislaine du Plessis, Della corrected herself. Looking so very unlike the rubber-coated dominatrix, the woman stood at the foot of the stairs, one combat boot clad foot resting on the first step, calmly gazing at the detective through half-closed lids. Della thought that her club was aptly named, íraptureí was what the blue bedroom eyes promised.

"Yeah," the said detective breathed. How about a hug, her mind supplied an addition automatically. Della could feel her heart rate pick up and she angrily admonished herself. Sheís a suspect and youíre here on a job. Get a grip, the rational part screamed. Yeah, but sheís still absolutely stunning, the other half contradicted. Not wanting to probe her feelings any deeper, mostly because she was afraid of what she would find, Della licked her suddenly dry lips and with great mental effort, pushed the schitzophrenic argument down.

"Yes, krhm, thereís still a couple of questions I need to ask. If itís OK with you," she added.

"Hm," she hummed and pushed past Della and swept the door open. Stepping into the dimly lit white hallway she motioned the detective in as well and shut the door, effectively trapping the wet air and the rising wind outside. Inside, it was warm and the light was soft, coming from cleverly planned indirect lighting.

"Wait there, Iíll make some tea," that now-familiar voice murmured softly and the woman pointed at a door and then turned and headed down the hall. For a moment Della stared at the retreating broad back and itís straight, proud bearing and then she stepped into the other room.

It was the living room, obviously. Sparsely furnished, it housed a large, comfortable-looking sofa in eggshell white linen and a small cherrywood table next to it. A matching plush easy chair faced the hearth, the mantelpiece held a black-and-white photo in a steel frame, the only piece of decoration save a Georgia OíKeefe iris that Della suspected to be the genuine article. A very futuristic-looking Bang&Olufsen hi-fi stereo system hung on the wall opposite the sofa, the thin, tubular speakers fit nicely with the designer cd rack next to the system. Everything spoke of understated wealth and a sophisticated sense of style. Well, owning a whole building smack in the middle of the poshiest part of London isnít exactly cheap.

Della paced the beautiful woodplank floor to the fireplace and took the steel picture frame in her hand.

"My brothers and me."

Della jumped and spun around. "Will you stop sneaking up on me?!" she said, swallowing her heart back down from her throat. "Iím going to have a coronary soon..."

"Sorry," the low alto purred and a small smile inched to the ruby lips. "Sit down. Please," she gestured with a steaming mug at the sofa.

Della accepted the cup and curled her fingers around it, warming the numbed flesh with the heated ceramic. Her hair was a mess, she knew without looking into a mirror but somehow, gazing at the woman sitting next to her, she didnít feel a bit self-conscious about it. The woman had pushed up her sleeves and a pair of tanned, muscular forearms were revealed. Della followed the ripple of small elongated muscles under the smooth skin when the mug was lifed to the lips and tipped to let the amber liquid flow past the waiting lips.

"Howís the back?"

"Huh?" The spell broke in Dellaís mind and once again, she chastised herself for daydreaming. Whatís going on?! "Oh, the back. Fine." She shifted her eyes to the picture still in her lap. It showed a woman and two men, all looking strikingly alike in their black hair and strong, beautiful features. The woman was obviously the one sitting next to her, dressed in the same fatigues as in the other picture Della had. The man on her right, one arm around her shoulders, was wearing a camouflage outfit of a slightly different kind. The man on left was in civilian clothes, holding his glasses and leaning against the woman, smiling broadly. "Your brothers?"

"Yes. Armand and Jean."

A piece of the puzzle locked in and a connection was made in Dellaís head. "Waitaminute. Youíre saying that your brothers are Armand and Jean du Plessis?" The raven-haired clubowner smiled across her cup and locked her gaze with Dellaís. "Yeah." Her respect for the detective rose a notch. "Mother had a sense of humour."

Della actually laughed out loud. "So she named your brothers after Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal Richelieu? The Cardinal Richelieu?"

"Mmmm-hmmm," the dark woman hummed a yes. She turned her eyes to the unlit fireplace, reflecting. "Weíre actually related to him."

"Really?" Now the detective was intrigued. European history had always been one of her pet subjects and now a descendant of one of the most intelligent and also the most ruthless leaders in history was sitting in front of her, in flesh.

"Yes. My brothers got his names and I got the rest of the odd family names."

Della examined the picture again. "So both you and your brother were in the military?"

"Jean." A sad look flickered across the dark womanís face but it soon returned to neutral. "Yes."

"Why did you quit?"

"Jean... died in the Gulf War and..." she ground to a halt. Della felt guilty for prying and without conscious thought, she scooted closer and rested her warmed hand on the womanís denim-covered thigh. She felt the muscle underneath tense and then relax. A spark went up her arm and she jerked it away. Her palm still tingled at the contact. "Sorry. Didnít mean to nose."

"íSokay," the woman mumbled back, her eyes staring at and through the wall. "Was there something about Sinead you wanted to ask, detective?"

"Oh. Yeah. And drop the 'detectiveí thing, I hate it. Call me Della," she added, an automatic reaction. The pale blue eyes flickered to her again and Della could swear the gaze made goosebumps rise wherever it touched her. "Sure, Della," she smiled, even white teeth shining, the ice blue eyes not so icy sheíd thought them to be but as intense as she remembered.

The smile made Della pause but valiantly she proceeded with her questions. The dark woman answered calmly and with short sentences. She had seen Sinead on Saturday, the girl had been at the club, on loan to Mistress Soli that night. She had left at one oíclock according to Herc, the massive doorman. After that, nothing. Yes, it had been her at the alley on Sunday but no, she had not killed her. She still wouldnít say where she had been on Saturday, despite Hercís indiscriminating testimony.

Viv had spotted the police and the gathered crowd at the alley when she had been heading home that night and she had called her Mistress, saying that someone looking vaguely like Sinead had been killed. When Sunday came and went and no Sinead, she knew. As to why she had gone to the alley, she answered with a shrug.

"No reason. Morbid curiosity, you could call it."

Della nibbled at her lower lip, deep in thought. All sounded right but still... there was something unexplainable and mysterious about the woman. She found it to be fascinating. How odd.

"Anything else?"

"Canít think of anything right now, Riva. Can I call you that?" Della asked. Another flashy smile that made Dellaís heart flutter. "I prefer Ghis when Iím not... working." The smile changed at the last word to a more sensuous one, the left side of the improbably red mouth twisting up.

An irresistible flush was creeping up the Detectiveís cheeks. Ghislaine found it endearing and true, it suited the fair detective.

The Twilight Zone feeling was back with a vengeance and Della thanked her hostess for the tea and exited quickly. The tall woman insisted that she take an umbrella since it was already raining cats and dogs outside and after a short debate, Della amended. She gave her card to Ghis.

"Call me if you remember anything that could be of help."

"I will," she smiled. Dellaís lips started to inch into an automatic reciprocal one and she let it come. The smile suited the dark woman, as it was mirrored in the strikingly sharp eyes.

At the bottom of the concrete steps, she glanced back. Ghislaine - Ghis - was leaning against the doorframe, hands folded in a relaxed pose. Gorgeous, her mind supplied helpfully again. Shut up, she told herself.

The umbrella was black, of course, and huge. It was visible for a long time, bobbing up and down in the thin crowd. It was followed from a high multi-paneled window of the white house, by the ever-present blue eyes. When the black circle finally blended into the thick rain, Ghis turned her back to the window. She leaned against the cold frame, sipping her now cooling Darjeeling.

She feared for the detective. Dark clouds were gathering, if the mystery man on the alley last night was sent by whom she suspected the head honcho behind this to be. She traced the rim of the cup with one long, beautiful finger, thinking.

She nodded to herself, making a decision. The club would manage itself for one night withour her. Though she would be missed, of that she was sure. Her tea cup was left to the hall table as she grabbed her coat and headed for the garage door.

Della decided against a taxi and decided to walk. The rain did wonders to the notoriously dank London air. The smell of diesel fumes was replaced by a metallic scent that, in Dellaís opinion, held the essence of the city. It was the smell of industrialized nation.

Ghis lived only a few blocks from Oxford Street and Bond Street Station so it wasnít a long walk for Della, even via Marks&Spencers Food Hall. When she reached St. Christopherís Place, dusk was already growing. She stood on the street for a moment, enjoying the colours of the setting sun over the low houses. She stepped into the dark passageway, deep in thought.

A hand closed around her shoulder and another pressed on her mouth. She felt the thick leather glove press roughly against her lips and her lightning-fast reflexes snapped into action.

Robbery, her mind analysed at the same time as she elbowed her attacker in the stomach. She was rewarded with a woosh of air coming from someoneís moth and a breathless curse. The hand on her shoulder relaxed a bit and quickly, she dived under his arm and whirled around. A random snap kick in the dark and she felt the impact on her foor. Shoulder, probably. A step and a punch and she heard a satisfying crunch as a jaw broke. A gurgled scream escaped as Della turned to run away.

She ran right into a brick wall, or so it felt. In fact, it was of the metallic sort. Someone gun-butted her with great force, right above left ear and her knees buckled as stars and all wonders of the Universe danced before her eyes.

Della nearly passed out. Through the humming din in her head she heard the first man curse profoundly and cough. The cough was of the bubbly, wet kind that signified lots and lots of blood in the throat. Then, the second attacker that Della hadnít seen grabbed her forcefully.

"Keep yer pretty nose out of things that donít concern you," he growled in a thick Midlands accent. The world around the detective tilted and swooned. She felt like vomiting, again. She mumbled something unintelligible and though she tried to stand upright, her knees gave out. The only thing that kept her up were the two paws that held her arms in an iron grip.

"Ye hear me?!"

Apparently, he didnít have time to wait for an answer. The hands disappeared suddenly, as if yanked away. Della slumped to the ground, the rough concrete plates of the passage scratching her palms. She rested her cheek on the cold, wet surface, felt the sandpapery texture dig into her skin. Squeezing her eyes shut, the stars started to settle into place instead of making the annoying swirl they had insisted on before.

She heard shuffling of cloth and the creak of leather, a strangled gurgle and a sickly pop of shattering bone. A shout reverberated in the narrow, dark passageway.

"Bitch! You sonova-"

As if cut with a sharp knife the yell ended into another, more subdued thud and a crack. The the cold worl disappeared as Della began to fly. Her head swam in the ether of endless dark space as she was guided to a place that resembled was as close to heaven she could imagine. Soft, sweet and warm. She decided to surrender to the infinite darkness. The last thing she heard was a familiar low alto voice.

"At least get the gender right," it purred somewhere far far away.

And then, time was no more.

The darkness started to dissolve slowly. At first, the change was so small she didnít even notice. Then, the greyness became more and more pronounced until the colour settled to a reddish mid-grey. Why canít I see, Della idly pondered. After two and a half eternities of pondering, she deducted that she hadnít yet opened her eyes.

When she did, it took her about two milliseconds to realize that it had been a bad mistake. Time slurched onwards and the world came into focus. World, it seemed, was made of white stucco. Another eternity later, she figured it out. She was staring at a ceiling. Her ceiling. And with that, the headache came. She made an instictive groan and tried to get up. Bad mistake. Bad. The world started spinning again.

"No, donít get up. Iíll help. Take this."

She was helped up a few degrees and managed to swallow the given pill along with half a glass of water. With a grunt she settled down and reopened her eyes.

Her mystery savior and servant was, again, Ghislaine du Plessis. She was crouching next to the sofa Della was reclining on, dark strands of hair snaking on the detectiveís chest. A ghost of a smile was tugging at Ghisí lips.

"Seems to me you need a full-time guardian angel."

Della smiled a small smile and tried not to laugh because the jolt from that would surely send her back to the well of unconsciousness. "Yeah. You applying?"

The laugh startled her a bit. She hadnít expected it, not from this subdued and enigmatic woman. But there it was. It was more a warm chuckle than outright laugh, a deep rumble coming deep within her chest. Della decided she liked it. A lot.

"Nahh. Iím not that good at such things."

"Yes you are," Della contradicted. "People donít make popping noises when they run away." Another small laugh. "Besides, robbers donít leave things halfway done if possible."

At this, the dark womanís demeanour shifted. It was a subtle change but there nevertheless. The friendly smile vanished and was replaced by a set jaw and in the blue eyes, a glint so cold Della could swear the temperature in the room dropped at least ten degrees. Ghis rose and paced a few steps, facing away from the puzzled detective.


No answer. The dark head was standing rigidly upright between tense shoulders and with no small alarm, Della noticed that the other woman was squeezing the water glass with white-knuckled hands. Della was sure the glass was going to shatter right then and there.

"What?! Tell me."

After a moment of silence, Ghis turned. She wouldnít look at the detective though, instead she focused on the blank far wall and drew a long, shuddering breath.

"It wasnít a robbery."

"What?" Della asked again. She was more puzzled than before.

Ghis cleared her throat, needlessly. "I..." she managed. Nothing more came out.

"What? What is it," Della said, feeling like a broken gramophone.

No answer. It seemed that silence was the preferred state of existence for the dark woman and it frustrated Della beyond belief. Ghis had sunk deep in thought, her mind in someplace far far away.


"Oh... huh?" The blue eyes refocused. "Ah. Yeah. Look..." She struggled for words. Eloquence had never been one of her many skills. "Look, Iím not sure but... can this wait until tomorrow?"

Della struggled to sit upright. A few blinks dissipated the fiery fog in her eyes. Outraged, she jabbed a finger at the dark woman. "No it most certainly can not. I was pounded into unconsciousness, then you say it wasnít robbery but wonít explain any further. Now, spill it!"

Ghis sat to sofa next to Della. Her head drooped as if in deep thought, her hads twirling the glass nervously. "I canít." Before Della could respond, she lifted a hand to silence her. "Because Iím not sure. But letís make a deal." A perfect dark eyebrow lifted, asking for a permission to continue. Della nodded, folding her arms.

"Weíll go and see a friend of mine who probably had the means to an answer."

"Now, donít play the oracle with me, Ms. du Plessis, Iím-"

"Itís Ghis and Iím not playing. I want to solve this mystery as much as you do."

"OK, so letís go," Della said and started to stand. She was stopped by a hand on her knee. Another small jolt of electricity passed through her and she stopped in mid-motion. The hand was removed quickly, too quickly for Dellaís liking. Aw, can it willya, she sighed to herself.

"Tomorrow. Itís late and youíre in no condition to go bouncing around London." Della opened her mouth to protest but Ghis managed to cut in. "No buts. Youíll go to sleep and first thing in the morning, weíll go."

Della found out that no amount of persuading was going to change Ghisí mind and though it frustrated the hell out of the detective, she was secretly glad that sheíd found someone even more stubborn than she was. It was just as good, since when Della was through with her evening preparations and ready for bed, she felt totally drained. The clubowner refused the bed and said sheíd sleep on the couch since Della was the injured one.

Della was asleep by the time her head hit the pillow. She saw no dreams that night, only darkness. Somehow, she felt completely safe.

The morning was clear and crispy and it was obvious that autumn had arrived for good. Autumn was the reason why Ghisí grandparents had migrated from Gascogne to foggy London. Here, at least, you got seasons. And on days like these, London was at its best. Standing next to the large window in Dellaís living room and looking up to the slowly fading pink in the sky above the rooftops, Ghis fell in love with the city once again, as she had done so many times. This was her home, her roaming ground and her safe haven.

She turned to face the room and was, again, reminded that sometimes there were sharks in even the most safest of places. On the low coffee table was the ominous shape of an oxidized-dark Sig P226 that the attacker had clobbered Della with. She had been just two seconds too slow, cursing the evening traffic while the blonde detective was being attacked...

Della had disposed of the first man with some impressive footwork, that had been clear. But the second one had caught her by surprise and nothing could beat that advantage. Ghis had just rounded the corner when the gun had descended and... something had just snapped in her head.

That hadnít happened in a long time, her losing her control. The man would probably never use his right arm again, nor his jaw in a long time. She had just seen red and instincts had taken over.

She gave a shuddering sigh and raked her shaking hands through the lond dark mane of her hair. It had been close. She had underestimated their opponentís enthusiasm and nearly gotten the detective killed. But, no time to worry about the past. Letís get going.

It took her three rounds of shakes and two yells to rouse Della who grumbled about the early start for a while. Her grumpiness vanished and curiosity took over when she remembered where they were going. A quick shower and some breakfast and they were out of the door.

Part 2 -(End)

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