Copyright © 2001 by Barbara Davies.
This story may not be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of it may be made for private use only and must include all copyright notices, warnings and acknowledgements.
This is my homage to the likes of Emma Peel, Tara King, The Men from UNCLE and James Bond. And as with those characters and their settings, my secret agents and the organisation they work for bear no resemblance to anything in the real world.
There is some bad language. What can I say? Secret agents need to let off steam somehow.
There is also a same sex relationship, but it's all done in terribly good taste. If the more explicit stuff is your cup of tea.... Sorry! My agents are British, doncherknow. <G>
SAY GOODBYE TO BOSTON
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"You are English, señorita?"
The waiter's voice dragged Ash's attention away from the stupendous view from the clifftop. "Is it that obvious?" She raised an eyebrow at the little man, whose bushy moustache was clearly his pride and joy.
"No, no," he said hastily.
He had topped up her glass while she was daydreaming, she noticed, and she took an appreciative sip of its contents. Mmmm. The local sweet wine was growing on her.
"It is your accent," explained the waiter, his liquid brown gaze intent. "Your Spanish is good, but - please forgive me! - your accent, it is a leetle..." He waggled his hand in the gesture that meant so-so.
"Rusty," she completed. "I know." The last time she had spoken it for any length of time must have been a year ago, longer... that assignment in Cadiz, with Sam.
She turned to gaze out of the little restaurant's picture window again. Sam would have loved this magnificent view of the Atlantic. She'd read somewhere that sea-faring explorers referred to El Hierro as 'the Edge of the World', and she could see why. It had been worth the arduous hike up the kilometre high cliff. The Mirador's food wasn't bad either. The rabbit in the conejo con salmorejo had almost melted in her mouth.
"You know how the bay was formed?" persisted the waiter.
Ash sighed. It was because she was eating alone, she supposed. "No, but I bet you're going to tell me." She gave the other diners an envious glance and caught a smirk aimed in her direction.
"Thousands of years ago, this volcano we are sitting on," he gestured expansively at their surroundings, "erupted and a section of the island collapsed... the result," an even larger gesture, "El Golfo."
The gigantic bay looked as though a sea monster had taken a bite out of El Hierro's northwest coastline, but Ash kept that thought to herself.
"It was a catastrophe! All that earth, sliding into the sea.... It set off - ¿Cómo se dice? - a tidal wave," continued the waiter. "The wave, it not stop until it reach the Bahamas, until it reach the USA itself!" He paused and beamed at her, as though he had personally had something to do with the event.
The urge to take him down a peg was irresistible. She widened her eyes and injected a tremble into her voice. "What? We're on top of a volcano? It's not going to erupt again, is it?"
He blinked at her. "No, no, señorita! All this was - ¿Cómo se dice? - millennia ago." He looked round uneasily, as though suddenly realising that the Mirador's management might frown on his scaring their customers. "These days the volcano is perfectly safe. Please do not worry."
She smiled at him then, a knowing smile with a slight curl to the lip that said, "Gotcha!" His tanned face flushed a shade darker and he straightened a napkin that didn't need straightening.
"If there is nothing else, señorita?" His voice and manner were stiff, his spaniel eyes wounded.
"No, thank you."
"Then please excuse me, I have much to do." With a small bow, he headed for the kitchen, and Ash resumed her contemplation of the view, feeling only slightly guilty.
As she stared out at the ocean, stretching blue as far as the eye could see, her mind was elsewhere. She had needed a break, needed time to heal mentally and physically - her hip still ached when the weather was cold. Walking the winding donkey- and goat-tracks of La Gomera and hiking through El Hierro's pine forests and along its misty cliff tops had given her time to think, to come to terms with (as much as she ever would) the disastrous outcome of her recent mission.
Sam. She squashed down the inevitable surge of grief. It was still hard, but she refused to go to that black place any more. Instead, she drained the last drop of wine.
The solitude had helped to settle her mind, and the walking had helped get her back in shape. Now it was time to pick up the threads, to get on with her life. Sam would have wanted her to, she knew. What she needed was a mindless good time. And in the Canary Islands in February, one event was guaranteed to provide such a thing. Carnaval.
Tenerife's major festival was due to start tomorrow and would last for 12 days. Her spirits lifted at the mere thought of it. It was time she started using the well-appointed casa on the outskirts of Santa Cruz that she had rented two weeks ago, time she tried out that huge bed. There were bound to be lots of pretty women at the carnival - small, buxom, and blonde, for preference - and all just waiting for her attentions.
She was suddenly eager to get back to 'civilisation', and she checked her wristwatch. If she hurried she could probably make the flight back to Tenerife. She twisted round in her seat in search of the waiter. There was no sign of him, but a heavy-browed woman was cleaning glasses behind the little bar. Ash got up and approached her.
"Por favor, yo quiero pagar." She plunged her hand in her jean pocket and pulled out a wad of pesetas.
"Si, señorita." The woman put down her cloth and hurried to accept her payment.
After the remoteness and coolness of El Hierro, which had reminded Ash of the Highlands, the bustle and heat of Santa Cruz de Tenerife was a shock. She was rapidly getting used to it, however.
She had slept deeply (and alone - though she had plans to change that) in the casa's comfortable bed, and breakfasted on bread, fruit, and coffee. She passed her morning exploring the casbah-like Our Lady of Africa market in the old quarter (she had managed to resist most of the goods on sale but succumbed to a cheap music cassette recorded by a local orquesta). Lunch in a café's shady garden had given her tired feet some respite, then she had spent the afternoon looking at Guanche artefacts in the welcome cool of the Museum of Nature and Mankind.
Now, however, it was time to party. Putting on her sunglasses, she tied a sweatshirt around her waist for when the temperature began to drop, and threaded her way between honking cars, joining the hundreds of other tourists heading towards the Plaza de España.
The massive square was flanked by unattractive concrete high-rises, but some effort had been made to brighten it up for the Carnival. Red-and-yellow flags and streamers dangled from every lamppost and litterbin. The excitement coming from the people gathering there was infectious, and Ash found herself grinning. A tantalising aroma of hot chocolate and doughnuts set her stomach rumbling so she elbowed her way towards its source - a small stall selling churros - and satisfied her hunger. Then she took a position as far from the bandstand as she could get - the salsa music was deafening - and shaded her eyes against the early evening sun.
They were preparing to elect the Carnival Queen, and Ash gazed appreciatively at the tanned beauties wiggling provocatively at all and sundry. Their completely OTT outfits, created from gaudy satin, dyed feathers, and sequins too numerous to count, would not have been out of place in Rio. The procession that followed the election would not have been out of place there either. As rank after rank of pirates (this year's theme apparently), dancers, marching bands, and majorettes marched past, the shrilling of whistles, pounding of drums, and hypnotic samba rhythms made Ash's feet itch to join in.
The view was better on the far side of the square, she decided after a while, so she headed there, brushing aside lascivious invitations and evading groping hands (nearly snapping one man's fingers before bringing her automatic reflexes under control). Once there, she leaned thankfully against a cool stone wall and turned her attention to her fellow spectators.
It was some minutes before she settled on a possible bedmate. An attractive blonde was standing on the steps in front of the Monumento de los Caídos. The woman was eating a toffee apple, and the way she licked her fingers clean when she'd finished made Ash suck in her breath sharply. She gave the blonde a thorough, and intentionally obvious, once-over before flashing her a brilliant smile. The other woman flushed and dropped her gaze, then almost at once glanced surreptitiously back at Ash.
Bait taken. Now let's see what she does with it.
Ash let her gaze drift over the other spectators, then something snagged her attention and, puzzled, she rescanned the crowd, trying to see what it was. A moment later, she had it. That man's profile was vaguely familiar.
He turned full face towards her then, and she registered high cheekbones, pockmarked olive skin, and hooded eyes so dark they were almost black. She frowned and riffled through a mental card index of terrorist mugshots. He was Libyan, she was sure of it. Small fry rather than a big fish, but still... What was he doing in Santa Cruz? A soft touch brought her out of her musing and she turned to find the blonde from the war memorial steps standing next to her, smiling shyly.
"¿Est usted esperando para alguien?"
Ash took off her sunglasses and smiled. "Not 'someone'. I was waiting for you."
The blonde blinked at her, apparently fascinated by her blue eyes. "You are English?"
A coquettish glance. "You were looking at me. Why?"
"Because I like what I see." Openly, she appraised the other woman. Then she raised an eyebrow in query.
The blonde blushed prettily. "I too like what I see," she said softly.
"That's good." Ash took her arm. "I have a casa not far from here. Later..." she paused meaningfully, "I will take you there. But for now... would you like something to eat, a lot of wine, a little dancing?" She waited expectantly.
The blonde flushed again at Ash's candour, then laughed a little at herself and nodded. "Sure, English. That would be very nice."
It was 2 am when Ash's full bladder forced her out of bed and into the bathroom. Samba music and sporadic laughter wafted in from the street outside; some revellers were clearly still celebrating the start of the Carnival. She flushed the toilet, washed her hands, then returned to her bedroom.
Her bumbag was draped over the chair where she had left it, and she unzipped it and pulled out her mobile phone. The blonde sprawled exhaustedly face down in the middle of her rumpled sheets was snoring loudly. The urge to squeeze one of Adriana's plump buttocks was strong but she resisted, contenting herself with stretching languidly and recalling recent activities. Their own intimate carnival had resulted in a memorable firework display and she planned to repeat the experience very soon - but first she had a phonecall to make.
Pulling on a silk housecoat, Ash padded downstairs to the casa's spacious dining room. Once there, she retrieved a number from the phone's memory, and dialled it. After a few moments, the receiver at the other end was picked up.
"Si?" said a sleepy male voice.
"This is Ashley Blade," she said crisply. "Scramble." Tapping a few keys activated the scrambler circuit, and the resulting white noise made her hold the phone further from her ear. Then the line cleared again as the field operative at the other end activated his scrambler too.
"Ramirez here." The man sounded wide-awake now. "What can I do for you, Señorita Blade?".
"Abdusamad," she said. "Khaleb Abdusamad." The identity of the Libyan she had spotted in the Plaza de España had come to her while she was recovering from her first climax (Adriana would not be flattered to know Ash had been thinking about work at such a moment.) She spelled out the name to the field operative letter by letter.
"I have it. What about him?"
"He's here. In Santa Cruz. Did you know? Did London? Any idea why?"
"It'll take a while to check, Señorita."
She shrugged. "I'll wait." She padded over to a cane chair and sat down, tucking her bare feet under her and thinking about the things she had yet to try with the blonde upstairs...
"Señorita... Señorita Blade, are you still there?"
"Wha-? Yes, um, I'm still here," mumbled Ash, blinking and trying to recover her wits as she pressed the phone to her ear. A quick check of her watch showed ten minutes had passed. She must have dozed off.
"We were unaware Abdusamad is here," came Ramirez's voice from the earpiece. "Thank you for the tip-off."
Ash pursed her lips. "So, will you be putting him under surveillance?"
"Minimal only. The budget won’t stretch to full. Besides, London feels he's probably just here for the Carnival. Terrorists take holidays too."
Ash grunted. Do they?
"Talking of which," continued Ramirez, "I have a message for you, Señorita Blade... from the your Section Head."
She blinked. "From Thompson?"
"Yes. He says: 'He's sure he doesn't have to remind you that you are on leave.'"
Subtle as always, thought Ash ruefully. Bill Thompson was one of the few who knew just how close to cracking up Sam's death had brought her.
"You need to relax, get completely away from it all for a few weeks, Ash," he'd told her sternly. "Come back when you're rested and can think straight again. Then you can tell me who you want as your new partner."
I'm getting there, Bill. Slowly, it's true, but I am getting there. Still no idea who can replace Sam though.
"Still here," she muttered. "OK. Got that. Thanks for your help, Ramirez."
"You're welcome, Señorita Blade. Buenos noches."
"Buenos noches." Feeling suddenly tired, Ash hung up and sat for a while in the dark, thinking about nothing in particular.
The sound of bare feet slapping against floor tiles brought her out of her reverie and made her turn. A fetchingly tousled and very naked blonde stood in the doorway looking at her.
"I woke up and you were gone." Adriana yawned and scratched her head, then she smiled and struck a provocative pose. "Come back to bed, English."
Moonlight highlighted luscious curves and deepened already intriguing shadows. Ash laughed and stood up. "All right," she said. Miraculously, her tiredness seemed to have disappeared.
"He'll see you now, Miss Jacobs. Come with me, please."
Jemma stood up, straightened her jacket, and set off after the stout receptionist. Her palms were sweaty, she noticed irritably. All I'm doing is meeting my new Section Head. What on earth will I be like on a mission? She wondered if her classmates were feeling as nervous as she was.
She followed the other woman down a dingy corridor. HQ resembled an insurance company's head office rather than the Organisation's London centre of operations. For a start, there was no secret entrance. At the very least there should have been a tailor's shop façade, and a changing room cubicle whose coat hook, when turned, triggered a secret door. And where were the glamorous and virile secret agents, armed with special ID badges and improbable looking weaponry? Oh, hang on a minute. That must be me.
Jemma suppressed the slightly hysterical giggle that was threatening to emerge. Her nerves were really getting the better of her. She was relieved when the receptionist stopped in front of a door labelled 'Remington', knocked twice, then popped her head round.
"Here she is," came her muffled voice. The other woman's head reappeared and she gestured. "Go on in."
"Thanks." Jemma took a deep breath, composed herself, and entered.
A man in a pinstriped grey suit was standing by the window, next to the metal filing cabinets. At her entrance, he stopped his contemplation of the rainslicked courtyard and turned to face her.
"Welcome to Security, Miss Jacobs." He smiled, then advanced towards her and held out a hand. "I'm Ian Remington, Section Head. You'll be reporting directly to me."
She took his hand, and tried not to grimace at his limp handshake.
"Please." He indicated a red plastic chair on her side of the overcrowded desk, and, while she gingerly took it, seated himself in an upholstered swivel chair.
Jemma licked her lips. "Do you have a mission for me, Mr Remington?"
He laughed and steepled his fingers. "I'm afraid we have to get you settled in and used to the way we do things, Miss Jacobs, before we can send you on an actual mission."
She had hoped that, once she graduated, training would be a thing of the past or at least 'on the job'. Looked like she was wrong. If only I'd got that posting to Counter Intelligence. I bet Nat and Gary are getting proper assignments, working alongside someone like Blade, whereas I -
"Here's some reading material." Remington pushed a pile of documents and training manuals across the desk towards her.
I knew it. Bloody paperwork. Surreptitiously, she scanned the labels, which as she had feared referred to Overviews, Procedures, Protocols, Methods, Techniques...
"There's a lot to Security," continued Remington, oblivious to her disappointment. "You'll have covered the basics in training, but there's more to it than that. We handle security for all branches and departments throughout the Organisation. You'll need to familiarise yourself with..."
Jemma tuned out his monotone and found her gaze turning to the rain outside. It wouldn't always be like this, she consoled herself. One day she would be a proper secret agent, like Blade...
It was a cold November day - so cold that Jemma wouldn't have been surprised to see flakes of snow in the air - and the trainee secret agents had spent the bulk of it on 'exercises' in the school's capacious grounds.
Their instructor had divided up the class into two groups: hunters and prey. The latter were allowed to keep their civvies and had wrapped up well. Jemma, who refused to wear the unflattering thermal underwear provided, had discovered the hard way that camouflage fatigues did little to keep out the chill.
She had kept warm by keeping moving, and had already successfully 'taken out' three of her classmates, incurring a bruised shin and pulled rib muscle in the process. But she had lost track of the remaining 'prey', and was now hiding in the large plane tree that overlooked the entrance to the training school, hoping to catch any who tried to sneak in. Her attention had strayed - she was thinking longingly of a hot shower and some fish-and-chips - when the crunch of booted feet on gravel snagged it.
It was getting dark, and hard to see, but from the silhouette she judged that someone in civilian dress - it might even be her friend Gary - was heading up the gravel path towards the school entrance. Gotcha!
Without hesitation, Jemma leaped from her hiding place, booted feet first. The impact jarred her and sent her target flying. Then Jemma was rolling, coming to her feet, and gripping the man in the unbreakable 'Blade neck lock'. Amazingly, there was a flurry of movement, her grip was broken, and she found herself flying.
She hit the ground with a thump that drove the air from her lungs, and everything went hazy for a while. When she came to her senses it was to find a knee pressing hard on her windpipe and a lack of oxygen making itself felt.
Wha-? She stared up into the iciest blue eyes she had ever seen, and registered that her target, a woman, was... a complete stranger. Oh no!
Abruptly, the crushing pressure was gone and she could breathe again... which she promptly did, gratefully sucking in huge gulps. Air had never tasted so wonderful.
"You going to stay down there all day?" asked an amused voice.
She became aware a hand was being held out to her. She took it, and was startled at the strength of its grip and the ease with which the woman pulled her to her feet.
"So-sorry," she stammered. "I thought you were one of my classmates." She was glad the boot polish on her face hid her blush.
The woman raised a dark eyebrow at her. "And you always attack your classmates?" She laughed abruptly, revealing gleaming white teeth. "You're one of Mac's, aren't you? Playing cowboys and Indians, huh?"
"Jacobs!" Her instructor's voice carried clearly to them on the night air, and Jemma froze, then came miserably to attention and waited for the dressing down of her life.
"What on earth do you think you're playing- Ash!" Mac's voice tailed off in a squeak of surprise.
"Hello, you old rogue. Still terrorising your students, I see."
'Ash'? Jemma blinked. This woman couldn’t possibly be... Of course! Who else could counter the 'Blade neck lock'? Jemma was sure her eyes must be bulging.
"What are you doing here?" Incredibly, the dour Mac was smiling. "I thought you were in Paris."
"I was," said the agent. It was no wonder Jemma had mistaken her for a man. She must be nearly six-foot tall. "Got some leave before Sam and I head out to Copenhagen though. I was just in the neighbourhood; thought I'd pop in and see my old teacher."
"Not so much of the 'old'. And I never terrorise my students." The instructor adopted a wounded air.
"Ha!" Blade nodded in Jemma's direction and he looked round, saw her rigid posture, and rolled his eyes.
"At ease, Jacobs."
With a sigh of relief, Jemma assumed a more relaxed stance.
"Apart from attacking the wrong target -," (Jemma suppressed a groan), "- she did pretty well. Used my own neck lock on me." Blade raised an eyebrow at Mac. "You haven't taught her the counter move yet?"
"That comes later." He became thoughtful. "Since you're here, Ash, why don’t you take a class - these young pups could do with a word of advice from a seasoned veteran."
Yes, please, thought Jemma.
"Getting even for the 'old' crack, I see." Ash chewed her lip. "I dunno, Mac. Teaching isn't really my style."
"Well, a question and answer session then."
It was too much for Jemma's self control. "Oh yes please. You don’t know how much that would mean to the class. Mac... er, I mean Mr Macdonald... is always telling us about your missions... " She trailed off, once more grateful for the boot polish.
Mac and Blade exchanged amused glances. "Couldn't have put it better myself," said Mac. He looked at Blade. "Well?"
"Oh, all right then," groaned the tall woman. "Question and answer session it is."
Jemma started. Her Section Head had come to the end of his monologue and was looking expectantly at her.
"Er, no, Mr Remington." She tapped the pile of documents with a finger. "I'll get stuck in right away."
Ash frowned at the ramshackle warehouse beside the Los Cristianos docks. Hardly one of Tenerife's top ten tourist attractions! It looked like her instincts about Khaleb Abdusamad had been right.
Adriana waitressed during the day in one of Santa Cruz's many teraza coffee shops, so Ash had had plenty of free time on her hands and had spent yesterday and today tracking the terrorist. It hadn't taken much effort to find the pension where the Libyan was staying (under a pseudonym of course), and following his movements had been easy once she hired a car. The downside was, a need for anonymity had forced her to relinquish the Ferrari 360 Spider she coveted and hire something much more modest: a Fiat Ciquecento.
Abdusamad had explored the Santa Cruz docks to start with, then headed south to Los Cristianos. And whatever he was after, it looked like he had found it. He was inside the building now, sealing the deal with the owner.
A warehouse. Hmmm. Was the Libyan expecting a shipment of some kind? The airport at Reina Sofía was only 15 km east of here and several of the other islands were accessible by boat. What was the betting it was armaments? A return visit to the warehouse tonight would be in order.
She checked her wristwatch then slipped away, keeping to the shadows. She could be back in Santa Cruz in an hour and a half (in the Ferrari she could have been back in half that time) but it was easier to stay here. Adriana wouldn’t be pleased with her absence, of course, but Ash could think of worse places to spend the rest of the day. With their harbours, artificial beaches, spacious plazas, and relentlessly modern architecture that made sunglasses a must - the sun's reflection off acres of glass and concrete was dazzling - Tenerife's coastal resorts resembled one another. But Los Cristianos was one of the smaller and classier ones, and in parts had retained its fishing village atmosphere.
Ash was heading towards the market for something to eat, intending afterwards to do a spot of bikini watching on the town's sandy playa, when she realised that the scene ahead resembled a disturbed ant's nest. Dogs were barking and straining at their leashes, shopkeepers were cursing, and tourists were yelling in alarm.
The cause of the chaos wasn't hard to find. Zigzagging between the market stalls and kiosks was a curly-haired boy of about twelve, wearing a tattered T-shirt and jeans, and clutching something tightly to his chest. Hard on his heels waddled an old woman, her face furious, her massive bosom severely straining the material of her flower-print dress. Then came an assortment of men, with something of the old woman's beaky nose about them - her sons?
As she watched, one of the pursuers tried a flying tackle, but the boy leaped agilely out of reach, and the man crashed into a stall sending ripe red tomatoes, everywhere. The young thief turned briefly to thumb his nose, but kept on running. The fallen man roared with outrage and struggled to his feet, bringing down one of his companions in the process.
Ash suppressed a laugh. There was something about the boy's cockiness that reminded her of herself. It had got her into deep trouble, of course...
It was the London Evening News that had given her the idea - that grainy photo on the front page. The overweight American heiress flaunting her diamond necklace obviously had far too much money; it was only fair to relieve her of some of it.
That it was the Tower was an additional, irresistible challenge. Ash had never tried to break into that particular hotel before. Brown's, she done; the Ritz and Claridge's too - those emeralds had been the best haul so far. But not the Tower.
With her contacts it had been easy to get hold of the prestigious hotel's blueprints and wiring diagrams. And so far, breaking and entering had been a doddle. She'd climbed up the drainpipe of a nearby department store, then made her way over the rooftops, swinging hand over hand along the cables connecting one building to the next, then climbing catlike up to the spacious terrace that overlooked the London rooftops.
The trick was to get the right Penthouse - there were three on the seventh floor - but the newspaper had obligingly told her that the wealthy Mr and Mrs Mitch Spradlin were staying in the Windsor. According to the blueprints, it was the middle one of the three.
Each Penthouse comprised two bedrooms and two bathrooms but only one sitting room. And it was there that the wall safe was situated. A quick glance through a crack in the curtains of the Windsor's sitting room showed her it was empty. She smiled with satisfaction and pulled on her gloves.
The security system turned out to be one she was familiar with, easily disabled if you knew how... which Ash did. She unscrewed the casing and deftly re-routed a couple of wires. Then she turned her attention to the door that gave access from the terrace. Her picklocks had cost her the proceeds of her first burglary four years ago, but had since proved worth their weight in gold. She knelt beside the door and set to work. Seconds later, the lock clicked open, and she straightened and eased inside.
As she padded across the wooden floor and its expensive rugs, she became aware of a faint rhythmic sound. She stopped and listened, then realised it was loud snoring, coming from the bedroom.
Asleep. Hope they stay that way.
Ash pulled her penlight from her pocket. The little torch's brilliant beam revealed hefty furniture that would deliver a nasty bruise to the unwary shin, an original 1930s fireplace, and marble fixtures, but she focussed her attention on the walls. Literally dozens of framed pictures - contemporary oil paintings mostly - of all sizes and shapes, covered the sunflower yellow wallpaper.
Cursing under her breath, she considered each painting in turn. Too small. Too near the ceiling or the floor. Hmmm. Perhaps that one... The third painting was the one. Unlike the others, it was permanently fixed to the wall. She swung it open on its hinges, grinning at the little recessed wall-safe it revealed. A Jenson. She knew their secrets too.
Positioning the torch on a nearby bookcase, so it would illuminate her work area, she bent and pressed her ear to the safe's metal casing. Click... click... click. The sounds as she gently turned the dial were fainter than she liked. She pulled her stethoscope from the pocket of her leather jacket, tucked the earpieces in her ears, and placed its head against the metal casing. Much better.
It took her precisely three minutes to find the correct combination. When the last tumbler had clicked into place and released the lock, she turned the handle and swung the heavy door open. There, nestling on the second shelf, was a black velvet jewellery case. Eagerly, she grabbed it, released the catch, and flipped open the lid. Diamonds sparkled in the torchlight. She gazed appreciatively at the necklace she had last seen in the grainy newspaper photograph.
"I'll take those," came a man's voice from behind her, and simultaneously the sitting room lights came on. Shocked, she spun round, and when she had blinked her dazzled vision clear, found herself facing a burly man in a trenchcoat. Where the hell had he come from?
For a moment she considered making a break for it, but the two men standing behind Trenchcoat changed her mind - or rather the lethal looking automatic pistols they were pointing at her. Ash knew when she was beaten.
Trenchcoat held out his hand. Reluctantly, she released her grip on the black velvet case and let him take it.
"They're only paste, anyway." He tapped the case meaningfully then deposited it in one of his capacious pockets.
A trap! And she had walked right into it.
He gestured, and one of his colleagues stepped forward. She flinched when he began to frisk her, then relaxed as he kept it strictly professional. Most would have groped her. Were they police? Not with those pistols.
When he'd finished, and her picklocks, torch, and stethoscope lay in a pile at her feet, he stepped back. "She's clean."
"Good," said Trenchcoat
"Who are you?" She was pleased her voice didn't tremble.
"You won’t have heard of us, Miss Blade."
They knew her name too.
"But we've been watching you since the Claridge's job. For one so young - only twenty, aren't you? - you show a remarkable talent... for burglary."
She shrugged. "Not talented enough, apparently." So they knew about the emeralds. Why hadn't they arrested her?
"You got her then?" came a woman's voice.
Ash's head whipped round. The overweight heiress from the newspaper was standing in the doorway, wearing a hideous pink housecoat and slippers. What happened to her American accent? she wondered.
"Went like clockwork, Julia. Thank you very much for your assistance. We shan't need any further help from you or Martin."
The woman nodded complacently. "Splendid. We'll be glad to get back to Wapping. Good night then, Mr Weatherby."
So they weren't even real Americans? Wonderful. Julia vacated the doorway, presumably to rejoin her husband in the bedroom, and Ash became the centre of attention once more.
"We could use someone like you," said Weatherby, as though there had been no interruption.
She didn't like the sound of that. "We?"
"The Organisation I work for."
"Organised crime? No thanks!"
He smiled at her then, a wolfish grin that told her he held all the cards. Her heart sank.
"We're the 'good guys'. And I'm afraid you don’t have a choice, Miss Blade. It's either work for us, or spend the next few years behind bars watching the world go by."
She opened her mouth and closed it again. He moved over to the massive Chesterfield and sat down with a sigh of relief, and it dawned on her that the three men must have been hidden behind it, waiting for her. She could have kicked herself for her carelessness. She had been so sure of herself...
His patted the seat beside him. "Please. Join me."
Weatherby's two companions had assumed an air of relaxed alertness - blocking the way out to the terrace and the door Julia had disappeared through. Ash walked over to the leather settee and plopped down next to him.
She sighed heavily and he gave her an amused glance.
"Look at it this way. If you'd gone on the way you were, you'd have ended up behind bars for certain. This way, you get to travel the world, experience all the excitement you could possible want, do things that in other circumstances would be totally illegal. Now, does that sound so bad?"
Interested in spite of herself, Ash leaned forward. "Tell me more," she said.
And he had. But that had been 10 years ago, and Weatherby had since become Chief of the Organisation. Ash shook her head ruefully. Had she really been that green? Travel, excitement, illegal activities... right on all counts. He had skipped over the high death toll though. Weatherby had played her like the master manipulator he was.
He had been right on one other point, she conceded. The direction she was heading back then would have led her to an early grave or life behind bars... A fate which still awaited the young thief heading directly towards her. The curly-haired boy's pursuers were gaining on him. In a few minutes, they would have him.
Quickly, she scanned her surroundings. Behind her was a narrow archway; she peered through it. At first sight the alleyway was a dead end, blocked by an old-fashioned four-storey townhouse. Instinctively, she checked it for drainpipes and gutters... then realised there weren't any. She kicked herself mentally. Why would Canarians need them if they had hardly any rain? She pursed her lips and looked again. There were sturdy balconies brimming with pots of scarlet geraniums at each window - they would have to serve. The recklessness of the enterprise set her pulse racing and her heart pounding and she was sure she must be grinning like a maniac.
When the boy drew level with her, she was standing in the archway. "This way," she hissed at him. Startled brown eyes glanced her way, and she beckoned furiously. "Come on. They're gaining on you." Not waiting for his reaction, she turned and ran into the alleyway.
As she headed towards the fire escape, she became aware of footsteps behind her, and her grin widened. Good boy.
"Señorita," he panted. "There is no way out from here."
Not slackening her pace, she turned to grin at him. "There is, if you aren't afraid of heights."
His eyes widened, but he didn't say anything, merely tucked the small box in the waistband of his jeans. She took the steps leading to the front door, then leaped for the lowest balcony, using its railing to pull herself up. Balancing precariously on the narrow rail, she steadied herself against the wall then stretched to her full height. If she reached out, she could touch the balcony above. Good.
As she leaped upwards, one foot brushed against something solid, and moments later came the sound of a flowerpot shattering. She ignored it and consolidated her grip. Then, still hanging from the balcony, she twisted round to see how the boy was doing. Not well. He was considerably shorter than she was, and the distance between the balconies was too far for him. Shit!
She reached a hand down. "Here. Grab hold." He gave her a terrified look but obeyed, and with sheer brute strength she heaved him up beside her, hanging grimly on to him while he established his own grip - fortunately for her aching arm muscles, he didn't weigh very much.
"OK?" she asked. He blinked owlishly at her. "I'll take that as a yes."
There were two more levels of balconies to go, and by the time they reached the roof she had just about got the hang of it. One final heave and the boy was lying on the roof tiles next to her. "All right?"
"Si." His ashen face told a different story.
There were angry shouts of frustration coming from the alleyway below them now. Their pursuers weren't going to attempt to climb up the balconies after them, it seemed. But they couldn't rest on their laurels yet.
Ash grabbed the boy's arm and urged him up the gently sloping roof. Then they were at the apex and sliding down the other side. A sharp intake of breath told her he had seen the 30-foot drop awaiting them, but Ash ignored it, and, with the swiftness and sureness of a cat, leaped lightly across the gap to next roof. A thud alongside her told her the boy had followed suit, and she turned to reach out a steadying hand to him. He took it gratefully.
She lost track of how many roofs they traversed, how many gaps between buildings they leaped, or how much distance they covered. Eventually, though, she decided they had put enough distance between the boy and his pursuers and started looking for a way back down to street level. Once there, they simply rested for a few minutes, catching their breath.
The boy straightened and looked at her, then he turned on his heel and darted off down the deserted alley. . The flicker in his brown eyes had given him away though, and she was ready for him. She flipped over his head and landed in front of him, stopping him dead in his tracks. He gaped, then turned to run the other way. Once more she was ahead of him.
"Is this why you helped me, Señorita?" he growled. "You want this for yourself?" He pulled the shabby box from his jeans and held it out to her.
She glanced at it. If the exterior was anything to go by, the jewellery inside was cheap. "No."
He withdrew his hand and stared at her. His bafflement made her want to laugh. "Then what?"
"I want a promise from you."
He blinked. "A promise?" Calculation entered his eyes. "Why should I keep it?"
"Honour between thieves."
He laughed. "You aren't a thief."
"I was when I was your age."
Interest flickered behind the brown eyes. He pursed his lips. "What promise?"
"To return that -" she indicated the box, "- to its rightful owner. You don't have to give it to her in person, just leave it somewhere she'll find it."
He was outraged at that. "Why should I?"
She shrugged. "Because that's my price for saving your hide."
"You didn't save...." His voice trailed off at her challenging glare. "OK, you did, but..."
"Or I could return it for you." She held out a hand, making him clutch the box tightly.
"But I need it more than she does."
"That's not the point. Suppose those jewels are all she has to remind her of someone she loved?" Just as all I have to remind me of Sam are those hideous earrings he gave me for my birthday.
"That fat old cow never loved anyone except herself."
She blinked. "Your English is amazingly good, you know."
The compliment made his ears turn red and he became momentarily tongue-tied.
"So," she continued. "Will you promise me you'll return what you stole?"
"If it's just the money you were after.... Here." She pulled a wad of pesetas from her pocket and tossed it at him. His eyebrows shot up but he snatched the pesetas from the air then stooped and retrieved an errant note from the ground. "Why are you doing this, Señorita?" He stuffed the notes in his jean pocket.
"Because ten years ago, someone gave me the chance to go straight. And I took it and never looked back." She shrugged. "Now I'm giving you that same chance."
Suddenly he looked like the vulnerable boy he really was. His mouth twisted and he muttered for a while then he gave a loud sigh. "OK. I promise."
He peered at her from under long lashes. "That's it?"
Ash nodded. She could see he thought she was either naïve or crazy. And tomorrow he would probably go back to his thieving ways. But it was a start. And just maybe it would make him rethink, and one day...
"I can go now?"
She nodded again.
He smiled then, and it was like the sun coming our from behind rain clouds. "My name is Vito."
"Pleased to meet you, Vito." She held out a hand and shook his smaller one carefully. "My name is Blade. Ashley Blade." She returned his smile.
He batted long eyelashes at her. "I like my women older."
She laughed out loud. "Sorry, Vito. You're too young for me. And anyway," she said frankly, "I prefer girls."
It took him a few moments to recover his composure. "I have never met anyone like you before," he admitted finally, smiling ruefully. "It has been -" he gave her a dignified little bow, "an experience."
"I will keep my promise about the box," he told her seriously.
She nodded just as seriously. "I know."
He regarded her thoughtfully for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision. "I have many contacts in the islands. If you should need my help while you are here, you have only to ask."
His offer touched her. "Thank you, Vito. I'll remember that."
Then his gaze went over her shoulder and his eyes widened. "Look out!"
Shit! Ash glanced over her shoulder, but, of course, no one was there. When she turned back, she was just in time to see Vito's backside disappearing round the end of the alleyway. Why, you little...
His laughter floated back to her on the afternoon breeze.
Loud voices jarred Jemma back to her surroundings. She had been daydreaming, she realised guiltily... again... but after a week reading manuals, it was understandable.
The male voices were coming from the corridor outside the poky little office she shared with another junior Security agent. She pushed the tedious Procedures manual away and stood up. Then she stuck her head out the door.
Two men were having a slanging match - Remington and someone she didn't recognise, a stocky man with a bushy moustache.
"That's Bill Thompson," came a voice in her ear. Jonathan Byatt, the agent who shared her office, had returned from his jaunt to the coffee machine. "Counter Intelligence."
Ah. Blade's boss.
Thompson stabbed an angry forefinger at Remington. "I know her. She wouldn't do this. Your informant must be wrong."
"There's always that possibility." Remington seemed to be relishing this confrontation with his fellow Section Head. "But until we know for certain, I'm taking no chances."
Jemma turned to Jonathan. "Who are they talking about?"
He raised an eyebrow. "Ashley Blade, of course."
"They think she's been 'turned'. Tip-off came in early this morning. From someone in Tenerife."
"If we pulled in every agent for interrogation whenever we received a anonymous tip-off, we'd have no one left in the field," shouted a red-faced Thompson. "You need more evidence than that!"
"And we'll get it. Don't worry on that score. My staff follow procedures to the letter."
The Counter Intelligence man growled deep in his throat. "Enough of this crap. Weatherby will soon put an end-"
"The Chief has already approved my decision."
Thompson looked thunderstruck. "He has?"
"Unlike you," said Remington smugly, "he didn't let his fondness for that woman blind him to reality. If there's even the slightest chance our security has been compromised..." He shrugged.
Thompson stepped back, his face suddenly pale. "Well." His jaw worked. "I'll be watching you like a hawk," he said simply. "And if you're wrong about her..." He walked away, leaving the unspoken threat hanging in mid-air.
Remington turned and spotted the two eavesdroppers. He beckoned. "Come with me."
"Uh oh," said Jonathan.
The two of them followed their boss along the corridor to his office, and waited patiently while he rooted around in a filing cabinet and found what he was looking for: a manilla folder. He sat down and leaned his elbows on the desk then fixed them with a keen gaze.
"Counter Intelligence agent Ashley Blade is now a security risk," he said briskly. "All our codes and passwords must be changed."
He looked at Jonathan. "Pargeter's expecting you, Mr Byatt. Getting the new codes to all our field operatives is a massive undertaking. I told him you'll help."
Jonathan groaned under his breath but forced a smile. "I'm on it, Mr Remington." A last glance at Jemma, then he disappeared out the door.
"As for you, Miss Jacobs." Her boss handed her the folder. "You'll need this."
Jemma glanced at the label. 'Blade, Ashley'.
"Get over to Blade's flat -"
Her heart sank. Was she to be the one charged with locating her idol's feet of clay?
"- and search it from top to bottom. There's a duplicate set of her keys in there."
"Yes, Mr Remington."
"If you find anything even remotely not squeaky clean, I want to know about it. Is that clear?"
"Very," she said quietly.
"Then do the same for Blade's finances. If the bank managers need authorisation, refer them to me."
"And remember - you report directly to me and no one else, Miss Jacobs. If Blade's Section Head should approach you, refer him to me. Got it?"
"Got it." And I really wish I hadn't.
Car parking space was at a premium all around Regent's Park, so Jemma found a vacant meter as close as she could get then jogged the rest of the way to Blade's Albert Terrace flat. The fingerprint boys, when they got there, were going to have problems parking too.
She started up the steps to the front door and eyed the three formidable double locks that secured the agent's first floor flat against the world. It would have taken her at least half an hour to pick them; using the spare set of keys Remington had provided, she was inside in only moments and taking in her surroundings with keen interest.
From the outside, the terrace buildings were Georgian, but Blade had gutted and remodelled the interior of her flat so that it was bang up to date. Jemma's first impression was one of spaciousness and light. She stepped from the hall into the sitting room. The three-piece suite was practical, stylish and comfortable - no mean feat that. As for the state-of-the-art entertainment centre, it had the largest TV screen and speakers Jemma had seen outside of a cinema. She peered at the well-stocked drinks cabinet - Blade clearly knew and liked her spirits.
The doorbell chimed and Jemma went to answer it. Two men in identical trenchcoats stood there.
"Sorry we're late," said the older one, a balding man carrying a bulky attaché case. "Couldn’t find anywhere to park." He flashed his ID card.
She stood back and let the fingerprint boys in, then watched them deposit the heavy case on the wine-coloured carpet, open it, and take out the tools of their trade.
While they worked, dusting fine powder over every surface before examining it for prints, she wandered past the worn exercise mat, battered punchbag, and dumbbells Blade kept at the far end of the living room through to what turned out to be a bedroom. A huge bed dominated the room. She sat on the edge of it and bounced experimentally.
"Miss Jacobs?" The younger man was peering round the door at her, and she stood up quickly, her cheeks flushing.
"We've finished in here if you want to get started."
"That was quick! Thanks."
She followed him back to the sitting room where she pulled on a pair of latex gloves and set to work.
The phone now sported a fine residue of powder. "Did you find any prints?" she asked, as she dialled 1471 and noted down the number of the last caller.
"Some good ones on the door, light switch, a bottle of Cognac... oh, and one of the dumbbells," said the balding man. "We should have eliminated those belonging to Blade and tried for a match on the others by the time you get back to HQ."
While the two men turned their attention to the other rooms, Jemma pressed the Redial button and noted who Blade had last telephoned, then she extracted and bagged the answerphone tape which contained a single, rather cryptic message.
A search of the bookcase revealed a taste for Travel Guides and Thrillers. Jemma riffled the pages of each, but there was nothing between the pages except a couple of amusing bookmarks. The CD collection was mostly World music - African and Brazilian seemed to be Blade's favourites. Again, nothing hidden. She turned to the stack of DVDs and videos. Several were of the erotic lesbian variety and Jemma was interestedly scanning the blurb on the back of one when the fingerprinters reappeared. She flushed and hurriedly put down the video tape.
The balding man nodded then grinned at her. "She keeps some interesting items in her bedside cabinet."
Jemma blinked. "Does she?"
"Yes." He sobered. "These were in there too." His latex-gloved hand held out a black velvet jewel case, and she accepted it gingerly. "Could be paste of course," he continued. "Or there might be a legitimate explanation, but... well, thought you might like to get these checked out, Miss Jacobs."
She opened the box and gaped at the bracelet nestling on its cushion of pale blue silk. Gemstones sparkled a brilliant green in the morning sunlight. Uh oh!
"Thanks," she said, keeping her voice neutral. She pulled out an evidence bag from her pocket and popped the jewel case in it then sealed it.
"You're welcome. Right, we'll be out of your hair, then." The balding man turned to his subordinate. "Come on, Jim. If we hurry, we might just avoid getting a parking ticket." They headed for the door...
When she was alone once more, Jemma began a methodical, inch by inch search of the rest of the flat and Blade's possessions. There were few things of a personal nature, she noticed - none of the family photographs of her parents and younger sister that littered her own little flat's tables and shelves. But then, from what she'd heard of Blade (the agent's name had come up a lot during her year of training - if only because Jemma frequently initiated such conversations herself) her upbringing had hardly been conventional.
What photos there were showed Blade and a handsome young man with a wide smile and blonde fringe flopping in his eyes. He was vaguely familiar, but Jemma couldn't put a name to him. Photo after photo featured the pair of them: Blade and friend, arms round one another's shoulders, wearing shit-eating grins and standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Coliseum, the Taj Mahal... Jemma made a note to find out who the man was.
Luckily for Jemma, a folder containing annotated financial statements and tax records proved worth its weight in gold. A quick call to the managers of the relevant banks and building societies set in motion procedures that would give her access to their computerised records. Soon, all Blade's recent monetary transactions would be available for to her scrutiny. In the meantime...
She moved back into the bedroom. The six-foot tall agent's favourite clothes turned out to be T-shirts and sweatshirts, ripped blue jeans and chinos, and for shoes she favoured sneakers and boots. There were also a couple of smart skirtsuits hanging in the built-in wardrobe, presumably for more formal occasions, and a low-backed red dress that must look stunning.
The bedside cabinet was next, and Jemma's cheeks flamed when she opened the top drawer and saw what the fingerprint man had been referring to. It was full of sex 'toys', several of which still bore traces of fingerprint powder. She winced and closed the drawer quickly. Why on earth had the emeralds been kept in there? Maybe they were a gift from one of Blade's women? (The file had revealed she led a very active love life.) She sighed and turned her attention to the study and computer.
Blade had a penchant for shoot-'em-up video games, she discovered after half-an-hour's intent scrutiny that left her with eyestrain, and hadn't used the computer for much else. But then, she was rarely here, and when she was in residence - if those videos and the contents of that drawer were any indication - Blade had more pleasurable things to do.
Jemma massaged the bridge of her nose, then switched off the PC. The bank records should have been authorised and transferred by now. It was time to go back to HQ and see exactly what she had got.
"Over to you, Miss Jacobs." Remington gestured in her direction then sat down.
Nervously, Jemma took her boss's place at the front of the briefing room. Her laptop lay open on the table in front of her, a cable connecting it to the wallscreen behind her. At a keystroke, the slideshow she had prepared for this briefing session would get underway.
She straightened her jacket, then cleared her throat. It was one thing revealing her findings to her boss, another presenting them to the Section Head of Counter Intelligence. "To summarise -," she began.
The door opened and Weatherby himself came in. "Don't mind me," said the Organisation Chief, taking a chair at the back.
It just gets better and better. "Er... um... This morning, I ran a security check on Ashley Blade's flat in Albert Terrace. At my request, Fingerprint Section dusted the place for prints first."
She checked to see she had everyone's attention. She did.
"In the top drawer of Blade's bedside cabinet," she continued, refusing to blush at the memory of what else had been in the drawer, "we found a bracelet." A keystroke and the item in question was displayed in all its glory on the wallscreen.
"Emeralds... high quality stones. Reputedly worth £10,000." Someone in the room inhaled sharply. "Four days ago," she continued, "a Belgian couple staying at the Georges V Hotel in Paris reported this bracelet missing. Subsequent investigation revealed no trace, so Interpol posted the bracelet on its website of missing valuables." She paused and glanced at her audience. Remington was relishing the presentation, but Thompson looked stricken.
"It's no secret," she said reluctantly, "that before she joined the Organisation, Blade was a very successful cat burglar, or that her gemstones of choice were emeralds."
"You said Paris," said Thompson, brightening. "She was in the Canary Islands then, on leave."
Sorry. Another keystroke and the picture changed to reveal a list of names and numbers. "Passenger manifest, Flight 204, Tenerife to Paris, four days ago," said Jemma. "Note the name of the passenger in seat 30A."
He stared. "For God's sake! If she were going to commit a burglary, would she fly under her own name?"
Jemma had made the same point to Remington earlier. Now she restrained herself to a shrug. "I'm just presenting the facts, Mr Thompson. They are circumstantial, it's true. But taken as a whole..."
She pressed another key on the laptop. This time a man's voice filled the room. "Garvey here. Good news. I have a buyer for that item you recently acquired. Contact me when you get back."
"This message was left on Blade's answering machine. We traced the caller. Garvey," she said neutrally, "is Mike Garvey, a well-known fence. He specialises in 'relocating' stolen jewellery."
"Anyone could ring up and leave a message," objected Thompson.
Jemma risked a glance at Weatherby, but the Chief's expression was unreadable. "True," she said. "Moving on."
She pressed a key and turned to point at the whorled pattern now showing on the wallscreen. "I told you I had the place dusted for fingerprints first. We found one significant thumbprint... on a bottle of Cognac. It belongs to a Libyan terrorist named Minyar al-Akhdar." Bill Thompson opened his mouth. "There's more," she said, before he could speak.
He subsided and said grudgingly, "Go on."
She pressed another key on her laptop and the picture changed. This time is was a list of financial transactions.
"Blade's bank account. Note this deposit here -" she pointed, "and here- " she pointed again. "During the past few days, substantial deposits totalling £100,000 have been made into her personal account. The source in every case was a Swiss bank account. We're not 100% certain, but we're pretty sure its owner is a front for a Libyan terrorist organisation to which al-Akhdar belongs."
Thompson looked stunned. "You think she's been bought? No way! There must be some other explanation for this."
If only there were. Jemma pressed a key, and up came a grainy photo, clearly taken using a telephoto lens. At a Canary Island teraza table, drinking coffee with a curvaceous blonde, sat a tanned and relaxed-looking Blade. The photographer had caught her in mid-conversation, her head turned to address an olive skinned man standing next to her.
"This came in half an hour ago. The man she is talking to is Minyar al-Akhdar."
There was a moment of stunned silence. "Blade has never met him, why should she know who he is?" objected Thompson at last.
"Nevertheless," continued Jemma doggedly. Why do I have to be the one condemning her?
"Now look at this." The list of financial transactions reappeared. She pointed to one in particular - this time money was flowing out of Blade's account. "That item there is the payment Blade made for the casa where she is staying in Santa Cruz de Tenerife. She started off renting it, but three days ago she bought it outright. As you can see, it wasn't cheap."
"You're implying she knew about the £100,000 and decided to spend some of it?" Thompson agitatedly stroked his moustache. "Are you sure?"
Jemma leaned forward and pressed another key. Up flashed a slide of the casa's title deeds, and there for all to see was the flamboyant scrawl that passed for Blade's signature.
At that, Weatherby grunted and stood up. "I've seen enough. Thank you, Miss Jacobs. You've been very thorough." He turned to regard a sick-looking Thompson and raised an eyebrow in query. The Section Head nodded reluctantly.
"It's circumstantial, but enough to raise a questionmark about Blade's loyalty," he agreed. "Especially given her state of mind."
Everyone knew that Blade's colleague and close friend, Sam Carney, had been killed on her last mission. And that she had taken it hard. Sam, Jemma had been unsurprised to learn, was the smiling blond man in the photos in Blade's flat.
"Clearly, she's gone off the rails and reverted to her criminal ways," said Remington, too eagerly for Jemma's taste. "And if she blames the Organisation for Carney's death, selling us out to the Libyans is a distinct possibility."
"Quite." Weatherby stared at the Security Section Head for a long moment then sighed and shook his head. "Bring her in for questioning, Remington. Let's get to the bottom of this mess, for once and for all. It's affecting morale."
"Already in hand, Chief. I've chartered a plane. Miss Jacobs and I are flying out to the Canary Islands tonight."
We are? I'd better go home and pack.
Weatherby turned to go, but paused by the briefing room exit. "If Blade's clean, we need to know it and get her back out in the field pronto. If she isn’t... " He paused significantly. "Try not to damage her until you're sure."
Remington nodded happily. "Leave it to me."
Khaleb Abdusamad had disappeared. Just like that.
Ash ground her teeth together in frustration. Yesterday the Libyan with the hooded eyes had toured the whole island, visiting all the beauty spots listed in the Tenerife guidebook and more besides, until she had begun to wonder if he was just sightseeing. She had hung on grimly, dogging him like his own shadow, and seen him safely back to his pension for the night. And now he was gone, had apparently checked out early leaving no forwarding address, according to the pension's landlady.
She had returned to the casa feeling distinctly out of sorts. Abdusamad had spotted her, she was sure of it. But when? Before he led her to the warehouse in Los Cristianos? She didn't think so. Her search of it had revealed nothing earthshattering - just an empty cargo bay assigned to him, according to the documents in the warehouse manager's messy office. The Libyan was awaiting a shipment of some kind, she'd stake her reputation on it. But she was still no further forward in knowing what it was. And now -
"Peseta for your thoughts, English."
She jerked round to find Adriana regarding her curiously. "A headache," she temporised. It was not strictly speaking a lie. If Abdusamad was up to something and had gone to ground, it could turn into a major headache. Perhaps Ramirez would know something she didn't.
"Poor baby." The blonde tried to ruffle Ash's hair, and the agent ducked the reaching hand.
Adriana's tlc, a welcome novelty at first, was beginning to get on her nerves. Sam had always accused her of having a short attention span. Perhaps he was right. "Shouldn't you be at the café?" she growled.
The blonde frowned. "A few more minutes, English."
"Only... I have something I need to do."
"Very well," said Adriana curtly. "If you wish me to go, then I will go." She turned and flounced towards the door.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean..." Ash's voice trailed off as the front door slammed. Oh, yes I did, she thought ruefully. As the clipclop of the blonde woman's highheels faded into the distance, she sighed and reached for her mobile phone.
The receiver at the other end was picked up quickly. "Si?" She recognised Ramirez's voice.
"This is Blade. Scramble." She tapped the digits that would activate the scrambler and waited for the resulting white noise to disappear. It didn't. Shit! She cancelled the call and then redialled.
"This is Blade again -"
"Señorita Blade," interrupted Ramirez urgently. "There is a fault with your phone."
"Fault?" She paused, abruptly remembering that 'fault' was the code for a security breach. So that was why her scrambler wasn't working? They'd changed all the codes?
"I see." She paused, her mind working out the ramifications. She couldn't ask the field officer about Abdusamad over an unsecured line. "Then how do I go about getting my phone repaired?"
"Bring it in," came the reply. "You know the address?"
The Field Office was on the west side of Santa Cruz, on the Calle Salamanca, if she remembered rightly. "Sure. No problem. I'll come in right away." And while he was giving her the new codes she could ask in person about the missing Libyan.
"We'll be expecting you."
The Organisation's Tenerife Field Office was, on the face of it, indistinguishable from its neighbours. That the building's front door and windows were bomb- and bullet-proof wasn't obvious.
Ash tried not to blink as she gazed up into the security camera, then spoke her name into the intercom. It took several seconds for the automated security system to search its records for her voiceprint and retinal scan, then the lock on the front door clicked open.
She pushed open the heavy door and stepped into the hall. From a room on the left came the sound of a keyboard clattering. She headed towards it.
A homely, middle-aged woman in a blue cotton dress looked up from her computer, then removed her earphones and smiled. "Go on in, Señorita." She gestured towards another door. "Señor Ramirez is expecting you." The receptionist placed her headset on the desk and stood up. "I will make you some coffee."
"No need." Ash headed towards the other office.
"It's no trouble."
She walked through the door, then checked, startled. There were three people in the little office, and one she recognised at once.
"Remington." She viewed the pinstripe-suited Security Section Head with distaste.
"Bit out of your way, aren't you? What are you doing in Tenerife?"
He gestured at the blonde woman in the jeans and T-shirt, who seemed for some reason to be vaguely familiar. "Delivering the new codes and passwords in person. And in the process, showing my new operative, Miss Jacobs, the ropes."
Obligingly Ash took the empty seat that the man in the white short-sleeved shirt, presumably Ramirez, was gesturing her towards. "Is that usual?" She tried to remember where she had met the young blonde before.
Remington shrugged. "This isn't a very usual situation."
"No." Ash smiled up at the receptionist who had brought in her coffee and was now placing the cup carefully on the desk next to her. She turned back to regard Remington. "Care to fill me in on exactly what's happened?"
"As you've no doubt guessed, there's been a major security breach."
"Anyone I know?" She picked up the coffee and took a sip. Ugh! She would have to warn the Spanish woman that her milk had turned.
"In a manner of speaking." His eyes glittered.
Ash refused to rise to his cryptic comment. He would tell her in the end, wouldn't be able to resist showing off how clever he was. Instead, she turned to eye the attractive Miss Jacobs (why did Remington always refuse to use Christian names?), whose shadowed green gaze had been fixed on her since she entered the room. Aha! "Mac's training school. Last year. Jemma, isn't it?"
The blonde blushed. "That's right."
Jemma seemed unable to hold her gaze without discomfort, and Ash frowned, wondering what that was about. But her thought processes felt uncharacteristically sluggish so she gave a mental shrug and turned her attention to Ramirez, who had come to stand beside her and was holding out his hand.
"The phone," he prompted. "If I'm to get the new codes put in it?"
It was a moment before his meaning penetrated. Ash took a breath to clear her muzzy head. "Oh, yes." Clumsily she unzipped her bumbag, delved inside, then pulled out her mobile phone... and promptly dropped it. She blinked at it stupidly.
Something's not right!
Ash lurched to her feet, reaching inside her jacket for her shoulder holster as she did so. But her hand wouldn’t obey her; it took two attempts for her to grasp the gun, and then her grip wasn't firm enough to prevent Ramirez from twisting the Browning automatic free.
She glared at him, then at the other two spectators, now also on their feet. "What have you done to me?" she slurred.
A clumsy but effective punch to Ramirez's solar plexus gave him something to think about, then Ash was staggering towards the door. A hand on her elbow made her spin round, and the movement overbalanced her. She crashed into a chair before hitting the wall and blinked in pain and confusion.
"I'm sorry," said the blonde woman who had grabbed her. "But we had no choice." Her face was anguished. Behind her, Remington's face wore a triumphant smile.
As Ash slid inelegantly down the wall, darkness crept round the edges of her vision. They thought she was the one who had breached security, she realised. "No!" she said, but the sound that emerged was a whisper. "You're wrong."
Her lips were feeling puffy, her tongue numb. Whatever they had put in her coffee, it was powerful and worked damned fast.
Strong hands gripped her by the biceps and straightened her until she was propped more comfortably against the wall. Then someone brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes - it was Jemma, she saw. She was kneeling next to Ash, saying something, but the roaring in Ash's ears made her words inaudible.
"Not m-" croaked Ash. Then blackness overtook her.
Ash woke to the headache from hell and a mouth like the Gobi desert.
God! I must have really tied one on last night. She tried to rub the grit away from bleary eyes... and found she couldn't move her hands. What the -?
She twisted awkwardly - something round her neck was restricting her movements. Her wrists were strapped down. Her ankles too. She tested her bonds and found no give in them at all.
Groggily she stared at unfamiliar surroundings. The shuttered windows didn't belong to her casa's bedroom, and that trolley full of wires and gauges and other equipment (it looked like a polygraph) certainly wasn't hers. As for the unyielding surface beneath her... Definitely not my bed, she thought with some trepidation. More like an operating table.
Memory returned. Remington.
The creak of a door opening followed by light footsteps made her tense up. Then the blonde woman in the jeans and T-shirt - Jemma Jacobs, wasn't it? - walked into view. She put a tray, a clipboard, and a folder down on a chair, then turned to face Ash.
"Here." Jemma held out a plastic cup, and positioned the straw poking out of its top against Ash's mouth.
Ash had the devil's own thirst, but she pressed her lips together.
"It's just water."
Still she was reluctant to drink. They had drugged her once already, and she was damned if they were going to do it to her again.
As though divining her thoughts, the blonde put the straw to her own lips, and sucked. Ash watched closely. If the blonde was pretending to swallow, she was a damned good actress.
This time, when the straw was offered, she accepted it and sucked it greedily, feeling the cool water slide down her gullet, revitalising and refreshing as it went. Her headache eased almost at once.
Rude sucking noises signalled the cup was empty, and she released the straw. "Thanks."
The blonde nodded and placed the empty cup on a tabletop. Ash took the opportunity to observe the other woman. Still the same compact, muscular figure, though the hair was cut a little shorter than she remembered. Jemma turned and flushed a little at her scrutiny.
"You always seem to be ambushing me," said Ash dryly. "Why is that?" She flexed her arms and legs again, then winced - the bonds were tight enough to cut.
"Don’t." The blonde patted Ash's right leg. "They've got a 200lb breaking strain. You'll only hurt yourself."
"Remington's taking no chances, I see. Didn't know the bastard had it in him. Was drugging me his idea too?"
"No," admitted the blonde. "That was my contribution. My instructions were to find a way to bring you in for questioning without hurting you."
Ash stared at her young nemesis. "Might've guessed," she muttered. "So, what am I supposed to have done this time?"
Green eyes regarded her gravely. "Gone over to the enemy."
Ash snorted. "What crap!"
The door creaked open and heavy footsteps approached. She could sense someone standing just behind the bed, and she twisted to look then gave up, panting. The blonde's reaction told her who it must be. "You're barking up the wrong tree, Remington."
"We'll see, won't we?" His tone was smug and as he moved into her field of vision she saw he was smirking. Damn him!
"Miss Jacobs." He turned towards his subordinate. "Will you do the honours please?" He gestured at the trolley and its hi-tech cargo. Obligingly, Jacob wheeled the trolley over next to Ash then plugged in the machines and began to attach a number of wires and electrodes to her.
"Let me guess," Ash joked. "Electric shock treatment?"
"Polygraph test," said Jemma.
"Fucking waste of time!"
Remington sucked in his breath. "Now, now! Language."
When Jemma started attaching metal plates to the index and ring fingers of Ash's right hand, she didn't resist. She'd thought about putting up a fight, then decided against it. A polygraph test wouldn't hurt, and more importantly it would show she was innocent and then she could be on her way.
The blonde gave her a smile of thanks for her co-operation before threading two pneumograph tubes around Ash's upper chest and abdomen. Finally, she inflated a blood pressure cuff round the captive agent's upper arm and stood back.
Remington, meanwhile, had positioned himself by the polygraph itself, and already, the print head was moving up and down, inscribing the unscrolling paper with a jagged line of black ink.
"All set," he pronounced.
"Finally," muttered Ash under her breath, attracting an amused glance from Jemma, who pulled up a chair next to the interrogation table then reached for the clipboard she had brought in earlier. No doubt Remington had left his subordinate to come up with the questions too.
Jemma cleared her throat. "Is your name Ashley Blade?"
As good a calibration question as any. "Yes."
The print head scribbled furiously and Remington annotated the entry.
"Do you own a flat in Albert Terrace, London?"
"Are you a seventy-year-old male American?"
"Do you like Marmite?"
The blonde's lips curved in a small smile and Ash regarded her approvingly. So, you've done your homework. "No."
"Thank you." Jemma looked at Remington then. "Is everything working OK?"
"Yes," came his reply. "Continue, please, Miss Jacobs."
She nodded and looked at her clipboard again. "Is the name Khaleb Abdusamad known to you?"
So this is about the Libyan. "Yes."
"Have you ever met him?"
"Have you ever seen him?"
"Is the name Minyar al-Akhdar known to you."
Ash had to think about that one for a moment. She had a vague suspicion she'd heard the name before. "Yes."
"Have you ever met him?"
"Have you ever seen him?"
The smile on Remington's face gave Ash a nasty feeling. When Jemma reached for a folder, extracted a photograph and showed it to her, the feeling intensified.
"Is that you sitting in the coffee shop?"
"Yes." The photo was quite a flattering one of Adriana, she noted.
"Do you know that man?" Jemma pointed to the tourist who had interrupted their conversation to ask for directions.
Remington snorted in disbelief
"I don’t," protested Ash. "He just wanted to know the way to the museum."
"Please," chided Jemma. "Stick to Yes or No....That man is Minyar al-Akhdar."
"And who the hell is he when he's at home?"
"We'll ask the questions," said Remington.
Ash tried not to grind her teeth.
"Has Minyar al-Akhdar ever been to your flat in London?"
"Has he ever sent you a bottle of Cognac?"
What is she talking about? "No."
"The casa you are staying in," continued Jemma, her voice neutral. "Do you own it?"
Ash blinked at the apparent change of subject. "No."
That answer prompted another opening of the folder and Ash found herself staring at the title deeds to the casa, her signature prominent on the dotted line at the very bottom.
"Is that your signature?"
"It looks like it but it isn't."
"Yes or No."
Ash growled. "Look, I can't... it's not that simple."
Jemma pursed her lips for a moment. "I'll rephrase the question. Did you sign this title deed?"
"No... Besides-" Blade laughed, "- what makes you think I can afford that kind of cash?" She nodded at the sale price mentioned in the document, only to find herself brought up short by the restraint around her neck. "Argh!" The confinement was beginning to get to her and the urge to free herself momentarily got the better of her. She subsided, panting. "Can't you let me up? Please?"
Jemma had shot to her feet when Ash began to struggle. Now she relaxed back into her seat again. "I'm sorry." The green gaze was sympathetic but unyielding.
"Whatever," sighed Ash. She sucked in a deep breath and exhaled slowly through her nose, repeating the exercise several times until she was calm once more.
"OK?" asked Jemma.
She nodded wearily.
"You asked what makes us think you can afford to buy the casa."
It wasn't a question so Ash said nothing.
"Are you aware that £100,000 was paid into your current account a few days ago?"
Ash blinked. "No!" Her mind reeled at the implications.
"It came from a Swiss Bank Account." Jemma showed her a photocopy of a bank statement and pointed to the details. "Do you know whose account that is?"
"Have you ever received money from a Libyan terrorist organisation?"
"No...." The situation unfolding before her was making her nauseous, or maybe it was an after-effect of the drugs. "Look," she began urgently, "I don’t know what the hell's going on, but someone's clearly out to undermine my credibility with the Organisation. I must have stumbled onto something, what we have to do is -"
"We have to do nothing, Blade," interrupted Remington, his face flushing red. "You have to answer our questions."
"So do it, or I'll get the answers out of you another way." He nodded impatiently at Jemma, who had been following their conversation like a spectator at a tennis match.
"Right." The blonde looked at her clipboard again.
Piece by piece, the evidence was laid out for Ash's inspection. The emeralds in her flat and the implication that her shock over Sam's death had driven her back to her catburgling ways was a particularly deft touch, she thought wryly, once her anger had waned. After all, a criminal would think nothing of taking money from the Libyans, right?
While Jemma asked question after question, and Remington annotated the hardcopy charts spooling endlessly out of the polygraph, her mind was ranging back over the places she had been and the people she had met since she came to the Canary Islands.
She had got too close to something or someone. But what or who?
"Are you working for the Libyans?" asked Jemma.
"Are you thinking of leaving The Organisation?"
The question made Ash hesitate. This abduction and interrogation had soured her against Security, but as for the rest of the Organisation, for Thompson and Weatherby... "No," she said at last.
The blonde put down her clipboard, stretched - drawing a pang of envy from Ash - and finally leaned back in her chair. "That was my final question, Mr Remington."
"Well done, Miss Jacobs." He switched off the polygraph and stood up. Then he began to gather up the charts.
"Thank God that's over," said Ash, as Jemma began to detach the tubes and plates and unwrap the bloodpressure cuff. "Can you release me now?"
"Now we have to analyse the results of the test," said Remington.
With a ripping noise, the cuff came free. Jemma placed it with the rest of the equipment and wheeled the trolley back to its position by the wall.
"But-" Ash struggled against her bonds. "This is ridiculous!"
"No more ridiculous than the blind faith certain people have placed in you for far too long, Blade." He turned to Jemma then and beckoned to her. "Come with me, Miss Jacobs."
He stalked towards the door, moving out of Ash's sightline not a moment too soon as far as she was concerned. Jemma threw her an apologetic glance then followed her boss.
Ash heard the creak of the door opening. "The sooner we analyse the results," came Remington's voice as he walked through it, "the sooner we can get Blade back where she belongs... behind bars."
"But according to the algorithm, she's telling the truth."
Jemma had just spent the past hour slogging through the polygraph charts and the rules for interpreting them and she was exhausted. That Remington disagreed with her interpretation was infuriating.
"That means nothing, Miss Jacobs." Remington's look of saintly patience made Jemma want to scream. "For an agent like Blade, it would be child's play to subvert the test readings."
'Child's play'? She frowned. Mac had covered polygraphs on the training course and told them just how difficult it was to subvert the test. Oh, it could be done - pain could alter physiological responses, and on one occasion, a well placed drawing pin in an agent's sock had allowed him to mislead the calibration questions - but she was sure Blade had played fair.
How to convince her boss he was wrong, though? He claimed Bill Thompson was prejudiced in Blade's favour, yet couldn't see that he himself was just as prejudiced against her. She bit her lip. What exactly had Blade done to antagonise him so severely?
Remington drummed his fingers on the desk, and looked thoughtful. "Nothing for it," he said. "We'll just have to try the new truth drug. I'll contact the Lab, get the research boys to fly out a batch of Project X."
Jemma gaped at him. "But surely that drug's still in its experimental stages?"
He flapped a hand dismissively. "Technically, yes. But I saw a report last week, and they've ironed out the last of the glitches. Certification's just a formality."
"There's a neutralising agent?"
"Yes, yes." His faraway gaze refocused on her. "Don’t worry, Miss Jacobs. It'll be perfectly safe." His thin smile changed to one of deep satisfaction. "And even Blade shouldn't be able to outwit that."
He was actually whistling when he went through to the other office to ask Ramirez to send a coded transmission to London. For a moment, Jemma stood undecided, then she walked back upstairs to the bedroom they were using for Blade's interrogation.
As she pushed open the door, the lean-limbed figure strapped to the interrogation table tried to twist round to see who had come in, then gave up with a curse.
"It's me," called Jemma softly, walking into Blade's field of vision.
The dark-haired woman regarded her coolly for a moment, then raised a sardonic eyebrow. "From your expression, I take it the news isn't good?"
"Well, you passed the polygraph test."
"But Remington refuses to believe it. He thinks you rigged it somehow."
"What an arsehole! What am I, superwoman?"
Jemma suppressed a grin. "So," she took a breath before continuing, "he's going to try the Lab's new truth drug on you."
Ash blinked at her. "Project X... It's finished, then?"
"Ah." Ash laughed but there was no humour in it. Abruptly, she struggled to free herself, whipping so violently against her restraints that for a moment Jemma thought she was actually going to break the leather straps. The skin of Ash's wrist broke first under the punishment and blood began to seep from the graze.
"Please don’t," said Jemma. "You're hurting yourself."
But Ash had already subsided. Still panting from the struggle, she turned her ice-blue gaze on Jemma. "There's something going on, Jemma. Something important involving the Libyans. I don’t know what it is yet but it's important enough for them to frame me."
"I'd like to believe you. Really I would, but -"
"An agent must trust her instincts," said Ash. "What are yours telling you?"
The door creaked open and Jemma turned. Remington was standing in the doorway regarding the pair of them with a faint smile.
"Ah, there you are, Miss Jacobs. Telling Blade what she has to look forward to? Good. Good. The psychology of a subject plays an important part in an interrogation. Perhaps by the time the truth drug gets here she will be more amenable... In the meantime, Ramirez tells me dinner is ready."
He beckoned. "Let's leave Blade to contemplate her fate. Ramirez is an excellent cook and it's not often we get the chance to enjoy some genuine Canarian cooking."
Jemma turned to whisper a final encouraging word to Ash, but the agent had turned her face away from her and was staring grimly at the wall. She sighed, and with a final reluctant glance, let her boss lead her away.
"I bet you have great tits." Blade's voice was slurred and her pupils had shrunk to mere pinpoints.
Jemma blushed and glanced at Remington. He shrugged.
"Take your top off," urged the dark-haired agent with a leer. "Come on. Don’t be shy."
They had given Blade the truth drug ten minutes ago and she was now doing a convincing impression of being totally stoned. The regular beep beep of the heart monitor, which for her own peace of mind Jemma had hired from a local clinic, added to the surreal atmosphere in the casa bedroom.
"As I was saying," said Jemma slightly desperately. "Do you know Minyar al-Akhdar?"
Blade blinked. Her brow creased momentarily then cleared. "Oh, that guy in the café? Well, you said I did, didn't you, sweetie, so I guess I must." She stared rather hazily at Jemma's breasts again. "Can I put my face in your cleavage?"
Jemma turned towards Remington. "This isn't working."
"I disagree. She's just admitted she knows al-Akhdar."
"That's not the way I heard it."
He frowned. "Miss Jacobs. I think you are beginning to lose your objectivity." She gaped at him. She was losing her objectivity? "Please, continue the questioning."
Blade was singing something under her breath that included the line 'we'd all support a hooker together' (Jemma supposed it must be a women's rugby song) and she touched the agent's arm to regain her attention.
"Hi, gorgeous." Blade flashed her a dazzling smile. "Wanna fuck?"
She sighed. "Have you ever received any money from the Libyans?"
Blade shook her head slackly. "Not a bean." She paused. "Oh, hang on. Didn't you tell me they paid me £100,000? Guess I must have then." She resumed her singing.
Jemma turned to Remington again. "Her answers are tainted by the information I gave her during the polygraph test. This is useless."
"Useless," echoed Blade, stirring slightly in her bonds before subsiding again. "That's me." She gave a heavy sigh and Jemma turned back to regard her curiously.
"Why are you useless?"
"Couldn't save him," said Blade. "Made the wrong choice. Wrong fucking choice." A tear trickled down one cheek.
"Save who?" prompted Jemma, startled by Blade's mood change.
"Sam, of course. Good old Sam, my good buddy... my friend." The dark-haired woman snorted. "Ha, that's a good one. Can't have been my 'friend', can he?" Her face scrunched up as she struggled to follow her train of thought. "Friends don't kill friends."
"You killed Sam Carney?" Remington's tone made Jemma look up. He was regarding Blade intently.
"Already told you," muttered Blade. "Made the wrong choice. Good old Sam... pushing up the daisies now... And all because..."
Her voice trailed off, and Jemma became aware that a sheen of sweat now coated Blade's forehead and the face underneath her tan had gone abnormally pale. Abruptly Blade's eyes rolled up until only the whites showed, and her head lolled.
"Oh, no! I think she's -"
The heart monitor alarm shrilled.
It was Jemma who grabbed the attaché case propped against the wall next to Remington and fumbled the catch open - her Section Head seemed stunned into immobility by the sudden turn of events. On the second attempt she succeeded in filling the syringe from the tiny phial of neutralising agent, then she was standing beside Blade and searching for a vein in her arm. Fortunately, she found a suitable one almost instantly, then she was sliding the needle home.
Jemma's memory of the neutralising agent's effects was sketchy. Would it work instantly? Would it work on its own or should she do cardiac compressions? She turned to ask her boss, realised he was next to useless, and clambered awkwardly up onto the interrogation table. Kneeling astride the other agent's hips, she positioned the heel of her hand on Blade's breastbone and began to press firmly and rhythmically.
After five cardiac compressions, she was leaning forward to give Blade mouth to mouth when the dark-haired woman suddenly sucked in a shuddering breath. Simultaneously, the shrilling heart monitor resumed its normal beep beep.
Thank God! Jemma sat back on her heels and bowed her head in relief.
When she had successfully got her trembling under control, she climbed down from the table and went to stand beside Blade. The agent's colour was visibly improving as Jemma watched, and her breathing was settling into a natural rhythm that indicated sleep.
She reached out and brushed a strand of dark hair from the other woman's clammy forehead, then belatedly remembered Remington and turned to look at him.
"That was close," he said quietly. "Thank you, Miss Jacobs."
She nodded silently then turned and reached for the straps binding Blade's ankles.
"What are you doing?" His voice was like a whip crack, and she froze and turned to find the Section Head glaring at her.
"I thought we had finished," said Jemma calmly. "Another dose of that drug would kill her."
"Yes, yes," he said testily. "It looks like the Lab boys have a few more kinks to iron out and I will tell them that in no uncertain terms, you can be sure. But just because the interrogation is finished doesn't mean that we should release Blade."
Jemma stared at him "But she's innocent."
He snorted. "Innocent? Miss Jacobs, weren't you paying attention? Not only did she admit she knows al-Akhdar and has received money from the Libyans, she also revealed she killed a fellow agent."
Jemma couldn't believe what she was hearing. "But-"
"No, Miss Jacobs. No buts." With evident satisfaction, Remington rubbed his hands together. "Just wait until London hears about this!"
Ash woke to the headache from hell and a mouth like the Gobi Desert. Not again!
This time, in addition, every muscle group ached and her breastbone felt bruised. Side effects from the truth drug? Memory of the interrogation was hazy at best - she had a feeling she'd made a fool of herself over Jemma, but that couldn't be helped.
She wondered how much time had passed while she was under the drug's influence. Was it even the same day? Hard to tell with the shutters closed and the light on.
It was an effort, but she managed to refocus her gaze on the straps restraining her. Her tiny but persistent efforts to weaken the one around her right wrist seemed to be paying off. The badly tanned leather wasn't as supple as it should be and putting it under repeated stress had actually cracked it. A little more work -
The door creaked open and she froze. To her relief, it was Jemma who walked into view. The blonde was carrying a tray containing a glass of water, a cup of something that Ash's nose told her was freshly brewed coffee, and a plate of sandwiches. Ash's stomach grumbled and her mouth began to water.
Jemma put the tray on a table then came to stand beside Ash. For a moment she hesitated, then she squared her shoulders and began to unbuckle the straps.
Ash blinked. "I passed the drug test?" The straps on her right side came free, and she flexed her arm and leg, almost groaning aloud with pleasure at simply being able to move once more.
"Not according to Remington." Jemma moved round and set to work on the remaining straps.
Ash allowed the other woman to help her up to a sitting position, blinking to clear the momentary dizziness. She eased herself down off the table, staggering a little before regaining her balance. "What did you do to me?" she complained. "Stuff me inside a barrel and roll me down a hill?!"
Jemma's colour heightened and she wouldn’t meet her gaze. "Er... we had a little trouble with the truth drug."
"I see." When no more information was forthcoming, Ash shrugged. "So, if I didn't pass the test, why have you released me?"
"Remington thinks you failed. I disagree." The blonde supported Ash with one surprisingly strong arm round her back and helped her walk towards the tray. "I thought about what you said," she added. "And I'm following my instincts."
Ash accepted the glass of water and drained it dry before returning it. Then Jemma handed her the coffee, each sip of which made her feel perceptibly more human.
"Your boss isn't going to like this."
Jemma grimaced. "I know. I'll either be shot or demoted to filing clerk!"
The sandwiches, Ash was pleased to find as she took a bite, were tuna. She finished chewing, and swallowed. "Not necessarily."
Jemma looked at her. "Office cleaner, then?"
"You see, you didn't help me escape."
"I overpowered you," said Ash indistinctly through another mouthful of bread and tunafish.
"I don’t think it'll work." Jemma indicated the table where Ash had been held. "You couldn’t get out of that unless you had outside help."
"No?" Ash pointed to the strap she had been working on and Jemma gave her an enquiring look before going to examine it. When she straightened, her expression was amazed.
"You were almost through!"
Ash felt strong enough now to walk unsupported, and she joined the blonde by the table, took the strap in both hands and gave it a mighty tug. The leather snapped in two. "Completely through," she corrected. She returned to her sandwiches and coffee.
"So you would have got free tonight anyway?"
Ash nodded. "Eventually. What time is it?" They had taken her watch along with everything else.
"Just after midnight. Here." Jemma felt in her pocket and pulled out Ash's watch. "You might need these too." She pulled out Ash's picklocks.
Ash blinked at her and took them. "Thanks! I don’t suppose-"
"Sorry. Ramirez still has your mobile phone and gun."
Ash shrugged and took another bite of sandwich. When she had finished everything on the tray, she wiped her greasy fingers on her jeans and advanced on the blonde.
Jemma's eyes widened and she backed away.
"Don’t worry, I'll make it look good."
Ash stopped and raised an eyebrow. "Do you want me to overpower you or not?"
The blonde looked undecided. "Um, that depends. What exactly are you going to do?"
Ash grinned. "Well, there won’t be any real overpowering... because you're not going to resist me, are you?"
"Uh... I don't -"
"Look, I'm just going to put you out for a bit."
"Oh." Jemma frowned. "Will it hurt?"
"Only for a moment. Turn around."
The blonde woman hesitated then reluctantly turned her back to Ash, who immediately got her in a neck lock.
As Ash held the squirming body close - a rather pleasurable sensation, she had to admit - she could feel the other agent's defensive instincts warring with her decision to submit.
"Easy!" she soothed. "I'm not going to hurt you, Jemma. OK?" The blonde let out an unintelligible squawk. Ash took that as agreement and tightened her grip.... Jemma's arms came up to break the lock. Uh oh!
Like a cobra striking, Ash jabbed her forefinger and third finger into the pressure point behind Jemma's right ear. Instantly, the young agent went limp. Ash quickly checked for a pulse point, and was rewarded with a strong, steady beat. "See," she whispered into the blonde's ear. "Nothing to it!"
Lifting the other woman in her arms - Jemma was heavier than she looked; all that muscle, probably - Ash laid her gently on the interrogation table. She arranged Jemma's floppy limbs until she looked comfortable and straightened her T-shirt, then buckled the straps, leaving them slightly looser than Remington had.
The broken strap meant she couldn't secure Jemma's right wrist. Hmmm. She looked around for something to use. The bottom drawer of a filing cabinet contained cleaning supplies; there was also a can of oil, some scissors, and ball of twine. That'll do. She cut off a length of twine, threaded it through the broken strap's one remaining eyelet and looped it round Jemma's slim wrist. That should convince Remington.
Her full bladder was requesting urgent attention. She grabbed the can of oil and crossed to the door. A moment spent with her ear pressed against it convinced her the coast was clear. She oiled the hinge carefully then eased the door open a crack. Then she suddenly thought of something. Two birds with one stone.
Darting back, she grabbed the incriminating tray and crockery, then she tiptoed out into the corridor and began her search for a bathroom. It was right at the end of the corridor, but fortunately at this hour everyone was either downstairs or sleeping. She quickly relieved herself, and when she'd finished, hid the tray and plate behind the huge old-fashioned cistern and placed the glass and cup inside it. Then, with a quick glance to check the coast was still clear, she retraced her steps.
Jemma was snoring quietly on the interrogation table. She gave the young woman a comforting pat as she passed by her on her way to the window. Opening the inner shutters revealed a set of double glass doors and yet another set of shutters, which opened outwards. She grunted in annoyance, then reached for her picklocks. Moments later, the alarm system was disabled and she was opening the doors.
The outer shutters opened onto a tiny balcony... and a drop of 30 feet. Ash stepped out onto the balcony and turned, grinning widely when she saw that the shutters now provided an effective ladder to the roof. Tsk, tsk! Didn't take into account that people might want to break out of here, did you, Ramirez?
It was just as well the climb was relatively easy, she decided ruefully, as she balanced on top of the balcony railing then grabbed the shutter and shinned up it. She definitely wasn't as limber as usual, though the aches and pains were easing now she was up and about. With a gasp of relief, she pulled herself up onto the roof and lay there recovering for a moment before continuing.
Arms spread like a tightrope walker, she scuttled along the apex to the end of the block. It was a full moon, and Santa Cruz lay spread out before her. Faint laughter and salsa music wafted towards her. Of course, the Carnival! It seemed like another world.
She sucked in a lungful of warm night air in sheer pleasure before squatting and surveying her surroundings. Whoever had chosen to site the Field Office in the middle of a terraced block should be shot. The buildings at this end of the block didn't belong to the Organisation and consequently lacked surveillance equipment. Good!
Ash remained motionless for a while longer, until she was absolutely sure she was beyond the range of the cameras patiently panning over the street. Then she was slithering down shutters and jumping from balconies, careful this time not to send any flowerpots flying. At last she landed with a jolt on the pavement below.
The street was fortunately deserted, and she broke into a run, heading towards the side street where she had parked the Fiat. Her footsteps, though quiet, set off a muffled barking in a house nearby, but as she moved away and proved herself no threat, the dog quieted once more.
As she steadily put distance between herself and the Field Office, she pondered her next move. Remington would be furious when he discovered she was gone. He would almost certainly notify the Canarian police. She needed to go to ground for a while. But she also needed to get to the bottom of this attempted frame up.
The Libyans could have killed her, but they hadn't. It would have drawn attention to her investigations, she supposed. Setting her up, on the other hand, had had the opposite effect. At a stroke it had neutralised her investigation and undermined her credibility. Someone in the Libyan camp was very smart!
So, what was it exactly that the terrorists were up to and thought she had stumbled on? As she ran into the night, she resolved to find out.
The hired car was parked where Ash had left it, and, miracle of miracles, the Ciquecento hadn't attracted the attention of thieves. She walked round to the driver's door and reached for her keys then froze. The keys were in her jacket pocket, and the jacket was back at the Field Office, along with her bumbag, mobile phone, and gun.
Muttering a curse, she reached for the picklocks Jemma had returned to her. Seconds later, the door was open and she was sliding behind the wheel. She didn't bother to pick the lock on the ignition but simply reached under the dashboard, yanked the wires free, and hot-wired the car. The engine purred into life as she straightened and put the car in gear.
The urge to gun the engine and floor the accelerator was strong, but at this time of night it would only attract unwelcome attention. She eased the Ciquecento out of the side street and onto the Avenida General Mola, heading southwest and merging with the post-Carnaval revellers belatedly heading home.
A laughing couple, the man's arms draped round the woman for balance, staggered drunkenly into the road ahead, and she braked sharply. As they weaved their way to safety, she drummed her fingers impatiently on the steering wheel and glanced at her watch.
1am. By now, Ramirez could have discovered the unconscious Jemma and Remington might already have alerted Interpol and the Canarian Police. As for the Fiat... She bit her lip. The number plates would be on record at the car hire company. She would have to dump it. And she couldn't go back to the casa because that was the first place he would look - she didn't have the energy to deal with the undoubtedly annoyed Adriana anyway. She needed a gun, and somewhere to hide, and... lots of things. But she was out in the cold now. Who could she turn to -
The honking of a horn from the car behind brought her back to her surroundings. The road ahead was now clear. "Yeah, yeah," she muttered, and set the car in motion once more, not sure where she was heading but needing to keep on the move. She took a roundabout, then saw a roadsign up ahead announcing a turnoff to the Autopista del Sur. At the other end of the motorway lay Los Cristianos, she remembered suddenly. An image of a curly haired boy clutching a shabby jewel case popped into her head. Abdusamad's warehouse was there too. Of course!
Without hesitation, Ash took the turn off, and drove away from the lights of Santa Cruz...
Ash tore off a piece of croissant and popped it in her mouth. Where are you, Vito?
It was all very well the young thief offering her his help, but he hadn't given her his telephone number or address. Most criminal communities, no matter how small, had efficient information networks though. She would get a message to him somehow.
As soon as she had reached Los Cristianos, she dumped the hired Fiat and napped for a couple of hours on the beach. Then, still yawning and now with sand in places she'd rather it wasn't, she headed for the market where she had first met Vito.
A shabby but evidently popular café overlooked the market where empty stalls were awaiting the arrival of produce and people. There Ash decided to kill two birds with one stone: pacify her grumbling stomach and ask the fat proprietor if he could get a message to Vito. When it came to ordering café con leche con bollería, he had been helpfulness itself. He was much more circumspect about admitting he knew Vito though. It took her ten minutes to convince him that she wasn't with the police, another five (plus a 10,000-peseta banknote) to persuade him to make sure her scribbled note reached the boy.
She had passed the time since then eating pastries and drinking coffee, watching the market come to life. The corner table offered an unobstructed view through the café's front window and door, which was why she had chosen it in the first place; there was also a back way out should she need it.
The proprietor glanced over at her and gestured towards the bubbling pot on the counter. She nodded, and he bustled over with a refill of the sludge he claimed was coffee. In her present state, she would have drunk sump oil if it supplied a caffeine boost - the interrogations, plus the ninety-minute drive from Santa Cruz, had taken their toll.
She suppressed a yawn and raised an eyebrow at the fat man in the grease-spattered apron. "No news?"
"No, señorita. Be patient!" He refilled her coffee cup then returned to his counter.
She added milk, took a sip, grimaced, then returned her attention to the doorway. If Vito didn't get here soon -
"¡Hola!" came a familiar voice, and a slim shape slid into the seat opposite her. Long-lashed, brown eyes regarded her curiously.
"Vito!" She was shocked not to have spotted him coming in the back way. Her alertness was way below par.
He smiled at her, then cocked his head to one side. "Your message said you need my help?"
She nodded. "The police are after me. I need to go into hiding."
He blinked, and what might have been disappointment shadowed his gaze. "I thought you weren't a thief any more."
She sighed. "It’s a long story, but I'll be happy to tell it to you somewhere more -" she gestured at their surroundings, "- private."
Vito studied her for a moment than nodded and stood up. "Come." Without pausing to see if she was following, he headed out the way he had come. Ash rose and hurried after him. She paused at the back door and nodded her thanks in the proprietor's direction. He shrugged and resumed wiping his counter.
Vito was waiting for her by the café's waste bins. "We have to go to the north side of town. This way."
He broke into a jog, heading away from the sea front past a glitzy-looking British Pub advertising 'Full English Breakfast'. She sighed and jogged after him, turning right into a paved street whose shop awnings threatened to meet in the middle, then continuing on through a brand new shopping mall decorated with baskets of fragrant purple bougainvillaea and orange nasturtiums....
At one point, she could have sworn they were heading south. When Vito slowed and waited for her to catch up, she asked him about it.
"Uncle Ignacio would not be happy if I led the police to our door," he explained, then he darted off again.
Ash grunted and followed him, their route twisting and turning like an eel (at one point she was sure they had been along a particular stretch of road twice) until she was totally lost. So, presumably, were any pursuers.
The pace the twelve-year-old boy had set was killing and eventually she was forced to halt. She bent forward, bracing her arms against her thighs and sucking in gulps of air... and wished she didn't ache all over.
"Are you ill, Blade?" Vito had returned to her side and was looking worriedly at her.
"No." She grimaced. "But I've had a tough couple of days. Is it much further?"
"Not far now."
Reluctantly, she straightened. "OK. Lead on."
Their destination turned out to be a vehicle repair shop that looked as battered as the mangled cars parked outside. As they walked towards it, a tow truck bearing the legend 'Ignacio's' reversed past them and headed out of town, its yellow light flashing.
"Do you live with your uncle?" she asked the boy.
"Si," was all he said. She wondered what had happened to his parents.
Vito led her round to the back entrance, through the hanging bead curtains and into a massive kitchen. The inhabitants - a wide-hipped woman in an apron, and a big man in oil-stained white overalls who was eating his breakfast - turned to stare at the new arrivals.
"Vito!" The woman put down her dishcloth and bustled towards him. She clasped him to her in a hug, then released him and cuffed him round the ear. "Who is this you bring unannounced?" The gaze she turned on Ash was far from friendly.
"Aunt Nina!" protested Vito. "It is a matter of honour." The man snorted in amusement and Vito glared at him. "This is my friend Blade, Ashley Blade. She is wanted by the police. She needs our help!"
His aunt's eyes widened. "Madre del Dios! And you bring her here?"
"We weren't followed. I made sure. And I promised we will hide her." He turned to his uncle, his expression pleading. "You won't make me break my promise, Uncle Ignacio?"
Silently, Ignacio kicked back his chair and stood up, then he planted himself firmly in front of Ash, folded his arms and simply stared at her. She blinked up at the man mountain and hoped that, given her present exhausted condition, things weren't going to turn ugly.
"My nephew is young and impulsive," said Ignacio, in impeccable English. Maybe he taught it to Vito. "Any promise given must be weighed according to the facts." His gaze was hard. "What crime have you committed?"
He smiled ironically. "What do the police think you've done?"
"Betrayed my country."
He blinked. "You are a spy?"
She hesitated, then decided what the hell. "Yes. But only for my own country." A wave of tiredness washed over her and she swayed. Ignacio pulled out a chair for her and gestured. Gratefully she sat down. "Thanks."
"So you're a secret agent?" asked a wide-eyed Vito. "Like James Bond?"
She gave him a wry smile. "Not so secret now, it seems."
Ignacio's brows had drawn together. "Why should I risk bringing danger to my family for a foreigner?"
"Because Vito offered me his help and I need it. Because this may affect your islands too."
Ignacio pulled out a chair, turned it round, and straddled it. "Go on."
"Not much to tell. Some Libyan terrorists have rented a warehouse here in Los Cristianos. I was trying to find out what they are up to when the shit hit the fan." Vito's Aunt looked shocked at her bad language but said nothing.
"Libyan terrorists? Here?" Ignacio looked personally affronted.
Ash nodded then tried in vain to suppress a yawn.
"Ignacio," hissed Nina. "Can't you see she is weary? Let her sleep. You can talk later."
He flushed slightly and ducked his head. "You are right, my dear. Will you show our guest where she can rest?" His wife nodded and patted his broad shoulder approvingly.
"Thank you," said Ash sincerely, standing up and turning to follow Nina
"In the meantime," continued Ignacio. "What about your car? I take it you have one and it is 'hot'?"
She shrugged. "Yes, but I dumped it." At his and Vito's prompting, she managed to describe the Fiat and the area where she had left it. Then she felt a hand under her elbow and turned to find Nina urging her gently towards a door leading into the interior. She smiled and acquiesced.
The last thing she saw and heard as she left the kitchen was Ignacio rubbing his big hands together gleefully and beckoning to his eagerly watching nephew. "Come, Vito. We have a car to collect. While your friend recovers her strength, we will lay a false trail for the police!"
Jemma regarded the huge house with the flower-laden balconies approvingly. So this is the casa that Ash 'bought'. Silently, she negotiated the winding path with its tubs of geraniums and approached the solid front door.
Her caution was probably unnecessary - Blade would be crazy to come back here - but she had to pretend to be seriously searching for the other agent if only because of the two Canarian policemen, Carlos and Pablo, Remington had foisted on her. Their version of stealth differed somewhat from her own, she noticed ruefully, as boots crunched on gravel.
She picked the lock, then opened the door a fraction. Drawing her standard issue Browning from her shoulder holster, she eased inside. It was refreshingly cool in the hall - the island heat, while a nice change from the UK's February chill, could get a bit much, she'd found.
Jemma waited for her eyes to adjust to the relative gloom, inhaling a fragrance she decided was furniture polish as she did so, then she ventured further inside. A quick check of the ground floor revealed no one home. She padded across the tiled floor to the bottom of the staircase and gazed up it, listening intently. Her instincts told her someone was up there. Blade? Surely not!
Carlos sneezed loudly, and Pablo elbowed him in the ribs. Jemma resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "Wait here," she whispered, and, gripping the wooden banister with one hand, she loped up the wide steps as quietly as she could.
At the top was a landing, off which led several doors. The one at the end opened onto a spacious bathroom containing a shower and Jacuzzi. Nice! Next along was a smallish bedroom, which the lack of bed linen showed was not in use. She pushed open the third door... and froze.
Sprawled across the large bed was a shapely blonde. She recognised Blade's companion from the café, who even now was waking with fear in her eyes. The woman sat up, and hastily pulled the sheets over her nakedness. Jemma realised she was still brandishing her gun and hastily reholstered it.
"¡Lo siento!" She was glad she had at least learned the Spanish for sorry. "I didn't mean to startle you."
"Who are you?" The woman's Canarian accent was strong. "What are you doing in my bedroom? Why do you have a gun?"
Jemma opened her mouth... then closed it again. It was too complicated to explain. "Have you seen Blade?" she asked instead.
The other woman's lips thinned. "She was with you last night?" Before Jemma could even blink, the other woman had marched up to her, sheet held precariously in place by one hand, and slapped her.
Jemma raised a hand to her stinging cheek. "With me? Well, yes, but not in the way you -"
"Everything all right, Señorita Jacobs?" Carlos had chosen that moment to put his head around the door. He grinned appreciatively, a gold front tooth flashing.
"Er, fine. Just great."
The blonde woman's eyes had widened at the sight of his brown uniform. "You are with the Policia National?" she asked Jemma. "But surely you are English! Like Blade." Looking suddenly nervous about the slap, she backed away. "I... I'm sorry!"
Jemma realised belatedly why the other woman might think she was Blade's girlfriend. They were both blondes, of similar height and body type. She grimaced and turned to the waiting policeman. "Can you search the rest of the house thoroughly while I ask Señorita -" She paused.
"Rodriguez," supplied the woman, who was now sitting sullenly on the edge of the bed. "Adriana Rodriguez."
Jemma nodded her thanks. "- some questions... and she puts some clothes on."
Carlos looked disappointed but obligingly disappeared from view. A moment of frantic whispering outside the bedroom door ended with the sound of two pairs of boots clumping off along the landing then down the stairs.
Jemma folded her arms and leaned back against the wall. "So, Blade didn't come home last night, I take it?"
"No." The other woman looked longingly at the clothes piled on a chair and gave Jemma an enquiring look."
"Go ahead." While Adriana dressed, Jemma pondered what questions to ask. Tracking down Blade was not her intention, if she could avoid it, but if she was to help the other agent, she needed to know as much about what she was working on as possible. And since Blade herself hadn't been very forthcoming.... "When did you last see her?"
Adriana fastened her bra then reached for her dress. "Breakfast yesterday. Is English... Blade, I mean... is she in trouble?" Her voice was muffled by the fabric as she pulled the garment over her head.
"She could be." Jemma glanced at the door. No sign of the two policemen yet. "They think she did something bad. But I don't believe them. I’d like to help her if I can."
The blonde's head emerged from the dress, and her gaze was keen. At last she nodded. "You haven't told me your name."
"Sorry! It's Jemma. Jemma Jacobs."
"Well, Jemma. I know that to Blade I was probably just - ¿Cómo se dice? - a casual 'fling'." Adriana's expression was wistful and Jemma got the impression that she had taken their relationship more seriously. "But even so," she shrugged, "I would not want any harm to come to her. How can I help you?"
"These last few days. Do you know what Blade has been up to? The people she's seen, the places she's been?"
Adriana shook her head. "I have been at the café. And in the evenings she has been here with me... except for one night when she said she was 'working'," she looked sceptical, "and last night of course. Last night she did not return." She bit her lip.
"'Working'?" prompted Jemma.
"She has been driving all over the island... here, there, everywhere in that little car of hers." Adriana gave a wry grin. "Taking the 'bloody scenic route' she said! For some reason, that annoyed her."
Not very informative. Jemma sighed. It had been too much to hope for, she supposed, but worth a try. Movement in the doorway attracted her attention and she straightened. It was Pablo and Carlos. They gave her and Adriana a curious glance.
"Yes?" she prompted.
"We searched the house. Nothing," said Pablo, scratching his stubbly chin.
Jemma nodded. She hadn't really expected there to be anything. Blade was too careful for that.
"Perhaps she has left the country," chimed in Adriana helpfully.
"It is more than likely," agreed Carlos. "Her hire car has been found at Los Rodeos Airport." He turned to Jemma. "Señor Remington wants you to meet him in the car park there."
Jemma unfolded her arms. "And when did that little piece of news come in?!"
"Five minutes ago." He looked sheepish. "You were busy."
You mean, you were busy! Probably snatching a quick cigarette! She gave him a look, then turned back to Adriana, who had finished dressing and was now slipping on her high heels.
"Thank you, Señorita Rodriguez. You have been very helpful."
The other woman looked up, her face relieved. "I can go?"
"Yes." Jemma turned to leave, then stopped and turned back. "I'm sorry I startled you... with my gun."
Adriana shrugged. "And I'm sorry I hit you!"
The policemen exchanged intrigued glances, which Jemma ignored. "You pack a mean punch!" She rubbed her still stinging cheek.
Jemma paused. "Not much point you waiting for her here," she said awkwardly. "If Blade hasn't left the country, she will be lying low."
Adriana sighed. "I think, even if this had not happened, our time together was nearly over anyway. Yesterday, we had an argument. I think she was tired of me."
The other woman's expression was momentarily bleak. "I also."
Blade's hire car was parked in the 'long stay' zone. The little Fiat made Jemma laugh - Blade's preferences were on file and she had been expecting something sleek and sporty.
While Carlos and Pablo went to chat to the three Canarian policemen posted to keep people away from the scene, Jemma peered in the open window, careful not to touch anything - the fingerprint boys hadn't been over it yet. Loose wires jutted from under the dashboard, she saw.
"Hot wired." Remington had come up beside her. "Been here a couple of hours, they reckon, no longer."
"Do you think she's flown out?"
His brows drew together. "No."
Jemma nodded. Her Section Head might be obsessed with and prejudiced against Blade, but he wasn't stupid. The very fact Blade's car was at the airport, meant she hadn't caught a flight out. Unless it was a double bluff, of course.
"I heard there was a woman at Blade's house?"
Jemma nodded. "Adriana Rodriguez. Blade's latest holiday romance." She smiled wryly. "She thought I was a rival." Memory made her raise a hand to her cheek.
Remington snorted absently.
"Innocent bystander, that's all," continued Jemma. "No idea where Blade is."
He sighed. "She's gone to ground. The Libyans must be helping her."
Jemma bit her lip. "Mr Remington, are you sure-"
He turned a fierce gaze on her. "Yes, I'm sure, Miss Jacobs." His gaze softened and he turned and gestured towards the airport departure terminal. "But we can't assume she hasn't flown out. Procedure, Miss Jacobs. We must always follow procedure. You have airport staff to interview and passenger lists to check before we can be certain she didn't leave."
"You'll need this." He pulled a small photo from the inner jacket pocket of his suit (how he could stand wearing it in this heat was beyond her) and handed it to her.
It was a picture of Blade, wearing a stained cap-sleeved T-shirt and frayed denim shorts that revealed long, tanned limbs and dirty, bare feet. If the brilliant smile aimed at the camera lens was any indication, she had caught the gigantic fish dangling from one raised hand herself.
Jemma suppressed a sigh. "I’ll get right on it, Mr Remington."
"That's where they will wrestle," said Vito, taking his seat next to Ash on the bench.
She regarded her surroundings dubiously. What has started out as a rocky field on the volcanic mountainside was now a 9-metre wide, sand-strewn circle surrounded by rows of simple wooden benches.
Uncle Ignacio had driven them into the Mount Teide National Park just to the north of Los Cristianos that morning, negotiating the dusty roads that wound through the dramatic landscape with the sureness of a mountain goat. His home village would be much safer, he had told her. And she could understand, could she not, his wish to keep the Policia as far as possible from his family, his repair shop? Besides, his cousin, the village mayor, owed him a favour. She hadn't much choice if she wanted the big man's help, so reluctantly she had agreed.
When the villagers poured out to greet the dust-covered truck, she easily identified the mayor - the resemblance between him and Ignacio was obvious. The big man bounded down from his truck, and the two men greeted one another like... well, like cousins.
After laughter, hearty handshakes, and much backslapping, they went into a huddle, their voices growing louder and more heated as time went on. The local accent was strong, and they spoke so fast Ash had trouble making out what they were saying. The word Policia seemed to feature a lot though. She sighed.
"They always argue," said Vito calmly. "But in the end he will agree. He always does." His eyes sparkled. "And don't worry, Blade. My uncle says I am to stay and look after you."
"Thanks. I was really scared for a moment there."
He shot her a mock scowl.
At last, the mayor nodded, then both men spat on their hands and shook to seal the deal.
"They will hide you from the police," said the big man, coming over to join her. "And now I must get back. I have that little errand to run for you, Señorita."
Ignacio had agreed to take a message to Jemma. With Ash's picture all over the news (to add insult to injury, the Canarian Police had called her a terrorist), contacting the other woman herself was out of the question. She would have left Jemma out of it - the blonde had already gone out on a limb for her - but she needed information. Now the Organisation's passwords had been changed, Ash could no longer access their computerised records. But Jemma could, and she could also supply the photographs of Abdusamad and al-Akhdar that Ash needed if she was to get the hunt for them underway.
"I appreciate this, Ignacio."
"My pleasure." He grinned. "Besides," he tousled his nephew's curly hair, and Vito scowled and ducked out of reach, "chaperoning you will keep this one out of trouble for a while."
Then he had got into his truck, paused to light the ubiquitous cigarette, then put the vehicle in gear and roared off.
So here she was, effectively stranded. If it hadn't been for Vito's cheerful chattering presence, she probably would have set off walking down the mountainside by now. The villagers seemed to regard her with, at best, an awkward wariness. She couldn't blame them. For all they knew she really was a dangerous terrorist. But if she was going to stay here, she had to change their attitude towards her somehow.
"Here they come." Vito's voice was excited. Wrestling was big in Tenerife, so he'd told her, and most villages held their own contests.
She watched as two teams of twelve men took their places on the far side of the circle. The watching villagers cheered and the combatants smiled and waved in acknowledgement. Then the first pair of wrestlers took their place in the ring, bowing before approaching one another warily. Soon the air was thick with grunts and the thud of bare feet on sand as each man sought handholds on shirts and trousers and tried to throw the other to the ground.
"If they touch down with any other body part than their feet," whispered Vito, "they lose the point."
This kind of fighting, lucha Canaria, had been handed down from the Guanches - the people who had inhabited the Canaries before the Spanish came - but as she watched, Ash discerned similarities to Greek wrestling and Sumo. She appreciated the power and dexterity on display. The final pair of combatants had just started their bout when she had an idea. She turned to regard Vito.
"Would they let me wrestle?"
He looked doubtful. "It is rarely done by women. And you are a foreigner."
A huge thud - she could feel the vibration through the bench - followed by a cheer made her look up in time to see the victorious wrestler reaching out a hand to help up his beaten opponent.
She stood up then and heads turned to regard her curiously. "I challenge the best of your wrestlers to fight me," she called out, her voice carrying on the still evening air.
Murmurs of enquiry turned to disbelief and laughter as those who could speak English translated what she had said for their neighbours. The men looked sceptical, the women shocked or disapproving.
"Señorita." Two rows to her left, the mayor had stood up and was now regarding her severely. "We will make allowances for the fact you are a stranger here. But please, do not mock our traditions."
"I'm serious. I can beat your best man." At least I hope so.
The wrestlers were muttering to one another, their expressions reflecting amusement and scorn.
"What are you afraid of?" Ash's question was greeted by a murmur of annoyance.
"Don't be foolish, Señorita," said the mayor, after calling for quiet. "You could get hurt, break bones-"
"I'll take my chances."
"The Englishwoman shows courage. I say, let her fight," came a voice from behind her. Ash turned to see it was one of the younger village women who had spoken up for her. She nodded her thanks.
"But if any harm comes to her," objected another, "Ignacio will be angry with us." All eyes turned to Vito then, but the boy merely shrugged.
"All this talking is getting us nowhere," called one of the wrestlers. He was wearing a blue belt (a whisper from Vito told her it was the highest grade) and his name was Andres. "I'm willing to fight her. I won't hurt her... much."
Ash raised an eyebrow at him but said nothing.
The mayor regarded the other villagers helplessly. "We will put it to the vote," he said at last. "All those who think we should let Señorita Blade fight Andres, raise your hands." A forest of hands went up. "And all those who think we shouldn't?" This time, only a few hands rose. The outcome was clear.
"Very well." With a sigh, Ignacio's cousin gestured Ash forward then sat back down. She wove her way between the benches towards the sand-strewn ring; seconds later, Vito was hurrying after her.
"Are you sure you know what you are doing, Blade?"
She grinned at him. "No. Stand back." Gently but firmly, she pushed him to one side.
To a chorus of encouraging shouts from his fellow wrestlers, a swaggering Andres took his place on the other side of the sandy circle, directly opposite Ash. He was shorter than her by a head, she noticed, but made up for it in width. Loudly he cracked his knuckles then he gave her a ferocious grin, which she returned in kind. He blinked at that, then bowed. Ash bowed in her turn. She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, centring herself, then advanced into the ring.
In spite of Andres' bulk, he was surprisingly hard to grab hold of. She wished she could say the same about herself. Before she could get her opponent's measure, hands the size of hams had grabbed her (eliciting a collective intake of breath from the watching villagers) and if she hadn't managed to twist free, using instincts honed by years as a catburglar and secret agent, the match would have ended there and then.
As she danced out of reach, and got her breath back, two things became clear. By tomorrow she would be covered in yet more bruises. And it would be much quicker and easier just to kill him - restraining her instincts and sticking to the rules was hell.
"Had enough?" Andres grinned at her.
"No." She approached him more warily this time, but his fancy footwork was such that he almost had her over twice. She cursed and focussed her attention more fiercely.
In the end, it was sheer luck that gave the bout to her. Andres was sweating badly, and a droplet of perspiration flew into his eye. While he was blinking his vision clear, she took advantage of his momentary distraction, grabbed the coarse linen of his trousers, pivoted him over her hip, and downed him like a felled tree trunk.
There was a brief stunned silence, then the audience began to clap and whistle. Ash held out her hand to help up her defeated opponent. He ignored it, and for a moment she thought he was deliberately snubbing her. Then she registered Andres' pained grimace, the sweat beading his now ashen face, the odd position of his right arm, and put it all together. He wasn't just winded; his shoulder was dislocated.
The spectators were only just beginning to realise he was hurt when she stooped, rolled the groaning man over onto his back, grabbed his right arm, and firmly and efficiently manoeuvred the joint back into its socket. Andres' rigid grimace relaxed and he turned a gaze full of relief and gratitude on her. This time he let her help him to his feet.
"You should keep that shoulder as immobile as you can for a couple of days," she advised him quietly, as his friends came to help him from the ring.
"Gracias, Señorita." The rest of his reply was lost to her as she found herself being lifted onto the broad shoulders of her fellow wrestlers and carried round the ring in a victory lap. Vito was staring open mouthed up at her and she grinned and waved at him. He closed his mouth with a snap and waved back.
Later, in the cosy inn, mugs of cerveza was pressed on her by people eager to inform her that Andres had never been beaten before, and certainly not by a woman. As she laughed with them and sipped the light lager, she reflected that she was battered and bruised and tomorrow would probably wake up feeling like an eighty-year-old... but it had been worth it. The villagers' wariness towards her had disappeared as though it had never been.
The heart monitor alarm had been shrilling for so long, Jemma was no longer aware of it. Blade's tanned skin was waxy and abnormally pale, and her striking blue eyes were hidden beneath slack eyelids. There was no point in continuing the cardiac compressions and mouth to mouth.
She sat back on her heels and bowed her head in grief. The moment I injected her with that drug, I signed her death warrant.
Legs stiff from kneeling awkwardly for so long, Jemma climbed down from the interrogation table and went to stand by its head. Carefully, she reached over and brushed a strand of dark hair from the cold forehead...
Jemma awoke with a gasp and sat up, wondering for a moment where the hell she was. Dazed green eyes tracked round the room, alighting on the open suitcase with her clothes spilling out of it, the guidebook she had bought at the airport that afternoon, and the photo of Blade flaunting her fish.
She craned her head and peered at the alarm clock. 2.06 a.m. Urk!
Already the vivid dream was fading, the distress she had felt at Blade's 'death' receding into the background. With a sigh of relief, she plumped up her pillows and lay back against them, her pulse returning to normal.
That's what happens when you eat foreign food right before you go to bed.
Ramirez and his wife had insisted on cooking Jemma and Remington yet more traditional Canarian dishes. Sopa de pescado turned out to be a rich mixture of fish and seafood; then had come ice cream and bienmesabe, a confection of almonds, sugar, honey, eggs, lemon and sponge cake. (Absolutely delicious, and much too rich for her blood.)
She stared at the shaft of moonlight that had found its way between her shutters and wondered where Blade was and what she was doing. Sleeping soundly, she hoped.
The toughest thing about this assignment, she decided, plumping her pillows again, wasn't the running around that Remington had made her do all day. It was that her instincts were so at odds with her boss's and there was no one else she could turn to. During training, Jemma had frequently discussed problems with her classmates. They had bounced ideas for a mission off one another, talking utter rubbish a lot of the time, it was true, but there was safety in numbers and if one student made a slip, another would catch it. And if they didn't, well, there was always Mac on hand to tear them off a strip but also to show them the way to get the job done. This mission was real and if it went wrong people could get killed. She had never felt more alone. And Blade must feel even more so.
Thinking of her old teacher had given Jemma an idea. She checked the alarm clock again. England was in the same time zone as the Canaries, and he wouldn't thank her for disturbing him at this hour. Still...
She reached for the mobile phone she had placed on her bedside table and called up a number from its memory. After a couple of rings, the receiver at the other end was picked up.
"Yes?" croaked a man's voice.
Silence. "Who is this? How did you get this number?"
"It's Jemma Jacobs. I don’t know if you rememb-"
"Of course I remember you, Jemma. I remember all of my students." A pause. "Should we scramble this?"
"Oh... yes." A sheepish Jemma keyed the new scrambler code in and waited for the resulting white noise to clear. A few seconds later, it did so.
"You still there?" asked her ex-teacher.
"Where are you?"
"All right for some! Are you in trouble?"
"No. Ashley Blade is."
"Blade?" A gravelly chuckle. "Tell me something I don’t know already."
"I'm serious," said Jemma. "They think she's 'gone over'."
A long silence met that. "What do you think?"
"I think she's been set up."
She could picture his craggy brows drawing together. "I see." Another long silence. "My influence with the Organisation is limited, Jemma. You should be speaking to your Section Head."
"I know, but it's difficult. Mr Remington -"
"Remington? Ah!" There was a wealth of meaning in his tone. "I thought you applied for Counter Intelligence."
"I did." She sighed. "So did everyone else. They were oversubscribed."
"I see." Another pause. "Well, Jemma, I'll start putting out some feelers this end, but I don't think much will come of it. You're in a much better position to help Blade than I am."
"No, hear me out. Don’t underestimate yourself. You may not have much experience in the field yet but you have good instincts and a good heart."
Jemma felt her cheeks grow hot. "Thank you."
"Trust your instincts. And trust Blade."
She waited for him to continue and, when he didn't, blinked. "That's all?"
"Yes." He was smiling, she could hear it in his voice.
"Oh. OK." Surprisingly, his words had helped. Just knowing someone else shared her opinion of Blade made her feel much better, she realised. "Thanks, Mac," she said sincerely.
"My pleasure." Then came a huge yawn. "Now let me get some sleep. It's 2 in the bloody morning!"
When Jemma woke again, it was 7am and the sun was shining directly in her eyes. Over a hasty bowl of cornflakes (Jemma couldn't face the full English breakfast her boss was having) Remington outlined his plans for the day.
Blade might not have left by plane, but there were other ways of leaving Tenerife. Santa Cruz was a major port, with frequent ferries and hydrofoils to La Gomera and the other islands, and more importantly weekly sailings to the Spanish mainland. A ship had sailed only yesterday, in fact, and if Blade was on board, they would need to arrange a reception committee for her in Cadiz. While he checked it out, Jemma could do the same for Los Cristianos, he informed her.
Jemma thought their chances of finding Blade were slim. The agent would have disguised herself so as to be unrecognisable or chartered a private boat well away from the busy tourist routes. But what did she know? She shrugged and acquiesced. Remington nodded in satisfaction, finished his coffee, and headed off with his police escort.
Her own police escort would be a few minutes late, Ramirez informed her, so she grabbed her sunglasses and went outside to soak up some early morning sunshine while she waited.
A big man, cigarette drooping from his mouth, was walking along the pavement towards her, and she stood to one side so he could pass. Even so, he managed somehow to bump into her, his hand brushing over her backside as he did so.
"Hey!" She jumped back sharply. "Watch it!"
"Perdóneme," he said. But an unrepentant grin curled his mouth up and he continued on his way whistling.
"Pervert," she muttered, glaring after his retreating figure. He was just turning the corner and disappearing from view when, with a screech of brakes, a police car drew up alongside her.
"Buenos dias, Señorita Jacobs," came a familiar voice. She turned to see Carlos and Pablo, resplendent in freshly pressed brown uniforms.
"Buenos dias." She opened the back door and climbed in, having barely fastened her seatbelt before they were speeding away.
The route to Los Cristianos was simplicity itself - straight down the motorway. And since the speed limit on the Autopista del Sur was 120kph, they were there within the hour. From a distance, it didn't look promising - modern high rise hotels set against a backdrop of barren, dust-dry mountain slopes. But as they sped through the city streets and past church squares, heading towards the old harbour, the holiday resort gradually acquired a more human face.
They pulled to a halt by a promenade, the police car attracting nervous glances from tourists and locals alike. This seemed to be a favourite spot to watch the harbour goings on. There were certainly plenty of those, thought Jemma, watching a fishing boat unloading its catch, several pleasure craft buzzing to and fro, an ocean-going yacht preparing for departure, and a hydrofoil bringing tourists from one of the islands.
The next couple of hours, though, she had little time to enjoy the view. She was too busy showing harbour masters and boat captains the photo of Blade and asking them if they had seen her, with Carlos and Pablo taking turns to translate her questions into Spanish where necessary.
Her heart sank when a fat old woman in a black dress, who had been nosily taking an interest in their discussion with one captain, interrupted to insist that she had seen the woman in the photograph. The sighting was undoubtedly authentic - how many other six foot tall, dark-haired women were there who shinned up balconies and over rooftops while helping boy thieves to escape? But to Jemma's relief, the encounter with Blade had apparently happened pre-interrogation, much to her avidly listening police escorts' disappointment. Her hammering pulse returned to normal.
They stopped for refreshments at midday, and in a little tapas café on the promenade settled down to a snack of olives, herring fillets, smoked ham, and potato salad with herbs. Her escorts drank café solos, but Jemma had some freshly squeezed orange juice.
They had picked a window seat, and as she drank she stared out at a glass-bottomed boat taking tourists to see the whales and dolphins, and wished she was here on holiday. Then she brightened; at least she wasn't back in that dingy London office with Jonathan, surrounded by stacks of manuals.
Her bladder made its presence known then. She stood up, wiping hands made moist by the chilled glass on her backside, and froze as her fingers felt the outline of something in the back pocket of her jeans.
"Everything all right, Señorita Jacobs?" asked Carlos.
"Oh..." She realised she was frowning and forced a smile. "Yes. Fine. I just have to go to the... you know." She gestured to the door at the back of the café marked servicios.
He nodded and resumed his discussion with Pablo, about something called lucha Canaria. From their enthusiasm and raised voices, she guessed it must be a sport of some kind.
As she walked towards the toilets, her mind was racing. The 'pervert' outside the Field Office hadn't been copping a quick feel after all. He had deliberately slipped something in her pocket. There was only one person who knew she was here....
She closed and bolted the door marked Señoras behind her, then pulled the folded piece of paper from her pocket and smoothed out the creases. The words were written in a bold, flowing script:
If there were any other way, I wouldn't involve you. But I need some photos of Abdusamad and al-Akhdar by tonight. Hide them in a newspaper, and leave them in: the Bar el Aperitivo, rear corner table, nearest the toilets.
The last bit had been written in a different, much less flamboyant hand. Blade's contact must have chosen the drop point himself. She recognised the name of the bar. It was just down the road from the Santa Cruz Field Office.
'By tonight'. Damn it! I need to get back there now.
Thoughtfully, she repocketed the note. She used the toilet and flushed it, then washed her hands at the basin, staring into the mirror while she did so. Her nose was starting to peel, she noted absently. Have to get a higher factor sunblock.
The drop point for the photos was in Santa Cruz but that didn't mean Blade was there too... just that she had tried to make things easy for Jemma. Well, easier, she thought ruefully. If Remington caught her slipping information to a traitor...
The word brought her up short. Suppose Blade had gone over to the Libyans. Suppose... No. Mac had told her to trust Blade, and she did. And what was more, from the note it looked like Blade trusted her.
The thought gave her a warm glow and she smiled wryly at her reflection. When it came to Blade, she had always had a bad case of hero worship, possibly more (none of her friends had ever managed to make her heart beat faster the way Blade did). It had been the source of much good-natured ribbing at training school.
Jemma checked her watch. Carlos and Pablo would be wondering where she had got to. Time to convince them she had done all she could in Los Cristianos and Remington could use her help back in Santa Cruz. She squared her shoulders and unlocked the door...
Waiting for news was hard on the nerves. Ash sighed and tried to concentrate on the book Vito had lent her. She had read You Only Live Twice before, of course, but never in a foreign language. It was slow going but it kept her mind off things, and was certainly helping her to brush up her Spanish.
The photos Jemma had provided had been copied and distributed and dozens of pairs of keen eyes were keeping watch for the suspects throughout Los Cristianos. Vito's Uncle had also set up a round-the-clock surveillance on the waterfront warehouse. If the Libyans showed, they would know it, he assured her... But the waiting was driving her nuts.
Bond would never have stayed put like this, she decided grumpily. He would have disguised himself as a peasant and headed for where the action was. Now there's an idea.
The door opened and Vito popped his head round. "Uncle just telephoned." There was no mobile phone signal in the mountains, so Ignacio had arranged to use the mayor's landline.
Ash got to her feet at once. "At last. Let me talk to h-"
Vito waved his hand peremptorily. "He rang off. But I have a message for you." His brow creased as he recited from memory. "A delivery truck just drew up outside the warehouse. Three men are unloading cases labelled 'machine parts' and carrying them inside. The man in charge is Khaleb Abdusamad."
Yes! "Did Ignacio get a look inside the cases?"
Vito grinned. "He said you would ask that. No. He will take a look later when all is quiet."
"I need to be there," muttered Ash. She was pacing up and down, she realised, and halted abruptly. "Is there some way I can get back to Los Cristianos?"
"Is that wise? Your picture..."
She waved aside his objections. "I'll change my appearance."
He face lit up. "Will you wear a wig and make your eyes look Oriental?" She folded her arms and looked at him. He grinned unrepentantly.
"Nothing so elaborate. Most people don’t scrutinise strangers thoroughly. They're looking for a woman, so if I dress like a man...and walk like one too...."
She considered each of the male villagers in turn, looking for one whose build resembled hers. Old Bartolo might do. He was a bit stooped, but he had once been about her height. Of course, she could really do with those brown contact lenses but they were back in her flat in Primrose Hill....
She became aware that Vito was watching her keenly, and shook her head. "Are you still here."
"I need some transport out of here. Think you can sweet talk the Mayor into providing it, hmmm?" She raised an eyebrow.
"No time like the present."
"OK. Can I come with you?"
"But I can help y-"
"I said no, Vito. It’s too dangerous! Besides, you might blow my cover."
The boy scowled and locked glares with her, but in the end he sighed and gave in. While he darted off on his mission, she went in search of Bartolo. As she had hoped, the scrawny old man did indeed have an old suit he no longer wore, stored away in an old chest, and with the aid of three 10,000-peseta notes, he was more than willing to let her have it.
The banana lorry dropped Ash in Los Cristianos' red-light district then disappeared into the dusk.
As she strode towards the waterfront, she shoved her hands in her trouser pockets, put her shoulders back, and tried to walk like a man. The gloom should make it harder for people to tell she wasn't who she was pretending to be. She would be glad to get rid of the disguise though - Bartolo's suit was itchy and smelled of mothballs and, with her hair tucked up inside it, his cap was too small.
"¿Quieres un casquete?" came a woman's voice from a doorway across the street. A scantily clad hooker had issued the lewd invitation, Ash saw.
"Estoy ocupado," she called, lowering her voice's register and making it as gruff as possible.
The woman shrugged and turned away. So far, so good. Ash strode on, keeping her pace steady and brusquely declining invitations from three more hookers. It was a relief to leave the red-light district at last and approach her destination: the building opposite the warehouse.
As she mounted the stairs to the second floor flat where Ignacio had set up his observation post, she saw no guard and frowned. They were dealing with Libyan terrorists after all. She was about to knock, when she heard raised voices. One was Ignacio's, the others she didn't recognise.
She pushed open the door and stepped into a blue cigarette haze... then froze. Two pistols were aimed at her heart and one wicked looking knife was poised for throwing.
"Nice to see you too," she said dryly.
"Blade?" The big man's scowl changed to a smile.
She took off her cap and ran a hand through her hair.
"I thought you were a man." He put his gun away (a Super Star automatic, she noticed interestedly) and gestured to the others to put their weapons away too.
"That was the intention." She threw her cap onto a table littered with empty plastic cups and doughnut cartons, took a seat and looked up at him expectantly. "Care to tell me what you're arguing about?" His expression changed and her heart sank. "The consignment's gone, hasn't it?"
He nodded. "I'm sorry, Señorita." He pulled out a packet of cigarettes and offered her one. She shook her head. "The Libyans were too smart for us. Once inside the warehouse they must have transferred the contents of the crates somewhere else. When I got to them, they were already empty." He lit up, and sucked in a lungful of smoke. "It wasn't a total waste of time though." He let the smoke out slowly. "Guido, show Blade what you found."
Guido turned out to be the skinny man who looked like a ferret. The object he obediently handed her looked like a little lump of Plasticine and was slightly greasy to the touch. She held it to her nose and sniffed. Barely any odour.
"It was in the corner of one of the crates," said Guido.
Ash chewed her lower lip. "Presumably they have detonators and timers too."
Ignacio nodded. "That would be logical."
"So where is the Semtex now?"
"We were just talking about that when you came in." He gestured at the remaining man, who was dark and stocky and had a crescent-shaped scar on one cheek. "Conrado here thinks it must have been aboard a boat that left here an hour ago."
"There is some doubt?"
"No," said Conrado firmly. "No doubt."
She pursed her lips. "Any idea where the boat was heading?"
"One of the islands." Ignacio grimaced. "Unfortunately, we don’t know which one."
"Do not worry, Señorita," said Conrado. "I recognised the owner. When he returns," his smile became menacing, "I will ask Capt. Aznar where he took the cargo."
"No you won't," said Ash. She gave Conrado a menacing smile of her own. "I will."
It was lucky they'd known the captain's identity, reflected Ash, as she eyed the sweating man standing in front of her. If they hadn't, he'd now be dead.
What the greedy fool had failed to take into account, when he took the Libyan's money, was that dealing with terrorists was like dealing with the devil. On her instructions, Ignacio and his men had found Capt. Aznar's car down near the waterfront. Soon afterwards, Ash was carefully removing the Semtex hidden inside the engine.
She took great pleasure in telling the recently returned Captain of his narrow escape and showing him the plastic explosive primed to detonate when he keyed the ignition. The peaked cap crushed between his shaking hands would never be the same again.
Offered Ignacio's protection, he was only too eager to spill the beans. "La Palma," he stammered. "I took them to Santa Cruz de la Palma."
"You're certain you saw them unload the cargo there?"
"Si, Señorita. On the waterfront. There was a truck waiting for them."
"Did you get a look inside the boxes?"
"No." He glanced fearfully at Ignacio.
"Pity." Ash drummed her fingers on the table. "Did you listen to their conversation, overhear any names?"
He shook his head. "They were speaking a foreign language. I could not understand. And no, Señorita, there were no names."
Damn. "Did you see either of these men?" She pushed aside a coffee cup and slid the photos of Abdusamad and al-Akhdar across the table towards him. He leaned forward and regarded them with a frown.
"Him." He stabbed a grimy forefinger at Abdusamad. "The other man was not one of them."
She considered this piece of information for a moment, then nodded. "Thank you." Relief spread over the captain's grizzled face and he visibly relaxed.
Ash turned to Ignacio. "His family will need protection too."
He stubbed out his cigarette. "We will take them all to the mountains. They should be safe there."
She spared a sympathetic thought for the villagers who would be playing host to yet another of Ignacio's waifs and strays.
"What about my boat?" bleated the captain suddenly. "My business?"
She curled her lip. "Let me put it this way. Which is more important to you: your boat or your life?"
A chastened look crossed his face and he subsided, muttering.
"Don’t worry," she consoled him, "it won’t be for long." I'll make damned sure of that.
While Ignacio's contacts scoured La Palma for signs of the truck loaded with Semtex (and frustratingly came up empty), Ash used the laptop and internet connection he had provided for her.
In between eating and sleeping she trawled the world wide web for information about possible terrorist targets on La Palma. By evening, she was no further forward. She leaned back in her chair and stretched, feeling the bones in her abused shoulders and neck realign themselves with a click. Why had the Libyans picked that particular island? There was nothing on the westernmost one of the Canary Islands except bananas, tobacco, and dormant volcanoes. Oh, and telescopes - the atmosphere in the Canaries had a clarity not found elsewhere in the world.
She closed her tired eyes, massaged the bridge of her nose, and tried to picture La Palma. Before she had gone to El Hierro, she had visited the other island and hiked up into its national park. There she had spent hours simply sitting and gazing at the spectacular scenery that was the Caldera de Taburiente, relishing the deep quiet that soothed her battered psyche.
It was possible the astronomers at the Herschel telescope were doing research for the military, she supposed, but unlikely. The Libyans must have some other target in mind. But what the hell was it?
I need to know if there are any secret military installations. If only I could access the Organisation's records...
She sighed then and conceded defeat. Nothing else for it. She would have to ask Jemma for help.
"Anything you need, Señorita Jacobs?"
Jemma looked up from her sheaf of printouts to find Ramirez regarding her enquiringly. You could show me how to use that computer over there to retrieve spy satellite photos, then leave me alone for an hour or two. "No, thank you," she said aloud. "I'm fine."
The Canarian nodded and went back to his own desk where he was working on a gadget that looked like a surveillance bug.
She glanced down at the transcript of Blade's Copenhagen mission debriefing. It had been Remington's idea to go over it with a fine tooth comb and find out if Blade had revealed 'more than she meant to' about how her partner died. He had given Jemma the task then been called away to take an urgent, top secret phone call from London.
The transcript was a waste of time - as anticipated there was nothing to incriminate Blade - but it had been interesting to read the details of the mission.
It had started out routinely enough. Someone at the British Embassy in Copenhagen was passing military secrets to the Russians. Blade and her partner Sam Carney had flown out, bugged the embassy, and kept the members of staff under observation. They had whittled the possible suspects down to one: the Vice-Consul, Brian Jepson. Then they had set a trap.
A young Dane named Berde Dyhr whose mother was British and who had helped the Organisation in the past, contacted Jepson and offered to sell him military hardware schematics - misinformation Blade had requisitioned specially from London. At first the Vice-Consul had treated Dyhr's offer cautiously, but after two follow-up meetings, Jepson had taken the bait. A few days later, the Organisation's Russian mole reported that the schematics were in Russian hands.
It had seemed cut and dried. Blade and Carney took Jepson into custody and were taking him back to London for interrogation about his Russian handler, but somehow the Russians got wind of it. Desperate to stop Jepson, they had thrown caution to the winds and intercepted the three Britons as they walked along the Vesterbrogade towards the Central Station. The Russians' guns were silenced, and the first Blade knew of the ambush was a zzzzzzp followed by a searing pain in her right hip, which turned out to be a bullet.
The next few minutes were hectic. As Blade told the officer debriefing her: "Shoppers were screaming and ducking for cover. Bullets were zipping past us like angry bees." They managed to get Jepson into the shelter of a shop doorway.
Though in pain and bleeding from her wound, Blade had taken out two of the Russians - one stationed on the rooftop across from their hiding place, another crouching behind a post box further down the Vesterbrogade. Her partner, meanwhile, was having trouble keeping the increasingly panicky Jepson subdued and in the end knocked him unconscious.
Based on their assessment of bullet trajectories, Blade and Carney decided there were at least two more hostiles out there. But the Danish police were on their way, so all they had to do was sit tight and wait for reinforcements. Then the Russians changed their tactics - they took hostage a civilian loaded down with shopping and demanded an exchange: Jepson for the terrified young Danish woman.
The stark words of the transcript couldn't convey Blade's tone as she recounted what happened next. Jemma could imagine it though - controlled on the surface; underneath, anger and grief, and - if the tall woman's reaction under the truth drug had been any indication - self-recrimination.
Carney's position was awkward. He had to stay with the unconscious Jepson, but the doorway severely limited his field of vision. Ash was better placed and could see both the Russian zigzagging to get a clear shot at Sam and the one holding a gun to the terrified hostage's head.
It was an acknowledged fact between Blade and her partner that she was the better marksman. So Carney had shouted to her that she should take out the hostage-taker while he took care of the other Russian. She had agreed to do as he asked.
It was a tricky shot. Her hands were slick with her own blood, and the frightened woman obscured her target almost completely. Almost. A square centimetre of the Russian's head was just visible. It was an almost impossible shot... for anyone except Blade.
Bystanders reported how the man's head exploded, covering the hostage with blood and brains. (The poor woman screamed, then fainted.) Blade, meanwhile, was otherwise occupied. As she fired, so did the other Russian. She turned in time to see her partner, a shocked look on his face, slamming into the door behind him, a red stain spreading rapidly across his chest.
According to the debriefing transcript, Blade couldn't remember much of what happened next. A bystander said she had shot the remaining Russian through the heart, limped across to the now conscious Jepson and bashed him over the head with her gun (the barrel of her Browning automatic was later found to be dented), then tried vainly to staunch the blood coming from Carney's chest. The police and ambulance arrived minutes later, but by then he was dead.
There had been an enquiry, of course. The panel heard that, at the vital moment when Carney was firing at the Russian who subsequently killed him, Jepson had recovered consciousness and distracted him. It was bad luck, they concluded. Blade was reprimanded for giving Jepson a severe concussion (it delayed his interrogation by several weeks). The Danish police gave her a commendation for saving the Danish woman.
And you haven't forgiven yourself for not choosing the other target, have you, Blade? Even though it would probably have cost that hostage her life.
Ramirez was humming as he fiddled with coloured wires, and Jemma bit back an irritated sigh. Blade's note was burning a hole in her pocket. She needed to use the computer, but what excuse could she possibly make? I'm looking up sensitive information so I can give it to a traitor?
The note, unsigned but written in an instantly familiar hand, had somehow appeared beneath Jemma's napkin while she eating lunch in a local restaurant. It had raised far more questions than it answered. The other agent wanted to know if there were any secret military installations on La Palma. Blade had also suggested that if any spy satellite photos existed, they might enable her to trace the whereabouts of a truck full of Semtex. Jemma knew in theory how to obtain such information, but she had never done so in practise. If only she could ask Ramirez -
He stopped fiddling with the bug, stood up, and reached for his jacket. "I have to go out, Señorita. There are some parts I need."
There is a God!
"If you need anything while I am gone, my wife -" He gestured then fell silent so they could both hear the sound of typing coming from the office next door.
"I'm sure I'll be fine. But thank you."
The moment he had gone, she scuttled across to the computer, and keyed in her ID and password. Five minutes later, she knew that there were no secret military installations in La Palma and the telescope observatory was doing purely scientific research. OK. Satellite photos next.
Keeping one eye on the open door, and one ear open for the keys clattering in the other room, she worked out the Global Positioning System co-ordinates for Santa Cruz de la Palma's waterfront. Then she ran an enquiry to see if any Spy Satellite had been in the vicinity and taken photos at the time specified by Blade. It took a few nail-biting minutes, but the answer came back in the affirmative - by a fluke, two separate satellites had passed overhead within an hour of each other, bracketing the time Ash had specified..
Excitedly, Jemma called up the first referenced photo. From space, La Palma looked remarkably like a giant Stone Age axe, its point forming the southernmost tip of the island. She zoomed in on her grid reference, about halfway down the eastern edge of the 'axe'. The increasing magnification slowly brought Santa Cruz's harbour into view and she blinked in amazement. The level of detail was astonishing. Not only could she see the quay, she could see the boat moored to it, the white pickup truck parked nearby, and the men loading the last of several containers onto it. In fact the picture was so clear she could make out the truck's license plate... or most of it anyway - some letters were obscured by mud.
Just wait until Blade hears about this!
Frame by frame she advanced through the available photos, following the progress of the white pickup truck. Unfortunately, the spy satellite was moving rapidly out of range, and the last frame available showed the truck turning onto a road leading west. Damn!
She pulled up a road map of the island and peered at it. The road was the C-812 which climbed steadily west, winding up and over the island's central spine, the north south trending ridge called the Cumbre Nueva, before heading for Puerto de Tazacorte on the west coast.
Was that where the truck was headed? She frowned. Wouldn't it have been simpler to sail the boat straight to Puerto de Tazacorte? Perhaps the photos from the second satellite, which had come into range an hour later that night, would shine some light on the matter. She retrieved the relevant photos and zoomed in once more.
It took her a while (giving her eyestrain in the process) to locate the white pickup truck again - mainly because it wasn't where she expected it to be. She had been concentrating on the coast, but it was still up on the Cumbre Nueva, parked right where the C-812 met the hiker trail that followed the line of the ridge south. What the hell was going on?
She zoomed in further and stared at the magnified picture. Three men were carrying containers single file along the Ruta de los volcanos, heading towards the island's southern spine, another north south trending ridge called the Cumbre Vieja. As she advanced the photo, frame by frame, the men hiked further along the trail, heading towards the summit. Abruptly, the pictures stopped. The second satellite had moved out of range.
Jemma leaned back in her seat, clasped her hands behind her neck, and stared unseeing at the screen. Those containers were heavy. They wouldn't want to carry them far. Which meant... Why the hell are the Libyans hiding their Semtex on the Cumbre Vieja? It's virtually inaccessible.
The sound of typing coming from next door stopped abruptly and was replaced by the low murmur of conversation. She logged off the computer hastily and scuttled back to her desk. When Remington put his head round the door, she was engrossed in the debriefing transcription once more.
"Change of plan, Miss Jacobs," he said without preamble. "There's a bit of a flap on. I've been recalled."
"The Americans have received an ultimatum... from a Libyan terrorist group. They're threatening to disrupt the US economy if they don’t give in to their demands."
She blinked. "Can they do that? 'Disrupt their economy' I mean?"
"Who knows?" He shrugged. "This particular group doesn't usually make idle threats."
"What do they want?"
He counted off the points on his fingers. "US withdrawal from Saudi Arabia. Lifting of sanctions. Unfreezing of Libyan assets. Compensation for American bomb damage. Release of all Libyans held prisoner in the US."
"They don’t want much do they?"
"They must think they hold all the cards."
"So, am I to come with you?"
"No. Stay here and keep up the search for Blade. Though - " he looked suddenly thoughtful, "- she could be in the States by now."
Should she tell him about the Semtex cache in La Palma? Blade hadn't said she could, and it might endanger the other agent. Reluctantly, she held her tongue.
"I'd better get moving. I've got a plane to catch." Remington turned and headed for the door.
"It could all be a bluff," she called after him.
He paused and looked back at her. "And it could be that at this very moment, they're planting nuclear devices in major centres of commerce throughout the USA."
Then the man in the pinstriped grey suit was gone, and Jemma was left with a chill running down her spine.
Ash read the note from Jemma again and frowned. The Cumbre Vieja?
She ground her teeth. It would be so much easier to work out what the Libyans were up to if she had access to the Organisation's ample resources. Still, at least this latest 'flap' the little blonde had mentioned meant Remington would be out of the way, and that would make communication between them easier.
As she powered up her laptop and logged onto the internet, she wondered what the threat to the American economy could be. Just a bluff, probably.
Ash called up her favourite search engine and typed in Cumbre Vieja. It resulted in a surprising number of matches. But once she had discarded amateur accounts of hiking holidays and bird-watching trips (the world wide web meant it was no longer just relatives and friends who could bore you with their holiday photos, she reflected ruefully) not much remained except geological reports.
A page at the New Scientist was listed. She clicked on the link and blinked as the title 'The Drowning Wave' came up. The first line was certainly attention grabbing:
When 500 billion tonnes of rock plunge into the sea off the west coast of Africa, people in the US had better head for the hills.
'Off the west coast of Africa'? That could be us. She remembered the conversation she had had with the waiter in the clifftop restaurant in El Hierro. What had he said? "A section of the island collapsed... the result: El Golfo." Intrigued, she read on.
Any day now, a gargantuan wave could sweep westwards across the Atlantic towards the coast of North America.
He had beamed at her, she remembered, as he said: "The wave, it not stop until it reach the Bahamas, until it reach the USA itself!" Her mental alarm bells were ringing, and, heart pounding, she skimmed forward through the text.
La Palma, the most volcanically active island in the Canaries, is now unstable. "If the flank of the volcano slides into the ocean, the mass of moving rock will push the water in front of it, creating a tsunami wave far larger than any seen in history..."
Though the article had begun in dramatic style, it eventually revealed that there was little to worry about at present. A college student had used the GPS to monitor the positions of 20 markers planted around the Cumbre Vieja on both sides of the significant faultline, and it had completely stopped moving.
So that's all right then, thought Ash. Except that it isn't.
Distractedly, she ran a hand through her hair, appalled at the scenario unfolding. The scientists might deem La Palma's volcano safe, but what if someone, Libyan terrorists, say, used Semtex to give its western flank a little nudge?
Part 5 (Conclusion)
Ash peered out at the silhouetted island drawing slowly but steadily closer, and wondered what Jemma was doing. Fielding calls from London, probably.
She had rung the other agent the moment she understood what the Libyans were up to and told the shocked blonde to notify both HQ and the Canarian authorities immediately. The phone call to the Tenerife Field Office had undoubtedly been traced, but since she'd be long gone it no longer mattered.
Getting to Santa Cruz de la Palma by hydrofoil would have taken far too long, so Ignacio had called in a favour from a pilot friend. When the big man and Ash, Guido, Conrado, and Vito (the twelve-year-old had returned from the village last night and neither Ash nor his uncle could deter him from coming) arrived at Reina Sofia airport, a Piper Malibu Meridian was fuelled and waiting on the runway for them. They had scrambled on board the little 6-seater turboprop, strapped themselves in, and cheered as the pilot took off, leaving startled airport officials still racing across the concrete towards them.
Ash glanced at the sea below them. Small boats and fishing vessels were heading for Tenerife. Coincidence, or had the evacuation of La Palma already got under way? She checked her watch then grunted in frustration. The Libyans hadn't given any indication when they planned to detonate.
"Something wrong?" asked Ignacio from his seat next to her. "Other than the obvious," he added.
"I have no idea how much time I have... or don’t have."
Notifying the Canarian authorities had been a tough call, but there had really been no choice. Ferrying La Palma's 80,000 inhabitants to safety in La Gomera or Tenerife would take time. Especially since the authorities would presumably have to keep the presence of the Semtex quiet or risk outright panic.
It would make her own job harder, though. She suspected the lack of bomb disposal experts in the vicinity (unless there were some currently holidaying in the Canaries), meant she would have to deal with the threat herself. But by now there would almost certainly be a security cordon around the summit, and if, in spite of Jemma's efforts on her behalf, they still believed she was a terrorist.... She sighed.
"When I get my hands on Abdusamad..." muttered Ignacio. He was taking the threat to his fellow Canarians personally.
Ash grunted. "Get in line."
They flew over yet more small craft and she suddenly wondered whether the Americans were evacuating their eastern seaboard too. Or were they instead sitting tight and hoping for the best? After all, it wasn't as if the CIA had blown the whistle on the terrorists. The intelligence had come from a British agent - one currently suspected of being 'rogue' into the bargain. But if they ignored the tip and there was a tsunami, well, they could say good bye to Boston, New York, Miami....
"Five minutes," called the pilot.
At least Washington now knew exactly what they were dealing with rather than that vague threat to 'disrupt their economy'. The Americans wouldn't accede to terrorist demands, no matter how dire the threat, but they could stall and buy Ash valuable time.
Suddenly, La Palma's eastern coastline was rushing towards them, and the volcanic slopes of its southern spine were dead ahead.
"We're here," called the pilot unnecessarily. "But Control are telling me not to land."
"Ignore them," said Ash crisply.
"Si," said Ignacio. "Do as Blade says. Take us in."
The pilot glanced at them, bit his lip, then shrugged. "OK."
Then the plane was banking, beginning its descent towards the Aeropuerto de la Palma.
A battered minibus was waiting for them at the end of the runway, as far from the control tower as it could get. Even as they disembarked and ran towards it, an airport security van, lights flashing, was heading towards the Piper. Ash hoped the pilot could talk his way out of trouble.
Vito was the last to climb aboard, and his door was still half-open when the driver gunned the engine and the minibus shot forward, its tyres complaining. Ash reached past the off-balance boy and yanked the door closed. He toppled into his seat with a grunt.
The driver, a little man with a big moustache and an even bigger beer belly, aimed the minibus at a suspiciously fresh gap in the airport's perimeter fence. "Where to?"
Ignacio shrugged and gestured towards Ash.
"The Cumbre Vieja," she said. "As near to the summit as you can get."
They headed predominantly west, along a winding road that climbed past lush vegetable gardens, banana plots, and vineyards. Ash noticed that all the traffic they passed was heading in the opposite direction, away from danger. She chuckled wryly.
"Blade?" Vito's brown eyes were fixed on her.
She shrugged. "We must be crazy."
"Of course. We are heroes!" His eyes sparkled. "This is a great adventure."
"Yeah, right." Ash gave him a crooked smile.
The tools and containers inside her haversack were digging into her hip, and she shifted it into a more comfortable position. Then, purely for something to do, she stripped down the Super Star automatic Ignacio had lent her and carefully cleaned and oiled it. As she reassembled the Spanish gun and shoved it back into the shoulder holster the big man had also lent her she became aware of Vito's wide-eyed stare.
"Hopefully I won't have to use it," she told him. To her amusement, the boy seemed more disappointed than relieved.
A pleasant fragrance wafting through the window drew her attention back to her surroundings, and she saw that they had left the vineyards behind them and were now surrounded by Canary pine forest.
"Road block," called the driver, braking so suddenly it threw them all forward in their seats. Ash followed his gaze to the barrier manned by two men whose pea green uniforms indicated Civil Guard.
"Is there another way?"
Shit! Ash chewed her lip. What were the odds the police still thought she was a terrorist? She decided to risk it. A police escort could get her to the summit faster...
"Keep going," she instructed, "but take it slowly. Despacio."
The driver nodded then put the minibus in gear. As they approached the makeshift barrier, the two policemen behind it looked up and stepped forward. The one on the right was holding up his hand in the universal stop sign when his colleague's eyes widened and he shouted and reached for the holster at his belt.
"Floor it," yelled Ash.
"¿Qué?" The driver gaped at her.
"Put your foot down... NOW." Looks like I'm still on that damned list.
The driver stamped on the accelerator and the engine roared. Like a rocket, the minibus headed for the barrier. For a moment, the two policemen froze, disbelief written all over their faces, then they dived for cover. The vehicle barely checked as, with a loud splintering crack, the wooden barrier gave way. Then they were through and climbing.
Ash glanced at the wing mirror, and saw one of the policemen talking urgently into his radio while the other raised his pistol and pointed it at -
The mirror exploded.
"Hey! They're shooting at us," yelled Vito indignantly.
The window next to Ash vanished in a shower of flying glass and she flinched as a splinter nicked her cheek. At me, you mean. Then the winding road curved and they were out of gunshot range and she breathed a sigh of relief. It was one thing risking her own life, another risking that of a twelve-year-old boy.
"That was close," said Ignacio.
She nodded. "And it's going to get worse. They've radioed ahead."
"But if they do not allow you through in time..." The big man's voice trailed off, and, just audible above the labouring engine, Ash heard the faint rhythmic drone of rotors.
She leaned out of the non-existent window and craned her head round, trying to spot the helicopter. Must be that faint speck to the east. She pulled her head back inside the minibus.
"Perhaps they won’t need me anyway. That may be the bomb squad coming in now."
"I thought you said there weren't any disposal experts in the vicinity," said Vito.
"I did." Maybe this is going to pan out OK after all.
The driver changed down a gear. "Not far to the summit," he called.
"Good." The pines were gradually thinning as the slopes changed to outcroppings of basalt sprinkled with a black layer of ash and pebbles. There wasn't going to be much cover from here on in. "Stop here," she ordered.
The driver braked obediently and the vehicle came to a halt in the middle of the road.
"I'm going the rest of the way on foot," she explained, as she opened the door and got out. Vito made to follow her but she stopped him and made him get back inside. She shifted the strap of the haversack so it wasn't cutting into her shoulder. "They'll be expecting me to be on the minibus."
"You wish us to play innocent tourists forced to drive here at gunpoint by the bad English terrorist?" Ignacio grinned at her.
She snorted. "It might be more convincing if you claim to be lost and deny all knowledge of me."
Vito sat forward in his seat. "But what about the bullet holes?"
"What bulletholes?" She gestured at the missing wingmirror and window. "You drove too far over and caught them on an overhanging branch."
Ignacio looked shrewdly at her. "Will their questioning us provide enough of a diversion for you, Señorita Blade?"
"I don’t know. But at least it'll tie up some of the manpower they've got looking for me."
He nodded then stuck out his meaty hand. "Good luck."
She took it and gave it a shake. "Be careful. They'll shoot first, ask questions later."
"You be careful too."
The droning noise was louder now and they could see the police helicopter approaching through the trees.
"Go with God, Señorita." Ignacio's gaze was solemn and she held it for a moment, before nodding.
"Thanks for all your help, Ignacio.
"De nada." He nodded in return then turned and gestured at the driver. "Drive." The minibus chugged up the road and disappeared from sight.
Ash took a deep breath and scanned her surroundings. That looks like the most direct route to the summit. She set off at a fast clip, feeling her calf muscles start to pull before she settled into a more comfortable stride. At first a carpet of pine needles cushioned her sneakers, but as she climbed and the trees thinned, she found herself more and more pounding over crumbly earth, pebbles, and bare black rock that demanded her full attention if she wasn't to slip and break an ankle.
She wondered what the time was but decided not to look at her watch. She would either get to the summit in time or she wouldn't. And if she didn't, well, there was nothing she could do about that now.
Jemma peered down at the boulder-strewn ridge. The Cumbre Vieja looked just as it had on the satellite photos - minus the police crawling all over it, of course. The mixture of blue, brown, and pea green uniforms indicated that all three branches of the Canarian police force were represented. Many were scowling up at the helicopter and hanging onto their peaked hats as the downdraft from its rotor blades threatened to blow them off, and all were armed.
The Provincial Governor, who had commandeered this helicopter for an impromptu inspection of the area, and, with Weatherby's intervention, had grudgingly allowed Jemma to hitch a ride, was talking to his aide, so Jemma took the opportunity to question the pilot.
"What are all these policemen doing here?" she asked him over the mike. "They can't all be part of the reception committee for the bomb squad!"
"A precaution. The Libyans may have left someone behind," came the pilot's voice in her headphones.
"A suicide bomber?" She shuddered. "God, I hope not."
It gave her a perverse sense of satisfaction to see all this activity, which was due in no small part to the efforts of her and Blade. Not that it had been easy to set things in motion.
Remington thought Blade's information might be a decoy to distract attention from events unfolding in the USA. In the end Jemma had gone over his head. She would pay for it later, she supposed. A black mark on her file? Transfer to a different department?
She had tracked down Weatherby himself to his club in Whitehall. The Chief was in the middle of dinner when he took her phone call, and tore her off a strip. Didn't she know there were channels for this sort of thing? Junior agents should know better than to disturb their elders and betters for trivial information blah blah blah.... When she finally managed to get a word in edgeways, however, he grasped the situation's urgency instantly. She sensed him listening intently to her every word and intonation as she outlined what she and Blade had found out.
"You have data to back this up?" he had asked crisply, and when she answered in the affirmative, requested a look at it. She had gone to Ramirez and with the startled field officer's help sent all the information through to London. Ten minutes later, a phone call from Weatherby had informed her that the information was on its way to the White House. The Chief had congratulated her on her decision to interrupt him and Blade's Section Head had personally rung her to express his gratitude.
The Governor finished his pontificating and glanced out the window, nodding with satisfaction as the helicopter settled gently onto a flattish patch of ground. As the whine of the motors died away, his harassed looking aide squared his notes and put them in his briefcase. Jemma unbuckled her safety belt and prepared to disembark.
An area of the Cumbre Vieja's summit had been cordoned off with flapping red-and-white tape. The Semtex must be there. She scanned the area for the tall agent but could see no sign of her. I thought Blade would be here by now.
Much to everyone's appalled disbelief (and Jemma's secret satisfaction) the plastic explosives had indeed proved to be where Blade had specified - packed in one of the faultlines that had opened up during the eruption of the summit back in 1949. A meeting of the emergency services had been convened and the Provincial Governor informed of the threat. At Weatherby's request, Jemma had attended.
It was at that meeting that the Police Chief sheepishly admitted a bomb squad would have to be flown in from the Spanish mainland. (The squad with the US fleet in the Med. would take even longer to get here.) Jemma had sucked in her breath then mentioned, as Blade had told her she might have to, that the agent was skilled in bomb disposal and already on her way to the area. There was only one fly in the ointment - Blade's details were still on the 'wanted terrorist' list. The Police Chief had gone red in the face and promised to rectify that.
When Blade arrived, she would need all the help she could get. Not that I can offer much, thought Jemma ruefully. Mac didn't show us how to disable state of the art timing devices. Thank God, she knows what to do!
She climbed down from the helicopter, ducking her head instinctively even though the blades were now stationary. Fortunately, everyone's attention was focussed on the Governor and his aide, which meant she could slip away and get on with what was important. She headed towards the cordoned-off portion of the summit, past men constructing banks from earth and boulders - for protection against a blast, they told her (the rock meant foxholes were out of the question). She wondered whether to tell them not to bother. If the western flank of the ridge slid into the sea they would all go with it.
At the tape, she paused and craned her neck. It was just possible to see inside the two metre wide crevice that was the fault. Those creamy slabs piled on top of one another must be the plastic explosive.
"Señorita?" She turned to find a civil guard Police Sergeant regarding her suspiciously. She dug in her pocket and showed him her id and authorisation.
He grunted. "Even so. It is not safe here, Señorita. Though the timer is not yet activated, it is more than likely booby-trapped. The smallest movement could -"
A shot rang out, and he spun on his heels. "Qué?" Then he was running towards the guard who had fired his gun and was now shouting to his colleagues. The Sergeant bellowed at him and he flushed then replied.
"What is it?" asked Jemma who had followed hard on his heels.
But the Sergeant was rattling out orders like a machine gun and seconds later several of his men were scrambling down the rubble-strewn slope towards a clump of pines. He watched them go, a predatory gleam in his eyes.
"A hostile," he replied. "One of my men spotted her at the same time a checkpoint was reporting a minibus full of locals trying to gain access." He smiled grimly. "They claim to have got lost but it was clearly a diversion."
Jemma's stomach lurched. 'Her'? 'Hostile'? "Hang on a mom-"
The guards reached the pines and vanished among the trees. Simultaneously, a familiar tall, dark haired figure, wearing a T-shirt and jeans and carrying a haversack, darted out into the open.
"They've flushed her out," said the Sergeant.
Blade's gun was clearly still holstered, and her hands were purposely held away from her body to show she was no threat. Even so, a jittery guard near Jemma raised his pistol and fired. Powdered rock puffed up in front of Blade's right foot. She checked, then continued on.
"Don’t shoot," yelled Jemma, watching in amazement as the other agent jogged almost unconcernedly up the slope towards her, her progress followed by several gun barrels. "She's one of ours!"
The Sergeant's head jerked round at that, his expression a mixture of disbelief and irritation. Knuckles whitened as fingers tightened on triggers.
"You've got to believe me!" Jemma's heart was in her mouth. Abruptly she remembered something and shoved a hand feverishly in her pocket. "Here. Look at this -" She pulled out the crumpled piece of paper and shoved it at him.
Something in her expression must have got through to the Sergeant, or maybe it was the Canarian Police Force logo on the photocopy of the Police Chief's orders that she had grabbed before she left Tenerife. "Hold your fire," he called distractedly as he read. His men muttered, but to her relief they lowered their guns.
By the time Blade was near enough for Jemma to make out the pale blue of her eyes and hear her panting, the Sergeant had finished speaking angrily into his radio and was turning an apologetic gaze on Jemma..
"A mix-up at HQ," he said tersely. "The Policía Nacional received new instructions about your colleague but forgot to pass them on to the Guardia Civil. They are rectifying that 'oversight'." His lips twisted slightly on the last word.
Blade drew to a halt in front of Jemma, then bent to ease a stitch in her side. Her upper lip was beaded with sweat. "Fancy seeing you here," she gasped.
Jemma didn't know whether to hug or hit the tall woman, so she settled for putting her hands on her hips and glaring. "What the hell did you think you were doing? You could have been shot!"
"Oh, that." Blade's voice was dismissive. "I saw you were up here with them. I knew you’d talk them round. Good flight?" She accepted a canteen from the Sergeant and took a long and clearly welcome drink of water.
"You know, if you'd come to the Field Office in person, instead of phoning then going all cloak-and-dagger on me, you could have come by helicopter too."
A raised eyebrow met that remark. "Think so?" Blade handed back the canteen to its owner with a smile of thanks.
Suddenly uncertain, Jemma chewed her lip. "We...ell." Now she thought about it, at that point there had been a distinct risk Ramirez might have shot Blade on sight. But what did it matter now?
The other agent had got her breath back (She must be really fit to have recovered so fast, thought Jemma enviously) and was already turning to the Sergeant. "So. Want to show me this bomb of yours?"
He regarded her sceptically then shrugged. Whatever had been his instructions over the radio, it seemed Blade was to be given carte blanche. "This way," he said.
Ash eased herself gingerly into the deep crevice, which was two meters wide at the top but narrowed rapidly. Never thought I'd see a faultline quite this up-close-and-personal.
Acutely aware of booby-traps, she kept her movements controlled and her breathing shallow as she examined what the Libyans had done. The slabs of Semtex were sweating gently in the heat. I know the feeling.
The crevice was too narrow for all the Semtex to be piled in one heap, so the Libyans had deposited smaller piles of the plastic explosive at intervals, each connected to the next by fuse wire. The wire was probably superfluous, but they clearly weren't willing to take the chance some of the Semtex might not detonate. She reached for the cutters inside her haversack then decided to wait until after she had dealt with the booby trap.
"How's it looking?" called Jemma.
Ash straightened carefully, her head and shoulders emerging from the crevice, and looked back at the other agent who was kneeling by the flapping tape four metres from her. "Too early to say," she called.
The blonde had refused to fall back with the police. Afraid signals from radios, computers, or mobile phones might set off the radio-controlled timer, Ash had extended the diameter of the cordoned-off area by a further 30 metres and banned any more helicopter flights. (The Provincial Governor had been outraged but she was immune to his protests. She had last seen the buffoon careering down the slope in search of a police car to commandeer. If the bomb went off, he had no intention on being anywhere near it.) But Jemma wanted to help, insisted on it, in fact. Even if it consisted of merely relaying information. Stubborn is her middle name, thought Ash wryly.
She smiled reassuringly at Jemma, who seemed to have attracted the eager attentions of a tanned young civil guard (and who could blame him?). She thought about ordering him back with his colleagues, then shrugged. If he was chatting Jemma up, it would at least keep her mind off more frightening things.
Stooping once more, she began working her way along the crevice, negotiating her way carefully over the earth and rubble that had fallen into it since its formation. When she reached the timer, she halted and squatted in front of it. Bog-standard technology, she was relieved to see. And the display remained encouragingly dark.
She wondered where the trigger signal would come from - a plane flying overhead, a boat hiding among the flotilla of craft fleeing from La Palma? Deliberately she pushed that thought away and focused her attention on the timer, examining it from all angles, following every wire to its destination and guessing its purpose. Finally, she was satisfied that there was only one booby trap - a movement-sensitive device.
Bomb disposal experts usually had hi-tech machinery at their beck and call, and were encased in protective body suits. Ash had neither. She smiled ruefully, reached for her haversack, then hesitated.
"How long 'til the Spanish bomb squad gets here?" she called, hoping Jemma could hear her.
There was a pause while the blonde presumably asked for a status report. "Half an hour," came back Jemma's muffled voice.
"Any word from Washington?"
Another pause. "The Americans are still talking and the Libyans are still listening."
But for how long?
Ash pulled out her wire cutters and the can of quick setting epoxy resin she had asked Ignacio to get for her before they left Tenerife. The bomb squad would have a fit, but they weren't here, and sometimes you just had to improvise.
Muttering a brief prayer to any divinities who might be listening (Ash wasn't religious but she had no qualms about hedging her bets), she aimed the can's nozzle into the gap between the movement sensor and the slab of Semtex it was resting against. As foam billowed out of the nozzle, she directed it gently, almost lovingly, to and fro, building up a latticework of white strands, gradually encasing the sensor in a hardening white mesh.
The heat helped the resin to set almost instantly and when she was satisfied the sensor was sufficiently immobilised, she put down the can and reached for her haversack. Her heart was going like the clappers and sweat was trickling between her shoulderblades, but her hands were steady, she was pleased to see.
She took a deep breath, then exhaled. Using wire from the reel in her haversack, she deftly spliced in an alternate circuit, which would hopefully mislead the timer as to the motion sensor's status. Then she snipped the original wires, and ducked...
Ten seconds later, realising she hadn't been splattered all over the Cumbre Vieja, she began breathing again.
"Everything OK?" came Jemma's voice.
"Jus-" Ash stopped and cleared the frog from her throat. "Just peachy! I've disabled the booby trap. Bought us some time for the bomb squad to get here at least."
"Can you get me a spade or shovel or something?"
While she waited, Ash eased along the crevice again, snipping the fuse wire between each pile of Semtex as she went. Movement caught her eye and she straightened and glanced up. A blonde head was peering in at her.
"This do?" A hand holding a latrine spade appeared.
Blade took the tool. "Perfect. Thanks."
As Jemma retreated out a view again, Blade began shovelling the loose earth and debris from the crevice floor and packing it into the gap between the first pile of Semtex and its neighbour. It was a makeshift job, she had to admit, but better than nothing. She had just finished and resumed her position by the timer when the display came to life. Bright red digits flickered. 3:00 changed to 2:59, then to 2:58....Uh oh!
"Blade," came Jemma's shout, her tone urgent. "We've just heard: the Libyans have walked out of the talks."
"I know," she called. "They've triggered the timer."
"What?! How long have we got?"
"Was three minutes. Less now. The Bomb Squad?"
"Still ten minutes away."
Shit! "Guess I'll just have to tackle the timer myself, then."
"Not if you wish your friend to live," came a male voice.
What the -? Ash straightened up to her full height to see what was going on. Jemma was lying face down in the dirt, the young guard straddling her and holding a knife to her throat.
Jemma winced as the razor sharp knife bit into her skin. Talk about Jekyll and Hyde! One minute the young man had been chatting her up, complimenting her on her beauty, her hair, her figure, as well as being helpfulness itself - It was hot wasn't it? Would she like some of his water? The next, he was sweeping her legs out from under her, knocking her down so they were out of sight of the guards behind the tape.
She could have kicked herself. Of course the Libyan suicide bomber would be in disguise. And what better camouflage than a civil guard's uniform? Somewhere, its original owner lay dead or dying. And she was next.
"Throw down your gun," called the Libyan to Blade.
The tall woman hesitated. Her expression was the grimmest Jemma had ever seen, her lips pressed thinly together, her eyes like blue chips of ice.
"Do it...or your friend here gets her throat slit from ear to ear. I won’t tell you again."
Jemma struggled to break his grip. His response was to wrench her left arm higher behind her back until she thought it would break. The knife pressed deeper and her neck stung fiercely. She was sure she must be bleeding. She arched her head back, to escape the knife and to see more clearly what Blade was doing.
Wordlessly, the other agent reached for her shoulder holster, unclipped the gun, and pulled it free with two fingers. She threw it away, and it landed with a thud.
What are you doing? Jemma tried to speak, but the knife was pressed so hard into her throat she could barely swallow.
"That's good," purred her captor. "Very good."
Forget about me, Blade. Disarm the bomb. If you don't, I'm dead anyway... we all are. As blue eyes locked on hers, she had the distinct impression Blade knew what she was thinking.
Abruptly, the other agent ducked back into the crevice, and Jemma braced herself for the slash of the knife opening her throat. So this is it, then? This is how it ends?
There was a sudden blur of movement and something flew past her ear. A sharp gasp was followed by something collapsing on top of her, pressing her face into the dirt and causing the knife to twist painfully against her throat. For a moment she thought she was going to suffocate, then the oppressive weight disappeared, and strong hands under her armpits dragged her to her feet. A screwdriver had sprouted from the young Libyan's neck, she saw hazily.
Blade's breath was warm on her face, her voice loud in her ears, as the tall woman yelled urgently, "It's gonna blow! Run like Hell!"
A mighty shove in the small of her back had Jemma hurtling off-balance down the slope. Ahead of her, she saw policemen rising to their feet, heads turning towards her, eyes widening, mouths opening. A deafening rumble obscured what they were shouting, as the earth itself seemed to rise up and shake her by the scruff of the neck. Then the Cumbre Vieja rippled, and people started toppling like ninepins.
Oh, my GOD!
She was falling head over heels, engulfed in a hail of pebbles, and earth and rolling boulders. Then her progress was brought to an abrupt and painful halt as she encountered something unyielding - an outcrop of rock, she registered dimly. Something big and fortunately quite soft, in places at least, landed on top of her, and for the second time in the last five minutes all the air left her lungs.
Jemma lay still, unable to do anything but gasp for breath. Whatever it was that was on top of her was shielding her from the worst of the debris raining down around her. After a few minutes the torrent of rocks became a rain of pebbles, became a light pattering of dust, then, finally, stopped altogether. She blinked her blurred vision back into focus, noting that the deafening rumble had died away. No birds sang and the silence was so intense she could hear the waves crashing on the black sandy beaches far below.
"Wha-?" The thing that had wrapped itself protectively round her stirred and unwound itself and she found herself staring into familiar blue eyes. Jemma gaped at Blade. Then impulsively she engulfed the other woman in a fierce hug. "We're still alive!"
"Yep," came the muffled reply.
A thought struck her, and she released the other woman and turned urgently to face west, searching for the tidal wave that must even now be racing across the Atlantic... The sea was its usual placid self. She turned an amazed gaze on Blade. "But how -?"
"The flank didn't slide far enough." Blade's smile was dazzling in her dirty face. "You look like you've been in a landslide," she added.
"Funny. So do you."
Feeling like a doddery old age pensioner, Jemma let Blade help her to her feet. Now that all her other senses were returning, she was aware of the cut on her throat stinging like crazy. Before she could touch it, Blade intercepted her hand and examined the cut herself
"It's quite deep," she said. "But it'll heal, and it shouldn't leave a scar."
Jemma nodded her thanks. Together they limped up to where the cache of Semtex had been, and where the Sergeant and some of his men were now standing and pointing. A leg jutted out of a pile of rocks, and Jemma recognised it as belonging to the Libyan who had held her hostage. An image of a screwdriver sticking out his neck came back to her and she shuddered..
"Are you OK?" asked Blade.
"I guess. Just realising how close I came to - you know."
The tall woman nodded but said nothing.
Jemma had been piecing together the moments after she was taken captive, and now she blinked in realisation and turned a flabbergasted gaze on the tall woman. "Did you choose to save me rather than disable the timer?"
Blade shrugged. "Calculated risk. I'd done what I could to minimise the explosion. And I was out of time anyway." She seemed to be blushing and Jemma was going to pursue the topic further but they had reached the Captain, and like him turned to regard the crevice which had moved ten metres down the western flank of the ridge.
"We were lucky," he commented. "Not all the Semtex detonated."
Blade nodded. "Lucky," she repeated, winking at Jemma, who made a mental note to get the details from Blade later..
A persistent drone had been growing steadily louder and Jemma turned and shaded her eyes, spotting its source: a helicopter with Spanish markings.
"The bomb squad," she said.
"In the nick of time."
The Sergeant hadn't noticed Blade's dry tone. He nodded gravely. "Indeed. Looks like we will no longer be needing your assistance, Señorita."
Four Spaniards in protective suits now clustered around what was left of the crevice, studying the remains of the unexploded Semtex. (Bet they're boiling to death inside those, thought Ash). Specialist tools hung from their utility belts and made their pouches bulge, and boxes of specialist equipment littered the slope nearby.
She exchanged a wry glance with Jemma. "C'mon," she said, grabbing the blonde by the elbow and leading her downslope. "Let's leave it to the 'experts'."
"Where are we going? The helicopter's back there." The puzzled blonde gestured with her thumb then stumbled on a pebble and almost fell.
Ash shot out an arm to steady her. "Careful." The other woman looked as exhausted as she felt. "I need you to use your clout to straighten things out for some friends of mine."
"Clout?" Jemma gave her an amused glance. "What makes you think I have any?"
"Well, you've done pretty well so far."
The blonde's cheeks pinked prettily. "So, what 'friends' are these?"
"Some locals who've been helping me out. It’s time to return the favour."
Wearily they descended the hundred yards to the treeline, then angled left, heading towards the checkpoint just visible through the Canary pines. Parked nearby, Ash saw with relief, was a minibus which lacked one wingmirror and a side window.
As they neared the cluster of tents that had been erected in a clearing next to the barrier, a Lieutenant wearing the brown uniform of the Policía Nacional stood up and began to clap. One of his men joined in, then another.
Ash threw the blonde an embarrassed glance. "Must have mistaken us for celebrities."
The corner of Jemma's mouth twitched. "We'll be starting a new fashion trend next."
"Riiiiiiight!" Ash glanced at the other woman's blood-stained T-shirt (the cut on her neck had bled) and dirt-streaked, tattered jeans, then inspected her own attire, which was in an even worse state.
The Lieutenant was holding a hand out to her and since there was no way to avoid it without offending him, she shook it. Other policemen had come to see what was going on, and now they gathered round the two women and began slapping them on the back.
Everyone was speaking at once. Ash held up a hand for silence and they quieted.
"Gracias, gracias," she said. "Es muy amable de usted, but -" Thinking in Spanish was taking too much effort, so she switched to English. "- I need a favour."
"Si?" said the Lieutenant. "Just name it. We heard what happened up there." He gestured towards the summit.
"You are holding some friends of mine, one of them only a boy... They were in a minibus - " She gestured at the battered vehicle parked nearby.
Comprehension dawned in his brown eyes. "Si, a minibus. The occupants are over there." He signalled to a policeman guarding one of the tents, and the man ducked inside then emerged, shepherding some familiar figures in front of him.
Vito's ferocious scowl was replaced by a smile when he saw Ash, then his gaze lighted on Jemma and his expression changed to adolescent lust. Ash kept her face straight with some difficulty.
"Um..." Jemma glanced doubtfully up at her. "These are your 'friends'?"
"Yep." Ash had to concede that the big man and his companions looked more like pirates than respectable businessmen. But then, people on the run tend not to mix in polite society.
The Lieutenant was looking ill at ease. "Señorita. I apologise, but these men have been detained for questioning. I cannot release them, you understand, without authorisations, paperwork - "
Ash nudged Jemma. "'Clout'," she mouthed. "Sweet talk the Lieutenant, flash your ID, or something."
"'Or something'?" The little blonde gave her what used to be called 'an old-fashioned look' but obligingly pulled out her ID and took the Lieutenant to one side. The 'discussion' that followed seemed, to Ash's amusement, to involve Jemma talking animatedly and the Lieutenant listening long-sufferingly. The little blonde seemed blithely unaware her every move was being monitored by a lovesick twelve-year-old boy.
Ash folded her arms, leaned against the barrier, and whistled under her breath. The policemen had got over their bout of hero worship, she was relieved to see, and had returned to their duty - which seemed to involve drinking coffee and playing cards.
A short while later, the Lieutenant had issued new orders, and Ignacio, Vito, and the three other men were trotting towards her, broad smiles on their faces. She resigned herself to more backslapping, then Jemma joined them and she made the introductions all round. Ignacio greeted the blonde with a familiar wink and a pat to her backside which Ash thought was going to earn him a slap across the face, but surprisingly it didn't. As for Vito, for a moment, Ash thought they were going to need a crowbar to pry him loose from Jemma's hand.
She turned to the big-bellied driver. "Your minibus still working?" He nodded. "Great. Let's go."
"Where to, Señorita?"
"The airport, of course." Ash couldn’t wait to get back to her casa in Santa Cruz de Tenerife. A hot Jacuzzi and a soft bed were waiting there for her - she could sleep for a week.
While their companions walked towards the battered bus, Jemma delayed her with a hand on her arm. "Airport? You have a plane?"
Ash grinned. "Oh. Didn't I mention that?"
"It'll be a squeeze, but Vito can always sit on your lap."
Jemma rolled her eyes and stalked towards the bus. Ash chuckled and followed her, taking the opportunity to admire her shapely backside.
In the event, Vito sat on his Uncle's lap - he had a better view of Jemma from there. "Did you used to be a thief like Blade, Señorita Jacobs?"
The other woman blinked. "No," she told the curly-haired boy.
"Can you wrestle as well as Blade?"
"'Wrestle?'" Jemma turned an incredulous glance Ash's way, but she pretended not to see it. "Er, I don’t think so, no."
"Oh.... Do you have a boyfriend? Or do you prefer girls like Blade does?"
"Vito!" Ignacio's voice was sharp. "All these questions! Leave the señorita alone. Can't you see she's exhausted?"
The boy subsided, grumbling. Shame, thought Ash. I would have liked to hear the answer to that one.
At the rear of the minibus, Guido and Conrado were talking about the Carnaval. Tomorrow was the final day, apparently, and there would be a big procession ending with the bizarre ritual known as 'the Burying of the Sardine'.
It's nearly over? Some vacation that was! thought Ash ruefully. She relaxed back in her seat and let the buzz of conversation wash over her.
The driver glanced at her, then reached for the radio switch and raised an eyebrow in query. She nodded, and moments later music filled the minibus. As the bare slopes gave way to lush vineyards, Ash's thoughts drifted back to the Cumbre Vieja.
Seeing Jemma taken hostage had given her a flashback to Copenhagen. She remembered that day in the Vesterbrogade vividly - she should do, she'd relived it often enough in her nightmares. In Denmark, her instincts had been screaming at her to protect her partner, but she had overridden them, done what he had asked her to. And Sam had died. On the Cumbre Vieja, her instincts had screamed at her again. This time (Sorry, Sam, she thought mournfully) she had trusted them, and the little blonde was chattering vivaciously behind her.
In retrospect, she was shocked rigid by what might have happened had her calculated risk not paid off. It had been a close call, a very close call! And right now the citizens of the USA could have been paying very expensively for her decision. Her hands were shaking with reaction, she saw; she clasped them together firmly and hoped no one else had noticed.
A newsreader interrupted the music.
"What is he saying?" Jemma had leaned forward and her head was now close to Ash's.
"It seems," said Ash, trying to listen to the fast, colloquial Spanish and translate at the same time, "that the predicted eruption of the Cumbre Vieja turned out to be much smaller than the scientists had feared. There was no structural damage, and the only casualties were a couple of policemen killed in a landslide." She glanced at Jemma.
"The Libyan and the guard whose uniform he stole," murmured the blonde, her gaze distant.
The newsreader's voice was continuing. "The evacuation has been aborted. People may return to their homes immediately," translated Ash. "In unrelated news, it seems the severe tornadoes forecast for the eastern seaboard of the USA have veered safely out to sea and those who were evacuated 25 miles inland are to be allowed back to their homes."
"'Unrelated'", said Jemma dryly.
Ash nodded. "Completely."
The music resumed and the minibus continued towards the airport.
Gary gulped his beer, sighed contentedly, then wiped the foam from his moustache. "So, what's she like in the field then, JJ?"
Jemma sighed. "Who?" But she already knew. Ever since she had got back to London, her fellow agents had been talking about the near disaster in La Palma, Jemma's part in it, and, of course, Blade's. Perhaps they'd lose interest once the enquiry was over and things had died down.
"Ashley Blade, of course," said her former classmate.
Jemma shrugged. "Remember all the things Mac told us about her? They're true."
"Really?" He blinked. "I thought he was exaggerating."
"She can be as irritating as hell, she improvises outrageously, she takes insane risks... and I'd trust her with my life." In fact I did. Absently she fingered the plaster on her neck. Beneath it, the cut was healing nicely, and, as Blade had said, without leaving a scar.
"Worked out whether you fancy her or not yet?" Gary was doing his usual trick - drawing doodles on the table with his forefinger, using spilt beer for ink.
"I -" Jemma's cheeks grew hot. How could she tell him the answer when she didn't know herself?
He looked up at her and grinned. "She's still in the Canaries, you know. Told Bill Thompson that, since her holiday had turned into a mission, she was entitled to more leave in lieu. She got to keep the casa too. Jammy sod!"
So she's still out there. Jemma sighed.
When they had flown back to Tenerife, both agents were almost dead on their feet, so Ignacio had graciously consented to drive them back to Santa Cruz. Even so, Blade had had enough energy to prevent Jemma from getting out of the truck without first promising to spend the last day of the Carnival with her. Both knew by then that Ramirez had booked Jemma onto a flight back to London the next evening and, consequently, she had the day to herself. Rather apprehensively, she had agreed.
She needn't have been worried though. Batteries recharged from a good night's sleep, she had been more than ready to celebrate life. With Blade keeping an eye out for pinching fingers (a growl and a glare from the dark-haired woman seemed to prove an effective deterrent to most of the lascivious men), they ambled along the decorated streets of Santa Cruz, stopping to watch exhibitions of folk dancing and wrestling, or to listen to the bands playing traditional instruments. (Though Blade clearly enjoyed the music, Jemma still found it something of an acquired taste.)
As evening drew in, and even Jemma had to concede she couldn't eat one more churro, they joined the onlookers cheering eight men bearing a 10-metre long cardboard sardine on its way to the waterfront. When, at last, the fish had gone to its glorious end on a funeral pyre, mourned by its 'widows' (who, oddly, seemed to be men in black hats, veils, and high heels!), a firework display began.
As she and Blade gaped up at the gaudy pyrotechnics unfolding high above them in the night sky, Jemma sighed happily and counted it a day well spent. Later, on the plane, contemplating an uncertain and suddenly rather bleak future, she was able to take some consolation from that fact.
Wonder if Blade and Adriana are back together or if she found herself another luscious blonde for that huge bed of hers.
Gary's eyes lit up and he waved at someone behind her. "Over here, Nat."
Jemma craned her neck round and saw a small redhead in a black leather jacket making her way between the crowded tables towards them. "Hi, Nat," she called. "Glad you could make it."
"Hi yourself." The other woman plonked herself onto the uncomfortable wooden chair next to Jemma with a sigh of relief. "Traffic's murder," she complained. "Whose idea was this anyway?"
Jemma shrugged. "It was the only time you were both free. Me, I can make it anytime." Currently, she had all the time in the world to do whatever she wanted (except leave the country). If she'd been in the Canary Islands, it would have been great having so much free time. But back here, in a cold and rainy English March...
Natalie patted her arm sympathetically. "I heard about your suspension, JJ. Doesn't seem fair."
Jemma sighed. "Yeah, well. At least it's with pay. They have to go by the book, you know." A memory of Remington going on and on about following procedure made her wince. "I disobeyed orders from my Section Head, didn't I."
Gary kicked his chair back and stood up. He raised an eyebrow at Natalie. "What are you having?"
"Have they got Old Peculiar?" asked the redhead.
Jemma nodded. "They've got everything." She had chosen the crowded little London pub precisely because it stocked the real ale that her friends were partial to, and because it was near her flat. Herself, she preferred white wine.
"Great. I’ll have a pint of that, Gary, please." He nodded and wandered over to the bar.
"So." Natalie turned her attention to Jemma. "When will you know?"
"The results of the enquiry? Day after tomorrow."
"If it’s any consolation, I hear Mac put in a good word for you."
"Good old Mac."
"And Counter Intelligence. Thompson spoke personally to Weatherby on your behalf."
Jemma smiled. "That'll be Blade's doing."
"I haven't met her yet." Natalie grimaced. "I'm still on the very bottom rung. Be ages before I get to go on a mission with someone like her. What's she like?"
Here we go again. "Well - "
But as usual, Natalie hadn't waited for an answer. "We've all been green with envy, you know, JJ," she continued. "There were Gary and me thinking you'd drawn the short straw; at least we were doing missions - boring ones, true - surveillance of drop points and that kind of thing - but the real thing, you know?"
"We both imagined you doing a dull old desk job in Security. And all the time you were swanning around the Canary Islands doing real secret agent stuff with Ashley Blade." Natalie's expression was a mix of envy and rueful congratulations.
"Well, it wasn't quite like that -" Jemma broke off as Gary returned with Natalie's pint. He threw a bag of salted peanuts onto the middle of the table then sat down.
"No, I don't suppose it was. Cheers." The redhead took a gulp of her beer.
"I happened to run into Blade by accident really," mused Jemma.
Gary spluttered beer everywhere as he laughed out loud and Natalie pointedly got out a tissue and mopped up the worst of it. "You did that once before with her, JJ." he joked. "Literally fell right out of your tree."
Jemma flushed a little at the memory of her very first meeting with the tall woman. "Some friends you are!" she protested, reaching for her white wine. "You're supposed to be on my side."
"We are, dear. Though sometimes we may not act like it." Natalie flashed a cheeky grin at Gary who mouthed moi? and assumed an injured expression. Then he became serious.
"It'll all turn out all right in the end, JJ. I'd bet on it."
Jemma shrugged and reached for the bag of peanuts. "Well, I certainly hope so. Because if it doesn't, I'm out of a job."
Ash gazed out of the little restaurant's picture window at the bay one kilometre below, then for the third time in as many minutes glanced at her watch.
Jemma's plane should have landed at El Hierro's little airport three quarters of an hour ago, and if she'd immediately taken the taxi Ash had arranged to have waiting on the tarmac...
The Mirador's front door opened and in walked a familiar looking blonde carrying a suitcase. The short skirt revealed shapely ankles, noted Ash appreciatively. Then her gaze travelled upwards. Uh oh!
Jemma looked hot and sticky, and her expression was a study in confusion and irritation. She hadn't seen Ash yet, so, as the maître d hurried over to greet the new arrival, Ash took another sip of her wine, and turned to regard the spectacular view of the Atlantic again. Moments later, she was aware someone was standing next to her.
"What the hell is going on?" came a testy voice.
Ash suppressed a smile and looked round. "Hello, Jemma. What does it look like? I'm buying you dinner."
She gestured at the empty seat opposite, and after a startled pause, Jemma slid into it.
"I've just got off the plane," she muttered. "Couldn't you have at least have let me get washed and brushed up first?"
"No problem." Ash beckoned the waiter over, and moments later he was leading the still flustered blonde towards the washroom.
When Jemma returned five minutes later, her blonde hair was neatly brushed, and she looked a lot less frazzled than she had. She grabbed the glass of wine Ash had ordered for her in her absence and downed it in one. The waiter happened to be passing, and he refilled it. When he had gone, she looked at Ash and said simply, "So?"
Ash handed her the menu, which was firmly rebuffed.
"I didn't mean that and you know it." Jemma sighed. "You love this cloak and dagger stuff, don’t you?"
Ash nodded gravely. "So if it's not the menu you want, I guess you want to know why you're here."
Jemma nodded. "All they told me was that my suspension was lifted. I'm back on active service; meanwhile Remington is taking early retirement."
"More time to prune his roses," agreed Ash. "Couldn't happen to a nicer bloke!"
Jemma ignored the interruption. "Then I was told I was being transferred to Counter Intelligence and to report to you here for further instructions." She regarded her surroundings curiously. "Where is 'here' anyway? No, forget I asked. Knowing you, it's probably the restaurant at the end of the universe and a nearby galaxy is about to explode."
Ash pretended to be hurt by the accusation, but Jemma ignored that too.
"'She'll give you the details of your next mission,' said my new Section Head. Well, I'd already learned my lesson about not obeying orders, thank you very much, so I said, 'Yes, Mr Thompson. Three bags full, Mr Thompson. No, no need at all to tell me insignificant little details like why I'm returning to the Canaries."
Jemma's voice had risen in volume and Ash noticed that the waiters and the Mirador's other diners were regarding them covertly, perhaps hoping for a brawl.
"So, I packed my bag," continued Jemma regardless, "caught the next flight to El Hierro, and here I am... completely in the dark." Breathless from her outburst, she settled for glaring.
"Have you finished?" asked Ash gently.
Jemma had the grace to blush. "Sorry. I get crabby when I'm tired and hungry. Did someone mention dinner?"
Ash laughed out loud then and handed over the menu, which this time was eagerly accepted. The disappointed spectators returned their attention to their own concerns, and Ash began suggesting main courses, helpfully translating the Spanish. When they had both decided and ordered, she set about putting Jemma out of her misery.
"OK. First, don’t blame Bill Thompson for keeping you in the dark. I wanted to tell you the news myself. He agreed, but it put him in an awkward position."
Jemma selected a bread roll and began to butter it. "What news?"
"That our next mission will be in Rio de Janeiro."
The other woman blinked. "Rio? I'm going to Rio?" She swallowed audibly. "Hang on a minute. Did you say 'our' mission?" She reached for her wine and took a huge gulp.
Ash nodded. "That's right. Our as in 'you and me'.
"Was that Thompson's idea?"
For once, Jemma was speechless, so Ash took advantage of the silence to continue. "And since there didn't seem much point my coming back to England, I thought you should join me here and we'd fly on to Rio together tomorrow."
The wine in Jemma's glass seemed to have vanished and Ash was about to signal the waiter to top it up when she had second thoughts. Hangovers weren't a good idea when you were flying the next day. "Mineral water," she said instead.
Obligingly he brought a tall glass filled to the brim, and Jemma drank deeply while she got her head round the news. "But that means I'm your new partner?"
"And we're both going to Rio? As in Brazil?"
Ash's resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "Got it in one."
"Wow!" The smile the blonde gave her was positively beatific. And when the waiter appeared with their food, the smile stretched even wider, if that was possible.
"Eat up," ordered Ash unnecessarily. Jemma's cutlery was already moving at the speed of light; only when the edge had been taken off her hunger did her knife and fork slow to more normal speed.
"So why are we going to Rio?" asked Jemma placing her knife and fork neatly together on the edge of a plate that looked like it had been licked clean.
"Because all the women are tanned and lovely?"
Jemma rolled her eyes. "Besides that."
Ash smiled then became serious. "Because according to the latest intelligence, Khaleb Abdusamad is there. But more importantly, Minyar al-Akhdar is there too," she said. "And I don’t know about you, Jemma, but I have a score to settle with the man who framed me as a traitor and nearly wiped out the East Coast of the United States."
Jemma fingered her throat, which Ash was relieved to see was healing nicely. "Me too."
Ash gestured at the view below them. "See that?"
Jemma looked puzzled by the change in topic but she nodded politely. 'Nice view."
Seeing their interest, the waiter assigned to their table hurried across. "Want to know how the bay was formed, Señoritas?" he asked eagerly.
"No," said Ash crisply. "Thank you."
Crestfallen, he went away again. "That was mean," said Jemma. "Besides I want to know." She gave Ash an astute look. "Bet you're going to tell me, huh?"
Ash gave her a shit-eating grin. "Thousands of years ago, Señorita Jacobs, thees volcano -" she adopted an execrable Spanish accent that made the blonde's eyes bulge, "erupted and," she gestured exaggeratedly, "a section of the island collapsed... the result," an even larger gesture, "El Golfo."
"How much have you had to drink?" asked Jemma pointedly. Ash ignored her.
"Eet was a catasssstrophe! All that earth, sliiiiiding into the sea...! Eet set off - ¿Cómo se dice? - a tidal wave." She gave Jemma a tragic look. "The wave, it not stop until it reach the Bahamas, until it reach the USA itself!"
At that, Jemma's chuckling died and she gave the huge bay below them a longer, more searching look. "Wow," she said at last. "That nearly happened again, didn’t it?"
Ash nodded ."But with your help it didn't." She poured some of her remaining wine into Jemma's empty glass then raised hers in a toast.
"Partners," she said solemnly.
Jemma imitated the gesture. "Partners." Then she grinned and added, "Look out, Rio, here we come!"
Ash laughed. Jemma was going to be a handful, she just knew it. There was also an additional dimension to this partnership which was going to take some thinking about. After all, she had never been sexually attracted to Sam. "Look out," she agreed.
They clinked their wineglasses together, and drained their glasses dry.
My thanks go to friends and fellow bards Carrie Carr, Midgit, Advocate, and Keket for their feedback during the final editing stages of this story.
Thanks also to AJ for correcting my Spanish. (Any errors still remaining are mine not hers. <g>)
The threat posed by the Cumbre Vieja to the eastern seaboard of the USA is a real one. The New Scientist Article 'The Drowning Wave' by Tristan Marshall, from which excerpts have been taken, can be found at: