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.
I have never been to Brazil; I used a guidebook instead. Some errors are bound to have crept in. I claim artistic licence. <g>
There is some bad language. What can I say? Secret agents need to let off steam somehow.
There are also same sex relationships, 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>
This is the sequel to Say Goodbye to Boston and will make a little more sense if you have read that first.
A VIEW TO A KISS
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"Won't be a minute," said Ashley Blade. "I just need to get some local currency." She strolled towards the Casa de Câmbio in Arrivals, glad to stretch her legs after the long flight.
The woman behind the counter looked up and smiled; her face was deeply tanned, her smile brilliant. "Sim?"
After a month of speaking Canarian Spanish, Portuguese came awkwardly to Ash. She thought for a moment. "Eu gostaria de trocar meus travellers checks?"
The Brazilian woman nodded, and a relieved Ash slid a traveller's cheque across the counter. Moments later, she found herself in possession of some coloured real notes in a variety of denominations. "Muito obrigada."
Ash crammed the money into the secret zipped compartment of the belt she had brought especially for the purpose. Then she hurried back to the spot near the carousel where her partner, Jemma Jacobs, was guarding their luggage.
The blonde smiled up at her. "Everything okay?"
She nodded and reached for her bag. "Let's go." Jemma picked up her own suitcase and followed her.
As they walked towards the Aeroporto Galeão's exit, Ash scanned for signs of danger. Jemma's head, she couldn't help noticing, was swivelling for entirely different reasons. Green eyes open wide, she was avidly taking in all the sights, smells, and sounds, among them the sensual female voice announcing plane arrivals. Ash suppressed a smile. She had been the same when she first came to Rio de Janeiro.
They emerged into brilliant sunlight and sweltering heat. Pity they couldn't have delayed this until it was cooler, thought Ash, but sightings of Libyan terrorists waited for no one, especially when the terrorists in question were Minyar al-Akhdar and Khaleb Abdusamad. She pulled out her sunglasses and put them on. Jemma followed suit, then turned towards the taxi rank.
Ash stopped her. "Those cost too much," she cautioned. "Follow me."
The blonde shrugged, shifted her heavy suitcase from one hand to the other, and trailed after her.
Normally she wouldn't have bothered trying to save a few reais, but after her Section Head's stern telephone call about 'the revised budget' she supposed she'd better make the effort. The Organisation's new Finance Director was slashing costs across the board, and she hated to think what the hotel London had selected for them was like.
A little way from the airport, around a corner, she found what she was looking for: several yellow cabs with blue stripes. Their drivers turned eager grins her way. She peered in the window of the first one, gave it a quick once-over, then declined.
"Não. Desculpe," she said firmly, ignoring the angry glance the driver gave her.
The next cab proved more suitable. It wasn't unknown for taxis to make off with the luggage, so Ash closely supervised its loading then opened the back door and waited for Jemma to climb in.
While they settled, the driver switched on his meter and turned his head enquiringly.
"Hotel Senador, Flamengo, por favor," called Ash. If she remembered rightly, the journey to that part of the City should take them about half an hour.
The taxi headed out into the late morning traffic at a speed that would have done Ayrton Senna proud. Ash and Jemma exchanged rueful glances.
"So, what was wrong with the first taxi?" enquired Jemma.
"His meter was out of order, and his price list was photocopied." Rio's international airport receded into the distance behind them. "He'd have charged us through the roof."
The taxi turned onto the expressway and picked up yet more speed.
"I wish I was driving," muttered Ash.
"I wish you were too."
They travelled in silence for a while, then Jemma suddenly pressed her nose against the glass. "Wow! Look at that."
On their left, the sparkling blue of the Baía de Guanabara had come into view. Ash smiled at her partner's enthusiasm. "We should be able to do some sightseeing," she promised. "It wonít be all business."
"You ladies are here on business?" came the driver's voice over the roar of the engine. Ash had been aware of his brown eyes watching them in his rear view mirror.
"Yes." She raised her voice so he could hear her. "We're here to negotiate a textile contract with a Brazilian firm. Our company's based in England," she added blithely, ignoring Jemma's amused glance as she donned the false identity London had created for her.
"Textiles?" The cab driver nodded sagely. "We have many such factories here in Brazil."
"That's right." It was Jemma's turn to chip in. "The Brazilians came to Yorkshire last month. Now it's our turn to return the favour."
He shook his head. "Rio is the most beautiful city in the world," he chided. "You must make time to enjoy yourselves while you're here." He took a corner at breakneck speed, throwing Jemma into Ash's lap. She blushed, disentangled herself, and muttered an apology. Ash grinned. She hadn't minded at all.
"Two such pretty ladies," continued the cab driver, "will not lack companionship for long. We Cariocas have a lust for life, for romance." He nodded earnestly.
"So I've been told," said Ash. "I'm just disappointed we couldn't be here last month for the Carnival."
He took the bait, as Ash had intended, and needed little input from his passengers for the rest of the 15-kilometre journey. She didn't bother mentioning that she had already been to one carnival this year - in Tenerife - and that was quite enough.
Ash gazed dubiously up at the hotel's exterior as the taxi driver honked a farewell then drove off. The paint wasn't peeling... yet.
"Is this where you usually stay?" asked Jemma.
"No. Last time, I stayed in Ipanema. Still, this place can't be too bad. After all, it's got two stars." She picked up her bag, pushed open the front door, and headed for the lobby.
No one was on the reception desk, so she thumped the bell hard. A harried, middle aged woman appeared, removing a pair of pink rubber, washing-up gloves. "Sim?"
Ash was about to answer in Portuguese when she remembered she was supposed to be a tourist.
"Good morning," she said, checking her watch surreptitiously. Yes, it was still morning. They had gained 3 hours on the flight. "I'm Georgia Kenyon and this is my colleague Molly Blythe." She caught Jemma's almost imperceptible wince and suppressed a smile. The blonde hated the names London had chosen for them. "You have a reservation for us, I believe."
While she spoke, the receptionist was checking her computer screen. "Ah, yes. Standard room, double occupancy - is that correct?" She glanced up.
Ash nodded glumly. "Correct."
Normally she would have welcomed the chance to share a room with a woman as attractive as Jemma - all sorts of opportunities would undoubtedly arise - but before leaving Tenerife she had resolved that the blonde was 'out of bounds'. Seducing her new partner (always assuming she was susceptible to Ash's charms) could complicate matters considerably. Better not to risk it.
"Sign here, please." The receptionist slid the register across the counter and both Ash and Jemma filled it in, the blonde hesitating momentarily before signing her alias.
"Breakfast is included at no extra charge. Your room key."
She held out a tiny key attached to a bulky keyring. Ash took it and memorised their room number: 203.
"Your room is on the second floor. The stairs are over there." The woman gestured vaguely then grabbed her rubber gloves and disappeared back to wherever it was she had come from.
Jemma grimaced and reached for her heavy suitcase. "No porter?"
"Doesn't look like it."
Ash was heading towards the stairs when the receptionist reappeared looking even more harried.
"Excuse me. I forgot. There is a letter for you, Senhorita Kenyon."
She stopped, retraced her steps, and accepted the anonymous looking white envelope. "Thank you."
"I hope you both enjoy your stay at the Hotel Senador." With a distracted smile, the receptionist disappeared into the depths again.
By the time they had reached the second floor, Jemma was swapping over the hand holding her case every three seconds. (Jemma's idea of packing 'lightly' had turned out to be different from Ash's.)
"Nearly there," encouraged Ash, spotting room 203.
She crossed to it and slipped the key into the lock. The door opened onto a clean room, but that was all that could be said in its favour. The twin beds were lumpy, and the furniture worn. The refrigerator was empty and the air conditioning horrendously noisy. Sweat or sleep. Wonderful.
"Hey, there's a bidet," called Jemma, who had put down her case and disappeared into the bathroom. Minutes later came the sound of a toilet flushing, and the blonde reappeared.
Jemma flopped down on the twin bed nearest the window, glancing out at what should have been a spectacular view of the Baía de Guanabara but was instead another hotel. She turned to give Ash an interested glance. "So, whoís the letter from?"
Ash pulled the envelope from her jean pocket and examined it. "Delivered by hand." She ripped it open. It contained a letter and a small passport photo. She studied them briefly. "Celio Pacheco."
"Our man in Rio. He'll meet us at 5pm, at the restaurant on the Morro da Urca." She showed Jemma the photo. The handsome young man in it was wearing the smug expression of one who believes he's God's gift to women. He would almost certainly attempt to chat Jemma up. She sighed. If her hunch was right, Jemma would be immune to male flattery, but still -
"The restaurant on the what?" The blonde interrupted her reverie.
"It's the first cable car stop on the way to the Pão de Açúcar."
Jemma grimaced. "And where's that?"
Ash had been purposely obscure, drawing out the suspense, because she suspected her partner would like her eventual answer. "The Sugar Loaf."
There was a moment's silence then the other woman punched the air. "Yes! I've always wanted to go there." She paused. "As long as no seven-foot-tall man with lethal steel teeth follows us onto the cable car."
Ash laughed. "That only happens to James Bond. Anyway, as far as anyone knows, we're just two Yorkshire businesswomen on the loose in Rio. What could be more natural than that we visit one of the most famous landmarks in the world?"
Jemma surveyed her surroundings and tried not to wince. She hoped the chef had better taste than the restaurant's decorator. The fact that the little Churrascaria was just over the road from their hotel had swayed her decision. Now she was regretting it.
"It's called gaúcho kitsch." Ash's blue eyes twinkled.
So much for hiding my opinion. Her stomach rumbled loudly and she flushed.
"I'm hungry too," the older agent consoled her. "We've been up 3 hours longer than everyone else, remember?"
"Yeah." Jemma fiddled with her cutlery. "But I'm still not sure about eating Brazilian food on my first day. Maybe we should have gone to that Italian place you suggested after all."
"Don't be silly. You won't catch a stomach bug here."
Ash's face lit up as she caught sight of something over Jemma's shoulder. The blonde twisted in her seat, and was met by a waitress carrying a tray, and an appetising aroma that brought saliva flooding to her mouth.
The smiling Brazilian woman set a huge plate in front of Jemma, then moved round to Ash's side of the table.
Jemma looked at the skewers packed with barbecued beef and pork, onions, and something pale yellow called 'mandioca', apparently. She needed no encouragement to dig in. The mandioca tasted a little like potato.
When she was stuffed to the gills and her plate was clean, she licked her fingers, and leaned back. Ash was regarding her amusedly. "I may never move again," she admitted.
The other woman laughed. "Oh yes you will. We've got several hours to fill before we meet Celio, so I thought we might as well walk to the Sugar Loaf."
"Walk?" Jemma groaned.
"Certainly." Ash was unyielding. "The best way to see the sights is on foot."
They paid for their lunch, then Jemma let herself be led out into the brilliant sunshine once more. She put on her sunglasses, and was glad she had plastered herself with sunblock back at the hotel.
"First things first." Ash headed for a shop that sold cheap clothes, hats, and other goods. A few minutes later, they were both kitted out in broadbrimmed sunhats and Ash had also bought herself a cheap plastic watch that wouldn't break her heart if it was stolen. (They had left their expensive watches back at the hotel.)
The tall woman set off purposefully towards the bay. Jemma was gratified to find that they had soon left the built-up area behind them and were strolling through a huge park.
"Would you believe this is reclaimed land?" asked Ash.
Jemma glanced around in surprise. The landscaped lawns and grassy mounds were dotted with sculpted bushes, flowering trees, and groups of mature, towering palms. "Really?"
"Yes. This was once part of the bay."
She could see the Baía de Guanabara itself now, its blue water dazzling in the sunshine. And on the other side of it, to the southeast, was the distinctive dome shape of the Sugar Loaf.
"Wow!" was all Jemma could manage.
Ash laughed. "Shall we get out of the sun for a bit?" She led her partner towards a museum-like building. It would at least be cool in there, thought the blonde. Inside, she stared at her surroundings in disbelief. Ash suppressed a chuckle and, since she was carrying their money in her belt's concealed compartment, went to buy the entrance tickets.
Jemma pasted on a mock scowl and waited for the dark-haired woman to return. She put her hands on her hips and tapped her foot meaningfully.
"So you think I'd look good wearing a fruit basket on my head?"
Ash gave her a shit-eating grin. "Wouldn't everybody?"
Jemma rolled her eyes and snatched the ticket. "Give me that."
It amazed her that anyone would devote a whole museum to Carmen Miranda, but they had. There were over 3,000 pieces in the collection, she read. Performance and dress clothes, accessories, shoes, photos, advertising material, caricatures, videos, contracts, scripts and records....
It was too much really, and by unspoken agreement, they went round the exhibits at breakneck speed, bought a couple of postcards to send to friends and family, then exited into the sunshine again.
"After that, I need a sit down," said Jemma.
Obligingly, Ash led her to a stall selling iced drinks and fruit juices. They bought themselves cokes, then sprawled on the grass.
For a while, they simply sipped their drinks in silence and fanned their faces with their hats, then Jemma asked, "So, how much time have we left to kill?"
The other agent glanced at the cheap watch. "Another two hours. Enjoy it while it lasts, Jemma. Once we know what the Libyans are up to, it could get hectic."
She sighed. Why couldn't they just be here on holiday together?
Two women joggers were approaching along the trail, and Ash openly appraised the blonde one, taking off her sunglasses and flashing her a charming smile. Both joggers glanced interestedly at her, then giggled at one another, and ran on.
Oh please! Ash was much easier on the eye than those bronzed bimbos, but what did she know? Jemma leaned back against a tree, pulled the brim of her sunhat over her eyes, and let her eyelids flutter closed. "Wake me when you're ready to move."
"Sure," came Ash's lazy drawl.
"What the -? Get off me you little -" Crunch.
Ash's exclamation didn't faze Jemma one bit. After all, the tall woman was there with her in her dream, a very nice dream, in which they were just about to share their first kiss. Damn! She could feel herself surfacing and tried desperately to sink back under and pick up where she had left off.
"Oof!" That didn't sound like Ash. Thud.
If only the scuffling wasn't quite so loud. How was a girl supposed to sleep around.... Scuffling? Jemma sat up with a jerk and pushed up her sunhat, just in time to see a youth in blue jeans and a red T-shirt limping away across the park. One hand was pressed to his bleeding nose, the other clutched his groin.
"Tried to steal my passport." Ash held out a hand. "Come on. It's time to go."
Jemma accepted the strong grip and let herself be pulled to her feet. Memory of the dream lingered, and she steeled herself to meet the other woman's gaze as if nothing had happened. During the dream, the kiss had seemed inevitable, natural, but now she felt offbalance and slightly embarrassed. Guess the hero worship has finally turned into something stronger. Question was, what was she going to do about it?
She bought herself time by brushing off the specks of grass and bark that clung to her clothes, then pushed her sunglasses higher up her nose.
"Come on. We're late." Ash set off purposely towards the strip of beach. Jemma trailed after her, wishing her legs were as long.
As she hurried, she tried to piece together what had happened. How the youth had even got near to Ash was a mystery. And - Belatedly Ash's words registered. "Late? But I thought...."
"I dozed off, OK?" muttered the other woman, her tanned cheeks flushing a darker shade. "Must be jet lag."
"Oh." That explained it. Jemma hid a smile. Knowing how lethal Ash's reflexes were, the youth who had woken the tall woman was lucky not to have suffered far worse injuries.
They hurried along Botofoga beach, past several workout stations, where muscular locals, men and women alike, were assiduously sculpting their bodies into works of art.
"It makes me tired just looking at them," muttered Jemma.
Ash had been anxiously turning and scanning the main road that ran alongside them, and now her expression brightened. "An Urca bus. Come on." She broke into a jog and Jemma reluctantly did likewise.
They caught the bus with seconds to spare, then Ash was giving the collector enough money for both their fares to the Sugar Loaf. Jemma followed her through the turnstile and took her seat next to her with a sigh of relief.
A cable car was waiting at the station when they reached the Praça General Tibúrcio. Ash bought their tickets, and they boarded quickly, then the doors slid closed with a clunk, and they began to ascend.
Jemma scrutinised their six fellow passengers carefully. Tourists, just like them, she decided. Well, she amended wryly, perhaps not quite like us. After all, how many of them were dashing secret agents travelling incognito? She smiled.
Ash raised an eyebrow. "What?"
"I think I'm jetlagged too," she confided. "My thoughts are all over the place."
"Hardly surprising. London, Santa Cruz, Rio... in just three days! You've been overdoing it a bit, you know."
"I know." Jemma would have liked to spend longer than one night in Ash's comfortable Tenerife casa, but London considered unravelling the reason for the :Libyans' presence in Rio to be top priority. Maybe when they had more time, when this assignment was over...?
Ash pressed her mouth to Jemma's ear. "No sign of Jaws yet."
"No, thank God." The feel of Ash's hot breath had sent a tingle down her spine. Belatedly, she realised she was supposed to be admiring the view from the cable car. The bay was an intense blue, and Rio.... Wow! The driver had been right. From up here, the city looked beautiful.
"It's even better at night," said Ash, noticing her rapt expression. "When the lights start to come on."
There was a violent jolt, and for an all too brief moment, the dark-haired woman's arm was wrapped round Jemma, steadying her. Then the cable car trundled into the Morro da Urca stop, and with a loud clang, the securing arms dropped into place. Ash released her hold as the doors slid open.
"We're here," she said unnecessarily. "Let's see what Celio has got for us."
Jemma sighed and followed Ash out onto the hill.
He was sitting in the little restaurant, pouting sulkily and looking frequently at his watch. Ash and Jemma exchanged glances then walked towards the Organisation's man in Rio. His brown eyes lit up when he saw them.
"Oi, Senhoritas 'Kenyon' and 'Blythe'." He ran a hand through his unruly hair in an unsuccessful attempt to straighten it, then gave them the traditional Brazilian greeting. Ash rolled her eyes but dutifully returned his kisses to each cheek.
Jemma was surprised when he bestowed an extra, rather bristly kiss on her. Three kisses were reserved for close friends. She narrowed her eyes at him and he gave her a wide smile in return.
"Please." He gestured, and they sat down.
A waitress hurried over to their table. Ash looked at Jemma. "Coffee OK?" She nodded. "Dois cafés." The waitress nodded and trotted off to get them. Ash placed her hat on the table and ran a hand through her hair.
"Do you know how we Cariocas like our coffee?" asked Celio, fixing limpid eyes on Jemma. Ash snorted derisively but he ignored her. "Strong as the devil, hot as hell, and sweet as love."
Jemma tried not to laugh at the young man's chat up routine. He seemed to realise she was immune, and he sighed and sat back.
Their coffees arrived soon after and she took a sip then grimaced. Wordlessly, Ash handed her the sugar. She shovelled some in until the coffee was drinkable.
"Right," said the older agent, when the waitress had gone. "Enough of the chit-chat, Celio. Have you brought the parcel I asked for?"
With his foot, he slid something towards them under the table. It brushed against Jemma's leg and she looked down. A supermarket carrier bag. How classy. She reached in and felt the familiar outlines of the two Browning automatics they had sent via the British Embassy's diplomatic bag.
Ash raised an eyebrow, and Jemma nodded.
"Ammo too?" asked Ash.
"Good." The tall woman drummed her long fingers on the tabletop. "We're going to need a car too. Something it's easy to get spares for. Can you arrange that?"
He gave a thumbs-up. "OK"
"Now. What news of Laurel and Hardy?" Since Abdusamad was lean and al-Akhdar patently wasn't, London's choice of codenames had been obvious.
Celio relaxed and sat back. "The news is mixed. They both disappeared from Rio yesterday -"
"What?" exploded Ash.
He raised a restraining hand. "- and reappeared in São Paulo."
Ash subsided, muttering, and he winked at Jemma.
"Laurel has been mixing with petty criminals," continued the young man. "Hardy has been spending time with a man named Mauro Pimentel." He waited expectantly. Jemma took the bait.
"Who is he?"
"A Brazilian industrialist, very rich. He manufactures chemicals."
Ash pursed her lips. "Now what would they want with chemicals?"
Celio shrugged. "Unknown, but I am working on it. It could be they are simply after Pimentel's money. Lately, there has been a spate of robberies in Rio and São Paulo. I think Laurel and Hardy have been doing some fund raising."
"For what?" chipped in Jemma.
He flashed her an apologetic smile. "Again, unknown."
Ash was gazing absently out over the bay as she mulled over this latest information. Jemma nudged her, bringing her back to the here and now.
"So what's next?" she prompted. "We go to São Paulo?"
The tall woman nodded then switched her piercing blue gaze to Celio. "Can you book us into a hotel there?"
She thought for a moment then shook her head. "Tomorrow should be soon enough." Her fingers drummed on the table. "We'll drive there."
A downward bound cable car rumbled into the stop and Celio glanced across at it then back to the two women. "Is that all, Senhorita 'Kenyon'? If so, I'll go and get started on the arrangements now."
Ash nodded. "That's all."
He stood up, gave Ash a respectful nod and Jemma a charming smile, then headed off towards the cable car. The last they saw of him, he was waving at them through the window as it disappeared on its journey towards the base station.
Jemma glanced up at the Sugar Loaf. So near and yet so far. Then she turned back to Ash, and tried to hide her disappointment. "So. Is that it, then? We go back to the hotel to pack and get ready for São Paulo?"
Ash smiled and shook her head. "Not likely. Since we only have one night in Rio, we're going to make the most of it."
She stood up, grabbed her sunhat, then beckoned to Jemma. "Come on. I want to show you the most spectacular view in Rio." As if on cue, an upward bound cable car rumbled into the stop....
Ash watched Jemma fling herself backwards onto the bed, and cover her eyes with one forearm. "I'm knackered."
In spite of their hectic day, Ash felt restless rather than tired. Maybe it was just anticipation about tomorrow's long drive to São Paulo? Which reminded her. Where the hell's that car Celio was supposed to be getting us?
The phone on the bedside table rang, startling Jemma, who lifted her arm and watched Ash pounce on the receiver.
"Is that room 203?"
She recognised the night receptionist's voice. "Yes."
"A man has left something for you at the desk, Senhorita. Will you collect it as soon as possible, please?"
"I'll be right down." She slammed down the receiver then met Jemma's interested green gaze. "I think the car's here."
"Oh, good. What sort is it?"
"Donít know. Want to come and find out?"
"OK." With a groan, the blonde heaved herself up off the bed. "Why did you let me eat so much?"
Ash shrugged. "I thought you were enjoying that filet mignon."
"Then I was." Jemma held a hand to her stomach. "Now I'm not so sure." She burped then blushed, the tips of her ears turning pink. "Sorry!"
Ash laughed. "A walk will do you good."
She threw Jemma an indulgent glance. "You're as lazy as Sam was." Thinking about her dead partner was getting easier, she reflected thankfully.
Ash nodded and opened the door.
"Is that good or bad?"
"I'll let you know."
They headed downstairs to reception, where the item left for her proved to be a bulky envelope. Inside it was a set of car keys. Jemma examined them while Ash read the accompanying note. Job done, the receptionist disappeared into the back room.
"Volkswagen," deduced Jemma.
Ash pulled a face. "Really?" She preferred her cars sleek and sporty.
Placing her hand in the small of Jemma's back, she guided her outside. The night air was pleasantly cool after the heat of the day. "Itís green and parked down the road a bit, according to this. I've got the registration number." She scanned the number plates of the vehicles parked across the road and pointed. "That one."
"The 2-door Volkswagen Gol?"
Glumly, Ash strode towards it. "Yes." She slipped the key into the lock and opened the driver's door. Jemma came up beside her. She was trying not to laugh.
"How come James Bond gets Aston Martins and you get Fiat Cinquecentos and Volkswagen Gols?"
"Yeah," grumbled Ash. "How come?" She reached inside the glove compartment and found the papers Celio had told her would be there. "Still, spares should be a doddle, and that's the important thing. Right?"
"Right." The blonde didn't sound convinced.
Ash slid into the driver's seat, then looked up at Jemma. "Want to come for a test drive?"
The other woman shook her head. "I'm tired. If it's all right with you, I think Iíll go to bed."
"Good idea." To be truthful, she was a little relieved. Being constantly in Jemma's company, while delightful, was straining her self-control to breaking point. Ash kept wanting to touch her, to stroke the fine blonde hairs on her forearms.... It hadn't been this bad in Tenerife, she mused. Something had changed between them. Or maybe she was just still jetlagged.
She checked her watch. It was 9.30pm. "I'll be back before midnight."
Jemma raised her hand in a little wave. "OK. See you then."
Ash watched the blonde walk back towards the hotel, found herself admiring the shapely backside and gave herself a mental slap round the chops. She sighed, and set about shoving the car seat back as far as it would go (that was the trouble with being six feet tall). After experimenting with the various switches for a while, she was satisfied she knew all she needed to, so she strapped herself in and turned on the ignition. The engine sounded a bit rough, but at least it went. She pulled out into the traffic.
Instinctively, she headed for the parts of Rio that she was familiar with - Copacabana and Ipanema. A spot of girl-watching, maybe even girl-catching would be a pleasant diversion. As she drove slowly along the Avenida Atlantica, she gazed out at the laughing Cariocas and tourists intent on enjoying the nightlife. This scene needs music. She switched on the Volkswagen's radio, and tuned it to a station playing bossa novas. Perfect.
At the end of the Copacabana beach, she bore right, then right again, ending up on the Avenida Viera Souto which ran alongside Ipanema's beach. Tonight, there were plenty of leggy Ipanema women to be had (and Ash was an expert at judging availability). But her heart just wasn't in it. Sex with a beautiful stranger seemed to have lost its allure. She sighed. Perhaps I am tired after all.
Intending to call it a night and head back to the hotel, she took the next right. Half way along the road, her surroundings began to seem familiar. Puzzled, she slowed the Volkswagen to a crawl while she got her bearings. Ah. Wasn't this the Rua Teixeira de Melo? Which meant the Alegria Café should be just about... here.
She pulled up outside the brightly lit bar cum café, smiling at the memories it evoked, especially those concerning a certain voluptuous Carioca woman. Four years ago, she and Sam had come to Rio to recover from a strenuous assignment. She had been checking out Rio's gay scene, when she came upon the little women-friendly bar.
Giseli hadn't been Ash's usual 'type' at all. She was ten years older, her curly hair and large eyes were brown, and her figure might politely be called 'generous'. But there was a vivacity to the small Brazilian woman, a frank carnality that was irresistible. She had spotted Ash standing by the bar and openly made a play for her. By the end of the evening, she had won her too.
Ash smiled, remembering their brief time together, much of it spent inside a motel room (which Brazilians unashamedly hired by the hour whenever they needed somewhere private). It had been an intensely pleasurable time and she had learned quite a few new techniques from the other woman. Then her holiday drew to a close, and, as they had known it must, their relationship ended. There had been no recriminations though. They had parted as friends.
She realised she would really like to see Giseli again. Perhaps it was coincidence, or perhaps her subconscious had brought her to the Brazilian's favourite watering hole. Whatever, she parked the car under a streetlight, locked it, and headed for the Alegria.
The sounds of Acid House grew louder as she pushed open the outer door. It could have been worse, she saw from a poster - it could have been Disco night. Opening the inner door brought a blast of warm air smelling of perfume, alcohol, smoke, and sweat. She inhaled it, smiling at the memories it brought.
Interested looks followed Ash's progress as she made her way through the heaving throng of women, but she ignored them. What were the odds Giseli would be in tonight? And what were the odds she would still be the person Ash remembered? They were both four years older. A lot could have happened....
She drummed her fingers on the bar and scanned the drinks list until at last the busy bartender noticed her and raised an eyebrow.
"Um Camouflage," she said, deciding to be adventurous.
A tap on her shoulder startled her and made her turn. She found herself looking down into familiar, warm brown eyes.
"Blade. I thought it was you."
Ash returned the delighted smile. "Giseli. How are you?" The other woman had a few more fine lines around her eyes and mouth, but other than that she hadn't changed at all.
"Well, very well. And you?"
Throat clearing from behind proved to be the crop-haired bartender. Ash apologised for keeping her waiting, paid for her drink, then carried it over to an empty table. Giseli took a moment to excuse herself from the party of friends she was with, then brought her beer over. They sat on hard chairs and gazed openly at one another.
"So. How long are you in Rio this time?"
"Just tonight." Ash tasted her drink gingerly and decided adulterating whiskey with coconut water was not the greatest idea anyone had ever had.
"One night?" The Brazilian looked outraged.
She shrugged, feeling embarrassed. "It was going to be longer but - "
"I see." Giseli took a gulp of her beer. "Still, one night is better than none." She thought for a moment. "And your friend... What was his name? Ah, yes. Sam. He is with you?"
Ash sighed. "Sam's dead," she said quietly. "He was killed last year."
Giseli laid a tanned hand on her arm. "Desculpe." She looked genuinely sad to hear the news. "He was a nice young man. You must miss him."
Ash looked at her hands. "I do," she admitted.
"So," Giseli's change of tone and posture indicated a change of topic. "You are here alone?"
"Er, no. I have a new partner. Her name is Jemma. She's at the hotel. We only arrived today so she was tired." Ash shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
Giseli gave her a penetrating look. "Is she pretty, this Jemma of yours?"
'Of mine'? Ash blinked. "Yes, she is."
"Nice figure?" Giseli made an hourglass shape with her hands. "Ripe, luscious?"
Thinking of Jemma's body in those terms brought a rush of heat to Ash's cheeks, and she took another gulp of her drink then wished she hadn't. "Well, yes... but...." She frowned. "Giseli, what's all this got to do with anyth-"
Giseli's fullthroated laughter interrupted her, and all around the bar people's heads turned towards them. "Everything, my friend. Oh, everything.... A pretty woman is in your hotel room, Blade, yet you are here with me." She squeezed Ash's arm. "You are on edge, all wound up, yes?"
The tall woman regarded her ruefully. She had forgotten how perceptive Giseli could be. "Yes," she admitted.
Giseli finished her beer and stood up. "Drink up."
Ash blinked at her. "But-"
The small woman's heavy brows drew together and she put her hands on her hips. "We have only one night, Blade. Are you going to sit here, wasting precious time?"
Throat suddenly dry, Ash gulped down what remained of her Camouflage. Then she stood up and followed Giseli....
The Brazilian woman blew Ash a kiss, gave her a little wave, then disappeared inside her apartment block. For a long moment, Ash regarded the space Giseli had occupied, then she pulled herself together and checked her watch.
Shit! It was just after midnight. If Jemma was awake, she'd be worried. Quickly, she put the Gol in gear and headed back towards the Flamengo district and the Hotel Senador.
She hadn't meant to stay out this long, but time had got away from her while she was with Giseli. The Brazilian woman had taken her to a motel room, removed Ash's clothes and pushed her down onto the circular vibra-bed. She had started with a light massage then moved on to more carnal activities, which at one point had utilised a sex toy from the sterilised selection provided in the motel's bedside cabinet. Ash had given as good as she got, though. And by the time they were through with one another, they both felt as boneless as jellyfish and very pleased with themselves. She yawned and thought longingly of her bed.
Amazingly, the parking spot outside the hotel which the Volkswagen had earlier occupied was still vacant. She parked there, turned off the ignition and got out. Another yawn overtook her, and simultaneously something hit her left shoulder from behind.
Momentary numbness was followed by stabbing pain. Fuck! A surge of adrenaline banished her tiredness, and she swivelled, ramming the heel of her right hand into the bridge of the attacker's nose. He dropped his bloody knife and toppled backwards like a tree trunk, dead before he hit the ground.
Ash explored the back of her shoulder with her right hand, her fingers coming away sticky with something that looked black in the lamplight. Blood. The wound was bad, she realised, but not life threatening. The thick leather strap of her shoulder holster must have turned the blade away from anything vital.
She wiped the blood on her jeans and was stooping to remove the man's ski mask and see who he was, when two more men, also wearing ski masks and dressed in black, emerged from the alleyway alongside the hotel. This was no casual mugging; they had been waiting for her.
She eyed them warily as they split up, then twisted to one side and delivered a series of kicks to the first man's groin and chin. His head snapped back with a sharp crack and he collapsed to the pavement.
Now for the other -
Three more men slunk out of the alleyway, all holding wooden cudgels. They joined the surviving attacker and began circling her.
Enough! She drew her Browning automatic and fired two shots in quick succession. Two men dropped their cudgels and clutched their knees; one started to scream like a stuck pig.
If that racket doesn't make someone call the police, nothing will.
The remaining thugs took up positions on opposite sides of her and started looking for an opening. One feinted with a switchblade. She evaded the knife and raised her pistol.
Three more men in ski masks appeared. Are they breeding in that alleyway?
The momentary distraction was enough. Pain flared as a cudgel found its target - her right forearm - and, unable to help herself, she dropped the gun. The odds against her reaching the hotel had just increased dramatically.
She dodged a blade, then a blow. One of the thugs reached for her gun and she gave him something else to think about with a kick to the groin. Her own attempts to retrieve it were thwarted, as the thugs forced her steadily backwards, away from both her gun and the hotel.
Did they know about Jemma? Have they already killed her? Ash suppressed a momentary panic. If they'd kidnapped or killed the blonde, the police would be crawling all over the place by now, surely.
Another flurry of kicks and punches left a man moaning and clutching his broken nose. But they were wearing her down - eventually they would get the better of her.
The last thing she wanted was to lead these killers to her sleeping partner. Maybe she should decoy them away from here, take them out one by one or give them the slip, and double back.
OK. That's the plan. With a last longing look at the hotel's lights, she barged into a surprised attacker, winded him with an elbow in the solar plexus, and headbutted him. It created the gap she needed, then she was through and running. The men shouted and ran after her.
I'll try to get back to you, Jemma, I promise. Ash ran into the night....
Jemma was getting ready for bed and had put on her nighty and brushed her teeth when her gaze fell on the postcards she had left on the little table. Better write those before I forget.
She grabbed the cards and a ballpoint pen, and carried them over to the bed. Then she switched on the little light, plumped up a pillow against the headboard, and made herself comfortable.
The top picture showed a tanned and smiling movie star, right arm raised elegantly, hand poised just so. Jemma winced at the fruit basket hat, and the flamboyantly frilly, purple, yellow, and pink dress. That Carmen Miranda had managed to still look stunning in such an outfit was remarkable. Was that your idea or the Studio's, I wonder?
She shrugged, turned the postcard over, and began to write.
Dear Gary. I saw this and I thought of you.
She pictured her friend's probable expression and chuckled.
As you can see, I'm in Rio. Did you know the Brazilian Bombshell has a museum all to herself? Me neither.
She sucked the end of her pen and considered what else to say. Gary would have heard she was Ash's new partner by now. He would also guess from the postmark that Jemma was on a mission. No need to mention that then. So... What else would he want to know?
She remembered their conversation of just over a week ago. She had been suspended, pending the outcome of the Tenerife enquiry, unaware that it would not only clear her but also gain her the job in CounterIntelligence she had always wanted. Unaware also that she would be asked to partner the most dashing secret agent on the Organisation's books: Ashley Blade.
Gary had been drawing doodles on the little London pub's table, using spilt beer for ink, when he asked her bluntly, "Worked out whether you fancy her or not yet?" He had been referring to Ash of course. Then, she hadn't known how to answer her friend. Now....
She tapped the end of the pen against her teeth. Suppose she were to write 'Newsflash: I've worked out I fancy Blade'... and suppose Ash should happen to read it. Her cheeks felt hot. Perhaps not. The pen resumed its scribble.
Went up Sugar Loaf Mountain today. No sign of Jaws.
There. That would have to do. She added Gary's address to it then reached for the next postcard.
This one showed the view from the top of the Sugar Loaf. It was spectacular - she'd discovered that she could see the entire city, Corcovado Mountain, Guanabara Bay, and part of Copacabana beach too from there - and having Ash by her side while she blinked at the stunning view had made it even more special. They'd stayed up there for an hour, before descending by cable car. Then, the tall agent had taken her to a deafeningly noisy but wonderfully exuberant samba club, and after that, they had eaten a late dinner at the renowned Café Lamas.
Dear Mum, Dad, and Maggie.
Having a wonderful time in Rio. The weather's hot and the sea is blue.
Ate some Brazilian food today. No stomach upset yet (just kidding!)
She wondered what else to say. Rightly or wrongly, she had never hidden the nature of her job from her parents, though she had kept the details vague. Until she was home safe and sound, they would worry. That was just their way. She thought for a moment then wrote.
Blade is here with me.
They would know who she meant. While she was training to be an agent, she had talked about Ash so much her sister Maggie had taken to pretending to puke whenever 'the great Ashley Blade' was mentioned. Jemma smiled wryly. She had perhaps overdone the hero worship a tad.
She put away the cards and pen and yawned. Tomorrow she would buy some stamps and write the rest of the postcards. That would have to do for now. It might only be 10 pm by the travel alarm clock on her bedside cabinet, but her body still thought it was 1 am.
Repositioning the pillow, she slid under the sheets, and made herself comfortable. Then she reached up and turned out the light. Moments later she was sound asleep....
Jemma stared blearily up at the ceiling, glanced at the alarm clock's illuminated dial, and groaned. She'd been asleep barely two hours. Belatedly she recalled the sound that had woken her - a distant car backfiring. She plumped her pillow, closed her eyes, and prepared to go back to sleep. Then something dawned on her. Ash should be back by now.
She sat up and ran a hand through tangled hair. Then she got out of bed and padded across the room to the phone. What was Reception's number? She peered at the instructions then dialled.
The phone rang for what seemed an eternity before someone at the other end finally picked it up.
"Alô. Recepção." The male voice was almost inaudible above the sound of a heated argument going on in the background.
"Isto parecem tiros. Chame a polícia!" said the first voice.
"Você está maluco? Você sabe quais os problemas que eles sempre causam," replied the second.
Jemma frowned and held the earpiece closer. "This is Senhorita Blythe, Room 203. Are there any messages for me? Did Senhorita Kenyon call?" She's probably picked up some Ipanema babe and forgotten all about me. She tried not to feel either hurt or jealous, but it wasn't easy.
"Um momento por favor. I will check."
While she waited, Jemma try to understand the conversation going on in the background.
" Há uma gang lá fora! Eles tem pedaços de pau. É perigoso. Chame a polícia!"
If only her Portuguese were better. She was sure the first speaker had said something about a gang, and calling the police!
The receptionist came back on the line. "Senhorita Blythe?"
"Oh. Thank you."
He hung up on her then, and she was left staring at the phone. Carefully she replaced the receiver. Ash had an English-Portuguese dictionary somewhere, didn't she? The older woman's grasp of languages was good, but even she needed to remind herself of a word occasionally.
Jemma rummaged through Ash's bag until she came across a little green book. She riffled the pages looking for - what was it? - 'perigoso'. "Dangerous."
She blinked and racked her memory for more words. A word came back: 'tiros'. She turned the pages. "Shots."
Now all her internal alarms were clanging. She threw the book aside, dressed quickly, checked her gun was loaded and settled it snugly into her shoulder holster. Taking one last look around the room, she decided she had everything she needed and headed downstairs.
There were two men standing at the desk, deep in conversation with the night receptionist. They looked up as she strode past them towards the exit.
"Senhorita, não vá lá fora!" called one.
She stopped and turned towards him. "Excuse me?"
His forehead wrinkled, then he said in halting English, "You must not... go out there, Senhorita. It’s... dangerous. We have called the police." She recognised his voice; he had been speaking in the background while she was on the phone.
"There was a fight outside a little while ago," explained the receptionist. "A gang. They had guns, knives, cudgels...." He looked embarrassed. "This kind of thing is not usual, Senhorita. Please. Go back to your room. All will be well by morning."
She marched to the exit and pressed her nose against the glass. "There's no one out there now."
"They might be hiding. Please, do not-"
But she had already slid back the bolt, pushed the door open, and gone outside.
Pressing her back against the hotel wall, and gripping the butt of her pistol so she could draw it instantly, she scanned her surroundings through 180 degrees. No one was lurking in the shadows, she sensed, and she relaxed minutely. Then her gaze fell on the little Volkswagen Gol parked a little way down the road. Her heart sank.
Don’t panic, she ordered herself. So the car is back and Ash isn't. It doesn't necessarily mean anything.
Something glinted in the middle of the road. She loped towards it, stooped and picked it up. A spent shell casing. Under a street lamp, it proved to be standard issue ammo for a Browning automatic. The same type of gun nestled in her holster. Most British secret agents, including Ash, used them. Oh no!
If she had read the signs correctly, Ash had returned... and walked straight into an ambush. The men at reception had mentioned a gang, with guns and knives and cudgels. No sign of the gang now... or of Ash herself.
Sticky black fluid on the pavement turned out to be blood not oil. Her pulse pounded. Was Ash wounded? Was she dead and they'd dragged the body away? She clamped down on that thought, hard. An experienced agent like Ash could take care of herself. Have a little faith, Jemma.
Forcing herself to think logically, she tried to imagine herself in Ash's position. Outnumbered; too many enemies between her and the hotel. And even if she had gained the shelter of the hotel, trouble would have followed her inside. Maybe she had decided to run for it then double back later when the coast was clear?
But if she's wounded....
Jemma stuck out her jaw and headed for the Volkswagen. Ash had the only set of keys, so she used a bent paperclip to pick the door's lock. She slid into the driver's seat, reached under the dashboard and wrenched some wires loose.
Where on earth do I start looking? Rio's huge and completely unfamiliar territory. She could be anywhere!
Only one thing for it. She'd have to start nearest the Hotel Senador then work her way outwards, methodically, street by street.
Jemma selected two wires and touched their ends together until they sparked. The engine roared into life and she twisted the wires securely in place, put the Gol in gear, and pulled away from the kerb.
"Hang on, Ash," she muttered. "I'm coming."
Things hadn't gone quite the way Ash planned.
She had headed for Largo do Machado, the subway stop nearest the Hotel Senador, but when she reached it, it was shut. Of course! The metro stayed open until 1am only at weekends.
Grimly she gazed as the locked gates. She wouldn't be able to grab a ride into the deserted heart of Rio and lose her pursuers there after all. But the thud thud of feet was growing louder, so reluctantly she left the subway station and broke into a jog.
Looks like I'll have to do this the hard way.
She turned left into the Rua das Laranjeiras. Normally it would have been a simple matter to shin up a drainpipe, clamber over the rooftops, and give her followers the slip. But with her shoulder wound, she didn't dare risk such a climb.
Not only was it hurting like hell, she was also losing blood. She had torn off a shirtsleeve and used it as a makeshift bandage, but it was already drenched and hadn't slowed the bleeding. She needed to apply pressure to the wound, which thanks to the holster had sliced through muscle only and not nerves or an artery. But it was in an awkward spot and no matter how she twisted and turned, she simply couldn't get at it. The sooner she got back to the hotel and Jemma the better.
Ash glanced back. Two of the thugs, the younger, fitter ones had broken away from the others, opening up a gap of several hundred yards. Two against one - not bad odds. She unzipped her money belt and, still running, plunged her right hand inside, searching for the garrotte. Ah. Carefully, she pulled out the length of wire. Then she scanned ahead for a likely spot. That alley looks promising.
Slowing, so as to make sure the two men saw her, she darted into the dark alleyway. At its far end were some overflowing refuse bins. Perfect! Moments later, the thugs were pounding towards her hiding place behind the bins. They'd have to split up... and that would be her chance.
She gripped the slim wooden handles, pulling the wire taut between them, licked her lips and waited. Then she leaped out, startling the man who had been creeping towards her.
He froze and stared at her. Then she was behind him, wrapping the wire round his bull-like neck and pulling. He thrashed about trying to break free, gurgling liquidly as the wire sliced into his throat. She clung on grimly.
The other man appeared, barrelling towards her from behind, one arm raised, knife blade glinting in the moonlight. She released the garrotte and twisted out of his way sharply, the blade missing her neck by millimetres. Then she threw herself at him, knocking him back against the refuse bins with a loud clatter that set a dog barking in a yard nearby.
Grabbing his jaw and the back of his skull, she wrenched the man's head sharply to one side. The movement sent agony flaring through her shoulder and down her arm, but she ignored it. There was a dull crack, and he went limp.
Ash let her assailant's body slump to the ground and took a minute to catch her breath. Then she stooped and checked that the first thug was dead. He was. But the wire was too deeply embedded in his neck for her to retrieve.
No gun. No garrotte. Great. She grimaced, wiped her bloody fingers on his shirt, then set off back down the alley.
The slower men were just approaching the junction where their companions had disappeared, and they shouted in fury as she darted out. She resisted the urge to thumb her nose at them, and set off running once more.
Two down; three to go. Pity they couldn't just give up on her, but they were as tenacious as terriers. The pay must be good.
She wondered how the Libyans had found her - the thugs must be working for them, mustn't they? Maybe it was just an unlucky fluke. Maybe one of al-Akhdar's men had spotted her while she was having lunch or on the bus or going up in the cable car....
She had come to the end of the street, and now she paused, unsure which way to go. Corcovado loomed to the west, and she pictured its summit and the huge statue of Christ, arms held wide to embrace the city. Or she could double back into the streets of Laranjeiras.
Which would make the best killing ground? She flipped a mental coin, and headed west towards the mountain's lower slopes.
In the early morning quiet, the rhythmic thudding of feet and gasping for breath seemed deafening. Her legs were turning to jelly, and she tripped on a curb and almost went flying. She steadied herself and ran on. It felt as though she had been running forever.
A familiar silhouette halfway down the road caught her attention. It was one of the little phone kiosks the Brazilians called 'big ears'. She crossed towards it, wondering whether to call Jemma or Celio, then realised that she wouldn't be able to call either. It was one of the old fashioned phones that required fichas.
Damn! She had meant to get some tokens earlier but hadn't got around to it. She could call 193 for assistance, but she had killed several people tonight, and being detained by police with a reputation for brutality was the last thing she needed.
Still cursing under her breath, Ash continued on to the end of the street, puffing as the incline steepened and her calves began to ache. Abruptly, the street ended, and she found herself staring at a cross between a rubbish dump and a housing development.
A favela. She headed up the slope towards the shantytown, whose ramshackle appearance was softened by the moonlight. The stink of rubbish and untreated sewage intensified as she drew nearer.
A muffled shout made her glance back then, and quicken her speed. Two of her pursuers were catching up fast, and as she watched a third appeared in the distance. They had long ago stripped off their ski masks, and, at the sight of her, fierce grins split their sweaty faces.
She gritted her teeth against the throbbing in her shoulder and scanned her surroundings urgently. It was difficult to make out things clearly in the moonlight, but wasn't that a plastic bag draped over a TV antenna? It could be just litter of course, but she'd heard cocaine dealers used such signals to indicate the presence of the police or the arrival of a drug shipment or....
Movement by a sheet of corrugated iron fencing snagged her attention, and she saw a huddle of several young men watching her warily. Yes! She swerved towards them.
"Os homens que me perseguem," called Ash, not slowing her approach, "trabalham para o cara rival que vende drogas."
At the mention of a rival drugdealer, the youths got to their feet, muttering and gesturing. Guns appeared in some hands.
"Eles querem você fora do acordo," she added, hoping that the thought of being cut out of a drug deal would aggravate them. Mutters became angry exclamations, and wary looks deepened into scowls. Maybe this would work after all.
Ash's momentum was such that, as she had intended, the youths had to part to let her through or be mown down. She didn't pause but kept on running, glancing back in time to see them close ranks against the three men following hard on her heels.
The reception committee for those invading their turf would be a hot one, she hoped. As she swung in a wide arc that would lead her back down the slope, a flurry of shots broke the early morning silence.
She bared her teeth. Serve them right.
Ash was trapped in a dead end, and this time she hadn't planned it. Two of her pursuers had survived their encounter with the favela youths, though one now sported a broken nose and the other was bleeding from a nasty gash to his thigh. They glared at her. She was supposed to be easier prey than this, presumably. Tough.
Brakes squealed in the distance, as someone took a corner too fast. Brazilian drivers!
Wistfully, she eyed the drainpipe up the side of the warehouse. She doubted she could make the climb in her condition, but she might have to. Not just yet though. She flexed her hands and prepared to give as good as she got. At least these two didn't have guns.
A car engine revved and wheels screeched. It sounded nearer now. Maybe, if she could get to the main road....
The two thugs started circling her, jabbing at her with switchblade and cudgel. She still had enough energy to evade the blows and keep out of their reach, but it was ebbing fast, and they knew it. More and more the pokes were malicious. She ducked a blow aimed at her wounded shoulder, and searched grimly for an opening.
The roar of the car engine was suddenly loud, and headlights dazzled her. What the-? A cudgel caught her in the ribs as she squinted against the glare, and she pressed a hand to her stinging side.
A Volkswagen Gol screeched to a halt behind her assailants, its tyres leaving a streak of rubber on the road. "Get in," yelled a familiar voice, and the passenger door swung open..
Ash didn't need telling twice. She dived for the thug standing between her and salvation, driving her head deep into his abdomen. Air whooshed from his lungs and his cudgel fell with a loud clatter. Then she was heading towards the open car door, swinging herself inside.
The blonde in the driving seat didn't wait for her to get settled before reversing down the alleyway at breakneck speed, and she hung on for dear life. With an effort, she finally managed to get the door closed properly, and she slumped back against the upholstery. The two thugs had receded to mere silhouettes in the distance, and she imagined them staring uncomprehendingly after her.
Ash laughed slightly hysterically. "In the nick of time."
"I'd have got here sooner if I'd known where you were. Next time how about a homing signal?"
"Sure." She glanced at Jemma, whose face bore a look of fierce concentration. "Your file didn't mention you were Ayrton Senna's sister."
"Never needed to be before." The blonde backed the car out onto a main road, straightened up, then put it in gear and began to drive more conventionally.
Ash's eyelids drooped as the night's exertions took their toll..
"You look awful," came Jemma's voice.
"Don’t feel too good," she admitted. The car slowed, and she had a feeling she was being scrutinised.
"Your shoulder! Let me pull up somewhere, take a look at it-"
"No time. Our cover's blown. We need to get our stuff from the hotel and get out of here."
"But you need a doctor!"
"Later," managed Ash. "We'll head for São Paulo. Give me a field dressing once we're on the road.... OK?"
Jemma cursed under her breath but muttered a reluctant "OK." The car picked up speed again.
"Thanks." With a sigh of relief, Ash let her eyelids flutter closed.
Just outside Rio, Jemma pulled off the highway onto a layby sheltered from the passing traffic by a line of trees. She pulled the dangling wires apart, and let the engine peter out. She gazed at the woman dozing in the passenger seat. It seemed a shame to disturb Ash, but it had to be done.
She stretched over to the back seat and grabbed the first aid kit and bottle of hydrogen peroxide she had flung there. Sterile saline would have been better, but the little supermarket she had stopped at hadn't stocked it. She got out, went round to Ash's side of the car, and opened the door.
"Hey." She crouched down next to Ash and touched her gently on the arm. Eyelids fluttered open and pale blue eyes regarded her blearily. "I need to clean your wound."
Obligingly Ash leaned forward in her seat, wincing as she did so.
Jemma pursed her lips. "Painkillers worn off?"
The dark-haired woman nodded.
"I'll get you some more when I've done this." Carefully she began to unwrap the makeshift bandage wrapped around Ash's left shoulder.
Jemma had managed to convince the obstinate woman that the Hotel Senador could wait a few minutes, and Ash had let her apply pressure to the stab wound. When it finally stopped bleeding, Ash had urged her again to get back to the hotel. Jemma sighed at her stubbornness but complied.
She had parked the little Volkswagen near the two star hotel, with its engine running and Ash in the passenger seat. The older agent had decided not to come in; she feared she might 'attract too much attention'. Since Jemma had stripped off Ash's tattered shirt, and she was now clad only in a bloodspattered white bra, she could only agree.
No one was in the lobby. Jemma rushed through it, then took the stairs up to their room two at a time, heart pumping, eyes peeled for an ambush. The coast was clear. It took her only a few frantic moments to cram their belongings into their bags, then she was half pulling and half pushing the heavy luggage down the stairs.
She stumbled over to the counter, dumped the bags in front of it, caught her breath, then pinged the bell. The middle-aged woman who had checked them in yesterday appeared.
"I’d like to check out please."
The receptionist gazed over Jemma's shoulder then into her eyes again. "Your friend, Senhorita Kenyon. She is checking out too?"
"Yes. She's outside, waiting for me. How much do we owe you?"
The woman worked it out, and Jemma handed over some of the reais Ash had given her and waited for the change. "Did the police come in the end?"
The receptionist grimaced. "You heard about the disturbance then?"
"By the time the Polícia got here, there was no sign of anything out of the ordinary."
Jemma opened her mouth to ask about the blood under the lamppost then closed it again.
"They were angry at us for wasting their time." The woman shrugged and handed Jemma her change. "I hope you enjoy the rest of your stay in Brazil," she added perfunctorily.
"Me too." Jemma had smiled, grabbed the bags and headed for the car and her waiting partner.
The last of the bandage came free, and she unscrewed the cap from the brown bottle. "This may sting." Carefully she poured hydrogen peroxide into the wound.
"S'okay." The words came from between gritted teeth.
Jemma winced in sympathy. If it had been her on the receiving end, she would have been howling in agony. But Ash was made of sterner stuff, it seemed, so she kept pouring. Mac had covered 'in the field' medical treatment as part of the training course last year - it was vital to irrigate the wound thoroughly. She drizzled more antiseptic into the deep gash, then nodded in satisfaction.
As Ash let out her breath with a gasp of relief, Jemma selected a sterile bandage from the first aid kit and began to rewrap the wound, which fortunately was not gaping enough to require packing. She tied off the ends, then fetched Ash's bag from the Volkswagen's boot and started to rummage inside.
The other agent raised an eyebrow. "Looking for something?"
"You can't go around in just your bra." Attractive sight though it is. "Ah." She pulled out a cotton shirt, rather rumpled as the result of her hasty packing. "This do?"
Ash nodded wearily, and allowed Jemma to help her into it. The blonde finished doing up the buttons then stood back.
"Want to tie my shoelaces too, Mum?"
Jemma smiled. If Ash was joking, she must be feeling a bit better. She returned to the driver's side and got in, then pulled out the packet of painkillers from the glove compartment and extracted two white pills. "Take these and go back to sleep," she ordered.
Ash frowned. "You can't do all the driving, Jemma. It's six hours to São Paulo." She took the pills, swallowed them, then made a face.
"Of course I can." Even if I didn't get much sleep last night, and I have to drive on the wrong side of the road, and Brazilian drivers are lunatics. She touched the ignition wires together. They sparked, and the engine roared to life.
Blue eyes were regarding her keenly, she realised, and a smile quirked the corner of Ash's mouth. She knows I'm not as confident as I sound. Jemma prepared herself for an argument. But it didn't come. Instead, Ash relaxed against the upholstery.
"OK," she said, closing her eyes. "Thanks."
Jemma breathed a sigh of relief, and put the car in gear. "No. Thank you," she murmured. "For having faith in me." She glanced across to see the reaction to her words, but Ash was already asleep, her head lolling.
She resisted a strong urge to reach over and brush back the strand of dark hair falling across Ash's face. "Sleep well," she murmured. Then she pulled out onto the highway.
Jemma had been hoping for a relaxing drive along a well-maintained, and preferably empty, highway. What she got was the BR116. The old highway that connected Rio to São Paulo was run down and riddled with potholes, and though she was travelling at just under the speed limit and minding her own business, it seemed trucks were constantly crowding the Volkswagen's tail, their drivers revving impatiently before pulling out and roaring past her in a stink of exhaust fumes.
The scenery was nice though. To the north was the Itatiaia National Park, and cloud-forested mountains dominated the skyline. And it was slightly cooler than it had been in Rio.
She glanced at the wounded woman sleeping in the passenger seat. Suppose I hadn't woken up and gone looking for Ash? Suppose the knife had severed an artery? Suppose....
For God's sake, stop it! Jemma tightened her hands on the steering wheel and thrust the recurring thoughts away. Ash was here with her and safe. That was all that mattered.
She reached for her Coke can and took another swig of its lukewarm contents. It was her third; the caffeine was helping to keep her alert. Only trouble was... Her bladder signalled its need again, and she checked her watch. Ninety minutes since the last stop. Time for a break and a leg stretch. When a likely spot appeared, Jemma checked the rear view mirror, then indicated and pulled over.
She rummaged about on the back seat and eventually found the box of tissues she knew was there. Grabbing a handful, plus some antibacterial travel wipes for her hands, she got out and headed for a likely bush.... The pressure on her bladder relieved, she returned to the car.
Ash's colour was good, she saw, as she scrutinised the other woman anxiously. She touched the back of one hand to Ash's forehead. No fever either, thank God.
The dark-haired woman stirred fitfully at her touch, and she pulled back quickly, fearing she was going to wake her. But Ash merely let out a deep sigh, and resettled herself more comfortably into the upholstery.
Jemma rebuckled her seat belt, and started the engine....
Several hours had passed, and, for something to do, Jemma was trying to remember the names of the towns and villages she had driven through. Barra Mansa, Guarantinguetá....
Beside her, Ash stirred and her eyelids fluttered open. "Where are we?" She rubbed her eyes.
"You're awake! Um... the last road sign we passed was to São José dos Campos, I think."
"Never heard of it." The tall woman yawned and started to stretch then thought better of it. "How much further is it to São Paulo?"
Ash checked her watch and whistled. "Good going, Jemma."
The praise brought a glow to Jemma's cheeks. She cleared her throat. "How are you feeling?"
"Like I've been knifed in the shoulder." Ash's stomach grumbled. "And I could eat a horse."
Wordlessly, Jemma opened the glove compartment and pulled out the painkillers. While Ash swallowed two with a mouthful of Coke, Jemma took something else from the compartment that her partner might appreciate. "The heat's made this a bit squidgy but -"
"Gimme." Ash snatched the chocolate bar from her and seconds later there came a contented, muffled grunt.
"I'm glad you're awake. I was wondering... where exactly is the Esplêndido Hotel?"
"The Avenida Ipiranga.... Don't worry, I'll give you directions when we get there. Unless you want me to take over?"
Jemma shook her head. "You need to rest that shoulder. Anyway, I've come this far...."
"Okay. Thanks." Ash shifted her gaze out of the window.
Jemma hadn't cancelled the hotel booking Celio had already made; as Ash had advised, she had simply booked a new room under their new aliases - the opposition wouldn't be expecting them to remain in the same hotel.
Amy! She frowned. "Why do I have to be 'Amy Smith' of all things?"
Ash chuckled. "Would you have preferred my name, 'Elizabeth Dexter'?"
Jemma considered for a moment. "Not really."
They travelled a few more miles in silence, then Jemma noticed that the traffic was increasing and as the road became clogged, she was forced to reduce speed. The skyscrapered silhouette of São Paulo came into view in the distance.
Nearly there. She mulled over what they would do next.
"Keep your eyes peeled," said Ash. "I think there's a turn off to the right quite soon."
Jemma grunted and started looking for road signs. The idiot driver in front slowed without warning, and she braked and dropped down a gear. Then a complicated road sign came into view. She recognised only one phrase: São Paulo. That's what I want. She indicated right, and prepared to take the turn-off.
For the next few minutes, Jemma was kept busy. Without Ash's help, she would have lost her way for certain. All this right-right-left-right stuff! She felt like a rat in maze.
Finally, she was turning the Volkswagen into the Avenida Ipiranga.
"Over there," said Ash, pointing.
Jemma sighed with relief. They had reached the Esplêndido Hotel.
It was a 2-star hotel again, much to Ash's disgust.
Jemma dumped their bags on the worn carpet and sank down on the lumpy twin bed nearest the window. "Glad that's over." She stretched out with a sigh of relief.
"Yeah." Ash was staring out at the cityscape, but Jemma sensed she wasn't seeing it. Some internal monologue had her attention and was making her frown.
Ash sighed. "Celio." The first thing the tall woman had done when they reached their room was to dial the number of the Organisation's Man in Rio. Once more she had got only his answering machine.
Jemma shrugged and clasped her hands behind her head. "He'll probably be in touch first thing tomorrow."
"Probably." Ash didn't sound too sure. She drummed her fingers on the windowledge. "I'm hungry. Sod London's budget. Let's get something from room service." She crossed to the phone and picked it up. Jemma listened to Ash's gabbling in Portuguese with only half an ear.
The tall woman put down the phone. "Five minutes they say."
"What did you order?" She remembered some of the dishes she had seen on restaurant menus in Rio. "Black beans, white rice, and mandioca?"
A dark eyebrow rose. "Roast chicken sandwiches and coffee for two. But I can always change-"
Jemma laughed. "That's great. Thanks." She unclasped her hands and sat up. "Let me look at your shoulder."
The other woman threw her a pained look, but Jemma gave her a no nonsense stare. Though she muttered under her breath, Ash sat obediently on the bed and started to unbutton her shirt.
Jemma eased the material off the tanned shoulder, revealing the bandage. Carefully, she unwrapped it. The knife wound didn't looked inflamed, which was just as well. She touched the surrounding skin with her knuckle. It didn't feel hot. "I think you got lucky. There's no sign of infection."
Ash squinted but couldn't see the wound and gave up "Will I ever play the violin again?"
"Could you before?" Jemma reached for the first aid kit, opened it and took out a fresh bandage.
"Well there's your answer." She rewrapped the wound, tied off the ends, then eased the shirt back up over Ash's shoulder. "All done."
Jemma yawned, so widely her jaw cracked. "Oh God. All that driving is catching up with me."
"Hardly surprising. I slept through it and I'm still pretty tired."
A knock on the door proved to be room service with their food. Ash took it, thanked the uniformed boy, and dismissed him with a tip. For the next few minutes the only sounds were munching and slurping as they worked their way through the sandwiches and coffee.
When they'd finished, Jemma stacked the empty plates and cups on the tray, then reached for her bag. She pulled out her toothbrush and nighty, aware of pale blue eyes watching her.
"I know it's early, but-"
"So what? You're tired, you should sleep," said Ash. "I think I'll get some shuteye too." She reached over and from her bag pulled an extra large T-shirt she was evidently going to sleep in. Jemma watched open mouthed as, there and then, the tall woman stood up began to strip off her clothes.
"Er...." She swallowed and turned away. "I just need to use the bathroom," she called, heading for its shelter. "Won't be long."
"Take your time," came Ash's voice. "We're not in any hurry."
The knock at the door woke Ash from an interesting dream involving her, Jemma, and a room in a sex motel....
"Room service," repeated a man's muffled voice.
She started to sit up, then stopped, inhaling sharply as the movement set her shoulder throbbing.
"Stay put," came Jemma's voice. "I'll get it."
"Thanks." Ash propped herself up on her right elbow and watched the little blonde slip into a pale blue robe.
Had she asked for breakfast to be sent to their room? Ash couldn't remember doing so. But her brain wasn't exactly firing on all cylinders. Perhaps the other woman had.
Jemma padded barefoot towards the door and undid the latch. She was just turning the handle when the door burst open, sending Jemma flying.
Five men surged into the hotel room - four were Brazilians, who looked as if they'd injected too many steroids, but the fifth man was of quite a different stamp. Ash recognised the lean figure with the pockmarked olive skin instantly. Khaleb Abdusamad!
She dived for the clothes piled on the floor next to her bed, searched them feverishly for her holster, and found it. Then she tossed it aside in disgust. Idiot! You lost your gun, remember?
Two thugs had grabbed a struggling Jemma. Two more were heading her way. Abdusamad was watching events unfold with hooded eyes and folded arms.
Ash evaded the hands reaching for her, grabbed the cheap hotel chair by one leg, and brought it down on her closest assailant's head. He grunted, then his eyes rolled up and he crumpled to the floor.
She discarded the now useless mess of splintered wood, and looked for something else she could use. A meaty hand gripped her wrist, and she karate-chopped a nerve point on the thug's forearm. He howled and released her.
Jemma's shoulder holster was hanging over the remaining hotel chair, she saw. Ash dived for it and pulled the Browning free. She twisted and pointed the pistol, then froze.
Two thugs were holding Jemma up against the wall of the room, and a wicked looking knife was pressed to her throat.
"Stalemate, Blade," came Abdusamad's voice. He sounded amused.
Jemma's eye widened. "Look out!"
A fist thudded into Ash's wound, and she thought she was going to throw up or pass out. She fell to her knees, and felt rather than saw the gun being twisted from her grasp. Pain came in intense waves, and her vision dimmed as she tried to ride them out.
"Idiot! That was too hard," shouted the Libyan.
She concentrated on her breathing, tried to move beyond the agony.
"If you've crippled her and she's no good to us...."
The pain receded to manageable levels and Ash's surroundings swam back into focus. Anxious green eyes were looking down at her. Don't freak out on me, Jemma. I know it looks bad but.... She forced a smile.
"Are you with us again, Blade?" asked the Libyan.
She explored her bandaged shoulder with one hand. Her fingers came away bloody. "No thanks to you." She glared at him. Last night they were trying to kill me. Now he wants me in one piece. "What do you want?"
"Why should I want anything?"
She gestured at Jemma. The knife was cutting into the soft skin of the blonde's neck, forcing her up onto tiptoes to avoid it. The green eyes were terrified yet determined, and she could read the message in them: Leave me. Save yourself. Ash ignored it.
Abdusamad laughed. "Pacheco was right. You are 'No nonsense' and 'To the point.' His dossier is very comprehensive. The Commander read it last night."
If they've got Celio's dossier then- Her heart sank. No wonder I couldn't get in touch with him. He must be dead, poor bastard. And that message I left on his answering machine led them straight to us.
The lean man pulled out a penknife and began to clean his bitten fingernails with it. "After the trouble you caused us in Tenerife, I wanted to kill you... but the Commander thinks you could prove useful. So." He looked at Ash. "We have a proposition for you." His gaze flickered to Jemma. "If you do a job for us, I will spare you and your companion. If not-" He gestured, and the blonde gasped as the pressure on her throat increased.
'We' as in you and al-Akhdar, presumably. "What kind of job?"
Another gesture. The knife eased and both Jemma and Ash could breathe more easily.
The terrorist folded and pocketed the knife then trained his black gaze on Ash once more. "Interesting. The Commander said you would co-operate if we threatened your partner. I did not believe him." He shrugged. "No matter."
"I won’t blow up innocent civilians."
"That will not be required, Blade. Your dossier said you were a 'cat burglar'. Is that correct?"
She regarded him coolly. "What do you want me to steal?"
Her instant acquiescence seemed to anger him. "You westerners!" Black eyes glittered. "No commitment to anything but your own skins, your own self-indulg-"
"Are you going to lecture me or tell me what you want?"
For a moment Ash thought he was going to hit her. Then his raised hand became an admonitory finger, which he wagged almost affectionately at her.
"Ah, Blade." His tone was once more calm. "There is an American businessman here in São Paulo. He owns a private gallery. In it is a very valuable emerald." White teeth gleamed against olive skin. "You will appreciate the irony. An American funding our struggle." When she remained silent, he shrugged. "You will steal that emerald for us."
She raised an eyebrow. "Will I?"
He nodded. "Or your little blonde friend will die."
Her captors hadn't bothered to blindfold Jemma, for which she was grateful. The big car was heading south, she saw, along the busy main road that led out of the city.
"Where are you taking me?"
The curly-haired driver ignored her, and the man sitting next to her turned the page of his Playboy.
"I asked -"
"Shut up." The balding man with the shaggy moustached didn't even glance up, he was too busy turning the centrefold sideways for a better look.
The muscle-bound thugs (who Jemma had dubbed Curly and Baldy) had watched alertly while, at Ash's insistence, Jemma was allowed to change into a T-shirt and jeans. Then they tied her hands behind her back and bundled her down the hotel's stairs into the back seat of a waiting BMW, and, unfortunately for her, made sure the doors were locked.
She tested her bonds unobtrusively. Too tight. At least they had stopped holding that knife to her throat. Maybe I can headbutt Baldy, kick out the window, wriggle through it... and knock myself out and get run over by all this heavy traffic. Maybe not.
She wondered what Ash was doing. The last she had seen of her partner, the tall woman had been kneeling on the hotel carpet, clad only in the T-shirt she had slept in, face pale and clammy with sweat, long fingers smeared with her own blood. Even then her concern had been for Jemma. Pale blue eyes had signalled as clearly as if she'd spoken aloud, "Go with them. Trust me."
The older woman was right to play for time, Jemma conceded. 'Where there's life there's hope.' But she didn't have to like it. Ash should have left Jemma to take her chances and saved herself. Anger smouldered as she remembered that brutal punch to her partner's shoulder. If she ever came across the thug who had done that again....
I'll find a way out of this for us... somehow. She had to. Their future prospects currently looked dim to non-existent.
Jemma was under no illusions. The Libyan had promised to release them once Ash had stolen the emerald (which, in her present state of health, was by no means a certainty), but he wouldn't just let two British agents go. Either he would try to use them as a bargaining chip - but the Organisation never negotiated with terrorists - or he would kill them himself, and use their corpses to cause trouble with the Brazilian authorities,
A road sign featuring the silhouette of an aeroplane flashed by. So that's where we're going.
A few miles later, her suspicions were confirmed as they approached Congonhas Airport. The BMW turned off the main route, leaving the airport buses and tourist traffic behind, and following an access road that snaked round to the workshops and hangars at the rear.
At the first hangar they came to, the curly-haired driver frowned and looked around as though searching for something. He slowed the car, and wound down his window. A man in grubby white overalls left the little single-engined plane he was working on and came obligingly towards them, wiping his hands on an oily rag.
"Oi! Onde está o avião do Pimentel?" asked Curly.
Pimentel? Why is that name familiar?
The mechanic replied in rapid Portuguese and gestured towards the taxiway, where several small aircraft were parked, their pilots huddled together, smoking furtively and talking.
"Chocante." The driver waved his thanks, then the BMW picked up speed and headed for the taxiway.
As they drew closer to the parked planes, Jemma saw the logo emblazoned along the side of one of them: Pimentel Industrias. Must belong to that industrialist Celio told us about. She remembered the handsome young Brazilian waving at her through the cable car window as it descended, and wondered what had happened to him.
Curly pulled up alongside the jabbering pilots, and a stocky young man in a navy peaked pilot's hat and short-sleeved, pale blue shirt separated himself from the huddle and walked towards them.
"Oi." He nodded familiarly at the driver, then saw Jemma sitting in the back seat and grinned.
Her escorts unlocked the doors, and helped her out. At the sight of her bound hands, the pilot's smile disappeared and he looked round anxiously. He said something sotto voce. Baldy shrugged, removed his jacket, and draped it round her shoulders, hiding the evidence of her captivity.
It was now or never. She opened her mouth to call for help... then doubled up as Baldy's elbow gouged her solar plexus. I can't breathe!
"Tudo bem?" called one of the pilots. He sounded concerned.
"Tudo bom," replied Baldy. "Obrigado." His reassurances must have worked, because no one came to investigate Jemma's condition. Instead, under the guise of helping her, rough hands propelled her across the taxiway towards the Pimentel aircraft, then up its steps.
The pilot made his way forward to his seat, and busied himself with pre-flight checks, while Curly and Baldy bundled her into one of the cabin's twelve passenger seats and strapped her in.
She found she was able to breathe again, only small breaths at first, but eventually the pain eased and she was breathing normally once more. She gave the thug who had winded her a baleful look. He grinned, settled down in his own seat, and pulled out his copy of Playboy.
Moments later came the whine of the engine starting up, and the propellers began to turn, slowly at first, then faster. The pilot spoke briefly with the control tower, then called something back to them; her two companions grunted and made themselves comfortable. Then the little plane was taxiing towards the runway....
They had soon left São Paulo's high-rises behind, and were heading inland over pine-forested hills, rivers, and lakes. It reminded Jemma more of Southern Germany than South America. She pressed her nose to the window.
Those must be coffee plantations, she decided, staring down at the scenery whizzing beneath the plane. Then came treeless acres of waving crops and vast expanses of tall grass ideal for grazing. A herd of cattle stared resentfully up at the droning intruder, and she sighed and wished she was down there with them.
The forest resumed - green swathes of tropical forest, broken only by crumbling highways which connected astonishingly spacious, modern cities like shiny beads on a threadbare necklace.
One hour after it had left São Paulo, the plane began to descend. There was a clearing in the forest up ahead, Jemma saw, accessible from the highway. A sprawling complex of warehouses, office blocks, and carparks came into view. Moments later, she was jolted against her seat belt as the plane bounced and juddered and they came in for a very bumpy landing on the little airstrip.
"Opa!" called the pilot, turning and grinning unapologetically back at his glowering passengers. He taxied to a halt and switched off the engine. The sudden silence was startling.
Curly and Baldy stood up, stretched and yawned, then reached over, unbuckled Jemma's belt, and hauled her upright. Her legs were cramped from inactivity, and her solar plexus still stung, but she wouldn't give them the satisfaction of groaning aloud. She straightened painfully, limped towards the exit, and stumbled down the steps.
While men in grubby white overalls helped the pilot push the plane towards a hangar, Jemma's burly escorts directed her towards a four-storey office block several hundred yards away. She was glad of the chance to stretch her legs as they strode across the concrete carpark. Then they were pushing open the office block's double doors and going inside.
An unnecessary shove between the shoulderblades from Baldy sent her stumbling past the startled receptionist. The woman behind the desk clearly saw Jemma's bound hands but rather than protesting she flushed and turned away.
Guess they're all scared if they say something they'll get the sack, or worse.
They took the lift to the top floor, and moments later she was entering a huge office. Executives the world over would covet it, she mused, gazing at the large picture window and massive, leathertopped mahogany desk.
The door opened and her escorts straightened up. The owner of the office entered. He was not alone.
Mauro Pimentel (Who else could it be?) looked as though he had stepped out of a TV hair-care commercial. His abundant silver hair had been coiffured within an inch of its life. His skin was deeply tanned and unnaturally unlined, his eyes almost as vivid a blue as Ash's.
He took one look at Jemma and her bound hands and halted. "What is she doing here?" His voice rose to a panicky squeak.
The olive-skinned man accompanying Pimentel removed his cigar from his mouth. "Insurance," he said placidly.
Jemma recognised the second man instantly. Minyar al-Akhdar. She had seen a photograph of the plump Libyan asking Ash for directions in a Tenerife café. It had been part of a clever frame-up meant to cast doubt on the loyalty of the Organisation's top agent, but Jemma had exonerated Ash in the end. She wondered what the devious terrorist was up to now.
The industrialist turned towards al-Akhdar. "I told you, I want nothing to do-"
The Libyan's gaze hardened. "You're not calling the shots any more, Mauro. Get used to it."
Pimentel balled his fists, crossed to the picture window, and stared moodily out of it. "Who is she?" he asked at last, turning to regard Jemma.
She opened her mouth but a look from al-Akhdar quickly closed it again. "Do not concern yourself with her. All I require from you is somewhere secure to keep her for a day, maybe two."
The silver-haired man nodded tightly. "There's probably a storeroom free. Would that do?"
Pimentel stalked towards his desk and picked up the phone. He spoke Portuguese so fast all Jemma could make out was the word 'seguro', then waited, the muscles in his jaw working. Finally he spoke a few words more and put down the phone. "There is such a room," he told the waiting al-Akhdar.
"One of my men will be along in a minute to guide her there."
"See, that wasn't so hard, was it?" The Libyan smiled.
Pimentel grunted and resumed his position by the window, which boasted a view of the complex. She wondered what it was he manufactured, and why it should be of interest to al-Akhdar.
A knock at the door made them all turn. A man in janitor's overalls came in and waited expectantly. Curly and Baldy grabbed one arm each and propelled her towards the guide.
She sighed. Here we go again.
They retraced their steps downstairs to reception, then headed across a large carpark to a warehouse. Inside, the hangarlike space had been partitioned into smaller units. The man in janitor's overalls walked quickly along the central corridor, looking forward stolidly, as though to disassociate himself from the two muscle-bound Brazilians and their blonde captive. They came to an intersection with another corridor but continued on.
Jemma guessed that the rooms on the left, which were without windows, were for storage, whereas those on the right.... The signs on the doors featured the word Laboratório, and the double-glazed windows, doors, and high quality seals, indicated self-contained environments. She slowed and peered through a window.
Litmus and filter papers had been stacked against the glass, obscuring the centre of the large laboratory from view. On the left, workers in white coats and face masks were pouring different coloured chemicals into giant flasks, heating them, and stirring the result with glass rods. She couldn't see what happened next, but the process seemed to reach its conclusion on the right hand side of the room, where workers were carefully scraping white crystals off filter papers into plastic pouches and weighing them.
A large hand yanked her forward with a jerk.
The next few windows provided glimpses of yet more workers, flasks, and crystals. She had begun to think the warehouse was dedicated to manufacturing synthetic cocaine (Or whatever it is.) when she passed a door which featured the words Proibido para pessoas não autorizadas below a raised hand inside a barred red circle.
She peered inside interestedly. In that particular lab, she saw, the workers were wearing full protective suits and breathing apparatus. Then they were past and she could only chew her lip. What the hell are they making in there?
Their guide turned left and led them to the end of another corridor. He swung open a heavy metal door. "Aqui," he said, reaching inside and flicking a switch. Dim light lit the interior.
My hotel room, I presume.
"Inside," said Curly. He thrust her through the door. She turned to request that her hands be untied at least, but the door was already slamming shut.
"Hey! What if I need to go to the -" A solid clunk was followed by the sound of bolts sliding home. "Guess I'll just have to pee in a corner or something." She sighed and turned to examine her surroundings.
The room was currently empty, though it bore evidence of once having been used as a store room - a crushed cardboard box in the far corner and an empty drum leaning against one wall. No windows. Only the door she had come in by. A single overhead bulb. (Thank God the light switch was inside. She wouldn't have put it past her captors to leave her in the dark).
She upended the battered drum and sat on it. Hard on the buttocks, but it would do. The rope had rubbed her wrists raw, and not being able to move her arms was causing cramp in her shoulders. If she could just get them round to the front....
For the next ten minutes she struggled to tuck her legs up out of the way and ease her feet over her bound hands. By the time she succeeded, she had lost more skin from her wrists and bruised her knuckles, and she was full of admiration for Harry Houdini.
Jemma raised her arms as high as they would go and stretched luxuriously. "Ooh!" The relief was intense.
She got her first good look at the rope. It was twine; maybe she could gnaw through the strands one by one with her teeth? (Where's a rat when you need one?) She didn't feel up to the task at the moment, though, so she postponed it by scrutinising every inch of her surroundings once more.
Weren't secret agents supposed to be able to escape by unscrewing handy grilles and slipping into air conditioning ducts? She wrinkled her nose. If so, someone wasn't keeping their side of the bargain. There was an air vent in the ceiling, but the grille was so tiny only a cockroach could have got through it. The drain in the centre of the floor looked even less promising. Well, if nothing else, she could always pee in it. It would be marginally less disgusting than using the corner of the room.
The cardboard box was dirty, but its label was still legible. It had once contained sodium fluoride, she discovered. She pursed her lips, then tossed the crumpled cardboard aside and examined the steel drum. The label was not in such good condition. It was smeared with grime and who knew what else. She reached in her jean pocket, pulled out a tissue, spat on it, and scrubbed at the label. The improvement was marginal, but if she squinted....
Laboriously she spelled out the chemical name: phosphorus trichloride. She blinked. Surely not? Heart hammering, she reread the label, hoping she had got it wrong. She hadn't.
No wonder they were wearing breathing apparatus!
On her recent training course, during the section that covered terrorism, Mac had told the class about the Aum sect's attack on the Tokyo subway. He had gone into some detail about the chemicals used. Phosphorus trichloride was one. There were two other ingredients.
Some kind of alcohol, wasn't it? And ace.... nitri.... She scowled in an effort to remember. Acetonitrile. What was the betting another of the storage rooms in this vast warehouse contained those.
Jemma shivered, and it wasn't from the cold. If her suspicions were right, the industrialist was not only allowing his considerably chemical manufacturing resources to be used to make drugs, which was bad enough, he was also making... sarin!
Nerve gas, in the hands of terrorists. Oh God! I hope I'm wrong.
Ash stared at the blueprints of Nathaniel Blucas's private gallery, and resisted the urge to pull out her hair. Not only had the wealthy American installed cameras, motion detectors, microswitches, and infra red beams - all controlled and co-ordinated by an up-to-the-minute-computer system - two armed guards also patrolled the little São Paulo gallery at regular intervals.
The level of security shouldn't have surprised her. The emerald that Abdusamad coveted had turned out to be worth one-and-a-half million pounds! She didn't like to think what the Libyans would do with that much money if they got hold of it. She also didn't like to think what they would do to Jemma if they didn't.
She glowered at the stocky guard barring the exit. She had been stuck in this tiny room ever since they let her dress, blindfolded her, and took from the hotel in the back of a car. The Libyan had asked her what she needed and she had thought for a moment, then told him. He had returned with her requests within the hour. Efficient.
A recent issue of 'Hello!' lay open on the table next to the blueprint. Though initially startled that Abdusamad should buy the English version of the glossy magazine, which often featured the homes of the rich and famous, Ash now realised it made sense.
During Blucas's recent interview and photo session, safe in the misguided belief that his state-of-the-art security system was foolproof, he had been only too glad to show off some of the antiquities and rare gems in his collection, especially his latest acquisition, the Moghal Emerald. There was even a picture of it. The rectangular-cut stone was the size of a small tablet of soap, and every inch of its surface was covered in intricate Indian carving.
Ash had been studying blueprints and maps, trying to formulate a plan for breaking into the gallery, for three hours solid, and she needed a break. She yawned and stretched, careful of her shoulder, which now sported a fresh bandage. Abdusamad had been solicitous of her wound, but she had no illusions. Once she had stolen the emerald and handed it over, he would crush her like a bug. Jemma too. She wondered where the other woman was and if she was all right. She had to believe she was.
The door opened and the Libyan himself came in. He smiled insincerely at her, then took a seat on the other side of the document strewn table and steepled his fingers. "Have you come up with a plan?"
"Yeah. Drive a battle tank through the gallery wall, and pick the emerald out of the rubble," she said caustically. "No. I need the specs of-"
But he was no longer listening. "You're stalling." His pockmarked cheeks darkened with anger and his eyes flashed. "Must I remind you what's at stake?"
Inwardly, Ash kicked herself. She was quickly learning that al-Akhdar's second-in-command was a powder keg, liable to explode at the slightest setback to his plans. "I already know what's at stake," she said quietly.
"I don’t think so." He beckoned to the guard by the door, and the stocky man came forward, bent his head respectfully, and listened while Abdusamad whispered something in his ear. He nodded once, and then departed. Ash's spirits picked up but she kept her expression blank. If the Libyan had just done what she thought he had, this little disagreement might work to her advantage.
A few moments later, the guard returned. He was carrying a phone with a speakerphone attachment. He plugged them both in, placed them on the table, then murmured - not quite sotto voce - to the Libyan, "They said it will take a few minutes, Senhor. They have to fetch her."
Ash suppressed a smile.
They sat in silence, Abdusamad biting his nails, until the phone rang. The Libyan picked up the receiver, listened for a moment, then gave a satisfied nod. He reached over and switched on the speakerphone.
"Miss Jacobs," he said, "do you have something to say to your friend?" His voice was amiable, but his expression was far from friendly.
"Ash? Is that you?"
It was unmistakably her partner on the other end of the line, and her heart soared. "Yes. It's me. You're on speaker phone," she warned, eyeing Abdusamad warily. "Have they hurt you?"
"Not so far. What about you? What about your shoulder?"
"I'll live. Listen-"
"No, Ash. Please. Do what they want you to." At her words, Abdusamad smiled widely, his teeth white against his olive skin. "If you don't, I'm afraid I'll lose my nerve."
Ash kept her poker face in place with some difficulty. Jemma was speaking very oddly - the blonde must be trying to tell her something.
"I understand," she said, though as yet she didn't. "Please, look after yourself." She hoped Jemma would pick up her own unspoken message. Her young partner must engineer her own escape from wherever they were holding her, and not wait for Ash to get her out. If she delayed it would be too late.
"I will. You too."
A lean finger flicked off the speakerphone switch. "Enough," said Abdusamad. He slammed down the receiver. "We have your friend. She is safe. That can change." He pushed back his chair and stood up. "You will steal the emerald. Am I clear?"
Ash nodded. "Very. I need detailed specs of the systems in the guardroom. And everything you have about the security company that maintains them." She had been about to ask him for them when he lost his temper.
He gestured at the guard. "See to it she gets what she needs." The man nodded and went out. Seconds later, a replacement guard came in and took his place by the door.
"No more delays, Blade," said the Libyan. "You have twenty-four hours or your friend will die. After that," he flashed her a smile, "maybe we'll try picking the emerald out of the rubble as you suggested."
Ash pushed back her peaked brown hat and gazed boldly into the camera lens. She hoped the men Abdusamad had assigned to keep an eye on her had stayed out of sight round the corner as agreed. It would be just like the two dimwits to blow the whole operation before it got started.
"What do you want?" came a man's voice over the intercom in Portuguese. She had started thinking in that language ten minutes ago, so conversation would flow more easily.
"CrimeGuard Systems." She held her fake ID up to the lens. "I'm here to fix the fault."
There was a puzzled silence. "What fault?"
She rolled her eyes. "Don't tell me those idiots at HQ have cocked it up again?" She checked her clipboard. "According to this, there's an intermittent fault on the line connecting Senhor Blucas's system to HQ. They're not sure whether the problem's at our end or yours. You could be robbed and we wouldn't know anything about it." She clucked. "No reinforcements. You wouldn't want that, would you?"
She could almost hear the man at the other end thinking. Then came a soft buzz and the door catch released. "Come in."
"Thanks." She hefted the heavy case in her right hand then pushed open the door to the little gallery with her left. As she ventured inside, she hoped that her escorts wouldn't attempt to dash in after her - the camera link was still live and she didn't want the guards spooked. Talking of which....
Waiting for her was a crew-cut young man in a short-sleeved white shirt that revealed muscled biceps. His hand was resting conspicuously on the gun at his belt, a Ballester Molina M1916.
"You're working late," he said, glancing at his watch. It was almost 3 am.
"Overtime, thank God." She smiled at him. "I can really use the money."
He grunted and held out his hand for her clipboard. He ran his eyes over it, then handed it back. "Open the case."
Ash put it on a table and opened it, revealing a computer technician's toolkit and a jumble of computer discs and spare parts. He poked them carelessly with one forefinger then nodded and let her close it.
"I'll also have to frisk you," he said, his gaze going to her cleavage - the stolen uniform jacket was slightly too small.
She held out her arms and resigned herself to being groped. Sure enough, he patted her breasts and buttocks longer than was strictly necessary. She was glad she'd insisted on trousers and flat shoes rather than the short skirt and highheels CrimeGuard made its female employees wear. It was bad enough having to wear dark brown.
"Seems OK," he said at last, straightening with a smirk. "Follow me."
He led her upstairs to an office full of monitors and computers. The other guard, an older man with a greying moustache, was sitting in a chair, supposedly keeping an eye on the monitors. He looked up and grunted something unintelligible then turned his attention back to his newspaper.
Ash moved confidently towards the master computer and placed her case on the desk next to it. "So," she said, opening it and pulling out a disc. "Have you noticed anything odd about the system in the last couple of days? Any unexplained errors, freezes?"
The crew-cut young guard shrugged. "All that hi-tech stuff's beyond me." He grinned. "If I see someone unauthorised on the premises, I shoot. Simple." The older guard stroked his moustache but said nothing.
She held up her hands in mock fear. "Hey, I'm on your side."
Ash sat down at the master computer and for the next ten minutes pretended to be running checks on its software. At first, the young guard peered nosily over her shoulder, but he soon got bored and wandered away. A few minutes later, she heard the beeps of a Gameboy. She suppressed a smile.
"System checks out OK," she said loudly. "Maybe it's the wiring." She got up and moved round to the back of the computer where wires trailed in a spaghetti-like tangle. The guard glanced up from his Gameboy but after a cursory glance looked down again. With a loud rustle of newspaper, his colleague turned a page.
Now or never. She reached for a screwdriver, also palming a wirecutter and the little gadget she had made earlier. Quickly, she connected the device, piggybacking it onto the line connecting the master computer to the servers at the CrimeGuard HQ. It didn't look pretty, but it would transmit a constant 'status OK' signal whatever happened. If the alarms went off now, no one outside the gallery would know.
All done. Belatedly she registered that the electronic beeps had stopped. She looked up just as the young guard loomed over her, the beginnings of a frown on his face.
"What's that?" He pointed at the gadget parasitising the HQ link.
"That?" Calmly, she straightened up. "Oh, it's -" With two rigid fingers, she jabbed a nerve in his thick neck. "- nothing to worry about."
He was still falling, when she started towards his colleague. The older guard swore, dropped his paper, and reached for his gun, but he was much too slow. By the time Crew-Cut had crumpled to the floor, a startled Moustache was on his way to join his companion in the Land of Nod.
OK. Ash sucked in a calming breath, then dragged the unconscious guards into a corner and made them comfortable. She removed their automatic pistols, checked they were loaded, and shoved them in the waistband of her trousers. Then, as an afterthought, she checked their pockets for extra clips, and took those too. They should be out for a couple of hours, and not much the worse for their experience.
A buzzer sounded, and she glanced at the bank of monitors. The camera above the gallery entrance was active. Her two escorts were standing there, waiting.
She flipped on the intercom. "Yes?"
"You said you would let us in after fifteen minutes."
"Slight change of plan."
"Nothing to worry about. Tell your boss everything's on track. I should have the emerald in -" she checked her watch, "- three minutes." Idiots!
She switched off the intercom, then all the mikes and cameras in the gallery, and erased the last 30 minutes of tape they'd recorded. Then she took the white gloves from her case and pulled them on, ignoring the distant banging - the thugs at the front door, she supposed. Leaving the guards gently snoozing, she headed downstairs and into the exhibit room.
It was the easiest burglary she had ever committed. Heedless of the infrared beams and motion sensors, she sauntered past valuable paintings and curios, stopping occasionally to admire one. Up in the guardroom, alarms would be shrilling, but there was no one awake to hear them.
She stopped at the cabinet containing the Moghal Emerald, tried the door, and laughed. It wasn't even locked. As she extracted the large green gem from its cushion, there came the faint snick of a microswitch. But what was one additional alarm among so many?
Ash admired her prize and weighed it assessingly. Must be over 200 carats! Nice. Pocketing the precious jewel, she strolled towards the exit.
Abdusamad's thugs were waiting for Ash outside the gallery, and they didn't look happy. The taller man, who was in charge, had the gun, a US surplus .45-calibre automatic, she noted interestedly. He pointed it at her. "What the fuck are you playing at? We agreed we'd all go inside."
"No worries, boys," she said peaceably. "I got the emerald and that's all that matters. Here." She reached one gloved hand into her pocket and pulled out the huge gem. "Want to see?" Their eyes bulged and the junior thug reached for it.
"Nuh uh." She held it out of reach. "My friend's life depends on this. You tell Abdusamad you've got it, so he can keep his side of the bargain, and then I'll hand it over."
The two exchanged glances, then the one in charge shrugged. "Orders were to tell him anyway. Keep her covered. I'll call him."
Junior took the gun while his companion pulled out a mobile phone and punched in a number. While he spoke to Abdusamad, Ash twirled the emerald idly between gloved fingers. Both men were looking at the massive stone in her left hand, not the other hand stealing beneath her jacket.
"Did your boss tell you it's worth a million and a half pounds?" she asked conversationally, easing one of the pistols free of her waistband.
The smaller man didn't answer. But the gun muzzle pointing at her chest wavered as he licked his lips and regarded the Moghal Emerald avidly.
"Yes, Senhor," said the taller thug respectfully into the phone. "No, no problems. Yes. I am looking at it. To Wai Ling Chen? Now?" His face fell. "But it is very early. No, of course I am not questioning your instruct- At once, Senhor. The Embassy will be expecting us? Yes, Senhor. What about -?"
As he listened intently, his gaze flickered to Ash then skittered away again. "I understand. Yes. Quite clear. I'll take care of it personally." She guessed that her death sentence had just been pronounced.
He pocketed the phone, then gestured to the shorter man. "Give it to me." Junior started to hand the gun back, and for a moment both men were looking at the weapon rather than her.
"Since you asked so nicely." In one smooth movement Ash drew the M1916 and fired.
Mac had taught his students that it was important to conserve energy and stay calm. So, once Jemma's captors had returned her to her cell (talking to Ash on the phone had put her in a much better frame of mind), she invoked a meditative state. It would also help to keep her hunger at bay. No one had bothered to bring her food - not a good sign.
The sound of bolts sliding open brought her out of her trance. She got stiffly to her feet. The door swung open, and she saw the two thugs who had escorted her from São Paulo.
"Out," called Curly, gesturing with a gun.
"Manners," she murmured, stepping past him. Baldy did a double-take when he saw her bound hands were in front of her once more, but much to her relief he made no attempt to remedy the situation. Instead, he grabbed her by the biceps, swung her round to face right, and gave her a shove between the shoulderblades to set her in motion.
"Where are you taking me?" she asked, as they walked her back along the corridor. The two men were too busy talking and laughing to notice she had spoken.
She could understand only a few words of their chatter. 'Chefe' must be Pimentel or al-Akhdar. 'Emeralda' was obvious. When Blade's name was mentioned, her pulse began to pound. Had Ash succeeded in getting the jewel? It looked highly likely. I hope she's OK.
The curly-haired driver laughed and gestured obscenely at Jemma, and she had a sinking feeling her usefulness was at an end. Ash was right. I've got to make my own way out of here.
At that moment, a lab door up ahead opened, and a middle-aged man wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a white coat stepped out into the corridor. He turned and began to walk towards them, then paused, frowning at the sight of Jemma's bound hands and the thugs either side of her.
"What's going on? Why is she-" Baldy stepped forward aggressively and started to shout abuse at the man.
Jemma saw her chance. She stamped on the arch of Curly's foot and kicked him in the knee. He howled but kept hold of his gun... until she brought her bound fists down on his forearm. Nerve-deadened fingers dropped the weapon with a clatter, and it skittered along the corridor out of sight. I could have used that! She brought her fists up, under his jaw. He went down like a stunned ox.
A startled Baldy turned from berating the man and leaped towards her. She rammed her elbow into his midriff. Breath whooshed out and he doubled over. Hurts, doesn't it? Her next blow caught him on the temple. He crashed into the wall, slid inelegantly to the floor, then lay still.
The man with the glasses had made no move to help either her or the thugs. He was too busy cowering. She eyed him and decided he was no threat.
"Got a knife?"
He lowered the arm he had raised defensively and shook his head. She sighed and began to go through the supine thugs' pockets; Baldy owned a Swiss army penknife. Yes!
She opened the saw blade. "Hold this." Pressing the knife into the startled man's hands, she rubbed the rope up and down the blade... unsuccessfully. "No." She adjusted his shaking hands. "Like this." He nodded and this time held the knife steady.
It took her a few minutes, but at last the final strand parted. She massaged her wrists and groaned with relief. Then she took the knife from her helper's unresisting hands.
"Give me your coat." Obediently, he unclipped the ID badge from his lapel and began to shrug out of the lab coat. "I'll take the badge too." He clipped it back on and she slipped her arms into the coat's sleeves and shrugged it over her shoulders. It was a bit on the large side but it would serve.
"Thanks. Now get lost." The man with the wire-rimmed glasses stared at her. "Shoo." She waved her hands. He blinked, then, with a last uncertain glance at her, bolted down the corridor. She watched him turn a corner, then headed in the opposite direction.
What Jemma needed was a diversion. The warehouse was full of chemicals, for God's sake. There must be something she could use. Explosives would have been nice, but she didn't dare risk them. The last thing she wanted to do was release nerve gas from a sealed lab.
She opened the door of what she assumed was a storage room, and peered round. Easy chairs lined its perimeter, and on a dented table sat coffee-making equipment and dirty mugs. She blinked. Must be the Break Room. Her spirits rose at the sight of the door labelled 'Toilette'. She peeked back out into the corridor - no one was after her yet, but it wouldn't be long. She retreated inside.
She was about to flush the toilet when a distant alarm started to shrill. Here we go. Moments later came the sound of pounding feet. She waited until they had passed the break room, then stuck her head out. All clear. She jogged further along the corridor, opening each storage room door she came to.
The shelves of the third one yielded solvents, preservatives... and a canister of potassium permanganate. Levering off the lid with a crowbar someone had obligingly left lying around, she regarded the purple powder interestedly. Hmmm. She started to manhandle the canister over to the door, but it was much too heavy. Her brows drew together then smoothed, and she scooped as much of the purple powder into the pocket of her coat as she could.
Jemma became aware of a faint murmur of conversation. She eased the door open a crack and peered out. Not far down the corridor, a group of white-coated workers had gathered; they were milling around anxiously. As she watched, more workers joined the throng. She couldn't understand what they were saying but it was a good bet they were discussing the alarm.
A final look round the storeroom, to make sure there was nothing else she needed, then she turned up her collar, opened the door, and stepped into the corridor. Her head-down posture conveyed purposefulness, she hoped, and when a harassed-looking technician, heading past her to join his brethren, didn't even glance her way, she decided her strategy must be working.
She came abreast of another storage room and ducked inside it. I need glycerol or glycerine. Either will do.... Hurriedly, she scrutinised the shelves.
Jemma was turning away in disappointment when she saw the plastic container of glycerol, half obscured by a sack of zinc powder. Resisting the urge to punch the air, she dragged it from its hiding place in the corner.
Outside in the corridor, angry voices were coming closer. "Loira está na mira, atire!" yelled someone.
Something about a blonde and 'on sight'? She didn't like the sound of that.
Jemma hurriedly dragged a sack of sulphur powder towards the door then did the same with the sack of zinc powder she had found. She slit both sacks open with her penknife, then tipped them over and mixed the yellow and grey powders together roughly with her foot.
That done, she risked another glance into the corridor. Two men with their backs to her were blocking her view of the workers. She recognised the curly hair and balding bonce instantly. Curly had found another gun from somewhere, she saw with dismay. She ducked back out of sight, and tried to calm her pounding pulse.
This had better work. She squatted beside the zinc-sulphur mixture, scooped out a hollow in its centre, and emptied the purple contents of her pocket into it. Then she reached for the glycerol.
"Procure em cada comodo," yelled someone outside her door.
Carefully, Jemma dribbled glycerol onto the potassium permanganate. Nothing happened. Shit!
The door crashed open with a bang. Curly gaped down at her - he had clearly not expected to find anyone in the storage room - then he smiled nastily and raised his gun. A slight fizzing noise made her glance down, just as a purple flame sprang up. Time to get the hell out of here.
Like a sprinter coming off her blocks, she threw herself at him.
The curly-haired man went flying, then she was past him, hurtling past a wrongfooted Baldy towards the huddle of white-coated workers. Perhaps the presence of other people might deter the thugs from shooting at her. Crump. A bullet ploughed into the wall beside her. So much for that theory!
Kerrang. Another bullet ricocheted down the corridor. A young woman gaped at her suddenly bloody forearm and screamed. That was a signal for mass panic.
As Jemma elbowed her way through the melee, another bullet whizzed past her, so close she could feel the wind of its passing on her cheek. It smashed a laboratory window and disappeared inside. Seconds later came a sound like fire crackers going off.
She had no time to wonder what the noise might be, because just then came a whoosh from back up the corridor. She glanced round, in time to see thick black smoke billowing from the storage room, then visibility in the corridor dwindled to nil, and people began coughing and spluttering and banging into one another.
Not a bad diversion if I say so myself.
Jemma turned a corner, and headed for the exit.
From her hiding place behind a wall, Jemma watched a fire engine roar into the car park and screech to a halt. The white-coated workers, huddled there like sheep, drew back to give them room. Like them, Jemma watched the fire crew spill out of their appliance and put on their breathing apparatus. Their fire-fighting equipment was foam based, she noticed with relief. Fire wasn't actually that big a problem as far as the sarin went - it would destroy it - it was water that would spread it disastrously.
What were the symptoms of this particular nerve gas? Headache and anxiety? Runny nose and tightness in the chest? Well, she had all those, but that was just from the smoke inhalation, wasn't it? Anything else was too scary to contemplate, so she pushed such thoughts away.
For the past ten minutes, she had been listening to the detonations ripping through the warehouse, increasing in volume and presumably severity. At first, she'd wondered if the explosions were her fault. It was a while since Mac's lesson. She'd been aiming for thick smoke, but perhaps she had got the ingredients or proportions wrong. Then she remembered the sound of firecrackers coming from inside the lab and knew it was probably a stray spark from a ricocheting bullet that had caused the blaze.
Cretins! Shooting when all those chemicals were lying around.
The fire-fighters disappeared into the warehouse, and she turned her attention to suitable escape vehicles. She was somewhere deep in the Brazilian countryside, so it would need to be sturdy. Of course, she could always just wait. The smoke billowing up from the burning warehouse must be visible for miles and there was no way such a blaze could be tackled by in-house fire-fighters alone. The authorities would arrive and she could throw herself on their mercy....
Yeah. And find out the hard way that Pimentel has the local police chief in his pocket. Better to take my chances on my own.
Movement made her turn. A familiar plump figure was scurrying across the car park, heading towards what looked like the entrance to an underground garage. Al-Akhdar leaving his sinking ship? Jemma slunk along the wall after him.
It was cool in the underground garage, and badly lit. She paused while her pupils adjusted to the darkness. For a moment, she thought she had lost her quarry, then she heard the sound of voices, and swung round.
He was on the far side of the hangarlike underground chamber, talking to a burly man in blue overalls, who was wiping his hands on a rag. Using trucks and supporting pillars as cover, she made her way towards them. She was half way there when the voices became shouts. The mechanic threw down his rag. The Libyan pulled out a gun and shot him in the head
Jemma was still frozen with shock - the mechanic had been unarmed - when the Libyan marched towards the vehicle he had been working on. It was a murky green transporter of some kind, a massive thing with eight axles, shoulder-high wheels, and a double-doored cab. As the plump man swung himself up into the cab, she turned and ran for the exit. Behind her, the transporter's engine coughed sluggishly into life.
At the entrance, she paused to ease the stitch in her side and studied the underground garage's structure. Then she leaped, grabbed hold of one of the supporting struts, braced her feet, and began to climb. Flakes of rust ground into her palms, and she wished she had worn gloves.
From outside came a muffled boom; the fire was still not under control, by the sound of it. From inside came the crunch of massive wheels rolling towards her. She glanced back and saw the transporter was mere yards from the garage entrance. For a moment she panicked. She was a sitting duck! Then she realised that the brilliant sunshine would make it difficult for al-Akhdar to make out details inside the gloomy garage.
She inched along the girder that formed the upper frame of the entrance, pressing her back to the wall and trying to anticipate the transporter's path. Then the lumbering vehicle was passing beneath her, its wash buffeting her, the stink of its exhaust choking her. It was slightly farther over than she had been expecting. Too late to do anything about it now.
Jemma let go and jumped, crying out as she banged her elbows and knees, and grabbing for a handhold but finding only smooth curving metal. She felt herself began to slide over the side. Shit! Then something stood proud under her fingers, a ridge or a rim of some kind. She hung on to it for dear life.
She was suddenly in full sunlight. She blinked and waited for her pupils to adjust, then saw that the transporter was heading round the edge of the car park, its destination the complex's exit. If I let go and one of those huge tyres runs over me.... She tried not to think about that, or about her arms, which felt as though they were being ripped from their sockets, or the fact that one of al-Akhdar's men might see her clinging to the side and take a pot-shot at her.
The transporter swerved sharply to the left, pressing her into its side, and the pull of gravity seemed to lessen for a moment. She twisted round, spied the windows in the transporter body, and reached out a foot towards a sill. On the second attempt she managed to get a purchase on it with her toe.
The vehicle straightened up, and her momentary advantage vanished. But it had been enough. She brought her other foot across to the sill, and at last was able to ease the unbearable strain on her arms.
As the transporter roared out onto the highway and swung left, she saw that the guardpost was unmanned. Presumably the guards were helping with the fire.
She concentrated on getting her breath back, and let her trembling arm muscles relax, then, using the top of the window as a toehold, powered her way up the side of the transporter. When she finally hauled herself onto the roof, she was gasping for breath and shaking.
Two long horizontal tubes, like giant steel cigar holders, lay along the full length of the roof. The V-shaped space between them would provide shelter from the slipstream. Gratefully she lay down in it.
Now the immediate danger was over, she could afford to glance back. Oily black smoke was still climbing into a clear blue sky, and belatedly she registered the sound of yet more explosions. She sighed, then turned her attention forwards. The road, visible over the cab roof, stretched in front, bounded on either side by endless forest. She wondered where al-Akhdar was going. And why he had picked this particular means of transport to get there.
Then she shrugged, curled up in her uncomfortable metal hollow, and pillowed her head on her hands. Wherever they were going, she was going to need all her strength when they got there. She might as well try to get some rest.
Part Four (Conclusion)
Ash stopped running when she felt she had put enough distance between herself and the gallery. She had used the thugs' mobile phone to anonymously alert the São Paulo police and had no intention of getting caught up in their investigations. She had far more urgent concerns.
As she pulled the stolen phone from her jacket pocket, her fingers encountered the cold surface of the Moghal emerald. Should have put it back, I suppose. Maybe later. She shrugged and punched in the number of the Organisation's London HQ.
"Yes?" came the female switchboard operator's voice.
"Blade," she said crisply. "This line is unsecured."
"Understood. Putting you through now."
The next voice she heard belonged to the CounterIntelligence Section Head. "I was wondering when you'd get in touch, Blade. Something we can help you with?"
Her boss's words sent relief flooding through her. "Our man here is down and I need information, fast."
"Down?... Damn it!" He sounded shocked. "OK. What do you need?"
"You know Laurel and Hardy's friend, the industrious one?"
There was a long silence and she could almost hear his brain ticking over. Come on, Thompson. Mauro Pimentel.
"Ah, yes. Got it. Go on."
"I need an address."
"Home or work?"
"I'll get someone on it and get back to you."
"Can you make it quick?"
"Of course." Her boss paused. "How's Jemma?"
"Unknown," she growled, hating having to make such an admission. "But I'm taking care of it."
He was silent for so long she thought he had hung up. "If there's anything - "
"Thanks. But the address is all I need for now."
Thompson sighed. "OK. I'll get back to you." This time he did hang up.
Ash pocketed the phone then punched a wall to relieve her feelings. She was sucking her throbbing knuckles when she realised she was standing opposite a window full of mannequins wearing jeans and T-shirts. She glanced down at her too tight jacket and too short trousers, then looked up at the mannequins again. Seconds later she was trotting across the road to the clothes shop.
It took her longer than it would have if she'd had her lockpicks with her, but she had soon disabled the alarm and was opening the back door and letting herself inside the little shop. She riffled through the first rack of clothes, the sliding coathangers clacking against one another, until she found a shirt and jacket in her size. Then she threw them into the middle of the floor and went in search of a pair of jeans. Finding trousers that fit her long legs was always a problem, but eventually she came across a pair that would do.
Ash changed into the shirt and jacket, and had one leg in and one leg out of the jeans when the mobile phone rang. She hopped across the floor, almost falling in her haste, and grabbed it, checking before answering that it wasn't Abdusamad keeping tabs on his men.
"Got something to jot this down?" came Thompson's voice.
"Hang on." She hopped awkwardly over to the sales counter where a pencil and notepad lay next to the till. "Go ahead."
He dictated two São Paulo addresses, one residential, one an office in a skyscraper downtown. "Our industrious friend also has a chemical manufacturing plant, but we donít know where it is yet."
"Never mind. I can convince him to tell me that himself." She finished writing and tucked the piece of paper in her pocket.
Something in his voice made her pause. "Yes?"
She finished dressing, adding a leather belt and tucking her two pistols into it as a final fashion touch. Then she folded the brown uniform into a neat pile and left it by the till....
Pimentel's secretary tried to keep Ash out. She simply brushed past the plump woman, opened the office door, and strode through,
"Desculpe, Senhor Pimentel!" At his employee's wail, the man with the bouffant silver hair turned round in astonishment.
Ash grabbed him by the arm and steered him away from the window with its bird's eye view of the morning rush hour traffic. Pimentel didn't resist - her painful nerve pinch saw to that. She pushed him unceremoniously into the plush upholstered chair, then released him and perched on the edge of his desk in front of him.
Deliberately, she let her jacket hang open, allowing him a view of her guns. He went pale, licked his lips, and rubbed his sore arm. She glanced at his secretary, who was angrily waving the nail file she had been using when Ash burst in on her, and raised a meaningful eyebrow.
"Tudo bem, Maria. Tudo bem." He waved the woman away. Reluctantly, she backed out of the office, closing the door behind her.
"Good boy," said Ash.
"Who are you?" His voice was hoarse and he cleared his throat.
"I'll ask the questions. Where is Jemma Jacobs?"
"Who?" But the comprehension in his eyes had already given him away.
She pulled out a gun and aimed it at his groin. "Don't play games with me," she growled. "The English woman. Short, blonde. Ring any bells yet?"
Reflexively, he crossed his legs.
"Your Libyan friends kidnapped her," she prompted. "She's a British agent... like me."
"B... British agent?" He eased his starched collar with one finger.
"Didn't mention that, huh?"
He shook his head. Beneath his tan, his skin had gone very pasty, she noticed dispassionately.
"So. I'll ask you again." She tightened her finger on the trigger, the knuckle whitening. "Where is she?"
"Please!" His eyes had gone very wide and sweat beaded his upper lip. "Taking the blonde woman was their idea not mine. She's at the complex." He pulled out a handkerchief and mopped his face. "Or she was last time I saw her."
"When was that?"
Ash eased her finger off the trigger. "This 'complex' of yours... where is it?"
"That's a big state. Be more specific."
She chewed her lip. "Last night? So you have a plane?"
He nodded eagerly. "Yes. If you wish, I will instruct my own pilot to fly you there -"
She stood up. "You'll do more than that, sunshine," she told him. "You're coming with me."
The EMB-110 Bandeirante turbo-prop had been airborne for nearly an hour. Ash stretched her cramped legs out into the gangway - one of the advantages of having an aisle seat - and twiddled her thumbs. The view had long since palled. Mixed tropical forest stretched as far as the eye could see, leavened only by the straight highways that the authorities had bulldozed across Paraná.
Though she was champing at the bit to get to Jemma, she had spent her time profitably, grilling Pimentel. At first the man beside her was reluctant to part with details of his operation, but a gun muzzle in his ribs had soon loosened his tongue.
Pimentel Industries had started out as a legitimate enterprise, manufacturing solvents, fertilisers, selected medicines. Then greed had got the better of him, and when the chance came to develop a nice little sideline in cocaine manufacturing, he had grabbed it with both hands. A few years ago, the Libyans had offered to become silent partners and he had welcomed their cash and connections. That had recently changed. With their knowledge of his criminal activities, he had been a sitting duck for blackmail.
Ash glanced at the silver-haired man sitting tensely beside her. Pimentel might bluster and act the part of the big businessman, but it was clear that the Libyans held the whip hand. One thing puzzled her though. When she had broached the subject of nerve gas, he seemed genuinely bewildered and appalled. She wondered if she had misunderstood Jemma's message, or if the Libyans had kept that part of the operation from him.
"Nossa!" The pilot's exclamation snapped her gaze forward. Up ahead, a black plume of smoke was rising into the sky. Ash's heart sank. Jemma!
"Merda!" Pimentel half rose from his seat. She pulled him back down.
"Let me guess," she said. "That's your chemical complex, right?"
"Those sons of bitches! What have they done?"
The pilot jabbered excitedly into his radio, trying to find out what was going on. After a few minutes, he turned and regarded the industrialist gravely. "There is a serious fire, Senhor Pimentel. The emergency services have been notified and are on the way."
"How long until we get there?" called Ash.
"Ten minutes, Senhorita." He faced front again.
They drew slowly nearer, the black plume taking up more and more of the view from the windows. Occasionally a flash would made the rising smoke eddy and billow before calming once more. Explosions.
She tried not to think about Jemma. The blonde was nothing if not resourceful. She would be fine, wouldn't she? She's got to be.
The pilot called out, and, simultaneously, the huge clearing that housed the massive industrial complex came into view. Two of the warehouses were on fire, she saw at once. The carparks were crowded with fire appliances and ambulances, and more emergency vehicles were heading along the highway towards the complex.
The pilot steered the Bandeirante towards the little airstrip, which was well away from the fire, fortunately. The landing was bumpy, and they had barely slowed before Ash had unbuckled her seat belt and was heading along the aisle.
She pulled the door open, and, not bothering to extend the steps, leaped out onto the concrete, rolling, then coming smoothly to her feet, and setting off at a run towards the carpark. The people milling there were soot-stained and some were suffering from burns. She grabbed the arm of the first white-coated person she came to.
"Have you seen a blonde woman? Small. About so high?" She gestured. "She would have been wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans."
The man with the moustache looked dazedly at her then shook his head. Stifling a curse, she looked for someone else to ask. When six white-coated workers had been unable to provide any leads, she changed tack. That man with the wire-rimmed glasses wasn't wearing a white coat. He might do.
His reaction to her question took her by surprise. His eyes widened and his expression became closed. "Are you her friend?"
She blinked. "Yes. Now, have you seen the blonde or not?"
He searched her face then, satisfied by what he found there, relaxed. "She made me cut her ropes, then she took my coat and ID. That was after she had knocked out the two men, of course."
Ash stared at him. "What two men?"
"The ones accompanying her." He frowned. "Her hands were tied. The rules here are strict but I have never seen them tie up a woman before." A distant explosion made them both duck. They turned to stare at the new plume of smoke now billowing skywards.
Ash got his attention again. "How long ago was this?" He looked blankly at her. "When she took your coat," she repeated patiently.
He glanced at his watch. "An hour?"
Jemma had been OK up until an hour ago. Where was she now? "Thanks."
Ash wove her way between medics and their patients, stepping aside to let an ambulance through then continuing aimlessly. Where would Jemma go?
"Parece um ferimento a tiro," called a woman, the phrase stopping Ash in her tracks. Gunshot wound? She turned, to see two medics, a man and a woman, wheeling a gurney across the carpark. On it was something in a bodybag. Heart in her mouth, she trotted towards them.
"May I?" While the outraged medics looked on, she unzipped the bodybag, revealing a man in mechanic's overalls. She had never seen him before in her life.
Her pulse steadied. She leaned over for a better look. He had been shot in the temple. When the bullet exited, it took off the back of his skull. She closed the zip.
"Where did you find him?" Her commanding tone forestalled any objections.
The male medic meekly pointed across the carpark. "The back of the underground garage."
"Thanks." She jogged towards the entrance, then started down the ramp towards the cavernlike space. It was gloomy, lit only by dim bulbs in the high ceiling, and she let her eyesight adjust before scanning her surroundings. She headed towards the back of the garage.
The abandoned toolkit was the first thing that caught her attention. No mechanic would leave something so valuable lying around. Near to it lay an oily rag. She pursed her lip, and poked the rag with her foot. Then she continued her scrutiny. What's that?
Others might have mistaken the dark pool of liquid for oil but Ash knew better. She squatted on her heels, dipped her forefinger into the viscous liquid, then rubbed it between finger and thumb. Blood. This is where he was shot.
She straightened and looked closely at her surroundings. A fresh oil stain on the concrete ten feet way showed that a vehicle had stood there. A smudged tyre track revealed that it was big, but no more than that.
Was the shooting connected with the missing vehicle? And how did Jemma (or rather her absence) fit into all this?
Only one way to find out.
Ash turned on her heel and began to run.
Ash halted at the airstrip to catch her breath, then looked around. The Bandeirante had been parked in the little hangar and there was no sign of its pilot. No sign of Pimentel either. The silver-haired industrialist was probably too busy salvaging what he could of his chemicals and machinery.
She went in search of something she could fly herself. It was just inside the open hangar door - a little single-engine Cessna, the keys still dangling from its ignition. There was no sign of its owner, so she clambered inside, settled herself in the snug pilot's seat, and turned on the master switch.
The electrical controls sprang instantly to life and she checked the instrument panel readings, especially the fuel levels. Ready to go, thank God! She hit the primer to inject some fuel then turned the ignition key. The engine coughed into life and the propeller began to turn. She taxied out into the open.
The engine noise brought a man out from the bushes next to the airstrip; his expression was startled and his flies undone. Still unzipped, he started across the concrete towards her. She chuckled and opened up the throttle. The Cessna started down the runway, picking up speed. A glance showed Ash her pursuer's face was turning red with effort as he pelted after her, but there was little chance he would catch her. They were going fast enough now, she judged, so she trimmed the elevator and pushed the control wheel gently forward. Moments later she was airborne.
The last she saw of the Cessna's pilot was a tiny figure standing forlornly in the middle of the airstrip, shaking his fist at her. The engine noise drowned out his colourful curses.
Ash circled the complex once to get her bearings, carefully avoiding the smoke, which on this calm day was travelling straight up. She scanned the landscape. Which way would a vehicle have headed? The surrounding forest meant there was only one feasible answer - along the highway. So. Northeast or southwest? No contest. If she were a fugitive, she'd head for the border. It would be easy enough to cross at the Iguaçu Falls and vanish into Paraguay or Argentina.
She nodded, then banked the plane into a steep turn. Southwest it is.
Ash had been following the highway for ten minutes, as it sped through increasingly dense tropical forest. The cars and trucks she'd encountered so far were too small to have left those tyre tracks, so she'd discounted them instantly. Then she saw the lumbering vehicle up ahead.
She put the Cessna into a dive, her mouth dropping open as she drew nearer and realised what the murky green vehicle was.
It's a TEL!
She had only ever seen transporter-erector-launchers on surveillance photos, but its shape was unmistakable, especially those sinister looking launch canisters on its roof. Ex-Chinese military, she decided. That explained the Wai Ling Chen connection.
As she gained on the vehicle, she was able to make out the tip of something poking out the front end of one of the launch canisters. Fuck! There's an ICBM in one of them. So that's his nerve gas delivery system.
There was something odd about the canisters. She frowned, unable to work out what it was. Then she had it. What was that blob in between them? The blob moved, and with a start she realised there was someone lying on the TEL's roof. Abruptly, the figure sat up, shaded its eyes against the sun, and stared right at her.
Uh oh! She readied herself for gunfire then blinked as, instead, the figure began to wave.
"What the-?" Belatedly Ash registered the white coat. And the blonde hair. Jemma!
Jubilantly, she touched the controls and rolled the little plane from side to side. Then the Cessna was roaring over the TEL, and Ash found herself looking down on her partner, who was so close she could almost see the whites of her eyes.
"Hang on, Jemma," she yelled. "I'm coming."
Jemma watched the little plane fly over with a feeling of utter relief. Its pilot had to be Ash. Who else would waggle the wings at her like that?
She eased herself up onto her knees, resisting the slipstream that threatened to tear her from her precarious perch, and craned her head to follow the plane's progress. It was climbing, going into a steep banking turn above the highway up ahead, before roaring back towards them
Surely she's not trying to play 'chicken' with a TEL?
Jemma had worked out the lumbering vehicle's purpose a short while ago, and realised, with a shudder, that there was an armed ICBM in one of the canisters. Whether its warhead was a conventional payload or al-Akhdar had had time to load the sarin she had no way of knowing.... But she certainly didn't want Ash to help her find out the hard way!
The TEL showed no sign of slowing, however. Just before it seemed there was no alternative but head-on collision, the plane climbed sharply, its landing wheels skimming the top of the driver's cab with only inches to spare.
Heart still in her mouth, Jemma watched the aircraft dwindle into the distance, then turn for another pass.
The transporter picked up speed and the slipstream increased in ferocity; she hung on grimly. Did the Libyan think he could outrun Ash? As she watched the plane dive towards them, she was reminded of WW2 kamikaze footage. The steep angle, the descending whine of the engine....
Something whizzed over her, and she turned, startled. The transporter's cab window had slid open and a gun muzzle was poking out of it, pointing up at the plane. There was a muzzle flash, then another....
The plane's engine noise was suddenly deafening. She ducked as it zoomed overhead. Then it was pulling away fast and climbing once more, before circling to the north.
Jemma straightened and stared up at the plane, which was mercifully unharmed, by the look of it. What the hell is she doing? Suddenly she understood. This time, Ash was coming in from the TEL's passenger side. Al-Akhdar wouldn't be able to drive and shoot at her at the same time.
As the aircraft drew nearer, she could make out the feral grin on the pilot's face. The cockpit's window slid open and sunlight reflected off blue steel. Then came a series of muzzle flashes.
Two loud popping noises were followed by a sharp tearing sound. The transporter lurched violently to the left, flinging Jemma sharply against one of the launch canisters, adding to her growing collection of bruises.
She's shot out the tyres!
Jemma struggled to a sitting position, and saw that the TEL was now thundering towards the pine trees that thickly lined the highway. Oh, no! She braced herself for impact.
The shock of the collision almost broke her grip. The transporter slowed noticeably, but ploughed on, leaving a wake of splintered timber behind it. Each tree it hit slowed its progress a bit more. Eventually, it shuddered to a halt.
For a moment there was utter silence. Then the world, and Jemma, began to breathe once more. Bird cries and animal calls resumed around her, and she became aware of the distant drone of Ash's plane circling overhead, assessing the damage.
The whirr of an electric motor startled her, and something moving against her back made her almost jump out of her skin. She twisted round but saw nothing. For a moment she thought she had imagined it, then the launch canisters either side of her began to rise, slowly at first, then with increasing speed.
My God! He's preparing to launch from here.
She couldn't remember the exact range of an ICBM. It depended on the type, didn't it? But whatever model this was, she had a horrible feeling Washington and New York were both within reach. Right now, thousands of Americans were going about their daily lives, completely unaware that in a distant country a terrorist was planning to dump nerve gas into their midst. The last thing their tracking stations will be expecting is a missile from Brazil.
Of more immediate concern, though, was Jemma's own position. If she didn't get out of there quickly, she could be crushed or carried aloft. Neither option appealed to her. She straddled one of the slowly rising canisters, reminding herself disconcertingly of a scene from Dr Strangelove, then scrambled over the TEL's side and jumped.
The forest floor had been churned up and mashed bark, pine needles, and cones added to the mess - it cushioned her landing nicely. She regained her balance, brushed twigs and dirt off her clothes, then forced her way round the side of the TEL, the crowding branches ripping the lab coat and threatening to poke out an eye.
The scaffolding-like structure at the rear of the transporter was slowly lifting the canisters from horizontal to vertical. She stared up at it, and chewed the inside of her mouth. The mechanism must work hydraulically, mustn't it? Which meant, if she could somehow drain the fluid from the system....
That hose looks promising.
Reaching into her lab coat pocket, she pulled out the Swiss army knife. Then she clambered awkwardly up the back of the TEL and onto the lower portion of the scaffolding. She reached for the hose, took a firm grip, and began to saw at it. An insect whizzed past. She swatted at it absently then resumed her sawing. Another insect flew by, hitting a nearby tree trunk with a loud thunk.
That's no gnat!
She looked up. A plump olive-skinned man was standing on the roof of the TEL's cab, pointing a gun at her. She was near enough to see the anger on al-Akhdar's face and the whitening of his knuckle -
She let go and threw herself backwards. Oof! This time the landing wasn't as soft. Bruised and aching, she struggled to her feet and stared helplessly up at the launch canisters still rising above her.
I have to do something. If only I had a gun!
Hand over hand, she pulled herself back up the side of the TEL and poked her head over the top. A bullet whizzed past her and she pulled back. Stalemate.
She was still pondering what to do when a shout of pain broke her concentration. Feeling like a tortoise poking its head out of its shell, she peered cautiously over the top again. The Libyan was clutching his right biceps, and his shirtsleeve was stained with blood. There was no sign of his gun.
She didn't question what had happened, simply hauled herself up onto the launch scaffolding, grabbed the hose once more, and resumed her sawing. The branches of a huge pine tree overhanging the cab rustled and shook, and she looked up, startled, as from them, like a panther, leaped a tall dark-haired figure. Ash!
Al-Akhdar went flying as Ash landed on top of him, then the two figures were scuffling viciously. The cab roof was too small for such antics, and it wasn't long before both the Libyan and his attacker disappeared over the side.
Ouch! Jemma winced in sympathy. She wanted to check on her partner, but she had other priorities. Feverishly, she sawed. Moments later, murky yellow fluid was dribbling out of the hose, staining her already torn and disreputable lab coat. She widened the slit to a hole, and the dribble became a flood.
The launch canisters paused in their ascent, and began to judder and clang. She held her breath. The juddering stopped and their progress resumed.
Damn! Looks like it didn't-
The motor whine rose in tone, crescendoing to a screech that set her teeth on edge. She clapped her hands over her ears and gritted her teeth. Abruptly the canisters froze and the noise stopped. Cautiously, she removed her hands. Silence, wonderful silence.
In the distance something was crashing through the forest. An animal startled by the disturbance perhaps? Jemma breathed in the clean, sharp scent of pine then exhaled, feeling her stress levels ease perceptibly. With one last look at the launch canisters - They could use some Viagra. - she clambered down.
Now. Where's Ash?
It didn't take her long to find her partner. She was sitting on the ground by one of the punctured tyres, rubbing her ankle ruefully. There was no sign of al-Akhdar.
Jemma crouched next to her and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Are you all right?" A pinecone plopped to earth nearby.
"Twisted my ankle. Remind me not to play Tarzan again."
Jemma leaned in and hugged the other woman. She had never been so glad to see anyone in her life. To her delight, Ash hugged her back.
"Are you OK?" asked Ash gruffly.
"Bit bruised, but I'll live." Something hard was digging into her. "Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?" She released the other woman and sat back.
Ash smiled suggestively. "Well, I did fly halfway across Brazil to find you." Then her expression changed. "But actually - " She pulled something out of her pocket and displayed it proudly.
Jemma gaped at the massive green gem. It couldn't possibly be real, could it? "Is that...?"
"Yes. The Moghal Emerald."
She put her hands on her hips. "You kept it?!"
"'Borrowed' it," corrected Ash. "Just for a little while." She gave Jemma a sidelong glance from very blue eyes. "Me and emeralds, you know how it is."
Jemma laughed and gave her another hug that almost squeezed the breath from her lungs. "I know."
"Guy named Wai Ling Chen is expecting it," added Ash smugly. "Iíd love to see his face when he realises he's out of pocket for the TEL."
Jemma glanced up at the murky green vehicle. "It's Chinese then?"
"Ex military, I'd say. A rogue officer saw a way to make some quick cash off the Libyans and took it."
Jemma plopped down next to Ash, keeping in contact along the length of her - after all they had been through, she needed the physical closeness, and the tall woman didn't seem to mind.
"So. Where's al-Akhdar?"
"Ran for it."
Jemma remembered the sound of an animal crashing through the forest. "Shouldn't we go after him?"
"In a bit. And not on foot. I know where he's heading, and we can get there before him by plane."
"Foz do Iguaçu."
"That rings a vague bell."
"I'm not surprised. The Iguaçu Falls are a huge tourist attraction," said Ash. "They're also right on the border with Paraguay and Argentina."
"Ah. You think he'll try to cross there?"
"Yes. And making his way on foot through the rainforest will wear him out for us." Ash bared her teeth. "He's got a bullet in his arm too."
Jemma glanced at Ash's shoulder, wondering how it was holding up under all this exertion. "Good. I hope it stings."
But they couldn't sit here all day. So Jemma stood up and held out her hand. Ash took it, hauling herself up and placing her weight gingerly on her ankle. She winced, and Jemma insisted that Ash put an arm round her shoulder and draped her own arm round the other woman's waist. It felt good.
"It's only a twisted ankle," groused Ash. "I'm not an invalid." Even so, she let Jemma help her back towards the highway along the narrow trail of devastation left by the careering TEL. The plane, Jemma saw with some amusement when they emerged from the trees, was parked slap bang in the middle of the highway.
A thought struck her. "What are we going to do about the missile?"
"The Cessna's got a radio," said Ash. "I'll notify the Brazilian authorities anonymously. I'm sure they'll be absolutely delighted to know what they've got sitting in their back yard."
They walked towards the plane, then Jemma boosted the limping woman into the cockpit and climbed in beside her. Ash reached for a switch on the control panel, and green lights blinked on.
"Will you tell them about the sarin?"
Ash glanced at her then nodded. "They need to know. Even if the Libyans didn't have time to load a nerve gas payload."
"So they can take precautions," agreed Jemma. She closed the door firmly, and settled herself in the snug seat. Ash flicked a switch, and the plane's engine coughed into life and the propeller began to turn.
Jemma was buckling herself in when she realised Ash was frowning at her. "What?"
"Wasn't it a bit risky blowing up Pimentel's chemical complex?"
"That wasn't me!" protested Jemma. "A spark from a bullet started that little lot. I was aiming for smoke without fire."
"Ah." Ash's forehead smoothed. "You remembered Mac's lessons."
"Thank God I paid attention in class that day!"
Ash laughed, then did something to the controls. The plane eased forward. They trundled along the highway, picking up speed as they went, the tall woman seeming blithely unconcerned about the truck heading straight for them. As it drew nearer, Jemma could see its driver through the windscreen; he was waving his fists at them and shouting.
She closed her eyes tight and balled her hands. Please, God....
"You'll like the Iguaçu Falls." Ash was shouting above the roar of the engine. "They're wider than Victoria, and higher than Niagara. They're spectacular."
With a lurch they were airborne. Jemma opened her eyes in time to see the truck disappearing beneath them with inches to spare. I'll get you for that, Ash.
With a sigh of profound relief, she settled back to enjoy the ride.
Ash lowered the heavy binoculars she'd bought in the tourist shop and knuckled tired eyes. She hated surveillance. An elbow in the ribs made her unloop the glasses from round her neck and hand them over. But it was certainly more interesting when the little blonde was around.
The other woman raised the binoculars and scanned the tourists queuing by the boat ramp below them. "What if he doesn't show?"
Ash yawned. "He will." She ticked off the reasons on her fingers, raising her voice above the background roar of the waterfalls, which were audible, even at this distance. "One: There's one bridge to Paraguay and one to Argentina... and thanks to an anonymous tip, the armed guards on both are on the lookout for him. Two: the Airport is on full alert -"
"Which leaves boat travel," interrupted Jemma. "I know." She lowered the binoculars and shot Ash an impatient glance.
Ash sighed. She was glad that Jemma was increasing in confidence, but she missed the young woman's deferential hero worship. (Was Sam ever like that? She couldn't remember.)
A motor boat chugged up to the ramp, disgorged its passengers, drenched but happy after their close-up look at the Iguaçu Falls, and began to take on new ones.
"But he could still have decided not to cross the border after all," continued Jemma, "doubled back, stayed in Brazil."
"He could have," she admitted. "But the Brazilians now know he was trying to fire a missile at the USA from here, which would have left them open to some very heavy duty retaliation. They'll take a dim view of that; his photo will be everywhere." She remembered her recent experience in Tenerife. And that's no picnic.
"Good point." Jemma raised the binoculars again and panned along the riverbank. Ash watched her idly, taking the opportunity to admire her profile, the cuteness of her nose, the snug fit of her scoop-necked T-shirt....
The binoculars jerked to a halt. "Itís him!"
"What? Where?" Ash grabbed the glasses, almost throttling Jemma with the strap in the process. "It's him," she agreed moments later.
The plump man had changed clothes. His cream linen suit (Stolen, I bet.) had been recently laundered, but already it was crumpled and there were damp stains under his armpits. He was walking briskly along the bank of the Rio Iguaçu, heading straight towards the boat ramp. His head turned constantly, his gaze flicking from side to side. There were bags under his eyes. He looked... hunted.
Ash jumped down from the tree branch they were using as a perch, wincing as her ankle twinged on impact, then helped the blonde down. They set off down the slope towards the boat ramp. At each stride, Ash's shoulder throbbed and her ankle twinged. She ignored them both, and broke into a jog.
Her legs were longer than Jemma's, and she rapidly outdistanced her companion. She paused, when she realised she was alone, and looked round apologetically, only to see Jemma waving her on. She nodded and set off once more.
She didn't want to spook him - she was unarmed (since she'd used up the ammo, she'd chucked the now useless pistols in a waste bin) but he might not be. She headed for the riverbank then hugged its bank, keeping the queue of gaily-clad tourists between her and her quarry.
Before she could reach the ramp, the last of the sightseers stepped into the little motor boat, leaving the Libyan with a clear view of her. Al-Akhdar froze in his tracks and locked gazes with her. Ash badly missed the comforting bulk of her Browning against her shoulder, but her opponent made no move to draw a weapon of his own. He's unarmed, thank God!
He regarded the loaded boat thoughtfully. What were his plans - to take a passenger hostage and force the captain to take them to the other side of the river? The captain chose that moment to yell something rude about time-wasters and cast off the mooring rope. Moments later his little boat was chugging out into the Rio Iguaçu.
Panting and the sound of pounding feet told Ash that Jemma was coming up fast behind her. The sight of reinforcements seemed to break the plump Libyan out of his indecisiveness. He turned and bolted - not back the way he had come, however, but angling up to join the footpath leading towards the Falls. She sighed and set off after him.
"Where's he going?" gasped Jemma, joining her.
"Why? He can't cross there, can he?"
"No." She frowned. No. So why the hell...?
They were attracting curious looks. People probably think it's a sponsored race for charity.
"He's fitter than he looks," huffed the blonde.
"Mm." Ash's shoulder was throbbing and her ankle was complaining. Whereas I'm a wreck!
They pounded along the path, the encroaching rainforest making it seem as though they were travelling through a green tunnel. Down stone staircases they ran, over mossy bridges, and along narrow walkways.
The sound of the waterfalls was getting louder now, and as they rounded a corner, the Falls themselves were spread out before them.
Jemma slowed, her mouth gaping open at the panoramic view. She had seen the Iguaçu Falls from the air, when Ash brought the little Cessna in to land at the nearby airport, but it wasn't the same as being at ground level.
"Admire it later," called Ash, her pace unchecked. "I've just worked out where he's going."
Reluctantly, the blonde speeded up again. "Where?"
"The Hotel das Cataratas. It's up this way. They do helicopter flights from their grounds, over the Falls."
Ash wiped the back of her hand across her forehead and it came away damp; the air was saturated with water vapour. She caught a flash of cream up ahead. Al-Akhdar. If only I had a rifle and a telescopic sight....
She glanced at the rosy-cheeked woman gamely keeping pace beside her. Jemma's energy was clearly flagging, so Ash made a snap decision. Ignoring the pain in her ankle, she put on a sharp burst of speed.
"Catch up when you can. OK?" she called.
"What are you talking ab-"
But Ash had already left her partner behind.
Ash finally caught up with her quarry at La Garganta del Diablo, the most spectacular part of the Iguaçu Falls. He sensed her coming (he couldn't have heard her over the deafening sound of rushing water), and darted out onto the walkway that led out over the cascade itself.
Two tourists, a mother and daughter, were standing by the low railing, and she could tell, by the look on the Libyan's face, that he intended taking one of them hostage. He might not have a gun, but he could still break a neck with his bare hands. She couldn't let that happen.
She followed him onto the walkway, literally throwing herself the final few yards. Grabbing his fat calves, she brought him crashing down, and the mother and daughter turned as his outstretched fingers brushed against their ankles. They gaped at the two strangers brawling on the spray-drenched boards and quickly got out of the way.
Ash was brought up short when something slammed into her back - the walkway's railing, she realised. If she wasn't careful, she'd be over the side. The spray made everything slippery, and the Libyan managed to wriggle out of her grip. As he broke free, his heel caught her wounded shoulder a glancing blow. Pain shot down her arm and she cried out, though no one could hear her above the rushing water.
She fought the urge to curl protectively round her wound and glanced up. The Libyan was standing over her, his heel raised to strike again. No you don't. She lashed out in a scything kick that took his legs from under him and almost sent him over the railing. It would have been appropriate for the Devil's Throat to swallow him, she thought grimly. Not today, though, apparently.
He slid down the railing, striking the back of his head on a bar on the way down, and landed on the boards with a jarring thud. For a moment he sat there looking dazed, then she saw his awareness return. It was time to finish this.
Painfully slowly, she rolled over and got to her knees. She couldn't remember if she had shot him in the right or left biceps, so she flipped a mental coin and chose right. She punched it... hard. The tendons stood out in his thick neck and he yelled. Once more, the roar from the waterfall drowned out the cry. She let him writhe for a bit (in revenge for her shoulder), then punched a nerve point on his neck and put him out of his misery.
For a while she simply knelt there, holding her shoulder and waiting for the pain to ease, impervious to the spray soaking her hair and clothing. A thought struck her and she patted her jacket pocket urgently, relieved to feel the lump that was the emerald still there. My name would have been mud if I'd dropped it in the Falls. Then she gripped the railing and dragged herself upright.
Unfastening her belt and pulling it free of the belt loops, she rolled al-Akhdar over on his belly and secured his hands. She straightened and looked around. A group of six tourists was standing at the end of the walkway, staring at her.
She must look a sight - hair and clothes drenched, the shoulder of her jacket bloodstained.... She wondered, slightly hysterically, if she shouldn't charge them extra for the side-show. Then a bobbing blonde head came into view through the trees, and she thought she had never seen a more welcome sight in her life.
Jemma pushed her way past the tourists and came up to her, a concerned look on her face. "What happened to you?!"
Wearily, Ash indicated the unconscious Libyan. "We had a disagreement about the best place for viewing the Falls." She rested her right arm round her partner's shoulder and gazed at the water thundering down the gorge in front of them. "What's your opinion?"
The other woman rolled her eyes. "You're nuts."
Jemma looped an arm round Ash's waist and for a while they simply stood companionably, getting their breath back and admiring the view. Eventually, a couple of the braver tourists joined them, stepping daintily over the prone Libyan, as though it was an everyday occurrence. Ash stifled a laugh.
"What now?" asked Jemma.
Ash looked at her and smiled. "Now, we deliver this package," she nudged al-Akhdar with one foot, "to the authorities. Then it's time for some R and R."
Other guests gaped at the two British agents traipsing through the smart hotel's lobby.
Jemma jutted her chin and tried not to blush. Was it her fault she looked like something the cat had dragged in? Her hairbrush and luggage were still in São Paulo, or so she presumed. And, since both women had spent their day first at Foz do Iguaçu's hospital then 'helping the police with their enquiries', neither had had time to buy clothes. A policewoman had kindly promised to send some over, but that wouldn't be until tomorrow.
"Don't mind them," said Ash. "Think how we're brightening up their holiday."
"Yeah. I can just imagine the postcards home."
They walked past a stand containing postcards of the Iguaçu Falls and followed the unburdened porter to the lift.
Jemma glanced at the dark-haired woman. She looked tired, and no wonder. She rested a hand on the small of Ash's back.
"How are you feeling?"
"I could sleep for a week. You?"
The nurse had sucked in her breath at the tall woman's bruised body and tut-tutted loudly at her reopened shoulder wound, then set about cleaning, dressing, and bandaging it. Ash also now sported an elasticated support bandage round her twisted ankle. Jemma almost rivalled Ash in the bruise stakes; her midriff was tender and had turned a livid yellowy-green. The nurse suspected a rib fracture; luckily, an X-ray showed she was merely badly bruised. They had both been lucky.
A loud ping signalled the arrival of the lift. The doors slid open and they got in. As it ascended, Jemma noticed the porter was trying not to stare at Ash's wrecked jacket - the nurse had had to cut it off her to get at the wound.
They had been lucky the police had released them too, she mused. The Brazilians hadn't been pleased to learn that two armed agents of a foreign power were operating in their country without permission. They had guessed something was up apparently - the wake of chaos from Rio to the Iguaçu Falls had given the game away.
It was just as well Ash had phoned London and given them a situation report before turning the still unconscious al-Akhdar over to the Brazilians. While the police interrogated them, the Organisation's diplomats had been beavering away behind the scenes, calling in favours from their opposite numbers in Brazil, smoothing ruffled feathers, and generally spreading sweetness and light on their behalf.
The scales had also come down in their favour. On the debit side: Celio's death; the stolen Moghal Emerald (which had made all the papers); Ash's stolen clothes; the destruction of a major industrial complex; and the stolen Cessna. On the credit side: the return of the Moghal Emerald, the death of several unnamed and unmissed thugs; the destruction of a synthetic drug making factory; the thwarting of a nerve gas attack on the USA; and the taking into custody of a major Libyan terrorist. No one knew what had happened to Abdusamad; but he had only ever been small fry.
The Chief of Police had given them a severe dressing down, which, to Jemma's surprise, Ash had meekly accepted. He also ordered them to leave the country 'at once' or face deportation. But, given their current condition, and a dose of Jemma's patented 'puppy dog eyes', he relented and said that tomorrow afternoon would do.
The porter opened the door to their room. Ash limped inside and Jemma followed her. While Ash gave him a tip from the money the police had grudgingly advanced her, Jemma stared at the large double bed in disbelief.
The tall woman closed the door on the porter with relief. "Alone at last," she said wryly. She came up behind Jemma. "Problem?"
"That depends." She gestured at the bed.
"Ah. Well, I donít mind - I'm so tired I could sleep standing up - but if you want, I'll ring reception and get them to find us another room."
Jemma glanced at their surroundings. It was the best room they'd stayed in so far. Probably because the Brazilians had made the booking rather than the skinflints back in London. It would be a pain having to change it. So she had to sleep next to the woman she fancied. She could control herself, couldn't she?
"No. it's all right. Leave it."
"OK." Ash headed towards the phone. "I'm calling room service. Fancy anything?"
Jemma stomach spoke for her. Apart from a cheese sandwich, its corners curling at the edges, that the police had given her at lunchtime, she'd had nothing to eat for hours.
Her partner grinned. "Care to translate?"
"Um." She had an urge for something uncomplicated. "Do they do a nice juicy steak? With chips?"
"Can but ask. How do you like yours?"
Ash nodded and dialled, rattling off some phrases in rapid Portuguese. She put the receiver down and turned a satisfied smile Jemma's way. "Two steaks - one rare, one well done - and chips, coming right up."
"Ooh!" The blonde's mouth watered at the thought.
"After that, I need a shower." Ash started to shrug out of her jacket then froze, wincing.
"Here. Let me." Jemma crossed the room in two strides, and eased the jacket carefully over the thick bandage. "There." She held up the ruined jacket.
"Thanks." Ash regarded it ruefully. "I think it needs the last rites."
"If it's any consolation, I'm sure it led a full and happy life."
The dark-haired woman snorted. "Yeah, right." She wandered through into the bathroom, and a few minutes later Jemma heard the sound of a toilet flushing and taps turning. She sat on the bed and bounced experimentally a few times, then crossed to the wall mirror, winced at her reflection, and tried to finger-comb her hair.
Ash came back out. "Where's that steak?"
"They're probably out lassoing the cow as we speak."
A knock at the door made them both turn. "Room service," came a muffled voice.
Jemma chewed her lip. "I'm not sure I should answer it, after what happened last time."
"It's either that or starve to death." Ash rose and stationed herself beside the door. "You take out the bad guys," she stage-whispered. "I'll protect the steaks."
"Very funny." Jemma took a deep breath, reached for the handle, then whipped the door open, startling a young man in hotel livery. He lost his grip on the heavy silver tray and it tipped alarmingly.
"Whoops!" Only her quick reflexes saved their meal from an ignominious end on the beige carpet. "Sorry!" Her wide smile seemed to fluster him even more.
"Oh yeah, he's dangerous all right," growled Ash from behind her. Jemma ignored her and took the tray.
A hand reached over her shoulder and tucked a 10-real note into the gawping young man's pocket. "Muito obrigada." He turned rather stiffly and walked away.
Jemma kicked the door closed behind her and carried the tray over to the table. Then she remembered the injured look on the man's face and started to chuckle. The fact that her ribs hurt when she laughed suddenly seemed funny too, for some reason, and the chuckle turned into a laughing fit.
Ash shook her head and sat down. "You're demob happy," she diagnosed. She reserved the pinker steak for herself and slid the other plate towards Jemma. Then she unwrapped a knife and fork from a napkin and started eating.
Jemma got control of herself at last and wiped her eyes. "Is that what it is?" Ash didnít answer, just grinned at her and kept on chewing. She reached for the remaining set of cutlery.
The first mouthful of steak was heavenly. Ash raised an eyebrow at the appreciative moan and concentrated on cutting into her own steak. Juices pooled pinkly on Ash's plate, and Jemma suppressed a shudder and speared some chips with a fork.
They ate in silence, chewing too few times and swallowing too quickly. Her mother would have been horrified at their table manners. Too bad. They cleared their plates in record time.
"That hit the spot." Jemma stacked the plates neatly on the tray and placed it out of the way.
Ash leaned back in her chair and sighed contentedly. "Mmmm." She yawned widely. "I just need a shower then I'm ready for bed." She sat for a moment longer than dragged herself to her feet and headed for the bathroom.
Jemma watched her go. "Er... Want any help... with your shoulder?"
The tall-haired woman paused and regarded Jemma thoughtfully, her blue eyes enigmatic. Then she smiled and shook her head. "Thanks, but I'll manage. I'm a big girl now."
I'd noticed. "Well, if you should change your mind, just give me a yell."
Ash disappeared inside the bathroom, and moments later came the sound of running water. Jemma twiddled her thumbs for a bit then switched on the little TV, but it was showing mostly Soaps, in Portuguese, so she switched it off again. She crossed to the window and looked out; it was already dark outside and there was nothing to see. The sound of water gurgling down a plughole told her Ash must be nearly done. She crouched beside the little fridge and examined its contents.
The click of the bathroom door made her look up. The tall woman was standing in the opening, clad only in a skimpy, white bath towel that emphasised long tanned legs. The only jarring note in the otherwise stunning picture was Ash's bandaged shoulder and ankle. Jemma's mouth went dry.
"Bathroom's free," said Ash needlessly. "Good job there are two towels." She wandered over towards the bed.
"Mph!" managed Jemma.
"Sorry?" The other woman gave her an enquiring look.
"Thanks. I wonít be long." Jemma fled into the steamy bathroom, closed the door behind her, and leaned against it. God give me strength!
By the time Jemma has showered and dried herself with the other towel, Ash was fast asleep. Just as well, she thought, regarding the sleeping woman, whose face she was glad to see had lost the tenseness that had been present all day, before tiptoeing round to the other side of the bed.
Belatedly she noticed that Ash's towel was now draped over a chair back. She raised the sheet for a quick peek then dropped it as though she had been stung. The other woman was stark naked. Oh boy! She took a deep breath, removed her own towel - it was wet; she had no option - and slipped under the sheets. Then she lay back, and listening to the rhythmic sound of Ash's breathing.
For what seemed like an eternity Jemma held herself rigid and stared sightlessly at the ceiling. This is ridiculous! she chided herself. You need to get some sleep, and you never will if you keep acting like a silly school girl. Ash isn't bothered about this, so why are you? She knew the answer to that one. But she pushed it impatiently aside.
Only one thing for it. She closed her eyelids and consciously tensed and relaxed each muscle in turn, taking deep breaths and then exhaling. The relaxation technique had always worked before, and it succeeded now. Drowsiness stole over her at last, and she fell into a deep sleep....
Jemma awoke feeling wonderfully relaxed and at peace, pressed against a soft, warm surface that was moving gently in time with Ash's breathing.
The blonde pondered her situation hazily. She's still asleep. Might as well go back to -
Her eyelids shot open. Careful not to move a muscle, she took stock of her position. Sometime during the night, she had strayed from her own side of the bed and snuggled up to the other woman, who was lying on her side. The warm surface under her cheek was in fact Ash's naked back (she suppressed the urge to run a fingertip over its inviting curve). That was bad enough, but her left arm, she discovered, was draped loosely over the other woman left arm, and her hand was-
She felt herself go hot with embarrassment. Her hand was at this very moment cupped round Ash's breast, and - She opened her eyes wide - Ash's own larger hand was holding it in place.
Does she know what she's doing? Is she awake? She listened to the steady breathing and decided against it. So. If it happens in your sleep, it doesn't count, right? And what she doesn't know won't hurt her.
Reluctantly Jemma uncupped the soft mound, then tried to slide her hand from under Ash's. At first she thought it was working; she was almost free, when the other woman's breathing pattern changed abruptly, and she felt her hand gripped.
Still holding her in place, Ash rolled over on her back and regarded Jemma with sleepy blue eyes. "How did this get here?"
"Er..." She looked at the other woman nervously. "It seems to have a mind of its own. Sorry."
"Alien hand syndrome? I think I've heard of it." Ash released her grip, and Jemma knew that now would be a good moment to remove her hand, but somehow she couldn't bring herself to. Ash's breast felt too good.
The other woman regarded her steadily, the corner of her mouth quirking up. "You know," she said mildly, "there's only so much flesh and blood can stand. If you keep throwing yourself at me, Jemma, I might have to catch you."
Jemma blinked. Is she saying what I think she's saying? She considered how Ash's hand had held hers in place while they slept. Feeling greatly daring, she fondled the breast under her palm.
Blue eyes widened, then Ash laughed out loud. Thus encouraged, Jemma gave the breast another caress. Ash grabbed the offending hand and rolled over, ending up face down on top of Jemma, knees and elbows planted either side of her. She gave the blonde a long searching look, then dipped her head to kiss her.
At the last moment the dark-haired woman drew back. A frustrated Jemma gazed up into troubled blue eyes. "What is it?"
"We're partners. I've never.... Not with...." Ash tried again. "Of course, with men it never came up. But.... Look, you've read my file, Jemma. I'm just not good at... long term relationships."
She regarded her partner thoughtfully. "And you think," she said, trying to follow Ash's train of thought, "that if we get romantically involved, and things go sour, it could screw up our partnership?"
Ash nodded, clearly relieved she understood.
Jemma shrugged. "It might. But if that happens, we'll just have to get Thompson to assign us new partners." She chewed her lip in sudden annoyance. "It's not just up to you, you know."
The other woman blinked then looked sheepish. "No," she murmured, "I donít suppose it is."
"Anyway," Jemma continued, wondering how to persuade Ash to continue what she'd started and finding sudden inspiration. "Aren't you jumping the gun? We haven't even kissed yet. You might not like it."
Ash raised an eyebrow at that. "Oh, I'll like it," she said confidently. "And so will you."
Nodding slightly - though whether at her boast or at some internal decision she had just made, Jemma wasn't sure - Ash dipped her head once more.
It started as a clumsy, almost chaste kiss, as they searched for the best way to avoid bumping noses and teeth and got used to the taste and feel of each other's lips and mouths. Then it intensified, and tongues came into play. Jemma had to admit, when she came up for air several oxygen-deprived moments later, that Ash had not been kidding. She had indeed liked it.
"Mmmm." She traced the outline of Ash's cheekbone with a finger. "Loved the free sample. I think I'll take it."
Ash laughed and kissed her again, then, abruptly, she broke the kiss and rolled over onto her back, clasping her injured shoulder. "We'll have to continue this another time," she said ruefully. "I donít think I'm up to it."
"Sorry. I didn't think. Want some of those painkillers that doctor gave you?" At Ash's nod, Jemma got out of bed and retrieved the pills from the table, amused and flattered that, even though the tall woman was in pain, she found time to openly admire Jemma's nakedness. She fetched a glass of water from the bathroom, taking the opportunity to relieve herself, and returned to bed.
Ash swallowed the pills, and while they started to kick in, Jemma tried to take her partner's mind off her throbbing shoulder.
"I think our first time should be in that huge bed of yours in Primrose Hill, anyway. I tested it while I was searching your flat." She nodded judiciously. "Comfy. Good springs."
"You searched my flat?" Ash was regarding her as though she'd grown two heads, and she tried not laugh.
"Remington had me vet you for security clearance, remember?"
The other woman's brow smoothed. "Ah."
"As for those things you keep in your bedside cabinet...." Jemma tutted. "My mother would die of shock if she knew what the woman I'm seeing gets up to."
Ash chuckled. "Then donít tell her."
"I won't, not about those anyway." She turned to look as the woman lying next to her. "But I am going to introduce you to my parents."
Dark eyebrows crawled towards Ash's hairline. "But we haven't even had sex yet!" she said faintly.
Jemma decided she had been teasing the other woman long enough. She patted her soothingly on the belly. "They want to meet my partner, silly. They already know a lot about you, how you saved my life in Tenerife." She thought for a moment then added, "My sister Maggie hates you, by the way."
Jemma had never seen the other woman look so confused and out of her depth, and she chuckled.
Ash gave her a suspicious look then sighed. "I can see I'm going to have my work cut out with you."
"Ah, but you love a challenge." She snuggled closer.
"There is that." Ash draped an arm around Jemma's shoulders and lay back contentedly. "Since I'm too knackered to fool around, and we can't go anywhere until the clothes arrive, what shall we do instead?"
"We'll probably be home before they arrive." The dark-haired woman considered. "Anyway, what would be suitable? A picture of a TEL and the message 'From Brazil with Love'?"
A knock at the door disturbed their whitterings. "Parcel from the police station," came a male voice.
Ash threw back the sheets and reached for her towel. "That'll be our clothes."
Air travel was certainly much easier without heavy luggage, thought Jemma, as she and Ash strolled through the Aeroporto Galeão's concourse, heading from Arrivals to Departures.
She threaded her way carefully past the tourists heading eagerly out into the sunshine for their first glimpse of Rio, smiling at their goggling eyes, turning heads, and excited chatter. Was I like that? They had arrived in Rio de Janeiro only a few days ago, but since then a lot had happened (she smiled down at the tanned hand holding hers). It seemed like another world.
"That must be the guy Thompson mentioned on the phone: Antonio Pinheiro." Ash released Jemma's hand and pointed.
She glanced across to where a plump man in a garish shirt was beckoning. Beside him on the floor, she saw with relief, was some very familiar looking luggage.
The two women headed towards him, checked his ID, then introduced themselves (though, as the Organisation's new Man in Rio, he must already know them from their photos). He shook hands, asked polite questions about their health, then handed them some temporary passports and their plane tickets to London. (In their real names, noted Jemma. Makes a change!)
Ash had wanted them both to fly back to the Canary Islands, but the CounterIntelligence Section Head had overruled her - their mission in Brazil had been so potentially catastrophic, Thompson wanted to debrief them both personally. Besides, he had reminded the grumpy agent, Ash's Santa Cruz casa wasn't going anywhere. There'd be plenty of time for sand and sea later.
"Thanks, Antonio." Ash pocketed her own passport and ticket. "And thanks for picking up our things from São Paulo." She gestured at the bags. "We thought they were gone for good."
"No problem, senhoritas. The hotel had put them in storage. I also took care of your bill - including the surcharge for all the damage to the room." He glanced round to see if they were being overheard then leaned conspiratorially towards Jemma. "Your pistola is travelling to London by diplomatic bag, Senhorita Jacobs."
She smiled at him. "Thanks. You've done a great job." He flushed with pleasure.
Ash squatted on her heels, unzipped her bag, and began rooting through it. She held something aloft and Jemma saw it was her lockpicks.
"Thought I'd seen the last of these," she said grinning widely.
Jemma resisted the urge to roll her eyes, and reached for her own bags. "Have we got time to change?" She indicated the navy sweatshirt and tan shorts the policewoman had supplied them both with. "If I'm going to be stuck on a plane for another seven hours, Iíd rather be wearing my own clothes. Besides, it's going to be cold in England."
Ash straightened and glanced at the airport clock. "Good idea. There's still time." She pointed. "The toilets are over there."
They said their goodbyes to the genial Antonio, picked up their luggage, and headed for the toilets. Ten minutes later, clad in their own garments once more, they were heading for the Departure lounge.
There were some empty seats in front of the Departure boards, and they sat down to wait for their flight to be called. Jemma sought Ash's hand and grasped it.
Ash smiled at her and suppressed a yawn. "So," she said. "What did you think about your little holiday in Brazil?"
She thought about that for a moment. "Different. A bit more exciting than I was expecting."
The other woman snorted. "You got that right." She paused. "Think you'll want to come back some day?"
"Probably." Jemma glanced at her companion. "After all, it will always hold happy memories."
A dark eyebrow rose. "Happy? We almost got killed!"
"True. But we also shared our very first kiss."
A large hand squeezed hers. "You're such a romantic."
"Something wrong with that?"
"Nothing at all." Ash laughed suddenly
"I just remembered something. When I chose you as my new partner, I told myself you were going to be a handful. It turns out I was the handful. And yours was the hand."
Jemma blushed. Fortunately, the sensual tones of the female announcer forestalled any need for a reply.
"This is the first call for British Airways Flight 324 to London. Would all passengers please proceed to Gate 10?"
"That's us." She stood up and held out her hand. "Let's go home, partner."
Ash nodded and stood up too. "Let's."
All errors are mine. That there are fewer of them that there would have been is due to:
Advocate, who beta read it for me; Honey, who supplied the Brazilian Portuguese translations; Joy, who helped me with information about shoulder wounds and their treatment in the field; and Haydée who answered my questions about Brazil (but, since I consulted her far too late in the day, can't be held responsible for the information I'd already cobbled together from elsewhere. <g>).
To all of you: THANKS.