by Joseph Connell
Disclaimers: Go to Part I for disclaimers on this story.
Commentary, positive and (preferably) negative, can be directed to Joseph Connell.
August 31. Tuesday.
The witching hour passed unnoticed by the warrior. The same was true of the traffic both human and automotive of nearby Charing Cross.
Xena had eyes for her quarry's lair alone.
She had taken up position opposite the narrow alleyway that led to the entrance of the club Emporium just after eleven. Concealing herself in the deep shadows of a similar alleyway, the warrior watched attentively for the first sight of her target's familiar colors. She had no intention of meeting him on ground of his choosing.
Simply waiting about for hours on end proved a tiring venture. This involved equal measures of deliberate inactivity and a supreme effort of keeping alert with all senses for the least sign of O'Donhugh. Neither were easy to sustain for an hour, never mind such an extended period. Xena found herself too geared up, too tense and fearful for her bacchae to keep from at least fidgeting a bit. Where normally this might work off at least a bit of the nervous energy that had built within her, right then it only served to worsen her tension rather than relieve it.
She ended up clenching her teeth so tightly it caused her incisors ache a little. To busy her mind a bit from the nerve-racking boredom, Xena mentally ticked off what she knew about her quarry and the overall situation. It was a time-tested technique employed by p.i.'s the world over when on stake-out. What she knew unfortunately proved precious little and only left her even more confused than before.
Fact: Jonothan O'Donhugh is reportedly one of the owners of the Anan chain of fine art galleries.
Fact: the chakrum was bought by the manager of one of the Anan galleries last October.
Fact: She clearly remembered seeing O'Donhugh following her and Rickie all around Germany at the same time as the Dartmouth auction.
Fact: the chakrum 'disappeared' from the gallery manager's possession and found its way into their hotel room barely one day after they had arrived in London last year.
Fact: O'Donhugh's was at the gallery the same night as herself and Rickie, and had disappeared just as quickly as he appeared.
Fact: at the gallery last week was a man with another familiar sounding name, "Armistead", who claimed to be an 'investor' in the chain.
Related Fact: in 1979 she encountered another "Armistead" talking to Covington and Pappas about funding archaeological digs at sites certain to contain relics directly relating to "the Warrior Princess".
Fact: there had been three attempts on her life since arriving in London, plus the hit-and-run on Rickie.
Related Fact: two of these attempts upon her had been out in the open, with the third happening on the grounds of her house in Colchester. The obvious implication of this being somebody knew a great deal about her and had tipped off the hitters.
Related Fact: the attempts in Colchester and on Waterloo Bridge had involved military-grade hardware, not the dimestore sort one would expect of a typical underworld hit. The crew that had come after her in Colchest were outfitted better than the godsbedamned SAS.
Related Fact: she was not working on any cases at present that could have involved getting the entire London Underworld pissed at her.
Fact: O'Donhugh shown himself to quite knowledgeable about her and her business when speaking to her at the gallery. Oh, he'd been clever enough in covering himself, sounding like Sherlock Holmes and making his observations sound oh-so-logical. She hadn't bought it for a second.
Fact: Cora had admitted to contacting O'Donhugh when Rickie was at her house.
Related Fact: O'Donhugh's presence was somehow responsible for Rickie running off.
Related Fact: Cora said O'Donhugh had his cousin with him; said cousin also having a familiar name though one she could not immediately place.
Related Fact: Cora also admitted to having shady contacts of her own, her tone and reticence suggesting closer ties to the criminal element than had been let on.
Fact: O'Donhugh appeared to accede to her request for a meeting without argument, naming a place unfamiliar to her and a time almost guaranteed to put any normal person completely off balance.
What did all this tell her? Quite beside the fact O'Donhugh was a clever bastard who knew far more than he might appear...it told her nearly nothing about his role in the insanity of the past week. Had he ordered the attacks against them? It might explain much. Xena ultimately dismissed the possibility. 'O'Donhugh' was a decidedly Irish name, one free of any Anglican influence. If he truly was from the Island itself (County Ulster notwithstanding) he was all the more unlikely to have any influence in the incestuous and brutal London Underworld.
Which still begged the question of just who and what he was. Some kind of independent deal maker? A freelance fixer for the mobs who'd built up enough favors to call in the odd hit or two? To what purpose? So far she hadn't see anything to even suggest the motivation behind these attempts. That was provided there even was a motive behind it all. Xena wasn't sure which prospect was more frightening.
Perhaps it wasn't even the local mobs. Perhaps it was someone...bigger? But who? Leaving the engima of O'Donhugh aside for a moment, she had to admit such a possibility made a great deal of sense. The Colchester team came to mind again. Tactical gear and the sort of artillery they'd carried was anything but cheap, and from what little she had seen they had carried themselves like crack veterans.
Xena had long made it a point to stay out of the intrigues her fellow Immortals tended to play at, to her detriment some might have said. It seemed she was among the last to even hear of the murder of Darius some years back. Murdered on holy ground, no less. The rumor alone had sent shockwaves throughout their numbers. Precisely who had done the deed was still a matter of debate. Then there had been a spat of dead Immortals turning up, all supposedly at the hand of Xavier St. Cross, rumors swirling that the idiot had mortal help in his kills. This didn't keep him from falling to another's blade a short while thereafter.
That the secret of their existence might become public knowledge was a fear shared by every Immortal. That the Watchers even knew and compiled whole libraries about them was a closely guarded secret. That day in the hospital in Germany, when Emil had come clean with her, had nearly sent Xena running for the hills with Rickie. Apparently their leader was on good enough terms with a Scottish Immortal of some repute that the Highlander had agreed to keep the existence of the Society as quiet as possible. True a few others had stumbled unto the secret, but by and large the Watchers continued their work unimpeded.
Xena had occasionally speculated what might happen if the CIA or some other agency ever got hold of those chronicles on her. Would they try and recruit her...or judge (rightly) she was too independent and try to take her head?
What was it Hopper had said of her first assailant? That he was an ex-commando who'd turned professional assassin? He couldn't have severed her neck with that piano wire of his, but it would have left her incapacitated long enough to finish the job. Then there was the Colchester team's seeming preoccupation with simply shooting her so full of holes she was likely to stay down and out long enough for them to carve her up like the proverbial Thanksgiving turkey.
She shook her head free of such images. No, no intelligence service worth its salt would go after her with the tactical equivalent of the Keystone Kops. Even a hole-in-the-wall agency nobody ever heard of wouldn't jeopardize itself by coming after her this way. Such groups thrived and survived by the grace of their invisibility. If they knew enough about her to know where her house in Essex was, they must also have realized how suicidal it was to go hurting Rickie and letting her go on living.
Xena could only rub her temples in an effort to stave off the inevitable headache such thinking caused. It was a vicious cycle that developed when one had too many suspects and too few clues. The situation wasn't helped by the fact all the clues fit each suspect almost to a tee. The mob, the spooks, the Watchers, some Immortal rival who was intelligent enough to know he'd need help taking her down, some poor mortal sap she'd stepped on decades ago out to even the score; it could have been any or all of them. Maybe it was all of them, each taking turns at trying to get her. For all she knew it could be Cora orchestrating this as payback for their abortive affair back in the fifties.
Gods knew she'd developed enough a siege mentality the past several days, seeing enemies around every corner and down every street, that something that crazy actually seemed plausible. The old adage came to mind: Its not paranoia if They really are out to get you.
The warrior mentally slapped herself. Whatever the hell the real situation was, whoever the enemy was this time, she had a job to do in the here and now. Even if O'Donhugh didn't know anything useful, Xena was certain her could direct her to someone who did. That someone could then lead to someone else, then someone else, on and on until she had her Dreamer back. It didn't matter if she had to lay waste to the whole of London in the process.
Conviction firmly in mind, Xena settled back to wait for her prey.
Miles away, Big Ben chimed the first half hour of the morning.
The rag in her mouth tasted like cheap oil and sweat. A similar cloth had been tied around her eyes, the oils stains soaking the fibers stinging eyes through their closed lids. Rickie told herself it was the stink of the rags gagging and blindfolding her that brought tears to her closed eyes. The roughness of the rope binding her wrists and the way she'd been tossed into a cubbyhole barely large enough for her to squat inside comfortably didn't help any.
She could hear her captor ranting and pacing outside her prison. "I don' futhcking car'!" Price's voice slurred into a phone. He sounded tired and in pain. This combined with a broken nose and the swelling bruise along his jawline gave his voice a lisping, nasal slur. It made his every word sound as though he were speaking around a mouthful of cotton balls. For a crazed half-second Rickie imagined he sounded like Sylvester Stallone's Rocky. The though made her grin around her gag.
Price spat loudly and continued. "Thuh Greek bith..yah, 'er! We gith 'er and 'er mates in one!" Rickie could barely make out the soft murmur of voices from the receiver. "I wan' ethbuddy you can grab. I mean ev-ver-ee-bud-dee! I don' futhcking car' if you hath to miss ev-ver-ee futhcking shipmen' coming in! Gith them all here."
More murmurs across the cellular wire.
"Yuth got 'til haf-two." Price spat again. Something both wet and solid hit the concrete floor nearby. "Futhck!" was the gangster's curse. "Los' one'o muh fron' tooth!" A plastic cover was snapped shut, its echo like a rifle shot in her ears.
Rickie braced herself as she heard his steps draw close and stop. She imagined she heard one of his shoes tapping the floor as if waiting impatiently for something. What exactly she had no idea. It wasn't as if she could do all that much in her present state.
Memories of other times when she'd been bound like this surfaced unbidden. She remembered there were all sorts of...things she could be made to do in this position. Fresh tears came in anticipation. Oh god, she silently moaned. Just when the nightmares were getting under control...
She nearly sobbed in relief when the footsteps moved away, only to scream in shock when a flat palm impacted on the ceiling of her prison several times. She jerked instinctively, hitting her head on one of the walls (or was it the ceiling? No way to tell with her blindfold.) and causing a little sob to surface around the rag in her mouth.
"No sleethpen', gel!" Price's voice was like another gunshot. Rickie shook with quiet, fearful sobs as her body and heart ached aloud. Thinking of her warrior help to quiet these fears, and despite the brutal man waiting outside, the young writer soon found herself drifting off to a place away from her fears and pain.
By quarter past one, Xena was all but forced to break her cover and move about a bit. Cramps had developed in her knees and back. This was odd as those were the last place one would think would cramp up while standing upright or crouching in shadows. She went through a quick series of leg and shoulder movements designed to loosen the muscles taught to her by the Amazons millennia ago. Such exercises were necessary if one expected to be sitting in a tree for days on end, and proved just as useful for lurking in an alleyway.
The cramps soon melted away. This allowed her to refocus her attention on the activity across the street. Most of the clubgoers were young but clean and (moderately, at least) sober. Xena was almost surprised by their ages and health. The advert for the club she'd found in the hotel's telephone directory had said nothing of its venue or to what crowd it catered to.
Amid all those who came and went, however, there was no sign of the telltale gray clothing of her prey. Suits aplenty, yes, some of them quite fashionable and a few nearly the right color and style. But none of them worn by a man approaching middle age with dark hair.
The prospect that she'd come to the wrong address or that there was more than one club of the same name reared its ugly head. Xena disregarded both almost out of hand. Her occasional distraction aside, her memory was clear as a cloudless sky at noon. Besides, she'd made a point of copying down the address on a bit of stationary before dashing out of the room.
The other possibility, that there was more than one "Emporium" in the greater London area, was a bit more troubling. She'd seen no other listing in the phone book. But then there weren't listings for certain underground clubs she knew damn well existed and that did brisk business among the more risque elements of the population. Could she be staking out the wrong place? It would be a perfectly ironic end to an otherwise straightforward mission.
Panic began nipping and chipping at her thoughts. Did she have time to go searching for another club? Where would she start? Did she dare call Cora again?
Xena found herself clenching her fist so tightly her nails bit into the palms. The skin over her knuckles stretched so tightly it was a wonder the bone didn't burst through. She took a deep breath and relaxed herself. It was a struggle to make her muscles unclench, her fists especially seeming reluctant to do so.
She didn't realize how close she'd come to charging across the road and into the club until she looked up once more and found herself standing nearly in plain view at the threshold. The warrior quickly retreated back into the darkness behind her. It was all she could do to keep from slamming her head into the brick masonry beside her for such stupidity.
There would be plenty of time for that later. Right then, however, she had a quarry to bag, and so returned her focus to that singular task.
Big Ben struck one-thirty.
The manager's office of the Emporium was sparse and shadowy. Most of the available space was taken up by a single executive-size desk, several high-backed leather chairs, and a leather-covered sofa against the far wall. Blinds covered both the bay window near the sofa and the only door to the office. One wall was taken up with a small bank of video monitors, each showing the dance floor outside from one angle or another. Several others displayed the sidewalk and alleyway entrance outside. The pounding beat of the music the club goers swayed and moved to was muted to a low rumble by the industrial strength glass and thick insulation of the walls.
There was only one occupant in the office right then, one who was not the club's manager. He sat in the manager's chair, sipped the manager's expensive brandy, and watched one monitor in particular to the exclusion of all others. The monitor in question was fed from the a pen-sized camera mounted directly above the club's entrance, the camera itself being trained to look directly down the alley and across the street.
A small smile played across his lips as a tall, dark haired figure appeared momentarily in the opposite alleyway. The expression it wore was one of pure rage and murder. If body-language alone was a threat, those unfortunate enough to face this specter would have likely sworn themselves to a life of pacifism if the alternative was seeing her make good on the mayhem her stance promised would result.
The figure was gone in less than a second. It was more than enough.
"I was wondering when you'd show up, warrior," O'Donhugh muttered to himself. He turned from the monitors and picked up the phone on the desk. His fingers quickly danced across the number pad and he settled back into the wonderfully comfortable chair. The other end picked up after just two rings.
"She's outside, across the street." O'Donhugh glanced at his watch and added "Give her another forty-five then invite her in." He hung up and took another sip of the brandy, closing his eyes to savor the slow burn as the alcohol made its way to his stomach. Even so, his expression was anything but relaxed.
"It'll be over soon enough," he muttered aloud, as if trying to convince himself of the fact.
Xena broke a cardinal rule of stakeouts and glanced at her watch. She couldn't resist the urge, her patience now close to its last tether. Big Ben had struck two o'clock a short while back and she still hadn't caught sight of O'Donhugh. Her iron discipline was fracturing under the twin, steady assaults from time's heavy hand and her own building anxiety.
Looking at her watch proved a mistake. It was fourteen minutes past the hour. At the sight of this, Xena felt the world turn red and hot with rage too long denied. She cared nothing for possible rationalizations for this...this latest betrayal...it was enough that had been cowering there, in a stinking alleyway, while gods alone knew who was doing gods knew what to her Dreamer!
It was probably just as well she was alone right then. In her state of mind right then anything within arms reach might as well have laid down in the path of an on-coming train. Even the normally bold rats and stray dogs who haunted such areas were careful to avoid her stretch of alley.
Lost as she was in thoughts of bloody vengeance, a voice somehow cut through her preoccupation. It was polite and patient as it said "Ah-hem. Miss Amphipoulis? Ma'am?"
Xena looked up, standing to her full height as she did. She suspected from the way her lips felt tightly stretched there was a malevolent grin pasted across her face. Gods only knew what expression was in her eyes right then. Even so, she was surprised by how calm and collected her voice was as she replied "Yessss?"
The young fair-haired man standing before her, whom she did not recognize, seemed utterly unfazed. "Mr. O'Donhugh asks if you'd like to stop, quote, 'lurking in the dark like a rat and come in for a drink.' Unquote." Duty completed, the messenger spun on his heel and walked back towards the club entrance.
Xena could not conceal her surprise by both his calm demeanor and the message he had just delivered. Her rage subsided momentarily, the sudden draining of all tension leaving her a bit dizzy. Dizzy and adrift from her purpose.
Focusing upon the messenger's retreating back, Xena managed to get her legs moving. It was far from easy, her thoughts still spinning madly in hopes of gaining traction. She nevertheless managed to keep a straight course following the fair-haired youth as they crossed the empty street and made their way to the club's main entrance.
There was a neon sign directly over the wooden double doors boldly declaring "Emporium", with the subscript "Dance & Drinks" hanging beneath it. Their shinning light painted the immediate area in cold shades of blue. A short line of kids, ages running from early to late teens and all clad in pseudo-grunge fashions, were pressed against the wall to their left and looking as if they had been waiting there longer than she herself had.
Their eyes lit with anticipation as she and her guide approached the roped-off entrance. This turned to whistles and incoherent calls as the large doorman stepped between them and her as the messenger unhooked the rope and ushered her through the doors. Not knowing what to expect, Xena let her instincts take over and body loosen in preparation for attack.
She was consequently unprepared for the crashing, ear-splitting noise that filled the auditorium as they emerged. Xena could barely make out the lyrics of the songs pumped into the air as the blonde youth led her around the wide dance area. Kurt Cobain had just finished bemoaning not having a gun followed by Joan Jett loudly declaring her love for rock-n-roll.
Xena shook her head in wonder at how young people could find having the musical equivalent of a two-inch drill bit being plowed into their eardrums pleasurable. Then again, she'd also wondered thirty years ago why kids the same age as this lot always got so hysterical over that musical foursome from Liverpool; the ones with bad haircuts and upbeat lyrics. She'd never personally understood the attraction to them or their contemporaries.
Her guide led her to the back of the building. By then Quiet Riot had screamed out how they weren't going to take 'it' anymore, never specifying what 'it' was, and Def Leopard was personifying their lyrics to "Hysteria". Even removed from the noise as she was, Xena was left nearly deaf to the youth's declaration of "In here." He had the presence of mind to gesture towards the closed office door before them.
Xena got the message and opened the otherwise inconspicuous door, quickly crossing over the threshold and shutting it behind her. The so-called music became a muted rumble to her bones as she stood inside the small office. She tuned this out as she search this small space for any sign of her quarry, using both sight and the rest of her senses, only to be disappointed.
She pursed her lips as she reached for the desk lamp. The presence seemed to materialize directly behind her the instant she snapped on the light. Strangely, Xena felt herself calm instantly at this sudden arrival. It was like a sense of profound relief coming after a long, bitter struggle, not that she let any of this show in either her voice or actions.
With casual grace, the warrior turned to face the tall man behind her. A grin quirked at the corner of her mouth as she drawled "Jonothan O'Donhugh, I presume?"
"Well," O'Donhugh snickered in reply. "I'm certainly not Doctor Livingston. Any you don't look a thing like Mister Stanley."
Rickie had no way to judge how long she'd slept. Nor did she have any idea what had awakened her. The variety of aches, pains, and outright agony that suffused everything from head to toe immediately made her wish she had stayed unconscious. Intellectually the pain was no surprise; gods alone knew how long she'd been cooped up in this metal box. She'd long ago lost most of the feeling in her joints and limbs.
Despite this Rickie forced her muscles to work in small, concentrated exercises Xena had begun to teach her. The aching numbness was soon replaced with fiery pins-and-needles being driven into every nerve ending from toes to crown. If there hadn't been so much agony involved she might have felt proud at remembering them.
The pain proved enough of a goad for her to shake off the last vestiges of sleep (if one can call passing out in a metallic box 'sleep') and focus her thoughts past the burning under her skin. Just as well, as the entire box shook when an open palm impacted on it a few seconds later. Her ears rung in counterpoint to the hollow gong which resulted.
"Way-kee WAY-KEE!" Price's slurring voice mocked her through the din. There was the jingle of keys and the sound of a lock being undone. Hinges groaned as the 'ceiling' of her prison swung upwards. Blindfolded as she was, there was no way for Rickie to know how many heavies were waiting for her. Not that such knowledge would do her much good. There was no way she could make a break for it with her head pounding and knees ready to give out.
A pair of beefy hands grasped her by the shoulders and hauled her upright. Her otherwise useless feet dangled off the floor for a moment before she was dropped with no more dignity than a sack of old potatoes. Rickie found she barely had the strength to groan at the impact.
"This is our bait?" someone new asked aloud. She could sense several bodies crowding around her. The air was heavy with their sweat and something else, something she could almost identify.
"Yah. Sheth it." Price spat again and a wet glob landed on her cheek. If her mouth wasn't full of oily rag she might well have returned the compliment. Provided she had spit enough to accomplish even that.
Thinking of her gag gave her the clue to identify this new scent, the realization leaving her cold. She'd encountered it only once before, when her warrior had been busy cleaning her .45 in the kitchen and not taking at all kindly to being startled while doing so. The incident had resulted in a colorful tongue-lashing from her warrior and a permanent stain on her new jeans. It was the latter that came foremost to mind right then.
A lot of it.
Her mouth was too dry to curse of cry at the implication. The best she could manage was breathing faster around the gag.
Price's voice sounded off once more. "Pick 'er up an' move. We got twenty minneth t'git there." The same heavy hands grabbed her by the lapels and began dragging her along.
She quickly managed to get her legs into the act and was walking under her own power in a few minutes. Not that this was much of an improvement. The brutal jabs to her shoulders and back proved no less painful than the pins and needles.
Rickie soon found herself shoved, hard, into the uncarpeted back of van. She couldn't help stumbling again and landed painfully on her left shoulder. Stars exploded behind her eyelids as her head hit the wall when the van pulled sharply away. There was nothing to brace herself against and each turn sent her sprawling again and again.
Her one consolation was thinking Wait 'til Xena gets through with you guys.
Xena and O'Donhugh spent several minutes simply staring holes into each other. It was the warrior who spoke first.
"You aren't wearing your glasses," she observed.
To which O'Donhugh shrugged almost modestly "Don't need them."
"I didn't think so." More silence followed as Xena struggled down the urge to grapple him by the throat and choke the answers she wanted out of him. the rage had returned full force at the first sight of him. Her fingers positively itched to reach out and...
O'Donhugh leaned against the wall near the sofa and said "Of all the ways we might meet, warrior, I never quite envisioned it like this."
"Oh?" Xena felt her an eyebrow rise on its own. "And how did you 'envision' it?" She mimicked quotation marks to keep her hands busy and away from the chakrum. The temptation to simply decapitate this clown was nigh unto overwhelming at his blasé manner.
Giving her a small grin as he crossed his arms, the dark-clad man said "I would have preferred less stressful conditions all around, but here we are." He ended with a one-shoulder shrug.
"Here we are," Xena agreed. In the same pleasant voice she continued with "So tell me one single reason I shouldn't simply hack you into eight equal sections here and now?" The chuckle this elicited nearly sent her over the edge, forcing her to force her balled fists into the pockets of her leather jacket.
"Now why would you want t'go and do tha'?" If he was grinning on the outside, internally O'Donhugh was sweating as rarely before. His accent was slipping in again; a telltale sign of internal distress. At least he wasn't spouting Gaelic yet. "Especially as you've no idea where t'go looking for your bard."
Xena was moving before the words were fully processed. She could only hear the mocking tones and the casual mention of her Dreamer. Too casual for her ears. Her fingers were up and extended so quickly they would have appeared as a blur to an outside observer. She had only one thought: to wipe that slick grin off this bastard's face. That this would rob her of her best chance to find Rickie didn't even enter into it. She'd burst every blood vessel in his brain before hearing another syllable denigrating her bacchae.
Which would have been all good and well...if she hadn't missed.
The thing of it was she didn't miss; at least not in the sense of the blow not impacting with a stationary target due to a misjudged trajectory or some other error on her part. Quite the reverse. Her aim was true and unerring. The target was a particular cluster of blood vessels near the medula ablongota that when struck at precisely the right angle would begin burst inwards and set off a chain reaction within the target's skull and progress throughout the circulatory system, which would literally tear itself apart. The result was the victim dying of brain asphyxia while their lungs flooded and their hearts were crushed to pulp.
A glancing blow and the process could take hours to complete; a fast blow, with as much force as Xena was driving home, and it would take only seconds.
By rights O'Donhugh would have been dead before he even began falling.
Except her fingers never reached their target.
One moment her target was standing before her, straight, tall and wholly unaware of his impending demise. An eyeblink later (it could not have been any later) and he was gone, her fingers stabbing the empty air.
Two things happened at that instant, both of them as impossible as they were undeniable. First, something brushed across her outstretched arm with a feather-light touch, which promptly caused her entire arm to fall to her side as thought made of unfeeling and inflexible stone. Xena was barely aware of this, having only a single heartbeat to realize and process before the second event hit her, doing so quite literally.
It felt like a battering ram made from a California old growth redwood slamming into her chest at no less than twenty miles-per-minute. The force of the impact lifted her nearly a foot of the floor and sent her sprawling head of teakettle into the opposite wall. It took the warrior several more heartbeats to fully realize what had happened. More concretely, it took her that time to accept what had just happened was real and not some rage-generated dementia. Her bruised ribs and the fact her left arm was still so much deadweight reinforced the reality.
Looking back up at O'Donhugh, who stood silhouetted before the window like a specter of Celesta herself. With sharp ears she made out the deep breaths he took and exhaled; not really labored, but not terribly relaxed either.
"Never," O'Donhugh growled. "Never...try that again!" He might as well have been speaking to himself as the warrior who now warily rose to her feet. It felt as though he'd broken every bone in his left arm. That hadn't happened of course, but came damn close to. Closer frankly than he wanted to think about.
He hadn't planned either numbing her arm nor sending her flying like he had. Both counters had come entirely on instinct bore of years upon years of hard training. That he'd hit her center of gravity with enough for to send her off like that had been a stroke of pure luck. He was no less surprised by the results than Xena was.
As it was, the warrior had regained her feet and managed to look no less dangerous, her dead left arm notwithstanding. She kissed her teeth but said nothing. O'Donhugh saw her eyes shinning in the darkness between them. It was warning enough.
Not willing to risk yet another attack, one that was more than likely to get through, he started talking. "We can keep this up all morning, warrior. Or we can try talking like you wanted. What'll it be?"
The Immortal's smile didn't dim a hair.
"Would it help if I could lead you to those who might know where t'find your bard?"
Xena barely heard the offer. She was too busy trying look menacing while cradling her nearly useless left arm and fighting the blinding nausea this altercation had caused. Her fingers probed along her arm, trying to find precisely where the damage had been done. Amazingly nothing felt out of place or damaged. She didn't let herself even think whatever had been done to it was in any way permanent.
O'Donhugh's next words broke through her preoccupation and caused her manic grin to become a scowl. "I only numbed the nerves in your arm there. The effect should wear off in a short while."
"You're good, friend," was the only acknowledgement Xena could manage through the slowly-subsiding nausea. She could already feel a dull itching coursing through the limb.
Straightening herself, Xena cast another appraising eye over the man before her. It this little altercation was any indication of his real skill, she'd probably be better off simply lopping his head off right here and now. Trouble was it was unlikely she'd be able to clear the chakrum of its hiding place, never mind throw it. Feeling was seeping back into her wounded arm, but not nearly enough to keep it from doing more than hang limp. Deadweight like that was sure to throw her aim off. Never mind O'Donhugh was too close and had already shown he was perfectly capable to counter the least threatening movement.
Then the offer spoken only seconds ago came to mind. "You said you know where Rickie is?"
"I said I could lead you to someone who might know where she is."
Xena wasn't willing to trust such an offer on face-value no matter how desperate she was to find her Dreamer. "Why would this 'someone' know that?" she stalled.
"Because they've made it a point of watching you since you've arrived in London," O'Donhugh told her. "Plus I've got it on good authority he's the one who's ordered the various attempts on your life the past week." Xena was immediately put off-stride by this admission.
Equal parts relief and renewed suspicion led her to ask "Is he here, now?" She focused expressly on the figure before her, resisting hard the urge to look around the office for other hidden surprises.
The dark-haired man shook his head. He spoke with the infinite patience one employees with the slow-witted. "No. As I've said, I have to take you to him."
"What if I don't wish to met with him?"
O'Donhugh heaved with a slightly melodramatic sigh. "Warrior, do you really think you have an option with this?"
"Oh, I have options." The smile was back in full force. "Option one involves you being cut into a half-dozen pieces very slowly. Option two involves you being cut into a full dozen much, which would happen much, much slower than in option one." A corner of her mind was terrified to realize she was perfectly serious in these threats. This didn't stop her from continuing. "Do you want me to tell you options three, four, and five?"
"No need," O'Donhugh said dryly, seemingly unmoved by her words. He knew she meant every word and had no wish to waste more time hearing what new images might emerge from her colorful imagination. "But will any of them get you any closer to your bard?"
Xena's brow furrowed as she suddenly asked "Why do you keep calling her that? A 'bard'? Bards died out with the minstrel when the printing press arrived in Europe."
There was a trace of impatience to his words. "I call her that because you bloody well know that's what she is. Or should I say, what she was."
"She's only nineteen. Its not like she's had time..."
"Twenty since mid-April. Anyway, you damn well know what I mean." He blew an impatient breath and added "Stop playing dense, warrior. You don't do it very well."
Her arm felt like it was fire now. There was no hint of her discomfort as she observed. "You seem to know a great deal about me, O'Donhugh. You said as much at the gallery last Tuesday." The answer was the same grinning drawl as had greeted her.
"You're a mystery only to yourself, warrior. My family has watched and followed you for well unto two thousand years." There was no pride in this declaration. Merely a recitation of trivial fact.
"Oh? I didn't realize the Watchers recruited their family members."
O'Donhugh laughed aloud and held out his wrists so the insides of both were in clear display. "You see any tattoos? Besides, the Watchers didn't happen upon you until the 1400s. They're half-convinced 'the Destroyer of Nations' is just a myth." Xena's eyes narrowed as she quickly calculated the odds that she could sever both hands from the wrists with her chakrum. It was an intellectual exercise more than an actual intent. Whether she liked it or not, she needed this man alive and intact for the time being. Even if he only led her to the next link in the chain to the mastermind behind this insanity.
After that...well, it was all in the hands of the Fates, wasn't it? If they should choose to snip a few threads...or a lot of them...she could hardly be blamed for acting as their instrument, right?
"So," Xena said, keeping such thoughts to herself. "If you aren't one of the Watchers, why would your family be following me for, what was it? Two thousand years, you said?" Her tone spoke of her disbelief on this point.
"Leave us say you've been something of project of ours since your days as a pirate along the Greek coast. Right before you met up with dear old Julius, in fact." He tapped his chin and gave her an odd, measuring look. "You know, its rumored he wrote a passage about you in his account of the civil war with Pompey. Apparently the pages were seized by parties unknown right before the book went to the scribes for copy. You ever hear of this?"
"News to me."
"Apparently he was still quite taken with you, even after you practically handed him his head."
"It was Crassius and Pompey's heads, actually."
"So the stories are true, eh?" O'Donhugh's eyes lit up. "You really did orchestrate the break-up of the First Triumvirate. I'll wager you were the one who advised Gaius Pompey to run for Egypt, knowing full well Ptolemy would have him strangled."
"I wanted them both out of Greece and away from me. You sure you aren't a Watcher?" Xena's suspicions had similarly fired up at these questions. It nearly distracted her from the original track of thought. "Was your ancestor one of my crew back then?"
"In a manner of speaking." He sighed and said "If not for the slave girl my ancestors had freed from Gaulic raiders, you wouldn't be able to do half the clever tricks you do today. Hell, you might have even died on that cross on the beach where the Romans left you."
"M'llia?" Xena whispered, momentarily awestruck. "M'llia was your...ancestor?" She saw nothing of the Egyptian girl in this man. True, the millennia could have covered over his heritage, especially if the girl really had been taken from her homeland. Certainly she'd seemed too young to have mothered even one child when Xena found her stowed away on her the ship. She hadn't the chance; Xena herself had taken delight in breaking the girl's maidenhead on their first night together.
O'Donhugh again seemed to read her thoughts. "Adopted cousin more like. A runaway from a slaver caravan my forebears happened across. So the story goes, anyway." He gave an indifferent shrug. "In any even, it's the present and the future that should concern us. Not a dim past."
Xena jumped at the opening this offered almost before realizing it. "I couldn't agree more," she purred. "Your future, for example, is a matter of significant interest right now. Or more accurately..."
"More accurately how quickly it might end?" O'Donhugh broke in without missing a beat. "Was that what you were going to say, warrior?"
"Pretty much." Xena smiled coldly.
"Thought as much. I suppose that's your polite way of saying you'd like to be going to meet my contact, eh?" Xena said nothing to this, her smile still firmly in place and eyes chips of cold stone. "You'd think over two millennia would have taught you a bit of patience."
"Oh, it has. That's why you're still in one piece and breathing."
"Aren't you the charmer," O'Donhugh drawled as he reached behind him to open the office door. He swept his arm out the door in a gesture of gallantry, offering her to take the lead. Not being the fool, Xena declined by waving her still-burning arm in a dismissive gesture. O'Donhugh opened his mouth in what must have been a laugh. The dance floor music drowned it out immediately. Xena wondered if it would drown out the numerous expletives bouncing about in her head right then.
Lenny Kravitz was loudly extolling the virtues of American women as they wove their way through the crowd of London's not-so-wild youth.
Enzo Del Turo stood unseen by most anyone, even those at the dry bar where he stood. He held close to the shadows the lights and physical mass of the bar created. He had watched the arrival of the warrior, her entrance into the managers office, and his elder relation suddenly emerging with the warrior closely in tow.
He's still walking. Enzo snickered to himself as he reached into his coat for the cell phone. Marie will be so disappointed.
He had to shout into the receiver bit to hear himself properly. "They're leaving now. They should be there outside of twenty minutes."
Xena subtly but continuously looked around as they exited the club and walked to his car. It was a sleek Jaguar painted midnight blue. She resisted the urge to ask if he'd been driving around Westbourne the previous Wednesday. Instead she kept a constant lookout for his driver-partner-whatever.
O'Donhugh's voice interrupted these efforts. "Looking for my cousin? Don't bother. He's out of town." He bent down to unlock the driver's door, heedless of the glare she threw at him. "I told you, warrior," he said as he lowered himself into the car. "You are no mystery to me."
The Immortal opted for a politic silence as she pulled open the passenger's door and settled herself inside. She snuck a final look all around, only to see darkened streets and tall buildings surrounding them. The engine revved to life as she closed the door and fixed her seatbelt about her.
Without so much as a glance towards his passenger, O'Donhugh put the car into gear and sped down the nearly deserted streets. He didn't break the speed limit, but certainly scraped and bent it a few places. Despite the seeming directionless manner of his driving, Xena could determine they were heading to the south end of the city. Crossing the Thames was rather a large clue, especially when doing so close enough to the floating monument of the HMS Belfast to see which shore they were approaching.
Still she said nothing on this, wanting to see how O'Donhugh might handle the silence. One could tell much about another by the way they confronted and dealt with extended and tense silence. A nervous sort would chatter away on any nonsense simply to fill the air and distract from the tension; those more confident would let it stretch while casting the occasional glance her way to see how their passenger dealt with it. The arrogant personality could go either way, smugly attempting to keep the other party off balance with chatter or added tension.
O'Donhugh was none of the above, however. He neither spoke out nor seem especially tense. This was despite the confined space and the constant threat her presence consciously exuded. What little worry she could feel from him seemed entirely outward-directed, far removed from present circumstances. The chakrum could be held to his throat and she doubted he'd even notice.
Rather than try divining what went on in the man's mind right then, Xena tried to follow their course and plan her own. No easy feat. There were nearly no street light to be seen and no recognizable landmarks to guide her. The buildings were uniformly squat and lacked any distinctive features between them. She reasoned they must be in one of the industrial parks on near the edge of the city, close to the Thames but distant enough that the city lights were little more than a hazy glow overhead.
They soon came to a stop beside one of the darker buildings. A warehouse by all appearances. Its weather-beaten walls and cracked windows gave it a decidedly haunted feel with the dim-lit sky overhead. O'Donhugh shut off the engine and left the car without a word. Xena following suit after only a moment's hesitation, allowing her eyes to adapt to the dark She pulled the chakrum from her jacket with an audible ring when it brushed against the zipper.
O'Donhugh turned and eyed the weapon. "That won't do you much good, you know."
The warrior merely twirled the weapon on one finger before snatching it in mid-spin and gave another smile, this one closed lipped and twice as lethal.
"Suit yourself." The dark-haired man pushed on the rusty door before them and entered, Xena close on his heels. The chakrum 'accidentally' proded him in the back a few times as they walked to provide a tangible reminder of her presence and threat.
They walked only a dozen feet or so before coming to the main area. A single lightbulb was on, dangling from the high ceiling overhead. It cast a cone of weak yellow down unto the floor beneath it with a solitary figure standing in its center. All its features were cast into silhouette by the light framing it.
O'Donhugh calmly walked over to stand near the figure and announced "She's here."
Xena divided her attention evenly between the pair before her and to the rest of their surroundings. The latter became precedent the closer she approached the former. That the one standing in the light had yet to move perked her suspicions. So too did the way O'Donhugh stared into the distance between them; staring the way one does to keep oneself from looking all about in expectation of other arrivals.
The Immortal warrior woman cleared her throat and said "You wanted to see me?" When the figure declined to answer, she gave it a small prod with the chakrum, not the least surprised when it toppled to the flood. The shabby trenchcoat fell away in the process to reveal the crude form of a display mannequin underneath. Xena was already wheeling away before it was even half-way to the floor.
Her first target was O'Donhugh. The charkum was up and moving to cleft his head at the neck. This time her strike did connect, but not at its actual target. The Irishman had brought up his hand as if to block the attack. Xena caught sight of something clenched in it, what looked like a small flash of lightning atop it, just a half-second before first her arm, then the rest of her erupted in blinding pain.
She would have screamed if every fiber of her being weren't suddenly paralyzed as tens of thousands of volts ran from the taser in the Irishman's hand, through the chakrum and into her. She was helpless to keep from toppling backwards like a tree under a lumberjack's ax. Xena felt both breath and all consciousness momentarily stolen as O'Donhugh immediately reapplied the taser to the valley between her breasts, causing her to shake and flap about wildly.
He withdrew the device and followed up with a savage kick to her side. This caused her to roll over onto her stomach, her wide-open eyes staring away form the approaching footsteps behind them. A pair of fingers were applied her neck, probing and pressing hard on the coiled muscles there. She involuntarily stiffened as her limp muscles once again became taunt and paralyzed.
"Is she dead?" a new voice boomed out in the dusty air.
"Yah, she's gone." She felt O'Donhugh rise and turn away from her. There was the sense of several new arrivals in their space. "Meaning she'll be jumping back up in a few minutes. These all your boys?"
"All the one's I could summon, yes." There was distinctly cultured and haughty manner to the newcomer's voice.
"Hmm. Well, suppose we should get on with it, eh?"
"Indeed." There was the sound of something being passed between hands, with the sound of hinges be worked.
"Beautiful." O'Donhugh's voice was wistful and admiring. "Always knew she had good taste in weaponry." The newcomer snorted loudly.
A new sound cracked through the air, that of a gun's mechanism being cocked and primed. With it came another new voice, one slurred and rough with pain. "Don't futhcking move ya!" More footsteps followed. Several more than before. The clicks and oily scent of guns accompanied this group. They were a noisy bunch, threatening to overwhelm her already hard-pressed concentration.
"Ah," O'Donhugh sighed, sounding unconcerned and even a bit relieved. "I was wondering where you'd gotten to, Price. I see you found the bard as well."
"Shuth up! Yuir a dead man." There were sounds of a struggle as someone bolted from the crowd. Someone with a scent calling out to her like a Siren's song through an orchestra's worth of crashing cymbals and trumpet calls.
Rickie?! Xena wanted to scream out in panic, her voicebox still as paralyzed as the rest of her.
Rickie's voice by contrast did not suffer such impediments. "Xena?!" Her bacchae reached down and felt for a pulse with trembling fingers. Xena felt the tickle of rough rope on her cheek just as those soft fingers found her neck, only to be snatched away.
"Get away from her." O'Donhugh half-shouted, the nearly inaudible edge of panic to it. There was another struggle, this one quicker and ending with the dull 'thud' of a knee impacting with the another body, making O'Donhugh forcibly exhale in pain, no doubt falling to his kness in the process. This caused something metallic to fall to the concrete floor nearby, the clattering leaving her temporarily deaf.
She was vaguely aware of more struggling and another, much sharper howl of pain. The air went still for a moment then, pregnant with energy and shock on all sides.
Her hearing cleared just as the slurring voice shouting out "Yuth...bithsh!"
Next came the slide of an automatic being primed and O'Donhugh screaming "NO!"
The report of a single shot drowned him out.
No! Xena's mind echoed as there was a splash of warmth on her cheek. Something heavy and limp fell atop her back. Nonononononononooooo! She managed to screw her eyes shut as O'Donhugh approached and knelt beside her. Don't say it! the warrior silently, shamelessly begged him. Don't say it! Don'tsayitpleasegodsdon'tsayititwon'tberealifyoudon'tsayitplease pleasepleasedon'tsaytheword...
"You fucking idiot!" O'Donhugh whispered. The pain in his voice clear for all to hear.
The paralysis left her at that moment. Her eyes snapped open, and beheld a world as red as fresh-spilled blood.
(five minutes earlier)
The van she had been tossed and rolled about in had come to a sudden, almost crashing halt after perhaps fifteen minutes of driving. She had long since lost count of the number of turns and shifts the gears had undergone. It was all she could do to lie there in the back and wait for whatever might be next. No way was she even trying to think of running the way her empty stomach was churning on its own acids.
The back doors were thrown open and several hands grabbed her legs, pulling her out roughly and nearly dumping her on the unpaved ground outside. Her blindfold was pulled off without the least warning. She had to blink several times to clear away the dancing spot that had taken up residence directly ahead of her. Once her vision cleared Rickie found herself treated to a close examination of Virgil Price's swollen and snarling face. Somehow she kept from either flinching or wrinkling her nose as he spoke, his unsavory breath hitting her eyes with each word.
Producing a hunting knife from behind him, Price held the blade close to Rickie's face, giving her an unimpeded view of its razor fine edge.
"Yew say one wurd, an' ah'll cuth yer tong ou'," he said in a very quiet voice. "Yew try runnin' an' ah'll cuth her heart ou' t'show it t'ya. Geddit?" It took Rickie a moment to interpret the words, leading her to nod a couple times when the meaning sunk in. Price gave her grotesque smile and brought the blade even closer to her cheek. He quickly slipped it between the gag and her chin, looking all the while deeply into her eyes. The knife was pulled outwards just as fast, this cutting the gag clean off, the two pieces of rag falling to the ground. The young woman ran her tongue around inside her mouth several times trying to swap the taste of stale oil and sweat off her gums.
"Turn arou'," Price ordered. Rickie did so and felt the procedure repeated with the ropes tying her wrists. This time Price caught one of the severed strands and held onto it. "Pu' yer hands ou' in frontta yew." Again Rickie complied. The knife was held horizontal to her throat as Price bound her wrists once more, doing so one-handed and keeping the knife steady as board. He might have looked dumb, but damn if the man couldn't multitask.
Not once did it occur to Rickie to even try running. If it were just the homicidal-looking guy with the knife she might have risked it. However, she had counted off nearly a dozen different men on her peripheral vision. Each and every one of them were armed and looking for an excuse to let loose.
As Price worked on his knot, one of the men asked aloud "Do we really need the bitch, boss?" Rickie stiffened a bit from the insult but otherwise managed to stay still.
Price himself only nodded and said "Yah. She belungs t'the Immort'l bitch. S'obvious we need 'er." He finished the simple but effectively tight knot a few moments later and pulled her towards the building they had gathered behind. "C'mon."
Rickie chanced a quick look around and at their destination. The building was not unlike the warehouse she'd followed O'Donhugh to the previous night, albeit more battered and decrepit than the other. Her companions were a variety of sizes but all rough-looking and wearing the same scowl as Price.
While she let herself be led without either argument or struggle, her eyes and ears were attuned for the first chance of escape. Even when Price pulled open a half-rusted door just enough to allow him to slip past, followed by Rickie, then the rest, even then she patiently watched for her opportunity.
They all made their way quickly through the blackness, guided by the murmured echoes of distant voices. In just minutes they arrived at their destination: the main storage area. There she was treated to a scene drawn from her deepest nightmares, all color drained from her skin, all patience and thought disappearing.
Xena lay facedown on the ground, unmoving. Surrounding her was Jonothan O'Donhugh and three other men; one had silvered hair and looked somehow familiar, the other two were beefy thugs in expensive Italian suits. O'Donhugh was holding a sword admiringly. Xena's sword she realized after a moment, with one of the thugs holding its case wide open.
O'Donhugh was speaking when they arrived. "Beautiful. Always knew she had good taste in weaponry." To which the silver haired man snorted dismissively. He looked ready to say something when Price loudly drew back the slide of his automatic.
"Don't futhcking move ya!" the gangster slurred out as the rest of his men began fanning out to surround O'Donhugh and the others.
"Ah," O'Donhugh sighed, sounding unconcerned and even a bit relieved. Catching sight of her over the mobster's shoulder he added "I was wondering where you'd gotten to, Price. I see you found the bard as well."
"Shuth up!" Price spat. "Yewar a dead man." With Price's attention momentarily elsewhere, Rickie bolted from her place behind him and ran as quickly as her shaking legs allowed to Xena's side. She felt to her knees and quickly began feeling around for a pulse. This proved nearly impossible with her hands tied as they were. Her fingers nearly found purchase under her warrior's still chin when she was yanked by both shoulders and spun about. It was O'Donhugh doing this, still holding the sword in one hand while gripping both of her shoulders.
"Get away from her," he snarled, the words sounding more like a plea to her ears than a threat. Rickie fought to keep still for a moment until she caught sight of the sword in his hand. The young woman shook loose of his grasp with surprising strength born of raw fury. Her bound hands came up to knock him across the jaw. Surprised, O'Donhugh backed up a half-step. This allowed her to swing her knee up and catch him in his most tender regions.
The tall man groaned and fell to his own knees, both hands going to cup his injured parts. The sword hit the floor with a dull chattering that echoed off the high ceiling and empty walls. A few chuckles could be heard among the others. Even the silver-haired man, his identity still elusive to her, seemed to crack a grin.
Price refused such joviality however. Instead he marched forward and tried to grab the rope about her wrists once more. But Rickie was done being the acquiescent captive. She dodged out of his way a couple times, much to the quiet delight of the men around them, and struggled hard when he finally did catch her.
He immediately made the mistake of pulling her close so they were nearly face-to-face. Just as he opened his mouth to speak, Rickie swung her head back and brought the solid plate of her forehead down on Price's already-swollen and twisted nose. The mobster let loose a shriek of pain that might make a Banshee jealous as he stumbled back several steps and nearly tripped over O'Donhugh, who had begun to straight up right then.
The rest of the men looked on in a sort of shocked awe. Even Mr. Silver Hair was left speechless. Rickie found herself frozen and at a loss what to do next.
Price, one hand cupped over his wounded face in a vain effort to staunch the flow of blood and other fluids, was anything but speechless or frozen. He sputtered incoherently and rocked back and forth on his knees for several breaths before raising his automatic with the curse "Yuth...bithsh!"
Rickie remained in place as he drew a bead directly between her eyes. She felt no fear at the prospect of her death; she didn't feel anything, in fact. It was all happening too fast for her to process. Had there been more time perhaps the fear would have been there.
"No!" O'Donhugh screamed, his outstretched arm hitting Price's as he lunged up. It was already too late.
The roar of a single gunshot filled the air.
It felt like a bolt of fire tore across her right temple. Hurricane winds accompanied it and spinning her like a top. Rickie lost all sense of direction and orientation; up was suddenly down, left was suddenly diagonal, and she was collapsing unto something hard and lumpy. The world didn't stop spinning when she came to rest on the horizontal, but continued to tilt and whirl before her eyes. Even the warm stickiness flowing down the right side of her face was a distant thing.
She consequently could make no move when thin fingers wrapped themselves about her neck. They felt around to the back, quickly probing and tapping odd places along her spine. This caused her to shudder once and immediately relax. Voices that were speaking above her faded as quickly as she heard them, their words going largely unheard. Just before she completely blacked out, one phrase leapt out at her.
Oh really? Rickie wanted to say. Man, is Xena gonna be pissed....
She was gone into the darkness before the thought was even half complete.
O'Donhugh rose to his feet slowly. The effort it took to keep his knees from visibly knocking could easily mistaken for pain from where the girl's knee hit him. Everyone was looking alternately between him and the two women lying at his feet. He was actually grateful for that, uncertain how much longer he could keep control.
Alexander Devon sniffed and said "Hmph. Good riddance then."
"You...fucking...idiot!" he heaved, thinking desperately for something more to say. "We needed her alive."
Devon gave him a look. "I believe you mean you needed her alive, dear boy. Why I have no idea." The solicitor's gray eyes were an invitation that dared not be refused.
O'Donhugh growled as he reached for an explanation. There was no bloody way he was letting on what his game really was, even though the warrior was certain to have heard everything and was probably planning the bloody murder of them all right then. He could only pray she hadn't shaken off her paralysis yet.
A reason, a reason, a reason... his mind chimed over and over. Something plausible. Something these bastards could swallow. "She had access to the bitch's treasure," he improvised. "I needed her t'find some...heirlooms the bitch took from my family a century back."
This elicited a laugh out of Devon. "This is all over a few family trinkets? Ha. How mercenary."
Price shoved his way between them, drawing a bead on O'Donhugh. "Anth my fath? Lookith me!" He made sure both Devon and O'Donhugh had a clear view of his injuries. His nose hadn't stopped leaking quite yet. It made for a less than savory sight.
O'Donhugh declined the invitation saying "I'd rather not, thank you." Keeping his eyes on Devon, he added "You weren't that attractive to begin with." Price sputtered loudly and took aim on the taller man.
"Price!" the silver-hair solicitor called out as the bleeding mobster's finger tightened on the automatic's trigger. He didn't lower the weapon but neither did he fire. "I am curious about this as well, friend," Devon said, keeping them both in sight. "Why did you go and wound my man here? Another bit of revenge?" His curious tone fooled no-one present.
Now it was O'Donhugh's turn to chuckle. "I saw the hit-and-run on the bard last week. I traced the car tags to the idiot your man here hired to do the deed. He named your man as the one who gave the nod. I asked him and he said you gave the nod. That true?"
Devon apparently didn't feel like giving answers right then. "Why so much concern over a cheap piece of ass?"
"I told you. I needed her t'reclaim some property."
"So you said." The solicitor's smile was almost malice personified. "And for the record, I did order the car to hit the girl."
"Want t'tell me what the hell you were thinking doing that?"
"Why do you care? I specified the girl be hurt, not killed."
Not able to quickly think of an answer, O'Donhugh settled for simply staring and looking outraged. The bluff evidentially worked after a few minutes. "I wanted t'see how much a liability the girl would prove to her."
"By nearly killing her?"
"I'm sure you were watching her as closely as we were. You saw how indifferent she was at the hospital and afterwards, yes? I doubt she could have cared one way or the other."
You need t'have your eyes examined, mate. O'Donhugh nearly said it aloud. He couldn't keep the snicker accompanying the thought quiet. Devon apparently took this as agreement.
The solicitor stepped forward and bent down to retrieve the sword. He then nudged Price aside, handing the blade to O'Donhugh handle first, saying "I'm sure we can be of some help in finding your lost property, friend. It was, after all, you who brought us to this point."
"Heh?" Price spoke up, confused.
"He means I'm the one who gave you lot the information on the bitch t'begin with," O'Donhugh clarified as he took the sword. "If it weren't for me your lot would still be running dope and car parts out of Liverpool."
"The colliery to that being many of 'our lot' would still be breathing," Devon reminded him as he signaled for two of the surrounding goons to come forward. They rolled Rickie's limp form over and picked Xena up by her shoulders.
O'Donhugh saw this and read the intention plainly. He nevertheless chose to play dumb for a moment or two longer. "What's your plan now? T'finally be rid of the bitch?"
"In a manner of speaking." Devon withdrew another couple steps with Price in tow. The mobster's automatic hadn't wavered a hair. "You, dear boy, will have the honor of striking the killing blow."
"Now hold on..." The protestation was cut off by the sound of a half-dozen safeties being clicked off. O'Donhugh could only sigh in seeming defeat as the two holding Xena brought her over. They had taken hold of her upper arms and raised her sufficiently so her neck was clearly exposed.
He hadn't been joking in his admiration for her sword. The balance was perfect and its edge sharp. O'Donhugh shifted his stance beside the unmoving warrior and hefted the blade aloft. He tensed for a moment, as if about to strike, when a thought seemed to hit him.
"Hmm?" The solicitor sounded annoyed.
"Do you remember what it was I said when I called you that first time, three months ago?"
Devon's mouth opened, then closed tight in thought. He said "You said something about being a friend of Horton's and that you could help us. Something like that."
O'Donhugh nodded with a small grunt and re-took his position, only to relax again and turn back. "What I actually said was that Horton had friends in high places." The smile he gave the solicitor and short mobster was anything but benign.
"I never said I was one of them."
The blade he held was suddenly arching through the air. He struck one, then the other goon holding the warrior, both men falling to the floor. One clutched at his spurting neck while the other attempted to keep his lungs and heart from exploding out of his now-open chest. Xena fell to the floor once again and remained still.
O'Donhugh had not stopped, spinning as he moved and throwing the sword across the room, its tip aimed perfectly at the ashen face of Alexander Devon. Had it not been for Price bodily knocking the solicitor out of the way, the blade would have surely entered the latter's open mouth, the orifice having been locked slightly open in complete shock. Price snapped off several wild shots at the retreating figure as they fell. The sword whistled past his ear and sailed a few more feet before clattering once more to the floor.
"Gith'm!" he snarled to his men, who were quick to give pursuit. Even those who had been attempting to help their wounded comrades jumped up and ran after the man. This left the two of them alone with the wounded and seeming dead. Devon stood and once again picked up the sword while Price marched over to his men. Both had entered shock from the damage done them and could only moan. The warrior lay between them.
Without the least hesitation, he took aim and fired off the last two shots in his magazine, both bullets shattering their skulls. He then pulled a fresh clip from inside his jacket and jammed it into the weapon. Pulling back the slide, the mobster turned back to their main target with every intention of putting several more bullets in her brain to ensure she would stay down while he and his nominal superior finished the job.
He turned...and found the space where she lay...empty.
In a panic, Price spun around to call out to Devon. His sight however was completely blocked by the tall form of Xena Amphipoulis.
The warrior brought up her chakrum in a single vertical slice, opening Price's compact body from crotch to the nose of his disfigured face. He couldn't cry out or even gurgle as he fell (literally) apart. His fingers clutched reflexively, pulling the trigger on his pistol and sending shot after shot into the air.
Devon, whose back had been turned during all of this, called over his shoulder "Don't do too much damage there. I want to savor th..."
The words died at his tongue as he saw Xena slowly turning to face him. The sword slipped from his fingers as she brought the bloodied chakrum up once more. The look in her eyes sent him running; it was a rage so fiery as to be like pure sunlight compared to the blankness of the rest of her face.
There was the cry of the chakrum taking flight behind him, the feeling of an impact tearing through him coming shortly after. It was not terribly painful, save that his legs seized and froze stiff from it. Devon looked down, conscious mind reeling in disbelief at the jagged, diagonal tear that had emerged from the center of his chest. Ribs and cartilage poked out through it, a constant spray of blood with them. He looked back up at the loud 'ping' reverberating off the wall ahead of him. The chakrum was nothing more than a blur of silver as it streaked back at him.
Alexander Devon had time only to open his mouth to scream before the flying ring sawed into him once more. It sliced between his open teeth and emerged at the base of his skull.
His body collapsed to the ground only a minute later. By which time the warrior woman had plucked the chakrum out of the air and disappeared towards the sounds of struggle in the background.
Contrary to appearances, O'Donhugh had not been operating to any clear plan. It was sheer luck he hadn't already lost his own head. After fleeing, he'd hidden himself behind an empty cargo container. The gunshots and cry of the chakrum behind him was all the description needed for what was happening there.
"Ah, fuck," he muttered to himself. The warrior was probably in an absolute frenzy by now. Never mind Devon's men, who had enough bullets between them to re-enact every John Woo film ever made; the warrior was probably after him specifically. To try and fight her was suicide. Even if he got close enough to use pressure points, there was every chance she'd simply cut his fingers off and them to him.
Simply hiding wasn't much of an option either. She'd probably cut through all of the goon squad, then go ahead and dismantle every physical object with her bare hands without slowing down in the slightest. Fleeing was completely out of the question; the warrior would simply track him down and do unspeakable things with his entrails.
There was no telling how long before the bard woke up and calmed Xena down. There had been no time for the careful sort of nerve pinch that would put her out for only a few minutes. He'd had to put her down as quickly and completely as possible lest Price be given the least excuse to really kill her. He couldn't help kicking himself the whole while for not grabbing her at the warehouse the previous night and keeping her out of the cross-fire.
There was a subtle shift in the shadows nearby. Nothing seen as much as felt. It was all the warning he needed. Silent as a cat, he moved further back along the container, stretching out with all his senses for the smallest sign of those hunting him.
Even careful and skilled as he was, O'Donhugh was hardly infallible. He immediately spun and brought up both hands, ready to strike out, when he felt a light touch at his shoulder. It was Enzo, his own hands up in supplication. O'Donhugh blew a soundless breath and mouthed "Don't do that!" He glanced around. "Where's the rest?" he mouthed.
Enzo made a sweeping gesture with both hands. O'Donhugh replied by making an "X" with his pointer fingers, then twirling one at the side of his head while slashing the other across his throat. He could only shrug helplessly against Enzo's disapproving look. Both men looked around once more as the faint 'clink' of metal against metal was heard, followed by the unmistakable sound of a body falling heavily to the floor.
O'Donhugh quickly signed that he was going back to the collect the bard and drag the body to cover. Enzo offered to go with, but was strongly rebuffed and all but ordered to go back to the others and deal with whoever the warrior didn't find. The younger man might have argued if his elder relation hadn't already disappeared. He resisted sighing aloud, conscious of the danger they now moved within, and began backtracking the way he'd come.
A shadow flittered past a moment later; one whose arm tapered to a sharp point.
O'Donhugh found himself having to detour several times behind and around several very agitated members of Price's goon squad. Rough and ugly as they might appear, they carried themselves with great caution and stealth. Were he not practically jumping at every little thing that moved, O'Donhugh might well have found himself surprised by a few.
It was the one he didn't hear so much as a peep from that worried him the most. She left her handiwork here and there: five bodies in all, each decapitated and dispatched without sign or sound of struggle. It was as clear a testament of the warrior's state of mind as if she now stood before him and declared herself.
Shaky as his knees became with each new discovery, O'Donhugh forced himself to continue to move. Freezing up would be tantamount to suicide right then. Too much was riding on the next several minutes to foul it all on a moment of blind panic.
Besides, he had his daughter's birthday party to organize. Planning and execution of D-Day wasn't nearly as involved as those yearly galas.
This all churned beneath the surface of conscious thought. O'Donhugh was only aware of his determination to get to the bard and carry her to the darkest, furthest corner of this place and wait out the warrior. If he was lucky he'd manage it before the warrior from trying to open him up with either of her blades.
The alternative was personified by the sixth body he came across. It was less a body than the results of a failed surgical practicum worked on by a drunken medical student; quite the eloquent testimonial when viewed in the proper context. O'Donhugh chewed his lip as he edged past the still-spurting remains but refused to pause for even a moment.
He arrived at the main area shortly thereafter. The bard still lay there, the remains of Price, Devon and the two he had killed being her only visible company. O'Donhugh was no fool, and although he had yet to see the chakrum in action, the stories passed down from his ancestors were nothing if not vivid in their descriptions of the warrior's skill with the weapon. She could likely bounce it off a wall a hundred meters distant aiming right for his head and he wouldn't know it until it was all over.
The tall man stepped out into the open with the confidence of the condemned. If she really was so far gone that his death was only a matter of time and degrees, the least he could do was try making sure the girl wasn't chopped up in the process.
He made it to the unconscious bard's side without incident. Kneeling there, he took a moment to check her pulse before moving her, then hoisted her over his narrow shoulder. Keeping as careful an eye and ear as possible for the first hint of the warrior's inevitable attack.
They made it back to his first hiding place, behind the cargo container, when the 'rat-tat-tat-tat-tat' of an Uzi sang out nearby. O'Donhugh was startled so badly he very nearly lost hold of his too-precious cargo. The echo made it difficult to track the source. The ringing of strikes of blades only served to make still more confusing noise.
There was nothing confusing about the gun barrel that was suddenly pressed to the back of his neck. "Ah, fuck," he breathed for the second time in the past quarter hour.
"Shut it!" hissed a Scots-lilted voice in his ear. "Yuir gonna walk me outta here."
O'Donhugh's voice was equally hushed. "She wants me dead as much as she does you, idiot. I'm no shield."
He might as well have been speaking his native Gaelic. Or Swahili. The gun prodding him hard in the neck testified to this. O'Donhugh said "I'm putting this body down first." It wasn't a question or an offer. He carefully lowered the bard back to the floor then straightened back up, praying all the while the Scotsman was keeping both eyes on him and not so much as glancing down at the reclining blonde. Her chest had begun to visibly rise and fall, making a lie of his earlier declaration. No telling how this trigger-happy fool would react to that little realization.
His prayers proved in vain. A small groan coming from the crumpled body at their feet drew the Scotsman's attention, making him spin and bring his Uzi to bear on the unexpected sound. O'Donhugh was moving before he himself was aware of it, throwing himself fully between the gun and its target.
The killer managed to depress the trigger twice only. The weapon itself was set to semi-automatic as opposed to full. Only two rounds emerged, both burying themselves into the chest of the gray suited man before the barrel. The impact slammed O'Donhugh backwards into the container's hollow wall. The same energy and momentum sent him bouncing back into the Scotsman, nearly dragging them both to ground in the process. His eyes had rolled back to show their whites by then, with his chest suddenly sticky and damp to the touch.
The Scotsman managed to pull himself out from beneath O'Donhugh's deadweight after a moment's struggle, only to nearly slip on the slowly expanding pool of darkness beneath the body. He thought for a moment about finishing the job and letting loose a full burst into both bodies. A hollow 'clank' behind him led him to think better of it, causing him to scurry off in the opposite direction.
He consequently had no-one to blame but himself when he ran full speed into sword blade that slashed into his throat at a junction some meters away. He fell like his fellows: silently and in pieces.
Xena existed in a world painted in hues of red and populated solely by moving bodies without faces. There were no sounds her ears could interpret...save little Lyna's cursing words which had haunted her across the centuries.
Why did Nana hafta die? Why did she have to die and not YOU?!
A childish question from a girl not even two summers old. Xena had never once blamed the child, the youngest child of her youngest child, for her anger. She'd asked herself the same time and again. The question had been mirrored in the eyes of her mothers and aunts. The question had haunted and hounded her every waking and dreaming moment.
The question that had all but driven her from her family, into a brief and lonely exile on the edge of the Amazon Nation. She lived like a ghost for many seasons, defending the border and avoiding her children and their children in turn, watching them grow from afar. Only when one was about to pass on did she ever dare return to the heart of the Nation.
Only then did the question and the curse always return full force.
Some of them saw her in their last moments. Most did not, either having already passed on or doing so in their sleep. Only little Lysa called out to her with her last breath, begging forgiveness all the while for her angry words. Xena had wept shamelessly as she clung to her grandchild's strong body, made frail by age and hardship, meaningless words of forgiveness tumbling from her mouth.
But the words had never fully left her. They echoed in her ear on the beachs of Milikinion, over the clash of swords and armor at Camlaan field, amid the ruins of Trysbeck village, and in other places and times. She had buried friends and the occasional lover in those places, but never had Lysa's words left her in such a rage that the world had become as blood.
Then again, her heart had never been torn from her breast as it had that day. Xena cringed a little the disappointment that was sure to be coloring Gabrielle's eyes at her actions. Every warm body she came across was dispatched immediately. Some suffered immensely, others not at all.
Her whims on this score were as mercurial. It depended upon how loudly Lysa screamed in her ear at any given moment. The few bullets that manage to hit her were like mosquito bites compared to the wooden lamb her granddaughter had thrown to underline her words two millennia ago. No sword or bullet wound had ever equaled the pain that small bump had brought her.
Until the other half of her soul had been murdered right before her eyes that is.
Now there was only her, her weapons, and all the blood her enemies would bleed in penace for her pain.
It proved laughably easy to hunt most of them. The Germans she had brought down in the rain forest nearly six decades ago had proven more a challenge. Oh, this bunch was as stealthy as you could get. But their sweat and the oil they'd used generously on their guns left a scent stronger than a prostitute in a temple full of Hestian virgins. They might as well has shot off a flare marking their positions.
Her first two kills were easy enough. She had stalked them all from above, taking in their individual scents, cataloguing their individual swaggers and movements, discerning their methodical patterns of deployment and patrol. The first two had been purely opportunistic. Neither had been looking up or were making a particularly intense effort at staying quiet. Their boots squeaked a bit every few steps.
Xena had leapt down behind them and remained low. The one who quickly looked behind them completely missed her as a result. She by contrast did not miss when she brought the sword to bear on both. They fell without issuing a sound of warning or surprise. Either would have been pointless; they had no time for the latter, and the object of the former was long gone by the time such alarms would have been raised.
The next two went much the same, save they walked right past her hiding place between two medium sized crates. Xena simply stepped out behind them and once again used her sword to desired effect. Enemy number five fell only a minute later. He managed to fire off a quick burst before the chakrum tore into him. A couple of the rounds lodged in her thigh, causing her to limp slightly.
She barely felt the impact, the red world she had taken up residence in muffling everything physical and mental. Even Lysa's cursing voice was a vague and far off thing.
The pain of the toy lamb's impact was being relived as she found number six. With a glint to her eye that could have bordered on utter madness, she proceeded to open his chest cavity and tear his vital organs into so much wreckage. She did this with both sword and chakrum, doing so with such speed and efficiency her clothes had only a light splattering of blood to show for it.
Others required nothing more than her swinging her sword at just the right height as they obligingly ran into it. She didn't bother counting the bodies. When there wasn't anything left living in a hundred mile radius, then and only then would she be done. Large or small, walking on two leg or four or eight, it didn't matter. At least not right then.
Xena continued wading through her red-hot rage. Eventually there were no more men with guns left. None alive at any rate. She surprised herself by actually managing to carefully count them out and compare the number of bodies to the number she'd first observed. This left her at a momentary loss as to what to do next.
This little dilemma was solved by the sound of movement some distance away. Careless footfalls and the low drum of something hitting the solid floor resounded through the air. Moving with all the grace and speed of a stalking panther, Xena was soon atop her prey, who moved between obstacles with a shocking lack of grace.
From her vantage point atop a tower of large wooden shipping crates, Xena beheld only a small figure creeping in the maze of containers and boxes. The shadows obscured any real details. The warrior didn't really care as she was still too far gone into the red haze of her mind.
She instead maneuvered herself so she could intercept the figure's path only a few meters up their path. Whether or not she'd kill them was up in the air at that point.
As was she after a moment, leaping from perch to perch and arriving at the site of her ambush in seconds. The footfalls and random bumping about hadn't paused any. Were she about to think clearly Xena might have suspected her target was either drunk or so uncoordinated they were tripping over themselves.
But she was still so crazed with pain that it never occurred to her the very sounds guiding her might be anything accidental.
Xena waited through the count of ten, measuring the distance between herself and the target by the slow, plodding steps as they approached. Her counts were slow and patient, matching the footfalls evenly.
On ten, she leapt...
...and landed in an empty thoroughfare between a freighter cargo container and a line of shipping pallets. The small figure was nowhere to be seen.
Xena spun about, sword and chakrum up and at the ready. A growl of frustration tickled her throat as she searched for her prey. Any thought of simply frightening the intruder into fleeing what itself fled before her renewed rage. Once again she would only be satisfied with blood.
Turning to her left in response to new movement in that direction, Xena felt the lightest feather touch on her right shoulder. He entire arm went numb and limp at her side. She couldn't even keep hold of the sword.
She was better prepared for such an attack this time around. The handle of the sword had barely slipped from her fingers when she was already spinning. The chakrum cut only air, however. She did catch the briefest glance of the small figure dodging out of its way, brushing against her other shoulder as it passed.
Her left arm fell uselessly to her side.
The still crazed warrior crouched and searched for the smallest sign of this new attacker's whereabouts. She was perfectly prepared to leap upon them if need be and tear their throat out with her teeth. When the figure stepped into view only a few arms' lengths from her, Xena prepared to do precisely that.
With a snarl, her legs coiled back and launched her upwards. The distance closed between them, but only because the smaller figure now strolled towards her casual as you please.
It took Xena a few second to realize she wasn't moving. Enraged, she looked down and found two massive arms wrapped about her mid-section, holding her several inches off the floor. With a roar Xena began struggling for all she was worth, kicking and twisting. Her one gratification came when the giant holding her issued a small "Omph!" as the heel of her boots impacted with knees and shins.
This active struggling came to a halt when the figure finally came once more within striking distance. Two very solid and familiar jabs were applied to her throat, turning her from toes to crown to solid stone. Even with her body paralyzed so, Xena continued to fight, causing her stiff form to shake ever so slightly form the contest of iron will against physiological limitations. She felt something warm and wet slowly dribble from her nose and around her lips.
Both the attacker and the giant saw this. There was a voice she was sure should have been familiar hissing "Bloody hell, she's fighting it! Take the pinch off her!"
"But..." a woman's worried voice said before her, the protest cut off by the giant.
"Do it!" The same points on her neck were jabbed a second time, releasing her completely. Xena seized the opportunity without hesitation, snapping her head forward then back and feeling the satisfying crunch of solid bone against solid bone. She saw stars as the arms released her the giant body stumbled back a few paces. Consequently she heard more than saw him trip and lay still.
Shaking the stars away, her arms came up in an instinctive series of blocks against the small figure's renewed attacks. It proved a close contest as neither of her arms was fully recovered right then, and the attacks came at an almost dizzying speed. That she managed to block them all was nothing short of miraculous. So too was the single punch she managed to land through it all, managing to send the attacker sprawling backwards.
Confident she had dealt with one immediate menace, Xena turned and picked up her sword. The blood rage had not fully left her despite the dissipating tension within in and the fact her surroundings had begun spinning at the periphery. The warrior nevertheless raised the sword. The pain this simple movement brought giving her the clarity needed to strike her blow and dispatch another enemy. Enemies were all she had right then. Enemies who would stop at nothing to take her head, unless she took theirs first!
The fact this newest enemy looked precisely like Manfred Emmanuel Armistead barely registered in her mind. That he looked directly into her eyes without fear was also missed. She was too exhausted, to crazed, and simply too confused to recount her own name never mind grasp such complex thoughts.
It was a wonder to all then, particularly herself, when she was stopped by just two words all but screamed half a dozen feet away.
Screamed by the dead.
Well into her old age Rickie would wonder if events unfolded as she thought she recalled, so surreal were the memories.
She had awakened to the sound of gunfire, unable to flinch from it as she was too fuzzy and disorientated. Opening her eyes didn't help much. Rioting dots of weird colors danced in front of her, partially obscuring the activity playing out directly in front of her. Ouch. That's gotta hurt. was the first coherent thought to come to mind as she dimly perceived two bodies seemingly collapsing into one another. One extracted itself from underneath the other and fled.
The firecracker sound of more gunfire caused her to wince as it exacerbated her headache. It proved a painful ordeal to simply stand never mind walk in any given direction. Rickie manage both at the cost of a jackhammer thundering inside her head, directing her lower limbs to move as steadily as they might.
She ignored the discomfort behind her eyes and forced her legs to move. Clear sight eventually returned as the rioting spots receded to the periphery. Her strength accompanied this new clarity. The headache nevertheless stubbornly clung to her temples, pulling and pounding at them simultaneously. The shadows took on sinister qualities as a result, seeming to move and shift with her every step.
This led Rickie to overreact a bit to the least noise or flicker in the shadows. Not that anyone might blame her. Her memory had cleared enough that she remembered quite clearly how she came into these present circumstances. Heightened caution was only logical at that point, particularly when there was still the odd bit of gunfire sounding off here and there.
How she managed to stay silent upon encountering the first of the bodies was mystery. More puzzling was her complete lack of reaction in the face of her warrior's handiwork. Pausing only long enough to satisfy herself it wasn't her warrior, Rickie continued on her way past the shadows. It occurred to her that she hadn't checked the body she'd awakened beside. This seemed wrong for some reason, even though it had been the wrong shape and size for it to have been Xena. Or so she thought.
Right then, Rickie wasn't sure which way was up and which was down. She leaned against the nearest available wall for a moment and began rubbing her temples with the heels of both hands, her face scrunched up in the effort to think past the pounding noise in her ears. Some inner caution kept her from groaning aloud however. Just as well, otherwise she might have the 'clang-clang' of metal falling unto concrete coming from nearby.
Glancing around the corner, she found a tableau at once comedic and desperate. Xena was there, being held aloft by a man-shaped mountain directly behind her while she struggled like a temperamental child. Before her was a much smaller figure, this one lithe and feminine in shape. Between them all on the floor sat the chakrum and sword. The latter shot forward and struck the warrior twice in the neck, causing her to stiffen and immediately begin shaking. Rickie soon caught the glint of a trickle of blood from her nostril.
"Take the pinch off!" the dark-skinned giant ordered.
"Do it!" Again the smaller one moved, hitting the warrior's neck and bringing the struggles to an Instant end. Her reward was seeing Xena immediately head-butt her partner into releasing her, then for the warrior to block and counter every punch and kick thrown her way. Jackie Chan action sequences were not as fluid or looked better choreographed.
Eventually Xena got her one punch in, sending her small opponent sliding down the narrow thoroughfare to come to rest near Rickie's feet, where she lay still. Both women could only stare at one another in surprise. Rickie saw the pained features of Marie de Anan looking back up at her. "What the...?" both muttered at the same time.
Rickie quickly looked up and back to Xena, who now stood over the toppled giant with her sword in a double-handed grip, blade tilted down and aimed directly at the head of Manfred Armistead. Memories swam to the surface of consciousness at the familiar sight, but Rickie ignored them as she saw her warrior's shoulders tense tight in preparation to strike. This propelled her fully around the corner as she cried out "Xena, no!"
This froze her warrior utterly. Only her head had any movement, shaking slightly. "It...it won't work, Rickie."
"What..what won't work?" Rickie squeezed the words past the sick feeling of déjà vu the denial brought to her stomach.
"You. Pretending to come back like this." Xena laughed bitterly, wildly, through the words. "You're dead and you can't come back. Not like me."
"Xena, I'm not dead." The warrior only shook her head harder, shoulders tensing once more. Rickie started speaking faster. "Xena, the bullet only grazed me. I'm not dead. Look, see?" She brushed two fingers across her brow and held them out for inspection. "Its only blood. No brains. Xena, please."
But Xena refused to turn. Her head was shaking wildly now, sending her main of raven's hair billowing like a cape. "No..." The sword hadn't wavered a hair.
"No...I can't...not again..."
The words came before Rickie could stop them. "You think I can? You think I don't have nightmares of finding you half-dead in that goddamn dungeon? That I don't get terrified every time I see you so much as pick up that damn sword, wondering if you're ever coming home again? You think I can take that?!" This was hardly the moment to be unloading baggage like this. They were both operating on pure adrenaline and probably didn't have a calm thought between them. Rickie wasn't about to argue with the results however.
Xena's shoulders visibly hunched form this. The sword remained otherwise still.
"Dammit, Xena!" Rickie nearly exploded. "I'm not dead. I'm standing right here behind you!"
The warrior was equally emphatic in her denials. "No you're not! You are dead! They killed you." This last came in a near-whisper, its tone chilling Rickie to the bone. "They have to pay. All of them!"
Now desperate, Rickie hardened her own voice with a confidence she didn't feel. "You promised me, Xena. Remember? You promised!" She advanced one step with each word, the last bringing her to her warrior's side. This allowed her to see clearly the shaking that had taken over her warrior's strong arms and torso. Allowed her to hear the heaving breaths that bellowed in and out of her. Allowed her to see all to clearly the pain in her proud, stoic warrior's face and the tears from her eyes. Those eyes stared downwards, unblinking and unmoving.
Rickie reached out, guided by unseen memories, hooking her fingers under Xena's chin. She slowly drew the warrior's face to around towards hers directly. The sword moved with them, coming to be practically aimed at the younger woman's head. Rickie ignored this and, looking as deeply as she could into Xena's eyes, quietly said "I'm not dead."
The touch alone would have been enough. The sound of her voice, the sight of her eyes, proved almost too much for the warrior. With a cry that was equally a growl, a curse, and a thanks for prayers answered she threw the sword away and wrapped both arms tightly about her Dreamer. She continued crying into the blonde hair she buried her face in, inhaling the scent of Rickie's skin and the blood matting her hair. It made her cry harder and tighten her grip.
Rickie returned the embrace as best she could, this proving rather difficult with her arms being practically pinned to her sides by Xena's grip. She crooned to her warrior and tried to make out what the taller woman was saying into her hair.
"I'm sorry," she babbled like a holy mantra. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
Rickie had no idea what Xena might be apologizing for. For bringing them to London? For killing those who had tried to kill them both? For not wanting to believe lest she be disappointed again? For drinking those two posts of coffee Saturday? For not having left a decent tip at the restaurant last Wednesday? Rickie didn't care.
Rather she let Xena babble and apologize and cling to her like a drowning man would a life preserver. All the while she was straining to keep them both upright. Xena's knees had all but collapsed after she'd enfolded Rickie to her.
Gravity eventually won out and Rickie had to lower them both to sit on the cold floor. Xena was too busy trying to absorb her bacchae into herself to even notice. Remembering they weren't alone Rickie tried to look around, only to find Xena would tighten her already crushing grip at the least movement on her part. She managed to sneak a look around her lover's broad shoulders to see both Armistead and de Anan nearby. They were conversing quietly between themselves.
"Jono was right about the bard, wasn't he?" Armistead rumbled.
"Aye," the russet-haired woman agreed. "Never was any doubt." The pair looked behind them as Enzo del Turo jogged up.
"Still no sign of Jono's body," the young man reported, a worried edge to his voice.
"Could it have been dragged off?" Armistead wondered aloud. Enzo shook his head.
"No footprints, no trail, nothing to suggest it was. S'like it just vanished into the air."
"Maybe he's still alive?" de Anan offered optimistically.
Both Armistead and Enzo gave her quelling look. "I saw the bullets hit him dead center," Enzo hissed angrily, then waved towards the two of them. "If the warrior hadn't killed that haggis-eating little shit, I would have!"
Armistead put a calming hand on his shoulder and said "We'll deal with that all later. Right now I believe we have larger concerns to attend to." He said this as he turned and bored into herself and Xena with his dark eyes.
Rickie tried to back away as he approached, only to find Xena's grip served as a most effective anchor. Xena herself was still too far gone to notice her bacchae's discomfort. Armistead gave a full-toothed smile and held his hands out in supplication. Rickie couldn't bring herself to trust that smile or the empty hands before her. Neither could she do anything with Xena holding her as tightly as she did.
"Warrior?" Armistead called out softly. Xena, surprisingly, looked up and towards the source of this gentle voice. Her eyes widened at the sight of Armistead's smiling face only inches from her. She was about to say something no doubt quite colorful when Armistead's left pointer finger flashed out and struck her at an odd angle on the forehead.
Rickie nearly screamed when she saw Xena's eyes immediately close, her entire body going limp as a dishrag and all but dragging them both to the floor. "What the fuck did you do?!?" she shouted at Armistead as she struggled to roll Xena onto her back while feeling desperately for a pulse. She accomplished both, the latter strong and rhythmic as ever, when she caught a noise gurgling up through the warrior's throat and emerging through her mouth. Rickie bent closer to those perfect, slightly parted lips so to hear better.
It was a snore. The sort only those who know deep, relaxing slumber shake and rattle with.
Disbelief and pure rage written across her face, Rickie looked up once more at Armistead, hands reaching blindly for a weapon. Fingers closing around the chakrum, she repeated "What the fuck did you do to her?"
"Peace, bard." Armistead kept his smile and pulled his hands back further than before, keeping both in plain sight. "I just put her down..."
"Whaaaat?!" Rickie screamed nearly hysterical, remembering how the same phrase had been used by her parents when they took the scraggly cat she'd adopted (without their permission) off to the shelter.
"...for a much needed nap," Armistead continued without pausing about her outburst. "I assure you she'll be perfectly fine."
Rickie might have been harder to convince were Xena not snoring so blasted loudly and looked so completely at peace with the world; she would have her warrior at such peace, always. Nevertheless she had to glare at Armistead and his compatriots, reflexively gripping the chakrum tightly. The effect was rather spoilt when she burst out with a resounding "OW!" and dropped the weapon, its razor's edge having cut into her palm. It was little worse than a paper cut, and all the more painful for it.
Blowing on her wounded palm, Rickie threw another glare at the trio, daring them to so much as grin. Armistead's smile dimmed slightly, but more in comic mirth than actual seriousness. The other two kept admirably straight faces through all of this.
"So what now?" she asked, suddenly nervous at all this silence.
"Now?" Armistead appeared to think for a moment. "Now...I think you need a nap as well."
Rickie would have protested, vehemently and with most colorful language, were it not for two things. First, she couldn't really help but agree. And second?
She wasn't given the chance.
Rickie felt something hard yet gentle poked her in the back of her neck, near the base of her skull. Ahh, not again! Her eyes immediately clouded over and she fell bonelessly atop the still-snoring Xena. Consciousness was slow to fade however, her ears picking out Armistead's voice saying in the sing-song tone of the long suffering "Thank you, Miriyam."
Yeah, thanks. Rickie wanted to say sarcastically as she drifted away. Just hope... I... don't... snorrrrzzzzzzz....
Only in her dreams did Rickie see what happened next:
Armistead stands and dusts himself off. Around the two slumbering women gather his family. Diminutive and clever Marie, young Enzo, ethereal Miriyam, a few others materializing out of the shadows around them. All of them staring down at the purpose of their clan's existence.
They look with varying expressions: curiosity, caution, even a hint of admiration. But no fear. Even Armistead, who only minutes ago lay at the mercy of the Destroyer of Nations, even he looks upon them without the least fear or anxiety. Not for a moment had he feared for his life.
They know the warrior too well for such small things.
He looks between his half-sisters and -brothers, then sighs and asks the obvious.
"So what now?"
The car horns blasted three times before Xena fully awoke. The fourth honk was accompanied by a Cockney accented voice yelling "C'mon! Yew bloody...muve on!"
She quickly assessed the situation through ears, touch, and smell alone. She didn't dare open her eyes quite yet. Going by the smell and the sense of movement, they were in a cab somewhere. There was plenty of traffic around them, causing the cab's start-again-stop-again progress. Their driver made his indignation well-known on that score.
Xena quickly turned to herself, not surprised to find no sign of serious injury. All her ribs were in their proper places, as were her major joints. Her breathing was unimpeded. Not even a trace of headache that normally accompanied a 'resurrection', though her forehead felt a bit tender. Otherwise she might as well have just woken up from an afternoon nap. Her left hand rested easily on the chakrum's wooden case. Running fingertips along its edge confirmed the case was locked tight.
There was someone pressed against her right side, with slender arms fixed firmly around her middle and arm. Her own arm was draped over shoulders and down a leather-covered back. Xena realized she hadn't noticed it before because it had felt so right and natural. Her momentary anxiety at this was alleviated as she caught the scent of the body. Her relieved smile was sunshine itself as the warrior woman relaxed once more.
Her bacchae's natural scent was like a bouquet of the sweetest roses right then.
The damn horn blared off again, and again, and again. The cabbie's shouts towards whatever blocked their progress proved no more effective. This ultimately forced Xena to give up any pretense of sleep and actually open her eyes, fixing the driver with a relatively benign glare.
A new thought came to her: she couldn't remember hiring this cab.
Memories of blood and gunfire quickly followed. Fleeting ones, true, but enough to deepen her scowl. The only reasons she hadn't gone for the driver's throat yet was that Rickie was still asleep. Or so she had thought.
When Xena had shifted ever so slightly to get the circulation going in her pelvis again, Rickie promptly whimpered and pressed closer to her. This didn't help the circulation in her chest any. Xena happily endure the discomfort and tightened her own hold on the smaller body beside her. Looking down, she could only see a crown of golden hair. Rickie's face was pressed tight into her shoulder right then and showed no sign of moving.
"Sorry about tha', mum." The driver glanced back at them through the rearview mirror. "Bloody Sunday drivers, eh?"
"I thought it was Tuesday," Xena said, replacing the scowl with a tight grin.
"Aye, so it is. Kinda proves the rule then, donnit?"
Xena had nothing to say to this homespun wisdom and focused instead upon the scenery outside. The sky had begun to darken in twilight. There still sufficient light out to see the tall towers of hotels and offices surrounding the modern edifice of Heathrow Airport. Their cab was caught amid the usual weekday rush on the M4 westbound to and from the main terminal. Shifting Rickie slightly, she glanced at her watch. Half-past five. Their homebound flight was at eight.
Judging by their decent progress through traffic, Xena figured they'd make it to the main entrance in just under half and hour. This meant that it was time to wake Rickie. A chore she was loath to do but practicality demanded it.
She nudged the small body beside her with her free hand. "No!" was the young woman's only response; whimpered but forceful. Her hands bunched up in the fabric of Xena's shirt and jacket and holding on with a death grip. Xena thought she might still be asleep, save that she felt Rickie's breathing had become less rhythmic and a tad more ragged.
"Rickie?" she murmured into a crown of golden hair.
"No. Don't wanna..."
Covering the hand gripping her shirt with her own, the warrior crooned quietly to her frightened lover. She understood the fear that had gripped her bacchae right then; she had felt the same only moments ago. "We're okay, Dreamer. Really. We're both okay." Xena smiled at feeling Rickie's death-grip on her loosen slightly. She kept up the reassurances all the same. "We're safe, Dreamer. I promise. Nobody's here. (not strictly accurate, but the cabbie was wisely minding the road right then) C'mon, let me see those big green eyes I love. I dare ya." Rickie shook with something; either a sob or a laugh, she couldn't tell. Xena taunted "I double dare ya."
With this, Rickie slowly lifted her head and opened one eye, fixing Xena with a stare at once challenging and hungry. She then closed the eye and settled her head back to its former position on the warrior's shoulder. Xena was not certain whether to take this as a good sign or bad. Gods knew just the quick peak she'd been given did bad things to her self-control right then.
Steeling herself with a will of iron, Xena cleared her throat and tried again. "Rickie, we're nearly at the airport. We...have...have to..." She found it difficult to continue coherently. Her bacchae was living up to the title and was planting a delightful if horribly distracting string of kisses-nips along her shoulder blade and around her neck. "Stop that...not now..."
"Yesss," Rickie growled.
"Not...now!" Her arms turned traitor and refused to make distance between them as ordered. It was actually Rickie who pulled back first, much to Xena's considerable surprise.
"Three words, warrior," the smaller woman whispered into her ear. "Mile. High. Club."
Xena's eyes went wide as Rickie released her and moved away. She stubbornly kept her eyes fixed forward, nevertheless catching the smaller woman's very satisfied smirk in her peripheral vision. Her bacchae obviously knew damn well what kind of state she had just put her in. Probably had the whole thing planned from the instant she'd come to.
Oh, what she wouldn't give to wipe that smirk off and replace it with the naked desperation she alone could elicit in her demure lover. Xena winced at the imagery this brought to mind. Ouch. Bad metaphor. If there was any one thing the warrior knew how to practice, it was patience. And paybacks were always beautiful, intense, touchy, cruel, and hot.
In other words: a bitch.
Heartened, Xena returned her attention to the road ahead. She was rather surprised to find they had arrived at the main terminal and were fast approaching the commuter's entrance. Without moving her eyes, Xena quickly made sure the chakrum case was near to hand as she reached out to Rickie. She didn't dare look over at her Dreamer right then. They probably wouldn't make it out of the cab if she so much as glanced right then.
She recognized the signs of battle lust clearly, and steadfastly refused to give into them. At least at that moment, anyway. Plenty of time for that later, when they were safely in the air and away from all this. Exactly why she was feeling this way was elusive and somewhat puzzling. Xena fell back on time-tested habits for situations like this: exerting an iron control over herself while searching every nook and cranny for whoever was lurking in the wings and preparing to attack. That way she wouldn't end up attacking Rickie instead.
Keeping a discrete eye on Rickie, careful not to look at her lest her self-control become all the more fragile, Xena exited the taxi and made a show of looking all around. The cabbie politely unloaded their baggage from the trunk and tipped his cloth cap at the generous tip Xena included with the fare. In truth she hadn't heard the amount quoted; she just handed over the bills and kept her eyes moving.
Trouble was...there was no trouble in sight. No suspicious flashes of light from any of the rooftops, no unmarked cars parked across the street, no shady looking characters of Italian or Slavic or Irish descent loitering nearby. This lack of visible danger only served to put Xena even further on edge. With this new tension came two things: that iron self-control she took such pride in, and clearer memory of that morning. Faces were still a bit elusive, but the rattle of gunfire was definitely there.
The warrior instinctively reached out and grasped her lover's hand just as Rickie was drawing away to get one of the luggage carts from the nearby rail. The younger woman looked back, surprised at the tight grip that had suddenly encircled her hand. She was even more surprised by the thousand-yard-stare Xena had fixed to her face.
"Xena? Wha...?" Oblivious to her lover's confusion and growing concern, the warrior simply continued to look about. Travelers about them were beginning to cast serious and annoyed looks their way. Rickie, despite being no clearer on the finer details of their situation than Xena, shared her sudden distrust of their surroundings. "Xena, we really can't stand here, okay?"
"Wha...? Oh, right." Her warrior suddenly came to herself and let go of her hand, marching over and pulling one of the carts off the railing. Her entire frame fairly radiated subdued menace. This proved deterrent enough to any would-be gawkers.
Rickie wasn't sure if she liked the way Xena had practically thrown their luggage onto the cart. She wasn't sure she liked how Xena's shoulders were hunching with nearly every movement. And she was damn sure she didn't like how her warrior kept glancing this way and that every few seconds, studiously avoiding looking at her. She had seen Xena like this only a few other times in their time together.
So, that's what battle lust looks like. was Rickie's only immediate thought. Then she thought of the many, many hours ahead...in their spacious-and-anything-but-private seats in first class...and oh-so-helpful flight attendant...with their cute uniforms and miniskirts...
Perhaps mentioning those three little words hadn't been such a good move after all.
Ohhhhh, boy. She is gonna be such a mood by the time we land. The young writer shifted slightly from foot to foot for a moment before following. Hell, she realized, I'm not gonna be much better, am I? With this profound realization in mind, Rickie trailed close behind her warrior, careful all the while to avoid touching the larger frame ahead of her in any way, shape, or form.
Contrary to expectations, they had surprisingly little trouble reaching the ticket counter and having their bags checked in. The entire process took less than thirty minutes. This left them an additional thirty to reach the appropriate gate and board. Xena had refused to make anything more than the most passing eye-contact with Rickie throughout the process. To an outside observer it no doubt looked like the raven-haired woman was furious with the flame-haired youth, and vice-versa as the latter was refusing to look in the other's general direction.
To one pair of well-hidden eyes, however, it was blatantly obvious both were riding the ragged edge of intense arousal. The only hope that accompanied this realization was that the two still had sufficient sense of propriety to wait until they were airborne before indulging themselves.
The pair practically march-stepped through the crowds of the terminal. Neither lost sight of the other; neither dared actually look at the other. It was rather amusing to watch, actually; Rickie had to physically restrain herself a few times from reaching out to Xena, who was never more than three feet from her regardless of how many other travelers she had to barrel into and out of her way.
A few holiday travelers found themselves nearly vertically displaced by the human battering ram she had become. There was fortunately sufficient bustle and hustle in the corridors that no-one took immediate offense. This did not go unnoticed by airport security, however. They might have stepped in had they not been specifically instructed not to do so by certain august personages from the Metropolitan Police Department.
Neither the warrior nor the young writer were aware of these things. Nor would either have likely cared if they had. Their thoughts, running along parallel tracks as they normally did, were centered solely upon getting to the appropriate gate and aboard their flight.
Even so, their one-track course was de-railed by a pair of not-entirely-unexpected obstacles: constables of the MPD, replete in midnight blue uniforms with silver buttons and whistle chains. They were a male and female pairing, the latter one approaching them and asking "Miss Amphipoulis? Miss Gardner?"
Xena took a quarter-step forward and clearly to her right, which put her between the police and Rickie. "Yes?" she fairly purred, as polite and menacing as you please.
"Would you come with us, please?"
"Are we under arrest?"
"Then you'll excuse us." Without another word, Xena and Rickie marched between the two police officers. This brought both constables up short. It was not uncommon for there to be some hesitation, even resistance, on the part of those they were sent to fetch. Dealing with either was part of their training. Outright dismissal, by contrast, was quite simply something never conceived, and so was a contingency not really covered in their briefings or training at the Academy. Had either woman simply made a break for it, that was something they could handle. But the pair strolling past them completely unconcerned? That was one for the books.
"Miss Amphipoulis?" the lady constable tried again.
"We've got a plane to catch," Rickie called back, cutting off Xena's far more delicate and infinitely more cutting response. There were times, the warrior had to admit, when her Dreamer knew her too well.
"Hold it!" The lady constable snarled this time, her voice carrying across the concourse and momentarily halting or at least quieting all other traffic, both corporeal and auditory. It had the desired effect on Xena and Rickie at least, holding them in the tracks and making them half-turn back towards her and her partner.
Two eyebrows were raised, one on each woman, silently inquiring "Yes?"
Again the pair was brought up short. It was something of an unwritten rule with the MPD that its officers never loose their temper, and especially not in view of the public. The British Bobbies had a reputation to protect, after all.
The woman's partner rescued the situation by clearing his throat and saying "A-hem, Inspector Hopper from Scotland Yard would like a word, ma'am." He studied his shoes for a moment then added "With both of you actually."
"Both, eh?" Xena's eye brow immediately descended and the pair came together ever so slightly. 'The Look' proved every bit as intimidating a sight as it had in the past two millennia. Neither constable, both a credit to the Force, let themselves appeared fazed by it. Her well-trained eye however caught the minute shuffling of their stances and the way both moved ever so slightly into more defensive stances.
Xena was about to refuse them once again, more forcefully this time, when Rickie's hand brushed across her arm. It was barely a feather's touch and lasted no more than a second. "We've got a few minutes," she said with a calm practicality. Where it came from she had no idea. "Let's go hear him out."
The younger woman led the way, making sure not to brush past the taller one and nodding almost imperiously to their would-be escorts. Swift action was the only viable option right then; any action, really, as her body-brain interface seemed to be experiencing technical difficulties. And her body had some very definite ideas about what it wanted to be doing right then. Any delay and the locals might well get an eyeful of something sure to shock them and their delicate, proto-Victorian values into next month.
Xena remained where she was for a moment, following her lover's lead only after wrestling down the urge to begin cracking skulls. The constables were perceptive enough to know when silence was the better part of valor. They assumed 'flanking' positions on either side of them and directed the pair back the way they had come.
They were carefully directed to by-pass the ticket counters and instead towards Customs. They found themselves in a small room whose only features were whitewashed walls, a table, a couple folding chairs, and a single mirror they both knew was one-way glass. Rickie felt a moment of anxiety tighten in her belly, remembering what she'd seen through such glass only two days earlier. "The Inspector will be with you in a moment," the male officer said while his partner simply glared at them. He quietly shut the door behind them. Neither were very surprised to see there was no knob on their side of it.
Each caught the other's eye for a second, hastily turning away as one and focusing their attention upon opposite walls. Xena perched herself on one end of the table while Rickie took one of the chairs. The sword case, the chakrum case, and Rickie's carry-on were placed on the table between them. The pair stayed like that for seemingly eons, neither daring to turn or break the silence.
So absolute was their focus on not risking a second glance at each other that neither heard the door open. Only when the new arrival called to them did they turn. At least Rickie did; Xena too engrossed in fighting off images of her Dreamer enduring her sensual retaliation to risk eye-contact just yet.
"Miss Amphipoulis? Miss Gardner?" The gray-haired policeman breezed in, ignoring the tension radiating from the pair as he circled around the table. He dropped a couple flimsies there while giving the bags and wooden cases a semi-dirty look. "Thank you for lending me your time."
Rickie was the first to respond, snorting "Not like we had a lot of choice here."
The Inspector simply "Hmphed" to this and opened the top folder. He studied the contents for a moment before straightening to address Xena. "I just wanted to catch you before you left regarding a few matters. I'm sure you don't mind?"
Xena deigned to turn and look at him only because he presented a much more effective distraction than the wall. The policeman at least more mobile and colorful than the cracks in the plaster surrounding them. The warrior nodded for him to continue.
"With regards to that unfortunate, ah, incident with Miss Gardner here last week, I felt you should know we're closing the file on it." He pulled a few photos from the file and set them out for both to see.
"Why's that?" Rickie asked, the sound of her voice causing Xena to stiffen once more.
"The man we've determined to have been the driver turned up dead in an alleyway in South Croyton last night." Hopper explained. The photos were of a body, one of a tall, heavyset man, lying prone in the aforementioned alley. He was dressed in a dark suit of expensive cut and his long hair was gathered into a tight pony-tail. Two of the pictures were close-ups of the unfortunate's head, the entrance wound of gunshot in prominent display.
Now it was Rickie's turn to go stiff. It took her only a moment to recognize the face staring out with dead eyes. She might not have known a name, but there was no way to forget the face she had watched twist in both sensual and malicious agony a mere two nights ago at the Velvet Chamber.
Xena missed this entirely, focused as she was upon the photos and nothing else. "Do you have a name for him?"
"Michael Alonzo Rudelphi Giovanni." Hopper sniffed indifferently. "On paper the president of a couple mediocre shipping firms out of Naples. The press has him more a playboy than a businessman. No surprise really."
"What about his family?" Xena asked sharply. Neither of them had looked up from the photos. Hopper could make out the differences between their stances. Both were tense to the extreme, but where the smaller one was gripped with what seemed like shock, the taller appeared quite ready to unleash the energy churning within her. Long years on the force had taught him when dealing with such potentially destructive energies, clumsy lies were infinitely more lethal than the unabridged truth.
Very quietly, Hopper said "He's the son of one of the Italian don, based out of Naples. INTERPOL has been, eh, trying to get a line on whether he's involved with his da's business or not. We've been watching him on behalf of the Italians, but nothing's ever come of it."
"These holes look like the work of a professional," Xena declared after a moment more of study. "Any ideas?"
"A few," Hopper admitted reluctantly. "We have the murder weapon..."
"What caliber?" she interrupted, the professional interest of a detective momentarily eclipsing all else.
"Twenty-two. A six round revolver, the model dating back to the forties."
"Small gun. Nice for assassinations."
"Aye, that it is. The killer was so helpful, in fact, that they left it on the body for us."
Xena matched his snort with one of her own. "Serial number were filed off, I suppose."
"Amazingly, no." This made Xena look up sharply in surprise. Hopper continued, saying "No fingerprints, I'm afraid. The stock and trigger were wrapped with tape. Plus it had a baby bottle nipple secured over the barrel which acted as silencer." He looked her directly in the eye. "We've put the time of death to around eight last night. I suppose you both can account for your movements around that time?"
Rather than be let either of them be drawn into a potentially sticky effort at explanation, Xena questioned Hopper's own explanation. "You said the serial numbers hadn't been filed off, Inspector. I take you've traced the gun to its owner?"
"We did," Hopper sighed. "Which unfortunately complicates things even further, I'm afraid. The gun in question was part of a private collection."
"I presume you've questioned the owner?"
"We would have, if not for two small things."
"Yes. First, the gentleman in question, a highly decorated paratrooper from World War II I should add, is dead. Died in Arnhem in '44." This information was left to hang in the air between them for a few seconds before he continued. "And secondly the late fellow's entire collection was reported stolen by his widow five years or so back."
Xena snickered. "Well that lets me out. This is the first time I've been back in the UK since, well, forever."
"Hmm, perhaps. Seems there's a couple warrants with your name on them dating back a few decades. Surprisingly, I couldn't find any photos to go along with them. Odd, that." Again Xena resisted being baited. Hopper gave a half-shrug and soldiered on. "In any event these guns have occasionally been turning up at similar such killings. Always the same M.O.: tape on the handle and trigger and using bottle nipples as silencers."
"And you think..."
"The really strange thing about it all is the complete lack of motive or pattern to most of these killings. All the victims have been low-brow villains until now. Pushers, pimps, a few pedophiles and the like. Never anyone major...until now. We've had bodies turning up in the Thames, in alleys, in landfills, in construction sites, in garbage containers, practically anywhere and everywhere."
"But no pattern other than them being criminals."
"None that we can find." This put a dampener on further conversation for a few minutes. Xena's mind drifted back to her last conversation with Cor...Lady Blaylock. What was it she had said about her 'acquaintances'?
"You said these guns were reported stolen by a...war widow?"
"Yes," Hopper confirmed with a thoughtful look. "Something to that?"
"I...no. No, nothing." Hopper was clearly no more convinced than she herself was. It was almost too ridiculous to credit: the image of little old ladies, armed with their dead husbands war trophies, giving out punishment to the wicked with near-impunity, then abandoning their weapons to be found at the scene. It was so twisted, yet so terribly plausible a notion she couldn't help but believe it.
Lady Blaylock's words returned to her. Who's going to stop someone's dottering old gran from going where she wants, eh?
"Some 'knitting circle there..." Xena caught herself before saying more, realizing too late she had spoken the words aloud. Muttered them, actually. If either Hopper or Rickie heard it, they gave no outward sign. This was anything but reassuring. In a much clearer and directed voice, the warrior asked "Are Rickie or I considered suspects in this?" She gestured to the photos and the open file.
Hopper shook his head. "Not at this time."
"Then if you'll excuse us..." She reached for the chakrum case to add emphasis.
"There is one more thing I wanted to speak to you on," the policeman said, quickly and efficiently gathering the photos and closing the first file. He pulled the second out and opened it. No pictures this time, only a few pages of official-looking forms with the MPF's official seal in upper right corner. "I was understandably surprised when I heard you were leaving today, especially after you'd gone to all the trouble of filling out a missing person's report on Miss Gardner here just yesterday." He held out the forms for her to examine, noting on the periphery how Rickie was throwing a confused look at both of them.
Xena merely took the offered papers and stared at them, seeing nothing. Too many thoughts swirled like a tornado funnel in her head. Fears and suspicions blended together and made nearly impossible to do anything other than stare sightlessly ahead.
Hopper continued talking all the same. "I apologize for not being able to meet with you yesterday. I'm afraid I was out of the office all day..."
"I'm sure you had some important...meetings...to go to." Rickie's cold, calm voice cut through Xena's preoccupation and Hopper's apology with equal ease. The warrior still didn't dare look in her lover's direction, but was suddenly very attentive of the nuances in Rickie's voice. There was an encyclopedia of emotion and innuendo there. All of it hinted at something, though she couldn't immediately tell what.
"I did, actually." There was a now of defensiveness in Hopper's tone now. "It seems a..." He had to search for the proper word. "A witness believed he'd seen you on Waterloo Bridge yesterday morning, Miss Amphipoulis. This fellow was rather adamant about seeing you being shot several times and fall into the river about the same time Sargent Mallory being perforated there." His guarded eyes gave her the once-over. "Obviously he was mistaken on that one."
"Obviously," Xena agreed, keeping her turmoil well hidden. "I am sorry to hear about his death. Any witnesses?" Hopper snorted and gave her a pitying look. "Any suspects?"
"Only a few hundred. We've made more than a few enemies in our day. Though I honestly can't think of which of them might be this brazen about settling accounts." Xena made a sympathetic noise as she handed the papers back to him.
Rickie merely continued to stare hard at the policeman.
"I'm pleased nevertheless to see you've found each other again." Hopper set the report back into its file and gathered up the folders. "I take it there aren't any other, er, incidents you wish to report?"
Now both women stared at him, expressions hard as rock.
"Hm, thought not." He turned and headed for the door, saying as he went "If you'll wait here for a moment more."
"We have a flight to catch, Inspector." Xena's voice carried an edge every bit as lethal as the chakrum. It was wasted on the unfeeling and inanimate door closing behind him.
In the small room behind the one-way mirror stood a single man leaning heavily upon a cane. He was obviously well-built, though his stance seemed abnormally wide, beyond simply being bowl-legged. The way he leaned on the cane appeared more for balance than out of fatigue or pain.
He had watched and listened to the events and words beyond the glass with the greatest of attention, committing every habit and nuance of the raven-haired woman on the other side to memory. Even removed as he was from the source, the raw energy pouring through her was undeniable, almost overpowering. He had to fight the urge to back up a pace or two every time she so much as turned or gestured.
His eyes never left the glass, even when Hopper came into the room to stand beside him. On the table before them was a series of photos. In them, scenes of carnage and mutilation. In the lower right corner of each shot was a series of numbers, rendered in clear digital perfection: 30-8-99. There were other numbers beneath those: 10:12, 10:20, 10:11, 9:33, 9:45, 10:19, and so on and so on.
"You sure about this?" Hopper asked him.
"Yeah," Joe Dawson growled, not a little reluctantly. "Yeah, I'm sure."
"I can hold them here for another 24 hours if..."
"And what point would that serve? Apart from pissing off tall, dark, and murderous there?"
Hopper had nothing to offer to this, and so nodded and left the way he'd come. Dawson remained where he was, watching. He moved back almost unconsciously when Xena Amphipoulis took to staring directly into the glass.
Dawson knew the sight of those ice-cold sapphire eyes would follow him to his grave.
Inspector Hopper released them from the room shortly thereafter, arriving just in time to keep Xena from putting her fist through the mirrored window. At least that was what she appeared ready to do, even though both fists remained firmly at her sides. Rickie was sure the glass would have broken just from the intensity of her lover's gaze. She was rather glad Xena found the mirror so distracting. It didn't bear thinking about what might have happened had those burning eyes been turned on her.
The Inspector wasn't particularly apologetic about the whole thing, making the usual noises about "procedures" and "following up leads". He did promise there would be no more delays and offered to have them shuttled to their gate. Xena declined and simply spun on her heel, ignoring the proffered hand. Rickie was a bit more gracious, shaking the policeman's hand in a loose, distrustful grip before turning to follow her taller partner.
Hopper watched them go without a word. He nodded almost imperceptibly to one of the dozen-odd plain clothes circulating throughout the terminal. It had been a move on his own initiative, wanting to keep the two American's under watch for as long as possible. That his calls to O'Donhugh were no longer being returned plus suddenly finding himself saddled with a dead subordinate plus a collection of dismembered villains in the south side...
Theo Hopper was not a great believer in coincidence, giving it no more credence than he did the doomsday predictions those daft American preachers on the telly. But he was intelligent enough to know when he was out of his depth and experienced enough to recognize some mysteries simply weren't meant to be unraveled. At least not by mere mortals like himself.
The thought came unbidden: did that leave only immortal detectives?
He had to laugh at the thought, causing the uniforms who'd accompanied him to wonder what the joke was and how they'd missed it.
The cel rang only once before being picked up off the large desk where it sat. The London skyline was visible in the window Manfred Armistead sat before, his expression becoming tight as he listened. He shut the phone closed without a word and tossed it back onto the desk, scattering a few papers and pens there.
Turning to the dimly lit room, he said "Miyram just saw them released from custody."
"Anything we need to be concerned over?" asked one of the figures on the leather sofa nearby.
Armistead shook his head as he sat back, expression thoughtful. "Doesn't seem like it. Hopper probably just want to tell them about Giovanni."
"So what do we now?"
"Now?" Marie de Anan didn't turn from where she stood, looking out across the metropolis beyond the window. "Now we put up Jono's headstone, make sure young Janie wants for nothing...and keep our damn distance from the warrior and her bard." She wrapped her arms about her middle, as though trying to ward off a sudden chill.
"I will not risking losing any more of you. Not even for her."
So said the elder of the Clan. If any of her younger siblings were inclined to argue, they didn't show it.
For Xena and Rickie, their departure from the British Isles was every bit as uneventful as their arrival. Their boarding passes were electronic, allowing for quick confirmation and still quicker seat selection. Rickie flirted aloud with the idea of getting a seat separate from Xena's. This notion quickly deep-sixed with just one inscrutable look from her warrior.
Rickie settled for the seat next to Xena's, coloring slightly at the knowing grin of the counter agent.
Turning back to the waiting area, Rickie froze at the sight of one of the other passengers. More accurately, she froze at the sight of the leather trench coat draped over the seat next to him. The passenger himself was hidden behind a copy of the Financial Times, long legs clad in dark trousers crossed underneath the paper. She swallowed hard as her legs took her closer to Xena, who appeared preoccupied with something on the other side of the lobby. This brought her within less than a dozen feet the man.
Her breath caught in her throat when he eventually lowered the paper, revealing strong Latino features and a thinning head of silvery hair. She came close to fainting before she remembered to breathe again.
The man caught her staring as he folded up the paper. He gave her a polite nod with a tight smile before gathering up his coat and taking his leave. Rickie continued watching his retreating back, the sight having uncapped a pressure cooker of sights, smells, and memories not seventeen hours old. The fact none of this showed on her face was less a triumph of composure than an indication of the depths of shock involved. She could only slump deeper into her seat, as oblivious to Xena's own distraction was the warrior was to her's.
For Xena it had been waging an almost constant uphill battle against the same memories, the trickle preceding their torrent starting as soon as Hopper had told them of the method of Giovanni's death. The mention of guns had been enough to start it, bringing immediately to mind the smell of gunpowder hanging in the air. The photos of his body hadn't helped. The neat holes only encouraged her imagination to fill in the intimate details, the familiar scent of fresh-spilled blood among them.
That she had remembered the warehouse, the words only half-heard, and all the rest was inevitable. She had to grip the handles and straps of her weapon's cases to tightly that her skin nearly broke just to keep her hands from visibly shaking. Clear thinking once again became nearly impossible, so awash had the warrior become in her personal horrors. Only when Rickie had spoken was Xena able to pull away enough to look over at her.
Her terror must have been reflected in her eyes, as Rickie quickly turned away and continuing to have words with the heavy-set attendant behind the counter, getting her boarding pass and making sure not to meet her eyes again. Xena immediately knew the glance had been a mistake. The still simmering fire in her blood swiftly migrated to points south.
Moving on stiff legs, the warrior woman sat herself in one of the bench-chairs of the waiting area. The thin padding offered little comfort to the physical and mental turmoil within her. She was keenly aware of Rickie sitting herself in the neighboring chair.
To keep her inner turmoil under control, Xena stared off into the middle distance. Her sharp eyes observed everything and everyone, the details slipping away as quickly as they came to sight. Xena's mind had become a surface almost glacial, denying nearly anything the smallest purchase on her awareness.
Even so the odd detail or two slipped in. Among them, how few travelers there seemed to be waiting with them, and how there seemed to be more people simply lounging around the periphery of the gate than actually waiting for boarding to commence. She found it odd that a few looked away quickly when she caught them staring her way, but detected no threat from any of them.
There was one who didn't turn away: a young woman seated at the coffee bar across the concourse, notable for her platinum blonde crew-cut and grunge fashion, yet at the same time seeming almost ethereal in stance and complexion. Not only did she refuse to break eye-contact, she in fact stared directly at Xena over her cappuccino, brows coming aggressively together as if challenging the warrior to look away first. Xena met the perceived challenge, meeting it, reveling in the distraction this afforded her. A slow, almost evil grin crease her face in the process.
There was something to the girl , that held Xena's undivided attention. Something intangible yet familiar. The eyes, she ultimately decided. It had to be the eyes. Where had she seen eyes like that before? Rings of blue and green, the hidden wisdom of the ages within them. Why did they remind her of...snow?
A noisy gaggle of new arrivals spilled into the concourse, the prototypical Americans and Japanese tourist types among them. The mob filed past, momentarily depriving Xena of clear sight of her target.
When the crowd passed and the way was once more clear, the girl was gone. The chair she had sat in was neatly arranged behind the small table, as though waiting for its first occupant of the day. Even the cup and sauce she drank from had vanished.
Xena shook herself, wondering if she had imagined the last several minutes. This naturally led to questioning whether any recollections of the last several hours (or days for that matter) were valid...or if they were so much delirium induced by too many endomorphines soaking the old gray matter. Given how damned uncomfortable trying to sit still had become, the latter was certainly a possibility.
She had nearly convinced herself this was the case when the counter agent announced boarding was beginning. First class passengers were asked to line up with boarding passes available. This led Xena to glance over Rickie's head as she stood. Her Dreamer mirrored her action, still careful to keep contact between them nonexistent. She allowed Rickie to go ahead of her, wanting to keep her in sight while watching their flanks for a surprise attack.
The first class line moved quickly past the agents, who needlessly reminded them of their respective seating assignments. As Rickie moved to hand over her pass, Xena caught momentary sight of her lover's right temple...and the small, flesh-colored bandage half hidden there, partially covering the long scratch there.
The sort made by the graze of a bullet.
Xena felt her heart freeze dead, only to jump-start and immediately go into overdrive a second or two later. While she didn't run to catch up behind Rickie, there was little mistaking either the expression she wore or the purpose in her long stride. Battering rams intent upon breaching a castle wall should move with such singular purpose.
Rickie had prudently waited for her arrival before sitting herself. Xena had after all secured the coveted window seat and had that inscrutable mask of her's still firmly in place. There was no telling how worked up her warrior still was. The smallest brush of knees or shoulders might see one or both of them simply combust and end up doing stuff guaranteed to bring in airport security.
They seated themselves without any such incidents. Rickie immediately pulled out and perused the illustrated safety instructions card while Xena looked out the window. Both were safe things for each to focus on until they were airborne; much safer than being once more in such close quarters and not having anything but themselves to focus on.
Xena felt her eyes drawn back towards the terminal, once again seeing everything but now taking in every shadow and form. Her roaming eye ultimately happened upon the glass walls of the terminal a short distance away, where a single figure was silhouetted against at the glass. Hard as she concentrated, even her sharp eyes could not make out to greater detail than it was apparently a man wearing a trench coat. The distance was too great and the evening too dark to distinguish anything else. He stood there, reminding her of the solitary watchmen upon a rampart or turret. There had never been any doubt in her mind he had been watching for them alone.
She felt an odd thrill run through her, nothing as intense or telling as a Quickening, but something tangible all the same. She chalked it up to just nerves.
Xena knew she should have been immediately alert and wary of this, but couldn't really muster the energy for it. Not that she was exhausted, far from it; merely that her strength was tensed in an entirely different direction right then. This observation was even comforting in a way, a needed reminder, shaking her loose from the lethargy that set in as the flight attendants went through their spiel about the seatbelts and oxygen masks.
Xena simply tuned them out, willing herself to relax, with precious little success. She watched the ground disappear beneath them, utterly ignoring the stewardess' words, the pilot's warnings, all of it. What she couldn't block out was the intimate aroma of her bacchae's presence.
Rickie had memorized the safety instruction card front to back. She could distinguish exactly where the print had faded from constant handling. She had even memorized the copyright notice on the edge on the backside. It did nothing to blot out the warmth of her warrior presence.
Xena requested a tonic water with a slice of lime when the stewardess offered. Rickie asked for a ginger ale and ice. They perused the offered menu offered silently, nursing their drinks with each deciding on the fish fillet with wine sauce and vegetables. It was a difficult decision actually, as the beef strofanoff dish sounded no less appetizing and quite likely was just as poisonous. They had chosen the fish partly because both enjoyed seafood (however badly prepared, as this was certain to be) and partly out of need for a legitimate excuse to visit the rest room as quickly as possible.
Neither had spoken of The Plan that had come independently to both of them. Neither needed to.
Rickie had the foresight to ask for a blanket beforehand. She however declined a pillow, saying "Nah. I already got one," as she tossed her head towards Xena. It was all Xena could do to keep her hands wrapped about the short armrests and off her tormentor.
Diner arrived and was consumed, both bravely swallowing every bite. Surprisingly, it was Xena's stomach that began grumbling first, leading her push her way to the nearest WC. The mock-yet-wholly convincing dirty look Rickie gave her as she moved aside was purely for the benefit of the surrounding natives. She only flinched when their legs brushed; the sour-tasting wine sauce and watery corn had taken a bit of an edge off their arousal, if only temporarily.
Rickie waited the whole of two minutes before she gave her own flawless performance of 'airline passenger with distressed digestive system'. She even swayed a bit as she maneuvered to the WC where Xena had installed herself. There were two doors on either side of the corridor, so her presence there did not attract any unusual attention.
She however found herself momentarily stymied at finding both occupied. After a few heartbeats of hesitation Rickie tapped on the door to her left. When there was no immediate response she turned to knock on the other door.
The door she had just turned away from chose that moment to open. A very familiar pair of long, muscular arms shot out and wrapped around her, forcefully-yet-gently hauling her back and into the small closet. A hand had been wrapped over her mouth for good measure; just as well, otherwise Rickie's surprised squeak would have certainly been overheard by an attendant. By contrast, Xena's own sub-audible growl of "Get in here!" went completely unheard.
No sooner had the WC's lock clicked shut than the airliner's fuselage began to shake slightly. The pilot's voice came over the plane's intercom system immediately thereafter. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We seem to hitting a spot of turbulence. We ask you remain in your seats for the time being as its likely to get a bit bumpy."
Needless to say, not all of the plane's "turbulence" experienced for the next hour was entirely exterior in origin. Nor was all the low groaning and accompanying thudding, which the nervous stewardesss' noted was confined largely to the starboard side of the aircraft near First Class, strictly the result of structural stress from the weather. That the two female passengers in seats 6A and B were missing during this time went virtually unnoticed. Those who recalled they were last seen around the WC simply chalked it up to air sickness and bad food.
The few passengers who noticed when the pair emerged could only stare in envy. They appeared only a little disheveled the small blonde looked like she was having difficulty keeping her balance, and the tall one shifted her torso as if she was experiencing minor back pains. Otherwise both were practically glowing and didn't appear the least bit ill or unsettled. Just the sight of them so happy and relaxed was every bit as stomach-turning as the air pocket the airliner hit a few moments later.
They settled once more into their seats. Rickie was soon leaning at an easy angle against Xena, who made sure her bacchae was fully covered with the blanket. No sooner had they found the perfect position (one that allowed maximum access to certain buttons and zippers on certain articles of clothing) than Rickie's eyes shot open.
"Uh, Xena? I've got to go to the bathroom."
Further proof that irony, like its cousin death and their adopted child, taxes, was among the few true universal constants.