I chomped on my unlit stogie – purely for medicinal purposes, of course - and headed off towards the fruit stall. Gabrielle hadn’t made it to the apples. How the Hades had she disappeared between the two stalls? They were only a few feet from each other.
There was nothing else for it. I was gonna have to interrogate the clowns.
I felt the need for a bit of moral courage, and called in Sugar Bill to help me out. With clowns involved, a body never knew when some finesse with a carving knife might come in handy. I was pretty good with one myself, of course, but it had been a while since I’d done much slicing and dicing and I felt a bit out of practice. I knew Sugar was a bit more current in his techniques than me, what with me being good and all these days. Apparently it wasn’t the done thing, if you were a champion of the light, to go chopping up people left, right and centre, which was a pity ‘cos there was real skill involved in wielding a knife properly. Back in my Evil Xena days, I had really enjoyed a good blade-fest and I had left many battlefields littered with various body parts and carefully carved radishes in ornate flower or bird shapes.
Sugar Bill of course was overjoyed with the assignment. It was getting dark by this stage and apparently the bloodlust was starting to stir again.
The moon was riding full in the cloudless October sky as Sugar Bill and I made our stealthy way towards the clowns’ tent. I’d never been there before – I’d given the clowns a bit of a wide berth, truth be told. If we’re in a confessional mood, I really don’t like clowns. I suppose it stems from the time that Mom took me and Lyceus to the circus in Amphipolis and the clowns kidnapped me from my own mother’s arms and drove me around the ring in their little painted wagon, with Mother hardly putting up a fight at all. Then the clowns threw custard pies at me, and upended buckets of water over me. And the whole time, the audience screamed with laughter – well, for a while, until that unfortunate accident involving the wagon’s axle and the clown’s rear ends. Some things really do scar a little girl – not as much as they scarred the clowns involved, of course. Really horrible to see clowns screaming like that, I suppose – and yet, strangely satisfying at the same time. I guess, if she were here, Gabrielle would come up with some psycho-babble about it explaining my teensy flirt with the dark side. Whatever.
It was easy to find the clown’s tent – it was the biggest, and had its own tent extension to hold their little carts and all the other props they used as part of their clown routine. The moon hung high in the sky as we crept around to the shadow side of the tent. I pulled out my breast dagger and carved an unobtrusive slit in the tent material, then stuck my eye against it. I couldn’t see a thing. I widened the slit, but still couldn’t make anything out. I widened it again and shoved my whole head in.
“What do you see?” hissed Sugar Bill, trying to elbow me out of the way and peer through my slit. We tussled for a few moments until I shoved him out of the way. I stuck my head back through the hole and had a good look round.
It looked like I’d sliced through into a small ante-chamber. It had bedrolls laid out, and clothes haphazardly slung about. There was a small table that held a couple of half empty wine glasses, and a couple of small pots containing lotions and creams. I figured they were clown make up. I shuddered at the thought of being in such close proximity to clown fixings.
“What do you see? Lemme look!” pleaded Sugar Bill, tugging at my sleeve. I pulled my head out, and let him squeeze his own in. “Aw, it looks like a clown’s bedroom. They have women clowns?”
“I guess,” I mumbled absently. “Must be one of the women’s bedrooms.”
“Looks like they’re getting some action, lucky old clowns.” He fished around in his pocket and pulled out a slender, sharp knife. “Right, let’s have a closer look.” He sliced the tent open, from stem to stern, then stood there with a dazed and satisfied expression on his face. “Oh, that feels good. I’ve been dying to do something like that all night. Canvas feels quite like skin, did you know?”
“That’s because it is skin. It’s hide, not canvas.” We clambered through the gap. “Strange. This is a single bedroll, but it’s got male and female clothes on it. Kinky.”
“Just female underclothes, if you’ll notice. Rather nice silk this, don’t you think?” He picked up a delicate pink item of women’s unmentionables. “Rather like the sort of underclothes you’d put on for a special occasion.”
“Mmm.” I sniffed at the dregs of wine. It smelt kinda familiar and kinda un-winey. “What do you think clowns have to celebrate?” I took a small swig of the wine and swooshed it around my mouth, then spat it back into the glass.
“Look at all these fancy knickers and bras. When would a woman wear this sort of stuff?” He was rootling around in a drawer now, which seemed to be full of various types of lacy bras and knickers, teddies and camisoles. “In my dreams, mostly.”
I moved over to join him at the drawer and watched thoughtfully as he explored its contents. “Well, you know, these kinds of things are quite uncomfortable to wear. All that scratchy lace and little strings going up your – well, into places you’d rather they didn’t. A girl only wears this stuff when she knows she’s on for some special action. Say, an anniversary. Or a wedding.” I picked up a couple of the items myself. “Except the thing is – most women wouldn’t wear this sort of stuff. Look at the state of it. It’s cheap and badly made, and tasteless. I mean to say – red and black lace? Ribbons? No class. And look at the bodice on this thing here – it’s not build for support, if ya catch my drift. And have you seen these briefs? They’ve got no crotch! What’s the point of that? Oh. Oh, I geddit. Actually, that’s quite ingenious.” I quickly thrust the wine-red knickers into my pocket, ‘cos a body never knew when a bit of quick access would be needed.
Bill was inspecting his own collection of frilly, lacy nothings. “There’s no accounting for taste,” he ruminated. “I suppose any woman who would wear clown clothes wouldn’t be too fussy about what she wore. Odd though. I really don’t recall seeing any female clowns around. I take particular care to suss out the female situation, at this time of the month.”
“It all makes perfect sense. The drugged wine. The sexy, tasteless underwear. There’s only one logical explanation.” I smiled expansively, enjoying the feeling of satisfaction, the thrill of the hunt that’s ended, the intellectual challenge successfully completed. The feel of those fifty dinars in my pocket.
Sugar Bill regarded me with admiration. “Wow. What’s that, Xena?”
“Two of the clowns musta just got married. C’mon. let’s get outta here before they come back to consummate the union. ‘Cos if I have to watch two clowns going at it, that really will give me issues.”
We turned to leave, intending to slip back through the hole in the wall. A noise stopped us in our tracks. Voices, rustling, and rough sounding laughter. And what sounded like cut-off cries. I immediately assessed the situation.
“Oh, bugger. They’re heading this way. Honeymooning clowns, how gross.” I cast about me, rapidly sizing up our options, confident in my quick thinking and rapid reflexes that had got me out of so many impossible situations in the past. “Quick! I’ll hide under the bed. You pretend to be a table over there! Just pull a sheet over you and stay still.” I bolted underneath the bedroll, which to be honest did look a bit rubbish as it was on the ground at the time.
Sugar Bill looked a teensy bit sceptical. “Xena, what are you going to do when they start going at it on the bedroll?”
“Uggg. Look away. Why, what are you gonna do?”
“Xena, they’ll be lying right on top of you. They’ll know. It’ll practically be a threesome. Look, I think we should duck out through here.” He grabbed me and dragged me through a heavy embroidered curtain that served as a door to another part of the tent. “Get your knife and cut us a way out of here.”
I had to admit, that was kinda a better idea than mine. Sugar Bill was turning out to be quite useful, after all. I woulda gotten us out of there myself, of course, but it was nice to know the pressure was off me to always come up with the answers. Even superb investigators need a rest every now and then. I pulled out my breast dagger and was busy hacking a hole in the canvas when I was stopped by a commotion in the room we’d just vacated. I paused, knife in hand.
“Drink it, you bitch!” A few muffled cries of protest were followed by the unmistakeable sound of someone choking on fluid. Almost like they were being force fed wine that they didn’t want to drink.
“Jeez, someone’s a nervous bride,” I whispered to Sugar Bill. Curiosity got the better of me, and I carefully pulled aside the curtain so I could take a peek. The newlywed’s were doing what newlyweds do – one was throwing the other down onto the bed and then tying her arms to the wall. Odd, but then nothing really surprised me about clowns. Kinky buggers, the lot of them.
“Not much of a looker,” whispered Bill in my ear. “Old too. Not my type at all. I can’t see me getting any satisfaction here tonight. Let’s go.” He was right, though. The bride appeared surprisingly shy – some might even say reluctant. I suppose the gag he was tying around her mouth was some sorta pervy role play. I’d role played before – bloodthirsty warlord-innocent milkmaid was always a crowd pleaser after a battle or three. Centaurion-gladiator was another, and Hestian Virgin-Ares my favourite, although trying to remember what being a virgin was like had proved to be quite a stretch. That’s why I usually ended up playing the Ares part.
“No accounting for taste,” I replied. The clown – still resplendent in full make up, the weird bastard – had been rummaging around the drawer full of underwear. He’d pulled out a trashy red lace number and proffered it to his wife on the bed.
“This will suit you, whore,” he rasped, a lascivious grin spreading over his face. Jeez, that kinda talk wouldn’t do anything for me, but everyone is different, after all. “I’ll put it on you.” He approached the bed, and his wife, obviously dazed and confused by the drugged wine she’d been forced to drink, started to wriggle frantically on the bed, emitting guttural screams as best she could with a gag in her mouth. Clearly the clown was enjoying the power. Odd kind of role play – wasn’t my cup of tea, but the wife appeared an extraordinarily good performer. She had me convinced anyway.
So much so, that I bopped him on the head. He dropped like a stone.
“It’s okay,” I reassured the poor woman on the bedroll. “Bill, tie that bastard up, will you? Make sure he can’t get away.” I untied the woman and tried to help her to her feet, but the drugs were starting to take effect and she stumbled. I laid her back down on the bed. “Drag him into the cupboard there, and make sure it’s well secured. She’ll be fine as long as he’s safely out of the picture.” I tapped on the woman’s cheek a few times, to rouse her into some sort of wakefulness. “Where is he keeping you?”
“Back… cage. Back.”
“And the others?”
“Back…” Her head dropped onto the pillow, and there was no more to be got from her.
I turned to Bill. “We better get going. I want you to go fetch Illy and bring him to the tent out the back. If I’m right, there’s something there he’s gonna need to see. Ask him to contact the local authorities.”
“What’s going on?” asked Bill.
“This is Zelia. She was kidnapped a few weeks ago. But she isn’t the only missing woman I’m looking for, and I think they’re being kept out back. We better find them, quickly. I’m thinking Gabrielle might be with them, and I don’t want to find her tied up on some clown’s bedroll.”
Bill dashed off into the night in search of Illy. I tucked my breast dagger carefully back into its snug home and skirted around the tent, heading towards the puddle of blackness at the back.
Gods. Wouldn’t you know it? Two burly clowns were on guard, their eerie white faces seeming to glow in the dark like garish lanterns. They’d painted their eyes and mouths black, adding to the scary ambience although to be honest clowns are scary enough without the bloody make-up. I confess to an unheard of moment of hesitation – much to my own disgust, I might add. Bloody clowns. Bloody circuses. I thought they were supposed to be fun? I hadn’t had much fun since joining this one. I was well down on the dinars front, since Illy kept docking my wages for damages or no-shows, there were bloody clowns everywhere and Gabrielle had disappeared and was possibly in mortal danger, if not in impending sexual danger. I couldn’t be having Gabrielle in sexual danger from anyone else but me! I gave myself a good talking-to and steeled myself to face off with the clowns. After all, I was a battle-scarred warrior who had faced danger, death and horror and had brushed them off like an irritating fly. I could deal with a coupl’a measly ole clowns. For Gabrielle? Of course I could.
No problem. No problem at all.
I’d do it for Gabrielle.
Any minute now. I just…
Jeez. I hate it when I procrastinate. I steeled myself for action. It didn’t work. I gave myself another stern talking-to, but that didn’t work either. Then, I imagined Gabrielle tied down to a bed – the Gods knew, a common fantasy, but instead of imagining me looming over her, dribbling and being all lascivious as I normally did, I imagined some vile fat painted old clown poised over her, and her all scared and hoping I’d rescue her. Gods, the thought of my Gabrielle being scared about anything hurt – and the thought of me letting her down, well that hurt even more. I closed my eyes, stepped out and let instinct take over.
It kinda took me a minute to dispatch them both, what with the stomach-churning horror and trying not to get paint on my hands and everything. But when I opened my eyes, there they were, an ungainly – and quite dead – heap on the floor. Well, it wasn’t my fault they were dead, really. It was kinda an accident. But you see, putting the pinch on with your eyes closed isn’t such a smart move, especially when you can’t see to take it off again. Ah well, such is life – or, to be more correct, death. I kicked them into the bushes and covered them over with a few dead branches and fallen autumn leaves until they looked like a pair of little compost heaps. Quite fitting, really.
I pushed aside the tent flap, and paused in shock at the threshold.
It was the third glance that counted, ‘cos that’s the one where you could just make out through the darkness the large wooden cage at the back of the tent. I crept towards it, careful to keep hidden in case there were clowns guarding there too. Much to my relief, the place was clown free. Obviously the two painted goons out front were felt to be security enough.
Now, I’ve said before what a battle-hardened warrior I am. And it’s true – there are few sights in the world that can turn my stomach these days, but I have to say that what I saw when I got to that cage almost did me in. There were about five women in there. They were sitting huddled together at the very back of the cage, and were almost unrecognisable as humans – they were caked in dirt, slumped hollow-eyed and desolate on the filthy floor of the cage. Clad in shapeless hessian sacks, I could only tell they were women by their long, unwashed hair which had gone to rats’ tails through the lack of brushing.
I recognised Gabrielle by her hair; it shone brightly in the gloom, and her skin was still clean and fresh. And, more importantly, she still had a spark of life left in her – it seemed to cast a glow about her, sending the hopeless figures around her into stark relief. My breath caught in my throat, and four pairs of terrified eyes (and one wary yet hopeful set of green-or-blue ones) turned in my direction.
“Xena! Thank the Gods it’s you!” Gabrielle unfurled her arm from the shoulders of one of the young women huddled next to her and rose to her feet, visibly relieved to see me. “It’s okay, it’s my friend Xena, the one I was telling you about. She’s here to rescue us. Aren’t you. xena?”
“Keep it down, sweetheart. Is this all of you?”
My assistant clutched at the bars which separated us, and stared at me with large, anxious eyes. “Zelia – you remember; one of the women we were looking for? She was taken away about half a candlemark ago…”
“Yeah, don’t worry – she’s safe. I’ve taken out three of the clowns already. How many more?”
Her eyes rolled up as she thought, and she counted off on her fingers. So cute. Even a bit dishevelled and a bit grubby, she was still sexier’n Aphrodite popping out of her shell. “It’s difficult to say, they all have their faces painted up the same. Hang on, I’ll ask the others…” She turned towards the women, who had started rising to their feet and clustering around her. They chattered amongst themselves for a few moments. “We think there are about six but we can’t be sure. Xena, they take the women…”
“I know, sweetheart. They haven’t..?” I kinda pointed at her a bit and made emphatic movements with my hands, hoping she’d know what I meant. She shook her head and curse me for a soft headed fool but my heart lifted with relief at that. Dirty bloody clowns. “Don’t worry – I’ll have you all out of here in no time. Sugar Bill has gone to get help; he should be back here soon with reinforcements.”
The door of the cage was padlocked shut. I didn’t have time to unpick it so I used my considerable brute strength to lever the door open. All the stress of worrying about Gabrielle musta affected my arms a bit, ‘cos the door never budged. It worked much better after I’d grabbed a spare axle and used that to force the door open. Gabrielle ushered the women out and together we were making for the door when we were stopped in our tracks by a rustling. I motioned the women down and we all squatted, frozen.
It was Bill. I grabbed him round the neck as he crept past and hauled him down to his knees with us. The women looked terrified to see another man around the place. “It’s alright – this is our friend, Bill. Did you bring reinforcements?”
He shook his head, panting a little and rubbing his neck. “I looked everywhere but I couldn’t find him. I checked the Big Top but the show had finished a while ago. Sorry, Xena. I left messages all over the place for him though.”
“Never mind. The most important thing is to get these women away from here. You and Gabrielle take care of them. I’m gonna go get the rest of these clowns.” Bill nodded, and he and Gabrielle made to leave.
We were all stopped in our tracks by the sight of four black-and-white faced clowns surrounding us, staves in their hands. “No need to look too hard,” said one of them, his smile looking like a black slash across his face.
Aw, bugger. Not that four guys wearing make-up and overly large shoes was a problem for me; after all, I’d fought The Horde and Amazons (not at the same time, you understand) and come out without a scratch on me and with a few excellent tips on how to apply blusher. Fighting strangely clad people was practically meat and drink to me. Run of the mill. Par for the course. Been there, done that. What-evurrrr. No, it was the girls I was worried about. They’d been through so much trauma already and I didn’t think they’d be up to the sight of me disembowelling children’s entertainers, even if they were a bit scary looking. I stepped into mediation-mode.
“Okay guys, let’s everyone stay nice and relaxed and talk about this. Nobody needs to get hurt.”
Gabrielle tugged at my sleeve and whispered out of the side of her mouth, “Xena, what are you doing?”
I whispered out of the other side of my mouth right back at her. “I’m gonna talk our way outta this, sweetheart.”
Her blonde brows creased with confusion. “Why? Just bust their heads and let’s get the Hades out of here!”
My dark brows creased with even more confusion. “Sweetheart? I thought we only turned to violence these days as a last resort? The new corporate image and all?”
“Oh, sod that Xena. These are nasty, evil men who kidnapped and raped these poor women. Kick their damn arses!” Her eyes were glowing with a fervour which I wished was directed at me for other, way more enjoyable things. Although having said that, a good ole fight was pretty much my second favourite thing. “All the women want you to really teach these guys a lesson. Don’t kill them, though. They need to feel the full force of justice after you’ve finished with them.”
My heart lifted – how often did a body get permission to duff up a few thugs? – and I cracked my knuckles in wonderful anticipation. “Okay, I’ll just knock them about a bit, soften them up kind of thing. That’ll give Illy time to get here, hopefully with the authorities.”
The clowns had been standing patiently the whole while, casually whacking their staves against their palms as they waited for us to finish our quick chat. “So this is the famous Xena?” said one of them. “I expected you to be taller.”
His fellows nodded their agreement. “Yeah. And what’s with the talking? I was quite looking forward to going up against Xena, but it’s a right disappointment, don’t you think guys?” They all nodded again.
Jeez. How upsetting was this? See, this is what happens when you try to change your corporate brand. Gotta stick to your Unique Selling Point and let’s face it, mine was my amazing affinity for violence and mayhem. Why deny it? I was an all-action woman and trying to knock that outta the business – well, it just knocked the business for six. As much as I regretted my vicious and evil past, it was hard to deny that my reputation for violence and bloodshed came in right handy in the Warrior Investigator business. Plus, talking wasn’t my natural forte. I preferred deeds to words.
I put on my best, smug smile and gave them one of my trademark wisecracks. “I do hate to disappoint my public.” Then I all-actionned my butt all over the place – mainly all over their butts, actually, which worked kinda well and soon they were all lying around groaning and clutching limbs and heads. I’d disarmed them easily enough and Gabrielle and the girls had grabbed the staves and were now busy running around giving them a damn good thumping. Those girls had been through a horrific experience and it wasn’t as though a few smacks on the bonce would make it all better, but it sure seemed to be helping them get started on working through a few issues. Still, I didn’t want them to end up on the dark side like I had done –a bit of retribution here, a smidge of vengeance there and before you knew it, you’d amassed an army and conquered Greece - so I thought I better draw things to a close.
“Right,” I said, dusting off my hands and rolling a few kinks out of my neck muscles. “Let’s get these guys tied up so we can hand the over to Illy and the authorities. Bill, see if ya can find us some rope or something.”
Gabrielle held up a hand. “Don’t worry, Xena. We’ve got it covered.” The girls immediately whipped off their stockings (the clowns had insisted they continue to wear them – definitely kinky) and started tying up the clowns, making sure that they tied the knots really, really tightly.
I stood back and took stock. “Gabrielle, I thought you said there were only six of ‘em? I make it seven so far.”
“Well, it was difficult to really tell how many, with the make-up.” The girls all nodded in agreement too. “And I suppose some of them might not have… you know, taken the girls.”
“I suppose so. Right, time for a quick interrogation.” I grabbed the nearest clown and dragged him over to me. “Okay, ya evil bastard. Spill. Whose bright idea was all this?” He hoisted his chin in defiance, the damn fool. I have a grim, mirthless smile and he winced at the glint of icy malice in my eyes. “Don’t make me ask you again.”
“Hit him, Xena.” Gabrielle was getting all excited; a little too excited really. I was starting to get a bit worried about how she seemed to be taking to violence. Typical – now that I had turned my back on it (and on her orders), she was starting to get all into it.
I went down on one knee in front of him, and casually rested my elbow on my knee as I stared right into his eyes. I noticed he couldn’t quite look me in the face, so I grabbed hold of his chin and forced his head round. “I’ll ask one more time, and once only. Who is the ringleader? Is he here?”
I shot a look at Gabrielle. “Great. That’s even more than seven. Whatever that is. How many of you are there?”
I paused thoughtfully for a moment. “That’s more than seven, right? Gabrielle – is that more…? I thought so. Right. So who is the ringleader and where do I find him?”
“He’s the ringleader.”
“Jeez, no shit, Plato.” Clearly the guy wasn’t blessed with brains, but seemed surprisingly tough and brave, considering he was giving me attitude. I made a quick decision, and my hands were a blur of motion. The trusty ole pinch had never been known to fail, if by failing you mean either resulting in information or death. “I’ve just cut off the flow of blood to your brain, You’ll be dead in five minutes although it could be a bit longer as your brain obviously uses less oxygen that a normal brain. Maybe ten minutes. I dunno really. Anyway – who’s the ringleader?”
“The ringleader.” He was starting to flush up nicely.
“Amazing. You’re more stupid than I thought. Gabrielle, how hard did you hit this guy on the head? Do you know who I am?” He nodded frantically. “Good. Everything you’ve ever heard about me is true, so don’t think I won’t let you die for what you’ve been up to here. So who is the ringleader?”
He was a bit puce by now, which made his defiance quite surprising. He just kept saying, “Ringleader, ringleader!”
Muttering, “Gods, trust us to get the stupidest clown on the block,” I took the pinch off the guy and shoved him back to his fellows. “Okay, okay – maybe I’m not quite as evil as I used to be but you just got lucky, pal. The only reason you’re still alive is thanks to my assistant here, who tells me that violence isn’t always the answer.”
Gabrielle’s brows had drawn together ominously. “Sometimes it is, Xena!”
I held up a pious finger. “Ya really wouldn’t want me to revert back to my dark, dark past wouldya? Not that I could, what with all my legendary self control and focus and all. I’m on a different path nowadays, sweetheart.”
“Well, I’m not,” Sugar Bill interrupted my righteousness. “I’m as wicked as they come, and I’d be prepared just this once to break from my usual serial killer preferences to off this bunch of clowns. As a favour to all these lovely ladies. Hi, ladies – the name’s Sugar Bill, so pleased to make your acquaintance. Just out of interest, is anyone here under the age of…”
Gabrielle cuffed him round the head. “Don’t you dare, Bill. You keep your serial killing paws off these women.”
Time was running on, and there were clowns on the loose out there who probably knew their game was up by now. I decided we better hustle our butts right outta there while we still could. “Okay girls, let’s get out of here and get on the road as soon as we can. We gotta get you all home to your husbands.”
“No need.” The voice was deep, warm and new. “They’re already home. And their husband is here.”
He was tall, in a rangy kinda way, and painted up like the other clowns except he’d painted his face in reverse – black background with lips and eyes painted up white. The impression was kinda eerie, if not downright scary. Not that I was scared, of course, although I could see how some would be, ‘specially when the moonlight struck him in a certain way. It made his eyes all stare-y and mad looking.
I motioned Gabrielle behind me. “You’re the husband of none of these women. ‘Specially not this one.” I tucked Gabrielle firmly behind me. “These women already have husbands – husbands who miss them very much and who have been very worried about them.”
The stranger threw us all a macabre smile which looked more like a grimace. “Tough. I took them. They’re my wives now.”
Jeez. This guy was some weirdo – probably all that lead in his paint had affected his brain. Probably had affected other things too, if he could cope with multiple wives. I could barely cope with Gabrielle and she wasn’t even my wife. At least, not in the bedroom sense, more’s the pity. She was in the washing, cooking and nagging sense. More’s the pity. “Whatever you say, guy. We’ll be off now. C’mon, girls.”
“I don’t think so, Xena,” he rasped, still smiling weirdly. “These women are mine. I found them and I brought them into my family. They belong to me now. I think what you should do, is untie my men.”
This guy was definitely whacko. And how the Hades did he know my name? We’d never been introduced. Mind you, of course my reputation did precede me. Can I help it if I’m infamous in my own lifetime? I resisted the opportunity to bask in my own fame. “Do you think I’m crazy? I’m not going to untie your goons. I love a fight just as much as the next man, but I’m not bloody stupid. Now how about you just step aside and we move along, all nice and quiet.” I gave him a trademark cold smile, but he was clearly too deranged to let it affect him. Instead, he waved and damn me if yet more sodding clowns materialised from the night-time darkness.
Great. Yet more clowns to fight. I was bound to get some of their make-up on my hands this time. “Grab your staves, girls,” I muttered out of the side of my mouth towards Gabrielle and the women, “Just in case I don’t finish anyone off. Don’t kill them, though.”
I’ve been in fights before – hard not to really, considering my past. Gods, I love fighting even now, when I only do it for The Greater Good. Smash a few heads, whack a few legs, coupl’a slashes and whirly moves, coupl’a fancy kicks and leaps and such. Nothing like a good fight to get the juices going, apart from sex of course. This fight was harder than most I’ve been in recently, mainly ‘cos the clowns were quite slippy with make-up. They weren’t very good fighters either, but it was quite hard to get the best of them whilst trying not to get make-up onto my hands or clothes, ‘cos I knew it would be a bugger to get off and I knew Gabrielle would give me fifteen kinds of grief if I got it onto my coat.
Anyway, it took a few minutes but I managed to get the best of most of them, and Gabrielle and the girls finished the rest of them off. I hunted through the assembled bodies and pulled out who I thought was the leader – bit hard to tell really since everyone’s make-up was all smudged and streaked by sweat by this time. I grabbed his sleeve and rubbed the rest of it off his face and damme if it wasn’t one of the knife-throwers. I tried another; he turned out to be one of the cooks.
“What’d you do that for, sweetheart? He ain’t the ringleader – neither of these guys have the smarts to plan something like this.”
“I know. I ate his cooking. He deserved it, the prices he was charging for that slop.”
I carried on hunting, and found him eventually; he’d tried to squirrel himself away into a bush, the sneaky coward. I hauled him out by his heels. He looked like he’d been dragged through a hedge backwards, which was apt, since he had been. I guess having his wig hanging half off his head didn’t help any. Bit of a surprise, that – apparently the huge mop of bright orange hair wasn’t his own.
“Right. Let’s see who you really are.” I yanked his wig off, then scraped away the smeared paint off his face.
We all gasped in shock.
I smiled smugly, enjoying the rare opportunity to bask in the Big Guy’s admiration. “Yup. Surprised me, I have to say. Not that I hadn’t had my suspicions,” I added hastily – didn’t want the Big Guy to think I’d lost my sharpness, after all. “Takes a better man than him to pull the wool over my eyes. It all turned out just as I expected.”
“And you expected it to be him?” Hercules sounded a mite dubious. Gabrielle and I were sitting opposite him in his large and luxurious office, ‘debriefing’ him as he put it. I’d insisted that nobody was getting debriefed until Iaolaus was banished from the office. I could hear him pacing anxiously around outside, and I just knew he was pressing his curly little pretty boy blond haired ear against the keyhole in an attempt to hear my sheer brilliance.
“Well, I knew the guy had a penchant for make-up and dressing up. Obviously it’s a small step from ringmaster, to drag queen to clown. He knew of my reputation, of course, and once he heard I was sniffing around he figured it wouldn’t be long before I cracked the case. That’s when he decided to keep me close, and hire me as the strongman act.”
Gabrielle gazed up at me adoringly, and I basked a bit more. “Who knew Illy could be so devious?” she commented.
“Never trust clowns, sweetheart. Nasty, evil buggers, the lot of them.” I shuddered at the mere memory. Not that I was scared of them – I was scared of no man, and only one woman. Gabrielle, of course. And Velasca – she was pretty bloody scary too. But mainly Gabrielle. “It takes a certain type of sick mind to come up with the sort of scam that they were doing though. Kidnapping women in all the different villages they’d visit, and then selling them on in the next village. And using the women themselves in the meantime. Disgusting. Funny thing is, Illy seemed to really believe that he had married those women. Beggars belief really. What kind of man would pass his wife around all his mates, and then sell her on when they all got bored?”
Gabrielle patted me on the arm. “They won’t be doing it any more, thanks to you, Xena.”
Hercules grinned. “Well, I have to say, I wasn’t expecting you to solve the case. The fifty dinars was just to do some background investigation.”
My smile slipped. “Say, Herc – you better not be thinking of holding out on me. I earned those dinars fair and square!”
“Now don’t get upset, Xena. I’m only saying that the price we agreed was for some investigation only, not for solving the case.”
“But you’ll still pay me the fifty dinars, right?” Both Gabrielle and I were sitting stiffly by this stage, our visions of financial solvency slipping away like steam from a bath.
“No, I won’t. The fee I agreed with the clients for solving the case and bringing home their wives safely was two hundred and fifty dinars altogether. Minus my cut, that leaves you with one hundred and eighty five dinars.”
Gabrielle gaped at me, a silly grin spreading over her features. I of course played it cool – it took more than an unexpected windfall to phase me. “Bloody brilliant, Herc!” Okay, so maybe throwing my arms round his neck and snogging him was a bit much – or at least, that’s what Gabrielle’s filthy glare seemed to say. It was always pretty hard to resist the impossibly attractive demi-God and although my sheer force of will and focus was legendary, the guy was a damn God, after all! He probably had Godly powers and such.
Mind you, Gabrielle recovered herself enough to intercept the dinars as Herc was handing them over. We both watched, entranced, as she tucked them into her deliciously creamy and ample-ish cleavage.
“I should be able to put a bit more work your way too, Xena.” Hercules stood up to shake hands as we all made to leave. “Things’ve been picking up a bit lately; I’m sure they have for you too.”
Can’t say I’d bloody noticed. “Oh yes, absolutely.”
“To be truthful, Xena, we’ve had so much work lately I’ve been struggling a bit with it. I’ve had to start turning people away.” The bugger! He coulda turned a few my way – business has been deader than Celesta lately. “I’ve been thinking of taking on a new assistant, but Iaolaus is a bit ante the idea. You know how possessive he can get.” Didn’t I just? “Sub-contracting to the Xena Investigation Agency might be just the arrangement I’m looking for. Ten percent finders fee? Deal?”
“Deal!” We shook on it.
“Sure thing, sweetheart.”
I propped my booted feet up on my desk and chewed happily on a new stogie as I admired the newly painted sign which hung above the door. The Amazon Decective Agency had been consigned to the dustbin, as Gabrielle had declared that our name change and ‘rebranding exercise’ had ‘alienated our core customer group’. Apparently the upturn in custom that Herc had experienced was basically our former customers who had been put off by our new warm and fuzzy image. Our core customer group, it transpired, were the kind of people who liked their investigators to be a bit on the unpredictable – some would say infamous and violent – side. Hence, the ‘Xena Investigation Agency’ was back in business. Our bank balance – Gabrielle’s cleavage – was well endowed and life was good. I treated myself, and lit my cigar.
Bliss. Pure, utter bliss. Could life get any better?
Gabrielle poked her head round the door, a huge smile on her face. “Bill’s sent a note. He’ll be round at eight, and he’s asked whether he can bring a date?”
I paused from rolling my cigar around my mouth. “A date? Is she legal?”
“She’s one of the cleaners from the camp. A mature woman, according to him which I suppose means over the age of twenty four. She’s moved in with him, and is keeping the bakery spick and span. And keeping him on the straight and narrow.”
“Glad to hear he’s given the serial killing a miss.”
“Yes. He seemed really happy with that role play scenario you wrote for them. Seemed to think it’d do the trick when he gets twitchy at each full moon. That, and the special cowhide dummy he’ll be slicing into.”
“Excellent. So we have a few hours spare before I have to put the beef in the oven. What shall we do, sweetheart?”
She gave me a cheeky, gorgeous grin, and life got considerably better.