Four and Twenty Blackbirds

This story copyright © 2002, 2003, 2004 Mia McCroskey

Characters from The Avengers and other sources are the property of their respective owners.

Steed grows a tail,

Emma makes her move

Chapter 1

Emma shifted in the usually comfortable car seat trying to find a position that didn’t hurt. The fight she’d had with Steed while she was under the influence of the giant, alien plant back in Surry had left her with a number of bruises and probably worse. She was certain nothing was broken, except maybe her left middle finger, but the sore spots all over her body were bad enough.

“Are you all right, Mrs. Peel?” Steed asked, glancing at her as she squirmed.

“As well as can be expected,” she replied tersely.

“I can’t begin to apologize enough for what I had to do, Mrs. Peel,” he said. “You were, I might add, very difficult to subdue.”

“Yes,” she sighed, “I’m sure I presented a challenge for you. Ouch!” She had rested her arm on the top of the door and found another bruise.

“I’m so sorry,” he repeated, turning onto her street. “Are you sure you don’t want me to take you to the clinic?”

“Yes, quite sure. Nothing is broken.”

Steed parked the car outside her building and got out, coming around to her side.

“We’re here. Shall I come up with you?”

“Yes you shall. And you shall make me some tea and draw me a warm bath,” she said firmly.

He opened her door and took her hand, smiling broadly, “That would be my pleasure, Mrs. Peel.”

In the few months that Emma had been working with Steed her life had changed dramatically. Steed’s personal whirlwind kept her spinning with cases from bizarre to life-threatening, and sometimes even silly. In between there were romantic dinners, formal parties, opera, the theatre, the symphony, and, rarely but most wonderfully, quiet Sunday afternoons at one of their apartments with newspapers and fresh scones.

Emma had forced herself to make and keep dates with other men. She sometimes genuinely enjoyed their company. But at the end of each such evening as she drifted off to sleep, Steed’s sweet grey eyes would fill her mind and she’d feel his hands on her waist, his lips on her brow. And some evenings, lying in her warm, empty bed, she’d found that the only way to ease the heat he stirred in her was with her own fingers. It was a temporary measure, momentarily satisfying but ultimately only more frustrating as her feelings for Steed deepened. She wanted to know his body as she had once known Peter’s. She wanted to know it more.

Somehow Steed had slipped past her carefully constructed barriers. He couldn’t have known that his manners, his charming ego, his fascinating interests, and his many talents would be just the right combination of traits to overcome her cynicism and earn him her trust. And yet she sometimes suspected that he had – that Steed could be who ever he needed, or wanted, to be. So at first she’d held herself aloof, enjoying their time together, both working and playing, but always stopping herself from even thinking about the state of her emotions.

But weeks had passed, then months, and Steed had not changed. Oh, he acted many roles and assumed disguises to endear himself to suspects and witnesses, but at the end of each case, when they were once again alone together, he was still her charming, eccentric, dear Steed. For a brief instant when he’d held a clump of mistletoe over their heads in a carriage last Christmas she’d allowed herself to put a word to what she felt. Love. They’d kissed, Steed letting the buggy whip with the silly bit of greenery drop at their feet as the horse slowed, then stopped, and started cropping the grass by the side of the road. Their kiss had dissolved into giggles as they realized two automobiles had pulled up behind their stopped carriage, the drivers too discrete to honk and disturb the Christmas lovers.

Lovers.

But Emma knew instinctively that she could not love Steed. He wouldn’t allow it, wouldn’t reciprocate. Couldn’t. She didn’t know why, but on some level she understood. His life was too tenuous, for all of his skill and amazing talent. He kept everyone at a distance. With tremendous sadness at the revelation, she resolved to be content with just how close he’d allowed her. And when she thought about him, about her feelings for him, she substituted “trust” for “love.” She trusted him as she’d never trusted another person. She could be intimate with a man she trusted so completely.

She wanted Steed, and with each case, each date, each kiss, she wanted him more.

“Would you prefer tea or a drink?” Steed asked, laying his umbrella and hat on the piano bench.

“Tea please,” Emma replied, heading for her bedroom.

It really did hurt to move quickly, so by the time she returned wearing her thick, white bathrobe, Steed had poured hot water into the teapot, the loose tea leaves swirling around beneath the steam. Standing outside her bedroom door she pulled up her left sleeve above the elbow.

“Look at this,” she said, rotating her arm so he could see the outside of her upper arm and elbow. It was streaked with a vivid yellow bruise. “I’ll have to wear long sleeves for a week. And I haven’t a thing now for that museum charity benefit on Friday.”

Steed crossed the room to her and raised her arm gently. He bent and kissed her elbow, then smiled impishly at her face. “Does that help?”

“A little,” she conceded, knowing he regretted what he’d had to do. There was little point in belaboring it. And she had other ideas. Although she’d not been in control of herself during their fight, on some level she’d been aware of his physical proximity, his touches to parts of her body that, outside of this strange situation, were off limits. And she was aware now that he had fought two battles – one with her, and one with himself between the need to subdue her and the desire not to hurt her. And now a desire to feel him touch her again was pulsing beneath the hurts to her body. The bruises and strains were nothing compared to the burning need that was welling up beneath her belly. It took all of her forbearance to maintain control and not press herself into his arms.

“Where else does it hurt?” he asked, his soft voice washing over her. She held up her left hand, showing him that the middle finger was swollen. It felt sprained, not broken.

“Here,” she said. He took her hand and kissed it gently. His cool lips soothed the ache, if only for a second. She needed more. She pulled aside her robe to point to a spot on her right shoulder. “And here,” she said.

“I don’t see a bruise there,” he pointed out.

“It doesn’t show yet,” she assured him, tilting her head away from her shoulder to look at the spot in question. He leaned in and kissed it, his hands settling lightly on her waist. Then, on impulse, he made a trail of kisses up her shoulder to the very sensitive spot on her neck just beneath her ear. She sighed, letting it transform into a little moan. Her skin tingled where he touched her. She felt him shiver, his breath a sharp intake against her flesh.

Does he understand? She wondered, does he know what I want?

“Where else?” he whispered into her ear, his breath tickling her. He knows. She took his right hand and moved it up on her ribs under her arm. The edge of his palm just brushed her nipple through the robe.

“Here,” she whispered, struggling to contain the intense desire to thrust her hips against his.

He moved his hand, caressing the side of her breast, feeling her nipple harden as he brushed it. The fire in his groin shot through is body and he gasped. Undirected, his thumb passed over her breast, rubbing her harder. She inhaled a sharp breath, her eyes shut tight, her lips slightly parted as she enjoyed the sensation.

“Shall I have a look?” he whispered.

“Yes, please,” she sighed. Steed gently slipped his hand inside her robe, his fingers brushing her taut nipple as he cupped her breast. He bent to kiss it, drawing her nipple into his mouth and sucking gently. Slowly Steed, she’s in charge, he reminded himself even as the feel of her response aroused him almost beyond control. Her hands slid into his hair. He could feel her heart racing. “Please,” she moaned.

He used his left hand to lift the other side of her robe, brushing his fingers over her left nipple and feeling it harden as well. He left a trail of kisses across her breasts, drawing her left nipple between his lips. She slid her hands down his neck, over his shoulders, and down his back, pressing herself against him. She felt the rock hardness between his legs and her body responded with a wave of desire that shivered through her leaving her nearly limp.

“Where are we going, Emma?” he whispered, raising his head, his face close to hers. Her eyes opened, desire – her own, or a reflection of his? – smoldered in them.

“To bed,” she whispered back in a husky voice, closing the gap between their faces to draw him into a deep, searching kiss. He wanted to consume her, to touch every inch of her, first with his fingers, then with his mouth. His own heart raced with joy. He’d known from their first kiss that eventually they’d come to this, but he’d left it to her, waiting for her to choose the right time, knowing she would, and savoring the anticipation. The reality, however, was proving to be far beyond the pleasure of his fantasies. They paused to breathe and she whispered, “but you’re over-dressed.”

“Not for long,” he said, reluctantly removing his hands from her to begin unbuttoning his waistcoat. She took one of his hands, leaving the other to struggle on alone, and led him into the bedroom. By the bed she stopped and turned, helping him by undoing the buttons starting from the bottom and working upward. Their hands met at the middle one and she left it to him, reaching up instead to loosen his tie.

She left the shirt to him too, instead sliding her hands downward to cup the bulge in his trousers. As he struggled with his shirt buttons, growing impatient and clumsy as more and more of his attention was focused on her, she unbuckled his belt and unbuttoned his trousers. He froze, unable to focus on anything other than what she was doing as she unzipped his trousers and, in a single, careful movement, slid both his trousers and his briefs down to his thighs. He stood naked and aroused, hands on his half-buttoned shirt, as she caressed his erect penis.

“Emma,” he moaned, his whole body focused on her fingers as she drew them along the underside of his long member. The feverish need to touch her, to feel his skin against hers, overwhelmed his equally strong desire to maintain the integrity of his very expensive clothes. He shrugged off his jacket and waistcoat, letting them drop to the floor, then pulled his shirt off over his head, squeezing his hands through the still fastened cuffs. He dropped it to the floor, body winning the battle over mind. He slid both hands inside her robe, caressing her bare back, feeling all of its muscular contours, drawing her against himself and claiming her mouth with his own.

She responded, her kisses the most demanding he’d ever known them. He wanted to press her onto the bed, to enter her with powerful, burning thrusts. He loosened his embrace, glancing at the bed, then at her face. Her lips curled in that knowing little smile, and she turned away from him, pulling down the covers. She slipped out of her robe and he realized he was still constrained by his trousers and briefs, not to mention his shoes and socks.

He slid the confining garments down his legs, then crouched to remove shoes and socks and finally, pants. She reclined on the bed, reaching for him as he rose, finally completely naked, and joined her. She drew him against her, desperate to feel his skin against hers, her legs parting, knees sliding up his hips as he hovered over her. Their mouths met, tongues probing, nipping and sucking at one another. He kissed his way down her chin to her breasts, suckling one, then the other as she moaned beneath him. He held himself above her on one elbow, his other hand caressing her, slowly reaching between her legs to touch her. She cried out as he found her aching, sensitive, center, her body convulsing in a small orgasm at his first touch. He smiled, kissing her gently, tickling her to a second quick orgasm with his gentle, clever fingers.

“More?” he whispered, withdrawing his fingers. She gasped, clutching at him, hands on his buttocks.

“Fill me, I need you inside me,” she said, her voice husky with desire. “Deep inside me.”

He complied, sliding his penis into her slowly, pausing part way to reach down and caress the insides of her thighs until she shivered.

“Deeper,” she moaned, her rough, demanding voice pushing him nearly to the edge of his control. He pushed further into her, feeling her muscles contract in an orgasm around him, the pressure nearly driving him mad. Her fingers drove into the muscles of his back as she cried out, drawing her legs higher. He pulled out and in again, moaning at the fire pulsing through him, imploring him to fill her with his very being. His thrusts increased, going still deeper as he plunged, then staying there, moving within her, feeling her muscles contract in a powerful orgasm. Nearly out of control, he pulled out and thrust again, his orgasm crashing through him, filling her, triggering her yet again. Emma forgot everything, was unconcerned with anything other than the utter fulfillment of that instant as her body impaled itself on his thick, long shaft.

Steed lay on his back, Emma on her side with her head on his shoulder and her body contoured to his. She traced circles in the hair on his chest, studiously ignoring a puckered scar there.

“Will things be different between us now, Mrs. Peel?” he asked quietly, turning his head toward hers.

“Why should they, Steed? We’ve been lovers since we met. This was just another step along our way.”

He pressed his lips to her forehead and she sighed happily. “You’re quite amazing,” he whispered.

She smiled playfully. “So are you.”

“I look forward to repeating this step many times,” he said, just to be sure.

“Soon?”

“In a few minutes, if you like. Then I’m going to take you out to dinner.”

They took their time, Steed exploring her body and fulfilling his desire to touch and kiss every inch. He worked his way along her arms, kissing each finger and knuckle. He rubbed his nose against the stubble under her arm, making her giggle and admit she’d meant to shave there that morning and forgot. He turned her over and massaged her back, asking where it hurt and kissing the spots she indicated. She sighed luxuriously as he slid his hands along the insides of her thighs, following with kisses down to the backs of her knees. Those, he soon discovered, were extremely ticklish. He persisted in his caresses there despite Emma’s protesting giggles until she forcefully rolled over and pulled her legs away from him. He pursued her across the bed, trapping her beneath him with carefully placed knees and hands. Her giggles subsided as she gazed up into his smiling eyes.

“Kiss me,” she requested quietly. He complied, one hand compulsively slipping into her hair, then down her chest to cup her breast. She reached up to his breast, teasing a nipple to hardness, then sliding her hand down his rigid stomach following a trail of dark hair to his genitals. He froze above her, unable to focus on anything outside of her touch. She raised her other hand to his chest and pushed, rolling him onto his back, keeping her hand wrapped carefully around his erect penis. He was at her mercy.

She tongued his nipples while passing her thumb over the tip of his penis. He shuddered and moaned, tangling his fingers in her silky hair. She pulled lose and moved down, replacing her thumb with her tongue. She ran it down the vein on the underside, placing light kisses on his engorged balls, then sliding her lips back up to take him into her mouth.

Peter had never liked this, and she was not sure what to do. Teeth sheathed behind her lips, she moved her head up and down, sucking gently. She felt him convulse, tasted a few drops of his salty semen.

“Emma,” he groaned, an entreaty for her to go on, or stop, she wasn’t sure. She stopped, looking up at him for guidance. “Come here,” he pleaded. She smiled slyly and shook her head, rising up to straddle him. She used her fingers to guide him inside of her, settling down onto him, moaning with surprise at the friction and heat as he filled her.

He reached up, gripping her upper arms despite the bruises to pull her face to his and kiss her. His tongue probed her mouth as she moved on him, rising and pressing back down, falling into a rhythm that he matched with grunting upward thrusts. His body, which looked deceptively slender when clothed, was a coiled spring of muscle beneath her. He released her arms, sliding one hand down to the place where they were joined, slipping his fingers inside of her. She reared up, his touch combined with a solid thrust of his loins triggering an orgasm deep inside of her. His other hand reached for her breast, pinching her nipple gently but firmly until she cried out and he felt her muscles contract around him over and over again. He let go, of himself and of her, his orgasm pumping his essence into her as she moaned and ground herself against him.

“John,” her hands dropped to his shoulders as she gasped his name. She started to raise herself but he clamped his hands onto her hips, holding her down as his loins shuddered a final time. He relaxed, running his hands up her torso and guiding her to the mattress at his side where she collapsed bonelessly.

“Are you really hurt here?” Steed asked, touching her shoulder where she’d said she was injured. They lay facing one another, legs entwined, finally sated.

“No. I just wanted you to touch me,” she admitted.

“Vixen,” he muttered, running his fingers along her shoulder and up her neck where previously he had kissed her many times.

“You love it,” she said, immediately regretting the word, wishing she could snatch it back, swallow it down where it belonged buried deep within her heart. She closed her eyes against the awkwardness. It couldn’t be love, not with Steed. Trust and friendship were enough. They had to be. There was no point in pining for that when she had everything else.

“Yes I do,” he whispered, touching his lips to hers. Her eyes shot open and she was looking into his, the edges crinkled with a smile, their grey depths swirling with unexpressed emotions. It was more than she could ever have hoped. For suave, guarded Steed it was practically an unprecedented expression of devotion. She touched her lips to his, closing her eyes in contented silence.

“You know, I never did get that tea,” she said after a while.

“Ummm. It’s gone cold by now,” he replied sleepily.

Emma felt a wholly mundane physical need pulling at her. “I’ll just go clear it up,” she said, slipping out of Steed’s embrace and the bed. She bent to retrieve her robe, some of the aches of the day reasserting their dominance over her body, and went into the bathroom that adjoined her bedroom. Steed rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. How did I manage to wait this long for her? She is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, he smiled. Emma came out of the bathroom and left the bedroom, tossing a smile in his direction as she went. He heaved himself out of the bed and went to the bathroom as well, taking a moment to wash his face and, out of ingrown habit, look in the medicine cabinet.

Plasters, aspirin, gauze bandages and iodine. Birth control pills. Steed’s eyes widened. He gripped the sides of the sink with both hands to brace himself. He hadn’t given it a thought, hadn’t asked her. Her seduction had been so abrupt and so compelling he’d been consumed by it. He’d never done such a thing before. Never been so careless. His hand shaking slightly, he lifted the disk shaped pill dispenser and opened it. About half the pills were used. She’d planned on this, she’d known as much as he had that it would happen. It was at once comforting and disturbing to be so in tune with her. He carefully replaced the pills and closed the medicine cabinet, resolving not to snoop in Emma Peel’s belongings ever again.

Emma returned to the bedroom just as Steed came out of the bathroom. She was carrying a silver tray with a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket and two glasses.

“The tea was cold, and I felt more like this,” she said with a grin and a shrug. Steed took the tray from her, sitting on the bed and setting it on the floor. She climbed onto the bed, stretching out behind him in her robe while he opened the bottle and poured. He settled back against the pillows, handing her a glass and holding his own.

Votre santé,” he said, touching his glass to hers.

A’la vôtre,” she replied.

“Lovely idea, my dear,” he sighed, indulging in a long, cool sip. She did the same, then snuggled closer to him, seeking the security of his arm beneath her neck. His hand drifted down her far shoulder, brushing her breast through her robe. He sipped his champagne noisily like a magician practicing misdirection. Emma giggled, her body arching to his touch.

“I’ve wanted you to touch me like this for so long,” she sighed. He turned his face to hers, pressing his lips to her temple.

“And I have wanted to touch you.”

“Just keep doing it,” she sighed, emptying her glass so that she wouldn’t have to keep track of it.

Emma started at the overly loud seeming ring of her bedside telephone. Taking a deep breath and squeezing her eyes closed against the morning light, she reached for the handset, bringing it slowly to her ear.

“Hello,” she muttered, then cleared her throat and added, “Emma Peel.”

“Mrs. Peel, Mother. I’m sorry to disturb you, but I’m trying to locate Steed. Is he there by any chance?”

“Hold on.” She covered the receiver with her hand and used the earpiece to nudge Steed, who lay with his back to her. “Steed. It’s Mother looking for you. Steed!”

Steed rolled onto his back, squinting at her, then at the telephone handset she was waving at him. He cleared his throat and rolled onto his side facing her, taking the handset from her.

“Good morning, Mother.” Amazingly, he sounded bright and cheerful, like a man who’d been up and busy for hours. Mother ought to find that suspicious, Emma reflected, Steed’s never up before nine. Thinking it might be a good idea to be ready to go, she started to slip out of the bed. Steed’s right arm shot out and clamped around her. He wedged the phone handset between his left shoulder and neck and reared up over her on his left elbow, his devilish grin half obscured by the receiver.

“Yes, that’s right. … No, she’s fine. But I did want to stay with her to be sure,” he said, winking at her, “Yes I understand, I don’t think it’s a concern.”

Preferring to make the best of any situation, Emma began caressing Steed, one hand exploring the solid musculature of his lower back, the other between their bodies, inching down to rub lightly at the base of his penis. She was surprised to find it quite hard, and the notion of it pressed between them aroused her. So did knowing that Steed was carrying on his conversation with Mother while his body was doing its best to distract him.

“That does indeed sound peculiar,” Steed said after a long pause. “Yes, well, I suppose there’s nothing for it then.” He squinted at Emma as her fingers found the tip of his penis and she slowly rubbed it with her thumb. She gave him her “you started it” smile followed by a tiny “I can’t help myself,” shrug, then bent her left knee, shifting her pelvis to position it more directly beneath him, She closed her eyes to concentrate on the feeling of his erection against her clitoris, moaning as, sensing her arousal, he ground his pelvis against her. She brought her left hand to his chest to draw circles around his nipple, smiling wickedly as his struggle to maintain his concentration became evident.

“I’ll just be a few minutes,” Steed gasped, “Yes, I’m fine. – See you then Mother.” He reached out to put the handset on the bedside table, not even trying to replace it on the telephone. Emma took his penis in hand, gently rubbing herself with it, her dampness mingling with his early semen.

“Just a few minutes, Steed?” She breathed.

“You’re not helping my career,” he said, bending to kiss her breasts as she continued gently manipulating him. He reached down to slip his fingers insider her, watching her face. She let him take over, releasing his penis as his fingers brought her a wave of pleasure. She gasped, raising her pelvis to drive his fingers further inside, needing him to fill her. He refrained, keeping his fingers on her clitoris and bending again to suck and nip at her breasts. She came again, a second and then third little orgasm that left her panting, her hands clutching his shoulders. As she writhed under him he felt a sense of control that aroused him still more. The indomitable Emma Peel was entirely his, all her brilliance, strength, and beauty were at his mercy. He could make her beg, he could make her come. Her surrender to him was complete, her trust implicit. He wanted to fill her deepest desire, to fill her with himself, to merge with her into one complete being.

He used his fingers to direct his penis into her, sliding half its length in, then back out. She cried out as he withdrew, snarling with need. He pressed back in, covering her groaning mouth with his own, driving his tongue inside. He pulled back out, feeling her muscles contract in another orgasm. He pressed hard against her contraction, the tightness gripping him like divine fire. Finally out of control, he drove himself deep inside her. She cried out, scratching at his back, drawing her knees up on either side of him. He thrust deeper still, pulling only part way out before thrusting again and again through her waves of contractions. Her continuous moan drew his own voice and he roared as his loins exploded, pumping his essence deep inside her, their combined moistures overflowing. Still he thrust, determined to spend himself on her, to leave them both with a memory that would carry them through the day, until they could come together again.

He held himself propped on his elbows nuzzling her neck, dazed by their combined orgasm. She lay still beneath him, eyes closed, breath slowing. He wanted to roll aside and lay there, cuddling her, dozing, and eventually waking up to make love again. Sometime soon, he silently promised himself, and her.

“Duty calls,” he whispered, straightening his arms to raise his torso above her. Cool air rushed into the space between them. She opened her eyes, her lips curled into a contented smile.

“Is it a new case?” she asked, and he realized she’d only heard his side of his conversation with Mother.

“Yes, some strange goings on at the Bakers Hall in the City.” Speaking about it helped him focus. He climbed over her and off the bed.

“Shall I come?” she asked, rolling onto her side to watch him stretch. It was a pleasant sight, muscles rippling over bone. So many muscles, so much better defined than one would think when he concealed them beneath his fine suits. Except she had known, known from his lightening quickness, his easy strength, and the many fights she’d seen him win. She’d known from touching him while dancing, and while kissing. But it was still a pleasure to finally watch his magnificent, naked body.

He bent to pick up his clothes, unable to resist replying “I thought you already had.”

She pulled a pillow out from under her head and swatted him with it. He darted away from the bed, pleased that she was game for the next case. She was truly his partner, now more than ever.

“Yes, come along,” he said, then impulsively stepped close to kiss her. “Partner.”

Chapter 2

Emma felt as if there was a visible aura between her and Steed as they walked together through the corridors at the ministry. She knew she wore a satisfied smile, and when she looked sidelong at Steed she could see that his expression matched hers. Although she’d told him it changed nothing, the truth was, for her, everything was different. If it had been less wonderful she might have been able to be more objective about their relationship and their possible future. But as she’d suspected, they were as perfectly suited to one another in bed as everywhere else. Sated though she was from their very intense night, she was already thinking about their next encounter. It waited there, a coil of anticipation beneath her more prominent thoughts about the case they were about to undertake.

Steed had briefed her in the car. Two apprentices had been found dead at the baker’s guildhall, both suffocated in a huge vat of rising bread dough. The deaths, most certainly grisly murders, would not ordinarily demand the attention of the ministry. But there was a third victim: a big raven normally a resident of the nearby Tower of London, had been found baked in a large, feathery pie.

“The Worshipful Company of Bakers was first chartered in 1155, although the current guild operates under a much more recent charter — from King James II in 1686,” Mother recited. Steed and Emma stood in front of him, the only seat available being his wheelchair. Behind him Rhonda efficiently reloaded a strangely bulky bird gun and handed it back to him. “Silenced,” he explained as he took it, noticing Steed’s curious expression. “For some reason the neighbors object to my skeet shooting on my own rooftop.”

Steed refrained from pointing out that the roof was actually government property. He wasn’t surprised that occupants of offices in neighboring buildings, some of them taller than the ministry’s, did not like to be shot at. Some of those neighbors were the same politicos and dignitaries that the ministry’s agents were frequently assigned to protect. That made him smile – or smile more, since he hadn’t been able to completely suppress the little grin of happiness that he’d been wearing since last night.

“Pull!” Mother ordered, swinging the awkward looking weapon over their heads to track a clay pigeon flung from a launcher controlled by an aide at the edge of the roof. The gun made a strange whumpfing sound and the terra cotta saucer shattered in the air.

“Very good, Mother,” Emma offered. Steed could see that she was as amused as he was.

Mother laid the gun across his lap and studied the agents. He pursed his lips as looked from one to the other. Steed and Emma both did their best to look serious and attentive. Mother shook his head, frowning.

“You two are smiling like satisfied cats. Is there something you wish to report?”

“No, Mother. We are interested in this rather curious case,” Steed said, folding his hands in front of him and leaning on his umbrella.

“Yes. Ravens leaving the tower is very disturbing – at least for the yeomen warders, the tourists, and school children all over Britain,” Emma added.

Mother peered at her, clearly trying to decide whether to take exception to what sounded suspiciously like sarcasm, and grunted. “You two go find out why it was there, and why it was baked. And what happened to the two students, of course.”

Steed and Emma schooled their expressions as they made their escape from the roof, the whumpf of Mother’s bird gun echoing in the stairwell as they closed the door behind them.

“Did you get the sense,” Emma asked as they clattered down the stairs, “that we’re to be more concerned with the raven than the dead students?”

“As you pointed out, my dear, the legend of the ravens is widely known and, presumably, believed. If all of them leave, Britain will fall. Did you know,” he stopped on the steps and half turned to her so that she stopped as well, “that the only time in recorded history that there have been no ravens in the tower was in 1946?”

“And Britain was very close to ruin just after the war. But the tower did not fall, and Britain has managed to recover. And the ravens are back in the tower – except one unfortunate creature anyway.”

“Where’s your sense of romance, Mrs. Peel?” Steed sighed and started on down the stairs, “Your heritage has been threatened!”

“And will you explain that to the parents of the dead apprentices?” she asked archly. Steed couldn’t help but smile at her endearing rationality.

Although a ministry team had already gone over the crime scene for fingerprints and other clues, everything had been left in place for Steed and Emma to examine. The Third Warden, a tall, severe looking man most certainly in his seventies, met them in the anteroom. He guided them through the richly paneled and furnished livery hall into what he called the “kitchen complex.”

And complex it was. Several baking kitchens and classrooms, storage rooms, walk-in refrigerators and freezers, and pantries adjoined the commercial kitchen used for preparing meals served in the hall. The smell of baking bread suffused the place, reminding Emma that they never had gotten to dinner last night, and breakfast had been bitter ministry coffee while they looked at the preliminary crime scene report. A fresh croissant would not go amiss, but she didn’t think their guide possessed the hospitality to offer any of the hall’s baked goods. The warden brought them to one of the baking kitchens, guiding them around huge marble-topped work counters to a row of dough vats against a wall.

Two sets of legs clad in traditional chef’s black and white checked slacks stuck out of a vat. Emma leaned between them to look into the vat. The dough had fallen back leaving a sticky residue on the dead students’ clothes. It still covered their heads and shoulders. Emma wrinkled her nose: the smell of sharp, tangy yeast tickled her nostrils.

“I’ll just leave you to look around,” the warden said, standing well back from the vat. “The sooner those can be removed, the better,” he added nodding at the legs as if they were an inconvenience rather than two dead students.

“Yes, we’ll see to as soon as we’re done. Where is the other victim?” Steed said. The warden looked across the room at a counter between two massive ovens. There was a large pie pan on the counter, a strangely shaped crust sticking up above the rim.

The warden backed out of the kitchen as Steed and Emma went to examine the raven pie. Steed picked up a knife to lift the edge of the top crust where a glossy black feather poked out. The bird’s intelligent face revealed beneath the dough caused Emma a sharp pang of sadness. Why am I more upset about the bird than the boys? She chastised herself. It was, she supposed, the same sympathy for the helpless and innocent that made her mourn for dead animals by the side of country roads.

“Not a dish I’d care to be served,” Steed said.

“A bit too much fiber,” she agreed, meaning the feathers that were still on the baked bird, and using humor to cover her distress.

“As I recall in the song,” he said, “the blackbirds are supposed to sing when the pie is served.”

“Yes, someone seems to have forgotten their nursery lessons.”

Emma walked past the line of tourists queued up to buy admission tickets to the Tower of London. She ignored a few unhappy stares from those near the head of the queue as she showed her ministry identification to the guard at the gate and was given immediate access.

Like most schoolchildren in and around London she’d been brought on visits to the Tower more than once. She remembered the basic layout of the complex even though she had not been there in a number of years. The White Tower housed the crown jewels, but there were several other towers and buildings inside the fortified walls.

“Mrs. Peel?” a yeoman warder tricked out in his bright red uniform strode toward her across the courtyard. “I’m Dennis Hope, the Ravenmaster.”

Emma extended her hand to him, wondering if a bushy beard was a required part of the livery. “Thank you for seeing me, warder.”

“Not at all, my dear,” the Ravenmaster emanated friendly warmth as he guided her across the courtyard. “You’ve seen him, I take it?”

“Him?”

“Jonathan, the raven who was stolen.”

“Ah. Yes. You have not?”

“No.”

“Then I don’t recommend it.”

They had stopped in a quiet, close-ended alley where several large wooden boxes sat in two rows near the walls of the buildings on either side. The Ravenmaster stopped in front of the second box on the right.

“This was Jonathan’s. He was a young fellow. Quite friendly for a Tower raven.”

“Tell me about the ravens’ day-to-day routine,” Emma requested, crouching to look into the dead bird’s nesting shed.

The Ravenmaster proceeded to narrate his typical day, which was full of feedings and dealing with the tourists. He had put the ravens, including Jonathan, to bed the previous evening at dusk. This morning he’d found Jonathan’s nesting shed door open. As he spoke, Emma noticed something glinting among the twigs and leaves lining the bottom of the box. She reached in to remove it. It was a bit of silver foil – a chewing gum wrapper. She discarded it and asked the Ravenmaster if anyone else had any responsibility for the care of the birds. He said no. However, the nesting sheds were not locked at night. Anyone could open them to remove a bird.

“But there are guards here at night, aren’t there?” Emma asked, making a circuit of the alley.

“Yes of course. The security cameras did not record any unusual activity last night, but there are none directed here at the sheds.”

“Perhaps you should arrange for one to be installed,” Emma suggested, returning to the Ravenmaster’s side. He pursed his lips and nodded. She opened her bag and removed one of her calling cards. “Thank you, Mr. Hope. Please contact me if you think of anything else, or if anything strange occurs.”

Leaving the Tower Emma made her way into the City to a café she’d frequented when Knight Industries business had brought her into the area. After a lunch of warm duck breast on baby field greens and a glass of crisp white wine she felt much better prepared to continue her research. She spent the rest of the day going from libraries to ministry archives, learning more than she cared to know about the Tower ravens. Her research finally took her back to the Bakers hall where the third warden grimly led her to their library and archives. Mr. Steed, he said, had already visited them. Mr. Steed, she explained, did not have very good research skills. Then she settled in, regretting that she hadn’t bought a pastry to nibble as the heavenly scent of unoffered baking cakes wafted through the ventilation system.

Steed called to arrange for the dead students removal and autopsy, then found the third warden and asked to be introduced to the other students of the company.

“All of our apprentices are students at the National Bakery School,” the warden explained as he led Steed up a creaking spiral staircase to the floor above the kitchens. “Your people told us to keep them here this morning. Their supervisor, Master Hicks, was called out of town yesterday, so they’ve been on their own. They’ve missed some of their classes by now, so they may not be as cooperative as you would wish.”

He opened one of a pair of doors and gestured Steed into a large room furnished as a library and study hall. Four students sat around the room: one girl and three boys. The girl was seated at a table with several books and a notebook in front of her. One of the boys sat across from her reading a paperback book. The other two boys stood at opposite ends of another table flicking a ball of paper back and forth. All four looked up when Steed and the warden entered.

“When can we go warden?” one of the two boys at opposite ends of the table asked. His companion turned to face the men.

“Gentlemen, lady, this is Mr. Steed. He’ll be asking you some questions,” the warden said, glaring at the student who’d spoken.

“Then we can go?” his companion asked.

“Then Mr. Steed will tell you whether or not you may go. We have contacted the school and you have been excused from classes for the rest of day.”

The girl visibly relaxed and began closing her books.

“Thank you warden,” Steed said, “I’ll take it from here.”

He’d tried for a dismissive tone and apparently achieved it, for the warden nodded curtly and left, closing the door behind him. Steed set his bowler and umbrella on the nearest table and strode over to the end of the table where the girl and boy were still seated. He hitched one hip onto the table and looked around at them, smiling cheerfully.

“This is all of you, then?” he asked.

“No,” the first boy said sharply.

Steed cocked an eyebrow at him. “No? Who’s missing, Mr. — ?”

“Callahan. Smyth and Darby are missing, of course,” the boy said with contempt.

“Ah, the dead students,” Steed said nodding regretfully. “I meant, are there any other students, beyond you four and those two?”

“No, Mr. Steed,” the girl said, shifting in her chair to face him. “The company only accepts six apprentices each term.”

“Thank you Miss,” Steed flashed her a mildly flirtatious smile and she smiled back. “Who baked the raven into the pie?” he glanced around at all of them. Callahan and his friend looked surprised. The third boy had gone pale, and the girl frowned. Steed was far too good an investigator to discount her as a suspect simply because she was a girl.

“It wasn’t me,” Callahan said, “everybody knows my pie dough never holds together.” His friend laughed.

“That’s true enough,” the girl said, “and not something to be proud of, Rory.”

The boy shrugged.

“And how were Smyth and Darby at pie dough?” Steed asked. The students all shrugged, a remarkable non-response compared to their other outspoken opinions. “Did they have any enemies? Anyone who’d be likely to tip them into a vat of bread dough?”

He saw the girl shudder out of the corner of his eye as he looked at the two standing boys.

“Smyth and Darby were both decent blokes,” the boy at the table said. “Smyth was particularly good at bread. The dough in the vat was his, actually.”

“And you are allowed to work in the hall kitchens at night?”

“Bakers begin their day just after midnight, Mr. Steed,” the girl said. There was something suggestive about her tone.

“Yes, but for practice? For a school project?” he clarified his question.

“I just meant, we do have access to the kitchens at night. Smyth and Darby were to prepare the bread for the morning – it’s taken to market every day. There was quite an uproar that it was ruined.”

“Indeed.” Steed said.

Steed had the distinct impression there was plenty the students weren’t telling him, but didn’t want to resort to separating them to interview them just yet. Asking too much all at once tended to make people hostile, even young people. He dismissed them, then poked around the library a bit, pulling down dusty volumes of archaic recipes and listings of company members dating back hundreds of years. Back down in the kitchen Dr. Mildred Booth, the ministry coroner, had arrived. Steed stood with her to watch as her assistants removed the boys’ bodies from the vat. She moved close to study the corpses.

“What killed them doctor?” Steed asked. “Deadly dough?”

She looked askance at him, then back at the body she was bending over. She produced a pair of forceps and removed a lump of dough from the boy’s nostrils, then pried open his mouth.

“It looks that way, Steed. But they may have been unconscious when they were dumped in and suffocated before they woke up.”

“Knocked out?”

She shrugged, rolling the boy’s head from side to side looking at his neck, “could be – examination will tell. Could have been drugged, too.”

Steed nodded. “You think if they’d been dumped into the vat conscious, they’d have gotten out?”

“I should think so – don’t you? I mean, wouldn’t you struggle until you were free?”

Steed telephoned and left a message on Emma’s tape recorder reporting that he was going to the National Bakery School at South Bank and that he’d phone her again later. He realized as he left the guildhall that he was famished, and he decided that a campus eatery would be just the thing.

By late afternoon Emma had learned more than she needed to know about the Worshipful Company of Bakers from their archives. She’d also reviewed the dead apprentices’ files, since the warden said Steed had not asked to do so. She wondered where Steed was. He hadn’t left her a message with the third warder, which was a message in itself: he wasn’t convinced of the man’s innocence. She returned to the Tower, once again passing a queue of disgruntled late hour tourists to gain instant admission. She asked a yeoman warder where she might find the tower archives and was directed to an unmarked door in a row of low structures tucked along one of the massive walls.

She watched the clock as she read still more about the ravens’ recent history, marveling at how much information was kept. Egg counts, hatchings, names, deaths, and even habits for hundreds of the big, aggressive birds had been meticulously recorded by the Ravenmasters for literally hundreds of years. As closing time approached, she thanked the secretary who’d given her access to the records and went in search of Dennis Hope.

She found him near one of the gates crouched beside a small girl who appeared to be hypnotized by a nearby raven. The two were engaged in a staring contest, with Yeoman Hope advising the child in quiet tones. The child’s parents were snapping pictures, so Emma stood back, arms folded, smiling at the scene. Will that ever be me? She wondered, then banished the thought. Not any time soon, the way things are going.

The raven gave up first, spreading its wings and flapping unconcernedly away. The parents thanked Yeoman Hope, collected their child, and exited. Emma approached the Ravenmaster, who noticed her and smiled.

“Mrs. Peel, couldn’t stay away?” he asked.

“I was in the neighborhood, and I thought I’d watch you put the ravens in their nesting sheds, if I may.”

“Why certainly! You’ll find it quite interesting, I think,” he took her arm and guided her along the paths toward the sheds that he’d shown her that morning. As they walked he explained that birds are creatures of habit with a highly organized social structure. He would find the alpha bird, currently the oldest male, waiting for him under a certain tree not far from the nests. The rest of the ravens would be in the vicinity watching. He would have a small battle of wills with the bird, which he, the Ravenmaster, would win by virtue of being bigger. Once the alpha bird went into his nest, the others would follow.

“I wonder what would happen if you crawled into one of the nests before the bird did?” Emma asked idly, although the nests were not actually large enough for the man to get into. Hope guffawed, pointing at the alpha bird, which was standing under the tree as predicted.

“I’m sure that would upset their social order for generations to come,” he said. “You’ll have to wait back here, and promise not to laugh.”

“I promise,” Emma assured him with an amused smile as he squared his shoulders and strode toward the bird. The bird half opened its wings and puffed up its feathers in a gesture that Emma had read was an attempt to make itself look bigger. She managed not to laugh out loud as Hope spread his arms in a similar manner and loomed over the bird. They both bobbed their heads and weaved side to side a bit, the bird with his pointed beak held open threateningly. The performance went on for close to a minute, then the bird shook his feathers into place in a move that looked to Emma a lot like a birdy shrug. Cocking his eye up at the Ravenmaster, the bird took a few nonchalant steps away, then spread his wings and flew to the nesting sheds. He was followed by a dozen or so shiny black bodies flying in from the nearby trees and rooftops. They all landed and walked into the structures.

Hope waved Emma closer as he went from shed to shed closing the doors and fastening simple latches. She noticed that he spoke to each bird as he shut it in for the night, wishing it a pleasant evening and promising a fine breakfast in the morning as reward for its good behavior. He skipped over Jonathan’s empty box, but she noticed the sorrowful look in his eyes as he glanced down at it. When he finished he rejoined her and they walked together toward the Tower gate.

“We will do our best to find out why the bird was taken, Ravenmaster,” Emma said.

“Thank you, Mrs. Peel. I hope you don’t think me silly for caring. They are rather like family to me.”

“Yes I understand. And no, I don’t think you’re silly. Good evening, Mr. Hope.”

After a lunch that included several forms of baked goods in a student-run café, Steed sought out Professor Albert Beasley. Beasley had acted as advisor to the two dead boys. He found the professor in class demonstrating a pate brise for about a dozen students of various ages who were gathered around a large work counter.

“Cut in the lard gently. Never overwork the dough,” he instructed, suiting action to words. Steed stepped up behind two of the students and looked in over their shoulders. The professor went on with his demonstration, only noticing his additional viewer when one of the students in front of Steed asked a question. He frowned at Steed, who smiled pleasantly, then answered the student’s question.

He finished combining the lard with the dry mixture and formed the dough into a ball. “Refrigerate the dough for a couple hours. Or you can freeze it for a few days in this form,” he said. “Tanya, go get the tray of chilled dough from the refrigerator.”

A female student detached from the group and the professor stepped around the counter, gesturing to Steed to follow him.

“You’re here about the boys, aren’t you?” he asked quietly.

“That’s right, professor. John Steed. I don’t mean to disrupt your class,” he glanced over his shoulder at the waiting students, then back at the professor. “I always prefer to use all butter in a pate brise.”

“You bake, Mr. Steed?”

“There is nothing more satisfying than getting ones fingers dirty kneading dough, professor.”

“How true, how true,” the professor sighed, his hands kneading the air.

“Professor, what sort of students were Smyth and Darby?”

“This term? Adequate. It’s the pressure of the apprenticeship – we see it all the time. They excel and win the scholarship, then the Company works them raw. They’re too tired to study, too tired to get through the lectures. They burn things!”

Steed tsked in commiseration. “I understand that Smyth and Darby were preparing bread for the morning market last night. What else did they bake at the guildhall?”

“Special projects – assignments from Hicks. They were getting ready to prepare their final piece,” the professor glanced back at his class. “Excuse me, please, Mr. Steed.”

He returned to the worktable where Tanya had placed a large baking sheet with a dozen or so lumps of chilled dough. “Take your pate,” he ordered. The student’s each took a lump of dough. “Rollers ready!”

Steed watched the students deftly roll the dough from round lumps to large flat sheets. Professor Beasley paced around the behind them coaching, critiquing, and praising. When he paused, Steed stepped close for one last question.

“Professor, what was their final piece?”

The professor frowned for a moment. Steed wasn’t sure whether he was thinking, or simply wasn’t sure what Steed meant. “You’d have to ask Hicks, but some sort of pie. For a fancy dress ball at the Soviet Embassy.”

“Thank you, Professor,” Steed’s eyes widened as he bowed slightly and left the classroom.

Emma considered going to Steed’s when she left the Tower, but she decided that an evening apart was prudent after the intensity of that first night. Returning to her flat she listened to his message and felt justified in coming home – apparently he’d expected her to. She searched her wardrobe and found a dress that would do for the benefit the following evening, paid her bills, and warmed a tin of soup for supper.

Steed did much the same, making himself an omelet and thinking through the day’s interviews. When he felt that he had it sorted out in his mind he telephoned Emma to find out what she had learned.

“More than I thought was possible about the ravens, Steed,” she said.

“Any information on their suitability as a main course?”

“No. Apparently nobody has ever considered them fair game for the pot. At least not and lived to critique the meal. What about you? What did you accomplish today?”

Steed chose to ignore the implication that he’d done less than she – mostly because it was true. “The students are working on a project for a fancy dress ball –.”

“Are? Steed, don’t you mean ‘were’?”

“All six students, Mrs. Peel. According to the dead boys’ advisor, it’s some sort of pie.”

“Oh I see. And what did the other four students have to say about it?”

“That’s just the thing. They didn’t mention it.”

“Curiouser and curiouser.”

“Yes.”

“So when is this ball?”

“Next week is all I know. But I aim to find out — and get us invited — tomorrow.”

“You know where?”

Steed’s evil chuckle gave Emma a sense of dread. “Steed?”

“It’s at the Soviet embassy, Mrs. Peel.”

“Ugh. Brodney. And is there a theme?”

“I don’t know yet. Meet me in the morning at the Bakery School – the other apprentices will be in classes there and I want you to try talking to them. I’ll pick up the crime scene report on my way – we should have autopsy results by then.”

“All right. I’ll see you then.”

Steed’s voice lost its businesslike tone, turning velvety. It reached out through the telephone to caress her: “Good night, Mrs. Peel.”

“Sweet dreams, Steed,” she said, hanging up before she voiced her desire to come make sure they were.

Steed hung up, having determined at the last minute not to ask her about the benefit tomorrow night. She hadn’t brought it up, and he had a date planned. The last thing he wanted was to ask about it and then have to tell her he had plans if she asked him to join her. He’d be too tempted to cancel his date and go. The strength of his infatuation with her was so compelling he could easily focus exclusively on her, and that was strictly against his policy.

Chapter 3

“So when is this Master Hicks due to return to the guildhall?” Emma asked, paging through the ministry’s report. The ministry team had found three sets of fingerprints in the kitchen: the two boys, and an unknown third. The third warden had explained that the kitchens were thoroughly cleaned morning and evening, and nobody should have been in it, other than the boys, after the evening cleaning.

“The warden said it was a family emergency and that he’d be back after the weekend.”

“Convenient.”

“Maybe the emergency wasn’t family related at all,” Steed said, putting his hand on the report to stop her from turning the page. Taking a bite of her buttered baguette, she looked down at the autopsy report.

“They were both knocked unconscious and then dumped into the dough. It wasn’t a killing blow, but they suffocated,” she summarized, then looked up at Steed.

He nodded, “not a very pleasant way to die. Turn the page.”

Emma complied, and ate some more bread as she read the necropsy report on Jonathan the raven.

“Glass gems in its gullet, and a mild sedative in its blood,” she said thoughtfully.

Steed sipped his coffee and watched her thinking.

“The ravens are attracted to shiny objects,” she said, “I found a bit of foil in Jonathan’s nest yesterday –.”

“Jonathan?”

“The dead bird.”

“Ah.”

“And most birds consume gravel – it stays in their gullet to grind up the food that they eat, like our teeth.”

“So a raven might very well consume a hard, shiny object such as a small jewel.”

“Yes,” she nodded. “And the sedative?”

“To keep it quiet in the pie?”

“It was very, very quiet, Steed.”

“Maybe it was not intended to be baked, Mrs. Peel.”

Emma shuddered, forcing herself not to think about it.

“Someone is planning to use the birds, in a pie, to deliver jewels to the Soviet embassy.”

“And we know what jewels are housed at the Tower,” Emma agreed. “But the Queen mum’s crown is hardly something a raven can swallow.”

“No. But a few of the jewels, pried out, would cause irreparable damage to the piece and be worth a fortune, to the right buyer.”

“But would it really be about money? Or would the theft itself be the point?”

“My guess is the theft, Mrs. Peel. And the ravens, of course.”

“Of course. So Jonathan was part of a practice pie? And who killed the bakers? And why?”

Steed pursed his lips, staring at the photograph of the baked raven clipped to the report in front of Emma. “I don’t know. Yet.”

“Steed, so good to see you,” Soviet Ambassador Brodney met Steed in the middle of the embassy foyer, shaking his hand vigorously.

“Brodney, always a pleasure,” Steed replied, freeing his hand and pressing past Brodney toward the ambassador’s office as if it were his own. Brodney trotted after him scrubbing his hands together.

“Steed, to what do I owe the pleasure of this . . .?” His voice faded behind Steed as the agent strode ahead of him into his office and directly to the section of bookcase that rotated to reveal a bar. “Steed?” Brodney stepped into the room and glanced around just as Steed pressed the hidden release and the bookcase began to rotate.

“Drink? Don’t mind if I do Ambassador. I’ll do the honors. What’s your pleasure?” Steed spoke rapid-fire, studying the crystal decanters as the bar came to a stop. “Never mind, I know just the thing!”

Steed poured a generous shot of vodka into a glass and handed it to Brodney, who’d walked over to hover behind him. He poured himself a small shot of Brodney’s best unblended scotch.

“Oh, no, I never consume this early –.”

“Nonsense!” Steed lifted his glass in to Brodney, forcing the ambassador to touch his glass to Steed’s and take a sip. The Russian grimaced and Steed smiled.

“Now Steed, please, how can I help you?” Brodney said, clearly growing more tense.

“You must be looking forward to the social season, Ambassador,” Steed said, strolling toward Brodney’s desk. “The balls, the formal dinners, dancing, lovely ladies,” he paused and turned, flashing Brodney his wolfish grin. “You must be hosting something soon, eh? Don’t you have some important military man coming in next week?”

Brodney had set his glass on the bar and returned to hand scrubbing as he followed Steed across the room. “Er, yes, Major General Korsakov is arriving – how did you know?”

“Oh you know, the rumor mill,” Steed smiled and shrugged, then turned back to Brodney’s desk, taking an envelope from the top of a stack and reading the return address. It was an RSVP from a senior man at the Ministry of Defense. He took another slightly larger, blank, unsealed envelope from another stack and opened it.

“Yes, we are planning a little affair in honor of the Major General’s visit . . .” Brodney’s voice trailed off as Steed read the invitation.

“The invitation for Mrs. Peel and me must have gotten lost in the mail,” Steed said, holding it up. “I’ll just take this one, shall I? We’d love to come, of course!”

“Of course, my dear Steed. I’m terribly sorry that you didn’t –.”

“Don’t mention it, Brodney! Well, must dash. See you next week.”

Emma made an effort to corner each of the four guildhall apprentices alone, using their class schedules from the registrar to stake out classes where each of them was enrolled without the others. She caught Miss Morris first, falling in beside her coming out of a lecture hall. The girl glanced up at the taller woman suspiciously. Emma realized that although she thought of Elizabeth Morris as a girl, they were only a few years apart in age.

“Miss Morris, I’m Mrs. Emma Peel. I believe you spoke to my associate John Steed yesterday,” she said, hoping to assuage the student’s apparent fear. The girl did relax, but she still seemed tense.

“Yes. At the hall,” she replied guardedly.

“I wanted to ask you about your final project for the hall. A pie, isn’t it?”

Miss Morris stopped and turned to Emma, holding her small stack of textbooks close against her chest with one arm and hitching the strap of her tote bag further up on her shoulder with the other hand.

“Yes. It was Benny’s idea. Master Hicks had each of us propose something, and he chose Benny’s.”

Emma assumed that Benny was Benedict Smyth, one of the dead students. “And did his proposal include the raven specifically?”

“I – I don’t know, really, Mrs. Peel. Please, I have to get to class,” she started to walk again, quickly accelerating to a very fast pace. Emma had no trouble keeping up with her. She reached into a pocket of her lavender wool a-frame jacket and pulled out one of her cards.

“Miss Morris, if you think of anything more you’d like to tell us, please call. I’ve written Mr. Steed’s number on here as well, if you can’t reach me you can try him.” She held the card out to the girl, who did not break stride as she took it and slipped in between the pages of one of her books. Emma slowed down, watching her move away almost at a trot. She’s frightened. Of me and Steed, or someone else, I wonder?

Emma met Rory Callahan after his next class, ignoring the gaggle of surrounding classmates as she strolled up to him. “Mr. Callahan, may I have a word with you?” she asked, modulating her voice to just below the volume of the students’ chatter. As expected, the students quieted, those at the edges of the group straining to hear. “It’s about your classmates,” she added.

“Yeah, sure,” Callahan said with a glance at his mates. “I’ll see you lot later,” he added cockily. Emma moved away from the group, knowing he’d follow.

“So what is it then?” he asked when they were a few feet away from the others. Out of the corner of her eye Emma watched the group disperse except for two of the boys who were obviously planning on waiting. Emma studied Callahan until he shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other.

“My name is Mrs. Peel. I am an associate of John Steed – you spoke to him yesterday,” she said. Where she’d tried to be friendly with Elizabeth Morris, with Callahan she went for authoritative. He might respond better to a more flirtatious approach, but he would come away thinking he had the upper hand, which was definitely out.

“What of it? He asked us a few questions at the hall. We answered ‘em. You his boss or something? Didn’t he get what you’re after?”

Emma gave him the full benefit of her iciest stare and decided to let him think whatever he wanted about her and Steed’s working relationship. “Where did Smyth and Darby get the raven they baked into the pie?”

Callahan’s face contorted in annoyance. He’s got a temper, Emma thought, then suppressed a smile at her own expense. As if I don’t. Still, I wouldn’t want to be involved with him.

“I don’t know anything about it, Mrs. Peel,” he said sharply. “They were fools to bake that pie and fools to suggest it.”

Emma nodded at his confirmation of what Miss Morris had said. “But you are planning to bake a pie for the embassy party next week?”

“Well, yeah, that’s what Master Hicks has assigned us. Smyth and Darby seemed to think they needed to do a practice run. It’s a pie, for God’s sakes, not a seven layer cake.”

“Thank you Mr. Callahan. I won’t keep you any longer.” Emma punctuated her dismissal by turning and walking away, forcing herself to keep going until she’d put several columns that supported a covered walkway between herself and the student. Then she stepped behind one of them and looked back. Callahan had rejoined his mates and was talking urgently to them. Just complaining about me, or telling them something I should know? Oh well. Can’t be everywhere.

Her interview with Kevin Heath, Callahan’s friend, went much the same way. He offered nothing more, and looked at her in such a provocative way through heavy-lidded eyes she was tempted to slap him.

Albert Jackson shyly explained that when Smyth suggested a blackbird pie, he had offered to contact the London Zoo about the loan of blackbirds.

“And what did Master Hicks say to that?” Emma asked, struggling to hide her excitement over the first useful bit of information she’d received.

“It wasn’t so much what he said, ma’am. He said that it was a capital idea, and that he’d take care of it. But Smyth laughed at me. When Master Hicks left he asked me what I thought the zoo would do when we returned their blackbirds baked. I was so surprised I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t believe he was serious!”

“But you do now, don’t you? He baked the raven the other night.”

“I guess so, but I don’t believe it’s what Master Hicks intended. It’s cruel, and it doesn’t make any sense. The blackbirds have to sing.”

By the time she’d finished talking with Jackson it was mid-afternoon. She wanted to wash her hair, and she needed to buy some new tights for the benefit. She decided that she’d done more than her share for the cause and headed for Knightsbridge.

Emma’s clear, direct tone informed Steed that she was unable to answer his call but that his message would be recorded.

“Steed here, Mrs. Peel. We are invited to a ball on Wednesday. We’ll have to see about costumes first thing Monday. I’ll speak to you later.” Steed hung up the telephone. He wondered if she was still at the school, or getting ready for the benefit and too busy to talk. Or maybe she’d been picked up and taken to dinner by someone. Annoyed with himself for dwelling on it, he put away the case file and readied himself for his own evening’s activities.

Emma accepted a claim check from the valet and huddled under the porter’s umbrella as he escorted her up the museum steps. The rain had started just as she was leaving Harrods and didn’t appear to be letting up any time soon.

“Thank you,” she said as he nodded and hurried back to meet the next guest. Despite the rain, the doors were propped open. Velvet ropes strung between bouquet-topped posts marked the way to the large gallery where the party was being held. Emma followed a slow moving elderly couple, pausing to allow them to get a little way into the room before placing herself in the middle of the wide doorway. Her father had taught her to always make an entrance.

She stood quite still, surveying the room, for a full minute, until she was certain that several pairs of eyes had looked her way, and looked again, and there were more guests coming up behind her. A playful smile curled her lips as she glided on into the room. She could only have more fun if Steed were with her.

Steed. I should have asked him to come. He would have, even though he hates modern art, and it would have been so much more fun.

She took a glass of champagne off a tray carried by a passing waiter and sipped it, scanning the room again. No point in dwelling on what isn’t to be. One thing I have learned from him is to live for the moment. There were many familiar faces, of course. She’d been a part of the museum’s volunteer organization since she was a student attending on her father’s arm. He had become involved after he’d started Knight and made his first million. He’d needed a charity to support, for the publicity, and this new, small museum housing a modern collection had been quite desperate – and affordable. He’d been neutral about the collection, preferring the earliest modernists – she cherished his early Picasso – but she had fallen for the full spectrum. So much so that she’d insisted on spending her year abroad in Barcelona studying the Spanish modernistas. He’d wanted to send her to Germany to study economics, but had indulged her, recognizing that his only child had a creative side that must be allowed to develop. Now there was talk of the need for a larger, more complete modern museum in London, and Emma suspected this little collection might be subsumed. But it was probably years away – nothing moved that quickly in the world of art.

She had hardly swallowed her second sip of champagne when Nancy Belmont, one of her oldest — although not necessarily closest — friends sidled up.

“Emma, it has been eons,” Nancy said, leaning close to exchange an air kiss.

“It has. How are you, Nancy?” Emma surveyed her friend discretely. Lovely gown, a little extra effort on the hair and makeup. Nancy must have an agenda this evening.

“Oh, fine, the usual,” Nancy waved her hand as if to discard the query. “How are you? You have been absolutely incommunicado lately. Never at the dreary meetings – not that I blame you – and you have that strange machine answering your telephone. What’s it all about, Em?”

Emma cringed inwardly at the use of her childhood name – the only person who’d continued to use it after she started college was father. But Nancy, with whom she’d attended prep school, didn’t seem to realize that. “I’ve been working on several articles, delving into the research for days on end. The answering machine was a gift – it’s very convenient.”

“That’s our Emma,” a male voice put in from just behind her. She glanced over her shoulder. “Buried in her books and fascinated with gadgets.”

“Lord Leighton,” Nancy said, “I didn’t see you come in.” Nancy did not hide her feelings for Lord Frederick Leighton, which ran from social friendship to ambivalence, but no deeper.

“Hello Freddy,” Emma added, smiling warmly. Leighton was also an old friend. One who had made his interest in becoming more than that abundantly clear since Peter’s death. Emma was fond of him, but she was not attracted to him. She thought she had managed to convey this to him, but every now and then he tried again to win her affections. If this was to be one of those times, Emma would be making it a short night indeed.

“I am faced with a dreadful dilemma,” Leighton said, looking from Emma to Nancy. “Who do I invite to dance first?”

Emma was about to defer to Nancy when the other woman turned to greet another man approaching with two drinks.

“Howard, let me introduce you,” she said, taking one of the glasses. “This is my friend Emma Peel, and this is Lord Frederick Leighton. Howard agreed to join me this evening, despite his dislike for the museum’s permanent collection.”

“That sounds like true love!” Leighton said with a laugh. Nancy’s fair complexion colored and her date looked startled.

“Come on Freddy, I’ll dance with you,” Emma said, putting her arm through her friend’s and pressing her glass into Nancy’s hand. “Speaking of dreadful dilemmas!” she chastised him, “how could you say such a thing?”

Leighton laughed, taking her hand in his left and placing his right hand on her waist. “Dear Emma. Always so discrete!”

Emma smiled, but shook her head at him as he swung her around forcefully. He was a terrible dancer.

“They’ve been seeing one another for months, darling,” he went on. “Didn’t you know? Rumor is, if he doesn’t take action soon, she will.”

Emma hadn’t known. She really had allowed her social network to weaken since meeting Steed. And it hadn’t been that strong before that, since Peter’s death. “Tell me more, Freddy,” she said. He grinned mischievously, swinging her around again.

“Let’s see,” he peered at the ceiling, nearly knocking them into another couple. Emma forcefully steered them out of harm’s way. “Rumor has it a certain young widow has been seen much in the company of a tall, handsome stranger.” His eyes dropped to hers and there was unmistakable pain in them. “Who is he, Emma?”

“A friend,” she said, her voice weak. She knew he didn’t believe her. She wouldn’t have. “What else are they saying, Freddy?”

He shook his head, lips pursed, “Sorry, darling. As you said, I’m far too indiscrete.” He swung her around again and the flash from a photographer’s camera momentarily blinded her. She held onto Freddy as he danced her in silence around the room again. The waltz ended and the musicians stopped for a short break. Freddy and Emma walked around the perimeter of the room looking at the paintings on display.

“I think you are very happy, Emma,” he said, pausing in a gap between pictures to face her. She smiled at him, unsure how to respond. Does he want me to say yes, that I am deliriously happy? Or should I deny it, opening up the door for him? “If I could have guessed how, I would have made you so,” he nearly whispered.

“Oh Freddy,” She sighed, taking his hand.

“No, no. No pity. You’ve never led me on, darling. I just refused to give up hope. But you tell this tall, handsome, stranger of yours that if he doesn’t care properly for you he’ll have me to answer to. Now, allow me to make an exit before I become maudlin.” He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it, then strode quickly away.

Emma handed her receipt to the porter and positioned herself to the side of the entrance. Guests were still arriving, and she didn’t want her departure to be obvious. The porter returned shortly and escorted her through the rain to her car. She pulled all the folds of her dress into it and closed the door. Safe in the cocoon of her car she allowed the turmoil of emotions to roil to the surface.

Freddy was right. She was very happy. Steed gave her the excitement she craved and, when they weren’t facing danger or mystery, filled her days with laughter and fun. But Freddy, or his ilk, would give her what Steed never would. Could she go on forever without the stability of a husband? The promise of children? The home that she believed she wanted? When her days with Steed finally ended – for she insisted on believing that eventually they would, they could not go on this way forever – would it be too late for her to have the other life that she craved? Firmly blinking back tears, she pulled away from the museum and set the little Lotus on the road home.

Steed had been seeing Jane Driscoll casually for more than a year. She was charming, independent, divorced, and remarkably tolerant of his many eccentricities. As usual, they had dinner at one of her favorite restaurants, then returned to his apartment for a drink. Out of habit, he allowed his body to take over, although as he slid her panties off and nuzzled her neck in the way that she liked, he realized that his mind wasn’t in it. Still, he had no trouble going through the motions – she was a very attractive woman, after all. Afterwards he lay contentedly half awake, barely aware that she had gotten up and gone into the bathroom. He roused himself when she returned fully dressed and sat beside him  on the bed.

“Don’t go,” he crooned, although some part of him was relieved.

“Dear Steed, I think it’s best,” she replied, her eyes showing affection, but something less pleasant as well.

“If you insist . . .”

“I do. We’ve had fun, Steed, but I know when it’s time to move on,” she said, reaching out to brush a lock of hair from his forehead.

“What do you mean?” his drowsiness fell away, replaced by concern.

“I envy the woman who’s managed to pierce your armor. She’s a better woman than I. Emma, is it?”

Steed stared at her, dumbfounded. She smiled, but it was a sad expression and he regretted causing it.

“You said her name, darling. I could manage your remoteness, the randomness of your presence – in fact, it’s suited me. But when there’s someone else you’d rather be with, then it’s not fair to any of us,” she leaned close, holding his face with one hand and kissing the opposite cheek. “And Steed, be good to her. She’s a rare woman to capture your heart.”

Jane’s smile turned amused as she leaned away, then stood up and looked down at him. He could not imagine how he looked to her. He was so shocked with the realization of what she’d said he didn’t notice her leave.

“Emma,” he sighed finally. Never before had he spoken the wrong woman’s name. It just wasn’t done. He’d trained his mind against it as rigorously as he’d trained it to resist torture and bear pain. But it wasn’t his mind that had betrayed him. It was his heart.

Where is she now? He looked at his bedside clock. Just after midnight. He rose and threw on his dressing gown, pacing out into the living room to pour himself a brandy. He wanted to talk to her. He needed to hear her smooth voice, listen to her tell him about her evening, or anything she cared to share. He felt as if he’d betrayed her, not asking about the benefit, having dinner with Jane. Having sex with Jane. He plopped down on the sofa, sipping his drink. You haven’t betrayed anyone. You haven’t made any commitments to anyone. He took a big gulp, the liquor burning its way down his throat. Except you made her your partner, call her your friend, made love to her. Four times. He couldn’t suppress a smile at that.

Is she home? Did she have a date for the benefit? Is she with him now? That was the crux of it. That was why he hadn’t asked about it. What if she had gone with someone else? His stomach turned at the thought of Emma in another man’s arms, kissing another man. Jane’s right. She’s gotten to me, he admitted, downing the rest of his brandy and rising to pour more. She can’t know. The compromise is too great. She’d be more dangerous to me than the maddest villain I’ve faced. I should walk away, break it off now. He stared into the amber liquid in his glass, realizing that he’d moved to the chair by the telephone.

Setting down his glass, he picked up the receiver and dialed her number. He listened to the mechanical “burr burr, burr burr,” wondering what he was going to say and truly not knowing.

“Hello?” she was sleepy, her voice sensuous. He closed his eyes, picturing her. His body responded at the mere thought of her.

“Emma,” he said softly, his own voice a caress to match hers.

“Steed? Is anything wrong?” she woke up a little, concern in her voice.

“No, no, nothing’s wrong. I just – wanted to talk to you.”

“All right,” she was even more awake, ever so slightly annoyed at being awakened – thinking him selfish for doing it, but also puzzled and indulgent. He could hear it all in her voice, in just those two words.

“I was rude not to ask, were you able to find a dress for the benefit?” he asked rather foolishly. She’s alone. She must be.

“Yes. In the depths of my closet, fortunately,” she replied, her tone softening. He smiled. She had a rather large closet.

“Good, I’m glad. And the event?”

“Was pleasant. Funds were raised, organizers were thanked. The usual.” She didn’t add that she hadn’t stayed for the announcements or to accept the thanks she was due for her efforts.

“Good.”

“Are you sure everything is all right, Steed?”

“Yes, yes, quite. I — I wondered if you’d like to go riding tomorrow? Since we can’t do much more on the case until Master Hicks turns up.”

“I’d love to. It’s predicted to be a lovely day.”

“Good. Shall I pick you up, or meet you at the stable?”

“Ummm, hold on,” there was a rustling, perhaps of sheets, and a thump as the phone was set down. Steed strained his ear for the sound of voices, of a male voice, but there was only quiet, then more rustling and she came back on the line. “I have to run some errands in the morning,” she said, “and I have a luncheon date. How about two o’clock? I’ll meet you there.”

“A luncheon date?” he repeated absently, then realized he’d said it aloud.

“Yes,” she replied coolly.

“Well then, two is fine,” he said quickly. She was silent.

“Mrs. Peel?”

“It’s with a friend of my mother’s, Steed,” she said. He chuckled nervously.

“I didn’t ask, Mrs. Peel,” he said.

“Not in so many words, Steed. How was your evening?”

He was silent. It was one of those extremely rare moments when he did not have a quick response. I had sex with another woman and called out your name? I realized that I’m in love with you and nearly called in a panic to break it off rather than face it?

“Steed?”

“It was quiet, Mrs. Peel,” he managed. “A good book I’ve been wanting to get to, a light dinner, you know,” he went on, finding the creativity to build on the tale as he talked.

“It does you good to stay in and rest, now and then,” she replied glibly.

“Indeed, builds one’s strength. Perhaps we can have an early dinner tomorrow, after riding. I’ll leave the rest of the evening to your imagination.”

She chuckled, “I can imagine a great deal, Steed,” she said.

“I’m counting on it, my dear,” he replied. She laughed outright at that.

“I’ll see you at two.”

“Good night, Mrs. Peel.”

Chapter 4

Emma spotted Eleanor Hubbard, her mother’s closest friend, waiting by the reception desk at Fortnum and Mason’s Patio Restaurant. They met there two or three times a year. Eleanor insisted that it was a practical spot, less formal than St. James’s Restaurant up-stairs, but with an adequate menu for a light lunch. It always reminded Emma of childhood, when shopping trips with her mother always included stopping for lunch. She suspected that Eleanor was aware of that association as well. In any case, it afforded her the opportunity to peruse the delicacies on offer in the food hall, which was always fun. Staring into the meat case she wondered if Steed would like the wild boar pate campagne. Impulsively she bought a tranche and some hard, aged cheese, then hurried to the restaurant.

“Eleanor, how lovely to see you,” she said as she climbed the short flight of steps to the restaurant. Eleanor was a perfect match for the white linen and potted palm setting in her elaborate hat, pastel wool suit, and Channel handbag. Emma had dressed accordingly herself in a pale green suit and matching pumps. She had her riding kit in a bag in the car.

“Emma!” Eleanor embraced her lightly then held her back to examine her. “You look radiant, dear. Are you,” she leaned close to whisper, “pregnant?”

Emma’s brows shot up and her eyes widened, her mind darting to how she’d spent Wednesday night. Feeling her face coloring, she forced a smile. Eleanor was no longer as sharp minded as she’d once been. The question was meant innocently enough.

“Dear Eleanor,” she replied, “Peter passed away, do you remember?”

“Oh! Oh dear, please forgive me Emma. I don’t know where my head is these days. Of course. Well, you do look marvelous, so whatever you’re doing, keep it up!”

“I will, Eleanor. Shall we sit?” Emma suppressed a laugh and pressed back the mental image of Steed – completely naked, stretching languorously — that rose unbidden. She’d be red-faced through lunch if she didn’t control her thoughts.

Emma’s extended family was not close. None of her father’s relatives were as successful as he had been. Although he had provided for his sister and brother in a small way by issuing them shares of Knight Industries stock, they had always seemed resentful. He had married very well and built a business from scratch. Emma tended to think of her aunt and uncle and their families as ungrateful. Her father hadn’t had to share his wealth with them at all. When she’d questioned this as an older teenager he’d frowned at her – for him a severe reprimand.

“Blood counts, Emma. The tables may well turn one day, and I’ll need them. I won’t have them saying that I ignored them in the good times.”

She’d added his advice to the vast store of it she’d collected through her childhood, advice that she’d put to good use since his death just a few years later. But she had never found it in herself to reach out to her father’s siblings. To her they were virtual strangers, connected to her solely through Christmas cards and the occasional large family gathering. She knew they thought she was aloof, spoiled, and unworthy of the fortune her father had left her. She took no pains to dispel that opinion, false though it may be.

Instead, she maintained connections with the people her parents had been fond of. Eleanor, her mother’s closest friend, had been present for most of Emma’s childhood milestones. Eleanor’s own son was twelve years older than Emma – just about Steed’s age, she realized with a jolt as they were seated in the dining room. And yet she’d always thought of Edgar as practically a father figure, he was so staid and serious. Emma pushed this rather confusing notion away, too, and turned her attention to the familiar lunch menu.

“They’ve changed the cob salad,” Eleanor said with a frown. Sure, she remembers the description of the cob salad, but not that my husband’s dead, Emma smirked. But she’d already forgiven Eleanor her faux pas. She supposed it was possible that the glow of pregnancy might be similar to that of having been recently, thoroughly, satisfyingly loved. Stop that!

Once she managed to put Steed out of her mind, Emma very much enjoyed lunch. Eleanor was full of stories of her grandchildren and the herd of goats that she kept at her country house. Emma had always suspected the goats were one of the reasons her mother had been so fond of Eleanor. Proper Mrs. Knight could not possibly have kept goats, not even in an outer pasture. But Emma knew that her mother had loved visiting Eleanor to watch and even romp with the playful beasts.

Eleanor was a well-mannered woman. She asked no probing questions of Emma, and accepted her light chatter about the charities she worked with and her painting without comment. If she suspected that Emma was leading a double life, that she was suppressing a smoldering desire that grew stronger with each tick of the clock toward two, she did not let on.

They parted with polite kisses in front of the store and Emma made a beeline for her car.

“Mrs. Peel!” Steed was leaning against the Bentley reading a paper, already dressed to ride in jodhpurs, boots, and a brown cardigan over a turtleneck jersey. She got out of the Lotus and crossed to him carrying her bag. “You look lovely, although hardly fit for horseback,” he said softly as she approached.

She stopped in front of him, wondering how he’d respond to a public kiss. He answered her by reaching out to brush his hand over her cheek, then pulling her close for a quick, almost embarrassed peck. She inhaled sharply as the warmth beneath her belly responded to his touch. Oh my, I’m in trouble.

“I’ll just go change,” she managed, “won’t be a minute.”

Steed watched her stride off, bag tossed over her shoulder, hips moving enticingly as she walked carefully over the damp, uneven ground of the stable yard in her city shoes. It had been all he could do not to pull her against himself and smother her with kisses. He could not recall experiencing such strong desire, not after consummating the relationship anyway. He burned with anticipation of the evening to come.

Emma returned shortly dressed to ride, her slacks and tall boots emphasizing her slim legs. She was leading two horses by the reins with one hand and carrying her bag in the other. Steed took the bag and put it in her car, then returned to take his horse’s reins. They mounted and started out at a walk, accelerating to a trot as soon as they were out of sight of the stable. Emma quickly tired of posting and kicked her horse to an easy lope that Steed gladly matched.

They rode for two hours, cantering and galloping, then walking their horses side-by-side and talking. They had the trails mostly to themselves, so they chatted about the case, reviewing what they knew and planning their next steps.

“I need to talk to Master Hicks – even if he lies through his teeth, I’ll learn something,” Steed said.

Emma agreed. “The Third Warden will let you know if he returns early, won’t he?”

“Yes, I asked him to phone me.”

“We really have to get to a costume shop first thing Monday – in case alternations are needed. What will you go as?”

Steed had told her that the theme of the Soviet Embassy ball was children’s stories, with an emphasis on Alice in Wonderland. 

“I was thinking of the Cheshire Cat – fading away all except for my grin,” he said, flashing her the appropriate facial expression.

She returned it. “That would be a neat trick. I was thinking more the Knave of Hearts for you,” she said.

He laughed outright, “to steal the tart?”

“Indeed.”

“What about you? Are you thinking of Alice?”

“No, she’s too naïve, don’t you think? Falling down a rabbit hole for heaven’s sake!”

“Not to mention eating and drinking suspect substances,” Steed agreed. “Who, then?”

“I was considering the Red Queen. ‘The hurrier I go, the behinder I get!’” She punctuated this statement with a kick to her horse, which darted forward at a canter. Steed’s horse caught up a few paces along and they concluded their ride at the Red Queen’s pace.

Albert Jackson hated Saturday evening baking at the guildhall. Not because he had other plans for Saturday night, but because he didn’t. His lack of a girlfriend, or even invitations to parties, was all the more obvious when nobody missed him on Saturday nights. And while one of the others would come help and keep him company on weeknights, on Saturdays nobody wanted to be baking if they didn’t have to.

He mixed the dough for the three types of bread requested by the wardens for Sunday and placed it in three vats to rise. He had refused to work in the same kitchen where Smyth and Darby had been murdered, but all of the baking kitchens were so much the same he still felt uncomfortable. He set a timer and carried it with him up the creaking stairs to the library, determined to get through a chapter of his history assignment while the dough rose. He settled into one of the big wingback chairs under a wall sconce that provided enough light to read by and opened his textbook.

About twenty minutes later he heard someone on the stairs. At this hour he should be alone in the guildhall. Fear slithered across his skin raising gooseflesh. His friends had been murdered here just two nights ago. Suddenly he was sure the killer was coming up the stairs and that he was to be next. He closed his book and stood up, grabbing the timer off the table where he’d left it and hurrying to the end of the room where several ranks of bookcases stood out from the walls. The floorboards on the landing creaked and the door squeaked as it was opened. Albert peeked out above the top of a row of books and watched Master Hicks come in. He was about to step out and greet his instructor when Hicks raised what he was carrying and set it on a table.

A big, jet-black bird hunched in a too-small cage. Hicks turned and left the room, the stairs squeaking as he went back down. Albert felt his legs shaking. Why does Master Hicks have another raven here? Albert hadn’t been sure what he thought about the first raven – whether Smyth or Darby had somehow gotten it, or if Master Hicks was involved. Now he was certain. And he had a growing suspicion about what had happened to his fellow apprentices. The killer was here, and he, Albert, needed help.

Abandoning his book and the timer, he crept lightly across the library and out onto the landing. There was a telephone in the Under Warden’s office down the hall. Although the office was locked, all of the apprentices knew that the Under Warden kept a key on top of the doorframe. Albert found the key and let himself into the office, closing the door but not turning on a light. He found the telephone on the desk and picked up the receiver, then he put it back down and searched his pockets frantically. Where did I put it? Oh please let it be in a pocket – here! He found Mrs. Peel’s card, folded roughly in thirds in his trouser pocket. He stepped over to the window where faint light from the street filtered in and he could read the card. Memorizing her number, he stepped back to the phone and dialed. As it rang at the other end he thought about what he should say. He wanted to ask her to come find Master Hicks with the raven and arrest him. But if Master Hicks could kill Smyth and Darby, what would he do to a pretty woman?

The line clicked and he prepared to speak, deciding to resort to simply asking for help. She answered, but she didn’t say what he expected. He realized that he was listening to one of those new telephone answering recorders. She entreated him to leave a message. He hung up, pulling the card back out of his pocket and going back to the window. He memorized the handwritten number on the card and went back to the telephone. That made more sense anyway – that man Steed would be able to deal with Master Hicks.

After their ride Steed and Emma returned to his apartment to wash up and share the pate and cheese Emma had bought. Then Steed treated Emma to a scrumptious dinner in a pleasantly dim Brazilian restaurant that he’d been wanting to try. Between courses Emma slipped out of one of her shoes and ran her toes up under the hem of Steed’s trousers, watching his face as he abruptly stopped speaking. She slowly placed a breadstick between her lips and bit the top off.

“Mrs. Peel, are you certain you’re still hungry?” he asked, his voice revealing the effect she was having on him.

“Ravenous, darling,” she replied, removing her foot from inside his slacks only to slide it up between his legs.

“For dinner, or –?” He was interrupted by the waiter arriving with their entrees. Emma removed her foot and straightened in her chair, her appetite suddenly shifting from the carnal to the carnivorous. Steed eyed her suspiciously as she tucked into her dinner.

“This is very good,” she said, noticing that he hadn’t started eating. He took a deep breath, quelling the surge of desire her provocative touch had caused.

“Sorry, just a bit distracted,” he said, picking up his fork. She smiled innocently.

The phone was ringing as Steed unlocked his apartment door, one hand on the key, the other holding Emma close beside him. He wasn’t sure what had gotten in to him, pawing at her in the hallway. It must be the effect of the Brazilian food. He disentangled himself from her and hurried down the steps to the telephone.

“Mr. Steed?”

He didn’t recognize the voice, and the speaker seemed to be trying to disguise it by whispering. “Yes.”

“Master Hicks is at the guildhall. And he has something you want to see.”

The connection was broken.

Emma stood at the top of the stairs looking curious. Steed replaced the receiver and looked up at her, one eyebrow cocked.

“Hicks is back in town,” he said. “And someone thinks we should go see him at the guildhall.”

Emma nodded, turning back toward the door. Steed watched her for a moment, trying to believe she could go from having her hand on his crotch in the car moments ago to heading out the door to catch a murderer the next. God, she’s just like me.

Emma regretted changing back into her suit and pumps for dinner as she followed Steed along a cobbled alley to a rear entrance to the Baker’s guildhall. She watched up and down the alley as he picked the lock on the door. It opened into darkness and he gestured to her to follow him. They were at the back of the commercial kitchen, which was lit by dim night-lights. He waved her to go right while he went left.

She pulled a small torch out of her bag and passed into the dark baking kitchen off of the main kitchen. It smelled of yeast and there was evidence of baking on the counters – could Steed’s caller have been an apprentice here to make the bread? Whoever was doing the baking, they were not there now. She crept to the door at the far side and looked into a pantry, also empty. She went through the third door in the kitchen into a hall, moving to the right to the next room down. She did not remember what it was from their tour the other day, so she opened the door and stepped in. She swung her light around illuminating shelves of canned goods. A storage room. The door slammed, nearly on her hand, which was just inside the jamb. She spun around, dropping her light as she clawed at the handle. There was none.

Stop it. Be rational. She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them and looked around for her light. It had rolled against the shelves and was illuminating a section of the baseboards. She picked it up and used it to inspect the door. Old, dried out wood. No handle. Of course not, who comes into the closet and shuts the door? Does the city not inspect this place for safety?

Steed also produced a torch and used it to work his way through several kitchens and storage rooms, finally coming to the base of the stairs that led up to the library. There was no sign of Emma. He climbed the stairs, cringing as they creaked under his weight. The library door was open and the lights were on. He stood in the doorway looking at what he was certain the caller had been talking about. The bird stared back at him, blinked once, then ruffled and resettled its feathers. Steed stepped into the room, hearing the creak of the floor behind him only in time to spin around with his elbow extended. He felt it connect with solid flesh just before something even more solid slammed down on the side of his head.

Albert Jackson peeked through the door of the Under Warden’s office watching Master Hicks standing in the shadows near the landing. Someone came up the stairs – Albert thought it was Mr. Steed. He wanted to shout out a warning, but he was growing more and more frightened. Master Hicks crossed the landing in a quick stride and scuffled with Mr. Steed, landing a heavy blow on his head. Mr. Steed slumped to the floor and Master Hicks stepped over him to pick up the birdcage.

Hicks started down the stairs and Albert had to do something. He couldn’t stop Master Hicks, not if Mr. Steed hadn’t been able to, but he could at least try to find out what he was doing. He left the safety of the Under Warden’s office and headed for the stairs.

Emma gave up trying to pry the pins out of the hinges after breaking three of her already short nails. There’s nothing for it, I guess, she sighed. Then she picked up a can of green beans and started pounding on the door. After every few thumps she shouted, “Steed! Help!”

She wasn’t sure how long she’d been at it – it seemed like hours – when the door opened under one of her weakening blows.

“Here, Mrs. Peel, I’m here,” he said, holding the door handle with one hand and the side of his head with the other.

“Steed!” she dropped the can and pulled his hand away. Even in the dimly lit hallway she could see a darkening bruise. At least there was no blood. “Come on. Let’s slink away with our tails between our legs before anyone sees us.”

Emma drove the Bentley back to Steed’s, wrestling with the stiff clutch. Steed moaned every time she shifted, but she decided he was just in pain.

“Are you sure you don’t want to see a doctor?” she asked as she helped him to his couch.

“Just some ice, Mrs. Peel. Please,” he said, lying back against the pillows at one end. Emma found his ice bag – funny how she knew where that was in his kitchen – and filled it with cubes from the freezer. She returned to the living room and perched on the edge of the couch to position the ice on his swelling bruise.

“Do you want aspirin?” she asked, looking into his eyes. His pupils were the same size and they were not excessively dilated. She concluded that he really did have an exceptionally hard head.

“No, thank you. I know this sort of injury. It’ll pound for a while, then I’ll be able to sleep.”

“You were unconscious. This is serious, Steed.”

“Yes. And I’ve been through it many times,” he closed his eyes, wishing she’d just go and leave him in his misery. This evening had not turned out the way he’d had it planned and he was starting to feel very grouchy.

“All right,” she sighed. She leaned forward and placed a light kiss on his forehead, then, because she couldn’t help herself, on his lips.

“Ummmm.” He kissed her back weakly, opening his eyes. “I wish I were able to respond to that,” he said.

“So do I. I’ll call you in the morning.”

Steed awakened with a mild headache, but it wasn’t debilitating. He opened the door and picked up a fresh bottle of milk and the morning paper, then took them into the kitchen to make tea. While the water boiled he flipped through the paper, habitually scanning for the sort of headline that might signal a case. The water boiled as he reached the society pages and he left the paper lying open while he warmed the teapot with a slosh of hot water, then brewed a bracing pot of English Breakfast. He stepped back to the paper while it steeped.

“Merry Widow,” the caption was headed. The picture was of Emma dancing in the arms of an attractive gentleman at the benefit Friday night. “Mrs. Emma Peel, museum benefactress and widow of test pilot Peter Peel, enjoys a waltz with her escort, Lord Frederick Leighton, at the . . .” Suddenly feeling nauseous, Steed stopped reading and turned to a full page department store advertisement.

It’s just the blow to the head, he assured himself. Swallowing down the nausea. He poured himself a cup of tea, inhaling the comforting aroma. Lord Freddy Leighton. He does get around. Stop it. You’ve no right to be jealous.

He yanked open a drawer and found a bottle of aspirin, taking three with his first gulp of hot tea. She said it was pleasant. She had a good time with him. Dammit!

The headache started to subside as he took a cool shower and dressed. It was Sunday. The ministry would be quiet. He could use the gym without any company. That’ll fix you up, old man. A couple hours of exercise will get it out of your system.

He was just about out the door when the telephone rang. He considered not answering, but duty forced him to be responsible.

Emma knew she should call Steed. But when she saw the photograph in the paper and knew that he would see it too, she suddenly did not want to deal with him. After the way she’d behaved last evening, practically undressing him in the car, seeing herself dancing with Freddy in the paper made her feel cheap. Would he think that she had casually flounced from him to Freddy and back? It certainly looked that way — even to her, and she knew better.

So she did not pick up the telephone, even though she was concerned about his head. Instead she slipped on a comfortable, flexible catsuit and got out her paints. She’d been struggling with a still life for so long she’d had to replace the onion twice, and it had been nearly impossible to find them the right size and shape each time. She was adding highlights when her doorbell rang. It was nearly eleven. Steed would be up and about by now. Steeling herself for the coming conversation, she opened the door without looking through the Cyclops.

A big, black bird flew past her, its wings battering her face. She whirled around to watch it circle her apartment, banging into walls and nearly knocking down a lamp. She looked back out the door to find the Tower Ravenmaster, Dennis Hope, standing there with blood on his face and hands.

“Mr. Hope!” she pulled him inside and guided him to the kitchen, ducking the madly flapping bird as it made another circuit of the room.

“I’m all right,” he assured her, accepting a few sheets of kitchen roll to wipe his hands. “Damned bird just scratched me.”

“Why did you bring it here?” she asked, watching the bird land squarely on her paint palette. “No!” she cried, foolishly waving her arms at it. It leapt back into the air and landed on the floor, making colorful tracks on her carpet. Irritated, but at a loss for what to do to minimize the damage, she turned back to the Ravenmaster. “Why is there a Tower raven in my living room?”

“Actually, Mrs. Peel, there is not,” he replied, dabbing at the blood on his face, which she could see came from a few shallow scratches on his forehead. She cocked an eyebrow at him and looked pointedly at the bird, which had added a new stain to the paint tracks on the carpet. Understanding her look and recognizing her growing anger, he added, “It’s an imposter. I found it in Jonathan’s nest this morning.”

Emma frowned at him, then looked back at the bird, which was standing in the middle of the room looking like a very short, very trendily dressed party guest. Moving slowly so as not to startle the bird again she picked up the phone and dialed Steed’s number.

“Come in slowly, Steed,” Emma said softly when Steed opened the door to her apartment using the secret catch that he’d had the ministry technicians install. Her phone call had been very peculiar. She’d told him he was needed at her place and not to ring the bell. He half hoped her call was strictly personal, but her tone had sounded businesslike.

Looking around the living room he realized immediately that it was business that had summoned him here. The yeoman warder in full regalia looked absurdly incongruous sitting on her delicate sofa with a raven in his lap. Emma stood near the kitchen door, arms folded, posture screaming annoyance. When she got into that mood he generally reacted with calm geniality. One did not want to provoke Emma Peel when she was already angry.

“Good morning,” he said softly. Emma’s instructions had clearly been intended to prevent him from making sudden noises or movements that would startle the bird. Several scratches on the yeoman’s face indicated the danger involved in that.

“Good morning, sir,” the yeoman said.

“Steed, this is Dennis Hope, Tower Ravenmaster. And that,” she pointed at the raven, “is an imposter Tower raven.”

Steed looked at the bird. The bird looked back at him, blinked once, and ruffled its feathers.

“Yes,” Steed said thoughtfully, “I believe we’ve met. Last night. In the library at the guildhall.”

“I thought as much,” Emma said. She hadn’t seen the raven in the cage, but Steed had described it to her on the way home.

“But why do you say it’s an imposter?” Steed asked.

“Because last night Jonathan’s nest shed was empty and this morning this bird was in it. I know all my birds, Mr. Steed. This is not one of them.”

“Would the Tower object to adopting it?” Steed asked.

“Mr. Steed, the Tower ravens have as documented a lineage as – as her majesty! We do not simply adopt strays, as it were. This bird does not belong in the tower.”

“Perhaps it will just fly away,” Emma suggested, her interest in that eventuality clear. Steed smiled at her.

“I understand, Mr. Hope,” Steed said, “But clearly someone,” he glanced at Emma, “put that bird in the Tower last night to replace the dead one. We’ve kept this matter completely quiet. Whoever is responsible does not know how much we know.” Or how little. “Someone thinks they can replace the dead bird and get away with it.”

“Mr. Hope, we believe this matter will be resolved by the end of the week,” Emma said. “Would it be possible for you to keep that raven at the tower until then, so that the culprit will think his – or her – ruse has worked?”

Hope pursed his lips and looked down at the bird, which had settled quite comfortably on his lap. “It will probably fly away,” he said. “They’re very territorial, and this one will probably want to go home, wherever that is.”

“Why not let nature take its course, then?” Steed asked. “Take it back to the Tower and let it do what it wants. When we conclude this matter, then you can see to placing it somewhere else, if it hasn’t left on its own.”

“Very well,” Hope sighed. “Mrs. Peel, could I trouble you for a shoebox?”

Emma produced a large shoebox from a very high-quality shoemaker, not looking happy about sacrificing it. Steed poked some holes in it and lined it with some shredded newspaper, studiously avoiding looking at what section of the paper Emma tore up for him. Then they slowly approached the yeoman and the bird. It cawed loudly as they scooped it off his lap and into the box.

“Now, why don’t we give you a ride, Mr. Hope? I think I should see the ravens’ quarters myself. Mrs. Peel?” Steed looked to Emma, hoping she’d come along. She nodded willingly.

Since it was Sunday afternoon the queue of tourists was exceptionally long, and Emma was certain several American voices said rude things as the gates were opened for her and Steed and the Ravenmaster with his box. Steed made the same sort of inspection of the ravens’ nest sheds that she had, then they took their leave of the Ravenmaster and wandered the Tower grounds.

“I’ve alerted security here,” Steed said as they passed the entrance to the White Tower where the crown jewels were housed. “Let’s go talk to them about last night.”

In the security office, a yeoman warder was happy to locate and load security film from the previous night – it had been developed in their own lab first thing that morning. Apparently the Ravenmaster had not informed security of the imposter raven, choosing instead to bring it directly to Emma’s attention. But all of the Tower staff knew about the loss of Jonathan. Steed and Emma told the security officer that they were following up on an incident at the nearby guildhall, related to Jonathan, and didn’t mention the imposter either. They doubted anyone other than Mr. Hope would realize there was an extra bird around.

They fast-forwarded through film of the various Tower gates, watching people pass by outside and yeoman on rounds inside. They saw nothing unusual until they viewed a film of the embankment gate. The time, indicated by a clock positioned near the gate so that it was in the frame, was near midnight. The gate was nearly invisible in deep shadows. Someone in a yeoman’s uniform walked up to it, and it looked like someone approached from the outside with a bulky object. The camera had not picked up any detail of their encounter, but when the yeoman walked away from the gate he seemed to have grown a lump beneath the front of his uniform coat. Steed was about to have the security officer rewind the film when another figure, dressed in lighter clothes, appeared in the shadows outside the gate. Shorter and slighter than the first figure, it stood outside peering in for a moment, then glanced to the left. Light from somewhere flashed off of eyeglasses as the head turned. Then the figure turned to the right and took off at a quick trot.

“Could have been someone out for a midnight stroll,” Steed said tentatively.

“Could have,” Emma nodded thoughtfully. “Which apprentice was on duty to make the bread last night?”

Steed had checked in the file that morning, as she knew he would. “Jackson. Albert Jackson.”

“As I recall,” she said, nodding at the officer whose finger hovered over the rewind button. “Mr. Jackson wears eyeglasses.”

They watched the film twice more, but there simply wasn’t enough detail to identify any of the people or what was passed through the bars. Steed asked to see the duty roster for Saturday night and noted the names. The officer explained that none of them were at the Tower now – they were night staff who would arrive around nine p.m.

Steed and Emma thanked the security officer and made their way back through the grounds and out the gate. Fortunately, the tourist queue had shortened. The testy Americans must be inside enjoying their brush with British history.

Steed finished an article on the US economy and turned the page, knowing what section of the paper was next. At the other end of the sofa, Emma pursed her lips in concentration at the crossword. He stared at the picture of her, trying to figure out what to say without sounding angry. Just put it down, or turn past it. Let it go.

“You look lovely in the gown that was tucked away in your closet,” he finally said, turning the paper around so she could see the picture. She glanced up, then back at her puzzle. She had been waiting for him to say something about the picture.

“Thank you.” She replied.

“Lord Freddy. Very popular. Good dancer?” He tried very, very hard to sound light.

“Yes,” she lied. He’s jealous. He’s trying very hard not to be, but he is. She was at once delighted and annoyed. He has no right. But I want him to have every right. “The caption on that picture is wrong, by the way.”

He cocked an eyebrow at her, unable to form a response, but making it seem as if he were waiting for an explanation. She lowered her crossword and looked at him.

“Lord Frederick did not escort me to the benefit. Not that it’s any of your business.”

Ouch. He studied her face, trying to read her thoughts. It was so easy, sometimes. Other times, like now, she was a complete enigma. “No it’s not,” he finally said, lame as it was.

She nodded ever so slightly and returned to her crossword. He watched her press the end of her pen to her lips as she concentrated. How he wanted to be that pen. He swung his legs to the floor, setting the paper on the sofa with her picture facing up. She danced in the arms of another man, her heart-shaped face bearing a look of concentration. Maybe he isn’t such a good dancer – she usually looks more relaxed with me. The real Emma looked up as he stood. He stretched, arching his back, then clasping his hands behind himself to expand his chest. He glanced down at her. She was watching him very intently, pen poised over the paper.

“I’m going to bed,” he said.

Her brows rose, her expression skeptical, “it’s four o’clock in the afternoon,” she pointed out, not wanting to admit that she knew exactly what he really meant.

“Ummm,” he acknowledged, reaching a hand down to her. “Join me?”

She took it, and he led her through the flat. Despite their close relationship, she’d never been in his bedroom before. She knew other women had been, but it still seemed exclusively his, as if she were being admitted to his secret world. She wanted more than anything to be a part of it.

He faced her as he pulled his sweater off over his head, tossing it onto a chair, then began unbuttoning his shirt. Weekend clothes. He wore them just as well as his more accustomed three-piece suits. She crossed her arms and watched him, her emotions still conflicted even if her body had clear ideas about what it wanted.

If he wanted exclusivity, he had to ask for it. And she wasn’t sure she was prepared to offer it, even though she had no interest in other men right now. It was one thing to choose him alone, another to promise it. And he had to promise it as well. That was something she did not think she could ever ask. Not of him.

Shirt off, he picked up the sweater and walked toward the closet. When he opened the door she realized it was actually a dressing room lined with storage – he would need that for his seemingly endless wardrobe. She smiled inwardly, thinking of her own similar dressing room. Perfectly matched.

Except that she was not comfortable blatantly undressing in front of him in the middle of the afternoon. The door to a bathroom, opposite the dressing room, was slightly ajar. She went to it, closing herself in. She took a moment to study herself in the mirror over the sink. What did he see? She hadn’t put on any makeup that morning and, although she did not tend to use a lot of it, she felt pale without some lipstick. Her hair was clean and tidy. The catsuit she’d put on to paint in had survived the day’s activities relatively tidy as well. Realizing she was stalling, she reached up and unzipped it. They were already lovers. This was no time to become shy.

She decided to use the facilities since she was there. As she turned she noticed Steed’s dressing gown hanging on a hook on the back of the door. Smiling with relief she folded her clothes into a pile – her shoes were out by the sofa – and slipped on the satin robe.

He was pulling back the covers on the bed when she came out. She set her clothes on the chair near the door and watched the play of muscles under skin as he moved. He straightened and turned, smiling affectionately. At my voyeurism, or his dressing gown? She wondered

“Caught you looking,” he said, his voice a husky rumble.

Ah. She gave him an innocent smile and walked toward him, her mood slipping from nervous modesty to wanton desire the closer she got. Amazing how he did that to her with just a look.

“You don’t need this,” he said, slipping the satin off her shoulders and undoing the belt that bound it at her waist. She freed her arms from the sleeves and put her hands on his chest. She felt it rise and fall with each breath as he let the robe fall to the floor around her feet. His heart was pounding under her hand. Then his arms were around her and she was lost in his kiss. Her flesh tingled at the touch of his powerful body as he gently guided her onto his bed and began his exploration of her all over again.

Chapter 5

Emma got out of Steed’s bed and picked up her clothes on the way to the bathroom.

“Where are you going?” Steed asked, his face mostly buried in the pillows where he’d collapsed after their mutual climax. She paused by the bathroom door, looking back at his long, lean body half covered by the sheet. He raised his head, looking at her through the curl of hair that always fell across his face.

“I should go,” she said, drawing her lower lip between her teeth and shrugging, then slipping quickly into the bathroom.

Part of her wanted very much to stay there safe and happy in his bed. She knew they’d make love again if she did, maybe go get some dinner, then come back to bed. It was a tempting idle. But she knew almost instinctively that he was not comfortable with sleepovers. In their months working together she had frequently turned up at his apartment early in the morning or in the middle of the night on some work-related errand. Not once had she ever encountered a woman there. She knew he dated, knew he had women in his bed. But they never stayed.

If she’d had any doubt, sleeping with him the other night had dispelled it. He’d rolled and kicked in his sleep, obviously very accustomed to having the bed to himself. She hadn’t minded – she had also gotten used to sleeping alone since Peter’s death. But if she wasn’t welcome for the whole night, then she wanted to go home now before leaving became that much harder. And there were things she could get done this evening – like trying to salvage her stained carpet.

By the time she’d washed and dressed, Steed had gotten up and put on the dressing gown that had been dropped on the floor by the bed. She found her shoes, then found him in the kitchen. His eyes had a guarded look, although his mouth wore a smile for her when she stopped in the doorway.

“I need to try to get the bird tracks off my carpet before it gets any drier,” she said, knowing it sounded exactly like the excuse that it was. If he asks me to stay I will, she realized as he walked toward her, stopping close enough for her to feel his breath on her face.

“Try some club soda,” he said. She frowned, then understood. For a moment her heart ached, and she realized how desperately she had wanted him to ask her to stay. She longed to fall asleep next to him, to wake up with him, to feel his solid body beside hers, to smell his musky maleness in her hair and on the sheets. But she also wanted to fit into his life in a way that they were both comfortable with. In this she felt that she needed to play by his rules.

Steed pressed a kiss on Emma’s forehead to break the tension that had welled up between them. She turned away, heading for the door. His hand rose to stop her, but he stilled it, letting her go. She trotted up the steps and turned back, hand on the doorknob.

“Costume shop, first thing,” she said. “I’ll call you.”

He nodded, watching her leave. His initial reaction when she’d gotten out of bed and picked up her clothes had been relief. So many women didn’t understand that sex and sleeping together were two different things. He enjoyed the first immensely. The second required a great deal more involvement. It was so much more intimate.

I want to wake up with her. It had struck him as he pulled on the dressing gown and caught himself smiling at the memory of her wrapped in it like a shy girl, then dropping it to press her self against his body. I want to hold her until she falls asleep. I want to wake up with her and make love to her in the morning. But she didn’t – that was clear. And it was better this way. She obviously didn’t know how far he’d fallen for her, and didn’t share his depth of feelings. That’s a good thing, he assured himself. If she doesn’t know it will be easier to get over her.

The carpet was ruined. Emma had tried mineral spirits on a rag first, since, despite Steed’s suggestion, the oil paint was not likely to be affected by club soda. The paint had thinned and spread. Next she tried blotting it with baking soda. That made a gummy mess that she had to cut with Steed’s suggested club soda. After ninety minutes she no longer had a trail of bird footprints across the floor: she had a swath of muddy color. She sat back on her haunches and brushed her hair off her forehead with the back of her hand.

“Hopeless. The ministry is going to pay for this.”

She gathered up her cleaning supplies and put them away, then retired to the bathroom for a shower. As so often happened under the influence of warm water, her mind was freed of her more immediate concerns and wandered back over the day. She watched the film of the Tower gate in her mind, the flash of light on eyeglasses replaying. If that was Albert Jackson, what was he doing? And who was the yeoman who’d met Hicks at the gate? The night guards. They needed to interview the night guards after nine o’clock. She shut off the water and stepped out of the shower, wrapping herself in her towel and checking the clock. It was just after eight o’clock.

I should call Steed, she thought as she locked her apartment door thirty minutes later. But she hadn’t called him while she was dressing, and she couldn’t make herself go back in and do it now. She was perfectly capable of talking to the Tower guards. In fact, she’d been the point person at the Tower since they’d started the investigation. It makes sense that I’d handle it, she convinced herself.

She spotted the Bentley as soon as she turned the corner past the church and braked her Lotus to a stop behind it. The roofs on both cars were up against the occasional showers, but she thought she could see the outline of a bowler above the driver’s seat of the big green car. Feeling both relieved and embarrassed, she got out of the Lotus and walked up on the passenger side of the Bentley. She tapped on the window, startling Steed. His face was impassive as he turned to see who was there, but it lit with pleasure when he saw her. He gestured her into the car.

“You remembered too,” she said as she settled into the familiar passenger seat.

He smiled warmly at her, his eyes twinkling. “I’m glad you’re here,” he replied. “I was just comparing the lists of night guards for last Wednesday with last night.” He held up two sheets of paper.

“Overlaps?” she asked, leaning close to look at the lists as he held them under the map light. Beneath his familiar cologne she smelled his lavender soap and a faint whiff of cigar. He must have smoked one after she left. She was incredibly grateful that he didn’t mention her earlier departure or question her being there now.

“Three guards were on duty both nights. We’ll talk to them first, then these two,” he indicated the other two who’d been there last night.

“If they’re all here again tonight,” Emma pointed out, checking her watch. It was a quarter after nine. “Shall we?”

Steed folded the two sheets together and slipped them into his breast pocket. He had put on a pinstripe suit that coincidentally complimented Emma’s navy blue dress and jacket.

“Let’s go.”

As they walked along the brick pavement toward the Tower main gate Steed caught himself smiling happily. Of course she came, he thought, no matter what’s going on between us, she’s as professional as I am.

“And did you telephone ahead to arrange to be let in?” he asked as they came under the shadow of the ancient walls.

“No,” she replied, sounding a little unsure. It hadn’t occurred to her that getting in would be a problem, but now she saw that the gate was firmly locked, the ticket counter closed up tight. There was no Tower staff to be seen.

“Perhaps you intended to charm your way past the night guard,” he suggested playfully.

“Perhaps,” she agreed.

“Fortunately, I did call,” he said, tapping on a solid postern gate to the side of the main gate with the tip of his umbrella. A small view port in the gate opened and a middle-aged woman looked out.

“Good Evening. John Steed from the ministry,” Steed said. “And this is Mrs. Emma Peel.”

The woman squinted at Steed, glanced at Emma, then withdrew her face and closed the port. There were several thumps and clanks and the gate swung open. Emma smirked at Steed who flashed her a smug grin as they stepped through.

Two of the three night guards who’d been there Saturday and Wednesday were on duty again tonight. Nothing about either of them identified them as the man on the film they’d viewed, which didn’t surprise either Steed or Emma. One was a regular yeoman warder who’d made his rounds of the gates three times Saturday night: at eleven p.m., one a.m., and three a.m. The other guard was on the jewel house staff. His rounds were limited to the White Tower, although it seemed to Steed that he could have been out wandering the Tower grounds around midnight and no one – except the security cameras — would be the wiser.

The third guard who’d been on duty both Wednesday and Saturday was also a jewel house guard. His next duty shift was, coincidentally, to be Wednesday – the night of the Soviet Embassy ball. Emma made a note to come back during the day and wheedle the man’s home address from the secretary who’d been nice to her when she’d looked through the archives.

They also spoke to the yeoman warder who’d made midnight rounds Saturday night. He claimed to have started at the main gate and worked his way around, arriving at the embankment gate at twenty minutes after twelve – to late to have encountered whoever received the raven through the gate at midnight.

“It seems as if whoever it was timed it to miss the guards,” Steed said as they walked back to their cars.

“Which would explain why Master Hicks was at the guildhall with the raven,” Emma agreed. “He was waiting for the rendezvous. He would feel safe there. But he must have known an apprentice would be baking.”

“And where was the apprentice last night, anyway,” Steed mussed. That had been bothering Emma, too.

“It was he who called you, I’m sure,” she said. “I gave him both our numbers. And it was he who came to the gate after the exchange. I’m sure of that, too.”

“Well, perhaps you should discuss your certainty with him tomorrow,” Steed suggested, not disagreeing with her assertions.

They had reached the cars, Steed walking past the Bentley to Emma’s Lotus. They stood by the driver’s door, Steed with his hand on it, Emma holding her keys. She looked into his face and felt herself drawn to him. She wanted to step closer, to reach up and slide her hands around the back of his neck. The intimacy they’d shared just a few hours earlier still resonated between them and despite the awkwardness desire was still strong.

“I was sorry that you left earlier,” he said softly, his light eyes shining even in the darkness.

“I was concerned about the carpet,” she said meeting his gaze and feeling her resolve slipping. If he asks . . .

“Ah yes. The carpet. Did you get the paint off?”

“No.”

“Too bad,” he tsked. “Will you come back?”

“Now?” She knew what he meant, but she needed a moment to be sure her choice was a choice and not a libido-driven reaction.

“Yes, now. Please?” His silken voice caressed her. His expression matched it, desire in his eyes tempered by an uncharacteristic insecurity.

Perhaps it’s time to change the rules. Perhaps that’s what he wants. “If I come, I’m not leaving – you understand?”

“Emma, I don’t want you to leave,” Steed was baffled. Why would I want her to leave? I’m practically begging her to come.

“I’ll meet you there,” she said, trying to conceal her joy, but unable to repress a happy smile. Satisfied, even if confused, he moved away from the car so she could get in.

“Emma, why did you think I wouldn’t want you to stay?” Steed asked. Emma lay on her side, her head on his shoulder and one hand resting on his abdomen, which she had recently kissed quite thoroughly. Her enthusiasm once they were back in his apartment had left him breathless. She’d driven their lovemaking, massaging his body to tempestuous desire, then rising above him to ride him to climax within her. She was half asleep now and he knew it, knew it wasn’t fair of him to ask such an important question just then – at least he thought it was important to her, even if he wasn’t quite sure why.

“Because none of them ever do,” she muttered.

“Who never do?” he frowned, suddenly fearing that he knew.

She roused a little, leaning her head back so she could see his face. But he was staring at the ceiling. “In all these months,” she said, “when I’ve had to come here early in the morning, none of them have ever been here,” she said. “You prefer to sleep alone.”

Steed closed his eyes. When she’s had to come here. Because she wouldn’t come here early in the morning by choice, not and risk meeting another woman. He understood. He’d turned a blind eye to the effect the other women in his life would have on her. She’d said nothing had changed the other night. But it had. Everything was different now. Now he knew that she was the most important woman in his life, not just one of many.

He turned his head toward her and cupped her face with his hand. He ran his fingers into her soft hair, looking into her deep eyes to see a mix of hopeful affection and wariness that stung him deeply. “But Emma, you aren’t one of them,” he said.

She lifted her head to look him in the eye. “Who am I then, John?” She asked. Give me something, Steed. I need something more to hang onto. I didn’t think I did, but I do.

He thought of all the answers he would like to give her. You’re the woman who’s captured my heart. You’re my love. You’re the only person I’ve ever felt this way about – I had thought I was incapable of it.

“You’re my Emma,” he whispered, and then: “You’re my partner.” He hoped it was enough, because those were the only words he could manage.

Miraculously, he saw, it was. She reached up and brushed the lock of hair off his forehead, then put her hand on the back of his neck and gently lifted his face to hers, careful not to touch the bruise on the side of his head. Her kiss was like a feather, but it touched his heart.

“I want to watch you fall asleep Emma. I want to make love to you in the morning while we’re both still drowsy so that it’s like some amazing dream that we wake to find is real. Stay with me, Emma. Please.”

She stared at him, speechless, a tiny, crooked smile curling the edges of her lips, her eyes full of joy. All sign of wariness was gone. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, afraid that he’d said too much despite the happy look on her face.

“Promise that you’ll try not to kick me too much?” she asked, eyes flashing with affectionate humor.

“Only if you promise to keep your elbows to yourself,” he replied, although he could not recall her elbowing him the other night. He didn’t know that he’d kicked her, either.

“I promise darling,” she said, nestling her head back on his shoulder and closing her eyes. Then she yawned deeply. “Sorry!” she sighed. He held her close, burying his face in her hair and breathing in its light, herbal scent.

“I promise too. Go to sleep.”

She already nearly was, rolling away from him to sleep on her other side. He rolled onto his side and watched her shoulder rise and fall as her breathing slowed until he was sure she was asleep. Then he leaned close, pressing a light kiss on the soft skin at the back of her neck.

“Sleep well, Emma, my love,” he whispered.

Emma smiled in her sleep. It’s lovely to hear him say that, even if it is a dream.

A solid presence pressed against her buttocks. A warm hand slid over her hip and up her belly to cup her breast and flick at her nipple.

“Ummmm,” she sighed as a cool tongue traced her ear and lips kissed it. His heartbeat thrummed against her back as his hand slid down her belly and stopped at the edge of the patch of curly auburn hair there. Her skin tingled under his fingers. His mouth worked its way along her shoulder blade as she lifted her top leg, opening herself, asking for his touch. His hand slid through the curls, parting her labia to stroke her slowly as his mouth wandered back across her shoulder. She leaned into him, turning her head to capture his lips with hers as his fingers were bathed in her warm moisture. She felt him smile and ran her tongue over his lips, pressing it between them. He sucked at it and pressed his fingers deeper, triggering another hot little orgasm.

Needing more, she rolled toward him, pressing her supple body against his warm, hard length. Reaching down she directed his erection between her legs to take the place of his fingers. He slid his hand around to caress her back and bent his head to kiss first one breast, then the other, sucking her nipples to hard points. She moved her hips against him, using the solid tip of his penis to increase her arousal. It had the same effect on him. He moaned, pressing urgently against her. She bent her leg up over his hip and tilted her pelvis so that he slid smoothly inside her, filling her so that for a brief time she would feel whole and he would feel sheltered. His lips squeezed her nipple as her body wrapped his entire length in moist, heated flesh.

They moved together, moaning into each other’s mouths as each thrust sent waves of passion jolting through them. His big hand held her buttocks, pressing her against himself in rhythm with their movement. She slid her hand flat between them, splitting two fingers around his wide, wet penis and squeezing gently. He bucked and cried out wordlessly, driving harder into her. His thrusts pressed her knuckles against her clitoris, the sensation sending her into a prolonged orgasm, drawn longer by the friction of his thrusts. He groaned as his climax wracked his whole body, leaning into her, crushing her against him with fingers driven into the soft flesh of her ass until he was spent.

She pulled her hand out from between them leaving a damp trail across his hip and up his back. He loosened his grip, caressing her bruised ass then sliding his hand up to rest in the hollow of her lower back.

“Good morning,” he whispered, pressing a kiss on the tip of her nose.

“Is it?” she asked “Or am I dreaming?”

He smiled and caressed her back, “Do you often have dreams like this?”

“I’ve had a few recently,” she admitted, “reality is much better, though.”

“Ah yes, the Soviet Embassy party. You’re here rather last minute,” Filbert Schenck of Universal Costumes, slid his glasses down his nose to look Steed up and down.

“We’ve had a last minute invitation, Mr. Schenck,” Emma said, lifting the sleeve of a fantastic military uniform hanging on a dressmaker’s mannequin. The shop was crowded with costumes from all eras in various conditions displayed on hangars and mannequins. There was barely a clear path from the door to the counter.

“Yes,” Steed added, “I do hope you can help.”

“You’re rather tall,” Schenck said, peering up at Steed, then he glanced at Emma. “Both of you. That will limit the selection at this late date.”

“Perhaps you could see what is available,” Emma suggested, moving to stand next to Steed at the counter and present a united front. She knew that Schenck was the approved ministry provider for costumes, but she was always tempted to go elsewhere and pay for the rental out of pocket rather than deal with the nebbishy little man. He knew they were both tall. He’d fitted Steed for innumerable costumes and Emma for several. But each time he behaved as if they’d never met. Probably his idea of discretion in dealing with spys, Emma thought.

Schenck flopped open a large ledger on the counter sending a puff of dust into the already heavy air, then pushed his glasses back up his nose and began flipping pages. He picked up a feather quill – an eccentricity that Emma would have found amusing in a suspect or an aging relative, but that just annoyed her in someone with whom she had to do business – and used it to skim up and down the pages. Steed maintained his genial smile throughout the process, hands folded on his umbrella. Emma took a deep breath and tried to absorb some of his outward calm.

“Very well, Mr. Steed,” Schenck said. “I’ve really only one thing that will fit you properly, within the theme. Meet me in room five,” his eyes flicked up at Steed, then back to the ledger as if he was taking a final measurement. Steed nodded and moved away from the counter, heading for dressing room five. Schenck turned another page and smiled. “For you, Mrs. Peel, I have a few choices.” He rotated the ledger and pointed one-by-one at several characters. Emma smiled and pointed to one of those that he’d indicated.

“Here’s what I was thinking of, Mr. Schenck. How fortunate!”

“Suitable, too,” Schenck muttered, causing Emma’s brows to rise in surprise. “room three please.”

Steed looked decidedly displeased as he examined his reflection in Schenck’s big old mirror. The heavily framed antique glass was losing it’s silvering around the edges. It gave whatever it reflected a mysterious, fading out quality. Coming up behind Steed, Emma could not repress a giggle. Steed glowered at her reflection, then turned to look at her.

“You look like a Tenniel illustration,” he said appreciatively. She was dressed, as she’d suggested when they were riding, as the Red Queen. Her chess piece costume featured several semi-rigid padded rings of increasing circumferences on the skirt. Her shoes were buttoned Victorian boots. She wore a brocaded cloak over the dress, and a pointed and knobbed crown on her head. She held a long scepter with a heart on the end. Everything was done in shades of red.

“So do you, and a very fitting one at that,” she replied. Steed turned back to the mirror and tugged at the hem of his plaid jacket. It had a high Victorian collar and was worn over a satin waistcoat, a pocket watch chain strung across the front. He held a furled umbrella, but not the one he’d brought into the shop. This one went with the costume. Beneath the jacket and vest his lower body was enrobed in white fur trousers. A white fur hood covered his hair, floppy ears pointing at odd angles from the top. To round out the effect he wore white cotton gloves.

“Fitting?” he grumbled adjusting his ascot. Emma came around to face him and finished the adjustment for him. He was in his irritable, “accept the inevitable but don’t be happy about it” mood. She found it irresistible. There was no sign of Schenck, so she leaned close and kissed his nose. He wiggled it, his eyes meeting hers and filling with his usual good-natured humor.

“At least Mr. Schenck hasn’t insisted that you have to paint your face white – or has he?” she added.

“I think he knows better,” Steed said, stepping aside so that she could turn and study her own reflection.

Schenck emerged from the racks of costumes to look them over, pursing his lips and reaching out to make minor adjustments to each of their costumes.

“Well?” he asked at last, “Will they do?”

“Yes definitely, Mr. Schenck,” Emma said, casting Steed a warning look. He nodded, unwilling to commit verbally.

“Fine. You go change and I’ll write them up. Delivery?”

“Yes,” Steed said. “To my apartment.”

“What now, Mrs. Peel?” Steed asked as they stepped back out into the street. The transition from the fantastic shop to the modern street seemed like stepping from one world to another.

“I’m going to go look up Apprentice Jackson at school. What about you?”

“Master Hicks,” he said simply.

“Be careful.”

“You too.” He winked, then strode off in the direction of the guildhall. As she went to her car she wondered if he was going to walk – it was a fair distance and she had driven them both to the costume shop. She wouldn’t be surprised. He obviously did some sort of exercise to keep his body fit, although he never mentioned it, and she didn’t know of anyone at the ministry who’d ever seen him at it. It was one of Steed’s little mysteries that she hoped, one day, to solve.

“Yes, Mrs. Peel, I baked on Saturday night,” Albert Jackson said cautiously. She had cornered him after his second morning class and convinced him to join her for a cup of coffee in one of the student lounges. They had found a small table along a wall in an unpopulated section. She was trying to be the firm, but caring older sister but Albert was clearly spooked.

“At around ten thirty you made a telephone call, didn’t you?”

He stared at his coffee, hand gripping the mug extremely tightly. After several seconds during which she thought a range of responses ran though his mind, he looked up at her.

“How is Mr. Steed? I – I wanted to warn him that Hicks was there, but I was afraid.”

“Steed is remarkably hardheaded, Albert,” Emma said, relieved that he had chosen honesty, and that he seemed genuinely concerned. She hoped, in the end, that it would turn out that he was just a pawn in all this. His call on Saturday would help a lot in that defense. She intended to see that he was identified as the caller in the official report. “Tell me what you saw that made you call us.”

Jackson sighed, taking a moment to organize his thoughts. “I was in the library studying. The bread dough was rising in the kitchen. I heard someone on the stairs and Mr. Hicks came in. But I hid before he got there. I’m not sure why.”

“Perhaps because your two fellow apprentices were murdered there just a few nights ago?”

Jackson nodded and looked relieved. “I felt foolish when I saw who it was. But then I saw the birdcage.”

“So you stayed hidden.”

“Yes, until he left the library. Then I went to the Under Warden’s office – it’s just down the hall and we all know where he keeps the key. I stayed there, after calling you and Mr. Steed.”

Emma nodded. “And then what happened?”

“Well, nothing for a while. Then Master Hicks came back up stairs and stood in the hallway in the dark. I peeked out the office door when I heard him. At first I thought he was just hiding, and I guess he was. But then Mr. Steed came up the stairs and Master Hicks hit him with a rolling pin.”

“He had the rolling pin with him?”

“Yes.”

“So he brought it up from the kitchens.”

“He must have.”

Emma nodded. There was no question that Hicks planned his attack on Steed. “So Steed fell, and what did Hicks do?”

“He stepped over him and picked up the bird in the cage, then went back downstairs.”

“And what did you do?”

“I went after him.”

“Why?”

Jackson’s eyes widened as if he hadn’t expected her to question his motives. “I – I should have warned Mr. Steed, but I was afraid. So I wanted to do something to make up for it. I knew that you and Mr. Steed would want to know where Hicks went, what he did with the bird.”

“Yes that’s right. We do want to know. You followed him, but you haven’t contacted us to tell us. Why not, Albert?”

Jackson glanced hastily around the cafeteria as if expecting Hicks to materialize nearby. He hunched over the table toward Emma before speaking. “Because he caught me,” he said, his voice dropping to just above a whisper.

Emma’s heart filled with dread. Part of their job was to protect the innocent. She already felt as if she and Steed had failed miserably Saturday night, and this only added to her concern. “Did he threaten you?”

“Sort of, I guess. I followed him to the Tower. He passed the bird through a gate to someone inside and he threw the cage in the river. I hid behind a bench along the embankment until he started back toward the guildhall. Then I went over the gate to see if I could see anyone inside. I didn’t, but then I realized that if he looked back he would see me at the gate. I was afraid, so I went the other way. I walked all the way around the Tower. When I got back to the hall he was waiting for me in the baking kitchen. I should have just gone home, but then the bread wouldn’t have been made and I’d be in even more trouble. As it was, he yelled at me for leaving the dough – I’d been gone so long it was ruined. He told me I’d better shape up for the final project on Wednesday, that it was very important and he’d have no patience for more screw-ups.

“I had to start the bread all over, and after he left I realized that I’d left the timer up in the library. He probably heard it go off, so he knew I was in the library earlier. He knows I saw the bird.”

Jackson took a gulp of his cool coffee and looked at Emma fearfully. “I keep thinking that I should resign my apprenticeship, even though we’re almost done for the term. I’d have to come back in the summer to make up the credits, but at least I wouldn’t have to be involved in baking that pie.”

“I know you’re frightened, Albert, but dropping out now probably won’t make you any safer. If Master Hicks believes you saw something the other night, whether you help with the pie or not won’t matter. In fact, you’re better off playing along. And you still can be of help to Steed and me, if you want to.”

“I’d like to make it up to him. I feel terrible about what happened.”

“Then do whatever Master Hicks tells you. And please call me or Steed if you think you or the other students are in danger. We don’t believe it’s Hicks’s intention to bake the birds in the pie – your classmates made a fatal error in doing so last week.”

“And Master Hicks killed them for it?” Jackson took another gulp of coffee, watching her over the rim of the mug.

“That’s what we think. But we have to identify everyone who’s involved – including the person inside the Tower the other night. We’ll be there when the pie is opened at the party – are you students intended to deliver it?”

“Yes,” he set his mug down and straightened in his chair. “We’re to bring it in and present it to some honored guests.”

“Good. That way we’ll know where you are. Stick with it, Albert. This will all be over soon.”

“Thank you Mrs. Peel. You make me feel – less alone. Can I ask you something?”

“Yes. What is it, Albert?”

“How old are you?”

Emma was surprised by the question, which was rather forward. But she was not yet old enough to care about concealing her age. “I’m twenty-six. Why?”

A blush started at Jackson’s neck and rose to his forehead. “That’s what I thought. You’re not much older than me, but you seem so much more in control. I don’t think I could ever do what you do.”

“But Albert, I couldn’t bake a decent croissant if my life depended on it. We’re all cut out for something. I’m just particularly good at being nosey about other people’s business. I’m lucky to have met Steed, who recognized it as a skill instead of a bad habit,” she smiled encouragingly. I’m extremely lucky to have met Steed, for any number of reasons.

“Well, if you ever get into a situation where a perfect croissant is your only hope, please call me,” Jackson replied, relieved that she had taken his statement at face value. He wasn’t sure what he’d intended, but he knew that flirtation was one of his motives. For once he was glad to have failed at it. Emma Peel, he realized, was way out of his league.

Chapter 6

“Andrea, how are you?” Steed sat down on the chair by the telephone and crossed his legs. He’d put off making this call since returning from the bakers’ guildhall, but he could not let it go any longer. He felt like a cad, but he at least could be a well-mannered one.

“John!” the woman’s high, sweet voice always made him smile when she said his name. “I’m looking forward to seeing you tomorrow.”

“That’s why I called, my dear,” he said, his tone probably telling her all she needed to know before he said anything more. “I’m afraid I have to beg off.”

“Oh boo,” she replied, her pouty tone matching her words.

No, going to have to spell it out. Damn. “I know, I’m terribly sorry. We have had some lovely times together, but I’m afraid I going to have to break it off.”

“Off, John? You mean, permanently?”

“I’m afraid so, Andrea. It’s not fair to you – there’s someone — .”

“Someone else? Of course there is, John. There always is.”

“No, not just someone else. Someone I’ve realized that I – want to concentrate on. It wouldn’t be fair to you, or her, for us to carry on when my – when I – .”

“Poor John,” she interrupted. “Don’t know how to say it, do you? Well, that will be her cross to bear, I suppose, dealing with your reticence.”

“You’re angry.”

“No, not really. It was always just fun, John. Nothing more. You made that clear from the start. I shall miss you, of course. But I’ll get over it. The more interesting question is, will you?” Her high-pitched laughter rang in his ear as she hung up the phone. Steed was glad it was the last thing he heard, even though she was amused at his expense – he’d always disliked her laugh.

The most difficult task of the day handled, Steed turned his mind to locating Hicks. The master of apprentices had not been at the guildhall when Steed got there after walking from the costume shop. The Third Warden had informed him that the master had returned to London – which Steed already knew — and should be at the hall. He was certain that Hicks would turn up in the afternoon, as the apprentices would be in for classes.

But Steed didn’t want to wait. He located Hicks’s address in the file and went out to the Bentley to go hunting.

Still feeling uncomfortable about Albert’s involvement, Emma left the Bakery school and returned to the Tower. She found the secretary who had granted her access to the archives on Friday and got the address of the third yeoman warder who’d been on duty both Wednesday and Saturday nights. Since she was there, she asked the secretary if she knew him.

“Yeoman Bradford is fairly new. Handsome devil, tall, blond, a real crowd pleaser,” the secretary said. Emma nodded encouragingly at the woman, who was about forty with mousy brown hair pulled back in a ponytail and an unusually bad complexion. She smiled at her mental image of the yeoman. “Nice fellow, too. Pops in just to say hello once or twice a week at least. You couldn’t say that of some of these fellows who’ve been here for years. They come for their pay envelopes and that’s about it.”

“Does he ever ask special favors? Like to be put on a certain shift?”

“Not that I know of,” she paused as if thinking about her answer. “But I just keep the schedule. Yeoman Warder Curtis makes the assignments.”

“And you’ve never made a little change to the schedule after one of Yeoman Bradford’s visits?”

The secretary grew pale and turned away from Emma. For a moment she thought she’d pushed too hard. But the woman picked up a clipboard from a desk and flipped back several pages. “It’s odd you should ask,” she said. “I mean, I probably shouldn’t admit it – you aren’t with the landmarks ministry, are you?”

“No, I’m from an entirely different ministry,” Emma assured her.

“Well, I could get into trouble for it, but it hardly seemed like any harm. And it’s for his wife’s birthday after all.”

“Bradford’s wife?”

“Yes, that’s right. He was scheduled to work Tuesday night this week, and he begged me to change him to Wednesday because Tuesday’s her birthday. I couldn’t see any harm in it.”

“And why didn’t he ask Yeoman Warder Curtis for the assignment?”

“He said he’d forgotten to ask when the Yeoman was doing the schedules. Seemed rather embarrassed at forgetting his wife’s birthday.”

“I see. Thank you very much for your help,” Emma said, moving toward the door.

“I hope it does help,” the secretary smiled.

“I’m certain of it,” Emma replied.

Steed parked the Bentley around the corner from Master Hicks’s address in a run-down neighborhood of small, non-descript houses. London’s suburban sprawl at its worst, he mussed as he walked along the cracked sidewalk, stepping over weeds pushing up through the pavement. Not that he would ever consider living in such a neighborhood, but the sight of so many dismal “single-family homes” made him renew his vow to remain a bachelor.

The gate in front of Hicks’s house was open. Steed walked through and up to the door, using his umbrella tip to press the doorbell. Somewhere inside there was a flat buzzing sound followed by a series of sharp, high-pitched barks. On the other side of the door a dog – probably small – scrabbled it’s claws on bare floor and yapped some more. Steed waited another minute listening to the dog, which continued to yap. He could pick the lock, but then he’d have to deal with the animal. Or he could go find the back door in the alley, where he’d be much more noticeable picking the lock, and the dog might still be a problem. Perturbed, he sauntered back down the walk and headed back to his car. Getting in, he moved it to park on Hicks’s street where he could see the house and settled in to wait.

Emma rang the bell mounted beside the door to Bradford’s Hamstead flat. It was a little disturbing to discover that they were neighbors, but it had given her a convenient cover.

The door opened just enough for a big, blond, muscular man to peer out at her.

“Yes?” he asked suspiciously.

“Good afternoon. My name is Mrs. Emma Peel. I’m circulating this petition regarding the loose dogs in the park. May I discuss it with you? I hope to convince you to sign.” Someone had left the petition on her door the other day with a note asking her to sign it and leave it outside for them to pick up.

“No, I’m sorry. I — .”

“But surely you enjoy an occasional walk in the park? Don’t you find it unnerving to be menaced by lose animals of all description?” she paused, allowed herself to look him up and down, and made sure he noticed. “No, perhaps you don’t,” she purred, widening her eyes just a bit, “But surely you are sympathetic to the plight of those less  — less physically capable – than you? Consider the small children bowled over by a basset hound, or the elderly rocked off their feet by a setter. . .”

“No. I’m sorry. Not today Mrs. –,” he was inching the door closed. Behind him someone spoke, a man’s voice that she couldn’t hear clearly. Bradford glanced over his shoulder, “just a minute, Hicks,” he said.

“Peel. Emma Peel,” Emma provided, smiling warmly, hoping Bradford thought it was for him when it was really for his confirmation that Hicks was there in the flat.

“Mrs. Peel. Perhaps another time.” Bradford shut the door in her smiling face.

“Humpf,” she said with a frown just in case he was looking out the peephole.

It was late afternoon and Emma was studying the stain on her carpet while sipping a glass of white wine. She had called a cleaning service that promised to be there first thing in the morning. They had assured her that they could remove any stain, although when she’d mentioned oil paint the representative had hesitated.

Oh well, might as well do some more painting, since if I drop anything the cleaning will be on the ministry, she decided.

As she studied the onion in her still life and added highlights she thought about the bakers, the ravens, and the crown jewels. And wondered if she ever could have imagined putting those three elements into the same sentence before meeting John Steed. He might not be my long-term future, or offer a very settled life, but I wouldn’t give him up for the world right now.

So what am I doing with Emma, then, if this life is not for me? Steed wondered as he watched Hicks’s house into the evening. Husbands coming home from work walked by his parked car, glancing at it curiously. Children poured out of the houses to greet fathers. An impromptu game of cricket started in the street and was quickly ended by several mothers concerned about the non-existent traffic. What am I thinking? This life isn’t for her, either. She’s tried marriage, she wasn’t happy – she hasn’t ever said it, but I’m sure. She’s happy the way things are. There’s no reason to worry about anything more.

At ten p.m. Steed gave up. He was tired and hungry, and there was no sign of Hicks. I should have called Mrs. Peel and had her go to the guildhall. He’s probably been there, he thought as he drove home. But Steed had not yet had a car phone installed in the Bentley, and he hadn’t wanted to give up his stakeout to go find a call box. Once home, he made himself some tea and toast and played the messages on his telephone answering machine.

“Steed? It’s nearly ten p.m. I’m just wondering what you’ve been up to,” Emma sounded more worried than her words said.

“John darling, I probably shouldn’t be calling, but I just wanted to say that, well, if you have second thoughts, I wouldn’t mind hearing from you again,” Andrea. Steed closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Second thoughts? How about tenth and eleventh thoughts?

“Mr. Steed, this is Albert Jackson. Mrs. Peel told me to call you if I thought I saw anything unusual. Well, I don’t think it’s really a big deal, but I thought you would want to know that Master Hicks missed two of our classes today. He just came for the third one this evening. Um, I also wanted to apologize for not warning you that he was going to hit you the other night. I’m terribly sorry.”

Irritated with himself and wondering how much of it had to do with the case and how much was related to his personal life, Steed sat down by the phone and dialed Emma’s number.

“Steed!” she said, relief clear in her voice. She’d answered on the first ring: she had been waiting for his call despite the late hour. “Where are you?”

“Home, now,” he said. How can I even begin to have second thoughts about being with her? “I was watching Hicks’s house.”

“And he didn’t come home?”

“No. But when I did I had a message from Apprentice Jackson. Master Hicks taught only one of his three classes at the guildhall this evening. Otherwise, he’s been missing in action since this afternoon.”

“This afternoon he was at the home of Yeoman Warder Bradford,” Emma said.

“That’s the guard who we didn’t interview,” Steed said, knowing she’d explain.

“Yes. I learned at the Tower that Bradford had the schedule unofficially changed so that he’ll be working Wednesday. I dropped by his flat to ask him to sign a petition. He was not very helpful. Hicks was there, but Bradford wouldn’t let me in.”

“Now that’s interesting, Mrs. Peel. But perhaps Bradford simply didn’t support your cause.” She could hear the smile in Steed’s voice.

“Apparently not. So do you want me to search Hicks’s house?”

“Tonight?”

“If you don’t think he’s home, it would be easier now, after dark. I was thinking of having a look around Bradford’s, if he’s out.”

Steed smiled, imagining his partner in her black leather catsuit picking the lock on Hicks’s front door. He was tempted to offer to join her, but she was really very good on her own at this sort of operation.

“Be careful. Hicks has a small, annoying dog,” he said instead.

“I’ll bring a bone,” she replied.

“And they may be together at one place or the other.”

“Yes, I do realize,” she sounded slightly annoyed at his cautioning, so he changed the subject.

“You talked to Jackson?”

“Yes. He was very sorry about not warning you that Hicks was about to attack you – apparently he was watching from down the hall.”

“He said something to that effect.”

“I told him you were very hardheaded.” He could hear the smile in her voice.

“Thank you,” he inadvertently put a hand to the sore bruise on his head.

Emma made quick work of the back door to Hick’s house and had slipped down the stairs into the basement kitchen before the little dog woke up. Once it did, it came clattering down the internal stairs to the kitchen barking its little head off. Emma crouched down to greet it, extending the bone she’d sliced from a fresh steak she’d bought with the intention of having Steed over for dinner. It barked, sniffed, barked some more, sniffed some more, then allowed greed to overcome its sense of duty and snatched the rather large bone from her. The bone dragged the dog’s head to the ground, and after trying to pull it across the floor toward a food dish near the door the dog gave up and hunkered down to gnaw on it right there.

“Good doggie,” Emma muttered, then stepped over it and made for the internal stairs.

The house was untidy, but not as bad as one might expect. According to the ministry’s background check, Hicks was a bachelor living in a family home – his parents had retired to the country a few years ago. Emma recognized that Steed’s tidy habits and expensive taste in household furnishings were the exception rather than the norm, so she wasn’t surprised by the stacks of periodicals on the side chair, empty glass on the dining room table, and overflowing laundry bin in the master bedroom.

She was also not surprised to find an airline ticket to an eastern European city with a cold climate tucked under Hick’s checkbook in the desk in the study. It was for a flight early Thursday morning, she noted. Then she noticed that the name on the ticket was not Hicks’s. A sort of payment for services rendered? She wondered as she replaced it. She was closing the drawer when she heard the front door open and close.

“Charlie!” a voice called as footsteps thumped in the front hall. “Here boy!”

Emma glanced around the study, spotting a closet. She could try to get down the stairs before he started up, but it was late and if he was like most people he’d be coming upstairs to get ready for bed right away. Still, he might go to the kitchen to feed Charlie first. She started for the study door, stopping as she reached it at the sound of footsteps on the stairs.

“Fine for you then, you little bugger. You’ll just go hungry,” Hicks called out. Obviously Charlie had elected to stay with his bone rather than greet his master. Emma was relieved that Hicks had not decided to track the dog down in the kitchen and found the bone, although it would have given her time to get out the front door.

To her great irritation, Hicks made for the study. Emma squeezed into the closet, which contained more winter coats than any single man could possibly own, even Steed. They must belong to the absent parents, she thought, suppressing a sneeze at the cloying scent of mothballs.

She left the door cracked open to watch Hicks come in and go to the desk. He sat down and took out some papers. He read them, slowly and painfully, from Emma’s perspective. Then he put them away and picked up a book. How can you be comfortable? She grumbled to herself, watching him sitting stiffly in the desk chair. Don’t you need to feed Charlie? Why don’t you read in bed like a normal person?

But Hicks was oblivious to her silent complaints. The house creaked in the silence. Cars passed outside. The clock on the landing ticked and chimed.

Midnight.

One a.m.

The pages of Hicks book grew thinner in his right hand, thicker in his left. He’s going to finish the damned thing! Emma silently moaned. Her legs were stiff with standing perfectly still. She didn’t dare move for fear of rustling the coats or hitting the closet door. She was contemplating bursting out and assaulting the man – pay him back for hitting Steed – when the clock struck two and Hicks yawned.

Yes, you are feeling sleepy. You want to go to bed.

Hicks closed his book and looked around as if rousing from sleep. “Charlie?” he called out again. He rose and stretched, then, at long last, left the study.

Emma listened to him clomp slowly down the stairs. She opened the closet door and stretched herself — if she needed to make a run for it she couldn’t afford to be stiff.

She crept down the stairs to the front hall and reached joyfully for the front door knob.

“Come on Charlie! I’m sorry for forgetting about you!” Hicks was nearly at the top of the kitchen steps. Emma dodged across the hall into the sitting room and flattened herself on the floor behind a settee. She could hear Charlie panting as he followed his master into the room. She wanted to cry when she heard the television come on and felt the man sit down on the settee above her. Charlie’s collar jingled as the little dog leapt up into his master’s lap.

A gangster movie started and Hicks became absorbed in it. Emma became absorbed in the concept of sleep. She repeatedly felt herself starting to doze off and forced herself to wake up. Who would have guessed that Hicks was such a night owl?

At last, as gunfire erupted on the small screen, Emma heard Hicks snore. She was almost afraid to press her luck, but she simply couldn’t lie there on the floor any longer. She got to her knees and peeked over the back of the settee. Hicks had stretched out on it with Charlie curled against his stomach. He was definitely, finally, asleep. Emma tip toed out of the room and carefully opened the front door. It was nearly four thirty in the morning.

“Coming,” Emma called as the doorbell chimed for the second time. She’d gotten three hours sleep before the alarm she’d set jangled deafeningly in her ear. She’d crawled into the shower and, feeling slightly revived, was putting on slacks and a sweater as the carpet cleaners arrived. She brewed a big pot of coffee while they examined the stain on her carpet. Then she hid in the kitchen absorbing the hot beverage and a recent paper on nuclear fission while they worked, listening with growing concern to the sound of steam cleaners and vacuums and other machines.

“Excuse me, Ma’am?” the leader of the cleaning crew leaned in the kitchen doorway looking apologetic. They had been working for nearly two hours. Emma put down her cup and managed a friendly smile. “We’re going back to the shop for the high-power steamer. We’ve put a solution on the stain, so if you’ll just be careful not to walk on it . . .”

“I’ll avoid it completely,” Emma assured him. “How long will you be?”

“About an hour should do it for the solution to work.”

They came back as promised with a steam cleaner that Emma was certain would suck the whole room into its big canister. Remarkably, as they passed the monster slowly over the now somewhat faded stain, the carpet came clean. The cleaning crew literally cheered and the boss mopped his brow with a handkerchief.

“I was worried,” he admitted as Emma handed him a check for their services. “This one was a challenge. It might not have been so bad without the baking soda –.” He stopped speaking abruptly, realizing from the look on her face that she had put the baking soda there. “We’ll just get out of your way, ma’am,” he added, folding her check into his shirt pocket and gesturing to his crew.

Emma closed the door and leaned on it, yawning. She thought she could see a discolored patch, but they had insisted that it would be fine when it dried. Forcing herself to ignore it, she turned her mind to more important matters.

Where is Steed? Why hasn’t he called?

Suddenly she realized he might have, last night, or even this morning – she had buried the bedroom phone in a blanket to muffle its ring. Feeling irresponsible, she rewound and replayed the tape attached to her phone.

“Mrs. Peel, Steed here. You must still be out – it’s one o’clock. I’m sorry about that. Why don’t you come by tomorrow morning so we can compare notes? Any time.”

She didn’t miss the implication of his final two words. And she wondered if he was worried enough to go looking for her. She picked up the phone and dialed his number, but his tape recorder answered. She left a quick message, giving the time, which was one o’clock in the afternoon, apologizing for not calling sooner, and saying that she was on her way over.

Steed had been concerned about his partner until he drove past her building and saw her car safely parked there as well as a carpet cleaning van. He decided not to disturb the process since she was likely to be in a less than cheerful mood. He knew she’d give him the receipt, and then she’d end up taking it back and compiling both their expense reports. What would I do without her?

Satisfied that she was safe, he headed for the guildhall. He would have liked to know what she found last night, but he was certain if there were anything important she would have called. Meanwhile, a message from Albert Jackson while he was in the shower had informed him that Hicks was in the hall. Even so, Steed was almost surprised when the Third Warden led him into one of the baking kitchens and introduced him at long last to Apprentice Master Hicks.

“Terrible thing, those boys dying like that,” Hicks said while shaking Steed’s hand with a strong grip.

“Murdered,” Steed said.

“Eh?”

“The apprentices were murdered, Master Hicks.”

“Here? In the guildhall kitchens? Impossible!”

Steed had to give him credit for nerve. “Very possible, Master Hicks, unless you mean to insist that they knocked themselves out and then dove into the bread dough?”

Hicks hid his alarm well as he turned back to the industrial size mixer running on the counter. He carefully measured out some molasses and added it to the batter in the bowl.

“If you believe they were murdered, who do you believe did it?” Hicks asked, his back still turned. Steed tensed. The counter top in front of Hicks was cluttered with ingredients and kitchen tools, many of which were potential weapons.

“We don’t know,” Steed said, stepping to the counter so he could watch Hicks’s hands. He idly picked up a box of sugar. Hicks cast him an annoyed look, so he put the sugar down and picked up a mezzaluna that was sitting next to a mound of chopped nuts on a small cutting board. “Where were you last Wednesday night, Master Hicks?” he asked, feeling the balance of the curved blade.

“I had to attend to a family emergency, out of town.”

“Where out of town?” Steed pressed the blade of the mezzaluna into the pile of nuts, chopping through them.

“Do you suspect me, Mr. Steed?”

“My job is to tie up all the lose ends, Master Hicks. You don’t want to be a lose end.”

Hicks shut off the mixer and stared into the batter, leaning heavily on his hands on the counter. “I went to my parents’ house in the country. My father is – very ill. He had a fall.”

Steed studied Hicks’s profile. It could be the truth. But it didn’t absolve Hicks. Steed could check his story and his parents would probably support it, but he would rather just let Hicks sign his own arrest warrant tomorrow. “When did you come back to London?”

“Yesterday afternoon. As I’m sure the Third Warden told you. Are you here to arrest me, Mr. Steed? Because if not, I have a great deal of work to do to prepare for the apprentices classes this afternoon.”

Steed put down the mezzaluna and faced Hicks squarely. He was taking a risk that Hicks would not hurt another of the apprentices, or a raven. But he didn’t have a case against either Hicks or his contact in the Tower yet. He had to let them follow through with their plan. “No, Master Hicks, I’m not here to arrest you today,” he said, then turned on his heel and strode out, ears perked for the sound of a knife hurled after him. But none came and he was soon striding out through the ornate hall.

“Steed?” Emma leaned in through the door and listened to his quiet apartment. She stepped in and picked up the mail that was on the floor, carrying it down the steps to a side table. “Are you here?”

No answer. She wandered around the room looking for clues as to his whereabouts and spotted a note on top of his telephone tape recorder.

“Play Me.”

She smirked. I’m not going to the ball as Alice, no matter how much he likes the idea, she thought, shying away from pondering why he liked it. She hit the Rewind button, let the reels turn for a moment, then hit Play. She heard her own voice telling Steed that she was on her way over. She hit rewind again, letting the tape go for much longer before hitting Play again.

“. . . wondering what you’ve been up to,” she heard her own voice again, but this time from last night. There was a pause, then the next message began.

“John darling, I probably shouldn’t be calling — ,” Emma smashed the Stop button. John darling? She stared at the machine, willing it to self-destruct and end her moral dilemma. Why shouldn’t she be calling? John darling? Disgusted with herself, she pressed Play and listened to the rest of the message.

Then she sat down, rewound the tape, and listened again. Whoever she was, John darling had ended something with her. Recently. Emma’s pulse was racing. Come on Emma, She could be his housekeeper. Or his laundress. There are any number of relationships he might have with a woman and decide to end. And any number of women who’d call him John darling, none of them his housekeeper or laundress.

She realized that Albert Jackson was speaking now, telling Steed that Hicks had taught one class at the guildhall last night. After a pause, Jackson spoke again, telling Steed that it was now Tuesday morning and Hicks was at the hall.

Finally Steed’s voice came on. “Mrs. Peel, if you’re listening to this then you must be well. I’m going to swing by your place, but I thought we might pass one another. Hicks is at the guildhall, so I’m off there to speak to him. I’ll call you later – we should compare notes. Message ends.”

Emma’s emotional state alternated between ecstatic and utterly terrified as she drove home. She’d considered going to the guildhall to find Steed, but when she got into the car her hands were shaking. She realized that in her sleep deprived condition if something went wrong she’d be more of a liability than an asset. So she decided to go home, make herself a big drink, and go to sleep.

And that’s what she did, her mind running through the possible scenarios over and over until she turned on the television to distract herself. He could have ended it for any number of reasons, including that her voice is annoying. Emma took a big sip of her gin and tonic and mentally chastised herself for being catty. It might have nothing to do with me. How could it not, given the timing? But how many others are there? And will they all be hearing from John darling?

Steed stuck his umbrella in the rack and set his bowler on top of it. He’d gone to the ministry to update Mother. The ministry head had kept him well into the evening first reviewing the case, then discussing security arrangements for an upcoming diplomatic conference. When they were done Steed had retired to the ministry gymnasium. It had been late enough that he’d had the facility to himself, which was just the way he liked it. He worked hard at appearing non-threatening, and even harder at being dangerously fit. His two-hour exercise regime, which included a long run on the treadmill and sets of exercises that focused on various muscle groups, would do in many younger men. By the time he got home he was pleasantly tired and his mind was refocused on the case. And his thoughts concerning Emma were quite clear.

He saw that his “Play Me” note had been moved, so he knew she had come by. He picked up the telephone receiver and dialed her number.

“Emma Peel,” she answered on the fourth ring sounding drowsy.

“It’s Steed,” he said.

“Steed!” her voice brightened, sending a wave of pleasure through him. He sat down, suddenly wanting very much to talk with her.

“I see you came by,” he said. “I’m sorry I couldn’t wait – you were out very late.”

“I was out all night, in fact,” she replied harshly. He had a feeling he was going to have to make up for that.

“What happened?”

“Master Hicks is a night owl. First he trapped me in his study for hours, then I was about to get out the front door when he came into the hall. I hid in the sitting room and he came in to watch television for the rest of the night.”

“Oh dear. I’m so sorry Mrs. Peel.”

“He finally fell asleep after four a.m. and I was able to sneak out. I didn’t get back to Bradford’s, needless to say.”

“No. I saw Hicks at mid-day. He must be more accustomed to his routine than you are, he seemed wide awake and surly.”

“Did you learn anything useful?”

“Only that he wanted us to believe the apprentices had a terrible accident. And that his father is in poor health. He says he was with him until yesterday.”

“Which we know is not true. I did find something interesting in his house, by the way. An airline ticket for Thursday morning, issued in Yeoman Bradford’s name.”

“But no ticket for Hicks?”

“No. No sign that he’s planning on going anywhere.”

“That doesn’t mean he’s not, of course. But he is awfully nervy. He may think he can get away with the whole thing. According to his background check, his business is not doing very well. If he’s doing this to re-finance, then he wouldn’t want to have to flee the country.”

“What about Bradford’s background?”

“A bit thin, in fact. Suspiciously so.”

“You think he’s from the other side?”

“Possibly. But if so, he’s brand new – maybe he’s just here for this job, and Hicks has his ticket home. So tell me, did the cleaners get the stain out?”

“How did you – ,” she paused, remembering his message. “You came by. Why didn’t you ring?”

“I saw their van and knew you couldn’t come to the guildhall with me, so I thought it best not to disturb you.”

“Very thoughtful,” she said wryly, his true motivation – avoiding her ire — obvious. “They did get it out, and I have the bill,” she added. He chuckled. “Steed, I’m done in tonight, but we need to review everything before the ball. Can we do it in the morning?”

“Of course. Shall I come there, or will you come here?” he asked, then added, his voice dropping to a husky purr, “As early as you want.”

As tired as she was, his suggestive tone sent a shiver of desire through her. She realized that he was arranging a great deal more than just a meeting. He was arranging their relationship, telling her that he would be alone in his bed not just tomorrow, but any time she wasn’t in it with him. She fought an impulse to respond in kind, to assure him that there was nobody else in her life. But he had skirted the issue in a rather cowardly way. Her pride required that unless he spoke about it openly, he did not deserve her overt commitment.

“You come here, and bring me something nice for breakfast,” she said, knowing he’d do exactly as she asked because he was a gentleman. That, and she had him wrapped around her little finger.

Chapter 7

Yeoman Warder Bradford gently extracted the last small jewel from the Queen Mother’s crown and added it to the small pile sitting on an open black velvet bag. He stood up and crossed the small repair shop, replacing the crown in its case and locking it. Then he pulled the drawstrings on the bag closing the jewels safely inside and put it in his pocket. He glanced out into the corridor before stepping out carrying the crown case. The extraction had taken thirty-five minutes, exactly as planned. As a trusted jewel house guard he’d had little trouble intercepting the crown as it was being removed from the display for the night. He’d simply said it was wanted in the shop for a minor repair, producing a forged repair slip to back-up his claim.

Another guard sat at a desk in front of the jewel safe. Bradford put the case on the desk and patted it protectively.

“This is ready to be stored,” he said.

“That’s the Queen Mum’s? Went for some repair?”

“That’s right. The jeweler said it was simple after all, so here it is back again.”

“Right then,” the other guard rose and took the case. “I’ll take care of it,” he added, glancing at Bradford.

Bradford nodded nonchalantly and strode away. The guard turned to the safe, then, glancing along the corridor to be sure Bradford had left, took the case with him through a door into a small office. He set the crown down on a desk and picked up the telephone receiver.

As he walked toward the tower entrance Bradford felt inside his pockets. Jewels on the left, syringes on the right, and four canvas bags folded inside his uniform jacket. He left the White Tower and strolled as calmly as he could toward the dark alley where the ravens were housed.

This was the tricky part, but he’d practiced so many times he knew each bird’s sleeping habits without having to see inside. And the birds had come to know him. He pulled the pouch of jewels out of his pocked and withdrew five bright stones, holding them in one fist. Selecting a nest shed toward the rear of the alley he opened the door and reached inside. He tucked the sleepy bird under his arm and opened his palm in front of its face. The bird eyed the shining jewels and blinked. Then it reached out and snatched them in its beak, swallowing them one by one.

“Good bird,” Bradford muttered, tugging a bag out from within his jacket. He got the bird into it, but not without a little struggle. Kneeling with the bag on the ground he pulled the syringes out of his pocket and opened the bag enough to expose the soft feathers of the raven’s breast. He injected the small dosage and the bird calmed. He secured the neck of the bag and moved to another nest shed.

“Just wait a second, Steed. Hold on!” Emma leaned around the back of her new “auto shoot” camera trying to look through the viewfinder to see what the lens saw. “Right,” she added, pressing the shutter. The camera thunked as it took a picture. Five seconds later it thunked again. By then Emma was in front of the lens buttoning Steed’s waistcoat. She stood back to see what else needed fixing on his costume and he reached up with her crown, placing it squarely on her head. She grinned, forcibly turning him by the shoulders. The camera thunked again.

“Steed, where’s your tail?” she asked, looking where it should be. He groaned, plunging his hands into his jacket pockets. He was back in his “accept the awful inevitable” frame of mind, which really wouldn’t do if they were to save the ravens and the crown jewels. He pulled his hands out, a fluffy white ball in one of them. The camera thunked, and Emma took the tail from him.

“Do your worst, Mrs. Peel,” Steed said, bending slightly to present her with the proper spot for it. The tail had a safety pin attached, but she couldn’t gather the furry fabric of his pants to install it without sticking him. The camera thunked.

“Steed, open your fly,” she instructed, pulling up the back of his jacket to find the pants waistband.

“Mrs. Peel!” he said, looking back over his shoulder in shock. The camera thunked.

“Unless you want me to reach down them this way,” she said, inserting her hand into the waistband. He straightened abruptly, emitting a little yelp.

“Mrs. Peel!” he exclaimed again, reaching for the button at the top of the pants.

“It’s the only way I can pin this on without sticking you, Steed,” she giggled.

Steed unbuttoned the fly of the furry costume, allowing Emma enough room to put her hand down inside and attach the tail. The camera thunked again.

“There you are,” she said, patting his bottom and tugging his jacket and waistcoat back into place.

He turned around and inspected her costume, reaching up to straighten her crown, then pulling one side of the cloak a little to center it.

You look marvelous,” he said, caressing her cheek with the back of one hand. She automatically leaned into his gentle touch and smiled. The camera thunked.

“And you look charming,” she replied, noting that Schenck had stiffened his ears.

Albert Jackson looked up from his book as Master Hicks entered the baking kitchen carrying four cloth bags. Earlier he’d turned up with a cage full of twenty blackbirds, all of them sedated so that they huddled together in the bottom unable to hold onto the perches. Elizabeth had said that they looked awfully sad and Albert agreed. Hicks had assured them that the birds were fine, they just had to be sedated for the trip to the ball in the pie. Albert wondered how Hicks planned to capture the birds after the pie was opened, but he was afraid to ask any questions of the apprentice master.

Hicks set the bags gently on the counter and examined the finished pastry, which the students had removed from the oven while he was out. They had formed the enormous top and bottom piecrusts and baked them blind, without any filling.

“Lay in a sheet of parchment, Callahan,” he instructed. The apprentice laid a piece of paper over the pan and used scissors to trim it round so that it fit into the bottom of the pan.

“All right. We’ll put these fellows in the middle and the small ones around them,” Hicks said, opening one of the bags and gently removing a very still raven.

“This is going to be great,” Callahan said as they arranged the birds in the bottom crust. To Albert it looked like a dish of dead black birds. He shuddered and looked away. The top crust was set on a cardboard sheet to support it and laid across the top of the pie. It was an impressive pastry, even though the actual baking had been less than elementary.

Steed had taken off his rabbit head to drive, but Emma had wrapped a crimson scarf over the top of her crown and secured it under her chin. The evening had turned fair, the daylong cloud cover clearing just before dusk.

“Steed, even if we recover the ravens, the jewels have been removed from one or more crowns. The damage has been done,” Emma pointed out. She couldn’t believe this had just occurred to her. Steed glanced over and smiled at her in a way that told her he’d already thought of it.

“Mrs. Peel, there are two full sets of ‘traveling’ jewels,” he said. “You didn’t think they allow the Queen Mum to wear that heavy gold crown, do you?”

“So have the tourists been looking at fake jewels since last week?” she asked, slightly annoyed that he had arranged the switch and not told her.

“No, that wouldn’t be right. The real jewels are on display each day. They are swapped with one of the traveling sets at closing time and stored in the secondary safe. The traveling set are in the safe that normally houses the real thing.”

Emma thought about this process for a moment.

“And what if Bradford manages to get involved in making the switch?” she asked. Steed frowned at her. “He did arrange to change the schedule – why wouldn’t he arrange to be watching the jewels at closing time, just to be sure?”

Steed’s eyebrows rose and he gripped the steering wheel, pressing hard on the old Bentley’s accelerator.

“Steed! Mrs. Peel! You look spectacular!” Ambassador Brodney waddled toward them across the embassy foyer. Emma put a hand to her mouth to suppress a giggle, at the same time admiring Steed’s ability to maintain his genial smile. Brodney was wearing a large, decorated egg, his arms and legs poking out at the knees and elbows, his face centered in an opening in the upper half.

“Good evening, Ambassador,” Steed said, offering his gloved hand to Brodney. Brodney’s limited range of movement made handshake awkward. Then Brodney took Emma’s hand and tried to raise it to his mouth. His arm wouldn’t reach.

“Uh, well, a pleasure to see you Mrs. Peel,” he stammered, squeezing her hand. His face colored as she withdrew it and smiled indulgently at him.

“And you, Ambassador,” she said.

“Doctor Harkness!” Brodney had noticed the next guests arriving, “Excuse me Steed, Mrs. Peel,” he glanced from one to the other, then stepped between them, his egg bumping them apart. Once he had passed, Steed reached out and took Emma’s arm, guiding her on into the ballroom. Emma leaned close to Steed’s ear, which lay behind a patch of mesh in his rabbit head.

“Lucky for Brodney that he’s short – if he were tall and that egg proportional, it would be too wide to fit through the doors,” she said.

“Perhaps it’s more flexible than it feels,” Steed suggested, only now allowing his amusement to flash in his expressive eyes. “Work the room, my dear. I’ll meet you on the other end.”

The ballroom was awhirl with costumed dancers. Steed worked his way around the edge, pausing to listen to conversations as he went, identifying what guests he could beneath their fanciful garb. On the dance floor the Mock Turtle danced with Snow White and Tweedledum – or Tweedledee – danced with Little Red Ridinghood. Major General Korsakov, whose own large jaw was appropriate for his nutcracker costume, was surrounded by an entourage of toy soldiers. As he reached the far end of the room Steed came face to face with the costume he’d wanted to wear: a woman dressed as the Cheshire cat sat with her legs curled under her on a settee, her face wearing a mischievous grin.

“Good evening, sir rabbit,” she purred, gesturing a pawed hand at the empty space beside her. She was Mina Fusik, a soviet agent more notorious for her deadly skills than even Mrs. Peel. Steed tugged out his pocket watch and peered at it, then glanced around looking for Emma.

“Sorry, I’m late,” he said, then hurried toward his partner who he’d spotted nearby.

“Well?” he asked as they came together. Emma handed him a glass of champagne, which he accepted gratefully.

“The usual,” she reported, “Slightly tipsy guests, various operatives having secretive conversations in the dark corners, bad food and cheap champagne. Let’s dance while we can.”

Steed knew it would be distracting to dance with her, but he couldn’t say no. And if they were to continue working together successfully, they had to be able to be physically close without losing focus on the case. He had no doubt that she could switch gears in the intake of a breath; it was his response that he had begun to question. They set their glasses on a table and he offered her his hand.

They made a circuit of the dance floor, weaving expertly through the other dancers.

“Is Lord Freddy really a good dancer?” Steed heard himself murmur into her ear. He felt her stiffen, but she did not miss a step. He slowed their progress, turning her in place and letting other dancers swirl past them. She raised eyes full of emotions to look into his. His face was a proud mask, but she could easily see desire and possessiveness beneath it.

“No. I lied,” she said, challenging him to pursue the matter. To her surprise, he took up the challenge.

“Why?”

“You were being peevish,” she replied. “Freddy is an old friend.”

“But a bad dancer,” he added.

“I’d rather dance with you, if that’s what you’re getting at, Steed,” she said.

His face broke into a smile, although not of victory, but of simple happiness. “I’m delighted to hear it, Mrs. Peel,” he said guiding her back out into the flow of dancers to make another circuit of the floor.

The presentation of the pie was announced a double row of heralds – dressed in playing card costumes – marching onto the dance floor to form a corridor from the door to the throne-like chair where Major General Korsakov was seated. Brodney stood on his left, his toy soldier guards arrayed behind them. The costumed guests crowded close behind the heralds to watch. Steed and Emma separated and worked their way near to Korsakov, making eye contact from either side of the heralds’ corridor.

The four apprentices marched in dressed in traditional apprentice baker’s livery. Each student held a corner of a large board on which a decorated box sat. Master Hicks walked behind them in his master’s robes, hands folded in front of his round middle. The heralds nearest the major general placed two stools on the floor in front of him and the apprentices placed the board on top of them then stepped to the sides. Master Hicks stepped forward and put his hands on either side of the box. He lifted the box up revealing the pie, its top crust shaking, a strange sound emanating from beneath it.

Hicks nodded at the students, who stepped forward and took hold of the edges of the top crust. Exchanging a glance, all four lifted it at once, splitting it in half along a pre-scored centerline and setting the pieces on the board beside the pie. The birds, somewhat recovered from their sedation, roused at the inrush of light and air. Many of the twenty small ones took off immediately, flying over the heads of the guests. This inspired the rest, including the four big ravens. They squawked and cried and took flight to circle the unfamiliar ballroom above the heads of the guest.

The reaction was mixed – squeals of fright were mixed in with appreciative oohs and ahhs and clapping. But the birds were not as recovered from the drug as they thought they were. Several landed on guests causing little pockets of turmoil all around the room. Steed and Emma tried to track the ravens as guests pushed through the ranks of heralds. The pie being knocked off its stools and crashing to the floor seemed to be the final spur for utter chaos to ensue.

Emma saw a large butterfly net rise above the heads of the guests and intercept one of the flying ravens. She pushed through the crowed to find whoever was using it. Steed watched a raven land on the Mad Hatter who batted at it with white-gloved hands. The raven took back off awkwardly, glancing off a wall and falling to the floor. Steed stepped to it, gathering it up and tucking it under his arm to keep its wings closed. It panted and squirmed weakly.

Many of the guests were fleeing the ballroom with its increasingly mad flock of circling blackbirds. The apprentices, clearly abandoned by Hicks, stood staring at the pieces of fallen pie as guests jostled them on all sides. The major general had risen and was watching the circling birds calmly. Did he know what was in the pie? Steed wondered.

“Steed!” he heard Emma’s call. She was wrestling with a wolf – a big, bad wolf, presumably – for possession of a large butterfly net on a pole that had a raven tangled in it. As he started toward her to help she got a grip on the pole and jammed it into the wolf’s gut, “The knave of hearts, he’s getting away with a raven,” she said as she yanked the pole away from the incapacitated wolf. She nodded toward an open door behind the major general’s throne. Steed pressed his raven into her hands and headed for the door.

Emma glanced at the wolf – he was not likely to recover quickly – then carefully added Steed’s raven to the net with its companion. The two birds’ claws caught in the delicate net, causing them to struggle unhappily. Emma feared that they would tear through it and decided there must be something else to put them in around somewhere.

She studied the circling flock of blackbirds. She did not see the last large bird among them, so either it had landed somewhere in the room, or it had been caught like the one she’d seen in the playing card’s hands. Clutching the net, she hurried through the door where Steed had gone.

Steed caught up with the shorter man in the playing card costume halfway across the anteroom, tacking him inelegantly. With a loud squawk the raven escaped, flapping the rest of the way across the room to land on a side chair by another door where it defecated with great aplomb.

The knave rolled over and kicked at Steed, who bounced back to his feet and out of the way. He hated kicking a man who was down, so he circled the knave, giving him a chance to get up while putting himself closer to the raven. The knave rose and charged at Steed, head butting him in the stomach. Steed’s solid abdomen absorbed the blow and Steed chopped heavily at either side of the knave’s neck. Movement at the door caught his eye and he looked up to see Emma enter with her net just as the knave fell at his feet.

He spun around to the raven. It was gone. He continued his turn, scanning the relatively sparsely furnished room.

“Do you see it?” he asked Emma. She was also looking.

“No. Through there?” she pointed at the door by the chair. It was ajar. Together they approached it and Steed put his hand on it.

“After you,” he said. She advanced with the pole extended in front of her, one hand holding the net closed around her captive birds. Steed pushed the door open.

“Stop there,” Master Hicks stood in the corridor holding a large, wriggling canvas sack. Steed and Emma stopped side-by-side, then edged slowly apart. “Stop!” Hicks added more urgently. They stopped, exchanging a glance. Down the hall, ball guests were milling about the entrance to the ballroom, but none were very close.

“It seems we have a standoff,” Emma said.

“Yes, we each have two birds in the hand,” Steed added, glancing from the wriggling bag to the master’s face. It was contorted in rage.

“Drop the net, madam,” Hicks said, “or I’ll kill these two.”

“We can’t have that,” Emma said, hurling the pole and net javelin style directly at Hicks. It was an awkward weapon, but the attack surprised him enough so that Steed could lunge in and strike him in the jaw. Emma edged close as Hicks held up the canvas bag as a shield, knowing Steed wouldn’t hit it. He was right. Steed resorted to attacking his legs, kicking Hick’s calves and hoping the big baker wouldn’t fall on top of the sack. As Hicks danced in pain Emma moved in and grabbed the sack, yanking it out of Hicks’s flailing arms. It wasn’t her intention, but she pulled him off balance, so tight was his grip on the sack. She rolled as he fell toward her and they both ended up on the floor clutching opposite sides of the sack. Steed stepped in, planting his rabbit’s foot covered shoe on Hicks’s wrist. Hicks yelled in pain and let go of the sack, bringing his other hand across his chest to grip Steed’s ankle.

Emma edged away with the sack, moving to the net where one of her captives had almost freed itself. She gently gathered it up, receiving a couple bites as she untangled its claws from the mesh, then tucked it into the sack. Behind her Steed had lifted his foot off of Hicks and stepped out of the baker’s reach. Hicks, in no condition to fight, rolled to his side and started to rise.

“Give it up, Hicks. Today I’m here to arrest you,” Steed said, standing menacingly above him.

Emma extracted the fourth raven from the net and got it into the sack, then she climbed to her feet and lifted the surprisingly heavy bag.

“Master?” Elizabeth Mason stood in the doorway they’d come through. The other three apprentices were behind her. Steed glanced at her, noticing that Emma had secured all the ravens.

“Leave me alone,” Hicks growled, his eyes flicking from Steed to Elizabeth, then back to Steed. There was no doubt in Steed’s mind that this man had murdered the other apprentices. But despite what he’d just told Hicks, he had no jurisdiction here inside the Soviet embassy. It was up to Brodney to turn Hicks over to him, if he wanted to.

“I suggest you students go home now,” Emma said, making eye contact with Jackson and gesturing with her head toward the foyer.

“But Master Hicks,” Elizabeth said hesitantly.

“Is unlikely to be leaving any time soon,” Steed said. “Mrs. Peel is right, you students get out of here.”

“Come on,” Jackson said, pressing past Elizabeth. He led them down the corridor toward the crowd of party guests who were unaware of the conflict down the hall. As the four students plunged into the crowd there was a shout and a thump. Steed frowned at Emma, then gestured with his head down the corridor. She nodded and they followed the students, leaving Hicks panting on the floor.

The crowd in the foyer had formed a circle. Steed and Emma pressed through them to see the focus of their attention. The four students were held by two massive, uniformed embassy security officers. Ambassador Brodney lay on the floor, his egg costume split in half lengthwise, the front half lying on the floor beside him, the back half under him like a turtle shell. He wore dark purple long underwear that emphasized his round belly and thick thighs.

“Help me up!” he cried, then caught sight of Steed and Emma and groaned in embarrassment.

“I ran into him by accident!” Callahan said, struggling against the security officer’s grip.

“Of course you did,” Steed said, reaching down to heave Brodney easily to his feet. “There you are, Ambassador. No harm done, right?”

“No, of course not, Steed,” Brodney glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the ballroom door. The major general was standing there looking extremely displeased.

“Looks like you have bigger fish to fry than these students,” Steed observed. Shall I send someone around to collect their master?”

Brodney met Steed’s complacent gaze with his own panicked stare and saw steel beneath the pleasant exterior. “Yes, certainly, Steed. Send someone around. We’ll see that he’s cared for until then.”

“And the students? There’s little point in an international incident over four apprentice bakers, don’t you think?” Steed’s faced formed a genial grin, his eyes still piercing Brodney with clear demands.

Brodney forced a jovial laugh, “Of course not, my friend!” He turned back to the security officers and waved his hand dismissively. The officers released the students.

“Lovely party, by the way,” Emma said to Brodney as she followed Steed and the apprentices out carrying the heavy bag.

“None the worse for wear, I suppose,” Dennis Hope said as he studied the four ravens. They were each settled in a cage in the Tower’s small avian clinic. “The doctor will have to remove the jewels tomorrow, but they should be back out there greeting the visitors by afternoon.”

“Glad to hear it,” Steed said. “It seems that despite my efforts, Bradford managed to get his hands on the real jewels.”

“Bad luck that,” Hope agreed, turning to escort them out. “But I’m sure they’ll have them fixed up right in no time.”

“And the impostor raven?” Emma asked as they stepped out into the cool night.

Hope groaned and Emma and Steed exchanged an amused glance under the cover of the darkness. “Bloody bugger won’t leave,” Hope said. “He’s staked out a corner of grounds and the others aren’t challenging him.”

“Well,” Emma said as they strolled toward the gate, “maybe some new blood is what’s needed around here.”

“Steed?” Emma stopped at the top of the steps, seeing that Steed was seated at his desk leaning over something. He didn’t respond, so she crossed the room to him, setting her bag and coat down as she came. Up close she saw that he was examining a small, sparkling object that he held with tweezers. He had a jeweler’s loupe in his eye.

“Is that what I think it is?” she asked. He sat up and let the loupe fall out of his eye into his hand. He looked up at her with a sneaky grin.

“I found it in the bottom of the bag that we had the ravens in,” he explained. Holding the jewel up against his perfect Windsor knot, he added, “I thought it would make a nice tiepin.”

She took the tweezers from him and held the jewel against her ring finger, “I don’t know, I think it might look nice here,” she said. She watched his brows rise in alarm out of the corner of her eye and grinned mischievously. “But alas, I suspect the Queen Mum might object, don’t you?” She handed it back to him, then strolled back across the room to sit on the sofa. He took a moment to recover, carefully stowing the priceless jewel in a small box and putting away the loupe and tweezers. She enjoyed every second of his obvious discomfiture.

“Did Brodney hand over Hicks?” she asked as he joined her on the sofa.

“Yes. While we were returning the ravens, in fact. Our people thought it wise to act fast, since the Major General is known to be somewhat volatile. Hicks might not have survived the night after bungling the job.”

“What about Bradford?”

“The security camera we installed at the nest sheds caught him feeding the jewels to the birds. That, combined with the airline ticket at Hicks’s house ties him up quite tightly. I wonder if we’ll hear from anyone about an exchange? He’s a bit of a mystery – he may be valuable to someone on the other side. What about the students? How are they faring?”

“Callahan’s as arrogant as ever. I let him think they might be arrested. Jackson seems to have found himself, though – you may have noticed how he took charge at the ball?”

Steed shrugged, so Emma went on, “He was terribly frightened, but the successful resolution of the case seems to have given him a boost.”

“You’re fond of him,” Steed said, but there was no jealousy in his tone. Emma smiled.

“In a big sister way, yes,” she said. “You said to come prepared for a few days away. What do you have in mind?” she asked.

“I was thinking of the shore – long rambles along the cliffs, a gallop along the beach, seafood dinners in quiet little restaurants . . .”

“Just you and me?”

“Yes.”

“No case to think about?”

“Absolutely not.”

“When do we leave?”

Steed stood up and went into the bedroom, reappearing with a small suitcase. “How about now?” he asked. Emma rose and went to him, smiling with delight. He set down the bag and held his arms out so that she could step into them, lifting her face to his. “Or very shortly,” he amended, placing a soft, warm kiss on her lips.

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