Disclaimers: Go to Part I for disclaimers on this story.

Comments to Redhawk. No bad mouthin', lippy, attitude stuff. Honest criticism would be appreciated.




Part III: Thursday

Pre dawn. The crackle of long distance phone lines.

"Have you heard from him, yet?" Deep, cultured.

"Nooo.... But that's not unusual."

Silence.

"I mean, ummmm.... Once he checks in for the information, he usually doesn't get back in contact until the job is completed."

Long pause. "And your sure he's reliable?"

"Positive! He's... uh... worked for me before. Top notch work, too."

"You told him it has to be done by this morning's council meeting?"

"Yes! Yes! He knows all that! It'll get done."

Another long pause. "I certainly hope so." Pause. "I'll be in town this weekend. Don't disappoint me." Click.

The man closed his eyes and swallowed reflexly before setting the handset into the cradle with a shaky hand. Jesus, I hope I don't.




The long legged woman strolled nonchalantly through Lloyd Center Mall, blue eyes scanning. Still a little early, she mused, watching the thin crowds shopping. Xena had spent most of the previous day and evening roaming around the downtown area, in the hopes of spotting her prey, to no avail. She had pretty well ruled out the shelters in the area, as well. Probably staying with friends or at a squat. Maybe under a bridge.... I'll run through them after dark tonight.

She had been unable to sleep the night before. Seemed like everytime she got comfortable and dozed off, she jerked awake with nightmares. After the third time, she had decided to just get out of bed and practice her swordwork. Xena hadn't really been plagued with nightmares for... well... decades. It was a bit disconcerting, to say the least.

Tomorrow was the official kickoff for the Rose Festival, beginning with the Starlight Parade through the downtown area after dark. Her chances of finding the kid easily were diminishing rapidly. Rose Festival dumped thousands of people into the area that normally wouldn't see downtown Portland but for two or three times a year. And all the sailors from the ships that were now docked on the port constituted another several hundred.

Xena sighed in resignation and moved down to the next shop. The deep bass beat of alternative music assailed her ears as she stepped in. 'The Hot Topic,' said the neon sign. She lazily inspected the gothic and heavy metal t-shirts while studying the patrons.




She heard the crash of steel against steel. Flashing silver moonlight, the somber sparkle of crimson glancing. The two protagonists whirled and danced before her, one dark, one bright. Mocking laughter, contralto remark, growling anger. Leather and armor reflections, swirls of brass. The dangerous game closed, bright falling forward. Dark crouched, heaving breath, spun around to face her. Eyes of ice, pale fire, lightning flashed into her eyes.

"Gabrielle.....?"

Rickie squinted at the shaft of sunlight that fell on her face. She sneezed. Grumbling, she sat up on the dirty mattress where she'd been sleeping. Of all the freaking places to sleep, I had to pick the one with the sunny corner. She rubbed her eyes, yawned and stretched, feeling the satsifying crackle of her spine settling into place. Remembering the dream. I'm gonna have to get that one written down. Then she felt the unsatisfying mumbling of her stomach. Hmph. Maybe Sisters is open already, she thought, mouth watering at the large helpings of casserole and cornbread that the homeless restaurant dished out for minimal money or chores.

The girl scrubbed at her face. She used her fingers to comb through her long honey hair and stood up. Picking up her battered notebook, Rickie worked her way around the sleeping bodies of other youths, heading for the boarded window that served as an entrance.




Glen Doblie, lawyer extraordinaire and current city council member, blew into the meeting room, two aides breathlessly following in his wake. He continued dictating a quick note to his broker, glancing about the room. Two of the other council member were already in attendance. Only the mayor and three more to arrive before they could get the show on the road.

He brushed his hand through his thinning brown hair. "Finish up with my usual," to one aide. "Thanks for the file, Dan, I'll look it over," to the other. He moved to the table at the head of the room.

Sensing their dismissal, the two aides deflated and looked a bit lost for a few seconds. Finally, one of them sat down to watch the meeting; the other adjusted his tie and left the room.

Doblie greeted the other council members with a smile and settled himself into his chair. He popped the briefcase he held, dropped Dan's file inside, and closed it up. Seating himself, he took a look over today's agenda. Police funding, legalizing gambling in the city, various and assorted minor tax issues, and the ever present Rose Festival functions going on this week. Nothing too pressing. If things turned out well, his week would definitely be a time for rejoicing.

He continued to scan the agenda and attached paperwork, raising his muddy brown eyes to watch his compatriots enter the room. Still no mayor.

The room began to fill with the usual crowd of reporters, concerned citizens and the occasional trouble makers prepared to argue every little thing. Actually, it was a pretty sparce crowd, compared to other meetings. Too many people down on the Waterfront watching the ships, he thought.

Doblie made small talk with his neighbor, discussing the current Blazer scores versus last year's. He listened as people shifted and muttered, paperwork rustled, the casual murmuring, smothered coughs, a woman blowing her nose. He glanced at his watch, noticing that the mayor was ten minutes overdue. He smiled to himself. Maybe she isn't going to make it.....

Hearing people at the entrance, he looked up. His face froze in a smile, eyes intently following the group coming into the room. His heart beat rapidly and he could feel the sweat breaking out on his forehead.

The small brown haired woman, mayor of the city of Portland, entered the room and warmly greeted the occupants. She broke away from her entourage, made her way to the table and settled down in her chair. "Well, sorry I'm late, folks. Let's get started."

The lawyer extraordinaire blinked, gulped, and hastily grabbed for the papers in front of him. Oh, boy! Shit's gonna hit the fan now.




The dark haired woman nursed her drink at the end of the bar. She rotated her head, loosening up her rock hard neck muscles. Heaving a sigh, she shook her head to herself and took a gulp from her beer. She wore blue jeans and a white t-shirt, the ever present black leather vest, black boots shining dully in the low interior lighting.

Nada. Nothing. Zilch. Nichts, nein, nil. Xena pursed her lips in thought. Maybe the kid has bailed, left town. Her heart thumped painfully and she felt a hollowness within. Crushing the irrational feelings of abandonment down, she growled and finished her drink. It's not Gabrielle, she reiterated to herself. Physical resemblance means nothing. It's just a fluke.

She waggled her empty beer bottle at the bartender who nodded and winked solemnly at her as he finished mixing a drink for another patron. Sighing, the brunette set the bottle back down on the coaster. She turned sideways on the stool and leaned her back against the wall to watch the interior, her right arm resting on the countertop.

Relatively busy for a regular Thursday evening. It'll be far busier tomorrow, she conceded. Fun Center at the park'll be open for business at noon.... Place'll be packed not long after that. Wall to wall people. The rollerblades would have to be left behind. What with all the people at Waterfront Park, Xena would be hard pressed to walk through the crowd, let alone roll. Besides, she knew that wheels would be banned for the duration on the sidewalk to forego 'traffic' accidents.

The tall woman nodded thanks to the bartender as he set another beer down and removed the empty. She pushed a ten spot from the bills sitting on the counter to him, picked up the bottle and took another swig.

Unseeing icy eyes watched the other patrons of the Virginia Cafe. It was a small, cramped establishment, but boasted having been there for nearly a hundred years. The main room was divided in half by a chest high partition, with booths and tables on one side and the bar on the other. There was a loft area with more seating to the rear of the establishment. While normally, Xena would have been sitting at the back of the bar, she had a better view of the door here by the front window. Outside, the busy traffic of Park Avenue trundled past.

A cute little number approached her end of the bar and set her tray down on it. "Hey, Sonny," the girl called to the bartender. "I need two Snakebites and a Michelob." The bartender grunted acknowledgement and the waitress smiled in thanks and glanced over at Xena. "Hi."

"Hi." The older woman studied the girl. Doesn't look old enough to be serving alcohol, she thought. She chewed her lower lip in consideration before leaning forward towards the waitress. "Excuse me, but could I ask you a really stupid question?"

The girl looked into the intense blue gaze and grinned. "Sure. It wouldn't be the first time," she laughed.

Xena smiled in return. "Okay.... Hypothetically, if you were a nineteen year old living on the streets of Portland, where would you go tonight?"

The waitress raised an eyebrow, her grin becoming crooked. "Well, you got me there. I haven't had that particular question." Her brow furrowed in concentration, hazel eyes narrowing. "I'd have to say the City."

"The City?"

"Yeah. It's a nightclub for minors. You know, drug free and hate free zone and all that. It's where lots of runaways hang out. Place stays open until six in the morning, so they don't have to look for someplace to crash all night." She smiled to herself. "I remember that we'd go dancing there on the weekends. When the cops would wander through, all the streetkids would move to the center of the dance floor and the rest of us would mill around on the outside. That way nobody got busted." The waitress looked to her tray as the bartender put her drinks on it. "Thanks, Sonny." She turned back to Xena. "Well, gotta go." Smiling, she weaved her way through the crowd.

The brunette watched her move away, mind racing. "Sonny!" she bellowed to the bartender. She spun around on the stool to face the bar. "I need a phone book!"




Xena took a swig from her water bottle and watched the entrance to the City Nightclub. She was parked a half block away with a good view up and down SW 13th Street. How lucky, she thought sardonically.

It was still light out, despite it being past eight in the evening. And still quite a bit of traffic on the street. The woman could hear the sounds of heavy traffic on the freeway nearby. There were several youths hanging out in front of the establishment, wearing their ragged Žuniforms' of shorts, baggy pants, t-shirts and flannels. It appeared that the doors had just recently been opened, and these were the kids who wanted to be fashionably late.

Drug free zone, eh? Considering the clientele, I'd pretty much doubt that. She let out a deep breath and pushed back into the cushion of the seat, hands bracing against the steering wheel. The woman relaxed her grip and glanced at her watch. Gonna be a loooonnngg night, she thought bleakly. She hoped it would pay off.

As the time passed, she idly watched the comings and goings from the building in front of her. Darkness settled in, traffic slowed. She watched with disgust as adults went into the club, exiting later with a youth in their arms. She shook her head to herself. Always gotta be somebody to take advantage, she mused before mentally kicking herself. Gods, that's hypocritical, lady! You should be the one to talk!

As it was nearing ten o'clock, Xena saw another group of kids coming up the sidewalk behind her. She scanned them in her side mirror, but there were too many to catch a view of them all. Then she heard the laugh.

Xena's mouth dried up and her eyes widened as the tell tale red-gold hair came into view from behind a taller boy. By the Gods! She even sounds like Gabrielle!

Despite the fact that she had been expecting the remarkable resemblance, the immortal was stunned. She watched, sky blue eyes feasting on the lithe form walking by. The eyes, the hair, facial features burned into her mind and united with her memories of her bard. The girl was dressed in ragged shorts and a sleeveless black midriff t-shirt, exposing her pierced navel and slim waist. She was talking to a Filipino girl, animatedly moving her hands to accent the tale, though the entire group was listening. Walks like her, moves like her, Xena's mind stuttered. Her mouth was open in a gasp that never ended, only able to move her eyes to follow as the group of teens sauntered to the entrance of the club. She watched as Gabrielle - NO! Rickie Gardner! her mind insisted - finished her story with a flourish and bowed to the laughter of the group around her.

Xena remembered to breathe after the young woman entered the City. She took a shaky breath and gulped her water, wishing it was something a little more substantial. Her mind buzzed with such rapid fancies, that she had difficulty pinning any of them down. Her thoughts dueled with each other, mercilessly.

It is! No! It can't be her! How could it be? Gods, it's her. NO! It's impossible! Gabrielle is DEAD, fool! She shook her head, trying to clear it. Rickie Gardner, Rickie Gardner.... So much like my bard.... Rickie Gardner, dammit! I've gotta get out of here...

Her head jerked up at the last thought. Cool reason filtering through her mind. She couldn't leave. She'd spent entirely too much time trying to find this young woman - a witness to a brutal murder that Xena had committed. She had to find out what the young woman had seen, who she had spoken to. Beyond that, she hadn't a clue of what actions to take. Kid didn't look too traumatized, she mused, getting herself back under control. She took a deep, steadying breath and settled back down into the carseat. Forcing herself to relax, she again focused her attention on the entrance to the club.




Evening. The crackle of phone lines.

"We have to meet.... Now!" Urgent, demanding.

"Why? What's up?"

"It's about your boy and his job."

"What? Tell me!"

"You know the place. Just be there." Click.

Weak sigh, trickle of fear.




Rickie pushed her way through the crowd of teenagers to the table she and her friends had commandeered earlier in the evening. She took a gulp of her soda and sat down next to Tara, setting another glass in front of her friend. The darker girl smiled in thanks and swayed to the loud music assailing them, half an ear on the discussion she was engaged in with an earnest young man.

They had taken a table in the corner, approximately ten feet form the dance floor. One wall had a floor length mirror running along the dance floor while the rest of the walls were painted black. The music was loud enough to rattle teeth and make conversation only possible when yelling. Lights flashed and danced all about the dance floor area. There were two doorways from this area. One led to the 'bar' that served no alcohol (unless you knew the right people.) The other led to a smaller room which held a couple of pool tables, the restrooms and a small shop to purchase munchies and cigarettes.

The building was liberally sprinkled with equal amounts of minors and adults. The adolescents were dancing, playing pool, talking, and tripping. The adults were either trying to relive their misspent youth or attempting to find a warm body to enjoy at home. The dance floor itself was packed with a crowd; people dancing in twos, threes, or more, and even by themselves in front of the mirror.

"You got something for me, Dreamer?" a voice asked seductively near her ear.

The woman shivered and said, "Alex!" She turned her back on the table and gave the lanky young woman behind her a long, wet kiss. "As a matter of fact, I do." She mouthed to Tara Žbe right back,' and moved away.

"So, how'd business go today?" Alex asked, draping an arm around the blonde's waist.

"Not bad, not bad. Step into my office," Rickie giggled, dragging the youth into the women's restroom and locking the door behind her. She dug into her pocket and came out with a wad of bills. "Here ya go. Sold it all without a problem, though I can't go to the park blocks right now."

"Excluded?" the dealer asked, counting the money.

"Yeah, last week. It's been a bitch." She watched Alex finish up the accounting and stuff the money into her pocket.

"Make much?"

"Actually, yeah, I did. Seems the market's drying up a bit out there. Has there been a bust that I haven't heard about?"

Alex pursed her lips in thought. "Nope, I don't think so. The big guys are probably doing the Žsupply and demand' thing - holding back to raise prices." She gazed at the small woman with affection. "Need work tomorrow?"

"You know it! I'm thinking about picking up a hotel room for a couple of days." She sniffed at herself and grimaced. "A shower's smelling mighty good right about now."

The dealer laughed. "You can always go to Greenhouse, girl. You ain't too old, yet."

The red gold hair shook negatively in earnest. "No way, dude! Then I'd get stuck in another program until I could sneak away. Ain't happening!"

"Well, here." Alex fished a baggie out of her pocket. "Some of the best nuggies I've come across lately. Consider it a reward."

"Hey! Cool!" She inspected the product, noticing the crystalline structures on the leaves. "Wow. That looks great!" The baggy found it's way to her pocket and she found her way into the other girl's arms. A long, passionate kiss later, she added huskily, "Thanks...."

There was a loud banging on the door behind her, yelling could be heard over the dull thump of the music.

"Guess we better get outta here. The natives are restless."

Rickie snickered and opened the door. Ignoring the glares of several young women, she sauntered out, followed by Alex. She headed for the front entrance, intent on her Žreward'. At the door, she turned and noticed her friend had been accosted by another teenager. The redhead shrugged and stepped out into the cool night air. She looked up and down the street for a momentary safe haven.




Xena's gaze intensified as the young woman stepped out of the club. She felt green eyes rake across her and shuddered, even though she knew the golden woman hadn't seen her. The dark woman watched as the mirror image of her heart crossed the street and headed into the shadows of the parklike strip that adorned the side of the freeway nearby. She observed until the form disappeared down the hillside and debated on whether or not to follow.




The teenager pulled a small glass pipe and the baggie out of her pocket, carefully loading up its bowl. She was seated near some bushes just in the shadows on a hillside. Below her was the freeway with a fair amount of traffic rushing past. She pulled out a lighter and prepared to fire it up when she heard voices nearby. Dammit! Rickie looked around to see if she'd been spotted.

She saw three men in suits about twenty feet away from her in the shadows. They looked like they were arguing. As traffic whizzed past, she caught bits and pieces of the conversation and wondered whether she should wait them out or move to someplace less conspicuous.




Glen Doblie, lawyer extraordinaire, nervously wiped fingers through his mousy brown hair. I shouldn't be here, his mind babbled. He was silent as he watched his Žassociate' argue with their contact.

"Your boy failed to do his job, Frank."

Detective Frank Rhyne winced inwardly. "Look," he defended, "it ain't my fault! I don't know what happened to him!." He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and mopped his brow. "I checked his hotel - they say they haven't seen him in a couple of days. His stuff's still there, just not him." Ginsberg! If I get out of this, you're a dead man!

The third man of the party pursed his full lips, dark brow furrowed as he glared at the police officer. "Mr. Dartmouth is not going to be happy about this. The job was not completed. The resulting mess is going to be extremely difficult to clean up. You," he sneered, "are responsible."

The detective looked down at the smaller man and shivered, intuitively knowing what price would be paid for the responsibility assigned him. He glanced at Doblie with pleading eyes, before returning to watch the man before him. "I know, I know! I'll clean it up, I swear! I just need a little time, to find someone else..." And locate that asshole...

"No. The time is past." The smaller man unbuttoned his suit jacket and reached inside. "I need a name. Who'd you hire for the hit?"

Doblie watched in horror as a silenced Glock 9mm appeared in his contact's hand and aimed at the police officer. Man, this can't be happening!

"Ginsberg! Ernst Ginsberg!" Rhyne squeaked, holding his hands away from his body and beginning to back up. He stumbled as he moved upslope, unsure of his footing. "Don't do this, man!" He tried to sound reasonable. "I'm a cop. The police'll come after anybody who kills me with a vengeance!"

The contact smiled angelically. "Good thing we own the police department, isn't it?"




The redhead tried to puzzle out the conversation she was catching. Something about a job not done..... Despite herself she moved closer along the shadows to hear more.

It was obvious that the smaller guy was the one in control. The larger man was acting very nervous. The third man was pretty out of it, as far as the conversation went. He just kind of stood around and looked anxious. For some reason, she found the third man to be somewhat familiar. Where have I seen him.....?

She had gotten quite close to the trio when the gun came out. She froze in shock. Oh, shit! She heard the smug voice of the smaller man's last comment. Then she heard the odd whine/whump of three silenced rounds being fired.

Rhyne's body jumped with the power of the bullets entering his body. Searing pain enveloped his chest and stomach. He slumped to the ground with a groan. His last thought was of his wife as he fell forward onto his face.

Doblie, face white, turned to the other man and gasped, "Christ! What'd you do that for?"

The contact raised an eyebrow at him. He checked his pistol and holstered it. "I told you. Mr. Dartmouth won't be happy. And he hates loose ends." He turned to the council member, head tilted in thought. "Are you a loose end, Doblie?" he asked quietly, leaning forward and into the other man's space.

"No! No!" Doblie responded, over loud. He ran his hands through his hair again and scrubbed at his face, trying very hard not to look at the corpse nearby. His eyes darted everywhere.

And landed on a young woman in the shadows.

The dark man watched Doblie's muddy eyes widen and his mouth become agape. His own green eyes narrowed and he spun around, pulling the pistol out again. He found his target and took careful aim. The kid just stood there. Like a deer in the headlights. Piece o' cake. He smiled as he began to squeeze the trigger, a bit reluctant that he couldn't play with the girl first.

Rickie could only stare down the barrel of the gun. Her mind babbled at her that she should move, run, do something, but her body wouldn't react. She looked into the man's eyes and prepared to die, mentally screaming at the insanity.

Doblie watched in horror, time slowing down immeasurably. The girl just stood there! His mouth was dry, his brown eyes panicked. No! Not realizing what he was doing, he reached forward with both his hands and shoved the armed man down, hearing the shot go off. To his left, he saw a blur of movement heading for the girl, but he was unable to pay much more attention.

The contact felt himself pushed down and the pistol went off, kicking up dirt near the girl's feet. He rolled as he landed on the grass, turning around and using his legs to sweep the feet out from his attacker. Doblie!? Motherfuck! As the lawyer fell to the ground, he swung the pistol, backhanding the man across the chin. There was a satisfying crunch and the lawyer screamed in pain. Glass jaw....

The small man turned back to the girl, but she was nowhere to be seen.




As the young woman disappeared into the shadows, Xena stepped out of her car and trotted across the street. This'll probably be my only chance to catch the kid alone for awhile. She worked the darkness under the trees, cursing her white t-shirt. That's what ya get when you do a stakeout without preparing, girl.

Letting her eyes adjust to the dimmer light, she opened her senses up. Ah! There... The sound of movement, voices. The smell of lavender and ... marijuana. Xena grinned then frowned quickly. Gun oil?

She moved closer in silence. Male voices. Arguing. Her head jerked up when she heard the telltale whining of a silencer. Swearing to herself, she picked up speed.

Xena hurtled herself into the small clearing. She watched as one man pushed the armed one down, heard the shot go off, saw the dirt kick up at Rickie's shoes. Beyond thought, she flew through the air and took the girl down with a tackle. She ignored the scream of one of the men as she pulled the girl up into her arms like a rag doll. Her eyes darted around for an avenue of escape. Looking up, she thought of Amazons.

Seconds later, she was sitting on a tree branch, several feet above the clearing, her Žbaggage' seated in her lap. The blonde in her arms came to life in a panic. Xena firmly clamped her long hand over the young woman's mouth and gripped her tightly around her waist.

"Be still if you want to live," she hissed into the girl's ear.

She felt Rickie freeze in her arms. She sensed the inner stuggle before the woman relaxed in her arms and nodded her head. Not quite trusting her, Xena kept her hand on the girl's mouth and looked down through the foliage.

The dark man moved stealthily into the area just vacated by the women. He scanned the area with intensity, unable to locate his quarry. His foot hit something and he looked down. Grinning, he bent down and picked up the pipe, lighter and baggy. "Guess I know where to start," he muttered to himself, pocketing the items. He moved back to Doblie and kicked him in the foot. "Get up," he growled.

The lawyer rolled over in agony, hands clasped over his jaw and tears rolling down his face. Unable to get up without his hands, he floundered on the grass for a few minutes until the smaller man reached down in disgust and drew him to his feet.

"Don't ever fuck with me again, Doblie," the contact hissed in his face. "Or broken bones are going to be the least of your concern. You got that?"

Eyes wide as saucers, the councilman nodded slowly and painfully.

The dark man straightened up and re-holstered his pistol. Grabbing Doblie by the arm, he said, "C'mon, I'll drop you off at a hospital.... Seems you took quite a fall while changing that lightbulb on your front step."

The injured man nodded again and whimpered, allowing himself to be pulled away.




Part IV

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