by Joseph Connell
Disclaimers: Go to Part I for disclaimers on this story.
Commentary, positive and (preferably) negative, can be directed to Joseph Connell.
August 30. Monday.
Despite the fact she had been driving since midnight, it took Xena until well past dawn to make it back to London. The early morning commuters who jammed the A12 from five to nine notwithstanding, Xena found herself sadly out of practice navigating the roads and byways of Essex county, nearly reaching the shoreline of the North Sea before righting her direction and heading west rather than east. She had only herself to blame for this. Her mind was so far away from the here and now. It was a wonder she hadn't wrapped the high-powered sports car around a tree or an on-coming vehicle.
The were precious few of either, so she was saved that embarrassment. Wrong turns and curses abounded, with most of the latter directed towards herself. This all only served to put Xena in an even worse temper.
At least, however, British motorists were not as pushy as their American counterparts. Not for them the mindless honking of horns and blindly aggressive competition for headway. Such measures were unlikely to see much use on these roads in any case. The British were among the few species of motorists to have mastered the use of passive aggression when it came to navigating the road.
Paradoxically, as nerve-wracking and irritating as these delays were, they also had a calming effect upon the warrior. The monotony of the traffic jam, the idling vibrations of the car itself, and the enforced stillness that both brought gave a measure of peace to Xena's racing mind. She was worn nearly to the breaking point. The last of her energy spent upon keeping her eyes open and focused on the cars and blacktop ahead of her, which helped hold this change in demeanor.
Even exhausted as she was, Xena was honest enough with herself to face the blindingly obvious: she had been behaving like a prize idiot for the past three days. That was all there was to it.
She had overreacted, almost from the moment they had left the gallery showing last week. She had been ready to run off and nearly gotten herself strangled in that alley, then she had come close to putting some nice EMTs into traction when they had tried to treat Rickie Wednesday night.
Then there was her all but sitting on her Dreamer for two days straight. She ignored signs that (upon reflection) were no more subtle than a sledgehammer to the head that Rickie wanted and needed breathing space. Nearly three days without sleep had only clouded her thinking further. It was a small miracle she had come out of the past several hours with nothing worse than a wounded friend who was likely up and moving by now, a shot-up house she should have sold off long ago, and a bloody and tattered shirt.
It was amazing how getting caught a traffic jam can be so calming to one's jangled nerves.
The questions now facing the warrior was what exactly was she to do about all this? How in the name of Hades could she put things right?
Finding Rickie before anything else happened would be a start. Getting them both on the next plane out of the U.K., even if it meant hiring out the damn Concorde just for the two of them! Xena chuckled at this thought, though more at the realization at how she was once again overreacting than the image it invoked.
"Oh, gods," she muttered as towering skyline of London grew close. "Do I ever need a nap."
Maneuvering in the city itself proved less a chore than the countryside had proven. Face it, warrior. You've been civilized. Argo must be laughing herself hoarse. The Carmen Ghia handled like a dream, gracefully weaving between cars and lorries alike. The engine beneath the hood purring at a constant pitch even when she accelerated sharply. Mercurial as Gwenn might have been in some respects, she was nothing if not fastidious when it came to her many modes of transport, whether it be car, plane, train, or luxury cruise liner. She bought only classic autos, whose chassis she then stuffed with top-of-the-line engine parts and electronics. She owned a small fleet of Lear jets, private rail cars, and standing reservations on damn near every cruise line you could name.
You can take the lady off the throne, but you can't take the monarch out of the lady. Xena winced at these thoughts. Gods. That's got to be the worst rhyme ever. Hell, it doesn't even rhyme properly.
With her thoughts momentarily distracted, Xena completely missed the dark car which pulled out of an alleyway as she passed through Soho. It began tailing her at a discreet distance, well camouflaged to do so, with taxi tags pasted to its windows and a lamp lit on its roof. There was nothing to distinguish it from the dozens of other newer model cabs which were slowly pushing the old hearse-like ones out of circulation. So careful was the driver in shadowing the smaller car that one would have been completely fooled into thinking its route completely coincidental to its quarry.
Xena, who remained ignorant of this development thanks to her fatigued state, concentrated solely upon returning to her room at the South Hyde. She had to think up some way of finding Rickie. She became more watchful and aware of her surroundings as she approached the hotel. This caution was prompted from a two-fold source: first, the small fact her shirt and jacket were little more than bloody rags hanging from her shoulders, which she realized left her a rather suspicious sight. Second, the now-inescapable conclusion that she (and likely Rickie as well) were in the cross-hairs of person or persons unknown.
She sighed and muttered "Inevitable." Her list of enemies was every bit as long today as it had been when she'd first picked up the sword. Perhaps even longer, thanks to the global economy and microchip revolution. Gods alone knew how many toes she'd stepped on since getting her p.i. license back in '81, especially in the past five years since setting up shop in Portland. If she were lucky, it was only the Maticci or Giovanni organization flexing their muscles. They'd be the type to go recruiting local muscle and arming them to the teeth. Marty Hawkins and the team she'd just left were certainly within their style.
If not...Xena didn't really want to think about that possibility.
Not thinking about such things, the warrior carefully parked her borrowed car in one of the spaces behind the hotel. She killed the engine and quickly exited the car, keeping as close to the lingering shadows as possible. She was suddenly very conscious of the bloody damage of her clothes and the awkward questions such things were certain to raise.
Xena breathed a very deep breath of relief at finding her key-card was still in her breast pocket. It appeared to be intact and undamaged. Pressing the card against the unlabeled metal plate beside the door, the warrior let go of a second breath as the audible click of the internal lock could be heard. Xena quickly pulled the door open and entered, barely waiting for it to click shut behind her before making for the stairs inside.
She judged (correctly, it turned out) the stairway would be unused at that time of the morning. The quiet passage gave her the best route of getting in unseen. Taking the steps two and three at a time, Xena was back on the third floor in virtually no time flat. She unlocked her room and entered, all hoping against hope her bacchae would be there waiting for her.
The room was as empty as when she'd left it, only a half-day ago.
Snarling, Xena immediately set about to do multiple tasks all at once. She stripped off her tattered and stained clothes, donned fresh ones she pulled from her suitcase, while carefully inspecting sword and the rest of their of their possessions to see if anything had been disturbed. She nearly tore the room apart once more for any clue, however infinitesimal, of Rickie's whereabouts.
By the time this whirlwind of activity spent itself, Xena was once again standing amid tossed up bedding and knocked-over furniture, and none the wiser for it all. No note, no clue...not even a pair of panties or ear-rings out of place. Pulling the Chakrum from the ruined cloth of her old jacket, she held it close to her eye, finding some small measure of peace by the way the morning light filtering in reflected off the curve of its razor edge.
This was life as she preferred it: simple, direct, sharp and sure. The weapon knew nothing of why it was thrown or what its target might be. Its purpose was simple, uncomplicated by such things as sentiment, fear...or love. Unbothered by phantom voices that screamed in its ear.
Why did she have to die and NOT YOU?!
"She's not dead yet," Xena hissed. Her arm instinctively drew back and nearly let the weapon fly as the phone rang. She managed to stop herself, only barely, and didn't fully drop her arm as she picked up the receiver. The warrior answered with a terse "Yes?"
"Ah, Miss Amphipoulis? This is the front desk."
"Yesssss?" Xena hissed.
"There's a message for you here..."
Xena's ears perked up immediately. "From Rickie?"
"Ah. No. I'm sorry, but no. Its from a Lady Blaylock."
"Lady...?" Xena was suitably embarrassed at having to think to recognize the name, even if it only took a few seconds. "Read it, please."
The speaker quietly cleared his throat and said "It says, quote, 'Xena, she's over here.' Unquote."
It was if her legs were knocked completely out from under her. The frightful tension that had been so knotted her muscles draining away, leaving her weak and dizzy for several seconds. "Oh, thank gods..." she muttered aloud.
"Nothing. I need an outside line." When there was only silence as a reply, she added a sharp "Quickly!"
The manager huffed quietly and said "I'll have it set up immediately." The line went dead and Xena reset the receiver. Her mind raced to remember Cora's home number.
The phone didn't finish its first ring when the impatient, worried warrior seized the receiver once more and began punching in numbers, her foot tapping impatiently as the dial tone grated her eardrum.
Only through a supreme effort of will did she keep from tearing the phone from the wall to hurl it out the window when her only answer was a busy signal. Xena forced a deep breath, then another, then another, managing to replace the offending object back on its cradle before letting loose a sincere and resounding "DAMN!" that by rights should have shattered every pane of glass in sight. She followed this up with a series of slightly quieter curses in a collection of dialects a dead as the velaciraptors and the Neanderthal.
This storm died away fairly quickly, Xena finding her hands operating on their own, stowing the chakrum away into her leather jacket and checking she had her wallet and passport and the rest, while she cursed out the many generations of technicians and visionaries involved in the phone industry. She needed a target for her wrath and, dammit, the telephone simply wasn't cooperating right then.
"Okay, warrior," she said to herself. "Breathe." Xena proceeded to do exactly that, taking deep, calming breaths that, if they didn't totally clear her mind, helped her focus once more on certain key facts.
Cora had left a note, indicating Rickie was at her house. Therefore, she, Xena, needed to get herself over to the Blaylock house with all deliberate speed. End of story.
She was out the door and down the stairway once again, purpose set and eyes ablaze.
Bad news travels fast, or so the cliché goes. In reality it travels no faster than any other news, its speed merely being a relative measure how well maintained a particular line of communication proves.
The conduits of communication between Alexander Marcus Devon and his many cohorts were very well maintained. The echoes of the attempt on the Destroyer's so-called life in Colchester had not entirely died away, nor had the first spark fired up in Camlann's car as she fled the scene, before messages reporting this turn of events had begun making their way to Devon, who received them with a calm, almost disinterested equanimity.
He hadn't seriously expected the late Major to succeed in his little venture, and it had likely been a mistake manipulating events so Camlann was present there as well. Poor bastards hadn't stood a chance. Devon knew, intellectually, he should have felt guilty at sending men - good, hard-working men - to their deaths. A career before the bench and a lifetime of secrets and intrigues, both mundane and exotic, had fortunately bled him dry of that particular sentiment. His one regret, if it could even be called that, was the waste of his limited manpower involved. Price deciding to go and disappear since the previous night had certainly not helped matters.
Still it hadn't been a total shambles. It had been the Destroyer alone who had been spotted leaving the estate, and in Camlann's car no less. Devon held the small hope that perhaps, just perhaps, that idiot Marine and his band had managed to remove at least one of them. The news got slightly better from there. The Destroyer's route back to London proved anything but direct. Either she was an utterly incompetent driver or her state of mind was something less than clear. He judged the latter the most likely, which made for all sorts of possibilities.
These thoughts ran through his mind even as he received the latest update via telephone. "What about the girl with her?" he asked. "Any sign of her?" The answer was in the negative. Devon was not concerned by this, certain she was unlikely to have seen anything of worth or concern. It wasn't as if she were likely to remember his name, even after his foolish confrontation with Armistead at the club. Lord, but that kaifir was every bit a thorn in his side as the Destroyer and her ilk. The annoyance made worse by the fact he couldn't simply kill Armistead as he could the rest; too much money and influence with that one. To say nothing of his more significant resources of information and favors.
They'd sparred repeatedly over the years, the Armistead Foundation and Silas and Devon. Their clashing in court and the boardroom were becoming almost legendary. Expert witnesses suddenly developing amnesia, important documents being mis-numbered and sent to the incinerator, venues being changed without counsel being informed, and so on. At least he could respect his adversary then, even he was just a kaifir, not hiding his motives or who he really was like the Destroyer and the Highlander and the rest.
This brought his thoughts full circle, a clarity to them rarely felt in recent days. He needed to keep her as off-balance as possible until the remainder of his men could be organized. Picking up the phone, he dialed a familiar number and spoke directly the moment it was picked up. "Its Devon. Do a drive-by with the bitch." He paused for a moment. "Take up position outside her hotel and wait for your chance. Don't worry about collateral or property damage.
"Just make sure you take her down."
With that, he replaced the receiver and leaned back into his chair, a smile on his thin lips. Outside, the gray light of dawn began lighting the sky.
Xena had debated only for a moment as to whether or not to take the Carmen Ghia. Tempting as it was to race through the streets to Grovesnor, she knew she was in no state of mind to be driving right then. The temptation to simply barrel through any uncooperative traffic signals and/or patrol cops was entirely too great for what little sense of restraint she possessed.
No, better she let someone else do the driving right then. Better the trip take longer than never be completed, right? Less chance of her ending up before the Old Bailey and getting sentenced to a ten year stretch that way.
She also debated even more briefly whether to call ahead, ultimately deciding against this as well. In her present state of mind she was in even less condition to try speaking to Rickie. Her thoughts were calm and completely focused with all the fury of unharnessed hysteria churning just beneath the surface. Screaming at one's heart and soul, however justified, was hardly a way to ensure she didn't go disappearing again.
Xena gave a curt nod to the desk manager, who pointedly did not look her way, and breezed through the lobby and out onto the street. She all but skipped off the curb without the least fear or caution and into the path of a cab cruising down the street. The drive hit the brakes perhaps harder than necessary, producing a teeth-scratching squeal as the tires left a trail of black behind them. Xena simply strolled to the passenger's door and got in, grinning a little at the furious look the cloth-capped cabbie gave her.
"Grovesnor Square," she ordered, still grinning as she handed over a hundred pound note. This lightened the cabbie's mood a little, though he continued to give her an ugly look as he lit his roof-lamp and continued up Kensington.
They hadn't moved more than a hundred feet when he was again forced to hit his brakes, an unmarked police car, blue and red lights flashing bright, having raced up around the cab and come to a dead stop right ahead of it. "Wut the...?" the driver slurred, a sentiment silently echoed by Xena. She tensed momentarily as a slender, intense form approached, only to relax a moment later when she recognized him.
Sargent Mallory, London Metropolitan Police Force, approached the taxi with hands and i.d. in plain sight. He walked over to the back window, through which Xena watched him with hooded eyes. He stopped a few steps away and called out "Can we talk, maham?"
Xena made him wait for perhaps the whole of a half-minute before telling the driver "Keep the change," and popping the door open. She climbed out of the vehicle, bringing herself to her full height before deeming to look his way. Mallory stood his ground beneath her icy stare for a moment before gesturing towards his car and leading the way without another word between them. The warrior followed after a second or two, eyes never leaving him.
Neither consequently saw a smaller cab, similar to the one that had followed Xena into the city, pause as it rounded the corner down the block from them. There was the glint of something metallic in the hands of the single passenger, who sat uncharacteristically beside the driver as opposed to in back. The eyes of both driver and passenger were firmly fixed upon the back of the retreating woman, their vehicle making a lazy turn to follow as their prey left the curb.
"I'm heading to Grovesnor," Xena informed the policeman, her tone brooking no argument.
Mallory simply shrugged and said "Fine." They let the silence stretch between them for a few blocks before the warrior broke it. They were near Charing Cross by then, heading east rather than northwest. Mallory had chosen a deliberately round-about way of getting to Grovesnor, evidentially hoping to get his guest talking. Xena had intuited the policeman's motives and deciding to humor him.
"You said we needed to talk?"
Mallory shrugged again and began speaking, sounding almost disinterested all the while. "I've a mate from the Academy in the Colchester PD. Says they got a call earlier this morning about a lot of gunfire and property damage at an old house north of the city. No bodies. They did find a bunch of shell casings all over the place. All military issue no less, and enough to make you think they'd been filming bloody "Saving Private Ryan" up there."
"And this concerns me how, Sargent?"
"I'd think you'd be rather concerned when someone starts shooting up your property, Miss Amphipoulis." Mallroy met her eyes with a deep frown for a moment before turning back to the road. "I've also checked Yard records," he went on. "Two warrants sworn out on your name back in the late sixties. Fingerprints match yours perfectly. Height, weight, description, all match you to a tee."
"I presume," Xena put in dryly, "you then checked with the US State Department concerning my passport?" To which Mallory nodded. He reached into his jacket pocket and handed several folded up sheets of paper.
"I did that two days ago. Curious thing I found is how its listed as having been issued back in 1949."
Xena unfolded the sheets, knowing what she would see. The rehearsed lie still came easily to her tongue. "Funny. I though I got it back in '89."
"S'funny, isn't that. I figured it was typo, too, 'till I saw the photo put to it." He gave her another brief but meaningful stare. "Clever thing, wearing glasses and pullin' your hair back into a bun. Almost had me fooled." Xena said nothing as she carefully examined the facsimiles before her, copies of her passport application and photo, the latter slightly blurred at having been enlarged several times over. Even so, there was little doubt who it was. The third and final page was a list of visas and dates. The list spanned fifity years and perhaps twice as many countries.
They passed Trafalgar Square, the pigeons scattered as a flock with their passage, before Xena could formulate a decent response. "I suppose you figure the person in here," she said, shaking the pages for emphasis, "and myself are one in the same?"
"To be honest, I don't know what to think." Mallory nearly spat out the admission. "I've got a lot of bloody weird shite swirling around you, and not a lick of it makes any sense. What I do know for certain is somebody is pressuring my boss t'drop this whole thing in shredder. Which means he's putting the squeeze on me t'drop it as well."
"That might not be such a bad idea, Sargent," Xena suggested quietly.
"Maybe so, maybe no. But I'd like t'think I could get at least some answers so I can sleep at night."
"Be careful what you wish for, Sargent." Neither had seen the small cab come around them, barely noticing it even when it took up a constant position just ahead of them to the right. They were heading south by then, along Waterloo Bridge, the sun now just over the eastern horizon and fog underneath them. There was little traffic along the bridge right then. Several cars and a small lorry carrying gas cylinders, nothing more.
What came next happened too fast to react to, almost too fast to even be seen. Neither Xena, nor Mallory, nor anyone present had the chance to so much as blink before it began...and ended.
The windshield seemed to explode at the sound of hundred firecrackers going off somewhere ahead of them. Both Mallory and Xena tried to duck, instinctively recognizing the sound for what it was. Xena felt the fiery stab as several rounds penetrated her shoulder and chest, darkening her clothes once more. Something warm and wet splashed on the side of her face, but she had no time to wipe it away as the entire car suddenly began swerving to and fro. Whatever curses she might have thrown at Mallory died in her throat as the entire car went into a brief spin, halting only when it mounted the curb and nearly impacted with the stone railing.
Xena waiting for her internal organs to settle back into place before so much as raising her head. She looked up, ready to curse out her chauffeur, only to have the words die a second death at the sight awaiting her.
Everything from his shoulders on up had ceased to be anything even vaguely recognizable as human. Glass and bullets had so riddled and ripped his face and flesh apart as to make him look like no more than a malformed lump of clay, albeit one still leaking red fluid and other, equally colorful things.
"Bastards," the warrior swore aloud, pushing her door open and practically leaping out. She'd had to use her feet to get the door open, her right arm useless and the left nearly numb from the pain. Another burst of gunfire tore into the chassis near her. Adrenaline and rage surged through her veins, giving her strength enough to stand and dodge around the car, putting it between her and the (still unseen) gunman.
The next burst missed her only by hairs, the chassis providing almost no barrier to her attackers. Xena mentally ticked off her options, immediately acting on the only realistic one immediately coming to mind. She turned and broke into a lurching run for the bridge's railing. More gunfire followed her, fire lancing her back and legs. This only served to propel her over the side of the bridge. She'd hoped to make at least a semi-coordinated dive into the Thames, but given her wounds the best she managed to fall like a rag-doll, hitting the water head-first at bad angle which broke her neck upon impact.
The last thing Xena felt was her body being swallowed by the cold darkness of the river, even as consciousness submerged in temporary death. She resisted neither, both offering momentary safety. Her last thought before being fully consumed was almost comic. Hope Cora doesn't mind the smell.
And she was gone.
O'Donhugh had watched the short drama unfold on the nearby bridge from his place along the Embankment, the small binoculars giving him each moment in intimate detail. Only when the dark figure fell into the river and slid beneath the waves did he turn away, stowing the binoculars back into his pocket with a sigh and a snarl on his lips.
The sound of police and ambulance sirens were soon heard approaching, pedestrians and onlookers stopping to gawk. The gunmen had already made their escape. The evidence of their handiwork was more than enough for the authorities to deal with. TV crews arrived a short while later, the commentators quick to decry the violence while the cameras missed none of the detail.
Jonothan O'Donhugh had eyes only for the river. He visually searched for the least sign of a body that he knew was likely miles away by then. With a glance at his watch, he ambled away from the circus developing behind him. Enzo would be delivering Dawson soon and O'Donhugh was intent upon reaching Cleopatra's Needle first.
"Nothing's easy," was his only comment, delivered quietly to the wind with a resigned sigh.
Xena 'died' twice more before managing to pull herself from the reeking, poisoned waters of the river. The first time she'd awakened, she found her feet had become entangled some piece of junk which littered the sandy floor beneath the waves. She'd drowned in minutes, barely succeeding in freeing herself before the water claimed her once more. The second time she had nearly reached the surface when the current caught her unawares, slamming her head-first into something too solid to be mere junk.
Awakening a third time, Xena managed to break the surface and climb to shore, which proved far less a chore than she expected. Looking about she saw comparatively few buildings and no bridges or traffic overhead. She judged she must have been several miles down-river of where she'd originally fallen in. There was a high concrete wall before her, the shoreline beneath it nothing but shale rock and the odd bit of refuge.
The warrior didn't try to stand immediately, but instead remained hunched over, supporting herself on hands and knees, coughing and retching and spitting every last trace of the oily water out of herself. It was a laborious, painful process, bringing tears to the eyes, though more from the stink of the evacuated liquid (no way was this simple water) than actual distress caused by the effort. When this was done, it was all she could do lower herself carefully to the rocky shore and rest there, not caring how the sharp-edged shale scratched her cheek and palms.
After a few minute or hours of rest, the warrior pulled herself up to stand upon shaky legs. Leaning against the concrete breakwall, Xena reflected aloud "Gods, what a mess." She spat out the last trace of the polluted water and stumbled off to find a stairway or hill or any convenient way to get back to the first road leading back into London. If needed, she was willing and ready to walk the full distance back, which going by the way no-one so much as slowed as they approached her she would have to do.
Xena sighed and ordered her legs to move, the command accepted and followed, however reluctantly.
Her watch, a waterproof chronograph Rickie had bought her some months back, read the hour as barely quarter of noon. She was too far off to hear Big Ben chime the hour a short while later.
The rain lasted less than an hour, quickly becoming little more than heavy mist and ultimately forming into a sticky fog. The air did not noticeably cool with this change. The entire atmosphere of the alleyway, particularly around Rickie's hiding place, soon became thick and heavy. The stench of garbage was especially rank, enough to make one's eyes water.
Rickie's eyes, however, were closed tight. Despite the omnipresent stench and the near-claustrophobia both her hiding place and the past couple hours had induced, Rickie actually dozed off, her body and mind equally exhausted and pained beyond endurance. She'd done so not long after the departure of the Goatee and the Gray Man, Big Ben sounding off eleven o'clock in counterpoint to their retreating footsteps.
Despite her fetal position and the hard surface of the wall and ground, Rickie actually slept deeply and untroubled, having reached that point of exhaustion where not even dreams might intrude. She didn't so much as stir, as limousine after limousine pulled up to the club door. Not a whisper, as nervous patrons and staff alike abandoned their nighttime play. Even the arrival of a small alleycat, barely more than a kitten, with its fur a wet and unkempt mess, failed to disturb her. It sniffed and nipped a little at her bootlaces before clamoring up into her lap. There it curled itself into an equally tight ball and was soon fast asleep.
Rickie would never be sure what jolted her awake, whether it was some dream which intruded or the distant rendition of "Westminster Chimes". Or perhaps it was because something very wet and cold had settle unto her lap and had soaked clean through to her panties. Regardless, Big Ben sounded off three as Rickie leapt up, nearly ramming her head into the low brick ceiling of the alcove. She avoided knocking herself unconscious because the cold-wet thing in her lap let out a distracting "Yeow?" that caused her to flatten against the wall instead.
She found herself the recipient of a stare of furious indignation, which would have been far more devastating if the one doing the staring weighed at least five pounds and wasn't so small as to fit into the palm of one hand. The kitten flicked its tiny nose at her and settled back on its haunches. Rickie let out a slow breath in reply, which the kitten evidentially didn't think was much of an apology for having been dislodged from its comfortable resting place. It promptly stalked back towards her and made a bold attempt to regain its perch on her lap, its lack of mature claws causing it to paw rather ineffectually at her denim-clad thigh.
It took Rickie several deep breathes before she got her breathing under control. The effort left her shaken and rather a bit lightheaded. Understandable, as she'd been close to hyperventilating. The kitten's intense antics soon broke through her distraction, causing a tension-releasing chuckle as she picked up the small animal and held it close, its squirming in her cupped palms and its still-damp fur making it difficult to hold onto.
Eventually its squirming and clawing subsided, its delicate-looking frame relaxing against her. Once she was sure the kitten had drifted off again, she oh so carefully maneuvered it into the interior pocket of her jacket, oh so carefully depositing the small bundle of fur and legs into it. She couldn't help the giggle that came as the small animal wiggled again for a moment, adapting to its new surroundings and soon settled.
Pushing past the reeking dumpster and stepping carefully out onto the street, Rickie pondered her next move for a moment, almost relishing the sensation of pins and needles that ran through her legs and sides. The pain of renewed circulation cleared all stray thoughts quickly and efficiently, letting her focus on her situation. When she wasn't wincing and flinching with every slight flex of every muscle residing below the navel, that is.
She was, quite simply, faced with a puzzle, one whose component pieces assembled to make an utterly incomprehensible picture. All sorts of strange possibilities presented themselves. The strange events that had plagued them almost since landing the previous week adding themselves, quite unbidden, to the mix did not help. If anything, such inclusions left Rickie nearly dizzy with the mad scenarios they spun into. She knew if she was not careful she would soon be seeing menacing figures at every corner and soon be jumping at shadows. Not an ideal state to be in should the weasels start closing in, as Hunter S. Thompson would say.
Then again, what the hell did Thompson know about anything? It was not like she was twisted on drugs these days, nor was she planning on skipping out on an obscene room service bill...or was she? At this point, with her thoughts going in a dozen different directions, Rickie was not quite sure exactly what she was thinking anymore.
The air was still a humid if slightly chilly blanket on her shoulders right then. This caused her breath to shorten slightly, the decrease in oxygen coming to her brain coupled with the surreal quality the fog leant to her surroundings leaving her even jumpier than before.
Rickie more or less forced herself on all the same, letting instinct guide her back to what she hoped was a main street. She remained wary of the shadows and alleyways as she walked, trying to make as little noise as possible. Thanks, unfortunately to the rain and pitted streets, there were gods knew how many puddles all around and she could not really avoid stepping in one at almost regular intervals, the resulting echoes off the surrounding walls absurdly loud and unpleasant. Gritting her teeth, Rickie gamely pressed on.
A pair of headlights suddenly blazed to life behind her, the sound of an engine coming to life accompanying them, both catching Rickie short and freezing her in mid-step. It was all she could do to raise her hand to try shielding her eyes against the glare. She had no idea who might be behind the wheel or what kind of vehicle it was, this uncertainty all but turning her joints to stone.
The vehicle had not traveled even ten feet when she finally shook off her paralysis and broke into a brisk trot down the foggy street in the opposite direction from the lights. An engine revved loudly behind her, though the vehicle itself did not noticeably speed up or make any move to overtake her. Rickie might have found this more worrying had she given even a moment's thought to it. As it was, she simply bit her lower lip hard and concentrated entirely upon finding a convenient doorway or alley or even open manhole, anything she might hide in and get away from those damn headlights.
After only a few minutes, the engine revved again and Rickie could hear the tires roll across the pavement at a faster clip. She could have sworn she heard industrial rock crashing somewhere just beyond those lights, along with the hoots of male voices. This left her colder than her still-damp jeans and the fog combined, memories of her roughest days on the streets (moments she'd not yet summoned the courage to admit to herself, never mind Xena) suddenly superimposed upon the present. Her pace quickened, the lights dogging her and drifting to match her every move.
When the engine of this car, or van, or whatthehellever it was, roared a third time, Rickie knew she perhaps only a heartbeat or two before the passengers became too bored with this game to bother further with it. She was now in a full-tilt run, her breath coming hard and burning her throat. The vehicle drifted back for a moment, the call of its engine going from a growl to a high-cylinder purr, its back tires screeching against the pavement, Rickie almost able to imagine the smoke rising from them.
She could barely see three steps ahead of her, but raced unerringly towards the narrow alley just ahead. The vehicle, its headlights now on full power and almost blinding for it, bore down on her with suicidal speed. Rickie hardly heard its approach, mind blank save for crossing the remaining distance between her and that frighteningly narrow threshold.
One moment she was running, the next she was fitting herself between two brick walls with all the grace and confidence of an Olympic contender. This did not stop her from squeaking out a cry of fear as the side of the car dragged itself across the otherwise unadorned wall in short shower of sparks and to the tune of grinding metal. She still could not have said what make or model it was, having closed her eyes the instant she'd reached the alley. The humming crash and boom of rock music momentarily filled her ears, with it the grating of wild laughter and words she could not quite catch, their meaning all to familiar. Both these quickly faded along with the engine noise down the street; soon joining the rest of the echoes of traffic somewhere nearby.
Taking several deep breaths, Rickie counted to a hundred before easing herself out from between the walls. She experienced a mild sense of vertigo coming down from the adrenal rush. This only gave further speed to her already racing thoughts. Could she go back to the hotel, risking another encounter with...whoever? Should she find the police? Where was Xena? Did she know what was happening? Who was driving that damn car? Did they know anything worth knowing?
To center herself, she peeked down into the interior pocket of her jacket. "You okay in there?" she asked her passenger in a slightly shaken voice. The kitten merely opened a single eye for a moment, then shifted around again and settled once more. Rickie grinned. "Well," she sighed. "Aren't you the perfect guest. Hedonist."
Inspiration strikes at the oddest moments. Standing there, cold and sweating, watching a tiny kitten nap in her pocket, Rickie knew exactly she needed to go. Looking back down the street, she spied the glow of a few telltale streetlights. So heartened, Rickie set off in that direction, eyes watchful for the first sign of that most glorious method of transport.
The box-like chassis of the taxi slowed to where the small blonde woman was waving her arms, the woman quickly climbed into it and the taxi was once again on its way. It was quickly consumed whole by the fog and night.
Further down the street, the large frame of Manfred Emmanuel Armistead stepped out around the corner one of the nearby buildings. He watched the taxi departed with hooded eyes, no expression to his face, giving no clue to either his thoughts. His only action was to flip the collar of his overcoat up against the weather.
He, too, soon melted back into the night, with only the whisper of his footsteps to mark his passage.
It was not that long a drive from Soho to Grovesnor, where the Blaylock family's ancestral seat was situated. The massive structure of the American Embassy, notable for the massive golden eagle perched atop its roof, was within sight and fairly dominating the Square. Rickie couldn't have really cared less, centered as she was upon reaching a particular address.
There are relatively few stately old Victorians left to be found in London, and the Blaylock estate had one of the best kept. She may have only married only into the family, but Cora was attentive to its history all the same, and was determined to keep it intact. Rickie, strangely, felt no elation or anxiety as the taxi approached, despite the ungodly hour. The fact Cora also kept a small couple of apartments nearby, which she tended to stay at more often than not, did not engender even the smallest glimmer of worry in her breast.
In point of fact, she really was not sure she was even capable of feeling anything anymore. She doled out the demanded fare with an equal amount of ambivalence, getting out of the miniature hearse with creaking muscles and strolling up the front door with hands pushed deep into jacket pockets. As an afterthought she patted the side where the kitten was napping, just to reassure herself of its existence. Right then, that small, curled up mass of fur and bone was the one solid piece of reality in her life.
This ambivalence disappeared the moment she reached the top step and raised her fist to the heavy door. She didn't so much knock as ram various sections of her hand, quickly going from the knuckles to the heel of the palm to the flat of her palm, into the wood and biting her lip so hard against the urge to begin screaming. Where this came from she had no idea, nor did she honestly care.
Rickie practically fell through the door the moment the elderly peer opened it. This was more than simple exhaustion having overtaken her, any more than it was pure affection that caused her to cling like a remora to a shark's flank as Cora's arms wrapped about her.
It finally came crashing down upon her, everything from that overheard conversation in the pub on. The sights of the club, the chase, that crazy car nearly ran her down...was it only half an hour ago? The past several days only added to the flood, from the police waking her on Wednesday morning to that car clipping her that same day to Xena's mothering and subsequent disappearance. How she managed to stay upright against it all was beyond her. Rickie could only bury her face in Cora's shoulder, making noises that might have been loud sobs or quiet screams.
Cora was not without strength of her own, managing to keep hold of her she maneuvered them both to a sofa in the sitting room, sitting them both there and making what comforting sounds she could think of. It had been a very long time since she had been called upon to play the maternal role in any capacity. Still, the old habits resurfaced, and Rickie soon calmed to simply sniffling and a few minor tremors.
"S...sorry about that," Rickie muttered lamely when she finally got herself back under control. "I...ah, its been a rough day."
"And night, I imagine," Cora smiled wryly.
Rickie own face remained solemn. "Worse than you can imagine." Cora said nothing as she focused on the floor at their feet, loosing herself a bit in the complex swirls and patterns of the Persian carpeting. "I...there was a car...and a couple of guys...at a club...and this one guy was beating this other guy...and...and now...then they chased me out into this alley behind the club...I nearly get hit by a car...I dunno what's going on..."
Her rambling caused Cora to draw away a bit, but not fully relinquish her hold on the younger woman. "Is Xena...?" She stopped when Rickie shook her head hard at hearing the name.
"I have no idea where she is or what's happened to her. No fucking idea...what's...what's happening anymore..." Her shoulders started trembling again, more violently than before, and her eyes began tearing up as he head bowed low.
Hoping to stave off the onset of hysteria in the younger woman, Cora drew her close once more, murmuring all the while "You're safe, I promise. You're safe here, Rickie. Shhhh, you're safe." Physically awkward as this was for them both, Rickie being an inch taller and several pounds heavier, her words seemed to make it through the girl's preoccupation.
"Sss...sorry..." she tried apologizing again, only to be shushed by the silver-haired peer once more.
"Never mind that, love." Cora crooned as she dried Rickie's tears. "You just need a spell of rest, s'all. C'mon. Upstairs with you." Letting go of Rickie, Cora stood and extended her hand. Somewhat dazed by the emotions that had been coursing through her over the past several hours, Rickie took the offered hand without comment. Cora led her up the grand staircase to the one of the many, many rooms (at least it seemed like a lot of rooms, though it might as well have been two or three to Rickie's overtired eyes).
She was too far-gone to really care where she was being led right then, any more than she cared how she was divested of her jacket and boots. Her world had shrunk to the encroaching darkness over her vision and the cloud-like mass she sank into. Exhaustion shuttled her away without the least resistance.
Cora smiled benignly, as the youngster's breathing became regular and deep, signifying her sleeping peacefully. She draped the leather jacket over a nearby chair, then set the Docs at its foot. She was about to go she saw the jacket was...jumping. A small lump seemed to develop under its dark material, a lump which slowly moved from its center, through a sleeve that hung limply over the seat of the chair, and ultimately fell head-over-tail out of the cuff, audibly huffing with the effort all the while.
It was revealed to be a tiny and ragged-looking kitten, who looked up at her with drowsy and confused pebble eyes. "Well, hullo there," Cora whispered to the animal. The kitten's only response was to promptly collapse on the stuffed cushion of the seat and shut its eyes, stretching itself out into a position that would cause most chiropractors to fait dead away in shock.
Cora grinned in spite of herself, and left the room, making sure the door remained partially open. No sense in frightening the girl worse than she obviously already was. The peer retired to her own room and picked up the phone at her bedside. She needed information, and knew damn well where to start.
At first and even second brush, there was nothing to call attention to the man as he made his way through the early-morning crowds of Heathrow. Middling height, stocky build that was (barely) more muscle than fat, with a cropped gray hair and neatly trimmed beard, his eyes as tired as his clothes looked. He'd only just flown in, via special charter, from Paris and looking every inch the rumpled and worn traveler. His gait was a tad uneven but steady and sure. Nor was there a trace of pain in his athletic if well-lined features in spite of the way he tended to lean heavily on his cane with each step.
One might never guess both his legs were prostheses. Joe Dawson was not the sort to let such small disabilities keep him from his appointed duties as de facto and de jurius head of the Watchers. Ever since his own nominal assignment, a certain 400 year-old Highlander who likely knew more about the Society than most of its own operatives, had dropped completely from sight Dawson had kept himself busy playing oversight on various fringe elements of the Society's membership. Not everyone had been pleased with how visible the Society had become in recent years, between Horton's rampages and various Immortals becoming aware of their very existence, and more than a few the latter using them either as pawns...or target practice. There were those who had struck out on their own, the damn fools risking what little cover the Society as a whole had left chasing petty vendettas.
God alone knew what might happen if a Quickening were ever caught on tape and was broadcast over "America's Funniest Home Videos"!
Which was why he was now in London. As part of his oversight, Dawson had developed quite the intelligence network, and so knew when one of these rogues so much as got a parking ticket, never mind took up residence in the morgue. Bad enough when one turned up dead. Bad enough when they did it in the middle of major city, looking like rejects from some cheap slasher picture.
But nine of them, in paramilitary gear, found in a house suspected belonging to a Greek Immortal? It was PR nightmares like that that would have given brain bubbles to even the Clinton spin-doctors. The one saving grace was that, to a one, all nine were so goddamn shady and up to their necks in illegal shit the local PD would probably do his work for him. With luck they would close the case without looking too deeply into the whys and wherefores.
And maybe pigs would suddenly learn to fly. Without having to grow wings first.
"Mr. Dawson?" The soft, respectful voice shook Dawson from his preoccupation. "I've been sent to collect you." Dawson nodded tiredly and followed the newcomer's lead for a few steps before looking up. He did not recognize the young man before him, but neither did this immediately worry him. He would never claim to know every Watcher, and he kept knowledge of his own movements so carefully circumscribed to only a very select few. Besides, he was still fairly well liked among the rank-and-file of the Society, so a junior member volunteering to play chauffeur was not beyond conception...even if they did dress a tad conspicuously. Dawson noted with some dismay the kid, with his goatee and leather trenchcoat, looked like a reject from that "Nikita" series on cable.
The car his guide led him to wasn't much better, the Jaguar's sleek and stylish form eye-catching to say the least. And definitely not standard issue for field work. This raised the first niggling doubts in Dawson's mind; vague ones admittedly, but there all the same. True, there were Watchers who had their share of wealth and resources, and who were less discrete about it. But this?
His chauffeur made no move to help him into the car, instead waiting patiently for Dawson to fold himself into the passenger seat before turning firing the ignition. "When did you receive the call about this?" he asked, eyes locked ahead.
"Two a.m. this morning," Dawson gruffed, struggling a bit to fasten his seatbelt.
"Hmm." The driver said nothing further as they merged with the early morning commuters heading into the city.
Dawson found those little doubts in the back of his mind quickly blossoming into full-blown questions and a tiny bit of anxiety upon realizing the direction they were traveling in. Rather than taking them unto the A12 that would give them a fairly straight shot directly to Colchester, the driver was weaving them through the south end of London, keeping close to the Thames. Dawson found himself surprisingly calm in all this, his one regret being he had left his Walther back in Paris; smuggling it in, even via diplomatic pouch, would have been more trouble than it was worth. At least that was the conclusion he'd reached racing to the private airfield outside the city where a Lear was waiting in a state of constant readiness.
Now, even though he sensed his life was in no more danger than if he'd stayed in bed that morning, he would have liked the small sense of security being armed would have given him.
"You...aren't part of the Watchers, are you?" was his one inquiry to the driver, who had remained silent since they'd entered the city.
"Nhh," Dawson grunted, more from a small cramp that developed in his hip than out of any nervousness from the driver's admission. "Where are we goin', anyway?"
"Cleopatra's Needle." After a beat he added "Sir."
"May I know why?"
"To meet someone." Another beat. "Sir."
"Ah." Dawson drawled, as if this explained all, his tone making it clear it explained nothing.
Taking the hint, the Goatee elaborated "Someone who can explain matters." He paused and added "Sir," once more.
"You keep calling me 'sir', kid," Dawson remarked mildly as they pulled along the Embankment. "And I'll have to hit you."
"That would be most inadvisable, Mr. Dawson." This time the driver did look at him, the studied indifference in his eyes deterring even the most joking threat Dawson might have thought up. Only a moment later the car coasted to halt near the Needle. "We're here," the driver said in a dismissive tone.
Dawson was only too happy to oblige, climbing out with surprising agility given his legs and cane. The Jaguar pulled away, leaving him there seemingly alone with the towering obelisk behind him. Not knowing who he might be looking for, Dawson made a slow circle where he stood, taking in every face he could see. Again, no-one he recognized nor anyone expressing the least interest in him.
Turning back to the Needle, Dawson was slightly startled (though he made sure not to let it show) to find a man standing less than six feet from him. This newcomer wore a gray double-breasted suit and a black shirt buttoned to the neck, and stared directly into his eyes with two chips of slate stone. "Joe Dawson?" he asked, making no move.
"Yeah?" the Vietnam veteran growled with as much strength as he could muster under those cold eyes. It might have been enough to cower most anyone else, but had no more affect on the man than a summer's breeze against a mountain. Hell, everything about this man's stock-still stance warned of more danger than his hairiest moments in the jungle.
The man nodded towards the Needle and began walking around its base. Dawson followed, unsure of what to expect. He found the man leaning against the railing, staring out across the mist covered dark waters of the river, the morning wind pulling at his close-cropped hair. He himself said nothing, simply stood there patiently.
The gray suit turned slightly and said "I have a meeting outside of the city in a few hours, Dawson, so pardon me if I'm brief about this." There was a tired edge to his voice. Dawson shrugged, willing to let him set the speed of the conversation.
"We know why you are here," the man declared with all the enthusiasm of a funeral dirge. At Dawson's continued silence, he sighed and continued. "Nine former members of your little social society who turned up dead in Essex. All nine of whom looking like they lost a quarrel with a bloody chainsaw? Not to mention a former para, found dead in an alleyway in Kennsington late last week of a cerebral hemorrhage."
"You have something to do with that?" Dawson growled, this time through clenched teeth and with significantly more strength than before.
"You wish." The man grinned tiredly and shook his head. He took an envelope out of his jacket's inner pocket and held it out. Dawson took it and upended its contents into his hand. It was a handful of photos, ranging in size from passport to 4x6 and all depicting a variety of men and women Dawson recognized. Some showed groups of faces, others only two. There was one face common to ever snapshot: a man, slightly shorter than average, wearing a buff colored trenchcoat, with thinning hair and burning eyes. Dawson knew this face as well, feeling the knowledge like a tangible kick to his stomach.
"James," he murmured, not having spoken his brother-in-law's name in years.
"The man is dead, but his legacy lives on."
His temples pounding, Dawson gripped the photos so tightly they were nearly crushed. He closed his eyes for a moment, putting the suit's words to the pictures, wanting to groan at the all too painful conclusion reached. When he opened them, their was a fire to them that did equal justice to the heart of the sun itself. "Who the fuck are you, anyway?" he demanded.
The gray suit merely shrugged and kept looking out at the river. "Somebody who wants to keep you and the rest of the Society alive, Dawson."
He produced a hand-held tape recorder from his other inner pocket and hit the "Play" button. Two voices, his own and another, could be heard through a light sheen of static. The gray suit spoke first.
"You received the information, I trust?"
"Do you expect me to believe this? That you have the name and location of...of...her?!"
"You doubt your own eyes?"
"The Destroyer of Nations is a myth, friend! She vanished from sight two hundred years ago..."
"One hundred and eighty-nine years, seven months, and twenty-three days, to be exact. One hundred and fifty years of which was spent playing shamaness in the Amazon rainforest, with an additional thirty-five years and six months spent playing roaming university student and wealthy Greek expatriate."
"Why should I believe this?"
"Test the information, if you wish. If you value your life, however, you wouldn't go approaching her."
The man snapped off the tape and returned the recorder to his pocket. "Recognize the voice?"
Dawson answered with a curt nod. "Alex Devon. One of our...of the Society's key figures once upon a time."
"And a very good friend of your late brother-in-law. Need I say more?"
Dawson could only shake his head again, more confused than ever. "Who are you?"
"Like you, a watcher of Immortals. One Immortal in particular."
"'The Destroyer of Nations'? Don't tell me you actually believe all that shit. Its all just rumor. Hell, the Covington family's spent most of this century looking for proof of her, and they've found fuck all."
The man graced him with a look nearing pity. "You heard the same thing I did here, Dawson. She's real, older than you and yours ever suspected. And she's here in London as we speak." He sighed and returned his gaze to the river. "Worse, she knows about you Watchers. Has since last year."
"Yeah? How's that?"
"Officer Emil Holt, Portland Police Department. Need I say more?"
Now it was Dawson's turn to look away. He leaned heavily upon his cane and sighed "Okay, so our man couldn't keep his cover. Doesn't mean she's going to learn any more from him than that."
"Anything happens to her bard, and that's all she'll ever need to start her own little war on you. She has ways of making people talk. Ways that'd give even the Inquisition, the Gestapo and the Khamer Rouges nightmares."
Dawson scowled and glared over at the man. "You tryin' to scare me?"
"You should be scared, Dawson," was the reply. "Its your people who are doing this, disturbing their peace, taking potshots her and the bard. They so much as scratch the girl an' I guarantee there's nothing on this planet to hold the warrior back." The bleakness in his eyes convinced the older man of the threat.
"So...what do you I suggest I do about this?"
The man shook his head, his voice almost sad. "Its too late for the rogues. She will be on to them before they even know it. Best you leave, go back to Paris. Bury all links between the Society and them before she's done here. Devon, Sammy Price, all their heavies, the whole bloody lot have to disappear from your networks. This is going to get messy enough without giving her additional targets, eh?"
"You expect me to just up and leave and..."
"I expect to you to have at least a modicum of self-preservation." The man turned and began walking back to the street, just as the Jaguar pulled up to the curb. Dawson followed for a few steps and called out to him.
"Hey? Who are you people, anyway?"
The man paused and turned back for just a moment. "Pray you never have to find out, Dawson." With that, he entered the car and was sped away into the last of the morning fog. Joe Dawson stood there for several minutes afterwards, alternately looking down the street and at the now-wrinkled photos he clutched in one hand, the entire conversation replaying itself in his mind over and over. He leaned against the base of the Needle for support, too distracted to keep his own balance.
Eventually, he straightened up and, stowing the pictures into his jacket pocket, waved an arm out towards an approaching taxi.
Unnoticed across the street, a short woman with dark russet hair watched the old man with a cane enter the taxi. She remained for only a moment more before turning away as the cab continued its journey.
A short distance away, a Saab sports car sat waiting, its engine idling quietly. She entered through the passenger's side. Once in, Marie de Anan shared a unsettled look with Manfred Armistead, whose heavy frame nearly filled the whole drivers side. Without a word between them, Armistead put the car in gear and took them deeper into the city.
Much to Cora's relief, Rickie didn't wake up screaming or dashing downstairs or anything the least bit hysterical. Not that she would have blamed her in the least. She herself had had no luck getting much information from the series of phone calls she had made earlier that morning, leaving her frustrated and overtired. She'd had no luck chasing down Enzo and his elder handler, both of whom she suspected were more involved in these affairs than they let on. A few hours of sleep were all she could really stand, even tired as she was, causing her to rise just after eight and putter about her office and rest of the ground floor, an otherwise meaningless flurry of activity she normally despised.
Cora used the activity - ranging from wiping down the chrome counters in the kitchen for the umpteenth time to rearranging the extensive spice racks to composing a dozen versions of the same letter to herself aloud - to burn off the tension-spawned energy while she pondered her limited options. Contacting the police was not an option simply on practical grounds. She giggled at just the thought of trying to explain the situation.
She could go to her shadier contacts, have them sniff out what local villains might be expressing an interest in tall, dark-haired American antiques dealers with Greek names. This had actually been first instinct after she had settled Rickie down, but had held off, wanting a clearer picture from the girl before making any such calls. No doubt this had all had something to do with the tag numbers young Enzo had oh so politely asked her to inquire into last week.
If so, a call to dear Francine at the Veterans Association was definitely in order. Perhaps even have a few...accidents...of their own be arranged.
Fortunately for her peace of mind, she pondered such things silently, and not so intently that she did not catch the footsteps coming towards the kitchen. Cora put a smile to her expression and poured two cups of tea. "Feeling better there, love?"
Rickie nodded, not entirely convincingly, and leaned against the breakfast island. Her eyes were still heavy-lidded and bleary from sleep. "A little," she shrugged as she accepted the cup, foolishly taking a sip of it before thinking how hot the liquid might have been. Her eyes nearly popped out of their sockets and her cheeks expanded like a proverbial frog's. Still, she gamely swallowed the tea and immediately let go of a steaming breath. "Oh...ah...oh shit!" was the only comment Rickie could manage.
Cora looked into her own cup, utterly serious, saying "Hmm, more like piss if you ask me. Shite is so much more...solid." Rickie looked at her, ready to apologize for her profanity when she was treated to the full force of Cora's benificent smile. "Sorry about that, love. Should have warned you a bring it to a full boil."
"Uh, s'okay. I should've looked first, shouldn't I?"
Cora nodded. "Good policy." Her eyes narrowed slightly, watching her young guest more critically now. "Are you alright? Really?"
Rickie thought for a moment, staring down into her cup. "I'm..." she tried, only to shudder and have to start again. "I'm better than I was last night. I mean, I'm not gonna go bouncing off the walls or anything extreme. But...ah, geez...I must've scared the beejees out of you this morning."
"Well," Cora said thoughtfully, "I'm not often called upon to entertain panic-stricken young Americans at quarter-past four in the morning, true. But then, I have been touched by a bit of insomnia lately. Just as well, I suppose."
"Well, if I weren't, you would have had to literally kick the door in just to get my attention." Seeing the truth in her eyes, Rickie looked once more into her tea.
"And here I thought Xena was a sound sleeper."
"Speaking of whom...?" Cora let her voice trail off suggestively, not wanting to press too hard but offering a clear opening all the same. She was quite unprepared for Rickie standing so quickly, looking nearly hysterical, that she lost her grip on the cup and saucer, both of which tumbled to the floor and shattered.
"Oh, shit! Xena! I...oh, shit...I gotta call the hotel!" She was out of the kitchen before Cora even had time to blink, heedless of the pieces of broken crockery on the floor the nearly cut into socks. Cora took a breath and forced herself to remain calm. She set her own cup aside and followed her now-frantic guest to the sitting room, who was punching numbers into her desk phone, her finger shaking so badly she had to try four times before getting the correct number dialed.
"Rickie..." Cora gently tried to intervene, only to rudely waved off by Rickie.
"Yeah, front desk? I need to reach Xena Amphipoulis in room 3B...this is Rickie Gard...what? What note?" Two golden-red eye brows furrowed in confusion and rage. "Bullshit," she snarled. "I didn't leave any goddamn note for her...yeah, you do that!" Cora winced as the blonde slammed the phone back onto its cradle. Rickie hung over the desk, shoulders shaking with the effort to contain the hysteria that threatened, eyes staring blankly on the various papers and correspondence there.
"Damn it," she snarled to herself, mind evidently racing faster than words. "Where...who... police!" She snatched the receiver up again and punched in 911, only to have a mechanical voice inform her a few moments later the number was "not recognized". This led to another cursing bout as the small blonde started darting around the room, uncertain what to do next.
"Rickie!" Cora called out sharply, catching the girl as she nearly ran past, heading towards the front door. This shook Rickie out of her panic, at least momentarily. Cora was quick to capitalize on her attention. "Rickie," she repeated more calmly. "I already called both the hotel and the police after you were asleep." 'Among others,' she nearly added. "There is nothing to be done by racing about like a bumblebee with its antennae in a knot, is there?"
Rickie, whose sleep had been anything but restful, was slow in making either the connection between the absurd picture this drew and her own actions, the latter seeming perfectly logical and measured in comparison of the catastrophe facing her. A few more moments thought about it led her to realize she had been a bit frantic. Okay, a lot frantic. But she had good reason, didn't she? Xena was still missing. That thought alone nearly sent her running again, but Cora kept a comforting grip on her shoulders and maintained eye-contact.
She spoke, her voice at once stern and soothing. "Look, Rickie, love. We need to keep our heads clear and think before we do anything, all right? You hear me?"
Rickie nodded, finally calm enough to actually think past her fear. Act, don't react. popped into her head for some reason. She decided it was good advice and let her shoulders relax under the older woman's grip. "Sorry," she breathed. "Guess I got a little spastic there."
"Its alright." Cora smiled as she let go of the girl, only to wrinkle her nose a moment later. "Err, Rickie? Where ever did you spend the night?"
"Uh, would you believe a back alley in Soho?" Rickie hoped she would not have to relate all of the previous night's lunacy. She was still trying to make sense of it herself.
"Oh, lord. No wonder you smell like an open dumpster." Before Rickie could even open her mouth to protest Cora ordered "Go take a shower and I'll dig up something for you to wear." The peer turned away and headed towards the stairs in the next room, muttering to herself "Now where did I put those clothes of Victoria's?"
This left Rickie standing there, somewhat befuddled and momentarily lost. She raised one arm slightly and sniffed, her own nose quickly wrinkling. "Ugh. I thought I was sleeping behind a dumpster, not in the fucking thing." A shower suddenly seemed like a very good idea, and the small blonde set off in search of it.
"Well," Enzo declared, pulling his door shut behind him. "That was a perfect cock-up." He fired up the engine of the Jaguar and pulled away from the curb across from the Blaylock house. Grovesnor Square quickly gave way to the busy afternoon streets. O'Donhugh said nothing to this nor gave any direction on where to go next. He merely settling into the passenger's seat and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Enzo glanced over and asked "Why d'you think the bard ran?"
The older man still said nothing, answering with a one-shoulder shrug. Undeterred, Enzo pressed "Think it was her at the club last night?"
O'Donhugh's answer was more a grunt than actual speech. "Would not surprise me right now."
"You're not being very helpful here. What are we supposed t'do next, eh? Drive about and hope we get lucky?"
"We find a decent place to get lunch. Then we have to go see our friend Hopper at the Yard."
"Because I'm hungry. I didn't go up north to enjoy the food, you know." O'Donhugh let himself grin slightly at his joke. The humor was not shared, however.
Enzo spoke with deliberate patience one uses with an obstinate or mischievous children. "I mean, why do we have to go and see the Inspector? Something happen I don't know about?" He tried not to sound hurt at the prospect, experience having shown his elder relation played the game of intrigue and misinformation better than the Kay-Gee-Used-to-Bee, minus the malicious intent those dedicated professionals often operated with. Jonothan O'Donhugh was nothing if not protective of his family, and made no apologies for keeping secrets if he judged them better off not knowing. That he'd involved Enzo in this said much of his trust in him. Enough that the younger man could forgive at least a few missing pieces of information.
"You could say that." The silence which followed this simple statement stretched out until Enzo gave up hoping for elaboration. He pulled into the parking space beside a pub he favored with the imaginative name of 'The Thin Man'. He followed O'Donhugh out of the car and towards the front door without trying to press further.
Right before entering, O'Donhugh half-turned and said "There was another attempt on the warrior this morning on Waterloo Bridge. She got hit a few times and fell into the river."
Enzo was nearly hit in the face by the door as it swung shut, the words hitting him like a physical force and freezing him still. Quickly shaking off this paralysis he pushed the door open and sought out O'Donhugh in the crowded interior. Spying him sitting casual as you please in a booth and intently perusing a menu, Enzo pushed his way over and took the seat opposite him. He leaned forward and hissed "And this sends us to the Yard why?"
Without looking up, O'Donhugh said "Because Sargent Mallory was with her at the time. I'm afraid he didn't make it."
Again Enzo felt as though he'd been struck. He could only sit back with a stunned expression as the waitress came over to them and asked "Orders, gentlemen?"
Xena had walked for nearly two solid hours before catching sight of a taxi. Even then, it took a good bit of frantic waving, fast talking, and a hundred pound note changing hands before the driver deemed to take her into the city.
She had to admit she was certainly a scruffy sight. The dirt of both the river and road having dried to a thin crust over her skin and clothes, giving her olive complexion a darker hue and making freshly laundered shirt and jeans look unfit for even the poorest hobo. Her hair was a mass of stringy tangles that she'd had no time to comb out. To top it off, her bloodshot eyes and haggard expression, combined with the rest of her appearance, suggested something other than simple exhaustion.
Had she been able, Xena might well have laughed at the odd look she was being given via the rear-view mirror. It was something alternating between suspicion and pity, and half the time he looked ready to say something. Perhaps he had. Weak in body and mind as she was a cannon could have fired off next to her and Xena would not have taken any notice.
Still she kept attentive of her surroundings. So many attacks over so many days quickly awoke old habits. Xena visually tore apart every bit of cover the cab passed. Her constant, darting eyes and visible tension did not go unnoticed by the driver. Being a practical man who wished to see his family again, he said nothing and just concentrated upon delivering his passenger to the requested destination.
They were soon upon Grovesnor Square. Construction and the odd auto accident had forced them to detour about and come from the east side of the square. By this time Xena's posture was every bit as restless as her eyes. She practically exploded out of the cab the moment it stopped across from the Blaylock house. The driver was relieved by this and quick to be on his way. He resisted the urge to so much as glance back at the sounds of car horns and tire squealing. A hundred pounds buys one only so much courage, after all.
Xena charged without fear across the street, utterly deaf to the distress that this caused the afternoon motorists. She crossed with long, ground-eating strides that brought her to the mansion's front door in mere seconds. Said door swung open after only a couple short raps against it.
Just as well; by that point the exhausted warrior was prepared to tear the offending barrior off its hinges if need be to gain entrance.
Xena barely heard Cora Blaylock's cautious greeting. Instead she pushed past the frail-looking dowager and began calling out "Rickie? Where are you? Rickie?!" The appeal was repeated several times as she charged up the stairs and throughout the second floor. No door was left unopened or unmolested in this frantic search. Those that were locked were pounded upon and shouted through. All to no effect. Xena stopped short of kicking them in, however. She mentally filed away the location of each for future consideration.
It eventually sank in that she was accomplishing nothing by all this running about. With a heavy sigh, the warrior returned to the main floor. Her stance was one ready to keel completely over... or tear everything in sight apart with their bare hands. A fact which was not lost on Cora. The peer wisely stayed in the kitchen and out of the way. She'd finished her first cup of tea and was pouring a second when Xena stalked into the kitchen.
The two only stared at one another for a time.
It was the peer who broke the silence first. "You look like something the cat drudged from the river," she observed mildly.
"Where is she?" Xena growled in reply.
Cora took a measured sip of her tea before answering. "She...ran off about an hour ago."
Xena blinked several times, certain she had misheard her friend. "She what?"
Again Cora let the silence stretch a few moments. If she hoped this would cool the warrior's tension even a fraction she was bound for disappointment. Xena's nostrils flared as she said "Rickie bolted out a window an hour ago."
Drawing each syllable out, Xena asked "Why would she do that?"
"I haven't the faintest notion."
To anyone else it would have sounded and looked like the complete truth. But Xena's well-honed senses caught the signs: the millisecond flinch of the old woman's eyes and the way her shoulders hunched just a hair as she spoke. Her heart went cold at the realization her friend was lying through her perfect dentures. A blow to the head with a sledgehammer would not have been even a tenth less painful than this.
Somehow she kept as non-threatening a stance as possible. No easy feat given her fingers were positively tingling to literally squeeze the truth out of the woman before her. Xena wrestled that dark energy into partial submission and forced her voice to work. "You have no idea?" It was positively eerie how calm her strangled words sounded when her entire consciousness was drowning in incoherent screaming.
Cora shook her head. "None. I admit I made a few calls just prior, but..." Her explanation was cut short by Xena nearly leaping forward, vocally if not physically.
"To who?" the warrior demanded.
"Calls to who?" Again, every syllable was emphasized through nearly clenched teeth, convincing Cora not to argue.
"I called a few markers in for information. Rickie came stumbling in here at three this morning, you know. Poor dear was babbling about assassins in the shadows and how you'd abandoned her."
"Oh, for Ares' sake! You can't believe I..."
"Of course not. But I needed to be sure, didn't I? Plus whether you had turned up dead somewhere, right? What do you take me for, woman? I'm not totally senile."
Despite herself, Xena grinned and murmured "Heaven's no." Then her suspicions returned full force. "Who did you call, anyway? More of your artist friends?"
"Not...exactly." At a single eyebrow rising the peer continued. "I never told you this, but I'm the charter member of a knitting circle of sorts." The other eyebrow joined the first. "We are war widows, all of us, and spend our free time looking into all sorts of things. Who's going to stop someone's dottering old gran from going where she wants, eh?" Cora gave Xena grin as if trying to reinforce the image. The one she got in reply was clearly forced.
"Anyway," she continued. "We are generally well informed as anyone about what's happening in this city. Even the police come to us from time to time."
"Regular Baker Street Irregulars, huh?"
"More like 'Hell's Grannies'."
"Many of us came of age during the '50s, remember. Some of us were quite the hellions."
"Really? And one of these...friends...of yours sent Rickie running?"
"Nhh, not really. None of them turned out to know anything."
"So you called someone else?"
"Yes." Cora fell silent, apparently reluctant to say more. Xena by contrast was anxious for more details.
Her voice was every bit as stony as her expression. "I'm waiting, Cora."
A pregnant pause followed. "There's a bloke I know," the peer admitted quietly. "He's well connected in places I've never heard of. And yes, I called him when my own people couldn't tell me anything."
"And he's the reason Rickie ran?"
"I swear I don't know."
Xena didn't seem to hear. She shook her head as she stood and moved, slowly, towards her old friend. "Why, Cora?"
"I said I don't know."
"Why?!" Xena screamed, sweeping her arm across the countertop and throwing everything that wasn't nailed down into the air. Cora cringed slightly as the crockery shattered on the floor and the din echoed off the pristine walls. The two could only glare at each other for several minutes as Xena's chest continued to heave with undisguised rage.
"I. Don't. Know." Each word was slow and emphasized.
Xena ultimately managed to wrestle control of her breathing. It did, however, take nearly a full minute. This allowed her to see the world in something other than shades of red, which in turn allowed her to express herself in ways that did not involve tearing her old friend apart limb from limb.
Keeping both palms flat on the island counter between them, Xena asked "Who was this 'bloke' you called? Ex-military? A spook from the Circus?"
Cora almost smiled at Xena's off-hand use of one of the aliases MI-6 lived under. "No and no. Rickie asked pretty much the same thing."
"Cora," Xena growled once more. Her body had gone utterly still. The calm before the storm.
The dowager sighed ever so quietly and said, just as quietly, "His name is Jonothan O'Donhugh."
Xena had just a moment to squint in thought before the memories hit like machine gun fire.
"My name is Jonothan O'Donhugh." A stranger introduces himself, hand extended. Only days ago.
"A very beautiful young woman. You're lucky." Nine months ago. The same stranger with blue-gray eyes and a dark suit says on an airplane to Munich.
Days ago. "You're looking for something...or someone..." The stranger says. His eyes tell her he knows more than he speaks.
Munich. Nine months ago. She sees the tall man with the gray suit merely steps away. He stands there looking at cheap souvenirs as though they were priceless treasure. She turns away for just a second, and he is gone.
Munich. She lies in her hospital bed. Rickie is curled up in a chair nearby. She catches sight of a shadow passing the open door. A shadow glancing at her with blue-gray eyes and wearing a dark suit.
Nine months ago in Heathrow. The hairs on her neck stand at end as her bacchae passing the ticket agents. She looks back, barely catching the movement of a gray suit and dark shirt in the distance.
Days ago. She turns back as the small woman and large man disappear back into the crowd of the gallery, wanting to see the man with glasses who directed her there. There is no sign of him.
"Tall guy, right?" Xena asked, eyes to the distance. "Wears a gray suit without a tie? Blue-gray eyes?"
Cora nodded. "That sounds like him."
"He was at the Gallery last week."
"That does not surprise me. He's one of the owners."
"I thought the chain didn't have owners as such."
"Well, major investor might be more accurate." This set Xena thinking once more times and faces distant and recent.
"Armistead. Manfred Armistead, Mrs. Amphipoulis." The dark skinned giant politely smiles. "And my interest is purely financial. I'm one of the owners of the Anan chain, you see, and when I saw Ms. de Anan here buy such an exotic artifact for so outrageous a price, let us say I decided to have a closer look at the situation." London, days ago. They are speaking of weapons lost and found.
"Richard Armistead," says the man, momentarily distracting her from her distant kin. Chapel Hill, 1979. She listens carefully as he and her children's children talk of money and expeditions and places better left unexplored.
"Speaking of which," the warrior murmurred thoughtfully, "you mentioned a guy named 'Armistead' at dinner last Wednesday, remember?"
"Did I?" Cora hedged. She thought furiously how to derail the subject. It was too late for such evasions, however, as Xena's very clear eyes and direct stare told her.
"Armistead with an 'eh-aye', not a double 'e' like you suggested."
Cora said nothing.
"I met him at the Gallery as well. He seemed rather...friendly...with the manager. Friendly in a brother-sister sort of way, that is."
"I'd heard they shared a distant cousin," the peer offered weakly.
"They were both at the auction last year."
Now Cora shook her head, confused. Xena, however, did not feel like offering clues as to her thinking. She was content make these small observations for the moment. "Does you friend O'Donhugh share the same cousin as those two?"
"He's hardly that close a friend, Xena. It wouldn't surprise if he did, however. He comes from very old stock. Cork county, I think."
"'Armistead' is hardly an Irish name."
"Would you believe a prolific family?"
Xena grinned. There was no humor to the expression Cora could see. "You'd be surprised at what I could believe." The warrior's brows tightened slightly. "He doesn't own a dog, does he?"
"Not that he's ever said, no. I believe his little girl is allergic to them."
"Oh?" Xena found herself surprised by this. "He's married?"
Cora shook her head. "A widower. Why do you ask?"
"Just curious," Xena shook her head, waving away thoughts of the overly-friendly wolfhound in Hyde Park the previous day. "Soooooo," she drawled. "No idea whatsoever why Rickie would take off and do an imitation of Richard Kimble at the sight of your friend?"
"'The Fugitive', Cora."
"Ah. Never saw the movie myself. And no, I haven't the foggiest idea, as I've already told you..."
Xena cut in, her tone sharp. "Was there someone with him?"
"Just his driver. Also his adopted cousin it seems."
"Maybe it was the driver. What's his name?"
"Enzo del Turo." Xena rubbed her chin for a moment, thinking. The name also rang a distant echo of a bell. From where or when escaped her, however. After several moments of this, the warrior looked over at her friend, wondering if she could ever again think of her as such.
"I want to meet with them."
"O'Donhugh and del Turo." Tone and eyes made it clear there was no negotiation or argument to be had on this.
Cora could only sigh and say "I'll see what I can do. They can be hard to reach sometimes."
"Tonight, Cora. Don't even think of calling for any other reason."
"Xena..." Cora attempted to plead. But the warrior had already turned and stalked away. The silver haired woman could only knock a few shards of china to the already littered floor and mutter "Wonderful."
Outside, Xena brushed the few tears the sting of betrayal, whether real or perceived, brought to her eyes. "Taxi," she barked into the afternoon air. When one did stop for her, she had to think for a moment before deciding upon her next destination.
"New Scotland Yard."
Upon arriving at busy intersection before the Yard, Xena tossed a few bills to the driver and stood there for several moments as she attempted to get her bearings. She knew where she was, at least geographically, but hadn't the foggiest idea why she'd decided on this location. Some sense of duty to the deceased Sargent Mallory, she supposed.
The idea of speaking to Hopper again promptly brought her back to certain key realities that needed to be addressed. Like what in hell was she going to say to him? Her mind quickly played out the course of such a conversation: "I'm sorry about your subordinate, Inspector. How do I know about it? I was there, you see, and suspect the men shooting at us at the time were in fact trying to kill me instead. I actually got hit a few times and was tossed into the river if that makes you feel any better. Want to see the exit wounds?"
The warrior snorted aloud and stalked towards the Headquarters' entrance anyway. At the very least she could file a missing person's report on her bacchae and hand it in personally. She was sure she'd have a better idea what to do next by then.
As is the way of a universe which thrives on irony, the warrior had only just entered the building when a Jaguar rounded the corner and paused the building directly across the street. A tall figure dressed in gray suit and black shirt entered it. Only a moment later, a darting figure with strawberry blond hair moved into view and flagged down a taxi, which followed the departing sports car.
Dour and intense as he often appeared, it was easy to think Enzo Del Turo as humorless as the average stone. The way he was frowning, deeply and his jaws clenched tight, as he watched O'Donhugh make his was across the main concourse of Victoria Station, having just returned from "brunch", would have reinforced such notions, at least at first glance. Closer examination would have noted how the cords in his neck and jaw were flexing tightly, and how his 'frown' actually twisted this way and that, as though the corners of his mouth were trying to move upwards of their own accord.
It was the frown of one trying very, very hard not to laugh themselves hoarse.
The source of his not-so-secret hilarity was the way his elder brother was walking, with spine perfectly erect and now sporting a very slight limp on his right side. His entire stride was stiff and overly-controlled, in fact; it was the walk of one who was in desperate need of decent chiropractor and osteopath. Enzo let himself think for a moment what kind of damage this "brunch" had done to him, more specifically how it had been done, and immediately banished all such thoughts from his mind. This was a public place, after all. No point in embarrassing them both.
O'Donhugh didn't so much as nod at his cousin as he walked past, save to growl "Not a bloody word, Del Turo!" Enzo continued frowning and not-laughing as they made their way to the exit, trailing close behind the older man as he marched on with great dignity and stature.
They quickly made their way to the Jaguar, Enzo's control soon reaching its threshold as O'Donhugh visibly winced as he climbed into the passenger's side, his eyes going wide and lips depressing into a firm line as he sat down. It was all the younger man could do not to burst out laughing at how his sibling fairly trembled with unvoiced screams and what were doubtlessly very unpleasant declarations.
"Where to?" the younger man asked.
"Back to the flat," O'Donhugh replied tightly. "I need to speak with the Sargent Major."
They were on the road when Enzo finally broke down and asked "So, how was brunch?" He'd timed this well, knowing O'Donhugh wouldn't dare do anything once he was behind the wheel, no matter how furious he might be. Not surprisingly, it took several deep breaths before O'Donhugh was calm enough to try answering.
"Fine," he said. Taking an additional breath he elaborated "We had a very nice, very civil, very tense meal and then went back to her place and worked out our...er, frustrations...in the sitting room."
It took a supreme act of will for Enzo not to spin in shock at this declaration. "What, not in the bedroom?" he asked in a reasonably calm voice, joking demeanor gone.
O'Donhugh's voice remained as flat as ever. "Neither of us are that suicidal, Enzo." Not knowing what to say to this, Enzo kept quiet and continued watching the road, rightly sensing there was more waiting to be said. After a few additional miles, O'Donhugh added "She's coming to Janie's birthday party next month."
This time Enzo nearly swerved into the neighboring lane, causing a series of car horns to honk at them in outrage. "What about the...?"
"Christ on a cross!"
Now O'Donhugh did smile. "That's what she said." Enzo only shook his head. It was well known to the rest of their family how the former Mrs. O'Donhugh harbored a hatred for all things relating to her ex-husband that bordered on the pathological. Oddly, this didn't stop her from frequently having lunch or confiding with most of the rest of them, the former usually at her own expense while the latter avoided any mention of their eldest relation, save for repeated questions concerning young Janie. It made of tense discussions at times, and speculation aplenty among the siblings concerning the real feelings involved. All of which made her coming to next month's celebration all the more unusual, if not actually rather unnerving.
The car's mobile phone chose that moment to ring. O'Donhugh gave it a scowl, but made no move towards it. Enzo sighed and picked it up himself. "Yes?" asked into the receiver, remaining poker faced as he listened. He let the phone fall back to its cradle and glanced over at his passenger as he switched lanes and took a new direction, aiming them towards Grovesnor.
His sole explanation: "You will never guess who is using Aunt Cora's spare room and shower right now."
The spray was surprisingly strong, and the water temperature just a shade below boiling. Several shades actually, but Rickie needed to feel warm and safe right then, and in the absence of a certain warrior's powerful arms she'd often found a steaming shower was the next best thing. Under such conditions her mind would often wander to other times, and other showers spent in the company of that same certain warrior, the memories leaving her feeling far warmer than the water might manage alone.
That morning, however, her hands moved mechanically through the process of washing and rinsing, repeating the actions before she even realized it. Ducking her head under the stream once more before shutting off the water, Rickie then stepped out from behind the curtain ringing the long bathtub and began wiping herself down with the thick towel she had brought with her into the WC. These, too, were mechanical movements, the task long finished before she stopped and reached for her clothes. Where usually both the shower and drying off would lead to wandering thoughts of other times, when the same activities would lead to other, more memorable activities in another's company.
Such concerns were about as distant from her thoughts as the city of London is from the star Alpha Centauri. Her mind was not of past liaisons or pleasures. Rather her thoughts focused wholly and solely upon what she might do to find her warrior. Her options on that score, unfortunately, came up short time and again.
It wasn't as though she didn't have experience to fall back upon. That nightmare in Munich notwithstanding, there had been a time or three when Xena had simply dropped from sight, whether on an undercover snoop job or simply because she'd been 'killed', leaving it to Rickie to trace her steps and find her. Xena was understandably was less than pleased with this, particularly as she never failed to happen along right when things got intense and bloody. For Rickie, such things were practically par for the course, careful not to examine too closely the implications of her non-plussed attitude towards these violent episodes.
Unlike Portland, unfortunately, she didn't have nearly the web of contacts here in London. Her avenues of inquiry were therefore extremely limited. This left more unconventional avenues. And right then, she would quite happily dismantle this entire city, brick by brick, if such was required to find her warrior.
Dressing back in her jeans and tanktop, Rickie returned to the bedroom where she found her jacket and boots waiting for her. Alongside them was the kitten who gave her such a rude awakening earlier that day. The small animal rolled over onto its stomach and looked up at her with bright and trusting eyes. "Meow?" it purred at the sight of her.
"Do I know you?" she asked as she plucked her jacket off the chair. The kitten waved a paw towards her in reply.
Rickie simply rolled her eyes and picked up the small form, which began twisting this way and that, its small face the picture of feline delight. She continued holding the kitten close as she stepped into her boots and began lacing them up, then temporarily deposited the kitten in her lap as she tied the knots. This done, the kitten found itself perched on her shoulder (with a hand on its back ensuring it didn't loose its place) as Rickie picked up her jacket and headed downstairs.
She found Cora in the kitchen, who was muttering into a cordless phone as she entered. "Hmm. Right. Cheers." She put the phone on the counter and turned to face her guest. "Good news. I've an acquaintance coming over who can be of some help."
"Oh?" For some reason, Rickie was not encouraged by this. The kitten leapt off her shoulder and sauntered across the counter to where Cora had set out a saucer of milk for it. It lapped at the creamy liquid while slewing eyes between the two women.
Sensing her worry, Cora smiled reassuringly and said "Oh, don't worry. He's the sort who wouldn't believe a genuine miracle if it came up and bit him on the nose. Diehard pragmatist to his shoelaces."
"Nuh-huh. And how exactly does a," she mimicked quotation marks, "'diehard pragmatist' help us?"
"Apart from the fact certain high-ranking members of both parties owe him favors...and several of the local underworld owe him their first born?"
"Knows everybody and everything, huh? What is he? A gangster? A government spook?"
"Good lord, no. Just a bloke who knows people."
Rickie looked even more uncomfortable now. "I dunno, Cora. Xena likes to keep a low-profile, y'know? And she really hates having to...well, owe anybody."
"So does he." The phone in the office-stroke-sitting room a few doors down rang. "Ugh. I need to get that. Official business, you know," Cora excused herself, missing how Rickie glanced at the still-silent mobile nearby.
"Sure," Rickie muttered, distracted as she felt her hackles rising for seeming no reason. The kitten, apparently having quickly had its fill of the milk, took to shadowing her back-and-forth wanderings near the counter. She absently scratched its neck as she paced, mind turning words and events over and over.
"I'm missing something, aren't I?" she asked the kitten, who was trying to stand on its hind legs, reaching up towards her with its front paws outstretched. Rickie picked up its small frame and cradled it to her. It purred loudly in pleasure, the miniature vibrations giving her some measure of comfort. Rickie looked once more at the mobile, turning her eyes at the door Cora had exited through, then back to the phone. Some part of her rebelled against just the thought of listening in upon her friend's phone calls. Cora hadn't demanded or pressed her in the least despite the god-awful hour she'd stumbled in at. So what she was contemplating was bad manners at best, and downright ingratitude at worst.
Still, there was nothing wrong with just a quick check was there? Just to make sure it wasn't anything important?
"I'm not crazy, right?" she asked the cat, who yawned widely and snuggled deeper against her. "Right." Rickie nodded and picked up the mobile with the greatest care. Holding it to her ear, she hit the power button with her thumb, ready to press it again at the first sound of the peer's voice.
There was only silence met her ear. Not even a dial-tone could be heard.
Confused, Rickie set the mobile back on the counter and tried once more to make sense of a universe gone insane about her. "Okay, breathe, Dreamer. Breathe," she heard her voice counsel, not knowing for the life of her where the advice was coming from. The kitten let loose an indignant yelp as her arms tightened reflexively around herself, unintentionally squeezing its small body. It squirmed out from her grip and sat on the countertop, watching her curiously as she unconsciously addressed her thoughts aloud.
"Okay," Rickie muttered, more to herself than the animal watching her so closely. "Okay. Cora didn't lie to us. Why would she lie to us, huh?" The kitten entered a silent plea of 'no comment' to her deliberations. "She doesn't have any reason to lie...so why is she? She's lying. She's got to have a reason to lie to us." Snatching up the tiny animal once more, Rickie moved out of the kitchen, determined to seek out her hostess and let her have whatfor. What this might accomplish was quite beyond her, so Rickie didn't think about it.
Unfortunately, Rickie soon found her haste had caused her to take a wrong turn somewhere between the office and kitchen, and she found herself in the elegant dining room. She looked about quickly for the way she had come in, only to become more confused as she nearly begun spinning in place. This caused the kitten to yowl again, its distress forcing Rickie to collect herself and think of something other than her silent mantra of she lied she lied. The nearest window faced out into the street, with a few short trees and shrubbery just beyond the glass. Rickie wandered over to it, hoping a change of scenery would help her think.
She saw a sports car coming to a halt opposite the front door. Rickie vaguely recognized it as a Jaguar, remembering some of her 'sources' driving such cars a lifetime ago as a sign of their prosperity, even though the upkeep on them was easily twice as expensive as the cars themselves. Rickie was about to look away when its passengers exited and stood in full view. Her eyes went painfully wide, glued to the sight.
It was the Goatee and the Gray Man (Jonothan O'Donhugh her mind supplied) from the club. Both looked every bit as dangerous and murderous as the previous night.
And both were crossing the street...coming directly to the house!
Rickie was sprinting out of the room before they had made it even half-way across the empty street, thoughts once more clearly focused, this time on hiding and (gods willing) escape. The kitten purred once more, quite content and actually enjoying this high-speed conveyance. It purred still louder when it was once more dumped with little ceremony into an inner pocket of the blonde's jacket.
Rickie didn't hear it, concentrating instead upon finding the darkest corner in the deepest bowls of the house. She heard nothing save the triple hammer beat of her heart...and the sounds of phantom glass breaking under a dark man's attack.
All thoughts of a quiet escape fled when her sharp ears caught the gentle rapping of knuckles against the wood of the front door. She all but leapt through the first door that didn't lead to another room or hallway just as the front door creaked open.
Ironically enough, she found herself in a small WC, with barely enough room to turn around and lock the door behind her, the toilet and small sink taking up nearly all available room. There was, however, one saving virtue to the place: a window directly above the toilet, its shutter already partially open but not quite widely enough to allow to out. Remembering they were on the ground floor, and praying rather desperately Cora wasn't the sort to go into gardening, Rickie immediately set about trying to wrestle the frame up and get herself out of there.
There were voices, both familiar and unfamiliar in the hall outside the door. She couldn't make out exact words, and didn't even try. One of them, Cora's, called out "Rickie?"
She had bite her tongue to keep quiet.
"Rickie?" Cora tried again, a little more forcefully now. "Where've you gotten to, love?"
The shutter gave way, rising just an inch, the frames grinding against each other loudly enough to be heard beyond the closed door. A couple gentle knocks sounded off behind her, followed by Cora's asking "Rickie? Are you in there?"
"Yah...Yeah!" she quickly replied, straining with the effort of moving the wood and glass pane blocking her escape.
"Ah. That friend of mine is here."
"Grrr...!" was all Rickie could grunt. If I'm lucky, they'll just think I'm fucking constipated and go away! some corner of her brain mulled silently. Then maybe I can get outta here and find some real help!
"We'll be in the office when you're ready, alright?"
"Argh...yeah. Sure." She redoubled her efforts after a minute, hoping against hope Cora and her 'friends' had gone, and was quickly rewarded when the shutter moved up another inch and a half. Unfortunately, the wood ground even louder than before, letting loose a screeching sound that must have been heard clear across London, never mind just down the hall.
Rickie paused briefly to catch her breath, and clearly heard the sounds of feet pounding down the carpeted hall outside. "Ah, shit!" she muttered as she began easing herself through the narrow opening, doing so feet-first and careful not to unintentionally crush her furry passenger. Despite these precautions, she was fully out the window only a few seconds later, dangling by her fingers from the sill. The sound of frantic knocking on the door startled her into nearly loosing her grip. Shutting her eyes, Rickie let go, falling the whole of half a foot before landing hard on the concrete ground beneath her, ending up firmly on her rear and feeling quite the fool for it.
She had no time to chide herself, however, the sound of a the door above her being kicked open sending her flying down the long alleyway. She didn't dare look back but once, and even then, catching only the quickest glance of gray material over black was enough to send both her heart and feet into overdrive. Someone, somewhere behind her cried out "Shite!", its venom reverberating off the stone and wooden walls she now ran through, weaving between them until she completely lost her way. And still she ran, mind focused alone on putting as much distance between herself and that house of lies.
She slowed after several minutes of this, the byways soon looking all alike. Never mind that she was out of breath. Even so, caution did not wholly desert her as she neared the street again, careful to first look behind her, then peer around the corner before stepping once more into sight. Just as well she did, as she found herself only a few doors down from the Blaylock house.
Her flight had evidently taken less time than she'd first thought, as she saw O'Donhugh sprinting down the front steps. The Goatee, his trenchcoat billowing behind him like a cape, was jogging from the opposite end of the street and shaking his head as he called out something. Rickie could not make out what words passed between them. They met at the Jaguar, the Goatee bending over slightly, chest visibly heaving. O'Donhugh simply looked tense and irritated, slowly turning to look down the street in either direction. She ducked back down the alley, ready to flee again.
Rickie counted to thirty, then risked another looked around the corner. The pair were back in their car and pulling away from the curb, heading in the opposite direction from her. She blew a sigh of relief and leaned back against the alley wall, only to nearly scream aloud when she felt something wiggling against her side.
Tearing open her jacket, Rickie found herself peering down at the bright-hued eyes of the kitten, who had managed to worm its head up out of the pocket and gaze around. Its tiny ears flattened against its skull as it gave her a cute kitty-grin.
Rickie took a shuddering breath, not certain if she wanted to return the smile or wring its small neck. She settled for brushing a her thumb across the bridge of its nose and asking it "Please don't go scaring me like that, okay? I'm too young to have a heart attack just yet."
"Meow," the kitten agreed, relishing the momentary affection.
Rickie soon straightened and carefully began down the street, thinking hard about her next move as she went. Back to the hotel? Nah, Cora would've told the dynamic duo back there where it was. Try calling Gwenn? It'd help if I knew where she was living these days. Wales, wasn't it? How do you work the phones in this crazy country, anyway? Gotta do something now!
The police? Yeah, right. Like they'd listen...wouldn't they? That Hopper character would give the Keystone Kops a bad name. The other one though...Sargent...what's his name? Foley? No, that's that Mimi Rogers bitch on "The X-Files". Jesus, I'm in a fucking X-file.
Sounded like somebody famous. Farley? No, he wasn't nearly so fat. Barney? Benny? No, no purple dinosaurs here. Who was that guy, the climber on Everest? The they just found again? Mallory! That's it. He looked like he was ready listen...I think. Ah, hell, what's the worst he could do? Lock me up? For what?
Decision reached she immediately looked around for a taxi, ready to jump in front of it if that was what it took. She could only hope she remembered which precinct house the Sargent was located in. Taxis are thick in London, and so she quickly found her ride, grateful that she did not need to resort to extreme measures to get it.
She had to think for a moment when the driver asked her for a destination. She had no address to offer, but vaguely remembered the trademark rotating sign of New Scotland Yard had been across the street from the precinct where she'd picked up Xena the previous week. "Scotland Yard," she ordered, sitting back and letting herself be whisked away.
As the taxi pulled away from the sidewalk, a luxury town car further down the street trailed its path through London, careful not to loose sight of the vehicle as it made its way downtown. Like the taxi ahead, there were only two occupants to the car, a driver and single passenger, though in their case both sat in the front seat.
The taxi eventually came to a halt before the headquarters building of the Yard. The passenger, a dark-haired man with thin, darting features, squinted behind his mirrorshades as they passed the taxi. He watched the blonde-haired girl get out and look about the bustling plaza, looking slightly out of place amid the various uniforms and business suits surrounding her.
Realizing the driver had noticeably slowed, Alexander Devon growled "Drive on." Their car accelerated away, Devon satisfied with knowing the girl's (or, to his mind, the bait's) location. He had plenty of contacts in the MPF, and so child's play to find out who she spoke to and why.
Neither paid the least mind to the dark colored Jaguar which passed them shortly thereafter. Nor did either even notice how it turned into the plaza itself, quickly coming to pause across the street from the Yard.
Rickie had reached that state of semi-giddy nervousness signaling the downward end of an adrenal high as she stood there amid police both coming and going about the open air of Broadway SW1, the modern headquarters of the celebrated Yard only steps away. A few of these officers cast odd, almost familiar looks her way, reminding her of similar looks she'd received at the club earlier that evening.
Resolved not to let either the memories or her own nervousness freeze her again, Rickie set off to cross the street, remembering her written promise to Xena and checking both ways before crossing the street. And even then, doing so at so rapid a sprint one might think she was a distance-runner trained for the 2002 Olympics.
Once across the street, Rickie quickly recognized the non-descript front of the station house. She hurried inside, anxious to be away from the open plaza for some reason. The interior had not changed in the few days since her last visit. It reminded her of the hospital she'd awakened in Friday morning following her hit-and-run, and that was putting it charitably.
At least the desk officer was the same polite constable (overweight and balding, of course) who had been so patient with her Thursday morning when she had been escorted in by a pair of nervous-looking patrolmen. Rickie had not been easy on them, demanded to know what had happened and why she was being roused at such godsbedamned hour. The desk sargent, gentile and calm soul that he was, fielded her questions and offered her endless cups of tea, managing to use his considerable bulk to intimidate her in relative silence without so much as lifting a finger at her.
She had learned a few interesting facts concerning both the MPF and the Yard from the Sargent. Like how they were actually one in the same, and how it had jurisdiction over the entire city of London with the small exception of the Square Mile area on the northeast side which was patrolled by the almost inappropriately named "City of London Police". She also learned how there were three distinct different jurisdictional areas, each area having anywhere from half a dozen to over twenty of their own subdivisions called Districts.
Xena's midnight encounter with the late Marty Hawkins and his piano wire actually happened in the London South area, but they had taken her across town and near the MPF's headquarters at the request of Inspector Julian Hopper, head of a Special Task Force charged with 'handling' matters involving former members of Her Majesty's armed forces. They had used this particular station house partly out of convenience and partly out of policy, their brief being to keep such incidents as quiet as possible. The fact the offender was already dead gave them understandable pause, hence the extended interview they'd put Xena through.
At least, this was the story Rickie had managed to piece all this together that morning. The fact both had come to see her Friday morning meant there might well be more going on here than either she or Xena realized. Which made it all the more important she speak to Mallory. She wasn't sure why she trusted Mallory more than Hopper, any more than she knew what to tell him when she saw him again. Right then, it was struggle enough just to keep her face neutral and voice calm. "I need to speak to..."
The Sargent smiled benignly and interrupted. "Aye, lass. The Inspector's been waiting for ya." He waved her towards a hallway just beyond the busy squadroom. Rickie nodded and decided not to question this turn of luck. She made her way around the periphery of desks and uniforms, trying hard to be as unobtrusive as possible. It more or less worked, though a few of the plainclothes caught sight of her and gave a familiar if surprised grin. Rickie found this nearly as disconcerting as the looks thrown her way at the club. She thanked her lucky stars no one approached her, and hurried her steps to the back.
Once past the squad area, Rickie found herself in a narrow and ill-lit hallway with several doors on either side. Not certain how to proceed, she slowly made her way down the passage, attentive to the odd nameplates on the doors. "Interview One", "Interview Two", "Three", "Four", "Chief Inspector Dahltree", "Det. Inspector Collinswood", "Men's WC", "Women's WC", et cetera, et cetera. But no mention of either a "Hopper" or "Mallory".
She had reached the opposite end of the hallway, where a final door marked "Exit" stood, and turned to retrace her steps when one of the doors further down opened. Rickie instinctively flattened into the doorway stood beside, going still and trying to melt as far into the minimal shadows as possible. She cursed herself and relaxed at seeing Inspector Hopper step out into the hall, only to tense once more when Jonothan O'Donhugh followed him a moment later.
When she saw and heard what came next, Rickie was quite certain her eyes simply popped out of their sockets like shot from a cannon.
The policeman spoke first. "Thank you for your assistance in this matter, sir."
"Not at all," the gray suited man replied, taking the offered hand in a firm grip. He continued, saying with appropriately grave sympathy "I am sorry to hear about Sargent Mallory, though."
The Inspector asked insistently "Are you sure Amphipoulis was there?"
"Well, thank you again You've been quite a help, as usual." They shook hands once more and went their separate ways, leaving Rickie watching O'Donhugh's retreat like a hawk as he made his way back into the squad area. She crept forward with the greatest care, not loosing sight of him even as he made his way back through the clutter of desks and moving bodies the way a shark might cut a path through a school of minnows. None of the officers spoke or even looked his way as he passed.
Rickie received an additional shock as she saw the Goatee step in through the front door and make his way directly to his compatriot's side. Words were once again exchanged between the two men, both exiting with a visibly hurried step this time. They were not even through the door before Rickie had made her own exit, all but sprinting through the door marked for that very purpose behind her.
Once outside, she continued running, slowing only once she was around the building and looking once more at the busy lanes of Broadway Street. She saw the pair once again enter their car, fending off a traffic officer by waving a couple small leather folders his way, the sort badges and i.d. cards were held in. The officer backed away, hands up in placating gesture. The two paid him no further heed as the Jaguar's engine was started.
Keeping her moves as casual and unobtrusive as possible, Rickie strolled out onto the sidewalk and waved out to one of the many black taxis chugging along the street. Where every nerve in her body screamed she find one now, Rickie kept her stance nonchalant and her back to the departing car. When a taxi eventually did stop, a mere few seconds and several eons later, Rickie still kept her movements calm and unhurried, saving her tension and fire for the driver.
Rather than sit in back, Rickie leaned as close as the plexiglass partition would allow her and practically screamed into the Pakistani's ear "Follow that Jag!"
"Where's the Sargent Major stashed him?" O'Donhugh asked when they were away from the Yard.
Enzo kept a close eye on the traffic surrounding them as he drove. "In the old storage site on the south side. At the docks."
"Good." Seeing the younger man's distraction, he asked "We being followed?"
"Not that I can see." Enzo shook his head, easily merging them with the rest of the late afternoon traffic.
It had taken her the better part of two hours before one of the constables would even deign to speak to her. Xena had used that time to concoct a reasonable story to go with reporting Rickie missing. It had actually proven fairly easy: she'd decided to tell an abridged version of the truth. Just enough about how there had been attempts upon their lives and that her Dreamer had gone missing. By rights this should have brought the Inspector running, especially as she had planned to emphasize his name in particular.
Xena never did speak to Hopper or even see the Inspector, whom she was continually told was unavailable for interview. She wisely didn't mention Mallory despite the hubbub circling around concerning the shooting on the bridge. There is nothing like the murder of a fellow officer to put a police force on the warpath. They must have been turning over rocks all day searching for leads, going by the number of young turks and toughs were being parading in and out.
The constable was a matronly woman of few words and little patience. Fortunately she was too harried to do more than hand Xena the necessary stack of forms and direct her on filling them out. The warrior counted her blessings that she was allowed to fill out the necessary paperwork in the waiting area. Matters would have been far more complicated if she had been required to step through one of the metal detectors and into another interview room.
It was one thing after all to want to fill out a missing person's report bound for the circular file. It was quite another to be carrying exotic weaponry concealed in one's jacket in the building filled with edgy cops and still edgier criminals, especially when one looked and stank as though they had been soaking in the Thames for most of the day.
Xena filled out the forms as required and handed them in without comment. She waited another two hours before conceding defeat and left the building. The sky had darkened by then, matching her mood and thoughts perfectly.
Reaching for her wallet, she was mildly surprised to find it much lighter than expected. Looking inside, she found it empty of cash save for a small ten pound note. The warrior had the urge to laugh aloud at this, quickly calculating how much money she had been throwing about the past two days. The last time she'd spent her funds so freely was on the docks of Brazil back in 1940, and back then she'd been trying to buy passage across the U-boat infested Atlantic.
She quickly sobered as more mundane concerns asserted themselves, the desperate need for a shower, clean clothes and food among them. Ten pounds would certainly not be enough for yet another taxi back to the hotel. It appeared that she was back to walking.
With a half-hearted sigh Xena started walking west. She wasn't more than a few blocks from the Yard when a young woman, barely more than girl, lurched out at her from the shadows. Xena tensed and prepared to send her reeling back when she spied the small body of an infant on her shoulder. "Please, give us a quid ta feed my baby?" the girl slurred tiredly, holding out her hand more out of habit than actual hope. Both were gaunt from hunger and fatigue.
Xena looked at them for just a moment before handing over the last of her money. The girl looked shocked, then snatched the money and disappeared down the street. "Hey..." Xena tried to call after her, but soon closed her mouth. The girl and her child were gone, and she had nothing more to offer either of them. That could have been Rickie...or Terris...or even Gabrielle...
"Two thousand years," the warrior caught herself muttering, "and nothing changes." She could only shake her head and offer a silent prayer to whatever god might listen to watch over the pair for at least one night.
She continued walking, steps a little heavier now.
To her personal surprise, Rickie managed to keep her tongue as the driver followed her directive, wanting to urge him all the while to keep practically atop the darting car. She had, however, been with Xena long enough to have at least a basic grasp of automotive surveillance techniques, including the need to keep distance between the subject being followed and the those doing the following. There were several cars and cabs between them by the time they came to the Tower Bridge, heading south.
This actually gave Rickie a few anxious moments, certain that the slow-down in traffic meant there was barge or a battleship or some damn thing coming down the Thames right then, which meant the damn bridge was going to be raised and they would loose sight of the damn car and all her damn work was going to be for nothing and this would leave her without a single damn idea about what to do about this whole damn situation and...
These spiraling thoughts drained away as the wheel's of the taxi mounted the grating of the bridge's surface, the chassis vibrating with a soothing rhythm until they were on the opposite side. Rickie had not allowed her eyes to wander in the slightest from her target, to the point where she had no idea any longer where they were exactly, save heading southeast. She was not even entirely sure about this, going by the relative position of the sun in the sky and the fact it was fast approaching five o'clock.
Traffic had all but dissipated this time, giving Rickie another few anxious moments. Surely the dynamic duo must have seen the taxi by now. Where the hell were they, anyhow? She could see all sorts of storage containers and a few motorized cranes in the distance. Several large structure loomed nearby. Warehouses, she realized after a moment. A blaring horn sounded off across the rooftops, one she recognized as belonging to a ship. This gave Rickie some small measure of comfort, clarifying her current surroundings. Okay, we must be near some docks somewhere. Now what?
The driver glanced back at her. "Dey seems to be stopping, miss," he informed her politely.
Rickie nodded, seeing the Jaguar had in fact come to a halt near one of the more weather-beaten structures. "Turn here and let me out," she ordered, pulling her wallet out from her jacket pocket and handing him a number of colored bills as the taxi rounded the corner of the neighboring warehouse. "This cover it?"
Rickie said nothing further as she got out of the car, not waiting until it fully stopped, and raced to the nearest wall and carefully peering around it, reflecting for a moment how practiced she had become at this. Maybe I should be the one with the p.i. license.she mentally giggled, sobering the instant she caught sight of the car and its two passengers. Neither looked the least bit hurried or even concerned that they might be seen as they entered the warehouse.
Her taxi had disappeared by the time. She was alone in a dirty, dangerous-looking place, with only a couple shady and demonstrably violent characters as company, and facing gods alone knew what next. Kinda like being back on the street, she reflected as she crept towards the same door the pair had entered. Only now I'm the one with as much cash as attitude.
She reached the door, but pulled her hand back at the last moment, thinking better of it. She had absolutely no idea what might be lying in wait for her behind that door. Better take them from the flanks, right? Wasn't that how all the great generals won against impossible odds? Xena's infrequent tutorials on military history might come to her at the oddest times, but damned if they weren't useful.
Decision made, Rickie began a making her way along the side of the building, looking for a window that was either broken enough or open enough for her to fit herself through, or another door that wasn't already boarded up or locked from the inside. She quickly found one of the latter, far down the side wall facing west. The passage between this building and its neighbor was strewn with garbage and darkening quickly with the evening light.
Rickie allowed herself no time to think about whether to enter or not. She had no idea how long it had taken her to find the blasted thing, and with her luck all the action (whatever it might have been) inside was long over, even though she'd been careful to watch behind her for the Jaguar's departure. Ah, hell, Dreamer, she chided herself. If they're gone, they're gone. And if they aren't...well...
She twisted the rusty knob and cracked the door open, sliding herself inside with quick grace and still quicker ease, none of which gave the slightest indication how badly her metaphorical knees were knocking.
The door led her into what might have once been an office, replete with rusted filing cabinets and a couple desks so pitted and battered they were unfit habitation for rats. Rickie braved the cobwebs and grotesque shadows around her and moved quickly to the nearby door leading further into the structure. This too opened, though more with a creaking groan than the other. Rickie momentarily closed her eyes, expecting the heavens to fall and crush her at any moment. When no such catastrophe materialized, she let herself breath once more and continued on her way.
There were a few echoes to guide her through the dark and seemingly cluttered interior. She had no idea exactly how large this place was or what was being housed here. There was the vague feeling of it being big, like jumbo jetliner hanger big, but too little light to make anything out clearly. A variety of objects, all larger than herself and many covered with tarps, made a labyrinth of sorts that Rickie very carefully weaved herself through, keeping her steps as light as possible and trying desperately not to disturb anything that might fall and give her away. That was the way it worked in situations like this, wasn't it? She'd manage to sneak all the way in, see something positively godawful, and get found when she knocked over a lamp or kicked a wall or something equally as stupid.
These racing thoughts caused her to pause for just a moment, struggling for new equilibrium. This was not some cheap slasher flick or a weekly action series or anything of the sort. She was living in a very dangerous world and needed to keep her wits about her if she was ever to see her warrior again. Drifting into daydreams at a time like this was sure-fire way to get oneself caught and fitted for a cement overshoes.
Rickie, having sufficiently chided herself, resumed her passage into the shadows. In time she found herself creeping up on a railway passenger car of all things. In the dimness she could make out gilded frame and faded paintings upon its sides. Something about this object drew her attention, and she moved closer, coincidentally coming closer to the phantom voices which had guided her to that point. Rickie momentarily considered climbing into the car, but as quickly dismissed the idea. She after all had more immediate concerns than another vague flash of déjà vu.
An oval plate of brass was situated near one of the car's doors. It was dented and faded, some of the lettering obscured, but legible nonetheless:
Th Princess Bride
Cmms. 5 May, 1889
Prop. of R. Mo r
Rickie strained to read it, almost snorting at the pretentiousness as her mind supplied the missing letters. Rob Reinner should sue. was Rickie's only thought as she moved on. The sounds of slapping and muffled gagging broke out once more, surprisingly close. Just the other side of the car, in fact.
Rickie slowly eased herself around it and was immediately treated to a sight at once unexpected, yet familiar from the previous night.
The Gray Man and the Goatee were standing off to one side of a wide, cleared out area of the floor on just the other side of the car. They watched silently as a heavyset figure half-wrestled, half-carried a much smaller individual into a chair in the center of the clear area. The smaller man had his hands tied behind his back and a hood over his head, covering it completely. He continued is clearly ineffectual struggles against the larger man's grip, twisting this way and that, nearly shaking loose of his captor a couple times before being all but thrown into the chair and held there by two massive hands pressing down hard unto his shoulders.
This didn't stop him from fighting, muffled noises issuing from beneath the hood which reminded her of the unfortunate Kenny McCormack from "South Park". She almost giggled from the imagery, which was wildly at odds with the dark atmosphere swirling about them all right then.
The big man gave a sharp backhand to his captive, causing the latter's head to rock forward, followed by the big man's growl of "'Behave!" What might have been a loud whimper was the only audible reply from the hooded man, though his struggling clearly subsided a bit.
O'Donhugh's response was clearer and no less direct. "Sargent!" he barked out, the bigger man instinctively straightening to attention. The gray suited man continued speaking as he calmly strode out to stand directly before their captive. "I don't want to see you doing that!"
The Sargent was given no chance to respond. "Allow me." O'Donhugh's punch caught the seated man squarely in the sternum, propelling both the chair and its occupant backwards several inches before both landed flat on their respective backs. Rickie couldn't help flinching at the racket this caused. Even the kitten in her pocket was disturbed, who immediately began its own squirming bid for freedom.
The Sargent hastily righted both the chair and its unwilling occupant, careful to keep a firm grip on the latter. At O'Donhugh's signal, he tore off the hood with a single hand, revealing him to be blindfolded and gagged, his curly blonde hair falling to his shoulders and partially obscuring his face. Rickie didn't recognize the poor sod, but that was no surprise. Not like she knew seemed anybody anymore. She listened attentively as the taller man spoke up.
"Gentlemen. We are in the presence of a living legend. Mr. Virgil Samuel Price. Shipping magnate, dock-owner, and all around evil bastard." O'Donhugh took to circling Price, tone at once lazy and electric. "If its bad and nasty and comes in anywhere between Cartiff, London, and Dover, Mr. Price here owns a piece of it. Drugs, guns, jewels, secrets, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera." He leaned close to Price's ear and whispered loudly "Equal opportunity bastard, aren't you, Sammy-boy?"
Price jerked in an effort to head-butt his tormentor, only to be thwarted by the Sargent's catching the sides of his head in a vise-like grip. Unconcerned, O'Donhugh stood and resumed his pacing, waiting about a minute before saying "Small wonder the late James Horton was so quick to recruit you for his little crusade."
The silence that followed, when all present, both seen and unseen, went utterly still was absolute. Rickie felt her ears go as wide open as her eyes had narrowed tight.
This stillness stretched for a few minutes, the only movement to be had was the dust bunnies and O'Donhugh's slow circling. When he began speaking again, soft as his voice was, it might as well have been a cannon shot. "What you do and trade in, I frankly don't give a rat's arse. You, Sammy lad, are simply a convenient conduit of information I'm tapping. Nothing more. Tell me what I need, and you're back to your cheap scams and expensive imports."
Price seemed to mull over this offer, making no move as argument nor any more other than to turn his head towards the voice addressing him. Gagged as he was, he of course could not easily or directly acknowledge or deny anything said to him. Nor could he really make any move in the first place, the Sargent's restraining hands never leaving him.
"Oh, no fear. I'm not after anything...sensitive, shall we say. Really just a single bit of hard information is all." He leaned down, coming practically nose to nose with Price and nearly hissing as he spoke "A name, Samuel. Nothing more than that."
"Hmph?" Price spat around the gag.
Elaboration came spoken clearly and succinctly. "The name of the one who gave the nod for you to send a hit on the girl."
Price's brows furrowed around the cloth wrapped about his eyes. "Hmph?"
"The hit you signed off Michael Giovanni to commit. That little joy ride you had him take on Westbourne, middle of last week." Rickie's mouth fell open, the beginnings of uncontrollable shaking once more hitting her at hearing this.
She wasn't the only one shaking, though Price controlled it well.
"Piece of advice for the future, Samuel. Do not go hiring irresponsible young turks from Naples t'do a hit and run on Yank tourists. Not only is it bloody unprofessional, its just plain, arse-faced stupid."
Price went still for a moment, then jerked his head to the side a couple times. O'Donhugh exchanged a look with the Sargent, who quickly removed the tightly wound cloth from the smaller man's mouth. Price licked his lips and stretched his jaw, working the stiffness out of it before trying to speak.
"The name, Samuel?"
The underworld baron smirked and, keeping still and staring straight ahead, said with complete clarity of mind and purpose "Fill my boots, you..."
He wasn't allowed to complete this, the back of the Sargent's right hand impacting loudly with the back of Price's head, rocking his entire form forward. The mobster didn't cry out from this. He even giggled a little from this. "You stupid bastards. Y'think I'll actually tell you shite? You're against a hard man, here. I've faced down worst than you. Y'think you can break..."
The Sargent replaced the gag and shared another look with the tall man.
For her part, Rickie was struggling to keep from throwing up her last meal. She'd fallen to her knees, shaking now so badly, and had wrapped both arms around her sides as if to keep herself from literally coming apart at the proverbial seems. She would likely have screamed like a madwoman were she able, but the torrent of thoughts and suspicions churning within her drowned all such ability. The insanities of the past several days, of this whole damn trip, all now took on a sinister shade. They must have been following them from the minute they'd set down last week. Oh gods, could they have already gotten to Xena? It took all her energy to simply keep from fainting dead away, certain that 'dead' would be the operative word should this happen.
Somehow, she managed to collect herself. More amazingly, Rickie found herself standing and moving to a closer position to where the interrogation proceeded, doing so wholly unconsciously and with her knees shaking all the while.
She hadn't noticed how the kitten had wormed its way out of her pocket several steps back, following her while casting curious eyes towards where the strange sounds were coming from. Unaware of this, Rickie crouched behind a stack of rusted barrels less than twenty feet from the trio, this position giving her an excellent view of O'Donhugh's profile, a profile now having a dark scowl to it which reminded her a bit of Xena's.
She had only just taken up her new position when the Sargent pulled Price's gag away once more. Before the short mobster could say anything, however, O'Donhugh undertook an action Rickie would have sworn impossible.
Both of his hands shot out, first and second fingers extended on both and striking Price on either side of the base of his throat. The effect was as instantaneous as it was familiar, Price's entire form stiffening as if his every muscle were suddenly stretched taunt. Rickie could just imagine his eyes widening behind his blindfold as he found his ability to breathe as frozen as his muscles.
Rickie's own eyes went wide at hearing O'Donhugh's next words, even though she could recited them herself, word for word. "I've just cut the flow of blood to your brain, Samuel. You will be dead of brain asphyxia in under a minute...unless I release it." Price began to tremble as his joints began seizing up. "The name, Samuel. Give it up. Your mouth still works, I assure you."
"Ngh..." Price gagged.
"See?" O'Donhugh glanced at his watch. "Thirty seconds, and counting."
Price began to discolor, first his neck, then his cheeks turning a light shade of blue. His trembling became worse with this, though it seemed to center solely in his upper body now. Rickie found herself watching with an almost perverse fascination at seeing the effects of "the pinch" play out before her. She'd begun ticking off the seconds in her head the instant O'Donhugh had struck. Generally she didn't reach fifteen before the unfortunate cracked like an egg.
Mister Price, however, made it past fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen.
"Twenty." O'Donhugh helpfully counted out. "Twenty-one. Twenty-two."
Blood was now coming from Price's nostrils. Just a couple drops at first, quickly becoming a steady trickle.
"No way to save you after twenty-five, Sammy-boy. Twenty-four. Twenty-five. Twenty-six. Twenty-seven. Twenty-eight. Twenty-nine. You're dead! Thirty!!"
"Ngh!" Price was nodding frantically, no longer the hard man of the British underworld. Merely a man faced with the abyss, and terrified by it.
O'Donhugh's fingers struck out once more, releasing the blocked passages in the smaller man's neck, Price taking a number of deep breaths the instant this was done. He continued to shudder and tremble for several more breaths thereafter. O'Donhugh and company took this delay with calm patience. A marked contrast from only moments ago, leaving Rickie (and Price, no doubt) dizzy and a bit breathless, to say nothing of badly confused.
"I'm waiting, Price," O'Donhugh said with a gentle, patient tone. "Make me put the pinch on again, I won't take it off next time."
When Price managed to speak, it came in a rush. "It was...a solicitor...down Fleet Street...Alexander Devon. He wanted...he wanted the girl hurt...something t'do with the little bitch's lover..."
Devon? Where's that name from? I've heard it before. Where? Rickie thought, desperate for some kind of mental traction that she might make sense all this. The interrogation didn't miss a beat for her distraction.
"Devon bossed the hit himself?" Price nodded, vigorously. "What about Marty Hawkins? Was that ordered?"
Rickie's mouth fell open.
"God...you know about..."
"Or that little team your lot sent up to the house outside Colchester? Was that Devon's nod as well?"
"Christ! Who the fuck're you? Em-Eye-fucking-Six?" A thumb jammed into the hollow of his throat, not quite forceful enough to cause anything to collapse, convinced him to silence this outburst and reminded him who's questions took precedence.
"Let's try another direction, Samuel," O'Donhugh suggested. "How deeply is Devon into the planning of this little side-show of yours? He plan everything that's happened since last Tuesday, or are you spreading your wings and flying solo?"
"Everything...everything's his order."
O'Donhugh stood back and tapped his chin for a moment before declaring "I don't believe you." He took an audible step forward, at which Price cringed and was practically screaming.
"It the fucking truth...I swear to God fucking Almighty!"
"Oh, calm down will you? Mother, but you need a good mouth-washin'." The Sargent now wore an amused expression, as did the Goatee, both directed at his feet rather than his words. Rickie and O'Donhugh looked down simultaneously, the former feeling her heart stop dead at the sight there.
There was the kitten, gnawing and pulling on the laces of his shoes. It had braced itself with two paws on his ankle and was struggling with all its might. Price was momentarily forgotten by all sides as O'Donhugh leaned down and scooped up the small mammal, who made its displeasure known for having its sport interrupted by batting at the palms now cradling it with fierce little swipes. "Hullo, you." O'Donhugh cooed at it, the kitten in reply staring up at him with its pebble-size eyes narrowed and head cocked to one side.
O'Donhugh brought it close to his face, careful to keep just beyond the reach of either paws or teeth. The kitten seemed content to simply settle back on its haunches and stare. From her vantage point, Rickie caught the puzzled look crossed the dark man's face, her own brow furrowing as she saw him...sniff...at the small animal.
"We've company here," O'Donhugh declared quietly.
She felt sinking sensation hit her stomach as she watched him slowly, carefully, lower the still-staring cat and deposit it into one of his jacket's outer pockets and begin looking around with equal care and attention. Rickie backed away as carefully and silently as possible, keeping an attentive ear towards the three men only feet away.
She made it as far as rounding the railway car before the inevitable slip-up happened. It was small thing really, utterly beyond the control of anything save Fate: the cuff of her sleeve brushed the connector arm of the car. By rights this slight touch shouldn't have caused the disturbance noise, were it not for three loose ball-bearings within the main joint of the arm, which proved enough for the arm to shift just a fraction behind her. Just one less and it would never have shifted; even one more, and it would have swung smoothly enough that the sound of it would have been nearly inaudible.
It really wasn't even that loud a noise, merely a low, grinding groan of iron against iron. It lasted no more than a few seconds.
She might as well have shot off an artillery round.
"SHE'S BY THE RAIL CAR!" was O'Donhugh's scream, only a single heartbeat later. Rickie forgot caution and stealth and started running.
The air was immediately filled the pounding of footfalls and the disturbance of boxes and the like, much of that latter caused by Rickie herself. It was a blind, rather desperate effort, producing enough telltale echoes that it was easy to find her trail. This did create enough blockages of upturned and damaged items of all shapes and sizes it was nearly impossible for her trail to be followed.
Her pursuers, however, were not easily dissuaded. The fact she didn't know the layout of the warehouse quickly proved to work against her, the Goatee and the Sargent nearly getting her as they leapt in from either side, albeit separately and looking every bit as surprised herself at finding each other. Rickie was grateful Xena had drilled the rudiments of self-defense into her, the endless hours of repetition of dodges and punches proving their worth that night as she eluded both men twice, delivering her own licks in the process. The Goatee was felled by a few well-placed strikes to the abdomen and points south, but the Sargent required a bit more a blunt instrument. Such instruments came easily to hand, though Rickie found he proved far sturdier than the various wooden implements she brought against him and didn't seem to do any physical damage. This accomplished the original goal, nonetheless, putting the heavyset soldier off balance enough she could get away. Oddly, she saw no sign of O'Donhugh throu hout all of this, a fact that did nothing to reassure her.
How long this chaotic pursuit went on she couldn't say, not daring to even glance at her watch. She somehow found her way back to the side office through which she'd entered. The sounds of the others were loud behind; loud, but fortunately far enough away Rickie felt she could safely make a break for it. For good measure she had thrown something heavy at a window she been racing past some ways back. The breaking glass had attracted the three like bees to honey, or so it sounded from their footsteps converging on the area behind her.
Rickie eased herself around the half-opened door and back through the dark office, hurried but still careful not to knock anything over lest her little ruse be found. She stopped just short of diving through the door leading to the alley, taking several deep breaths to collect herself, recognizing with the clarity of paranoia there was every chance O'Donhugh was simply waiting outside for her to do just that.
Rickie flattened herself near the threshold, ears and other senses sharpened for anything out of the ordinary. Sensing nothing, she again slipped through the narrow gap between the door and frame, promptly flattening against the opposite wall when she was out. She found herself utterly alone, save the few stars she could see could have seen in the night's sky overhead had she looked. Right then, she was far more concerned with the horizontal than the vertical.
It took her a few seconds to regain her bearings, and she soon off sprinting back towards the main road between warehouses. Behind her, going wholly unnoticed and nearly silent, the door she had just slipped past was pushed wide open, a darkened shape exiting and following her direction.
Rickie made it to the mouth the alleyway just as O'Donhugh and his cohorts burst out of the warehouse through the front entryway. She noted with some pleasure how the Goatee was limping ever so slightly, and that the Sargent was rubbing his right shoulder, his expression one of equal parts annoyance and satisfaction.
The three men stood there, only O'Donhugh managing to do so with some grimace or looking like he was on his last legs. Instead he once more took to turning this way and that, slowly and carefully, his expression now absent anything but a fierce resolve. Rickie could make out none the words spoken between the three of them, even though she could clearly make out their lips moving and seeing obvious agitation in their movements. All three stood there for a few more heartbeats before walking (or, in one case, limping) away. O'Donhugh was the last to turn away, pausing as he turned, eyes still roaming the landscape around them all.
Rickie immediately ducked her head back around the corner and shut her eyes, certain that at any minute he and his would come for her. And right then, she doubted she could stumble, never mind run more than a few feet.
But no one came for her, only the sounds of engines being started and cars driving off breaking the stillness of the night. Rickie had to practically force her eyes to open, her neck refusing initially to crane around the corner. She was eventually able to coax some cooperation out of her rebellious joints, if only for a quick peek. Only an empty causeway could be seen, relief coursing through her at the emptiness of place.
Resting her head against the wall, Rickie could think of only one course of action left to her: get back to the hotel, wait for Xena, and get them both on the next plane or boat out of this insane city. More immediately, she needed to find a cab back into the city. Remembering which way she'd originally come, Rickie took a step out of the alley and back onto the causeway...
...only to have a strong hand clap itself over her mouth and pull her back into something hard and bad-smelling. Another hand was immediately wrapped around her throat and hot breath was blown in her ear.
"Make one fucking sound," Virgil Samuel Price slurred into her right ear, "and we'll see iffen you're immortal as well, gettit?"
"I can't believe we lost them both!" Enzo's voice echoed up and down the narrow stairwell leading to the small flat in Soho.
O'Donhugh, who lead the way, merely shrugged and said "It happens."
"You don't seem too broken up over this."
"We found out what we needed. I'm not overly worried about Price now."
"What about our other 'guest'? God alone knows what he or she saw."
"It was a 'she'." This caused Enzo to pause in surprise, looking up at the older man's back in expectation of more. Nothing was forthcoming. He shook his head and resumed climbing the steps.
They were at the door to the apartment when O'Donhugh finally added "Whatever she saw or thinks she saw doesn't matter, not after tomorrow." He fished the key to the door out of his pocket and was about to insert it into the lock when the door creeked open slightly. "You didn't leave the door unlocked, did you?" he asked without turning.
"No," Enzo shook his head.
"Step inside," a low voice growled suddenly from behind. Both Enzo and O'Donhugh turned, the former more sharply than the latter, to find the powerful chest of Manfred Armistead filling the hallway immediately behind them.
O'Donhugh turned back to the door and nudged it fully open with his foot. His eyebrows climbed in surprise to see Marie de Anan and a few others standing or sitting inside. Their expressions were as cold as the silvery light flowing in from outside. The surprise quickly passed. With a glance and one-shoulder shrug towards the two behind him, O'Donhugh stepped across the threshold. Enzo and Armistead followed close behind.
The door closed with an audible click, followed by the sound of a lock being engaged.
The rest of Xena's return to the South Hyde was without incident. Hunger and dark thoughts gave her a palpable aura that warned off even the most determined of the nighttime predators. She stomped past the front desk and towards the elevators without a glance or growl towards the night manager. The blonde haired man took no offense at this rudeness as he was now rather used to the odd hours and moods of this particular guest.
The warrior herself cared only for getting to her room. This small quest was also accomplished without incident. Even her key card managed to work despite the soaking it had received in the river. The moment Xena was in the room she set about doing several things at once: casting off clothes, pulling the chakrum from its hiding place, and debating whether to shower first or to order food.
Standing only in what she was born with Xena called for room service, then began running through a series of tight sword drills while waiting. This did nothing to take the edge off the hot anger that had built in her since leaving the Yard, and only succeeding in making her sweatier than before.
She was polite enough to put a robe on when the food arrived. After signing the bill without a sound, Xena turned her full attention upon the food. Eggs sunny-side up, bacon, toasted bread, pulpy orange juice, an American-style hamburger (medium rare), pub-style chips, and three pints of milk all disappeared from their plates within a quarter hour. Her physical hunger satisfied, Xena headed to the WC to see to the rest of her immediate needs.
The phone rang just as she stepped nakedly out of the shower, toweling her body and hair dry. She had no doubts as to who it was. "Yes?" the warrior drawled without preamble.
Cora took the hint and came directly to the point. "He'll meet you tonight as requested."
"Where and when?"
"A club off Charing Cross called 'The Emporium'. He'll be there at 2 am."
Xena deliberately dropped the receiver back unto the cradle and began dressing. Her thoughts were far away, already devising and preparing stratagems atop stratagems.
She would find her Dreamer by the next dawn...or the world know the Destroyer of Nations was alive and well!
"That was rather sloppy work on the bridge, Mr. Devon."
"Ah, its you. I was rather wondering where you'd gotten to, my friend."
"And I am wondering if I haven't made a horrific mistake approaching you."
"Watch your tongue, friend. I have lost a good many men to this venture so far."
"What did you expect would happen? That she'd be as easy a mark as old Darius? I gave you more information on her than your old comrades ever suspected existed, for God's sake." Silence. "Gather the remainder of your men. You'll have one last chance at her."
"Gather them at that warehouse you use on the south side."
"And how do you proposed to get her there?"
"I will deliver her right to you myself."