by Joseph Connell
Disclaimers: Go to Part I for disclaimers on this story.
Commentary can be directed to Joseph Connell.
August 26. Thursday.
It would not be until years later, when Xena finally summoned the courage to speak of it, that Rickie would know how close her warrior had come to destroying herself that night. From the instant she'd seen the car race past, deliberately swerving to hit Rickie, to the moment the frail-looking blonde opened her eyes some four hours later, Xena's mind had not stopped plotting. It had churned out schemes and scenarios, both straightforward and convoluted, with but two singular goals: the annihilation of any and all involved in the so-called 'accident', and her head being cleft from her shoulders. The first goal was something on the order of a universal imperative. The second, however...
She had survived two thousand years with only half her soul to sustain her. To do so for another two thousand was beyond even her strength of will.
Even when the emergency doctor attending Rickie had told her she had suffered nothing more than a badly bruised hip, a dislocated shoulder, and natural shock, Xena greeted the news with skepticism, unwilling to let herself even hope the damage was so little. When she'd protested, citing how Rickie had been shaking and projectile vomiting (she had to admire the professionalism of the paramedics, who hadn't so much as blinked as Rickie's dinner ended up decorating their pants and shoes), the physician simply nodded assured her again that such things were to be expected given the physical shock and the fact she'd just eaten a rather rich meal. They had run a number of tests, from X-rays to a complete CAT scan, to ensure there was no internal damage slipping past them.
Xena felt close to throwing up herself by this point, the reality of what had happened finally crashing down on her. The nurses, who had been edgy of the tall woman's restless presence since her arrival, read her slumped shoulders and hoarse breathing correctly, one of them quickly leading her to Rickie's spartan room. Xena had so drained herself, plotting her vengeance and raging against the Fates, she could do no more than collapse into the uncomfortable bedside chair and half-collapse over the sleeping blonde. She pillow her head on her arms, one draping itself protectively over Rickie's unmoving form.
She disenjoyed terrible dreams that deserted her without so much as a whisper when she felt a small hand stroking the sweat-twisted bangs from her forehead. Xena was very reluctant to open her eyes, lest it prove only to be a dream and so dispelled by waking. Such was a coward's way out, however, and Xena, the Lion of Amphipolis, was no coward. She indulged herself there for only a moment more before lifting her head, silently steeling her heart against the sight of Rickie still comatose and silent, and prying her eyes fully open.
She could only blink at meeting twin orbs of bright emerald, the brows surrounding them crinkled and squinting with worry. "You...you okay there?" The small blonde's voice was hoarse and tired with pain, but clear and lucid nonetheless, far moreso than Xena herself felt.
"Yeh...yeah," the warrior croaked with a weak smile. She shuddered, the words escaping her before she realized it. "You gave me quite a scare there."
Rickie shifted a little, adjusting the bed so she was closer to sitting up, grabbing tight to Xena's hand before the dark woman could pull away. "Sorry about that," she apologized irrationally. "Shoulda looked left instead of right, right?" Flat as the joke was, Xena smiled at the effort. Rickie readjusted her shoulders and said "You look worse than I feel, lech."
Xena rested her forehead against Rickie's, careful not to press too closely or too hard on her bacchae's tender skull. This meant they barely touched, a fact not lost on either woman. Rickie thought for a moment about protesting this distance, but clearly read her lover's eyes, and held her peace. She did, however, tighten her hold on Xena's hand.
The quiet was broken by a discrete cough at the room's door. Standing there was two men, one of middling height and age, his partner slightly younger and sharper looking. Rickie didn't recognize either of them, though Xena obviously did, going by the tension that suddenly stiffened the warrior's spine and the accompanying growl.
"Inspector Hopper. Sargent Mallory." Rickie knew this was more for her benefit than theirs.
"Miss Amphipoulis," the elder policeman nodded, then turned towards Rickie. "And you must be Miss Gardner."
Rickie was momentarily torn between her instinctive dislike of the police and some instinctive sympathy for the worn looking men. The dislike won out, with her half-grunting "Yeah?"
The elder of the two waved vaguely in his subordinate's direction. He went through the motions of introducing them, all sides knowing them unnecessary. "I'm Inspector Edward Hopper of the Metropolitan Police Force. This is Sargent Mallory." They took a step further into the room, neither offering their hand nor paying the least attention to the glare Xena threw at him for such presumption.
Hopper continued "We're also the officers who interviewed your partner here concerning her... unfortunate encounter in that alleyway yesterday morning. I take it she's told you at least the basic details about that?" Rickie gave a curt half-nod. "Good, then you'll understand why we've come."
"To take my statement." It wasn't a question.
"Precisely," the Inspector smiled weakly as Mallory pulled both a small notebook and a handheld tape recorder from his jacket pocket and took yet another couple steps closer, sparing a glance at Xena's stony visage before turning fully on Rickie. He moved the adjustable bed tray so it sat directly in front of Rickie, setting the now active tape recorder atop it and opening his notebook.
He commenced dictating aloud. "This is a statement taken on the twenty-fifth of August, nineteen-hundred and ninety-nine Year of Our Lord, regarding the hit-and-run incident on the corners of Westbourne Grove and Newton. Interviewing Miss Rickie Gardner, victim. Also in attendance: Police Inspector Hopper and Miss Xena Amphipoulis. Miss Gardner, would you please relate the incident in question as best you can recall?"
Rickie proceeded to spell out 'the incident' in clear, lucid detail. "Okay. I left the 'Taste of Dehli' restaurant with my partner, Xena G. Amphipolous, around 9:30 p.m. last night. I had a headache from drinking a bit too much and my coordination was off. We crossed the street at the traffic lights, trying to get to the drug store on the opposite side. When we were over half-way across, Xena basically shoved me the rest of the way because a car was speeding at us. I didn't realize this was happening right then. The next thing I remember was the car zooming past and catching me on the side. I was right on the curb at the time, so all it really did was spin me around and knock me on my rear." She took a half-breath and continued. "At this point I was completely disorientated and extremely nauseous. I think I...threw up on somebody before passing out. Then I woke up here in the hospital around five, ten minutes ago. And that's it. That's all I remember."
Throughout the short recital Xena had kept completely silent, watching both policemen like a hawk.
Mallory of course had more questions. "Would you be able to identify the type of car involved?"
"I...I don't think so," Rickie said after a moment's thought. "It was painted something dark, and it was speeding at the time."
"What about the registration plates? Can you remember seeing any of the characters on it?"
Rickie thought again. "Uh, no. Sorry." Mallory pursed his lips tightly for a moment, then pressed on.
"Can you think of anyone who might wish you harm directly?"
"Just my jerk-off-and-a-half of a literature professor back in Portland."
Mallory studied her for a moment, as if seeing something he'd previously missed. "How much had you been drinking at the time of the incident, Miss Gardner?"
"Uh, three glasses of wine and one of those big-ass glasses of beer. What d'ya call those? A quart?"
"Yeah, that's it."
"Do you drink a great deal?"
"Is it fair to say then you were at least moderately intoxicated?"
"No," Rickie shook her head, grinning a little despite the seriousness of her tone. "I was just plain drunk."
Mallory and Hopper sighed in unison. "This is serious business, Miss Gardner. We'd appreciate it if you'd please treat it as such." Xena opened her mouth to say something, only to be beat to the punch by Rickie.
"Hey, I'm the one that car tried to turn into a pancake on the sidewalk." Rickie's voice was aggressive, though Xena could feel the trembling in her hand, never mind hear the first fractures in her voice. "So excuse the shit out of me if I have to fucking joke about it, otherwise you'll end up having to dope me up so bad I'll be a human dishrag for the rest of the year!"
Mallory held up his hands in supplication. "All right, all right, ma'am. I apologize. No harm meant." Hopper simply watched her closely, poker-faced except for his eyes, which betrayed a certain excitement.
"Yeah, well..." Rickie concentrated on the tape recorder, as if willing it to simply explode by sheer force of will.
Mallory quickly glanced back at his superior before saying "One last question, if you please?" He waited for Rickie's curt nod, then asked "Did you get even the smallest glance at the driver?" Rickie shook her head, but Mallory pressed. "Anything, Miss Gardner. Even the smallest detail would prove helpful."
"Look, I didn't see shit, okay? One second I'm on Xena's arm, the next it feels like a battering ram hits my right side and I'm spinning like a fucking top! I didn't see anything, I can't fucking tell you anything about the car or the driver or why he suddenly...gulp...suddenly decided to...try to... oh, fuck...!" The small woman finally succumbed to the emotions and memories which had been boiling beneath the surface since waking. She was soon trembling so hard the bed actually seemed to shake in time. Xena had quickly seated herself beside her, wrapping protective arms around her fragile partner and ordering the two men away with her eyes.
She didn't wait to see if they took the message, burying her face into her bacchae's soft hair and fighting to still her own tears, being a steadying rock for them both when in truth her every nerve was screaming near panic.
The police lingered only a minute or two more before Mallory carefully reached out and retrieved the still-activated tape recorder. The two then backed out into the hallway, Hopper glancing back at the two women before quietly shutting the door behind him. He nodded to the Constable standing by the door, murmuring "Keep watch here until the girl's discharged. No-one talks to her other than the docs and her ladyfriend there. Call in when they leave."
"Yessir," the patrolman saluted, resuming his station.
Hopper continued down the hall, ignoring the curious look Mallory gave him. Hurrying after his boss, the Sargent asked "You don't really believe that was any hit-and-run, d'you?"
A snort. "Dunno. Maybe."
Mallory refused to let the matter go with that. "What do we do now, eh?"
"At the moment?" Hopper shrugged. "Make sure no-one comes in t'disturb them and hope the rest of their holiday is quiet."
"What? That's it then? We just let them walk off?"
Without turning or breaking stride, Hopper replied "What d'you suggest we do? Arrest 'em?"
"I suggest, sir, we find out why they're suddenly marked by villains like Marty Hawkins and mystery drivers. There's got t'be a reason, riot?"
"Oh, really? There's got t'be, eh?" Hopper sounded at once skeptical and enormously disinterested in his subordinate's opinion. He paused and gave the Sargent a glare. "Heaven forefend if Marty Hawkins was just the fucking lunatic everyone said him t'be, knowin' nothing more than how t'do people. And all we've got to go on here (waving an arm back towards the closed door) is a bunch of 'witnesses' who witnessed not a bloody blessed thing, 'cept a phantom car and tourist knocked off her tiny feet!" The Inspector stood back and took a breath.
"I agree, there is something happening here we're not seeing. But until we do, we've no choice but t'treat it all as random accidents. I clear on this?" Not waiting for an answer, Hopper spun on his heel and walked off.
Mallory stood there and stewed for only a heartbeat longer, then followed, eyes hooded.
"Ye owe me one."
"You owe us more. Remember that."
Snort. "Fuggin' beancounter."
Laughter. "What do you have for us?"
"The tags were nicked off their owner's chassis in Liverpool two months back. Amateur night, strictly for cash."
"Sold to who?"
"An old mate of yours, I'm told. Mickey-boy Gee hisself."
"Lissen. You want me to...?"
"No!" Deep breath. "No. Stay out of it now. Its family business now."
"Look, this isn't necessary. I can walk. I want to walk. Dammit, Xena, some help here?!" Rickie's protests fell on ears long deaf to their ilk, the matronly nurse who pushed her wheelchair exchanging a look equal parts amusement and exasperation with the warrior, who had the good sense to keep out of arm's easy reach. Rickie, hardly a stranger to hospitals, knew full well that it was regulation for any patient about to be discharged to be taken to reception in wheelchair.
She had no intention, however, of remaining silent on the issue, and so kept up a steady stream of pleas (directed solely at the nurse) and protests/curses (directed solely at her warrior), all of which echoed off the stark walls of the hallway. British hospitals, while efficient, are not the most aesthetic of places, the dark tiled floors and gray walls there making the place seem more of a prison than anything else. Hence Rickie's intense desire to be up and walking, if for no other reason than she could then sprint out of this depressing place.
Xena just kept perfectly straight-faced throughout every moment of these diatribes, as did the matron, both ticking off the number of steps to the front door.
The proper forms were all signed off and Rickie practically sprung off the chair like a jack-in-the-box. Xena could only grin, though she made sure to keep close, very close, to Rickie and made sure that it was her who hailed the cab and held open the door this time.
They returned to the South Hyde Hotel, fingers tightly entwined, without another word between them. There was tension, no surprise, though it was directly entirely outside of the both of them; Xena watching for a dark car anywhere near them, Rickie watching for a dark blur swooping down from the sky.
Again, it was Xena hoping out first, holding doors open and making sure nothing and no-one came within a fifty yards of the small blonde with a stiff shoulder and a slight limp. It put her immediately in mind of another, walking across an auditorium stage in 1954 with a small limp to her. That old shame colored her cheeks for a moment, leaving in its place the threat of tears and a determination not to see the sight again. She saw how Rickie winced a little with each step, promptly picking her up and taking to her the room.
Rickie couldn't stop the squeal of surprise as she found herself lifted up and carried, then deposited ever so lightly upon their bed. She'd closed her eyes the instant her feet left the floor, suddenly very tired and wanting nothing more than to lie down, bury herself under the covers and shut the whole world out. Despite herself, she began shaking before they were even out of the elevator, hating herself for proving so weak.
She had no chance to curl up and hide, however, Xena refusing to break contact. Rather, the warrior lay down as well, keeping strong arms about her lover, steadying her against the onslaught begun by young Sargent Mallory's less-than-tactful approach back in the hospital. She knew it was inevitable, that they would find themselves at this point, Mallory simply having poked the first holes in the proverbial dike.
No words passed between them, the store of words temporarily exhausted, gentle touches and shaking shoulders and labored breathing a library's worth of meaning for them. Their tears didn't mingle, despite their parallel courses and each knowing the other shed them. They were quiet now, content to communicate by touch and love alone.
Eventually, Rickie calmed, the throbbing in her head diminishing while Xena relaxed against her back. The warrior's breathing was no longer the exhale of a bellows in her ear, having relaxed to a regular tickle that left her smiling as she drifted off into a contented slumber, confident her warrior would not be far behind.
Her confidence was not misplaced.
The next time she opened her eyes, the bedside clock read quarter of five and her bladder was making its annoyance known. Rickie eased herself out from under Xena's strong if limp arm and made for the WC, only half shutting the door behind her. She didn't bother turning on the lights, quickly shucking down her jeans and sitting on the toilet, letting herself drain with a quiet sigh of relief.
She'd only just finished when the door was half-kicked off the hinges and the lights blazed to life. Rickie, in the process of standing up and refastening her jeans, was knocked onto her rear by the speed and vehemence of the act alone. "What...? Xena?!"
Her warrior stood there, chest visually heaving once more and eyes almost wild. "You okay?" she asked looking everywhere except at her, as if seeking hidden assassins or an impending ambush.
"Sure, fine. Just kinda bowled over, y'know." Xena grasped her extended hand and helped her to her feet. She refused to let it go, however, as she led the blonde back to sit on the bed. There was something in Xena's eyes Rickie had trouble identifying. "Are you okay there?" she asked.
The dark woman merely shrugged as knelt beside her, finding the wall over her shoulder far more interesting. "I just...woke up and you were...gone." She shrugged again.
Rickie chuckled at the seeming absurdity of this. "Xena, c'mon. What, am I supposed to wake you up every time I need to go to the bathroom at night?" She caught the look crossing the warrior, seeing she was actually considering the suggestion. "Oh, gimme a break, Xena!" she exclaimed, taking back possession of her hand. Rolling her eyes, Rickie reached for the courtesy phone.
"I think we need something to eat," she declared as she dialed. "You want anything?" She paused as she waited for Xena's response. Hearing nothing, she looked over at her lover, whose sapphire eyes hit with their sauciest gaze yet.
"Room service," buzzed in her ear, nearly going unheard. "Hullo?"
"Sorry, wrong number." Rickie slammed down the phone as over two hundred pounds of amorous warrior fell on her like an early snow.
The order room service received sometime thereafter proved a large one, easily enough for a family of eight, and was delivered to the sound of much giggling and cooing floating through the door.
With their bright red dress uniforms, tall furred hats, and daily ceremony changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, it is no surprise most tourists considered the five Guards Regiments to be little more than pure pomp and ceremony. Few know of the intense training Guards recruits are subjected to, second it is said only to that given to the celebrated (and feared) men of the SAS. Fewer still appreciate Wellington Barracks, neighboring the Palace, is a fully functions military outpost and among the most coveted assignments in the British military establishment. At any time, literally at the drop of a hat, dozens of fierce-eyed young lads can be gathered in its parade ground, fully replete in fatigues and clutching their rifles at the ready. The Guards are known to take their designation seriously, often serving long after their retirement in any one of a dozen capacities.
One such duty, prestigious in its own right, is to serve at the Guard's Museum near the barracks. More accurately, the museum's entrance was near the perimeter of the parade ground, while the museum proper was actually underneath it. The rationale of this arrangement was lost on those who pondered upon it, though there no complaints from either curators or visitors. After all, who better to relate the history of the Regiments than those who'd lived the life?
Such history was only partially on Jonothan O'Donhugh's mind as he calmly stepped into the museum and descended its stairs to the main exhibition area. The lighting was both darkness and light, the requisite dummies in full dress uniform, their styles spanning the centuries and making sure to include all five regiments, clearly illuminated. O'Donhugh had been here before, more times than he could count, and knew the layout as intimately as he knew the captions by each painting and photo.
He made the obligatory tour of the exhibits, though one circumscribed by familiarity. It was a necessary act, there being several American and Japanese tourists about right then. O'Donhugh was a man who respected the wishes of those he called friend, and so made sure not to draw unnecessary attention to either himself or his true business. He made polite smiles towards the retired Guardsmen and nodded at their stories, expressing appropriate levels of interest in the various renditions of battles long past and engaging the men's knowledge of their regimental heritage.
It was a familiar routine, one patiently developed and executed with practiced ease. Even so, by the time he reached the exhibit of the Battle at Tumbledown Hill in 1982, O'Donhugh was nearly out of both questions and tolerance for the meandering tales of his many guides. He'd been on the go for nearly the past twenty hours, with only a meal of Indian curry and gods alone knew how many cups of coffee to sustain him. The controlled tension knotting his shoulders and back, while well concealed, was picked up by the curators, all of whom soon found other matters to busy themselves with.
Just when he felt ready to call it a day, he felt a familiar presence materialize behind him. Gesturing to the large painting portraying the battle's final stages, he asked "Is it true this battle was what ended the Falklands War?"
"It did just that, sir," rumbled the Midland's accent over his shoulder.
O'Donhugh half-turned, a sort-of smile on his lips. "I thought it was the Royal Navy sinking the General Belgrado that forced the Argentineans to the table."
A snort was his immediate answer. "The squids couldn't hit the broadside of a broadside if'n their lives depended un'it." O'Donhugh nodded to the coded signal that they could speak freely; had it been otherwise, some remark over the virtue of the Royal Marines would have been spoken. He turned fully and extended a hand.
"Good to see you again, Sargent-Major."
Sargent-Major Howard Augustus Boothe, retired nine years from the Coldstream Guards, snapped to momentary attention before relaxing and taking the proffered hand in a strong grip. "And you, sir. And you." He smiled as the younger man returned the grip with all his strength; not quite an even match, but close nonetheless.
The old soldier sobered quickly. "I take it this isn't purely a social call, sir?"
"I wish you wouldn't call me that. I've no rank, after all..."
Boothe cut the protest short with a snort. "Something you needed here, sir, or is this just a social call?"
O'Donhugh just sighed and turned to business. "I may need your help in the next few days, Sargent."
"Light work or heavy, sir?"
"Think Belfast, '72."
"Balls, sir! That's rough, even for us." the Regimental Sargent Major murmurred after a count.
"Men made of pure evil." O'Donhugh elaborated, meeting the Sargent's darkened eyes. "Bastards who'll run down a girl in the street just to hurt the real target."
"Bastards indeed, sir." Boothe nodded in agreement, his natural scowl even deeper now, ugly images of retribution painting themselves in his mind's eye now. He'd killed men, both friend and foe, for lesser acts, often with his bare hands. A thought came to him.
"Is it about...her, sir? The girl, she was...her's?" O'Donhugh nodded, Boothe being among the few outside of their blood- family whom his mother and uncle had taken into confidence. "My Martha, sir. She'll want her piece, as well, if it's about her."
O'Donhugh thought of refusing the demand outright, Martha Boothe being as fiery a temperment as he'd ever encountered. He, however, quickly thought better of it. "She'll have it. My oath." Martha had been a combat nurse as long as her husband had served in the field. Such skills might prove needed in coming days.
Another handshake sealed the pact. The men quickly parted company, Boothe loosing his angry visage and turning to shoo a few stragglers out of towards the exit. He subtly looked for O'Donhugh, but was unsurprised to see the younger man vanished. The Sargent fought to hide his smile of admiration, busying himself with maneuvering the last tourists away from the mannequins and out the door.
"You know," Rickie observed that night as they finished their food. "Something just occurred to me." They were only barely dressed, and plates and glasses were strewn throughout the room. The bedsheets were a tangle, though completely unstained. With food, that is. Rickie was sitting cross-legged on the bed, bared breasts jiggling as she swallowed, Xena sitting likewise on the floor nearby.
"Hmm?" Xena asked around a final mouthful of salad.
"We seem to be spending an awful lot of time in bed this trip."
"Hmm." The warrior agreed, still chewing, brows now crinkling. "You complaining?"
"Wellll, now that you mention it..." The younger woman let her voice trail off suggestively. "You mentioned going to the country to Cora?"
Xena frowned slightly at the seeming non-sequitur, then nodded. "Essex. Old farming country."
"Er, any horses out there?" She sounded a bit reluctant on that one.
"Not that I recall. I didn't keep any there, but then its been awhile."
"Uh, since the Profumo Scandal in the 60s. The one they made that movie about." Xena's frown deepened. "What's with all the questions?"
Rickie shrugged. "Well, would you mind if we...stayed here a extra day or two?"
"Here? In London?" Rickie nodded. "Dreamer...of course. If you don't want to go..."
"I mean, I do want to. I'd love to see Gwen again, see what she thinks about the story and all. But I just don't feel like going out...right now, y'know?" She took a breath, trying to order her thoughts and words. "I mean...after last night, and everything else that's happened I, ah...I'd kinda like to stay stationary, y'know? Ah, shit, I don't know what I feel like..." She shrugged helplessly, unable to say more.
Xena set her plate aside and smoothly climbed up on the bed beside her. "C'mere." Rickie pressed close, the sensation of skin-against-skin always calming to her. "We aren't going anywhere, okay? I'm not letting anything come near you, hear me?"
"Ditto, lech." Rickie nodded into her shoulder. "This feels good, doesn't it?"
"Yup." They lay back together, managing to set a few inconveniently placed plates to the floor without breaking them. Neither would have noticed anyway, having eyes and thoughts for each other alone.
"Xena?" Rickie asked in a drowsy voice.
"You think we're cursed?"
"Wha...? No!" The warrior lifted her head and balanced on an elbow, looking down on her lover with concern. "What makes you think that?"
"Well, if we aren't cursed, how come every time we go on vacation, we end up needing a vacation from our vacation?" The seriousness with which the question was framed nearly convinced her it was genuine. The equally serious reassurances that were on the tip of tongue, ready to flow out, were stilled by the mischievous sparkle she caught in the blonde woman's eye.
She couldn't stop the silly, tired chuckle from bubbling out, its echo drifting up through Rickie. Xena buried her face in rich blonde locks, laughing and kissing the scalp.
Xena let the rare sense of peace settle through her as Rickie snuggled closer into her arms. They'd been here before, in the calm after the emotional storm. She welcomed these moments, knowing how few and far between they proved. They needed this time, and the warrior was determined to draw it out as long as possible.
Rickie was soon snoring gently once more, but Xena was far longer in following her this time.
Dark had long since fallen on the city when the man with the goatee and leather trenchcoat worked up the courage to make the call. He'd watched the hotel all day, knowing full well his targets wouldn't break camp anytime soon. Not after the previous night.
He'd been naturally reluctant since getting the name that morning. He knew what the response would be, dreading it with all his soul.
He dialed the number anyway.
"Yah? You have a name?"
"Yes." He paused, not for affect but out of clear reluctance. "It was Michael in the car."
The silence on the opposite end was deafening.
"You still there?"
"Damn right I'm still here. You sure about this?"
"I trust the source. Completely."
"Look," he offered. "I can try tracking him down myself. I doubt these two are going..."
"Absolutely not. You stay there. I'll run down our...friend."
"Not literally I hope." What humor there was to the joke was lost in the resultant silence.
"I'll be in touch." The dial tone followed, ending only when the cell phone was folded away and returned to its pocket.
Enzo Del Turo looked up towards the third story window, the thin bead of sweat gathering at his temples having nothing to do with the warm night air.