The four hour drive over harsh, sparsely inhabited desert was accomplished in comfort, if not luxury. The two women traveled in Xenas deep cover car; a large tan sedan of indeterminate age and make. The seats were well sprung and the shocks a little loose, but the car was big and air conditioned, so neither saw the need to complain. Gabrielle spent the down time looking out over the empty desert terrain, her mind busily working at the threads of the plan they had developed.
The plan was quite simple, actually. Claibornes men would come into a small town outside of Yuma twice a week to stock up on provisions for the compound. The town was so small that it didnt even rate a name, though its citizens, mostly immigrants from south of the boarder, dubbed it Little Mexico. Xena would drop Gabrielle off in front of the towns only grocery/café and drive off to hide the car, and herself, behind some outbuildings to keep from being seen. The bard would enter the store under the guise of being a stranded traveler whose car had broken down in the inhospitable desert and who needed to use the phone to call a tow truck. She would then play things by ear, waiting patiently until Claibornes goons made their appearance. After that, it was up to her to come up with a story the men would buy, thereby wrangling an invitation to visit the compound.
Meanwhile, Xena, who could in no way, shape or form be mistaken for a demure, devout Christian woman, would stay out of site, causing her own brand of mischief by playing on the paranoia inherent in the beliefs Claiborne clung to. She would make herself indispensable to the despot, and have a good deal of fun while she was at it.
Somewhere in the middle of her twisting thoughts, eyes staring almost sun-blinded at the monotonous landscape, ears filled with the gentle whoosh of the cars air conditioning, Gabrielle fell asleep, her golden head lolling against the leather of the seatback. The sound of soft snoring turned the dark warriors attention briefly from the ruler-straight road and a fond smile played over her normally somber features. Reaching up, Xena adjusted the sun glasses hiding her pale eyes from the suns seeking rays, then shook her head as her lover mumbled something incomprehensible in her sleep before returning her attention back to the road. "Thanks, Hades," she whispered, glad the sunglasses hid the tears that insisted on stinging her eyes.
Gabrielle was awakened by a gentle hand on her shoulder. She came awake abruptly, rubbing her eyes and stretching. "We there yet?" she mumbled.
"Almost. Its time to get ready. You remember what youre supposed to do?"
"Mmmm hmmmm. Go in there, act dumb, get picked up by a bunch of strangers. How hard can it be?"
"Gabrielle . . . ."
The bard slapped her partner on her belly. "Please, Xena. Its not exactly like being kidnapped is something Ive never dealt with before." Her eyes twinkled. "Relax, will ya? Ill be fine."
"I still dont like this," the warrior grumbled.
"Objection noted. Now can we just get this over with already?"
Xena grumbled again, but complied with her lovers wishes, gunning the engine and closing the last remaining distance between themselves and the tiny town ahead.
Gabrielles eyes took in every detail as they entered the town. There appeared to be only one main street, bordered on both sides by weathered wooden and adobe buildings with angled parking spaces in front of each dwelling. Desert sand appeared to coat everything, even the cracked and sun-brittle blacktop over which they rode. Shops lined one side of the street while residential homes occupied the other, crowded together, one almost atop the next. There were colorful signs adorning the merchant shops, but since they were in Spanish, the bard couldnt tell which was which. However, since one was definitely a gas station and the other appeared to be a bar, she guessed that the shop in the middle was the grocery/café.
Sure enough, Xena pulled to a slow halt outside the middle building, leaving the engine idling. "You ready?"
"As Ill ever be, yes."
"Remember. Be careful and if you need anything, yell."
"Will do. Kiss for luck?"
Shaded eyes gazed past the young beauty sitting beside her. "We have company," Xena said, gesturing with her chin to the curious eyes peering through filmed windows. "Im just a helpful soul who rescued a beautiful woman stranded in the desert, remember?" The warriors lips twitched. "Unless, of course, you wish to pay me for my noble act."
Gabrielle clucked her tongue. "Youre bad."
The two women looked at one another for a long moment. "I love you, Xena," the bard finally whispered.
A half smile. "I know that too." A hidden hand reached out to briefly stroke the bards pantyhose-guirded knee. "Be safe."
"Promise. You too."
"Promise. Now get."
With a nod, Gabrielle gathered the large purse Xena had persuaded her to carry, stuffed to the brim with all sorts of interesting items, including an entire set of forged identification pieces, and opened the heavy door, wincing slightly as a hot blast of air buffeted her face. "Gods, who could live out here?" Pulling herself outside of the car, leaning against the stiff wind and covering her eyes from the gritty sand as it pelted her face and body, Gabrielle slammed the door closed and waved briefly as Xena put the car in gear and drove slowly away. Turning her head out of the wind, the bard took a deep breath, shouldered her handbag, and attempted to straighten her rumpled suit. Alright, bard. This is it. Show time.
Chimes tinkled merrily as Gabrielle pulled open the door to the café. She quickly stepped inside, drawn in by the cool air that dried the sweat from her skin. The store smelled of wonderfully cooked food, spicy and delicious, and the bards stomach growled in agreement. A short, stocky woman looked up from behind the counter at the sound, her weathered face creasing in a smile of welcome. "Buenos dias, senora."
"Um . . .hello . . .I think. Im afraid I dont understand Spanish."
"Ah, no problemo," the woman said, coming around the counter. "I speak English too, though not very good."
"I think you speak it wonderfully."
"Gracias. You are too kind, senora. Sit down, sit down. You want something to eat or drink? Will your husband be back for you?"
"Ah . . .that wasnt . . .my husband." Gabrielle scratched at the back of her neck. Ok, Gabrielle. Nice and easy. "My um . . . car broke down on the highway and I was lucky enough to get a ride here."
"Oh, I understand. A Good Samaritan giving helping to a pretty lady in trouble." Her chocolate eyes twinkled warmly. "The telefono is over there. You got change?"
Gabrielle sat, staring blankly at the woman, trying to interpret the meaning behind her question.
The woman looked back at Gabrielle, misinterpreting her hesitancy. "Im sorry, senora. We have no trucks for towing here. Is ok, though. They have mucho in Yuma. You call informacion and they help, yes?"
Trucks for towing? Whats she talking about? Ohhh, right. My car in the desert. She must think I want to get it moved over here. Ok . . .ok. "Um . . .yeah. Sure. Good idea."
"Good. You call and I get you a cold glass of tea." Smiling, the woman bustled again behind the counter and disappeared through a swinging steel door.
Gabrielle walked slowly to the big black box that hung from the wall. Ok, a telephone. I can do this. I watched Xena use one a dozen times already. How hard can it be? Wiping her palms on the stiff material of her skirt, the bard took the black handset off the receiver and held it to her ear. There was only silence. Isnt this thing supposed to buzz or something? Then she looked up and the meaning of the womans statement about change became clear. A coin slot winked innocuously at her. Hmmm. Thirty five cents. Ok, yeah, I can do this. Reaching into her handbag, she carefully retrieved the coins the warrior had taught her about, coming up with the correct change on the first try. Slipping first the quarter and then the dime into the slot, she smiled as a dial tone sounded in her ear. Thats better. Ok, what next? I think I push these numbers. Lets see. . .how many numbers did Xena push when she called Nigel or Jarrod? Eleven, wasnt it? Always starting with a 1. She shrugged mentally. Alright, lets give it a try.
Choosing randomly, Gabrielle pushed eleven buttons, starting with the 1. The dial tone changed to a ring and then a monotonous female voice came over the phone. "Please . . .deposit . . .fourteen dollars and . . .thirty five cents . . .for the next . . .three . . .minutes."
"Huh?" Gabrielle held the handset away from her head, staring at it as if it had grown wings and sprouted horns. Then she put it back to her ear.
" . . .dollars and . . .thirty five cents . . .for the next . . .three . . .minutes."
"Look, lady. Wait a minute here. I dont have fourteen dollars. I just want some . . . ."
"Please . . .deposit . . .fourteen dollars and . . . ."
"Please, maam . . .wait . . .I ju . . ."
" . . .for the next . . .three . . .minutes."
"But . . ."
"Please . . .deposit . . . ."
"Please, I . . . ."
" . . .and thirty five cents . . . ."
"Same to you, lady." Scowling, Gabrielle slammed the phone back on its hook, huffing out a breath of frustration. "How rude."
The steel door swung open again and the cafés owner came back into the room, bearing a tall, frosted glass filled with ice and sweet tea, a lemon slice clinging to its chilled rim. Her face broke once again into a warm smile. "Is quick, yes? You must have, how they call it, the Triple Aces, no?"
Xena? Help? Please? "Uh . . .the Triple Aces. Yeah. Right." Smiling weakly and smoothing her skirt once again, Gabrielle walked over to a small, linen covered table, sitting down and gratefully sipping the chilled tea. "Mmmm. This is wonderful . . . . Oh, how rude of me." Placing her drink back on the table, she extended her hand. "My name is Gabrielle. Pleased to meet you, Maam."
The woman took the bards hand in hers, gripping firmly, warmly. "Hello, Gabrielle. I am Rosa. The pleasure is mine, yes?" Releasing Gabrielles hand, Rosa gathered up her spotted apron. "You just relax and drink your tea. I come back to check on you in a few momentitos, si?" Straightening, the woman peered out the door, her smile freezing, then falling from her face. "Dios mio," she breathed, the apron balling in her suddenly clenched fists. "They are early today."
"Rosa? What is it? Whats wrong?" Turning her head into the direction of the other womans fearful stare, Gabrielle spotted a large black car parking in front of the café. The doors opened and three large men exited, their expressions stern and foreboding. Each man was dressed identically to the others; starched black shirts with a white cross on the left breast, black fatigue pants stuffed into shining black boots and black handled guns snugly set into black leather holsters. Their hair was cut almost regimentally short, their faces shorn of all hair. "Who are they?"
"Bad men, Gabrielle. Very bad men." Rosa bustled behind the counter again, pulling up large cardboard boxes that lined the shelves beneath. "You stay quiet and drink your drink. The men will leave you alone. I hope."
The bards reply was cut off by the cheery discordant jangling of the door chimes. The three men stepped inside the store, casting long shadows across Gabrielle and her table. The first man spared the young woman barely a glance before he turned his attention to the far end of the store, his face twisting into a malicious smirk. "Hey, puta! Were back. You have our stuff?"
"Yes, yes, I have. Right here, Mister Robertson. Like you asked. You take and go, ok?"
Half a dozen long strides carried the muscular man across the café. Reaching over the counter, he grabbed Rosas blouse in his hand, jerking forcefully. "Listen, you Mexican whore, dont tell me what to do, got it? Well leave when I say so, not before. You understand English, you miserable excuse for a bitch??"
Rosa, terrified, nodded her head rapidly. "Yes. I understand, Mister Robertson."
Robertson smiled cruelly. "Good." Tightening his grip, he shook the woman like a rag doll to the laughter of his compatriots.
"Dios mio," Rosa tremored.
"What the fuck did I tell you about speaking Spanish, bitch?" Robertson snarled, his face bare inches away from the terrified woman. "Youre in America, you fucking whore! You speak English!" Raising his free hand, he made as if to slap Rosa across the face.
Gabrielle had seen more than enough. Pushing her chair back forcefully, she strode over to the man, grabbing his arm. "Dont hurt her. Please."
Snarling, Robertson drew his arm back, his eyes widening in shock when he realized he couldnt pull free of the diminutive blondes grip. "Keep your hands off me, woman!" he shouted, shaking his arm. "Unless you want some of what shes getting!"
Gabrielles voice was firm, her grip on the mans sweaty flesh uncompromised. "No. I dont. And I know she doesnt want it either. What has this poor woman done to deserve this kind of treatment?"
Robertsons jaw dropped, slack at the audacity of the blonde standing in front of him. "What has she done? What has she done?? Shes a foreigner, in this country illegally, taking up land that belongs to us, taking jobs that belong to the White Race! Probably using her whoring ways to seduce young Aryan men and filling up the desert with half breed freaks!" His temple vein throbbed in time to his words as Robertsons face darkened to the color of old brick in his vehemence.
Gabrielle dragged her eyes down from his face to the white cross emblazoned on his breast, her heart rate speeding up suddenly. Quickly removing her hand from his arm, the bard realized just who this man was and the fact that shed quite probably just made a very big mistake. Lifting her empty hands in front of her face, she backed away slowly. "Im sorry. I dont know what came over me. It must be the heat. Im not used to it." She rambled on, continuing to step away from the enraged man, until she felt another body blocking her way. Turning quickly, she looked up into the maliciously smiling eyes of another man who gripped her shoulders painfully.
Releasing his grip on the captive Mexican woman, Robertson turned, following the young blondes retreat. "What are you doing here anyway? You a friend to this spic piece of trash?"
The pressure on her shoulders loosened and Gabrielle turned back around to face Robertson. "No. No, not at all. I, um . . . my car. It broke down in the desert. I managed to get a ride into this place and Im waiting for a tow truck to come." She closed her eyes tightly and swallowed hard, hoping that Rosa would somehow find it in her heart to forgive her. "Thats all. Really."
Robertsons dusky hazel eyes turned interested. "Whats a young woman like you doing wandering around the desert alone anyway? Wheres your husband?"
"Uh . . .he . . .I . . .left him."
The mans eyes narrowed and Gabrielle realized shed just committed her second mistake. She swallowed hard again.
"Left him?" With casual strides, Robertson re-crossed the room, gesturing at the crucifix that peeked outside of Gabrielles blouse. "I should just rip that off your neck. No proper Christian woman leaves her husband. For what God has joined together, let no man tear asunder. Remember that quote?"
"Yes . . .yes, I do remember," the bard lied, thinking desperately. "But I had to leave, you see, because he . . .well, he beat me."
The reaction Gabrielle was expecting wasnt the one she received. The three men looked at one another before breaking into gales of laughter. "So?" Robertson finally asked through his mirth. "A proper wife is obedient to her husbands rule. He has the right to discipline her as he sees fit."
Gabrielle fought hard to keep herself from squirming. Her mind ran with lightening quickness, trying to redeem itself. A possibility finally stood out amidst the rest and she pounced on it. "It wasnt discipline, exactly." She took a deep breath to steady her thoughts, imagining Xena close by and holding onto that image with all her strength of will.
"Then what was it? Exactly." Robertsons mocking voice dripped with sarcasm. His lips curled into a full sneer, eyeing the frightened woman.
Here goes nothing. "Well, you see, my husband was a good man when I married him. But . . .he lost his job and he started drinking. Then he found out I was pregnant and he wanted me to get an abortion. When I refused, he . . .well . . .he beat me so badly I lost the baby. Thats when I ran." She peeked up under her lashes to see what effect, if any, her outlandish tale had upon her listeners.
The smirk fell from Robertsons face as his eyes darkened in rage. "He wanted you to get an abortion? Wasnt the kid his??"
Gabrielles eyes widened, shocked. "Of course it was! I . . .I never . . . ."
"He a jew-boy or somethin?"
Robertson shook his head. "Thats why the world is in so much trouble today. People just ignoring the Word of our Holy Father." Pulling out a chair, the man sat down and gestured for Gabrielle to do the same. "Where are you headed, anyway?"
Inwardly, the bard breathed a sigh of relief. This part of the story she had rehearsed already. Things were back on track. "San Francisco. I have some friends there wholl put me up while I get back on my feet again."
"San Francisco?! That den of whores? Thats no place for a woman like you. Its full of nothing but queers and communists and every other form of moral and racial perversion. If it was up to me, that stinking hell hole would be blown off the face of the map."
"I . . .I dont have any other place to go. I have no family and my only friends are there."
Robertson put his chin in his hand for a moment, thinking. Pastor Claiborne warned him to be on the lookout for government spies, but this woman didnt seem to fit the mold. "You could always come with us," he said finally.
"I . . .dont think thatd be wise," the bard replied, looking properly demure while rejoicing inwardly. She had gotten her foot in the door.
The man smiled in an attempt to be charming. The effect was lost on the woman in front of him, though Gabrielle was careful not to let him know that. He pointed to the cross on his chest. "See this?"
"It identifies me as a Disciple of Pastor Randolph Claibornes Church of Christ the Judge. Ever heard of us?"
Gabrielle pretended to think hard on the question. "No. Im sorry. Im not from around here." She prayed Robertson wouldnt ask her where she was from, because she didnt have the slightest idea what to tell him. Answers like Poteidia, Greece or The Elysian Fields would pretty much blow her cover for sure. She grinned to herself, pleased with her own wit.
"Its a nice church in the desert not far from here. There are almost a hundred of us altogether and Pastor Claiborne is our spiritual leader. He teaches Gods Holy Word the way it was meant to be taught. Hes a good man and really knows the Truth about todays world and our place in it. You really should join us. Youd learn a lot about yourself and what plans God has for you."
"Well . . .Im not sure . . . ."
"It is written that our Lord works in mysterious ways. Perhaps your car breaking down was the Lords way of telling you that you needed to come with us."
Thats truer than you know, buddy. Only your Lord had very little to do with it. "Um . . .no offense to your Pastor or anything, but Im afraid Ill have to pass this time. I really do have to wait for my car, and I think itd be best if I stayed here. Not that I dont appreciate your kind offer. Because I do. Really."
Robertson studied the woman before him. She was young, attractive, maybe a little strong willed, but that could be rectified. Pastor Claiborne always preached about gaining new converts to the Cause. This one seemed perfect and might garner Robertson more respect in his Teachers eyes. Respect was always a good thing. With it came more responsibility, and more perks. He smiled. "How about this. The tow truck brings your car here. Im sure shell watch it for you," he said, gesturing toward Rosa.
"Oh yes. I will watch. Yes."
"Right. So that takes care of that problem. You can come with us now and take a look around the place. If you dont like what you see, well bring you right back here. No strings attached. Sound good?"
Oh come on, Robertson. Youre gonna have to do better than that. How naïve to you think I am, anyway? Then she remembered a young village girl following after the Destroyer of Nations and colored slightly. Ok, I can be pretty naïve. But really. "Im not . . .really sure. After all, I dont really know any of you."
Robertson smiled. "Thats easily enough fixed." He held out a hand, grasping hers gently. "My names Jim Robertson. Thats Tom Corman and Joe Smith." As he pumped Gabrielles hand, the other two men nodded at her, their faces expressionless.
"Its . . . nice to meet you all. Im Gabrielle. Gabrielle Story." Oh yes, Xena had had quite the laugh picking out that particular name. She resolved to get her partner back big time for it in the very near future.
"Well, now that weve got the names out of the way, Gabrielle, how about it?"
Does he think Im nuts? How could anyone in their right mind think Id go with him after what he did to that poor woman? Still, its what Im after, so I guess its Naïve Gabrielle to the rescue. "Alright. I guess it wouldnt hurt to have a look around. As long as I have your word, as a gentleman, that I can leave any time I want to and that someone will bring me back here if I ask."
"I swear," Robertson said, smiling and crossing his fingers over his heart. "Joe will escort you out to the car while Tim and I take care of the supplies, alright?"
"Um . . .I need to . . .freshen up a little, if thats alright with you."
Standing, Robinson nodded down at her. "Meet us out by the car when youre done."
Gabrielle also stood, then moved off in the direction indicated by Rosa, slipping into the tiled bathroom and closing the door behind her with no small sense of relief. She snapped the light on, happy when the loud whoosh of an exhaust fan accompanied the illumination. Laying her purse on top of the sink, she reached for her cross and pressed it, three times slowly, as Xena had shown her. "Xena? You there?"
A faint buzzing, then the welcome voice of her beloved soulmate. "Right here, Gabrielle. You alright?"
"Well, I could be better, but it worked. Im in."
"Well, I almost blew it before anything even started. One of the guys was starting to beat on Rosa, the owner. Then I realized my mistake and backed off. It wasnt very smart, I know, but I couldnt help myself."
"Dont worry about it. As long as everything worked out. Thats all that matters."
"I know. Where are you?"
"Right across the street. Ive got a rifle trained on thug number one as we speak."
"Xe-na. . . . ."
"Gabrielle, just do your job and let me do mine, alright?"
"Alright." She sighed. "When am I going to see you again?"
"Probably within two or three days, if everything goes as I plan it to. Will you be alright until then?"
"I suppose Ill have to be. Ill just keep telling myself I asked for this torture."
A soft snort sounded in the bards ear. "Ya sure did."
"Remind me to get you to work a little more on your sympathy, Xena."
The snort sounded again. "You do that."
"Oh dont worry, I plan on it." There was a short pause. "I love you, Xena."
"Love you too, Gabrielle. Now be careful."
"You too. Bye for now."
Deactivating the microphone, Gabrielle took a side trip to one of the stalls, then washed and dried her hands, wincing again at her image in the mirror. "Definitely a maiden aunt. Ugh. Just add another one to the growing list of things youre gonna owe me for, Xena." After tucking her wayward hair back into some semblance of order, Gabrielle straightened her clothing and stepped from the bathroom. A quick look around the store assured the bard the men had left and were waiting outside for her. Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle approached the counter, retrieving some money from her wallet. Laying the bill on the glass countertop, the bard looked sorrowfully into Rosas dark eyes. "Im sorry, Rosa," she began softly. "This isnt what it looks like, but I cant tell you anything more."
The woman nodded gravely. "Will you be ok? You want I should call the policias for you? I got a gun under the counter here . . . ."
"No! No, Ill be fine. Promise." She affixed a warm, confident smile to her face. "Listen, in a few days, a friend of mine will show up here. Tall, long dark hair, beautiful blue eyes. Youll know her when you see her. Shell explain everything then, ok?"
"Positive." Sliding the money across the counter, Gabrielle briefly touched Rosas warm hand. "Thank you, Rosa. I mean that."
"Gods blessings on you, Gabrielle."
"You too, my friend." With a final, sunny smile, Gabrielle turned and walked out of the store.
Xena stood in the shadows of an abandoned adobe house, her high-powered sniper rifle currently aimed at the head of Robertson as he leaned against the front fender of his sedan awaiting Gabrielles exit from the café. Through the view in her scope, the mans head looked as big as a large pumpkin. She could see the irregular perfection of two moles clinging to his scalp through his closely cropped blonde hair. Her finger tightened infinitesimally on the trigger, an evil smile blooming on her face. The rifles lethal muzzle tracked minutely, tracing one fat bead of sweat as it escaped from his hairline to roll slowly down his clean-shaven jaw, pausing as it clung to his skin as if for dear life before dropping onto the dusty road, evaporating instantly into the harsh desert air.
A bright flash of light that was the sun reflecting off a moving glass door, and Gabrielle exited the cool confines of the store, her face open and innocent. Xenas eye, through the crystal of her rifle-sight, caressed every smooth curve of her beloveds face, taking every pore, every downy hair, every bead of sweat and laying a blessing upon it. She switched her gaze as Robertson pushed himself off the hot metal of the car as if to make his way to the young woman advancing toward him. The warrior tracked his movements, her finger steady on the trigger, a hairsbreadth away from applying the pressure that would end his life in a spraying fountain of blood and organic matter. "Lay one hand on her, you arrogant toad, and theyll be hosing whats left of your brains from the streets," she growled low in her throat.
As if hed heard her, Robertson stopped his advance, instead reaching down to open the car door and ushering Gabrielle inside with a sweeping wave of his hand. Smiling and nodding, the bard accepted the invitation, slipping into the car and out of Xenas sight. Robertson closed the door and went around the car to let himself in the back. With a roar of the engine, the cars tires spun, laying down melted rubber on the sticky asphalt and smoking away from the café, tracked until its disappearance into the horizon by the warriors weapon.
When the car disappeared behind a small hill, Xena relaxed and shouldered her weapon, finally stepping out into the harsh sunlight. A shadow moved in front of the cafés glass doors as the figure of Rosa stared out into the desert heat, her eyes widening at the sight of the tall woman with the big gun. Xena met the womans gaze, giving her a curt nod before turning abruptly and disappearing from sight.
It was a short drive over deserted roads that lead the group to the desert compound of Randolph Claiborne. The drive was made in complete silence. That, and Robertsons constant sidelong glances, were beginning to unnerve Gabrielle, but she kept her attention firmly glued to the road unfolding before them, trying to ease the knot of tension developing in her stomach. She steadied her nerves by remembering that Xena was close by and fiddling distractedly with the cross which hung around her neck, the one solid link she had to her partner. She concentrated on her breathing, using each slow exhale to blow out the accumulating tension.
Robertson shifted in his seat, brushing his hand against Gabrielles thigh as he placed it on the leather seat between them. "You dont talk much, do you."
Gabrielle had to restrain herself from a bark of laughter. "Um . . .there are some whod disagree with you on that one," she said, once her internal mirth was firmly under control.
Robertsons retort was cut off by the sight of the ranch sprawling out in front of them. "Were here," he commented softly.
The bard nodded, looking forward through the windshield. "So we are."
The first thing to come into view was the high wall encircling the compound. It was solid, made of a sand-colored cement and stood as tall as two men. A black iron gate, bordered on both ends by armed guards, marked the only entrance. As they slowly moved closer to the gate, a tall spire topped with a cross marked the position of the church within the walled enclave. The guards opened the large gate and allowed the car to pass through unmolested.
The interior looked exactly as Xena had shown her in the pictures on the computer. The buildings were basically nondescript; none except for the main house even sported windows. The entire atmosphere seemed colorless and gloomy despite the bright sunshine. Gabrielle felt an odd sense of depression settle over her. Aside from the guards, there was no other sign of human habitation.
The sedan rolled to a slow stop in front of the sprawling ranch house. Gabrielle waited for the driver to exit the car and open her door before she slipped from the leathered interior, straightening her skirt and squinting her eyes against the harsh desert sun. The men formed rank around the small blonde as Robertson led the way into the dwelling.
The house was dark, chilled, and smelled faintly of canned air, incense and overcooked meat. Women of various ages, though mostly quite young, bustled about, cleaning and straightening. The only men were the three around her. A tall woman, almost painfully thin and with the pinched face of the chronically constipated, stepped up to the group, eyes dragging over Gabrielles face and form as if she were examining a horridly fascinating insect. The woman turned to Robertson. "And who is this?"
"Her names Gabrielle. Gabrielle Story. She was in town when we were picking up the stuff. I convinced her to come with us and have a look around."
The womans eyes darted between Robertson and Gabrielle, her pinched expression never changing, her thin body radiating disapproval. She glanced at the Gabrielle again, then breathed heavily through her long, narrow nose. "Very well. Come with me." Pivoting on one heel, the woman started down the darkened hallway.
Gabrielle refused to budge. "Um. . .excuse me? I dont believe I caught your name."
The woman pivoted back, pinning the bard with a hard glare. "Thats because I didnt give it to you."
"Youre right," Gabrielle agreed, smiling. "Would you mind telling me or would you like me to guess?" Bad, Gabrielle. Youre very bad. She could almost picture Xenas raised eyebrow and amused stare. It made her smile that much wider, thinking of it.
After a long moment, the woman looked away. "My name is Adella Samuels. Mrs. Adella Samuels. I am the head of Womens Instruction here. Is that satisfactory enough for you, Miss Story?"
"Thats Missus," Gabrielle corrected. "I havent divorced. Yet. And yes, Mrs. Samuels, its quite satisfactory. Thank you." Play snooty with me, will you. I was an Amazon Queen, lady.
"Very well. If youre quite through questioning my credentials, I shall take you on a tour of our facility."
Without waiting for a reply, Adella turned from Gabrielle, striding quickly away. This time, Gabrielle joined her, almost jogging to catch up.
The first room they passed was off to the left and the bard could see, through the open door, almost a dozen young women in a large kitchen, busily preparing the evenings meal. Each woman, it seemed, had a task and each performed that task with maximum efficiency. Further toward the back of the room, six more women stood at a large stainless steel sink, washing the dishes as they were used, drying them, and setting them on huge racks, to be put away by still more women. The activity and rote movements reminded Gabrielle of bees in a hive. There was no socialization among the women, no sense of family. Orders were given, and obeyed without comment or complaint. The whole scene left the bard feeling very cold. Adellas nasal voice reached Gabrielles ears and she tore her gaze away from the working woman, trying to assume an expression of polite interest. "Do you have any skills? Cooking, cleaning, child care?"
"I can do all those things," Gabrielle replied.
"Good. If youre to stay with us, you will be expected to work. We have need of a dishwasher. You will fill that roll for now."
Oh . . . joy. Adella continued her trek, the bard close behind, passing the large laundry room with the hot, humid air that fogged the paneled walls of the hallway, then the huge, utilitarian dining area, and finally through the door leading out of the house and onto the grounds. The womans carefully coifed head twitched back and forth like an interested birds as she continued her monologue, leading her charge through the labyrinth of desert. "Those are the single mens barracks and those are the married couple and family barracks. And these," she continued, twisting the knob on a battered steel door, "are the single womens barracks. This is where you will be spending your time when youre not working or listening to our beloved Pastor Claiborne."
The building was squat and long, fourteen doors opening off of a central hallway. Twelve of the doors opened into large bedrooms, each housing four beds and one large community chest. A huge crucifix adorned the far wall, ghastly in its rich detail. Gabrielle shuddered slightly looking at, then turned her eyes away, gazing instead at the spartan living quarters. Each bed was a simple steel frame housing a paper thin mattress and one tiny pillow. No colorful quilts or blankets interrupted the sterile feel of the room. Simple white sheets were tucked with military precision to each of the beds four corners. There were no personal items of any type on display.
"This will be your room for the time being, and that, your bed. You will be expected to awaken at five a.m. with the other women and report for duty in the kitchen to help prepare the morning meal. After your duties in the kitchen are completed, you will attend morning services in the main chapel, then return to the kitchen to help with the afternoon meal. The Womens prayer and instruction session begins at two p.m. and lasts until four. Then you will help with the evening meal, and then it is time for night-time services. Afterwards, you will report back here and spend your time in quiet meditation until the lights are turned off at ten oclock. Is this understood."
"Good. Leave your personal belongings here and come with me to the dining hall. Dinner is almost ready."
"War, brothers and sisters in Christ. Thats what this is about. War! The fight to keep the white race pure and unsullied. Who will help us in our Holy fight, brothers and sisters? Who? The Jews who control the media and have their heads between the presidential legs? The homosexuals who parade down the street fornicating in broad daylight and enticing our children into their immoral agenda? The race traitors who befriend and even marry those whom the Almighty has put beneath us? The liberal members of our race who have the nerve to call themselves followers of Christ, yet who support the causes of the blacks, the homosexuals, the Jews, the immigrants and every other example of moral, ethical and physical perversion? No! A thousand times, no!"
Gabrielle watched, wide-eyed and gape-jawed with shock, as Randolph Claiborne spewed his hatred from the pulpit, his fist slamming down hard on the lectern with every other word. His face was brick red, his temple vein throbbing, his eyes hard with the sheen of the absolutely devote or the criminally insane. The bards stomach twisted in knots as the words flew into the air, echoing in the otherwise silent chamber. She looked around at the other listeners, sickened. They all stared at Claiborne with rapt fascination, drawn to his venom like a moth to a flame, ingesting his words as if they were food and the listeners, starving. How can they believe this? How can they accept this hatred into their souls, convinced of its utter truth? How can they not know any better?
Every part of Gabrielle wanted to bolt from the chapel, needing the silence of solitude to wash this blackness from her thoughts, yet she forced herself to remain seated, listening to the mad man and watching the effect his words had on his listeners. She shuddered inside with rage, her fists clenched so tightly that her short nails dug divots into the soft flesh of her palms. Forcing herself to calm, the bard again looked around at the others. Many were young, teens or just slightly older. There were families there, families with young children and even infants wrapped in snug arms. How can you teach children to hate? Why would any parent want to replace the innocence of childhood with this type of horror?
The bard shuddered again. These people didnt look strange or unkempt. In fact, to a person, they looked distressingly normal, appeared, with their groomed hair and clean clothes, to be models of society. In her past, Gabrielle was used to evil looking like evil, most of the time. Yes, she was fooled a few times. Even Xena had managed to be fooled, though not often. But now, in this time, in this life, it was impossible to tell. How could she look at a normal, everyday person the same way again? How could one trust at face value anymore, when there was so great a chance that the inside would be more evil than the outside could ever be? This is what Xena was trying to protect me from. Not all times changes upon the world were good ones. The Gabrielle of old wouldnt have lasted a minute in this world.
She sighed, close to tears, when she realized that the venomous vitriolic had stopped. Opening her eyes, she saw that the worshippers had started to stand and file out of the church. She looked up just in time to see Claiborne, his face again its normal pale color, gather up his closest advisors and escape through a back exit. Thankful that she wouldnt have to meet the man face to face, the bard gathered herself and stood, striding quickly from the church and breathing deeply of the untainted air of the desert as soon as she stepped through the doors. Resisting the urge to call Xena for comfort, realizing her partner was probably busy with her own problems, the young bard strolled along the grounds, needing to calm down before going into the barracks and dealing with those people again.
Somehow, she didnt think sleep would be an option tonight.
The Warrior Princess stood atop a small, scrubby hillock, looking down at the walled compound in the distance below. She was dressed in a black, padded coverall which added bulk to her lean frame, changing her body type completely. Her face and head were shielded by a black mask and brown contact lenses covered the blue of her irises. Her black gloved fists clenched and released, clenched and released, as she watched the guards, four in total and heavily armed, walk the wall of the compound. Shed detected their pattern hours earlier and was only waiting for full dark before beginning phase one of her attack. Adrenaline surged through her system as a smile bloomed behind the mask covering her sensuous lips. She was a warrior; it was the path she chose to follow, and it was only at these times in her life, when danger surrounded her like a warm, soft cloak, that she felt truly and completely alive. Loving Gabrielle brought about many of the same feelings, yet the beast that slept beside her heart was kept tethered, to the best of her ability, around her beloved soulmate. Here, in the wilds, that beast roamed free over her soul, howling with joy. She gave it free reign, knowing that time, the one thing she had an infinity of, had given her the tools to successfully contain its full wrath, no matter how out of control it became. At least thats what she tried to tell herself, at times like these. During other, more peaceful, more introspective moments, the woman within the warrior wasnt quite as sure.
Breaking away from her musings, Xena tilted her head back and looked up at the enormous desert sky, its jeweled tapestry on black velvet never failing to quiet her raging soul or, if the mood struck, to call it out to play among the stars. One last look, one last deep, invigorating breath, and she was off, flipping easily away from the small hill to land at a full sprint, just one shadow among millions painting the desert in dulcet hues.
Silent as death, she moved closer to the wall, eyes darting and assessing, watching the guards movements and timing her steps with the wind as it gusted past her swiftly moving form. One step, two, and then she leapt again, flipping lazily in the chill night air to land with both soft-booted feet into the chest of one of the guards, pressing him hard and flat against the cement wall, robbing his consciousness, and his strength, from him noiselessly. She landed in a crouch, straddling his crumpled body, head turned to the left, eyes darting.
A sharp elbow met the face of the second guard and he slumped to the ground never knowing hed been hit. A quick darting around the corner and the third man fell from a blow to the back of his neck, his rifles noisy clatter stopped by a lightening quick hand which cradled the weapon and gently laid it down upon its bed of sand.
Xena froze for a moment, sniffing and tasting the night air on the back of her tongue. Her eyes narrowed as she smiled darkly. Straightening slowly, gracefully, she stepped over the body of the third guard, stalking her prey like the predator she was.
The fourth man walked along his section of the wall, cradling his rifle in his arms, listening to the night sounds of the desert and the quiet murmuring coming from within the compound. He was startled by a tap on the shoulder and when he turned, his body was robbed of all feeling by hard, stabbing blows to both sides of his neck. He fell to his knees, his weapon slipping from nerveless fingers. A black-clad demon stood above him, eyes cold as the bottom of a grave. He felt a warmth between his legs as his bladder emptied. "Who who are you?" he gasped, his voice barely more than a whisper above the wind.
The demon merely stared at him, cocking its head, its eyes measuring, patient, cold.
"Who are you?" he asked again. His head began to pound horribly and he felt blood begin to trickle from his nostrils. "Please . . .I dont want to die."
"Oh, but you will," the figure said, finally, in a voice deep and rumbling. "Slowly. Painfully."
"No!" He choked against the blood pooling in the back of his throat. "Please."
"Unless you tell me what I want to know."
"Anything! Anything, please!"
"Where are the bodies."
"B-bodies? I dont understand."
"Then you die."
"No! Please . . .what bodies?" His sight was dimming. "Please," he gasped again.
"The bodies of the men who come into this place and never leave. The bodies of those you hate."
"I . . .dont . . .the North! Theyre taken to the north!"
The demon squatted down in front of him, grabbing his throat. "Where," the voice hissed in his ear. "Tell me, or youll be joining them."
"Thats all I know! I swear! They leave at night and drive to the north! Please. . . ."
After a long moment, the sharp, jabbing pain returned and breath filled his starving lungs. "Thank you," was all he could gasp out before a fist across his jaw sent him into unconsciousness.
The desert was silent once again.
Shivering slightly from the nights chill, Gabrielle finally made her way into the single womens barracks. The building was crowded and noisy with women who would look at her suspiciously as she passed, then resume their conversations in whispering tones. The bard felt more chilled inside the building than out and found herself missing the warmth of her lovers arms. Again, the need to contact Xena became almost overwhelming, but she fought it down as she entered the room shed been assigned. On her bed, neatly folded, was a long, off-white nightgown and on top of that, a small black Bible, its words edged in gold leaf. The room was empty otherwise and she approached the bed, setting the book aside as she lifted up the gown, wrinkling her nose as she viewed it. It was long, starchy and concealing with a white cross embroidered over the left breast. Ugh. This just gets better and better.
Sighing deeply, Gabrielle threw the gown over her shoulder and headed down the hall where the lavatories and showers were housed. She stepped into the room on the left, trying to ignore the cold, assessing stares she received from the women within. Picking up a stiff towel and a bar of plain soap, she made her way to a vacant stall and slipped inside, beginning to disrobe after shed pulled the mildewed curtain shut behind her. After flipping her garments and the towel over the shower rod to keep them dry, the bard turned the dial and gasped as a stinging spray of icy water hit her already chilled skin, causing gooseflesh to erupt over her entire body. Turning quickly, she made to adjust the temperature, then realized there was no setting for hot water. Gabrielle, why do you get yourself into these things? Next time, just listen to Xena, will ya? Youll be a lot happier. Knowing the lie inherent in that statement, Gabrielle snorted softly to herself and proceeded to take the quickest shower in the history of human-kind.
Toweling off quickly and donning her nightgown, the bard slipped from the stall and exited the lavatory, smiling brightly at the staring women, knowing it would disquiet them and guiltily feeling a little better because of it. She quickly made her way back to her assigned bedroom, surprised to see that the remaining beds were already occupied by women she assumed were her new roommates. Two of the women appeared middle-aged. One was plump in a grandmotherly sort of way while the other was poker-thin. Both had short, gray hair and wore glasses that they used to read the bibles open in front of them. The third was a sullen youth who appeared no older than sixteen or seventeen. Her close-cropped white-blonde hair was just starting to grow out and her long, lanky body reminded the bard a little of Xenas, but without the overlay of muscles and feminine curves that her lover sported.
Hanging her clothes on a hook in the wall, Gabrielle slipped between the sheets of the narrow bed, scowling as her body found all the lumps in the threadbare mattress. Giving up squirming as unproductive, she contented herself with observing her silent roommates. The two older women continued to stare into their bibles, not even looking up at the stranger sharing their room. The youth scowled at the ceiling, her arms cocked behind her head, her bent leg swing back and forth at the knee.
The lights flickered once, and at the signal, the two older women carefully closed their bibles and placed them on the floor beside their beds. The youth merely rolled over, slamming her head down on the pillow and closing her eyes. The lights flickered again, then stayed off for good, leaving the women in total darkness.
Gabrielle lay on her back, her hands clasped and resting on her stomach, as she tried to fight off the sudden feelings of claustrophobia that came with the sudden absence of light and other sensory input. She breathed easier as she heard the soft snoring from one of the woman in the room, then closed her eyes in meditation.
Her thoughts were interrupted a short time later by a soft sound off to her left. Opening her eyes, she turned her head in the direction of the sound, frowning a bit as she tried to interpret its meaning. The noise came again and the bard recognized the soft sound of sobbing from the youth who slept in the bed next to hers. She sat up quickly, quietly drawing the sheet away and moving toward the sound. Crouching beside the bed, Gabrielle laid a gentle hand on the girls shoulder. "Are you ok?" she whispered.
The girl flinched away from the contact, rolling onto her back and wiping at her swollen eyes. "Leave me alone."
Gabrielle withdrew her hand quickly, but remained where she was. "Alright," she said calmly, pleasantly. "I just wanted to see if there was anything I could do to help." A faint light from the hallway drifted into the room and displayed the girls angry, narrowed eyes. "Ok. Im going." Standing, the bard retreated back to her bed, continuing to meet the girls angry gaze. "My names Gabrielle, by the way. Just in case you might want to talk about it or anything." Drawing her legs up, she tucked them under the thin sheet and reclined upon the lumpy bed once again. "Goodnight."
There was a long period of silence, broken intermittently by snoring.
"A.J." came a soft whisper.
Green eyes opened. "Excuse me?"
"A.J. Thats my name."
"Pleased to meet you, A.J."
Another beat of silence. "Youre not like those others."
Gabrielle rolled onto her side, propping her head up in her hand. "How so?"
A.J snorted softly. "They wouldnt care if I was crying. Hell, I dont think they would care if I was dying!"
"A.J.," Gabrielle gently chided, "how could you say such a thing?"
"Because its true."
Rolling out of bed once again, the bard crossed the short distance between the two of them, squatting down next to the girl, careful not to touch her. The faint light bathed A.J.s skin, displaying her reddened eyes which, instead of anger, now showed only pain. "Why do you think that, A.J.?" she asked gently. "I mean, its true that these women seem a little . . .well . . .cold, but I dont think theyd turn away from a young woman in pain."
The girl snorted again, her face hardening. "Shows how much you know."
"Well, Ill admit that I dont know very much about these people. I just got here, after all."
"Yeah, well, what you see is what you get. Theyre colder on the inside than they are on the outside. Take it from me. I know."
"Then why are you here?"
"Your parents? Are they here?"
A.J.s gray eyes narrowed as her mouth curled into a sneer. "You nuts? No, they aint here. They sent me here."
"Why would they do that?"
The young girl shrugged. "Theyre Pentecostals. They thought I was getting too wild, so they packed me up and shipped me off to this prison camp." Despite her attempt to look tough and bored, the pain on A.J.s face was intense and her gray eyes welled up with tears once again. She raised one long fingered hand to swipe them angrily away. "I just dont get it," she whispered.
"What I did that was so bad that I had to wind up here. I mean, Im seventeen years old, for Chrissakes! I dont party, dont do drugs, I even skipped my friggin senior prom because they told me to!"
"Did you ask them?"
"What did they say?"
"They told me they thought I was hangin out with the wrong element. Their words, not mine. Figured Id get pulled down into the den of Satan or something. I guess they sent me here to avoid temptation." A.J. looked over at Gabrielles horrified face. "Sucks, dont it."
Gabrielle could only nod.
"So, now that I told you my sob story, what about you? Why are you here?"
Part of the bard wanted to break down and tell the young woman her story, but another part saw Xenas warning look easily in the back of her mind. Claiborne and his followers were paranoid by nature and a newcomer would be looked upon with nothing but distrust and suspicion for a very long time. Baiting the trap with a seemingly distraught young girl wouldnt be out of the question. "My car broke down in the desert. While I was waiting for a tow, three men came and asked me if Id like to take a look around the place." The bard shrugged. "So I did."
A.J.s eyes went very wide. "Are you nuts?!? Those guys could have been rapists! Or murderers! How could you do such a stupid thing?"
It wasnt for lack of trying, believe me. Gabrielle shrugged again. "Sometimes I can be a little to naïve for my own good."
"You got that right. Jesus!" Shaking her head in disbelief, A.J. slumped back down on the flattened pillow. "You should do yourself a favor though. Pack up your stuff and get the hell outta here as fast as you can. Before they pull you down with them. Like they did me." The girls eyes went flat as she stared at the ceiling, her fists clenching in impotent rage.
Gabrielle watched the young woman for a long time, her heart hurting for A.J.s misery. "A.J., can I ask you a question?"
The young woman turned her head warily in Gabrielles direction. "Yeah?"
"At the services tonight . . .I was watching you and I saw you standing up and yelling with the rest of them. Why did you do that if you hate it so much?"
A.J. smirked, studying the ceiling once again. "Thats easy. If I can convince these idiots that Ive reformed, that Ive seen the light, maybe theyll let me outta this hell hole. Maybe I can just go home and pretend none of this ever happened."
The bard nodded, resting her arm on the bed as she kept her own counsel.
"If there is a God somewhere up there, do you think he hates me because I said those words? Even if I didnt really mean em?"
Gabrielle smiled. "If there is a God up there, he couldnt hate you, A.J. Especially because he can see whats in your heart. And hes probably very sad over the hatred thats being preached in his name."
"Yeah, well if thats true, I just wish hed do something about it."
The bards smile widened, hidden in the shadows. "Maybe he will," she whispered.
Randolph Claiborne sat in his expansive chapel office, gazing into the roaring fire built up in the large stone fireplace at the front of the room. The entire office was done up in dark woods, from the heavily polished floor to the paneled walls, each sporting a plethora of religious iconography, to the dark, oak desk that sat importantly facing the door. This was his realm; it was where he held court and accepted obeisance from his devout worshippers. He felt like a king with his fiefdom, and at this small moment in time, all was right with his world.
He wet his thumb as he turned another parchment thin page in the huge bible on his lap, eyes darting over the words as he worked to form the next days sermon. A quiet knock to the door ended his reverie and, annoyed, he snapped the book shut, turning his attention to the rooms entrance. "Come in."
Jim Robertson slipped into the room, bowing his head slightly. "Im sorry to disturb you, Reverend, but theres been an incident."
Claiborne moved to the edge of his chair. "Incident? What kind of incident, Robertson?"
The security chief looked slightly chagrined. The four guards walking the outer wall were attacked, Sir."
"Attacked? What do you mean, attacked."
Robertson resisted the urge to blow out a sigh. He liked the Reverend just fine, but the mans habit of repeating the words of others almost verbatim was annoying in the extreme. "Just what I said, Sir. All four were knocked unconscious. Only one saw anything. Carruthers, Sir. He said it was well it looked like a demon." Robertsons tanned cheeks flushed.
"Yes, sir. Thats what Carruthers said. Big and black with a really deep voice. It paralyzed him, then started asking questions that made no sense. Then it knocked him out."
Rather than looking alarmed, Claiborne smiled, his eyes taking on an almost radiant inner light. "Its begun, Robertson. The war Ive been prophesying has begun." He stood up from his chair and began pacing the room. "Get four men to replace those guards and leave me. I must speak with our Holy Father about this."
"As you wish, Reverend." With another bow of his head, Robertson turned and left the room, shaking his head slightly as the sounds of dark laughter came from behind the now closed door.
The blackness of the desert night was broken intermittently by the sweeping of a hooded flashlight, right to left, left to right. The nights silence was likewise disturbed by a low, velvet voice muttering into the wind. "North, he says. Why didnt he just tell me North America? That would have narrowed it down some." Soft footfalls were heard as Xena examined the desert hardpan in minute detail. While she was an excellent tracker, the ever present desert wind added to the darkness made deciphering one track from another virtually impossible. "Thats even assuming he actually buried the bodies and didnt just leave them for the predators to gnaw on." If that were the case, theyd all be out of luck unless Xena could somehow catch Claiborne red handed, murder weapon in hand and plunging into his latest victim du jour.
Sighing, she snapped the flashlight off, pausing to allow her vision to readjust to the darkness. Turning in her tracks, the warrior started off at a light jog toward where her car waited, hidden in the low desert scrub.
Tomorrow would be another day.
Gabrielle sat cross-legged in the sun, listening to the wind as it whispered secrets to the tall grasses it danced through, bending their feathery stalks to its whim as it passed by. She squinted slightly as the sun sparkled prisms off foamy wavelets darting through the blue of the lake before her. The somnolent drone of insects combined with the suns sweet warmth to pull a soft cloak of sensual haze over her relaxed body.
Her eyes darted off to the right, to a rock upthrust from the lakes loamy bed. Perched on the rock, one foot trailing negligently through the water, reclined her lover, her other leg bent and open at the knee, inviting the sun to dance and play at the soft skin and nest of dark curls displayed unabashedly to its joyful rays. Her weight rested upon bent elbows; the elegant curve of her neck supporting a head tipped well back. Raven hair traced wet trails over dry stone as ruby lips parted slightly, displaying the barest flash of white teeth. Ebony lashes curtained blue sapphires and droplets of water lucky enough to survive the trip to dry land rolled blissfully over peaks and valleys of smooth, sun-bronzed skin.
Gabrielles mind ached to put pen to paper and capture the vision before her. But her body, seduced by the warmth of the sun and the soft sounds of insects and wind, had other plans. The fingers of her right hand twitched once, but then gave up the battle as jade eyes slipped closed by slow degrees, bringing the vision of her lover with her into the realm of Morpheus.
A cold touch to her sun-warmed skin broke the bard from her drowsy state; a second wakened her completely as she struggled to sit up from her reclining position on the sweet soft grasses that bordered the shore of the lake. Opening her eyes fully to the vision before her, however, reversed her position and she lay back down on the warm ground, heart pounding strong and fast.
Xena stood over her, wet haired and magnificent, droplets of water caressing her body like an attentive lover. Sapphire eyes shone forth with hunger, tracing each curve and valley of the prize lain at her feet in supplication. Her lips parted and her tongue wetted each one slowly, then slid across the sharp guard of her teeth.
The tone, dark and erotic, rolled over Gabrielle in a wave of sensation, pulling hard at her groin. A whimper sounded helplessly in her throat in response, her verdant eyes wide and unblinking.
The words were whispered now as the bronze-limbed goddess fell down to her knees, her descent causing motes of pollen to drift over them like a gauzy cloud come to earth. A water-cooled hand reached out to trace the skin of Gabrielles arm, stroking, caressing, owning.
Gabrielle squirmed under the gentle touch, wanting only to return it in kind. But her hand was captured tenderly and placed up above her head to join the other, nestled comfortably in the large, work-roughened palm of the warrior.
The words were growled in a voice deepened with erotic sensuality.
"To do with as I please. Whenever and however I please."
Gabrielle squirmed again, feeling beads of moisture as they trickled from within and from without.
Her lovers free hand moved to loosen the ties to Gabrielles green top, pulling it apart and pushing it up over her full, aching breasts.
Long, tapered fingers moved down the valley of her breasts, before coming around to circle each one in a figure-eight pattern, coming ever closer to nipples straining in anticipation.
The warriors head tipped and bent, her body lowering slowly over her captured prize. A mouth clamped possessively down on one aching breast, a tongue icy from lake water flicking over one erect and begging nipple.
Gabrielle gasped aloud, her voice a tremulous whisper as cold muscle met hot flesh in an explosion of raw passion. Her head strained upward from between stretched arms and she watched her lover feast on her breasts.
The warrior pulled away, her long tongue circling and flicking at the pebbled flesh, eliciting more gasps and breathless moans. Her hold tightened and another growl erupted from her throat as the bard tried to pull free from her grasp.
Corded abdominal muscles tensed as the succulent mouth closed over her other breasts, suckling and nipping as the warriors strong tongue again played an orchestra over her needful flesh.
The mouth pulled away again and Gabrielle relaxed, closing her eyes against the sensations racing through her body.
Xenas free hand moved once again as her mouth held poised over creamy flesh. Down over Gabrielles abdomen, pausing just briefly to circle her navel, then over the rough fabric of her skirt. Indolent fingers hooked under the material, reversing their path and moving back up slowly revealed flesh, sliding over the soft down on the insides of the bards muscled thighs.
Those same fingers slipped through the impediment of her undergarment, tracing the trail of slick wetness as it left her body in honey-milked slowness.
The raven head lowered, capturing one nipple in slashing white teeth, biting down as three strong fingers thrust up and inside, pressing down on a spot easily found within vice-like walls of the bards yearning sex..
Gabrielles entire body stilled, in that eternal half-second before orgasm, gathering her strength, ready to explode it outward in a blazing torrent of passion.
A bell sounded stridently from the narrow, dark hallway, causing Gabrielle to leap from her bed, her body still responding to the dream swirling in her subconscious. She was halfway across the room before her feet even hit the floor, and her knees threatened rebellion at the jarring impact.
One of the older women gave Gabrielle a strange look as the bards airborne body avoided her by mere inches. Gabrielle steadied herself, wiping the erotic thoughts from her mind by sheer force of will as she straightened her gown and smiled unconvincingly at her roommates. A hand on her shoulder spun her around, to meet the laughing gray eyes of A.J. "What?"
The young woman smirked. "Oh, nothing." Smiling, she withdrew her hand from the bards shoulder. "Its just that Id probably have had the same reaction, getting woken up from a dream as good as the one you seemed to be having."
Gabrielle blushed to the roots of her fair hair. Her eyes met the floor and remained there, mortified.
A.J. laughed, her eyes widening in surprise that she could make such a sound in this place. "Dont worry about it, Gabrielle. Those old prudes wouldnt know a wet dream if they woke up in a puddle."
The bards face managed to darken several shades as she considered hiding beneath the covers for the duration of her stay.
The young girl chuckled again, clapping her hand on the bards muscled shoulder. "Relax, will ya? Whoever it was you were dreaming about, I just hope he realizes just how lucky he is."
"Um . . .yeah . . . ." Taking several deep breaths, Gabrielle managed to get both her heart rate and her blush under some control. "So, do they always wake us up like that?"
"Yep. And if that doesnt do the trick, the cold shower sure does." The young blonde smiled impishly. "Cmon. It looks like you could use one right about now."
Burying her crimson face in her hands, Gabrielle moaned piteously, then grabbed her clothing and followed her new friend in the direction of the lavatory facilities.
Gabrielle sat in the large chapel, trying desperately to keep a knowing smirk from showing on her face. Claiborne was going into his second hour of preaching about the army of Satan that had attacked the compound last night. It didnt take very much thought on the bards part to guess that the army was, in fact, one tall, dark and incredibly deadly woman. She couldnt wait for the service to be over to confirm her suspicions with her lover.
Memories of this mornings rudely interrupted dream caused a warm tingling in her body as Gabrielle studied the listeners, their faces filled with righteous indignation. She resisted mightily the urge to laugh out loud as Claiborne smugly reminded his worshippers that he had, indeed, prophesied just such an event, which he termed the Holy War to Preserve the White Race.
The bard turned her attention to A.J., who was sitting beside her. The teen was wide-eyed and fearful but trying hard not to show it. Several young girls, sitting to A.J.s left, werent even bothering to mask their horror over the possibility of some large army doing battle in the compound that was their home. Gabrielles eyebrows knitted together in a scowl. Claiborne was terrorizing these young women and he didnt seem to care. She needed to talk to Xena, and soon.
When Claiborne finally ended his rant, the bard jumped up from the hard-backed bench and all but dashed from the chapel, heading for the main house where there was a private bathroom facility. Slipping inside, she snapped on the light and exhaust fan and drew her cross from its resting place against her chest, pressing the back of it rhythmically. "Xena?" she whispered.
The warriors voice came back slightly groggy. "Yeah?"
"Im sorry. Did I wake you up?"
"Nah, just resting my eyelids. Whats up?"
"I heard the Army of Satan rode roughshod over the compound last night."
A soft snort sounded in the bards ear. "Ive been called worse."
"I also heard the army was beaten back badly."
"Oh please. Three of em didnt even see me and the fourth only stayed conscious long enough to rat out his buddies before I sang him a lullaby."
Gabrielle laughed softly. "Right cross or left hook?"
"Right cross. It was a thing of beauty."
"Im sure it was." The bard hesitated a moment. "Xena, weve got a little problem here."
"What kind of problem."
"There are a bunch of young kids here, teens mostly. Theyre scared to death that a wars going to be fought in the compound and theres no way for them to escape."
"Serves em right for choosing to follow an idiot like Claiborne, Gabrielle. If they want to spout that hatred, they have to live with the consequences of someone getting mad enough to fight back."
"Xena, I talked with a young girl last night. Her parents sent her here. She didnt have any choice in the matter. I think there are a lot of kids here just like her. And theyre scared to death right now. I want to help, but I dont know how to do that without blowing my cover."
"Just do the best you can. If you have to tell them why youre there, then do it. But be prepared to run, Gabrielle. If its a trap, theyll come after you."
"I know. Thats what worries me. But I feel like I have to do something."
"Im sure youll figure something out." Xenas voice was warm and loving in her ear. "You always do."
Gabrielle felt that thrill of pride that always accompanied Xenas praise. "So, how are you doing otherwise?"
"Couldnt be better," came the dry response.
"Ill try not to take that as an insult."
Xena laughed softly in response.
"Alright, Ive got to go. Will I see you soon?"
"Tomorrow or the day after."
"Looking forward to it. I love you, Xena."
"Love you too, Gabrielle."
Xena looked down at the sniper rifle sitting on the dusty floor of the abandoned shack shed used as a temporary protection from the desert sun. Hefting it, she sighed. Shed planned on using the weapon that evening to create some fireworks over Claibornes compound, but her conversation with Gabrielle made that course of action undesirable now. "Damnit," she muttered in a low undertone, "I must be slipping. I should have known thered be some innocents there." A wry laugh followed quietly, disturbing the dusty peace of the enclosure. "Figures Gabrielled find em. Goodness gravitates to her like bees to a flower." Drawing her long legs up underneath her, the warrior rose gracefully, bearing her weapon up with her. "Alright, time for plan Beta."
Slipping from the shack, she stowed the rifle in her cars trunk and made for the desert once again, hopeful that daylight would show her secrets the night sky withheld from her vision.
After hiding her car behind some tallish scrub, Xena resumed her trek through the desert, sharp eyes scanning for signs of recent activity in the otherwise desolate area. After a time, she noted several sets of parallel ruts whose depth and width appeared to correspond roughly with the black van she had spied parked in the compound the night before. Xena followed these tracks, which, coincidentally, were pointed in a roughly northern direction, for some miles through the desert heat, sweat pouring liberally down her body. Though, as an immortal, dehydration held no dangers for the warrior, she had already drained one canteen dry and was working on the second when she spied several faint, regular depressions in the otherwise anonymous desert hardpan.
Recapping her canteen, Xena dropped it to hang over her shoulder as she attentively circled the rough depressions, eyes scanning the blowing sand by slow degrees, head cocked at a slight angle, assessing. There appeared to be seven of these depressions in total, lined up in a row, and each roughly rectangular in shape. The constantly blowing dust obscured any evidence of recently overturned earth and though these depressions did have every characteristic of being gravesites, Xena had no way of determining the age of the excavations without disturbing the evidence, something she wished mightily to avoid.
Circling ever closer to the burial site, the warriors keen eyes picked up animal tracks near the head of two of the graves. Stepping closer, she noted the distinctive dig marks of a rather large coyote. The wind chose that moment to shift direction, blowing a coating of sand from an irregular bulge near the claw marks. A feral grin bloomed over Xenas sand-encrusted features. "I gotcha now, you bastard."
The swirling wind had disgorged a grisly sight. The large, gnarled end of a human femur and half of its shaft stuck out of the sand like a gruesome headstone. The bone was still yellow with adipose tissue and a thin strip of muscle, tanned by the blinding sun, clung to the joint in mute testimony to the depravity committed upon it. The bone was well gnawed and splintered in areas, but by the color, appeared to be quite fresh. Xena knew shed found Claibornes abattoir. Problem was, shed found it through a coerced confession and that would never stand up in court. Nonetheless, she felt a quiet sense of relief knowing where the bodies were located. All she had to do now was to get Claiborne or his cronies to spill the beans in a legal manner. She smiled. This would be fun.
Though loathe to leave the burial area, knowing that the animals would return to finish what they started once the desert cooled down enough, Xena knew she had to get ready for phase two of her plan, changed though it was. Turning in a quick circle, she triangulated the area firmly in her mind, then, with one last long look at the lonely graves, stalked back the way shed come, promising vengeance to the spirits of the men entombed there.
Gabrielle sat on the hard bench in the Womens Studies Library, trying hard not to squirm. The topic of the day appeared to be "The Role of the Subservient Wife in Gods Holy Plan" and the bard could feel her blood pressure rising quickly.
Adella Samuels was reading from prepared notes, constantly sliding her half glasses up the bridge of her narrow, pinched nose. " . . .and the words of our Forefathers, the Creators of this great and sovereign nation, are clear. In 1873, the Venerable Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley stated unequivocally: The natural proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life. The constitution of the family organization which is founded in the divine ordinance as well as in the nature of things indicates the domestic sphere as that which properly belongs to the domain and function of womanhood. The paramount destiny and mission of women is to fulfill the noble and benign office of wife and mother."
That did it. Gabrielle shot up out of the bench so fast she thought shed sprouted wings.
Adella peered at the red-faced bard over the tops of her glasses. "Yes, Mrs. Story? Do you have something you wish to share with the group?"
"Aside from Are you insane?!?" the bard demanded, hands fisted on her hips.
"Now Mrs. Story, this is hardly the time or place for that type of . . . ."
"Dont you Mrs. Story me, Mrs. Samuels. I cant believe you would have the nerve to preach such unmitigated bull . . . ." She looked around at the young, shocked faces of her listeners and blushed, "um . . .stuff . . . in this day and age!"
"Now, Mrs. Story . . . ."
"First of all, if what youre reading is true and not some byproduct of a delusional mind, it was written over one hundred years ago. And second of all, I hardly think that the Venerable Joseph Bradley could be considered a forefather of this country, considering he was born a hundred years too late!" The bard was on a roll, pleased beyond measure that shed taken the time to avidly study The History Channel on Xenas television. "In case you hadnt noticed, Mrs. Samuels, this is the nineteen nineties. Young women need to know that, if they so choose, they can discover theres more to life than staying home, having babies, and being subservient to their husbands. Their opportunities are endless! They need to be shown this and not stuffed back into some patriarchal dark ages box that limits them to becoming chattel for the first man that sniffs up under their skirts!" Turning her back on the now irate Adella, Gabrielle faced the students, her jade eyes blazing. "I left my home when I was seventeen years old. My parents preached the same things this woman is telling you. They were going to force me to marry a boy I didnt love and settle down on some farm somewhere raising children that I didnt want at the time. I wanted to see the world. I didnt have the same opportunities you do now, but I did what my heart told me to do. It was hard. Very hard. And I went through things no one should ever have to. But I can tell you one thing. Looking back on all the bad times, and all the good ones, I can say without a doubt in my mind that I wouldnt change one part of it for all the money in the world. Because those experiences made me who I am today, and Im proud of that person." Her tirade was halted by a hand clapping down on her shoulder and the bard spun, peering up at the red face of the instructor. "Back off, Adella," she snarled, flinging the gripping hand from her shoulder.
Samuels paled and stepped back as if struck, her hand clenched over her heart. At that action, Gabrielle blinked, the anger draining from her to be replaced by a sudden sense of trepidation. Uh oh. I think you might have done it this time, Gabrielle. Taking a deep breath, she spun back around to face the gape-mouthed, wide-eyed women. "Im sorry," she said firmly. "I was out of line." She turned back to the teacher. "If its all the same to you, I think Ill retire to my room."
"I think that would be a very good idea, Mrs. Story," Samuels sniffed.
Nodding, Gabrielle turned and left the room, leaving stunned silence behind as her legacy.
Sitting on the lumpy mattress in her room, Gabrielle leafed through the gold-edged pages of her bible, scanning the text without really seeing it. Her minds eye replayed, again and again, her tirade of earlier as her free hand fingered the golden cross hanging around her neck, contemplating. She flinched every time the door to the barracks opened, half expecting large men with guns to invite her to take a ride into the desert. Her thumb ran lightly over the small button on the back of her necklace. No, bard. Not this time. You assured Xena you could handle things, so . . .handle them. If things get to be too bad, then call her.
Satisfied with her resolution, she slumped back against the plain wooden headboard, laying the book across her bent knees. The outside door opened once again, but she managed to control her reaction, eyes resolutely glued to the pages in front of her, heart keeping time with her racing thoughts.
A soft knock to her door caused Gabrielles head to lift and she couldnt contain her sigh of relief at the sight of A.J.s blonde head peeking in from around the corner. "Is it alright if I come in?" the young girl asked.
Gabrielle smiled. "Of course it is. Its your room too, you know."
A.J. returned the grin, then stepped into the room, closely followed by four of the teens whod been present for Gabrielles display of anger. "Ive brought some friends."
The girls looked at the bard with rapt attention, their eyes shining with the first stages of hero-worship. Gabrielles cheeks colored in embarrassment at the adoring gazes. "Um . . .hello. Im Gabrielle. Of course, you probably know that already." Her color darkened. "Cmon in and have a seat."
A.J. plopped down on her own bed while the other girls stood around in a group, still staring at the mortified bard. "This is Karen, Missy, Lisa and Linda. Theyve all got the same story I do. Uptight parents who sent them here to learn the proper way to be a woman." The teens voice dripped sarcasm.
"Its very nice to meet you all," Gabrielle replied, clearing her throat and willing her blush away.
Missy, a shy, slight young girl with thick glasses, stepped forward. "Is it true what you told old lady Samuels? That you need to follow your heart no matter what anybody says?"
"Well . . .yes, its true. Within reason, of course. You dont want to do something that would get you in trouble with the law or anything, but I dont think that just because youre a woman any option should be closed of to you."
Lisa, a large teen with a tough air, flaming red hair and freckles, grinned. "That is so cool. My parents would absolutely freak if they found out you were here teaching us this stuff."
"Well," Gabrielle demurred, "Im not teaching you anything. I just know that its much better to make choices in life when you hear all sides of the story. Especially when the side youre being taught to conform to is full of ignorance, prejudice and hatred. I learned some of these same lessons the hard way and I dont want to see any of you make the same mistakes I did, thats all."
The fourth member of the group, Linda, a studious young woman with a somber face, sat down on Gabrielles bed. "Im not sure I understand what youre saying. Pastor Claiborne says its not about hatred, but about love. God loves us and wants us to live like he taught us to in the bible."
The other girls rolled their eyes, but Gabrielle regarded her with utter seriousness. "Well, yes, God loves you, Linda. But does he love other people less?"
"Im not sure what you mean."
"Well, do you think that God created everything?"
"Sure! Everyone knows that."
"Then he created people different than you, right? Black people and Jewish people and every other kind of people?"
"And do you think he hates those people he created?"
"Do you think he loves those people less than he loves you?"
"No. Yes." Linda sighed, shoulders slumped. "I dont know." She grabbed the bible from the bed, leafing through it. "The bible says that those people, the blacks and the Jews and the homosexuals, went against God and he punished them. Thats why were superior. Because were good and hes chosen us."
"And have you ever done something bad?"
Linda looked at her warily. "Yes," she said in a small voice.
"And do you think God forgave you for it?"
"So, if, and I do mean if, any of those people in the bible did bad things, do you think God would forgive them too? After all, he forgave you, right?"
The young girl huffed out a sigh of frustration. "This is just all so confusing."
Gabrielle laid a gentle hand on Lindas arm. "Its a lot harder when you know all sides of the story, Linda. Thats what choice is all about."
"But, then why would Pastor Claiborne and our parents teach us these things if they werent true?"
The bard smiled. "Im not saying this is true in all cases, but sometimes people feel so badly about themselves that the only way they can believe their life is worth something is by making other people inferior to them. Its like being a bully. A bully isnt any better than the people he beats up, but the control he has over them makes him feel better about himself. Does that make sense?"
"So youre saying Pastor Claiborne is a bully?" Lisa asked, grinning. "I can dig that."
"No, Im not saying that. What Im saying is that you need to see more than whats right in front of you to be able to make decisions in your life. If, after youve seen all the options, this mans way is the one thats right for you, then I guess youll have to decide that. But making yourself feel superior by hating others is never a good thing."
Gabrielle was relieved when the bell sounding the dinner hour chimed. A.J. grinned knowingly at her and rose from the bed to shoo the rest of the girls from the room. Just as the teen was about to leave herself, she turned her head to look at the still seated bard. "Yknow, Gabrielle, I think you were right. I think maybe God is doing something to help." Winking, she left the room.
The bard slumped against the headboard, a stunned look on her face. Well, whaddaya know.
Gabrielles breathing eased as the evening changed into night and no one came at her with weapons pointed at her anatomy. Shed managed to make it through dinner and night time services unscathed and if she could just make it out of the ranch house and into the womens barracks, shed be home free.
Smelling freedom, the bard quickly rounded the corner toward the exit from the house, only to be pulled up at the sight before her. Blocking the doorway was Adella Samuels who was, at that moment, in intense conversation with Randolph Claiborne. Oh Centaur farts. This is not good. Affixing a pleasant smile on her face, the bard casually strolled toward the couple, hoping not to be noticed as she began to pass by.
Inches from her goal, she was stopped by a snobbish voice over her left shoulder. "Good evening, Mrs. Story."
Drat. Turning slowly, Gabrielle broadened her smile. "And good evening to you as well, Mrs. Samuels. Is that a new dress youre wearing tonight? The color becomes you."
The taller woman sniffed down at the bard, her face set in a mask of sour distaste. "Mrs. Story, may I present the Most Holy Reverend Randolph Claiborne? Reverend Claiborne, this is Mrs. Gabrielle Story."
Claiborne beamed a toothy smile at the bard that reached nowhere near his eyes. "Ahhh. Our newest convert. Welcome, Mrs. Story." The hand that clasped Gabrielles was soft, doughy, and clammy and the bard had to suppress a shudder of revulsion at the touch. "Mrs. Samuels was just telling me about your . . .shall we say . . .interesting spin on historical events this evening." Claibornes hand tightened briefly before he let Gabrielle go, stepping back slightly.
"Ah . . .yes. I apologize to both of you for that mistake. As Ive said, I was out of line."
"Not to worry, my dear. Mr. Robertson brought me up to speed on your . . .unfortunate . . .circumstances. God doesnt blame you for holding that anger in your heart." Claibornes smile broadened, yet his eyes remained cold as death. "I do hope youll consent to stay with us for at least a little while longer, Mrs. Story. I truly believe that, given time and the correct guidance, our Lords true plan for your life will be revealed to you through his biblical teachings."
Though Gabrielle wanted to tell Claiborne exactly what he could do with his time and guidance, she realized that there were times when discretion was the better part of valor and so kept her thoughts to herself, smiling and nodding in her most demure fashion.
"Good. Good. Now that weve gotten that little mess cleaned up, I trust there will be no more outbursts like the one tonight?"
"I give you my word, Reverend."
"Very good. Well then, goodnight to you, Mrs. Story. May our Holy Father comfort you in your sleep."
Smiling falsely, Gabrielle bowed her head slightly and, turning on her heel, made good her escape.
Xena made her way silently through the desert and up to the wall of the compound. Claiborne had obviously gotten her message, doubling the guards walking the perimeter, but even so, the compound was so large that eight men could never maintain security against a very intent, deadly serious Warrior Princess. Within a very few moments, all eight guards were hog-tied and sleeping peacefully in the shadows of the large wall and Xena was leaping the structure to land on the hard sand of the interior, smiling.
The warrior had spent the intervening time between dusk and darkness studying the blueprints of the compound that Jarrod had sent to her via e-mail. With every detail implanted firmly in her mind, Xena started forward, easing past the few guards that patrolled the interior and taking out the two guards by the door of the ranch house with well placed kicks, sending them to join their brethren in unconsciousness. Retrieving a lockpick from the pouch at her waist, the warrior opened the solid door and slipped into the main house, waiting a moment to allow her eyes to adjust to the deeper darkness within.
Readjusting her bearings, the tall woman crept down the long hallway, sticking close to the shadows as she moved along the paneled wall. At the first hallway juncture, she turned right, then made the next quick left, freezing against the wall. Two burly men, heavily armed, stood sentinel on either side of Claibornes bedroom door at the far end of the corridor. Ducking back around the corner, Xena reached again into her pouch and withdrew a segmented tube which she quickly screwed together. Then she took out two poison tipped darts, carefully uncapping the needle of one and slipping it into the tube, readying the other for instant use.
Putting the blowgun up to her lips, the warrior stepped back into the hallway, revealing herself and shooting the first dart at the guard on the left. He fell instantly, silently, to the floor. Before the second guard could react, he too was darted into slumber.
Xena quickly unscrewed the tube and replaced in her pouch as she slunk down the now silent hallway, pausing before Claibornes doorway, taming the beast who simply wanted to end it by going in and slaughtering the bastard while he was sleeping. Reining back her darker impulses, the warrior pulled a knife from her boot with one hand while pulling out a piece of paper with the other. A quicksilver movement and the paper was pinned to the door by the point of a quivering knife, its bold print catching the eye. "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord". With a final minute adjustment of the message so it lay flat and straight against the wall, the warrior flashed an unseen smile and disappeared back the way she had come.
Though she very much wanted to see Gabrielle, and had a pretty good idea, via the blueprints, where her lover was staying, the warrior bypassed the barracks on her way out of the compound, not wishing to press her luck any further than it already had been. If things worked according to plan, shed be seeing the bard the very next day. And so it was with a decided lightness to her step that the Warrior Princess leapt the now unmanned compound wall and made her way back into the deserts blackness.
Randolph Claiborne opened his eyes, blinking disconcertedly at the heavy shafts of sunlight which penetrated through the cracks of his window shades. Glancing at the clock, he frowned upon noticing the lateness of the hour. It was well past the time a quietly respectful knock should have woken him up from his slumber. Perhaps his guards were aware of his late evening and were allowing him extra time for sleep and meditation.
His conversation with the Holy Father had gone on well into the early morning hours and was very informative. His Lord had discussed plans for his Holy War, including a way to bring the Army of Satan into Claibornes very gates and destroy it on the holy soil of his compound, never to rise again. Claibornes body fairly thrummed with excitement as he rose from the bed, slipped into his smoking jacket and slippers and opened the door to his sanctum sanctorum.
Claibornes jaw slackened as he looked down at the guards slumped on the floor outside of his door, tiny feathered darts emerging from identical places in their necks. Something sparked at the edges of his peripheral vision and Claiborne turned his head slowly to the right, to come nose to hilt with a finely crafted dagger pinning a piece of paper to the wood of his door. His face reddened as he took in the boldly stroked words. Reaching out a trembling hand, the minister grabbed the paper and ripped it down, wadding it up into a ball as his eyes buldged out his fury. "Robertson!" he screamed, teeth bared, spittle flying from between dry-flecked lips.
Robertson rolled out of his bed with a grunt, awake immediately at the sound of Claibornes screaming voice, scowling. Hed served his country in Desert Storm, ridding the world of several Godless heathens in the process, and didnt take kindly to being yelled at like a dog whod pissed on the Berber, even if his master was the Voice of the Holy Father on Earth. Still, he mused as he zipped and buttoned his trousers, there were probably worse jobs out there. Tugging on his T-shirt, he opened the door to his room and peered down the hall, his heart freezing in his chest. "Holy fuck!" he bellowed, racing down the hall in his stocking feet, taking in the two slumped guards and the dagger sticking out of Claibornes door.
Reaching the scene, the Robertson squatted down, taking pulses as he retrieved the darts from the mens necks. Thankfully, both men were alive though heavily drugged, as he could tell by rolling up unresisting eyelids and viewing heavily dilated pupils. Jumping to his feet, Robertson ran down the hall, twisting through the corridors until he reached the front door. Yanking it open, his eyes widened as he took in the sight of the two guards lying hog-tied, gagged and squirming on the ground. "What the fuck happened?" he screamed, yanking the gag out of the first guards mouth.
The man worked his bruised jaw a few times before he could croak out any words. "I dont know. I didnt see a damn thing! Felt like a mule kicked me in the face and the next thing I know, Im waking up trussed like a goddamned pig out here! Get me the fuck loose, will you? I think my jaws busted."
Robertson cut the bonds before moving to the second man, pulling the gag from his mouth. The second guard spit out blood and teeth, then vomited before he passed out again. "Jesus Christ!" the security chief yelled, untying the unconscious guard and turning back to the first man. "Run down to the barracks and get Doc Soams. Tell him about this guy and the two over by the Reverends bedroom. Then stick by Reverend Claiborne like shit to a goose, you understand me?"
The first man jumped to his feet, stumbled slightly, then nodded, limping into the compound as fast as his resisting legs could carry him.
Standing once again, Robertson next moved to the gate, unlocking it and throwing the thick iron structure open. Stepping outside, he saw the first two guards who, like the ones outside the ranch house, were hog-tied and gagged and struggling to get loose. Following the trail of writhing bodies, Robertson released them all, red-faced and swearing a blue streak. Unlike the night before, no one had seen, nor been questioned by, the demon whod blown through the compound like an ill wind.
With a disgusted shake of his shorn head, Robertson led his rag tag army of injured and disarmed men back into the compound proper, sending the lame ones to the infirmary while those who could still function followed into the main house.
Claiborne retreated to his office, sliding into the leather chair behind his desk and immediately opening his bible, leafing avidly through its pages of text, searching. By the time Robertson knocked and was admitted, the minister was smiling wildly, his eyes shining. "Come in, Mr. Robertson, come in. Tell me, how many guards were injured at the wall?"
"Eight! Perfect! This is perfect, Mr. Robertson! Dont you see?"
"Im afraid I dont, Reverend. All I can see is that some group can come into this compound at will and there doesnt appear to be anything we can do to stop them."
"Forget all that, Mr. Robertson. Im talking about something much more important than mere men. Eight at the wall, two at the door and two in the house. A total of twelve, Mr. Robertson. Twelve! Do you see now?"
Robertson shook his head in the negative.
Claiborne scowled. "I see youve been remiss in your bible instruction, Mr. Robertson. Its a sign from our Holy Father! Twelve is the key! The twelve tribes of Israel were scattered to the winds as a sign of Gods displeasure. The Twelve Disciples hid their faces when the Jews came to crucify our Lord, Jesus Christ! Twelve is the key!"
"Sir, I . . . ."
Claiborne cut Robertson off with a wave of his hand. "Its a sign from God, the Father. The Holy War is to be fought right here, on this sanctified ground! I am to be the messenger who will pave the way for the return of Jesus! Isnt it glorious?"
"Uh . . .if you say so, Reverend."
"Oh, I say so, Mr. Robertson. I most definitely say so." Standing and moving from behind the desk, Claiborne clapped his disconcerted subordinate on the shoulder. "We must prepare the way, Mr. Robertson. Send four men back into the town to stock up on supplies. The army of Satan will attempt to lay siege to our compound and we must be ready for them. Clear the town out if you have to. Gather everything up and bring it back here to me."
"As for you, Mr. Robertson, God has great plans for you. You will be as a rod of iron in my right hand. It is you who will smite the forces of evil as I clear the way for the return of our Lord. Go now and report back to me as quickly as possible."
Stunned and more than a little shaken at his leaders apparent loss of sanity, Robertson could only nod and do as he was bade.
Smirking, Xena put the last disassembled MAC-10 into the chest at her feet. As with the others, the serial number on this weapon came back as stolen and, of course, unregistered. Of course, since the warrior had obtained the weapons in an illegal search and seizure, the evidence wouldnt amount to a hill of beans in a court of law, but at least there were sixteen fewer of these beauties taking up space in Claibornes compound. Snapping the large trunk shut and locking it, Xena slipped it down into the cellar hole shed found in the abandoned shack she was using as her temporary shelter. Pulling the old, gently rotting boards back over the hole, she stood, wiping her dust and gun oil encrusted hands on a swatch of towel, then tossing the towel into one dusty corner of the room.
Straightening, the warrior tugged at her simple denim shirt, tucking it more neatly into her well worn jeans with swift, efficient movements, moving as she did so toward the back of the house and its dirty, battered door. She tied off the thick braid hanging halfway down her back as she stepped into the bright sunshine of a new day, well sprung brown leather boots kicking up dust with every step. The warrior crossed the sand strewn road and, opening the door, stepped into the cool, wonderful smelling café.
Rosa looked up from her place behind the counter, a warm smile on her face. "Ayie, the shadow, she walks in the daylight. Welcome!"
Xena raised an eyebrow, hands on her hips. "Shadow?"
"Si. We are all looking at you, in the night when you slip away and in the morning when you come back. Some of the men, they wanted to come and offer you use of the facilitias, or maybe a drink in the cantina, but I tell them that you ask if you want." The womans warm brown eyes shone. "They say you are a savior."
"Im no savior," Xena said, with a wry smile. "Just a woman with a job to do."
"Just a job to you, perhaps, senorita, but to us, it is much more than that. We have eyes and ears. We know what you do for us."
Walking across the room, the warrior pulled out a chair and turned it, straddling it and resting her arms across the back. "I havent done anything yet," she corrected softly.
The woman smiled knowingly. "But you will. Your friend, Gabrielle, she has faith. A very brave woman, the little one. Maybe too brave sometimes, no?"
Xena smiled, remembering. "Too brave for her own good, yes."
Laughing, Rosa came from behind the counter, a cold beverage in her hands. "You have, how do you say, full hands with her, I think."
"Youre right about that." The warrior took a sip of the cool, sweet tea. "My name is Xena, by the way."
"I am Rosa," the café owner responded, rolling her Rs in a way pleasing to the warriors keen hearing. Pulling out a chair, she joined Xena, sipping from her own glass. "For too many years, your government has seen us as less than dirt on their boots, even though we are legally here. We work hard and well but when we are taken from our familias, no one cares. Do you know, Xena, how many men that demon has killed?"
Xena put her glass down on the table, tracing the condensation with one long finger. "No one knows for sure. The police think its at least a dozen."
"Twenty two, senorita. Twenty two men who have families to mourn them. We try going to the police, but they say Look south of the boarder or they are drunk or some other things. Never do they offer to help. It is only when we go to the newspapers that they come to us. And even then, they do not listen. It is as if we do not have brains to think or mouths to speak. They make reporting and go away. No sympathies, no nothing. So when you and your Gabrielle come, we say yes, here is a savior. They will help us. They will listen. And so you do."
Wiping the moisture from the glass between her fingers, Xena looked directly into Rosas kind eyes. "Rosa, the police have tried, and theyre more than ready to take down Claiborne and his men, but they just dont have enough evidence. And unfortunately, here in America, evidence strong enough to stand up in court is the only thing thats gonna keep that place closed down."
Rosa waved her hand. "I know this. I am studying for taking the test, Xena. But we watch the compound and we see them send two men in, under the blankets as you say. And not even a day goes by before they run out again! You tell me, how does this help?"
The warrior lowered her gaze to the tabletop. "It doesnt."
"Right. So you are forgiving us if we see you and think you are a savior, ok?"
Raising her pale eyes once again, Xena smiled slightly. "Alright. Ill do my best."
"That is all we can ask."
Xena lapsed back into silence, lost in thought. Her pole was strong and limber, line taut and ready to be tossed out into the raging current. All that was left to do was to bait the hook. A smirk drifted over her face as she absently traced abstract lines on the frosted glass on the table in front of her.
Seeing that shed lost her audience for the time being, Rosa lifted her glass and stepped from the table, a fond and thankful smile on her face.
The sound of tires crunching over graveled sand broke Xena from her thoughts and she looked up from her place, back deliberately to the door, to gaze into Rosas wide, slightly frightened eyes. "Theyre here," the older woman whispered, fighting to keep the tremor from her voice.
"I know," the warrior replied from the side of her mouth. "Just stay calm, alright?"
Rosa nodded sharply, once. "Si."
Xena favored the woman with a half smile, outwardly the picture of relaxation while inwardly, her body filled with adrenaline, her muscles tensing and ready.
The sounds of car doors closing and heeled boots crunching across pitted asphalt carried easily to Xenas ears as she tracked the mens progress. Chimes jangled discordantly as the door was yanked swiftly open. The stench of sweat and menace rolled into and over the room like a pall. Four men entered the establishment carrying heavy burlap sacks. A mans voice cut through the air. "Alright, bitch, this is what were gonna do. You stand there like a good little wetback while we take what we want from this shithole you call a store. If you behave like a good little whore, we might let you live when were through. You understand me, puta?"
Rosa nodded, saying nothing.
The tall, burly man sneered. "Well, the first thing I want is whats in that cash register right next to you, so open it up for me, bitch and stuff the money in this sack." He strode forward confidently, only to find himself sprawled face down on the floor a split second later. "What the fuck?!"
A low, melodious and faintly amused voice sounded from behind him. "Didnt your mother ever tell you that its rude to swear in front of a lady?"
A hard hand clamped down on Xenas shoulder from behind as a hot voice whispered gutturally in her ear. "Youll pay for that one, squaw." The hand whirled the warrior around and she allowed it, grinning ferally at the mans look of astonishment when the blue of her eyes became apparent. "Holy shit! Its a stinkin half breed!"
Levering herself out of her chair, Xenas fist crushed her attackers face, sending teeth and blood flying. She looked down, grinning, as he collapsed to the floor. "Better than being a total moron."
Hearing the first man struggling to his feet, the warrior launched a brutal kick behind her, sending him up and over the counter to crash against the wall and land bonelessly at Rosas feet. She looked challengingly at the remaining two, her hands open at waist level, fingers beckoning. "Whos next?"
Bellowing their outrage, the remaining duo rushed her as a unit, arms flailing. Xena ducked and blocked the punches with ease, cocking a perfect uppercut into the chin of one of the men and spinning him like a top. He dropped to the floor, unconscious.
The man whose mouth shed ruined made a lucky grab for her ankle and as the warrior was trying to shake him off, the fourth member came at her, managing to get in a half blocked shot against the side of her head. He stepped away, grinning smugly and shaking his aching hand.
A dark grin split Xenas features as she cracked her neck violently to one side. "That wasnt very nice," she purred before kicking lose from her floor-bound assailant, stepping forward and head-butting the man into oblivion.
A sound very much like a gong sang through the air and Xena spun around to find Rosa, a heavy cast iron cooking skillet held expertly in her hands, staring down at the floor, a profoundly shocked expression on her face.
Putting her hands on her hips, the warriors gaze traveled the length of the Mexican woman, her smile frankly admiring. "Nice shot."
"Dios mio," Rosa whispered.
"Remind me to tell Gabrielle that Im not the only one who thinks frying pans make excellent weapons."
A smile broke over the older womans broad face. "You tell her to talk to my Hermon. When I take this into la cantina, he knows it is time for getting home."
Xena returned the grin. "Ill have to remember that one."
A groan from the floor broke up the peaceful interlude. "You broge by dose, you bitch!"
Further commentary along these lines was stopped by a firm boot to the prone mans trachea. "Thats not all Ill break unless you get your stinking carcasses outta here, amigo."
The warrior removed her restraining footwear and the man struggled to his feet, glaring at her balefully through quickly swelling eyes. "Well be bag, hab breed."
"Im lookin forward to it." Xena sneered. "Maybe youd better go tell daddy to send a couple of real men down here. You boys couldnt beat a drum."
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