Warnings - See Part 1.
THE SPY WHO KILLED ME
When Jemma awoke, she found herself wrapped around Ash. It was getting to be a habit, she mused, smoothing her fingers over warm skin. A very nice habit! For several long minutes, she simply lay there, revelling in the presence and solidity of her partner, inhaling her familiar scent and the faint musk of sex.
They had made love by candlelight twice - the first time a fevered, almost desperate coupling that served to reassure Jemma they were still alive, the second a more slow and tender affair. Afterwards, exhausted both emotionally and physically, she'd had energy only to blow out the candles before closing heavy eyelids and sleeping like a log.
She yawned and started gathering her courage to face another day. How did that Chinese curse go? 'May you live in interesting times.' The events of yesterday had certainly been 'interesting'. In fact she would very much welcome a period of 'uninteresting' from now on.
Within her arms, Ash was beginning to stir. Jemma pressed a kiss between her partner's shoulderblades, released her hold, then rolled back to her side of the bed.
She found herself falling.
The drop hadn't been much, a matter of twenty inches or so, and a familiar, nasty rug had broken her fall. It was the unexpectedness of it rather than the landing itself that had stolen her breath away.
Jemma rolled her eyes. Idiot!
There was a brief rustling of the duvet, then Ash's tousled head blocked her view of the sloping ceiling. Blue eyes goggled down at Jemma. "What are you doing on the floor?"
"Um ... Forgot I wasn't at your place."
Ash scratched her nose. "Ah." She reached out a hand and Jemma took it and used it to pull herself to her feet. "Your bed is a bit smaller than mine." She made room for Jemma to sit on the narrow bed and draped an arm round her shoulder.
Jemma was pleasurably aware of Ash's nakedness pressed against her - her partner had dozed off directly after lovemaking, but even if Ash had wanted a sleepshirt, one of Jemma's would have been too small for her.
"So is my bedroom. I don't think my landlady could have got a double bed in here if she tried," said Jemma.
Ash's gaze flicked round the cramped room which, being on the very top floor, was too hot in Summer and too cold in Winter. Jemma imagined it through Ash's eyes and winced. The flickering candlelight had hidden a multitude of sins. Now, daylight revealed the fading wallpaper, the nasty stain in the corner where the roof had once leaked, the hideous mustard-coloured curtains, the scuffed chair, the warped wardrobe and the rickety dressing table with the framed photo of Jemma's parents on it. (Oops! Should have put that face down last night.) There was also, beneath the acrid scent of melted candlewax and burned wicks, the ever-present odour from the Chinese takeaway two doors down.
"Cosy," offered Ash.
"Cheap," countered Jemma, a little defensively.
"Hey." Ash gave her shoulder a squeeze. "I grew up in worse, remember? As affordable places in London go, this isn't bad."
Relief washed over her. "Thanks. I'm hoping I can afford somewhere nicer soon."
"You could always move in with me."
Jemma's heart began to pound. Was the offer a serious one? God knows Jemma had daydreamed about the idea. But Ash's trackrecord of longterm relationships was not good. Wouldn't it be pushing their luck -
"... except that my place was just blown up by a bomb."
She was only joking. Jemma hid her disappointment. "That is a slight disadvantage," she agreed.
Jemma had accompanied Ash when the tall woman surveyed the aftermath of the blast, her eyes cold, her expression grim. The hall was a ruin and so was the high-ceilinged sitting room that overlooked Albert Terrace. Brickdust and flakes of plaster coated the bookcase, three-piece suite, and wine-coloured carpet; strips of wallpaper hung from shattered walls; and the expensive entertainment centre and well-stocked drinks cabinet were unsalvageable.
"At least the kitchen and bedroom were unscathed," offered Jemma by way of consolation.
"I suppose that's something." Ash sighed. "I'd better find myself a hotel room."
Jemma blinked. "I know it's cramped, but wouldn't it make more sense for you to live here?" She tried to gauge Ash's reaction. Was that nervousness in the blue eyes gazing back at her, tension in the set of the broad shoulders? "Just until your place is habitable," she added.
The hasty clarification seemed to make all the difference. Ash relaxed and smiled. "OK. Thanks."
Ash brushed her lips against Jemma's cheek, then nibbled an earlobe, and a pleasant tingle travelled down Jemma's spine. She turned her head and met Ash's mouth with her own, then lost herself in the pleasurable sensation.
It was Ash who broke the kiss. She pulled away and gave Jemma a wicked grin. "By the way, I was wondering ... How thick are your walls?" She bounced up and down, the metal bedframe squeaking with each bounce.
Until that moment, Jemma hadn't realised quite how loud the squeaking was. The thought of her neighbours listening to last night's lovemaking made her go hot all over.
"God!" She put her head in her hands.
Ash chuckled. "Nothing to be ashamed of. I bet your neighbours have made you listen to them enough times."
As a matter of fact Jemma had grown used to hearing other people's TVs, hi-fis, arguments, and sexual encounters through the wafer thin walls. It didn't make it any less embarrassing though. She prayed she wouldn't meet the current residents of the flat next door on the landing for a while.
Warm lips nibbled her ear again and a hand cupped her breast, but Jemma was no longer in the mood and after a moment pulled away.
"No breakfast in bed?" asked Ash, arching an eyebrow.
"Sorry. It's the maid's day off."
"Not even if I find a can of 3-in-1 oil and oil the bed?" Jemma gave her a look. Ash sighed but stopped her attentions amiably enough. "What about breakfast in the kitchen then?"
Jemma's stomach gurgled approval. "Now that's a good idea. I think there are some cornflakes." She paused. "I'll have to pop out to the shops for some milk first though." Or I could ask my neighbour if she has a pint to spare. She winced as memory of the squeaky bed returned. Maybe not.
"There's no rush." Ash yawned then stretched, displaying the curve of her breasts to perfection. She followed the direction of Jemma's gaze with a grin, but didn't comment on it. "No point my going over to my place until the boys from forensics have finished anyway."
HQ had promised to get the lab boys round there with their fine toothcombs. Ash had told Jemma what they would probably find. C4 explosive. And a pressure release mechanism, triggered by the opening of the front door.
If she hadn't heard it.... Jemma clamped down on that horrific thought, and tried to slow her suddenly racing pulse. For something to do, she got up and crossed to the wardrobe and tugged the door, which had a tendency to stick, open. From it she selected a sweatshirt and clean pair of jeans, then glanced in the mirror at her partner.
"What will you do?" she asked.
Ash's brow creased then cleared. "Oh, about the flat, you mean? Make sure it's safe - and if it isn't, get it shored up. Then start getting some quotes from three different builders, I suppose."
Jemma bit her lip. Her flat hadn't been blown up, yet she felt angry, on edge She turned and glared at her partner. "You're taking it very calmly," she accused.
Ash was silent for a moment. "As a matter of fact, I'm bloody furious, if you must know." Her tone was sombre. "If Abdusamad were to walk through that door, I'd take him apart, piece by piece, and the louder he screamed the better.... First my Mercedes; now my flat. Not to mention Janus."
The blue eyes had gone ice cold and Jemma hoped she never had that look turned on her.
Ash's mouth quirked. "It's OK."
A thought struck Jemma. "Do you think he had anything to do with Corky and Jeff?"
"Abdusamad? It doesn't match his MO. But..." Ash shrugged. "Maybe. God knows he has reason enough to hate me and The Organisation. And Corky and Jeff are ... were friends of mine."
Jemma's fear and frustration boiled over. "Everyone's supposed to be on high alert. Why hasn't anyone spotted him, for God's sake?"
"I was wondering about that too." Ash pursed her lips. "After I've set the wheels in motion with the builders, I'll drop by HQ. Maybe Thompson will let me get involved in the surveillance operation, tighten its focus."
"I'll come with you."
"I thought it was your training school reunion."
Jemma blinked. She had forgotten all about it. "Oh! Oh well, it doesn't matter. I'll cancel-"
Ash leaned forward. "Look, I know you're worried about me, but I'll be fine. Go, meet your friends. In our job, you never know when it'll be the last time you see them." Her tone was light but her sentiment was deadly serious.
Jemma sighed. It was true that she wanted to keep an eye on Ash. More than that, if she could have her way, she would lock Ash in this very room until someone reported Abdusamad dead or safely in custody. It was also true that she had promised Natalie and Gary she'd go to the reunion. Plus, she had never been on the London Eye and she had already paid for her ticket...
"All right," she said at last. "But only if you're sure I can't help you out with anything this morning."
"I'm sure," said Ash. "Just promise me one thing."
"Although I'm pretty sure I'm the one Abdusamad's gunning for, you were with me in the Mercedes, in the caves, and yesterday at the flat. So there's a slight, very slight possibility ... " She trailed off, her expression grave.
Jemma's throat had gone dry, and she swallowed. "That I'm his target?" She had been so concerned about Ash, she had overlooked that possibility.
"Yes." Ash rose swiftly from the bed, crossed to where Jemma was standing, and captured her hands. She raised them, kissed her knuckles one by one, then looked deep into her eyes. "So please, love, be very very careful."
Jemma changed tube trains at Bank, her destination Waterloo. As she emerged from the Underground into daylight, she was looking round for signposts to the London Eye but it proved to be unnecessary. The gigantic Space Age Ferris wheel loomed over this part of the Thames's south bank, and she simply headed across the road towards it.
Her ticket had to be collected from County Hall, right next to the London Eye. Feeling smug, she sauntered past the queues of people who hadn't prebooked, swiped her credit card through the slot of one of the five ticket machines, and took the ticket it extruded. "Easy-peasy."
There were two times printed on it - 'checking in time' was half an hour before her 'flight'. Jemma rolled her eyes at the air travel terminology. Just because British Airways own the Eye.
"Hey, JJ," called a man's voice.
She looked up. A lanky young man with a shaggy moustache was hurrying towards her. By his side, trying to keep up, was a small redhead in a black leather jacket.
Jemma grinned. "Gary. Nat."
After hugs all round, the three friends headed outside to the Jubilee Gardens where they had agreed to congregate. Fortunately it was a sunny and clear Spring morning. The views from the Eye should be excellent.
"There's Laurel and Hardy," chortled Natalie, pointing at two of their former classmates, the one as tall and thin as the other was short and fat.
"Sh! They'll hear you," hissed Jemma. "Hi, Tim ... Jamie." She smiled and waved.
"Hi, JJ. Want some?" Jamie gestured at the half-eaten hot dog clutched in his pudgy fist. He must have bought it from one of the many overpriced street vendors.
Jemma grimaced. "No thanks. I ate before I came."
They hugged one another (or in the case of the men, slapped one another on the back), before beginning what would no doubt be the first of many 'catch up' sessions.
Four of their former classmates would be unable to join the reunion, learned Jemma with some disappointment. Joan, the slim black woman who was a whiz at languages, was working as liaison in Germany; sweet-talking Brendan of the long eyelashes was backpacking in Marrakech; dreadlocked Lennie was in Paris, helping with embassy surveillance; as for the irrepressible Mia, her mother had died and the funeral was today.
"Poor Mia," said Natalie. "But at least that means she can't play any more practical jokes on us."
"Thank God for small mercies," agreed Jemma, who would never forget being on the receiving end of a bucket of water balanced on top of a door.
A ruddy-faced young man with a jet-black beard was striding towards the group. There was something familiar about him, but Jemma couldn't quite put her finger on it. She did a double take.
"Rob. Since when did you grow a beard?"
"Since three months ago." The new arrival stroked his chin whiskers and preened. "Like it?"
"No," chorused everyone, before bursting into laughter.
Rob pouted. "Well my girlfriend thinks it's neat."
Gary and Natalie exchanged glances and mouthed 'neat' at one another. Jemma was about to rib Rob about finally getting a girlfriend (he had tried to date every woman in class and all had declined), when she saw four familiar faces heading towards the group. She was glad to see three of them, but the fourth ...
Louise Brande was wearing a fashionable red dress, matching jacket, and high heels. When she saw Jemma, she looked like she'd smelled something nasty. The feeling was mutual.
"Louise." Jemma forced a smile. "You came."
The tall blonde ignored Jemma and began talking to Tim and Jamie. Jemma shrugged.
"Dewi, how's the nose?" The stocky Welshman raised a hand to the broken nose Jemma had given him, by accident, in self-defence class, then smiled and hugged her.
"I'm told it gives my face character," he said cheerfully. "That's some tan you've got, JJ."
She tried not to look smug. "Got it in Rio. ... Geri, you look wonderful." Ever since she had known her, the statuesque brunette had been trying to lose weight. It looked like she had finally managed it.
"Thanks. You look pretty good yourself."
"Rashid. How's the fencing going?" Just in time Jemma remembered that the reserved young Pakistani didn't like being embraced and shook his hand instead.
He beamed at her. "Well. I won another trophy last week, thanks for asking."
"Congratulations! No wonder I could never get a blade on you."
At that, Geri looked up from checking her makeup in her mirror. "Hey, what's all this I hear about you and Blade?" She put away the mirror and snapped her handbag closed.
Jemma hoped she hadn't gone pink. "Um. What have you heard?"
Geri glanced at the other tourists milling around Jubilee Gardens and lowered her voice. "That you're her new partner, of course. And that you've already been on a mission with her to Brazil. What did you think?"
"Oh." She gathered her thoughts. "Well, it's true."
"Really?" The brunette's eyes had gone wide. "They partnered Blade with a newbie?"
Jemma nodded. This time she was sure she had gone pink.
"Well done, JJ," said Rashid. "There's hope for the rest of us."
"Don't expect to get the same special treatment," said a cold voice. All eyes turned to regard Louise. "Unless you plan on sleeping your way to the top." The eyes swivelled back to Jemma.
"You didn't, JJ, did you?" Rashid's brown eyes were disappointed.
But it wasn't like that! Jemma opened her mouth to defend Ash, but was pre-empted by Louise.
"JJ has a thing for Section Heads." The tall woman cocked her head to one side, folded her arms, and said in a tone of deep significance, "Why do you think Ian Remington had to resign?"
Several of Jemma's former classmates exchanged glances, and she could see them thinking there might be something in it. Anger settled in the pit of her stomach.
"Then they transferred her to Counter Intelligence," continued Louise, "and ...Hey presto! Bill Thompson pairs her up with his number one agent." The woman in red arched an eyebrow. "Is he good in bed?"
Jemma opened her mouth but no sound came out. For an agent, even a junior agent, to have got her information so wrong was mindblowingly incompetent.
"Um, Louise." A small redhead in a black leather jacket had forced her way to the front and was now standing directly in front of the tall woman. "I hate to break this to you," said Natalie, "but why would JJ sleep with any male section head? She's gay."
"Gay?" For the first time, Louse's cast iron certainty wavered.
Jemma cleared her throat and murmured, "Thanks, Nat," before turning a cool gaze on her opponent. "Sorry to spoil your theory, Louise, but it's true. I'm gay. Always have been. Always will be." She glanced at the men watching her and mock-grimaced. "Sorry, guys."
For a moment there was an embarrassed silence. Then Tim sniggered and Rob guffawed, and suddenly nearly everyone was laughing. Louise's face turned a shade of beetroot that was almost painful to observe and clashed dreadfully with her dress.
"If I was wrong, then of course I apologise," said Louise rather stiffly.
Call that an apology? wondered Jemma. But she wasn't going to allow Louise to ruin this reunion any more than she already had, so she shrugged, and murmured, "Thank you."
Then she glanced at her watch and at her companions. "It's check-in time. So are we going to stand around like lemons, or go and join the queue?"
"But to destroy her Mercedes!" Gary looked like his favourite puppy had just been run over.
"It it's any consolation," said Jemma, "she's driving a Lotus Elise now."
"It isn't. I'd give my right arm to own a SLK 230."
Natalie gave Gary's hand a pat. "Maybe one day," she consoled her friend.
After having their bags checked for explosives, food, and drink by BA employees (who'd turned a blind eye to Geri's brandy miniature - a lot of visitors must use Dutch courage to overcome their fear of heights), Jemma and her companions had trailed up the ramps that led to the gigantic Ferris wheel, and almost reached the designated boarding gate. It hadn't taken as long as Jemma feared. Complete flights on the London Eye only took half an hour, and the 32 oval observation pods could carry upto 25 people each. Anyway, catching up on what they had all been up to since they left training school had made the time pass quickly.
Gary and Natalie insisted on learning the full details of Jemma's recent 'interesting' adventures, of course. And her former classmates soon joined in (all except Louise, who wasn't too proud to eavesdrop). All had heard rumours of Abdusamad's attempts to kill Ash, and were eager to hear more from the horse's mouth. So after swearing them to secrecy, Jemma gave them an abbreviated account, which they punctuated with indrawn breaths and exclamations.
When she had said all she intended to, the others returned to their own conversations, leaving Jemma alone with Natalie and Gary.
The little redhead's brows had drawn together when she heard about the booby-trapped front door. "That was bloody close!"
Jemma grimaced. "Tell me about it. We're still in one piece, but Ash's flat isn't."
"So where is she staying now then?" asked Gary.
"Ash? At my place."
An exchange of glances met that statement. "You don't mean to tell me you're making someone like her live somewhere like that!" said Natalie.
Jemma put her hands on her hips. "What's wrong with my flat?"
"What's right with it, more like," said Gary with a grin.
Belatedly she realised her friends were winding her up. "Toe rags." In mock anger, she folded her arms and turned her back on them.
The tourists in the five entry gates were boarding the current observation pod. To Jemma's astonishment, the gigantic Ferris wheel kept turning throughout the operation. Fortunately, the rate of turn was slow and attendants issued instructions and physical support where needed. It still looked unnerving though.
When the last of the passengers had boarded, the attendants closed the pod doors, and beckoned to the next 25 people in the queue. Jemma found herself standing at the front of an entry gate, in a group of five that included Natalie and Gary and two complete strangers.
She gnawed her lip and pondered. Each pod was numbered, and, if her observations were correct, the next one would be '13'. Should she draw anyone's attention to this worrying fact? She decided against it. Which was just as well, because when the pod arrived, it had been renumbered '33'.
Superstitious lot, aren't we? Even so, she felt a rush of relief.
The open pod doors drew level with her entry gate and the barrier dropped. Jemma scurried across the narrow gap between the steeply sloping boarding platform and the capsule, refusing to look down at the Thames lapping far below her. Natalie and Gary hurried after her. Soon, everyone in their party had boarded, and the tour guide allocated to their pod - a tanned young man with a crewcut and an Australian accent - hopped inside, the doors closing firmly behind him.
The only part of the pod that wasn't made of see-through toughened glass was the floor. The illusion that there was nothing stood between her and a long drop was unsettling, and Jemma glanced at the oval, slatted wooden bench in the centre, where Geri was sitting clutching her brandy miniature. She decided against joining her and instead grabbed the aluminium handrail that circled the interior.
I'm a secret agent, she told herself. I can do this. And as the ascent was smooth and almost imperceptible, and the observation pod felt rock solid and was kept upright by some ingenious mechanism, her nerves quickly settled.
Soon even Geri was calmly walking from one side of the pod to the other, checking the compass points stencilled on the glass and comparing the view to that shown in their guide books, pointing out landmarks, or asking the tour guide questions (to which, being Australian, he didn't always know the answer).
It was amazing, seeing London from this angle, decided Jemma. Talk about picture postcard views! There were the Houses of Parliament, and Big Ben; Buckingham Palace and St. Paul's; The Post Office Tower, Canary Wharf, the Millennium Dome.... After quarter of an hour, their pod reached the top of the wheel.
From up here, even the dirty London streets looked clean, with their dinky toy cars and red London buses. The patches of green must be the parks. Jemma watched fascinated as toy trains wove in and out of Waterloo, and clockwork boats and barges negotiated the bridges that crossed this stretch of the Thames.
It was like literally being on top of the world. She wished Ash were here to share this, as they had shared the spectacular view of Rio de Janeiro from the Sugar Loaf cable car.
"Wow!" breathed Natalie in her ear. Gary was busy talking with Tim and Jamie on the other side of the pod ... about cars or real ale, presumably. "Isn't this something? They say you can see for 25 miles in all directions."
"Just as well we didn't come up in thick fog," said Jemma.
Somewhere in the pod a mobile phone rang, its theme The William Tell Overture. Jemma turned and saw Louise putting the latest tiny model to her ear. She exchanged a glance with Natalie.
"I know! She has friends," murmured Natalie. "Unbelievable, isn't it?"
Jemma chuckled and turned back to the view.
"You can't -" protested a man's voice.
"Hey!" exclaimed a woman.
Jemma spun round to see what the commotion was all about, just as a gunshot rang out. Something whizzed past her ear and ploughed into the toughened glass of the door right next to her. She glanced back and saw a neatly drilled bullet hole. Then instinct took over and she dropped to hands and knees, just as another bullet zipped through the space she had been occupying microseconds earlier.
The smell of gunpowder was suddenly strong in the confined space, and two loud clinks, followed by the sound of objects rolling across the floor, turned out to be spent cartridges.
"What the fuck?" asked Natalie, who was now crouching not far from Jemma.
With her peripheral vision, Jemma saw the tour guide pressing the pod's panic button, then something much more important claimed her attention and her heart began to pound so hard it threatened to come out of her chest.
Louise Brande was walking towards her, her expression stony, her eyes ice cold, their pupils shrunk to the size of pinpricks. In her hands was a Browning automatic pistol, and it was pointing directly at Jemma. (She's using the recommended two-handed grip, she found herself noting clinically). The knuckle of Louise's trigger finger whitened.
Jemma had time only to think, Oh God! This is it. when there was a flurry of movement to her right. Rashid's rugby tackle took Louise's legs out from under her. Her arms jerked up, and the pistol went off, the bullet ploughing into the ceiling of the pod. Dull thuds, grunts of anger and pain filled the capsule as Rashid wrestled with Louise, and everyone tried to keep clear of the flailing arms and legs, elbows and knees of the two combatants. Seconds later, Louise's pistol skidded across the floor and came to a halt next to the slatted wooden bench.
"Come on, Rashid," yelled someone, it sounded like Tim. "You can take her."
But it was easier said than done. Louise was fighting with a ferocity that surprised everyone, especially the goggle-eyed tour guide who was watching with his mouth open. Both agents had learned the same methods of hand to hand combat, but the young Pakistani was smaller and lighter than the tall woman. He was also hampered by the fact that he was trying not to injure her too badly, while she clearly had no such qualms. Louise jabbed two fingers into a nerve point in Rashid's right arm.
His cry of pain broke Jemma out of her momentary paralysis, and she moved forward, intending to help. But the combatants were rolling towards her, and she barely got out of the way in time.
They thumped into the pod door, which sprang open.
A bullet must have taken out the lock!
Jemma lunged forward, grabbing hold of Rashid's ankle just as he and Louise toppled out into space. The jolt threatened to tug her arm from its socket, then she was sliding headfirst towards the door.
"Help!" She found herself staring down at the Thames.
Something heavy landed on her calves, pinning her in place. The sudden halt almost broke her grip on Rashid's ankle. Then strong hands gripped her feet and ankles.
Jemma's own bodyweight, and the load on her arms, was pressing her painfully onto the door rim, and she found it hard to breathe. But she couldn't think about that now. If her grip failed, Rashid would face a 450-feet drop. She brought her other hand round and reinforced her grip on his ankle, aware of the horrified spectators crowding the windows of the pods to either side.
Below her, the young Pakistani was struggling to get a better one-handed hold on Louise's belt. His movements threatened to break Jemma's grip.
"Keep still," she called, feeling the sill digging even deeper into her midriff.
"Can't. I have to ..." The rest of Rashid's reply was blown away by a gust of wind.
Then Louise's belt snapped, and Jemma could breathe again.
"Up you come," said someone. Moments later she was being hauled back into the safety of the capsule. Rashid followed soon after. They had to pry her hands loose from his ankle - she couldn't seem to remember how to loosen them herself.
It was only later that Jemma remembered the unnatural quiet of Louise Brande's last moments. She hadn't cried out once, not even when her belt - a fashion item not built to withstand such punishment - broke. It was like some macabre silent movie playing out in front of Jemma's horrified gaze. An observation pod was directly in Louise's path, and the collision - violent enough to crack the toughened glass - sent her spinning head over heels like some rag doll. As the figure of the falling woman grew ever smaller, all colour seemed to leach from it, until it was just a small black smudge vanishing into the river.
The collision probably killed the other agent instantly, thought Jemma dully, but if it didn't, the murky waters of the Thames would have finished off the job.
Police cars, ambulances, and, outside a cordon of fluttering 'Police: do not cross' tape, the flashing cameras of the Press were waiting for Jemma and her former classmates when they finally got back down.
A woman had died. Shots had been fired in full view of the tour guide and other tourists. And the bullet holes in one pod, plus the cracked glass of another, meant there was no way to hide what had happened. But Jamie had rung HQ to alert them, and he reassured them that the Organisation's spin-doctors were on the job.
Jemma didn't care about any of that. All she wanted to do was get home and be with Ash. Her partner was probably busy, she chided herself, and beside she would have no idea what had happened....
She was wrong. A red Lotus Elise was parked amongst the emergency vehicles, its occupant's pale blue eyes peering at the junior agents as they emerged from the pod. Jemma kept glancing at the impatiently pacing figure throughout the formalities that followed and hiding a smile.
Her details were taken by the police, but the interviews were so cursory, it was obvious that the Organisation had pulled strings to keep its agents as little inconvenienced as possible. Then, after a quick once over by the medics - her midriff was sore, but it was only bruised - she was allowed to go.
Jemma didn't care what the others thought of her, she hared towards Ash and flung herself into strong arms that wrapped round her and held her close.
"Didn't I tell you to be careful?" asked Ash, her breath warm against Jemma's ear.
"Hey, it wasn't my fault."
Ash held her at arm's length and scrutinised her face, before smiling, shaking her head, and hugging her again. "I know. Thompson gave me the details. Sounds like a phone call triggered some kind of conditioning ... But we can talk about that later. Right now I just want to get you home."
"Hey, JJ. Aren't you going to introduce us?" Natalie's voice came from close by.
Jemma turned in the circle of Ash's arms and regarded the hopeful agents crowding round them. With a rueful grin, and sure her face must be bright pink again, she set about introducing everyone and telling Ash of their role in recent events.
Throughout, Ash was gravely polite, though the quirk of her mouth showed she was amused by the young agents' reverence for 'the famous Blade'. All who had helped pull Jemma back into the pod received a smile and a handshake. But when it came to Rashid, she insisted on kissing his cheek too.
His complexion darkened even further and he ducked his head in embarrassment. "JJ saved my life too," he demurred. But Jemma could tell he was pleased by Ash's gesture.
At last, though, conversation faltered, and Ash made it clear she had other plans, so the junior agents prepared to take their leave.
Some of them were going to keep the booking they had made at a Chinese Restaurant down the road. At first Jemma was shocked they could be so callous - one of their own had just died, for God's sake! - then she realised they were thinking of it in terms of a combined wake and celebration. Yes - one of their number had died. But the rest had come through the ordeal intact.
Right now, though, for her at least, any food, no matter how delicious, would taste like sawdust. "Another time, OK, guys?" she told them. "Raise a glass to Louise for me."
The other agents waved and were walking away, when Natalie darted back.
"How about Gary and I come round tomorrow to see how you're doing?" asked the little redhead. "We can bring a Chinese takeaway so you won't have missed out."
Jemma shrugged. "I'm fine, but ... OK." As Natalie ran to join the others, Jemma turned back to her partner and gave her a weary smile. "You said something about getting me home?"
Ash opened the Lotus's passenger door, and gestured. "Your carriage awaits."
"Thought you'd like to know ... we've located Abdusamad." Thompson's voice was tinny in the phone's earpiece.
There go for my plans for a quiet morning with Jemma. "Where?" asked Ash.
"Fenchurch Street Station. He bought a ticket to Southend."
"I don't s'pose he's planning on building sandcastles."
"No sign of a bucket and spade," agreed Thompson.
"What's to stop him changing stations en route and heading for Tilbury?"
"Nothing. Which is why I've alerted the harbourmaster there and the coastguard. If our Libyan friend has plans to catch a boat, he can forget them."
Ash gave a satisfied grunt. "OK. So where's Abdusamad now?"
"Sitting on the train at Fenchurch Street. The signals are staying red until I tell the stationmaster otherwise."
That'll please the other passengers. "You haven't picked him up?"
"Our man's waiting for backup. I want the odds in our favour before we try anything - too many bystanders."
"I'm on my way."
"No. Reinforcements are already en route and you're on leave. I'll let you know when-"
"Fuck that!" She cut off her boss's protests by the simple expedient of slamming down the receiver.
"Who was that?" Jemma had come into the little sitting room while Ash was on the phone and was regarding her with wide eyes.
"Bill Thompson. Sorry. Change of plans. They've located Abdusamad." Ash's shoulder holster was hanging from the back of one of Jemma's mismatched dining chairs. She pulled out the Browning, checked the magazine was full, then reholstered the pistol and eased the black leather straps over her shoulders.
Green eyes glinted. "Just let me get my gun -"
"No." Ash finished buckling the holster and reached for her leather jacket.
"What? You want me to go unarmed?"
"You're not going." She settled the jacket so that the pistol didn't bulge too much, 'borrowed' two clips of ammo from Jemma's stash and put them in her pockets, then grabbed her car keys.
The younger woman's cheeks were flushed with annoyance. "We don't know if it was Abdusamad who tried to kill me. But if it was, then I've got more right than anyone-"
"I said you're not going." Ash folded her arms and glared.
"But ..." Jemma trailed off, her expression wounded. "Look, I know what happened to me yesterday scared you ...."
You got that right! If Rashid hadn't taken out Louise when he did... She pushed that thought away.
"... God knows, it scared me too. But I thought we were partners! Don't you think I can handle myself?"
"It's not that." Ash sighed and softened her glare. "I know I'm acting like a mother hen. But ... Look. Why give him another chance to hurt you?"
Ash reached for Jemma's hands, willing her to understand. Yesterday's narrow escape had left her feeling offbalance. She had been able to sit through the entire Sandra Bullock movie without screaming, so thankful was she just to be able to drape her arm around her living, breathing albeit bruised partner. And later, when they were making love, emotion had almost got the better of her - she didn't think Jemma had noticed though.
The green eyes remained stormy.
"Please? Pretty please with knobs on?" Ash batted her eyelashes.
"This isn't a joke!" Jemma snatched her hands away. "So what you're saying is -" she began to pace, reminding Ash of a caged tigress - "it's all right for you to put yourself in harm's way but not for me?"
Ash sighed. "I suppose I am.... But can't you just humour me this once? I'll make it up to you later, I promise." She put on her most winning smile. Then she remembered something else and gave an inward sigh of relief. "Besides, aren't Natalie and Gary coming round for lunch with that takeaway? Be a shame to put them off."
Jemma made a sound of frustration deep in her throat. "Did anyone ever tell you you're the most infuriating woman?"
Ash sensed she had won the argument and relaxed. "Frequently." She opened her arms and Jemma stepped into them. After a long hug, a reluctant Ash extricated herself from the embrace and made for the door. In the doorway, she turned and looked back at her frowning partner.
"If it helps, I promise I'll be careful," she offered.
"You'd better or I just might throttle you myself."
Heavy London traffic delayed Ash to the point of cursing, then she couldn't find a free parking meter close to Fenchurch Street Station. She ended up leaving the Lotus parked half on the pavement and half in the road. It would get clamped and towed, but right now she had more important things on her mind.
She was hurrying along Fenchurch Place, when it dawned on her that something was wrong. People were streaming out of the station concourse, their expressions panicky. Then came the unmistakable sound of gunfire.
Like a salmon fighting its way upstream, she made her way through the fleeing passengers, drawing her pistol as she did so and ignoring the wide-eyed looks. The station's lower concourse was deserted. Deciding the escalators would take too long, she took the stairs three at a time to the upper concourse, then headed for the platforms.
She took in the situation at a glance. Two of her fellow agents - Jen Reed and Chris Gowers - were down, and Barry Nolan was crouched by them, trying to staunch the bleeding. But no bystanders had been hurt, thank God. Movement turned out to be a newspaper seller peeking out from behind his stall. She lowered the pistol she had instinctively aimed at him, and the ashen-faced man ducked back down out of sight.
Her colleagues' gunshot wounds were serious but not fatal, she saw with some relief. She halted next to them. "Where is he?"
"Blade." Nolan's harried expression eased at the sight of her. "That way." He pointed to the steps leading down to the station's Tower Hill exit.
He glanced at the station clock. "He's two minutes ahead of you."
Ash took the steps down so fast she almost fell before catching her balance. Downstairs, the entrance to Tower Hill tube station beckoned. If Abdusamad had disappeared into the underground system ...
She halted and chewed her lip. What would she do in the Libyan's place? He must know by now that all the main rail routes in and out of London were being monitored, but that it was impossible to monitor every tube station. That must make the Underground attractive. But the tube would only take him so far.
If it were me, I'd I hitch a ride on a boat heading down the Thames.
Ash had always gone with her gut; why should now be any different? Hoping to hell she wasn't heading on a wild goose chase, she set off running once more ...
If the man ahead of her hadn't been rudely shouldering aside tourists who'd travelled miles to see the famous, squat white fortress that was the Tower of London, Ash would probably have missed Abdusamad. But his behaviour instantly attracted her gaze. She increased her pace, feet thudding on concrete, breath loud in her ears.
She had thought the Libyan might head directly for the Thames and one of the piers where Thames cruisers stopped regularly to load and unload passengers, but he was heading towards St. Katharine Docks. There'd almost certainly be a high-powered boat moored in the upmarket marina.
He's done his research. Damn him!
Ash pounded down the path that curled round the tranquil haven, past boutiques and restaurants where diners sat enjoying the view (she had once eaten lunch at the Dickens Inn - the view was great, the price of a pint wasn't), along the quay where sailboat masts soared skywards, their lines rattling in the breeze.
She crossed her fingers, but her luck appeared to be out. On the quay stood a pair of horse-faced young women in flimsy pink and lemon yellow outfits more suited to the Ladies' enclosure at Ascot than a jaunt on the river. Standing, or rather staggering, in the cockpits of two speedboats moored below them were two young men in grey dress suits. The men's faces were flushed, their eyes bright, and they were yelling cheerful insults at one another and brandishing opened bottles of champagne. The probability was high that they had sprayed as much champagne over each other as they had sloshed down their gullets.
Ash's mouth quirked. The young women's posture - folded arms and rolling eyes - conveyed the contempt of girlfriends the world over for drunk, boasting boyfriends. Then her smile disappeared. All four of the boating party were unaware of the terrorist running along the quay towards them, brandishing a pistol. That soon changed.
Abdusamad's pudgy hand went round the neck of the nearest woman, who was wearing yellow, and she screamed as a gun muzzle was pressed to her temple. Her pink-clad companion was too stunned to move. And as Abdusamad shouted orders down to the befuddled men in the speedboats, they too seemed unable to grasp what was required. It looked like they were set on arguing the point.
Idiots. "Get out and give him a boat," yelled Ash, and all eyes turned to watch her pounding along the quay towards them.
The Libyan mouthed her name, then he aimed his pistol at Ash instead of his hostage. She had time only to note that it was a Beretta automatic, then she was throwing herself forward in a controlled roll, and the bullet was whizzing over her head. She came to her to her feet once more, and saw to her relief that the hostage had taken advantage of her captor's distraction and was now standing with her friend some yards away.
Ash increased her speed, drawing level with where the two speedboats were moored just as Abdusamad leaped down into one of them and shoved its inebriated occupant overboard with a huge splash. Seconds later, he had undone the mooring rope, and the powerful engines were roaring into life. The speedboat pulled away, its wash rocking the other craft violently and almost tipping back into the water the dripping wet young men who, with the clumsy help of his friend, was pulling himself aboard.
A frustrated Ash watched as Abdusamad's boat turned into the channel that connected St. Katharine Dock to the Thames. Moments later, it was out of sight.
That's how you want to play it? Fine.
Swinging herself onto the metal ladder bolted to the quay's stone wall, she started down it. At the bottom, she stepped onto the speedboat, which rocked alarmingly.
The two men turned and gaped at their unexpected guest. "Who are -?"
"Get out." She raised her Browning.
Ash had no intention of using the pistol on them, but they weren't to know that. And with Abdusamad's example fresh in their minds ... They gaped at one another then got out, almost falling into the dock in their haste to scramble up the metal ladder.
She untied the mooring rope, and threw herself into the speedboat's white bucket seat, ignoring the indignant shouts now raining down on her from the two men, who had been joined by their horsy girlfriends - HQ would have to soothe their ruffled feathers when all this was over.
The controls looked pretty standard, and the key was in the ignition, so she turned it. The two engines roared into life. Ash glanced at the gauges. I hope this thing has enough fuel. I haven't got time for a top up.
She turned the wheel as far as it would go, then thrust the throttle hard forward. The fibreglass boat leaped away from the quay like a jungle cat pouncing on its prey - if she hadn't been sitting down, she would have been thrown overboard. Whoo! She patted the control panel. Nice.
Taking the channel as Abdusamad had done, she emerged moments later into the Thames ... at far too high a speed. Only her quick reactions avoided a collision with a bunting-clad river cruiser lumbering straight at her.
Hand raised in apology at the gawping tourists clutching the cruiser's railings, Ash steered hard to port, then headed east, hoping that Abdusamad had not gone in the other direction entirely, under Tower Bridge. She was going on gut instinct rather than evidence - his wake had dispersed, and if his speedboat had come this way, it was now hidden by the riverbank, which curved north. If she was wrong ...
The speedboat ploughed on, and Ash glanced at each bank in turn, trying to get her bearings. Ah. Bermondsey was to her right, and Wapping to her left. Then the river was curving north past Stepney. It was curious to realise that somewhere below her was the Rotherhithe tunnel. Still no sign of Abdusamad though. She pushed that worrying thought down and edged the throttle forward another notch.
Zooming along in a speedboat, the sun and spray on her face, the wind in her hair. All it needed for absolute perfection was the presence of a certain buxom young blonde beside her and a glass or two of a good wine ... Ash wrenched her attention back to her surroundings. Later, she promised herself.
The Thames was turning sharply south now, forming a huge loop around the Isle of Dogs, which these days was dominated by high rises. She glanced up at the highest of the high rises, the distinctive pointed silhouette that was the Canary Wharf Tower, then turned her attention back to the increasingly choppy waters up ahead.
Still no sign of him. Suppose he'd doubled back and hidden in one of the many dock entrances that peppered this stretch of the Thames? Suppose he'd chosen to go west not east to Tilbury after all. Too bad. I made my choice and I'm sticking to it.
Beyond a riverside pub, whose tables were sheltered by huge red-and-white umbrellas, was a pier. An angler shouted at Ash as she whizzed past, waving both his arms. She couldn't hear him above the roar of the engines. Probably mad at me for scaring the fish. She dismissed him from her thoughts.
Greenwich was coming up fast on her right. Ash barely had time to register the Cutty Sark's three masts jutting up from its dry dock before she was past and following the Thames's curving loop north again. Then she saw what she had been waiting for. A speedboat. Up ahead.
Ash shaded her eyes and squinted. And saw a familiar olive-complexioned face looking back at her. The wind whipped away her whoop of triumph.
She pushed the throttle up yet another notch. In moments, the fibreglass craft was aquaplaning, and only Ash's skill and lightning fast reflexes as she manipulated steering and trim controls, kept it from spinning out of control. She could have slowed again (this was hardly being 'careful' as she had promised Jemma) but she was loving every minute of it.
For a while Abdusamad tried to match her speed, but he had trouble controlling his boat, and quickly dropped back. Ash's grin widened as she began to gain on him. You can run but you can't hide.
A thought occurred to her. She pulled out her mobile, checked there was a signal - to her surprise there was - and dialled HQ.
"Blade here." She corrected the speedboat's course with one hand, to avoid a lumbering Thames barge full of coal, then gave the password. "Tell Bill Thompson," she adopted a blasé tone, "that I've found our lost Libyan. He's in a speedboat on the Thames heading east - just coming up on the Millennium Dome, in fact. And I'm on his tail." She cut off the squawk of surprise and repocketed her phone, then laughed out loud.
She was coming abreast of the huge architectural crown of thorns that was the Dome when the figure in the other speedboat turned, raised his right arm, and pointed at her. Was that a muzzle flash? A ragged hole appeared in the passenger side of her split windscreen. She glanced at it. Lucky shot. Even to try shooting her from that range showed Abdusamad must be spooked.
After Blackwall, the river started curving sharply to the east, and Ash put the steering wheel hard over, then she was entering Woolwich Reach and directly ahead of her lay the Thames Barrier. There was something unusual about it.
Ash frowned. The water on this side of the Barrier was foaming like rapids - there were even a few canoeists putting their craft through their paces - and the navigation lights on each of the piers that stepped at intervals across the Thames (at this point a third of a mile wide) were all flashing red.
The penny dropped and she let out a sharp bark of laughter. This must have been what the waving angler had been trying to warn her about. The five-storey high gates, meant to protect London in time of flood, were raised for the monthly test.
As she hurtled towards the formidable barrier, Abdusamad's speedboat was already slowing. He began to zigzag, looking for an open gate, but on every stainless-steel-cowled pier a warning light blinked.
What were the odds all the gates of the Barrier would be closed? Infinitesimally small, surely. Ash had thought today wasn't her day, but maybe it was after all.
Ash had expected the Libyan to head for the north bank of the Thames, scramble ashore, and set off running, but instead he steered towards one of the Barrier's towering central piers - easier said that done given the churning waters. In the uncowled central part of the pier a bearded man in overalls and a yellow hardhat, as yet oblivious to the approaching speedboat, was doing whatever it was engineers did during the monthly maintenance test.
When he was close enough, Abdusamad looped a mooring rope over a convenient strut and tied it off. Then he stood up, steadied himself and leaped for the huge disk-like structure that was fixed to the side of the pier - the gate arm, Ash remembered reading somewhere.
He was as agile as a monkey and his hands sought and found handholds. Frustrated, Ash watched her quarry climb for a moment, then concentrated on steering towards the tethered craft and compensating for the erratic currents. At last, she managed to reach her destination.
Tying her speedboat to its fellow, she stepped into the other boat, putting out her hands for balance as it rocked. Then, as the Libyan had before her, she surveyed the gate arm for handholds, steadied herself, and leaped.
The former cat-burglar had no trouble following Abdusamad's route up the side of the pier. She could hear him, puffing and panting above her, and peered up, just in time to see him pulling himself up and over the railing. He glanced back down at her, raised his Beretta and fired off a round. Heart thumping, she hugged the surface of the gate arm, trying to disappear into the metal.
I'm a sitting duck.
The bullet was so close she could feel the heat of its passing. It vanished with a loud slap into the Thames. She watched the circle of ripples widen.
That was close!
Abdusamad would surely be taking aim again, and this time taking his time. The sensible thing to do would be to let go. At least in the Thames she would stand a chance. But to be so near to the man who had made these past few days such hell for her partner and to let him go? She couldn't do it.
Ash adjusted her foot holds, redistributing her weight so that she could get a hand free and draw her own gun, then risked a glance up. To her amazement and intense relief, the terrorist had disappeared.
Bad mistake, Abdusamad. And you only get the one.
Regular breaths leached the adrenaline from her system and the shakiness from her arms and legs, then she began to climb once more.
At the top, Ash didn't think it wise to just haul herself over the railing willy-nilly. Taking her weight on tiptoes and fingertip, she edged higher until she could just see the whole of the deck. There was no sign of Abdusamad or the engineer. Had the man in the hard hat made his escape before the Libyan reached him? She hoped so.
Movement on the next pier over attracted her attention. A bearded figure in overalls and a yellow hardhat was working there. Was it the same engineer or a different one? She squinted and recognised the man's broken nose. Whatever it was he had done to this pier he seemed to be doing to that one too.
So. There must be a way of getting from pier to pier fairly quickly. She looked around. An open doorway at the end led to a stairwell that in turn led down into the depths. Ash stuck her head inside and listened. Hurried footsteps, getting fainter.
She set off after him.
The stairs led to a service subway that evidently connected this pier to the next. The huge tunnel burrowed through the concrete sill laid on the river bottom. Ash grimaced and started along the dimly lit tunnel at a jog, hoping that the trickles down its curving walls were due to condensation rather than river water. Unnerving clanks and gurglings from the pipes and cables snaking along the tunnel accompanied her every step.
She must have gone about 200 feet when she came to another stairwell. Had the Libyan made for the surface or continued along the service tunnel to the next pier? She hesitated, tossed a mental coin then made her way up.
Three flights of stairs later, a panting Ash halted just inside the doorway leading out onto the pier's deck. She could hear men's voices raised in argument. The one with the foreign accent was instantly recognisable. Abdusamad. The other ...
She peered round the doorway and waited for her eyes to adjust to daylight. A bearded man in a yellow hardhat and oily overalls was gesturing.
"No I won't open it," he was shouting. "The test isn't due to finish for another five minutes."
Since Abdusamad was aiming his pistol at him, the engineer was being either brave or terminally stupid. The important thing from Ash's point of view was that his argument was keeping the Libyan with his back to her.
She drew her Browning. From here she had a clear shot. She gnawed the inside of her lip and seriously considered taking it. No one would blame her for shooting a terrorist after all, even if it was in the back. But she wanted to know why he had come all this way to get her and Jemma, and why he had resorted to brainwashing when a good oldfashioned bomb would have done the job just as well if not better. And, she admitted to herself darkly, she wanted him to suffer.
The man in the hardhat's eyes widened as she lunged forward into the open, and Abdusamad glanced over his shoulder. Then she was on him, hammering the butt of her Browning into his kidneys.
The Libyan cried out and collapsed, his Beretta clattering to the deck. Ash kicked the pistol through the railings, registering a distant splash just as a meaty fist grabbed her round the right ankle and yanked. She was already slightly off balance, and she fell, cracking the side of her head against the railing on the way down. The pain was excruciating, and for a moment her vision blurred.
Someone was trying to prise the pistol from her grip. She hung on grimly, waiting for her vision to clear. It did. She drew back her foot and kicked Abdusamad hard in the genitals, enjoying the sound of his breath leaving his lungs in a painful whoosh. He dry-retched, then cupped his injured privates and curled up in a ball, his eyes scrunched up in agony. For the moment, his interest in her pistol seemed to have evaporated.
The engineer was watching the fight with an open mouth.
"Get out of here," ordered Ash.
"NOW!" She reached in her pocket and flashed her 'Home Office' ID at him. "And lock the door behind you."
He blinked at her, then nodded and darted towards the stairwell. Abdusamad struggled to his feet and staggered after the engineer - apparently he didn't relish the prospect of being alone with Ash, with no witnesses. His fingers brushed against the metal surface of the door as it closed in his face and a bolt slammed into place on the other side.
The Libyan stared at his blocked path to freedom in disbelief for a moment, then twisted and glared at Ash. She bared her teeth in a feral grin. It was time to settle the score.
The still groggy Abdusamad's movements were slow, uncoordinated. Ducking under his wildly swinging arms, she punched him, her fist sinking deep into his gut. "That's for Janus." He doubled over, wheezing. She felt no pity and judiciously kicked the side of his knee. His leg collapsed, dropping him heavily to the deck. "And that's for Jemma."
He twisted and looked up at her, black eyes full of hatred and something else ... confusion. "Who," he gasped, "is Janus?"
Anger exploded deep inside her and she kicked him in the gut. "Don't play the innocent with me. Do you know what it's like watching someone bleed so much you're sure they're going to die? Do you? You put Jemma through that, you bastard."
He spoke between wheezing breaths. "Not ... me."
"You little shit! You blew up my car, bombed my flat ... That I can understand. I messed up things for you in the Canaries and then in Brazil. Took out that boss of yours, what was his name ... Al-Akhdar. But killing my contact, targeting my partner and my friends...."
For the first time she saw fear in his eyes, but it was quickly masked. "You are crazy woman! I don't know what you are talking about. The bomb in the car, the flat, these I admit ... but this other.... No. It is lies."
Ash had drawn back her fist to punch him in the nose - she was looking forward to feeling the cartilage crush under her knuckles - but now she hesitated. Something about his reaction had the ring of truth.
"You didn't brainwash them?" The Libyan shook his head.
If not him ... She had sensed deep down that something wasn't right, but she had ignored her doubts. It had been ... convenient to blame everything on the man groaning on the deck at her feet. Convenient, but wrong.
Come on, Ash, think. Abdusamad was never the brains behind the operations in the Canaries or Brazil, that was Al-Akhdar. And with his boss behind bars...
Her head was spinning as she thought through the implications. Abdusamad had come after her out of revenge, using bog-standard bombs and booby traps. That made sense. But the brainwashing of Organisation agents was far too sophisticated. Besides, though he had the motive - no Libyan terrorist would mourn the crippling of Organisation agents - he lacked both means and opportunity. Which meant -
Abdusamad's leap over the pier's railing took Ash by surprise. One minute he was lying groaning on the deck, the next he was on his feet and had rushed to the railing and vaulted over it. He must have been faking his injuries, or he had quicker recuperative powers than she had given him credit for.
She peered over the side, and saw that he wasn't swimming in the Thames but was walking along the top of the sector gate, arms held wide like some tightrope walker. Some of the canoeists were gaping up at him and pointing.
Ash hefted her pistol. Should she shoot him or go after him? She didn't fancy walking along the rim of that gate. It was wide enough, if you didn't mind heights, but if you fell on the west side, you could get sucked into the churning water and never come up.
On the next pier along, another worker in a yellow hardhat had noticed the Libyan heading towards him. His mouth formed an 'O' of astonishment, then he was leaning over the railing, shouting and waving. The wind swept his words away.
Somewhere a siren began to sound. Ash blinked and looked round. Perhaps the engineer she had sent packing had hit the panic button. About time.
"Test concluded. Stand Clear," came a tinny voice from a little loudspeaker set in the concrete of the pier. "This sector gate is about to open."
Ash gripped the railing until her knuckles turned white. The canoeists were paddling fast away from the barrier, she saw. It soon became clear why. A shudder ran through the massive metal slab beneath the Libyan's feet and it began to sink.
Abdusamad's arms windmilled, and for a moment she thought he was going to fall, but somehow he regained his balance. Slowly the gate descended. It also began to tilt, and she swore as she remembered something.
These massive disks that were the gate arms didn't lift or drop the sector gates, they rotated them. Eventually the convex side of the 200-foot long metal gate would lie snug against the concrete sill on the riverbed, freeing the pent up waters of the Thames.
Ash bit her lip. In his weakened state - the state her thirst for revenge had left him in, she acknowledged with a twinge of remorse - Abdusamad stood little chance of surviving the initial flood or water. No one would blame her for leaving the terrorist to his fate. But ...
Her indecision annoyed her and she sighed. What would Jemma want me to do? She pictured clear green eyes regarding her when she got home, the grave expression on her partner's face as Ash related what she had done ... or not done.
With something like relief, Ash had her answer.
The sector gate's tilt was more pronounced that ever, and Ash was finding it hard to keep her footing on its narrow rim. As for the Libyan, he stood frozen a few feet from her, his arms still stretched wide, too terrified to move either forwards or back.
The remorseless rotation of the massive gate was threatening to throw them both into the water off the eastern side of the Barrier. On the surface, this seemed the safer option. The river level was higher so it wouldn't be such a drop, plus the water was relatively calm. But Ash knew that as soon as the top of the gate dropped below the surface, there'd be a massive surge of water carrying everything in its path upriver.
She considered for a moment. The straight face of the gate now sloped at an angle of 45 degrees. It would make a good chute, if they didn't mind friction burns. Then they'd have to negotiate the rapids (whose turbulence would lessen as the gate opened further) and try to get close to shore by the time the surge came through.
Ash gave a mental shrug. What choice did they have?
The gate tilted and sank a few more degrees, and she automatically compensated. The Libyan wobbled and for a moment she thought he was going to overbalance.
Better get a move on.
She closed the gap between them, placing her feet carefully. "I'm going to grab hold of your belt."
He jerked at the sound of her voice but didn't turn his head. Too scared?
Careful not to spook him further, she reached out and grasped the back of his belt, sliding her right hand under the thick black leather. Louise Brande might still be alive if she had worn a belt of similar sturdiness. Hope I don't break my bloody wrist.
"What now?" His voice was a croak.
"Slide?" Finally he turned his head to look at her, his black eyes wide.
Ash didn't wait for the Libyan to find reasons not to do it. She yanked at his belt, and with a startled squawk, he toppled towards her. Then they were both sliding down the gate's metal surface, heading towards the rapids.
The strain on her wrist was almost unbearable, but her jeans took the brunt of the friction-generated heat. Then she was plunging feet first into water so cold by contrast it was shocking. Ash had time only to register that her wrist no longer hurt - The belt must have snapped - and to grab a frantic gulp of air. Then she was going under.
Down, down ... down she sank.
How deep is the Thames here anyway? Ten feet ... twenty....
Something jarred Ash's soles and she bent her knees to absorb the impact, before pushing herself off the silty river bottom and heading back up. She surfaced, took in another grateful gulp of air, flicked the strands of wet hair out of her face, then blinked at her surroundings. The Thames barrier was a little to the east of her, and there was no sign of the Libyan.
Figures in yellow hardhats were looking down at Ash from the nearer piers, yelling and waving, but her ears were clogged with water and she couldn't hear what they were saying. It didn't matter. She took a deep breath, kicked out strongly, and surged up out of the water, letting the force of her re-entry carry her back under.
It took her two attempts to find the Libyan, who had somehow managed to knock himself unconscious when he hit the water. She hooked her arms under his armpits and hauled the bulky figure to the surface, swallowing more river water than was healthy in the process. It was energy-sapping work, especially when her squeeze to his abdomen brought up a jet of water and he began coughing and struggling. It didn't help that wavelets were swamping her and the current was steadily increasing.
Something landed close by with a whump. Once more she flicked wet hair from her face, and knuckled her eyes clear.
A white lifebelt was floating on the surface a foot from her. And it was still attached to its rope. At that moment, Ash had never seen anything so welcome in her life. She followed the line of the rope to the nearest pier, gave the grinning engineer a thumbs up, then set about easing the still coughing and choking Abdusamad into the buoyant ring.
At first he resisted, his flailing arms clouting her around the head and shoulders, then he seemed to realise what she was about and subsided. In the end, the belt slipped over his arms and shoulders, and settled around his midriff. It was a very snug fit.
You could stand to lose a few pounds.
The murky river water had chilled Ash to the bone, and she wanted nothing more than a hot bath, a whiskey, and a warm bed. First things first though. She signalled to the engineer who had thrown her the lifebelt, and he gave her the thumbs up then began to haul in the rope.
As Abdusamad moved - sluggishly at first, then more swiftly - towards safety, Ash backcrawled towards the Thames's north bank, until the increasingly fierce river currents lessened and she judged she would be out of the surge water's path. She trod water then, and turned to check on Abdusamad's progress.
The terrorist wouldn't try to make a run for it again - his dunk in the river Thames had knocked the fight out of him. Plus one of the people she had caught sight of waiting on the bank for her was familiar: if Barry Nolan was here there were probably other Organisation agents around waiting to take custody of Abdusamad.
But until they did so, he was her responsibility. So she watched until the plump figure in the white lifebelt was tugged over the pier railing, then gave a sigh of relief, and turned to complete the final lap to shore.
CONTINUED & CONCLUDED PART 5
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