The Coward

by Mark Annetts


Pointless rambling introduction/disclaimer: This is one of those uber things that rather cleverly gets around any unfortunate copyright nonsense. But between you and me, the two main characters do bear an uncanny resemblance to two of Greece's finest. Well, Greece in a sort of Texan and New-Zealanderish kind of way, if you know what I mean.

Anyway, this is about a rich kid from California and a stoical private eye from London, and how their courage changed the world. Or something.

The only warning I can give is that at one point two women get hot and sweaty with each other, in amongst all the car chases, huge punch-ups, and massive explosions. Now really, come on, people, this is the twenty-first century. Surely love is love and hardly requiring any such warning, is it?

By the way, I might have exaggerated the action a little bit. Well, quite a lot, really. Sorry about that. And to be honest the sex is pretty tame, too. Oops.

Serious bit: I'd like to thank the Bards' Village for enduring the early versions and being kind enough to point out my many shortcomings. I'd especially like to thank Stacia for her fabulous proofing, without whom this story would be riddled with ofs instead of offs and yours instead of you'res etc. So, if you think it's bad now, just imagine how awful it was before Stacia spinkled her magic dust on it. :)

Feedback: m.annetts@rbgkew.org.uk


Part 1

The man took the proffered report but didn't bother reading it. Instead he dropped it to the floor next to his briefcase.

"What does it say?" he asked.

"If you read it, you'll know," came the terse reply. The two people seated on either side of the desk in the small, neat office stared at each other. The only sound was from the gently oscillating desk fan that despite its name was perched on a filing cabinet.

"I'm a busy man, I have people to read these things for me. I don't have time."

"Fine, then get one of them to read it for you."

"Look, I've paid you a lot of money for this, I expect a little effort on your part."

"Okay, bottom line. Yes, your wife's seeing someone else. Several someones, in fact. Now if that's all, I've got other cases to work on, thank you and good day." The woman turned to her computer screen and began moving the mouse.

The man made no move to get up or leave. "You don't like me much, do you?"

"Not much," she said, without looking away from the screen.

"But enough to take my money?"

"You got what you wanted, I got what I wanted. Whad'ya want, my private telephone number?"

"Would you give it?"

"Nope."

"Didn't think so." He paused a moment. "So, you going to tell me what I want to know?"

"I thought you were a busy man?"

"So, I'll just get my secretary to reschedule. No big deal."

The woman stopped studying her computer and turned to the man. She sighed and nodded. "All right, here's the fuller version. I followed your wife from her place of work to a hotel in Mayfair. There she met someone and they went to her room. Did that several times in fact. Last Friday the pattern changed. Two hours after the meeting in the hotel she left with yet another person. I followed her and the third person to a night-club. There, I managed to videotape them being intimate in a cubicle in the ladies. The tape's in the folder, enjoy it at your leisure. Now, if there really is nothing else..." She held out her hand to the office door.

"Was there any trouble?"

"None that I couldn't handle."

"Oh..."

"Your wife's companion spotted me taping them and urged the club's bouncers to recover the tape."

"They didn't get it, I take it?"

"Nope."

"Just like that?"

"Just like that."

He studied the woman across the desk from him. "Why don't you like me?"

"Any reason why I should?"

"I'm a likeable person. If you'd let me, I could prove it to you."

"Not if you were the last man on the planet."

The man smiled a thin, humourless smile. He stood up, placing the folder in his briefcase and closing it with a snap. "Maybe next time, Ms Farmer." He held out his hand to shake, but she ignored it, returning instead to her screen.

"Make sure you close the door on your way out."

He abruptly turned and marched from the room, slamming the door with a loud bang.

"Arsehole," the woman muttered under her breath. In truth, she felt desperately sorry for the woman she'd been paid to spy on. The woman's husband was a hypocrite and an arrogant chauvinist. A man who considered it perfectly acceptable to have a string of mistresses, but thought nothing of setting a private detective onto his wife for trying the same thing.

She smiled at the thought of the look on his face when he got home and watched the tape and found his wife was two-timing him with other women. 'Serves him right,' she chuckled mentally.

After a moment the amusement stopped and the woman sighed. Catching her own reflection in the monitor screen she contemplated it in silence. The brief flash of despair and longing she saw in the piercing eyes staring back at her tightened into a scowl followed swiftly by a grunt of self-disgust. Angrily she switched off the screen and stood up. 'Damn it, time to go home,' she decided. Not that she particularly wanted to do what waited for her at home, but at least it would be away from the four small walls suddenly pressing in on her.

She meticulously locked all the cabinets and switched off the lights and set the intruder alarm. The brass sign on the door needed a proper polish but that could wait for another day; "Terry Farmer, Private Investigations." Her father's name still standing proud. She touched the plate with her hand, feeling the familiar tingle and reassuring sense of comfort. He was still there, keeping a watchful eye -- she could feel him.

'Getting soft in my old age,' she thought. She held her hand up in front of her face, extending her fingers with isometric tension, staring intently at it, looking for any signs of loss of control. The hand remained steady as a rock, despite the muscles flexing under the skin. Good.

Turning thirty hadn't diminished her physical strength and control. She rubbed the hand across her face and frowned. 'Come on, Farmer, get your act together, what if Mr Vadgamma came out of his little office over there and saw you studying your hand?' She smiled briefly at the thought of trying to explain to her neighbour what she might be doing. Not that he'd be so impolite as to question anything she might choose to do, of course. Not least of all because she was over a foot taller than he was. But he was a sweetie and always bid her a smiling good morning when they met on the stairs, always asking how the business of investigating privately was doing. She always smiled back graciously and said it was doing as well as could be expected. He would nod sagely, lift his hat and bow slightly as they passed each other on their respective ways. She turned and left the building.

Reaching her motorbike in the small carpark reserved for the office block, she unlocked the seat holding her crash helmet and crammed it on her head, not bothering to tidy away her long black hair. The large Japanese bike throbbed into life at the touch of a button, as she zipped up her leather jacket. Twenty minutes later she was pulling into the underground carpark of the block of luxury flats on Chelsea embankment, where she lived, overlooking the river Thames. Her father may have founded the company, but it was Teri's hard work, skills and determination that had made it into a highly successful business. Good enough to buy a fancy high-rise apartment and a few expensive toys that she rarely bothered with, plus a bank account that simply grew and grew.

Both her parents were dead and she was an only child. She'd never been married, not even close, not during her time in university, nor her short stay in the army, nor later her even shorter say in the police force. Like money, matrimony and a family just weren't anything that had ever interested her. Being left alone was her main priority in life. Work, keeping fit, and earning money were simply means to that end. A family and kids were so far down the list as to have fallen off it, sometime just prior to her teens. Nothing and no one had ever come along to make her reassess the situation.

The apartment was large by London standards, but then it had cost over two million pounds, so it should be. Large plate glass windows covered one end, looking out onto a narrow balcony overhanging the river. The interior was minimalist, some would say Spartan. A wood floor, a few leather chairs and a sofa, a large plasma screen TV, a few small tables, one of them with a laptop computer on it, and an expensive stereo that rarely got switched on, were all that were visible. A single photograph of her parents hung on one wall.

An expensively equipped kitchen, two very large bedrooms and bathroom completed the two million pounds' worth. Not a lot, considering that amount could buy a mansion in some parts of Britain. But London was where the well-paying clientele expected her to be, so that's where she was. Having far more work being offered to her than she could actually deal with left her in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose what she wanted to do. But even she wasn't stupid enough to turn down the head of an international company prepared to pay ridiculous amounts of money to keep tabs on his errant wife.

Terri hung up her helmet on the coat rack by the front door and removed her jacket, hanging it next to the helmet. It was the one of the two or three nights a week she set aside for a serious work out. She'd been doing it for so long that she neither particularly looked forward to it nor tried to excuse herself from it. It was just something she always did every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, and that was that.

She stopped on the way to her bedroom to collect a small bottle of spring water from the fridge in the kitchen, dropping her motorbike keys into the small dish on top of the worksurface. In the bedroom she peeled off her working clothes, down to her sports bra and panties, and tied back her hair into a ponytail. Pulling on some tight cycle shorts she opened her large, mostly empty fitted wardrobe and pulled out a metal pole and a shaped metal bar.

Having snapped the round pole into some recessed lugs in the doorway to her bedroom, she stooped and snapped the shaped piece into lugs on the floor. Now all that was needed was to turn on the TV, without any sound, and time her repetitions to the programmes running silently in the background.

She eased into the chin-ups with fifty swift two-handed ones. Dropping to the floor, she slid into the two feet holders, provided by the shaped metal bar, and did a rapid fifty sit-ups. All the while her mind remained in neutral as she watched the images float by on the large screen, and her body toned itself on auto pilot. Fifty excruciatingly slow chin-ups, followed by fifty slow sit-ups. On and on it went, as Teri pushed her body harder and harder, switching motions as the mood took her. Sometimes single handed, sometimes with added twists and turns.

So superbly fit was she that it took longer and longer to reach any sort of pain barrier, but that didn't matter. She wasn't going anywhere and had nothing else she'd rather be doing.

A sheen of sweat enveloped her body as her breathing became slightly ragged, but still she pressed on, and would have continued for several hundred more repetitions had not something extraordinary and completely unexpected happened. Her door-bell rang.

Somewhat shocked, Terri reached for the TV's remote and pressed a button. CNN was instantly replaced with a large fish-eyed image of a young woman standing expectantly at her front door. More inexplicable was that it wasn't someone that Terri recognised -- though, now that she looked more closely, the woman did look familiar for some reason. Her private address was a well-guarded secret, so no one should be here that she didn't know personally, and she really didn't know that many people.

Frowning, she unhooked her feet from the floor loops and walked to the door. She pressed the intercom button. "Yes?"

She watched the woman jump at the unexpected voice. The woman looked around startled, finally noticing the speaker in the door frame. Hesitantly the woman leant forward and spoke into the speaker.

"Ms... Ms Farmer?"

"What do you want?"

"I'd like to talk to Ms Farmer... please, Ma'am." The distinctive burr of an American accent came through the intercom.

"What if she doesn't want to talk to you?"

The woman frowned and stepped back, a look of surprise, quickly followed by anger, on her face. For some reason it made Terri smile. Cute indignation suited the strange blonde standing outside her front door, she decided. Sighing, she reached a decision and flung back the door, startling the woman once again.

"I'm sort of busy at the moment, what is it that you want?"

The blonde woman simply stood and stared at the apparition in front of her, her mouth hanging open in astonishment. It was as if a Greek goddess had suddenly materialised in front of her. Terri leaned forward and snapped her fingers in front of the woman's face.

"Hey! Whad'ya doing?" the blonde reacted, her mental processes kicking back into action.

"Look, love, I'm sweaty, hungry and pumping," she said, turning her arm over and presenting it to the blonde "And I don't really want to be standing out here talking to you. If you've got something to say to me, then say it so we can both get on with our lives, okay?"

The woman peered at the proffered arm and gulped. Clearly, watching blood pulse and pump in Terri's veins and arteries in quite such an alarming manner was not something she wanted to be really looking at, but, like a car crash, was apparently something she couldn't look away from.

"Man, that's gross." Her nose wrinkled in disgust. "What the hell are doing to your... self?" she said, looking up into piercing blue eyes that simply stole her voice once more.

"Oh for god's sake, I'm exercising, what does it look like?"

"Eeeww... does it hurt?"

Terri frowned at the unexpected question. "Does what hurt?"

"All that blood shooting around."

Terri looked at her arm, slightly puzzled, as if noticing the excessive bloodflow for the first time. "Er, no... it always does that when you exercise really hard."

"Wow." was all the blonde said for a moment. "I've been going to the gym all my life and I've never seen that before, on anyone."

"Yeah, well... maybe they don't push quite as hard as I do." Terri almost grinned, but managed to stop herself. She could feel the pumping slowing down, returning to normal, the veins sinking back to just below the surface. It would take another long time to get them back up. She sighed. "What is it you want, Miss..."

"Nikkoletta Takis, but everyone calls me Nikki," the blonde said, holding out her hand. Terri wiped her hand on her shorts and grudgingly accepted the proffered hand. Nikki gave her a surprisingly firm handshake.

"What can I do for you, Miss Takis?"

"I'd like to hire you to be my bodyguard for a short while."

"I'm a private detective, not a bodyguard. And how did you find my home address, by the way?"

"You're kinda direct, ain't you?"

"So I've been told, and you didn't answer my question."

"Oh, right. Er, well, I kinda had my dad's people do some checking up on you. You're not easy to track down, that's for sure." Her beaming smile, along with her bubbly character, was infectious and Terri found herself giving into the grin after all.

Terri noted the young woman's expensive clothing, the mental wheels turning in their usual precise fashion. The name Takis and money made a quick connection. "Let me guess, Dad wouldn't be Alexander Takis, Greek shipping magnate, by any chance?"

"That's my dad!" grinned Nikki.

Shaking her head, Terri stepped back. "I suppose you'd better come in, now that you've found me."

"Thank you, I know you won't regret it."

"Wanna bet?" Teri mumbled to herself

"Nice view." Nikki said, peering out of the window at the floodlit river.

"Yeah, I suppose," responded Teri, gloomily, taking a sip of water from her bottle and coming up to stand beside her.

Nikki looked at her expectantly.

"What?" Terri said frowning. Nikki looked pointedly at Terri's drink. "Oh, er, right... would you like a drink... or something."

"You're not one for socialising, are you," Nikki said, smiling once more at Terri's discomfort.

"Only when I have to be. Well?"

"Well what?"

"Want a drink, or not?"

Nikki's grin grew wider. "Sure, thanks. I'd like a beer, if you've got one."

"Sorry, don't drink. Water, milk, or there might be some tea, that's about all I can offer."

"Not even coffee?"

Terri shook her head. "Don't care for it."

"And you don't have guests who might?"

"Nope."

"I see. Well, tea would be nice."

"Figures." Terri gave her a sour look, and padded off to the kitchen. Nikki looked around the apartment, noting the expensive but minimal furnishings. She sat down on the large leather settee to wait for her drink. Terri eventually returned with a mug with a picture of Buffy The Vampire Slayer on the side and handed it to Nikki.

"Nice... mug."

"Thanks," Terri said, sitting on one of the low tables, opposite the couch Nikki was sitting on. "Now, what is it you want?" she asked her visitor.

"I told you, I need a bodyguard."

"Why?" Terri said, sipping from her bottle again.

"I think someone wants to hurt me." Her guest's sudden change from happy-go-lucky to barely masked pain caught Terri unawares, leaving her slightly tongue-tied.

"What makes... I mean who... why would you think that?" She gulped a mouthful of water from her bottle quickly.

"You mean you're interested now?"

"Maybe," Terri replied, wiping the back of her hand across her mouth. Something about Nikki was keeping her flat-footed and off balance. It wasn't a feeling she cared for. Here she was, not only letting a perfect stranger into her own home, but even seriously considering putting all her other clients on hold to come to the stranger's aid. And for the life of her she couldn't work out why. "So, why me, why not one of your dad's people?"

"I... I don't trust any of them. They might be involved. And the other night, when I saw what you could do, well, it didn't take much to realise I'd found what I was looking for."

"You saw me?"

"Yeah, taking out those three big butch types in the club, like they were nothing, nothing at all. Wow, that was so cool!"

Terri frowned a moment. "You were at the gay bar?"

"Sure. Whenever I'm in London I often as not end up there, see a few old friends, have drink, relax a little."

With her brain still not quite up to speed, Terri blundered on. "So, were you visiting, or are you erm... uh, erm..."

"Lesbian, that the word you're looking for?"

"Erm, yeah, I guess so," Terri said, slightly sheepishly.

"What if I am?"

"Nothing. Just a bit surprised is all."

"Why, do I have 'hetero' stamped on my forehead or something?" Nikki's mood had changed like the flick of a switch. Gone was the cheerful good nature, to be replaced by brittle antagonism and narrowed eyes.

"Hey, back up a little, will ya," said Terri, holding up her arms in surrender. "Look, I'm sorry, okay. If I've offended you then I apologise. It wasn't intended, and to answer your question, no, it doesn't bother me, nor is it really any of my concern."

Nikki's grimace remained for a few moments, then relaxed back into the happy mood of before. "I'm sorry too, guess I jumped in with both feet there for a minute. It's just that sometimes I get so sick of it all. The prejudice, I mean, especially from other women."

"S'okay, I understand. Really I do, I get enough crap myself. Not a suitable job for a woman, don't you know," Terri said, attempting a small, and for her, friendly smile.

"I doubt you suffer crap from anyone," Nikki said with a grin.

"You'd be surprised."

They stared at each other for a moment, assessing what each had said. Terri blinked and looked away, breaking the connection.

Clearing her throat, she said "You didn't answer my question."

"Yes I did," Nikki replied, her eyes twinkling. "I am a lesbian."

"No... I er... mean why do you think someone wants to hurt you?" Terri said, realising too late that Nikki was teasing her. She blushed faintly, quickly looking out the window to try and hide it.

"Anyone ever tell you how pretty you look when you blush?"

"Er... no," said Terri, blushing even more.

"Hey, it's all right, I was only joking with ya," Nikki said, reaching out to touch Terri's arm.

Terri coiled back as if stung, her eyes blazing. She rounded on Nikki in an instinctive defence posture. Nikki couldn't help yelping as she too stepped back in surprise, so fast had Terri moved, and so suddenly had she changed her whole body language to one of quite terrifying aggression.

"Whoa there, Tiger, I meant nothing by it," she stammered. "Hey, the little ol' lesbian won't be touching you no more," she said, holding up her hands as if to prove her point.

Terri blinked, her whole body rigid with controlled tension. She slowly relaxed and dropped her raised hands, then stooped to picked up the thankfully nearly empty plastic bottle she'd dropped when her natural defences took over.

"Erm, I... I'm sorry about that. I don't like anyone touching me... unexpectedly."

"So I can see," Nikki said, frostily.

"Now don't go getting like that, male or female, it would've made no difference."

"Yeah, right, I understand. I understand completely."

Terri's expression dropped into a stone wall. "Maybe it would be best if you looked for someone else to help you with your problems, Ms Takis," her voice devoid of any intonation.

"If that's what you think best," Nikki replied. Terri just nodded, her face giving nothing away.

Nikki looked into Terri's expressionless eyes for a moment, then scowled. "Fine!" and with that abruptly left, slamming the apartment door as she went.

"Well, that went well, I thought," Terri said gloomily, to an empty room, unaccountably angry with herself. The apartment suddenly seemed empty of life now that the tempestuous Ms Takis had left. She sighed loudly, rubbed her eyes and sank down onto the leather couch, leaning her head back and keeping her eyes firmly closed. For the first time in a long time it dawned on her just how lifeless her so-called home really was.

Having sat motionless for more than ten minutes Terri finally summoned up the effort to raise herself from the settee and set about putting the exercise bars away for another day. As she was closing the wardrobe a gentle knock came from her front door. It couldn't be, she decided and ignored it. But it came again, this time even more gently if that was possible.

"What is this, Piccadilly Circus?" she scowled. Marching to the door she flung it open, ready to explain just precisely why it was such a bad idea to be knocking on her door, but her words were abruptly held in check. Nikki stood there, her eyes nearly closed, gently swaying as if about to collapse. Her skin was ashen, draining the colour from her normal California tan.

"Would you be kind enough to call me an ambulance, I seem to... have had... something of an accident." Her eyes rolled up as she collapsed soundlessly to the floor. Which she would have hit quite hard had Terri not caught her. Only then did Terri see the trail of blood down the corridor and feel her hands getting wet. Peering over Nikki's slumped shoulder she could see her immaculately tailored suit had been sliced open from shoulder blade to buttock, revealing an equally sliced back. Nikki's blood was draining away at an alarming rate and pooling at their feet. Taking a quick look each way down the corridor Terri effortlessly lifted the stricken blonde into her arms, carrying her back inside. She kicked the door shut with her foot, taking Nikki into her bedroom and carefully laying her face down on the bed.

Tearing open Nikki's clothes Terri examined the wound. It was flesh deep, but not deep enough to kill directly. 'Probably caused by a Stanley knife or scalpel' her analytical mind decided without really thinking about it. Even though the cut probably wouldn't kill, the heavy blood loss might. Grabbing the phone by her bed she dialled 999, explaining in a succinct and efficient manner the problem. In moments an ambulance was on its way, along with a police car.

Terri ran to the bathroom and back, collecting some towels. She pressed them to the wound, trying to apply pressure along the length of the cut, but it wasn't easy. All she could do now was wait for the cavalry to arrive. 'Well,' she thought 'looks like I might be back on the case. And it sure beats spying on wives or searching for runaway heirs.'

Part Two

It took a while for them all to get into the ambulance, due mostly to Nikki's death grip on Terri's hand, which despite all requests Nikki refused to give up. She had come to just as the ambulance crew were attempting to move her to a stretcher. The police had arrived at the same time and were trying to question Terri.

Seeing Nikki's eyes open, Terri knelt down next to her, telling her that she'd soon be in hospital and everything was going to be all right. As she went to brush the blonde's hair from her eyes Nikki's hand shot out, grabbing Terri's wrist. Terri's usual defences were overridden by a sudden willingness to allow the woman to grab her. Terri could have prised her hand off but inexplicably she decided she didn't want to.

"I guess I'm hired again?" she said softly. Nikki didn't speak, just nodded her head in confirmation.

"It's okay, Nikki, you're in safe hands now. These men will take you to hospital and get you patched up, good as new." She smiled reassuringly at the injured woman. Or at least she hoped it was a reassuring smile. She didn't have that much experience in these matters, she was the first to admit.

"D... don't feel so... good."

"I know, but if you let go of my hand we'll soon have you fixed up."

Nikki shook her head violently, steadfastly refusing to do any such thing. Terri looked up at the two ambulance men and shrugged. "Looks like we all go together."

"Looks like," the oldest one said, grinning back at her.

"We haven't finished with our questions," said one of the police officers, a young WPC who looked all of twelve years old to Terri. 'God, I'm getting old,' she thought glumly.

"You can follow us to the hospital. I'll answer any questions I can there."

The policewoman looked over to her older male partner. He nodded, putting away his notebook, and spoke into his shoulder mounted radio, updating the dispatcher on the situation and advising them to contact the hospital. 'Amazing how doors open if you're the daughter of a billionaire,' Terri thought with mild distaste.

***

The siren wailed mournfully as they set off. Terri spoke softly to Nikki, hoping that her words were giving some sort of comfort, as the paramedic applied butterfly tapes along the length of Nikki's wound. The ambulance lurched and rocked as it sped on its way to the hospital, making it difficult for the medic to insert a needle for a saline drip.

"Not long now," Terri said, but Nikki had slipped back into unconsciousness, finally allowing Terri to remove her hand.

"Here, give me that," Terri said, deftly grabbing the needle from the fumbling medic. Without any hesitation she neatly slid the needle into a vein, taped it off, attached the tube and opened the valve. She sat back as if it was an entirely normal, everyday occurrence.

"You a doctor?" asked the astonished man.

"Nope."

"Then h --"

"Military training."

"Oh... right." He paused a moment. "You won't tell anyone, will you?"

"About what?"

"About my not being able to... well, you know," he said pointing to the saline.

"Nope."

He relaxed. "She'll be okay, you know. It looks bad, but it's not deep."

"I know," she said, not looking up.

"Friend of yours?"

"Not really."

"Not one for chit-chat, huh?"

"Nope."

They sat in silence for the rest of the journey.

The door of the ambulance opened and a team climbed in, grabbing Nikki's stretcher and taking her swiftly into the hospital. Terri checked her watch. From the time of Nikki's second appearance on her doorstep to their arrival at the hospital had taken just over twenty-seven minutes. 'Not too bad, I guess,' she thought. 'Though I wonder how many of us would get a police escort?'

***

Queues and harried, over-stretched doctors were not for Nikki. She was escorted past the general confusion of the emergency room and on to a private lift that whisked them up to an upper floor. She was met by several nurses and two doctors, who immediately set to work on her. Private health care certainly had its advantages.

No one seemed to question that Terri should accompany Nikki to the surgery, though she made sure to keep out of everyone's way. Once it was known that she was Nikki's private bodyguard no one bothered her. She watched as one of the doctors made small, fine stitches in Nikki's back. 'Scars were obviously not meant for the rich and famous,' she smiled to herself. 'Doubt anyone will treat me quite so kindly.'

Finally all the work was done and Nikki was wheeled to a private room, where a nurse carefully changed her into a hospital sleeping gown.

"Guess you'll be wanting to stay?" she asked Terri.

"Uh-huh."

"Would you like a tea or coffee? It'll be awhile before sleeping beauty here wakes up."

"Tea, no sugar, please. Oh, and could you get the police officer something?"

"Sure."

The WPC had been left behind on guard duty until an officer from the VIP protection branch could get there. She obviously wasn't very happy about it, sitting stiff-backed on a seat outside Nikki's room, scowling at anyone who came near.

Terri had answered all their questions, which hadn't taken long as she had little to tell them, knowing nothing of the circumstances of the attack, save it happened somewhere close to her flat. They obviously didn't believe her, apparently convinced that she was holding back information despite her best efforts to convince them she really didn't know anything about it, having only started on the case as they arrived.

Terri sat sipping her tea, watching her new employer sleep her drug-induced sleep. The WPC had been relieved shortly after midnight. The replacement wasn't wearing a uniform but Terri recognised the unmistakable look of a police officer. They conferred outside, beyond Terri's hearing, as she watched them through the half-glass partition. The WPC nodded towards Terri, frowning as she did so. The plain-clothes woman just nodded, tight-lipped. It was obvious Terri wasn't particularly welcome. It was going to be a long night.

***

"Still here, love?" asked the nurse softly, having returned for the morning shift.

"Looks that way," said Terri, sleepily. She'd only managed a few catnaps, sitting in the armchair next to the bed.

"She not stirred yet?"

"Still sleeping the sleep of the just."

"What does she like for breakfast?"

Terri raised an eyebrow. "I never got a chance to ask," she finally said.

"I'll order her a standard English."

"Maybe you should wait and ask her directly, she's a Greek American or an American Greek, I'm not really sure."

"Oh, so it's a bowl of Cornflakes and a cup of coffee, then."

Terri just shrugged. "I expect she'll let you know when she wakes up." The nurse moved off to instruct an orderly hovering outside.

As the orderly left two men arrived, approaching the police officer on duty outside the door. She asked them for identification, seemed satisfied and allowed them in the room. One man was small and dark, the other well over six feet tall and extremely muscular. Terri moved to intercept them.

"Who are you, and what do you want with my client?"

The smaller man looked at her liked she'd crawled out from under a stone. "None of your business. Carl, get her out of here, then stay outside while I have a word with my little sister, here."

The large man placed a hand on Terri's shoulder. "Excuse me, darlin', if you'd care to come--" He didn't get much further as Terri pulled his hand from her shoulder, twisted under his outstretched arm and bent it up his back. Grasping his hair, she pulled his head back and kicked his legs out from under him.

"I asked you nicely, who are you and what do you want with my client?" Carl made no attempt to struggle, the tendons of his bent arm screaming for release. It would only take the slightest touch to snap bone. He didn't know who the hell the woman was, but she certainly wasn't joking.

The short man simply stared open-mouthed in astonishment. "Carl?" he said.

"No, we've already established that he's Carl, what's your name?" Terri said, nudging Carl's arm slightly higher making him moan in pain.

"Let go of him, this... this is an outrage!" the small man spluttered.

"It's all right, Ms Farmer, you can let Carl up. This is Christos, my brother. Carl's his bodyguard," said a quiet voice from the bed. Nikki slowly sat upright, wincing as she did so. "Christ, I feel like crap," she groaned. Terri immediately dropped Carl to the floor, moving to Nikki's side.

"You sure we can trust either of these two?" she asked, automatically taking Nikki's hand as she spoke.

Nikki looked up through wincing eyes. "He's a prick, but at least he's family. As for Carl, well he just does as he's told, don't you, Carl?"

"Yes, Miss Nikki," he said, standing up, flexing his freed arm and wincing.

"We need to talk, Nikkoletta, just you and me. Can we make a truce and call off our dogs, please?" Christos asked his sister.

"Please... now there's a change of attitude. Funny what a bit of muscle can do for your manners," Nikki sneered.

"Want me to chuck 'em out?" asked Terri, not taking her eyes of either of the men.

"No, that won't be necessary, Ms Farmer. Would you mind waiting outside with Carl for a moment, we won't be long, I promise," said Nikki, smiling disarmingly at Terri.

"Er, sure, if that's what you want... Boss."

"Boss, now I like that," Nikki grinned, then winced again, closing her eyes.

Returning Nikki's squeeze briefly she turned to leave, only to be met by Carl, now standing over her, glowering.

"You got away with this one because I wasn't expecting it," he said, jabbing Terri in the chest with indignant thrusts of his finger, "but be warned, it won't happen ag--"

For the second time Carl found himself spun around with his arm up his back, but this time a hand had grabbed his nose and was twisting it painfully, forcing his head back onto Terri's shoulder.

"Come on, Caaaarl," she said, drawing out his name, "lets go find some breakfast and leave brother and sister to their touching family reunion."

"Stob, stob, you're bwaking by doze," he whined pathetically, as Terri pushed him towards the door.

"I'll be right outside if you need me, Boss," Terri said to Nikki.

"Roger that," Nikki smiled. Christos could only shake his head in disgust as the two bodyguards left the room.

"Nice moves," said the police-woman, as they passed by her chair in the hallway.

"Thanks," replied Terri, the merest flicker of a smile on her impassive face.

***

"Okay, I'll admit you've got some moves on you, but you were lucky, I could've taken you."

Terri turned to look at Carl. He was almost pouting with indignation as he nursed his coffee and bruised ego. "Carl, you're probably a good bodyguard, and you do your job. I respect that. Just don't get in my way and we'll get along fine. We are supposed to be on the same side, you know."

"Yeah, I know, but--" Terri abruptly held up her hand for silence, which caused Carl to flinch and instantly shut up. Terri frowned, touching her other hand to her ear. "Son of a bitch!" she growled, leaping to her feet. "You, stay here," she said pointing her finger directly into Carl's face. He flinched again and nodded in agreement. She ran back up the corridor to Nikki's room, easily dodging past the startled police-woman. She threw open the door, surprising Christos who was standing menacingly over Nikki, holding her roughly by the arm. Nikki groaned from the twisting of her back, trying her best to shrug him off.

Faster than Christos thought humanly possible Terri was across the room holding him by the throat up against the back wall, his feet dangling off the ground. "Jesus, what's the matter with you, she's just been stitched back together, and you're bullying her?"

Christos tried to speak but found it impossible with his throat closed off by Terri's ferocious grip.

"Okay, Miss Farmer, you can put him down now." The police officer had drawn her revolver, but held it pointing at the floor. "I am trained to use this if I think lethal force is required. And right now I'd say you're putting his life in danger."

Without letting go of Christos Terri looked back at the police-woman. "Just doing my job here, protecting my client."

"I think you've made your point, Ms Farmer."

"You," she said, letting Christos slide to the floor on his knees, "are out of here." The man drew in great whoops of breath as he sagged down.

"Carl," he croaked.

"Right here, Mr Takis," said Carl from the doorway. Terri whirled and glared at him. He held out his arms in supplication. "Look, he's my boss..."

Terri scowled. "Just get him out of here. Oh, and Carl, you don't own any knives, do you?"

"Sure I do."

"You didn't use any of them last night, did you? And don't lie to me, 'cause I'll know."

"No! I'd never hurt Miss Nikki. I couldn't," he said, almost whispering the last remark.

"I believe you, Carl. Now take your boss home and don't come visiting anymore. You understand me?"

"Now wait a friggin' minute here," Christos gasped, still on his hands and knees.

"Do you understand me?" Terri repeated, glaring at the bodyguard.

Carl nodded. "I understand," he replied stiffly.

"Good, then get him out of here. Now!" He pulled his boss to his feet and lead him unprotesting out the room.

"You can put that away," Terri said turning to the police-woman. The woman considered her options for a moment. She took a deep breath, putting the gun back in its holster.

"Didn't see a thing," she said, pulling the door shut quietly behind her and resuming her seat in the hallway.

"How... how did you know?" asked Nikki.

"That your brother was misbehaving himself?" Terri finished for her.

Nikki nodded.

"If I told you I'd have to kill you."

"What!" Nikki gasped. Terri was immediately by her side, taking hold of her hand.

"Sorry, Nikki, that was stupid of me. Just a bad joke."

Nikki relaxed slightly, not least of all because Terri's firm but gentle grip really felt good.

"You didn't answer my question, Ms Farmer," Nikki said, almost shyly.

"If you're going to pay me obscene amounts of money to do this, it's your privilege to call me what you like, but I do prefer just Farmer. Especially from my friends," she added, almost getting tongue-tied herself, wondering where the hell that last bit had come from.

"Okay... Farmer," Nikki said smiling. "How did you know?"

"Oh that's simple, I bugged the room," she said, pulling a small radio receiver from her left ear and holding it out for Nikki to see.

"You bugged my room?" Nikki's eyebrows shot up to her hair-line.

"Sure, you can never be too careful on jobs like this." Terri shrugged, putting the receiver back in her ear. "The bug's over there on the corner of the bed."

"I can't believe you did that."

"Good job I did, I reckon, don't you?"

"I guess so. But I'd prefer to know up front if you're gonna do something like that again in the future."

"I'll try and remember that," Terri said, grinning impishly.

They stared into each other's eyes longer than either felt entirely comfortable with but thankfully -- for Terri at least -- they were saved by a doctor strolling into the room, a clipboard in his hand.

"Congratulations, Ms Takis, you're going to be a mother of a beautiful baby girl, just like her mum!" he exclaimed.

"What!" Nikki shrieked.

The doctor made an exaggerated frown. "Oh look, silly me, that's someone else entirely, my mistake." He laughed to himself.

"God, I gotta get outa here," Nikki said, shaking her head and rubbing her temples. "This place is not good for my health."

"Ah, well that's what I've come to see you about. All the blood tests have come back negative, though some others will take a few days to culture, so you might want to phone back and check them out.

"The wound appears as healthy as can be expected and you seem to be in capable hands," he said, pointedly looking at Terri.

"Great, now I'm a nurse too. Your bill keeps getting higher, Ms Takis," Terri said, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

"It's Nikki, or Boss, to you, Farmer, and don't you forget it."

"Yeah, sorry, Boss," she said, smiling still.

"Well," the doctor coughed, "let's see about getting you discharged. I'm sure the police officer outside would like to go home too."

"Is she really fit enough to leave?" Terri asked the doctor.

"Yes, of course, nice fit young girl like Ms Takis. Shrug this off in no time. Just take it easy, you've lost a lot of blood. Call back in a week's time or see your GP to get the stitches removed. There should be very little scarring. Top man with the stitches, young Fowler. Taught him all he knows, you know," the doctor said, beaming cheerily.

"Woman."

"I beg your pardon?"

"She's a woman, not a girl." Terri held him with a steady gaze.

"Yes, yes of course, my mistake. My apologies, Ms Takis," he said, bowing slightly to Nikki. He hurriedly left the room, muttering something about other patients.

"Wow, you really take this defending job to heart, dont'ya?" Nikki said, smiling at Terri.

"Yup."

"Wish I'd hired you a half-hour earlier."

"Might have saved some bother."

"You don't like idle chatter much, do ya?"

"So I've been told."

***

Terri had organised some clothes to be brought in for Nikki, to replace the ones damaged in the attack. Nikki managed to walk to the waiting taxi, after the hospital had insisted she travel from her bed to the outside world in a wheelchair. Walking stiffly to the cab she decided that the wheelchair hadn't been such a bad idea after all.

"How you doing?"

"Just fine, apart from everything hurts, and I feel like I've spilt all my stitches," Nikki grumped from the back seat of the cab.

"Nah, takes a lot to split stitches, I know that from personal experience."

"Yeah, I bet you do." Nikki said sullenly. Terri just grinned. The journey to Terri's apartment took a lot longer than their trip in the ambulance had. By the time they arrived Nikki was in a deal of pain. Her colour had drained, leaving her pallid and sweating.

"Do you think you could..."

"Sure," said Terri, taking Nikki's arm over her shoulder and helping her up the many flights of steps to her flat.

"You sure this is where you want to recuperate? Isn't there somewhere else you'd find more comfortable?"

"We've already talked about this, Farmer, this is where I'd feel safest for the time being. When I'm feeling a hundred percent again I'll reconsider my options."

Terri unlocked the front door and let them both in. She half-carried Nikki over to the sofa and set her down gently. Nikki winced mightily as she carefully lowered her tender back to the cool leather.

"Want a drink or anything? How about some aspirin or something?"

"Glass of water and some painkillers would be nice right about now." Terri soon returned with the asked for items.

"Bed and board will be extra, you know. It's way beyond what I normally get involved with."

Nikki looked at Terri to see if she was joking. 'Apparently not,' she decided.

"Not a problem, Farmer, my pockets are deep and my arms long."

"Sounds a useful trait to have."

"It sure has been, I have to say."

"Must've been nice growing up with so much money."

Nikki shrugged. "Wasn't all peaches and cream. What with mom and dad divorcing, and us moving back to the States."

"Us?"

"Yeah, me and Mom. She got homesick and decided she didn't like being a lonely Greek housewife no more. Took me with her too. 'Course, I was too young to appreciate how much it broke my dad's heart, but he got to keep Christos, so he couldn't complain too much."

"Seems a bit heartless, splitting up a brother and sister like that."

"Aw hell, we've never really gotten along. I never gave it a second thought. Still don't, as you've seen for yourself."

"So, would now be a good time to talk about what happened? I know you gave a statement to the police, but I'd like to hear it for myself, just you and me. Or would you rather talk about why Christos threatened to shut you up permanently, or why your estranged dad is willing to have you step into his shoes rather than have his own sweet boy take over the reins of one of the biggest shipping companies in the world?"

"You heard all that, huh? Yeah, of course you did, you bugged my room. Stupid thing to say."

"Well, what's it to be, family intrigue or mad stalker?"

"It's kinda complicated... the family situation, that is. Maybe we should stick to solving street crime, for the time being?"

"Whatever, I'm easy. I've got loads of time on my hands at the moment. I've recently got this great new boss who pays me lots to do whatever she wants me to do."

"Anything?" Nikki said, grinning.

"Almost anything."

"Where do you draw the line?"

"You really wanna know Farmer's Rules?"

"Yeah, sure."

"Okay, well, I won't kill anyone, unless they deserve it. I won't steal anything unless I really need it, and I won't stand by and see innocents hurt, especially kids. That's about it, really, apart from I never break my rules unless I have to. Oh, and I don't work for free."

"Nice to know you have such a rigid code of ethics, Farmer."

"It helps to get by."

"I'll bet."

"Now, where were we before we were so rudely interrupted?" asked Terri

Part Three

"So, you're telling me that when you said someone wanted to hurt you, you didn't mean it literally?"

"Well, no, not really," shrugged Nikki.

"The razor attack was coincidental?"

"Yeah, I guess."

Terri closed her eyes and rubbed them. "Okay, then tell me what happened, out on the street, I mean."

"Like I told the cops, I don't really have much to tell you. I was going to my rental, I'd parked it on the street 'bout fifty yards down the road. I wasn't really expecting anything bad to happen. I mean, to tell you the truth I was pretty pissed off."

"Oh... what at?"

"Well, you actually," Nikki said grinning, slightly embarrassed at the admission.

"Me?"

"Yeah, you an' your 'don't touch me' routine."

Terri sighed. "I told you then, and I'm telling you now, it was nothing personal. You just surprised me is all."

"Yeah, well, whatever. That's the reason I wasn't taking much notice of anything going on around me. I mean, this is London for chrissakes, not LA. You get kinda blasť about wandering around in the evening here. I never felt threatened before."

Terri snorted. "Remind me to show you round some of the less scenic areas of our fair city. Then maybe you'd be a bit more careful."

"Yes, Mom."

Terri ignored the remark, her expression as impassive as ever. "What do you remember?"

"Well, there was some people a group of them, kids mostly, I didn't really look. They passed me by coming in the other direction. I got about another ten yards when I felt something hit me in the back. They pushed me over the hood of a parked car. I was so surprised I just lay there wondering what the hell happened. When I eventually looked up there wasn't anyone around. I knew something was wrong as soon as I tried to stand up."

"Your back?" Terri prompted.

"Yeah, white hot pain all down my back. I stumbled back around and sat against the car. That's when I saw the blood running down the hood and dripping down onto the fender. Made a funny splashing noise. I was mesmerised for a moment, till I realised it was my blood."

"What did you do then?" Terri asked gently, seeing Nikki reliving her recent nightmare.

Nikki looked up, frowning. "You know, I've tried to remember, but I'm damned if I can. Next thing I remember is you and the ambulance. Thanks for holding my hand and not letting go, Farmer, you kept me strong. I felt so protected."

Terri coughed and looked at the floor. "Didn't quite happen like that, Nikki," Terri said quietly.

"Sure it did." Terri looked up at Nikki's smiling face and didn't have the heart to contradict her.

"So, you never saw who actually did it?" she asked, changing back to the subject at hand.

"Nah, don't even know if it was one of those kids. Could've been anybody really."

"No attempt at stealing anything from you, money, jewellery, purse?"

"Nope, just wham bam, thank you Ma'am, let's see what your ribs look like. Then phhtt, skeddadle, gone. Sorta weird, now I come to think on it."

"Yup, it is pretty weird. I'll have a word with some friends on the force, see what they've got to say."

"Wow, we gonna find out who done it, an' more importantly, why?"

"You want me to?"

"Sure," said Nikki, grinning happily. Terri couldn't help grinning back at the infectious smile.

"You realise this will be a separate case from what you originally contacted me for."

"What if they're related?"

"You tell me, you've yet to tell me what was it you wanted in the first place."

Nikki frowned, pursing her lips. She remained quiet for a moment, apparently trying to decide if she should say anything or not. "You know I told you my dad was a shipping tycoon an' all, well that's true, he is. But I don't live with him and haven't since I was a kid."

"Go on," prompted Terri.

"Well, I know Dad gives Mom and me more money each year than we can really spend sensibly in a lifetime, but well, I wanted to be normal like my friends in high school, so decided I had to get a job. That meant going to college, getting a degree, the whole works. You know what I mean?"

"Not really, but please continue. I'm sure none of us would've wanted a life of idle riches, really."

"You making fun of me?" Nikki said, but smiling enough to take the sting from the words.

"Maybe."

"It's all right, my mom thought I was crazy too."

"Surely not?"

Nikki tilted her head to one side, regarding Terri. "Anyone ever tell you, you got a very dry sense of humour?"

"Nope, never."

"Hmm, well, anyways, as I was saying, I got a business degree, summa cum laude and all that. One thing lead to another and I... well, I ended up being a boat designer."

"Makes perfect sense. A boat builder you say?"

"Not a builder, a designer."

"There's a difference?" Terri asked, keeping a perfectly straight face.

"Sure there is. I wouldn't know one end of a spoke shave from the other, let alone how to use one."

"Well, you're one up on me, I don't even know what a spoke shave is."

"Oh, it's some sort of doohicky the carpenters use on wood, or something," said Nikki, frowning again. "Look, the point is, I work for a small family boat building company, in their design department. Mostly CAD these days."

It was now Terri's turn to frown. "Fascinating though all this is, could you at least point to why you came to me?"

"I'm getting to that. God, you're impatient, aren't you?"

"Blame my dad, I inherited his eager gene."

"Right," Nikki said grinning. "Anyway, back to my story. As I don't work for the money, per se, and the family that owns the company are old family friends on my mom's side, I sorta get an easy ride, if you know what I mean."

"Funny that."

Nikki ignored the comment and continued. "One of my jobs is to travel to all the boat shows around the world and see what's new. Take photographs and, well, see if there's any designs we might, er, like, adapt for our own."

"Is that strictly ethical?"

"Sure, everyone does it. Been going on since somebody first hollowed out a tree and pushed it in the water."

"And here I was thinking that boat builders were above that kind of thing."

"Hah, I bet you've never even thought about any boat builders anywhere, ever, till just this moment."

Terri smiled. "You could be right."

Nikki just shook her head. "You want me to finish this story?"

"Please continue, it's most... enthralling."

"Well, this is where it gets kind of embarrassing," she paused.

"Nothing goes beyond this room," said Terri, easily slipping into professional mode.

"When I got back to my hotel room yesterday there was a package waiting for me."

"Go on."

"It had some... some compromising pictures of me."

"What sort of pictures?"

"Oh, nothing much. Just me necking an' stuff. Pretty harmless really. You could just view them as a girl's night out and not give them a second look."

"Was there a note to go with them?"

"Yeah, just said something about how embarrassing it would be if my employers were to see these pictures."

"Would that matter?"

"They're kind of old fashioned. The note made it clear what was really going on."

"No, I mean would it matter to you especially, I mean, you need the work?"

"Hell, yes! I worked goddamned hard to get where I am. I'm good at what I do, I like my job and I sure as hell don't want to give it up for crap like this!" she fumed.

'Hey, fire behind the cute exterior, I really like this girl... er, woman,' thought Terri, smiling to herself.

"What about your brother, think this is his handiwork?"

"Nah, he wouldn't have anything to gain. So what if I lose my job? It hardly matters in his great scheme to take over Dad's empire. Probably make it more likely I'd want the job."

"But he thinks you're destined for that job. I heard him say so."

"My brother's a paranoid jerk. I can hardly see my dad not letting Christos take over when the time comes. Why would he put me in charge over Christos?"

Terri shrugged. "Maybe he likes you more than him. Couldn't be that hard, from what I've seen of your brother. He seemed quite easy to dislike. And besides, you've got a fancy business degree and you know about boats."

"Hardly, we build rich people's toys. Ocean going luxury yachts that spend most of their time down in the Keys or over in Cannes, not oil tankers or container ships."

"Okay, but what's Christos got that you haven't?"

"External plumbing for one thing. That counts for a lot in my dad's country," she said laughing.

"Yeah, there is that, I guess. You sure that's how your dad feels?"

"I dunno, like I said I don't really see him that much."

"Do you regret that?"

"Sure, he's my dad."

"Don't you ever try to contact him?"

"I used to, but when he was always in a meeting, or away on business, well, I kind of gave up trying."

"I thought you said that you used your dad's people to track me down to my home?"

"Oh, I did. He has offices all over the world. I get the red carpet treatment whenever I announce myself. It's just I rarely get to see my dad himself."

"Never give up on your dad, Nikki. One day he may not be there to give up on anymore." Nikki caught the unmistakable sadness in Terri's voice.

"You miss yours, huh?" she asked gently.

"Every day." Terri swallowed, blinking a few times.

"Why would someone want to hurt me like that. I've never done anyone any harm, ever?" Nikki said, changing the subject quickly.

Terri shrugged. "Don't know enough to comment. Did you keep the pictures and the note?"

"No, I tore them up and flushed them down the toilet in the hotel room."

"Pity."

"Why, would they have helped? It was just a printed note and some inkjet printed pictures. Could've been done by anyone, anywhere."

"Probably, but if you get anymore let me see them first before you flush 'em, okay?"

"If you insist, though I hope I don't get any more, to tell the truth."

"Where were they taken, any idea?"

"Here in London. At the club, actually."

"Kind of ironic you coming to me, really, then, isn't it?"

"Why?"

"What do you think I was doing there?"

"I... I don't know. I... thought..."

"What?"

"Doesn't matter."

"You thought I was there enjoying myself, huh?"

"Yeah, I guess."

"Sorry to disappoint, Nikki, but I was there doing the same sort of thing as our friend was doing, whoever they are."

"You were spying on me?"

"Spying yes, on you, no."

"I see."

"You upset?"

"No, not really. Par for the course. Guess I should've known," she said sullenly.

"Look Nikki, I like you, you're a bright, good-looking kid. And I'm more than happy to try and get to the bottom of your troubles. But I've found it rarely helps a case to let personal feelings cloud the issue. So if that's not what you came here for, then perhaps you really should seek help elsewhere."

"You want me to leave?"

"I didn't say that. I said I'd be happy to work for you, find out who's trying to blackmail you, who attacked you on the street and why, even act as your bodyguard while you're in London, but that's about the extent of my ability to assist you."

Nikki nodded, her shoulders slumping slightly. "It's okay, Ms Farmer, I understand. Still okay if I stay here tonight? I'm feeling tired, my back really hurts and I just don't feel like going back to my hotel right now."

"Sure, it's your money. Feel free to spend it on me any way you want." Terri said smiling.

***

Nikki woke, blurry-eyed and rumple-haired, puzzled as to where she was. It all came back with a stabbing rush as she twisted her back slightly, sitting up. "Ow, ow, ow, ow, owwwww!" she moaned, tentatively feeling along the plaster covering her stitches. Pulling her hand back she was relieved to see no blood. The hurt and anger at Terri's firm but polite slamming of any doors that she hoped might have opened between them came back too. "Hah, screw her, Ms friggin' robot. Her loss!" she grumbled.

She staggered to the adjoining bathroom to be greeted with a floor to ceiling mirror. She groaned and turned away from the unearthly vision staring back at her. "Okay, not so much of a loss," she muttered, shaking her head morosely.

As she emerged from the bedroom, freshly scrubbed and wearing a sweat shirt several sizes too big for her, she was welcomed by the smell of coffee. Terri sat at her desk, studying her computer screen.

"Where did the coffee come from?" Nikki asked.

"Out of a little jar."

"That so, huh. Who'da thought?"

"Yeah, it's neat, you just twist off the lid and there it is."

"I thought you said you didn't have any coffee?"

"Didn't then. Do now."

"You went out and bought me coffee. I'm touched."

"Us robots got to be good for something," Terri said, still not looking up from her screen.

Nikki swallowed. "You er... heard that, huh?" she said, blushing.

"Uh-huh."

"You got your guest room bugged too?" asked Nikki testily.

"Nope."

"Then how?"

"One of my many talents, I'm afraid. Not only have I got a cute backside, but I've got acute hearing too," Terri said, not a little smugly.

"Is there anything you're not perfect at?"

"Hmmm, let's see... can't speak Spanish well enough yet, but I'm working on it."

"I suppose you can manage all the other languages?"

"A lot of them. The important ones anyway."

"Can you ride a horse?"

"Yes."

"Bake a cake?"

"If I have to."

"Wrestle alligators?"

"It's a bit late to be asking for credentials, isn't it?" asked Terri, finally turning from her screen and looking directly at Nikki.

'God, those eyes... snap out of it, Takis, she's made it plain where you stand. You're nothing but a paycheque to her. But Jesus... those eyes...'

"Something wrong?" asked Terri.

"Oh, er no... nothing. So, you're busy on my case, or doing something else?"

"We're making some progress on the attack at least. While you were sleeping I popped out to see some friends at the local nick. Then I went to see someone I know down in the bowels of the Standard."

"I'm sorry -- the local nick?" said Nikki, obviously puzzled.

"Oh, sorry, forgot you speak the President's English, not the Queens. The nick's the police station, or precinct house, to you."

"Does the queen know about the 'local nick'?"

"Probably not, now you mention it. I expect she's got someone to worry about that sort of thing for her."

"And she has a standard bowel too, I suppose?"

"Well, I'd think that's likely, though with royalty you can never tell. All that inbreeding an' all."

"Can we start this again, it's getting a bit too surreal for this early in the morning?"

"That would be as in nearly eleven o'clock too early?" said Terri, checking her watch.

"God, did I sleep that long? You should've woken me earlier."

"Why, you looked liked you needed it. And besides, I wouldn't have bought the coffee by then."

"Yeah, I guess that's true."

"Of course it is. You'll learn that amongst my many talents is the fact that although I may not always be right, I'm never, ever wrong."

"Modest too, I'll bet."

"To a fault," Terri answered breezily.

"How come you were all tongue-tied, almost shy when we first met, and now you're Miss Confidence personified?"

"You took me by surprise, snuck up on my blind side. Caught me with my pants down."

'I wish,' thought Nikki, only just able to stop herself saying it out loud. "And now?"

"Now I've reconnoitred and regrouped. Got the lay of the land."

"You always treat people like a military campaign?"

"Yes," said Terri, her expression clearly indicating she thought it was a dumb question; 'doesn't everyone?'

"Now you think you know me?"

"There's a goodly chance."

"Hah, we'll see, Farmer, we'll see."

"I guess we will at that," replied Terri, smiling.

"So, you wanna start again with the explanation?"

"Oh, right. Well, it seems that there's been a spate of attacks on women in the area over the last eight months or so. Nothing fatal so far, but not far off a couple of times, and nasty with it. I correlated the police records with the reports from the local evening paper; 'The Standard', by the way. It looks like we've got a looney-tunes on our hands. Slightly different MO each time, but you and me both know the link that the police don't," she finished with another insufferably smug grin.

"We do?"

"Sure. Recognise any of these?" Terri said, handing over some photocopy prints of various women.

Nikki flipped through the pages. "Yes, yes I recognise at least three of them, they all go to the... club. Jesus," she breathed heavily, as the implication hit her.

"Jesus indeed, though I doubt we're looking for a six foot, bearded Caucasian male with a halo round his head, who's very light-footed, aquatically speaking."

Nikki looked up from the pictures at Terri. She started to say something but stopped. Her shoulders slumped and she looked back down at the pictures, her eyes unexpectedly watering.

"Jesus loves me, this I know," Nikki sang softly to herself. Terri raised an eyebrow, staring at Nikki.

Nikki looked up again, seeing the puzzled expression on Terri's face. "Oh, sorry, it's the last line of an Aaron Neville song. Actually it's a Bob Dylan song but I like Aaron's version better, you know..." she trailed away into silence, rubbing the back of her hand across her wet cheek.

Terri got up and came over to Nikki, taking her hand and squatting down to match her eyeline. "Are you okay?"

"Yes..." she paused. "No, I'm not all right, damnit! I came here for a friggin' holiday and take in the boat show; take a few pictures and have some fun. Christ, this is London, it's not supposed to have 'phobe fruitcakes runnin' around hurting people. New York, Los Angeles even, but not London. It's just not meant to be like this. It's not fair!"

"Nikki, sweetheart, we've got just as many fruitcakes as you have over there, believe me. Remember we invented them, Jack the Ripper and all that. And you're right, it's not fair. The human race has its defects, just the same as anything else in nature. But we'll stop him or her, I promise," she said emphasising her last remark with a squeeze of Nikki's hand.

"You think it might be a her?" asked Nikki, surprised.

"Can't rule anything out, Nikki. Not till we know more, at least."

Nikki was secretly pleased at Terri talking of 'we' all the time, and she sure liked holding hands. The warmth and incredible strength she could feel just below the surface were unlike anything she'd ever known in another woman.

She sniffed, composing herself. "Do we tell the cops?"

"I don't know yet. I'll see how it goes."

"Won't they be pissed at you? Can't you lose your license for withholding evidence, or something like that?"

"Well, first it's not evidence, only speculation. I haven't been able to track down all the women and confirm it. Not to mention that many of them might be reluctant to admit to this particular connection. And second, private investigators don't need licenses in the UK to operate, just an advert in the Yellow Pages will do it."

"You mean anyone can set themselves up as a private dick here, and no one will say otherwise?" asked Nikki, taken by surprise at the information.

"Yep."

"Even me?"

"Even you. Though wouldn't you be happier building boats?"

"I told you, I don't build boats, I help design them, mostly interiors and fittings, that sort of thing."

"And there I was thinking you were a hot-shot naval architect or something," Terri said, but smiling a dazzling, knock-'em-dead smile to show Nikki she was teasing. She was getting much better at the smiling thing, Nikki thought.

Nikki's bottom lip crept back in as she smiled in return. "Thanks, Farmer."

"For what?"

"Snapping me out of my loathsome self-pity."

"Think nothing of it, all part of the service," she said, still smiling, and still holding hands, Nikki was extremely pleased to note.

"How much extra will it cost?" she asked Terri.

"Oh, I'll work out the bill, don't you worry your pretty little head about that."

"I bet you will," she paused. "So, you think I'm pretty?" Nikki asked, almost shyly.

Terri just smiled, letting go of Nikki's hand and returning to her computer.

"I think tonight we go clubbing and see what we can see."

"You want me to come too?" Nikki asked, her eyes lighting up.

"Relax, party grrrrl, I'm not going in. Don't think I'd be welcomed at the moment. And of course you're coming with me. Can't protect you if I'm there and you're here, now can I?"

"No, I don't suppose you can."

Part Four

Terri parked the small, sleek Mercedes sports car in the shadows across the street from the entrance to the club. Nikki was sitting sullenly in the passenger seat, a pained expression on her face.

"Thanks for driving, Farmer. I knew I should've let you from the start, but I thought I could manage it."

"No problem. That's what the hired help's for."

"No doubt you'll add it to the bill."

"There's a distinct possibility," she replied, bringing a compact set of binoculars to her eyes and scanning the club's entrance.

"Do you know how much an SLK 320 costs to rent?"

"No doubt you'll tell me."

"Well, I'll tell you," continued Nikki obliviously. "It costs a lot. That's what it costs. The trouble I had to go to, to get it in red."

"Matches the colour of your wound."

"Nice."

"Don't mention it."

"I'm paying for all this, you know. I think that entitles me to a little sympathy."

"As my dad used to say, sympathy is in the dictionary somewhere between shit and syphilis," replied Terri absently, still studying the club through the binoculars.

"Oh please, Farmer, that's gross!"

"What... what'd I do?" asked Terri, putting down her binoculars, feigning puzzlement.

"Just... just get on with your Peeping Tom routine."

"This is called reconnaissance, not peeping," said Terri, resuming her watching.

"What, you're telling me you don't use those to peek into people's bedroom windows, whenever you get the chance?"

"Only if I'm paid to."

"Figures, it's all down to money with you, isn't it?"

"And the chance to be as annoying as possible, don't forget that," added Terri.

"How long we gonna do this for, anyway?" Nikki asked.

"Well, I pretty much thought as long as it takes would be about right."

"We could be here for days, weeks, months even. Tell me we're gonna take a few hours off, here and there."

Putting down the binoculars, Terri turned to Nikki. "You're paying the bills. Anytime you want to call it off, just say the word."

"No, no, I didn't mean that. What I meant was, shouldn't we get some help, or something?"

Terri regarded her for a moment. "How about some coffee? There's a small cafe just over there," she asked, ignoring Nikki's comment.

Nikki shrugged. "Sure, why not. I'm hungry too."

Terri pulled the car keys, putting them in her pocket. "Promise me you'll keep the doors locked, the windows closed and the roof up. And don't even think about going anywhere. I'll be watching all the time, you'll be safe."

"Yes, Mom."

"Good, I'll be back a few minutes." Terri got out and locked the doors, slipped silently into the shadows and disappeared. Nikki picked up the binoculars and scanned the area. Seeing nothing of interest she finally settled on the club's entrance, watching a few women come and go. She snickered when she noticed the neck brace, black eye and swollen lip of one of the door-keepers. "Hah, thought you could take on the Farminator, huh?" she grinned to herself. "She'll be back," she intoned in her best Austrian accent.

It occurred to her how comforting it felt having Farmer on her side. Since meeting her, any fear she should by rights be experiencing had never surfaced. Sure, Farmer was a pain in the ass with her 'off-limits' attitude and her deeply annoying habit of being goddamned perfect and all. But, Nikki was first to admit, it sure beat not having her around.

The sudden release of the door locks made her jump. "Jesus, do you have to keep sneaking up on people like that, you damn near made me pee myself!"

"S'okay, not my car," Terri said, gracefully sliding into the low-slung leather seat and handing Nikki a polystyrene cup of coffee and a packet of Walkers salt-and-vinegar crisps. "These are what's called crisps over here. You put them in your mouth and crunch them."

"I know what you do with them," Nikki said, grabbing the crisps and scowling. "We call them chips, which is a damn sight better use of the word than limp, soggy, fried sticks of potato you call chips."

"Bet you still eat them though," replied Terri, picking up the binoculars.

"Sometimes... maybe," admitted Nikki. "Prefer Burger King fries, actually."

"Well, enjoy them while you're young. Get to my age and the bastards seek out your thighs with laser-guided precision."

"You're kidding me, right?"

"Would I kid you?"

Nikki snorted in contempt at such a question. "But you've got a body that's a cross between a catwalk model and an Olympic athlete, with a bit of Arnie thrown in. I don't see fat thighs from where I'm sitting."

"You haven't seen me spend the hours and hours required to stay this way."

Nikki was about to reply when Terri stiffened. She held her breath, waiting for Terri to say something. Peering through the car's steamed-up windows, Nikki tried to make out what was happening across the street.

"What's happening?" she whispered.

"Damn," Terri said softly.

"What, what is it, Farmer? Speak to me, say something... anything."

"You know you asked what were we looking for, and I said I didn't know but I'd let you know when I saw it. Well, I think I just saw it."

"What is it?"

"Someone I recognised going into the club. Someone I didn't expect to see going in there."

"Who?"

"An old colleague. Well, not so old, and we really only worked together for a year or so."

"For God's sake, will you tell me who?" demanded Nikki.

"Her name's Rachel Downs, she's a policewoman. I liked her, she was -- is -- a good copper. Trouble is, I always got the feeling she was never really that fond of gays."

"Not everyone does, or hadn't that escaped your... " She paused. "Oh, I see what you mean."

"Not good, huh?"

"You think that... maybe... she's the one doing this?"

"I'd like to think not, but it would explain some things."

"Such as?"

"Such as why the police haven't made such an obvious connection to the club in over eight months. Why the attacker seems to know exactly what they're doing and never gets seen by anyone. And why none of them seem that interested in solving any of this."

"Jesus, a cop. That's sick."

"Well, it's not healthy, I'll give you that."

"So, assuming it is her doing this, are you gonna go in there and arrest her?"

"Hardly."

"Why not?" Nikki demanded indignantly.

"There's a little matter of the burden of proof. Or the fact that she might be undercover. Not to mention they probably wouldn't let me past the front door. For some reason my natural good charm and charisma isn't likely to work on them at the moment."

"Well kick their asses again."

"Subtle."

"Screw subtle, go get her, Farmer, that's an order!"

Terri slowly turned to Nikki, raising an eyebrow. "An order?" she asked quietly, fixing Nikki with a stare.

"Well, I am the boss... aren't I?" she asked, not sure if she should smile or not.

Terri resumed watching the club, not saying a word.

"Fine, then I'll go and find out if she's one of the good guys or bad guys." Nikki tried to open the door, but a cast iron grip snagged her arm.

"You're not going anywhere where I can't see you."

"Damn it, Farmer, let go of me," she snapped, tugging at the immovable hand holding her. Terri abruptly released her, causing Nikki to lurch over, banging her head on the window.

"Ow... what the hell did you do that for?" Nikki grimaced, rubbing the side of her head.

"You asked so politely, how could I refuse?" said Terri, smiling.

"It's not funny."

Terri's smile vanished. "No, it's not. That's why you're not going charging in there, on your own, making wild accusations at an off-duty policewoman. Rich and spoiled you may be, but magistrates still take a pretty dim view of such things. You'd be lucky to get off with just being put on the first plane home."

"Damn it, we've got to do something. We can't just sit here and watch her to death."

"What do you propose, a lynch mob; should we string her up?"

"No, not really. Not that she wouldn't deserve it, sick bitch."

"Good, because the other thing that really pisses judges off is vigilantism. And we also have this little quirk about being innocent until proven guilty to worry about."

"Hah, this from Ms Jacqui Chan. Tell that to those three in there you beat the crap out of the other night."

"Those three wouldn't have the courage to go to the police and lose face. They know it, and I know it. Listen, we will do whatever it takes to put a stop to this. If and when that requires going beyond the law, then we'll do it when I say, and how I say, and not before. Is that clear?"

Nikki shrugged, mumbling an affirmative. They sat in silence, each wrapped in their own thoughts.

"How's the head?" Terri finally asked.

"Hurts."

"Head-butting cars can do that."

"Yeah, laugh it up, Farmer."

"I'm not laughing, can't you tell this is not my happy face?"

Nikki turned to Terri, catching the playful glint in her eye. She couldn't help but grin back. "I can be pretty stupid sometimes, can't I?"

"You're young, you've not had a chance to work the stupids out of your system yet."

"Thanks a bunch, you're not supposed to agree with me quite so readily when I'm being contrite."

"Well, if it's any consolation, even though you might not win at Mastermind for a while yet, at least you're pretty."

Nikki's smile spread across her face. She sat back in her seat beaming.

'Doesn't take much,' thought Terri, smiling to herself.

***

It was well past midnight; the flow of women entering the club had dwindled to a few stragglers.

"What now?" asked a sleepy Nikki, waking from one of her cat-naps. Terri continued her observation of the entrance with her binoculars. A position that hadn't altered much in over four hours.

"We wait. They're a private club, they can stay open all night if they want to."

"This is so dull," said Nikki, yawning loudly.

"But necessary."

"You gonna do this every night? 'Cause I have to tell ya, I've been on better dates with boys than this."

"This isn't a date."

"You're telling me it's not."

"We can stay at my place tomorrow, if you'd prefer."

Nikki was about to reply when Terri abruptly sat upright. She rubbed the window and peered across the street. An ambulance had pulled up in front of the club.

"Stay here, and don't move," ordered Terri.

"What's happening?" asked Nikki to an empty seat. Terri was already half-way towards the club.

"Crap, I wish she wouldn't do that!" Nikki growled. She watched through the binoculars as Terri approached the ambulance and spoke to the driver. A few moments later she was on her way back, her face an angry mask.

"What's happening?" Nikki asked as soon as Terri got in the car.

"Seems our friend is still one jump ahead of us, changed their MO again. Somebody had some industrial cleaner slipped into her drink. It's bad; they don't know if she'll make it. Severe burns to the mouth and throat." Terri answered angrily.

"How's that possible, wouldn't she have smelled it before she drank it?"

"No, it's a damn drain cleaner marketed for its lack of smell. Don't suppose they ever tested its taste," Terri said bitterly.

"Hey, it's not your fault, you couldn't have known that they'd attack someone in the club itself."

"No, I guess not. At least that means either our friend is getting impatient and wants to be caught, or else they're getting sloppy and we'll get them anyway." A siren could be heard in the distance, getting closer.

"I take it we don't need to tell the cops anymore, about the club, I mean?"

"Nope, it was Rachel on the stretcher. Come on, there's not much more we can do here tonight." Terri said, starting the engine.

***

"Shouldn't you be wearing gloves, or something?" asked Nikki as they sat side by side on Terri's couch. Terri was examining a package they'd picked up from reception at Nikki's hotel on their way back home from the club.

"Something? What exactly did you have in mind?" asked Terri, smiling to herself as she turned the package over in her hands, studying the bulky envelope carefully.

"Don't tempt me, Farmer. I meant those little rubber gloves you see people on TV using, so they don't disturb the evidence."

"Rubber, huh? Kinky."

"Quit it, Farmer. Just open the damn package."

"Maybe we should leave it till the morning, it's past one thirty now, I'm sure you need your beauty sleep."

"What, you think I can sleep now?" asked Nikki incredulously.

"Just a thought. Okay, here we go." She slid her finger under the flap, prying it open. Looking into the package she could see some folded sheets of A4 paper, wrapped around a video cassette. She carefully emptied the contents onto the glass table, checking that the envelope was empty.

Holding the pages by the corner she opened them out, pushing the cassette to one side using the knuckle of her little finger.

"So, you don't want to disturb the evidence then?"

"Never said I did. You never know, we might get lucky and they might be stupid, but I wouldn't hold your breath on that."

The first page had some writing which simply said "She's pretty. Tall, but pretty. You have good taste, but will the Stevensons agree?"

"The Stevensons?" asked Terri.

"Family that runs the company I work for." Terri nodded.

She slid the first page away, revealing the next page and its pictures. They were of Terri, coming and going from the main door of her apartment, all taken at street level.

"They've caught you pretty well. The camera just loves you, doesn't it?"

Terri ignored Nikki's comment and carefully picked up the video cassette, taking it over to her player. It was a clip of Nikki and Terri with their arms around each other. They watched themselves leave the taxi and go up the stairs to Terri's apartment.

"But you were helping me up the stairs after I left the hospital," said Nikki indignantly.

"Yeah, but if you didn't know that..."

"Just friggin' typical!"

"What?"

"I'm being blackmailed for something I didn't even get to enjoy!" fumed Nikki.

Terri laughed, which didn't help Nikki's disposition much.

"You're in the same boat, Farmer."

Terri shrugged, grinning. "True, but I know my boss and she's cool with me helping less fortunates up some stairs. She won't mind at all."

"I'm glad this is all such a joke to you, Farmer." Nikki said despondently.

Terri sobered up slightly at Nikki's sad face. "You're right, Nikki, I'm sorry."

"Wow, you really bought my sad puppy look!" said Nikki, snapping back into a smug grin.

Terri's eyes narrowed. "Oh, like that is it? Well, two can play games, Ms Takis." she said, cracking her knuckles ominously.

"Typical, all you types understand is violence," scoffed Nikki, but still grinning.

"Your time will come, Blondie, and when it does, then wham!" she said, emphasising her words by smacking her fist into her other hand.

"Ooh, big brave warrior gal, beating up on a little thing like me," Nikki said prodding Terri in a sensitive spot under her back ribs.

Terri flinched. "Quit it, Takis."

"Yeah, what're you gonna do about it?" Nikki said, prodding her in the same spot.

"I said quit it, or face the consequences," Terri growled.

"I ain't scared of you." She tried to prod Terri again but found herself flat on her back on the sofa, both hands held firmly above her head.

"I warned you, little girl," Terri said menacingly, slowly and deliberately transferring both of Nikki's wrists to her left hand, freeing her right. Nikki swallowed nervously, her throat having suddenly gone dry. "Now you face the consequences." She lowered her face to within a few inches of Nikki's.

Nikki closed her eyes, her breathing speeding up. She began to raise her head to meet Terri half-way when Terri's hand flashed down and started to tickle her. Nikki's eyes shot open in surprise, then scrunched tight shut again.

"No please... I can't... stand to be tickled. Please... Farmer... Noooooooo!" She writhed about, but could move very little with Terri holding her down so firmly. She only had one card left to play. "Owwwww, please, Farmer... my back!" she gasped.

Terri leapt off Nikki as if she'd been stung.

"Shit, I'm sorry, Nikki, I totally forgot. Here, let me have a look, make sure nothing's damaged. Nikki reluctantly rolled over, pulling up her shirt, a grin of triumph on her face that Terri couldn't see.

"Everything seems okay," said Terri, gently running her hands up and down the sides of Nikki's dressing. Nikki closed her eyes, sighing softly at Terri's touch. She frowned when Terri pulled her shirt back down and smacked her lightly on the shoulder.

"No harm done. I'm really sorry, Nikki, I don't know what came over me. It won't happen again, I promise."

"It's okay, I rather enjoyed it, to tell you the truth," she said, rolling over and standing up, tucking her shirt in.

"Hmm, I guess you did, judging by that smirk on your face."

"I don't smirk."

"Yeah, right." They both looked at each other and burst out laughing.

"Why are you laughing?" giggled Nikki, caught in the moment.

"Maybe because I've got a good lead on a case."

"Oh really?"

"Yeah. Who knew you'd be here and who else knew where to take pictures from?"

Nikki shrugged. "You tell me, you're the detective."

"I think we need to have a word with the people you used at your dad's place to track me down."

"Why the hell would any of them pull a stunt like this?"

"That's one of the questions I intend to ask them."

"Now who's smirking?"

"I don't smirk. I stopped smirking years ago."

"Very funny, Farmer." They both looked at each other and started laughing again.

***

Terri stood in the doorway to Nikki's room, observing her silently as she slept. A small smile played around Nikki's lips as she mumbled something in her sleep followed by what sounded suspiciously to Terri like a contented sigh.

'Gods, Farmer, where the hell did that come from? You hardly know the girl... woman, and already you're having tickle fights with her? Jesus, that's so unprofessional, what the hell were you thinking?' she berated herself.

Shaking her head in disbelief she padded back to her own room and closed the door.

***

Continued in Part 2.


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