Warnings - See Part 1.
A VIEW TO A KISS
Jemma was getting ready for bed and had put on her nighty and brushed her teeth when her gaze fell on the postcards she had left on the little table. Better write those before I forget.
She grabbed the cards and a ballpoint pen, and carried them over to the bed. Then she switched on the little light, plumped up a pillow against the headboard, and made herself comfortable.
The top picture showed a tanned and smiling movie star, right arm raised elegantly, hand poised just so. Jemma winced at the fruit basket hat, and the flamboyantly frilly, purple, yellow, and pink dress. That Carmen Miranda had managed to still look stunning in such an outfit was remarkable. Was that your idea or the Studio's, I wonder?
She shrugged, turned the postcard over, and began to write.
Dear Gary. I saw this and I thought of you.
She pictured her friend's probable expression and chuckled.
As you can see, I'm in Rio. Did you know the Brazilian Bombshell has a museum all to herself? Me neither.
She sucked the end of her pen and considered what else to say. Gary would have heard she was Ash's new partner by now. He would also guess from the postmark that Jemma was on a mission. No need to mention that then. So... What else would he want to know?
She remembered their conversation of just over a week ago. She had been suspended, pending the outcome of the Tenerife enquiry, unaware that it would not only clear her but also gain her the job in CounterIntelligence she had always wanted. Unaware also that she would be asked to partner the most dashing secret agent on the Organisation's books: Ashley Blade.
Gary had been drawing doodles on the little London pub's table, using spilt beer for ink, when he asked her bluntly, "Worked out whether you fancy her or not yet?" He had been referring to Ash of course. Then, she hadn't known how to answer her friend. Now....
She tapped the end of the pen against her teeth. Suppose she were to write 'Newsflash: I've worked out I fancy Blade'... and suppose Ash should happen to read it. Her cheeks felt hot. Perhaps not. The pen resumed its scribble.
Went up Sugar Loaf Mountain today. No sign of Jaws.
There. That would have to do. She added Gary's address to it then reached for the next postcard.
This one showed the view from the top of the Sugar Loaf. It was spectacular - she'd discovered that she could see the entire city, Corcovado Mountain, Guanabara Bay, and part of Copacabana beach too from there - and having Ash by her side while she blinked at the stunning view had made it even more special. They'd stayed up there for an hour, before descending by cable car. Then, the tall agent had taken her to a deafeningly noisy but wonderfully exuberant samba club, and after that, they had eaten a late dinner at the renowned Café Lamas.
Dear Mum, Dad, and Maggie.
Having a wonderful time in Rio. The weather's hot and the sea is blue.
Ate some Brazilian food today. No stomach upset yet (just kidding!)
She wondered what else to say. Rightly or wrongly, she had never hidden the nature of her job from her parents, though she had kept the details vague. Until she was home safe and sound, they would worry. That was just their way. She thought for a moment then wrote.
Blade is here with me.
They would know who she meant. While she was training to be an agent, she had talked about Ash so much her sister Maggie had taken to pretending to puke whenever 'the great Ashley Blade' was mentioned. Jemma smiled wryly. She had perhaps overdone the hero worship a tad.
She put away the cards and pen and yawned. Tomorrow she would buy some stamps and write the rest of the postcards. That would have to do for now. It might only be 10 pm by the travel alarm clock on her bedside cabinet, but her body still thought it was 1 am.
Repositioning the pillow, she slid under the sheets, and made herself comfortable. Then she reached up and turned out the light. Moments later she was sound asleep....
Jemma stared blearily up at the ceiling, glanced at the alarm clock's illuminated dial, and groaned. She'd been asleep barely two hours. Belatedly she recalled the sound that had woken her - a distant car backfiring. She plumped her pillow, closed her eyes, and prepared to go back to sleep. Then something dawned on her. Ash should be back by now.
She sat up and ran a hand through tangled hair. Then she got out of bed and padded across the room to the phone. What was Reception's number? She peered at the instructions then dialled.
The phone rang for what seemed an eternity before someone at the other end finally picked it up.
"Alô. Recepção." The male voice was almost inaudible above the sound of a heated argument going on in the background.
"Isto parecem tiros. Chame a polícia!" said the first voice.
"Você está maluco? Você sabe quais os problemas que eles sempre causam," replied the second.
Jemma frowned and held the earpiece closer. "This is Senhorita Blythe, Room 203. Are there any messages for me? Did Senhorita Kenyon call?" She's probably picked up some Ipanema babe and forgotten all about me. She tried not to feel either hurt or jealous, but it wasn't easy.
"Um momento por favor. I will check."
While she waited, Jemma try to understand the conversation going on in the background.
" Há uma gang lá fora! Eles tem pedaços de pau. É perigoso. Chame a polícia!"
If only her Portuguese were better. She was sure the first speaker had said something about a gang, and calling the police!
The receptionist came back on the line. "Senhorita Blythe?"
"Oh. Thank you."
He hung up on her then, and she was left staring at the phone. Carefully she replaced the receiver. Ash had an English-Portuguese dictionary somewhere, didn't she? The older woman's grasp of languages was good, but even she needed to remind herself of a word occasionally.
Jemma rummaged through Ash's bag until she came across a little green book. She riffled the pages looking for - what was it? - 'perigoso'. "Dangerous."
She blinked and racked her memory for more words. A word came back: 'tiros'. She turned the pages. "Shots."
Now all her internal alarms were clanging. She threw the book aside, dressed quickly, checked her gun was loaded and settled it snugly into her shoulder holster. Taking one last look around the room, she decided she had everything she needed and headed downstairs.
There were two men standing at the desk, deep in conversation with the night receptionist. They looked up as she strode past them towards the exit.
"Senhorita, não vá lá fora!" called one.
She stopped and turned towards him. "Excuse me?"
His forehead wrinkled, then he said in halting English, "You must not... go out there, Senhorita. Itís... dangerous. We have called the police." She recognised his voice; he had been speaking in the background while she was on the phone.
"There was a fight outside a little while ago," explained the receptionist. "A gang. They had guns, knives, cudgels...." He looked embarrassed. "This kind of thing is not usual, Senhorita. Please. Go back to your room. All will be well by morning."
She marched to the exit and pressed her nose against the glass. "There's no one out there now."
"They might be hiding. Please, do not-"
But she had already slid back the bolt, pushed the door open, and gone outside.
Pressing her back against the hotel wall, and gripping the butt of her pistol so she could draw it instantly, she scanned her surroundings through 180 degrees. No one was lurking in the shadows, she sensed, and she relaxed minutely. Then her gaze fell on the little Volkswagen Gol parked a little way down the road. Her heart sank.
Donít panic, she ordered herself. So the car is back and Ash isn't. It doesn't necessarily mean anything.
Something glinted in the middle of the road. She loped towards it, stooped and picked it up. A spent shell casing. Under a street lamp, it proved to be standard issue ammo for a Browning automatic. The same type of gun nestled in her holster. Most British secret agents, including Ash, used them. Oh no!
If she had read the signs correctly, Ash had returned... and walked straight into an ambush. The men at reception had mentioned a gang, with guns and knives and cudgels. No sign of the gang now... or of Ash herself.
Sticky black fluid on the pavement turned out to be blood not oil. Her pulse pounded. Was Ash wounded? Was she dead and they'd dragged the body away? She clamped down on that thought, hard. An experienced agent like Ash could take care of herself. Have a little faith, Jemma.
Forcing herself to think logically, she tried to imagine herself in Ash's position. Outnumbered; too many enemies between her and the hotel. And even if she had gained the shelter of the hotel, trouble would have followed her inside. Maybe she had decided to run for it then double back later when the coast was clear?
But if she's wounded....
Jemma stuck out her jaw and headed for the Volkswagen. Ash had the only set of keys, so she used a bent paperclip to pick the door's lock. She slid into the driver's seat, reached under the dashboard and wrenched some wires loose.
Where on earth do I start looking? Rio's huge and completely unfamiliar territory. She could be anywhere!
Only one thing for it. She'd have to start nearest the Hotel Senador then work her way outwards, methodically, street by street.
Jemma selected two wires and touched their ends together until they sparked. The engine roared into life and she twisted the wires securely in place, put the Gol in gear, and pulled away from the kerb.
"Hang on, Ash," she muttered. "I'm coming."
Things hadn't gone quite the way Ash planned.
She had headed for Largo do Machado, the subway stop nearest the Hotel Senador, but when she reached it, it was shut. Of course! The metro stayed open until 1am only at weekends.
Grimly she gazed as the locked gates. She wouldn't be able to grab a ride into the deserted heart of Rio and lose her pursuers there after all. But the thud thud of feet was growing louder, so reluctantly she left the subway station and broke into a jog.
Looks like I'll have to do this the hard way.
She turned left into the Rua das Laranjeiras. Normally it would have been a simple matter to shin up a drainpipe, clamber over the rooftops, and give her followers the slip. But with her shoulder wound, she didn't dare risk such a climb.
Not only was it hurting like hell, she was also losing blood. She had torn off a shirtsleeve and used it as a makeshift bandage, but it was already drenched and hadn't slowed the bleeding. She needed to apply pressure to the wound, which thanks to the holster had sliced through muscle only and not nerves or an artery. But it was in an awkward spot and no matter how she twisted and turned, she simply couldn't get at it. The sooner she got back to the hotel and Jemma the better.
Ash glanced back. Two of the thugs, the younger, fitter ones had broken away from the others, opening up a gap of several hundred yards. Two against one - not bad odds. She unzipped her money belt and, still running, plunged her right hand inside, searching for the garrotte. Ah. Carefully, she pulled out the length of wire. Then she scanned ahead for a likely spot. That alley looks promising.
Slowing, so as to make sure the two men saw her, she darted into the dark alleyway. At its far end were some overflowing refuse bins. Perfect! Moments later, the thugs were pounding towards her hiding place behind the bins. They'd have to split up... and that would be her chance.
She gripped the slim wooden handles, pulling the wire taut between them, licked her lips and waited. Then she leaped out, startling the man who had been creeping towards her.
He froze and stared at her. Then she was behind him, wrapping the wire round his bull-like neck and pulling. He thrashed about trying to break free, gurgling liquidly as the wire sliced into his throat. She clung on grimly.
The other man appeared, barrelling towards her from behind, one arm raised, knife blade glinting in the moonlight. She released the garrotte and twisted out of his way sharply, the blade missing her neck by millimetres. Then she threw herself at him, knocking him back against the refuse bins with a loud clatter that set a dog barking in a yard nearby.
Grabbing his jaw and the back of his skull, she wrenched the man's head sharply to one side. The movement sent agony flaring through her shoulder and down her arm, but she ignored it. There was a dull crack, and he went limp.
Ash let her assailant's body slump to the ground and took a minute to catch her breath. Then she stooped and checked that the first thug was dead. He was. But the wire was too deeply embedded in his neck for her to retrieve.
No gun. No garrotte. Great. She grimaced, wiped her bloody fingers on his shirt, then set off back down the alley.
The slower men were just approaching the junction where their companions had disappeared, and they shouted in fury as she darted out. She resisted the urge to thumb her nose at them, and set off running once more.
Two down; three to go. Pity they couldn't just give up on her, but they were as tenacious as terriers. The pay must be good.
She wondered how the Libyans had found her - the thugs must be working for them, mustn't they? Maybe it was just an unlucky fluke. Maybe one of al-Akhdar's men had spotted her while she was having lunch or on the bus or going up in the cable car....
She had come to the end of the street, and now she paused, unsure which way to go. Corcovado loomed to the west, and she pictured its summit and the huge statue of Christ, arms held wide to embrace the city. Or she could double back into the streets of Laranjeiras.
Which would make the best killing ground? She flipped a mental coin, and headed west towards the mountain's lower slopes.
In the early morning quiet, the rhythmic thudding of feet and gasping for breath seemed deafening. Her legs were turning to jelly, and she tripped on a curb and almost went flying. She steadied herself and ran on. It felt as though she had been running forever.
A familiar silhouette halfway down the road caught her attention. It was one of the little phone kiosks the Brazilians called 'big ears'. She crossed towards it, wondering whether to call Jemma or Celio, then realised that she wouldn't be able to call either. It was one of the old fashioned phones that required fichas.
Damn! She had meant to get some tokens earlier but hadn't got around to it. She could call 193 for assistance, but she had killed several people tonight, and being detained by police with a reputation for brutality was the last thing she needed.
Still cursing under her breath, Ash continued on to the end of the street, puffing as the incline steepened and her calves began to ache. Abruptly, the street ended, and she found herself staring at a cross between a rubbish dump and a housing development.
A favela. She headed up the slope towards the shantytown, whose ramshackle appearance was softened by the moonlight. The stink of rubbish and untreated sewage intensified as she drew nearer.
A muffled shout made her glance back then, and quicken her speed. Two of her pursuers were catching up fast, and as she watched a third appeared in the distance. They had long ago stripped off their ski masks, and, at the sight of her, fierce grins split their sweaty faces.
She gritted her teeth against the throbbing in her shoulder and scanned her surroundings urgently. It was difficult to make out things clearly in the moonlight, but wasn't that a plastic bag draped over a TV antenna? It could be just litter of course, but she'd heard cocaine dealers used such signals to indicate the presence of the police or the arrival of a drug shipment or....
Movement by a sheet of corrugated iron fencing snagged her attention, and she saw a huddle of several young men watching her warily. Yes! She swerved towards them.
"Os homens que me perseguem," called Ash, not slowing her approach, "trabalham para o cara rival que vende drogas."
At the mention of a rival drugdealer, the youths got to their feet, muttering and gesturing. Guns appeared in some hands.
"Eles querem você fora do acordo," she added, hoping that the thought of being cut out of a drug deal would aggravate them. Mutters became angry exclamations, and wary looks deepened into scowls. Maybe this would work after all.
Ash's momentum was such that, as she had intended, the youths had to part to let her through or be mown down. She didn't pause but kept on running, glancing back in time to see them close ranks against the three men following hard on her heels.
The reception committee for those invading their turf would be a hot one, she hoped. As she swung in a wide arc that would lead her back down the slope, a flurry of shots broke the early morning silence.
She bared her teeth. Serve them right.
Ash was trapped in a dead end, and this time she hadn't planned it. Two of her pursuers had survived their encounter with the favela youths, though one now sported a broken nose and the other was bleeding from a nasty gash to his thigh. They glared at her. She was supposed to be easier prey than this, presumably. Tough.
Brakes squealed in the distance, as someone took a corner too fast. Brazilian drivers!
Wistfully, she eyed the drainpipe up the side of the warehouse. She doubted she could make the climb in her condition, but she might have to. Not just yet though. She flexed her hands and prepared to give as good as she got. At least these two didn't have guns.
A car engine revved and wheels screeched. It sounded nearer now. Maybe, if she could get to the main road....
The two thugs started circling her, jabbing at her with switchblade and cudgel. She still had enough energy to evade the blows and keep out of their reach, but it was ebbing fast, and they knew it. More and more the pokes were malicious. She ducked a blow aimed at her wounded shoulder, and searched grimly for an opening.
The roar of the car engine was suddenly loud, and headlights dazzled her. What the-? A cudgel caught her in the ribs as she squinted against the glare, and she pressed a hand to her stinging side.
A Volkswagen Gol screeched to a halt behind her assailants, its tyres leaving a streak of rubber on the road. "Get in," yelled a familiar voice, and the passenger door swung open..
Ash didn't need telling twice. She dived for the thug standing between her and salvation, driving her head deep into his abdomen. Air whooshed from his lungs and his cudgel fell with a loud clatter. Then she was heading towards the open car door, swinging herself inside.
The blonde in the driving seat didn't wait for her to get settled before reversing down the alleyway at breakneck speed, and she hung on for dear life. With an effort, she finally managed to get the door closed properly, and she slumped back against the upholstery. The two thugs had receded to mere silhouettes in the distance, and she imagined them staring uncomprehendingly after her.
Ash laughed slightly hysterically. "In the nick of time."
"I'd have got here sooner if I'd known where you were. Next time how about a homing signal?"
"Sure." She glanced at Jemma, whose face bore a look of fierce concentration. "Your file didn't mention you were Ayrton Senna's sister."
"Never needed to be before." The blonde backed the car out onto a main road, straightened up, then put it in gear and began to drive more conventionally.
Ash's eyelids drooped as the night's exertions took their toll..
"You look awful," came Jemma's voice.
"Donít feel too good," she admitted. The car slowed, and she had a feeling she was being scrutinised.
"Your shoulder! Let me pull up somewhere, take a look at it-"
"No time. Our cover's blown. We need to get our stuff from the hotel and get out of here."
"But you need a doctor!"
"Later," managed Ash. "We'll head for São Paulo. Give me a field dressing once we're on the road.... OK?"
Jemma cursed under her breath but muttered a reluctant "OK." The car picked up speed again.
"Thanks." With a sigh of relief, Ash let her eyelids flutter closed.
Just outside Rio, Jemma pulled off the highway onto a layby sheltered from the passing traffic by a line of trees. She pulled the dangling wires apart, and let the engine peter out. She gazed at the woman dozing in the passenger seat. It seemed a shame to disturb Ash, but it had to be done.
She stretched over to the back seat and grabbed the first aid kit and bottle of hydrogen peroxide she had flung there. Sterile saline would have been better, but the little supermarket she had stopped at hadn't stocked it. She got out, went round to Ash's side of the car, and opened the door.
"Hey." She crouched down next to Ash and touched her gently on the arm. Eyelids fluttered open and pale blue eyes regarded her blearily. "I need to clean your wound."
Obligingly Ash leaned forward in her seat, wincing as she did so.
Jemma pursed her lips. "Painkillers worn off?"
The dark-haired woman nodded.
"I'll get you some more when I've done this." Carefully she began to unwrap the makeshift bandage wrapped around Ash's left shoulder.
Jemma had managed to convince the obstinate woman that the Hotel Senador could wait a few minutes, and Ash had let her apply pressure to the stab wound. When it finally stopped bleeding, Ash had urged her again to get back to the hotel. Jemma sighed at her stubbornness but complied.
She had parked the little Volkswagen near the two star hotel, with its engine running and Ash in the passenger seat. The older agent had decided not to come in; she feared she might 'attract too much attention'. Since Jemma had stripped off Ash's tattered shirt, and she was now clad only in a bloodspattered white bra, she could only agree.
No one was in the lobby. Jemma rushed through it, then took the stairs up to their room two at a time, heart pumping, eyes peeled for an ambush. The coast was clear. It took her only a few frantic moments to cram their belongings into their bags, then she was half pulling and half pushing the heavy luggage down the stairs.
She stumbled over to the counter, dumped the bags in front of it, caught her breath, then pinged the bell. The middle-aged woman who had checked them in yesterday appeared.
"Iíd like to check out please."
The receptionist gazed over Jemma's shoulder then into her eyes again. "Your friend, Senhorita Kenyon. She is checking out too?"
"Yes. She's outside, waiting for me. How much do we owe you?"
The woman worked it out, and Jemma handed over some of the reais Ash had given her and waited for the change. "Did the police come in the end?"
The receptionist grimaced. "You heard about the disturbance then?"
"By the time the Polícia got here, there was no sign of anything out of the ordinary."
Jemma opened her mouth to ask about the blood under the lamppost then closed it again.
"They were angry at us for wasting their time." The woman shrugged and handed Jemma her change. "I hope you enjoy the rest of your stay in Brazil," she added perfunctorily.
"Me too." Jemma had smiled, grabbed the bags and headed for the car and her waiting partner.
The last of the bandage came free, and she unscrewed the cap from the brown bottle. "This may sting." Carefully she poured hydrogen peroxide into the wound.
"S'okay." The words came from between gritted teeth.
Jemma winced in sympathy. If it had been her on the receiving end, she would have been howling in agony. But Ash was made of sterner stuff, it seemed, so she kept pouring. Mac had covered 'in the field' medical treatment as part of the training course last year - it was vital to irrigate the wound thoroughly. She drizzled more antiseptic into the deep gash, then nodded in satisfaction.
As Ash let out her breath with a gasp of relief, Jemma selected a sterile bandage from the first aid kit and began to rewrap the wound, which fortunately was not gaping enough to require packing. She tied off the ends, then fetched Ash's bag from the Volkswagen's boot and started to rummage inside.
The other agent raised an eyebrow. "Looking for something?"
"You can't go around in just your bra." Attractive sight though it is. "Ah." She pulled out a cotton shirt, rather rumpled as the result of her hasty packing. "This do?"
Ash nodded wearily, and allowed Jemma to help her into it. The blonde finished doing up the buttons then stood back.
"Want to tie my shoelaces too, Mum?"
Jemma smiled. If Ash was joking, she must be feeling a bit better. She returned to the driver's side and got in, then pulled out the packet of painkillers from the glove compartment and extracted two white pills. "Take these and go back to sleep," she ordered.
Ash frowned. "You can't do all the driving, Jemma. It's six hours to São Paulo." She took the pills, swallowed them, then made a face.
"Of course I can." Even if I didn't get much sleep last night, and I have to drive on the wrong side of the road, and Brazilian drivers are lunatics. She touched the ignition wires together. They sparked, and the engine roared to life.
Blue eyes were regarding her keenly, she realised, and a smile quirked the corner of Ash's mouth. She knows I'm not as confident as I sound. Jemma prepared herself for an argument. But it didn't come. Instead, Ash relaxed against the upholstery.
"OK," she said, closing her eyes. "Thanks."
Jemma breathed a sigh of relief, and put the car in gear. "No. Thank you," she murmured. "For having faith in me." She glanced across to see the reaction to her words, but Ash was already asleep, her head lolling.
She resisted a strong urge to reach over and brush back the strand of dark hair falling across Ash's face. "Sleep well," she murmured. Then she pulled out onto the highway.
Jemma had been hoping for a relaxing drive along a well-maintained, and preferably empty, highway. What she got was the BR116. The old highway that connected Rio to São Paulo was run down and riddled with potholes, and though she was travelling at just under the speed limit and minding her own business, it seemed trucks were constantly crowding the Volkswagen's tail, their drivers revving impatiently before pulling out and roaring past her in a stink of exhaust fumes.
The scenery was nice though. To the north was the Itatiaia National Park, and cloud-forested mountains dominated the skyline. And it was slightly cooler than it had been in Rio.
She glanced at the wounded woman sleeping in the passenger seat. Suppose I hadn't woken up and gone looking for Ash? Suppose the knife had severed an artery? Suppose....
For God's sake, stop it! Jemma tightened her hands on the steering wheel and thrust the recurring thoughts away. Ash was here with her and safe. That was all that mattered.
She reached for her Coke can and took another swig of its lukewarm contents. It was her third; the caffeine was helping to keep her alert. Only trouble was... Her bladder signalled its need again, and she checked her watch. Ninety minutes since the last stop. Time for a break and a leg stretch. When a likely spot appeared, Jemma checked the rear view mirror, then indicated and pulled over.
She rummaged about on the back seat and eventually found the box of tissues she knew was there. Grabbing a handful, plus some antibacterial travel wipes for her hands, she got out and headed for a likely bush.... The pressure on her bladder relieved, she returned to the car.
Ash's colour was good, she saw, as she scrutinised the other woman anxiously. She touched the back of one hand to Ash's forehead. No fever either, thank God.
The dark-haired woman stirred fitfully at her touch, and she pulled back quickly, fearing she was going to wake her. But Ash merely let out a deep sigh, and resettled herself more comfortably into the upholstery.
Jemma rebuckled her seat belt, and started the engine....
Several hours had passed, and, for something to do, Jemma was trying to remember the names of the towns and villages she had driven through. Barra Mansa, Guarantinguetá....
Beside her, Ash stirred and her eyelids fluttered open. "Where are we?" She rubbed her eyes.
"You're awake! Um... the last road sign we passed was to São José dos Campos, I think."
"Never heard of it." The tall woman yawned and started to stretch then thought better of it. "How much further is it to São Paulo?"
Ash checked her watch and whistled. "Good going, Jemma."
The praise brought a glow to Jemma's cheeks. She cleared her throat. "How are you feeling?"
"Like I've been knifed in the shoulder." Ash's stomach grumbled. "And I could eat a horse."
Wordlessly, Jemma opened the glove compartment and pulled out the painkillers. While Ash swallowed two with a mouthful of Coke, Jemma took something else from the compartment that her partner might appreciate. "The heat's made this a bit squidgy but -"
"Gimme." Ash snatched the chocolate bar from her and seconds later there came a contented, muffled grunt.
"I'm glad you're awake. I was wondering... where exactly is the Esplêndido Hotel?"
"The Avenida Ipiranga.... Don't worry, I'll give you directions when we get there. Unless you want me to take over?"
Jemma shook her head. "You need to rest that shoulder. Anyway, I've come this far...."
"Okay. Thanks." Ash shifted her gaze out of the window.
Jemma hadn't cancelled the hotel booking Celio had already made; as Ash had advised, she had simply booked a new room under their new aliases - the opposition wouldn't be expecting them to remain in the same hotel.
Amy! She frowned. "Why do I have to be 'Amy Smith' of all things?"
Ash chuckled. "Would you have preferred my name, 'Elizabeth Dexter'?"
Jemma considered for a moment. "Not really."
They travelled a few more miles in silence, then Jemma noticed that the traffic was increasing and as the road became clogged, she was forced to reduce speed. The skyscrapered silhouette of São Paulo came into view in the distance.
Nearly there. She mulled over what they would do next.
"Keep your eyes peeled," said Ash. "I think there's a turn off to the right quite soon."
Jemma grunted and started looking for road signs. The idiot driver in front slowed without warning, and she braked and dropped down a gear. Then a complicated road sign came into view. She recognised only one phrase: São Paulo. That's what I want. She indicated right, and prepared to take the turn-off.
For the next few minutes, Jemma was kept busy. Without Ash's help, she would have lost her way for certain. All this right-right-left-right stuff! She felt like a rat in maze.
Finally, she was turning the Volkswagen into the Avenida Ipiranga.
"Over there," said Ash, pointing.
Jemma sighed with relief. They had reached the Esplêndido Hotel.
It was a 2-star hotel again, much to Ash's disgust.
Jemma dumped their bags on the worn carpet and sank down on the lumpy twin bed nearest the window. "Glad that's over." She stretched out with a sigh of relief.
"Yeah." Ash was staring out at the cityscape, but Jemma sensed she wasn't seeing it. Some internal monologue had her attention and was making her frown.
Ash sighed. "Celio." The first thing the tall woman had done when they reached their room was to dial the number of the Organisation's Man in Rio. Once more she had got only his answering machine.
Jemma shrugged and clasped her hands behind her head. "He'll probably be in touch first thing tomorrow."
"Probably." Ash didn't sound too sure. She drummed her fingers on the windowledge. "I'm hungry. Sod London's budget. Let's get something from room service." She crossed to the phone and picked it up. Jemma listened to Ash's gabbling in Portuguese with only half an ear.
The tall woman put down the phone. "Five minutes they say."
"What did you order?" She remembered some of the dishes she had seen on restaurant menus in Rio. "Black beans, white rice, and mandioca?"
A dark eyebrow rose. "Roast chicken sandwiches and coffee for two. But I can always change-"
Jemma laughed. "That's great. Thanks." She unclasped her hands and sat up. "Let me look at your shoulder."
The other woman threw her a pained look, but Jemma gave her a no nonsense stare. Though she muttered under her breath, Ash sat obediently on the bed and started to unbutton her shirt.
Jemma eased the material off the tanned shoulder, revealing the bandage. Carefully, she unwrapped it. The knife wound didn't looked inflamed, which was just as well. She touched the surrounding skin with her knuckle. It didn't feel hot. "I think you got lucky. There's no sign of infection."
Ash squinted but couldn't see the wound and gave up "Will I ever play the violin again?"
"Could you before?" Jemma reached for the first aid kit, opened it and took out a fresh bandage.
"Well there's your answer." She rewrapped the wound, tied off the ends, then eased the shirt back up over Ash's shoulder. "All done."
Jemma yawned, so widely her jaw cracked. "Oh God. All that driving is catching up with me."
"Hardly surprising. I slept through it and I'm still pretty tired."
A knock on the door proved to be room service with their food. Ash took it, thanked the uniformed boy, and dismissed him with a tip. For the next few minutes the only sounds were munching and slurping as they worked their way through the sandwiches and coffee.
When they'd finished, Jemma stacked the empty plates and cups on the tray, then reached for her bag. She pulled out her toothbrush and nighty, aware of pale blue eyes watching her.
"I know it's early, but-"
"So what? You're tired, you should sleep," said Ash. "I think I'll get some shuteye too." She reached over and from her bag pulled an extra large T-shirt she was evidently going to sleep in. Jemma watched open mouthed as, there and then, the tall woman stood up began to strip off her clothes.
"Er...." She swallowed and turned away. "I just need to use the bathroom," she called, heading for its shelter. "Won't be long."
"Take your time," came Ash's voice. "We're not in any hurry."
The knock at the door woke Ash from an interesting dream involving her, Jemma, and a room in a sex motel....
"Room service," repeated a man's muffled voice.
She started to sit up, then stopped, inhaling sharply as the movement set her shoulder throbbing.
"Stay put," came Jemma's voice. "I'll get it."
"Thanks." Ash propped herself up on her right elbow and watched the little blonde slip into a pale blue robe.
Had she asked for breakfast to be sent to their room? Ash couldn't remember doing so. But her brain wasn't exactly firing on all cylinders. Perhaps the other woman had.
Jemma padded barefoot towards the door and undid the latch. She was just turning the handle when the door burst open, sending Jemma flying.
Five men surged into the hotel room - four were Brazilians, who looked as if they'd injected too many steroids, but the fifth man was of quite a different stamp. Ash recognised the lean figure with the pockmarked olive skin instantly. Khaleb Abdusamad!
She dived for the clothes piled on the floor next to her bed, searched them feverishly for her holster, and found it. Then she tossed it aside in disgust. Idiot! You lost your gun, remember?
Two thugs had grabbed a struggling Jemma. Two more were heading her way. Abdusamad was watching events unfold with hooded eyes and folded arms.
Ash evaded the hands reaching for her, grabbed the cheap hotel chair by one leg, and brought it down on her closest assailant's head. He grunted, then his eyes rolled up and he crumpled to the floor.
She discarded the now useless mess of splintered wood, and looked for something else she could use. A meaty hand gripped her wrist, and she karate-chopped a nerve point on the thug's forearm. He howled and released her.
Jemma's shoulder holster was hanging over the remaining hotel chair, she saw. Ash dived for it and pulled the Browning free. She twisted and pointed the pistol, then froze.
Two thugs were holding Jemma up against the wall of the room, and a wicked looking knife was pressed to her throat.
"Stalemate, Blade," came Abdusamad's voice. He sounded amused.
Jemma's eye widened. "Look out!"
A fist thudded into Ash's wound, and she thought she was going to throw up or pass out. She fell to her knees, and felt rather than saw the gun being twisted from her grasp. Pain came in intense waves, and her vision dimmed as she tried to ride them out.
"Idiot! That was too hard," shouted the Libyan.
She concentrated on her breathing, tried to move beyond the agony.
"If you've crippled her and she's no good to us...."
The pain receded to manageable levels and Ash's surroundings swam back into focus. Anxious green eyes were looking down at her. Don't freak out on me, Jemma. I know it looks bad but.... She forced a smile.
"Are you with us again, Blade?" asked the Libyan.
She explored her bandaged shoulder with one hand. Her fingers came away bloody. "No thanks to you." She glared at him. Last night they were trying to kill me. Now he wants me in one piece. "What do you want?"
"Why should I want anything?"
She gestured at Jemma. The knife was cutting into the soft skin of the blonde's neck, forcing her up onto tiptoes to avoid it. The green eyes were terrified yet determined, and she could read the message in them: Leave me. Save yourself. Ash ignored it.
Abdusamad laughed. "Pacheco was right. You are 'No nonsense' and 'To the point.' His dossier is very comprehensive. The Commander read it last night."
If they've got Celio's dossier then- Her heart sank. No wonder I couldn't get in touch with him. He must be dead, poor bastard. And that message I left on his answering machine led them straight to us.
The lean man pulled out a penknife and began to clean his bitten fingernails with it. "After the trouble you caused us in Tenerife, I wanted to kill you... but the Commander thinks you could prove useful. So." He looked at Ash. "We have a proposition for you." His gaze flickered to Jemma. "If you do a job for us, I will spare you and your companion. If not-" He gestured, and the blonde gasped as the pressure on her throat increased.
'We' as in you and al-Akhdar, presumably. "What kind of job?"
Another gesture. The knife eased and both Jemma and Ash could breathe more easily.
The terrorist folded and pocketed the knife then trained his black gaze on Ash once more. "Interesting. The Commander said you would co-operate if we threatened your partner. I did not believe him." He shrugged. "No matter."
"I wonít blow up innocent civilians."
"That will not be required, Blade. Your dossier said you were a 'cat burglar'. Is that correct?"
She regarded him coolly. "What do you want me to steal?"
Her instant acquiescence seemed to anger him. "You westerners!" Black eyes glittered. "No commitment to anything but your own skins, your own self-indulg-"
"Are you going to lecture me or tell me what you want?"
For a moment Ash thought he was going to hit her. Then his raised hand became an admonitory finger, which he wagged almost affectionately at her.
"Ah, Blade." His tone was once more calm. "There is an American businessman here in São Paulo. He owns a private gallery. In it is a very valuable emerald." White teeth gleamed against olive skin. "You will appreciate the irony. An American funding our struggle." When she remained silent, he shrugged. "You will steal that emerald for us."
She raised an eyebrow. "Will I?"
He nodded. "Or your little blonde friend will die."
CONTINUED IN PART 3