Murder on the Grand Canal

This story copyright © 2003, 2004 Mia McCroskey

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

Steed treads emotional waters

Emma learns to row

Chapter 1

“Good ride, Miss?”

“Yes, thank you,” Emma Peel dismounted and handed her horse over to the stable groom.

“You just beat the weather, I think,” he added as he turned the animal toward the barn.

“Only just,” she agreed, trotting toward the front of the stable complex. She got inside just as great warm droplets started to fall. To occupy herself while the shower ran its course she sat down and removed her high riding boots, replacing them with light shoes. Then she stood near the heavy iron stove that radiated warmth into the damp stable and watched the springtime shower through a small window.

Sixteen days. Barely more than two weeks. And by the end of the first one she had missed Steed so much she had been unable to concentrate on any of the things she needed or wanted to do. The talk she was to present in a few days lay unfinished on her desk. The painting she had started before he left lay untouched on its easel. She was at once frustrated with herself for indulging her emotions, and deeply gratified that she could feel them, for there had been a time when she had believed she never would again.

But Steed had captured her heart just as firmly and efficiently as he captured the targets of his investigations. Since they had become lovers he rarely went away on a case without her. When he did, as he had two weeks and two days ago, she found herself uncharacteristically at loose ends. Strong, independent Emma pined for her man. It was embarrassing.

So, when the ache for him had grown physical as well as emotional, she had fled here, to one of his favorite haunts to ride one of his favorite horses. She was as close to him as she could be short of lingering in his apartment, which she had flatly refused to allow herself to do. The ride had somewhat assuaged the physical need, but it had left her feeling lonely, aching to see his genial smile as they cantered side-by-side or his flashing grin as his horse leapt over an obstacle on the trail.

The stove’s warmth and the drumming of the rain on the window lulled her into a dreamy state. She was alone – other riders had fled to their cars, and the grooms were all seeing to the damp horses in the barn. She allowed herself to imagine Steed’s warm presence and smiled at how comfortable they were together. Two peas in a pod, equally self-indulgent, equally giving to one another, equally proud and independent and unwilling to admit their own needs.

She turned at a light touch on her arm, expecting a groom. She fell headlong into serene grey eyes, crinkled corners telegraphing a happy smile before it even reached the expressive mouth below.

“Emma.”

She did not question how he knew she was there, it was as pointless as pondering how he was forever surprising her with messages requesting her assistance. She faced him, slipped her hands up his chest and around his neck and molded herself to him, pressing her lips to his without a thought for privacy or propriety. She needed physical proof that he was not just a part of her dream.

He returned the kiss, his mouth opening to hers and tasting of tobacco and brandy and something sharper – garlic, or perhaps a good cheese. Where had he been? It was pointless to ask, for he could not tell her. And it didn’t matter, at least not now. He broke the kiss off and took her hand, leading her across the room to a ladder and following her up. She didn’t question his direction. The most important thing they shared was trust. He led her past stacked bales of straw toward a distant window. They were over the barn; sounds from below echoed in the warm, dry space. Horses stamped and snorted as they were curried, the grooms spoke to the horses and one another as they worked. All of these sounds were dampened by the susurrus of the rain on the roof above.

Steed stopped her near the window where clean, loose straw lay in heaps, and renewed their kiss with insistence. She felt consumed by him, by the miracle of his presence here when she needed him so much. It was just like him, the grand, timely arrival, but she didn’t spare a thought for how or why he did it. She knew the latter and could ask him later about the former. She simply enjoyed it, tangling the fingers of one hand in his hair while allowing the other to range over his body. She was checking for injuries and they both knew it, and he would reveal the new ones in his own time, if there were any.

Meanwhile his hands explored her as if getting reacquainted. He stroked her jaw as they kissed, one hand sliding back into her hair as the other ranged downward, delicately skirting her breast to slip around her waist, then over her hip and around to cup her buttocks. He pressed her closer and she felt the solid mass of his inflamed genitals. Her body betrayed her need with a shudder and she drew her lips along his jaw to trace his ear with her tongue.

“Emma,” he repeated, all entreaty and gratitude and throaty, animal lust. He drew his hand back up her ribs and to the front, no delicate caress on the side of her breast this time but a solid stroke over her taut nipple. She gasped into his ear and he pressed his own mouth to her throat, thumb teasing at her breast, tongue caressing the most sensitive spot below her ear.

“Make me whole, John,” she sighed, concentrating on his touch, but unable to ignore the fire smoldering in her loins. The ride had dulled it, but his presence had reignited it and his touches were building it to a conflagration that would not be ignored.

He lowered her to the straw, kneeling above her to unzip her riding breeches and run his hands up and down her inner thighs until she drew her knees up and spread her legs wide. Then he hovered above her to press kisses all over her face again, prolonging their game until she reached between them and opened his fly, stroking the solid presence of his erection through his briefs. She freed him, shoving his trousers down over his hips and drawing his hot genitals out over the waistband of his underwear. He smiled above her, thrusting into her hands so that she stroked him hard. Then he lowered his head to nuzzle her breasts through her blouse. He made no move to unbutton it. They both had one simple goal just now and it required only minimal foreplay. Later, in one of their beds, there would be time for everything else. For now, he reared back up and took hold of her trousers and underpants, pulling them down and off, taking her shoes off with them. She shifted on the straw, opening herself to him and he accepted her invitation, entering her in a single, slow thrust.

“Oh God,” she could not contain a moan as his solid shaft filled the empty, aching spaces within her. She felt herself come around him and from his pleased smile knew that he felt it too. He kissed her again, a languorous, sucking, breathless affair, their tongues everywhere. As they kissed, they moved together. Rocking slowly, another thrust at each crest, and divine, hot friction in between as his penis caressed her clitoris.

Their pace increased more quickly than either of them wished. But as so often was the case when they had not been together for a while they could not restrain their mutual need. It grew between them, hot and slick and demanding, and they assuaged it with thrusts and contractions and urgent, nipping kisses. Emma came again in a long, powerful wave of shivering pleasure that Steed rode buried deep within her. As she shuddered to fulfillment he followed her with a series of hard, deep thrusts that were ultimately punctuated by a flashing, throbbing orgasm.

Supporting himself on his elbows, he lowered his head to her collar, panting, murmuring her name, and finally pressing his lips to her neck where her own pulse throbbed. His erection softened within her and she shifted her hips seeking a more comfortable position in the straw. He kissed her again, less urgently, and lifted himself.

“Your place, or mine?” he whispered, a sly smile crinkling his eyes. They were not done. Far from it.

She considered for a moment, then replied, “mine.”

He got to his feet and offered her his hand, then waited while she sorted out her trousers and shoes and dressed. They picked straw off of one another, then wordlessly climbed down the ladder. Emma retrieved her boots and Steed held the door while she made a dash to her car.

He followed her in the big Bentley, a leering green giant pursuing her sleek little Lotus Elan through the streets of London. 

“You missed me,” Steed said, playfully rubbing noses with her. She smiled slyly at him and then turned her face away to gaze across her bedroom.

“Have you been away?” she asked, assuming an air of boredom. The crushing desire sated, she could enjoy their usual games now.

“The paint on your palette is dried out. The papers on your desk have a coating of dust. You have been distracted. And the only thing that can distract you, Emma Peel, is me. Or, in this case, the lack of me.”

“I’ve had a few distractions lately,” she said airily. “But I suppose I did notice that you hadn’t called.”

“Uh huh,” he nuzzled her neck, smiling at having received even so slight an admission. As for him, he had missed Emma every day that he’d been away. But he could not afford to indulge that sort of distraction while undercover. Only late at night, just before falling asleep, had he allowed himself to imagine her naked in his arms or engaged in one of her habitual activities like solving a crossword or developing photographs.

“And you?” she asked, as he’d expected. “Have you missed me?”

“In the odd moment, I suppose,” he murmured into her ear.

She smiled and wrapped her arms around him, pressing her whole body to his. “Show me how much,” she said, hands ranging up and down his back, lips close to his. He caught them in a kiss and proceeded to do as she asked.

Emma snuggled against his side, her head on his solid chest, one arm stretched possessively across his abdomen. He ran his hand over her arm and across her shoulder, lightly kneading the sinuous muscles there.

“I’m hungry,” he said. She lifted her head, placing her chin on his chest to look at his face. He glanced at her bedside clock. “My last meal was more than twenty hours ago.”

“And what did you have?” she asked quickly.

He paused, eyeing her suspiciously. “Chicken,” he said curtly, closing his mouth with a smug smile. She grinned back, not surprised that he wouldn’t give her a clue as to his whereabouts for the last two weeks. Nor was he surprised that she’d try to trick him into revealing it.

“It was a dull case in a duller place. Not your sort of thing at all,” he said, then he changed the subject: “How about some Italian?”

Now she looked pleased. “Northern Italian?” she asked speculatively.

“Perhaps some seafood,” he nodded on the pillows, closing his eyes to imagine his dinner.

“And a bottle of good Chianti?”

“Or a crisp little Veneto. And some risotto.”

“With fungi.”

“Of course.”

“Come with me to Venice.”

“For dinner?”

She grinned and bowed her head to kiss his chest. “The day after tomorrow. Those dusty papers on my desk are the talk I’m to deliver.”

“What’s the conference?”

“A physics symposium.”

One of her hobbies, he suppressed a smile. Instead he shuddered in mock horror and she giggled at him, scooting up his body to press her lips to his.

“How much symposing do you intend to do?” he asked, although he had already decided to go.

“There are two talks I want to attend, in addition to mine. And some social events. Please come. I promise not to be entirely scientific.”

He stroked her back “I love it when you beg,” he murmured against her lips, running his fingers into her hair.

“Please come,” she repeated, covering his face with kisses until he laughed and slipped his hands between their faces to stop her. He caressed her temples, smiling into her eyes.

“I’d love to,” he said.

Chapter 2

They dressed and went to dinner at a tiny Italian bistro Emma had heard good things about. After dinner he walked her back to her apartment where she gave him her flight information and summarily dismissed him. Desire sated and travel plans in the works, her interest in finishing her talk was renewed.

“Go home and unpack whatever is in your luggage and repack for Italy. And book yourself onto my flight,” she instructed him, one hand on his chest, the other at the back of his neck.

He gave her a goodnight kiss and left. But he did not go home. He drove to the ministry with the intention of using the gymnasium. Upon entering the building he was informed that Mother wished to see him. Not in the least surprised that Mother was in at this late hour, he made his way directly to his superior’s office.

“Sit,” Mother instructed him when he entered. He sat down in the single chair centered across the desk from Mother.

“Good evening Mother,” he tried. Mother’s expression was pinched with displeasure.

“You have been in London since this morning. Why have you not been debriefed?”

“I had some personal matters to attend to.”

Mother lifted a sheet of paper from his desk and read from it. “You went from the airport to your apartment. Then to Mrs. Peel’s apartment. After that you visited two galleries and three shops, your club, and the stable in Hempstead. You left the stable and returned to Mrs. Peel’s apartment, this time accompanied by that lady. A while later you and she had dinner at a small restaurant – a good one, I understand. You took her home and came here. You are aware of the debriefing policy?”

“Debriefing after a successful undercover mission is to occur as soon as possible after the agent returns to his or her home base,” Steed recited, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. He wasn’t surprised that he’d been under surveillance all day. He felt fortunate that whoever had been tailing him – probably a trainee – had not come into the stable loft, or peeked into Emma’s bedroom window.

“Fortunately, nothing you have done today is out of the ordinary,” Mother went on, glaring at him. “You will now go to debriefing. Understood?”

“As you wish, Mother,” Steed said, rising and exiting the office.

Mother watched him go, then raised his left hand. A tall woman stepped out of the shadows behind him.

“Find out if they are lovers,” he said, looking up at his assistant, Rhonda. She frowned, but did not speak. “This was not a critical incident, but if their partnership is at that level, we need to take it into account in our expectations of their behavior.”

Steed provided his version of the events of the case to a ministry debriefer, who asked a number of questions and made extensive notes before dismissing Steed. He would have to repeat the exercise tomorrow with someone else, but for now the procedures were satisfied. Next he went to the gymnasium, which was now completely empty. He spent two hours on the treadmill and using various weights and machines, and finally went home in the early hours of the morning, exhausted and ready for a long, satisfying sleep.

“Ready to go Mrs. Peel?” Steed asked as he came through her apartment door. She nodded toward her packed suitcase, waiting near the door, then reached up to draw the sitting room curtains.

“You were able to get a seat on my flight?” she asked, although she was sure he had or he would have mentioned it.

“Without any difficulty,” he replied, reaching into his breast pocket. She crossed the dim room to him and took the tickets that he held out to her with a curious smile. “I did have to have your seat changed, however, in order for us to sit together.”

Emma looked at the tickets.

“I hope you don’t mind,” he added. They now had seats side-by-side in first class. She handed him the tickets, then put a hand on one cheek and held it while she kissed the other.

“We’d better get going,” she said into his ear.

She was delighted and he knew it. The symposium’s organizers had supplied her with a coach class ticket. He’d been surprised that she hadn’t upgraded it herself, but she was like that sometimes – choosing to economize when she could easily afford greater comfort. After sixteen nights sleeping on a hard, filthy mattress in cheap hotel outside of Oslo he was simply unwilling to put up with cramped coach-class seats.

They climbed into the taxi he had waiting, unaware of the tall blond woman crouching in the bushes outside Emma’s curtained windows. Rhonda shot rapid-fire photographs through a big telephoto lens as Steed and Emma got in the taxi and it sped away.

Nothing. She had nothing to show Mother after nearly thirty-six hours of surveillance. Nothing, anyway, that suggested that Steed and Emma were anything more than just good friends.

“The symposium is at the Danielli?” Steed asked as they stepped aboard the hotel launch at the airport dock.

“No, but we are,” Emma replied with a wink. Steed grinned, revising his previous opinion that she had been thrifty. She had simply allocated her spending on lodging rather than the flight.

“Here you are Mrs. Peel. Antonio will show you and Mr. Steed to your suite. I hope you will enjoy your stay with us,” the clerk handed the porter the key to Emma’s suite, showing no sign of distress that it was in the lady’s name, and that she was making payment arrangements. Discretion is another benefit of paying luxury rates, Steed thought as they followed the porter to the lifts. While they waited for a car to arrive they were joined by an attractive blond man, most certainly British. Emma could tell from his haircut. Steed thought the suit, perhaps made by his own tailor, was a dead giveaway.

“Antonio, isn’t it?” the man asked the porter, his voice so carefully cultivated it flowed like warm honey.

Si my Lord,” Antonio replied with a polite smile.

“Do you suppose, when you’ve seen to the lady and gentleman, that you could arrange for an extra pillow or two for me?”

Si, of course my Lord,” Antonio nodded.

The title, combined with the slightly soft features and pale hair sparked Emma’s memory.

“Lord Gregory Hampton?” she asked. The blond man’s features reformed in a warm smile as he looked at Emma.

“Yes,” he paused, studying her appreciatively. “Have we met madam?”

“In passing,” Emma replied, “About three years ago at a drinks party – Jeremy Hunt’s, I think it was. I’m Mrs. Emma Peel. And this is John Steed.”

Steed tipped his hat, always respectful of the nobility. And this noble was also familiar to him, although they had never formally met.

“Mrs. Peel, of course. It’s a pleasure to meet you again. And Mr. Steed,” Lord Gregory acknowledged the other man with a slight bow. The lift arrived and they all squeezed in along with Steed and Emma’s luggage.

“Are you here on business?” Emma asked, noting how the Lord stiffened then seemed to forcefully relax.

“Personal business,” he replied, his voice still tense. “I’ve fled the rigors of Parliament for a few days,” he added, sounding more natural. “And you?”

“I’m speaking at a physics symposium. Mr. Steed agreed to come along to help me enjoy the city while I’m here,” Emma replied, eyes darting from Lord Gregory to Steed, who smiled affably.

“Yes, she needs someone to drag her away from the scientists and look at the sites,” he said.

“I remember now, you have published quite a few articles on quite a few subjects, Mrs. Peel. So it’s physics now? Impressive.” Steed smiled inwardly. He could not help thinking of Emma’s many scientific interests as hobbies, although within the scientific community she was taken very seriously. Still, how could all of that research and writing possibly be as interesting as the work she did with him?

“I have an undergraduate degree in physics from Oxford, my Lord, so it’s one of my older interests,” she replied, her warm smile making it clear she was not offended.

“Doubly impressive then,” he replied. Watching this exchange, Steed thought he should feel a twinge of jealousy, but something about Lord Gregory’s manner suggested that his interest in Emma was strictly friendly. “Perhaps we could all have a drink this evening,” Lord Gregory went on. “Assuming Mr. Steed is successful at disengaging you from your scientific associates, Mrs. Peel.”

“That would be delightful,” Emma replied, looking to Steed, who nodded. Just then the slow-moving lift reached their floor and Antonio opened the doors.

“Seven o’clock?” Lord Gregory asked as they stepped out of the car.

Emma glanced at Steed, who replied, “We shall look forward to it, my Lord.”

Rhonda placed the daily staffing report on Mother’s desk and pointed to the first group of lines she’d circled.

“They’ve gone to Venice,” Mother said, scanning the report. Rhonda nodded. “Mrs. Peel is speaking at a symposium. A two-bedroom suite at the Danielli – our Mrs. Peel certainly does travel in style. And with prudence. It seems Steed’s just gone along for the ride,” Mother chuckled to himself and Rhonda frowned disapprovingly.

Seeing her expression Mother coughed politely and moved on to other sections she had circled. “Yes, Parker’s in Venice. But he’s watch-dogging a VIP,” Mother paused to consider. “No. Let’s keep this just between us, Rhonda. Get back on them when they return. That’s soon enough.”

“Lord Gregory Hampton is behind three bills in Parliament that will reform Britain’s public housing system,” Emma said a while later. They had unpacked and ordered a bottle of champagne, which they were enjoying on their suite’s private balcony overlooking the lagoon.

“Yes, I know. He’s on our high-priority list – very public, very popular, and very hated by certain elements.”

“The real estate community is not at all fond of him, I should think – at least those within it who handle cheap, poorly constructed apartment blocks.”

“Indeed. I wonder if he slipped our nets, or if there’s someone out there keeping an eye on him.”

“You have him under surveillance?” Emma asked, a brow arching.

“For his own protection, my dear,” Steed replied. “I think I’ll just check in,” he added, rising to go into their sitting room. Emma lounged in her chair, sipped her champagne, watched the multitude of boats crisscrossing the lagoon, and listened to her lover speaking on the telephone. He came back after a while and refilled both their glasses.

“Well?” she asked, knowing he’d tell her what he’d learned, secret or not.

“He has a shadow,” Steed said. “Parker. They’ll let him know I’m not here on business.”

“But now they know you are here with me,” Emma sighed regretfully, envisioning intrigue of some sort intruding on their getaway.

“They’d know anyway. But I’m officially on leave,” he replied, reaching over to take her hand. She rolled her head to the side to look at him.

“Yes, well, we know how long that lasts when someone decides you’re needed – including you,” she said with a smile. He had to return it, knew she was right. He was as addicted to his work as he was to her, and it was his great good fortune that she found his work as alluring as she found him.

“Let’s finish this and go for a stroll before drinks with Lord Gregory,” he said, releasing her hand and taking a sip of champagne. “It was terribly foresighted of you to plan to come a day early.”

“That’s me,” she said, sipping her own wine, “foresighted to the last.”

Chapter 3

They walked to the Piazza San Marco to admire the horse statues stolen from ancient Constantinople and the massive campanile. Then they plunged into the narrow streets of that district, exploring the quiet alleys where no vendors hocked blown glass and few tourists ventured. Steed took Emma’s hand as she descended a particularly steep set of steps on a tiny bridge over a narrow canal and kept holding it as they strolled on, absently stroking the back of it with his thumb.

“What do you want to do for dinner?” he asked. “We don’t have a reservation, but I’m sure the hotel will accommodate us.”

“I have read that the chef has created an amazing scallop dish,” she replied. “It’s one of the reasons I wanted to stay there.”

“Sounds perfect,” Steed smiled. “I don’t suppose we could both order the same –,” he stopped speaking, cocking his head to listen to raised voices coming from a dank calle just ahead. The altercation was being conducted in Italian. One of the speakers had an odd, high-pitched male voice. The other was most certainly British, and his Italian was limited. He had not, Emma thought as they hurried toward the source of the sound, learned it on the street. He seemed unable to summon a single expletive.

They entered the mouth of the calle. One of the buildings that formed it was set at an angle to the other, so the narrow alley actually widened further in. Clotheslines crisscrossed the space at the high level of the second floors, clean laundry fluttering in the evening breeze. As they paused in the shadows a woman leaned out of a tall second story window, glanced into the calle, then reached out and pulled the tall, narrow shutters shut with a thump. Beneath her window, a man had just grabbed the shirtfront of a boy.

“What’s this?” Steed exclaimed, mostly just to attract their attention as he strode toward the pair. The man immediately let go of the boy, who turned toward Steed as he started to run. Emma dodged out of his way, seeing, as Steed had, that it was not a boy at all, but a dwarf with a close-cropped black beard dressed in the costume of a gondolier.

They both turned to the man and were even more shocked by him than by the dwarf boatman.

“Lord Gregory,” Steed said, then immediately slipped into the deferential manner he used with all nobility, “Are you all right my Lord?”

Emma came over to them, studying the lord for signs of injury or distress.

“I’m fine,” Lord Gregory said breathlessly. “Perfectly fine. He was a scoundrel, that’s all. Asked me for money,” he paused as if trying to formulate his next comment. “I gave him some. Five hundred Lire. But he wanted more.”

“There is much poverty in this city,” Emma said, “just as we have in Britain. You were kind to help him, but perhaps he has larger problems.”

“He’s mad!” Lord Gregory declared.

“Perhaps,” Steed said, exchanging a glance with Emma. Lord Gregory was known for his support of programs that aided the poor. This reaction to a poor Venetian seemed uncharacteristic. Unless he was lying about the dwarf’s intentions.

“We were just on our way to meet you for that drink,” Emma said. “Perhaps you’d rather postpone it?”

“Not at all. Let’s all walk back together,” Lord Gregory said, tugging at his waistcoat and touching his cravat. “I have asked a friend to join us, so I would prefer not be late.”

“Countess Rossi, allow me to introduce Mrs. Emma Peel and Mr. John Steed,” Lord Gregory possessively held the raven-haired woman’s hand as he introduced her.

“It is always a pleasure to meet Gregory’s countrymen – and women,” the Countess said. Her heavily accented voice a sensual purr.

“Shall we sit here?” Lord Gregory motioned to a cocktail table surrounded by exquisite reproduction chairs. They all sat, Steed and Lord Gregory holding Emma and the Countess’s chairs for them. A swarthy waiter approached and Steed suggested a bottle of proseco – Italian sparkling wine. The others agreed.

The Countess asked Emma about the symposium, expressing admiration for any woman who was so highly regarded in a scientific profession. Emma admitted, not realizing how it sounded, that she was not a working physicist, only “dabbled” in it. Steed suppressed a smile, and the Countess looked amused.

“When I – as you say, ‘dabble’ – I am fortunate not to injure myself!” she said and Lord Gregory laughed with her.

“The Countess thought to ‘dabble’ with horses recently. She twisted a wrist in a fall and has refused to get on again.”

“I know the feeling,” Steed said sympathetically.

“Not good with horses?” Lord Gregory asked.

“On the contrary, my Lord. I’m very comfortable astride a horse. It’s when they aren’t comfortable with me that it hurts.”

“You really should ride again soon,” Emma said to the Countess.

“Oh yes, I know what they all say,” the Countess waved a hand dismissively. “But that assumes that I am interested in doing more than ‘dabble.’ I don’t think I shall have need of horseback in the future.” She concluded speaking directly to Lord Gregory. He smiled at her, a warm, intimate expression that made Emma look at Steed. She thought he had seen it too – the connection between the two.

Watching Lord Gregory with the Countess Steed understood why he had not felt the usual little current of jealousy when the other man spoke to Emma. Lord Gregory was in love, and by the look of her, the Countess reciprocated. He suddenly wondered if he could possibly be telegraphing his emotions the same way. Do people look at Emma and me and see everything between us? He felt himself smiling. If they do, maybe somebody would be so kind as to explain it to me!

“She was quite pleasant,” Emma said as they sat side-by-side on the banquette facing the dining room in the hotel restaurant. They had succumbed to temptation and both ordered the scallops, but they had diverged on the starters and were still negotiating the dolce. Steed had ordered his crisp little Veneto to go with the scallops, and they’d settled comfortably together to sip, people-watch, and compare notes.

Emma let her calf brush his beneath the table, concealed by the long, white tablecloth. She wasn’t sure if her heart rate was increasing because of the wine or the deliciously illicit contact.

“For a dilettante,” Steed said. She eyed him curiously. “That’s what you wanted to say,” he added with a little shrug.

“Don’t put words in my mouth,” Emma said. As he turned a rather lecherous grin on her she kicked him lightly under the table. “And don’t you dare ask what you may put there instead,” she added. He looked momentarily affronted, then took a sip of his wine and gazed across the room, silently changing the subject. She admired how he was able to do that.

“I ordered a background check on him when I went upstairs,” he said. “Something is wrong.”

“Because of the dwarf.”

“Yes. No matter what he claims, that fellow was not a beggar. And have you ever seen a short gondolier? I don’t think a man that size could handle a gondola.”

“I agree. Although I suppose it would be convenient for going under the low bridges,” Emma speculated. Steed cast her an aggravated glance.

She cast it back. “So you’ll get your background check, and then what? This is not a working trip – for you anyway. Remember?”

“I could contact Parker. I probably should – where was he this evening, anyway?”

Emma frowned, only now remembering that the invisible agent Parker was supposed to be looking after Lord Gregory. “That’s a very good question, Steed,” she admitted, then sighed hopelessly when he flashed her a victorious grin. That was all it had taken to pique her interest and essentially agree that he should look into the situation.

But not this evening. Not if she could help it.

“Let’s go for a boat ride,” she said as they stepped out of the hotel with the plan of getting some air to aid their digestion.

“A gondola?” he asked, at once thinking it terribly cliché but also finding it rather appealing. Moonlight, still waters, the discrete gondolier pointedly ignoring his passengers. Maybe singing. Steed chucked at his imagination and saw Emma’s disappointed expression.

“You think it’s foolish,” she sighed, putting her arm through his as they strolled. He bent his elbow up and caught her hand in his.

“No. I think it’s the epitome of romance,” he said.

“And therefore too cliché to consider.”

“You, my dear, are jaded,” he said, guiding her to the water’s edge where, by coincidence, several gondolas were secured to rickety pilings and flimsy docks. The nearest gondolier greeted them, gesturing toward his boat. Steed handed Emma into it and she sat down while Steed quickly settled with the gondolier on a duration and price for their ride. Then he joined Emma, at first simply sitting beside her. But as the gondolier expertly maneuvered away from the docks Steed instinctively shifted, putting his arm around Emma’s shoulder and drawing her close. She came willingly, her face turning to his with a smile.

“Sometimes you astonish me,” she said softly.

“Good,” he replied, kissing her. It lasted longer than he expected, felt more intense than he thought possible. He hardly realized that his other arm was wrapped around her until she pulled away, breathless, half lidded eyes concealing her own desire. Then her gaze flicked up at the silent boatman sculling his oar, and back to Steed. They shared a silent exchange – a promise of pleasure to come – and Emma half turned, laying the back of her head on his shoulder to look up at the ornate facades of the palaces lining the grand canal.

“Take me to bed,” Emma breathed into Steed’s ear as the lift ascended. They were alone in it. He turned his face, let his mouth cover hers, his tongue caressing her lips. She moaned softly into him and he kissed harder even as the lift bounced a bit and stopped. He broke it off to open the door, leading her along the corridor to their room.

She undressed herself for him, making a show of unbuttoning her blouse and pulling it out of her skirt, revealing a delicate white bra that supported her breasts from below, but left the tops bare nearly to the nipples. She unzipped her skirt and let it drop to the floor to reveal matching panties and a garter belt holding up her glistening hose.

Then she undressed him, carefully removing his jacket, his waistcoat, and his shirt, fondling him through is trousers while she worked, and pausing to lick his bare chest, tongue circling a solid little nipple then flicking at it urgently. He sucked in a breath and she smiled slyly as she felt his groin respond. She fondled him again, the feel of his great, hard penis sparking an ache between her legs.

He touched her then, his big hands running up her arms and across her shoulders, cupping her breasts as he bent to place kisses on them. Her nipples throbbed within her bra, but he avoided them, making her wait just a little while longer. They returned to kissing, more satisfying with bare flesh to fondle and caress, and with the freedom to reveal more.

They found their way to his bed, Steed stretching out with Emma on top of him, grinding herself against his erection still contained in his trousers. She sat up and straddled him to caress his chest and stomach, to tease his nipples, and to bend over him so that her hair tickled him as she explored his face with her tongue and lips.

He rolled with her, balanced over her on elbow and knees, sliding one hand down her stomach and into her panties so that she sucked in a deep breath. His hand hovered over her, tickling the curls between her thighs. He watched her eyes squeeze shut in anticipation, then pop open when he did not continue his caress. He grinned at her and she lifted her hips to him, pressing herself against his hand. He took her with fingers and mouth, driving her to distraction with gentle caresses and long, sucking kisses. She was warm and wet and he could imagine how her genitals looked and tasted, and suddenly he craved her.

He moved down her body, pulling the panties to her thighs and then all the way off so that she could spread her knees wide. He opened her with his fingers, then bent to place kisses on the insides of her thighs and on her vulva. She shivered as he ran his tongue along the insides of her labia and her vagina flooded with warm, fragrant fluid. He spread her wider and plunged his tongue into her, sucking her clitoris until she groaned and came again and he looked up to see her caressing her own breasts through her bra. The sight inflamed him. His penis throbbed, demanding attention of the most intimate kind. He rolled off of her and she cried out, only half conscious, nearly subsumed in animal lust and fulfillment. He opened his fly and pulled down his trousers and underwear, sitting up to remove his shoes and clothes.

Then she was pulling him back, pressing him to the mattress, her attention focused on his groin. As hot as he was, her tongue on him was hotter, slipping up and down his shaft leaving trails of fire. He wanted it to go on forever. Surely it could, this delicious sensation on the edge of release, his body so taut he could hardly move, her body so close he could smell her, nearly taste her – he wanted to taste her again. He reached out, wrapped his arms around her hips and pulled her to him. Dragging one leg across his face he pulled her down so that he could drink her in again. She sucked and licked at him, coaxing him toward rigid orgasm, then paused, blowing on his balls, pressing his overheated organ to her cool breasts until he could breathe again, could take her into his mouth and caress her as she had him. She came for him, crying out, throwing her head back, showering him with her searing essence. Her panting breath was hot on his quivering cock, and he thrust toward her mindlessly, his libido taking over. She took him into her mouth, sucking so hard it hurt, a searing white pain that filled him, overtook him, and resolved into a massive, driving orgasm. She held him through it, swallowing and sucking, moving up and down his slick, throbbing shaft over and over again until it was so sore, so spent, he rolled with her to the side, forcing her off of him, and they both lay helpless and senseless.

They were tangled together, arms around legs, faces against thighs, the smell of sex a thick miasma around them. Steed wiped his face with one hand and carefully sat up, reaching down to draw her soiled hair from across her face. Her eyes flickered open and she smiled contentedly.

“I’ve read it’s good for the skin,” she said, fingering the sticky strands.

“Have you? Where would you come across a piece of information like that?” he asked, truly curious. He’d found the usual sources as a young man – the well thumbed “banned” books hidden in the stacks at Eton, read by flashlight under the covers and returned solemnly to their hiding place for the next curious student. Where there similar hidden treasures at the schools she’d attended in Switzerland?

“Biochemistry texts,” she said. “Actually, I suppose none of them actually say that. But the data is there, if you look at the chemical makeup.”

He burst out laughing, his hot little fantasy of young Emma hunched over a dirty book exploring her own body evaporating in the face of her intellect.

She grinned and sat up facing him, studying his face, tracing his jaw with a finger, then putting it under his chin and drawing him to her for a kiss.

“Oh, I’ve read those types of books too,” she added and he got the distinct impression she’d read his mind. “Under the covers, checking to see if what I have matches what they describe, wondering if what you have could possibly look like they say . . .” she was caressing his thigh, kissing him between phrases. And as so often happened, re-igniting him when he thought he was sated.

“What did you read – about how I should look?” he asked. She grinned, never taking her eyes off of his, slipping her hand between his legs to stroke his flaccid penis tenderly.

“Let’s just say I have never been disappointed by you,” she replied, kissing him again as he began to harden under her touch.

“Nor I you,” he replied.

“Good,” she whispered into his ear and he chuckled, knowing he’d been one-upped.

“Let’s try it again in my room – truly scandalize the maids,” she said, climbing off the bed and taking his hand to pull him along. He followed, of course.

And he removed her lingerie, piece by piece, applying proper attention to each newly exposed expanse of flesh before returning to her face and her luscious mouth. She pulled him into herself, sucking his tongue and wrapping her legs around his waist so that he plunged into her, seeking and finding the warm, moist place where he always wanted to be. They moved together, enjoying the simplicity of sex, reassured by the enjoyment and knowing that they had not pressed one another so far that they required excess in order to be fulfilled. Just as their previous orgasms had been searing, almost painful, this time it was languorous, sweet, prolonged by careful movement and thoughtful caresses. Emma moaned deeply as a long shudder wracked her. Steed thrust into it, letting what little control he had go so that their essences mixed within her and he stirred them with sharp thrusts until he was soft and sensitive. He lifted his body, blowing air between them to dry the perspiration, then blowing on her face to make her smile.

After a while she rose and went to the toilet. When she returned she pressed a kiss to his lips and settled down on her side of the bed, fluffing the pillows to her liking. Steed lay very still behind her. She let her breathing slow, felt herself slipping into contented sleep. Eventually Steed rolled onto his side, pressed his lips to her exposed shoulder, and whispered, “Good night my love.”

It was a secret ritual, one she was never to know about. But she had heard him many times while she lay on the verge of sleep. Perhaps it was his movement that inadvertently woke her just enough, or perhaps she was keeping herself awake, waiting for his words. But no matter the reason, each time she heard him utter that dear phrase it hurt more. Tonight the tears finally came, dripping from her eyes to the pillow. Why can’t he say it when I’m awake? Will he never trust me with his heart? She rubbed her face on the pillow and tried not to sniffle. Behind her, he climbed out of bed and went into the toilet. She rolled onto her back. Who am I to call him coward? I can’t say it at all. I trust him with my life, with my heart, but not with the three little words that lovers should be able to share. Fresh tears ran down her cheeks and she dabbed at them with the sheet. Steed came back from the toilet and stretched out beside her. She snuggled against him, realizing too late that he would feel her tears. Now. Tell him now.

“Good night my — John,” she whispered, pressing her mouth to his neck to stifle the sob that wanted to erupt. I can’t do it.

“Shhh, Emma. It’s all right,” he replied, stroking her hair from her face. “I know your heart. And you know mine. Words don’t matter. Nothing else matters.”

She let the sob escape and he held her tight, stroking her back soothingly until she really was asleep. He had suspected for a while that she knew, that she had heard him once, and since then waited to hear him again and again. I’m a coward and she knows it. I don’t deserve her telling me she loves me.

Chapter 4

“Emma?” Steed raised himself on one elbow, watching her crisscross the room collecting her bag from one corner and sorting through shoes in another. Oh God don’t leave. I’ll tell you now, in the bright light of morning, anything to keep you from leaving me. She stopped and looked across at him, a guarded smile on her face. “Good morning,” he said to test the waters. Her smile softened. She came over to the bed and sat down beside his legs, reaching out to smooth the unruly lock of hair off of his forehead.

“Good morning John,” she said. “I want to get to the first talk this morning. And there’s a luncheon. Meet me at two o’clock at the foot of the Academia Bridge on Dorsoduro.”

“And then?”

“The museum?”

“All right. I’ll be there.”

She smiled and leaned over him, lightly kissing his lips, then his ear. “Thank you darling,” she whispered. And then she was gone.

Steed strolled along the quay in Venice’s small boat marina, a bundle of wrapped sandwiches and fruit in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. He was casually dressed in beige trousers and a chambray shirt, the sleeves of a cotton sweater knotted around his neck and well-worn topsiders on his feet.

“Giovanni!” he called as he approached one of the brightly painted sanpierota along the inner pier. A head popped up from within one of the two open cockpits in the wooden deck.

“Steed!” Giovanni replied, waving, then climbing up onto the deck and walking aft to meet him. “You old pirate, you look just the same,” he said, reaching for Steed’s packages.

“You’re the sailor, my friend,” Steed replied, handing him the food and wine, then stepping across onto the boat’s deck.

“Ah, but it’s the British who are the world’s best pirates,” he laughed, slapping Steed between the shoulder blades. “Welcome aboard. Ready for a sail?”

“How’s the breeze?” Steed asked, climbing down into the forward cockpit beneath the long boom.

“Perfect! We go.”

“You look well my friend, contented,” Giovanni said, holding the tiller in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. He was steering them across the shallows of the lagoon where the bigger water taxis could not go. Giovanni’s boat was a reproduction of a classic Venetian sailing boat, a wooden, flat-bottomed sanpierota. Like all of the owners of these tender boats, he treated it like a member of his family. Every surface was ornately painted, including the big heavy sail. “Your business here must be pleasant.”

“I am not here on business, Giovanni. I’m here with a friend who’s speaking at a scientific symposium. For me it’s strictly a holiday.”

“And this friend, she is pretty?”

Steed grinned at Giovanni’s correct assumption. “Very,” he replied.

Giovanni had not survived the war as an intelligence agent without being perceptive. He took a gulp of Steed’s wine and watched a pelican lift out of the water on several strokes of its wide wings.

“I’m glad you have found someone, John. It suits you.”

Steed frowned, then remembered how he’d wondered whether others could see his feelings for Emma. But Giovanni was exceptional – they had been acquainted for decades, through some very difficult times. It was no surprise he sensed Steed’s mood.

“She suits me, Giovanni,” he said. “And I her, I think.”

“Well then, a toast to the lady, she must be exceptional,” Giovanni raised his glass, then noticed that it was nearly empty. Steed leaned across the narrow stretch of deck between the two cockpits and refilled it, then they drank to Emma Peel.

They reminisced about old missions and one especially long winter in the Italian Alps as they circled little Sacca Sesolla west of the main islands of the city. As they reached back they discussed their current lives. Giovanni described his tribe of children fondly and his wife passionately. Steed tried to discuss his favorite horses and the Mews apartment he’d recently moved to. But Giovanni pressed for details about Emma. He would never be so forward as to ask about their relationship, but Steed listened to himself describing her and knew his friend could infer the truth easily enough. As they approached the big islands of the city he glanced at his watch and realized it was nearly two o’clock.

“I’m sorry Giovanni, but can you drop me on Dorsoduro?” he asked. “I’m due to meet Mrs. Peel. Wouldn’t want to be late.”

“Certainly not!” Giovanni chuckled. “Where are you to meet her?”

“You can drop me along the seawall up there, I can walk across.”

“No, no my friend. I couldn’t. Let me take you to her. We shall make an entrance.”

Steed laughed at the mental image of sailing up the Grand Canal in this antique boat. Why not?

“If the wind will allow it, Giovanni, we’re to meet at the base of the Academia Bridge.”

“The wind!” Giovanni laughed, stooping to reach under the deck behind him. Steed’s eyes widened in surprise and Giovanni’s face lit with amusement at the sound of an engine rumbling to life. “She’s a replica, it’s true, but some modern conveniences are worth breaking with tradition for.”

Emma stopped at the apex of the bridge to enjoy the view. The Grand Canal was choked with boats of all description engaged in a complicated ballet. Gondolas glided past one another, coming close but never touching. The bulkier traghetto cut back and forth across their paths, and the big, motorized water taxis shouldered their way through it all casting destructive wakes against the delicate seawalls and pilings.

And amid it all, gliding under power with its sail fluttering in the confused breeze, a garish wooden sailboat came up the middle of the canal. On the foredeck, one hand on the mast, the other waving broadly, was John Steed.

Around her the tourists began to point and wave back. The gondoliers, boatmen who respected their city’s nautical heritage, made room for the classic boat in their midst, and amazingly the driver of a vaporetto slowed down so that his boat’s wake would not upset the sailboat. As it angled toward the side of the canal Emma turned and made her way through the gathering crowd to the base of the bridge.

“Hello Steed,” She called as the hull of the sailboat touched the seawall and he sprang from the deck to the land. He turned back to wave his thanks at Giovanni.

“You did not tell the whole truth, my friend,” the boatman called as he swung the tiller to turn the boat before the mast struck the bridge. “She is exquisite.”

Emma smiled and waved, hoping she guessed correctly at his meaning.

“Was he referring to his boat?” she asked as Steed stepped up to her.

“I don’t believe so, no,” he said, lifting one of her hands to his lips to the delight of the tourists still watching from the bridge.

“Show off,” she scolded with an affectionate smile. He took her arm and guided her away from their audience, glancing back over his shoulder into the canal to see that Giovanni had also gotten away safely.

They wandered through the Academia until their taste for art was sated, then they ventured further afield, admiring the sights, sounds, and smells of the city’s quieter quarters. They wandered with the ease of repeat visitors who were certain that they would visit again. There was no need to rush from one famous site to another. If they missed it on this trip, they would see it next time. Eventually Emma steered them into one of the multitude of shops displaying fine glass objects crafted in the studios on Murano. Steed cocked an eyebrow at the more garish pieces, but nodded in appreciation at the sleek blue bowl she selected.

“For Amelia Peel,” she said and he smiled approvingly. While she watched her gift carefully packaged he selected a pair of delicate goblets, their stems flecked with gold, and jotted down their hotel information for delivery. The shop clerk discretely set them aside, understanding Steed’s unspoken wish to surprise her.

“A rest before supper?” Emma suggested when they were once again strolling.

“I think so, yes,” he replied, wondering if she’d insist on resting.

A flash of pale hair caught Steed’s eye as they crossed the hotel lobby. Lord Gregory was seated in a secluded alcove with the Countess, her hands wrapped in his, their faces close together. He was speaking, but too softly for anyone else to hear. Steed touched Emma’s hand and she followed his glance.

“He’s smitten,” she said.

“So I’d noticed,” he replied as the lift arrived.

Steed had been handed a thick envelope along with the key to their suite. He settled on one side of the Tête-à-Tête in their sitting room and opened it. Emma vanished into her room. He was halfway through the background information on Lord Gregory when she came out wearing her dressing gown and looking freshly bathed. She sat down on the opposite side of the Tête-à-Tête and leaned over to see what he was reading.

“Lord Gregory is not what he seems,” Steed said.

“No?”

“He was expelled from Eton. For cheating.”

“His parents must have been unhappy about that.”

“Yes. But someone must have pulled some strings, he was admitted to Sandhurst.”

“You were expelled from Eton, and you got into Sandhurst.”

“Not expelled,” he huffed. “Suspended. Twice. Youthful high jinks. In any case, I did eventually graduate.”

Emma grinned and took the sheet describing Lord Gregory’s academic history.

“Perhaps he reformed,” she suggested, scanning the page.

“Perhaps not. He dropped out of Sandhurst.”

“Well, a military career is not for everyone,” she observed, handing the page back and studying the side of Steed’s face. He was reading the next section of the report.

“He spent some time abroad. Foreign service,” he summarized.

“Ah. Your line of work?”

“No. Legitimate diplomatic attaché,” he said, suppressing her inevitable comment about legitimacy with a sharp glare. “I suppose it’s where he got a taste for politics.”

“Any more recent indiscretions?”

“Not unless you consider courting an Italian Countess indiscrete. But there’s nothing to suggest anything inappropriate there. She’s from a good family, and has a large dowry,” he paused so that she could respond.

“Now there’s an antiquated tradition,” she supplied. He grinned and continued reading for a moment, then looked at her.

“You would come with a rather nice dowry, I should think,” he said wickedly.

She cocked one eyebrow at him. “So would you,” she said sharply, which made him laugh.

Chapter 5

Strains of Vivaldi wafted through their suite on the light breeze that rustled the heavy curtains beside the windows and the lighter ones surrounding the beds. Steed reached up and played with Emma’s hair, smiling contentedly as she traced her fingers lightly over the nearly healed cut along his ribs. He’d received it in a brawl near the start of his last assignment. Emma had discovered it under its bandage the other day and treated it with soothing aloe-based lotion, although he thought it was healing well enough with his own cruder care.

Her dressing gown slipped off of her shoulder at his touch and she paused in her description of the bevy of physicists attending the conference. It wasn’t that he was disinterested in what she was saying, but the temptation of her pale, rounded breasts barely concealed beneath the Chinese red silk was too powerful to resist.

She inhaled a long breath as he traced the shape of her breast with one finger. Her eyes closed and her head rocked back, breasts arching to his touch. He smiled, his body thrilling at the power his light touch had over her. But then she went on talking, lips curling in a smile that told him she was intentionally provoking him, daring him to distract her enough to make her stop.

Eager to rise to her challenge, he rolled onto his side and ran his hand up one thigh, pressing his lips to the other one through the silk.

An agonized shriek sliced through the suite, shattering their tranquility and driving them both from the bed. Emma ran out onto the balcony, gathering her dressing gown around herself, and peered down toward the wide paved walkway between the hotel and the canal. A movement off to the right caught her eye and she focused on a small figure running toward the Piazza San Marco. Steed joined her now wrapped in his own dressing gown and looked downward. Below them, not far from the hotel doors, a man knelt beside a woman who was lying on the pavement. Even in the dim light emanating from the hotel façade they could see that her light dress was stained across the torso with what must be blood.

“Watch from here until I get down there,” Steed instructed Emma as he dashed back into his room to pull on trousers and a shirt. Like Emma, he had recognized the kneeling man.

As Emma watched pedestrians began to gather around the grim scene below, but none got too close, perhaps to avoid incrimination, or perhaps because of the way the man held the dying woman. For dying she was, Emma was certain even from her high perch. The man had stripped off his jacket and covered her, but he had failed to staunch the wound and blood was spreading in a grisly pool around his feet. Steed appeared very quickly, having, Emma was sure, bound down the stairs three at a time. For a moment she speculated that eventually age would catch up with him and he’d hurt himself at such antics. But she squelched the thought as she watched him join Lord Gregory beside the dying – or dead – woman.

Of course it was Countess Rossi.

“Put pressure on the wound, man,” Steed said as he crouched opposite Lord Gregory.

“It’s too late,” Lord Gregory croaked, stroking the Countess’s shiny black hair. Steed picked up the woman’s arm and pressed two fingers to her wrist. Lord Gregory was right. He laid the arm across her chest and glanced upward. Emma’s heart-shaped face seemed to glow in the moonlight reflected off of the lagoon. Even at that distance he could see her sorrowful expression.

“I was about to ask her to marry me,” Lord Gregory sobbed, clutching the dead woman to his chest. Steed’s mouth went dry. He could not find words in any of the many languages he spoke to comfort the man. Instead he placed a steady hand on Lord Gregory’s shoulder.

A fast boat came alongside the quay, its wake smacking against the pilings and splashing up onto the pavement. A hoard of policemen leapt from it and quickly surrounded the two men and the dead woman. More police arrived on foot, and soon the scene was awash in uniforms. High above, Emma watched as the Countess’s body was moved onto a stretcher and covered, then it along with Steed and Lord Gregory were taken aboard the boat. A few officers remained behind, heaving up buckets of lagoon water to sluice away the blood.

Ten minutes later, attired in a black leather cat suit, Emma deftly picked the lock on Lord Gregory’s door and stepped inside. She stood still in the dark room for several minutes, listening and allowing her eyes to adjust. Lord Gregory had a one-bedroom suite on the floor above hers. Once she felt comfortable, she worked her way around the rooms, carefully opening drawers and cabinets, checking under sofa cushions and behind curtains and art on the walls. She left no evidence of her search, replacing each object she touched exactly as she found it.

The lord’s closet revealed only one interesting piece of information: he and Steed did share the same tailor. Feeling frustrated at finding nothing useful, she stepped into the large, ornately tiled bathroom. Lord Gregory’s personal items were arranged neatly on the large counter. She opened each bottle to sniff the contents, but shampoo smelled like shampoo, and the shaving cream foamed into her hand in a very ordinary manner. She spotted a damp towel folded over the edge of the bathtub and wiped her hand on it. She studied the room again and it hit her. With a smirk, she lifted the lid on the toilet tank.

She removed the large envelope inside a re-sealable plastic bag and replaced the lid. The plastic bag – one of the convenient new “zipper close” bags – pulled open easily. She removed the unsealed brown envelope and looked inside.

“Grazie Antonio,” Steed pressed a two hundred Lire note into the porter’s hand and stepped inside the suite. He had rushed out without his key, and he had not wanted to wake Emma at four o’clock in the morning.

The sitting room was dark and quiet, the curtains hanging still since the breeze had died in the depths of the night. Steed looked into his room and saw the empty unmade bed. He crossed to Emma’s room. The door was open a crack revealing a slice of light.

He pushed it open and looked in. She had fallen asleep reading a journal that had fallen to the floor. He looked for a long while at her sleeping face illuminated on one side by the reading lamp. Her beauty in sleep was a very private thing, lacking the lively animation of her waking persona. He had come to understand that only in sleep could she be young Emma Knight, vulnerable and innocent. And he believed that sometimes she needed to be that woman – that girl — who had lost her mother as a teenager and was devoted to her father. Privileged, brilliant, and happy despite her early loss. He wished he could have known her then – could have prevented her from marrying Peter Peel. But even as he thought it he knew that it would never have worked. The difference in their ages then would have been too great, and he had been a different man. Not a man he thought she would have accepted as a suitor. Nothing like Peter Peel.

He slipped into her room and sat down in a comfortable chair. Something prevented him from undressing and climbing into her bed, although he knew she would have welcomed him. But he did not wish to disturb her, did not wish to bring her forward in time through the loss of her father and her husband, to the gritty world he had dragged her into. A world where a woman’s life was secondary, irrelevant in the face of the larger goal. Whoever had killed Countess Rossi had done it as an attack on Lord Gregory. He did not know why, but he aimed to find out. And he intended to keep Emma safe, now and in the future. Because he could not stand to lose her as Lord Gregory had lost Silvie tonight.

“Steed?” Emma’s voice drifted to him, sleepy, barely more than a breath, but enough to draw him out of his reverie. She sat up, pushing back the covers, swinging her feet to the floor.

“Stay. I didn’t mean to wake you,” he said, rising too, wishing her back to sleep. But she shook her head and went to the door.

“I searched Lord Gregory’s room,” she said as she went into the sitting room. Of course you did, he thought, stopping as a wave of emotion washed over him. Protection was not what she needed from him. Trust, devotion, affection, passion, these were what she asked of him, and what he gave willingly, if silently. But she never asked to be sheltered, would rail against it if he tried. He loved her all the more for her independence, even if it did mean she sometimes placed herself in danger. Not, he assured himself, that there was likely to have been much danger in Lord Gregory’s room this night.

“And?” he managed at last, following her to the writing table where she’d switched on a lamp. She spread a stack of black and white eight by ten inch photographs across the table. He examined them. They were photographs of old documents, enlarged enough to be legible, although the language, he quickly realized, was Italian and the calligraphy was difficult for modern eyes to follow. Emma turned over one of the photos, revealing a typed paged attached to the back.

“Translation,” she said. He held it under the lamp to read it.

“Blackmail,” he said when he’d finished.

“Of a very inventive sort,” she agreed. “If Lord Gregory’s ancestry is discredited in this way, his political career will be over.”

Steed turned over the rest of the photographs and read the translations of the rest of the letters. The correspondence, which appeared to be between one of Lord Gregory’s direct antecedents and an individual engaged in the slave trade, painted an ugly picture indeed. If they were to be believed, then Lord Gregory’s family fortune was based upon trafficking in humans – but not the commonly known African slave trade, which was a smirch on the reputations of many a fine British family with holdings in the West Indies. No, this correspondence linked Lord Gregory’s family with kidnap and sale into brothels of the children of white, British peasants — the very people who stood to benefit from his political efforts today.

“It’s absurdly convenient, this series of letters openly discussing criminal matters that are exactly the right thing to discredit Lord Gregory today,” Steed said thoughtfully.

“Yes. That did occur to me, too.”

“We need to see the original documents. I assume the blackmailer provided these as proof.”

“We shall have to start with the dwarf. I saw him, you know, running away from them tonight.”

Steed looked at her, gratified, if not at all surprised, that she had thrown herself unhesitatingly into the investigation. “So he said, to the police. I told them that I’d broken up a fight between him and the dwarf yesterday. I did not mention you, by the way. Nor did Lord Gregory.”

“Thank you, I think.”

Steed shrugged, “Sometimes anonymity is extremely useful, Mrs. Peel,” he said.

“Did he come back with you?” She asked. Steed nodded, studying one of the photographs. “Then he will probably have checked for these. By now he knows they’re missing.”

“Yes. But he won’t be reporting the robbery to the hotel detective, I should think.”

Morning came all too early for Steed, but he roused himself nonetheless and joined Emma in the terrace restaurant where breakfast was served. When they entered they spotted Lord Gregory immediately. He looked as if he had fallen into bed in his clothes from last night, then risen and come to breakfast without looking in a mirror. His hair was uncombed and there were ominous dark stains on the front of his suit coat. The waiter shot him a curious, possibly hostile look as he set a cup of coffee on his table – apparently his third, judging from the accumulation of empty ones in front of him. Steed and Emma went directly to his table.

“Good morning, Lord Gregory,” Emma said as Steed seated her on one side. Lord Gregory raised his head, his face a mix of grief and puzzlement. Steed seated himself across from Emma, effectively surrounding the nobleman.

“May we join you?” he asked, pointedly after the fact. Lord Gregory turned to look at Steed, then down at the row of cups in front of him. He reached for the full one and his hand shook as he lifted it from its saucer.

“What do you want?” he asked. Steed glanced at Emma. She reached over and put her hand on Lord Gregory’s, forcing him to set the cup down. He looked at her again, annoyance shining through the grief. “Let me be.”

“My Lord, we are here to help — and we can help — if you’ll let us,” she said. “Perhaps we did not introduce ourselves sufficiently the first time.”

“We have a great deal of experience in dealing with sensitive matters,” Steed added, drawing Lord Gregory’s gaze. Then he opened his suit coat to reveal his red card displayed inside. By coincidence, the brown envelope of photographs was rolled and tucked into the inner pocket. Lord Gregory’s eyes widened and he sat straighter, although they could not be sure whether his reaction was to Steed’s omnibus security clearance or to the envelope.

Steed closed his jacket as the waiter approached. This time he cleared the empty coffee cups and took Steed and Emma’s orders. They ordered bread for Lord Gregory, although he said he was not hungry.

“Where did you get that?” Lord Gregory asked, his voice nearly a hiss.

Steed resisted the temptation to intentionally misunderstand and say the red card was issued by the ministry only to the most trusted agents. Instead he looked to Emma, who shrugged slightly and spoke.

“I took it from your rooms last night while you were at the police station with Steed,” she said. Lord Gregory’s face grew pale. He lifted his cup again and brought it safely to his lips despite his shaking hands.

“What do you want for it?” he asked. Emma cocked one eyebrow, then looked to Steed.

“We do not want anything for it, my Lord,” he said. “We want to help you. Please tell us where the photographs came from and what they are asking of you.”

“We assume the dwarf is their agent,” Emma added.

Lord Gregory shook his head.

The waiter returned with coffee for Steed and Emma. They gave Lord Gregory time to think while they both added milk and sugar.

“I can’t tell you,” he said. “They’ll release the letters to the media if they even think that I’ve gone to the authorities.”

“We understand. We can keep this completely discrete,” Emma said.

“We need to get the original documents. To have them analyzed and prove that they are forgeries,” Steed said. Lord Gregory’s eyes widened and he looked from Steed to Emma.

The waiter returned once more with their pastries and bread.

“You know that they are forgeries?” Lord Gregory asked when they were alone again. Steed nodded.

“We assume they are – aren’t they?”

“Yes of course they are! My family built its fortune on agriculture – raising sheep, not selling children. It’s horrific. But if the content of those letters gets out, people will believe them. Even if it’s proven that they are forgeries later, it will be too late for my career.”

“And that would be a shame,” Emma said gently. She tore open a croissant and spread on preserves. Steed watched her, then looked at his watch. Lord Gregory stared into his coffee.

“Mrs. Peel, your talk,” Steed said pointedly. She glanced at her own watch and nodded, taking a sip of coffee to wash down a bite of croissant. Both gentlemen rose with her and she nodded her farewell to Lord Gregory, and then gave Steed a quick, private smile before striding away. Steed and Lord Gregory sat back down.

Steed watched the spot where she’d disappeared through the restaurant doors. “I would listen to her talk about anything,” he said tenderly. Then he realized how he must sound and straightened in his chair. Lord Gregory’s expression betrayed his thoughts – grief was most prominent, with a touch of recognition at the affection he’d heard in Steed’s voice.

“Perhaps you would like to go with her?” Lord Gregory asked.

Steed made a mental note to beg the other man’s discretion at an appropriate moment. He would say Emma had no idea of his feelings, which was, in a way, the truth since he had never spoken of them to her or anyone else.

“No. Right now I must to listen to you,” he said, “And you must tell me exactly what is going on.”

Chapter 6

Emma’s soothing, amplified voice easily filled the large meeting room, which was completely full of physicists – most of them men. Steed stepped to one side just inside the door and watched as Emma reached the end of a sentence, paused to glance up, and saw him. He touched his hat and she smiled as she looked back down at her notes and went on. A few members of her audience had noticed her glance and looked at Steed themselves, then turned back, their attention riveted on Emma.

Steed followed her discussion of electromagnetic field theory well enough. Some of her theories were being tested by government scientists with whom she was consulting. Steed had no doubt that the audience included some of them, as well as certain of his own cronies – from other countries. He was absolutely confident that Emma would not reveal anything she should not. But his opposite numbers were eternally hopeful.

Emma finished her concluding remarks and the scientists applauded respectfully. A moderator whom Steed had not noticed before stepped across the dais and thanked Emma, then solicited questions from the audience. A dozen or more hands shot up. The moderator began to identify the questioners and Emma responded to their questions. After fifteen minutes the audience seemed to be even more interested – not a man had left, and there were even more hands in the air. Emma seemed untiring in her answers, managing to be witty, succinct, and presumably correct with each one. When a questioner stumbled over his English, she interrupted, suggesting he speak his native Italian. She answered in the same language, then easily translated both question and answer for the rest of the audience. Finally the moderator identified a questioner as the last one. There was a murmur of disappointment in the room as the man, a particularly introverted looking fellow with wisps of hair combed over his bald head and thick eyeglasses, asked his question. Emma responded, then thanked them all, thanked the moderator, and quickly stepped away from the lectern.

But her escape was headed off by a number of audience members who met her at the base of the dais steps. They were not in the least bit menacing – rather they were admiring and respectful. But they still forced her to stop and greet them. Her eyes met Steed’s over their heads before she descended the last step. She wore a wry smile and made a tiny shrug that was so expressive he could hear her voice in his head, Sorry darling, I’ll join you when I can.

Smiling at her admirers, knowing in a way that was not arrogant, simply common sense, that not one of them would tempt her away from him, Steed slipped out of the room.

“It went well,” he said a few minutes later as she sat down at his table in the hotel’s lobby cafe.

“It went well,” she repeated, sounding a little tired. He glanced at her face and saw that she was. He immediately regretted what he could not have prevented – that she’d gotten so little sleep last night. But then her face brightened and she appeared to relax, crossing her legs and picking up the small menu listing various beverages and pastries.

“How is he?” she asked, waving discretely at the waiter.

“Grief stricken. He was going to propose to her.”

Emma peered at Steed, amazed at the sympathetic tone in his voice. The waiter materialized beside her and she ordered an espresso and a small slice of local cake. Glancing at Steed, she ordered one for him too, and another espresso.

“You feel sorry for him,” she said to Steed.

“I feel,” he paused, allowing himself to look into her deep, unflinching eyes. God how he loved those eyes: so open, so full of life. He wondered if the passion he saw there was a reflection of his own, or if she could possibly care for him as thoroughly and deeply as he did for her.

“Steed,” she whispered, willing him to go on, but offering him the coward’s choice of stopping, of closing back up, as she always, generously did. He looked away from her, out across the room full of people sipping coffee, eating cake, and talking.

“I can’t imagine how he must feel,” he said truthfully. There. She can take it as she chooses – I can’t imagine because I have no such feelings, or I can’t imagine how it would feel to lose her. 

“Nor can I,” she replied, confusing him so that he had to look back at her. And she caught him – easily, completely, with her liquid gaze. “I was no longer in love with Peter when he died,” she went on, holding him with her eyes. “The pain of losing the person you are in love with,” she paused, filling the silence between them with her knowing gaze, “would be unbearable.”

He swallowed and nodded, and she nodded back: a barely perceptible inclination of her head. And then the tension between them was broken by the waiter setting cups and plates on their small table. As so often was the case with Emma, Steed felt for a moment as if he were falling, rushing headlong into something he could not identify. It was a sensation he had learned long ago to avoid. The unknown was deadly for a spy. But the unknown parts of Emma Peel drew him like a magnet, were why he never tired of making love to her, of touching every part of her. Because one day she might reveal those mysterious places to him, the ones she held so tightly closed that even she never peeked at them.

Emma sliced a bite of her cake with the side of her fork and ate it. “So did he tell you about the letters?” she asked.

Steed nodded, regaining his composure with a sip of espresso. “Someone slipped them under the door to his suite three days ago – no markings on the envelope, of course, and it’s a common envelope, available all over Venice and beyond. There was a typed note demanding that he meet the dwarf to discuss terms. The implication was that if he did not the letters would be released to interested members of the press.”

“That was the meeting we interrupted.”

“Yes. The dwarf, Jacopo, had just outlined their demands when we arrived. Lord Gregory has, it seems, developed a stronger sense of ethics than he had at Eton. He was deeply offended at the very idea of blackmail. Or so he would have me believe.”

“He did seem quite irate,” Emma said, eating more of the very good cake.

“I’d say he’s irate because he knows if the media starts investigating him closely they’ll discover that he ran a cheating ring at school that compromised virtually every exam for three halves in a row before they were caught. That’s why he was expelled – not just for a single infraction.”

Emma was not surprised at Steed’s earnestness. At heart he was a deeply honest, ethical man. She had no doubt that he was offended by Lord Gregory’s behavior at school. And he certainly believed that a man who could cheat in school could and would cheat in later life. Lord Gregory would lose all credibility in Parliament if his dirty secrets were exposed. And when his reputation crumbled, so would the legislation he supported.

She took a sip of her espresso and frowned. “What’s become of Parker? Where was he last night?”

“I asked him that very question this morning when I saw him lingering in the hotel lobby. He said someone slipped him a note yesterday afternoon. It appeared to be from one of his regular contacts requesting a brief meeting just around the corner from the hotel. Lord Gregory and the Countess were at dinner inside, so he went.”

“But that had to have been earlier – she was murdered close to midnight.”

“Someone jumped him. By the time he came around it was all over.”

“So his cover is compromised. That leaves us, then, I suppose.”

“Which is exactly what I told him. But he’s staying on Lord Gregory, to keep them – whoever they are — watching him.”

Emma grimaced, “Not a position I’d like to be in,” she said.

“Sometimes we’re the player, and sometimes we’re the pawn, Mrs. Peel.”

Smack.

Steed was reading another file on Lord Gregory he’d had sent from the ministry’s Milan office while Emma poured them drinks. It was early evening: a lazy hour between the day’s labors and the evening’s pleasures. Emma had returned to the physicists to listen to one of her colleagues speak, then rejoined Steed for lunch. After that, they had visited two of the palaces along the Grand Canal that were open to the public, and sought out a marble-encrusted church deep within Venice’s tangled streets that Emma had read about. It was sadly in need of renovation, and Emma took the name of the organization working toward that end from a sign posted outside.

Smack.

Steed squashed the second mosquito, then frowned as he looked around the sitting room.

“I don’t remember leaving that door open this morning,” he said quietly. Emma, holding their glasses, followed his gaze to the open doors leading out onto the balcony.

“And if you had, the maid would have closed it,” she replied, setting the glasses down. Steed rose and together they crossed the room to hover on either side of the curtained glass doors. They both leaned close to the open doors studying the two sides of the balcony that fronted each of their bedrooms.

“Steed!” Emma exclaimed, then darted through the open door and along the balcony to the far end. Steed followed.

A man huddled in the far corner of the balcony. Emma pried his hands away from his head and he rolled onto his back, his legs sprawling.

“Parker,” Steed said, crouching over the man, whose eyes fluttered open as he groaned. Emma parted the front of his khaki overcoat to reveal blood covering his shirt.

“A knife wound, I think,” she said, gently touching the sodden shirt to reveal a long slash in it.

“Parker, what happened?” Steed asked.

Emma rose and went inside.

“Meeting,” agent Parker groaned.

“What meeting?”

Parker gasped, one hand moving to press against his belly. Steed grasped his shoulders and gave him a gentle shake, then glanced over his shoulder, relieved that Emma hadn’t seen him.

“What meeting Parker?” he repeated urgently.

Emma reappeared with a towel and a glass of water. She pressed the towel to Parker’s chest and he put his hand over it, pressing it to his belly. Then she put the glass to his lips and he swallowed weakly.

“Lord Gregory,” Parker sputtered, the water seeping over his chin. “Went out. I followed.”

“And you were attacked?” Steed asked, hoping to speed things along.

“Attacked,” Parker’s chin dropped to his chest. Steed pressed his hands on either side of the man’s head to lift it. “Came here. To tell you.”

“Do you know where was he going?”

“No.”

Steed and Emma exchanged a frustrated glance. They rose as one, Steed going to the telephone, Emma to her room. He was speaking to the ministry office in Milan when she came back out in her black cat suit carrying the small black case that contained her lock picks. He couldn’t suppress a small smile.

“Help me bring him in,” he said, hanging up the telephone. “They’ll send someone local – one of his secure contacts who can manage the authorities.”

They carried Parker into the sitting room and laid him out on the settee. He had passed out. Emma lifted the towel and found it soaked with blood. She unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a deep, oozing diagonal slash across his chest and abdomen. From the odor she suspected that the weapon had nicked his intestine or stomach.

“They better hurry. This is serious.”

“Do what you can for him. We can’t wait,” Steed said, heading for his own room.

Emma got out a first aid kit she always carried and used the length of gauze to secure the towel over the wound – the slash was too long for the small bandages in the kit to do any good. Steed returned dressed in black slacks and a turtleneck jersey.

“His suite?” she asked.

“Let’s hope he left us some sort of clue.”

“What’s this?” Steed picked up a creamy folded card from the dresser in Lord Gregory’s bedroom.

“A clue?” Emma asked, joining him.

“A message from the front desk. Taken at four o’clock.”

Steed handed the card to Emma.

“Meet Jacopo at six o’clock, Dorsoduro – Fondamenta Soranzo. Look for the wooden building,” Emma read with a puzzled frown. “What time is it now?”

“Nearly seven.”

“It could be all over.”

“We’d better find out.”

Chapter 7

“Stop there. Turn around.”

Lord Gregory stood just inside the door of the dark wooden building, the handle of the briefcase full of money in one hand. He turned around, instinctively putting his other hand to his face as the dust in the wood working shop induced a sneeze.

“Hands at your sides!” Jacopo’s voice came again, even more demanding. In just a few short days Lord Gregory had come to despise the dwarf so intensely he had to struggle not to swing around and smash him with the briefcase. The evil little man had a knife – probably the same knife that he’d used to kill Silvie. Gregory had been in his share of adolescent brush-ups. He was sure he could take Jacopo. But that would not put an end to this. Jacopo was only the go-between. Gregory wanted to avenge Silvie, and to do it he had to get to whoever was behind the dwarf. So he lowered his hand and stood sniffing, trying not to sneeze, as the case was taken from him.

“Good. Now go. We will contact you again.”

Rage blossomed, suffusing Gregory with an undeniable need to destroy Jacopo and his cohorts.

“No!” he growled, whirling around to see the dwarf backing toward an inner door, knife still held ready in one hand, the briefcase in the other, it’s bottom nearly dragging on the floor.

Gregory charged him, aiming to knock the knife away with a backhanded blow. But Jacopo was exceedingly quick. He dropped the case and darted under Gregory’s arm, shouting wordlessly as he moved. The door in front of Gregory swung open and a large man dove through it, fists swinging. Gregory’s head snapped first one way and then the other so fast he did not at first feel the pain of the blows. He staggered back, stumbling over the briefcase and landing hard on his tailbone. The man came after him, hauling him up by his lapels and dragging him back through the door. Dazed, Gregory lost track of the dwarf and the briefcase as he was struck a few more times, then bound with his arms over his head.

“What did you think you were doing?” someone asked. A slender man with long, dark hair stepped into his line of sight. He was dressed all in black, and his drooping mustache gave him an almost comic, menacing look.

“He killed Countess Rossi. His life for hers,” Gregory spat back, still possessed by rage and unable to see the precariousness of his position.

“Yes. And he’ll kill you if you aren’t careful.”

“No he won’t. Because you won’t get anything more from me if I’m dead.”

The man in black glanced toward the door they’d dragged Gregory through. “Put it in the boat,” he said in Italian. Gregory could just see the top of Jacopo’s head as he walked toward the canal on the other side of the gondolas that were mounted on saw horses in the open workshop.

The man in black returned his attention to Gregory. “There is a point at which the difficulty of maintaining a relationship outweighs the profit,” he said. “It is unfortunate that our relationship has reached that threshold so quickly.”

“You should not have let him kill her. Did you think it would frighten me into paying?”

“Sometimes Jacopo acts rashly.”

That only enraged Gregory more. That Silvie’s death was merely a rash act on the part of a minion, not ordered by the real blackmailers. Not deemed critical to their scheme at all.

“You bastards. She was innocent. She was good –.”

“Yes, yes, she was a flower of Venetian society,” the man in black interrupted, glancing toward the canal. “Aye, Jacopo! What are you doing?”

The dwarf appeared empty handed around the stern of the nearest gondola. He stood with his arms at his sides and stared at the longhaired man in black.

“Very well,” the man said, turning back to Lord Gregory. “Now. How shall we dispose of you?”

“But what good does all this do if you kill me?” Gregory asked. His rage was beginning to fade as his arms began to ache and his hands went numb. The longhaired man shrugged and glanced upward, then paced toward the gondolas. He turned back toward Gregory, leaning on the boat.

“What indeed,” he said thoughtfully. “Jacopo, did you check the case?”

“Si,” Jacopo said. He hadn’t moved, other than to watch the longhaired man pace.

“So Lord Gregory has not tried to cheat us?”

“No. The money is in the case,” the dwarf replied.

The longhaired man looked up again. Lord Gregory pressed his head back against the oar he was bound to, realizing that there was a gallery above him.

“Let’s not kill him,” a new voice said from above. The speaker must be large – the voice had a basso rumble – and German.

Steed and Emma caught a vaparetto crowded with tourists to the first stop on Dorsoduro, receiving several strange looks from traveling matrons clad in conservative pastels. They pressed through their disembarking boat mates with courteous “pardons” and “excuse mes.” They dove into the streets and alleys, using instinct and good guesses to weave their way in the right direction.

“It’s got to be on the other side of this canal,” Steed said as they approached a bridge. Emma glanced to the left at the sound of an outboard motor as they climbed the bridge. A small boat carrying an equally small man was coming toward the bridge in the middle of the canal.

“Steed,” she said, clutching his arm and pointing.

“Jacopo,” he said, leaning on the stone balustrade.

“He has a briefcase in the boat.”

“Lord Gregory’s payment?”

Emma didn’t pause to answer. The little boat was about to go under the bridge, the dwarf too intent on driving it to notice the people above. As he disappeared under the stonework Emma dashed across the bridge, vaulted onto the balustrade, and with a glance downward, dropped toward the canal.

Steed dashed after her, planting his hands on the stone but staying on the bridge. Emma had landed in the boat and grabbed the gunwales on either side for balance. The dwarf momentarily lost control and the boat swerved, but Emma counter balanced it. She began edging toward the stern where Jacopo had his feet planted on the briefcase.

Realizing there was little he could do to assist her, and confident that Emma could manage the situation, Steed headed on across the bridge.

Realizing she was inching toward him, Jacopo rotated the throttle handle. The little engine roared, accelerating the boat so much the stern dug into the murky canal water. Emma froze, knowing that if she moved further aft the little boat would flip over. Jacopo grinned victoriously, showing jagged yellow teeth. Emma glanced at the water and decided it couldn’t be that bad. She took another step toward the back of the boat, feeling it sink deeper. Water began to pour in over the transom.

Jacopo yelped as he felt water seep through the seat of his slacks. He slowed the boat and the bow dropped, allowing the stern to rise. The bottom of the boat was awash, but they were not sinking. Emma took another careful, crouching step toward him, still holding onto the gunwales. Suddenly he grinned again and turned at a much smaller side canal. Once again Emma counter balanced by swaying to the outside of the turn. As she re-centered she realized that the dwarf was staring beyond her, his grin turning menacing. She glanced over her shoulder just in time to see a solid wall just in front of the boat.

She dropped.

So did Jacopo, bending below the level of the small outboard engine, which just cleared the roof of the tunnel they had entered. At first Emma thought it was a low bridge, but it went on for too long, and very quickly they were moving through inky darkness.

The smell of mold and decay permeated the dank air, and the grumble of the little engine thundered in the narrow space. Then the boat bumped against something and stopped, and in the instant before Jacopo shut off the engine its echo sounded different – deeper, larger, less confined.

The boat lifted slightly and Emma was certain that Jacopo, and probably the briefcase – had gotten out. With the engine off she could hear the gentle slosh of water, and dripping from a thousand places. And footsteps – soft shoes on stone, receding.

She rose from the wet boat carefully, but found no ceiling. Then she felt over the gunwale and found a stone quay. She scrambled onto it and felt further, finding steps leading up.

After a few steps the stairs turned, and then again a few steps later. Then she saw a rectangle of light around an ill-fitting door. She dashed up to it, feeling all over its surface for a handle. It swung open against her touch, releasing her into a dim, empty room. The palace – for it had certainly once been one – had been stripped of anything of value. And then it had been stripped of everything else except for the mold, and rats, and strips of stained, peeling wallpaper. Emma ran across the empty room and through another much grander doorway from which the doors had been removed. She turned right along a gallery that looked out into a courtyard. She caught a glimpse of movement at the end, and when she got there she found a staircase leading up at a right angle to the gallery.

The staircases circled the courtyard, ornate columns and a balustrade on the outside and occasional gaping windows on the inside wall. Emma took the steps two at a time, feet sometimes slipping on the worn stones, sometimes crunching on broken glass and other unidentifiable debris. She circled the courtyard completely once before finding herself on the same set of stairs as Jacopo.

He heard her coming and increased his pace, but she had the advantage of height. Near the top of the flight of stairs she tackled him, knocking the case up onto the next landing. She kept going, making for the case, but he grabbed her legs, wrapping one arm around them in an iron grip. She sprawled, her fingers almost on the case, then twisted onto her back, flipping her hair out of her eyes as she tried to kick him off. She saw the knife just in time and sat up to wrap both hands around his wrist.

He was frightfully strong, all sinew and bone beneath his tough skin. Emma held is hand away from her torso, gritting her teeth as she focused all of her strength on squeezing and bending his wrist. He let go of her legs and wrapped his other hand around her wrist, trying to claw it loose. With her legs free she could shift her balance, rising above him to use her weight against him. He cried out as his wrist gave, twisting backward with an audible crack. He fell away from her and she instinctively let go as the knife clattered to the stone steps. Jacopo fell onto the balustrade, then over it backwards, before she could react. She leaned out just in time to see him land with a sickening thump in the courtyard below.

She grimaced, glancing down at the knife. Then she gingerly picked it up by the back of the blade in order to preserve his fingerprints, retrieved the briefcase, and started back down the stairs. She realized that she had no idea where she was in relation to where she’d left Steed. The only way she could find her way back was to retrace their path in the boat.

Steed would have followed the canal, but there was no fondamenta – no pedestrian path along it, only the sheer sides of buildings. He plunged into the streets, once again using gut instinct to follow the course of the canal.

Shortly he came to a long, low wooden building, its timbers stained nearly black, its shingled roof showing bare patches here and there. He was certain that this was the wooden building in the message.

He studied it from across the street and selected one of the windows. He was not surprised when it did not open. He cast around a bit and found a fragment of brick across the street. Peering in at the locking mechanism, he selected an adjacent glass pane to break, then reached through and opened the lock. The window swung open on stiff hinges that creaked unnervingly.

With a glance to either side to reassure himself that the quiet street was still empty, he heaved himself through the window, climbed across a worktable cluttered with woodcarver’s tools, and dropped to the floor. The room inside smelt of resin and wood smoke. Carved wooden forms hung from the ceiling and were set in rows along shelves. They were oars and forcolas, the graceful carved wooden posts used for leverage by gondoliers.

Steed ran his fingers over a partially carved block of wood on a workbench, then glanced at a wooden door that was slightly ajar. A voice carried through the slim opening – a man speaking Italian. Steed could not make out the words, only the sharp, angry tone. He crossed to the door and looked through the crack, but all he could see was a forest of metal combs — gondola heads affixed to the bows of several boats. Crouching, he pushed the door further open and slipped out into what turned out to be a squero – a gondola workshop.

“This could have gone so smoothly,” the Italian was saying. Now Steed could see that he was addressing Lord Gregory, who was tied to an oar clamped vertically to an overhead beam. There was bruising on his face and a cut beneath his eye that was dripping blood down his cheek. His blond hair and clothes were disheveled, as if he’d put up a fight before being tied up.

Steed worked his way along a sleek black hull, studying the entire workspace as he crept. There was an enclosed gallery above reached by stairs at the far end. The gondolas had been dragged up a boat ramp – a sloping stretch of pavement that descended into the canal – and hoisted onto sawhorses that put them at a convenient level to work on them. The work area was open air – the roof only extended over the gallery. Beneath the gallery were cabinets and racks of tools and supplies.

The Italian was a slender man dressed all in black. He was holding a strip of black cloth that looked suspiciously like a blindfold. As he tied the cloth around Lord Gregory’s eyes a movement caught Steed’s eye – a large man in a three-piece suit was descending the stairs from the gallery. Steed frowned. Is this an execution? Or are they taking him somewhere? Do they know the dwarf has gone off with the money?

When the blindfold was secure the Italian stepped away and looked to the big man, who motioned the Italian to join him at a worktable beneath the far end of the gallery. Steed couldn’t believe his luck – unless, of course, the gallery above was packed with villains waiting to strike. Assuming that was not the case, he slipped out from among the gondolas, reaching into his pocket as he went. He opened his pocketknife and sliced first through Lord Gregory’s blindfold, placing a finger in front of his lips when the man looked at him in surprise. Then he sliced the ropes binding his ankles and wrists to the oar.

“Come on,” Steed whispered into the man’s ear.

“No!” Lord Gregory hissed back, and before Steed could react he was charging toward the two men. Adopting a pained expression, Steed followed.

Chapter 8

Emma slowed the engine as the little boat passed under the bridge where she’d first jumped into it. She had not expected to see Steed waiting there for her, but for some reason she felt a pang of concern when she didn’t. Silently scolding herself for being frivolous she scanned the canal ahead, wondering where in the maze of canals and private boat houses the dwarf had come from.

The Italian heard Lord Gregory coming and spun around, his narrow face twisting in surprise. He turned back to the worktable and picked up a sleek, black gun. The big man turned as well, but seemed willing to let his companion handle the situation. The Italian leveled the gun at Lord Gregory’s chest. Steed, just a step behind Lord Gregory, expected the other man to stop. He did not expect it to be because of a bullet.

The Italian fired and Lord Gregory stumbled, his arms flailing as if for balance. But he kept going, to the surprise of the Italian and Steed. Not certain whether Lord Gregory was shot or just startled, Steed stuck with him. The Italian took a step toward them, re-aiming the gun. Behind him the big man stepped away from the table, focusing his attention on Steed. His movement distracted the Italian, and in the moment it took him to glance over his shoulder Lord Gregory was on him. He did not so much attack as collapse, but the effect was the same. They fell to the floor in a struggling heap.

As Steed reached the big man he swung with his right, catching him in the jaw. Near his feet the gun fired again, this time muffled between the Italian and Lord Gregory. Steed didn’t have time to investigate. The big man grabbed for Steed. Steed ducked under the man’s arm, grabbing it as he spun and pinning it at the man’s back. The man drove back with his free arm, his elbow slamming into Steed’s chest so hard he fell away, arms reeling.

He fetched up against a rough wooden column supporting the gallery and gasped to regain his breath as he watched the big man come at him. He glanced around for a weapon and spotted a wealth of sharp edged woodworking tools on a rack under the gallery. Before he could move toward them the big man reached for him. Once again he dodged low. But this time the man caught him around the waist and dropped with him, pinning him on the floor with his body wrestler fashion. The wind knocked out of him again, Steed lay flat on his belly gasping. And then he was being rolled over, his shoulder painfully wrenched. He brought his knees to his chest and planted his feet awkwardly in the big man’s midriff. They sank into his soft flesh, then met with solid muscle underneath. Steed used his legs to push the man off and he fell, but bounced back up with alarming speed.

They faced off, crouched, arms wide and loose, eyes locked on one another. Steed listened for sounds of movement – and with luck assistance – from Lord Gregory. But that gentleman and the Italian were both disturbingly silent.

The big man rushed Steed, putting all of his bulk into a jaw breaking punch that, fortunately did not land on Steed’s jaw. He ducked it, but the man’s second punch to his gut found its target, and while Steed bowed over the impact a third strike to his temple sent him tumbling sideways in a daze.

Impatient, Emma accelerated, the sound of the small motor echoing off the buildings lining the canal. Then there was an opening on the right – not a fondamenta, but an open paved area where several gondolas were mounted on sawhorses. Jacopo was dressed as a gondolier. It could be coincidence. But it’s worth a look. As she passed the gondolas she turned her boat in at a stone ramp and hopped out, looping the bow line around a wooden cleat secured to the stone pavement.

She slipped in between two of the gondolas, crouching to stay concealed between them as she made her way toward the area under the gallery. There was a flickering light in the windows up there – a fire, or an oil lamp. Someone was home.

This was confirmed before she reached the bows of the gondolas – a big man in a three-piece suit came thumping down the wooden stairs at the end of the workshop. Emma froze, watching him stride toward her, then veer in under the gallery and through a heavy wooden door. He shut it behind him. Follow him, or see where he came from? Emma flipped a mental coin and it came up tails. She stepped out from between the gondolas and headed for the stairs. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Lord Gregory and a man all in black tangled together in a heap on the floor near a worktable. She didn’t bother to approach them. If they were dead there was nothing she could do, and if not, then they would have to wait. At least, she thought bitterly as she mounted the stairs, I know I’m in the right place.

She crouched as she opened the door at the top of the stairs and peeked around it. A smile lit her face when she found herself looking into Steed’s eyes. He was bound in a chair, looking a bit rumpled.

“So good of you to come Mrs. Peel,” he said in a conversational tone that told her they were alone. She stepped inside and closed the door, glancing around for something to cut his bonds with.

“Pocketknife,” he said, “right trouser pocket.”

“Naturally,” she quipped, unhesitatingly reaching into his pocket, and wiggling her fingers around a bit for good measure. He assumed a pained expression and she pulled the knife out with a smirk.

“Lord Gregory is down there, along with a man dressed just like you,” she said, indicating with her eyes his black turtleneck and trousers.

“And you as well, my dear. But you carry it off the best,” he replied, openly admiring her cat suit.

“Thank you,” she said, a quick grin lighting her face as she handed him his pocketknife. He stood up and went to a worktable. Several documents lay on it, illuminated by an oil lamp.

“The letters,” Emma said, picking one up and holding it close to the lamp. She studied the paper closely, rubbing it between two fingers. “Its old paper, but that in itself doesn’t prove anything. Forgers bleach and scrape off old ink and reuse the paper. We’ll need an analysis of the ink.”

She looked at Steed, who looked both surprised and delighted.

“Mrs. Peel, I had no idea you were an expert in forgery,” he said wondrously.

“I made a few calls, during breaks between talks,” she shrugged. He chuckled and looked closely at one of the letters.

“Uh oh,” Emma whispered, cocking her head toward the door. There were heavy footsteps on the stairs. They exchanged a silent glance and Steed sat back down. Emma trotted lightly over to stand behind the door.

It opened and the big man came through. Emma let him move a few steps, then tapped him on the right shoulder. As he turned she grabbed his left arm and twisted it behind him much as Steed had done earlier. Steed cringed as the man tried the same move he’d used earlier, but Emma had placed herself more to the left, and all he managed to do was throw himself off balance. Emma used that to propel him forward, running him into the worktable, which he slammed into at gut-level. The table crumbled under his weight and the oil lamp shattered. The spilled oil ignited with a whoosh, immediately engulfing the man’s head and shoulders.

Emma stepped between his feet and tried to drag him backwards out of the flames. She couldn’t budge him. Steed grabbed the lower hem of the man’s coat and pulled it up, using it to smoother his burning hair and upper jacket. This was somewhat effective, so he joined Emma and together they moved him a couple feet. But while they did it the flames spread quickly, greedily consuming whatever paints and resins were soaked into the worktable’s shattered surface.

They both glanced around for something to extinguish the fire. Steed picked up a tall metal canister with a handle on top and a slim hose attached. He pumped the handle several times, then aimed the hose at the flames and opened a valve on the end. A stream of water soaked the big man’s head and shoulders, then extinguished the flaming papers and wood.

The smell of singed hair and flesh was nauseating. Emma pushed open a window and she and Steed hung out it, inhaling the marginally better outside air.

“I’ll see if there’s a telephone,” Steed said when they had regained their composures and their breath.

“I’ll check on Lord Gregory.”

Epilogue

“Herr Gilbert Schenck. His company owns a number of residential buildings in various English cities and all over Europe,” Steed said, pouring coffee for Emma and himself. “He’s dead.”

“The burns?”

“Heart attack, a few hours ago. Brought on by the burns, they said.”

Emma took her coffee and Steed sat down beside her on the settee. They both sipped in silence for a moment. Steed had been out most of the night coordinating the clean-up. He had sent Emma back to the hotel once the Venetian police arrived at the squero. There was no need for her to hang around watching the bodies removed, and at least one of them might as well get some sleep. She’d gone without protest after telling the police where to find Jacopo – as best she could.

Steed had slipped into the suite and his own bed just before dawn. It was late morning now, and they had arranged to extend their stay another day rather than scramble to check out as originally planned.

“This was a dirty little affair,” she said. “So many people killed. And over what? A man’s reputation?”

“Money,” Steed said simply. “The potential income from the slums that Lord Gregory’s legislation would transform into decent housing.”

“I’ve a mind to see what I can do to support what he was working on,” Emma said. Steed had to smile, had to reach over and trace her jaw with one finger. She turned her face to him, her deep eyes filled with sorrow. She had not learned to shield herself from the carnage, not completely. He knew he could rely on her in the heat of the moment, but when all was said and done it still took its toll on her. He hated to see her hurt, but he would also hate to see her so hardened that she couldn’t feel for the victims. It was her tenderness that had broken through his own hardened detachment. Cathy Gale’s open disdain for his callousness had only spurred him to hide behind it even more. Emma had berated him for it once or twice, but then she’d stopped, simply countering it with her own behavior instead. And that had inspired in him a new need to feel as she did, to find at least a small amount of compassion within himself for even the most evil men and women they defeated.

“Let’s go to the Basilica. I could use a bit of quiet meditation,” she said.

He nodded, understanding if not fully sharing her need. “And then lunch?” he asked. The coffee and croissants they’d ordered from room service would only hold him for so long. She smiled — a sad, sweet expression that made him caress her face again. She leaned into his hand.

“And then lunch,” she said softly, her eyes searching his, and then apparently finding what they sought. She leaned forward to set her cup on the table in front of the divan, did the same with his, and then pressed herself into his arms. “Hold me for a few minutes, will you Steed?”

He pressed his lips against her hair, his eyes squeezed shut, his hands flat against her back so that he could feel the essence of her life: her beating heart.

“For as long as you want, darling,” he whispered.

“No, no, signore, like this,” the gondolier adjusted Steed’s grip for the fifth or sixth time. Grinning up at them from her seat in the boat Emma snapped another picture.

Steed tried again to execute the sculling motion that would propel the gondola smoothly forward. The boat swerved to the left and the gondolier, who was standing on the stern deck with Steed, swayed dangerously.

“Signore,” he groaned, silently begging Steed to give up.

“Here Steed, let me try,” Emma suggested. The gondolier looked down at her in surprise. Steed handed the gondolier the oar and stepped past him and down into the boat.

“Do your best,” he said affectionately. She rose and stepped up beside the gondolier, at the last minute hanging her camera by its strap around the man’s neck with a playful smile. He smiled back, clearly admiring her figure and her outfit – a striped shirt and black capri slacks. As she took the oar and assumed the proper position on the stern she looked exactly like a shapely gondolier.

While Steed watched intently, the real gondolier positioned her hands on the oar and showed her the motion and how to use the forcola for leverage. The gondola began to glide along the side canal that they’d chosen for their lesson. The gondolier let go and Emma kept sculling. She grinned proudly at the gondolier, then her smile turned a touch smug as she looked down at Steed.

“Keep going,” the gondolier urged her in Italian, then he gracefully stepped into the boat, walked forward, and climbed out onto the bow deck. He faced the stern and raised Emma’s camera to his face.

Steed assumed a relaxed pose on the seats below Emma, and she smiled proudly as the shutter clicked, capturing her victory.

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