by Joseph Connell
Disclaimers: Go to Part I for disclaimers on this story.
Commentary, positive and (preferably) negative, can be directed to Joseph Connell.
As they made their exit, neither man noticed the small figure all but cowering in the booth directly behind theirs. Emerald eyes, wide as saucers, watched them them leave, ears still ringing. With her shinning blonde hair and suddenly pale skin, she stood out like a ghost in the booth's shadows, yet incredibly went unnoticed by those who had been discussing her with such intensity only minutes ago.
Rickie fought hard to keep her breathing quiet, wanting to gulp hard and loud, alternately terrified and enraged. It took her several minutes to get control over herself, by which time her own legs were as unsteady as her stomach, and she was very unsure how long she could keep what little of her kidney pie and chips she'd managed to eat down.
The food was forgotten, her thoughts going in competing directions and wiping away all other concerns. She stood on shaky legs and moved to the pay phone near the front doors. She pushed a few coins into it and dialed the hotel's number, only to receive a busy signal. Fighting her renewed shaking, Rickie pushed her way through the doors and half-stumbled back unto the street, bending over with hands on knees and taking deep breaths.
She stood again, taking a final deep, cleansing breath, calming herself and forcing herself to think past her fears. She recognized one of the voices, vaguely, and the other not at all. Nor did all their words make sense to her, but some things were abundantly clear.
She might not know where Xena was right then, but she knew where they would be.
Quickly flagging down a taxi, Rickie climbed in without hesitation and asked the driver a single question. "Ever hear of a club called 'The Velvet Chamber'?" A look of disgust was the only answer she immediately received.
The taxi driver proved anything but chatty as he drove her up Piccadilly Street and into Soho. He would look back at her every now and then via the rearview mirror, as if to confirm she hadn't disintegrated into the ether. Each time she would catch his eyes squinting in a silent sneer. It was rather puzzling for Rickie, who had long believed cabbies universally suffered from some rare condition that gave them all verbal diarrhea.
Great image there, Dreamer. Very poetic. she mentally chastised herself, and concentrated on searching out some landmark or another so she could tell where the taxi was going. They quickly passed Piccadilly Circus, neon billboards alight on all sides and cars speeding hither and yon. Speeding deftly through the circus, the taxi turned off into the darker side streets of Soho, where there she could find nothing to distinguish one street from another. Rickie soon lost track of the progress, the box-like auto zigzagging deep into the night.
Eventually the tax came to a stop, one abrupt enough that Rickie had to grab hold of the leather tong hanging near the door to keep herself in her seat. "That's twenty-five," the driver growled in a deep Midlands accent.
Rickie got out and walked to his window, which he rolled down. She pulled two twenty pound notes from her pocket and asked "Which way is it?"
The driver snatched the notes and nodded in no particular direction. "Straight downna street ther'," he snarled as he pulled away, tires squealing, leaving Rickie alone in the proverbial dark alley.
Now, Rickie was hardly a stranger to such circumstances, and the streets of Portland were a good deal uglier in appearance than these. Appearances, she'd learned, were no guarantee of safety, and so kept her wits about her as she began searching for her elusive objective. Fortunately, her jacket and jeans blended in well with the evening shadows, and the sounds of traffic were far enough away that she could listen for anything out of the ordinary without undue strain.
As it was, the narrow streets and alleyways were uniformly silent and still, which only unnerved Rickie further. The words of the conversation that had brought her here played out in her mind again and again, their meaning finding new permutations with each silent repetition. She didn't ruminate so intently that she utterly forgot where she stood and what she was about; nevertheless, if it hadn't been for a startled alley cat, she might well have missed her objective.
Said cat had, ironically enough, been startled from his hiding place by her appearance, and had dashed out and down the street. This flash of movement had caught Rickie's attention and caused her to look in that direction in surprise. The cat was quickly out of sight, in its place something Rickie found far more interesting.
Down the street, which ended in a T junction, a long limousine coasted to a halt before a plain-looking metalic door. Out of it stepped an tall, slender woman with platinum hair and wearing a corset and cape of some shiny material. In her hand was a thin chain, which she tugged after a moment, a very muscular though meek looking man emerging from the car immediately after. His upper body was encased in a tank-top made of the same material as the woman's outfit and a dark band encircled his neck, to which the opposite end of the chain was attached. The limo pulled away, revealing the man wore only a leather g-string and nothing else. The woman knocked on the door and an eye-slit appeared. Rickie could hear their voices as she crept closer, something about references but nothing clear. The door slid open smoothly and the two entered.
Rickie remained where she was, hidden just beyond the low streetlights, debating whether she was in the right place or not, and whether she should risk finding out or not. The debate was still fiercely raging within her when the answer presented itself, in the form of the Goatee and the Gray Man, as she'd come to think of them.
They came walking down the street from the direction of the limo's departure, calm as you please. No words passed between them as they approached the door, the Goatee keeping careful watch all about them while Gray Man quickly slid up before the door and gave it a sharp rap, then stood off to the side.
The eye-slit opened and Rickie heard a voice snarl out "What'ya want?"
The Gray Man stepped back in front of the slit and said "To get in." Even from her distant view, Rickie could see the doorman's eyes widen to where they nearly popped out of their sockets, only to narrow quickly.
"Yer barred!" the voice snarled again as the slit shut with a final-sounding click. Rickie heard a chuckle from the pair and the Gray Man rapped on the door and spoke again, this time with a perfectly chilling tone of command.
"Ian, open this door at once, or I will punch through it and drag you out by your private hairs!" Rickie couldn't help but wince at the imagery, immediately believing the force behind the threat. So too, it seemed, did the doorman, who cracked open the door enough for him to peek his blonde-crowned head around.
"Look, sir..." he began, only to be cut off by the Gray Man's voice, still chilling and in command.
"Where do you want it?"
The door opened further, and the short doorman stepped into view, clad only in a pair of leather trunks and a spiked collar about his neck. He raised his hands in supplication, his voice nearly pleading. "The Mistress will have my fucking balls fer..."
"Where?" the Gray Man barked, his voice echoing off the empty street. Ian, gatekeeper to the Velvet Chamber, appeared to resign himself to his fate and pointed to his right eye. The Gray Man took step closer and nodded just over Ian's shoulder. He said in greeting "Hullo, Hank.", this causing Ian to turn. Rickie blinked, and the next thing she knew the small doorman was all but thrown back into the entryway, the Gray Man's arms slipping underneath his and the Goatee, who to this point had been standing motionless, hurrying after them and shutting the door behind him. She never saw the punch, or kick, or whatever the Gray Man had used, though the dull impact of bone on bone could be heard...and felt.
The entire process had taken less than a minute, leaving only a silent street and somewhat shocked young writer in its wake.
Although frozen by the speed and ferocity of what she'd seen, Rickie was far from idle, at least mentally. Her mind drifted back, first to the conversation overhead in the pub, then to another place, nearly a year in the past.
A shape standing just beyond the flashing lights of the Munich Polizei, who search for clues for her missing warrior in that stinking back alley, his black overcoat more like a cloak of shadow around him. He is gone when she looks away for only a second.
A stranger in dark clothes offering his hand in introduction. "I'm Jonothan O'Donhugh."
"It sounds as if you love her very much," his soft voice drifting into her thoughts of her missing warrior.
"Do you believe in soul mates?" Laughter her only answer to a question that touches her deeper than she dares admit.
"I have the gift of prophecy, you know. Something passed down through the generations in my clan." A boast she hardly hears, and pays no conscious mind to, yet remains with her all the same.
A shadowy figure in a car, flashes of gray clothes and eyes moving past as Xena is loaded into the awaiting ambulance. She can't think about that, because her warrior is still bleeding and there is blood on her own hands, their tormentor dead by her own knife. Is that satisfaction she catches in those eyes she barely glimpses? His small auto is quickly gone from sight, as though it had never been.
"Jonothan O'Donhugh, huh? Prophecy, huh?" Rickie's sneered, fire lighting in his green eyes at the memories and the connections between them. "Let's see if you can predict this, buddy."
That said, she left the shadows and marched across the street (remembering to look both ways) and pounded hard on the door. She didn't so much as flinch when the eye-slit opened and the muffled voice within made its usual demand. "Whatcha want?"
"To get inside," Rickie declared, no hesitation in her voice and standing directly before the eyes.
Eyes which widened slightly at the sight of her, equal parts shock and confusion. They studied her with an intensity she found disconcerting, searching her face for...something. What it might be, she had no idea. Whether he found it or not, she could not tell, the doorman's next question catching her slightly off-guard.
"Who's yer reference?"
Rickie had to take a second before responding. "Er...Jonothan O'Donhugh."
Again the eyes widened for a moment, then narrowed tightly as the slit closed once more. Rickie could only stand there, at once fearful and furious that she'd seemingly blown her one chance at getting inside. She then jumped half out of her skin as the door swung open, revealing the short man, his dirty blonde hair tangled and doing nothing to conceal the large shiner covering his right eye. "Git in here!" he hissed, yanking her inside and slamming the door behind her. "Christ, girl," he cursed her. "You wanna advertise yerself out there?"
Rickie was somewhat surprised to find she stood an inch or two taller than the doorman, who nevertheless outweighed her by what must have been a good hundred and fifty pounds, all of it muscle. He appeared nervous, yes, but more for her than himself. "The Master's gone to the private chambers upstairs. Don't talk to nobody, don't stop fer anything, gotcha? Half the crowd tonight wants t'take trophies."
With these less than helpful words, the small man propelled her towards a hallway of inky darkness. Rickie walked through it, into the din of industrial music that shook the solid floor underfoot, the distant murmur of voices buzzing just beneath the music. She soon came to a heavy curtain covering the threshold.
Rickie took a last, nervous look back over her shoulder, back to the entrance and the short man there. She then parted the curtain and stepped into spacious room beyond, wincing as the music hit her full force, its power hammering into her right down to her molars and clear through to her toes. This was nothing compared to the shock at the sight of the patrons themselves, and the activities they were so enthusiastically engaged in.
The pair she'd first spotted heading into the club should have been her clue, and perhaps she'd unconsciously expected it all along, given the name and the location. But to actually see...this...
Despite it being the Christian day of rest, the large dance floor sunken into the floor was packed to bursting with people of nearly every age and description, their gyrating and moving to perfect beat with the crashing music. The lighting was at once dark and bright, casting shades of icy blue and winter green and strobing red across them all, each reflecting off the PVC or polished leather that seemed to be the sole dress code. This in itself was hardly shocking, as she'd been in far rowdy dance scenes in the months and years leading up to her warrior finding her.
Yet, even the wild-and-free lifestyle she'd run before she'd met Xena did little to prepare her for the sights playing out on the raised platforms and alcoves surrounding the dance floor. Men and women strapped to X-frames and Y-frames, all in various stages of undress and being made sport of by others wielding everything from bull-whips to riding crops to multi-lash thingies to dildos to instruments whose purpose she could only guess at. Far from being distress by all this, those suffering on the frames wore huge grins and seemed to be encouraging their tormentors. Rather loudly in some cases.
Rickie watched several scenes play out, mostly out of a perverse fascination. She was hardly so sheltered that she was totally innocent of such activities; a few of her fellow dealers had reportedly sold blow solely so they could have a session like these. And while she and Xena had taken to experimenting occasionally, Rickie herself had never understood the attraction to having one's tail deliberately paddled red and in full view of the public.
Thinking of her warrior reminded Rickie of why she was there in the first place. She also recalled the doorman's advice, and so made for the iron stairwell that rose upwards towards the back, reaching a balcony with several doors. She spied two figures making their way upwards, both men and neither appearing dressed for the party below.
As she weaved in and among the patrons, Rickie became aware that several were pausing in their activities and looking directly at her with a mixture of expressions, these running the gamut of shock, surprise, envy, admiration, disguised and not so disguised lust. All this made absolutely no sense to her whatsoever and was otherwise ignored...at least until someone made a grab for her, that is.
The arms that attempted it belonged to a slender-looking man wearing a dog's leash and a leather harness who was kneeling at his Mistress's feet and panting like a happy puppy. Rickie quickly dodged out of their way and was about to say something indelicate when the man's companion, a patrician-looking woman with tightly braided gray hair and wearing a satin corset and stockings set, stood and viciously backhanded him across the face.
"You pathetic animal!" she nearly screamed, voice as cold as the Gray Man's outside. "You deserve to be skinned." The woman looked over at Rickie, her tone suddenly humble and beseeching as if she were begging for her life. "I do apologize for my pet here. I'm afraid he's still in training, you understand, yes? I'd happily loan him to you for the evening, if you wish. He could probably do with a good thrashing or two."
Rickie backed up a step, waving off the offered cat-o-nine tails in the woman's hand. "Er, no. Really. No harm done. Promise."
"Oh." She actually sounded relieved by this. "Well, I promise he'll be suitably punished for this little transgression. Severely, I promise. You will tell the Head Mistress I disciplined him, yes? That it won't happen twice, I swear." As if to demonstrate her sincerity, she promptly turned back on her 'pet' and brought the flogger down on his bare back without the least delicacy. The man began whining like the beaten dog he played as his Mistress continued cursing him as a "dumb animal".
"Yeah, sure. Whatever." Rickie muttered as she backed away, tearing her eyes from this little melodrama and continued towards the stairs. No-one else made a move towards her nor to interfere with her progress, though the looks only increased in number and left her wondering what she was missing.
She was soon at the stairway, ascending them carefully and watchful for the two men. She saw no sign of them, even after reaching the balcony, which was a continuous walkway throughout the concourse.
Rickie walked along for a few steps, occasionally looking behind her for good measure. Just as well she did, as the pair suddenly emerged from a doorway further down. Neither looked in her direction, appearing to be in deep conversation between themselves. Rickie froze where she was, praying the subdued lighting hid her well enough, and watched as they disappeared amid the billowing curtains that hung from the ceiling between the doors.
She counted to thirty, then strode over to where they had gone as casually as possible, and slipped through after them. The folds caught and entangled her for a few heartbeats, though this was quickly resolved and allowed her free access to the short hallway beyond. A single ceiling light illuminated the passageway, showing only four doors to either side, and reminding her uncomfortably of Jeanne's cellar. She poked her head out just in time to see the two pause before one of the doors there, the Goatee pushing the door open and allowing the Gray Man to enter first. Steeling herself, Rickie moved forward, keeping close to the veiled wall and ready to bolt in either direction should the situation warrant.
The fact she pressed so closely to the wall, and kept her eyes firmly fixed on the doorway further down, resulted in her falling in a less than dignified fashion through the threshold immediately before it. She hadn't noticed the door to it had been left wide open, and bit her tongue to keep from cursing it, herself, and the universe at large aloud.
Rickie quickly got back to her feet and looked around, as ready to fight as to flee. Only a silent room, the four walls swathed in dark tones of velvet and satin and its sole occupant a comfortable-looking sofa facing the wall to her left, was there to greet her. The entire ambiance of the room was a relaxed one, one Rickie couldn't resist. She'd been too tense for too long, and the wide sofa (looking more like a gigantic futon than anything else) looked way too tempting. Still, she resisted sitting even for a moment, instead wandering over to it and letting her eyes glide upwards, towards the wall it faced. The sight there left her frozen once more, her mouth going dry and eyes widening painfully.
Before her a window that took up at least two-thirds of the wall, beyond the glass was a room not unlike the she was in, albeit one more brightly lit and having several people in it. At first glance it seemed to be only a man and a woman. The former was stark naked, with his hands cuffed and stretched over his head and a metallic pole spreading his ankles wide, while the former shuffled back and forth behind him, clad in a dark red lace bustier with matching stockings and garter belt, which matched her mahogany hair perfectly. She wielded a thin riding crop, alternatively tapping and striking almost random areas of his back and legs with it, the man shuddering and jumping with its strike.
He was, Rickie had to admit, very good looking and, well, pretty damn impressively built, if a tiny bit paunchy around the middle. He had tape over his eyes, and his long brown hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail. His Mistress was equally beautiful, though she was an inch or two shorter, and actually seemed a bit bored with the whole thing. She couldn't see what she was getting out of this, apart from maybe a bit of professional satisfaction.
A flicker of movement at the back of the room caught her eye, two figures materializing out of the curtains and shadows. Two men, one wearing a gray double-breasted suit and black shirt, the other in a leather trench coat and possessing a trim goatee. They stepped forward as one, approaching the woman casually. Rickie tore her eyes away and began searching the window's frame. Places like this had microphones, didn't they, so the friggin' voyeurs could hear what was going on?
Finding none, she was reduced to watching what unfolded in the next room, at once repulsed and fascinated. The Gray Man circled the bound man like a predator, moving in close occasionally, but for the most part keeping his distance. There was a palpable aura around him, barely leashed rage and outright menace that reminded her of Xena in her darkest moments. Clearly the Ponytail felt it, as he seemed to cringe away, when he wasn't unsuccessfully trying to free himself, that is.
Thing got very physical very quickly, though unpredictably so. While words exchanged between them, the Grey Man battered away using everything from bare hands to his feet to nearly strangling him with the flogger to doing something (Rickie could not tell what) that had the Ponytail screaming loud enough she could almost hear him through the glass.
Either the Gray Man wasn't getting what he was after, or he was enjoying himself too much, as even this didn't stop him. Judging by the growing agitation in his actions, she figured it was the latter, and began searching for a speaker once more, again to avail.
She slapped the mirror's frame in frustration, the metal vibrating under her palm.
She felt herself go pale, and looked back to the window, her folly confirmed.
O'Donhugh resisted the urge to roll his eyes at the sight greeting them. He recognized the woman as one of the House Mistresses, a half-French firebrand from Cardiff named Renee. She was a new hire of the Club, having come in just before his latest falling out with the ownership. He'd even had occasion to speak with her once or twice, but couldn't really recall what about.
The client she was in making sport of was a much more familiar presence. Tattoos spotted his back and shoulders, their designs a mix of Oriental and European artistry and as much a trademark as any business card. Renee the Mistress, outfitted in her favorite of red bustier and stockings, was working his back and legs over with a crop. A flogger and well-endowed strap-on was set out on the small table nearby, a couple simple iron chairs (without seat pads) beside it. The room was otherwise empty, excluding their reflections in the wall mirror the client faced.
The two were engaged in a fairly basic game of counting crop strokes, with the client whimpering joyously with each strike no matter how gentle or severe. O'Donhugh judged they had been at it for some time, judging by the numbers and the size of his erection bobbing in front of him. Renee had developed a reputation of taking her time with her clients, driving them to near frenzy over the course of several hours. A light tap on his thigh and he yelped "Twenty", followed by "Twenty-one" a few seconds later with another light tap on his right cheek. "Twenty two" came over minute later a harsh strike on his shoulder, dead center on the Viking battle-ax there. "Twenty-four", "Twenty-five", and "Twenty-six" followed in rapid succession, a series of increasingly harsh strikes down his spine.
Catching sight of the Mistress's expression in the mirror, O'Donhugh could see the carefully concealed boredom there. He gave a quick nod to Enzo and the moved forward silently. He nearly laughed at seeing for the first time the tape over the client's eyes, mentally changing his plans slightly as they advanced.
Motioning with one had towards the Mistress, O'Donhugh himself veered over to the table, snatching up one of the chairs and walking to stand directly in front of the client, while Enzo came up directly behind her. He caught her hand as she drew back to deliver yet another blow, spinning her around and promptly pressing his lips to her's. Renee, so surprised, resisted for the whole of two seconds before melting into his arms, wrapping her own about him and moaning quietly into his lips.
"Mistress?" the client called out, almost piteously. Renee broke the kiss and looked back towards them, seeing O'Donhugh for the first time. Her mouth fell open, whatever she might have been about to say dying a quick death. O'Donhugh nodded, dismissing them both. Enzo gently led Renee, her eyes respectfully cast downwards now, noiselessly out of the room, leaving them utterly alone.
"Mistress?" the bound man called out again, oddly sounding less desperate and simply more curious now. "Are you there?" O'Donhugh decided to let the silence stretch a bit long. He rested one foot on the chair's seat while keeping his breathing controlled and not moving so much as a muscle, counting to thirty in his head.
At thirty, he reached out and savagely tore the tape from the man's eyes, taking with it much of his thick eyebrows and several eyelashes. He let loose a squeal of surprise and blinked several times, trying to clear the spots from his sight. "You bitch!" he cursed, voice almost shrill. "What the fuck was..."
His vision cleared, words cutting short as he clearly saw for the first time who stood before him. A whispered exclamation of "Oh, shit!" was his only acknowledgement of his family's nemesis.
O'Donhugh said "Hullo, Michael." He glanced downwards and deadpanned "Is that meant to impress me?"
Michael Alonzo Rudelphi Giovanni, eldest son and heir apparent to the Giovanni Family Organization, pressed his lips tightly against the dig and declined comment. Undaunted, O'Donhugh let his eyes wander clinically across the Italian's well-toned body, with all the interest of a customer examining a fishmonger's wares. A customer allergic to seafood, that is, going by the look of distaste he wore.
"Want to tell me what you're doing here, Michael lad?" O'Donhugh began walking as he spoke, circling the bound man slowly, his voice and words deliberate. "You know the terms of the Peace between our families. You know you are not allowed into my territory. And you know you aren't allowed to ply your juvenile antics as trade here."
"You have th' balls to risk war with me and mine?" Giovanni spat. O'Donhugh smiled his small, maddening smile in reply.
"Does your father know where you are? What you play with when he's not looking?" He stood directly before the Italian once more, eyes almost dancing. "Imagine the headlines, were you to be found in your current state in a back alley up the block, doped out of your tree and with a plug up your arse. The shame alone might be enough t'do your old man in."
Michael pulled at his restraints without success. "You leave him out of this!"
O'Donhugh was utterly unfazed by this display, and seemed more than willing to involve the previous generation in their discussion. "Just imagine his face, Michael. Very religious, your father, especially when it comes to the bed. No sex before marriage, no patting little boys or girls, no talk of divorce. I hear he's so staunch a Catholic, the Vatican had to detail a deaf-mute to hear his weekly confessions, lest they be tempted to break the sanctity of the confessional. What a laugh." He leaned closer, careful that there was no actual contact between them. "But that's neither here nor there, is it?" Michael snarled and glared, helpless against O'Donhugh's merriment, hating him for it.
"What concerns us here," he declared grandly. "What's at issue, that is, is your little jaunt last Thursday evening around Westbourne, near Newton."
Michael laughed at this, saying "You're dreaming, O'Donhugh. I don't know what the hell you're talking about."
O'Donhugh pinned the younger man with his eyes, which were now cold as stone. To emphasize his intentions, the heel of his right hand sailed out and slammed into Giovanni's scrotum, eliciting a yelp of pain and a futile effort at trying to close his legs around the injury. "I'm not in the mood for dragging it out of you, Michael. I want the name of whoever bossed that hit, simple as that."
"Heh, that all, huh?" Michael exhaled between deep, controlled breaths.
"That's all. I can overlook most anything, even you coming here, to this place." O'Donhugh's tone suggested otherwise, and Michael felt a small trickle of fear at the implication. It hadn't exactly been Hobscom's Choice which had brought him to this particular club. He knew who owner was, and just who she'd once made marriage with. Never in a thousand years did he think O'Donhugh would defy the edicts placed against him by the woman.
Then again, he'd never thought he'd get caught in quite this position either. It would have been hilarious, were it not for the bloody murder he sensed boiling beneath those slate eyes before him. His groin exploded again, tears shamefully coming to his eyes as his manhood was bent upwards, nearly to a forty-five degree angle. He bent down as far as his position allowed, which was not all that far, his shoulders as strained as poor 'Little Michael' was.
O'Donhugh took mercy on him, released his grip and stepped away. There was no contempt in his voice as he said "Lightweight." He lashed out with his foot, slamming into first his abdomen, then in the forehead. Neither strike was severe enough to break the skin or even bruise, but both caught little nerve clusters that guaranteed the boy would have a combination stomach- and head-ache for the rest of the night and well into tomorrow. It was his satisfaction for the mafia prince's intrusion on ground he practically considered sacred.
"Bastard," Michael spat out as his tormentor circled around behind them. "You can't...do this..."
The next thing he knew, the chords of his Mistress's flogger (which he'd been rather looking forward to her using on him) were being wrapped about his throat, cutting off his breath and leaving him lightheaded. Even so, he clearly heard O'Donhugh's voice hissing into his ear.
"Get this through your head, Michael: this is an interrogation, not one of your fucking lightweight scenes! There are no safe words here, and I have no problem taking this all the way. Do we understand each other?" He pulled the leather strands tight for another moment, then let them fall away, leaving the younger man gasping and retching.
O'Donhugh backed away once more, calmly asking "Who bossed the hit, Michael? Give me the name, and you walk away clean."
"H...ha..." Michael coughed, catching his breath. "You'd let me walk away, breaking the Peace between us..."
"The Peace was more for your family's protection than anything else. I'm not particularly worried there. And yes, you will walk away...and keep walking until you hit Sicily...one way or the other."
"You'd spill my blood...risk retribution...?"
"As I said, your family isn't a concern."
"I wasn't talking about them."
A tired sigh was his answer. "You seriously think you're safe here? Because of who the Head Mistress here is? Keep in mind who she was married to, once upon a time."
The mafia prince flashed a knowing smile over his shoulder, bold before the darker man's blank expression. "I heard she divorced you...just so she could go cradle-robbing at that school of her's. That true?"
To his dying day, O'Donhugh would never be able to clearly relate exactly what he did at hearing those words. The next thing he knew, he was across the room and his fingers were aching, as though he'd just jammed them into a brick wall. The air was filled with Giovanni's wailing, not unlike a dozen male cats being castrated, sans any anesthesia. The younger man was jerking spastically in his bonds, as though he were being electrocuted.
"Don't...ever...mention...them...again!" O'Donhugh snarled, not caring if he was heard or not. He said nothing more, standing there patiently, waiting for Giovanni to get control of himself before continuing. It proved a surprisingly short wait. "I'm running out of patience here, Michael. Start talking."
"Fuck you," he gasped, wanting instead to cry like a newborn. If it had been his red-headed bitch of a Mistress doing this, he'd have been screaming the safe word by now; he'd be damned before he gave O'Donhugh the satisfaction of cracking. He'd squeezed his eyes shut against the raw pain shooting through him from toes to crown, and so only heard the snap of latex nearby. What came next, however, caused him to break out in a cold sweat.
"Ever been fisted before, Michael? Without lubricant?" O'Donhugh asked conversationally. "I warn you, my technique isn't nearly as delicate as it should be. Not much practice, you understand." He stepped closer, Michael still refusing to open his eyes. "You will end up needing surgery afterwards...provided I don't end up rupturing the colon beyond repair, that is." His tone became thoughtful. "Wonder if there are transplants for things like that. Ah, well."
The combination of imagery, O'Donhugh's presence, and the fact his every nerve was in fairly screeching agony did it. "Alright! Don't...don't touch me...there...I...ah can't..."
"The name, Michael." O'Donhugh demanded quietly once more.
"Price." Michael felt his bowels nearly loosen and release at the name. "Price ordered it...it was a favor to him...some bitch he wanted hurt..."
"Thought as much," was O'Donhugh's reply, sniffed dismissively as he pulled off the glove and tossed it away.
Michael's eyes snapped open and fixed the older man's back with an ineffectual glare. "You...you knew?"
"We suspected. I just wanted confirmation."
"That too." He wasn't sure what he heard as he spoke, something like the chime of gong, only low and distant. Keeping a firm control on his expression, keeping his every move as casual as before, O'Donhugh let his eyes wander here and there throughout the room, settling on the mirror Giovanni glared at him through. An ugly suspicion formed in his mind, one that led him, almost unconsciously, back towards it. Even as he kicked himself for overlooking so obvious a danger, Jonothan O'Donhugh refused to give free reign to the dark energy welling within him. He controlled his voice as he walked back to Michael's side and asked "You didn't bring any of your bully-boys, now did you?"
"If I did, you'd be dead!" Michael snapped, spitting with rage.
"No," O'Donhugh corrected gently, leaning one arm on the chair he'd originally brought over. "They would be dead, and you'd have more explaining to do..."
Without warning, O'Donhugh hefted the chair with one hand and swung it with considerable might into the mirrored glass, shattering it with a ear-stinging 'crash'. Through the brief rain of glass and silver fragments, he could vaguely make out a darting figure in the dimness just beyond the mirror's threshold. The figure was gone by the time he could step through, the open door leading to the hall outside telling him all he needed.
Muttering a curse in Gaelic, O'Donhugh ran back to the room's entrance, stabbing Giovanni in the temple with a stiffened pointer finger and saying "Take a nap." as he passed by.
Outside the room, O'Donhugh nearly collided with both Enzo and Mistress Renee (both of whom were looking rather flushed) as he exited. Without breaking stride, he yelled over his shoulder "We've got a runner! Get 'round to the front and block 'im!" He was gone before the words even fully registered. Enzo paused a moment to retrieve his trenchcoat and a final kiss from Renee before setting off himself.
Mistress Renee herself had to spend several additional minutes getting her breathing under control and straightening up her appearance before re-entering the room where her original client was. She nearly laughed aloud at the sight of him, hanging there unconscious, all of him utterly limp and spent. A quick search amid the wreckage found her crop, which she tapped in one hand with a thoughtful look.
Rickie felt more than heard or saw her pursuers. She had already begun sneaking out of the viewing room when the Gray Man had lifted the chair and brought it down on the glass wall between them, breaking into an all-out run at the sound of it shattering beneath his assault.
She didn't dare turn around to see if he or the Goatee was following, knowing she'd freeze like a doe caught in a car's headlights if she saw either of them.
Instead, the young blonde fairly bounded down the stairwell, pushing her way past the few patrons who were attempting to ascend them. Their shouted words, whatever they might have been, were lost to the pounding music and additional babble of voices of the main concourse. Rickie couldn't have cared less, having eyes for the curtained entryway alone.
Even so, the sound of something crashing behind her caused her to pause and look back. It was the Gray Man, standing atop one of the booth tables near the stairwell's base. The patrons who had been sitting there scrambling to get away, faces showing both fright and awe their costumes shining with the spilled and splattered contents of their drinks. It immediately hit Rickie what had happened, and she found herself in awe herself.
He'd jumped from the balcony to the floor, over forty feet below. He'd jumped and landed on both feet on the table, which was a good several feet away from the wall. He'd jumped and landed and hadn't broken single damn bone in the process, if the way he leapt to the floor and began tearing through the crowds was any indication.
It was an impressive feat, and for a crazed half-second Rickie was sorry she'd missed it. Seeing him barreling in her direction, she was suddenly sorrier she'd even looked back, panic threatening to hold her frozen right there. Instead freezing, however, Rickie began ducking and weaving through the other patrons and dancers with all the skill of a veteran of the NFL, NBA, or "No Man's Land" during the Battle of St. Michel.
She doubted the Gray Man could have seen her, given the crazy mix of bodies and dancing going on around them. Even so, he seemed to be heading in her general direction, which was reason enough for her to veer rather sharply off to the side and towards a side-door she spotted with a glowing EXIT sign over it. It wasn't actually an exit, but instead another short hallway like the one upstairs.
Against all sense, Rickie paused once more and risked a glance back around the threshold's corner. She caught sight of the Gray Man and the Goatee meeting up, exchanging words and gestures she could hear or understand. They quickly broke apart, with the Goatee sprinting off towards the main entrance...the Gray Man heading right towards her!
Rickie all but threw herself through the heavy door at the end of the hall, which opened with a loud 'clunk' and rebounded off the brick wall behind it. She found herself in a blind alley with claustrophobically narrow walls all around, between which she began running for her life without the least thought or hesitation. The night clouds had opened up with a light sprinkling of rain overhead, and her Doc Martins splashed through small puddles that had formed underneath.
She didn't look back, even when she heard the door open and shut again, and especially when she was sure she heard footsteps not so far behind her. If anything, she found herself running so much harder, it almost felt as though her legs were trying to disengage themselves from her hips.
Rickie found herself out of the alley only seconds later and back on the street she'd originally entered from, albeit about a block or two down from the doorway. She knew where she was because just a few moments later the Goatee burst out of the front door, with Ian the doorman shouting and shaking a fist in his direction. He looked around distractedly for several seconds, which gave Rickie the precious time she needed to find cover behind a foul-smelling trash bin in an alcove a few feet away. She wrinkled her nose at the smell, but was entirely too terrified to move, chilled literally to the bone.
The one advantage to her new position was it allowed her to hear what two men were saying. Or, more accurately, shouting.
"Enzo?" called the voice emerging from the alley nearby. It was the Gray Man.
"Yah?" the Goatee rejoined from the street.
"Talk to me! I've got nothing down here!"
"Talk to me! Where are they?"
"I've got nothing. Talk to me, dammit!"
"I've got nothing, dammit. What've you got? C'mon, talk to me!"
They went quiet and the footsteps died down for a minute or two. Then they started up again, more frantic this time.
"Oh, Christ!" the Gray Man muttered aloud.
The Goatee was somewhat less restrained. "You've got to be kidding me...you've got to be KIDDING me!"
"Gods dammit. She's gone."
"Oh, that's lovely." A sigh. "How much d'you think they saw?"
"I dunno. None of it. All of it. Who knows."
"Your taking this very calmly, y'know."
"One of us has to." A snort was the Goatee's only answer to this. "Let's get out of here before you-know-who shows up."
There was a smile in the Goatee's voice as he said "I thought you said you could handle her?"
The Gray Man's own response was more resigned and tired. "I say a lot of things. C'mon. Let's go sit down friend Price for a chat."
Rickie continued to sit there, behind a smelly dumpster, for what could have been minutes or hours as she listened to their footsteps echo off into the night. She waited for the echoes to fade off...waited for her heart to calm to a steady beat that didn't threaten to shake her rib cage apart...
Waited for her legs to unfreeze so she could stand and walk away...
It proved a long wait.
The 7:30 to Harwich left without incident, carrying with it commuters bound for the Hook Von Holland ferry and one still-agitated warrior. The tension she radiated had been picked up by her fellow commuters, several of whom found other seats which gave them space from the frightening woman with wild black hair. Many other's weren't so lucky, the car a bit too crowded to allow for much extra room.
Not that Xena was as about to explode or start knocking heads or disemboweling gawkers. It was irritating for her, granted, but hardly on the order that she might give vent to the accumulated tensions and terrors of the past seventy-two hours. She was saving that for a certain young blonde who, once she caught up with her, would be unable to sit comfortably through the airplane trip home. That was provided she didn't simply break certain delicate joints and handcuff her to the nearest solid object.
Xena set her jaw against the sick feeling that had settled in her gut some time back. When and where it had come in she wasn't sure, but it twisted there and made her afraid as she'd rarely known. In it, the sickening possibility she might be running a fool's errand, racing not to her precious Dreamer, but away from her and leaving her unprotected in a foreign city.
The idea alone was nearly enough to make her loose what little she'd eaten, between the images this conjured and Jeanne's voice whispering in her ear.
How many whore's have died for you, Xena? How many have you killed by loving them?
How many more will you sacrifice for your perverted pleasures?
Having a dead woman's voice echoing in one's ear was disconcerting enough, leaving Xena to wonder if she weren't in fact loosing her mind. What made it worse, she heard herself muttering aloud in reply "Rickie is not my whore, Jeanne." A few of the other passengers gave her odd looks and shifted uncomfortably at her dark expression, but none were brave enough to offer open comment.
Xena herself was entirely too preoccupied to notice or care. In an effort to keep those phantom voices at bay, she concentrated instead upon her destination, letting still older questions raise themselves and give her a most distracting headache. The pounding in her temples and the sudden pressure squeezing her eyeballs proved a more than adequate defense against the child's voice, with its repeated accusation.
"Why is she dead? Why aren't you dead instead of her?!?"
Xena didn't even try responding to this, mentally or audibly, the intervening centuries having given her no answer. Instead she drowned out the voice with other, more pointless worries. Among them what exactly she'd been thinking buying a sizable house in Essex county, a house she never spent more than a few days at in the past forty-odd years. It wasn't as if she used it for more than a bit of storage space, and the whole of England, with the village of Colchester in particular, having too many bad memories for her to stand spending any length of time there. It had been trial enough being around all those five years during the '60s and early '70s, that whole incident made manageable only because she could still retreat to the estate in Wales.
Now, however, she was having serious doubts about keeping any property anywhere in the world. Emil's revelations about this society he belonged to actually unnerved her more than she would ever admit. How much did they know? she often wondered to herself. Was that person across the street one of them? Did they have minicam's and bugs hidden in the warehouse? Was Rickie safe at the campus?
The recent spat of attacks on them (words to the contrary, Xena knew her attacker Wednesday morning had been looking her specifically) only served to argue the point further. She'd flirted more than once with the idea of her and Rickie disappearing once and for all, maybe back to the Amazon, or into the Himalayas, or some sheep farm in New Zealand or Australia. She'd even gone so far as to have new passports drawn up, but never mentioned it to her Dreamer, who seemed perfectly content with their life under Emil's seemingly not-so-intense scrutiny. Xena never quite had the heart to go forward with her preparations, and so let the matter more or less lie.
However, if she found just one hair out of place on her bacchae's head...
Xena continued to sit there, stewing quietly and trying hard not to think about such things. When this didn't work, she indulged in a bit of fantasy, contemplating what bloody retribution she might wreck if it came to that. This eased her headache a bit. She tried, with much greater success this time, not to think about what this said of her state of mind.
This struck her rather funny, though the hilarity didn't quite penetrate past the mask she'd made of her set features.
Further back in the car, behind where the warrior sat, a cell phone rang. Partially out of consideration of the other passengers, the owner stood and eased his way out into the isle and out the door, pulling out the phone only once he was inside the car's WC. There was little to distinguish him from the rest of the Sunday commuters, with his casual clothes and glasses.
His shirt and jacket were a size larger than he might normally wear. The sleeves therefore did an excellent job of hiding the faded patch of scar tissue on the inside of his right wrist, revealed only as he raised the phone to his ear.
His message was simple, though he kept his voice low.
"She's on her way in. We should arrive sometime after nightfall." He listened to question, pointlessly shaking his head. "No, she's completely alone."
He closed the phone and sat down on the toilet. He hadn't gone in there just to answer his phone, after all.
The train arrived in Colchester on time and without incident. Xena and a few others were quick to disembark, the man with cell phone and glasses among them. He gave only a casual glance her way before setting off to a waiting car in the lot outside. Xena, of course, was too distracted fruitlessly searching out a cab to even notice. Colchester, a sizable community of over 140,000, of course retained a sizable taxi service, several of which were normally parked directly outside all three of the town's rail stations. Xena had arrived at the appropriately named Town Station, located on the southeast end of the town, only to find the last visible cab pulling away from the curb just outside.
"Wonderful timing," she muttered, mentally recalling the layout of the city and the surrounding area. Her house was to the northwest, well outside of the city proper but within full view of Colchester Castle, which dominated the skyline. She could certainly try and huff it on foot, but it would likely be well past midnight before she got there, and some deep intuition told her time was of the essence.
Not content to simply stand on the platform, praying the god of taxis would see how pissed off she was and act accordingly, Xena immediately set off down the darkened streets, hands deep in pockets and eyes and ears attentive for any sign of an approaching cab. There was little enough traffic running at that evening hour, people having retired to tea time and the Sunday reruns of "Doctor Who" or whatever BBC2 was playing that night.
The few taxis that passed her by were already engaged, and the sky overhead was looking increasingly threatening. Neither of these helped her maintain a calm disposition any, her placid façade suggesting otherwise. Xena was too well practiced in concealing such things.
By the time she was making her way due north on High Street, Xena was, oddly, more relaxed than before. Oh, she still had every intention of twisting Rickie into pretzel once she got her hands on her, but the walk had worked off a good bit of the nervous energy that had been driving her half out of her mind, so she was better able to attend to the world around her. The impatience was not so easily banished, however, and every sense was stretched to their limit to find her a quicker conveyance to her objective.
A taxi was eventually found, just as she was reaching the bridge over the Colne River. She swiftly flagged it down, by that point ready to jump in front of it or any other vehicle that passed her by. She actually stepped half off the curb, just to underline her need for it, and was smugly satisfied to hear the driver step hard on his breaks.
Xena climbed into the idling cab with a exaggerated calm and ease. Settling herself, she told the driver the address. He met her eyes in the rearview mirror, about to tell her it was far outside his route, only to stop as he was caught by the fury contained in her eyes. He immediately thought better of it and pulled away from the curb.
Neither noticed a second pair of headlights light up behind them, nor hear the rev of the engine behind it kick to life.
The trip was mercifully short, evening traffic having all but evaporated under the threat of rain. As they pulled up to the turn off to the house, Xena leaned forward to hand the driver a hundred pound note. The not-so-subtle bribe softening his shaking somewhat, and he could barely contain the long breath of relief that slipped out as the tall brunette got out and disappeared up the country lane. He'd been a driver for nearly fifteen years, his fares ranging from the mundane to the noisy, but never to the utterly terrifying. He swore a solemn vow to himself never to speak of this one; he doubted his brother cabbies would have believed it anyway.
The cab pulled away a second or so later, the night swallowing it whole. The second pair of headlights drifted up the street a minute or so later, slowing as it passed the turn-off, pausing just long enough to catch fleeting sight of the figure moving up it. The car continued on its way, seemingly without any further interest...provided one discounted the mobile phone its driver raised to their ear, and the simple message spoken into it:
"She's coming up."
Dark as it was, the unpaved lane was not so difficult a path that Xena was slowed by it. She was actually making good time, given she was also keeping an attentive ear out for the any sign of trouble. With her attention so intently divided, it was no surprise what came next all but bowled her off her feet, as much literally as figuratively.
The Quickening hit her like a lightning strike, its natural fire exacerbated by both the tension knotting her shoulders and her near-complete distraction from everything save reaching the house. Xena was consequently unprepared for its singular intensity as all the warning signs slid through her, the cold phantom wind rushing in her ears and down her spine, all leaving her shaken yet hyper-aware. She drew several deep breaths, mentally scrambling to find her center once more. Fresh fear beat in her now, and she cursed herself a fool for racing out there unarmed.
Well, she smiled slyly for a moment, a reassuring weight on her back remembered. Not entirely unarmed.
Still the very fact she encountered such a Quickening, and from such a distance, gave her obvious pause. It was a sign of a...powerful presence...in the area. There weren't many Immortals, old ones at any rate, with such presence around anymore. It meant a survivor of dozens and dozens of duels, a being who must have been fairly crackling with the contained power of the centuries.
Rather than slowing her steps as caution might dictate, particularly in the face of this latest realization, Xena broke into an all-out dash across the wide grounds separating the house from the road. Her boots nearly became tangled several times in the thick grass underfoot, causing Xena to curse herself again, this time at her laxness in attending to her properties...and how she'd forgotten the last groundskeeper she'd hired for this particular house had died over a year and a half ago.
She would have kicked herself, literally, if she had not been so busy trying to keep her footing right then, even when she reached the gravel path leading to the front door. Plenty of time for that later. Right then, mere paces from the house, Xena found her steps ground to a halt and her eyes gaze upon the large structure before her.
The house loomed large in the late summer moonlight, elegant if somewhat careworn in its structure, casting long shadows as she approached. Xena again wondered quietly what she had been thinking in buying it. And the same, sad reason hit her square in the nose: she had, quite simply, not been thinking at the time. The Profumo Scandal had been in high gear, with allegations of Soviet spies in bed (literally) with the Ministry of Defense and prostitution rings being run out of Parliamentary offices, and Xena had been busy chasing around after a fellow immortal to really care. London had become nearly as paranoid as the States during McCarthy's reign and she'd needed an escape.
In a moment of utter madness, she'd gone east instead of west, into Essex rather than Wales, happening upon the large estate by chance and buying for some outrageous sum when she found the ancient marker stones surrounding the property. The house rested on ceremonial grounds of an order that pre-dated the Druids, or so her initial research suggested. She later learned the marker vstones were fakes, creations of the spiritualism craze of the 1880s and 1890s, and the ground was no holier than the average city block of downtown Glasgow.
Nevertheless, she had made the purchase with almost no thought...and abandon it with a similar lack only a short time later, when memories of the green countryside began to bedevil her. There had been nights when she would wake suddenly, certain she heard the thunder of war-horse's hooves on the plains outside, the almost musical crash of metal upon metal upon flesh and bone accompanying it.
To be fair, she'd made a go of living there, enduring the restless nights and memories suddenly too real to be just memories, but ultimately threw the towel in after only a month. Groundskeepers were easy enough to find and pay off in a region like this, and she'd thought almost nothing of this place since then. All nine levels of Tartarus broke loose upon her return to London, giving her reasons aplenty to be distracted, these distractions stretching across the decades in one form or another and causing her to forget all manner of things.
But now, standing before this three story, twenty-two room, run-down structure she owned, Xena wondered if it had been only distraction that had kept her from making peace with her demons here. She was honest enough to know the limits of her courage, as amply demonstrated by her interaction with the Covington and Pappas families. When was the last time she'd let herself even think of Helena or Harry or any of their numerous children? Having Rickie quiz her on them had been bad enough, her bacchae having no idea how deeply her cowardice and shame ran when it came to family.
These thoughts pulled her from the reverie she'd fallen into, making her grit her teeth and recall the original purpose of this little outing. For all she knew, her bacchae could be breathing her last inside while she stood there woolgathering! That thought alone was nearly enough to undo what little control she had left.
Finding the front door cracked open did not exactly help her state of mind, either.
She wracked her brain for details of the house, trying to remember which of the structure's many entry points afforded the greatest amount of concealment. As she circled the house, pressing close to the shadows, Xena took stock of how well her property had fared for her neglect. The windows were uniformly dirty and the walls all needed several coats of stain and paint, but it otherwise looked intact and stable. The grass had grown wild and now reached well above the stone foundations, making it difficult to move with her usual deliberateness and stealth.
Xena was a naturally patient individual, usually able to ignore most every distraction and focus completely on the task at hand, no matter how insurmountable the opposition seemed. However long it might take, she would find a way to achieve her objectives, come hell or high water.
Then again, she normally didn't have waking nightmares of her bacchae lying inside dark country houses...bleeding...scarred...mutilated...
No surprise then that by the time she'd reached the front door again, the last grains of her patience had run out and she had decided on a singular point and method of entry. Xena simply marched up to the front door...and kicked it completely off its hinges. She paused only a for a moment to take a deep breath and resumed her march into the darkness beyond the threshold.
Despite the fact they detected the infrared end of the spectrum, night vision goggles actually presented the world in shades of whites and green. The sight they played out for those hidden just behind a small but distant hill across the field was easy enough to see and held no surprises: a lone figure trudging across the open field towards the house, circling it, then entering through the front door. Simple and direct.
Not unlike their team leader's report to the higher-ups. "She's in."
The answer was swift in coming and equally succinct. "Wait an hour. If she hasn't come out, move in. You get opportunity for a clean shot by scope, take it."
"Roger." The lead was an ex-Para, answering solely to the name of "Major", recruited (so the legend went) by Joe Dawson himself for the Society, then for the kill teams by Horton. He'd been on every major op Horton had run nearly from day one, from the Darius sanction to Horton's last op, latter costing their chief his life and most of them their employment with the Society. But the Major had learned his lessons well from all this. Everything was precision planning with him, rigorous training included, which explained his presence. They may not have been trying to sanction a certain bastard Scot, but the target was close enough to make it worthwhile.
He communicated the rest of the team by hand signals, and they felt the first thrill of the coming action in their otherwise stony hearts. None of them showed it, of course. Patience as well as combat skills had been drilled into them. An hour wasn't that long, after all. They could wait.
To her surprise, Xena found herself alone in the dusty silence of the foyer. No powerful figure waiting for her, no sudden attack to be dodged, nothing more threatening than the small fog of dust bunnies the collapsing door had given rise to.
To be on the safe side, she reached into the back of her coat and pulled out the Chakrum, its polished edge glinting impossibly in the darkness, before going further.
The house was an aged Victorian, its construction begun in the latter quarter of the last century and intended to serve as the retreat of a elderly peer, who died before its completion. His widow had the construction completed, intending to use it for herself. But, because she was an adventurer like Xena herself, the widow let the place fall into neglect and some disrepair, never going there until she and her lover retired to it shortly after the end of World War II. They reportedly died there, their bones hidden somewhere in the house. Oddly, no stories of ghostly figures or strange occurrences followed from this, even though the house remained unsold until her finding it in '63.
Skeptical as she was on that score, Xena had always walked carefully within the house, mindful that spirits tended to linger longer than the flesh. Such mindfulness was absent in her stride right then, which was swift and anything but thoughtful. She in fact literally tore through the ground floor, darting into and out of rooms and closets and hallways, silently bemoaning the creaking floorboards underneath and the lack of available light. Some distant part of her was screaming bloody murder about how idiotic she was behaving, racing about without the least care like this, a perfect target for ambush, et cetera, et cetera.
Xena, however, had eyes and mind for just one objective: finding her Dreamer. Whether she was alive or...not...didn't enter into it.
Finding nothing on the ground floor, Xena made her way to the grand staircase which curved upwards from the foyer, taking the stairs two or three at a time. Fast as she ascended, however, she was still fasting tumbling back down, the foot that literally materialized out of the darkness ahead of her and connected solidly with her jaw ensuring her fall.
Upon landing back on the floor below, Xena sprung to her feet and held the Chakrum ready. Her head was ringing like mad and it felt like her shoulder was ready to slip out of its socket. She nonetheless was ready for whatever follow-up attack might come.
None did. She was left standing there, swaying ever so slightly, eyes sharply focused and head aching from the fall. A chuckle of laughter floated down from above, sexless and little more than an echo. It set her blood on fire, more from the shame of deserving to be taken so easily than the adrenaline rush this challenge brought her.
Properly chastised, she proceeded to climb the stairs once again, far slower this time and with the Chakrum up and ready once more. Screaming tension wrapping about her mind, urging her to race once more, a too fertile imagination concocting all manner of horrors that might have befallen her Dreamer by then. Xena heard it, and paid no heed.
She didn't dare.
Instead, her legs carried her smoothly up the stairs to the main landing, where she stood for several seconds, eyes closed and senses reaching for the smallest disturbance in the air. There was nothing there. No scent, no audible shift of cloth against skin, not even the faintest disturbance to the dusty air. For a moment, Xena had to wonder if she hadn't just imagined getting kicked down the staircase. Her still-throbbing jaw told her otherwise.
As if to reinforce the point, another chuckle drifted through air, faint and directionless.
"Spirit, my ass." Xena had muttered it more for the benefit of her unseen assailant than herself. One foot in front of the other, she began down the hallway.
Her search quickly took on an almost surrealistic feel, the strong moonlight rendered indistinct and muted by the dirty curtains over the windows, leaving those rooms at once darkened and illuminated. Other rooms, ones without windows and deeper within the house, were completely shrouded in inky darkness. It was almost claustrophobic, the way the walls appeared to shift and bend with the shafts of blue and dusty silver, all of which processed in Xena's mind through a distance. The fine details, from the cobwebs choking the corners to the chipping paint and wallpaper right down to the threadbare carpeting, were all processed unconsciously. The rest concentrated on preparing for the inevitable.
At least what she considered to be inevitable. The laughter, the blow to her jaw, both had been obvious challenges. It only made sense that an attack, whether directly ahead or (more likely) from ambush would follow, right?
She neither saw it, heard it, barely even sensed it, at least consciously. One moment she was stalking through the halls, pausing every so often at the threshold of some door or other, the next the Chakrum was coming up almost of its own volition and sparks were lighting the darkness between her and the blade that had been arching down at her seemingly unguarded back. She left slightly unbalanced by the force of the strike, the Chakrum again swinging up and cutting cloth, but missing the flesh behind it.
Xena spun to face the attacker fully, with knees bent and in a crouching stance, prefect for dodging or pressing forward. She was caught off-guard once more by the distracting sparkle of the sword in the shadows, its clear metal catching and reflecting the scraps of moonlight nearby into a veritable rainbow of flashes and fireworks. This miniature explosion of light caused the warrior to see nothing but stars for several heartbeats, allowing the attacker opportunity to strike once more, the blade once more cutting the air with deadly precision. The only result was more sparks dancing between the Charkrum and the sword.
Strike after strike, parry after parry, this was all either knew as they danced between the hallway, through room after room, and across the landing by the stairs. Xena quickly recognized the moves brought against her, countering them with ease but fared no better against her opponent's defenses. It was at once exhilarating and frustrating, both in the extreme. All the moreso as her opponent seemed to be retreating back to the main landing. Xena was nearly convinced she'd gained the upper hand at this, until she noted how her assailant seemed to be skipping and prancing across the floor like a little girl.
Still, she actually found herself laughing a few times at the back-and-forth play of this dueling dance. The few strikes that came close enough to be felt were all the reminder Xena needed that this was anything but a simple game; a fact belayed somewhat by the fact her opponent caught an attack of the giggles after the warrior tried a deep slash to her mid-section, only connect with empty air and spin like a top for several turns.
Landing firmly on her butt, Xena would have sworn she'd reached far enough she ought to have hit something. But then again, this one had a tendency of tossing the standard laws of physics out the window. This was almost her last thought, the blade coming down like an executioner's ax and missing her only because she'd rolled herself into a backwards somersault at the last moment.
"Day-dreaming in the middle of a fight?" the still-shadowed shape before her drawled in a Welsh accent. ""Would you be trying to make a widow of fair Rickie, then?"
It wasn't the mention of her bacchae that caused Xena to launch herself directly at her opponent, throwing all caution to the wind and growling like a lioness pouncing upon her cub's dinner. It really wasn't that...at least it wasn't the main reason for it...or so Xena told herself. Little lies like were necessary for a body to get on with the business of living, normally doing no more harm than a bit of self-delusion.
This particular time, however, it resulted in a very loud "Umph!" and what sounded like a few ribs fracturing as the two of them went rolling down the staircase once again. There were bruises galore for the both of them, as well as a fair amount of dizziness and the odd groan or two. Xena, who had gone through this tumble once before, was up on her feet first and ready to let the Chakrum fly. The next thing she knew, her were legs completely swept out from under her, landing her hard on her right shoulder and causing her temple to connect sharply with the uncarpeted floor. The Chakrum nearly rolled from her grasp, her grasp on it instinctively tightening and almost slicing her palm open on its razor-fine edge.
She saw her opponent slowly climbing back to their feet, feeling herself do the same in response. She tried to bring the Chakrum back up, but for some reason her arm was slow in obeying her wishes. Just as well really, as she wasn't sure which of the three or four figures swirling before her was the real one.
She was saved having to guess by all four raising their arms and declaring "King's X! Mea culpa! I surrender! You've mussed up my hair and...oh, look at this...I've got a run in my bloody stocking!"
To her shock, Xena heard her voice slur "I'll...give ya...such a...a haircut...iffen...you'll...all stop moving...!" She made a half-hearted slash with the Chakrum, dispelling most of the images. Shaking her head to clear away the rest of the dots swirling before her eyes, Xena squinted and tensed once more as the figure, now clearly recognizable, stood and picked up the medieval bastard sword near her. The attacker saw this, putting a balled fist on one hip while leaning on the sword as though it were a cane with the other.
"Give it a wee rest, now would you? I've not the inclination for another tumble across the floor with the like of you." said Gwen Camlann, and rather testily at that.
Xena gave her a scathing stare, lasting for the whole of ten seconds before she broke into a semi-relived grin and lowered the Chakrum and returned it to its hiding place at her back. The grin was returned, though with more warmth than she expected and with an accompanying hug she found herself suddenly enwrapped within. Surprise and fatigue kept Xena from immediately responding, though her arms were soon up of their own accord and embracing the blonde woman to her.
"Good to see you there, Xena." Gwen murmured warmly.
"Same here, yer Highness." This caused Gwen to tense ever so slightly. It was the only acknowledgement she gives of the pain fourteen plus centuries have only barely managed to dim. She covered it by nodding towards the sword and adding "Good way to go loosing your head there, Gwen."
They drew away, the smiles between them cool but genuine. Whatever old business or memories there were between them, neither let it arise right then. Instead, Gwen retrieved the sword from the floor and hefted it, saying "Oh, poo. You know a lady never looses her head in a fight. Nice blade, by the way, though you could have done a better job at hiding it here."
"Oh?" Xena smiled and crooked and eyebrow. "And how was I to know you'd be showing up at a house I never use?"
"Ah. I had wondered why the why the place look so run down." She made a grandly sweeping wave across the obviously unkept walls and ceiling. With a mild and melodramatic tone, a hand demurely placed on her bosom, the blonde Immortal added "One really ought take better care of one's property, shouldn't one? Never know when the tax man will come a'calling."
"This from the owner of Brackenbur Castle."
Ignoring the empty jibe, Gwen gave Xena another imperious look and continued her original thought. "Well, one should have a retirement spot picked out, eh?. Unless...you haven't sold off that wee beach house in the Med, did you? I'm still in the market for it, you know." Her expression hardened slightly. "And you invited me here last month, remember?"
Xena rolled her eyes and wondered not for the first time what it was with her friend and the seashore. "I wondered when you'd ask about that one. And no, I haven't sold it."
"Pity. I was looking for a place with a bit of privacy." The blonde woman looked her old friend and near-contemporary over, noting with some concern the wrinkles of stress on her brow and the stony set to her shoulders.
Xena likewise looked her unexpected houseguest over, even as she hunted about for the light switch, amazed to find the electricity hadn't been cut off as she flipped it and was momentarily blinded by the light coming from the scattered lamps around the room. "Oww." Gwen declared almost melodramatically, shielding her eyes in a pose worthy of Stanaslavski.
She was dressed in a short summer frock colored a soft blue, the tone complementing her eyes perfectly, with ivory stockings and medium heels encasing her legs. Her blonde hair had been grown long and woven it into a single tight braid that hung down her back and moved in tandem with every shift of her hips. She still retained a trim form, lean and strong, despite what must have been at least five centuries of the proverbial wild life. The frock fit her perfectly, and was just practical enough to allow her to duel in.
This was one standard every Immortal held close, an eye towards being ready to battle for one's life at literally the drop of a hat. Xena had no doubt the former monarch before, who by all accounts was alternately a drunken slut and the most refined of ladies, with manners and charm to burn in either incarnation, was ready spring into action once more.
She had to wonder precisely what drove her friend on so, where she got this lust for life so strong she could weather the passage of time. Xena could understand such drives, at least to a point, feeling them herself and knowing how exhaustion could easily set in after a time. It had finally caught up with her two centuries ago, driving her into the jungle for five full generations, until a demented fever-dream.
But Gwen Camlann was virtually a law unto herself. Her drive never weakened, never faltered. Probably scared the spit out of most of those who came looking for her head. What they'd forgotten, what Xena could never forget, was this deceptively fragile looking creature was the embodiment of a full millennia and a half of rites and wisdom, and that added up to a very formidable individual. Small wonder she had not caught so much as a sniff of her upstairs, pobably with her standing in plain sight, to boot.
Said individual now lounged in front of her, the sole fact she was fully clothed being the only thing that made her decadent posing even half-way decent. "So," Gwen drawled. "Where are you hiding the ever-lucious Rickie, eh? I've been wanting to speak with her about that story of hers." She grinned wickedly. "Especially the...romantic bits."
At this, Xena's grin fell into a dark frown. "What? She isn't here?"
Not catching the thunderous undertones in the question, Gwen grinned like a cat and let her head lolly back unto the sofa, saying in an airy tone "Afraid not. And here I've been, for nearly two whole hours, just fantasizing..." Letting her words trail off suggestively, she looked up, expecting the usual mix of patience and annoyance to her jesting overtures. Instead she found a stare that nearly froze the air between them, and a jaw set so tightly beneath those eyes boring into her it was a wonder the teeth didn't shatter under the pressure.
"You really weren't expecting me here tonight, were you?"
"But you thought young Rickie was here."
"I got a call this morning..."
From between clenched teeth, Xena nearly spat "Gwen, I haven't called anyone in the past two days!"
The silence between them was intense with words and realizations going unspoken. It would have been a waste of air, but Gwen couldn't really resist speaking it anyway. "We've been taken for a ride, haven't we?" she asked pointlessly as she stood. This put her between Xena and the nearest window.
The aged wiring of the house chose that moment to give out, the brief display of pyrotechnics issuing from the basement's fusebox being witnessed only by the few hardy field mice who had made their home there. This plunged the house once more into darkness, much to the consternation of those upstairs.
"Oh, bug..." Gwen began to say, only to suddenly find herself almost flying across the room, her arm aching like mad at nearly being yanked from its socket by Xena. She managed to twist herself about so she hit the wall with her good shoulder. The momentum was strong enough to rebound her off the wall and land her flat on her back, coincidentally landing her behind a covered love seat.
All she could hear through all this was the roar and crash of artificial thunder that demolished the wall she had been standing before. She caught sight of Xena making a break for the foyer, three very large entrance wounds appearing in her back propelling out the door and out of sight. Fighting tears and the urge to run to her friend, Gwen curled into a fetal ball and clapped both hands over her ears, desperately trying to keep out the noise of wood and glass shattering beneath a hail of high-velocity explosive rounds.
When the attack finally stopped, Gwen was barely aware of it, so bad was the ringing in her ears. Only the fact that it was no longer raining chips of glass and mildew-covered splinters alerted her that the air was once more still. Raising her head over the now-mostly demolished loveseat, she saw several thin red laser lights tracing through the air, all extinguishing in unison a few seconds later. She had seen enough of war to know what this meant, and quickly began crawling as quickly as she could to the door, scowling her displeasure at the damage this was doing to her frock and wincing as the glass littering the floor cut into her palms and knees.
"Xena?" she hissed upon reaching her prone friend, now lying in an ever widening pool of her blood. Gwen groped about her neck, feeling past twisted bone in futile search for a pulse. Finding none, the blonde Immortal grit her teeth tightly and felt into her now-tattered jacket, her slim fingers closing around the Chakrum just as her hearing cleared enough to catch the footfalls fast approaching outside.
She tugged at that ancient weapon, only to find it snagged on something within the jacket's weave. Looking back towards the pockmarked wall behind them, eyes narrowed, she tried pulling again with still less success.
The footfalls outside were relentless, approaching far faster than she'd first thought. With a last glance down at Xena, Gwen gave a small snarl of "Oh, to hell with this!" and let go of the Chakrum, running into the darkest of the house's shadows.
She was long gone when the front door was kicked in.
The team had come ready for ambush or direct assault, every member in tactical gear, with three of them accomplished snipers armed with 12.7x99mm Hecate II rifles. They preferred the French made rifle to its American Browning .50 caliber counterpart for its lighter weight and greater long-range precision, even with the extended silencers affixed to their barrels. Both these attributes were used to good effect that night, the former allowing them to quickly reposition themselves to create an effective field of fire while the latter let them each get their licks in on the target without fail.
The Major had watched it all through field glasses, noting with no small satisfaction how the target had been felled so easily. He counted at least two, possibly three solid hits on her, seeing her fall after the first few seconds. The snipers, per orders, didn't let up and emptied their magazines, reloading and emptying them again. Only the first ten shots had been solid head penetration rounds, the rest being hollow points and explosives. They knew there had been someone in there with her, having seen the blonde woman in blue dress and heels enter the after parking her Carmen Ghia in the attached garage, all less than an hour before the target's arrival. They evidentially knew each other, going by their silhouette's dancing in the main room after they'd moronically turned the lights on. The Major had read the lights cutting out as a sign they knew they'd been tumbled, and had signaled opening fire.
The extra rounds of fire reduced their cover, as had been the original intention, and, God willing, taken them out in the process. Nothing, not even another Immortal, could have survived, and he certainly had not recognized the second woman from any of his briefings or past ops. If he felt any guilt by this, he did not feel the least tickle of it.
Once the snipers had all spent their second clip, he signaled the rest of the action team, numbering five strong and all armed with silenced Hecker & Koch MP5s, all of whom sprung to their feet and took off across the grounds towards the house. The Major himself stayed behind with the snipers, who were busy gathering up their cartridges and removing what traces were left of the team's presence.
The Society, Dawson and his pet Highlander in particular, had not even the merest inkling of how wide the kill teams the late James Horton had organized operated. And these men were the most experienced of those left, veterans of covert ops across the globe, and so were well practiced at their work.
Satisfied with their work, the Major signed the three to accompany him to the house. Shouldering their rifles and drawing automatics (also silenced), they followed him like an honor guard. Though they all were sure of what was awaiting them, but had learned the hard way not to declare victory until the opposition's corpses were all cold. The Major himself carried another MP5, the weapon a favorite of law enforcement and military alike for its versatility and the reliability.
He liked it because it switched so easily to full automatic and had good cycling. Little things like that made for good body counts.
Their approach to the house was almost leisurely compared to the rest of their cohort. Why should they hurry? The Prime team, as they had been designated, had a simple enough brief: make sure Amphipoulis was dead, and remained so until their, designated Red team, arrival there. True, he'd seen her fall with a good couple hits to her. But falling was no guarantee where these creatures were concerned. Another little lesson he'd learned, as testified by his prosthetic right hand and missing eye.
The relaxed appearance to their pace disappeared completely as the drew closer to the house, the snipers hurrying ahead and taking up positions around the side door they planned to enter through. One eased the door open and quickly disappeared through it, all while covered by the other two, who followed close behind. The Major paused to take a breath and get his momentarily rampaging emotions back under control before joining them. Closing in for the kill, even an easy one like this, never failed to set his blood on fire. It was the only time he actually felt anything on an op, and so always had to hold back for a moment to wrestle it back down.
The fact it was a woman did not bother him, as he had long ago stopped feeling most anything when it came to the actual wetwork. It was more the anticipation than anything else.
Mind once again placid, the Major followed his men in, sharp ears attentive through the tight weave of his headmask for the discharge yet more rounds. The air was silent however, save for the soft impact of their boots on the floors and carpet. The undisturbed air set off alarm bells rang out in his head as they moved through the disused kitchen and empty hallways to the foyer. Glances, some bordering on the nervous, passed between the others, their movements becoming even looser as they moved deeper into the house.
When they reached the foyer, the tension that had built between them dissipated somewhat at the sight of one of Prime standing over Amphipoulis's still form. His head was bowed low and he cradled his MP5 in a loose grip. The guard looked surprisingly relaxed.
The Major took a quick look over the prone figure at their feet, noting the placement of the three entrance wounds with no small amount of satisfaction, and turned to the guard, who had remained utterly still since their arrival. Even his eyes had remained wide open, not blinking once despite the dust in the air. A terrible suspicion took root in the Major's mind. He let his weapon dangle by its shoulder-strap and extended a single finger, poking the guard hard in the shoulder.
The guard collapsed like a tree felled by lumberjack's ax. His head and back rolled about at a bizarre angle, as though his entire spine had no more consistency than jelly. His impact with the floor was consequently far quieter than it might have been.
It might as well have been a thunderbolt from the gods themselves.
All four of them trained their weapons on the body at their feet, fingers on the triggers and ready to let loose another barrage. The Major almost screamed through his eyes, ordering by quick gestures the one nearest the stairs go searching the second floor, then nodding off the other two to search out the rest of the floor. Yes, it was natural to think Amphipoulis had pulled a fast one on them, but the Major wasn't entirely convinced of it was anything so simple.
This was proven when the one he'd sent upstairs came tumbling back down, a dark stain growing from his chest. He squinted hard into the dimness at the top of the stairs, seeing a half-formed figure there and immediately bringing his MP5 to bear. He fired a quick burst, no more than a dozen rounds, but to no effect save to cause the figure to completely vanish from sight and bring the remaining pair of his men running back. They skidded to a halt just as their fellow completed his fall, coming to rest at their very feet.
The Major gave them a reproving glance, taking his eyes off the stairs for barely a second, and waved the barrel of his gun towards the stairs once more. All three trained their sights there, the snipers carefully stepping around its base to afford themselves maximum coverage. The Major remained where he was, as ready to drop his aim upon Amphipoulis as at their unknown assailant. He let himself wonder for a moment what manner of creature they faced, not entirely certain he even wanted to know.
Small irony then that, just as decided this as a negative, a flash of silver caught his eye to the left. This was the very direction his men had just come from. Before he was fully conscious of this small fact, both crumpled before his very eyes, that same flash arching through the darkness and slicing through their torsos with lethal precision. The Major's reaction was equally unconscious, the MP5 dropping slightly and the trigger depressed to spew out its entire magazine, tracking the will-o-wisp of light perfectly. It did not concern him that several of these rounds tore through his own men. He knew them to either be already dead or dying, and so considered their incidental catching a few rounds a mercy, cutting their suffering short.
All that mattered was how this caused the shadowy figure behind it to be unbalanced and thrown to the floor, all the with an encouraging "Gagh!" to it.
Stepping quickly over Amphipoulis, the Major closed on the attacker, recognizing her as the blonde woman in a summer frock. Her clothes were already matted with blood, not her's alone, he'd wager. She was still alive and conscious, dragging herself down the hall towards the kitchen even though she was bleeding heavily from her side and right thigh. She seemed to be moving rather well despite her wounds, which, going by the thick trail of dark blood she was leaving in her wake, must have been severe. He raised his weapon once more, intent on finishing this...only to have it issue a loud CLICK-CLACK.
He looked at the gun incredulously and tried again, with the same result. The obvious quickly dawned on him: he had spent the entire magazine, simple and ridiculous as that. It almost caused him to laugh aloud. The woman was less restrained, evidentially having heard this and rattling out an exhausted chuckle.
For himself, the Major let the submachine gun fall from his hand, drawing his automatic from its shoulder holster and drawing a clean bead on the crawling woman. His target had by this time pulled herself into a sitting position against the nearby wall, apparently having exhausted herself getting as far as she had.
The Major was soon standing directly over her, beyond the reach of her sword but close enough to afford him clear sight of her. Her breathing had become increasingly labored and her entire lower half seemed to be little more than a single darkening stain. Crouching there, she looked frail and weak, hardly capable of lifting the blade she clung to. His lips curled into a sneer of disgust, as much with his men as with her. It was one thing to fall in battle against an obviously superior enemy. But to be defeated by something so obviously weak as this honey-haired bitch...
He took very careful, very deliberate aim, lining the sights up between her eyes. Amazingly, the woman looked directly into his eyes and, utterly calm, asked "An...any (cough) final...(cough) final requests?"
The Major squinted in surprise, but otherwise concealed his surprise at the question. His thumbing back the hammer was all the answer needed. "Guess not," she muttered pointlessly, body wracked by a coughing fit that drew up a fair amount of blood. "P...pity," she added as she slumped back against the wall.
The air was suddenly abuzz with what sounded like a dozen gigantic mosquitoes with murder on their collective minds. The Major quickly spun back towards Amphipoulis, immediately catching sight of the disk-like object spinning towards him. He instinctively brought up his left arm to block it, only to watch, as if in slow motion, as it sliced completely through his forearm and continue unimpeded towards his head.
He felt nothing, save utter shock, as the razor's edge cut through his neck, cleaving his head from his shoulders and sending him into final darkness.
Xena had awakened to the rattle of machine gun fire, distant memories of fever dreams that were not dreams replaying themselves in her ears. They were barely-formed things, vague sensations and little more. These were nevertheless enough to make her forget the crushing ache of her chest and back, enough to make her force herself first to all fours, then fully upright. She stayed there for a moment, swaying unsteadily on her knees as she mentally fought her way through the haze that had settled over her mind. Her vision cleared enough to perceive the three bodies near her, all dark-clad and quite obviously dead.
Movement drew her eye a short distance away. Squinting through the amorphous shapes clouding her sight, Xena saw another pair of figures, one towering over the other and pointing something dangerous looking at them. The standing one was clothed in dark military fatigues like the other bodies, while the one it stood over was golden haired and huddled into a corner.
"Gabrielle?" she mouthed, disorientated as both past and half-memory intermingled. She had no clear idea where she was or what was happening, the sight nonetheless speaking to her deepest instincts. The same instincts that directed her hand to reach for and draw the Chakrum from her jacket. She threw it with all the force she could muster, aiming at the standing figure through her arm was anything but steady. This left her unbalanced and soon flat on her stomach again. Were she simply able to tell up from down, Xena might well have laughed at her momentary plight...provided, that is, she could have drawn sufficient breath for it, which was doubtful.
Still, she once again forced herself upright and climbed to her feet, her strength returning quickly. The soldier lay on the floor, dead. The Chakrum, which had buried itself in the wall a short ways down the hall, had quite literally cut him down.
As she approached, Xena noted with a fairly clinical eye how the Chakrum had both beheaded and (again quite literally) disarmed him. Not a bad toss, for the just-resurrected, she decided, kneeling down to examine his intended victim closer. She'd sufficiently recovered by then to recognize her old friend.
"Gwen? You still here?" she called gently. A harsh cough that flecked her with blood and saliva was her answer. Satisfied by this reaction, Xena leaned closer, squinting in the half-light to examine the damage done her. She shook her head and muttered a quiet "Oh, hell."
"Buh...bad?" Gwen whispered, her eyes alternately drifting shut and snapping open.
"You're dead," Xena deadpanned, bringing another laugh from the dying Immortal, one sounding more like a croak belonging to an elder bull-frog.
Gwen gasped hard as she tried to speak, her words slurring. "Oh...oh fuck...this...this was my...fave...favorite frock...bastards!" Xena pressed her hand down on the wound in her side, trying without success to staunch the bleeding, only to have her wrist grasped with remarkable strength by Gwen's slender fingers.
Looking up, Xena found herself pinned by the woman's direct, almost desperate stare. "Don...don't bother..." she hissed.
"Gwen..." Xena attempted to protest, only to be silenced once more by the once-Queen voice.
"I'll be fine." Her increasingly heavy breathing seemed to belay the immediate truth of her words. Still, Xena made no further protest. "You thought...Rickie...was here...?" Xena nodded shortly, her mind finally clear enough to grasp the situation at hand.
She gave Gwen's shoulders a deathgrip and hissed "Are you sure she isn't here?" Gwen could only shake her head weakly, her consciousness fading fast.
With the last of it, she groped towards a pocket at her hip. Seeing this, Xena followed her lead, finding it and securing the small keyring hidden there. Gwen fairly spat "Gar...garage...!" A final breath rattled from her throat, and she was stilll.
Xena knealt there for a moment and cradled her friend to her, placing a brief kiss of thanks on her golden grown before standing. She quickly retrieved the Chakrum for the wall, almost doing the same with the sword and automatic near her feet, thinking better of it a moment later, her feet carrying her to the garage on automatic. There was no way she could easily conceal the sword, and the British authorities were still notoriously paranoid about fires, and she simply could not afford the smallest delay getting back to London.
A few minutes later, a late model Carem Ghia came out of the long path and headed south, back to Colchester. From there, it would be easy enough to reach the A12, and a straight shot clear back to London.
The driver, intent on she was reaching her intended destination, failed to notice the car parked just beyond from the turn-off. This was understandable, as it was painted a dark brown and its lights were extinguished. There was therefore nothing to call attention to how the driver put a cell phone to their ear and dialed a number, careful to speak quietly so as not to disturb the sleeping youngster and massive dog in the back seat.
The teakettle had just begun whistling when the phone on the table began ringing. It was Enzo who picked it up, O'Donhugh busy pouring the tea for them. They'd returned to the small flat O'Donhugh retained in Soho after leaving the Velvet Chamber, expecting this particular call and wanting to receive it in as secure surroundings as possible.
Enzo listened, grunting once and folding the phone closed. "Amphipoulis just left her house. She was driving Camlann's car," he reported.
"Any sign of the kill team up there?"
"None. But there was gunfire a short bit ago."
O'Donhugh snorted. "Surprise, surprise."
The phone rang again, Enzo answering it immediately. He flinched hard and held it away from his ear as the voice on the other end issued a series of expletives loud enough to be heard even across the room. "It's for you," he said, handing the small phone over.
"Hullo, dear," O'Donhugh said almost cheerily, only to flinch himself and hold the phone away. "Yes, dear," he tried again after a minute, only to wince and hold it away again. If anything, the screaming on the other end seemed to get louder. O'Donhugh spoke soothingly over it. "Yes, dear, brunch would be wonderful. Yes. Yes, I am a no good...yes. No, dear. That's physiologically impossible. Yes. See you in a few hours. Fine. Ta." He folded it closed and tossed it unto the nearby sofa. "Gods, what a cast-iron bitch," he muttered.
Enzo, wisely, said nothing to this. Instead, he retrieved his trenchcoat from the back of his chair, took a sip of his tea, and excused himself saying "I'm going to go meet with Boothe. See if he's dug up anything." O'Donhugh nodded absently as he made his escape, wishing for a moment that he could join him.
Outside, Big Ben chimed the midnight hour.