Laura closed the trunk of her car and climbed up the front steps of the hotel, a small suitcase in hand. She spotted the front desk, and walked over to the woman waiting behind it.
“Good morning!” she said, smiling. “Welcome to Crowe’s Hotel. I’m the owner, Peaches. What can I do for you?”
“I’d like to check in please. I’m Laura — I think you’ve been expecting me.”
“Oh, yes, of course! Your room is all ready — I put you across the hall from your friend Tina.”
“That’s great; thank you!” She looked around the room. “Nice place you have here. The drive up was lovely.”
“Thanks! It’s great to have you here. Now let me have someone help you up with your luggage.” Peaches rang the little bell on the desk. “Max!”
A few moments later, there were footsteps from down the hall, and Laura turned to find the handsome, well-muscled form of Maximus Decimus Meridius walking towards her. Her breath caught in her throat, and she had to consciously stop herself from gawking at him. Wearing the uniform of a Roman officer, he had a familiar maroon cloak with fur trim set about his broad shoulders. He came up to the desk and leaned against it, smiling at Laura. “Someone need some help?”
The warm blue-green eyes staring at her made it hard to think for a minute. “Uh… yeah.”
Peaches smiled, chuckling. “Don’t mind him — He has that effect on everybody… including me,” she sighed, then introduced them to each other, adding, “Max, be a dear and show Laura up to her room.” Peaches handed him a key. “It’s the one right across the hall from Tina.” Maximus nodded, and Peaches turned back to Laura. “You’ll love the view of the beach.”
“I’m sure I will, thank you,” Laura said as Maximus picked up her suitcase and headed for the staircase. She followed him up.
“Will you be staying with us long?” he asked.
“Well, right now, I’m just here for the day.” Maximus paused momentarily, looking surprised before she continued, “I have to be home first thing in the morning for some meetings, but I’ll be back… Probably anyway.”
“Probably?” he questioned, looking a bit dismayed. She looked at him strangely, wondering why he would react that way. “I’m sorry,” he said a moment later, “It is not my business what your plans are… But I was told you were staying with us for a while.”
“Actually, I’m not quite sure yet how long I’ll be staying. I wanted to check things out first. Tina told me this was a wonderful place, but I need to see for myself. Tina’s been a friend of mine for a long time — have you met her?” She knew it was a silly question the moment she’d said it — Tina hadn’t given her many details of her visit her, but she had definitely mentioned meeting Maximus.
Maximus nodded, smiling as he stepped off the stairs and walked down a short hallway. “Yes, I have. We don’t see her very often — she’s a very busy lady — but what little time she has here she spends with John… and me,” he added with a quick grin.
Laura looked at him, whispering to herself, “I can see I’m going to like this place…” Maximus overheard her, and flashed her a dazzling white-toothed smile. Her heart fluttered and she thought to herself, Oh, my god…! Oh, yes, I’m *definitely* going to like this place…!
They reached her room, and he set the bags down, fumbling with the key. She looked at him, realizing for the first time how over-dressed he was. She pointed to the fur-trimmed cloak. “Aren’t you hot in that?”
“Now that you mention it, yes… It was a bit chilly and wet this morning, but I suppose I really don’t need it anymore.” His hands went to his collar, unfastening the light chain which held the cloak in place. He swept it off his back, draping it over his forearm. “I’m not sure what to do with it right now, though. I won’t be going back to my room for a while — I live over in the Tavern.”
“Oh, I could keep it for you,” Laura volunteered.
Maximus looked at her seriously for a moment, then grinned softly. “Can I trust you?”
“Absolutely. I’ll guard it with my life, I promise.”
Maximus chuckled, grinning broadly again, and she thought she was going to faint. “I don’t think you have to go that far…” He handed her the cloak, and Laura reverently draped it over her arm.
He picked up her bags and brought them into the room. Moving around the large, cozy sitting room, he turned on the lights for her, opened the closets, and opened up the doors to the bathroom and the bedroom. Out of the corner of his eye he caught her holding the cloak up to her face, inhaling deeply, smelling his scent and rubbing the soft fur. Smiling to himself, Maximus opened the curtains and pushed open the windows to let fresh air in. “Well, if you need anything, let one of us know. Or ask Peaches at the desk.” He took a few steps towards the door. “When you’re settled, why don’t you stop by the Tavern and say hello? Everyone will be anxious to meet you.”
“Myself, Bud, Cort, Jeffrey, John, Colin, Lachlan and quite a few others, plus the other hotel guests. The place is really starting to fill up — I think there’s 25 of you ladies now.”
“Is that Bud White?” Laura asked, and he nodded. “Well, I’ve heard of *him* — ‘L. A. Confidential’ is the only other Russell Crowe film I’ve seen. But as for the rest of guys…” She shrugged her shoulders. “I’m afraid I have no idea who they are.”
“There’s plenty of time to get acquainted. Just watch out for Sid, though. He’s not the — ” He paused briefly. ” — sanest person you’ll ever meet — not by a longshot. Most people also find Hando a bit intimidating at first.” That name she knew — the skinhead from one of Russell’s early movies. She hoped she didn’t run into him any time soon either.
“I’ll keep that in mind… Do you think you could introduce me around to everyone later?” She lowered her eyes, blushing a little. “I’m kinda shy about meeting new people…”
“No problem — I’d be happy to. Just drop by whenever you like.”
“Thanks, I will.”
He couldn’t help but notice she was still holding on tightly to his cloak. He took another step closer to her, staring down at her, smiling with warm eyes. The volume of his voice dropped. “Enjoying my cologne?”
“Huh?” she stammered, blushing furiously at being ‘caught’.
When he grinned again, she thought she was going to melt into a puddle at his feet. “You can keep the cloak for me,” Maximus said. “Summer’s coming, and I won’t need it again for a while. Besides, Sid hates it, and I don’t want anything to happen to it.”
“It’s safe with me, Maximus.”
He put his hand on the wall beside her, leaning in on her. “Question is, Laura… Am *I* safe with you…?”
Her eyes widened. “Me…?” she squeaked, flustered, at a loss for words.
“Well, you know what they say — it’s always the quiet ones you have to watch out for…” He stared into her eyes with an intense gaze.
Her face was a definite shade of crimson now, but then she started to smile. “Yeah, you’re probably right…” She chuckled, putting a hand on his chest. “Maximus… You don’t know the half of it…” Her hand moved across his chest to his arm, tracing upwards until it reached his face. She stroked his soft beard, stepping closer.
He reached over and swung the door shut. Then he took the cloak from her, laying it on a nearby chair. “Then why don’t you enlighten me…?” Maximus leaned in, drawing Laura into an embrace. He put his hands on her shoulders and pulled her closer.
The touch of his fingers on the bare skin of her neck set shock waves through her body. As he leaned in to kiss her, her eyes opened wide and she stiffened. He pulled back as she whispered, “Oh my god…. This isn’t right…. You… you can’t be *real*….” It was like a bubble had burst, and all of a sudden she realized where she was and who she was talking to. She felt as though she’d been dreaming up until this moment, and had suddenly awakened to reality.
He backed off, looking just as surprised as she was, she realized. “I – I am sorry. I did not mean to upset you or take advantage of you… But I assure you, I am quite real.”
“B-But… But ‘Gladiator’ is only a *movie*. You don’t — “
She was interrupted by a knock on the door. She stared at him for a few more moments, then turned to answer it. He trailed after her as she opened the door, and discovered an attractive young woman with auburn hair.
“Laura?” the woman asked.
“Hi, I’m Michelle,” she replied, smiling. “Tina’s not here, but she asked me to come and see you when you got here!” She moved forward and hugged her. “Welcome to the Crowes Nest!”
“Thanks!” Laura said as she returned the hug. “I think Tina mentioned you.”
As Michelle stepped back, she looked over Laura’s shoulder and saw Maximus standing a few feet behind her. “Hello, Max. I see you two have met already. I, uh… hope I’m not interrupting anything.”
“Hello, Michelle,” Max smiled back. “No, you’re not interrupting. I was just helping Laura get settled.”
“Well, I was going to give you a little tour of the place, but I’ll leave that in Max’s capable hands,” Michelle said. “I just wanted to drop by and say hello.”
“Thanks so much. But please, you don’t have to go.”
Michelle glanced at Maximus. “No, that’s okay; I’ll catch up with you later…. But before I go, could I have a word with you, Max?”
“Certainly,” Maximus said, moving past Laura. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
“Sure,” Laura said.
Michelle and Maximus moved a few feet down the corridor, then Michelle stopped and whispered, “Well?? Is she the one…?”
He scowled. “We only met a few minutes ago, ‘Chelle.”
“But surely you can tell *something* already. You told me you’d been having a weird feeling for days now, that someone special was about to arrive…”
He sighed. “I should never have said anything… I’ll talk to you later about this.”
“Later,” he said, raising an eyebrow, and it was her turn to sigh.
“All right, all right; I’ll go away and let you two get to know each other,” she said, winking as she smiled at him.
He shook his head as Michelle headed back downstairs, and he rejoined Laura in her room, shutting the door behind him.
He found her standing by the open window, staring out. He stood at the other side of the window as she said, “Tina told me this place was magic… but I didn’t believe her. But yet, there it is — the ocean.” She shook her head in disbelief. “I should be a thousand miles from the nearest ocean beach.” She turned towards him. “And you…. This is unbelievable — it’s really true what she told me….? That *all* of Russell Crowe’s characters live here….?”
He nodded. “All 21 of us…. ” Her eyes widened. “You must have thought Tina was mistaken, hmmm?”
“Actually, I thought she’d sniffed too much fingerprint powder and had lost her mind.” He chuckled, smiling warmly, and once again, she thought she was going to melt at his feet. “So you’re…?” She gulped. “You’re really General Maximus Decimus Meridius? Commander of the Armies of the North, Commander of the Felix Legions…?” He nodded. “The General who became a slave who became a gladiator who defied an Emperor…?”
He nodded again, chuckling as he bowed his head. “At your humble service, my lady.”
“…Oh my god…” She turned away, putting her hand to her face. “Maybe *I’m* the one who’s lost their mind… Or I’ve seen ‘Gladiator’ a few too many times and now I’m hallucinating.”
“I promise you, neither is the case. I — and this place — are quite real.”
“But… but HOW…?”
It was his turn to stare out the window. “That is very difficult to explain… I’ve only been here a few months and I’m still getting settled in myself. It was very odd to discover that not only was I 1800 years in the future, but that I suddenly had 20 nearly identical ‘brothers’… But I’ve grown quite used to it in a short time.” He turned back to her again. “Would you like to meet some of the others now, to see that this *is* real?”
She shook her head. “I don’t think I’m ready for that — it’s hard enough to get used to the idea that I’m talking to *you*!” She managed to laugh, and he smiled back.
An uncomfortable silence fell as they looked at each other. Laura blushed slightly as she thought of the kiss they had nearly shared only a few minutes before, and she turned towards the window again, unable to look him in the eye anymore.
“I am sorry if I have made you uncomfortable,” Maximus said, his voice softening. “I do not normally behave that way when I first meet the ladies who come here to visit.”
“I don’t act like that with men I’ve never met before either,” she said. “I don’t know what got into me.”
“Neither do I,” he said softly, appearing quite contrite.
She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. If it had been anyone else, she would have questioned his sincerity. But if he really was Maximus Decimus Meridius, then she could not doubt his words. “I know…” she replied softly, meeting his eyes briefly.
Her attention was drawn back to the window as she saw a figure walk across the lawn, heading towards the beach. Her jaw dropped as she recognized the familiar profile of the lean man with a shaved head in a white tank top. But the tattoos, especially the heavy black bone markings — which ran from his left hand all the way up to his neck — caught her eye more than anything. She hardly knew any of the other characters Crowe had played, but he had seen pictures of many of them, and Laura knew that the man who quickly disappeared down the beach really *was* Hando… Just like the man standing next to her *was* Maximus.
When she gasped, his gaze shifted from her to the window. “What is it?”
Her eyes were wide as she pointed towards the beach. “It… It was one of them… I mean, one of you.” She gulped nervously. “With the tattoos…”
He looked around, but there was no one in sight. “Sound like Hando,” he said.
“I think so…” She leaned on the windowsill. “I can’t believe this is actually *real*.”
He gave a bemused smile. “That seems to be a common reaction when people first arrive here… It’s a beautiful morning. Would you like to go for a walk outside? I could show you around the place.”
She shook her head. “No, I’m really not up to meeting anyone else.” She looked out at the ocean again. “It is beautiful though. I love the ocean…”
“We don’t have to see anyone else. I know a nice spot not far from here with a view of the ocean that I think you’d enjoy.”
“Yes…. Unless you’d like Michelle or one of the other ladies to accompany us.”
“No… that’s ok… I – I’d like to go for a walk with you, Maximus.” Just calling him by his name seemed extremely weird… and yet it seemed very natural too…. This place was definitely odd, she thought!
He gave another of his dazzling smiles. “Shall we then?” he said, moving back and extending a hand towards the door.
She couldn’t help but smile back. “Yes,” she said, and followed him out.
They slipped down the back staircase and out the back door of the Hotel, passing through a garden area before turning down a stone-lined path towards the trees off to the left. They had only walked down it a few dozen yards when Maximus stepped off the path and into the grass. “That leads to the stables,” he said, pointing ahead on the path. “I’d show you my horses, but East and Cort are there now.”
She followed him along a lightly worn path through the short grass and into the trees beyond. They walked for several minutes up a gently-sloping hill until they reached a clearing at the top. The side of the hill that faced the ocean dropped off steeply towards the beach, leaving a spectacularly lovely, unobstructed view. A large fallen log provided a place to sit, and after she remarked about how beautiful it was, their conversation fell silent.
“So… What brought you here?” Maximus asked eventually. “I assume it must have been more than just Tina’s invitation.”
She nodded slowly. “Yes… it was ‘Gladiator’, as you might be able to guess.” They both smiled self-consciously. “It seems quite strange to actually be talking to you… but I was very moved by the whole story. I went to see it the first time because I’ve always been fascinated by Roman history.” His eyebrows rose, and he smiled softly at that. “But it was the story — your story –” shesaid with a quick glance at him, “that affected me very much.”
“Because I was the ‘hero’…?” He had heard that more times than he could count since arriving, but he was beginning to resent it. He knew people meant well, so he was always gracious about it, but truth was that he had never thought of himself as a hero. If he truly had been heroic, Marcus Aurelius, Selene and little Marcus would still be alive….
“Well… yes and no. You were a very brave, honorable man to do what you did…. But it was so much more than that. It could have been just a macho, heroic, blood-drenched revenge movie… But it wasn’t. Russell put it on such a human level that by the end, I was in tears when Maximus di -“
She stopped abruptly, raising her hands to her face as she realized what she had said. “Oh, god, I’m sorry… I didn’t mean… I’m just having trouble comprehending that you *are* Maximus…”
But instead of being upset, Maximus merely smiled gently and reached over and put his hand over hers. “Its all right… You meant the end when I died, is that not so?” She nodded mutely. “I do remember that, but it doesn’t bother me to speak of it.”
“But… But if you remember dying… How can you be here, alive…?”
He sighed softly. “I cannot answer that, anymore than Colin or Hando or Sid can. We all died at the end of our stories, but yet we are here now. It is one of the great mysteries of this place. The others tell me to just accept it, and embrace the life we have here now. It’s been a slow process, but I am learning to do that.”
“But… how did you get here? I mean, did you, uhm… die in the Coliseum, and then just wake up here…?”
He shook his head slowly. “No, it was not like that…” He turned away, staring out at the ocean.
When he didn’t continue right away, she looked away, mumbling softly. “I’m sorry; it’s thoughtless of me to bring it up.”
“No, do not apologize. I know you must be curious about all of this.” She nodded, staying silent, and he continued after a brief pause. “And I would like to tell you about it, so you will understand this place better.” He clasped her hand tenderly between his own. “After Commodus died, I fell to the sand of the Coliseum… and everything became black… Then I awoke, feeling as though I’d slept for a long, long time. And when I arose, I discovered the wound was gone… and that I was alone. Totally alone; the Coliseum was empty. I went out into the city, but that too was deserted. I could not even find a single horse… So I began to walk, heading for Hispania.”
He paused briefly, and she squeezed his hand, silently encouraging him to continue. “Days and weeks passed, but still I saw no other living creatures… At night, I began to dream of strange things… great machines which moved through the sky, and chariots without horses. It seemed like magic — lights without flame, moving pictures within small boxes. I did not know what to make of them, but as time passed, it all began to make sense somehow… And I began to have the feeling that I was almost home, even though I knew I was nowhere near Hispania. I began to dream of other people also, men I had never met but who looked like me, who lived in a place along the ocean. One day, as I was walking, I suddenly knew I had arrived… And I found this place, the Crowe’s Nest,” he said as he waved his hand around him. “The moment I saw the others, I knew who they were — and who the Creator, Russell Crowe, was. And I knew that I belonged here with them. Even my horses were here — East told me that the day before I arrived, Argento and Scarto came wandering into the stables.”
“Wow,” was all she could manage to say, and a long silence fell. “But… What about your family? Are… Are they here too?” she asked hesitantly.
He looked away again. “Sadly… no. It is only me. None of us has any of their friends or loved ones here, not even our children. But it is possible for us to return to our films and visit everyone, so John and some of the others do that rather frequently.”
She studied him carefully. “But not you….”
He shook his head slowly. “I tried… Once.” A shadow fell across his face. “I wanted to see my family… but I found my home as it had been the last time I saw Trujillo… in ashes…”
He didn’t have to say that he had never tried to go back again.
“That’s terrible,” she whispered softly, feeling a few tears moisten her eyes, squeezing his hand briefly. “Forgive me again for asking…”
Touched by her concern, he stroked her small fingers with his own broad ones. “Please, there is no need to apologize.” He was surprised at how easy it was to talk to her; it was as though he had known her much longer than just an hour. Was this how it had been for John, he wondered, when the Alaskan had first met Tina…? “You have come here to visit us, but I can see that you’re uncomfortable about it. I would very much like to put your mind at ease and explain how it is here for me.”
“That’s very gracious of you… Considering we just met.”
“Well… Tina told me — and all of us — about you before you arrived. Since you are her friend, I wanted to make doubly sure you feel welcome here,” he explained.
“Yes, Tina mentioned you both… Especially John though,” she said, smiling softly. “She seems pretty taken with him.”
“I believe the feelings are mutual.”
He smiled back, and she felt the stirrings of desire as she looked at him. She lowered her eyes demurely, an embarrassed flush creeping into her cheeks as she thought to herself, Get a hold of yourself, girl! You just met the man! As she sat there, trying to regain her composure, something else Tina had mentioned crept into her mind. “Tina told me this place was special, in some very unusual ways. She said… She said that she was drawn here somehow, and to John in particular… She said that happens a lot to the women who come here, that there’s usually just one of the men that we’re drawn to…” She looked up again, meeting his eyes. “Is that true too…?” He gazed back at her, and she felt as though he were looking right through her.
“Sometimes it happens that way, yes,” he said, nodding slightly.
He gave a wry smile. “I honestly do not know. I only know what they tell me… But many of us have been here for some time, years in some cases, without finding anyone. Things don’t work out for everyone apparently.”
“Oh,” she said, her expression falling slightly. She chided herself mentally for even wondering if she had been drawn here for Maximus. True, she was sexually attracted to him — what woman wouldn’t be — but that was probably all it was. She was sure she only felt close to him because she’d seen ‘Gladiator’ so many times. And him — surely he was only being nice to her because of his friendship with John and Tina.
But then, as if he sensed her thoughts, he said, “But I am not here just because of John. *I* want you to feel welcome, and become a part of our world here… If that’s what you want, of course.”
He was still holding her hand, and the warmth of his flesh seemed to warm her heart as well. Along with other parts of her anatomy, she thought as she tried to hide the blush in her cheeks; his charisma was nearly irresistible.
She smiled at him as she replied, “I think I’d like that. I already feel at home here…” She looked back at the ocean in awe. “It’s so beautiful.”
He nodded slowly. “This is an extraordinary place…. And beauty is to be found in many places….” He was looking at her as he said it, and she felt a shiver go down her spine. It seemed as though he was going to say something else, but then he turned away, starting out at the sea again. A long silence fell before he spoke again. “I would like to hear more about you. You know much of my life already, but I hardly know anything of yours.” She seemed startled, unsure of where to start, and he added, “You said you’d always been fascinated by Roman history. Tell me about that; I’d very much like to hear what a 21st century American woman finds so interesting about Rome.”
Her face lit up with a smile. “Now there’s a subject I could talk forever about — history. Especially with someone like you who’s lived it!” They both chuckled softly. She began, “There’s an old saying: You can’t know where you’re going unless you understand where you’ve been. Studying history helps us understand why the world is the way it is today. So many of our customs and laws are based on the Romans. And they certainly were brilliant engineers and architects…”
They talked for hours, on various subjects, but stuck mainly to history, not just of Rome, but of American history, of which she had also studied a great deal, and Maximus knew little. Time seemed to fly by, until they both realized late afternoon was approaching, and that neither of them had eaten since breakfast.
“I think it is time we went back,” Maximus said. “We could have dinner together in the Hotel dining room. I’m sure Michelle and many of the others will be there.”
He was dismayed to see her suddenly tense up. “Including the other characters?” He nodded, and she shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. I’m still getting used to you — I’m not ready to see your twin every time I turn around.”
“Then we don’t have to eat there. I could take you back to your room, and have dinner sent up. You won’t have to see anyone else just yet.”
“Room service?” He nodded. “That’s very sweet of you, but I’m sure you’ve got better things to do this evening than babysit me. I will have them send some dinner up for me, but I’ll just eat in my room alone.”
He frowned slightly. “On your first evening here? You shouldn’t be alone — Michelle would be very upset with me if I let that happen, as would Tina and John. And we haven’t finished our conversation. I would very much like to hear more about this General Lee you mentioned earlier.”
“From the American Civil War?” He nodded. “Well, I do have to turn in early so I can get an early start in the morning for home, but if you really want to listen to me ramble on some more, who am I to argue?” she said with a gentle smile.
“You have not been rambling. I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that I am very interested in military history,” he grinned as he rose to his feet.
“No, it wouldn’t,” she smiled back. When he held his hand out, she took it without hesitation, letting him pull her to her feet.
“I think if we return the way we came, through the back entrance of the Hotel, we shouldn’t run into anyone,” he said. “Shall we go?” he asked.
She looked out at the ocean, drawing a deep breath of the fresh salt air. “Yes,” she answered after a long pause, and followed him back to the Hotel.
They did indeed make it back to her room without being seen, and once there, Maximus called down to the kitchen and had dinner sent up. Laura hid in the next room when the food arrived, but when she stole a glance into the living room, she realized she needn’t have been so careful. The waiter was a tall thin blonde man with gray eyes, and she was relieved to know that not every man in the place was a clone of Russell Crowe. When the man had gone, she sat down with Maximus to a light supper of chicken and summer vegetables and a pitcher of iced tea to drink.
They talked continuously through dinner, completely at ease with one another, as if they were old friends. Their conversation lasted well into the evening too, but when the hour drew late, and Laura grew visibly tired, Maximus prepared to leave.
He rose from the chair where he’d been sitting across from her, stretching after being in one spot for quite a while. “I should go. It’s late, and I know you have to get up early tomorrow.”
“Yes, I do,” she sighed. “When I decided to just stop by here for the day, I had no idea things would go so well,” she admitted. As he moved towards the door, she got up also, following him. They both paused at the door, turning to stare at one another. “I can’t thank you enough for your kindness today,” she said. “I’ve had a truly wonderful day, the best I’ve had in a long time. I just hope I haven’t taken up too much of your time.”
“Not at all. I’ve enjoyed myself very much too,” he said sincerely. “I’m just sorry you’re leaving so soon already. Do you know when you will return?”
“It should only be a few days. I — ” Feeling suddenly shy, she dropped her gaze to the floor. “I very much want to come back, and see you again, Maximus.”
His hand moved to her chin, and gently raised her head so she was looking at him again. “And I will be looking forward to your return…” A silence fell between them again, one heavily laden with sexual tension now as his hand smoothed her silky brown hair while he stared into her eyes. “Earlier today, when I first brought you up here,” he whispered quietly, “I was much too forward. I hope you’ve forgiven me for that.”
Her hand came up too, resting on his elbow before moving up to his broad shoulder. “There was nothing to forgive,” she whispered back. “Part of me did want you to kiss me…”
“And now…?” He had moved closer, his lips only a few inches from hers.
“And now… I still want you to kiss me…” Her voice was barely audible as she moved towards him, her arm slipping around him as she pressed her body against his.
His lips met hers in a tentative kiss, his arm draped lightly across the back of her waist. They tasted each other hesitantly, slowly, savoring each moment. Soon, however, passion stirred in them both, the flames of desire rising quickly as they clung tightly to each other, her mouth opening to his probing tongue, and the kiss deepened.
They separated before things got too heavy, however, and Maximus took a step back. “I think…” He paused to catch his breath. “I think I ought to leave, before things go too far.”
“…Yea,” she agreed, rather reluctantly, stepping back also. “Its too soon; we only just met,” she smiled. “But I’ll be back soon, I promise.”
“Excellent,” he smiled back. “Come to the Tavern when you get back. You can usually find me there, since that is where my room is, on the second floor, above the bar.”
“I’ll remember that,” she said. “And I promise to look after your cloak.” He nodded, and they gazed warmly at each other for a few moments, then Maximus moved towards the door, laying his hand on the knob.
“Good night, Laura,” he said as he pulled open the door.
“Good night, Maximus,” she whispered back.
He paused in the doorway, then took a step towards her again, reaching down to take her hand. He brought it to his lips, kissing the back of her hand. “Until we meet again, dear lady,” he said with a bow of his head.
She couldn’t help but giggle at that — no man had ever kissed her hand before. She watched as he backed out the door, smiling as he turned and went into the hallway. She slowly shut the door, smiling like a love-struck school-girl now that he was gone. “Oh my god…” she said to herself. “Maximus….” She let out a long sigh. “This place is unbelievable. I have to come back here VERY soon…!”
With another heavy sigh, she went and gathered up their glasses from the living room table and set them in the small kitchenette in the adjoining room. She wandered into the bedroom with a dreamy look on her face, letting her fingers drift over her lips as she remembered his kiss. “God, how am I ever going to get to sleep after that…?” she muttered, chuckling, as she went into the bathroom to get ready for bed.
“Leaving so soon?”
The voice from behind her sounded familiar, a bit like Maximus’, yet not like his at all. It was smooth and polished, seductive, almost honeyed, but lacking Maximus’ warmth. She turned around to face the man now standing in the doorway to the back room. The ice-blue eyes were what caught her attention from the first instant. He had his hand on the rim of his dark sunglasses, pushing them down and lowering his head so he could peer over the top of the lenses at her. His gaze raked over her, from her head down to her toes, then back up again. She’d seen men do that before, undressing her with their eyes… but this time it was different — if his thoughts could be translated into action, the clothing would surely have been ripped from her body.
It was the most blatant come-on she’d ever seen in her life.
Involuntarily, she took a half step backwards. “Is the bar open?”, she asked, trying to keep her composure, yet could not take her eyes off him. He was fairly tall, about Maximus’ height, clean-shaven and just as handsome as Max, if not moreso. In fact, his face was nothing short of breath taking, with smooth, unblemished skin, and soft, full lips that were drawn back into a practiced smile. His auburn hair was neatly combed and gelled, swept over in the front from the left over to the right in a soft wave. The purple suit he wore would have been garish on anyone else, but on him, it seemed perfectly natural. And it fit him well, clinging nicely in all the right spots, suggesting a muscular, well-maintained body beneath.
The man was a study in arrogance and conceit, and she could tell immediately he was the type who not only knew what effect his beauty had on women, but also had no trouble exploiting it. All her instincts screamed to stay clear of him. Yet he also radiated sexuality and animal magnetism, more powerfully than she’d felt in a long time… With the possible exception of Maximus.
“Yes, we’re open. Liz is out running some errands,” he finally answered, slipping off the sunglasses and sliding them into the pocket of his suit jacket. “I’m minding the store for her.” He took a few steps towards her, his gait a confident swagger. “Is there something I can do for you, my dear?”, he said in a silky-smooth tone that dripped with innuendo.
“I was looking for Maximus. He told me I could find him here most of the time.”
“Ah… Maximus,” the man said. She wasn’t sure she cared for his tone, one of familiarity mixed with… contempt…? distaste…? She couldn’t quite put her finger on it. “He’s not here right now — he went out with the group a while ago, but — “
She backed towards the door. “Then I’ll just come back later. Tell him I was looking for him.” Her gut kept telling her to get out, that it wasn’t safe to be left alone with this handsome stranger.
“But,” he continued without missing a beat, “he should be back shortly. Why don’t I fix you a drink while you wait?” he moved behind the bar, rattling some of the bottles as he looked over the stock below. “What can I get you?”, he smiled, this time a bit more amiably, most of the chill disappearing from the icy blue eyes. “It’s on the house.”
She still hesitated. “That’s not necessary. I’ll just come back later,” she repeated.
“Please,” he said, extending a hand towards the row of stools in front of the bar. “Have a seat while you wait… Any friend of Max is welcome here.”
She stopped. “…You’re friends with Maximus?”
He nodded. “We both have rooms upstairs,” he said, gesturing to the staircase leading to the second floor.
He seemed a little friendlier now, but she still wasn’t sure about him. What was the name of the guy Maximus had warned her about…? Oh, yeah — Sid, that was it! “I don’t believe I caught your name,” she replied, watching him closely.
“My name…” He hesitated, and as she stared at him, his face seemed to blur for a moment and she blinked, shaking her head. “…is Ted.” When she rubbed at her eyes, he seemed concerned. “Are you all right?”
“Yes… It’s just been a *long* day, and I’ve obviously been working too much — now I’m seeing things….” She looked at him again, then decided, /What the hell…// She was tired, thirsty, and in no mood to go back out and drive around, or even go back to her hotel room. She took a seat on the stool nearest the door, looking past him to see what was on tap. “Give me a Heineken,” she said.
“Beer?”, He said with a hint of distaste. “Are you sure?” He lifted a dusty bottle of wine from a shelf behind the bar. “Hmmm… Montrachet Grand Cru Red Burgundy, ’98… I didn’t realize Liz had something this splendid in stock. I must compliment her on her fine tastes.” He looked up at her. “It’s a wine that’s meant to be shared,” he purred.
She shook her head. “Heineken — in a frosted glass, if you have it.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing,” he said, frowning slightly. She watched him closely as he went into the small freezer behind the bar and pulled out a thick glass beer mug, filling it from one of the beer taps. He set it in front of her on a coaster, and she took a quick swallow, watching as he took out a corkscrew and opened the wine bottle.
As he poured the wine into a crystal glass, she said, “I hope you’re planning on drinking that *alone*, because beer and wine *do not* mix, at least not with me.”
He nodded, swirling the wine around in his glass, sniffing it, before taking a small sip. Like a wine connoisseur, he rolled it over his tongue, commenting, “…Highly impressive…Medium bodied, muscular, thick… dense and spicy… Well-balanced and harmonious… it has an extraordinarily — ” She noticed he was staring at her again as he added, ” — *long* finish.”
It took a few seconds for the double meaning of his words to register. She shifted in her seat, feeling her face warm. /I’m not going to *touch* that…// she thought to herself. Pretending that his innuendo had gone right over her head, she asked, “You’re going to drink the *whole* bottle?” He shook his head ‘no’, and she said, “Isn’t that a waste?”
“I’ve never believed in denying myself *any* of the pleasures that life has to offer,” he said, staring pointedly at her again, his voice low and seductive.
She looked away, staring down at her drink, thinking, /oh lord… I am SO over my head here…!// But still she didn’t move. /why am I letting myself get sucked into this…?// When she looked up, glancing at him for a moment, she answered her own question…. Lord, he was gorgeous…! It didn’t seem right for a man to look *that* perfect. Perfect teeth, perfect hair, incredible blue eyes. And his sculpted features were so exquisitely proportioned that surely a Renaissance master had chiseled them in marble.
As he leaned in closer, she could smell his musky cologne — ‘Polo’, she noted… which was guaranteed to put her hormones into orbit. /S***//, she thought. /Why did he have to be wearing *that* too!?//
“You never did tell me *your* name…”
She drew back a bit, sitting up straighter as he leaned in closer over the bar. “Didn’t I?”, she answered, being deliberately evasive. Somehow, telling him her name seemed like it would give him even more control of the situation. But, at the same time as she said it, she unconsciously swept her long brown hair off her face, tossing it back in a rather provocative manner.
Oh, *that* was brilliant, she thought, regretting it instantly. Talk about sending mixed messages…
But his next statement shocked her. “It’s Laura, isn’t it?”
“How did you know that?”, she asked quickly.
“It’s no secret about who checks into the hotel,” he said, smiling amiably again. “We’re all friends here, but you’re the only one I haven’t met yet.”
“Oh…” was all she could manage in reply.
He extended his arm over the bar, and she hesitated for a moment, then moved to shake his hand. But he took her hand instead, quickly bending down to lightly grasp her wrist, bringing it to his lips. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Laura…” He kissed the back of her hand softly, but it was enough to send a jolt through her whole body.
“Uh…. likewise,” she said, pulling her hand away quickly. She slid off the barstool, looking around for the bathroom. Spotting it in the back, she said, “I’ll be back in a minute…” As she neared the door, she looked back over her shoulder to make sure he wasn’t following her.
Once inside, she locked the door, then ran the cold water, splashing it up on her face a few times. Blotting her face with a towel, she stared into the mirror, thinking furiously. What the HELL was she doing? In spite of herself, she was attracted to him, desperately so, and if he didn’t know it before, he sure as hell knew it NOW.
She kept staring at herself in the mirror, wondering what she was going to say and do when she went back out. She briefly considered hiding here in the bathroom until Maximus showed up… but that certainly wouldn’t stop Ted from knocking at the door in a few minutes if she didn’t come out.
Oh, well, there was nothing else to do but march out there and make sure she kept her distance from him until Maximus arrived. Hopefully it wouldn’t be long now…. IF Ted was telling the truth about that.
She pondered that possibility, then decided if no one showed up within 15 minutes, she was out of here. Taking a deep breath, and putting on her ‘game face’, she straightened her clothes and fixed her face, then walked back out.
First glance showed that Ted was gone from behind the bar. /Thank God!//, she thought, then realized her beer and his wine were missing as well.
“I thought we’d be more comfortable over here.”
She turned to the side, and found him sitting at a cozy little table in a dark corner, with a single blood red rose in a vase in the center of the table, along with their drinks. /Damn…//, she groaned inwardly, but steeled herself, walking over and scooping up her beer. “I was fine at the bar,” she said as she sailed past him, heading back towards the bar and the front door. She slid back onto the barstool, and started to take a sip of her beer.
And stopped, staring down into it. As he approached her, she went around behind the bar and dumped the remaining contents of the stein into the sink. She he poured herself another beer from the tap, and he asked, “Don’t you trust me?”
“What do you think?”, she replied, then came back around to take a seat. But when he approached, intending to sit beside her, she backed off. “Look, I need some space, okay?”, she said, glancing at her watch.
“What’s the rush?”
“The rush is I’m leaving soon if Maximus doesn’t show up,” she said, purposely rattling the rental car keys in the pocket of her jeans. She was nervous — nervous of him, and nervous about what she might do if she were left alone with him for too long…
“I’m surprised he’s not here already,” he said, moving away and going to the table nearest the door. “Is *this* acceptable? Take all the ‘space’ you need…” He started to smile. “And if you really want to leave, you’re right next to the door… I’m not trying to scare you.”
“Well, you’re doing a pretty good job of it.”
“I didn’t intend to — I just can’t stop myself sometimes around beautiful women…” he purred as he took a seat at the table, motioning for her to join him.
She groaned inwardly at so obvious a ‘line’. Yet somehow her feet betrayed her, and she found herself sitting across the table from him. /Get out now!// a little voice inside her head called out, but it was drowned out by the raging hormones. She couldn’t get enough of those ice-blue eyes…
She sat there, sipping on her drink, watching him watch her. Several minutes passed before he finally spoke, “My room is just up the stairs…”
The world seemed to stop as she pondered that. She wanted him… GOD, she wanted him!, and the only thing that surprised her about his invitation was the fact it had taken him so long to actually say it. Fantasies of a perfect body to match that perfect face blotted out all other thoughts, and images flashed through her mind in quick succession: lips devouring hers; tongue sliding in her mouth; buttons giving way and fabric tearing as clothing disappeared; eager hands sliding up her naked thighs; a hot, sweaty body pinning her to the floor…
Sanity made a last-ditch effort, and she shook her head. “I can’t do that…”
“Forget Maximus. He’s a fool,” he whispered, leaning across the table, reaching to take her hand in his. Once again, his touch was electric.
Her heart was pounding, breath quickening as he caressed her hand. Their eyes locked, and she felt as though she were drowning in those hypnotic, ice-blue pools. She struggled for control, telling herself there was *no way* that she was going to have a fling with a man she didn’t even trust as far as she could throw him. But when he brought her hand to his lips, kissing the back softly, then moving to nibble on her fingertips, she was nearly lost…
She jumped a moment later, jolted out of the spell she had fallen under while gazing into Ted’s eyes, when she heard the front door open. There was the sound of many footsteps, but because of the partition behind her, Laura could not see who had arrived. She looked at Ted, watching as his expression changed from a seductive smile to a self-satisfied smirk. And she did *not* like the way his eyes changed too — now it was like looking at a snake. The hold he had on her hand tightened, and when she tried to pull away, he refused to let go.
The group came up to her, Maximus in front, followed closely by Bud White, John Biebe, Peaches, Michelle & Tina. Max looked at Laura with a questioning gaze, then his eyes turned down to their hands, not failing to notice that Laura had to yank her hand free from the man’s grasp.
Maximus put his hands on his hips, glaring down at him. “Sid, what are you doing?”
Around the world and back
And you won’t have to move
You just sit still
Now let your mind do the walking
And let my body do the talking
Let me show you the world in my eyes
(Depeche Mode, ‘World in My Eyes’)
Laura jumped a moment later, jolted out of the spell she had fallen under while gazing into Ted’s eyes, when she heard the tavern’s front door open. There was the sound of many footsteps, but because of the partition behind her, Laura could not see who had arrived. She looked at Ted, watching as his expression changed from a seductive smile to a self-satisfied smirk. And she did *not* like the way his eyes changed too — now it was like looking at a snake. The hold he had on her hand tightened, and when she tried to pull away, he refused to let go.
The group came up to her, Maximus in front, followed closely by Bud White, John Biebe, Peaches, Michelle & Tina. Max looked at Laura with a questioning gaze, then his eyes turned down to their hands, not failing to notice that Laura had to yank her hand free from the man’s grasp.
Maximus, looking strikingly handsome in a plain black T-shirt and blue jeans, put his hands on his hips, glaring down at him. “Sid, what are you doing?”
With a smug smile plastered across his handsome face, Sid looked up at Maximus and answered with a gloating voice, “About to get into the pants of your latest conquest, soldier-boy. Another few minutes and you probably would have found us on top of the table doing the ‘nasty’…”
Mouth dropping open, Laura gasped in shock, unable to speak. Maximus’ face darkened ominously. “Sid…”
“What…!?” Laura stammered, diverting Maximus’ attention. “You bastard…!” she hissed at Sid, but he just smiled back, obviously enjoying himself. Then she realized what Maximus had called him. “Wait a minute… Is *this* Sid? The one you warned me about?” Sid laughed gleefully, almost maniacal, as Maximus nodded. “But… but he said his name was TED…!”
“Ted!?” Tina gasped. “Oh, my god… Sid, you low-life piece of — “
“What kind of crap are you trying to pull this time?” Bud growled, cutting her off.
“Aw, Sid, she’s new here!” Peaches said. “Couldn’t you have waited until we had time to, uhm… prepare her?”
“Yes, somebody *should* have warned her about me sooner,” Sid said, rising from his chair to go eye to eye with Maximus, “but I guess you were too busy moving in on her yourself… General.” The way Sid spat out Maximus’ title made it sound like the vilest insult. “But on the off chance you *had* said something to her — and apparently you did — I didn’t see any point in telling her my real name. That would have spoiled all the fun…”
Maximus moved closer, getting right up in Sid’s face. Sid stood his ground as Max raged, “Is *that* what this is? Some pathetic game?”
“Life’s a game,” Sid said. Looking down at Laura, he added, “It’s a pity he couldn’t have waited a few more minutes to arrive, mon cher — I could see how much you wanted me….” His hand moved towards her face.
But Laura jerked back, sickened now by the creature that stood before her, and looked up at Maximus, too stunned to be embarrassed. “Who *is* this guy!?”
When Sid reached towards her again, Maximus pushed him away. “Don’t touch her.”
Sid got angry, pushing back. “Keep your hands off me!”
John, wearing jeans and loose-fitting plaid shirt, quickly moved in between the two, saying, “Take it easy; don’t do anything stupid…”
“Hey, nobody asked for your opinion, hockey-boy,” Sid snapped. “Stay out of it!” John bristled, and started after Sid too.
“Will somebody PLEASE explain to me what’s going on!?” Laura said loudly, and the men stopped.
Michelle turned to Tina. “Don’t tell me she hasn’t seen ‘Virtuosity’ yet.”
“No, I haven’t,” Laura said. “I’ve only seen ‘Gladiator’ and ‘L.A. Confidential’.”
There were groans of dismay and disbelief all around. “Oh, god…” Tina said. “You mean you didn’t know who he was — but you’ve been sitting here *alone* with him…?”
“Yea,” Laura nodded. “Waiting for Maximus.”
Tina shuddered as she remembered her first encounter with Sid — it still left her feeling disturbed, even though she had known who he was all along. She couldn’t imagine the depths he might sink to if left alone with an unsuspecting victim. Especially when the ‘victim’ was one of her dearest friends. “Don’t you remember me telling you the plot of ‘Virtuosity’ — the cop chasing down a computer program that had escaped from virtual reality into the physical world…?” Laura nodded. “Well,” Tina said, pointing at Sid. “*That’s* the program. Sid 6.7. He’s — ” She stopped, not even wanting to say it. “A computer composite of 182 — “
“183,” Sid corrected.
“Shut up, Sid,” John and Bud said in unison.
Tina started to speak, then looked at Laura. She’d never seen her friend this rattled. “Jeez, I can’t do this…” She turned on Sid. “What the fuck were you up to?”
Sid smiled sweetly. “If you’re not going to tell her who was about to jump her, I’ll be more than happy to fill her in…”
“Don’t you dare!” Tina practically screamed at him.
“Look, will you just *tell* me already…” Laura insisted. “How bad can it be?”
“You have no idea…” She took a deep breath. “Now don’t go crazy on me… Sid is composite of 183 serial killers…”
“Serial killers…? 183 SERIAL KILLERS!?… You have *got* to be kidding,” Laura said, not believing her ears. But the others shook their heads, and she looked back at Sid, her skin starting to crawl as he studied her intently — like she was a bug under a glass. “Ted…?” Suddenly, things clicked in her head, and she staggered back, out of her chair, trying to put as much distance between her and Sid as she could. “Ted Bundy…? Oh, my god…!” The color drained out of her face as she backed right into Bud, shaking so much that he had to hold her up. “Oh, my *god*… I think I’m going to be sick…” she said, holding her hand over her mouth. She could taste the acid in the back of her throat, her stomach churning.
Thunderclouds formed in Bud’s eyes as Tina and Maximus hovered worriedly around Laura. “What the hell did you do to her?” Explosively, he launched himself at Sid, pushing him back all the way across the floor to the bar. “You little shit, what did you DO!?”
Sid literally bounced off the wooden bar rails, and pushed back at Bud. Max and John joined in the fray, each grabbing for one of White’s arms. It took both of them to hold the cop off Sid.
Michelle and Peaches joined a moment later. “Guys, come on! STOP IT!”
“Damn it, Sid,” Bud growled, still straining to break free from John and Maximus. “I told you before — leave the women alone! Especially the new ones! If you hurt her, so help me, I’ll hack you into little pieces, and then pull that damn software module right out of your fat head!”
Sid just giggled, smoothing out his purple suit and straightening his collar. “Oooo, I’m so scared… Wendell,” he snickered. “You really are SO predictable — the ‘White’ knight charging to the rescue of the damsel in distress… Doesn’t it get boring?” He snickered again with a nerve-grating, maniacal cackle.
Bud tried to go after him again, and Maximus and John pulled him further back. When Max had control of Bud, John moved forward, putting himself between Bud and Sid. “Everybody… Hey! QUIET!” Everyone stopped. “Thank you,” John said, the sound of his calm voice settling everyone down. “Now before we all kill each other, let’s at least find out what actually happened.” He turned and looked at Laura.
All eyes turned to her as she sat back down and took a long drink from the beer stein with a shaky hand. Maximus released Bud, and moved to her side, putting a consoling hand on her shoulder. Taking a deep breath, she was visibly calmer now, looking up at him to say, “He didn’t actually DO anything… yet.”
“I could have told you that,” Sid complained.
“Shut UP, Sid!” the whole group said in unison.
“Then why did you react like that?” Maximus asked.
“Yes, do tell,” Sid cooed. “You know, she’s smarter than she looks. Hopelessly naive, but there’s hope for her yet… Especially with my *personal* assistance…” he purred in that low seductive voice, staring at Laura again, and she blanched, covering her eyes with her hands.
The thunderclouds were brewing in Bud’s eyes again. “Sid, so help me, if you don’t shut the hell up — !”
Maximus raised his hand, gesturing to Bud to let it go, and Bud quieted. Max turned back to Laura, gently squeezing her shoulder. “Go on…”
“He –“, Laura began, lowering her hands. “…Hell, I can’t believe that I — ” Realizing what she was about to reveal, she stopped, then took another deep breath, trying to calm down again. “I just… freaked when I realized why he was calling himself Ted.” Still shaking, she reached for her glass again, but it was empty. John picked it up and went to the bar to refill it as she continued. “Ted Bundy used to target women who looked just like I do right now — young, white, with long straight brown hair parted down the middle — I remember that because it freaked me out the first time I heard it. And it still gives me the creeps…” John brought back the beer stein and she took a stiff drink. “Thanks.” She shivered as she glanced over at Sid, unable to look him in the eye anymore. “…He set me up… the WHOLE time, he was just setting me up… for the kill… He kept coming on to me. I didn’t like the way he was acting, but he kept telling me he was a *friend* of Max’s and that I should just wait here for him… He wouldn’t leave me alone. I wanted to go, but he kept insisting I stay. I don’t even know *why* I stuck around. He was just so… smooth,” She stopped, then put her head down on her folded arms. “And to think I came here to relax and get away from it all…”
“Unfreaking believable…” Tina glared at Sid. “I’d really like to borrow that .38 right now, Bud.”
“You won’t need it — ’cause I’ll kill the asshole myself.” Bud shook his head. “You really are one sick, twisted, mother-fu — ” He caught himself, glancing at the women, ” — son of a bitch.”
“Thank you”, Sid smiled, leaning back against the bar. “I wouldn’t actually have harmed a hair on her lovely head — you know I don’t do that anymore, at least not *here*.” He grinned. “But as far as jumping her bones is concerned — well, why not?” He walked back over to Maximus, getting in his face again. “You’d already done that, pal, but I thought I’d show the lady a *real* good time…”
Maximus had been quiet up until now, evaluating the situation, watching Sid gloat as Laura spoke. “You really do hate me, don’t you, Sid?”
“The great General Maximus? How could anyone possibly hate *you*?” Sid’s voice still held its usual cool, polished tone, but now there was mocking, derisive edge as well. “Just because you showed up 2 months ago acting like you owned the fucking place.” Hostility flared in the icy blue eyes for a moment, then Sid composed himself again. “You walk in, and the girls — especially the new ones,” he said as he looked at Laura, “practically fall at your feet, don’t they? And why not? You’re so brave and strong and — honorable.” Sid spat the word. “What bullshit…. But I have a news flash for you, pal — you’re not the only rooster in this hen house. I’ve been here for 5 years, and I can still turn ’em like that,” he said as he snapped his fingers. Smiling, he strolled over near Laura — as near as Bud would let him anyway. “You should keep a closer eye on them, you know. They’re terribly fickle. She may have the hots for you, but a few more minutes alone with me, and she would have been on her knees.” Sid laughed as Laura paled. “So much for being a ‘champion’, Stud… or should I say, ‘Dud’…” Sid cackled at his own little joke.
All the while, Maximus looked like he was about to eviscerate Sid.
“I don’t believe what I’m hearing,” Tina muttered, then leaned down and whispered in Laura’s ear, “You didn’t tell him about you and Max, did you?”
She thought she was being discreet, but Sid overheard, and spoke before Laura could answer. “She didn’t have to. It was written all over her face the moment she mentioned his name.”
Laura put her hand over her face again, mumbling, “Oh, god…”
“Don’t be angry, mon cher,” Sid continued, smiling, “You just got caught in the middle of all this…”
“I wasn’t talking to you, you creep!” Tina snapped, steaming over how her friend was being treated. “Will you lay off her? God, Sid, you are so freaking jealous of Max it’s pathetic!”
“Jealous?” Sid laughed, lip curling up in distaste as he looked at Maximus. “Of *him*? Don’t be absurd…” He turned his attention to Tina, walking over to her. “But could it be *you* that’s the jealous one, Tina? That night we first met, *we* could have been so good together, my dear, if only you hadn’t let the ‘Three Stooges’ here interfere. But now, you see your friend with me instead –“, he cocked his head to the side, “could it be that you’ve reconsidered my invitation…?”
Tina shook her head in disbelief. “You are a real piece of work…”
“Yes, I am,” he said arrogantly, and stepped closer. “Care to find out what it’s like to be with a *real* man? Forget these fools…” He leaned in closer, and Tina stepped back in disgust.
John appeared between them, pushing Sid away from Tina. “Leave the lady alone!”, he snapped.
“The ‘lady’?” Sid’s eyes narrowed as he looked at the two. “Ah, now I see,” he grinned. “The two of you, between the sheets…?”, he leered. “I should have known… But I still have hopes for us, Tina,” he added, winking at her, chuckling as John fumed. Sid took a slow step back, the slimy smile still plastered to his face, and continued, “You are so pathetically predictable, all of you. And so easily manipulated.” He turned his attention back to Maximus. “I’m grateful Laura showed up when she did, because she played right into my hands… And quite possibly into my bed, if you hadn’t interrupted us…” He grinned. “It makes for a very effective demonstration, don’t you think… Max?” He walked up to Maximus, going eye to eye once again.
Bud came up and patted Maximus on the shoulder. “Personally, I’d love to clean his clock right about now, but I’ll leave that to you, my friend.” He backed away, folding his arms across his chest, waiting with anticipation.
“You are beneath contempt,” Maximus growled with barely restrained rage. “To treat a woman this way is unconscionable, even for you.”
Sid waved dismissively in Laura’s direction. “She’ll get over it.”
“That isn’t the point.”
“Then what is?”
Maximus drew back and decked Sid, dropping him to the floor. There was a soft round of applause from the group. “THAT is…”
But Sid climbed quickly back to his feet. “Oohhh, aren’t you the tough one? Where’s the sword and shield, Gladiator? Maybe we ought to go a few rounds, eh? You know, I’ve always admired the Romans — bloodthirsty lot, just like me… So what’ll it be — how about some lions and tigers?”
His fist raised for another blow, Maximus’ eyes narrowed as he looked at Sid, who seemed inordinately pleased with himself. Especially with the fact that he had finally provoked a reaction from the normally stoic Spaniard….
Maximus slowly lowered his raised hand and took a step back from the cyber-reject. “Games over, Sid. No one wants to play anymore.” He walked back over to the table and sat down beside Laura.
Everyone was silent, stunned by Maximus’ reaction. But no one more so than Sid. “What…?” Sid almost stammered. “You’re just going to walk away? After what I just did to your lady-friend?”
“That’s right, Sid,” Maximus replied.
“But… but you can’t do that!”, he protested, sounding very much like a child who’s toys had been taken away.
Maximus just stared coolly back at Sid, barely taking his eyes off him as he reached over and put his hand over Laura’s, grasping it gently.
Shaking his head, Bud was the first one to speak. “You’re a better man than me, Max — I would have beat the shit out of him a long time ago…. But — ” he said as he took off his jacket and rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt, walking slowly over towards Sid, “that doesn’t mean I’m going to listen to any of this crap anymore. Party’s over, Sid. Time to crawl back into your hole for the night.”
Sid scowled. “Like hell. It’s just getting interesting.”
Bud stared at him with a death glare, his voice deceptively quiet. “Either you go up to your room and STAY THERE, or I drag your ass up there myself and sit on you all night…”
“Don’t threaten me, pig,” Sid hissed.
John walked over and joined Bud. “Let me give you a hand…”
They both grabbed Sid, who protested, “Hey, watch the suit!” He looked back and forth between them. “What is this — ‘Good cop, Bad cop’?”
“Wrong,” John said, “Try ‘Bad cop, Bad cop’.”
“You?”, Sid laughed as they hustled him up the stairs leading to the second floor. “Bad cop? In your dreams… Sheriff ‘Fife’. Andy let you have any bullets today?” He snickered again.
John just rolled his eyes. “Can it, Sid.”
“Say good night to the nice ladies, Sid,” Bud said as they reached the top of the stairs.
As Bud and John forced him down the hallway, Sid turned to Bud and quipped, “Don’t you think you’re taking the ‘dumb muscleman’ stereotype a bit too far? Then again, ‘dumb’ is certainly very apropos…”
“You forgot ‘big, clumsy ox’,” Bud said, pretending to stumble as he slammed Sid into the wall. “Oh, sorry, how careless of us,” Bud said apologetically — then John slammed Sid into the opposite wall. Sid went limp in their arms, the impression of the wood paneling etched into one side of his face, blue goo oozing out his nose. Bud and John disappeared down the hallway, dragging Sid behind them.
Below, Laura, Maximus, Tina, Peaches and Michelle looked at one another and let out a collective sigh of relief. “Thank *god* he’s gone…” Laura muttered.
Peaches shook her head. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Sid *that* bad… I don’t know what’s gotten into him lately.”
“I think Tina hit the nail on the head,” Michelle replied. “He really is jealous of you, Max.”
“You may be right… But he has no reason to be.” Maximus shook his head, looking at Laura. “I just wish he hadn’t dragged you into his little scheme for revenge against me.”
“That makes two of us,” she said.
Michelle headed towards the bar. “Anybody want a drink?” Everyone nodded, and they all got up to fix their own drinks, with the exception of Laura, who already had her beer. Then they moved to a larger table, leaving two empty seats and full drinks for Bud and John.
A few minutes later, everyone was seated, drinks in hand, when Bud and John came back down. Again, Max and the women applauded the returning heroes.
“Thanks… Prince Charming is out cold,” Bud smiled. “We tied him to the bed with a lamp cord, away from anything with glass in it, and I barricaded the door from the outside. It won’t hold him forever, but at least we’ll have some peace for a while.” He took the empty seat, picking up the glass of scotch. “Thanks, guys,” he said, taking a swig. “Tell me something, though — why do *I* always get stuck being his freakin’ babysitter?”
“Because you enjoy it so much,” John grinned as he picked up his beer.
Bud rolled his eyes. “Oh, yeah, sure… God damn pain in the ass,” he grumbled, sipping on his drink. Then he looked over at Laura, his demeanor softening. “You okay, honey?”
She nodded, smiling at him. “Yes… At least I think I am. Right now, I just feel shell-shocked.” She looked around at the group. “Thank you all for rescuing me, but…” She sighed, shaking her. “I can’t believe how STUPID I was. I could tell he was just feeding me a line, but I fell for it anyway.” She put her hands over her face, “He was so damn convincing, I actually believed he was sincere for a while there.”
“You wouldn’t be the first person who was deceived,” Tina said. “Men like that are total sociopaths. They can seem like the nicest people in the world on the surface, but underneath — the scum of the earth. They’re masters of seduction and deception.”
“But with Sid,” John said, “it’s also just a big game.”
“A game Sid hates to lose,” Max added as he moved closer to Laura, putting a comforting arm across her shoulders. “We have to be more careful about warning the new people about Sid, Peaches.”
“Maybe we should making seeing ‘Virtuosity’ a requirement when you check in,” Peaches said. “I just assumed Laura had.”
“Sounds like I have a lot of catching up to do,” Laura said.
“I’ve got some tapes you can borrow,” Michelle volunteered.
“Better yet, we ought to put them on the in-house movie channel. All Russell Crowe, all the time!” Peaches laughed, and the others joined in.
“I’ll see if I can scrounge up a bootleg copy of ‘Gladiator’,” Tina said, looking at Max.
“Sounds good to me,” he chuckled.
There was silence around the table for a moment, and Laura looked back and forth between John and Bud, pointing at them. “Uhm, this is probably going to sound ridiculous after what just happened — but would someone care to introduce us…?”
Peaches choked on her drink. “You mean you don’t know *them* either?”
“Well, I’m pretty sure you’re Officer Bud White,” she said, looking at Bud.
He nodded, smiling. “Pleased to meet you, Laura.”
“Thanks,” she smiled back, then turned to look at John. “But I’m afraid I have no idea who you are.”
John stood up, brushing his long hair back from his face as he extended a hand to her. “John Biebe. Pleased to meet you too, Laura.”
As they shook hands, Michelle asked, “You’ve never seen ‘Mystery, Alaska’ either?” Laura shook her head. “Boy, you *do* have some catching up to do! How about ‘Quick & the Dead’? Do you know who Cort is?” Laura shook her head again. “Well, you’ll meet Cort later; in the meantime, we’ll have to set you up with that tape too.”
As if on cue, the front door opened, and Liz walked in, followed by Cort, who was carrying a case of scotch. “Speak of the devil…” Bud said.
“Hi, everybody,” Liz said as she approached the table. After they all said their hellos, and introductions were made, Liz looked around the room, stepping closer to the bar as Cort set down the scotch. “Have you seen Sid? I left him in charge while I went out to get some supplies.”
“THAT was your first mistake,” Peaches said, and the others nodded heartily in agreement.
Liz looked puzzled. “Did I miss something…?”
There were chuckles all around. “Oh, yeah!” Michelle said emphatically. “Have a seat you two, and we’ll fill you in….”
… When they had finished, Liz sat in stunned silence for a few moments. “I don’t believe he did that…!” She smacked her hand down on the table. “That pig! This is the *last* time I leave him in charge!”
“Somebody really ought to string that boy up someday,” Cort said in a soft Western drawl, tossing his wavy brown hair out of his eyes as he shook his head in disbelief.
Shaking her head too, Liz turned to Laura. “I am *so* sorry I wasn’t here.”
“Don’t apologize,” Laura said. “It’s not your fault he’s a jerk.”
“Yes, but it’s still my place,” Liz replied. “I hope you don’t let Sid change your mind about coming here again, or staying at the hotel.”
“Not at all. I’m not going to let the likes of him chase me out of here. Too many other nice people around to let that happen.” She smiled at Tina, then gazed warmly at Maximus. “… But the thing I don’t get is *why* you let a creep like that stay here?”
The men all looked at each other. “Max, didn’t you explain it to her?”, John asked.
“No, it never came up,” Maximus said.
“Well,” John continued, “it’s sort of a ‘package deal’. We’re *all* Russell Crowe’s characters, good and bad. So along with myself and Max and Bud and Cort, you get guys like Sid — and Hando. Now there’s *another* one you need to watch out for, but luckily Hando doesn’t come around much.”
“But unfortunately Sid likes this place,” Cort said. “Wherever you find a group of people, you’ll find Sid. He loves to be the center of attention.”
Laura glanced up towards the second floor landing. “How long do you think he’ll be out?”
“Long enough,” Bud grinned. “We made sure of that; didn’t we, John?”
John raised his glass, and Bud brought his up to clink against it. “That we did!”
Laura smiled, laughing along with the others, but she was still nervous, continually glancing up at the second floor, a fact that did not go unnoticed by Maximus. “Maybe we all ought to go out and get some air,” he suggested. “It’s getting a bit stuffy in here.”
John caught the look Max gave him. “Yea,” he agreed. “That’s not a bad idea… But where should we go?”
“Well, it’s a beautiful evening out,” Peaches said. “And it’ll be getting dark soon. How about taking a walk down to the beach and watching the sun set?”
Everyone agreed it was a great idea, and Bud and Cort went behind the bar to gather some refreshments in a cooler to take along. “You ought to come with us too, Liz,” Michelle said.
“It’s tempting — but I really should stay and keep an eye on the place. Not to mention Sid.” She glanced at the clock. “Besides, Jeffrey will probably be here soon, and I wouldn’t want him left all alone.”
“Who’s Jeffrey?”, Laura asked.
“Jeffrey Wigand, from ‘The Insider’,” Liz answered. “He tends to be a loner… But he comes in here around this time every day for a drink at the bar. I don’t want to disappoint him.”
“Personally,” Bud said as he closed the full cooler, “I think the guy’s kinda odd, but,” he shrugged, “I guess he’s okay…”
As the group got themselves organized, Liz moved around the tavern, straightening things up. Suddenly there was a shriek, and everyone hurried over as she exclaimed, “Oh, my god!” She was holding up the half-empty bottle of Montrachet Grand Cru Red Burgundy that Sid had offered Laura earlier. “*Who* opened this!?”
Laura stepped forward, saying, “Take a guess,” as she looked up towards Sid’s room.
“The *idiot*!”, Liz seethed. “This stuff costs $150 a bottle! I was saving it for a special occasion!” She let out a frustrated, angry sigh. “Oh, I am just going to *kill* him when I see him!”
“You’re going to have to stand in line for that privilege, Liz,” Bud quipped, grinning.
“Everybody ready?” Cort asked, and they all started to move towards the door. He and Bud carried the cooler between them as they all went outside. As they started to cross the parking lot, a middle-aged, white-haired man got out of a silver Audi and approached them.
Maximus stopped. “Hello, Jeff. How are you tonight?”
“Oh, not bad. The usual, you know. Not much going on these days.” Wigand looked at the group, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “You all leaving?”
As Maximus and Jeffrey talked, standing face to face only a few feet apart, Laura couldn’t help but stare at them. They were alike, but so unalike. Maximus stood straight and tall, with tan skin, lean muscles, dark brown hair, and a soft beard. Wigand seemed to slump a little, shoulders rounded forward, a good 40 pounds heavier than Max, with pasty white skin, thinning grayish-white hair, clean-shaven, with glasses. Both had eyes with the same vibrant shade of blue-green — but even there they differed. Wigand’s seemed somewhat dull and listless when compared to the inner strength and fire that shone in Max’s gaze. It didn’t seem possible that they were two sides of the same man…
“Yes, we were going down to the beach,” Max answered, interrupting Laura’s train of thought. “Would you care to join us?” he offered, ignoring the dirty look Bud gave him in response.
Wigand didn’t see it, however, and glanced over the group again, noting that the group had ‘paired off’ already — Maximus with Laura, John with Tina, Cort with Peaches, and Bud with Michelle. “Uh, no,” he said, politely declining, “I’m just going to have a quick drink and then call it a night. Long day, you know.”
“I’m sure,” Maximus smiled. “Good night, Jeff. Just do yourself a favor and stay away from Sid’s room tonight. He’s been even more obnoxious than usual.”
“I’ll remember that, thanks.” He looked at Tina, smiling a bit. “Nice to see you again, Ms. Stewart.” As Tina nodded in response, Wigand’s eyes moved to Laura. “I don’t believe we’ve met. You must be Ms. Stewart’s friend Laura that I’ve heard about. Jeffrey Wigand,” he said, extending a hand to her.
She shook it briefly. “Pleased to meet you.”
“I hope we’ll be seeing more of you too.”
“Oh, I think so,” she smiled politely, noticing an impatient Bud as he shifted his weight from one foot to another. “I’m sure we’ll have time to get acquainted later, but right now, we have to go.”
“Oh, of course. I don’t mean to keep you. Good night, everyone.” Jeffrey waved and went inside Crowes’ Tavern.
“Nice save, Laura… Come on; let’s go,” Bud said, tugging on the cooler and pulling Cort forward. “Before he decides to invite Sid along too,” he called over his shoulder, looking at Maximus.
“I don’t see what’s wrong with trying to include him,” Maximus answered.
“Hey, Max — picture this: four guys, four women. Do the math!” he laughed. “Who needs a fifth wheel? Even *he* knew it.”
“He does have a point, Max”, Peaches said as she took Cort’s free arm.
“I think I’m getting it,” he said, smiling down at Laura as she walked beside him, and the group headed down the path leading to the beach…