Forty-five minutes later, the two women found the shallow ditch leading to the opening of the drainage tunnel they had been looking for. They had spent a heart stopping ten minutes in the middle of the second field when Bet thought she had seen a light coming from Cobin Alexander's side of the fence. It had been the briefest of flashes, caught out of the corner of her eye but the big FBI agent thought it best if they stayed motionless for several minutes in case someone from either farm was moving about. Finally she decided that it had only been a flash of starlight seen at an odd angle. Hissing quietly at Rell behind her, the two women continued their slow crawl across the field.
"Oh god. What is that smell?" Rell whispered as they eased over the crumbling lip of the low guttering.
"Pig shit." Bet answered succinctly, murmuring over one shoulder.
"Excuse me? You did say pig shit, didn't you?" the stocky woman asked quietly, though Bet could clearly hear the tones of utter disgust in Rell's voice.
"What did you think they flushed down these tunnels, Rell?"
"Well, I guess I assumed they used them for water," Rell answered, after thinking for a moment.
"They do," Bet replied. "They use the water to wash the manure through," she explained. "It comes out the other end as instant fertilizer." Stopping her forward crawl, Bet turned to face the other woman, even though she couldn't really see Rell in the darkness. "Didn't you notice where the start of all the different tunnels were?" she asked, her voice only a little louder than the cricket chirping nearby.
"Not really," Rell answered. "I grew up in a small town. I don't know a whole lot about farms and how they are run. The closest I got to a farm was going to the petting zoo with my parents when the carnival came to town every summer."
Bet chose not to sigh aloud. She knew not everyone had grown up strong and healthy on a farm. "The start of the passages are situated near any of the animal enclosures. Cows have to go too, and the tunnels are used to wash the manure away. Not much is ever wasted on a small farm, so the exits are usually in the middle of a field so they can use it as fertilizer. Though from the smell of it, this place runs pigs, or did until very recently," the woman explained patiently.
"How do you know they're not still doing that?" Rell asked, her usual curiosity prompting her to find out as much as possible.
"Because we're not crawling through six inches of stinking sludge," Bet replied wickedly, before turning back and starting to move up the ditch again. She temporarily closed her ears to the sound of cursing coming from behind and the occasional 'you-could-have-warned-me's.'
When they finally reached the entrance of the drainage tunnel, they were met with an unexpected obstacle. A cover made of solid grillwork had been placed over the end, presumably to stop any animal from accidentally wandering into the mouth of the tunnel.
"Squat!" Bet snapped. "I hope this thing isn't welded into place."
The FBI agent got up onto her knees as Rell crawled in behind her, and began feeling her blind fingers along the edge of the cover. Several spiked digits later, she found a rusting hinge at the top.
"Good. There's a hinge," she said. "Rell, there should be a latch or something at the bottom holding it closed. See if you can find it."
"Great," the other woman answered rather sarcastically. "You get to pay for the manicure to scrape the pig manure from under my fingernails when we get back to LA." Trying to convince herself she was digging through plain, ordinary mud, Rell poked around in the nearly dry sludge looking for the catch that held the grillwork tight against the end of the tunnel.
Bet, in the mean time, took advantage of her kneeling position to poke her nose over the concrete top of the tunnel. Several hundred yards from where they were, the agent could easily make out the imposing shape of the large barn. It was being back-lit by at least one spotlight, though the big woman guessed it was probably two. She was more relieved than ever that they had decided against trying to enter the building from the front. With that much light, there would have been no way to hide themselves from even the most casually observing eye. The farmhouse itself couldn't be seen as it was standing directly behind the barn, but several other outbuildings and sheds on both sides were visible in the high intensity beams from the spotlights. Bet quickly looked down again when she heard Rell rudely muttering something about 'make-do' farmers.
"The blasted 'catch' is nothing more than a bit of wire wrapped around the bottom a few times, Bet. Shouldn't take me a minute to get it undone, though," the photojournalist said, grumbling a little as she pushed and pulled at the wire to unseat it.
Once Rell had the wire undone, she moved back a little to allow Bet some room to pull the cover open. The big woman strained against the grillwork for several minutes but the cover moved a bare inch before the build-up of sludge prevented it from being pulled any further.
"Looks like we both get to have that manicure," Bet said, dropping down to dig away at the compacted sludge at the bottom of the ditch.
"I can tell you now, this little piggy is definitely not happy about being in the mud," Rell groused, digging from the other side.
A few minutes of hard scraping later, the two women had cleared the sludge down to the concrete making up the pipe, exposing the bottom edge of the cover. Bet squatted down in front of it, wrapping her powerful hands in a firm grip through the narrow bars of the grillwork. Flexing her muscles, she worked the cover open one slow fraction at a time, stopping to inhale deeply before making her next assault on the metal. After what felt like an eternity, the cover had finally been lifted enough for the women to wriggle themselves under and into the tunnel itself.
Simon squeezed himself out of the narrow pipe like toothpaste from a tube, staggering across the larger tunnel to lean against the opposite wall for several minutes as he got his breath back again. The pipe had originally been laid to help drain excess water from the edge of the fields so the large tractor wouldn't get bogged after wet weather. He and Stacy however, had been using it for years as a way of getting from one farm to the other without being seen. Although, after this particular trip, Simon doubted he would be using them again. He was sure that if his shoulders had been even a fraction broader, he would have gotten stuck halfway along. Not something he really wanted to think about, considering no one knew where he was.
Reaching around to his back pocket, he pulled out the pencil torch he'd put there. Turning the ring at the base, he shone the bright, thin beam up the tunnel towards the barn. The light was lost long before it reached the end but he'd been using the tunnels ever since he and Stacy became friends, so he didn't really need the torch. For some reason, he just preferred to have a light of some kind with him. It made him feel a little braver if he could actually see whatever it was making some small sound in the passageway. Leaning over so he didn't hit his head on the top of the tunnel, Simon quickly made his way along it until he reached the far end. Some distance back from the exit, he turned his torch off so the light would not give him away to anyone who might be near the top.
Standing at the bottom of the shaft, he was surprised to see there was more light bouncing down to him than he expected. He leaned against one wall and listened carefully. Although there was a lot more light, there didn't appear to be anyone actually in the barn itself because all he could hear was his own quiet breathing. Slowly climbing up the iron rungs set into the concrete wall, he spent a few minutes watching as much of the area as he could see through the covering grate. Once again, there didn't seem to be anyone in the barn, though he could hear the occasional dim shout from the farmhouse far across the courtyard. Simon pushed at the grate, trying to move it as silently as possible. When he had it barely open enough for his body to slip through, he climbed the last couple of rungs, slithering along on his belly into the shadowy protection of a pen wall.
Peering through the slats, the barn looked the same as the last time he had played there. Running his eyes the length of the barn, he could see the light coming through the two windows at the front of the building lit some areas clearly, yet left others hidden in deep shadow. The many stalls running along one side of the barn were long ago emptied of horses when tractors and other farm machines had gotten cheap enough to buy. All along his side of the building though, the silent pens should have been holding small groups of wiener pigs. Stacy's father always raised a few, both to supply his own table and to sell for profit. Simon didn't think the people who had taken over the farm could have eaten them all, so he figured the strange men must have sold them at some point in the last month.
Above Simon's head ran a wide gallery where Stacy's father stored the bales of hay and bags of grain he usually used for the pigs. It had also become the repository for a wide variety of broken bits and pieces over the years. He and Stacy had spent many a wet and rainy afternoon connecting two unrelated bits together to make themselves some strange toy from the new whole. Simon sharpened his ears to listen for the sounds of anyone walking along the ancient, creaking boards. All he could make out was the rustling of hay as mice scampered around between the bales. After some minutes of scanning his eyes and ears around the barn, the boy eventually decided he was the only one moving around.
Standing up carefully, he climbed over the slatted wall of the pen and dropped down into a crouch on the other side. Staying low so he wouldn't be seen from the windows, he ran the length of the barn until he reached the small room at the end. Before the men had come onto the farm, Stacy's father had sometimes used it as a kind of office but mostly it was his private hideaway where he could enjoy a quiet drink and drool over the stud magazines he received in the mail. Simon had loved looking at the odd design of the room, with its unbelievably long walls and high ceiling reaching all the way to the floor of the loft. Stacy had told him that it was probably supposed to be two rooms but for some reason, the floor to the second one had never been built. Her explanation was borne out by the fact there was a door going into the room off the gallery level which opened out onto empty space some ten feet above the ground.
Having finally reached his objective without being seen, Simon grabbed the doorknob and tried to turn it, discovering it was locked. Which probably meant Stacy was most likely still inside. Quickly feeling along the exposed beam next to the door, his fingers found the key he was looking for.
"Dumb men," he muttered to himself slipping the key into the old lock. "Didn't even think to move the key so someone couldn't find it."
He heard the cylinders turning inside the barrel and the door was unlocked. Twisting the knob, he eased open the door onto complete darkness, unsure where Stacy might be lying. He had his torch in his back pocket but he didn't really want to pull it out, not unless he had to. The room at the end of the barn was in direct line of sight from the windows at the front. Although the beam was thin, it was also very bright and it could easily be seen if someone happened to look at just the right moment. He didn't want to accidentally step on her, so he called quietly instead.
"Stacy? It's Simon. Where are you? Stacy, say something. I can't see you in all this dark," he whispered.
Getting nothing in reply the boy decided his young friend was either sound asleep or had been drugged, in which case he'd have to find her himself and try to wake her up. Simon silently hoped no one suddenly decided to look through the windows for the next few minutes. He pulled the little torch from his back pocket and quickly twisting the base, he shone it around the room. Empty of the furniture he remembered; the floor was covered in a thick layer of crushed straw. In the center of the room the hay looked a little wet and there was some rope tossed to one side, as though someone had been glad to see the last of it.
He took one step into the room and something caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. Turning the thin beam towards that movement, he was greeted with the sight of a dirty, disheveled woman wearing a damp and grimy pants suit standing shakily on trembling legs, a large clump of straw held between her still bound hands ready to be thrown into someone's eyes. Raising the light towards the woman's face, he saw tired blue eyes squinting back at him from a face that could almost have been a grown up version of his own, complete with high cheek bones and jet black hair.
"Wow, lady. You look just like me," was all the boy could think to say.
Scraping away patiently at the rope around her wrists, Diana almost missed the sound of the doorknob rattling for a moment. Stopping her efforts, she listened closely, as someone with a high pitched voice muttered on the other side of the paneling. The only high voice she knew about belonged to Amanda.
Come to have some fun, have we? she thought to herself. You're not going to find me as easy to throw around as last time. Let's hope you left your thugs back at the house.
Pushing herself up on legs just barely able to support her weight, Diana grabbed as much straw between her bound hands as she could, hoping she had sufficient strength in her arms to throw it into the woman's eyes as she stepped passed the door. After that, well, she would just have to see what possibilities opened up. The ex-mercenary may not have been in any condition to throw a high kick with her shaky legs but she could certainly roll around on the ground, maybe even enough to trip whoever entered the room, especially if they were temporarily blinded by a face full of straw.
The door opened slowly and the same high pitched voice called quietly into the darkness. Now that the sound was not being muffled by the intervening wood, she could clearly hear it was the voice of a young boy. At first, Diana guessed him to be no more than eleven or twelve, although her sharp hearing picked up the first subtle cracks of a voice about to break. Probably about twelve then, she decided silently.
The boy identified himself to be Simon and he was looking for someone he thought was in the room, a girl called Stacy. Could that be the girl I've seen? Diana wondered. Boy, is Simon going to get a big surprise in a second.
A blinding flash of light suddenly entered the room and Diana automatically raised her arms to shield her dark-adapted eyes from its intensity. She was just lowering them again, squinting through the light as it shone onto her face when she heard the single awed sentence the boy spoke.
"Wow, lady. You look just like me."
"Excuse me," Diana replied. Well, that was intelligent, she thought sourly.
"Your eyes are just like mine, and so is your face and even the color of your hair," Simon said. Shaking his head and remembering why he was there, the boy drew breath and continued in a rush. "Who are you? Do you know where they're keeping Stacy? How'd you get in here? Boy, do you look a mess. How long have you been tied up? Did you know you're all wet? Why do you look like me?"
"Slow down, slow down, Simon. I can't keep up with you," Diana replied. Her knees chose that moment to give up on her again and the tall woman dropped ungracefully to the straw. "My name's Diana and I don't know where Stacy is at the moment. The rest of your questions might have to wait a few minutes because I am going to need your help to get out of here," she said.
As she sat there on the crushed hay, her mind was racing along with questions of her own. Am I in Canada? Oh god, what if I am? A million places in the world for Amanda to set up operations and she has to do it in the one place where my own son can find me. What on earth is he doing here anyway? How am I going to explain the resemblance between us? Looking at the boy dimly lit by the back glow of his torch, Diana knew, without having to be told, that this really was her son. Somehow, circumstances had conspired to put both of them in the same room at the same time, and she honestly didn't know how to deal with any of it. For the moment however, she decided the best explanation to give was no explanation at all.
"Sure, I'll help you. Anyone who looks that messed up can't be on the same side as the strange men, so I guess that makes you one of the good guys, ummm, good ladies." Simon corrected himself, remembering at the last moment what his Aunt Vicki had said about some ladies not liking it when you called them guys.
"Yea, I'm one of the good guys," Diana started, hearing his quick correction, "and you can start by untying this," she said, holding out her still bound wrists.
Simon gripped his torch between his teeth and struggled with the knot for a minute before taking the light out again. "It's been tied too tight," he admitted. "I can't get it undone. I guess my fingers just aren't strong enough." Thinking for a moment, he suddenly smiled and reached into the pocket of his jeans. Pulling out his pocket knife, he unclipped the longest blade and had cut through the cords within seconds.
Diana rubbed gratefully at her wrists, the skin raw and abraded after weeks of being tied. "How'd you get in here, Simon?" she asked, still unable to get over the resemblance between them. That was going to take some explaining later on, if she didn't want to tell the boy the truth.
"Came up the tunnel between my place and here. Stacy and I have been using them since forever to get back and forth. Sometimes Stacy's dad and my Uncle Cobin think we spend too much time together, so we use the tunnels and play in one of the barns. If we're quiet no one notices us. But Diana," he said shyly, using her name for the first time. "you're never going to fit inside the little tunnel. I mean, it's really narrow and I can only just fit through it."
If Diana had had any doubts as to who the boy was, the mention of his guardian's name wiped them from her mind completely. I'll deal with that situation later, she thought. Right now, I need to get out of here and safely away, and I have to make sure Simon is safe too. If Amanda knew about him Diana couldn't bring herself to even finish the thought.
Refocusing her attention, she looked into the disconcerting blueness of her son's eyes. "Tell me about these tunnels, Simon," she asked, hoping there was some way they could use them. If Amanda didn't know they were there, then it was possible escaping through them might keep the boy safe.
Simon gave a quick but very accurate description of the various tunnels running under both farms. Some were little more than narrow pipes, laid to drain water from fields so the large tractors would not get bogged after heavy rain but others sounded wide enough for her to crawl through. The only problem with those was the exits were all on this side of the fence. The boy was unable to tell her how many guards might be wandering around various areas of the farm simply because he had used the narrow passage to get from his place to the barn, thus neatly avoiding anyone. The tunnel Simon had used to get into the building itself had its exit some five hundred yards behind the structure, with a crawl of twice that distance just to reach the fence-line. Diana was almost willing to take a chance on using it, if only she had some idea of the guard patterns. The tall woman knew she was in no condition physically for any kind of a fight, so she had to use another of her finely-honed weapons, her mind.
She decided their best course of action would be to get into the tunnel system. From there, they could watch the pattern of the guards from the dark safety of the exits. If they were spotted, then at least Simon could scoot up one of the narrower passages and escape. Whatever it took, even if it meant her own recapture, she had to protect the identity of the boy from Amanda and her thugs.
"Lend me your shoulder, Simon. My legs aren't what they used to be," Diana said lightly, struggling to get up on her uncooperative feet again. Simon quickly moved in beside the tall woman, surprising Diana with his height as she leaned heavily on his shoulder, and his strength as he stepped with her through the open door of the little room. Grabbing the doorknob as he passed, Simon pulled the door closed behind them, another unconscious habit his aunt had trained into him. He seemed to be completely unfazed by the extra weight bearing down on him from above, one arm wrapped confidently around Diana's waist. In any other situation, she might have found this comforting but right now, she was desperate to get Simon out of the barn and away from Amanda's all too intelligent eyes. Just as Diana had known who the boy was from one glance, so too would the cartel leader. Simon may still have years of growing ahead of him but the resemblance between them was simply too strong to easily explain away as coincidence.
Mother and son had barely gotten ten slow and gradually strengthening steps from the room, when a noise at the front of the barn alerted both of them. Diana's head swung quickly, looking for a place dark enough to hide them. Simon was one step ahead of her on this occasion; having often played in the barn he knew exactly where everything was. Pulling at the tall woman's waist, he all but dragged her to an old iron ladder leading up to the gallery.
"Quick," he whispered urgently. "No one will think to look up here."
Gritting her teeth and forcing her body to cooperate with her, Diana somehow managed to climb up the rungs and desperately roll herself into the dark shadows of the gallery. Simon followed a split second later, helping her crawl further into the blackness. Collapsing behind the safety of a low wall created by bales of hay, they waited in tense, heart-thumping silence.
"I'm telling you, Michael, I saw a light of some kind flashing in here. Small but it was real bright," Anthony said, slamming the door to the barn shut behind him.
"It was probably nothing more than a firefly," Michael replied, grumpily. He'd been watching several of the others playing poker, making the odd side bet himself on various hands. So far he was up fifty dollars and he didn't want to lose his winning streak by having to stop to check out flashing lights in the barn. It was not like he'd seen them himself or anything.
"In Canada?" Anthony said incredulously. "No way. I don't even think they live up here."
"It was probably nothing anyway. Look the door's still closed," Michael stated, pointing up the barn at the closed door of the room where they were holding the dark haired woman. Turning, he was ready to return to the house and that hot poker game.
Anthony's heavy hand fell onto Michael's shoulder stopping him in his tracks. Anthony was not someone to deliberately annoyed simply because he was more than capable of breaking most people in half, and then picking his teeth clean with a rib bone afterwards. Michael had actually seen him do it one time and the sight had made him sick.
"Amanda was real clear about her instructions. The woman was to be kept alive and reasonably well until she was ready to do something with her," Anthony said, the snarl loud in his voice. "So, I say we go up there and check that the door is still closed and locked the way it was left."
"Whatever you want, Anthony. You'll get no arguments from me about it," Michael replied shakily, holding his hands up in surrender. "Anyway, Craig has kept her so drugged up, I'd be surprised if she could sneeze right now, let alone escape a locked room with as much rope around her as we put on her." Michael couldn't help chuckling at his artistry. He'd made damned sure the tall woman would be as uncomfortable as possible, without doing her any permanent injury. Amanda liked her playthings in good working order. If something was going to be broken, the cartel leader usually liked to break it herself.
With the slighter built man trailing along behind him, Anthony strode the length of the barn to check the door. Grasping the handle in one meaty fist, he turned it, surprised when the door opened easily in front of him. "Amanda is going to have someone's balls in a vice for leaving this unlocked," he muttered.
Poking his head into the room, Anthony let the light coming from the windows illuminate the little area. He couldn't believe his eyes when he saw the room was empty. There was coiled rope in the center of the floor and right there near the door was another piece. He picked it up, examining the ends carefully.
"Someone helped her get out of here," Anthony snapped. "Look. The ends have been cut with a knife or something."
"Shit," Michael swore. "She can't have gotten far. Her legs'd be like jelly after being tied and drugged for so long."
He ran his eyes along the barn seeing the dark shadows in each of the horse stalls. Pointing at the first one, he silently indicated he would start searching there while Anthony looked in the second. The two men could then quickly work their way along the rest of the enclosures. He was reasonably sure the woman was still in the building because if she had made any kind of a move through the front door, someone would have seen her in the harsh beams created by the spotlights.
Ducking into the first horse stall, Michael began kicking his way through the piled hay searching for the tall, dark haired woman. He was already starting to sweat because he had seen what Amanda would do to anyone who failed her. With that bone chilling image uppermost in his mind, he made sure to comb every inch of the stall before moving on to the next one.
"Great, hairy, horny toads, you'd think I'd be used to the smell by now," Rell muttered while crawling along behind the big FBI agent. The photojournalist could hear the other woman quietly chuckling before she whispered over her shoulder.
"Pig manure is one of those smells you never get used to. Just when you think your nose had been beaten into submission, along comes another wave to let you know it is still close by."
"How much longer is this bloody tunnel anyway?" Rell asked quietly. She really didn't like the closed in feeling all around her and the smell of manure was starting to nauseate her, even though most of the sludge at the bottom of the passageway had dried out. Every so often her hand would come down in a patch that was still slushy, the cold wetness oozing nastily between her fingers and sending another draft of odor up her much abused nasal passages. That certainly wasn't helping her stomach in the least.
Bet had been counting the seconds in her head as they crawled, estimating how far they had moved through the dark tunnel system. "We should be just about there," she replied in a murmur. "In fact, I can see some light ahead."
Rell automatically dropped into complete silence without the agent having to say a word to her. God, she's like a cat stalking in the night, Bet thought as she crawled the last few feet into the bottom of the shaft. Or more like one of those panthers she has carved onto her boots. Jeez, I'm making more noise than she is, the agent realized, hearing the tiny sounds she made as she moved up into a crouch. Wherever she got her training, the FBI would kill to know the techniques. I've never seen anyone so quiet that you don't know they are there until you actually look.
Rell seemed to flow soundlessly out of the deeper shadows in the tunnel to crouch beside the big agent, listening with her for any noise coming from overhead. Both women stayed where they were for several seconds, heads tilted to one side to better hear anything coming down the shaft, before Bet indicated she would climb up the ladder first. If the grating over their heads was jammed at all, the FBI agent's stronger muscles would be needed to lift it out of the way.
Aside from the loud rustling of rats in the hay, there was no other sound coming from the barn itself. Bet climbed the ladder built into the side of the shaft and immediately found the grating was very easy to move. Lifting it, she quietly laid it on the straw to one side before easing out of the shaft. Rell was right on her heels and within moments the two women were crouching behind the slatted wall of a pen. The rats seemed a great deal louder now but if the barn hadn't been used for some time, they both expected the rodents would have turned it into their own private playground. Carefully looking down the length of the old structure neither woman could see any sign of guards in the building.
Standing up, Bet lifted one long leg over the wall, her booted foot barely hitting the boards on the other side when two men suddenly popped out of the horse stalls nearby. Both pairs looked at each other momentarily, surprised to see anyone else in the barn. Then one of the men reacted.
"Get'em," he yelled at the other man, already moving towards the woman still awkwardly standing with her legs on either side of the pen wall.
The agent was still pulling her other leg over the wall when the broad shoulder of the larger man slammed into her chest, knocking her to the ground. She grabbed at his shirt, using her own falling weight to easily take him down with her. Twisting at the last moment, she prevented the heavily built thug from landing on top of her and forcing the breath from her lungs. Turning her head for a moment to see if Rell was all right, she spotted the other woman diving over the wall of the pen hitting the ground in a perfectly executed shoulder roll. The photojournalist bounced back onto her feet and grabbed the old mucking rake from the wall. Quickly stepping on one end, she snapped off the bracket with the tines attached leaving a six foot length of handle in her hands. Bet watched for a second as Rell began to spin the wood like she really knew how to use it as a weapon. Then Bet's attention was taken up with trying to deal with the larger man as he pushed himself to his knees, while attempting to hold her in place at the same time.
"You're going to need more than a big stick to beat me off with," Michael said nastily. "Two can play at this game and I can assure you, I am much better at it."
Michael's hand shot out and snatched up an old hay rake leaning against a pillar. Copying Rell's move, he snapped the head off the rake to leave a long length of handle between his fists. Coming towards her, he sent a vicious overhead strike slamming down at the stocky woman's head. The surprise on his face at the speed the woman showed as she blocked his strike was nothing compared to the look of pained shock he had when one end of Rell's impromptu staff whipped up between his legs. Michael felt like his balls had just been struck by lightning. Gritting his teeth against the agony in his groin, he swung one end of his stick right at the side of Rell's knee, hoping to catch her unawares. The move was blocked long before it got anywhere near her body. Michael found himself snatching one stinging hand off his own weapon as Rell gave his fingers a hard rap for trying to use such a sneaky move.
"Tsk, tsk," the photojournalist said. "If you're going to use my own weapon against me, the least you could do is use it with honor."
Michael didn't know what the woman was talking about, nor did he particularly care. Swinging the staff around in a series of fast moves which had disable any other opponent he had ever faced this way, the thug tried to gain some kind of advantage. No matter how fast he was, Rell was even faster, almost blindingly so. Her style was fluid and adaptable, quickly exploiting any weakness in the other person's approach. The thug on the other hand, was slow and jerky in comparison, never seeing an opening on those rare occasions when Rell actually had one. Within minutes he found himself panting for breath as his body screamed its need for oxygen. Rell hadn't even broken into a light sweat and she was breathing as easily as if she was taking a stroll down the street.
Trying to get at least one decent hit in, Michael pounded his strikes at Rell, forcing her to move back until she was pressed against the slatted wall of the pig pen. In a final desperate move, he managed to foul Rell's staff by shoving his own between the slats and pushing down. Grinning in triumph, he cocked one fist back and prepared to stove it into the woman's all too serene face. Just as he uncoiled the muscles in his shoulder and back, his world was suddenly filled with a star studded darkness. His knees crunched unknowingly into the boards and Michael landed face down at Rell's feet.
"What the ?" the photojournalist started to say, spinning around to look up onto the gallery overhead. She had been mentally preparing herself for the pain of the thug's punch connecting with her face, when she caught a glimpse of something falling towards the man's head. Staring up at the gallery she was greeted with a sight she going to remember for quite a while.
Illuminated by a single beam of light coming in through a small hole high in the wall, Diana sat regally on a hay bale, a piece of some broken bit of machinery held in her hand like a royal scepter. A quirky half-grin lifted one cheek as the light twinkled in Diana's impossibly blue eyes. Simon stood beside her, the loyal pageboy ready to give her another missile should she miss her mark. Rell simply didn't see the damp and filthy clothes or the way Diana's hair seemed to be one huge mass of broken straw. To Rell's thankful eyes, all she saw was her lover and consort. Everything else could come after that.
A strangled grunt near her quickly brought Rell's attention back to what was happening on the floor of the barn. Bet was sprawled out flat on her back, the big man's hands wrapped tightly around her throat. Judging from the amount of blood dripping from various parts of the man's face, the FBI agent had given him quite a pounding before he had somehow gotten her down. Bet's fingers scrabbled weakly at the choking hands but Rell could see the way her eyes were starting to turn up into her head.
The photojournalist didn't stop to think, merely reacting as she had been trained. Leaping forward, her entire body spun rapidly on its axis gaining momentum, arms held tightly against her chest increasing the speed of her rotation. Lifting her knee just before her other foot gracefully touched the ground, Rell's boot snapped out, that deadly wooden heel connecting with the big man's temple. The instant she felt the contact, she forcibly straightened her muscular leg adding even more power to the kick. Rell heard bones crunching as the thug's head snapped sideways, his body toppling over like a slow motion tree in the forest. Rell ended up standing with one foot on either side of Bet's chest, listening gratefully as she sucked in that first huge lungful of air.
As Rell knelt beside the FBI agent, Simon came scampering down a ladder and ran over to the two women.
"Oh wow! That was awesome," he almost shouted in delight. "Will you show me how to do that?"
"Maybe one day," Rell replied, distracted as she focused on the agent's breathing for a moment. The big woman nodded that she would be okay as the photojournalist's hands quickly examined Bet's throat. "What are you doing here anyway? Aren't you supposed to be safely tucked up in bed?" she asked accusingly, lifting her head and pinning the boy to the spot with a glare. "Your uncle is going to have both our hides if he finds out about this."
Simon blushed deeply, the crimson creeping up his face was quite clear in the light. He suddenly found something intensely interesting about his shoes and dropped his head to look at them. "I just wanted to help you get Stacy. She's my friend and it's been eating me up for weeks that I couldn't help her. I thought I would sneak over here and get her out while all those strange men were busy with you," he explained quietly, hoping Rell and Bet wouldnt be too mad at him for being there. "Only I didn't find Stacy. I don't know where she is. I found Diana was locked up in the room instead. She says she's a friend of yours, Rell," the boy finished, smiling winningly at the photojournalist hoping he'd redeemed himself a little by releasing the beautiful, dark haired woman.
"Yes, she is a friend of mine, Simon," Rell replied simply. Dropping her voice to a whisper, she asked, "How badly hurt is she? She'll never tell me herself. Diana's like that."
Hushing his own young voice to a murmur, which oddly enough brought out the cracks even more strongly, he replied, "Not too bad, I think. Just some scrapes and stuff. The worst part of it for her is she was tied up so long that sometimes things work right and sometimes they don't work at all. She had to crawl to the end of the gallery up there when the fight started. I couldn't stop her. She just had to get into the fight somehow. Then she started talking to someone called Artemis just before she threw that lump of metal at the man who was about to hit you. Who's Artemis?"
"She's someone special Diana and I know," Rell answered as simply as she could. Now was not the time to go into deep explanations about a goddess most people hadn't even heard of in this part of the world. "Could you stay with Bet until she can stand up again? I'd like to say hello to Diana. It's been a while since I last saw her," the woman asked.
Simon nodded, feeling important simply because Rell had asked him to watch over her big friend. Dropping down next to Bet, he crossed his legs and laid a gentle hand on the agent's broad shoulder. The woman smiled, content to lie still for a little while and enjoy the sensation of air moving freely in and out of her lungs again. There were times when it just didn't pay to be an FBI agent, and right now surely felt like one of those times.
Diana was still sitting on her hay bale as Rell stepped off the ladder nearby. The tall woman would have dearly loved to have scampered down that ladder the way Simon had done, but right at that moment she didn't quite trust her legs to take her the distance. So she sat waiting for Rell to come to her. As the stocky woman walked towards her, Diana didn't see the layer of filth Rell had picked up in the tunnel or the coating of dark soil she had along the entire front of her body after crawling through the fields. Diana only saw her lover and queen. Anything else would simply have to wait until the ex-mercenary had had a chance to hold this strong, determined woman in her arms for a few moments. Only after she had grounded herself in Rell's firm reality would Diana concern herself with other things.
"Howdy stranger," Rell drawled, sitting down next to Diana on the hay bale.
"Howdy yourself," the other woman replied. "Damn, I've missed you." Unable to hold herself strong any longer, Diana swept Rell into arms that trembled with both weakness and emotion.
Down on the floor of the barn, Simon whispered to the big woman still stretched out on the boards. "What kind of friends are they, Bet? I've never seen friends hug each other like that before."
Bet opened her eyes and looked up at the gallery. Smiling, she finally understood what had been driving Rell to find the other woman. "They're very special friends, Simon. We can only hope to have a friend as good as that one day," she replied. Drawing Simon's wondering eyes back to her, the agent asked, "Tell me about how you got in here and helped Diana escape."
Forgetting about the two adults overhead, Simon launched into his tale, happy someone wanted to hear all the details. Somehow, he'd already figured telling his Uncle Cobin about any of this would get him into serious trouble.
Up on the gallery, two women for whom mere distance could never separate because their hearts nestled together as one, reestablished the physical bond between them. Only when Diana felt Rell's shoulders shaking did she release the other woman enough to look into her face.
"Hey, why all the tears?" Diana asked, trying to wipe them away and only managing to rearrange the mud.
"Sweet Artemis. We had no idea what had happened to you. You didn't come home, and when I got to the States there was no sign of you. We thought the GPS numbers would lead us to some bolt hole you had, and instead I find you have a son that you never once said anything about," Rell said in a rush, her tears drying up as she grew annoyed with Diana. "Why didn't you tell me? I could have kept the secret."
"To be honest, I've kept that secret for so long it just never crossed my mind to tell you about it," Diana explained, apologetically. "Does he know anything? Simon hasn't said anything himself, so I am assuming not."
"No, neither Bet nor I have said a word to him about his mother being alive but he'd have to be blind not to have seen the resemblance between the pair of you. I saw it the instant he came to the door over on Cobin's farm. He does deserve to know, Diana. From what I've seen today, he really is his mother's son."
"Mmmm, amazing how alike our personalities are," Diana replied, smiling proudly for a moment. She shook her head, returning to reality. "But I can't tell him yet. I still have too many enemies who would use him to get at me. And one of those enemies is on this blasted farm. We have to get out of here before someone misses those two goons."
"And we can talk about this properly just as soon as we're all safe," Rell stated with the steely determination.
Diana sighed before kissing Rell gently, ignoring the mud and the strong smell of pig manure. "Yes, we can talk but I doubt it will change my mind. His safety is the most important consideration. It always has been, and it'll have to stay that way for a while yet."
Rell was happy enough with that for now. She had plenty of time to work on Diana once they had gotten off the farm. "Okay, Raggedy-Ann, let's see if we can coax those legs back down the ladder with a little dignity," she said, smiling at the grumpy look the ex-mercenary gave her. Just the fact Diana was there to give her those grumpy looks was almost enough to make Rell's heart sing with pure joy. Rather than frighten everyone with her out of tune croakings, Rell contented herself with a smile so broad it nearly reached from one mud caked ear to the other.
"No, Diana. Our best bet is still going to be returning through the same tunnel that brought Rell and I in to start with," Bet said. "To get into the other tunnel, we'd have to go out the front door and the whole courtyard is just too well lit to take a chance on not being seen. Look what happened when Simon used that little torch of his for a minute."
"Mmmm, makes sense," Diana agreed. She would have preferred the other tunnel because it exited almost at the gate, far enough away that they probably wouldn't be noticed from the house. Using the tunnel under the pig pen only took them some five hundred yards or so from the barn. Crawling across the open field to duck under the fence-line simply left too many opportunities for the little group to be spotted.
"Whichever way we decide to go, we'd better do it soon. Someone is going to miss that pair shortly and come looking for them," Rell said, looking at the unconscious bodies of the two thugs.
"Yea, it'll be light soon," Simon observed, looking at the thinning darkness through the cracks in the old boards. "Uncle Cobin is going to be up in a little while and if I'm not in my bed, it'll be hell to pay."
"Language, Simon," Diana said, almost automatically. She chose to ignore the smirk Rell quickly shot in her direction.
"Sorry, Diana," the boy apologized, hanging his head remorsefully. A pose that was cut short by a huge, jaw cracking yawn from the youngster.
"Okay, then let's get back into that foul smelling pig pit before we all fall asleep on our feet," Rell ordered gently, tucking her shoulder under the tall ex-mercenary's arm. Diana seemed a little steadier just from having Rell around, but the supporting shoulder the stocky woman offered probably helped a bit too.
The little group quickly began to move along the floor of the barn heading for the open shaft. Although tired, Simon still managed to find the energy to skip back and forth between Bet, who was leading the way and Diana and Rell following along a pace or two behind. They had just reached the wall of the pig pen when the door of the building was suddenly pushed open with some force.
"HEY GUYS!" a man shouted, clearly pitching his voice to carry to the far end of the barn. His expression immediately changed from resigned annoyance at having to come to the barn to get Michael and Anthony, to completely bemused startlement at seeing the little group of women and one teenaged kid. Spotting the bodies of his compatriots lying face down on the boards, that bemusement quickly turned to anger.
Shouting at another man strolling across the courtyard to get the rest of the men, the man at the door jumped forward. What he meant to do was anyone's guess because he met Bet's well placed fist mid-flight and was quickly slumping to the ground. Through the open door of the barn, Simon could see perhaps another dozen or so men boiling from the door of the farmhouse like enraged ants, heading for them as fast as they could run. The boy turned towards the adults to tell him what to do next. Sneaking in to save his friend was one thing but battling a dozen full grown men was well outside his range of experience.
The three women were already moving back along the length of the barn. There wouldn't be time to get all of them down the shaft and into the tunnel system below, so it looked like they were going to have to battle it out the hard way.
"Simon, get up that ladder and take cover on the gallery," Diana ordered quickly, already lifting her arm off Rell's shoulder and slipping her hand into an overhanging loop of chain.
"But " Simon started to argue. He wanted to stay on the floor and help the women somehow.
"Do it!" the dark haired woman snapped, tightening her grip on the chain. Diana knew her body well enough to realize she was in no shape to throw a punch or launch one of her almost trademark high kicks, but by hanging on to that chain, she could use her own swinging weight as effectively as a wrecker's ball. She watched in relief as her son obediently scurried up the ladder again and ducked down behind the bales of hay.
Rell had snatched up her impromptu staff again and was spinning it lazily between her hands. The deceptive ease and grace she showed with her 'weapon' had fooled many an opponent on the Amazon training grounds. She hoped it would fool these attackers as well, unaccustomed to seeing anything as 'simple' as a stick used as an offensive weapon. A rapid unspoken language of lifted eyebrows and head tilts quickly placed the stocky woman well to one side of Diana and far enough back to stay out of the way of her soon-to-be swinging body.
Bet was simply going to rely on the techniques of hand to hand combat she had been taught at the FBI Academy, as well as the outright street brawling skills she had learned during five years undercover. With the crush of bodies she could see erupting through the door ahead of them, she dared not draw her Magnum .45 from its holster in case she accidentally hit one of the other women in the ensuing melee. She had spotted Diana's move and immediately guessed what the woman was planning to do. A guess helped by the amount of distance Rell was putting between herself and her lover. Stepping ahead of Diana and to the other side, Bet placed herself to take the main brunt of the force coming at them.
As the jumble of men poured through the door, the defending group heard a high pitched female voice shouting from behind them. "No guns, you fools. Do you want every farmer for miles coming to investigate?"
Holstering their weapons as they ran, the men charged at the three women. In the resulting chaos, it was hard to tell what was happening at any one time. Bet's solid fists kept finding jaws to crack as her well muscled forearms blocked their returning punches. Occasionally, one would get through, opening the skin over one eye, splitting her lip and eventually breaking her nose. Putting a pillar at her back, she continued slugging away with an evil smile on her face as she watched the men surrounding her tangling themselves up trying to get to her. It was an advantage she used shamelessly when lashing out with sneaky kicks to tender groin regions. Three or four of the men staggered back, holding themselves, only to meet Diana's feet or knees as she winged passed on the end of her chain.
Diana had built up quite a bit of momentum as she bounced off whatever was convenient. Stall doors, pillars, pen walls and bodies. She swung back and forth across the width of the barn, knocking attackers to the ground over and over. She was far more deadly than any wrecking ball though, because as she bounced off something, she turned on the end of her chain so her feet were catching men full in the face. Rebounding off the edge of a stall, she spotted a hay bale sailing downward to crush a man beneath its surprising weight. Looking up, she saw Simon had already ducked behind another bale waiting for either herself or Rell to move the next target into the right position. Swinging off on a slight tangent to return to the fray, Diana's feet introduced themselves to the back of some man's head, a man who already had the outline of her shoes deeply imprinted into his cheeks. She watched as he landed face first into the slats of the pig pen and remained still.
If Bet's approach was superior strength, and Diana's was simple physics, then Rell was the epitome of graceful power. She danced a destructive swath through her attackers, ruthlessly breaking bones and opening massive gashes with the broken end of her staff. She had already been forced to make one conscious choice, and that was to ensure every single man who came at her was sent into unconsciousness. All it would take is one individual to draw his weapon and someone she loved and cared for might be dead. So rather than leaving a man with nothing more than a broken arm or leg, she deliberately chose to make solid strikes at their unprotected heads. Her Amazon trainers had taught her to kill but Rell held back on the power of her blows, seeking only to disable a man completely, not kill him outright.
Rell had also seen the bale of hay falling from the gallery and the look of happy triumph on Simon's face. Being in the best position to move herself around, the fighting photojournalist altered the flow of her rhythm to send more men reeling and staggering towards the gallery. The youngster's accuracy was uncanny to watch, missing only one man with five of his hay bale bombs. Rell had a sneaking suspicion that more than one neck had been broken but she chose not to think about it. If a man was lying under a bale of hay, then he wasn't trying to attack any of the women.
She sensed yet another man coming towards her from behind. Spinning rapidly, her staff little more than a blur as it cut through the air, she sent the end of her stick slicing under his jaw line. Head thrown back, the man's skull hit the floor with a sickening crunch before he lay utterly still. Blinking as she looked around, Rell realized the only ones still standing were the three women, although Diana looked about ready to fall over again as she skidded to a halt and released her concentrated grip on the chain. Rell immediately walked over, and without a word tucked her shoulder under the tall woman's arm once more.
Completely exhausted, both women watched as Bet, ever business-like, rapidly worked her way through all the bodies, relieving each of the men of their weapons. She quickly released the clips full of bullets into a bucket she had found, dropping the now safe gun in afterwards. By the time the big agent had combed over every man on the floor, her bucket was full almost to overflowing. Temporarily hiding her bucket on the other side of the pig pen wall, she walked back to the two women in the center of the barn.
"Hey, didn't I hear a woman's voice just before this little shin-dig started?" she asked curiously, seemingly unaware of the blood still dripping slowly from her wounds.
"Yea, I thought I did too," Rell replied. "Where's Simon, by the way? He's not still hiding up there, is he?" she asked, looking up to the gallery level of the barn. "I expected him to be down here in a flash as soon as everything was over."
All three women ran their eyes along the gallery above, stopping when they reached Simon. He stood partially in the shadows, a hand held firmly over his mouth so he couldn't call out and warn the women below. Pressed painfully against one temple was the barrel of an evil looking handgun.
"Sweet Artemis," Rell gasped in horror. "Who is that?"
"Remember that old enemy I mentioned earlier, well, that's her. Her name's Amanda," Diana said flatly. Her eyes focused on Simon's and she silently promised to protect him from harm. The tall woman saw the way the youngster's shoulders relaxed fractionally as he read and understood the promise in her eyes.
Amanda, the cartel leader had casually sauntered in behind her men, fully expecting the sheer weight of their numbers to have over-run a weak and groggy Diana. She had been shocked speechless when she saw two other women fighting her thugs, and her own men were getting their butts soundly beaten. Even the sight of the mercenary swinging back and forth through the melee had surprised her. Either Diana had the constitution of an ox to have overcome the debilitating effects of the drugs, or Craig had somehow slipped up, not giving Diana enough to keep her utterly helpless and subdued. It must have been sheer chance alone that allowed Anthony to see the flash of light in the barn as the mercenary tried to make good her escape.
Watching from the safety of the open door, Amanda tightened her grip on the gun she held in one hand. She didn't really want to lose the farm as a base of operations but if it came down to it, she had no hesitation in shooting Diana. Then she spotted the falling hay bale. Peering into the shadows of the gallery she glimpsed the most surprising thing of all.
"Oh, that is choice," Amanda muttered happily to herself. Tucking the weapon into the pocket of her jeans, she'd slowly climbed up the old ladder onto the gallery. Keeping to the shadows so she wouldn't be seen by those below, she'd stalked her little prey as carefully as any cat might do a mouse. Amanda had caught the boy just as he was about to push yet another hay bale off the gallery. The bale had missed its mark completely but she most certainly had not. Keeping a firm grip over the youngster's mouth, Amanda waited patiently for the women below to notice her. One way or the other, she was going to have her revenge on Diana.
"Let him go, Amanda. He's nothing to you. I'm the one you really want," Diana called up to the woman hidden in the shadows.
"And what makes you say that? He seems to bear a striking resemblance to you, after all. Is it possible you two are related? An aunt, perhaps?" Amanda taunted from the gallery. Taking a step forward into the light, she looked down at the boy again and then over at Diana. "No, not an aunt, I think," the woman said.
Rell felt Diana freeze next to her, the tall woman's breath stayed for a moment.
"I don't suppose the word 'Mommy' means anything to you, does it?" Amanda growled savagely.
Diana found herself staring at the boy as Simon's eyebrows lifted high onto his forehead with surprise, his impossibly blue eyes, so like her own, silently begging her for the truth. If she told Amanda what she wanted to hear, the other woman would kill the youngster just to get back at the ex-mercenary for something that happened three years ago. If Diana chose to lie, the cartel leader would probably kill the boy out of pure spite, anyway. Diana made her decision.
"Hurt my son, Amanda, and I'll chase you through the nine levels of hell until you don't know a moment's peace in this life or the next," the ex-mercenary promised solemnly. A mother's anger ignited in Diana's eyes, turning them almost violet as the fire burned within her.
Rell could feel the way Diana's body was trembling as they stood together and she knew it wasn't weakness which brought it about. The power of Diana's barely controlled rage stripped away another layer of the drugs used to subdue her, leaving her a little stronger, a little more able to keep the silent promise she had made to Simon.
"What do I have to do so you'll leave him unharmed?" Diana asked quietly, lifting her arm from Rell's supportive shoulder.
"You can start by getting up here," Amanda answered, tilting her head to indicate the ladder at the end of the barn near the door. The cartel leader wasn't too concerned with the two other women standing next to Diana. So long as neither of them made a sudden move, she might let them live, for a little longer anyway. Besides, someone had to bear witness to her revenge on Diana.
Diana walked slowly towards the ladder showing no obvious sign of her recent incarceration. Only Rell could see the stiffness of the tall woman's back and legs as she concentrated on each step. She took her time climbing the ladder, appearing to be a little reluctant when she was actually preparing herself to take the next step upward. Eventually, she stood at the far end of the gallery, feet slightly apart, hands hanging freely at her sides.
"A little closer, please. I'd like to see your eyes," Amanda asked, almost pleasantly.
The cartel leader watched Diana carefully. For every step the tall woman took forward, she took one back, dragging the boy with her. The ex-mercenary stopped about a third of the way along the gallery, while Amanda stood at the other end. Both women were well lit by the intense beams coming in through the windows from the spotlights outside, and the first golden colors of dawn creeping through the cracks in the boards. As Amanda and her small captive came to a halt at the end of the barn's gallery, Diana noticed Simon's hand moving slowly up his body, his fingers creeping towards the pocket of his shirt.
What on earth is he planning? she asked herself. Okay, relax. You're going to have to trust him. Simon has shown he is clever and resourceful and I can't deny he's certainly his mother's son. Let's keep Amanda talking to give him a chance to do whatever it is he's got up his sleeve, she thought, watching his fingers stealing another unfelt inch up his shirt.
"I can't see why you're doing this, Amanda. It doesn't serve any useful purpose," Diana said quietly, glancing into Simon's eyes occasionally to let him know she had seen his fingers moving.
"Useful purpose!" the cartel leader spat. "I think revenge is a supremely useful purpose. After all, it gave me the strength to rebuild the cartel after you destroyed it, and then to capture you when you least expected it."
"So, that's all your life has meant for the last three years? Revenge against me," Diana asked gently.
"You don't have to feel sorry for me, you know. I did manage to have some fun along the way and I made a great deal of money as well," Amanda replied. "Before you killed my father, I would have been willing to share it with you, if you had just come to my bed. I had contacts of my own who were happy to work with someone more daring, less bound by the old ways. But no, you had to be this ice princess nobody could get near," the cartel leader snarled angrily.
"I stopped using people like that a long time before you met me, Amanda," Diana stated flatly.
"You use me, I use you and somehow we get through the night," the other woman laughed sourly. For a brief moment she moved the gun away from its place against Simon's temple, before quickly returning it to the same position.
Diana saw Simon's hand freeze, two fingers dipped into the pocket of his shirt. As the gun came back to his temple, she watched as the fingers gently pulled at something, easing it into his hand. She caught a quick flash of color just as his hand dropped against his chest, hiding the object between his wrist and his shirt. The boy rolled his eyes to one side, indicating the gun at his head. Diana caught the signal, raising one eyebrow in return. He's definitely up to something, she thought. I just have to get Amanda to move that blasted gun from his temple. For a moment, she allowed the anger to course through her freely. So help me, if she hurts him at all, I will chase her to hell and back.
Thinking about that, she wondered if Amanda was feeling the same way about her father. Straightening her shoulders, Diana looked the other woman in the eye.
"Amanda, I'm sorry I killed your father that night. I didn't even know he was in the warehouse when I set off those explosives," she apologized sincerely. "It must have really hurt when you realized he was dead."
"AND WHAT WOULD YOU KNOW OF MY PAIN?" Amanda screamed. Her face reddened with grief, tears quickly filling her eyes and threatening to overflow. "Do you know what it means to miss someone so much that it becomes an ache inside? Do you know how it feels to expect them to come walking through a doorway at any moment, and then not see them there? Do you know what it's like not to feel the touch of their hand or hear the sound of their voice?" she continued in calmer tones. "I know, because I have lived that every single day for the past three years. And now someone else is going to know what it feels like."
Smiling evilly at Diana, Amanda lifted the gun from Simon's temple, kissing the barrel gently. "Goodbye, little one. Your mother is going to know the most exquisite pain for the rest of her hopefully long life." Kissing the gun again, she started to drop it back into position.
Diana's heart lurched to a painful halt, her eyes locking onto to the icy blue of her son's. She could see the fear written deeply into them, reflecting back at her. But there was something else there, something she recognized from herself. Youthful determination blazed out from those eyes, Simon's brows furrowed together in concentration as he waited for the right moment.
As the gun came away from Amanda's lips for the second time, Simon's hand clenched as a flash of yellow showed just beyond the end of his closed fist. He drew his arm up across his chest and then stabbed backwards with all the strength in his growing body. Amanda screamed in unexpected pain and savagely threw the boy from her. High on her leg, just where the thigh joined at the hip, Diana could see a short length of pen barrel as it stuck out from Amanda's flesh. In the part of her mind that records impressions to be remembered later, she thought the youngster must have caught an artery because there was already a great deal of blood starting to course down the woman's thigh. A large, dark crimson stain began spreading from the entry point and the first drops of blood were already splattering to the boards at Amanda's feet.
Simon landed heavily on the floor of the gallery, barely catching himself from toppling over the edge. Staring to the ground below, he hadn't realized just how high the gallery was before that moment. Twisting frantically onto his back, he was presented with the business end of Amanda's handgun pointing at his forehead. He could hear the sound of Diana's feet starting to move across the boards but he knew she wouldn't be able to get to the bad lady before she pulled the trigger. Instead of feeling intensely afraid as he had expected, a sense of utter peace settled around him like his favorite warm blanket on a cold winter's night. Simon felt himself relaxing into that calm, a little sad he wouldn't be able to get closer to the woman he now knew was his mother. It had been a secret wish his whole, young life to have a mother like the other boys, and now he could go to the other side with that wish granted. Simon just hoped Diana wouldn't cry for too long.
I wonder if this is going to hurt, he thought calmly, watching Amanda's finger tighten on the trigger.
Suddenly, her snarling, angry face changed to one of complete surprise as a small, black hole appeared like magic in the center of her forehead, right between the eyes. She staggered backwards, her injured leg unable to take the weight of her body. Falling sideways, her shoulder hit the door leading into the floorless upper room. The door popped open under Amanda's onslaught and the last thing Simon saw of her were her expensive leather shoes as the cartel leader sailed through the empty space. A heartbeat later, there was a muffled thud as her lifeless body hit the ground some ten feet below.
Then he was abruptly swept up in Diana's arms. Simon decided to enjoy it for the moment. He could ask his questions later.
"She's dead," Bet said, dropping Amanda's gun and bullets into the bucket with all the others. "Even if the bullet hadn't killed her, that fall would have. Broke her neck when she hit the bottom."
"I knew you were a good shot, Bet but I didn't realize you were that good," Rell commented from her position next to Diana and Simon. She could see the way the boy was starting to wriggle a little in the tall woman's lap but she was clearly not ready to let him go yet.
The big FBI agent blushed and mumbled something about keeping her eye in.
Simon suddenly stopped wriggling and locked his eyes with Diana. "Why did Uncle Cobin and Aunt Vic tell me you were dead?" he asked seriously.
The tall woman thought about it for a moment before answering. "I guess we were trying to protect you from situations exactly like this," she finally said with great seriousness. "Although, I have to admit, you did remarkably well." Her half smile and prideful tones touched a part of the boy longing for a mother's praise.
"Uncle Cobin is always saying that it's okay to be afraid, so long as you keep on thinking. Besides, we had to win. The good guys always do," he replied, a broad smile on his face.
None of the adults made any attempt to correct the boy's idealistic view on good guys and bad guys. It was better if he remained a child, at least for a little longer.
Finally managing to push himself from Diana's lap, he asked, "Can we find Stacy now? Isn't that why we came here to start with?"
"Squat, I forgot all about her in the excitement. Sometimes, I think you've got your head screwed on tighter than we do, sport," Bet answered, clapping one hand on the youngster's shoulder.
"There's a chance she might not be alive, Simon," Diana said, looking the boy in the eye. "I just want to make sure you're prepared for that." The ex-mercenary assumed Stacy had been the teenage girl coming to feed her each day, and the fact she had not turned up that night set off alarm bells in her mind.
Simon nodded solemnly, aware there was that possibility but in his heart of hearts, he just knew she had to be alive, and somewhere on the farm.
"If she's anywhere, it's bound to be the house," Bet said, pulling her Magnum from its holster again. "Let me go first, Simon. There might still be a bad guy or two inside," she continued, gripping the youngster's shoulder before he had a chance to run ahead of them.
As Bet carefully worked her way around the edge of the well lit courtyard, Diana, Rell and Simon stayed safely hidden inside the barn. Simon watched from the bottom edge of the window as the big agent crept closer to the door of the farmhouse. She stood for a moment with her back against the wall, before spinning and kicking open the door with one strong leg. Simon lost sight of Bet as she ducked through the opening, her weapon held out in front of her with both hands.
Simon felt like it was taking forever as he waited impatiently for the agent to check the house, but really was only a matter of minutes before she was standing at the door and waving them over.
"It's okay. We can go now. Bet didn't find any bad guys to shoot," he said to the two women seated on the edge of the pen wall.
He tried to be patient, fidgeting on the spot as Rell once again tucked her shoulder underneath Diana's arm and the two women began to move out of the barn together.
"Go on, scamp. I know you'd rather be over there right now," Diana said, shooing the youngster with one hand.
Simon smiled happily and started to skip off. He stopped, turning towards the pair. "No, it's all right. I don't mind waiting for you to catch up."
"Scoot," both women said at the same time, turning to look at each other and laugh.
The youngster didn't need to be told a second time and shot off across the courtyard like he'd been fired from a gun. He'd already pounded inside before Rell and Diana had gotten more than a few steps into the light.
"For someone who hasn't been a 'mommy' all that long, you certainly appear to have the basics down already," Rell noted, smiling up at the taller woman beside her.
Diana snorted before answering. "He's pretty much like I was at the same age. You'll never find anything more curious-as-a-cat that a twelve year old. He probably would have walked over with us if he thought it was the right thing to do, but you and I both know he'd rather be scouting for hidden 'bad guys' inside the house. Bet'll see he doesn't get into trouble. Now there is a woman with a real touch for kids."
"You do realize, don't you, that once some of the excitement dies down, you're going to have to talk with him. Answer a few questions," Rell said.
"Yea, I know. I don't know who is more unprepared for that. Me or him," Diana replied.
"You'll do just fine, Diana. He is his mother's son, after all."
"Uh huh," Diana answered non-committally.
The two women stepped through the open door of the farmhouse, Diana's sharp hearing immediately picking up the sound of voices coming from a room near the center of the building. As they entered the area, Rell briefly noted it must have been the living room. A wide fireplace dominated the center of one wall, a comfortable sofa placed in front of it to benefit from the heat when it was lit. Deep armchairs were placed on either side of the hearth with big, overstuffed footstools at their feet. To one side of the room a big table was covered in discarded playing cards, piled money in assorted denominations, overflowing ashtrays and half-empty coffee cups. A pall of cigarette smoke still filled the room but it was gradually being drawn up the flue of the chimney. She didn't notice many of the other details as her eye was drawn to the little drama being played out in front of the fireplace.
Bet stood behind a teenage girl with her hands resting protectively on the child's shoulders. The youngster didn't appear to be much more than thirteen or fourteen, dressed in little more than a pair of dirty jeans and a torn T-shirt. Rell glanced down and saw her bare feet were cut and bruised, probably from walking over the rough ground of the courtyard.
Simon was in front of her, his hands placed on either side of her face as he tried to get her to notice him. Her expressionless eyes appeared to look right through the boy, her slack face devoid of any emotion. There was no reaction to the sight of strangers around her, or even of a friend whispering into her face.
Diana lifted her arm from Rell's shoulder, managing to walk to the armchair by the fireplace without assistance. Sitting down in its deep comfort, she took a long look at the girl standing in front of the hearth. Cocking one eyebrow at the photojournalist and getting a nod in reply, she gently spoke to Simon. "Why don't you go with Rell into the kitchen, Simon. I really could do with something to eat about now," she said.
"But Stacy's going to be all right, isn't she?" he asked with an almost desperate edge to his young voice.
"I'll be honest with you, Simon. I really don't know. A lot will depend on what happens from now on," Diana answered seriously.
The boy dropped his hands away from Stacy's face reluctantly, pinning his hopes on the adults to make things right again. He'd been so happy to see her standing there but when she hadn't reacted to his call, and then his presence, he just knew something had to be very, very wrong. Walking towards Rell and allowing her to wrap her arms over his shoulders in a compassionate embrace, he turned just before they left the living room.
"Please try to make her better again, Diana. She's the best friend I've ever had," he said, obvious tears welling up in his eyes as he permitted Rell to draw him from the room.
Bet's hands never left the girl's shoulders as she stood protectively behind the youngster. "Either she is drugged or she was raped. I can't think of any other reason for her to be like this," the big agent said quietly. She hadn't wanted to say anything in front of the boy, simply because she wanted to preserve his innocence for a little while longer.
"Both may have played their part, Bet, but I know how Amanda likes to do things. She's shattered the girl's mind. Probably as a little warm-up to whatever she had planned for me," Diana explained a little tiredly.
"How does someone heal from an experience like that?" the FBI agent asked, unconsciously pulling the child closer to her.
The ex-mercenary noticed the unthinking gesture made by the other woman. She was also noticing a few other things as well. "It'll probably take a lot of one to one therapy to even start to put all the pieces back together. I doubt she's going to get that here. At best, we can hope she's put into a decent institution where she won't be abused," Diana replied.
Bet shuddered, not even wanting to contemplate the worst alternatives. "What about " the big woman started to say. Looking Diana in the eye, she forced herself to continue. "What about your Amazons? Couldn't they help in some way?"
Diana shook her head sadly. "No, I've seen them do some amazing things but this is well outside their understanding. Abusing drugs is something they have no experience with and the last rape was, well, it was a very long time ago. I don't think there would be anyone among the Amazons who could help Stacy at the moment," she lied just the tiniest little bit. Ardeen, the old Amazon priestess would take the girl without a second thought, most likely getting her back to some level of functionality as well. But Diana had something else in mind just from seeing the way Bet was staying so close to the youngster.
"She's such a pretty little thing too," Bet commented, brushing gentle fingers through lank and greasy hair. "Her parents are most likely dead after what Simon told us yesterday."
The other woman simply nodded. Having baited her trap, in more ways than one, she waited for Bet to willingly step into it.
"Now this case is solved, I can surface from undercover work if I want to, maybe get a regular desk job for a while," Bet muttered almost to herself, appearing to have temporarily forgotten Diana's presence in the room. "It'd be nice to have an ordinary life again. Not have to sleep in my cab worrying about getting mugged by the next person to come along."
Looking around, Bet spotted a soft blanket hurriedly tossed over the arm of the sofa. Picking it up, she tenderly wrapped it around the child's thin body, tucking the loose end securely under her chin. Lifting the girl into her arms, the FBI agent cradled Stacy against her chest. In the big woman's arms, the teenage girl looked no bigger than a five year old.
Simon came back through the doorway of the living room, carefully carrying a tray with sandwiches and a hot drink arranged on it. Concentrating so he wouldn't spill anything, he didn't see where Stacy was until he was level with Diana. When he did, the boy almost spilt the lot. Quickly placing the tray on a side table, he looked at his friend nestled in the agent's strong arms. Glancing from the blanket covered shape in Bet's arms to Diana seated in the big armchair, he silently questioned the ex-mercenary. Bet however, saw the look and chose to answer his unspoken query.
"I'm going to take Stacy with me, Simon. She's been very badly hurt and it's going to take a long, long time for her to get better again," she explained gently.
"But couldn't a doctor make her better? Then she could stay with me and Uncle Cobin and Aunt Vic," Simon replied, his lower lip quivering a little as he fought to keep his tears at bay. He'd already had one cry on Rell's understanding shoulder and he really didn't want to look like a big baby in front of everyone.
"Simon, look at me," Diana said, placing one hand on his arm. When the youngster reluctantly dragged his eyes off Stacy and looked at the dark-haired woman, she continued. "Stacy has been hurt in a way that only time and a great deal of love can ever heal. Bet is offering to love Stacy as much as your Uncle and Aunt have loved you. She needs someone who is just for her, someone Stacy doesn't have to share until she is ready to let other people inside. Do you understand?"
Simon fought with the concept of having to let go of people you loved because it was the best thing for them. The struggle was clearly reflected in his blue eyes. It was a very grown up concept for someone not yet an adult to accept, but if it meant he would one day get 'his' Stacy back again, then accept it he must.
"Can I say good-bye to her before you take her away?" he asked, tears filling his young eyes again, finding no shame this time in allowing them to flow slowly down his cheeks.
Bet put the blanket wrapped girl safely on the sofa and stepped back. Simon slid in next to Stacy and folded his arms around her as he said his good-byes. Both women made no comment about the sound of soft crying they could hear coming from the boy.
Rell's hand came over the back of the armchair to rest on Diana's shoulder. "You did the right thing," she quietly affirmed, meaning more than just Simon.
Bet squatted by the tall woman's knee so she could speak to her without disturbing Simon. "You'll have to contact the authorities to remove whatever is left of the cartel out in the barn," she said. "But give me a good forty-five minutes or so to get back to the car, will you."
Diana's upraised eyebrow questioned why the FBI agent was making the request.
"She hates paperwork, Diana," Rell giggled quietly over the ex-mercenary's head. "And this is going to generate a bucket load, isn't it?"
The blue eyed woman nodded in agreement and then quickly looked up at Rell leaning over the back of the armchair. "Get me a pen and a bit of paper please, Rell," she asked.
Rell found a pen on the mantle of the fireplace and reaching behind her, picked up the first thing that felt like a piece of paper. It turned out to be a playing card. Handing them both to Diana, Rell wondered what the other woman needed them for.
Diana turned the card over in her hand. It seemed somehow appropriate that the card was the ace of hearts. She quickly wrote two phone numbers on the card, one of which had a name next to it. Handing the card to Bet, she said, "That name and number is to a friend of mine in LA. He's had some experience in this area and might be able to help you with Stacy. Give him a call when you get back and mention my name. If he can't help, I'm pretty sure he'll know someone who can. My family estate will take care of any costs. He knows how to access the correct account."
"Thank you," Bet replied simply, a little overwhelmed by the tall woman's generosity. "And the second number?" she asked, curiously.
"When you're ready, call it. You'll know," Diana said cryptically.
Bet would have liked to ask about the cryptic comment but Simon had moved away from Stacy on the sofa and was now standing beside Diana in the armchair. She knew it was time to get moving if she wanted to get back to the car before the roads became too busy.
As the FBI agent rose to her feet, the boy touched her arm for a moment. "Take good care of her," he said, biting down a little on his lower lip so he wouldn't break into tears again.
"I will," Bet promised. Lifting the girl into her arms once more, the big woman quickly left the building to head up the road to the car hidden in the little valley. It was going to take several days but she would eventually get herself and her charge safely back to LA without too many people asking awkward questions. It was probably the only time in her FBI career she found that damned badge of some use.
Cobin Alexander sat shaking his head over a cup of coffee long grown cold. The last thing he'd expected to see that morning was the sight of his old mercenary boss staggering up the porch stairs leaning on the shoulder of the woman who had been at the farm the day before. Standing to one side of them, desperately trying to disappear into the paint work, had been his adopted 'nephew.' All of them were covered in various layers, and types of filth, some of it clearly pig manure judging from the smell wafting off them.
He had quickly ushered them all inside calling to Vicki as he did so. He knew from past experience with Diana that she would tell him what he needed to know, when he needed to know it. However, that wasn't going to stop him from almost vibrating with sheer curiosity. Vicki had taken one horrified look at the trio and thrown her hands up at the state they were all in. She had immediately dragged the three of them upstairs for hot baths and some clean clothes. Cobin contented himself with getting on with the farm chores because there was no way his wife was going to let him get near any of them until she was finished.
An uncharacteristically quiet Simon was sitting at the table, working his way through an even more substantial-than-usual breakfast, his eyes firmly glued to the food on his plate. Cobin had barely gotten a word out of the boy since he came back downstairs freshly washed and in clean clothes. Seated comfortably in an armchair dragged in from the living room was the woman he had worked under for several years while a mercenary, and who had helped pay for the very farm he now worked so diligently. Now that several layers of dirt and straw had been removed, he still couldn't believe how breathtakingly beautiful she was, even after all these years. Perched on the arm of the chair was the woman he had met the day before. He no longer believed the story she had given him then but it was clear there was some strong connection between Rell and Diana. He unknowingly drank a mouthful of ice cold coffee as he watched Rell actually ordering Diana to eat something, and the taller woman was meekly accepting it.
By all the saints, he thought to himself. What power does that little slip have over Diana? It used to be if you looked at her the wrong way, she would just about remove body parts and here she is letting someone give her orders. Orders, she seems to be perfectly happy to follow at that.
"Another biscuit, Diana," Vicki Alexander asked, holding out a tureen containing the warm biscuits.
"I'm fine, thanks," Diana tried to reply, watching as Rell leaned over and took one for her anyway.
The photojournalist dropped it onto Diana's plate saying, "After being on Amanda's concentration camp diet, you could do with a little fattening up. Besides, these are delicious."
"And this from the woman who's had three of them herself," Diana teased back. The tall woman chose to ignore the way Cobin's mouth dropped open with surprise. So, he wasn't used to seeing her teased, or teasing in return. A lot of things had changed about her over the past few years.
The sound of police sirens suddenly began to drift in through the open windows on the early morning breeze. Simon's head briefly lifted from his plate before dropping back down again.
"Hmmm, took them long enough," Diana said grumpily from her armchair. Glancing at the big wall clock over the kitchen bench, she continued, "It's been the best part of an hour and a half since I called the station."
"They probably didn't believe it when the call came in. It's not every day a major cartel is destroyed in this neck of the woods," Rell stated, looking down at the woman beside her. "They most likely had to make sure they had enough of those big boots to stomp over every inch of land on the place."
"Ummm, would someone mind filling in a few details for a clueless old man, please," Cobin asked almost pitifully from the other side of the table. "I mean, the last place I expected to see you, Diana, would be on my own porch, especially in the state you were in. Just were does Rell fit in to all this? And what on earth was Simon doing with you?"
"You forgot about Bet, Uncle Cobin," Simon's young voice piped in, although his nose was still pointing at the plate in front of him.
"Oh yea. And Bet too," the big farmer replied, after looking at the top of Simon's head again for the hundredth time that morning.
"You're the story-teller, Rell. You get to tell this tale and don't worry about leaving anything out. Cobin and Vicki both have a right to know everything, seeing they've been caring for my son," Diana said, causing Cobin's jaw to fall off it's hinge yet again. He didn't think he was ever going to get over the shocks he'd already experienced that day, and the day had barely gotten started.
Rell chose to start the story in LA, leaving out any details to do with the Amazons or South America. Cobin was having enough trouble as it was just keeping up with the things she did tell him. Although she also left out any direct reference to the relationship between herself and Diana, both Cobin and Vicki had clued into it long before the photojournalist had reached the end of her tale. There simply wasn't any way to hide that kind of love and commitment from people.
Finally drawing the story to a close, she said, "So we eventually staggered up the track to your place, figuring we'd better return Simon or you might think Bet and I had taken him off for some reason."
"And young Stacy is going to be all right with your friend, Bet?" Vicki asked, already quietly mourning the deaths of the girl's parents. She had known them a long time and was good friends with the child's mother.
"Bet will do her very best to see she gets well again, and other than that, she will just continue to love Stacy as much as anyone can," Diana replied with such certainty that the minds of both Cobin and Vicki were set to rest.
"So, what about Simon now?" Cobin asked Diana gently. For all his occasional grumps about the child, he did genuinely love the boy and couldn't imagine life on the farm without him. Cobin had even gone so far as to name Diana's son as his heir, with Vicki as his guardian until he was of legal age, so the youngster would eventually inherit the farm once the old mercenary had passed away.
Diana had been thinking about this non-stop since they arrived on the farm, wondering what to do with the boy now he knew his mother was really alive. Rell had noticed the little furrow in the other woman's brow as she helped Diana dress again and, after a surprisingly brief discussion, offered a solution to the problem. It had been so elegantly simple that Diana realized the leadership of the Nation had settled well on the stocky woman's shoulders.
"Why don't we ask Simon himself, seeing it is his life we're talking about," Diana said, looking at the boy as his head came up to gaze in surprise at the adults surrounding him.
"Me!?" Simon squeaked, his voice cracking dramatically for the very first time.
"Yes, you. What do you want to do now?" Rell asked, smiling to encourage the youngster. Right at the moment, Rell thought he looked for all the world like a rabbit caught in the on-coming headlights of a car.
"Well Diana And Uncle Cobin The farm " the boy started to babble. Stopping, he took a deep breath to settle himself before continuing. "What are my options?" he asked seriously, flicking his eyes from one adult to another.
Cobin tilted his head back and laughed uproariously. Quickly calming himself, he looked at Diana and said, "Well, if nothing else, I know he's your son just from that one statement alone. I can't remember how many times I heard you say that over the years."
"Oh, stop it, Cobin. You know how I hate being teased," Diana said, but the bright twinkle in her eyes was telling the old farmer otherwise. A little nugget of information he put away for another time.
Rell simply sniffed at Diana before answering Simon's question. "Well, you could come with Diana and I back to South America," she started, quickly holding up her hand when she spotted the sparkle of hope in his blue eyes. "But where we live would be considered a little primitive. There is no television, radio, phone or computer games. In fact, there are virtually no 'modern' conveniences at all. There wouldn't even be any boys your own age to talk to and play with either. We live hundreds of miles away from the nearest village that could be considered remotely civilized. And worst of all, Diana wouldn't even be at there all that much. She actually spends more time in the US and Canada than she does in South America, and very soon she will be in Europe most of the time. So, you would hardly ever see her at all. You wouldn't see a great deal of me either because my duties keep me very busy, sometimes from before dawn until well after sunset."
"What's my other option?" Simon asked, not much liking the sound of his first one.
"You could stay right here with your aunt and uncle like you've been doing your whole life, only Diana would come and visit you every time she was in Canada," Rell answered, dropping a firm glance on the other woman to let her know she wasn't going to get a choice about this particular option.
"Would you come and visit too," the boy asked innocently. He'd developed quite a liking for the little blonde.
Rell laughed aloud. "Yes, I'd come and visit too. It might be the only chance I get to see Diana myself."
Diana lightly slapped at the knee of the other woman. "Sweet Artemis, anyone would think you didn't see me for months at a time," she grumped.
The photojournalist's raised eyebrow and cheeky grin quickly let everyone know that was exactly what she thought.
Simon appeared to be thinking about what Rell had said about his options, but from her position on the arm of Diana's chair she could see the nervous way he was fidgeting with the napkin in his lap. Clearly something was on his mind that was causing him to hesitate. Then she remembered the way he had attempted to fade into the background when they arrived on the porch and his uncle had opened the door.
"Are you worried your uncle is angry at you for not telling him about Stacy and going over there on your own?" Rell asked gently.
The boy nodded and tensed up on his chair waiting to the axe to fall.
"Well, what you did was very dangerous and not the sort of thing I would recommend for most twelve year olds to be doing," Cobin said gruffly. "But your heart was in the right place by trying to help a friend in need. Though next time, how about telling me or your Aunt Vic before you go haring off into trouble, eh?" he continued, the pride and love so strong in his voice, Simon responded to it immediately.
"You mean I can stay here if I want to? Really?" the youngster asked, incredulously.
"Couldn't imagine the place without you," the old farmer replied in complete honesty, a suspicious glimmer in his eyes. Cobin suddenly snorted, wiping at his face with his napkin. "Damned pollen. Gets up a man's nose and gives him the hayfevers," he said grumpily, not fooling anyone for a second.
"Is it all right with you if I stay here, Diana?" Simon asked quietly, turning towards the woman resting in the armchair.
"Simon, all I've ever wanted is for you to be safe and loved. It's why I asked Cobin to look after you when I knew I couldn't give you the sort of life you deserved." Diana replied. "Or the sort of mother," she continued in a faint whisper, dropping her head.
The sudden scrape of a chair being quickly pushed back brought Diana's head up again. Just in time to catch the flying body of her son as he launched himself at her. "But you're the best kind of mother there is, Diana. Other boys have plain, ordinary mothers but I've got one who can throw lumps of metal hard enough to stop bad guys in their tracks, and who swings from the end of a chain better than a monkey, and who comes to save me from bad ladies with guns, and never once was afraid or didn't know what to do. That's the sort of mother I want to have," Simon said in a breathless rush.
"Well, I guess that's the sort of mother you've got then," Diana replied happily, hugging her son close. "Just don't tell the other boys. They might get incredibly jealous if they knew how plain and ordinary their own mother's were."
"Speaking of plain and ordinary," Vicki said from her position near the front window. "You two ladies might as well plan on staying here for the rest of the day because we have plain clothes and ordinary police crawling all over both farms at the moment. I doubt we could explain away some of your injuries, Diana, minor though most of them are. In fact, I can see a carload of RCMP just coming up the track now. Time to fly upstairs, little ones and put yourselves to bed. I think you could all do with some sleep, if all those yawns have anything to say."
"I wouldn't argue with my Vicki, if I were you. If she's decided to get all motherly on the lot of you, you might as well give in right now," Cobin whispered loudly enough for his plump wife to hear.
"We hear and might as well obey, in other words," Diana laughed, as Simon and Rell helped her up from her chair. With their able assistance, the three 'little ones' had flown away, completely unnoticed by the police pulling up at the front porch.
"HA!" Rell shouted. "GOTCHA!"
The stocky woman swung her staff low, expecting to sneak passed Diana's sloppy looking defenses to score a hit. In a lightning fast counter move, the other woman fouled Rell's staff. The former photojournalist's own momentum flipped her over the top of it, leaving her lying flat on her back wondering what had just happened.
"You were saying?" Diana drawled, leaning casually on her own staff as she watched Rell trying to get her bearings again. Taking pity on the other woman, the ex-mercenary held out one hand to help Rell back onto slightly shaky feet.
"Hrumph," Rell grumped, shaking the dirt from her hair. "The next time I hear that blasted healer saying you're not up to speed yet, I'll let her know she's lying."
Diana shrugged her shoulders helplessly and then broke into a cheeky grin.
"Just how are you feeling, anyway? The truth this time, not the nonsense you've been telling everyone else." Rell asked, genuinely concerned, especially considering this was Diana's first time back on the training ground since her return to the village several weeks before.
"I'm fine, really. Just some residual stiffness Anne says will work itself out over the next few weeks," Diana replied honestly. "Between the hot springs and finally being allowed to go out on patrol, I'll be back to my usual self in no time."
"Mmmm, I can think of another form of therapy that is much more beneficial." Rell paused for a beat. "For the both of us." The suggestive wriggling of her eyebrows caused Diana to chuckle lightly.
"After a week of rolling around in the hut together like demented weasels, we had to show ourselves sooner or later. People were starting to talk," Diana said, indicating the rest of the village laid out below the training ground.
"Let 'em. Even an Amazon Queen has needs. Besides, I had to wait three whole weeks until you were well enough to behave like that so called demented weasel," Rell replied, her eyebrows continuing to dance up and down. "Right now though, I need to get off this unbearably humid training ground and I need to get myself and a very naked consort into the hot springs."
"Sweet Artemis, where did you learn to be so wicked," the tall ex-mercenary laughed. Over the point of Rell's left shoulder, Diana spotted movement high on the rim wall. Shading her eyes against the bright tropical sunlight, she quickly identified who it was. "Looks like Leda is back from Bogota. Are you really sure sending any of the original Amazons into the outside world is such a good idea?" she asked, as the warrior-trainee made her way down the wall and headed up the path to the training ground.
Turning to watch the girl's progress, Rell replied, "If anyone can make the adjustment, it'll be the younger ones. We can't rely on warriors like Latona forever, and it's better if our people meet any new arrivals there, rather than putting them into the hands of strangers to get them to the clearing. I know Hunk can be trusted once the women are with him but we can't say that for the rest. I'd rather our own warriors are with the new Amazons from the moment they arrive in South America. It wasn't like Leda went by herself, anyway. She was just the only original Amazon in the group."
"I wonder what she thought of her first trip to the 'big city' then?" Diana pondered aloud.
Leda pounded across the training ground, her little travel bag bouncing merrily against her back as she made a bee line for her queen and the consort. The broad happy smile on her face made it clear she was pleased to be home again after her first trip into the outside world. Skidding to a halt, she made a sketchy half bow to Rell and Diana.
"My Queen. Consorte," she said formally, almost bubbling over with news of her trip.
"Spill it, Leda. Even I can see you're about to burst with excitement," Rell replied, ignoring tradition this one time because as queen, she could.
Digging into her bag, she pulled a slightly crumpled envelope from its tiny depths. "I have a letter from your son, Consorte," she said, handing it over quickly.
Diana still couldn't believe how rapidly that particular bit of information had flashed around the village after her return. The tall woman had even made a point of checking the temple just in case Ardeen had erected a notice board of some sort and had posted it there. What had been more surprising to her, was the way the village had accepted the idea of a male child. Perhaps it had something to do with all the different attitudes being brought in with the new Amazons, or maybe it was simply because Rell accepted it, and the rest of the village followed her lead. Diana doubted she would ever find out either way, but it did open up some options the Nation hadn't had available to it before. Options the governing council would have to explore over the next few years. Folding the letter in half, she tucked it into her boot to be read later in the day when she had a little privacy.
"So, what did you think of Bogota?" Rell asked, as this was the information that most interested her.
"It was too smelly, too loud and my behind is black and blue from being pinched. Hasn't anyone told those men that touching an Amazon against their will is just asking for trouble?" Leda replied grumpily.
"I'm sure you corrected them," Diana grinned at the trainee.
Sighing, Rell asked, "How many arms did you break?"
"I broke no arms," Leda answered, insulted that Rell would think she had so little control over herself. "A few fingers, perhaps," she finished, grinning slyly back at Diana.
"Oh god. I'm surprised you didn't get yourself arrested," Rell said, starting to walk off the training ground, the others naturally following her. It was something she didn't even notice unconsciously anymore, although it was certain Diana did.
"It seemed that their egos would not allow them to tell anyone some 'little girl' had broken their finger. I did warn them first, as Diana told me I should," the warrior-trainee replied, smiling merrily. She had actually found that part of the trip the most fun of all, but she wasn't going to tell her queen about it in case Rell decided not to send her to the outside world again. The men seemed so slow after working out with the trainers in the village since she was eight cycles old. They were hardly challenging at all, but it was great way to practice some of her close fighting skills against real opponents.
"Anyway, how did the new system work?" the Amazon Queen asked, as they all reached the side of the grounds. Rell took a moment to lift a dipper full of water to her lips from the bucket left standing in the shade made by the low fence surrounding the training area.
"I do not like the clothes I have to wear, My Queen. They are tight and restrictive and I felt like my body couldn't breathe the whole time I was away from the forest. No one was happier than me to get to the little clearing and finally change back into something more comfortable," Leda griped, tugging at the edge of her short leather skirt to indicate what she thought was comfortable clothing.
"Jeans and t-shirts are what most young women are wearing at the moment. It's pretty much standard dress for them everywhere you go," Rell explained gently, spotting that this was going to be a sore point with Leda every time she left the village. "But that isn't answering the question. Is the new system going to work, or do we have to go back to the old one again?" she asked.
The old system had meant Diana traveled for months at a time seeking out any she could find with Amazon blood in their veins, or who could adapt to the lifestyle the Amazons lived in their volcanic basin. The new system, worked out with the taller woman during their flights home, would mean Diana still traveled occasionally but she'd be at the village, and with Rell more often than she was away.
The world had been broken up into a series of smaller and more manageable areas. Each area was quietly flooded with very carefully worded advertisements placed in the classified sections of various newspapers. Something that was surprisingly easy to do with Rell's journalism contacts and Hunk's help in actually placing the advertisements. Almost as though Artemis herself had blessed the endeavor, small numbers of women would trickle in from the area they had targeted, the majority of whom did have Amazon blood running in their veins.
The second part of the system was designed to weed out any who were not suited to life in the jungle, or who could not claim an Amazon heritage. Three days very rough driving from Bogota, over some of the most pot-holed, broken up and washed out roads Diana could find on her maps, the women reached a tiny hamlet. It was the closest thing to the Amazon village Hunk knew about. There were absolutely no modern conveniences of any kind. No power, no running water and the bathroom facilities were little more than holes in the ground. To be truthful, it was probably even more primitive than the village and that was its purpose. After three days of being cramped together in the back of a small, hot truck, this would be the breaking point for anyone not genuine in their desire to be with the Amazons.
And Ardeen, or Artemis; Rell was starting to think they were one and the same, had added one more uncomfortable touch for anyone staying at the hamlet. It rained. It didn't just rain, it poured, as only it could in the tropics. Considering this was supposed to be the dry season, Rell wondered how Ardeen had managed to pull off that particular stunt but she dared not ask just in case she found out Ardeen really was the ancient Greek goddess. Somehow she wouldn't put anything passed that cunning old woman anymore.
The system had worked exceedingly well the first time it was used, so Rell added the refinement of having a small group of new Amazons meeting the women at Bogota. They, unlike the women they were escorting, traveled in a comfortable, well-sprung, air-conditioned landrover. The rough roads and a night in wet and dripping beds didn't concern them in the least. Months of Amazon training had toughened them all until there was very little that could concern them. The system wasn't perfect, they would probably make mistakes along the way, but it was better than having Diana away from the village most of the year. It also gave Rell a way of exposing the younger and more adaptable members of the original Amazons to a little of the outside world.
"We met twelve women and girls at the hotel in Bogota. By the time we reached the hamlet two of the women had turned back. We only lost one more at the hamlet itself," Leda reported with a smile. "She took one look at the privy and promptly called all of us barbarians. Why are outsider women so concerned with the 'bathroom facilities' all the time?" the trainee asked, genuinely confused.
"Because they are taught there is something shameful about functions natural to the body," Diana explained succinctly, unable to keep the smile from her face as she remembered Rell's first reaction to the ever present pot under the bed.
"And they call us barbarians," Leda replied, shaking her head in wonder over such an attitude.
"Anything else of 'interest' to report, Leda?" Rell asked, stressing the word slightly. She knew she hadn't given any direct orders about this, and there was no one better to ask than a curious seventeen year old. Anne and one of the other healers had helped her choose the women to send to the city. Now all Rell could do was cross her fingers and hope.
"Nicole, Little Anne, Amber, and Penny all went to one of those drinking places together, returning very late. They smelt a bit like the Amazon wine we make here, and of something else I had never smelled before. But they all had that warm, contented glow about them I have seen on the faces of women in new joinings. Is this what you wanted to know about?" Leda questioned, after making her report.
"You didn't?" Diana almost gasped in shock, turning towards Rell.
"No, I did not. But think about it, you surround a group of strong, determined women with acres of good looking South American manhood, and what do you think is going to happen? Besides, we can't just rely on the new arrivals to bring their children with them. We have to start breeding a few of our own. Can you think of a better way? It's completely anonymous, and no woman feels like she has to have children. You'll notice I only called for volunteers for the trips to Bogota," Rell explained, her eyes locked firmly onto the other woman's face.
"Sounds a little hit and miss to me," Diana countered, not liking it somehow but unable to quite put her finger on it.
"Why do you think Anne and Etna helped me pick who was to go on this trip? They know the cycle of every woman in the village and we chose those most likely to conceive if they should happen to 'indulge' themselves. I did tell them privately that if they spotted something appealing, by all means chase it down. They knew why they had been chosen, aside from being the best suited for this first trip, and they all agreed to go."
"I think you've been taking lessons from that priestess of ours again. You've gotten altogether too sneaky of late," Diana finally said, gently wrapping one arm around the other woman's shoulders and dropping a light kiss onto the top of her head. "Although chasing down men makes them sound like one of those jungle roosters the women are so fond of."
"Can't think of a more apt description. Flashy, showy and fabulous breeders. Yep, that just about describes your average South American man," Rell giggled. "Anyway, let's get down to the mess hall and meet the newest arrivals. I figure by now they will have had enough to eat and will want to have a look around their new home."
Trailing along behind the two women, Leda just heard Diana telling Rell how incorrigible she was. The things the Consorte said to the Queen sometimes. It was almost scandalous. The trainee shook her head, and then grinned. Leda hoped whoever she partnered with in the future thought she was incorrigible too. Spotting the open kitchen door, and thinking she probably wasn't going to be needed for a while, she trotted off to say hello to her mothers. There was so much to tell them about her trip, Leda almost didn't know where to start.
The mess hall, as expected, was abuzz with the sound of voices. Rell had recently instigated a buddy system, pairing a new arrival with an established inhabitant, right down to the youngest toddler. It was designed to help the women settle more quickly, find their way around, avoid the dangers of the jungle, as well as learn the ways of the Amazon Nation. It was certainly popular, with many new friendships beginning right there at the tables, as well as making the transition from outsider to old hand an easier one for the nervous and often culture-shocked women.
As always, Latona stood near the door continuing to watch over the women she had guided to the village, even though her responsibility had ended when she handed the new women over to their 'buddies.' The healers were moving quickly and efficiently among the women dealing with any scrapes or sprains they came across, as well as settling a few queasy stomachs. Sometimes, changing over from a highly processed 'modern' diet upset a woman's stomach until she had adjusted to the Amazon's simpler way of eating. It was a common problem to start with but generally it resolved itself in a matter of days.
Trace came bustling towards Rell and Diana as they stood near the doorway, a parchment in one hand and the quill tucked behind her ear.
"Lose the baby?" Diana asked, noticing the ever-present bundle wasn't strapped to the blonde woman's back.
Glancing over her shoulder for a moment, Trace replied, "No, Ardeen has her for now. I think she is giving those new apprentices of hers an object lesson in patience."
Both Diana and Rell raised one questioning eyebrow in a movement so identical, Trace couldn't help chuckling.
"She's teething," Trace explained, still smiling at two women so obviously meant for each other.
"Oooo, now that's cruel," Diana said, wincing at the thought.
"And you don't think we sound like that occasionally?" Rell commented wickedly. "Ardeen's apprentices are going to need more than patience to deal with an entire village full of women all PMS-ing at the same time."
"Touché," Diana replied.
"Anyway, you've got the look of a woman with a problem, Trace?" Rell said, spotting the slight frown on the little blonde woman's face as she glanced down at her parchment again.
"Yea, I've got a new arrival, with child, and no buddies to match them with. I usually know two or three days before a group gets here how many women there are and what age ranges. The scouts bring me the information from one of the checkpoints. I can't figure out how I messed up this one, seeing there are only nine of them altogether. I don't know anything about the woman other than she's here," Trace explained, scratching the back of her head with her quill.
"No volunteers?" Diana asked, looking around the mess hall.
"Nope. Anyone who could be a buddy, already has someone to look after at the moment. That last group of fifteen kinda stretched us a little. I don't want to pull a warrior or a hunter off their circuit to take care of them but I might have to if I can't find anyone else."
Rell looked up at the woman beside her. "You know, Trace's hints are about as subtle as a thunderstorm. You up to a little buddy duty?" she asked, already knowing what the answer would be.
"Yea, we can split it between us," Diana replied, giving Rell a gentle squeeze. "What's good for the subjects should be good enough for us too."
"Where've you stashed her?" Rell asked, looking around the room and not seeing anyone, children included, without a buddy sitting by their side.
Trace glanced up from the parchment she was happily scribing away on. Using the well chewed end of her quill, she pointed to the far side of the room. "Other side of that paneling, My Queen. You can just see her daughter's shoulder from here. I've got Antigone chatting with her for the moment until I could find buddies for them both," the blonde said. "If Leda would just stay in one place long enough, I was thinking about matching her with the youngster, seeing they've been traveling together for the past few weeks."
"Try the kitchen, Trace. She hasn't seen either of her mothers since she left, so she's just as likely to be there, as any place," Rell commented.
Leaving Trace to track down the trainee, the two women began to weave their way through the tables and benches. Walking through the mess hall with Diana, Rell nodded her greetings to the waves and occasional shouted 'hellos' she got. The newest Amazons nervously followed the example of their buddies, also waving to the young Queen of the Amazon Nation. Diana was given her share of greetings, as well inquiries after her health.
"Anyone would think I was at death's door when I got back here," the tall woman said a little grumpily.
"Well, you certainly weren't ready to do a front page spread for the Amazon Monthly, that's for sure," Rell replied, stepping around the paneling at the far edge of the mess hall.
A large broad shouldered woman sat with her back to Rell and Diana, a teenage girl nestled protectively against one side. Antigone spotted the queen and consort as soon as they came around the panel, gracefully getting to her feet and bowing to them.
"My Queen. Consorte," Antigone said. "May I present "
"Bet!" Rell almost squealed in absolute delight. She immediately noticed the frightened cringing of the girl and quickly hushed her tone of voice. "And how is Stacy?" she asked much more quietly.
"I am a little better than the last time we met," Stacy replied in a whisper, her eyes firmly fixed to the ground between her feet.
"My friend in LA was able to help you, then?" Diana asked, seating herself at the table, gently pulling Rell into the chair next to her.
"As much as anyone could, Diana. We just about lived in his back bedroom for six weeks, but the worst of the nightmares seem to have passed, so time and love are what she needs now. Sitting up with Stacy night after night gave me a chance to do a lot of thinking," the big woman explained.
Leda's head suddenly popped around the side of the panel, startling everyone. "Trace tells me I have a buddy over here," she said brightly, smiling at the youngster sitting nervously beside Bet.
"Give me a minute, Bet. I'll be right back," Rell requested, gently grasping one of Leda's arms and taking her to the other side of the panel. Antigone unobtrusively stepped to one side of the table so she could keep her eyes on the queen as Rell had a brief but intense discussion with the warrior-trainee. Even though Leda had traveled to the village with Bet and Stacy, the big woman was concentrated on the youngster's care, so no one had really had much chance to talk with either of them.
"Are you sure this is the right thing for both of you?" Diana asked quietly into the silence as they waited.
"Yes. Stacy and I talked it over for a long time and we made the decision together. This is the right choice for both of us," Bet answered, looking down at the girl by her side.
Rell and a much more subdued Leda reappeared, the trainee quietly standing beside the new arrivals. "The Queen has suggest I show you around, Stacy," she said gently to the youngster, holding out one hand.
"Mother?" Stacy asked, her voice quavering a little.
"The choice is yours, Little One," Bet replied simply, letting the love and quiet pride filling her eyes to encourage the child.
Stacy sat for a moment before slowly pushing her chair out and standing to her feet. Very hesitantly, she took the hand of the older girl, allowing Leda to take her from the mess hall. All three women continued to watch until both youngsters had left the room.
"Mother, eh?" Rell said archly, one eyebrow raised in surprise.
"It just sorta happened, and she did feel more comfortable with everything after that," Bet explained, unable to keep the blush from creeping up her face. "We're not sure she'll ever make a full recovery but if she continues to improve the way she has been, I think she'll be all right. It's almost like we are helping her rebuild her personality over again. I guess she's always going to be a little quiet, more easily startled than most. I just hoped Stacy would be acceptable here. Once I finally started listening to myself and what I wanted, I called that number you gave me, and before I knew it, we were both on a plane headed for South America. Stacy may never be an Amazon in the truest sense of the word, but I figure I am big enough to be two Amazons all by myself," she smiled, indicating her broad shoulders and muscular arms.
"Of course Stacy is acceptable here. So is anyone who makes an honest commitment to the Nation. We can also help protect and gently challenge Stacy. In the outside world, she would probably just end up being used by some filth who doesn't know the first thing about honor," Rell stated firmly.
"I kind of hoped you'd say that," Bet said, gratitude coloring her voice and bringing a tear to her eye.
"Well, wait until the trainers get a load of you up on the grounds. You'll really know what 'challenged' is once they get a-hold of you," Diana commented wickedly.
"I was kind of hoping you'd say that too. I was thinking I might like to train as a warrior. That Latona really impressed me at the clearing," Bet laughed.
"Hmmm, FBI agent, undercover cop, Amazon Warrior. Yea, it all seems to fit," Rell replied, starting to smile herself. "Just do us one favor, will you Bet?" she asked.
"If you ever use that atrocious, fake accent around here, I'll set Antigone on you in a flash," Rell replied. "And don't think I wouldn't either. I'm the blasted queen around here," she finished haughtily.
"I've just got one question," Bet said.
"Ask away," both Diana and Rell replied.
"Where does an Amazon go to get a pair of those boots?"
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