Author’s Note: This story is set near the beginning of the Emma Peel series. It provides back-story for The Joker.
I recommend that you read my stories in order, as there are references among them and regular characters beyond the ones you know. The correct order is Mathematics, Berlin, Four and Twenty Blackbirds, Two’s Company, Destiny Cruise, Murder on the Grand Canal, and Paris (the early episodes), Betrayal on the Road, The Stampedes, Knight Moves, Twists of Fate, Blind Trust, Concrete Evidence, Dearly Beloved, Archaeology, Torcello, Diamond Mind (the post-series episodes). All stories are posted on FanFiction.net. Many are rated R.
Disclaimer: I claim no ownership of these characters or The Avengers and have just borrowed them for a little while.
Steed plays voyeur
Emma learns new tricks
“Yes sir, I’m certain. No, I know that she is new to us, but she has already proven herself quite admirably,” John Steed rose from his desk chair and paced in a small circle as he spoke. “I trust her implicitly, and she meets all of the requirements for the job. Right. Beautiful, brilliant, and she can take care of herself.”
The buzzer rang, drawing his eyes up the steps toward the door.
“Hold on, General. That’s her now.” He set the telephone receiver on the desk and took the steps two at a time.
He opened the door to admit Emma Peel, and as usual the sight of her made his breath catch in his throat. He automatically leaned close to kiss her lightly on the lips, a pleasure he only allowed himself in their homes when they were not working. She reached up to caress the side of his face and his eyes widened as they slipped into the warm, brown depths of hers.
“Come in,” he said softly. “I’m just speaking to General Collins.”
He turned and went back down to the telephone, leaving Emma to shut the door. She came down the stairs and tossed her black and white fur over the back of a chair.
A month ago she had signed the Secrets Act and agreed to work with Steed. Since then he had sought her assistance with four cases and she had enjoyed every moment of their working relationship. But she had enjoyed their personal relationship even more. It was playful, romantic, seductive, and growing deeper each day.
“Thank you General. I’ll find out and have the plan to you this evening. Yes sir. Good afternoon,” Steed replaced the receiver on the telephone and turned to face Emma.
“Find out what?” she asked, smiling at him over her shoulder as she headed for the kitchen door. He followed her, watching her check the water in the electric kettle and plug it in.
“Salt,” he said automatically as she moved toward the shelves of canisters. She reached for the canister so marked and carried it to the counter where a teapot sat upside down in the dish drainer. It pleased him that she had so easily accepted his eccentric kitchen storage system. “Would you like to join me in Berlin?” he asked as she spooned tea from the canister into the teapot.
“Today?” she asked, only half joking.
She put the cover on the canister and returned it to its place on the shelf, then faced him where he stood leaning against the doorjamb.
“And just what is it that the General wants me to do there?” she asked, reaching up to brush the stray lock of hair from his forehead.
“It’s what I want, actually. We’ve located a man in the American sector of Berlin who was responsible for the deaths of countless innocent civilians during the war. The war crimes tribunal refused to indict him – insufficient evidence, they claimed. We want him.”
“But if the evidence is weak –.”
“We have overwhelming evidence. We just can’t share it.”
“Not even with me?”
“If you agree to help.”
“Of course,” she sighed with a smile. Then she turned back to the kettle, which was boiling.
“Of course you’ll help?” he asked, stepping up close behind her. She bent her head to inhale the aromatic steam from the teapot as she poured the water over the tea. Steed drew her hair to one side and kissed the back of her neck, his breath making her whole body tingle. She set the kettle down and picked up the teapot to swirl the water around, unwilling to move as long as he continued to kiss her.
“I think it’s steeped,” he whispered near her ear, jolting her back to reality. She inclined her head to turn it and look at him over her shoulder.
“Of course I’ll help,” she said.
“This is the man – Max Prendergast,” Steed handed Emma a very thick dossier in a portfolio stamped Top Secret. “He’s in Berlin, but we don’t know for how long. It’s going to take a few days to arrange everything – papers to be signed by men who don’t want to sign them, a team to get into place. We have one man on him now, but he’ll need to sleep sometime. We need to get there and capture Prendergast’s attention enough to keep him there.”
“So I’m to be a diversion?” she asked.
“I think you can be a very pleasant diversion,” he agreed.
He’d known Emma for six weeks and worked with her for a month. Ordinarily that would not be enough time for him to assess a new partner’s skill and reliability. But Emma Peel was hardly ordinary, and Steed was utterly confident that she was perfect for the job at hand. She would have him wrapped around her little finger if he let her, he was certain she could keep Prendergast in Berlin for a few days without even trying.
Emma opened the file to look at the photograph, which she could tell was an eight by ten blow-up of part of a larger picture. It showed a short man in a suit – the shape of the lapels looked like it was the 1940s – standing in a crowd of people, some in German army uniforms, along what was probably a parade route. His right arm was raised, perhaps in an innocent wave, perhaps in a Nazi salute. Aside from a general sense of his appearance, she could glean very little from the image.
She sat down on Steed’s sofa with the file in her lap and drew her feet up under herself. As she began to read she was vaguely aware of Steed moving around the apartment. After a while he placed a fresh cup of tea on the table in front of her. She paused long enough to take a sip – it was prepared exactly to her taste – and look up to thank him. But he had moved away, not needing her acknowledgement of his kindness.
Max Prendergast had betrayed thousands of French and Polish refugees. He had accepted their money in payment for passage to safer lands on retired merchant ships not seized by the war effort. There were no such ships, and increasingly fewer safe lands in the latter months of World War II.
As she read Emma was drawn back in time twenty years to when she was a child living with her mother in Suffolk. Each evening they would sit in the parlor captivated by the news of the war on the radio. They listened mostly for reports of conditions in London where her father had remained. But young Emma had absorbed the vivid reports from war correspondents, creating childish mental images of the ruined towns and scattered, frightened people. And at the time the true horror of the Nazis was not yet fully known – news of the death camps had only come much later when the Knight family was reunited and Emma’s sense of security had returned along with her beloved father.
With the clarity of hindsight she wondered how those poor, desperate people could possibly have believed Prendergast. How could they not have known that all ships that could still float had been seconded by whichever government could claim them?
But for some reason they had believed him enough to hand over huge payments in advance for passage to safety and freedom. And they’d traveled, sometimes on trains arranged by Prendergast, sometimes on their own, to the locations where he directed them. The lucky ones waited there, starving and desperate, and eventually gave up and drifted back into their ravaged homelands. The unlucky ones had been sent to locations that were targeted by the allied forces. They were killed by the thousands of bombs dropped by American and British airplanes.
The evidence against Prendergast had been gathered through covert means over the ensuing twenty years. Emma was surprised to see Steed’s scrawled signature on more than one report. What little she knew about his past was now augmented by the fact that he had been active in Europe after the end of the war. She wanted to ask him about it, but she had to set aside her curiosity for the moment and concentrate on the matter at hand.
This secretly gathered evidence along with the horrible fact that many of Prendergast’s victims had died by Allied bombs, explained why British Intelligence had not wanted to share its knowledge with the war crimes tribunal. If Prendergast had been a Nazi it might have been easier to publicly decry him. But to Emma’s mind he had been just as bad as the men who sent Jews to the death camps: a mercenary taking advantage of the misery and chaos of war.
By the time she had finished reading the dossier her heart was heavy with grief for the thousands of lives ruined or lost due to Prendergast’s actions. She was filled with loathing for a man she had never met, and whom she had already agreed to try to seduce. As she closed the file, staring into the space above the coffee table, Steed was there beside her. She realized that despite his seeming distraction with chores around the house, he had been watching her, waiting for her to finish reading. And he knew how she would feel learning about the vile secrets he had been carrying around for many years. He took the dossier from her and set it on the table, then sat back and wrapped his arms around her.
A month, she thought, snuggling instinctively against him, inhaling his scent of good cologne and freshly laundered clothes. And I crave the comfort of his touch like I never did Peter’s.
“You don’t have to do it,” he said.
“I’ve read the file Steed, I’m committed.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’ll handle it,” he insisted. She noted that he did not say that he would lie and say she hadn’t read it. No, he would honestly admit to the General that she had read it and refused, and his recommendation to use her was a poor one after all.
“No. I’ll do it,” she repeated. He believes in me. I won’t let him down.
“You aren’t to –,” he paused, his expression somewhere between pained and embarrassed. She arched her brows in inquiry. “It’s up to you how far you take it, so long as you keep him interested.”
Emma had the distinct impression that Steed’s feelings were exactly contrary to his words. He wanted to forbid her to use physical seduction. He concealed his possessiveness of her very well, but she sensed it. She knew he wanted her, and she was gradually allowing herself to want him, too. But not yet. Not when it could complicate things so much. If it ruined everything she wanted to have the memory of these days working with him first. And if that was selfish, she didn’t care. She had been raised to identify what she wanted and get it when she could. Right now she wanted this – the excitement and challenge of his world. Soon enough she would succumb to her physical desires. But before she did she hoped to make an emotional connection with Steed that so far he had deftly evaded.
She wondered as she went home and packed whether she could do what was being asked of her. She understood how men behaved in the business world. She was her father’s daughter: intellectual, studious, adventurous, ambitious. She had never been a coquette. She knew how to flirt when she was attracted to a man, but this assignment is going to require taking it to a much higher – or lower – level.
She smirked at herself as she folded a black lace negligee into her bag. Then her face fell as she remembered that it wasn’t Steed who she would be flirting with, but a loathsome criminal. She did not want to use that negligee. It was testament to her loyalty to Steed that she was packing it. And ironic that he definitely did not want her to use it either. If it came down to actual physical seduction she had no idea what she would do. She did not engage in casual sex, and she had not been to bed with a man since Peter died. She had identified the next man she would make love to, and he was not Max Prendergast.
Emma crossed one long leg over the other, her sheer hose glistening in the dim reddish light of the Intercontinental hotel bar. Her hem was daringly short, even for her, although her dress was not otherwise revealing. She scanned the room openly, although she had identified Prendergast seated two tables away before selecting her own seat. Steed was hunched over a glass at the far end of the bar giving every appearance of a weary business traveler seeking companionship solely from a whiskey. It was late afternoon and only a few other patrons were scattered around the room.
The waiter appeared at Emma’s table and took her order for a very cold, very dry vodka martini with a twist. When he moved on Emma let her gaze drift to the mirror behind the bar, looking first at herself, and then gradually moving her eyes to find Prendergast’s reflection. Their eyes met: he was watching her as well. She curled the corners of her lips, not so much a smile as an acknowledgement, and then withdrew her gaze.
A moment later the waiter brought her drink and she faced the mirror as she carefully raised the full glass and sipped it. She was conscious of his attention now, even though she resisted meeting his eyes again. He was watching her and she most certainly was performing. She set her glass back down and opened her bag to withdraw a cigarette. She wasn’t much of a smoker, but some situations called for it. She gave him time to react, setting the cigarette on the table while she snapped her bag shut and put it down.
She raised the cigarette to her mouth deliberately – she did not have a match or lighter. True to her expectations, he was there with a match before the paper touched her lips. She concentrated on the first drag – and on not coughing from the smoke. Holding the cigarette between her index and middle fingers she looked up at Prendergast, who stood hovering like a schoolboy awaiting his teacher’s praise.
“Thank you,” she said somewhat breathlessly, nodding at the vacant chair at her table. He sat. Only then did she notice that he’d brought his drink with him. His presumption shook her. Her confidence was based on her having the upper hand; she had to know what was really going on while he did not. What would she do if he did not behave like a gentleman? Defend herself and blow her cover? Steed had convinced the General that she could handle this. What would happen to his reputation if she didn’t?
She took another drag on her cigarette, this time enjoying the nicotine tingle and the sense of wellbeing it imparted. Prendergast’s drink was golden brown with ice. Scotch? She wondered. Or is he a whiskey man? The dossier, which she’d practically memorized, had not said.
“Emma Peel,” she said, offering her hand across the table. She had wanted to use an alias, but Steed had vetoed it, explaining that the fewer lies the better when maintaining a cover.
Prendergast took her hand, his stubby fingers gripping hers weakly. His hand had a clammy feel that she found repulsive. She schooled her features so as not to show her distaste.
“Max Prendergast,” he replied, his round cheeks bulging above his wide smile. He had a friendly face. Not the sort she would have suspected of cruelty.
Steed slipped into Emma’s room using the spare key he’d appropriated.
“Mrs. Peel?” he asked quietly. He knew she was there, and alone: he’d watched her go in a little while ago from his room down the hall. She stepped out of the bathroom wearing the hotel-supplied robe and a towel on her head.
“It’s traditional to knock — I might not have been decent, Steed,” she said.
“Yes I know,” he replied with a lecherous look. But before she could scowl at him it vanished and he turned all business.
“What are his plans?” he asked, standing near the bed watching her as she sat at the dressing table and opened a jar of moisturizer. She was surprised at herself: although she liked to think of him as a suitor – she shuddered at the juvenile nature of the term “boyfriend” — she was comfortable with him witnessing her private bedtime rituals. Like a big brother. Or a husband.
“He’s waiting for something,” she replied, dipping up a quantity of white cream with her fingers. “When it comes he’s leaving. He didn’t say where. Or what he’s waiting for.”
Steed watched her smooth the cream over her forehead, temples, and cheeks. He imagined that those were his fingers massaging her face as the cream vanished into her skin.
“It’s a what? Not a who?” he asked, tearing his eyes away from her to pace.
“Yes, definitely a what. I think it’s money, or something that can be converted to money easily. Then he’s getting out of the country.”
“Did he seem nervous? Suspicious?”
“Not of me.”
Steed stopped pacing to look at her again. He hated this assignment. His heart had been pounding all evening as he watched her flirt with Prendergast. But instead of indulging his jealousy – a strange, new emotion that he wanted to ponder later – he had focused on just how good she was at this game. He knew that she was seductive, but the woman flirting with Prendergast was a predator. It was jarring to know that his Emma could be that woman. A small part of him, buried very, very deep, wanted to brand her cheap, not a lady. But another part of him, buried not quite so deep, found this new side of her even more alluring than the ladylike, brilliant Emma he already knew.
She stood up to face him nearly eye-to-eye, the white towel on her head towering above them.
“We’re having lunch tomorrow,” she said, all business. “He wasn’t sure if he’d still be here for dinner.”
“Do your best to see to it that he does not want to leave,” Steed said, despising himself. She studied him for a moment, her lower lip caught in her teeth in that way that made her look very young. He wanted to put his arms around her, but if he claimed her now he was not confident in his ability to leave her room gracefully. And he feared that he would undermine her confidence.
As if reading this in his eyes, she nodded slightly and turned back to her dressing table, picking up her hairbrush and setting it back down again. She was as tense as he was, and his being there was not helping. He moved to the door, placing his hand on the knob.
“I’m enjoying this,” she said suddenly, turning toward him. “Being someone I’m not. I’m beginning to understand why you’ve kept at it so long.”
He nodded as she crossed the room to stand in front of him again. Suddenly she reached up and removed the towel, shaking her warm, damp hair out over her shoulders. He inhaled the enticing herbal scent of her shampoo. She tossed the towel on the bed and brushed her hands over her hair, a simple, natural motion that was pure Emma. He felt himself smiling fondly.
“But it’s not real,” she nearly whispered, one hand sliding up to caress his cheek. He automatically leaned into her touch, and then into her as she pressed a long kiss to his lips. She leaned away, her eyes momentarily searching his. He knew she saw it – the smoldering desire that he’d been holding in check since nearly the day they’d met. “That’s real,” she added her lips curling crookedly as she saw appreciation register on his face.
“Emma,” he whispered, half longing, half scolding her for being so seductive when there was nothing that either of them could – should – do about it tonight. He opened the door and slipped out of her room with the distinct feeling that Max Prendergast was not the only man Emma Peel was playing with.
Emma shifted on the uncomfortable hotel lobby sofa and scanned the headlines in the expensive, imported copy of Le Monde that she’d bought at the newsstand. It was eight o’clock in the morning and the lobby was busy with guests on their way to meetings and checking out with stacks of luggage at their feet. Emma had awakened an hour before absolutely certain that Max would leave this morning before their lunch date, so she’d dressed and come to the lobby to watch for him.
She turned the page, scanning the room over the top of the paper. She looked back down at the headlines and didn’t see the man approach her. When he sat down beside her she noticed the familiar scent and spared him a quick, slightly irritated glance.
“What are you doing Mrs. Peel?” Steed asked her quietly, his lips barely moving as he stared at the queue at the reception desk as if awaiting someone who was in the line.
“Watching for Prendergast,” she hissed back. “What if he leaves this morning before our lunch?”
Steed grabbed her elbow, forcing her to turn and look into his amused eyes.
“Look over by the door,” he ordered her. She looked. “What do you see?”
“A man. An Englishman,” she said, based on his attire. Steed nodded, watching her. “One of your men,” she added and he smiled proudly. She shot him a little smirk and looked back at her newspaper.
“Look out through the door,” he said, releasing her elbow. She leaned forward to look past him at the glass doors leading outside. “Across the street,” he said.
There was a dark sedan parked across the street, two people in the front seat.
“Go for a walk. Get some air. Prendergast will make your lunch date.”
Fighting embarrassment, Emma folded her paper and stood up, tucking it into her tote bag. She gave Steed a crooked smile and strode toward the door. He watched her go, his placid expression masking a turmoil of feelings, pride in her dedication the foremost.
Emma hoped her smile did not look as forced as it felt as she approached the table where Max Prendergast was already seated. He stood up to greet her, placing a light kiss on the back of her hand as the maître de who had accompanied her pulled out her chair.
She and Max both sat down and the host took the cloth napkin from the table and laid it on her lap. There was single red rose on the table in front of her. She looked curiously up at Max, who smiled and nodded.
“For you, my dear, although its beauty pales next to yours.”
Emma’s blush was quite real, and she rather hoped Steed was not watching too closely: she knew he was in the restaurant, but not exactly where. She picked up the rose and held it to her face to inhale the sweet aroma. Realizing the seductiveness of soft rose petals against her skin, she stroked her cheek with it, smiling back at Max. He looked mesmerized.
“Thank you for inviting me,” she said softly, setting the rose back on the table. The movement broke his near trance and he looked down, fiddling with his salad fork.
“It’s my pleasure, Emma – I may call you Emma?”
“Of course Max,” she breathed, making it sound as if she was desperate to hear him call her that.
“What have you been up to this morning?” She got the impression that he was asking so that she would not ask him the same question.
“I visited several galleries showing local artists.” That was her cover – art lover. She had told Steed it was terribly thin, but he’d insisted that any more detail would just get confusing. She could essentially be herself.
“Did you enjoy the art?”
“Yes and no. I am fascinated by the effect that this torn city has on its artists. There is so much pain and anger. But it is not what I would call ‘pretty.’ Not that art must be pretty to be worthwhile.”
“You believe it should be thought-provoking?”
“Certainly. But I also think that it should be pleasing. Of course, many viewers are pleased by having their thoughts provoked.”
Prendergast chuckled, his eyes shining.
A waiter appeared beside their table and started to hand Emma a menu. Prendergast stopped him with a sharp gesture.
“Chicken Cordon Bleu for both of us. The lady will start with a tossed salad and I will have the escargot. A bottle of Chardonnay – you choose. Danke.” He nodded curtly at the conclusion of his instructions. The waiter glanced at Emma, then made a half bow and strode away jotting down the order on his small pad. Outraged, Emma twisted her napkin beneath the table and struggled to maintain her genial expression. It had been going so well – she could discuss art for hours. And then he had to behave like a chauvinist.
“I hope you don’t mind, my dear Emma. I so love their preparation of Cordon Bleu.”
“I’m sure it’s divine,” she replied, amazed at how natural she sounded, given that she wanted to reach across the table and throttle him. I want escargot!
A movement across the dining room caught her eye — the flick of a menu in the hands of another diner. As if he had sensed her anger, Steed distracted her, favoring her with his warm, encouraging smile. It telegraphed patience and courage. She drew in a long breath and refocused her attention on Prendergast.
“Have you visited the eastern sector?” he asked. Emma shook her head.
“I don’t have the proper visa,” she said.
“These things can be arranged. Are you afraid to go behind the Iron Curtain?”
“Afraid? No. I just hadn’t considered it,” she felt a creeping discomfort. This line of questioning was getting terribly close to her real business. She wished that she had been to East Berlin, that she did have the years of experience wandering the soviet lands that Steed had. I’m not qualified for this, she thought skittishly.
“The architecture there — and the art — that has survived would fascinate you, I am certain.”
Emma suppressed a sigh of relief and encouraged Max to go on. He did, describing important buildings in the Soviet sector and then moving on to describe Prague and Moscow. Their starters and then their entrees were delivered and cleared and their conversation about favorite old world cities went comfortably on. She refrained from asking how he was so well traveled in the east, but then she worried that her lack of curiosity was suspicious. She was trying to decide how to frame a question about it when he dabbed at his lips and set his napkin on the table.
“If you will excuse me for a moment, my dear,” he said, rising. She watched him head for the toilets, relieved at the respite and the moment to reorganize her thoughts. She saw Steed coming toward her, his gaze focused straight ahead as he reached into his jacket pocket. He withdrew it and let his wallet slip through his fingers to the floor at her feet. He stopped and bent to pick it up.
“Get him out of the hotel for the afternoon,” he said quietly.
“How –?” Emma’s eyes narrowed at him as he straightened and moved on without a backward glance.
A few minutes later Prendergast found her slowly stirring the coffee that had been delivered during his absence. When he was seated she raised her head to look at him.
“Take me into East Berlin this afternoon,” she said. It was a command, not a request.
He grinned at her, then his brows lowered as he realized she was not joking.
“I thought you were afraid,” he said cautiously, although she had denied being so.
“I thought you said these things can be arranged,” she countered. “Take me to see the churches you described. It will be the experience of a lifetime.”
It would not, she was certain. But saying so played into his need to control. He stared at her for a moment longer, watching her raise her coffee cup with both hands and take a small sip. His gaze was riveted on her mouth. She made a small, pouty smile.
“Wait here,” he said sharply, tossing his napkin on his chair this time as he left the table. The waiter drifted over to pick it up and place it folded on the table.
“He’s making a telephone call,” the waiter told her quietly. Emma looked up into his eyes, feeling foolish. She had not guessed that he was Steed’s man.
A few minutes later Prendergast returned looking very pleased with himself. He took a long sip of his cooling coffee and ignored the tiny pastry that had come with it. Emma had eaten hers compulsively while she waited for him.
“It’s arranged. You have your passport?” he asked. She nodded. “Then we will go.”
He signaled the waiter for the check and signed it, then rose and waited for her to gather her bag and her wits and join him.
Steed was livid.
He had trailed Emma and Prendergast through the streets right up to the Allied checkpoint. And then to his utter dismay he had watched Emma cross into the Soviet sector without so much as a backward glance at the free world. Prendergast had gone first and slipped something to the guard, who had barely glanced at Emma’s passport as he stamped it with two different stamps, one taken from an inner pocket, and waved her through. Steed had been left in the West, too well known to the Soviets to cross the border without drawing attention to himself. When Emma and Prendergast were out of view beyond the checkpoint Steed had returned to the hotel to oversee the placement of surveillance equipment in Prendergast and Emma’s rooms. Knowing he could monitor both places eased his mind about the perilous position he had put her in, at least a little bit.
He paced the floor in his room, too tense to linger in the hotel lobby. She had gone voluntarily, he was certain of it. Which meant that she would most likely come back. But they couldn’t trust Prendergast. He could have suspected her all along and somehow determined that she was there to trap him. Who knew what inducement he’d used to lure her over the wall? Steed fully expected to receive a ransom note at any moment. That would be preferable to the other possible course of events: no contact at all. He refused to accept responsibility for Emma disappearing in Soviet Berlin. She had gone of her own volition. Surely she could have thought of some less drastic way to distract Prendergast.
At half past nine his room phone rang twice and stopped. Sucking in a deep breath he went to his door and stared out through the security peephole. His relief was palpable, but he was still livid with her. A few minutes passed and the lift at the end of the hall arrived. She stepped out and walked down the hall to her room.
Steed left his room and followed her, reaching her door just in time to stop her from shutting it. She turned, startled, as he pressed on in, and he grabbed her roughly by the shoulders.
“What do you think you’re doing!” he hissed, struggling not to shout. For a moment her eyes were wide with fear, then they narrowed and her face flushed as she grew nearly as angry as he was. She raised both arms between his and swung her forearms outward effectively breaking his grip on her shoulders. Then she spun around and paced away from him, not running, but establishing some distance. He dropped his hands to his sides, his forearms aching from her efficient maneuver.
“Keeping him out of the hotel,” she replied, all icy calm.
“By going over the wall with him?”
“We did not go ‘over the wall.’” She reached into her bag and withdrew her passport, holding it open to display the stamps that recorded her visit to the Russian sector. “We went through the checkpoint.”
Steed stepped over to her and snatched the passport, holding it up to her startled face.
“You did not have a legal visa. This is a forgery!”
“I know. He arranged it. Now you can arrest him on that charge.” And we can go home.
“And I would have to arrest you for using it – or hadn’t you thought of that?” he growled, opening his mouth to say more and stopping when he noticed her frightened expression.
“No. I hadn’t,” she whispered. He tossed the passport on the bed and glared at her. He wanted to put his arms around her and comfort her, and turn her over his knee and spank her for being so damned willful. As he considered which action to take he realized that both were equally appealing on far too many levels. Her wide-eyed stare drew him in, silently asking his forgiveness for her recklessness. He must, or else undercut her self-confidence when she needed it most. He forced himself to move away from her by walking to the dresser to study himself in the mirror.
“Well it wouldn’t do,” he said, adjusting his tie. “It’s not a serious enough crime, and it would fall into Immigrations’ territory, so we’d lose control of him. That would not be acceptable.”
He watched her reflection behind him. She retrieved her passport from the bed and put it back in her bag, then she came over to stand beside him, her composure recovered, her expression open and interested. They studied one another in the mirror and Steed had to smile. He knew without any further discussion that she had learned a valuable lesson, filed it away, and was ready to move on. He smiled, and she smiled back — a crooked, contrite expression that made him want to kiss her.
“You had dinner?” he asked.
“Yes. On the other side. It was awful.”
“Did he order for you there, too?”
He had to laugh at her look of utter disgust, and she laughed too, turning toward him, one hand on his bicep, the other over her mouth. He faced her, reveling in the way her eyes sparkled when she laughed.
“I promise to take you to dinner wherever you want, and you may order for me,” he said, forcing his hand back to his side when it started to rise to stroke her cheek.
“It’s a deal, although you are hardly risking much – I know your preferences,” she chuckled, still watching him, reaching out to stroke his face. “It was sad over there,” she said. He struggled to maintain his genial expression. East Berlin, and his experiences there, was not a topic he wished to discuss with Emma Peel. Ever.
“Life is hard for those in the Soviet sector,” he said neutrally. Her eyes narrowed ever so slightly and he recognized a flicker of something – disappointment? Disbelief? And then it was gone, concealed behind her own carefully constructed façade. She dropped her hands to her sides and turned her head to look across her shoulder into the mirror. He turned his head too, trying to recapture her eye and the intimacy of a moment before. But she avoided the connection.
“Did you make a plan with him for tomorrow?”
“I told him I had an appointment in the morning.”
“He’s not going to leave before he sees me again, Steed.”
“Certain. We’re meeting again for lunch and I implied that I have the afternoon for him.”
Steed nodded. “Get some sleep Mrs. Peel.”
And she was right. Prendergast was exactly where he’d said he’d be a little after noon the following day. Rather than let him order for her yet again, Emma took his hand and playfully guided him to a small café facing the park near the hotel where they’d met. Before he could speak for her she ordered wurst and sauerkraut and a glass of lager. He did not react to her preemptive strike, but placed his own order and then turned his thin-lipped smile on her. They enjoyed their meal and then strolled around the park talking about the previous afternoon’s adventure in the east. Eventually he’d guided her off through the city streets to show her more sights.
The afternoon transitioned into evening and Max, looking quite pleased with himself, produced a pair of theatre tickets. Emma thought him inconsiderate for not making the invitation earlier, for just assuming that she did not have plans. But she concealed her reaction with overt excitement. She enjoyed the play, which was experimental and minimalist – German to the core. But she could tell that Max did not. His tastes were much closer to Steed’s than hers: he preferred romantic art and melodic music. He fidgeted and even groaned quietly once or twice as the performers spat guttural lines of German at one another. She felt like it was a betrayal when, as they strolled back to the hotel, she criticized the play.
“The dialogue was so angry. But perhaps it was just the language: German is such a brutal language,” she said.
“It was the plot, my dear – or the lack of one,” he countered. “Who could enjoy such a disjointed story?”
I could, she sighed to herself.
Emma sank down into the small bathtub full of warm water and closed her eyes to block out the sight of the ugly hotel wallpaper. She was worn out after walking all afternoon and enduring the play with Prendergast, and much as she liked visiting new places, she was weary of Berlin. She regretted that her experiences here with Max would probably color her feelings about this city forever.
During the previous afternoon in the Russian sector she had realized that his controlling behavior concealed a need for affirmation, so she’d started giving it to him. Flattery, it seemed, would get her everything with Max Prendergast. And she was confident after this afternoon and evening that he would not leave Berlin without seeing her again. She was wondering if he would ask her to come with him when he did go.
She knew he was an evil man. His deeds during the war were reprehensible. And she found him physically unattractive with his short, thick fingers and the moles on his face that she was sure he thought made him distinctive. But were his moral code more aligned with hers, were he not a mass murderer, she would be tempted to cultivate his friendship. He was intelligent and witty in an obvious sort of a way. Of course, she would still have to do something about the way he treated women.
She was glad that she had only seen Steed at a distance today. She had appreciated that he was there watching over her, but that did not supplant her disappointment with him. Last night she had opened up the possibility for him to share something of his past with her, and he had shut her out. Even without knowing anything about them, she was certain that his experiences during the war and after it had shaped him, and she wondered how. What changes did dealing with the soviets for a decade or more enact on a man like Steed – a man of high morals and intelligence, dedicated to his country but also possessed of tremendous self-preservation skills? From the look on his face when she mentioned it she knew that he had been to the Soviet sector, probably frequently and for long periods of time. But that look had been quickly replaced by his damnable enigmatic mask. How could she truly know him without some understanding of how he had survived those years? She wanted to love him – it would be so easy to — but she could not allow it without something from him in return. So long as he continued to hide behind his emotional barriers she was resolved to maintain hers.
She raised one arm and scrubbed it gently with the thin hotel washcloth. But even as she reaffirmed her resolve a small part of her knew that it was already too late. She had fallen for him a month ago when he’d asked her to be his partner.
What was he doing right now? Was he taking a bath too, crammed into his room’s too-small tub? The warm, scratchy washcloth reminded her of his face at the end the day – on those evenings when he did not have an opportunity to shave before seeing her. Smiling to herself at her fantasy, she drew the washcloth across her throat as if it were his cheek, imagining his delicate kisses. He was such a good kisser. Allowing her imagination to take over, she moved the washcloth down her chest. She drew in a sharp breath as the terrycloth scraped over her nipple. Arousal became easier and easier when she thought about him touching her, imagined the feel of his powerful thighs and his hard stomach – all the parts of his body that she had never seen and only touched casually, through his clothes. And as she thought about the way he kissed and imagined how his mouth might feel on her body fire coursed through her loins. Without thinking she slipped her other hand beneath the water to relieve the building tension.
Steed lay on his bed, one hand on his stomach, the other arm across his eyes to shield them from the glaring overhead light fixture. He would get up and turn it off in a moment.
He was worn out from following Emma and Prendergast all over Berlin, but he’d been unwilling to trust anyone else with the task. She was too inexperienced, he’d convinced himself, to be left out alone in the cold. But he could not have supported that argument based on his observations today. From a distance he had watched Prendergast’s face when she was not looking. Through his powerful binoculars he had seen what Prendergast hid from Emma – he was in her thrall. This did not surprise Steed, he knew the feeling well, but it surprised him that she had accomplished it so easily. Did she do this to all men? Had he been too self-involved to notice the rest of them trailing after her like so many hungry puppies?
He snorted at himself in disgust and sat up on the bed. You set her on him, you told her you were confident in her, and she’s lived up to your expectations. It’s business and that’s how she’s treating it. Annoyed with himself, he got up and switched off the light, then switched on the bedside lamp and picked up the book waiting for him on the table. It was a mystery – distracting and light, exactly what he needed.
He chuckled as he opened it, remembering what the technician had said when they were planting the bugs in her room yesterday. He had picked up a physics text that was on Emma’s night table and said with a laugh: “light reading?” Steed had not had the heart to say yes, physics certainly is Emma’s idea of entertainment. And yet, despite her fierce intellectualism, she never belittles me for reading this trash, he thought fondly. If only she could accept me completely, not question my past like she did yesterday. Misplaced inquisitiveness was her only flaw, he decided as he turned to a dog-eared page. And even as he focused on the words there he knew that the same thing that had happened last night would happen tonight: he’d drift off thinking of her before reading a single word.
A heavy knock on the door brought Emma out of the bathroom still fastening an earring.
“So you’ve learned to knock,” she said as she opened the door. “Good morning St –,” she stopped herself, her mouth still open as she looked at Max Prendergast. He was holding a big bunch of red roses, his smile slightly shy.
“Good morning,” he said, sounding a little puzzled.
“Max!” she cried cheerfully, reaching for the flowers before he could ask what name she had been about to say. “What a pleasant surprise. Please come in.”
She backed away from the door so he could enter, which he did.
“I came to say goodbye,” he said, shutting the door. Emma’s heart began to pound. This is it. I have to keep him here. She set the roses on the dresser and faced him. “I had to see you again,” he added, taking a step toward her.
“Max must you go?” she asked. “You’ve made my visit here so special, I hate for it to end.”
“I’m afraid that I must, Emma. My plans –,” the ring of the telephone interrupted him. They both looked at it as it rang again, and then the sound jarred Emma to action. She rounded the bed to the nightstand and picked up the receiver.
“Hello,” she answered in a sing-song way that was completely unlike her.
“It’s Steed,” he was all calm efficiency, but there was an undercurrent of urgency in his tone. “You have to keep him there. Can you do that?”
“Good morning! Oh that’s too bad. Yes,” Emma tilted the clock radio sitting next to the telephone to check the time, then she glanced over at Max with a reassuring smile. “Yes that would be fine. In fact, it’s more convenient for me.”
“Keeping him there?” Steed asked.
“This afternoon. See you then,” she replied, replacing the receiver. “My morning appointment has been rescheduled,” she said to Prendergast. “We can spend the rest of the morning together.” She switched on the radio. An old, romantic German song reverberated through the tinny speaker.
Prendergast’s head slowly shook from side to side, his eyes full of regret, as she walked slowly back to him.
“My flight Emma,” he said, but she ignored him.
“Come sit,” she said, diverting toward the chairs under the window. “Tell me more about the children. I am so impressed with all that you accomplished for them.”
The previous afternoon he had spun a yarn – if not all lies then a substantially slanted version of the truth – about helping refugee children during the war. He took a step toward the chairs, glanced at his watch, then took another. It had occurred to her that perhaps he believed what he was saying, or perhaps over the years he had convinced himself, he’d told the lie so many times.
She sat down and crossed her legs, reaching one hand toward him in a beckoning gesture. He took it, bowing over it to press a damp kiss on the back. For a moment she feared that he was going to try to leave. Her body tensed, ready to use physical force if necessary. But instead he sat down still holding her hand.
“For a few minutes then, my dear,” he said.
Her face lit with a grateful smile.
“Perhaps –,” he said, his eyes dropping to their clasped hands and then slowly rising back to her face. “You are so lovely,” he sighed, and she had the distinct impression he had been going to say something else. “So lovely,” he nodded, his eyes locked with hers.
“Max?” she nearly whispered. Get him talking.
“Perhaps you would consider coming with me,” he said very quickly, as if there were a time limit on getting the words out. And then, once he was started, he couldn’t stop. “The flights to Rio are never full. I’m certain we could get you a ticket. Perhaps even seated next to me. What fun we would have there my dear Emma. Rio is so free, so alive. Not like Berlin at all. Berlin has become such a dangerous city. Certainly the most dangerous in Europe.”
“I’ve never been to Rio,” she said, forcing a hint of enthusiasm into her voice. It was surprisingly easy given that it was a lie – she had been to Rio with her father as a teenager. As she spoke she imagined the technician in headphones monitoring her room – for she was certain Steed had bugged it – waving madly at some assistant to look up the schedule for flights to Brazil.
She had done it. Prendergast began describing Rio, obviously placing her into the vision in his mind’s eye. He had them strolling along the beach, shopping in the boutiques, and although he did not say it she was certain he imagined her sunbathing topless.
“Oh Emma,” he sighed, still stroking the back of her hand. He wore a silly, contented smile. “You will come with me. We’ll travel the world together.”
“Tell me your plans for us.”
After Rio they would go to the South Pacific. He would buy her anything she wanted. Treat her like the princess he knew she must be. She asked encouraging questions and let him spin his story larger and grander.
And when he faltered for a moment she spun her own story for him – her fantasy life with him lounging on beaches, dining on delicacies, carefully skirting any references to sleeping arrangements. Her enthusiasm grew with her story, blatant fantasy though it was, and gradually they painted a fairy tale life for themselves. She never knew whether he truly believed it, and she did not care. All that mattered was that he stayed there with her, his bag packed but his travel plans cancelled.
At last they both fell silent, Max stroking her hand with both of his, smiling contentedly at her. She realized that the radio had been playing the same song over and over for as long as she could recall. It had added to the dreamlike romantic quality of their conversation, lulling her into a near trance. But then some small part of her mind wondered what had happened to the attendant whose job was to change the records. And then she noticed how drearily romantic the lyrics were and wished that it would stop. Without thinking she stood up and started for the radio to turn it off.
He was up with her, his arms around her before she could react, turning her to face him, his mouth seeking hers.
No, she wanted to shout and fight him off. But it wasn’t time yet. If it were Steed would be there. So she had to go along; she had to keep him happy. She could not bring herself to kiss him back, but he did not seem to notice.
“Oh Emma, you will come with me. We will be so happy,” he whispered into her ear, his hands stroking her back. She held hers still on his shoulders, resisting the urge to push him away. It would be so easy to knock him out, but it would be out of character. She had to stay in the role for just a little while longer. Just until Steed comes.
Prendergast was kissing her again, his tongue stroking her lips, imploring her to admit it. She clamped her mouth shut tight, repulsed by the idea. He drew back, his expression confused.
“Emma darl –.”
The door burst open. Without hesitation Emma shoved him away and stepped back, compulsively wiping her lips with the back of one hand while she smoothed her hair with the other. He spun toward the door, reacting too late as Steed surged in and grabbed Prendergast by both arms, jerking them roughly behind his back. He struggled, crying her name with disbelief that transitioned into desperation as he realized that she had betrayed him.
Steed swung him around into the arms of a uniformed Berlin police officer who snapped on handcuffs and dragged him out of the room. Emma sucked in a deep breath and squared her shoulders. She could not remember now why she hadn’t simply hit Prendergast. So what if he woke up in Steed’s custody and knew she had betrayed him? He knew now anyway. She could have avoided his horrible, demeaning physical advances. But loyalty to the mission and to Steed had compelled her to act as promised. Hitting Prendergast was not what she had signed on for.
Steed turned back toward her, his expressive face full of concern. She took two steps toward him, certain that she looked in control and professional and ignoring the damp feeling that Prendergast’s kisses had left clinging to her mouth.
He met her at the foot of the bed, engulfing her in his arms, holding her against his broad chest. He pressed a kiss to the hair on the side of her head.
“It’s all over. We got the warrants, all the right signatures. You were perfect, Mrs. Peel. You are perfect.”
“It was hard, Steed,” she said. “Much harder than I expected.” She lifted her head from his chest to look into the grey depths of his eyes. They filled her with confidence. “I nearly lost myself.”
“You may be too honest for this business, Mrs. Peel,” he said with the warm smile that always lifted her spirits.
“So I need to develop a disreputable side, like you?” she countered.
“Exactly,” he agreed. And then he gave in to his own long suppressed need and kissed her. She hesitated for a moment and his heart dropped. But then she responded, her lips parting, one hand caressing his jaw as her tongue caressed his.
Steed’s embrace and kiss was the perfect antidote for the lingering sensation of Prendergast’s touch. Emma allowed herself to enjoy the feel of his body against hers, admitted to herself that this was what she wanted, even more than the excitement of their work. And then she ended it, taking a deep breath as she looked again into his eyes. She saw pleasure and passion, pride in her, and happiness. But there was still something missing: the spark of a deep emotional connection.
“Can we go home now?” she asked, trying to sound childlike in an effort to dampen her own libido. He smiled his most charming, eye-crinkling grin and nodded.
“Yes. I believe I owe you a dinner.”
Emma tightened the lid on a jar of water and tucked it into her paint box along side the bundle of brushes secured with an elastic band and a large set of watercolor paints. At a knock on the door she snapped the case shut and went to open it.
“Good morning Mrs. Peel. Going somewhere?” he replied as she admitted him and he laid eyes on her paint box. She followed his gaze.
“Painting,” she replied. “In the park. Want to come along?”
To her complete surprise he bent down to pick up the box, slinging the folded blanket she’d set next to it over his arm. “I’d love to,” he said. With a pleased nod she put on her jacket and picked up her pad, folding stool, and easel.
She led him to a favorite spot on Hampstead Heath – a stretch of lawn with a small pond and picturesque trees in the near distance. London had had a string of fair days since their return from Berlin, so the ground was dry and the spring flowers in the ornamental borders were blooming.
Steed spread the blanket while Emma set up her stool and easel.
“What are you painting?” he asked, stretching out on his side on the blanket to watch her. She studied the view: Steed reclining surrounded by the bright green lawn, a burst of colorful flowers in the middle distance, and dark trees beyond.
“You,” she replied playfully, opening her jar of water to moisten a sheet of paper.
“No!” he chuckled with false modesty.
“Yes. Please bear in mind that I have not worked much in watercolor. But I promise it won’t hurt a bit.”
He grinned, holding the expression until she noticed and assured him that he did not have to hold so still – the painting wasn’t that detailed. His expression turned concerned.
“What have you been up to Steed?” she asked to try to relax him. “Busy with our German friend?”
Her question had the opposite of the intended effect: Steed rolled onto his back and held his head with his hand for a moment, groaning.
“Sorry,” he rolled back onto his side. “Better?”
“The pose? Yes. But what happened?”
“The Germans kept him. I have spent every moment since our return negotiating with them, but they are determined to hold him there. Blasted Teutonic pride,” he grumbled.
A rush of fear all out of proportion washed over Emma. She shivered despite the warmth of the morning and shoved away all memories of Max Prendergast’s hands on her body. “Do you trust them to keep him?” she asked, her voice coming out in a pinched squeak.
Steed’s brows arched in alarm and quickly settled. “Not to worry, Mrs. Peel. They’re very good at holding prisoners. They’ll let us know immediately if he gets out, or they plan to release him. We’ll snap him up just like that if he does!” He snapped his fingers illustratively.
Emma nodded slowly, looking from Steed to her painting and back. She wanted to believe him. She had to trust him. She noticed that her tree line was unbalanced. Taking a deep breath, she moistened her brush and leaned in to fix it.
A while later she leaned back, the end of her brush pressed to her lips, and smiled at her work. Steed, who had been enjoying watching her work, sat up.
“Finished?” he asked, very curious.
Emma nodded, bending to open her paint box. She put her brushes inside and drew out a bottle, a corkscrew, and two glasses. Steed’s face brightened as she rose and brought them to him. While he went to work with the corkscrew, she put away the rest of her supplies and lifted the easel to turn the painting around.
She sat down beside him, accepting a glass of the ruby-red rosé.
“To fine English mornings,” he said.
“To spending them together,” she added.
“Indeed,” he replied after taking a sip, his serene gaze studying her. Fearing that he might fall into her gorgeous eyes, he forced himself to turn his head and look at her work.
He was a long grey figure with a dash of dark hair and flesh highlights at face and hands, amid a field of dazzling green. Bursts of bright color drew the eye from him toward the line of trees in the distance, and on up to the pale sky.
“I like it,” he said, letting himself look back at the artist. She shrugged, staring at the painting herself.
“My technique is very rudimentary,” she said.
“But your vision is lovely,” he replied, looking at her, not her painting.
She looked back at him, her crooked smile belying her appreciation of his flattery. That’s something, he thought. She used to disregard it out of hand.
And then, because it was a beautiful English morning and she was a beautiful English woman, and because he could, he held her chin with his thumb and index finger and kissed her.