Steed plays the sport of kings
Emma solves some puzzles
Colonel Gareth Wilson, retired, shut the oven door and used a carving knife to slice a small piece off the end of the steaming roast he had just removed from it. The meat looked deliciously juicy: the perfect shade of pink. Setting the knife aside he went to the refrigerator and leaned into its depths to locate a bunch of parsley. Herbs in hand he straightened and shut the door, his eyes widening in surprise at the man standing behind it.
The swarthy, bearded man wore a dark red turban and a conservative, English-made dark grey suit. He raised his right hand, one finger extended upward. His lips pursed in a scolding expression and he shook his head slightly. Colonel Wilson was too surprised not to comply with this strange request for silence. And then before he could react the man had moved close, pressing him backwards across the kitchen until he slammed against the countertop next to the stove. The stranger’s hand was plastered over his mouth, suppressing his startled squeal.
“Tell me your clue or I will disembowel you with this knife,” the man hissed, seizing the carving knife from beside the roasting pan on top of the stove. Colonel Wilson’s eyes widened, his double chin wobbling as he shook his head against the man’s hand. The man pressed the tip of the knife against the side of Wilson’s stomach, his lips parting in a menacing sneer to reveal straight white teeth.
“I ask again: your clue Colonel. If you refuse, I will take you from this place and kill you very slowly. You will tell me in the end, or tell me now and live.”
The tip of the knife pierced the Colonel’s white apron, waistcoat, and the shirt underneath it. He nodded rapidly, wincing at the sharp pain as the knife penetrated his flesh. His attacker withdrew the knifepoint and his hand so that the Colonel could speak.
“Never!” the Colonel growled, shoving the man back across the kitchen with both hands. The prick of the knife had sparked anger, and with it strength and determination. He would not be bullied, and he would not betray his associates.
“Gareth?” a woman’s voice echoed in the hall beyond the kitchen door. “Is dinner almost ready or shall I refresh everyone’s drinks?”
Now the attacker’s eyes widened as his expression turned furious. “You are a dead man!” he hissed, dropping the knife on the floor as he sprinted to the garden door. Colonel Wilson pivoted in place watching him go, his face fading from crimson to grey as he gasped for breath, one hand pressed to the bloodstain on his stomach.
“Gareth?” Mrs. Wilson, stepped into the kitchen. “Gareth!” her curious question became a scream as she watched her husband crumple to the floor.
“He’s lovely darling, but could you please keep him away from the flowerbeds?” Emma Knight Steed stood at the edge of a mown meadow on the Steed property watching her husband canter a dappled grey gelding in a zig-zag course between bright orange cones on the ground. Horse and man cut a dashing figure.
He had ridden up to the house an hour before mounted on the grey leading a shiny-coated buckskin mare. The moment he’d stopped them the grey had plunged his nose into the freshly turned dirt of a flowerbed where Emma had just planted several dozen tulip bulbs. When he’d raised his head chewing on something crunchy Emma had waved husband and horses away to the outer garden.
These horses were the latest in a succession of such animals that Steed had been trying out all winter. Contrary to Emma’s prediction, after recovering from injuries received in Venice the previous fall Steed had not forgotten his decision to begin playing polo. All winter he had made regular visits to horse auctions and breeders in the company of their groom. His interest had not gone unnoticed by the local polo royalty, as Emma thought of the ultra wealthy enthusiasts who spent fortunes sponsoring teams. As winter melted into spring and everyone from local pony clubs to the richest of polo establishments began slapping on fresh paint and grooming the exercise rings, the telephone had begun to ring.
Steed had played polo in his early days in the army, and again for a season when he was working with Cathy Gale. But since then other priorities had limited his riding to less organized events. Polo required constant training for frequent matches. Although Emma was concerned about the dangers of the game, she was intrigued that Steed felt that he could work it into his schedule now. It could only mean he did not expect to be subject to the random lifestyle of a field agent any more. In any case, he’d been invited to play – at first for fun and then, as he’d proven himself still adept in the saddle, in local matches. So far he’d only played on borrowed horses, but Emma had resigned herself to the eventual acquisition of a handful of polo ponies. At least so far he was planning on boarding them rather than enlarging the barn.
Steed rode over to where Emma was standing holding the reins of the buckskin mare in one hand and a couple polo mallets in the other.
“Let’s see how he likes working with a stick,” he said, holding out his hand for one of the mallets. As Emma rolled a ball across the grass the grey’s head popped up and his eyes followed the bright ball. Steed grinned and spurred the horse after the ball, stick swinging.
“Are you going to try this one?” Emma called out, stroking the mare’s neck.
“You try her,” Steed replied, whacking the ball far out into the meadow.
Emma watched man and horse gallop away, then she shrugged, her mouth curling into a sly smile as Steed and his horse caught up with the ball and he swung at it. His stroke went amiss and the ball shot off to the left. Steed’s horse had to turn hard on its haunches to follow, losing valuable seconds regaining his speed. Emma mounted the mare, secured the other stick in her right hand, and spurred the horse after the ball.
Steed saw her coming in from his left, but neither he nor his horse gave way. He noticed the mare’s eye roll back toward him as she calculated her speed versus that of her stable mate, and then at the last moment she put on a burst of speed, placing Emma and her stick on the ball strides ahead of Steed. Emma hit the ball off slightly to the right on a heading that her mare could easily adjust to. They galloped off after it leaving Steed and his mount to make another sharp turn in order to follow.
Emma worked the ball across the meadow, the mare keeping herself between it and Steed’s mount. As they reached the far edge of the mown area Emma tried a trickier backhanded hit, intending to send the ball back the other way. But her stroke was off and the ball flew in a wild arc away from both riders.
The mare recovered and plunged after it on the flank of Steed’s gelding, who had turned faster. Now Steed gained control of the ball and continued playing it, staying close to Emma for the competition and to judge the horses in close quarters.
“Take it,” he shouted to her after a while, sending it flying at her mare’s legs. The horse dodged it, nearly pitching her rider off over her shoulder. But Emma kept her seat and used the forward momentum to strike the ball back toward Steed. They rode back across the meadow passing the ball back and forth, stopping at the edge where they had started.
“I had no idea that you had played polo, Mrs. Peel,” Steed said.
“I haven’t. It’s invigorating, isn’t it?” she replied. Steed laughed and shook his head. He was not really surprised at her proficiency – he could not think of any activity that their cases had required of them that she’d not excelled at.
“Well you could fool most people,” he said. “What do you think of her?” He studied the buckskin mare.
“She’s good, isn’t she?” Emma replied patting the mare’s withers. “She was completely focused on the ball.”
“I noticed. And his run is as smooth as silk.”
“So have you finally found your ponies?”
“I think I have. At least for a start. I’d best ride them back to Gregory’s – and bring my checkbook. Want to come?”
“I supposed I should come see the stable. Then I’ll know where to find you, since I’m to become a polo widow,” Emma agreed with a laugh. Steed smirked at her and spurred his mount toward the front garden.
“Colonel? Can you hear me?” Mike Gambit studied Colonel Wilson’s face. The steady beep of a monitor was the only indication that the man was alive. The sharp odor of disinfectant could not mask the all too familiar scent of a dying man. “It’s Gambit – Mike Gambit. You can’t have forgotten me, I was too much trouble to forget,” Gambit went on.
“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Wilson said from across the room. “I believe he can hear us, but he hasn’t shown any sign of it. The doctors say he could recover any day. They never state the obvious alternative, but I know.”
Gambit took a last look at the wan face of his former commander, then forced himself to meet the woman’s eyes. She looked drained, as anyone would after a four-day hospital vigil.
“Can I convince you to let me take you home for a rest?” he asked, going around the bed to her. She shook her head, her eyes focused on her husband’s still face.
“No. Not yet. If he wakes up I have to be here.”
Gambit pursed his lips and nodded slightly, following her gaze back toward the bed.
“The doctor said he had a heart attack,” he said. “But you reported seeing an intruder.” Even as he spoke he silently chastised himself for asking. This is not a case. He had to learn to turn off his investigative habits.
“There was,” Mrs. Wilson said, looking up at him through round, green eyes. “I came into the kitchen just as a man ran out the back door. Gareth was hurt. He collapsed and I thought the man had stabbed him – he had, but not very deeply. Gareth’s heart had given out. He must have been terrified.”
“Did the intruder steal anything?” Gambit asked. He found it difficult to believe that the Colonel Wilson he’d served with had been terrified.
“No, I don’t think so. I haven’t checked, actually – I’ve been here. But I don’t think he was carrying anything. He even dropped the knife.”
“That he stabbed the Colonel with?”
Mrs. Wilson nodded.
“You did tell the police about it, didn’t you Mrs. Wilson?”
“Certainly. They took it as evidence. It –,” suddenly she was sobbing, pressing her hands to her face. Her next words came out in a wail: “It was Gareth’s favorite carving knife.”
Gambit instinctively took her into his arms. She shook with sobs, her hands still pressed to her face. Hysterical women made him nervous. He never knew what to say, so he held his tongue. After a few minutes she pressed herself away, glancing up with an embarrassed expression.
“Forgive me,” she said, clearly once again in control of herself. “It’s so difficult to believe, I – I don’t think it’s real yet.”
“I know Mrs. Wilson. But the Colonel is a strong man. He’ll come around and by this time next month he’ll be back out on the polo field.”
“I pray that you’re right, Mr. Gambit. Thank you,” Mrs. Wilson forced a smile, then went to her husband’s bedside to take his hand. Gambit slipped out of the room pondering the irony of the soldier who survives the horrors of countless battles only to collapse in his kitchen. He hoped that would never be him.
A movement behind the mannequins in a haberdashery caught Emma’s eye as she strode along New Bond Street after a visit to Burberry for a scarf from the summer sale. She recognized Steed’s back, attired in his current favorite blue pinstripe, as he walked away from the window accompanied by a salesman holding a folded shirt. Emma was always delighted to catch Steed in the act of enhancing his wardrobe – it justified her own seasonal refitting.
She slipped in through the door behind another gentleman shopper and made her way to a display of neckwear. The merest glance at the shirt carried by the salesman had given her enough information to select a coordinating necktie that she knew Steed would like. Meanwhile Steed and the salesman were standing at a counter pairing ties with several shirts. She stepped up beside Steed and laid her selection across the shirt she’d seen. Steed looked up at her, his mouth splitting in a delighted grin. Before he could acknowledge her she winked playfully and spun on one heel, exiting the store.
The salesman tsked at her departing back. “How presumptuous!” he declared and reached for the tie. Steed put his hand on top of the neckwear.
“I’ll take it,” he said.
The salesman flared his nostrils in dismay as he gathered the tie and the shirts that the shop’s tailor had custom made for Steed.
Emma waited patiently outside the shop until Steed stepped through the door and looked her way.
“Hello darling,” he said, stepping close to smile into her warm eyes. She smiled back, then glanced down at the carrier bag in his hand.
“You bought the tie?” she asked.
“Certainly! It was perfect for the shirts I was picking up. What are you doing here?”
“I really was just passing by,” she shrugged, holding up her own tan plaid bag.
“It’s serendipity then. You must let me buy you lunch.”
Emma glanced at her wristwatch. “All right, I can fit you in,” she said pertly. Steed arched one brow as he took her arm, then smiled when she winked at him.
“Come back to the apartment. We’ll spend the afternoon – I’m certain there’s something dry and bubbly in the fridge.”
Steed delivered his invitation over his plate of Coquille Saint Jacques as if it were a business proposition.
“That’s quite a seduction, darling, but I have a meeting at three,” Emma replied with a wistful smile.
“Surely it can be changed,” he responded, his professionalism barely concealing disappointment.
“I’d rather not,” she watched his face register the rejection. “It’s with Miss Grant – Tasha Grant?” She paused, watching him switch from disappointment to recognition. “I have been meeting with her regularly since we got back from the states.”
Steed’s look turned stormy as he recalled Miss Grant’s remote involvement with the trouble they’d had in the US two months ago. The Knight vice president had come into possession of information that would have saved Emma, her friend the American agent Amanda Stetson, and another American agent from two firefights and hours of being pursued by villains. Miss Grant had insisted on delivering the information only to Emma, thus delaying it reaching Steed and the American agency that needed it in order to protect her. Ultimately Miss Grant had given in and told Steed directly, but by then Emma and her friends were already fleeing the villains on the Potomac river via speedboat.
Steed had expressed his anger with Miss Grant to Emma once she was safe. And other members of the Knight executive staff who were aware of the situation had done the same upon Emma’s return to the office.
But Tasha Grant was a good manager and a loyal Knight employee. Emma had determined to coach her rather than reprimand or fire her. Their first meeting had been the hardest, with Miss Grant clearly expecting to be dismissed and Emma struggling not to give free rein to her anger over the incident.
“You haven’t fired her?” Steed asked.
“Knight has a decade invested in her, and she has a tremendous base of knowledge about Knight Weaponry. Dismissing her for a single lapse in judgment would be poor management.”
“She nearly got you killed,” Steed’s voice had lowered to a growl.
Emma templed her fingers over her plate, her elbows planted indecorously on the white linen tablecloth, and studied him for a moment, giving him the time he needed to recover. “We do not know whether we could have prevented my being attacked even if we did have her information sooner,” she said. “The partners at Exten who gave her the information are as much to blame as she is, and we’re still doing business with them.”
“You should rethink that, too,” Steed grumbled, but he had calmed down.
“I have. I’m going to buy Exten – but you didn’t hear that,” she said with a smug smile, leaning back in her chair and moving her hands to her lap.
Steed’s eyes narrowed as he returned her smile. “Just don’t put Miss Grant in charge,” he snorted, then he leaned across the table toward her, “But why don’t you cancel your meeting this afternoon?”
Emma shook her head, impressed as always with his persistence. “I’m only working part time as it is, darling. I have to honor my commitments.”
Steed sighed, eying her with what looked like skepticism. She picked up her fork and took a last bite of her spaghetti carbonara – her doctor would have scolded her for such a rich choice, but it was divine.
“Well,” he finally drawled, placing his napkin on the table next to his plate, “I suppose I shall have to go home and arrange for a romantic evening instead.”
“Am I invited?”
Steed did not reply, but eyed her again as he signaled for the check. She smiled sweetly and sipped the last of her wine.
“I’m sorry to hear it, my lord. Yes of course. I would be honored. When is it? Good – plenty of time to train as a team. Yes. See you then.”
Steed replaced the receiver on the telephone in his study and smiled at his son, who he was holding in his lap. At seven months baby John was forming word sounds and curious about everything. Steed had baby-proofed the top of his desk: the pen stand, desk calendar, telephone, stapler, tape, and notepad formed an uneven row near the outer edge of the desk. A plastic ring with a bunch of colorful plastic keys sat in the middle of the blotter.
“Father’s been invited to play in a charity match,” Steed told John, who was straining to reach the keys. “It will be my first chance to ride Honey and Cowslip in a competitive game.”
Steed moved the plastic keys a little closer so that John could reach them without realizing that they’d been given to him. He seized them with a squeal of pleasure and promptly dropped them into his father’s lap. Steed picked them up and held them in front of John.
“But Honey needs some work in close quarters. I shall have to see if your mother will help me.”
John took the keys back and stuck the yellow one in his mouth. Steed had noticed that his son seemed to favor that one. He was sure it must mean something.
“And you and mum shall have to come watch, because the Prince is supposed to award the prizes. Won’t that be fun?”
“What prizes?” Emma asked, smiling at her two men as she came into the study carrying a tray.
“Polo prizes,” Steed said with extra enthusiasm, rising to join her at the small tea table across the room. “Lord Eric is short a man. Colonel Gareth Wilson is in hospital.”
Emma set the tea service on the table and put the tray aside.
“Why?” she asked, sitting down across from him.
“Heart attack, apparently. Lord Eric said there was something peculiar about it, but he did not have the details. In any case, the Colonel will not be able to play and I’ve been invited.”
“I shall have to call Mrs. Wilson – perhaps there’s something we can do to help her,” Emma said as she poured. Then she shot Steed a narrow-eyed look. “The Prince is a player, but you’ll have to win if you want to shake his hand.”
Steed shifted John and his keys to the knee away from the table. “I’ve done more than shake his hand over the years,” he sighed, his eyes darting to hers with a sly smile. “He’s been more trouble than you might expect, although it’s only known to a select few.”
“So you wouldn’t want your son taking after him, hum?” Emma asked, dropping sugar in both of their cups.
“Well, I won’t talk out of school,” he said, taking up his spoon to stir. “But between you and me, I think they could use some fresh blood in the line.”
Emma grinned at him as she sipped her tea.
“Another biscuit, Mrs. Peel?” Steed asked, holding up a piece of his aunt’s shortbread.
“No thank you darling,” Emma sighed, closing her eyes. The shadows of the swaying treetops danced on her face. The light breeze carrying the scent of spring flowers and grass made her drowsy. The ride and picnic had been his idea, but she was thoroughly enjoying it. Beside her she felt Steed shifting, and then he was close, pulling her into his arms.
“A lazy afternoon deserves lovemaking,” he whispered, his lips tickling her ear. She smiled, running her fingers into his hair as he kissed her mouth. He tasted of shortbread and wine, and he made her feel lightheaded, ready for anything as he explored her with his hands. One drew the hem of her loose skirt up, stroking her bare thigh. She’d dressed to be undressed and they both knew it. It was his duty to oblige.
He had slipped her panties down her legs and she had unbuckled his belt and opened his flies, all in between languorous kisses, when a loud snort next to their heads startled them apart.
Dancer, her bay mare, was cropping at the grass near the edge of their blanket. Emma turned her head toward the horse and Steed turned it back with a hand on her cheek.
“Ignore her and she’ll go away,” he said, dropping his mouth to the bare flesh of her throat. His fingers were stroking her most sensitive places, already inciting a tingling little shudder. But she looked again toward Dancer, a distant memory suddenly popping into her mind.
“Steed, do you remember an argument I once made for buying a lot of land?” she asked. His fingers stopped and he lifted his head to stare into her eyes. His expression was puzzlement bordering on irritation. He was very aroused, and hated being interrupted. Making love to Emma was one of his greatest pleasures in life. She smiled impishly and struggled to sit up, forcing him to move off of her.
“Darling please,” he complained, irritation beginning to win out. Emma caught hold of Dancer’s reins and stood up.
“I asked you once if you’d ever made love on horseback,” she reminded him, smiling more broadly as his eyes widened.
“And I told you no, and that you’d want a very private place for it,” he nodded, rising as well.
“You first. I’ll face you,” she said, one hand on Dancer’s withers. Emma was an accomplished rider and Dancer so well trained that she often rode bareback, as she had today to their picnic. Steed planted his hands on Dancer’s back and sprang up, swinging his leg over.
“Up you come,” he said, extending his arm to Emma. She locked her forearm with his and allowed him to pull her up. “Put your legs over mine,” he suggested, at the same time adjusting his seat and trousers to free his genitals. She lifted her thighs up over his, putting both hands behind herself on Dancer’s shoulders to scoot closer to Steed. She gasped in surprise as she enveloped his cock, and before she knew it he had shifted and was guiding it into her, all hot and wet and solid.
“Oh Steed,” she moaned, feeling him reach around her. She didn’t want to move, but she had to raise her arms and place them on Steed’s steady shoulders as he took up the reins and kicked Dancer lightly. She obliged with a walk, and then a bouncing, thrusting trot. It was too rough in their delicate position, so he squeezed the horse to a slow canter, trusting her to circle the clearing with only the slightest signals from him. The further they went, the less attention he had to spare for her direction.
They rocked in unison, the motion of Dancer’s easy canter controlling their pace. Emma clung to Steed and Steed to the horse, both of them lost in the conflagration growing in their loins. He spurred Dancer to go faster, barely aware that he and Emma were leaning away from a turn as they rounded the far end of the clearing and started back. Emma’s head was thrown back, her breathing a long gratified cry. Her loins were streaming in endless climax that drew him on, kept him hard and determined to satisfy her for as long as she wanted him.
And then Dancer jumped – a little leap over some small obstacle – and on the landing Steed thrust so deep Emma cried out, deep muscles convulsing around him in a staggeringly powerful orgasm that triggered his. There was no stopping it, and as Dancer slowed to a jarring trot the quick, deep thrusts sent him spiraling almost beyond consciousness.
Emma clung to him, nearly sobbing at the last sharp jabs before he softened within her. Dancer slowed to a walk, then dropped her head to crop again at the grass, oblivious to the rapture taking place upon her back. Nearby Commander, Steed’s regal black stallion, flared his nostrils and watched them curiously.
“All right?” Steed whispered, holding Emma tight. She sucked in a ragged breath and tilted her head back to look into his eyes.
“That was,” she paused, searching for the right word, “rougher than I expected.”
“Are you hurt?” his eyes narrowed in concern.
“No,” she forced a smile, “but I may need a few days to recover.”
His brows shot up in alarm, making her giggle, which in turn eased his concern. “Well, I could say the same,” he admitted, wondering, in fact, about the best way to disengage without hurting himself.
As if reading his mind, she scooted back slowly, gently breaking the connection. She pulled her leg over between them and slid to the ground, her skirt falling down around her thighs. Surprised that her knees were unsteady she put a hand on Dancer’s neck while Steed dismounted as well. He guided her back to their blanket with an arm around her waist.
“That was an interesting experiment,” he said, stretching out and pulling her to him. She snuggled against his shoulder, one hand on his chest.
“I think it may need some refinement,” she replied.
“Are you saying you want to repeat it?”
Emma laughed, then winced at a little ache in her nether regions and pressed a kiss to the side of his neck. “No, not soon. I think I’ll study horse gaits first – you know, velocities of up and down versus forward and back –,” she stopped because Steed was laughing.
“If it had been predicted to be this hot I would have worn a miniskirt,” Nancy Belmont, Emma’s long time friend, muttered before taking a sip of the Pimm’s she’d just appropriated from a passing waiter. She was wearing a spotless ivory linen pantsuit that was perfectly tailored to her petite figure. Across the luncheon tent several young women dressed as Nancy had suggested seemed to be daring one another to approach a well known, and well endowed, Argentine polo player who was engaged in conversation with his team sponsor. Nancy followed Emma’s gaze toward the man, her eyes widening.
“Is that the competition?” she asked.
“He certainly is,” Emma replied, absently stirring her drink with the little red straw. This match was several degrees more competitive than anything Steed had played in before. The only thing flowing faster than the food and liquor at the pre-match luncheon was the money – oodles of it was finding its way from the checkbooks of guests to the charity fundraisers’ pockets. Emma and Nancy had done their share of charity work, but the people collecting the money here were absolute professionals. Emma had to admit that she was impressed. And she was glad that she had left her checkbook at home. It had not taken long for the piranha – she couldn’t help thinking of them that way – had identified her as a wealthy executive. But she was a master of the refusal, and every single one of them had learned from her how to take “no” for an answer. It wasn’t that she did not approve of the sponsoring charity – a particularly needy branch of medical research – but she was unwilling to make casual donations. In fact she was so concerned about Steed playing in this game her insides were tied in uncomfortable knots. She could not begin to think about how much Knight’s board would approve contributing.
“He looks awfully – strong,” Nancy said, still studying the Argentine.
“You were going to say ‘young’,” Emma said.
“Well, yes, he is. Isn’t he? I mean, the two teams aren’t really well matched, are they?”
“Steed says experience is far more important in polo.”
“Steed would,” Nancy smirked, forcing herself to look away from the young, handsome player.
“He’s not too young,” Emma observed in a casual tone. Nancy’s eyes narrowed at her and she smiled demurely. Since her divorce Nancy had been concentrating on her career. Last month, after saving her pennies for several years, she’d bought out the owner of the gallery she worked for. Her career goal achieved she was finally ready to think again about personal relationships. Emma did not doubt that the average income of polo players and fans was one reason that she’d been enthusiastic about coming today. Nancy liked to say that she didn’t need a rich man, but it never hurt. Emma knew she was stretched thin financially, so although she may not put wealth at the top of her list, she could not afford to get involved with a man who couldn’t pay his own way.
“He looks like a playboy,” Nancy scoffed, her eyes darting back toward the Argentine.
“You’re allowed to play,” Emma replied. Nancy’s eyes widened, then narrowed at her friend.
“Stop it!” she chuckled. “I’m also allowed to look without touching. He’s not for me, even if he does have the most amazing shoulders.”
“Is that what you were looking at?” Emma finished her drink and set the glass on a nearby table, swallowing hard to suppress a little wave of nausea. She would not succumb to nerves before the match even started.
Lunch was over and the last of the players – the Argentine and his sponsor – were heading for the field. Steed and his teammates had exited the tent long ago to have a strategy meeting and see to their horses.
“Come on,” Nancy said, tucking her arm through Emma’s. “Let’s go see your darling husband ride like hell.”
“He’d better,” Emma sighed, and allowed herself to be navigated toward the bleachers.
The teams were better matched than Nancy had thought. Steed’s teammates were indeed possessed of many years experience among them, as well as a stable of very good horses. The Argentine was the star of his team and paid an extraordinary sum by the owner and sponsor, who also owned a television production company. Their other two players were a young, inexperienced woman with a lot of promise and a bad reputation, and a long-time player who was known to be insanely jealous of the Argentine’s salary. Over the three weeks since he’d been invited to play, Steed had worked Honey and Cowslip nearly every day, and also trained on Colonel Wilson’s ponies at the insistence of Mrs. Wilson. The Colonel still showed no sign of improvement, and the hospital had moved him to a long-term care wing.
At the toss-in Steed’s team captain Lord Eric seized the ball and drove it toward their goal. Steed was on it ahead of the pack to give it a boost along its way. But then the Argentine galloped up on his big roan and knocked into Honey’s shoulder as he cut her off and took possession of the ball. In the seats Emma heard herself gasp. Nancy took her hand and gave it a squeeze.
“That was a dirty trick, wasn’t it?” she asked.
“That’s how they play at this level,” Emma replied, trying to sound calm. Out on the field Honey had recovered from a stumble and actually looked angry. But fate contrived to keep her and Steed away from the aggressive Argentine until the chukka ended and Steed rode her off the field and changed to one of the Colonel’s horses. As he cantered back onto the field everyone could hear Honey whinnying in protest.
“She wants revenge,” Nancy chuckled. Emma nodded.
Lord Eric’s team, named Blue Lightening for the army battalion he served in during the war, scored twice in the next chukka and the Flyers hit three home in the one after that. Emma had to admit that it was exciting to watch – far more so than the strictly amateur games Steed had been playing in. And the spectators were far more sophisticated. The stands were buzzing with gossip about every player on the field as well as all of their relatives. She could not guess how they managed to keep the targets of each nasty tidbit from hearing it, and then decided that they didn’t bother to try. Everyone knew everyone else’s private business, and Emma and Nancy soon knew of four affairs being conducted by players and three different ones being conducted by their wives, girlfriends, and in one case, boyfriend. Emma found it extremely distasteful, and wondered whether it would be wise to let Steed keep associating with this crowd on his own. She would love not to get involved with them, but she had a feeling she should make herself a presence, if only to protect her interests. She trusted Steed, but she suspected that this crowd would make things up if they didn’t have fact-based gossip to exchange. That could actually become bad for his reputation outside of the polo crowd, not to mention hers.
In the middle of the fifth chukka Steed was galloping on Cowslip along side his teammate Hal Hanson when the latter stiffened in his saddle. He sat up straight, causing his horse to slow to a trot. And then he tumbled to the ground, his face twisted in a combination of pain and surprise. Steed noticed the horse slowing and glanced over his shoulder to see Hanson fall. He spun Cowslip around and returned, heading off Hanson’s horse and riding directly to the fallen man. He flung himself to the ground to crouch beside him. Play had moved away from them across the field, the other riders unaware of the emergency. But in the stands the spectators had risen to their feet and the announcer with his microphone had called for the ambulance and for everyone to remain calm.
Hanson’s eyes were open, one wider than the other, and one side of his mouth was turned down in a grimace. To Steed it looked as if half his face were melting.
“Hal!” he said, resting his hands lightly on the man’s shoulders. His body was tense and shaking. With both hands Hanson grabbed Steed’s shirt at his chest, bunching it up in quivering fists, the left one stronger than the right.
“Pina un an stock hosh,” he said, his voice a strained lisp.
“Relax old fellow, help is on the way,” Steed said. The ambulance’s wail pierced the air as it approached from the far side of the field.
“Steed, pina un and stock hosh,” Hanson repeated, his good eye widening even more as his grip on Steed’s shirt tightened. “Say it back. You must – remember it,” he sputtered, saliva dripping over his cheek from the dropping corner of his mouth.
“Pina un and stock hosh,” Steed repeated. “Why Hal? What does it mean?”
Hanson’s grip on Steed’s shirt eased as his eyes shut, as if Steed’s repetition of the gibberish phrase allowed him to rest. “Hal?” Steed put his fingers to his carotid artery and felt an erratic pulse. He looked up and around to see the ambulance nearing them from one direction and Emma leading a crowd of spectators across the field from the other. To his right close by he saw his two remaining teammates, Lord Eric and Rudy Gorelick, watching from the backs of their horses. The other team’s players were clustered nearby. As Steed watched Lord Eric and Rudy exchanged a worried look, and then before Steed could assure them that Hal was not dead they wheeled their horses and rode away toward the trailers.
“Steed?” Emma called when she was near enough to be heard over the ambulance.
“Did you see what happened?” he asked her, rising as the emergency medics moved in. Emma reached his side and lowered her voice, both of them watching the medics fit an oxygen mask over Hanson’s face and lay a stretcher out next to him
“He just fell off,” she replied, sounding as baffled as he felt.
“Oh Hal!” a woman nearby wailed. Emma and Steed looked to see Mrs. Hanson, a slender peacock decked out in a designer dress and garish hat with a white and brown terrier on a leash beside her sandaled feet.
“She’s liable to do more harm than good,” Steed muttered, looking back down at the medics who were inserting an intravenous needle into Hanson’s arm. Emma nodded, understanding him, and went to the distraught woman.
They were acquainted, and had spoken several times over the last few weeks while the team was training for the match. Emma subtly placed herself between Mrs. Hanson and her husband, distracting her from the sight of him being eased onto the stretcher. Behind them some of the extensive security contingent that had arrived with the Prince during the last chukka were keeping the rest of the spectators back, although Nancy had slipped through with Emma and came now to stand on Mrs. Hanson’s other side.
“They’ll take excellent care of him, Mrs. Hanson,” Emma assured her, “it’s best to let them work right now. You’ll be able to be with him in a moment.” Emma knew how her words must sound to the frightened woman. She knew how she would have taken them, were their situations reversed. Fortunately, however, Mrs. Hanson was nowhere near physically able to act on her impulse to go to her husband. Emma could have stopped her with a single restraining arm. Either she knew this, or she was simply too cowed by the situation to disobey Emma’s commanding, if soothing, instructions.
“I’ll just make sure they know she needs to go with him,” Nancy offered, moving off toward the ambulance driver – an attractive man in a dark uniform.
“Yes I must,” Mrs. Hanson echoed. “And you must take Sullivan – they won’t allow him in the hospital, I’m certain.”
“Sullivan?” Emma frowned, then followed Mrs. Hanson’s gaze down to the terrier at their feet. The dog was staring intently at his master, moving his head to different angles to keep him in view as the medics worked. Emma felt a flash of sympathy for the dog.
“He’s very good. You’ll look after him, won’t you? I know you have a dog.”
Emma sighed, reaching for the dog’s leash. She suspected that Gilbert the basset hound would get along just fine with Sullivan.
Nancy returned with the ambulance driver, who guided Mrs. Hanson over to the front of the ambulance speaking in soothing words about how they would get her and her husband to the hospital very quickly indeed. Emma noticed him cast a flirtatious smile back over his shoulder at Nancy as he opened the door for Mrs. Hanson.
“Did you get his number?” she whispered.
As the ambulance pulled away Emma noticed Steed disengage from the gathered players and referees. The rest of the players walked or rode toward the center of the field and one of the referees cantered over toward the viewing stands.
“What’s going on Steed?” Emma asked when he reached them.
“We’re going to continue. Everyone feels that it’s what Hal would want,” he replied, his expression not completely supporting this sentiment. We’d like you to take his place.”
“Certainly Mrs. Peel. I assured them that you can hold your own – at least well enough to finish out the match without us looking too weak.”
“Thanks,” she replied tartly, although his characterization of her potential contribution was fairly accurate. Her biggest concern was the lingering nausea she’d been suppressing.
“Please, for Hal’s sake – what is that?” he was looking at Sullivan, who was peering up at him, his expression one of tense concentration.
“Mrs. Hanson’s dog,” Emma replied. “She asked me to look after him while she went to the hospital.”
“Well Nancy will have to step in – you don’t mind, do you?” he shot Nancy his most charming smile, which never failed to melt her. Without a word she reached out and took Sullivan’s leash.
“Go on, they need you,” she said, then leaned close, “I don’t see how you ever say no to that man,” she whispered.
“I rarely do,” Emma whispered back. “I can’t ride dressed like this, Steed,” she added in her normal voice, glancing down at her linen dress and leather sandals.
“No, of course. Come along to the trailers. We’ll find something for you. Thank you darling,” he reached for her hand and she took it, allowing him to lead her across the field. Behind them Nancy watched for a moment, then turned and led Sullivan back to the stands.
The rest of the match was not nearly the route Emma feared. Helping Steed train Honey over the last three weeks had sharpened her skills as well. Although she knew Hal Hanson’s accident was just that and nothing to do with Steed, she did wonder if he hadn’t coaxed her to help him just so that he could rope her in to playing with him. It was certainly his manipulative style.
But no matter the reason, their sessions training together had brought her game to a level that nearly matched the young woman on the other team. Mounted on Honey, who was suitably rested, Emma could out run her and was not afraid to hit hard in close quarters. Her physical discomfort vanished when she mounted, and she was instrumental in two plays, passing the ball to Lord Eric so that he could score. The match looked like it was going to be tied until a final struggle between Rudy Gorelick and the Argentine resulted in Rudy scoring the winning point in the very last seconds of the seventh chukka. Amazed at how exhausted she was, Emma joined Steed, Lord Eric, and Gorelick standing in a row with their horses behind them for the awards presentation. The Prince presented Lord Eric with a large trophy and then worked his way along the line shaking each player’s hand and handing him a small trophy as well.
“Well done, Miss Knight. Thank you for agreeing to ride under such tragic circumstances. It was a very brave thing to do,” he said as she made a slight curtsey – which seemed awkward in her borrowed boots and trousers.
“Thank you, your highness,” Emma replied, surprised at herself for feeling honored over such a small accomplishment. The Prince moved on.
“Steed,” he said simply, shaking his hand. Steed made a small bow, then raised his head to meet the Prince’s eyes. “I understand Miss Knight is your wife.”
“Yes, your highness.”
“My compliments,” the Prince said, nodding again at Emma before turning away, the ceremony complete.
“What did he say?” Nancy asked her through the trailer door a few minutes later. Emma had insisted on changing back into her dress first thing, which had upset the grooms’ routine as they couldn’t load the horses until she was through. Serves them right, she’d thought as she shut the trailer door in the face of Lord Eric’s particularly unpleasant old groom. Let them complain to the officials and maybe they’ll think to install a women’s toilet. She’d enlisted Nancy to guard the door just in case the grooms decided to retaliate.
“He thanked me for stepping in,” she replied. “And then he complimented Steed on having me as his wife. At least that’s what I think he meant.”
“Why? What did he say to Steed?”
Emma repeated the exchange between Steed and the Prince while she finished dressing. She stepped out of the trailer with the riding clothes under her arm to find Steed crouched by Nancy’s feet feeding something to Sullivan the dog.
“Steed! He’s not yours to spoil,” she said.
“Exactly,” he replied, rising and reaching for the riding clothes. “I don’t have to suffer the consequences.”
Emma rolled her eyes and watched him stride jauntily away, presumably to return the clothes to the team supply trunk. Emma looked toward Nancy.
“Well, I think you should be flattered,” she said. Seeing Emma’s puzzled look she added, “At what his highness said to Steed.”
“Strangely, I was,” Emma replied, reaching for Sullivan’s leash. “Now what are we going to do with you?”
“I think he’s yours for the duration,” Nancy said with a smirk.
“What’s another mouth to feed?” Emma sighed, and in fact she did not really mind. “Speaking of which, you are coming back for supper, aren’t you?”
“John and Siobhan are asleep and Nancy’s safely away. What are you up to Steed?” Emma strolled into Steed’s study where he was sitting by the tea table holding a snifter of brandy. She was exhausted, but the exhilaration of the game was still with her. Steed raised his head to meet her eyes and she saw that his were shadowed. She sat on the edge of the opposite chair, brow knitting in a slight frown at his dark expression.
“Do you know that Hal Hanson is a year younger than I am?” he asked, then took a sip of his brandy. “It looked like a stroke, the way half his face was contorted.”
“A stroke can happen to anyone, at any age, Steed,” Emma said.
He took another sip and she wondered how much he’d had. “And it was Colonel Wilson’s heart,” he added with a slow shake of his head. Emma rose and stepped around the tea table, leaning over him.
“You are as fit as any man can be,” she said sternly. He started to raise the snifter to his lips again and she stopped him, taking the glass from him to set it on the table. “But this does not do you any good.”
His eyes followed the glass, then rose to her face as she sat down on his lap. His hands automatically settled on her waist as she stroked the side of his face with the back of one hand.
“You are not old my love, and I’m here to prove it to you. After all, his highness did say you were lucky to have me.” She gave him an impish smile as she lowered her lips to his for a light kiss.
“That’s not exactly what he said.”
“Do you really want to argue about it?” one brow rose.
“That depends,” his smile was decidedly sly.
She inclined her head in silent inquiry.
“On whether we’re going to make up afterwards.”
She regarded him for a moment. “I’d rather skip the argument. I feel terrible that Hal Hanson’s misfortune caused my participation, but I’m still in a good mood from the game – I’d rather celebrate life than fight about it.”
Steed slid one hand up to cup her face and she leaned into it. “Who’s feeling mortal now?”
“Steed here.” Steed swung his legs to the floor to sit on the edge of the bed with the telephone receiver pressed to his ear. He allowed one eye to focus on the bedside clock. Half-five.
“It’s your Mother, Steed. You’re needed.”
“At dawn?” he grumbled back. He had lost the knack for being tactful to his superior at odd hours since he’d taken on more administrative responsibility.
“Hal Hanson just died.”
Steed came fully awake very quickly. He felt Emma shift behind him and stood up in order not to disturb her. “I’m very sorry to hear that,” he said quietly. “Why does it concern you – us?”
There was no point in asking whether Mother knew Steed had been playing polo with Hanson yesterday. He obviously did, and probably a great deal more.
“Colonel Gareth Wilson is also in the hospital, still alive.”
“Yeeess,” Steed frowned impatiently and looked down at Emma. She had settled back into sleep, her face so peaceful he had to suppress an urge to lean down and kiss it.
“What do these men have in common?” Mother snapped.
“They are members of Lord Eric’s polo team,” Steed snapped back.
“A blood clotting agent was found in both men.”
Steed frowned, dragging one hand through his sleep matted hair. “They were poisoned?”
“Strictly speaking the compound is not poison. It is prescribed for hemophilia. But administered incorrectly it can cause severe blood clots. Blood clots can cause heart failure and stroke.”
“I am not unfeeling toward these men, Mother, but this sounds like homicide. A police matter.”
“Indeed. Except that Lord Eric asked you to replace the Colonel, and Hanson spoke his last words to you on the field. And, although this may not be related, Mike Gambit served under the Colonel in Egypt.”
“None of it may be related, Mother,” Steed said, although he was already accepting Mother’s suspicions as worthy of investigation.
“Look into it Steed. And be careful what you eat and drink.”
Pina un and stock hosh.
Steed took a gulp of coffee and copied the phrase again, and then again so that his notepad looked like that of a punished schoolboy. Yesterday after the match he had put the phrase from his mind as the maunderings of an ill man. But Hal Hanson’s words had taken on greater significance since they had become his last. Steed still wasn’t convinced that they were more than a random phrase dredged from the depths of a frightened, confused mind. But Mother’s orders to investigate required that he give them more consideration.
“Pina un and stock hosh.”
“What’s that?” Emma asked, setting her handbag on the table and opening it to rummage inside.
“Pina un and stock hosh,” Steed repeated. “Hal Hanson said it to me before he passed out on the field yesterday.”
“And now they’re his last words so you’re trying to make something of it.”
“Precisely. But I don’t think there’s anything to be made.”
Emma turned his pad to read the phrase, then picked up his pencil and wrote several other phrases by mixing up the letters. They were all nonsense. She quickly counted the letters and then tried to find a simple key that worked, but no shifting of the letters produced other words – not in English anyway.
Steed watched this exercise in silence, impressed as always with her fast, logical mind. Of course word games and puzzles were a specialty of hers.
“No,” she sighed after a minute during which she’d attempted a half dozen unscrambling techniques. “I don’t see any hidden meanings.”
“Or obvious ones.”
“Unless there’s more. You’re sure that’s all he said – I mean, he didn’t mumble something more that you could not hear?”
“I’m sure. He repeated just this phrase more than once and commanded me to remember. I’ve had to guess at the spelling, of course.”
Emma frowned, then seemed to snap out of puzzle solving mode and shrugged. “My car is here. Your ministry magicians will have to take a crack at it.” She took a last look into her handbag and snapped it shut. “You will keep out of trouble while I’m away?”
“As best I can,” he assured her, rising to walk with her from the kitchen to the front door. Siobhan was there with John, who was crawling toward the cold fireplace in the entry hall. As Emma and Steed entered she scooped up their son and presented him to his mother.
Emma held him for a moment, but he was a squirmy bundle more interested in exploration than cuddling this morning. She forced a kiss on his face, then set him back down to examine the soot-stained bricks. The fireplace had been cleaned, but his little palms found black residue nonetheless.
“He doesn’t understand that you’re leaving,” Steed said, watching his son with amusement. He wasn’t going to have to clean the soot off, after all.
“He’ll notice soon enough,” Emma sighed, reaching for the front door handle. “I hope he’s not too much trouble.”
“We’ll be fine ma’am,” Siobhan said, once again retrieving John who promptly pressed his filthy hands on her cheeks. A grimace flashed across her face and was gone. She was very practiced at concealing annoyance with her employers. Only her diary would hear her complaint about Emma letting John get all sooty.
Steed picked up Emma’s bag and followed her out to the waiting car, oblivious to Siobhan’s irritation. The driver took the bag from him to put it in the boot while he opened the car door for Emma. She paused to slip her arms around him for a hug and a discrete kiss, then got into the car. He leaned down into the open window.
“Have a pleasant trip. Go easy on the Italians.”
She smiled, an expression that said she would not be giving an inch to Knight’s business partners in Milan. “I’ll call you this evening.”
“I’ll probably be at the apartment.”
Emma reached up to caress his cheek, then pulled him to her for another kiss before releasing him and nodding to the driver. Steed straightened and waved as the car pulled away.
“Oh blast!” Sally Howard dodged into the boulangerie just as a deluge of huge warm raindrops spattered the street. She had not brought her umbrella. The shop was just re-opening after the lunch break and the proprietress was busy raising the shades to reveal her display of mouth-watering pastries. Sally examined the array of fruit tarts in a glass case until the proprietress was ready to take her order. She was there for the afternoon treat that she and Tara King shared each Monday while reviewing the weekend reports and plans for the coming week. Sally had had to institute another Monday ritual to counteract the pastries: walking home in the evening rather than riding the metro.
In the three months since Steed had moved the ministry’s Paris office inside the British Embassy’s Chancery – the stately offices adjacent to the ambassador’s residence — the two women had developed a comfortable working relationship. Sally was learning what it was like to work closely with a more seasoned agent and she suspected that Steed had planned on that. His seemingly straightforward reorganization of the ministry’s presence in France had actually been full of subtle shifts of power, authority, and responsibility. Looking back upon it Sally appreciated more than ever his masterful understanding of people. She had not realized until he was gone that agent Nelson had been the cause of much of the tension in the Paris office. Now he was working solo in Western France and quite happy at his freedom, by all accounts. Sally only heard from him when he had business to report. Steed had brought Robert McCall, Tara’s husband, from Nice to Paris, but as a special attaché to the Ambassador. It was a deft move on Steed’s part, preserving Tara’s authority over the Paris office while accommodating her and Robbie’s repeated requests to be posted together.
But even so, Tara had managed to be out of sorts about the new arrangements for a few weeks: her apartment was near their old office in an ancient building in the Marais. Now she had a complicated commute by metro. To Sally’s relief, McCall had stifled his wife’s complaints, pointing out that they were able to commute together and to bring Pierre, their little dog, with them to the embassy. McCall had gone up in Sally’s estimation, if only for his ability to mollify her sometimes testy boss.
By the time Sally was handed the small pink pastry box tied with a ribbon the rain shower had dwindled to a few lazy drops. She left the shop and walked briskly along the wet sidewalk back to the embassy. She had been living in Paris for nearly a year and she was in love with it. The pace, the light, the fashionable people, even the unfashionable, interesting people, all excited her. She knew that the intrigue of her work had a lot to do with it, and so did a certain frequent visitor whose bank account could better support occasional forays into Paris’s renowned restaurants, clubs, and shops. When James came to visit he took her to the truly magical Paris populated by lovers with means. She could not imagine any place she would rather be.
The guard nodded to her as she dashed through the embassy gate holding her identification in one hand and the pastry box in the other. To the world she and Tara were minor functionaries amid the political staff of the embassy. It had felt strange at first when they had set up their virtually autonomous pair of offices amid the legitimate political advisors, negotiators, theorists, and clerical staff. Sally had expected them to ask her about her work, why they were suddenly added to the staff, her background, and so on. But nobody had said a word. Nobody asked why they didn’t participate in staff meetings or seem to produce anything related to the political aims of the embassy. Sally had finally mentioned her surprise to Tara and the older woman had laughed.
“They know exactly who we are, Sally. But they don’t want to know. We’re too dangerous to get close to. If anyone asks, they can say they never discussed work with us.”
After that Sally had stopped worrying about having a believable cover story for the other embassy workers. And to the outside world simply saying she worked in the embassy was usually explanation enough. She didn’t allow herself to contemplate why anyone would quiz the other embassy employees about her or Tara. She knew it would be because they had been caught in some compromising situation and were under investigation. Better to focus on not getting caught. Ever.
Half way up the stairs to their second floor offices she heard a commotion going on in the wide upstairs corridor. Quimby, the chief of research, was squawking about something being missing and Miss Mansel was twittering about upturning stacks of files in a mad search. Three other political staffers stood in the corners looking distressed and ever so slightly bored. It was not unusual for Quimby to come flapping out of his file-crammed office frantic about something that only he cared about. And without fail Miss Mansel responded in this manner. She was the only one who had never learned that if you ignored Quimby he would flap back into this office and shut the door.
Sally inched along the side of the corridor farthest from Quimby and Mansel. The large space housed the desks of two secretaries as well as numerous filing cabinets. This arrangement was due, she knew, to the vacating of the two offices that she and Tara now inhabited. She did her best to be very, very nice to the secretaries but it was no use, they had resented her before she ever got there.
“One simple letter. That’s all it was. But Miss King asked for it and said it was important. It was the only copy and it must be found!” Quimby declared, clearly repeating himself for the umpteenth time if the looks on the spectators’ faces were any clue. Sally considered stopping to find out what the letter was, since Tara had asked for it. But Quimby was notoriously abusive in these situations and even though she had nothing to do with it she knew she was a fair target.
Ignoring a few dark looks from the other embassy employees she clutched her pastry box as if it contained vital government secrets and slipped into the narrower corridor that lead to her and Tara’s offices. For all they know it does contain secret documents, she told herself, then had to suppress a grin at the notion of smuggling pastries.
“What’s Quimby on about?” Tara asked as Sally shut her office door and set the box on the edge of her desk.
“A letter that’s gone missing. He said you asked for it. Was it important?”
“Shit, yes!” Tara rose to her feet, eyes fixed on the closed door. But just then something crashed to the corridor floor – it sounded like a box of files or books – and Miss Mansel twittered into an even greater frenzy. Tara subsided into her chair, her expression bordering on fear.
“Perhaps I’ll see him about it later,” she said.
“That does seem prudent,” Sally nodded unable to conceal her amusement although she knew it could be a very important matter. Tara looked her in the eye, clearly considering a rebuff, then her eyes drifted to the pastry box and she smiled in anticipation.
“Did she have the almond tarts?” she asked, her tongue darting over her lips compulsively.
Sally nodded, rising to go to the water kettle on windowsill that was just starting to steam. Tara had prepared the teapot, so Sally poured in the water. Behind her Tara opened the box to examine their snack.
“Perfect,” she sighed at the sight of her little almond tart. Sally had selected a fruit tart for herself – she loved the fresh fruits combined with the rich custard. She carried the tray of tea things to the desk and set it on top of the papers scattered there.
“So,” Tara said, leaning back in her chair to wait for the tea to steep, “how did the weekend go?”
Sally knew she was not inquiring about her weekend, which she’d spent mostly in bed nursing a spring cold. It was Sally’s job to review the weekend dispatches and messages on Monday morning and summarize them for Tara. France’s espionage community had been as quiet as Sally over the weekend. She had just finished her rundown of the usual reports from the field agents when Mr. Quimby burst into the office without knocking.
“Mrs. McCall, the letter you asked for has disappeared,” he declared in a tone that was nothing short of accusatory. As he spoke Tara quickly brushed crumbs from the crust of her tart off of her face, bosom, and sleeves.
“It was not in the file, Mr. Quimby?” she asked, wide eyes gazing up at him.
“Oh it was there all right, Mrs. McCall. I located it, removed it, placed it in a ‘most secret’ portfolio and set it my out box marked for your attention. And now it is gone.”
“Where has it gone Mr. Quimby?”
Quimby scowled at her suspiciously – typically, he thought that Tara herself had taken the letter. Of all the political staff in the embassy he was the most suspicious of the agents in their midst.
He inhaled a long breath through his nose, his shoulders straightening at the same time. “I cannot say,” he said stiffly. “You will be informed when it is found.” He turned on his heel and left, and Sally got up to shut the door behind him.
“What –?” Tara shook her head in exasperation. “Sometimes I think Steed was mad to put us here. At least we used to keep our own files.”
“Yes, but we did not have anywhere near as much information available to us,” Sally countered. She stopped short of pointing out that she still did keep their files of the most secret documents.
“Look into this, will you? When the dust settles out there. I’ll bet it slipped behind a cabinet or something,” Tara sighed, reaching across her desk for the weekend report Sally had been reading from.
Steed sat with his hands resting on the wheel of the Bentley reviewing the scene on the polo field yesterday. He was parked in the drive of Lord Eric’s sprawling estate – not, Steed had reflected with a smile when he drove in, all that much more sprawling than his own home – and paused to consider his approach. After seeing Emma off he had taken Hanson’s phrase to the ministry encryption and linguistics specialists and then come directly here. He wanted to get a sense of Lord Eric’s mental state before any more time had passed. The look that Eric had exchanged with Rudy Gorelick had not been one of distress over their fallen teammate. Rudy had looked downright frightened, while Eric’s face had contained both fear and anger. Steed knew that for some people anger was a natural response to sudden loss, but his instincts told him there was something else behind Eric’s anger – perhaps something about the fact that Steed had been the recipient of Hanson’s last words.
But without more to go on Steed could not construct a more elaborate strategy than simple directness. Resigning himself to a head-on confrontation, albeit courteous, he climbed over the car door and reached in the back for his umbrella. He patted the top of his bowler as he mounted the steps to the front door and pressed the doorbell – incongruously modern on the old house – with the tip of his umbrella.
Steed was shown into Lord Eric’s study, which was lined with shelves and glass display cases housing enough curiosities to supply a small museum. It wasn’t surprising: Lord Eric had traveled abroad extensively both with the army and as a civilian. As Steed entered he rose and came out from behind his desk to greet him, his expression as dour as his black suit.
“You’ve heard about Hal, I take it?” Steed asked as they shook hands.
“Yes. I’m devastated. Massive stroke just shut down his brain. Horrible way to go,” Eric said, his tone mournful although Steed sensed that the words were rehearsed.
“Among the worst, I should think,” he said. “Although it wasn’t that sudden, was it? He hung on for several hours.”
“Makes it even worse, knowing he lay there, his wife and everyone hopeful, only to come to this end after all.”
“But before that, my lord, on the field, he spoke to me. That’s why I came by. He told me a phrase and insisted that I remember it.”
“What are you getting at Steed?” incongruous anger flashed on Lord Eric’s otherwise somber face.
“The phrase was ‘pina un and stock hosh.’ Does that mean anything to you my lord?” Steed asked.
Lord Eric let his anger take over: “The man’s barely cold, Steed. If this is one of your damned investigations then I say let it wait!”
“Lord Eric, I merely wished to clear my conscious – if this is a message that someone –.”
“Please go Steed. I am in no frame of mind to tolerate your bureaucratic pursuits. One friend is dead, and another lies dying,” Lord Eric sagged dramatically into an armchair, one hand pressed over his face.
Frowning, Steed studied him for a moment before leaving. Out in the hall he encountered the butler, who had clearly been waiting nearby.
“Your master seems rather indisposed,” Steed said tartly, striding past the manservant. He retrieved his own umbrella and hat from the stand by the front door and exited unescorted, evincing huffiness.
Once back in the Bentley he relaxed behind the wheel, a satisfied smile just curling the edges of his mouth.
“No please!” Rudy Gorelick raised both hands palms outward, “Don’t say it, whatever it is.”
Steed shut his mouth and stared at the other man. He had found Rudy working in his garden – a meditative hobby, he had explained. He too wore black. His grief seemed more genuine than Lord Eric’s, and his reaction to Steed’s news of Hanson’s final words was completely different.
“Please,” Rudy repeated, “I don’t want to know. You know it, that’s enough.”
“What are you talking about, Rudy? I don’t know anything. It’s nonsense.”
Rudy shook his head, his lips pursed oddly shut, as if he was forcing himself to contain an outburst.
“Can’t I help somehow? It seems as if you have an awful secret.”
Rudy continued to shake his head. “You’ll be told. It’s not my place. Please try to understand.”
“How can I possibly –?” Steed stopped as Gorelick, still shaking his head turned and strode into his house, slamming the door.
Steed reached up to scratch his head, then resettled his hat and turned toward the street where the Bentley was parked.
“What about Lord Eric? Was he in Egypt when you were there with Wilson?” Steed asked Mike Gambit. They had met at a pub around the corner from the hospital. Steed wanted to visit Colonel Wilson and had asked Gambit to join him.
“Er, yes, for a short time,” Gambit replied thoughtfully. He took a gulp of the pint Steed had bought him and studied the senior agent for a moment.
“You replaced him on their polo team.”
“And during the match yesterday another of the players died.”
“You’ve done your homework,” Steed nodded.
“Are you worried?”
“That I’m next?”
“I should think Lord Eric and Rudy ought to be more afraid of that,” Steed replied, taking a sip of his ale. “I’ve just come from both of them. Got darned strange reactions from them.”
Steed went on to explain Hanson’s last words and the other two teammates’ reactions. While he spoke he watched Gambit for a sign of recognition, either of the phrase or of Rudy’s strange behavior. But Gambit continued to look puzzled.
“So according to Rudy Gorelick someone is going to seek you out and explain,” he summarized when Steed finished.
“But Rudy himself, who seemed to know, was not willing to enlighten me.”
“Sounds like a secret society,” Gambit suggested.
“You mean burning black candles and wearing hoods?” Steed asked, thinking back on such groups that he had encountered in the past.
Gambit shrugged. “Maybe, or maybe just secrets. If Hanson passed his secret on to you, then the membership secretary ought to be trotting over to you to initiate you right away. Otherwise, who’s to stop you from blabbering your secret all around.”
“I already have!” Steed declared, unable to take the situation too seriously. “It’s gibberish!”
“To you it is. But to someone in the know…,” Gambit’s last three words were spoken with undue emphasis through an amused grin.
“You don’t take any of this seriously either.”
Gambit shook his head and looked around to signal the barman for another pint, then returned his gaze to Steed. “But what matters is whether they take it seriously, and if so, how much. A man is dead, after all.”
“And possibly two men were targeted,” Steed added.
“So far. It’s no wonder Rudy Gorelick is frightened.”
“Yes, and unwilling to discuss it. But then that begs the question: why is Lord Eric more angry than frightened?”
After a fruitless visit to the still unconscious Colonel Wilson with Gambit, Steed returned to the ministry to retrieve some research that he’d asked for that morning. He sat for an hour in his office reviewing the service records of all four original members of Lord Eric’s polo team. Satisfied, he shoved the information to the back of his mind to contemplate it and turned his flagging attention to other cases he was overseeing. With a smile he pulled the weekly report from Paris out of the pile on his desk and read Tara’s update.
Much later he surrendered to simplicity at the end of his long day and picked up take-away curry and India pale ale on his way to three Stable Mews. Unable to slip completely into modern casual complacency he served the meal to himself on his aunt’s good china, which was the apartment’s everyday set. He even lit a pair of candles on the small dining table. But halfway through the meal he blew them out and turned up the lights. The apartment just didn’t feel like home anymore, and trying to make it so only depressed him.
He finished the curry and washed up, pouring himself a second IPA and disregarding the disapproval he knew Emma would express if she saw him. She was right – alcohol was one of his few truly bad habits. But an extra glass of ale was hardly on a par with a bottle of scotch, or even a snifter of brandy.
Still feeling out of sorts he wandered into the sitting room and looked around. The more valuable and treasured pieces had been moved to the house – artwork and finer furniture had found new places of honor there. But he had struggled to retain the comfortable, bachelor apartment feel to this place. Now as he looked around he wasn’t sure why. He cherished his new life as a husband and father. And Emma hardly restricted him so that he needed this place as an escape. Far from it: she was as tolerant of his eccentricities today as she had ever been, even when he tested her with dangerous new pursuits like polo.
The telephone rang as he was about to settle in on the sofa with a book.
“How are you darling?” Emma purred into his ear. It was almost too much, hearing her so close without being able to touch her.
“Lonely,” he replied honestly. “I was just thinking that it’s time we gave this place up.”
“What do you mean, Steed? Having a place in town is very convenient.”
He smiled. Of course she would focus first on the practical. “The lease is up in a couple months. I was just sitting here thinking that this apartment represents my old life. I’ve moved on, and being here alone is – well – depressing.”
“Oh Steed, I have so many good memories there,” she said with a sigh.
“Not all good, my dear,” he said, the memory of the moment she had said good-bye to him in this room popping into his mind unbidden, “And you don’t need the place to keep the good memories.”
“We have one another,” she conceded.
He felt himself nodding. “Precisely.”
“But we still do use it quite a bit – are you thinking of getting something else?”
“After a fashion.”
She recognized a devious note in his voice even over the phone.
“Go on,” she urged cautiously.
“What is the disposition of the Knight penthouse?”
Emma fell silent for a moment. He was referring to the furnished penthouse on the top floor of the John Knight building. Her father had lived in it after her mother died and while she was away at school. Since then it had been used as a guest accommodation for visiting VIPs and by the company’s executives when they worked late. She had chosen not to change that arrangement since she’d had access to Steed’s apartment. She’d had no idea that Steed knew about the penthouse.
Steed listened to her nearly inaudible breathing, smiling to himself for surprising her, and imagining her sitting on the hotel room bed with her legs tucked under her. He wondered if she was still dressed from her business dinner or she’d showered and changed for bed before calling. The image of her fresh from a steaming shower aroused him and he pressed a hand to his groin without realizing he was doing it.
“How do you know about it?” Emma asked at last, and then chuckled and added: “never mind.” He had many sources of information, some within her organization. “The senior staff use it now and then, and we put up important guests there.”
“Would they complain terribly if you took it over?”
Emma thought about it for a moment, listening to a rustling sound on the other end of the line.
“No, I don’t suppose so. There are several nearby hotels. What are you doing?” she asked, disinterested in discussing the penthouse any longer. If he were determined to get rid of the Mews apartment, then they’d use the penthouse for their London base. She was far more curious about the quiet moan he had just made. “Steed?”
“What are you wearing?” he asked. She smiled. Her suspicion was correct, and she was rather surprised. In all of their years together he had never before done anything this suggestive over the telephone. But there was a first time for everything, and she wasn’t unwilling to pursue it.
“The hotel bathrobe,” she replied, tracing the edge of the white terrycloth lapel with one finger, knowing full well that the mental image would feed his desire. Suddenly she ached to be touched. On the other end of the line he moaned more audibly.
“What are you doing?” she asked again.
“Imagining you,” he sighed. “Imagining that I’m slipping my hand inside that robe. Do you mind?”
“No. I wish you were doing it.”
“You do it for me.”
She sucked in a sharp breath as her fingers brushed over her taut nipple. She could not believe how aroused she had become so quickly, and how her own touch could enhance it.
“It feels good,” he said softly, acknowledging her aroused gasp.
“Very good. I wish I could touch you.”
“You are,” he breathed, both his hands wrapped around his swollen member.
“What am I doing?”
“Holding me, stroking me,” his hands moved, one shooting up to his chest to stroke at his own hard nipple, the other rubbing up and down his shaft. “Oh Emma. Are you as hot and wet as I am?”
“I — ,” she paused, parting her legs and drawing aside the lower half of the bathrobe. She stroked herself, her fingers buried in warm, wet folds of flesh. “Oh yes,” she sighed.
“You’re holding me so tight,” he groaned. “I want to enter you – do it for me. Fill yourself for me.”
She filled herself with her own fingers, shuddering against them as he whispered encouragements through the telephone. She imagined him, his trousers half down, his big cock flushed red and drizzling musky semen as he stroked up and down its length. The image drove her mad with need. She drove her hand deeper, pelvis writhing, seeking the movements and the spot that would send her over the edge.
Steed curled around himself, stroking harder and faster, smearing the early cum up and down the length of his shaft and finally gasping at the searing, throbbing explosion that came suddenly and all too soon.
“Oh God Emma,” he moaned, one hand pressed to the head of his penis trying ineffectually to contain the flow, “There’s so much. How do you –?” He stopped because she was chuckling softly, lovingly, into his ear.
“One of my hidden talents, my love,” she whispered, her voice thickening to a long, deep moan as her own loins surged in answer to her thrusts. “Oh, I can nearly taste you,” she sighed, easing her fingers away from her supersensitive flesh.
“And I you,” he breathed. Then they both fell silent, inhaling and exhaling several long breaths into one another’s ears.
“That was lovely,” she finally said. “And completely unexpected.”
“Not nearly as satisfying as the real thing,” he replied. “But,” he paused, wishing he had tissues on hand, and wishing he hadn’t said anything more.
“But what Steed?”
“It’s still lonely. It seemed the thing to do, since that’s how I was feeling.”
Emma shook her head ruefully. Long ago he’d told her that he never masturbated because it felt so lonely. If that’s how the apartment made him feel, then maybe it was time to let it go.
“I’ll speak to the others about taking over the penthouse when I get back, Steed,” she said.
“You don’t mind?” he felt like a heel, like he’d somehow manipulated her, although he knew she had enjoyed the experience.
“I’ll just explain what your old flat drives you to when you have to stay there. They’ll understand,” she chuckled, imagining for a brief instant Edmond Stanton’s reaction to such an explanation – not that she really intended to ever give it.
“You’re a cruel mistress, Miss Knight,” Steed smiled, for he knew she wasn’t serious.
“You have always seemed to like it Steed,” she replied.
“Well, yes. I do enjoy a challenge.”
Miss Mansel fanned herself with a file folder, but the weak draft it created did not improve the situation. The stately old Chancery building was beautiful, to be sure, but once the summer heat penetrated the thick stone walls it became unbearably warm and sticky inside.
Heaving a sigh of surrender, she set the folder down, rose from her desk and turned to open the adjacent window. She stood in front of it for a moment enjoying the feeble breeze.
“Miss Mansel? Are you here?” Genevieve Constant, one of the junior politicos called from the top of the stairs, “There is food in the blue salon, leftover from the luncheon.”
Miss Mansel mentally compared the container of plain yogurt in her bag with the platters of rich food that was typical embassy luncheon fare.
“Coming!” she called, striding toward her co-worker’s voice.
A small brown head poked over the windowsill and peered inside through round, oversized brown eyes. A tiny hand grasped the windowsill and the small, furry figure darted into the office. With a curious chitter he dropped to the floor, crossed to Miss Mansel’s chair, and climbed up to the desk. One by one he took each of the pencils from the cup, sniffed them, nibbled two, and dropped them on the blotter. He opened the file folder and scraped at it for a moment, then, finding no paper inside, he shoved it across the desk to the floor.
“But he was there? You had the meet?”
The monkey’s head snapped up at the sound of Tara’s voice in the corridor.
“Yes, he was so fidgety I practically had to hang on to him, but he did talk.”
By the time Sally and Tara entered the corridor office and finished her sentence the intruder was gone.
Steed leaned lightly on his umbrella handle amid the small crowd outside of customs at Heathrow. It was mid-afternoon and most of the arriving international flights were carrying business people. The majority of those waiting were drivers holding cardboard signs bearing the names of arriving passengers. Steed had considered making himself a “ Mrs. Peel” sign with “we’re needed” on the back, but he’d been pressed for time. Before Hal Hanson’s death he had made plans to fill the time while Emma was to be in Milan. In addition to checking in with agents under his supervision, he had lunch and dinner plans with a bit of casual cricket with the ministry of defense’s team in between. The game was an opportunity to make contact with several sources, so he was unwilling to cancel even though he was left with no time to pay another visit to Lord Eric or Rudy Gorelick. Ultimately he was glad that he’d been busy, even though it kept him in London and away from his son. His loneliness at the apartment aside, he found it easier to slip into his bachelor life when she was absent. He missed her less that way.
The sliding glass doors opened to emit a stream of arriving passengers fresh from customs. Steed’s naturally gregarious smile brightened at the sight of several uniformed stewardesses at the head of the phalanx.
The one in the lead, a tall brunette with a luscious, wide mouth, was speaking to her companion and did not notice Steed. But her companion did: the blonde with the boyish bob caught Steed’s eye and shot a flirtatious smile back at him. Behind her another blonde about an inch taller, her long, glossy hair gathered at the base of her neck, smiled too, maintaining eye contact as she strode toward him. Steed winked at her compulsively and then forced his gaze to move to the next woman. He fell headlong into the amused, affectionate eyes of his wife.
“Hello darling,” she said, eyes flicking to the blonde, who glanced over her shoulder to see who Steed was looking at now. “Enjoying yourself?”
Steed shrugged ever so slightly at the blonde, who rolled her eyes skyward and strode off, then returned his attention to Emma. Before she could conjure another comment he reached for her bag and began to guide her through the crowd of drivers.
“I hope my driver isn’t one of these,” she said, still sounding amused.
“He’s me. I called Mrs. Emerson and had her cancel your other fellow.”
“And I was looking forward to an illicit encounter with him on the way home,” she said dryly. “How is our son?”
“Quite jolly this morning. He seems to have befriended Sullivan, much to Gilbert’s frustration.”
“Sullivan?” Emma shot him a puzzled look, then her face brightened. “Oh right. Mrs. Hanson hasn’t taken him back?”
“No. We haven’t heard from her.”
“She has a great deal to worry about just now,” Emma said sadly. “If she hasn’t called for him then perhaps we should keep him for a bit longer.”
“I thought so, yes,” Steed nodded. The truth was, like his son he was growing fond of the dog.
“Oh, by the way, I have something for you,” Emma looked into her handbag and took out a small piece of paper. She held it out and he took it with his free hand.
“What’s this?” he asked, twisting his wrist to hold the scrap right side up.
“I started thinking of your puzzle during the flight. I’d forgotten when I looked at it the other morning that you had written it out from what he said.”
“So?” Steed asked. There was a grid on the paper made up of four by four squares each containing a letter.
“So what you heard may not have been what he said. See, the first and last words are each four letters. So what if the ‘and’ was really ‘an’? And if you heard ‘stock’ it could be spelled ‘stoc’ or ‘stok’.”
“Neither of which are words,” Steed pointed out, reading the words she had placed in the squares: “Pina unan stok hosh. That’s certainly enlightening.”
“Read it vertically.”
Steed stopped and set her bag down. They had come through the terminal doors and were on the sidewalk next to the Bentley, which was parked at the curb. Emma momentarily wondered how he had gotten away with leaving it there amid the taxis and busses.
“Push into naos ankh,” he said, his expression full of consternation. “Mrs. Peel, two words – no, three – is not a solution. Or is naos a word too?”
“I don’t’ know, but since the ankh is an Egyptian symbol, I thought a call to Cathy Gale might be in order.”
A few minutes later Steed parked the Bentley outside of the museum of natural history.
“You don’t mind, do you darling?” he asked, smiling over at Emma. Her face bore a pained expression, and she emitted a sigh that suggested long suffering.
“There is a great deal to be said for the telephone,” she observed, laying her head back against the seat. But her words fell on deaf ears: Steed had already sprung from the car and was on his way around to her door.
“Come along inside, won’t you? I’m sure Mrs. Gale will be glad to see you.”
“As glad as she is to see you?” Emma asked archly as she got out of the car. She ignored Steed’s raised brow, striding ahead of him toward the museum entrance. She did not really feel any jealousy toward Catherine Gale, but she enjoyed baiting her husband, and she was tired.
“Steed, Emma – this is a surprise,” Dr. Catherine Gale extended her hand to Emma and then to Steed. “Shall we go to my office, or is this a hit and run situation?”
“Lead on Mrs. Gale,” Steed said, “We won’t take too much of your time, though – I promise.”
They followed Mrs. Gale through the museum to a familiar exhibit hall – they had investigated a murder that had occurred there last year – and finally through a private hallway to her office.
“How are things here at the museum, Mrs. Gale?” Steed asked as they settled into chairs in her unadorned scientist’s office.
“Going quite smoothly, Steed,” she replied, studying him curiously. “Unless you know something that I do not.”
Steed chuckled and reached into his jacket pocket to withdraw the scrap of paper. “Not at all, Mrs. Gale. I just wondered if you’re still enjoying it here.”
“Yes, I think that for the time being I’ve found my place,” she said. “How about you two – I trust young John is thriving?” She looked toward Emma as she spoke.
“He is,” Emma nodded, unable to suppress a proud smile. “You must come for dinner some time soon.”
“Yes!” Steed agreed quite sincerely. “But in the mean time, can we ask you to have a look at this?” He set the paper on Mrs. Gale’s desk. She nodded, reaching for it.
“Pina unan stok hosh,” she read, her eyes flicking up to Steed’s and back down to the paper.
“Read it vertically, Mrs. Gale,” he said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Beside him Emma smirked. He glanced at her and shrugged innocently. Mrs. Gale missed their interchange as she re-examined the grid of letters.
“Push into naos ankh,” she read, her mouth curling in a smile as she finished and looked up at Steed. He nodded encouragingly.
“We know what an ankh is,” Emma said, “so we wonder whether ‘naos’ is an Egyptian word, and if so, what it means.”
Mrs. Gale’s smile widened and she stood up and went to the bookcase against one wall.
“It is,” she said, reaching for a big volume and opening it. “Yes, here’s one,” she said, bringing the book back to her desk. “A naos is a shrine for the divine statues in a tomb.”
Steed and Emma leaned in over the book to look at the photograph of an elaborately decorated structure. After a moment Emma leaned back and folded her arms looking thoughtful, drawing both Steed and Mrs. Gale’s attention.
“So if a naos were elaborately decorated, you might find an ankh on it, correct?” she asked.
“Certainly – most often in the hands of images of royalty or gods,” Mrs. Gale confirmed.
“Push into naos ankh,” Emma repeated the phrase. She almost admitted that she had not been at all certain that her little matrix made any more sense than Steed’s original transcription of the dying man’s words. But Steed and Mrs. Gale’s curious looks dissuaded her. They thought she was on to something. “So this phrase could be an instruction.
“You mean you don’t know what it is?” Mrs. Gale asked, her attention returning to Steed.
“They were the last words of a dying man. He made Steed repeat them to be sure he had them right,” Emma said, Steed nodding in confirmation.
“But he did not convey to me why they were significant,” he added. Mrs. Gale looked down at the book on her desk, then leaned back in her chair, her expression thoughtful.
“Could it be instructions for opening something?” Emma asked. “Push on the ankh that’s carved on the naos?”
Mrs. Gale shrugged, “They could. But you hardly have much to go on, do you? If these words were carved on a key, say, then they could be intended to explain its use. But you don’t even know what naos, from what tomb, or even if that’s what he meant. Was he Egyptian? An archaeologist?”
Emma felt the edges of her mouth tightening in a frustrated frown. Mrs. Gale could certainly dampen one’s creativity! Suddenly the scientist stood up and went back to her bookcase. Steed and Emma watched in silence as she worked her way along a shelf and removed a smaller book, the binding severely worn, and brought it back to the desk.
“Some tombs were guarded by fierce statues, some by curses, and some – especially during a certain period of the New Kingdom – were protected with elaborate, deadly traps,” she explained as she leafed through the book. Emma suddenly felt as if she’d been cast back into the classroom.
Mrs. Gale stopped on a page and shot Steed an appraising look, “I’ll keep it simple,” she said and Emma knew she’d meant to tease him. He remained complacent, but beneath his façade he was ever so slightly irritated. “Royal tombs like those in the Valley of the Kings were the work of decades and countless anonymous slaves. Even the most skilled artists who created the impressive statues and funerary masks are unknown. So is the man, or men, who designed the traps. But experts agree that there was a mastermind behind the devices found in certain tombs, all constructed around the same time.
“It was the golden age of diabolical traps: swinging, crushing beams; sand that filled passages and smothered thieves; razor sharp blades triggered by misplaced footsteps; and even explosives, we think – the materials have long since lost their efficacy. We have not found such effective traps created either before or after this brief period. So if you think you are looking for a trick naos – one with a spring lock, say – then it is most likely from a tomb of this period.”
“And it’s most likely got a booby-trap installed,” Emma added. Mrs. Gale inclined her head in acknowledgement.
“And how many tombs are there from the period in question?” Steed asked.
“Known?” Mrs. Gale countered, “Just four. But unknown? Well, fortunately the services of the trap designers were very expensive – they, or he, would not have been a slave. And if you factor in the time – a single mastermind could only manage so many designs in a lifetime.”
“DaVinci designed countless devices,” Emma interrupted. She was growing weary of the lecture.
“But only executed a small fraction,” Mrs. Gale countered.
“That we know of.”
“Ladies,” Steed said in his most jovial tone. Emma and Mrs. Gale both stared at him expectantly.
“What’s your estimate, Mrs. Gale? Just for the sake of information.”
“Another three, six at the most,” she replied, looking back at Emma. “It’s one thing to sketch a design, another to work out the flaws as it’s constructed.”
Emma conceded with a slight nod. She wanted to argue that the designer need not work out the details, that if the work were properly divided among designers and engineers they could have been very productive. But she could feel Steed’s knee pressing against hers and she thought he might just lose his habitual cool if she persisted.
“And of the four known, are any still intact?”
“Of course not,” Mrs. Gale sighed. “They were all robbed, partially or wholly, in the distant past. That’s how we know of the traps – evidence of them being sprung abounds.”
Emma briefly imagined a hapless archaeologist stumbling across impaled skeletons in a tomb passage. “You said some were partially robbed. So untouched sections have been found?”
“Yes. And not fully explored – the potential for active traps is somewhat off-putting for most scientists. They’re waiting until technology can be developed to safely explore.”
“I should think a suit of plate armor would serve,” Steed suggested flippantly. The women ignored him.
“But what if Hal Hanson knew the secrets to such a section? What if pushing into the naos ankh defeats the trap?” Emma speculated.
“Well then his secret has really died with him,” Steed said rising from his chair. “Because he failed to tell me what tomb, where, and why!”
“Be patient darling,” Emma crooned, smiling up at him. “I’m sure Cathy will be happy to help us by identifying which tombs have known unexplored portions – won’t you?” this last was directed at Mrs. Gale.
“Certainly,” the scientist replied, also rising. Steed folded his arms to watch her make a third trip to the bookcase. She located and removed three volumes this time, setting them on the desk in front of Emma. “Complete expedition notes for the tombs in question – plus a few others that you can skip. Of course, it could be an undiscovered tomb – but then you’re on your own.”
Emma looked at the simply printed and bound reports, knowing that they were going to be very dense and — despite the air of mystery surrounding Egyptian tombs — quite dull. She was also sure that Steed did not intend to read them.
“Thank you Mrs. Gale,” Steed said brightly, unfolding his arms to reach for the volumes. “You have been most helpful.”
Grinding her teeth to stave off a comment on his manipulative behavior – she felt certain Cathy would not have offered the notes if he hadn’t started to throw a tantrum — Emma picked up the scrap of paper with her matrix on it and nodded farewell to Mrs. Gale.
“That was quite productive,” Steed observed when they were back in the Bentley.
“You realize that I have a lot of work to catch up on,” Emma replied, refusing to meet his eye although she knew he had looked over at her.
“Mrs. Peel, you have done the lion’s share of the work on this already. The encryption specialists at the ministry have been noodling with the phrase for three days to no avail. You puzzled it out on the flight from Milan.”
“You seem awfully confident that my little matrix is right,” she said, mollified that he did not seem to expect her to wade through the notes.
“Yes I do. Because, although Hal’s words are obviously not the entire solution, it’s clear to me now that there is a puzzle and that an Egyptian tomb is part of it.”
“Why? It’s very little to go on.”
“Because, my darling, all of the members of Lord Eric’s polo team were posted in Egypt for a number of years during and after the war.”
“Il est horrible,” Thierry, the French liaison, stomped one foot on the parquet floor and glared at the empty table. Robert McCall resisted the urge to shove his hands into his trouser pockets – a habit that his wife was trying to break him of because it ruined the creases – and focused his attention on the table as well. Or rather, on the empty space on the table where the commemorative plate should be displayed. “Monsieur McCall I beg of you!” Thierry swiveled on one heel to face him. “For the honor of your nation, not to mention His Excellency, please find the plate before this evening.”
Why me? McCall wondered, meeting the Frenchman’s gaze. But he knew why: Steed wanted him at the center of this evening’s ceremony, and to get there he had offered to coordinate. It was a small affair — a cocktail reception for forty, a formal presentation of the commemorative plate to the director of the Briton/France International Mission of Peace Footrace, and a dinner with the male and female winners from each country, the director, the French liaison, and the British Ambassador. And at some point one of the foreign guests would make contact with him to slip him, according to Steed, important information.
“You have my word, monsieur,” McCall replied with a half bow. “I am certain that the maids have merely removed it for cleaning.”
Thierry squinted at him with what appeared to be suspicion for a moment, then took a deep, snorting breath and nodded curtly. “Merci, monsieur. Merci,” he replied, swiveling on his heel and striding away. McCall watched him out of the reception room, then dropped to his knees to lift the heavy cloth draped over the table and inspect the floor underneath.
Steed stood by the head of Colonel Wilson’s hospital bed with Emma beside him and Gambit beside her. All three were looking down at the unconscious man. The nurse had told them that his condition was unchanged before they entered, but Steed had pressed on in anyway. Gambit was relieved that Mrs. Wilson was absent – he hoped she had finally gone home for some rest.
The patient’s complexion was yellow and waxy, his thick grey hair was dirty and showed the grooves of recent combing, his chin was lost in the abundant flesh of his neck.
“Do you think he told his clue to the man who attacked him?” Emma asked quietly, glancing first at Steed, and then at Gambit. Gambit shrugged. Steed frowned.
Emma sighed and reached out to smooth the crisp white sheet over the Colonel’s chest.
“I’m going to see if I can speak to his attending physician,” Steed said, backing away from the bed. Emma and Gambit moved up to fill in the space he vacated.
“I feel so sorry for Mrs. Wilson,” Emma said. She could not help remembering how devastated she felt every time Steed was badly injured.
“She’s a strong woman,” Gambit replied.
Emma shook her head, then looked at him. “It doesn’t matter,” she said, her eyes conveying all that she couldn’t express in words. Gambit saw the memory of pain and worry and realized that she was right – a strong woman might bear the hardship more stoically, but she was no less affected by the pain. As he shared her gaze he felt a touch on his wrist. He looked down, thinking she had sought his hand and willing to offer her the small show of support. But to his surprise, it was the Colonel’s hand touching his wrist, not Emma’s.
Wilson’s eyes were open and peering at Gambit. Emma moved back as Gambit leaned over the sick man.
“Colonel, do you know me? It’s Mike Gambit.”
“Gambit.” The Colonel’s voice was a ragged whisper.
“It’s so good to see you awake,” Gambit said, offering his former commander a big grin.
“Who’s that?” the Colonel asked, lifting his head to see Emma. She stepped back up to the bed so that he would not have to move further.
“Emma Steed, Colonel. My husband is just outside.”
“Mrs. Steed,” the Colonel said softly. “How lovely of you to visit me. Do you know young Michael here?”
“Oh yes,” Emma replied, wondering just how alert the Colonel was, and whether further recovery was possible. “Gambit and I are good friends.” She flashed a conspiratorial smile at Gambit that he returned.
“Good. Good friends,” the Colonel repeated slowly. “In the end, we must rely on good friends. I must rely on good friends.”
“Sir, you’re not at your end,” Gambit frowned.
“Young man this is not the time to argue, although I know you find it nearly impossible. I am near my end and we both know it.”
“Colonel please, there is so much that the doctors can do for you –,” Emma tried, but the Colonel’s surprisingly piercing gaze stopped her.
“Perhaps you would not mind my having a word alone with Michael, my dear?” he asked.
“Of course not,” Emma replied, her eyes darting from the Colonel back to Gambit, who arched one eyebrow at her. “I’ll just go tell Steed that you’re awake,” she added to the Colonel before leaving the room.
“What can I do for you Colonel?” Gambit asked, leaning over the bed to better hear the sick man.
Emma closed the door and looked up and down the hall. Steed was standing near the nursing station speaking to a doctor in a white lab coat. Emma sauntered toward them, knowing that the moment she told them the Colonel was awake they would rush to his room. She wanted to give Gambit some time alone with him.
Neither Steed nor the doctor, both of whom were absorbed in a document that the doctor held on a clipboard, noticed her approach. She stepped up close to look between their shoulders at the clipboard. Steed swiveled his head toward her and she felt the tension in his body ease when he identified her. The doctor on the other hand started and half turned to peer cautiously at her.
“May I introduce my wife, doctor?” Steed said, matching Emma’s genial smile at the physician.
“Emma,” she added.
“Mrs. Steed,” the doctor said, still wary.
“The Colonel is awake. He asked for a private word with Gambit.”
“Did he?” Steed’s gaze locked with hers and she nodded ever so slightly, a confirmation of his thoughts, which she could practically read. He’s telling Gambit his clue.
“Excuse me,” the doctor said, trotting off down the hall toward the Colonel’s room. The door burst open before he reached it.
“We need a doctor!” Gambit shouted, one hand on the doorknob, the other on the jamb as he leaned out. “He was talking, and then he started gasping for breath,” he added as the doctor pressed past him.
“He told me not to tell anyone, Steed,” Gambit said with extraordinary conviction. He was sitting in the front passenger seat of the Bentley his eyes focused on a point somewhere beyond the windscreen. Steed was in the driver’s seat, his hands resting on the steering wheel. Emma had adopted a reclining posture across the rear seat, her arms crossed, one hand touching her mouth absently. Her eyes focused on the back of Gambit’s head as he spoke.
The doctor had summoned assistance and struggled to relieve the Colonel’s distress, but in the end it had been to no avail. The distinguished gentleman had gasped his last and closed his eyes with Gambit, Steed, and Emma looking on from across the room. They had all witnessed and been responsible for many deaths, nearly all by some sort of violence. But the sight of a man coming to a slow, mostly natural end was deeply disturbing. For Gambit it was death of a role model and beloved leader. Emma had struggled not to imagine Steed in the hospital bed, victim of a diabolical mastermind. And Steed had felt himself making another mental mark on a psychic roster of lost fellow officers and agents.
“Surely you don’t think that means me?” he asked, swiveling his head toward Gambit.
“He told me that he was relying on me to carry on the secret. That I’d be contacted when the time came.”
“Indeed. By whom? What is the secret?”
“If I tell you –.”
“You’ll have to kill me, I know.” The Colonel’s death had made Steed uncharacteristically impatient.
Gambit shook his head ruefully and emitted a strained laugh.
“He did not say who would contact me. But he did tell me this: Remember Osiris on the door under the porch.”
Emma dropped her feet into the foot well behind Gambit and sat up to lean in between the front seats.
“Remember Osiris on the door under the porch,” she repeated, looking at herself in the rearview mirror.
“You know what it means?” Steed asked, his expression expectant as he looked at her profile.
“No,” she said thoughtfully, eyes narrowing at her reflection as she contemplated the clue. Then she pursed her lips into a crooked smile and turned her head to him. “But it will come to me.”
As she withdrew from between them to resume her reclining position Gambit and Steed both turned to watch her. Their foreheads bumped together, jarring them apart to stare at one another for a moment then face forward. Steed reached for the starter and Gambit put his arm on the door to look out at the hospital as the car began to accelerate.
“Robbie?” Tara, leaned into her husband’s office ready to retreat if he was busy. “Robbie?”
The special aid to the ambassador was seated at his desk with his head in his hands looking uncharacteristically glum. He dropped his hands on the desk and looked up at her.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, coming across the office to his desk.
“I have two hours to find the centerpiece for tonight’s ceremony,” he replied. “I’ve accosted every maid in the building. I’ve waylaid every footman. I’ve even inspected the china room myself. I can’t imagine who would have taken the commemorative plate.”
“The one for the footrace reception?”
Robbie nodded, eyes fixed on his hands as he twisted his fingers around one another. Tara frowned, agreeing with his puzzlement. “Where was it?”
“On the plate stand on the table in the reception hall. Thierry walked in to review the arrangements and it was gone. This shouldn’t be my problem! I’m only involved because Steed wants me there for one of the guests to contact.”
Tara suppressed a sigh. For all of Robbie’s dedication to his career as an agent, he never grasped the finer nuances. A better agent would have delegated all aspects of the planning while still maintaining enough control to be where he needed to be for the contact. Robbie imagined that he was organizing the evening’s event, but Tara knew full well that the embassy’s staff was handling all of the critical details. There wasn’t the slightest chance that her husband even knew what was on the dinner menu, let alone discussed it with the chef. But he had taken responsibility for the plate, so now that it was missing he couldn’t delegate it. Or could he?
“Let me help. I’ve got a friend in the housekeeping staff,” she said, thinking that if he really had accosted the maids they may have contrived to keep the plate hidden out of spite. She did not for a moment imagine that he’d actually behaved inappropriately, just aggressively.
Robbie’s face brightened so much Tara wondered if she hadn’t been manipulated.
“I really appreciate it darling. I have to concentrate on my contact tonight – it could be a defection. Steed couldn’t tell me anything more.”
Tara sighed to herself and smiled at her husband. He wasn’t perfect, but she loved him just the same.
“Oh my,” Emma arched one sculpted brow as she compared an archaeologist’s sketch with a photograph taken in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings. “Not ‘remember.’ ‘Re-member.’ But with what?”
“Hummm?” Steed looked up from across the room where he was constructing, for the third time, a simple house out of blocks. As he looked back down John knocked it over with a satisfied grunt.
“Only one of the tombs that Cathy identified for us has a porch,” Emma said. “It was last worked in 1955 by a German archaeologist named Lutz. The Egyptian government has not issued a firman for it since.”
“So that’s the one.” Steed pried a block from John’s hand and began laying a new foundation.
“The tomb we’re looking for could be an entirely unknown tomb.”
“How could it? Someone has to have known of it to create the clues.”
Emma watched Steed simultaneously fend off John while starting on the walls of his new house. She had to admit he had a point.
“In any case,” she went on, ignoring the victorious grin he threw her way, “I think I’ve solved the Colonel’s clue.”
“Gambit’s clue you mean. ‘Remember Osiris,’ wasn’t it?”
Emma pursed her lips and offered Steed a gentle glare. He smiled and added another layer of blocks to his house.
“Gambit’s clue then. ‘Remember Osiris on the door under the porch.’”
“Right. That’s where the porch came in,” Steed said genially.
Emma took a deep breath and reminded herself that he was not nearly as obtuse as he pretended. She stood up, carrying the bound notes from the museum along with the photograph over to where Steed sat on the floor with John. She sat down on the edge of the nearest chair and held up the two images for him to see.
“Re-member Osiris,” she said, inserting an appropriate pause.
Steed studied the photograph of a relief showing a recumbent man with female figures standing at his head and feet, their arms in the air over him. Then he looked at the line drawing. It showed a similar image, although of a different relief. The details of the couch beneath the reclining figure were different, as were the female figures. But there was one extremely notable difference that drew Steed’s eye immediately. In the photograph the area above the reclining figure’s pelvis showed damage, as if someone had intentionally chipped away at the stone. In the line drawing this area proved that the recumbent figure was clearly male.
“I still would not have made the connection if the archaeology notes didn’t use the term,” Emma said. “Osiris was hacked to pieces and re-assembled by Isis so that she could be impregnated by him. Apparently the key moment is a common image, but less open minded viewers over the centuries have often edited it.”
“With a chisel,” Steed observed wincing. Just then John once again knocked over his blocks.
“So restorers re-member Osiris,” Emma said, returning to her sofa and piles of books.
“With what, pray tell?” Steed asked, watching John stir the blocks around on the floor.
“That is an excellent question,” Emma nodded, tucking a slip of paper into the bound notes to mark the page before closing them. “If we locate the door, and find a relief image of Osiris on it in need of re-membering, what will we use? So far none of our four gentlemen has provided any physical clues, only verbal.”
“I’m not sure I’d like to be handed the necessary object by a dying man,” Steed snorted. Emma rolled her eyes and watched Steed stacking a neat column of John’s blocks.
“Do you remember Colonel Wilson’s study?” she asked. Steed glanced up at her, catching John’s hands before he could topple the tower. “There are shelves and shelves of Egyptian bric-a-brac.”
Steed squinted, apparently trying to visualize the deceased Colonel’s home. Then a slow smile spread over his face and he pulled John up into his arms to give him a kiss.
“We should call on poor, grieving Mrs. Wilson,” he said, not insincerely.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Emma agreed.
“Mrs. McCall?” Tara stopped and turned toward the woman who had spoken. It was one of the Embassy maids – a woman in her middle years with her light brown hair secured severely at the nape of her neck, highlighting her round face and slightly stooped shoulders. That was caused, Tara speculated, by her copious bosom.
“Yes?” Tara replied, smiling hopefully at the woman. She had paid a visit to the head of service staff, a rather stiff old fellow with whom Tara had established a particular rapport: he wanted her to go to bed with him, and she wanted him to supply her with information about goings-on in the embassy. So far she had the better side of the informal arrangement. She had no intention of betraying her wedding vows in the line of duty – not, at least, for the sake of idle embassy gossip — but she had managed to flirt her way into several juicy nuggets of information. She hoped that this maid was coming to her with another one – about Robbie’s missing plate.
It turned out to be even better than that.
“Mr. Seymour asked me to find you. He said you were looking for this,” the woman said, producing the commemorative plate from behind her back.
Tara’s eyes widened with joy as she grasped it with both hands.
“Where ever did you find it?” she asked, examining the rim for signs of damage.
“Well it wasn’t me, strictly speaking,” the maid said, suddenly uneasy.
I’ll bet it wasn’t, Tara thought viciously.
“But it was found in the private residence. I’m not sure where exactly –.”
“In the residence?” Tara repeated, quite surprised. The Ambassador and his family maintained two floors of private rooms, off limits to all but invited guests. And service staff, of course.
Tara pursed her lips in a puzzled frown, then sighed and smiled at the maid.
“Well, what matters is that it’s been found. Thank you,” she said, although she was extremely curious about who had taken it, not to mention why. This was going to require another visit to Mr. Seymour, she could tell. She shuddered as she tucked the plate under her arm and headed for Robbie’s office.
The cloying scent of dozens of floral arrangements filled the ground floor rooms of the Wilson home. Emma and Steed found themselves among a number of callers shunted through by a taciturn butler to a formal parlor where Mrs. Wilson sat with her sister and a few close friends. Tea, coffee, and pastries were displayed on a sideboard. A drinks trolley offered a selection of more potent salves for the mourners.
Steed and Emma expressed their sympathy to the widow, who seemed to be in a state of emotional shock, and then Steed moved away while Emma stayed close. If Mrs. Wilson knew that they had been present at her husband’s death she made no sign of it. Emma suspected it was too much for her to absorb, but that they’d hear from her some time in the future. If it were her she would want to know exactly what had happened in the hospital room.
Emma drew attention to herself and away from Steed by solicitously fetching an unasked-for cup of tea for the widow and hovering near her while the other visitors paid their respects. Steed slipped away from the group and out into the hall keeping a wary eye out for the butler. Both he and Emma had visited the Colonel on more than one occasion and been entertained in his study. They had both remembered the shelves and display cabinets bearing countless small Egyptian artifacts – much the same as Lord Eric’s study. The Wilson house was a big old pile, but Steed’s sense of direction and memory were both excellent. He made his way unerringly toward the study.
“My dear Mrs. Wilson, I can only imagine how you must feel,” Emma patted the widow’s hand and exchanged a sympathetic look with another visitor. Mrs. Wilson’s slightly confused gaze shifted from the new visitor to Emma and she nodded. Emma wasn’t sure if she was agreeing – Emma could not know – or wondering just how Emma had felt at the death, no matter that it was proved untrue, of her first husband. Emma realized her paux pas. “All I can say is that the grief is like the pain of childbirth,” Emma went on, drawing several puzzled looks. “It’s almost unbearable. But eventually it ends, and you forget the worst of it.”
She was gratified to see a few nods among the other women gathered there – women who had not lost their husbands. Looking again at Mrs. Wilson she knew that her analogy was weak. But she held her tongue and hoped that someone else would change the subject.
Steed crept through the halls between an impressive pair of plate armor suits stationed between displays of edged weapons mounted on the walls. He climbed a half flight of stairs presided over by a stag’s head with an impressive rack and turned to the right. He paused outside of a heavy wooden door that was slightly ajar and glanced up and down the hall. Empty. He put his back to it and peeked through the opening. The room was dim and silent so he slipped inside and left the door as he’d found it.
“He was a wonderful man. A true comrade in arms,” a stiff-seeming officer – a major, Emma noted – was saying to Mrs. Wilson. He leaned over her solicitously, holding one of her hands as he spoke. Emma thought she looked on the edge of panic.
“He – he had retired,” she said softly, as if retirement should have ensured his continued life and safety.
“But of course the Major is speaking of the Colonel’s past service, my dear,” Emma put in.
Heavy curtains filtered most of the light coming through the windows, but it was light enough in the study for Steed to make out the dismaying disarray inside. Packing crates and mounds of shredded paper filled the center of the room. The shelves and cabinets were more than half empty. Steed shut his eyes and reopened them, hoping he was hallucinating.
He was not. Scowling to himself, he shut the door and turned a light switch next to it. An ornate chandelier in the middle of the room banished the shadows and revealed the extent of the packing. Steeling himself for the task at hand, he headed first for the shelves of objects that had not yet been packed.
“You’ll get through this, Mrs. Wilson. I know that you will,” Emma said quietly as the major moved off toward the coffee service, his duty fulfilled.
“I’m not sure,” Mrs. Wilson replied. “I feel so empty. Like I’m only half here.”
Emma’s heart ached for the woman despite her intention to be detached. She had not mourned like this for Peter, but she understood the sense of loss — of feeling half empty — of which the widow spoke. She had felt it when she’d walked away from Steed five years ago.
“I know,” she sighed, squeezing the widow’s hand. “I know.” Her words were choked. She squeezed her eyes tight and bowed her head until the wave of sympathetic grief passed.
Small Anubis, lapis lion, stone sphinx, another stone sphinx, gold arm band, scarab brooch — Steed methodically examined each object, working his way along one shelf and back along the one below it. So far no phalanx that looked even remotely suggestive.
“You must treasure the memory of your time together,” Emma said as another visitor moved away from Mrs. Wilson.
Gold bird, another Anubis, lovely gold ring set with gems – Steed resisted he urge to pocket the trinket for Emma. It was the last object on the shelves. Setting it down he turned with a sigh to the nearest crate.
“You have so many wonderful memories, so many treasures to remember him by.”
Steed lifted a hammer from the top of the crate and pried the lid off. He set lid and hammer aside and dug his hands into the shredded paper.
“The museum? How generous of you.”
The floor around the crate was soon littered with shredded paper cradling precious oil jugs and pitchers. Steed added another figure to a row of small funerary statues marching across the floor.
“I don’t suppose you’d care to animate yourselves now and help me?” he muttered at the intended servants of the dead in the afterlife. “No, hum?”
“Already? Well, I suppose I can understand your not wanting to see his study as it was,” Emma shifted on the sofa and glanced toward the parlor door. Had Steed encountered museum staff packing up the study?
Steed sat in a chair beside the second crate dragging his fingers through the last of the shredded paper. A pile of golden objects sat on the floor. He heaved a sigh, glanced at the door, and moved to the next crate.
“Certain you can’t lend a hand?” he asked the row of statues as he inserted the fork of the hammer under the lid. “No?” he grunted as he pried it open. The lid lifted with a squeak of tight nails and he set it on the floor. He brushed shredded paper away from an object at the top of the crate.
A stone cartouche.
He lifted it out and started to set it on the floor, then stopped. The top surface was flat, carved with hieroglyphics in relief, but the underside was rounded, smooth, slightly wider at one end and tapered to a rounded end. He shot a smug grin at the row of statues and stood up.
“Here’s Steed. I’m afraid we have to go, Mrs. Wilson. May we call again?” Emma was already on her feet offering Mrs. Wilson her sweetest smile. Steed crossed the room to them.
“Again, I am so sorry Mrs. Wilson,” he said in a sonorous tone.
Emma slipped her hand into his and they made their exit, nodding at some newcomers as they went.
“Well, unless the Colonel collected phalluses, this is probably it,” Emma said, absently stroking the cartouche.
“I looked through the rest of the crate that it was in. There were other cartouches, but none carved like this one,” Steed replied, eyes on the road as he drove them home. “Can you translate the hieroglyphics?”
“When we get back,” Emma nodded, tracing one of the carved images. Steed glanced over at her holding the stone phallus and smiled suggestively.
“Don’t. Say. A. Word,” Emma hissed, shooting him a sideways grin. He grinned back and then returned his attention to the road.
The woop-woop-woop of the burglar alarm jolted Emma and Steed from deep sleep. Sitting up they stared at one another for a moment, and then in unison swung their legs to the floor on either side of the bed.
They both reached for dressing gowns as they made for the bedroom door. All was quiet in the upstairs hall, illuminated by a single low-wattage lamp on a side table half way along. They rounded the corner and found the nursery door shut tight. Siobhan’s standing orders in such situations were to take John from his crib into her adjoining room and await instructions. Emma opened the nursery door and slipped inside while Steed waited in the hall. She went through to the nanny’s room and found Siobhan sitting in her rocker holding a drowsy John.
“Stay put,” Emma instructed her. “We’re checking on it.”
Siobhan nodded wordlessly and pressed her face to the top of John’s head. Emma shut both doors as she backed out to rejoin Steed.
“All right?” Steed asked, speaking softly, his eyes focused on the corridor leading to the main stairs.
“Yes. I’ll take the high road?”
“See you in the kitchen,” Steed nodded, starting for the stairs.
Emma followed, staying in the upper hall when Steed went down the wide, curving staircase to the foyer. The distinct voices of two barking dogs reached Steed as he reached the ground floor. He looked up at Emma on the landing above and pointed toward the kitchen. She nodded and they both started off in that direction. Sullivan’s sharp barks provided counterpoint to Gilbert’s deep, hunting bellow and the wailing of the security alarm. The dogs’ voices grew more distinct as Steed neared the kitchen at the end of the south wing.
He edged up to the kitchen door unconcerned about being quiet. Through the partially open door he could see Gilbert’s low haunches, his tail held out knife stiff behind him. Sullivan backed into view in between barks, then lunged forward and out of Steed’s sight. A sharp thud followed by an agonized yelp preceded the sight of Sullivan propelled through the air across the room. Gilbert growled, a menacing sound Steed had never heard him make before, and lunged forward. Fearing for both dogs’ safety Steed plunged into the room.
Emma stole quickly along the upper hall, ignoring the closed guestroom doors as she rounded the corner into the north wing. The dogs’ barking grew louder and more urgent as she reached the top of the kitchen stairs. She descended, placing her feet at the outer edges of the steps where they squeaked the least and stepping over the exceptionally creaky fifth step down. Just as she reached the bottom the sound of a thump and Sullivan’s painful cry made her cringe. She crouched and peered around the corner into the kitchen.
The intruder’s face was nearly obscured by a soiled red head cloth that had started to unravel. As Steed entered the man turned his malevolent glare on him and adjusted his stance to a menacing crouch. His appearance matched that of Colonel Wilson’s attacker Steed noted absently as he inched closer. The tenor of Gilbert’s barks seemed to grow more ferocious now that his master was there with him.
The two men circled one another slowly with Gilbert at their feet in between them. Steed was aware of the dog on a nearly subconscious level, and aware that he could use Gilbert to his advantage since the intruder was clearly intimidated by him. Gilbert snapped at the man’s feet and Steed swung a solid right at his jaw. He threw up his left arm to fend off an answering blow and responded with another right, this time to the man’s gut. Gilbert had connected as well, tearing the man’s trouser cuff as he backed away with it caught in his teeth.
“Good dog,” Steed said leaning away from a haphazard swing at his head. He swung a pair of rapid punches, connecting with his left, then edged back again as the intruder attempted to step over Gilbert and lunge at him.
Gilbert howled in frustration as he swung his head around trying to catch the man’s legs. Steed threw up his arms to block the lunge, planting his hands on the man’s collarbones. As they both reached for one another’s throats Steed feared that his opponent’s arms might be longer than his. And then, just as Steed felt the pinch of the man’s fingers on the tender flesh of his neck, his attacker collapsed.
Gilbert yelped as the man dropped to the floor almost on top of him. Steed watched him fall, then looked up at Emma, who stood facing him with her hands poised for another double blow. She tilted her head and shot him her best nonchalant smile. He smiled back, then crouched to examine the intruder.
Emma went to the security room off of the kitchen and reset the alarm. The sudden absence of the clanging was as startling as the noise had been at first. Only as she felt her body relax did Emma realize how tense the sound had made her.
“Check on Sullivan,” Steed said when she returned to the kitchen. He looked from the man’s billfold, which he was holding, across the room toward where the small dog cowered against the wall. Emma went to the animal, cooing softly at him as she reached out tentatively. She knew that if he was seriously injured he might snap. But instead he slipped his dainty tongue from between his teeth and licked her hand submissively. Emma gently ran her hands over his quivering body and he whined when she touched his ribs.
“Poor baby,” she sighed, caressing his head and his soft ears. “You just stay still and we’ll get you taken care of.”
“He’s hurt?” Steed asked. He had rolled the man over and was checking his pulse.
“Yes. His ribs. I hope that’s all,” Emma paused, peering across the kitchen and tilting her head. “Sirens. I’ll go meet them.”
She went to the front door to admit the local police who had responded to the alarm. Both the police and the ministry response team had the gate code, and they tended to arrive at nearly the same time. The police car screeched to a dusty stop in front of the house and two officers scrambled out. They slowed down at the sight of Emma in the front doorway, obviously thinking that they’d once again responded to a false alarm. Emma assured them that there really was an intruder and directed them down the hall toward the kitchen. The ministry response team’s black sedan pulled in behind the police car and four agents jumped out, slowing down just as the policemen had when they saw Emma.
“Good evening Mrs. Steed,” one of them said.
“The full moon is remarkably bright,” she replied, glancing at the dark sky where the new moon had not yet risen. Sometimes recognition codes are utterly ridiculous. “We’ve caught an intruder in the kitchen. Please check the rest of the house.”
She stepped aside to admit two of the agents. The other two set out to circle the house on the outside. Emma shut the front door and returned to the kitchen.
“… let our people handle it. I believe they arrived right behind you,” Steed was saying to the policemen as Emma entered. He glanced at her and she nodded.
“They’re checking the house and grounds,” she said, returning to Sullivan, who had not moved.
The more senior of the officers jotted something in the small notebook he was holding, then closed it and tucked it and his pen into a pocket.
“Very well sir,” he said neutrally. “We’ll just wait until they’re through, to be sure everything is secure.”
“Thank you,” Steed replied, glancing down at a movement at his feet. Gilbert had crept up on the intruder, who still lay on his back, and nudged his hand with his damp nose. The semi-conscious man jerked his hand away. At a look from his superior the younger officer crouched beside the man and handcuffed his wrists together.
“I’m going to telephone the vet’s emergency number,” Emma said, stroking Sullivan’s head. He was panting lightly, barely responding to her touch. “I think he’s in shock – he must have a broken rib.”
“Poor little fellow,” the senior policeman said, sounding genuinely concerned.
“He was exceptionally brave,” Steed agreed, bending down to take hold of Gilbert’s collar and haul him away from his victim. The dog seemed to think he was responsible for conquering the man.
While Emma was on the telephone leaving a message with the veterinarian’s emergency service one of the two agents who were checking the grounds stepped into the kitchen from the mudroom.
“He came in through here,” he announced, surveying those gathered in the kitchen. He was holding up part of a pane of glass from the solarium. “He broke a pane and reached through to open the door. He must not have expected the door between the greenhouse and the mudroom to be alarmed.”
“Fortunately for us,” Steed observed. He was extremely glad to have captured the man, who he hoped would provide some insight into the attack on Colonel Wilson.
Emma concluded her call and replaced the receiver on the wall-mounted telephone. Then she took the broken pane of glass from the agent and examined it.
“We’ll send a team out tomorrow to back track his path to the house – find out where he came over the wall,” the agent went on. “It’s nearly impossible in the dark.”
“He could have come across country from a neighboring farm,” Steed said. “The wall only runs along the road.”
“There are many trails across our land,” Emma agreed. “It’s impossible to secure it with motion detectors or trip wires – there are too many deer and other animals moving around.”
“Nonetheless, he exploited a weakness in the outer security system. We will identify what it was and analyze the risk.”
“Yes of course,” Steed agreed amiably, although his eyes as they met Emma’s suggested that he thought it a fruitless effort.
While they waited for the rest of the agents to finish their checks the policemen hauled the intruder to his feet. He stood groggily with downcast eyes.
Shortly Siobhan entered carrying John, escorted by one of the agents who had searched the house. The other agents materialized from various directions. The nanny gasped at the sight of Sullivan stretched out on the floor, her eyes darting to Emma’s.
“We’ll see to him in a moment,” Emma assured her quietly while the agents conferred with one another. And then in short order the policemen were gone and the agents were taking the intruder away. Emma sent Siobhan and John back to bed and followed Steed to the front door.
“I’m glad you’re not going with them tonight,” she said as they watched the dark sedan roll off down the drive. Steed shut the front door and turned to her.
“They’ll hold him uncomfortably until morning,” he said, reaching into the pocket of his dressing gown. “Can I interest you in some Middle Eastern food for lunch?”
He handed her a worn matchbook cover from a London restaurant.
“Ayoush,” Emma read, then she opened it and smiled. Inside there were three matches left and a hand-written note: Wednesdays 1400.
“It could be his regular lunch engagement,” she observed.
“It could be a meeting of the tomb robber’s society – London contingent.”
“You were right, Mrs. Steed, he’s in shock. The x-ray shows two broken ribs, but I don’t think there are any more severe internal injuries. He may have hit his head – you say he was kicked across a room?”
The veterinarian examined Sullivan’s head as he spoke. Emma had bundled the dog in a blanket and forced some water down his throat while waiting for the doctor to return her emergency call. He had done so a half hour after the agents left and agreed to meet her at his surgery when Emma impressed upon him the possibly serious nature of the injury. After his initial examination he had administered a mild sedative and warmed up his x-ray machine. Emma, who had insisted that Steed go back to bed, had stifled a yawn and taken a seat in his waiting room while he developed the films.
“Yes, by a burglar,” she confirmed.
“Well, I don’t see any spinal injuries in the x-rays. I think he might have stayed down because it hurts too much to move. This is a smart breed – he probably knew better than to attack again.”
Emma smiled as she thought of Gilbert the basset hound, who had not given up interest in the intruder until the man was removed from the house. She wasn’t sure his behavior had been less intelligent than Sullivan’s, just more devoted to his family. But then, Sullivan was just a visitor and his enthusiasm in the fight had shown quite a bit of devotion. Perhaps, Emma reflected, he’s adopted us.
“I’ll bandage him up, and I’d like to keep him here for a day or two just to be sure – if you don’t mind?” the doctor went on.
“I think I’d prefer it,” Emma agreed, thinking of how Mrs. Hansen would feel if Sullivan were to die so soon after her husband.
Sally opened her mailbox and tugged out two catalogs, and several letters. She stuffed them into the top of her tote bag and climbed wearily up the stairs to her apartment. Her feet were worn to the bone from trailing a German agent all over town. She hadn’t seen him meet any other known agents or drop anything, but that wasn’t unusual. A great deal of her work comprised keeping tabs on the other side while they did their laundry or went to the market. This particular German had done some sight-seeing, spent an hour with a prostitute who Sally would have to run a check on tomorrow, and dined, alone, in a second rate restaurant. And then, to Sally’s great relief, he’d gotten on an overnight train to Germany.
She unlocked her door and pressed inside, dropping her bag on the table by the door and pried one shoe off at the heel with the toe of the other. She kicked them under the sofa with her sore, swollen feet and padded on to the tiny kitchen’s cool tile floor.
“Ohhh,” she sighed, running her hands under cold water at the sink, then impulsively dousing her face with a double handful. She opened the small refrigerator and took out a bottle of water, drinking half of it down before she had shut the door.
Marginally refreshed, she returned to the sitting room and pulled the mail out of her bag. She dropped the catalogs directly into a wastebasket. The temptation to spend her salary was strong, but she was more determined to save, and she was proud to send her mother a check every month that went into her younger siblings’ education fund.
Suppressing a yawn she flipped through the letters. Her mother. Emma. Purdey. She smiled in anticipation of reading all three, then blinked hard and yawned again. She could hardly keep her eyes open. She dropped the letters on the table beside her bag and turned toward her bed. I’ll read them in the morning when I can enjoy them.
She awakened all too soon, a strange dream shattered by the jangle of her alarm clock. She lay in bed for a moment trying to reconstruct it: She’d been watching James skiing from an impossible perspective. There had been more, but it had already sunk deep into her subconscious. She threw the thin sheet aside and got up, scrubbing at her face. She performed her morning rituals almost automatically, her consciousness kicking in only as she stopped by the apartment door to collect her bag. The stack of letters sat tantalizingly on the table, but she didn’t have time to sit and read them now. She gathered them up and opened the zippered section of her bag to stuff them in.
A thin file was inside the zippered compartment. Sally frowned. She was certain she hadn’t put it there. The truth was she rarely carried of documents and files, although that the bag was designed for them. Her parents had splurged on it when she started working at Knight Industries and she was very attached to it.
Wracking her brain for a recollection of putting anything in the compartment, she removed the file to examine it.
Her heart skipped several beats and she forced herself to breathe. “Most Secret” was stamped on the outside of the folder, and inside was a single sheet of paper. She need only read a few words to know that it was the letter that had been misplaced at the office the other day. Mr. Quimby’s accusatory tone rang in her mind as she stood frozen by her apartment door. She had not signed the document out – it was just dumb luck that her bag had not been selected for spot-check when she left the embassy. She could be accused of far more than just negligence. Removing classified material without authorization was grounds for dismissal. Charges would be pressed. Has this been here since it went missing?
She felt panic creeping up her spine and swallowed hard to squelch it. She was certain that if she tried to sneak it back in she’d be caught. Nevermind that in all the months she’d worked at the Embassy she had never been searched by the guards. This morning would be the time.
Setting the letter on top of her bag she paced across the sitting room, pausing to look out the window at the street far below. Is that man on the corner looking up here? Stop it! Nobody is trying to frame you.
Assuring herself that this was an honest mistake – puzzling, but not an act of treason – she picked up the telephone and began to dial.
I can’t tell Tara. She will have to report it even if she doesn’t want to. Her office line is recorded.
She disconnected the call and thought for a moment, then began to dial again.
“Bond,” James’s voice purred in her ear before the first ring had ended.
“It’s Sally,” she said, barely more than a whisper. She cleared her throat and spoke again, “Good morning James.”
“Good morning love,” James replied brightly. There was a rustling sound and she imagined him sitting up in bed, the sheet falling away from his bare chest. She suppressed the mental image, including the dreadful urge to place a gorgeous female body beside his in her mind’s eye. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
She wanted to cry out I need your help! But she was just as suspicious of her own phone line as those at the embassy, and her own could be compromised by agencies other than the ministry.
“I’m hoping you can give me a little advice,” she said.
“Personal then? That’s much more fun,” his voice dropped suggestively. Sally had to smile as the imagined female in his bed vanished.
“I accidentally brought home some work, and now I’m afraid to bring it back,” she said, hoping she wasn’t being too enigmatic.
“I thought you said it was personal,” James chided.
“It will become very personal if I don’t figure out a way to return it,” she replied.
“Is it a lot of work?” James asked, finally picking up on the tension she was trying to conceal.
“No. But it’s important.”
“Perhaps it could be concealed in the manner described by Poe.”
“Edgar Allen Poe.”
“James, I haven’t ever read any of his books. Isn’t he American?”
She could tell he had gotten out of bed and imagined him pacing around the bedroom carrying the telephone. She wondered if he was naked. He was just a little bit frustrated with her now, but she couldn’t help her country education. Ministry training had not included American literature.
“Include your work with other similar items,” he said. “Do you understand?”
“Oh! I think I do know that story,” she replied, stopping herself before saying the title. She had read “The Purloined Letter” in school.
“Glad to hear it,” James chuckled.
“I adore you James. Thank you!” Sally hung up the telephone before James could respond. She snatched up Purdy’s letter and opened the envelope. Peeking inside she smiled knowingly: Purdy always used paper from the ministry office in Amsterdam – nearly a perfect match for the stationery of the purloined letter. Removing Purdy’s letter from the envelope she unfolded and placed the secret one on top of it. She refolded them and returned them to the envelope. Then as added camouflage she opened the letters from Emma and her mother and put all three into her bag.
“Good morning Tara. I have good news,” Sally stood in Tara’s office doorway with her hands behind her back. Tara looked up at her through bloodshot eyes.
“Good. I need some. What is it?” she grumbled.
“Bad night?” Sally asked, stepping inside.
“No sleep,” Tara replied tersely. And then at Sally’s flicker of a smile, “Not due to any pleasant diversions. You followed Herr Thomas?”
“All evening until he got on a train to Germany.”
“He got off of that train at the next stop.”
“Uh oh.” Sally felt the color draining from her face.
“Indeed. Officially we’re disinterested. Unofficially I was rousted out to go watch the police investigate the scene.”
“The scene of what?” Sally breathed.
“Herr Thomas was shot twice outside of a rather disreputable café. Probably there to meet someone –,” she stopped to watch Sally collapse into a chair, a file folder on her lap.
“I stuck to him like glue,” she said, hating how defensive she sounded. Tara studied her for a moment with an expression that suggested she was craving a cigarette.
“And it wasn’t in your orders to go to Germany,” she finally said with a nod. “But remember this for the future. I’d rather have you telephone from Stuttgart this morning than to have spent the night like I did.”
Sally cringed inwardly, absorbing the reprimand.
“All right, never mind,” Tara went on. “You rarely make mistakes. So what’s your good news?”
Sally swallowed hard and tried to banish the whirl of dismay, fear, and anger at herself from her mind. The letter!
She set the folder on Tara’s desk. “I found the top secret letter that went missing the other day,” she said. Tara’s face brightened immediately. She picked up the folder and looked inside.
“Where was it?” she asked.
“It was between the two filing cabinets out there,” Sally gestured at the outer offices. “It must have slipped down and nobody noticed the corner sticking out near the bottom.”
One of Tara’s brows arched and Sally realized her story was far weaker than she’d thought when she invented it. Quimby had hunted all over the office. He would have found it.
“The maintenance crew shifted one of them yesterday,” she added. To her relief Tara nodded and returned her attention to the letter.
Sally let a wave of relief calm her. But she couldn’t forget the mental image of Herr Thomas departing the train, probably knowing he was at last tail-less, and meeting up with a killer. She knew that Tara would have to mention it in her report to Steed. And the thought of his knowing of her failure completely pushed the puzzle of how the letter had gotten into her bag from her mind.
Five hours after she left the veterinarian’s surgery Emma parked her Lotus on the street in front of Rudy Gorelick’s house. She took a gulp of bitter takeaway coffee she’d picked up on the way and studied the house. A single car – a nondescript beige Renault — sat in the drive. The front garden was large and meticulously kept. The large tudor-style house showed signs of attentive upkeep as well. Rudy Gorelick had inherited his membership in the London Stock Exchange from his father and used it to good advantage. The general expectation among his social set, which included the Steeds, was that he would hand off his business to his eldest son Mark in the next few years. By all accounts, Mark would do as well in the market as his paternal antecedents.
Emma finished her coffee and got out of the car, stretching discretely to awaken her fatigued muscles before setting out up the front walk. She rapped the lion’s head knocker on the front door three times and listened to the faint echo inside. It was followed the crash of shattering glass and a stifled cry.
She stepped back down the front steps and onto the emerald green lawn, moving to the right to look into the front windows. The multifaceted, leaded panes were backed by light curtains that obscured her view of the inside of the house.
Steed found him in the yard gardening, she reminded herself, and decided that if Steed had intruded into the back she could too. But Steed hadn’t mentioned the six-foot fence that she encountered as she rounded the side of the house. She backed up several feet and charged at the wooden obstruction, leaping up to get a grip on the pointed tops of the vertical planks. She pulled herself higher, scrabbling with her feet against the sheer surface while peering into the garden. She planted her feet on the top between her hands and balanced for a fraction of a second, looking down to see what she would be landing on – bushes, unless she could clear them.
She pushed off as she tipped forward, leaping over the bushes to a four-point landing that sent a twinge of pain up her left wrist. Ignoring it, she sprinted along the side of the house, her feet bouncing on thick green grass. As she rounded the back corner the crash of a heavy door slamming spurred her to run faster.
A figure in a dark suit, his head wrapped in a dark red cloth, was running away from the house through the garden. From a distance he appeared to be the twin of the man they’d caught in their house last night. Emma sped up even more and quickly caught up with the man, who did not know she was chasing him until she tackled him from behind.
They rolled together across the spongy lawn leaving a trail of unraveled red cloth. They parted and Emma scrambled to a defensive crouch, spread arms prepared to fend off or strike. The man’s swarthy face contorted into an evil grimace as he lunged at her. Emma sidestepped him and tried to catch his wrists to pull him off balance, but she found herself holding onto one arm as he spun around and slammed into her back. She sprawled forward, instinctively rolling onto her back as he dropped down onto her, pinning her arms to the lawn.
Before he could get comfortable she tightened her abdomen and heaved her right shoulder up, throwing him to his side. She kept moving, using her freed arms to push herself up and over him. And then she was straddling him, her knees planted on the grass on either side of his narrow hips. He wrapped his hands around her neck with surprising strength and began to squeeze. Gasping, she grabbed his wrists and twisted, the twinge in her left arm telling her that it was not as strong as she needed it to be. She compensated for it by rolling off of him, forcing him to let go as his arms twisted. He did, and she fell away from him, landing on her behind as he scrambled back to his feet and took off.
Sitting on her butt Emma watched him go and took another deep, ragged breath, then dragged the fingers of her right hand through her hair and looked at the house. She was up again in an instant at the sight of Rudy Gorelick leaning against the frame of the back doorway. As she rose he dropped to his knees, catching himself with a hand on the jamb. His other hand was pressed to his middle. She ran to him, crouching to wrap her arm around him under his shoulders and help him up. She guided him back inside to a well-worn leather sofa in a warm, comfortable den.
He stretched out, one foot on the floor, and she took a folded afghan from the back of the sofa to press against the bleeding wound in his stomach.
“Hold it tight,” she said, pressing his bloody hand against the crocheted fabric. She tried to pull away to find a telephone, but his other hand seized her aching left wrist.
“Wait, please,” he begged, probably misinterpreting her grimace of pain for annoyance or fear.
“I want to call for help,” she replied.
“I didn’t tell him. Please tell Eric that I didn’t tell him.”
“The man who attacked you?”
He nodded. His complexion was fading, perspiration beading on his forehead and cheeks.
“I have to tell you,” he breathed, swallowing hard. “He stabbed me deep. I have to tell someone. Have to tell you. ‘Douse the khet to pass along the Dromos.’ You go to Eric. He’ll know what to do,” Gorelick paused, a blood-flecked bubble forming at the corner of his mouth. “A woman,” he said, much more softly, as if to himself. “He’ll be angry.”
“I’ll do it, Mr. Gorelick, but there’s no need. Let me call for help. We’ll get your wound seen to –,” she paused as his eyes fluttered shut and more blood seeped from his mouth. “Rudy, please hold on,” she said softly, then removed his hand from her wrist and rose to find a telephone.
The Egyptian sat perfectly still in a straight-backed chair at a scarred wooden table. His hands rested in front of him, stainless-steel handcuffs binding his wrists together. According to the agent in the monitoring room he had barely moved since Medical had released him into the custody of Interrogation at six a.m. He had been diagnosed with trauma from blows by blunt instruments: Steed’s fists to his face and torso and the hard sides of Emma’s hands to his neck and shoulders. Gilbert had managed to leave impressions of his teeth on the man’s ankle, but had not broken the skin.
Steed watched the man through the one-way glass for a quarter of an hour, but it was just as the monitoring agent had reported: he sat at the table, occasionally blinking but otherwise staring straight ahead. He was so still, Steed, realized, he appeared to be in a trance. Impulsively he reached across the panel in front of the seated agent and pressed a button. A loud buzzer sounded in the interrogation room. The man did not move. He didn’t even blink.
“Remarkable control,” the agent said.
Steed scowled and picked up a microphone. “He’s meditating, and by now he’s managed to reach such a deep state he can probably endure anything we throw at him,” he said, annoyed with himself for not checking up on the man sooner.
He pressed and held the button on the microphone handle.
“What is your name?”
His voice, distorted, filled the interrogation room. The man did not respond.
Steed turned a dial on the panel and pressed the buzzer button again. This time the sound was much higher pitched.
The man did not move.
“What is your name?”
“Record me,” Steed told the agent, then repeated his question once more. The agent manipulated several buttons, nodding at Steed after he had spoken.
“Replay it at random time intervals, no longer than three minutes apart,” Steed instructed him, picking up his bowler and umbrella as he made for the door.
“For how long?” the agent asked, swiveling in his chair.
“Until I come back.”
“Yes sir,” the agent sighed quietly as he turned back to his controls.
“I told Biggs not to mention that I was there,” Emma told Steed, referring to one of the agents who had responded to her call at the Gorelick home. “If we’re lucky the tomb robber who got away from me will think he completed his foul deed before I got to Rudy.”
Steed looked decidedly grim as he stirred the food on his plate with his fork.
“It’s not very good, is it?” Emma asked, taking another bite of her lunch.
“It’s not that,” Steed replied, looking up at her. “But I haven’t been able to enjoy lentil-based dishes since a particularly debilitating case of food poisoning I contracted in Cairo.”
“That can put one permanently off,” Emma agreed sympathetically. It wasn’t worth commenting on his willingness to come here and order lunch when he knew he wouldn’t eat it. It was his job.
“Well, it turned out that I was poisoned. But that doesn’t make me like the food any better,” he added.
Emma smiled knowingly as she set down her fork and shut her eyes for a moment.
“Exhausted,” she nodded. “And my wrist hurts.”
“The left one?” Steed asked, concerned. She had badly sprained it not so long ago.
“Yes. I don’t think it’s sprained, just aggravated. The fellow at Rudy’s house was very large,” she paused and frowned, glancing around the restaurant. “Do you suppose there’ a chance he’ll turn up here and recognize me?”
She looked across at Steed to find him watching someone who had just entered the restaurant.
“Yes,” he said just as the big man who was staring intently at Emma noticed that Steed was watching him. His small, dark eyes widened and he turned and strode quickly toward a rear door. “Come on.”
Steed’s command was so forceful Emma rose with him automatically and followed him across the restaurant to a door. He opened it a crack.
Four men dressed like the other tomb robbers were ascending a basement staircase with more behind them. Steed slammed the door and glanced at the handle, but it could not be locked.
“This doesn’t seem like it was a good idea,” Emma said, turning toward the front of the restaurant, prepared to run.
Steed grabbed her arm and dragged her the other way. “In here,” he said, pushing through the swinging kitchen door and holding it still.
They watched through the small diamond-shaped window in the door as four, six, eight, and finally ten men emerged from the basement stairs and headed for the front door. The one from the Gorelick house was in the lead.
“I don’t like those odds,” Emma whispered, holding her left wrist with her right hand. Steed noticed the gesture and nodded, then moved away from the door. They drew a few glances from the kitchen staff as they made their way to the back door, but fortunately none of them sounded an alarm.
They emerged in a narrow alley that reeked of garbage. As they darted across it toward an intersecting alley Emma noticed one of the robbers at the far end scanning the street.
“They’re determined,” she said, picking up the pace. They ran along the intersecting alley and came out on the street in the next block. Steed held her hand as they threaded through traffic across the street and hurried to the right along the sidewalk. Suddenly he pulled her to a stop next to a churchyard surrounded by a wrought iron fence. The church was further along the street. Steed bent and offered his hands, fingers interlocked, as a step.
“Up you go,” he said. Emma didn’t hesitate to accept his assistance scaling the fence. In turn she extended her right hand to help pull him up after her. They weaved in between the old tombstones and entered the church at a side door.
Emma made a perfunctory bow toward the altar before slipping into a rear pew in the sanctuary. Steed followed suit and they both knelt as if in prayer, catching their breath for a few minutes before sliding back onto the seat.
The church was small, with typically ornate windows and a sad-eyed, crucified Jesus presiding over the altar. The air was cool and tainted with incense. Emma felt unaccountably safe – something about Christian sanctuary, supported by the fact that their pursuers were most certainly Moslem, she supposed.
“Where’s your car?” She asked Steed, whispering.
“Down the block from the restaurant. Yours?”
“Right across the street from it.”
Steed pursed his lips and stared up at the altar. He hated being cornered, but ten tomb-robbers was about five too many for them to take on, particularly with Emma’s sore wrist. She was holding it in her lap, he noticed.
“Hurting?” he asked, reaching for it.
“It aches,” she admitted.
He lifted it and bent his head, placing a light kiss on the inside. He smiled into her eyes and couldn’t miss the deep desire sparkling there. “Better?” he whispered seductively.
“After a bit more of your treatment, perhaps,” she agreed, and then added: “later.”
He returned her hand to her lap and took a prayer book from the back of the pew in front of them.
“What are you doing?” she asked with a small frown.
“If you won’t accept my attentions, I’m going to read,” he replied.
“Steed, you know my philosophy on kissing in church.”
He raised his head and looked into her eyes again, his own sparkling with amusement. “Yes. We could renew our vows…”
Emma shook her head slowly, smiling wryly. She knew he was just trying to distract her. She pointedly broke their stare and reached for a hymnal.
Thirty minutes passed with no sign of any tomb robbers in the church. Steed replaced the prayer book, which he had in fact been reading, and Emma did the same with the hymnal. They rose and went to the dimly lit narthex. Steed cracked open the front door and they looked out.
There was a dark-suited tomb robber standing on the corner scanning the street. Steed shut the door.
“Can I help you?”
The question, seeming to emanate out of the very fabric of the church, startled both of them. Then they saw the vicar, a black man dressed in black so that the square of white at his throat and whites of his eyes seemed to be floating in space.
“Good afternoon Vicar,” Steed said, “We were just admiring your lovely church –.”
“There’s a man outside who was quite offensive to us when we came in,” Emma interrupted Steed, shooting him an annoyed glance that was entirely for show. “I don’t want to go back out past him.” She sounded genuinely frightened at the prospect.
“I see. Yes, our neighborhood has changed for the worse. There is quite an unpleasant element in the next block,” the vicar said. “I’m so sorry you were disturbed.”
“Thank you,” Emma replied, allowing her adopted distress to escalate. “Would it be possible – I mean, is there another door? One that leads out to a different street?”
“Of course. Follow me,” the vicar set out across the narthex. Steed shot Emma a proud grin as they followed.
“Three Stable Mews,” Steed told the taxi driver. Emma had been half inclined to brazenly return to her car, but Steed’s decisive action in hailing the taxi had discouraged her.
Giving in to exhaustion she leaned her head on his shoulder as the taxi took off.
“Let me have your car keys,” he said, digging in his trouser pocket for his. Emma lifted her head and opened her handbag to look for hers.
“Are you taking away my car privileges?” she asked, separating the car key from the rest and handing it to him. He was doing the same with his.
“I’ll have someone go ‘round and get them,” he replied, pocketing both together.
Emma returned her head to his shoulder and he shifted to put his arm around her. Suddenly she shot him an amused grin and glanced at the taxi driver. He arched one brow in inquiry at her silent amusement. She stretched up to place her lips tantalizingly close to his ear.
“We didn’t pay for lunch,” she whispered, glancing again at the taxi driver. Steed grinned too, understanding that she didn’t want the driver to hear that he had deadbeat passengers.
“I’ll send them a check,” he whispered back.
“I hope you don’t intend to include a tip!” she giggled. The driver glanced in his rear-view mirror at her and she turned her face toward Steed’s shoulder to stifle her laughter.
Emma stepped over the pile of mail inside the door at three Stable Mews and went directly up the spiral staircase. Behind her Steed shut the door and gathered up the mail, then went to the telephone. He dialed ministry logistics and requested an agent to collect the keys and retrieve their cars.
Upstairs Emma undressed and found a t-shirt to put on before climbing between the fresh sheets. She was nearly asleep when the bed rocked gently. She slit her eyes open just enough to see Steed sitting on his side of the bed fully clothed. He reached out and took her left wrist, placing it on the coverlet and covering it with a cold compress kept in the freezer for just such situations.
“Ummmm,” she acknowledged his kindness without really waking up.
“It looks swollen,” he said, stroking her upper arm tenderly.
“Ummmm,” she repeated, her eyes tightly shut. Steed leaned over and kissed her temple.
“Go away Steed,” she muttered, then, waking a little bit, added, “Or come to bed. But let me sleep.”
“I’ll join you in a bit,” he replied as he withdrew from the bed. She was asleep before he left the room.
Steed went back downstairs and telephoned various ministry departments, issuing orders to have the restaurant checked out and more research done on organized tomb robbing in Egypt. He checked in with Interrogation and learned that his man, after four hours of sporadic demands for his name, had risen and paced around the table, then sat back down. He ordered the recording stopped and the room darkened.
He was briefly interrupted in his tasks by the agent sent to collect the car keys. When he felt that enough wheels were in motion he telephoned Siobhan to check on John. More than an hour had passed when he returned to the bedroom and quietly undressed down to his underwear. He removed the now warm icepack, which had fallen away from Emma’s arm when she moved in her sleep, and climbed into the bed with her. He knew she’d been very tired after a nearly sleepless night, but he felt that an hour’s nap ought to have revived her enough to indulge him.
Emma thought she was dreaming the touch of warm flesh, the secure feeling of Steed’s arms holding her to his powerful chest. She snaked her arm around her dream lover and felt his deliciously aroused groin against hers. When his lips brushed her neck she sighed contentedly and lifted her top leg to wrap it around his thigh. As his mouth made a gentle trail across her throat and up to her lips she realized that he was real, not a dream, and her body’s responses to his could be indulged. She found his hand with hers and drew it over her t-shirt across her ribs to her breast. She felt him smile, his lips against her cheek, as he ran his thumb over her nipple where it tented the thin fabric.
With languorous ease she slid her hands across his shoulders and back, stroking smooth flesh and scars, feeling muscle and bone beneath the skin. In two years he’ll be fifty, she thought as she caressed his firm buttocks through his briefs. Will I ever need someone else to fulfill me? I can’t imagine it.
He made love to her slowly, carefully — almost lazily. He nuzzled her breasts through her t-shirt, the fabric making it more deeply erotic than bare flesh. She slipped her hand inside his briefs to first stroke his firm ass and then gradually work around to the front where his manhood waited thick and hot. She left it after a single slow stroke, too much enjoying his kisses to hurry fierce arousal so soon.
He slipped his hand under the hem of her t-shirt and stroked her stomach and ribs, coming close with his fingertips to her sensitive breasts, but refraining, nibbling instead through the shirt until she ached for his direct touch. She inhaled a long breath and rolled him onto his back. He went willingly, peering up at her expectantly. Straddling him, she grasped the hem of her shirt with both hands and pulled it off over her head. Her hair fell wildly around her shoulders and as she raised her hands to smooth it he reached up to fondle her breasts, grinning salaciously at her wantonness.
She leaned over him, holding herself up with both hands planted above his shoulders to give him room to keep fondling her as she bent her face to his. Her kisses were deep and needy, drawing energy from him even as she fed their passion. Leaning on her right hand she used her left to draw designs on his bare chest, circling first one nipple and then the other, stroking the damaged flesh of puckered scars as lovingly as the rest. His hands wandered all over her, fingers tangling in her hair, then slipping along her ribs and around her waist. They slipped inside her panties at the back, tickling her ass and sending a shiver of lustful need up her spine. She stretched out on top of him, breasts to chest, mouth to mouth, ceding control to him so that he could roll her back and rise above her. Her legs parted and he settled in between them. He returned to his former lazy pace, exploring her with his mouth, punctuating his kisses with thrusts of his still clothed loins that hinted at the heat and power coiled there, building, waiting to be freed. She bent her legs up to cradle him and savor the feel of his presence at her center.
She ached for his touch there, the flicker-quick strokes of his fingers, his cool mouth and warm breath, his slick, hot cock the focus of her deepest, building desire. She tucked her fingers into his briefs at the back and pushed them down over his ass, signaling that she wanted intimate contact. He smiled, his mouth on hers, his grey eyes glowing with desire just behind the pleasure at her clear request. He loved that she wanted him, that she openly admitted her need. There had never been games between them; even when they’d both refused to give voice to what they knew in their hearts, they had been open in everything else. They knew no shame in their intimacy. What one wished to try, the other would accept. If the experiment went wrong, they laughed it off and returned to their favorite positions and techniques.
Steed raised his hips and dragged his briefs down to his thighs with one hand. She reached for him, holding his manhood not possessively, but reverently, stroking it with renewed wonder at the power such a simple, almost frivolous bit of flesh wielded. He moaned with gratitude and rolled off of her, flopping onto his back, one knee bent to angle his groin toward her. She understood his request and continued to stroke him.
“Play gently,” he cautioned needlessly, one hand behind his head, watching her. She half sat, leaning on her right hand, caressing him with her left. Her gentle touch sent bolts of lightening shivering through his whole body. He was at her mercy as she stroked his swollen scrotum and drew circles on the tip of his penis with her thumb. She smeared the dribble of early cum over his shaft, then, turning to look into his eyes, she sucked the semen from her thumb. He gasped as she pressed her thumb to the tip again, wiping off another small surge of semen. She brought it to his lips and he sucked it, unembarrassed at the taste of it, at the idea of it.
“Tell me what you want,” he sighed, stroking the side of her breast with one hand, the other still behind his head.
“I wanted to sleep,” she quipped with a smirk, stroking his shaft again, but faster and with more pressure.
“And now?” he prodded, his eyes slipping shut and his hips rising on their own to her touch. He groaned softly as she released him. She shifted away from him and he forced his eyes open to look at her. She was removing her underpants, and when she had tossed them to the floor she turned to him and dragged his down his legs and off.
“I want you naked,” she said.
“And I am.”
“I want to ride you.” She suited action to words, straddling him on her hands and knees, centering herself over his penis. He reached between her legs and parted the lips there, drawing his fingers through the dampness, and smiling at the way she thrust her hips toward his hand and threw her head back. He stroked her three, four, five times – quick, hard strokes that generated a hot gush of moisture. She pressed herself down onto him in a single stroke, engulfing him to her core as she reared up. She threw her hands behind herself, grasping his thighs as he bucked beneath her. He tickled her with his fingertips as she rode him, distracting himself from reaching orgasm too soon. He was capable of great endurance, of enormous control, but sometimes, when she was particularly aggressive or blatantly hungry it was difficult to hold back. But those were the times she needed him most, and longest.
So he rode the edge while she wriggled against him and ground into him and cried out as her loins flooded with a shuddering, female orgasm. She leaned forward, hands on his shoulders, gasping at the intensity of it, and he smiled up at her, holding her upper arms, waiting for her to decide what she wanted next. How he loved to grant her carnal whims, to leave her so sated she’d never consider looking elsewhere for fulfillment.
She panted, her breath caressing his face along with her hair. He was still solid within her, but he knew she wanted a change.
“Lie down,” he told her, disengaging from her as he rolled her to the mattress. He lifted her legs, nearly folding her in half and leaving her completely exposed. He reentered her with three sharp strokes that made her cry out – a thin, animal sound. He moved inside of her, buried deep, churning her flesh in a way that he knew drove her past orgasm to a state of nearly perfect bliss. He saw her reach it, felt her loins shudder around him and tighten as if trying to hold him still. So he stopped and waited, watching her until she breathed again, a sharp inhale followed by a long exhale, and another gasp as he pulled out as quickly as he’d come, a trail of her own ejaculation flowing from her. He released her legs and she lowered them. Still breathing heavily she eyed him as he hovered over her.
“You’re not done,” she said.
“Not by a long shot,” he agreed wickedly. She smiled equally evilly. “Roll over.”
She complied, suddenly burning for this least intimate but instantly satisfying position. He held her buttocks and tilted her, aiming and entering her in a long, slow stroke where she had expected a sharp thrust. By the time he was completely sheathed within her she was moaning loudly, her hands grasping fists-full of down-filled pillow. When he withdrew and thrust again, harder this time, she nearly yelled, then giggled at herself, at how utterly satisfying this was, and pressed her face into the pillows.
Steed held her hips and thrust again and again, smiling too at her total abandonment. This was how they made love when she was pregnant. She wanted to be pregnant — maybe this was the way. He kept thrusting, his sensitive flesh beginning to ache, his mind swirling with the confusing notion of getting her pregnant because she was pregnant already. And then his thoughts degenerated to the mental picture of them, of being the magnificent animal implied by his name, of mounting her, possessing her, marking her with his manhood. And when he came he was that beast spending itself on the creature he cared for the most in all the world. He drove forward into her, pressing her deep into the pillows, crushing his balls between them until it hurt but he didn’t care.
Panting and sore he leaned over her and felt her collapse beneath him. He shifted to the side and they lay spooned together feeling one another’s heart beats gradually slow. After a long while Steed lay back to let the air cool his hot, moist flesh. Emma turned onto her back as well, then onto her side facing him. She played one finger lightly over his chest and he rolled his head to look at her.
“Let’s stay here tonight,” she said, her tone so full of suggestion he felt a spark of renewed arousal.
“Vixen,” was all he could manage in reply. She smiled victoriously and rolled away from him, stretching across the bed to pick up the telephone that was on the nightstand. “Who are you calling?” he asked.
“John is fine. I checked.”
“To see if the vet called about Sullivan,” she countered, then paused and glared at him. “Did you already tell her we were staying here?”
He tried to look contrite, but couldn’t manage it. “I might have suggested it.”
Emma snorted, clearly considering hitting him with a pillow.
“And the vet did call, by the way.”
Now she did pick up a pillow and smack him across the chest with it. He caught it and moved it to the far side of the bed.
“What did he say?”
“That he doesn’t think Sullivan has a head injury, and that he’s looking much better. He’s ready to come home.”
“You mean ready to come back to our house,” Emma corrected, lifting the receiver to her ear. Steed decided not to respond to her correction. She paused for a moment, concentrating, and then dialed a number. Steed smiled fondly: she had an impressive, and useful, memory for numbers.
He got up and went into the bathroom while Emma spoke to Sullivan’s vet, making arrangements for him to stay one more night.
“All arranged?” Steed asked when he came back. Emma had pulled up the covers and taken a book from the drawer in the nightstand. It was, Steed knew, one of several she kept around the apartment and picked up whenever she was here. She might go for weeks not reading any of them, but she could start up mid-page in any of them and know where she was in the narrative.
“I couldn’t ask Siobhan to manage John and also go get Sullivan,” she replied. “So he’s staying there another night.”
“Poor little bugger must think he’s being abandoned again,” Steed mused, climbing back into bed and burrowing headfirst under the covers.
Emma yelped as he buried his face in the russet hair between her thighs, but then she sighed throatily and parted her legs to him.
“You’re insatiable,” he said, planting kisses all over the insides of her thighs.
“So are you,” she sighed, letting her book drop to the floor from limp fingers.
Sally inhaled the warm, buttery aroma as she entered the pastry shop and bent to look in the display case. Tara had broken with tradition and asked for a miniature tarte tatin, while Sally was desperate for something chocolate. As the shop girl packaged her choices Sally looked around the shop, which included a pair of small tables where patrons sipped fresh coffee with their pastries.
The man she’d peripherally noticed when she entered swiveled on his chair and flashed her a dazzling smile.
“James!” she nearly shouted, then plastered her hands over her mouth. He laughed as he stood up and came to her.
“Hello darling,” he said, putting his hands on her upper arms and bending to kiss first one cheek and then the other. He turned to the shop girl, who was smiling broadly in appreciation of his surprise, and placed a few francs on the counter for Sally’s pastries.
“What are you doing here?” Sally asked as she collected the pink box tied with string, making no attempt to stop him from paying for it. James held the door for her to step outside.
“I was bored at home, so I decided to come find out if you’d been caught in your security breach,” he said. They were walking along the busy sidewalk now: their conversation in English was ignored by the other pedestrians.
“It wasn’t a breach!” Sally protested. “It was an accident.”
“An accidental breach then,” he compromised with a grin. “You returned it successfully?”
“Yes. It was a good thing, too,” Sally replied, thinking back on Tara’s reprimand. “I had made a serious mistake the night before, so finding the letter made up for it, partially.”
Sally told him about her failure to follow the German agent onto the train and his subsequent murder. She had been going over and over that evening in her mind. It was her first error that had such severe consequences. She was not so naive as to blame herself for the agent’s death – he was a spy who knew the risks of his chosen profession, and she may not have been able to prevent it even if she’d been following him – but she did regret missing the opportunity to apprehend the murderer, or at least identify him. If she’d only put aside her exhaustion and gotten on the train she would probably have gained Tara’s respect instead of being chastised.
She could tell from the way James nodded without comment that he agreed with Tara: she had screwed up. But he wasn’t her supervisor. He might find a way to help her learn from the error, but he wouldn’t rebuke her. As they approached the Embassy gates she slowed down, hating to end their visit but not wanting to attract the attention inevitable with bringing him inside.
He stopped and lifted her free hand to his lips impulsively.
“Can you get away early?” he asked, his long lashes fluttering over his blue eyes flirtatiously.
“I’m still doing penance for my mistake,” she replied. The truth was Tara hadn’t said another word about the German, but Sally had imposed her own punishment, putting in extra time doing the background check on the prostitute as well as several ongoing investigations.
“Ask for a commuted sentence,” James urged her. She could not stop the smile that formed on her lips. “I want to treat you to dinner.”
“I’ll try,” she conceded.
“I’ll be at your place,” he said with a wink, then he strode off before she could ask him how he intended to get in.
“I know the timing isn’t the best, darling, but I so want Nancy and Kevin to have an opportunity to meet properly,” Emma said over her coffee cup the next morning. “I think setting off the security system has adequately discouraged the Egyptians from trying to get to us at home, so we should be able to entertain undisturbed.”
“It’s Lord Eric I’m concerned about,” Steed replied.
“You mean, why haven’t they gone after him?”
Emma studied him in silence for a moment. “Perhaps they have,” she suggested.
Steed contemplated the idea for a moment then shrugged slightly.
“I suppose if we knew what was in the tomb that the clues are about, maybe we could figure out his motivation. I find myself suspecting him of something, but without more information I don’t know what, and can’t substantiate it.”
Emma couldn’t either, and despite several hours of sleep, she did not feel especially rested. She picked up a section of newspaper folded to the crossword puzzle.
“Besides which,” Steed went on, “Nancy and Kevin have met – at our wedding and the anniversary party.” If he was disappointed at her failure to contribute to the case he did not let on.
“Not properly, darling. I checked with both of them, and they barely remember one another,” Emma replied, glad to let him change back to the original subject.
“Are you match-making, Mrs. Peel?”
Emma smiled enigmatically. “Do you disagree that they might get along?”
“Nooo,” he said speculatively. “But I so hate to be involved if they don’t.”
“Coward,” Emma smirked.
Steed ignored her taunt, finishing his buttered toast in two crumby bites before washing it down with a gulp of coffee.
“In a hurry?’ Emma asked, eyeing him as he rose and brushed the crumbs from his lapels. “I was thinking of going back to bed.”
Steed paused to shoot her an appraising look, clearly wondering if she was serious. She had awakened him before the early summer dawn to make love again, and then gotten up after a short rest and vanished into the shower. He’d gone back to sleep, grateful for a woman who let him behave like a sloth when he felt like it, and eventually come downstairs to find her breakfasting on coffee, toast, and the newspaper, which she must have gone out for.
“Don’t be a tease, Mrs. Peel,” he said, carrying his coffee cup to the sink. He glanced over his shoulder to see her insouciant smile. “Besides, there’s our intruder to be dealt with. I’m hoping he’s had time to reconsider his obstinacy.”
“You’re going to the ministry then?”
“Yes. But I promise to be back at the house by mid-afternoon. Will that be acceptable for our evening plans?”
Emma rose in a fluid motion and crossed to him as he turned away from the sink. She brushed the last of the crumbs off his lapels then slid her hands up to his shoulders, smiling into his eyes.
“Of course it is, darling,” she purred. “I’ll be at Knight this morning myself. Nancy and Kevin are invited for seven.” She brushed a delicate kiss across his lips and leaned away to smile into his eyes. “Will you let me know if you learn anything interesting?”
“Count on it,” he held her close for a moment, sensing a sudden, puzzling vulnerability in her. “I love you,” he whispered into her ear before pressing a kiss on her cheek and then pulling away. He was physically sated, and he was sure she was too. But the temptation to stretch out with her on the sofa and read, or set up a chessboard, was strong.
He saw appreciation in her smile as he turned to the back door, and he knew that for some reason she’d wanted to hear those words from him this morning. He slipped out, the eternal puzzle of women, and of one in particular, soon supplanted in his busy mind by the more urgent puzzle of Lord Eric’s secret tomb.
At the sound of a pleasant chime Siobhan shifted John onto her hip and stepped into the small room off of the kitchen where the surveillance monitors were located. A medium sized sedan waited outside of the gate, the driver, a woman, peering curiously at the camera. Siobhan pressed the intercom button.
“Good evening, may I help you?” she asked, although she knew it was Emma’s friend Miss Belmont.
“Nancy Belmont – I’m invited to dinner?”
“Drive in,” Siobhan replied, pressing the button to open the gate. She watched the monitor as Miss Belmont drove through and the gates closed behind her car. Then she adjusted John on her hip again and carried him through the house to the front door. She got there just as their guest was getting out of her car.
“Good evening Siobhan, isn’t it?” Nancy asked as she came up the front steps.
“Yes, good evening Miss Belmont. If you’d like to wait in the parlor I’ll just go tell the Steeds that you’re here.” Siobhan gestured toward the formal parlor, but Nancy was distracted by John’s wide-eyed stare.
“He’s bigger and brighter every time I see him,” she said, shaking John’s hand with one finger. “Good evening John.”
“Nancy!” Emma’s cheerful voice filled the foyer from the upstairs landing. “Thank you Siobhan,” she added, coming down the stairs. Siobhan nodded, gently disengaging John’s hand from Nancy’s finger as the guest turned her attention to her hostess. She slipped back to the kitchen with the baby, understanding her mistress’s silent instructions perfectly. Emma wanted to visit with her friend as adults, not with baby John the center of attention. Siobhan admired her employers’ ability to keep their family life private, and she was certain that while guests like Miss Belmont liked to meet young John, they appreciated having their hosts’ full attention.
Emma guided Nancy into the formal front parlor and pulled the cork out of the top of an already opened bottle of claret.
“Steed’s in his study – I told him he could have another ten minutes then he had to come socialize.”
“I wouldn’t want to take him from his work – I’m sure it’s important.”
“Oh he’s not working,” Emma said with wry humor, “He’s going over his fantasy cricket team.”
“His what?” Nancy’s brows rose in inquiry as she took the glass of wine Emma offered her.
“Fantasy cricket team. He and a bunch of the others at Whitehall construct fantasy teams based on real players – you know, ‘what if such and such bowler were teamed with this striker on a rival team?’ They try different combinations that aren’t possible in real life.”
“But how is it possible in this ‘fantasy?’ I mean, so they create a team roster, then what? Do they have fantasy games?”
“They determine how good each team is based on their cumulative statistics, which are based on the real player’s performance, which changes constantly.”
“Good heavens!” Nancy took a long sip of her wine and shook her head. “That sounds far too complicated to bother with.”
“You would think,” Emma nodded with a grin. “But at the end of the season the best team, statistically, wins a prize – they pay to participate. It’s a lot of number crunching. I’ve half a mind to have someone program a computer to do it.”
“Could you do that? It seems awfully complex.”
“Precisely the point – a computer would cut the calculation time in half –.”
“Started already?” Steed interrupted her, striding into the parlor with a welcoming smile for Nancy. Emma rose to get him a glass of wine as he greeted their guest.
“Emma was just telling me about your cricket team,” Nancy said.
“Yes, darling, how are they doing?” Emma asked, her tone more than a little teasing.
“My bowlers are weak,” Steed replied in all seriousness, “which hurts all the more as that’s my personal forte.”
“Oh well,” Emma handed him his wine and sat back down, “at least it takes up less space than toy soldiers or trains.”
She paused to study Steed’s devious expression. “You’re going to set up a train for John, aren’t you?”
“The thought had crossed my mind,” he admitted with such an impish grin Emma had to smile back. In fact he had already selected one of the larger storage rooms in the basement for his and John’s train room, and he thought Emma ought to be glad he had not selected a guest bedroom instead. But there was no need to go into that now.
“Excuse me,” Siobhan stood in the doorway, “Mr. Wycoff has just come through the gate.”
“Thank you Siobhan. We’ll let him in when he rings,” Emma said. The nanny nodded and disappeared again.
“So Nancy, how is life at the gallery now you’re in charge?” Steed asked, taking advantage of the interruption to change the subject. He could tell from the look in Emma’s eyes that she knew exactly what he was doing.
Nancy was happy to discuss her new business while Emma rose and went to the front door, opening it just as Kevin Wycoff reached it. He greeted her with a peck on the cheek and a bundle of fresh flowers.
“Hello Steed!” He said in his typically enthusiastic manner as Emma guided him into the parlor. Steed rose to shake his hand, then directed his attention to Nancy.
“Kevin Wycoff, you remember Nancy Belmont?”
Wycoff shook Nancy’s hand, which she extended from a seated position. “Yes of course – but alas until now we have not really had an opportunity to speak.”
“It’s lovely to see you again, Mr. Wycoff,” Nancy replied.
“Call me Kevin, please, or you’ll confuse me,” he settled on the sofa with her, body angled toward hers, knobby knees seeming to reach half way across the room. His hair was in typical disarray although he had clearly applied copious amounts of pomade in an attempt to control it. Steed poured Kevin a glass of wine and exchanged an amused look with Emma as their two guests engaged in avid conversation. Kevin, who Emma had subtly coached, asked Nancy about the gallery, and Nancy, also coached, inquired after his campaign to protect African elephants in the wild by eliminating the demand for ivory. After a few minutes Emma excused herself to go make final dinner preparations, shooting Steed a smug grin as she left.
She served dinner at one end of the long dining room table. Nancy and Kevin were seated together on the side facing the French doors so that, Emma insisted, they could enjoy the view of the garden in the long summer twilight. Their proximity seated side-by-side was a pleasant side benefit. Their dinner conversation was a continuation of the discussion over drinks of Kevin’s ongoing efforts to eliminate the international ivory trade. When the topic had been thoroughly explored Steed subtly steered them back to Nancy’s gallery by mentioning that he’d helped Emma box up several paintings for her the other day and asking if she wanted to take them. Emma pressed her knee to his under the table in tacit thanks for keeping the focus on their guests.
Kevin insisted on helping Emma clear the dishes, and while they were making trips between the kitchen and dining room Nancy asked Steed about polo and the status of Lord Eric’s team. She knew of Hal Hanson’s death, but not of the colonel’s recent passing. When she asked if the charity match would be the last event for Lord Eric’s Blue Lightening Steed remembered that he’d seen a listing for highlights of the match being televised that evening. By the time Emma had prepared a tray with coffee things and another with slices of chocolate cake Steed and Nancy had relocated to the family sitting room where the television resided.
Kevin helped Emma carry the trays in, pausing while Steed removed a stack of books from a cocktail table to make room. Steed set the books on the floor beside the sofa, and when Kevin had put down the tray he sat down and reached for the top volume.
“Planning a trip?” he asked, holding up the book, which claimed to describe all of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings in great detail. Steed had returned to the television and was making minor adjustments to the antenna at Nancy’s instruction. Emma smiled at the book as she sat down across from Kevin and reached for the coffee pot.
“No, just some research,” she explained cryptically enough, she hoped, to convey the confidential nature of her project. Kevin settled back on the sofa and began flipping through the book.
“It’s a fascinating place – you know I spent several years there attached to the foreign office?” at this last he looked back up at Emma, who met his gaze with open curiosity.
“I’d forgotten,” she nodded. She was torn between quizzing him about the royal tombs and squashing the conversation before she let something slip that she should not. But the choice wasn’t hers, it seemed.
“There are some fascinating mysteries there – the ancients seemed to thrive on intrigue. The archaeologists working while I was there were a fascinating lot, too. As eccentric as they come, some of them,” he chuckled to himself over some memory.
Nancy had settled into a nearby armchair angled to watch the television while Steed fetched her coffee and cake from the trays. He paused at Kevin’s words.
“You associated with them?” he asked. His tone was casual but Emma saw the intensity in his eyes.
“Certainly. There was a limited supply of intelligent English speakers – probably still the case there. Of course, most of them were in the Valley working for long stretches, but one or another would usually be over in Luxor for supplies or what have you.”
“Did you visit the Valley?” Emma asked, shooting Steed a look that entreated him to stop hovering and sit back down. Whether he saw it or not that’s what he did, handing Nancy her coffee and cake, retrieving his own, and then settling on an ottoman facing the television. Emma wasn’t fooled; he was listening intently to Kevin even while watching the start of the polo match.
“Oh sure,” Kevin went on, “some of them wouldn’t let one near their digs, but others were very open. Showed me the odd coffin and mummy, some fabulous golden statuary with jewels and beads, and tons and tons of dust. I don’t think I could have worked in that environment myself. It takes a special breed.” He paused to look closely at Emma. She raised one brow in inquiry, unable to guess what he was implying. “You aren’t thinking of a new career, are you Emma?”
Emma’s initial reaction was relief, so her smile and chuckle were genuine. Only as Kevin chuckled as well did she consider the notion that she was planning to go to Egypt and play archaeologist. Once they had all of the clues to the mystery tomb.
“No Kevin. Nor planning a trip. But you are certainly making me have second thoughts.”
“Well, if you go you should try to arrange for a private tour – no doubt you or Steed can pull some strings to get some government funded scientist to show you around where the public isn’t allowed. Just keep out of those dark, smoky coffee houses in Luxor. I had some strange experiences.”
Emma knew she should steer Kevin back to the Valley and whatever details he could tell them, but he was a natural storyteller and she couldn’t resist hearing whatever yarn he wanted to spin.
“One night, I was tucked into a dim corner in one of the more sl – well, second rate – cafes. I’d lost several hands in a card game and just wanted to be alone to lick my wounds over one of their thick, sweet coffees. There was a group of Brits across the room – officers and embassy men like me, and one of the archaeologists – big fellow, always sweating profusely. That’s the only thing I can remember about him. Hard to tell who the others were through the smoke and dark. I didn’t pay much attention. But then the archaeologist brought one of the men across the room to a table on the other side of a mashrabiya – one of those carved dividers they use so much there. I was sitting in the dark, so he obviously thought they were alone.
“The archaeologist leans close and tells his friend that he must never tell anyone what he’s about to hear, until he knows that he’s going to die – and only then. Well then I got interested, of course. He told the man this short phrase and made him repeat it. And made him swear never to write it down or reveal it to anyone except to pass it along upon his death. The others would do the same to protect the secrets of the tomb.”
Emma’s mind was reeling, but she forced herself to focus and retain a casual tone. “What was the phrase? Some sort of secret password?” she asked with a curious smile.
“Let me think,” Kevin sipped his coffee and glanced at the television just as Lord Eric drove the polo ball through the opposing goal. Kevin’s eyes narrowed for a moment, then widened. He cleared his throat and sat up straighter. Emma knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had made a connection between the figure on the television and the men in the café years ago. She struggled to keep her expression impassive as he turned his gaze on her. But then he seemed to reach a decision.
“I remember,” he said. “It was ‘Twenty-three paces from Min bow to Manu.’ Nonsense, huh?” He looked again at the television. Emma followed his glance and saw Steed on Honey making a reverse at full speed. Steed’s gaze flicked to her face, the corners of his mouth curling almost imperceptibly.
“Proud of that move, eh Steed?” Kevin asked.
“Yes, in fact,” Steed replied, redirecting his gaze to his friend. “Honey is a most extraordinary horse.”
“Lucky you, to have such extraordinary females in your life.”
“He is, isn’t he?” Emma put in quickly.
“It’s settled then, I’ll follow you – just to be sure you don’t break down on these dark country roads,” Kevin said, his eyes on Nancy’s sweet smile.
“That’s very considerate of you Kevin,” she replied, even if she thought he was being overly gallant. He and Steed had loaded Emma’s paintings into the back seat of Nancy’s car, and he had apparently decided that her cargo was too valuable to risk driving alone to the highway.
Steed and Emma watched from the front doorway as Kevin handed her into her car and went to his own. The two cars started and Nancy headed down the drive in the lead. The pressure sensor buried in the drive would open and close the gate automatically.
Emma shut the creaking front door and turned to face Steed with her back against it. She was still buzzing with excitement over Kevin’s unintended revelation. Victory – successfully putting the clues together – was within their grasp and she was feeling the usual tingle of desire that always accompanied the successful conclusion of a case. Never mind that the case was not completely closed, she wanted Steed now.
“You bolt the door,” he said, his own exultant expression thinly veiled by mock seriousness. “I’ll set the alarm.”
Emma’s eyes locked on his, her expression also serious as she slid the bolt home behind her. “Meet you in the bedroom,” she said pointedly, heading for the stairs as he went to the alarm control panel by the door.
He caught her half way up, one hand on her shoulder, the other at her waist. She stopped and turned.
“You are remarkably sexy when you’re feeling victorious,” he purred, his face turned up to her from one step below. “But we’ve still to figure out how the clues fit together,” he added.
She lowered her face to his, one hand tangling into his hair as she kissed him greedily. He responded in kind, his arguments easily overwhelmed by her open need for him. She ended the kiss, her knowing eyes drawing him to follow her as she turned and continued up the stairs.
At the nursery doorway she paused, leaning in around the jamb to look at John asleep in his crib. Siobhan had brought him in while Nancy and Kevin were still there for a round of goodnight kisses, and they’d heard him fussing afterwards. But Emma had steeled herself, knowing that he would eventually drift off and that her going to him would only reinforce the behavior. Now she regretted not coming to tuck him in, but she did not dare hug him for fear of waking him.
Steed placed his hands on her shoulders and pressed his face to the side of her head.
“He’s amazing, isn’t he?” he whispered. Emma nodded, pressing against Steed’s warm, solid body.
“Let’s get back to work on his sister,” she whispered back, then took his hand and led him on down the hall to their room.
“Your breasts are so full,” Steed sighed a while later, cupping one gently. They had undressed one another between kisses and touches, carefully nurturing their growing desire. Now he was lying naked on their bed, one knee raised comfortably. Emma sat over him, her legs curled to one side, lightly stroking his chest and stomach.
“I’m retaining water,” she said with a small smirk. His eyes widened in silent puzzlement. “I thought you had a natural aversion to any observation of my cycle,” she added with just enough bitterness that he understood – if her period was eminent then she was not pregnant. Although he was pleased that she had embraced the idea of having another child, he hated to see her fret about it not happening immediately.
“So I’m about to be subjected to a few days of crankiness?” he teased, stroking his thumb over her taut nipple. She shut her eyes and inhaled a sharp breath, her lips parting slightly as a wave of desire took her.
“Before that, it has an entirely different effect on me,” she replied, opening her eyes to look down at him with an openly wanton expression.
He stroked her nipple again, watching her uncontrolled response with satisfaction. Although he did indeed avoid any acknowledgement of her monthly cycle, he was well aware of its effects on her. In addition to the small physical changes and moodiness, in the days leading up to it her libido was always at its strongest. The mere knowledge that she was feeling so now made him buzz with anticipation.
“Fill me John,” she breathed, stretching out half on top of him, one leg sliding in between his, “I need you inside of me.”
His erection, already deliciously solid, throbbed against her hip. He used his hands and body to roll her onto her back and rise above her, smothering her surprised gasp with hungry kisses.
“Hold me,” he hissed, guiding one of her hands to his member. She wrapped her long, strong fingers around him, and he slipped his own through the curls between her thighs into the moist folds concealed there. She moaned at his touch, her legs parting to him as her loins flooded with the proof of her arousal. As his fingers drew delicious fire to her most private places he lowered his face to her full breasts, suckling her to harden first one aching nipple and then the other. She writhed beneath him lost in her own need as series of small shudders made her gasp, her head rolling from side to side. As the waves of pleasure subsided she began to stroke him, gently at first and then harder, deft fingers passing over the most sensitive spot near the tip of his shaft to smear the drops of his essence clinging there.
“Fill me John,” she asked again, one leg rising to wrap around his waist. She released him as he shifted over her and bent his head to take her mouth with his. He plunged into her, acceding to her request with his entire being. She shifted beneath him, so that with each slow thrust he penetrated deeper into her throbbing, aching center. Her tongue caressed his, fanning the flames of his passion with grasping, openmouthed kisses.
They moved together as one, the pace of their thrusts increasing until Steed lifted himself on stiff arms above her and they both breathed in moaning gasps as he thrust in and out as fast as he could. And in a moment, almost before they realized it was coming, their joined climax carried them outward together, hurling them beyond consciousness to cling to one another in the naked ecstasy of utter fulfillment.
“I really don’t understand how it got there, though,” Sally was saying as she held up her hair so that James could zip her dress. He smoothed the shoulders with both hands and leaned down to kiss the exposed back of her neck.
“It couldn’t have been mixed in with other papers?”
“I didn’t take home any – I haven’t taken work home in weeks, actually,” she admitted with a rueful shrug.
“No shame in that,” James smiled, “I loathe paperwork. But if you didn’t put the letter in your bag, then someone else must have. Have you made enemies already?”
“I didn’t think so,” Sally shook her head as she crossed the room to retrieve her evening bag. The puzzle of the letter in her bag had begun to nag at her again. James was the only one she could safely discuss it with.
“The secretaries resent both me and Tara,” she went on as they strolled along the sidewalk a few minutes later.
A few days ago James had settled into her tiny apartment like a big housecat, kissing her goodbye in the morning and greeting her with affectionate caresses when she returned. He told her he spent the days visiting museums that he rarely had time for, shopping – confirmed by several presents for her – and “checking in” with various contacts in the city. She was increasingly aware of just how small her apartment was, and also of how well they got along together in it. That surprised her, and it also pleased her immensely.
When she’d gotten home last night he’d greeted her stark naked with chilled champagne and a pair of invitations to this evening’s embassy party. She’d known what to do with the champagne and him. It was the invitations that had concerned her. So far since their move into the embassy she had only been to two formal functions, both times when she’d been recruited to help with surveillance of suspected foreign agents. Tonight she was attending as a guest on the arm of an MI-6 agent. James’s very presence in the embassy would require that Robbie McCall also be there – Steed had charged him with monitoring Six’s activities in Paris. And if Robbie was to be there, Tara probably would be too. Sally was torn between fear of what Tara would say to her in the morning and smug pleasure at attending as a guest.
“Have you looked at the secretary’s files?” James asked, stopping her at a corner where the traffic light had just changed.
“I did. They’re very clean – loyal Britons to the core.”
James nodded, his head swiveling from side to side to watch the traffic.
“Who else then?”
Sally sighed as they crossed the broad avenue.
“It’s odd, you know? The letter went missing and then turned up in my bag a few days later. This presentation plate of Robbie’s also disappeared and was found where it shouldn’t be. The other day Miss Mansell said her lunch was missing.”
“You have a petty thief, or a prankster,” James suggested.
“I’m beginning to think that some surveillance is in order.”
“I can help.”
Sally shot him a sidelong look and caught his enthusiastic grin.
“I think I’ll have to tell Tara. I’m sure it isn’t her, and I’ll need her help.”
Bond wore a conspiratorial grin as he made his way through the crowd of guests carrying two champagne flutes. In the short time that he’d been off getting their drinks Sally had been approached by Tara and Robbie and two embassy staff who seemed to think she’d crashed. Tara and her husband had the good grace not to question her overtly, but the other two – petty functionaries who took it upon themselves to police the guests at such events – were being less gentile. Bond insinuated himself into the group and handed Sally her glass.
“Here you are darling. Good evening Tara, McCall, Ryan, and Smythe, isn’t it?” he said, working his way around the group.
“Good evening James,” Tara drawled, eyes flicking from his face to Sally’s as her lips curled in a knowing smile.
“Bond,” Ryan said curtly, nostrils flaring ever so slightly. “Didn’t know you were in town.”
James inclined his head in silence, questioning Ryan’s impertinence for even considering tracking his movements.
“You know his type, Paul,” Smythe said, “Always turning up when you least expect them. Rather like Miss Howard here, I suppose.”
Sally struggled to retain her composure, which had slipped a few notches but was holding steady since James’s return. Of course much of the embassy staff knew they were spies. Only the clumsy ones actually mentioned it. She made a mental note that Symthe was one of them, which made him a danger.
“There’s Lord Jeremy Asbury,” Ryan said, looking across the room. “I need to have a word with him about the Egyptian manifest. Please do excuse me.”
“Yes, I’ll join you,” Smythe added with a nod to the rest.
When they were gone Sally inhaled a deep breath.
“You might have said you were coming, Sally,” Tara said. “We could have stayed home.”
“Yes, we only came because of –,” McCall stopped mid-sentence and looked sheepishly toward Bond. James adopted a guilty expression.
“Because of me, McCall?”
“Well, er –,” Robbie winced evocatively.
Bond went on before he could. “I know you’re under orders to keep track of what we do here,” he said. “I’ll save you the trouble this time – it’s strictly a social visit. I’m officially on leave – you can check with Moneypenny if you like.”
“No need for that Bond,” McCall said with an adopted air of stuffiness. Your word is good enough! I hear the dance band starting – Tara, as long as we’re here, shall we?”
Tara shot a wide-eyed, slightly amused glance at Sally as she allowed her husband to escort her away. Bond emitted a low, nearly menacing chuckle.
“Foolish mistake, taking me at my word,” he muttered.
“James!” Sally chastised him, but he shrugged and sipped his champagne.
“We’re all loyal to our masters, Sally. They’re the only ones who can take us at our word.”
Sally considered this for a moment as they both ignored the sudden awkwardness — after all, they reported to separate masters — by surveying the other guests.
“You can take me at my word, James. I wouldn’t lie to you.”
“Are you certain?”
“I’m certain that if I were ordered to do something that is contrary to your goals I would tell you. I would do it, but I would tell you,” she said. She knew that the requirements of their work were far more complicated, and her loyalties were bound to be tested in much more challenging ways. But she was sincere in her belief that she could be honest with James. After all, Steed had advised her to cultivate an ally in the service, knowing that James would be her choice. She didn’t really expect the same from him, but she would have liked to hear him say it. It was not to be, at least not just then.
“Look at that,” James said, placing one hand on her upper arm to direct her gaze across the room.
“The Ambassador’s son Ralph,” Sally said.
“Is that a monkey on his shoulder?”
“Yes. His pet, presented to him by a visitor from Panama. Poor little thing is probably miserable here.”
“Or bored,” James replied thoughtfully. “Shall we dance?”
“Colonel Wilson’s clue tells us where the secret tomb is and how to open the door,” Emma set a three- by five-inch card in front of her on the dining room table. Across from her Steed read the clue written on the card.
“It’s more of instruction, really,” he observed, placing next to it a card with “Colonel Wilson” and “Mike Gambit” written on it.
Emma shot him an impatient look and set another card on the table.
“Hal Hanson’s puzzle — the only clue that really was a puzzle, by the way – has to be a specific instruction once you’re inside. Probably to disarm a trap.”
“Probably the most dangerous one,” Steed said.
“Because of the puzzle?”
He nodded and added a card with Hal Hanson and his own names next to the puzzle card. Emma pursed her lips thoughtfully, then nodded agreement. She set her next card on the table.
“Rudy’s Gorelick’s clue is the same type, although not a puzzle. And Lord Eric’s – courtesy of Kevin – seems to be directions once you’re inside.”
Steed added two more cards, one with Rudy and Emma’s names, the other with Eric and Kevin’s.
Emma fanned her remaining cards and selected the one with the name of the known tomb she thought most likely to house the secret tomb. She set it near the first card she’d placed – the one with Colonel Wilson’s clue. She looked again at her remaining cards – the names of the women made widows by this business, the name of the tomb robber captured in their kitchen, the restaurant where they’d been attacked. Even Sullivan the dog had a card, although Steed had thought it frivolous. She set the cards out one by one.
“Four Englishmen, living for various reasons in Egypt, come together in a sleazy Luxor café,” Emma rearranged some of the cards as she spoke. “They meet with an archaeologist,” she pointed to a card with the word on it followed by a question mark. “I wish we knew who he was.”
“Not the archaeologist who last worked on that tomb?” Steed asked, certain that Emma must have followed up on this line of inquiry.
“No. That’s Dr. Hermann Lutz,” Emma tapped a freshly manicured index finger on a card bearing his name. “He was a small, slender man. The archaeologist who Kevin saw in Luxor was obese.”
“And Dr. Lutz is no more?” Steed had caught Emma’s use of the past tense.
She shook her head slowly. “He died in unusual circumstances at the end of the season in 1955 – the last season our tomb was worked.”
“Suspicious circumstances?” Steed asked.
“Extremely,” Emma nodded ominously. “The boat he was crossing the Nile in at night sank and he drowned.”
“Some of those boats are very old.”
“Yes, but by all accounts Dr. Lutz could swim, and the water was calm that night. But he went down with the boat and never came up.”
“And the boatman?”
“The local papers said that he struggled to shore using a soggy cushion for floatation – he claimed that he did not know how to swim. He made a show of distress over the loss of his passenger.”
“Murder,” Steed said. Emma shrugged, a sign of tacit agreement.
“So who is Archaeologist X?” Steed wondered. “And how did he know about the tomb and the clues?”
“An excellent question. Kevin’s rather florid description was singularly lacking in useful details,” Emma said. “However, as a group archaeologists who work in the field tend to be physically fit.”
Steed caught a flicker of a flirtatious smile cross her face and arched one brow pointedly. She grinned at him for providing the expected response.
“So our overweight, overheated man in the sleazy café was not an archaeologist at all, only impersonating one for some reason we have yet to discover,” Steed suggested, disregarding her amusement.
“Perhaps in order to be convincing to the four government men,” Emma said.
“That does not explain motive,” Steed observed.
“What about the tomb robbers?” she said, touching the card with the name of the restaurant, and then the one with the name of their attacker.
“Sent by the mystery archaeologist?”
Emma shook her head, dissatisfied with that explanation.
“Why?” she asked. “They ask the men for their clues before killing them. The fat man told them the clues in the first place.”
“A rival gang.”
“If the fat man represents a gang at all. His goal is – or was — to keep the tomb secret. The tomb robbers have figured out that there is a tomb, that there are clues to it, and who has them.”
“Someone is a traitor.”
“Perhaps,” Emma nodded. She sighed and studied her cards.
Steed watched her quietly for a moment. “So tell me, Madam Emma, what do your cards tell you?” he asked when she leaned back from the table and raised her eyes to him.
She picked up Hal Hanson’s card and held it to her forehead, peering at the ceiling thoughtfully.
“There is a trip to a far off land in our near future,” she said dreamily. “Where danger awaits.”
“I’ll call the airlines,” Steed said eagerly, placing his palms flat on the table to stand up.
“I’ll pack our bags,” Emma replied, collecting her cards.
“You have to admit it’s a bit of a wild theory, Sally,” Tara said, looking from the young woman to Bond, seated at her side. Sally had lured her supervisor out of the Embassy for lunch with Bond. She had outlined her idea – that the missing letter, missing plate, missing lunch, and most recently a mangled plant prized by Miss Constant were all connected. She’d had to admit to her own accidental security breach, but Tara hardly seemed to have noticed.
“Besides,” Tara went on, “what do we care about Miss Mansel’s lunch or Miss Constant’s plant?”
“We don’t, but they’re part of the overall pattern,” Sally replied.
Tara laughed. “Pattern?”
“Whoever is behind these incidents could be distracting us – we’ll begin to ignore strange little events and then he, or she, will commit the real crime and we won’t notice. He or she may already be doing it, whatever it is, and keeping us occupied with the little nuisance thefts.”
“Yes,” Tara drawled, “He – or she – certainly is doing that.”
Sally sighed. She felt like she was arguing with a brick wall. She took a sip of her iced tea and watched Tara watching James. That’s it. I shouldn’t have included him, she realized. Tara won’t be open with me if he’s here.
“Sally wants to put an end to the thief’s career through some basic surveillance,” Bond said. “A few cameras and microphones, some recording equipment, and we’ll catch the little bugger red handed.”
“Just like that?” Tara asked. “We set up surveillance cameras and bug the embassy offices. No one will mind!”
Sally had to admit that, sarcasm aside, Tara had a point.
“Why not?” James asked with a disarming smile. “I’ve put them in much more hostile embassies. The Russians were quite perturbed – far more so than any of our own people are likely to be.”
Sally couldn’t help giggling. Tara shot her an annoyed look while James turned his dazzling smile on her.
“Come on Tara, I can lay my hands on several micro cameras with audio and recorders this afternoon. You and Sally work a little late. I’ll bring it all by and we’ll have it installed in no time. We’ll put the recorder in your office so you have control of the operation.
“Oh no,” Tara shook her head adamantly. “I’m not taking the fall for this one if someone finds out. If we’re kicked out of the Embassy Steed will have someone’s head and it will not be mine. You two play with your cameras, but I’ll disavow all knowledge. Do you understand?”
For all her strong language, Tara seemed to have lightened up about it. She ended with a smile and an amused shake of her head.
“So we can do it,” Sally asked with intentional naiveté.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
“Come in,” Cathy Gale looked up at her office door where a knock had sounded. It opened to reveal the imposing figure of John Steed, immaculate as ever, but attired in tropical kit – tan trousers and shirt under a tan canvas jacket with numerous useful pockets. He carried a khaki felt fedora in his hand
“Hello Steed! This is a surprise.” Cathy rose and came around the desk to shake his extended hand.
“Mrs. Gale, I need an archaeologist,” he said, his eyes twinkling with sly mirth. She eyed him for a moment, then gestured at one of the guest chairs and returned to her own seat.
“Just any archaeologist, or do you have a particular one in mind?” she asked not unkindly. She was too accustomed to his odd requests to take this one at face value and assume he meant her.
“No particular one, but there are certain qualifications,” he nodded genially. “Preferably he – or she – should be located in Egypt.”
“So it’s an Egyptologist you want,” she nodded, not surprised that this visit was related to his and Emma’s previous one. “Planning on doing some pressing of ankhs?”
“Possibly,” he shrugged dismissively, a signal that he would not tell her anything. She was used to that, too. “What we need is someone to help us gain access to a certain tomb near Luxor, and to be sure we don’t damage anything in the process.”
“What process would that be, Steed?” she persisted anyway.
He smiled knowingly. “Well, as you’ve obviously guessed: we’ve acquired the rest of the clues like the one we discussed with you recently. As there are certain unsavory parties determined to get the information from us, we believe our only recourse is to go open the tomb and turn it over to the proper authorities.”
Cathy rested her elbows on her desk and templed her fingers, watching Steed intently. He was the most honest man she knew, and completely ethical when it came to his work. But he was not above a bit of above-board negotiation.
“You realize the season has not started in the Valley of the Kings?” she asked.
Steed’s brow knit imperceptibly and she knew she’d scored a point.
“The heat is almost unbearable. The digs are secured – except the tombs that are open for the tourists. Yours isn’t one of those, is it?”
“No,” Steed shook his head thoughtfully. Cathy watched him thinking.
“So this archaeologist that I supply you, who will procure the necessary permits for you to enter the closed digs, will receive credit for the find?” she said at last. A familiar amused smile flickered across his face and then was replaced with a complacent mask. She renewed her private vow never to play poker with the man.
“I presume you have someone in mind who is attached to this institution?” he asked.
“I do,” she conceded.
“We have no idea what’s inside our secret tomb,” he pointed out. “It could be an elaborate hoax.”
“Or it could be as important as Tutankhamen,” she replied. “If it is, I trust your people will see to it that the discovery is made legitimate.” He smiled again, enjoying their verbal sparring.
“The ministry has no interest in the archaeological aspects of the case. I can arrange the proper cover story should it prove important,” he said. “However, the individuals who seem to be determined to get there first might be of interest to the Egyptian authorities.”
“They’re tomb robbers?”
“Or their ilk. They know of the existence of the secret tomb and the clues, but not the clues themselves.”
“I shall warn our man of the potential risk,” she said. “Doctor Hastings can meet you in Cairo and accompany you to Luxor.”
“That will be perfect, Mrs. Gale. I’ll telephone you later with the date of our arrival.” Steed rose and picked up his hat, which he’d set on her desk.
“Emma is going with you?” It wasn’t really a question. He shrugged and inclined his head in acknowledgement. “Give her my best – and remind her to take good care of you,” she said.
Steed walked to her office door and paused with his hand on the knob. “She does take good care of me, Mrs. Gale,” he said, setting his hat on his head. Cathy smiled warmly at him as he left her office. She was still amazed that Steed had become a happily married husband and father, but any regrets she’d once had over leaving him and his business were long-since gone.
“Steed residence,” Siobhan waggled her fingers at John, strapped into his high chair, to distract him while she answered the telephone.
“May I speak to John Steed please,” the cultured voice on the other end of the line sounded slightly strained. Siobhan had learned to listen to more than just words, particularly when speaking with Mr. Steed’s associates. She played a mental game with herself, trying to determine just from the vocal tone whether the speaker was a friendly associate of Mr. Steed, an adversary, or neutral. She rarely guessed neutral. She pegged this voice as adversarial.
“Who’s calling please?” she asked. This was another technique Emma had taught her. Don’t provide information, request it.
“Lord Eric Winters,” the voice replied, arrogance overriding the strain. Noble, trained from birth to be superior, particularly to servants. Siobhan felt herself bristle and habitually suppressed it. One day, she thought with a smirk, I’m probably going to turn on all of them and retaliate for being treated like a second-class citizen.
“I’m sorry m’lord, Mr. Steed is not in,” she replied in her firmest subservient voice.
“Well when will he be back?” Lord Eric asked somewhat impatiently.
“Mr. Steed is not expected back for several days, m’lord. I can pass along a message.”
“Several days,” it was not a question, so Siobhan did not answer it.
“Would you care to leave a message m’lord?”
“No. Thank you. I’ll – I will contact him myself.”
“How –?” Siobhan stopped herself, breathing a sigh of relief when the connection went dead. He had hung up on her.
“How will he be contacting your papa if I didn’t tell him where he went?” Siobhan asked John, picking up his dish of food. He returned his most innocent smile – inherited directly from his father.
“Look at that!” Sally gasped, leaning close to the black and white monitor attached to the video recorder. A small creature with long legs, arms, and tail scampered across Miss Mansel’s desk and leapt onto the adjacent file cabinets. It picked up the top folder in a stack of files waiting to be sorted and glanced around the dim office as it stuck the corner in its mouth and began to chew. The contents of the folder cascaded to the floor.
Sally paused the tape and looked at James. He wore a smug expression as he turned his gaze from the monitor to her.
“You knew!” she said with a frown.
“I suspected,” he nodded. “When I saw it at the party.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“It was just a theory – and we still have to catch it in the act. I don’t think His Excellency will force his son to cage his pet unless we provide solid evidence of its crimes.”
“Ralph is a spoiled brat,” Sally agreed, turning back to the monitor. “You don’t think this tape is enough?”
“I think that Tara is right – you do not want to advertise the fact that we’ve set up monitoring equipment inside the embassy offices.”
“So we have to catch it red handed — pawed. We’ll have to stay here all night waiting.”
“Or we could set a trap.”
“What sort of a trap? We can’t hurt it.”
James rewound the tape and watched the monkey examining objects on Miss Mansel’s desk again.
“Leave that to me,” he said with a sneaky smile.
“Is that Dr. Hastings, do you think?” Emma asked Steed, looking across the arrivals hall at a man standing next to a counter built round a pillar. He was reading a folded newspaper, a small white china cup and saucer by his elbow.
“I think so,” Steed replied, deviating with her toward the man. “Do you think Mrs. Gale told him to be discrete?”
Emma cast him a sideways grin as they walked.
He was tall and thin, his visible skin sun darkened, his narrow face free of facial hair. He had a beak-like nose, high forehead and prominent brow made more so by his small, round wire framed eyeglasses. He was dressed in a light tan tropical weight suit. He looked exactly like the photograph in the file compiled for them by the ministry.
“Doctor Hastings?” Steed called as they approached him. He looked up, his thin-lipped mouth splitting into a smile punctuated by big, white teeth. He set his paper on the counter and stepped toward them.
“Mr. and Mrs. Steed?” he extended his hand first to Emma, then to Steed. “I’ll be,” he added, shaking his head ruefully. “Doctor Gale was right.”
“Was she?” Steed asked, noting the American accent glazed over with a hint of British public school.
“She told me not to bring a sign. And sure enough, you spotted me.”
“Yes, remarkable woman, Doctor Gale,” Steed replied. “She said you would confirm the arrangements for the next leg of our journey,” he added deflecting any further curiosity about how they had recognized him.
“Yes. Our flight to Luxor departs in the morning – you can never count on flights arriving in time to make connections the same afternoon. We have rooms tonight at Mena House – I am certain you will enjoy the view of the pyramids at Breakfast. Won’t you come this way?”
American born and Cambridge educated, Bruce Hastings had been working in Egypt for twelve years and had yet to take credit for a significant find. Fortunately, he explained to Steed and Emma, Doctor Gale was able to see past his curriculum vitae. Having read a hastily prepared ministry background check, Steed and Emma knew far more about his career than was included in his resume. They were confident in his ability to help them with their tomb.
They retrieved their luggage and engaged a taxi to take them to the highly regarded Mena House. Emma wondered whether Mrs. Gale had told him to bring them there, and on whose budget. Of course Steed would insist on paying, and then he’d haggle with Mother about the expense and probably win.
As their driver wound his way through Cairo’s afternoon traffic Dr. Hastings launched into a verbal tour of the city. Neither Steed nor Emma had the heart to tell him that they were both familiar with it – Emma from visits as a girl with her father, Steed from his years wandering after the end of the war. It occurred to Emma as she looked out the window at the throngs of pedestrians of all stripe that she and Steed might have crossed paths here in those years. Except she had been a guest at the old Shepeards Hotel before it was destroyed by fire, and at Mena House after that. Steed, working as a freelance operative at first, and later for Britain, had probably found rather different lodging during his visits.
Their taxi was met by eager footmen and their check-in was accomplished with friendly efficiency. As Emma had expected, Steed insisted on upgrading their accommodation to a two bedroom suite and providing the deposit for it. Dr. Hastings only reluctantly conceded. Emma imagined him telephoning Cathy Gale later and being assured that he should let Steed have his way. She might be a scientist, but Mrs. Gale was also shrewd. The museum needn’t incur any expenses for this expedition.
Steed took great pleasure in selecting which of the hotel’s fine restaurants they should dine in, and then in choosing an excellent wine to go with their dinner. Dr. Hastings seemed just a bit dazed by his new associate’s energy level, enthusiasm, and knowledge of fine living. Emma watched with amusement, remembering her own early reaction to Steed’s personal whirlwind. It still kept her spinning, but by now, after more than a decade, she knew how to go along for the ride and enjoy it.
After dinner they settled in their private sitting room with brandies in hand. Steed produced a file of non-classified documents and handed it to Dr. Hastings.
“I know Dr. Gale didn’t tell you too much about our business here,” he said. “This file has some background information.”
“She did tell me that there is some urgency,” Dr. Hastings replied, opening the file. “And that your project has attracted the attention of some of Luxor’s less savory characters.”
“Good. We’re glad that you were forewarned,” Emma said.
“Dr. Hastings, we won’t deceive you – there is some danger. We have evaded them more than once already, but they probably know we’re here.”
“You’ve been attacked? In London?” Dr. Hastings placed both hands flat on the open file in his lap and looked at each of them. They both nodded.
“Well!” he said for lack of anything more articulate. Then he took a breath and his mouth formed a forced smile. “I have done my share of discouraging the local tomb robbers at my digs. You can count on me to hold up my end, should it come to that.”
“That’s very good, Doctor,” Steed said almost jovially. Emma shot him a concerned look, but squelched it quickly before Dr. Hastings could see it. She knew Steed would avoid putting Dr. Hastings in real danger if he possibly could.
Emma excused herself for a few minutes and Steed went to refresh his brandy while Dr. Hastings read the file. When they regrouped they found his hazel eyes bright with enthusiasm for their project.
“I tell you Tara, someone is trying to sabotage me here,” Robbie McCall was pacing back and forth in the space in front of his wife’s desk. Tara leaned back in her chair ignoring the ominous creak it always made when she pushed it too far. She was tempted to assure him that it was not a conspiracy, but she had to admit that he seemed to be having a run of unusually bad luck.
“We received the manifest and authentication certificates ten days ago. I reviewed it. His Excellency saw it. It was ‘eyes only,’ so I put it in my secure file. This exhibit is very important to all three nations, and since we arranged it, any gaffe will be laid at our feet. My feet. The shipment isn’t due until next week so I didn’t look at the paperwork again. An hour ago Neville – the Ambassador’s second assistant – called to ask me to check it for a particular object. I got out the file, located the object on the manifest, and went to his office to give him the details. When I got back the file was gone. Someone stole it.”
Tara frowned, thinking about her conversation with Sally and James.
“You left it on your desk?” She asked, managing not to sound accusatory.
Robbie cringed visibly nonetheless.
“My office was locked. And I was only out for fifteen minutes.”
“Why not wire the Egyptians and ask them to send another copy via air mail?”
Robbie sat on the edge of the guest chair and planted his elbows on his knees, rubbing his face in his hands.
“They could send another copy of the manifest, but not the certificates, and without that paperwork it will take weeks to get the artifacts through customs – you know how the French bureaucracy works.”
“And you know how to grease the wheels.”
“There’s something else,” Robbie leaned closer across her desk. “One of the objects is carrying something important.”
“You mean our kind of ‘something’?” Tara’s chair creaked as she straightened and then leaned toward her husband.
“Yes. A microfilm dot.”
“And you need to recover it. Is Steed expecting it?”
“Not exactly. But that isn’t the point,” Robbie’s eyes darted away from Tara’s. But he went on before she could interrupt. “I don’t know which artifact. It’s indicated on the manifest.”
“Which you looked at but didn’t memorize.”
“Yeah. There was plenty of time.”
“Hum?” he was studying his hands now, obviously avoiding her gaze. She was actually relieved at his discomfort – if he was feeling guilty then he probably wasn’t intentionally doing something wrong. Misguided, perhaps, but not treasonous. There were moments when Tara wondered if her hasty marriage to Robbie McCall might have been ill considered. In many ways she had hardly known him. She believed he was as loyal to the service as she, but the honest truth was she did not really know.
“If Steed didn’t instruct you to collect the microdot, who did?” she asked as gently as she could. She almost did not want to hear his answer. Robbie finally raised his eyes to hers and she saw genuine fear veiled by determination.
“A contact. He’s a double agent.”
“You’re running a double agent? And Steed doesn’t know,” as she spoke she realized the truth: it was another of his schemes to gain recognition within the ministry. A better agent – one the caliber of Steed, say – could pull off such an audacious stunt. But her Robbie just wasn’t quite smart enough, or savvy enough. At least now he had her, and she’d learned from the master. “Is whatever is on the microdot time-sensitive?”
Robbie nodded but did not speak. He was watching her and probably able to follow her thoughts through her unguarded facial expressions. Now he looked hurt, now a little bit betrayed. Tara sighed and stood up, coming around the desk to his side. He swiveled to face her and she took both his hands in hers.
“I thought we were a team, darling,” she said soothingly. “Let me help you sort this out.”
“You know I’m doing it for you – for us,” he said at the same time.
She chuckled, earning a bashful smile from him.
“Why don’t you tell me about your contact, and in exchange I’ll tell you how I think we’re going to find the missing documents.”
Steed finally pushed Emma and Dr. Hastings to turn in by making a show of yawning and stretching. He brushed his fingertips across Emma’s shoulder when he stretched just to be sure she understood that he did not want to go to bed alone. It was not so much that he was aroused after their long day of travel, but he knew that left to their own devices they would stay up until all hours going over the research.
In the morning Emma expressed her gratitude to him for seeing that she got her rest in a very pleasant, intimate way. Their flight was not until late morning, so he let her drag him to the swimming pool before he’d fully recovered from her wake-up call. The water was deliciously refreshing compared to the overheated air, which undulated in shimmering waves over the desert beyond the hotel precincts.
They met Dr. Hastings for a quick breakfast enjoying the promised view, and then checked out and returned to the airport. In Luxor they checked into the Winter Palace, but found that the permits Dr. Hastings had requested had not yet been delivered. While he telephoned Cairo, Emma prevailed upon Steed to join her for some shopping. Dr. Hastings finishing his call having received assurances that the documents would be in his hands by evening. Hearing Emma’s plan he offered to come along if she was interested in the antiquities dealers – he would be happy to authenticate any objects that interested her. Emma was more interested in some trinkets for John, but she could not see how to decline his offer without seeming rude. So they spent the afternoon moving from shop to shop, the men increasingly burdened with packages as Emma flitted happily from one display to the next.
They dined in the hotel dining room – not as elegant as the previous evening, but very good – after which they retired to the Steeds’ room to review their plans.
“It could only be one man,” Dr. Hastings said, nodding his head in confirmation of his words as he closed a file Emma had given him.
Emma regretted not having been able to share their research with Dr. Hastings sooner. It was clear his perspective, living and working in Egypt, would have been useful all along. She and Steed had agreed to show him their notes on the mysterious fat man described by Kevin Wycoff. They were both surprised at his reaction.
“Who?” Steed asked. “Do you know him?”
Hastings’s nodding shifted to a headshake, putting Emma in mind of a mechanical toy. She wondered if he ever got dizzy.
“No. He is rather a mythic figure in modern Luxor, a part of the shadowy world of the black market and tomb robbery. He is known as Horus, although that is undoubtedly a sort of self-aggrandizement.”
“Indeed,” Emma said. Then her brows knit for a moment and she went on, “Doesn’t Horus have four sons?”
“Quite right, Mrs. Steed,” Hastings turned his intense gaze on her. “Imset or Amset, Hapi, Duamutef, and Kebekhsenuf.”
They had not shared the clues or the existence of the four British men who’d had them with Dr. Hastings, so the meaningful glance that Steed and Emma shared was lost on him. He went on for a few moments about the characteristics of each son, but the further he got, the more convinced Steed and Emma both became that the resemblance ended with the number. Steed endeavored to bring the archaeologist back around to Horus himself.
“So his real name is unknown? Our modern Horus, I mean,” he said when he could interrupt without seeming rude.
“Eh? Oh. No. He emerged as some sort of spiritual figure for certain of the locals about twenty years ago. His detractors say he’s nothing but a white tomb robber – a westerner gone native, and bad.”
“That’s hardly a unique accusation,” Steed observed. Britons and other westerners had been pillaging Egypt in the name of scientific investigation for decades.
“Agreed. Those who follow him seem to regard him as some sort of protector. They don’t really believe that he is an incarnation of Horus, but they do claim that he protects a divine secret.”
“Along with his four sons?” Emma asked. Now Hastings looked puzzled.
“No. At least, not that I’ve heard of.”
“Part of the secret, then,” Steed muttered. Emma heard and nodded slightly.
“Pardon?” Dr. Hastings asked.
“Nevermind, Doctor,” Steed said quickly. “So how would we go about arranging a meeting with this Horus?”
Hasting’s eyes widened as he looked from Steed to Emma and back. “Oh no, Mr. Steed. You certainly do not want to venture into those quarters!”
“Oh I don’t know, Doctor, I’m rather fond of the darker sides of towns like this,” Steed grinned wolfishly at him. In fact, he was well acquainted with Luxor’s unsavory sections.
“Nobody meets with Horus,” Hastings replied quickly. “He’s known to be a complete recluse.”
“A challenge then,” Steed said, rubbing his hands together.
“Steed does love a challenge,” Emma sighed, smiling pleasantly at Dr. Hastings’s distressed expression.
Steed stood up and picked up his khaki fedora, purchased just before their departure along with the rest of his tropical kit from Tropical Outfitters of Bond Street. Watching him pack, Emma had suspected that he’d been waiting for years for an opportunity to buy such gear.
“Coming Doctor?” he asked cheerfully. “Or shall you just direct me to a likely starting place?”
Hastings stared at him dumbfounded for a moment. “You really mean to go looking for him?”
“He could be the answer to all of our questions.”
As Hastings got up Emma was sure she saw his hand tremble. She wanted to suggest to Steed that he might not be the best companion. But she knew Steed wouldn’t depend on him in a pinch – he’d know better than that. Much as she wanted to go she knew her husband would get much further not accompanied by a woman, and she wasn’t in the mood to construct a disguise.
Hastings retrieved his own hat and went to the door that Steed held open. He passed through and Steed looked over at Emma.
“Two hours, then call out the cavalry,” he said.
“Heavy guns, if you please.”
Emma grinned at him and resisted the urge to cross the room and kiss him farewell. He touched the brim of his hat to her and left.
By the time Steed returned to their room unharmed and smelling of tobacco Emma had bathed and slipped into her gauzy white negligee. She sat up on the bed and set her book aside to watch him as he took off his shoes.
“Did you find him?” she asked. Steed crossed the room and plopped down onto the bed with her, one hand behind his head on the pillows. He looked up at her through warm grey eyes shadowed with fatigue.
“Not a chance, it seems. Hastings took me to one of most reputable cafes in the area – I think he thought to satisfy me and be done with it. I sent him home after a coffee and went out to a café that the diggers like.”
She smiled knowingly. “And what did the diggers have to say?”
“I worked the name Horus into conversation and got some interesting reactions: suspicion and fear chief among them. I could tell that it would take a while – days or weeks – to be granted an audience. So instead I worked Lutz’s name and the location of our secret tomb into the conversation.”
“Yes?” She reached out with her right hand and began to unbutton his camp shirt.
“They wouldn’t speak of it.”
“A sure sign of a curse,” she smiled, still working on his buttons. He stroked one finger along the side of her breast through the sheer fabric, admiring its shape and the shadow of her nipple. Here breasts were still round and full.
“Or that there is nothing there worth discussing,” he said.
“But perhaps your inquiry will find it’s way back to Horus.”
“So I thought. Meanwhile?”
“I suppose we’ve no choice but to go look, now we’re here. Unless you want to wait for a meeting,” she slid her hand over his chest inside of his shirt. She felt his heart beating, and his small, hard nipple. He shut his eyes for a moment as she caressed him, and then opened them to look up at her as she ran her hand down over his ribs to stroke his stomach, fingers following the line of a nearly faded scar.
“We’ll have to be discrete, and careful,” he said, confirming her assumption that he did not want to wait for Horus to contact them. “We were watched this afternoon in the market, by a fellow dressed just like our various attackers in London.”
Emma did not look surprised. “We’re always discrete and careful,” she assured him, running the tip of her tongue over her rosy lips, an overtly seductive gesture that rarely failed to entice him. He sat up, supporting himself with one hand and bringing the other to her face to touch her jaw with his fingertips. Her hand inside of his shirt slipped around his waist as he paused, his face an inch from hers.
“Very discrete,” he breathed, inhaling her scent of violet soap as he slid happily into the depths of her brown eyes. Her lips parted ever so slightly and she leaned into him, taking him before he could take her. They savored a long, sensuous kiss and then parted to breathe, smiling into one another’s eyes at the knowledge of pleasure to come.
Steed twined his fingers into her hair, pulling her face back to his for another kiss just as a harsh rapping echoed in the room. He leaned away from her as they both looked at the door.
“Room service?” he asked. She shook her head, eyes widening.
They both climbed off the bed at once, Steed walking toward the door, Emma reaching for her dressing gown to cover the revealing negligee. The rapping came again as Steed reached the door and put his hand on the knob. He paused, looking toward Emma to see that she was properly covered, then opened the door.
“Steed.” Lord Eric strode into the room uninvited. Steed stepped aside and shut the door after him.
“This is quite a surprise,” Steed went on genially, his eyes flicking across the room to Emma and then focusing on their guest. Eric stopped in the middle of the room and turned toward Steed, ignoring Emma.
“Really? I should think you’d have thought better of me, Steed. You’d have expected me to put the pieces together just as you have and find out that you had come here to Egypt.”
Steed took a step toward him, squaring off in front of him and putting Emma behind him and out of his view. She moved closer as well, alert to Lord Eric’s every move. He emanated menace, his hands nearly clenched held at his sides, his jaw working, ropey muscles and tendons standing out in his neck.
“But you don’t have all the pieces, Steed. And without my piece you cannot get past the traps.”
“Twenty-three paces from Min bow to Manu,” Emma said from so close behind him he jerked around in surprise. She smiled and made a little apologetic shrug as Steed took a step closer.
“How can you –?” he growled, spinning back around to face Steed and finding him just a foot away. “How can you know my piece?” his voice was a tense rasp.
“The man who told you it was overheard,” Steed replied as calmly as ever. “So you see, we have all four pieces.”
“How many do you have, Lord Eric?” Emma asked.
He spun back around to face her. “The secret is mine! You have no right.” Eric turned from Emma back to Steed and reached for his throat with both hands. “You don’t understand,” he growled as Steed grabbed his wrists. Emma stepped aside and Steed gave Lord Eric a powerful shove, sending him reeling across the room. Steed pursued him in three long strides, punching him with a solid right jab to his jaw that was intended to incapacitate. Eric crashed into the dresser, his upper body smashing against the mirror above it. The mirror shattered, bright fragments scattering all over the dresser and Lord Eric. Steed reached for his shoulders, reverting from attack to assistance as the other man began to collapse.
“I’m cut,” Lord Eric yelped, “Oh God I’m bleeding!”
“It’s all right, my lord, head wounds always bleed fiercely,” Steed said, easing the man to the floor. A large fragment of mirror had sliced the side of his face and the tip of his ear, coming dangerously close to his eye. Blood formed a crimson veil down the side of his face. Emma was already on her way to the bathroom to find a towel to bandage the wound.
“It isn’t all right. I need my medication!” Eric cried pressing his hand to the wound.
“In my room. It won’t stop bleeding if I don’t take my medication.”
Steed glanced up at Emma as she returned with a hand towel. Her eyes met his, sharing his surprise at the revelation of Lord Eric’s words.
Steed turned back to Lord Eric. “Give me your key and I’ll go get it.”
Eric awkwardly withdrew his key from his trouser pocket and handed it to Steed. Then he allowed Emma to remove his hand from the wound long enough to press the towel against the side of his head. Emma rose and went to the door with Steed.
“I’ll just be a moment,” he said softly. “I’ll call the authorities.”
She nodded, her eyes on Lord Eric as Steed slipped out of the room.
“Hold it tight,” Emma instructed him. “Even if your blood won’t clot, pressure on the wound will slow the bleeding.”
Lord Eric peered up at her through one eye, the other obscured by the towel. The blood had already saturated the towel and the collars of his white shirt and coat. Emma crouched in front of him and reached for his throat. He started, pressing his back against the dresser and away from her.
“I just want to loosen your necktie,” she explained.
He seemed to relax so she went ahead, tugging the immaculate knot loose and opening the top button of his collar. As she leaned away a movement in his lap caught her eye. She looked from the pistol in his hand – drawn from an inner pocket in his jacket — to his single, glaring eye, silently admonishing herself for not suspecting him capable of further retaliation.
“You are unbelievers,” he said in an unnaturally even voice. “I will not let you desecrate the tomb for vile profit.”
“Profit?” Emma let her brows rise in affront. “I’ve no intention of profiting, Lord Eric. That’s the tomb robbers’ goal.”
“Yes, the robbers,” he nodded. “Clever bastards finally tracked all of us down. And do you know why?”
He paused expectantly. Emma shook her head, her attention split between his words and the gun in his hand.
“One of us was a traitor, that’s how. One of the others told them his clue and told them the names of the rest. One of them betrayed us all.”
“Perhaps Horus betrayed you.”
Emma smiled inwardly at his shocked expression. “No,” he whispered, “No, he would not. He could not. It was one of the others. They are the unbelievers.”
“So you had to eliminate them.”
“To protect the tomb!” he declared with utter conviction.
“The tomb robbers know that Steed and I have all of the clues. They’ve already come after us. Opening the tomb is the only way to get rid of them.”
“No. Eliminating you will save the tomb.”
“But why, Lord Eric? If you eliminate Steed and me, the robbers will just come after you or Horus. We will open the tomb and turn its treasures over to the authorities.”
“Ha!” Eric snorted. “The authorities. Do you really believe in them? Who do you think buys from the tomb robbers?”
Emma sat back on her haunches to consider his accusation. There was a great deal of dishonesty in the field of antiquities. Emma was confident that Cathy Gale would not have endorsed a course of action that was not completely legitimate. But in the interest of keeping Lord Eric talking she forced a submissive smile.
“I see what you mean,” she said. “But what is in the tomb? Why are you so determined to keep it from being opened? If it is of historical significance then it is only right for it to be shared with the world.”
“I gave my word to Horus to protect it, and that’s what I intend to do.”
“To the death?”
Just then the door opened and Steed stepped in, leaving it ajar. Lord Eric was distracted just long enough for Emma to grab the gun and twist it out of his hand, rolling away from him as Steed, surprised by her sudden movement, darted across the room to stand over Lord Eric.
She came up onto her knees with the gun leveled at Lord Eric, who still sat against the dresser.
“Any trouble, Mrs. Peel?” Steed asked pointedly glancing at the gun. He picked up a glass from the dresser and blew into it to remove any fragments of mirror.
“Lord Eric and I were just discussing the tomb robbers,” Emma said, getting to her feet while continuing to hold the gun on her quarry. “And how they identified all four of the men.”
Steed looked down at the injured man, who seemed to have lost his will to fight, and then took the stopper out of a carafe of water and poured some into the glass. He crouched in front of Lord Eric and offered the glass and two pills from a bottle that he took out of his pocket.
“The label says to take two,” he said as Eric snatched them from him and downed them with a gulp of water. “Will it work quickly?” he asked.
Lord Eric took another gulp of water. “Quickly enough,” he said curtly.
Steed nodded and stood up, turning toward the door.
“All right gentlemen,” he called, then glanced at Emma, looking pointedly at the gun in her hand. She tucked it into the pocket of her dressing gown just as two uniformed Luxor policemen entered the room and approached Lord Eric.
“What is this?” he asked as they helped him to his feet. “What are you doing?”
“These men will see that you get medical care,” Steed said. And that you remain in the hotel until the English authorities can come for you.”
“You can’t do this, Steed. It’s wrong. I swore to protect the tomb.”
“Ah, yes. So you did. And so you have. But Mrs. Peel and I did not swear any such oaths.”
“But I will swear one,” Emma added, drawing all of their attention. She faced Lord Eric, noting Steed’s slight frown of concern out of the corner of her eye. “I swear that we will see the contents of the tomb into the hands of those who will safeguard them.”
Steed nodded agreement, then inclined his head toward the door. The policemen escorted Lord Eric out and Steed closed the door, turning toward Emma with a deep sigh.
“I should have given him more credit: I never thought to search him before I left,” he said, bending to pick up a small wastebasket. He began to carefully gather up pieces of shattered mirror and discard them.
“He waited until he thought the odds were in his favor,” Emma said, withdrawing the pistol from her pocket.
“Unfortunately for him, he was mistaken,” Steed flashed her a grin. She returned it, setting the pistol in a clear spot on the dresser.
“He told me that he tried to kill the others because one of them betrayed the rest to the tomb robbers.”
Steed paused in his clean-up and shook his head regretfully. “I’m embarrassed that I did not make the connection between Lord Eric and hemophilia. He is relatively close to the royal family — genetically.”
“It would not necessarily have implicated Lord Eric, but it might have caused us to watch him more closely,” Emma agreed. Steed picked up an especially large piece of glass and dropped it in his wastebasket.
“We need to get an early start. Leave that for the maid and come to bed,” Emma said, nodding at the remaining glass. Steed met her gaze and saw weariness replacing lingering excitement.
“I’ll be there in a moment,” he assured her, heading for the bathroom as he unbuttoned his shirt.
In a dim café in a neighborhood of Luxor worlds away from the Winter Palace a man in a dingy galabiyya wove his way between the chaos of rickety tables and chairs. At the back he drew aside a heavy brocaded curtain and passed into a private room beyond. His upper body bobbing in a continuous bow as he moved across a conspicuously open space, he approached a low table surrounded by plush cushions.
Three men were seated around the table. The one in the center, reclining with his legs extended under the table, was very large. The two flanking him appeared to be quite fit, and sat straight with crossed legs. All three were attired in light-colored suits, the waist of the big man’s trousers gathered unattractively below his protruding belly, which mounded up higher than the table. A hydra-like hookah in the center of the table emitted a thin stream of smoke arrowing straight up toward the ceiling. It was scattered by the feeble breeze of a slowly turning fan that emitted a consistent, gentle creak as it rotated. As the newcomer approached one of the bodyguards took a long drag on a hose attached to the hookah. The water inside the amber-colored glass bubbled.
The fat man appeared to be asleep, but as the scuttling fellow reached the table his eyes flickered open to reveal a slit of light blue iris. Both bodyguards regarded the newcomer with disdain, but made no move to intercept him as he leaned in between the smoking one and their master.
“A man has been asking for the lord Horus.”
Horus did not move, but his light eyes shifted to look sidelong at the visitor. “What man?” his voice rumbled from deep in his bulk.
“An Englishman, lord Horus. At Abdullah’s, and then the Lotus Leaf. Like a babbling fool he asks many questions. But he is not a fool – he is dangerous.”
“How do you know?”
“The Qasas knows him. He says he is an agent of the English.”
Horus’s eyes slowly closed and he inhaled a slow, shallow breath. The visitor backed away a step and waited. The bodyguards turned their languid gazes on their master, also waiting.
Horus’s eyes opened wide and looked at the smoking man. “Have him watched. Inform me of his activities.”
The guard set down his pipe and rose.
“Will you grant him an audience, Lord Horus?” the informant asked.
Horus’s gaze shifted to him. “Only after you have learnt his business here. Perhaps not even then.”
The man bowed again and scuttled with bent shoulders back the way he had come. Horus strained to lift his shoulders and reach for a coiled hose attached to the hookah. He brought the mouthpiece to his lips and drew long and hard on the pipe, watching it bubble as the flavor of the tobacco filled his mouth. He disregarded the ache in his chest caused by sucking so hard on the long hose.
This curious British agent was especially disturbing coming so soon after the news of the deaths of two of his sacred sons. Horus had been awaiting word from Lord Eric that his sons had been reincarnated – that Hanson and Wilson had passed their secrets along to new sons. But instead this stranger had come, and the accursed members of the Feather of Ma’at had been sighted all over London.
Horus took another long, painful drag on the hookah and concentrated on the secrets of his sons. But it was no use. They were gone, as if once transferred to the four men they were no longer his. His mind drifted further back to those days before his metamorphosis, when he was a slave to his despicable father, raping the mysteries of this holy land in the name of western science. He had learned at the feet of his father to comprehend the divine language of the ancients and to preserve their fragile messages left on delicate scrolls. That was how he had discovered the secrets of the hidden tomb. Cousin Lutz’s tomb.
Horus’s belief was no weaker now than twenty years ago. Cousin Lutz had not deserved such glory, such a gift from the ancient world. He’d had to be stopped before he revealed it to the world. Horus had acted, and the gods had guided him, taking him into their pantheon and showing him how to give birth to his sons by sharing pieces of the truth with each of them. Perversely, the scroll that had revealed the secrets of the tomb had resisted preservation. Horus’s one modern skill learned from his father, the application of preserving compounds to ancient materials, had failed and the secrets were lost.
But Horus was confident that his sons had done their duty, that he had new sons yet to be revealed to him. Lord Eric, his eldest, would contact him. This British agent was but a minor nuisance. And The Feather of Ma’at would be vanquished by his loyal followers.
“Sally, can I see you before you go?” Tara asked from the doorway of Sally’s office. The younger agent’s head snapped up and she scooted her chair closer to her desk to hide the videotape cassette in her lap. She was waiting for James, who was supposed to be bringing his mysterious trap for Ralph’s monkey. She was anxious to find out how he would get it, whatever it was, past the guards.
“Of course,” she said with a smile, but made no move to get up. Tara stared at her for a moment, then nodded and moved on toward her own office. When she was gone Sally scooted back and placed the tape in one of her desk drawers on top of the recorder. Then she rose and went to Tara’s office. Her supervisor watched her come in and sit down across from her.
“How is your investigation going – the one I don’t know about?” she asked.
Sally felt one brow rise in surprise and quickly forced it back down.
“We had a breakthrough last night, actually,” she said cautiously.
“So soon?” Tara’s visibly brightened, then she leaned across the desk and dropped her voice, “Who is it?”
“You’re not going to believe this,” Sally shook her head, then let herself smile.
Emma zipped up her leather bomber jacket against the pre-dawn chill as she climbed out of the taxi followed by Steed and Dr. Hastings. A solitary boatman stood on the dock, a row of secured boats reflecting silvery moonlight bobbed gently on the river behind him. He bowed slightly to them and gestured to one of the vessels.
“This is Joseph,” Dr. Hastings said, presenting Steed and Emma to the man. “He will take us across to the west bank.”
“Good morning,” Steed said. “Thank you for meeting us so early.”
“It is my pleasure, sir,” Joseph replied in good English, holding his craft steady alongside the dock as his passengers stepped on board.
He went to the mast and hauled on a line to raise the large single sail. Then he moved aft to the tiller. Dr. Hastings cast off the bowline and pushed them away from the dock. The light pre-dawn breeze caught the sail and the boat began to move.
Dr. Hastings had explained in the taxi that he employed Joseph throughout the season. He was trustworthy and reliable, a member of a family long associated with English archaeologists working around Luxor. He had been named after, inspiring some unjust rumors about his parentage that his father had firmly denied and his mother had proudly ignored. And he had been educated along with a handful of his own siblings and several English children by the archaeologists’ tutor.
Steed could understand Hastings’ gravitating toward such an anglicized local, but he would have liked to spend the few moments on the boat quietly questioning a more – well, native — native.
Emma sat in the bow looking ahead into the darkness. When they were half way across the river the rims of the distant hills suddenly turned gold as if touched by a gilder’s brush. She gasped in surprise, looking back over her shoulder toward the source of the light. The eastern sky was glowing pink with dawn, the sun still below the visible horizon but just high enough to touch the highest peaks.
Moving up to sit just behind her on the boat’s side bench, Steed followed her gaze as she turned her head back toward the west. His body was comfortably warm in the predawn chill and she instinctively nestled against him. Together they watched the fingers of light from the rising sun pick out details on the tops of the ancient hills overlooking the Valley of the Kings.
“It’s breathtaking,” she whispered.
“Indeed,” he agreed. Although he’d seen the sight before just after the end of the war, like so many things he re-experienced with Emma he appreciated it now as he could not in the past.
By the time the boat touched the western dock the sky above them was an inverted deep blue bowl, a few stars still pinpoints of white above the golden hills. Joseph tied the boat off with deft efficiency and offered his hand to each of his passengers as they disembarked. A flicker of movement on the road beyond the landing caught Emma’s eye: horses tied in a long row to a picket line.
“I hadn’t thought to ask,” Dr. Hastings said as they walked up the dock toward the horses and their attendants. “You can ride?”
His question was directed at Emma.
“I can manage,” she replied, shooting Steed a wry smile. He shook his head imperceptibly in mild rebuke.
“We’ll see that you’re given a tame animal,” Dr. Hastings needlessly assured her. As they approached two men in loose galabiyya stepped forward leading three saddled horses. Hastings greeted them and took the reins of a handsome bay. Steed was handed a dark grey whose eyes rolled threateningly for a moment. Steed spoke softly to the animal and laid a hand on its neck near the ears. It calmed, nostrils flaring to take in his scent. The Egyptian watched this and nodded, apparently satisfied that his horse was in good hands.
Emma was presented with a skinny chestnut mare that refused to lift its head. Emma stroked the horse’s neck along her ragged mane gently as she glanced at the picket line. Dropping the chestnut’s reins, she slipped in between two horses that were still tied and looked into the eyes of a tall black Arabian. It snorted at her and she grinned.
“Is he also one of yours?” she asked the man who had retrieved the chestnut’s reins. “I think I’d prefer him.”
She untied the lead rope as she spoke, and before anyone could object she had swung up into the black horse’s saddle. It was a gamble: she was lucky that the girth was tight and the saddle didn’t slip around the horse’s belly under her weight. But she’d suspected that the animals’ comfort was less important than their quick rental, and she’d been right.
“Very handsome, Mrs. Peel,” Steed chuckled as she directed the horse over to where he and Hastings were waiting. The attendants exchanged a look and one of them shrugged, then led the chestnut back to the picket line. The other nodded at Dr. Hastings.
“Right then,” Hastings said, shooting Emma a concerned look. “Off we go.”
In the shadows between the landing buildings a man in a dark suit and dark red turban crouched watching them ride away.
The fat man’s walk – more of a waddle – was so distinctive all of the boatmen recognized him the moment he set foot on the dock. Several immediately vanished amid stacks of supplies and cargo awaiting passage across the river. Two stepped forward to greet the lord Horus with deep bows.
Horus waddled past them without acknowledgement followed by a half dozen of his men. A bodyguard paused to hand payment to the boatmen, then hurried after his master to assist him. The boat tilted precariously under Horus’s weight, but he moved more quickly than seemed possible to the center of the craft. It settled down several inches deeper in the water than before.
One of the boatmen climbed carefully aboard followed by the guard. The rest of the men followed the other boatman to an adjacent craft.
“Tomb eighty-three is up around this hill,” Hastings said, pointing up a side trail to their left. Just thirty minutes after the magical sunrise the world seemed unnaturally bright. The light reflecting off of pale sand and rock presaging searing heat to come. Riding last in line Steed paused to look back along the trail. Waves of warmth radiated across the valley obscuring the details of excavated tombs on the other side. As they had expected, most of the tombs were closed up tight, archaeological excavation put on hold during the unbearable heat of the summer. Later in the morning tourists would wander the valley despite the burning sunshine, but right now their party had it to themselves.
Clucking to his horse Steed pressed on around the shoulder of the hill after the others. They had stopped at a widening of the trail just before the last, steep, rocky climb.
“The entrance is not visible from the rest of the valley,” Emma was observing, looking up the slope to the tomb. “Remarkable anyone found it up here.”
“We’ll leave the horses here,” Hastings said as he dismounted. He produced a canvas bucket and canteens from his rucksack and went about setting up water for the animals. Emma and Steed dismounted and loosened the saddle girths. Steed peered up the slope from beneath a shading hand.
“Is there a porch?” he asked. “I can’t tell from this angle.”
“Let’s just climb up and see,” Emma suggested, shouldering her rucksack. Steed wiped his brow with his handkerchief and followed her. Dr. Hastings followed a moment later, glancing back at the horses before scrambling up over the top.
He found Emma and Steed standing at the edge of a cleared area in front of the tomb. High above truncated columns flanked the tomb entrance, which was blocked with weathered timbers. Remnants of a double staircase on either side of the porch had been cleared of the rubble from the broken columns as well as other fallen stones. It looked like all of the rubble had been moved in under the porch, for the space beneath it was cluttered.
“They’ve filled it in,” Steed groaned, dropping to a crouch to peer in to the darkness under the overhanging stones.
“Inconvenient,” Emma agreed so lightly Steed looked up at her curiously. She shot him a smile before striding toward the porch. Dr. Hastings followed her.
“You knew,” Steed called accusingly, straightening.
“I suspected, based on the notes,” Emma replied casually, kneeling in the dust at the edge of the porch. “At least it’s shady under there,” she added.
“There could be snakes,” Hastings said, kneeling beside her.
“Charming,” Steed said, joining them.
“Yes, that would be useful,” Emma said to him. “Did you bring your pipe, or perhaps an oboe?”
Steed grinned at her, then wriggled his rucksack off of his shoulders and dropped it to the ground. “I could try hypnosis with my pocket watch,” he quipped, and then more seriously: “Any guess as to where we should start?”
Emma rose and walked to the corner, then paced off the width of the porch counting her steps. The edge of the porch was at eye level. Counting again she walked half way back, ending up almost exactly where she’d started.
“Here,” she said.
“No lord Horus, they did not say,” the horseman shook his head, his beard waggling. “I promise you, I would tell you if I could.”
Horus inclined his head slightly and one of his bodyguards stepped up to the horseman and slapped him across the face. The man fell to his knees, groveling and muttering apologies. Horus looked across him back toward the Nile where Joseph the boatman lay motionless across the gunwale of his boat. He had been equally unhelpful. There was no sign of any other boatmen on the dock.
Horus looked around the landing and then up at the sun.
“Quickly, before the dragomen begin bringing the tourists,” he snapped, the very notion of quick action at odds with his own inhibiting bulk. The men who’d come across the river in the second boat went to the picket line and selected horses, disregarding the weak protests of their owners. One of the bodyguards passed out coins to the owners while the other appropriated a small carriage with a horse already hitched to it.
“You know where they have gone, lord Horus?” the bodyguard asked as he assisted his master into the vehicle.
“It is a secret long guarded, Selim. But I believe someone has betrayed it to this man. We must stop him, and then punish the betrayer. Come!”
Lord Eric had been seen arriving in Luxor. Horus had awaited him all night in anxious certainty: his son had come to reveal the identities of his new children. But Eric had not come to him. He had gone to the western bastion, to the Winter Palace, and sought out the British agent. Son had betrayed father and, worse, had betrayed the secrets of the gods. This man Steed was going to the tomb. He must be stopped, even if the tomb and its secrets were forever lost to man.
“Beautiful!” Dr. Hastings exclaimed as he and Steed set a three-foot length of elaborately carved stone down in the sunshine.
“What does it say?” Steed asked, far more interested in any information about the tomb than the aesthetic appeal of the object. He took the opportunity to take a swig of water from his canteen and mop his brow with his handkerchief. Hastings studied the hieroglyphs for a minute.
“It’s a fragment of a common afterlife story, but the work is exquisite.”
“Nothing about whoever’s buried here?”
“No. Besides, this fragment is from up there,” he pointed at the main tomb above the porch. “Whatever is in this lower chamber, if there is one, may be completely unrelated.”
Emma emerged from the shadows beneath the porch carrying two sizeable stones and dropped them next to others that they’d already moved. Her single arched brow directed at Steed was enough to get him moving again.
Tomb robbers on the trail too
Two men in dark suits and red turbans stretched out on the dusty ground near the top of a hill and peered down into the valley on the other side. Below them a procession of mounted men surrounding a carriage trotted along the well-worn trail. The men inched back away from the top of the hill then rose and jogged the rest of the way down, rejoining a group of eight more similarly clothed men waiting at the bottom.
“Look at this,” Steed said as he and Hastings shifted a fragment of column away from the wall at the very back of the porch. They had revealed a section of relief carving – the head and shoulders of a man reclining on a couch. Hastings leaned close to examine the work as Steed moved along the wall and knocked over a block of stone in front of the rest of the image. Hastings shot him an annoyed look for his rough handling of the stone, but Steed didn’t notice. He was grinning wolfishly at the rest of the carved figure, an expression that under most circumstances might be considered wholly inappropriate.
“Come see this Mrs. Peel,” he called out. “Bring your pack.”
Emma dropped the stones she had just carried into the sun and retrieved her backpack before joining them.
“Perfect,” she said, crouching beside Steed to look at the reclining figure.
“The mythology says that Seth had Osiris torn into fourteen pieces,” Dr. Hastings said. “His wife Isis gathered all but one piece and re-assembled him. The fourteenth piece, the phallus, was, um, lost …” Hastings faltered as he watched Emma withdraw the stone phallus from her pack.
“Go on doctor,” Steed urged with a quick smile at Emma.
Hastings swallowed and looked back at the relief as if the stones were safer than the beautiful woman holding the god’s member. “Isis had a phallus fashioned and attached to Osiris’s re-assembled body. And then she – well, she became impregnated and eventually gave birth to Horus.”
Steed’s eyes widened as he and Emma exchanged a surprised look. Hastings noticed it and his tanned complexion paled.
“You’re thinking of that villain who goes by that name,” he said. “He’s mad.”
“In our experience, madmen can be very dangerous,” Steed replied. “Let’s have a look at those hieroglyphs, Mrs. Peel.”
Emma nodded, holding the phallus up next to the carving. The hieroglyphs on the phallus were mirrored on the wall in an indented oblong area above the god’s pelvis.
“It matches,” she said. Steed took the stone from her.
“Better let me,” he muttered, his eyes darting to Dr. Hastings’s shocked expression and back to Emma’s amused one. He shared her pleasure at their success, but propriety demanded that the “re-membering” not be performed by a woman, at least not in front of the apparently embarrassed archaeologist.
He held the phallus up over the depression, then paused, rotated it into proper alignment, and pressed it into place. He felt resistance, and then it gave way and the member slipped in to the stones so that it was at the same level as the rest of the carving. At the same time there was a click from behind the relief, and then a large slab of stone to their right swung open a few inches on an invisible hinge. A puff of warm air disturbed the dust.
“Hey!” Emma said with a grin. “How can it still work?”
Hastings moved around Steed and Emma to the stone doorway and inspected what he could see of the mechanism.
“It’s very simple and very well-made,” he said. “Stone levers and counterweights, no organic materials. It was probably supposed to swing all the way open, but the ground level has risen. We’re fortunate, actually, that it moved at all. But then, perhaps someone has opened it within the last century, hum?”
While the archaeologist was speaking Steed retrieved his own rucksack and took out two hand torches and an electric lantern. He handed the torches to Emma and Hastings and kept the lantern for himself.
“We should warn you, Dr. Hastings, that we anticipate some deadly traps inside,” he said.
Hastings nodded. “I am not surprised. And I also expect that you have some idea of how to defeat them, Mr. Steed.”
“Very astute, Doctor. Shall we?”
“Good evening Tara,” James stood in the doorway to Sally’s office holding a large box. His tone and expression belied mild surprise at her presence.
“James,” Sally smiled warmly at him, rising to clear some room on her desk for the box. “You can put that here – how did you get it in here?”
“I mailed it,” he replied, moving in to place the box where she had indicated.
“You what?” Tara asked.
“I mailed it to Sally. It was out there,” he glanced back over his shoulder toward the outer office. “Apparently the secretaries don’t feel compelled to deliver your parcels.”
“I knew it!” Tara growled.
“I was out for most of the day,” Sally pointed out, not wanting to let Tara get off track.
“I thought you wanted nothing to do with this,” James said to Tara.
“Tara’s had a change of priorities,” Sally replied before Tara could speak for herself. Sally was both amused and relieved that Tara had come up with a reason to get involved with their project. That it was in aid of another of her husband’s foibles only made the turnaround sweeter. Tara had not imparted many details of her reason for sticking around this evening, but McCall’s involvement and important missing documents were all Sally needed to know. She had shown Tara the incriminating videotape and explained that James was bringing some sort of trap and Tara had settled in to wait with her.
“Let’s see what you’ve got there, Bond,” Tara said, looking intently at the box. “We’ve got to find out if the little nuisance has been stashing things someplace.”
“Anything in particular?” James asked pointedly as he picked up Sally’s paperknife to slice open the packing tape.
“Just set the trap, Bond,” Tara replied with a smirk.
“My lord was correct, the horses are just ahead,” one of Horus’s bodyguards bowed from the back of his horse as he addressed his master.
“Find them. They cannot have found a way in. Bring them to me,” he said loudly enough for the rest of his men to hear him. They all rode ahead passing his carriage on either side. He snapped the reins and followed more slowly up the narrow trail.
“The preservation is remarkable,” Hastings said, playing his torch over the painted walls of the first chamber, moving sideways as he worked his way along one illustrated tier and then back along the next. “The condition is amazing. I have never seen such bright colors before restoration.”
“What do they say, Doctor?” Steed asked, wondering if the archaeologist would ever realize that he was needed here to interpret the ancient paintings and statuary, not just admire it.
“Hum? Oh, typical funerary narratives. More of the Osiris story, see, here’s Isis,” he pointed to a figure with spread bird’s wings.
“Steed,” Emma called, her voice tense. The men turned toward her position, indicated by her torch on the far side of the large chamber.
“Careful,” Hastings said, putting a hand on Steed’s arm to keep him from nearly running across the dim chamber. Steed looked down and saw that the floor was scattered with stones that had fallen from the ceiling and paved with relief carvings. They picked their way across the floor toward Emma, seeing what she had summoned them for when they were half way there.
“He probably didn’t expect the mechanism to work, either,” Emma said dryly. She was aiming her torch at a corpse impaled on a dozen spikes affixed to two stone slabs. The slabs had previously formed the side walls of a passage. Something had triggered them to move together as the man was passing between them.
Steed winced, either at the dead man or Emma’s dark humor. Dr. Hastings used his torch to study the corpse while Emma moved to the side to look behind the mobile slabs.
“He’s not an ancient Egyptian,” Steed said, noting the desiccated flesh on the bones and, more importantly, the relatively modern attire.
“No. There was a death here at the end of the last season that the tomb was worked. The circumstances were never very clear – it was reported that the man fell down a shaft in the tomb above. Lutz must have allowed that rumor to go uncountered in order to protect this tomb.”
“Or he died before he could tell the truth,” Steed suggested.
“We’ll never know,” Hastings said, bending to study the floor. “He stepped here,” he said, indicating a depressed stone. “He took two more steps before he realized that the sound he was hearing was the mechanism. It must have moved very quickly.”
“And forcefully,” Steed nodded.
“I hope this isn’t one of the traps you have solutions for,” Hastings observed, straightening to look again at the corpse.
Steed arched one brow and turned toward Emma only to find that she was gone.
“Here Steed,” she said, her voice coming from the far side of the trap. “You can climb around the back. But be careful – who knows if there’s a trigger to return the stones to the walls?”
The men climbed carefully behind the stone and emerged safely on the other side with Emma.
“Did you know about the trap?” Dr. Hastings asked.
“No doctor, but we are looking for specific clues to others,” Emma said. “I think we should share them with you – three heads are better than two.”
“Agreed Mrs. Peel,” Steed said, noting for the first time Hasting’s puzzled look at his use of Emma’s former name. He elected not to explain.
“We have four clues, Dr. Hastings,” Emma said. “The first was ‘Re-member Osiris on the door under the porch.’ That got us here. The others are: ‘push into naos ankh,’ ‘twenty-three paces from Min bow to Manu,’ and ‘douse the khet to pass along the dromos.’”
“Twenty-three paces from Min bow to Manu,” he repeated with a frown. “That suggests that if you stumble across Manu unprepared and do not bow, something unpleasant may occur. We must be careful.”
“We know Manu is the western peak where the sun sets. Is there some other image we should look out for?” Emma asked.
“Aker, the double lion god. He guards Manu and the eastern peak, Bakhu,” Hastings replied. “In fact, I would expect to see the three depicted together. Min is often depicted as a lightening bolt, or a bearded man with two feathers on his head.”
“Yes,” Emma nodded, holding up a small notepad to show him a sketch she’d made from one of the books.
“And you know a khet is a brazier, I take it? Right. Of course a real flame can’t still be burning down here after so many centuries, but I suppose if we find a representation of a khet we may guess how to douse it, metaphorically speaking. I wonder what happens on the dromos — a long straight avenue — if you fail to douse the khet.”
“Perhaps it’s rather like walking on hot coals,” Steed suggested. Hastings frowned, recognizing his dry humor and not approving.
“One could consider this passage a dromos,” Emma said, aiming her torch into the darkness ahead.
Hastings pursed his lips thoughtfully. “A dromos is usually lined with sphinxes,” he said. “But to be safe, we should examine the walls as we go.”
“What now?” Tara asked, bending at the waist to look at the banana dangling at the end of a string. It was suspended inside of a clear Plexiglas box with a small hole on each side. The contraption was sitting in the middle of Miss Mansel’s desk.
“It’s been proven over and over in studies,” James said as he carefully arranged files on the desk around the box. “The monkey will reach in and take the banana. He will not be able to pull his hand back out through the small hole as long as he’s holding the banana. But once he’s got it he won’t let it go.”
“Forever?” Sally asked skeptically.
“For as long as we need to keep him here. In the lab they’ve held on for hours. It seems that once they have the food instinct tells them not to let it go, even at the expense of their liberty.”
“Amazing!” Sally said.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Tara said at the same time.
“The tomb is sealed, lord Horus,” the bodyguard reported, calling down from the top of the hill. “There is no sign of disturbance.”
Horus looked up the last of the slope, too steep for the carriage and for him to climb. He could see the top of the tomb and the weathered wooden closure over the entrance. He had been holding on to a thin hope that the Englishmen did not know how to find the hidden entrance.
“Look under the porch.”
Emma stopped and used her torch to illuminate her notepad and then directed it at a scene painted on the wall. They had reached a turn in the passage. Steed stepped forward to hold the lantern up and illuminate around the corner. The passage made a ninety-degree turn to the left with another turn to the right just visible at the edge of the light. The tiers of decorative painting continued around the bends, rows of loyal servants marching along the corridor interspersed with depictions of mythic scenes. So far they had not found any depictions of Min, Manu, or a khet, although images of Osiris, Isis, Horus, and other gods abounded.
They moved on around the bends in silence and found a third turn back to the left a few paces on. All the while they continued to move downward as well. After the third turn the passage appeared to run straight again for as far as their lights would reach. Dr. Hastings paused to study the walls.
“It’s almost as if they cut this passage around an obstruction,” he said thoughtfully. “I studied the layout of the tomb above last night. There is a shaft – the one they thought the dead man had fallen down. It seems almost impossible that they could have measured so precisely as to tunnel around it perfectly.”
“Perhaps they didn’t,” Steed said, holding the lantern up to a section of wall near the corner where the paint had fallen away. The light clearly revealed the seams of fitted stone blocks.
“Brilliant Mr. Steed!” Hastings said, tracing the seam with one finger. “They tunneled to the shaft, excavated a ledge around it, and then built a wall.”
“Fascinating,” Emma observed. “But perhaps we should concentrate on our little mysteries?”
As if to emphasize her point a grinding sound echoed faintly in the passage behind them.
“We’re not alone,” Steed said quietly.
Horus shifted his bulk in the carriage and the lone bodyguard who he’d kept with him repositioned the direction of the fan he was waving. They both watched a snake emerge from beneath a rock on the slope above them and work its way across the hill. Fortunately none of the horses noticed. They could hear voices on the hill above, but as yet none of the men had reported.
Horus sensed the intruders before he heard them, and heard them before their red-turbaned heads appeared on either side of the carriage. One had his arms around the bodyguard, a knife drawing blood from his throat before either victim could make a sound. The guard fell from his attacker’s arms as Horus bellowed an alarm and aimed a pistol at the other attacker. He fired without hesitation and the man in the turban fell away from the carriage. The carriage horse started, jarring the first attacker who was already in the carriage as he fell upon Horus with his knife. The fat man turned and fired without aiming. The frightened horse dragged the carriage a few feet and stopped, blocked by the saddle horses that were milling skittishly on the trail.
Two more of Horus’s men appeared at the top of the hill and shouted in dismay as they bounded down over the rocky surface. The carriage and the ground around it were splattered with blood and inert bodies.
Three of Horus’s men crouched outside the door under the porch, their attention torn between their four compatriots inside and the two who had shouted and dashed down the hill after Horus screamed. They were prepared to obey Horus’s orders to the death — he was their divine leader, possessed of a great spirit and knowledge beyond that of mere mortals like them. But if he had been killed – Allah preserve him – they would each have to examine their own souls to find their own ways.
One of the three noticed the four men dressed in the dark suits and red turbans of the Feather of Ma’at drop down from the porch above. He shouted to his companions as he charged their sworn enemies and a melee ensured. Only one of Horus’s men was armed with a dirk. The others snatched chunks of stone from the rubble around them to counter the tomb robbers’ razor-sharp knives.
Inside, the four men were examining the spiked trap with its macabre corpse by the light of two kerosene lanterns. One found a concealed crank and exerted pressure on it that resulted in a grinding sound and retracted the spiked walls a few inches. He called his companions over and all four pushed on the crank with all their might.
The tomb robbers quickly gained the upper hand over Horus’s men under the porch, slashing violently and striking with their fists. Two of the robbers teamed up against their one armed opponent, pressing him backwards as he tried to parry their slashes with his dirk. One got through his guard, his knife slashing clothing and flesh as it glanced off his ribs. He backpedaled further until his back smacked hard against the partially opened door. It slammed shut.
To the left, the stone phallus popped out of the relief of Osiris and fell unnoticed onto the churned earth below.
“Is that –?” Emma traced a shape on the wall to their left with her torch. The grinding sound had gone on for a few minutes and each of them had guessed at its source. They all kept an ear cocked behind them, fully expecting pursuit to catch up sooner or later. Had Hastings not been along Steed might have proposed a wager to Emma: was it the tomb robbers or Horus?
They had descended a long uneven slope so steep in places they had touched the walls for balance. Dr. Hastings had been unable to protest, however, for the walls in the low-ceilinged passage had been unadorned. Here, where the floor leveled out and the ceiling rose the wall was once again decorated.
“A lightening bolt,” Steed completed Emma’s sentence. “Doctor?”
Hastings shined his light on the other side of the tunnel to reveal a male figure, legs tight together, a pair of tall feathers in his headdress.
“Yes, both images are Min,” he said, pointing his torch ahead. The light flickered enticingly over shadowy figures in the tunnel ahead. Emma aimed her torch in the same direction and the combined lights revealed an amazing sight: a pair of lions as tall as men blocked the passage. They sat on their haunches back-to-back supporting a red disc between them.
“Aker,” Dr. Hastings breathed. “The two lions support the akhet – the sun and the mountain Djew. The western peak of Djew is Manu.”
“The passage ends there,” Steed said holding his lantern high. They could see no side passage ahead and they knew they had not passed any.
“Twenty-three paces – it looks like that would put us in the jaws of the lions,” Emma said, taking a step forward.
“Wait!” Dr. Hastings put a restraining hand on her shoulder. “The ancient Egyptians were small people, and we are all rather tall. I can approximate their paces.”
Before Steed or Emma could stop him he adopted a mincing walk and set out. They watched him count out twenty-three small steps and stop.
“Bow to Manu,” he said, playing his light over the image of the mountain peak a few feet in front of him. Then he bent at the waist, studying the painted image intently.
“Remember, they were shorter,” Emma said, glancing at Steed with an amused grin. “Perhaps you should bow lower.”
“Yes,” Hastings said, deepening his bow so that he had to strain his neck back to look ahead at the image. Suddenly he dropped to a squat, aiming his torch at a spot just below Manu.
“Doctor?” Steed called out.
“Remarkable,” he replied. “It’s so perfectly placed that I couldn’t see it until my head was at exactly the right height.”
“See what Doctor?” Emma asked, one hand on Steed’s forearm to forestall him from shouting.
Hastings studied the floor between him and the painted image, then stepped forward in his squatting stance. Emma inhaled a sharp breath, frightened for him. Steed caught her eye with a concerned look. We should be doing it.
“It’s a lever,” Hastings finally explained. “Tucked in here so that you had to be in exactly that spot to see it.”
He put his hand on the lever and looked back over his shoulder.
“Stay back,” he said. Then he pulled the lever.
“We are to protect the tomb,” one of Horus’s men declared. He and his three companions were gathered around the shut door in the dim first chamber. They had tried pushing it and pounding on it, and they had looked for a release. They thought they could hear sounds outside, but the stones were too closely fitted for them to communicate.
“How do you know? Lord Horus told us to get the three English people.”
“To stop them from desecrating the tomb.”
The arguer scowled and looked at the parts of the corpse still dangling from the spikes. The dried flesh and bones had parted and partially crumbled as the sections of wall retracted.
“There will be more traps like that one,” he said. “My cousin died in a hidden pit.”
“Your cousin was a worthless tomb robber,” the other man spat. “The English will trigger them,” he added to soften his first comment. The other man eyed him angrily for a moment and then turned away.
“Let’s go,” one of the other men said, lifting one of the lanterns high. “We will be well rewarded if we can present the English to Lord Horus when he opens the door.”
The fourth man nodded and picked up the other lantern, exhibiting complete confidence that Horus would have the door opened. Overruled, the arguer deepened his scowl and followed, trailed by the man who had insulted him.
“We were going to leave it and go home,” Sally pointed out not for the first time, stifling a yawn with the back of one hand. She was sitting on a low filing cabinet against one wall.
Tara shot her a sharp look from her perch in front of the black and white monitor. James stretched his arms above his head and tousled Sally’s hair affectionately with one hand as he did. He was seated in a chair with his legs stretched out in front of him.
“Tara’s got a vested interest now,” he observed. “Just what sort of trouble has McCall gotten in to?”
Now Tara turned her glare on him. But his impish grin softened her and she pursed her lips and heaved a sigh.
“It’s just as I said, James: Some important documents are missing. I think the monkey took them.”
“Just papers?” James prodded, straightening up.
Tara sighed again and Sally leaned forward expectantly, certain that Tara was about to explain whatever trouble had motivated her to join them. But Tara’s eyes darted back to the monitor and widened.
“He’s out there,” she said, grabbing both sides of the monitor.
With an echoing creak the painted Aker split down the middle and the two halves swung away. Hastings rose slowly, his torch aimed into the chamber now revealed to them. Steed and Emma joined him, their lights fully illuminating the space.
“Is it a naos?” Steed asked. The others knew he was speaking of the large stone vault in the middle of the chamber. It was ornately carved with the image of a large ankh prominent in the center of the side facing them.
“Yes, a container for sacred statuary. This chamber is a temple.”
“To what deity, Doctor?” Emma asked, walking boldly over to the naos.
Hastings took a moment to study the walls, which were covered with colorful images, and several oversized statues studded with precious stones and gold.
“Osiris,” he said, playing his light along the wall. With a sudden gasp he stopped and the others looked at what he had found. A black snake hunched in a man-sized niche, its long body coiled around and around until its narrow head was high enough to peer down at the viewer. There was malice in the empty stone eyes. For a moment Emma was captivated by the embodiment of evil so effective that three thousand years later and with no common social or cultural ties to the artist she was actually frightened by the cold stone figure.
“That is Apep, the snake demon,” Hastings said.
“They worshiped him?” Steed asked.
“No, not exactly. He is placed here to protect the temple and the tomb. To the ancients he is very powerful and frightening indeed.”
“Well, let’s be careful not to rile him up,” Steed quipped, which made Emma break her nearly hypnotized stare at the creature and shoot him a mocking smile.
“What about her?” Steed asked, illuminating another alcove where an oversized woman with a lion’s head was seated.
“Sekhmet,” Hastings replied after only a glance. “The sun goddess and destructor. Annoy her and she’ll go into a bloody rage and destroy most everything in sight.”
“Steed,” Emma said with a cautionary look, “do not say it.”
Steed’s mouth quivered with amusement as their eyes met and held for a moment. Then she smiled wryly. Seeing that Hastings was wide-eyed with apparent confusion Steed did speak.
“I would not consider making a crass comment about the fairer sex, my dear.”
“Of course not, Steed,” Emma said fondly.
There were more alcoves housing menacing creatures that Hastings identified, his voice growing increasingly tense.
“This is an extravagant display,” he said. “They are all here to protect the remains of the deceased. He must have been very rich, or very important.”
“She may have been both,” Emma suggested, her attention returned to the carved ankh on the naos. “There are seams around it. I think it will move if I push it.”
“We’re certain the clues were to get safely into the tomb?” Steed asked.
“Shouldn’t you have considered that earlier?” Hastings asked with unusually timidity.
“Don’t worry Doctor,” Emma chuckled, “I did consider it. I think our only true misjudgment so far was assuming the clues disarmed traps. So far they have opened doors.”
“There’s a first time for everything, Mrs. Peel,” Steed said.
“Indeed,” Emma nodded, then placed both hands on the carved ankh and pushed.
“The door has closed, master. Our brothers are inside,” the surviving man from the fight outside the tomb lay prostrate on the dirt beside Horus’s carriage.
Horus had received a minor wound from the robber’s knife as he shot the fellow. His two men had dragged the robber’s body out of the carriage and bandaged Horus with strips torn from the hems of their galabiyya.
“They will go after the English,” Horus said, completely trusting his loyal servants to carry on inside the tomb. Previously he had feared that the English knew all of the secrets, now he hoped that they did and would use them to disarm any traps. He knew that his men would capture them eventually, assuming they could pass through the tomb safely.
“But the door, lord Horus. They cannot get out,” the prostrate man said.
“There is a key, my son,” Horus said, certain that the English had brought it, and that it was there somewhere. “You will find it and use it to re-open the door. Here is what you look for …”
A low grumbling sound quickly escalated to a roaring vibration that filled the temple. Steed grabbed Emma and pulled her away from the naos in a shower of dust. Hastings stood with his hands on his hips peering up at the ceiling, his eyes protected from the dust by his eyeglasses. As the noise and vibration intensified small fragments of stone began to break loose from the ancient walls and ceiling.
“Amazing!” Hastings shouted as a chunk the size of a tennis ball dropped a foot to his left.
“We need to get out of here,” Steed said, leading Emma by the hand toward the entrance.
They had taken three steps when the naos split apart, the four enormous stone sides crashing to the floor. The front panel that had born the carved ankh shattered at Steed and Emma’s feet and for a moment they were too shocked to move. The vibration had weakened but not stopped, and heavy dust still rained down from cracks in the ceiling. Steed dragged his handkerchief from his pocket to cover his mouth as he struggled with a coughing fit.
“Look at it. It’s magnificent!” Hastings said, pointing at the structure revealed inside the naos.
A wide, twisted column widened at the base into six distinct legs, each a concave shape, and each pointed outward at one of the alcoves in the surrounding walls. Six large stone balls were rocking on small platforms at the top of the column. As the room gave a final shake the balls fell into the grooves. They spiraled around the column in ever-widening circles, one that must be slightly heavier going faster than the rest.
Steed held Emma’s hand tight and led her to the left nearer the alcove housing the statue of Sekhmet. Hastings moved the other way, watching the rolling balls as if trying to guess which one would come down the nearest shoot.
They had only a moment to wait. Having accelerated to a dangerous speed the first ball rolled from its shoot across the floor at the back of the naos. It struck and shattered the base of a turtle statue and the carved figure shattered as well. The other five balls struck Sekhmet, the Apep, and the other statues almost simultaneously. All of them shattered and were revealed to have been hollow ceramic figures, not carved stone.
“Remarkable effect,” Emma said, eying the serpentine column as she crossed between it and the rubble of the Sekhmet statue. “Too bad the one ball was heavier, it disrupted the harmony of the effect.”
“I think it was intentional,” Hastings said. He had already reached the remains of the turtle statue. Steed and Emma joined him there.
The heavy ball had smashed through the base and slammed with enough force into the rear wall of the alcove to punch a hole in it. A quick inspection of the other alcoves showed that their rear walls were solid stone. While Emma and Steed checked them Hastings kicked at the break in the wall and crouched to shine his torch through.
“This is the passage,” he declared as Steed and Emma rejoined him. “The ball was heavier to be certain it would break through.”
“So we didn’t trigger a trap,” Steed said, glancing back at the column as he brushed dust off his shoulders. Emma watched him for a moment, then playfully brushed some of the dust off of his hair. He paused to look at her, the edges of his mouth curled in a smile.
“Not at all,” Hastings said, clearly delighted at the destruction they’d just caused. “The statues were here to deter tomb robbers – to the ancients the threat of these evil beings was a real as the spikes of that first trap we saw. The device removed the threat while at the same time showing us the proper path. It’s brilliant.”
“Just as Mrs. Gale predicted,” Emma added.
“And,” Steed added, pausing to get their attention, “now we can be certain that no one has robbed this tomb.”
“Indeed,” Hastings said, returning to kicking the back wall of the alcove in order to enlarge the opening. “At least not by passing this way.”
Steed arched one brow at the archaeologist’s back, then looked at Emma. She looked back at him with wide-eyed concern, then moved in to help Hastings.
“Stay calm,” James admonished the women as he leaned forward and craned his neck to see the monitor. Tara released it and leaned back so that he and Sally could see it. “There’s no guarantee he’ll take the bait tonight.”
“He’s got to!” Tara growled.
“Just think banana,” Sally suggested with a sideways glance at James. He winked at her.
They watched the monkey trot across the outer office floor, pausing to examine the contents of a wastebasket. It sniffed at a discarded sandwich wrapper and dropped it on the floor.
“That’s a good sign – he’s hungry,” Sally said hopefully.
Tara gasped as the monkey leapt up onto Miss Mansel’s desk where the trap was waiting. James smiled knowingly as they watched it examine the box. Seeing the banana, it stood on its hind legs to reach up and find that the box had a top. Then it circled the box rapping on the Plexiglas and gnawing at the corners.
“Do they make easier traps for stupid monkeys?” Tara asked icily.
“Just be patient,” James said.
“Can’t he smell it through the holes?” Sally asked.
“That’s the theory,” James agreed.
Sure enough, after it tired of trying to bite through the Plexiglas the monkey sat back and sniffed. Its little nose twitched and it rose up on its haunches to touch the edge of the nearest hole.
“That’s it,” James crooned softly. “Grab the banana.”
But the monkey would not be coaxed. It circled the box again examining each of the four holes. Finally it settled on one of them and poked its nose into it experimentally. When its face didn’t fit, it pulled back and reached through the hole with its right hand.
It wrapped its fingers around the banana and pulled, and discovered that its fist was too big for the hole. The three humans each held their breath as the monkey tried adjusting its grip on the fruit to no avail.
“It’s going to drop it,” Tara breathed, her head shaking slowly while her eyes remained riveted on the monitor.
“I don’t think so,” James countered.
They all waited another minute watching the monkey try a few more grips and then try unsuccessfully to gnaw on the edge of the hole. He seemed willing to try anything other than letting go of the banana.
“Time to call security,” James said.
“Oh no,” Dr. Hastings voice fell as he spoke the two short syllables. Steed held the lantern high to illuminate the chamber they had just entered. It was scattered with broken ceramics and shards of wood from several shattered chests. Steed, Emma, and Hastings stepped carefully into the room placing their feet to avoid further damage to the objects there. Precious gems and metals had been pried from the statuary against the walls and some of the figures knocked over. Emma suppressed a wave of anger at the unknown violators of this deep chamber as she worked her way around it near the wall. Steed stood near the center of the space slowly turning with the lantern wondering how the robbers had gotten in if they did not pass through the temple.
Dr. Hastings picked his way across the room using his torch to light up an intact statue at the edge of a dark expanse of space. His torch was not strong enough to touch the far wall, but as he got closer he realized that there was a deep pit behind the figure crossed by a narrow stone walkway.
“Mr. Steed,” he said, looking back over his shoulder. “I’ve found a khet.”
Steed went to him, the lantern light driving away the shadows in the vast open space to reveal the edges of the pit, but not the far side.
“Are those sphinxes?” he asked, momentarily distracted by rows of crouching figures about twenty yards apart on either side of the edges of the pit.
“Yes. This could be called a dromos,” Hastings said. “How do you suppose we douse this khet?”
Steed turned his attention to the carved brazier. Its bed was piled with carven coals that had doubtlessly once been covered with gold. The robbers had chipped away the precious gilt and left the scarred stone. The khet’s hinged stone lid stood open. Steed was tempted to try to close it, but thought better of it – they ought to try to guess at the results of such an action before taking it.
“Do you think they followed the walkway?” he wondered. “I don’t see any bodies caught by a trap.”
“We can’t see the far side,” Hastings pointed out the obvious. “But the inscriptions on this khet are extremely ominous. It is possible that whoever did this,” he glanced back at the chamber, “was satisfied with the funeral goods.”
“And sufficiently intimidated by the inscriptions,” Steed concluded.
“Sufficiently frightened by the trap designer’s reputation, more likely,” Hastings countered. “Or whoever it was may have intended to come back. We should find out how they got in.” Hastings turned as he spoke, playing his light over the ransacked chamber. Emma’s light flickered from behind a large toppled statue in a far corner.
“Found anything Mrs. Peel?” Steed called out, glancing sidelong at Hastings.
“Just rubble,” came her reply. “I –.”
“Mr. Steed, look out!”
Hastings’s warning came just as four men charged in from the passage they’d used. Two headed straight for Steed and Hastings while the other two paused to look around. One spotted Emma’s light and tapped the other on the shoulder. They both headed her way.
Steed stepped forward to meet their attackers, hoping to keep Dr. Hastings out of the fight. The first man stopped just within range and swung his fist at Steed’s head. Steed easily blocked the blow with his left forearm and then ducked to the right to drive his shoulder into the other attacker’s chest. He grabbed the second man’s right arm and leaned to the left, propelling him around toward the khet. The first man grabbed Steed around the shoulders as he swiveled breaking Steed’s grip on the second man. Hastings darted out of the way as the released attacker stumbled past him and onto the narrow dromos.
At Hastings’s shout Emma had poked her head out from behind the statue and spotted the men coming toward her. She climbed up onto the fallen statue, leaping at them with open arms as soon as they were close enough. Her unexpected move took them by surprise and she bowled them both to the floor. But then she had to choose. She rolled to her knees and then to her left as the man on the right recovered and lunged for her. Regaining her feet she dodged further to the right and stayed low, avoiding the lunge and using her right hand to knock the man off balance and head first into the statue. By then the man on the right was back up and reaching for her throat. She grabbed his and found his windpipe with her thumbs, but he outreached her and she instantly felt the pain of a restricted airway.
Steed’s attacker fell a few feet along the dromos and snatched at the sides as he realized his precarious position on the narrow walkway. Hastings watched him, wondering if he’d be able to push him off should the need arise. As he was considering this a loud clunk echoed in the large chamber, followed by the distinctive sound of smashing pottery. Steed, engaged in a no-rules wrestling match with his other opponent, started at the sound, then redoubled the pressure on his enemy’s neck.
With a rushing, gurgling sound liquid flooded the pit beneath the dromos. The fallen man shouted in surprise and tried to scramble to his knees, but slipped again and wound up flat on his stomach, one leg and one arm hanging over opposite sides. And then a scraping, grinding sound nearly as annoying as fingernails on slate began. Hastings quickly located its source: just below the start of the dromos a shower of sparks was being created by a rough wheel rotating against a piece of flint. As the liquid in the pit rose the sparks ignited it with a terrifying whosh. The fallen man screamed as his hand and foot were scorched, and continued to scream as the hem of his galabiyya caught fire.
Gasping for breath Emma released her grip on the man’s throat and instead tried to break his hold by swinging her fisted hands outward at his forearms. She tried again, this time bringing her right knee up as hard and fast as she could. It connected with his gut and he let go, backing away with his hands to his abdomen. Still gasping Emma swung around just in time to partially deflect a strike by the other man. He had picked up a piece of broken stone carving that glanced painfully off of Emma’s right forearm. Thanking her luck that it hadn’t been the weaker left, she attempted to drive that hand into his throat. But he spun away and she fell forward, both hands planted on the fallen statue. She took another breath, a little deeper this time as her windpipe recovered, then spun back around. She saw the hunk of stone coming and raised her hands. But she was too late, and then everything went dark.
Steed found solid footing and used the new leverage to heave his opponent away. Then he took a moment to glance at the screaming man. He had seen many ugly deaths, but the torch of a man writhing for a moment on the dromos and then rolling down into the burning liquid to be finally engulfed shocked even him. His eyes met Hastings and he saw his horror mirrored in the archaeologist’s face. But he had no time for further reflection as the other attacker came back at him, grabbing him from behind as if to march him into the flames as well. Steed slammed his elbow back into the man’s soft middle, then bowed low, dragging him over his shoulder to drop him on the floor at his feet. Except the man landed in a crouch and recovered quickly, forcing Steed back a couple steps and then looking at Hastings as if considering which morsel to taste next.
“Run across,” Steed ordered Hastings, directing him with his gaze across the dromos. “Go quickly.”
Hastings looked from Steed to the attacker, and then down into the flames where the burning body could still be seen. The chamber had filled with the stench of burning fuel as well as scorched flesh, and Hastings could not stop a sudden gag. He covered his mouth and took a step toward the edge of the pit. Steed’s opponent turned back to Steed, apparently choosing the greater threat, and lunged at him with open arms. Agile and fast, Steed swiveled away from him and danced around to place himself between the man and Hastings.
Hastings let himself retch, the remains of their early breakfast disappearing into the flames. He wiped his mouth with his handkerchief and looked again at Steed battling with the attacker. Steed was far stronger than he looked, and almost every move was a dirty trick. The archaeologist knew he was only a liability in this situation. Gritting his teeth, he aligned himself with the center of the dromos and made a run for it, vaguely recalling Steed’s suggestion that the dromos might be a bed of hot coals as the heat penetrated the soles of his boots.
Behind him Steed was once again being edged backward toward the pit. He fought like a mad man, swinging punches high and low and deflecting more strikes than he landed. Still he edged toward the flames, letting his attacker press him, but setting his own path so that his feet were soon set on the dromos. The heat was nearly unbearable, but he edged out onto the narrow walkway anyway. His mouth spit into a grimace that he forced into a savage grin as he wiggled his fingers at his opponent. Come on, it’s not that bloody hot. Give me a try out here.
He kept edging back – four feet, five . . . Then the man followed, closing the gap in three strides and swinging both fists together to knock Steed sideways into the flames. But Steed ducked low and lunged on all fours, knocking the man off his feet. He fell forward over Steed and wrapped his arms around his waist so that as he lost his balance and rolled to the right he tried to pull Steed with him.
Steed dropped to his belly and grabbed the sides of the stone pathway as the man began to slip off. He felt hands grasp at his belt and he split his legs to either side of the pathway, exposing them to the flames, but holding onto the stone with powerful thighs and calves. The man was screaming, his galabiyya already flaming around his legs, his feet in the oil itself. Steed held on, his fingers burning, his hair smelling singed, until the man finally fell.
And then when he moved his smoldering trousers came in contact with his thighs and he heard himself howl in pain as loudly as the others. He staggered to his feet and ran the short distance off of the dromos, his legs and hands in agony. He used his less damaged palms to hold and open his depleted canteen. He slid down to the floor beside the khet and let the tepid water cool the agony in his blistered fingers and scorched thighs, taking a small gulp to slake his thirst as well.
“Mr. Steed?” from the far side of the pit Hastings had watched him defeat his opponent and stagger to safety but it was difficult to see him clearly through the heat haze and shifting light of the fire. “Are you injured?”
Steed swallowed another gulp of water and inhaled a deep breath, nearly gagging at the smell of burning flesh and ancient oil.
“Just a scratch, Doctor. And you?”
“Perfectly fine, Mr. Steed. More than perfect. The sarcophagus is untouched!” The delight in his voice was unmistakable. But Steed’s next thought had nothing to do with the long-dead Egyptian.
“Mrs. Peel?” he called out, rolling his head to the right toward where he’d last seen her.
There was no response.
“Is she there?” Hastings asked.
With strength renewed by sudden fear Steed got to his feet and picked up the lantern that he’d left by the khet before the attack.
“Come back over, Doctor,” he shouted as he headed for the fallen statue where she’d been. “We should stay together.”
“Mr. Steed, the sarcophagus –.”
“Has been here for centuries. It will keep for a while longer while we find Mrs. Peel.”
“Ouch! Gentlemen please,” Emma hissed after the third or fourth time that her behind slammed against the uneven floor. In the near darkness she could just see the man holding her legs. He glanced down at her when she spoke, then said something in Arabic to the man holding her arms.
“Silence!” the man in front snapped. Emma had the distinct impression that it was the only English word he knew. Unfortunately, Arabic was not one of the several languages she spoke. So she complied with his order, taking time do a mental assessment of her condition. She felt a chorus of aches all over her body from the fight and being carried by the arms and legs, but none of them seemed serious. There was a large numb area on the back of her head that did not especially hurt, but that she knew was going to very soon. With her arms restricted she had no way of determining whether she was bleeding from a wound there. And she was not sure whether the vague dizziness she felt was from the blow to her head or the way she was being carried. The last thing she remembered was fighting with the two men in the dim burial chamber. The details were fuzzy, which suggested she might have a concussion.
Knowing that she ought to conserve what strength she had she tried to relax, but the constant jarring motion of being carried made that nearly impossible. She concentrated on her surroundings, realizing only then that both men were walking in an awkward, stooped way because the ceiling was very low. There were sidewalls as well – they were in a narrow tunnel. Judging from the rough walls and ceiling, and the occasional lumps on the floor that banged her butt, Emma doubted that it was part of the tomb complex.
“Look there,” Hastings said, indicating a low, dark opening in the stretch of wall illuminated by Emma’s fallen torch. Steed had already noticed it. His heart fell as he picked up the torch and carried it toward the opening. “Weren’t there two more men?” Hastings asked.
“Yes. You didn’t see them go back the way we came in?”
“No. I think I would have noticed, I was looking back across the dromos and that entrance was beyond it. This tunnel is half concealed by this statue.” He patted the hip of the toppled figure almost fondly.
“This must be how the robbers got in,” Steed crouched in front of the low opening and shined Emma’s torch inside. Hastings examined the cut edges of the opening where it interrupted the wall decorations.
“It’s very old,” he said. “The tomb was robbed in antiquity. That would support my theory that the robbers were put off by the last trap – they were contemporaneous with its designer.”
“It seems unlikely that no one has found the tunnel since then,” Steed said.
“Unless it’s blocked.”
Steed half turned to look up at the archaeologist. Hastings peered into the darkness beyond their torchlight.
“So our attackers with Emma may reach a dead end.”
“We could wait and see if they come back.”
Steed shook his head, the notion of not going after Emma incomprehensible. He couldn’t live with himself if she was hurt and needed him.
“Watch your head.” Torch in one hand, lantern in the other, Steed plunged into the opening. Hastings took a wistful look around the burial chamber and across the dying fire at the sarcophagus, then followed him.
“Mrs. McCall, it is two o’clock in the morning. You had better have a very good reason for – Oh, good morning Mr. Bond. I didn’t know you were in Paris.” The ambassador squared his shoulders and sniffed, his eyes darting from Bond to Tara and then to the monkey. It looked up at him from Miss Mansel’s desk with a contrite expression on its surprisingly expressive face. The banana was still clasped in its fist.
“What is Ralph’s monkey doing there?”
“Precisely what we want to know, your Excellency,” Tara replied.
It had taken a lot of fast talking to convince the head of security to rouse the ambassador from his bed and Tara knew that if they didn’t make a convincing case she and Sally would most likely be booted out of the embassy. Steed would be livid.
“We have been experiencing a series of small thefts, your Excellency,” Sally said. Although no one had told her to keep quiet, she knew from the look Tara gave her that it had been expected. But that hardly seemed fair – capturing the monkey had been her idea. She was prepared to accept the reward, or the reprimand from Steed if everything went wrong.
The ambassador turned to her expectantly.
“Some were quite petty – someone’s lunch, a few papers. But others were serious – secret documents vanished from secure offices, some turning up where they did not belong, others not turning up at all. We staked out our offices and watched the monkey come in the night and take things. We did not wish to simply accuse him without sufficient proof, so we set this trap.”
The ambassador smiled thinly, obviously hearing her unspoken reasons – they knew they had to catch the monkey in the act or neither security nor the ambassador himself would have believed them.
“And how do you fit into the scheme, Mr. Bond?” he asked.
Bond smiled innocently. “Just an observer, your Excellency. I’m here to keep the ladies company in their vigil.”
“And pleasant company they were I’m certain,” the ambassador said as he returned his attention to the monkey. “You’re certain this creature is the culprit?”
“There is one further bit of evidence we’d like your help with, your Excellency,” Tara said. “Does the monkey have a bed or a cage? Someplace it feels safe?”
“Yes, in Ralph’s room.”
“We’d like to examine it – if we find the missing documents we’ll know the monkey is the villain.”
Horus mopped dust from his face with his handkerchief and looked up the hill at the sound of gravel and rocks rattling down. One of his men was dislodging the loose material as he half walked half slid down. His arms were out to his sides for balance. He carried a familiar object in one hand.
“Lord Horus, we have found it!” he declared nearing the path where Horus’s carriage waited.
Horus inhaled a deep, calming breath of super-heated desert air. He reminded himself that he had not given them further instructions, so it was natural for them to bring their prize to him like proud cats with a bird.
“Give it to me,” he demanded, suddenly needing to touch the object so long out of his possession. The man handed it up to him, his eyes averted. Horus caressed the phallus, oblivious to any possibly perverse interpretation of the gesture. After the scroll that had contained the directions for opening the tomb, this key was the most important artifact Horus had ever possessed. And like the directions he had entrusted it to his sons. They had removed it and the clues from Egypt, protecting the secret tomb by virtue of distance and disassociation.
It had been given to him by the ancient gods – one of a handful of artifacts recovered from a crate found half floating in the Nile after the boat Lutz was in had sunk. Another few minutes and it would have sunk as well, but instead it had been recovered by the boatmen and brought to him, Lutz’s assistant. When he’d unpacked the box and found it – so obviously the missing key to the secret door – he’d felt justified in all that he’d done. Lutz had been carrying it to Luxor to share it with the authorities. Lutz had known of the clues, and he would have insisted that Horus surrender the papyrus as well. Lutz had been weak, a servant of the criminal authorities. He, Horus, had saved the tomb from certain destruction in the name of modern science.
“My Lord Horus?” his man had mustered the temerity to raise his eyes to the carriage. “Is it the right one?”
Horus squeezed his eyes shut tight for a moment, formulating a new plan. Then he looked down at his man with a benevolent smile.
“Yes it is. You have done well. But there is still much to do. You –.”
“My Lord! Horus!” He was interrupted by a shout from the trail behind the carriage. A tattoo of pounding feet soon became audible as well, and Horus’s man turned to look back down the trail. The sun shade of the carriage blocked Horus’s view even if he craned his neck around.
“It is Abdullah,” his man said. “He was inside the tomb when the door shut!”
“Horus!” Abdullah shouted again as he neared the carriage.
“Yes Abdullah. I am here. How do you come here?”
Abdullah came up on the side of the carriage opposite the other man and put his hands on it for balance as he stood gasping. Horus waited patiently, absently stroking the phallus.
“We have the woman,” Abdullah finally managed to gasp. “We found another way out and brought her to the village.”
“You have here there now?”
“Yes Lord Horus. She is our prisoner. Our brothers were fighting the English men, but if they were not victorious then the men will come for her.”
Horus instantly recognized the narrow margin of their tentative victory. All of the reports he’d received suggested that the English agent was both dangerous and resiliant.
“Get the others. We go to the village. Abdullah, help me turn this carriage!”
Awakened by a biting pain in her wrists and ankles Emma gradually realized that she had been unconscious again. She was stretched out on her back on a hard surface with her arms and legs spread and bound so that she felt particularly vulnerable. She was in a room that had the feel of being in a structure, not deep underground. She didn’t really know if she could trust her instincts in that regard, but she felt that after so many hours underground she would have sensed the presence of tons of earth above her. Perhaps, she realized as the fog cleared from her mind, it was merely that there was a draft of warm air carrying a hint of animal – goats perhaps, or camels.
It was very quiet and too dark to see much of anything, but she tried and gradually her vision adjusted enough for her to make out shapes. Large, hulking shapes that she couldn’t identify, other than to be fairly certain they were inanimate objects, not people.
Having exhausted her survey of what she could see, hear, smell, and feel, she focused her attention on freeing herself. The ropes binding her wrists were rough, thick, and tied very tight. She had to assume that her ankles, which were still sheathed in her heavy leather boots, were bound the same way. Ignoring the pain of her abraded skin she began twisting her wrists back and forth hoping to wiggle out of the ropes.
“I don’t believe it,” Steed growled as he held the lantern out in front of him to illuminate two diverging tunnels. “This is a bloody underground network.”
“Can we follow their tracks?” Hastings aimed his torch at the ground in front of Steed. The rocky floor looked the same in either tunnel.
“There isn’t enough dust to show tracks,” Steed said. “Left or right, Doctor?”
“You’re making me choose?”
“It’s a fifty-fifty chance if I choose. You may have some deeper insight that gives you better odds.”
Hastings shut his eyes, swallowed hard, and said: “Go left.”
“Yes Ralph. I’m sorry to wake you, but there’s a problem with Kiko.”
The boy switched on the bedside lamp and swung his feet to the floor.
“What’s wrong with him?” he asked as he started across the room toward the cage, which was hidden under a cloth cover. The ambassador picked up a dressing gown from a blanket chest at the foot of the bed and followed him.
“Put this on son,” he said.
Ralph ignored him, pulling the cover off over the top of the cage and dropping it on the floor. The cage door was open.
“He’s gone! Father, where is Kiko?”
“He’s here son,” Bond said, stepping into the room with the security guard who’d brought the monkey. Tara and Sally stayed in the doorway, not wishing to intrude overcrowd the boy’s room.
“Kiko!” Ralph finished shrugging into the dressing gown his father had pressed upon him and ran to the guard. The monkey practically catapulted itself into the boy’s arms, wrapping its arms, legs, and long tail around his upper body and turning a suspicious glare on Bond, the guard, and finally Sally and Tara.
“Where did you find him?” Ralph asked, stroking the monkey’s back.
“In the Chancery offices, Ralph. Kiko has caused some serious problems,” the ambassador said sternly.
“Is he going to have to go away?” Ralph asked, his voice rising an octave.
“No son, a monkey-proof latch should do the trick,” Bond said reassuringly, moving toward the cage.
“I want a padlock on that cage. Tonight,” the ambassador told the guard. The man nodded and immediately left the room.
“What has he done?” Ralph asked, following Bond to the cage. Bond reached inside and retrieved a handful of torn, soiled papers and files. From the doorway Sally could see “Top Secret” stamped on several of them.
“Your monkey has been wandering the embassy collecting things,” Bond said. “These papers are top secret documents.”
Ralph’s face drained of color as he pressed it against Kiko’s neck. The monkey stroked the back of his head with one paw.
“He’s sorry,” he muttered. “He didn’t know it was wrong.”
“Ralph, are these the only secret papers Kiko has brought to his cage? Or have you found some when you cleaned it before?”
The boy looked wide-eyed up at Bond, his lips pinched tightly together.
“Ralph, answer Mr. Bond’s question,” his father said.
“I didn’t know what to do with them,” the boy muttered, holding Kiko even tighter as he carried him back toward the bed. “I put them in here.”
He opened the blanket chest. A rank, sour odor wafted out and the ambassador covered his nose and mouth. Ralph reached into the chest and took out another handful of papers.
“Am I going to be sent back to England?” he asked.
“No son,” the ambassador said, looking as if he were trying not to inhale. “But we are going to have a long talk about security. In the morning.” Sally was impressed with the ambassador’s ability to speak calmly despite his obvious anger. He reminded her of Steed.
Bond added the papers to his pile and looked up at Sally with a grimace. She had a hard time suppressing a giggle until she realized that it would inevitably fall to her to deal with the disgusting mess.
How long have I been here? Emma wondered, still twisting her wrists against the ropes. But she had lost her enthusiasm for the task as the ropes only scratched her and failed to loosen at all. Her concern for the time was not for herself, but for Steed. She knew he would pursue her and her abductors. How far behind can he be?
While she refused to consciously consider the possibility that he might not be coming, her rational, analytical mind could not completely disregard it. If Steed did not come, she must go to him, and if the worst had occurred and he was lost to her she would have to find her own way to get home to their son. These were familiar dilemmas and she had learned to deal with the nascent panic a very long time ago. She squelched miserable thoughts of raising John without Steed by concentrating on tensing and releasing her constructed muscles in order to be ready to move when an opportunity arrived.
A series of arrhythmic thumps preceded the squeal of unlubricated metal hinges, and then the room was suffused with the dim, yellowish glow of an oil lamp. Three men entered through a door Emma had to crane her neck to see. The first one set the lantern on a crate and watched the second man, who moved his enormous body in a slow waddle toward Emma. He was holding the stone phallus in one hand and stroking it absently with the other in a way that made Emma shiver inwardly. The third man carried a cylindrical basket. The light, which seemed bright to Emma’s unadjusted eyes, allowed her to identify the objects in the room: several large wooden crates, a pile of old wooden furniture near a wall, a cabinet with a sagging door. It was a storage room. And now Emma realized that the surface she was tied to was a table, the ropes secured to the four legs.
Horus – for it could only be he – stood looking down at her with a vague, light-eyed gaze that suggested he was thinking about something completely unrelated. That he continued to stroke the phallus made her not want to know what
“Well?” she asked after a few moments, her tone somewhat acid.
“You have desecrated my tomb,” he rumbled, his gaze still unfocused, his hands still moving absently.
“I hate to disappoint you,” she replied, “but someone else got there way ahead of us.”
Horus ignored her, turning away and noding toward his men. They stepped to either side of the table and with a pair of grunts lifted it and stood it on end so that her weight shifted onto her tied feet.
A wave of lightheadedness forced her to close her eyes as she gripped the ropes at her wrists with her hands. Despite her attempts to exercise her muscles, she instantly felt the telltale tingling of lost circulation in her legs and feet.
During her momentary distraction one of the men had set the basket on the floor in front of her. The other man lifted a heavy wooden chair from the pile of furniture and set it down for Horus. He then moved to the crate next to the lantern and took a seat. Horus nodded to the man still near Emma and he reached down and took the top off of the basket.
Emma wanted to maintain eye contact with Horus but curiosity got the better of her and she had to look down. At first there was just writhing darkness and then a narrow, scaled head emerged. It looked around the dim room, tongue flicking in and out. The man who’d opened the basket stepped away to retrieve an old broom from against a wall. He took up a position next to Horus. A movement from the other man caught Emma’s eye. He seemed to shudder and pulled his legs up onto the box to sit cross-legged. He looked decidedly nervous.
“What now?” Emma asked.
“The gods have instructed me to use their messengers. They will choose the moment of your sacrifice and the gods will be satisfied.”
Emma frowned as another brown head lifted from the basket. Already the first cobra was slithering down the outside of the tight weave. She wracked her memory for information about the native Egyptian snakes. She was sure she’d read something in her research – it had conjured images of snake charmers in turbans playing pipes. She was sure they were poisonous, but not sure just how much. Would one bite kill her? And how quickly?
“You are as likely to be bitten as me,” Emma watched the cobra slither toward her captors. The man holding the broom dropped the head of brush between Horus and the snake and swept at the creature. It reared and struck so quickly it was almost invisible. Emma’s eyes met Horus’s and she cringed at the beatific smile he wore.
“You see? I will not be harmed,” he said serenely. Emma glanced at the man on the crate and felt a somewhat less innocent smile curl her own lips. His skin had paled to an ashy color and he had a white-knuckled gripped the edge of the crate.
A movement at her feet caught her eye and she looked down as another snake lifted its head from the basket and leaned toward her right leg, tongue flicking. She held her breath, wishing herself away from the creature, hoping that the decreased circulation in her legs made her flesh less appealingly warm. The snake moved on in its survey, eventually lowering its head to slither out of the basket.
“I only see two,” Emma lied, eyes flicking to the man on the crate and then Horus. “Has one gone under that pile of furniture? I’ve read that they like to stay near the walls before they strike.”
The frightened man’s eyes widened and he craned his neck to look back over his shoulder at the floor behind his crate.
“Asim!” Horus growled. The man’s head snapped back around, but he avoided looking at his master.
“What’s so special about this tomb?” Emma asked, hoping that like so many villains he would be anxious to explain himself to his victim.
“The gods gave it to me to protect,” Horus replied.
“How did they do that?” Emma tried for a curious tone, knowing that he would not respond to the skepticism she was feeling. Either she was successful or he was oblivious so vocal subtlety. He answered readily.
“The gods gave me the scroll with the solutions to the doors and traps. Lutz had discarded it as meaningless, but I translated it. I preserved it. And I passed the solutions to my sons. The gods rewarded me with this key – it was in the only crate salvaged from the river after Lutz drowned. They gave it to me, and I entrusted it to my sons as well. My sons removed the clues and the key from Egypt to keep them safe.”
“From the tomb robbers.”
Horus growled and spat at the floor. “The Feather of Ma’at? They are agents of the antiquities authorities. Governments are the real tomb robbers in Egypt. But they will not have this tomb. You and your men will disappear, and the tomb will be resealed.”
“But it’s been raided. Its treasures are already long gone.”
“I follow the gods’ wishes.”
“Perhaps by giving you the solutions and the key the gods meant you to open the tomb to the world,” Emma suggested wickedly.
“The gods made me the tomb’s guardian,” he replied evenly. “The guardian always knows the secrets, but he is trusted not to employ them.”
“So all these years you’ve known how to get in – lacking the physical key, of course. The temptation must have been very difficult to withstand.”
“I have –,” Horus paused and Emma inclined her head curiously. He took a deep breath and went on, “Yes. I have withstood the temptation. The gods chose me well. From childhood I have been strong. I have stood up to the forces of evil here in the Valley. I have protected the secrets.” As he went on in this vein Emma’s mind wandered. She didn’t believe a word he was saying. She suspected that he had, in fact, forgotten the secrets himself after telling them to the four Englishmen. And she was certain that he was quite mad. He’d mentioned preserving scrolls. She has seen references in her research to mercury used as a preservative. Mercury poisoning caused dementia. As he went on with his self-aggrandizement she looked back down at the basket where another deadly snake was emerging, and then toward the hole in the floor. If Steed’s usual luck was still with him he would emerge from that hole soon. And he’ll find himself in a pit of vipers, not to mention cobras.
“I’m terribly sorry Steed. You know it was a fifty-fifty chance,” Dr. Hastings said for the third time in thirty minutes. He knew that Steed was frustrated and anxious about locating his wife, but he wished the man would say something to him. He did not fancy being on the wrong side of the tall, powerful agent’s anger. They had followed the tunnel to the left for what felt like a half a mile before encountering a cave-in that completely blocked it. There had been no sign of Mrs. Steed or her abductors. As they trudged stoop-shouldered back to the divide the electric lantern had faded. Steed had switched it off and told Hastings to turn off his torch too, then led them onward using the remaining torch.
“Quiet,” Steed hissed, stopping dead in the tunnel and switching off the other torch. At first Hastings thought they stood in utter darkness, but then he realized that he could see the profile of Steed’s aristocratic nose. There was a light source somewhere ahead. Gradually he also heard what had stopped Steed: a low murmuring voice punctuated by a higher, feminine one.
Steed inched forward, noting that the floor was rising toward the ceiling. He crouched on hands and knees in the darkness a few feet back from the opening where the splintered edges of wooden floorboards showed that they had been smashed upward. Steed could see into the room above, which was dimly lit but seemed bright to his eyes.
“They’re unpredictable – shouldn’t you have brought a snake charmer?” Emma’s musical voice was threaded with tension. His heart leapt with joy as he caught sight of her. Sure she was tied spread-eagle and looked as angry as a wet cat, but she was alive and fairly pulsing with her highly developed sense of irony.
“They speak for the gods. I do not pretend to understand their wishes,” came the rumbling reply. Steed studied the speaker and knew that he must be Horus. He suppressed a stray thought about what had become of their other adversary – the tomb robbers – and quickly assessed the rest of the people in the room. Horus had a pistol tucked in the his belt. The man on the crate looked terrified, while the one with the broom seemed his strongest opponent.
“Of course not,” Emma was saying as Steed backed carefully away.
Just as he got to his feet next to Hastings the anthropologist wrapped a strong hand around his bicep and pointed with the other at the floor.
“A cobra,” he breathed, his mouth near Steed’s ear. They both froze as the four foot snake stopped and raised its head to examine them. It’s tongue flicked rapidly, tasting their heat and scent. After an eternity that was only a few moments it lost interest in these strange, warm statues and moved on down the tunnel. Steed let himself exhale slowly, then turned his head to whisper his plan to Hastings.
Charged with renewed adrenalin Steed surged out of the hole in the floor, rolling a lit torch to the right as he went left carrying the other one. As he’d hoped, Horus drew his pistol, aimed, fired, and missed the rolling torch. But the gunshot startled a cobra that reared up and struck at the torch where it lay on the floor. The man on the crate emitted a stifled scream and hugged his legs to his chest. Dr. Hastings climbed out of the hole and dodged to the left behind Steed. He hurried to Emma’s side with an opened pocketknife in hand.
The broom landed hard across Steed’s back as he somersaulted toward its wielder. He bowled into the man’s legs sending him crashing down on Horus’s copious lap. The broom dropped to the floor nearby and the pistol went flying as Horus screamed either in pain or anger – it was impossible to tell which – beneath his guard.
Hastings watched the fight as he sawed at the rope around Emma’s right wrist.
“Doctor,” she looked up at the knife, which was dangerously close to her abraded flesh.
“Sorry,” he muttered, refocusing his attention on his work.
Steed took four quick steps across the room to the cowering man on the crate. He grabbed him by the shirt lapels and hauled him up with his left hand, swinging his right to burry the still-lit torch in the man’s solar plexus. He winced as his raw fingers made contact with the man’s shirt, but his discomfort was nothing compared to his victim’s. The man moaned and collapsed as Steed dropped him. The cobra that had struck at the torch reared up again, swiveling to challenge this new disturbance. It struck with lightening quickness and the man screamed as it sunk its fangs into his shoulder.
Horus had shoved the other guard off of him and the man had landed with his hand on the broom. He rose now and swung it at Steed, catching him across the chest before he had time to react. The blow knocked Steed’s breath away.
“I say!” Dr. Hastings stepped toward the guard before he could swing at Steed again. The man turned toward his new opponent, smiling darkly at the small knife in the archaeologist’s hand.
Steed took advantage of the moment’s reprieve Hastings had given him and sucked in a painful breath. The guard had changed his tactic, holding the broom like a spear instead of a bat. As he swung back preparatory to impaling Dr. Hastings Steed grabbed the broom and yanked it out of his grip. Dr. Hastings turned quickly back to Emma’s ropes as Steed wrapped his iron-hard forearm around the man’s neck and locked it in place with the other arm. The man shuddered against Steed but his airway was too constricted to allow even a thin breath. Steed counted to five and dropped him, unconscious, to the floor.
“No, stop it. Kill it!” on the floor Horus’s light eyes were fixed on a cobra wavering before him, its hood spread. Before Steed could react the create struck and Horus screamed, an eerie, high-pitched sound. The snake retreated, whether because of the noise or out of basic instinct.
“Please, in the name of God, help me. Get an antidote. Please,” Horus whined.
Steed glanced at Emma, who looked surprised and ever so slightly amused. It was not, he knew, that she found the violence amusing, but rather the irony of the huge villain falling victim to his own torture.
“Hoist on his own petard,” Steed muttered, and saw that Emma had heard him when she nodded. Steed crouched next to Horus and looked at the bite on his neck. The flesh was already beginning to swell and turn an angry red.
“You aren’t allergic, are you?” he asked.
“Yes,” Horus groaned, his voice sounding constricted. “Please help me.”
Not bothering to point out the irrationality of this request because he fully intended to try to fulfill it, Steed turned back to Emma and Hastings.
“Are you almost done there?” he asked. Hastings had freed both of Emma’s hands and was working on her left ankle. She stood rather unsteadily against the table, rubbing one sore wrist with the other hand.
“Nearly,” Hastings said. “Where did he get the snakes? If he got them from someone in the village they may have antivenin.”
Steed looked back down at Horus, who was panting shallowly. “Yes. A local man,” he breathed, having heard Hastings’s question. Steed stepped over to Emma, placing his hands on her upper arms to steady her and look into her eyes for signs of deeper injury. He saw pain, but beneath it glimmered the spark of vitality that buoyed him. She was all right. He started to stroke her cheek and stopped himself at the sight of his raw, blistered fingers.
“Steed!” Emma took his hand in hers careful to avoid the injured flesh.
“It’s nothing darling, no worse than a bad sunburn,” he assured her. She pursed her lips, then pressed her mouth to the sensitive, uninjured flesh at the base of his palm. They held one another with their eyes, communicating joy at their own safety and victory, and the underlying sensual promise that always came at the conclusion of conflict. Their celebration, when it came, would be intense and pleasurable.
“Antivenin?” Hastings asked pointedly, looking up at them from where he knelt by Emma’s now free feet.
They emerged into full daylight on a dusty village street. The building where the tunnel had ended was a leather worker’s shop. They had secured the door at the top of the stairs with a heavy cabinet and made their way through racks of tools, leather goods, and hides, to the front door.
No sooner had they set foot out under the burning sun than they were surrounded by a crowd of children. While Steed crouched to speak with the youngsters Emma and Hastings surveyed the street. Men and women watched them curiously from the shade of awnings and doorways. There had been no sign of the shop owner inside, and Emma hoped Horus and his men had merely run him off. She shaded her eyes to study a group of men and animals at the far end of the street.
“Look there,” she told Dr. Hastings. He followed her gaze.
“The horsemen,” he nodded.
“And more of Horus’s men, I think,” she added. The two groups were arguing. As they watched, all of them mounted some of the horses they were holding and rode away leading the rest. A carriage driven by one of the horsemen followed them.
“Their rental time must have been up,” Steed said, rising. The children had dispersed, each one clutching one or two of the coins Steed had distributed.
“Why would Horus’s men abandon him?” Hastings wondered.
“Perhaps his appeal has worn off,” Emma suggested.
“Doctor, do any of these men look like snake charmers?” Steed asked the archaeologist.
Dr. Hastings was impressed with Steed’s determination to locate antivenin for the bitten criminals. He had begun to wonder if the agent with his dark sense of humor was capable of feeling any sympathy toward anyone besides his beautiful wife. It was Emma who ultimately prepared and administered the injections. Steed secured each man’s wrists and walked them up the stairs past the anxious owner of the snakes. When the let him descend to recover his animals they heard him wail, probably at the sight of the empty basket. Indeed, all of the snakes seemed to have slithered out and into hiding, and possibly down the hole into the tunnel.
They regrouped again in the street, Emma holding Horus’s pistol as an inducement for him and his guards to cooperate. A group of villagers had gathered in front of a house across the street. As Steed eyed them speculatively a man separated from the group and came toward them. Steed and Dr. Hastings steped forward to meet him while Emma hung back.
Horus was still suffering from the effects of the snakebite and probably should not be made to move around, but Emma found it hard to be terribly sympathetic. The guard who’d been struck was also somewhat dazed, but the other one was quite alert and Emma focused most of her attention on him. He appeared to be searching the street and she suddenly realized why.
“They rode out of town,” she told him. “Apparently returning the horses was a higher priority.”
The guard shot her puzzled look and looked to Horus for translation, but the big man only stared vacantly into the hot air.
Emma could hear Steed and Hastings speaking to the villager, but she could not follow their conversation in Arabic. The villager was gesturing rather a lot, pointing at the leather shop and up the street at another house. Steed and Hastings conversed with him calmly and gradually his antics subsided until he was nodding, bending his head to listen closely, nodding some more, and then grinning. Steed and Hastings returned to her, Steed looking rather pleased with himself, Hastings looking worried.
“Steed?” Emma asked tentatively.
“Just a minor delay my dear,” he replied. “The villagers have camels.”
“But that’s good,” she said, frowning, “Isn’t it?”
“They are reluctant to lend them to us. It seems that the owner of the snakes is a village elder and he is quite unhappy. But I’ve made an arrangement.”
“It’s all right darling, you love a challenge,” he said brightly.
“No Steed, that’s you.”
“Three goals, agreed?” Steed confirmed in Arabic, looking from one opponent to the other. Both nodded, Samir on the left grinning evilly, his cousin Tarek looking equally confident if less brazen.
“How’s your camel?” Steed asked Emma out of the side of his mouth.
“Feisty,” she replied just as her mount brayed at the opposition.
At Steed’s nod Dr. Hastings tossed the head-sized leather-padded wooden ball into the open space between the four camels and backed quickly away.
Steed drove his heels into his camel’s ribs and let out a blood-curdling yell that made his bruised chest ache while Emma dragged her camel’s neck off to the left and kicked him into an ambling gait. Steed’s camel started with an awkward jump forward more at the sound of the madman on his back than the kicks, carrying Steed’s stick within range of the ball. Steed struck, sending the ball rocketing between the opposing camels’ legs. Miraculously, although later Steed would claim it was skill, it cleared all of the beast’s limbs and shot away from the group and toward the British goal.
The Egyptians had both kicked their beasts into rolling jogs toward the ball. Now they split, turning on their haunches away from one another. Steed’s trotting animal crashed through the widening opening between on a straight course after the ball. Meanwhile Emma had spurred her mount to a trot on the outside and was several paces ahead of the men.
Samir had right of way, but Steed easily rode him off, forcing him further to the left and putting his own mount in prime position behind the ball, which was still rolling thirty or more yards ahead. Emma reined in, pulling hard on the steel bosal bridle. As her camel shook it’s head in annoyance and slowed to a walk she dragged his head to the right and slapped his flank hard. He accelerated again, effectively blocking Samir’s path just as the Egyptian was about to barrel past. He growled angrily as his camel stopped short and threw its long neck into the air with a foul tempered bellow.
Emma kicked her camel hard and angled him to the left to pursue Tarek, who was chasing Steed. Steed reached the ball just as it slowed to a stop and struck it again, harder this time, straight toward the still distant goal. Emma was beginning to wish they’d argued for a smaller grounds – camels definitely did not move as quickly as horses. But then, as if it had suddenly grown interested in the game, Steed’s camel raised its head and picked up its pace in pursuit of the ball.
Tarek let out a yell for his camel’s benefit and spurred it forward with a slap on its haunches. Surprised at his sudden burst of speed, Emma eased her reins hoping that her mount would take his head and accelerate too.
But the camels were not competitive like horses, and hers took her relaxed hold as a sign that he could take a break. Realizing her error and hoping it hadn’t lost them the point, she took up the slack in the reins and slammed her heels into the beast’s sides. With a derisive snort it picked up it’s enormous feet and started forward again.
Now Emma was far behind all of the men. Steed, with Tarek not far behind him, was actually galloping and nearly on the ball. Samir had somehow motivated his camel to a jolting trot and was angling across the sandy ground to intercept Emma. She had a sudden impression that he was out for revenge for her earlier move, game be damned.
Steed spoke softly to his mount and held on to the pommel of the unfamiliar saddle as he leaned far out on his off side to strike the ball a third time. Despite the thick gloves he’d managed to acquire his scorched fingers hurt like hell. The hit was solid, so he spared a moment to glance back and see Tarek five camel-lengths behind, his animal finally galloping too.
“Come on,” Steed urged, giving his mount its head by holding the reins high up it’s neck. With the tension on it’s bridle released it immediately slowed to a trot letting Tarek gain valuable ground.
“Bloody bastard!” Steed yelled as he smacked the beast across the hump and took in on the reins. It turned it’s long neck to look at him reproachfully, big teeth bared. Steed glared back and slammed his heels into its sides. It swung its head back around to watch Tarek pass by on his camel, then picked up its pace into a rolling trot.
Steed looked around for Emma and found her far back with Samir blocking her. He knew he could count on her to lose him, but not immediately. Saving the goal was up to him.
Having passed Steed Tarek’s camel had begun to balk at having to run. He sat high in the saddle with his legs flailing, constantly kicking it to keep it moving. Steed suspected that he’d nearly lost track of the ball, which had curved as it slowed and was now on Tarek’s near side. Steed guided his camel into the right-of-way position with the ball just to his right, his off side, lined up for a strike. He’d have to brush close by Tarek and restrain his backswing to avoid striking Tarek’s camel.
He charged in, his mount once again engaged in the sport of it shouldering the haunches of Tarek’s camel as they passed. When he had room on his right, Steed swung back, stick level with his camel’s rump, lined up the shot, and yanked ineffectively on his stick.
Tarek had hooked his stick – a completely legal — if unexpected — move. Steed growled in anger at the other man’s gleeful expression. Unfortunately for Tarek, the maneuver would have worked had he had a teammate ahead of them to move in and take the ball. As it was, Steed slowed his mount, disengaged his stick, and swung at the ball, which was nearly stopped on the ground. Tarek, with his stick arm crossed in front of him, could not recover in time to take possession of the ball himself.
Steed’s hit was weak and ill aimed due to his limited backswing. The ball went off to the left. He spurred his camel hard after it, determined to get a little distance on Tarek and get in another, hopefully final, shot.
As Samir’s path converged with hers Emma dragged her camel’s neck around to the left and dug in her heels. It rotated on its haunches and burst off at a lope, crossing behind Samir’s animal. The Egyptian imitated the move, coming along side her on her right. She ignored him, holding her stick close to avoid being hooked and holding her reins taut, having learned that lesson the hard way.
Across the ground she saw the ball take off to the left, Steed following. She let out a high-pitched, wordless scream, spurring her camel and also warning Steed of her approach. Samir’s camel galloped after her.
Steed heard Emma coming and quickly included her in his strategy. He glanced back and saw Samir close on her heels, then noted Tarek’s position coming up on his right. If he could block them both, Emma could take the ball. He turned his head to look at her, hunched in her saddle, body urging her camel forward through sheer willpower. Their eyes met, and even at a distance their momentary shared gaze communicated all. Steed edged his mount to the left, not enough to ride Emma off, but enough to force Samir to either slow down or turn. He turned, angling to the right back toward the center line of the ground. Emma came up on Steed’s left, shot him a grin, and squeezed another small burst of speed from her camel. She had to beat Tarek to the ball, leaving it to Steed to block him.
She did not.
Tarek had managed remarkable speed since recovering from his hooking maneuver. With a triumphant yell he crossed in between Emma and the ball and smacked it beneath his own camel’s feet. It shot back the way it had come, startling Emma’s camel but not Steed’s. That animal veered toward it, placing Steed in precisely the right spot to slam the ball back again, this time slightly to the right in the direction of the goal.
But it was also heading right to Samir.
The Egyptian’s camel was loping fast as he came up on the ball at a sharp angel. Samir leaned far out on his near side and swung at the ball, striking it hard, but not well. It darted back toward Steed. Meanwhile Tarek had swung around to pursue it while Emma had angled instead toward the area of the goal. A sharp shout caught Steed’s attention and he understood her intention immediately.
He leaned far out over his camel’s off shoulder and swung at the ball just ahead of the animal’s running feet. Startled, the camel half bucked and the only thing that kept Steed on his back was his tight grip on the pommel – something he would never have done on a horse. Steed’s powerful hit sent the ball flying a couple feet above the ground, moving too fast past Tarek and too far away from Samir for either man to reach it. But the shot was perfectly lined up for Emma to take it. She gave the ball another resounding whack that sent it on through the goal posts twenty yards away.
A rousing cheer arose from the crowd of villagers who had moved around the grounds as the game progressed and were gathered near the goal. Someone retrieved the ball and rolled it toward Dr. Hastings, who had trotted along the edge of the ground as well. He picked it up and mopped sweat from his brow with his handkerchief.
“Well done, Mrs. Steed!” he called out, then turned back toward the center of the ground for the next toss in. The four riders regrouped, beating him back and forming up on opposite sides. Out on the edges of the ground the spectators also moved back to the center line.
“Never give them their heads, Mrs. Peel,” Steed said as he and Emma rode side-by-side.
“Yes, I discovered that,” Emma replied. “Screaming at them seems to help, though.”
“Yes. They’re not nearly as cultured as our ponies.”
Apparently having learned from Steed, Samir pounced on the ball when Dr. Hastings tossed it in the next time. He drove it between Emma’s camel’s legs then tried to go after it, but Steed blocked him long enough to give Emma time to pursue it. She smacked it back toward the center where Steed missed it, but Tarek got in a good swing. He sent it off toward Samir on the right, who drove it on down the ground free and clear.
All four players chased it, but Tarek, coming from the far left, managed to squeeze a hair more speed from his camel and got there first. Emma made a failed attempt to hook his stick while Steed shot on past, assuming Tarek would make the hit and planning to get out in the clear to counter it.
He succeeded, slamming the ball back toward Emma. Samir put his camel in the way, endangering the beast’s legs, which angered Emma. But it worked: the ball passed between the camel’s feet and Samir struck it on the other side, hitting it back toward Tarek. Emma wheeled her camel toward the other Egyptian, following the ball bat way too far behind it to catch up. Steed had put himself between Tarek and the goal, so Tarek passed the ball back toward Samir. Because Emma was closer to Tarek, Samir had a clear shot and slammed it toward the goal, passing Steed by several yards. The ball bounced over the hard ground, slowing gradually, but not enough. Its last momentum carried it between the goal posts and it stopped a yard beyond. The villagers and Dr. Hastings had hardly had time to move to that end of the ground, but there was still an even louder cheer at the result.
Hastings retrieved the ball and shot Steed a regretful smile. Steed grinned wolfishly at Hastings and then at Emma.
“All tied up!” he said jovially. “The pressure’s on.”
“I perform best under pressure,” Emma replied cheerfully. Hastings loped tiredly back to the center of the ground to meet the players there once more.
“Match point,” he observed, taking a moment to look at each of them. The Egyptians looked more bloody-minded than ever, while Steed and Emma appeared quite calm.
Emma marveled at how after only fifteen minutes riding the animal Steed seemed to have mastered his mount. The camel responded to his initial kick by springing forward to the ball, then swung its haunches around to block Samir while Steed struck. It was as if Steed and the beast had a telepathic connection. Emma was further convinced of this as the camel swung its head toward a nearby flank – of Tarek’s camel – and snapped. Tarek’s camel screeched and took off, running in the wrong direction. It progressed several yards before Tarek could stop it. By then the ball and the other players were far off in the direction of the goal.
But this seeming disaster turned favorable a moment later: Samir rode Steed off and hit a solid strike on the ball, sending it back toward his teammate with a shout. Tarek recovered his wits and went for the ball, hitting it solidly along into the wide open ground toward their goal. He had control as he loped after it – no one else was anywhere near.
But Steed’s mastery came into play once more. He spurred his camel to the fastest gallop yet achieved, quickly closing the distance to Tarek. Surprised as Steed and his camel flashed by, a complacent Tarek attempted to get more speed out of his animal, but it was too little too late. Steed held him off, caught up with the ball, and smashed it toward Emma, who had ridden over to the left away from Samir.
She intercepted it and whacked it hard toward the British goal, praying that Steed would be able to turn and gallop back, repeating his amazing ride to beat Samir this time.
Samir, who had wheeled his camel as soon as Emma hit the ball, was nearly on it before Steed did indeed catch up. With great pleasure Steed hooked Samir’s stick, grinning triumphantly as his opponent actually lost his grip and dropped the implement. Steed rose up on his camel as they came up on the ball and slammed it with a cross-body strike. As his camel followed the ball Steed resettled in his saddle and urged the animal forward faster. With Emma far off to the left and behind, he had to stay on top of it and block Samir. Even without his stick the Egyptian was a threat. If he could catch up he could block Steed from the ball long enough for his teammate to get there. And it would not be that long: Tarek’s camel was carrying him toward them at a gallop.
All four players, one stick-less, were converging on the slowing ball. Steed was closest, with Samir just off his near flank. Emma came in at an angle from the left at tremendous speed and Tarek came up from behind, veering to the right with the obvious intention of hooking Steed before he could strike.
He almost managed it, but Steed, anticipating such a dirty trick, held his stick forward and out of Tarek’s range until the last possible moment. As his camel came up on the ball Steed had no choice but to swing back, but he did so with such lightening quickness Tarek’s stick missed, striking Steed’s camel on the thigh instead.
The ball charged onward toward the goal followed by Samir and Emma. Steed’s camel roared and swung around at high speed, nearly throwing his rider. Tarek’s camel, unaware of his rider’s actions was surprised by the attack by the injured animal and veered sharply to the right. This put Tarek’s left leg in harm’s way, and Steed’s camel took advantage, sinking his big front teeth in to the man’s calf.
Tarek’s scream came at the same moment as one from Emma. She once again used her high-pitched hell to gain a surge of speed from her camel, keeping ahead of Samir. Without a stick his only hope was to get ahead of her and block her shot, although with Tarek otherwise occupied his tactic would only delay the inevitable. As Emma lined up her shot Samir came up with a new plan. He shifted his approach to her off side and pressed his camel to catch up. Emma had positioned her stick to swing just as he came along side her flank. He reached out and grabbed it.
Feeling resistance as she was about to swing Emma glanced back and down and saw that Samir had a solid grip on the shaft of her stick just above the head. Hoping her camel would keep an eye on the ball, she simultaneously dragged the stick forward, dropped her right stirrup, and lashed out with her booted foot at Samir’s wrist.
Something gave with a snap, but by the time Samir let go Emma was already refocusing on the ball. She hoped her stick was intact, but she also hated to think the snap had been Samir’s bone.
A moment later she took her shot: her stick was indeed intact. She glanced back to see that Samir had dropped back cradling his left arm with his right. She saw Steed and Tarek further back apparently engaged in some sort of conflict. Then she looked forward just in time to see the ball strike the right goal post.
The crowd roared with a mixture of cheers, boos, and general consternation at her missed shot. She shut them out and urged her camel toward the ball where it had stopped a few yards from the goal. Samir had come to a stop and further away Steed had abandoned Tarek and was loping toward her. Determined, she brought her camel up to the ball and sent it flying between the goal posts.
“What happened back there?” She asked Steed as his camel loped up to hers and he reached out to take her hand.
“Tarek hit my mount with his stick. The camel didn’t like it.”
“Is he alright?”
“He got a nasty bite in the leg. The camel seems to be limping a little.”
“Well, I think I did worse to Samir. He tried to steal my stick. You know, this entire match felt like playing croquet with flamingos,” Emma observed as she and Steed slowed their camels to a cooling walk.
“Let’s hope nobody shouts ‘off with their heads,’” Steed laughed.
“Steed, what are you up to?” Emma’s voice calling from the bedroom had a cautionary tone. Back in their room at the Winter Palace, after receiving medical treatment for burns and bruises, with Horus and his guards safely under lock and key, Steed was desperate for a bath. Doctor’s orders not to wet my hands be damned! He needed to cleanse his flesh of the dust of the tomb, the smell of the camels, and the stink of worry for Emma’s fate. He had started the water running in the tub and was sitting on the commode picking with his teeth at the tape that secured the bandages over his hands when Emma appeared in the bathroom doorway.
“No you don’t!” she said, stepping into the small room to grab his wrists.
“Motherhood has hardened you, my dear,” Steed said, barely masking his annoyance at being treated like a child. “You never used to speak to me like that.”
“You’re right darling,” Emma purred. “I used to be more patient when you behaved childishly, but now we have a real child it’s much harder.”
Steed scowled and tried to tug his wrists out of her powerful grip, but she grinned and pulled him to his feet instead, already softening at the thought of his awkward predicament.
“Can you undress yourself?” she asked, looking at his useless hands. “No, I suppose not. Poor Steed,” she sighed in amused sympathy as she began unbuttoning his shirt for him. His stormy expression immediately turned bright and then playful as he watched the way she pointedly avoided his eyes while she worked.
“You’ll have to wash me,” he pointed out pleasantly.
“Yes I know,” she replied, carefully working his sleeves off over his hands.
“You will be gentle, won’t you?” he asked.
At that she broke down, pausing to giggle, holding one hand over her mouth, the other resting on his belt buckle.
“Are you sure that’s what you want, darling?” she asked, then went back to working the belt through the buckle with both hands. When he didn’t answer she looked back into his eyes and found them smoldering with unmistakable desire. He wrapped his arms around her and caught her lips with his, plying her with a long, demanding kiss. She slid into it, kissing back lustily as she slid her hands around to caress his bare back. Sensing her growing desire, recognizing the deliciously familiar signs as her body molded itself to his, he retook the upper hand by ending the kiss.
“The tub’s nearly full,” he said, tilting his head toward it, his sparkling eyes still locked with hers. She shot him a wry smile and pulled free of his arms in order to turn the taps off. Then she stepped back to him and finished the job of undressing him with practiced efficiency.
“Let me help you,” she put her arms around him as he stepped into the tub and lowered himself into the water.
“Ahhh, he sighed, closing his eyes as he relaxed, his hands hanging over the edge of the tub on either side. “You are going to join me, aren’t you?” he asked, then opened his eyes. He was alone. “Emma?”
“Yes love, just relax for a moment,” came her reply from the bedroom. She returned a few minutes later wearing the hotel bathrobe.
“I can’t imagine performing this chore without getting wet myself,” she explained as she sat down on the edge of the tub facing Steed.
“Chore is it?” he asked, arching one brow. Emma smiled, peering at him from under lowered eyelids as she dipped a washcloth in the water. “Aren’t you getting in?”
“This tub isn’t really very big is it,” she said, stroking his chest with the washcloth. He lifted his bandaged right hand and awkwardly parted the lapels of her robe, exposing her breasts. She favored him with a fond, crooked smile as she leaned closer to lightly scrub his stomach under the water. He lay his head back and studied her while she worked, content to look, since he could not touch.
“This is going to be some bruise,” she said, tracing the washcloth across his chest along the line where the broom had hit him.
“I think I have a matching set,” he replied. Emma raised one brow curiously. Steed leaned forward and raised his arm to gesture to his back. “He hit me twice.”
“Ah,” Emma repositioned herself to wash his back. “You’re right,” she confirmed, tracing the line of yellowing flesh. “Are your ribs all right do you think?”
Steed rolled his shoulders and took a deep breath. “Fit as a fiddle,” he said, then bent his head forward as Emma scrubbed the washcloth on the back of his neck, scraping it behind each of his ears.
“Lie back and relax,” she said, standing and moving to the other end of the tub. She pulled the plug and the water gurgled as it started to drain. “I want to refresh the water,” she explained. “You were very dirty.”
Steed put his hands behind his head and leered up at her as the water level dropped to expose more and more of his body. Emma sat on the edge of the tub and looked, since she knew he wanted her to. And even though the sight of his well-muscled frame was so familiar she knew every ripple, bulge, and scar, it still sent a shiver up her spine. His lascivious grin — inviting, imploring, and radiating adoring desire — tugged at her body and soul. Impulsively she pulled the belt of her robe loose and let the garment fall off of her shoulders. Steed smiled victoriously as she replugged the tub and turned on the water, then dropped her robe to the floor and stepped in opposite him.
She washed herself slowly and thoroughly for Steed’s benefit. He lounged in the water watching, occasionally shifting a leg to caress her thigh or stroke a nipple with the ball of his foot. She let her desire build, tempted to reach out and touch him, to stroke him under the pretense of the cleansing bath, but knowing that the longer she waited the more fulfilling their eventual coupling would be. She imagined how they would go about it without him using his remarkably talented hands, and the mental exercise further increased her need. And then she felt his touch between her thighs and she knew he had been pondering the same challenge. She leaned her head back against the tiled wall and enjoyed the intimate caresses of his toes.
As if of one mind they rose from the tub and stepped out onto the thick white mat, pausing to wrap arms around one another, to join moist skin along the lengths of their bodies. Their mouths met in a series of hungry, gasping kisses that moved over their necks and shoulders as if exploring one another for the first time. And in a way it was, for each manifestation of their physical love was like a new beginning, the thrumming desire, the warmth welling up from deep within undiminished by years or familiarity. Emma felt the hardness of his arousal against her thighs and pressed into it, moaning in anticipation of fulfillment to come.
Suddenly he picked her up, suppressing a grunt of protest from bruises and aches, and carried her into the bedroom and the bed that she had previously turned down. He laid her down and hovered over her supporting himself on his elbows as he renewed his exploration. She stroked him with her hands, very conscious of his inability to reciprocate, and kissed him back until he moved down her body out of her range. He tasted her breasts, noting absently that they were still as round and full as they’d been the other day, and grateful that she was still at that place in her cycle when her libido was strong. He left a trail of kisses across her belly and nuzzled the thatch of auburn hair lower down. Emma sighed contentedly as he kissed her inner thighs and parted her lips with his tongue.
She tangled her fingers in his hair as he worked, moaning, and shuddering under his ministrations. He left her streaming, her loins ablaze and desperate for deeper, rougher attention, lifting himself on the undamaged heels of his hands. Her eyes fluttered open and she peered up at him through a sensual haze.
“Your hands,” she muttered, stroking his arms.
“Shhhh,” he hissed, bending to kiss her. As he did he parted her legs further with his knees and pressed the tip of his shaft into her warm, damp core. She groaned into him, her hips heaving up to meet him, taking two more inches before he could pull away.
“No,” she snarled, digging her fingers into his ass to pull him to her. He made several controlled thrusts, savoring the friction and heat but refraining from full penetration. The pain of her grip on his ass only exhorted him to prolong the experience. She moaned, her head rolling from side to side as he stroked her sensitive flesh with his cock much as he might usually use his fingers. He felt her climax: a spasm of the collar of flesh that held his, a rush of warmth that drove him nearly out of control. He succumbed to her body’s demands and thrust through her orgasm, finally sheathing himself fully in her sweet, incomparable depths.
“Oh John,” she moaned, drawing her legs high up around his back. He moved within her, stirring her slowly back toward climax, pausing to kiss her and enjoy the feel of her hands on his flesh. He shifted and thrust slowly, no longer aware of where he ended and she began. Nor did she know as she moved beneath him. They rocked together, set the pace for each other, gradually increased the motion, speed, and heat until they were a single, heaving, writhing being seeking mutual, delirious release.
They gave voice to it when it came, their roars of mutual pleasure deteriorating into unselfconscious chuckles at the sheer joy of it. Steed shifted to her side and she rolled into his arms, aligning herself to him in an attempt to remain one creature for a while longer.
“What time is it love?” Steed cracked one eyelid as Emma slipped back into bed after visiting the bathroom.
“Quarter to five,” she replied as she snuggled back into his arms.
“Good lord!” he lifted one hand to his head and stopped short, unable to run his fingers through his hair.
“I know. In the old days we would have bathed, made love, gone out for lunch, and returned for another round,” Emma replied.
“Yes,” he drawled, smiling at pleasant memories. “But this is just as nice, except now I’m deucedly hungry. Are you?”
“Yes, now you mention it. Shall we enjoy one final Egyptian dinner?”
“Yes darling. While you were being bandaged I telephoned home. John’s come down with something, the downstairs toilet is running constantly, and Mrs. Hanson called to say that she’s going abroad – sans Sullivan. Siobhan sounded done in. I know you may have to stay to tidy things up here, but I really should go home.”
“But Mrs. Peel, I thought we would spend a day or two in Cairo –.”
Emma pressed two fingers to his lips and pursed her lips. “I know darling. But I’m needed – at home.”
“Steed, you look much more yourself. Good meetings this morning?” Emma rose to greet her husband as he crossed the hotel lobby early the next afternoon. He touched the brim of his bowler with his bare hand and smiled appreciatively. Emma had managed to make him retain his bandages until the morning by ordering room service and feeding him dinner. They had parted company after breakfast, Steed to meet with the authorities and discuss their prisoners, Emma to make a series of telephone calls to Siobhan and various business contacts.
“Productive,” he replied. “I shall be able to join you on the afternoon flight to Cairo.”
“How did you know that I’d booked – oh, nevermind,” she smirked. “Will you be flying on with me to London tonight?”
“Ah,” he winced, his eyes dropping to his hands and then rising to meet hers. “I’m afraid not.”
“Oh well,” she shrugged, although he could see that she’d been hopeful.
“Running a fever. I told Siobhan to telephone the doctor and take him to the hospital if it doesn’t break by this afternoon.”
Steed frowned, real concern creasing his brow. “Perhaps I should –.”
“No darling, it’s all right,” Emma placed a hand on his forearm. “Babies have fevers. I’ll go see to him and you see to your duty.”
The relief Steed felt embarrassed him. He did not wish to abdicate his parental duties, but she made it so easy. “What about your duties?” he asked gently.
“Edmond and Anthony have Knight business under control,” she assured him. “But I do need to go take care of some things. There’s Dr. Hastings.”
They both turned toward the entrance where the rangy archaeologist had just entered. He strode toward them, his face split in a delighted grin.
“Mr. Steed, Mrs. Steed! So good to see you,” he said, holding out his hand to shake each of theirs enthusiastically.
“And you, Doctor. Thank you for coming over. Shall we?” Steed gestured toward the door out to the poolside restaurant.
They were soon settled at an umbrella-shaded table near the crystal blue pool. Steed ordered a chilled crisp white wine and they all selected fresh grilled fish dishes from the menu. The business of lunch taken care of Steed and Emma entreated Dr. Hastings to update them on the tomb.
“Thank you for delivering my message to Fadil. He rounded up the most reliable excavators I know here in Luxor and brought them back right away,” he told them, leaning over the table out of eagerness. After the polo match Steed and Emma had loaded Horus and his men onto the borrowed camels over Horus’s strong protests and brought them back to the landing. They’d found Joseph the boatman recovering from a blow to the head. He’d insisted on sailing them back across, clearly pleased to see Horus in their custody. Back in Luxor Steed had rounded up a local policeman and they’d handed over their prisoners to the authorities. Steed had found a boy to carry Hastings’s message to Fadil before Emma dragged him to the doctor.
“We blocked the tunnel near the village, although I shall have to have it fully explored – there could be more passages that we missed,” he and Steed shared a nod of agreement. “That left just the front entrance to guard. I had to fabricate a new key out of plaster – the one you brought is lost.” Steed and Emma exchanged a glance. “Now my men have put a full time guard there – at least until we can create a secure gate.”
“It sounds like you’ve made great progress,” Emma said.
“That’s not the half of it!” Hastings declared, pausing to gulp his wine. “While the men were taking care of the tunnel I was able to begin my initial survey. It all seems much less intimidating now,” he looked at each of them in turn, forcing them to remember some of the tense moments during their trip through the tomb. “Once I get a portable generator set up and some lights strung in it will be just like home.”
“So how long will it take to catalog everything?” Emma asked.
“Oh, months, Mrs. Steed. But some artifacts have already attracted attention.”
“Really?” Steed inclined his head curiously.
“The Aker doors. I have to remove them immediately.”
“What ever for?” Emma asked, bewildered.
“They have been requested for an exhibit.”
“But we didn’t describe them to anyone — how could they even know?”
“Late yesterday Mr. Fellowes from the ministry of antiquities arrived. Apparently the special arrangements your people made had attracted his attention. I gave him a tour, to satisfy his curiosity.”
“Oh dear. I do hope he didn’t give you any trouble,” Steed said. “I can make some calls.”
“It isn’t right,” Emma frowned, shaking her head. “You should not have to remove such a large artifact so quickly. It destroys the integrity of the tomb.”
“It is not that unusual, Mrs. Steed. We’ve come to expect this sort of scrutiny. He’ll get the doors and leave me alone. It’s a small price to pay for control of the tomb. And besides, I will be credited with the find.” Hastings shrugged in resignation, then leaned away from the table as the waiter delivered their lunches.
“You don’t mind, do you?” he went on when they were alone again.
“Mind?” Steed asked.
“My taking the credit. I do know that it isn’t deserved.”
“Good heavens, man! Certainly not. Now, how is your fish?” Steed emphasized his complete lack of concern over the matter by firmly changing the subject.
“Delicious,” Hastings replied after taking a bite. “And another thing about the doors – they will be restored by some of the best artisans in the world.”
“Oh?” Emma asked.
“The exhibit is at the Louvre. In Paris. The doors have to go now, so the restoration work will be done there.”
“We just may have to go visit them,” Emma said, shooting Steed a sly smile.
“Mrs. Peel will use any excuse to visit Paris,” Steed told Hastings.
“I hope you can visit too, Doctor,” Emma said, not denying Steed’s playful accusation. “It would be lovely to meet you there.”
“Indeed it would Mrs. Steed, but I’m afraid I do not expect to have time to leave Luxor, let alone Egypt, for many months to come.” Despite the seemingly negative implications of his pronouncement, he looked positively ecstatic.
As they ate their lunches he shared his nascent theory of the identity of the mummy in the sarcophagus. Much was known about the king who was buried in the upper tomb. According to several texts that had been translated in the last century his son was not the child of his queen, whose tomb had been found plundered years ago in the Valley of the Queens. But the identity of the royal concubine who had given birth to the royal prince had never been discovered. Based on the decorations Hastings had had time to examine he thought that the mummy in their tomb was a woman, and possibly the mysterious mistress.
In turn Hastings asked about Horus and his men and Steed assured him that they were under lock and key. As a British subject, Horus would eventually be returned to England and possibly stand trial for multiple crimes. The ministry already had an investigator – not him, Steed assured Emma – reviewing the circumstances of Lutz’s death. However, he would also receive a medical and psychological examination. If he was found insane as Emma suspected, he might simply be committed to a mental institution after a hearing.
Lord Eric would also be sent back to the England, and Steed was determined to see that he stood trial for the murders of Colonel Wilson and Hal Hanson. As for the Feather of Ma’at, they were all fairly certain that with the tomb under guard they would turn their attention to some other treasure.
“So will you be taking some time to enjoy Cairo?” Dr. Hastings asked as they strolled through the hotel lobby after lunch.
“Unfortunately Mrs. Peel has some urgent business back in London,” Steed replied, reaching out to touch her hand as they walked side-by-side. “I have been asked to wait in Cairo for a few days and accompany an important shipment as far as Paris.”
Hastings’s mouth hung open for a moment and then he shook his head and chuckled at Steed’s guileless shrug.
“I have been informed that you were quite essential in the discovery of the hidden tomb, Mr. Steed,” Mr. Fellowes of the Ministry of Antiquities said in a conspiratorial tone. Steed managed not to cringe in embarrassment for the man. Apparently someone had told Fellowes the true nature of Steed’s visit to Egypt, and Fellowes, in typical petty bureaucrat style, could not resist showing off his knowledge. Steed found such demonstrations distasteful, not to mention disturbing as they meant that someone in the intelligence organization was either sloppy or intentionally talkative. In any case, Fellowes had just revealed his true nature in a single sentence, although Steed had already constructed a mental image based on Hastings’s comments.
“But the true challenge – restoring and interpreting the find – still lies in Dr. Hastings’s capable hands,” Steed said.
“We are also please about the capture of Horus,” Fellowes went on. “Surely you won’t deny your involvement in that achievement?”
“Not at all. I am please to have removed such a nefarious character from the streets.”
“As are we. He has been a disruptive influence for quite some time.”
Steed reflected for a moment on Horus’s ramblings while waiting for the cobras to strike, related to him by Emma. Mad though the fat man may be, Steed did not completely discount his accusation that the antiquities authorities were in cahoots with tomb robbers and the antiquities black market, specifically the Feather of Ma’at. So far nothing about Fellowes persuaded him to the contrary.
“I have been authorized to present you with a token of our appreciation,” Fellowes went on, guiding Steed across his office to a large, rectangular object set on a steel easel and draped with a black cloth. Were it not for the substantial easel Steed would have assumed it to be a painting. Fellowes whipped off the cloth dramatically to reveal a carved stone relief about four feet long by two high and several inches thick. Figures bearing offerings marched across the surface, their destination lost beyond the edge of the fragment.
“Mr. Fellowes, surely this belongs in a museum,” Steed protested. Nothing in his sworn vows prohibited him accepting a gift like this, especially since Fellowes represented a branch of his own government. But respect for the antiquities of Egypt made him reluctant.
“A mere fragment, Mr. Steed – the country is littered with ‘em,” Fellowes insisted. “No one knows who these figure are, or where the fragment came from. But it’s a distinctive piece nonetheless – don’t you think?”
“Yes, it is,” Steed agreed, bending to study the figures. He was mildly offended by Fellowes’s casual air, but he knew it was typical. And ancient though the piece was, he suspected that his thoroughly modern Emma would appreciate it too.
“Good. It will be packaged and ready to ship along with the doors,” Fellowes said firmly.
It took nearly a week for the doors to be removed, carefully packaged, and delivered to Cairo. While he waited Steed visited some of the ancient tourist sites, missing Emma’s company all the while. He also visited with contacts – friends and friendly foes, and enjoyed the comforts of Mena House. Through daily telephone calls he learned that John’s fever had broken and he was on the mend, but Siobhan had caught his cold. Emma had her hands full doing most of the nanny’s job – a development that amused both parents. Steed was grateful for Emma’s rational mind: she knew she couldn’t manage without a nanny, so she accepted the lack gracefully and with the certainty that it was short term. But that didn’t help him when he spoke to her late in the evening and she was so tired she could barely stay awake. There were no sensual exchanges, no mutual, long-distance fulfillment, and he soon began to miss her physically as well as emotionally and intellectually.
By the time he oversaw loading of the doors and the relief and boarded the airplane to Paris he was decidedly homesick. And much as he loved Paris, he was glad that the stop there would only be long enough to see the doors unloaded and handed over to a representative from the Louvre.
The airplane touched down in a light drizzle at Charles De Gaulle and taxied to the terminal. Steed waited until the passengers around him had gathered their carry-on luggage and moved to the exit, and then followed them down the stairs to see to the unloading of the doors.
An airport worker approached him as he stepped out of the line of other passengers. A flash of identification and a few words in prefect French transformed the man’s intention from confrontation to cooperation. He handed Steed a set of earmuffs that dampen the blare of jet engines and guided him under the belly of the plane to the rear where the cargo doors were already open.
The airplane was still disgorging passenger baggage. The doors and Steed’s relief were at the very back of the cargo hold. Steed and his guide stood to the side watching the baggage handlers toss suitcases onto a cart so carelessly that Steed was glad he’d managed to cram everything into a carry-on bag. Just as the last bags destined for Paris were removed a dark sedan followed by a small lorry drew up along side the airplane. Two men got out of the car’s rear seat while the driver of the lorry got out and went round to open the tailgate. Steed’s eyes widened in surprise when he recognized one of the men from the car.
“McCall?” he shouted over the engines’ roar. Robert McCall’s gaze focused on Steed and he stopped dead. Steed’s genial façade didn’t alter as he took a step toward his subordinate and reached for his hand to shake it. McCall’s knew his grip was overly tight although Steed showed no sign of it.
“Steed, this is a surprise,” he shouted. “To what do we owe the honor?”
“I was going to ask you the same thing,” Steed replied. “Working for the Louvre now?”
Steed was joking, but the way McCall’s face drained of color forced him to consider whether something insidious was going on. He hoped not, for Tara’s sake. With a nod toward the other man who’d arrived with McCall, whom Steed assumed really was from the Louvre, he took McCall’s arm and drew him away from the airplane.
When they were far enough that conversation was possible he stopped and removed the earmuffs.
“Do you have something to report McCall?” he asked, all pretenses of cordiality gone.
“No Steed. The Ambassador asked me to ensure the security of the artifacts for this exhibit. It’s very important, diplomatically.”
“McCall, you are not here to be his Excellency’s errand boy. Ensuring security does not mean acting like a mail room clerk.”
“I should think you’d appreciate my diligence, Steed. These are priceless artifacts,” McCall bristled.
“And of no concern to the ministry.”
“Then why are you here?”
One of Steed’s brows arched as his expression turned from irritation to genuine annoyance. And for a long moment – a very long moment as far as McCall was concerned as his fear of Steed’s anger deepened – he could not summon a response. McCall had a point.
“These doors are extremely fragile,” he said, looking at the huge, flat crates just then being unloaded from the airplane. “See that they’re safely delivered and prepare a full report on your involvement with the artifacts for this exhibition. On my desk day after tomorrow.”
He stuck the earmuffs back on and strode back toward the airplane leaving McCall to stare after him for a moment and then run to catch up.
Robbie McCall dropped his pen and tore the sheet of paper he’d been writing on from the pad. He crumpled it into a tight ball and tossed it across his office. It hit the wall and landed on the floor in the middle of a pile of similar paper balls. He stood up and walked around his desk, his hands shoved into his trouser pockets, kicking dejectedly at the pile of discarded papers.
He watched them scatter to all corners of the room and then took a deep breath and shut his eyes. A moment later they popped open and he looked at his wristwatch. He had two hours to finish his report and get it into the diplomatic pouch to London. He had to decide what to do.
Tara had begged him to tell Steed everything. But his gut told him that he was on to something so big that Steed would not let him work it alone. He’d put that fellow Gambit on it, or take over himself. McCall would not mind some support, but not yet. Not until he had followed up on the list of names from the microdot. If they checked out, then he was about to expose an extensive and potentially dangerous spy network that had infiltrated several European governments. It might even have a presence in the United States.
His resolve bolstered, he went back around the desk and took up his pen.
“I’ll miss you James,” Sally sighed, caressing his angular jaw as she smiled into his sapphire eyes. He turned his head to press a kiss into her palm, then drew her to himself and feathered more kisses on her face. They were standing just inside the door of her apartment, James’s small bag at their feet. His flight would depart in two hours.
“Sally,” he murmured, “I want you to think about something.”
“I am thinking about something,” she replied with a lascivious smile. He’d learned the previous evening that he would have to return to London. Sally was remembering the particularly delicious activities that had followed.
James grinned back and kissed the tip of her nose.
“Not that,” he said. “Think about this: Joining MI6.”
“What?” Sally impulsively pushed back from him a little, her saffron blue eyes flashing.
“Think about working with me.”
“You work alone,” she shook her head, too confused to understand what he was asking.
He shrugged one shoulder a little, watching her, waiting for comprehension. She frowned at him.
“I get lonely sometimes,” he finally said.
Sally’s heart hurdled up into her throat and thumped a few times. She gulped it back down so that it hung racing in her chest.
“I, um, I’ve never thought about –.”
“I know love. So I’m asking you to. That’s all,” he shrugged again, suddenly uncharacteristically awkward. “If you’d like to.”
“Shhh,” he kissed the tip of her nose again. “Think about it. I’ll call you tonight.”
“Little hellion!” Steed cried, leaning away from his screaming son as a blob of puréed peas dripped down his chin. Baby John slammed his open hand into the bowl again and more of the warm green mush splashed out onto the highchair tray.
A liquid chuckle distracted Steed from his son’s tantrum. He looked past the baby to see Emma standing in the kitchen, one arm wrapped around her middle, the other hand raised to her face to conceal her grin. At my expense.
“I think the child rearing experts should rethink who needs to wear a bib for this process,” he growled, dropping the little spoon he’d been using to feed John onto the tray and pulling at the hem of his jumper to look down at it. It was spattered with an array of colored muck – samples of each of the flavors of food he’d tried to feed John.
Emma giggled again and went to the sink to retrieve a damp dishcloth. She crossed to the pair and looked at each of them for a moment – John was covered in food, and his tantrum had subsided at the sight of his mother. He peered up at her with his mouth half open. Emma knew the look – he was still hungry and his bad behavior was entirely a result of being fed by Steed rather than Emma or his nanny.
“Is Siobhan sleeping?”
“Yes. She was feeling positively awful. She left me in charge.” Steed sounded unduly proud.
Emma reached down and wiped the peas off of Steed’s chin with the dishcloth.
“What about him?” Steed asked, peering up at Emma with much the same expression as baby John.
“Him I can just put in the bath,” she replied, turning the cloth to wipe him again.
“You could put me in the bath,” he suggested, eyes sparkling. Emma shot him a wise smirk and set the cloth on the highchair tray. Then she slipped her hands around Steed’s neck. His rose to her waist out of habit, but when he tried to tilt his face up for a kiss she pushed his head back down and tugged his jumper at the back of the neck.
“Is this washable?” she asked, looking at the tag. “Yes. At least you’ve learned something about life with children. She straightened and pulled the sweater off over his head so that he emerged, hair mussed, looking slightly non-plused. She dropped the garment onto his lap and turned to John.
“Go put that on the washer, will you?” she asked as she unsnapped the tray and carried it to the sink. Steed obediently stood up, watching Emma open the straps holding John into the highchair.
“He hasn’t eaten much,” Steed said.
“Clearly,” she agreed, wiping the worst of the food off of John’s hands and face before picking him up.
“But he’ll be hungry. Poor little bloke.”
“Then you’ll feed him a little later. When he’s hungry enough he’ll eat what he’s given instead of throwing it at you.”
Emma favored Steed with her most luscious smile, her head inclined slightly toward John’s, who she was holding in her arms. Then she turned her face toward the baby and sniffed loudly.
“He needs changing,” she said, “that could be why he wouldn’t eat for you.” She nodded sagely and headed for the back stairs.
She continued to chuckle to herself at the sight of England’s most important spy covered in baby food. Once in the nursery she wiped John’s face and hands again and set about changing his nappy, dropping his soiled shirt and pants in the laundry basket.
“You’re going to have a little brother or sister, my darling,” she crooned to him as she worked. He waved his hands and legs and gurgled back. “Will you be a good big brother? I’m sure you will. Yes,” she nodded her head reassuringly as she lifted his legs to slide a fresh diaper under him. “Would you like a little sister, or a little brother?”
Steed stood in the nursery doorway, his expression a mixture of surprise and restrained happiness. Emma glanced over her shoulder at him, then looked back at John long enough to pin his fresh diaper. She shared a conspiratorial smile with the baby, who she could swear looked as devious as his father. Then she picked him up and carried him to his crib. Steed met her there, his eyes locked on her face as she set John inside, then faced him.
“Are you?” he asked, eyes scanning her face, searching for confirmation.
She nodded, letting one hand slip up to stroke his jaw while the other remained in the crib. She felt John use her arm to pull himself up unsteadily onto his feet. Steed’s expression shifted from curiosity to obvious joy, his hands rising again to her waist and on around her back. John transferred his grip to the crib railing and Emma brought her freed arm up to wrap it around Steed’s neck.
“Ready to do it again?” she asked, their mouths nearly touching, on the verge of a kiss.
“Emma,” was all the reply he could manage before succumbing to her. He squeezed her tight, remembering how he’d been afraid to hurt her the first time. It had seemed like an impossible miracle – he’d never thought it possible to experience the same feelings all over again. Another baby. He felt buoyant with joy.
“How long?” he finally asked, still holding her tight, but releasing her lips in order to take a breath. Beside them John slapped his open palm on the crib railing just as he’d done in his food earlier. Emma glanced down at him, her lips curled in an enigmatic smile, then back at her husband.
“Two months,” she said. And at his slightly raised eyebrow she added, “I had missed, but that had been happening before.” She went no further, seeing no need to refer to what she regarded as the dark days of last winter when her body and mind had lost touch with one another. “But then I missed again – remember just before we left?” he nodded. “I saw the doctor when I got back. He called me back in today.”
“Two months,” Steed said thoughtfully and she knew he was thinking back, trying to pinpoint the moment of conception. She smiled indulgently. It would be nearly impossible, given their very active intimate life. But she already had a moment in mind, so she waited to see if he would reach the same conclusion. She saw by his suddenly wicked smile that he had. “Your riding experiment,” he said.
“I like to think so,” she agreed.
“I shall look forward to telling our daughter that she was conceived on horseback. Do you think it will improve her riding?”
“Daughter is it?”
“Please, Emma. I adore John, but won’t you give me a chance at raising a girl?”
“I do believe the choice is entirely yours, Steed. And it was made two months ago.”