This story copyright © 2006 Mia McCroskey
Characters from The Avengers and other sources are the property of their respective owners.
Through three wide storefront windows the Belmont Gallery gave the impression of a brilliantly lit triptych depicting dark-clad figures regarding framed swathes of color suspended in space around them. When occasionally one of the figures moved from one colorful image to another light glistened on the glass in his or her hand.
And while the other figures moved, looking at each displayed piece of art in turn, John Steed stood in essentially the same location. He was engaged in an activity that he had mastered so long ago it was second nature: discrete surveillance.
Another figure, attired in a deep mauve velvet suit with a wide-collared, ruffled, striped shirt and no necktie, appeared to move without really covering any distance. Mike Gambit was also observing, but his role was intentionally more visible.
Further back in the gallery a seating area was occupied by two women: Nancy Belmont, the gallery owner; and Emma Knight Steed. Nancy was sitting because Emma was, and to stand while speaking with her would be both awkward and rude, even for a life-long friend. Emma was sitting because she was five months pregnant. Even so, she was tempted to stand, because the starkly modern black leather and chrome sofa was decidedly uncomfortable. She did not have the heart to say this to her friend, though, so she stayed seated rather than have to explain or be made a fuss of.
Not that she was unaccustomed to being the center of attention, and she was not going to escape it this evening, whether seated or standing. But she was by nature a discrete person, and a kind one. Nancy had sunk every penny she had into the gallery, and criticizing her choice of seating – which was an inexpensive knock-off of a very fine German design – would only hurt her feelings.
“The bids on your piece are up to six-hundred pounds,” Nancy said.
Emma’s brows rose appreciatively. “I’m astonished,” she said. But despite her expression and words, she didn’t seem surprised at all. Nancy sensed this and was puzzled. Emma had said several times that she did not really care for the work that she’d selected for the silent charity auction. The amount of the current high bid should surprise her. Nancy decided to chalk her friend’s blasé tone up to the discomfort of pregnancy.
Emma was not surprised at the active bidding on her painting – which she really did regard as below her usual standards — for reasons that Nancy could not be privy to. And for the same reason she could not explain why her husband had posted himself near the front of the gallery where he could watch the bidders as they studied the work. Fortunately, Nancy had not commented on his behavior. She’s too busy being nervous about her auction to notice, Emma thought. And for the dozenth time that evening she felt a wave of guilt for allowing her husband to use her friend’s gallery in a very elaborate, highly secret, government-backed sting operation. Not, she reflected, that I could have stopped him.
A new arrival – tall and attired in a dark grey suit and nearly matching fedora — pushed through the gallery’s glass front door and paused to look around as he removed his hat. Steed glanced toward him, looked back at the woman currently examining Emma’s painting, and then back at the tall man. A flash of cheerful recognition lit his grey eyes, and then his expression turned serious. The newcomer recognized Steed at the same moment and he came striding across the polished terrazzo floor.
“Why so grim, Steed?” he asked, extending his right hand. Steed shook it, the smile returning to his face.
“Good evening Kevin,” he said. “This is a pleasant surprise.”
“Surprise?” Kevin Wycoff’s eyes widened. “Why Steed, Nancy and I have been dating for several months – thanks to you and Emma. For a while there we played at hiding it – just to see if we liked the intrigue,” he shot Steed a knowing glance that the agent ignored. “But we’ve resigned ourselves to behaving like an ordinary couple – just to see if we can tolerate it.”
“I’m delighted to hear it. And Emma will be, too. She’s just back here,” he directed his old friend toward the rear of the gallery.
“And you’re standing guard up here?” Kevin asked with a chuckle as they walked. When Steed did not respond he shot him a sharp, sideways glance. “You’d prefer I stop asking questions, wouldn’t you?”
“That would be extremely helpful, my old friend,” Steed replied with a smile.
Kevin grinned, but held his tongue until they had reached the sofa.
Nancy bounced to her feet when she caught sight of the men while Emma rose more slowly. Steed moved close to her and put his hand under her elbow as if to support her. She smiled fondly at him.
“Good evening darling,” Kevin said, placing his hands on Nancy’s upper arms and a discrete kiss on her lips.
Steed averted his eyes, catching Emma’s. She was wearing a delighted smile.
“Thank you for coming Kevin. Here, let me take your hat and show you Emma’s wonderful paintings.”
“Emma,” Kevin focused his attention on the artist as Nancy took his hat. “You look radiant!”
Emma smiled and shook Kevin’s offered hand. “People keep telling me that. I can’t imagine why,” she said, sounding remarkably sincere. Kevin frowned for a moment, thinking he’d made an indiscrete remark. But Steed’s chuckle relieved him.
“Your sly wit catches me every time, my dear,” he said. “Now remind me: when is the baby due?”
“Oh ho! Beware the ides of March, hum?”
“Yes,” Emma sighed, glancing at Steed. He grinned gleefully.
“Heard that one, I take it?” Kevin asked.
“Frequently,” Emma nodded.
“Ready?” Nancy reappeared with a glass of champagne that she handed to Kevin.
“Absolutely – I look forward to seeing Emma’s latest work, and your other artists too, of course,” he took the glass and nodded to Steed and Emma as Nancy guided him away.
“You told him to say that,” Emma said to her husband.
Emma smirked at Steed’s feigned offense. “Face it darling, it’s just too easy. You should tell people March sixteenth, or twentieth.”
Emma sighed, reaching up to stroke his cheek.
“Back to work,” he said, resisting the urge to lean into her caress.
“Back to work,” she nodded, withdrawing her hand and sitting back down.
“Have you invited all of Emma’s friends, Nancy?” Steed spoke quietly to the gallery owner, his eyes on Kevin, who was leaning close to a dark, dense oil portrait – not one of Emma’s.
“All of the art crowd, as usual Steed. Why?”
Steed let one brow rise, then turned to look toward the door as it opened to admit more guests. An uncontrolled growl slipped from his throat as he recognized them.
“Steed?” Nancy asked as he strode away.
“What is it?” Kevin asked as he straightened.
“Steed,” Nancy replied. “Sometimes I just don’t understand him.”
“Never mind,” Kevin shot her his most jolly grin then guided her toward the next painting. “It’s best not to ask too many questions.”
Lord Frederick Leighton and his fiancé Lady Miranda Holcombe had paused to sign the guest book when Steed approached them. The lady noticed him first and nudged Freddy, who looked up and followed her gaze.
“Steed,” he said, setting down the pen – a fabulous two-foot black swan quill attached to a ballpoint. “You remember Lady Miranda?” He slipped one hand behind her to rest it on her waist.
“Yes of course, it’s a pleasure to meet you again my lady,” Steed made a small bow while maintaining eye contact with her.
“And you too, Mr. Steed. I have not forgotten your lovely bridge party,” she replied. Her rounded vowels and soft consonants sounded like an unusual accent, but were, Steed knew, the affect of deafness.
“We’re here to run up the bidding on Emma’s painting,” Freddy announced, looking speculatively around the gallery. Steed winced inwardly at the prospect of the man’s unwitting interference with his case.
“The artist herself is just back there,” he said. “You know she’ll never forgive you if you don’t say hello first.”
“Of course!” Lady Miranda said, her eyes focused on his lips.
“We shall pay court immediately,” Freddy added, taking her arm.
Steed edged back to his post making brief eye contact with Gambit. The younger agent showed no sign of recognition, but just the same Steed knew that he was amused by his superior’s distraction. Steed adjusted his wristwatch as he glanced toward Emma’s painting. A man in an immaculate dove-grey suit obviously hand tailored to fit his round body and short legs was bending to enter a bid. Steed pressed his watch stem to snap a photo as the man straightened and turned toward him.
Another man – broad-shouldered and tall with a completely bald head – moved in to examine the picture, bent to write in a bid, and moved on. Steed snapped a picture as he was writing, but did not take care to capture his face in the image.
A few minutes later a blonde woman in three-inch heels moved in, her shoulders draped in a rich fur stole. She studied the auction tag then straightened and looked around the gallery with a frown. Then she wrote in a bid, her hand movement a quick scrawl. Steed snapped her picture and turned to smile at a passing couple — particularly the woman, who smiled back. She kept her eyes on him, her smile outrageously seductive, as her escort guided her further into the gallery. Steed felt an old, familiar sense of pride at his innate magnetism. He needn’t act on it, but it pleased him to know that he still turned womens’ heads. As he turned back toward Emma’s painting he saw Gambit across the room shaking his head slowly in remote scolding. If they weren’t working Gambit would take it as a challenge to win the woman’s attentions. In fact, he probably would find an opportunity to do so anyway. Steed’s musing ended abruptly when the round man reappeared in front of Emma’s painting.
He and Gambit both watched the man enter another bid and move away. This time Steed noticed that he did not move far – just over to the next vertical panel. From there he also watched the woman return, scowl, and enter another bid, followed by the bald man.
Gambit grinned with delight and watched the woman move to another painting. The round man moved back in on Emma’s work.
“Pardon me, is the toilet this way?”
Startled, Laslo Skinner spun around, sloshing the clear liquid he’d just poured from a small metal flask into one of the gallery’s hired champagne flutes. He slipped the flask into his breast pocket as he studied the blonde woman who had addressed him. Her high heels brought her to nearly his height. He had noticed her placing a bid on the painting – in fact, he’d outbid her with his last entry just before the round man moved in and outbid him. With fifteen minutes of bidding time to go he figured he could slip out from under Steed’s constant gaze for a bit, then slip back and enter a winning bid just as the auction ended.
“Yes I think so,” he started to gesture toward a black door with the word Toilet in sans serif white lettering on it, then realized that the woman was aiming a small handgun at his chest.
“Good, and beyond it is the back door. Please go open it.” She said in a vaguely eastern European accent. So she was one of the opposition, not an art lover.
“And if I don’t?” Skinner asked, watching the muzzle of the small gun. She was holding it rock steady – a sure sign of comfort handling and using a deadly weapon. He shouldn’t press his luck by trying to talk her out of whatever she had in mind.
“Do you really want to find out?”
Skinner shrugged resignedly and walked toward the back door. She followed closely. He glanced over his shoulder, hoping she would do the same and give him an opening. But her expression was determined and her gaze remained solidly on him.
He stopped at the door, momentarily contemplating letting her get close then throwing his elbow into her midriff. But as he paused, hand on the handle, she stopped just out of his range.
He sighed again, hoping she thought him a coward, and opened the door. The muzzle of the little gun pressed into the small of his back as she finally moved close to press him outside.
Half in the doorway, half out, he decided to risk it and shoved his elbow back aiming for her gut, hoping to knock off her aim. He grunted in alarm when his elbow was caught in an iron grip and his bent arm twisted up and around. She shoved with all her weight, wrenching his arm higher up behind his back as they both stepped out into the damp, dark alley. The door shut behind them and she frog-walked him with amazing strength across uneven pavement toward a large rubbish bin.
And then the pressure was relieved from his arm. He spun around, dropping into a defensive crouch with his injured arm hanging at his side, his other arm raised in a guard position. He was going for submissive while trying to keep balanced for either attack or defense. As it turned out, none of it mattered.
She fired her little gun at his heart. At first he felt like he’d been shoved backward, and then he became aware of the pain mushrooming in his chest. He hit the side of the big commercial rubbish bin, its upper edge digging into the small of his back.
She fired again, the pop of the little gun sounding comical as it echoed off the alley walls. The pain that erupted in his left shoulder assured him that it was no joke.
She placed the gun in her handbag and bent to grasp his ankles. She lifted his legs, her surprising strength evident once more as she tipped him into the bin. He landed amid papers from the gallery, rotten food from the café next door, and mounds of indescribable filth.
Miss Tellerman rubbed her hands together as if to rid them of stray dirt, then turned on her heel and marched back into the gallery through the back door.
“Ah, here she is,” Steed said as a liveried valet pulled up to the curb in Emma’s pale blue – somewhat faded with age — Lotus Elan. Steed handed the young man a tip as Emma lowered herself into the small car.
“Don’t say it,” she pronounced, raising one hand palm out to silence him. “I admit it. My belly almost touches the steering wheel. I’ll put her in the garage for the duration. And will you be coming home at all tonight?”
Steed winced as he shut the door for her. “Don’t wait up. And drive safely.”
She nodded, her expression neutral, and put the car in gear.
He straightened and watched her zoom away, glad that the early evening showers had cleared allowing the gallery guests to depart sans umbrellas. He snapped a few more pictures with his watch as he turned back toward the doors.
Nancy appeared there behind a group of guests. She scanned the sidewalk and noticed Steed, then crossed to him, her heels clicking on the wet pavement.
“Have I missed Emma?” she asked.
“Just,” he nodded.
“I wanted to give her the numbers for her paintings. All but two sold, and the final bid on her auctioned piece is very good.” She held a sheet of ledger paper with handwritten notes on it. Steed took it from her and glanced at the selling prices, suppressing his surprise at just how much one of the regular sale landscapes had fetched.
“I’ll give this to her if you like,” he said.
“Fine. Tell her she’ll receive a formal statement by post, too.”
“Can I buy you a drink?” he asked, folding the paper and tucking it into his jacket pocket.
Steed took her arm to guide her back into the gallery where he appropriated two glasses of champagne from a tray and offered her one.
“Cheeky,” she observed with a smile as they touched the rims and then sipped the champagne that she had supplied for the party. Steed shot her a flirtatious smile.
In the workroom at the rear of the gallery one of Nancy’s assistants was tightening the last screw into a rectangular crate. Gambit stood near the open doorway sipping a glass of champagne and admiring the woman who had smiled at Steed earlier. He was also watching the round man, who was hovering in the doorway watching the assistant.
“You’re sure it is well packed? I’m leaving the country first thing in the morning and I want to take it with me.”
“It’s secure sir,” the assistant told him. “Do you have a car?”
“Yes. Out front. Would it be possible for you to carry it for me?”
“Of course sir, my pleasure,” the assistant lifted the crate, “After you.”
Gambit downed the last of his champagne and tucked the glass into a handy potted plant, then strode into the room to the worktable where the assistant had prepared Emma’s painting for the buyer. He pocketed his objective and made a sharp turn out of the room, stopping beside the woman who was momentarily unaccompanied.
“Good evening,” he murmured. “I’m sure we’ve met somewhere before.”
“It was a perfectly good line. She was toffee-nosed.”
Steed snorted a laugh at Gambit’s indignant reaction to being rebuffed by the woman at the gallery.
“It just proves my theory,” he replied, settling in behind his desk. They were in his office at the ministry, a wood paneled masculine space decorated with military artifacts and a few keepsakes from past cases. Gambit eased into one of the leather upholstered guest chairs and waited, knowing Steed would expound upon his theory without being prompted. “Substance over form, Gambit. Women look for substance.”
“I have substance!”
Steed grinned as he leaned forward to spread out the grainy eight-by-ten prints from his watch camera.
“So who are they?” he asked, tapping a photo of the woman bidder, and then of the round man. The photo of the bald man lay half obscured by the others. Glad to drop the subject of being spurned, Gambit referred to a computer printout. His expression darkened.
“She is our villain. Maxine Tellerman, freelance operative currently in the employ of the Chinese.”
“Yes of course. The hair is different, and she is not aging well. But now I recognize her. And him?”
“Arnold Bray, art historian, and, apparently, art collector.”
Steed’s gaze rose from the photos he’d been studying to look at Gambit. “That’s all?”
“He’s a collector. No criminal connections. He bought the painting because he liked it.”
Steed frowned, picking up a photo of Mr. Bray with the painting, out of focus, in the background.
“The first two bids were from other collectors,” Gambit went on, looking at the auction tag that he had procured from the gallery assistant’s worktable. “Then came Mr. Bray. Our man followed him, and then Miss Tellerman, and as we know they three bid one another up to the rather handsome sum that Mr. Bray managed to enter just before the auction ended.”
Steed leaned back in his chair, not sure whether to be proud that Emma’s painting had attracted such interest from a serious collector or annoyed that the collector had managed to buy it, casting their investigation into disarray. He did not even want to begin to think about why agent Skinner, who was supposed to place the winning bid and keep the microdot in their hands while exposing who from the other side was interested, had failed.
“He’s got the painting, and the microdot, and he told the gallery assistant that he was leaving the country with it first thing in the morning,” Gambit went on.
“But we’re sure he has no criminal connections? Any chance he was put up to it by someone?”
Gambit shook his head slowly. “Anything is possible, but research hasn’t found anything to support that theory.”
“Blackmail?” Steed tried.
Gambit shrugged, “Nothing to suggest it, so far.”
“Be sure they keep looking – after all, they’ve only had two hours. Meanwhile, we shall have to visit him tonight. And by we, I mean you. Go get the painting back, then let your contact know that the sale took an unexpected turn. Offer to contact all of the bidders for a private auction. Otherwise he’ll drop you and we’d have to start all over with some other agent infiltrating his supply chain. If we’re lucky Miss Tellerman will still be interested in the information in the microdot and we’ll be able to nail her too.”
“And what are you going to do?” Gambit asked, his expression still grim.
“Me? I’m going to call our man Skinner and ask him how he managed to botch the bids – he was supposed to win. And then I’m going home to my wife.”
Steed rolled his shoulders in an attempt to ease some of the tension that had built in them during the evening and the meeting with Gambit. Gambit was impatient, and the results of the bidding tonight had thrown a wrench in his plans to gain his contact’s full trust. Steed was sympathetic, but he could not allow this misstep to distract them. They had too much time already invested in the investigation. The fact that he had not been able to reach agent Skinner meant that he had been deprived of the pleasure of chastising him for failing in his role as a buyer. Not that Steed enjoyed berating other agents, but Skinner was a second rate man who’d been forced on him. This was a troubling trend – Mother had always given Steed a very free hand, although he sometimes put up a façade of displeasure at his more unorthodox methods. But this thing with Skinner had come from beyond Mother and indicated that his long-time superior might be losing authority. That was very disturbing indeed.
His footsteps thudded as he climbed the stairs and ambled down the hall past the dark nursery. The door to the master bedroom was slightly ajar, a tacit reminder from Emma that he was both expected and missed, even when he got home at nearly three o’clock in the morning.
He had made the journey through the house in the dark so that his eyes were accustomed to it as he crossed the bedroom. As he walked he withdrew Nancy’s handwritten tally from a pocket and unfolded it, setting it on the nightstand nearest Emma’s sleeping form. He crossed the room again, loosening his tie as he entered the adjoining dressing room. He shut the door and switched on the light in order to change into his favorite navy blue pajamas. A few minutes later he switched off the light before opening the door, and was surprised to see Emma sitting up in the bed examining the list by the light of the bedside lamp.
“I tried not to wake you,” he said as he returned to the bed.
“You didn’t. She did,” Emma ran one hand over her belly. “She was kicking like mad. I think she sensed you.”
Steed climbed into bed and snuggled up close to her so that he could stroke her belly too. “Is she still at it?” he asked as he kissed her temple. She half turned her face to capture his lips in a second kiss, her eyes still focused on the paper. With her other hand she guided his to a spot on the side of her belly.
“There,” she said. “Feel it?”
“Yes. There she is. Our little princess.”
“You do know that calling it she does not guarantee a girl?”
“Shhh, I’m communing with my daughter.”
Emma rolled her eyes. “It looks like your man paid a lot for my sacrificial painting.”
“In point of fact, no. The winning bidder is a bona fide art lover.”
Emma lowered the list and turned her head to stare at him. “Oh dear.”
“I should think you would be glad!”
“No, I am not glad. The painting is inferior – that’s why I let you use it. I expected it to be lost in the ministry’s evidence storehouse, or perhaps destroyed in the grand conclusion to your investigation – an explosion perhaps, or it would be bashed over the head of the diabolical mastermind.”
Steed ignored her fantasy, mostly because it was so highly probable. “Nancy is delighted. Please don’t tell her you aren’t – she’ll want to know why.”
“And I’d have to explain that I would rather the painting be destroyed than bought by a serious admirer. Don’t worry Steed, I’ll behave.”
“Oh, there she goes!” the gentle thrusts under Steed’s hand shifted across Emma’s belly and Steed followed them, stroking Emma’s flesh gently.
“She’s probably going to keep us up all night after she’s born, too,” Emma sighed.
The loud ringing of the bedside phone startled Emma half awake. With her face still buried in her pillow she reached over and felt around on the nightstand until her hand landed on the receiver. Mercifully the ringing stopped as she lifted it.
“Steed residence,” she said once she got the receiver turned right way round against her ear.
“It’s Gambit. I’m sorry to wake you Emma. May I speak to Steed?”
Emma rolled onto her back and tapped Steed on the shoulder. He lay inert, his back to her, his head half covered with a pillow.
“Steed,” she said, resorting to shaking him.
“Asleep.” His mumble was muffled in goose down.
“Awake. Mike wants to speak to you.” She nudged him with the receiver.
He shifted, rolling onto his back. His hair was disheveled, the lapels of his pajama top twisted. He shot her an apologetic look as he took the receiver.
Remarkably, he sounded wide awake, a talent Emma had noticed the very first time she’d been awakened by the telephone in his company.
“Did you get it?” Steed asked.
“Unfortunately, no,” Gambit replied, speaking over voices in the background.
“I brought in a tactical team. Someone got here ahead of us. Mr. Bray is dead and the painting is gone.”
“Or my contact. Or it could be unrelated. Hold on a moment will you Steed?”
Gambit covered the mouthpiece with his hand and spoke to someone for a moment, then came back.
“Steed? Several other paintings were also stolen,” he said. “The moment Mr. Bray’s son was informed he contacted their insurance company.”
“Deeply disturbed by his loss, I take it?”
“Apparently,” Gambit tried to conceal a wry smile. “They’re sending their man to investigate. I’ll try to keep him out of our business. I just wanted you to know.”
“All right. Keep me updated. I don’t have to tell you the consequences if Miss Tellerman, or any other genuine member of the opposition got a good look at the information on the microdot.”
“It would blow the whole case. I know,” Gambit grimaced at what for Steed constituted a reprimand, not that Gambit had done anything wrong, but a bungled case reflected on the agent, no matter how well he handled it.
“Keep me updated.”
“And Gambit, I wasn’t able to reach Skinner. See if you can find him, will you?”
Gambit replaced the telephone receiver with a sigh, realizing that he was not going to get to bed tonight at all as he turned back to the body of Mr. Bray sprawled out on the floor of his study. He crouched down to look at the strangulation marks on his throat. The killer had used Bray’s own necktie and left it hanging around his neck.
“Excuse me miss. Miss?” the voice of a young police officer set to guarding the crime scene filtered in from the next room. Gambit glanced toward the doorway, his gaze stopping on a pair of three-inch spike-heeled pumps. He let his eyes follow shapely ankles up over sleek calves, pause on perfect knees, and move on to the hem of a pencil-thin skirt. He paused there because the hem of the skirt over shapely thighs seemed to demand it.
“I presume that is the late Mr. Bray,” the female voice was pitched in the low alto range and had the sexy burr of a smoker. Gambit almost did not want to look up for fear that the rest of her would not live up to the legs and voice. “But you are not a policeman,” she added, clearly speaking to Gambit.
He let his gaze travel on up over her hips – just round enough to be interesting and accent her narrow waist. He almost could not bear the precision of her décolletage – the exquisite V of her neckline over creamy skin, sharp collarbones framing the toned neck. A single teardrop burgundy stone suspended on a fine gold chain below her throat. She was a redhead. At first that was all he noticed about her head.
“Catherine Banning,” she said, extending her right hand. Although she was extraordinarily feminine, the gesture was neither demure nor timid. Nor was it aggressive – she was not a woman trying to compete with men. She had no need to compete. “I represent Mr. Bray’s insurer. I’ve been asked to find his missing paintings.”
Gambit stood up and accepted her offered handshake. “Michael Gambit,” he said.
“Michael, or Mike?” one of her perfectly plucked brows arched over a knowing smile.
“Mike,” he confessed. “Catherine, or Cathy?”
“Catherine.” The word was a little shove, returning him to a respectful distance. “Are you a policeman?” she asked. “I prefer to work with the authorities, or at least to make them aware of my priorities.”
“I am certainly interested in your priorities,” Gambit heard himself say – an automatic response that he immediately wished he’d repressed. “I am also investigating Mr. Bray’s loss.”
Catherine strolled around the corpse, her eyes focused on Gambit, until she stood across from him with her back to Bray’s desk. Her expression was curious and slightly amused, as if she was accustomed to dealing with flirtatious men and found them quaint. She directed her gaze toward the far wall where a darker rectangle of wallpaper indicated a missing painting.
“The Picasso still life,” she said. “And the Kandinski,” she glanced over her shoulder at a smaller dark patch.
“You’ve called on Mr. Bray before?” Gambit asked. Catherine shook her head as she opened the sleek leather attaché case hanging on one shoulder and withdrew a file.
“No, but I am intimately familiar with his collection,” she said, opening the file. “I can tell by the sizes. I can also tell that the thief is not an art expert.”
Catherine turned her head to look at a small sketch on a narrow patch of wall between two windows. “He – or she – left behind the most valuable work in the house. That is a very rare early Picasso.”
Gambit walked over for a closer look. The sketch depicted a naked man in profile with thick thighs and curly hair on his rotund belly. One hand was wrapped around the base of his engorged, outsized member as he gazed into the distance at a group of women in bathing costumes. The image was cartoonish despite the subject matter – nothing like the colorful cubist images Gambit had come to think of as Picassos.
“You’re sure?” he asked with a chuckle, turning back toward Catherine.
“Absolutely. I am an art expert.”
“So what else do you think about the thief?”
Catherine looked at a set of photographs that were in her file – prints of Bray’s collection, Gambit surmised. She shuffled through them, apparently unconcerned that he was waiting for a response. At last she looked up at him where he stood with the Picasso sketch just behind him over his left shoulder. Her wry smile puzzled him for a moment until he glanced at the wall behind him and realized that the figure’s erection was pointing at his ear. He stepped away from it, looking pointedly down at the photos in her hand.
“The theft of the paintings was used to cover something else.”
Gambit stopped and his gaze snapped up to her face. She looked smug.
“Mr. Gambit, I am here to try to recover the paintings. What are you looking for?”
With a deep sigh Steed settled into his chair and dragged a stack of the morning reports across the desk. He did not generally place a high importance on actually reading the morning news before noon, but as it happened Emma had awakened early this morning and he’d been unable to just roll over and go back to sleep: the murder of Arnold Bray was preying upon his mind. So although he’d gotten less than three hours sleep he’d decided to get up and drive Emma to her office.
Enjoying her company on the way he’d reflected that they did not take enough drives together anymore. Jaunts in the country or to the shore had once been their favorite impromptu escape, the hours of talking during the drive just as important as the fine dinner or night at an inn at the other end. He silently resolved to arrange such an escape, realizing as he did so that having to arrange it contradicted the very nature of the event. Emma noted his regretful sigh.
“More like wistful,” he replied.
“Our lives have changed, Mrs. Peel. We used to go gallivanting off on a whim. I miss it.”
Emma forced a smile and let her eyes wander across the suburban development beyond the Bentley’s windows. London had changed too since the times he was reminiscing about – one had to travel further to find the bucolic settings they used to visit.
“I shall make a note in my date book to schedule an impromptu expedition,” she said with a wry smile. Steed glanced over at her, saw that she was joking, and grinned fondly.
“John is a good traveler,” he observed. “Let’s make a point of going for a drive next weekend.”
Emma suppressed the comment on the tip of her tongue about how quickly she grew uncomfortable in the car these days. She understood Steed’s sentiment, no matter how poor the timing was. If necessary she would endure the pressure on her internal organs in order to regain a bit of the carefree nature of their earlier relationship. She had never been able to refuse him his flights of fancy, and that was not changed by pregnancy.
“We could visit a Christmas tree farm and pre-select our tree.”
“You can pre-select them?”
“Certainly. They put a little tag on it, and it keeps growing until we’re ready to pick it up.”
“Imagine that,” Steed smiled over at her, although she suspected that he’d been aware of the process all along. “Let’s do it, then.”
“But you do recall that Tara is coming this afternoon, don’t you?” she felt compelled to remind him.
“So she is,” he replied, a hint of strain in his voice. “Well, she can come along then, can’t she?”
They’d finished the journey into the heart of London recalling some of their more pleasant trips and discussing what destinations they would most like to revisit.
That had brought him to his own underutilized space at the ministry at the unspeakable hour of nine-thirty in the morning.
“Sally,” he said out loud as he opened the top report from the junior bureau chief. Sally Howard had held the Paris office together after the death of fellow agent Robert McCall and the resignation of his wife, Tara King. She had developed new sources in the city and identified McCall’s killer. Her reports were succinctly unemotional, pressed from the same mold as his own, which could not help but please him. But he was more interested in what they did not say, and his other sources inside the embassy in Paris told him that. The young woman was struggling, working long hours and using investigation techniques that were usually employed only by far more experienced agents. And she was frustrated that he had prohibited her from pursuing McCall’s murderers. He did not have the heart to tell her to her face that she was too young and inexperienced to take on the Russian mob single-handed. Steed knew that she needed help – neither Tara nor her predecessors had run the Paris office on their own – and he was looking for a suitable partner. But the mob and McCall’s killer weren’t going anywhere, especially since they thought they had gotten away with it. And these months on her own were hardening Sally. He hated to end them too quickly. Only the occasional concerned look from Emma when she spoke to her former assistant on the telephone spurred him to ease the young woman’s workload.
As usual her report summarized field reports from across France and offered conclusions about them – the rural communists were likely to regain several mayoral seats in the next election, heavy rains in the Loire promised a very good vintage year for reds while Bordeaux was unseasonably dry. A mine workers strike would cause a copper shortage in a few weeks – Sally suggested advising British copper producers to begin negotiations. There was no mention of McCall’s murder – after three heated discussions over the last two months she had gotten the message that he was not going to change his mind, so she had mercifully dropped the matter.
Smiling at her broad view, her clever inclusion of notes about viticulture that played to his interests, and her audacity at recommending economic strategies, Steed set Sally’s report aside and picked up the next one. The morning news contained highlights from all ministry operations and other intelligence events of concern.
At a knock on the door he shut the file. “Come.”
“Here’s your coffee Mr. Steed,” a young female secretary carrying a tray crossed the room to his desk.
“Ah, thank you Miss –.”
“Drake. Tessa Drake,” she smiled winsomely. Steed smiled back, lifting the stack of files from the center of the desk to make room for the tray. As she set it down the scoop neckline of her pale peach angora sweater gapped open to reveal some of her ample bosom. She continued to lean over as she removed each item from the tray one-by-one. Steed leaned back in his chair holding the files in his lap, struggling to keep his gaze on her moving hands.
“May I pour for you?” she asked in a way that suggested that to deny her would break her heart.
“Please,” he forced his gaze from her hands to her face without pausing in between. Her eyes locked with his and held them for a long, slow breath as she licked her slightly parted lips. Steed could not stop his libido’s natural reaction to her overt flirtation, but he could ignore it. Her lips curled into a sensuous smile as she poured his coffee.
“One lump or two?” she asked so provocatively Steed almost grinned at her audacity. He knew his reputation as a lady’s man persisted, but he had not been so overtly flirted with since making his relationship with Emma public. Quite suddenly he realized that he was not sure how to react. A polite decline, of course, but he wasn’t sure how to deliver it. Steed the bachelor field agent would not have: Miss Drake was attractive, after all. Emma’s partner Steed would have played out the flirtation, particularly if she was there to observe it, but contrived to be called away before it progressed too far. But as a senior agent, a supervisor of other agents and one who passed judgment on their performance, Steed realized with dismay that he must be extremely careful.
“None, thanks,” he said in answer to her question, schooling his tone to utmost professionalism. “I take it white, unsweetened.”
Her eyes darted from the cup to his and back again as she added cream.
“I’ll remember,” she promised him, her voice just a little less breathy than it had been. “For next time.”
At last she straightened, tucking the tray under her arm as she turned toward the door. “I’ll just pop back by to collect that in a bit,” she said, twisting her waist to look back at him over her shoulder. Steed maintained his mild smile, ignoring the enticing pose that highlighted her slender waist.
“Thank you Miss Drake.”
And then she was gone. He exhaled a long breath and shifted the coffee service around on his desk to make room for the files that he was still holding in his lap.
“Everything we’ve heard is true. He is absolutely charming,” Tessa Drake assured her friend Susan. She had returned to the pantry with the tray and found the other administrative assistant waiting for her. “His smile is brilliant, and his eyes are dreamy. I’m not sure what color they are, though. Hazel, maybe –.”
“What did he say?”
“Well, it’s not so much what he said – I mean, I was just delivering coffee. It was the way he looked at me – so appreciative.”
“But he spoke to you?”
“Well, yes. Of course. He told me how he likes his coffee.”
“Oh ho! So he wants you to prepare his coffee for him!”
“And I definitely intend to,” Tessa replied. “As often as possible.”
“Let’s hope his wife doesn’t object!”
“From what I’ve read in the news, she’s far too busy with her business to notice. You know I read a profile of her in a magazine the other day – don’t look at me that way, I was at the dentist’s – and it sounds like she is an absolute, well, not a very nice woman to deal with. And she must work constantly, running such a huge company.”
“Poor Steed, he must be very lonely.”
Steed reached over and set his cup on the saucer, then lifted his feet from the corner of the desk and planted them squarely on the floor. Sitting stiffly erect he read the same paragraph again and then reached for the telephone.
Twenty minutes later Miss Drake knocked and entered carrying her tray as well as a thin file stamped “Most Secret.”
“The file you requested, Mr. Steed,” she said, affecting a hip-swaying walk as she crossed to the desk. Steed glanced briefly up at her, barely taking in her eager-to-serve expression.
“Thank you Miss Drake,” he said almost absently as he reached for the file. He slid off the elastic closure and opened the file, belatedly realizing that she was still standing in front of his desk. He looked up, offering his most patient expression.
“Shall I take away your coffee things?” she asked.
“Yes, thank you.”
“Can I bring you another?”
“No, thank you Miss Drake. I shan’t be staying long.”
“Yes sir,” he detected a hint of disappointment in her tone as she began placing the coffee service on the tray. She was leaning just as provocatively this time as last, so he focused his attention on the file.
“Please call if you need anything more, Mr. Steed,” she said as she lifted the tray.
“Without hesitation,” he replied lightly, shooting her a smile as she turned toward the door. He could not see her satisfied expression as she left his office or he might not have felt so pleased with himself for handling her advances.
A moment later he was completely engrossed in the file that she had brought. The morning news had only provided the barest facts: In the last week two top secret surveillance flights had drawn enemy fire from surface locations that were supposed to be unarmed. The surveillance missions over a war-torn Southeast Asian nation were planned and executed by a very small, very discreet intelligence team, which limited the possible sources of a leak. An investigation was already underway, and ordinarily Steed would have read the item and moved on. But one detail in the summary had caused him to request the full report: the intelligence team leader was a neighbor with whom he and Emma occasionally socialized.
* * *
Gambit flexed his knees slightly, inhaling and exhaling a deep breath that turned to mist in the chilly air. He had missed two weeks of sessions in the gymnasium due to his undercover assignment and he could feel the effect in his muscles. If he kept this up they would begin to atrophy. That would be unacceptable – he would not allow himself to become less fit than Steed. The senior agent was a paragon of physical virtue despite his fondness for fine dining. Hardly anyone could report seeing him exercising regularly, but it was well known that despite his dapper outward appearance – and even the few extra pounds he’d added around the middle in recent years – Steed was still a formidable opponent in almost any type of fight – the dirtier the better. Sure, much of his success was due to cunning and guile, but his sneaky moves wouldn’t work if he didn’t have the strength and flexibility to back them up.
Resolving to demand less flamboyant legends in the future – his current cover as a black market trader and sometime pimp did not provide much motivation for overt exercise – he glanced at his wristwatch and started down the street toward Blackfriars Bridge. He was suddenly surrounded by a group of youngsters in school uniform coats who came up from the tube, all talking and weaving in and out around him. As a unit they started across the span, Gambit falling back a few paces to allow them to pass him. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed each of a pair of nuns — the youngsters’ chaperones – shoot a disapproving look at his black leather coat over a mauve velvet suit, patent leather shoes, and multiple gold chains revealed by his open shirt collar.
Far beyond the children he could see a lone figure walking toward them from the other side. He disliked meetings on bridges, but his contact seemed to think they were the only safe place in the whole of London. Gambit slowed even more as the youngsters paused near the middle of the bridge to look at the river and the adjacent Blackfriars railway bridge. His contact waded right through the children and approached him. The nuns took one look at the two men and started shooing their charges on across the bridge, to Gambit’s relief. He did not expect this meeting to become violent, but one never knew and children were a chaotic element in any equation.
Gordon Oxley wore a sleek dark suit that might have looked sophisticated if it weren’t made of a shiny fabric never seen on Saville Row. He had an overcoat over his arm, which was odd given the cold day. He was a more specialized businessman than Gambit’s cover: he dealt exclusively in information. The question Gambit was hoping to get an answer to in this meeting was simple – had Oxley stolen the painting and murdered Bray? He very much hoped not, because if so his weeks of work developing him as a contact were wasted. If Miss Tellerman or an unknown third party had stolen the painting he still had a chance of salvaging the situation.
Oxley shot an irritated look at the departing nuns before coming to stand next to Gambit at the bridge parapet.
“Bloody penguins,” he grumbled, “bending the kids’ minds.”
“I dunno,” Gambit replied, “I just lived in fear of ‘em.”
“Yeah, you and most of the rest of English youth.” Oxley seemed to have run out of comments on the subject. He withdrew a silver cigarette case from his pocket and extracted one, offering it to Gambit. Gambit declined, watching a police patrol boat putter along the river while Oxley lit his cigarette and put the case away.
“Messy business last night,” Oxley finally said.
“Yes. I hate it when outsiders get involved,” Gambit replied carefully.
“Never mind. My source is satisfied.”
Gambit forced his knees to flex again, wishing he had worn a wire. “Oh yes?” he said, even more carefully.
Oxley shot him a quick, wary glance, then returned his gaze to the
railway bridge. “The information was sold to the highest bidder for a very acceptable sum. I won’t pretend to care who actually paid and who actually has the information.”
“And the dead man?”
Oxley shrugged, exhaling a sharp stream of blue smoke. “As you said, outsiders should not get involved. You got your cut. I got my payment. Someone got the microdot – and a lovely painting to boot. All’s well that ends well. But I’ve got another deal for you.”
Gambit forced himself to take a low breath before turning a curious gaze on Oxley. He knew that he effectively concealed his disgust at the man’s attitude over Bray’s death, but that didn’t prevent him from feeling it. And the fact that he hadn’t lost Oxley’s interest excited him in spite of himself.
“I have a source with an ongoing supply of information. I’ve already tested the market and I can guarantee interest. I had in mind a sort of regular auction – your gallery arrangement is perfect. The owner doesn’t expect a cut, I hope.”
Gambit clicked his tongue against his teeth to hide a grimace and took the opportunity to glance around the bridge. There were no other pedestrians nearby, but several were approaching from both directions. Best to conclude this quickly.
Steed would nix the use of Nancy Belmont’s gallery, he was sure of it. She was a civilian and a friend of Emma’s, not to be placed in further jeopardy.
“Too public,” he said, shaking his head. “But I have another place in mind. Much more suited to private sales – invited bidders only.”
“Right then, that’ll do. I expect the first delivery on the weekend. When I see what I get, I’ll contact you about the arrangements.”
“Right. And Oxley, let’s also discuss the commission.”
Oxley’s eyes narrowed. But it was time in their relationship for Gambit to press for a bigger cut and, outward reaction aside, Oxley would be expecting it.
“Don’t get greedy my friend. You’re services are simply as retailer.”
“Then arrange it yourself.”
Oxley snorted and dropped his half-smoked cigarette on the ground. He lifted his heel and stepped on it, grinding it hard.
“I’ll contact you. We’ll discuss percentages.”
“That’s all I ask,” Gambit replied, arms spread in a gesture of conciliation.
Oxley glared at him, then grinned and shook his head. “Right,” he said, turning to go back the way he’d come. Gambit watched him walk away for a moment, then turned to go the other way.
* * *
“Yes, that’s how I want it. Formal, understated, dripping with class. Steed will sign off on it. … Because I know he will. Just set it up and let me know when it’s ready for a look. … And Hector, I want Aberdeen for the auctioneer. That’s right, put him on call. He’ll see to it that our man wins every time.”
Gambit hung up the telephone and flopped back on his sofa with a groan.
“If I hear another word about budgetary restraint, I’m going to –.” The phone ringing interrupted his soliloquy.
“What now?” he growled into the receiver, sitting up with his free hand supporting his forehead, elbows on knees.
“Good afternoon Mr. Gambit,” her voice was like the softest suede.
He sat up straight, groping for the best response. “I was expecting someone else.” It sounded awkward.
“So I assumed. Shall I call back?” Catherine sounded slightly amused, but also painfully well mannered.
“No. I’d much rather speak to you, Miss Banning,” he realized he sounded too eager, “If they need me they’ll find me.”
“Yes, I’m familiar with that situation. It’s always the ones you would prefer to avoid who find you, isn’t it.”
“Not in this case. What can I do for you?” Gambit smiled at himself, back on track.
“The amount Mr. Bray paid for the painting is rather high based on current prices for the artist’s work. I telephoned the gallery and they said that there had been competitive bidding on the piece, but they could not find the documentation. Would you know anything about that, Mr. Gambit?”
“Call me Mike, please,” Gambit’s response was automatic, but it also allowed him to stall for a moment. He reached out to the cocktail table in front of the sofa and picked up the bid entry form he’d taken from the gallery. “It was probably collected as evidence, I’ll see what I can do.” He had skirted explaining his role in the investigation to her the previous night, neither admitting to being a policeman nor denying it. If she thought he was then she was probably too naive to be a threat. If she realized that he was a government agent, then there was no need to discuss it further.
“You’ve examined it?”
“Not yet,” he dropped the slip of paper and leaned back on the sofa. “But if I can get my hands on it will you meet me for dinner?”
There was silence on the line, and then a light, appreciative chuckle.
“Tell me where,” came her reply. Gambit grinned.
Catherine Banning knew precisely what Mike Gambit was. A playboy with a rough background covered by a recently acquired veneer of gentility. She recognized her own kind when she saw it.
Born in Ohio, the daughter of a bounty hunter with three tough brothers — all plumbers — Catherine had used skills learned from her father and her own sharp wits to work her way out of the sticks and into a series of jobs tracking people and things for various clients. Ambitious above all else, she’d used her initial earnings to put herself through college. But rather than study criminal law or forensics as her father had expected, she’d pursued a liberal arts degree, rounding out her already honed investigative skills and street smarts with several disciplines including art history, literature, languages, and psychology. And she adopted as mentors her most sophisticated, cosmopolitan instructors, absorbing their manners, tastes, and habits like a sponge. She emerged with a degree – the first in her family – and a completely fabricated outward image. She never lied about her background; she simply failed to offer details about it unless pressed.
Her current employers were a discrete Swiss insurance firm specializing in private art collections including pieces on loan to museums and public spaces. Although hardly a household name, they were well known in the art world. Catherine’s recovery of a pair of Rodin studio models in her first assignment quickly earned her a reputation as well. She had been offered positions with other firms, but loyalty was one of the values her father had taught her that had always served her well. Besides which, she was extremely well compensated.
Gambit’s role in this matter did not distress her. She had him pegged as a civil servant: not a policeman but a spook with one of the intelligence services. She had had enough dealings with his kind to know how to handle him. The only thing that bothered her about him was the reason for his involvement. She could not guess what his interest could be in a few missing paintings and a homicide. There was something more to the case and she wanted to know what, if only for her own protection. If the price was dinner with Mike Gambit she’d pay it. She was confident that she would find out what she wanted to know before the starter was gone.
“Just along here Steed. Our removal van isn’t here yet, so for once you get to see the body.” Todd Burwick, ministry clean-up expert, guided Steed around a parked rubbish lorry.
Steed shot him a wan smile but decided not to tell Burwick that he saw more than his share of victims as he followed the man into the alley toward the rubbish bin behind the Belmont Gallery. He had been on the way out of his office when Burwick called. He’d come directly, parking the Bentley around the block from the Gallery so that Nancy would not recognize it. He hoped he could keep the news from Emma – she would not be happy that one of his agents had turned up dead behind her friend’s business.
“He was backed up against the bin and shot twice,” Burwick explained as they approached the scene. One policeman and two of Burwick’s men appeared to be loitering in the alley. There was no sign of the lorry driver or his assistant, nor was the area closed off with anything signaling a crime – just the truck blocking the alley. Standard ministry procedure in this situation – don’t attract attention, don’t raise alarm. Steed only hoped that Nancy wouldn’t send anyone out to empty the trash before they could remove Skinner.
“So how did he wind up in the bin?” Steed asked as he leaned over the edge to look at the body. He compulsively pressed two fingers to his throat.
“He’s dead,” Burwick assured him, which he immediately knew to be true – Skinner’s flesh was chilly.
“He’s a big fellow – it would have taken two people to lift him in.”
“We think your killer backed him up to it, then shot so he fell backward – he was tall enough that the rim would be at his waist. Then the killer heaved his legs up and he slid on in.
Steed wrinkled his nose at the odors coming from the bin – the stench of Skinner’s decomposing body was the least of it. In fact, the decomposition was well masked.
Careful not to touch the rim of the bin he reached out and lifted the lapel of Skinner’s jacket where the bullet hole was. Something stiff in the jacket made it heavy. He slipped his hand into the breast pocket and extracted a metal flask with a bullet hole clean through the middle. He raised it to his nose and sniffed.
“Vodka,” he said, holding it up to look through the hole. “And a small caliber weapon – a ladies gun, at close range to penetrate this.”
“He was also shot in the shoulder. But the bullet in the chest must have hit his heart – that was the killing shot,” Burwick nodded at the flask.
Steed cringed at the unintended pun and pocketed the flask, then turned away from Skinner in the bin.
He glanced at the close brick walls and the cobbled ground with milky liquid filling the gaps between cobbles like grout. “Ugly place to die,” he said softly.
“Not sure I can think of a good place, Steed,” Burwick said. Steed nodded and moved away from the bin.
“I suppose I’d better make the call,” he said, gaining momentum as he got further away from the corpse.
“The notification has already been made,” Burwick said. “Standard procedure.”
Steed stopped and half turned toward him, reluctant to turn all the way around and face the bin again. “The formal call, yes. But he was here on my order and I owe his people a more personal apology.”
Burwick nodded, recognizing Steed’s dedication to manners even if he thought it was dated. Steed started walking again.
“Steed?” Burwick called, still standing half way along the alley with the bin behind him. Steed paused and looked at him again. “Do you know who did it?”
Steed nodded. “I have a good idea,” he replied.
“Then I wish you God’s speed getting him.”
“Good afternoon Hong. Thank you for taking my call.” Maxine Tellerman ran her fingers through the fur of her seal wrap, which she had dropped on the table next to the telephone in her hotel room.
“Good afternoon Miss Tellerman. I have been anxiously awaiting your call,” the Chinese cultural attaché replied. “In fact, I had expected to see you in person. Do you, perhaps, have bad news?”
“Not at all, Hong,” she sat down on the bed and looked through the open closet door at a rectangular wooden crate and the backs of several unwrapped paintings leaning against it.
“Then we can meet.”
“I wished to clarify our agreement first.”
“Very well.” The hint of concern in Hong’s voice belied his usual inscrutability. Maxine smiled. For three years she had been trying to crack the attache’s composure. If she had finally succeeded then their relationship would have to be over – he would no longer wish to deal with her. The revision of their deal that she was about to make would certainly give him an excuse, if he needed one.
“There were unforeseen complications. I have to raise my fee.”
“You were to account for complications in advance.”
“You dictated the fee. It was adequate for a simple purchase only, not the removal to two obstacles.”
“You were to make a simple purchase. If you did not, that is not our responsibility.”
“Another buyer will cover my increased costs.”
The line was silent for a long moment. Maxine smiled smugly, leaning back against the pillows and swinging her legs up on to the bed.
“You will conclude the assignment as agreed. Bring the microdot to Chan’s this evening at seven o’clock.”
“My fee has doubled. You bring my price.”
The line was disconnected, leaving Maxine frowning at the receiver. Then her gaze returned to the crated painting and its valuable companions. Her lips curled at the corners in an unattractive, sneaky smile.
Emma shut the front door and leaned against it with a deep sigh, her leather briefcase dangling from the fingers of one hand, the other hand on her belly. The shape of the new life growing within her made her pause to consider its needs.
“Good afternoon Ma’am,” the nanny’s voice from the gallery was entirely too perky. Emma leaned her head back to look up at the young woman, her mouth parting in a smile at the sight of John in Siobhan’s arms. She had spent four hours in her office at Knight Industries and it felt like she’d pulled an all-nighter. She didn’t remember being this exhausted in the last months of her first pregnancy. “You look like you’re not ready for his nibs,” Siobhan added, shifting John to her other hip.
“I desperately want to spend some time with him,” Emma said, pushing away from the door toward the base of the stairs. “But you’re right – I need a few minutes.”
“We were just going to the family room,” Siobhan implied by her tone that she was seeking Emma’s approval.
“I’ll find you there in a bit,” Emma replied, pausing at the top of the stairs to place a kiss on the back of John’s head.
A half hour later she had changed into a loose blouse and stretchy track pants and washed her face. She stopped in the library to tuck her attaché case under her desk, then joined Siobhan and John in the big, comfortable family room. Siobhan had tuned the television to a program aimed at toddlers. John was in his wheeled seat with the tray full of colored blocks, his attention split between them and the frenetic activity on the television screen. As she entered the room Emma provided a third distraction and his chubby legs flailed as he steered his little walker across the floor toward her.
“Hello love,” Emma crooned, the sound of her son’s voice sparking an overwhelming wave of affection only matched by the effect of Steed murmuring in her ear. John reached out to her with both arms and she obliged, lifting him from his walker. She settled on her favorite settee with him straddling one of her thighs cuddled against her round belly.
“Oph!” she groaned as he dug his knee into her in an effort to stand. “Don’t kick your sister.”
“Mr. Steed really wants a little girl, doesn’t he?” Siobhan asked, looking up from her book where she’d settled in an armchair. Emma was very impressed with the nanny’s ability to read while watching over John. She seemed to have an extra sense that caused her to glance up at just the right moment without losing the thread of whatever she was reading. Or in any case there had never been a mishap while the child was in her care. Now she was watching as Emma helped John get his feet under himself and stand beside her.
“Yes. And I do too. But we’ll adore whichever this bump turns out to be.”
“There are so many ways that they used to tell,” Siobhan said thoughtfully, “My mum insisted that she could tell by the position of the baby – whether it was high or low on the mother.”
“Any insight for this one?”
“Well, it is rather high – that’s supposed to be a girl I think.”
“I’ll take that,” Emma chuckled, stroking John’s back.
“Ma’am, would it be all right if I went to a party this Saturday night?”
“Siobhan, that’s your night off – you can do whatever you want.”
“I just wanted to be sure you would know that I’d be out of the house.”
“Steed and I don’t have any special plans so we’ll soldier through without you.”
“Thank you ma’am. I’m looking forward to going out.”
“And you deserve it. Now,” Emma noted that John’s attention had returned to the television, “just what is this program teaching my son?”
The stone wall went on forever. Do they have to be so ostentatious? Tara groused as the gate posts – massive stone things set back from the road to allow an apron in front of the gate for visiting cars – hove into view at last. She turned her old Europa in and stopped facing the big iron gates. At least they haven’t had their initials forged into it, she thought, imagining an intertwined J and E. She shuddered and stubbed out her cigarette in the brimming ashtray.
Little more than a month after burying her husband she was not predisposed to be tolerant of happily married people. She wasn’t sure why she was here, other than that Steed had asked her to come. He had no authority over her now: her resignation from the ministry had been processed. She was no longer a spy for the secret service. No, she thought as she extracted another cigarette from the pack in her bag and eyed the security camera that was aimed into her window, I’m here because I could not tolerate another moment with mother.
The camera moved slightly, a weird cyclopsian eye controlled, she was sure, by someone in the house. I’m going to be a prisoner here. They have alarms and cameras everywhere. Once I’m in, I won’t get out unless they let me. She reached out the window, cigarette between her index and middle finger, to touch the button that would signal someone inside that she was waiting. But before she touched it the gates began to swing inward on their own. They were watching me. This is going to be worse than mother’s.
In a way, she supposed as she put the car in gear and moved forward toward her doom, this was her opportunity to restore herself in Steed’s eyes. He had lost faith in her because of her actions in Paris. Hell, I lost faith in me, she thought bitterly. So maybe if she regained Steed’s regard she could regain her own self respect.
Except Emma is sure to be beastly to me, her husband’s former lover living in the same house. What are we all thinking? We’ll kill one another – no, they’ll kill me, I’m too out of condition to stand up to either of them. She allowed her internal monologue to build as she steered her car along the winding drive. The steering was stiff and the brakes were squishy, the legacy of several years parked in her mother’s garage. She was glad now that she had never sold the car when she went to Paris, but she wished she could be driving something different. Something that did not remind her of half of her cases with Steed.
Emma was waiting for her at the top of front steps. Tara took in her black knit trousers and pastel orange baby-doll blouse as she stopped and shut off the engine. She can pull of anything. I hate her.
“Welcome,” Emma said, opening Tara’s door for her. “How are you Tara?” Her tone was warm and inviting, lacking in the drippy sympathy that practically everyone had been slathering on her for days. Emma, she reminded herself, knew how she was feeling. Or at least some of it.
“Hello Emma. I’m as good as can be expected, I suppose,” she said, never sure how truthful to be when asked such a question. She was sure the truth would come out in time, so there was no need to hit her hostess in the face with it from the start.
She got out of the car and went round to open the boot. Her suitcase containing the odd collection of clothes that she’d hurriedly packed on her last day in Paris was jammed in tight, and she took a firm grip on the handle and tugged.
“Careful!” Emma said, surprised as the bag came loose and it and Tara took a couple steps backward. Tara set it down with a sigh and reached up to shut the boot. Emma reached for the bag.
“No, don’t,” Tara nodded at the bump at Emma’s middle. “I wouldn’t want you to strain.”
Emma’s eyes narrowed for a second and she took a deep breath to calm her initial reaction to Tara’s tart tone. She’s on the edge, be patient with her, she told herself.
“Let’s drag it inside and we’ll get Steed to carry it upstairs later. And take care of your car. He hasn’t come home yet,” she said, stopping herself before she added anything about a case. That was not Tara’s business anymore. “Come inside. I’ve set up your rooms for you.”
Tara hauled her bag up the steps and inside then set it back down and looked at it as if trying to decide if it was safe there.
“You’ll have the bedroom over the kitchen – the farthest you can get from the nursery without being exiled to the attic rooms,” Emma went on as they climbed the stairs. “You have the bath and the study in this wing all to yourself. And you’re near the laundry. I’ve told Siobhan not to do any wash after eight or before nine. You can use it whenever you want, though.”
Emma’s monologue washed over Tara as they walked along the upstairs hall. Emma pointed out the small study, the large bathroom, and finally the bedroom. It was, Tara realized, more space than the apartment she and Robbie had shared in Paris.
Emma strode into the bedroom with a proprietary air. She really is the lady of this manor, Tara thought absently, still a bit overwhelmed. Emma picked up a sheet of paper that was on a writing table and held it out to Tara.
“I’ve listed all of the security codes and other information you’ll need about the house,” she said. Tara took the paper and looked at the long list of telephone numbers and codes to get in the gate, secure the house, signal the authorities, and so on. She felt a total fool for her thought outside of the gate. “I’d appreciate it if you’d memorize it and destroy the list – bad for security to keep it around.”
“Of course,” she replied, setting the paper back down. “That goes without saying.”
“Good. I’ll leave you to get settled – I’ll get Steed to bring your bag right away,” Emma said as she moved to the door. “And Tara, we’re glad you’re here. Please tell us if there is anything we can do to make you more comfortable.”
Tara sat down on the bed and took a deep breath, fighting off the tears that threatened to overtake her. She’d had enough crying, and if she was sick of it then she was sure everyone else was too. The apprehension she’d felt outside the gate had withered away in light of Emma’s kindness. Obviously she was trying very hard, and Tara felt it her duty to do the same.
“Look darling, your father’s home,” Emma pointed toward the kitchen door, trying to entice John to look. But his gaze was focused on the spoon full of applesauce she was holding in her other hand. Steed’s smile as he crossed the kitchen made her flesh tingle. She knew that look: desire and sensuous heat emanated from it so powerfully she struggled with the urge to drop John’s spoon and rise to meet Steed. If he expected it he did not let on. He bent down, drawing the stray lock of hair away from her face as she looked up at him, caressing her cheek with his fingers as he kissed her. His mouth took hers aggressively, lips consuming hers, tongue probing. Ever since Miss Drake’s advances that morning he’d been suppressing a mental image of Emma at her sexiest. The actual sight of her wearing jersey trousers and a baby-stained blouse, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, did nothing to dampen his need. Her pulse quickened and she sucked in a long breath, kissing him back just as enthusiastically as her insides warmed in anticipation.
Beside her John squealed, annoyed at losing his mother’s attention. Steed drew back, his eyes twinkling as he held Emma’s gaze.
“There have been times in our relationship when a kiss like that would require an immediate physical response,” she said, her voice husky. His sensuous smile suggested that he was open to any response she cared to propose. John squealed again. “But at this particular moment,” she paused to look pointedly at John. He opened his mouth to squeal again and she raised the spoonful of applesauce to it.
“I’m a very patient man. And anticipation can be extremely, shall we say, stimulating.”
Emma fed John another spoonful. “Himself will be done shortly and Siobhan will put him to bed. Tara is here, but she hasn’t left her room. Our supper is in the oven and I’m famished.”
“Actually she’s in the upstairs study,” Steed wandered over to the Aga to lift the lid on a saucepan and look inside. “I stumbled over her bag when I came in, so I took it up.”
“I had forgotten. Thank you.”
“What happens after we’re all properly fed?” he asked, turning his back to the stove.
“I’ve just an hour or so of work to do.”
His alarmed expression dissolved at the sight of Emma’s wicked grin. She chuckled and fed John another spoonful.
“I’m joking Steed. After that, I’m all yours.”
Chan’s was one of those huge, brightly decorated restaurants catering to Chinese locals and adventurous Londoners seeking England’s idea of authentic Chinese food. It was also a convenient meeting place for those members of the Chinese embassy staff who were forced, because of their duties, to meet with the lower ranks of society. Maxine Tellerman did not realize that. She only knew that Hong always met her at Chan’s, and she assumed it was because it was large, busy, and public. She also did not realize that Chan’s had private rooms. Hong never used them for meetings with the intimidating European woman. He did not wish to be alone with her.
Tonight he had taken a table in the middle of the bustling dining room. Trim waiters in black suits with cropped jackets wove in and out of the tables carrying impossibly large trays of plates – enough food balanced on one stiff wrist to feed an extended family of ten. Nothing was ever dropped, and the food was always hot when it was placed in front of the diners.
Hong appeared to be staring absently at the lit red eyes of an ornamental dragon mounted on the far wall when Maxine spotted him from the entrance. Waving off the host who approached her with his armload of menus, she joined the stream of waiters weaving across the room. She thought she had snuck up on him until she was nearly at his table when he turned his gaze toward her and raised his small china teacup to his lips. Their eyes met over its rim and she felt a shiver down her spine. This is going to go badly, she thought as she pulled out the chair opposite him. Fortunately, she had already made contingency plans.
Hong held his teacup with three fingers near the rim as he set it on the table. Maxine watched him, wondering if he would pour for her from the matching squat, green ceramic pot on the table. He did not.
“Good evening Hong.”
“Miss Tellerman,” he nodded his head in an abbreviated bow. “You have brought the information?”
“You have brought my fee?”
Hong leaned to the side to reach something on the floor next to his chair. Maxine stiffened, certain that he was not going to come up shooting, but unable to ignore the fear that he might.
He straightened and placed a thick manila envelope on the tablecloth, then pushed it across the table between the vase of plastic flowers and the place setting to his right. Maxine swallowed down her tension as she watched the approaching envelope.
When he withdrew his hand she reached for it, unfastening the metal clip at the top and unfolding the flap to look inside. She reached in with two fingers to bend the corners of the bills and see their denomination. She set the envelope down on the table with a grim smile.
“Not enough, Hong. Not by far.”
She had never seen the Chinese show anger before. The change to his facial expression was subtle but clear. His complexion seemed to turn grey as his already narrow eyes became near slits. The muscles around his mouth tightened, crimping his lips unnaturally.
“That is the agreed upon fee Miss Tellerman.” His voice was like splintering ice.
“My terms have changed. You may contact me when you are prepared to meet them. The merchandise may still be available.”
She stood up before he responded, not even certain that he intended to. His eyes darted to the envelope still on the table and hers followed them. Then she stepped away from the table and inhaled a nervous breath as she turned her back on it and walked away. It was one thing to go back on their deal, another to take the payment and not deliver the goods.
Hong looked past her toward the door and made an almost imperceptible nod. The host set his stack of menus on his desk and picked up the telephone.
Maxine noticed a movement out of the corner of her eye just before the enormous man in a grey suit lunged at her from behind the column flanking the restaurant’s front door. She spun to face him as the chimes on the restaurant door tinkled and a second man, apparently the twin of the first, emerged.
Recalculating her odds, she backpedaled, putting a few steps between herself and both men. They followed much faster than she had thought they could, one moving laterally, the other coming straight at her with outstretched arms. She fumbled her left hand into her bag, keeping her right hand free to repel them as she backed across the sidewalk. An elderly Chinese couple approached from the left, but stopped short, eyes widening at the sight of the three adversaries. Maxine felt her thighs hit the side of a parked car as the oldsters did an about-face. The twins moved in to flank her, apparently unconcerned about the witnesses. As one they reached for her upper arms. She tried to wiggle free but could not shake their vice-like grips as they physically lifted her. Their powerful bodies squeezed her between them with her feet skimming the sidewalk as they carried her toward an unmarked, handle-less door to the right of the bright restaurant entrance.
They stopped in front of the door and one of them knocked in a rhythmic pattern. There was a clunk from inside and the door started to swing outward. Maxine’s left hand was still buried in her shoulder bag, but the right was free. Fighting the goon on her right’s iron grip she snatched the edge of the door as it swung toward her. She hooked it with her right foot to add to the momentum as she propelled it toward the goon on her left.
As luck would have it, he was leaning slightly forward, perhaps preparing a small bow to whoever had opened the door. Whatever the reason for his pose, it placed the side of his face in the path of the door. His grip on her arm loosened as he instinctively drew back. Still unsure of what reinforcements would come from inside, Maxine dropped her weight to her right, tugging at the other twin, and pivoted with her left knee raised. She connected with the tender area that she had aimed for and her attacker grunted and loosened, but did not release, his grip.
Maxine glanced into the dark entry and saw a small man dressed in busboy whites – not an immediate threat considering the startled expression on his face. She completed her pivot, driving her knee up once more before slugging a solid left into the big man’s bicep. His fingers dug deeper into her upper arm, but he bent over, his other hand lowering to protect his crotch.
Meaty hands clutched her collarbones placing a tremendous weight on her – her other attacker was mad now. From behind her he snarled something that she could not understand. But his twin apparently did because he let go of her arm as the man behind her tried to wrap an arm around her throat. She knew that in a moment she’d be shoved through the doorway never to emerge again. That was not the end she had in mind for herself.
She grabbed the monster’s arm and dropped. He was far too heavy for her to throw, but if she could get him off balance she might get out of his grip. She would lay odds that she could outrun them, particularly the one she’d kneed. Sure enough, as she crouched on the balls of her feet and one hand, the other still holding the thick arm that was around her throat, its owner leaned to the left, his barrel chest sliding across her back. She shoved that way and he went over, releasing her in order to break his fall.
His twin had stepped back to give him the victorious finish, so Maxine had just enough space to straighten and step to the right before he lunged at her. Instead he wound up sprawled on top of his companion on the sidewalk. Maxine couldn’t spare a moment to look down at them – she took off down the sidewalk as fast as her pumps would allow.
Well, that seals that, she thought as she finally slowed to a walk four blocks later. She hadn’t been pursued, but she knew Hong would not let things end this way. Somewhere, some time, he would exact his revenge. So now her top priority was cashing in on her recently acquired bankroll so that she could disappear.
Tara wandered down to the study and looked at a bookcase. There’s a whole library downstairs but more books here. Such excess. The titles were light reading: novels, poetry, travel essays. A couple on grief and coping. With a start she realized that Emma must have selected the books specifically for her. She picked up one and carried it to a chair, recognizing the red leather from Steed’s London flat. That jarred her, the dear, familiar furniture relocated to this side wing of the big house. She was still standing there holding the book, looking at the chair, when Emma came to the door.
“I never throw anything away,” Emma said.
“But why should you? They’re lovely chairs,” Tara replied, stroking the leather of the one next to her.
Emma frowned, puzzled, then understood.
“The furniture? No, of course not. I meant the book,” she looked at the volume in Tara’s hand. “I was given several of those types of books when Peter disappeared. I don’t know why I kept them all this time.”
“But here they are,” Tara forced a smile. And here you are, face to face with the first person you thought of when you learned you were a widow, and you can’t seem to get through your own barriers to talk to her.
Emma watched her for a moment, then nodded slightly and smiled politely.
“I just wanted to let you know that supper will be ready at seven. And we’ve been very decadent this year – the pool is still heated. I know Steed will insist that we shut it down any day now, so you should use it before he does.”
“I’m impressed, Mike Gambit,” Catherine glanced around the restaurant. The subdued elegance of the décor highlighted the glamorous attire of the other diners. Candles on every table cast a flattering golden glow across faces and sparkled on jewels, glasses, and cutlery.
Catherine knew very well the sort of pull that was required to get a table for two at eight o’clock on a few hours notice. She did not for a moment think that Gambit had it. She had made inquiries and learned that he was a retired paratrooper with a penchant for fast cars, currently assigned to a mysterious branch of the intelligence service organizationally straddling MI5 and MI6. He had a reputation as a fighter – both currently and in his youth as a street tough. As they were seated and their crisp linen napkins settled on their laps she idly wondered about the friends he must have in high places.
He further surprised her by ordering a good vintage of a very fine champagne. She began to reconsider her analysis: perhaps his veneer of sophistication was thicker than she had at first thought.
Gambit had telephoned Steed, who had telephoned Emma, who had instructed her executive assistant Mrs. Emerson to use the Knight Industries name to procure the dinner reservation. As he raised his slender champagne flute to Catherine and took a sip, he enjoyed the burnished glow the candlelight gave her face as she drank too. She was tantalizingly enigmatic. The background check he’d run on her had revealed her ordinary roots and remarkable climb, but it had not explained her motivations. What in her rural mid-western childhood had created such ambition? From what he’d read, she circulated comfortably with American and European jet-setters and frequently rubbed elbows with very high society indeed. That he had managed a similar climb from the streets to the close company of the likes of Emma and Steed, did not cross his mind.
She shot him a flirtatious smile that set off all kinds of alarms in his agent’s brain. She wanted something, and she would use sex to get it. On one level he understood the technique and was not above using it himself. But on another level he was disappointed – he had been looking forward to the chase, but it seemed that she was going to make it easy.
As if she’d read his thoughts her expression turned opaque, her eyes suddenly chilly. He felt the corners of his own mouth curl and tried to suppress the smile. She could play hard to get, but he’d already seen through her. And he could guess what it was she wanted from him. It was nothing as simple as the bids from the auction, but he would start with that.
“I got the names off of the bid list for the Knight painting,” he said. In fact, he had the list in his pocket, but he had decided not to show it to her.
“And?” she asked, her face softening.
“Mr. Bray was bidding against Miss Maxine Tellerman and Mr. Laslo Skinner . There were two other early bidders who entered one bid each.”
“But Tellerman and Skinner bid more than once?”
“They drove the auction price up by thirty-five hundred pounds in four bids against Mr. Bray.”
“Thus driving up the value of Mrs. Steed’s work,” she said, sipping her champagne as she studied Gambit speculatively. It had occurred to her that the robbery could be part of a publicity ploy for a nascent artist. Murders had been committed for less in the art world. Gambit could be investigating such a plot.
Gambit smiled wryly. “Perhaps you should interview Mrs. Steed,” he said, trying to imagine the encounter.
“You have?” she asked, curious mostly because of his amused expression.
He nodded, buying a moment to formulate a better response. “She is – interesting.”
“Most artists are.”
“I don’t think she had anything to do with the robbery,” he decided to be blunt, although honesty would have required a more definite declaration. “She is a serious artist, but she also has a career in business and handsome income. She would not be motivated by financial gain.”
“And she would be unlikely to murder a patron, whether she needs his money or not.”
“Agreed.” Gambit thought he had probably deflected Catherine’s suspicions from Emma, but if not he knew that the artist could hold her own if confronted. He only hoped he could be there when it happened.
Catherine surprised Gambit by ordering a steak – he’d had her pegged as the salad and seafood type. Gambit surprised Catherine by ordering pheasant with a delicate French sauce that she hadn’t expected a man like him to appreciate. They talked about art, and Mr. Bray, and the challenge for unknown artists finding an audience. She did not ask him about his involvement in the case and he did not tell her. They nibbled on a cheese plate and sipped sherry before concluding their meal with strong espresso and tiny chocolate truffles over a discussion of their favorite handguns. Neither of them was quite sure how the conversation had turned to such a martial topic, nor why it was that bullets, muzzles, and grips suddenly seemed so sexy.
“Shall I give you a lift?” Gambit asked, leaning close enough to catch a whiff of her perfume as he handed his ticket to the valet. It was floral, complex and sophisticated. The image of her dabbing it behind her ear with her fingertip sent a wave of warmth through him. Catherine’s expression was unreadable again, but her eyes sparkled seductively. She drew her hair back off her face with her left hand and turned her head to watch the valet approach Gambit’s red Jaguar parked just down from the restaurant entrance.
“Is that your car?” she asked, impressed. She turned her face back to him so that her full lips were an inch from his. She had refreshed her lipstick after dinner.
“Um hummm,” he purred. She held the pose, her eyes challenging him to kiss her. He held back, fighting off another wry smile.
“Your car sir,” the valet broke their standoff.
Gambit pressed a tip into his hand and opened the passenger side door, looking pointedly at Catherine. She lowered her eyes toward the car then looked back at him with a knowing smile. He gestured into the vehicle and she got in.
“If I had a penny for every time a case distracted you from me, Steed,” Emma sighed, clear by her tone that she was not really annoyed. They were stretched out in bed, the sheet draped over them and the comforter shoved down to their feet. Soon the autumn cool in the room would force them to pull it up, but for the moment they were still overheated from their intimate exertions.
Emma’s head was cushioned on Steed’s shoulder, his hand slowly stroking her forearm, but she knew he was thinking about a case because he had not answered her previous question about his plans for the next day.
“You would be rich,” he finished for her. “But then, you are rather wealthy…”
“I didn’t mean to suggest that you neglect me,” she said, rolling her head to look at him. “I was just wondering what you were thinking about.”
“But you’re right. Your wealth could represent my distraction – it does happen often enough. I can’t help it darling. Something about our time together clears my mind. Sharpens it.”
“Some people have their most brilliant ideas in the shower,” she smiled, rolling awkwardly onto her side to see him better. He shifted too so that they were facing one another. “You have them after sex.”
Steed smiled at her indulgence, reaching up to stroke her temple.
“And you are brilliant all of the time.”
She shot him a crooked smile in the darkness and snuggled her round belly up close to his. “Can you tell me? Maybe we’ll both have brilliant ideas.”
“Sorry love,” he grimaced. “It’s an eyes-only matter, and your eyes, although flawless, are not authorized.”
Emma grimaced at his overt flattery, deftly hiding the sting of his denial. “It’s all right Steed. Perhaps I can help you in another way,” she let her hand roam down his shoulder to his flank as her mouth sought his.
They made love again, slowly and gently, sharing breaths, heartbeats, caresses, and ultimately their very essences. Afterward they lay spooned together, Steed inhaling the warm, herbal scent of her hair, his breath warming her neck. Her heartbeat, felt through her back pressed against his chest, gradually slowed along with her breathing.
“Sleep well love,” he whispered, pressing his lips to the back of her neck. These words of good night were a long-standing tradition no less important because she did not hear them.
Her solution to his distraction had been quite effective, both at returning his attention to her for the duration and at refocusing him on the problem of the compromised surveillance flights. That afternoon after his visit to the alley behind Nancy’s gallery he had continued on his original errand. The supervising agent investigating the flights had told him that Air Commodore Drucker, in charge of the flight team, was under surveillance. But the investigators were concentrating on the squad of pilots based in Asia. He had no objection to Steed speaking with the Air Commodore who already knew that his top-secret team was under investigation.
So Steed had dropped in on the Air Commodore at his office at an RAF base not far from both their homes. The officer had welcomed him with polite curiosity: their occasional encounters at social occasions had not forged the sort of friendship that justified an office visit. Steed knew better than to use a cover: Drucker did know him well enough to have an idea of his true profession. Even a vague excuse for the visit such as general review of security would be transparent. So Steed was left with his least favorite approach – the straightforward one. On the other hand, he was beginning to feel the effects of insufficient sleep, so not having to invent and sustain a story was a relief.
Drucker met him in his office – a surprisingly utilitarian space in the station’s ornate old administration building – and offered him tea, which he accepted. Once a middle-aged aide was sent for the refreshments Steed knew he must explain his visit.
“I was in the area and I realized that it has been far too long since I visited RAF Bentley Priory,” he offered, at the last moment simply unable to launch right in to the matter at hand. Distracting him with a friendly chat, he decided, that’s hardly the same as using a cover.
“I didn’t know you were RAF, Steed,” Drucker replied.
“Oh no, I wasn’t stationed here, but I spent my share of pre-mission hours here during the war. Waiting for the weather to break, then strapping into the back of a transport for the ride over.”
Steed nodded as he watched Drucker’s reaction. Most RAF boys respected the intelligence teams that they’d ferried back and forth during the war, but there were a few who resented having to fly over the line for a drop or, more dangerous still, a pick-up. Drucker’s expression seemed to lighten and he nodded back at Steed. Given his current intelligence project Steed should have guessed that he fell into the former category.
“Dangerous stuff back then,” Drucker said. “In behind the lines, flying blind, dodging ground fire.” He stopped speaking, his expression slipping from softly reminiscent to alert as he gazed at Steed.
Steed made another nearly imperceptible nod. “Dangerous stuff today, too, Air Commodore.”
The office door opened and the aide came in with a tea tray.
“Thank you, Waller. We’ll pour for ourselves,” Drucker instructed him as he set the tray on the desk.
Drucker poured Steed’s tea and waited while he added sugar and stirred. When he sat back with his cup and saucer in his lap Drucker added lemon to his tea and took a careful sip, studying Steed. He pursed his lips and set his cup down.
“Of course that’s why you’re here,” he said, picking up a yellow pencil and bouncing the eraser on the desk. It made a hollow, rhythmic sound.
“Strictly speaking, yes.” Steed admitted. “You knew there was an investigation underway?”
“I was notified – a form letter, really. So you are the hound?”
“I am — ,” Steed paused to consider his response, “ – peripherally involved. My visit is more in the nature of a courtesy call – to make up for that form letter.”
The pencil bounced again.
“As you know, Air Commodore, the source of the leak – assuming there was one and the attacks on the flights were not just bad fortune – has to be one of a very small group of individuals. The pilots themselves, yourself, and your operations contact in Military Intelligence.”
“I can tell you one thing, Steed: the pilots are unimpeachable. The leak – if there is one – is not in country. Your fellows there are wasting their time.” Drucker leaned back in his chair, the pencil pointing across the desk at Steed.
Steed watched him for a moment, waiting to see if his cool, grey gaze would spur him to say more. But Drucker waited him out, his determined expression saying that he would stand behind his men at all costs.
“That does leave us with very few other suspects, Air Commodore,” Steed finally said, his tone suggesting that the comment was not terribly significant even though it placed the Air Commodore squarely in the center of the investigation. Still, Drucker did not flinch.
“I assure you the men of the RAF are loyal. You will find the leak elsewhere.”
Steed felt his mouth curling into an admiring smile. Drucker’s declaration of his own innocence as part of the RAF could have been more discrete, but the inherent accusation of Military Intelligence was subtle indeed.
“Well then, I shall convey your thoughts to the investigative team,” Steed said, setting his still full cup and saucer on the desk and rising from his chair as he spoke. Drucker made no move to stop him.
“Good day Steed,” he said, raising his own cup to his lips again.
Since he had not been asked to plant a bug in the Air Commodor’s office he suspected that the investigating team already had one in place, but he had reported the conversation to the supervising agent as a matter of form. The agent, a senior man who Steed had known for years, had reacted much as Steed had – wondering whether the Air Commodore was trying to deflect attention, or sincere in his declaration of RAF innocence. He agreed with Steed that his investigation should broaden to more overtly include the Air Commodore.
But in the moments after making love with Emma, as Steed’s supple mind automatically ran through the facts of the case once more, Steed had hit upon a third alternative. And as Emma and their unborn baby lay sleeping in his arms he reviewed it again. The notion grew more concrete and the lines of investigation more apparent even as he too slipped into welcome sleep.
“Is this bed standard spy issue?” Catherine watched as Gambit’s motorized sofa bed transformed itself at the touch of a button. Gambit stepped over to her, reaching up to stroke her cheek as his smile turned shy.
“No,” he replied, showing no sign of surprise at her identifying him as a spy. His light touch sent a tingle all through her, which surprised her considerably. He was attractive in a rough-hewn, very masculine way. Her type was usually more sophisticated, with subtler charm. But there was no denying that his touch and the curl of a smile on the corners of his mouth and his sensuous eyes were just the combination to draw her in.
Back in his flashy red Jaguar he had asked her where she wanted to go and she’d replied, “Surprise me.” Predictably he’d brought her to his place, but since she still hadn’t found out why he was involved in the Arnold Bray case she had decided to play along. She had a feeling, though, that she really was being played – that he knew what she was after and intended to make her pay the price she was offering. Still, if his touch could make her heart race like it was now then the price was worth it. It had been a while since a man had made her feel this way. She turned her head just enough to nestle against his hand, encouraging him.
He slid his fingers into her hair, his other arm moving around her waist so that their bodies were pressed lightly together. She tilted her head back a little, finding his eyes suddenly terribly fascinating. His mouth touched the side of hers and her lips parted on their own, a little sigh escaping. But rather than kiss them he lowered his face to kiss her neck and she gasped at the sensation of his warm breath on her sensitive skin.
He sighed too, leaving a trail of kisses over her cheek leading to her mouth. And then he took her mouth with his, shifting his body against hers to press one thigh between her legs. She wrapped her arms around him and pressed herself to him, returning his kiss with eager abandon.
“Why are you interested in Arnold Brey?”
Gambit stood in his kitchen, dressed in trousers and a casual shirt, holding a mug of coffee. Catherine had asked the question as she emerged from the bathroom wrapped in his somewhat tattered flannel robe.
“He was murdered for his art collection by thieves who don’t know art very well,” Gambit replied with a dismissive shrug. But she shook her head, pacing toward him in a mock threatening manner. He grinned at her approach, wondering if they would end up back in the bed that he had not yet put away. He was tired from a nearly sleepless night, but that had never stopped him before.
“You’re not a policeman. The murder, the theft – they aren’t what you’re interested in.” She stopped in front of him, her expression gone deadly serious.
Game’s up, he sighed internally. It was fun while it lasted.
“Sorry,” he tried his shrug again. “Top secret.”
Her jaw nearly vibrated as she ground her teeth, her eyes flashing anger and frustration at him.
“You rat!” she growled, and he half expected her to slap him.
“You could have just asked over dinner,” he replied with the casualness of the upper hand. Then he leaned a little closer to her, knowing it was risky: “but last night was rather fun anyway.”
Her eyes narrowed over her glare, but after a moment she snorted a laugh and visibly relaxed.
“It was. I’ll give you that,” she replied, her eyes dropping to the coffee mug in his hand. “May I have some?”
He turned to get her a mug, missing the speculative look she wore as her eyes dropped to his behind.
* * *
In a dimly lit room a gloved hand dragged open a heavy desk drawer to reveal hanging file folders all neatly labeled with hand-written tabs. Long, thin fingers rifled through the tabs, paused on one particular file, rifled further and stopped again, and then pried the pages apart to reach inside.
Nearby a floorboard creaked. Even closer a baby emitted a soft wail, a cry for attention. The hands froze, and then withdrew from the folder.
The drawer shut and the searcher moved across the room from the desk to the infant who lay on the floor, arms and legs flailing. It wailed again as the figure picked it up to cuddle it, murmuring soothing words. Outside the floorboard creaked once more and footsteps receded along the corridor. Still holding the infant, the figure crept to the door and opened it a crack to peer out. The way was clear. With a glance back at the desk, adult and infant slipped out into the bright corridor.
* * *
Tara paused near the bottom of the basement stairs listening to the sounds emanating from below.
Thud, thud, thud, thud, thud …
It was a familiar sound, but she could not put a name to it. She descended the rest of the way and went along a short corridor to stop in an open doorway, looking into a large, brightly lit room, feeling foolish.
Thud, thud, thud, thud, thud …
Steed was running on a treadmill, the heavy slap of his trainers echoing in the room. He appeared to be well into his run: his white t-shirt was sweat-stained and his face was moist, but despite his fast pace he was not breathing heavily.
It had been years since Tara had last seen more of Steed’s body than his face and hands. The many scars on his limbs surprised her again as they had when she’d first seen them. She thought there were a few more now. They told a very different story from that of his sophisticated sartorial style. He was a fighter and a very dangerous man.
Certain that he had noticed her reflection in the floor-to-ceiling mirror on the far wall, even though he had shown no sign of it, she resisted the urge to slip away. She had come in search of the gymnasium that Emma had invited her to use; it was just bad timing that had brought her here while Steed was present.
She wandered across the room toward him, stopping next to an elaborate exercise contraption – the sort she’d seen in expensive gymnasiums, not in people’s homes. Is this Emma’s folly, or his? She wondered as she sat down on the contraption’s uncomfortable little seat.
Steed smiled at her through his concentration, the friendly expression only touching his mouth. His eyes darted to her, then refocused on a point somewhere in front of him.
Flustered and resenting that he had that effect on her she felt compelled to speak. “I didn’t think you actually exercised. I always thought you were just naturally fit.”
He noticeably slowed his pace and looked back at her, giving her his full regard this time as his effort decreased.
“How far do you run?” she went on.
“I don’t have an odometer, but it’s an hour at various paces.”
An hour! She would never have expected him to have such stamina. That thought immediately took a turn toward other types of exertion and she felt her face color. She adjusted her position on the contraption and reached up to wrap her hands around a horizontal bar hanging on a chain over her head. She pulled down on it, but it wouldn’t budge. Instead she managed to lift herself up off of the seat. It must be locked.
Steed’s thud-thud-thudding slowed to a walk and then stopped. He stepped off the treadmill, whipping his face with a small white towel that had been hanging on the front rail.
“Stop,” he said as he approached the contraption. “Not even Emma can pull down fifteen stone.”
He adjusted the weight setting on the machine while she bristled at his assumption that Emma was stronger than she. Not even Emma indeed! She drew down the bar with the lighter weight, determined to show him that she was strong too. She continued dragging down and controlling the reverse, over and over until her arms were on fire. Steed sat down on a bench with free weights stacked near it, watching her with an unreadable expression on his face. Finally she stopped, ready to concede defeat and wishing he’d either go on with his workout or leave. But he rose and returned to the device, moving levers and adjusting weights.
“But your feet here. This will work your thighs.”
Tara’s self esteem slipped into the gutter as she pressed outward over and over until her legs trembled. Steed watched her, impassive until she faltered, then he urged her to do two more and she did.
He changed the torture machine once more and showed her how to work her shoulders. She pressed and pushed, her enthusiasm waning as he put a hand on the small of her back to make her sit straighter. Why won’t he go?
“It’s nice to have someone to train with, since Emma can’t do most of it right now,” he said as she grew certain that her arms were going to drop off. Emma! She pressed hard again, making the weights slam together. Steed smiled mildly and she grew certain that he was trying to provoke her. Or maybe he was oblivious to her reactions to his comments. He could be that self-centered.
Steed recognized Tara’s frantic attack of the exercise machine. She was an emotional wreck and physically unfit. She was desperate to regain control of her life, and expressing it through an attempt to dominate the machine, or her body. When he’d caught sight of her in the mirror while he was finishing his run he’d hoped she’d just go away. He concealed his exercise regime from all but Emma and Hemming, the ministry trainer. And Emma only knew because she’d caught him at it a few years ago. Only because she knew had he allowed himself the luxury of this basement gym, otherwise he’d still be doing his workouts late at night at the ministry.
Nonetheless, the damage was done: Tara had seen that he was only human and his strength and stamina were hard won. And if he left her to it she’d hurt herself or his very expensive equipment. Besides, she was not going to last long at the rate she was going. He was surprised at just how out of condition she was. If she had not resigned from the ministry, she’d have failed her next physical exam.
“You should finish up with a run,” he said when she’d used every position on the machine. Her upper arms would benefit from some basic weight lifting too, but he knew she couldn’t do it now even if she wouldn’t admit it. “Next time we’ll do a free weight routine.”
He watched her eyes widen in what he thought was horror. “Or you can come down and use the machine now you know how it works,” he quickly added. Tara’s expression returned to the grim mask she’d been wearing since the morning more than a month ago when he’d told her that her husband was dead. His heart fell – he’d thought he was helping her, but apparently all he’d done was sent her deeper into her grief. And much as he cared for her, and felt responsible for her, he could not find further sympathy within himself. If she didn’t want his company he wouldn’t force it – he hadn’t wanted hers either.
Tara felt ready to drop but she knew she should push herself a little harder. She hoped that if she took Steed’s advice he’d leave her alone, so she went to the treadmill and studied the simple controls. He joined her, showing her the knob that adjusted the tension. She stepped on and began to walk, then to jog slowly. He crossed the room to a cabinet and retrieved another small white towel from a stack of them.
“Help yourself to water if you need it,” he said as he draped the towel over the bar for her. To her immense relief he left her then. She let herself slow back to a walk and then stop. Her legs were leaden, her arms hanging limply at her sides. But something else had also happened. In spite of her determination to be angry and resentful, her mind had cleared. The burning pain of her losses was slightly less and her anger at everything looked foolish. She poured herself a large glass of water from a pitcher on a counter and gulped it down. She thought she could feel the cleansing liquid suffusing her aching muscles, healing and rejuvenating her.
“I’m sure he’s not here. Only he said he might come,” Siobhan sighed, working hard to conceal her disappointment. She had urged Hal, the Steed’s groom, to come to the servants’ holiday ball, but he had shuffled his feet in the dirt of the stable floor and refused to promise. He was looking after a colicky mare, he explained, sounding regretful but dedicated to his equine charge nonetheless. After a circuit of the three rooms open to the party Siobhan saw no sign of him. She hoped the mare was enjoying his company. She wasn’t even certain how interested in him she was, but she couldn’t help being curious whether she was right about his quiet way with animals also working on women.
“Hush, maybe he’s just being fashionably late,” Dolly, her friend and fellow nanny, scolded.
“Oh, I wish that were so, but he’s never late,” Siobhan sighed again.
Dolly rolled her eyes and linked arms with her. “Come on you, there are too many fish in this pond to be pining after that old seahorse.”
Grinning at her own joke, she dragged Siobhan over to the bar where a gorgeous gardener was pouring cheap white wine.
“Speaking of seahorses,” Siobhan said as she accepted a glass and a flirtatious smile from the gardener. She smiled back and took Dolly’s arm, steering her out of the man’s earshot. “Will we see your Aiden tonight?”
“Oh ho! Turning the tables, are you?” Dolly snorted, then her expression softened and she nodded. “He’s coming – he said had something to do this evening first.”
“So long as it wasn’t some one,” Siobhan smirked. Dolly gasped, giggled, and glanced around to see if anyone might have heard.
“Siobhan!” she finally scolded. Siobhan shrugged and shot her an innocent smile.
A mutual friend, a young woman who worked as a cook for the local MP, worked her way through the crowd leading with the sweaty glass of beer in her hand. She greeted them and launched almost immediately into a gossipy account of a luncheon she’d prepared the day before for several government officials. Siobhan always felt a pang of resentment in these situations: she could easily outdo April’s stories if only she could speak of the things she’d experienced working for the Steeds. But as always she held her tongue. As far as any of her friends knew she worked for a bureaucrat and a female executive – and the executive was the far more interesting member of the family.
Dolly and April were speculating on the intimate relationships of the luncheon guests when Aiden, Dolly’s current flame, appeared at the far side of the room. Unlike the rest of the guests, he was not a local domestic, but a student – Siobhan thought a perpetual one – who currently worked at the petrol station just outside the village. At over six feet he could see over the heads of many of the other guests. His shaggy, bowl-cut head nodded to the beat of the music coming from an impressive set of quadraphonic speakers mounted in the corners of the room. He caught Dolly’s eye as he pressed through the crowd to join them.
“’ello love,” Dolly crooned as he pulled her into an embrace while careful not to spill her drink. “Everything all right?” she added, apparently sensing the tension that Siobhan could see in his body.
“We have to talk,” he replied, hardly the assurance that Dolly, or the other women listening, had expected. Dolly nodded, brow knitting as she pulled out of his embrace. It had, Siobhan reflected as she forced herself to look away, looked more like confinement than affection.
“All right, but first let’s dance,” Dolly gained the upper hand, coercing him into the middle of the room where several people were gyrating to the music.
The party flailed on in the usual manner. A pair of young maids who were employed by a filthy rich executive performed a raunchy sketch about their master’s son. The chef from a local restaurant turned off the recorded music and entertained them with his guitar and voice, cajoling them into singing a few Christmas carols. Everybody drank too much, and in a dark back corner indiscreet kisses were exchanged. Siobhan drifted from group to group, catching up with acquaintances met at previous gatherings and other nannies she knew from walks with their charges on the village.
She was getting tired and thinking about finding Dolly, her ride, when a commotion erupted in the parlor. She was dragged along with the crowd through the doorway and into the room just in time to witness Dolly landing a powerful slap on Aiden’s cheek. She was red-faced and strands of her straight, brown hair lay across her brow as if she had shaken her head violently.
“I told you!” she screamed as he rubbed at his cheek with one hand. “I couldn’t do it.”
Aiden backed away from her and reached out with one hand until it brushed the shade of a table lamp that was wrapped with an artificial pine garland. He glanced down at it, grabbing it around the slim brass base as if he was throttling it. “Why can’t you just do what I tell you?”
“You’re a bastard sometimes! Why can’t you listen to me?” Dolly stepped toward him to close the space he’d opened. He lifted the lamp, yanking its cord from the wall socket.
“Hey, stop it!” a third voice joined in. “My boss will have my head!”
“Bastard!” Dolly screamed again, lunging at Aiden with both fists raised. He brandished the lamp, crushing the shade as he struck Dolly in the ribs with it. She shrieked and grabbed at the lamp. The bulb shattered with a pop and her hands came away with a crimson sheen spreading across her palms.
“No!” the third voice – the houseboy who was hosting the party – yelled. “Put it down or I’m calling the constable!”
He grabbed for the lamp and was smacked with it as well, the jagged glass of the destroyed bulb gouging his forearm. One of his mates caught Aiden in a bear hug, pinning his arms to his sides, and the host, enraged now, seized the lamp and raised it to swing it at Aiden’s head. Dolly grabbed the lamp and dragged it downward with a scream while Aiden struggled with his captor. The houseboy turned on Dolly, dropping the broken lamp and grabbing both of her hands.
Just then Aiden shook off his attacker and lunged at the houseboy, spinning him with one hand and striking him squarely in the face with the other fist. Released, Dolly reeled back, careening into two bystanders who’d crowded into the room. They all went down onto a sofa, Dolly screaming bloody murder and leaving bloody handprints on everyone.
The houseboy and his mates ganged up on Aiden, who gamely squared off with them, holding his own as they took turns swinging at him.
Siobhan watched in disgust as the argument degenerated into a brawl. Friends of Aiden materialized and took on the houseboy and his friends. Dolly continued to shriek at all of them, her hands dripping blood on the ivory carpet. Siobhan backed out of the room hoping her friend hadn’t seen her there. She wanted to distance herself from the melee, and felt justified in abandoning her hysterical friend as the sound of sirens outside drowned out the stereo.
“Steed here,” Steed held the receiver to his ear with his shoulder as he turned the page of his book. He and Emma were both reading in bed having enjoyed an evening doting over their son. Emma turned her head to watch him speak on the phone, curious as always whether it was work, and whether it would take him away from their pleasant repose.
“Yes we do. Yes. Certainly, where?”
Emma frowned, unable to guess at the meaning of his side of the conversation.
“In thirty minutes. Thank you.”
Steed replaced the receiver and sighed, then looked up at his curious wife.
“Siobhan,” he said. “There was a disturbance at the party she went to. She’s lost her ride home and needs to be picked up.”
“That was Siobhan?”
“No,” Steed swiveled his feet to the floor and started for the dressing room. “That was the police.”
“The police? Must have been some disturbance.”
“I’ll just go find out,” he replied, voice muffled from the other room.
“Shall I come?”
“And get John up?”
“Ah, right. I’m too used to having Siobhan here for him.”
“No,” Steed re-emerged wearing a black jumper over dark grey trousers. “You stay here and I’ll go rescue her. I’m sure she’s very disturbed about being involved.”
“How do you know she was involved?”
“Being there, then,” he amended. “Silly things, these servants’ balls.”
“It was hardly a ball – just a party.”
Steed sat on the edge of the bed to lace his shoes. “That’s what they call them, though. Very Victorian – these people are workers, not servants.”
“That depends on who you ask.”
“Or who’s doing the employing?” Steed smiled as he stood up.
“In any case, Siobhan is comfortable with her peers. There’s no harm in that.”
“I’ll be back with her in no time,” Steed said, avoiding any further comment on the nature of the party.
Twenty minutes later he steered the Bentley along a sweeping drive not unlike his own and parked behind a police van. As he got out of the car a uniformed policeman approached him, but simply nodded and waved him on toward the group of people gathered in front of the house at the sight of his identification. The officer trotted back to his compatriots and whispered that something serious must be going on – a government agent had arrived.
The Bentley’s big round headlights and long body were unmistakable. Siobhan detached herself from the group of dejected looking party guests, most of whom were standing near the front steps with their hands in their pockets and eyes downcast. She met Steed a few paces from the house, afraid to make eye contact but immensely relieved to see him.
“I’m so sorry Mr. Steed,” she said as soon as she was close enough to speak quietly.
“Not to worry my dear – I assume you didn’t start the commotion?”
“No sir. But –.”
“But your friend was involved – the one who was to give you a ride home.”
“Yes sir. She’s just a friend, we’re not – I mean, she’s just –.”
“A friend who got into some trouble tonight. This is Air Commodore Drucker’s house, isn’t it?”
Steed looked over the group of party guests, noting with a little smile two young women with their arms around one another’s shoulders drunkenly singing “Jingle Bells.” They would not start regretting the party until tomorrow. Four people were being interviewed by police officers. One of them was a young woman with bandages on her hands – Siobhan’s friend.
“Is he away?”
“Yes sir, I believe so. He gave his permission for the party.”
“Yes of course,” Steed was not surprised at Siobhan’s defensiveness. “Let’s get you home – no need to prolong this.”
“Yes sir,” Siobhan shot a glance at the other guests as she walked with Steed toward the Bentley. The police officer who’d motioned him in turned to watch wide-eyed as he opened the door for Siobhan and went around to get into the Bentley himself. He started the engine and carefully maneuvered the big car in a turn, waving at the officer as he finally got her going in the right direction.
“Is Mrs. Steed very angry?” Siobhan asked.
“I shouldn’t think so,” Steed replied. “She’s more likely asleep.”
“It’s just that some of the others were, um, dismissed.”
Steed’s brows rose in surprise. “For this?”
“For being involved with a disruption. It’s bad for appearances. I thought Mrs. Steed might think so, or it might be a problem for you, sir.”
Steed chuckled merrily. “Siobhan, this is nothing compared to the kind of trouble Mrs. Steed and I can get in to! A little too much beer celebrating the holidays, high spirits on a Saturday night – it’s not a good habit, but not a crime every now and then.”
“I’m the help sir, I’m supposed to provide stability for John.”
“And that you do. Now not another word about it – you are not going to be dismissed. We’re counting on you with the next one nearly here.”
“Thank you sir,” Siobhan sounded deeply relieved. Steed wondered for an instant how he’d gotten himself into this situation – not so long ago he was a confirmed bachelor. Now he had a wife, children, pets, household employees, and even other agents all looking to him for support and leadership. And he didn’t regret any of it. If anything, he felt more alive now than he had in many years. If Siobhan noticed his bemused smile as he drove along the country lanes back to his country house she did not mention it.
Emma wrapped herself in her extra large robe and picked up her towel and bath kit. She paused on her way to the shower as another woman crossed her path and opened the heavy wooden door leading to the steam sauna. She eyed the cloudy glass enclosed room down the hall for a moment before the door closed. Just for a few minutes. It can’t do any harm. She pushed the door open and went through, primly holding her robe shut over her belly – the sauna was co-educational, so to speak, and she did not care to educate any of Steed’s fellow agents about her pregnant form.
Although her formal status with the ministry was debatable, she still used the athletic facilities. As a recognized advisor, she possessed the necessary credentials to enter ministry headquarters. Whenever she signed in at the gymnasium nobody batted an eye at the civilian status indicated on her card. She was not sure whether being married to Steed, or being a favorite of Hemming — the head of the ministry’s physical training program – put her in better stead. Whichever it was she was grateful, because in her current state the gym equipment in the basement at home was difficult to use and even risky while the ministry’s lap pool allowed her to get the exercise she craved.
She slipped into the steamy sauna and shut the door quickly to keep in the hot, aromatic vapors. Her doctor had not specifically forbidden her to use the sauna, but then, she had not asked. Hemming had the steam kept very hot and dense, and Emma had learned from Steed and by experience that it was a training tool for the agents. Even here within the security of the ministry discretion and caution were the watchwords, and agents who talked out of school while basking in the steam were likely to be overheard – and reprimanded – by senior agents or trainers skulking in the misty shadows. Not that you could count on someone hiding in there to monitor conversations, but you never knew.
Through the steam Emma could see the woman who’d come in ahead of her and three or four other towel-wrapped figures. Moving carefully on the slick, hot tile she climbed up one tier and scooted to the back, stretching out flat on her back with her knees bent up to ease her lower spine.
The steam made her drowsy and she let herself drift for a few minutes, breathing in the moisture and imagining its curative effects on her lungs and sinuses. People came and went and the steam jets hissed and gurgled. Emma stretched first one leg and then the other and massaged her wet scalp with her fingers. I deserve a little pampering this morning, she told herself. She would be spending the afternoon at Arnold Bray’s funeral spying for Steed.
“Tessa, is that you?” a female voice asked.
“Yes it’s me. I’ve just finished with Hemming’s self defense class. I don’t know why I let them talk me into it.”
Emma smiled. She had been a star pupil in Hemming’s class when Steed had suggested she take it shortly after they began working together. Hemming had quickly made her his assistant and asked her to teach certain techniques that were her own invention.
“I know. It’s silly to require it of administrative assistants. It’s not like we’ll ever be in the field.”
Tessa chuckled. “I think there could be a need for it right here in the building, depending on which agents are in town,” she said. Susan laughed appreciatively and Emma smiled. Some things never changed.
“How is operation Steed going?” Susan asked. Emma’s eyes sprung open, but she forced herself to remain still. Administrative assistants were not, she supposed, trained to be discrete in saunas.
“Slowly,” Tessa replied with frustration in her voice. “He was in on Friday and I brought him tea, but he barely spoke to me.”
“You prepared it the way he likes it?”
“I tried, but apparently he doesn’t like his tea the same as he does his coffee. He added sugar.”
Emma smirked and held up her index finger, rotating it counterclockwise, but the other two women did not see her through the steam.
“Oh well, now you know. Next you’ll be moving on to drinks.”
Both women giggled and Emma’s stomach lurched.
Does he know? He’s incapable of not flirting, and this Tessa is audacious. Emma toyed with the idea of interrupting Tessa and Susan by identifying herself, but she decided not to. She did not for a moment believe that Steed would stray from her with either of these women, but the temptation to foil their scheming in a more visible way was too strong. Whether Steed was oblivious to them, or aware and simply ignoring it, this sort of pursuit of her husband had to be publicly discouraged.
Vowing to contrive a suitable response she sat up and edged along the upper seat toward the door, then climbed down and out without attracting the other women’s attention.
“Amen,” Emma and the rest of the mourners echoed the minister’s final word and stood quietly for a moment gazing at the casket containing the remains of Mr. Bray.
“Well, I’ve never had a customer go to such lengths to avoid making another purchase,” Nancy sighed as she and Emma turned away from the grave, their fashionable shoes sinking in the springy sod. Emma focused on walking on the balls of her feet to keep her narrow two-inch heels from sinking and tripping her. “And you lost a potential new patron.”
“Not if he wanted to patronize paintings like that one,” Emma replied, realizing at the same time how disrespectful their discussion was. She glanced around surreptitiously, remembering Steed’s assignment: He had asked her to photograph the mourners and she’d done so with a camera mounted in her shoulder bag.
“What do you think of that one?” Nancy asked, jutting her chin toward a tall redhead who had been standing across the grave from them and was now pacing them off to the left. “She looks like ‘the other woman.’”
“You should right crime fiction,” Emma replied, recalling that she had already photographed the woman.
“Oh come on, look at those legs. How can Mr. Bray’s widow compete?”
Emma glanced at the woman in question, a blonde about a decade Mr. Bray’s junior, dressed in Dior with a suntan the likes of which could only be had at the best Biarritz resorts.
“I don’t think she had any trouble there – in fact, she seems somewhat under whelmed.” Indeed, the widow was resting her hand on her stepson’s arm and favoring him with a warm smile as he escorted her to their limousine.
“Shock,” Nancy suggested.
“Opportunism,” Emma countered.
“I’m with you,” a third voice chimed in. Nancy and Emma looked simultaneously at the tall red head who had moved to intercept them. Emma wondered how much she’d heard.
“Catherine Banning,” she said. “You’re Nancy Belmont, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Nancy replied hesitantly.
“I represent Mr. Bray’s insurer. I understand he bought his most recent painting from your gallery the night he died.”
“Yes that’s right.”
“He telephoned my people that evening and left a message about adding it to his policy. A minor adjustment for such a work – not an artist we’d usually handle — but Mr. Bray was a good customer. And I understand that the new work was not typical of the artist.”
“No. In fact the artists feels that it’s weak,” Emma replied with forced casualness. Nancy shot her a concerned look. She knew all to well how much Emma enjoyed little deceptions.
Catherine’s eyes narrowed as she examined Emma more closely, her gaze pausing on her protruding belly.
“Um, Catherine Banning, please let me introduce Mrs. Emma Knight Steed,” Nancy put in awkwardly. Catherine raked Emma with another head to toe inspection, which Emma returned with a barely concealed smirk.
“The artist,” Catherine said. “How interesting.”
“The insurance claims adjuster,” Emma replied. “Do you come to all your client’s funerals?”
“Only the ones who’ve been robbed,” Catherine replied without a hint of malice. “Miss Belmont, I’ll come by your gallery tomorrow.” She extended her hand to Nancy with a calling card that had mysteriously appeared there. No sooner had Nancy taken it than Catherine melted away in the dwindling crowd of mourners.
Nancy and Emma strolled onward to Emma’s car – she had taken her own advice and garaged the Lotus, switching to the big Range Rover usually left for Siobhan’s use.
“You may have met your match,” Nancy said as they got in.
“Pardon?” Emma turned the key and the engine roared to life.
“The way you two sized each other up,” Nancy added. “Like two cats circling.”
“You only say that because I’m pregnant and vulnerable,” Emma replied. The overheard conversation in the sauna had been preying on her all afternoon. Belief in her husband’s constancy did not completely ease her mind over her rivals, and she was feeling large and awkward. She didn’t observe Nancy’s puzzled expression as she signaled and entered the stream of traffic heading for the graveyard gate.
* * *
Emma studied a photograph of the widow Bray through an optical loupe, then set it down and examined a picture of the minister.
“Are you quite sure you focused the enlarger correctly?” she asked, glancing up at Steed as he entered the dining room with a tray of tea things. She was just a bit frustrated that her doctor had begged her not to work with photographic chemicals until after she delivered. Steed frowned at her accusation, clearly considering suggesting that the focus problem was in the shooting when the front doorbell chimed.
“That will be Gambit,” he said instead, setting down his tray. Emma smiled smugly as she unloaded the cups and saucers around the pile of photographs.
Steed returned with Gambit a moment later and they joined Emma at the table. Steed spread the photographs out for Gambit to examine them while Emma played mother.
“Here’s Maxine Tellerman,” he tapped a photo of a woman with a black veil concealing her face.
“Yes, so I thought,” Steed replied.
“Your prime suspect in the murder?” Emma confirmed. “That’s brazen.”
“That’s why she’s wearing the veil,” Gambit retorted.
“Disguised,” Steed added, his expression acknowledging that the disguise had been absurdly ineffective. “And who is this, I wonder?” he picked up the photograph of Catherine Banning.
“Insurance investigator,” Emma and Gambit replied in unison, their eyes meeting as they spoke.
Steed’s left brow arched. “This is the investigator you’ve been dealing with?” he asked Gambit.
Emma’s mouth curled in a knowing smile as Gambit’s face colored.
“No wonder you haven’t dispensed with her yet,” Steed added.
“She told Nancy that she would visit the gallery to speak with her about Mr. Bray,” Emma said.
“Well, we can’t interfere with her doing her job, until she interferes with us,” Steed replied, still eying Gambit. The younger agent nodded a bit unsurely.
“In fact, I think you should keep her very close,” Steed went on.
“Steed?” Gambit was puzzled.
“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer?” Emma asked.
Steed shot her a proud smile. “She saw you in his house the night he died. She could blow your cover. Bring her in close and put her on our team. If she recovers the painting and microdot, so much the better.”
“With pleasure,” Gambit replied, finally allowing a wide grin. Now Emma arched one brow. Gambit noticed her skeptical expression.
“You’d like her,” he said. “She’s very intelligent.”
“Yes I can see that,” Emma replied, nodding at the photograph with a chuckle.
“Now who else do we have here?” Steed said, shuffling the photographs again as he sipped his tea.
“I’m glad that I don’t see Oxley,” Gambit said. “I think he really does consider the deal closed.”
“But if Miss Tellerman stole the painting and microdot, why was she at the funeral?” Emma asked.
Steed shrugged. “Is there a chance Oxley lied to you, Gambit? What if he’s looking for the painting?”
Gambit’s expression looked strained at being doubted. “I’m going with a gut feeling about Oxley. I don’t have anything concrete. I’m more concerned about Miss Tellerman. She’s working for the Chinese – right?” Steed nodded. “So if she stole the painting and handed it over to her Chinese buyers, how long do we have before their engineers look at the plans on the microdot?”
“And they won’t be happy with what they find,” Emma observed.
“You’re right Gambit, we have to accelerate the schedule as much as possible before whoever has the dot blows us out of the water. If Oxley figures out that you substituted our false plans for the ones he stole everyone involved will be in danger. And we have to get that painting back,” Steed said, hoping Emma would not think that Nancy was included in those who were threatened.
“But it’s still strange that she came to the funeral,” Emma said. “Perhaps for the same reason you had me take these photos, Steed.”
“To see who else was there,” he nodded, eyes rising to Gambit. “Did you return that auction slip to the gallery?”
“Yes. I broke in last night.”
“What?” Emma nearly growled. Steed laid a hand on her forearm.
“Gambit had borrowed the list of bids. It was only right to return it for Nancy’s records.”
“She has an alarm system – what did you do to it?”
“Painfully simple, actually. You should have someone consult with her on a better one,” Gambit’s smug tone only served to further anger Emma.
“Mike,” Steed cautioned.
Emma pulled her arm out from under Steed’s hand and sat back in her chair, arms crossed, glaring at Gambit. Realizing that he was playing with fire and that his superior was likely to be the one who got burned, he tried to salvage the situation: “I reset it when I left. In any case,” he turned to Steed as if by ignoring Emma’s anger it would go away, “Why did you ask about the list of bids?”
“Because I want the insurance investigator to see it – I want her to focus on Miss Tellerman.”
“So I don’t have to.”
“If she’s as good as her reputation suggests she’ll recover all of the missing art, and, hopefully, our microdot. I want you to focus in this new arrangement of Oxley’s.”
“What new arrangement?” Emma asked, still sulking in her chair.
“He says he has a new source of information. He wants to set up private auctions –.” Gambit stopped, watching her sit up, hands on the arms of her chair, anticipating that he would try to explain why the gallery should be further involved. He silently congratulated himself on vetoing that idea already. “I already told him I’d set up a different arrangement – not the Belmont Gallery,” he said, just pre-empting Emma’s imminent protest.
Emma relaxed, her face warming into a slightly embarrassed smile.
“Sorry Mike. I shouldn’t have flown off like that.”
Steed favored her with an indulgent smile and Gambit shrugged. In fact, her anger had disturbed him. He so seldom saw her demonstrate such raw emotion it came as a shock when she did.
“Never mind darling,” Steed said. “We spies are thick skinned.”
Emma’s smirk suggested that she thought of herself as thick-skinned as well, usually.
“I daren’t leave the house except with the children,” Dolly groaned to Siobhan over the telephone. “Mrs. Rolfe has made it very clear that I am on notice. The slightest indiscretion and I’m out.”
“Oh Dolly, really,” Siobhan replied, “you know how hard they all think it is to find a good nanny – you really think she’ll let you go that quickly? It’s not like you’ve been irresponsible with the children or anything.”
“No, but there have been a few – issues. You know? It’s hard to juggle this job and a boyfriend. Aiden doesn’t always understand that I have to get a good night’s sleep, even on my nights off.”
“So that’s the real trouble, hum?” Siobhan teased, although she was positively envious of Dolly’s relationship with Aiden. Something made her want to cast it into a negative light. “And the other night, were you saying he doesn’t listen to you?”
She regretted it immediately, but Dolly only groaned again. “I wasn’t sure that you heard – I guess everyone has heard by now, whether they were in the room, or even at the party. Yes, it’s true. He asked me to do something and I wasn’t able to. But he would not listen to my explanation.”
“What did he ask you to do?” Siobhan blurted the question without thinking. Silence on the other end of the line told her she should have been more discrete. Too late now. “Dolly?”
“Um, Dolls, you don’t get into a screaming fight over nothing,” Siobhan’s mind was reeling, imaging all manner of requests a boyfriend might make that a girlfriend might not want to do. But Dolly had said she wasn’t able to not did not want to. “If he’s pressuring you to, you know, do something you’re not interested in you just tell him no.”
“It’s like I told him, I couldn’t do it that day,” Dolly replied. “I wanted to talk about what happened, but he just blew up.”
“What is it that he wanted you to do, then?” Siobhan finally asked. She could not imagine that it was anything intimate, not the way Dolly was talking.
“Well, I shouldn’t – Siobhan, do you ever get frustrated not having any money?”
“I have money,” Siobhan replied, curiosity growing.
“Don’t be dense, you know what I mean. We don’t have the kind of money our employers do. Do you ever get tired of being the help?”
Siobhan thought back to a similar conversation she’d had with Hal the groom, where she’d been the one asking a question like that. He had told her that he was very happy doing what he did and that he lived comfortably, and she had realized that the Steeds worked very hard for what they had, and took enormous risks.
“I don’t intend to be ‘the help’ forever,” she replied to Dolly.
“Oh no? What do you intend to do? Find a rich man? All the ones you’ll ever work for are already taken.” Dolly’s tone was flippant, but her words were rather hurtful.
“No – I mean, marrying money would be all right but right now I’m studying, preparing for my next career.”
“Writing. I’m observing people, making notes. Eventually I’ll sell something, and eventually I’ll be able to stop being a nanny.”
“You’re daft! You can’t write about your employers. You aren’t writing about me are you?”
“In my journal,” Siobhan admitted, still stung and willing to annoy her friend.
“You haven’t written anything about the other night!”
“It’s my journal, Dolly.”
“Well, I had better not see myself in a newspaper somewhere!”
You already were, Siobhan thought, recalling the short item that had appeared in the local paper about the fight at the party. Fortunately she managed to hold her tongue on that count. “Anyway, what do you mean about money?” she asked.
Dolly did not reply immediately. When she did her tone had changed: she was almost whispering.
“Aiden has an organization. There are four of us now, but he’d like to expand. It’s practically foolproof.”
“What is it? Like a union, or an agency – for wages or something?”
Dolly chuckled. “That would be pointless, wouldn’t it? No, it’s nothing like that. We procure things – valuable things. Aiden sells them and we all profit.”
Siobhan sat up straight in her rocking chair, eyes wide, staring at the open nursery door as if the Steeds might be standing outside listening.
“Dolly you can’t mean it! I don’t even want to say what I think you mean. Tell me you haven’t –.”
“Relax Siobhan. None of us takes anything from our employers. That would be idiotic.”
“Who then? You can’t really mean you’re in a theft ring!” and even as she said it the story started unfolding in her head. She wanted to hang up and start making notes, except that Dolly might provide even more useful details.
“The other employers,” Dolly said. “We all have access to one anothers’ homes. We arrange for an alibi for the employee, and then one of the others does it. We’re not taking actual valuables – just papers, documents. Aiden tells us what to look for.”
“You’ve actually done this?” Siobhan had gone from curious to shocked. Her respect for her friend had just plummeted. How could Dolly not realize that information could be far more valuable than the art, jewelry, silver, and even money to be found in their employers’ homes?
“Not yet. That was what the fight was about. I was supposed to, but I couldn’t – I was nearly caught.”
“Stop,” Siobhan said. “Don’t tell me anything else.”
“Look, Siobhan, they have so much more than we do. Where’s the harm, really? It’s just papers.”
“Stop Dolly. It’s wrong, that’s the harm.” She shivered at the notion that someone she let into the Steed home – another nanny here so the children could play together – might slip into Mr. Steed’s study, or the library where Mrs. Steed kept papers from Knight Industries, and steal top secret information.
“Is it right that they have so much more than us?”
“It is if they’ve worked for it, Dolly, or if their family did. What are these documents? – no, nevermind. I don’t want to know. Even if they didn’t work for what they have, we’ve no right to just take what we want. I really don’t want to know anything more. I’m sorry I asked.”
“I guess I am too. I’m sorry you don’t approve. When you get tired of being a writer you can let me know, and I’ll let you know if we can use you.”
Siobhan heard the line disconnect before she had lowered the phone from her ear. She scowled and stared at the receiver for a moment before hanging it up. She supposed she had lost a friend, but the danger of being even remotely involved with whatever Dolly had gotten into was far too high. The Steeds had been understanding about the fight at the party, but they would have to dismiss her if she had anything to do with stealing, and dismissal would be the lightest penalty for stealing the kind of information they handled. Knowing this she could no longer risk having any of their circle of friends in the Steed home, and she was faced with a decision about what and how to tell them what she had learned.
* * *
“This is interesting,” Emma angled the local morning paper to better catch the light shining in through the kitchen windows. “A string of thefts in the county has police investigators casting a wide net,” she read. “At first regarded as a few unrelated incidents, four thefts from local homes are now being considered the work of a single thief or organized group.”
Emma glanced up at Steed, who had lowered his section of the paper to listen. Both of them looked toward Siobhan, sitting across from Emma with John in his highchair next to her. She was holding his spoon over his bowl of oatmeal. Her face had gone pale.
“Siobhan, are you quite all right?” Steed asked.
The nanny dropped the spoon into the bowl and swallowed hard. “Yes. No. I think I feel ill. Please excuse me.”
She got up, pressing past John in his chair and making for the back stairs. Steed frowned and looked back at Emma while John craned his neck to watch his nanny disappear.
“Read the rest,” Steed said, nodding at the newspaper in Emma’s hands as he slid around the table on the built-in bench in order to take over feeding his son.
Emma read the rest of the article, which named the victims of the thefts. The last name made Steed stop with John’s spoon in the air just as Siobhan had.
“Really darling, you and Siobhan are going to confuse the child. Give him his cereal,” Emma said, forcing Steed to notice John’s growing frustration with his interrupted meal.
“Tear that out, will you?” Steed asked as he continued feeding John.
“Our security system is very good darling. Your people installed it,” Emma observed as she folded the newspaper and then tore carefully along the folds.
“It’s not that,” he paused to consider his next statement. He looked across at Emma, his most trusted partner, and considered her level of security clearance. “That last theft was from someone who is under suspicion of leaking vital information. The second name you read is also involved in a similar case.”
Emma silently re-read the names of the victims, then let her gaze wander toward the door to the back stairs where Siobhan had disappeared.
“I don’t want to think she has anything to do with it,” Steed said. “But I have to look into it.”
“Yes of course,” Emma sighed. “And I’ll lay you odds that she knows something. Damn.”
“Don’t make assumptions yet. Let me look into it.”
“And lock the silver cabinet.”
“It’s not the silver I’m concerned about.”
Gambit didn’t try to suppress his genuine delight at seeing Catherine waiting outside of the restaurant where he’d invited her to join him for lunch on Monday. He had been replaying parts of Thursday night over and over in his mind, wondering if there was any chance of repeating the experience with her. Because he was under orders to explain the case to her, he had decided lunch was safer than dinner. But there would be nothing wrong with spending the afternoon together should it come to that. Judging from Catherine’s smile back at him he grew optimistic about the rest of the day. Unless once she knows what I’m about she loses interest, he reflected in an unusual moment of insecurity.
“And your government authorized selling top secret information to expose the seller and buyer?” Catherine asked a while later. She could not conceal her skepticism.
“Not exactly,” Gambit smiled. “When they finally get around to enlarging the dot and constructing the device described in the plans they’ll end up with an extremely powerful blender.”
Catherine rolled her eyes.
She had not expected this when Gambit invited her to lunch – he had seemed to be enjoying the game they were playing as much as she was. She wasn’t quite sure what to do about honesty, especially from a spy. Assuming what he’d told her was the truth and not a fabrication to manipulate her in some as yet unforeseen way. Her lips curled in an ironic smile at that thought. She decided to be blunt.
“Why have you told me this?” she asked. You removed our excuse to go to bed together again. She added silently, and wondered at herself for needing an excuse.
Discomfort flashed across Gambit’s face, quickly replaced by an enigmatic expression.
It is a lie! she thought, eyes narrowing at him. Perhaps there was more to learn from him.
“We don’t want to interfere with your investigation,” he said.
She chuckled, “And you don’t want me interfering with yours,” she concluded. His nod and wry smile confirmed it, but she still suspected the spy’s motivation was self-interest – his people did not care about her success.
“At least this explains the exorbitant price for that painting,” she said, watching him carefully. He had not explained why Emma Knight Steed had donated her painting to their cause – assuming she was aware of the plot. “Charity or not, it was not worth that price.”
Gambit grinned at her, “And you’re offended by the inflation of the value of the artist’s work?”
She smirked at him, knowing that such a motivation was petty compared to national security.
* * *
Nancy Belmont could have sworn that the temperature in her gallery dropped a few degrees when the tall, svelte redhead strode in. Her short tweed jacket was thrown over her shoulders, the slim matching skirt just brushing her knees. Her stockings glistened with the shimmer of high quality. Her shoes, Nancy knew at a glance because she had been drooling over a pair like them in a shop window for weeks, were hand made Italian.
When she stood up behind her desk and extended her hand to greet the insurance investigator her own discount shop shoes dug mercilessly into her toes. Catherine shook her hand and perched herself on the black leather and chrome straight-backed guest chair.
“Are you insured, Miss Belmont?” Catherine asked, turning her head to scan the open gallery space. The many hanging panels had been restocked with paintings by three of the artists Nancy represented. Only a few were Emma’s work – Nancy’s inventory had been vastly depleted at the auction.
She had not expected an insurance sales pitch, if that was the point of Miss Banning’s question.
“Yes. With Lloyds,” she replied. Catherine nodded, her expression unreadable. “But the Steed painting left our coverage as soon as Mr. Bray took it out of the gallery,” she added. “If he’d had it delivered we’d have covered that, of course, but – .”
“Yes, I know,” Catherine interrupted her. “I am not here to dispute coverage of the work. My people will honor Mr. Bray’s request to add it to his policy since it was made before the work was stolen and before he died.”
Nancy nodded. She hadn’t known that Bray had taken care of this detail and she was relieved to find out.
“But you’re really more interested in the other paintings that were stolen, aren’t you?” she asked. Catherine hesitated, watching her for a moment with a curious expression on her face.
“Yes,” she finally said. “But I suspect that for some reason the theft was instigated by the presence of Emma Steed’s painting in Mr. Bray’s home.”
Nancy frowned, a new thought disturbing her. “You don’t think they would have tried to steal it here if he hadn’t taken it home, do you?”
Catherine did not even consider reassuring the gallery owner. “Probably,” she replied. “You should look carefully at your security program.”
Nancy cringed internally. She had spent all she could on the gallery alarm system. Lloyds had signed off on it as adequate for the value of the works she handled, but not much more.
“Why? What would anyone want with the painting? Emma is not well known enough to be worth stealing – and killing — for.”
Catherine noted Nancy’s use of the artist’s first name and remembered that they had been together at the funeral. Perhaps that explained why she had contributed the painting to the cause. Gambit needed a canvas for his microdot and Miss Belmont had provided one, from a friend.
As Catherine considered this theory Nancy considered her own question. What is it about Emma’s painting that makes it worth stealing and killing for? Why was Steed hanging around near it all evening? Why was Mike Gambit dressed that way and also lurking?
Catherine saw anger form on Nancy’s face. Or maybe she knew nothing about it, but she’s just guessed. She must know Gambit and know what he is.
“Hard to say,” she said blandly. “I take it you are not aware of any reason for it.” It was not a question, but she half hoped Nancy would answer.
Nancy struggled to compose herself despite the realization that her friends might have used her in some sort of investigation. That’s the danger of being friends with spies, she reminded herself, although she could not disregard the sting of being deceived by Emma.
“I’m not,” she replied, afraid to say more. Catherine Banning seemed to be very perceptive, and Nancy feared she would give away too much. Annoyance aside, Emma, and particularly Steed and Gambit, trusted her to keep what she knew of their business to herself.
“Do you know Miss Maxine Tellerman?” Catherine asked.
Nancy shook her head, quickly deciding not to pretend she didn’t know why she was being asked. “No. She is not a regular customer of the gallery.”
“And the other bidders?”
“It sounds as if you know who bid, besides Mr. Bray.”
“I would like to see the bids.”
Noting that Catherine had not answered her question, Nancy opened a drawer in her desk and took out a file labeled “Steed, Emma Knight.” She laid it on her desk and opened it to reveal the list of hand-written bids right on top. She had known it was there, and she also knew that it had been nowhere to be found the day after the auction. She had assumed that her assistants had been distressed about the murder and misplaced it, then found it and filed it, not wanting to admit their temporary disorganization. But now she reconsidered. How did Catherine known about Maxine Tellerman if she hasn’t already seen the bids?
She passed the list across her desk and Catherine picked it up by one edge as if handling a delicate piece of evidence.
“Are any of the bidders regular customers of your gallery?” she asked.
“The first two bidders have purchased works from us in the past. Miss Tellerman, Mr. Skinner, and Mr. Bray are – were—newcomers.”
“Wasn’t your event by invitation?”
“Yes, but word gets out and the art crowd turns up. Most of them just want to be seen. We didn’t check for invitations at the door.”
“I am familiar with the habits of the ‘art crowd.’”
Nancy could hear the quote marks around the phrase and she cringed at Catherine’s demeaning tone. Maybe the collectors you deal with are some higher level of being, she thought, but at this level they’re a crowd of eccentrics and people with more money than sense – thank the Lord.
“So you don’t know Miss Tellerman, Mr. Skinner, or Mr. Bray by reputation?” Catherine pressed.
Nancy shook her head, retrieving the list of bids from the desk where Catherine had set it. She looked at the hand-written bids. “No. After the auction I asked around about Mr. Bray and found out that he is a known collector, but he had never called on us before. The other two are unknowns – none of my colleagues have heard of them.”
Nancy had been surprised that the second and third highest bidders were not known collectors. But she wasn’t anymore. They were agents, or villains, connected with Steed’s plot. Poor Mr. Bray was the only real collector and his interest in Emma’s work had gotten him killed. The thought made her cringe, and further fired her anger.
“Thank you Miss Belmont,” Catherine was rising, giving Nancy the impression that she was the visitor being dismissed. She rose as well, offering her hand across the desk. Catherine gave it a perfunctory shake before turning on her heel, her jacket swinging out behind her.
She paused half way across the gallery to look at a piece hanging on a suspended wall panel. It was another of Emma’s, one that she was particularly proud of, Nancy knew. Catherine studied it for a full minute, then turned and walked on out of the gallery.
Nancy sat back down and reached for the telephone on her desk, then thought better of it and stood up, retrieving her handbag from a drawer. She wanted to make this call in the privacy of her own apartment.
“Vivien, I’m going out,” she called toward the back of the gallery. A woman appeared in the doorway to the workroom. “I’ll be back in an hour, an hour and a half at the most.”
“Yes ma’am,” her employee said, removing a canvas apron that covered a simple, elegant black suit. “I’ll mind the store.”
* * *
It hadn’t taken more than a moment for Emma to connect the information stolen in the neighborhood with the new opportunity that Oxley had presented to Gambit in his role as a black market merchant. In the following moments she was struck by a series of familiar feelings and responses, some of them positive, some of them embarrassing. The puzzle pieces were taking shape before her – a connection had materialized between the disturbance at the servants’ ball and a leak of secret information that had obviously upset Steed. Gambit’s contact, Oxley, was part of the information chain, as was Siobhan’s friend. Analyzing these clues excited her – the remaining holes represented a challenge that she was willing to rise to. However, that Steed had not confided in her regarding the leak that had upset him left her feeling just a bit empty. No matter that he was constrained by her lesser level of security clearance: she hated not being privy to information that she could use to solve his case. She hated being left out and she knew that Steed knew it but had done it anyway.
As she studied the final design of a missile guidance system that had been sent via messenger to her from Knight headquarters she forced herself to suppress her emotional reaction to Steed’s case. The complex mechanics of the design helped her to think rationally about the situation, and when she did she knew that he was acting as he must.
Besides, there was something else that she could do to counter the useless feeling, and it had nothing to do with Steed’s case.
* * *
Steed stood up and stretched his arms above his head then twisted at the waist one way and then the other, feeling his spine and shoulders loosen. He glanced at the ship’s clock on a shelf and realized that he had been working at his desk for almost three hours straight. A stray thought drifted through his mind and he frowned, glancing at the door: Miss Drake had not been in to offer him refreshment or assistance. He realized that he actually missed her, and that notion truly disturbed him. I am not attracted to her. He dropped back down into his chair. No, I am attracted to her. What man wouldn’t be? But I have no intention of acting on it. That’s what matters. That’s what marriage means. And even without vows I have always been faithful to Emma.
He picked up the short list he’d compiled from the mounds of files and reports on his desk. More than three hours of work had produced three names: neighbors who handled secret information and whose maids, nannies, chauffeurs and grooms had been invited to the servants’ ball. Air Commodore Drucker was at the top of the list with a star. The other two were a civil defense analyst and an industrial chemist working on top-secret projects for the military.
Satisfied with his conclusions, he picked up the phone to arrange for both men to be provided with convincing, false information. He hoped it wasn’t already too late, but if so at least Gambit might have a chance to intercept any real secrets that had been stolen already.
* * *
“Nancy? It’s Emma. Siobhan said you called,” Emma had taken the telephone to a comfortable club chair in the library, stretching the cord across the room from her desk. She had heard the house phone ring while she was in the middle of a telephone review of the missile targeting plans with the head of the design team at Knight Industries. Siobhan had brought her a note about Nancy’s call a few minutes later but she’d had to put off returning it until early evening. She glanced at the case clock, noting that Steed ought to be home soon. But she was glad to take a few minutes to catch up with Nancy. They had not spoken since the auction.
“Emma, thanks for calling back. There’s something I have to ask you, but I’m not sure how to begin.” Nancy had learned long ago to avoid confronting Emma, who could wield a tongue that was sharper than her best epee. But in this case she could not let the matter rest. Having to wait all afternoon to speak to her had not helped. She had returned to the gallery, but been unable to concentrate on anything.
“At the beginning would be my advice,” Emma replied.
“That would be the auction.”
Emma felt herself grow tense and glanced across the room at the drinks trolley, wondering if the soda cartridge had any gas left. Fizzy water had gotten her through the early stages of this pregnancy, and she had yet to break the habit.
“Go ahead,” she said carefully. During the moment of silence that followed she stood up and crossed the room, trailing the telephone’s long cord behind her.
“You really dislike the painting you donated, don’t you?”
“I’ve told you I don’t think it’s up to snuff,” Emma agreed, wishing she had never said anything about it to Nancy. She centered a crystal highball glass on the drinks tray and picked up the soda bottle.
“And you were willing to donate it for the auction because you don’t like it. But you don’t really want a serious collector to have it – do you?”
“I don’t think there are too many serious collectors of my work,” Emma evaded. She pressed the lever on the soda bottle, but nothing happened. “Damn it!”
“Sorry. Steed keeps using up the soda and not replacing the cartridge.”
“Why don’t you just buy club soda in bottles like normal people?” Nancy grumbled. Emma was surprised by the sharpness of her tone: Nancy had never criticized her and Steed’s anachronistic eccentricities before. She liked the hiss of carbon dioxide being injected into the water. But she did not wish to discuss beverages with her friend. She pulled open the drawer in the trolley to hunt for a new cartridge.
“What do you really want to know about the painting, Nancy?” she asked testily.
“Why did you donate it?”
“Because you asked for a painting.” Emma was certain that Nancy had guessed something about Steed and Gambit’s plot, but years of association with Steed prevented her from simply admitting it before gauging how much her friend thought she knew. Cradling the telephone receiver against her shoulder she unscrewed the old cartridge from the soda bottle.
“Let me try again. Is there something about that particular painting? Something that concerns Steed and Mike Gambit?”
The cartridge came loose and slipped through Emma’s fingers, rattling loudly as it fell. At least it didn’t shatter the mirrored tray.
“Just dropped something,” she picked up the fresh cartridge. “Nancy I’m sorry. I was unhappy that they used the gallery, but you and it were never in any danger, and the painting did sell for a lot – for charity.”
“Use my gallery for what, Emma?” Now Nancy really was angry and Emma knew she had to be honest or risk their friendship. She and Nancy had grown apart and then close several times over the years, and there had been times when Emma would not have concerned herself with keeping in her friend’s good graces. She had learned at her father’s knee to nurture relationships with men – not romantic involvements but business relationships and friendships that kept her in good stead in the business world. Women friends were not usually useful in that arena, so she had not placed a priority on them. After Peter’s disappearance she had reconnected with some old school friends, including Nancy. And then she had met Steed and his world of intrigue as well as his companionship had filled her life. Only during the tumultuous period between Peter’s return and when she left him and reconnected with Steed had she finally learned to value the friendship of women. Since then Nancy, Sally Howard, and Amanda Stetson had all become friends who she considered very close, despite the geographical distances between herself and the latter two. Her instinct now was to make amends with her oldest friend.
“Gambit has been working under cover on a case that moved quite suddenly. He needed a way to put something up for sale. Your auction was already scheduled.” She positioned the soda bottle over her glass and pressed the lever. A stream of carbonated soda whooshed out.
“But all we sold were several paintings –.”
“There was something extra on my painting. You even noticed it.”
“Yes. You noticed that I signed it ‘Emma Knight Steed.’ You said that I never use ‘Knight.’ I said that perhaps I’ll sign all the ones I dislike that way.” Emma carried her glass and the telephone back to her chair and sat down.
“So what? Gambit could not have been selling your name.”
“No. ‘Knight’ has something that the other two names lack.” Emma knew that she was not being fair. Nancy could not be expected to guess.
She was wrong.
“It has an ‘I’,” her friend replied. “Or more specifically it has the dot over the ‘i’.”
Emma smiled, wondering if her friend had been reading spy novels in order to feel informed in Steed’s company. “There was information on the painting,” she admitted. “That’s what the bidders were after. I expected the painting to be shipped off to the buyer and destroyed once they recovered the microdot. That’s why I was willing to donate it.”
“How could you not tell me about this? Never mind. Forget I asked.”
Emma had always been a very private person, and the required secrecy of her husband’s profession only played into it. No wonder they were so suitably matched.
“As I said, Nancy, I wasn’t happy about it. But they were desperate for an authentic front, and the timing was perfect. I’m terribly sorry.”
“Why? As you said, the auction was a success.” Nancy was so angry she was resorting to a very rare fit of sarcasm. Emma was at a loss for what to say to make it up to her.
“Still, it was wrong to involve you at all. I’ll speak to Steed about it. It will never happen again.”
“Catherine Banning called on me here today.”
“She said she would do,” Emma frowned, wondering where the conversation was going now.
“Well here’s another item to include in your talk with Steed: his people – presumably Gambit – swiped the auction bids for your painting from my gallery. I know they did because Miss Banning was already familiar with the names of the bidders, and she was not at the auction, so they must have told her.”
“The bid list is missing?” Emma asked as innocently as possible.
“No it is not. It was returned. Tell Steed that if his people are going to break into my place of business at will, then they should finance a better security system for it. If I have to report the break-ins, my insurance premiums will go through the roof. A better alarm will offset it.”
Emma suppressed a grin, not wanting her amusement to come through in her voice.
“I’ll speak to him Nancy. I’ve already told them they can’t use you again.”
“You mean they wanted to?” Nancy’s voice rose half an octave.
“No, in fact, they knew better already. But I reinforced it.”
“Well, thank you.” She did not sound placated at all, but Emma decided to go with her verbal concession anyway.
“Nancy I promise, it will never happen again.”
* * *
“Here you are, the finest blossom in our hothouse,” Steed grinned at his own cleverness as he strode toward Emma down the aisle between orchids on one side and a collection of miniature roses and carnations on the other.
In a moment of whimsy Steed had once considered growing his own boutonnieres, but found maintaining the small rose bushes in his apartment too difficult. Watching Emma study a small evergreen in a rectangular pot and then deliberately reach out and snip off the tiniest tip of a branch he thought back to the case that they had solved during his growing experiment. A giant, Martian, man-eating plant in Surrey – how positively ridiculous. Another one of his reports permanently sealed because half of his superiors didn’t believe a word of it. But that hadn’t mattered a bit to him at the time, because it was just after that case that Emma had blithely seduced him. For whatever reason she had chosen that evening to move their relationship from just good friends to the intense intimacy that they had known ever since. Perhaps that was why he’d given up on the flowers – he already had the finest English rose.
The rose in question set down her clippers and rotated the tiny tree, examining its form, he supposed. When did she start cultivating bonsais? He wondered, looking around the greenhouse. There were two other miniatures amid the jungle of horticultural projects. The glass-roofed and walled extension that was connected to the kitchen housed several big potted plants that spent the warmer months on the pool deck, as well as the orchids and flowering plants that Emma had taken up growing for his buttonholes. There were also bulbs for the flowerbeds and lush hanging ferns that were moved into the house for special occasions, and beds of fresh herbs and even out-of-season vegetables for the kitchen.
Satisfied with her pruning, Emma turned to him, smiling belatedly at his compliment, banal though it had been. He stepped close to her, leaning in over her belly to give her a kiss that was returned with enthusiasm.
“How is the princess?” he asked.
“Blissfully quiet,” she stroked her bump. “Steed, there’s something we must discuss.”
“I know that it might not be a girl –”
“Not that,” she smiled, but he detected an underlying serious current. He wasn’t in the mood for a serious discussion.
“First, where is his nibs?”
“With Siobhan watching the telly.”
“And is dinner nearly ready?”
“No, it’s not even started.” Emma sounded puzzled.
“Good,” he cupped her face with one hand and slipped the other around her waist. “I want to get serious about something else before we talk.”
She tensed for a moment as he drew her close, a signal that whatever was on her mind was truly important to her. For a moment he considered dropping his pursuit and offering to hear about it, but his momentary hesitation quickly passed as she relaxed against him and found his mouth with hers.
Emma knew that she could refuse Steed’s advances and insist that they discuss Nancy, but what would be the gain? Since overhearing the women in the sauna she had realized that recently when Steed spent time in his office he came home feeling particularly interested in her. Thinking back, she realized that it had been happening for several weeks. When his advances were not well timed she had deflected them and he had accepted the deferral gracefully. But today she was feeling a bit rangy herself, and an intimate hour in their room would be much more satisfying than a heated discussion of her friend. She kissed him passionately, letting her tongue slip between his lips. He sighed, pulling her closer despite her bulk, his other hand slipping into her hair.
“When you’re shed of this bundle I want to make love to you out here,” he murmured as they parted for a breath.
“I’ll clear a potting table,” she promised, imaging that it would be rather uncomfortable, but with the proper foreplay the romance of the jungle setting would outweigh any splinters. She once would not have imagined making love anywhere but in a bed, and in fact she and Steed did not often stray from traditional locations. But when one of them proposed something exotic, the other rarely refused. The baby growing inside of her was the result of one such experiment.
While Emma smiled at the memory of their bareback riding expedition last summer, Steed thanked whatever benign spirit looked after spies for matching him with a woman who was as secretly mad and passionate as he was.
“Come on,” he found her hand and led her toward the door to the mudroom and the kitchen beyond. They climbed the back stairs to the upper hall to avoid being seen by John in the family room. Steed realized as they walked along the corridor, his arm around Emma’s waist, her body pressed to his, that it was weeks since he’d been in this part of the house. The second floor of the kitchen wing was filled with guest rooms and baths that he supposed Emma and Siobhan kept closed unless guests were expected. He felt a flicker of shame at allowing Emma to assume the role of housewife and mother without taking any responsibility for upkeep of their home himself. Although she had never complained about it he was certain that she was not completely satisfied. Her work with Knight Industries challenged some of her many talents, but parts of her brilliant mind needed the puzzles and even the risks that his work entailed. Much as he had grown to love being a father, he regretted that creating their family required so much of his beloved Emma. It wasn’t just exotic sex that he looked forward to after the baby was born, but also the occasional fencing match, and her company dealing with the witnesses and villains in some of his cases. Unbelievable as it had seemed when other fathers had warned him that he might grow jealous of his children, he understood now that it was true: Emma was no longer his alone. But for the moment he intended to claim her full attention.
They spent a languid hour in their room. Emma produced a bottle of oil and he applied it to the stretched skin of her abdomen in long, luxurious strokes. He was fascinated by the way her form changed subtly every day as the life within her grew. She shared her mild alarm at how large she was already and he reassured her, repeating her doctor’s words from her last visit.
Although Emma never insisted, he made an effort to join her at her examinations. Her doctor was accustomed to his presence, but the other expectant mothers tended to eye him suspiciously as they sat in the waiting room. Emma assured him that they were just envious of her, for their husbands regarded their examinations as women’s business while he understood that it took two to make a baby.
When she was thoroughly oiled they made love, at first laying on their sides to stroke and kiss, nibble and cuddle, and eventually with Steed behind her, holding her, filling her, and bringing them both to heated ecstasy. Eventually they lay spooned together, eyes closed, hands clasped, completely content. Emma was glad that she had agreed to postpone their discussion of Nancy. This was much more important, and pleasant.
“You said we have something to discuss,” he asked after a while, his breath lifting the hairs around her ear. He wanted to reassure her that his seduction had not been calculated to make her forget.
“Ummmm,” she sighed, not quite ready to emerge from near sleep. He accepted her response, nuzzling his face against the back of her neck. He would cuddle with her for as long as she wanted.
A bit later she reached up to run her fingers through the curls at his temple. Although she couldn’t see them she knew that they were shot with grey like the hair on other parts of his body. She thought it made him look even more sophisticated than ever. He raised his head, turning to place a kiss on her palm.
“Waking up?” he asked softly.
“I suppose we must,” she sighed, awkwardly shifting her weight to roll over and face him. He watched her expectantly. She wasted no time now getting to what was on her mind. “Nancy telephoned earlier. She knows that Gambit broke into the gallery to return the bid list. She’s very angry.”
Steed frowned, eyes narrowing as he considered the implication of her statement.
“What else does she know – Gambit’s motive, for instance?”
“Catherine Banning visited her today and already knew who all the bidders where. Nancy surmised that she had seen the list, and that you or Gambit had shown it to her. She guessed that there was something about my painting that she had not been told. And she did notice the way you and Mike behaved at the auction.”
“So what’s to be done? You said she’s angry, but I can’t change history.”
“I assured her that it would never happen again: you’ll never use her gallery for anything, and you’ll never have your people break in – even if it is to return something.”
“I’ve already agreed to that. It was a bad idea to use a friend in the first place, but you remember the timing.”
“Yes, I know. I told her that, too. But I think she should hear it from you – just the promise not to do it again.”
Steed sighed. He hated discussing his business with civilians, even in such a tangential way. And he knew Emma would not ask him to if it were not very important. He trusted Emma to have withheld the details of the case from her friend, he needn’t even ask her. But, he realized there was a detail that she deserved to know about.
“Laslow Skinner – the other high bidder – .”
“Yes. He failed to place the high bid as instructed because he was murdered the night of the auction.”
Steed watched her mind spin.
“During the auction?”
“The coroner confirmed the time. In the alley behind the gallery. The rubbish men found the corpse in a bin there the next day.”
“Right behind the gallery?” Emma’s voice rose half an octave. “Nancy didn’t mention it.” She refrained from observing that he had not mentioned it either.
“We kept it quiet.”
Emma flopped back on the mattress, rubbing her temples with both hands. “She’s in danger,” she said, turning eyes dark with concern on her husband.
“That hardly seems likely,” he said.
Emma pursed her lips and stared at the ceiling. She knew he was right, but she could not seem to suppress her irrational reaction: Nancy was no different from so many other innocent victims of Steed’s business. She knew Steed did everything he could to protect the innocent, but never at the expense of his primary objective.
“Will you arrange for someone to watch the gallery until you’ve arrested Mike’s contact, or whoever else you’re after?”
Steed nodded without hesitation. “And I’ll speak to Nancy myself – I’ll promise her never to involve her in any way again.”
Emma suspected that it wouldn’t be enough to earn her friend’s immediately forgiveness, but it was the minimum that must be done. She took one of her hands from her own face and reached up to caress his.
“What a strange life we’ve built, John,” she said.
He covered her hand with his, smiling into her eyes. “I wouldn’t change a thing, Emma. Not a single, bizarre aspect.”
She pursed her lips again, clearly struggling with a surge of emotion. “Nor would I John.”
“Emma! This is a surprise. To what do I owe the honor?” Vice Admiral Clifford Randal, Royal Navy, rose from a worn calfskin club chair to greet her. She took his hand, offering him a winsome smile. In fact, their encounter was not a surprise. She had telephoned the Admiralty earlier and arranged, through his secretary, to meet him at his club. But she understood his meaning – her request was unusual, and thus their meeting was a surprise.
“Hello Clifford. Thank you for meeting me – I know my call was unexpected.”
“But very welcome, my dear,” he glanced at her figure, a subtle gesture that was quickly exaggerated to take in her round belly. “I take it there is soon to be another Steed in the stable?”
Emma nodded, ignoring the overused cliché. She had resigned herself to enduring equine jokes when she agreed to marry Steed. “In four more months, approximately. Yes, I fear she is going to be quite large,” she added, noting his widening eyes.
“So all is well on the home front,” the Vice Admiral observed, gesturing to an adjacent club chair. Emma settled into it gratefully and he resumed his own seat. “We all always said you two were made for one another.”
Steed had introduced Emma to Randal years ago during the course of a case involving smugglers using submarines and divers. At the time he’d been in command of a coastal patrol vessel. They had encountered one another again on a case during race week at Cowes on the Isle of Wight. When Randal had been promoted to Vice Admiral and taken a position at the Admiralty in London he and Steed, and therefore Emma, had developed a closer friendship. Steed enjoyed his company, and also regarded him as a valuable contact within the Royal Navy. His relationship with Emma had always been friendly, and even when she’d returned to Peter Peel she had maintained social contact with him. He, along with so many others who had known Steed and Emma when they worked together, had been delighted when they had reunited and made public their affection for one another.
“Yes, well, I like a challenge,” Emma replied quite seriously to his observation. Nonetheless Randal smiled knowingly and nodded.
“As does Steed,” he said.
“But I am here about a tangential matter,” Emma went on. Randal’s expression grew more serious.
“Emma, I am hardly one to dispense marital advice,” he said, raising one hand as if to ward off her next comment. He was, he had always insisted, married to the sea, although since coming to London he had been finding it more and more difficult to maintain the long-distance relationship except through a bit of sailing on the Thames. There were plenty of other mistresses looking to catch his eye, and rumor had it one or two had managed to do so, although Emma scrupulously avoided paying attention to such gossip. Nonetheless, he maintained his staunch position as a confirmed bachelor.
Emma’s eyes widened slightly and she made an O with her mouth, then she shook her head and smiled. “Nothing like that, Clifford. It is, as I said, tangential. I need your help to – shall we say, discourage? – some activity that I’ve observed within the Ministry.”
Randal frowned, studying her. As he did, a waiter carrying a small tray, with a white cloth over his arm, appeared beside him.
“Another sir?” he asked, glancing at the empty glass on the small table between the chairs. Randal raised his eyes from Emma to the waiter as if puzzled, then understood and nodded.
“Yes please. Emma?”
The waiter looked at her expectantly.
“Club soda with lime,” she replied, glancing up at the waiter and then returning her attention to Randal as the serving man turned away.
“It’s personal business,” she added, since Randal had seemed about to comment on her role in Ministry business. “A bit of romantic folly.”
“You always know just what to say to intrigue me, Emma,” Randal said. “Romantic intrigue within the ministry, but not related to their more serious business? You have my full attention, and my assistance in whatever capacity I can offer it.”
“Oh ho!” Emma chortled, nestling into her chair and eyeing her companion curiously. “Be careful what you agree to without knowing the details.”
“Steed’s advice, I believe.”
“And very good. But now you’ve committed to me so it’s too late.”
Randal sighed is if in resignation, then smiled at her. “I am certain that I shall be delighted to perform whatever duty you have in mind for me. But I really can’t imagine it. Do go on.”
Emma lifted an enormous bowl of pinecones and holly sprigs with a surprised grunt and moved it to the far end of the dining room table, giving herself a long expanse of flat surface to work on. She slit the wrapping on a pack of three by five inch index cards with one fingernail and peeled it off, setting the stack of cards in the center of the table. These simple, ritual acts of organization immediately put her in the mood for analysis. She picked up her pen, touched the top to her lips for a thoughtful moment, and then began to write. She quickly filled half the pack of cards with the names of people, events, and things. When her inspiration slowed down she set her pen aside and began dealing the cards. At first she placed them in rows, but soon she was rearranging them into patterns and adding notations where one element was connected to another. She regretted not having a chalk board handy and made a mental note to get one – surely it would come in handy for John eventually anyway.
“Missus?” The lilt of Siobhan’s accent was at once soothing and jarring. Emma, who was standing over the table leaning on both hands, straightened to look at the doorway where the nanny had stepped into the room. “I was wondering what you were thinking to do about supper ma’am,” the nanny went on awkwardly. Her gaze flicked from Emma’s face to the table and back.
It took Emma a moment to shift mental gears – a symptom, she hoped, of her pregnancy – and think about Siobhan’s question.
“Spaghetti and marinara, I think,” she finally said. “We have everything for it and it’s quick. I’m not in the mood to cook.”
“I’ll just get out the things then. It’s nearly five,” Siobhan replied, taking a step back. It would be a shorter trip to the kitchen through the butler pantry, but that would require crossing the dining room. She couldn’t see what was written on her employer’s cards, but instinct told her to get as far away as she could.
“Wait,” Emma said, dashing Siobhan’s hopes. “I would like to ask you something, Siobhan.”
“Yes ma’am?” the nanny took a resigned step toward the table.
“Steed is looking into this from another angle, but I think it’s only fair to give you another chance.”
“Another chance ma’am?”
“The other morning when I read about the thefts in the newspaper, you –.”
Siobhan turned so pale Emma stopped, concerned that the young woman was about to faint. She pulled a chair away from the table and nodded toward it. “Sit down.”
The nanny sat, hands in her lap, eyes on them. Emma frowned: she was trembling.
“This isn’t an inquisition, Siobhan,” she said, going for reassuring but knowing that her irritation – irrational irritation at that – came through in her voice. “Please look at me.” She facilitated her request by taking the chair next to Siobhan, half turned toward her so that her left knee nearly touched the nanny’s right.
Siobhan peered at Emma, her crystalline blue eyes filled with a kaleidoscope of emotions.
“Well,” Emma sighed, “you’re right to be concerned. This is very serious. You know something about those thefts, don’t you Siobhan?”
“Hardly anything,” Siobhan nearly whispered.
“Right. Then let’s try for what you do know, shall we?” Emma disliked evasion. There was little point it in now, particularly by a young woman who was no match for her, or, if it came to it, Steed.
“It’s my friend Dolly’s boyfriend.”
“That would be,” Emma reached for one of her cards, lifting it from its position to read it, “Aiden Monroe? The man who was arrested at the party for starting the fight?”
“Yes,” Siobhan whispered.
“And what do you know about Mr. Monroe’s activities?”
“Siobhan, I suspect that you have an idea of what sort of things have been stolen. And you also know that we cannot condone your involvement, or even your knowledge of it. I don’t want to dismiss you, but you should know that I will, without hesitation, if your presence in this household is a threat to Steed’s position.”
Siobhan swallowed. Her hands were wrung so tightly her knuckles were white. Emma could tell she was about to break. It was up to her to provide her with the means to do so while retaining her self-respect.
“I’m certain that you’re an outsider – perhaps Dolly told you something about this? It’s awful to have such a secret. Tell me and I’ll see to it that Steed keeps you out of it.”
She realized that her attempt to soften the consequences had backfired when tears that began to spill down Siobhan’s cheeks. She covered her face with her hands and sobbed openly.
Emma’s lips pursed in frustration both with the nanny and with herself for failing to penetrate the girl’s unaccountable resistance. Perhaps I should have left this to Steed like he asked. Perhaps I’m wrong, and she is involved. He could wheedle anything out of her.
“Siobhan,” she crooned as if she were speaking to a fussy baby John. “I’m not angry with you. I understand that you’re not sure how to handle the situation. Let me help you sort it out.”
Siobhan sniffled loudly and plunged one hand into a pocket, coming out with a folded handkerchief. She wiped at her eyes and nose and finally looked red-eyed at Emma.
“Dolly told me that Aiden has formed a group – a ring of thieves. Four of them. I told her I did not want to know anything more. I know I can’t have any of them here. I know better than to get involved.”
“But don’t you also know that you should have told us immediately?” Emma asked too harshly. Siobhan sobbed, nodding.
“I do know. She only told me Sunday night. I have been trying to decide the best way to tell you, and –.”
“The best way is to tell me everything right now, Siobhan.”
Emma leaned back in her chair and resisted the urge to cross her arms. She wanted to continue to appear open, difficult as it was. Siobhan snuffled in another breath and wiped her dripping nose again. She let her gaze drift across the table at Emma’s index cards.
“They vouch for one another,” she said, her voice soft, but no longer a terrified whisper. “They create an alibi for one, and then another of them breaks into their house to steal.” Her voice grew stronger as she spoke. Emma stifled a satisfied smile.
“So the primary suspect is a decoy for the real thief. And what do they steal? Anything they like, or are they instructed?”
“Aiden tells them what to look for. That’s all she told me. I don’t know who else is involved.”
“So how could you know who to keep out of our house?”
Siobhan winced, not surprised that her employer had come to the crux of her despair. “I don’t know,” she shook her head. “That’s just it. I can’t have anyone in. But if I don’t, then they won’t have me and John over to their houses. He needs to socialize, but I can’t trust any of the other nannies!”
Emma’s relief was tangible. Siobhan’s internal struggle had to do with the performance of her job, not whether she was loyal to her employers or her friends.
“I don’t want to speak to Dolly again about it, but I think I have to find out who else is involved. I had decided to do that, and then tell you – when I could tell you everything. If she’d tell me.”
“Well,” Emma turned to her cards dealt cross the table. She picked up a blank and her pen and wrote a question mark on it followed by “local domestic.” She created two more such cards and lined them up beside the card she had already created for Siobhan’s friend Dolly, based on the names in the newspaper article. Siobhan watched her in silence. “Maybe you should have that conversation with your friend.”
Emma glanced at Siobhan and smiled at the determination in her eyes.
“Former friend,” she repeated.
Rough, callused hands with dirt-rimed nails lifted an open leather portfolio from a desk and set it aside. Beneath it a black folder imprinted with a white chess piece lay closed, a thin black string wound around a round disk on the front to hold it shut. The hands lifted the folder, unwound the string, and opened it.
Inside, the Knight Industries design diagrams for an advanced missile targeting system were a complex web of lines, shadings, and notations on several sheets of paper. The man peered at the printed heading on the sheets for a moment, his big fingers leaving dirty smudges on the right corners of several pages. As if he finally comprehended what he was reading, he nodded and closed the file. He carefully wound the string around the disk and then unbuttoned his dark green flannel shirt, slipping the black folder inside against his none-to-clean white undershirt.
He glanced out the library windows as he made for the door, but no one was strolling on the lawns or lounging by the wintry swimming pool. He tried to creep along the hallway, but his heavy boots thumped slightly no matter how lightly he stepped. With great relief he reached the front door and pulled it open, and cringed as a weary creak seemed to thunder through the lobby. He slipped through just as he heard a woman’s voice from inside.
“Mrs. Steed?” Siobhan called, stepping out of the nursery and toward the upstairs landing that had a view of the lobby and front door. She frowned and headed quickly down the stairs: the front door was ajar. She knew that it had been closed.
She peeked around the open door without touching it, just in case there were fingerprints that might be wanted. A man was striding rapidly away from the house, just passing from the wide oval shaped drive in front of the house onto the narrower, tree-lined drive that led to the front gate. She thought for a moment of pursuing him, but her mistress had trained her in common sense as well as self-defense. If she caught up and failed to overpower him, she might be injured herself, or worse. And she couldn’t leave John, who was napping in his crib, alone in the house.
Feeling frustrated but not witless, she left the door ajar and went to the telephone table in the hall. She dialed a number from memory and asked to speak to Mr. Steed, crossing her fingers that he would actually be at his office.
“Steed here,” his soothing voice really did calm her nerves.
“Mr. Steed, it’s Siobhan,”
“Hello Siobhan,” he said brightly, then his toned changed to concern: “– is anything wrong? Is John all right?”
“Yes sir, he’s fine. Nothing is wrong, necessarily. But there was a man in the house just now.”
“What man, Siobhan?”
“I don’t know, sir. I heard the front door squeak, so I came from the nursery, thinking it might be Mrs. Steed needing a hand with packages. But the door was open so I ran down and I saw him out in the drive. I was afraid to chase him, sir. Not and leave John here alone.”
“You did right, Siobhan. Now, was the man carrying anything?”
“I don’t know sir, he could have been – no,” she visualized the man walking away, “I could see his arms and hands as he walked. He wasn’t carrying anything.”
“Or if he was, it fit in a pocket.”
“That’s true,” she nodded.
“So he hasn’t walked off with the family silver,” Steed went on. She could hear a smile in his voice, although she could not imagine why he would be pleased.
“All right Siobhan, you’ve done well. I’ll look into it. I don’t think you need be afraid.”
“No. But Siobhan I do have one more question: could it have been Hal, the groom?”
Siobhan shook her head more because she did not want it to be Hal than because she didn’t think so. She pictured the retreating figure once more.
“No,” she said firmly. “I’m sure it wasn’t.”
“Very well. Now lock the door and if I need to ask you anything else I’ll telephone.”
“Yes sir, I will.”
Steed smiled cagily to himself as he hung up the telephone. Just as he did there was a light rap on his office door.
“Come,” he said, leaning back in his chair. He was just imagining the sight of Emma at her desk in the library last evening when the perky visage of Miss Drake filled his view.
“Good afternoon Mr. Steed. Can I get you anything?” she asked. Steed felt his smile widen as he recalled what Emma had been looking at. Miss Drake smiled back eagerly. Realizing she might misinterpret, he sat up straight and shook his head.
“No thank you Miss Drake. Something has just come up.” He reached for the telephone. The young woman’s eyes followed his hand. He lifted the receiver and paused, looking at her pointedly, his left hand poised over the dial. She realized he had stopped moving and looked at his face.
“Good afternoon,” he said.
“Oh. Yes sir,” she slipped backward through the door then shut it. Steed frowned slightly, wondering whether he need be concerned with Miss Drake’s attentions. But as he considered it he dialed, and by the time the telephone was ringing he had forgotten about her.
Gambit stood on the sidewalk near the center of Tower Bridge and looked up at the elevated walkway high above the streaming traffic. His parents had once taken him up onto the walkways and he remembered looking down at the cars and the boats on the river and wondering what it would be like to jump out and float down like a feather. As a boy he had often wondered that when taken to high places, and as a young man he had found out, parachuting into various dangerous situations as part of Special Forces.
Waiting for Oxley, he wondered what sort of peril he was fluttering down into now.
Oxley strode toward him among the trickle of pedestrians crossing the bridge. Steed would comment upon how nobody walks anymore, Gambit thought as a huge lorry nearly hooked him with its wing mirror. Which makes Oxley and me that much more conspicuous out here. Stupid rendezvous.
He stood at the railing looking down into the swirling, mucky Thames. Oxley came and stood next to him looking down as well.
“Rotten, isn’t it?” he observed. “Filthy old river.”
“No one’s fault but our own, and we mucked it up a long time ago,” Gambit replied with a shrug, half turning to face his contact. “What do you have for me?”
Oxley half turned too and shook his head. “You set up the auction. It’s information of a military nature. I’ll bring the goods. No microdots, no art.”
Gambit scowled, and turned back toward the river. His gaze wandered toward the bank and the government buildings beyond Victoria Embankment. He leaned on the rail, his hands clasped. He wasn’t surprised that Oxley was holding the information close to his chest. If Steed was right about Oxley’s source, it was already bogus anyway. As for the art cover, if the auction was private there was no need for the front. “How do I know you’re selling anything worth buying? The market will demand more information.”
“Plans,” Oxley replied.
“As in schedules, routes?”
“As in blueprints.”
“Uh huh,” Oxley was peering at Gambit’s profile, but the agent did not turn to look back at him. He straightened, placing his hands on the rail, posed as if to turn and leave. “Armaments. Plans for armaments,” Oxley added.
Gambit nodded and finally turned to look at him.
“All right. I can work with that. But there are set-up costs. If I don’t know what I’m selling, then you’ll have to guarantee the fixed costs.”
“That was never in the deal.”
“Neither was your withholding the item. This is a new deal.”
Oxley scrubbed at his jaw with one hand as if in consternation. Gambit didn’t buy it.
“Guarantee me a minimum or sell it elsewhere.” It was a gamble, but he believed that Oxley had no other convenient outlet, and if this information was from a new source, he needed to turn it around quickly to prove himself to his supplier. Gambit was desperately curious about where Oxley was getting his information, and he suspected that Steed knew. But so far his superior had not shared anything with him.
“How much?” Oxley asked.
“Five thousand pounds.”
“And if it sells for more?”
“Costs come off the top.”
“Out of your share.”
“No. If my share is less than one hundred thousand, costs come off the top.”
“Mighty generous of you,” Oxley growled, his face flushed.
Gambit shrugged. “People have to be paid, the window dressing has to look convincing. If it amounts to less than five percent of my share, I’ll cover it.”
Oxley blinked, a habit, Gambit knew, that meant he was thinking.
“Ten percent,” he finally said, just as Gambit had expected.
Oxley expected to get at least two hundred thousand, then – and Gambit’s share would be at least fifty. “We’ll do it tomorrow night – it will take that long to line up the bidders.”
Gambit told him the address and, for good measure, made up a password to gain entry to the auction room. Oxley looked satisfied by the time he turned and started back across the bridge.
* * *
“He wants the auction tomorrow evening, but he refused to give me the goods in advance.” Gambit cringed in anticipation of Steed’s reaction.
Steed surprised him. “Either he is suspicious, or he doesn’t have it yet.”
“I thought you’d be angry. We won’t be able to substitute false information.” Gambit scanned the street. He was in a telephone booth not far from Whitehall. He suspected that Oxley was having him watched, and might even have his home phone tapped, so he was avoiding both ministry headquarters and using his phone. He regretted not being able to visit headquarters during the day, he had just begun to flirt with a new secretary before starting this assignment. By the time he got back to her some other agent – probably Jerome – would have wined and dined her and sharpened her suspicions about the ways of their kind.
“Anger serves no purpose,” Steed counseled him. “This just means we’ll have to execute our plan correctly this time. How many of our bidders will be in the room?”
“Three. I can’t plant any more without Oxley suspecting – there have to be some known buyers.”
“Very well. And who from among the opposition do you expect?”
Gambit ran down the names of foreign contacts to whom he had provided information about the auction and Steed approved them, congratulating Gambit on the breadth of his list.
When they rang off Gambit was feeling more confident about the auction and his handling of the case so far. Steed seemed comfortable with the arrangements, and if the old fox was satisfied, the odds of success were very good.
“Steed, have you been in the library today?” Emma asked. Steed was crouched in front of the oven peering through the glass window at the garlic bread that was toasting inside. “I haven’t boiled the spaghetti yet,” she added.
Steed straightened looking guilty.
“The garlic smells heavenly,” he said.
“Siobhan prepared it,” she replied, squelching his planned flattery.
“No. I haven’t been in the library, why?”
Emma picked up a thread of tension in his voice so subtle only she could have noticed it.
“Something is missing,” she said, watching him closely. The corners of his mouth curled ever so slightly, confirming her suspicion. “And you know about it,” she added, eyes narrowing.
“What are you suggesting Mrs. Peel?” he asked. His widening smile softened his otherwise harsh words.
“I’m not sure,” she said, inclining her head in a familiar expression of inquiry. She walked slowly toward him across the kitchen. Despite her bulge there was something threatening in her approach. If he did not level with her she would take some sort of action. For a moment he wondered what, and whether it might be more pleasurable to let her. When she got close enough he reached out and settled his hands on her waist in an intimate, if loose, embrace. She stopped, watching him expectantly.
“Siobhan called me this afternoon while you were out. She saw a man leaving the house. I believe that he removed something from the library.”
“Yes,” Emma nodded, curious about his lack of concern. “The plans to our missile guidance system.”
“Yes, I hoped so,” he replied, his smile wider still.
“So everything is going according to plan?”
His grin turned to surprise and then disappointment. He so loved to maintain an air of mystery. She felt decidedly triumphant.
“You planted false information in the hands of any likely target in the neighborhood, didn’t you? You were waiting for another theft and for the stolen information to turn up in the hands of Gambit’s contact.”
He eyed her warily. “Of course I can’t conceal anything from you,” he said.
“If it’s any consolation, I only took the time to work it out because it affected Siobhan,” she offered.
“Yes, well, she still has some things to answer for.”
“I believe she is innocent in this matter, I’ve questioned her,” Emma replied, trying to keep him from dragging the conversation onto a siding.
“You questioned her?” one brow arched.
Her eyes narrowed once more. He had never questioned her tactics before. But then, she had never involved herself uninvited before. But if he’d leveled with me earlier we could have coordinated our efforts, she reminded herself.
“She knows very little, and she knows she should have told us on Sunday when she found out.”
“And why didn’t she?”
“She only knew as much as we – you – do. She wanted to get the names of the thieves first.”
“That’s a thin excuse,” he shook his head slightly, eyes drifting down to her bulge. The sight of it reminded him of how valuable Siobhan was to them. He slipped his arms further around Emma and felt tension in her body. He returned his gaze to her eyes. “I’m not out to sack her. But if she compromises this investigation I have no choice,” he said with sincere regret.
“I know. I told her the same thing. I don’t think she’s compromised anything. And she knows now how wrong her actions were.”
Steed watched her eyes harden, imagining the scene between her and the nanny. Emma was much more experienced at dealing with employees than he was anyway. “I’m sure she does,” he managed a smile. He felt Emma relax a little in his arms.
“But back to your plan,” she said, placing both hands on his chest. His flesh prickled automatically at her touch.
“Yes. My plan,” he acted slightly perplexed. She wasn’t fooled.
“You planted false information in the hands of all the likely victims but one – us.”
“Ah,” he nodded. She was right. He had been relying on their security system to prevent them from being the next victims. When that had failed, fortunately not through Siobhan’s actions, he had assumed that they could substitute false data when Oxley handed over his goods to Gambit. When Gambit reported that Oxley wasn’t going to do so, he’d reverted to plan “c” – not to let the plans fall into the wrong hands. Even though that had been plan “a” the night of the auction at Nancy’s and had failed, he was confident that it would work this time.
But Emma knew none of that, which was hardly fair, he realized. They were her plans, after all.
“Here,” he shifted his arms around her to guide her to the kitchen table. “Let’s review the whole thing.”
He sat down opposite her and began a quick recount of events so far. Emma quickly fell in with him, adding her observations from the night of the auction. He told her about his visit with the Air Commodore and identifying Skinner’s body in the alley, and she described her discussion with Siobhan.
“This afternoon Siobhan called to tell me she’d seen a man leaving the house. He wasn’t carrying anything that she could see, so I surmised that he had taken something small enough to put in a pocket, or tuck into his shirt. A file, perhaps.”
“A Knight Industries file with our missile guidance system plans,” Emma nodded. Her devious smile made him raise one brow in curiosity. “Steed, when have I ever left secret information sitting on my desk?” she asked.
He shrugged, realizing that he could not think of a single example of her failing to safeguard the information with which she was entrusted.
“Precisely. And I didn’t this time either. The real plans are in the safe. I doubt this ring of amateur thieves could open it. What that man stole are decoy plans I had our art department make up. They’re for the illustrations in our annual report. They look very convincing – we wouldn’t want to insult the shareholders’ intelligence after all.
Steed laughed with delight, reaching across the table to take her hand. “You are brilliant Mrs. Peel.”
She shot him a diffident smile that transformed into her own delighted grin. In fact she felt both victorious and relieved at having been brought fully into the case. And a moment later, as Steed rose and came around the table to place a kiss on her temple, she felt foolish for being concerned in the first place.
* * *
Steed set his cup and saucer on the built-in desk in the tiny security room off of the kitchen. The room was equipped with black and white monitors connected to cameras in strategic locations around the estate. The cameras were also connected to videotape recorders that each recorded in a twenty-four hour loop. Steed ejected each of the tapes and replaced them with new ones. Then he turned to a player connected to a separate monitor and inserted the tape from the front of the house. He had waited until Emma had left for the office and Siobhan took John out for a walk. But it was still morning and the events he wished to see had occurred yesterday afternoon.
The timestamp on the tape rolled backwards in a blur as he rewound it. He sipped his coffee and watched it. The camera automatically switched in and out of infrared mode based on its light sensors, so he watched three deer browse their way across the drive in the night. Nothing else happened until he saw himself arrive the previous evening. After that the camera switched to normal mode and showed him Emma’s arrival home. He sat up straighter, finger poised over the “play” button.
Time reeled backwards. Steed smiled at the sight of Gilbert the basset hound walking backwards across the drive. A minute later a man appeared in the shadows of the trees along the drive. He progressed backward toward the house. It was just as Siobhan had said – he walked with his arms swinging at his sides. But the advantage of the camera was it’s location on a tree along side the gravel parking area in front of the house. While Siobhan had only seen the man’s back from the front door, the camera had captured his face. Steed reversed the tape and watched the man come out of the door. This time he noticed Siobhan appear in the doorway for a moment and then disappear as the man walked into the trees.
Steed rewound to a frame where the man’s face was clear. Then he ejected the tape and slotted in the one from the front gate. The man in the green plaid shirt walked up to the gate and pressed the button to open the smaller human-size gate, then strode out. Steed switched to the tape from a camera at the back of the house. He sipped his coffee as it rewound through the night. He stopped and played it forward for a moment to watch Gilbert and Sullivan, the terrier, run past in the evening chasing a rabbit. Then he continued the rewind. A man was walking away from the house toward the stable. In reverse he came toward the camera with his back turned. He was not wearing green plaid, but Steed recognized him anyway. His heart sank as events played out backwards: Hal the groom had brought the man in plaid to the house and used a key he should not have to unlock the French doors directly into the library.
Hal had been in their employ since Steed had bought the horses, Dancer and Commander, for Emma as a wedding present. The ministry had run an extensive background check on him that was updated annually. Steed felt betrayed as he rewound and replayed the scene. He was fond of Hal. They had sat in vigil in the stable together when Commander was sick. Hal had found Cowslip and Honey, the polo ponies that Steed had bought. Steed had rewarded Hal for that and for other tasks beyond the call of simple horse care. He had never sensed the sort of unhappiness that would spur a man to betraying a good employer.
There was no sign that the man in plaid had coerced Hal. The groom strode up to the door and unlocked it, then pushed it open and stepped back so that the other man could enter the house.
“Hal old boy, what have you come to?” Steed wondered as he stopped the tape. At least, he thought as he collected the tapes to take them to the ministry for further analysis, this shows that Siobhan had nothing to do with letting him in.
* * *
“It’s this evening, the wheels are in motion,” Gambit smiled into Catherine’s eyes, reaching up to draw a stray lock of glossy auburn hair off of her forehead. They were stretched out on a white sheepskin rug in front of the fireplace in her austere London flat. That she had a residence in London surprised him. That it was small and sparsely furnished and the refrigerator contained only bottled water, an out-of-date carton of yogurt, and a jar of chutney did not. Bringing him into the flat she had explained that she spent no more than a few weeks a year in London and that for most of the rest of the time the flat was let out to tourists through an agency. The last renters had left last weekend and she had come to town for some business – just in time for Arnold Bray’s death. The next batch of renters would arrive next week and stay through Christmas. Gambit wondered what it would be like to feel like a visitor in your own home. But, he supposed, she probably didn’t think of this flat that way at all. Which made him wonder where she did think of as home.
She’d asked him to build the fire from a supply of wood next to the hearth while she opened a bottle of wine that had been sitting on the kitchen counter.
It was mid-afternoon. Catherine had telephoned him that morning to invite him to lunch. He had readily agreed, but then Oxley had contacted him and he’d had to postpone their date. Catherine had agreed to reschedule, but she’d changed the venue from a restaurant to her flat when it became clear that a meal was not on the menu.
Gambit was aware that his professional detachment was in grave danger when it came to Miss Banning. She was fascinating and just dangerous enough to be irresistible. If she ran afoul of his investigation he would have a difficult time choosing between helping her and completing his mission. For the first time in his career he had some insight into Steed’s life. All these years, desperately in love with Emma, constantly juggling protecting her with achieving the goals of his work. Not that Emma was usually in need of protection. Nor, Gambit reflected as he let himself lean toward Catherine and touch his lips to hers, was his current companion. And not, he pointed out to himself, that he was in love with her.
“Ummm,” she sighed into his kiss, then pulled away. “I need to be there.”
“Need?” he smiled, nipping at the tip of her nose. He inhaled her scent, something floral and deep; different from the other night, and doubtlessly very expensive.
“Yes. To see if Maxine Tellerman is there.”
“I’ll tell you if she is. Her people were notified.”
He pursed his lips – how did she know that? – but nodded. Her victorious little smile was seductive.
“If she’s there I’ll want to follow her. I haven’t been able to locate her since the auction.”
Gambit interrupted the debate with another kiss. He knew where the afternoon was leading, and he very much wanted to get there in time. Soon enough he would have to leave for the ministry’s auction house to be sure everything was in order.
“It will be dangerous.”
“I can take care of myself,” she placed a series of kisses along his jaw working back to his ear. Her touch left a trail of fire that made him gasp with pleasure.
“I’m sure you can,” he breathed, letting his hands wander over her ribs, stroking the knap of her black cashmere sweater. She pressed him onto his back, one hand on his shoulder the other in the rug next to his head. She extended her kiss trail over his throat, pausing to kiss his Adam’s apple. He swallowed, his hands sliding over her waist and lower, caressing the contours of her body. “You’ll have to stay behind the scenes,” he said.
Her eyes sparkled with victory. She treated him to a deep, demanding kiss, lowering her body onto his to trigger a chain reaction of growing warmth between them. Assured of his cooperation, she felt free to express her gratitude, and he reciprocated.
* * *
“Good morning Hal.”
The groom turned toward the sound of Steed’s voice, one hand on the rake he was using to move soiled straw out of the stalls. He stopped with his mouth open, unable to reply.
Steed, dressed in his city overcoat and polished shoes stepped further into the stable, flanked by two similarly dressed men. The trio was so out of place amid the straw, tack, and horse feed Hal was too astonished to react.
“I’m afraid I have to sever our relationship, Hal,” Steed went on, his mild tone as incongruous as his appearance. “These gentlemen will be taking you away to have some conversations. What you tell them is up to you. But you should know that honesty is probably your best policy.”
Hal frowned, looking past the three men out into the stable yard where Commander and Dancer, his equine charges were cropping at the fringe of grass near the fence. “You don’t know what they said they’d do, Mr. Steed,” he finally said. “You don’t understand.”
“But I do, Hal. Whatever they said, you made the wrong choice by complying with their request. And unfortunately, what will happen to you now may be worse than what they threatened.”
“No! Mr. Steed please,” the big groom dropped the rake handle and stepped toward Steed. The two men started to move in but Steed restrained them with a sharp hand gesture. He drew himself up, seeing almost to expand, and stood nose to nose with the frantic groom.
“I’ve done good for you here, Mr. Steed. Is this how you repay me?”
“Yes, and I’ve compensated you, Hal. Is this how you repay me? By letting a thief into my home where my son lay sleeping? How did you know his intentions Hal? How could you believe him? How could you know he would not kidnap my son or attack my family?”
Steed’s voice rose gradually along with his anger so that his last few words were an enraged growl. Outside commander snorted and pawed the hard ground. Hal shrank back, his head dropping.
“I didn’t think –.”
“No you did not, and for that you must pay. I am sorry that it came to this, Hal. Really. But I cannot abide a traitor in my household.”
Steed stepped back and gestured again, this time sending the officers, for they were, in fact, police detectives, to take the groom into custody.
* * *
The woman entering the gallery attracted Nancy’s attention not so much because she was carrying a familiar flat crate as because she was strikingly tall and muscular. But her powerful shoulders and wide hips were balanced by a well-proportioned waist and bust. She was an outsized version of a WWII pin-up. She easily carried the heavy crated painting by a simple handle affixed to a metal strap.
“Please pardon me for a moment, Mrs. Flax,” Nancy excused herself from the collector she had spent the last twenty minutes entertaining. She signaled to Vivien as she crossed the gallery toward the newcomer. Her assistant moved in to attend their wealthy patron. If it weren’t for the fact that Mrs. Flax did buy paintings on every third or fourth visit she would have handed her off to Vivien a lot earlier.
“Good afternoon. May I help you?” she asked the newcommer, craning her neck to meet the woman’s gaze.
“Yes. I would like to discuss this painting,” she replied. Her accent was harsh, from somewhere in the East. She raised the crate slightly to clarify that she was referring to it, as if it wasn’t obvious.
“Very well. We can speak over here,” Nancy indicated her desk at the back of the gallery. Her guest set the crate on the floor leaning against the side of the desk and sat down in the guest chair.
As Nancy sat down she thought about the succession of determined women she had entertained lately as a result of the charity auction. It’s like Steed attracts them.
“I’m Nancy Belmont,” she said, her tone expectant. Her guest picked up on her prompt.
“Miss Tellerman,” she replied. Nancy busied herself picking up a pen and jotting the name on a pad on her desk to hide the reaction she knew must be apparent on her face. It seemed like the bid list in the drawer with the woman’s scrawled bids must be visible right through her desk.
“Miss Tellerman, how can the Belmont Gallery be of service?”
“I would like to sell back the painting.”
“I see,” Nancy had no doubt about what painting was in the crate. “And was it purchased here?”
“Yes. My client purchased it last week.”
Nancy had the impression that Miss Tellerman had more to say, but stopped herself. She wanted desperately to ask if the woman really thought she was thick, but she also stopped herself. She was beginning to appreciate Emma’s skill at directing conversation. It required intense discipline to say was needed, not what she wanted.
“Auction sales are final, Miss Tellerman.” And worse than controlling her impulse to say what she thought was deciding what she wanted to do. Should she take it back and, maybe, recover Steed’s microdot? Or should she stand by her policies and send woman and painting away. She was within her rights to stay out of Steed’s business – in fact, she had vowed to Emma that she would. But if this woman was a villain and she had an opportunity to help capture her, should she let it slip through her fingers?
“The purchase price has been donated to charity,” she added, even though she hadn’t yet decided to refuse. She thought she should resist in order to be convincing.
“I would accept somewhat less than the purchase price.”
“The painting was stolen, I believe.”
“It was recovered. I represent the buyer.”
Who is dead. Nancy nodded, narrowly concealing her growing contempt for her visitor. She takes me for a complete idiot. I should hand her to Steed on a silver platter
“Very well,” she said, leaning sideways to look at the crate. “We must examine the work before making an offer.”
Maxine didn’t hesitate. “Very well,” she nodded. Nancy rose and reached for the crate. Maxine began to rise as well.
“If you’d like to wait here, it won’t take long,” Nancy said. Maxine resumed her seat, watching intently as Nancy carried the crate into the workroom.
Nancy set the crate on the floor near the end of the worktable positioned so that Maxine could not see it from her seat. She took a screwdriver from an artist’s carousel on the table and went to work on the screws that secured the long, narrow lid.
“May I get you anything ma’am?”
Nancy’s head shot up at the sound of Vivien’s voice. Her assistant was nothing if not diligent. For a moment Nancy feared that she might agitate their visitor, but then she heard Maxine accept a glass of wine: “vite, pleze.”
Vivien came into the workroom, which also housed the kitchenette, just as Nancy lifted the top off of the crate.
“Can I help you Miss Belmont?” she asked.
Nancy looked into the crate at the top of the simple gallery frame.
“No Vivien, you bring Miss Tellerman her wine. This won’t take a moment.”
“Yes ma’am,” Vivien made her way to the refrigerator without another glance at her boss’s activity.
Nancy lifted the painting out of the crate and laid it on the end of the worktable, still outside of Miss Tellerman’s view. She took a magnifying glass from the carousel, then paused to examine the painting as a whole. Vivien left the workroom carrying a glass of white wine on a silver tray.
The painting looked exactly as she remembered it, but it was as if she was seeing it through new eyes. Where before she had admired the subdued palette and angular composition, now she had to agree with Emma. It was inferior to her usual work. It was typical for artists to experiment – any technique or style goes stale after a while. Some experiments – like when Emma switched from watercolor to oil a number of years ago – sparked renewed creativity, but others were merely side trips along the way. This painting was definitely a side trip.
“Thank you.” The sound of Miss Tellerman accepting her wine jarred Nancy into action. Inhaling a nervous breath she lifted the magnifying glass and bent over Emma’s signature.
Nancy had never seen a microdot. She assumed from the spy novels she’d read that it would be dark – a tiny spec of high-density photographic film with a reverse image of whatever information it contained. Emma’s signature was painted in dark brown, which is why the black microdot could be so easily concealed on the dot of the “i.” Nancy studied the “i” and the surrounding area through the magnifying glass. She could not be sure, but she did not think the microdot was there.
Why is she here? She’s taken the information off the painting, why try to sell it back to me?
Nancy quickly went over the rest of the painting, but found no damage or anything unusual. Even the frame, that she had put it in herself just over a week ago, was flawless.
If I refuse to buy it, I’ll never know what she’s up to.
“The painting is undamaged, Miss Tellerman. If you are sure that you – your client – would like the gallery to take it back, I can offer ten percent of the purchase price.”
It was not a paltry sum since the painting had sold for such a high price. But it was less than any of Emma’s other works were selling for. And it was more than Nancy really could afford to pay just now. She was counting on Steed, or Emma, reimbursing her.
She was actually surprised when Miss Tellerman nodded agreement to her offer. Her eyes widened a little as she opened her top desk drawer and withdrew the gallery checkbook.
A few minutes later she tore the check from the book, took one last look at it, and extended it to Miss Tellerman. She should have asked who it should be written to, or asked for verification of Miss Tellerman’s authority, or for the original bill of sale. Either Miss Tellerman would know that she suspected her, or she would think Nancy was a fool. Nancy held her breath, waiting for her guest’s reaction.
“I have some other paintings,” Miss Tellerman said as she took the check.
So it’s not about Emma’s painting at all.
“The artists are much better known – quite well known. They are important works.”
“I see,” Nancy wasn’t sure what to say to keep her talking, but it didn’t seem to matter.
“They are for sale. But I should like to find the right buyer. Someone who is discrete. You understand.”
Nancy nodded slowly as if considering the question and then realized that she had inadvertently reassured her guest. Miss Tellerman took her for someone with a flexible ethical code. If she had raised any of the protests that she’d considered, Miss Tellerman would have left this second transaction unmentioned. Once again she understood the appeal this business had for Emma.
“I understand,” she said. “This is an unusual request – not the usual business of this gallery. I know of someone who might be appropriate, but I will have to inquire.”
“Discretely,” Miss Tellerman reinforced her warning.
“Discretely,” Nancy nodded. “I will contact you tomorrow if there is interest.”
“No. I will contact you,” Miss Tellerman countered, taking one of Nancy’s business cards from a holder full of them on the desk.
“Very well. In the afternoon please.”
Miss Tellerman opened her handbag and deposited the card, then rose.
* * *
The room was perfect, Gambit had to admit. It was the basement of a ministry-owned building in Soho, but it looked like a private auction room of an exclusive gallery, right down to the wooden gavel on the lectern and the heavy green velvet draperies separating the lobby from the main room and concealing the door behind the lectern. There were paintings on the walls and stands supporting small sculptures, all reproductions from ministry stores. Two desks along a side wall had two telephones each. The chairs set in rows facing the lectern were armless and upholstered in green and gold brocade. Borrowed, Gambit thought, from an upscale hotel somewhere.
Oxley would be satisfied. Gambit straightened his tie in an oval mirror framed in elaborate gold leaf, then ran a finger over his chin to check his shave. He’d ended up rushing to get ready after all, but the afternoon spent with Catherine had taken the edge off and he was feeling confident about the evening’s events. He had tried to talk her out of coming once more while he dressed, but she had been ready ahead of him and followed him out to his car. He had capitulated in the face of her dogged determination.
He had ushered her straight through the auction room and the door behind the heavy green curtain. If the room had not been stuffed with surveillance equipment he was sure she would have come back out again. But he’d introduced her to agent Mayhew, and she’d immediately asked him all the right questions about the equipment he had set up to document the auction. Gambit had left them with their heads nearly touching as Mayhew showed her the camera remote controls. He was embarrassed at the pang of jealousy he’d felt as he shut the door and adjusted the concealing curtain.
There were three other agents in the auction room – one was Aberdeen, the auctioneer Gambit had requested. One was a decoy bidder. Gambit hoped he would not suffer Skinner’s fate. There as a knock on the door that separated the lobby from the external stairs. The third agent, acting as doorman, slid open a brass panel to look through a peephole.
* * *
“Good evening,” Steed’s face lit with a genial smile as he crossed the Belmont gallery. His gaze flicked to a painting to his left and he stopped to look at it. “I remember this one! Emma worked on it all summer.”
“Steed!” Nancy left her desk and moved toward him, waving Vivien away as she walked.
“Hello Nancy,” Steed focused his attention on her. “I got your message. I owe you an explanation and an apology. I’m sorry for not coming by sooner.”
“That’s not why I called today Steed. Come to the back,”
Steed shot her a habitual flirtatious smile as she took his arm to guide him to the workroom. She rolled her eyes and smiled back.
“I had a surprise visitor this afternoon,” she said as she stopped him in front of an easel draped with a dark cloth. “She wanted to sell me this.” She dragged the cloth off of Emma’s painting.
Steed’s brows rose in surprise, then dropped as he squinted and bent to examine the signature. Nancy picked up the magnifying glass and held it in front of his face. He glanced up with a smile of thanks, then took it.
“It’s not there,” she said. Steed grunted as he finished his examination and straightened.
“Emma told you.”
“I guessed. She confirmed. I checked for it when Miss Tellerman brought it in.”
Steed’s expression grew thoughtful as he set the magnifying glass on the table.
“There’s more,” Nancy went on. “She said she had several other paintings to sell. She called them ‘important.’ In art speak that either means something by an unknown that you want to promote, or something by a well-known artist that has something wrong with it.”
“And did she say what is wrong with the paintings she wants to sell?”
“Of course not Steed, they’re stolen. But you already knew that, didn’t you?”
Steed looked again at Emma’s painting, his lips pursed. “You said she asked to sell this back to you? I take it you bought it?”
“Yes. I –.”
Steed stopped her by placing both hands on her shoulders. “Thank you Nancy. I know Emma promised you that we would not involve you again. I never expected Maxine Tellerman to return here. I owe you a great deal for your cool head, and your indulgence. I’ll buy the painting, of course.”
Nancy felt a wave of relief. She had not realized how concerned she was about the expenditure. “Thank you Steed. What shall I do when Miss Tellerman calls about selling the other paintings? I put her off until tomorrow afternoon, but –.”
“I don’t expect her to contact you again,” Steed dropped his hands from her shoulders and moved toward the door. “But just in case, tell her you’ve got a buyer.”
“Certainly Nancy. He’s a serious collector, and very discrete – she did ask for discretion, didn’t she?”
“Yes she did, how did you know? And who is the buyer?”
“They always want discretion when they’re breaking the law. And the buyer is me.” He was through the doorway now, leaving Nancy standing in the middle of the workroom. “I’ll be in touch in the morning to tell you exactly what to tell her. Thank you again, Nancy.”
And with that he was gone, leaving Nancy realizing that rather than washing her hands of his business as intended, she was as involved as ever. At least I know what to expect next, she thought with a sigh.
* * *
“Old plaster,” someone outside said. The agent opened the door to admit Andres Coachella, an information broker with contacts all over South America. He acknowledged Gambit with a curt nod and proceeded into the auction room through the curtain, which Gambit held aside.
Gambit wished he was wearing a wire so that he could communicate with Mayhew, but in such close quarters Oxley would certainly notice it. He had to settle for the previously arranged signals to indicate that the new comer was a legitimate buyer, but not his contact.
Several more bidders arrived, two of them agents, but none of them Maxine Tellerman. The second man was Asian, and unknown to Gambit. He longed to go to the back room where Mayhew would be scanning his database of known Chinese operatives trying to identify the man. If the unknown man was representing Chinese interests, what had happened to Maxine? Gambit could practically sense Catherine’s frustration as she looked over Mayhew’s shoulder.
Oxley finally knocked and gave the secret password. Gambit had regretted inventing it when he’d realized that he would have to inform all of the bidders, but Steed had employed a network of contact to deliver the information discretely this morning.
Oxley stepped inside and met Gambit’s gaze with a chilly stare. Gambit arched both brows expectantly and the other man came over to him, reaching into his breast pocket. Gambit felt himself tense and then relax as Oxley withdrew a sheaf of folded papers, not a weapon.
“The item,” he said, handing the papers to Gambit.
Gambit unfolded them. Oxley looked on while he inspected the drawings, both of them knowing that he lacked the expertise to know whether the plans were genuine. There was a Knight Industries logo in the corner and the handwriting of written notes in the margins looked terribly familiar. A wave of fear shuddered through him but he maintained his all-business grimace under Oxley’s gaze. How did Oxley get these? I can’t sell Knight plans. Maybe Steed knows. Maybe they’re fakes.
He folded the papers and tucked them into his own breast pocket. “Right. Go in and have a seat.” He glanced at his wristwatch. “We’re scheduled to begin.”
“How many bidders are there?” Oxley asked, sounding nervous all of a sudden. Gambit eyed him, curious but hiding it. Then he stepped over to the drapery and drew it aside so Oxley could pass into the main room.
“Enough,” he replied coldly. Oxley looked into the room but didn’t enter. Alarms were going off all up and down Gambit’s spine. He’s suspicious.
But after taking in the auction space Oxley shot Gambit a pleased smile and went on in. Gambit relaxed a bit, but not entirely. The afternoon had been so pleasant he’d forgotten that a little edge of nerves kept him alert. He wondered whether Oxley was merely pleased at the number of bidders, or if there had been someone in particular that he had hoped to see, or not to see. Again Gambit wondered what had become of Maxine Tellerman.
He glanced over his shoulder at the doorman, who nodded at him, then stepped into the auction room and dropped the drapes. Oxley had taken a chair in the back row. Gambit went to Aberdeen and withdrew the sheaf of papers from his pocket.
“It’s plans for a missile guidance system. Top of the line. Not yet in production,” he said. Aberdeen glanced at the top sheet with its spider web of lines and cryptic notations.
“I’m not sure. Possibly.”
Aberdeen pursed his lips, considering the bidders, who he had been watching as they arrived. “I’ll try to place it with Franks, let Ramesh bid him up for good measure,” he said, speaking of two of the agent bidders.
“Just keep it in our hands. We’re here to find out who’s interested. If one of them does get a hold of this, we’ll have to take them all in tonight and that’ll end my investigation.”
“I understand laddie. I have been doing this for a while,” Aberdeen replied, looking mildly annoyed.
“Fine. Let’s get started.”
Gambit went to stand at the back of the room where he could keep an eye on all the bidders as well as Oxley.
* * *
“That’s right Mother, Miss Tellerman has the microdot. I have no doubt that she murdered Arnold Brey to get it. But she’s trying to sell his other paintings. Why go to the trouble, and risk the exposure?” Steed had pulled over on a quiet Soho street to finish his report to his superior via car phone. Accustomed as he was to having a phone in the car, he still found it difficult to drive and talk at the same time. It was almost an afterthought this report of his progress, but since the case was beginning to show up as a noticable deficit on the covert operations balance sheet protocol demanded it.
“Why indeed?” Mother replied. “You obviously have an idea.”
“She’s doing what any freelance operative does when a deal goes bad,” Steed replied, scanning the street out of habit while he spoke. “Liquifying her assets. I think the Chinese have cancelled her contract. I’d like to know why, but for some reason she’s on the outs and needs to go into hiding. She’s probably also trying to sell the microdot – that’s where I need your help – can you put someone on it?”
“I can scare up someone to check the usual lines of communication, Steed. But why not you?”
“I can’t get on it just now Mother. I have to go to an auction.”
Steed smile smugly as he pictured Mother’s slightly perturbed expression. He replaced the car phone receiver in its cradle concealed under the dashboard and got out of the car. London winter was halfheartedly asserting itself with a fine drizzle – he’d had to put the top up.
“The item is unique, gentlemen,” Aberdeen was saying as Steed slipped through the curtain. “Not just a fragment for your engineers to puzzle over. These are complete plans for the Z28 missile guidance system. The finest minds in Britain created these plans and they can be yours tonight for the right price. All bids in British Pounds please gentlemen. We shall begin the bidding at five hundred.”
Steed strolled along the side of the room studying the bidders. He was pleased to see Darius Zhang seated in an end seat in the third row. As Aberdeen took a bid for five hundred fifty thousand Pounds Steed came to stop near Zhang. After a moment Aberdeen’s gaze flicked over him and when it did Steed inclined his head toward the Chinese man to his left. Aberdeen’s acknowledgement was invisible to all but Steed, who was watching for it.
Message delivered Steed strolled up as far as the front row, paused again, then turned and strolled all the way to the rear. One or two of the bidders glanced at him, but most of their attention was focused on Aberdeen. Gambit marveled at how unobtrusive he could be when it suited his purpose.
The bidding escalated to one million pounds, then a million and a quarter. Steed wondered what the real plans had cost Knight to develop, and what the contract price with the Ministry of Defense was. But he was scrupulous about staying out of Emma’s business dealings so he could only guess.
Gambit edged over to him, his eyes always on the room, his hands behind his back in a non-threatening pose.
“You know something,” he murmured to Steed.
Steed shot him a devious look before refocusing on Aberdeen, who had just acknowledged a bid from Zhang.
Gambit concealed a scowl as Steed glided away from him.
Steed was certain that Miss Tellerman was on the outs with the Chinese, but he still wanted to nail Hong, the agent turned diplomat who tended to hide within the Chinese embassy. They had failed to trail Tellerman to her meeting with Hong, assuming she’d had one. But he would settle for letting Zhang lure him out and then thet would have him. He’d either rot in a very private cell in a very private British prison, or be exchanged – and then most likely rot in a very private Chinese prison. Steed would have picked the British prison, but there was no accounting for taste.
He hadn’t expected this opportunity to get Hong, but when he’d realized what Miss Tellerman was up to his new plan had sprung into being full blown. On the way to the auction from the gallery he had called in a surveillance team. They would pick up Mr. Zhang as he left the auction and stick with him until he met with Hong. Steed hoped when they finally met the team would have time to contact him so that he could personally make the arrest.
Gambit and his men could grab Oxley at the end of the auction too – they had plenty on him now. And Steed hoped that he would be interested in a deal. Perversely, the servant thieves were the element that bothered Steed the most. Their violation of British homes – his home – affected him personally. He shied away from thinking about the look on Hal’s face when he’d met him in the stable that morning.
Aberdeen’s gavel striking the lectern was sufficient to distract him from his thoughts.
“Two and three quarter million is the bid. Do I hear three gentlemen? Two and three quarter to the gentleman on my left,” the gavel struck once more. “Final chance gentlemen.”
There was a nervous shifting in the room as the other bidders peered at their hands, the floor, one another, anywhere but at Darius Zhang. His gaze was directed at Aberdeen, his shoulders and neck tense. Aberdeen raised the gavel. No one spoke or signaled a change of heart.
“Sold to the gentleman on my left for two and three quarters,” Aberdeen said with an air of finality. Steed noted the way Zhang relaxed, his head dropping in a tiny bow. Gambit’s attention was on Oxley, who rose and crossed to him looking pleased.
The agent doorman approached Zhang, who was in turn approaching Aberdeen. Steed did not doubt that he would produce the requisite payment in exchange for the plans, and that the ministry team outside would follow him home.
The two agent bidders each made eye contact with Steed as they exited, exchanging looks that confirmed that all had gone as intended. As the rest of the bidders made their way out, each avoiding all the others’ eyes, Steed strolled over to where Gambit was speaking with Oxley. The criminal would expect to wait for the auction to be settled so he could collect his payment.
“Oxley, isn’t it?” Steed asked, interrupting the criminal as he inserted himself into their conversation. A flash of surprise crossed Gambit’s face, then he turned stonily perturbed.
“Who are you?” Oxley asked, eying Steed with a mix of suspicion and irritation.
“This is my establishment,” Steed replied, feeling that it was a reasonable claim since he’d signed Gambit’s request. Oxley’s demeanor shifted immediately.
“I see. It’s quite a set-up,” he said, glancing around to indicate the furnishings and décor.
“It serves its purpose. It seems to have served you well enough this evening. Two and three quarter million for a few drawings?”
“Your man handled the bidding expertly,” Oxley nodded, allowing his pleasure to show. Steed nodded proudly and turned his smile on Gambit, who forced a tight smile.
The agent doorman crossing the room caught his attention and he half turned to greet him. Zhang was heading for the door, tucking folded papers into his inside coat pocket as he walked. Aberdeen went to the green curtain behind the lectern and disappeared through the door.
Steed followed Gambit’s gaze, then watched Zhang until he had departed through the curtains. As the doorman handed a thick envelope to Gambit Steed went and peeked through the curtains, confirming that Zhang was truly gone. He turned back toward the group of men and nodded at the doorman, who stepped behind Oxley and grabbed his hands to restrain him.
“Hey! What the –?” Oxley struggled as steel handcuffs were locked around his wrists.
“Yes, what’s going on?” Gambit added.
“Take him,” Steed inclined his head toward the exit. The doorman wrapped a meaty hand around Oxley’s upper arm and propelled him out.
“His game is up,” Steed said to the astonished Gambit. “We have his supplier, and we’ll soon have Zhang’s contact.”
“You might have let me in on it.”
“No time old man. I only just put it all together before I got here. I’ve put a team on Zhang. I hope they’ll lead us to Hong. You finish up here and we’ll debrief later at Whitehall.”
Gambit eyes widened briefly and Steed smiled wolfishly. “Yes, I thought you’d been itching to come in.”
“I’ll see you later Steed,” Gambit agreed as Steed headed for the exit himself.
* * *
“I’m sorry Catherine,” Gambit said as he entered the back room a moment later. The insurance investigator looked up from one of Mayhew’s computer terminals. “Miss Tellerman was a no-show,” he added in answer to her puzzled expression.
“Yes, I know,” she shrugged, turning back to the terminal. “That man Zhang was here for the Chinese, right Mayhew?” The other agent nodded. He was rewinding the tape of the auction, Aberdeen looking over his shoulder. “So Miss Tellerman is no longer in their employ. That makes her vulnerable. I’ll have her soon enough. But Gambit, this database is amazing. What I could do with this much information all in one place–.”
Gambit pursed his lips and reached for her, shooting Mayhew a menacing look as he dragged her to her feet.
“That,” he said sharply as she tried to pull out of his grasp, “is classified data Miss Banning.”
“Oh, right,” Mayhew caught his tone and looked around, then reached over to Catherine’s terminal and pressed a key. The screen went blank. “Sorry Miss Banning, I should have said something earlier.”
“Yes,” Gambit hissed angrily. “This was a textbook operation.”
Mayhew’s face was coloring, but Aberdeen looked coolly indifferent. “Nobody needs to know – Miss Banning is on our side, right Gambit?” Mayhew asked.
“Of course I am,” Catherine purred, her warm smile for Mayhew obviously what she’d used to get as far as she had. Once again Gambit suppressed a jolt of jealousy mixed with anger at her for using him. It was, he noted with detachment, a particularly seductive combination.
“We’ll need the tape at the ministry Mayhew,” he said more sharply than he intended.
“I’ll bring it in,” Aberdeen assured him, silencing Mayhew before he could say anything. “Mayhew will pack up here.”
“Thank you. Catherine?”
Gambit gestured toward the door. She picked up her coat, shooting him a sensuous smile that went a long way toward cooling his anger, but fanned other flames.
* * *
In the event, the agent’s smoldering went unquenched, at least in the manner he’d hoped for. Once they were back in his flashy red car Catherine asked to be dropped off at her flat, with emphasis on the “dropped off.”
“Fancy a drink?” he asked tentatively, sensing her distance through her silence during the ride.
“Not tonight. I have some thinking to do.”
“About your case?”
“Yes,” Catherine half turned in her seat as Gambit stopped the car by the curb outside her apartment block. “Mike, I need to concentrate on my leads,” she went on. He noticed the emphasis on the possessive. His failure to produce Miss Tellerman tonight was more important to her than he’d realized. He had failed her, although he felt she was judging him unfairly. But he did not suppose there was anything he could do – after all she did have a right to pursue her case for her employers.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” he offered, unwilling to abandon all hope of their continued relationship, whatever it was.
“Good night Mike,” she leaned over and kissed him, a light touch but full of promise. He smiled at her as she got out of the car and shut the door.
* * *
Much like Emma had dealt her index cards, Catherine studied her notes. She wrote statements and drew lines to connect them, then scribbled out the lines and tried again, then rewrote her comments and started over. It was less efficient than Emma’s portable cards, but the scratching out and rewriting aided Catherine’s analysis.
She had to admit that she’d allowed her attraction to Mike Gambit to distract her from her mission. She had foolishly thought that he would lead her to Maxine Tellerman, forgetting that he did not share her goal and had no compulsion to help her. In fact, she reflected as she reworked her notes at one a.m., he might well have been under orders to divert her.
“He’s a good man, under the spy’s facade,” she told herself, getting up to walk around her sparse sitting room. “But he’ll do as he’s told by her majesty’s secret service,” she added resignedly, returning to her seat and her notes.
At two a.m. she roused a friend at Interpol and called in a favor. She would know by mid-morning if Miss Tellerman had left England. She hated using up a favor for this, but she was not about to lose her suspect.
At three a.m. she tossed her notepad on the sofa and got up to pace once more. She had exhausted her resources looking for Maxine over the last few days. The Belmont Gallery was a dead end, there were no more clues within the information she had gathered. Maxine Tellerman was not in the London general directory. The woman seemed to have disappeared, which is what Catherine would do if she found herself on the outs with her employers. But if Tellerman wasn’t working for the Chinese anymore she must want to get rid the paintings. She would have to surface somewhere, sooner rather than later. And unless she had some trustworthy, powerful friends who would protect her from the Chinese she would not be able to move the paintings very far.
At ten after three Catherine forced herself to set it all aside and go to bed, alone.
* * *
“So Maxine Tellerman sold Emma’s painting back to Nancy and then offered her several other paintings.” Gambit picked up his coffee cup and sipped, studying the remains of his breakfast. Steed had called him early with a breakfast invitation at home rather than the planned Whitehall meeting. When he reached the house Steed was preparing a full out fry-up under the watchful eye of baby John.
Emma, he explained, had rushed off to the office first thing and she’d sent Siobhan to the village on multiple errands, so he’d had to stay behind with John. He seemed genuinely pleased at being housebound, joking that it was “just the men.” Gambit had never had an opportunity to get comfortable with baby care, so he’d eyed John warily as the boy sat in the middle of the kitchen floor playing with a plastic bowl. And then he’d admired his superior’s grace as he transported hot breakfast and small son all into the dining room. John was placed in his high chair with a plate of scrambled eggs which he proceeded to eat with his hands.
“Please don’t tell Siobhan or Emma,” Steed said in a conspiratorial whisper. “He’s supposed to be made to use a fork, but he’s extremely unwilling.”
“Not sure what to make of you loosing a battle of wills with a two-year-old, Steed,” Gambit chuckled. His superior’s annoyed expression silenced any further comment.
Steed served Gambit eggs, sausages, tomatoes, and potatoes all deliciously dripping with oil and butter. There was enough food to feed an entire ministry ops team. The flatware was silver plate. The napkins were linen. Steed, Gambit noted with amusement, did nothing without style.
By the time the meal was over Steed had filled Gambit with both food and information. He had made up for his brash behavior the previous evening, moving in and redirecting Gambit’s operation as he had, by describing his meeting with Nancy and explaining his analysis.
The team he had put on Zhang was still trailing him, waiting for him to meet with Hong. And Steed had contacted Nancy with a ministry phone number and alias to give to Maxine Tellerman when she called.
“When she calls back to find out if Nancy has a buyer, Nancy will send her to me. I’ll have everything for the meeting set up by later this afternoon.”
“And if she does not call?”
Gambit took another sip of coffee, watching Steed. He exuded confidence, which always made Mike feel the same.
“Let me be the buyer,” he said, watching as Steed mopped John’s eggy face with a damp cloth.
Steed shook his head. “That’s my pleasure,” he said.
“This isn’t a game. You have more to lose.”
“Don’t be so melodramatic, Gambit. This isn’t a suicide mission. I want to play cat to Miss Tellerman’s mouse. Besides, do you really want to catch her yourself? How will Miss Banning take that?”
“What do you mean?” Gambit frowned.
“She wants her badly. She’ll be displeased when we catch her instead – do you want do be the target of her displeasure?”
“I see,” Gambit pursed his lips at his superior’s perception. “No. But I intend to do my job regardless of her wishes.”
Steed refreshed his coffee from the cafeterie on the table and studied Gambit for a moment as if considering something. He seemed to come to a decision, for he took a sip and set his cup down.
“You let her come to the auction last night – yes, I heard,” his smile was thinly tolerant, “You’re thinking with your head this morning, at any rate, so I don’t think I need to remind you to continue to do so, despite that lapse.”
“There seemed no harm,” Gambit replied testily, hating to be so easily caught in a misstep.
“But what was the benefit?” Steed countered as Gambit should have known he would. “To us, I mean?”
Gambit chose not to reply, as the answer was obviously none. But Steed continued to watch him, taking another sip of his coffee. Gambit considered all of the inappropriate responses he could make, all of them related to Steed’s recruitment of civilian Emma. While there were similarities between the two women, his relationship with Catherine and her involvement in this were nothing like Steed’s use of Emma had ever been. He realized as he considered this that he was truly envious of his mentor – not envious that he had Emma, although any man would desire her – but that Steed had created a workable situation that included her.
“Understood,” he finally muttered because Steed obviously demanded a verbal acknowledgement of his admonishment. It had been gentle, but coming from Steed it stung worse than the loudest reprimand from an army trainer.
* * *
“Look, you are concerned with recovering the missing paintings, right?”
“Yes. That’s how I earn my commission.”
Gambit paused, once again reconsidering his next move. Steed’s warning had been very clear. But he did not think Steed intended him to allow Catherine to endanger herself. And that’s what she was doing. She had just outlined her plan to approach the Chinese in her search for Miss Tellerman.
He didn’t have to tell her why that was such a bad idea. All he had to do was promise her that he’d have her paintings soon and get her to promise to be patient.
She was giving him her curious, nearly annoyed, look now. He picked up the wine bottle that stood between them on the café table and topped off her glass. This did not distract her.
“We expect to recover the paintings this eveninig,” he said.
Her eyes narrowed ever so slightly, and then she looked at her full glass, picked it up, and took a sip. Buying time, he thought.
“How?” she asked.
“She’s been set up by our people.” It was standard procedure to limit the civilian’s exposure to the operative team. He had let her meet Mayhew and Aberdeen, but the others, including Steed, remained anonymous. The fewer points of contact the better.
“You found her?” she sounded incredulous – she knew he had not been looking for Miss Tellerman, so it must really rankle to think that he’d succeeded where she had failed.
“She found us,” he said, competing impulses making him pause. Tell her about Nancy? Explain the plan to satisfy her? Or insist she just be patient and I’ll produce the art?
She won’t be satisfied with a blind request. I would not be.
“She contacted someone who contacted us. She wanted to sell some art.”
“Nancy Belmont,” Catherine said, not a question.
Gambit nodded, tight mouthed. Of course she would guess.
“She is not an agent,” his tone was a warning. Stay away from her.
“So she’s an honest citizen with the right phone numbers in her address book,” Catherine said sharply. “Go on. What happened when she told you about the offer?”
Gambit decided not to correct her assumption that Nancy had contacted him personally. What mattered was the he convince her that his people had it sewn up and all she had to do was meet him later to collect the goods.
* * *
Steed knew that he had been extremely lucky to work with the civilian partners that he had over the years. Not one of them had ever compromised him. But that was a result of his own careful assessment of each candidate before recruiting them – he was not ashamed to take credit for choosing wisely.
Catherine Banning was another story, however. Gambit hadn’t recruited her. He had been seduced by her – granted with Steed’s encouragement to keep her close. But using his charms to monitor her was not the same thing as being led around by his private parts. Steed was fairly certain that Gambit was a better agent than that – better than, say, the dearly departed Robbie McCall. But he was young and still required guidance.
Steed wasn’t angry with him – Miss Banning was certainly attractive and Gambit did enjoy the company of women as much Steed did. But he had better exercise good judgment or Steed would have to send him back to the ranks of agents doing all night surveillance and listening to wire taps.
He hadn’t planned on adopting a protégé, but while using Gambit for the case in Venice last year he’d come to like him. Emma said it was because they had so much in common, although Steed didn’t see it. But when he pointed out the differences in their backgrounds, educations, and tastes she only laughed that enigmatic little chuckle of hers. Nonetheless, he knew she was right. Steed had plucked Gambit out of a career of unremarkable undercover assignments where he had been developing a reputation as a lone-wolf operator. Steed did recognize that he had spent his first years out of army intelligence in the same way, albeit not formally working for her majesty. He had evolved on his own, returning to Britain and discovering through chance the value of a dependable partner. All he had done for Gambit was speed up the process.
No, Gambit would take the delectable Miss Banning in hand, Steed was sure. His small lapse in judgment would not be repeated.
* * *
“I need someone trusted who can care for two horses. Not full time, just come and go a couple times a day,” Steed listened to the speaker on the other end of the line for a moment. “No, not from one of the approved agencies. I want someone of our own. … Yes right away. This afternoon. These are fine animals; they need the finest care. … Good. Very good. Have him – what? – Her?” he smiled. “Have her ring the front bell and I’ll show her around. But it must be before four. No excuses.”
Steed replaced the receiver on the telephone in his study and leaned back in his chair, stretching his arms above his head, then locking them behind it, a satisfied smile filling his face. Replacing Hal the groom had been essential, but given how the man had been compromised, he would only trust a ministry-trained replacement. They were sending a woman, they said, which amused Steed no end. So long as she got there early enough for him to show her around and then get going on time.
As he contemplated the evening ahead he recognized a growing feeling of unease. He was putting himself back in the field, and he wanted his best team backing him up. The most important member of his team was down the hall in the library.
Along with his wedding vows Steed had made a personal vow that no matter what other agents he worked with or handled, Emma would always be his partner. They had both learned how difficult this was, particularly when Emma was pregnant with John and just after his birth. And now that she was pregnant again it was all too easy to use it as an excuse to relegate her to a side role. And she knew it, although she had not openly complained. He knew when she presented her analysis to him, and had reached all the right conclusions, that he had erred in not being open with her all along about the local robberies. But tonight he could make it up to her. He had a role in mind for her that would keep her out of harm’s way but make use of her many non-physical talents.
Pleased with his solution and slightly nervous that she might refuse, he got up and went to find her.
* * *
“How’s the view Mrs. Peel?” Steed asked, looking around the room at ceiling for the security camera he knew was there. His tie tack was a microphone and the earpiece that was tucked into his left ear was almost invisible
“Straighten your tie Steed,” Emma replied from her seat in the museum security office.
Steed smiled and stepped toward the corner where he now saw the discrete little camera. Looking straight up into it as if it were a mirror he adjusted his Windsor knot with a wicked grin.
“Much better,” she said. “You are the image of a disgruntled assistant curator.”
“Whatever that looks like,” Steed said, looking back across the room at the door through which Maxine Tellerman would come in a few minutes.
“What do you see outside?”
“The black Saab is still parked across the road. The windows are tinted so I can’t tell if there’s anyone inside, but I don’t remember anyone getting out after it arrived.”
Steed thought the black car could be an ally of Miss Tellerman sent to watch for traps. But he, Emma, Gambit, and two more agents dressed as security guards had been in place for an hour before it arrived, so whoever was watching had not seen anything suspicious.
“Revise that,” Emma said. “Hummm.”
“What is it Mrs. Peel?”
“Your Miss Tellerman is driving a baby blue Volkswagon Beetle. Not at all what I expected.”
Steed grinned, remembering once again why he had never found a better partner than Emma. She was all business, but always found time to observe life’s peculiar details
“She’s on her way in,” Emma added, her tone hushed as if the newcomer might hear her.
Steed stood in the middle of the room with his hands behind his back watching the door.
He had told Maxine which external door would be open and where to go once she entered the building. He had not wanted to meet her right inside the door because it would give her a convenient escape route if she panicked. She probably knew what he was doing, but she had no choice but to accept his terms if she wanted to sell her paintings.
The museum housed a private collected owned by a retired general who had spent most of his military years in the Secret Service. He had agreed without hesitation when Steed telephoned him to ask if he could use it. As requested, all of the staff had been sent home, including the real security guards, by the time Steed, Emma, and Gambit had arrived. The General had met them and handed over the keys and security codes, then left himself. He hadn’t gone far, though. The museum was one wing of his rather sprawling home.
The general’s collection was eclectic and included minor works by the same artists that Maxine was selling. She should not question the assistant curator’s interest in her wares – if she bothered to consider it at all.
The door to the room Steed had chosen for the meeting opened and the imposing figure of Miss Tellerman stepped in.
Her shoes clacked on the polished terrazzo floor.
“Glad we got that straight,” Emma murmured in Steed’s ear. He ignored her.
In the security room Gambit grinned at his companion. He was standing behind her watching all of the monitors at once while she concentrated on the one displaying Steed.
Maxine carried a large, rectangular bag made of stiff canvas with shoulder-length handles. She set it on the floor but kept a grip on the handles.
“I am she,” she said.
Steed nodded showing her his warm smile that contained no actual warmth.
“And these are they?” he asked, looking down at the bag. “The missing masters?”
“A small collection,” she replied as if disturbed at his characterization of the paintings as masters.
In the security room Gambit’s eyes flicked over the external monitors and moved on, then shot back. “Uh oh.”
Emma forced herself to take her eyes off of Steed. She followed Gambit’s gaze to the monitor that showed the outer door.
“Who are they?” she asked him.
“I think they’re Chinese,” he replied, cringing as the first of the four men – a very large dark haired fellow – planted a flat-footed kick on the door rather than simply opening it.
“Steed, you are about to have unfriendly company,” Emma said into the microphone. On the monitor Steed was crouching beside Maxine’s bag looking at one of the paintings.
At Emma’s words he looked up at the door just as a loud crash echoed from somewhere nearby. Maxine started, then turned to follow his gaze.
“Damn!” Gambit said, still watching the external monitor. “What does she think she’s doing? I’ll have to leave you to it, Emma.”
He headed for the door as he spoke.
“Mike? Where are you –?” Emma leaned over to look at the external monitor just in time to see a tall, redheaded woman slip through the open door. “going.” Catherine Banning.
She straightened and looked back at the main monitor just as the first of the Chinese charged into the room.
Steed moved to intercept him, and as he did Maxine grabbed the handles of the canvas bag and heaved it to her shoulder. She made for the opposite door as two more Chinese entered. They looked from Steed to her, and then one nodded to the other, who ran past Steed to follow her. That left two facing off against Steed.
“Good odds,” Emma murmured into the microphone. She caught Steed’s small smile of acknowledgement as he moved on light feet to face both men.
Emma scanned the other monitors.
There was Miss Tellerman running awkwardly along a corridor with the big canvas bag banging against her legs. The Chinese man, who looked rather like a wrestler, was going to catch her before she got to the end of the hall.
And here was Gambit just coming out of the stairwell near the side door that all of their visitors and intruders had used. He was sprinting along a corridor now, and Emma scanned the monitors again to find the object of his hunt. There: Catherine Banning facing a fourth big Chinese man – he must have been straggling behind the others and seen her follow them in. Bad luck for her, but then, what’s she doing here anyway? Obviously she was in the BMW.
Emma leaned toward a second microphone and pressed the on button.
“Intruders have interrupted the operation. Please assist Steed in the gallery.”
Steed realized rather soon that he wouldn’t be able to keep both men in front of himself. He was going to have to pick one off and hope that the other didn’t get too many hits. He lunged at the one who’d come in first, charging with both fists raised defensively and striking out with his right as he got close. The man caught at his fists with big, meaty hands, effectively parrying Steed’s blows. But Steed carried rough with his charge, slamming into the man and driving them both back a few steps. This moved them out of range of the other man’s swing.
More agile by far, but lighter and less powerful, Steed played to his advantage by drawing back before his opponent could stop himself. Steed sank a right jab into the man’s abdomen and followed with an uppercut with his left that made the man gasp.
The other man grabbed Steed by the shoulders and dragged at him so that he lost his footing. For a moment he was hanging from the man’s hands, and then a forearm like a leg of mutton wrapped around his chest, pinning him against the man’s body. The first fellow had sucked in a long, painful breath and lumbered forward now, arms spread as if to embrace his friend with Steed in between them.
Steed decided to make himself very un-huggable. He grabbed the forearm that was holding him with his left hand and slammed backward with his right elbow. At the same time he aimed a perfectly timed and placed kick at the advancing man, who stopped short and lowered both hands toward his groin.
Steed’s elbow sank into solid flesh and the grip around his chest weakened. He used both hands to pry it looser and ducked, spinning and backing out from between the men as he gasped in a few revitalizing breaths.
Catherine had been sure she’d waited long enough for the four men to get into the building before following them. She hadn’t wanted to wait any longer for fear of losing them completely. But who would have guessed that one of them was a slow poke. She scowled at him as they squared off, his eyes focused on the brass knuckles she was wearing on her right fist.
It had been an impulse, snatched from the glove compartment just before getting out of the car. The smooth, heavy brass weapon had been her father’s, so it was big on her hand. She was strong for a woman, but the dirty weapon gave her punch the force of any man’s. And in situations like this it gave her another advantage – distraction.
She raised her fist in front of herself, adopting a boxer’s guard position although she wasn’t much of a boxer. She was a street fighter, as dirty as they came and armed with a vast supply of moves from several disciplines of martial arts.
Her opponent decided to use his size to his advantage and made an open armed lunge at her. She darted to the left, locking both her hands around his right forearm as she went. This spun him to the left with her. She held onto him as she planed a solid kick with her right leg into his left side.
A hollow grunt was his only reaction. He dragged her closer, pivoting and reaching for her throat with his left hand, until she let go of his forearm to get away. From a distance of a few feet she gained some perspective: don’t try to wrestle with a mountain!
She returned to the basics, swinging her knuckled fist at his vulnerable face. To her surprise, her blow connected and although he let his head roll with it, the brass gouged a gash across his cheek.
That, it seemed, made him mad. He lunged for her throat again, much faster than she thought he could, with both hands this time. She stumbled back a few steps and came up against the wall much sooner than she’d expected. At the last possible moment before he pinned her with both hands she dropped. His hands smashed into the wooden paneling as she rolled to the right. She somersaulted across the floor and turned to face him just in time to see him peer at his hands and shake them as if to rid them of pain. That’s what you get for punching the wall.
And with a flash of inspiration she realized that he couldn’t possibly be as fast as she was.
“Ciao baby,” she said with a flippant wave, then she turned and dashed toward the door down the hall that he had been heading for when she came in.
He frowned, as if she was cheating him out of the rest of the fight, and started after her. At the opposite end of the hall a door smashed open and Gambit stepped out of the stairwell. The Chinese man turned at the sound and frowned again.
Thudding footsteps echoed in the large, mostly empty corridor. Maxine knew he was catching up with her. The paintings were slowing her down. She should get rid of them. If she dropped them would she be able to come back for them? If she didn’t drop them would she have any chance of surviving a fight? It was against her nature to toss away thousands of Pounds worth of anything. Her internal struggle ended abruptly as a powerful hand gripped her left shoulder, arresting her progress with a jolt. She inadvertently rotated toward him, the heavy bag swinging out from her body as she came around. It slammed into his thigh with a shattering crack as some of the frames inside fractured.
His left leg buckled under him. His arms flailed awkwardly toward her as he collapsed onto the paintings. She thought she was saved by Picaso until he got a hold on the end of her seal wrap. The clasp at her throat held as he dragged her down with him. She wound up sprawled across his chest.
She reacted first, trying to climb onto her hands and knees on top of him, hoping to do as much damage as possible with her hard joints in the process of getting up. He reached for her throat with both hands, rolling his large body to throw her off at the same time. In an instant she was pinned beneath him, his hands constricting her airway.
Emma watched the three simultaneous fights, her eyes darting from one monitor to another. She resisted the temptation to go join in by placed a hand over her bulging waistline. She was not especially worried about Steed – his opponents were getting in a few blows but she could tell that his superior speed and boundless energy would prevail. Catherine Banning had proven herself quite the wildcat, although Emma thought that the brass knuckles a bit inelegant. She had appeared on the monitor for an empty gallery, unaware that Gambit had taken on her former opponent.
Maxine Tellerman was the most upsetting. She was writhing on the floor, fighting to get out from under the man who looked unnaturally huge from perspective of the ceiling-mounted camera. Emma knew the woman was a villain, but she couldn’t help but feel sympathetic for her position, having been in it herself a few times. But there were ways to get out of it, and Emma suspected that Maxine would hit upon one of them before she lost consciousness.
Catherine charged through the doorway into a gallery room hung with paintings on all four walls. The only furniture was a padded bench in the middle of the parquet floor. The room was otherwise empty and the door in the far wall was shut. Catherine frowned. She’d been sure that she would find Maxine and the rest of the Chinese, maybe Gambit as well. She absently looked at the artwork as she crossed the room to the far door, admiring a couple notable works.
Back out in the corridor Gambit’s hard fist smashed into the face of the Chinese man, who rocked back on his heels. Gambit hit him again, and again and he fell backwards to the floor, seemingly dazed. Gambit started on up the hall after Catherine and went sprawling as the man, who was not dazed at all, grabbed his ankle with both hands.
Gambit rolled onto his back and smashed his free foot into the man’s face. The man’s iron grip on Gambit’s ankle didn’t weaken, and he used his left to raise himself to his knees. Gambit bent his free leg and slammed it into the man’s left shoulder causing him to fall again, but not loosening his grip on Gambit’s ankle. Gambit sat up, locked his fists together, and slammed them down on the side of the man’s face where bruises were already starting to show.
Catherine opened the next door and found another gallery populated with sculptures. There was a loud thump from an adjacent room – something heavy hitting a wall. She spun around in the middle of the room trying to determine from which side the sound had come. It didn’t really matter – just like in the previous room there was only one other door.
A sledgehammer slammed down on Steed’s right shoulder so hard he thought it was dislocated. He wrapped his right arm around his middle and dodged under the big man’s left arm. The other one was a few feet away getting to his feet, having fallen under Steed’s fists just before the sledgehammer landed.
Steed wondered for the first time what had become of Miss Tellerman as he tried to move his right arm and carefully flex the muscles of his upper arm. His shoulder protested, but it wasn’t dislocated after all – he knew how that felt. He and both of his opponents were all wearing down. The one he’d hit last was looking unsteady on his feet, and the one who had fists like a sledgehammer was only now turning around to come at Steed again.
Steed grinned wolfishly and painfully raised his right to guard his face. If the Chinese thought he’d put Steed out of commission by disabling his lightening right jab he was in for a surprise. With renewed vigor borne of desperation he advanced and landed a solid left on the man’s jaw. Unable to follow with a right, he dodged back, then rammed back in low. His second punch landed in the man’s gut, and he followed it with a painful head butt that landed, as he had hoped, on the man’s nose.
There was blood everywhere. Steed recoiled in disgust and watched his enemy bury his face in his hands and back away. A movement across the room caught Steed’s eye and made him smile. The other man was exiting through the door where they’d come from.
“It looks like you’re done there Steed,” Emma’s voice tickled his ear. He looked up, taking a moment to remember which corner the camera was in.
“Where is she?” he asked.
“Miss Tellerman is in the north-west corridor. She needs your help.”
Steed eyed the man with the broken nose, but he was entirely focused on stopping the blood. “Tell me more,” he said as he headed for the door. “What am I getting into?”
“She’s being choked by one of them – You’d better hurry.”
“Better get Griswold and Neustadt to her as well,” Steed said, holding his right arm close to his body as he trotted through the linked galleries to the corridor Emma had mentioned.
Gambit’s ankle was released as his opponent slumped on the floor. He dragged his leg out from under the man and got up, turning to go after Catherine. He’d noticed as he took on the Chinese that she had gone through the wrong door – not the one leading to the gallery where Steed was meeting Miss Tellerman, but the next one down. He had made a complete inspection of the museum earlier and knew that the chain of galleries and halls through that door had very few connections with the ones Steed had selected for his meeting, so it was unlikely that Catherine had caught up with Miss Tellerman. He ran right through the first gallery and into the second, pausing only long enough to listen for footsteps before moving on.
Steed locked his left fist on the Chinese man’s collar and dragged him off of Miss Tellerman. She wheezed spasmodically as his hands left her throat. Unable to hold him and strike him at the same time, Steed dropped the man to the floor beside Miss Tellerman and straddled him, then swung at his jaw with his left fist. Miss Tellerman coughed and rolled away from both of them. She got to her hands and knees and dragged at the canvas bag, which was pinned under the Chinese.
“Perhaps you should rethink your priorities,” Steed said acidly as he slugged the man a second time.
Maxine took a painful breath and dropped the straps of the bag dejectedly.
The Chinese man seemed to have passed out so Steed straightened and offered his hand to her to help her up. She took it, looking quizzically at his right arm, which he still held close to his body.
“Just a bit sore,” he said. “Now, about your paintings – there seems to be some additional interest in them. This could affect any deal that we might make.”
“Mr. Steed? What’s going on here?” Agent Griswold, costumed as a security guard, appeared through a side door.
“Confine this man. He is an intruder,” Steed indicated the incapacitated Chinese. “And hold Miss Tellerman while I check on the others.”
Griswold put a restraining hand on Miss Tellerman’s shoulder on top of her disheveled wrap. Her frown at Steed turned into a look of outrage as her hands were drawn back and handcuffs placed on her wrists.
“As I said,” Steed told her, “this additional interest changes everything.”
He nodded at Agent Griswold and turned to hurry back along the corridor.
* * *
The door to security room burst open.
Emma spun around in her chair to see the intruder: one of the two men who Steed had been fighting. Emma had focused on Steed, so she had lost track of him after he left the fight.
He filled the doorway and she ignored a stray thought that none of the four men had looked that big on the surveillance cameras. She pushed herself in the wheeled chair toward the door, raising her knees and letting the chair recline. She realized immediately that she couldn’t fight the way she expected to with the bump of her pregnancy keeping her knees from rising to her chest as they normally would.
Adjusting even as her chair carried her toward her enemy, she slamed her feet into the intruder’s solar plexus and yanked them back as he bent over. The impact rolled her back across the room and she dropped her feet to the floor and pushed the rest of the way until the chair hit the counter. She rotated half a turn to the left and put both hands on the counter, then straightened her legs and pushed off spinning. Her calves slammed into her opponent’s knees, but without enough force to undercut him as she’d planned.
He loomed over her leering sadistically. She dropped her feet to the floor and tried to scoot sideways, but he put one hand on the arm and reached for her throat with the other. She ducked her head into her shoulders like a turtle and planted her feet firmly, then shoved up out of the chair. Unable to adjust for her move he missed her throat and his hand slid over her shoulder and down her back. She kept moving, head butting him in the chest.
Once again, she was not moving fast enough to do much damage, but he grunted and tried to get his hands around her waist on either side, forcing her to bend further over so that the top of her head was pressed into his belly. She realized that without her pregnant belly he’d be able to get a grip on either side of her slender waist. Pleased that her condition did have some advantages, she dropped to her hands and knees and rolled to the left onto her behind. Off balance, her opponent staggered forward and grasped her chair. She scrambled awkwardly to her feet and assumed a fighting stance.
He came at her again and she deflected his first swing with a chop, following up with another chop that landed on the side of his neck. He grabbing for her again and she punched him in the gut, dodging right under his arm. He slapped at her face as she spun around to face him again. She rolled with the blow and returned it with another double karate chop to either side of his neck. His eyes widened and he took a step back, then sat down heavily in her chair.
Emma sucked in a deep breath and drew her hair out of her eyes with the fingers of her right hand.
“Everything all right Mrs. Peel?” Steed stood in the doorway. The look of concern on his face vanished at the sight of her broad smile.
“Perfectly under control Steed. Good of you to come.”
“I was just passing by and saw your door was open – say, is Gambit on one of your monitors?”
Emma shrugged one shoulder and turned to look at the row of greenish tinted monitors. She grabbed two fists full of her attacker’s jacket and dragged him off of the chair, then sat down and turned toward the displays. Steed bent over the unconscious man patting his pockets.
The monitors showed fish-eye distorted views of empty museum rooms. Emma turned the selector knob and the displays changed to different views. She smiled victoriously and glanced over her shoulder, beckoning to Steed. He straightened and came to look.
“Tsk tsk tsk,” he muttered. Emma looked up at him curiously, then back at the middle monitor where Mike Gambit held Catherine Banning in a tight embrace. They were kissing, a long, romantic kiss that sparked a sympathetic fizz in Emma’s chest. She stared hard at the monitor for a moment, not at the kissing couple at a painting mounted on the wall behind them.
It was one of hers, sold to an anonymous buyer last year.
“I thought he had learned: A gentleman does not take advantage of a lady in these situations,” Steed said primly.
Emma drew her gaze back to Steed and then chuckled to herself as she pushed her chair back and stood up. Steed had discretely averted his gaze from the monitor where Gambit and Catherine showed no sign of stopping.
“Shall we Steed?” she asked to distract him from his displeasure with his subordinate. His attention snapped back to her and his expression turned to a warm smile.
He took her right hand with his left, his warm touch surprisingly intimate. He turned with her, guiding her out of the room.
“You can leave? Just like that?” she asked, glancing back at the defeated man.
“I have learned the value of subordinates,” he replied. “They’ll take care of everything.”
Emma smiled knowingly but did not reply. She had been thinking that now that he had underlings he would need to supervise them, while in the past he had always walked away leaving the clean-up to someone else.
* * *
“Really Steed, I’m just not up to it. I’m sorry,” Emma sat on the bed in her dressing gown. They were in the Knight penthouse high above Marlybone. They had met here because it was convenient to the Ministry Christmas party in a London hotel. Emma still missed Steed’s old mews flat, but when the lease had ended earlier that fall they had agreed that it was time to let it go. The penthouse on the top of the Knight Industries building had become their city apartment.
“Then let’s drive out to the house. Surely you’ll be more comfortable there,” Steed replied. He was half dressed in formal wear, standing across the room holding his red satin waistcoat.
“You should go. I know you need to be seen there.”
Emma was right: Steed did need to see and be seen. But he hated to leave her alone and ill. It wasn’t the gentlemanly thing to do.
“You don’t have to stay long,” she added. “Just go be seen, meet whoever it is you need to, and come back. I’ll be fine here with my dry toast and club soda.”
Steed grimaced at the oblique reference to her sour stomach. A late case of morning sickness, she had suggested. He thought she just didn’t feel like socializing with his crowd for once. He couldn’t very well make her.
“I’ll just go for an hour,” he said with little conviction. She nodded.
“Give my love to Sally if you see yer. I won’t ask you to kiss Gambit and James for me, not even on the cheek.”
Steed’s eyes widened in mock horror, then he grinned and crossed to her, bending down to kiss her gently. She did feel a bit warm.
“Do you have a fever?”
“Probably,” she agreed quickly. I’ll take my temperature.”
“See that you do, and if you need me call and have them come find me.”
“All right. I promise.”
The party was in full swing when Steed arrived, with dozens of guests moving between buffet tables and bars, and a few on the dance floor moving to modern music played by a six piece band. Not immediately recognizing anyone – at least anyone with whom he wanted to socialize – he started toward the nearest bar. Half way across the room he was intercepted by a familiar figure. He greeted Miss Drake, who quickly introduced him to her three companions. Uncharacteristically, their names escaped him almost the moment he heard them: Miss Drake’s laser-sighted approach had jarred him. She certainly did not seem to have gotten the hints he thought he’d dropped.
As she cooed over his party attire and simpered, clearly seeking his return compliment, he scanned the room for any sign of rescue but found none. Neither Sally, nor Bond, nor Gambit, who would have gladly taken some of the ladies off his hands, was to be seen. He did catch the eyes of one or two fellow agents of his generation, but they just winked and grinned, or returned his glance with one of envy.
Miss Drake inserted her arm through his and steered him on toward the bar. The other young women followed like an entourage.
“I’ve enjoyed serving you coffee and tea, along with your files Mr. Steed. But I hope we can enjoy a more interesting drink and conversation tonight,” she said. Steed’s eyes widened at the overt suggestiveness in her tone. He had been certain that he had properly discouraged her. Positive.
“I’m planning on a short stay, Miss Drake,” he replied. He was about to add that his wife was at home ill when he reconsidered. He’d sound just like the philanderer that Miss Drake seemed to think he was. Do these women not know that I’m married?
“Oh dear,” she crooned, “That will never do. You’re to be the life of the party, Mr. Steed!”
“Am I?” He forced a smile.
They had reached the edge of the crowd at the bar and Miss Drake’s entourage surrounded them as they edged forward. He looked over his shoulder at the larger room and realized that they effectively concealed him from any possible rescue by a friend.
He endured their flirtatious small talk as they received sparkling wine all around and moved away from the bar. He could chat for hours, summoning mild but germane observations while his mind struggled with pressing concerns. Usually it was a matter of life and death, or at least of state security. Tonight it was for hearth and home, a priority of equal importance to him. It was laughable, actually – Steed the master playboy desperate to extricate him gracefully from a gaggle of women without turning him against him. For although avoiding Emma’s wrath was his top priority, retaining a good relationship with the women who supported his work at the ministry was almost as important. No, Miss Drake must be let down gracefully and not made to appear foolish in front of her friends.
A few minutes later, when the entourage had moved to an edge of the dance floor, Steed’s rescue arrived in a most unlikely form: Vice Admiral Clifford Randal. The entourage noticed him first and Steed followed their gazes to see the dashing naval officer in his formal uniform. But unlike the ladies, Steed’s gaze traveled on to the Vice Admiral’s companion.
Emma, in a low-cut, golden satin and lace gown, was favoring Steed with her warmest, most amused smile. He suddenly felt lighter, the burden of his predicament vanishing at the sight of her. The secretaries seemed to melt away from him as Randal delivered her to his side.
“Good evening Clifford,” he said, forcing himself to look away from Emma’s radiant face. The instant he saw her he’d known she planned it all – the feigned illness, the arrival with their old friend. Somehow she’d known he’d need rescuing. Later he would find out how.
“Steed! Delighted to see you. Look who I found checking her wrap,” he smiled at Emma.
“Hello darling,” Steed instinctively reached for her hand. She shot Randal a grateful smile and moved closer to Steed, gracefully slipping in to the spot at his side that was miraculously vacated by Miss Drake.
“Ladies, may I introduce my wife? Emma Knight Steed, and Vice Admiral Clifford Randal.”
For a moment Miss Drake looked puzzled, her gaze flicking from Emma to Randal, and then to Steed. Then she recovered.
“Vice Admiral Randal, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said, edging closer to him.
“Miss Drake is very helpful with research,” Steed said. “You know how I hate dealing with files.”
Emma nodded agreeably and Miss Drake appeared to blush under Steed’s unromantic compliment.
Emma turned to Miss Drake’s friend Susan. “You were in Hemming’s self defense class the other day, practicing the underarm head ram.”
“Yes, I’m taking his class,” Susan sounded confused. As if sacrificing one of their number, the rest of the entourage began to edge away.
“Isn’t that the move you introduced to Hemming?” Steed asked, very much enjoying Emma’s game, particularly the effect it had had on the other women.
“Yes it is. I’d be happy to show you some refinements,” Emma said to Susan, then glanced around them at the party. “But perhaps not this evening.”
“No. I mean, yes. That would be most – instructive,” Susan said wanly, glancing toward Miss Drake as if for rescue.
Steed decided that it was time to put an end to his wife’s fun. “Would you like to dance, Mrs. Peel?”
Her knowing smile told him that his intentions were transparent to her, but that she’d behave.
“Thank you again for your company, Clifford,” she said, nodding to her original escort and inadvertently earning a sharp look from Miss Drake. “It was a pleasure to meet you,” she added to her would be rival.
Steed made a small bow to the ladies and nodded to Randal. Their eyes met for a moment and he was glad to see amusement. They would enjoy a good chat soon.
“Why were you baiting the secretaries,” he murmured into Emma’s ear a few minutes later as he led her around the dance floor. Most couples were hardly moving, just swaying to the waltz that the band had segued into at just the right moment.
Emma did not reply, merely smiled enigmatically at him.
“I had the situation in hand,” he added, growing concerned that despite her game she might actually be angry at him.
“Did you?” she asked skeptically. “So you know about ‘Operation Steed’?”
“Operation what?” he frowned.
“Operation Steed,” she repeated subtly slowing him to a standing dance like the others on the floor. Then she nestled closer to him, her face angled slightly upward toward his. He held her tighter with his hand on her waist and she drew their clasped hands in near their shoulders. Her breath on her face sent a warm wave to his heart. “A couple weeks ago I was in the ministry sauna – you should spend more time there, darling, it’s very instructive.”
He smirked and she wrinkled her nose back at him. “For example, I overheard your Miss Drake speaking to Susan. She had a very developed plan to steal you away from me, starting with coffee and moving on to drinks.”
Were it not for the warmth in her voice Steed might have frozen with shock. Still Emma sensed his dismay and tried to ease it with her throaty chuckle.
“I knew that the best way to discourage the situation was to diffuse it – confronting her would have turned her against you. We can’t have that.”
The corners of Steed’s mouth curled up as he recalled his own conclusion of a few minutes before. It was no surprise that Emma had reached it ages ago and engineered an elegant solution.
“No, we certainly can’t. Not unless you’d like to come handle the files for me? No? I didn’t think so,” the edges of his eyes crinkled with his smile. “So you contrived to interrupt her, and to present her with an alternative target,” he said. “But darling, you’ve used Clifford,” he added with pretend shock at her involving an old friend. “Haven’t we only recently discussed the danger of involving friends in our intrigues?”
Emma’s bell-like laugh subsided into a burbling giggle as she looked into his sparkling eyes. He joined her with his own deep grumble of a laugh.
“Clifford was more than willing to be introduced to several available young women, for the sake of our marriage.”
“So this is what a room full of secret agents looks like.” Catherine Banning scanned the party, letting her gaze end on her companion, Mike Gambit. He coughed awkwardly. He had only barely managed to explain away her presence at the museum that night to Steed’s satisfaction by claiming that Catherine had followed Miss Tellerman. He knew that if Steed chose to investigate it, and even if Catherine supported his fib, the truth would have to come out. Fortunately, Steed had let his explanation lie. Which meant Gambit could bring Catherine to the ministry party. Looking around the room he felt a rush of pride at having one of the most gorgeous women on his arm – not that the competition was that stiff among the female ministry staff.
“In point of fact, only about half of the guests are agents. The rest are support staff,” he said.
“Very supportive, I’m sure,” she smirked, noting two young women fawning over a distinguished man in a naval uniform. She looked at the dance floor, considering whether she wanted to coax Gambit onto it to see if he could move. Somehow their experiences together so far had not included dancing. The couples were moving slowly to a ballad – hardly a challenge. “Why is Emma Knight Steed here?”
Gambit followed her gaze and grinned broadly at the sight of Steed holding Emma as they swayed to the music. He had seen them exchange the occasional kiss or touch, but this was the first time he’d seen them in such an intimate embrace. He knew that Steed the warhorse agent was possessed of an animal magnetism that drew women to him, but as a man he never could quite see it. But there was Steed revealing his romantic side, and probably feeling safe to do it because he was with his wife.
When he did not immediately answer Catherine tried again.
“Is she a spy as well as an artist and business executive?”
“More like a very talented amateur.”
“And her dancing partner – is he an agent?”
Catherine was clearly trying to establish Emma’s credentials. She didn’t like not knowing who was who, and clearly Emma had deceived her, whether intentionally or not.
Just then the band concluded the slow song and their leader, a guitarist, strummed several quick short notes. Steed and Emma’s heads both lifted as they looked toward the band and then at one another. They exchanged a look of agreement and moved off of the dance floor – Emma enjoyed dancing to rock and roll rhythms, but Steed only tolerated it.
Gambit steered Catherine to intercept them.
“Now they make a good couple,” Emma murmured near Steed’s ear, seeing them coming through the crowd.
“I hope Gambit isn’t too attached,” Steed replied.
“Why? You’ve never met her in person, have you?”
“I’ve read her file. She won’t be around long. She never is.”
Emma considered it and knew he was probably right. Even without the ministry’s file on her he was a genius at reading people.
“Good evening Miss Banning,” Emma extended a hand when they were close enough to greet one another.
“Mrs. Steed,” Catherine said, eyes flicking from Emma to her companion with open curiosity.
“Catherine Banning, this is John Steed,” Gambit put in, then greeted Emma and Steed himself.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you Miss Banning – much more satisfying than reading a file.”
“It certainly is,” Catherine agreed, although she had no file for this man Steed. “Do you work with Michael?”
She suspected that Steed was senior, but she wanted to gauge his reaction to the suggestion that he was Gambit’s peer or subordinate. Working “with” could be interpreted many ways.
“Yes that’s right, just another fellow in the trenches,” Steed replied lightly. If Emma was puzzled by his response she didn’t show it. Gambit was another story.
“Steed is the mastermind,” he said, placing himself firmly in the subordinate role.
“The brains behind the operation,” Catherine suggested.
“No,” Steed chuckled, glancing at his wife, “that would be Emma.”
“Not at all,” Emma chuckled too. “You’re too modest darling.”
Something in the look that shot between Steed and Emma suggested to Catherine that this was all some private joke between them. That Steed was not too modest seemed evident by his choice of bright red waistcoat. That Emma Knight Steed was in fact “the brains” in the family seemed plausible, but Catherine suspected that theirs was a balanced partnership. That Steed would deny it intrigued her.
“Listen, they’re starting a much more danceable song – will you?” Gambit asked Catherine. She was momentarily torn between accepting his offer and staying to probe the Steeds further, but then Steed inclined his head toward Emma and she nodded. They all started toward the dance floor.
“Wait, Steed,” Emma stopped him after a few steps, letting Gambit escort Catherine onto the floor. Emma had spotted Sally approaching leading James by one hand as he waved at someone else across the room.
“What does she think she’s doing leading six’s top man around like that,” Steed muttered.
“Exactly what she was trained to do,” Emma replied, admiring twinge of envy her former assistant’s cascade of blond curls that nearly reached her waist and her perfectly in style dress, obviously purchased in Paris. Probably by James. Emma did not completely approve of Sally’s relationship with James Bond and she had tried to stop it once but she had vowed not to interfere again since he had demonstrated honest affection and loyalty to the girl, and since Sally herself did not expect commitment or even monogamy. Emma could not have done it, but Sally was of a new generation, and she would probably be a very successful spy since her attitudes toward intimacy were so liberal. She would be comfortable using sex, where Emma never had been, particularly with Steed lurking in the background, a cross between the jealous husband and the protective father.
Sally had spotted them and was dragging Bond even faster. Emma noted that her figure had slimmed over the last few months – not that Sally had been overweight, but she had always had a country girl look of health and good nutrition. Parisian life had altered that, and Emma felt a twinge of envy at the way her dress fit her while Emma’s own gown was cut to accommodate her baby bump. Not, she assured herself, that Sally’s newfound waist was any more attractive then her own when she was not pregnant.
“Emma, look at you!” Sally unwittingly touched on Emma’s secret sore spot.
“Hello Sally,” Steed greeted her warmly. “And Bond.” He extended his hand to the other agent, who moved in beside Sally and took it.
“Good to see you Steed. Emma, you are as radiant as ever,” he took Emma’s hand and touched his lips to her knuckles. She shot him a sardonic smile, but before she could speak Sally went on.
“It must be a girl. My mother carried my two sisters like that. But my brothers were much higher.”
“You think so?” Emma glanced at Steed, who looked pleased.
“Do you want a girl?”
“We rather do, actually,” Emma squeezed Steed’s hand. “And she’s rather demanding. Would you excuse me for a few minutes? I just need to visit the ladies.”
“I’ll come with you,” Sally said, disengaging from Bond and taking Emma’s arm. They strolled off together like a pair of golden and auburn swans.
Steed and Bond admired them in silence for a moment, then Bond cleared his throat, obvious preface to something important.
“You’re pushing her hard,” he said.
“I know. But she needs it.”
“She might not. You might just break her.”
One of Steed’s brows arched regally. He was not accustomed to being questioned in this way, except, perhaps, by Mother.
“She did brilliant work tracking down McCall’s killers, and she almost killed them herself.”
“Yes. I wish she had.”
It was Bond’s turn for consternation and he frowned. “She didn’t because she was waiting for your order.”
“Yes. I was hoping she would do it anyway on her own initiative. She needs to develop an edge. Until she does, she isn’t safe in the field.” Or reliable.
Bond considered this for a moment. “Yes. She’s not yet blooded. You can’t trust her until she proves herself.”
“On her own,” Steed added pointedly.
Bond stared at him for a moment, then nodded. Their conversation moved on to recent news – bombings in far flung lands, an assassination attempt that was foiled at the last moment by Five, how this affected the track record of the woman who’d been placed in charge of Five a few years ago.
Presently Sally and Emma returned bearing fresh glasses, sparkling wine for all but Emma, who sipped club soda. As they chatted and watched the other guests Steed wondered whether James would honor his tacit agreement to stay out of it, or if he would push Sally toward the sort of defining act that would serve as a final test of her usefulness to the service.
Catherine’s head turned away from Gambit’s as she stared at a man near the edge of the dance floor. Gambit swung her around so that he could get a look at the target of her stare. Bond. Talking to Steed.
“Watch yourself, he’s the most dangerous man in the room.”
“Mr. Steed?” Catherine asked innocently.
Gambit smirked at her and she smiled winsomely.
“His companion. Does that turn you on?”
She did not reply, just gazed into his eyes.
“Because I’m pretty dangerous too.”
She laughed, slipping her left hand from his shoulder to the back of his neck to play with his collar seductively.