by Joseph Connell
Disclaimers: Go to Part I for disclaimers on this story.
Commentary, positive and (preferably) negative, can be directed to Joseph Connell.
August 29. Sunday.
Looking back on it, Rickie would admit she had only herself to blame for it all. It had been her, after all, who'd asked they stay in London for the time being. It had been her who'd begged off the nice train trip out to the country Xena had planned for them.
And it had been her who had snuck out of the room that morning, right under the nose of the exhausted, dozing warrior.
Rickie of course felt somewhat ashamed at this last bit. But then, Xena had been slowly, systematically driving her out of her goddamn mind. Rickie hadn't meant that she wished to stay in their hotel room the whole time, and she certainly hadn't wished Xena to act alternately as handservant and the bitch warden of Alcatraz. When they weren't dining in the hotel's small restaurant or their room, they were cuddling upstairs in their suite, or using up the hotel's hot water for showers or lingering baths, or vegging out watching what passed for television entertainment, or contributing to the overall levels of noise pollution and staining the bedsheets something fierce. At least Rickie was, Xena skillfully deflecting all efforts at reciprocity.
The rare moments when they weren't so occupied, Rickie would find Xena staring out the window, hands clenching and unclenching in a familiar gesture of frustrated tension. Rickie herself missed whatever it was she was seeing out there. Pedestrians, tourists, bobbies, business men and women, vendors, cars, trucks, the occasional pair on roller-blades, all crowding the sidewalk and the street day and night. She'd catch Xena there late at night, in those dark moments before the dawn, or in the bright light of noon. When she'd join the dark woman at the window, she could see nothing looking the least out of the ordinary.
But then, she wasn't a detective, was she? A small fact Xena didn't mind reminding her of when she pointed out how there was simply nothing out there. Xena always delivered the pseudo-rebuke with a grin and a kiss and no sting behind it.
Nevertheless, over forty-eight hours of nonstop mothering and not-so-covert surveillance (she caught Xena watching her with every bit as much intensity, only much more often) can wear on anyone's nerves. Especially if the subject under surveillance isn't even allowed out of the room to get some ice from down the hall. It didn't help that, after the same period of time, the four walls of the suite were getting real familiar, or that British television had about as much novelty to it as the average patch of grass.
At least they got plenty of exercise. Even after a year together, Rickie found she'd had only a glimmer of Xena's inventiveness when it came to love-play. And hadn't it been Heinlein who said you could get all the exercise you'd ever need in bed? In that case, I'm gonna live to be a hundred. Rickie would think with a smirk.
The decision to slip away came subtly, the plan forming over the course her two day's captivity. She'd unconsciously noticed how Xena hardly seemed to sleep, merely eat and pace and not let her out of sight for more than a few seconds, going so far as to lounge by the damn bathroom door whenever she needed to use the facilities. It left Rickie wondering what was going on in that two thousand year old skull she so loved, though she decided to mull over it later. Right then, Rickie recognized it as the opening she would need.
She'd reached the limits of her endurance of all this by Sunday morning, and desperately needed a few moments to herself, if only so she could breath fresh air. Her subtle, and not-so-subtle hints to this affect went unnoticed. Admittedly, Xena wasn't in much better shape, her eyes blinking rapid-fire by then and her movements hyper-precise and controlled. The poor woman was obviously on her last legs, and Rickie decided it was time to make her break for an uninterrupted afternoon of freedom.
Not that she wasn't above having some...fun...in the process.
"Xena, will you sit down!" Rickie exclaimed, throwing her arms up for effect and sounding as exasperated as possible. The warrior had been pacing again, glancing out the window ever few paces and generally looking dead on her feet, held upright only by a fierce will. Rickie seized a forearm as she passed and pulled with all her might, surprising them both with how easily she toppled the taller woman. "Omph!" was the only comment either could manage right then, particularly when Xena's elbow found its way into her gut.
"Well, that worked," Rickie grumbled as they tried to disentangle themselves. Rickie made sure, however, that she ended up firmly astride Xena's well-muscled if exhausted torso, pinning her arms with both knees and hands. She leaned down carefully, conscious of the fire smoldering in those beautiful eyes.
"You are in such trouble, Dreamer," the warrior growled up at her.
"And you," Rickie replied as imperiously as her position permitted, "need to relax a little." She closed the rest of the distance and held Xena in a breath-stealing lip-lock. The warrior resisted for perhaps a heartbeat, then let herself be crushed by it, closing her eyes and sinking deep into the taste of her lover.
Without breaking contact, Rickie wiggled her way down Xena's form, keeping a firm grip on her wrists. She soon lay full astride her, softening her kisses but not her grip. Xena actually whimpered when she drew away, leading Rickie to quickly rethink her plans. Obviously the warrior had been far closer to that razor's edge than she'd previously thought. Gods knew they'd both been jumping through emotional hoops the past several days, from the gallery reception to the attack in the alley to that fucking car. Obviously Xena was more affected than she'd realized. Not, perhaps, the optimum moment for her to go running off. She'd have to see how the rest of this little escapade went.
"Keep yer damn hands to yerself," the blonde growled out as she let go of those massive wrists. Xena twitched a little, but quickly settled back, content to let her have control. Rickie knew she'd have to move quickly, before Xena thought better of it.
So she did.
Shirt and jeans were quickly opened and pushed out of the way, granting her fingers and mouth easy access. Xena couldn't stop the tremors running through her under those practiced digits found her every weak point, sensitizing her skin to the point of pain. Yet she kept her hands well away, unwilling to risk ending this delicious torture too soon. Even when Rickie's tongue found that one little spot as it invariably did, then one that never failed to shoot her right to the brink and leave her teetering, even then she locked her muscles and kept herself from reaching down as her tingling fingers so begged her to.
Rather, she lay there, all rational thought drowned out by her lover's skillful manipulations. Her lower half moved in rhythm to the tongue, teeth, and deft fingers stroking and caressing her. She bit down on her lip, nearly hard enough to draw blood, as her pelvic muscle clenched in an effort to draw in still more of the four fingers now working within her. Her legs straightened and locked stiff, dead weight upon the slender blonde's shoulders.
Something in unintelligible Greek issued from the dark woman as she let loose, though Rickie was sure the names of several gods were praised...or, knowing Xena, cursed and spat upon. It sounded rude, whatever it was she said. Some distant memory, more dream than substance, told her Xena would often resort to questioning the parentage and grace of certain deities at the heights of their passion. It was her personal challenge, her curse, her retribution against them.
Rickie really wished she know what it all meant.
Memo to self: take courses in Helenic Greek next year. Rickie mentally scribbled as she tongued Xena mercilessly.
The warrior was soon shuddering at the precipice of her first orgasm, at which point her hands refused to remain uninvolved, soon finding themselves raking through thick strands of soft gold. Breathing was nearly impossible, never mind coherent speech. Xena urged her tormentor on with primoid grunts and roving hands, the former becoming a wail of loss when the latter were caught in slightly sticky hands and pulled away, her bacchae's tongue pulling away as well.
Through the haze in her mind, Xena clearly heard the quiet rebuke of "Now, what did I tell you about those hands? Hmm?" The warrior whimpered, nearly crazed and utterly disorientated. Were she even slightly clearer of thought, she'd have reached out and dragged her bacchae underneath her, ensuring she finished what she started. As it was, Xena could not clearly remember her own name, never mind how to undertake so complicated an action as jumping up and tackling a five-foot-seven-inch young woman.
So she lay there, trying to process the multitude of sensations and urges running through her. Her thoughts cleared sufficiently to conclude there was something wrong with having both wrists tied with pillow cases, the ends of which were secured to the headboard of the bed, though for the life of her she couldn't quite figure out why it felt so. The voice above her must have had something to do with it, particularly when it said "There, that's better.".
This line of thought was completely derailed with the return of Rickie's tongue to her core, her finely-trimmed nails raising a trail of goose-bumps along her thighs and hips, which shook with unreleased tension and heat. Xena felt her guts twist and pull into a tightly-coiled spring, pulling harder and tighter with each swipe of that tongue and scratch of nails against skin.
Sweat was leaking through every pore, from crown to toe. Her hips were now fully off the bed, back arched painfully tense. More unintelligible Greek curses issued from her, sounding even ruder (if that were possible) than before. Rickie grinned at this, secretly impressed she had managed to so thoroughly dismantle the warrior's stoic facade. The sounds of the pillowcases beginning to loosen and tear quickly brought her back to the task at hand.
Rickie gauged the level of her lover's arousal against both the warrior's sagging strength and the growing cramp in her own neck, judging the first would likely overwhelm the second and, she hoped, not exacerbate the third too much further. This in mind, she committed a final assault against her captor's weak spot, diving in and bringing matters to a (literally) mind-blowing climax.
Xena was so completely robbed of breath she couldn't even sob, never mind scream, her entire being centered upon and draining out into the lips pressed into her. She consequently didn't hear the cloth encircling her wrists give a final rip as her nails and thrashing reduced both restraints to rags, tearing her hands free though they immediately gripped the headboard while the rest of her thrust outwards as if trying to fit its entire length between those perfect lips.
Long as it had taken her to reach that plateau where angels and demons wept in jealousy, long as she lingered there, suspended between everything and nothing, her fall into a reluctant if restful oblivion was quicker still. She was gone in an eyeblink, every inch of her relaxed and loose, even the shade of grin on her lips, unconscious.
"Whoa," Rickie muttered, stumbling slightly as she stood up, needing to lean against the bureau to regain her balance. "This is a first." Usually it was her getting knocked out by their love-making, generally the night before some killer exam or just after a term paper was written. She felt quite pleased with herself, going so far as to striking a 'beefcake' pose for a moment, before retreating to the WC. She had no idea how long Xena would be out, so she settled for a quick face-splash of cold water and gargle of Scope...after making sure to lick away as much of her warrior's essence as her tongue could reach, of course.
She grabbed her wallet, Passport, folder of traveler cheques, key-card, and the Streetwise map she'd wisely purchased before they'd left Portland. Stuffing them all in the appropriate pockets of her jeans and beloved leather jacket, she paused only long enough to write a simple message on the memo pad by the bedside clock. Placing the folded note in plain sight, Rickie gave her reclining lover a long, lingering look, debating hard whether to follow through with this.
Xena presented a most tempting sight, reminding her of a painting somewhere, some beautiful rendition of the female form from the Renaissance with an unpronounceable title in Italian. Tempting as she looked, there was a city out there she'd had no chance to explore yet. And it was Sunday, already! They'd be gone in two days, for god's sake.
Hard a debate as it was, it was over in only seconds, the click of the suite's door closing and locking behind her ending it.
She was in the lobby before she fully realized what she'd just done, feeling at once giddy and apprehensive. She gave a message to the nice young manager behind the front desk, who nodded and dutifully wrote it down, and was out the door and into the pre-noon sunlight. She smiled widely into the fresh air, slipping on her mirrorshades and quickly crossing the street, ready to loose herself in the beckoning city.
"Oh, fuck me!" A cup of coffee, with generous amounts of creamer and sugar, did not make the best fertilizer for either trees or grass. Enzo Del Turo however was too much in shock at the sight across the street to care about his unintentional littering of the park, the cup slipping from momentarily nerveless fingers. He watched, aghast, as the small blonde hurried across Kensington Street and entered the park grounds, ambling along paved walk of the Ring, then turning onto Serpentine Road, soon disappearing into the Sunday morning crowds.
She was out of sight for the whole of a minute before he remembered his purpose for being there. Cursing himself blue, he quickly pulled his cell phone out and hit the speed-dial. The cellular services were likely making a killing off this, he thought as he waited, impatient, for the connection to be made.
When it was, he took a deep breath and said "Its Enzo..."
"Hi-ya, Unca," a too-cheery voice answered.
Ah, shite! Enzo took another deep breath, then continued in a calmer tone. "Hullo, Sunnglebug. Your da home?"
"Yah." The girl's voice dropped to a conspiratorial tone. "He's been drinkin' coffee today!"
""Could you put him on, please? Its important."
"Okay!" Enzo flinched at the sound of the receiver being dropped carelessly to the floor and the shouted declaration of "DA? UNCA ENZO WANTS YA! SEEZ ITS IM-POR-TAN!"
Enzo flinched again as Jonothan O'Donhugh growled into his ear. "Please tell me this is important!"
Closing his eyes, he said "I just watched the girl exit the hotel and head into the park, alone." The sound of a hurricane's worth of air being breathed in, held, then slowly exhaled was the only immediate response. This was repeated before Enzo dared ask "Jono? You there?"
"Yes. Yes, I'm still here. Bloody hell." The last was spat with a cobra's hiss. "So much for eternal love, eh?"
"You want me to follow her?"
Silence reigned for a moment, broken by another hissed curse. "She's going to bloody kill her. No, you stay with the warrior. I want to know if any of Devon's boys make another play for her."
"What if they move for the girl?"
"Leave that to me."
Enzo felt an immediate stab of anxiety at those words. His cousin was not one to leave much to chance, and he found himself wondering to what degree exactly events thus far unfolded purely on their own, how much further they followed some design he himself was not privy to.
He could only stand there, watching the late-morning crowds gather to hear the hawkers and Sunday speeches, eyes searching for any sign of reddish-blonde hair. "Oh, to hell with this!' Enzo snarled after a moment, starting off after the small blonde.
He consequently missed the limousine that cruised across the street directly before him. The passenger's window lowering an inch and revealing dark, intense eyes which stared first at him, then wandered towards the crowd, narrowing dangerously as they did.
The limo sped up and went on its way as Enzo looked back to the hotel one last time, his eyes once more fixed on the third-story window. He could simply imagine the window breaking under the assault of thrown furniture and an Immortal's rage, both sure to come, and soon.
He stepped up his pace into the crowds, and was soon lost.
Rickie Gardner fancied herself the cosmopolitan sort, having seen more than her share of the world since running away from that white picket fence of a hellhole she'd grown up in South Dakota. True, she'd traveled even more with Xena in the past year, and had more than a few eye-popping experiences of her own as a result. Despite all this, she felt completely out of place amid the crowds gathered along the Serpentine and thickening as she walked Park Lane and rounded Speaker's Corner.
It was a rather long walk, and the sheer number of people made maneuvering a bit difficult. Kids had their model sailboats out on the pond, some having impromptu races between them, consequently making moving obstacles to be dodged carefully. There were plenty of elderly as well, slow moving but mostly keeping to the fringes. Knots of family and friends ambled along together or apart, enjoying the scenery of the park, both natural and human. The wide green was so expansive to Rickie's eye as to leave her humbled and dizzy. She grinned and kept walking, promising herself she'd get Xena out there before they left.
Sundays in Hyde Park are special, as the righteous and vocal come out in force to the northeast tip of the park (dubbed Speaker's Corner), climb atop milk crates and lambaste any and all who might stop and listen. The majority simply recited their favorite passages from Revelation or Daniel, warning of rains of brimstone and fire, and promising the kingdom of heaven for the Saved, capital "S" that is. A few railed against "black-arsed foreign trash clogging the streets" and the evils of the "Labour-Socialist traitors" in power. Rickie caught sight of a few skinheads listening to these diatribes with rapt looks and bright eyes, hearing everything they wanted to and eating it up with a spoon.
By and large, however, the crowds were more amused than anything, most lingering for only a moment or two before moving on to either the food vendors or to grab one of the folding chairs from nearby piles and setting it out on the greens. The British government, whatever party was in power, always made sure the Queen's subjects were provided their little conveniences for a peaceful afternoon in the park.
The morning was nearly done, and so the speakers were starting to drift away. Rickie wandered past a bespectacled woman holding aloft crude cross looking as tall as herself and flanked by four grim-looking young men. The woman was calmly declaring the coming of Jesus and the fall of the Devil, one or two of her shrinking audience calling out "Jay-sus!" in tandem with the woman. Rickie watched for a moment, wondering where the woman kept her muscles, that cross of her's looking like no small weight. Giving a small shake of her head, she moved on, heading back west along the gravel causeway. The voices of the speakers soon faded, replaced by the occasional babble of passers by or children giggling at play. The odd pair of roller-bladers zipped past in the near distance, keeping to the paved walkways further in.
Rickie felt a welcome peace settle over her as she walked, the green of the lawns and the scattered trees giving rise of memories both ethereal and tangible. The previous Christmas spent in their cabin upstate...a small camp nestled deep in a forest near the seashore...
...Fishing in the Sound at dawn...an eel, then a fish, then another fish slapping her in the face, all thrown by someone who liked what she was doing entirely too much...
...Xena teaching her to drive the Mustang outside the city...a certain buttergold mare nearly tossing her off during her first riding lesson...
Scene after scene played across her mind, both familiar and strange. Such memories were distracting, however, and before she knew it Rickie found herself nearly at the opposite end of the park, looking down the Broad Walk near the Round Pond, Kensington Gardens just ahead of her. This left her in a bit of conundrum. Did she head south, back to the hotel and a likely argument with her certain-to-be irate warrior, or keep exploring the area?
She caught sight of the artist's booths along the Bayswater Road, grinning as she did.
Rickie walked the length of the booths, twice, before wondering she should break down and buy something. There were some airbrush works that looked good, painting shadowy scenes of a harem or of dolphins swimming in the depths. There were also very well done oils, mostly landscapes but with definite feeling behind them. One booth even had a sizable collection of pub signs, with names running from "The Elegant Pig" to "The Blunt Nail" to "The Ink Well", each with a colorful scene illustrating the title.
One of these signs caught her eye and held tight. "The Sword and Pen", written in looping calligraphy script, beneath which was a simple sword crossing an old-fashioned quill, their shafts literally wrapped around each other several times and forming a narrow "X". The two, rightly, should have seemed at odds, but instead looked almost like they were embracing each other, the very notion of which brought tears to her eyes. There was no reason such a thing should affect her so, yet before she knew it, Rickie was handing over a small handful of different colored pound notes and accepting the sign wrapped in brown paper.
Clutching her purchase, Rickie felt a mild headache coming on, not to mention her stomach lodging protest at being neglected. With a slightly distressed sigh, Rickie made her way back along Bayswater, crossing at the nearby intersection at Lancaster (careful to look left, then right, then left again at the large arrows stenciled on the pavement directed) and setting off to find the nearest pub. Damn things should have been thick as Starbucks back home, right?
So intent was she on this new mission of her's, Rickie completely missed the scene unfolding directly across the street from her, a tall man in leather trenchcoat speaking urgently with a couple of constables he'd waved over, showing them a small passport photo. Whatever was said between them sent the man moving quickly down the street...in the opposite direction from herself.
Nor did she have the least sense of the eyes raking over her some distance ahead. Why should she, when those eyes were hidden by the tinted windows of an approaching limousine, the car passing by without even a moments pause? Those same eyes didn't leave her, even as it drifted slowly around the corner onto Queensway Road.
Rickie knew nothing of these things, having eyes and thoughts for searching out sustenance alone.
The South Hyde Hotel, while small and obscure amid the five-star establishments of the area, retained a professional staff who kept to a precise schedule. Among its regulars, it was said there was more chance of the Compagnie International des Wagons-Lits - the Orient Express - being flagged down (such an earth-shaking event supposedly having happened only once in that line's long history; and even then, the Conductor acquiesced only because he was a staunch Catholic and Pope Leo XXIII found it necessary to personally speak to one of the passengers) than for the housekeeping staff of the South Hyde to miss so much as a speck of dust. Beginning at eleven every morning, the maids would quickly and systematically clean and re-dress the nine suites of the hotel, spending no more than twenty minutes on each. It was a source of singular pride for all concerned.
The afternoon of August 29th, 1999 would be a day long remembered by the hotel's staff, the housekeepers giving the three suites on the third floor a complete miss for that day. No blemish would mark their records, however, as the day manager himself wisely putting their lives above that of tradition and ordered them not to risk disturbing the singular guest on that floor.
There were excellent reasons for this, said guest having made all sorts of racket since 11:24 that morning. Between her screeching like an army of Banshees from the old country, followed by her equally loud declarations of "I will FUCKING kill her!", with the sound of overturned furniture and heavy objects impacting with the walls coming in perfect counterpoint, the guest in suite 6B was making her desire for privacy very clear.
Fortunately for the management, none of this could be heard on the lower floors. Indeed, the only reason any of the staff even knew of this particular guest's not-so-little tantrum was because the Weekend Manager himself, one George Pine, chose to personally check in on these very important visitors of theirs. His hand had been raised to start knocking, his salutations rehearsed to perfection in his head, right when the howling began. A veteran of the Troubles in neighboring Northern Ireland and certain covert actions never to be known by the wider public, George Pine immediately knew the only thing separating him from his eternal reward was a well constructed door of Canadian oak. He immediately backed away and sought out the maids, warning them away from the third floor.
A few of the maids braved both their superior's edict and their natural fears, approaching the forbidden door with understandable trepidation. They tried to keep their steps quiet as possible, their nerve nearly giving out at the guest's scream of "I'm going to goddamn hogtie her! I'll bury her in the fucking basement and...and...ARGH!"
The trio had only just reached the door when, as one, they thought better of the expedition and were prepared to sprint fast as their chubby legs could carry them in the opposite direction. All three squeaked like the three proverbial sight-impaired mice when the forbidden door suddenly swung open with far more force than its hinges should have rightly withstood. These were religious women, one and all, and so expected to see some bat-winged devil emerge, breathing fire and striking them dead with its eyes alone.
They froze like a trio of does caught in approaching headlights, equally dazzled, but by the lack of fire and blinding rage. In marked contrast to the vehemence of her screaming curses, the woman who stood before them wore only the unconcealed fear and half-blind panic. She looked no less formidable in her boots, black jeans and hunting jacket, but her eyes spoke of delicate control teetering over a well of despair, a wall erecting itself at the sight of her uninvited audience's presence.
Xena Amphipoulis pushed past the maids and made a beeline for the elevator. The three women stood there, shell-shocked for several beats, before their well-practiced professionalism took over and they moved into the abandoned room. No words passed between them as they navigated the wreckage of bedsheets, luggage, clothes, dishware, toiletries, and other sundry items. Each setting themselves to the task at hand, none even trying to examine what might have caused such destruction.
One of these dedicated housekeeping professionals found a small note amongst the wreckage, nearly lost among twisted bedsheets and mis-matched clothing. It might have been recognized as a clue, had she chosen to examine it closer. Rather she simply tossed it into the small trash bin they'd salvaged from the WC. It would have made little sense to them, this simple piece of hotel notepad, with a few scribbled lines of writing:
Went for a walk in the park. Needed some fresh air.
Don't worry, okay? Be back by lunchtime.
(picture of a Valentine heart)
Ironically, those very words left the addressee of the note utterly incapable of either remaining still or the least bit calm. She gamely suffered through a too-long elevator ride down to the ground floor, her fists all the while, clenching and unclenching into tight hammerheads, simply aching to pound themselves numb on the walls...or the useless staff...or whatever unfortunate creature might cross her path. She knew it was an irrational, pointless urge for bloodletting, born of a confusion of directionless anger and helpless rage directed everywhere save at a tangible target.
The desk manager nearly became such a target, speaking out as she stalked by. He was saved from a messy end only by virtue of his hastily spoken words. "Miss Amphipoulis? Miss Gardner left a message for you."
Xena took a single, desperately controlled breath, then turned and moved, rather stiffly, closer to the desk. "A message?" she growled, trying hard to keep from throttling the poor fool.
"Er, yes. Its right...ah, here it is." He was young, blonde, and wore glasses which tended creep down his nose, all of which combined to make him the sort of over-eager twit who could only grind on her nerves further. Xena rallied her frayed control and reigned in her temper sufficiently to take the folded note from his manicured grip.
She read the message with a clenched jaw, catching her tongue between her molars and biting down hard enough to keep herself from laughing.
Some space, please? I promise I'll look both ways before crossing the street.
Xena heard her voice muttering on its own accord. "You are in such trouble, Dreamer! I swear I'm gonna...!" She was furious once more, this time only slightly more with herself, at how predictable she'd allowed herself to become, than with the object of her earlier rage. A mental deluge of expletives aimed equally at herself and her absent bacchae. Blasted, stubborn, stupid, feather-brained, addle-assed...
This persisted for some time, her vocabulary in this respect quite wide from its millennia of experience. She navigated across the street and into the park almost entirely on instinct, her thoughts taken up by conjuring up the most obscure references that cast doubt upon the parentage of the gods themselves. Quick as she walked, however, it well past noon by the time she reached Speaker's Corner, both speakers and audiences having largely dispersed some time earlier.
Unsurprisingly, there was no sign of the missing Rickie. A thought occurred to her as she unknowingly traced Rickie's path towards the Gardens, and she quickly turned and headed in the opposite direction, sharp eyes searching out the nearest telephone box. Finding one near one of the entrances connecting Park Lane to park's border, one of those bulky affairs painted a tasteless cherry red that were among the more visible hold-overs from the 1960s, Xena pushed her way into it past a mangy-dressed youth with a dozen ear-rings and shaved head. She ignored his rude gestures and dialed the number, speaking quickly into the receiver so the shaking in her voice would have at least some cover.
She slammed the receiver back onto its cradle less than a minute later, disgust clearly writ across her face. "Well, that was fucking pointless!" she muttered aloud, the venom in the words enough to dissuade the trio of ratty football hoods, who'd been trailing her along the Serpentine and had marked her for a quick mugging, from approaching her further.
Xena knew they were there, and cared not one whit. She instead marshaling all her energies on finding her lost bacchae and getting her safely home...after lesson-reinforcing spanking, of course.
After a moment's contemplation, she headed back into the park, remembering there were several restaurants along the Serpentine. Knowing her bacchae as she did, the girl was absolutely, positively certain to be at one of them, right?
Xena set off, her course and purpose clear, completely missing how a harried-looking man in leather trenchcoat darted about the lane behind her.
An answering machine's recorded message.
"Hullo. Yui've reached the office of Gwen Camlaan. Please leave your name and brief message, and I'll return yuir call as soon as possible, if not sooner."
Voice obscured by static. "Gwen...its Xe...eet you...house...Essex...shite!..."
Connection cut. Dial tone.
The rest of Xena's morning went from one of anxiety to one of escalating/alternating terror and rage. She'd jogged between the restaurants, annoyed the waiters with quick, urgent descriptions of Rickie, only to be turned away disappointed. She actually come close to physical violence a few times, the coolly polite and indifferent attitudes she encountered grating her already raw nerves to the breaking point; if she couldn't hit the visions that so disquieted her sleep (part of her outburst at awaking was thanks to Jeanne's voice cackling in her ear again), she could damn well repay these idiot's 'manners'.
She'd nevertheless restrained herself, but only with significant effort and remembering at the last instant the entire point of this exercise; the logical part of her managing to reason out how she'd be unable to find Rickie if locked away on the Isle of White. For all she knew, the warrants Scotland Yard had sworn out in '68 and '70 were still valid, and yet another round with the good Inspector Hopper couldn't help her comparative invisibility any.
So she'd gritted her teeth, thanked those she talked to, and moved throughout the park with fists clenched and shoulders hunched against a nonexistent wind. All the while her mind raced, alternately between watching everything and everyone moving about her and her many nightmares, both sleeping and waking. Ultimately, this all merged into a single mind-numbing mosaic that threatened to send her over the edge into total despair.
At some point in her wanderings, Xena found herself half-slumped over the short bridge over the Serpentine, staring down at her distorted reflection. Children's sailboats bobbed and raced within the man-made lake, making waves and distorting her reflection further. All the same there was something actually soothing about the sight, the flow of the waves at once chaotic and rhythmic, which if not entirely calming the warrior's otherwise troubled mind, at least giving her thoughts some semblance of order.
She realized she was doing Rickie something of an injustice. The girl had, after all, survived on the rough streets of Portland, alone, for nearly three years. And, appearances to the contrary, she was more than capable of handling herself physically; she'd proven as much in Munich. Surely she had enough sense of self-preservation to keep her wits about her in crowds, and certainly not to go jumping into cars with perfect strangers. The thought gave her pause for just a moment, uncertain where it came from and unsettled by the implication, only to brush it aside as she pushed herself upright off the bridge's railing.
Rickie said she'd be back, evidentially expecting Xena to be waiting for her when she returned. And given her reaction to finding Xena missing on Wednesday morning, to say nothing of the emotional stress they'd both been under the past several days, it was probably in her best interests not to let her bacchae be disappointed, ever.
Resolute as she was in this, Xena felt herself suddenly tense, the hairs on her neck standing at attention in telltale warning. Centuries of instinct and still more of practice had sharpened her very nerves to being aware of even the most passing interest upon her. Going by the reactions those same instincts now invoked, from the chill settling across her skin to her breath shortening to her heart racing for a moment before calming again, she was not under immediate threat, but nor was she entirely safe. A lifetime of war, both individually and against whole nations, taught one "safety" is a very, very relative term.
Xena stuck both hands into her jacket pockets, eyes gazing about more calmly now, long legs carrying her across the bridge and Serpentine Road, soon delivering her unto the flat expanse of the park's green. At first brush, she might have been one of artist or latter-day bohemians who frequented the park during the day, as marked by her odd choices of clothing and dreamy gait. As she walked, she would tilt her head back to gaze skyward from time to time, not looking the least bit hurried or concerned with the world about her.
The exact opposite, in fact, was the case. Her hearing caught every brush of grass against her boots, every snicker and catcall children passed between them in the distance...and every soft footfall mirroring her own. She reached out with other, less defined senses and simply felt the presence trailing behind her. Xena knew she'd likely need whatever this clown could tell her before she could indulge in any fun, resisting the urge to turn and tear him/her/whatever limb from limb.
Rather she continued along the well-trod path ahead of them, keeping a careful ear on the figure behind her, and all the while generally letting the calm of the field and sky settle over her. The sort of calm always preceding the storm.
Xena let the tempest build within her, though slowly; each step forward adding another puff of dark cloud to her mind, every rustle of grass underfoot a clap of thunder embarrassing Zeus' handiwork. It became an almost unbearable tension within her, worse then the few times Rickie had gotten the better of her in bed and dangled her on the orgasmic precipice for hours on end. Now, like then, she was patient, knowing release and satisfaction would be her's soon enough.
Eventually, whether a minute or an hour later after wandering deep into the green, Xena chose her moment. Only a few bystanders, and none anywhere near close enough to hear what was sure to come. She paused, even as the footsteps continued on behind her, something about their rapidly closing on her striking her odd. Despite this, the warrior kept her relaxed pose to the last possible moment, letting all the tension and rage well up within her into a single, solid mass, poised to fire in a single devastating volley.
The moment came, Xena spinning and arms coming up, her expression twisting to one pure hate and lips drawn back, ready to unleash it all in a snarl befitting the most enraged and ravenous predator...only for her arms to fall back to her sides...and her face unclench into a look of utter disbelief...all occurring beyond her ability to force them otherwise...
No assassin stood behind her, nor any mechanism of death waiting to greet her...unless one counted the soulful, intelligent eyes of an adult Irish Wolfhound as lethal weapons.
The dog had itself paused in its approach of her when she'd spun in confrontation, resuming its casual toddling over to her and sticking its long muzzle at her hand, still clenched as it was a tight fist. A few seconds of sniffing the limb, followed by a few more of licking the hand in gesture of blatant affection, the Wolfhound backed up a step and promptly launched itself upwards at her, hooking its forepaws over her shoulders and all but shoving its large muzzle at her face. Xena was promptly treated to a close examination by the Wolfhound's tongue, which painted her face and neck with great enthusiasm.
Xena, however, was quick to regain her balance, both spatially and mentally. "Okay, okay. Down, you. I said down!" The Wolfhound did as bade, sitting back on its haunches and cocking its massive head to one side, giving the warrior the equivalent of big doggie grin. Xena gave the animal a suspicious look and asked "Have you been following me for the past two miles?"
An enthusiastic bark was her answer, followed by an even wider grin.
Xena simply shook her head. "I must be getting old," she muttered as she knelt before the dog. "So what're you doing out here, all on your lonesome? Hmm?" Reaching out, slowly and carefully so not to startle the large animal, Xena stroked the dog's chin and around its neck. She quickly found its collar, slightly relieved to feel the tags which indicating this miniature elephant was not in fact a stray. Repositioning herself to get a better look at the tags, Xena as stymied by the Wolfhound deciding to nuzzle her face some more, sticking its large nose under her chin and nearly knocking Xena completely over.
"Cool it, you," she growled, managing to keep her balance but loosing her grip on the tags. Trying again, only to have the Wolfhound repeated the process, dislodging her from her search once again and this time actually knocking her flat.
"Y'know," Xena growled, pushing herself upright and standing. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you were trying to keep me from finding out stuff here." The dog simply continued looking at her, eyes sparkling with the canine equivalent of delight. "Nothing to say for yourself, huh? Okay, I'm gonna try one more time, so don't even think about getting in my way here, got it? I'm not in the mood." The Wolfhound kept a close eye on her as she knelt down and reached for the tags once more.
Her fingertips only just brushed against the dogtags when a whisper of a wistle sang out across the field. The Wolfhound's ears immediately perked up, head cocking towards the sound. The whistle sounded out again and, before Xena even realized she'd heard it, the dog knocked her flat as it took off across the field. The warrior landed without much dignity on her rump, snarling as she did, though there was laughter there as well.
"Oh, verrrry funny, you..." She stood and brushed herself down, looking for which way the dog had run. Oddly, there was no sign of it, anywhere. Were it not for her face still being damp from gods knew how many doggy kisses, she might have thought the dog was nothing more than a mirage.
Something about the entire episode left her unsettled. Questions without answers rose in her mind. Why would the dog choose to follow her of all people? Why wouldn't it let her look at its tags? Did it get separated from its owners? Would it bite small children? Who in their right mind even owns a Wolfhound in the city these days? The breed was entirely too large for city life as it was, Wolfhounds needing lots of open space to roam around in to stay healthy.
Shaking her head free of such pointless meanderings, Xena set back off the way she'd come. If she were lucky, she'd make it back to the hotel before Rickie, and be spared another of her baachae's stinging tirades.
Sighing, mentally bracing herself for the inevitable confrontation, Xena stuck her hands back into pockets and walked away, the splendor of the grass and sky overhead going unnoticed.
Morgan the Wolfhound happily bound back into the waiting arms of her mistress, careful not to knock the smaller woman over and eagerly painter her dark face with enthusiastic kisses. "Were you a good girl there, love?" she was asked, Morgan barking happily and squirming deep into the arms hugging her.
The dog came of a long and noble line of her breed, one long associated with noble houses since her ancestor had been moved from Scotland to London in the late 1880s by a distant cousin to the Queen and her secretary. Generations of careful breeding had not diminished the intelligence or energy of the line any, as exemplified by her cheerful barking answers to each question her mistress posed. Morgan liked talking with her mistress, though she preferred the games the little mistress played with her and her pups back in the countryside. The city was so very confining for her energetic nature, even with the little mistress nearby.
This noisy frenzy of canine affection was all but ignored by Enzo Del Turo, who stood nearby and kept the retreating form of the warrior in sight through the telescopic lens of his camera. He'd snapped off a few pictures of the dog tormenting the warrior, knowing that his niece would enjoy the sight. Without so much as a glance at the dog and its mistress, he began walking down Park Lane, pacing himself so the warrior would reach Kensington first.
Behind him, Morgan had toddled off with her mistress, amiably looking for more victims to have scratch her nose or ears.
By the time he'd reached his usual spot, having dismantled the camera en-route and stashed the pieces away into various pockets, Enzo was immediately treated to yet another heart-stopping sight as he took up position. He'd stood there for no more than half-minute when Xena Amphioulis came charging back out the front door, clutching a slip of paper and waving like a madwoman into the eastbound traffic. He read her body language as clearly as ever; this was a woman hovering on the edge of hysteria.
Her efforts were quickly rewarded, several taxis nearly colliding in an effort to pick her up. She was soon safely ensconced in the taxi fortunate enough to reach her, the hearselike vehicle speeding away down Kensington and out of sight.
Enzo watched all this from a distance, feeling ill and dizzy from the sight, his stomach rebelling against the thought of more chasing about to seemingly no purpose. By some nod of the Fates, the paper she'd been clutching like a life-line had somehow slipped her grasp as she'd been waving for the taxis, the wind and currents generated by passing cars carrying it to land directly at his feet. More out of perverse curiosity than any real interest (it had been a very long week, and he'd long lost track of why he was engaged in this exercise), Enzo bent down and unfolded that paper.
After staring at it for a moment or two, he fished out his cell phone and hit the autodial. "Its Enzo. Is...?" He listened, brow crinkling in concern. "Well where the hell is he? Look, leave him a message. Tell him our favorite ladies have gone off to Essex. I'm catching the next train out of Liverpool Station, whether he likes it not!" He stabbed the 'power' button and moved to the curb to hail his own taxi, unconsciously stowing the note into his pocket.
The neat, handwritten note which had said:
Phone message to Xena Amphipoulis; 29 Aug., 1:22 pm.
From Rickie Gardner.
Xena-race you to the country house. Luv, me.
(picture of a smiley face)
He was long gone when, barely half an hour later, a familiar limousine came to a halt before the South Hyde Hotel, its sole, blonde haired passenger disembarking and quickly entering the hotel.
The chime of an answering machine.
"Hullo? Xena? You there yet? Its Gwen. Lissen, I'm caught up here on the freeway with a flat. I'll be at the house by this evening. Love to Rickie. Cheers."
It had been commented, on more than one occasion and by more than one observer, how there were few things more ravenous and insatiable as Rickie's appetite for food. Ironically, this short list consisted solely of black holes in deep space, Rickie's appetite for certain activities generally confined to the bedroom (though more often than not undertaken on any reasonably flat surface whenever the opportunity presented itself), and her intense curiosity of the world at large. It was the latter which was now in full force, carrying the young woman from the Marble Arch at the busy corner of Bayswater and Oxford Street along to the automotive chaos of Oxford Circus.
Her hunger was temporarily forgotten as she merged with the cosmopolitan crowds of London. The sight of dusky-skinned Indians, the men with their colored turbans and the women in their saris, side-by-side with heavily robed Muslim women pushing strollers left her momentarily disorientated, awash once more in sights of another life. The blaring music from the Blaster of a nearby trio of spiky-haired punks shook her out of it before clear pictures could form or be recalled. There were the requisite Oriental tourists ambling about, their cameras out of their bags and at the ready, and the famous double-decker buses contributing to the gridlock in both directions. It all left her wishing she'd had the foresight to have snagged one of the disposables they'd brought with them before running off.
Rickie was not so preoccupied with the mix of faces and clothes and colors that she forgot her promises to Xena. While she'd been resolute to limit her wandering to the park, the mix of colors and people just beyond its borders beckoned something deep within. She'd not been entirely absent-minded about, and true to her word she looked both ways, several times, before crossing a single intersection, always hurrying across and reaching the other side in under five strides. A feat, given her short stature. She thought it unlikely, if not impossible, that anyone could track her in these crowds. She'd also taken the basic precautions against pick-pockets, secreting her Passport, cheques, and wallet into pockets in her leather jacket, each zipped or closed tight. The late summer day was warm, but overcast and windy enough that the heavy jacket didn't prove too much.
Still, Rickie was glad she'd chosen to forgo a shirt or the like underneath, wearing only a close-fitting tank-top of dark green that made nice with both her hair and the jacket. She still clutched the pub sign, though her eyes roamed everywhere and over everything, trying to cache every nuance and detail in sight and wishing all the while she'd thought to bring a camera.
From a distance she looked like the stereotypical innocent abroad, with her bright and darting eyes and slow gait. Closer up, with her Dockers, well-worn jeans, and natural confidence in her stride she was every inch the modern nomad, merging easily with the crowds moving to and fro along Regency. By rights, she was all but invisible among the masses.
Which made the fact no less than three pairs of eyes were on her at any given time during her trek towards Piccadily all the more remarkable. That each were completely unaware of the others was the sort of cosmic irony only the gods might find humor in.
Unknowing as she was, Rickie continued along towards Piccadilly. No doubt she would have found it hilarious that even as she contemplated wasting money on a blatantly over-priced disposable Kodak from street vendor, a curly-haired youngster across the street was snapping pictures off of her every ten feet or so with a state-of-the-art Nokoia. He wasn't so conspicuous about it that he drew attention by this; between the camera bag slung on his shoulder and the way he seemed to take a shot at everything that moved, he might as well have been just another photography enthusiast historical cities like London often find themselves awash with.
Admittedly few, if any, such enthusiasts would find a wandering Yank tourist even remotely interesting enough to snap off two shots of, never mind no less than thirty-nine in half as many minutes. But then, even fewer would have the circular tattoo of the Watcher Society on the inside of their left wrist.
The youngster knew he was technically in violation of a recent edict, handed down from on high, concerning a certain Greek immortal. "No Watcher is to undertake any surveillance, direct or indirect, of Xena Amphipoulis or to make any move to approaching her or those near her." It was a rather frustrating restriction to be put under, made all the moreso given the stories circulating about how she'd nearly killed two Watchers while in Germany last year. Frustrating, because it was so damn practical and absolutely couldn't be argued with. He'd recognized Rickie almost immediately, and was careful to follow her only indirectly, watching for the least sign of her lover. If he was lucky, he'd manage to get a shot of Xena Amphipoulis herself before having to hop it.
That his already elevated frustration literally skyrocketed was perfectly understandable when the girl all but disappeared from sight several minutes later. He'd looked about, keeping a careful eye out for her, only to come away empty handed. Developments like this were less than welcome, and he was not looking at all forward to the phone call he'd have to make now.
A second pair of eyes belonged to a young woman, rather close to Rickie's own age, her mousy hair pulled back into a severe ponytail and face scrubbed clean of any make-up. She was dressed casually and her arms filled with shopping bags from her afternoon's excursion. Her name was Alicia Dunbarr, an employee at one of the underground clubs in Soho, and had quickly convinced herself she could not have just seen one of her employers wandering along Regents Street dressed like a complete commoner. Her interest consequently was cursory at best, and she hurried on her way, occasionally looking back for the any glimpse that might confirm this certainty of her's, each time without success.
The third set of eyes widened in a combination of surprise and momentary panic. The face behind them was a distinguished one, if a tad darting and arrogant in expression, with a thin mane of dark hair swept back from his straight forehead which made his whole face seemed sharper and narrower. The man had just exited his offices, having collected some paperwork he'd left behind, and was attempting to hail a taxi when he'd caught sight of Rickie ambling past on the opposite side of the street.
Panic gripped him for the whole of perhaps a minute, shaking him ever so slightly as he scanned the crowds for any sign of a taller figure with raven hair and piercing blue eyes. Seeing none, his lips pressed into a thin line of anger, equally with himself as with his nominal allies. If there was one thing Alexander Devon, Solicitor and conspirator par excellence, prided himself on, it was his unflappable nature. He prided himself equally on his ability to out-maneuver his opponents, knowing them and their movements well enough to beat them to any punch...and damned if he'd be caught off-guard by these two!
His fury sufficiently stoked, Devon turned and stalked back up to his offices, mentally composing diatribes that would shake even the Devil's confidence, never mind those of a cheap hood the likes of Matthew Price.
Rickie, as already noted, was completely innocent to the flurry of activity her presence caused, busy as she was absorbing all she could of the sights and noises of London. One sound in particular seemed to stand out: the constant beeping of car horns. To Rickie's mind, it was almost poetic justice: the Brits gave the Americas language and culture, and in return got McDonalds (she'd passed five so far) and gridlock. Perfect justice as far as she was concerned.
Not surprisingly, the beeping actually seemed to get worse as she approached Piccadilly Circus, as did the sheer number of cars and trucks. Noisy and irritating as it was, she was nevertheless brought up short from the corner of the Circus by a particularly persistent horn blaring at her back. Uncertain whether she was simply letting the excitement and sounds get to her, Rickie turned around, fully expecting to see some truck (What did they call them over here? Lorries?) trying to bully its way past a few undersized Vee-Double-Yous.
She certainly wasn't expecting a sharp-looking limousine shadowing her, its horn sounding off at rapid intervals and its driver clearly waving towards her. She didn't recognize either, and was preparing to take her chances trying to sprint across Piccadilly Street when a vaguely familiar voice stopped her. "Miss Gardiner?"
Rickie somewhat reluctantly turned back, surprised to see Manfred Emanuel Armistead's dark face staring at her out of the limo's window. His expressive eyes caught her full on, all but begging her to spare him a minute. She considered refusing, the sudden urge to see and hold her warrior gripping her once more, but only for a moment. Feeling bold, she stood her ground and waited to see what he would do next.
The limo coasted to halt nearby, so Armistead could speak without having to shout, or so the driver evidentially presumed. Car horns galore registered their own drivers protests at having to swerve around the idling car, forcing the banker to raise his voice anyway. He came straight to the point, declaring "I have some information for you and your Miss Amphipoulis."
"Yeah?" she called back, not willing to make it easy for him.
"Concerning your, or rather her lost property."
Rickie was moving before she fully realized it, eyes blinking in near disbelief of what her ears had heard, climbing into the limo and letting herself be sped off without a word of protest. She had eyes for Armistead alone, who met her hard stare head on. He was wearing a suit of dark blue, with a gray shirt and immaculately knotted necktie of black silk, and so seemed to partially disappear into the dark leathered interior. The reality of her situation quickly dawned on her, and Rickie soon was mentally kicking herself for letting herself be so easily led into what could only be a trap. She was amazed at how calm her voice was as she growled "I hope you realize that if anything, anything should happen to me, Xena will hunt you down like a dog."
Armistead seemed completely nonplussed. He even grinned a little, flashing his bright teeth and saying "I expect as much, Miss Gardener. But you may rest assured I have no such intentions towards you or your Miss Amphipoulis." Rickie, in defiance of all reason, found herself reassured by this. Wasn't that what the bad guys always said, right before they had their cronies put a bullet in your brain?
She glanced over her shoulder, half-expecting the driver to be leaning around with a gun. All that met her was a partition of dark glass, her reflection giving her a look somewhere between was resignation and mild panic.
Rickie looked back to Armistead, hoping she'd managed to school her expression one back to calm indifference. At least her voice came out calm as she asked "So where are we going, anyway?"
"My club along the Embankment. I thought we should have a bit of privacy in our discussions. The food is not all that bad either." Rickie's stomach made its agreement with the sentiment known, quite loudly. Armistead flashed another quick grin before turning to a number of well-stuffed flimsies on the seat beside him. Rickie herself settled back and tried to relax, occupying her mind with trying to recall just where the Embankment was according to the maps she'd glanced at. Wasn't it a garden or something near the Thames?
She was still trying to puzzle this out when the limo came to a stop only minutes later. Armistead exited first and gallantly held the door open for her, earning a polite "Thank you" for the effort. Rickie took a few seconds to examine their surroundings. To their right, facing the mighty Thames was the expanse of flat green composing of the Victoria Embankment Gardens, while to the left was a row of stately looking mansions and townhouses. Armistead directed her towards one of the oldest-looking buildings, a three-story Victorian mansion surrounded by a wrought-iron fence with low gate. Not knowing what else to do, Rickie followed in his wake, again oddly comforted by his presence.
The doorman, the archtypical scarecrow of a man clad in last centuries' finery, greeted them without cracking his sour non-expression in the least. If he was coureous to Armistead, he was downright icy towards Rickie, whether because of her less-than-formal dress, her gender, or just because she'd deemed to disturb his little world was impossible to tell. "May I take your jacket, miss?" the doorman asked, manners impeccable.
"No, you may not." Armistead replied as he moved past, Rickie smartly tailing behind, though she couldn't keep from jumping at the door shutting behind them with a resounding THUD.
Outside, further down Savoy Street, Jonothan O'Donhugh watched the door close. His eyes blazed, though this didn't reach the rest of his carefully schooled non-expression. He waited only a moment more, satisfied neither were exiting the building, then turned on his heel and stalked off.
Rickie sat in the ornate dinning room, pretending to study the menu set before her and trying hard not to look all around like the rank tourist she looked like. Armistead did likewise, giving the occasional withering glare to any of the staff or their fellow diners he caught giving the merest hint of disapproval towards them. This happened far more often than either realized, though Rickie was too engrossed in finding something on the menu that she could simply pronounce, never mind possibly stomach, while Armistead silently debated which vintage of Masquel to order.
The Marlow Club wasn't among the oldest or most exclusive in London. Founded amid the ruins of postwar London in 1946, the club was initially little more than a watering hole (in the most ironic sense of the phrase, the basement constantly flooding with foul water and gods knew what else from sewer overflows) for officers and senior enlisted in the Royal Army. Its patrons slowly rebuilt first the building, then built its reputation through its offerings of the finest liquors the black market could procure. Titled families, their fortunes lost to the Blitz other depravations of the war, soon found their way through its doors, giving the place much-sought respectability. By the late '70s, on the eve of Thatcher's reign, the Club's membership contained many of the cream of the city's financial and commercial crop, with all the attendant snobbery such personalities bring with them.
The sort who took a poor view of intruders treading as freely within their hallowed halls as Rickie was right then.
For her part, Rickie eventually settled on a steak sandwich, the promise of well spiced chips clinching the deal it as much as Armistead's suggestion, while her host ordered some pasta dish with a tongue-twister of a name. She forewent the offer of a fine (and rare) vintage of Merlot and ordered ginger ale, much to the masked horror of the waiter. Armistead smirked at this, and settled back to wait of their food.
The order came quickly enough, Rickie restraining herself rather admirable during the wait...and not leaping over the table and choking the answers she wanted out of her host. Armistead seemed to sense this, apparently more amused than anything despite his not saying a word. Rickie took a bite of her sandwich, while Armistead expertly twirled his sauce-covered noodles with folk and spoon, the former's eyes not leaving the latter for an instant.
Another bite and more noodles later, Armistead took a long sip of his wine and with great politeness said "Why don't you simply ask me what it is that is on your mind, Miss Gardener."
Rickie, who was fighting a pitched battle with herself against actually liking this individual, gave him a glaring look and said "Okay. You said you had information about the Chakrum. Let's have it." It wasn't a question, and she'd put as much of an edge to her voice as she could manage.
Armistead gave a nod to himself, looking momentarily into the distance, as though debating his next words. He said "I've come across a rather interesting fact concerning the artifact." At Rickie's unimpressed silence, he continued. "It seems a number of licenses and certificates were prepared the day following the auction for an object fitting the description of the Chakrum to a "T", with each piece of paper naming one Xena G. Amphipoulis as the item's owner." Armistead leaned forward slightly, not terribly intimidating but not all that friendly either. "You can understand how such things might pique one's...interest?"
"And that of the police?" Rickie said, matching his pseudo-glare and tone perfectly.
Armistead's grin was infuriating as his reply. "Only if one felt it proved necessary to bring them into it, I'm sure."
"Oh, of course, only if one felt so." Rickie heard the unfamiliar sharpness to her voice now, one that reminded her uncomfortably of her so-called mother whenever her 'nasty bitch' persona would rear its ugly head. She would take the same tone with Rickie or the senior Gardner whenever either of them would dare contradict her on the smallest item, be it three cents missing from her change purse to whether rain was coming or not.
The arrival of the waiter, who'd come over ostensibly to refill their water glasses, in reality prompted to do so by the quiet complaints of several of the restaurant's other patrons, led to a cease-fire between them. Verbal hostilities ceased by mutual though unspoken agreement and the combatants returning to their respective meals. The silence between them continued, even when the waiter was long gone and the rest of the patrons found new subjects to interest them.
Rickie quickly finished her sandwich but lingered over the thick-cut wedges of fried potatoes, enjoying the flavor and idly wondering how they got to be called 'chips'. This was hardly the only thought running through her mind at that moment, of course, several of them bumping into each other and making quite a bit of racket up there; not that she was about to let her nominal host get any hint of her mental discomfort.
Armistead was evidentially as uncomfortable with letting the silence stretch too long between them. He quickly downed the remainder of his pasta and cleared his throat. Rickie answered with an upraised pair of eyebrows and a look of boredom. She had no idea why Armistead, who out-massed her by a good two hundred pounds, none of it idle bulk either, suddenly seemed so uncomfortable, but damned if she was going to waste the opportunity.
In fact, Armistead was anything but discomforted, at least in any way that involved the small blonde across from him. This move had been wholly spontaneous, as opposed to the carefully planned sort he preferred. News had come to him of the girl's accident in Bayswater three days ago, but entirely by second-hand and without so much as a whisper from his siblings. Even the normally voluble Marie, his co-conspirator in surprising their unflappable elder sibling, heard only the most passing rumor of it.
Then came news that it had been no accident, and still he was kept in the dark by those who should have known better. It prompted him to take action the instant he'd seen the girl wandering the streets like a bloody tourist, getting her off the street and away from the crowds. He really didn't have any idea what he could say of offer that might keep the girl close by and out of immediate danger. He was not a man who flustered easily, and so wasn't well practiced in improvisation, uncomfortable when forced to do so. He knew it showed, which only flustered him more.
Whatever he might have attempted was rendered moot by the arrival of a third voice, one he knew and disliked on every conceivable level, professional to personal. "Forgive me, Emmanuel, but may I join you for a moment?" Armistead pursed his lips and nodded, unable to think of a decent reason against it. Alexander Devon slipped into the chair placed for him by their ever-attentive waiter, his suit and tie as immaculate as ever and a thin smile on his lips. Armistead refused to dignify his presence by so much as meeting his eyes, never mind acknowledge him in greeting.
Devon turned this smile upon Rickie after a moment, not so politely raking his pale gray eyes over her and purring "And you are...?"
"Miss Gardner, of the United States." Armistead rumbled in a low tone, the sort reminding one of an earthquake or the moments before an volcano's eruption.
Eyes still on Rickie, Devon murmured "Please forgive the intrusion, Miss-Gardner-of-the-United-States. I'm afraid I have some urgent business with Emmanuel here." He turned over to Armistead, who's eyes were still fixed upon his empty plate. "Very urgent business," he added for emphasis, his intensity deflating slightly when met with Armistead's own dark eyes, now dangerous and direct.
"So important it cannot wait until tomorrow?" The blistering tone within the question was enough to peel flesh from bone, though Devon stood his ground, albeit poorly.
"Would I bother you with trifles?" the solicitor asked, a hurt look covering his moment of panic.
"Yes, you would." Armistead took mercy on his long time irritation and looked back to Rickie. "Do forgive this, Miss Gardner. I feel I should hear what Mr. Devon here has to say. My driver will see you back to your hotel."
Rickie however refused to be dismissed so easily. "About the matter we were discussing, Mr. Armistead...?" An upraised hand stopped her.
"I and Ms. de Anan are satisfied on that score. You will hear no more of it from ourselves or the gallery." This, needless to say, left Rickie rather confused and uncertain. She didn't really want to leave things this way, not when there were still umpteen number of questions to be answered. Problem was, she couldn't think of a single one that sounded even halfway coherent, and she really didn't like the vibes that were being exchanged between these two. Never mind the fact she was several hours overdue back at the hotel, part of her cringing at the thought of what Xena must have been going through throughout the morning. This was balanced by a sense of mildly twisted satisfaction that at least now her warrior was getting a taste of the same terror she had been put through a few days back.
The look Armistead flashed her way, judiciously sent when Mister 'Smarmy' Devon was busy fiddling with his briefcase, convinced her some conversations were better saved for another day. A sentiment she couldn't really argue. She quickly rose and snagged her jacket from the back of the chair where she'd draped it; she'd done it as much for the shock value as for practicality, her green tank-top showing off her abs quite nicely, thank you very much. She was hardly opposed to adding some color to the place or generating a bit of extra conversation, and if it unsettled the delicate nerves of the locals, well, that suited her just fine, too.
She gave her host a final look, one clearly saying "This ain't over!", before turning on her booted heel and marching away, head high and back straight.
She knew Armistead's eyes were not the only ones on her as she left.
True to his word, Armistead's limo was waiting for her at the entrance. The doorman, stiff and formal as ever, was clearly relieved by her departure even as his eyebrows raised a hair as she climbed back into the luxury car as casually is if she owned it. Rickie didn't look back, save when she caught a bit of movement out of the corner of her eye as they pulled away. There was figure watching from across the small park opposite the club, solitary and still. Rickie squinted hard, trying to discern any details of him (she was sure of the gender if nothing else), seeing only dark hair and gray clothes. They were too far away for her to see more, even though she was sure there was more.
Then, he was gone, as if dispelled with just the blinking of her eye. Rickie felt a bit unsettled by this and sank back into the padded leather of the seat, its soft warmth not fully reaching her bones. She shuddered as an unexpected chill hit her, then relaxed as they merged with the anonymous traffic of the street.
The ride took a bit, thanks to jaywalkers and a few accidents that had slowed traffic around the familiar sight of the Marble Arch and further along Bayswater Street. The driver handled these obstacles with practiced ease, maneuvering the large car smoothly and bringing her to Kensington without a scratch.. Rickie thanked him as she got out, which he acknowledged with a short tilt of his capped head, watching through the rearview mirror.
Rickie waited a few beats after exiting, the hairs on her neck raising nervously. Checking her watch, which read barely quarter after three, she covertly looked this way and that for anything or anyone out of the ordinary. This quickly proved a fruitless task as everything looked odd and out of place to her, the cosmopolitan streets of Portland positively monochromatic compared to those of London.
Realizing how exposed she was just standing there, and how desperately she needed to see Xena right then, Rickie hurried up the short flight of steps and into the hotel. She gave the desk manager, a serious-looking young woman with her sandy hair in a bun, a polite if distracted nod as she quickly headed to the elevators, and so completely missed the odd look the woman gave her. Her predecessor's shift had only just ended, doing so with his shaking account of giving their VIP guest (the one, he'd emphasized, who'd nearly torn suite 3B apart with her bare hands) a telephoned message from one 'Miss Rickie Gardner' that had sent the woman into yet another fit of screaming and tearing all about.
Rickie knew nothing of these things, of course, and so was more than a little disappointed at finding their room completely empty and perfectly prepared. She'd expected Xena to do at least a little damage to the place. Even their suitcases were neatly arranged as ever, and all evidence of their forty-eight hour hedonistic binge had been cleared completely away.
Settling on the bed, she thought for a moment about calling the front desk to see if Xena left a message, then decided against it, knowing too well Xena likely simply went tearing off into the streets without the least thought. She wasn't sure whether to annoyed or simply irritated with such behavior, knowing equally well it stemmed from her love's desire to protect her from all bad things in the world. It, quite frankly, drove her completely and utterly nuts, more on the principle of the thing than because she necessarily resented the thought behind it.
Propping herself back onto the pillows, Rickie brandished the remote for the TV and searched for something to help her pass the time until Xena's return. Nothing save the regular BBC fare, which did not help her temper in the least.
"Xena," she said to the empty room. "If you end up in another damn dungeon, I swear I'm going to kill you myself!"
Xena prowled through Liverpool rail station as caged panther might, shoulders hunched and head tossed from side to side. There was a wildness in her eyes, barely restrained, that lent further to the aura of danger swirling about her. She'd been there for the better part of afternoon, stalking between eateries and stores and trying desperately to rid herself of the sick feeling in her gut she was being led astray.
She'd been unable to catch the 4 o'clock local to Harwich, which would have delivered her within walking distance of their house outside of Colchester. This had left her with either waiting until the 7:30 regular was ready to leave, or taking an indirect route that would had given her the scenic tour of Oxford, then Birmingham, then left her somewhere in at least the vicinity of the town sometime after midnight. Despite the wait, Xena decided a direct line was preferable to spending hours on end as a prisoner of Britrail.
Xena was certain her reasoning was sound as to Rickie's location. Granted the note had not specified the Essex house, and she had properties in Scotland and that small fishing cabin just off the Irish coast that could have qualified as a 'country house'. She could not however recall ever mentioning them to Rickie, who'd shown on the most minimal interest in learning about her many, many resources. Even when Xena had told her she'd just become her sole beneficiary of her will, Rickie had given her a very steady look and a blistering warning: "Just make sure it doesn't come to that, got it?" They hadn't spoken about such matters since.
And so she was left to wander all about the causeways of the station and fight the knot of anxiety that was constantly tightening in her stomach. There was no way she could stand to sit still long enough to eat, drink or read a blessed thing. The mere thought of food made the stomach knot tighten dangerously, and she was sure any words she could try to read would twist themselves around and echo the one's Jeanne constantly whispered to her, night after night.
"Your whore pays for, Xena. Your whores always pay for you!"
Jeanne was soon joined in this refrain by a girl's voice, one she'd forever love and come to dread over the centuries, bringing with it all the shame of her greatest sin.
"Why did she have to die and not YOU?!"
It was all she could do not to throw up right there, in full view of several of London's finest. She managed to slow her heaving breath and walk with a semi-calm façade to the nearest WC, suddenly needing to visit the toilet rather badly.
The façade nearly cracked several times, the merest hint of blonde hair anywhere in sight, whether topping a male or female head, leaving her nauseous. The smallest hint of a familiar accent would be like the half-inch bit of an electric drill being driven into his ear-drum, the pain of it equaling the pounding headache her heartbeat was shaking her with.
Xena half-dashed, half-stumbled to the nearest empty stall and bent over it, though her only offering to the porcelain altar were harsh tears her tension left her awash with. She added dry, painful heaves for good measure, though these didn't last nearly as long as the tears. It hurt too much to move, while staying still proved almost unbearable.
She compromised with rocking back and forth in the stall for awhile, struggling to keep mental traction against the fears bubbling beneath her thoughts.
Some two hours later, first boarding was called for the 7:30 local to Harwich. Xena was the first one aboard, her impatience completely hidden behind an inflexible mask of calm.
"Gardner isn't in Essex, Enzo. She's still here."
Disbelief. "But...there was a note...oh, gods..."
"I doubt heavily they have anything to do with it."
"Don't beat yourself up too much, little brother. I'd have believed it myself."
"So why don't you?"
"Because I just saw Manfred take her to lunch."
"Absolutely not. The bard is the key here."
"You could've just told me this. Saved me a few headaches."
"Where's the fun that, eh?" Voices in the background. Dog barking. "Janie's back. Meet me at the Fat Pig in two hours."
Rickie growled and turned off the TV, seriously considering for a moment the urge to simply throw the remote at the idiot box, the only retribution she could think of for its crime of showing only the cardboard entertainment the BBC broadcast. This was in defiance of her edict she be entertained while awaiting the return of her errant warrior, and so this rebellious servant of her's deserved not the least pity or mercy.
Instead of enacting such terrible vengeance upon the hapless box of glass and wires, she flopped unto her back and blew an noisy exhale through her mouth. The ceiling proved no more entertaining than the rerun of "Eastenders" she'd just switched off, so she was soon back on her feet and began pacing. The room wasn't that large to begin with, which made her circuits rather tight and all the more tense.
If anything, this actually fed the nervous energy stretching her calf and hip muscles taunt, giving a spring to her steps which were anything but jovial. "Damn it, Xena!" she heard herself mutter, over and over. "Damn it, woman, where are you? So help me, if you landed in jail somewhere...or a dungeon...grrr...I swear...when you get back, I'm gonna hogtie to the bed...see if you can heal having your legs broken with a lead pipe...goddamn warrior...always running off..."
And so on and so forth, another curse accompanying each change in direction. Her conscience would occasionally prick at her for some of the more vehement curses, pointing out it had been her who had snuck out first, thereby effectively exonerating Xena of being completely in the wrong here. Rickie, ever the judicious tyrant when it came to such annoying facts, declared the facts irrelevant and the evidence as inadmissible and continued on with her cursing without so much as a pause for breath.
A thought occurred to her at one point; surely Xena couldn't have been so irresponsible as to go running off without leaving a note as to where she was planning on looking, could she? Ignoring that same prickly conscience that muttered something about "the pot calling the kettle black", Rickie picked up the courtesy phone and hit "0" for the front desk.
The polite tones that answered were akin to a half-inch drill bit being shoved into her ear. "South Hyde Hotel, front desk. How may I direct your call."
"This is Rickie Gardner in room 3B..."
"Yes, Miss Gardner?"
"Did Xena leave any messages when she left this morning?"
Rickie closed her eyes and willed her voice to remain calm. "Xena G. Amphipoulis. The room's other occupant. The one who's name is on the registry." She was amazed how calm her words were, considering she was screaming incoherently in her mind.
"I'll check. Just a moment, please." With that, Rickie was treated to a minute of muzak, which had all the soothing qualities of broken glass writing on a chalkboard. She endured all this without complaint and with great equanimity.
This didn't slip in the slightest when the manager came back. "Miss Gardner? I'm sorry, but there's been no message from Miss Amphipoulis since she received..."
"Thanks." Rickie all but slammed the receiver back unto its cradle and began recounting every combination of four letter expletives and descriptives she could think of, each applied to a certain dark-haired Immortal who was conspicuous in her absence. Rickie's perspicacity, volumous and colorful as it was, was eventually exhausted, which left the young woman with a mildly sore throat and a bellyful of tense energy. Said belly registered its discomfort by growling and churning a little. Even incised as she was, growing moreso with each passing minute without her warrior, Rickie wasn't so absent as to ignore her body's needs. It was just past six, which meant it was nearly dinner time. Or was that "tea time" around here?
Rickie recalled seeing a few old fashioned pubs along this block. The memorable end of Wednesday's dinner that afternoon's lunch notwithstanding, she'd had precious little experience with real British food. Granted everything she'd heard and read reported pub food was about as bland and unimaginative as a McDonald's Value Meal, but darned if she wouldn't at least see the inside of a real English pub before they flew out.
If nothing else, it might help make sense of the pseudo-dreams she tended to have after writing a lengthy piece of prose, one's where she found herself standing or sitting a table in the middle of a rustic inn and babbling away in what must have been Greek, her audience positively rapt in attention...not understanding word one of what she was supposed to be saying. It was unnerving in the extreme; not simply being at the center of such attention, but having it feel so right when her every street-sharpened instinct practically screamed for her to run and hide.
Maybe, she reflected as she retrieved her leather jacket from the floor, that it was just a case of her transferring a natural sense of inferiority and insecurity where Xena was concerned. Was the warrior responding to her when they made love, or to the memory of a certain lookalike bard who happened to be very dead? Was she seeing Gabrielle when she said "I love you"? Was she...
Rickie stopped herself there. "Man," she said aloud. "Last time I take a psych course before break." With this vow, she exited both the room and hotel in a controlled sprint, pausing only to hand off a quick note to the desk manager, the name Xena Amphipoulis clearly written on it. She again missed the young woman's semi-comical reaction to her presence, holding the folded slip of paper nearly at arm's length and looking at it as though it was about to explode.
Once on the sidewalk, Rickie looked both ways, several times. Not so much for the traffic, which she kept well away from, but to see what was nearby and what struck her fancy. The Royal Albert Hall was to her left, Piccadilly far to the right. The colorful mix of pedestrians had thickened as the evening darkened and the first streetlights lit up. This gave her a moment or two of concern, thinking of all the crazy spy movies she'd practically forced Xena to sit through, the ones where the assassins got their targets by sticking them with umbrella points filled with poison. There were a lot of umbrellas in display, the heavy clouds gathering overhead threatening rain.
Rickie went to the right, keeping close to the townhouses and mindful of the lengthening shadows. She'd walked only a single block when she came to the heavy wooden doors and stained glass windows of the quintessential pub, the sounds of drink and argument filtering out from within. Suddenly feeling exposed and vulnerable, Rickie hastily pushed open the doors and entered, mindless of the crush of bodies suddenly exiting and the noise of "Arsenal" over "United".
She stood there, letting her eyes adjust quickly to the subdued lighting and babble within. There was a row of tight booths near the windows and along the walls of deep mahogany, with small round tables and straightbacked chairs dotting the rest of the floorspace. The ceiling seemed unusually low, giving the place a slightly claustrophobic feel despite the inviting glow of the lamps and ceiling lights, not to mention the occasional 'blip' and 'bloop' coming from the fruit game machine in the corner nearby.
There were remarkably few customers there, despite the early evening hour. The majority of the pubgoers had just departed, turned out and barred by the stern-faced woman behind the bar. Her grayed hair hanging free and hooked nose reminded Rickie of the few social workers she'd encountered after reaching Portland, sans the condescending kindness they'd treated her with.
The woman quickly spied her and waved her over. Rickie, not knowing what else to do, quickly walked over to the bar, trying hard to conceal her nervousness. The gray-haired woman barked the instant she was within earshot "Whatcha won'?"
Rickie, to her credit, didn't flinch at the sharp tone (she would later learn the barkeeper, Maude Taylor by name and proprietor of the pub, was actually among the kindest and most decent of souls who simply had little tolerance for local Football supporters) and instead met the woman's glare head on. "You got Miller Light here?"
The barkeeper smirked and looked her up and down. "Yank, huh?"
"Yup." Rickie gave her a sweet smile and batted her eyes innocently. "'And proud of it."
"Figured." She drew a half-pint of some dark, thick liquid that definitely was not a light brew. She held the glass back and gave Rickie another look. "You o' age, missy?"
"I'm legal. Wanna see my passport?" Truth be told, she didn't have the foggiest notion what the legal drinking age was in the U.K., and her twentieth birthday had been just six short months ago. Sure, the daunting physical routines Xena ran her through had added a fair bit of extra padding to her, but surely she didn't look that much older.
The barkeeper just shrugged and handed the glass over, quickly returning to her other business so she wouldn't break out laughing at the face Rickie made upon her first sip. The young blonde managed to swallow the half-mouthful of Albreicht Bitter with some effort, her taste buds in open revolt against the utterly alien flavor flooding them. She coughed several times once it was down and working its not-so-gentle magic on her stomach, blinking several times to clear away the tears the exertion brought on.
"Uh, ohhhh boy..." was all she could manage, bowing her head until her vision cleared. Looking back up, she found the barkeep eyeing her with undisguised amusement.
"Strong stuff, eh?" the older woman asked needlessly.
"Strong...stuff..." Rickie agreed, somewhat breathless, then perked up and asked "Hey? You do any kind of dinner here?"
Enzo was late in arriving at the appointed place, needlessly watching the warrior pace the length and breadth of Liverpool station for the better part of two hours before departing. He'd actually been more attentive of the many faces and figures in the background, watching for any sign the warrior was the subject of scrutiny beyond his own.
He departed well satisfied on that score, having counted no less than five sets of eyes observing her closely. Three had been strictly amorous, appraising the dark woman with the sort of glazed expression signaling fantasy having overlaid reality. He found it humorous himself, having gone through that phase himself at first seeing surveillance footage on her nearly a year ago. Pair of eyes number four was a plain clothes from the MPF, who was content enough just to watch her prowl. Doubtlessly the energetic Sargent Mallory had distributed the warrior's description throughout the force, along with an "observe and report" directive. At least the lad was intelligent enough to have them keep their distance. Gods knew how deep the bodies would be piled before the end of this.
It was pair number five, which watched her without either amorous or professional intent and had been the hardest for him to spot, that led Enzo to breath a sigh of relief and allowed him to leave his covert post. He'd never set eyes on the man before, but knew instantly who he answered to. This certainty in turn freed him from worrying too much about the warrior's immediate safety, the opposition's childish plans in their need for subterfuge. They would watch and wait until she was out in the country before trying anything, when they were deep into the warrior's territory and the advantage was her's.
Still, a nagging doubt remained in the back of his thoughts, one encouraged by the warrior not having shown the slightest sign of noticing himself or any of the others who watched her with such singular focus. Even the trio of lechers, diverse as they were, didn't get so much as a rise out of her. This led to one of two conclusions: that either she was fully aware of all eyes upon her and was putting up an Oscar star-quality act of being unaware, or she was so distracted and wound-up nothing short of being shot in the head would get through to her.
For his own peace of mind, Enzo presumed it was the latter and made his exit from the station. He flagged down a taxi, giving the sky and worried glance as he walked. It was sure to storm soon, the air too heavy and breezy for anything else.
The taxi ride itself took a bit longer than he'd anticipated, thanks the archtypical Sunday drivers racing into or out of the city and the odd bicycle enthusiast. The Fat Pig was among the dozen-odd pubs scattered throughout the Knightsbridge area, just south of Hyde Park. Why his brother had chosen such a place to met was nearly beyond him, seeing as it was in the general vicinity of a certain hotel. To say nothing of the fact little Janie, militant health food advocate and '30s-sytle Prohibitionist, would never let him hear the end of it if she were to find out.
Upon arrival he handed the driver a twenty pound note, which barely covered the fare, and all but leapt out. The driver, a short man with a Cockney accent and curly hair, threw an ineffectual glare at his retreating back before driving off.
The Fat Pig was one of the more atmospheric pubs he knew of, with soft lighting and decent cooking. The proprietor wasn't the sort to tolerate the rows and fistfights Sunday footballers brought with them any more than she'd let high-class dope dealers ply their trade within the establishment's walls. Never mind they served some of the best stout east of the Irish Sea, which he supposed explained his elder sibling's choice.
Walking in, Enzo noted the sparse crowd with some small relief. The last thing he needed was for them to have to watch their backs or their voices, lest they be overhead. He spied his brother in one of the furthest booths over, one giving them a fairly unimpeded view of the rest of the pub. There were a couple empty booths further back, near the short hallway leading to the WCs, but he paid these little mind.
The look his brother affixed on him as he approached was more than enough to occupy his thoughts. Enzo calmly (if reluctantly) slid into the bench opposite him, not surprised to find a pint of light amber waiting for him. The pint of stout facing it was already half-drained, the foam coating its sides fighting gravity tooth and nail in its slow descent to the liquid below.
Enzo Del Turo was quite uninterested in such minute details, even as he stared holes into them sitting there, having his own battle against an implacable universal force to deal with.
Jonothan O'Donhugh was sitting back against the high back of the bench, the top button of his black shirt was undone and his eyes glittered. Despite the firm line his lips were pressed into, his entire form seemed utterly relaxed and at ease, a posture utterly at odds with the whipcord-tense energy his eldest brother normally emanated. It was as unnerving a sight as any Enzo could envision.
O'Donhugh took a sip of his stout before speaking, saying "I hope you didn't tip the driver too much."
Enzo managed a tired snicker to this, sipping his amber and letting his elder set the pace of conversation.
"I told you to stay put, not go running after the damn bard the instant she bolts." There was just the mildest hint of reproach in the older man's voice. "You have any idea how big a hole that put in our surveillance of Amphipoulis herself?"
"I'll wager not a terribly huge one, knowing you as I do." Enzo bravely met O'Donhugh's gaze head on now. "In fact I caught at least three of your irregulars circling the damn park after I lost the bard, which means there must have been three times as many there. The bard and Amphipoulis were never out of your sight, were they?"
O'Donhugh gave a small shake of his head, frowning. "Doesn't matter. I specifically told you..."
"You are my brother, Jono, not my damn master. I made a judgment, end of story." Enzo sat back, fixing his brother with a direct glare speaking closure on the subject, only to be surprised by the latter breaking into a rare smile and tossing his hands upwards.
"At last!" O'Donhugh exclaimed quietly. "After twenty years, he finally gets it!"
Caught short, Enzo lean forward and hissed "Wait! You wanted me to follow her?"
"Not really, but I've been hoping you'd finally start bucking my judgment and act on your own." He sobered quickly, though the smile only cooled to an obvious grin. "I expect you and the rest to follow your own judgment, always. I may be the elder of this Clan, but it doesn't mean I'm bloody omniscient."
"Like Manfred does? Or Myriam? I hear he nearly lost us the Chakrum last year. And our baby sister..."
O'Donhugh stopped this recitation before it could go further. "Manny is always out to impress me. You know that. The same with Myriam. I keep them distant from this business because Manfred is practically ten percent of the northern hemisphere's economy all on his own, so I don't want him getting mixed up in shady dealings like ours. And Myriam is simply too young and impetuous, not to mention too prescient to keep still if some evil is in the air."
"Oh? And young Victoria isn't as young?"
"She's twenty, she's got contacts that are useful, and she knows artists enough to make cover at the gallery. So no, she isn't too young." O'Donhugh took another long sip of his bitter. "Myriam, by contrast, has all the social grace of a irate pygmy hedgehog. I'd rather not let her be put into a position where she can't cover herself quickly enough."
Enzo simply grunted and studied his amber, conceding all points to his elder. After a moment he said "I presume you wanted me here for reasons other than bitching me out, yes?"
"Indeed." O'Donhugh reached into his jacket and pulled out a postcard. "Turns out our friend was squatting in an apartment near the Embankment. I tossed it over this morning, and look what turned up." He handed the card across the table, Enzo's eyes widening in mild surprise, recognizing the image.
"Well..." Enzo spoke after a moment. "I knew he had exotic interests. But this..."
O'Donhugh snorted with derision. "Oh, please. Don't flatter him. He's too much a lightweight to try anything so strenuous." His eyes narrowed slightly. "Unlike some I could mention."
Enzo managed not to blush under the scrutiny. "Look who's talking. Still, I'm surprised a high-profile boyo like Michael Giovanni would risk his standing even keeping something like this."
"Damn fool listed out a number of clubs in Soho on a pad. I scratched it up off the sheet underneath."
"Christ, you'd think the don's would train their boy's better."
"Count our blessings, Enzo." O'Donhugh politely reminded him. "If he weren't such a bloody schmuck, we'd have to tear the whole east end apart to find him. At least we know where he'll be tonight."
"What, you don't think he'd show here, do you?" Enzo waved the card in disbelief. The establishment it had been produced for was among the highest-class in its field and of some international repute, though of far lower profile than its cousins The Castle and The Leather Garden in Germany and the States respectively. Like those fine venues, it catered to some of the most subversive tastes, though falling short of the truly perverse and twisted. It also enforced a strict code of dress and conduct among its patrons, neither of which were likely to sit well with the individual in question.
"Hardly. Its closed tonight. As are pretty much every other one on the list...except one."
"The Velvet Chamber."
Silence reigned between them for several counts, utter disbelief on Enzo's part, patience on O'Donhugh's part. The Chamber was a popular venue as well, though one frequented more by the playfully curious as opposed to the serious and controlled. It was owned by someone both men knew, one of them quite intimately.
"Tell me you aren't thinking what I know you're thinking! Please tell me that!" Enzo's voice was nearly strangled, an further gasp escaped him at his brother's calm smile. "Oh, gods. I knew it, you're a bloody suicidal lunatic."
The older man laughed. "Oh, calm down."
"You bloody calm down, you fucking lunatic." His voice raised a pitch. "If you-know-who catches either of us there, she'll bloody cripple us with her bare hands..."
"I said calm down." The flat, utterly calm tone cut through the younger man's rising panic. "To begin with, 'you-know-who' would cripple only me, as I am the only who was barred from there. And second, 'you-know-who' is out of town, preparing for the new term."
"You realize once when we've made our little visit..."
"That is my concern." A snort was Enzo's only response. "I can handle it."
"Riot. Just like your marriage to..." The air between them became tense as Enzo realized how far he'd just stepped over the line with such a comment. "Sorry," he muttered, studiously staring into his amber and wondering how long it would take his hair to burst into flames from his brother's fiery glare.
To his surprise, and further unease, O'Donhugh merely gave a tired chuckle to this. "Can't a poor bugger make at least one mistake in his lifetime?"
Enzo blinked, then shook his head, continually surprised by his elder's shifting moods. "I'll never understand why you divorced her in the first place." He shook his head once more, quietly wondering if he would ever divine precisely how his eldest sibling's mind worked. "I don't like leaving Amphipoulis to run a fool's errand up to Essex. You know the Horton's rogues are sure to have people waiting for her."
"Maybe," O'Donhugh conceded. "But she won't be alone up there, will she?"
"You know something, don't you?" He resisted the urge to laugh, drowning it in a long drink of his beer.
"Quite a lot, actually. Including certain faux phone calls were placed to certain faux archaeologists."
It took Enzo a moment or two to catch up with this, the implications coming quickly and giving him a chuckle. "We're taking a risk here, Jono. The rest aren't going to like being kept out of the loop for so long."
"I prefer that risk to risking the warrior's neck tipping off the opposition if we were all involved. You know how heavy-handed Manfred can get."
"Nhh." Enzo swallowed the rest of his beer and asked "So what's our move, chum? Wait for Mikey-boy t'show his face at the Velvet?" A discrete buzzing emanated from O'Donhugh's coat. Reaching into it, he extracted a small pager, its florescent LCD display bathing his tight features in a cool green glow.
"He just did," O'Donhugh reported, returning the pager to its inner pocket and sliding out of the booth. "We'll take my car out back." Enzo offered no argument as he followed, but only because he concentrated so intently upon keeping his steps steady, and wishing equally intensely he that hadn't drunk his entire pint so quickly. Damn stuff was poison to his nerves.