By Kristian S. Fischer
Disclaimers and such:
Copyright: The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess are owned by MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. The Highlander Immortality concept is owned by Davis/Panzer Productions. This piece of fan fiction is in no way intended to infringe on anybody's copyright, merely written for my own fun, and hopefully the fun of others.
Warnings: There is some violence in this story. There is one (I hope) somewhat erotic scene in there, as well as several references to sexual orientations other than heterosexuality. If you're disturbed by any of this, live in a jurisdiction where anything other than heterosexuality is illegal, or you're a minor, then the exit's in the exact same spot as it was at the beginning of my first story. Use it. If you don't, then consider yourself duly warned. Oh yeah, there's some harsh language as well.
Thank-you's: I just want to say a quick thank-you to those of you who took the time to send me feedback on my last story. It really means everything to us amateur storytellers, y'know. Also, once again, thanks to Redhawk for answering all my questions.
Chronological Note: Demon takes place a year before the canon piece of the Infinity Series, Redhawk's Only One. Thus, you won't find Rickie Gardner in here.
The gunshots echoed off the walls of the warehouse. They came at a slow, steady pace, one after the other, the .45-caliber bullets turning an unlucky paper target hanging against one wall to shreds. The shooter was holding the pistol in one hand, standing perfectly still in a well-practiced firing stance, squeezing off round after round. She was a tall, black-haired woman, with high, feline cheekbones and ice-blue eyes protected by a pair of yellow-tinted shooter's goggles. Her long, shapely legs were sheathed in black jeans, her full breasts covered by a black t-shirt hanging loose at the waist. A pair of grey sneakers, a shoulder holster, and a set of ear protectors completed the ensemble.
As the slide of her pistol clicked on an empty chamber, the woman ejected the spent clip, picked up another from the table in front of her, inserted it into the weapon and released the slide, chambering the first round. She then tucked the loaded weapon into the holster hanging under one armpit, and pushed a button set into the wall next to her. With the whirr of an electric motor, the practically destroyed target sailed towards the woman. As it reached her, she appraised it. Apparently satisfied with her shooting so far, the woman unclipped it and substituted an unmarred one, soon sending it flying back towards the far wall.
Focusing on the new target in front of her, she took first one breath, then another. Then, in a single motion, fluid as water and deadly as fire, she drew the pistol from the holster and emptied the clip into the target in rapid fire. Laying the empty weapon down on the table, the shooter once again pushed the button for returning the target to her. The woman nodded to herself as she looked the target over. Four rounds had gone into the "head" of the target, the remaining six into the "chest". Enough for today, Xena G. Amphipolous thought, as she removed her goggles, and began collecting the spent cartridge cases littering the table and floor around her. She strode out of the weapons range, intent for home.
After taking a shower to wash the scent of cordite off, Xena allowed herself to plop down in one of the high-backed leather chairs of her living room, ice cold orange juice in one hand, today's newspaper in the other. "Nothing but bad news, as usual", she thought, as she perused the headlines. She wasn't disappointed when her gaze fell upon the second-biggest heading on the front page.
Scanning the article, Xena felt her anger growing. This was the tenth kid who'd been taken in the past three months. Some of them had simply disappeared off the streets, here one moment, gone the other. But this one, and the one before, had been taken right out of their own homes, stolen in the middle of the night while they slept, their parents none the wiser.
There is something incredibly wrong with this picture, Xena thought to herself. The Portland Police Department weren't a bunch of slack-yawed incompetents, she knew this for a fact. When she'd talked to her friend Emil Holt about the case, he'd shame-facedly admitted to her that the department had absolutely nothing to go on. It was as if the ground itself had simply opened up and swallowed these kids. Holt had also told her that it wouldn't be long before the FBI would be called in, but that he quite frankly couldn't see what they'd be able to do. "Unless they send Mulder and Scully", he'd quipped, and she'd snickered at the reference to the popular TV show, which she even found herself watching occasionally.
The more she looked at it, though, the case did look like something out of the X-Files. At least with the completely inexplicable disappearances of these children. She was pretty sure that she knew where they were going. Pedophilia and the people who practiced it were just one of many markets for the more-or-less organized crime of the Pacific Northwest, and there were definitely people out there who'd pay money for that kind of service. Abhorrent and disgusting as the thought was to her, Xena could relate to it on some distant level of her being. To the criminals who provided, this was just another way to make money off other people's desires. Maybe it's time to get more personally involved, the dark woman thought to herself, as she put the paper down.
She'd barely thought this when her office phone rang. Rising out of the chair, Xena covered the short distance to her desk at a leisurely pace, and picked up the receiver.
"Hello, Amphipolous Agency."
"Xena? Marianna Finkelbaum here. Do you remember me?"
Marianna Finkelbaum was a lawyer working for the city's biggest lawfirm. Xena had met her six months earlier, when Marianna had been the go-between between the dark woman and some wealthy client who'd wished to employ an investigator. Xena could appreciate the need for discretion and anonymity on the part of her client, even if having to go through Marianna to get every bit of information she needed from her client had gotten a bit tiresome. Still, she'd solved the case very neatly, coming away with a healthy payoff as well as a significant boost to her reputation as a private and discreet investigator.
"Of course I remember you, Marianna. How're things going?"
"Well enough. Keeping busy. You?"
"Oh same ol', same 'ol. Can't complain."
"Good to hear it. Are you available for a hire?"
Straight to the point, huh? Xena mused. "I might be. What's it about?"
"I'll be able to explain better if we meet, but I can tell you that you'll be working for some people who are very personally concerned about the disappearing children."
Xena's ear perked up at this. Interesting coincidence, she thought. "In that case, I'm very interested. When can we meet?"
"I have some paperwork to take care of, but I'll be free in about an hour. Where?"
Xena glanced at her wristwatch. That would make it just after 1 PM. "Tell you what, it's a nice day out. Why don't you meet me at the Arboretum? The picnic area just off the road?"
"Sounds like a plan", Marianna replied, "I'll see you in an hour."
It was indeed a nice day out. The sun was shining in a spectacularly blue sky, having to share it with only a few scattered white clouds, and there was a light breeze to stir the air and keep it from being too hot. It was mid-June, and Portland was showing itself from its nice side as Xena drove through the light afternoon traffic headed for the Arboretum. She liked the place a lot, especially on days like this one. At this time in the afternoon, it would probably be crammed with people, out enjoying the weather and whatever else. Xena felt her mouth settle into one of her half-smiles. Even if she was going there on business, she would be enjoying herself too. A very large part of the reason for this was the woman she was going to meet.
When Xena had first met Marianna Finkelbaum six months ago, she had immediately liked what she saw. Marianna was a petite woman, maybe five foot five, with a very well-proportioned and toned body, obviously the result of hours at the gym. She had shoulder-length black hair, usually worn in some intricate braiding, and dark brown eyes that betrayed a mind sharper than any razor. Then she'd said, "Hello, Miss Amphipolous. Pleased to meet you", and Xena had been forced to catch her breath. That voice... Marianna's voice... It was the audio equivalent of dark, golden honey, dripping off the end of a knife, catching the light and gleaming. The part of her brain capable of rational thought had chided her for reacting like this after 2,000 years of seeing and hearing all sorts of things all around the world, but then the rest of her mind had jumped on the rational part, and bound and gagged it in the corner. The spell had not been broken when she'd shaken Marianna's hand, a firm and warm handshake, and she'd barely been able to say, "please... call me Xena".
Xena shook her head as she pulled into the parking area. Despite having to pay attention to the case, she'd flirted for all she was worth with the lawyer, and while she was reasonably certain that Marianna had appreciated the attention, it hadn't worked worth a damn. It wasn't that she was married or particularly chaste, Xena was sure of that, it was that she was just as vehemently heterosexual as Xena herself was homosexual. That had become clear towards the end of the case, and Xena had, very reluctantly, let it go. That didn't mean, of course, that she wouldn't enjoy Marianna's company on this warm summer's day in the Arboretum. Just try and stop me, she mused as she walked into the Arboretum.
The place was, as Xena had expected, full of people, but it didn't take very long for the dark woman to spot who she was looking for. Marianna was sitting on a bench by a tree just outside the covered picnic area. The lawyer was wearing a light blue skirt suit, but had taken the jacket off, revealing a sleeveless white blouse and beautifully tanned, well-toned arms. Her hair was in one of those braids again, and wrap-around sunglasses covered her eyes. She was working on her laptop computer, briefcase standing next to her on the bench, and hadn't seen Xena yet. Xena allowed herself to hang back for a moment or too, letting her eyes wander a bit over the figure, pondering the might-have-beens to herself. Get a grip, lady! She's not interested, her rational mind declared. She grinned to herself. If you don't shut up, she told her rational mind sternly, I'll sic my libido on you. And you don't want that, do you?. Then the dark woman shook her head. It was true. She had to get a grip, Marianna wasn't interested, and there was work to be done.
The lawyer looked up as Xena's shadow fell across her. The tall, raven-haired private investigator was wearing a pair of somewhat faded blue jeans, a grey t-shirt, and a black vest. Damn, Marianna thought, as she set aside her laptop, and got to her feet, setting her best smile on her face. "Xena! It's good to see you again."
"Right back at you, Marianna", Xena answered, clasping the lawyer's hand firmly and smiling back at her.
"You wanna take a walk?", the investigator continued, as she released Marianna's hand, with some reluctance.
"Yeah, sure. Let me just pack up here..." Marianna quickly shut down her laptop, shoved into her briefcase, and pulled on her jacket.
A very large part of Xena was sorry to see that white-clad torso disappearing inside the blue suit jacket, but she had to admit that Marianna wore it well. As the smaller woman turned to her, ready to go, Xena reached out a hand and brushed away a small fleck of dirt on one sleeve. "Picked up some dirt from the bench there", she commented, at Marianna's only minutely changed facial expression. "C'mon".
The two women walked side by side along first one path, then another, then a third, talking about lighter things, and enjoying the peace the Arboretum provided. In among all the living things, it was very easy to forget that this was the middle of a city. The place wasn't as filled with people once you got away from the entry area, and they eventually found a bench to sit on where they could have some privacy and enjoy the sun at the same time.
"So", Xena said, as they got settled, "what have you got?"
"Well", Marianna began, "as I said on the phone, it concerns the missing kids. I know you've been following the whole slew of kidnappings here in Portland, but are you aware that there's been a similar series of kidnappings up in Seattle?"
"No", Xena conceded, "I wasn't. So where's the connection to us sitting here?"
"The connection is that Seattle is where your paycheck will be coming from. You'll be working for two sets of parents, very wealthy parents, who had their children taken two and three weeks ago, respectively, and who are unsatisfied with the way the Seattle PD are handling the situation." She paused. "Our office was approached yesterday by another law firm up in Seattle, and they asked specifically for you."
Two dark eyebrows rose in unison at this. "Excuse me, what did you just say?"
"You heard me", Marianna chuckled, "this high-powered corp lawyer came into my office, and told me his clients had asked him to find you. Guess they still remember the case of the late mayor, Gould, huh?"
"Yeah, guess so", Xena replied. The Gould case had been her second case after she'd gotten her license, and her first really major one. Michael Gould had been mayor of Seattle while Xena was first settling down in Portland, and some influential people in Washington state had been suspecting him of close links with organized crime. Those people had happened to mention their need for some discreet investigations into the matter to one of Xena's friends, and he had sent it her way. By the time it was over, the suspicions had been validated, Gould was under official investigation, and Xena had been complimenting herself on how discreetly she'd handled the whole thing. It had been better that way, considering that her Oregon P.I. license didn't empower her to ply her trade in Washington. Now she was wondering if she'd really been discreet enough, and she didn't particularly like thinking about that.
"Judging by your facial expression, you're no longer sure that you want this case", Marianna observed.
"Well", Xena began, "I just don't like the thought of a lot of people knowing who I am and what I've done. I kinda like my privacy, y'know? But to answer you properly, no, I'll take it. I was going to look into it in my own time, but now that someone's willing to pay me to do so, so much the better", she concluded, with a little smile.
Marianna answered her smile with one of her own, exposing gleaming white teeth. "I was hoping you'd react that way, Xena. In fact, I already told Mr. Corp-Lawyer that you'd take the case."
Another raised eyebrow, "Someone else might have considered that a bit premature, Marianna", the dark woman said, but keeping her tone light.
"I know, I know", the lawyer replied, "but I figured I knew you well enough to know that this would be just up your alley. Was I wrong?"
"No", Xena admitted, and gave her a little grin. "So, you have any material for me?"
"Yup", the lawyer replied, and opened her briefcase, pulling out a plain folder. "This includes files on the two rich kids who got taken in Seattle, as well as some stuff I got a friend of mine in the SPD to fax me." She paused, "it's kinda weird, Xena. It's like those kids just disappeared into the ground. Just like here. Whoever's doing this is damn good".
"Yeah", the investigator replied, looking up from the first picture in the folder, one showing a pretty girl of maybe nine years of age, "Anything else?".
"Oh yeah! I almost forgot", the lawyer grinned, and reached into her briefcase again. She handed a check to the woman sitting beside her on the bench, "Your advance."
Xena read the figure on the little piece of paper, and whistled softly. "That's some advance", the dark woman said.
"I'll say. So... you got any idea where to start with this?", she asked.
"As a matter of fact I do", Xena replied, grinning.
"Do I want to know?", the lawyer asked.
In the darkness of her bedroom, Xena lay staring at the ceiling. The only sound in the room was that of the AC humming, and very rarely she picked up the noise of a bus going by outside. It was shortly after midnight, and Xena had put herself to bed at this, for her, relatively early hour, because she had to get up early in the morning. She'd told Marianna that she had an idea of how to start the investigation, and that involved driving to Seattle. For now, though, she was alone in her bed. No, not alone, she corrected herself. There was something there with her. It had been her meeting with Marianna that had triggered it, but now it was about to take off in an entirely different direction.
To say that Xena had been chaste during the centuries after the death of her beloved Gabrielle would have been as idiotic as it would have been untruthful. Despite her Immortality and her occasional desires to be free of it, Xena liked life too much to deny herself its pleasures, and sex was one of the pleasures she enjoyed the most. There had been scores of encounters up through the years, the vast majority of them simple one-night stands, fulfilling a physical need. A very few had been more than that, but none had ever approached the level of love she had felt for, and received from, the Poteidaean bard. While she had occasionally told herself that Gabrielle might have been happy for her to begin to love again, Xena herself could not even begin to imagine feeling about anybody else the way she'd felt about Gabrielle.
She let her mind wander. It was always like this. When there was no partner to hand, Xena was very good at pleasing herself, and her memories supported this extremely well. She just had to close her eyes and let go, and they would provide. She could entertain regular fantasies as well as the next person, but her own stock of memories was so large and varied... Especially this one... Oh yes...
They had made camp in a grove of trees overlooking the Aegean. Xena and Gabrielle had just completed a quest for one of Artemis's temples, retrieving a stolen religious artifact from some extremely nasty people. The fight had been bad, and Xena considered that she and Gabrielle had been lucky to escape unharmed. Especially Gabrielle, she thought. The bard had come into the fight at a critical moment, exposing herself to what Xena felt was unnecessary danger to safeguard the warrior's back. Now they were here, and Xena felt she had to point this out to her companion.
Gabrielle had only just gotten the fire going when Xena had launched into what the warrior had later considered a very nasty tirade. She had gotten to the third sentence along the line of "you shouldn't expose yourself to danger like that" when the bard had gotten up, turned around, and walked a few paces away from the fire. Xena had known instantly she'd gone too far. As she began to extract her foot from her mouth, and tried to come up with an apology, she'd seen the bard's shoulders begin to shudder with what she thought was anger.
As she'd begun to stammer out a plea for forgiveness, Gabrielle had whirled around, and by the firelight, Xena could see that her green eyes were blazing with what she took to be fury. Xena had begun to rise when Gabrielle suddenly hurled herself forward and tackled the warrior. It had been the first and only time Xena had ever been taken down like that by the bard, but her beginning protests were instantly silenced by Gabrielle by the simple expedient of putting her mouth over Xena's. The warrior had thought her eyes would pop out of their sockets, so widely had they been opened. The kiss seemed to last an eternity.
The bard finally pulled back, and as Xena fumbled for the words to react to what had happened, Gabrielle stopped her again with three little words of her own.
"Let it happen".
Just like that. Every single wall and barrier that Xena had erected around her heart, and which had been slowly crumbling since the day she'd met Gabrielle, now simply disappeared as if they'd never been. It really had been that simple. Her heart and soul lay bare and exposed before her bard, and as the kiss was renewed, she felt two warm, gentle hands reaching into her, taking a hold of her whole being, a hold of her bruised and battered heart, and holding gently onto it.
In a Portland bedroom, a figure moved in the blissful state between sleep and wakefulness. Hands started to move in conjunction with other hands of so long ago, pulling aside sheets, sliding under fabric...
Just before every rational thought process in her mind ceased, Xena thought that although Gabrielle was obviously inexperienced, her bardly creativity shone cleanly through her somewhat clumsy attempts to remove Xena's clothes as well as her own while still remaining as closely together as they were. Ripples of pleasure spread out through the warrior's whole body, like ripples spreading out through water that someone had dropped a stone in, except that the "stones" were warm caresses of fingers, lips and tongue, and the medium the ripples travelled through was her flesh and blood, the love she'd felt for Gabrielle since the day she'd met her, the love that was now about to come to a most passionate consummation.
In Portland, hands that no longer belonged to the occupant of the bed moved across a bronzed, supple body, finding all the little points of pleasure on the skin, squeezing, pinching, caressing... Ethereal lips and tongue probed and nibbled over delicate and sensitive earlobes, lingered over a pulse that was rapidly gaining pace. Xena felt her body being taken away from the world, as she was sure she felt the gentle pressure of a lithe form on top of her. The hands were everywhere, but they were moving in a generally downward direction. She felt them sliding from her breasts down across her abdomen, over her hips, the inside of the thighs...
"Please, Gabrielle...", she moaned.
In response to her plea, she felt a very light, possibly hesitant touch on her center. It almost sent her spiralling off into space, but only almost, and she was brought back to the present when the touch returned, more confident this time. Fingers, lips and tongue danced across her arousal, pulling her further and further upwards. Then, when she almost thought it too much, two slender fingers were pushed inside her. She felt her body arching under that touch, heard little yelps becoming load moans and gasps, and then becoming screams of pleasure. On and on it went, pulling her with it further and further towards the point of exquisite release. She reached it with one final drawn-out scream, feeling herself falling down, down, down to land safely in loving arms.
In a bedroom in Portland, Xena opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling. She was soaked in sweat, out of breath and very happy. "Thank you, Gabrielle", she murmured and closed her eyes again, sinking quickly into blissful sleep.
Just before it claimed her, she thought she heard from far, far away, "Good night, warrior mine".
The black Mustang ate up the miles of Interstate 5 North with abandon. It was the next day, and Xena was driving to Seattle to begin her investigation. She didn't have any direct leads to go on, but that wasn't an immediate problem. She knew who to ask, if only she could locate him, and that hadn't been that big of a problem the last time.
Before she'd left Portland, she'd called up Emil Holt:
"It's me. How's it going?"
"You have to ask? Things are cruddy in the extreme, Xe. The Feds got here this morning, and they're turning the place upside down and inside out."
"Classic mode? 'We're from the Government, and we're here to help you, whether you want it or not' ?"
"Something like that", he chuckled, "but hey, if they can do anything with this, then they can be my guests".
"Are you getting involved?"
"Why do you ask that, Holt?"
"Because I know you. A case like this you'd probably do pro bono."
"Yeah. But it just so happens that somebody is willing to pay me to look into this, so..."
"So you're getting money for something you'd do anyway, huh? Not a bad setup."
"Got that right!"
"Listen, I'd appreciate a heads-up if you get anything good."
"You know it. I'll see you soon".
Holt sat at his desk for a moment after replacing the receiver. He knew his friend well enough to know that she had some pretty shifty and nasty sources of information, so there was actually a fair chance that she'd be able to do something. And... she is who she is, Holt mused, as he fingered a faded tatoo on his arm. There were some kidnappers out there who were about to get a very nasty shock to the system.
Xena kicked the door to her motel room shut with her foot, plopped her overnight bag down on the bed, and sat down next to it. She had several hours to spend before going out to find the first of two people she had to see that day, and one little errand she had to run first, but apart from that, the day was her own. Maybe she'd find a library, and look at what articles she could find about the kidnappings here in Seattle. Didn't sound like a bad plan... maybe get some lunch, and a park to enjoy it in.
Curtis LaRue left his favorite bar, The Black Lily, at a little after 11PM. He was a tall, handsome-looking black man, wearing a happy grin and clothes that were probably a little too snazzy for this place, deep in the dark bowels of Seattle. Still, what was the point of being in the employ of one of the most influential figures in the city's underworld, if you couldn't dress the part? He'd just finished a very profitable evening of doing his own little side deals in illicit substances, which was the reason for the grin on his face. He was, he figured, a lucky man to have it so good.
That feeling, along with the alcohol in his system, drained completely out of him when he saw the car that was sitting at the curb just a few feet away. It was a black Ford Mustang ragtop that he knew only too damn well. Leaning against the hood of the car, her arms folded across her chest, the light from the street lamps seemingly absorbed by her black clothing, was a woman he'd prayed he'd never ever see again.
"Hello Curtis", Xena said, "is it gonna be the same as always?"
She'd barely finished the sentence when LaRue took off down the street, running for all he was worth.
"Guess so", she muttered, rolled her eyes, and ran after him.
It's always the same with LaRue, Xena thought, as she bounded after him, her long legs eating up the distance at a, for her, almost leisurely pace. The poor man was so scared of her, he always ran away when she came to talk to him. Of course, with the way she'd treated him the first time she'd needed information from him, it was sort of understandable. The old neck pinch always makes people very, very frightened, she mused, as she kept her quarry in sight. He was running pell-mell down the pretty much empty sidewalk, not looking where he was going, concentrating more on what, or rather who, he was going away from.
It was a discarded pizza container that did it for him this time. He came up to an alley, tried to duck into it, slipped on the damp cardboard, and practically flew through the air, his momentum carrying him forward to slam hard into a brick wall. Shaking her head, Xena ran up to him, looked quickly up and down the street, then grabbed him by the collar and pulled him into the shadows.
Curtis LaRue woke up to a world of utter pain. He was sitting between two garbage cans in a dark alley, his legs, back and head screaming at him. As he lifted his chin slowly from his chest, he saw the shadow looming over him. Here, in the darkness, away from the street, she seemed a living, breathing slice of the night.
"Why do you always run, Curtis?", Xena asked, her voice low, "you know I always catch you."
"Because", he began, surprised to find his normally rich voice raspy and hoarse, "because one day I might get away...". He knew it was a lie. She wasn't even breathing hard, and he thought his heart was going to burst with a combination of fear and exhaustion.
"Not likely", Xena chuckled, "unless you learn to watch where you're running."
"What do you want?", LaRue asked.
"Albert. I need to see him. Tonight. Where is he?"
"The boss?!? Are you fucking nuts? I can't give you the boss. He'll kill me!"
"You know", the dark woman said, her voice conversational, "some people have called me 'fucking nuts'. They usually think they're out of my earshot when they do so." She smiled at him. It was the kind of smile you usually found a couple of feet forward of and below a fin coming rapidly towards you through the water. "And as for him killing you", she continued, leaning down over him, her smile gleaming in the night, "if you don't tell me where I can find him, then you'll never have to worry about him or anything else again."
She meant it. LaRue was sure of it. The night air carried her scent to his nostrils as he sat there between the stinking garbage cans. Leather, denim, perfume, death... He rambled off an address.
"Thank you", Xena purred. "And try not to worry too much. I won't tell Albert about our little meeting." With this, she turned and walked away from him. At the mouth of the alley, the dark woman turned around and called back to him, "Oh, and Curtis? You should do something about that bladder control problem of yours."
LaRue looked down himself and groaned.
Albert Faulkner, also known as The Ghost, was a fixture in the Seattle underworld. It was said that he not only knew everything that went on in the city, but also knew everything that was going to be happening. This information he sold to everyone who wanted to buy it. All the criminals who could afford his services were eager to purchase them, and that was one of the reasons why he'd stayed alive in an environment that could very easily have killed him a long time ago. Another reason was that no one outside his own organization was certain how to find him. He was almost never seen or heard and his clients dealt with his underlings, never with him personally. He had survived and made a very healthy living off being equally useful to everybody.
Now the lamp above the headboard of his bed was flipped on.
Faulkner always prided himself on how lightly he slept, and the light shining on his face quickly brought him to wakefulness. Adjusting to his surroundings, he saw the shadow standing a few feet away, just outside the circle of light.
"Who the...", his brain kicked in, "You!".
"Me", Xena confirmed, and took a step forward, letting him see her properly, "Good evening, Albert". She saw him wince at this. Xena knew that the man before her hated hearing his given name spoken aloud, being much more comfortable with the nickname his criminal activities had gotten him. He was called The Ghost because of the way he always seemed to slip away just when someone thought they'd cornered him. Xena felt that the moniker was probably more due to the man's complexion, which reminded her of something that had lived, and then subsequently died under a stone.
"You know", she began, "your security really, REALLY sucks, Albert. It was too easy to get in here."
"Aw, Xena", he replied, "you didn't break any of my obviously overpaid bodyguards on the way, did you?"
"Nah", she answered with a half-grin, "I figured you'd want to do that yourself."
That got a grin from the man in the bed. "Right as ever, Xena. Do you mind of I get out of bed? If we're gonna be conducting business, I don't want to do it from here. I'm assuming this is a business call?"
She nodded. "Please. Just don't do anything untoward."
He gave her a Who-Me? look and got out of the bed, putting on a burgundy dressing gown. Albert Faulkner was in his early thirties, of medium height, with a build that in two words could be described as 'delicate' and 'feminine'. Turning to face her, he asked, "So what's important enough to drag me out of my bed at... 1:30AM! Xena!"
She grinned at him. "Everything you can tell me about the disappearing kids."
He nodded. "What's it worth to you?"
"The contents of the bag on your desk", the dark woman replied, "I think you'll like what's in it."
Looking past his visitor, Faulkner noticed the paper bag sitting on the desk for the first time. He was pretty sure he could make out the word 'Macy's' on it. He took a step forward.
"Ah ah ah, Albert. No peeking until you've told me what I need to hear".
Sigh. "It's always the same with you, Xena. You expect me to provide for you without knowing what it'll get me."
"Albert, you're hurting my feelings. Have I ever disappointed you with my gifts for you?"
He had to admit she hadn't. Another sigh.
"Okay, you win. It's the Russians. They are basically running a slaving ring both here and down in Oregon. Their snatch squads are very, very good, as you and a lot of law enforcement officials have found out by now. They sell them off to brothels in the Far East, taking them by container ship across the Pacific." He paused briefly. "It's a new business they've set up. It didn't start until about four months ago, when the Russian Mob here in Seattle got a new boss, a man named Oleg Kalyugin. He runs a legit import-export business down on the docks, and that's where they operate their little slavery business out of."
"Address?", the voice was curt, all business.
He gave it to her. "You need to be careful with these people, Xena. They're a violent bunch. They make a lot of money off other people's lust for kiddies, and they've already killed people for trying to stop them."
"Yeah well, I'm a violent bunch too", the dark woman replied, "Don't worry your little head, Albert." With those words, she turned and walked to the door. "Go open your gift. And good night... Ghost". And then she slipped away.
Faulkner briefly considered hitting the alarm button underneath his desk, but then discarded the thought. Instead he went over to his desk, switched the light on, and opened the bag, which indeed turned out to be from Macy's. Withdrawing the box from inside the bag, he quickly opened it, and pulled out what was probably the most beautiful black cocktail dress he'd ever seen.
"Oh Xena, you shouldn't have...", he mumbled, holding the dress up in front of himself and studying his reflection in the full-length mirror. He had just the shoes to go with it, too...
The Seattle docks were never really quiet. Even now, at half past two in the morning, people were working in the warehouses and on the ships, under the glaring arc lights, moving cargo back and forth.
Xena stood in the shadows of one such warehouse, watching the happenings at another one, a hundred yards away. A freighter was tied to the dockside outside it, and men were busy loading it with the help of the ship's onboard crane. She could see some twenty figures moving back and forth on the dockside.
Long odds, she thought to herself, but not the longest I've ever had to face.
She performed a last check on her equipment, checking the clip of her pistol, the two spares, the knife she kept hidden well away in her soft-soled 'Sneaky' boots, and the Mag-Lite of the kind big enough to be used as a club if she needed it. Everything was in order. Now there only remained to decide where to go first. She could see several ways of getting aboard the freighter and inside the warehouse, and her plan was to check the two locations out, see if she could find any of the children, and if she did, retreat and make an anonymous phone call to the Seattle PD. Let them clean this mess up, she thought. If it looked like the freighter was going to sail, then she'd have to find a way of stopping it from doing so.
But where to go first? As she stood there, debating with herself, an image of ancient times flashed across her mind's eye. With a grin, she stuck her hand in her pocket, pulling out a coin. Heads, the freighter. Tails, the warehouse. Then she flipped the coin into the air, caught it expertly as it was coming down, and slapped it down on the back of her hand. Heads it is, she thought and began moving towards the ship.
Crossing the dock out of sight of any of the men working on and alongside the freighter, Xena quickly ran up to the ship, keeping inside the shadows. Five minutes, and a careful climb up one of the mooring lines later, the dark woman found herself crouching on the deck of the rather battered, old freighter, hiding behind some crates. Now to get inside the ship.
Creeping slowly from hiding place to hiding place, Xena made it up to a hatch in the superstructure, and after taking a last look around, she quickly opened the hatch, stepped into the poorly lit interior of the ship, and shut the hatch behind her. The inside of the ship, stuffy as it was, smelled of a mixture of diesel oil, sweat and old meals. Not overpoweringly so, but enough for it to be unpleasant. Xena filtered out the smell and proceeded cautiously forward. If the kids were here, where would they keep them? Probably downstairs, she thought, down in or near the bilges. She looked around, and spotted a ladder leading down into the bowels of the ship. She carefully crept down it.
It was when she tried to go down the next ladder to the deck below, that Xena ran into her first problem. As she put her booted foot on the top of the ladder, a bearded sailor came into view at the bottom of it. He stared at the beautiful, black-clad woman at the top of the steps for two long seconds, his face a picture of utter confusion. He should have used the time to cry out, raise the alarm, do something other than just standing around, but he never got the chance. Xena threw herself downward, through the narrow space of air above the ladder, her kick catching the man squarely on the chin. He staggered backward, his eyes spinning in two different directions, and hit the deck. The way the sailor's head bounced on impact told Xena that he'd be unconscious for a good while, and that he'd wake up with the mother of all headaches, if he ever woke up.
She looked around quickly. The noise of the man hitting the deck had been very loud, and it was only a question of time before somebody came to investigate. Xena spotted a hatch standing open across the corridor and, peeking inside, found a storeroom. Grabbing the sailor under the arms, she hauled him inside the room and closed the hatch behind her. Looking quickly around the small room for a place to hide the thoroughly unconscious sailor, her eyes noticed an object on a shelf. She picked it up. Plastic handcuffs, Xena mused, this ship either has a lot of discipline problems, or else... She cut off the train of thought there. It didn't really matter why the bundle of maybe fifteen police-issue plastic 'cuffs was there; she could use them. She pulled off one of the plastic strips before stuffing the rest in her pocket, and tied the man's hands together. Then she tore off a strip of his shirt, and used it to tie in place his cap, which she'd used to gag him. Finally, she pulled him as far back as she could from the door, and hid him behind some crates.
Listening at the hatch to make sure no one was on the other side, Xena quietly opened it, and slipped out of the storeroom. As far as she could tell, there was only one more deck below this one, and she planned to search through the ship working her way up from the bottom. She also knew that she had to hurry now. No matter how well she'd hidden that sailor, and that hadn't been very well considering what she would have liked to do, he would eventually be found, and she would like to be out of there before then. Sliding like a shadow across the deck, Xena approached the last ladder, and quietly descended it.
Down here, the smell of diesel oil overpowered the other two smells that had warred with it on the upper decks. Xena could hear the thrum of the engine room, the ship running one of her, from the sound of it, poorly maintained diesel engines to provide power for the vessel. Now she had to get to work.
Stealthily traversing the deck, the dark woman searched every compartment she could find, avoiding contact with the few crewmembers she encountered. Finding nothing, she eventually slipped through a hatch into what, from the size of it, was probably the main cargo hold. Eight standard 21-foot cargo containers were sitting in the middle of the floor. There were a few crates scattered around the corners of the cavernous room, but otherwise the hold was dark and empty. The big roof hatches were closed, the loading process obviously finished.
Switching on her light, Xena entered the hold, peering into the corners for any sign of other occupants. Finding none, she carefully approached the containers. They were each sealed with a US Customs seal, and adorned with Cyrillic letters declaring them the property of the Kalyugin Import/Export Company. Import/Export, my ass..., Xena growled inwardly, as she drew her knife, and cut the seal on the first container.
As she opened the door, an evil stench assailed her nostrils. She had smelled this particular stink many times before: it was a mixture of urine, human fecal matter, vomit, and above all, mind-numbing terror. The beam from her Mag-Lite fell on a dozen small, frightened faces, all huddling as far back inside the container as they could. They were dirty, dishevelled and scared out of their minds. Goddess, no..., Xena whimpered inside as she made to enter the container, her attention fully on the frigthened children in front of her, her mouth beginning to form low, soothing words.
"DON'T MOVE, BITCH!!!", the shouted command came from behind, making her whirl around. Two men, both carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles, stood some 15 feet away from her, the muzzles of their weapons pointing right at her.
She slowly raised her hands, cursing herself for not having heard their approach. Can't make a move now, she thought. If they shoot, some of the children might get hit.
"On your knees, hands behind your head... NOW!", the commands continued, coming from the bigger of the two men in front of her, the other one pointing his rifle, with its attached flashlight, straight at her face. She slowly complied.
Captain Victor Starukhin was not a happy man. The night had started off well enough, his men completing the loading of the ship in record time, so they could be ready to sail at dawn. And now this.
The dark woman sitting on the little stool in the next compartment had been completely uncooperative. She had shown no reaction to his shouted questions, hadn't even flinched when he'd struck her across the face. She'd carried no identification papers, nothing that could tell him who she was, or who she worked for. He turned to his First Mate, who was standing next to him.
"What do you think, Pyotr Aleksandrovich?"
"She probably isn't a cop. They don't work alone like this. Maybe FBI?"
"Unlikely. We'd have them all over us by now if she was."
"That's a possibility. Hired by some parents unsatisfied with the progress of the police in this matter, perhaps."
"Da", the First Mate replied, and then continued, "What are we going to do with her, Captain? We can't let her go, she's seen too much".
"I know", Starukhin commented quietly.
"Maybe some entertainment for the crew on the voyage across the Pacific?", the Mate asked, his tone making it very clear what type of 'entertainment' he had in mind.
"You're always thinking with your dick, Pyotr. Have you taken a look at her? I have, and I somehow think that even if all the rest of us held her down while one of us fucked her, she'd still get loose and kill us all." He paused. "No, she has to die... now. Go find me a plastic bag to put the corpse in, and some weights to make it sink to the bottom. We'll throw her over the side with a couple of bullets in her, and that'll be that".
"Yes, Captain", the First Mate replied, and went to carry out his orders.
Xena raised her head defiantly as the Russian captain came back into the little compartment.
"Give me her pistol", he said in Russian to one of her guards, who promptly handed over the Colt. He worked the slide, and turned to her.
"This is nothing personal", he said to her in English, as he raised the weapon.
"Liar", she replied.
This got maybe half a raised eyebrow, and then he shot her twice in the chest at point-blank range. She was dead before her body, carried off the stool by the force of the impacts, landed on the deck.
Xena awoke to darkness and cold. It took her several moments to realize that she was inside a black plastic bag, and that cold, foul-smelling water was coming in, soaking her. She was lying on several hard objects. Weights to make sure the corpse doesn't come to the surface. Her face became hard in the darkness, Sorry to disappoint you, boys, but this corpse is about to come back to haunt you. With that thought, she jabbed her fingers upward, through the black plastic. Ignoring the water now pouring in, she rapidly enlarged the opening, and was soon able to free herself from the bag. A few powerful strokes of her legs carried her to the surface of the stinking harbor.
Taking a few moments to get her bearings, Xena saw that she'd come up basically next to the Russian ship. Just dump her over the side, huh?, the dark woman mused as she swam around the ship, Bad move. I was going to call the police to come and get you, but now I think I'll just deal with you myself.. This thought brought a gleaming, wolfish smile to her face as she pulled herself out of the harbor, and into the shadows.
Sasha Petrovitch was the youngest member of the crew, and just about to go on duty. He didn't much like being in America, and found himself missing his admittedly somewhat squalid apartment back home in Vladivostok, missing his girlfriend. Elena..., he mused. It had been months. The rest of the crew were always teasing him about his Elena, because he never stopped talking about her. As he opened the hatch to the compartment he shared with two others, both of them now on duty, Sasha noticed that the rotten smell of the harbor seemed to have gotten stronger. Then he took the first step outside his compartment. The next thing he felt was a hand, cold as ice and hard as steel, gripping him around the back of the neck. Before he could react, the hand propelled him forward straight into the bulkhead. His world seemed to explode in pain, and then everything went black.
Vassily Kropotkin was the chief engineer on the ship, and on the way back to his cabin when he heard the clanging noise of something large impacting with the bulkhead not far away. Walking up to investigate, he found the unmoving form on the deck, blood rapidly pooling under the head.
"Sasha?", he began, as he squatted down to look further. Rolling the young man over, he saw that Sasha's whole face was covered in blood. "What the hell happened to you, you young idiot?", he mouthed. Then something wet fell on the top of his bald head. He looked up just in time to see the dark shadow descending rapidly on him.
Quickly disposing of the two comatose Russians, Xena continued her prowl around the ship. Her next stop was at the hatch of what turned out to be the compartment of four sleeping sailors. Wonder if I can take them all down before they wake up?, she mused, as she looked the sleeping men over. Only one way to find out, she thought, and slipped inside the compartment.
Aleksandr Narayev had been given the task of mopping up the blood on the floor of the compartment where the captain had killed the intruder. The fact that there had been a killing here meant nothing to the man, it was merely tedious labor. He had just emptied the bucket of bloody water over the side, and put his cleaning tools away, when a voice from behind him said, "Hey! You!". Turning around, the only thing he saw was a shadowy form and a fist closing very rapidly on his face.
Captain Starukhin was in his cabin, doing some paperwork, when there was a knock on the hatch. Not looking up, he yelled, "Enter!"
As his pencil continued to scratch Cyrillic characters across the paper, he heard the hatch open behind him, heard the footfalls of someone coming into the cabin, and then the hatch closed again. That could only be the First Mate; no one else would dare to just walk in unbidden. Setting down the last sentence, he asked, "What is it, Pyotr Aleksandrovich?", and turned around.
"I'm sorry, captain,", a menacing, low voice growled in Russian, "but Pyotr Aleksandrovich couldn't make it here tonight. You'll have to make do with me."
The figure that was standing in front of him was something out of his deepest nightmares. It was dark, dripping wet, hair a mess, shirt torn and ripped by two bullet holes, and it reeked of the rot and decay of Hell itself. The only points of light were the eyes, and they're were as cold as the Siberian winter.
Starukhin felt his mind shutting down under the stress of what his eyes had told it. He fumbled on instinct alone for the pistol in his pocket, the one he'd taken earlier tonight. The weapon whose owner had now come back...
Xena reached out and plucked the pistol out of the man's nerveless hands, stuffing it into her waistband.
"Who... who are you?", the captain mumbled incoherently.
"Why captain", she purred, "have you already forgotten that?". Then her hand shot out with the speed of a striking snake, and gripped him around the throat in a vise-like grip. "I'm the bitch you murdered earlier tonight", she declared, her voice now ice-cold, "don't you remember? The murder that wasn't anything personal". With those words, she began to lift him off the deck in one hand.
"By rights, I should kill you right here and now. But I made a promise to someone a long time ago that I wouldn't kill over things that didn't require it. And the little matter of you killing me... well, it just doesn't warrant me sullying my hands with your blood."
Starukhin looked as if his head was about ready to explode, but Xena didn't release her grip.
"So here's what you're going to do for me, now that I'm going to spare your life. The police will arrive here very shortly, and when they do, you will answer all their questions. You will give up all of your organization here in America. Everything, you understand?" She pulled the choking Russian down to close to her face, ignoring his foul breath, and continued, "If you do not, if you're foolish enough to fear the wrath of the people you work for more than you fear me now, then I will find out about it. And I will come and find you. And believe me, I will make you wish I'd killed you here tonight." With these words, Xena flung Starukhin clean across the small compartment, sending him crashing into the bulkhead. Looking down at her stricken foe, the dark woman thought with a grin, Guess Curtis isn't the only bad guy around Seattle with a bladder control problem...
It was early morning, but in one Seattle motel room the blinds were drawn tightly. Inside the darkened room, a figure reclined in a chair in front of the TV, tuned to a local station.
"... and now back to this morning's top story. Acting on an anonymous tip, the Seattle Police Department early this morning raided a Russian freighter in Seattle harbor. In cargo containers in the ship's hold, officers located more than fifty children, aged six to fourteen, who are believed to be the children who had fallen victim to the surge of kidnappings that have plagued the Pacific Northwest over the past months. We go now live to our reporter Betsy McDonald at the scene. Betsy?"
"Thank you, John. Here with me now is Detective Simon Ingram of the Seattle PD. Detective, what can you tell us about this whole affair?"
"Well, Betsy, like it was said earlier, we reacted to an anonymous phone call about this freighter, sending a couple of patrol cars to investigate. The officers first on the scene looked the place over, and then called for backup."
"And what did they find, specifically?"
"In total, fifty-four children, aged six to fourteen, hidden in standard cargo containers in the ship's hold. Under appalling conditions, I might add. The children have been taken to various hospitals in the area for treatment. They were in pretty bad shape. Aside from that, we discovered sixteen Russian nationals, the ship's crew, spread all around the ship, in various states of wounding, tied up with police-issue plastic handcuffs."
"And what was it you told me about a... 'Demon'?"
"Well, Betsy, it was sort of strange. A couple of them were babbling incoherently about a 'Demon Woman' who had come back from the dead to destroy them for their sins. They said she'd told them to confess everything to us, or else she find them and kill them. Very strange."
Xena turned off the TV, plunging the room back into darkness. She took a long pull of her beer bottle, and thought, If I had been a demon, they would have needed sixteen body bags on that ship.
Then... a voice from far, far away spoke to her. "Never a demon, my Xena, never a demon."
Lifting her bottle in salute to the voice, Xena replied, out loud, "Only because of you, Gabrielle."
January 30th, 1999
Final Note: I set out to write this story thinking about the worst crime I could come up with: the mistreatment of children. Some pedophiles claim protection from punishment for their crimes because they say they're mentally ill, hoping for treatment sentences instead of imprisonment. A lot of serial killers are sick too, but that doesn't make them any less criminal. Oh, and the fact that I made the villains of this story Russians shouldn't be misconstrued as me saying that this crime only happens among foreigners. It's everywhere...