by Joseph Connell
Disclaimers: Go to Part I for disclaimers on this story.
Commentary, positive and (preferably) negative, can be directed to Joseph Connell.
Xena carefully slipped from Rickie's arms, watching as her bacchae grasped onto a convenient pillow for a substitute. She was unsure as to what precisely had awakened her, pulling her from that dreamless oblivion she'd managed to tumble into with force only her bacchae's voice could equal.
After several moments of pointless pacing up and down the room, hoping against hope this would burn off whatever anxiety she felt, Xena turned towards the main window with a growl. Whatever it was, she knew sleep was now out of the question, her entire form fairly vibrating with subdued tension. Looking out through the curtains, she suspected she'd found the answer.
Standing across the street was a man in a leather trenchcoat, a lit cigarette dangling from his lips, head tilted upwards so he was looking directly at their window.
Alarm bells, loud as Notre Dame's, immediately began ringing off in her head. She carefully backed away from the window, careful not to create too much of a disturbance for the curtains lest she give herself away. No telling if the man was sharp enough to spy the small shadows she'd cast while pacing.
Once far enough back, Xena quickly debated about how she should dress. The very notion of simply waiting there in the room wasn't worth considering. Street clothes? No, jogging gear. Easier to explain if I'm wrong. Ha! There's a thought. Emil, I swear...if this is another of your people...!
Quickly pulling on shorts and sweatshirt, both clean though looking well used, and slipping on a pair of running shoes, Xena stole a quick look back to the bed. Her mouth went dry at the sight her bacchae presented in repose, golden silk hair fanned out about her head, crème skin accented by while stockings...it was nearly enough to make Xena forget her little chore.
Nearly, but not quite.
Xena found herself arguing both for and against doing this, even as the elevator descended and deposited her in the darkened lobby, her legs quickly carrying her to back hallway leading to the delivery area in back.
'There's no need for this.' chirped the calmer, more prudent part of her.
Only to be answered by the wilder, active side with The hell there isn't! I for one refuse to waste our vacation time tripping over these guys again.
'They're just doing their job. Besides, how can you be so sure he's a Watcher?'
Does it matter? He was standing there, looking at our window.
'As if there was anything he could see.'
It's the principle of the thing. I don't want just anybody thinking they can lurk around, watching us.
'And how d'you think that's going to play with Rickie. "Sorry, Dreamer, love of my life, but I pummeled that guy because he glanced at you." Oh yeah, she's going to love that.'
Look, I'm not going to kill him. Knock him upside the head if he's still there, but nothing too extreme.
'And you don't consider getting up in the dead of night, planning on jogging through the back alley, all so you can get the jump on some guy you've never met who just happened to be looking in the general direction of you room's window "extreme"?'
This thought actually gave Xena pause for a moment, just as she was coincidentally about to push open the door leading to the back alleyway. She was honest enough with herself to consider whether she might, indeed, be over-reacting to whatever threat she perceived in the man.
"Hah," she concluded with a shake of her head and a shrug, quietly pushing the door open and letting it shut behind her before moving further.
She hadn't taken even a full step forward when something thin and sharp wrapped around her throat. Her fingers instantly shot up, managing to squirm their way between wire (thin, metallic, pliable her mind dutifully catalogued) and offended flesh, while at the same time pushing herself backwards hard as possible. The body behind her gave a satisfying grunt as he was driven hard into the brick wall, though the tension on her neck didn't seem to lessen one iota.
"Choke yew bitch!" a rough Cornwall accent spat into her ear. Xena simply screwed her eyes shut and tightened her own hold on the garrote, quickly repositioning her hips and legs even as she felt her air passage start to collapse and dizziness set in. With desperate strength, she fell to slight crouch and rolled her shoulders down, pulling her attacker off his feet and tossing him into the trash cans a few feet away.
Xena was quickly back on her feet and advancing, though so too was the attacker, his squat, rough features made uglier by the indirect lighting of the alleyway. He wore a look of utter loathing, a switchblade suddenly in his hand. He stabbed at her several times, each attack easily dodged, then charged full on, wrapping his meaty arms about her midsection and carrying them both into the wall. Xena rode out the impact, exhaling hard to absorb the force of it, then brought both elbows down on the man's shoulders twice. A knee to his floating ribs accompanied this, causing him to loose his grip as bones fractured and nerve clusters sang out. He stumbled back drunkenly, only to suddenly find her heel hammered into his sternum, sending him back further into a parked car, whose alarm started blaring loudly.
Her natural fury exacerbated by the pain he'd managed to inflict, Xena roughly pulled him by the lapels to face her and spat over the noise of the alarm "Who are you? What's...?" Her demands were cut short by a solid fist catching her in the jaw, catching her off-balance and sending her tumbling. Her forehead connected with a resounding THUD on the auto's bumper, leaving her seeing double.
She clearly saw the man pick up the switchblade, the edge catching the light with a small, silvery sparkle. As he turned towards her once more, a tall, dark shape suddenly materialized behind him, towering over them both. Xena felt the crazy urge to yell "Look out," though to which she wasn't sure. What happened next seemed almost surreal, unfolding before her as if in silent slow motion.
Her attacker turned, obviously sensing the presence behind him. He didn't get even half-way around before a gloved hand shot out, two extended fingers catching him square center in right temple. At the instant of contact, the smaller man straightened upright, limbs frozen, the knife falling from dead fingers. He stayed that way for several seconds, then fell upon her like an ancient redwood falling to a lumberjack. Now it was Xena's turn to grunt under the impact, her head falling back to the pavement, leaving her seeing stars once more.
She caught a glimpse of the shape above her, watching it take a half-step towards her, only to blink and see it vanish as the shrill horns of police cruisers were heard. It was then Xena realized the noise deafening her was not in her head alone, the sensory assault of the car alarm making it increasingly difficult to remain conscious.
This was how the cruiser from the Metropolitan Police found her, barely conscious underneath a heavy-set man, his eyes rolled up into his head and a trickle of blood coming from his right ear. She groaned out thanks to the earnest young constables who helped her out from beneath the deadweight, her last thought before momentarily blacking out being "Ohhh, Rickie's gonna kill me."
An hour later found her sitting in a spartan interview room at the local station house, nursing the same cup of weak coffee she'd been handed when the constables brought her in. She'd been too dazed to resist them then, kicking herself for walking into so obvious an ambush while trying to remain conscious. She'd given them her statement in at their desk, only to find herself escorted here. Her requests to make her entitled phone call were deflected and she was asked to wait for their superior.
When the door did finally open, Xena was quite ready to give them nine shades of Tartarus, but quickly thought better of it. Both men were in suits, one looking only slightly older than his colleague and looking a bit more rumpled and harried for it. He promptly took the seat opposite her's, placing his own coffee and several flimsies onto the table between them, making only the briefest eye contact.
He made a quick gesture towards himself and his partner, saying with a curt Oxford accent "Ms. Amphipoulis? I'm Inspector Hopper, and this is Detective Sargent Mallory. I apologize for keeping you like this." He didn't sound the sorry in the least.
"Not at all, Inspector," she politely lied in return.
The senior officer consulted the first flimsy, leaning back in the rickety metal chair while his partner remained standing by the door. "Xena G. Amphipoulis. You're a private investigator back in the States, are you not?"
"Here on a case?"
"Not...exactly." This made Hopper look up for the first time, eyes still tired but nonetheless alert. Xena debated for a moment how far to elaborate, then said "I'm here on personal business, looking into the sale of an antique once belonging to my family that was sold at an estate sale last October."
Hopper nodded, consulting a second folder. "I see."
"Am I being charged here, Inspector?" Xena put a slight edge to her voice. Not a threat, at least not yet, but more than a simple question.
Hopper evidentially heard it, as he looked up from his reading and regarded her for several moments. Taking a sip from his cup, he said "Do you make it a habit of going for early morning runs through dark alleys in foreign cities, Ms. Amphipoulis?"
"Only when I can't sleep."
Mallory chuckled lightly, while the Inspector remained poker faced. "This...family antique you're looking for, is it valuable?"
Xena shrugged. "To a collector, perhaps. I can't see anyone selling it on the market for much."
"And are you such a collector, Ms. Amphipoulis?"
Xena blew a breath of frustration, counted to ten and asked "What are you getting at, Inspector?"
Hopper glanced back at Mallory, who had adopted his boss's neutral expression. He almost sounded apologetic as he said "We have a spot of bother, here, Ms. Amphipoulis. A couple, actually. First thing is the man you were found under. He's a very naught boy..."
"A proper villain," Mallory put in, his school-boy English clipped.
Hopper continued on without missing a beat. "...which leads us to wonder what he was doing lurking in the alley behind your hotel." He looked back at the file in his hand. "A ex-Royal Marine Commando, cashiered out of the service for some bad behavior during the Falklands war. Hired himself out as a Fixer and Cleaner to some of the worst here in London. You know what Fixers and Cleaners do, Ms. Amphipoulis?"
"I can guess." Xena resisted the urge to smirk as she said it.
"Can you now? You can understand our problem here. We're left with a nasty puzzle whose pieces simply don't fit." Hopper put the file down and leaned forward, elbows on the table and fingers steepled. "Why would a bad, bad boy like Marty Hawkins, that's his name by the way, suddenly get it into his head to be lurking at the delivery door of the South Hyde Hotel at two in the morning on this day, eh?" Hopper shook his head, eyes staring straight on with her's. "Boggles the mind."
"Perhaps he just wanted to kill someone." Xena suggested in all seriousness.
"Maybe," Hopper conceded, Mallory clicking in without pause.
"But, again, why the door to your hotel?"
Xena looked between the too, seeing no threat in their eyes. "Why don't you go ask him?" She realized, the instant she said this, the entire point of this interview.
Hopper smiled an unfriendly smile. The sort reserved for bad news. "Yes, well, that's where our second problem comes in." The Inspector sat back and folded his arms. "You see, our friend Mr. Hawkins...is dead."
After another round of interviews, which resulted in little new information for either side, Hopper finally Xena go. He'd of course insisted all the while that no, she wasn't being charged with murder in any degree, and could they just go over her statement one more time, please? The Inspector had managed to pry the name of the 'antique' from her, and the small fact it had been 'lost' by its original buyers.
Xena had come away with the better end, so she thought, having learned the late Mr. Hawkins had died of what the ME had described as an "acute cerebral hemorrhage". This fit well with what she remembered seeing just before passing out, having seen similar sights when she'd forgotten to take "the pinch" off some unfortunate bastard. Blood leaking from the ears was never a good sign, no matter the injury.
She nevertheless counted her blessings, the police apparently attributing his demise more as a side-effect of the injuries she'd inflicted than deliberate effort on her part. She was equally grateful at Hopper finally letting her go with just the polite request she "not leave the city for a few days."
Her blessings pretty much ended when she found Rickie waiting for her in the station's small reception area. She was dressed in jeans and leather jacket, arms crossed and one sneaker tapping impatiently on the dirty tiled floor. The look she met Xena with left little to the imagination.
The short blonde held the door open for her, her expression leaving the warrior thinking better of trying to say anything right then. She allowed Xena to flag down a cab, but was quick to grab the door and hold it open, her scowl warning against any effort on the warrior's part, particularly of the vocal variety. Xena acquiesced, and entered the cab as meekly as possible, even wincing a little as the door was slammed shut. She didn't dare meet her bacchae's stony gaze yet, and instead focused on the drivers head, mumbling out the hotel's address.
Neither said a word as the taxi sped through the early afternoon streets.
Watching the departure of the two women, Mallory asked his boss "So, what d'ya think?"
Hopper had his nose buried in case reports, and so didn't look up. "Very nice. Who knew Amazons still walked the earth?"
"To right," Mallory nodded appreciably. "Think she did it?"
The Inspected sighed ambiguously. "If she did, she did us a favor."
"Want me to call Special Branch? Get a couple tails on 'em?"
This made Hopper raise his head a fraction, looking at his subordinate over the wire rims of his glasses. "For maybe killing a villain like Marty Hawkins? Ought to give the bitch a medal."
Mallory snorted, knowing his superior's one unfortunate habit of referring to most women with the 'b' word, including his own wife. "I'm off for a cuppa. You want?"
"Coffee. Two sachets..."
"No creamer, no sugar," the Sargent finished, reciting from long experience. "Back in a mo'."
Hopper counted a full minute after the Sargent left before picking up the phone and hitting the speed dial. The other end picked up after a single ring. "I've done as asked. She's been released and warned."
He hung up quickly, making a mental note to wipe the phone's memory again, and returned to his work.
Across town, at the edge of Hyde Park, a young man sporting a goatee and a leather trenchcoat draped over one arm clicked his cellular closed. He watched with some interest as two figures disembarked, the shorter one clearly agitated with the taller, who moved with a bit of a slouch herself. Sharp ears didn't pick out any words between them, body language alone screaming out.
He wondered if he shouldn't laugh at this, content to instead lean against his favorite tree, and watch.
It was Rickie who held the elevator open, pushed the third floor button, all but marched Xena down the corridor, and opened the door to their suite. It was also Rickie who nearly kicked the door off its hinges, kicking back on its hinges when they were both inside, and was the first one to speak after they'd stared at one another for several minutes. Well, Rickie did most of the staring, Xena simply perching on the edge of their freshly made bed and finding great interest in her shoes.
"Well?" her bacchae hissed, sneaker tapping soundlessly on the carpeted floor.
"Well...what?" Xena broached, unwilling to presume anything at that moment.
"Welllll," Rickie ground out between kissed teeth. "Would you mind telling me exactly what you thought you were doing going around killing people without telling me first?!"
Xena looked up, shocked. "Dreamer, I wasn't..."
"Don't 'Dreamer' me!" Blue veins began appearing on her slender neck, leaving Xena not a little worried at the tears she saw begin to well in those beloved eyes. "Damn it, Xena! Do you have any idea what you just put me through?!?"
"Rickie..." Xena rose and place two very tentative hands on her shoulders, both of which were thrown off with surprising vehemence.
"Shut up! Just shut up!" To underline the point, she flattened both palms on Xena's shoulders and shoved. Hard.
From her new position sprawled on the floor, Xena waited patiently for her bacchae to calm enough to speak, forcing herself to remain still lest the slightest move bring down retribution she'd rather not see. For her part, Rickie stood there, staring holes in the floor between her legs, chewing her lip for several minutes before speaking in a voice so calm and at ease, Xena felt herself go cold.
"You want to know what my morning's been like?" Xena wisely held her tongue. "Well, let me spell it out for you.
"First," she ticked off on her fingers. "I wake up alone. Then I get the police banging on the door a few minutes later, talking about a murder and asking if I know a 'Xena Amphipoulis'. So of course I end up putting two and two together and coming up with five." She let both arms fall back to her sides. "You can naturally imagine what conclusions I reached, can't you?"
Xena nodded slowly. "Yesss."
"And you can imagine the nine shades of hell I went through, can't you?"
Again the warrior worked the joints in her neck.
"Can you give me one good reason not to boot your immortal butt through that window right now?" Xena could only to look in those perfect green eyes and hear the deadly seriousness in her voice reflected there. She didn't doubt Rickie was perfectly capable of doing exactly what she threatened, though certainly the point of it escaped her, save as an extreme form of blowing off steam. Note to self: next time on vacation, bring portable punching bag for Dreamer. her subconscious scribbled crazily across her mind.
"I..." Xena coughed, and tried again. "I can't think of a one."
"Goddamit!" Rickie exploded, throwing her hands up and turning away. "Goddamit, Xena! I...you...this...grrr!"
Xena let her rage like this for several minutes, letting at least some of the tense energy that had gathered there dissipate itself before moving. "Rickie?" she asked as she got to her feet and cautiously approached her trembling lover, placing two gentle hands on her shoulders. Turning her into a careful embrace, Xena whispered into her hair, meaning every word. "Tell me what to do to make this right and I'll do it. You want to tie me down and beat me bloody, I'll do it. You want I should wear a leash, I'll do it. I'll..." Words failed as she realized the sorts of images she was offering. Their loving hadn't been so wild in a long time, and ideas like those were hardly likely to be reassuring to her bacchae.
"Don't tempt me!" Rickie's muffled snarl vibrating through her torso where the blonde had her face buried. Her shaking, however, had diminishing somewhat. "Just...just stop it, okay?" She tilted a tear-streaked face upwards, a sort-of smile on her lips. Maybe it hadn't been such a poor idea. "Just say you're sorry."
Xena met it with one of her own, squeezing all the apology, regret, and adoration she could summon into it. "I'm sorry."
Rickie nodded in acceptance, snuggling into the embrace.
"I mean," Xena went on. "I'm really sorry."
"I mean I'm really, really, really sorry."
Rickie reached up and placed a hand on those lips she so loved, suddenly serious again. "Xena? Shut up, or I'll gag you with my socks."
The warrior's eyes widened for a moment, as did Rickie's, before the last of the tension dissolved and they simply leaned into each other, taking the comfort there and willing the rest of the world to leave them be for a time.
"Quite a morning, huh?" Rickie said after a bit, the two of them having moved back to the bed.
"Hey, controlled panicking is exhausting work."
Xena gave a dry chuckle to that. "True. At least you didn't have to sit through a round of half-assed interrogations with London's finest."
"Nh, good point." Rickie pulled back a little, a worried tone to her. "I'm not going to end up having to visit you on the Isle of Right, am I?"
"That's the Isle of White. And no, they aren't charging me with anything."
"Hmm." Rickie snuggled back down again, only to pull back an instant later. "Wait a minute. You kill a guy, and the police aren't charging you? What's up with that?"
Xena patiently counted to ten, in Sanskrit, backwards, before answering. "For openers, I didn't kill him. He seemed to die of secondary causes. And second, he was a professional hit man, so they weren't..."
"Okay, time out." Rickie sat up, making a T with her hands. "Start from the beginning. You didn't kill this guy out back?"
Xena simply flopped back onto the bed and stared at the ceiling. "Correct."
"He died of...what did you call it?"
"Meaning what exactly?"
Xena sighed and thought for a moment. "From what they told me, he seemed to die of a cerebral hemorrhage caused either by my hitting him or ramming him into the wall when he tried to strangle me."
"A cerebral hemorrhage? Like when you forget to take 'the pinch' off someone, right?"
"I guess. Except I didn't have time to try it."
"And you say this guy was a professional hit man?"
"They call them 'Cleaners' on this side of the Atlantic. Again, correct."
"Which kinda begs the obvious question: why was this, uh, 'Cleaner' be after you? You working a case back home I don't know about?" Xena had made it a point of keeping her appraised, at least in general terms, about the cases she took, the majority of them involving tracking down dead-beat dads and the occasional defrauder. The Dartmouth case, that nightmare that had brought them together, had been her one of the worst to date.
Xena could see where this line of questioning was going, wishing her lover would drop it, knowing she wouldn't. "I don't think he was after me in particular."
"But why would he be lurking in the alley out back?" Her brows crinkled together, two and two again coming together and coming up with four this time. "More to the point, what the hell were you doing out there?"
Xena sighed once more and sat up. Time for full disclosure. "I saw a guy out front, watching our window. I figured he was one of Emil's bunch and wanted to surprise him."
"Xena we're on the third floor," Rickie, now looking incredulous, pointed out. "Its not like we're in the most advantageous location for Peeping Toms. When was this, anyway?"
"I dunno. One, two a.m. maybe."
"You got up at two a.m. and nearly got killed, just to scare off some guy you saw across the street?" Rickie shook her head in disbelief. "Is that offer of dog's leash still open? Geez-us!"
"Hey!" Xena shot back, as much at the imagery as the sentiment. Rickie gave her the look one gives to children who insist on waiting up for Santa Clause on Christmas Eve.
"What am I gonna do with you, huh?"
Xena shrugged. "Love me?"
Rickie had to chuckle at the seeming non-sequitor. "Already done, lech." She dropped a quick kiss on the warrior's nose, then looked thoughtful. "Dunno if I should let you out of the house without supervision, though. You seem like such a magnet for trouble."
"Yeah?" Xena grinned saucily and rested her forehead against Rickie's. "Look who's talking, jailbait." She tried for another kiss, only to be deflected by her partner's once more serious expression.
"Do not, ever, go running off like that again, Xena. Please. I..." Her head bowed, shoulders shaking once more.
"Shhhh," Xena crooned, holding her close. "I'm not going anywhere." It was as close to a promise as she dared, unwilling to risk making vows she knew she could not keep.
In time, they slid back onto the bed, both exhausted once more. At some point they dozed off together, ironically each doing so as they waited for the other to succumb first. Their fingers intertwined of their own accord, as sacred a vow between them as any priest's recital.
"They're back at the hotel."
"What about the police?"
"No sign of any plainclothes that I can see. Guess they aren't bothered."
"That was sloppy work last night. Real bloody sloppy."
"Couldn't be helped, I'm afraid."
"You want I should move in closer?"
"Don't get ambitious. She's spotted you once already."
"I'll be careful."
"She's sharper than the lot of us put together. You stay put."
Irritated. "I'm going goddamn stir crazy here."
"Patience is the virtue of men and gods. Practice it."
"Easy for you to say."
"Gamble and Price Shipping."
"Mr. Price, please."
"You've lost a man, I hear."
"Not our fault. Damn fool went after her without orders."
"You're supposed to be these bastards' governor. Are you telling me you can't control them?"
"Hoi, you came t'me, remember?"
"And I can go to others just as easily. Remember that, and for God's sake don't let this happen again!"
"You risk calling jus' to bitch me arse out, then?"
"No. I want you to make the bitch to start sweating."
"Heh, hoping you'd say that. Want I should have the lads try rough trade? Or go soft?"
"Neither. It wouldn't work with her, anyway. She bloody invented rough trade."
"So what then?"
"Have a man play tag with her squeeze toy. I want to see if she's more than she looks."
Chuckle. "I've got the perfect man. An' he's untraceable t'us. How soon, then?"
"Your harlot pays the price for your sins, Xeeeenaaaa..." Jeanne's manic cackle rings in her ears...
A blonde head, gold made muddy red, hanging low...
Her mouth is too dry to swallow the screams welling there...
The head raises itself, the snap of dry bones coming with it...
Black, dead eyes opening, staring into her...
Xena awoke with a gasp, eyes blinking away the lingering images, fighting to keep herself from screaming. She quickly looked down, finding Rickie's face drawn with pain.
"Xena?" she asked clearly, her eyes still closed tight.
"Uh," the warrior heard herself grunt, trying to calm both racing thoughts and heart.
"My arm's asleep. Could you move, please?" Rickie's tone was calm, unfailingly polite, and promising murder if she wasn't obliged, and quickly. Xena simply closed her eyes in relief and lifted the offending shoulder, feeling Rickie extract her limb.
Both breathed a sigh simultaneously, leading to a tension-breaking chuckle between them. "Oh, man. What a morning," Rickie observed, sitting up and rolling her shoulder to get the circulation going.
Xena consulted the bedside clock. "It's three in the afternoon."
"It is? Geez, where does the time go?"
"Not in the least." The younger woman stood and stretched. "So, what's on the agenda for today?"
Xena reclined and enjoyed the show of Rickie's impromptu calisthenics. "Well, I was supposed to call Cora this morning about lunch..."
"That's obviously out," Rickie observed, bending at the waist and trying to touch her bare toes.
"True. Still, I should call her, try and reschedule." Xena's words were distracted, her thoughts drifting in entirely difference directions as the sight of Rickie's increasingly fluid movements.
"Ngh," Rickie grunted, the denim of her jeans rubbing her ways she hadn't previously appreciated, making it hard to concentrate on plans that didn't involve the two of them stark naked and reliving every page of the 'Karma Sutra'. "Maybe for dinner?" she offered, making at least the token effort of resisting the ever-present temptation.
"Maybe." Their stomachs chose that moment to growl out in protest at the neglect that they'd suffered.
"Pick up that phone and order room service. Now." She stopped her stretches, some semblance of priorities arranging themselves in her mind. Food first, then Xena, then more food, then more Xena. Yup, that works. She saw Xena sitting there, watching her with a single upturned eyebrow, clearly waiting for something. Rickie quickly read this unspoken demand, and walked, catlike, to the bedside, sinking to her knees before Xena.
"Please...what?" Xena teased.
Rickie leaned in closer. "Pretty please with sugar on it?"
"Better," Xena smiled as she closed the distance, their lips touching, tongues dueling for a moment...until Rickie pulled away. Confused, the warrior watched as she ran her tongue across her teeth and gums, a comic look of distaste crossing her brow.
"Gods, Xena," she slurred around her tongue. "What have you been drinking?"
Xena could only laugh at this, quieting at the accusing glare in her bacchae's eyes though the grin remained. "Look," she said, tongue still swabbing her gums. "I'll order the food. You go brush your teeth."
She watched as Rickie rose and moved to the courtesy phone, making no move herself. Rickie paused as she picked up the receiver, caught once more by Xena's eyebrow. Putting on her best puppy-dog expression, the writer added a "Please?"
"Please what?" Xena rejoined, still grinning, only to jump at the response.
"MOVE!" the small blonde bellowed, turning away with a huff. Xena had to bite her lip from laughing, tasting for the first time the acrid aftertaste of the stationhouse coffee. Perhaps a good brushing wouldn't be such a bad idea. She stood and moved to the WC, leaving Rickie happily chatting away on the phone.
The phone rang only once before Cora Blaylock pushed its Speaker button, knowing full well who was calling and why. "Blaylock residence."
"Cora?" the voice on the opposite end was slightly distorted by the connection, but perfectly recognizable.
"Xena, glad you called. I was starting to worry." They sounded so practiced and natural, there was no sign she'd rehearsed the lines time and again since rising that morning.
"Uh, yeah. Sorry about lunch. We...had some trouble."
"Anything I can help with?"
"No, no. Its all taken care of. You free for dinner?"
"Darling, I'm always for a free dinner." The joke, too, had been rehearsed, though its perfect delivery only drew a dry groan from the caller.
"That was a bad one, Cora. Any suggestions?"
"Do you remember Taste of Dehli over on Garbeck Road?"
"The same. Seven alright?"
"Hold on a sec," Xena said, followed by the muted sound of whispering and...slurping in the background, accompanied by a classic schoolgirl giggle. Cora chuckled at the images this garnered, imagining what the pair were up to right then.
"Would, uhm, eight be alright?"
"Oh, of course, Xena. I'll call and make the reservations right now."
Xena suddenly sounded very distracted. "Uh...what...what was that, Cora?"
"I said I'll see you at eight."
"Better make it eight-thirty. Bye!"
"My love to..." The connection had already gone dead, the dial tone ringing loudly off the walls. Cora struggled to contain her mirth as she hit the disconnect button, looking up at her guest. "Ah, young love," she sighed.
"Indeed." Jonothan O'Donhugh had remained expressionless throughout the call, sitting back in the chair across from her, long legs crossed at the knees. One hand had been tapping on the arm, rhythmically drumming into the cushion.
He abruptly stood up, pushing the chair back. Redoing the buttons to his double-breasted suit coat, he gave a small nod to Cora and said "Have a good dinner." Without another word, he turned and left the apartment.
Cora watched him go, worry in her eyes.
"Look, about Marty-boy..."
"No blame there, old son. Would've done the bastard meself if the bitch hadn't."
"You would? He got off lucky, then."
"To right. Lissen, you up for a drive?"
"I'm always up for a drive."
"Be near Leichester Park at nine. Use something fast, something blank, got it?"
"Done, and done."
"An' keep yer mobile with you. I'll have eyes posted."
Taste of Dehli was a large, if crowded looking Indian restaurant, its décor done in deep blues and greens, all of which seemed to eat up the subdued lighting. There were no dancing girls or tacky costumes of sheer silk to be seen. The Maitre'd himself was clearly East Indian, London being a very cosmopolitan city, dressed in a gleaming white Oxford shirt and short black jacket. This left him guiding Xena and Rickie like a semi-invisible beacon through a dense forest of noise and moving bodies.
The restaurant was not, they realized, so much crowded as just...busy. The waiters didn't move between the pick-up windows at the back and the tables; they literally sprinted between locations. This, coupled with the wide diameters of the tables and low lighting, ensured a steady flow of people and food that was more sensed than seen. The fact many of the orders (and not a few curses) were practically shouted out in Hindu between the waiters made for a dizzying sensor experience, much on the order of riding the roller coasters for two hours on end during their visit to Six Flags Over Texas two months back. It had been fun, even though both were literally green around the gills afterwards.
The Maitre'd led them towards a corner booth, where a familiar face was waiting. "Cora!"
The elderly peer waved and stood, grasping hands first with Xena, then Rickie, bidding them both sit. Xena took the wall seat, allowing her to of course see the comings and goings of staff and patrons. Rickie took the seat immediately to her left, allowing herself a similar view. Cora of course took the third chair, allowing her to face them both. Rickie was back in her jeans and leather jacket, the latter of which she draped over the back of her chair. Xena wore the same outfit as the previous night, with the addition of a sportscoat-safari jacket hybrid, leaving her looking more predatory than usual.
Both, Cora could see, were positively beaming, more at each other than the world at large. Obviously whatever had been going on behind Xena's phone call had not quite worn off either of them. And the looks that were passing between her two guests were doing a decent job of making her simply feel her years. Ah, me, she sighed silently with envy. To be young and resilient again. She herself was dressed in a sensible pantsuit, which with her carefully done hair and minimal make-up didn't make her seem too dowdy.
She cleared her throat, loudly enough to catch their attention over the din. "I took the liberty of ordering a few appetizers, if that's alright?"
Xena nodded while Rickie looked on as their waiters began placing bread baskets and spread cups on the table between them, eyes alight at the array of colors and textures before her. Xena crocked a warning eye-brow her way, a silent warning against her normally adventurous spirit, particularly when it came to food. Amusing as the thought was of her bacchae's expression at meeting some of the hottest spices known to mortal man, she wasn't about to risk her partner's formidable temper here. Back at the hotel, maybe, where the danger of collateral damage was minimal, but not here. Too many civilians to get caught in the crossfire.
"So, my dears," Cora beamed. "I trust you had a nice...lunch?"
Rickie refused to comment, bowing her head in a vain attempt to hide the heat in her cheeks. (both sets, that is) Xena, admirably straight-faced, nodded and said "Very...filling."
"English food tends to be," Cora nodded, expression equally neutral and all the more knowing for it. "Well, I trust you two didn't spoil your...appetite."
Xena cast a wicked glance over at Rickie, who simply rolled her eyes. "I seriously doubt that could happen."
"Hmm, you never know. They say one should have...variety...in one's diet." Now it was Cora's turn to look wicked. "And you know what they say about...wine...left to age too long."
"No," Xena asked, eyes suddenly wide and comically alarmed. "What do they say?"
"One day its wine, the next...its vinegar." Her wide smile belayed any bite or hurt in the words.
Rickie rolled her eyes and threw up her hands. "Okay, enough. Geez, I'm the one who's supposed to be the writer here."
"You've never had to sit through a collection of over-titled twits' idea of dinner-table conversation, dearest. You have to develop an entirely new vocabulary and idiom simply to stay sane."
"Here, here," Xena nodded, taking hold of Rickie's hand beneath the table. She leaned closer and whispered into her ear "You wouldn't believe some of the things that were going unsaid around Frederick the Second's banquet tables."
"Oh, joy," Rickie groused, reaching for the tortilla-like bread and dumping a liberal dose of green spread onto it. It was in her mouth before Xena could warn her, and thoroughly chewed and swallowed before she could blink.
The last of it was down her throat for only a few seconds when she went completely still, eyes widening and color draining from her face. Her mouth fell open and she began fanning herself with both hands. "Hah...hah...hot...hot..." She grabbed one of the tall water glasses and proceeded to drain it, oblivious to the looks of mirth passing between her warrior and the peer. "Oh...oh, god... ohgod... ohgodohgodohgod... tha...that...that's..." She snatched up another glass.
"Hot?" Cora suggested mildly as Xena tore off a piece of her own and dabbed a touch of the red spread, adding a few long slices of onion to it. "Not really, dear. That's the mild stuff there. What Xena's eating, now that's the hot stuff."
"No..." Rickie panted, shaking her head as her breath was still coming in short gasps. "No...way..."
"Indian food," Cora said admiringly. "Nothing quite like it."
"Language," Xena smiled as she chewed with relish, meeting Rickie's sharp stare straight on.
"The trick," Cora was saying, dabbing on the green and adding some clear. "The trick is to make sure there's more bread than spice. It's the seeds, you see. You have to make sure the seeds are fully absorbed before they reach the tastebuds, or your mouth ends up thinking you just swallowed a red-hot poker."
Rickie shuddered at the imagery, a scene from Jeanne's basement coming briefly to mind before she stomped it down. "Nice," she growled, her mouth no longer screaming in pain. She eyed the cups suspiciously before reaching out again, this time using only a fraction of a spoonful on an especially large piece, which she proceeded to wrap into a pseudo-burrito and chewed with obvious trepidation.
While this culinary drama was unfolding, Cora turned back to Xena, eyes searching. "You mentioned some trouble earlier?"
"Nothing worth mentioning," Xena hedged.
"Sheth saw somethone geth killed," Rickie slurred as she chewed, swallowing with a grimace. And, another gulp of water later, added "Some professional scumbag who tried strangling her with piano wire."
Cora's eyes went wide. "Somebody tried to...?"
"The police think it was just a random attack, with me heading out the wrong door at the wrong time. Like I said, nothing worth mentioning." Xena fixed another look at Rickie, who was busy rolling another 'spice burrito'. "And how do you know he was using piano wire?"
Rickie froze with the food just inches from her wide-open mouth. She shrugged and looked a bit sheepish. "The nice young policeman who drove me to the station was really...helpful."
"Ugh," the warrior snorted. "I should register those damn eyes of yours as lethal weapons."
"When did all this happen?" Cora put in forcefully.
Xena shrugged, returning her attention to the food. "Early morning."
"Very early morning," Rickie clarified, taking a bite. "Like two in the friggin' morning."
"Just me coming out of the wrong door at the wrong moment. Nothing more." This last was aimed more at the young blonde than the peer, a pair of very intense blue eyes fixing on her own soft green ones and daring her to raise objection.
"Yah-huh," the small blonde nodded, agreeing and disagreeing in the same breath. "Right."
"Well," Cora broke in after a moment. "If that's what you think of as nothing 'important', I'd hate to see what would leave you worried."
Xena smirked for a moment, than said in utter seriousness "Believe me, Cora. You and the rest of London would know if I were." There was something in her friends eyes which left Cora feeling a bit nervous.
Their waiter chose that moment to materialize out of the darkness beside the table. "Are you prepared to order, ladies?" His English was perfectly schooled and respectful, carrying easily to their ears.
"I think we are, don't you?" She looked over to both Xena and Ricke, seeing no objections there. Cora flipped open the menu and rattled off a pre-selected list of lamb and chicken dishes in fluent Hindi, using a dialect and accent straight from the palaces of New Dehli. She made sure to include more mild than hot flavors in her selection, wondering if the younger woman were really up to tasting such fare, her reaction to the appetizers hardly encouraging. She also made sure to order a decent vintage of red wine to go with it all.
When the waiter had left, Cora immediately caught the sparkle in Xena's eye and the confusion-suspicion in Rickie's. "I am I gonna have to call the fire department for all this?" the latter joked, perfectly serious, as their first glasses of wine were poured.
Jonothan O'Donhugh, wearing a black trenchcoat over his gray suit, approached Taste of Dehli with an unhurried step. He'd disposed of his wholly unnecessary glasses, reasoning their use as a disguise was done. Damn things made his eyes hurt as it was.
He crossed the busy street quickly, his long-strides revealing nothing of his well-concealed trepidation. Coming so close to the warrior, twice within as many days, was running a risk he was ill-disposed towards. He had responsibilities, after all, important ones. Granted the most important one was presently terrorizing the ponies and her pet wolf-cub off on the family estate in Kent. All the same, he held little hope of avoiding being spotted. That little scene at the gallery the previous night had set his nerves on edge, and he was not about to sit about on his firm hindquarters and wait for the fallout.
He was about to enter the restaurant when a single flicker of movement across the street caught his eye. Leaning against a brick wall across street, unmoving and otherwise unnoticed in the steady stream of pedestrians was a tall man with a goatee and leather trenchcoat. O'Donhugh didn't meet the man's eyes, or even acknowledge his existence, save to blow a breath out between lightly clenched teeth as he pushed the restaurant doors open.
O'Donhugh waited several moments for his eyes to adjust to the darkened interior, shrugging off his coat and approached the Maitre'd at his podium. "Table for one," he ordered.
The three of them were well along into the meal before Cora broached any subject outside of further advice on eating Indian. She decided on what she deemed as business matters, rather than the improbability of professionals going around and lurking in dark alleys. "So," she opened, taking a sip of wine before continuing. "I trust you had some success at the reception last night?"
Rickie was too involved spooning dark lamb unto bread to answer, leaving Xena to say "I'm not sure, to be honest." She chewed her own food thoughtfully for a moment and added "Does the name Manfred Armistead ring any bells?"
Even as carefully prepared as she'd been, Cora couldn't keep her expression completely blank. "Err, should it?" she stalled.
"Well, I'd say the gentleman who introduced himself to Rickie last night was the same one who tried to outbid Ms. de Anan at the auction, going by your description that is. At least that's the name he used." Her brow furrowed in thought. "You know, I'm sure I've heard the name before somewhere."
"Manfred Emmanuel Armistead," Rickie added, swallowing.
Cora nodded sagely, thinking quickly all the while. "Well, I recall there being a gentleman on the Board of Trustees at the Bowin Foundation, some investment banker from Jamaica named Armisteed. 'Steed' with two e's, I think. But this was back in the mid-seventies."
"Didn't they give a lot of funding to Helena Covington's work in the Agean during the eighties?" Xena asked suddenly, eyes coming alight.
"I think they did help fund a few digs." Cora looked her straight on. "But then again, you practically funded them and their children through university, didn't you?"
"Huh? What's this?" Rickie was now giving Xena a strange look, letting Cora hope the warrior was sufficiently distracted off subject.
"I, ahem, helped fund some archaeological digs headed by Janice Covington back in the late-fifties and into the sixties." Xena seemed embarrassed by the admission, but couldn't resist Rickie's silent plea to continue. "She was carrying on her father's work, digging up what he could of my, eh, history. I...my, er, funding was always far more than she needed, so she naturally put towards her children's education."
"Janice Covington being the 'Indiana Jones'-type who found your, I mean the fake Chakrum in...where was it again?"
"Mesopotamia," Cora said. "Somewhere between modern-day Turkey and Syria, I think."
Xena broke back in, quietly. "She reportedly blew up the site and destroyed all her notes on the dig."
Rickie looked at Xena, eyes intense. "There's more to the story, isn't there?"
"Much more, but for later." Rickie was unprepared for the wall those clear blue eyes erected against the subject.
"Oh-kay," Rickie nodded slowly, mentally backing off but marking the subject for future exploration. "I take it this Helena Covington was her daughter, then?"
"Is her daughter, actually." Cora clarified. "She's teaching somewhere on the East Coast, last I heard."
"Another Indiana Jones, huh?"
"More like Mrs. Marple, I think. All calm and precision thinking."
"And this Foundation that goes funding her work...?"
Cora smiled at Xena's fidgeting, leaping at the chance to distance the conversation from that particular subject. "Actually, its Xena who made the lion's share of any contributions. All cleverly funneled and mind-bogglingly generous, I must say."
Xena shrugged and refused to meet Rickie's smug expression. "It was a good tax deduction."
"Uh-huh. Face it, warrior. You're just a big softy for family." Though she'd never spoken of it or let on in the slightest, Rickie had almost memorized every paper Janice Covington, her partner, and her daughter had written concerning Xena since the archaeologist's name had come up in an anthropology elective she'd fallen into. Intrigued by the speculation into the life of the fabled "Warrior Princess" in one of the elder Covington's early papers, Rickie had dug deeply into the scholar's background, eventually coming across a picture of the rogue scholar. To say she was shocked at seeing her own face staring back at her was a small exaggeration.
Her surprise was a dozen times greater when she found a picture of Covington with her lifelong colleague, one "M. Pappas" according to the picture's caption, and found herself looking at own partner's perfect doppelganger. The next several weeks found her surreptitiously quizzing Xena on archaeological sites the pair had reportedly worked, small details of her exploits Covington had written about, and generally trying to get the warrior to admit to having lived a double life with her...with Gabrielle's...twin. All this availed her nothing, save managing to confuse the warrior quite a bit.
Even asking Xena point-blank about Covington and her work, and more significantly about the uncanny likeness they all four shared, garnered little information beyond a look Rickie could only call 'haunted'. In time, she realized there was far more to Xena's silence than simple modesty in the face of such scholarly devotion.
Xena gave her an odd look before suddenly asking "Cora? Was there anyone, I mean anyone who showed any interest in the Chakrum besides those two?"
Cora thought about it, then shook her head. "No. The auction was pretty much done by then. And those two were the only one's who placed bids on it. Why?"
"Well, according to Ms. de Anan last night, she managed to 'loose', quote unquote, the Chakrum a few days after buying it." Xena's tone carried all the disbelief needed to communicate her real opinion.
"She didn't really say."
"Strange. I haven't heard a thing about this. You think she's lying?"
Xena shrugged, taking another mouthful of lamb. "I'm not sure just yet. There's something about her and this Armistead character." She looked back to Cora, eyes practically pinning her. "He said he's the gallery's owner. That square with what you know?"
Cora kept her sinking heart from coloring her voice only through great effort, concentrating instead upon sounding thoughtful and uncertain. "Well, the Anan chain has a good number of investors keeping it afloat, not that its sales aren't always strong. I don't think they have any one single owner, and I've certainly never heard anyone claiming so."
"What about the enigmatic Ms. de Anan? She the sort who could go around 'loosing' valuable antiques?"
"From what I understand, if it isn't on paper or nailed down, Marie de Anan will either misplace it in plain sight or drop it down a well so deep you can hear the splash in China." Cora chuckled. "Oh, she's an outstanding administrator and has an eye for art second to none, but she has a reputation for being a bloody menace."
"So you believe she simply...misplaced...the Chakrum?"
"I wouldn't be too surprised if it turns up simply sitting on her desk, buried under god knows what." She caught the look passing between the two as she spoke. "Is there something here I should know about?"
Rickie and Xena exchanged looks again, Rickie studying her food intently, leaving Xena to fill in the silence. "What if I told you I know exactly where the Chakrum ended up?"
"I'd say I wouldn't be overly surprised. It was, after all, your weapon originally."
"Cora," Xena said, her voice and face reflecting all sincerity. "I did not, repeat did not, steal the damn thing. I didn't even know who bought it until you called..."
The peer quickly held up a placating hand. "I believe you, Xena. Truly, luv. Theft just isn't your...style, after all." She grinned a bit wickedly at this, though the sentiment was seemingly lost on Xena.
"Yeah, well," Xena hedged, not certain how to continue.
"You said you knew where it had got to," Cora prompted after a moment. "Is it still...wherever?"
"It's in our hotel room." Xena spoke very quietly.
Cora nodded slowly. "Did you find it, or...?"
Another pensive look was exchanged between the warrior and her bacchae. "Somebody left it in our room, on our bed, when we were here last year."
"I...see." Cora dabbed her chin with her napkin, so better to hide her brief struggle to keep from ginning, half in relief at her suspicions being confirmed and half in amusement at the obvious struggle this was proving to the Immortal. It was refreshing to see her old friend could still be left flustered by the unexpected.
"Tell her about the you-know-what's." Rickie nudged the warrior, leading to her being hit with a momentary glare that left Cora puzzled once more.
"Somebody left licenses, titles, the works, at the managers office. All naming me the Chakrum's owner."
Cora blinked her surprise. She had not been expected that.
"I'd say someone wanted you to have your property back, rather badly it seems," she ventured after a moment, swallowing the rest of her wine.
Xena nodded, conceding the logic. "I agree, but who knew it was mine to begin with?"
The peer remained silent to this, unwilling to risk having her wine-soaked tongue betray her.
"Have been for an hour. Starting to wonder if you'd call."
"Who's the target."
"Short blonde, wearing a brown jacket. A Yank."
"Oooo, never had one of them."
"You're playing tag with 'er, not a snatch job."
"Just let me know when t'press."
Voices in the background.
"Start the engine. Looks like they're getting ready to leave."
"What if the other one's with her?"
"Then do 'em both, just take down the blonde."
Rickie felt a bit unsteady on her feet. She'd adventurously ordered a pint of bitter at some point, the wine unable to numb her mouth sufficiently to endure the spice-enriched chicken, downing it a bit too quickly. She felt light-headed and hyper-aware all at once, even her previous experiences with both alcohol and more exotic substances leaving her ill-prepared for the combination of sensory distress and rich tastes. Was it possible to OD on good taste? she wondered randomly as Xena helped her on with her jacket.
"You okay there?" the dark warrior husked into her ear.
"Oh, yeah," Rickie heard herself drawl, her lips feeling odd as a grin intended to be reassuring came off silly-looking and senseless.
Xena rolled her eyes, muttering something under her breath as she turned to Cora. "Thanks for dinner."
The elderly peer smiled as she signed off the receipt their waiter had brought, extracting her credit card from him along with her own copy. "Not at all, dear one. It's a joy to see you two again."
A small if powerful burp escaped Rickie, who covered her wide grin with both a hand and a giggle. "Sorry," she slurred, her blush lost in the low lighting.
"Yes, well," Cora managed, blushing herself. "I'll of course keep my ear to the ground. What do you intend to do next?"
"Well, Gwen's coming down from Essex in a day or two. We'll touch bases with her. Maybe take a day trip up to the estate outside of Oxford."
"When do you leave?"
Xena divided her attention between keeping a steadying hand on Rickie's elbow and struggling her own jacket on. Flipping the lapel collar back properly she said "Eh? Oh, next Tuesday."
"Well then, we're definitely having lunch Sunday, yes?"
"Darn tootin'," Rickie declared, slipping from Xena's grip and walking with great control towards the back, making a short beeline towards the doorway under a softly lit WC sign. "I'm off tooo the loo," she blithely declared, leaving both warrior and peer shaking their heads.
"She is so going to regret this in the morning," Cora murmured.
"I doubt it," Xena shrugged. "You should have seen her at New Years."
"Half a bottle of Jim Bean, after about twenty toasts of champagne."
Cora looked at Xena, her disbelief writ clear, only to be met with total seriousness. She looked back to the WC with something akin to awe. "Youth." Xena smirked as they embraced. "You take care of yourself, dear. And take good care of her," Cora urged, nodding towards the back.
"Promise. And I'll call Saturday."
They separated, fond smiles beaming between them. Xena watched for a moment as Cora maneuver gracefully among the tables and rushing waiters, then turned had headed to the back herself.
In the women's WC, Rickie simply stared hard at her reflection for some moments, silently daring herself to throw up. The mixing of alcohol and new tastes (not all of them pleasant) in her stomach had all but incited her digestive tract to revolt. She'd already gotten rid of her excess liquids, and was now cupping cold water and splashing her face, vainly trying to ignore the churning in her lower quarters.
"Oh, I am soooo stoo-peed," she groaned with another rinsing of her face. She hadn't let Xena know just how ill she'd felt after New Years, gamely managing to down fried eggs and bacon strips only because Xena had elected to cook au natural that morning, and so presented a sufficiently distracting sight that she could eat without immediate consequence.
No such luck this time. "Next time, no goddamn beer," the young woman vowed with the solemn commitment only the young can express. A final splash of water, a quick wiping with rough paper toweling, and Rickie turned to meet her fate.
Exiting the ladies room, she nearly collided with a dark-haired man wearing a gray double-breasted suit and hissing into small cell phone. "No, I don't bloody care how. Do it. Oh, sorry." This last was aimed at Rickie herself, who simply stood there for a few heartbeats, trying to regain her bearings thrown askew by his quick passage. She turned back, trying to think of something biting to say, only to find him gone. This made little sense, as the only doorways in the small walkway were to the men's and ladies' rooms, both of which were still and unopened.
Rickie glanced back several times, an unsettling feeling of having missed something important following her close. She was still looking over her shoulder when she nearly walked full into Xena, who had been coming that way herself. "Whoa, easy," the warrior crooned, quickly offering a steadying hand on her lover's shoulder.
"Sorry," Rickie apologized, eyes cloudy with both alcohol and exhaustion. "Can we go back to the hotel now?"
"Sure, Dreamer, sure." Xena looked at her worriedly. "How's the head?"
"Ngh, my mouth feels like the inside of blast furnace, my eyes feel like two gigantic cotton balls, and my skull feels like its being squeezed with a vice...from the inside out. And I won't even mention what's going on in my stomach." She looked up hopefully. "Got any aspirin?"
"No, but the there's a drug store across the street."
"Good." Rickie offered no objection to one of Xena's arms crossing her back and helping support her by the elbow, all but steering her out the front door. She knew well she was in no shape to really protest, and could hardly say she was opposed to such a close position in the first place.
The cool night air was a relief, allowing her to focus a bit better as Xena led them to the intersection.
The pair were coming to the crossing when someone nearby spoke into a cell phone. "They're crossing at the next light," was the only message.
Down the street, an approaching Jaguar, one painted a sleek midnight blue whose driver and sole passenger clicked his own cell closed as he revved its engines, gaining speed and skillfully swerving around several slower moving vehicles.
The two women waiting a beat after the crossing lights changed, the intersection nearly bare of waiting traffic, before beginning to cross. Rickie, Xena noted with some amusement, continued to walk in a stiff, horribly controlled manner. Her features were set in a mask of absolute concentration, the sort needed to keep one's stomach from misbehaving. She found it intensely amusing, and a bit distracting.
Hence what came next.
They were perhaps only a half-dozen steps away from the opposite curb when a pair of headlights flared up and bore down upon them from the left, the sound of a finely-tuned engine roaring behind them. Xena took only the whole of a single second to assess the situation, reacting in even less time. She pushed Rickie with all her might towards the curb and took several quick steps back unto the street, only to watch in cold horror as the approaching car, its headlights on maximum, altered its course only slightly...bearing down on the still stumbling Rickie!
Xena wanted to scream, only to have her throat close as the speeding vehicle hit the slender form of her bacchae with an audible THUD, sending her spinning the rest of the way onto the sidewalk. The car was little more than a blur as it avoided other traffic and sped off into the night, its taillights quickly disappearing.
Xena had eyes only for the crumpled unmoving form on the curb. She sprinted the remainder of the way, screaming curses in various languages at the pedestrians who had gathered about them. These gawkers quickly got the message, some waving over patrol constables while the rest gave the nearly frantic warrior a wide berth.
The two constables how ran over a minute later were alternately doing crowd control, asking inane questions of Xena in a language she simply could not understand, and simply babbling away on their portable radios. They were soon joined by two patrol cars, their lights flashing in a disorientating display of pale blue and blood red, their drivers adding their number to the two already on-site and pushing the ring of spectators further back. Wisely, no-one tried to lead the taller woman from the small blonde's side.
Xena herself, still crooning to her bacchae alternately in Greek, Arabic, English, and other dialects, had quickly assessed Rickie's injuries and silently rejoiced at seeing incredibly little blood or exterior damage. This, however, was balanced by the sure knowledge that any serious damage was likely to be internal. She was shaking quite badly, with her eyes wandering deliriously about and her right arm twisted at an unnatural angle. Xena fought to keep her own shaking muted, and fought hard.
She nearly threw a punch at one of the policemen who had the poor judgement to put a hand on her shoulder and try to pull her away. She couldn't hear anything, not the arrival of the ambulance, not the increasingly frantic pleas of the polices for her come away and let the paramedics who'd arrived do their work, not even her own incoherent voice nearly screaming at the prone girl to wake up.
Eventually, the paramedics managed to get around the tall woman's hysteria and examine the small woman, making sure the former could see everything they did, instinctively knowing this would ensure at least her noninterference.
Rickie, in point of fact, was very much awake and aware, though utterly in shock. She remembered walking with Xena, Xena pushing her, and feeling something hard and solid catching her on the hip, sending her flying and impacting unto a solid wall of pain and delirium. She clung to the sound of Xena's voice as a lifeline, drawing from it strength enough to stay conscious. Her world had become a mixture of noises and flashing lights without direction or up or down or anything she could understand, save the pain throbbing through her from her toes to hair.
Something bitter with a meaty taste to it bubbled in her throat, making her gag and shudder with each breath. She fought to hold it down, unwilling to give it and the darkness creeping at her vision final say. There was soon a prickling sensation in her arm, the needle puncturing the last of her restraint like a baloon.
She felt herself heave upright as a veritable flood of rich-tasting vomit surged through her throat, landing somewhere with a splashing sound. This seemed to make the world go silent for a moment, into which she heard her voice say "Sorry" to someone, only promptly loose all awareness, all consciousness seconds later.
Further down the street, Jonothan O'Donhugh exited the restaurant, tugging at his coat's lapels while pausing to watch the excitement across the street. The paramedics were loading a gurney into the back of their ambulance, a tall, dark-haired figure leaping in with them. There were flashing lights and uniforms everywhere, traffic slowing to a near crawl around the assortment of cruisers and constables.
He let go of a breath, resisting the urge to simply snort in disgust. Without turning from the sight, he said quietly "Find out who was driving the vehicle. I'll want to have a...chat...with them later." He dug both hands deep into his coat's pockets and walked the opposite way, no hurry to him whatsoever.
Behind him, a man with a goatee and wearing a leather trenchcoat, who had been leaning casually against the wall as O'Donhugh walked passed, pulled a small cell phone out and hit a speed-dial code. After several rings, the opposite end picked up. The bearded man opened without preamble or greeting; this was, after all, business.
"Its Enzo. I need a trace on a car's registration tags."