Disclaimers - See Part 1.
A SUMMER REUNION - PART 2
It was getting on for 9pm on Tuesday evening when Summer reached Northampton, located the Pasta House Uncle Tommy had specified, and found an adjacent parking space in Gold Street.
Her Uncle's circus was currently pitched in Kettering, so Northampton had seemed the ideal halfway point for them to meet and discuss business matters. She had a feeling he wanted to discuss other more personal matters, too, and felt a little daunted. *Oh well.*
She pushed open the restaurant door and went in, relishing the wafts of basil coming from the kitchen.
He was sitting in the window seat, two empty glasses and an opened bottle of the house red on the checked table-cloth in front of him. He was so busy talking to the attractive waitress, he didn't notice his niece for a moment.
"And what will Aunt Moira say when she hears you've been chatting up someone young enough to be your daughter?"
His startled expression gave way to a grin, and he gestured at the notepad on which he had been writing. "She'll say - thanks for the recipe."
Summer raised an eyebrow in practised disbelief, and his blue eyes twinkled at her.
The waitress smiled at their interaction. "I'll be back for your order in a minute, miss," she said, then she headed for the kitchen at the back of the restaurant.
"Nice catch!" Summer stooped and gave her Uncle a kiss on the cheek then took off her jacket and draped it over the back of the chair opposite his.
He stroked his moustache, greying now but as luxuriant as ever, and waited for her to get settled.
"How are you, Summer?"
"Fine. And you?"
"Oh, fine, fine." He pushed the menu towards her then reached for the bottle and poured some wine into his glass. He looked enquiringly at her.
"Better make that half a glass," said Summer. "I'm driving." He obliged. "And how is Aunt Moira?" she continued.
He sighed. "On the warpath as usual."
"What did you do?"
"Brought guests ... for dinner ... without warning her first."
"Oh yes." He grinned sheepishly.
Summer relaxed into the comfortable banter. A year ago she and her Uncle were barely speaking to one another and there was no sign it would ever change. Then Alison had come along ....
"So, how's Bunnikins?"
"Fine. And for God's sake don't tell her I told you about that!"
He laughed then pointed at the menu. "What are you having?"
Summer turned her thoughts to the matter of food, then while they waited for their orders to arrive - lasagne for Summer, cannelloni for her Uncle - they got business out of the way.
"So," Summer settled back in her seat and took a gulp of her wine, "what did you really want to talk to me about?"
Uncle Tommy shot her a shrewd glance. "Why are you taking a course on being a Stunt Performer? I thought your heart was in the Circus."
Straight to the point as always, she thought ruefully. "It is," she said.
He frowned. "Then why? I know box office receipts are down, but you know if the worst comes to the worst and your outfit folds, there'll be a place for you with mine."
She smiled warmly. "Thanks, Uncle Tommy. I didn't but I do now. It's not about that."
"Surely she doesn't object? She knew what you did when she took you on."
Summer snorted. "'Took me on'?!"
The waitress returned with their orders and it was a short while before they could resume their discussion.
"How long can I expect her to keep traipsing all over the country to be with me? She's not circus people, Uncle Tommy. Her expectations are different: a proper house with a garage and a garden, not a flat that's only just big enough for two or a clapped out old caravan. She needs somewhere she can feel settled and secure."
"Has she complained?"
Summer shook her head. "You know Alison. She makes the best of everything. But it's not fair of me to expect her to put up with my kind of life forever. And what happens when the novelty wears off ...when she compares her own lifestyle to that of her friends and finds it lacking?"
Her Uncle looked thoughtful. "I don't think she would ever do that."
Summer chewed a mouthful of lasagne and swallowed. "There's this school reunion coming up. One of her friends is a Diplomat, for God's sake! How can she avoid making comparisons?"
They ate in thoughtful silence for a while.
"But how will becoming a stunt performer change anything, Summer? It's even more dangerous than circus work, from what I hear. And won't you be going on location all the time, maybe even abroad?"
Summer sighed and rubbed her forehead tiredly. "I know, I know. But what choice do I have? The money is much better. And there aren't many other career openings for people with circus skills."
Her Uncle didn't look convinced.
"You're going to say I haven't thought this through, aren't you?"
He shrugged pointedly.
"Well maybe I haven't." She pushed her half-eaten lasagne away, her appetite gone. When the waitress collected their plates she declined a sweet. Her uncle ordered something with ice-cream, bananas, whipped cream, toffee sauce, nuts ....
She eyed the confection in awe. "Don't you know you should never eat anything larger than your head, Uncle Tommy?"
"No, but you hum it, and I'll sing it." He plunged his spoon into his sweet and took a huge bite. "Mmmmmm."
She smiled and shook her head. "Anyway," she continued, picking up the conversation where they had left off, "stunt work is just a thought. If it doesn't pan out, I haven't lost anything."
"The course fees," he mumbled through a mouthful of nuts.
"Except the course fees," she agreed. "And it's worth a try. I'd do anything rather than lose Alison."
He looked up at that. "Is there a danger of that?"
"Not yet," she said softly, giving form to the thoughts that had been whirling around in her head for several months now.
"Does Alison know you feel like this?"
Summer flushed. "Um ... we haven't really talked about it," she admitted, realizing how foolish and highhanded she must sound.
Her Uncle licked the spoon and sat back with a replete sigh. "Bad move. I can see Moira's not going to be the only one on the warpath."
"I should've talked to Alison first, shouldn't I?"
He laid a meaty hand on hers where it lay on the table-cloth. "I think you already know the answer to that one, Summer."
Alison stared up at the row of top floor windows. One of those rooms must be Summer's, but which one? And all were dark, which meant Summer was probably asleep. She sighed. Spending the night with her lover had seemed a good idea an hour and a half ago; now she wasn't so sure.
They had talked for ages on the phone - about Summer's supper with her Uncle and her experiences at Silverstone (she'd teased Alison that her hair was now white), and the film studio boss's Desperate Dan style tea - and then said goodnight. But she found herself missing Summer with an almost unbearable ache. She tried to ignore it, unsuccessfully, then abruptly capitulated.
Summer had left directions to the Geoff Wyatt Stunt School, in case of an emergency, so Alison simply grabbed them, hopped into her car, and hightailed it over from Cheltenham. She had been apprehensive, but the Fiesta had navigated the country lanes with ease. She hadn't got lost once either. *Unlike Summer.* She smirked at the thought.
She had hoped to surprise her lover, but now .... She pulled out her mobile phone and dialled the number she knew by heart.
"Summer Blake." The voice was sleepy.
"Hi there." Summer's voice was instantly awake and warm. "I thought we'd already said goodnight."
"I changed my mind. I'm feeling randy."
The creak of bedsprings carried over the phone as Summer sat up. "So, it's phone sex time, then?" Amusement coloured her voice.
"You sound a little strange ... like you're outdoors or something."
A fox barked nearby, making Alison jump. "I am," she said. The fox barked again, louder, and a light went on in one of the top floor rooms and the curtains were pulled back.
Summer's startled face peered down at her. "You didn't?!"
"I did." Alison waved cheekily. "Now. How do I get up there without tipping anyone else off that your nookie has arrived?"
"My nook-" The figure at the window doubled over in a fit of the giggles.
"That wasn't quite the reaction I had in mind," said Alison dryly.
That tree would get her close, she judged, then that drainpipe, and from there she could grab the guttering, swing herself up onto the windowledge ....
"Get ready, Juliet," she said into the phone. "Romeo's on her way."
She hung up on the startled squawk, jammed the mobile phone in her jacket pocket - the other pocket held the toothbrush that was her only item of luggage - and made for the tree.
As Alison climbed, it dawned on her that hadn't done anything this rash since her schoolfriends had dared her to put a shower hat on the statue in the quadrangle. Oh well, she thought rather breathlessly. *I've started so I'll finish.* She reached for another branch and climbed higher.
The sound of a sash window sliding open drifted down to her on the still night air and she paused and looked up. A naked Summer was leaning out. Now *there* was a sight for sore eyes!
"What the hell to you think you're doing?" hissed Summer.
"Isn't it obvious?" Alison brushed her hair back behind her ears and wobbled precariously along the branch towards the drainpipe, lunging the last step and grabbing the pipe with relief. She took a moment to recoup, then started climbing, clinging onto the pipe and digging her toes into the crumbling mortar.
*Up, one, two ... change to other arm, one, two ... whatever you do don't look down, one, two ... Oops, better find a new foothold quick, one, two ...*
Then something had her by the neck and she was heading skywards fast. *What the ... ? Help, I can't breathe!*
Abruptly, she was tumbling over the windowsill, feeling as elegant and romantic as a sack of potatoes as she crash-landed on Summer and sent her flying.
"Oof!" Air whistled from the dark haired woman's lungs and she released her grip on Alison's jacket collar.
"You nearly strangled me!" managed Alison when she could speak again.
"You nearly gave me a heart attack!"
Their current tangled position reminded Alison of something from the Kama Sutra and she took full advantage of it to cop a feel.
"Hey! Cut that out." But Summer's protests were halfhearted at best, and soon Alison had her where she wanted her, flat on her back on the single bed and in a liplock that left them both breathless again.
"I'm sure Romeo never told Juliet to 'cut that out'," said Alison a little later.
"No. He probably said, 'Gadsooks, insatiable woman. Desist, I pray you.'"
Alison giggled. "Shakespeare must be spinning in his grave!" She reached in her pocket and pulled out her toothbrush. "I've come prepared, as you can see ....Forgot my nightie, though."
"That's all right, I have other ways of keeping us warm." Summer's growl gave Alison goosepimples all over.
"Ooh. That's much more like it."
Summer helped herself to Cornflakes and milk and carried her bowl to the breakfast table. Geoff Wyatt nodded at her.
She sat down and began to eat. Moments later, the other course members traipsed in. Phil Scott had dark circles round his eyes and he threw Summer a dirty look as he placed his plate of sausage and beans on the table and sat down. She wondered briefly what she'd done to upset him this time.
Helen Wyatt came in with a fresh pot of coffee and filled Summer's cup.
"Thank you." She smiled at the plump cook and received a smile in return.
"This'll perk you up," said Helen when she reached Phil. "Didn't you sleep well, dear?"
"No." His tone was surly, and he shot Summer another look.
This is getting really old, she thought, and took another mouthful of cereal.
"The person next door to me was making a lot of noise last night," said Phil. He glared pointedly at Summer. "Keep the radio down next time, can't you?"
The remark caught her off guard, and by the time she had stopped coughing and spluttering her eyes were watering and her cheeks were hot.
"Are you all right, Summer?" asked Helen anxiously.
"Fine," she wheezed. "Just a cornflake that went down the wrong way." Which was true, but it didn't account for her burning cheeks.
Thank God Phil hadn't been awake at 4 am when Summer tied a knotted bedsheet to the leg of the bed (a giggling Alison assured her they did it in all the best TV prison breakout movies) and used it to lower the blonde safely to the ground.
Summer had watched Alison walk jauntily to her little car, blow her a kiss, get in and head off into the countryside. Then she had turned back to her suddenly lonely room and realized that knotting the sheet had crumpled it beyond recovery - something that never happened on TV.
Still, the minor discomfort was worth it, she decided, trying to keep the smirk off her face at the memory of her night with Alison ....
After breakfast, the stuntees gathered outside in the yard as instructed. Today they were scheduled to learn about 'fire burns' and the fact that numerous fire extinguishers had been stacked nearby did little to assuage Summer's anxiety.
She watched a lean six-footer with a crewcut carry a huge tub of something labelled 'stunt gel' from his transit van. He deposited the tub on the gravel and levered off its lid, then he disappeared inside the van again. Moments later he was back, this time with several bodysuits, pairs of socks, and close fitting hoods, all made of some strange black material. Summer watched him dunk the items of clothing in the tub of glistening gel.
"This is Scott Kennard," said Wyatt, pointing to the stranger. "He'll be your instructor today.
Kennard finished dunking the clothes and acknowledged the course director with a grin. "Thanks for the intro, Geoff." He turned to face the stuntees. "First of all, let me reassure you. No one is going to set himself fully alight today except me. This isn't for novices."
Summer breathed a sigh of relief, though his careful phrasing set off warning bells. Fire was all very well - Grigori used flaming torches in his juggling act, and the circus had employed its share of fire-eaters over the years - but it had also caused her no end of trouble. Last year, the Big Top had burned down and she'd thought the circus was finished - luckily, she had been proved wrong. Yep. Fire was fascinating, mesmerizing even, she acknowledged grudgingly, but she didn't have to like it.
Kennard clapped for attention, bringing her back to the present. "The aim today is simply to give you just a taste of fire burns, so you can decide whether you'd like to make them one of your stunt specialties. There's no shame if you decide not to." He made eye contact with each of them in turn. "Never take fire for granted. I can't stress that enough. Too many of my friends have ended up in hospital. Some have died. Fire is dangerous and it can be unpredictable. Fear of it is normal, healthy. Respect is a given. Understood?"
Summer swallowed and nodded.
"Right then. Let's get this show on the road."
"So you set fire to yourself?" Alison sat forward, gripping the phone so tightly, her fingers ached.
"Only my hand," came Summer's voice calmly. "And it was all over in seconds."
"But you're OK?"
"I'm fine. It was perfectly safe. They coat your skin in a protective gel, then there's an inner glove soaked in the stuff. They only set fire to the glove you wear over the top of that. And they had fire extinguishers at the ready the whole time."
Alison felt decidedly unnerved by this revelation. She had known there would be risks associated with Summer's proposed career change, but still ....
"It was really weird," continued Summer. "The contrast between the ice cold gel and the heat of the flames ...."
"Promise me you won't do that ever again," blurted Alison, then bit her tongue. What right did she have to ask that of Summer?
"I won't do it again," said the ringmaster quietly. "Ever."
Alison felt relief wash over her. "You won't?" She relaxed back into the sofa.
"No. Fire burns aren't for me. When I saw those flames licking over my outstretched hand ... frankly, Alison, I was terrified."
This from the woman who could do death defying high wire and trapeze stunts without batting an eyelid.
"Besides, there are plenty of other stunt skills I can choose from to qualify for my Equity Card."
"And all of them are dangerous."
"Nah. They only *look* dangerous," said Summer. "If you do them properly, you shouldn't even break a nail ... or so Geoff Wyatt tells me. Of course, he bites his nails."
There was silence for a long moment.
"You still there?" asked Summer.
"Yes. I was just thinking."
Alison snorted. "Have you got a big ego or what? ... Yes, about you."
"Thought so." Summer's voice was smug. "So what have you been up to while I've been working on my tan?"
Alison frowned. The day had flown by, but she had little to show for it. "Um, I finished my article about the film studio and faxed it in. And Baron has sent me some good stills I can use with it - he's quite a sweetie, you know."
"Uh huh." Summer's voice was sceptical.
The film studio boss had also enclosed a personal note, promising that if Summer were to apply for a stunt job, he would put in a good word for her ... but now wasn't the time to tell Summer that, decided Alison.
"And two more old girls rang, wanting me to alter their hotel bookings ... so I did."
"Any news on the Miss Pargeter front?"
Alison sighed. "The invitation came back marked 'not known at this address' so she must have moved."
"So. What are you doing now?"
"Talking to you."
"Besides that, smart arse."
A yawn came down the line. "I'm about to go to bed, actually. I'm worn out."
Alison grinned. "We didn't get much sleep last night, did we?"
"Oh yeah, about that -" Summer's voice was amused.
"The guy next door asked if I can keep the radio turned down from now on. Apparently it kept him awake last night."
Alison frowned. " But you don't have a ... Oh!" Her face went hot.
"Told you to keep the noise down, didn't I, Bunnikins?"
"You are going to pay for that, Tiger."
When they rang off, they were both still laughing ....
Thursday morning's course topic was falls - specifically, stair falls ... much more to Summer's taste than fire burns. As she watched Rick Newton, the falls instructor, showing Harriet how to take a tumble without breaking anything, she wondered absently how Grigori was getting on.
Alison's obvious disappointment that Miss Pargeter would not be at her Reunion had decided Summer. She would find the missing former Housemistress and persuade her to come ... drag her, if necessary. But that meant hiring a Private Eye who specialized in Missing Persons, and since she was pretty much tied up with this course, the legwork had fallen to her unfortunate second-in-command.
Grigori's reaction when she phoned him and presented him with the task had been heartwarming.
"A PI?" The circus overture was playing in the background and he had to shout to make himself heard. "You and Alison aren't in any bother, are you, boss? 'Cause I can always send over Tonio and Marcello to sort them out."
The thought of the two strongmen 'sorting out' Miss Pargeter, perhaps even frog-marching her to the Reunion, made Summer snort with laughter.
"No, Grig. Nothing like that, I promise. I'm just trying to track down an old friend of Alison's, that's all."
"Oh." He sounded relieved. "OK. I'll get right on it and get back to you. Any preferences on location?"
"Nah. We can conduct our business over the phone, and I'll post him the cheque. Just make sure he specializes in Missing Persons and is reputable."
"Got it, Boss. Fast, expert, reliable, reputable ...." He sighed.
"Oh, and dirt cheap," she added as an afterthought.
"You don't want much, do you? OK, I'll do my best." He rang off.
She had set Grigori an almost Herculean task, she supposed. Maybe that accounted for his delay in getting back to her. But since the Reunion was only two weeks and a day away, she fervently hoped he would ring her with the details soon.
It was Saturday, and Alison woke with a feeling of anticipation. The International Festival of Music began today; so did the Fringe Festival that accompanied it and that she had been commissioned to write about; most importantly - Summer would be home tonight.
The thought put a spring in her step, and she found herself whistling as she got dressed, prepared and ate breakfast, and scanned the morning paper. She washed the breakfast dishes and left them draining, then set about getting ready for the day.
First: film stock. Did she have enough? She checked her supplies and loaded a fresh reel into the camera and several more into her shoulderbag. Next: batteries. It wouldn't do for her voicecorder to fail in the middle of an interview, now would it? She opened the tiny tape recorder's battery compartment and slotted in two fresh ones, another four went in her shoulderbag. Finally: a notebook and pen, just in case. All set.
She shrugged her jacket on, slung her camera round her neck and her bag over her shoulder, pocketed the voicecorder, and locked the flat door behind her.
As she hurried down Lansdown Crescent towards Montpellier, she noticed that some tourists were abroad already, checking out the Regency architecture and antique shops. She strode past them, heading for the Promenade where, according to the Fringe Programme, a sponsored 'water carry' should be underway.
She waited at the crossing for the lights to change. In the distance she could see people in garish fancy dress scurrying up and down the Promenade's wide pavement. After what seemed like forever, the little green man lit up, and she walked across, heading towards where the shoppers and tourists alike had stopped to observe the fun.
The three relay teams were dressed as clowns, pirates, and superheroes respectively. Their costumes looked homemade; the clown outfits certainly weren't comparable to those of Egor and Maks.
*Oops!* Alison stepped back quickly as one of the pirates tripped and almost fell, sloshing water in her direction. There seemed to be more water on the pavement and soaking into the costumes than in the buckets themselves, she thought, reaching for her camera and taking some shots.
Those who had already run their leg of the relay were standing to one side, recovering their breath or shouting encouragement to their teammembers. Alison approached a paunchy looking Batman, whose utility belt housed a cardboard Batarang and a bottle opener .
"How's it going?" She held out her voicecorder in one hand and her Press credentials in the other.
He nodded acknowledgment. "Good." An afterthought: "Wet."
She grinned. "So, tell me. What do you do in real life, and why is a man like you prepared to give up his Saturday morning, dress like a superhero, and get himself soaked into the bargain?"
Obligingly, he did ....
With comments from a shy Harlequin and a Pirate whose moustache was coming unglued, she finally felt she had enough. Thanking them, and giving them her card with instructions to let her know the grand total they raised, she headed off in search of more Fringe entertainment.
As she gazed at Cavendish House's window display, she noticed a familiar reflection in the glass that made her heart race. The grim features were unmistakable: Alice Sharp, one of the three girls who had made life hell at school. Fortunately, the bully hadn't seen her yet, so Alison nonchalantly turned away, crossed the road, and ducked into a shop entrance.
The eager shopkeeper came to the door at once. "Can I help you, Miss?"
She pretended to admire the overpriced antiques in the window. "Um ... no ... just looking." She forced a smile. "Thanks."
The shopkeeper nodded disappointedly and vanished into the interior.
Alison turned and scanned the pavement outside the department store, but there was now no sign of Alice. She breathed a sigh of relief.
Though the three bullies - Lauren, Katie, and Alice - still lived in Cheltenham, they and Alison moved in different circles, so she rarely came across them. And if she saw them first, she tended to duck down an alleyway or hide in a shop. It was cowardly, she knew, and she wasn't very proud of herself ... but why borrow trouble? she rationalized. *Yeah, right. And you a grown woman!*
Sheepishly, she continued towards Boots Corner then turned right into the High Street. She watched a juggler manipulate apples and oranges for a while, then when she had regained her equilibrium once more, she tossed a coin into his hat and wandered on ....
Summer drove into Cheltenham like the cliched bat out of hell ... or would have, if she hadn't been afraid of putting her foot through the van's rusting floor. "Forget Silverstone," she muttered, trying to urge more speed out of her van, "fifty mph would be nice."
As she turned into Lansdown Crescent, she glanced at her wristwatch. Nearly 8 o'clock already. Damn! Alison would be going nuts. But when she rushed through the door calling, "Bunny, I'm home," (well, *she* liked the phrase!) it was to find an empty flat and a note blu-tacked to the fridge door.
'Sorry. Couldn't wait any longer. Meet me by the bandstand. Alison.'
Muttering darkly, Summer grabbed a milk bottle from the fridge and, since there was no one present to tell her to use a glass, swigged directly from it. She replaced the bottle, wiped away her milk moustache, and flung herself onto a kitchen chair, getting her breath back and feeling undeniably miffed.
Rick Newton had had them doing High Falls all day, and even though she already knew pretty much everything there was to know (during her years in the circus she had probably broken every bone in her body from one kind of fall or another) she'd had the breath knocked out of her twice. Now this.
OK, so she had told Alison she'd be back by 6 p.m. OK, so giving Miss Pargeter's details to the Private Detective agency Grigori had at last found for her had delayed her. And OK, so she had got snarled up in a traffic jam just outside Cheltenham. Couldn't Alison have *waited*? They were supposed to be going to this picnic thing together.
Summer sighed, knowing she was being unreasonable. After all, the 'Picnic in the Park' wasn't just fun; Alison would be busy interviewing and taking photos. Which reminded her ....
She got rather creakily to her feet. Damn! she thought. *I feel like a 60-year-old .... And if that 60-year-old were Alison ....* She grinned and shook her head reproachfully. *You lech, you!* Now. What was she thinking? *Oh, yes.*
She walked through to the sitting room, and opened the cupboard where Alison kept her camera supplies. Four rolls of 35mm ought to do it. She grabbed them and stuffed them in her pocket.
*What else?* The Fringe Programme was lying on the table where Alison had left it, and she checked the entry for the Picnic: 'Bring garden chairs and rugs'. She scanned her surroundings thoughtfully for a moment, then reached for the hideous rug that had been a present from Alison's mother, and a couple of cushions.
Her stomach chose that moment to rumble loudly and she reached for the Yellow Pages. After a few minutes, her fingers had done the walking to the section called 'Take Away Food' ....
Alison was feeling tired and a little sorry for herself. Where the hell *was* Summer, anyway?
Too much interviewing had reduced her voice to a mere husk, too much walking had made her knees ache and her feet hurt, and her stomach thought her throat had been cut. In fact she was so hungry even the dubious looking hotdogs and beefburgers on sale at the various stands dotted round Pittville Gardens were beginning to smell good.
She took another picture, then heard the faint whirr as the camera registered the film's end and began to rewind. It was then she discovered she was out of film. She ground her teeth. *Great. Wonderful. Couldn't be better. And the fireworks haven't even started yet!*
For the umpteenth time that evening her gaze turned towards the distant bandstand. She had checked it only ten minutes ago, but some instinct made her decide to do so again. As she waded through the sea of heaving humanity, narrowly avoiding tripping on the chairs and picnic baskets and opened bottles of Rioja and Guinness, it occurred to her that even if Summer did turn up now, there was no standing room let alone sitting room left ....
What she saw brought her to a complete stop. Laid out neatly beside the bandstand was the rug that usually graced the sitting room floor, and lounging negligently on it, propped against one of the cushions from the sitting room sofa, was a long legged, raven haired beauty wearing stone-washed denim and a shit eating grin.
Blue eyes met Alison's and the aches and pains and depression vanished as though they had never been. She started to run, hurdling startled picnickers in her efforts to reach her lover. She leaped the final yard without even considering the consequences.
Strong arms caught her and lowered her gently onto the rug. She found herself pressed against six foot of warm ringmaster and for a moment simply basked, eyes shut, in the wonderful sensation. Gradually, however, another wonderful sensation made itself known - a mouthwatering smell. She opened her eyes to find herself staring at five cardboard cartons labelled 'Lao Ma's Chinese'.
Summer released her and she sat up.
"Hungry?" A dark eyebrow rose in query.
Alison simply nodded.
"Me too. Here." Summer handed her a fork and a spoon. "Dig in."
Alison needed no further urging.
For the next ten minutes, neither woman spoke, their glances saying everything that needed saying. "Mmmm," said Alison finally, swallowing the last mouthful of sweet-and-sour pork, following it with a gulp of coke, and sighing contentedly.
There was only one problem. "I'm going to have to go back home in a few minutes, Summer. I've run out of -"
With the air of a conjuror producing a rabbit out of hat, Summer dug in her jacket pocket and pulled out something. "These?"
Alison eyed the rolls of film in disbelief. "How did you - ?"
Summer rolled her eyes. "You *always* run out."
Alison flushed. "I suppose I do, don't I?" She accepted the film and quickly reloaded her camera. Then she quietly regarded her lover, who was scanning their surroundings, and - heedless of the crush of people nearby - leaned over and kissed her.
*Hmmm.* Sweet-and-sour Summer, she mused. *Not a bad combination at all.*
"What was that for?" asked Summer rather breathlessly, when Alison pulled back.
"For making my day one hundred percent better than it was."
Summer tried unsuccessfully to hide a pleased grin.
A loud bang startled them both, and they craned their necks round and stared up into the evening sky. Unfolding above them was a glowing orange starburst; it reminded Alison of a chrysanthemum. As they watched, another chrysanthemum - green this time - flowered. Then a blue one.
Alison reached for her camera. "The firework display."
"Yep." Summer tucked the cushion behind her and leaned back, pulling Alison's body snugly against hers. "You can take your pictures from here," she growled, her arms curling possessively round the blonde woman's waist..
For a moment Alison hesitated then she acquiesced. What the heck. It was as good a view as any. "OK."
Summer gave her an appreciative squeeze.
Alison grinned at the gesture, then raised her camera and peered through the viewfinder at the spectacular display ....
Summer yawned and stretched, trying not to wake Alison whose legs were entangled with hers and who was still snoring softly. When they'd got home last night, they'd had another much more intimate firework display, and Summer was still feeling pleasantly sated. What's more, she thought happily, today is my day off.
The snoring stopped and she cocked her head, wondering if Alison was awake. The snores resumed. *Nope. Still out cold.*
Summer eased herself out of the king-size bed Alison had bought soon after she started staying regularly - Summer's toes had poked out of the previous bed.
After a trip to the bathroom, she went through to the tiny kitchen. Alison was bound to be ravenous, as always. So. She examined the contents of the fridge. *A full English breakfast for Ms Carmichael or something continental?*
Summer was frying eggs when the slap of bare feet on linoleum made her turn, plastic spatula in hand. The ruffled looking blonde in the white towelling bathrobe rubbed sleep from her eyes and yawned. Summer grinned at the sight of her lover and gave her a one-armed hug that made her squeak.
"You look adorable," she said, licking Alison's nose and eliciting an "Urk! Stop that!" for her pains.
"You're perky this morning," said Alison, when Summer finally released her and resumed supervision of the eggs.
"Must be something I ate." Summer winked at the blonde, who blushed at the double entendre.
"Too damned perky, if you ask me." Alison grabbed a chair and sat down at the table.
"Who asked you?"
"Huh." Alison picked up the knife and fork Summer had set out for her and banged the cutlery on the table like a fractious two year old.
Summer didn't let the blonde's adorable mock pout faze her. Instead she opted for her best waiter impression. "Would Modom like her eggs on a plate ... or in her lap?" She held up the frying pan and its sizzling contents.
Alison looked apprehensive. "You wouldn't?!"
Summer raised an eyebrow and tried to look threatening. Then she relented and grinned. "No, I wouldn't."
Alison sighed with relief and put down her knife and fork
While she waited for the kettle to boil, Summer placed rounds of buttered toast on two plates, topped them with the eggs and the grilled bacon and tomato she had kept warm, then carried the breakfasts to the table.
"Thank you, sweetie," said Alison, before digging in and eating with gusto. Summer made cups of coffee for them both, then took the other chair and ate her own smaller breakfast more sedately.
"So, what are your plans for today?" she asked Alison.
"Mmmph Fmmg Evmps." Alison swallowed and tried again. "More Fringe events."
"Well, there's a trapeze workshop. Want to go?"
Summer groaned. "Bit of a busman's holiday, don't you think?"
"Oh, OK. What about the UFO Roadshow, then?"
"It's only a lecture with photographs, unfortunately. UFOs over Mexico, that kind of thing."
"It's not really me," said Summer dryly. "But you can go if you want to."
"Gee, thanks!" Alison gave her a look. "Then there's 'Cinderella on Ice' with the Russian Ice stars at the Everyman. There's a Matinee this afternoon."
Summer was tempted. Some of her Circus acts had been talking about the Russian skating troupe and had piqued her curiosity. "You'd never get tickets this late in the day," she said wistfully.
"Tickets?" Alison smiled wickedly. "Oh, tickets. You mean like those two front row seat tickets that are in my jacket pocket at this very moment?"
Summer gaped at her. "You didn't?"
"I did. Freebies too. Isn't it amazing what a Press Pass can do?" Alison looked distinctly smug. "So, Cinderella on Ice it is, then?"
"Well, if you're going to twist my arm."
Alison's face fell. "Why you ungrateful little ..."
A whooping Summer leaped from her chair and headed straight for the sitting room, and Alison was soon hard on her heels. They circled the sofa three times, before Summer let Alison catch her and they crashed onto it in a tangled heap.
Whoo! thought Summer happily, her hands moving over her squirming lover. *These bathrobes really do come undone very easily ....*
Alison should have been working on her article but instead she was doodling on her writing pad.
Having Summer to herself all yesterday had been wonderful. (She joined up four dots and crosshatched the resulting square.) The Ice show had been breathtaking; and her lover's gratitude had led to an even more breathtaking evening. But all good things come to an end, unfortunately, and Monday morning had stolen Summer away from her again. She drew a flower, then sighed and tried once more to concentrate. She had notes to transcribe, an article to write ....
One hour later, she had succeeded in controlling her unruly thoughts, and was revising the article's introductory paragraph, when a bleeping noise interrupted her thoughts.
*Damn!* She reached for the phone. "Hello."
"Ali. It's Dani. How the hell are you?"
"Dani!" A wave of affection rolled over Alison. "You're back." She put down her pen and prepared for a lengthy chat.
"Well, not quite. But don't worry. I will be. This is just a quick call to say I'll be getting into Cheltenham a week on Thursday, if that's OK with you."
"No problem. If Zoe hadn't already arranged it, I'd have offered to lend you my floor anyway."
"I was hoping for the couch. I'm not as flexible as I used to be, Ali."
"So that's OK, then? My staying won't mess up ... um ... things?"
"It's fine. Really."
"Great." Dani's tone turned teasing. "Can't wait to meet Summer by the way. That photo you sent me at Christmas ... whoa! Is she gorgeous, or what?!"
"Get in line, girl," growled Alison in mock warning.
Voices at the other end distracted her old friend's attention for a moment, and she heard a muffled, "Be with you in a minute." Then Dani was back on the line.
"Sorry, Ali. Gotta go. I'll let you know nearer the time the details of when my train gets in. OK?"
"Hey, kiddo. I'm really looking forward to this!"
"Me too. See you, Dani."
Summer had spent her Monday learning about firearms. She could now work the safety with confidence and anticipate from where and in which direction the hot casings would fly. She knew how to handle firearms, and more importantly how not to.
The armourer had arrived at 10am in an unmarked van that could have taught Fort Knox a thing or two. He had unloaded and carried boxes of blank ammunition and the weapons themselves into the lecture room. Phil, Justin, Mark, Jules and Tim had clustered round the shotguns, rifles, revolvers, and semiautomatics like bees around honey. It had taken sharp rebukes from both Wyatt and the armourer to get the men to remove their sticky fingers from the well-oiled Remingtons, Galils, and Berettas.
Harriet, Natasha and Summer exchanged glances. What was it about the male of the species? wondered Summer.
Next, the men had clamored for a chance to take the weapons to a shooting range (they clearly had that 'if it moves, kill it' gene), but as Geoff Wyatt pointedly reminded them, these were only for 'stunts'. In fact it was much safer to 'aim off' but still look convincing than 'aim at' people. Which was just fine with Summer.
She sighed and changed out of clothes which now reeked of cordite. Tomorrow should be better - the armourer was bringing a selection of bladed weapons, and since Summer had learned knife throwing from a one of her father's acts when she was a girl ....
The phone rang and she reached for it.
"Ms Blake?" said a male voice.
"This is Mike Donovan of the Searchers Detective Agency. You said it was OK to call you after 7 p.m.?"
She sat on the edge of the bed. "That's right."
"OK. I have the information you wanted ... about the whereabouts of Miss Margaret Jane Pargeter, formerly of Cheltenham."
"We've managed to track her down, without too much difficulty. She took early retirement two years ago. She's now living in St. Helier, Jersey. Shall I give you the details?"
"Just a moment, Mr Donovan. I need something to write with." Summer stretched across the bed to the bedside table and grabbed a pen and some paper. "OK. Go ahead."
"Her new address is ...."
Frowning in concentration, Summer began to write ....
Monday had been bad enough, but Tuesday was a disaster.
"What do you mean: 'You're sorry'?" Alison ran a hand distractedly through her hair. What had started out as a routine task - confirming the Reunion venue booking - was rapidly turning into a nightmare. "We booked the suite six *months* ago!"
The man on the other end of the phone repeated his explanation with exaggerated patience. "So sorry .... Due to an unforeseen oversight .... Double booked ...."
"I know, I know, so you said the first time." She blew out a breath. "So how come the Gloucester Old Spot Breeder's Association gets priority over us?"
He explained how the Association was an old and much valued customer that held its annual get-together in the same suite this time every year. That this longstanding arrangement had been overlooked was an unfortunate oversight ....
*Here we go again.* She suspected money had changed hands but couldn't prove anything. She also knew the man wasn't going to give an inch.
"Well, this is your cock-up not mine, and I want our deposit back immediately and *with interest*, is that clear?" she said crisply.
For the first time he seemed rattled, and though he blustered on for several more minutes, they both knew he would concede in the end ... which he did, as ungraciously as possible.
She slammed the phone down and began pacing up and down. "Bloody Hell!"
The venue had been perfect: the right size, price, within walking distance of the town centre ....
*Where am I going to get a replacement this late in the day with the Festival in full swing?*
Alison's fears were fully realized when five hours and a vastly increased phone bill later, she had to concede that there was nowhere - and she meant *nowhere* - large enough and convenient enough to hold the Day Girls of 89 Reunion.
When the phone rang, and it turned out to be Summer, she found herself pouring her woes down the phone and then, to her embarrassment, burst into tears.
"Hey, sweetheart," came Summer's anxious voice. "Don't cry. We'll find somewhere."
Alison sniffed. "Don't you think I've tried? Everywhere local is fully booked."
"Then you're just going to have to look further afield. You can arrange transport, can't you?"
"Summer. Are you still there, Summer?"
"Yeah ... just thinking."
"The Reunion's a week on Saturday, right?"
"Right. I could *kill* Zoe. Fancy arranging it to clash with the last night of the Music Festival. All the hotels are crammed."
"Um .. well," Summer sounded tentative. "This idea is totally off the wall, but it might be worth a shot."
At this point Alison was desperate enough to try anything. "Go on."
"Find me somewhere to pitch it, and we could set up the Big Top and hold the Reunion in that."
"?!" Alison 's voice seemed to have turned into a squeak.
"Bad idea, huh?"
She considered. Her first reaction had been to reject Summer's idea out of hand, but the more she thought about it - Cheltenham Ladies' College Day Girls in a circus tent! - the more outrageous ...and attractive ... it began to seem.
"No, it's not a bad idea, Summer," she said slowly. "It's a *brilliant* idea!"
A pleased silence met her remark.
"Now," mused Alison. "All we need is a piece of land ...."
CONTINUED IN PART 3back to the Academy