by Joseph Connell
Disclaimers: Go to Part I for disclaimers on this story.
Commentary, positive and (preferably) negative, can be directed to Joseph Connell.
The story isn't quite done yet.
The same day as the first articles appeared concerning the "South Side Massacre", a small but dignified obituary appeared on behalf of Detective Sargent Paul Richard Mallory, Metropolitan Police Force. It noted merely that he had been killed in the line of duty, left a wife and twelve-year old daughter, and was to be posthumously awarded the Queen's Police Medal. He was similarly advanced to the rank of Inspector about a month later.
The last bit had been at the insistence of his superior, Detective Inspector Gerald Hopper. This advance in rank, with a corresponding rise in benefits, ensured his widow and daughter would be well seen to. It was ironic that the report Hopper had submitted cinching both the promotion and decoration was in fact a work of fiction worthy of the highest critical award and that he had penned not one solitary word of it himself.
It detailed how Mallory had stumbled upon evidence that led to his assassination on the morning of Monday, August 29th. This evidence, of which no specifics were made, irrefutably linked certain high-profile law firms around Fleet Street to supposedly untouchable villains like Virgil Price and his organization. That Price himself, alongside the remains of one Alexander Devon, Solicitor, was identified among the bodies found amid the south side massacre simplified things for Her Majesty's prosecutors immensely.
Within the following two months, spurred by the death of one of their own, the MPF undertook raids and sting operations that resulted in over hundred arrests. These arrests decimated not only the late Price's organization, but over a dozen others besides as the thugs and trigger men began fingering former employers and total strangers alike. Some of these witnesses never made it trial, but fortunately several more did. Their testimonies were spun into years of skillful litigation and the defendants fortunes were either seized or slowly uncovered in all their ugly glory. This included the Giovanni organization in Italy, thrown into chaos by the death of its favorite son Michael and the subsequent withdrawal, both mental as well as physical, of its patriarch.
The greatest surprise of the whole drama was the heights to which these organizations reached in their influence or the depths from which they wrest their fortunes. The greatest surprise was how little all this was played out in the normally investigative press. What should have been series upon series of exposes detailing the perverse details of life within the underworld was confined to small articles on page nine or twenty, never more than ten lines and only reporting an arrest or trial date. Only the facts; no speculation, no melodrama.
Similarly, Lady Cora Blaylock suddenly closing up her London office and settling herself in her late husband's ancestral estate in rural Wales attracted little attention. The various artists and performance troupes she subsidized suffered in no way save missing her presence. That Anan Galleries of London suddenly closed its doors to all business around the same time caused a bit more of a stir. The manager and investors all become unreachable, their phones disconnected, their flats and houses closed and utilities shut down.
There was the usual write-up about it all the society pages, but otherwise went unnoticed by the great mass of humanity.
But there were those few that did pay attention to such things.
Very close attention.
The phone call to the appropriate party followed just three weeks later.
September 23, 1999. Thursday.
Recorded voice. "You have reached Amphipoulis Investigations. Leave your name, number, and brief message. I promise I will get back to you."
Crackle of long distance lines.
"Zee? Its Chuck Mayfield. Lissen. I've had the gallery under a glass for a fortnight now. Place is deserted. An' the two you said was attached to it and wanted background on? Anan...sorry...de Anan and Armistead, right? Sounds like a bloody opera title, that. Anyway, I'm running into a brick wall there. Nothing sinister, but there doesn't seem t'be anyone who knows anythin'. Least no one I can find. They're rich and everybody knows 'em, but that's the lot. Nothing about family, business, husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, any of it. 'S like the don't exist outside a'the gallery.
"Also, that bloke you said was murdered or what? I've not seen an obit or notice anywhere saying 'Jonothan O'Donhugh' has shuffled off this mortal coil. I've made inquiries to every morgue and undertaker on the island and not one has come across a corpse like you described. I can't think where else to look into on this.
"Look, 's your coin, but I'm not seeing anything worth seeing. You want me to keep up on this let me know. Cheers."
Xena listened to the message three times, then made sure to erase it before she went to pick up Rickie.
At that moment, Rickie was busy stalking across campus, mind several miles away and voice busy muttering aloud. "Fourteenth Amendment...voting rights? No...it was...something about a war...prohibition? Wrong war...c'mon, Dreamer. Think, dammit!"
In the weeks since their return from London, She or Xena (and herself ) had rarely spoken about any of the events that had befallen them. It wasn't that either of them was consciously avoiding the subject. Rickie had school starting up, after all, and Xena's services as a P.I. were suddenly in high demand. Both were consequently simply too busy trying to resume their daily lives to dwell on something so confusing.
Even when they were home, Rickie invariably had her nose stuck deep in a textbook or was scribbling away on a paper or story. Xena meanwhile would be busy with weapons drills or pouring over surveillance photos she'd taken that day or talking on the phone with one of her shadier contacts about a case.
The only place they seemed to be able to communicate directly was in bed, doing so in a language infinitely older than mere English. Their lovemaking had become even more frantic and intense than before, eclipsing even their session in the WC on the plane. They were each now sporting bruises and bites and scratches and love marks in places rarely touched by sunlight.
Not that their nights were utterly peaceful. Xena had begun getting a bit restless, shaking sometimes, muttering aloud others. Rickie herself wasn't having nightmares as such, but had found it increasingly difficult to get more than maybe six hours of actual sleep before she was jolted awake. And if Xena was worried about waking to find herself alone in bed while Rickie retired to study in the kitchen, she never let on.
Rickie recognized they both were suffering from post-traumatic stress, or so her psychology text suggested. Exactly what they could do about it though was beyond her. Every time she even thought about trying to broach the subject with Xena, her mind would completely shut down. She couldn't even write about it with any clarity in her journal. To have words fail her so was enormously frustrating to say the least. Worse, her class work was starting to suffer from it. Even the comparatively minor task of listing the Amendments to the US Constitution was proving difficult, hence her distracted muttering to herself that afternoon as she made her way from Economics 102 to Beginning Greek.
Her steady trek to her next class was suddenly interrupted when a wildly yapping blur of gold appeared and danced about in front of her. Rickie didn't immediately realize it was a dog, merely that it was big, loud and insistent and displayed a set of very sharp looking teeth with each yelp. Rickie bit back a scream of surprise as the dog braced itself, looking ready to charge her, only to begin prancing all about her once more. It repeated this several times, coming closer each time and becoming all the more enthusiastic in its barking.
Rickie waited a moment or two before trying to ease around the dog. She didn't immediately recognize it. Relatively few students brought pets to campus, never mind ones this energetic. She couldn't identify the breed; it was far leaner than a lab or husky, but way too hairy to be a Greyhound. It was larger than a puppy but didn't look like an adult. Its coat was a tangled mess of dark gold locks. The few times it paused in its wild dance she could make out golden eyes watching her with undisguised delight.
The dog eventually ceased barking prancing around her, bracing both forelegs and drawing back. It gave a small growl and launched itself at the frozen Rickie, knocking her to the ground with an audible "Omph" and shoving its plumed nose right at her face, its long tongue proceeding to lick and kiss her cheeks and nose with great abandon. Rickie would have been screaming in terror at that point were she about to do anything other than laugh as the tongue and nose tickled her face. She managed to grab a fistful of silky hair and tried pushing the insistent tongue away, growling "Get...Offa...me...you...big...lug!" This only spurred the dog onto still more enthusiastic kissing and cuddling.
"Nessie!" a new voice of equal parts humor and outrage broke in. "Let that person up this instant." The tongue immediately disappeared back into the pointed muzzle over her. Rickie could see the dog, Nessie she corrected herself, back off slightly. Judging by the sizable doggy-grin on her lips, Nessie had enjoyed the encounter immensely. Rickie herself was simply dumbfounded by the whole thing.
Nessie the dog backed away another step as the new voice called out once more. "Shame on you, you great bloody fleabag! You know you aren't supposed to go about playing "tackle" with perfect strangers...even if they are drop-dead gorgeous."
This made Rickie look up, her own response uncertain. She found herself being regarded by a pair of large brown eyes nestled within the strong features of an African goddess come to earth. Or at least that was her first reaction. The newcomer was certainly beautiful, almost breathtakingly so. Her oval face was the color of dark honey, a marked contrast to her almost blinding smile of perfect teeth. She wore a jacket of dark silk over a pearl white blouse and trousers. A single gold earring, shaped like an ornate dagger, dangled from her left ear. Her designer Ray-bans were pushed up to rest in her close cropped hair.
The goddess looked between the two of them. "I'm really sorry about this. Really sorry. She just has absolutely no self-control sometimes." The dark-skinned goddess gestured towards the dog, who was crouching nearby and doing her level best to look misunderstood.
"And you." She shook a long, perfectly manicured finger at the sizable dog. "No treats for you tonight." Golden eyes met brown. "Oh, no you don't! That won't work on me." Rickie nearly laughed as Nessie's expression became absurdly soulful and forlorn. "Ferggit! Nope!"
Nessie merely crocked her head and batted her eyes once, then twice.
"Argh!" the goddess threw up her hands and turned back to Rickie. She extended a hand, helping her back to her feet. Rickie found they were nearly equal in height, the goddess being perhaps only half an inch taller.
"Thanks," Rickie started, immediately at a loss as to what to say next. "Uh, she...do this kind of thing often or what?"
The goddess sighed. "Only when she sees someone she likes. Trouble is she takes a liking to the oddest people. I think you're the first one she's approached that hasn't had their hair spiked or colored some daft shade of green!" They both laughed at this.
Still reaching for something to say, Rickie stated "That's an odd accent you've got. Um, British?"
"Ah, I still hav' it?" Rickie nodded. "Damn. Been tryin' to loose it since getting here. And it's Irish, not English."
"Irish?" Rickie's eyebrows raised, clearly questioning this.
"Yup. What? Never hear of 'black Irish' before?" This brought another tension-relieving laugh between the two.
Now it was Rickie's turn to extend a hand. "Rickie Gardner." A warm, slender hand enclosed hers as those perfect teeth flashed once again.
"Victoria Dunross." She nodded down towards Nessie. "And this is Vanessa, youngest member of her litter and general pain-in-my-arse." The dog's ears perked up at hearing her name and she let loose a loud bark.
"Youngest, huh? I hope she doesn't try playing with any kids."
"Gods, no. She knows better." Victoria grinned. "'Sides, she's barely a tot herself."
Rickie took another look at the large frame crouching nearby. "You're kidding?"
"Nope. Pure-bred Wolfhound. She'll outmass the pair o'us by the time she hits five." Victoria spied the textbooks lying on the ground and asked "You're a student here?"
"I don't suppose you'd know where Beginning Greek is at half-one, d'you?"
"Heh, actually that's where I'm heading now." The words were out before Rickie realized it. While she have immediately taken a liking to this woman, that was no excuse to go blurting her movements out. Especially when she knew nothing about the party to whom she was blurting said information. Or so the little voice in her head which suspiciously like a certain Immortal warrior princess) advised.
The damage was already done however. "Grand. Mind if we tag along?"
Rickie eyed the young Wolfhound, who had sat herself within easy pouncing range of either of them. Seeing this, Victoria assured her "Don't worry. Nessie here stays outside and terrorizes the squirrels." Nessie gave another enthusiastic bark.
"Um. Okay. Sure." Rickie found herself entirely too overwhelmed to say more. The three of them set off, Nessie staying close to her new friend and nudging her hand every so often with her head. This had the desired effect of getting her ears and nose scratched.
Later that afternoon found Nessie resting on the grass while the two women were in class. The squirrels in this part of the world proved depressingly easy to chase down, quickly making the game boring. She had positioned herself near a small clump of trees near the hall, allowing her to conceal herself while keeping an eye on the appropriate building. This was every bit as boring as chasing tame squirrels, leading her to seriously contemplate a quick nap.
She had settled her narrow head onto her front paws and was about to close her eyes when her sensitive nose picked out someone nearby. Raising her head, Nessie sniffed the air once more, trying to home in on the origin of this new scent. It was strangely familiar to her, yet too faint to easily identify.
Nessie stood once more and began looking around. The grounds were deserted however. There wasn't even a single squirrel in sight.
She was about to break cover and go searching when she caught movement on her peripheral vision. The young Wolfhound glanced over, expecting it to be no more than a bird or rodent disturbing the branches. She immediately leapt back, finding a pair of legs had somehow materialized beside her. Baring her teeth in a savage snarl, Nessie looked up to confront the intruder, only to back up another step in complete surprise at seeing who it was.
"Hullo there," greeted the soft, familiar voice. Nessie narrowed her eyes and gave a play-growl as squinted her eyes as menacingly as possible at the man before her, who remained in the shadows of the trees.
"Oh, hush you," he scolded. "You don't scared me. Never did." Nessie ceased her mock anger and instead grinned and started panting. She was rewarded with a quick scratch on the nose, which elicited a rumbling purr of unadulterated pleasure from her. She gave the fingers a quick kiss of thanks and sat back.
"They both inside?" She barked in the affirmative. "You watch them both, riot? Especially the small one." The Wolfhound barked again, her ears and neck receiving a good scratching as a reward. She closed her eyes, positively reveling in the much-needed attention. Vanessa had always liked this one of all her human packmates. The ancient pack mentality of her lupine ancestors, even buried deep into her genetic structure, allowed her to recognize him as the Alpha. This was reinforced by the way Mama always deferred to him. The Alpha always provided ample food and shelter for herself and her brothers and sisters. But that wasn't the sole source of her affection.
While she absolutely loved the littlest human, who always tickled her well, no one knew how or where to scratch like this one. Even Mama wasn't as much fun.
Classes were let out a few moments later, abruptly ending the scratching session. One second the hands were there, the next they were gone. Nessie's eyes snapped open, finding only empty air surrounding her.
She called out with a small, distressed whine as she looked around for her old friend. But there was no sign, save his fast fading scent. Hearing her name called forced her to abandon the search. She broke cover with obvious reluctance, still looking around and looking uneasy. Her distress was immediately picked up by her two packmates, the old one kneeling beside her and murmuring comforting sounds. The new one, the one with lighter fur and who Nessie knew would be much more fun to play with, kept her distance. Nessie took this immediately as a challenge and tensed for another pounce.
"Don't even think about it," her old packmate hissed into her ear. Nessie immediately relaxed, though not at the implied threat towards her access to tasty treats. Rather it was for an entirely different reason.
Said reason was approaching them with a long stride and eyes that reminded her of Mama when the little human packmate would wander off. Nessie could feel the potential threat within this new human, pressing closer to her old packmate and keeping a careful eye on the other one in case she needed to leap to her defense.
Neither of the two humans seemed to notice the newcomer until she spoke. "What's all this?" Nessie heard the menace that lurked in that even voice and backed away and behind her packmate. Her bravado was momentarily lost to the simple sense of self-preservation.
Rickie and Victoria on the other hand simply looked around to the source of the voice. Kneeling as she was, Victoria had to crane her neck almost straight up to see the speaker's face. She nearly fell back onto her rear in the process and not simply out of surprise. Nessie wiggling out of her arms didn't exactly help.
Rickie herself broke into a wide grin and let herself be enfolded into a strong hug. "Hey, you."
"Hey you too." Xena grinned, then turned to look down at the young woman with the dog. "And this is?"
"Oh, uh, this is Victoria. We're in class together."
"Class, huh?" The warrior moved away from her and half a pace closer to the still-kneeling Victoria. "Which one?"
"Beginning Greek." Rickie noted with some concern the menacing aspect in both Xena's tone and stance, as well as how Victoria looked more like a deer caught in the headlights of an on-rushing truck. She quickly detected the teasing note in Xena's words and wondered if she should play along or not.
Nessie chose that to move out from behind her crouching mistress and look up the warrior with her large eyes. She cautiously approached the larger woman and stopped several paces away. In a wholly unexpected move, Xena went down on one knee as she extended a hand towards the young Wolfhound, who approached with great caution. She took several sniffs of the offered hand, studying it intensely before looking back up to meet the warrior's steady gaze.
She pounced off all four legs a moment later and became a golden furred wrecking ball slamming into Xena's chest and knocking the warrior flat onto her back. Nessie then stuck her nose directly into Xena's face, proceeding to thoroughly sniff every inch of available skin at very close quarters before moving back even slightly. Xena would have sworn she saw the blasted dog wrinkle her nose at her in the process.
Victoria had yelled out "Vanessa!" the instant the Wolfhound's paws left the ground, at once outraged and terrified. She quickly got to her feet and grasped the dog's collar, trying without success to pull the insistent animal off its unwitting victim. Rickie overcame her own surprise and quickly moved to help her. Together they managed to pry Nessie away. The Wolfhound was still fighting them, trying to get another sniff at the warrior who was just then pushing herself upright. She wasn't actually fighting them as much as simply trying very, very hard to retake her place atop Xena. At least she wasn't barking or growling.
Xena remained where she was, the whole incident taking her back across the weeks to when she was practically tackled by another Wolfhound...and the circumstances that led her to that moment. It came in such a rush she barely heard the words addressing her.
"I'm sorry about this. Really. Gods, I don't know what's getting into her any more. She's never done anything like this before." Victoria continued apologizing and explaining until Rickie cut in.
"Uh, Tori? Maybe you should take Nessie home, huh?" Rickie was suddenly very worried by Xena's lack of reaction to all this.
"Riot. Yeah. I'll, eh, see you around then." The dark-skinned woman managed to pull her four legged companion after her, muttering something about "kennels" and "no treats until the millennium".
Rickie knelt down beside her prone warrior, worried at how she was watching the retreated pair to the exclusion of everything else. Yet to look in her eyes it was clear she wasn't seeing anything, at least nothing immediately around them. "Xena?" she asked, shaking an immobile shoulder as she did.
She was nearly knocked back by the force of the eyes that snapped around and stared at her an instant later. Rickie willed her breathing to remain calm and even.
"Rickie?" Xena's voice croaked from weeks of suppressed emotions. "I...we...we need to talk."
One look into those haunted eyes was all it took to convince her. They reflected the same disquiet of her own soul. "Um, yeah. We do." Helping her warrior stand, Rickie could clearly the see the tears welling up in those eternally blue eyes she so loved. She reached into one of the pockets of that beloved leather vest Xena wore and extracted the car keys. "I think I'd better drive, huh?"
Xena chuckled and wiped futilely at her eyes. "Yeah, I think you'd better."
We will end the story with this last scene. Whether it is real or not is for you to decide.
The early morning darkness outside the warehouse provided ample shadows to conceal those who wished to watch without being seen. Perhaps on one of those nights there is the flare of a match as it is struck. Perhaps the flame flickers slightly as it is applied to the business end of a cigarette, momentarily illuminating the face of the man standing in an alleyway near the warehouse where the lovers sleep.
Perhaps if we were closer we might recognize the face, with its blue-gray eyes and dark hair going slightly gray. And were it a little lighter we might recognize the gray suit and dark shirt he wears under his black trench coat.
He looks at the windows far above, knowing the scene that would be seen if one could look into them. Two lovers, pressing close clinging tight to each other. Is that sadness we might see in his eye, a knowing that his destiny is now firmly entwined with these eternal lovers?
Perhaps, or perhaps not.
The match light is soon extinguished, darkness once more in its place. With the dawn there will only be an empty alleyway. There are no footprints to be found, nor the smallest bit of cigarette ash. Nothing to suggest there was a man standing there.
Perhaps it was merely a trick the mind plays upon itself, protecting itself. The mind after all is wise enough to know one can see only so much, know only so much, and remain whole and unbroken.
Sub-Standard Disclaimer: Xena and Rickie's sense of security was seriously harmed in the writing of this fanfic.