A Night At The Circus
Copyright to the author October 2007
The characters from the TV show are owned by MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended, and no profit gained by this piece of fanfic.
Thanks to Steph and the Academy for the invitation to participate in this year’s Halloween Challenge. It’s always a pleasure!
This story continues the amazing adventures of Xena: Warrior Investigator and her assistant, Gabrielle, whom we first met in ‘Gumboots For Hire.’
“Yeah, sweetheart.” I sat back in my chair, knees apart and legs up, and stuck my chewed old stogie in my mouth. I sighed with pure bliss, savouring the familiar feeling of anticipation building. “I’m ready. In your own time.”
“Okay, here I go.”
There was a clatter as Gabrielle turned the ‘Open For Bisniss’ sign which I had haphazardly hung outside the office door of the Amazon Detective Agency, recently renamed from the ‘Xena Investigation Agency’ after a rather unfortunate incident with a debt collector, an onion and a nameless orifice. The resulting publicity really hadn’t been too good for business, or at least not the sort of business Gabrielle would let me get paid for anymore. She had advised we needed to ‘rebrand and remarket’ in an attempt to ‘relaunch’ as apparently we had a teensy little problem with reputation, namely me, and so she’d insisted on a name change to try and present a fresh, new image which seemed to consist basically of less of me. I’d added another couple of signs; ‘Ask about orr Genrous Diskounts’ and ‘we’re verry nice people, really, im not a murderus warlord no more’ but she’d yanked them down when she’d spotted them.
The October air crept down the corridor, pregnant with the promise of frosts to come. It sent tiny little shivers up my bare arms as its chilled fingers caressed my skin. I wondered if it was doing the same to Gabrielle. Lucky old chilly wind, if it was, ‘cos didn’t I just wish my cold little paws were doing the same all over Gabrielle’s bare bits right about now! It set me to tingling, despite the cold, and it musta done the same to her ‘cos her lovely blonde little head just poked its way right inta my office. “No sign of anyone queuing up for our business.” She rolled her lovely green and/or blue eyes towards the corridor.
I could tell she was burning up with unfulfilled sexual tension, just like I was. Any old excuse just to have a look at me and my hot lusty wares, which were pleasingly and amply on show in my usual leather bustier. “No change there then, sweetheart.” I cracked an enticing smile her way.
I was a bit surprised, I confess, when she didn’t keel over right there and then, screaming ‘take me, oh take me, you proud, strong warrioress.’ Her brow remained creased and her eyes anxious. “Xena, I’m a bit worried in case that debt collector comes back.”
The debt collector. Talk about a passion killer. I gave her my best reassuring smile, the patented one that always has the dames all reassured and everything. It had reassured many a broad all the way into my bedroll. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. The way business is lately, I’m bound to be here if the little creep comes around again.”
“That’s what worries me,” she replied, dryer than a dried up ole river bed in the desert. She did that eyeroll thing again. Honestly, one little slip of the hand – well, okay, maybe two hands - and a girl’s condemned forever. Was I really to blame? Was I? Damn debt collector, calling here demanding money with menaces from my best assistant as I happened to be in the kitchen knocking up a quick greek salad for lunch. It was either the knife or the red onion and in my mind, the pile of centaur’s dung got off lightly. Even if his eyes had watered for a week.
So much for protecting Gabrielle’s honour. It had earned me a week of lecturing. That dame had the healthiest set of lungs I ever did hear, although I kept on my neverending quest to give them a comprehensive all over physical as soon as I could. “Anyway, that’s beside the point. We owe money everywhere. Sol’s said that Salmoneus won’t let us buy stuff on credit anymore, so where are we supposed to buy food now? And your ointment?”
My eyes narrowed, and the unlit stogie dropped from my suddenly nerveless lips. “I’ve told you before, Gabrielle, it’s just precautionary. You wouldn’t catch anything…”
Her eyes narrowed right back at me. “It doesn’t matter, Xena. We don’t have that kind of relationship anyway.”
“Yeah, yeah… special friends, I get it. Or I don’t,” I rejoined meaningfully, and I really meant it.
She ignored me; how, I don’t know. Many people had commented on my unignorability. “Money. We need some. Why don’t you use your legendary many skills to get us some business, instead of trying to get me into bed? Love won’t feed us, you know.” I knew she meant business when her hands took up a well worn position on her lovely round hips. My hands itched to do the same, but of course, my hips wouldn’t feel as fine as hers.
I jammed my chewed up cigar butt back into my mouth and muttered around the soggy end, “Don’t worry, sweetheart, I’m onto it. I’m writing a begging letter to Herc. He owes me.”
“No, he doesn’t. You owe him. Fifteen dinars, to be precise. He sent Iaolaus round again.”
“What?” My head shot up, envy misting my eyes with a greenish haze, all fantasies of her hips and my hands forgotten in a jealous cloud. “Pretty boy curly headed lump of lard has been round here again? When? You never said. Why didn’t you say? What did you do? Did he talk to you? Did you talk to him?” Fear and jealousy and lust and anger and more lust clutched at my stomach, making it rumble loudly. “You didn’t? You wouldn’t? What about our special friendship, Gabrielle? I’m specialler than he is!”
“Oh, calm down! Do we have to go through this every time? He brought a note to you from Hercules – I left it in your in-tray.”
“Eh?” My boots dropped from the table top as I looked around my desk in confusion. “Is that a fancy name for this pile of paper?” I picked up a couple of soggy scrolls that I’d been using to mop up spills and blot my ink, amongst other things. “Is Herc sending snotty reminders now? Oh, how times have changed,” I began to wail a lament as Gabrielle fished around on my desk in search of the missive. “The Herc I used to know wouldn’t do that to an old mate. He wouldn’t be where he is if not for me! I made him!”
“I think Zeus did that. You just got in the way every now and then.”
“We usedta be buddies, ya know. Served in the same unit. I saved his life, loads of times. Loads! That’s worth more than one weeny little soul save. He owes me. I don’t know – people today. Where’s the love? Where’s the love, Gabrielle?”
“Can’t pay the bills with love, Xena.” It was her favourite saying lately, for some strange reason. She fished some dog-eared piece of tatty old parchment out of my bin and smoothed it out on my desk top. “Here it is.”
I continued snivelling. “So much for him being into the greater good and all. Helping the needy, and the poor. And downtrodden. I’m needy and poor! What about me? I’m all trodden down now with need and poorness!”
Amazing the effect one tiny Amazon Princess can have on a ranting former bloodthirsty warlord when she fastens her odd-coloured eyes on you, ‘specially if she’s smacking your face at the same time. Very effective. I dragged my attention back to her, since clearly she felt she ought to participate in the conversation too. Broads do tend to do that, I’ve noticed.
“Hercules says he’s got a job for you. You’re supposed to let him know by today whether you want it or not. Says he’ll pay you fifty dinars to do a bit of investigation for him, and he’ll write off your fifteen dinar debt if you do it by the end of this week.”
“Oh goodie!” I levered myself to my feet. “Better get over there, pronto. Seeya, sweetheart. Buy some proper meat for dinner – I’ll have fifty bucks in my hand when I get back tonight! No, even better! We’ll go out for dinner at The Pickled Eel.” I forestalled the obligatory cost-related argument quickly, ‘cos once Gabrielle got on about money, or to be precise our extreme lack of it lately, there was no stopping her. “There’s two-for-one dinners on a Tuesday night. It would be the most cost-effective thing to do. No associated heating and fire costs, or washing up related anguish.” Gods, I was good – I surprised even myself with my sheer brilliance and daring, knowing full well that Gabrielle would never suspect that it was two for the price of one dinners to draw the punters in for the pole dancing and illegal gambling den that was held every Tuesday at Amphipolis’ newest and least desirable nightspot.
My brilliance worked its customary magic. “Do you think I’m stupid? I know what goes on at that place. It’s a den of iniquity and you’re certainly not throwing away our money on that sort of business. I’ll take it – it’ll pay the rent, and maybe Salmoneus will take some as a down payment on our tab. Go on, get going – we really can’t afford to keep Hercules waiting.”
I muttered all the way down the corridor – her hands were really sticking into my back - and only stopped when she kicked me outta the goddamn garden gate.
It was a typical night in the city – cold, dark and damp with what seemed like condensed daytime human misery. Night time was my time; I was a nocturnal creature, made for the night. My bones melted into the time-riddled walls as I flitted silently around the streets and avenues, a spectre silently observing, always observing. This was my city. I knew all its rotten underbellies, all its secret heartaches, all its murderous crimes. I knew a fair few of its taverns as well. They were the best bits.
I finished my cigar and my contemplation, and knew what I had to do. I steeled my shoulders, settled my fedora on my head, shrugged myself into my trusty old raincoat and headed off into the night, in pursuit of my mysterious business.
It was twilight when I sauntered back into our house-come-office. Well, I say sauntered – if memory serves (and it is a little shall we say hazy?) Gabrielle did describe it as staggered. Amongst other words she flung at me. Even she though couldn’t argue when I explained my good fortune to her.
“Gab..r..ell, I one. Won.”
“You’ve been to The Pickled Eel, haven’t you?” If I hadn’t been so preoccupied – yeah, that’s a good way of putting it - I might’ve noticed the steely glare lurking in the depths of her eyes. Soon, it was less of a steely glare and more of a full blown dagger and seemed to be poking me right between my own rather crossed eyes.
“No! Tha’s the thing! No! I didun need to, ‘cos the guys got cleared out of the Ickled Peel the ni’ bfor las, see? See?” Inanely, I grinned and held my hands out in a ‘ta-da!’ motion. I understood perfectly what I meant, and really, that’s all that matters, isn’t it?
Gabrielle seemed to disagree, as I found out when she dragged me into the garden by my ear and stuck my head under the water pump, declaring – how scandalous – that I was drunk. I figured I might be in a weensy bit of trouble, but that was no problem since I am a battle-hardened warrior, skills honed in the white-hot heat of life-or-death pressure. I came up with a plan, double-quick.
“Gabrielle,” I slinked, in my best sexy voice, “If ya wanted to see my award winning ‘wet t-shirt warlord’ competition routine, ya only had to ask, sweet… ooops!” I was dunked back under the ice-cold running water. It was topped off with an old bucket’s worth of stagnant rainwater she’d been saving for our tomatoes, which frankly I thought was a touch showy. I guess right now, she thought I deserved fertilising more.
“Baby, ya don’t understand! Okay… okay, maybe I shouldn’a gone to the Ickled Peel… Eel but I was led astray. You now how susceptible I am to the dark side, sweetheart. And what with the fall off in business and the money worries and – well, it was all just too much! I just had a bit of a succumb, that’s all. Once I realised that I’d slipped back into Evil Xena mode, I snapped myself out of it right away!” I shook myself all over like a dog, scattering silvered droplets of mini-mooned water all over us.
“I take it this was after you gambled away our fifty dinars in Fat Fedoras’ shed?”
I was hurt. “No, sweetheart. Herc wouldn’t pay up front; the tight fisted ham would only cough up ten dinars which let’s face it, Gabrielle, is not enough to keep the rent man off our back and pay off Salmoneus’ tab. I can’t have debt collectors upsetting you, now can I?” I was onto a winner with this alright. Her face softened right up, and she even almost nearly smiled a bit. I knew I had her now.
“I’m sorry, Xena. But when you didn’t come home, I just...”
“Yeah, I know, sweetheart.” I patted her arm reassuringly. “I was never in the Pickled Eel. I bumped into Fedoras outside; I never even had to go in! And in Fed’s shed, there’s no entrance fee! Just a minimum two dinar stake.” Funny, but the steely glare was back. And I could see her hand reaching towards the water pump again. Honestly, she was so unpredictable and moody tonight. Was she PMS-ing? I tried to head her off with my best winning smile. “Long story short, sweetheart! I won fifty bucks! And I hardly had to crack any heads open at all the whole night!”
Well, she was on me like an ill-fitting jacket with that. Went through all my pockets and everything. I thought of telling her I had secret pockets in my underwear and she should give them a damn fine going over, but something – I dunno what, probably my unerring warrior instincts – just told me I better keep my mouth shut.
She cleaned me out of the fifty dinars quicker’n Autolycus would’a, and stashed the money in her cleavage. Oh, to be them dinars! I’d have given dinars to be them dinars, I would! Alas, she turned those lovely money storage units away from my adoring gaze and headed back into the house.
I dripped after her, despondence and rancid water oozing from every pore.
“Just a bit of research.” I sat down, sniffling and still dripping, at the rough table and made a great show of shivering and wiping my nose. “Sweetheart, I think I’m coming down with something. I’d hate for it to get in the way of the work, what with Herc’s tight deadline and all.” I’d experienced Herc’s tight deadline first hand – the impossibly handsome and charismatic demi-God had a tight everything if ya catch my drift, and he puts all his lovely tightness to very good use. Nobody could resist him, least of all someone with very loose morals like what I used to have. I’m different now that I have been Saved. My morals are a bit tighter.
“I’ll warm you up some honey and lemon. What are you researching for Hercules? Do you need any help?” She started bustling about the kitchen, putting a pan of water on the fire to warm and starting to juice a lemon. She popped a little bowlful of olives in front of me and I started to chew on them absently as I admired the awesome sight of her bustle as it wiggled delightfully around the small room.
“Might do, sweetheart.” I fished a brand new cigar from the brim of my fedora, and waggled the end around in my mouth. It was nice and firm and fresh, filched from Herc’s very own stash; this one should last me a good ole while, bein’ as how I never actually smoked the things. Awful habit. “He’s got a couple of missing persons cases he’s looking into. Both women, both have gone missing during this last moon so the trails should be fresh, but he’s hit a dead end. He wants me to ask around a bit, see whether I can find any new leads. I’m seeing the husbands tomorrow. Herc reckons a woman’s touch might get better results.”
“There you go.” She placed a tankard of warmed liquid in front of me. I wrapped my hands around it, savouring the warmth of the wood against my chilled skin. “I’ll come with you. I should imagine he’ll be pretty upset, the poor guy. I remember what I was like when Perdicus disappeared – it was an awful feeling, not knowing. Wondering all the time where he was; if he was hurt, or afraid. Or wondering if it was something that I’d done.”
“Yeah.” I spat out an olive pit. “I was gutted right along with ya, sweetheart. Practically inconsolable.”
Her face got kinda screwed up. “Funny. You didn’t even know him.”
“I know. I’m that empathetic. Still, it all worked out alright in the end, what with the two faced harpy being an international jewel thief, eh? Can’t believe he ran out on you, Gabrielle. I never would. Even if you nagged me till the middle of next year, I wouldn’t run out on ya, sweetheart. You’re worth way more than jewels, anyone in their right mind knows that.” I was definitely coming down with a cold, cos my nose was getting more sniffly and my eyes had even started watering. A cold and hay fever. Even if it was the middle of the night in October. I took a huge slurp of my lemony honey water as a precautionary measure.
Gabrielle started blushing very prettily. “Xena, that is so sweet! But I’m still coming with you tomorrow. I do the sensitive chats, remember.”
“He’s hiding something. Look at his eyes; all shifty they are.” The hapless husband’s eyes were actually quite boggly at the moment, what with the gasping for air and all. But I knew he was guilty – he was a man after all, and my instincts, honed in the white-hot heat of battle, were never wrong.
“He’s only got one eye, Xena. The other is false. Glass, if I’m not mistaken. Excellent craftsmanship. Take the pinch off him.”
Huffing and glowering, I released the pinch. The husband crumpled, dragging air into his collapsing lungs as rapidly as he could. I looked on with a regretful eye. I loved the pinch. I just didn’t get to do it as often as I would like to these days, what with being good and all. Apparently cutting off someone’s flow of blood to the brain was considered a bit naughty. I sighed in dreamy-eyed remembrance of the days when a woman could whap the pinch on willy-nilly; enemies, debt collectors, little brothers. Yep, I loved the pinch. Back in the Bad Ole Days, I used to do it for fun – mine, obviously, not theirs. I hardly ever forgot to take it off as well.
Gabrielle took over. In ten minutes flat, she had discovered more than me or Herc had been able to. He and his wife Zelia had been married two years, lived two days ride from here. On their anniversary they had gone on a trip to back to his home town of Amphipolis to do some shopping, catch up with relatives and treat themselves to a meal out at one of the finer taverns in the town. They had become separated when the travelling fair had rolled into town and he had lost sight of his wife momentarily. When the circus parade had passed, his wife was nowhere to be seen. He checked around the shops, then returned back to his relative’s house and waited for Zelia to come back. She never came. That was a week ago and there had been no sign of her since.
Gabrielle managed to get a full description of her, down to the clothes she was wearing, her voice and accent, even how her hair had been styled. She was so damn good, and I was so hungover, that I let her lead with the second husband when we met him later that afternoon. She hit gold there too. Damn, but she was turning out to be one fine investigator. Obviously working with me had rubbed onto her; not the bits I had wanted to rub onto her, but hey – I’ll take anything! I puffed up with pride. Maybe I should think about moving her education on a bit, advanced interrogation techniques, that sort of thing? Mind you, my unerring warrior senses told me that if I taught her the pinch, I’d only regret it since I’d probably be the main person she used it on.
Later that evening, we were reviewing case notes over dinner.
“Clues?” I prompted as I sucked on a chicken drumstick. She shook her head as she reviewed her scribbly notes. She was one smart cookie – sharper’n a fox and a damn sight less hairier, with a proper education and all, but her handwriting stunk worser than a three day old dead fish sewn into the soles of an ex-lover’s best leather war boots (not that I’ve ever done that, although I can heartily recommend mackerel and shrimp for it). I screwed my eyes up and peered over her shoulder but the scraggly mess defeated even my uncanny insight.
I gave up, and grabbed another drumstick. “Similarities, then?”
She chewed on the end of her quill for a little while, contemplating her various scraps of parchment covered with tightly packed squiggles. “Well,” she said finally, startling a wing out of my slippery fingers. “Both of the victims are women, married. Not residents here – visitors, so maybe they don’t know the area so well. Maybe they just wandered off? Both seem to have disappeared when their husband’s attention was elsewhere. But at different times of the day. And in different locations in the city, but both at markets. Uhm… that’s all I can see right now. How about you?”
“Huh?” All I could see was a rapidly dwindling plate of barbecue chicken bits. I scrabbled around in the bones, looking for a little intact limb of deliciousness. “Sweetheart, I don’t wanna interrupt you in full flow. It wouldn’t be good for your training. Keep going, you’ll get there.”
Her eyes lit up. “Is there an important connection I’m missing? Okay then – think, Gabrielle! Think!” She thought, and I rootled. In vain, the both of us. She stalled, and I’d scoffed all the chicken already. I called it a day, and we went to bed, to sleep on it. I’d rather have slept on her, but a woman can’t have everything.
“Don’t bother opening up, Gabrielle,” I advised around a mouthful of breakfast bread and cheese. “We’re not open for business today. We’re doing field work.”
“Great. I’ll pack us a picnic lunch. Where?”
“In a field.”
I’ve noticed during my long career as a former rampaging warlord and latterday Agent For Good that certain blonde Amazon assistants can get a bit shirty in situations like this, particularly when they’ve only just got up and haven’t yet settled into the day’s rhythms. Mind you, the rhythm she was beating out on my forehead was quite catchy. It carried on for a quite a while even after she’d stopped.
“The field we are going to,” I patiently explained whilst pressing a bag of ice to my thumping forehead, “is the field in which the circus is camped.” I fished around in the pocket of my raincoat and dug out a tatty little poster which I’d torn down from the walls of the Pickled Eel. It was a rough drawing of a lop-sided Big Top, with a huge, garishly painted clown’s face looming out of it. I shuddered. I’d always hated circuses. “The only thing that these disappearances have in common is the fact that they coincided with a circus parade through the town squares. It’s a long shot – probably nothing, in fact but we have no other leads and I have fifty bucks riding on it. So – a day at the circus it is!”
“Goodie!” Gabrielle clapped her hands together in delight. “I’ve never been to the circus! I won’t bother with a picnic lunch – we should get going right away. Time is ticking on and we have a case to solve.”
She grabbed my arm and practically dragged me out of the house, grinning the whole way.
“I can’t believe they had to call the strongman over to make you pay the stabling fee.” Gabrielle was still quite pink from all the shouting. “Could it be any more embarrassing?”
“Goddamn strongman,” I cursed, rubbing my elbow. “Still, he won’t be bending any more iron bars for a while.”
“I suppose not,” she agreed reluctantly. “But did you really have to agree to take his place? And that costume does nothing for you.”
“Hey, don’t knock it. It comes with its own costume, and tent. And it’s got us inside the whole set up. If there’s anything going on, I’ll soon figure it out, what with my uncanny instincts and knack for ferreting out dodgy dealings.”
She cast me a look. “Okay, well don’t get carried away. I’m off to check out the food stalls. I didn’t get any breakfast.”
“Any luck?” she slurred around a mouthful of hot dog. I could tell it wasn’t her first by the ketchup stains around her mouth. Using all my strongman willpower, I resisted the urge to lick them off.
“Yes. I’ve managed to recruit enough men to form another army, Gabrielle. But they’re all attracted to my amazing strength and just between us, I think some of them may be a little strange. They’re all calling me Mistress Xena and asking me to whip them with my leather dress. I’m not sure that I want that kind of person in my army. I think they might enjoy the discipline a bit too much.”
She stared back at me with a flat glare. “I meant about the missing women.”
“Oh. No, I’ve been a bit busy bending iron bars. But I’ve got a dinner date with the ringmaster now. He’s one of my posse too. He seems particularly keen on me. I’m picking him up from his tent.”
Gabrielle waved her toffee apple under my nose. I loved it when she offered me her fruit. I noticed she’d been doing it a lot less lately. “Well, I’ve been asking around a bit,” she said. “Nobody’s noticed anything strange around here, but then I suppose they wouldn’t really would they? There’s always people coming and going so it’d be a bit hard to figure out if any extra women have been hanging around. I had wondered if they had both run away to the circus – you know, escape their boring lives and such, but really they didn’t seem the type.”
“I suppose they did seem the average housewife types,” I agreed as I steered her in a casual stroll towards a small collection of tents that served as the circus folks’ homes. We strolled up to the ringmaster’s and I knocked on the canvas flap.
“Coo-ee! Is that you, Xena darling?” The flap wiggled, and we were whooshed inside. I had the vague sensation of silks and feathers, before being air kissed to within an inch of my life. I spluttered – the feathers and scent of ‘eau de strawberry’ was really quite overpowering in such close quarters. Ilian had changed out of his ringmaster outfit into something more comfortable and flouncy – a multi-layered little pink number, complete with feather boa and huge fake boobs.
“Call me Iliana, darling. I’m off duty now. Love the little off the shoulder leather number, by the way. So goes with your eyes. Who’s your pet poodle? It’s so important to accessorize, don’t you think?”
Luckily Gabrielle was so astonished that she’d missed what some people may term a slightly derogatory remark. Still, that was roaring queens for you. I flashbacked to Borias. We did some beautiful rampaging, back in the day, up and down those Steppes. Great for toning the calf muscles. His calf muscles unfortunately turned out to be more shapely than mine, specially when decked out in a golden anklet ring and suede booties. Back then, we were so close, we shared everything – an army, spoils, a wardrobe. I drew the line when he started filling out my leather dresses better than I did. Still, sharing a tent with Borias when he was in full Betty mode did prepare a person for the sight of Ilian in full, gorgeous flow. Gabrielle on the other hand seemed to be struggling with the mincing reality of a six foot four man with bulging biceps and six inch stilettos.
“Darling, I’ve ordered out,” simpered the fluffy apparition. “You did say you wanted privacy, but I never dreamt of a threesome. How marvellous! I’m up for anything, me.” I barely raised an eyebrow – as a red blooded warlord, I’d seen it all; I’d done it all – practically my whole army, let’s face it. But the thought of sharing my lovely little innocent Amazon assistant with a screaming, pink-flounced cross-dresser was a weensy bit too much even for progressive ole me.
“Thanks Iliana. This is Gabrielle. She’s my assistant – when I’m strongmanning, it’s all I can focus on so I need Gabrielle to cover all my day to day affairs.”
“Darling, I’m delighted to be one of your daytime affairs.”
Dinner arrived, a hearty, tasty stew that Gabrielle wasted no time in putting away. Iliana and I watched mesmerised as chunks of tender meat disappeared into a rosebud mouth, and rivulets of savoury gravy were licked from chins and lips. Marvellous. “You should put that in the show, Illy,” I whispered. “It’d do wonders for your takings.”
Eyes glazed, Ilian could only agree. “I think you need a special license for that kind of show,” he observed, eyes calculating revenue potential behind the wonder and admiration. “Even so, it’d be worth the fee…”
“Not bloody likely,” burped Gabrielle. “I know the kind of show you’re talking about and if I wouldn’t do it at the Hairy Butcher then I certainly won’t be doing it at a circus. What kind of girl do you think I am?”
I lapsed into fantasy for a couple of minutes; wonderful fantasies involving Gabrielle, various foodstuffs and loads of scenarios of just the type of girl I hoped Gabrielle could be from time to time. It was marvellous. It took several thumps to the head to snap me out of it, which was fine ‘cept some of them were from Ilian as well. Bit of a cheek, really, as I hardly knew him. I pulled myself together quickly, plied him with stew and drink and got him talking about life in the circus.
“I started on the trapeze, back in the old days. Real elegant, it was – not like half the bloody acts they got these days. Slash and whack, I call ‘em – no artistry. Where’s the beauty in chucking a load of knives at someone?” We all nodded and grunted as we chewed on crusty bread. “’Course, things were different then. Real honour in the gang, there was – you get in with the circus people, you knew you were joining one big family. Everyone looked out for each other back then.”
“Guess times change, huh? Circus gets bigger, more people join.” Casually, I picked up another hunk of bread and used it to sop up a bit of the stew. “Must be hard to keep track.”
“Exactly.” Iliana paused as his jug was topped up with more foaming beer. “Seems I barely know who’s in my own troupe these days.”
“I always thought of circus people as being a little unusual,” Gabrielle remarked disingenuously. “I mean, I know that’s not necessarily a bad thing…”
“We do consider ourselves to be a little on the unconventional side. That’s why you fit right on in, Xena sweetie.” I was flattered, although Gabrielle seemed a little stiff round the chin at that comment. I dunno why – there was no getting away from the fact that I was different, my lonely quest for redemption always setting me on a path alone. I wore my difference like a... a shield, yes. Or a cloak. Or a pair of shoes or something.
Gabrielle continued her line. “I suppose you’d be the only person who would know of anyone behaving strangely? Out of the ordinary, I mean?”
Iliana looked a little blank. “Well, we have people who stick pins into their eyes for a living, or who can fold themselves up and fit themselves into a scroll case. That kind of thing?”
“Not really.” Gabrielle looked disappointed.
I was getting a mite fed up of Gabrielle’s subtle line of questioning. I decided to go for a slightly more direct approach. “Have you had a couple of mousy-lookin’ broads join the circus in the last coupl’a weeks at all? Anyone behaving weird, like say acquiring a coupl’a mousy looking broads as glamorous assistants or wives or anything?”
Ilian looked thoughtful for a moment. “No, you’re the only new performer we’ve taken on recently. I’d know, because of the licences and fees, you see. Wives I know less about but I can’t say I’ve noticed anyone new around. Mousy looking women I’d notice, as they tend to stand out around here.” Sure, he had that right – they’d be as obvious as a bat in a cage full of parakeets. “Why the interest in mousy women?”
“It’s errr… it’s a fetish. I have an unhealthy obsession with a certain type of woman.” Yeah – short, blonde and gorgeous with rippling abs, but if course Ilian didn’t need to know that right now. He did, however, look a bit dubious.
“Yes, that’s right.” In jumped Gabrielle. “The merest sight of a mousy looking woman distracts her so much that she loses all focus and can’t do strongmen things anymore, like bending iron bars and the like. Really, it’s just best to point out all the women who fall into that category – just to warn her. Surprise her with one, and there’s no telling what she’ll end up doing. You should see some of the scrapes I’ve had to get her out of, because of this fetish.” Gabrielle seemed to be warming up to her subject, judging by the burning quality that seemed to be creeping into her eyes, so I thought it best to subtly knock her off course a little. She seemed to take the huff a bit with me though, once she’d picked herself up off her ass and resettled herself back on her stool.
I gave her one of my sweetest smiles. “Remember though, Gabrielle, what abstinence does to me. I don’t do it well. Best to do it all under controlled circumstances – point me in the direction of any mousy looking women so I can make sure it’s all gotten out of my system in a proper, supervised way. It’s all part of my aversion therapy. So – any mousy women ya wanna warn me about, Ilian?”
He considered me – Godsdamnit it was just as well we were in a bloody circus ‘cos he seemed to be taking this preposterous tale as the truth. “Well, I suppose it depends on your definition of mousy. There’s the Rat-Woman I suppose, but I’m guessing that’s not what you mean. She’s in tent twelve, in case you want to check it out. I suppose one of the clowns might be a bit mousy under their make up, but I wouldn’t know – they never take it off. Mind you, I think they’re all men anyway. You might have to go off campus to get your fix. There’s a camp of circus followers set up to the North. I discourage followers and hangers-on, but I can’t get rid of them. Some of the acts even like having gangs of fans following them round. Maybe there’s some mousy women there?”
“Ooooh! Ya think? I better go check it out – I couldn’t half go for a nice, plain Jane tonight. There’s something about that prim exterior…” I grabbed hold of Gabrielle and yanked her quickly out of the tent. Ilian’s voice floated out after us on the breeze.
“Don’t forget you’re on in the main tent in two candlemarks for the evening performance. I’ve had some posters done specially. Wear your leather and bring your own iron bars.”
Luckily the moon was full, and at least there was enough light for me to cast about by. Sadly that also meant there was enough light for me to see Gabrielle’s increasingly pissed-off expression. She hates it when we get lost. I could tell her patience was wearing thin; I think it was the tutting and huffing that gave me the clue. “I thought the camp would’ve been closer, don’t you think Xena?” she declared meaningfully.
“Don’t want it too close, sweetheart,” I fabricated inventively. “All those undesirable types. Bit whiffy, camps of that type, if ya catch my drift.”
I caught a sound, and held up a finger for silence. The wind brought a rustling, a chattering, a clinking. Years of tracking experience enabled me to target immediately the direction and source of the noises. I was never wrong – I had honed my skills in the hardest of territories, with the trickiest of prey – on the blood-soaked battlefields of my youth. I was a superb tracker and I always got my man, even when it was a woman.
Gabrielle brightened up, and looked all excited. “What is it, Xena? Is it the camp?”
“No, sweetheart. Just the trees.”
She looked a mite dubious. “Are you sure, Xena? I’m sure I can hear talking.”
“Wind catching the branches in a certain way. It’s just nature’s symphony, sweetheart.” There was a definite sound of giggling on the breeze, followed by the unmistakeable clinking of flagons and cups. Not very musical, even to my ears.
“What’s that then?” my small blonde assistant demanded with narrowed eyes. “A family of badgers settling in for the night? You drive me crazy, sometimes.” Wow – brilliant news. I could tell she meant crazy with desire. Chicks love moonlight walks, and I was obviously working my magic without even meaning to. “Go and see what it is.” She shoved me in the direction of the noises, and I squirmed my way into the bushes and stalked along the ground until I came across my target.
My heart thudded into my chest, then dropped like a stone as the full horror of what I was seeing sank in. My body inadvertently lost all its breath, and I felt myself gasping like a fish out of water.
“What is it?” Gabrielle whispered.
“Don’t come here, sweetheart! Stay back!”
“What have you found?”
“Something horrible. Something awful. To awful to contemplate.” I shuddered, and tried to keep the horror out of my voice, I didn’t wanna be upsetting my best girl, out here in the woods, all alone in the darkness except for the nameless terror which I was at that moment forced to confront. I’d seen sights in my time – sights that would scare the blood right outta the body, send the brain wild with fright and change a person in ways which could only be dreamt of in nightmares. And even I, battle scarred warrior, honed to evil and impervious to pain, could barely bring myself to look at the ghastly sight spread out in the small clearing before me. “Teenagers, Gabrielle! And they’re making out!”
I beat a hasty retreat, terror nipping at my heels all the way back to Gabrielle. I desperately needed a moment to recoup, and lay on the floor panting like an overheated dog. Gabrielle appeared strangely unsympathetic; I could tell by the tapping of the foot, ‘specially as it was tapping on my head at the time.
“Teenagers?” The word was pithy, the tone – well, if I didn’t know better, I’d swear it was almost annoyed.
“Gods, it was awful. Spots, bad haircuts and witless conversation. I’ve seen horror, Gabrielle. I’m steeled to it, but a group of teenagers in the woods, at night – well, that beats even me.”
Gabrielle regarded me in total silence for a few moments, whilst I hyperventilated and tried to calm myself down. “I had no idea you had a teenager phobia. I suppose it makes sense though – you were a thoroughly obnoxious one, by all accounts. Your mother told me all about it. You were so bad that you’ve probably even put yourself off teenagers. This probably all makes perfect sense, psychologically speaking. You poor thing, you…” She snaked an arm around my shoulders and patted my back a bit. I sniffled my way around until I was squeezed as tightly as I could be against her wonderful breasts. It was very comforting. In a sexy, turned on kinda way.
“Right.” Suddenly, and much to my extreme disappointment, we were back to business. Damn Gabrielle’s extraordinary focus. Not as good as my focus, of course, but it still popped up at the most inconvenient times. “A group of teenagers up to whatever it is teenagers get up to in the woods at the dead of night does us no good at all. Let’s get on and find this camp.”
“I suppose you’re right,” I sighed, disappointment oozing from my very being. “But first, I might as well go ask those teenagers if they’ve heard or seen anything about the missing women. Worth a shot.”
Gabrielle stood by and admired me loads as I made a great show of pulling myself upright and preparing to brave the terrorising teen hordes that were lurking in the depths of the scary old woods.
“Get on with it, will you? I don’t have all night. I have other people to do after you.” I swear I heard that whispered from over my right shoulder, which was kinda funny since Gabrielle was standing directly in front of me.
“Gabrielle, did you say something?” She shook her head and still looked like she was admiring me. Funny, but I coulda sworn I’d heard something behind me and to the right, but the only thing there was a load of gnarly ole bushes – the kind of bushes that could hide a body, if a body had a mind to lurk threateningly around unsuspecting people, ready to leap out at them and hold knives to their throats. Odd really, that I’d barely had that thought when damme but didn’t it happen right there and then! By the Gods, I was good!
“Excuse me, who in Tartarus are you and what are you doing with that knife against my throat?” Luckily all my old warrior training kicked in – albeit after the knife was already at my throat - and I was able to remain steelily calm and deathly in control, knowing that the slightest wrong move could result in slit gizzards and intense pain. His, of course – not mine. I was a professional, after all.
So, it turned out, was he. “Oh, sorry; how rude of me. I’m a serial killer. I’m gripped with an uncontrollable desire to kill in a variety of gruesome and inventive ways. You’re my next victim, but don’t take it personally. I won’t give you my name, obviously.” He reached around and we shook hands awkwardly before he caught a good look at my face and shot back in surprise. Clearly, my stern exterior, controlled aggression and poise had caught him off guard. “Oh my Gods, so sorry – you’re completely not my type. I go for the teens myself – so much more satisfying. I make it a policy not to off anyone over the age of twenty three. You’re way over my demographic.”
“Excuse me?” I was all huffy. “I’m barely a day over twenty four.”
“Right, and I’m one of the Sisters of Gaia.” The eyes did a massive roll behind their mask. “Sorry, ma’am, you won’t do at all.” The knife disappeared from my throat. Gods, I was gutted – I’d never been ma’am-ed before. He scratched his head with the knife hilt. “So, ahh… how’s it going? Seen any teens around here? I’m behind on my quota for the week and I was hoping to get lucky tonight. Have to get going while the moon’s still full. Actually – who’s this gorgeous young thing you’re with?”
Gabrielle positively simpered. “Hi, I’m Gabrielle. And you are…?”
“Your serial killer. You’ll understand if I want to remain incognito, obviously. Well, what’s a nice young thing like you doing out in the woods in the dead of night, all alone and defenceless?” He slipped past me and slinked over to Gabrielle’s side, giving my assistant a winning smile underneath his mask.
I took exception. “Excuse me, but she isn’t all alone, and she certainly isn’t defenceless!”
“Good point.” He scratched the chin of his mask in a contemplative gesture. “While we’re just checking credentials, can I just verify a few details? Don’t want to be making any more mistakes. Right – female? Check. Deserted woods: check. Dark and spooky night: check. Full moon: check. Teenager-stroke-youth? You’re nodding – I’ll take that as a check too. Last one – virgin? Check?”
Gabrielle paused from her simpering. “That’s a bit personal, isn’t it? Is that really necessary?”
I was still huffy, and getting more so by the minute. Damnit, I couldn’t be having perfect strangers turning up in the middle of the night serial killing my Gabrielle, now could I? If there was anything of a thrusting and penetrating nature going on, I wanted to be the one doing it! ‘Cept I didn’t mean with no knives, obviously. “That’s a damn good question – I’ve never been able to get to the bottom of it. She’s been married, you know, even if he did allegedly run out on the wedding night. I have my suspicions. I’d take her off your list. Plus, she aint as young as she looks, ya know. She rubs asses’ milk into her skin. On hot days, she smells like a milk shake.”
“Really?” The serial killer paused, uncertainty written all over what we could see of his face. Gabrielle’s expressions were slightly easier to read, unfortunately. I knew I’d pay for it later on. Still, I was doing all this to save her life. I knew I’d be able to sweet-talk her round. After all, I did have many skills.
“Yeah, afraid neither of us are any use to you tonight. Still, on the positive side, there’s a pile of teenagers just over there.” I pointed towards the depths of the undergrowth. “Loads of ‘em; you’ll easily get it out of your system tonight if ya head that way.”
His eyes lit up. “You think? ‘Cos I don’t mind telling you, it’s a pain in the arse when this compulsion grips me. I can’t do anything until I’ve sliced and diced. I’m a baker normally but honestly, I can’t do a damn thing when it’s the full moon. I end up wanting to stuff people into the ovens, which really isn’t good for business. I could do with getting it all out of my system in one night.”
I gave him my best sympathetic look. “I understand completely. It’s a bloodlust thing. I usedta get it myself, although never really felt the urge to turn people into loaves. Only thing you can do is go with it. So why don’t you go with it on that group of teens I told you about? It’ll practically be a public service.”
He brightened noticeably. “I think I will. Maybe I’ll see you around? There’s another full moon next month.”
I gave him a cheery wave. “Say, in your rampages, you haven’t killed a couple of women this full moon have you?”
“Might have. Young?”
“Oh, no. My mistake. In that case, you haven’t come across any kidnapped women, say in the last fortnight have you? Held in the woods, for example?”
The killer pondered for a moment, absently twirling his long-bladed knife. “Can’t say I have. There’s a camp of circus followers a couple of leagues away but nobody looks like they don’t want to be there. All the women are skanky ho types – well, let’s face it, only a certain type of woman gets turned on by circus freaks. I checked them out already but they were no good to me.”
“Damn,” I cursed. “Another blind alley. Still, glad we were able to help someone tonight.” I gave him another cheery wave, and he dashed off in excitement to pursue his calling. It wasn’t quite as Greater Good as my calling, but if it involved offing piles of irritating teenagers, it was the next best thing. Besides, who was I to judge? I’d been evil in my time. I had changed. Maybe he could too, after he’d finished slaughtering the teens. I hoped so, ‘cos any sooner’d be a real tragedy.
We got back to my tent in the circus encampment, just in time for a massive ear bashing from Ilian, this time fetchingly dressed in his full ringmaster regalia. Sadly, I’d missed my evening performance, which meant I was docked my wages for that night. I hadn’t even realised I was getting any, but Gabrielle had negotiated us a real sweet deal involving unlimited hot dogs and a 5% share of the takings plus tips. She reckoned it could add up to as much as fifteen dinars a week, which would complement Herc’s fifty dinars nicely. Plus, it was steady-ish work as long as the circus was around.
Herc’s dinars were looking further away, though, with the blanks we were drawing on the missing women front. I retired to bed, as all my best thinking time happened there. After all, lately in bed, I had nothin’ but thinking time. Granted, my thoughts usually took a particular Gabrielle-shaped turn but tonight, I knew I had to focus my mind on matters of missing women.
“Listen,” it squealed, all red in the face with excitement. “I have to tell you, last night was totally amazing. Amazing! Never had a rush like that before! I owe you big time!”
“Excellent news!” I basked in the glow of success, even if I didn’t have a clue who this guy was or what I had done. Perhaps we’d had sex? I didn’t really remember but it could’a happened – sex was as natural as breathing to me, and I breathed a lot without always remembering the details the next day. “Was I good? Bet I was good.” I had probably been outstanding. It was me, after all.
“I gotta tell you, it’s just left me wanting more! Normally, with all that last night, I’d be well satisfied but not any more. I need more. More!”
Do you think I’m not used to people throwing themselves at me, wild with insatiable lust? Been there, had that… “Well, I haven’t had breakfast yet but I’m sure I could squeeze a quick five minutes in.” I started stripping off my dress. Well, it was just sex and I’d had loads of practice at it over the years, what with being irresistible and all. Plus, it had been a while. My prowess as a lover was legendary. I’d used my feminine wiles for evil purposes, of course – the story of how I’d sacked Carthage using just my killer smile, a feather boa and a broomstick was legendary. It wasn’t fair to humankind, to have all my wonderful wiles going to waste. And he did seem to really need it, so it would practically be for the Greater Good, right?
The guy must’a known something of my reputation, ‘cos he looked a bit alarmed. “What are you doing? Ah, wait! It’s me, from last night. The woods? The teenagers? I was going to serial kill you and your friend?”
I pulled my dress straps back onto my shoulders reluctantly. “Oh, it’s you. How did you find me? What do you want, anyway? I thought you’d agreed not to kill us.”
“Oh yes, absolutely. I wouldn’t dream of it. No, I’ve been doing a bit of research into you and decided to join you. I’ve given up baking, and I’m going into serial killing full time. The buzz is addictive. I figure if I hang around with you, I’ll find loads of victims and probably learn a thing or two, refine my technique and all. Murder and mayhem do appear to follow you around.”
Well, really – you know, a less self confident and secure in their self esteem type person could’a gotten a mite upset at that but I knew better. And let’s face it, it was kinda true, if ya counted factual accuracy as true. Still, I couldn’t be having some crazed whacko killer trailing me around; that really wouldn’t be good for business, especially as I was making such great strides in rebranding myself as the People’s Champion and general all round Good Gal. That’s what I kept telling Gabrielle, anyway.
“That’s very ahhh, nice of you, I’m sure,” I explained, one of my best fake smiles plastered onto my face. “But you see, I work alone.”
“Who’s the blonde then?” He nodded over towards the vision of loveliness who was snuffling in her sleep. It was cute snuffling, of course.
“Ah, her – yes. Well…” My voice dropped into a conspiratorial whisper, and I prayed to the Gods that Gabrielle really was asleep. The woman had ears like a bat. “She’s kind of like a care in the community case, if ya catch my drift. Not all there…” I made various whirly movements with my finger against my temple. “She follows me around and I kind of have to put up with her, ‘cos if I don’t she gets surprisingly aggressive, for such a little woman. Very nippy, just like one of them weeny little yappy dogs. Anyway, I can’t get rid of her.” He looked a bit suspicious, so I carried on fabricating desperately. “Plus also, she was kind of given to me in lieu of a custodial sentence for some minor aberration in my unfortunate past. Call it my redemption. But apart from her, I work alone. I find it’s best – with my past as a murdering, evil harpy, too many innocent people can get hurt.”
“Ah, I see.” He nodded knowingly. “Good job I’m not innocent. Right – what’s on the agenda today then?” He rubbed his palms together in a definite ‘end of discussion’ type way.
I sighed in defeat. “I have an eleven am and a two pm show, then another at eight-oh-ten. Gabrielle is going to be my glamorous assistant. In the meantime, if you insist on sticking around, you can see Gabrielle for instructions. There is a bit of work I need doing and with your ability to sniff out women, you might be able to help us out a bit. Don’t murder anyone, though. I’ll just wake Gabrielle up…”
“Oh, I can do that if you want to get ready for your show.”
I shuddered, and I really meant it. “No matter how evil I think you are, nobody deserves trying to get Gabrielle up before she’s ready. Trust me, it’s safer for everyone if I do this…”
Of course, the week was ticking on and it was now three days since I’d seen Herc. I wasn’t sure if he’d given me a calendar week or a work week, but either way the pressure was on and to be honest, I was coming up with zilch. Even with my superb investigation techniques and my many skills, I was drawing blanks.
So was Gabrielle, which was a bit of a bummer as I usually relied on her to get me out of the manure on those extremely few occasions when I got stumped. Which was, now I think of it, so rare that in fact they never, ever happened – I was, after all, a creature of many skills, wiles and guiles and could think myself out of any situation. Failing that, whacking a few heads helped too, I kinda found.
Sadly, whacking heads wasn’t helping at all, even though Sugar Bill (as our friendly neighbourhood serial killer had taken to calling himself as apparently no self respecting serial killer would go without a catchy moniker) had kindly offered his pate to the greater good. It made me feel tons better, but I didn’t solve the damn case.
Anyway, I hadn’t seen Gabrielle all day, which probably wasn’t helping my mood any. Once the tent had come down, I’d kinda lost her amidst all the shouting and general melee. Sugar Bill assured me that he hadn’t had her away to be murdered, so I just figured that she’d gone off in search of hot dogs again. Still, that was several hours ago and I was kinda missing my Gabrielle fix – I couldn’t stand to go more’n a few hours without blonde hair, sweet smiles and soft green or possibly blue eyes. Damn broad was more addictive than laced nutbread, although at least nutbread wasn’t shy about hanging round on the hips! Still, it was serving no purpose to be dreaming about Gabrielle as nutbread, so I stopped whacking Sugar Bill, pulled my raincoat tighter (I’d changed out of my strongman outfit – I just wasn’t sure there was a future in bending iron bars for me and I’m really not sure off-the-shoulder leopardskin brought out my best skin tones), clapped my fedora firmly onto my head and set out in search of my missing blonde.
I used all my matchless investigator techniques to visualise Gabrielle’s movements and put myself in her shoes. It was kinda easy, to be honest – I just hit all the food stands. Surprisingly enough, only half of ‘em had seen her, and that was around lunchtime. Unusual for Gabrielle, as it was now dinner time. I traced her back to one extremely unsavoury looking vendor who was cooking up some sort of stew in a huge, blackened and encrusted pot. She was busy stirring the mixture, which only brought more dubious looking vegetables and chunks of nameless meat to the surface. And I couldn’t even begin to describe the stench. My stomach roiled in time to her stirring.
“Small blonde thing, you say? Dressed in a tiny skirt and top? I might’a seen her. I might not. Who’s to say?” She shrugged and waggled her head, sending a cascade of dandruff down into the boiling cauldron.
“Please tell me she didn’t eat here.” Horrific visions of Gabrielle lying in a ditch somewhere throwing up, her magnificent abs rippling with convulsions, assaulted my imagination – in a horrible way you understand, not a sexual one at all. The food vendor chucked me a gap-toothed grin.
“My stew’s the best in the camp, young lady. Try some?”
Jeez. Well, I had been chief cook for the Athenian Army – only for a few weeks, admittedly, as I hatched my nefarious plot to take it over and then sack some village or other, but even so, I had picked up a thing or three about seasoning and basic food hygiene. And I couldn’t see any going on here. Of course, I had eaten strange things in my time – food was just fuel to me and I needed tons of it while rampaging my way through most of the Known World, ‘cos that burned up tons of calories. Plus, in Chin, it didn’t never pay to look too closely at what was actually on your plate, ‘specially if Betty/Borias had cooked it. But damn me if I couldn’t face that pot of festering slurry that she was cooking up right now.
She ladled out a portion of the murky brown stuff; slowly it slithered off the ladle into a small wooden bowl with a thud. My stomach did a thud of its own. I accepted the rough bowl with a grimace, and tried to think of ways that I could get out of eating it. But I kinda needed information about Gabrielle. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and grasped the small spoon. I’d done horrific things in my time, specially in my Evil Past – terrible, dark things; things that scorched the soul; things that would’a turned lesser stomachs and made ‘em lift right outta the body. Eating that stew was something else, though.
“That’ll be two dinars.” Jeez, I was paying for the pleasure too. I looked on it as a down payment for future suffering, as I knew damn well I’d be throwing up later. My fingers shook as I handed over the coins.
“So,” I muttered around a mouthful of rancid brown sludge. “The blonde? When was she here?”
“Early lunchtime. I seen her walking past. Mighty purty looking thing, so she was, and very complimentary about my stew. Nice young thing. She headed off towards old Polonius’ fruit stall. Said something about apples. Ain’t been past this way since.”
“Did she make the fruit stall?”
“Dunno. Maybe ya best ask the clowns. They were right behind her, and looked like they were going that way.”
I choked on my stew. “Clowns?”
“Yeah. Couldn’t tell ya which ones. They all look the same to me, them big noses and big feet. They never eat here, so I don’t pay them no mind anyway.”
“Yeah, that’s right honey. Are you okay? Is it ya stomach? I could give ya something for that. I got lots of medicine. Lotta call for it, I find.”
Clowns. Gods. I grabbed the proffered bottle of medicine and downed the lot in one. It was vile, but tasted about a million times better than the damn stew. I thought of the clowns again, and grabbed another bottle just to be on the safe side.