Moonlight Dancer by Jamie Boughen

Moonlight Dancer
by Jamie Boughen
A Sequel to In The Shadow of an Eagle’s Wing

Ardeen and Rell sat together on their favorite spot high on the rim of the volcanic basin watching a small group of women and girls making their first nervous trip along the narrow path leading up to the Amazon village. Even from this distance, their pale faces could clearly be seen as each made a determined effort not to look at the jumble of boulders at the base of the mountain below them. The new Amazon Queen and old priestess watched silently as the last woman was carefully guided up the track and over the rim.

“Is that the last of them?” Ardeen asked, turning towards Rell.

“I think so, according to the note Diana sent a couple of weeks back,” Rell replied.

“It’s interesting that she has managed to find so many with Amazon blood running in their veins,” the old woman commented.

“Mmmm, she does seem to have a knack for it, doesn’t she. But as far as we have been able to check, most appear to be direct descendants from the various groups Gabrielle and Xena sent out originally,” Rell explained.

“And the rest?” the priestess asked, one eyebrow rising in query.

“Will make excellent Amazons, regardless of what heritage runs in their blood.”

It had been one of the first decisions Rell had made as the newly arrived Queen of the Amazon Nation. With so few warriors still young enough to patrol the vast area of jungle the women had claimed as their own, Rell had decided to see if they could find any more remnants of the groups sent into the world all those centuries before. Diana had shown an extraordinary ability in finding the descendants of those original Amazons, no matter where they had ended up. Rell had not been the least bit surprised when Ardeen had told her one of the old legends about the way Xena had always been able to sense the presence of a god or goddess nearby. It appeared that Diana, as the present carrier of Xena’s soul, had simply stretched the ability to help find any potential Amazon hidden in today’s society.

Looking over her shoulder, Ardeen said, “Diana has been gone for almost two moons now but the number of women she is finding seems so small, if the way you described the overflow of humanity is taken into account.”

Totaling the little groups of newly arrived women together in her head, Rell figured they had about a third of the numbers that the village once held at the height of its population. “Well, everyone who has arrived so far came just from the US and Canada. She’s headed for Europe next, and I think she’ll find a lot more there. At least, I hope she does. Right now, though, I’m just grateful Diana is coming home for a couple of weeks before taking off again,” Rell said.

“Miss her, do you?” the old woman asked, a cheeky smile adding even more wrinkles to her lined face.

Rell blushed deeply, still not used to being in a place where relationships between those of the same gender was so openly accepted. “Of course I miss her. I haven’t seen her for more than a few days at a time since I got here,” she finally managed to say. “Actually, I am surprised she waited a whole year for me to return at all,” was Rell’s sober comment.

“She waited because of the past that binds you, the present that supports you and the future you will have together. Diana was not completely unhappy among us, you know. She did use her time well and learned a great deal,” the priestess offered.

Rell snorted. “I sometimes feel like she just inhaled the entire Amazon history in one deep breath. It’s taking me forever to learn all the legends and stories.”

“Diana was also not being distracted by the duties of a queen, either. If she wasn’t out on patrol, once she finished her weapons-work for the day, she had nothing better to do with herself other than to bury her head in every scroll we could find.” Ardeen began to laugh, taking some minutes to bring herself back under control again. “To tell you the truth, child. I think she knows the chronicles better than even I, and I’ve had many more cycles to read them.”

“And how is this so funny?” a perplexed Rell asked.

“Because I just can’t picture Diana as the next priestess of the Amazon Nation.” Ardeen dissolved into chuckles once more, although this time Rell was laughing as well.

Once the two women had grown quiet again, Rell stood, dusting the back of her short leather skirt with one hand. “Well, Ardeen. However much I might want to stay up here all day and just admire that view, I do have to go and see our newest arrivals and make sure they are settled in as quickly as possible,” she said.

“They have endured much to be with us, and all this strangeness can be a bit overwhelming to start with. Something familiar always helps ease them into Amazon life,” Ardeen said.

“Someone who speaks American style English is what you mean, don’t you. I know Meropa, you, and Diana worked like Trojans trying to get everyone speaking a little English, but sometimes you just can’t hear the words through that ancient Greek accent you all have. At least everyone arriving has been exposed to a little Spanish, in one form or another, so that does make communicating somewhat easier. It’s going to be an absolute nightmare once we start getting women coming from places where English, let alone Spanish, isn’t even spoken.” Rell said.

Patting the strong leg beside her, Ardeen offered, “Artemis will find a way of making sure we can all understand each other.”

“God, tell her to hurry, will you,” Rell said, exasperated at the thought of the Babel the village would become once the European women started arriving. “Do you want a hand down?” the younger woman asked, hoping the priestess would say yes.

“No. I’m quite content to simply watch the world go by for now, child.” Ardeen answered. “I’ll meet the new Amazons as they find their way to my temple, as they always do.”

The priestess knew Rell was still a little nervous of standing before each new group and telling them she was to be their queen. The worst of that nervousness had worn off now simply because the old woman made it clear it was the duty of the Queen and something Rell simply had to do. It helped too, that each newly arrived group had accepted that the former journalist was not only the Amazon Queen, but she was to be their leader as well.

“I’ll send Leda up later then to help you down,” Rell said.

“Be off with you,” Ardeen grumped. “I may be well into my crone cycles but I am not so ancient that I can’t walk down a perfectly safe path.”

Rell leaned forward and dropped a gentle kiss onto the top of Ardeen’s thinning gray hair. “As your queen, I just want to be sure my priestess stays safe and doesn’t blow her dignified image by tumbling down that path like some uncoordinated youngster.”

Surprised by the unexpected affection, the old woman was left speechless for a moment and could only watch as Rell bounced down the little track with all the agility of a mountain sheep. Wiping a happy tear from her cheek, Ardeen turned back to the expansive view of the jungle, allowing the gentle caring of the younger woman to settle about her like a favorite cloak.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Stepping into the mess hall, Rell took a moment to run her eye over the newest arrivals in the village before moving to stand beside Latona. The healers were moving around among the women, applying ointment to their cuts and scrapes, or binding the few sprains or strains they found. The women, though wide-eyed with curiosity, were tucking into the meal laid out before them with some gusto. Rell spotted two young women, perhaps in their late teens, who didn’t appear to have a great deal of interest in the food placed before them. Both were pale and sweating, with one clutching at her stomach as though she was about to throw up at any moment. Scattered among the arrivals were a small number of children, ranging in age from babes in arms to girls just approaching puberty. They were equally curious about everything going on around them but they were devouring their meals with as much enjoyment as the older women surrounding them. Though the Amazon version of trail rations was quite nutritious, after eating nothing else for the two weeks the journey from the clearing had taken, the meal before them must have tasted like ambrosia.

“Hola, Latona. Any trouble getting them here?” Rell asked.

“No more than usual, My Queen,” the middle aged warrior replied. “Though I sometimes wonder where they learned to walk. Every day someone would trip and fall. Never have I seen such clumsy women before.”

“Go easy on them, Latona. Most have spent their lives in the hard canyons of the city. Our world is bound to be terrifying until they are used to it. Give ’em a month and they will be running through the tree-tops as though they were born to it. Which, in fact, most of them were,” Rell explained, with a laugh.

The warrior snorted, wondering if she would even be able to get some of these women up into the trees so they could learn to be true Amazons.

“Tell me about that pair over there,” Rell said, unobtrusively pointing in the direction of the two sweating young women. “What’s their story?”

“Them,” Latona grunted, brown eyes snapping with suppressed anger. “They’ve caused more trouble by themselves than all the others put together. If I were to have my way, I would leave them to the jungle creatures and forget they ever existed.”

Drawing the woman away from the nearest table so they could have a little more privacy, Rell silently asked what had happened with the lift of a single eyebrow. A little something she had learned from being around Diana.

“The man, Hunk, brought them to the clearing but they didn’t want to move much, seeming to be more asleep than awake. We almost had to carry them all the way here. They kept disappearing into the forest, getting lost more often than not. Each time we found them again, they were even more unmotivated to continue. Last night, the sentry spotted them some distance from our camp, with little metal things sticking out of their arms. It is good you warned us of how sharp those are, because after searching their bags, we found many more. We also found much of that white powder you said outsiders sometimes use.”

“Damn. Addicts. Oh well, I knew we would get some sooner or later, if my own drunken spree was any indication,” Rell said.

It was now Latona’s turn to raise a quizzical eyebrow at the younger woman.

Rell sighed. Very few in the village knew of her months spent drinking herself into oblivion every day trying to forget about the Amazons and the call of her own destiny. But the warrior by her side did deserve some kind of an explanation, if only for having put up with the youngsters for the entire trip.

“Sometimes the call in our blood is so strong that the only way to still the voice is to try to wipe our minds out of existence. I spent the first five months after I left the jungle so drunk I barely knew my own name. This pair have probably been hearing the same call their whole lives but not knowing of us, they tried to stop that calling with drugs.” Rell explained, the sadness in her tone clear to the woman by her side.

“So what can we do now?” Latona asked, a little more inclined to be understanding.

“Separate them, and then hand them over to the healers until their bodies are healthy. Once they are well again, send them to Ardeen. She can help heal their minds,” Rell said. Sighing deeply; she despised having to do this but it was necessary for the continued safety of the village. “Give them six months, Latona. If they settle and are willing to be with us, they can stay. If not, the healers can wipe their minds of everything they have seen here, and we’ll make arrangements for them to be returned to wherever they came from.”

“As you command, My Queen,” the older woman said stiffly. She hated having to return anyone to the outside world, considering they were so few in the village. But she could see the sense in the young queen’s orders, she was just glad she didn’t have to make that decision herself. Anyone brought to the Amazon village had to be there of their own free will, and no one was forced to stay if they truly wished to return. So far, only a few had made the trip back to the outside world, and all of those had been women who could not claim a direct connection with the original Amazons.

“Anyway, tell me a little about the others,” Rell asked, making a deliberate effort to shake off the feeling she might have just condemned the young women if they didn’t choose to be part of the Nation.

Latona spent the next several minutes detailing what she knew of the new arrival’s skills, and the possible personality traits they possessed after watching them travel through the jungle for the past two weeks. Rell was pleasantly surprised at the range of skills the women had to offer. Aside from the two drug addicted youngsters, the rest would probably settle into life as an Amazon without any trouble at all. She would make a point of meeting the women individually later, but for now, it was best to let them eat and rest after the long journey through the forest to get to the village.

After thanking Latona for her patience in dealing with the outsiders, Rell left the mess hall headed back to her own home in the center of the village. The thatched roofed building had once belonged to Meropa; the former queen but Rell had inherited it when the old woman had passed away. Settling at the desk, Rell turned her mind to the latest pile of paperwork her assistant had laid out for her attention. Trying to concentrate, she made an effort not to think about Diana’s impending return, instead attempting to figure out how they would feed and clothe everyone until the women had developed the skills needed to take care of themselves.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Well after sunset, Rell wandered back into her home after her first formal meeting with the new arrivals. Even though most of the women had come from democratic societies, they were willing to accept the former photojournalist as their leader-by-right, once a brief history of the Amazon Nation had been explained to them. As always, Rell had been pleased to see the changes already apparent among the newest arrivals.

Every woman wore the short, split-to-the-waist leather skirt of the Amazons, with calf high boots to protect their feet and lower legs. From there, taste and modesty dictated their choices. Most of the older women, and those still suckling their youngsters had chosen to wear the breast band popular with the hunters of the tribe. The majority of the younger women and all of the girls wore nothing across their breasts at all. A few had painted the exposed skin in the fashion of those they saw around them, but for most, they were simply bare to the moonlight.

“Not even here one full day and already they’re settling in,” Rell mumbled to herself as she lit the little oil lamp hanging from the ceiling. “Never ceases to amaze me how quickly they find themselves as Amazons.”

“And why should they not? It runs strongly in their blood, after all,” a gentle voice said from the doorway.

“Come and sit down, Old One,” the younger woman said, indicating a comfortable, overly cushioned chair at the table. “I don’t doubt what they have inside them, Ardeen. I just find it a little startling to see how quickly they settle into life here.”

“You settled quickly,” the priestess observed, surreptitiously tossing the extra cushions onto the floor behind her while Rell’s back was turned.

“Once I finally got over actually having a destiny to fulfill and got my buns down here, that is,” Rell laughed in reply.

“And now you know what it is to try to deny that call. Something you use every time you speak to a new arrival. They too, have heard the call of their destiny and used whatever method worked to quiet that voice inside. It gives you an empathy with the women you might not have had if you had stayed with us from the start.”

“Sometimes, old woman, I think you are just too cunning for your own good.” Rell lowered herself into her own favorite chair and looked over at the priestess sitting calmly beside her.

“Not my doing, My Queen. Artemis wanted you. I am merely the conduit through which she occasionally passes,” Ardeen shrugged in reply.

Rell made a mental note to continue this topic with the old priestess later, as the first of her other guests stepped into the room. A tall, slim woman entered, dressed in the smock of a healer. Anne was somewhat older than Rell, being in her late thirties. Traveling with one of the first groups to arrive at the village, she had been quite an addition to the Amazon Nation. Rell still wasn’t quite sure how Diana had managed to find the woman.

Trained as a general medical practitioner, she had gone into research after less than a year in open practice. Two more years with a bio-research company and the woman had realized she wanted to study the more traditional methods of healing. This had led her on a meandering course through several disciplines before finally gaining her degree in Naturopathy.

Now she worked with the healers of the Nation, both learning their ways and teaching the things she knew. Her background in research came in handy because for the first time, many of the traditional medicines could be documented, and perhaps new uses found for them. It also helped calm many a nervous new arrival to find someone trained in Western medicine working with the healers. Anne was not the most senior of the healers, quite the opposite in fact, but her English was perfect and that was more important for this gathering.

“How goes our two latest patients?” Rell asked as the slim woman seated herself, nodding respectfully to Ardeen as she did so.

“About how you would expect all withdrawals to be. Nasty,” Anne said, tossing her long brown braid over one shoulder with a flick of her head. “But they’ll live and Ardeen can probably have them in ten days or so. Surprisingly, neither has been addicted that long. Maybe six months or a little more. We’ve got them strapped to a couple of mattresses on the floor right now until the worst of the withdrawal is over. Latona loaned us several of her biggest warriors for a day or so, and Etna has instructions on what to do with them until I get back, seeing I am the only one who has ever seen drug addiction before.”

“If they had only been using for six months, what did they do before that?” Rell asked, needing to fill the gap in her knowledge in case there were more addicts headed their way in the future.

“Alcohol, pills and marijuana,” the healer stated succinctly. “First on their own and then in various, and increasing combinations until it led them to the needle.” Turning towards the old priestess, Anne continued. “Seems they both were trying to stop a rather insistent female voice they could hear in their heads. I’d say at a guess, that is your department, Old One.”

Ardeen sat up a little straighter in her chair, focusing her attention on the healer. “You have stripped them of clothing?” she asked.

“First thing we did, and then we dunked them both in the hot springs because I doubt we are going to be able to properly bathe either of them for a few days,” Anne replied, curious.

“Did you notice a mark on them? A birthmark, perhaps? Here, on the shoulder?” Ardeen questioned, touching a spot in the hollow of her right shoulder with the fingertips of her left hand.

“Well, yes. Looked like someone had burned them with an arrowhead or something that looked a lot like one. I just assumed they must have hurt themselves with a cigarette when they were stoned out of their minds,” the healer answered.

Ardeen sat back with a wide, satisfied smile on her face.

“Now, how about you let your queen in on the big secret,” Rell asked archly.

“Oh, it’s nothing much. I think I may have just found my successors at the temple,” she explained happily.

“Great, hairy, horny toads. Just what we need. Two more of you cunning types running about the village,” the younger woman said, throwing her hands up in mock horror.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Latona, as the representative for the warriors and Antigone, standing for the hunters were the next to enter the common room of Rell’s hut. Each woman had worked hard to get their English to a point were they could be easily understood; although both had different reasons for doing so. Latona was the first Amazon warrior the outsiders met at the clearing, and for all her grumbles, she was perfect for introducing the women to the way of the Amazons. Being able to speak clear English meant she could patiently answer their endless questions about the life of a warrior, or any other area of the Amazon lifestyle. Many a young woman had chosen her path after speaking with the middle-aged woman during the trip back to the village. She also acted as Rell’s contact point between the village safety tucked away in the volcanic basin, and the rest of the outside world through the conduit of Diana’s friend, Hunk.

Antigone, on the other hand, had never quite forgiven herself for striking the young queen when a hunting party had come across an injured Rell and Diana at the edge of the village. She had pestered Diana during the cycle Rell was in the outside world, hoping to learn enough English to be able to communicate with the queen should she return.

When Antigone wasn’t on a hunting trip, or teaching her skills to the new Amazons, she had rounded up several other dedicated women and formed an unofficial Royal Guard for the queen. One member of this guard was with the young woman whenever she roamed the village, their duty signified by the bright blue feathers braided into their long hair. Antigone had practiced Rell’s mother tongue so diligently, she now spoke it very well indeed, complete with the same faint accent Diana had. (A constant source of endless, private amusement for Rell.)

“How are the new arrivals settling in, Latona?” Rell asked as the middle-aged warrior seated herself at the table.

“With the usual round of complaints about the ‘bathroom facilities’, gasps of delight when they see the hot pools, a certain amount of stunned amazement that we truly exist here and some embarrassment when they discover underclothing is optional,” the warrior replied ticking off each item on her fingers.

“In other words, exactly like every other group who has arrived to date,” Rell stated. She opened her mouth to say something else and the sound of a crying baby filled the room instead.

For a moment, Antigone thought her Queen was doing an impersonation, until she realized the sound was coming from the anti-chamber of the hut.

On the heels of the wailing, a young, distracted woman bustled into the room. Both her hands were filled with small rolls of parchment, and strapped across her back with the source of the amazingly loud crying.

“Give her to me, Trace. You’ve had that sound in your ears since eve-meal,” the priestess said, climbing to her feet with surprising agility for one so old. Unstrapping the child from her mother’s back, the old woman sat down again in her chair. Blowing gently on the shrieking infant’s face for several moments, the priestess finally caught the attention of the youngster. The sound suddenly cut off as though a knife had sliced through it. In less than a minute the child was chortling gleefully, making ineffectual grabs at the bright necklace around the old woman’s neck.

“That’s quite a trick, Old One. I wish you would teach it to me,” Trace said, running one hand through her rapidly-growing-out blonde hair in exasperation.

“The very old and the very young just know how to speak to each others hearts. There is no trick involved,” Ardeen replied quietly, propping the child against her shoulder and rubbing her little back softly. Within moments the infant was relaxing into sleep.

“Knowing you, there probably is,” Rell said to the old woman as she watched the child’s eyes slowly close. “Anyway, now that we can all hear each other again, I’d like to introduce Latona and Antigone to Trace. She was chosen last week to represent the women who have joined us recently.”

The introductions were made rapidly, though Latona had already met Trace when the warrior had guided her group to the village. Antigone was the only one who had not met the young mother before because the hunter had been away on an extended foraging trip, trying to find enough meat to feed all the hungry new mouths that had been arriving.

Once all the introductions had been made, Rell continued. “The only one who isn’t here is Leda. I wonder what’s keeping her?”

As though speaking the warrior-trainee’s name conjured her out of the air, the teenager suddenly appeared at the doorway. Blushing when she realized she was running late, Leda hurried to take the last chair surrounding the table.

“Sweet Artemis,” she said. “I completely lost track of the time, My Queen. Some of the new ones just seemed to have a question for everything and I couldn’t get away without appearing rude.”

“No problem, Leda. We hadn’t really started yet,” Rell offered trying to put the teenage girl at ease in the company of her elders. Sweeping her eyes around the gathered group, Rell said, “Leda has been chosen as the voice of all the trainees we have at the moment, though admittedly, some are just about old enough to be her mother.”

“I’ll try to do my best, My Queen,” Leda mumbled at the top of the table. She really didn’t feel she deserved this honor, seeing there were so many trainees older than she, but when they were asked to pick a speaker for them all, there had only been one choice. The warrior-trainee had accepted only because she had become friends with Rell over the past few moons, and had found she was always approachable, regardless of the fact the stocky woman was the Queen of the Amazons.

Rell whispered to the youngster by her side, “Your spoken English is wonderful. Do you think you have learned enough to write it too? We need someone to keep a record of the meeting.”

Leda nodded, pulling a quill, the ink-pot and several sheets of parchment towards herself from the center of the table. Loading the quill with ink, she waited for the meeting to begin.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Each of you has been chosen to speak for your own section of our community,” Rell started. “Once we have some crafters working, we’ll organize a representative for them as well but until then, you are the core group of something I would like to think of as a governing council.”

The women seated at the table nodded in understanding. Rell had spoken with all of them at one point or another, bouncing her thoughts and ideas off them. The former photojournalist wasn’t trying to change the way the Nation had been ruled for thousands of years; she was merely adapting the concepts she already knew about. The ruling Queen had always had a body of advisors and this group was simply an extension of that idea. It would give everyone in the village a feeling of being more involved with the day to day governing and if they were involved, then the Nation would thrive.

“So, before we can plan ahead, we need to know what we have to work with. I guess that means the floor is yours, Trace,” Rell said, settling herself comfortably in her chair.

“Before I get started on that, there is one point I would like to bring up, if that is allowed,” Trace asked hesitantly, looking at Rell.

“You’ve got the floor, Trace. Whatever you think is important, you can talk about. If we don’t agree, I’m pretty sure we’ll tell you soon enough,” the Amazon Queen explained, establishing some informal ground rules for future meetings.

“Well, a lot of the women, the new ones I mean, are not too happy with being referred to as new arrivals all the time. I know we are and all but when Diana found each of us, she made it clear that Amazon blood runs in our veins. Something you told us again on the first night we got here. And well, calling us the new ones all the time is kinda…it’s kinda…” Trace trailed off, unsure of what to say.

“Condescending of Amazon dignity,” Ardeen offered.

“Exactly,” the young mother replied. “I know we have a lot to learn but we are learning, and fast too. Nearly everyone from the first two groups who decided they wanted to be warriors are out on patrol right this very minute. And some of the others go out on regular hunting trips to help feed us. I realize we are new, but when do we stop being new arrivals and start to be real Amazons?” Trace asked, catching the eye of everyone at the table.

“God, I hadn’t thought about that one,” Rell replied, clearly perplexed by the question. “I’m open to ideas.”

“Perhaps I can help here,” Ardeen said quietly, shifting the sleeping child from one shoulder to the other. “I think I can come up with some sort of acceptance ceremony for the women. Once they have reached a certain level of competence in their chosen area, we could hold a ceremony where they swear an oath of honor and we accept them as true Amazons. Do you think that will satisfy the women?” the priestess asked.

Trace thought about it for a moment, remembering all the things the women had said to her over the past few months. Nodding, she answered, “Yes, I think that would do it. Then we would have a way of saying we are Amazons, and not simply Johnny-come-latelys.”

“Maybe we could give them something too, practical gifts of some kind, like we do when a girl reaches her womanhood,” Latona said.

“That would work,” Rell replied. “I’ll leave it for you and Ardeen to sort something out,” she said to Trace.

Smiling, Trace picked up the first of her little scrolls and began to list the skills and knowledge the women had brought with them from the outside world.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rell sat on the side of her bed; tired after another long day, but pleased the meeting with her new ‘governing council’ had gone so well. Finding the right balance between newly arrived and original Amazons had been hard enough, but she was also trying to blend two totally different styles of leadership at the same time. The original Amazons had grown used to taking orders from their queen, rarely questioning them unless it was clear something was wrong. The newer Amazons had all come from governments that were democratic, where they were used to having ‘voting rights’ and far more say in what was done. The ‘council’ was Rell’s way of trying to blend both styles together into a workable whole. Whether this would continue to work if Diana found more Amazons in socialist or communist countries was yet to be seen, but for now, what they had appeared to be acceptable to the women of the village.

Reaching over to the little night-stand beside the bed, she picked up a personal note Diana had included with her last message to the village. It was just a few lines, meant for Rell’s eyes only but to the young woman it was better than a sonnet of epic length. Reading through the note again, as she had done every night since its arrival, she was once more filled with the gentle warmth of the other woman’s love.

Replacing it on the night-stand, Rell stood and walked over to the window. Staring into the night sky, she mentally counted off the days since the note had arrived, realizing Diana would be returning to the village sometime in the next day or so. Rell had been so busy settling each new group of women and setting up her council, she’d completely lost track of the time.

Rell felt a curious sense of timelessness living at the bottom of the volcanic basin. There were no real intrusions from the outside world, other than the proliferation of new accents she heard at meal times. Even the weather conspired to help her forget the passage of time. Living in a tropical climate, there was only the wet months followed by the dry to note the change of season. The Amazons did celebrate the beginning of each spring, summer and winter, but these were arbitrary designations, usually decided on by the priestess rather than some indication of the weather changing.

Stripping off her breast band, leather skirt and boots, Rell settled herself on the bed. The Amazon day began well before dawn to avoid the worst of the heat, and her own activities usually went well past sunset as she dealt with the myriad of problems this new life presented her. Feeling herself relaxing and start to fade into sleep, she wonder if the queen and consort could possibly slip away for a few days of quietness together. After all, it had been a long time since they’d had any private time alone.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The dryness of her throat woke Diana from a sleep filled with half formed dreams and flashes of nightmare memory. The instant her consciousness realized she was truly awake, years of mercenary training immediately kicked in, keeping her still and quiet until she could make sense of what had happened to her. Her mouth was filled with a foul tasting, gritty rag held in place by a tight cloth tied over the lower part of her face. A faint twitch of her eyebrow told her she was also blindfolded as well. She could feel the rawness of the abraded flesh around her wrists, tightly secured by tough rope. Another cord lashed her elbows together painfully behind her back. Her legs had also been tied twice. Once at the ankle and again at the knee, a loop from the same rope passing through both and attached to the bindings at her wrists and elbows. Whoever had tied her definitely knew their business because there wasn’t the slightest amount of slack in any of the cordage.

Mentally shaking her head to clear away the cobwebs, Diana tried to remember what had happened.

The last clear memory she had was of being in a cab, headed for the airport and the first leg of her journey back to the Amazon village in South America. It had been one of the new taxis with a plexi-glass panel going from floor to ceiling, protecting the driver from being shot in the back. It also covered the entire width of the taxi to prevent anyone from simply reaching around and attacking the driver from the side.

For a new cab however, the back seat area had smelled strongly of urine and other less appealing odors. The first hint Diana had had of there being any trouble was when she tried to open a window to flush the pungency from the confined space with a rush of fresh, cool air. For some reason, the switch on the electronic window would not responded to her touch.

Assuming the window was controlled from the front, Diana had reached forward to tap on the plexi-glass separating her from the driver. She could vaguely remember hearing a faint hiss and then darkness had swallowed her.

Damn, had to be chloroform to have knocked me out that quickly, Diana thought, now she remembered what had gone on just before losing consciousness. I probably couldn’t smell it for all the other nasty odors going up my nose at the time.

Having figured out how she got there, Diana would have liked to have known exactly where ‘there’ was. Under her cheek she could feel the scratchy softness of carpeting laid over something hard. Concrete or metal she finally decided. The biggest clue to her location was to be found in the very air she was breathing. The smell of hot tarmac and aviation fuel filled her nostrils as Diana took a deep, surreptitious breath. The acrid tang of her own sweat was also very strong, telling the tall woman she had been there for some hours, if not longer. She could also just make out the scent of old dust but was unable to decide if it was close to her or some distance away.

Sharpening her ears, she could hear the far away sound of aircraft engines. It was not the roar of the huge jets but the buzz made by much smaller light aircraft. The faint sound reaching her closely listening ears was both muffled and echoing at the same time. Diana realized she was inside something that was probably standing in a large, nearly empty hangar. Most likely the hangar was on the far edge of some airfield, judging by the indistinct sounds coming from the planes landing and taking off. Remembering the smell of old dust, she assumed this particular hangar hadn’t been used in a long time.

While still listening, she heard the sound of an ordinary wooden door being slammed closed and footsteps walking confidently across concrete. When the floor under her shifted slightly, Diana realized she was in the back of a small plane. The movement was caused by someone climbing onto the wing as they entered the aircraft. A rush of cooler air came into the plane as the unknown person opened the hatch. The scent of an expensive after-shave wafted towards Diana, letting her know the person was male. She inadvertently twitched as the sound of footsteps thudded loudly across the floor of the plane and straight into her ear as it pressed against the carpeting.

Forcing herself to lie still, she waited to see if the man had noticed her small movement. Diana started cursing silently when she heard the brush of his body across the fabric of the seats. Feeling fingers on the pulse point at her neck, she kept her breathing even, feigning sleep. There was a small popping sound she couldn’t identify, immediately followed by a sharp prick on her arm. Struggling against the ropes, Diana tried to fight back. Kicking out with her legs almost dislocated both her shoulders as the cordage tightened the attached loop at her wrists and elbows. Diana wriggled about, trying to sit up, only to find her muscles had turned to jelly.

The darkness she had escaped from such a short time ago enveloped her once more. In the moment before she slipped back into her own nightmare memories, she felt the man drape a blanket over her unresisting body. From there, Diana was not to know anything more for some time to come.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Latona and Antigone stood together on the rim wall watching the small figures of various women as they learned to use the weapons of the Amazon warrior on the training ground below them. Among the women and girls was the unmistakable posture of the Queen as she practiced with her staff against one of the older trainers.

The warrior and the hunter had quietly left the village the morning before, telling no one of their intentions. Moving rapidly through the tree-tops, as only an Amazon could, they’d headed for the little clearing Diana had arranged as the meeting point between the outsiders and the Amazons. Traveling all day and far into the night, they had gotten a third of the way down the path before turning back. They had made the journey simply because they had seen the worry starting to shadow the eyes of their queen as the time of her consort’s arrival had come, and was now long past.

“Aieee. It’s been a full seven-day since the time Diana said she would return. I would not like to be her when the Little One finally does get her hands on her lover again,” Antigone said, watching a particularly savage strike from Rell knock the staff from the trainer’s hands.

“At least we can tell her for certain there has been no one on this end of the trail for the past ten days. The only trace we found were those we made ourselves when we guided the last group of women to the village,” Latona stated.

“She will not like it,” the hunter said, shrugging one shoulder.

“That there was no other trace, or the fact we left without informing her first?” the warrior asked, turning towards the other woman.

“Most likely both, if I know the Little One.” Antigone laughed lightly, remembering the volume Rell’s stocky frame was capable of producing. A volume that had increased, if such a thing was possible, as her body had gained in strength since her return to the village. Rell rarely found occasion to raise her voice, but when she did, the entire tribe, and probably half the surrounding jungle knew about it.

“We did what we had to do, Antigone. Are we not Amazons and warriors? We have nothing to fear from our own queen,” Latona said.

“Who are you trying to convince, Latona? Only a fool does not fear the wrath of the Little One, and right now we have plenty of fear if we don’t get ourselves down there now and explain our absence to her.”

“Sweet Artemis. We’ve been spotted,” the warrior said, seeing the way Rell was standing on the training ground, one hand shading her eyes so she could see who was on the rim.

“Remember, she is our queen. It wouldn’t look good if she killed both her best warrior and her best hunter on the same day,” Antigone called over one shoulder, already making her way down to the training ground to account for where she had been for the past day…and why.

” Querida diosa, I just hope I have some skin left by the time she finishes flaying me,” the warrior muttered, making her own way down the path behind the hunter.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

With eyes deeply shadowed and red-rimmed from lack of sleep, Rell looked at the gathered members of her council. Their grim and serious expressions were eclipsed by the sheer determination on Rell’s face. Locking her fingers together on the top of the table, so she wouldn’t start thumping it if she lost her temper, Rell doggedly plowed back into the discussion.

“Diana said she would be back a few days after the last group of women was guided in. We waited an extra week after that, and then Latona and Antigone checked the trail at this end. They didn’t find anything,” Rell explained, leaving out the way she had privately dressed down the pair for disappearing so unexpectedly. “Hunk says there’s been no sign of her at his end either. His friends haven’t seen or heard anything at Bogota, which is where she would have arrived. And as far as Hunk has been able to find out for us, Diana never even left the United States.”

“We know all this,” Anne said. “Somehow she just…disappeared right off the face of the earth.”

“No one ever simply ‘disappears’, Anne. They either do it themselves, or someone helps them,” Rell stated, knowing from her years as a photojournalist just how those disappearances could be arranged. “I seriously doubt Diana disappeared of her own volition.”

“But as the healer said, we already know Diana didn’t leave that outside place,” Latona stated from the other side of the table. “The big man’s messenger of Mercury checked for us, at your request.”

Rell sighed silently. This wasn’t the time to try explaining, again, about some of the communication devices of the outside world. She did wish however, that she had something as simple as a cell phone right now. It would certainly make tracking down the tall woman a great deal easier. As it was, her council was not going to like what she had to say next.

“Okay, we’ve done about as much as we can from here. Looks like I have to go back to the States and find her myself,” Rell said, waiting for the uproar to begin once her statement had sunk in.

There were several heartbeats of stunned silence before Latona, Anne, Trace and Leda had all leapt to their feet, loudly exclaiming the many and varied reasons why Rell could not go. Rell saw that Ardeen had kept her seat, an inscrutable expression on her face, but she didn’t think the old priestess would have opposed her anyway. She was also surprised to note the first person she had expected to try to stop her, was still seated as well. Antigone sat quietly waiting for the loudest of the voices to compose themselves a little.

As the others gradually settled back into their chairs, Antigone got to her feet. Because she spoke so rarely at the meetings of the council, her words seemed to have more impact.

“Artemis brought our queen to us, and then guided her return. The great goddess of the Amazon Nation will take care of Rell in the outside world and bring her safely home, with Diana.” Sitting back down again, it was clear her few, simple words had touched on something fundamental, especially in Latona and Leda who had known of the goddess all their lives.

“Thank you, Antigone,” Rell said quietly.

“You are not happy without Diana. And if you are not happy, then it affects the rest of the Nation,” the hunter replied. “I have trusted Artemis to protect me in times of trouble and I know I can trust her to protect you. We have to support you and whatever decision you make.”

“I swore an oath of loyalty to my queen. If this is your decision, then I must support it also,” Latona said, a little subdued. “I trust Artemis to bring you home, where you belong.”

Around the table, heads nodded in agreement, though Anne and Trace were a little slower to react. They had only learned of the goddess since their arrival in the village and had not grown to trust Artemis as completely as those brought up with her.

“Ardeen?” Rell questioned, as the old priestess had been the only one not to speak.

“Come by the temple before you go, child and I will ask Artemis to bless your search,” the old woman offered. “I know you already have her protection or you would not have come back to us to start with.”

“Thank you for understanding, Old One,” Rell replied, affectionately clasping her strong fingers around Ardeen’s.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rell stood for a moment in a quiet eddy on the edge of the crowd. After several months of hearing nothing louder than the occasional shout on the training grounds or the booming roll of thunder across the jungle tree-tops, she was finding all this inhuman noise quite unnerving. The whine of youngsters as they were dragged along behind their bickering parents or the sound of harried businessmen shouting last minute instructions down their cell phones, grated on an ear more used to the natural sounds of the forest. For the first time she also realized just how sterile an airport appeared with its acres of shining tiles and polished glass. All the endlessly straight lines and sharply defined Angeles gave no relief to an eye more accustomed to the undulating flow of the forest or the soft textures found around the village.

“Oh god, Diana. How did you put up with all this?” she muttered to herself, finding her nose was also being assaulted by the overpowering odors of perfumes, after-shaves and deodorants. “Antigone would never have coped with any of this.”

Rell took a moment to think of the protective hunter as she had stood outside the queen’s hut the day she’d left the village. Antigone was fully intending to guard her queen while she journeyed through the outside world, regardless of the fact the hunter never been exposed to it before. Rell had allowed the hunter to escort her as far as the clearing but had ordered her back to the village once Hunk arrived to take her the next leg of the trip. Antigone had finally agreed, somewhat reluctantly, but only because Rell made it a direct order. The stocky woman had also made it clear, she didn’t want anyone following her back to civilization. There were just too many ways for the original Amazons to get themselves into trouble.

Pulling her small bag a little higher on her shoulder, Rell launched herself into the rushing flow of humanity pouring along the concourse, hoping to come across an exit before she passed out from the sheer volume of the noise alone. Once outside though, she found the sounds and smells even worse than inside the building itself.

The blare of car horns honking, tires screeching on the road, cab drivers cursing loudly in every language under the sun, people calling farewells or happy greetings and the near deafening roar of overhead jets almost overwhelmed the stocky woman. Through eyes tearing from the smog and pollution from a thousand cars and buses, Rell spotted a female driver beckoning to her from the taxi stand. She gratefully headed in her direction, almost falling onto the back seat with relief.

“By the arrows of Artemis,” Rell gasped. “And I thought this was civilized!”

“Civilization abandoned Los Angeles a long time ago, lovey. Ain’t nothin’ civilized ’round here no more,” the driver stated over her shoulder as she started the engine of the cab. “Where ya wanna go?” she asked, already maneuvering her taxi expertly through the chaos of cars and buses trying to leave the airport.

Pulling a piece of paper from the pocket of her shirt, Rell gave the driver an address in the Beverly Hills area. Diana had called it a ‘small’ apartment she could use as a base. She had also told the former photojournalist that it was one of many homes she had spread across the world. Being part of the family estate, it was maintained year round just in case she, or some other member of her family might decide to use it. Rell smiled to herself recalling that Diana’s family probably had more money that god, but you would never know it to see the tall woman around the village sometimes.

“If ya don’ mind me sayin’, lovey. Ya jus’ don’ come ‘cross as the sort ta have that kinda scratch,” the driver said, glancing at Rell in the rearview mirror with one eye, the other firmly fixed on the road ahead.

Rell looked down at the jungle shirt she had tucked into the pair of ordinary blue jeans. She smiled at the woman who was watching her in the mirror. “Actually, the apartment belongs to a friend. I have a key, though,” she said, pulling the key from her pocket.

“Well, that’s alright then. I’s ’bout ta drive ya ta the station and turn ya over ta the cops.”

“You wouldn’t have?” Rell gasped in surprise.

“Oh, ya can betcha I’s would, lovey. The Hills don’ want no scuffy types justa wanderin’ ’bout ‘nd I’d do me license iffen I’s took ya. Only there’s somethin’ ’bout ya that says youse is good people,” the driver replied.

“Good grief, what?” the stocky photojournalist asked.

“Them boots. They’s clean, unusua’ lookin’ and they’s fit ya right. Ya can tell a lot ’bout a person by they’s shoes. Yours say good people, so I’s gonna take ya ta the Hills withou’ no trouble,” the driver smiled over her shoulder to a very astonished Rell.

Rell couldn’t believe someone had made a value judgement about her just from her boots alone. Instead of buying new footwear in Bogota when she had bought her shirt and jeans, she had chosen to continue wearing her calf high Amazon boots. No one would really notice the intricate designs on the leather if she was wearing jeans, and she did feel more comfortable in them that just about anything else she could have worn. It was also a way of maintaining some contact with the Amazons and her life with them.

Chuckling a little, Rell said, “Seeing you appear to know so much about me, I had better introduce myself. My name’s Rell.”

“Pleased ta meetcha,” the driver replied. “Folk calls me Bet.”

“Short for Elizabeth?”

“Nope. I’s know me gee-gees. Like ta make a bet now ‘nd then. Them’s horseys goodfa some ‘citement when the goin’s kinda slow,” she explained.

Rell settled back against the leather of the seat thinking the driver probably made more than the occasional bet to have ended up with her nickname.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Bet had chatted amicably throughout the surprisingly short trip to Diana’s apartment. She appeared to know every shortcut available; including one or two that caused Rell to grip the armrest in alarm. Clearly, Diana and Bet had learned their hair-raising driving techniques from the same source. The cab driver also seemed to know just about everything that was going on in her city, pointing out interesting sights and happily passing on mildly scandalous tidbits about the various home owners as they traveled through Beverly Hills. Rell felt herself warming to the woman, who couldn’t have been more than thirty, yet had managed to cram a great deal into those years.

Leaving home in her mid-teens, Bet had lied about her age and enlisted in the army for a time. Once her service there had ended, she then worked her way around the globe, turning her hand to whatever she could. The woman made it clear she worked hard and played even harder, her only vice being the odd bet on the horses. She had never touched alcohol or drugs, seeing them as being the fast track to destruction. No, Bet chose to get her highs watching a winning race, and collecting her money at the end of the day.

When Bet asked where Rell had been, considering the way she was dressed, the photojournalist had been deliberately vague with the details, only admitting to having been in South America. She made no mention of the Amazons at all; figuring omission was better than long winded explanations. Rell did find herself owning up to her reason for coming back the United States though. It somehow relieved a little of her tension that another person in the vast city of Los Angeles knew Diana was missing.

Finally pulling up in front of the apartment complex where Diana stayed when in LA, Rell was almost sad to lose the cheerful company of the cab driver. Heading inside, she hoped they might run across each other again but in a city so huge, the chances would be highly unlikely.

Entering the foyer of the building after paying her fare, Rell noticed the doorman was nowhere in sight. In a way, this was a lucky break for her because it would save Rell from telling any lies to get up to Diana’s apartment. Quickly crossing the polished marble surface of the lobby, she stepped into a waiting elevator and pushed the button to Diana’s floor. It was only a matter of minutes before Rell found herself outside the door of the apartment, unlocking it with the key as though she had every right to be there.

The first sight of Diana’s Los Angeles home left the former photojournalist gasping in stunned amazement.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Great, hairy, horny toads. You call this ‘small’, Diana?” Rell whispered.

The stocky woman couldn’t believe the size of the place. The entry hall alone had to be bigger than her own former apartment on the other side of town. Closing the door behind her, Rell stumbled towards the wide expanse of glass on one side of the living room, the floor to ceiling windows giving her an unrivaled view of the surrounding area. Dragging herself away from the view, she turned around and surveyed the room. ‘Tasteful’ was the first word that popped into her mind, immediately followed by the word ‘sparse’.

There wasn’t a great deal of furniture in the room, and what there was of it had to be the best quality money could possibly buy. Two beautiful, hand made mahogany cabinets stood against the wall near the entrance, one hiding an expensive entertainment unit when Rell opened the door a crack to peep inside. There were also a couple of soft leather chairs facing each other in the center of the room, taking full advantage of the amazing view from the window. Three bamboo poles were angled along one of the pale walls, artfully arranged to be pleasing to the eye. Aside from those few things, the room had been left bare, reflecting both Diana’s taste and personality.

“I knew there was money in your family, Diana but this is serious money,” Rell said to herself, knowing some people paid thousands just to get this same effect.

Wandering through the rest of the apartment, the sense of wealth showed in every area of the tall woman’s home. The kitchen was all polished steel and white marble, the appliances hidden behind false metal doors. The office cum library on the other side of the living room was filled with several of those mahogany cabinets as well as row upon row of leather-bound books. There was more marble in the bathroom, the sight of the deep, floor-set tub delighting the hedonist in Rell. Only in the main bedroom did the other side of Diana’s personality show itself. The room was actually cozy, decorated in soft tones of blue and gray, the largest bed Rell had ever seen angled towards another set of those floor to ceiling windows.

Sitting gingerly on the side of the bed, Rell mumbled in disbelief, “And you left all this to live in the middle of the jungle with me.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Wrapped in a bathrobe even thicker and more expensive looking than any she had seen in a hotel, Rell rubbed at her hair with a fluffy towel to dry it. Once she had gotten over the immediate shock of seeing Diana’s apartment, the stocky woman had decided the first order of the day was a shower. The six nozzle shower system had taken her by surprise, but she did have to admit, the massage they gave took a lot of the kinks out of a body after hours of being locked up on a plane. Tossing the towel over one shoulder, she padded around the apartment looking for anything that might give her a clue about Diana’s current whereabouts.

After combing through the rest of the apartment and finding nothing at all, Rell ended up in Diana’s office. She searched each of the cabinets, and felt her way along the bookshelves uncovering nothing of note, except a little dust on the uppermost shelves. Settling herself at the massive oak desk, she turned on Diana’s state of the art computer system.

“I doubt there is anything in here. That would just be too easy,” Rell giggled to herself as the machine warmed up and ran through its internal checks.

Finally getting to the main screen, Rell opened the file system, quickly running her eye along the various directories.

“Games? That’s all you have in here? Just games?” Rell muttered darkly. “Shooting games, puzzle games, logic games, word games. God, at least you’re organized about them.”

Rell ran several searches, looking for document files or text files that might give her a clue to what had happened to Diana, eventually giving up in disgust.

“I can’t believe you, Diana. You pay a million bucks for the most expensive computer on the face of the earth and all you do is play bloody games on it,” the stocky woman said aloud as she turned everything off.

A loud grumbling suddenly made itself known from Rell’s midsection. Glancing at the clock on the desk, the woman realized it had been several hours since she had last eaten. Knowing she would probably think a little clearer with a full stomach, she walked back to the bedroom to get dressed.

Once she was dressed in her jungle shirt and jeans again, Rell decided to risk the doorman as she headed out of the apartment in search of the nearest restaurant.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Cautiously poking her nose around the corner of the elevator, Rell was surprised to notice the doorman still hadn’t returned to his post. Assuming her timing had simply improved, catching those moments when he was busy elsewhere, Rell quickly left the building.

“God, must be my lucky day,” she mumbled to herself, seeing a taxi parked right outside the door.

Approaching it, she was amazed to see the broad-shouldered figure of Bet dozing in the front seat. Rell tapped the window to get the woman’s attention. One sleepy eyelid lifted, the beginnings of a frown on her face until she saw who had woken her. Bet quickly slid across the seat to open the door of her cab.

“I didn’t expect you to still be here, Bet,” Rell said, clearly surprised.

“Youse need a driver and I’s need a fare. A match made’n heaven iffen youse ask me,” Bet replied.

“But I couldn’t take up that much of your time, and I don’t know if I could pay a fare of that size. I might have to do a lot of running around over the next few days,” the stocky woman said, wondering how she was going to pay for everything she might need to do. Just getting back to the US had almost cleaned out her bank account.

Holding up one hand, the woman shook her head. “This’uns Bet’s offer. One chance. Take it or leave it. Flat fee, no matter how’s long youse need me, no matter where’s I’s end up driving. I’s like interestin’ people and youse I’s find real interestin’,” she said calmly.

Rell laughed delightedly. She was finding Bet pretty interestin’ too. “Okay, I’ll take it,” she replied.

Bet spat onto her palm and then held it out to seal the agreement between them. Spitting into her own palm, Rell shook hands with the other woman. Whatever happened now, at least she had a way of getting around Los Angeles.

“So? Where ya wanna go?” Bet asked as Rell slid into the front seat of the taxi.

“I need to get something to eat, and right now. I feel like my stomach has gone into partnership with my backbone and it isn’t a happy marriage,” the former photojournalist replied.

“I’s know jus’ the place, and betta yet, it’s dirt cheap.”

“Lead on, McDuff. I’m in your hands,” Rell answered happily. Eating was always more fun when you had someone to share the conversation with.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rell wiped a scrap of bread across her plate, mopping up the last of the gravy from her dinner. Bet looked down at the empty plate that had held her own recently completed meal, amazed at how much the woman across from her had just managed to eat. Bet’s own meal couldn’t have been half the size of the one Rell ordered, but the broad-shouldered woman doubted she would have room left for even a cup of coffee. Rell, on the other hand, was looking hungrily at the dessert menu, trying to decide which of the excellent confectioneries to have.

Bet couldn’t resist commenting on the other woman’s capacity. “Ya always eat this big?” she asked curiously.

Rell looked at her empty plate and then up at Bet. “Well, yes. I guess I do. I tend to burn it off though, so I don’t get much chance to put on any weight. Life’s been pretty physical for me the past several months,” she replied, remembering just how physical it had been, and how much she had muscled up as a result.

“A life that had somethin’ ta do with that friend ya lookin’ for?” the cab driver asked, spotting the opening in the conversation. All she had really managed to get out of Rell so far was that the stocky woman was a photojournalist, traveled extensively, and had been in South America for the past several months. That was nowhere near enough to satisfy her curiosity about this ‘interestin’ woman.

“Uh huh,” Rell said. Turning to the patient waitress, the stocky woman order a large slice of cheesecake, piled high with whipped cream and at least five kinds of berries.

“Fin’ anythin’ ’bout where’s she might be?” Bet continued.

Rell sighed dramatically. “Ever thought about handing in your cab license and becoming a reporter? Seems once you get your teeth into something, you’re like a bull dog and won’t let go,” she stated, not entirely unhappy with Bet’s persistence.

The other woman’s head tilted back and Bet roared with laughter, her perfect white teeth flashing in the neon from the cheap sign outside the window of the café. Wiping the tears from her face, Bet addressed Rell’s statement. “T’ain’t no one who would much like that. I’s know every bad guy in town,” she said enigmatically. Looking into Rell’s blue-green eyes, she smiled. “But, your friend? Youse know anythin’ at all ’bout where’s she went?”

“Oh god. You’re incorrigible,” the former photojournalist laughed in reply. “Okay, I haven’t got a clue right now, and I do really need to find her.”

“Youse got a history?” Bet asked.

“Might say that,” Rell hedged, not willing to give away the relationship between her and Diana.

“So, youse look in that fancy place of hers and don’ fin’s nothing. What next?”

The photojournalist’s shoulders sagged as Rell shook her head. “I don’t know. I guess I’ll think of something, but right now, I wouldn’t know where to start. Los Angeles is so huge and she could be just about anywhere.”

Bet thought for a moment, and then asked, “How’d she gets ’bout in LA?”

“Cabs, usually. The traffic is pretty bad here; not that I’m telling you anything there, and she hated driving in it. Said there were too many fools on the road who didn’t know enough to get out of her way,” Rell answered, a sad smile on her face.

“Hmmm, I’s know just ’bout every cabbie goin’. Maybe I’s can ask if someone took her someplace?” Bet offered. “What she look like?”

“Well, she certainly is distinctive enough to be remembered,” Rell said, going on to give a close description of Diana, pointing out those features most likely to be recalled, including her piercing ice blue eyes. Suddenly stopping to think, she asked, “But how will I contact you if there is any information?”

“Jus’ steps outside your door. I’s be there,” Bet said.

“But how…” Rell trailed off, confused.

Hanging her head a little shamefully, Bet answered, “I’s sleep in me cab at night. I’s kinda between places at the moment. Rents is mostly high here and a simple cabbie likes me can’t really affords them.”

Rell empathized with the broad-shouldered woman’s embarrassment for a moment before the solution hit her. “God, you can stay with me. The apartment is huge and I am sure Diana wouldn’t mind, especially if you really can help find her. I’m starting to think she’s in serious trouble,” she explained quickly.

Bet argued half-heartedly before giving in. Rell’s hedonistic description of the enormous, floor-set bath-tub was what finally tipped the balance. Having gotten that settled, Rell’s dessert chose that moment to appear, the mountain of whipped cream on top wobbling precariously. Bet tossed her eyes to the ceiling as the other woman began to devour it happily.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

After parking the cab in a little side street off the main road, Rell and Bet walked back to the apartment building where Diana usually lived when she was in Los Angeles. Through the wide glass paneling at the front, the doorman could clearly be seen, seated at his desk, reading a book of some kind off his lap.

“Shit,” Rell swore. “The blasted doorman is back, and I doubt I am going to get passed him dressed like this. He’ll probably think I’m out to rob the place, regardless of the fact I have a key to Diana’s apartment. Looks like my luck just ran out.”

Looking at the man seated on one side of the foyer, Bet smiled. “That’s Angelo. He ain’t no trouble,” she said.

“Don’t tell me, you know all the doorman in town too?” Rell asked, laughing.

“I’s know all the importan’ people in town,” the broad-shoulder woman replied haughtily, turning her nose to the air. “Come on. I’s introduce ya ta him.”

Walking through the door, Rell trailing along behind uncertainly, Bet strode right up to the desk. Angelo’s face lit up at the sight of her, dropping a finger onto the page of his book to mark his place.

“Hi ya, Bet. What can I do for you tonight?” he asked pleasantly, eyeing off Rell suspiciously as she peeped around the big woman’s body.

Bet reached behind herself, dragging a reluctant Rell into the doorman’s direct line of sight. “This here is Rell. She’s good people. Friends of one of your clients. That tall one, Diana. Youse let her come ‘nd go, youse hear. Has a key, so youse don’ have to be hasslin’ her over nothin’. Rell is Bet’s friend too,” the woman explained.

“Hey, any friend of yours is okay with me, Bet. You know that,” Angelo said, nodding a greeting at Rell.

“Youse can jus’ get used to seein’ me too, Angelo. I’s stayin’ here for a bit. Diana won’ min’ and Rell says it’s okay with her,” Bet finished.

“At least with you, I don’t have to worry about counting the silverware…unlike some of the so called friends of the owners here. You two need anything, just buzz me. I can get almost anything a body could possibly want,” Angelo said, now smiling at both women.

“Thank you, Angelo,” Rell replied. “I doubt you’ll even know I’m here half the time. I’m pretty quiet.”

Nodding their farewells to the doorman, Rell and Bet walked over to the elevators. In the car heading up to Diana’s floor, Rell asked quietly, “Is he legal?” The strong Mexican cast of his facial features had made the photojournalist wonder. A lot of illegal immigrants took low paying jobs, such as being doormen because they couldn’t legally work anywhere else.

“Yep, he’s legal. Third generation. He’s studyin’ ta be a doc. That book on his lap is probably somethin’ for school. Family helps pay for his learnin’. Guess he took this job cause he could study all day once the rich folk had gone off for the day. Anyone left here usually use the phone ta do stuff anyway,” Bet explained.

Leaving the car and heading for the apartment, Bet continued, “He already knows more ’bout patching busted innards than I’s think is healthy but it’s good he wants ta do it. Be the first one ta get through school. Rest of the family pick fruit and stuff. Don’ pay much but every spare penny goes ta him. He’ll make good on it.”

“They must be really proud of him,” Rell said as she unlocked the door.

“They is, but more importan’, he’s proud of himself. That means a lot in the end,” the big woman replied.

Entering the apartment, Rell heard a low whistle of appreciation coming from behind her. Turning, she looked at Bet, as the driver’s eye washed over the expensive furnishings and the wide view through the windows.

“Some serious scratch here,” Bet said, wandering through the living room. “Jus’ how’d your friend get so sinful rich?”

“Some kind of family estate is about all I know. I’ve never really asked her about it. You really wouldn’t know she had a penny to see her in South America,” Rell replied, deliberately choosing not to mention Diana’s mercenary past. The tall woman had changed and that was all Rell ever needed to know about her.

“Hmmm, I’s be wondering what kinda family’s got this kinda scratch ta toss ’bout,” Bet commented. “Yea, this is above rich people stuff, for sure.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rell stretched slowly in the chair, watching the sun light the valley below. Between her concern for Diana, and finally adjusting to getting up before dawn, she had woken early from a restless sleep. Deciding she didn’t want to start moving around the apartment, and possibly waking Bet in the process, Rell had settled in the big chair by the window and simply enjoyed the expansive view.

Rell did wonder about the big woman, though. For someone with such an unusual accent; one Rell still couldn’t identify, Bet seemed very comfortable in the luxurious surroundings of Diana’s apartment. The night before, the big woman had taken one look at the enormous bath-tub and couldn’t get into it fast enough. Rell had listened to her splashing about and singing lustfully, fully expecting the room to be awash by the time Bet was finished. It had been quite a surprise to find the bathroom completely spotless when she had looked in there after Bet had retired for the evening. Even the bathmat had been carefully hung over the side of the tub to dry. It left Rell wondering about Bet’s background, and the assumptions the photojournalist was making about the big woman long after she had gone to bed herself.

A quiet rumble from her stomach let her know that breakfast might be a good idea. Walking quietly through the apartment, she put together a quick meal for herself, eating the cereal while leaning against one of the marble counter-tops. Leaving the kitchen to return to her own room and dress, she looked up the hallway and saw the door to Bet’s borrowed bedroom was standing open. Curious, she went up and knocked on the door gently, not wanting to wake the woman if she was still sleeping. Getting no reply, she peeped around the edge of the door and was puzzled to see the bed was completely empty. Wondering where the woman might have gotten to, she started checking the other rooms.

Standing outside of Diana’s office, Rell could hear the soft tapping of computer keys coming from the room. Pushing the door open with a firm hand, the former photojournalist found Bet sitting at the massive desk, concentrating on the screen in front of her. Rell coughed, catching the big woman’s attention.

“Mornin’, Rell,” the woman said simply. “I’s woke up kinda early ‘nd thought I might try ta fin’ a book ta read. Hey, this is a great computer but all that’s on it is games ‘nd stuff.”

“I’m not sure Diana would be too happy to know someone was touching that without her permission,” Rell said a little archly.

Bet blushed before continuing. “I’s jus’ thought I’d look ‘nd see if there was anythin’ in here that might help us fin’ her,” she offered. “Youse know how it is, kinda like in the spy movies. Someone disappears ‘nd the hero fin’s the most importan’ clue in the computer, somewhere.”

“It’s all right, Bet. I guess I should have told you last night but I did look in the computer files. I didn’t find anything other than a lot of games,” Rell said, mollified. After all, Bet really was only trying to help.

The big woman smiled. “Ya know, they’s sometimes hide them clues in the most obvious places.”

“There’s nothing in that system that is going to help us. I went through it pretty thoroughly yesterday,” Rell explained, wondering if Bet had seen one too many of those spy movies.

“I’s wasn’t thinkin’ of in the computer, more like under it,” Bet explained.

Rell chuckled before speaking. “Now, that would be a bit too obvious. If there was anything at all in this apartment that could tell us where she was right now, knowing Diana, she would have hidden it in such an impossible-to-find place that she would be the only one who could possibly figure out where it was. At least, that is the Diana I’ve gotten to know, anyway.”

“I’s don’ know…” Bet replied, casually picking up the keyboard and flipping it over just to see if some secret message hadn’t been glued to the bottom.

Rell didn’t know who was more stunned. Bet, because her instinct had been correct, or herself because there actually was something attached to the underside of the keyboard. Secured by tape beneath the board was a small key, with a piece of paper next to it. The hiding place was so blatantly obvious, and so completely unlike Diana that she would have been the only one to think of actually putting it there at all.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Having peeled the key from the board, Rell turned it over in her fingers. For the life of her, she couldn’t figure out what kind of lock it would possibly open. Bet, in the mean time, had unfolded the little piece of paper and was scratching her head over what was written on it.

“I’s not sure what this could be,” the big woman admitted after looking at the paper for several minutes.

“Let me have a look. Maybe I can figure it out,” Rell said, holding her hand out for the paper.

Written on the note, in Diana’s neat handwriting, were five letters, followed by six numbers.

“B, O, A, L, A. 367050. Damn, that’s stumped me,” the stocky woman said, after thinking for some moments.

“What ’bout that key?” Bet asked.

Rell held it out for the other woman to see, tapping the paper to her lips trying to sort out what the letters and numbers might stand for.

“Iffen I’s not mistaken, that’s a key ta one of them security deposit box things. I’s seen one before,” the big woman explained, once she had gotten a good look at the key.

“Security deposit box. Well, that would make sense. Diana obviously has enough money. Probably got valuables of some kind tucked away in it.” Pausing for a moment, Rell continued, “Then again, it may very well give us the clue we need to find her. The number is most likely the serial number on the box itself,” Rell mumbled almost to herself.

“Iffen those is the numbers to the box thing, then those letters might be the bank, don’ ya think?”

Looking at the note again, Rell’s finely trained investigative mind suddenly made the connection. “Bank of America, Los Angeles.”

“But which one? There must be dozens of branches in LA,” Bet asked.

“Great, hairy, horny toads. We can’t be driving all over Los Angeles and going to every branch there is,” Rell muttered.

“Don’ have ta,” Bet smiled up at Rell. “This computer is ‘net capable. I’s can use that ta fin’ the box.”

“But you don’t know the password to Diana’s account.”

“Don’ need hers. Got me own,” the big woman replied. “But…” she started to say, looking up innocently at the woman standing next to her. “I’s could do with some coffee. Iffen I’s goin’ ta be dashing all over the ‘net, I’s need somethin’ ta fortify me.”

“You have your own internet account?” Rell gasped, her jaw almost unhinging itself in astonishment. “But you don’t even have a regular living address.”

“Don’ need no regular place ta live when they’s got them ‘net cafés set up all over. I jus’ use one of them,” Bet explained, as though Rell should have known about the existence of the growing ‘net café scene. “Everyone who’s got any street smarts has an e-mail address. Sometimes, it’s the only way ta keep track of your near ‘nd dear.”

Rell simply stood, feeling properly told off for thinking the woman wouldn’t know about computer technology because she didn’t speak like some college professor. “Okay, I’ll get the coffee, while you do whatever it is that gets you on-line,” she finally managed to say.

By the time she returned with a tray of coffee and finger foods, Bet had logged on and was busily entering details onto some form. The big woman hit the enter key and almost crowed triumphantly when the address of the bank where the security box was held appeared on the screen.

“Hmmm, right here in the Hills,” Bet said after writing the address on a notebook she had found in the drawer of the desk. “There’s somethin’ neither of us thought of before, Rell. S’pose the clue we’s need is in the box, ‘nd not jus’ some rich people’s papers, how do we get it open? It’s not like that fancy bank is jus’ goin’ let us in there ta peek inside, after all. That box is signed ta Diana, and even I knows how fussy them’s banks is ’bout letting plain folk do stuff.”

“God, I hadn’t thought of that either,” Rell growled. “Knowing where the security box is held isn’t going to help us one bit.”

“Aw, squat. Easy ta fix a little problem like that,” the big woman said, the twinkle of a conspiracy in her eye. “I’s jus’ come in the back door ‘nd make you the owner of the box. I’s think I’s can set it up that we’s can get to see it jus’ one time. Probably get caugh’ iffen we tried to look twice, though.”

“But hacking is illegal,” Rell gulped, knowing hacking into a bank was right up there with the seven deadly sins.

“You t’ain’t never done nothin’ illegal in your whole life before? Not the teeniest little thing?” Bet asked, one eyebrow raised in challenge.

“Weeeell, I might have stretched the actual letter of the law a few times,” Rell admitted ruefully.

“So, stops your worryin’. I’s make sure everythin’ is right ‘nd proper again when we gets back.”

Bet picked up her coffee mug, taking a shallow sip of the dark liquid. “Damn, that’s hot!” she yelped, quickly sucking cool air into her mouth. Focusing her eyes back on the screen, muttering about how to find this elusive back door to the bank, she reached to put the mug on the desktop, managing to miss it completely. Most of the coffee found its way down the front of Rell thick robe, puddling at her feet.

“Shit! That is hot!” Rell snapped in pain. Holding the robe away from her body, she gave Bet a look that would have stripped paint.

“I’s real sorry ’bout that, Rell,” the big woman apologized, shoulders drooping.

“It’s all right, honestly. Just a little accident, but I had better get out of this and rinse it, or the coffee stains might never come out.”

“While youse take care of that, I’ll see ’bout findin’ a back door ta the bank,” Bet offered, sounding completely chastised, even though Rell had only given her a hard look.

Patting one of Bet’s broad shoulders, Rell said, “I’m fine. Didn’t get burnt or anything. The worst we have to deal with is a few coffee stains and if I’m quick about it, we can probably clean those up without any trouble.”

Bet watched Rell leaving the room, a hang-dog look on her face for her sheer clumsiness. She waited until she heard Rell close the bathroom door before turning back to the keyboard. Lifting her head every few seconds to listen for the stocky photojournalist, Bet carefully typed in a very special address and then began the process of changing the name on the security deposit box. The moment she had completed the name change, Bet just as carefully cleared every sign of her activities from the computer’s cache system on the hard-drive. Having gotten this close, it would do her no good to let a stupid mistake give her away.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Wearing one of Bet’s smallest shirts, belted at the waist, over the top of her own blue jeans, Rell sat for a moment in the big women’s cab going over the plan one last time. Rell could feel the butterflies slamming around in her stomach and her hands were sweating so much, she found herself constantly wiping them dry on the thighs of her pants.

“Okay, I go in and present myself to the deposit boxes clerk. Identify myself and they’ll take me out the back to where they keep the boxes. I look inside the box and then scamper back out here just as fast as I can,” Rell repeated for the third time.

“Yep, that’s the plan. Iffen youse not out here in half an hour, I’s callin’ a lawyer friend of mine,” Bet said.

“Oh god. That gives me a load of confidence.”

“Youse gonna be jus’ fine, only I’s gonna kill ya myself, iffen youse don’ get that pretty butt of yours movin’,” Bet stated, checking how long they had already been parked. There was less than twenty minutes on the meter, and the last thing the big woman wanted was for some snooty parking cop to start poking around her cab.

Rell sucked a deep, calming breath of air into her lungs, twitched the shirt a little more tidily over the belt at her waist, and then stepped from the taxi as though she belonged among the Beverly Hills community. Catching sight of herself in the polished glass at the front entrance of the bank, she was amazed at the artful make-up and hair job Bet had done on her. Somehow, the rough-around-the-edges cab driver had easily knocked five years from her face. Matched with the stylish, though slightly scruffy look of her shirt and jeans, Rell could have been any young adult in the area. Someone with plenty of money, and not a lot of sense.

Deciding to use that image, Rell twittered her way into the bank, spotting the clerk in charge of the security boxes the moment she entered. She breathed a silent sigh of relief when she saw he was a young man and not some dour, middle management type. Wafting towards him, she noticed the way his eyes lit up at her approach.

“Hi, honey,” Rell said, her voice just about oozing sensual undertones. “Name’s Danielle Connor and there’s some things I need from my security deposit box.”

Rell pushed herself right up against the young clerk’s high desk, giving him a perfect view down the open cleavage of her shirt. Watching the color rise on his face, Rell then winked at him saucily. His fingers suddenly skidded on the keys making the computer beep in complaint.

“Sorry, Ma’am,” the clerk apologized, entering her name into the system again, though far more slowly than before. “Do you have some form of identification, Ms Connor?” he asked, finding difficulty dragging his eyes away from the sight of Rell’s cleavage. The fact the shirt was open to an almost indecent level probably accounted for some of the clerk’s difficulty.

“Will my driver’s license do?”

“That’ll be fine, Ma’am,” the clerk replied, taking the proffered piece of plastic from Rell’s fingers. Checking the license against the computer entry, he turned to Rell. “Ummm, Ma’am? There seems to be a discrepancy between your license and your current address.”

Rell stood on tip-toe, getting as close to the clerk as she possibly could, looking at the address on the screen. “Oh, that little thing,” she giggled. “I was living in my own place for a while, you know. Slumming it. I just had to get away from Mommy and Daddy. They can be so…so stifling sometimes. They asked me to come and live back at home again because they missed me, you know. Guess I just forgot to get my license changed when I moved. There were so many things to do, you know. Things are much better now, though. They let me go out with anyone I want and don’t try to stop me from having a good time,” she explained. “I do so like to have fun, you know.”

Rell looked the young man in the eye as she made her last statement, implying that he might be the one to give her that good time. She watched him color up again and shift uncomfortably in his chair. Having flustered him completely, Rell was certain that half the procedures she should have gone through had been conveniently forgotten by the hopeful clerk.

“If you’ll just come with me, Ms Connor,” he said, his voice pitched slightly higher than when Rell had first approached his desk.

Rell almost bounced along behind the clerk, through the barred door leading to the security deposit area. Taking the number of the box from her, he unracked it and brought it over to the long table running down the center of the room.

“If there’s anything you need, Ma’am, anything at all, I’ll be right outside,” the clerk murmured, trying to sound suave. Instead, he came across like the obnoxious younger brother of an old boyfriend.

“Fat chance you have anything I need,” Rell muttered to herself once the clerk was safely out of the well-lit room. “Stupid little testosterone machine. Mother Nature gave you two good hands, use them instead, cause I’m sure not putting out for you,” she groused.

Quickly pulling the key from her shirt pocket, she unlocked Diana’s security box and lifted the lid. A sinking disappointment filled her stomach when the box revealed itself to be empty. Rell couldn’t believe she had gone through all that nervousness; not to mention the sheer illegality of hacking into the bank’s computer system, and it was all for nothing. Tipping the box towards her, a single, folded sheet of paper slid along the metal bottom into the light. Glancing over at the door for a moment to make sure she was not being watched, Rell picked up the paper and flicked it open. On the paper, again in Diana’s distinctive handwriting, was yet another set of numbers.

“Shit, Diana,” Rell swore quietly. “What is it lately with you and bloody numbers?”

Ferreting out a pen and the little notepad from her back pocket, she carefully wrote the numbers down before replacing the original in the security box. Locking the lid, she slid it back into the center of the table and jauntily left the room. Winking at the clerk as she passed him at his desk, Rell quickly left the bank silently thanking Artemis she had somehow managed to get away with it.

“Well?” Bet drawled at the stocky woman as she slipped gratefully into the taxi again.

“Can you believe it. There was only a single sheet of paper in the damned thing and you’ll never guess what was written on it?” Rell growled.

“Oh please. Let me guess,” Bet said sarcastically. “More numbers.”

“God, how’d you know that?” Rell asked, her eyebrow lifting in surprise.

“Cause every time we’s fin’ one of them bits of paper, it always has numbers on it,” Bet replied, starting the engine and carefully pulling into the flow of cars.

“Well, this time I’m pretty sure it isn’t another security deposit box we are looking for. I can tell you now though, I have no idea at all what these ones are for,” the stocky woman grumbled, trying to ignore the way Bet was weaving in and out of the various lanes of traffic.

“Let me see,” the cab driver asked.

Rell held the paper towards Bet, letting her see the numbers she had copied from the note in the box.

“I’s know what them is for. Look in me glove compartment.”

Curious, Rell dropped the lid. Inside was a mess of crushed city maps, a strange yellow box and one evil looking Magnum .45. The former photojournalist raised one eyebrow at the other woman.

“Told ya, I’s sleeps in me cab at night. Woman’s gotta take care of herself out here,” Bet explained, not the least bit apologetic about the big handgun. “Pass me that yellow thing.”

“What is it?” Rell asked as the driver took the yellow box in one hand, still controlling the car’s steering wheel with the other.

“It’s a Global Positionin’ System. Those numbers is for a GPS. With them, and this, I’s can tell youse exactly where’s that place is.” Quickly punching in the numbers with one strong thumb, hardly keeping her eyes on the road long enough to avoid a collision, Bet tapped the enter key and waited a moment. “Says here that them numbers is for a place ’bout fifteen miles west of somewhere called Williams Lake, in Canada.”

“Great, hairy, horny toads, Diana, you really get around, don’t you,” Rell commented. “Guess I must be going to Canada next.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Diana lay uncomfortably on her side, peering through the small gap at the bottom of her blindfold. She had no idea how long she had been there, considering she was spending far too much time unconscious. During those times when she was awake, she did everything she could to figure out where she was, why she was there, and how she could possibly escape. The feeling of carpeting against her skin had long ago been replaced by flattened straw, which supported her weight well enough but the itching as it worked its way under her clothes was starting to drive her nuts.

Her wrists and elbows were still bound with the same tough rope she had woken to the first time. Not knowing how long she had been tied, she was beginning to have some real concerns about any long term damage being done. Whenever she was awake, Diana used every isometric exercise she had ever been told about, pushing one muscle against another, in an attempt to minimize the possible injury.

Her legs were also still bound at ankle and knee, which was making things a lot more humiliating than she thought truly necessary. Although the loop binding her legs and arms together had been removed, allowing her some freedom of movement, it simply wasn’t enough to permit the tall woman to attend to the most basic of her needs. She had long ago closed her mind to that particular indignity. Diana just hoped she would get a chance to clean herself up before some kind of infection set in.

Someone had also kindly removed the gag, allowing her to take food and water, which was contributing to the problem of trying to deal with basic needs. The tiny gap at the bottom of her blindfold did give her a chance to catch a quick glance at whoever it was doing the actual feeding, seeing she couldn’t do it for herself. Although to be honest, Diana wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if they had simply tossed her meals into a dish and expected her to eat it like a dog.

At sunrise and sunset every day, a vacant-eyed youngster appeared with a dish of food and a bottle of fresh water. Diana had tried several times to talk to the girl but whatever personality she might have had was long ago beaten out of her, or simply lost under a haze of drugs. Drugs, Diana was getting to know all too well. The teenager would slowly feed her, carefully holding the bottle so Diana could drink her fill. Once her task of seeing to the woman had been attended to, the youngster left again.

Each night, about two hours after sunset, a very well dressed man would enter the building and inject the tall woman with something that sent her back into that nightmare world of drug dreams. Just before dawn each day, she would wake again, soaked in sweat and feeling as though someone had kicked the side of her head. It was usually mid-morning before that headache wore off again. At least, she thought only the night had passed. Trying to guess how long she truly slept was impossible. For all she knew, 48 hours or more could have gone by while she was locked away with those horrific memories.

The routine had not varied in the least over the past several days, and Diana was starting to think whoever had brought her here was simply trying to break her spirit. “Fat chance,” she mumbled aloud, twitching a little in the straw to find a slightly less uncomfortable position.

The first few days, Diana had laboriously felt her way around the little area where she was held, unsure of exactly what the room was used for. Aside from the covering of straw, there was absolutely nothing in the area at all. Solid wooden walls were bare of anything for as high as she was able to reach, with her hands tied behind her back. At one point she even used the back of her head to search above the level of her bound hands. Kicking at the walls experimentally had gotten no result either, other than tiring her more than she was happy with.

She helped pass the long, lonely days after that by watching any activities outside the building through a tiny crack in the boards. By tilting her head the right way, Diana could just see what was happening from beneath the gap in her blindfold. She also used her ears to her advantage, listening to any conversations in the yard beyond. Judging from the way the sound carried to her, Diana estimated she was several hundred yards from the main house itself, certainly not close enough to hear a great deal happening inside.

Diana also found herself mentally going over everything she could remember about Rell, reliving every detail of their all too short times together. The last time she had actually seen the former photojournalist, Rell had been in the clearing waving to the tall woman as she left for this trip. The ex-mercenary had been away a lot longer than she had anticipated as she criss-crossed the country searching for any with Amazon blood in their veins. The mental image of Rell, dressed in the short, split-to-the-waist leather skirt of the Amazons and intricately tooled boots, a hunter’s breast band modestly covering her chest helped Diana keep her mind from screaming off into the darkness of insanity.

She minutely recalled every detail until she could bring the image to mind regardless of what was happening around her. The little spot of sunburn on the end of the stocky woman’s nose and the way her red-blonde hair was growing out, plaited together now into a short braid. Diana counted every single freckle dusting the other woman’s chest and memorized the odor of the skin between her breasts. She smiled remembering the way Rell trained with her staff each day; volunteers to be her partner never slow in coming. The blur of the wood in her knowledgeable hands had turned Rell into a formidable fighting force, fully capable of taking someone’s life if she so chose.

And there were gentler moments together too. The sight of Rell working on her parchments; adapting to the use of a quill as easily as anyone else would have used a ball point pen, Diana sitting nearby reading a scroll. Both of them taking long walks through the jungle surrounding the Amazon village, simply enjoying each other’s company, reveling in whatever time they had together. Soaks in the hot springs that always seem to turn into water fights as the stocky woman tried to win, just once against Diana, who seemed able to breathe underwater. The two women sitting together on the rim wall watching the colorful sunsets over the jungle canopy.

Diana sighed deeply. Damn, she missed Rell, not that she would have wished this particular situation on anyone, least of all the tough little photojournalist who had stolen Diana’s heart.

She’s probably wondering what has happened to me by now, Diana thought. Maybe, she’s come back to the States to search for me. That would just be her style. These slime balls are not to be messed with, if the way they are holding me is any indication. I hope she brought someone with her though, Antigone or Latona perhaps. The Amazon warriors might not be of much use in the civilized world, but they’d be hell to stop in a fight.

The sound of footsteps echoing along the floorboards approaching the area where she was held, let Diana know she might have a fight of her own to deal with. In all the time she had been awake, no one had ever come into the building during the day. It was unusual enough to send the adrenaline rushing through her system as she prepared to defend herself as much as possible, considering her bonds. At least she wouldn’t dislocate her shoulders this time now the restraining loop of rope had been removed. Tensing, she waited in her blindfolded darkness.

“Phah!” a deep masculine voice spat the moment the door was unlocked and opened. “We gotta clean this one up before we take her to the boss. How anyone can let themselves get this way is beyond me.”

Like I was given a choice about it, you buzzard, Diana thought, trying to place the position of the man who had spoken.

Diana could hear at least three other people rustling around in the straw with the deep voiced man, and she readied herself to kick out. She never got the chance as unseen hands descended on her from four sides. Arching her back she tried to break their grips, she was savagely punched on the side of her head for her trouble.

“Settle down, woman. You’re just going to have a bath and then a nice chat with the boss,” a lighter tenor said near her now ringing head. A whiff of his after-shave identified him as the man from the plane who had covered her with a blanket just as she has slipped into unconsciousness again.

Diana was carried out of the building and into the sunlight. She could feel the warmth against her skin, a welcomed sensation after being locked up for so long. She hoped she might be left alone for a few moments once they untied her so she could bathe, her mind already planning ahead, trying to see the possibilities. Diana was sadly mistaken about what constituted a bath among these thugs.

Stopping suddenly, Diana felt herself being swung to one side and then the unbelievable shock of being dropped into the ice cold water of a large trough. Several pairs of hands grabbed her and sluiced her up and down roughly in the water the same way one might scrub a particularly dirty shirt. Diana had immediately clenched her teeth together as the shock of the freezing water threatened to force the air from her lungs. It was pretty clear whoever was ‘cleaning’ her up wasn’t all that concerned with how much of the liquid she might swallow.

Finally, Diana’s shaking body was pulled from the water, and she was carried some distance into another building. Dumped a little roughly on a stone floor, she struggled to get her shivering body into a sitting position. Teeth chattering together from the cold lancing its way down to her bones, Diana turned her head from side to side attempting to hear what was going on around her. She could hear the sound of breathing and some foot shuffling but very little else.

“My, my. Will you look at how the mighty have fallen,” a cultured female voice said from in front of the dripping woman.

Diana’s head snapped up at the sound. She knew that voice, and hearing it meant she was in a lot more trouble than she had first thought.
Part 2
“Rell, will ya stops runnin’ ’bout like a chicken with its head chopped off,” Bet said, watching the stocky woman dashing from the bedroom to the computer in the office and back again.

“Bet,” Rell replied, endeavoring to remain patient with the broad-shouldered woman. “I am trying to find a cheap flight to Canada, and I can’t do that sitting still in some travel agent’s office.” Using the internet again, Rell was trying to track down a flight she could actually afford. For the moment though, she was not having a lot of success.

“I’s jus’ wan’ ta know hows youse is so sure Diana is in Canada, ta start with,” Bet asked with an annoying sense of logic.

That stopped Rell dead in her tracks.

“I’m not sure, but why did she go to such lengths to hide that set of GPS numbers if it wasn’t where she would end up eventually?” Rell countered with her own version of irritating logic.

The big woman thought about that for several seconds before answering. “At least let me talks ta some of the other cabbies. Maybe one of them took her ta the airport ‘nd knows what direction she went.”

“We never did get around to checking your ‘sources’ among the ‘important’ people, did we,” Rell commented, suddenly aware she was about to go off half-cocked…again. She thought she had broken herself of that habit when she became the Amazon Queen.

“Nope, and I’s can check thems now iffen youse promise not ta high-tail it on outta here for a couple of hours,” the big woman said, pinning Rell with a hard look. “Would only take me that long ta do some askin’, ‘nd then we’d both know for sure who took Diana where.”

“Well, I can’t really go anywhere until I find a flight. So, I guess I can stay put until you get back,” the stocky woman offered as a kind of apology for her dismissive behavior.

“Youse jus’ make sure youse stay here until I’s get back, or I’s gonna tell Angelo to hog tie ya ’til I’s do return. This won’t take long, hones’. Couple, three hours, no more,” Bet said as she left the apartment.

Quickly leaving the building, briefly pausing to wave at Angelo, Bet climbed into her taxi and proceeded to drive aimlessly around the area for the next few hours. When she felt sufficient time had passed, she stopped at a public phone box and dialed a number she had long ago memorized. While waiting for the person on the other end to pick up the phone, she gnawed at the edge of one nail. Finally, a familiar voice sounded in her ear.

“Mitch? Bet. Give me everything you’ve got. Our little bird is about to fly the coop.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Got some good news for ya, Rell,” Bet said cheerfully as the photojournalist let the cab driver back into Diana’s apartment. “Someone spotted your friend, ‘nd she didn’ look ta be in a good way at the time.”

“Oh god, she’s not hurt, is she?” the stocky woman asked fearfully.

“Don’ knows for sure, but we’s goin’ for a little drive ta an airfield on the edge of town. I’s can explain on the way.”

To Rell, the drive to the airfield felt like it was taking forever, her concerns for Diana overpowering her usual alarm at Bet’s maniacal driving methods. The big woman explained that a taxi had been seen near one of the hangars, two men bundling a tall woman with jet black hair into the building. The man who had witnessed the event chose not to report it simply because for many of the ‘little’ people it never paid to bring the attention of the police down on yourself.

“You mean he’s an illegal immigrant, don’t you,” Rell said.

“Well, yea,” Bet admitted, dropping her head a little.

Bet’s informant had seen a light plane taxi out of the hangar later in the day, then take off. The reason the two women were going out to the airfield now was because the same plane had returned and was back in that hangar again. If Diana had been in the plane, Bet was willing to live up to her nickname that the tall woman would have found some way of leaving behind a clue to her destination.

Arriving at the small airport, Bet parked her cab between two buildings to shield it from view. Telling an argumentative Rell to stay put for a bit, the big woman went in search of her impromptu spy.

Bet returned half an hour later to a steaming photojournalist.

“God, it sure took you long enough. Did you have to walk to the other side of the field to find him or something?” Rell snarled, climbing grumpily from the hot taxi.

“Jus’ ’bout,” Bet smiled. “But it was worth the walk. Me man showed me the flight plan theys filed the day theys flew away with Diana.”

“Well, don’t make me guess,” Rell said crossly.

“Theys filed a plan ta a place called Springhouse, in British Colombia. ‘Ccording ta the map on the wall, it’s jus’ twent’ miles from Williams Lake. Me friend reckons it has one of the busiest airports for light planes goin’. Looks like thems GPS numbers meant somethin’, after all,” Bet explained, appearing somewhat surprised at the information.

“Your friend seems to know an awful lot for an illegal immigrant,” Rell observed a little suspiciously, wondering about Bet’s convenient collection of ‘important’ people.

Bet stopped in her tracks, looking down at the other woman. Abruptly, the big cab driver threw her head back and laughed uproariously. It wasn’t quite the reaction Rell had expected from her near accusation. After catching a glimpse of the perplexed expression of Rell’s face, Bet made a determined effort to get her laughter under control.

Still chuckling, she replied, “Oh Rell. I’s can’ts think when I’s enjoyed a laugh so much. Ya shoulda seen the look on your face. I’s can tell ya now me friend’s been ’bout so long, he might as well be legal. Flew in from one of thems countries on the other side of the world ‘nd jus’ kinda stayed. Use ta work with planes ‘nd stuff in Australia or Kiwiland, can’ remember which. He could run this place, easy. Insteads, he’s cleanin’ the john ta earn his scratch.”

“Well, when you explain it that way, I guess it makes sense,” Rell mumbled. “But sometimes I think it’s a little too convenient that you know everyone.”

Bet shrugged her shoulders, brushing off Rell’s comment. “Can’ help it iffen I’s been ’round the block a few times.” Settling the smile back on her face, she continued. “Anyways, iffen we’s is goin’ ta peek at that plane, we’d betta get movin’. Me friend…” she said, emphasizing the word. “…told me the hangar’s on the other side of the field.”

Walking around the corner of the building, Bet pointed out the hangar in question. They had barely taken a dozen paces, when the cabbie stopped suddenly. “Aw squat. Forgot ta lock me cab. Hang on, I’s be right back,” she said, already moving around the corner towards the cab parked in the alley between the two buildings.

Rell waited patiently, Bet returning in less than a minute. “Can’ afford ta be losin’ me cab. Only ways I’s got ta earn me money,” she said briefly, nodding they could now continue.

Bet insisted on taking a round-a-bout route to the hangar, saying if anyone was inside, she didn’t want to be spotted sneaking up on the building. Dodging between the available structures and taking advantage of any aircraft parked nearby, Rell was starting to feel like this was some kind of badly filmed cops and robbers movie. At least Bet seemed to be getting a kick out of it judging from the smile in her face. Over the course of several minutes, the two women gradually worked their way around the edge of the airfield towards the hangar they had been told about.

Peeking around a truck parked some one hundred yards or so from the hangar, Rell said, “Looks pretty quiet to me. No sign of anything moving at all.”

Not waiting for the big cabbie, Rell stepped from behind the cover of the vehicle and casually strolled towards the side of the hangar, hands in the pockets of her jeans. Bet, taken by surprise with Rell’s sudden move, caught up with her just before the stocky woman reached the back corner of the building. Ducking around the corner, both women plastered themselves against the wall.

“Damn it, Rell. Youse coulda told mes youse was ’bout ta move,” the big woman snarled, snatching a quick glance around the corner of the hangar to see if anyone had spotted them.

Rell merely shrugged, already creeping along the back wall towards the door. Halfway along, a dirty window gave her a chance to look inside but she found the interior obscured by the build-up of filth on the window and the shadowy darkness of the hangar itself. Scooting under the window, the stocky woman and the big cab driver moved towards the door of the hangar. Rell lowered her hand on the knob, expecting the door to be locked. The blonde’s raised eyebrow of surprise let Bet know the handle had given easily. Nodding at Bet, the former photojournalist carefully opened the door, allowing Bet to slip through the gap first. The smaller woman immediately ducked after her, closing the door silently behind her.

Other than a small glass-walled office to one side of them, there was absolutely nothing else in the hangar other than the light plane they had been told about. Parked in the center of the building, it appeared to be set up for another flight. Rell quickly checked the office, while Bet started towards the plane itself.

Rell found nothing in the office that she didn’t expect to find. A simple desk and chair arrangement was against one wall, with an ordinary telephone sitting on the top of the desk. There wasn’t a single scrap of paper in the desk drawers when Rell opened them and she thought that a little odd to begin with. Then she realized the ever-present filing cabinet was also missing, although from the dust patterns on the floor, one had been there at some point in the recent past. Walking out of the office she headed towards the plane where Bet was standing on the wing about to open the entry hatch. Preparing to climb up on the wing herself, the sound of a door opening and then being slammed shut caused both their heads to snap in the direction of the noise. Two well-dressed men stood near the doorway, both starting to move their hands towards something hidden inside their jackets.

Rell heard one of the men shout something as he reached under his jacket, but lost the words in the echo of the empty hangar. Suddenly a heavy weight caught her in the middle of the back, throwing her to the ground. Before she could even try to fight against the knee holding her in place, two near deafening explosions went off over her head.

“Don’t move, Rell. I think I got them but I just want to make sure,” Bet’s familiar voice said from above the stocky woman, though the cabbie’s odd accent had strangely disappeared.

Rell sat up, her ears still ringing from the explosions over her head. It took her a moment to realize the noise had been the Magnum .45 still held in Bet’s right hand. She watched, dazed, as Bet removed the clips from two handguns lying on the ground before checking the pulse on first one man and then the other. Walking back towards the stunned woman on the ground, the stocky photojournalist saw the big cab driver tucking her own weapon into a holster of some kind hidden in the back of her jeans.

Holding out one hand to help Rell to her feet, Bet asked, “Are you all right? I didn’t hurt you when I knocked you to the ground, did I?”

“I think I’ll live,” Rell started to say, feeling for bruises. Suddenly all the little inconsistencies she had been unconsciously noticing snapped together, and her temper erupted in white hot fury. “Fuck it, woman. Who the bloody hell ARE you? Where’d that stupid accent of yours go?” she asked through clenched teeth, her eyes flashing with barely controlled rage. Rell hated being manipulated to at the best of times, but right now she felt like she was nothing more than a helpless pawn on someone else’s chess board.

Bet shrugged one broad shoulder at Rell’s perfectly understandable burst of temper before squatting down to pull out something hidden inside her calf high hiking boot. Standing again, she opened her hand in front of the still livid photojournalist. Lying in the hollow of Bet’s large palm was the silver badge of an agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Rell felt herself sagging back against the wing of the plane, overcome with such utter surprise she honestly wondered if she wasn’t simply having a really bad dream. She watched as the other woman carefully tucked that bright silver badge back into the special concealing pocket inside her boot. Rell’s mouth started moving but it was going to take a few more seconds before her brain caught on to the idea of actually working.

“Oh god,” she mumbled. “But that idiotic accent…I thought…”

“Exactly as you were meant to think. That I was nothing more than a simple, possibly stupid cab driver, who knew their way around LA,” Bet said patiently as she waited for Rell to steady herself.

“A simple cab driver who sleeps in the back of her own taxi, yet has an internet account,” Rell stated, starting to get a grip on herself again.

“The account’s legit, Rell. I really did set it up in one of the cafés in LA. It’s the only way I can keep in contact with family and friends sometimes,” Bet replied, smiling at the smaller woman as she pushed herself off the wing of the plane.

“And all those ever so convenient sources of information you’ve been tapping into?” the photojournalist asked from under one suspiciously lowered eyebrow.

“Are also legit. I really do know just about every doorman, cabbie, street worker, thug or illegal immigrant in LA. I’ve been working under a deep cover for almost five years now. Squat, I even have a gen-u-ine police record,” Bet explained, laughing as she walked back to the two dead men. The big woman decided telling Rell about her phone call to Mitch at headquarters would probably be counter-productive at the moment. If Rell needed to know about that…well, it could wait until the time came.

“Lordy woman, what on earth were you arrested for?” Rell asked, looking at the professional way Bet went over the bodies searching them for anything of use. She also noted, rather dispassionately, the single bullet hole right in the center of each man’s chest. If nothing else, Bet was a crack shot.

“Assault, of all things. I could have just shown them my ID and gotten the whole thing cleared up that way, but it helped my cover to be charged with some kind of misdemeanor. It also gave ‘Bet’ a reputation for toughness few were willing to mess with.”

Smiling, Rell asked, “Just what is your real name, then?”

“Promise you won’t laugh,” Bet replied, poking through the wallets of the dead men.

“That bad, eh? Okay, I’ll try not to laugh but I sure can’t promise anything if it’s truly that woeful.”

“My parents named me Muffin, Muff for short. Guess they thought I would be just a regular little girl, but when I grew to be bigger than Dad…” Bet trailed off, thinking back. “Anyway, everyone’s been calling me ‘Bet’ for so long now, I guess I answer to that more than just about anything else.”

Rell hid a grin behind her hand, trying not to laugh aloud at the idea of someone as big as any of her Amazon warriors being called ‘Muffin’.

Snapping back into the here and now, Bet became all business again. “Does that phone in there work?” she asked.

“Yep. Picked it up and got a good clear dial tone. Why?” Rell said.

“I’ll get one of the clean up crews to get rid of these bodies for us. Then we have to sort out exactly where your friend has gotten herself to,” the big woman explained, already heading for the glass-walled office.

“What’s Diana got to do with anything?” the stocky photojournalist questioned, trailing along in Bet’s wake.

“Maybe nothing at all, but right now you’re my only link to a case I have been working on for over three years, and from the looks of it, your friend may have accidentally gotten herself into a snoot load of trouble somehow.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The chill from the cold water was nothing compared to the ice now forming deep in Diana’s soul. The sound of a chair scrapping across the floor almost echoed in the silence created by the cultured voice’s statement. Diana listened to the loud ticking of her high heels over the stone floor as she approached the bound woman. The heavy musk of her perfume wafted passed Diana’s nose, irritating the back of her throat. The tall woman suddenly knew how a small rabbit felt knowing there was an eagle circling in the sky overhead.

“Oh yes. You definitely have let yourself go lately,” the voice said from behind the blindfolded woman.

“Why is it the bad guys always have to gloat over their captives?” Diana commented, her tone just this side of complete insolence. “You’d think they’d try something new for a change.”

A hard, heavy object unexpectedly caught Diana at the back of the neck, sending her face first towards the stones. With no way to stop the fall with her hands tied behind her back, she gritted her teeth as her nose connected with the unyielding floor. She lay where she was, momentarily dazed, thankful her nose didn’t feel broken, even though it was bleeding profusely.

There was the sound of footsteps again, followed by the rustling of fabric as the woman knelt down towards Diana.

“Ahhh, my proud warrior. You will learn to respect me, fear me even. It took me a long time to get over what you had done. And now I will have my revenge, parading you before everyone whose business you disrupted. You’ve made a lot of enemies and they are going to enjoy seeing you humbled before me, jumping to my every command. Yes, Diana. The once mighty mercenary will be reduced to a salivating lap dog, quivering with her desire to please,” the voice whispered huskily into the tall woman’s ear.

“You really gotta stop snorting your own junk, Amanda. It’s giving you delusions again,” Diana replied from her position face down on the floor.

“Still as spirited as ever, I see,” the woman said, the sound of fabric rustling again as she returned to a standing position.

Diana listened to the ticking of her high heels on the floor as she walked back to her chair and seated herself once more.

“Take her back. I might get around to seeing her again in a couple of weeks. In the mean time, there is much work to be done,” the voice said nastily from the other side of the room.

Diana didn’t resist this time when hands grabbed various parts of her body and carried her from the building. Within a very short space of time, she found herself back on the flattened straw of the little room. She only relaxed once she heard the sound of the lock clicking firmly into place. Recalling the angry undertones she’d heard in Amanda’s voice, Diana realized she was in serious trouble, and if she didn’t find a way to escape soon, she may well find herself dancing on the end of Amanda’s string.

Thinking back, Diana remembered exactly when she had first met the other woman. After her change of heart, Diana had tried to find guides to take her up to the highlands where she hoped to find some trace of the Amazons mentioned in the ancient scrolls. Travelling across the top of South America, she eventually found herself in Santa Marta, Colombia. Along the way, wherever she could, Diana had tried to fix the problems of the people she had come across. Her skills and training as a mercenary had come in very useful in this new quest of hers, in many cases her reputation having traveled ahead of her.

In Santa Marta she ran across Amanda’s father, a man she’d had dealings with on occasion over the years. He was a gun runner, quietly smuggling high power Russian and Chinese made weaponry into the US, by island hopping across the Gulf of Mexico with his sleek, fast speed boats. By the time Diana ran into him again, he had added something new to his growing smuggling operation; high grade cocaine and marijuana. He had welcomed Diana’s presence, aware the advantage her tactical brilliance would give him as he battled the other cartels for a larger slice of the illicit drugs market.

Amanda had taken a liking to the tall, blue eyed woman from the moment Diana had stepped into the compound. The now ex-mercenary probably spent as much time dodging the young woman’s attentions as she did quietly undermining the cartel’s operations. She also did everything in her power to see that any prisoners the cartel had locked in their dim basements escaped without a trace, or at least died as quickly and painlessly as possible. Amanda’s personal specialty was torturing information from those prisoners, often taking their suffering well past what was needed. The woman appeared to enjoy her ‘work’ with an almost sexual delight. Usually, by the time she was finished with a captive, there was very little left that was even identifiable as human, let alone which human in particular.

Diana found herself shuddering a little. What she had endured so far was merely the softening up process Amanda liked to employ before the real ‘fun’ would begin. The tall woman was well aware anyone’s mind and spirit could be broken if enough pain was applied. That is most likely what happened to the teenager who came to feed her each time Diana woke. Tortured past the point of sanity, and now the youngster was left a mindless husk.

Diana had been with the cartel for almost three months when she caught wind of a shipment of guns about to be smuggled to the US, the largest one to date. Amanda’s father was also sweetening the pot by including an equally sizable shipment of drugs in the deal. The weaponry and cocaine were to be stored in a warehouse inside the grounds of the main compound. The cartel’s leader assumed it would be the safest place to keep them for the one night they would be in Santa Marta. Diana saw her chance to destroy the reputation of the cartel, probably putting it out of business completely. The buyers in the US were never happy with people who let them down in any way, often killing the individual in question as an object lesson to anyone else who might be considering double crossing them.

After knocking the guards around the warehouse into unconsciousness, Diana had used the cartel’s own small store of plastic explosive to destroy everything in the building. It was unfortunate Amanda’s father had chosen that moment to be inside the warehouse, gloating over the sheer size of his shipment. An ambitious up and comer twenty years before, he was now almost at the top of a vicious heap. Delivering his shipment would have made him the most powerful cartel leader in Colombia.

The tall woman had been unaware of the man’s presence in the building as she set off the plastic explosive, the resulting force almost blowing the roof from the warehouse. People had come running from all sides of the compound as the explosion tossed them from their beds. The piles of ammunition stacked inside began to discharge as the heat reached them, mowing down dozens of men and women as they tried to stop the raging fire from spreading to other parts of the compound. The area around the warehouse suddenly became a very dangerous place to be. At the height of the confusion, Diana quietly slipped over the wall and disappeared into the darkness.

By morning, all that was left of the cartel was Amanda herself, and perhaps a double handful of its ‘associates’. In the full light of day, a body count and a quick search of the few buildings still standing revealed Diana’s absence. Amanda swore personal vengeance against the blue eyed woman when the charred body of her father was carried from the remains of the warehouse. Rebuilding the cartel from the ground up had kept Amanda busy for the past three years, but the hatred she carried for Diana had never dimmed for a moment. Now she had the tall ex-mercenary, Amanda was going to make sure the punishment fit the crime.

Diana ran a quick checklist over herself. Mentally, she was fine. Between her own inner resources and the strengthening effect even thinking of Rell had on her, Diana wasn’t too worried about her mind going to pieces in her current condition. Physically though…well, that was another matter. The constant exposure to the sedating drugs had left her body weak and shaking but if she was to get out of this with her mind in one piece she had to act now or she might not get another opportunity.

Shit, this is gonna really hurt. At least being wet is going to make things a little easier, she thought to herself, wriggling her arms around to give herself as much room as possible.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rell stood off to one side, watching Bet’s ‘clean up crew’ efficiently load the bodies of the two dead men into the back of an innocuous looking truck. The big woman herself was locked in the glass walled office with another man, gesturing occasionally at the maps spread out over the desk. Having completed their grisly chore, one of the crew tapped on the glass letting them know they were done. Bet and the man quickly gathered up the maps before leaving the office. Rell saw the FBI agent tuck one of the maps under her arm as she came towards the former photojournalist.

With no preamble, Bet said, “I’d much rather leave you here where it’s safer, but you’re my only link right now, so I don’t have much choice about it.”

“As if I’d let you leave me behind,” Rell growled. “It’s my friend who’s gone missing and even if she is involved with your case in some way, I’d still get myself to Canada. I don’t care if I have to hitch-hike the entire distance.”

“Feisty one, aren’t you.” Bet replied, smiling. “Well, I hope you have your passport handy because we’re leaving just as soon as I can check that plane over.”

The agent wasn’t the least bit surprised when Rell whipped her passport from the back pocket of her jeans.

“Old habits never die,” Rell explained a little ruefully, returning the battered passport to her pocket.

“Well, just remember, you can,” Bet said pointedly, turning towards the light plane standing in the center of the hangar.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rell looked at the stamp in her passport. “As easy as that, eh?” she said to the big FBI agent striding along at her side.

“Yep, as easy as that,” Bet replied, looking around for the rental car counter.

“I thought you would just flash that badge of yours and…” Rell started to say.

“And get held up for a good couple of hours while I filled in a few million forms for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. No thanks. I just want to get us in and out of here as quickly as possible,” the FBI agent finished.

“I guess I had simply assumed there was a lot of cooperation between the US and Canada seeing we’re so close and share a border,” the photojournalist said, scratching her head a little.

“There is…When it’s official,” Bet explained. “But right now, this particular trip isn’t official.”

“But you’re on a case, aren’t you? Wouldn’t that make this an official trip?”

“Not when you’ve been working under deep cover for as long as I have. Officially, I ceased to exist five years ago. To surface now, just so I could get some cooperation from the authorities here would take weeks of diplomatic posturing from both sides, and we just don’t have time for that at the moment. Besides, if this thing blows up in my face, the police here may decide they have no idea who I am, regardless of my ‘official’ status. It’s probably better if we try to keep this quiet for the time being,” the big woman replied, finally spotting the counter for the rental car company and making a bee-line straight to it.

“Why do I get the feeling I just went from the frying pan into the fire?” Rell mumbled to herself, following behind the other woman.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“You sure you’re reading that map right, Rell?” Bet asked.

“Yes, I’m sure,” the other woman replied patiently. “Great, hairy, horny toads, it’s not like I could miss that huge red X you marked in the middle of it,” she grumbled.

“Then where’s the blasted turn off?” the FBI agent asked, exasperated with hours of driving along roads no wider than goat tracks, and definitely in far worst condition. Once they had rented a car, the two women could have taken a more direct route to their destination but Bet thought it would be safer to take a more circumspect path. A decision the woman was starting to regret because the only car they could rent was far too small for her large frame. If she spent much more time behind the wheel, Bet was sure she would never be able to unfold herself again.

“There! There’s the turn off!” Rell almost shouted, pointing to a gate in the distance.

Pulling the vehicle to the side of the road near the gate, Bet climbed from the car and gratefully stretched out the muscles in her back. Shading her eyes with one hand, she carefully examined the area. Several hundred yards from the gate a small farmhouse sat in the center of a large, tree-covered courtyard. A group of outbuildings of various sizes were clustered nearby, the door of one of them standing open. Surrounding the little grouping of buildings were miles of freshly tilled land, the endless furrows following the gentle rolling of the hills.

As Rell came up beside Bet, shading her own eyes as she did so, she spotted the plump figure of a woman coming out onto the porch of the farmhouse. Wiping her hands on a cloth, the woman must have been calling to someone in one of the outbuildings because moments later a boy, perhaps eleven or twelve years old, shot out of the open door and ran over to the porch. Following along behind the child, a well built man took the time to close the door behind him before crossing the courtyard himself. Rell could just make out a brief kiss shared between the adults before they stepped back inside.

“Mom, Dad and Junior from the looks of it. No sign of Diana though,” Bet said, looking at the shorter woman by her side. “But this is the place those numbers indicated. I wonder why she went to so much trouble to hide them?”

“Maybe she’s inside somewhere?” Rell offered, oddly disappointed at not finding Diana immediately. “You know, using the place as a bolt hole of some kind.”

“Only way to find out for sure, is to go over there, I guess,” the FBI agent said, squeezing herself back into the driver’s seat of the rental car.

Rell quickly walked over to the gate, opening it for the car to pass through, and then closing it behind them again. As they drove up the wide dirt track towards the farmhouse, she mentally crossed her fingers that Diana would be there somewhere. If she wasn’t, Rell didn’t have a clue where to start looking next.

Pulling up outside the building, Rell said, “This is pretty. If I didn’t already live in the most gorgeous place on earth, I might consider retiring here someday.”

“Not enough trees for me. I like the woods a lot more than open farmland,” Bet replied, smiling at the other woman as she got out of the car.

The sound of their car coming down the track to the farmhouse, and the slamming of car doors had alerted the solidly built man they’d seen earlier to their presence outside. Standing behind the screen door, still wiping his lips with a checkered napkin, he eyed them carefully as the two women stepped up onto the porch.

“What can I do to help you?” he asked pleasantly. “Get yourselves lost out here?”

“No. I don’t think we’re lost. We’re actually trying to find a friend of mine,” Rell replied. “Diana left a message…” the photojournalist suddenly stopped speaking. Rell’s eyes almost bugged out with surprise as she got her first good look at the youngster they had spotted from the gate.

Looking down, the man’s eyes flicked from the boy by his side to the women standing on his porch and back again. “Simon, go inside and help your aunt,” he said.

“Do I have to, Uncle Cobin?” the child answered, never taking his eyes off the two fascinating strangers standing outside.

“Yes, Simon. Go on now. I’ll be back in a minute,” the man answered, already pushing the screen door open and stepping through. As soon as the boy was out of earshot, the man quietly snapped at the two women, “I don’t know who you are but you’d better come with me.”

Striding passed Bet and Rell, he started across the courtyard towards the outbuildings.

“What’s wrong, Rell?” Bet asked quickly. “You look like someone just hit you up the side of the head.”

Clutching at the other woman’s forearm, Rell gasped in total shock, “That boy. Oh my god, Bet. That boy is the absolute spitting image of Diana.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Cobin Alexander stepped to one side ushering the two women into the little outbuilding just to one side of the courtyard. He knew this day had to come but he found he was as emotionally unprepared for it now as he had been every other time he’s thought about it in the past twelve years. Drawing a slow, calming breath into his deep barrel chest, he entered the building ready to face the two women who had shattered his world with a single sentence.

“Can you at least wait until nightfall. It’ll give Vicki a chance to say a proper goodbye to the boy,” he said tightly, facing the women. “He’ll be easier to deal with if he’s sleepy too. He can be damned willful at times, just like his mother.”

“Excuse me?” Rell said, confused. She was still trying to come to grips with the possibility Diana even had a son, let alone one who looked to be an exact copy of her in just about every way. Why hadn’t the ex-mercenary said something about the child earlier? she kept thinking.

Bet looked from Rell, whose eyes were almost spinning with shock, to the man trying to hold his emotions in check. “I think we might have our wires crossed here,” she said quietly into the silence.

“I thought you were here to take the boy? Diana said, if ever there was serious trouble, the kind that might find its way here, she would send someone to get the boy to safety. Isn’t that why you came?” Cobin asked, looking back and forth between the two women.

“No. We didn’t even know he was here until I saw him in the doorway, Sir,” Rell replied respectfully, finally managing to get her mental feet back under her again. “But I must say, he really is his mother’s son.”

“Please, just call me, Cobin,” the man said, sinking weakly onto a hay bale behind him. “I think we all have some explaining to do right now. How did you find me, by the way? I guess that is as good a place to start as any.”

Seating herself on another bale, Rell began. “Diana and I are friends. When she went missing, I started to look for her. We found the GPS numbers for your farm in a security deposit box back in LA. We thought this was where she had ended up, kind of like a bolt hole, and that is why she had gone to so much trouble to hide the paper it had been written on,” the photojournalist explained succinctly. “So when we got to Springhouse, we rented a car and well, you know the rest.”

“And you haven’t come to take the boy?” Cobin asked, needing to be absolutely sure.

“Like I said, we didn’t even know he was here until we arrived,” Rell replied. “He is Diana’s son, isn’t he? I just can’t imagine two people with the same ice blue eyes not being related in some way.”

“Yea, he’s Diana’s,” the big man said. “And where do you fit into all this, Ma’am? You the driver?” Cobin asked Bet, looking her up and down. It was fairly clear the farmer was impressed with her solid frame and well developed muscles.

Bet jumped straight into the role Cobin had so conveniently created for her. “Yea, I’m the driver, and whatever else that’s needed,” she replied, taking a half step closer to Rell, intimating that she also worked as the other woman’s bodyguard. The big man wasn’t to know the photojournalist no more needed one than he did.

“Bet?” Rell asked, one eyebrow raised.

“It’s all right, Miss Rell. I don’t mind anyone knowing I work for you. It’s easier for all concerned if everything is up front. No surprises that way,” the big woman answered, hoping Rell would understand the hidden meaning and go along with the charade. Being undercover for so long, Bet just felt more comfortable with a ‘role’ of some kind to play.

“So long as you don’t mind, Bet,” Rell finally said, hearing the unspoken message loud and clear.

“You a richie too?” Cobin asked, thinking that would explain the little woman’s need for a bodyguard. “Merc, like Diana, maybe?”

The photojournalist mind flashed through several possibilities that would explain how she had come to know Diana. “No, I have an eye for antiquities,” Rell replied, remembering how she had wanted to redecorate her own apartment in the style of the Amazons when she had first arrived at the village.

Cobin nodded, satisfied. Diana had on occasion smuggled artifacts across borders, though she found it tame compared to some of the other things she did. He ran his eye over the blonde again. Yea, he could easily see this one as Diana’s friend, perhaps even her lover. She looked to be the sort the mercenary liked to sleep with. If she was looking for Diana because she was missing, Cobin felt he could accept it on face value. He hadn’t been a solider of fortune for most of his life and not learn to read people. And he was seeing genuine concern written on every inch of the blonde’s body language as she sat there in his shed.

“So, how did you come to have Diana’s son with you?” Rell asked, feeling as though she had successfully passed some kind of test.

“Just before the boy was born, I got myself hurt in a little operation we were involved with. Damaged my shoulder pretty bad and lost some movement in my fingers. Merc ain’t no good when he can’t pull the trigger any more,” Cobin replied, demonstrating the lack of movement in the first two fingers of his right hand. “While I was recovering, Diana birthed Simon. Only time I ever saw that woman gentled was when she was holding that baby. Guess she knew having a youngster about was just asking for trouble, so she helped me buy this place so I could retire. Only condition she put on me was to look after her son as though he was my own. And I have done that. Vicki knows he isn’t mine but Simon doesn’t know who his mother really is. We’ve told him that she died in childbirth. Stops him from asking awkward questions, if you know what I mean,” the big man finished with a shrug of one shoulder.

“Has Diana had any contact with him at all?” Rell asked quietly. She found it difficult to imagine being separate from a child she had given birth to herself.

“Not directly. There is a bank account where she leaves money every month, not that we really need it,” Cobin replied, the pride of accomplishment obvious in his voice. “And she always sends something at Christmas time. Never forgets his birthday either. Signs herself off as a ‘secret Aunty’ on the cards. We’ve been using the postmarks as a way of keeping a rough track of her over the years. Last several packages have had postmarks from Venezuela on them. Figured that was where she had stopped for the moment.”

“Mmmm, she’s been living there for the last year and a half or so, although the past several months have been spent bouncing from there into the US and back again on a pretty regular basis. She disappeared when she was heading for the airport to come home again,” Rell said, bringing the conversation back on-track. “When we found the GPS numbers, we thought this was some kind of place Diana might head for if she ever felt really threatened by something.”

“Well, here’s the last place she’d turn up,” Cobin replied, pointing to the ground at his feet. “It would put the boy in too much danger if anyone found out he was here.”

“Looks like those GPS numbers were a dead end after all, Miss Rell,” Bet said, watching the other woman’s face fall as the realization sank in.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rell looked around the cheery kitchen thinking it could have easily graced the pages of any fashionable home design magazine. The ‘country kitchen’ look was all the rage back in LA, people sometimes paying exorbitant amounts of money to get every detail just right. Yet here, it had been designed for functionality and not fashion. There was even an old style oil cloth on the large, and well used table in the center of the kitchen. The smells of fresh baked bread and smoked ham filled the room creating a feast for her nose as much as the sights were delighting her eyes. Even the heavy silver cutlery on the tabletop was the genuine article, and not some modern rip-off made to look old. Rell was willing to bet the ‘good’ silver, probably received as a wedding gift, was lovingly stored in a cabinet somewhere in the house.

Once Cobin had relaxed, reassured they weren’t there to take the boy, he’d happily invited them to lunch. As the two women had stepped into the kitchen, Vicki had quietly exited through another door, the tears plainly obvious as they streamed down her face. Cobin hurriedly introduced Rell and Bet to Simon before going after her to let the distraught woman know everything was okay. Although the youngster was clearly fascinated by the two strangers he now found sitting at the table, the demands of his young appetite kept the food flowing towards his mouth in a steady stream.

Regardless of how beautiful the room was, the major point of Rell’s own interest was the youngster seated at the table with them. The short, close-cropped hair was as black as his mother’s, though it looked a little finer than hers. Eyes the exact same shade of icy blue Rell could remember looking at her from Diana’s own face, would glance up at them before dropping to the table again. Rell thought the boy had recently hit a growth spurt judging from the tightness of his stained denim shirt and the extra inch of wrist poking from the ends of the cuffs.

He’s already tall for twelve, Rell thought. He’ll probably make his mother’s height by the time he’s finished growing. Looks like he’ll have her shoulders too, if the way that shirt is straining at the yoke is any indication. Hmmm, now how do I make friends with him, she wondered. I really would like to be able to tell Diana a little about how her son has grown up. And saying he likes to eat isn’t what I’d call ‘mother’s information.’

Seeing the way Simon was clearing almost everything on the plate gave her an idea. He was making rapid inroads into almost everything, except for one lone pile of vegetables he was studiously avoiding.

Rell planted both elbows onto the table, causing Simon’s eyes to roll a little. He wasn’t ever allowed to do that but in his short life, the boy had realized the rules were always different for grown ups. Picking up a spare fork on the table, Rell pointed to the mound of green beans as yet untouched on Simon’s plate.

“You gonna eat those?” she asked, a friendly smile starting to lift the corners of her lips.

“Have to. Aunt Vic would have a cow if I left good food on my plate,” Simon answered, screwing up his mouth a little. Green beans had to be about the most awful tasting things on earth as far as he was concerned. But his aunt kept making him eat them, saying one day he would appreciate having such healthy food.

Looking over at the door that led deeper into the house for a moment, Rell leaned forward to spear a lone bean from on top of the pile. Bringing it to her lips, she popped it in, just catching the drip of butter before it slid down her chin.

“Mmmm, real farm butter. Haven’t tasted that in a while,” she said, swallowing down the vegetable. Glancing over at the other woman, she continued, “Have I ever told you how much I love green beans with real butter, Bet?”

The FBI agent winked at Rell conspiratorially. She was well aware of how much small boys disliked anything that was good for them, especially if it was colored green. “Why no, Miss Rell. You’ve never told me,” Bet replied, staying in her role as Rell’s driver.

“Mmmm, I really do adore them,” the stocky woman said, sneaking several more of the tasty vegetables from Simon’s plate. These disappeared in much the same way as the first.

“And those have real farm butter on them too,” Bet observed seriously, thoroughly enjoying the game.

“Yep, that they do,” Rell replied, another half a dozen little green spears vanishing from the plate.

Smiling along with the two women, Simon added his own piece as well. “Uncle Cobin says we grow some of the best in the county.”

“Hmmm, you might be right there, you know,” Rell said, swallowing down a few more of the beans. “But I really do have to be sure.” Taking the last of the vegetables onto her fork, the photojournalist popped them into her mouth.

Simon gravely held out his napkin so the woman could wipe the butter from her lips. Rell took it from him, patted her lips solemnly and then returned it to the youngster. The boy decided he liked the little blonde woman who had made his hated green beans disappear like magic from his plate. The other one, the big woman was still a bit scary but she had such a happy smile and her eyes twinkled in just the nicest way. He quickly decided he would like her too because for someone so large, she sat so quietly, not making any loud noises or shouting like some of his uncle’s old friends did.

“We don’t get many visitors out here,” Simon offered a little shyly. His aunt had always told him it was polite to make conversation and seeing his aunt and uncle still hadn’t returned yet; it was up to him.

“You are pretty far out,” Rell replied. “Do you have any friends your own age out here?” she asked, wanting to know so she could tell Diana what kind of friends the boy was making. Now he was a little more relaxed, Rell could also hear something that she had missed before. Her assumption about his growth spurt was correct because she could just hear the first cracks of a soon-to-break voice. Another few months and the boy would be well into puberty. She wondered briefly if his voice would be as low and rich as Diana’s. Just a whisper from that woman would send shivers up and down Rell’s spine. The blonde quickly brought her attention back to Simon, catching his next words.

“I was friends with Stacy over on the next farm. She’s older that me by a couple of years. I used to ride my mini-bike to get there,” Simon answered, frowning a little as he spoke. His tone of voice made it clear something had gone wrong between the two youngsters.

“Was friends? What happened?” the photojournalist asked compassionately.

“A strange man chased me away and told me not to come back again. He was really nasty about it too. I did go back later on, though.”

“A strange man?” Bet said quietly. “What did you see when you returned, Simon? Take your time and tell me everything you remember.”

The boy looked over at Rell, lacking any other adult to turn to. The stocky woman nodded her permission, reasonably sure that was what he wanted. Clearly the child had seen something over there that he hadn’t told his uncle about. Something he dearly wanted to tell judging from the look on his face.

“I left my bike in the big drainage ditch on this side of the fence and snuck over to the barn. Me and Stace have played there a lot and I know ways inside that no one else knows about,” he said defiantly. “You can hide in the hay loft and see just about everything if you squint through the gaps in the boards. It’s a really old barn, you see.”

“Old barns always make good hiding places,” Bet offered, gently encouraging the boy to continue. “What did you see from up there? It’s all right, you can tell us.”

Simon’s shoulders sank and his hands balled into tense little fists as he drew breath. “Anyway, I was sneaking looks through the gaps and saw lots of strange men wandering about the place like they owned it. This big car pulled up and the most beautiful woman I had ever seen got out of it. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, I was too far away but she was acting real bossy. She pointed to the house and then I saw Stacy’s Mom and Dad being brought out. Missus Lightfoot was crying and Mister Lightfoot had a black eye. Both of them had their hands tied behind their backs,” the boy whispered.

“It’s all right, Simon,” Rell said, getting out of her chair and wrapping a protective arm over the youngster’s slumped shoulders. “Then what did you see? If we know what happened, we might be able to help them, you see.”

Making a visible effort to keep going, Simon said, “Two of the men made Stacy’s Mom and Dad get into the car and it drove away. I don’t know where it went through. I lost sight of it.”

“It’s fine, Simon. Did you find anything else?” Bet asked quietly, not wanting to spook the boy.

“They still had Stacy. Coming up through the floor, I could hear someone crying really softly. When I went over to where I thought the sound was coming from, and moved the little bit of hay out of the way, I could look down through a crack in the boards. She was in this little room all tied up. I whispered down to her and said I would get my uncle to come and help her. Stace got really upset then and said I couldn’t tell my uncle and aunt or her Mom and Dad would be killed for sure. Then she told me I had to get away and not to ever come back to the farm until all the strange men had left,” Simon finished.

“And that’s why you didn’t tell your uncle, isn’t it? Because Stacy asked you not to.” Bet questioned.

Simon only nodded in reply.

“So why did you tell us?” Rell asked.

“Well, Stace said not to tell Uncle Cobin or Aunt Vic. She never said anything about not telling other grown ups,” he replied.

“Smart boy,” Bet said, patting the youngster on the arm. “Now, if I gave you some paper, do you think you could draw me a map of the farm showing where all the buildings are?”

Simon smiled up at the big woman happily. “Already got one. Stace and me were playing Secret Agent one time and we drew up a proper map, on real graph paper and everything. Stace said it was all in pro…prop…”

“Proportion?” Rell offered.

“Yea, that’s the word. Stace said it had to be that way cause that is how spies would do it.”

“Do you think we could borrow it for a while?” the agent asked. “Knowing where everything is will probably help us get Stacy out and find where the strange men took her parents.”

“Sure,” he said, climbing down from his chair. “You’ll bring it back though, won’t you? It’s a real good map. I wouldn’t want to lose it. Stace and me spent two whole days measuring everything up so it would be right on the map.”

“Word of honor, sport. We’ll bring your map back to you,” Bet replied, crossing her heart with one hand.

Simon skipped out of the room and both women could hear the sound of his sneakered feet as they bounced along the wooden floors.

“Do you realize we’ve just promised to come back here a second time?” Rell asked, sitting back in her own chair.

Bet smiled broadly at the other woman. “Incorrigible, isn’t he. I wonder where he got that from?”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Diana felt like her arms were on fire from shoulder to fingertips but the pain was definitely worth it. Hours of pushing her elbows outward as forcefully as she could had finally worked a little slack in the still damp ropes. In giving her a ‘bath’ before taking the tall ex-mercenary to see Amanda, they had also given Diana an opportunity to escape her bonds. Dry, the ropes had been as tight as ever but once soaked, there was a tiny amount of slippage as the line stretched. Diana intended taking full advantage of the thug’s mistake.

Wriggling alternate arms up and down inside the circle of slightly looser cordage surrounding her elbows, in effect, walking the rope down her arms fraction by painful fraction, had eventually slipped it over the joint and down her forearms. She could feel the damp rope in her fingers as she pulled it over her hands, dropping it into the straw behind her.

“Now comes the hard part,” she mumbled to herself, praying there was still enough flexibility left in her much abused shoulders to pull off the maneuver.

From behind the darkness of her blindfold, she concentrated on each muscle group trying to relax each one as much as possible. Slowing her breathing, she dropped into a near-trance state, the pain receding to some point just outside her body. She was still aware of it but it no longer interfered with her focus. In her mind she broke the entire process down into several small steps, seeing each one in minute detail. Diana then mentally ‘saw’ herself beginning each step, completing it and moving on to the next one.

Feeling she had relaxed her muscles about as much as she was going to get at that point, she compressed her torso from shoulder to hip, squashing her ribcage until she was barely able to breathe. Pressing her still bound wrists against her butt, Diana dropped her shoulders, hopefully giving her arms the extra inch of length she needed. Dragging her wrists underneath her backside and thighs, Diana ‘skinned the cat’ — only she did it in reverse.

Gasping triumphantly, Diana brought her hands up to her chest, the screaming pain in her shoulders breaking her out of the trance state she had used to help her overcome the limitations of her own body.

“Oh god. I didn’t think I could still do that,” she muttered, letting the pain slowly settle to a sharp ache.

With one thumb, she nudged the blindfold from her face, getting her first good look at the prison she’d been held in. The sunshine coming through the high window was far too bright for eyes that had been covered for so long. Turning her head away from the painful light, she looked around the small room, its floor thickly strewn with the straw she’d been lying on.

“Hmmm, your taste in accommodations certainly hasn’t improved in the slightest, Amanda,” Diana said aloud. Bare walls, a single high window, hay covered floor and a locked door was all the tall woman could see, once her eyes had stopped tearing quite so much.

Flexing her swollen fingers a little, Diana began the slow job of loosening the bonds around her ankles and knees. She found the knots had been placed very awkwardly, well, awkwardly for her anyway. Diana’s dogged persistence eventually helped her work the knots loose and for the first time in several days she was able to stretch out the muscles in her legs properly. The intense ache in her hips and thighs joined with the pain in her shoulders until Diana wondered if she was ever going to feel normal again.

In attempting to stand, the tall woman made yet another inconvenient discovery — her legs were having difficulty holding her up. Some of the muscles felt like unresponsive rubber, while others cramped painfully as her weight settled on them for the first time.

“Hmmm, going to have to work at that,” she mumbled quietly from her position on the floor where she had fallen. “Just need some time to get them used to the idea again, I suppose.”

Deciding to leave walking until a bit later when her legs had had a chance to relax, Diana looked at the knot still binding her wrists together. This knot hadn’t just been put into an unwieldy place, it had been turned back on itself so she couldn’t reach it with her teeth no matter which way she twisted her forearms.

The woman swore rather creatively for several moments. It didn’t achieve anything but Diana felt better for it. Looking around her little chamber again, she tried to see some way of wearing through the ropes enough that she could hopefully break them apart. Moving her eyes slowly over the walls and door, covering every inch, the dark haired woman finally spotted a slightly raised section on the hinge of the door. Crawling over to it, she felt the edge with her fingers. It wasn’t very sharp but several places had been chipped as though the screwdriver had slipped when someone had installed the hinge, gouging out a tiny bit of the metal.

“Guess it’ll have to do,” she said, placing the ropes against the hinge and pulling down. She was very satisfied to hear a couple of the threads in the cord snap as they moved over the chips. Settling next to the door, Diana began to patiently scrape the rope over the rough edge.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Several miles from the Alexander’s farm, parked atop a low hill, Rell stood next to Bet as they leaned over the hood of the car examining the map Simon had given them. Just as he had said, the distances and the size of the buildings did look to be proportional, so they were getting a very good idea of where all the structures were on the farm. Each building, shed and lean-to had its windows clearly marked as well as the doors, both internal and external. Tiny green dots near the doors showed where the keys to open any locks were kept and blue boxes of various sizes marked ‘getaway’ vehicles. Even better, at least in Rell’s mind, Simon had used faint dotted lines to indicate the underground drainage tunnels and various other ‘escape’ routes. A tiny ‘N’ with an arrow was in one corner of the map so they could easily orientate themselves.

“Gotta admit, the kid is good. I wish I had maps this well drawn in some of the places I’ve been over the years,” Bet said.

Rell grinned, turning to look at the other woman. “Well, look who his mother is. He’s definitely inherited her brains, that’s for sure.”

“Speaking of Diana…” the FBI agent started. “Rell, I can’t take you into this with me. It’s not your case, and…Oh squat, you’re a civilian. I’m supposed to be protecting civilians, not dragging them into possible danger,” she said, pushing her hand through her hair.

“Whoa, Nellie,” Rell said, holding up her hands. “I’m hearing at least three different messages in that statement. How about you start with telling me why you have to go over there? I thought we’d just hand this one to the local authorities and get on with finding Diana. Isn’t she somehow involved with your case?”

“Squat,” the big woman cursed again. “You know, Rell, you can be a real pain with all this logic of yours. How Diana puts up with you is a real mystery to me,” she continued without rancor.

“Diana puts up with me just fine,” Rell replied. “Explain,” she said, crossing her arms across her chest.

Bet poked her tongue at Rell and then marshaled her thoughts. “Okay, to start right at the beginning. I’d been undercover for a couple of years when word of a really big shipment of high grade cocaine and dope was heading into the US from somewhere in South America. For some reason, it never arrived and the cartel who was supposed to deliver it had been mysteriously decimated. The next thing we hear is the daughter of the cartel leader was rebuilding it from the ground up. So far, nothing unusual. The in-fighting between the cartels goes on all the time, and occasionally one does get wiped out. Sometimes, they can rebuild, other times, not,” Bet explained, leaning back against the hood of the car.

“Diana? Remember her? How does she fit into all this?” Rell asked, a little impatiently.

“I’m getting to that,” the big woman replied. Thinking for a moment, she continued. “Anyway, this rebuilt cartel is unbelievably tight. No one has any idea of what the new leader looks like or how she operates. Trying to find out anything is virtually impossible, as several of our people discovered.”

“What happened to them?” Rell asked curiously, though she had a pretty good idea.

“They were killed, in particularly grisly ways, I might add,” the agent answered, shuddering. “Eventually, we get the faintest whisper that the daughter is going to be branching out a little and setting up a base of sorts in Canada. The authorities at the US/South American border are only stopping a tiny percentage of the drugs entering the country via that route, but to transport them from Canada is even easier. Squat, we have people who commute daily from Canada into the US to go to work there. Trying to thoroughly check every car, pick-up and heavy loader crossing that border, not to mention the small aircraft traffic would be an absolute nightmare. The resources just aren’t available.”

“And Diana fits into all this, how?”

“Ordinarily, Customs doesn’t pay too much attention to people coming into the US. So long as the visa is valid, it just gets logged into the computer until something shows up to alert us,” Bet began. “Then the system threw up Diana’s name because of all the entrances and exits she had been making over the past several months.”

In a dangerously quiet voice, Rell said, “You think Diana is your cartel leader, don’t you?”

“The intelligence boys seem to think so,” Bet replied, holding herself very still in case Rell became violent. The FBI agent had taken a huge risk in revealing herself to the photojournalist back in LA, but sometimes to get the biggest payoff on a case you had to take those kinds of risks to gain the other person’s trust.

“I don’t care what your intelligence boys think. Diana is the sweetest, gentlest, most caring woman on the face of the earth. Just look how she made sure her own son was safe when it had to be eating her alive to send him away,” Rell growled at the other woman.

“If you listen to how we reached our conclusion, you’ll see it makes perfect sense,” Bet offered.

“You’d better be quick, or I’ll make sure every ‘source’ you have in LA knows exactly who you are.” Rell paused for a beat. “Muffin.”

Ouch, I think I might have deserved that one, Bet thought, cringing internally. I really have abused her trust rather badly. But I had to get to the cartel leader and Rell was my only solid lead to her. I just did what I had to do, Bet rationalized with herself.

“Okay, point one. We know Diana is a mercenary, and has been for most of her life,” the agent replied, ticking off her first statement on one finger.

“Ex. She is an ex-mercenary, and has been that way for at least a couple of years that I know about,” Rell countered angrily.

The other woman raised one eyebrow at the interruption but decided to continue anyway. She doubted the photojournalist could refute everything about Diana that Bet had learned.

“Point two. She was known to frequent the area where the cartel was based, at least before they were wiped out during some kind of in-fighting,” Bet continued, ticking off another finger.

“She was looking for guides into the interior. She was having trouble finding anyone who would take her.”

“Point three. Diana has more money than god. The kind of money you usually only see among the cartels,” the big woman said, folding a third finger against her palm.

“Great, hairy, horny toads! Since when is being rich a crime? She has a large family estate she dips into whenever she needs cash,” the photojournalist snapped.

“Finally,” Bet said, folding her pinkie down. “She has been making very regular trips to the US and Canada from South America, traveling extensively inside both countries and about the time she’s getting ready to leave again, women disappear. All from the places that she has been to during that trip. Cartels generally deal in drugs or guns but they have been known to play about in the white slave trade occasionally. From what I have been told, it’s a very lucrative trade too. Perfect for building up a hefty cash base for someone looking to expand their operations.”

I’d like to see you explain that one away, Rell, the FBI agent thought.

“The women have been going to South America because she has invited them there,” the blonde growled. “If you checked your almighty damned computer, you’d know that some of them have come back again, and of their own free will, I might add.”

“But why would Diana be asking women to go to South America, and why is she making all those trips back and forth?” Bet asked, a little confused. She did know about the returns and had assumed, as had the intelligence section, that there must have been a glitch in the reporting system somewhere. A lack of field agents, and the low priority of this case had not allowed them to physically go and check if the women had actually come back. It could simply be some elaborate rouse to throw them off the scent. Assuming someone else’s identity was certainly easy enough, and a surprisingly common ploy among criminals.

“Because I damned well asked her to!” Rell shouted, her temper slipping its reigns and running wild.

“Oh my god, you’re the cartel’s leader,” the big agent gasped in utter shock, reaching for her Magnum .45 holstered in the back of her jeans.

Rell saw the rapid movement and her many hours on the Amazon training ground suddenly snapped into action. For the photojournalist everything started moving in slow motion. She felt as though she had all the time in the world to make the tight, full body spin, arms tucked against her chest, one leg snapping up and out at precisely the right moment. The blonde could even hear the voice of her Amazon trainer as the wooden heel of her left boot connected solidly with Bet’s temple.

“You’ll probably kill a little person with a kick like this, My Queen but a big one will most likely just go down. It’ll give you a chance to get a really telling hit in before they can get themselves sorted out enough to get back up again,” the patient voice of her trainer said in her mind.

Rell watched as Bet’s head snapped to one side, her knees giving way under her. The sound of the big woman’s skull hitting the hood of the car seemed unusually loud, echoing in Rell’s mind as she bounced gently on the toes of both feet, ready to get that ‘telling hit’ in if she could. Bet did not get back up again. The FBI agent lay on the ground, an unconscious, crumpled heap at the photojournalist’s feet.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Simon stood on the porch watching the little car drive back up the track of the farm, the cloud of dust it left behind quickly blowing to one side in the stiff afternoon breeze. Waving to his aunt at the door of the farmhouse, Simon trotted over to the barn to attend to his chores. He was reasonably sure his aunt had been crying earlier, though he was at a loss to explain why. Aunty Vicki rarely broke down but the boy knew what that red-eyed, blotchy faced look meant, he just couldn’t figure out why the appearance of Rell and Bet had started his aunt crying. Shrugging his shoulders as he trotted across the courtyard, he doubted if he ever would.

The grown ups rarely told him anything anyway, sometimes not even noticing he was there unless he spoke. The boy had long ago learned to blend into the background and quietly watch as friends of his uncle would loudly boast about things Simon didn’t understand. But that was the way of adults. He didn’t think he would ever understand them.

Grabbing his mucking rake from the wall as he entered the building, Simon looked down along the twenty stalls lining both sides of the barn. Only five of them had occupants but the barn had been built back in the days when horses pulled the ploughs and harvesters instead of the noisy tractors his uncle now used. The boy quickly walked passed the first four stalls, their occupants outside for the moment, cropping sweet grasses in the field. He kept walking until he was level with the fifth stall. Inside was an aging pony, her arthritic joints and chipping hooves forcing Cobin to keep her in the stall most of the time. The little mare had been Simon’s first mount and was still his favorite animal on the whole farm. Her sweet and patient nature had made learning to ride a great deal easier for the then two year old child who still found walking a challenge. Simon had long since moved up to one of the horses when the length of his legs made riding the pony impractical. He still loved the pony though, and always found a little time to spend with her each day when he came to muck out the stalls and lay fresh hay in each enclosure.

Lifting the latch on the gate to her stall, Simon clucked his tongue as he stepped inside. The old mare came towards him, her nose already extended for the carrot she knew he was carrying on him somewhere. It was a game they both enjoyed, he would hide the carrot and she would have to find it. Simon couldn’t help smiling as the pony began to whuffle over his pockets. He’d figured out some time back that his aunt always left a carrot or two where he could easily purloin them. Seemed his aunt liked the little mare too.

The pony quickly found the carrot; after all, he only had so many pockets and was soon crunching contentedly. Leaning back against the gate, Simon said, “Did you see the visitors we had today, Honey? They weren’t like those noisy men who usually come to see Uncle Cobin. There was a little blonde lady who pretended she liked green beans and a taller lady. Well, taller doesn’t really describe her. She was as big as Uncle Cobin but she was really quiet and when she smiled her eyes would just light up in the nicest way you could imagine.”

The pony sniffed at Simon’s pockets again, hoping for a second carrot. She was in luck today and found another tucked into the pocket of his jeans. Her talented teeth soon had it out and she munched away on the juicy vegetable as she listened to the small human talking. Simon often came and chatted with the pony about whatever was bothering him, lacking a confidant his own age and gender.

“And the best part of all, Honey, was I got to tell them about what happened over on Stacy’s farm. I promised I wouldn’t tell Uncle Cobin or Aunt Vic but I was able to tell the two ladies because Stacy didn’t say anything about not talking to other grown ups. And even better, Honey, they believed me. That really had to be the best part. Then the big lady; her name is Bet, by the way, asked if I could draw her a map of the farm. She looked really happy when I showed her the one Stacy and I drew that time we were playing at being secret agents,” Simon explained excitedly, his hands waving in the air as he spoke.

Honey sniffed delicately at Simon’s shirt hoping for scratches, now that she had eaten all the hidden carrots. The white, grizzled hair around her muzzle and the hollowing of her flanks giving away her age.

“Do you know what is the very best part of all, Honey?” the boy said, giving in to her request for scratches. “They don’t know it yet, but I’m going to help them. No one knows that farm the way I do and I don’t care if they have a map of the place. I didn’t mark down all the escape tunnels when we drew it, so the only person who knows their way around everything is me. I’ve gotta help them. I mean, Bet is probably big enough to take on most of the men and the little blonde lady, Rell, can handle the beautiful woman, but that still leaves Stace tied up in the big barn. Someone has to get her out and that someone should be me cause I know my way around like nobody else,” he boasted.

Continuing the scratches, the boy thought for several moments. “I guess the best time to go is after moon set tonight. It’ll be dark then and no one will be expecting a single boy to come sneaking onto the farm, especially if they are already busy with whatever Bet and Rell might have cooked up for them. Yep, looks like it’ll have to be tonight then,” he said to the little mare snuggled against his chest.

“Are you mucking out those stalls, Simon or standing around talking to Honey again?” Cobin Alexander’s voice called from the front of the barn. “I know she’s your favorite but it’s not getting your chores done.”

“I was just giving her a carrot, Uncle Cobin. I just got started with the mucking,” Simon replied, beginning to energetically collect the manure from the straw and dumping it into the barrow.

“And don’t forget the chickens when you get finished in there either,” Cobin yelled down the passageway before turning to attend to a few of his own chores. The big man knew Vicki was going to have his hide if he didn’t see to those weakened brackets on the downpipe today. How the damned thing kept coming loose was beyond him. Perhaps some stronger screws were the answer, he thought, turning from the barn.

“Yes, Uncle Cobin,” Simon called back, winking broadly at the patient mare watching him work. He could hardly wait until tonight when the moon set and he got the chance to rescue Stacy – just like a real secret agent would. In the meantime, doing his chores did help to pass the time.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Bet wondered what she had been drinking the night before because her body was sprawled out in the oddest position and her head was pounding furiously. She silently promised herself to find out exactly what she’d consumed so she could make sure never to drink it again, if this was the way it left her feeling the next day. Gingerly moving her head, the big agent tried to roll over, only then discovering her wrists had been secured in some way to a large, immovable metal object. Slowly opening her eyes brought a rush of memories back to her. It wasn’t alcohol that had put her in this position but the flying boot of the little blonde photojournalist sitting patiently on the ground in front of her blurred eyes.

“You know, Bet. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to find you had the kitchen sink in there,” Rell said calmly, now she felt she had regained some measure of control over the situation.

“Excuse me,” Bet replied stupidly, not understanding what the other woman was talking about.

Rell cast a significant glance at the slim handcuffs threaded through the bumper of the car and firmly clipped around the agent’s wrists.

“Oh. Those,” Bet said, still trying to get her brain into the right gear. That little blonde has one almighty kick on her, she thought. I’d hate to meet her in a dark alley. Oops, I think I just did.

“I figured if you had a gun in your jeans and a badge in your boot, you had to have some handcuffs on you somewhere too. It didn’t amaze me at all to find a pair in your other boot. You really have to tell me where you got them from because they seem to come with some really interesting goodies,” Rell said pleasantly.

“So what happens now? Your thugs come along and wipe me off the face of the earth?” Bet asked, her upper lip starting to sneer even though her heart rate was probably thumping at twice its usual rate.

“Nope. No thugs,” the blonde replied.

“Oh? You have the fun of doing it yourself, I suppose?” the agent offered, already seeing her body bouncing limping along as Rell took the car for a high speed, reverse drive through the countryside. Well, there are grislier ways to go, she thought, completely unable to actually think of one.

“Nope, won’t do that either,” Rell answered, smiling. She was starting to enjoy the other woman’s very incorrect assumptions, now she had her temper under control again and could see the funny side of things. After what the agent had said about Diana, Rell was severely tempted to really tease the big woman but that wasn’t going to get them anywhere.

Narrowing one eye at Rell, Bet asked, “You are the cartel’s leader, aren’t you? Because if you’re not, I think I just jumped into a very big pile of manure, and with both feet.”

“Well, I am a leader,” the photojournalist started to say and saw Bet immediately relax, thinking her assumptions had been correct after all. “But not of any cartel,” she finished wickedly, watching the confusion fill the other woman’s eyes.

“If you’re not in charge of a cartel, what are you the leader of?” the agent asked, rattling the handcuffs a little in frustration.

“I’m the leader of something you’re not going to believe for a minute, so I’m going to start by asking you to look at something,” the blonde replied.

Bet pulled herself up a bit with one hand on the bumper of the car. Nodding, she indicated she was ready for just about anything, especially if it meant she wasn’t going to be killed in the next five minutes. She watched as Rell tugged at one leg of her jeans, pulling the material well passed the top of her calf high boot. Bet couldn’t miss the inch or so of very well defined muscle now showing above the other woman’s boot top.

“Have you ever see anything like this before, Bet?” the other woman asked, pointing to the exposed leather of her footwear.

The FBI agent spent a couple of minutes gazing at the boot as Rell helpfully turned it in different directions so the handcuffed woman could see it from as many Angeles as possible. The leather was beautifully finished, most likely waterproof, if the high shine was any indication. The sole was made of many thin layers of leather firmly stitched together with tiny, near perfect rows of needlework, and a solid wooden heel had somehow been attached.

The thing that really caught Bet’s eye however, were the designs carefully etched into the material. The most stunning array of bright, almost dazzling colors had been used to emphasize certain areas of the designs, while others relied on the finest and most complex carving the big woman had ever seen done on such a simple material like leather. Images of soaring eagles and snarling panthers appeared to come alive around the top of the boot. Across the foot and surrounding the heel lay an expanse of jungle so intricate in its detail, Bet could make out individual leaves and vines. From a distance, the designs not hidden by Rell’s jeans had simply faded into a series of lines and shapes. Being this close to them, Bet could see what they really were, a thing of true beauty any museum in LA would have proudly displayed as a work of art.

“And these are just my every day boots,” Rell said, when Bet’s appreciative eyes finally dragged themselves upward. “The ones I wear for ceremonies and such are much more ornate.”

“Who do you lead, Rell?” Bet asked, not sure what kind of answer the other woman would give.

“Know anything about the Amazons?”

“A little,” the agent replied. “I learned about them in history class at college.”

“Well, I’m the Queen of the Amazon Nation,” Rell said with simple honesty.

“Bunkum!” Bet snapped, pulling at the handcuffs savagely.

“I thought you might say something like that,” the photojournalist said. “But think about it, Bet. It’s pretty far fetched, I’ll admit but it’s just crazy enough that I might be telling the truth. And have you ever seen craftsmanship like this anywhere before,” she continued, pointing to her footwear.

“Look, those boots are pretty spectacular but that doesn’t make them Amazon. They died out thousands of years ago. Amazons simply don’t exist any more. They couldn’t. Not in this day and age,” the big woman replied.

“They do exist, and thanks to the women arriving from places like the US and Canada, we are thriving again. I’m hoping that when we are strong enough as a people, we can leave our jungle home and take our place in modern society, but that is still quite a few years away for us yet. A lot of the warriors have never seen anything of this world, and to be quite frank with you, it would be just too overwhelming for them to try to change,” Rell explained, quietly.

“You talk as though these Amazons are real,” Bet said, not believing the blonde for a moment but something in her soul wanting to be convinced anyway.

The photojournalist locked her eyes with the agent’s, and Bet could almost see the thousands of years of experience hidden behind those blue-green pupils. Experience Rell could somehow call upon to lead a people the blonde knew existed.

“Bet, you’re just going to have to take it on faith alone that the Amazons truly live and I am their queen. There isn’t time to explain everything to you, at least not in a way you’ll believe, but this much I can tell you. Diana has been coming to the US and Canada for the past several months because I, as the Amazon Queen, asked her to do it. She has a real knack for finding any woman with Amazon blood running in their veins. When she does find someone, she makes arrangements for them to come to South America. The women go to Bogota and stay in a hotel there until we have a small group. Then they are transported by a friend to a little clearing where they are met by one of my warriors. The warrior guides them up to the plateau where we live and usually within twenty-four hours, they have settled into the life of an Amazon. Any who wish to return to civilization are returned, no questions asked,” Rell explained with such compelling sincerity Bet was hard pressed not to believe.

Seeing the FBI agent was willing to listen, at least partially anyway, Rell decided to take a real chance. It was a chance that might leave her with no hope of finding Diana but the stocky blonde did need the big woman’s help if she was to succeed in her quest to find her consort.

“Bet, I am going to take those cuffs off you. If you don’t believe in the existence of the Amazon Nation, even if you can’t bring yourself to believe in them, then please believe in me. Neither Diana nor myself are connected to the cartels in any way. I only want to find her and take her home to the village,” Rell said, reaching forward with the key to the handcuffs. Within moments, she had them undone and was handing them back to the FBI agent.

As she sat rubbing her wrists, Bet looked at the other woman. “I can’t bring myself to trust in something so outside of my own experience, Rell,” she said sadly. “But I do believe you’re not connected to the cartels. And I’ll help you find Diana. After all, I did promise to drive you wherever you needed to go for as long as it was going to take,” she continued, a cheeky twinkle in her eye.

Rell sighed in utter relief, her shoulders dropping as she relaxed again.

“But this thing over at Stacy’s farm? Well, we’re going to have to take care of it. Aside from nearly promising Simon we’d do it, I don’t want to bring myself to the attention of the local authorities. All that damned paperwork I mentioned at the airport,” the agent explained, ruefully.

“Hmmm, how long can it take to get into lots of trouble?” Rell questioned aloud, as though asking herself. Climbing back to her feet, she held out one hand to the other woman, helping her up.

“Just one night, Rell. Just one night,” Bet said as she got behind the wheel of the car.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The FBI agent and the photojournalist were hunched down in the deep ditch across the road from the gate leading into Stacy’s farm. They had arrived an hour before sunset and had been watching ever since for any comings or goings from the site. The only arrival had been a large, canvas covered van, its driver more interested in making his turn than in looking for anyone crouched in a ditch. Their own vehicle was parked in a tiny valley some two miles away and the women had crept along beside the road until they had reached the gate. Both of them were soaked and muddy below the knees after stumbling through some of the run-off that had accumulated at the bottom of the little canal.

In the questioning silence of night, each woman was thinking her own thoughts as their eyes stayed fixed on the roof of the farmhouse they could just see in the distance. Ever since their ‘discussion’ earlier in the day, both women felt a little uncomfortable. Rell wondered if Bet truly believed that she and Diana weren’t involved with the cartels, and Bet was considering what life would be like if the Amazons really did exist.

Temporarily putting her thoughts to one side; something the agent had grown used to doing over the years, Bet whispered, “The moon will have set in about an hour, Rell.”

Shaking her own mind free, Rell looked over at the other woman before answering. “What’s the best way in, then? Simon’s map may have told us where to go but neither of us have any idea just how many men are wandering about the place.”

Bet pulled the carefully drawn map out of her pocket and spread it on the ground at the top of the ditch, using the last of the moonlight to illuminate it. Tracing her finger over the paper, she found her eye returning to the underground drainage tunnels again and again. The barest outline of a plan began to form in her mind as she looked at the various entrances and exits of the tunnels.

“We could go in here,” she said, pointing to a tunnel exit on the map which in reality was barely a hundred yards from where they were lying. “And come out the other end, here,” she continued. Bet’s second ‘here’ exited through an access shaft at the back of the big barn, right under a convenient window. Encircled by the high fence of an old horse yard, it looked to be the perfect entrance point into the barn.

Rell looked at the map over Bet’s shoulder, running her eye over the route the agent was proposing. “I don’t think that will work,” the photojournalist commented. “See the window? If that’s the one over the little room Simon said he last saw Stacy in, then it’s way too small for either of us to crawl through. See,” she said, counting off the spaces on the graph paper. “It’s only four of the little squares long and according to the key on the side, there’s no way we could fit. We need a window at least twice that length.”

“Hmmm, no other windows until you reach the front of the barn and those all face the house. I’m not too keen on the idea of trying to sneak in from the front,” Bet said. Running her finger along the sides of the building, she tried to find another way in. “There’s the big, main door here on the side of the barn,” the agent pointed out. “But that would make enough noise to wake the dead if we tried to open it from either side, and I’m not sure how many guards would be about.”

“Tilt the map a little, Bet. This moonlight is making it hard to see,” Rell asked, nudging the other woman’s elbow. The faint dotted lines Simon had drawn on the map suddenly became clear and their route into the barn appeared like magic. “Look, there,” the blonde said, pointing to a marking on the map.

“Well, you couldn’t have asked for a better exit than that,” Bet replied. “But squat, it means a long crawl on our bellies over two fields to get into the tunnel. You up to it, Rell, I mean you being a civilian and all? I honestly don’t have any right to ask you to be doing police work with me.”

“If you knew some of the places my trainer’s had me crawling lately, you wouldn’t be asking. A couple of fields are going to feel like a walk in the park, trust me,” the stocky woman replied, grinning. Images of a leech filled, snake infested, fetid tropical swamp filled Rell’s mind, her trainer and several of her warriors lurking somewhere ahead of her. If she made so much as a ripple in the foul water, one of them would suddenly pop out of hiding to plant the end of a spear on Rell’s head, merrily pushing their queen underwater. It was an exercise designed to teach a young warrior stealth, though at several points she was certain her warriors were going to have to learn mouth to mouth instead.

“Just so long as you’re okay about it, then,” Bet answered, looking at the other woman out of the corner of her eye. The FBI agent started wondering exactly where Rell had been crawling, and whether it was one of those allegedly non-existent Amazons who had made her do it.

Poking the map back into her pocket again, Bet settled down in the ditch to wait for the moon to set over the horizon. She wasn’t too concerned about getting bored during their enforced delay; she had more than enough to occupy her mind.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Diana twisted her rope bound wrists towards what little light remained, to see how much further she had worn through them. Hours of patiently scraping them over the slightly gouged sections of the hinge were definitely making an impression but from the look of it, she still had a long way to go. Dropping her hands into her lap, Diana rolled her shoulders trying to take some of the ache out of them. She had no idea how long she had been drugged but it had taken quite a toll on her powerful body. Whenever her arms grew too heavy to lift towards the hinge again, she would force herself upright, trying to get her uncooperative legs to stabilize. After many attempts and a great deal of massage, she found she was able to stand, even take a few steps, but that was about all. When her legs had become unresponsive jelly once more, Diana would work her way back to the hinge and start wearing away at the rope again. Eventually, she decided one or the other had to come good for her.

Inside her mind a sense of deep urgency kept pushing her to continue with her struggle. An urgency fueled by three events. First, the vacant eyed teenage girl who usually turned up just on sunset to feed and water the tall ex-mercenary had not made an appearance. Second, the sound of a large van pulling up in the courtyard, followed by loud voices had echoed up the passageway and into her little room. Clearly, some aspect of her captor’s work had come to fruition. Finally, the man who normally drugged her into insensibility had not shown up, nor did it seem likely he would. She had been keeping track of time by watching the moon move across the frosted glass of her tiny window until it had dropped over the sill heading for the horizon. So, Diana knew it was hours past the time he should have turned up with his horrifying drugs. Aside from the sounds she was making herself, the hallway had been completely silent from the moment she’d been brought back to her prison.

“Okay, something is going on tonight which means I’d better get my pretty little butt out of this room and well away before they remember I’m here,” Diana said to herself, lifting her tired arms towards the hinge.

How she would get through the locked door and where she could escape to afterwards, were concerns she didn’t bother to think about just yet. Getting her hands free and her legs cooperating were the only things on her mind for the moment.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Simon listened closely at the barely open door of his bedroom. Somewhere down the hallway he could just hear the sleepy muttering of his uncle and the almost petite snores made by his aunt. Shortly after his aunt had tucked him into bed for the night, Simon had pulled the big, old alarm clock down from his bedside table and reset it to wake him some hours later. He knew trying to stay awake until the moon had gone down would be useless, hours of physical labor saw to that, so he set the alarm and then tucked the clock under his pillow. Simon had been jerked from a deep sleep when the alarm had started ringing thunderously right under his ear. For a moment, after the deafening sound had begun, he’d sat terrified in his bed until he remembered what the clamor meant.

Within minutes of rising, Simon was dressed in the dark clothing he had deliberately left hanging over the back of a chair, hidden under his usual outfit of denim shirt and jeans. Reaching into his bedside drawer, he found the few other items he intended taking with him. The sharp little pocket knife had slipped easily into the pocket of his dark jeans leaving almost no bulge. A pencil torch was tucked into his back pocket, along with a small screwdriver. Simon had also placed a notebook and pen into the pocket of his shirt. The boy doubted he would need those but if a note was required, he was prepared. After listening at the door of his room for several more breaths, he decided both of his guardians were deeply asleep and unlikely to miss him for some time. So long as he was back in bed again by sunrise, they would never know the youngster had left the house.

Opening the window just enough to allow his body to slip through, Simon worked his way silently across the roof until he found the drain-pipe he usually used to shimmy down to the ground. The trip from the roof and back was getting to be more and more difficult as his increasing weight of late strained the supports holding the pipe to the side of the house. Soon, he would have to find another way up and down but tonight, he’d once again successfully made the perilous trip to the earth below.

Listening for several moments to ensure he hadn’t alerted anyone in the house to his clandestine departure, Simon slowly trotted off through the outbuildings surrounding the house, headed for the open fields between the two farms. He already knew which of the tunnels he would take to get to the barn, one of the several not marked on the map he’s given Bet and Rell. It would be a narrow squeeze, even for him but the entrance was on this side of the fence. It linked in with one of the major tunnels further along but the start of that particular passage was well onto Stacy’s farm and he didn’t want to risk being seen. Especially tonight, not with so much depending on his remaining completely unnoticed by anyone.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Leaning against the side of the ditch watching the last of the moon’s glow disappear behind the edge of the horizon, Rell looked over at the darker shadows next to her, asking, “Why that little room in the barn, Bet? I mean it’s probably been a month since Simon saw Stacy there, she could have been moved just about anywhere on the farm by now.”

“Because it’s a place to start, Rell,” the agent replied. “Plus, I’d rather begin looking in a place that has a few shadows to hide in before we have to move out into areas that are better lit.”

“Mmmm, makes sense,” Rell commented. “The systematic approach,” the stocky woman said with wicked humor.

“Yea, it even works occasionally,” Bet replied, the pale flash of her teeth as she smiled showing exactly which of the many shadows was her.

“Well, if we’re going to introduce our belly buttons to some good Canadian farming land, we might as well get going. The moon has all but gone, so no one will see us,” Rell said, already creeping out of the ditch and up onto the roadway. She squatted down, waiting for the other woman to join her on the blacktop.

Bet heaved herself out of the canal to crouch beside Rell before both women ran quietly across the road. Once on the other side, they wriggled under the fence and began the long crawl to the tunnel entrance some two fields away. They doubted anyone at the house could see them from so far away, but they didn’t want to take a chance on being spotted by some wandering guard. Stacy’s life may very well depend on the two women remaining unnoticed for as long as possible. At several points Bet looked over her shoulder trying to hear the other woman moving in the darkness. She was surprised to note just how silent Rell was as she worked her way over the soil. Only the colorless blob of the stocky woman’s face behind her let Bet know where the photojournalist was lying.

She learned to do that somewhere, the FBI agent thought briefly. And it wasn’t while pounding the pavement around LA either. Could this Amazon thing really be true? God, what if it is? For some reason, that question shook the big woman right to the core of her soul, making her stop for several long moments. Bet made a deliberate effort to refocus herself on the job at hand. Hopefully, she would have time later to think more deeply about her questions. However, right now she couldn’t shake the disconcerting feeling that Rell had been telling the truth about herself, Diana and this whole Amazon situation.
Part 3
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 wouldn’t 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.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Epilogue

“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.

“What’s that?”

“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?”

The End.

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