This story copyright © 2003 Mia McCroskey
Characters from The Avengers and other sources are the property of their respective owners.
Steed goes underwater
Emma dives in
The Maitre’d seated Emma at an exclusive table for two in the garden court of one of London’s finest restaurants. From his vantage point at a pay telephone concealed by a row of palms, Bond watched her adjust her wristwatch without looking at it, scan the other diners, and acknowledge the busboy who came and filled her water glass. She did not appear to be the least bit nervous, which meant that this really wasn’t a personal meeting. Of course he was disappointed. Lady Emma was both delectable and brilliant, a combination he couldn’t resist. But she was also very much John Steed’s – he’d discretely confirmed that with their associates. Bond was rarely shy about stealing another man’s woman, but not another agent’s.
Well, if it’s not me she wants, then it must really be my money, he speculated. He adjusted the knot of his tie, shot his cuffs, and strode across the dining room to the table.
“Lady Emma.” He said, taking the seat across from her.
“Mr. Bond,” she replied, matching his cool tone. He couldn’t suppress a smile. Her serious façade evaporated.
“Ah, that’s much better,” he said, pausing to glance at the bus boy who filled his water glass. “Please call me James. Shall we start with a drink?” he asked when the boy had left.
“Certainly, James.” she replied.
A waiter was at their table almost before Bond had gestured to him.
“Dry martini, shaken, not stirred,” Bond said, looking inquiringly at Emma. She inclined her head slightly and half smiled. He looked momentarily pensive, then added, “and champagne for the lady.” The waiter nodded curtly and vanished.
“Very good,” Emma said. “You’ve done your homework.”
Bond grinned, his blue eyes twinkling, and leaned back, allowing himself to relax. “Lady Emma Peel calls me for a meeting suggesting financial rewards. Your husband has been arrested for selling state secrets, but you’ve been cleared of all involvement. I can’t help but think that if you needed a spy, you’d go to John Steed. Can you blame me?”
“Not at all,” she said cheerfully. “I expected it. And I don’t need a – another spy.”
He chuckled, watching her attentively as the waiter placed their drinks on the table. He took his and raised it. She did the same.
“To intrigue,” he said. She joined him in the toast, sipping from her glass then setting it down.
“But intrigue will only get us so far,” she said, reaching into the black leather open-topped tote she’d set by her feet. She removed a glossy booklet emblazoned with a chess piece logo in white on black. She set it on the table in front of him.
“Knight Industries,” he said, looking from the annual report up at Emma. “Your family’s business. Formerly.”
She nodded. “I intend to change that. The annual shareholder’s meeting is in six weeks. I intend to be elected as chairman of the board.”
He pursed his lips, opening the report and paging through it until he found what he wanted. She watched him read, unable to tell what financial detail he was studying. He closed the report and gave her a calculating look. She raised her eyebrows inquiringly.
“You hold thirty-four percent of the stock. The sitting board members hold forty-three. Are they a voting block?”
“I have not identified any allies among them.”
“And the outstanding shares?”
“About ten percent is held by various funds. They’ll vote with the board. I’m after the other thirteen.”
Bond nodded, his calculating look returned. The waiter, sensing a lapse in their conversation, appeared beside their table. Bond glanced up at him, then at Emma.
“The salmon is excellent,” he suggested. Emma nodded, and he looked up at the waiter, “two. A bottle of the ’60 pinot noir. And a telephone, please,” he said. The waiter vanished again. “I hope you don’t mind – I prefer a gentle red with salmon.”
“I’m quite fond of pinot noir. And I pay little attention to rules when it comes to wine.” Emma replied.
“Good,” Bond smiled, straightening in his chair and leaning his elbows on the Knight Industries annual report. “Thirteen percent is a lot of stock.”
“About seven percent belongs to members of my family. Unfortunately, I’m not privy to the list of investors, so the other six percent is the challenge.”
A bus boy set a telephone on a long cord on the edge of the table and moved a discrete distance away.
“Excuse me,” Bond said to Emma, picking up the receiver. He dialed a number, tracing the Knight logo with his index finger as he waited for the connection to go through. Emma frowned at him, but he didn’t look up to see it. “Frank? Bond. Yes, I’m back. Very well, thanks. Yes,” he chuckled at something. “Listen, Frank, how much Knight Industries do I have?”
Emma’s brows shot up just as Bond looked up at her. He flashed her a sly smile, then opened the report as he listened to Frank on the other end of the line. “Ah huh. Double it. That’s right. So that’s about one and a half– right, I have it here. Ah, when is that? Good. Very good. No, I’ll explain later. And I’ll send by a check this afternoon. Thanks Frank. Yes. We’ll have to do that soon. Good-bye.”
He replaced the receiver and the bus boy appeared to take the phone away. Emma sat back in her chair, unabashedly surprised.
“Your challenge is now four and a half percent,” he said. “And your company is about to pay a dividend – but you knew that.”
“Yes. That should more than make up for your investment.”
James shrugged, removing the Knight Industries report from the table just as their lunches arrived. The waiter opened and poured the wine for James to taste. He nodded his acceptance of it and watched as both glasses were filled. Finally the waiter retreated.
“As you suggested when you telephoned, I have just completed an assignment for which I received a handsome bonus. I have been invested in Knight Industries for quite some time. It’s a solid company, so I have no objection to increasing my ownership. Now, how are you going to improve the firm?”
Emma picked up her fork and selected a morsel of salmon to taste. It was as good as promised. James took a bite as well, but was clearly awaiting her response to his question.
“My history with Knight Industries is a matter of public record,” she said, her expression challenging him to deny he knew it.
“You took over when your father died and steadily increased revenue in each of the four years that you ran the company. Then you got married, and your husband – what? The public records are not clear on just why you withdrew from the company. Your husband held a significant portion of the stock, but somehow it went to another member of the board when he disappeared.”
“Come now, James, I know my own file,” Emma said, “My husband disapproved of a working wife. He out-maneuvered me, got control of the company, and had the rest of the board vote me out. I was too – naive – to suspect my husband would betray me,” she sighed, dropping her gaze from his eyes to her lunch. Twice. She added to herself.
“Fair enough,” James said, watching the play of emotions across her face. This was a battle for her, regaining her heritage, undoing the wrongs her husband did to her. He added a third adjective to his short description of her – strong. No wonder Steed . . .
“Not fair,” she interrupted his thoughts, “but business. I have learned, through my involvement with your business, how to manage my advantages. Knight Industries is strong because of its cash reserves, but actual growth has been near zero for the past two years. I intend to change that through judicious acquisition and increased research and development efforts in certain sectors — .”
She stopped as James flashed her a toothy grin and took a few eager bites of salmon. “Go on,” he said, “Perhaps you’d like me to make notes for your acceptance speech?”
“You did ask,” she said pointedly.
He nodded, conceding her the point. “I’m convinced. Now, tell me what I can do to win you away from Steed.”
Emma’s amusement at Bond’s flirtation lasted all the way back to the estate. She’d easily deflected his absurdly overt pass. It had been clear that he did not sincerely wish to win her away from Steed; nonetheless, she had enjoyed his attentions. And his response to her request had been far better than she had hoped. In addition to doubling his investment, he had offered to speak to his broker on her behalf. He might have other clients who would be responsive to supporting a change in management at Knight.
The days following the Ministry of Defense holiday party had been stressful, so she hoped this lunch signaled a turn in the tide. Steed had been downright peevish about her not immediately telling him about Peter signing the divorce papers. She’d tried to make him understand that she had needed time to absorb it. Telling a stranger – namely Bond – first had been easier than telling Steed and sorting out what it would mean to their relationship. The emotional ramifications of her coming detachment from Peter threatened to be quite overwhelming. And the final rubber stamp on the matter would probably occur at about the same time that she would be taking over Knight Industries, if all went as planned.
Steed had eventually accepted her explanation, but she could tell he was hurt. She had decided to chalk it up to his being unwell, and indeed after a good night’s sleep he had apologized for his behavior. But then Amanda had called to cancel their tentative lunch plans – she and Lee were being called away. Emma had been looking forward to speaking to the American agent, who was the only person she knew in a position to understand a great deal of Emma’s personal dilemmas.
Deprived of Amanda’s sympathetic ear, Emma had turned her attentions to business. She contacted Bond, saying that she had a business matter she’d like to discuss with him. He’d suggested dinner, but she’d countered with lunch. She’d spent the morning before their meeting reviewing any information about him that she could lay her hands on at the ministry. This required a certain amount of finesse, some wheedling, and a bit of prying where her clearances didn’t allow. But her successful involvement in the mad cow virus case had given her some clout, and with Steed confined at home by the doctors, nobody short of Mother himself was inclined to question her activities.
Bond’s dossier had read like a suspense novel and left her curious to become acquainted with him. His survival instincts must be honed to a razor edge – perhaps even sharper than Steed’s. Reflecting on their lunch as she drove home she, found herself examining the similarities between the two men. Her amusement grew as she realized that, despite all they had in common, her feelings for Steed were not in the least bit challenged by Bond’s charms.
Steed was noticing more and more often how empty his flat felt when Mrs. Peel was not in it. The ministry doctors had moved him from the “inactive” list to “restricted duty,” and he’d been allowed to take home case files to review. Settling in on the sofa with hot tea and a couple biscuits that Mrs. Peel had left, he slid several files out of the envelope he’d been handed.
“The meat of this’ll start right after the new year,” Morris had said. “It’s a babysitting job, really, unless something more develops. And it will take you away for a while – be nice for you to get out of town in January, I suspect.”
Steed had refrained from expressing disagreement about that. Perhaps taking off for several weeks would be just the thing to show Mrs. Peel that she’d prefer that he take an administrative job. Morris’ job wouldn’t be bad. Picking the right man for the various projects that came along. Coordinating with the military, other ministries. Dealing with their petty bureaucrats on a daily basis. Steed sighed. Mrs. Peel was right, he’d be miserable.
He took a sip of Earl Grey and opened the first file. Specifications of the Elder 6, a prototype navigation and communications device for underwater vessels. The project was directed by Admiral Hiram Partridge. Steed put down his teacup and gave the file his full attention. He recalled that the American agents had met with Partridge at the party a few days ago. He sorted through the pile of files to find the personnel brief. Sure enough, Lee Stetson and Amanda King were the American agents of record – his counterparts. And, he noted, there was an allocation for another British agent. As senior agent, it would be someone of his choosing. He smiled and took a gulp of tea. Mrs. Peel had been rather cagey lately. She was clearly busy with more than just the estate, but she didn’t discuss it. And this business with the divorce papers – he knew he had over reacted, but he still felt that at some level she was holding him at arm’s length. He wasn’t entirely sure why, but he had his suspicions.
Six weeks ago they had suddenly rekindled the relationship that three years prior had been cut off by her husband’s return. From the outset, this time, she had told him in no uncertain terms that it was all or nothing. He had accepted her terms without hesitation. The day she’d left, he’d been too surprised to react so he’d let her go without a fight. But by the time she returned, he’d spent three years reliving and regretting the moment. He’d been blessed with a second chance and he’d been ready. It surprised him more than anyone how prepared he was to do whatever it took to hold on to her this time. And he was beginning to think that it was time for action on that account, before her distancing became more than arm’s length.
He forced himself to focus on the Elder 6 files and was soon absorbed in the details of the prototype testing. Lee and Amanda had come over from Washington to observe the prototype installed in an American submarine. They’d locked it up and gone home. The sub was due to ship out on January third. Steed would be on board as an observer in the guise of an English naval officer. He would travel across the Atlantic with the sub as initial tests of the device were conducted.
Elder 6 was a master device for a joint US and UK navigation and tracking system. The US had put satellites in orbit that the device communicated with. By triangulating with three or more satellites, the submarine could be pinpointed anywhere on the earth. Further data provided depth – Steed got lost in the technical details of how that worked, but it was, apparently, a breakthrough. Slave devices had been under test for several months, but this was the first master – a device that could receive position data from the slaves. The submarine with the Elder 6 could know where all the others were. The system could be programmed for sub-groups of boats, or for different navies, but there was always an overall master that could receive all the signals of all the sub-groups: Elder 6.
“Peel residence, may I help you?” Sally answered the telephone with her efficient, professional voice. She’d been working on it since starting her job with Emma.
“Good morning, Sally. Steed here. Is she in?”
“Oh, Mr. Steed. Just a moment please,” she covered the receiver and looked across the office at her employer. Emma nodded and picked up the telephone on her own desk, waiting for Sally to hang up before speaking.
“Hello Steed, how are you feeling?”
“Quite well, Mrs. Peel. Can you clear your calendar for tomorrow? I hoped you’d join me for a drive and lunch.”
“I don’t know, Steed, I’ll have to see what appointments — ,”
“Come now, I’m sure your Sally can rearrange things quite well.”
“I had better not find that you’re in collusion with my secretary, Steed,” she threatened. Sally glanced up sharply, looking concerned. Emma sent her an inquiring glance and she shook her head firmly.
“Not a bit of it, Mrs. Peel. I’m just certain that if you ask her she can mange to free up your day.”
“I’ve had quite a string of ‘free’ days on your behalf lately, Steed…”
“All work, and no play, Mrs. Peel –.”
“Make Emma a dull girl. All right, Steed. I’ll call you back.”
“To tell you if I can manage it.”
“Oh. Very well.”
Emma replaced the receiver and looked across at Sally again.
“Honestly, Ma’am, I haven’t talked to Mr. Steed!” she said.
“It’s all right Sally, I believe you. So what appointments do I have tomorrow? I remember that Mr. Barth from the management company is supposed to come by.”
Sally turned the page on an appointment book on her desk and drew her finger down the page, “Yes, Mr. Barth. And my father is to come by in the morning to discuss the grounds staffing. That’s all.”
“That and a lot of telephone calls,” Emma sighed,
“I can ask papa to come by this afternoon, ma’am. I’m sure he won’t mind. And Mr. Barth is just coming to pick up the environmental report. I can handle that – if he can’t reschedule.”
“You seem rather anxious to free up my day, Sally,” Emma observed, arching one brow at the young woman.
“Yes ma’am. I mean, no ma’am. Well, he did ask – that is, you asked.”
“Uh huh,” Emma maintained her suspicious gaze. Sally crumpled.
“It’s just that he seems to make you happy, ma’am, and it’s nearly Christmas. And you’re just doing all of this as a favor…”
Emma nodded getting an idea of Sally’s true nature. She was, after all, a somewhat innocent young woman and probably quite susceptible to romance.
“Do you have a young man, Sally?” she asked.
“No ma’am. I’ve gone out with a few of the lads from the village, but there’s no one special.”
“You’re an intelligent, attractive young woman, Sally. You can do much better than the louts who hang about down at the pub,” Emma studied the girl for a moment. Sally looked embarrassed under her scrutiny, “If my plans for Knight Industries work out, I’ll need all the friends I can get there. Would you consider coming to London?”
Sally was clearly shocked. “I – I would consider it, ma’am,” she stammered.
“Good. Shouldn’t you be calling your father, then?”
“You promise we’re not on a case today?” Emma asked about an hour into the drive.
“No checking up on an undercover agent? No picking up a discrete little envelope?”
“No. We are off duty.”
“So just where are we going?” Emma asked as he turned the Bentley onto a scenic secondary road.
“I thought we’d stop and have a look at the cathedral before lunch. I haven’t been here in years.”
“Salisbury Cathedral,” Emma said thoughtfully, “I haven’t either, although since it’s been standing nearly a thousand years I don’t’ suppose it’s much changed.”
“No. But it does one good, to see the stones carved so long ago. By some of your ancestors, I dare say.” He turned again and slowed to drive through a village.
“I think my ancestors were more on the financial end, for the most part,” she replied idly. Steed glanced at her and grinned. He suspected that somewhere along the Knight line someone must have marred a lesser local – a stonecutter or a woodman. But he wasn’t going to argue with her.
He slowed and parked along side the ancient stone wall surrounding the cathedral close. Coming around the car he opened Emma’s door and took her hand as she climbed out. He held on to it as they walked along the lane to a gap in the wall, turning in toward the cathedral’s massive doors.
Steed extracted his billfold from an inner pocket as they stepped into the cool, dim nave. He produced a ten pound note – far more than the admission price for two adults. The matron staffing the table accepted his contribution with a gracious smile and handed them copies of the building’s highlights and the schedule of services.
They entered the sanctuary, and Emma took Steed’s arm as they walked slowly up the main aisle. They studied the arching columns that soared upward to meet at decorative bosses high above their heads. Tons of stone carved into delicate ribbons gave the astonishing impression of grace and lightness. Passing through the choir they finally stopped in front of the altar, studying the modern stained glass window at the back of the chapel.
“It’s not much in keeping with the rest of the medieval windows, is it?” Emma said, half turning to face Steed.
“It’s an important piece, visitors pay to see it. Even the church must make financial choices.”
“Especially the church,” Emma said with a wry smile. He returned it, allowing himself to admire her lovely brown eyes in the flattering light filtering through the colored windows. He glanced around the empty chapel, then leaned close, his free hand drifting up toward her face. Her complexion seemed to glow, her wry smile softening as her lips parted invitingly.
A small bird darted past their heads, chirping merrily as it disappeared among the arches of stone. She turned her head to see where it had gone, and when she turned back laughter filled her eyes.
“Come on Steed, there’s only one occasion when it’s proper to kiss in a church,” she said, tugging him back down the aisle.
“Indeed,” he muttered as they walked, glancing at her in time to see her give him a knowing look. They returned to the car in silence, a thread of tension tugging between them. Once seated in the familiar comfort of the Bentley the tension broke.
“Where are we having lunch?” Emma asked as he started the car.
“An inn I’ve been reading about. Excellent fish dishes, very deep cellar. It’s not far.”
“Here we are,” Steed said as he turned the car into a gravelly car park next to a rambling brick Inn. They crunched around to the front through a yard edged with holly bushes laden with cheerful berries. Steed opened the heavy wooden door and they entered a warm, fragrant world of large candles and pine garlands. Steed noted as he took it from her that she was wearing his greatcoat. He kept forgetting to ask her why, let alone ask for it back.
He was handing the coats to the clerk when he heard Emma discover his surprise.
“Emma dear!” a woman’s voice cried out from the bar.
“Amelia!” Emma replied, “Peter. How wonderful to see you.”
Steed stepped into the bar in time to see Emma embrace her father-in-law. Then she turned to him, taking his hand to draw him forward.
“John Steed, Amelia and Peter Peel, senior.”
“Hello Mr. Steed,” her mother-in-law said warmly, offering her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“And I you. Mrs. Peel – ah, Emma – speaks highly of you,” Steed shook her hand, then turned to her husband. “Mr. Peel, it’s a pleasure.”
“Well,” Emma said, cocking an eyebrow at Steed, then looking at each of the Peels, “I suspect you all aren’t surprised. Steed seems to be on a binge of arranging surprise meetings.”
“It’s true, dear,” Amelia said, “Your Mr. Steed telephoned and asked us to lunch. It’s been so long since we’ve seen you, and things have been a bit awkward. But we understand that Peter has signed the papers, so things can proceed – that is, you can get on with things free of him.”
Emma looked slightly alarmed, “Really, Amelia, I hope you know that what came between your son and me was not – it has no bearing on my fondness for you.”
“No, dear girl,” Peter senior interjected. “we know he did not treat you well. No need to try to conceal it. He’s behaved appallingly.”
“Our table is ready, if we’d like to sit,” Steed said. Emma realized he’d stepped away to consult with the staff and returned.
They followed a hostess through the dining room to a table placed a comfortable distance from the fireplace where a pile of logs blazed. Emma leaned close to Steed as they walked, whispering, “you’re up to something.” He flashed her his most innocent look, then winked.
They enjoyed several courses of excellent food – the fish dishes were indeed quite special and the wine selection caused Steed to ponder the list for longer than was strictly polite. Emma took the opportunity to report her progress at the Peel estate. Her in-laws asked a few questions about the plans she was finalizing with the management company, but seemed content to leave the decisions to her. Steed listened politely, concentrating on his meal and forcing himself to remain silent. He knew that Emma was very fond of her in-laws and that, in fact they had been her closest family for several years. She was handling development of the estate for them, and although he thought they were taking advantage of her – whether intentional or not – he knew that expressing his opinion would be a very bad idea.
After dessert and coffee had been consumed and Steed had refused to allow Peter Peel to see the bill, someone proposed a slow stroll through the village. Stretching along the street past the inn, it was charmingly decorated for the holidays. Emma took Amelia’s arm and they left the men to amble along behind. They peered into the shop windows at delightful Christmas displays and paused to listen to the voices of a choir rehearsing in a small parish church.
“Dear Emma, you seem happy,” Amelia finally said as they reached the village green and the distractions lessened. Emma felt herself smile as she watched her own feet for a couple steps.
“I am, Amelia. I’ve a number of things going on that I’m very excited about –.”
“The most important of them being named John Steed,” the older woman interrupted. Emma nodded slowly, as if just then deciding what priority to assign him in her life.
“He’s a big part of it, I’ll admit,” she said.
“He’s in love with you, dear, you do know that?”
“Yes,” Emma felt herself blushing and tried to turn her face away from Amelia, but her mother-in-law squeezed her arm, drawing her attention back to her. She looked expectantly up at Emma.
“Well? Please don’t tell me that my disreputable son has hardened your heart.”
“No, Amelia. I am completely under Steed’s romantic spell,” she said, then, seeing that Amelia would not be satisfied with less, added, “I am in love with him as well.”
“Good. And do you intend to carry on this way with him indefinitely?”
“Dates and drives and weekends away – come now, I’ve tried to reach you and talked to that dear girl Sally more than once. There’s nothing permanent in all that, my dear. Nothing solid, for all that it’s fun.”
“I see,” Emma glanced back at Steed and Mr. Peel. They appeared to be deep in conversation. “He’s a slippery fellow, Amelia. If I push too hard, he’ll skitter away. But I think he’s coming around. Besides which, it’ll be a few months before I am at liberty to accept any offers – officially anyway. And socially it would look rather crude, wouldn’t it, to act so quickly?”
Amelia studied her with an appraising look, her lips pursed. “I had forgotten that edge, my dear,” she said. “I suspect it’s what set Peter off, in the end. Personally, I admire it, but certain types of men –.”
“Fortunately,” Emma said, leaning conspiratorially toward the other woman, “Steed is not one of those types. With him, I find it best to maintain a rapier – and a rapier wit – on hand.”
“Figuratively speaking, of course.”
Steed tapped his brolly on the big flagstone pavers as he and Peter Peel senior watched the women walk ahead of them.
“Steed, I know you think Amelia and I don’t realize all that Emma is doing for us. No –,” he raised his hand and Steed closed his mouth without speaking, “don’t deny it – you have great control Mr. Steed, but your face slipped more than once over lunch. So please hear me out.”
“Our son abused Emma, broke the law, and left her on the verge of scandal. She contacted us about the estate and helped us arrange to regain control of it. We assured her she could stay as long as she needed to, and she came back to us with the proposal to convert it to a hotel and conference center. It’s been clear to me all along that she needed it. I know you have been supportive, but she needed a project of her own, something to put her mind to. Even so, it’s hardly taxing for someone as bright as her.”
“Brilliant, actually,” Steed said absently, thinking about what Peel senior had said.
“I do understand how much work she’s doing,” Peel added. “And I’m prepared to take over the project when she’s ready to give it up. She thinks it’s beyond me, and I’ve let her. But I assure you I can manage it when the time comes.”
Steed bent to peer into a shop window at a motorized display of ice skaters on a mirror pond. He felt chastened. It was not a state he cared to linger in.
“I owe you an apology, Mr. Peel. You are correct, on all counts,” he said, straightening and facing Mr. Peel. “You have been Mrs. – Emma’s only family for a long time. It was wrong for me to think you would take advantage.”
Mr. Peel nodded, a tacit acceptance of Steed’s apology.
“And as you are her closest family, I wanted to speak to you myself,” Steed went on. “You are the only father figure in her life, I think you’d agree.”
Peel nodded with a small shrug, then his eyes widened and he peered attentively at Steed.
“As such, I thought it would be appropriate to speak to you about my intentions. I’m not sure that you know that she and I have been acquainted – well, more than acquainted really – for several years,” he paused and Peel senior nodded for him to continue. “I find myself thinking more and more of her in a new way – a more domestic way.”
“She’s not terribly domestic, I hope you realize,” Peel interjected. Steed smiled.
“Oh, she’s more domestic than you may think,” he said, then before Peel could comment on his discretion he went on, “I intend to ask her to marry me. I’d like your blessing, if you’ll offer it.”
They took a few more steps, passing onto the green. Emma and Amelia had settled on a bench in the middle and they strolled toward it.
“Emma is her own woman, and she’ll make her own decisions,” Peel finally said. “But I’ll willingly support your move, man. So long as you promise to make her happy. She’s been through enough heartache already, you know.”
“I intend to do everything in my power to make her happy, Mr. Peel.”
Emma found herself unaccountably sleepy on the drive back to the estate. Steed didn’t mind. He thought about Emma’s eyes in the cathedral, and about his talk with her father-in-law. Ex father-in-law, he reminded himself. Well, soon to be officially ex.
He pulled into the drive and stopped at the front door, hopping out and meeting Emma on her side just as she roused herself.
“I’m terribly sorry, Steed,” she said, stifling a yawn.
“Don’t give it a thought,” he replied softly, wrapping his arm around her with the excuse of supporting her as they walked to the door.
“You’ll stay, won’t you?” she asked, hand on the big old knob, face turned up to his.
“Tell me, Mrs. Peel, are there times when it’s appropriate to kiss on the doorstep?” he asked, swearing he could feel her heart beating even through both of their – his! – coats. A smile played across her face and she brought her hand up to the back of his neck, pulling him closer.
“I think this is one of more appropriate times, Steed,” she whispered, then suited action to words.
“I’d be delighted to stay,” he whispered, and she released his neck to reach back down and open the door.
Emma half woke and rolled onto her back. It was the deepest part of the night, and she realized that Steed was leaning on one elbow looking at her.
“Steed, is everything all right?” she asked, yawning.
“Yes. I was thinking.”
He smiled wistfully, reaching out with his free hand to brush the hair from her face.
“If you didn’t want to talk about it, you wouldn’t have mentioned it,” she pointed out. “You might have said you couldn’t sleep, for example.” He stroked her cheek with one finger, then drew it down her neck until his hand rested on the sheet over her breast.
“I was thinking about how important you are to me. I want you to know that – that I understand your requirements,” he paused.
She smiled encouragingly. “Yes?”
“I want you to know that I am committed to you,” he almost whispered.
She studied his face for a moment, Is he? She wondered. “Wait here,” she said, slipping out from under the warm covers into the chilly air of her bedroom. She hurried across the room to the dressing room. Opening first one, then another drawer in a tall chest. She found a small box in the fourth drawer. She took it out and opened it to be sure it was what she wanted, then closed it and turned back to the bedroom. She paused in the doorway. Steed was waiting, head still propped on his hand, streaks of moonlight painting bright stripes on the coverlet. Suddenly unsure, she concealed the box in her fist and hurried to slip back under the covers.
“You’re shivering,” Steed said, pulling the coverlet up and pulling her into his arms. “Now what was that about, hum?”
She looked into his eyes and saw affection, devotion, and trust. This is it then, she thought. “Would this be of use?” she asked, holding up the small box.
He took it from her and released her to hold and open it. His face grew serious as he looked at the diamond and emerald ring. She wanted to snatch it back, to crawl out of the bed and away. What was I thinking?
Then the corners of his mouth curled in a smile and his eyes sparkled as the moonlight touched them.
“Who’s is this?” he asked, his voice husky.
“It’s a family piece,” she replied.
“Mine. It was my grandmother’s.”
He took the ring out of the box and held it up in the moonlight. It sparkled cheerfully, making Emma smile.
“Would you be willing to change your name again, Mrs. Peel?” he asked, almost casually.
She looked from the ring to him, still smiling. “No.”
Steed nearly dropped the ring. He raised himself with one arm, leaning over her, brows knit in consternation.
“I’m in the process of changing it back to Knight. I won’t change it again. But if you can manage to accept Emma Knight …”
Steed laughed with relief, sitting up and taking her left hand. “Can you accept my continuing to call you Mrs. Peel? Because I don’t believe I can manage anything else.”
“I can,” she replied, laughing with him. “I’m not sure I can imagine you calling me anything else.”
“Then, Emma, will you marry me?”
“Oh yes, John, I will.”
He slid the ring onto her finger, then stretched out beside her and gathered her into his arms. She smiled into his eyes as their lips met, then parted.
“But no desk job. Is that clear?” she whispered, bringing her hand up to tap her index finger on his nose.
“Understood,” he replied.
Steed became aware of the absence of warmth beside him and opened his eyes. The room was suffused with grey early morning light. Emma stood in her filmy white negligée, silhouetted in front of the window, her arms wrapped around herself against the chill. He slid out of bed and went to her, wrapping his arms around her from behind and holding her close.
“Ummmm,” she sighed, nestling against him.
“What are you watching?” he asked, peering through the window at the lightening landscape beyond.
“Sunrise,” she said. “On Christmas Eve it rises over the frozen pond – watch.”
They watched as the glow increased and a spot of bright light flashed across the ice in the distance. For an instant the garden was a monochromatic wonderland, doubly lit by the rising sun and it’s reflection off of the pond. Then it was over. The sun drifted upward and the color returned to the garden.
“You’ll need to charge extra for these rooms on Christmas Eve,” Steed said. Emma smiled. They stood for a bit longer watching the garden finish its transition from night to day. A robin soared past the window and landed on a branch nearby, singing merrily.
“I’m to go to my sister’s for a few days,” he said at last. “Come with me?”
“Lots of children and dogs? Big meals and long rambles in the country?” she asked, reaching up to caress the side of his face.
“I’m afraid so,” he said, assuring himself that she was not building a case against going.
“It sounds lovely.”
The warmth of the morning light had filled the bedroom by the time they roused themselves again. Steed rose with a light heart and went into the bathroom for a shower. Watching him go, Emma rose and slipped into her warm robe, then walked down the hall to her office. She hadn’t noticed that it was already late morning, and was startled to find Sally at her desk.
“Good morning, madam,” the young woman said. As she looked up at her employer her eyes widened at the sight of her bathrobe and uncombed hair.
“Sally!” Emma said, running her hand through her hair and automatically checking that the belt of her robe was properly cinched. “I lost track of the time this morning.”
“Yes ma’am,” Sally said, looking away from Emma as her face reddened. But Emma didn’t notice as she went to her own desk, then turned and leaned on the edge rather than sitting in her chair. She watched Sally for a moment realizing the girl was growing uncomfortable and obviously trying not to look at her.
“Do we have anything urgent today?” she asked.
“Not really, ma’am. I’m just doing yesterday’s letters now.”
“When you finish them, take them to the post office and go on home. I’m sure your mother can use your help today. Don’t come back until after boxing day.”
Sally looked up, gratitude showing on her face. “Thank you, ma’am. You’re right, my mum will be grateful for the help.”
“I’m going away myself. I’m not exactly sure when I’ll be back, but I’ll call you on the 27th.”
“Very well, ma’am. Thank you.”
“Good morning, Sally,” Steed said from the doorway. He was dressed and groomed and looked very self satisfied to Emma, who he was staring at intently. Sally turned in her chair to look toward him.
“Good morning, sir,” she said with a shy smile. He glanced down at her then returned his gaze to Emma.
“Steed, why don’t you go down to breakfast. I’m sure Evie will provide whatever you want,” Emma said, giving him a pointed look. He grinned at her in a possessive, adoring way that made her want to walk into his arms. But she held her ground.
“Yes, ma’am. Evie’s ready to do a good fry-up,” Sally said, then put a hand to her mouth and turned back to her desk. Steed cocked one eyebrow at Emma, then removed himself from the doorway. Emma stared at Sally, waiting for the explanation she knew would come.
“We saw the car out front, you see, ma’am,” she finally said, eyes on her blotter.
“Of course,” Emma said coolly. She realized even as she said it that it was unrealistic of her to expect the staff pretend to be unaware of Steed’s presence in her life. “Sally, do not be taken in my Mr. Steed’s charm,” she said, approaching the girl’s desk so she could look down at her.
Sally looked up at Emma, surprise in her eyes. “But my lady, I thought – that is it seemed as if you – care a great deal for him –.”
“I do. But nonetheless, Steed is a master of deception, Sally. He won’t hesitate to use his considerable charm to get what he wants. You must remember who you work for.”
“Yes ma’am, of course. But why would Mr. Steed want something that you do not?”
“Just because I’m – involved – with him does not mean I agree with him in all things. I expect your support, should a situation ever arise where it was called for,” she placed her hands on Sally’s desk, leaning in the same slightly intimidating fashion she’d used on Mother not so long ago. Sally was terribly confused. She’d imagined Lady Emma to be very much in love, but lovers don’t distrust one another. She looked at her employer’s hands to avoid making eye contact. A lovely ring glittered on her left hand. She was sure she hadn’t seen it there before. It was a diamond ring, on Lady Emma’s ring finger. Sally swallowed hard. Is Lady Emma engaged? And if it’s not to Mr. Steed, then who could it be?
A short while later Emma found Steed in the dining room with several plates of breakfast foods arrayed before him and the morning paper in his hand. Evie materialized immediately to pour her coffee and serve her. She limited her breakfast to Evie’s fluffy pancakes while Steed asked for and immediately received another serving of sausages. When she was seated he handed her a small pile of letters.
“Morning post,” he said absently.
Emma took the mail, frowning at Steed and glancing toward the door to the kitchen wondering why Evie had left her mail with him. She flipped through the envelopes, seeing that one was from Bond. She glanced up at Steed, who was reading and eating contentedly. He would probably have mentioned it, if he noticed, she reasoned. But he must have looked through the stack. I would have.
The drive north to Steed’s sister Caroline’s home took most of the afternoon. Emma had brought along a few day’s crosswords and kept them both occupied as he drove. In the gathering dusk he stopped the Bentley in front of a big old house with a big, snow-covered yard. She looked at the homey place, wondering what she was about to get into. Steed came around to her side and opened the door.
“Steed, did you warn your sister that I was coming?” she asked.
“Of course. I phoned and told her I was bringing a friend. She was glad to hear it.”
“A friend? Not woman?” Steed shrugged and looked blankly at her. “What are your usual accommodates when you visit?” she asked.
“The younger boys, Timothy and Arthur, double up with their older brother Ted — they love it – and I get their room.”
“Well, your sister may have presumed that your friend is a man and put us together. That wouldn’t be appropriate. What we do in your flat or at the estate is one thing, but in a family home . . .” her voice trailed off as the front door of the house opened and a woman peered out. “Too late,” she finished, indicating the house with her eyes. Steed turned to look.
“Johnny? Is that you? It’s freezing out here. Let the lady get out of the car!” a voice, most certainly Steed’s sister, called out across the snowy lawn.
Emma grinned at Steed, mouthing “Johnny?” at him as he took her hand to help her out. He grimaced, and guided her up the shoveled front walk to the door.
“Come in, come in!” Steed’s sister Caroline held the door wide open and stepped back to admit them. She was the very picture of a country wife, comfortably built and dressed, rosy cheeked and as bright eyed as Steed. She wore an attractive dark red woolen dress with a white apron tied over it. Stains on the apron suggested that she’d been busy in the kitchen.
The house smelled of roast beef, wood smoke, and pine needles on top of myriad more subtle scents. Steed closed the front door as Emma and his sister faced one another for the first time.
“Lady Emma,” Caroline said, taking both of Emma’s hands, “it is so good of our John to bring you at last.” Her warm smile was infectious and the twinkle in her eyes was so like Steed’s that Emma felt immediately, sincerely welcome.
“Just Emma, please,” she said.
“Your coat, Mrs. Peel,” Steed spoke quietly just behind her. She felt his hands on her shoulders and suddenly felt as if he were hiding behind her. She unbelted her coat and shrugged out of it. He had never commented on her appropriation of his greatcoat, and she had not been able to give it up.
“Yes, yes, get comfortable – we’ll send Harry out for your bags later,” Caroline said, “You’re just in time – we’re sorting out supper. Why don’t you come along through to the kitchen so we can visit while we get things ready. Oh,” she stopped and turned halfway to the door at the back of the entry, “Unless you’d rather have a drink in the parlor – I mean, if the kitchen is a bit too much family all at once . . .”
“I think that family is what we came for, Mrs. Hill,” Emma said, glancing at Steed, who was hanging their coats. He closed the closet door and turned to her, taking her hand.
“Certainly,” he said, nodding at his sister. “Lead on, dear sister.” Caroline’s glance took in their clasped hands and her smile widened. She was turning to lead them through to the kitchen when the door ahead of her slammed open and three dogs of varying sizes romped through. Emma immediately crouched down to meet them at eye level, petting each one as it bounced forward to sniff her. A boy of about seven followed the dogs, calling out their names in a half-hearted attempt at discipline. He glanced at the adults in the entry and his face broke into a broad grin.
“Uncle!” he shouted, propelling himself at Steed. Steed caught him and lifted him up.
“Hello Timothy,” Steed said. “Happy Christmas!”
Timothy, his hair as red as his cheeks and shooting out in all directions, beamed at his uncle. Then he looked at Emma, who had finished greeting the dogs.
“Timothy, this is my friend Mrs. – ah, Miss Knight,” Steed winced at his verbal stumble over the unfamiliar name.
“Hello,” Timothy extended his hand to Emma, who shook it very formally. Timothy’s eyes widened and he turned and whispered something in Steed’s ear. Steed smiled indulgently.
“I think so too,” he said softly to the boy, then put him down.
“Master Timothy, you just take those dogs back to the mudroom where they belong. Where are the napkins?”
“Yes mum. On the table,” the boy said, grabbing the largest dog’s collar and using it to drag the pack back through the kitchen door.
“Chaos,” Caroline said, “This house is utter chaos. Come along then,” she turned once again to the kitchen door.
Emma felt Steed’s hands on her shoulders again, holding her back. His face was beside hers, his breath tickling her ear, “Thank you,” he whispered.
She turned her head to look him in the eye. “For what?”
“For everything. For being you,” he replied with a little shrug. He could not articulate all that he meant, so instead he leaned close and placed a warm, soft kiss on her lips. She wanted to sink into it, wanted to turn and embrace him and return his kiss to let him know how wonderful it was to be welcomed into his family. But she knew that Caroline had paused in the kitchen doorway to observe them, so she pulled away, turning her head just in time to see Caroline look away herself.
Emma turned her face back toward Steed’s. “What did Timothy whisper to you?” she asked.
He smiled playfully, “That you’re very pretty.”
Emma was good with names, but she soon lost track of all the children and cousins arrayed around the supper table. In addition to Caroline and Harry’s six, there were the children of Harry’s sister, and a neighbor couple who had no other family so had been pulled into the Hall household. Emma was seated next to the end of the table where Harry, Steed’s brother-in-law, held court over the roast. Steed, beside her, was kept quite occupied by his trio of nieces, seated beside and across from him, but Emma found Harry a very pleasant conversationalist.
Harry, she learned, had started his career in the office at a coal-mining firm. He had learned a great deal about the business, and the industry, and begun handling the firm’s futures investments. From the size of his home and comfortable lifestyle, Emma guessed that he had developed a good understanding of the futures market. The more she asked, the more impressed she was, and they were soon deep in conversation about industrial futures and other aspects of the market. Now and then she felt Steed’s hand alight on her thigh under the table, giving it a gentle, inquiring squeeze. Each time, she discretely covered his hand and squeezed back, I’m fine, darling. Enjoy yourself.
Gradually Emma and Harry realized that the room had grown quiet. Glancing round, Emma saw that several of the children had gone, and others were clearing the table. She glanced at Steed, who was watching her with a look of contentment on his face. He smiled when she caught his eye.
“Now Steed,” Harry said, running a hand through his mop of red hair. “You must come see my latest project – if I ever find time for it. You’ll excuse us, won’t you Emma?”
“Of course,” Emma said as the men rose. At the far end of the table Caroline also rose, picked up a half-full wine bottle and her glass, and came down the table to sit across from Emma. She topped off Emma’s glass and refilled her own, then raised her glass. Emma raised hers and both women sipped, watching one another.
“Six years I’ve waited to meet you, Emma,” Caroline said. “At first, when he wouldn’t stop talking about you, I begged him ‘bring her along.’ But he said, ‘no, Caro, it wouldn’t do,’” Caroline shook her head and took another sip of wine. Emma tried to get used to the idea that Steed had talked about her to his relatives. What had he said?
“We know better than to ask him about his work, of course,” Caroline went on as if Emma had spoken aloud. “So we asked about his social life – the fancy parties and all. And you were always in his stories. We know you worked with him, that much was clear. I’ll say no more about that. The way he described you in those days,” she shook her head, glancing down at her hands, then across the table at Emma’s, wrapped around her wine glass. “Such adventures! Grand balls, hunts, trips to Paris, Rome. He once sent a photo taken in Venice, Italy. I can’t imagine how you two arranged it, but you were driving a gondola. Not him – you!”
Emma laughed, remembering Steed paying the gondolier an exorbitant amount of lire for a driving lesson. She’d grasped the use of the pole and forcola immediately after he’d fumbled with it for half an hour and given up. The gondolier had been so amused he’d taken the photograph. She had a copy too, tucked away somewhere where Peter would never have found it.
“We had fun,” she said, knowing that it was a terribly inadequate description of their days together when they thought she was a widow.
“And then John was different,” Caroline said. “He came for Christmas and he never mentioned you. He didn’t have any funny stories, he listened to our silly chatter and kept to himself. He was heartbroken, and we knew why. But what could we do? He wouldn’t talk about it, wouldn’t admit his hurt, and I would never ask.”
Emma rolled her glass between her hands, then raised it to her lips and took a long sip. Caroline watched her.
“If it’s any consolation,” Emma said softly, “I was no better off.”
“No, it’s not consoling,” Caroline said. “It’s doubly sad – the two of you, happy together like few people ever are, and you couldn’t stay that way. But here you are now,” she took another gulp of wine. “Finally found your way back together, I see. Thank you for bringing my brother back.”
“It’s my pleasure,” Emma said softly, touched by Caroline’s affection for Steed.
Caroline grinned, “I’m sure it is,” she said evilly. Emma gasped in mock horror at the other woman’s indiscretion.
“Mum?” Caroline’s oldest daughter, Sara, Emma recalled, came in from the kitchen.
“Yes darling?” Caroline tenderly stroked a lock of hair off her daughter’s forehead.
“Are we going to open presents?”
“Yes we are – as soon as the kitchen is done.”
“Lady Emma, will you join us?” Sara looked across the table.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” Emma said. “But please call me Emma – Sir Peter kept the titles in the divorce.”
“Did you divorce him because you love Uncle?”
“Sara Elizabeth!” Caroline gently swatted the girl on the behind.
“But Uncle loves her, mum. It would be dreadful if she didn’t love him.”
“And what do you think, young lady?” Caroline said, glancing at Emma to see if the other woman was upset. Emma was startled at the girl’s forthrightness, but something about her tone reminded Emma of herself.
“I think they’re crazy about each other,” Sara proclaimed. Both she and Caroline looked to Emma for a response.
“Sara, I am quite in love with your uncle. Do you mind terribly?”
“Off with you then, Miss Sara,” Caroline said, “you’ve done enough damage here.” Sara grinned impishly, picked up an empty serving bowl, and trotted back to the kitchen. “Thirteen years old and a hopeless romantic,” Caroline said.
“She’s not the only one around here, I think,” Emma said, winking at the other woman.
“Let’s make some coffee and move into the parlor. The children are allowed to open one present this evening, and then I think you and Johnny might have an announcement,” she looked pointedly at Emma’s hands.
“Oh. Well, we hadn’t thought.”
“Have you set a date?”
“No. Not yet. My divorce isn’t final and we just — .”
“A word of advice dear,” Caroline stood up, “don’t delay too long.”
The coffee was nearly done, and the children were circling the Christmas Tree with its piles of wrapped gifts, when Steed and Harry came in from outside.
“Here, now, before you get comfortable,” Caroline stopped her husband half way through removing his coat, “Go on out and get the bags from that silly old car of John’s.” She turned to Emma, who was stacking cups and saucers on a tray. “We’re so crowded this year, we’ve put you two in the boys room,” she said with a wink.
“Come on Steed, give me a hand,” Harry said, dragging Steed out of the kitchen before Emma could catch his eye.
Caroline stepped closer to her to speak more quietly. “There are two beds in that room. See that both are slept in. I want nothing happening that my girls couldn’t walk in on,” she said firmly. Emma nodded, trying to look serious, although the look on Caroline’s face suggested that she didn’t mean a word of what she said. “And, just so you know, there is a lock on that door.”
She scooped up the tray of cups and saucers and strode out of the kitchen, laughing as she went. Emma heard one of the girls ask her what was funny as she entered the parlor, but she didn’t hear Caroline’s answer.
The following days were filled with Christmas carols and snowball fights and canters across the snowy fields around the Hill’s home. For the most part Emma put the estate and Knight Industries out of her mind and enjoyed the novel experience of being part of a large family. For his part, Steed watched her conspire with the children, play with the dogs, and help his sister prepare meals, and his happiness grew every day.
A few days after Christmas, after a day spent mostly outdoors in the snow, Steed and Emma settled in on a sofa in front of the fire while Caroline and Harry escorted the children to bed. Steed stretched out on his side leaving room for Emma to snuggle in front of him and rest her head on his forearm.
“Penny for your thoughts,” he whispered as she caressed his hands.
“Your brother-in-law could be very successful in the City of London,” she said, referring to London’s financial district. “There are trading firms that would pay handsomely for the services he performs for the mining firm.”
“Don’t you dare put ideas in his head,” Steed warned, but his tone was light. “Caro likes her big old country house.”
“He wouldn’t necessarily have to move there.”
Steed pressed his lips against the top of her head, enjoying the fresh scent of her hair. His brother-in-law’s career had been the last thing on his mind, and he didn’t quite know what more to say.
“Penny for your thoughts, Steed,” Emma whispered.
“I think it’s time to get you back to your natural environment, Mrs. Peel. Shall we go back up to London tomorrow?”
She sighed and pulled his arms tighter around her. He desperately wanted to allow his body to respond to hers, to allow his hands to wander over her. They had been honoring his sister’s half-serious request, and he did admit it was only appropriate. But a man could only take so much.
“What about your natural environment, Steed?” she asked. “Surely there must be some evil doer you have to pursue.”
“No, but there are some important secrets I have to protect,” he admitted. “In a few days. Will you join me for New Year’s Eve? A party with a military flare.”
“A working party?”
Emma switched on her desk lamp and perched on the edge of her chair to study the small stack of messages Sally had left for her. She sorted them as she read, picking up an open letter and comparing a phone number in it with one of the messages. She smiled.
“Working already?” Steed asked. He was leaning in the doorway, a glass of brandy in his hand.
“Just checking my messages,” she replied, more sharply than she’d intended. She was tired, and the prospect of returning to her busy reality after a particularly pleasant holiday was depressing. She set down the slips and rose. “It’s been rather busy for the holidays.”
“But nothing you can do about any of it tonight,” he pointed out, frowning at her tone.
“No. I suppose not,” she brushed past him out into the hall. Frown deepening, he stepped over to her desk and set down his brandy. His fingers idly spread out the pile of message slips, then he noticed the letter she’d been holding. He nudged it out from under the messages.
. . . wanted to tell you that my broker, Mr. Brooks, would be interested in meeting with you regarding Knight Industries immediately after the holidays. I took the liberty of giving him your telephone number. I hope you don’t mind, but if you do I shall accept whatever punishment you care to deliver. . .
Steed’s eyes darted to the bottom of the single page to the signature.
Steed pushed the message slips back over the note and stared blankly across the room. She was looking for Knight Industries stockholders. And somehow Bond was involved. Why Bond? And why has she not told me? He looked back down at the desk, recognizing a glossy black Knight Industries annual report under the other papers. Apparently she doesn’t need my help. Or want it. He picked up his glass and gulped the fine brandy, then set it back down with a clunk. I’ll just leave her to it, then.
He strode out of the office and down the stairs. Slamming the big front door made a satisfying whump.
“Steed?” Emma stepped into the hall from her bedroom. She was sure she’d heard the front door. Frowning, she walked to the landing. Through the windows on either side of the door she saw the Bentley’s head lamps come on and the car move away. “Steed?” she repeated softly, baffled and a little frightened. She walked on across the landing and into the other wing where her office door stood open, the light from the desk lamp casting a rectangular patch of light on the hallway carpet. She walked over to her desk, picking up his half-consumed glass of brandy. She studied the message slips and the note from James underneath. The letter was mostly covered, but the signature was clearly visible. Not that she had any illusions that he hadn’t read it. But how could he be jealous of James helping her with a business matter? How could he possibly doubt her devotion to him?
Annoyed, she finished off his brandy and switched off the lamp. Fine. Let him stew for a few days. Maybe he’ll be very silly and challenge James. That would be amusing, particularly when James tells him how unresponsive I’ve been to him.
Emma sat at her desk staring at the hotel management company’s contract. She’d reread the fourth paragraph three times. Although she was perfectly capable of understanding the stilted legalese, it just wouldn’t sink in. The sound of the front door slamming behind Steed last night kept echoing in her head. More than once she’d started to reach for the telephone to call him, but stopped herself. If he chose to behave like a jilted lover with no evidence, it was not up to her to explain.
The ringing telephone jarred Emma and she refocused on paragraph four as Sally answered the call.
“Sally? Do you know who this is?”
Sally smiled as she recognized the voice on the other end of the line. “Yes –.”
“No, don’t say my name. Is she there?”
“Um, yes. Why — .”
“Will you do me a favor? Will you tell her that I called while she was out? Tell her I said I’ve been called away sooner than I expected. I’ll be gone for about three weeks.”
“Is that true? Are you sure you don’t want — .”
“Yes of course it’s true, Sally. And no, I don’t. You’ll tell her, won’t you? I don’t want her to worry.”
“Good girl. Thank you.”
Steed hung up before his willpower faded and he asked to talk to Mrs. Peel after all. It wasn’t true, he wasn’t leaving for a few days yet. But overnight his anger at her had blossomed. She had come to him for help and support weeks ago. He had responded. He had allowed himself to feel the emotions that he’d kept secreted away for all these years. He had unflinchingly committed himself to her. Only to find out that she was concealing from him a very important part of her life. She’d been plotting to regain control of Knight Industries, he was certain of it. And she’d let him think all the work that kept her busy was on the Peel estate. She’d allowed him to be annoyed with her in-laws on her account, never once thinking to explain that her hectic schedule was her own doing, not entirely on their behalf.
No, he’d better not speak to her just now. And as for New Year’s Eve, well the party was his business after all, and turnabout was fair play.
Sally set down the phone and Emma looked up, “Who was that?” she asked, not sounding especially curious.
“My father,” Sally said quickly. “He wants me to stop in the village later.”
“Ummm,” Emma replied, already trying to refocus on the contract. She had moved on to paragraph five.
Sally watched her employer. Something was most certainly wrong, she’d noticed it long before Mr. Steed’s mysterious call. She thought about the conversation they’d had on Christmas Eve. It was hard to believe that such a situation had already occurred. Lady Emma certainly knew Mr. Steed well. She loves him, I’m sure of it, the secretary mussed. But they’ve had a tiff. Well, I don’t suppose my getting involved will do anyone any good. Nor will my contradicting her direct instructions regarding the gentleman.
“Madam?” Sally said, clearing her throat when her voice cracked on the single word. Emma looked up inquiringly. “That wasn’t, actually, my father,” Sally went on.
“No? Who was it then?” Emma asked, the look in her eyes revealing that she could guess.
“Mr. Steed, ma’am. He asked me to tell you he’d called while you were out.”
“I see. And did he ask you to deliver a message?”
“Yes ma’am. He said he’s been called away, for three weeks. He didn’t want you to worry.”
Emma pursed her lips, setting down the contract and staring off across the room. Then her attention snapped back to Sally.
“Thank you, Sally. For telling me the truth. That’s exactly the sort of thing I meant, the other day.”
“Yes, ma’am, I realized that. I’m so sorry.”
“All’s well, my dear. I understand that it’s hard to resist doing as he asks, when he asks nicely.”
“Yes ma’am. I mean, I’m sorry he’s going away.”
“Ah. Well, it does happen,” Emma sighed. In fact, the mild depression she’d been feeling had just mushroomed and she felt as if her heart were dragging on the floor. She smoothed the folds in the contract with her hands, then looked up at Sally. The girl looked genuinely concerned. Emma forced herself to smile. “And we’ve got a great deal to do over the next few weeks anyway. What did I do with Mr. Bond’s broker’s number?”
“There, ma’am, the top message slip.”
“Ah yes, here it is,” she forced herself to pick up the telephone on her desk and dial the number. It was true. She had a great deal to do. The Knight Industries shareholder meeting was in three weeks – a strange coincidence.
Steed looked around the tiny officer’s quarters he’d been assigned on the American submarine. Of course, only half was his – this space the size of a police box was for two senior officers. Steed knew it was the most luxurious accommodation on the boat, after the Captain’s quarters. But this was not going to be one of his favorite assignments.
He opened the small locker and unzipped his bag. It contained the gear of a British submarine officer, which was his identity for the duration. Elder 6 was safely installed on the bridge, and he was, so far as the sub’s American crew knew, an English observer of the prototype tests as they crossed the Atlantic. He had hung his small collection of shirts and checked the creases on his slacks when the door to the quarters opened.
“You must be my bunkmate,” he said as he closed the locker and looked toward the door. The American officer standing there grinned broadly and stepped inside.
“That’s me,” Lee Stetson said, closing the door. “And you’re the British officer here to observe,” he looked Steed up and down, taking in the naval uniform.
“Lee,” Steed shook his associate’s hand. “I know why I’m here, but why do your people want someone inside?”
“Same reason. The rumor mill. Someone who shouldn’t knows about the device. Unless you’ve got more than that?”
“No, not yet.”
“Well then, this should be fun. Which bunk do you want?” he indicated the stacked beds along one wall.
“I’ve got to be on top, old chap,” Steed replied, pointing to his hat, which rested on the small pillow on the upper bunk.
Steed used his officer’s cap to hail a taxi outside of Heathrow, tossing his seabag on the back seat before climbing in. He stretched out in the roomy cab, reciting his address to the driver before allowing himself to slouch back and close his eyes. Three weeks on the submarine had been uncomfortable, but seven hours on an airplane had been excruciating. And they were that much worse because he had done it for her.
The first evening on the sub Lee had asked after her, and he’d found himself telling the other agent how angry he was. Lee had turned out to be a good listener. When Steed finished making his case the American lay silently on his bunk for a few minutes – long enough that Steed had leaned over to be sure his ranting hadn’t put Lee to sleep.
“So you’re not saying you think she’s interested in Bond,” Lee said. “I know the man. I avoided introducing Amanda to him at that party last month.”
Steed flopped back on his bunk and stared at the ceiling. He had examined his feelings on this repeatedly since leaving the estate. “No. I really don’t believe that. She accepted my proposal, and she would not have if there were anyone else.” As he spoke he realized he had omitted that detail earlier. He felt Lee swing his feet to the deck. The man’s face appeared next to his bunk, a grin on his face.
“I think you left that out the first time, Steed,” he said. “Congratulations! Amanda insisted you would do it. I told her you were the last of the bachelor spys,” he chuckled at Steed’s grimace. “But I guess Bond is.”
“Widower, actually,” Steed corrected him.
“Too long ago to count,” Lee brushed it off. “But this changes things. You’re angry because you’re not sure she’s really committed if she hasn’t told you about this business with Knight.”
Steed shrugged, “I suppose that sums it up fairly well.”
“You need to talk to her about it,” Lee put up a hand to silence Steed, who’d rolled on his side and was about to object. “I know that just walking away felt right, but it’ll never work. You have no idea what she’s thinking. She doesn’t know why you left. Engagement or not, you’re driving her right toward someone like Bond.”
Steed hadn’t been convinced that night, but as the days went on and he and Lee observed the sub’s crew and procedures, his anger diminished. He began to miss Emma. The memory of her eyes in Salisbury Cathedral came to him at inopportune moments and he began lulling himself to sleep by imagining her in his arms.
The cruise was otherwise uneventful. Elder 6 functioned properly, its display showing them the locations and depths of the other submarines equipped with slave devices participating in the tests. During the second week they encountered some rough weather, but the American skipper had ordered the sub to a great depth and they’d run below the storm. Lee seemed uncomfortable with the notion of being so deep the water outside would crush them if the sub weren’t pressurized, but Steed rather liked slipping past unnoticed beneath the gale above.
They’d surfaced outside of Norfolk, Virginia, and made their way to the submarine base there – one of several naval bases at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Checking in with the ministry, Steed had learned he had a message from Bond asking him to call. He reluctantly dialed the number Bond had left.
“Bond here,” the other agent answered on the first ring.
“It’s John Steed. You left me a message.”
“Steed! I’d about given up hope you’d get off that blasted boat in time,” Bond replied. Steed’s brows shot up and he looked around for a chair. He had borrowed an office, and there was a frightfully utilitarian chair in front of the desk.
“In time for what?” he sat down.
“The Knight shareholder meeting. It’s the day after tomorrow. Listen, Steed, I got hold of some information that I couldn’t share with Emma. I have a list of shareholders and I know you’ve got a good size batch. You haven’t sent in your proxy, have you?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Good. She needs you.”
“She might bloody well have asked me!” Steed blurted, instantly regretting it.
“Yes, well, I don’t know what to say about any of that. But I suspect you want to help her.”
Steed rested his head on his hand, his elbow on the dingy desk.
“She hasn’t got enough shares rounded up, then?” he asked. He knew Emma was the largest shareholder of Knight, but she didn’t have a majority. She could not contradict the wishes of the board, which, as a group, held as much stock as she did. The board had the advantage, in that it could propose its own reelection to the shareholders when it sent them their proxies. Emma would have been trying to buy more shares and convince other shareholders to vote for her instead. But she’d not had access to a list of shareholders – the list Bond must have gotten through improper channels. So she’d been talking to brokers who might be willing to speak to their clients on her behalf.
“There’s more to this,” Bond interrupted his thoughts. “I know they took you off the Peel case, so you’re not up to speed. But there’s a connection between Sir Peter Peel and Knight Industries.”
“I’ll fly back tonight, if I can get a seat,” Steed said, all hesitation gone. And he had gotten a seat, first flying to Washington, then on to London to arrive early the next morning. It was a crazy thing to do – bordering on desertion since the sub was due to go back out in a few days and he was supposed to be on it. But who wanted to hang around Norfolk?
The taxi rolled to a stop in front of his building and he roused himself as the driver opened the door. All he wanted to do was get the sleep that he’d been unable to manage on the plane, but he couldn’t just yet. He changed into civilian attire and went out to check on the Bentley. A couple cups of oil and a dust off and she was ready to go
Bond met him at the ministry, leading him to the office shared by Weems and Plath, the agents working on the Peel case.
“Glad to have you back on this one, Steed,” Weems said, shaking his hand. “I take it Mother cleared it after all?”
“What Mother doesn’t know . . .” Steed said with a slick smile, “so what’s this connection to Knight Industries?” He slid into a chair, his expression intent. Bond’s lips curled in an admiring smile – Steed could talk his way into anything. Weems gave Plath a concerned look, but the other man shrugged and pushed a case file across the table to Steed. If Steed and Bond wanted in on a case, they’d find a way to get around Mother. There was little point in denying them.
“The software Peel was buying from Wentworth is the communications network for linked short-range missiles. It’s useless without the launch control computers that it runs on, not to mention the missiles and launchers,” Plath explained.
“Let me guess,” Steed said. “the launch control computers are a Knight Industries product.”
“None other,” Plath replied. “Knight Weaponry is a ministry supplier in good standing. They’ve had this contract for several years.”
“And Wentworth’s company developed the software?”
“Right again. It’s all very hush-hush, so we’ve been trying to find Peel’s source. But he’s not talking much.”
“You wouldn’t want to give him a try, would you, Steed?” Weems asked rather archly.
Steed turned to him with an insincerely benevolent expression. “I think not, thanks.”
“What about Knight Weaponry?” Bond asked.
“We put a man in there two weeks ago,” Plath said, turning in the file to an agent’s dossier. “Philip Hayes. He’s an engineer. We’re meeting with him tonight, regular report.”
“Has he found anything?”
“Not yet. We’re wondering if the leak isn’t higher up.”
“Peel had some connection with the board of directors before he disappeared,” Weems put in.
Steed looked surprised and glanced up at Bond. Bond nodded to Weems, who opened a different folder. “Peter Peel signed an agreement just prior to his disappearance selling a significant portion of his wife’s shares in Knight Industries to three other members of the board. The agreement was completely legal – they had no pre-nuptial agreement limiting his access to her property. It was executed the day he disappeared.”
Steed looked puzzled, “It was written to be executed if he was lost?”
“No, the date was a coincidence. Or it seemed to be. In any case, by the time Mrs. Peel’s lawyer discovered the agreement, the shares had been transferred and the money was in the Peel’s joint account. There was nothing she could do. She hadn’t been active in the company for about twelve months by that time, and at the next board meeting they voted her off.”
Steed sat back in his chair, drumming his fingers on the table. “Were the shares sold at market value?” he asked. It hardly mattered, but he wondered just how cruel Peel had been to Emma.
Weems scanned the reports in front of him. “The agreement – I have it here – stipulates that the price should be eighty percent of the stock’s opening price on the day of execution. A nice discount, but not enough to drag down the price on the open market.”
Steed nodded slowly, trying to imagine Emma’s rage at her husband’s betrayal. It seemed there was a lot about Knight Industries she’d never told him. No wonder she’d had such an edge when he first met her. He’d found her aloofness fascinating, never guessing that it was an emotional defense. Knowing all of this, he was surprised she’d opened up to him at all. Clearly her in-laws knew what Peter had done – her father-in-law had implied it when he’d said she’d been abused. But Steed was so focused on his own wishes he hadn’t picked up on it.
“I’ve heard enough,” he said, rising abruptly. Weems and Plath stared up at him in surprise. He turned to Bond, “I’ll see you at the shareholder’s meeting tomorrow. Please don’t mention it to her.”
“What about the investigation?” Weems asked.
Steed peered down at him for a moment. “Oh, I’m sorry, boys. I’ve got to catch a submarine in Norfolk in four days. I’ll check in with you when I get back.”
Weems looked abashed. Bond leaned down toward him: “That’s Norfolk, Virginia, boys,” he said, then followed Steed out.
“Will this be appropriate, ma’am?” Sally asked, standing in the middle of the office and turning slowly. She wore a dark green wool suit over a lighter green blouse with a collar that extended into a bow tied at her neck. The skirt covered her knees and her shoes were basic black pumps with scuffed heels. Emma leaned back in her chair and studied the young woman’s outfit. It was conservative and lacking in any currently fashionable touches. But it would allow Sally to blend in to the mixed bag of shareholders at the Knight Industries annual meeting. And that was what Emma wanted.
“It’s perfect Sally,” she said, choosing not to explain why. The girl might fancy herself quite sharply dressed. “I think I have everything. Let’s go on up to London. If we’re terribly early we can get a coffee and catch our breath.”
“Yes ma’am. I’m ready.”
Sally had not wanted to tell her employer that she had never been to London before. She was rather ashamed of it, especially knowing how extensively Lady Emma had traveled. But Sally’s family was large and her father’s work as a handyman was not particularly lucrative. There had never been enough spare cash for outings to the city. When Lady Emma suggested that Sally might move there it had been almost beyond her comprehension. It was still like a dream, the idea that she might be offered a job with a salary that would be enough to live in London.
She sat in the passenger seat of Lady Emma’s sports car and watched the familiar scenery of her home replaced with new sights. When they were in all new territory, Emma reached over and patted the briefcase Sally held in her lap.
“Look in there. The top folder,” she said. Sally obediently opened the case and removed a file folder.
“Look at the pictures, remember the names. Those are the members of the board.”
Sally studied each of a set of 8 x 10 photographs, her apprehension growing. “I’m not very good with strangers, ma’am,” she said. “I mean recognizing them from pictures.”
“Don’t worry. Just get familiar with them. Before the meeting starts people will be milling about. I want to you get close to them and listen. I want to know what they’re talking about.”
“I can manage that, ma’am,” Sally said, studying a peculiar stamp on the back of one of the pictures. She couldn’t make out the blurred ink, but thought it might be a photorapher’s mark. “Where did you get these, anyway? Did Knight send them?” Sally had learned a great deal about the business world, and she didn’t think a corporation would supply photographs of its board to someone plotting a takeover.
Emma glanced at the pictures, a sly smile curling the edges of her lips. “You must learn not to ask that sort of question, Sally,” she said.
As Emma had instructed, Sally circulated among the attendees before the meeting started. She was actually surprised when she overheard two of the men in the pictures mention her employer’s name. The sinister tone in their voices frightened her.
“This will be fun,” one said, rubbing his hands together in a way that made Sally cringe. She was glad she had her back to the men, who were on the other side of a decorative palm.
“Does she honestly think she can best us?”
“She has no idea what she’s up against. This will be over in no time, and the little woman will be out of our hair.”
“Well, if things had been going right before now she’d already be history.”
“This is just a formality. I’ve taken care of it. There will be no need for more drastic measures. Trust me.”
A third man joined them then, and their conversation turned to football. Sally edged away, trying not to look toward the men until she was back at Lady Emma’s side.
Emma listened to Sally’s report, nodding slightly to encourage the girl, who was clearly upset at what she’d heard. While she listened she scanned the room. She saw Bond come in, but as they’d agreed she didn’t acknowledge him. She recognized others in the room – members of her family who’d received shares from her father back when he founded the company, and other friendly shareholders. She had contacted all of them and was assured of their votes. The turnout was high, which was encouraging. Shareholders who would vote with the board usually simply sent in their proxy. It was the dissenters who came to the meeting.
She wasn’t surprised by the conversation Sally had overheard. The two men had bought most of the shares that Peter had sold out from under her. Her calm reaction seemed to help Sally.
“Shall I go back?” she asked.
“Leave them alone, but go try another group,” Emma instructed.
Harold Milk, the CEO, called the meeting to order. He was new to the company since Emma’s departure. He spoke briefly about the company’s recent growth and strong financial position. Emma stifled a snort at that. Knight had so much cash on the books it was ripe for takeover. The other corporate officers each spoke, offering glowing compliments to the management team. The shareholders grew restless. Finally the corporate secretary rose to report the shares. This was a formality, a statement that a quorum was present either in person or by proxy. With the board and Emma in the room there was no question, but she was anxious to hear how many unvoted shares were present.
The secretary reviewed the numbers and Emma was relieved to hear that the uncommitted shares present, when added to her block, were far more than enough to carry her motion.
The proceedings moved quickly after that. The secretary called for motions and she spoke before any board member could propose that the board’s suggestions be accepted.
“I move for a revised ballot,” she said, rising. A male voice in the audience seconded her. She nodded to Sally, who rose and carried a stack of paper to the secretary. There was a ripple of murmuring among the shareholders, but the board members looked unphased.
“There are enough there for everyone,” she added, nodding at the papers as Sally returned to her seat. She gave the girl a quick smile of thanks.
“Very well, then, the motion is seconded,” the secretary said. He gestured to two young women who came forward and took the copies of Emma’s motion.
“Perhaps you would care to present this yourself?” he asked Emma. She nodded agreement and stepped up to take his place at the lectern. As the papers were distributed, she reviewed her proposals. Bond had teased her about an acceptance speech when they had lunch, but he hadn’t been far off. She outlined her concerns for the company, described her solutions, and concluded by urging the shareholders to vote for her proposals and elect her to the board. She did not dwell upon the family connection, although she did mention it in the interests of full disclosure.
Concluding, she thanked the secretary and returned to her seat. The secretary called for discussion, and two shareholders asked for clarifications on some of Emma’s points about the company. She responded, rising but not retaking the lectern. Finally the secretary began the vote.
Unsurprisingly the board members voted against the motion, but once the roll call moved out to the shareholders the answers changed. Emma felt herself growing warm as the tension built. Bond voted his shares early, as the roll call was alphabetical. The secretary called out the number of shares each vote represented, and Emma’s mental calculations told her that the “yeas” were beating the “nays.” Then the secretary was calling members of the Knight family. First her uncle voted as promised. Then her aunt Elise, who held as many shares as the rest of the relatives combined, voted “nay.” Emma whipped around in her chair, but her aunt would not make eye contact with her. There was a murmur in the room, but the voting went on.
Emma settled back in her chair staring straight ahead. Her aunt’s block of shares was enough to throw the vote the other way. She had visited Elise before Christmas and phoned her several times, the last just three days ago. Elise had been entirely supportive of helping Emma regain control of her deceased brother’s company. Had she been lying all along? Emma was aware of Sally twisting in her chair to look toward aunt Elise. She touched the girl’s thigh and caught her eye, shaking her head. Sally settled back, her face crimson.
The roll call went on with more minor shareholders supporting her motion. She felt her head shaking as each vote was recorded. It wasn’t enough. Elise had betrayed her and there would not be enough shares left in the room to recover. Sally nudged her with her elbow and she realized her name – her married name – had been called.
“Yea,” she said softly. The secretary cocked his head and peered at her questioningly, pen held over his tally sheet. “Yea,” she repeated louder. He marked his sheet and moved on.
“John Steed,” he said, looking across the room. Emma frowned, thinking she’d misheard. The secretary read the number of shares and repeated Steed’s name. She straightened in her chair. Steed owned twice as many shares as her aunt. From the back of the room a wonderfully familiar voice sounded out:
Emma darted a sharp glance at Sally, who was starting to turn in her seat again. The girl’s face had erupted in a huge grin, and for the life of her Emma couldn’t stop herself from smiling back.
The secretary completed the roll call with two more “nay” votes for small share blocks. The room fell silent as the secretary checked the running totals that his assistants had been keeping during the voting. The board members to a man looked grim – they didn’t need to hear the official results. Nor did Emma.
The secretary rose, nodding at his assistants, and cleared his throat. He glanced at the board, then out at the shareholders, and announced: “The motion carries.”
A number of shareholders clapped, and two or three seated near Emma reached out to shake her hand. She accepted their congratulations graciously.
Harold Milk rose and stepped to the lectern. “Thank you, Mr. Williams,” he said, nodding at the secretary then looking at the shareholders. “It seems we have a change of direction to manage. The next board of directors meeting is February 18th. We will expect to see you there, Mrs. Peel,” he nodded curtly at her. She returned his gesture. He looked back around the room. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your – your participation today.”
The board members rose as a unit and filed out of the room through a door at the back. Emma rose and accepted more congratulations. She tried to see where her aunt went, but the shareholders standing and putting on coats blocked her view. She discretely nudged Sally toward the door, knowing that Steed had been near it when he voted. Bond was there, speaking to another shareholder. He saw them coming, disengaged from the conversation and stepped over to open the door for her and Sally.
“Where is he?” she asked quietly as she passed him. He followed her out, and she glanced at him. He was staring ahead, toward the lobby. She followed his gaze.
Steed was just pressing the “down” button with the tip of his brolly. He lowered it and turned to face them, tipping his bowler at Emma. When she got close enough to hear him he smiled and said, “act for the cameras, darling.” His eyes darted sideways and upwards, indicating a security camera mounted at the ceiling. She nodded and smiled cordially, then turned to face the lift door.
Several more shareholders joined them, most acknowledging her with a nod and smile. The doors opened with a ding, and they all stepped in. Emma glanced upward at the security camera, then at Steed. Their eyes locked. His twinkled, acknowledging her silent message. Standing beside Sally, Bond cleared his throat and both Emma and Steed glanced at him. He rocked on his feet and stared straight ahead, clearly stifling a laugh.
The lift reached the lobby of the Knight Industries building and they filed out. Emma headed across the lobby toward the big revolving doors to the street, Sally in tow. She pushed through the doors and walked purposefully down the three outside steps to the sidewalk.
“Ma’am, should we wait for –,” Sally asked, her pumps clacking on the hard pavement and she nearly trotted to keep up with Emma’s long strides. Emma’s sharp hand gesture cut her off.
“Steed was right – no contact is best,” she said, glancing around as she unlocked the door of the Lotus, which was parked in the street. Bond was descending the steps and turning to walk the other direction. She didn’t see Steed.
She opened the door and got in, then leaned over and unlocked Sally’s door. Straightening, she saw Steed pause on the sidewalk adjacent to the car. He checked his watch and looked around as if waiting for someone. She pulled down her window and put the key in the ignition.
“I can’t stay,” he said, looking across the street. “But I will call you.”
“See that you do,” she said to the dashboard. Sally stared past her at Steed.
“He’s leaving!” she said. “Aren’t you going to stop him?”
Emma started the car, then looked at Sally. “I never told him about this, Sally. I was stubborn and selfish and despite that, he came. I never asked him if he owned shares. But he came anyway. I don’t know how he knew, and I don’t know how far he traveled to get here. He said he can’t stay, and I’m sure that’s true. I’ve no right to ask for more.”
Sally had turned to face forward during Emma’s tirade. She was mortified – how could I question my boss about such a personal matter?
Emma fell silent, squeezing her eyes shut. He came. With more shares than my own family. I’m a fool.
“Isn’t that your aunt?” Sally asked. Emma’s eyes popped open and she looked where Sally was pointing. Her aunt Elise was walking with three board members down the steps toward a waiting limousine. They helped her into it, then two of them got in and the third closed the door. Emma eased the Lotus away from the curb, blinking tears out of her eyes. The limo pulled out and Emma followed.
The limo was a particularly easy target to follow through the city streets, but Sally didn’t realize just how experienced Emma was at such things. She kept up an excited commentary on the big car’s moves.
“It’s turned in, my lady, through that gate!” she finally cried as the limo disappeared through a gated porte cochere in a large row-house. Emma stopped the Lotus in the quiet street and looked up at the house.
“Write down the address, Sally,” she instructed the girl, who was gawking at the structure. Sally fumbled for a pen and scribbled the address on the front of a file folder in Emma’s open briefcase. “Got it? Good. We’re late.”
“For what, ma’am? Aren’t you going to go ring the bell? Maybe they kidnapped her,” Sally’s voice betrayed her excitement at being involved in this little bit of intrigue.
“I don’t think so. She didn’t look happy, but they didn’t force her into the car. I want to know whose house this is first. Then I’ll come calling.”
“I see,” she was clearly disappointed. “And what are we late for?”
Emma led Sally across the sparsely populated dining room toward the table where Bond was already seated. He rose when he saw them approaching, removing his napkin from his lap and placing it on the table.
“I’m sorry we’re late, James. Sally, this is Mr. Bond – I believe you’ve spoken to one another on the telephone.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Bond.”
“The pleasure is mine, Sally,” Bond held the girl’s hand for a moment longer than necessary, smiling warmly at her.
“James,” Emma said warningly. He smirked back at Emma as he held Sally’s chair. The waiter who had appeared by her side seated Emma.
“I hope we haven’t inconvenienced you,” Emma said to Bond.
Bond shrugged and lifted an empty martini glass from the table. “Not at all.”
The waiter reappeared with an ice bucket on a stand and a yellow-labeled champagne bottle. Emma smiled girlishly at Bond.
“This is an occasion for celebration,” he said. They watched the waiter pop the cork and pour each of them a glass. He seated the bottle in the ice with a cloth across the neck before withdrawing. Bond raised his glass and the ladies followed suit.
“To success,” he proposed.
“To the help of friends,” Emma countered.
Sally looked from one to the other, not sure if she was expected to be clever, or speak at all. “To Knight Industries’ future,” she said, blushing slightly. Emma smiled approvingly and they all sipped from their glasses.
Emma opened the menu, speaking as she scanned it, “do you know what you’re having, James? I’m famished. I’m not sure I’ve eaten much in the last few days.”
“No ma’am, you haven’t,” Sally said. Emma’s eyebrows shot up.
“I was thinking of having the pork loin,” James said before Emma could react openly to Sally’s indiscretion. Emma’s expression softened as she recognized his gesture. She did tend to keep the bar very high, and considering her background Sally did admirably well reaching it most of the time. She studied the menu for a moment longer.
“Sally,” she said, leaning toward the girl and speaking in a conspiratorial tone, “do not order the cheapest entrée. When someone invites you out, you should not belittle their gesture by trying to economize. Nor should you order the most expensive item.”
“I’d like the chicken, ma’am – if that would be appropriate?”
Emma looked at the menu, “perfect.”
Bond listened to their exchange, amusement showing on his face. The waiter returned and took their orders.
“Now, what caused your delay, if I may ask?” Bond asked when the waiter had gone.
“Sally noticed my aunt Elise being escorted to a car by three of the board members. We followed it,” Emma said.
“Of course you did,” Bond chuckled. “And?”
“They took her to a rather large, impressive place in Mayfair.”
“You have the address?”
“I left it in the car. I can go get it,” Sally started to rise.
“We’ll get it later,” Emma’s firm tone kept Sally in her chair. “James just wants to prove that he can get more information about it than I can,” she added, winking at Bond.
“Can he?” Sally asked, eyes widening as she looked from Emma to Bond.
“Probably not,” he lied.
“So,” Emma said, smoothing her napkin in her lap, “it was quite a surprise hearing Steed’s name.” She looked up at Bond, who raised one eyebrow. She shrugged.
“I had access to some information that I couldn’t tell you about,” he said. “I knew Steed had shares, so I left him a message a few days ago. I didn’t know if he’d be able to get here.”
“What sort of information, James?” Emma asked innocently.
“Ma’am, isn’t that the sort of question you’ve told me I shouldn’t ask?” Sally said, equally innocently. Bond laughed.
“Touche, Sally,” Emma said. “Mr. Bond has taken advantage of his professional connections, which is not, strictly speaking, legal. He’s had the good sense not to involve me in his actions.”
“And those pictures you have in –,” Sally started. Emma cut her off with a sharp glance.
“Research,” she said. Bond chuckled.
“But tell me, Emma, didn’t you know Steed was a Knight shareholder?” Bond asked.
“It’s never come up,” she replied. Bond frowned, his hand darting across the table to snatch her left hand. She frowned back at him, tugging, but unable to free her hand from his tight grip. He turned her hand palm down and looked at the ring on her third finger.
“Shouldn’t you and he be comparing portfolios?” he asked.
“We should be discussing business that is your concern,” she replied coolly. Bond released her hand and leaned back in his chair. She also leaned back, seething at him. He picked up his glass and raised it to her, then turned to Sally.
“Watch and learn, my dear,” he said, sipping his champagne, “your employer is the best.”
Emma stiffened, eyes narrowing at Bond. He smiled at her, a knowing smile that made her believe he was thinking the same thing she was – of WWEPD and her reputation at the ministry. And then it all seemed rather silly. She laughed, the tension dissipating
It was late afternoon by the time they’d finished lunch and coffee and Bond had insisted on paying the bill. Half way home, Emma realized that Sally had been strangely silent.
“Is anything wrong, Sally?” she asked. “Did Mr. Bond’s flirting bother you? He’s rather notorious.”
“No ma’am. He was quite pleasant to me.”
“Ummm. It always starts that way,” Emma smiled to herself.
They were both quiet for a few more miles, then Sally spoke.
“Actually, ma’am, it was what Mr. Bond said to you. About your ring.”
Emma became intensely aware of it pressing into her flesh against the steering wheel. She glanced at Sally, then back at the road.
“I don’t recall him saying anything about a ring,” she said.
“No ma’am,” Sally admitted her eyes dropping to her own hands in her lap. “but it’s an engagement ring, isn’t it?” she asked.
Emma forced herself to watch the road. She believed that an honest question deserved an honest answer.
“Yes, Sally, it is,” she said. And then she couldn’t stop herself from smiling. Sally noticed.
“Mr. Steed?” she asked hopefully. Emma glanced at her in surprise.
“Of course!” she said, then tried to imagine the situation from Sally’s point-of-view. She chuckled. “I guess you might wonder, the way things have been between us lately,” she added.
“Yes ma’am,” Sally said. “I mean, you’ve been angry with him, I could tell. But –.”
“The best of friends have arguments, Sally. And he is my best friend. But,” she skewered Sally with a piercing stare, then turned back to the road, “it is not official. My divorce from Sir Peter is not final, although it will be soon. And after that I’ll want to wait an appropriate period before making an announcement. I am committed to Steed, and he to me,” she wondered as she said it whether it was still true on his part, or he had doubts after her unthinking behavior, “but for now this ring represents a private agreement. And by private, I mean I do not want Anna or Evie, or the village, to hear about it. If they do, I shall have to dismiss you.”
“I understand, ma’am,” Sally said, swallowing hard. “But Evie, and Anna, are already discussing it. They noticed it – the ring, I mean,” she paused, trying to think of what more to say. “I could tell them that you said it was your father’s and you’re wearing it for luck.”
Emma smiled, admiring the girl’s quick thinking, even if it was a weak story. “It’s a woman’s ring,” she said, then seeing out of the corner of her eye that Sally’s face fell, she added, “But you could let it be known that I mentioned wearing my grandmother Knight’s ring, for luck.”
Sally’s face brightened, “I could do that, ma’am.”
“You know, Sally, I hired you because I needed someone to take all those calls from the press when Sir Peter was arrested. I never imagined that you would learn so fast and become so helpful to me. I suggested a while back that you might come work for Knight,” she paused and Sally nodded, “the offer still stands. I can’t tell you anything more until I get there and find out what sort of salaries they’re paying and so forth. But I promise I will offer you something. I hope you’ll accept. I know I’ll need you.”
“I’m flattered, ma’am. Of course I’ll accept.” Sally said.
Emma shook her head, “no, Sally, never accept such a vague offer. Never accept any professional arrangement until you get it in writing.”
“I see. Even from you, ma’am?”
“Even from me.”
The sky over the garden had turned brilliant pink and orange, then faded into darkness. Emma was curled in her favorite chair in the morning room. The familiar novel in her hands was like an old friend she’d turned to out of loneliness. She’d dropped Sally off at her home, then returned to the estate where Evie tried to force supper on her. She’d finally sent the woman away with reassurances that she’d had a big, long lunch. Still Evie had brought her a sandwich on a plate before retiring. She’d picked at it until it was dry and unappetizing.
She sighed, glancing for the hundredth time at the telephone on a table against the wall. He said he would call. But where was he off to? If he had to leave, he may not arrive at his destination for hours. He just may not have time. She replayed those moments at the lift in her head once again: the way he tipped his bowler to her, his genial smile, the way his eyes bored into hers for that brief moment. He’d called her darling. Not Mrs. Peel, not even Emma, which would have been startling in such a public setting. But darling. For many men it would have been insignificant. From him it was unprecedented. The memory of it made her shiver.
She finally forced herself to turn her eyes back to the book. For months now she’d been so focused on the meeting, she’d not given a thought to what she would do immediately afterwards. She might have planned a small party, invited her in-laws and a few neighbors, but then if she’d failed it would have been miserable. She’d realized as she picked at the dry sandwich that she’d anticipated spending this evening with Steed. The fact that he knew nothing of her plans had never entered her imaginings. Talk about taking him for granted, she mussed. Why doesn’t he call so I can apologize?
The telephone rang.
Emma dropped her book and swung her feet to the floor before the second ring. She crossed to the phone and picked up the receiver.
“Emma? It’s Amanda King,” a pleasant voice with a southern twang replied to her greeting.
“Amanda?” Emma frowned, then sat down in the straight backed chair next to the telephone table. “Amanda, how nice to hear from you.” It wasn’t Steed. But Amanda was a good second choice.
“Lee asked me to call. He’s on his way to pick up Steed at the airport. He said I should ask you if you’re coming – that you might not know.”
Emma froze. What’s wrong? What should I know about Steed? “Know what, Amanda?” she asked, carefully masking the panic she felt.
“He was right,” Amanda said, “He said Steed might not have told you.”
“Told me what, Amanda?” Emma was losing patience with her friend’s usually charming indirectness.
“You’re listed as Steed’s partner in this case. Steed and Lee are going back aboard the sub tonight, and I could really use your help as backup.”
“So that’s where he’s been,” Emma said, feeling mollified. It justified his complete lack of communication.
“Yes. I can’t say more. Can you fly to Washington? We can get transportation from here to meet them. And I can fill you in.”
Emma considered the situation. There was little she could do about Knight until the board meeting. Her lawyer was already filing papers to safeguard the company’s assets against inappropriate actions of the board until then. She needed to talk to Aunt Elise, but that wasn’t urgent. It was more important to her to talk to Steed, and if she had to go to him to do it sooner, why not?
“I’ll call the airlines and see what I can book. It will probably have to be in the morning, so I’ll get in mid-day your time. I’ll call you when I know my flight.”
“Wonderful. I’ll arrange this end.”
Emma was one of the first people off the plane by virtue of having flown first class. She didn’t usually treat herself, but it had been the only seat available and ultimately the ministry would reimburse her. If Mother objected, she would point out Steed’s error in not giving her fair notice. She’d ended up leaving a note for Sally and the staff and driving in to Steed’s flat just after midnight so that she could take a taxi to the airport in the morning. There was something comforting about climbing the spiral stairs to Steed’s bedroom, and she’d slept well before rising early to catch her plane.
Amanda spotted her and called out, and the two women greeted one another with a hug.
“I’m so sorry about having to cancel lunch in London,” Amanda said as she led the way through the airport’s maze of corridors. “It was this case, actually. But you probably know that.”
“No. I guessed after your call.”
“Steed really didn’t tell you anything about this?”
“I suspect he intended to,” Emma said, thinking back over their Christmas holiday. “But he was waiting until after Christmas.”
“But he didn’t?”
“Things went rather awry,” Emma said. “I’ll tell you about it later.”
“We’re going directly to the naval air station. We’re flying on a military transport to Guantanamo.”
“The American base on Cuba.”
“Right. Project command is there, and the Narwhal, that’s the submarine, will check in there the day after tomorrow. I have the case file for you to review. I hope you got some rest on the flight, because military planes are not exactly peaceful.”
Emma worked her way through the Elder 6 file during the flight to Cuba. She understood the technology being employed – it had been discussed in scientific publications for several years and she’d suspected that the US was pushing it. She had not known that English scientists had been developing the send/receive units. It was possible that Knight industries was involved, although she didn’t know. The added technology that provided submarine depth was fascinating, and she immersed herself in that part of the file.
The noisy, chilly military transport plane was charging into darkness when she raised her head to look around for Amanda. The other woman was in the middle of what looked like a trashy romance novel. She thought about trying to discuss the case, but the engines were so loud they’d have to shout. She closed the file and closed her eyes to think about what was ahead.
While Steed and Lee were on the sub crossing the Atlantic, Amanda had done another round of background checks on the crew. She’d discovered something that had been missed in previous checks. Two of the Narwhal’s crew had been assigned to another sub together. That sub had been engaged in testing a prototype of the slave device when it suffered an accident – an explosion, although they had not been able to determine its cause. The crew had been recovered, but the sub and its prototype had been lost. In reviewing the reports of the search and recovery efforts, Amanda had noticed that the commanders of two of the search boats had reported that the volume of debris was not consistent with the boat that had been lost. In other words, it didn’t seem like the sub had been destroyed. But budgets were tight and search conditions were difficult, and the project coordinators had called off the search – after all, no lives had been lost — and the prototype had been deactivated remotely.
It was a little unusual for two men from the lost sub to be assigned to the same new boat, but not impossible. One was a junior bridge officer, the other an engineer. Amanda had found no evidence that the men had requested the assignment, or that they even knew one another well. But there wouldn’t be any, would there? Emma thought. Not if it was arranged by someone clever. That’s a lead the Americans have to follow later.
It was evening Eastern Time when they arrived at the Guantanamo base. Their contact, Lieutenant Richards, was an energetic navy man of about thirty. He met them at the landing strip and drove them in a jeep to what he referred to as “officer country.” It took some time for Amanda and Emma to revive from the dulling effects of the transport plane’s droning engines, so they had accepted heavy trays of food and were seated before really noticing. The women picked at the frightfully carbohydrate-laden supper, listening to Richards’s stories of life as an American on the mysterious, embargoed island of Cuba. As he was finishing his second portion of macaroni and cheese – not so far away from home, I’d say, Emma thought – he abruptly changed the subject.
“So we’re putting you on that slick little cruiser tomorrow to follow the Narwhal,” he said. Emma glanced at Amanda, who didn’t look at all surprised.
“Yes,” she said, “it got here safely?”
“Better than safe, ma’am. That fellow who delivered it won’t let anyone near it.”
“Leatherneck,” Amanda said with a shrug and a smile. “He’s our gadget guy. He’s particularly protective of the Slip Stream.”
Emma elected not to ask. Amanda had mentioned being prepared for boating in the tropics, and she had complied when she packed. There simply hadn’t been time for the American agent to tell her more, and the plans for the investigation were not in the case files.
By the time Lt. Richards delivered them to the little bungalow where they would spend the night Emma had been traveling for what seemed like weeks. She knew that Amanda was desperate to discuss the case, and perhaps more desperate to hear about her and Steed’s situation. But she just couldn’t face it. She slipped into the bathroom to wash her face and brush her teeth, then climbed into one of the beds and feigned sleep before Amanda finished washing up.
“Ensign Mason is on duty tonight, so is his cabin mate. Rogers is off. You keep an eye on Rogers and I’ll search Mason’s quarters,” Steed spoke quietly to Lee as they sat together in the officer’s mess aboard the Narwhal.
“Why do I have to hang around the enlisted men while you get to do the searching?” Lee asked, taking another sip of horribly bitter coffee. He didn’t really object, but he was accustomed to being the senior agent. Steed was too, and didn’t hesitate to assume the role.
“Age before beauty, Stetson,” Steed said with a wink. Lee grimaced.
Steed found certain aspects of shipboard life rather convenient. The lack of locks on personal quarters was one of them. He slipped into Ensign Mason’s tiny cabin and clicked on the standard light switch mounted in the standard place by the door. He had taken the easier task, he reflected as he examined the contents of Mason’s desk. The two drawers revealed nothing unusual, and there were no documents taped to their undersides. He searched under the thin mattress and around it’s edges, but the bed held no secrets. He moved on to the locker, parting the hanging clothes and shifting the shoes. There was a small canvas duffle bag behind the shoes at the bottom of the locker. Could be a dopp kit. He extracted it. It was too heavy to be toiletries. He set the bag on the bunk and unzipped it. Two white canisters nestled side-by-side in the bag. A length of rubber tubing with a screw-on valve was coiled on top of them. Steed studied the labels on the canisters, recognizing a common anesthetic gas.
He really was the better choice to mingle with the enlisted crew, Lee realized as he leaned his tall frame through the hatch leading to the enlisted men’s mess. The aristocratic Englishman would never fit in among the young American sailors. A couple of the sailors glanced up at him, then one barked,
“’ten-hut!” and the whole mess rose to attention.
“At ease,” Lee said, stepping over the knee knocker and into the chamber. “I hear there’s a poker game in here,” he said.
“Yes sir,” a young sailor replied eagerly, “most nights after dinner.”
“Enlisted only?” Lee asked, pulling his thick wallet out of his back pocket. A couple of the sailors exchanged enthusiastic glances. Rogers, Lee’s target, eyed Lee’s wallet cagily.
“No sir. It’s an open game, if you don’t mind the company,” the first sailor said. Most of the others nodded agreement.
Emma woke very early and took the case file and a chair outside their quarters to watch the sunrise. The early morning temperature was warm and moist. A gentle breeze rustled the tops of the palm trees lining the gravel paths of the base housing area. The air smelt of the sea and wood smoke, and the susurrus of breaking waves somewhere nearby was punctuated by strangely disparate noises: a rooster crowing, a truck engine roaring to life, a claxon that could be a fire alarm, or just some sort of base morning wake-up call.
She reread parts of the case file, looking closely at Steed’s brief report after the Narwhal reached Norfolk. She could tell he’d been in a hurry, simply noting the success of the tests and the lack of any identifiable threats to the device. She’d read others of his reports, and they were usually well constructed, if not much longer. But he would have filed this report after hearing from Bond about the shareholder meeting. It showed that he’d wanted to get away.
“Good morning!” Amanda leaned out the door of the little bungalow. Emma had set her chair beside the path leading to their door. She closed the file and swiveled on the chair to look at Amanda.
“Hello. How did you sleep?”
“Very well, once my ears stopped buzzing from the engines. How about you?”
“Like a log. I felt as if I’d been traveling for two days straight.”
“You sort of had, hadn’t you?” Amanda laughed. “They said we could get breakfast in the officer’s mess. There’s a project Elder team meeting at oh nine hundred.”
Emma rose and picked up her chair, “I’ll get ready, then,” she said.
The Elder 6 project was jointly managed by the British Admiral Partridge, who Lee and Amanda had met at the holiday party, and an American civilian scientist, Dr. David Ambrose. Amanda introduced Emma to them and the other team members and the meeting began. They reviewed reports received from the Narwhal overnight. All was quiet on board, and Elder 6 was functioning well. That is, there were some continuing functional problems that the team scientists were still working on, but no new ones had emerged.
The sub would pass by Guantanamo and enter the Caribbean Sea without stopping. Once in the Caribbean’s shallower waters it would begin a modified search-grid pattern designed to test the accuracy of Elder 6 and the slave prototypes scattered over the globe. Amanda and Emma would follow the sub in the Slip Stream, keeping it on radar. They would appear to be very interested in deep-sea fishing – a little unusual for two women, but neither Emma nor Amanda was concerned about carrying it off should they be approached. If something went wrong – if the sub stopped reporting in or Elder 6 stopped transmitting its data back to Guantanamo – Emma and Amanda would have the sub’s position on radar. A faster naval vessel could be on scene very quickly to take over.
Admiral Partridge made it clear he would prefer to put a naval vessel on station with the sub, but he’d been overruled by the rest of the team and by both participating security agencies. Emma had wondered why Lee and Steed had not pulled the suspect sailors off the sub in Norfolk. Now she learned, without having to ask, that they’d agreed to keep their participation in the operation covert in hopes of capturing more than just the two sailors.
Now Emma understood why Amanda had appealed to her for assistance. They would have to take watches to keep the Slip Stream on station with the Narwhal twenty-four hours a day. Amanda could have recruited another American agent, but that would not have set well with the ministry, which was jointly committed to provide security.
The meeting ended as a junior officer entered the conference room with the transcript of the Narwhal’s most recent radio report. She was off the coast of Georgia executing a series of dives and surfaces retesting the depth functions. Just knowing the sub was out there safely doing its job with Steed and Lee aboard was comforting to Emma.
“Here comes another one!” Emma braced herself as she knelt on the settee at the navigation table. She was facing aft, a big pair of binoculars around her neck over a bulky orange lifejacket. At the helm, Amanda glanced back over her shoulder, then turned the wheel to adjust Slip Stream’s position relative to the enormous swell rolling toward them. The stern of the cruiser lifted and Amanda, also wearing a lifejacket, braced herself on the helm as the boat’s motion caused her to lean over it. Emma held onto a vertical support pole, her behind planted on the navigation table, as the 40-foot swell picked up the boat from behind, carried it forward on its crest, and rolled on by. A spare can of compressed air for the portable horn rolled forward across the bridge floor and banged against the bulkhead. Then Slip Stream’s bow pointed toward the sky as she slid backwards down the back of the swell into a wide trough. The air can rolled back. Twelve feet below them water splashed over the transom, briefly flooding the aft lower deck.
“If you increase your speed, you may be able to ride a swell,” Emma suggested, knowing that Amanda was doing her best and it was considerable.
“I’m nearly at maximum power,” Amanda said. “These swells are marching past us too fast.”
“If they get any closer together we’ll be overrun by one before we recover from the previous,” Emma said. “We’ll have to run laterally, no matter what direction the Narwhal is headed.”
Amanda glanced at the radar display mounted on the console in front of her. The Narwhal showed up as an oblong green glow each time the radar signal refreshed the screen. They were very close to the sub, which was running just below the surface as planned. If it dove, they would turn on the sonar set mounted next to the radar. But it wasn’t supposed to dive deep during this phase of the tests. The height of the swells was enough to weaken the sub’s radar signature considerably – as they rode uneasily to the crest of the next swell – the can of compressed air making its back and forth trip again — the blip that represented the sub, now more than fifty feet below them, dimmed. It strengthened as they slid back down closer to man’s ideal of “sea level” and nature’s idea of a trough between walls of water.
“They are getting closer together,” Emma said as the next swell picked up Slip Stream almost immediately. “And bigger.” She twisted around and pulled the chart out from under herself, studying Amanda’s neatly plotted course and the surrounding water and islands. Hard to believe they were in one of Earth’s most famous paradises – the Caribbean.
They had departed Guantanamo that morning after spending the night on the boat. Leatherneck, the American technician who’d designed most of the boat’s “enhancements” and delivered it to Cuba, had kept them up half the night learning about it. He was just the sort of technical misanthrope that Emma had always enjoyed encountering in her adventures with Steed – highly intelligent, single-minded about his work, and possessed of sense of humor so evolved only his immediate peers could understand it. She appreciated such people for their dedication to their ideals, and for their knowledge of interesting things. She’d taken one look at Slip Stream and recognized the underlying powerboat for a high-quality, powerful machine. She’d said as much, asking about horsepower, then estimating fuel consumption and following up with questions about fuel capacity and, therefore, range. Leatherneck’s mouth had split into a brilliant grin under his hawkish nose and wire-rimmed glasses. He’d happily escorted Emma aboard and launched into a detailed description of the boat, leaving Amanda, his old colleague, to climb aboard on her own.
Fortunately, Amanda had just laughed about it, telling Emma that befriending Leatherneck was a smart move, and impressing him as she had was darned near impossible. Emma sensed that Amanda was impressed too. It was one thing, Emma felt, to be knowledgeable about the facts of the case. But it was also important to have general knowledge. She’d suspected they’d be operating in the Caribbean, so she’d read a guide book and several magazines about the area on the flight from England. Her knowledge of engines was part of the enormous amount of general information she had collected in her remarkable memory for facts.
They were pushing through the channel south of Cuba between Haiti and Jamaica, where the trade winds, the islands, and the interaction of the massive bodies of water they separated (the Caribbean Sea to the south, the Atlantic Ocean to the north) caused very confused sea conditions. Things would be more settled once they were south of Jamaica, out in the Caribbean proper. They had to be. No place with seas like this would have earned the reputation as a paradise, even if the sun was bright and the sky was iridescent blue.
“You’re right,” Amanda said, having to speak rather loudly to be heard over the increasing wind. How could this not be a storm? How could these be normal conditions? “I’m going to bear off on the next crest and try to run along on top of it.”
Emma held the chart with one hand, the other dedicated to keeping her balance as the stern was lifted by the next swell. “You can run east or west for thirty, maybe forty miles – we’re right in the middle of the passage between the islands. If you can ride the swell, its forward motion should carry us south in addition to our sideways direction.”
“Right,” Amanda said through clenched jaw. She was completely focused on the task at hand, judging their position on the giant swell so she could turn when they were at its peak. She executed the move, gently turning the wheel clockwise to turn the boat west. Emma wondered why west as she felt the boat turn. Amanda was right handed. That was probably the only reason.
Amanda’s concentration couldn’t falter now. She was only vaguely aware of the sub’s radar blip now moving away from them at a nearly perpendicular angle. They could continue this way for quite a long way before the sub would get out of radar range. Hopefully, they could get out of these seas before losing the sub would become a problem.
The seesawing motion stopped as Slip Stream surfed along on top of the swell, held there by Amanda’s constant adjustments to the helm. Emma took the opportunity to slip off of the settee and locate the can of compressed air. She opened a drawer and dropped it unceremoniously inside.
“Thank you,” Amanda said without taking her eyes off of the sea outside.
“Don’t mention it.” Emma replied, using the binoculars to study the water ahead of them. Amanda had selected a good swell – one of the biggest. The boat’s wet decks glistened in the bright sunshine, and Emma was momentarily distracted by the sight of a seabird skimming the surface of the swell just ahead of them. Then she raised her binoculars. With the addition of their height above the water – about fifteen feet on the enclosed flying bridge – Emma could clearly see the swells marching toward them from the north. Enormous amounts of water were being funneled over the relative shallows between the two islands. Once they were south of Jamaica and Haiti things were sure to get better. Otherwise how were they to put out a fishing line?
Steed lay on his bunk wondering when the tiny gymnasium on the sub would be unoccupied so he could use it without company. He desperately needed to stretch and run, to work up a sweat. But he hated being seen doing it, partially out of pride, partially because it contradicted his slothful-gentleman image, and finally because his body displayed the scars of many dangerous missions that he’d rather not have to answer questions about. The last of which would not be such a problem if the blasted British Navy would issue proper exercise attire instead of skimpy shorts and frightful t-shirts.
The cabin door swung open and Lee ducked in, closing it behind himself.
“I’ve just seen the weather report, topside,” he said, swinging out the collapsible desk chair, lifting its back, and perching his tall frame on it. “It doesn’t look good up there. Swells are up to fifty feet and the wind’s hitting 35 knots, running contrary. I hope Amanda and Emma can handle Slip Stream in all that.”
“Amanda and Emma?” Steed rose up on one elbow to look down at Lee.
The American nodded, idly picking a pen up off the desk to avoid returning Steed’s gaze. “Amanda was going to call her.”
Steed flopped back on his bunk and scrubbed at his face, a wave of guilt and, remarkably, anger, washing over him. “I never told her about the case. Never told her she was needed.”
Lee frowned slightly at Steed’s strange turn of phrase. “I suspected that. I thought she might come back with you to Norfolk, but when we learned you were traveling alone I asked Amanda to call. If Emma wouldn’t, or couldn’t come, Amanda was to let the Admiral know. Your ministry would have sent someone else.”
“But it won’t look good for me,” Steed concluded, not even dwelling for an instant on Lee’s admission that his people had been tracking him and knew he was traveling alone. “Well, it’s a good capper for my recent behavior.
“Hey, I’ll bet she came,” Lee said with forced cheerfulness. “Amanda can talk anybody into doing anything.”
Steed had to smile at that. “Yes, your partner is a master of convivial conversation. But Mrs. Peel is the only person I’ve ever met who I can’t outwit. I’m afraid she’ll be your Amanda’s biggest challenge.”
“I think you underestimate their friendship,” Lee replied. Steed rolled his head to the side, his eyes just touching on Lee down in the chair. “Amanda says she feels close to Emma – they have a lot of circumstances in common.”
“Emma, I’m losing it,” Amanda cried as Slip Stream, caught by a strong gust of wind, twisted on the top of the swell and started to slide sideways down its back. Emma lunged for a handhold but missed and wound up sprawled on the deck against the starboard bulkhead. Amanda held onto a stainless steel handle on the side of the helm console with one hand, leaned her body against the wheel to hold it steady, and used her other hand to push the throttles all the way forward. The boat surged across the back of the swell, heeling sideways so much Amanda had to turn and brace her feet against the starboard bulkhead above where Emma lay.
She looked ahead at the sideways horizon, studiously ignoring the trough that was rushing up toward her. “What did Leatherneck say about these windows?” she asked.
“Bulletproof,” Emma said from below her. The Englishwoman had maneuvered her feet against the bulkhead and pushed away from it with her strong legs. As if to prove her right, the boat hit the trough broadside, the solid surface of the sea slamming against the window beside Amanda. It held, and for a moment she felt as if she was looking into an aquarium filled with turbulent aquamarine water. Then the navigation desk flew open spilling charts and pencils and protractors all over Amanda and Emma, and one of the drawers mounted in its base shot across the deck and shattered on the starboard bulkhead beneath Amanda’s feet. The can of compressed air landed between Emma’s feet.
Then next swell started to slide under Slip Stream’s hull and she swung back up to vertical. Amanda righted herself and spun the wheel to align the boat with the swells, backing off on the throttles a little to keep the engines from overheating. Emma struggled to her feet and picked up the can of air, which could be lethal if it went flying again. She stuffed a couple charts back into the navigation desk and slammed it shut, ignoring the loose pencils and other navigation tools now rolling around under foot.
Slip Stream’s stern rose on the next swell and Emma got a grip on the vertical support near the door before she was propelled forward. She waited as Amanda concentrated on turning the boat to run along the top of the enormous wave. Then they were there, back on top of the world in the paradox of howling wind and bright sunshine.
“Well, that was fun,” Emma said dryly, but Amanda didn’t, or couldn’t, respond. “Are you all right?”
“I’ve been better,” Amanda said, and Emma realized the other woman was breathing heavily and looked rather pale.
“Are you injured? Did something hit you?” Emma braved releasing her grip to step across the bridge and hold onto the console. She looked into Amanda’s face. The other woman’s eyes flicked to hers for a second, then returned to the sea ahead.
“No. Just terrified,” Amanda said, then managed a little smile.
“Oh, well if that’s all . . . Listen, you handled that very well. I have complete confidence in you.”
“Thank you,” Amanda said, her smile growing firmer and her breathing slowing. Even though she knew Emma was just trying to calm her down, it helped.
“I’d better go check below,” Emma said, waving the can of air. “Who knows what else got lose down there.”
“Don’t be long,” Amanda said, but her voice was calm, so Emma went.
She climbed down the ladder from the front of the flying bridge into the boat’s main salon, stopping when her foot crunched on something on the floor. The salon was a shambles, littered with food that had been left on the galley counters, books from the shelves above the settees, and cooking utensils from the drawers that had popped open. Emma ignored it all, instead employing a tactic Steed had taught her long ago. Stepping through the debris she noted that that cabin was dry, so the windows had held, and most of the drawers, as well as the refrigerator and freezer, had remained closed. It’s always best to look at the bright side, Steed would say.
She closed the drawers, then hurried forward to check the cabins there. All was dry, and she could hear the engines droning on seemingly unaffected by the pitching and rolling. She couldn’t possibly tidy up the mess just then, not when Amanda might need her, so she simply left it and climbed back up to the bridge.
“Here, see if it fits now,” Lee handed Steed the small mask that he had adjusted. Steed slipped it over his face and tried breathing. It felt right, for all that it was awfully small. Clever Americans. He nodded at Lee, then took it off and folded it into his trouser pocket.
“We’ll need to sleep in them,” Steed said. “If I were Mason, I’d use the gas during the third watch when most of the crew is sacked out.”
“Good precaution,” Lee agreed, drumming his fingers on the desk.
Steed visualized the sub’s tiny gymnasium again. There was just room for two men to use the cleverly designed exercise equipment. Two spys is better than me and an American sailor.
“How about a diversion, Stetson?” he suggested, reaching for his bag to find the navy issue shorts.
Slip Stream slid down the side of a swell twice more that afternoon. The first time the bridge was momentarily buried in the next swell, turquoise water swirling around them on all sides. Emma caught herself holding her breath, counting slowly as the boat, to which Leatherneck had added extra buoyancy, righted itself, shaking off the warm Caribbean water like a big white duck.
And then, after five hours during which the submarine had become a tiny blip at the very edge of their radar screen, they realized that the swells had gotten smaller and further apart. With a glance at Emma, Amanda turned the bow back toward the sub, and the two women waited to see if they could finally hold the course. They could.
“Emma, could you take this for a while?” Amanda asked, standing up beside the high seat where she’d been perched for hours. Emma immediately stepped to her side, studying the navigation display and then taking the wheel.
“I’ve got it,” she said, hoisting herself up on the seat. “But if you’re going below, be careful.”
Amanda stopped at the top of the ladder. “Why? Did we take on water?”
“No, but a few drawers opened.”
Emma urged herself to pass along Steed’s teaching to Amanda when she heard the other woman’s wail of dismay echo up the ladder.
Very quickly the seas flattened out and the wind settled to a comfortable fifteen knots. Emma checked the radar display to confirm that they were still moving in the same direction as the Narwhal, then switched on the autopilot. It would keep Slip Stream on the same compass heading. If the Narwhal changed course, she’d have to adjust the autopilot, but for the moment it would free her hands and attention.
She picked up and organized all the debris from the navigation table, then gathered up the pieces of the broken drawer and redistributed its contents to the remaining three drawers. She found a hand-bearing compass during her clean up, and realized that they needed to keep track of their position the traditional way, since they didn’t have an Elder 6 prototype on board.
She found a pencil, parallel rules, and a protractor in the table and smoothed the chart on top. Amanda had plotted their course earlier, up until the swells had made accurate plotting impossible. So there was a gap in their charted route and, technically, they didn’t know where they were. Emma slid open the door at the back of the bridge, which let out onto a small outside deck – no more than a ledge — and a ladder down to the large aft deck below.
She studied the islands behind them, looking for obvious geographical features, then stepped inside to compare what she saw to the chart. To the west the sun was diving toward the sea, and they were about to be engulfed in the short, tropical twilight. She quickly identified the highest peak on Jamaica, the tip of San Dominica, and another peak on San Dominica. She raised the compass to her eye and noted the bearing to each of these. On the chart she found each bearing on the printed compass rose and walked the parallel rules across to line up with the peaks and island tip. She drew three lines from these features southward along the bearings. The lines met in a triangle. The boat was somewhere inside it. But Emma wasn’t satisfied with this traditional position fix. The triangle was long and narrow, enclosing several square miles of water, because all three of her points were behind the boat. There were no landmarks ahead of the boat to site on.
Emma opened a case mounted on the bulkhead below the table. She took out an elaborate instrument constructed of arcs, mirrors, and knobs. A sextant – Leatherneck had pointed it out yesterday. The last time she’d used one was when she was fifteen sailing with her father. He’d taught her to do the navigation, ostensibly because he hated it. Many years had passed and he was dead and she was running his company before she realized his real motivation during those summers. Through them he’d gifted her with a sense of independence and direction, and she’d developed her love of mathematics and numbers. From the charts and instruments on their modest little boat she’d learned how seemingly dry calculations and equations could represent the real world. It fascinated her. Unlike most students, throughout her education when presented with new concepts she had never said “I’ll never use this.” And because of her association with Steed she’d been proven correct.
Nevertheless, she hadn’t used a sextant since she was a teenager, and it was somewhat more complex than a compass. She stepped to the doorway and scanned the sky behind them. The light was fading fast. She had to find an appropriate star or planet before it got dark and the horizon was invisible. She looked east, where the sky was darkest, and smiled widely. Venus.
She raised the sextant and experimented with its settings. Most such instruments had to be adjusted for use. This one seemed to be ready to go – Leatherneck must have adjusted it yesterday. She had to act quickly. She aimed the sextant and used the control knobs to lower the reflected image of the planet to the horizon line. Then she glanced at the chronometer on the console and back at the instrument. She jotted down the time and the degree of arc. Resetting the sextant she repeated the procedure twice more. Each reading was slightly different, accounting for the boat’s motion and the seconds that passed between readings. It worked better if one person took the bearings and another marked the time, but already the sky was too dark to try again. The horizon was gone. She set the sextant on the table and started opening drawers. She located the nautical almanac and sight reduction tables needed to convert her readings to chartable data, and sat down to do the calculations.
A few minutes later she used the parallel rules to draw two lines on the chart based on the latitude and longitude markings along its edge. Her two lines intersected near the northeast corner of the triangle she’d plotted previously. Now she was satisfied. Rising from the navigation table she glanced up and saw Amanda standing at the top of the ladder holding a plate and a bottle of beer.
“You were so engrossed,” the American said, walking over and setting the food on the edge of the table beside the chart, “I didn’t want to disturb you. What were you doing?”
“I plotted our position with the islands –,” she looked out the back door into the darkness, “well, you could see them a few minutes ago. But I wasn’t satisfied. I took a star sight – or rather, a planet sight. On Venus,” she pointed out the window at the bright planet.
Amanda studied the chart. “Wow. I took a crash course in plotting while the sub was crossing the Atlantic. I didn’t get this far.” She carefully picked up the sextant and looked through the eyepiece.
“My father taught me,” Emma said, shrugging it off.
Amanda set the delicate instrument back on the table, unable to make heads or tales of its use. She’d been proud of mastering the basic plotting techniques so quickly. It stung to be so casually out done. She doesn’t do it on purpose, she reminded herself. It’s just who she is.
“That’s for you,” she gestured at the sandwich and beer. “I’ve cleaned up down there, but I need a break.” Amanda picked the sextant back up and nestled it into its padded case. Weems and Plath, she read the brand name on the outside as she closed it. Where have I heard those names before?
“I call,” Lee said, tossing another five dollars into the pot and putting his cards face down on the table. Seaman Rogers practically leered across at him, turning over his hand and leaning back, hands behind his head. He had a full house, Jacks over nines.
Lee tipped his head to the side with an admiring sigh. “Good hand, seaman,” he said as Rogers started to lean back toward the table and the pot. “But,” Lee turned over his own hand. Four tens.
“Dammit!” Rogers sprang to his feet slamming his hands on the table. He glared at Lee, mouth open as if to say more. Lee calmly gathered the cash from the middle of the table without looking at the other man. Rogers snapped his mouth shut and breathed in a long breath through his nose, then swung around and stalked out of the crew mess.
“There he goes again,” one of the other sailors said when Rogers’ footsteps had receded down the passage.
“Good thing you were here, Commander,” Seaman Horton said, “he usually gets really unpleasant when he loses, but he wouldn’t do it in front of an officer.”
Lee tucked the money in his shirt pocket and looked around at the crewmen with his best “one of the boys” grins. “I’m glad to be of assistance,” he said, standing up. He patted the pocket full of money, “very glad. Does Rogers lose a lot?”
Two of the sailors laughed. “He’s been playing on loans for the last two weeks,” Horton said. “I figured he’d get some cash in Norfolk, but maybe the well’s run dry.”
“Too bad,” Lee said, stepping toward the door. “He’s not that good at poker.”
Lee’s senses were on alert as he strolled along the passage. He’d seen the anger and hatred in Rogers’ face – the emotions were so near the surface they could easily push him to drastic action. Lee would be happy to let him take himself out of the Elder 6 equation by assaulting an officer and winding up in the brig.
Just as Lee passed a closed compartment door it slammed open catching his right shoulder and throwing him against the far bulkhead. Seaman Rogers reached toward Lee’s shirt pocket, his face crimson with rage.
“What is the meaning of this, crewman?” Lee demanded loudly, grabbing his right shoulder with his left hand and, by coincidence, covering his pocket with his arm.
“Give me my money back!” Rogers hissed, his hand hovering over Lee’s bicep, military discipline instilled by years of service preventing him from touching an officer despite his rage.
“Rogers!” a voice shouted from further along the passage. Rogers’ head snapped around to look toward the speaker. Lee rubbed at his sore shoulder. He was not at all surprised to see Ensign Mason striding toward them. The ensign’s large, unfit form nearly filled the passage, and he sucked in an extra gasp of air every few steps. Rogers dropped his hand to his side and came to attention.
“Rogers you’re late for your shift. Sergeant Copeland reported you. Commander Stetson, may I see to this man?” Mason asked. Lee was well aware that Rogers was not late for a duty shift. He stepped aside, allowing Rogers to step through the door and walk away with Mason.
“You think they’re on to us?” Steed asked, his breath still even after twenty minutes at a quick jog on the treadmill. Lee had related his experience while doing several reps on the bench press and various leg machines. He stopped to wipe the sweat from his face and gulp some water. Steed picked up his pace to a sprint.
Lee rotated his right shoulder a few more times, noticing that it was stiffening up. The door had hit him pretty hard.
“I’m not sure. It could have been a coincidence. Mason probably knows that Rogers is a sore loser, needs to be bailed out of that game before his temper gets him into trouble.”
Lee stepped under a bar and reached up to grab it, pulling himself up. He had to admit that Steed’s “diversion” was a good idea. It gave them time to talk in a place Mason would never find them, and the exercise was exactly what he needed to stay primed for the case.
“In any case Rogers is definitely in financial trouble.”
“Susceptible to — an outside offer?” Steed suggested. Lee was gratified that the man was finally panting.
“No doubt about that,” Lee grunted as he pulled himself up again.
Emma stayed on watch until midnight. At 2300 the encrypted single sideband radio crackled to life with a report from project command. The communications officer at Guantanamo relayed to Emma that the Narwhal was beginning its grid pattern. That meant that the Slip Stream could hold a position at the middle of the grid and monitor the Narwhal’s movements back and forth around it. The sub would travel across the boat’s radar range on each leg of its pattern. If it strayed to far and went off the radar Slip Stream would have to chase it, but they’d know what direction to go, and they could go fast enough to catch up – Slip Stream’s top speed was slightly faster than that of the submarine.
Emma related this to Amanda when she relieved her. Then Emma descended to the forward cabin and stretched out for a few hours of sleep. Just before dawn she got up and prepared a hot breakfast, which she delivered to her shipmate on the bridge. They watched the sun shimmering up out of the sea illuminating great towers of benign looking clouds scattered across the sky. Amanda turned down the hot coffee Emma had brewed, but dug into a plate of eggs and bacon before leaving the boat in her friend’s hands. The Narwhal had performed as predicted, cruising back and forth and, presumably, checking Elder 6’s readings all along the way. Project command checked in at 0700 to report that all was well. Emma sat at the helm, feet propped on the console, reading the latest book by the hottest management theorist until Amanda reappeared at noon. By then she was fairly disgusted with the man’s philosophy of change management and eagerly snapped the book shut.
“Did you notice,” she said as Amanda took her place and glanced at the navigational display, “Ensign Mason’s career? In the file?” She had spent some more time reading that before retrieving her book from below at 0300.
“Officer’s training school, submarine school, and service on three subs?” Amanda said, not sure what Emma was asking.
“Right. He’s been in for more than six years and he’s still an Ensign. I believe that’s poor progress, isn’t it?” Emma sat down at the navigation table and pulled the case file back out.
“His service record isn’t great,” Amanda replied. “Some discipline problems, not the best physicals either.”
“Yes, I noticed. Suggests he’s unhappy, don’t you think? Shouldn’t regular screenings have noticed and yanked him from a boat participating in this project?”
Amanda nodded. “Yes. I reached the same conclusion. I wanted to have both suspect crewmen pulled back in Norfolk, but I was overruled. Lee wants to go higher. Someone got those men both on the Narwhal.”
“Someone who didn’t also clean up Mason’s record to reduce suspicion. Not very thorough.”
“I know. Its bothering me, too.”
Emma paged through the file, stopping at Lee Stetson’s dossier. Codename Scarecrow – how quaint – unmarried – hah! – excellent marksman, extensive experience in soviet countries, highly intelligent, ruthless – that goes without saying for a field agent who stays alive more than a few years. She turned the page to Amanda. Intuitive, resourceful – they left out talkative, Emma smiled and turned the page. Steed stared up at her from under his grey bowler. She gently touched his lips with her index finger.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Amanda asked, watching her friend’s face for a sign of distress. Emma leaned back on the settee, then brushed her hair into place with both hands.
Where to begin?
“I’ve been working on something since leaving Peter that I never told Steed about. He found out just before boarding the Narwhal in England, and he was justifiably angry with me.”
“So he left without telling you about the case.”
“He left without saying goodbye,” Emma said softly, allowing herself to feel just a little of the guilt and grief she’d locked away since the board meeting. No, since he’d slammed the front door at the estate.
“What could be so bad that he’d get that angry?” Amanda asked, glancing at the boat’s navigational displays, then turning back to Emma.
Emma sighed and looked down at the picture of Steed. He looked up at her from the table, his bowler at a perfect rakish angle, his eyes twinkling, the tiniest curl of smile at the corners of his mouth. His pleasant visage lent no credence to the words and phrases that popped out at her from his dossier: licensed to kill, deadly, brilliant investigator. Missing were sensitive, gentle, spectacular lover. She smiled a private smile and turned to the next page to make him stop staring at her.
She looked up at Amanda, who was waiting patiently.
“My ex-husband maneuvered me out of control of my father’s business, back before he was lost in the Amazon. At the time, I felt betrayed by him, but since he was thought dead I made my peace with it and moved on. I still owned the largest block of shares, just not a majority. I was off the board, but by no means in financial difficulties. So I took it as a sign to redirect my life. And I did, I redirected it right to the ministry, and Steed.”
Amanda smiled understanding. Her own story was not all that different, in a way.
“And then Peter came back,” Emma went on, “And I felt it was my duty to make our marriage work. I suppose time had softened the impact of what he’d done. I suppose he planned it that way,” she smiled, but not happily, “because I would have killed him, or at least left him, if he hadn’t crashed. But, as you know, returning to my marriage didn’t work. I don’t know when he sold out – I like to think he was an honest man when I married him, that I’m a decent judge of character. In any case, when I decided to leave him, I also decided that the only way to end my connection to him was by regaining what he’d taken from me.”
“Your father’s company.”
“Knight Industries,” Emma nodded. “So I started collecting shares, and shareholders. My relatives have some, and I knew of others who would ally themselves to me. Then I called upon an associate of Steed’s who I knew had the financial resources to buy shares. It turned out he already owned some, and he bought more. He also introduced me to his broker, who advised other of his clients to support me.”
“But you didn’t tell Steed?”
Amanda glanced at the navigation display again, then slipped off the helm seat and stepped across the bridge to sit next to Emma at the navigation table.
“Why not?” she asked.
“I needed to do it myself.”
“You asked others for help, but not Steed.”
“Before Peter signed the divorce papers, I needed to keep my relationship with Steed very discrete. Peter had me followed. I didn’t want him to accuse Steed of helping me get revenge.”
Amanda nodded, thinking that was a pretty thin reason. “And after your husband signed the papers?”
“That was the day of the ministry holiday party – when you were in London. After that Steed and I — ,” she paused, not quite ready to mention Steed’s proposal, “ – we went away for Christmas. We were with his family, and we just didn’t discuss business.” This wasn’t strictly true. She’d discussed business quite a bit with Harry Hall, Steed’s brother-in-law. Although she hadn’t told him of her plans, either. “When we got back to the estate, Steed saw a letter on my desk from his associate, mentioning his broker and Knight Industries. He left.”
“Just like that?”
“Yes. I thought he had the wrong idea. I thought he thought that James and I . . .”
“You thought he was jealous?”
Emma sighed. “Yes. It seemed like an obvious reaction, knowing James.”
“And it didn’t occur to you that Steed would be upset that you didn’t talk to him about your business plans?”
“Honestly, no,” Emma looked appealingly at Amanda. “I was completely wrapped up in it, professionally. And completely wrapped up in Steed, emotionally. It just didn’t occur to me to cross the two, I’d been keeping them so separate.”
Amanda reached out to Emma’s hands, which were folded on top of the open case file on the table. Emma resisted the urge to pull away, although she wished she could, to conceal the ring that Emma would certainly notice.
“It’s something I’m good at, building walls. Steed is too,” she went on, hoping to distract Amanda.
Amanda folded her hands around her friends’. “All agents are,” she said. “Or we couldn’t do the job. It’s the hardest thing I had to learn. Harder than using a gun.”
Her reassurance comforted Emma. I’m not an emotional freak, Emma thought. Or maybe we all are.
Amanda squeezed her hands and smiled conspiratorially. “So will you tell me about his proposal?” she asked.
Emma’s head snapped up, staring into Amanda’s amused eyes.
“He told Lee. Lee told me,” Amanda explained, untangling their hands to look at the ring on Emma’s finger. “It’s really beautiful,” she said.
“It was my grandmother’s.”
Amanda touched the sparkling, pure diamond and bright green emeralds. “It must be very valuable,” she said, not inquiring, simply admiring.
“It means the world to me,” Emma said, ducking her head to regain control of her expression.
When she looked back up Amanda was nodding. “I know what you mean,” she whispered, then stood up and went back to the helm to check the radar display. She sat down and spun the high seat around to face Emma. “So how did he do it?”
Emma looked at the ring. Her instinct was to demur, to avoid describing the private moment to her friend. But another part of her, the lonely woman who craved simple, friendly companionship, wanted to share those special moments with someone who was interested.
“I don’t have any friends – any other friends – who’d ask me that,” she said, fully realizing it as she said it.
“No. I’m not surprised,” Amanda said. Her tone was matter-of-fact, even gentle, for words whose meaning was rather cruel. Emma stared at her, her hands clasped tightly on top of her dossier on the table.
Amanda looked out at the green sea, then at the green blip of the submarine running it’s precision test patterns. She looked across at Emma and smiled kindly.
“You’re beautiful, wealthy, and intimidating. And you’re comfortable with who you are. Read that file – it says it all. You’re not the sort of woman who other women see as a friend.” Her tone was neither critical nor apologetic. If anything, it was warm and friendly. Emma looked at her dossier. Lethal. Brilliant. Superior emotional control. Under weaknesses, it simply said Strong attachment to J. Steed. She considered Amanda’s descriptors and smiled. None of it bothered her. She found being intimidating very useful and felt various levels of contempt for those who thought it was a character flaw. She allowed herself a little smile and looked up at Amanda. Amanda smiled back.
“What about you?” Emma asked.
“Me? I’m neither wealthy nor intimidating –.”
“And not intimidated, either,” Emma cut her off, relaxing back into the corner of the settee and laying her arm along the back. “Where did I go wrong?”
Amanda chuckled. Watching Emma relax she felt her own sense of control – making others comfortable enough to speak freely was what she was good at. She was still amazed to have found a profession where it was recognized as a valuable skill.
“When we met you were introduced as an ally and an equal,” she said, thinking back on the first evening they’d spent together. “There was not a chance you were going to steal Lee from me,” she smiled at Emma’s grin and nod of acknowledgement, “You were furious, but you were controlled and mannered and witty. And Steed, the pride of British Intelligence, was completely in your thrall. I was fascinated. I wanted to know how you did it!”
“Steed was in my thrall?” Emma raised her eyebrows, considering her own memories of the evening.
“Oh please!” Amanda groaned, “First of all, you two exuded sexual tension. The way you moved across the room when you came into the pub, like you wanted to walk as close together as possible without actually touching. After you joined us, you were – pardon my language – a bitch to Steed. But he seemed to just absorb your anger. It was almost as if he fed on it. I realized later that he was so glad to have you near him he would take anything you dished out, so long as you stayed. If that’s not being in your thrall, I don’t know what is.”
Emma sat quietly, remembering how angry she’d been at Steed for not telling her that he was there on a case. The irony smarted. She ran her hands through her hair and looked back up at Amanda.
“I also saw a kindred spirit,” Amanda went on unbidden. “you were – are — in love with a spy. You’ll risk everything for him. I understand that.” She glanced down at the radar display. “I’ve done that,” she added quietly.
Emma waited, but Amanda didn’t go on. She continued to stare blankly at the radar display with the little green blip of the sub advancing across it. Then, abruptly, Amanda returned from wherever she’d just been and turned the helm seat to face Emma. “So,” she said, folding her hands in her lap. “How did Steed propose?”
Lee woke with a start. Something was different. He touched his face, started to remove the confining gas mask, and stopped. The sub was still moving, but the motion, or the sound – something! — had changed. Leaving his mask in place, he swung his legs off his bunk and stood up, reaching for the light switch. The harsh fluorescent lights flickered on, revealing a thin haze in the air.
“Steed!” Lee reached up and shook Steed’s shoulder. The other man came awake instantly, reflexively reaching for his mask then jerking his hand back as he looked down at Lee. He immediately swung his legs over the side of the bunk and hopped to the floor, landing just as the sub rocked side to side.
“We’re changing course,” Lee observed, his voice muffled by the mask.
“Let’s go see where we’re going,” Steed suggested, also muffled.
They switched off the lights and opened the door. All was quiet in the narrow cross passage outside that lead to the main passage. They crept to the corner, and Steed headed forward toward the bridge while Lee turned aft toward the engine room.
Steed moved quickly along the passage, seeing no one, but not expecting to two hours into the lightly staffed night watch. He slowed to a quiet creep as he approached the hatch leading to the bridge. It stood ajar, which was strictly against regulations but very convenient for him. He peeked around the edge of the heavy metal door.
Ensign Mason maneuvered his bulk from the periscope to the navigation station, stepping over the body of a fallen bridge officer as he went. He made a small adjustment to the steering controls then returned to the periscope. Two other bridge officers lay on the floor, one at the foot of the navigation station in a position that suggested he’d been shoved off the chair. Mason had a gas mask hanging around his neck, but he was not wearing it. So Steed removed his, then poked his head further into the chamber while Mason’s back was turned. There was the Elder 6, installed where it belonged, its display completely dark.
Lee trotted along the main passage, confident that he was not going to meet anyone until he reached the engine room. He was not entirely right. He encountered two sailors in the passage, both passed out.
He slipped into the engine room under the cover of their pounding noise and worked his way back between the first pair of huge machines. He stepped over a mechanic lying prone with a wrench in his hand and made his way between the second pair of engines.
“YOU!” Rogers propelled himself off a catwalk spanning across the tops of the second engines, aiming his feet at Lee’s head. Had he not shouted in his rage he would have knocked Lee out with that initial blow. But Lee used the split-second of warning to fall backward, taking Roger’s feet in his chest. Both men fell, Lee on his back, his gas mask knocked away. He was badly winded, with Rogers on top of him. But Rogers scrambled to his feet almost instantly to straddle Lee’s chest. He bent and grabbed Lee by the shirtfront with his left hand, hauling him upward while swinging his right fist at Lee’s jaw. Lee saw the blow coming and let his head roll with it, but it dazed him anyway. Rogers’ second blow was a backhand that Lee didn’t expect. His neck snapped back around painfully. Rogers dropped him to the deck and his head struck hard. His vision blurred and his chest erupted in a series of coughs.
He felt his arms being pulled above his head, felt the ridged deck plates passing under his back as Rogers dragged him. He tried to dig in his heels and to roll from side to side.
“Damn you!” Roger’ voice sounded far away, absorbed by the throbbing engines. The dragging stopped and Rogers’ red face loomed in triplicate. Lee was so alarmed by the multiple, angry seaman above him he never saw the man’s fist before it slammed into the side of his head, knocking him the rest of the way out.
Steed slipped back into their quarters and closed the door. He reached to the back of the upper shelf in his locker and removed an orange plastic cylindrical object with a black rubber covered antenna sticking out of one end. He rotated a fitting at the other end of the tube and a small light on its side began to blink. He replaced it in the locker with a satisfied smile, then slipped back out of the cabin.
Breathe. It hurts to breathe. Lee took a slower breath, letting the air trickle into his aching lungs. He couldn’t tell whether a rib was broken or not. He could tell that his head was going to hurt for a while. The engines still throbbed but above that he could hear Rogers yelling at someone.
“The fucker stole my money. He cheats, I know it! He can’t have had four tens someone else had a ten. I remember. He didn’t think I noticed, but I did. I was watching He cheats. The fucker cheats and I’m going to get my money back.”
Lee blinked several times, urging his vision to clear. Rogers was there, standing between the engines with someone. No. He was alone. Lee blinked some more, felt tears gather and moisten his eyes. Rogers was talking on the ship’s telephone. Ranting madly into it. Mason must be on the other end.
Mason slammed down the ship’s telephone, checked the navigation display, and then waddled toward the bridge hatchway, watching his feet as he walked. Steed dodged into a side compartment and waited, holding his breath until the ensign passed by. Then he stepped onto the bridge and bent to look through the periscope. Darkness. He glanced at the compass and saw that they were heading north-north-east. Looking around the bridge he spotted the ladder up into the conning tower – the sail, the Americans called it. He took the rungs two at a time, bracing himself at the top to rotate the wheel on the airlock. The first hatch opened and he stepped up another rung and opened the second one.
Refreshing sea air rushed around him. It was a spectacularly beautiful Caribbean night. Towering clouds sped on a high wind across a blue velvet sky sprinkled with diamonds. The sea undulated in all directions, flicks of white here and there caught out brilliantly by the moon. And as his eyes adjusted to the strange night light, he began to see the islands – most far away, but one looming ahead, vast and lightless, a light line of beach and breakers marking the edge of land and sea.
Steed looked around at the other more distant islands bearing pinpricks of light. Finally he turned to look back along the submarine’s wake. In the far distance a white dot hurtled along the surface, turning as he watched to come directly at him. Slip Stream? Emma?
He stared at the tiny white spot for a long time – so long that it became hard to see it, he had to look away from it to make it out in his peripheral vision. At last he stepped back down onto the ladder. Half way down voices reached him.
“No. Rogers, we can’t kill him. I don’t care,” Mason was saying.
“The bastard cheated, I want my money back,” Rogers replied.
“No fatalities, Rogers.”
“WHO CARES! That was only going to work if they were all unconscious. That bastard isn’t. Or wasn’t before I hit him. Now he’s seen us.”
“Rogers, get a hold of yourself,” Mason’s voice rose for the first time. “When they all wake up and we’re gone they’ll know it was us. But we’ll be far away by the time they figure it out. It doesn’t matter.”
“The bastard –.”
“No. Get back to the engine room. We’re getting close.”
Receding footsteps echoing on the metal decking indicated that Rogers had gone – the steps were too quick and light to have been Mason’s. Steed inched further down the ladder, prepared to disable the big man if necessary. But Mason was back at the navigation station, his back to the ladder. Feeling that it was best to have someone piloting the sub, even if he was a possibly mad criminal, Steed quietly exited the bridge and made his way quickly aft.
Amanda yawned and slipped off the helm seat to pace around the bridge. The midnight to four a.m. shift was the hardest. She thought about making another mug of coffee, but discarded the idea. She’d already had three. She paced back toward the helm in the small space, glancing at the radar, then looking at it directly. The green blip that represented the Narwhal had changed course off schedule. Amanda climbed onto the seat and disengaged the autopilot. She turned Slip Stream to follow the sub, pressing the throttles to near max to close some of the distance between them. The Narwhal had been near the edge of the radar’s range when it turned, so Slip Stream had a lot of water to cover to catch up.
She was in the process of plotting the course change on the chart when the radio crackled to life.
“Slip Stream, control. Come in.”
“Slip Stream here, over,” she answered the hail.
“Slip Stream, device network is down. Repeat, network is down. We’re receiving a back-up tracking ping from the vessel, over.”
“Acknowledged. We are in pursuit,” Amanda reached out to another device mounted beside the radar and flicked a switch on its bottom. The small screen on the device came to life, a light blue line darted across it, spiking slightly at the middle of the screen to the accompaniment of a faint ping. “I have activated our tracking receiver. I’ve got the ping. Over.”
“Report every fifteen minutes, Slip Stream. Over.”
“Acknowledged. Slip Stream standing by.”
Whatever was happening on the Narwhal, either Lee or Steed had been able to activate the backup transmitter. Knowing that they were out there, and might need help, was enough to keep Amanda alert as Slip Stream sped across the sea.
Emma gradually became aware of the change in Slip Stream’s movement, and at some point it jarred her into wakefulness. They were moving fast. They must be chasing Narwhal. She slid off of her berth and opened her bag. She pulled off the jersey and shorts she’d fallen asleep in and pulled out a different sort of garment. Time to go to work.
Amanda’s focus on the submarine’s radar blip was broken as Emma appeared at the top of the ladder. She stepped onto the bridge deck wearing a turquoise blue cat suit with dark blue piping down the zippered front and around the hips. Her arms were bare, but her feet were clad in short dark blue rubber soled boots that were loose enough to cover a small gun in a holster at her ankle. She had a rifle – one of several weapons secreted all over the boat – slung over her shoulder.
Amanda stared at her for a moment, then realized her mouth was open and closed it.
“What’s our status?” Emma asked, ignoring her friend’s reaction to what, for her, seemed like normal preparations. She stepped behind Amanda to look at the radar display.
“They changed course about thirty minutes ago, heading north-north-east. One of them – Lee or Steed – turned on the tracking device. Someone has turned off Elder 6,” Amanda explained.
“So we need to stay with them,” Emma added thoughtfully. Amanda had closed half the distance between them and the sub, but they were still several miles behind it. “Do you need a break?”
Amanda sat back in the seat and let out a tense breath. Emma put her hands on her shoulders and massaged them, feeling the tension in them. “We’re not to get involved, if there’s a fight,” Amanda said. “We’re to stand off and wait for the all clear signal.”
“It will be fine, Amanda. Why don’t you go below and get a little rest, if you can. I’m going to need you to drive this boat when we get there.”
Amanda turned the seat, facing Emma. “I really don’t like guns,” she said, her eyes focused on the barrel of the rifle poking behind Emma’s shoulder.
Emma slung the rifle off her shoulder and stepped to the navigation table, laying it on the settee. “They’re just tools, Amanda. If the other guys are using them, I prefer to have them available too.”
“This is always the scary part,” Amanda said, slipping off the seat. “knowing there’s something happening. Knowing he’s facing danger. Having to wait, maybe not being able to help.”
Emma nodded, catching her lower lip between her teeth and studying Amanda’s drawn features. She reached up and put her hands back on the other woman’s shoulders, hoping to impart some of her own confidence. But she knew that her courage was born of physical strength and skill that Amanda did not also possess. Amanda had a different sort of partnership with Lee than hers with Steed. Lee handled the rough stuff, with Amanda stepping in only when necessary. Amanda had neither the temperament nor the training to be an equal partner in a fight, and she knew it. But Emma knew that Lee depended on Amanda by taking advantage of her strengths. Emma had seen Amanda handle Slip Stream through life-threatening conditions. Clearly, maneuvering the boat was one of Amanda’s strengths.
“Orders or not, I will not stand off and watch Steed – or Lee – caught in a firefight,” Emma said. “You will drive this powerful, bullet-proof boat. And I will handle the guns, and together we will be sure that our favorite spys get off that sub alive. Deal?”
The engine room hatch was open and Steed could see Rogers standing some distance along between the second pair of engines adjusting something. Steed slipped inside and climbed a ladder up to the catwalk above the portside engine. He hurried along above the engine until he was even with Rogers. As the man stepped back from the engine Steed dropped onto him, locking his forearm around his throat. Rogers bucked and spun around, grabbing Steed’s arm with both hands. He threw Steed against the engine housing and Steed “whoofed” as the breath was driven from his lungs. He tightened his grip, his powerful forearm crushing Rogers’s airway. Rogers kicked at him weakly, then collapsed in his arms. Steed let him fall to the deck, then bent to remove his belt and use it to secure his wrists behind his back.
There was no sign of Lee in the engine room. Steed briefly considered stopping the engines. He could then eliminate Mason and by the time he’d found Lee Slip Stream would have caught up with them. It was tempting, but it would not net the rest of the operation, or explain the loss of the first sub. He and Lee were certain that whoever was behind this also had the slave prototype from the first sub in their possession. They would be several steps ahead of the villains if they recovered it. If they didn’t, the entire Elder project was in danger of being scrapped.
Steed left the engines running and started working his way forward, looking in each compartment for Lee Stetson.
“What island is that?” Emma asked, pointing at the big, mountainous island ahead. They were six miles behind the sub, according to the radar. And suddenly there were more blips showing up.
Amanda, who had gone below for a half hour, then returned with two cans of soda and a box of crackers, looked at the chart.
“St. John. US Virgin Islands,” she said.
“It’s so dark. Doesn’t anyone live there?”
Amanda studied the chart some more. It provided details about the sea and shoreline, and very little about the land. But one thing about the island ahead was clearly indicated on the chart. “It’s mostly a national park,” Amanda said. “So, no, nobody lives there. And it’s also three o’clock in the morning.”
“Right.” Emma glanced across at Amanda and was glad to see the other woman grinning at her.
“We’re picking up more targets on the radar,” Emma said. “Could be boats, or rocks – the sea is getting shallow as we get closer. But the ping from the tracking device is strong.”
Steed had his hand on the door to the crew galley when he felt the sub lurch. It had stopped, he could feel the engines revving and guessed that Mason had put them in reverse to stop the forward motion. It wouldn’t be long before Mason discovered that Rogers was unconscious, if he hadn’t already tried to reach him.
There was a deck hatch in the ceiling a few yards along the passage. Steed made for it, stepping up onto the ladder mounted on the bulkhead and reaching for the wheel that locked the hatch down. Before he touched it, the wheel started turning. Steed jumped off the ladder and into the nearest compartment just as the hatch swung open. The compartment was a toilet, and the head was particularly nasty with a very disagreeable smell permeating the small space. Through the door he heard several people descend the ladder and someone issuing orders. He slid the privacy lock on the toilet door silently into place and waited. But the newcommers were apparently not interested in searching the sub. He listened to their footsteps on the metal deck plates recede, then gently unlocked the door and opened it a crack, sucking in the fresh air coming from the open hatch above.
I’m getting tired of this, Lee stifled a groan as he became conscious of the ache in his chest, the throbbing in his head, and his overall discomfort. He opened his eyes into darkness. He was lying on his side with his knees drawn up near his chest and his hands tied behind his back. At least I’m not still tied to the ladder.
He was unable to tell where he was, other than it seemed to be a small space. He wasn’t interested in waiting to be rescued, so he tensed his leg muscles and slammed backwards with is feet. They made contact with a solid surface and the space around him echoed with the sound of the blow. Sure, Stetson, this is better than being tied to a ladder. You’re in a box.
But it was better. Gazing along his body he could discern a faint line of light. His kick had loosened something. Encouraged, he kicked again, and then again. The crack grew and he could tell that he was indeed in some sort of metal box. But the side he was kicking was spot welded, and his blows were sufficient to break the welds. He was making a tremendous racket, but he figured the odds of Mason or Rogers hearing him were very low.
After twenty or so blows the side of the box had parted enough so that he could slither out. He landed on the floor in what was clearly a galley. He’d been shoved into the bottom compartment in a big, free-standing cabinet, and he’d kicked out the back panel. He smiled to himself as he struggled to his feet. Kitchens were wonderful places to find sharp things. He had little trouble finding a knife that he could grasp in his fingers and work back and forth across the rope binding his wrists. Once they were free he took the knife, which was a sizeable chef’s knife, and headed for the door to the main passage.
Fortunately, he paused to listen before opening it. Footsteps and voices passed by outside, and when they had moved on he cracked the door open to peer after them. Four men – four submarine crew – walking aft toward the engine room. Lee didn’t think that the gas had worn off the Narwhal’s crew. He closed the door and went back across the kitchen and through the entrance into the crew’s mess. Crossing it he went to its door into the main passage, twenty yards further forward and well away from the four men. As he stepped into the passage he realized that the familiar movement of the submarine moving through the water had stopped. Since there was new crew aboard they must have reached their destination.
A compartment door opened just ahead of him and a sailor stepped out. Lee had a split second’s advantage. He put the knife in his left hand and landed a solid punch on the man’s jaw with his right, knocking him into a second sailor just behind him. The narrow doorway was only wide enough for one man to get through at a time. The first man pushed himself off his companion and came back at Lee, ready this time with an uppercut. Lee blocked it with his left arm and swung his right into the man’s stomach, then back at his head. The man fell, leaving room for his companion to hurl himself at Lee. They fell to the deck, the man pinning Lee’s right arm with his left. Lee slashed upward with his left arm, driving the knife into the man’s ribs. The man cried out and Lee rolled out from under him, raising his right arm for another blow. The man slumped on the deck, a bloody froth on his lips.
Lee stifled a shudder, knowing he’d driven the knife deep enough to penetrate the man’s lung. Wiping his bloodied hand on his pants, he glanced around and spotted the open hatch in the ceiling.
Steed reached the bridge without encountering any more conscious sailors. Mason wasn’t there, but Steed could guess where the big man might be. He climbed the ladder to the coning tower, pausing near the top to listen to faint voices. They must have rendezvoused with another boat whose crew was coming aboard the Narwhal. Are they going to take the whole sub, or just the prototype?
Steed climbed the final rungs and poked his head out into the protected area at the top of the tower. Mason’s big form blocked the small opening at the top of the exterior ladder and for a moment Steed considered popping out and giving him a push. But before he could Mason turned, swinging an automatic rifle toward Steed.
“Come out, hands up,” Mason growled. Steed obliged, raising his hands once he was off the ladder. Glancing around, he saw that the Narwhal was floating in a large bay rimmed by stretches of white beach interspersed with rocky patches. Floating beside her was a second submarine. “You!” Mason wheezed, “I knew you weren’t just an ‘observer.’”
Steed shrugged and smiled apologetically. As he did, Mason’s eyes darted off of him and out toward the entrance to the bay. Steed grabbed the muzzle of the gun, hauling Mason toward him and redirecting his fire off into the sky as Mason reactively pulled the trigger. For a moment they wrestled for the weapon, then it was in Steed’s hands. He swung it like a club at Mason’s head, connecting with a sickening crunch. Mason swayed backward. Steed swung again, aiming lower so as not to hear that horrible sound again. Arms flailing Mason stepped backwards and lost his balance, falling out the opening and down twenty feet to the wet deck. He landed on his back and didn’t move. Realizing he was in a very exposed position, Steed ducked behind the cover of the coning tower, but not before noting what had caught Mason’s eye: a white powerboat was streaking into the bay.
After several false attempts at finding the safe entrance to the bay, Amanda followed Emma’s instructions based on the chart and aimed Slip Stream between white breakers, gunning the engines. To either side, the sea crashed against rocks just beneath the surface, but they zoomed through throwing up their own breaking wake.
Amanda stopped the boat well away from the Narwhal so that she and Emma could assess the situation. Emma raised the big binoculars and studied it, trying to figure out why it looked strange.
“There are men on the deck,” Amanda said. “Could the gas have worn off? Maybe they’ve retaken the boat.”
“No,” Emma said, focusing on the conning tower. “Conning towers. Two of them. There are two submarines there, Amanda.”
“Two subs?” Emma handed Amanda the binoculars and stepped over to the radio.
“Control this is Slip Stream, come in.”
The radio crackled a bit, then the operator back in Guantanamo answered, “Control here, Slip Stream, report.”
“Control, we have made contact with Narwhal. She has stopped in Reef Bay, south coast of St. John, over.”
“Acknowledged, Slip Stream. What is her situation? Over.”
“Narwhal is surfaced, her deck hatches open. She as stopped along side another submarine. Repeat, there is a second submarine in the bay. Over.”
“Slip Stream, our team dispatched by helicopter. ETA is three minutes. Can you stay on station until they arrive? Over.”
Emma opened her mouth to reply, but paused to listen to the familiar sound of helicopters approaching. Amanda scanned the sky to the west above the hills with the binoculars.
“Acknowledged, control. We hear the helicopters. Slip Stream standing by.”
“Well, at least they can tell the team on the chopper what to expect,” Amanda said, lowering the binoculars as rotor blades appeared over the top of the hill to the west.
Within seconds three helicopters were hovering off the bows of the twin submarines, gunners hanging out their sides exchanging fire with men on the decks of both boats. The helicopters descended to within a few feet of the water. Men in dark wetsuits wearing flippers and scuba masks dropped from them into the water while the gunners covered them. Once the men – it looked like nearly twenty of them — were in the water the helicopters rose, gaining the advantage of elevation for their gunners.
Amanda watched it all through the binoculars with morbid fascination. She saw the helicopter gunners hit several of the men on the bare submarine decks. Then the swimmers – certainly Navy seals – were swarming up onto the subs from the water. They were armed, but many of them attacked the men on the decks hand-to-hand. Amanda studied the length of the sub decks. There was less activity further aft, except for a man crouched near the open forward hatch of the Narwhal. Unlike all the black-clad men on the decks, he was wearing Navy khakis. His hair shown brown in the moonlight.
“Lee!” Amanda dropped the binoculars, then raised them back up and studied him to be sure. Emma came to stand by her side. “There,” Amanda handed her the binoculars, “by the forward hatch.” Without another thought, completely forgetting her earlier assertion that they were to stand off, Amanda returned to the helm and gunned Slip Stream’s engines.
Emma caught herself on the vertical support pole just in time to avoid being hurled out the back of the bridge deck through the open door. She picked up the rifle she’d kept handy and slid the bridge door almost closed, leaving just enough room to aim through. Amanda brought Slip Stream around, steering directly toward the open hatch on Narwhal’s deck. They saw Lee look their way as he crouched behind the hatch using it for cover from the occasional bullet that came his way. So far most of the fighting was nearer the bows, but Lee seemed to keep looking down the hatch as if expecting someone to come up. Maybe he’s waiting for Steed, Emma thought. The old, familiar tension buzzed in her, clarifying her thoughts, smoothing her motions.
“Bring her along side, aiming aft,” she instructed Amanda. “Lee can jump onto our bow, and I’ll cover him from up here.” Amanda silently obliged, angling Slip Stream toward Narwhal so the small boat was parallel with the submarine, then edging closer until the two hulls nearly touched.
Emma stood very protected behind the bulletproof door at the back of the bridge, rifle ready, scanning the sub for a sign that one of the men fighting further forward had noticed their maneuver. Four men were crouched at the base of the conning tower using a large object – maybe a body – for cover from the shooting further forward. As Slip Stream came up beside Lee at the hatch, one of the men at the tower swung around, raising an automatic weapon aft to sweep the submarine deck and Slip Stream with bullets. He got off a dozen shots aimed too low so that they pinged and whizzed off the submarine deck before Emma sighted the rifle and fired. The man tumbled off the deck into the water.
Then two things happened at once. At the helm, Amanda cried out, “He’s on the bow! We’ve got Lee.” At the top of the conning tower, a dark head popped up and an arm waved at Slip Stream. Emma sighted the rifle, using its scope to better see the man there. He waved again, then disappeared below the top of the tower.
“Steed,” Emma breathed.
“What?” Amanda asked, already steering Slip Stream away from the Narwhal.
“Take me back. Put the stern right up against the sub.”
“What?” Amanda, turned to look at Emma.
“Back up to the sub. Or put her alongside. I don’t care. But take me back there. Now,” Emma stepped out of the bridge and closed the door, then dropped to the aft deck to crouch behind the gunwale. She was relieved to feel Slip Stream’s motion change as Amanda reversed her. Lee must be on the bow, Emma thought, but I’m not waiting for him.
Amanda put Slip Stream back along side Narwhal aft of the conning tower and Emma bounded up over the gunwale and leapt across onto the sub’s deck. One of the three men at the base of the tower fired at her while she leapt, but missed. She landed and rolled across the sub’s narrow deck, putting the conning tower between herself and the men. Holding her rifle ready she sprinted toward the tower, pausing to aim and fire as one of the men came around the tower on the very narrow side deck. He fell overboard and Emma advanced, passing the tower on the other side. One man was left using the object – it was a body – for cover as he fired at the Navy seals further forward.
“Drop it,” Emma said, her voice barely audible amid the gunfire. The man swung around as she’d expected he would, releasing a volley of bullets that hit the other submarine as he turned. She fired and he collapsed across the body in front of him, his gun clattering to the deck. Emma started to lower her rifle, but raised it again as a movement to the left caught her eye. The fourth man, who had started aft along the other side of the tower, came back shooting. Emma ducked low and dodged behind her side of the tower, rifle aimed belly high as the reign of shots continued, gradually angling around toward her as the man came around the tower. Now would be a good time to use a gun, Steed, Emma thought as she flattened herself against the tower, inching aft. Then the man was in her sights, his own firing still erratic and unaimed. She aimed and fired and the shooting stopped.
She sucked in a deep breath and inched forward, stepping over the fallen man. At the base of the ladder leading up the tower she stopped and looked up.
“Steed?” Emma’s light voice carried through the cacophony of gunfire and masculine shouting. Steed couldn’t believe it. He had been certain he’d imagined seeing her leap onto the sub. He looked over the side of the tower and she was there on the deck, a fancy rifle slung over her shoulder, her hands on her hips, legs slightly spread for balance. Her teeth shown in the moonlight as she grinned up at him.
“Mrs. Peel!” he shouted cheerfully, “Delighted to see you.” He gladly dropped Mason’s automatic weapon and climbed down the external ladder to join her on the deck. He wanted very much to pull her into his arms and never let go, but it just wouldn’t be appropriate. She seemed to agree, making no move to touch him, although his whole body fairly vibrated with her nearness.
“Shall we?” she asked, gesturing at the Slip Stream, which Amanda was still idling a few feet from the Narwhal.
“After you my dear,” he replied. Emma waved to Amanda, who used the boat’s bow and stern thrusters to maneuver it closer to the submarine. When it was as close as safely possible, Emma sprang from the sub and landed on the aft deck, stumbling so that she landed on her hands and knees. She shook off the rifle and rolled over into a sitting position just in time to be bowled back down by Steed. Knocked flat on the deck she found herself looking into his twinkling eyes. “Terribly sorry, Mrs. Peel,” he said, bending toward her. Just then Amanda gunned the engines and turned Slip Stream to get away from the Narwhal. Steed was rolled aft off of Emma, who sat back up. Then she reached for her rifle, raising and firing it in a single motion at a sailor who’d appeared at the top of the conning tower with a gun.
Steed sat back against the transom watching her with a proud look on his face. She smiled at him, then rose and reached out to help him up, balanced against the motion of the boat. Amanda drove them out of firing range and stopped, leaning with Lee out of the bridge door to see that Emma and Steed were safe.
“Welcome aboard,” she said to Steed.
“Let’s anchor this boat,” Lee said.
“What about the submarines?” Emma asked.
“Take a look,” Steed’s soft voice beside her felt like a caress. She looked back toward the submarines and saw that two of the helicopters had landed on the decks and the third was on the beach. The gunfire had stopped. “They’ve taken them. Mission accomplished.”
She turned her face toward his, recognizing his self-satisfied, successful mission expression. She returned it with her own, then did something she never had before at the conclusion of a case. She tilted her face toward Steed’s and kissed him. It was a light kiss, just a touch of her lips on his. She felt him start to respond, his lips start to move against hers and she pulled back, placing her hand on his chest. She smiled at him, then grabbed the ladder and climbed up to the bridge.
“Lee, look at these white balls,” Amanda said, “Aren’t they marking moorings for boats to use?”
“I think so,” Emma put in, glancing down at the chart.
“Amanda, why would there be moorings in this deserted bay on a deserted island? Those are marking fish traps. The locals put them out,” Lee insisted.
“Lee, this isn’t a deserted –.” Emma nudged Amanda and shook her head, smirking at the men who were peering out the window at the waters of the bay.
“Just leave this to us,” Steed said, “We’ve done it many times, in many places.”
Emma rolled her eyes at Amanda, then headed for the ladder to the aft deck. “Let’s leave it to them, shall we?” she asked quietly. The men didn’t really notice them leave as Lee took the helm and Steed directed him toward the “ideal” anchorage.
Standing on the stone-paved deck of a luxurious rental house on a hill, a tall man with a swarthy complexion watched the battle on the water below through binoculars. He’d been pleased when the Narwhal came gliding through the passage into the bay right on schedule. His men on the second submarine efficiently secured the two together and began to board the Narwhal. Then the white powerboat had entered the bay, followed by those damnable helicopters, and it all went to hell. Months of planning, bribes at the highest levels, expenditures way over budget to acquire the first submarine. As he watched the flash of gunfire far below, Angelo “the Angel” Morillo felt his blood begin to boil. His client would demand their deposit returned, and he’d be left with the expenses. Somebody was going to pay.
“Lorenzo!” he snapped, not looking at the dark suited man standing near the sliding glass door that let into the house’s greatroom. Lorenzo stepped forward silently. “Find out about that boat. Who are they, and who did they remove from the submarine?”
The warmth of the cabin was what finally woke Steed late in the morning. The enclosed space was oppressive and he was sticky with sweat. Emma wasn’t there, and he couldn’t blame her for escaping, although he did hope for some private time with her – first to talk, then to properly make up.
Once the anchor had been set the in the early morning hours all four agents had gathered briefly in the salon. Lee had helped himself to a cold beer and offered Steed one. After so much time on the sub, the cool, mild alcohol went down very well. Emma and Amanda had declined, and instead Emma quickly consumed a small bottle of water. Amanda had explained that keeping constant watch on the sub’s radar signal for the last two days had been more draining than they’d expected – one of them had always had to be on the bridge and alert. They were, she confessed, exhausted.
So Emma had shown him along the passage to a head – a very luxurious one compared to those on the Narwhal – and said she was in the cabin just forward of it.
“And am I to share it with you?” he asked. She frowned as if he’d confused her, then caught her lower lip in her teeth in a familiar expression so close to grief it made his heart quail. She raised her hand to caress the side of his face.
“Steed, I know I’ve been beastly, but won’t you sleep with me tonight? I’ve missed you so,” she said, and he realized she’d misinterpreted his question. He covered her hand with his, turning his face to kiss her palm, then reaching out to pull her close. Her lips were eager, her tongue pressed to enter his mouth, and a wave of intense desire spread from his groin. How long has it been? At least a month — since Christmas Eve. He forced himself to release her, gasping for breath. He felt gritty and salty, his body ached with a new collection of bruises and probably a few cuts and gashes he hadn’t yet found. She looked as tired as Amanda had claimed they were.
“I need to shower,” he said softly. “I’ll be with you in a few minutes.”
He took ten, sliding naked and a little damp under the sheet without turning on any light. She hardly stirred as he conformed his tired body to hers, his chest to her back, his arm around her. She was asleep, and although she sighed and her body seemed to relax against his, he could not bring himself to wake her.
The bright morning light was mercifully filtered by the tinted hatch above the berth. Steed rose stiffly, feeling several new bruises and a noticeably painful gash across his left upper arm. He put on the naval dress-downs he’d escaped from the sub in, leaving the shirt collar open as a concession to the heat. He inspected himself in the mirror in the head and used Emma’s comb on his hair, which had curled in the humid air. He needed a shave, but he needed some coffee even more, and he could smell some. He followed the scent to the galley.
He poured himself a mug from the stainless steel percolator that sat in a loose clamp on the gimbaled stove. The boat rocked slightly on a passing wave and the counterbalanced stove rocked in the opposite direction, keeping its top surface level. Steed replaced the coffee pot, his own body adjusting easily to the rocking. Glancing around the galley he saw packages of biscuits, a hanging net of fairly fresh tropical fruit, cheery plastic plates and cups, and a wilting bunch of flowers in a bottle nestled in a cup rack over the sink. The ladies certainly had plenty of amenities.
The door to the aft deck was open, so Steed crossed the salon and stepped out into the brilliant Caribbean sunshine.
“Good morning Steed,” Emma said, glancing up from her book. She was seated on a cushioned bench along the starboard side of the deck, her back against the cabin bulkhead. She was wearing a delightfully skimpy red two-piece swimsuit, dark sunglasses, and, he hoped, a lot of sunscreen.
“Good morning, Mrs. Peel,” he replied, sipping his coffee, which was strong, but good. She turned back to her book, and with her dark glasses he couldn’t gauge her mood. He sat down on the bench just beyond her feet. He noticed that her toenails were painted a very feminine shade of pink, and some of the polish was chipped. He looked out across the water toward the shore – a white sand beach dotted with large rocks lapped up against a fringe of dark trees. The submarines, he realized, were behind him out in the bay. He didn’t turn to look.
“We should talk,” he said, taking another sip of coffee. Then he looked over at her.
She reached up and lowered her glasses, a little smile curling the corners of her mouth.
“Yes,” she said, then replaced the glasses and looked back at her book.
He swallowed hard and said, “the sooner the better, probably,” then looked at her again. She was closing the book. In a fluid motion she set it aside and swung her feet to the deck, bringing herself to a sitting position beside him. Close, but not touching, he noted.
She put her left hand on the cushion between them and looked down at it.
“You have me at a disadvantage. I am still wearing this ring, so you know that I am still committed to what it represents.” She lowered her glasses and looked him in the eye.
“Mrs. Peel, I made a commitment to you. I stand by it. I would have thought I’d given you enough reassurance . . .”
She turned away, removing the sunglasses and pressing her hands to her face. He watched, desperate to take her into his arms. But annoyance and hurt stayed him. He sat back and waited. She took in a deep breath and exhaled. Then she smoothed her hair and lowered her hands to her lap. She picked at the pink polish on one nail. He’d never seen her make such a nervous gesture before.
“I’ve behaved very badly, and I’m still doing it,” she said, her voice rough with emotion. “You’re right. I was out of line.”
He let it sit there for a moment, her attempt at an apology. He knew she meant it, but it wasn’t really enough. There was more to be said to mend all the damage.
“I was hurt – I still am – that you did not tell me about your plans,” he said. Her shoulders stiffened, muscles visibly tightening beneath her bare skin. “But I had no idea, until quite recently, that Sir Peter had sold your majority interest in Knight. Given that, I think I understand.”
“I had to do it myself. To be truly free of him.”
“But you asked others for help,” he said softly, wanting to let it go and tell her it didn’t matter. Except that it did.
“Friends. Business associates. Not my lover, not the man who has the same control over me that Peter did,” she said, then turned to look at him. Her eyes were red-rimmed and bright with unshed tears. “You don’t think that James and I . . .”
“No. I never did,” he managed, astonished at what she’d said. Control?
She dropped her head and leaned back against the seat, studying her hands again. Some of the tension was gone from her shoulders.
“I would not have it said that I moved on to the next man for help defeating the first,” she said, then raised her head to gaze out across the water at the shore.
“And who would say that, I wonder,” he asked.
She shrugged, turning her head to look at him, “I would have.”
He nodded. He did understand. Her pride was a significant part of her self-esteem. She had sought him for emotional support, not professional. And yet, in the end, she had needed both. But she’d never asked. He supposed that made it acceptable. We all live with our own justifications, he thought. If only this one doesn’t rise back up to haunt us, we’ll be fine.
“But I’ve hurt you,” she said, “and I need to make it up to you.”
“You could do that,” he agreed, forcing a serious tone. But it was no use. He leaned forward and faced her, cupping her face with his left hand, his right arm moving from the back of the bench to encircle her shoulders. “And we could both enjoy it.”
Their eyes met, hers blinking so the tears finally ran down her cheeks. He leaned in and kissed one cheek, then the other. “You know I hate it when you cry,” he whispered.
“I never cry,” she stated firmly, her hands drifting up his chest and onto his shoulders.
“Umm,” he acknowledged, ignoring the vivid memory of the last time she had – when she’d come to him for help a few months ago. “I love you, Emma,” he said, feeling that she needed that final reassurance from him. He was more than willing to provide it.
“And I you, John,” she whispered. He was shocked by the effect it had on him. He drew her close, his lips seeking hers. She responded eagerly, her lips parting under the pressure of his urgent kisses. She gasped as his mouth left a hot trail along her jaw and stopped at the sensitive spot beneath her ear. She pressed him back, bringing her hands to either side of his face, tickling his lips with small kisses. Then she stopped and smiled coyly.
“I have a razor you can use,” she said.
He reached down to caress her smooth, shaven leg, then raised his eyebrows. “I think not, thanks,” he said, pressing in to kiss her again despite her efforts to shield herself from his rough beard.
The boat rocked slightly and Lee’s head appeared at the stern. He was on the swim platform behind the transom.
“You have an audience, you know,” he said cheerfully, looking over at a row of revived sailors with binoculars standing on the deck of the nearest submarine. Steed and Emma parted slightly, eyes locked on one another.
“They can’t leave their post,” Steed said.
Emma grinned. “That’s exactly what I said to Amanda when she didn’t want to come out here.”
“You two have a lot of faith in the discipline of the U.S. Navy,” Lee said, opening the gated section of the transom and climbing the four steps up to the deck. Steed turned to lean back against the bench and drew Emma against him. They looked up at Lee, who was toweling off. He had been swimming in his underwear.
“Do you suppose we can get our gear from them,” Steed wondered.
“You’d better,” Emma replied, stroking his cheek with her finger.
“We’ve got a bigger problem than clothes and razors,” Lee said, wrapping the towel around his waist and sitting down on the bench across from them. “You know how you and Amanda were concerned about those white balls last night?”
“The fish trap markers?” Emma asked.
“Right. It seems that you and Amanda were correct. They aren’t fish trap markers.”
“No?” Steed asked.
“They’re mooring markers, like the ladies said. And when we set our anchor last night, we dragged it right in under one of the big cement blocks they’re attached to.”
Emma bit her lips to keep herself from laughing. Steed squeezed her, then released her to look over his shoulder at the submarines.
“Not to worry,” he said, then stood up and waved at the watching sailors. One or two waved back, but the man at the end of the row immediately turned and disappeared down the far side of the boat.
A few minutes later a grey rubber inflatable with an outboard motor came around from the far side of the subs, arrowing through the water toward them. Lee disappeared inside, presumably to dress. The boat came along side and the sailor – an officer, it turned out – put the engine in neutral and stood up, grabbing hold of their boat’s gunwale.
“Morning, sir,” he said, to Steed, then added, “ma’am,” with a nod at Emma. She inclined her head slightly in acknowledgement. It was one thing to be gawked at from afar, but having one of them come along side was a bit embarrassing.
“We’re hoping you can help us out with a couple things, Leftenant Perkins,” Steed said, using the British pronunciation of his rank. “Find Stetson and my gear bags for us, and get a crew over here to free up our anchor.”
“Yes sir, I’ll see what I can do. Can you tell me just what’s wrong with the anchor?”
“Apparently it’s gone and snagged itself on a large, cement block. I haven’t seen it myself.”
“I see sir. That shouldn’t present too much of a problem. I’ll see to it immediately. Ma’am,” he nodded again at Emma, then sat back down and gunned the engine, zooming back toward the subs.
“Tell me, Steed, do they know who – or rather, what – you are, or do you just earn that sort of respect from everyone?” Emma asked, humor crinkling her eyes. Steed smiled at her, enormously happy to have her back, teasing and all.
“Natural leadership, my dear. More coffee?” he picked up his mug and rose. She swung her legs back up onto the bench and assumed her previous position.
“No thank you, but breakfast would be delightful.”
They were finishing Steed’s rather elaborate breakfast when Lieutenant Perkins returned with a team of four divers equipped with various tools for underwater work. Steed stationed himself on Slip Stream’s bow, ready to raise the anchor when it was free, and Lee went up to the bridge in case they needed to reposition the boat.
“Does it bother you at all, their coming aboard and taking over like this?” Emma asked, having resumed her favorite position on the aft deck. She had convinced Amanda to join her outside despite the watchful sailors on the Narwhal. Amanda had only agreed after putting on shorts and a blouse over her bathing suit.
She was stretched out on the bench opposite Emma feeling particularly content. Lee had been surprisingly amorous when they’d awakened late in the morning, and she’d had to remind him how sound carries on a small boat. Nonetheless, they’d both found their reunion especially satisfying. She wondered about Steed and Emma, realizing as she did that no matter how much she liked them, she disapproved of their obviously intimate relationship. They were not married, and for Amanda, that was simply not appropriate. She’d known it, of course, since she’d first met them a few months ago. But not until this morning, waking up on the boat where they had so obviously shared a bed, had she been forced to face it head on.
Amanda had struggled with her moral position while courting Lee. He’d respected her wishes, claiming that he agreed with her, now that he’d found her and wanted to marry her. But she knew full well that he’d dated, and slept with, many women before her without any thought of morality. If she didn’t hold that against him, could she judge Emma and Steed? Neither of them had children to set an example for, and when they’d met, Emma was believed to be a widow. Amanda felt a great affection and respect for Emma, but her regard for her friend was deeply affected by what to her was a serious transgression of good moral behavior. She felt less strongly about Steed, which was, she admitted to herself, the same double standard that she applied to Lee. She blamed her mother, who had raised her to believe that men were different. They couldn’t help themselves, and it was up to women to enforce the rules.
“Amanda?” Emma repeated, glancing over at her.
“Sorry, I was just – thinking. What did you ask?”
“Does it bother you to give up command of Slip Stream to them?” Emma waved in the general direction of the bow where they could hear the clunking of anchor chain on the deck.
“No. I’m so happy not to have to watch the radar display, I don’t care what they do,” Amanda replied, meaning every word.
“We were better at it. We would not have fouled the anchor,” Emma said with a sigh that made Amanda laugh despite her previous line of thought. She never stops competing.
The sound of an outboard engine nearby was accompanied by a knock on the hull. Emma opened her eyes to see Lieutenant Perkins, his head and shoulders just clearing the top of the gunwale as he stood in the big inflatable.
“May I pass you these?” he asked, holding a small sea bag by the handles with one hand, his other holding onto Slip Stream. Emma sat up and reached for the bag.
“Certainly. Thank you Leftenant,” she said, knowing it wasn’t the proper pronunciation but liking Steed’s use of it earlier. He passed over a second bag and she set them both on the deck.
“Your anchor’s free,” he said. “They’re stowing it now. So I suspect you’ll be away shortly. I thought I would have to list Steed and Stetson as AWOL this morning, but orders came through to take them off the duty roster. Lucky men.”
Emma studied Perkins, one eyebrow cocked. Is he fishing?
“Thank you for letting us know, Lieutenant,” Amanda put in. “although I think they could both live with a black mark against their Naval careers, if it came to that.”
“Well,” Perkins said, starting to push off from Slip Stream, “neither of them is regular Navy, anyway, are they?” He waved, then sat down and drove the boat with its divers and gear back toward the submarines.
“I guess that answers my earlier question,” Emma muttered, looking down at the two sea bags on the deck. “Do you suppose either of them has anything to wear in there that isn’t a uniform?” she asked.
“No,” came the answer from behind her. Steed stepped around the cabin and onto the deck. He sat down beside Emma and put his arm around her to pull her close. She didn’t resist, but she did see Amanda’s face go from a welcoming smile to a strange, displeased expression. Then Amanda looked up at Lee standing in the doorway of the bridge.
“We’re adrift so we need to go somewhere,” he announced. “Are we ready to head for Cruz Bay? It will take about forty, forty-five minutes.”
“I think we have a little shopping to do,” Emma said, tugging at the soiled collar of Steed’s white uniform shirt.
He frowned at her, “Please, Mrs. Peel, it’s very unkind to highlight my sever lack of appropriate attire for boating. Yes,” he looked up at Lee, “let’s go see what town has to offer – and hope it includes a fuel dock,” then he looked back at Emma, “I suppose you ladies expect us to pay for all the fuel you’ve used.”
“Absolutely,” Emma said with a shrug.
“Okay,” Lee grinned and rubbed his hands together. He had been itching to have a chance to drive Slip Stream since he’d seen her months before in Washington. He stepped back into the bridge.
Amanda rose and headed for the ladder, “I’ll just help him navigate,” she said, avoiding looking at Emma and Steed, who were still staring rather intently into one another’s eyes. They still hadn’t moved or spoken when the engines roared from their passive idle to growling high speed and Lee had turned the boat toward the entrance to the bay.
“Forty minutes, did he say?” Emma asked, cupping Steed’s rough cheek and running her thumb over his lips.
“Let’s take your bag below.” She rose, ignoring the bag, and slipped into the salon. Steed followed her, went back for the bag, then went in and closed the door.
High on the hill overlooking the bay, Angelo Morillo watched the powerboat build up speed as it made for the entrance to the bay.
“Senore,” Lorenzo stood behind him and slightly to the side.
“What have you learned?”
“Intelligence agents. Four of them. Two were on the submarine.”
“TWO!” The Angel growled, smacking one fist into the other palm. “Elimate them. Eliminate the boat. Bring me tokens when it is done.”
Steed brushed the hair from across Emma’s face and placed a light kiss on her forehead.
They had entered the cabin barely twenty minutes earlier, Steed closing the door and wrapping his arms around Emma from behind. He’d explored her bare midriff, pressing kisses on her neck and shoulders until she shuddered with longing for more. Then his hands had probed further, cupping her breasts and sliding under the waistband of her bathing suit bottom. They’d scrambled onto the bed, bathing suit and clothes scattered to the far corners of the cabin. So intense was the desire awakened in them after so many weeks apart that neither would submit to the gentle caresses, kisses, and foreplay they normally thrived upon. They had made loud, fast, deep love, indulging in cries of pleasure that they knew were drowned out by the boat’s engines.
Now Emma lay on her back and Steed on his side, their legs entwined, his arms cradling her, his precious Emma.
“That was rather – abrupt,” he muttered, smiling contentedly nonetheless.
“We can make slow, excruciatingly sensual love tonight,” she suggested.
“And the day after that,” she agreed dreamily.
“I shall look forward to it, my love.”
She smiled, pressing her lips to his stubbly cheek. She would never tire of his calling her that, especially since he only did it at their most intimate moments. It reassured her that their relationship was greater than the rift caused by her foolish reluctance to tell him about Knight Industries. She was intensely relieved, for choosing between Steed and Knight would have been impossible. She smiled again, the irony of names not lost on her.
“You look like the cat that got the canary,” Steed said, his fingers brushing her lips and cheeks.
“I have,” she sighed. He smiled, continuing to caress her face. Gradually her eyes narrowed into a frown and he lifted his hand.
“Are you all right?”
“Have Lee and Amanda had a disagreement?” she asked.
“Not that I know of – what made you think of it?” Steed hated anyone intruding on their private moments. Especially after so long apart.
“Just as we were leaving, I thought she looked — No, it wasn’t at Lee,” she thought back on the moments before they left Reef Bay.
“A look on Amanda’s face. She looked angry – or, disappointed. At us.”
“What could we have done to disappoint her?”
Emma thought about it for a moment, letting Steed resume caressing her face without responding. She began to think out loud.
“You came from the bow and sat down, and put your arm around me,” she said.
“Yes, impulsive of me,” he said, stroking her eyebrows.
“And Lee asked if we were ready to go, and I said something about shopping –.”
“You criticized my attire, my dear,” he reminded her petulantly. She ignored him.
“And I suppose we were becoming rather — involved — with one another –.”
“Is this leading somewhere?”
“It led here.”
“Yes,” he drawled, leering at her.
She rolled her eyes at him and he knew their brief interlude was soon to be ended by her reaching a conclusion about whatever was bothering her.
“Amanda does not approve of us.”
“What’s not to approve of? We’re perfectly lovely people. And I thought you and she had become good friends.”
She had to grin at him, so certain was he of his social acceptability. Not that he was wrong, of course.
“Yes, we have. Which is probably why she’s so bothered. She does not approve of the intimacy of our relationship. We’re not married.”
“She disapproves of sex?”
“Only the un-married kind.”
“You mean she and Lee did not –.”
“None of OUR business, Steed.”
“Nor are we any of hers, Mrs. Peel.”
“Amanda, are you all right?” Lee glanced over his shoulder at his wife, who was sitting at the navigation table tapping a pencil on the chart. Her chin was on her other hand, and she was staring tensely out at the passing scenery. She started at Lee’s voice, then turned her gaze toward him.
“Yes, fine,” she said unconvincingly. Lee waited, knowing more was coming. “Emma and Steed have gone below, to her – their – cabin,” she said.
Lee frowned, looked for hazards ahead, then turned to look at Amanda. “We hardly need their help to get to Cruz Bay,” he said. “Didn’t you say you were coming up here to navigate?”
“That’s not the point, Lee. They’re down there in bed together.”
Lee faced forward, ostensibly to watch where he was driving the boat, but also to give himself a moment to think. He knew that his wife was very morally conservative. He respected her resolve in a world where such concerns often seemed frivolous, particularly for people in fast-paced urban environments like Washington, and London. And among spys, who lived by their wits and constantly faced the likelihood of death, it was practically unthinkable. But he had come to agree with her outlook, to some extent. After her divorce it had been imperative for her to be a role model for her two impressionable young sons. That, along with her own conservative upbringing by a mother who was most certainly from an earlier social era, kept Amanda to a strict moral code.
It had all seemed rather quaint to him at first, when he was getting to know her and she explained her objections to extra-marital sex. In fact, he remembered, he’d been shocked at how it had disappointed him – her veiled, but clear, assertion that she would not be sleeping with any man who wasn’t her husband. It had seemed to close a door that he’d been imagining was just a little bit open. At the time he’d been dating someone – Stacy, maybe? – with whom he’d just spent a very intense night. Amanda’s words had been like a bucket of cold water on his pleasant, day-after buzz.
But he did have to admit that, as he got to know Amanda better, and grew fonder of her, her unavailability had become intensely attractive. He’d known better than to pressure her, and it had made their wedding night especially meaningful, even though they’d indulged in very “heavy petting,” as she called it, in the months leading up to it. But he did sometimes wonder if, had she let her position slip, they would be where they were today. Would he have sampled and moved on, skirting the dangers of commitment as usual? He liked to think not, for Amanda had reached him in ways no other woman had. But he was too rational a man not to realize that it was possible.
Amanda’s concern over Steed and Emma’s sex life was a surprise. But as Lee thought about it, knowing Amanda was waiting for him to respond and feeling pressured to come up with something comforting, he started to understand. After their first meeting with Steed and Emma, Amanda had returned home abuzz with her impressions of the woman. Lee couldn’t remember her being so excited about making a new acquaintance, and he realized that the two women had formed a bond of friendship in the short time they’d spent together.
He was well aware of Emma Peel as part of the intelligence community. What was that phrase they still used at the ministry? “What Would Emma Peel Do?” If Amanda wanted to see Emma as a role model, even subconsciously, only good could come of it. He would be more than happy if Amanda became more comfortable with weapons and improved her self-defense skills. He would never characterize Emma as a cold-blooded killer, although she’d shot at least four men last night. But he also knew his Amanda would never have leapt aboard the Narwhal and taken out four men to rescue him. She might have found another way that didn’t require killing, but sometimes, in their business, killing was the only way.
What he could not figure out was why now? Why had Amanda just become upset about Steed and Emma’s relationship? Had she convinced herself that they were “just good friends” and only now, in the close confines of this boat, had to admit the truth to herself? He supposed it was possible. Amanda was capable of self delusion.
“You know,” he said gently, “I’ve known John Steed a long time.”
Amanda was silent, so he glanced back at her. She appeared to be waiting for him to continue, expecting, he supposed, words of support for her moral objections. He couldn’t do that. Steed and Emma were who they were, and he would not wish a celibate relationship on them.
“He’s always been the best agent around. But there have been two periods in his life when he’s been even better. The first was a few years back, when he was partnered with Emma. They were the most effective team any intelligence agency had ever seen. And Steed, during those years, was very happy. The second period is now. He’s happy again, despite their recent disagreement, and he’s got that edge back.”
Lee glanced back at Amanda again. She did not look entirely happy with him, but she seemed willing to continue listening.
“Edge is everything in this business. You know that. How he gets it is their business, Amanda. They’re happy together. You’ve really got to accept that. Besides which, they are engaged.”
“All the more reason to wait,” Amanda said sharply, rising and stepping toward the forward ladder that lead down into the boat where the cabins were. She stopped, looking down as if peering into a pit of vipers, then swung around and opened the back door, climbing down the outside ladder instead.
“Ah hell,” Lee grumbled. There was no point in putting the boat on autopilot and going after her. He didn’t want to argue about their colleagues’ and friends’ private lives, particularly on this small boat where the subjects of the discussion were likely to wander into the middle of it. Assuming, of course, that they planned to come out of their cabin once they reached Cruz Bay. Lee suppressed a lecherous grin. Amanda was the love of his life, and she was a beauty in her own right, but he couldn’t help letting his strictly masculine mind wander over Emma’s extremely appealing body. Just for a second.
Emma continued to be bothered by Amanda’s look of disappointment as she showered and changed into her favorite linen sundress, happy not to have to wear any tights over her nicely suntanned legs. Over Steed’s breakfast they had agreed to come to St. John’s main town, Cruz Bay, to refuel Slip Stream. The town boasted shops and restaurants, and Emma was looking forward to exploring it and having dinner. But she suspected that after her and Steed’s disappearance below during the cruise from Reef bay, Amanda’s sudden displeasure would become more evident – if in fact Emma had read her friend correctly. They would not be able to have a pleasant evening together until the situation was resolved.
“It’s going to take about forty minutes to fill,” Lee told Steed as they watched the numbers on the rusty mechanical fuel pump click around. Lee and Amanda had landed Slip Stream at the fuel dock then Amanda had gone silently below. Steed had come out on deck to help just as the diesel started to flow. “Is Emma still below?”
Steed cleared his throat, shoving his hands deep into his trouser pockets. “Yes. She asked me to come up and check the weather, so to speak.”
“It’s warm and humid,” Lee answered, then looked closely at Steed. “But you’ve seen some storm clouds, I take it?” Lee was astonished. Had Amanda said something to him, or Emma?
“Mrs. Peel thinks your wife is – disappointed, I believe was the word she used.”
Lee didn’t like the way Steed had called Amanda “your wife.” He studied the other man, trying to gauge his mood. It was nearly impossible.
“She did say something like that,” Lee said. “Look, Steed, Amanda sets high standards for herself, and it’s hard for her not to apply them to others.”
“Funny, I’d say the same about Mrs. Peel,” Steed said, turning to look out across the busy harbor. “Look Stetson, this is between them, but it’s bound to affect us. It would behoove all of us to help them sort it out so we can have a pleasant evening.”
“Agreed. But Amanda isn’t going to budge.”
“What does she want? I’m not moving out of Emma’s cabin, and I intend to make love to her again tonight.” Steed’s face finally showed his anger. “I am naturally hostile toward anyone who threatens that delightful experience.” Lee stared at him in utter surprise. He had never heard Steed use Emma’s first name. He’d assumed that the man did – in private when even he couldn’t stick with the formality – not to mention inaccuracy — of “Mrs. Peel.” His use of it now, combined with his unprecedented reference to sex, reinforced for Lee just how disturbed Steed was. Amanda was going to regret this.
“Look Steed, Amanda had placed Emma on something of a pedestal. She’s disappointed that Emma didn’t stay on it. She’ll get over it.”
“Indeed. Amanda has to be made to understand that pedestals are dangerous places. I’m the only one allowed to place Mrs. Peel on one.”
“You know, Steed, you in love is a frightening thing,” Lee said, unable to suppress a grin of delight at Steed’s overt devotion to Emma. It was so completely out of character for the suave, reserved Brit.
Steed glowered at Lee, his brows furrowing above stormy grey eyes. “My feelings toward Mrs. Peel have not changed since I met her, nor are they to be considered an acceptable topic of conversation. If you don’t mind.”
Lee could not think of a response. Steed had just confirmed for him, in a single sentence, the rather tragic love story that he and countless other agents had speculated about for the past three years. How upset had Steed really been about Peter Peel’s return and Emma’s departure? Clearly, very, although he’d concealed it from everyone. And yet Lee knew that it would never pass his lips. He had too much respect for Steed to mention it again, to anyone.
“Are we about ready to go?” Emma asked. She had finally forced herself to come from her cabin to the salon, only to find Amanda standing in the galley looking pensive as she sipped light amber Caribbean beer from a plastic cup. Emma decided to leave it to Amanda to initiate an argument if she wanted to.
Amanda started, looking up in surprise. “They’re fueling. It’ll take another half hour or so.” She spoke in a monotone that Emma had never heard before, as if she did not want to speak at all.
“Well then, perhaps that gives us time to talk,” Emma said, changing her mind. It was best to get it out in the open and try to dispense with it. She waited for Amanda’s reaction, hoping the other woman would acknowledge the situation and not force her to introduce it. Amanda took another sip of her beer and swallowed it hard.
“Do you think adultery is okay?” she asked.
Emma sat down on one of the settees. She hadn’t expected Amanda to be quite so direct.
“You don’t approve of my and Steed’s relationship,” she countered.
“No, I think it’s wonderful that you love one another. But what you’re doing is wrong. Your divorce is not final.”
That, Emma realized, was a point she could concede. She had already had her lawyer draw up the divorce papers when she sought out Steed’s emotional and moral support a few months ago. In her mind she had severed her connections to Peter. But until the divorce was final, she and Steed were having an adulterous affair. And she did care about society’s judgement of such things. Just not enough to give up Steed. As he had once told her when she first worked with him, nobody’s perfect.
“You’re right. It’s wrong of us. But Amanda, Steed and I are – we can’t be ‘just friends.’ It’s all or nothing between us, it always has been. It’s a sin that I’ll live with, to have Steed in my life.”
Amanda’s face had a sour expression, she swallowed more beer. “I was raised to believe that sex before marriage is wrong. I know that’s a personal choice, but it’s difficult for me to know that someone I respect has such — a different opinion.” She’d been going to say has such low morals, but realized at the last instant how denigrating that sounded.
“Of sex before marriage?” Emma frowned, thinking of a counter argument that she hoped would work. “How do you define sex, Amanda?”
“Well, for example, is kissing sex?”
“No, of course not.”
Emma nodded, “So you and Lee kissed before you were married?”
“Yes,” Amanda snapped. Emma nodded thoughtfully.
“And was there ever any touching?”
“That’s none of your business!”
Emma nodded again. “And did you ever touch Lee in such a way that he achieved orgasm? Or he you?”
“Stop it!” Amanda slammed her hand on the counter top, her face reddening. Emma remained complacently in her seat. She had counted on making Amanda uncomfortable. It was a cruel tactic. But Amanda had been equally cruel to her the other day and she’d accepted the criticism.
“You draw a narrow line, Amanda. I am certainly on the other side of it, but you are very close. If the only thing you didn’t do is actual intercourse, I think you’re on a very precarious high horse.” Emma rose, turned her back on Amanda and strode out onto the aft deck. Steed stepped down from the dock onto the boat to meet her, eyes filled with concern. She came to a stop standing immediately in front of him, her face turned up to his, barely an inch from it. He stared back at her, trying to determine whether she was angry or hurt, or somewhere in between.
“Everything all right, Mrs. Peel?” he asked mildly.
“Yes, fine,” she said through clenched teeth. But her agitation slid away as she looked into his caring, gentle eyes, “I love you, Steed.”
“I know,” his impish smile curled his lips as he gazed back at her.
“You love me, too?”
She nodded, a motion so slight she still didn’t touch him despite their proximity. “Then we have one another,” she whispered, speaking to herself. She was amazed at how upset she was that her friendship with the American agent was threatened.
“Always, Emma,” he whispered back.
Emma’s probing questions had enraged Amanda. Then her friend’s point reached her, a point she had known all along. None of her business. Emma was not superior, for all her imperious behavior. She was a fallible woman with human weaknesses. Amanda had allowed her admiration to escalate her expectations beyond all reason, and then lashed out at her friend when they weren’t met. As for her own dalliances with Lee before their wedding, well, Emma had nailed that on the head. Amanda had managed to convince herself of that line she’d drawn, but it was weak and she knew it. And as she rose to go speak to Emma, its importance faded.
“Emma?” Amanda’s voice came tentatively from the doorway. Emma turned just her head to look at her.
“You’re right. I have drawn an artificial line. And even so, which side of it you stand on is none of my business. Please accept my apology.”
“Accepted,” Emma said simply, turning her whole body to face Amanda as she offered her hand.
“And by the way,” Amanda added, looking at Emma’s hand for a moment before taking it, “you succeeded in intimidating me.”
Fueling completed, they moved Slip Stream to a rented slip, Lee justifying the expense by pointing out that they would not have to launch the dinghy and subject the ladies to climbing in and out of it in their nice clothes. At a sharp look from Steed Emma suppressed a comment about the mens’ clothes. They wandered Cruz Bay’s narrow streets amid a large population of other visitors to the small island community. Many were sailors who’d called here with their privately chartered boats on a tour of the Virgin Islands. Some were from the island’s two large resorts. Most were American.
Spying an upscale-looking casual clothing store amid the t-shirt and souvenir shops, Emma led the other three inside. Steed allowed her to suggest a few items, but withheld his right of final choice. It was difficult enough choosing slacks and shirts from the racks without having to accept outside opinions – even Emma’s. He stepped out of the fitting room to show her an acceptable pair of linen trousers and a remarkably comfortable polo-style shirt and found her idly looking at the women’s bathing suits.
“If you’ll wear this, I’ll buy that atrocious tropical print shirt you like, Mrs. Peel,” he whispered, pointing at a bikini that essentially consisted of three triangles of fabric held together with string. A sign proclaimed it to be the latest from Brazil. Emma picked up a hangar holding one of the skimpy suits and looked at the price tag.
“I wonder what it is they imagine you’re paying for,” she said.
“I should think that would be fairly obvious, my dear,” Steed laughed. “If price is your only hesitation, I’ll happily pay for it.”
“Go away, Steed,” Emma said, pausing to look at his attire. “That’s much better, by the way.”
“Thank you,” he chuckled again and returned to the fitting room.
They had a sumptuous seafood dinner and walked, two couples holding hands for all the world like normal people, back to the boat. Steed poured himself and Emma shots of fine rum from the ship’s stores. It wasn’t their usual drink, but it was appropriate for the locale and Emma and Amanda hadn’t touched it while they were following the Narwhal. Lee and Amanda declined, Lee pointedly escorting Amanda below to avoid any possible tension when Steed and Emma decided to turn in.
“What did you do to her?” Steed asked quietly. They were sitting on the starboard bench, Emma in her accustomed position with her back to the bulkhead, her knees drawn up. Steed sat by her feet, his arm extended along the back of the bench just touching her upper arm, drawing small circles and figure eights on it.
“Do to her?” Emma repeated, taking a sip of her rum and leaning her head back against the bulkhead to look up at the sky.
“She said you intimidated her.”
Emma smiled. “That was a reference to an earlier conversation. A private conversation.” She lowered her gaze to him, enjoying being mysterious. He still looked curious and she relented. “Girl talk, Steed,” she assured him. “and you are not a girl.”
“Certainly not. But you have never struck me as one either.”
She sipped her rum and smiled at him, appreciating his respect for her and not especially interested in discussing her newly acknowledged enjoyment of having a close female friend.
“So she’s revised her view of the world – our relationship is not objectionable?”
“You heard her. She just accepted that it’s none of her business. That’s all I asked.”
“And it doesn’t bother you that you’ve lost some of her respect for you?”
Emma thought about it despite her first impulse, which was to say “of course not.” In fact, it did bother her. Her ego had enjoyed Amanda’s near hero worship. Being the subject of hero worship was also newly acknowledged.
“Why did you never tell me about WWEPD?” she asked, forgetting his question. He looked first startled, then embarrassed. She waited.
“How do you know about that?” he asked at last.
“Tara told me.”
“Yes of course,” he said, staring across the deck toward the big sailboat on the other side of the dock. I knew I should have found a way to prevent them from talking, he thought. He faced her again, “you brought it on yourself, you know. It started about six or eight months before you left. When you started training with Hemming. That’s why I never train with him. Too revealing.”
“I needed a challenge,” she said with a shrug. He knew it was true – she had developed a very effective style of hand-to-hand combat, incorporating karate and other dirtier moves. She was so good she’d enlisted the ministry’s combat instructor to help her keep her edge. She had tried to spar with Steed, but inevitably the physical contact had distracted them.
“Hemming started teaching your techniques to the female trainees.”
She nodded. She’d known that, even worked with him on the best way to present her moves. It had been instructive to her, too, deconstructing what she did naturally.
“The trainees started it, actually. Whenever he described something to them, he used you as an example,” Steed assumed the deep, cockney-accented voice of the instructor, “now when Emma Peel does ‘is, she ‘olds on a bit longer, see ‘ere?”
Emma laughed, his bad imitation rousing fond memories.
“The trainees started joking, correcting each other when they practiced, ‘now what would Emma Peel do?’ It stuck. Even after you left, Hemming still used you as his shining example.”
Emma wondered, briefly, how Steed had felt hearing her name bandied about after she left. She imagined that he avoided watching the female trainees, something he’d always rather enjoyed even while they were together. Then she remembered his earlier question.
“True friends have to accept one another’s flaws,” she said. “I like having Amanda as a friend. So no, I don’t mind being taken down a few pegs.” And in the end, if she were forced to choose between Amanda’s friendship and her physical relationship with Steed, the winner was clear. “After all, I accept your flaws,” she added, just to bait him. It backfired.
“And I yours, my dear,” he purred. She laughed, reaching up to take hold of his hand.
“Do you imagine that five years ago you left the choice – the extent to which our relationship would go — to me?” she asked Steed.
He frowned, trying to follow her logic. “I did, yes. I never pressured you.”
She sipped her rum and watched him for a moment. He watched her back, eternally patient.
“There was no choice, Steed. Never. Not, at least, after the first kiss,” she watched him smile warmly at the memory, couldn’t help smiling too. “Believe me, I tried. It was a near thing.”
“What was?” he looked alarmed.
“I nearly broke off with you. I had resolved to. You had kissed me, left me desperate for more of you, and disappeared for two weeks. Remember? Scotland?”
“How could I forget. The most miserable two weeks of my career,” he exaggerated and she knew it, but he did mean it, in a way.
“And you came back and invited me to dinner. I came with every intention of breaking it off.”
“Why didn’t you?” he asked, suspecting why, but wanting to hear it.
“You mean before you offered me a job?” she asked, grinning and nudging him with her foot. “Don’t be dense, Steed. You offered me the solution to my only problem with you before I could say my piece. I couldn’t bear not knowing. As your partner I could know.”
“I knew,” he admitted. “I didn’t know what you intended that night, but I knew I had to do something quickly to keep you,” he leaned back and looked up at the stars. “There was only once when I’ve not done what was necessary to keep you –”
“And we both regretted it for three years,” she concluded, dropping her feet to the deck and swiveling to sit beside him. He dropped his arm across her shoulders and pressed his lips into her hair.
“Let’s say we don’t dwell on the past, except, perhaps to discuss a little further just how inevitable you believed our relationship to be,” he said.
“What’s to discuss?” she asked, turning her face to his, touching her lips to his, “We fit. We both knew it.”
“Come to bed.”
“See, we think alike, too.”
Slip Stream charged across the rolling swells along the north shore of Tortola, British Virgin Islands. The four agents had decided to hijack the boat for an extra day to go snorkeling at a dive site that Lee remembered being especially good. They were well aware that they needed to get going on the long run back to Guantanamo, return the boat, and be debriefed. But Lee, like Steed, resisted filing reports with the practiced expertise of a lifetime agent.
They were all curious about the conclusion of the matter – had Mason and Rogers planned to leave on the other submarine? Wouldn’t a civilian boat have been easier to arrange, both for escape and to deliver the substitute crew to steal the sub? There had to have been a reason for the faked destruction of the other sub a few months ago, and its meeting with the Narwhal. More importantly, who had the power and financing to capture two U.S. submarines and manipulate crew assignments?
Although their immediate assignment was completed, Steed suspected that the Americans at least would have some more work to do on this case. He doubted that he and Emma would be drawn in to a further investigation involving the U.S. Navy, but quite possibly they’d be called upon to track down the ultimate perpetrator of this caper. So as they cruised along he turned over the events of the case in his mind.
Slip Stream was running at about half her possible speed. Lee had got them moving that morning on just the starboard engine, explaining that the port engine had been running rough the previous afternoon. He could take a look at it, he’d admitted, it was probably just a dirty filter. But he just didn’t feel like it, and they didn’t need to go that fast. Nobody had disagreed. Worst case, they could return to Cruz Bay and call for Leatherneck to come fix it.
By mid-morning they were anchored in a tiny, pristine cove at an island that was barely more than a brush-covered rock.
“George Dog?” Emma said, looking at the chart on the navigation table.
“The Dogs,” Steed circled the tiny pair of islands with his finger, “look like an untouched bit of tropical paradise,” he looked out the windows at the evidence of his statement.
“I have no doubt,” she replied. “Shall we?”
Steed shut down the engine, having received an “all secure” signal from Lee down on the bow. “We shall,” he said, gesturing for her to precede him down the ladder.
“So we can just swim ashore?” Amanda asked, pulling on her flippers. She was sitting on the swim platform at the back of the boat wearing her one-piece swimsuit with a t-shirt over it.
“I’ve got our sandals in my bag,” Emma said, indicating a mesh bag lying on the platform. On Steed’s advice she had put a white woven cotton shirt on over her red suit to cut the sun’s rays while in the water. “Lee said the best snorkeling is on the other side, so we’ll just walk across that little isthmus.” She pointed at a low point on the little rock studded island
“Here,” Lee leaned down from the aft deck with two bottles of water. “Put these in there too, if you don’t mind.”
Emma added the water to her bag and on impulse tossed in the stainless steel dive knife she’d bought herself in Cruz Bay. Lee also had a knife – strapped to his calf.
Shortly they were all kicking through the warm, clear water getting used to their snorkeling gear and admiring the coral, sea fans, and sponges on the bottom. The water was calm, but there were still small swells lapping up onto the beach across a rocky bottom. Steed easily rode in on one, standing up and quickly removing his fins before the next one knocked into his legs. He turned around in time to help Emma up. She rose and turned to face the water, walking backward in her fins up onto the small sandy beach before stopping to remove them.
Amanda, who had very little experience swimming in surf, had less luck. As she tried to struggle over the slippery bottom in her fins they caught on the rocks. A small swell knocked her to her knees.
“Ouch!” she cried as the sharp stones scraped her knees. Lee stepped to her side, his own fins already removed, and helped her rise. He tossed his fins up onto the beach and used both hands to help Amanda turn and walk backwards to the beach.
“Are you alright?” Emma asked, studying Amanda’s knees.
“Just a bruised ego,” Amanda said, reaching down to rub at her injuries. Her left knee was scratched and bleeding a little. “It’ll be okay – not enough blood to draw sharks, right?”
“Certainly not,” Steed agreed, approving of her attitude. Emma loosened the drawstring neck of her bag and handed out their sandals, sticking her fins in her bag at the same time. Without comment Steed handed her his. She cocked an eyebrow at him, but took them and put them in the bag.
“We can cross over to the windward side of the island here,” Lee said, threading his way between rocks and prickly cactus. The others followed.
At the top of the little isthmus, only about ten feet higher than the beach, Steed turned to look back at the boat. Frowning, he grabbed Emma’s arm as she moved to pass him.
“Look,” he said, nodding at the boat. She squinted out across the water in the bright sun. There was a small, brightly painted boat tied to the stern of Slip Stream.
“A local?” she asked, frowning.
“A local thief, I’d say,” he nodded, taking a step back down the hill. They heard the distinctive, uneven rumble of Slip Stream’s port engine, and then the boat exploded in an enormous, fiery flash. Steed automatically wrapped his arms around Emma, turning his back to the explosion to protect her. Ahead of them, just below the top of the hill, Lee pulled Amanda behind a sizeable rock. Debris from the boat fell around them, chunks of fiberglass and wood glowing red hot landed in the brush. A hot bit landed on Steed’s shoulder and he brushed it off before it did more than burn a hole in his wet shirt. He released Emma and they turned to look at the torch that had been Slip Stream. The little local boat had been caught in the blast, its painted wooden sides burning in hot blue flames.
“Damn!” Lee cursed, slamming his open palm against the large rock next to him.
“That was meant for us,” Steed said quietly.
“Was it on a timer? Wouldn’t they have set it for the middle of the night, when we’d definitely be on board?” Amanda asked.
“The engine started before the explosion,” Lee said.
“The port engine,” Steed added, exchanging a look with Lee.
“The one we didn’t use,” Emma nodded understanding.
“Now what?” Amanda asked, looking around at their surroundings. It suddenly didn’t look so much like paradise and a lot like a deserted island.
“Now we’re going to have company,” Lee said, pointing at a red and orange speedboat out in the water beyond the cove where Slip Stream burned. As they watched it turned toward the island and accelerated.
“Let’s get to some cover,” Steed said, looking up the steep hill on the north side of the isthmus. It was dotted with boulders and brush, with a few thicker stands of tall bushes and tress higher up. The others followed him as he threaded his way up the hill, finally stopping behind a pair of large boulders that provided cover from the lower part of the hill.
By then the boat had entered the inlet, giving Slip Stream as wide a berth as possible as it approached the beach. Lee took up a position watching it while the others stayed below the tops of the rocks.
“So let’s inventory,” Amanda said, eying the bag Emma carried. “We’ve got two bottles of water and two knives.”
“The authorities will see the smoke from the fire and come investigate,” Emma pointed out.
“They’ll get here first,” Lee said. “Three are coming ashore, one’s staying on board.”
“Let me have some of that water,” Steed said, extending a hand toward Emma. She allowed herself a small smile at him as she handed over the bag. He smiled back, exuding the calm confidence she relied upon in these situations. Amanda watched him open one of the bottles and take a long swig of water. Then he handed the bottle to her.
“Mrs. Peel, you and Amanda go up the hill to those larger bushes,” he said, glancing from Emma to the solid wall of brush a few yards up the hill. It would provide better cover than the rocks and more vantage points from which to launch an attack. Understanding his intentions, Emma reached into the bag and fished out her knife.
“Take this?” she offered it to Steed.
“No, thank you Mrs. Peel. Knife work is more your style,” he said. She grinned and tucked the sheathed knife into the waistband of her bathing suit.
“Let’s go,” she said to Amanda, setting off up the hill between two rocks that provided some cover. Amanda glanced at Lee, who nodded to her, then followed the other woman. Lee watched them go, then looked at Steed. The British agent had already moved to the far edge of their covering rocks to study the lay of the hillside below them.
Lee was surprised by Emma’s quick departure — he had expected her to at least kiss Steed, but she had left as if going for a stroll and Steed had immediately turned his attention to business. But that’s Steed, the ultimate professional, Lee realized. Steed had done his own inventory and realized that Emma was his best weapon. He’s put her in reserve; he’s not protecting her, which is why I’m glad Amanda went. And Emma, he realized, was as coldly professional as Steed. She understood his strategy with a look and acted on it. I guess that’s why British Intelligence is so good.
The three men had spread out and started up the hill, moving from rock to bush.
“Be careful,” Lee and Steed heard one of them say, “they’re pros.”
“Whatever,” another grumbled, advancing quickly up the hill using very little cover. As he came alongside the rocks Lee and Steed were crouched behind, Lee lunged out and punched him with a right to his jaw, following with a swift left that landed on his shoulder. The man stumbled, aiming wildly and firing his gun. Lee ducked low, driving his head into the man’s ribs and taking him down. Lee reared back onto his knees, ready to strike again, but the man lay still, his head at an awkward angle. Lee reached down and took the gun out of the man’s unresisting hand.
At the sound of the gun the other two men had ducked behind large rocks down the slope. Lee resumed his position and scanned the hillside below.
“Cover me,” Steed said, edging out from behind the rocks on the other side. Lee continued to scan the hillside as Steed darted down and across to a nearby large rock. Lee watched him climb up on the rock, pause, then leap down on the other side.
Steed landed squarely on the shoulders of the man who’d taken cover behind the boulder. The impact knocked the man’s gun from his hand. They rolled together a few feet down the hill crushing scraggly plants and being bruised by small rocks. As they struggled the third man popped up from behind a rock a few yards to the right. Lee fired at him and he ducked back down.
Steed wrestled with his man, his right forearm planted across his opponent’s throat, his other hand around the man’s neck pulling forward. Gasping at the pressure against his esophagus, the man used his legs to roll them both, placing all of his weight on Steed, but he was smaller, and Steed’s well-muscled frame withstood the weight. The man punched at Steed’s left arm, trying to loosen the chokehold, but Steed held, rolling them again to put his weight on top. He felt the man relax, finally succumbing to the lack of air. Steed pressed harder, sensing imminent victory. Then everything went dark.
Steed’s arms went limp and the man coughed, shoving Steed off of him. He sat up and dropped the sharp rock that his hand had landed on. It had been the simplest sort of luck, grasping the rock and landing a clean blow to the bastard’s head. He rose to a crouch and looked around for his gun. He didn’t find it – thought he must have flung it into the bushes. He reached around to his back to feel the sheathed knife tucked into his belt. Lucky the bastard hadn’t noticed that.
Sucking in a slow, painful breath, he started up the hill, keeping rocks and brush between himself and the big boulders he knew the rest of them were behind.
Lee wasn’t sure what had happened. Steed didn’t reappear, but neither did his opponent. The third man was still down there, but Lee thought he had moved. All he could do was watch and wait.
Emma crouched behind a boulder just below the thickest of the bushes watching the man work his way up the hill. She’d seen Steed leap off the rock, and then this man had appeared, keeping rocks and bushes between himself and Lee’s hiding place, but obviously unaware of Emma and Amanda’s position. Something – an impossible bond between them, or just blind hope – told her that Steed was down, but not out. In any case it was up to her to finish the job.
There were few shadows in the hot mid-day sun, so she melded herself as closely as she could to the rock beside her. The man passed her by, or thought to. As he came up beside her position she sprang out, punching with her right hand, her knife in her left. He staggered back against the trunk of a dead tree, then reached behind himself and drew a big knife. Emma switched her small dive knife to her right hand, crouching balanced for an attack in the narrow space.
He glanced at her little knife, an amused grin filling his face. Then he looked into her eyes and his grin faded. Pure, calculated violence shone in her eyes. She’s a wildcat, this one, he felt a surge of excitement at the prospect of hand-to-hand combat. He lunged at her and she dodged back easily. He swung his long blade, barely missing her bare stomach as she arched her body around it. Fast as lightening she ducked under his extended arm and sliced his side. She came up against the tree trunk and turned to face him just in time to roll out of the way of his vicious upward thrust. Spinning, she tripped and landed sitting on a cactus, long needles piercing her skin right through her bathing suit. Yelping, she rolled off the prickly plant just as his next blow landed, a hard downward thrust right into the succulent.
Now he yelled as the long needles stabbed and grazed his wrist. Emma half rose, driving her knife between his shoulders before he could extract his hand. He reeled back, knocking her aside. Behind him Amanda stepped in and landed a heavy blow on his head with a rock. He fell at her feet and she dropped her makeshift weapon. A bullet fired from down the hill whizzed by Amanda’s head and she dropped to the all fours, staring at Emma. They heard another shot from down the hill.
“Are you hurt?” she asked.
“Only from the cactus,” Emma replied. “The blood is all his.” She reached out and took his big knife, sheathing hers.
“Come on,” Amanda took her arm and dragged her in behind a big rock as another bullet passed just above their heads.
Lee couldn’t see what the man below him was shooting at, but he had to assume it was Amanda and Emma. He returned fire, his own bullets hitting rock as the man expertly ducked. Lee paused to pull out the clip in the gun he’d acquired. Only three more bullets. None to waste.
The third man darted from rock to rock expecting to draw fire. None came, so he moved again, working his way in the same direction his companion had. He soon came upon Steed’s prone body and from that position could see Lee still scanning the hillside looking for him. He inched toward Lee, leaning his arms on a rock to steady his aim.
Cold metal pressed against his temple. He shoved sideways, ducking his head as Steed fired the gun that he had found himself lying on when he regained consciousness. Lee spun to face them at the sound of the shot, but before he could aim and fire Steed rebounded with a solid punch to the man’s guts followed by a blow with the gun to the back of his head. The man fell.
“How many is that?” Lee asked quietly. Steed rubbed at the sore spot on the back of his head and rejoined Lee in the cover of the large rocks.
“Your one, this one, and the third one got away,” Steed said, turning to look up the hill. He saw no sign of the women, or the third man.
A burst of gunfire from an automatic weapon made him drop to the ground behind the rocks.
“The driver, in the boat,” Lee said at Steed’s surprised expression. “He’s got a good angle on us – we’re pinned down here.”
Steed inched up to the top of the rock with his commandeered gun. He got off one shot at the boat before another blast of bullets forced him back down.
“I suppose we could keep that up until he runs out of ammunition,” Steed said dryly. Lee nodded. “Never fear,” Steed went on, “Mrs. Peel will think of something.”
Lee put his back against the rock and crouched beside Steed, wiping sweat from his brow with the heel of his hand and studying the gun he held.
“You’ve got a lot of faith in her,” he said.
“I have to.”
“Yeah. I know what you mean.”
Emma and Amanda worked their way laterally along the hillside until the smoking ruin of Slip Stream was between them and the smaller speedboat. Then they worked their way down, freezing each time the driver in the small boat fired a blast of bullets at the hillside. But he was still aiming at the rocks where Steed and Lee were, or had been. He hadn’t yet seen the women.
Clinging to the vague notion that they might run him out of ammunition, Steed popped up and fired a single shot at the boat, not really aiming, but glancing around the inlet as he fired. He dropped back down as the driver returned fire.
“Emma and Amanda are in the water, swimming toward the boat,” he said to Lee as he pulled out the clip on his gun to count the bullets.
“What?” Lee rose up before Steed could stop him, firing a shot at the boat and looking for the women. Emma was at the back of the speedboat, Amanda just behind her. Lee dropped back down in a haze of bullets and rock chips. The driver’s aim was getting better.
“We’ve got to cover them, keep him looking this way,” Lee said.
“I have three shots. You?”
“Then I’ll go first. And Stetson?”
“Don’t hit the women.”
Emma clenched her teeth on the big knife and timed her movements with the swells as she carefully pulled herself out of the water and over the stern of the boat. It was a fast design, consisting mostly of rounded fiberglass deck with a small, four-person cockpit. A single shot rang out from up the hill and the driver fired off another burst. Good Steed, keep him focused. Emma glided across the afterdeck and stepped down onto one of the padded rear seats. Another shot from up the hill held the driver’s attention. She waited until he’d fired his rounds, then made her move.
Not wanting to fight him, not with that automatic weapon, she carefully slipped her left hand around under his chin and lifted it sharply, placing the blade of the big knife against his throat with the other hand.
“Drop the gun,” she ordered quietly, her left hand pressing his head of greasy black hair back against her shoulder. He raised his hands in front of himself, letting the gun drop to the floor at his feet. Amanda, who had slipped aboard as Emma attacked, hurried forward to retrieve the weapon. She set it on a rear seat, then grabbed a length of line from a compartment under the dashboard and used it to tie his hands.
“Steed? Lee?” Emma called out, scanning the hillside. It pleased her no end to once again rescue Steed from a tight spot.
When he rose from behind the rocks he could see her grin from all the way up the hill. While many men might be annoyed at her self-satisfied expression, Steed felt only gratitude that she was his.
“What if some sailors on vacation stop to snorkel?” Amanda asked, half turning in the front passenger seat to glance around at Steed and Emma in the back.
“I should think Slip Stream smoking away there would be enough of a deterrent for most people,” Emma replied, looking to Steed for agreement. Lee in the driver’s seat eased the boat into reverse to maneuver out of the small bay. They had dragged their three attackers down the hill and left them on the beach with the boat driver. They’d tied him with his hands in front and a bottle of water.
“Probably,” Steed agreed, “but just the same we should get to a telephone as quickly as possible.”
“The Bitter End,” Lee said, swiveling in his seat to monitor his backward progress. “That’s probably the closest phone.”
“Sounds rather desperate,” Emma said, arching a brow at him. He turned back around and put the transmission in forward.
“It’s a yacht club and resort,” he said, steering toward the mouth of the bay. “On Virgin Gorda.” Satisfied with his course, he gunned the engines. The speedboat leapt forward pressing all four passengers deep into their seats. Emma instinctively reached for Steed’s hand.
“I don’t suppose you tucked a credit card into that bag of yours, Emma?” Amanda asked. She was sitting cross-legged on a dock studying her stained shirt.
Emma, sitting on the edge of the dock, swished her feet in the water and rolled from one thigh to the other to ease her multiple cactus wounds. “No. But I’m going to make a point of it in future. This is the second time in two months that I’ve lost all my luggage on a trip with Steed.”
“Here we are,” Steed strolled up with Lee, each of them holding two glasses full of a pinkish red beverage.
Amanda climbed to her feet and took hers from Lee while Steed sat down beside Emma to dangle his feet beside hers.
“What’s this?” Emma asked, sniffing the drink suspiciously.
“Rum punch. The bartender took pity on us. They’re on the house,” Steed raised his glass to her and took a long draught. She shrugged and sipped, then took a longer gulp.
“Refreshing,” she said.
“Watch it,” Lee said from behind them, “it’ll sneak up on you.”
“I’m sure,” Emma said, taking another sip.
“Did you reach anyone?” Amanda asked Lee.
“Yes. We’ll be picked up here, shortly by a local operative with a boat. There’s a clean-up team en-route to George Dog.”
“So all’s well that ends well,” Emma said. “Except we don’t know who sent them.”
“Or if they’re going to send more,” Steed added.
The four waited in silence, sipping their drinks and thinking. Gradually they became aware of the sound of a small engine approaching. Amanda spotted it first: an inflatable dinghy, more patches than original grey rubber, driven by a small, wiry man with handsomely sharp features and a mop of dark blonde hair. He wore baggy shorts and no shirt.
“Could that be our contact?” Amanda asked, sounding skeptical.
Nobody had answered by the time the man steered his small craft along side the dock. Emma and Steed pulled their feet out of the water and Steed reached out to take the dinghy painter. The man stopped the noisy outboard engine and nodded thanks at Steed, who had secured the line to a cleat on the dock.
“Tough day?” the man asked, looking at each of them in turn.
“Nothing out of the ordinary,” Lee replied.
“Funny, I thought I saw a scarecrow on fire out by the Dogs. Know anything about that?” the man asked, eyeing Lee appraisingly.
“Barr?” Lee asked. “Jeremy Barr?”
“Right. So you’re the four. As if you could be anyone else,” he glanced around the quiet resort marina. A pair of gardeners scraped with rakes at the underbrush nearby, but otherwise there was nobody around, except at the bar far up the dock. “Let’s get you out of sight.”
He held the dinghy close alongside the dock so that they could climb in and arrange themselves on its squishy, underinflated sides. It was barely big enough for five adults.
“Watch my elbow,” Barr warned as he yanked the cord to restart the engine. “Undo that line, if you will,” he added after it roared to life. Steed uncleated the line and Barr steered them away from the dock without further comment. He drove slowly so as not to swamp the little boat, aiming for wooden sailboat with classically elegant lines anchored at the outer edge of the collection of boats moored near the dock.
“Wow,” Amanda said as Barr stopped the dinghy alongside the boat where a ladder hung from the rail down into the water. “She’s beautiful.”
“Thanks,” Barr said, his tone impassive, but pride showing on this face. “One at a time, please. Make yourselves comfortable. I’ll get her ready to go.”
One by one they climbed up the ladder and under a canvas awning into the boat’s cockpit. Barr stood in the dinghy, walking it back to the stern before securing it to a cleat on the deck of the sailboat. Then he sprang up over the stern and walked forward, stopping to lift the ladder up out of the water and lay it on deck. Securing it with small lines, he returned to the stern and climbed in under the awning, ending up standing behind the big, wooden wheel.
“Can a couple of you go forward and haul in the anchor? I’ll motor forward.”
Lee and Steed immediately climbed out from under the awning and went forward on either side of the boom and mast, meeting on the forward deck. Emma sat down on one of the wooden side benches in the cockpit and Amanda, after watching Lee and Steed for a moment, sat down opposite her. Barr turned a key in a panel mounted on the steering column and somewhere below them the engine rumbled to life. He moved a metal lever on the side of the column forward and the boat followed suit. Up on the bow Lee and Steed worked together to haul in the anchor line. Quite soon Lee turned and flashed a thumb’s up signal at them. Barr pushed forward on the accelerator and turned the boat away from the other moored boats.
“Can we sail?” Amanda asked, eyeing Barr. He struck her as a serious, unfriendly sort, and she wondered how long they’d have to be on his boat.
“I don’t know, can you?” he replied, returning her look. She missed the hint of a smile that only touched his lips but shone in his eyes. Emma didn’t. She grinned at Barr, who glanced at her and allowed his smile to widen.
“Yes,” Emma said, looking at Amanda for her answer.
“Me? Yes, a little. I earned my Junior Trailblazers badge when I was a kid.”
“Good,” Barr said, “That’s how I learned. Why don’t you set some sail, then?” Amanda was too surprised to reply. She rose and studied the array of lines leading from the base of the mast back to the cockpit. “Everything’s cockpit rigged and labeled,” Barr went on. “I run her for charter, so it has to be easy.” His tone suggested distaste for this necessity. But Amanda became grateful for it as she examined the clearly labeled lines. She did know enough about sailing, and sailing lingo, to find the lines she needed to raise the mainsail.
“Can you put her into the wind?” she asked Barr. He looked forward at Steed and Lee, who were just finishing stowing the anchor. He nodded and turned the wheel, pointing the bow of the boat directly into the breeze. Amanda took hold of the line marked “main halyard” and pulled. The mainsail, folded loosely on the boom, began to climb up the mast. Emma rose and joined Amanda.
“Put it on the winch,” she said, holding up the heavy metal winch handle. Amanda stopped pulling and wrapped the line around a small winch mounted by the companionway, then continued to pull while Emma fitted the handle into the winch and turned it. The sail climbed quickly the rest of the way up the mast. While Amanda cleated the halyard Emma located the main sheet and looked to Barr for instruction.
“What point of sail?” she asked.
“Strap her in tight for now. We’ve got to get out of here then it’s a reach for a while.”
Emma set the sail based on his instructions, finding and adjusting other control lines while Amanda coiled and stowed the long length of halyard. Barr turned the wheel and the sail filled, causing the boat to heel slightly to port.
Steed and Lee rejoined them just then, grabbing handholds and swinging down into the cockpit.
“How about the jib?” Amanda asked.
“Be my guest,” Barr said, pointing at a canvas bag suspended above the foredeck. “It’s hanked on. You just have to unzip the bag and haul it up.”
Amanda rose to the challenge, climbing out of the cockpit and making her way forward holding onto various handholds as she went. Emma went to the leeward winch at the side of the cockpit and wrapped the jib sheet around it.
“Easy the lazy sheet, Steed?” she asked, nodding at the windward winch that he was closest to. He checked to see that the line was free. From up on the bow they heard Amanda’s voice call out.
“Okay, it’s free!”
Catching on, Lee located the jib halyard and glanced at Barr. The skipper turned the wheel, putting the bow back into the wind. Lee hauled on the line as the mainsail shuddered above them. Emma took up the slack on the jib sheet and waited for Lee to finish raising the sail. Up on the bow Amanda seated herself on the foredeck, leaning back on her hands to watch the sail fly up the forestay.
“Secure,” Lee announced as he cleated the halyard. Emma hauled in on the sheet, using the winch to tighten it further as Barr turned the wheel back. Both sails filled and the boat heeled over, more now than before with both sails up.
“Lovely!” Emma said, leaning back on the leeward bench with her arms spread to either side. Braced on the high side, Steed admired the contrast between her auburn hair and the aqua water behind her.
“This is a good heading to clear the reefs,” Barr said. “But it’s a narrow opening, so I’ll just get us through. Then one of you can steer, and I’ll scare up some provisions. If you’re hungry. Orders are to deliver you to San Juan, Puerto Rico. It’s a hundred miles, about fourteen hours, so we’ll sail through the night and get there in the morning,” He paused to glance at the sails, then looked down at Steed, “sometimes I think they forget I own a sailboat. Unless they’re trying to get you folks out of the way for a few hours.”
Steed returned his stare, then looked across at Emma, one eyebrow cocked.
True to his word, Barr steered the boat out of Virgin Gorda’s North Sound between treacherous reefs. Then he had them adjust the sails as he changed course, heading west and south back toward Tortola. Lee had gone up to the bow to sit with Amanda and they were clearly quite comfortable there. Barr glanced at Steed and patted the wheel, his brows rising with a silent offer.
“Love too,” Steed replied, rising to slip behind the wheel.
“She’s balanced, and tender. Got her?”
“Just how I like my women,” Steed muttered, taking the wheel. Barr cast him a surprised look, then looked at Emma, clearly wondering about his previous assumptions. Emma groaned and shook her head.
“Incorrigible,” she said. Steed grinned affectionately at her. “Shall I help you?” she asked Barr.
“Sure,” he started down the companionway ladder.
“Be good,” Steed said as Emma moved to follow.
“Have you been in this business for long?” Barr asked, poking his head into an icebox under a hinged lid built into a counter in the galley.
“A few years, on and off,” Emma replied, studying the boat’s interior. The classic lines and woodwork she had noted outside were carried through inside. The combined salon and galley were finished with warm wood and tasteful fabrics. A shelf of books included sailing manuals and light fiction. Radios, including a single sideband like the one on Slip Stream, and other instruments were mounted above the navigation desk. The galley was equipped with a propane stove, stainless steel sink, and the cooler that Barr had his head in. Doors at the forward end of the salon and aft, behind the navigation desk, must lead to cabins. It was smaller than Slip Stream, but Emma preferred the wood and efficient use of space.
“Part-timer?” Barr asked, emerging from the cooler with various items in his hands.
“Something like that,” Emma replied, unwilling to reveal her history without a better understanding of who Barr was. He set several bottles of beer in the sink and reached back into the cooler.
“There’s a bucket on the floor, under the table. Put the beer in it and I’ll dig out some ice,” he instructed. Emma followed his orders, placing the canvas bucket on the counter next to the sink. He dropped two big hands full of chipped ice into the bucket, then pulled two more beers out of the cooler and opened them on a metal opener mounted on the bulkhead. He handed one to her and took a swig of his. “Reward for helping,” he explained. She took a big gulp, thinking that she needed to consume something other than alcohol soon.
Barr produced a tray from a low cabinet and set several foil-wrapped packages from the cooler on it. “Cheese and stuff. Unwrap them and I’ll try to find some crackers that aren’t soggy.”
Emma put her beer in the sink so it wouldn’t tip as the boat rolled over the swells and started opening the packages.
“So are you a ‘part timer’?” she asked.
“Civilian aid, you might say,” he replied. “They call on me when they need someone who knows his way around and won’t stand out. I’m known up and down Caribbean, so I’m practically invisible.”
“A ‘talented amateur’,” Emma said, smiling.
He nodded, “you could say that. You too?”
She shrugged, deciding that she liked Barr. His understated modesty was very nearly British, although he was clearly American, “I’ve been called that,” she said. He set a box of crackers on the tray and paused to sip his beer, watching her as he did.
“It’s a tough business. Not many ‘amateurs’ in it. How’d you get involved?”
“I was recruited for some of my – less obvious – talents,” she said, knowing he had taken the time to admire her body and wishing she had more clothes.
“By Steed?” he asked, focusing his attention on the contents of a drawer.
He found a pair of mismatched paring knives in the drawer and set them on the tray with the cheeses and length of hard salami that Emma had unwrapped. He grinned up at her, “balanced and tender, hum?” he asked, then laughed at her annoyed expression. “Sorry,” he added, taking several apples and pears out of a net bag hanging over the sink and adding them to the tray.
“My balance is certain,” she replied, regaining her composure, “as for tenderness, that’s a matter of opinion.”
“And I suspect there’s only one opinion that matters to you,” he nodded, sipping his beer. “Too bad.”
Barr took the helm back while the others consumed the snack that he and Emma brought up, then handed it over to Amanda while he went below to see what spare clothes he could find.
“People are always leaving things behind,” he explained as he climbed down the companionway ladder. “I’m sure I can scare up some shirts, if nothing else. And the water tanks are full, so you can all have short showers.”
“That would be my idea of heaven right now,” Amanda said.
When Barr had gone Lee finished off his beer and cleared his throat. “I’ve been thinking,” he said, looking at each of the others in turn. “About what Barr said.”
“About someone wanting to keep us out of the way,” Steed said, nodding.
“Do you think we’ve been diverted?” Emma asked. When Barr left she’d scooted closer to Steed for warmth as the sun descended. He obligingly put his arm around her shoulders.
“Could be,” he said. “Could your call have been intercepted, Lee?”
Lee shrugged, “It would have to be someone inside the Elder 6 project: the recognition codes checked out. I spoke to the communications officer. He told me to expect the pick-up, and Barr showed up.”
“But maybe Barr wasn’t our contact after all,” Amanda said in a hushed voice. Her grip on the wheel was tense.
“I think he’s legitimate,” Emma said. Steed looked at her, brows raised. She threw him a teasing smile.
“We could mutiny,” Lee suggested, “take the boat to the nearest town near an airport and –.”
“Catch a plane in our bathing suits?” Amanda asked. “Without passports?”
“And no money. That would be a challenge,” Emma chuckled.
“I think we should play it out,” Steed said. “If Mrs. Peel is right, then we can count on Barr to help if something happens. If not, well, there are four of us to one of him.”
“One now, but if we’re met by another squad of assasins –.”
Amanda stopped mid-sentence as Barr’s head appeared in the companionway.
“I’ve dug out clothes and some toiletries,” he said. “Everything’s down here on the table. I can take the helm while you sort through it.”
“Lee, what was that?” Amanda sat up on the berth they were sharing and shook his shoulder.
“What?” he mumbled, his face buried in a pillow. They had been on watch until thirty minutes before. Lee had fallen asleep the moment he laid down, but Amanda had been lying awake, still not convinced that Barr, who had taken over from them, could be trusted.
“It sounds like a motor, outside,” she said, shaking him until he rolled onto his back, coming fully awake. He froze, listening to the sound she had heard. There was a thump right above their heads and he sat up and slid off the berth to his feet.
The cabin door was open to allow air circulation. Lee slipped out into the dark salon and looked through the companionway, staying well back in the shadows away from the opening.
Barr stood stiffly at the helm, an atypical stance for him – earlier he had steered with his feet while seated in the back corner of the cockpit. As Lee studied him, Barr’s eyes flicked down to Lee, then to his extreme left, then back at Lee. Lee nodded, then pointed up. Barr’s eyes looked up and to port, then back at Lee. Lee nodded. There was a man to Barr’s left, and another up on deck, on the port side. At least two.
“How many?” Lee mouthed. Barr adjusted his grip on the wheel so Lee could see four fingers. He nodded, moving further forward into the darkness and gesturing to Amanda to follow him. He placed his mouth next to her ear, “wake Steed and Emma,” he said.
Amanda crept past him and into the forward cabin. The bunk was empty. Dim moonlight filtering in through the tinted hatch above the berth revealed a rumpled sheet and pillows that bore the indentations of heads. Then Emma’s pale, round face caught the light: the English woman was crouching in the sail storage space further forward. Then Amanda noticed that the door to the head on the right side of the cabin was cracked open. She saw a sliver of Steed’s face through the crack. He nodded at her and she started to back out of the cabin. There was a thump above their heads and she glanced upward. A shadow moved across the hatch – a hand holding a gun outlined by the bright moon.
Amanda crept back into the salon, eyes fixed on the hatch. She jumped as Lee put his hands on her shoulders from behind. He pressed her down and under the big dining table in the salon, then crouched down under it with her.
“They’re getting into position,” Lee whispered at the sound of another thump above them.
“Put her into the wind,” the man crouched at the back of the cockpit near Barr ordered. Barr obliged, turning the boat a full ninety degrees to starboard until she pointed the direction that the wind was blowing from. With the wind no longer coming from behind to fill them, the sails began to shudder loudly. The boom swung across the deck to the centerline, shuddering and rattling.
A man who had been crouching on the cabin roof jumped down through the companionway just as the boom swept across the deck. He landed on the floor at the base of the ladder and swung round into the narrow space behind the navigation desk, aiming and firing through the open door into the cabin where Lee and Amanda had been resting.
At the same time shots were fired up on the bow. The forward hatch shattered under the impact and the berth was riddled with bullets. The gunman on the bow crouched to avoid being struck by the flapping jib and jib sheets.
The third man on deck ducked under the swinging boom and stood by the shrouds, aiming his gun at Barr.
The man on the bow kicked the remains of the hatch out and dropped down through it, landing on the bullet-shredded berth. Steed burst out of the head, throwing himself on the man and pinning him to the berth. The man heaved up, throwing Steed to the right and firing his gun over his shoulder at him. His shot missed, barely, as Steed flattened himself on the berth. Emma reached out to slip a heavy winch handle into Steed’s hand. He glanced over and winked at her, then rolled back toward the gunman swinging the handle at his head. It connected with a sickening crack and the man slumped on the berth. Steed rose and rolled him over, removing the gun from his hand.
In the salon, Lee slipped out from under the table and stepped up behind the gunman who was firing into the aft cabin. Lee took a heavy brass lantern from the hook it hung on over the navigation desk and slammed it on the back of the gunman’s head. To his surprise, the man swung around, dazed but not knocked out. But he was trapped in the narrow space between the navigation desk and the aft cabin doorway. Lee swung hard and hit him in the face, then grabbed his gun arm and banged it on the desk. The gunman dropped the gun on the desk and Amanda popped up and grabbed it as Lee landed a final punch.
At the sound of the gunshots, Barr spun the wheel back to leeward, throwing himself at the man beside him with the gun at the same time. The boom swung out to port as the boat turned and the wind re-filled the sail. The man standing by the shrouds threw his hands up in front of his face as the varnished wooden spar slammed into him, lifting him over the lifelines and overboard, just as Barr had intended.
The man beside Barr fired as he fell backwards, off balance as the boat heeled. A streak of fire seared Barr’s scalp and he collapsed on top of the man. Bright lights shot across his vision, and his right eye was blinded. He clawed his way to his knees, feeling flesh and bone beneath his hands and knees. Through his left eye he saw that the gunman had slipped between the upper and lower lifelines with his legs still in the cockpit and his torso hanging out over the side of the boat. He held on to the upper lifeline with one hand. The other hand held the gun, which was aimed at Barr.
Hoping his vision was impaired and the gun wasn’t really pointed right at him, Barr grabbed for it, wrapping both hands around the man’s wrist and squeezing. Barr’s hands and forearms were conditioned from years of hauling lines and steering his boat through rough weather. He felt bone grind against bone in the man’s wrists as he squeezed, but the man’s cry of pain was drowned out by the sound of water rushing past just below him. The man’s grip loosened under the pressure and the gun started to slip. With an angry cry the man let go of the lifeline to grab the gun. Barr shoved at him, pressing him toward the water just as the lower lifeline snapped. The man’s thighs hit the deck with a crack, then he started to slide into the water. Barr let go of his hands and gave his knees a push and he disappeared over the side.
Barr fell back onto the aft bench and automatically put his hands on the wheel, bringing the boat back onto a proper course so that the sails filled and she sprang forward.
Emma poked her head out of the companionway and saw Barr, his head covered in blood. She climbed out, glancing around for any more attackers, and slipped behind the wheel to inspect the skipper.
“He just grazed me,” he croaked. Emma studied his head and decided she agreed. “Anyone hurt?” he asked. She had to smile at his bravado.
“Just you. And all of them. Where’s your first aid kit?”
“On the starboard side shelf just forward of the galley.”
“I’d suggest you move, but I guess you can steer this boat half conscious. So just wait here,” she climbed back around the wheel and back below. Lee and Steed had dragged both men onto the forward berth and Amanda was in the process of tying them up.
“Barr’s hurt?” Steed asked her as she squeezed past him and located the first aid kit.
“A flesh wound,” she said. “Bullet grazed him. One of you could come steer so I can see to it.”
She climbed back out into the cockpit and settled next to Barr, opening the first aid kit between them.
“Don’t worry, Barr,” she said as she used a piece of gauze to wipe the blood away from the long wound, “I’ve worked undercover as a nurse several times.”
Barr laughed, making Emma smile as she pressed fresh gauze against his head to try to stop the bleeding. “And have you ever lost a patient?” he asked. She thought about it for a moment.
“Never due to my treatment,” she said. “It’s always complications.”
“Let me take the wheel,” Amanda said coming up behind her. “You need light to do that properly.”
“Yes. Thanks,” Emma picked up Barr’s left hand and pressed it to the gauze on this head. “Hold that, and come with me,” she instructed him, closing the first aid kit. Amanda slipped behind the wheel from the other side forcing Barr to follow Emma.
“Where are we?” Amanda asked from her position at the helm. Lee was beside her easing the line on the small powerboat that their attackers had arrived in so they towed it further behind them. Steed, Emma, and Barr, his head wrapped in a bandage, climbed out into the cockpit and handed their companions mugs of hot coffee. “Oh, thank you,” Amanda added, sipping the warm liquid.
“That’s St. Thomas,” Barr indicated a mound of dark land studded with a few lights off to the south. “We’re about thirty miles from San Juan. That’s about four hours sailing, except that thing’s slowing us down,” he glanced at the powerboat. “It’ll be more like five and a half. If we keep it.”
“I think we should,” Steed said. “I’m tired of having to accept too few options.”
“Agreed,” Lee said, watching Amanda steer. The breeze was picking up and she was having to put some effort into it. But she seemed content.
“Eight men and two boats in less than twenty-four hours,” Emma said, sipping her coffee. “Who has resources like that?”
“This lot wasn’t as good as the last,” Steed observed, rubbing the back of his head with his hand. “Perhaps they’ve finally run out.”
It was nearly ten o’clock in the morning when Barr, his head throbbing but his pride requiring that he drive his own boat, docked them in a marina in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Lee and Emma handed the dock lines to dock boys and Barr shut down the engine. The sails were down and flaked, the lines all properly coiled. Steed had radioed in and learned that Lee and Amanda’s supervisor was there to meet them. This had sent Amanda into the head with a washcloth and hairbrush.
A man and woman came along the dock toward them, the man calling to Lee as they approached. Lee jumped onto the dock and went to meet them. Emma stood on the boat by the shrouds watching. He was a portly black man in a lightweight suit. Despite his bulk, he seemed light on his feet, and his face was both intelligent and friendly as he greeted Lee. The woman was tall, blond, and dressed to kill in a white linen suit and low-heeled pumps that tapped loudly on the dock as she walked. She carried a bulky portfolio and a Gucci handbag just large enough for a gun. She appeared to be all business, although her greeting for Lee was also warm.
Emma heard Steed and Amanda climbing into the cockpit and glanced at them. Amanda tied her soiled shirt in a knot at her waist over her bathing suit. She was wearing a pair of running shorts from Barr’s supplies, and she had obviously taken a moment to see to her appearance. Curious, Emma watched her friend step off the boat. Lee and the new comers walked back to the boat, stopping on the dock next to where Emma stood on deck.
“Billy, Francine, this is Lady Emma Peel,” Lee said. “Emma, this is Billy Melrose and Francine Desmond. Them, we can trust.”
“How do you do?” Emma said, remembering that Amanda had described Mr. Melrose to her during their long hours on Slip Stream. Amanda was quite fond of the man.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lady Emma,” Billy replied. “Your reputation precedes you.”
“Yes,” Francine added. Emma sensed insincerity and wondered why. “Oh, Amanda, there you are!”
Emma watched Amanda and Francine share a light embrace, then Amanda shook Billy’s hand.
“It’s so good to see you both,” she said.
“And we’re glad to see you too, Amanda. It looks as if you’ve had a rough trip,” Billy replied.
“Very. A bit overwhelming for you, Amanda?” Francine drawled, looking Amanda up and down. Now Emma understood Amanda’s attempt at freshening up. But it hardly seemed worth it – clearly no matter how she looked this Francine person would have been catty.
“And this is John Steed,” Lee added, noticing that Steed had stepped up on deck next to Emma.
“Melrose,” Steed said, nodding at Billy.
“Good to see you again, Steed,” Billy replied, then seeing the others’ surprised looks he added, “Steed and I worked together a few times – when I was still in the field,” he looked appraisingly at Steed’s lean, somewhat scarred frame, which was revealed by the swimming trunks and polo shirt he was wearing. “And it doesn’t look like you’re planning to give it up any time soon.”
“No,” Francine said, eyeing Steed. “Francine Desmond,” she said, stepping closer to offer Steed her hand.
“A pleasure,” he said, shaking it. He cast Francine one of his most flirtatious smiles, then glanced at Emma to see if she’d noticed. She pursed her lips at him and he winked. Francine caught the exchange and stepped back, avoiding Emma’s sharp look.
“We’ve arranged hotel rooms for you all to use, and you’re booked on flights this evening,” Billy said. “We’ll take you there and you can rest, then we’ll debrief you before you go.”
“Go?” Lee said, his meaning clear.
“Go. You four are too hot here. We’ve got other agents on it.”
“Billy, this is our case. Someone out there wants us dead. You bet I’m hot.”
But Billy just shook his head. “Francine has your documents and there’s luggage for you at the hotel.”
“Let’s get some rest, Lee, and we can discuss it later,” Amanda suggested, putting her arm through his. He glanced at her then nodded.
Francine opened her portfolio and handed thick folders to each of them. Then she looked past Lee and Amanda into the cockpit of the boat.
“Barr?” she said, stepping around the agents and raising a foot to climb up on the boat. Barr, who was standing by the companionway, cast a sharp look at her foot and raised his hand. She stopped mid step and put her foot back on the dock. Slipping out of her shoes with an apologetic smile she stepped up on to the boat. She stepped into the cockpit and to the complete surprise of everyone, including, it seemed, Barr, she leaned forward and kissed him. “You’re wounded. Nobody told me you’d been hurt,” she glanced at the others, focusing on Billy, “Where’s that medical team?”
“Coming, Francine,” Billy said.
Barr looked supremely embarrassed by her attention. “It’s not that bad, Francine,” he muttered. “Let it go.”
“No way. You need to see a doctor.”
“I need my boat to see a doctor,” he replied.
Emma sat down on the bed in the room she’d been shown to and opened the folder Francine had handed her. She removed a new British passport, then looked inside the folder to find driver’s license, credit card, and other forms of identification, as well as two bundles of cash — US Dollars and British Pounds. She opened the passport and gasped in surprise. A knock on the door to the adjoining room drew her attention and she rose and walked over to unlock and open it.
Steed leaned on the doorframe holding out a glass of bubbling champagne. She smiled at the twinkle in his eye and took it, then walked back toward the bed. He followed her.
“Where did these documents come from, do you think?” she asked, opening the passport again. He glanced over her shoulder at it, then looked again.
“Our people. They would have made them up when we reported Slip Stream’s loss and flown them here overnight.”
“Well, it seems that they’ve taken care of a bit of red-tape on my behalf,” she said. Steed took a gulp of his champagne, then leaned in and kissed her cheek. “You are set on being known as Emma Knight again,” he pointed out.
Emma sighed and replaced the passport in the folder. “My old one was nearly expired,” she said.
“Well then, they’ve done you a double favor,” he replied, although he could tell she didn’t regard the replacement as a favor.
“The old one had so many visas and stamps,” she said, sitting down on the bed. He sat down beside her, slipping his arm around her. She looked into his eyes and he saw that she was genuinely sad. “I used to like to look through it. It was like a memory book. Paris, Venice, Berlin . . .”
“Time to start over. There will be new ones in there soon enough darling,” he said, pressing his lips to her forehead. She smiled and raised her face, bringing her lips to his. They were both too weary to share more than a warm, gentle kiss.
“I need a shower,” she said. “So do you.”
“And then come lie down,” he said. She nodded rising and crossing to the suitcase that sat open on a luggage rack. He rose too, crossing back to his room.
A few minutes later Emma, wrapped in a towel, walked into Steed’s room. He was already in the bed, the complimentary bathrobe tossed across the foot.
“No pajamas in your luggage?” she asked, dropping her towel and climbing in with him.
“I didn’t notice,” he sighed sleepily, rolling onto his side to pull her into a face-to-face embrace.
“Me either,” she said, running one hand up and down his back, the other between them just touching his chest. He sighed, his eyes closed. She touched her lips to his nose and snuggled in, closing her own eyes, feeling warm, protected, and loved.
The simultaneous ringing of two telephones jolted Steed and Emma from deep sleep. Realizing that one of the phones was in her room, Emma started to get up. Steed caught her hand and held her back as he picked up the phone by his side of the bed, listened for a moment, and hung up. Emma’s phone stopped ringing.
“Wake up calls,” he said as she settled back into the bed and his embrace.
“What time is it?”
Steed squinted at the clock next to the phone. “Three o’clock.”
“Uffff,” she groaned. “Will I never get a full eight hours sleep again?”
“You’ve never needed eight hours of sleep,” he pointed out. She could tell that the four or so hours they’d just gotten had refreshed him, as it usually did.
“Only because, with you around, I am never able to get it,” she said. He chuckled, his hand wandering across her bare abdomen. “If you start that, they’ll be knocking at the door before we’re done,” she warned, then sat up and moved away from him. He reached after her, but she dodged him. “You know, there is something rather important they failed to include in their little packet,” she said, realization just dawning.
“What’s that?” he asked, giving up his pursuit and relaxing back into the pillows.
He stared at her. “When can you get more?”
She grinned at the urgency in his voice. “I’d have to get the prescription – it’s at the estate. And I use a London chemists – not the one in the village.”
“But how many days can you miss? Before it becomes a – a risk?”
“None, darling, and I’ve already missed today,” she rose to her hands and knees and crawled up to loom over him. She watched him for a moment, saw him forcefully resist his normal reaction to her proximity, which was to reach up and pull her to him. Then she bent down and kissed him, amused at his attempt not to react. “Really, Steed, there are other methods,” she giggled. He looked at once frustrated and embarrassed. “Get dressed.” She crawled off the bed and walked back to her room.
“Steed, you took the news of being sent home rather well,” Emma said as they entered the elevator a few minutes later.
“We have not been sent home, my dear. The Americans have.”
“Now Steed, I think Mr. Melrose was quite clear –.”
“However, Mrs. Peel, we do not work for Mr. Melrose,” Steed pointed out. Emma nodded, pursing her lips. Steed smiled wickedly at her. “We shall hear what the Americans have to say, and then decide on our course of action.”
“We’ve identified a potential leak in the Elder 6 project,” Billy Melrose said. The four agents and Melrose had been seated at a secluded table in the hotel restaurant. A waiter had taken their orders for a late lunch then disappeared. There was a sixth place at the table, but Francine had not joined them.
“Who?” Amanda asked.
“Congressman Sam Holbrook.”
“Holbrook’s supported Elder 6 from the beginning,” Lee said. “He’s the reason the project got funded last term.”
“And he sits on various committees overseeing the military,” Amanda added.
“And he owns a vacation home overlooking the bay where the submarines rendezvoused,” Billy said. “The neighbors, and there aren’t very many, report seeing several men in the house for two days prior to the meeting. We had a tough time explaining that battle, by the way. Good thing there are only a few houses on that part of the island. Some of them are still insisting that we needed their permission to film a movie in the bay.”
“Who were the men in the house?” Emma asked, not expecting the Americans to have found that out.
“As luck would have it,” Billy said, “the immigration agent on the island recognized one of the men when they arrived. He was on a watch list, so she filed the usual report. It turned up when we started investigating, and we were able to get a positive identification from one of the more curious neighbors.”
“And?” Lee prompted.
“He’s one Marcos Portillo, a flunkey for the Angelo ‘the Angel’ Morillo – remember him?”
Lee nodded, but the others looked blank. “Morillo’s a black market arms dealer. Guns, rockets, vehicles mostly. Something like Elder 6 is pretty far outside his usual line,” he explained.
“He’s branched out,” Francine said, slipping into the empty seat at the table. “I’ve just been on the phone with my contact at Interpol. Morillo was stopped at the airport in Istanbul last night. He had a clever briefcase with a hidden compartment. Inside it he had technical specs for the Elder 6 slave device prototype.”
“That was on the first submarine?” Emma asked.
“Right. Thanks to you four, his men didn’t have access to the Elder 6 master device long enough to do anything with it.” She glanced around the table, her expression of congratulations looking quite genuine. “And, by the way, Barr’s going to be okay. I was just at the hospital.”
“Yes, Francine, about Barr,” Lee said, grinning slyly.
“He’s an old friend,” Francine said, unflustered.
“Looked like he was a good one,” Amanda said lightly. Lee glanced at her and nodded, as much encouragement as agreement.
“Well, it has been a while –,” Francine actually did start to look embarrassed. Emma took pity on her.
“So was Morillo on the island that night?” she asked.
“We’re not sure,” Francine answered, smiling gratefully for the lifeline Emma had tossed her.
“These islands are a big sieve when it comes to immigration. Look at you four – you crossed over into the BVI without bothering to tell anyone.”
Steed cleared his throat and looked slightly embarrassed. “It did occur to me that we should,” he admitted sheepishly.
Billy waved a hand at him, dismissing the matter. “What Francine means is that Morillo could have gone ashore on St. John without visiting Cruz Bay’s immigration office, and left the same way. We may never know, unless one of the neighbors recognizes a photo. We’ve got a team checking that out now.”
“And what about this congressman?” Emma asked. “Did he arrange for Mason and Rogers to be assigned to the Narwhal?”
“We’re still working on that,” Billy said, “As you might imagine, it’s a delicate situation.”
“But, as far as we’re concerned, the leak is plugged,” Steed said, leaning back in his seat as a waiter placed a plate of seabass in front of him. He smiled happily at the steaming meal. “What time was that flight you booked us on?”
“I’ll be home in the morning, Sally,” Emma said, turning to look across the gate waiting area at Steed. He was seated in the nearest row of chairs reading a newspaper. Somehow they had managed to supply him with a perfectly tailored grey suit with matching umbrella and bowler. She wondered if they’d sent them over with his papers, which had, she’d noticed, included a new “red card” – his highest-level security pass.
“Yes ma’am. You’ve had a lot of calls from financial reporters. I’ve told them you’ve gone away to plan your strategy. You are planning, aren’t you ma’am?”
“Oh, I’m scheming all right, Sally,” Emma laughed. “I’ll have to decide to whom I shall grant interviews,” she added. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Let Anna and Evie know, will you?”
“Yes of course, ma’am. See you in the morning.”
Emma hung up the pay phone and paced slowly over to Steed, taking the seat beside him. She’d been provided with navy linen trousers and blouse and a white jacket. She quite liked the outfit, although it would be completely inappropriate for England in late January. She took the package of chocolate candies that she’d bought out of her pocket, took one, and offered them to Steed. He lowered his paper and took the packet.
“Dear, efficient Sally have everything under control?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
“Take a look at this,” he said, folding the paper to a section at the bottom of one page. She scanned the rows of small type listing stock market closing prices, realizing immediately what he must be referring to but taking a moment to find it. “You’re stock has gone up,” he said, “and not just with me.”
“Very funny, Steed,” she said. But he was right. Knight Industries was up twelve percent.
“You know, Mrs. Peel, you can count on me to vote my Knight shares for you. But in light of – your concerns – I would like to give them to you, or at least sell them to you, to eliminate my involvement with the firm.”
Emma was shocked. “No, Steed, I don’t want your shares,” she said without hesitation. “I believed that I needed to regain Knight on my own, to be free of Peter. But I was wrong not to tell you my plans. Not to trust you, of all people.”
He studied her for a moment, his eyes full of compassion, “I bought those shares shortly after I met you,” he said, “I tried to sell them, once. But my broker wouldn’t let me. Told me not to take out my anger on my portfolio.”
“Oh Steed,” she sighed, slipping her hand into his beneath his newspaper – the most overt display of affection either of them was comfortable with in such a public place.
“I will always regret my lapse in trust. It won’t happen again. However, there is something I need from you,” she said. “You read private correspondence on my desk, and jumped to conclusions about it. Please promise me never to go through my desk again.”
His face brightened to a devious smile, “Mrs. Peel, you know that’s nearly impossible, for me.”
“Yes. But you’ve managed to make a harder promise for me. You can manage this one, too.”
He nodded, still smiling. “I can. I promise.” But it may not be me doing the snooping, he thought, remembering that the ministry had a man inside Knight already. I should tell her. But I can’t. I’m not supposed to know. She’s just promised to trust me, and I’m not being honest with her. But I can’t. She’ll understand that, when she does find out.
“You know, I owe you a New Years Eve party, my dear,” he said to quiet his other thoughts.
“No Steed, you owe me an engagement party,” she said, taking back her packet of candies. “You tell me when it can be official and I’ll arrange the party,” he replied.