EXTRA SPECIAL DISCLAIMER:
This particular section is pretty gory and descriptive of violence and especially
its aftermath. People will be dying and there's a lotta blood tossed around.
Comments to Redhawk.
Constructive criticism gladly accepted.
Part VII: Wednesday
Xena could barely see through the swelling in one eye. Blood ran profusely from her mouth and nose and the ringing in her ears just wouldn't stop. She hung from dislocated shoulders in the darkness of agony, the single bulb overhead mocking as it illuminated.
While healing was a natural ability to all Immortals, the amount of energy expended was exhaustive. And, as the continual need for it was demanded, it was slowing down, dawdling, leaving her bloodied and bruised for far longer periods of time.
The brand of a cross on her forehead had been redone four times and would leave a permanent scar. Several of the bones had been broken time and again, including her jaw and neck. And still she lived, her head having never left her body. The only thing that kept her going was the sweet vision of a young bard with redgold hair, a staff in one hand and a battered spiral notebook in the other.
As she drifted into unconsciousness, she could hear Gabrielle's voice. "I love you, Xena."
"I love you, too, Rickie," she croaked before passing out.
The Prediger stood in the doorway, muscles stiff with tension, hands clenched into fists, watching the slumbering young mortal before her.
The session with the Woman had been lacking, unfulfilling. Schueler Phillip's Chosen had proven to be uncooperative and unrepentant. Even the presence of this young harlot, asleep overhead hadn't been enough to turn the sinner's heart to the wisdom of God. And, while normally that wouldn't have been a problem for the Punisher, this time it was.
There was only one way to kill the Chosen, to send her to God's Judgement. The figure had done it twice before. It was the only way to submit the evil Woman's soul to be punished for her sins. Severing the head from those broad shoulders would do the trick, complete the next step in the Journey towards Enlightenment.
And, the Prediger couldn't seem to do it.
The flesh is weak, she mourned, watching the steady rise and fall under the blankets in her guest room, coloring the wisps of hair sticking up a golden red in the dark.
She found herself watching the young girl, wondering how things could have been different, searching her past for the time before she became the Punisher. Before the Almighty had put His finger on her soul and spoke to her of Penance and Punishment. Before she realized that she was already a native of Hell and she would never, ever see Heaven.
"Lord, take this cup from my lips," she whispered. "It is too bitter a drink, too hard a test of my faith."
Jonothan O'Donhugh sat in his rental car a few doors from the Immortal's home. It was a nice little neighborhood, quiet and serene in the pre-dawn. The house in question stood back from the other homes a bit, sitting squarely in the center of its lot on a small rise. It was a two story timber frame construction which appeared to have a basement.
"No," he said into his cellular phone. "I need it as soon as possible." There was a pause while he listened to the response, idly playing with an intricate Celtic cross in his other hand. "That would be fine. Oh, and could I get a wiretap in place, as well?" Another pause. "Oh, yes, I think it's very necessary. Certainly. Thank you. I'll await delivery here."
The phone found its way into his jacket and he looked back up at the house once more. Wondering.
sharp rap to ribs, green eyes open. seeing herself... no... watching another! standing to one side, disconnected, chains and blood. voice muttering, creature's face in shadows, oozing in the darkness. pale eyes of icy fire, hanging naked. Xena!"Xena!"
the creature with dark eyes, ripping, tearing flesh as she watched in horror. warm blood, teeth, smell of burnt flesh. unable to move, to help, to fight. creature ripping out clumps of ebony hair, evil thoughts of punishment and retribution and penance. eyes of ice, pale fire wide in pain, warrior unable to scream, to escape the agony. the living light within fading, the life draining from them as blood drained to the floor below.
swordflash, sparkling darkly. "there can be only one!" a head rolling to a stop, ebony hair tangling with her feet.
Rickie sat bolt upright in the bed, hair awry and green eyes wild. The sound of her voice as she called her lover's name still echoed in the confines of the guest room she occupied. The vague light of morning peeked through the closed curtains.
God, it was so real! She inhaled deeply, trying to slow the heavy beating of her heart. The redhead pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them, hugging them to her chest as silent tears coursed over her face.
Despite her desire to keep a positive attitude regarding their predicament, it was getting harder and harder to do so. Xena had been missing for well over twenty-four hours, the police had no idea what had happened, and neither did she. But, if her dreams were any indication, the dark woman was still alive, if not well. But for how long?
For as long as she could remember, Rickie had been a dreamer. Her grandmother had told her she had the Vision. Sometimes what the redhead dreamed would come true. She remembered the dream she'd had at the time she'd met Xena - of sword battles and women in leather, pale blue eyes and the feelings of being protected. Her run in with Telesco and the onset of her nightmares had put a stop to her prophetic dream sights. The trauma that she had been through seemed to have overwhelmed her natural ability. But the nightmare had been changing.
Rickie's tears dried up as she tried to figure out when the change began. Dreams being as nebulous as they were, it was difficult to pin down. This one had definitely been different. But had any of the others?
"Hey, you alright?" a soft voice asked from the door.
The teenager looked up into dark brown eyes. Her face was tearstained and she grinned a little sheepishly. "Yeah. Just a nightmare." A shrug of shoulders. "I have a lot of them."
Jeanne nodded, a look of concern on her face. "Well, I've got some coffee made if you'd like...?"
"Yeah, that'd be good. Thanks."
The Immortal turned away as Rickie clambered out of the bed wearing nothing but a t-shirt. "I'll see you in the kitchen," she said, moving down the hall. Shameless harlot!
Rickie watched her leave. Her dream suggested an Immortal was involved with Xena's disappearance. Emerald eyes narrowed slightly in thought as she pulled on her clothes. I wonder....?
standing in a clearing, sword in hand, pale eyes surveying peaceful green surroundings. birdsong, warm breeze, slight hint of salty sea air. a glance down, ancient leathers and brass armor, whip and chakram.
sudden silence, rushing of blood, racing of heart, clenching of stomach, bile in throat. spinning around, searching for the Other.
"Xena!" there. Immortal and mortal in tight embrace. stepping forward, weapon raised in threat, throaty growl, "if you've done anything to harm her...."
blonde Immortal, dark eyes, face changing and shifting, dagger to mortal flesh. Jeanne? Callisto? "not yet. but soon," whispered promise. emerald eyes flashing in fear, shorts and midriff t-shirt rumpled, battered spiral notebook fluttering in breeze. reflections of love and trust.
"there can be only one." dagger across golden throat, rich crimson spray, rattle of death as green fades to grey.
Xena jerked upright, eyes wide in fright as she glanced wildly around the cell. As she became aware of her surroundings, she inhaled deeply and evenly, stilling her pounding heart. "It's okay. It's okay. Just a nightmare. Not real." Not yet.
Once again composed, the warrior looked down at herself, taking stock of her current level of health. There were sharp pains in her shoulders and she stood straighter, rotating her arms as best she could. Her body had healed up fairly well and, as the dislocated joints grated painfully, they suddenly popped back into place.
She let go of the breath she hadn't realized she was holding. The pain began to recede a bit, though it would take hours before she'd be back up to snuff again. And, hours were what she didn't have.
Upstairs there was movement, sounds of waking people, soft speech. The tantalizing smell of coffee wafted through the room. Breakfast. Morning then. A dark head shook vaguely. But, which morning?
With a sigh, Xena pulled slowly and firmly on the chain holding her right wrist. it had been attached with enough slack for her to wrap a hand around it. It was a long, arduous process, but it appeared to be working. The bolt in the cement wall overhead was definitely working its way free.
Now if I can just get it done in time.
Kommissar Johannes hung his coat up and settled down behind his desk. Papers and manila folders were piled about it in an untidy filing system. It wasn't orderly, but at least he knew where everything was.
He pulled more paperwork from his in box and flipped through it. Nothing more on the seventy year old slayings. A murder/suicide by the river - pretty cut and dried. Not a hint of who took the Amerikaner from the bar.
He frowned at another report. No one could find this Vern, the street person that Ms. Gardner had spoken to the day before. The potential witness had disappeared off the face of the earth. And finding one French national auto with damaged lights in a city this size... The blond man shook his head and tossed the stack to his already cluttered desktop.
Not much more time. If it is the Prediger, the body should be showing up any time now. He rubbed the back of his neck, already feeling the tension headache coming on.
The lobby door opened and Emil Holt looked up in anticipation. A pleasant looking couple wandered in, removing their jackets and chatting amiably. The Watcher's face fell and he slumped back into his chair. Before him was a long ignored pastry and his third cup of coffee.
C'mon, Rickie, Xe. Where the hell are ya?
Breakfast was a bit different than what Rickie was used to. On the table before her were two trays and a basket. One tray contained jams and jellies of every conceivable variety, the other thinly sliced meats and cheeses. The basket contained rolls. It was a simple process of appeasing one's appetite with what taste temptations were available, and she was doing just that.
"So, what do you have planned for today?" Jeanne asked pleasantly, smearing butter on a roll.
The redhead shrugged and finished her mouthful of food. After a sip of coffee, she said, "Hadn't really thought of anything. Don't know what I can do except pester the living daylights outta the cops." She closed her eyes with a frown and massaged the brow of her nose. "This language thing is killing me."
Brown eyes regarded the younger woman earnestly. "I can do any translating you need, Rickie. I'd be glad to help. You know that."
Yeah, I'll just bet, the thought popped up. Followed by, Where the hell did that come from? "Thanks, Jeanne." Rickie pursed her lips and wondered how to put her next sentence diplomatically. "It's not that I don't need it. It's just... ummm..."
"That I'm an Immortal and a stranger and can't be entirely trusted?"
Rickie blinked at the smiling woman across from her. "Yeah. Yeah, that's it exactly."
The dark eyes twinkled in humor and the Immortal chuckled. "It's quite understandable. I don't take any offense."
Smiling a bit in return, the redhead said, "Well, good. I didn't wanna piss you off or anything. You've been a lot of help already." She snagged another roll and pulled it apart. As she layered sliced meats on it, she asked, "What are your plans for today?"
"Not much. I've got to get my auto to the shop."
"The shop? Why?"
Light brown hair was flipped idly over one shoulder, long fingered hands wrapping around a steaming mug. "My tail light's out. Remember the Polizei telling me about it on Monday night?"
Rickie nearly choked as she swallowed the bite of food she had been chewing on. Jeanne continued on as her mind began puzzling pieces together. That's right! He stopped us as we were leaving. I wonder if she has a French national sticker on her car? And immediately on the heels of that thought - Could Xena be here?! The teenager looked up at Jeanne. Dark eyes peered back in question. "Oh! Uh...what was that again?"
"I said that it was going to be a quick trip. Only an hour or so. Would you like to come with?"
"Well, I was wondering," Rickie dissembled, "would it be okay with you if I stayed here? I'm really beat. I think I need some more sleep." She yawned and stretched, watching the other woman carefully.
Jeanne shrugged with casual indifference. "Certainly. I don't have a problem with that. I'm sure you could use the sleep." She peered intently at the teenager with a concerned face. "It'd do you good."
Rickie chuckled. "I look that bad, huh?"
"No," the Immortal smiled slightly. "Just a bit ruffled around the edges." She drained her coffee cup and rose to her feet. "I've got to go get ready. My appointment's in an hour." She left the room.
Sitting in the now silent kitchen, the redhead let her mind wander over the night of Xena's abduction. If the person had been an Immortal, would she have felt the Quickening with Jeanne so near? Does it work like that? Or would Jeanne's presence preclude the warning? And if it should have triggered the... Quickening, wouldn't Jeanne have felt it as well?
Unless it was Jeanne who did it.
Rickie sipped her coffee, emerald eyes distant. We got to the Soul Train and Xena knew she was there. Dinner, conversation, dancing, a few drinks. Was she ever away from us? Were we ever all separated? She suddenly sat upright, remembrance casting a light on shadowy memory.
Jeanne sent me to the bar for drinks while Xena was gone from the table! It had taken the teenager quite some time to work her way through the crowd at the bar. Even longer to get her point across to the bartender. Getting the drinks, paying for them, fighting her way back through the crowd to the table. Twenty minutes, easy. Maybe more.
She could hear Jeanne in her room down the hall, a closet door closing, movement causing the creaking of floorboards. Would she be able to do that in twenty minutes? Leave the table, get to the bathroom and... What? Knock Xena out? Rickie sipped her tepid coffee in thought. I need to talk to the Kommissar again, see what he's come up with.
As the warning footsteps approached, Xena stopped her struggles with the chain and slumped a bit, dark head hanging wearily between her shoulders. So far, so good. Another hour and I betcha I'll pop it. The only evidence of her handiwork was a light coating of cement dust on the floor below the bolt.
The now familiar sound of the locks and then the door was opened. Soft footsteps entered the room, but the warrior kept her head down.
"I know you're awake, Xena," the soft voice sounded in her left ear. "No need for the act. You'll never get an Oscar."
Xena raised her head with a haggard look and stared at her captor, her tormentor.
The other woman wasn't dressed in the robes that indicated another torture session. Instead, she wore a long gray skirt that swept her ankles and a dusty rose peasant shirt. Her long, light brown hair was neatly braided behind her and her crucifix glinted in the light of the single bulb overhead.
"Come to ask me out on a date?" Xena croaked through dry and cracked lips.
Jeanne laughed delicately. "Oh, no, Chosen One. I'm off on a little errand and I can't just leave you... hanging around." She looked up at the chains with a smile at her wittiness.
"Don't quit your day job," the dark woman muttered with a groan. Chains tinkled as she stood a little straighter with a grimace, trying to ease a kink in her lower back.
Jeanne moved around her. "You know, it's a good thing you were quiet last night. Otherwise, you'd have company." She stopped behind Xena and leaned closer, whispering in her ear. "The harlot's having horrible nightmares about you. Says she has a lot of them. Are you so full of Satan's spirit that you haunt her dreams? Leave her no peace?" There was a pause. "But she'll have peace soon. I believe she might be Schueler Paul's Chosen."
Xena chose to ignore her, despite the thumping of her heart at the prospect of her lover sharing the cell with her. A sudden burning pain erupted as one of her kidneys was stabbed and she hissed at the pain. The coppery taste of blood filled her mouth when she bit her lip to keep from crying out, from alerting Rickie to her presence. Quiet! She might still have a chance!
The Prediger pulled the glistening blade from its living sheath and watched the dark blood flow down the Woman's hip. The blade's edge found its unerring way to a long neck, a hand raising a chin. With a swift movement, the figure slashed across it, arterial blood squirting forward and hitting the wall. "Well, Chosen, I've got to get going. I'll be home soon so we can continue our Journey. It's nearly complete."
Damn it! Xena cursed as she heard the death rattle in her own lungs, felt the familiar weakness invade her limbs. This is getting to be a bad habit. And she faded from consciousness, her heart slowing to a stop. She didn't hear the soft laugh or the footsteps retreating or the locks being put back in place on the door.
O'Donhugh sat in his auto, eyes closed and compact headphones covering his ears. To all appearances he was simply enjoying the music from the discplayer in his lap, the one that was plugged into his cigarette lighter. But, he was listening to something far more interesting.
"Have you heard anything yet?" Rickie Gardner.
"No, ma'am, we haven't." The voice of the Polizei. Probably the Kommissar assigned to the case.
"You're saying it's been a day and a half and you don't know anything?"
"Now, Ms. Gardner, we do know some things, but nothing that will enable us to locate Ms. Amphipolous. This vagrant, for instance - Vern, you said his name was?"
"Yes, what about him?"
"Well, we haven't been able to locate him, either. Where was it that you spoke?"
Slight pause. "It was the Wolkstrasse, near the video parlor. I gave him some 'marks, though. Do you have any cheap motels here in Germany? Someplace for homeless people to rent by the week or some such?"
"Ja, we do." Vague sound of papers rustling. "I'll have someone look into it. And the auto you say he saw - no other description? Just a French national sticker? Newer model?"
O'Donhugh's ears perked up as Rickie answered, her voice considerably lower in volume. "There was some damage to the parking lights in back."
Why are you being so hush hush, eh?
Her voice continued on. "Do you... Remember Monday night when my friend was driving away?" Slight pause. "You pointed out damage to her car, as well."
There was a long silence. "Ms. Gardner, do you think that Ms. Pucelle could be involved?"
"I don't know. It may be a possibility."
"But, I thought that you were old friends. That's what you said in both your written statement and when we spoke Monday night."
"I know that. But.... Shit. I'm not saying she's involved, I'm just reminding you of the damage to her car..." There was some noise in the background, feminine voices speaking.
"Um... yes... I've gotta go, Kommissar. I'll be here at Jeanne's for the rest of today. If you hear anything --"
"I'll contact you there, ja."
"Good bye, Kommissar."
O'Donhugh turned off the wiretap and pulled the headphones off. Blue grey eyes narrowed in thought. After a few moments he picked up his cellular phone.
Kommissar Johannes studied the phone on his desk. Well, that was decidedly odd. He ran his tongue across his teeth as he frowned. And then he picked the phone back up.
"Ja, Pietr? Can you get me everything you can find on Ms. Jeanne Pucelle? Ja, the one we have a statement from. Ja. Danke."
Rickie watched as the car backed out of the driveway. Unfortunately, the angle was wrong and she couldn't tell even as Jeanne drove away whether or not there was the requisite sticker on the back.
"Damn," she muttered. She'd been unable to get a moment alone to check the car for damage, to compare it with the piece of plastic in her jacket pocket. It had been a close enough call on the phone.
The teenager turned and surveyed the living room. "Well, Rickster... Let's see what's upstairs." She took the steps two at a time.
The upper level held a small bathroom and two rooms. One had been the guest room she'd slept in. The other was apparently being used for storage. At the top of the stairs was a small trapdoor.
It took a few more moments to locate a flashlight and a chair. She huffed the makeshift ladder up the stairs and situated it carefully beneath the trapdoor. Rickie balanced on top of the chair as she pressed her hand against the panel overhead. It was heavy and the hinges needed some serious oil as it let out a loud groan of protest, echoing the redhead's own groan.
"Well, that's a bust," she said, flashing her light around the small, airless room. Lots of dust and not much else met her gaze. With a sigh, she fought with the trap door and lowered it. She then paused in her search to return the chair and flashlight.
Of course there was nothing in the room that she had stayed in. Nor did the room full of boxes reveal anything. Rickie trudged down the stairs, half an hour later.
She'd been in the kitchen and living room and had noticed nothing. The downstairs bathroom revealed the same. Jeanne's room then. Everything looked... kind of weird. The room was sparsely furnished, but unlit candles covered every square inch of space. Some candles were on the floor, as well. A frilly comforter on the twin bed contrasted greatly with the rest of the room. Rickie looked under the bed, feeling foolish. Like yer gonna be here, love. Shyeah, right!
At a loss, Rickie returned to the living room. "Now what? Nothing upstairs, nothing down." She stared out a window for a few moments. "Check the garage. Wonder if there's a basement? I didn't see a door..."
She let herself out and crunched across the gravel drive. The garage was an old ramshackle, very reminiscent of the one they'd used in North Portland during the Dartmouth fiasco. And inside revealed nothing - no hiding places, no trap doors.
Rickie shivered in the chill air. Not even enough sense to get a coat on. She stared at nothing, lost in thought. I'm reading too much into it. Xena's not here. She shook a redgold head. "Probably has nothing to do with it. Just a coincidence." She shivered again and turned back towards the house. Her eyes were drawn to a window... A basement window.
"There is a basement! Where's the door?!"
Having given up at the hotel, Holt left a message with the owner and took a drive to the hospital. A visit to the unfortunate victim of a mysterious assailant was in order. Besides, he thought, maybe I'll find a conscious Watcher who can fill me in.
Rickie stood in the center of the living room, hands on hips and brow furrowed in frustration. Dammit! There is a basement! Where the hell's the door?
She had spent the last ten minutes circling the exterior with no satisfying results. What she could see of the windows wasn't promising - they were either filthy or painted over and too small for her to get even her slight frame through.
A careful inspection of the kitchen revealed nothing and she'd just finished in the living room. Time was running out. She could feel the rise of anticipation and dread. Jeanne'll be home any time now. I've got to find the way downstairs!
The teenager decided to try the Immortal's room again. Get it out of the way first and, if Jeanne returned before the search was over, at least Rickie wouldn't be caught there.
Standing in the middle of the bedroom, Rickie turned in a circle. Bed against the wall, nightstand, dresser, two armoires. Lots of candles on everything but the bed, including piled up in the corners of the room. No closets, however. When Rickie had asked about the lack of them in her home, the Immortal had informed her that German property taxes counted closets as separate rooms. Thus, homes with closets were taxed at a higher rate than those without.
Well, you've already looked under the bed, Rickster. You might as well check out the clothes presses.
Both armoires were on one wall with a space of about four feet between them. Hanging from the wall here was a tapestry, a series of religious scenes depicted in ancient needlework. A burgundy throw rug ran the length before the furniture and was about four feet wide.
Opening the first one, Rickie found what was to be expected - clothes, scarves, a few pairs of shoes. She reached her hand in and felt around the back. Solid wood met her fingers. She bit back a sigh of disappointment and arranged the clothes to their original position. Closing the door quietly, she moved to the next armoire.
Here, the smell that she'd grown to associate with Jeanne was a little stronger. Some sort of incense, she knew, though exactly what kind eluded her. Rickie pulled the double doors open. Her eyes widened as she took in the view. The small closet had been set up as a shrine. A cabinet filled the lower third of the armoire with the space above empty of everything save a large wooden crucifix with the beatific Christ hanging from it.
She stepped forward to study the alcove. On top of the cabinet was a white linen cloth, several candles of various sizes, a small brass brazier that held ashes, a very old looking statue of the Madonna and child. Her nose wrinkled at another smell beneath the cloying one of incense and she leaned closer and sniffed suspiciously at the brazier. It was acrid and reminiscent of... something.... She recalled a friend fooling around with a lighter and fluid in one of the squats she'd crashed in at home. Hair! Burnt hair!
Rickie stood straight at the thought. She shook her head in puzzlement. Why would she burn hair with incense? The only reason for that kinda stuff would be, like, ritual witchcraft and stuff. Wouldn't it? Chewing her upper lip in thought, she continued cataloging the items positioned with such care. A brass goblet and plate sat atop the linen, one filled with evaporating wine and the other with small white discs. Rickie had seen a lot of horror movies. She knew that this was a representation of the sacraments from the Catholic church. Additionally, a very old and stained Bible and a knife lay amid the religious paraphernalia.
There was something wrong with the blade of the knife, however. The light coming from the windows of the room only illuminated it enough to highlight the discrepancy. Again, she leaned forward to take a closer look, not wanting to disturb its placement lest the Immortal return and realize her inner sanctum had been invaded. There were stains on the blade, as well, dark ones that seemed to catch the little light and glisten wetly. What....? Rickie straightened again, this time in shock. Blood! That's blood!
She heard the sound of a vehicle pulling into the driveway and she looked wildly around. "Shit!" Rickie quickly closed the armoire and turned to leave the room, wondering if there was anyway for her to get upstairs to the guest room before the Immortal entered the house. Glancing to the floor between the two clothes presses, she noticed scrape marks on the wooden floor by the wall.
Despite the rising danger of being discovered, she decided to risk it. The teenager took the extra step between the two pieces of furniture and pushed aside the tapestry.
A door met her gaze and her heart raced.
The auto window was cracked a bit. It chilled the interior somewhat, but it was necessary. O'Donhugh was wearing another set of headphones, these connected to what appeared to be a tape player. It was hooked up to a small penlight that was perched in the crack of the window. The 'light' was trained on one of the windows of the Immortal's home, picking up vibrations of noise and sending it back to him.
For quite some time there hadn't been much. Just rustling noises. From what he saw of the girl while she was outside, she was searching for something. For what? What do you know that I don't, hmmmm?
In his side mirror, he watched the approach of Jeanne Pucelle's vehicle. He ducked down to one side, avoiding her vision as she pulled into her driveway. O'Donhugh eased a blue grey eye over the dash and watched as the woman stepped out of her auto. She scanned the area around her, a dark brown gaze sweeping past the voyeur's vehicle, before turning to enter her home.
The man sat back up and straightened his grey jacket, headphones still in place.
The redhead sidled out of the bathroom. "Yeah." Her hair was rumpled and she rubbed at her eyes. "Did you get the car taken care of?"
Jeanne swiveled her head from the stairs to see the teenager. Dark eyes flickered and an eyebrow raised. "Yes. Easy enough to replace." She dropped her purse on one of the living room tables and moved closer to Rickie. "Did you get any sleep?"
"Some," Rickie lied, feeling vaguely like a bird being stalked by a cat.
"Really?" the Immortal asked, stopping only inches away and looking at the other woman intently. She frowned slightly. "That's funny. It doesn't look like you've slept at all."
The teenager took an automatic step backwards and let out a strained chuckle. "Still looking ruffled around the edges, huh?" she asked, standing her ground when Jeanne took another step to keep close.
"No. It's not that." The light brown head tilted to one side. "Your eyes aren't puffy. No pillow creases on your face. If I didn't know any better," and her voice lowered to just above a whisper, "I'd say you were lying to me."
Rickie snorted good naturedly. "Now why would I do that?" She swallowed and her emerald eyes slid away from the Immortal's. Dammit! I've gotta learn to lie better!
Dark eyes narrowed. "I don't know. Why would you lie to me?" Jeanne saw the sweat form on the mortal's lower lip, the convulsive swallowing, the inability to meet and hold her gaze. Is this the Sign then? Would Schueler Paul want this harlot at the same time as I appease Schueler Phillip? "Send me a Sign," she muttered.
"What?" the redhead asked, not quite catching what was said. "A sign? What are you talking about?"
Jeanne frowned at the redhead and began to circle around her. Rickie turned with her, not allowing her to get behind. "You know about the Sign, Rickie?" she asked, eyes becoming feral.
"No! I was just repeating what I heard from you." Her own eyes widened in response, wary, watchful.
The Immortal continued to circle, the slow dance of the hunter and the hunted. "You're lying again, harlot. Breaking one of the Almighty's commandments. Thou shalt not bear false witness."
"Jeanne, are you feeling okay?" the redhead asked as she reached up to touch the Immortal's face. She gasped as her hand was caught in a vise grip that belied the appearance of weakness in the woman's thin frame.
"Don't touch me, harlot!" the Prediger hissed. "Your vile and disgusting spirit will not poison me! For God gave me eternal life that I might bring sinners like you to Justice!"
Holy shit! She's loony tunes! Rickie swallowed her fear, willing herself to ignore the desire to freeze in her tracks at the terrible cascade of memories - memories of torture and agony and infinite screams at the hands of another crazed person. She took a shaky breath and steadied herself. "Where's Xena, Jeanne?"
The dark eyes blinked at her before the Immortal chuckled and took a step backwards, releasing the younger woman's arm. "I'll take you to her," she said with a seductive smile and turned away.
Rickie rubbed at her wrist and watched the woman - the crazy - walk away towards her bedroom. She stomped on the fear that threatened to overwhelm her. I've gotta get to Xena.
And she followed.
O'Donhugh's eyes flew open. Xena of Amphipolous is here?! He grabbed the headphones from his ears and snatched up the cellular phone.
Johannes was pouring himself a cup of coffee when he heard his name being called. "Here," he responded, searching through the busy room. His blue eyes landed on the young computer researcher hustling his way.
"That data on Jeanne Pucelle," Pietr said, a bit out of breath. He handed a sheaf of papers to the Kommissar.
"Ah, gut! Danke, Pietr." The blond man turned away and finished stirring cream into his cup. A hand latched onto his forearm and he returned his attention to the other man in startlement. "Was?"
"In the last fifteen years, Jeanne Pucelle has been at every place there were a series of murders."
Johannes froze for a split second. "But.... But, she's a woman, Pietr. You know that women are more inclined towards the mercy killings than serials."
"Ja! I know! But she was in Marceau, France in 1994. Blair Atholl, Scotland in 1988. And in New Delhi, India in 1982. At the same time as those murders were taking place!"
The Kommissar forgot about his coffee and began flipping through the paperwork. "Father daughter continuation then? Highly unusual." His eyebrows came together in a frown. "There's not a lot of information here, Pietr. Date of birth, parentage, school records...."
The younger man shrugged, slightly sheepish. "I know. I can't explain it. I've found references to women named Jeanne Pucelle all the way to the 1400's and Joan of Arc. And get this," he paused for effect, eyes shining. "Joan of Arc's real name was Jeanne La Pucelle. It means 'The Innocent' in French."
Johannes wandered back to his desk in thought, the researcher trailing along behind and watching him. His coffee cup still sat at the table by the machine and his thoughts far beyond.
A woman with a French surname apparently adopted from a figure in history who fought on God's command. A woman with no apparent personal history - except that she'd been present at the last three locations of similar serial murders. A woman with a French national sticker on her auto and a damaged tail light. A woman who wore a crucifix and remembered an intimate moment between two lovers on a dance floor.
"I think it's time to pay Ms. Pucelle a visit. Ask a few questions."
"Mind some company?" Pietr asked with a grin.
The Kommissar looked at him in surprise. "You don't know much about field work, Pietr."
"True, but after all this information I've dug up, I'd love to be there when you speak with her."
Well, it is only talk. Maybe an arrest. "Okay, ja. Meet you downstairs."
Pietr grinned. "Five minutes!" he said as he backed away. Then he turned and trotted off for his office to retrieve his jacket.
The blond shook his head with a wry grin. He put in a quick call to the dispatcher for a set of uniformed officers to meet him at the woman's home.
"What was that address again?" the dispatcher asked sharply.
Must be having a bad day. Johannes repeated the address.
"I've already got two autos on their way. We just received an anonymous call of a domestic dispute at that location."
"Sheisse!" The Kommissar slammed the phone down, scooped up his own jacket and raced for the stairs. I hope we're not too late!
By the time Rickie reached the Immortal's bedroom, the second armoire was standing open. Jeanne knelt before it, a hand laid reverently on the Bible within. "It's time," she intoned to the figure on the cross. With sure movements, she let the brazier and sprinkled more incense on it.
"Where's Xena, Jeanne? You said you were taking me to her."
"In due time, harlot," the older woman growled, glaring at her out of the corner of her eye. "Be silent!"
Rickie watched the woman warily as her thoughts warred within. What if Xena's already dead? She's not! But, what if? The memory of Jeanne's voice. "I'll take you to her." Then she's going to kill me, too. It took quite a bit of concentration to remain standing as the feelings of fear nearly overwhelmed the redhead and caused her knees to buckle. If Xena's dead.... If Xena's dead, I will follow. I won't be without her. Not again. Green eyes sparkled with a wild light, focused on the woman kneeling on the floor in front of her shrine. And I'll be sure to take her murderer with me.
Inner issues resolved, the teenager stood taller, her chin up and she watched the other woman perform some ritual. Candles were lit, more incense added to the angry coals. A small wafer was eaten and a sip of vinegary wine drunk. Jeanne rocked back and forth as she muttered her prayers to the cross, the mortal in the room forgotten. The older woman genuflected and rose, removing her clothes and discarding them in a heap on the floor. She heard Rickie's gasp and ignored it, reaching for a long black robe hanging on the door of the shrine.
The redhead was appalled at the mass of scar tissue on the other woman's back and shoulders. It was extremely thick, a callused pad of distorted flesh, much of it healed from long ago. Some still appeared pink and oozing clear liquid. What caused that?!
Jeanne shrugged into the robe, the tortured span of flesh hidden beneath black cloth. She reached into the shrine and pulled out the Bible and knife. When she turned towards the teenager, the knife was conspicuously absent.
Must be a pocket in that thing somewhere, Rickie observed distractedly. She tried to ease the lurch of her heartbeat as she once more came under the intense dark gaze. She swallowed once more and raised her chin further in defiance. "Where's Xena?"
The Immortal smiled. "You're not one for patience, are you, harlot?" She stepped to the side and drew the wall hanging back. Pushing the door open, she gestured gallantly. "After you, mortal."
Again Rickie swallowed, her stomach in knots as she peered down the dimly lit stairway. C'mon, Rickster! With a well used knife like that, she ain't gonna throw you down the stairs! Now move! And she did, one foot in front of the other, descending into the cool pit of hell, and hoping against hope that the other half of her soul would be there to meet her.
At the bottom of the stairs was a large, non descript room. The musty scent of dust and cement assailed the teenager's nostrils. A hand clamped down on her shoulder and she flinched a little. Her guide chuckled and steered her to the right, towards a solitary door. There were seven locks on it, ranging from a simple bolt mechanism to a heavy duty hasp and padlock.
The Prediger removed her hand from the younger woman's shoulders, rummaging in a pocket. Keys jangled in her hand and she held them out to Rickie. "Open them."
Rickie took the keys and fumbled with them, unsure which key went to which lock. The woman behind her didn't give her any hints, either, so it took her several minutes to match everything up and unlock the door.
As the last lock popped open, the keys were snatched from the redhead's hands. A low voice hissed in her ear. "You wish to see Schueler Phillip's Chosen One, harlot? Here she is." The door was flung open in a dramatic flourish and she was forcibly shoved into the room.
The suddenness of the movement caused Rickie to lose her balance. She was unable to see much of the room except that it was small with something large hanging from the ceiling. Xena's training took hold and she turned at the last minute, rolling to land on her backside with little damage.
Crablike, she scuttled backwards away from the figure in black who only took one step into the room. Rickie's mind registered wetness on her seat and hands, soaking through the cloth of her pants and chilling her skin. She held up her hand, emerald eyes widening in panic. Blood?! The sticky, partially coagulated substance was all over the floor. And all over her.
screaming forever and ever, her voice filling her ears, its tongue filling her mouth. ripping, tearing of her nipple, the ring yanked out. warm blood, hot mouth, teeth. her screams silent, still echoing through a silent warehouse. creature doing things to her, bruising her, cutting her, ripping out clumps of hair, ravaging her. evil thoughts of blood and skinning and cannibalism and evisceration.
In a blind panic, Rickie scuttled further backwards from the puddle she was seated in, not realizing she was merely on the edge of a larger one. As the smell of it filled her nostrils, her terror grew and she kept moving, eyes wild, until something bumped against her shoulderblade. With a squeak, she whirled about, getting to her knees and forgetting the black robed figure in the doorway.
Xena hung limply from chains overhead. Her nude body swayed gently with the force that her lover's body had hit her with. The warrior's skin was bronze and crimson as layers of fresh and dried blood stained her from head to toe. Ebony hair hung in tatters, her head lolling between broad shoulders.
Rickie stared at her, frozen in place. ohshitohnoohpleasegod. Either Xena was dead or her breathing was so shallow, the woman couldn't see the rise and fall of her chest. With a shaky, tentative hand, the redhead reached out and gingerly touched the skin of her lover's knee
Warm.... Warm! She's alive! She's still alive! a part of her mind babbled. Another, more lucid part reminded her that Xena's head had to be removed to permanently kill her. She rose to her feet, putting a shoulder under one of the warrior's arms, attempting to lift high enough to remove some of the strain of hanging from the chains. The redhead's arm wrapped around the well-muscled torso and she used her other hand to brush the tangled hair away from the battered face. An ugly scar of a cross glared angrily back at her from Xena's forehead.
"Oh, baby... hang on," she murmured. She turned to Jeanne who hadn't moved and held out her hand. "Give me the keys," she demanded.
Jeanne smiled gently, as if to a rather slow student. "That's not possible, harlot. She has been Chosen. Her blood has flowed as Christ's and she will soon stand before God. And, in His infinite wisdom, her Judgement will be passed."
"Judgement for what, Jeanne?" Rickie asked, a spark of anger beginning to fan the coals of her fear deep inside. "For saving your butt from that convent? For not taking your head right then and there? For trying to help and teach you?"
The Immortal before her grinned. "For her sins against God, child. For the Innocents she has killed in her long, abnormal life. For her vile and disgusting seductions of power and death and... and... her womanly ways."
"'Long, abnormal life'?" the redhead repeated incredulously. "What about your long, abnormal life, Jeanne? And how many innocents have you killed over the years?" Keep her talking, Rickster. Keep her talking. Rickie could feel the slight movement from her lover as her consciousness returned. Hang on, baby!
"My life?!" Jeanne spat, her good humor vanishing. "I am the Punisher. God granted me this life so that I might do His work, Punish the sinners, and send the Chosen Ones to their final Judgement for their crimes against Him!" The Bible was held in a white knuckled hand and she punctuated her statements by waving the dirty knife about.
The redhead swallowed another wave of fear and stood her ground. She refused to flinch at the knife threat, standing strong to watch Jeanne's normally pale complexion turn shades of red in anger. The dark brown eyes flashed in the light of the single bulb.
"And as for Innocents," the Prediger's voice began to rise and she took another step forward, the bloody blade pointed at Rickie. "I have killed no Innocents, harlot! Only those sinners Chosen by the Almighty to be Punished and sent to the Schuelers for Judgement!"
Slowly the darkness began to fade. There was movement, sound, the feelings of warmth and security. Gabrielle? As her consciousness began to return, Xena began to notice little things that were different upon this awakening. Beneath the heavy, cloying smell of blood and excrement was the faint scent of... Rickie? And the warmth of a body close to hers, supporting her on the left, an arm around her waist. Her breathing hitched, feelings of relief flooding her senses and causing a lump to form in her throat.
Then sounds became coherent, voices arguing. Not safe. She swallowed the lump and ignored the sting of unshed tears behind closed eyes. Not yet, no time. The warrior began pulling on her right wrist, gently increasing the pressure in an attempt to further dislodge the bolt that held her.
Rickie felt the subtle shifts of balance in the dark woman's body and adjusted her own accordingly. She kept her emerald gaze on the crazed woman at the door, mind racing. Keep her talking! Gotta keep her talking! "How do you know, Jeanne?" she asked. "How do you know they've been Chosen?"
The robed woman was slightly taken aback at the question. No one had ever wanted to know before now. "God sends me a Sign," she answered softly, her eyes unfocusing.
"What Sign was it with Xena? Why did God pick her?"
Jeanne closed her eyes in memory. The dance floor, the lovers kissing, the sudden glow as the dark woman's shirt lit up, an aura of blue white seeming to fill and surround her. The rush of relief, of desire, of... rightness. She licked her suddenly dry lips and opened her eyes, bringing herself back to the here and now. "On the dance floor." Her voice was raspy and she cleared her throat. "The public display of your lust was followed by the Sign and I knew then that she was Schueler Phillip's Chosen One."
Rickie watched the Immortal as her eyes had been closed. And then it dawned on her, She got turned on! We kissed and that fired her up! She could still feel tension in Xena's body but, aside from ripping the chains out of the wall, the redhead couldn't see what her lover could do about their current predicament.
Making a decision, she slowly extricated herself from Xena's body, allowing her lover time to adjust to the loss of the support without alerting their captor that she was awake. She moved to one side of the dangling woman, arms to her sides.
During their three months together, Rickie had begun taking lessons from Xena in hand to hand combat. For the most part, she only had been taught how to fall properly without hurting herself. But, recently, her lessons had begun to include the ability to sidestep and allow her opponent's momentum to carry them away. She wasn't all that good at it yet, but then she doubted Jeanne was much better in an up front and personal attack. Why else would she insist on chaining her victims?
"When's the last time you got laid, Jeanne?" she asked harshly.
Dark brown eyes blinked at her as the comment filtered into the Immortal's mind. "Wh... what?!"
"You know - got laid, bumped uglies...? Fucked? How long has it been?"
The Prediger's focus zeroed in on the teenager. Visions of memories and fantasies warred with blood and violent torments in rapid succession. The visions congealed into a sluggish mire of shame and revulsion and desire, dark and hot and crimson. "You bitch!" she suddenly shrieked, spittle flying as she launched herself at Rickie.
The redhead was amazed at the color of purple that the woman's face had become. And then she was moving, blade out, in an attempt to skewer the younger woman. It was difficult, but Rickie waited until the last possible moment before reaching out to grab the wrist holding the knife and pull, allowing Jeanne's momentum to carry her past and to the left. She released the wrist and whirled around, ready for the next attack.
At Rickie's words, Xena thought, What in Tartarus is she doing? As attention was diverted from her, she wrapped her right hand around the already loosened chain and began to pull firmly. Hurry! Hurry!
Even as actions sped up, time seemed to slow for all the women. Jeanne stopped herself just before hitting the wall of the small cell. She spun about, teeth bared and eyes wild. Again she rushed forward. And again she was steered past the redhead. The Prediger stumbled against the door frame with a snarl. But, she stopped herself from another headlong attack. Instead, she turned and moved slowly, taking even steps with bare feet through the puddles of blood on the floor.
Rickie began to back away, biting her lower lip in trepidation. Okay, genius, now what?
Both women were startled from their dance at the loud grating sound coming from the ceiling. Brown and green eyes looked up in surprise, distracted. They watched blankly as the bolt from the chain holding Xena's right wrist clattered to the floor. Both sets of eyes looked to the previously ignored woman in their midst.
Xena of Amphipolous stood tall, pale eyes sparkling darkly. With her now free right hand, she pointed at the other Immortal. "Back off. Now!" she grated through bruised lips.
With a feral growl, Jeanne prepared to charge the dark woman. She only got one step forward when Xena's hand flew back and forth. The chain acted as a whip, whistling through the air. The bolt struck the figure to the left of her eye, a sharp crack from the snapping cheekbone filling the small confines of the room. And then she was in a heap on the floor, black robes beginning to wick the bloody moisture from the ground. The knife fell from unconscious fingers, clattering to a stop near the warrior's feet.
"Xena!" Rickie rushed forward and wrapped herself around her lover. She felt the free arm pull her close in a fierce embrace and her eyes teared up. Unable to help herself, she sobbed gently against a bloody collar bone, feeling Xena's free hand reach up to caress her hair.
"Shhh.... It's okay. I'm here, it's okay." She allowed the teenager to cry for only a few moments. Now is not the time. "Look, I need you to get me out of this. She's not gonna be out forever."
The redhead nodded and sniffed mightily, biting back further tears. Xena was right. Get safe first. Keys. Gotta find the keys. With a final squeeze, she pulled back and looked for Jeanne.
Who was not in the room.
"Shit! Where'd she go?"
Xena's eyes saw the bloody footprints leading out of the room and heard noises on the stairs. And the noises were getting louder. "Gimme the knife!" she insisted, straining to reach the weapon.
Nodding, Rickie scooped up the blade and placed it in her lover's hand.
"Now get behind me!"
The redhead ducked back just as a blur of movement appeared at the open door.
Jeanne, her light brown hair streaked with gore, barrelled into the room, wielding a single edged sword. As she crossed the threshold, she began a battle cry that echoed in the small confines, deafening. With little finesse, she swung the sword at Xena's head, much as Babe Ruth had done in his career on the diamond.
The chained warrior was able to parry the blow with the edge of the knife she held, but the force of the blow drove her arm backwards and put her off balance. The knife flew back, out of her grip.
Jeanne brought the blade back with all her force, moving in a stabbing motion.
Unable to move away, Xena felt the cold steel burn through her innards. She knew it ran her through and already the various body systems began shutting down, dying. With the last of her strength, she roared, "No!" And then it was too late.
Jeanne's smile was a rictus of death and she slowly pulled the sword out, enjoying the wet, slick noise it made. She brought the blade up to her shoulder, looking for all the world like she was preparing for a home run. "There can be only one, Chosen."
Even as the Immortal began her swing, Rickie intercepted her. Quickly ducking under the moving arms, she got inside Jeanne's defenses, her hand shooting up to grab at the sword. They grappled for split seconds, shuffling and slipping on the slick floor, the ichor on their hands and bodies compounding matters. And then pain blossomed in the Immortal's abdomen.
The Prediger looked down in amazement at the hilt of her knife buried just below her rib cage, the teenager's hand wrapped around it. The sword dropped from nerveless fingers and she clutched at Rickie's shoulder. Her other hand grabbed onto the redhead's wrist, trying to pull the blade out.
With a growl, Rickie wrapped her free arm around the Immortal's waist and shoved the blade further into the soft flesh. Their bodies were held close, as close as lovers. And then, Rickie twisted and pulled upwards, watching the face before her contort in agony, feeling the hot blood pumping freely from the wound and onto her hand. The life fled from Jeanne's body and she slumped against the younger woman, sliding down her length until she hit the floor with a final, rattling breath.
Rickie stood over the body, knife still in hand. There were no thoughts, no emotions. Just an incredible numbness. And the memories.
Xena's voice. Pale eyes, leather and brass reflections. "Once you kill.... It changes everything. Everything."
Seated by a pool, best friend beside her. "Xena, I could have killed someone. I mean.... I was capable of it." Low contralto response. "We're all capable of it. The point is, you didn't cross that line." Her own voice. "But, I got close enough to peek over. And what I saw scared me."
"I crossed the line, Xena," she murmured. Rickie turned to the lifeless body of her lover. Gotta get her outta that. Keys. She dropped to her knees and rummaged through the robe until she found the keyring. Fumbling a bit, her hands still slick with blood, she found the key that opened the leggings. As she rose to reach for Xena's left wrist, she heard the distant sound of sirens.
Xena gasped abruptly as her heart began pumping again. The wound in her belly oozed slowly. Rickie got the final shackle off and nearly dropped the taller woman as she lowered her to the ground. She maneuvered Xena's head into her lap, caressing the ebony tangles, smoothing them out as best she could. Overhead were the sounds of booted feet moving frantically through the house.
Exhaustion rolled over her in waves. Fingertips gently traced her lover's features. She heard shouting voices, more boots, men on the stairs. There was the sound of retching and another pungent odor added itself to the mix. A gasp of air from the other body was the only thing that got her attention.
Rickie looked up into the deep blue eyes of Kommissar Johannes' eyes. "It was Jeanne," she managed to croak. And then his eyes were spinning away and the room was revolving. And finally the irritating light in the ceiling went dark.
Holt sat in the hospital cafeteria, sipping some pretty raunchy coffee. and wondering just what the hell he was doing here. He hadn't been allowed into the Intensive Care Unit to see the wounded Watcher from the Black Forest. And the only other contact he knew was Paul Anderson. And he wasn't answering his phone.
He sighed and grimaced after another swallow, sliding the cup to one side in disgust. There'd been no news at the hotel and his call to his own base of operations hadn't been returned yet.
Well, maybe if I hang out in the hall, I'll catch somebody checking on him. He rose and left the cafeteria, tossing half a cup of coffee into the rubbish bin as he passed.
The American police officer meandered his way through the maze of the lower levels, his goal being the elevator to Intensive Care. Hospitals the world over, it seemed, were designed to be confusing. Must be part of the Hypocratic Oath or something.
His mind on other things, he didn't notice the hubbub of activity to his left until someone roughly shoved him aside and against a wall, yelling angrily in German.
Holt blinked his eyes and watched a bloody gurney surrounded by four technicians race past. Seconds later, another did the same. And then they banged through double doors to his right.
He pulled himself away from the wall and straightened his shirt, staring after them. Damn! Wonder what happened to them? Car wreck?
A voice full of amazement spoke from his left. "Emil?"
Holt turned. A gaggle of Polizei and doctors surrounded a horrific visage that was approaching. Blood and dirt were streaked all over the... woman? Emerald eyes peered at him. Familiar emerald eyes.
The man almost choked, eyes widening in recognition. "Rickie?!" He took a few steps forward as the teenager broke away from the crowd of men around her. He suddenly found his arms full of a very happy young woman.
The redhead clung to her friend as great wracking sobs invaded her body. She felt his strong grip around her, holding her, keeping her safe as she released the tension and strain of the last two days.
"Shhh.... It's okay. I'm here, it's okay," he whispered, unknowingly mimicking a dark Immortal. He rocked her gently as she continued to cry, peering over redgold hear smeared with blood at the Polizei nearby.
Eventually, Rickie's tears subsided. She inhaled deeply, a slight hitch in her breathing, before she leaned away from her friend and peered up into his dark eyes. "What are you doing here?"
"I heard there was trouble and couldn't get ahold of you on the phone. Hopped the next plane out." He shrugged and brushed matted hair away from her face. "You look terrible. Are you hurt?"
"No," she shook her head. "I'm okay. Xena's not, though." Her green eyes slid towards the double doors.
"One of those was her?" he asked in amazement.
Rickie nodded mutely.
A man in a brown suit, spoke with the Polizei for a few moments. Two officers brushed past the reunited friends to pass through the double doors in question. Two others were dispatched back to their units. Another man in civilian garb sat heavily in a plastic chair, looking green around the edges. The blond man approached.
"Hello. I'm Kommissar Johannes," he said, reaching out to shake Holt's hand.
"Emil Holt, Portland Oregon Police Department, United States."
Blue eyes regarded him with a slight measure of respect. "You are Ms. Gardner's friend, ja?"
"Yes. A good friend." He squeezed Rickie in a hug.
"Gut. She could use a friend right now."
"Do you think I can go see her, Kommissar?" Rickie asked.
"No, ma'am. Not yet. Even we can't get into the operating room. My officers are standing outside Ms. Pucelle's operating chamber to await her." He patted her on the shoulder. "I have two officers getting a few things from their autos. Let's get you cleaned up. I'd like to have a doctor take a look at you, as well."
The redhead chewed her lower lip as she glanced down and took in her stained clothing, blood smeared skin. "I must look horrible!"
Hold gave her another hug. "Trust me, kiddo. You're a sight for sore eyes."
A weak grin flashed across her face and then she was being led away towards the nurses station to see about a shower.
Crackle of long distance lines.
"Still in Germany?"
"Still in Germany." Pause.
"She's in the hospital now."
Pause. "You're joking."
Pause. "We're talking about the warrior, right? Tall one? Black hair? Makes love to the redhead morning, noon, and night? Been killed and come back more times than the average cockroach?"
"Pleasant picture. Been reading Kafka again, haven't you? Yes, the same."
Pause. "What did she do? Take on the whole bloody German army by herself?"
"A piece of her past reared up and bit a chunk out of her. Its bad but not serious. I'll fill you in later."
"See that you do." Worry. "She's going to live, yes?"
"Of course she's going to bloody live." Angry, tired. "This is her we're talking about. She's damn near unkillable." Pause. "Sorry. I'm...I'm just tired."
Smile. "As if you'd let me."
"Somebody has to keep you humble." Serious. "Oh, about the girl. We came up with something." Papers being shuffled. "Turns out that prior toÖself-destructing three years ago, her father owned stock in a shipping firm attached to the Society. We now think the girl is a blind plant the Society sprung on herÖ"
"No." Quieter. "You were right the first time. It's the real thing." Pause. "She's the real thing."
Long silence. "God. It'sÖit's her? She's come back?"
"It's her. It's the only thing that makes any sense." Throat clearing. "She's being kept overnight for observation. Possibly longer. I'll know more tomorrow. After that, they plan to be in London. You left word at the auction, I trust?"
"Of course. Licenses and paperwork are all ready. You'll call when you arrive?"
"The second I touch down."
"See you soon, big brother."