Warnings - See Part 1.
A VIEW TO A KISS
Part Four (Conclusion)
Ash stopped running when she felt she had put enough distance between herself and the gallery. She had used the thugs' mobile phone to anonymously alert the São Paulo police and had no intention of getting caught up in their investigations. She had far more urgent concerns.
As she pulled the stolen phone from her jacket pocket, her fingers encountered the cold surface of the Moghal emerald. Should have put it back, I suppose. Maybe later. She shrugged and punched in the number of the Organisation's London HQ.
"Yes?" came the female switchboard operator's voice.
"Blade," she said crisply. "This line is unsecured."
"Understood. Putting you through now."
The next voice she heard belonged to the CounterIntelligence Section Head. "I was wondering when you'd get in touch, Blade. Something we can help you with?"
Her boss's words sent relief flooding through her. "Our man here is down and I need information, fast."
"Down?... Damn it!" He sounded shocked. "OK. What do you need?"
"You know Laurel and Hardy's friend, the industrious one?"
There was a long silence and she could almost hear his brain ticking over. Come on, Thompson. Mauro Pimentel.
"Ah, yes. Got it. Go on."
"I need an address."
"Home or work?"
"I'll get someone on it and get back to you."
"Can you make it quick?"
"Of course." Her boss paused. "How's Jemma?"
"Unknown," she growled, hating having to make such an admission. "But I'm taking care of it."
He was silent for so long she thought he had hung up. "If there's anything - "
"Thanks. But the address is all I need for now."
Thompson sighed. "OK. I'll get back to you." This time he did hang up.
Ash pocketed the phone then punched a wall to relieve her feelings. She was sucking her throbbing knuckles when she realised she was standing opposite a window full of mannequins wearing jeans and T-shirts. She glanced down at her too tight jacket and too short trousers, then looked up at the mannequins again. Seconds later she was trotting across the road to the clothes shop.
It took her longer than it would have if she'd had her lockpicks with her, but she had soon disabled the alarm and was opening the back door and letting herself inside the little shop. She riffled through the first rack of clothes, the sliding coathangers clacking against one another, until she found a shirt and jacket in her size. Then she threw them into the middle of the floor and went in search of a pair of jeans. Finding trousers that fit her long legs was always a problem, but eventually she came across a pair that would do.
Ash changed into the shirt and jacket, and had one leg in and one leg out of the jeans when the mobile phone rang. She hopped across the floor, almost falling in her haste, and grabbed it, checking before answering that it wasn't Abdusamad keeping tabs on his men.
"Got something to jot this down?" came Thompson's voice.
"Hang on." She hopped awkwardly over to the sales counter where a pencil and notepad lay next to the till. "Go ahead."
He dictated two São Paulo addresses, one residential, one an office in a skyscraper downtown. "Our industrious friend also has a chemical manufacturing plant, but we donít know where it is yet."
"Never mind. I can convince him to tell me that himself." She finished writing and tucked the piece of paper in her pocket.
Something in his voice made her pause. "Yes?"
She finished dressing, adding a leather belt and tucking her two pistols into it as a final fashion touch. Then she folded the brown uniform into a neat pile and left it by the till....
Pimentel's secretary tried to keep Ash out. She simply brushed past the plump woman, opened the office door, and strode through,
"Desculpe, Senhor Pimentel!" At his employee's wail, the man with the bouffant silver hair turned round in astonishment.
Ash grabbed him by the arm and steered him away from the window with its bird's eye view of the morning rush hour traffic. Pimentel didn't resist - her painful nerve pinch saw to that. She pushed him unceremoniously into the plush upholstered chair, then released him and perched on the edge of his desk in front of him.
Deliberately, she let her jacket hang open, allowing him a view of her guns. He went pale, licked his lips, and rubbed his sore arm. She glanced at his secretary, who was angrily waving the nail file she had been using when Ash burst in on her, and raised a meaningful eyebrow.
"Tudo bem, Maria. Tudo bem." He waved the woman away. Reluctantly, she backed out of the office, closing the door behind her.
"Good boy," said Ash.
"Who are you?" His voice was hoarse and he cleared his throat.
"I'll ask the questions. Where is Jemma Jacobs?"
"Who?" But the comprehension in his eyes had already given him away.
She pulled out a gun and aimed it at his groin. "Don't play games with me," she growled. "The English woman. Short, blonde. Ring any bells yet?"
Reflexively, he crossed his legs.
"Your Libyan friends kidnapped her," she prompted. "She's a British agent... like me."
"B... British agent?" He eased his starched collar with one finger.
"Didn't mention that, huh?"
He shook his head. Beneath his tan, his skin had gone very pasty, she noticed dispassionately.
"So. I'll ask you again." She tightened her finger on the trigger, the knuckle whitening. "Where is she?"
"Please!" His eyes had gone very wide and sweat beaded his upper lip. "Taking the blonde woman was their idea not mine. She's at the complex." He pulled out a handkerchief and mopped his face. "Or she was last time I saw her."
"When was that?"
Ash eased her finger off the trigger. "This 'complex' of yours... where is it?"
"That's a big state. Be more specific."
She chewed her lip. "Last night? So you have a plane?"
He nodded eagerly. "Yes. If you wish, I will instruct my own pilot to fly you there -"
She stood up. "You'll do more than that, sunshine," she told him. "You're coming with me."
The EMB-110 Bandeirante turbo-prop had been airborne for nearly an hour. Ash stretched her cramped legs out into the gangway - one of the advantages of having an aisle seat - and twiddled her thumbs. The view had long since palled. Mixed tropical forest stretched as far as the eye could see, leavened only by the straight highways that the authorities had bulldozed across Paraná.
Though she was champing at the bit to get to Jemma, she had spent her time profitably, grilling Pimentel. At first the man beside her was reluctant to part with details of his operation, but a gun muzzle in his ribs had soon loosened his tongue.
Pimentel Industries had started out as a legitimate enterprise, manufacturing solvents, fertilisers, selected medicines. Then greed had got the better of him, and when the chance came to develop a nice little sideline in cocaine manufacturing, he had grabbed it with both hands. A few years ago, the Libyans had offered to become silent partners and he had welcomed their cash and connections. That had recently changed. With their knowledge of his criminal activities, he had been a sitting duck for blackmail.
Ash glanced at the silver-haired man sitting tensely beside her. Pimentel might bluster and act the part of the big businessman, but it was clear that the Libyans held the whip hand. One thing puzzled her though. When she had broached the subject of nerve gas, he seemed genuinely bewildered and appalled. She wondered if she had misunderstood Jemma's message, or if the Libyans had kept that part of the operation from him.
"Nossa!" The pilot's exclamation snapped her gaze forward. Up ahead, a black plume of smoke was rising into the sky. Ash's heart sank. Jemma!
"Merda!" Pimentel half rose from his seat. She pulled him back down.
"Let me guess," she said. "That's your chemical complex, right?"
"Those sons of bitches! What have they done?"
The pilot jabbered excitedly into his radio, trying to find out what was going on. After a few minutes, he turned and regarded the industrialist gravely. "There is a serious fire, Senhor Pimentel. The emergency services have been notified and are on the way."
"How long until we get there?" called Ash.
"Ten minutes, Senhorita." He faced front again.
They drew slowly nearer, the black plume taking up more and more of the view from the windows. Occasionally a flash would made the rising smoke eddy and billow before calming once more. Explosions.
She tried not to think about Jemma. The blonde was nothing if not resourceful. She would be fine, wouldn't she? She's got to be.
The pilot called out, and, simultaneously, the huge clearing that housed the massive industrial complex came into view. Two of the warehouses were on fire, she saw at once. The carparks were crowded with fire appliances and ambulances, and more emergency vehicles were heading along the highway towards the complex.
The pilot steered the Bandeirante towards the little airstrip, which was well away from the fire, fortunately. The landing was bumpy, and they had barely slowed before Ash had unbuckled her seat belt and was heading along the aisle.
She pulled the door open, and, not bothering to extend the steps, leaped out onto the concrete, rolling, then coming smoothly to her feet, and setting off at a run towards the carpark. The people milling there were soot-stained and some were suffering from burns. She grabbed the arm of the first white-coated person she came to.
"Have you seen a blonde woman? Small. About so high?" She gestured. "She would have been wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans."
The man with the moustache looked dazedly at her then shook his head. Stifling a curse, she looked for someone else to ask. When six white-coated workers had been unable to provide any leads, she changed tack. That man with the wire-rimmed glasses wasn't wearing a white coat. He might do.
His reaction to her question took her by surprise. His eyes widened and his expression became closed. "Are you her friend?"
She blinked. "Yes. Now, have you seen the blonde or not?"
He searched her face then, satisfied by what he found there, relaxed. "She made me cut her ropes, then she took my coat and ID. That was after she had knocked out the two men, of course."
Ash stared at him. "What two men?"
"The ones accompanying her." He frowned. "Her hands were tied. The rules here are strict but I have never seen them tie up a woman before." A distant explosion made them both duck. They turned to stare at the new plume of smoke now billowing skywards.
Ash got his attention again. "How long ago was this?" He looked blankly at her. "When she took your coat," she repeated patiently.
He glanced at his watch. "An hour?"
Jemma had been OK up until an hour ago. Where was she now? "Thanks."
Ash wove her way between medics and their patients, stepping aside to let an ambulance through then continuing aimlessly. Where would Jemma go?
"Parece um ferimento a tiro," called a woman, the phrase stopping Ash in her tracks. Gunshot wound? She turned, to see two medics, a man and a woman, wheeling a gurney across the carpark. On it was something in a bodybag. Heart in her mouth, she trotted towards them.
"May I?" While the outraged medics looked on, she unzipped the bodybag, revealing a man in mechanic's overalls. She had never seen him before in her life.
Her pulse steadied. She leaned over for a better look. He had been shot in the temple. When the bullet exited, it took off the back of his skull. She closed the zip.
"Where did you find him?" Her commanding tone forestalled any objections.
The male medic meekly pointed across the carpark. "The back of the underground garage."
"Thanks." She jogged towards the entrance, then started down the ramp towards the cavernlike space. It was gloomy, lit only by dim bulbs in the high ceiling, and she let her eyesight adjust before scanning her surroundings. She headed towards the back of the garage.
The abandoned toolkit was the first thing that caught her attention. No mechanic would leave something so valuable lying around. Near to it lay an oily rag. She pursed her lip, and poked the rag with her foot. Then she continued her scrutiny. What's that?
Others might have mistaken the dark pool of liquid for oil but Ash knew better. She squatted on her heels, dipped her forefinger into the viscous liquid, then rubbed it between finger and thumb. Blood. This is where he was shot.
She straightened and looked closely at her surroundings. A fresh oil stain on the concrete ten feet way showed that a vehicle had stood there. A smudged tyre track revealed that it was big, but no more than that.
Was the shooting connected with the missing vehicle? And how did Jemma (or rather her absence) fit into all this?
Only one way to find out.
Ash turned on her heel and began to run.
Ash halted at the airstrip to catch her breath, then looked around. The Bandeirante had been parked in the little hangar and there was no sign of its pilot. No sign of Pimentel either. The silver-haired industrialist was probably too busy salvaging what he could of his chemicals and machinery.
She went in search of something she could fly herself. It was just inside the open hangar door - a little single-engine Cessna, the keys still dangling from its ignition. There was no sign of its owner, so she clambered inside, settled herself in the snug pilot's seat, and turned on the master switch.
The electrical controls sprang instantly to life and she checked the instrument panel readings, especially the fuel levels. Ready to go, thank God! She hit the primer to inject some fuel then turned the ignition key. The engine coughed into life and the propeller began to turn. She taxied out into the open.
The engine noise brought a man out from the bushes next to the airstrip; his expression was startled and his flies undone. Still unzipped, he started across the concrete towards her. She chuckled and opened up the throttle. The Cessna started down the runway, picking up speed. A glance showed Ash her pursuer's face was turning red with effort as he pelted after her, but there was little chance he would catch her. They were going fast enough now, she judged, so she trimmed the elevator and pushed the control wheel gently forward. Moments later she was airborne.
The last she saw of the Cessna's pilot was a tiny figure standing forlornly in the middle of the airstrip, shaking his fist at her. The engine noise drowned out his colourful curses.
Ash circled the complex once to get her bearings, carefully avoiding the smoke, which on this calm day was travelling straight up. She scanned the landscape. Which way would a vehicle have headed? The surrounding forest meant there was only one feasible answer - along the highway. So. Northeast or southwest? No contest. If she were a fugitive, she'd head for the border. It would be easy enough to cross at the Iguaçu Falls and vanish into Paraguay or Argentina.
She nodded, then banked the plane into a steep turn. Southwest it is.
Ash had been following the highway for ten minutes, as it sped through increasingly dense tropical forest. The cars and trucks she'd encountered so far were too small to have left those tyre tracks, so she'd discounted them instantly. Then she saw the lumbering vehicle up ahead.
She put the Cessna into a dive, her mouth dropping open as she drew nearer and realised what the murky green vehicle was.
It's a TEL!
She had only ever seen transporter-erector-launchers on surveillance photos, but its shape was unmistakable, especially those sinister looking launch canisters on its roof. Ex-Chinese military, she decided. That explained the Wai Ling Chen connection.
As she gained on the vehicle, she was able to make out the tip of something poking out the front end of one of the launch canisters. Fuck! There's an ICBM in one of them. So that's his nerve gas delivery system.
There was something odd about the canisters. She frowned, unable to work out what it was. Then she had it. What was that blob in between them? The blob moved, and with a start she realised there was someone lying on the TEL's roof. Abruptly, the figure sat up, shaded its eyes against the sun, and stared right at her.
Uh oh! She readied herself for gunfire then blinked as, instead, the figure began to wave.
"What the-?" Belatedly Ash registered the white coat. And the blonde hair. Jemma!
Jubilantly, she touched the controls and rolled the little plane from side to side. Then the Cessna was roaring over the TEL, and Ash found herself looking down on her partner, who was so close she could almost see the whites of her eyes.
"Hang on, Jemma," she yelled. "I'm coming."
Jemma watched the little plane fly over with a feeling of utter relief. Its pilot had to be Ash. Who else would waggle the wings at her like that?
She eased herself up onto her knees, resisting the slipstream that threatened to tear her from her precarious perch, and craned her head to follow the plane's progress. It was climbing, going into a steep banking turn above the highway up ahead, before roaring back towards them
Surely she's not trying to play 'chicken' with a TEL?
Jemma had worked out the lumbering vehicle's purpose a short while ago, and realised, with a shudder, that there was an armed ICBM in one of the canisters. Whether its warhead was a conventional payload or al-Akhdar had had time to load the sarin she had no way of knowing.... But she certainly didn't want Ash to help her find out the hard way!
The TEL showed no sign of slowing, however. Just before it seemed there was no alternative but head-on collision, the plane climbed sharply, its landing wheels skimming the top of the driver's cab with only inches to spare.
Heart still in her mouth, Jemma watched the aircraft dwindle into the distance, then turn for another pass.
The transporter picked up speed and the slipstream increased in ferocity; she hung on grimly. Did the Libyan think he could outrun Ash? As she watched the plane dive towards them, she was reminded of WW2 kamikaze footage. The steep angle, the descending whine of the engine....
Something whizzed over her, and she turned, startled. The transporter's cab window had slid open and a gun muzzle was poking out of it, pointing up at the plane. There was a muzzle flash, then another....
The plane's engine noise was suddenly deafening. She ducked as it zoomed overhead. Then it was pulling away fast and climbing once more, before circling to the north.
Jemma straightened and stared up at the plane, which was mercifully unharmed, by the look of it. What the hell is she doing? Suddenly she understood. This time, Ash was coming in from the TEL's passenger side. Al-Akhdar wouldn't be able to drive and shoot at her at the same time.
As the aircraft drew nearer, she could make out the feral grin on the pilot's face. The cockpit's window slid open and sunlight reflected off blue steel. Then came a series of muzzle flashes.
Two loud popping noises were followed by a sharp tearing sound. The transporter lurched violently to the left, flinging Jemma sharply against one of the launch canisters, adding to her growing collection of bruises.
She's shot out the tyres!
Jemma struggled to a sitting position, and saw that the TEL was now thundering towards the pine trees that thickly lined the highway. Oh, no! She braced herself for impact.
The shock of the collision almost broke her grip. The transporter slowed noticeably, but ploughed on, leaving a wake of splintered timber behind it. Each tree it hit slowed its progress a bit more. Eventually, it shuddered to a halt.
For a moment there was utter silence. Then the world, and Jemma, began to breathe once more. Bird cries and animal calls resumed around her, and she became aware of the distant drone of Ash's plane circling overhead, assessing the damage.
The whirr of an electric motor startled her, and something moving against her back made her almost jump out of her skin. She twisted round but saw nothing. For a moment she thought she had imagined it, then the launch canisters either side of her began to rise, slowly at first, then with increasing speed.
My God! He's preparing to launch from here.
She couldn't remember the exact range of an ICBM. It depended on the type, didn't it? But whatever model this was, she had a horrible feeling Washington and New York were both within reach. Right now, thousands of Americans were going about their daily lives, completely unaware that in a distant country a terrorist was planning to dump nerve gas into their midst. The last thing their tracking stations will be expecting is a missile from Brazil.
Of more immediate concern, though, was Jemma's own position. If she didn't get out of there quickly, she could be crushed or carried aloft. Neither option appealed to her. She straddled one of the slowly rising canisters, reminding herself disconcertingly of a scene from Dr Strangelove, then scrambled over the TEL's side and jumped.
The forest floor had been churned up and mashed bark, pine needles, and cones added to the mess - it cushioned her landing nicely. She regained her balance, brushed twigs and dirt off her clothes, then forced her way round the side of the TEL, the crowding branches ripping the lab coat and threatening to poke out an eye.
The scaffolding-like structure at the rear of the transporter was slowly lifting the canisters from horizontal to vertical. She stared up at it, and chewed the inside of her mouth. The mechanism must work hydraulically, mustn't it? Which meant, if she could somehow drain the fluid from the system....
That hose looks promising.
Reaching into her lab coat pocket, she pulled out the Swiss army knife. Then she clambered awkwardly up the back of the TEL and onto the lower portion of the scaffolding. She reached for the hose, took a firm grip, and began to saw at it. An insect whizzed past. She swatted at it absently then resumed her sawing. Another insect flew by, hitting a nearby tree trunk with a loud thunk.
That's no gnat!
She looked up. A plump olive-skinned man was standing on the roof of the TEL's cab, pointing a gun at her. She was near enough to see the anger on al-Akhdar's face and the whitening of his knuckle -
She let go and threw herself backwards. Oof! This time the landing wasn't as soft. Bruised and aching, she struggled to her feet and stared helplessly up at the launch canisters still rising above her.
I have to do something. If only I had a gun!
Hand over hand, she pulled herself back up the side of the TEL and poked her head over the top. A bullet whizzed past her and she pulled back. Stalemate.
She was still pondering what to do when a shout of pain broke her concentration. Feeling like a tortoise poking its head out of its shell, she peered cautiously over the top again. The Libyan was clutching his right biceps, and his shirtsleeve was stained with blood. There was no sign of his gun.
She didn't question what had happened, simply hauled herself up onto the launch scaffolding, grabbed the hose once more, and resumed her sawing. The branches of a huge pine tree overhanging the cab rustled and shook, and she looked up, startled, as from them, like a panther, leaped a tall dark-haired figure. Ash!
Al-Akhdar went flying as Ash landed on top of him, then the two figures were scuffling viciously. The cab roof was too small for such antics, and it wasn't long before both the Libyan and his attacker disappeared over the side.
Ouch! Jemma winced in sympathy. She wanted to check on her partner, but she had other priorities. Feverishly, she sawed. Moments later, murky yellow fluid was dribbling out of the hose, staining her already torn and disreputable lab coat. She widened the slit to a hole, and the dribble became a flood.
The launch canisters paused in their ascent, and began to judder and clang. She held her breath. The juddering stopped and their progress resumed.
Damn! Looks like it didn't-
The motor whine rose in tone, crescendoing to a screech that set her teeth on edge. She clapped her hands over her ears and gritted her teeth. Abruptly the canisters froze and the noise stopped. Cautiously, she removed her hands. Silence, wonderful silence.
In the distance something was crashing through the forest. An animal startled by the disturbance perhaps? Jemma breathed in the clean, sharp scent of pine then exhaled, feeling her stress levels ease perceptibly. With one last look at the launch canisters - They could use some Viagra. - she clambered down.
Now. Where's Ash?
It didn't take her long to find her partner. She was sitting on the ground by one of the punctured tyres, rubbing her ankle ruefully. There was no sign of al-Akhdar.
Jemma crouched next to her and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Are you all right?" A pinecone plopped to earth nearby.
"Twisted my ankle. Remind me not to play Tarzan again."
Jemma leaned in and hugged the other woman. She had never been so glad to see anyone in her life. To her delight, Ash hugged her back.
"Are you OK?" asked Ash gruffly.
"Bit bruised, but I'll live." Something hard was digging into her. "Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?" She released the other woman and sat back.
Ash smiled suggestively. "Well, I did fly halfway across Brazil to find you." Then her expression changed. "But actually - " She pulled something out of her pocket and displayed it proudly.
Jemma gaped at the massive green gem. It couldn't possibly be real, could it? "Is that...?"
"Yes. The Moghal Emerald."
She put her hands on her hips. "You kept it?!"
"'Borrowed' it," corrected Ash. "Just for a little while." She gave Jemma a sidelong glance from very blue eyes. "Me and emeralds, you know how it is."
Jemma laughed and gave her another hug that almost squeezed the breath from her lungs. "I know."
"Guy named Wai Ling Chen is expecting it," added Ash smugly. "Iíd love to see his face when he realises he's out of pocket for the TEL."
Jemma glanced up at the murky green vehicle. "It's Chinese then?"
"Ex military, I'd say. A rogue officer saw a way to make some quick cash off the Libyans and took it."
Jemma plopped down next to Ash, keeping in contact along the length of her - after all they had been through, she needed the physical closeness, and the tall woman didn't seem to mind.
"So. Where's al-Akhdar?"
"Ran for it."
Jemma remembered the sound of an animal crashing through the forest. "Shouldn't we go after him?"
"In a bit. And not on foot. I know where he's heading, and we can get there before him by plane."
"Foz do Iguaçu."
"That rings a vague bell."
"I'm not surprised. The Iguaçu Falls are a huge tourist attraction," said Ash. "They're also right on the border with Paraguay and Argentina."
"Ah. You think he'll try to cross there?"
"Yes. And making his way on foot through the rainforest will wear him out for us." Ash bared her teeth. "He's got a bullet in his arm too."
Jemma glanced at Ash's shoulder, wondering how it was holding up under all this exertion. "Good. I hope it stings."
But they couldn't sit here all day. So Jemma stood up and held out her hand. Ash took it, hauling herself up and placing her weight gingerly on her ankle. She winced, and Jemma insisted that Ash put an arm round her shoulder and draped her own arm round the other woman's waist. It felt good.
"It's only a twisted ankle," groused Ash. "I'm not an invalid." Even so, she let Jemma help her back towards the highway along the narrow trail of devastation left by the careering TEL. The plane, Jemma saw with some amusement when they emerged from the trees, was parked slap bang in the middle of the highway.
A thought struck her. "What are we going to do about the missile?"
"The Cessna's got a radio," said Ash. "I'll notify the Brazilian authorities anonymously. I'm sure they'll be absolutely delighted to know what they've got sitting in their back yard."
They walked towards the plane, then Jemma boosted the limping woman into the cockpit and climbed in beside her. Ash reached for a switch on the control panel, and green lights blinked on.
"Will you tell them about the sarin?"
Ash glanced at her then nodded. "They need to know. Even if the Libyans didn't have time to load a nerve gas payload."
"So they can take precautions," agreed Jemma. She closed the door firmly, and settled herself in the snug seat. Ash flicked a switch, and the plane's engine coughed into life and the propeller began to turn.
Jemma was buckling herself in when she realised Ash was frowning at her. "What?"
"Wasn't it a bit risky blowing up Pimentel's chemical complex?"
"That wasn't me!" protested Jemma. "A spark from a bullet started that little lot. I was aiming for smoke without fire."
"Ah." Ash's forehead smoothed. "You remembered Mac's lessons."
"Thank God I paid attention in class that day!"
Ash laughed, then did something to the controls. The plane eased forward. They trundled along the highway, picking up speed as they went, the tall woman seeming blithely unconcerned about the truck heading straight for them. As it drew nearer, Jemma could see its driver through the windscreen; he was waving his fists at them and shouting.
She closed her eyes tight and balled her hands. Please, God....
"You'll like the Iguaçu Falls." Ash was shouting above the roar of the engine. "They're wider than Victoria, and higher than Niagara. They're spectacular."
With a lurch they were airborne. Jemma opened her eyes in time to see the truck disappearing beneath them with inches to spare. I'll get you for that, Ash.
With a sigh of profound relief, she settled back to enjoy the ride.
Ash lowered the heavy binoculars she'd bought in the tourist shop and knuckled tired eyes. She hated surveillance. An elbow in the ribs made her unloop the glasses from round her neck and hand them over. But it was certainly more interesting when the little blonde was around.
The other woman raised the binoculars and scanned the tourists queuing by the boat ramp below them. "What if he doesn't show?"
Ash yawned. "He will." She ticked off the reasons on her fingers, raising her voice above the background roar of the waterfalls, which were audible, even at this distance. "One: There's one bridge to Paraguay and one to Argentina... and thanks to an anonymous tip, the armed guards on both are on the lookout for him. Two: the Airport is on full alert -"
"Which leaves boat travel," interrupted Jemma. "I know." She lowered the binoculars and shot Ash an impatient glance.
Ash sighed. She was glad that Jemma was increasing in confidence, but she missed the young woman's deferential hero worship. (Was Sam ever like that? She couldn't remember.)
A motor boat chugged up to the ramp, disgorged its passengers, drenched but happy after their close-up look at the Iguaçu Falls, and began to take on new ones.
"But he could still have decided not to cross the border after all," continued Jemma, "doubled back, stayed in Brazil."
"He could have," she admitted. "But the Brazilians now know he was trying to fire a missile at the USA from here, which would have left them open to some very heavy duty retaliation. They'll take a dim view of that; his photo will be everywhere." She remembered her recent experience in Tenerife. And that's no picnic.
"Good point." Jemma raised the binoculars again and panned along the riverbank. Ash watched her idly, taking the opportunity to admire her profile, the cuteness of her nose, the snug fit of her scoop-necked T-shirt....
The binoculars jerked to a halt. "Itís him!"
"What? Where?" Ash grabbed the glasses, almost throttling Jemma with the strap in the process. "It's him," she agreed moments later.
The plump man had changed clothes. His cream linen suit (Stolen, I bet.) had been recently laundered, but already it was crumpled and there were damp stains under his armpits. He was walking briskly along the bank of the Rio Iguaçu, heading straight towards the boat ramp. His head turned constantly, his gaze flicking from side to side. There were bags under his eyes. He looked... hunted.
Ash jumped down from the tree branch they were using as a perch, wincing as her ankle twinged on impact, then helped the blonde down. They set off down the slope towards the boat ramp. At each stride, Ash's shoulder throbbed and her ankle twinged. She ignored them both, and broke into a jog.
Her legs were longer than Jemma's, and she rapidly outdistanced her companion. She paused, when she realised she was alone, and looked round apologetically, only to see Jemma waving her on. She nodded and set off once more.
She didn't want to spook him - she was unarmed (since she'd used up the ammo, she'd chucked the now useless pistols in a waste bin) but he might not be. She headed for the riverbank then hugged its bank, keeping the queue of gaily-clad tourists between her and her quarry.
Before she could reach the ramp, the last of the sightseers stepped into the little motor boat, leaving the Libyan with a clear view of her. Al-Akhdar froze in his tracks and locked gazes with her. Ash badly missed the comforting bulk of her Browning against her shoulder, but her opponent made no move to draw a weapon of his own. He's unarmed, thank God!
He regarded the loaded boat thoughtfully. What were his plans - to take a passenger hostage and force the captain to take them to the other side of the river? The captain chose that moment to yell something rude about time-wasters and cast off the mooring rope. Moments later his little boat was chugging out into the Rio Iguaçu.
Panting and the sound of pounding feet told Ash that Jemma was coming up fast behind her. The sight of reinforcements seemed to break the plump Libyan out of his indecisiveness. He turned and bolted - not back the way he had come, however, but angling up to join the footpath leading towards the Falls. She sighed and set off after him.
"Where's he going?" gasped Jemma, joining her.
"Why? He can't cross there, can he?"
"No." She frowned. No. So why the hell...?
They were attracting curious looks. People probably think it's a sponsored race for charity.
"He's fitter than he looks," huffed the blonde.
"Mm." Ash's shoulder was throbbing and her ankle was complaining. Whereas I'm a wreck!
They pounded along the path, the encroaching rainforest making it seem as though they were travelling through a green tunnel. Down stone staircases they ran, over mossy bridges, and along narrow walkways.
The sound of the waterfalls was getting louder now, and as they rounded a corner, the Falls themselves were spread out before them.
Jemma slowed, her mouth gaping open at the panoramic view. She had seen the Iguaçu Falls from the air, when Ash brought the little Cessna in to land at the nearby airport, but it wasn't the same as being at ground level.
"Admire it later," called Ash, her pace unchecked. "I've just worked out where he's going."
Reluctantly, the blonde speeded up again. "Where?"
"The Hotel das Cataratas. It's up this way. They do helicopter flights from their grounds, over the Falls."
Ash wiped the back of her hand across her forehead and it came away damp; the air was saturated with water vapour. She caught a flash of cream up ahead. Al-Akhdar. If only I had a rifle and a telescopic sight....
She glanced at the rosy-cheeked woman gamely keeping pace beside her. Jemma's energy was clearly flagging, so Ash made a snap decision. Ignoring the pain in her ankle, she put on a sharp burst of speed.
"Catch up when you can. OK?" she called.
"What are you talking ab-"
But Ash had already left her partner behind.
Ash finally caught up with her quarry at La Garganta del Diablo, the most spectacular part of the Iguaçu Falls. He sensed her coming (he couldn't have heard her over the deafening sound of rushing water), and darted out onto the walkway that led out over the cascade itself.
Two tourists, a mother and daughter, were standing by the low railing, and she could tell, by the look on the Libyan's face, that he intended taking one of them hostage. He might not have a gun, but he could still break a neck with his bare hands. She couldn't let that happen.
She followed him onto the walkway, literally throwing herself the final few yards. Grabbing his fat calves, she brought him crashing down, and the mother and daughter turned as his outstretched fingers brushed against their ankles. They gaped at the two strangers brawling on the spray-drenched boards and quickly got out of the way.
Ash was brought up short when something slammed into her back - the walkway's railing, she realised. If she wasn't careful, she'd be over the side. The spray made everything slippery, and the Libyan managed to wriggle out of her grip. As he broke free, his heel caught her wounded shoulder a glancing blow. Pain shot down her arm and she cried out, though no one could hear her above the rushing water.
She fought the urge to curl protectively round her wound and glanced up. The Libyan was standing over her, his heel raised to strike again. No you don't. She lashed out in a scything kick that took his legs from under him and almost sent him over the railing. It would have been appropriate for the Devil's Throat to swallow him, she thought grimly. Not today, though, apparently.
He slid down the railing, striking the back of his head on a bar on the way down, and landed on the boards with a jarring thud. For a moment he sat there looking dazed, then she saw his awareness return. It was time to finish this.
Painfully slowly, she rolled over and got to her knees. She couldn't remember if she had shot him in the right or left biceps, so she flipped a mental coin and chose right. She punched it... hard. The tendons stood out in his thick neck and he yelled. Once more, the roar from the waterfall drowned out the cry. She let him writhe for a bit (in revenge for her shoulder), then punched a nerve point on his neck and put him out of his misery.
For a while she simply knelt there, holding her shoulder and waiting for the pain to ease, impervious to the spray soaking her hair and clothing. A thought struck her and she patted her jacket pocket urgently, relieved to feel the lump that was the emerald still there. My name would have been mud if I'd dropped it in the Falls. Then she gripped the railing and dragged herself upright.
Unfastening her belt and pulling it free of the belt loops, she rolled al-Akhdar over on his belly and secured his hands. She straightened and looked around. A group of six tourists was standing at the end of the walkway, staring at her.
She must look a sight - hair and clothes drenched, the shoulder of her jacket bloodstained.... She wondered, slightly hysterically, if she shouldn't charge them extra for the side-show. Then a bobbing blonde head came into view through the trees, and she thought she had never seen a more welcome sight in her life.
Jemma pushed her way past the tourists and came up to her, a concerned look on her face. "What happened to you?!"
Wearily, Ash indicated the unconscious Libyan. "We had a disagreement about the best place for viewing the Falls." She rested her right arm round her partner's shoulder and gazed at the water thundering down the gorge in front of them. "What's your opinion?"
The other woman rolled her eyes. "You're nuts."
Jemma looped an arm round Ash's waist and for a while they simply stood companionably, getting their breath back and admiring the view. Eventually, a couple of the braver tourists joined them, stepping daintily over the prone Libyan, as though it was an everyday occurrence. Ash stifled a laugh.
"What now?" asked Jemma.
Ash looked at her and smiled. "Now, we deliver this package," she nudged al-Akhdar with one foot, "to the authorities. Then it's time for some R and R."
Other guests gaped at the two British agents traipsing through the smart hotel's lobby.
Jemma jutted her chin and tried not to blush. Was it her fault she looked like something the cat had dragged in? Her hairbrush and luggage were still in São Paulo, or so she presumed. And, since both women had spent their day first at Foz do Iguaçu's hospital then 'helping the police with their enquiries', neither had had time to buy clothes. A policewoman had kindly promised to send some over, but that wouldn't be until tomorrow.
"Don't mind them," said Ash. "Think how we're brightening up their holiday."
"Yeah. I can just imagine the postcards home."
They walked past a stand containing postcards of the Iguaçu Falls and followed the unburdened porter to the lift.
Jemma glanced at the dark-haired woman. She looked tired, and no wonder. She rested a hand on the small of Ash's back.
"How are you feeling?"
"I could sleep for a week. You?"
The nurse had sucked in her breath at the tall woman's bruised body and tut-tutted loudly at her reopened shoulder wound, then set about cleaning, dressing, and bandaging it. Ash also now sported an elasticated support bandage round her twisted ankle. Jemma almost rivalled Ash in the bruise stakes; her midriff was tender and had turned a livid yellowy-green. The nurse suspected a rib fracture; luckily, an X-ray showed she was merely badly bruised. They had both been lucky.
A loud ping signalled the arrival of the lift. The doors slid open and they got in. As it ascended, Jemma noticed the porter was trying not to stare at Ash's wrecked jacket - the nurse had had to cut it off her to get at the wound.
They had been lucky the police had released them too, she mused. The Brazilians hadn't been pleased to learn that two armed agents of a foreign power were operating in their country without permission. They had guessed something was up apparently - the wake of chaos from Rio to the Iguaçu Falls had given the game away.
It was just as well Ash had phoned London and given them a situation report before turning the still unconscious al-Akhdar over to the Brazilians. While the police interrogated them, the Organisation's diplomats had been beavering away behind the scenes, calling in favours from their opposite numbers in Brazil, smoothing ruffled feathers, and generally spreading sweetness and light on their behalf.
The scales had also come down in their favour. On the debit side: Celio's death; the stolen Moghal Emerald (which had made all the papers); Ash's stolen clothes; the destruction of a major industrial complex; and the stolen Cessna. On the credit side: the return of the Moghal Emerald, the death of several unnamed and unmissed thugs; the destruction of a synthetic drug making factory; the thwarting of a nerve gas attack on the USA; and the taking into custody of a major Libyan terrorist. No one knew what had happened to Abdusamad; but he had only ever been small fry.
The Chief of Police had given them a severe dressing down, which, to Jemma's surprise, Ash had meekly accepted. He also ordered them to leave the country 'at once' or face deportation. But, given their current condition, and a dose of Jemma's patented 'puppy dog eyes', he relented and said that tomorrow afternoon would do.
The porter opened the door to their room. Ash limped inside and Jemma followed her. While Ash gave him a tip from the money the police had grudgingly advanced her, Jemma stared at the large double bed in disbelief.
The tall woman closed the door on the porter with relief. "Alone at last," she said wryly. She came up behind Jemma. "Problem?"
"That depends." She gestured at the bed.
"Ah. Well, I donít mind - I'm so tired I could sleep standing up - but if you want, I'll ring reception and get them to find us another room."
Jemma glanced at their surroundings. It was the best room they'd stayed in so far. Probably because the Brazilians had made the booking rather than the skinflints back in London. It would be a pain having to change it. So she had to sleep next to the woman she fancied. She could control herself, couldn't she?
"No. it's all right. Leave it."
"OK." Ash headed towards the phone. "I'm calling room service. Fancy anything?"
Jemma stomach spoke for her. Apart from a cheese sandwich, its corners curling at the edges, that the police had given her at lunchtime, she'd had nothing to eat for hours.
Her partner grinned. "Care to translate?"
"Um." She had an urge for something uncomplicated. "Do they do a nice juicy steak? With chips?"
"Can but ask. How do you like yours?"
Ash nodded and dialled, rattling off some phrases in rapid Portuguese. She put the receiver down and turned a satisfied smile Jemma's way. "Two steaks - one rare, one well done - and chips, coming right up."
"Ooh!" The blonde's mouth watered at the thought.
"After that, I need a shower." Ash started to shrug out of her jacket then froze, wincing.
"Here. Let me." Jemma crossed the room in two strides, and eased the jacket carefully over the thick bandage. "There." She held up the ruined jacket.
"Thanks." Ash regarded it ruefully. "I think it needs the last rites."
"If it's any consolation, I'm sure it led a full and happy life."
The dark-haired woman snorted. "Yeah, right." She wandered through into the bathroom, and a few minutes later Jemma heard the sound of a toilet flushing and taps turning. She sat on the bed and bounced experimentally a few times, then crossed to the wall mirror, winced at her reflection, and tried to finger-comb her hair.
Ash came back out. "Where's that steak?"
"They're probably out lassoing the cow as we speak."
A knock at the door made them both turn. "Room service," came a muffled voice.
Jemma chewed her lip. "I'm not sure I should answer it, after what happened last time."
"It's either that or starve to death." Ash rose and stationed herself beside the door. "You take out the bad guys," she stage-whispered. "I'll protect the steaks."
"Very funny." Jemma took a deep breath, reached for the handle, then whipped the door open, startling a young man in hotel livery. He lost his grip on the heavy silver tray and it tipped alarmingly.
"Whoops!" Only her quick reflexes saved their meal from an ignominious end on the beige carpet. "Sorry!" Her wide smile seemed to fluster him even more.
"Oh yeah, he's dangerous all right," growled Ash from behind her. Jemma ignored her and took the tray.
A hand reached over her shoulder and tucked a 10-real note into the gawping young man's pocket. "Muito obrigada." He turned rather stiffly and walked away.
Jemma kicked the door closed behind her and carried the tray over to the table. Then she remembered the injured look on the man's face and started to chuckle. The fact that her ribs hurt when she laughed suddenly seemed funny too, for some reason, and the chuckle turned into a laughing fit.
Ash shook her head and sat down. "You're demob happy," she diagnosed. She reserved the pinker steak for herself and slid the other plate towards Jemma. Then she unwrapped a knife and fork from a napkin and started eating.
Jemma got control of herself at last and wiped her eyes. "Is that what it is?" Ash didnít answer, just grinned at her and kept on chewing. She reached for the remaining set of cutlery.
The first mouthful of steak was heavenly. Ash raised an eyebrow at the appreciative moan and concentrated on cutting into her own steak. Juices pooled pinkly on Ash's plate, and Jemma suppressed a shudder and speared some chips with a fork.
They ate in silence, chewing too few times and swallowing too quickly. Her mother would have been horrified at their table manners. Too bad. They cleared their plates in record time.
"That hit the spot." Jemma stacked the plates neatly on the tray and placed it out of the way.
Ash leaned back in her chair and sighed contentedly. "Mmmm." She yawned widely. "I just need a shower then I'm ready for bed." She sat for a moment longer than dragged herself to her feet and headed for the bathroom.
Jemma watched her go. "Er... Want any help... with your shoulder?"
The tall-haired woman paused and regarded Jemma thoughtfully, her blue eyes enigmatic. Then she smiled and shook her head. "Thanks, but I'll manage. I'm a big girl now."
I'd noticed. "Well, if you should change your mind, just give me a yell."
Ash disappeared inside the bathroom, and moments later came the sound of running water. Jemma twiddled her thumbs for a bit then switched on the little TV, but it was showing mostly Soaps, in Portuguese, so she switched it off again. She crossed to the window and looked out; it was already dark outside and there was nothing to see. The sound of water gurgling down a plughole told her Ash must be nearly done. She crouched beside the little fridge and examined its contents.
The click of the bathroom door made her look up. The tall woman was standing in the opening, clad only in a skimpy, white bath towel that emphasised long tanned legs. The only jarring note in the otherwise stunning picture was Ash's bandaged shoulder and ankle. Jemma's mouth went dry.
"Bathroom's free," said Ash needlessly. "Good job there are two towels." She wandered over towards the bed.
"Mph!" managed Jemma.
"Sorry?" The other woman gave her an enquiring look.
"Thanks. I wonít be long." Jemma fled into the steamy bathroom, closed the door behind her, and leaned against it. God give me strength!
By the time Jemma has showered and dried herself with the other towel, Ash was fast asleep. Just as well, she thought, regarding the sleeping woman, whose face she was glad to see had lost the tenseness that had been present all day, before tiptoeing round to the other side of the bed.
Belatedly she noticed that Ash's towel was now draped over a chair back. She raised the sheet for a quick peek then dropped it as though she had been stung. The other woman was stark naked. Oh boy! She took a deep breath, removed her own towel - it was wet; she had no option - and slipped under the sheets. Then she lay back, and listening to the rhythmic sound of Ash's breathing.
For what seemed like an eternity Jemma held herself rigid and stared sightlessly at the ceiling. This is ridiculous! she chided herself. You need to get some sleep, and you never will if you keep acting like a silly school girl. Ash isn't bothered about this, so why are you? She knew the answer to that one. But she pushed it impatiently aside.
Only one thing for it. She closed her eyelids and consciously tensed and relaxed each muscle in turn, taking deep breaths and then exhaling. The relaxation technique had always worked before, and it succeeded now. Drowsiness stole over her at last, and she fell into a deep sleep....
Jemma awoke feeling wonderfully relaxed and at peace, pressed against a soft, warm surface that was moving gently in time with Ash's breathing.
The blonde pondered her situation hazily. She's still asleep. Might as well go back to -
Her eyelids shot open. Careful not to move a muscle, she took stock of her position. Sometime during the night, she had strayed from her own side of the bed and snuggled up to the other woman, who was lying on her side. The warm surface under her cheek was in fact Ash's naked back (she suppressed the urge to run a fingertip over its inviting curve). That was bad enough, but her left arm, she discovered, was draped loosely over the other woman's left arm, and her hand was-
She felt herself go hot with embarrassment. Her hand was at this very moment cupped round Ash's breast, and - She opened her eyes wide - Ash's own larger hand was holding it in place.
Does she know what she's doing? Is she awake? She listened to the steady breathing and decided against it. So. If it happens in your sleep, it doesn't count, right? And what she doesn't know won't hurt her.
Reluctantly Jemma uncupped the soft mound, then tried to slide her hand from under Ash's. At first she thought it was working; she was almost free, when the other woman's breathing pattern changed abruptly, and she felt her hand gripped.
Still holding her in place, Ash rolled over on her back and regarded Jemma with sleepy blue eyes. "How did this get here?"
"Er..." She looked at the other woman nervously. "It seems to have a mind of its own. Sorry."
"Alien hand syndrome? I think I've heard of it." Ash released her grip, and Jemma knew that now would be a good moment to remove her hand, but somehow she couldn't bring herself to. Ash's breast felt too good.
The other woman regarded her steadily, the corner of her mouth quirking up. "You know," she said mildly, "there's only so much flesh and blood can stand. If you keep throwing yourself at me, Jemma, I might have to catch you."
Jemma blinked. Is she saying what I think she's saying? She considered how Ash's hand had held hers in place while they slept. Feeling greatly daring, she fondled the breast under her palm.
Blue eyes widened, then Ash laughed out loud. Thus encouraged, Jemma gave the breast another caress. Ash grabbed the offending hand and rolled over, ending up face down on top of Jemma, knees and elbows planted either side of her. She gave the blonde a long searching look, then dipped her head to kiss her.
At the last moment the dark-haired woman drew back. A frustrated Jemma gazed up into troubled blue eyes. "What is it?"
"We're partners. I've never.... Not with...." Ash tried again. "Of course, with men it never came up. But.... Look, you've read my file, Jemma. I'm just not good at... long term relationships."
She regarded her partner thoughtfully. "And you think," she said, trying to follow Ash's train of thought, "that if we get romantically involved, and things go sour, it could screw up our partnership?"
Ash nodded, clearly relieved she understood.
Jemma shrugged. "It might. But if that happens, we'll just have to get Thompson to assign us new partners." She chewed her lip in sudden annoyance. "It's not just up to you, you know."
The other woman blinked then looked sheepish. "No," she murmured, "I donít suppose it is."
"Anyway," Jemma continued, wondering how to persuade Ash to continue what she'd started and finding sudden inspiration. "Aren't you jumping the gun? We haven't even kissed yet. You might not like it."
Ash raised an eyebrow at that. "Oh, I'll like it," she said confidently. "And so will you."
Nodding slightly - though whether at her boast or at some internal decision she had just made, Jemma wasn't sure - Ash dipped her head once more.
It started as a clumsy, almost chaste kiss, as they searched for the best way to avoid bumping noses and teeth and got used to the taste and feel of each other's lips and mouths. Then it intensified, and tongues came into play. Jemma had to admit, when she came up for air several oxygen-deprived moments later, that Ash had not been kidding. She had indeed liked it.
"Mmmm." She traced the outline of Ash's cheekbone with a finger. "Loved the free sample. I think I'll take it."
Ash laughed and kissed her again, then, abruptly, she broke the kiss and rolled over onto her back, clasping her injured shoulder. "We'll have to continue this another time," she said ruefully. "I donít think I'm up to it."
"Sorry. I didn't think. Want some of those painkillers that doctor gave you?" At Ash's nod, Jemma got out of bed and retrieved the pills from the table, amused and flattered that, even though the tall woman was in pain, she found time to openly admire Jemma's nakedness. She fetched a glass of water from the bathroom, taking the opportunity to relieve herself, and returned to bed.
Ash swallowed the pills, and while they started to kick in, Jemma tried to take her partner's mind off her throbbing shoulder.
"I think our first time should be in that huge bed of yours in Primrose Hill, anyway. I tested it while I was searching your flat." She nodded judiciously. "Comfy. Good springs."
"You searched my flat?" Ash was regarding her as though she'd grown two heads, and she tried not laugh.
"Remington had me vet you for security clearance, remember?"
The other woman's brow smoothed. "Ah."
"As for those things you keep in your bedside cabinet...." Jemma tutted. "My mother would die of shock if she knew what the woman I'm seeing gets up to."
Ash chuckled. "Then donít tell her."
"I won't, not about those anyway." She turned to look as the woman lying next to her. "But I am going to introduce you to my parents."
Dark eyebrows crawled towards Ash's hairline. "But we haven't even had sex yet!" she said faintly.
Jemma decided she had been teasing the other woman long enough. She patted her soothingly on the belly. "They want to meet my partner, silly. They already know a lot about you, how you saved my life in Tenerife." She thought for a moment then added, "My sister Maggie hates you, by the way."
Jemma had never seen the other woman look so confused and out of her depth, and she chuckled.
Ash gave her a suspicious look then sighed. "I can see I'm going to have my work cut out with you."
"Ah, but you love a challenge." She snuggled closer.
"There is that." Ash draped an arm around Jemma's shoulders and lay back contentedly. "Since I'm too knackered to fool around, and we can't go anywhere until the clothes arrive, what shall we do instead?"
"We'll probably be home before they arrive." The dark-haired woman considered. "Anyway, what would be suitable? A picture of a TEL and the message 'From Brazil with Love'?"
A knock at the door disturbed their whitterings. "Parcel from the police station," came a male voice.
Ash threw back the sheets and reached for her towel. "That'll be our clothes."
Air travel was certainly much easier without heavy luggage, thought Jemma, as she and Ash strolled through the Aeroporto Galeão's concourse, heading from Arrivals to Departures.
She threaded her way carefully past the tourists heading eagerly out into the sunshine for their first glimpse of Rio, smiling at their goggling eyes, turning heads, and excited chatter. Was I like that? They had arrived in Rio de Janeiro only a few days ago, but since then a lot had happened (she smiled down at the tanned hand holding hers). It seemed like another world.
"That must be the guy Thompson mentioned on the phone: Antonio Pinheiro." Ash released Jemma's hand and pointed.
She glanced across to where a plump man in a garish shirt was beckoning. Beside him on the floor, she saw with relief, was some very familiar looking luggage.
The two women headed towards him, checked his ID, then introduced themselves (though, as the Organisation's new Man in Rio, he must already know them from their photos). He shook hands, asked polite questions about their health, then handed them some temporary passports and their plane tickets to London. (In their real names, noted Jemma. Makes a change!)
Ash had wanted them both to fly back to the Canary Islands, but the CounterIntelligence Section Head had overruled her - their mission in Brazil had been so potentially catastrophic, Thompson wanted to debrief them both personally. Besides, he had reminded the grumpy agent, Ash's Santa Cruz casa wasn't going anywhere. There'd be plenty of time for sand and sea later.
"Thanks, Antonio." Ash pocketed her own passport and ticket. "And thanks for picking up our things from São Paulo." She gestured at the bags. "We thought they were gone for good."
"No problem, senhoritas. The hotel had put them in storage. I also took care of your bill - including the surcharge for all the damage to the room." He glanced round to see if they were being overheard then leaned conspiratorially towards Jemma. "Your pistola is travelling to London by diplomatic bag, Senhorita Jacobs."
She smiled at him. "Thanks. You've done a great job." He flushed with pleasure.
Ash squatted on her heels, unzipped her bag, and began rooting through it. She held something aloft and Jemma saw it was her lockpicks.
"Thought I'd seen the last of these," she said grinning widely.
Jemma resisted the urge to roll her eyes, and reached for her own bags. "Have we got time to change?" She indicated the navy sweatshirt and tan shorts the policewoman had supplied them both with. "If I'm going to be stuck on a plane for another seven hours, Iíd rather be wearing my own clothes. Besides, it's going to be cold in England."
Ash straightened and glanced at the airport clock. "Good idea. There's still time." She pointed. "The toilets are over there."
They said their goodbyes to the genial Antonio, picked up their luggage, and headed for the toilets. Ten minutes later, clad in their own garments once more, they were heading for the Departure lounge.
There were some empty seats in front of the Departure boards, and they sat down to wait for their flight to be called. Jemma sought Ash's hand and grasped it.
Ash smiled at her and suppressed a yawn. "So," she said. "What did you think about your little holiday in Brazil?"
She thought about that for a moment. "Different. A bit more exciting than I was expecting."
The other woman snorted. "You got that right." She paused. "Think you'll want to come back some day?"
"Probably." Jemma glanced at her companion. "After all, it will always hold happy memories."
A dark eyebrow rose. "Happy? We almost got killed!"
"True. But we also shared our very first kiss."
A large hand squeezed hers. "You're such a romantic."
"Something wrong with that?"
"Nothing at all." Ash laughed suddenly
"I just remembered something. When I chose you as my new partner, I told myself you were going to be a handful. It turns out I was the handful. And yours was the hand."
Jemma blushed. Fortunately, the sensual tones of the female announcer forestalled any need for a reply.
"This is the first call for British Airways Flight 324 to London. Would all passengers please proceed to Gate 10?"
"That's us." She stood up and held out her hand. "Let's go home, partner."
Ash nodded and stood up too. "Let's."
All errors are mine. That there are fewer of them that there would have been is due to:
Advocate, who beta read it for me; Honey, who supplied the Brazilian Portuguese translations; Joy, who helped me with information about shoulder wounds and their treatment in the field; and Haydée who answered my questions about Brazil (but, since I consulted her far too late in the day, can't be held responsible for the information I'd already cobbled together from elsewhere. <g>).
To all of you: THANKS.