Disclaimer: “XENA: Warrior Princess” is owned and copyrighted by Pacific Renaissance Pictures, Studios USA Television Distribution LLC, and licensed by Universal Studios Licensing, LLLP. All rights are reserved by them. The following story is strictly nonprofit fan-fiction, and absolutely no copyright infringement is intended.

The following story contains adult language.

 

“Steele Your Heart Away”

by Ernie Whiting

 

erniewhiting@charter.net


Part I

 

With a high-pitched, dying scream of its powerful turbines, the gleaming white Gulfstream G-650 executive private jet swung around to the left as it rolled to a gentle stop, far from any terminal, on the blazing hot runway at the Sacramento International Airport. Within thirty seconds, it was met by a trio of armored trucks and one black stretch limousine; with their diesel engines idling, the rear doors of each truck swung open, and four black-uniformed security guards—dressed in Kevlar body armor and armed with .40 caliber Sig Saur semiautomatic handguns hanging in black nylon tactical holsters strapped to their thighs—exited from each truck with almost military precision, to stand guard while one man from each team quickly mounted the rolling steps and entered the aircraft through the main hatch on the port side.

They exited the jet just a few moments later, and this time each of the three men was carrying a black, steel lock box. Each heavily-built box was then carried to a separate truck for transport.

“Okay, so when am I supposed to be impressed? So far, I haven't seen anything particularly outstanding about this operation.”

Dressed in a dark suit and dark-brown, well-worn cowboy boots, and with her blonde hair cascading about her shoulders with shimmering bangs brushing across her brow, the young woman smiled at him with a merry twinkle in her green eyes. Sitting at the other end of the luxurious, air-conditioned limo's back seat, and with her dark brown Wrangler Riata cowboy hat resting on one knee, she said with a mild Texas drawl, “Patience, Mr. Clarke, patience.”

In perfect unison, the three armored trucks took off once more, with the stretch limo following closely behind, and headed toward the airport exit and the southbound I-5 freeway, which would take them through the dry flat lands of Yolo County, across the county line at the Sacramento River, and into Sacramento proper.

Shortly after the other four vehicles left, a delivery van from “Elk Grove Linen Services” pulled up alongside the Gulfstream. Squinting against the brilliant summer sunlight and the glare that reflected from the jet's fuselage, the driver got out of the driver's seat and casually approached the jet. He was of medium height and of slim build, and had short dark hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and was dressed in a white set of coveralls with the same “Elk Grove Linen” logo stenciled across his back. He climbed the rolling staircase to that same port side hatch that the security guards had earlier used, where he was met by one of the jet's crew. One at a time, the driver was handed a big white laundry bag, which he would carelessly toss to the ground below. He then quickly descended the steps once more as the crew member closed the jet's hatch, and then picked up the bags—two at a time—and tossed them into the open back of his van. After slamming the doors shut, he made his way around to the driver's door, got in, and then he, too, headed for the airport's exit.

***

“Ms. Kincaid, had I known that your boss was going to do nothing more than call a security service, I could have done the same thing—and saved myself a hefty fee to your boss's agency,” Clarke said. “It doesn't take a genius to hire an armed truck service; this is not why I hired the Angela Steele Detective Agency. Anyone who really wants to steal the Chakram of Xena: Warrior Princess only has to blow that tin can open and run like hell.”

“Let ‘em.”

Clarke reacted almost as though she had just struck him across the face. “Excuse me?” he asked.

“I said, let them,” the young blonde replied, with a wry little grin and increasing confidence. “They'll come up empty-handed.”

He stared at her for another long, almost uncomfortable, moment.

“Mr. Clarke,” Samantha Kincaid drawled, with a charming smile and a soothing voice as they stood surrounded by uniformed personnel in the main security office of the hotel, “I understand and appreciate your position. But the art of true security is like a good magic trick. It's all about deception and misdirection.”

“Oh . . . good,” said an unenthusiastic Lawrence Clarke, “I'm going to get a lesson in how to do magic tricks.”

Samantha smiled at him. “Allow me to illustrate,” she said.

***

“Excellent! Excellent, don't move—stay . . . right . . . there !” Click-zzzzt! Click-zzzzt! went the Canon T-70, 35 mm camera. While it appeared that the tall woman in the stylish, olive-green cargo pants and matching, short-sleeved safari blouse was taking pictures of the young mother with her surprisingly well-behaved kids, in reality the photographer was snapping pictures of the rear entrance of the Sacramento Convention Center Hotel, just across from the Governor's Mansion. Or, rather she was shooting pictures of the three armored trucks that had just pulled up next to it. With her aviator-styled sunglasses perched atop her head and partially buried in her ebony hair, and with her eye to the viewfinder once more, she took more pictures of the trucks, the guards—and of the young blonde woman in the Western-styled hat and her client, who were now heading inside—while giving directions to the mother and kids. “Just a little bit this way,” she said, with a light and cheerful accent that could have been British, Irish, or perhaps even New Zealander, while motioning with one hand. “That's it, that's it . . . just a little bit more . . . that's perfect.” Click-zzzzt! Click-zzzzt!

And then she spied a truck from some laundry service that was pulling up outside. Suddenly curious about this new arrival, she watched it critically for a moment, and then saw the driver get out and go around to the back doors. Maybe, she thought as she watched him reach inside the rear of the truck and withdraw three laundry bags . . . Just maybe it would be a good idea to snap a couple of pics of him, too, as he slung two of them casually over his shoulder while clutching the top of the third one in his other fist. From there, he made his way inside. Was it just a delivery man, delivering fresh linens? she wondered with mild suspicion. She had learned long ago to trust her gut, and she had a gut feeling about this . . . If she were running this operation, she wouldn't let some laundry truck get that close to the armored trucks; there was no way to tell who might be inside of it.

Satisfied that she had taken sufficient pictures, she turned to the young mother and her two kids. “Thank you,” she told her, with a dazzling grin. “You have a very charming family; the three of you make excellent models.” In thanks for their time, inconvenience and cooperation, she handed the mother a couple of bills.

The mother smiled in surprise at them. “Wow! Thanks !” she said with a widening grin. “For fifty more, you can keep the kids!”

She laughed softly with her. “The thought had crossed my mind,” she admitted with a lively twinkle in her sapphire eyes, “but I'm afraid I haven't the room in my luggage.”

***

Dressed in a rumpled dark suit and a loose tie, and with a Fedora pulled low on his brow and a cigarette dangling from his lips, Edwin Neese sat behind the driver's wheel as he watched the photographer through a pair of binoculars. “Hey,” he said to the man next to him, with an unmistakable Cockney accent. With a slight motion of his head, he added, “Look who's here.” He handed the glasses over.

Similarly dressed, although taller and with a dark moustache, Frank Kessler raised them to his eyes and watched for a moment. “Didn't take her long to show up, did it?”

“Yeah,” Neese said. “But at least this time we saw her first .” He emphasized his point by flicking out the blade of his switchblade knife, and then retracting it with a soft click.

***

“The point of the trick,” Samantha began to explain, “is to keep everyone looking over here—” She motioned with one hand. “—while the target is over here,” she finished, as she motioned with the other.

The three heavy, black steel lock boxes rested on a table before them. Each guard approached in turn, key in hand, to unlock his box.

Clarke stepped forward to flip open each lid to find . . . nothing. There was blue cushioning rubber foam to gently cradle the ancient and unique artifact, and nothing else.

He scowled at her in puzzlement. “Okay,” he said, “and your point is . . ?”

She turned to the guards. “Thank you, gentlemen,” she said to them in dismissal. Once they were gone, she grinned at Clarke with that dazzling grin.

Jackson P. Monroe—the man in the white “Elk Grove Linen Services” coveralls—stepped into the room, and with a smile he placed one laundry bag on the table before them, on top of the lock boxes. He untied the string that held it shut, reached inside, and withdrew a fourth lock box.

Clarke's eyebrows suddenly went up in surprise.

“While the guards are out front, makin' a big hoopla for the press, Jackson will subtly go in through the service entrance, with the Chakram tucked neatly away in a bag of used linens.”

Clarke raised his eyes to regard Samantha, and grinned. “ Now I'm impressed!” he said with a chuckle, eminently satisfied with this practice run. “Oh, man . . . I cannot wait to meet Ms. Steele tomorrow to thank her personally.”

Samantha sighed regretfully. “I'm afraid that won't be possible,” she said, while placing her hat atop her head and tugging the brim down just a bit, “as Ms. Steele is out of town; she was called away to consult on another case.”

“You mean, she isn't going to supervise this operation personally?”

“Ms. Steele never involves herself directly in a case,” Sam explained. “She finds that she functions best in a purely advisory capacity.”

“Hey, look,” Clarke said, his buoyant mood abruptly changing. “This thing is worth over ten million dollars, and my insurance company is only covering half of it. And I don't happen to have five mil to cover the other half, okay? So if she doesn't have as much riding on this as I do, then I'm gonna find someone else. I am not interested in dealing with a couple of junior employees, alright? If I'm going to hire the Angela Steele agency, I want to meet face-to-face with Angela Steele herself . If she can't make time in her schedule to deal directly with a valued client, then maybe I should just take my business somewhere else.”

Samantha sighed softly, and cast a quick glance over his shoulder toward Jackson; leaning against the wall next to the door with his arms folded across his chest, Jackson arched one eyebrow and shrugged one shoulder slightly, as if to say, “It's your call.”

Her eyes returned to Mr. Clarke. “Very well, then,” she said. “If that's what you wish . . .”

Clarke began to smile with self-satisfaction. He knew how to get what he wanted.

“. . . then we'll submit a bill for services rendered, and we can provide you with a list of equally reputable detective agencies and security companies. Even if they aren't quite as . . .” She searched a moment for the right word, and finally concluded with, “. . . prestigious.

Or ,” she was quick to add, “I can call Ms. Steele this afternoon at around five o'clock, and see how she wants to proceed.”

“Good,” Clarke finally conceded, after thinking it over for a moment. “I'll expect an answer by six.”

***

Samantha breezed into the expansive and tastefully decorated reception room of the Angela Steele Detective Agency, which was located on Front Street in Old Sacramento, between K and L Streets. On the third floor of one of the many buildings that dated back to the mid-19 th century, the thoroughly modernized suite of offices afforded an excellent view of the Sacramento River from the reception area, with the Tower Bridge to the left and the I Street Bridge to the right; and there was an angled, panoramic view of the capitol mall and the Capitol Building itself from behind the desk of Steele's personal office. Plus, being pretty much right in the middle of Old Town, it provided easy access to the river itself, several restaurants and bars downtown, a couple of comedy clubs, the two Mississippi-styled paddle boats—the Delta King and the Delta Queen, respectively—that occasionally headed up and down the river, a set of railroad tracks (Sacramento's “Haunted Railroad” was a major attraction every Halloween season), an abundance of gift shops, and other endless diversions for the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visited annually—not to mention the Downtown Sacramento Shopping Plaza, just on the other side of the I-5 Freeway, via a wide, underground passageway that went beneath the freeway—all within an easy walk along the wooden sidewalks and the cobblestone streets.

“Is he in?” she asked the receptionist, Darcy Wilson, as she swept off her hat and tossed it like a frisbee to catch on the coat and hat rack that stood by Steele's office door.

“In his office and waiting,” the busty young brunette replied.

She rapidly crossed the lobby, and Jackson's door swung open before she even had a chance to knock. “It's five minutes past five,” he said, glancing at his watch with feigned worry. “Have you heard from Ms. Steele yet?”

“Okay, all right, we all know what the problem is, ” Samantha said. “The question is, what do we do about it?”

“Obviously, we walk away from this one,” Jackson said, as he followed her to Steele's personal office. “You remember the agreement we made; if anyone demands to meet Angela Steele in person, we walk away from it.”

“Normally, I'd agree,” Sam drawled as she stepped around the desk and settled into the black, leather-padded and reclining/swivel office chair. “But this is big. I mean, big . The fee we get from this won't only take care of the overhead—the office and the equipment rental, the limo and the driver—but will also get us all a nice fat paycheck and put us permanently in the black. And the free publicity we'll be getting from this mega-media event?” she said with increasing enthusiasm and that dazzling grin that could melt the iciest of hearts. “Holy shit, son! It's a win/win!”

“Can I ask a dumb question?” Darcy asked as she joined them. “How is Angela Steele going to meet with Clarke when she doesn't even exist ?”

“Yeah,” Jackson said, “care to tackle that one, boss?”

“She doesn't have to,” Sam replied. “We don't have to produce a real live ‘Angela Steele'; Clarke just wants to know she's there.” She leaned back in her chair with nary a squeak from its springs. “The trick is, we just need to keep our fictional Ms. Steele involved without her being accessible. Wherever Clarke is, Steele will conveniently be somewhere else; by the time Clarke realizes he hasn't met or even seen her, we'll have done our job.”

Jackson sighed heavily, and watched her dubiously. “Why am I gettin' a bad feeling about this?”

“Look,” Sam said. “I invented Angela Steele in order to attract clients like Clarke. Trying on my own—and then even teaming up with you, Jackson—just wasn't cutting it. But now that we have a mystery woman at the helm—and a former Navy SEAL to cap it off!—we have someone whom everyone wants to meet, but never actually gets to see . We can just tell them that, being a former United States Navy SEAL, Ms. Steele habitually prefers to work from concealment. All we have to do is to manufacture her presence for a few hours, and we'll be as good as gold.” She glanced from one to the other. “Trust me, guys; it'll work.”

Jackson and Darcy exchanged a doubtful look.

“. . . a really bad feeling . . .” Jackson muttered.

Darcy regarded her boss with a sudden and questioning look. “Where'd you ever come up with a name like ‘Angela Steele' in the first place, anyway?” she asked. “I mean, if you're going to invent a fictional person, why not give them a more . . . I don't know, tougher sounding name? Like ‘Sasha Armstrong,' or ‘Alexa Blade,' or something like that?”

“I wanted something strong and noble , not just kick-ass,” Samantha replied. “Like an all-powerful guardian angel, always by your shoulder and watching your back, to protect the down-trodden and to serve the greater good. What could be better than an angel of steel—‘Angela Steele?'”

“Hello?” called a voice from the lobby, and then there was a quick, soft knock at the door. “Anyone home?”

The three of them suddenly realized that they had left the front office unmanned, which had prompted their visitor to approach the open door of “Ms. Steele's” office.

Dressed in stylish, olive green cargo pants and a matching safari blouse, she stood six feet tall, with her midnight hair parted to one side and brushing across her brow, and combed back behind her ears—collar-length in back and mid-ear length on the sides—and with curious yet friendly, crystalline blue eyes, she smiled uncertainly and disarmingly at them as she approached with an outstretched hand. “Miss Steele?” she asked, gazing directly at Samantha with a focus that, for the moment, excluded everyone else. For one quick instant, she was caught off-guard by a pleasant yet puzzling sense of déjà vu.

Whoa! the detective thought, with a suddenly racing heart. Not only did she find this woman totally drop-dead gorgeous, but for a moment, Samantha was struck speechless by her own momentary feeling of mystifying familiarity. Had they met somewhere before? The touch of her hand certainly felt warm, comforting and familiar as they shook. No, no . . . she didn't think so, but . . .

“I'm . . . I'm afraid Ms. Steele is . . . out of . . . town,” the blonde said at last, not quite stammering, as she fought to recover from her dumbstruck silence. Trying to slow her pounding heart, she quickly put the detective inside of her to work, sizing up her visitor. Stunningly beautiful, she thought, with that ebony hair and those sapphire eyes, and that cultivated and absolutely delicious accent . . . “I'm Samantha Kincaid,” she said, with her mild Texas drawl, “her associate.”

“Darcy Wilson, secretary extraordinaire ,” said the secretary, as she presented her own hand while gently nudging Jackson out of the way. Both Sam and Jackson were well aware of Darcy's fondness for the ladies. And while Samantha had never swung that way herself, this tall and striking woman could certainly make her reconsider.

“Jackson Monroe,” the other said with a smile, as he as he nudged his way back in front of her while quickly moving to shake the tall brunette's hand. “Her other associate.”

“Yes, of course you are,” she replied, with a voice that was so soft and distant that she was barely heard at all, while still regarding Samantha with exclusionary focus.

Roll in your tongue and stop your drooling, Jackson, Sam silently told him. “What can we do for you, Ms . . . ?”

Finally shaking off that inexplicable feeling of familiarity, yet still mildly enraptured by those captivating green eyes, for a moment she almost forgot her own name. Slowly, she reached into a breast pocket of her safari shirt to produce a leather ID holder. “Spe—” she croaked, and then cleared her throat to try again. “Special Agent Cassandra St. Charles. Interpol,” she said as she flipped it open to reveal a golden badge and an ID that bore her photograph. She put the ID away as she took a deep breath to control herself, and then continued, “I'm sorry to barge in unannounced, but I thought it best not to make a formal appointment. To put it simply, I'm here on a rather delicate mission, and I need your assistance.”

“Oh, yeah?” the young Texan asked.

“That artifact you're guarding,” she said, “the Chakram of Xena, the Warrior Princess?”

“What about it?” Jackson asked.

She turned slightly toward Jackson without taking her eyes off of Samantha, and silenced him with two words: “It's stolen.”

Sam and Jackson exchanged a silent, uncertain look. For a moment, the entire room was so silent that one could almost hear the proverbial pin drop.

“It was smuggled out of Athens—quite illegally—and was eventually sold to a private collector in Rome,” the Interpol agent went on. “From there, it was lent to museums in Paris and London, and now it's here on some promotional tour in the States. Naturally, the Greek government wants it returned.” Silently, she added, My god , she has pretty eyes! Why does she look so familiar ?

“That's a legal matter,” Sam said, immediately suspicious. “Why come to us?”

“Ownership is currently tied up in litigation,” she replied. She shook off these vague and mysterious feelings once again—or tried to, anyway—and was all business now. “But should that Chakram be stolen now , it won't matter who it legally belongs to.”

“You think there will be an attempt?”

“My dear Miss Kincaid,” the Interpol agent said, “the Chakram of Xena: Warrior Princess is without question the rarest of antiquities in all the world; it is quite literally one-of-a-kind. So yes, I'm convinced that there will be an attempt. That's why I'll need to be fully apprised of your security measures.”

Both detectives regarded her with growing concern, and with more than just mild suspicion.

“You don't mind if we have you checked out, do you?” Jackson asked.

“Not at all,” Cassandra replied. “Quite frankly, I'd be rather disappointed if you didn't. It would demonstrate a certain laxity on your behalf which would not be very reassuring to the Greek government.”

“Then we'll see you again, Agent St. Charles,” Samantha said, with a hint of command . . . and was that a hopeful little smile on her lips that neither Jackson nor Darcy seemed to notice?

With an inward smile of her own, and with a warm glow, St. Charles replied, “ Count on it, Miss Kincaid.” She backed away a step and said, “Good day,” and then turned and left.

Both Sam and Darcy stared at the empty doorway. “Wow,” Samantha said mildly, and with an impressed smile.

“Holy shit , wow!” Darcy agreed as she already envisioned herself in a number of erotic scenarios with their recent visitor. “Did you see those eyes ? Oh my God, I think I'm in love again!”

Jackson was the only one who managed to retain enough presence of mind to actually pick up the phone that rested on the desk. Work, after all, still came first. “Anyone know what time it is in . . .” He stopped, and looked at the two women—one of whom was obviously smitten by their visitor, and the other who almost managed to conceal it. “Where the hell is Interpol headquarters, anyway?”

***

Merrily humming a little tune to herself while reaching into a pocket for her key, and with her brief and curious encounter with Samantha Kincaid still in fresh her mind, St. Charles strolled down the corridor to her own rented room at the Sacramento Convention Center hotel. Pausing outside the door for only a moment, she slipped the key into the lock, turned and pushed the door in—and heard the disturbingly familiar snick ! of a switchblade knife. She yanked the door shut once more with a door-rattling thud, just in time as the blade plunged through it. It began to work itself up and down, wedged tightly in the wood as the knife wielder worked to loosen and then pull the blade out once more; but he never had the chance to finish the task, because Cassandra's shoulder hit the door like a battering ram, slamming it painfully against Neese's face and sending him to the floor. Immediately, she was on him; as he lay on the floor, she grabbed him by the front of his jacket, hauled him up into a sitting position, and with a roar she slammed her fist into his face two, three, almost four times before Kessler came from behind her to slam a fist into her kidney.

With a strangled cry, she fell to the floor in sudden agony. She tried to roll to her feet, but a vicious kick to her ribs sent her rolling back.

“Who are you?” Kessler asked, standing over her as his partner rose to his feet. “Who the fuck are you?”

She drew a painful breath before answering. “Just a happy-go-lucky tourist, out to see a bit of the world,” she finally managed to groan in reply.

“Oh, yeah?” Neese asked. His head was still throbbing from its impact with the door—not to mention the pummeling it had taken from St. Charles's fist—and he was in no mood for any of her smartass comebacks. He tossed a collection of small booklets of various colors onto her chest. “Is that why you've got five different passports with five different names from five different countries?”

“I'm always looking for that elusive, perfect picture,” she groaned.

“That Chakram belongs to us ,” Kessler said.

“Indeed?” she said with feigned puzzlement. “I was under the impression that it belonged to the Greek government.”

“We have a proprietary claim. After all, the courier who originally smuggled it out of the country worked for us.”

“Only he got greedy and sold it on his own, right?” Cassandra asked as she slowly got to her feet.

“He's been properly chastised for his indiscretion.” He watched her silently for a moment. “It seems that every time we try to reclaim our property, you mysteriously show up to get in the way. First it was Paris, then London, and now here you are again.”

“Perhaps we have the same travel agent,” St. Charles said, as the dull, throbbing agony in her back and ribs slowly ebbed.

“I'm hungry,” Neese said as he flicked out the blade of his knife again. “I say we kill this bitch and go get something to eat.”

“That won't satisfy anything but your appetite,” Cassandra said. “I'll admit that we've been at crossed purposes up ‘til now, but I think it's time we joined forces.”

Kessler permitted himself a small, skeptical smirk. “Why's that?”

“For one thing, it certainly beats the hell out of the alternative,” she replied. “Plus I've already made contact with the people who are in charge of its security.” Her eyes darted from one face to the other. “If you want a mole inside of their organization, I'm your best bet.”

The two hoods looked at each other for a moment, and then Kessler turned and started for the door. Neese followed him, then turned once more and threatened her with another flick of his knife's blade. “Do keep in touch,” he told her.

 

 

Part II

 

She found him in the main show room of the Sacramento Convention Center on J Street, which was filled with people either rushing about on their work or personal errands or merely milling about, engaged in a variety of conversations, and which was festively decorated with flowers and a big yellow banner over an amorphous shape under a bright yellow tarp; a banner that read, “The Rarest of Treasures For The Rarest Automobile.” Cameras and microphones were being set up everywhere in preparation for one of the biggest media events of the year.

She approached him quickly, almost eagerly. “Mr. Clarke,” she said.

He did not look up from the clipboard full of documents he was holding and signing. His assistant was standing nearby, awaiting her next set of instructions. “You're late,” he told the detective.

Samantha smiled. “You can afford to be, when you bring good news.”

He continued to examine the documents, but now he was smiling. “She'll be here,” he said. Not as a question to be confirmed, but as a declaration of fact.

“Ms. Steele feels that your situation warrants her closest attention. She'll be arriving late tonight.”

He laughed softly with salient satisfaction. “Excellent.” He handed the clipboard to his assistant, who immediately rushed off to deliver the documents. “So, Ms. Kincaid, what do you think?”

“It seems pretty adventurous,” she replied, “building a new kind of automobile in today's economy. Considering the way the industry is these days.”

“Have you ever had a dream, Ms. Kincaid?” he asked her as they approached the shape under the tarp. “To see your talents recognized? Your efforts applauded?”

“Yes,” Samantha said; but it was more to herself, rather than in response to him. Yes, she did have her own dream; to make her agency the most prestigious in the state, if not the entire nation. She could see it before her eyes, even now, almost as though it was the opening ceremony of the Academy Awards.

“Ever since I started on the assembly line, welding door panels, I dreamed of having my name on the finest automobile ever built,” he told her as he ran his hand over the canvas cover, and the automobile beneath it. His creation, his baby. “I went to engineering school at night, and I even took speech lessons so people would listen to what I had to say, and not how I said it. For six years, I averaged three hours of sleep per night, until I was running a division of my own. I mortgaged just about everything I had, except for my right nut and one of my kidneys, to get this beauty launched. All this might be just another job to you, Ms. Kincaid, but it's my life .”

Sam turned to face him, and spoke with utmost sincerity. “I can assure you, Mr. Clarke,” she said, “in my own way I am also risking everything I have.”

“Good,” Clarke told her. “I never liked doing business with someone who didn't have as much to lose as I do.” He stuck out one hand as an offering in a new partnership.

With a grin, Samantha accepted it, and shook it to seal the deal.

***

She had converted the bathroom into a makeshift darkroom, in which she was currently developing the pictures she had taken earlier. One of them was of the delivery van and it's driver, behind the hotel, who had been captured on film as he had been reaching into the back of his van.

With a pair of forceps, Cassandra removed the color print from the rinse and held it dripping before her. Something in it suddenly captured her interest; holding it by one corner with one hand, she reached for a magnifying glass with the other, and examined the face more closely. Wasn't that . . .?

She smiled in recognition; it was that Monroe chap from Ms. Steele's office. Her smile slowly expanded into a grin as she softly muttered, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume . . .”

***

Sitting at the restaurant's table, she checked her watch again in mild irritation and growing impatience. Jackson, damn it, she thought. What is taking you so long?

A waiter approached her table to set a champagne glass and an ice bucket before her; and inside the bucket was a bottle of champagne. Not just a bottle, it was an entire magnum.

“Um, excuse me,” Samantha said as a sudden and overpowering anxiety attack threatened to envelop her, while the waiter wrapped the bottle in a white towel as he prepared to pour her a very expensive drink, “I didn't order this—”

The waiter smiled at her as he began to uncork the bottle. “The lady wishes to buy you a drink,” he said, indicating her with a slight movement of his head.

Samantha followed his movement with her eyes to find SA St. Charles seated at a table not far away. Sitting casually, and dressed in a black leather blazer, a black satin blouse that was open at the throat, and a blue silken scarf draped around her neck, the Interpol agent raised her own glass toward her in a silent toast.

She had never been—hit on? she wondered. Is that what's going on here?—by another woman in all her life. And being from a rather conservative state such as Texas, where such things rarely, if ever, happened, she had no real idea of just how she should respond to such an overt act. Even though she was a “city gal,” as she called herself now, at heart she was still pure Country.

“Please tell the lady that I appreciate the gesture, but I'm waiting for someone—” She was cut off in mid-sentence by the sharp pop ! of the cork.

Besides, she was too late; St. Charles was already up and approaching her table. Dressed completely in black, except for that blue scarf (which really accentuated the blue of her eyes, Samantha couldn't help noticing), and with her stylishly-cut ebony hair shimmering with a light, fresh application of mousse that held it combed into place, Samantha couldn't help thinking that this woman looked absolutely smashing , like a model from a high-fashion magazine . . . No, not merely a fashion model, she corrected herself; this woman looked like a female James Bond. And again, she asked herself, why did she seem so damned familiar ? Especially with that leather jacket? Her inability to recall when or where she'd seen this face before was driving the young detective absolutely nuts.

“A magnum of champagne?” she asked, trying not to stammer nervously, while her heart raced as the Interpol agent stood before her as the waiter made his exit.

“You looked thirsty,” Cassandra replied, with a hint of a smile as she gazed directly into Samantha's eyes.

She managed to recover quickly. “Do you always do things on such a grand scale, Ms. St. Charles?”

“Only when I'm aroused,” the Interpol agent replied, making Samantha feel even more nervous than before, “with curiosity.” She indicated the table with the glass in her hand. “May I?”

Samantha gulped softly, and nodded.

St. Charles settled into the chair opposite her and leaned back comfortably, and laced her fingers together as she rested her elbows on the chair's arms. “So tell me, Miss Kincaid,” she said, “how did you become a dick?”

Her champagne glass paused half way to her lips. “Excuse me?” she asked, her voice puzzled and mildly indignant.

“Isn't that what you Americans call a private detective?”

The light of understanding suddenly blinked on. Chalk it up to cultural differences, she told herself; two distinct cultures separated by a common language. “Only in the movies,” she said with a little smile, and then sipped at her perfectly chilled champagne. “I always loved excitement, so I studied and apprenticed, and eventually joined a large detective agency.”

“And did it fulfill your fantasies?”

“The work was rewarding, but the recognition was . . . well, lacking. It seemed that no matter how successful my efforts were, the vast majority of the credit always went to my male counterparts, regardless of their contributions. Or lack thereof.”

“Tawdry thing, this male chauvinism,” the Interpol agent said.

“No kiddin',” the Texan agreed. “Which is why I find working for Ms. Steele so refreshing. And rewarding.”

“Well, you must admit that your occupation is highly unusual for a woman,” Cassandra said, “especially one of such obvious breeding and intelligence. Miss Steele is quite fortunate to have you . . . in her employ.”

And once again, Samantha's heart began to race with excitement. She fought to steady herself. “You . . . you don't think I'm built for the job?”

“You must admit it's quite a rough and tumble business. At least, as it's portrayed in your cinema. All those blazing guns and smashing fists.”

“Believe me,” Samantha said, with just a hint of challenge, “it requires more brains than brawn.”

Cassandra smiled. She was silent for a moment, and then she decided to go on a little fishing expedition. “I take it sex isn't a problem with Angela Steele,” she said. “Yours, I mean.”

Samantha paused thoughtfully for a moment, with her glass half way to her lips. Was that some kind of a double entendre? she wondered. Come to think of it, everything this mysterious woman was saying seemed to contain a hint of suggestiveness. “On the contrary,” she said at last, with growing boldness. Or maybe it was because of that second glass of champagne. What was the alcohol content of this stuff, anyway? “She's the most generous, understanding and supportive woman I could ever imagine.” She took another satisfying sip.

“She seems to have rather large shoes to fill.”

“Few would be foolish enough to try.”

Cassandra grinned inwardly, with her suspicions confirmed. They're doin' it, she thought wryly. Why else should she be so defensive of her boss? They're doin' it, they're doin' it, I knew they were doin' it!

Out loud, she said, “Unless one enjoyed impossible challenges.” With another inward smile at the sudden and ill-concealed look of surprise in Samantha's eyes, she sipped at her own drink.

Changing the subject, for now, she asked, “Will she be involved tomorrow?”

“Ms. Steele's presence will be felt rather than seen,” she replied. “Being a former Navy SEAL, she prefers to work from concealment. It's a . . . military-slash-stealth habit thing of hers.”

Cassandra smiled. “Of course,” she said. “It makes perfect sense.” She raised her glass in a toast. “Here's to tomorrow, then,” she said as their glasses clinked musically. “May everything go as smoothly as I hope.”

Samantha smiled at her in return.

And then she spotted Jackson, standing across the room from her. Turning her attention to Cassandra once more, she said with that winning smile of hers, “Excuse me. And thank you for the champagne . . . and the curiosity.”

Cassandra smiled at her, and watched as she went to join Jackson.

***

She caught up to him quickly as he lifted the bags from the luggage cart. “Jackson,” she said, “I've reserved the penthouse suite in Angela Steele's name. Take the bags up, arrange the clothes, and hang out the ‘Do Not Disturb' sign.”

“I hate this, Sam, I really, really hate this,” he told her.

“It's workin', son,” she said with growing excitement, “don't fight it, it's workin '!” She rushed off again.

***

Sitting on either side of her, Kessler and Neese clinked their glasses together in front of Cassandra's very annoyed face. As long as they were here, they saw no reason to let a perfectly good bottle of champagne go to waste.

“Very clever,” Kessler said, “getting on team with Steele's associates.”

“Merely sowing seeds, gentlemen,” she said. How the hell was she going to get rid of these two?

“And when can we expect a harvest?”

“Tonight,” she lied. “She's showing me the route the Chakram will take.”

“Naturally, you're going to share that little tidbit of information with your new associates,” Neese said, with his Cockney accent.

“I want you to follow us,” she said. “Of course, if you're not interested, gentlemen,” she added as she rose to her feet—and so did her two “associates”—“I'll make the trip alone. Excuse me.” She stepped around Neese, and headed for the exit.

Uncertain of what to do—follower her, or hang back to avoid raising anyone's unwanted curiosity?—they opted to follow. At a short distance.

St. Charles spotted her in the crowd again; she was standing outside at the curb. She paused for a moment, allowing the two thugs to catch up with her.

She reached into a coat pocket, and produced a set of keys. “Take my car,” she said as she handed them to Neese, “the blue BMW convertible. And for God's sake, don't lose us .” She started off, following the detective. “Miss Kincaid!” she called out, as the limousine's engine fired up.

Samantha turned in mild surprise to find Agent St. Charles quickly approaching her.

“Miss Kincaid,” Cassandra said again, “I wonder if I might impose on you for a lift?”

At first, she was reluctant. After all, she still had a job to do. On second thought, however, she thought that this would be an excellent opportunity for her to carry on their earlier conversation, and perhaps to learn even more about Agent St. Charles. “Certainly,” she said at last.

With a soft sigh of relief, Cassandra cast a quick glance at her pursuers, and then slipped into the back seat of the limousine.

Not far away, Kessler and Neese slipped into Cassandra's rented BMW; and with a roaring engine and a squealing of tires, they took off after them in pursuit.

“Plush,” Cassandra said, of the limo's hushed and luxurious interior.

Samantha smiled. “Ms. Steele graciously allows me to use it whenever she's away.”

“Miss Steele sounds too good to be true,” Cassandra said as she cast her troubled gaze over her shoulder. She frowned a bit when she saw her rented Beemer fall into pursuit behind them.

“So where can I drop you?”

“Any place where there's an abundance of police officers,” she replied.

Samantha looked at her with concern. “Are you in some kind of trouble?”

She shrugged with one shoulder, and without comment.

Samantha leaned forward to address the driver. “Cut across to I Street,” she said. The Sacramento County's main jail was close by.

They sat in silence for a moment. At last, Cassandra asked, “Do you pack a rod, Miss Kincaid?”

Samantha smiled a little. “You've seen too many movies, Ms. St. Charles,” she said. “No, I don't ‘pack a rod.' I've never found the need for one.”

“Pity.”

“Why's that?” she asked curiously.

“The courier who smuggled the Chakram out of Athens?” she asked as she cast a glance toward the car that was tailing them.

“What about him?”

She returned her gaze to Samantha. “He was brutally murdered by the two men who are currently trailing us in that blue BMW.”

With eyes suddenly wide in terror, Samantha bolted upright and spun in her seat to look out the back window. She could see the car, less than three lengths behind them. Oh, shit! she thought. Oh, shit ! Oh God, oh shit, oh God, oh shit, ohshitohshitohshit . . .

“Mind if I borrow your cell phone?”

With her eyes still glued to the car behind them, and without a word, she reached into her coat pocket and produced her phone. Facing forward once more, she quickly handed it over, and then slid down in her seat to avoid being seen by their pursuers. Oh, shit, she thought again; oh shit, oh shit, oh shit . . . I don't need this!

“Why are they following us?” she asked softly, almost as though she thought that they might be able to hear her.

“Hello, police?” Cassandra said. “I'd like to report a stolen car. A blue convertible BMW 320, license plate number . . .” She turned in her seat, squinted slightly against the glare of the headlights, and caught sight of the front license plate. “One, zulu-delta-mike, seven-four-four. The last time I saw it, it was traveling . . .” With a questioning eyebrow, she glanced at Samantha for a location.

“West on I Street, just past Fifteenth,” she whispered.

“West on I Street, just past Fifteenth,” Cassandra repeated. “Please hurry; I had some heart medicine in the back seat for my grandmother. If she doesn't receive it soon she'll—” She stopped, and suddenly grinned as she listened to the dispatcher's response. “Ah. Thank you, so much ! God bless you!” She snapped the phone shut, sighed softly, and relaxed noticeably as she gazed at the scenery before them.

Oh, my God! Samantha thought one more time as she stared in wonder at the Interpol agent. Holy shit !

She cast a quick glance at Samantha, and found her to be staring at her in mute astonishment. She flashed her a dazzling and reassuring grin; for a moment, all that could be seen of her was her face floating in the darkness. The way the streetlights played on her midnight hair, those crystalline blue eyes, and that dazzling white grin . . .

Samantha continued to stare at her.

Cassandra playfully twitched her eyebrows once. “ Everyone needs a little added incentive every once in a while.”

They sat in silence for a few moments; Samantha was occupied with thoughts of danger, murder and mayhem while Cassandra was planning her next move.

“In light of this disturbing development, I suggest a change in our strategy,” she said at last.

“In what way?”

“Use a decoy,” she suggested. “Slip the Chakram in while no one's looking.”

Samantha stared at her in open astonishment. “You're very good at this sort of thing, Ms. St. Charles.”

She smiled at her. “Have I read your mind, Miss Kincaid?”

She didn't know what to say to that. At last, she replied, “Well, let's just say . . . say it's been considered.”

Cassandra continued to gaze into those captivating green eyes. “So are you,” she said, quite softly. Moment by moment, she was growing more fond and more respectful of this smart, quick-witted, resourceful and infuriatingly familiar young woman.

“What?” she asked, as a siren wailed in the distance. A siren that was quickly growing louder and drawing closer. Being considered? she asked herself. Considered for what?

“Very good at this sort of thing,” the brunette replied, as she looked out the back window again. The siren was louder, and right behind them. The police car pulled up alongside the BMW, and forced it to pull over.

She smiled in satisfaction and relief. “Rather reestablishes one's faith in the local constabulary,” she said.

Samantha gazed back at her. Damn, she thought. She is very damn good at this! Must be that Interpol training.

***

“Cutting it a little close, aren't you?” Darcy asked the next morning, as Samantha entered their offices.

“I had the most incredible evening,” Samantha replied, as she began to leaf through the mail she had just lifted from Darcy's desk.

All of a sudden, she was all ears. “Yeah? With who?”

Her !” she said excitedly, as she headed with the mail in one hand into “Steele's” office.

Her eyes went wide. “With Special Agent St. Charles? Details! Gimme details! Spill ‘em!”

“Well, first she bought us a bottle of champagne.”

The door between Steele's and Jackson's offices suddenly flung itself open. “Who bought you champagne?” he asked, his voice tinged with just a hint of jealousy. “ Who bought you champagne?”

“Actually, it was a magnum ,” she went on, dropping the mail on the desk while ignoring Jackson completely, as she then fished out a set of keys from one pocket. This was girl talk. But with keys now in hand, she settled behind the desk and began to unlock a bottom drawer.

“You don't even like champagne,” he said.

“What happened after the champagne?” Darcy wanted to know.

“We went for a drive, and that's when things got really hairy,” she replied as she pulled open t the drawer and withdrew a steel lock box.

Who went for a drive?” Jackson asked.

“Sam and Special Agent St. Charles.”

“What, you went joy-riding with someone who could be an international jewel thief?” Jackson asked. “Or, for all we know, maybe even a mass murderer ? That's not like you, Sam!”

Placing the box on top of the desk, she paused for a moment to regard Jackson. “Didn't she check out?”

Jackson scowled at her, and then at Darcy, who was watching him expectantly. “Yeah,” he growled with a reluctance that almost bordered on disappointment. “Yeah, she checked out. I talked to her supervisor this morning. The only bump is that St. Charles was supposed to arrive this morning . So, just to be sure, I requested a photo.”

“And?” she asked as, with a jingling of keys, she unlocked the box.

“Interpol says they need to check us out first, before identifying one of their undercover operatives to us.”

“Makes perfect sense,” Darcy said. “I mean, what kind of a security clearance do we have?”

She flipped open the lid of the steel box and extracted a pearl-handled, snub-nosed, stainless steel .38 revolver. Pressing on a release catch on its left side with her thumb, she opened the cylinder with a flick of her wrist, and found that it was carrying a full load of six rounds.

“What are you doing?”

“This isn't going to be the piece of cake we originally thought this job was going to be,” Samantha replied. “The men who originally stole that Chakram are brutal murderers. They followed us last night. Even though Cassandra took care of them brilliantly.”

“Cassandra?” he asked. Not Agent St. Charles, or Ms. St. Charles, but it was Cassandra now?

“I'd feel better if you packed a rod.”

He stared at her in puzzlement. “A rod? When the hell did you start talking like this ? A ‘rod' . . .”

She turned to Darcy. “Page Angela Steele in half an hour, just to keep her presence alive. I'll tell Clarke that she's already headed for the airport.” She began to head for the door.

“Good luck,” Darcy told her.

“Yeah, good luck,” Jackson added. “You'll need it.” As his partner continued toward the outer door, he added more loudly and with increasing jealousy and anger, “It sounds like she got a lot for her lousy bottle of champagne!”

Darcy smiled and sighed wistfully. “It was a magnum . . .” she said. Man, how she just loved budding romances.

***

Proceeding across the hotel lobby, and dressed in faded blue denim jeans and an olive-green t-shirt, black ankle boots and her black leather blazer, Cassandra was delightfully distracted with thoughts of Samantha and her smile, and those familiar green eyes with the tiny flecks of gold in them, when she suddenly spied Neese standing some distance away. He didn't look very amused, either, as his eyes fell on Cassandra.

Oh, bloody fuck, she thought, as she quickly changed her course—and found herself staring at an equally unamused Kessler, who was even closer to her than his partner. Obviously, a night in jail hadn't done much for either thug's sunny disposition.

She plastered on a false grin, and gave them a forced laugh. “What a relief, gentlemen,” she said, “I thought you'd never get here on time.”

“Wonderful thing about Sacramento,” Kessler said, “bail bonds offices are open twenty-four hours a day. There's even one directly across the street from the main offices of the Sacramento Fucking County Jail. Very convenient, for us.”

“I told you, we shoulda killed her straight away,” Neese said.

Cassandra scowled at him. “It's very difficult to maintain a relationship based solely on mistrust, gentlemen,” she said, as they began to roughly escort her toward one of the elevators. This definitely does not look good, she thought. How the hell was she going to get out of it? She hadn't a clue.

One of the bellhops—a young blonde woman in her late teens, and dressed in a blue-and-gold, short-skirted hotel uniform, and no doubt working her very first job—turned away from the main desk, and proceeded across the lobby floor. “Angela Steele,” she called out as she passed by them. “Angela Steele. Telephone call, for Angela Steele.”

Cassandra saw her chance, and went for it. She turned to address her. “Excuse me . . . Miss?” she said.

“Angela Steele?” the bellhop asked, with a hopeful smile.

She grinned. “You found me.”

The bellhop grinned right back at her. “Right this way, Ms. Steele,” she said, and proceeded to guide her toward the bank of glittering white house telephones.

Kessler and Neese quickly and closely followed along.

“Here you go, ma'am,” the bellhop said, handing her the receiver before departing once more.

Cassandra took the phone just as Neese gently pushed the tip of his knife against her back as a friendly reminder not to say the wrong thing. With a slight wince, she put the phone to her ear, and with a commanding tone in her voice she said, “ Steele here.”

***

Darcy stared at her own phone in disbelief for a moment, and then put it back to her ear. “ Who ?” she asked. “Where??”

***

She recognized the voice as that of Samantha's secretary. “Ah, sorry; can't talk now, Miss . . .” What the hell was her name? It was the same as that “Die Hard” movie star, Bruce . . . “Willis?”

Wilson ,” she corrected her.

“Ah, yes; I knew it was one of those Hollywood names; Bruce Willis, Owen Wils—”

The blade in her ribs encouraged her to make this quick.

“So sorry, but I've got to run.” She hung up.

And then there was another voice, coming up from behind her. “Ms. Steele!”

She turned around to find Lawrence Clarke rapidly approaching her, flanked on each side by a uniformed and armed guard. He took her hand and shook it vigorously. “I certainly feel safer with you here already.”

With a grin of relief, Cassandra said, “My sentiments exactly.”

“Please, come with me; there's someone in the Security Office I want you to meet.”

“Security Office?” she asked. “Sounds very secure,” she added as she cast a quick glance and an emboldened “Fuck you, buddy!” grin at Kessler and Neese. They couldn't touch her now!

Neese put his knife away, and Kessler swept his Fedora from his head and slapped it against his thigh in sheer frustration.

“Y'know,” Clarke said, as their voices began to fade in the distance, “somehow I thought you'd be much older, and not nearly so attractive . . .”

She grinned self-consciously. “Ah, well, I can always age on demand,” she said as she headed safely toward the security office, and away from the two murderers. “I've been told I have many skills . . .”

***

The agency's limousine came to a stop at the curb outside to deliver Samantha to the main doors of the convention center. She slammed the rear door shut, leaned into the front passenger's window, and motioned for the driver to go on to the parking garage while she stepped inside.

***

They stepped into the security office, where Clarke performed the introductions. “Angela Steele,” he said, “may I present . . . Special Agent Cassandra St. Charles, of Interpol.”

Oh bloody hell, she thought as the buoyant elation she had felt just a few moments ago, as she was being safely escorted away from Kessler and Neese, was abruptly replaced by a chunk of icy dread that suddenly plunged into the pit of her stomach. She suddenly wondered if she might be the victim of some kind of divine retribution for a past transgression. Oh, ye gods, she thought, you don't really hold a grudge, do you? For that little indiscretion in Acapulco?

She gulped with well-concealed anxiety as she regarded the tall, dark-haired and blue-eyed woman before her; not quite as tall as herself, but pretty close. They looked enough alike—right down to the haircut—that they could almost be sisters.

“Ms. Steele,” said the real special agent St. Charles. “It's a pleasure to meet you, ma'am. I've heard a great deal about you.”

They even had similar accents.

With a polite smile, the Photographer replied with, “And your name has preceded you as well, Miss St. Charles,” as they shook hands.

“Agent St. Charles is here to assist you in protecting the Chakram of Xena,” Clarke explained.

“Indeed?” said the Photographer. “That's a piece of good fortune I certainly hadn't anticipated.”

“I'm assuming you're aware of Frank Kessler and Edwin Neese?” St. Charles asked.

“Ah, yes; the two men who murdered the courier,” she replied as the feeling of that knife point in her ribs suddenly came to mind. “Yes, they've made an indelible impression.”

“Well, at least they're a known quantity,” St. Charles went on. “But I'm afraid there's a bit of a hiccup in all this. It seems that there's someone going around impersonating me.”

“Really?” the faux St. Charles asked, with keen interest. “What a cheeky strumpet!”

“She did it in Paris, and then again in London.”

“Hmm.” She turned away from her, at a slight angle, and took a step or two in the general direction of the door, just in case she had to make a quick exit. “I don't suppose you have . . . a . . . description of this vile imposter?”

“My build, general coloring,” St. Charles replied.

“Could be anyone,” the Photographer said, almost dismissively, as she motioned with one hand. And then, as she decided to push her luck to sell her story with an amused little smile, she indicated herself as she added, “Even me.” She laughed softly, hoping that the others, too, would see the humor in something so ludicrous.

“Ms. Steele . . . how can I be of service?”

“Well . . . you could detain Messrs. Kessler and Neese. I believe they're in the hotel now.”

“Would that help you to accomplish your objectives?”

This plan might not have gone totally to shit after all, she thought as she smiled inwardly. Thank you, m'Lady; I knew you didn't hold a grudge! “That would go a long way.”

The real Interpol agent nodded once with a smile of her own. “Done.”

***

With her hands on her hips and a nervous sigh, Samantha was pacing back and forth in the corridor when she and Clarke spotted each other. She completed her turn to greet him. “I just spoke with Ms. Steele.”

“So did I.”

“She's already left the airport, and—”

“She's just arrived.”

Samantha stopped dead in her tracks. What? her puzzled eyes plainly asked. “She's . . . arrived ??”

“Yeah,” he replied, a little puzzled over Samantha's apparent confusion. Turning toward the two women who stood not far away, he continued, “There she is, with Special Agent Cassandra St. Charles.”

The two dark-haired women were standing together. The taller one was looking a bit . . . worried. As a matter of fact, she actually groaned softly, with a pained expression.

“Something wrong?” St. Charles asked the Photographer.

“Um . . .” She cast her a quick glance. “Stomach's a bit queasy,” she replied.

St. Charles smiled sympathetically. “I'm not surprised,” she said. “Protecting a ten million dollar artifact can do that to a gal. Either that, or American fast-food cuisine. But not to worry,” she added quickly as she patted her reassuringly on one shoulder, “I'll be watching you, every step of the way.”

The Photographer was not particularly comforted by that remark as she watched SA St. Charles turn and leave.

Samantha and Clarke quickly approached her. For an uncomfortable moment—uncomfortable for the Photographer, anyway—no one said anything. All the Photographer could do was to shift her gaze from one face to the other, and smile reassuringly.

“Well, come on,” Clarke said, breaking the silence. “We've only got about forty-five minutes to get to the airport.”

From the other side, Samantha said, “Shall we?”

She shrugged slightly. “Why not?” as Clarke started for the lobby entrance.

Samantha let her client gain a little distance on them before she stopped the Photographer with one hand on her shoulder. She spoke with a soft, muted voice. “That woman who was with you . . .”

She turned to face Samantha. “Yes?”

“She isn't Angela Steele.”

She looked at her in mild surprise. “Really?” she asked at last. “She isn't ?”

“She's an imposter !”

“Indeed?”

“Yes—but don't say a thing !”

She took a moment to digest this new bit of information. “Oh, you can count on me,” she said, with all sincerity.

As they approached the limo, the Photographer saw a possible escape route. “Why don't you and Mr. Clarke pop on ahead, Miss Kincaid,” she began to suggest, “while I stay back and reconnoiter the area just in case any problems—”

“Nonsense,” Clarke told them as he held the door open for them. “I want you both at the airport.”

Yes, of course you do, the Photographer thought as her escape route turned into a roadblock. Muttering a string of mental imprecations, she reluctantly slipped into the back seat with Samantha, and the limo quickly took off to follow the delivery van.

“So, what happened?” Sam asked. “What did that phony ‘Steele' say?”

“Oh, nothing much,” the phony Cassandra replied, carefully nonchalant. “Mostly, we were just introduced.”

“She's obviously after the Chakram of Xena,” the detective said.

“Obviously . . .” She was quiet for a moment as she considered her next question carefully. “Why didn't Lawrence Clarke blow the whistle on her?”

She really did not want to answer this. “Well, he's . . . never . . . actually . . . met Ms. Steele,” the detective reluctantly confessed. “She was out of town when we accepted this assignment.”

Oh, yeah? she thought, with a sudden and inward smile at this new bit of information. There was definitely something new here to pursue. “But surely our charlatan realizes she will be exposed once the real Steele comes upon the scene.” She leaned in toward Samantha a little more closely. “When do you expect her?”

“It . . . ah . . . it's . . . difficult to say . . .” Samantha replied, reluctant to look her in the eye.

She continued to gaze at her for a moment in mild puzzlement. “But you did say she would be involved in—”

“Oh, yes! Yes! Extremely involved!”

The Photographer continued to watch her carefully. “But unseen . . .”

Samantha really didn't like this line of questioning. Her entire charade was in dangerous, unanticipated peril; and because it had been unanticipated, she had never really given any thought to considering a backup plan.

“It's awfully tricky, Ms. St. Charles,” she said at last, rather weakly.

The Photographer could not help smiling. “So it appears,” she replied softly. “No pun intended.”

She turned slightly in her seat, in order to more easily face the tall brunette. “You mustn't tell Clarke. It would only undermine his confidence in this entire operation.”

She nodded understandingly. “How long do you think we can keep this charade going?”

“Just until the Chakram is delivered safely.”

“And then you'll nail that ersatz Angela Steele?” the Photographer asked.

“Oh, to the wall , Ms. St. Charles,” she said, with absolute, fiery determination in her eyes. Angrily, she thrust her arms together to fold across her chest. “Right to the fuckin ' wall!”

Graphically put, she thought with an inward cringe, as that chunk of ice plummeted once again into the pit of her stomach. Once again, she wondered if her Karma, after all, was catching up with her over that “little indiscretion” in Mexico.

“Can I count on your cooperation?”

“Oh, absolutely !” the Photographer replied with all honesty. “Believe me, mum's the operative word here.”

She took the brunette's hand in her own, and squeezed it thankfully. “Thank you,” she said softly, “thank you so much . . . You're the only person that I can turn to.”

In response, she placed her arm protectively around Samantha's shoulders. “Oh, there, there, Miss Kincaid,” the mysterious, dark-haired, blue-eyed and nameless woman said soothingly, with that delicious accent of hers. “As long as you trust me, there's nothing else to worry about.”

 

 

Part III

 

Returning from the Sacramento International airport, the limousine came to a stop at the hotel's curb right behind the armored truck. Samantha and the Nameless Brunette exited the back seat and approached the rear of the armored car as two guards exited from its rear doors, and then a third one handed over the steel lock box. At the same time, Samantha observed as Jackson emerged from the rear of the linen truck some distance away, with a wheeled linen cart filled with fresh linens, ostensibly to be delivered to housekeeping. She continued to watch him, and smiled with satisfaction; so far, everything was going as planned. Jackson even managed to subtly smile back at her.

She started to follow the guards into the hotel lobby, and then noticed that she was alone. She turned, and noticed that “Cassandra” was still standing at the curb, and still watching Jackson. Intently, like a sniper focusing on his target.

“Ms. St. Charles?”

She turned. “Hm? Oh, yes. Of course.” At last, she followed Samantha inside.

Down the corridor they went once more, taking one turn after another, until arriving at the security office. Feeling no more real need to be further escorted by the Interpol agent, Samantha went on ahead. She even gave her an enthusiastic grin and a “thumbs up” just before following the guards inside and shutting the door.

The Photographer stood alone for a moment, thinking. She had been in some pretty bizarre situations before, but this one ranked right up there in the Top Three.

“Ah, Ms. Steele,” Clarke said as he approached her from behind.

She stood frozen, hoping to God that Samantha hadn't heard him. Oh, shit, she thought sarcastically, a little louder , if you please; I don't think they heard you all the way in Rancho Bloody Cordova.

He gently dropped a hand on her shoulder with a soft laugh. “Everything went without a hitch!”

“Ah, yes,” she agreed with a forced grin, “cracking good job, wasn't it?”

“You know, Steele, I must admit I was somewhat skeptical,” Clarke said, still with his hand on her shoulder, as he steered her toward the elevators. “Your Ms. Kincaid certainly protects you.”

“Yes, well, that's . . . part of her function.”

“Yeah, but this is bordering on the ridiculous. I couldn't see you, I couldn't talk to you, not even on the telephone . . . You were always unavailable, or out of town . . .” As the elevator door slid open, he finished with a soft laugh, “Y'know, I was beginning to think you didn't even exist !”

The Photographer softly chuckled along with him as they stepped inside. For a moment, her hand wavered near the elevator's buttons; she had no idea of which one to push. Fortunately, Clarke solved that dilemma for her by pressing the “P” for the penthouse. “What is this fetish you have with secrecy?” he asked as the door slid shut.

“Anonymity is an asset in my profession,” she replied as she slipped easily into the role, while at the same time feeling a little imprisoned within the limited confines of the elevator car. All she could do now was to hope she sounded confident.

“Yeah, I suppose so . . . But no photographs, no interviews, never involving yourself directly in a case . . . It wasn't only mine, I spoke with several people who dealt with your agency, and it was the same story. Plenty of Ms. Kincaid, but none of you.”

She thought that over, and couldn't help grinning. There it was again; that feeling of déjà vu, as she seemed to remember another quick-witted young blonde from somewhere long ago . . . whose name continued to remain just beyond her mental grasp.

“Well, now you have a great deal of me,” she finally said. “Who knows? When all this is over, you may even rue the day you met me.”

The elevator came to a smooth and silent stop, and the door slid open with a soft ding ! She hung back only a moment, allowing Clarke to step out first and to lead the way so she could follow his cues. Down the corridor they went, with the Photographer a half-step behind him. They stepped around a maid with her cleaning cart, slowed, and then stopped in front of the door to the suite. Apparently, this was where Steele was staying.

Oh, great, she thought. How was she going to get into “her” suite, if she didn't even have a key for it?

She patted her pockets for a moment. “Damn,” she muttered softly. “I seem to have left my key at the desk.”

Clarke approached the maid. “Would you mind letting Ms. Steele into her suite, please? She seems to have forgotten her key at the desk. Thank you,” he added as she proceeded to unlock the door.

“So, I'll look for you tonight.”

She looked at him. “Pardon?”

“Tonight. For the formal unveiling of the JetStar Six Thousand. And, of course,” he added as a mere afterthought, “the Chakram of Xena.”

“Of course,” she said as she waved to him in farewell, “wouldn't miss it for the world.” As Clarke headed on down the corridor, the Photographer stepped inside.

Holy crap! she thought as she took in the plush luxury of the suite. She quickly hung the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the outside knob so she could conduct her search in peace, and shut the door.

There was a briefcase on the sofa; she immediately went over to it and unzipped it open. Oddly enough, it was empty. From there, she headed into the bedroom to discover open luggage resting on the bed, along with an expensive and brand new gray pantsuit. She flipped over the white tag that hung at the end of one sleeve; it showed $1,300. Damn, this sheila's got expensive tastes, she thought. From there, she headed to the dresser and pulled open a drawer. There were maybe half a dozen blouses inside, in a variety of colors and materials, all neatly folded and still factory-wrapped.

The closet was next; there were two sliding doors, and she slid one open to peer inside. More blouses on one side, all hanging neatly on their wire hangers, and on the other side were more suits, some with skirts and some with pants, all expensive and apparently newly-purchased. The same went for the shoes on the shelf above; they all glittered brightly with polish and were neatly arranged. Wow, she thought as she examined the soles of one pair. Italian. I know the manufacturer! she thought silently. This is some expensive leather.

She put the shoes back, and then headed into the bathroom. Comb and brush were laid out on the counter to the right of the sink; she picked them up one at a time for a quick exam, and then set them down again. To the left, there was a bottle of some very expensive French perfume; she opened the cap, depressed the tiny spray pump once to scent the air, and took a trial whiff. Nice, she thought. Holding the bottle some seven or eight inches away, she spritzed herself, just once, to lightly mist the tanned skin of her throat.

Gazing into the mirror, she smiled at the black-haired and blue-eyed woman in the glass who was gazing back at her with that same dazzling smile. Quite softly, she said, “Pleasure to meet you . . . Miss Steele .”

***

“Any sign of her?” Samantha asked as she and the Photographer, both dressed elegantly for the night's affair—a ball gown of rippling electric blue satin for Samantha, and a black tuxedo minus the tie for “St. Charles”—stepped into the crowded and festooned show room. Tables and chairs were everywhere, as were expensive food and equally expensive liquor.

“Nope, not a one.”

“I wonder where our impostor might be.”

“I was wondering the same thing myself,” the fake St. Charles replied, a little ill at ease. Shouldn't the real St. Charles be around here somewhere?

There was a round of applause as they took their seats, and as Clarke took his place behind the podium to begin his speech. “Can we all take our seats, please? We have a lot to accomplish tonight, not the least of which is the unveiling of the finest automobile ever engineered by man.”

The Photographer was glancing around the room, searching for the Interpol agent, her eyes sharp.

“But before we knock your socks off with the Jetstar Six Thousand, I'd like to take a moment to thank the Angela Steele Detective Agency.”

Samantha leaned in close to the tall brunette with a proud little smile as the crowd applauded politely. “Great endorsement,” she said softly.

With another sinking feeling of dread, the Photographer smiled politely at her, and said nothing.

“Transporting and protecting just about the most precious ancient artifact in all the world requires brilliant planning, daring execution, and plain old street savvy. So without further ado, let me introduce to you the person responsible for the safety of the Chakram of Xena: Warrior Princess.”

Samantha could feel the heat rising in her face as she grinned with pride and blushed with shyness. “Oh, God, this is so embarrassing,” she said, “I wish he'd stop.”

The tall brunette leaned in close to her. “Wait,” she timidly told her.

“An absolutely astounding human being . . .” Clarke went on, as Samantha began to rise to take her bow.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you . . . Angela Steele !” And this time the entire room positively exploded into applause.

Samantha froze. And then very, very slowly, and very, very deliberately, she turned her stunned green eyes on the woman next to her.

The Photographer was cringing uncomfortably as she prepared for the inevitable verbal shitstorm. “Years from now, when you talk of this—and you will, ” she said, with an apologetic wince as she rose from her seat “—be kind.”

Samantha's look of shock turned into a glare of unabashed, seething rage.

“Deborah Kerr to John Kerr, in ‘Tea and Sympathy.' M-G-M, nineteen fifty-six.”

Samantha watched her rise and head toward the podium with a combined look of shock, outrage, and hurt in her eyes. To think that she had actually been attracted to this woman; this woman with the black hair and blue eyes, who raised such strong feelings of déjà vu; the warm and comforting smile that she still couldn't place, yet still seemed so maddeningly familiar . . .

And now, all she wanted to do was to just smack her one across the face. Just belt her a good one, open-handed, and then rise and leave without another word.

Clarke motioned the tall brunette to replace him at the mike, and shook her hand vigorously. And all the Photographer could do was to grin back at him, and then at the audience.

“Thank you. Thank you, you are most generous with your applause,” she said to the enthusiastic crowd. “But it would be unworthy of Angela Steele if she didn't single out her most able and her most valued associate. Truly, the real brains behind the Angela Steele Agency, Miss Samantha Kincaid ! Please, Miss Kincaid; stand up and take a well-deserved bow.”

Glaring murderously at the tall brunette, Samantha rose stiffly and only slightly from her seat as the crowd continued to applaud, and then settled down once more.

“And now, you have far more interesting things to look at than me, so if you please, Mr. Clarke . . . show us your creation.” And here she backed away from the microphone once more. And as she gazed toward the young blonde, she could see the hurt, the betrayal, and the rage in her green eyes. I'm sorry, Samantha, she thought, I am so sorry , I truly am. Please believe me.

“Thank you, Ms. Steele, thank you very much.” To the crowd, he said, “Without any further pause, I would like to introduce to you the JetStar Six Thousand.” He motioned to the crew standing nearby; and amidst great fanfare and another burst of applause, they raised the canvas cover to reveal his creation. The result of all that hard work, and invested money. His baby. And as the canvas rose, it revealed a gleaming, black cross between a monstrous cockroach and a flattened tennis shoe. The raucous applause quickly tapered off, but managed somehow to remain polite.

With a nervously pounding heart, the Photographer reluctantly started forward to return to her seat. She didn't want to go back to face the wrath of Samantha Kincaid, but there was no sense in trying to postpone the inevitable. So she continued on as couples rose to dance to the music that began playing, while other couples headed toward the buffet and the bar. Actually, most of them were headed for the bar; turns out, they had invested heavily in this thing, too, and had never even seen it until now.

“You . . .” Samantha began, her voice a threatening, deep-chested lion's growl through clenched teeth.

“I didn't know he was going to do that,” she said as she settled down. “You have my sincerest apologies.”

“And just what the hell are you going to do when Ms. Steele arrives?”

“I'd like to meet the woman whose high heels I'm attempting to fill,” she replied, with her captivating yet undefinable accent. Suddenly flashing a dazzling grin at her, she added, “How'm I doin' so far?”

Atrociously !” she snarled. “You're not a thing like Ms. Steele! She's honest !” She began to rise to her feet. “She's dedicated ! She's devoted to the greater good !” And with extra vehemence, she added, “ And she's BETTER LOOKING !!”

The tall brunette grinned.

“Why, you're nothing but a treacherous liar !” She smacked her across the shoulder with the back of her hand, while The Photographer smiled politely at the people around them. “A cheap crook !” she went on as she reached for her pocketbook. “A two-bit con artist !” She rose to her feet, and started to leave.

The mysterious brunette seized her by her upper arm, and yanked her back down to her seat.

“What the hell do you think you're doing? Let go of me, goddamnit! Whatever possessed you to think you could get away with this?”

Smiling politely at those whose attention they had attracted, the nameless brunette held onto her gently but unwaveringly, and finally managed to capture Samantha's eyes with her own. It took a moment or two to finally get her to settle down so she could explain.

“Impeccable woman, your Miss Steele,” she said at last, her voice soft so that no one else would be able to hear. She gently took Samantha's hand into her own, their palms clasped, and intimately covered it with her other hand. “Do you know there's not a piece of lint, a speck of dandruff, or a hank of hair on any of her suits?”

Samantha thought about yanking her hand away, but she didn't. A photographer quickly approached them; with a bright flash and a click of his camera, he took a quick picture of the two women holding hands, and then hurried off again.

“And she obviously wears a blouse only once and then discards it, since there isn't a laundry mark to be found on any of them,” she went on. “Same with the shoes; the soles seem never to have touched the ground. Not one, single, solitary scuff mark.”

Samantha glared icily at her. “She's fastidious. Almost to a fault,” she replied, so softly that she almost wasn't even heard. At the same time, she was acutely aware of the warmth and the softness of the brunette's hands; they were so familiar , but . . . but why was this woman such a lying, treacherous bitch ?

“Is she bald, too?”

She stared at the mysterious brunette incredulously. “Of course not!”

“Well, good for her! Because I'm forever pulling stray hairs from my hair brush. Sometimes it's positively disheartening, but I suppose it's an inescapable part of the human condition.” She smiled at her. “Does any of this say anything to you, Miss Kincaid?”

Samantha stared at her coldly, and said nothing.

“Because it does to me; it fairly shouts that Angela Steele is an elaborate ruse. She does not exist.” She leaned her face toward her just slightly, for extra emphasis, as she softly added, “ You invented her .”

Samantha clenched her teeth almost to the point of cracking. She wanted to spit into this woman's face and slap her across it with all the strength she could muster, yet . . . yet at the same time, a part of her wanted to lose herself in those blue eyes, and melt into her warm embrace.

Instead, she asked, “And what are you going to do with this absurd supposition of yours?”

She smiled at her; and as near as Sam could tell, it truly was a warm and sincere smile. And then, with complete honesty and a tiny shake of her head, she replied, “Nothing.” And her reward was the look in Samantha's eyes. While the detective didn't say a word, the mysterious brunette could tell that her shot had hit its mark.

“Please believe me, Samantha,” she said, with utmost sincerity. “I swear to you on my very soul , I didn't plan on assuming Angela Steele's identity; I'm after something completely different.”

Samantha carefully watched her for a moment. “The Chakram,”she said softly.

“No,” she said quickly. She shook her head. “The courier?” she asked her. “The one that was murdered?” She shifted slightly in her seat. “He was my younger brother. I'm here to see that Kessler and Neese pay for his death.”

Samantha continued to watch her for another quiet moment. “I don't know whether to believe you or not,” she said at last.

“I can't blame you for that,” “Cassandra” replied honestly. “But once they're apprehended, I promise you I shall be gone . . . and your secret shall leave with me.”

A movement by the main entrance suddenly caught Samantha's attention; it was Jackson and Darcy, both dressed in formal attire; and in her hand, Darcy was waving a manila envelope.

Not certain if she could believe her or not, she softly said, “Excuse me.”

The brunette reluctantly released her hand, and let her go to them.

“That woman's a fake,” Jackson said, as soon as the detective was near enough. “I told you, Samantha, I warned you about her—”

“I know,” she said. The way she spoke those two simple words, she sounded almost disappointed. “Believe me, I know .”

Darcy opened the envelope and removed a file from it. “This is the real special agent from Interpol,” she said.

Samantha recognized her immediately; the photo was that of the woman who had been standing with “Cassandra” outside of the security office. “What do we know about the courier who was murdered?” she asked as she studied the file.

“His name is Otto Dettmeier, he's from Münich, Germany—”

How old ?”

She actually flinched slightly at her employer's vehemence. “Sixty-three, or . . . four.”

She glanced back at the mysterious brunette for a brief moment; and in that moment, she thought, She lied to me again.

She returned her narrowed green eyes to Darcy. “You keep an eye on her,” she told her. “I don't care how, just keep her in your gun sights.”

“Yes ma'am,” she replied, as her boss took Jackson's arm and started for the door.

***

After obtaining “St. Charles's” room number from the front desk, and after breaking in with a set of lock picks, they began to search. “Damn,” Samantha said, as she examined a collection of passports, while Jackson was leafing through a movie trivia book that he'd found inside one of the suitcases. “She certainly does get around.” She read the names off, one at a time. “Jean Harrington, of Ireland.” She opened a second one, and as she squinted slightly in the dim light of a single illuminated lamp, she read the name inside. “Dr. Helen Hunt, of Great Britain.” Another passport. “Phyllis Di . . . Dietrichson , Germany.” Another passport. “Joan Stanley, New Zealand.” And finally, “Sandra Marshall, USA.”

“Wait a minute,” Jackson said as he continued to examine the book. “Hold on, wait a second. Gimme those names again.”

She began leafing through the passports again. “Harrington . . . Hunt . . . Dietrichson . . . Stanley . . . Marshall.”

And with each name she read, his grin grew wider. “Son of a bitch,” he said. “I don't believe it!”

With a tiny scowl, Samantha looked up from the passports. “Yeah, I know what you mean,” she said. “ I'd never peg her as a ‘Dietrichson,' either.”

He looked up from the book. “No, no, look. Here.” He showed her the book, and tapped one finger against the page. “Each of those names is from a character Barbara Stanwyck played in the movies.”

Samantha sighed heavily as she tossed the booklets onto a nearby desk. She folded her arms across her chest. “Well, we know one thing.”

“What's that?”

She regarded him with a dry, stony look. “She likes Barbara Stanwyck movies.” She turned, and started for the bathroom. She took a quick look around, found nothing, and then turned again to see what was in the closet. She pulled the door open—

—and screamed in terror.

With her eyes widened in sudden horror, she stumbled backward, and then turned frantically; dashing in near-panic from the bedroom, waving her arms in a bizarre swimming motion, she collided so violently with Jackson that she almost drove the both of them to the floor as she fell into his arms.

What ?” Jackson worriedly asked. “What is it? What's—” And then he looked up, and saw for himself.

Hanging from the hook inside the closet door was the dead body of the real Special Agent Cassandra St. Charles.

Jackson stared at it for a moment with stunned and horrified eyes. “My God,” he whispered. And then, a little more loudly, he added, “Well, now we know something else about our mystery woman.”

“What?” Samantha gasped.

“She's a murderer !”

 

Part IV

 

He stepped around her, and reached for the telephone.

“What are you doing?” Samantha asked, slowly catching her breath as her partner determinedly began to punch in the numbers.

“What's it look like I'm doing? I'm calling the police.”

“No!” she said, as she abruptly lunged for the phone. “Don't—”

Just as quickly, he yanked it out of her reach. “Samantha, the woman's dangerous ! She's got a dead body hanging inside her fucking closet, for God's sake! How many others do you think there are?”

“I want the agency to bring her in,” the determined blonde declared, after a moment's thought. “It's the only way we can come out even in this fiasco. Besides,” she added, more softly now, “she's made this whole thing deeply personal .”

Reluctantly, Jackson slowly hung up the phone. “She's not going to stick around after this,” he said.

“She wants that Chakram,” Samantha told him. “She won't leave until she's taken a shot at it.”

“Samantha?”

She gazed up at him.

“I hope it's just the agency you're trying to protect.” He had seen the way she had looked at the tall brunette, and it bothered him. A lot. He would never have admitted to anyone other than himself that it made him jealous.

“It's the only thing I'm interested in, Jackson.”

He watched her carefully for a moment before he finally nodded, barely perceptibly, in acceptance.

***

He was sitting alone in the middle of the abandoned ball room with a drink in his hand, gazing ahead at his dashed dreams, when Samantha entered. “Mr. Clarke,” she said softly.

He pulled his gaze away from the hardwood floor, and looked up at her. “Welcome to the party,” he said. Judging by his speech, the detective concluded that he was not working on his first drink. “Pull up an empty promise, and have a seat.”

“There may be an attempt to steal the Chakram,” she told him as she drew near. “Possibly tonight.”

“The way my luck's running, it'll succeed.”

“We know who the potential thief is,” she told him, “and we're doing everything we can to locate . . . them.”

He didn't seem to care much. He stared sullenly at his glass and said, “They ate my food, they drank my booze, but they didn't buy my car.”

She settled down to sit next to him on the edge of the stage. “I'm sorry,” she said softly.

“I completely retooled an abandoned tire factory in Toledo and hired eight hundred people to turn out a car that nobody wants.” He sighed heavily, and sipped at his drink. “Lemme tell you, Miss Kincaid . . . dreams aren't all they're cracked up to be.”

She sighed. “No, Mister Clarke,” she said as she reached for his glass, with visions of the familiar, tall brunette in her mind, “sometimes they aren't.” She took a healthy sip, almost draining the glass.

***

There was a rattling at the door of “Steele's” room. The Photographer rose quickly and approached it rapidly. The door opened slightly, but was kept in check by the chain; and a moment later, a slim, feminine arm slipped between the door and the jamb while the hand grappled with the chain.

The Photographer smiled and approached quickly, and gently slapped the hand away to elicit a soft and startled gasp from the hand's owner.

“Miss Kincaid, what a welcome surprise,” she said as she opened the door. “How did you know where to find me?”

“Since you seemed to have acquired a taste for masquerading as Angela Steele, it was the logical place to look,” she replied as she stepped inside.

She grinned as she closed the door once more. “Detective school certainly seems to have payed off for you then, hasn't it?”

Standing formidably before her, she looked her right in the eye with a steely gaze. “Your brother, the courier . . .” she began.

“Yes, a devastating loss.”

“He was sixty-three years old.”

“My older brother,” the Photographer quickly amended.

She folded her arms beneath her breasts with ever increasing challenge. “You originally claimed he was your younger brother.”

She grinned that charming and disarming grin again. “I have so many, it's hard to keep track.” And then, with a tiny shrug and shake of her head, she added, “We're Catholic, y'know.”

“Samantha,” came Jackson's voice from the door, “get it over with and turn her in.” He was standing in the open door, leaning against the jamb with one shoulder and with his arms folded across his chest.

“No need for that,” she told him, “I'll confess.” Then she turned to face Samantha. “I'll admit, your intuition was correct; I am here for the Chakram . . . but not for myself.” She glanced over her shoulder at Jackson, who had swiftly and quietly come up behind her, and then turned to Samantha again. “For a modest commission, I intend to return it to its rightful owner, the Greek government.”

“By stealing it?”

“From those who stole it.”

“I think that's just a technicality,” Samantha said. “You're a thief .”

The Photographer looked slightly stung. “Kessler and Neese are thieves,” she said, and then with a dash of pride she added, “ I am a fucking artist .”

Jackson dropped a hand onto the Photographer's shoulder. “ You are a fucking murderer ,” he said. “Cassandra St. Charles—the real Cassandra St. Charles—is hanging dead from a coat hook in your room !”

In sudden and stunned silence, the tall brunette stared at him for a long, long moment. With a heavy sigh, she finally turned and stepped away from him. “Oh, my G . . .” she began, shaking her head sadly. “Oh, those filthy . . .”

Samantha watched her. “Who?”

“Kessler and his goon, Neese.” She turned to face Samantha once more. “She was killed with a knife , wasn't she?”

Samantha gave her partner a surprised look, and Jackson returned it with a skeptical one.

“A blade about six inches long, with an incision and an upward thrust just above and to the right of the third lumbar vertebra, and straight into the kidney?”

Jackson looked at her in mild surprise. “That's a hell of an accurate description, for an ‘innocent woman.'”

“I've been chasing those two bastards halfway across Europe; believe me, I'm familiar with their wetwork,” she said. “If you want them, you'll have to move fast. They'll go for the Chakram tonight.”

“What makes you so certain?” Samantha asked softly.

I would.”

Jackson snorted softly. “Figures,” he muttered.

“Do you still intend to?” Samantha asked her. She had to know; she just had to, if she was ever going to . . .

Gazing intently at her, the Photographer said, “To be quite honest, the thought has crossed my mind.”

“Then I'd have to stop you,” the detective said, with equally intense eyes and a soft and determined voice.

The Photographer continued to gaze unfalteringly into those beautiful, green eyes. “If you could.”

“Easy,” she said, her voice now dropping off into a mere whisper. “I'd call the police.”

She stepped closer to her, to stand directly before her. “Why haven't you already?” she asked softly, with that unrelenting gaze. “Why aren't they here now ?”

For that, Samantha had no answer. She wanted to believe this woman; she wanted so much to believe her, but all the evidence seemed to point to her guilt.

“Because you don't believe I killed St. Charles.”

I do,” Jackson said.

Without bothering to look toward him, the tall brunette said, “You don't count. This is strictly between Miss Kincaid and myself.” She waited for Samantha's response, but there was none.

Do you, Sam?”

There was another long moment of thoughtful silence. Finding her voice once more, she reluctantly admitted, “I don't know.”

“Don't waste time agonizing over it. Tell me; what would Angela Steele do in this situation?”

Jackson stepped forward, and defiantly said, “ Call the police .”

The nameless brunette finally looked at him. “Then call them.”

“Fine by me,” Jackson muttered as he approached and reached for the phone. He was about to punch in the “Operator” button, but his movements slowed and then stopped. If this woman really was guilty, he began to wonder, why wasn't she trying to stop him?

Instead, she was reaching for her leather coat.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“I've been avoiding those two gentlemen all evening,” she replied as she slipped the coat on. “I think it's time they found me. I hope you're not too squeamish, Jackson.”

Samantha was still watching her, with a curious blend of determination and uncertainty in her eyes.

“Not around you,” Jackson told the brunette, with mild sarcasm.

“Good. Then you won't mind bringing St. Charles's body up here,” the Photographer said as she headed out the door.

***

Into one of the house telephones, the Photographer said, “I've tried her room; there's no answer. Perhaps you can have her paged for me in the lobby. Thank you.” She laid the receiver down next to the white telephone, and started off across the lobby to stand by the admission's desk. Why go out hunting, when it was so much easier to draw out your prey by having them come to you?

A young page began calling out, “Angela Steele. Telephone call for Angela Steele.”

“Miss?” she said, approaching her. “I'm Steele.”

“Right this way, Ms. Steele,” the page told her as she began to lead her back across the room.

And as she picked up the phone to announce “ Steele here,” her prey—Kessler and Neese—came out from concealment to confront her.

“We've been looking for you, ‘Ms. Steele,'” Neese said as he gently pressed the tip of his knife into her ribs.

She gave him a cold look of disgust. “There's just no avoiding good friends, is there?”

“This time, we brought our own transportation,” Kessler said from her other side.

“Instead of killing me, I'd imagine you would have an easier time cracking that safe if you had the specifications,” she told him.

The two thugs exchanged a quick look.

“And just where would we get those?” Kessler asked, unconvinced.

“From Angela Steele, of course,” she replied. “After all, she's the one providing the security for the Chakram.” She motioned with one hand, indicating upstairs. “Shall we?”

***

They entered the penthouse suite together, with Neese closing the door behind them. Standing on either side of her, they confronted her once more.

“Where are they?” Kessler asked.

Wordlessly, the Photographer indicated the closet.

Watching her suspiciously, both men slowly approached the closet door. Neese pulled it open—

—to find the dead body of Agent St. Charles hanging from the hook.

“Holy shit !” he said, recoiling violently. Then he turned his shocked eyes to Kessler. “What the fuck, mate!” he exclaimed as he then indicated the tall brunette with his knife. “We left her in her room!”

“So you did, gentlemen,” the Photographer replied. And at that precise moment, the double doors to the suite swung wide open to admit half a dozen uniformed and armed officers of the Sacramento Police Department, who had heard every word. Behind them were a plainclothes detective and two ambulance attendants with a wheeled stretcher, and Samantha and Jackson, bringing up the rear. With a clicking of handcuffs and a “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used as evidence against you,” the police took the two murderers into custody.

“I think your forensics laboratory will find that to be the murder instrument,” the tall brunette said as one of the officers relieved Neese of his switchblade.

Samantha stood by silently, watching. For once, she thought, she's living up to her word.

Kessler glared in full fury at the tall, dark-haired and sapphire-eyed mystery woman who had relentlessly hunted him down across Europe to finally become his ultimate downfall. “Who are you?” he demanded, his voice a roar of impotent rage. “God damn you, you fucking bitch ! WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU ??”

Sam straightened, and focused her full attention on the tall brunette as she awaited her answer with keen anticipation. The big reveal. At last, she thought, we're finally going to learn just who the hell she really is.

“Are you kidding?” the police detective said to him. “That's Angela Steele, the famous private detective.” He turned to shake her hand. “Damn, Steele; you really are as good as they say you are! It's a real pleasure to meet you.”

There was a hint of shyness in her appreciative smile. “The Angela Steele Agency is far more than just one woman, detective,” she told him. “On their behalf, I thank you.”

As the police escorted the two killers out, with one officer continuing to read the murderers their Miranda rights, the Photographer turned slightly to find Samantha watching her. It might have been a trick of the light, but it seemed that there was a hint of a mist in the young blonde's eyes as she reluctantly smiled at the tall brunette; a misty look that also appeared to be somewhat deflated.

Jackson was the last one at the door. He turned to regard Samantha. “Will you be all right?” he asked her.

The Photographer turned to her, too, wondering what her answer would be.

Samantha nodded, just slightly.

Jackson nodded back, and closed the door as he followed the police out, leaving the two women alone.

They were silent for a moment, composing their thoughts.

“Well?”

“Well,” Samantha countered.

Was she actually choking back a tear or two? the Photographer wondered, as she slowly began to approach her. “I'm afraid it's time for me to leave your lovely city,” she finally told her.

Samantha didn't say anything for a moment. “Where will you go?” she asked at last. Perhaps there was the possibility of tracking her down. To find her once again, and . . .

“Wherever the Chakram travels next,” she replied softly. “San Francisco, I believe.”

She was actually smiling at her. Not only in admiration and relief, but there was something else in Samantha's smile. A certain fondness for this mysterious yet somehow familiar woman that she hadn't felt before.

“I give you my word, I won't try to liberate the Chakram until it's safely out of your jurisdiction.”

Samantha actually took a step toward her. With a grin, she said, “Y'know, with all things considered . . . you made a delightful ‘Angela Steele.'”

“If the price of other commitments wasn't so severe,” she said with a small grin of her own, “I might actually relish the role on a permanent basis.” She took one more step forward to move in slowly, and to gently take both of the detective's hands into her own . . . and then she leaned forward to lightly kiss her cheek. “After all,” she added so softly that her voice was almost a whisper, “I'm a woman who enjoys impossible challenges.” She returned the key to the hotel suite to her, and then reluctantly turned and slowly started toward the door.

And then she quickly turned to face her again. “Come with me, Sam!” she suddenly said. “You'll love San Francisco! There's this great little Italian restaurant I know, up in North Beach; their food and their wine list are absolutely to die for.” Her grin widened. “Not to mention, there's so much more opportunity for more action and high adventure . . . assuming, of course, that you don't mind being accompanied by a rogue like me.”

Samantha smiled at the invitation, and shrugged helplessly. “I . . . I can't,” she said regretfully. “My business is here, my home is here, my entire life is here. I have to stay.” She felt as though someone very important to her was slipping away. If only there was some way she could . . . She let the thought go unfinished.

Her smile faltered. “A pity,” she said. She turned, and paused before the door for a moment, with her hand on the handle, in case either of them had something else to say, but then thought better of it; she quickly exited . . . and was gone

With a heavy heart, Samantha stood alone once again . . . wiping away a single tear.

***

Briefcase in hand, the Photographer exited the main entrance of the hotel, and approached the yellow cab that sat at the curb. She saw the black stretch limo parked across the street, and she could see Samantha sitting in the back seat, gazing out a window to watch her. She looked much the same way the Photographer felt.

She got into the cab and pulled the door shut, and looked out the opposite window. She could still see Samantha watching her sadly.

“Sacramento International,” she said to the driver. “Don't spare the rubber.”

Samantha sighed sadly as the cab pulled away from the curb. She wanted to give chase, she wanted to shout, “Stop! Don't leave!” But she didn't; instead, she stayed in the car, and sadly watched her leave. Perhaps it's for the best, she thought, unconvinced.

She checked her watch. Where was Jackson? she wondered. What's taking him so long?

“Sam!” came his familiar voice. He approached quickly, obviously in pain, and leaned heavily against the car with one hand at the back of his head. “Somebody blind sided me!”

She stared at him in wide-eyed, open-mouthed shock. And then she twisted in the seat to see the cab disappearing into the distance. “Lied to me!” she declared, in sudden and seething rage. “That treacherous thief lied to me!”

***

The cab was the first to arrive. The Photographer got out, and handed a couple of bills to the driver. “Nope, don't worry, don't worry,” she told him, concerning her change, and then briskly headed inside toward the check-in counter.

The limousine pulled up right behind the cab about a second later. Samantha already had the rear door open before the car had even come to a full stop. Followed by Jackson, she, too, quickly headed inside.

There was a news crew nearby, interviewing one of the numerous travelers, and Samantha could see the Photographer passing near them. “Well, I had been greatly encouraged by last night's showing,” the interviewee was saying, “however . . .”

She took a deep breath and called out, “ Stop that thief !”

Everyone turned toward the detective. Thief? they wondered. Almost in a panic—almost as though she had shouted “Terrorist!” instead—everyone began checking their pockets, their purses, their luggage, while others screamed . . . everyone except for the man being interviewed by the news crew. Instead of checking the safety and security of his own belongings, he abruptly shoved the cameraman out of his way, quickly turned, and bolted for the ticket counter.

Jackson caught up to the Photographer and grabbed her by one sleeve and one lapel as Samantha quickly approached. She latched onto the other sleeve, fully prepared for a strong and violent response from the thief, as the rest of the crowd continued to check their belongings.

Not resisting in the slightest, the Photographer stared at her in sheer bafflement.

Samantha looked back at her in growing puzzlement of her own. What the hell? she thought. Why wasn't she struggling? Why wasn't she trying to escape? Why wasn't she . . .

“You mean . . . you didn't steal the Chakram?”

She looked at her with genuine hurt in her sapphire eyes. “Samantha, I gave you my word!” And then she added quickly as she took a step back, “But it's fair game now !” She turned, and quickly dashed off after the fleeing man.

“Oh no it's not !” She dashed off after the mysterious brunette—

—and that was when she saw the man who had rushed away from the news crew; with the handle of his briefcase clutched tightly in one hand, he had leapt over the ticket counter and now was quickly making his escape toward the end of the luggage conveyor belt, which led into one of the terminal warehouses. When he cast a quick glance over his shoulder to see if he was being pursued, Samantha recognized him instantly—it was Lawrence Clarke .

The Photographer took off after him, with Samantha right behind her.

Casting a glance over his shoulder to see just how close his pursuers might be behind him, he dashed across the warehouse, dodging his way around small, private aircraft and a variety of airport supplies. Searching frantically for an escape route, his eyes suddenly fell on the small electric baggage cart; the thing looked more like a golf cart, but at least it was a vehicle of some kind, and driving it certainly beat the hell out of having to continue running. He leaped into it, slammed one hand against the start button while the other grabbed the wheel, and he was off.

The Photographer burst through the door to the warehouse, and spotted Clarke's retreating figure. Quickly glancing about herself, she found another small baggage cart; she leaped into it and started it up, and as she began to take off in pursuit, Samantha suddenly leaped into the back, just in time to avoid being left behind. As the cart zipped around a sharp corner, she scrambled forward to sling one arm around the Photographer's neck, while her other hand grabbed the top of the wheel for both control and security. “Hold it steady! Hold it steady !”

The Photographer fought to control the wheel. As she did, and sensing that the cart was about to tip over, Sam quickly slung her other arm a round the brunette's neck, and held on tightly.

“Samantha, let go ! You're choking me!!”

“Then gimme the wheel! Gimme the damn wheel!”

Ahead of them, Clarke took another quick glance over his shoulder to see how far away—or how close—they were. Rather than watching where he was going, he continued to focus his attention on his pursuers; and that was how the cart veered off-course, and slammed into a massive garbage dumpster. The only thing that stopped him from flying into the dumpster itself was the wheel that had slammed into his chest. But in a moment he was rear-ended by the second cart, which caused him to lose his grip on his briefcase and sent him flying over the top, and into the massive steel container. Disoriented from the blow, he fumbled about for a moment among a pile of filled, white garbage bags, chunks of styrofoam and other bits of refuse with a mild groan; dizzy and unhopeful, he finally gave up altogether.

Sitting in their own cart, the Photographer turned an irritated scowl on Samantha. “I take it you wanted to drive,” she said laconically.

***

“Steele Pure Gold!” declared the headline of the next morning's issue of the Sacramento Beacon newspaper, just above the black-and-white picture of the tall brunette holding onto one of Clarke's arms and Sam clutching the other, as Darcy continued to read the caption below the photo while she and Samantha rode the elevator to their floor. “‘Angela Steele and an unidentified woman—'” She turned from the paper to her boss—“That would be you,” she told her—“‘rescue rare museum piece.'”

Samantha sighed heavily. “Poor Mr. Clarke,” she said. “He wasn't really a thief; he was just a man watching his dreams drowning in a sea of red ink.” The elevator pinged softly and the doors slid open, and they stepped outside to start toward the office. “He just wanted to use the Chakram to finance the production of his automobile.”

They pushed through the stenciled glass doors, and were surprised to find a bespectacled and silver-haired gentleman standing not far from the receptionist's desk.

“Good morning,” Samantha said to him. “Can I help you?”

“I'm Mr. Gliddon,” he said. “I have a nine o'clock appointment with Angela Steele.”

“Oh.” Somewhat at a loss for words, she told him, “I'm afraid Ms. Steele was called out of town on business . . .” She glanced at Darcy. “. . . in San Francisco. But we can use her office.” She indicated the way with one hand, and as he proceeded forward she turned to Darcy, and spoke with a muted voice. “If anyone should call . . .” she began.

“She won't,” Darcy replied, softly and sadly. “I'm sorry, Sam, but she won't.”

She sighed. She's probably right, she thought.

She turned, and approached Mr. Gliddon, who was standing next to the closed door to “Steele's” office. She opened it for him, and allowed him to enter first.

“Ms. Steele!” he said, in mild surprise.

Sam jumped as she was suddenly taken in complete surprise. What? she thought as she stared at Darcy, who was staring back at her in equal befuddlement.

“I heard you were in San Francisco,” Gliddon went on.

Sam stepped around the door and into the office with her heart pounding in excitement, and her eyes suddenly widened even more in astonishment.

And then she smiled.

The Photographer was sitting in “Steele's” chair behind her desk, but she rose quickly and smoothly. Dressed in a black Armani suit and a blouse of blue satin that was open at the throat—and which really brought out the blue in her eyes, Sam noticed once again—she gazed at her as she said, “I was. But suddenly . . . there wasn't anything for me to do up there.”

Sam's smile broadened, and that tiny mist began to reappear in her eyes.

The tall brunette went to close the door behind them, then went to stand alongside Samantha Kincaid. Folding her arms beneath her breasts, she smiled that charming and disarming smile as she slipped her a quick, furtive wink while saying, “So . . . how can I help you?”

With her shoulder gently brushing against the Photographer's, Sam grinned.

 

 

Epilogue

 

They were sitting at Darcy's desk, sorting through the day's mail, when Steele's voice came over the intercom. “Miss Kincaid, would you be so kind as to step into my office for a moment, please? Thank you.” Without waiting for a reply, she broke off the connection.

Darcy and Samantha stared at each other for a moment.

“‘Her' office,” the former said. “Now she thinks it's her office.”

Samantha rose from her seat, and with a dangerous growl and her east-Texas drawl, she softly proclaimed to herself, “I'm gonna straighten this nonsense out, right now.” She dropped the handful of envelopes onto Darcy's desk, and strode purposefully toward Steele's office.

“Ah, Miss Kincaid,” the tall, blue-eyed brunette said with a pleasant smile. Leaning back in her chair, with her feet on the desk and a magazine in her lap, she went on, “I was wondering if I might impose on you for a small favor.”

Taking a disapproving note of just how comfortable the former Photographer looked behind that desk, she approached and defiantly stood before it. She folded her arms authoritatively beneath her breasts, and gazed at her coldly. “What is it?” she softly demanded.

“Actually, it's a bit of a personal matter.” She indicated the door with a quick glance. Almost whispering, she inquired, “Would you mind closing the door, please?”

Samantha didn't budge. Not One. Little. Bit. Preparing to remind her in no uncertain terms just whose office this really was, she asked, “Whadaya want? Some of us are actually trying to work here.”

Uh oh, Steele thought, as she gazed somewhat cautiously at her. She's peeved about something. We don't want to mess with her too much when she's in one of her cranky little moods now, do we?

She took a deep, steadying breath. She glanced at the far wall to her right, and then back at Samantha. Almost timidly, she said, “There's an arachnid over there that needs to be dispatched. Would you mind?”

She continued to watch her with narrowed green eyes . . . and then the look in them changed to puzzlement as abruptly as did the tone in her voice. With a slight, sideways tilt of her head, she asked, “Excuse me?”

She was reluctant to repeat herself for fear of someone else hearing her, but the determined blonde wasn't giving her any choice. “Would you mind killing that spider over there for me? Thank you.” With her feet still on the desk, she returned her attention to her magazine.

She continued to gaze at her with a puzzled frown. “You want me to kill a spider for you?” she drawled, her east-Texas accent coming on like a growing tornado. “You had me drag mah ass in here so Ah could kill a spider fer you?”

She straightened quickly, sweeping her feet from the desk. “Not so loud !” she hissed as she glanced toward the still open door once more. The last thing she needed was to have the hired help listening in. “For good or ill, I'm the figurehead of this agency; and that means, for the sake of this agency, I have a reputation to maintain!”

She couldn't help herself. She actually began to smile a little bit; and then just as quickly, she fought the impulse down. With a loud, clear voice, she asked, “You're afraid of spiders ?”

“Would you please keep your voice down ?” she hissed again, even more emphatically this time. After a moment, she added, “I'm not ‘afraid' of them, I just . . . don't like the little beasts.”

Samantha continued to watch her with cold eyes while biting at one corner of her mouth, fighting to keep her tiny smile from expanding into a full-sized and thoroughly amused grin. Oh, man, she thought, with visions of blackmail suddenly dancing merrily in her mind. “And to what, exactly, do we owe our arachnophobia?”

Steele frowned angrily at her in return. So, she thought, it's going to be like this , is it? All right, then; fine .

“If you must know,” she replied, in reluctant and only partial concession, “it's on account of a summer I spent as a youth in the upper Amazon. The damn things were the size of dinner plates, and they'd try to sneak into our tent every night. They looked like those damn face-huggers from ‘Aliens.'”

Casting her eyes toward the spider—a small, dark, insignificant thing clinging to the wall about half way between the floor and ceiling—she took a moment to fight down the urge to burst into peals of laughter. Returning her eyes to the tall brunette once more, she finally said, “It's barely an inch across!”

And he's got fangs like a bloody T. Rex ! Now, will you please just kill the fucking little bastard?”

With her arms still folded across her chest, she cast her eyes toward the spider again, and then back to Steele. After another long moment's hesitation, she quickly leaned forward and snatched the magazine from her hands.

Steele watched her cautiously and suspiciously. “Wait. Wait a minute,” she said at last, “what are you doing with—”

Striding toward the spider, Samantha proceeded to fold the magazine in half.

Her blue eyes widened in sudden realization. “No!” she said, as she suddenly leapt to her feet. “No, wait! Don't!! Not with my —”

WHAP !!

Steele continued to watch in shock and revulsion as Samantha returned with a haughty and defiant look in her eyes. She dropped the magazine deliberately onto Steele's desk once more, right in front of her—sticky side up, of course, with even a couple of legs stuck to it—and took a deep but controlled pleasure in the tall brunette's horrified recoil. Shoving herself away from the desk in a mild panic, her chair thudded against the wall behind her.

“There y'go,” she drawled, “mission accomplished.” Turning her back on her, and then smiling a sudden and self-satisfied smile, she strode toward the open door.

Glowering angrily at her as she watched the young blonde depart, Steele softly muttered under her breath, “You . . . bloody . . . visigoth !”

***

Sitting behind Brie's office desk, and dressed in a white-fringed and faded pair of blue denim cut-offs and a black t-shirt—and sporting a stylish, expensive and newly prescribed pair of reading glasses (Emporio Armani frames)—Gina continued to gaze at the laptop computer's screen for a few more seconds with an amused chuckle. Finally, she took them off and looked up at her partner. “Lemme see if I got this right,” she said, leaning back and folding her arms beneath her breasts. “You're so hard up for ideas that now you're ripping off ‘Remington Steele?'”

Standing next to her, barefooted and dressed in her own faded pair of denim cut-off shorts and a faded blue Led Zeppelin II t-shirt—and visibly stung by her partner's remark—Brie scowled down at her partner. “I'm not ‘ripping them off!'” she said defensively, “I'm . . . it's . . . it's . . .” She had to think for a moment. “It's an homage ,” she declared at last, with new defiance in her green eyes. “It's an homage to an original, imaginative, witty, well-acted and thoroughly fun and enjoyable tv show with likeable characters.” Even more confident and challenging now, she went on with mild sarcasm, “You do know what ‘homage' means, don't you? Are you familiar with that word?”

Still leaning back in Brie's padded office chair, Gina watched her for a moment with merry sapphire eyes and an amused and dazzling grin. “Yeah,” she said, with a tiny chuckle. “It's French for ‘rip off,' isn't it?”

Brie's scowl deepened as she began to turn away from her, while softly muttering, “Oh, fuck you.”

The former Marine's soft chuckle quickly turned into a breathless, wheezing laugh. She leaned back in the chair, gasped in a breath, and positively screamed with laughter.

“God damn jar head,” the cranky Navy doctor muttered, her voice drowned out by the laughing Marine.

Still chuckling, she rose from the chair, turned, and sat on the edge of the desk to face her. Then she gently seized her partner's face in both hands, and lightly yet quickly kissed her soul mate's soft, warm lips with a moist and delicate smacking sound. “Civilian life isn't being very kind to you, is it?” she asked, in reference to the former Navy doctor's recent case of boredom. She parted her tanned and bare legs to make room for her, and gently drew her against herself to capture her in a warm embrace, her fingers laced together at the small of her partner's back.

Pouting and scowling silently, and turning her face away from Gina's, Brie defiantly folded her arms beneath her breasts to put up a barrier between herself and the recently retired Marine . . . yet she made no real effort to actually escape.

“You need to take a break,” Gina told her quietly. Holding her a little more closely and comfortably now, her hands began to slowly slide up under Brie's t-shirt, caressing the soft, smooth skin of her back.

With a tiny, tingling shiver of delight that ran through her every nerve, Brie screwed up her mouth in an effort to avoid smiling, while at the same time her arms slowly unfolded themselves to slide around Gina's neck. Still, she pretended that she needed more coaxing.

“You need to relax,” the former Marine said softly as her hands delicately went to work, unhooking her brassiere. “And I know exactly what you need . . .” With her bra successfully unfastened, one hand was now free to slowly and sensuously roam south to the back of her cut-offs.

With a soft moan and another delicious tingle, one that rippled through every nerve below her waist, her head slowly fell back to expose her throat as she leaned into her, finally surrendering to her partner's lusty intentions.

“So what do you say?” she inquired with a soft, breathy voice as her lips brushed gently against the side of her neck, while her deft hands came around to the front and went to work unfastening the top button of her soul mate's jeans. “You want to come relax with me upstairs?”

With closed eyes, a lusty grin and a husky voice, Brie asked, “You ever do it on top of an office desk?”

The End

 

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