Warnings - See Part 1.
SAY GOODBYE TO BOSTON
Ash woke to the headache from hell and a mouth like the Gobi Desert. Not again!
This time, in addition, every muscle group ached and her breastbone felt bruised. Side effects from the truth drug? Memory of the interrogation was hazy at best - she had a feeling she'd made a fool of herself over Jemma, but that couldn't be helped.
She wondered how much time had passed while she was under the drug's influence. Was it even the same day? Hard to tell with the shutters closed and the light on.
It was an effort, but she managed to refocus her gaze on the straps restraining her. Her tiny but persistent efforts to weaken the one around her right wrist seemed to be paying off. The badly tanned leather wasn't as supple as it should be and putting it under repeated stress had actually cracked it. A little more work -
The door creaked open and she froze. To her relief, it was Jemma who walked into view. The blonde was carrying a tray containing a glass of water, a cup of something that Ash's nose told her was freshly brewed coffee, and a plate of sandwiches. Ash's stomach grumbled and her mouth began to water.
Jemma put the tray on a table then came to stand beside Ash. For a moment she hesitated, then she squared her shoulders and began to unbuckle the straps.
Ash blinked. "I passed the drug test?" The straps on her right side came free, and she flexed her arm and leg, almost groaning aloud with pleasure at simply being able to move once more.
"Not according to Remington." Jemma moved round and set to work on the remaining straps.
Ash allowed the other woman to help her up to a sitting position, blinking to clear the momentary dizziness. She eased herself down off the table, staggering a little before regaining her balance. "What did you do to me?" she complained. "Stuff me inside a barrel and roll me down a hill?!"
Jemma's colour heightened and she wouldnít meet her gaze. "Er... we had a little trouble with the truth drug."
"I see." When no more information was forthcoming, Ash shrugged. "So, if I didn't pass the test, why have you released me?"
"Remington thinks you failed. I disagree." The blonde supported Ash with one surprisingly strong arm round her back and helped her walk towards the tray. "I thought about what you said," she added. "And I'm following my instincts."
Ash accepted the glass of water and drained it dry before returning it. Then Jemma handed her the coffee, each sip of which made her feel perceptibly more human.
"Your boss isn't going to like this."
Jemma grimaced. "I know. I'll either be shot or demoted to filing clerk!"
The sandwiches, Ash was pleased to find as she took a bite, were tuna. She finished chewing, and swallowed. "Not necessarily."
Jemma looked at her. "Office cleaner, then?"
"You see, you didn't help me escape."
"I overpowered you," said Ash indistinctly through another mouthful of bread and tunafish.
"I donít think it'll work." Jemma indicated the table where Ash had been held. "You couldnít get out of that unless you had outside help."
"No?" Ash pointed to the strap she had been working on and Jemma gave her an enquiring look before going to examine it. When she straightened, her expression was amazed.
"You were almost through!"
Ash felt strong enough now to walk unsupported, and she joined the blonde by the table, took the strap in both hands and gave it a mighty tug. The leather snapped in two. "Completely through," she corrected. She returned to her sandwiches and coffee.
"So you would have got free tonight anyway?"
Ash nodded. "Eventually. What time is it?" They had taken her watch along with everything else.
"Just after midnight. Here." Jemma felt in her pocket and pulled out Ash's watch. "You might need these too." She pulled out Ash's picklocks.
Ash blinked at her and took them. "Thanks! I donít suppose-"
"Sorry. Ramirez still has your mobile phone and gun."
Ash shrugged and took another bite of sandwich. When she had finished everything on the tray, she wiped her greasy fingers on her jeans and advanced on the blonde.
Jemma's eyes widened and she backed away.
"Donít worry, I'll make it look good."
Ash stopped and raised an eyebrow. "Do you want me to overpower you or not?"
The blonde looked undecided. "Um, that depends. What exactly are you going to do?"
Ash grinned. "Well, there wonít be any real overpowering... because you're not going to resist me, are you?"
"Uh... I don't -"
"Look, I'm just going to put you out for a bit."
"Oh." Jemma frowned. "Will it hurt?"
"Only for a moment. Turn around."
The blonde woman hesitated then reluctantly turned her back to Ash, who immediately got her in a neck lock.
As Ash held the squirming body close - a rather pleasurable sensation, she had to admit - she could feel the other agent's defensive instincts warring with her decision to submit.
"Easy!" she soothed. "I'm not going to hurt you, Jemma. OK?" The blonde let out an unintelligible squawk. Ash took that as agreement and tightened her grip.... Jemma's arms came up to break the lock. Uh oh!
Like a cobra striking, Ash jabbed her forefinger and third finger into the pressure point behind Jemma's right ear. Instantly, the young agent went limp. Ash quickly checked for a pulse point, and was rewarded with a strong, steady beat. "See," she whispered into the blonde's ear. "Nothing to it!"
Lifting the other woman in her arms - Jemma was heavier than she looked; all that muscle, probably - Ash laid her gently on the interrogation table. She arranged Jemma's floppy limbs until she looked comfortable and straightened her T-shirt, then buckled the straps, leaving them slightly looser than Remington had.
The broken strap meant she couldn't secure Jemma's right wrist. Hmmm. She looked around for something to use. The bottom drawer of a filing cabinet contained cleaning supplies; there was also a can of oil, some scissors, and ball of twine. That'll do. She cut off a length of twine, threaded it through the broken strap's one remaining eyelet and looped it round Jemma's slim wrist. That should convince Remington.
Her full bladder was requesting urgent attention. She grabbed the can of oil and crossed to the door. A moment spent with her ear pressed against it convinced her the coast was clear. She oiled the hinge carefully then eased the door open a crack. Then she suddenly thought of something. Two birds with one stone.
Darting back, she grabbed the incriminating tray and crockery, then she tiptoed out into the corridor and began her search for a bathroom. It was right at the end of the corridor, but fortunately at this hour everyone was either downstairs or sleeping. She quickly relieved herself, and when she'd finished, hid the tray and plate behind the huge old-fashioned cistern and placed the glass and cup inside it. Then, with a quick glance to check the coast was still clear, she retraced her steps.
Jemma was snoring quietly on the interrogation table. She gave the young woman a comforting pat as she passed by her on her way to the window. Opening the inner shutters revealed a set of double glass doors and yet another set of shutters, which opened outwards. She grunted in annoyance, then reached for her picklocks. Moments later, the alarm system was disabled and she was opening the doors.
The outer shutters opened onto a tiny balcony... and a drop of 30 feet. Ash stepped out onto the balcony and turned, grinning widely when she saw that the shutters now provided an effective ladder to the roof. Tsk, tsk! Didn't take into account that people might want to break out of here, did you, Ramirez?
It was just as well the climb was relatively easy, she decided ruefully, as she balanced on top of the balcony railing then grabbed the shutter and shinned up it. She definitely wasn't as limber as usual, though the aches and pains were easing now she was up and about. With a gasp of relief, she pulled herself up onto the roof and lay there recovering for a moment before continuing.
Arms spread like a tightrope walker, she scuttled along the apex to the end of the block. It was a full moon, and Santa Cruz lay spread out before her. Faint laughter and salsa music wafted towards her. Of course, the Carnival! It seemed like another world.
She sucked in a lungful of warm night air in sheer pleasure before squatting and surveying her surroundings. Whoever had chosen to site the Field Office in the middle of a terraced block should be shot. The buildings at this end of the block didn't belong to the Organisation and consequently lacked surveillance equipment. Good!
Ash remained motionless for a while longer, until she was absolutely sure she was beyond the range of the cameras patiently panning over the street. Then she was slithering down shutters and jumping from balconies, careful this time not to send any flowerpots flying. At last she landed with a jolt on the pavement below.
The street was fortunately deserted, and she broke into a run, heading towards the side street where she had parked the Fiat. Her footsteps, though quiet, set off a muffled barking in a house nearby, but as she moved away and proved herself no threat, the dog quieted once more.
As she steadily put distance between herself and the Field Office, she pondered her next move. Remington would be furious when he discovered she was gone. He would almost certainly notify the Canarian police. She needed to go to ground for a while. But she also needed to get to the bottom of this attempted frame up.
The Libyans could have killed her, but they hadn't. It would have drawn attention to her investigations, she supposed. Setting her up, on the other hand, had had the opposite effect. At a stroke it had neutralised her investigation and undermined her credibility. Someone in the Libyan camp was very smart!
So, what was it exactly that the terrorists were up to and thought she had stumbled on? As she ran into the night, she resolved to find out.
The hired car was parked where Ash had left it, and, miracle of miracles, the Ciquecento hadn't attracted the attention of thieves. She walked round to the driver's door and reached for her keys then froze. The keys were in her jacket pocket, and the jacket was back at the Field Office, along with her bumbag, mobile phone, and gun.
Muttering a curse, she reached for the picklocks Jemma had returned to her. Seconds later, the door was open and she was sliding behind the wheel. She didn't bother to pick the lock on the ignition but simply reached under the dashboard, yanked the wires free, and hot-wired the car. The engine purred into life as she straightened and put the car in gear.
The urge to gun the engine and floor the accelerator was strong, but at this time of night it would only attract unwelcome attention. She eased the Ciquecento out of the side street and onto the Avenida General Mola, heading southwest and merging with the post-Carnaval revellers belatedly heading home.
A laughing couple, the man's arms draped round the woman for balance, staggered drunkenly into the road ahead, and she braked sharply. As they weaved their way to safety, she drummed her fingers impatiently on the steering wheel and glanced at her watch.
1am. By now, Ramirez could have discovered the unconscious Jemma and Remington might already have alerted Interpol and the Canarian Police. As for the Fiat... She bit her lip. The number plates would be on record at the car hire company. She would have to dump it. And she couldn't go back to the casa because that was the first place he would look - she didn't have the energy to deal with the undoubtedly annoyed Adriana anyway. She needed a gun, and somewhere to hide, and... lots of things. But she was out in the cold now. Who could she turn to -
The honking of a horn from the car behind brought her back to her surroundings. The road ahead was now clear. "Yeah, yeah," she muttered, and set the car in motion once more, not sure where she was heading but needing to keep on the move. She took a roundabout, then saw a roadsign up ahead announcing a turnoff to the Autopista del Sur. At the other end of the motorway lay Los Cristianos, she remembered suddenly. An image of a curly haired boy clutching a shabby jewel case popped into her head. Abdusamad's warehouse was there too. Of course!
Without hesitation, Ash took the turn off, and drove away from the lights of Santa Cruz...
Ash tore off a piece of croissant and popped it in her mouth. Where are you, Vito?
It was all very well the young thief offering her his help, but he hadn't given her his telephone number or address. Most criminal communities, no matter how small, had efficient information networks though. She would get a message to him somehow.
As soon as she had reached Los Cristianos, she dumped the hired Fiat and napped for a couple of hours on the beach. Then, still yawning and now with sand in places she'd rather it wasn't, she headed for the market where she had first met Vito.
A shabby but evidently popular café overlooked the market where empty stalls were awaiting the arrival of produce and people. There Ash decided to kill two birds with one stone: pacify her grumbling stomach and ask the fat proprietor if he could get a message to Vito. When it came to ordering café con leche con bollería, he had been helpfulness itself. He was much more circumspect about admitting he knew Vito though. It took her ten minutes to convince him that she wasn't with the police, another five (plus a 10,000-peseta banknote) to persuade him to make sure her scribbled note reached the boy.
She had passed the time since then eating pastries and drinking coffee, watching the market come to life. The corner table offered an unobstructed view through the café's front window and door, which was why she had chosen it in the first place; there was also a back way out should she need it.
The proprietor glanced over at her and gestured towards the bubbling pot on the counter. She nodded, and he bustled over with a refill of the sludge he claimed was coffee. In her present state, she would have drunk sump oil if it supplied a caffeine boost - the interrogations, plus the ninety-minute drive from Santa Cruz, had taken their toll.
She suppressed a yawn and raised an eyebrow at the fat man in the grease-spattered apron. "No news?"
"No, señorita. Be patient!" He refilled her coffee cup then returned to his counter.
She added milk, took a sip, grimaced, then returned her attention to the doorway. If Vito didn't get here soon -
"°Hola!" came a familiar voice, and a slim shape slid into the seat opposite her. Long-lashed, brown eyes regarded her curiously.
"Vito!" She was shocked not to have spotted him coming in the back way. Her alertness was way below par.
He smiled at her, then cocked his head to one side. "Your message said you need my help?"
She nodded. "The police are after me. I need to go into hiding."
He blinked, and what might have been disappointment shadowed his gaze. "I thought you weren't a thief any more."
She sighed. "Itís a long story, but I'll be happy to tell it to you somewhere more -" she gestured at their surroundings, "- private."
Vito studied her for a moment than nodded and stood up. "Come." Without pausing to see if she was following, he headed out the way he had come. Ash rose and hurried after him. She paused at the back door and nodded her thanks in the proprietor's direction. He shrugged and resumed wiping his counter.
Vito was waiting for her by the café's waste bins. "We have to go to the north side of town. This way."
He broke into a jog, heading away from the sea front past a glitzy-looking British Pub advertising 'Full English Breakfast'. She sighed and jogged after him, turning right into a paved street whose shop awnings threatened to meet in the middle, then continuing on through a brand new shopping mall decorated with baskets of fragrant purple bougainvillaea and orange nasturtiums....
At one point, she could have sworn they were heading south. When Vito slowed and waited for her to catch up, she asked him about it.
"Uncle Ignacio would not be happy if I led the police to our door," he explained, then he darted off again.
Ash grunted and followed him, their route twisting and turning like an eel (at one point she was sure they had been along a particular stretch of road twice) until she was totally lost. So, presumably, were any pursuers.
The pace the twelve-year-old boy had set was killing and eventually she was forced to halt. She bent forward, bracing her arms against her thighs and sucking in gulps of air... and wished she didn't ache all over.
"Are you ill, Blade?" Vito had returned to her side and was looking worriedly at her.
"No." She grimaced. "But I've had a tough couple of days. Is it much further?"
"Not far now."
Reluctantly, she straightened. "OK. Lead on."
Their destination turned out to be a vehicle repair shop that looked as battered as the mangled cars parked outside. As they walked towards it, a tow truck bearing the legend 'Ignacio's' reversed past them and headed out of town, its yellow light flashing.
"Do you live with your uncle?" she asked the boy.
"Si," was all he said. She wondered what had happened to his parents.
Vito led her round to the back entrance, through the hanging bead curtains and into a massive kitchen. The inhabitants - a wide-hipped woman in an apron, and a big man in oil-stained white overalls who was eating his breakfast - turned to stare at the new arrivals.
"Vito!" The woman put down her dishcloth and bustled towards him. She clasped him to her in a hug, then released him and cuffed him round the ear. "Who is this you bring unannounced?" The gaze she turned on Ash was far from friendly.
"Aunt Nina!" protested Vito. "It is a matter of honour." The man snorted in amusement and Vito glared at him. "This is my friend Blade, Ashley Blade. She is wanted by the police. She needs our help!"
His aunt's eyes widened. "Madre del Dios! And you bring her here?"
"We weren't followed. I made sure. And I promised we will hide her." He turned to his uncle, his expression pleading. "You won't make me break my promise, Uncle Ignacio?"
Silently, Ignacio kicked back his chair and stood up, then he planted himself firmly in front of Ash, folded his arms and simply stared at her. She blinked up at the man mountain and hoped that, given her present exhausted condition, things weren't going to turn ugly.
"My nephew is young and impulsive," said Ignacio, in impeccable English. Maybe he taught it to Vito. "Any promise given must be weighed according to the facts." His gaze was hard. "What crime have you committed?"
He smiled ironically. "What do the police think you've done?"
"Betrayed my country."
He blinked. "You are a spy?"
She hesitated, then decided what the hell. "Yes. But only for my own country." A wave of tiredness washed over her and she swayed. Ignacio pulled out a chair for her and gestured. Gratefully she sat down. "Thanks."
"So you're a secret agent?" asked a wide-eyed Vito. "Like James Bond?"
She gave him a wry smile. "Not so secret now, it seems."
Ignacio's brows had drawn together. "Why should I risk bringing danger to my family for a foreigner?"
"Because Vito offered me his help and I need it. Because this may affect your islands too."
Ignacio pulled out a chair, turned it round, and straddled it. "Go on."
"Not much to tell. Some Libyan terrorists have rented a warehouse here in Los Cristianos. I was trying to find out what they are up to when the shit hit the fan." Vito's Aunt looked shocked at her bad language but said nothing.
"Libyan terrorists? Here?" Ignacio looked personally affronted.
Ash nodded then tried in vain to suppress a yawn.
"Ignacio," hissed Nina. "Can't you see she is weary? Let her sleep. You can talk later."
He flushed slightly and ducked his head. "You are right, my dear. Will you show our guest where she can rest?" His wife nodded and patted his broad shoulder approvingly.
"Thank you," said Ash sincerely, standing up and turning to follow Nina
"In the meantime," continued Ignacio. "What about your car? I take it you have one and it is 'hot'?"
She shrugged. "Yes, but I dumped it." At his and Vito's prompting, she managed to describe the Fiat and the area where she had left it. Then she felt a hand under her elbow and turned to find Nina urging her gently towards a door leading into the interior. She smiled and acquiesced.
The last thing she saw and heard as she left the kitchen was Ignacio rubbing his big hands together gleefully and beckoning to his eagerly watching nephew. "Come, Vito. We have a car to collect. While your friend recovers her strength, we will lay a false trail for the police!"
Jemma regarded the huge house with the flower-laden balconies approvingly. So this is the casa that Ash 'bought'. Silently, she negotiated the winding path with its tubs of geraniums and approached the solid front door.
Her caution was probably unnecessary - Blade would be crazy to come back here - but she had to pretend to be seriously searching for the other agent if only because of the two Canarian policemen, Carlos and Pablo, Remington had foisted on her. Their version of stealth differed somewhat from her own, she noticed ruefully, as boots crunched on gravel.
She picked the lock, then opened the door a fraction. Drawing her standard issue Browning from her shoulder holster, she eased inside. It was refreshingly cool in the hall - the island heat, while a nice change from the UK's February chill, could get a bit much, she'd found.
Jemma waited for her eyes to adjust to the relative gloom, inhaling a fragrance she decided was furniture polish as she did so, then she ventured further inside. A quick check of the ground floor revealed no one home. She padded across the tiled floor to the bottom of the staircase and gazed up it, listening intently. Her instincts told her someone was up there. Blade? Surely not!
Carlos sneezed loudly, and Pablo elbowed him in the ribs. Jemma resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "Wait here," she whispered, and, gripping the wooden banister with one hand, she loped up the wide steps as quietly as she could.
At the top was a landing, off which led several doors. The one at the end opened onto a spacious bathroom containing a shower and Jacuzzi. Nice! Next along was a smallish bedroom, which the lack of bed linen showed was not in use. She pushed open the third door... and froze.
Sprawled across the large bed was a shapely blonde. She recognised Blade's companion from the café, who even now was waking with fear in her eyes. The woman sat up, and hastily pulled the sheets over her nakedness. Jemma realised she was still brandishing her gun and hastily reholstered it.
"°Lo siento!" She was glad she had at least learned the Spanish for sorry. "I didn't mean to startle you."
"Who are you?" The woman's Canarian accent was strong. "What are you doing in my bedroom? Why do you have a gun?"
Jemma opened her mouth... then closed it again. It was too complicated to explain. "Have you seen Blade?" she asked instead.
The other woman's lips thinned. "She was with you last night?" Before Jemma could even blink, the other woman had marched up to her, sheet held precariously in place by one hand, and slapped her.
Jemma raised a hand to her stinging cheek. "With me? Well, yes, but not in the way you -"
"Everything all right, Señorita Jacobs?" Carlos had chosen that moment to put his head around the door. He grinned appreciatively, a gold front tooth flashing.
"Er, fine. Just great."
The blonde woman's eyes had widened at the sight of his brown uniform. "You are with the Policia National?" she asked Jemma. "But surely you are English! Like Blade." Looking suddenly nervous about the slap, she backed away. "I... I'm sorry!"
Jemma realised belatedly why the other woman might think she was Blade's girlfriend. They were both blondes, of similar height and body type. She grimaced and turned to the waiting policeman. "Can you search the rest of the house thoroughly while I ask Señorita -" She paused.
"Rodriguez," supplied the woman, who was now sitting sullenly on the edge of the bed. "Adriana Rodriguez."
Jemma nodded her thanks. "- some questions... and she puts some clothes on."
Carlos looked disappointed but obligingly disappeared from view. A moment of frantic whispering outside the bedroom door ended with the sound of two pairs of boots clumping off along the landing then down the stairs.
Jemma folded her arms and leaned back against the wall. "So, Blade didn't come home last night, I take it?"
"No." The other woman looked longingly at the clothes piled on a chair and gave Jemma an enquiring look."
"Go ahead." While Adriana dressed, Jemma pondered what questions to ask. Tracking down Blade was not her intention, if she could avoid it, but if she was to help the other agent, she needed to know as much about what she was working on as possible. And since Blade herself hadn't been very forthcoming.... "When did you last see her?"
Adriana fastened her bra then reached for her dress. "Breakfast yesterday. Is English... Blade, I mean... is she in trouble?" Her voice was muffled by the fabric as she pulled the garment over her head.
"She could be." Jemma glanced at the door. No sign of the two policemen yet. "They think she did something bad. But I don't believe them. Iíd like to help her if I can."
The blonde's head emerged from the dress, and her gaze was keen. At last she nodded. "You haven't told me your name."
"Sorry! It's Jemma. Jemma Jacobs."
"Well, Jemma. I know that to Blade I was probably just - ŅCómo se dice? - a casual 'fling'." Adriana's expression was wistful and Jemma got the impression that she had taken their relationship more seriously. "But even so," she shrugged, "I would not want any harm to come to her. How can I help you?"
"These last few days. Do you know what Blade has been up to? The people she's seen, the places she's been?"
Adriana shook her head. "I have been at the café. And in the evenings she has been here with me... except for one night when she said she was 'working'," she looked sceptical, "and last night of course. Last night she did not return." She bit her lip.
"'Working'?" prompted Jemma.
"She has been driving all over the island... here, there, everywhere in that little car of hers." Adriana gave a wry grin. "Taking the 'bloody scenic route' she said! For some reason, that annoyed her."
Not very informative. Jemma sighed. It had been too much to hope for, she supposed, but worth a try. Movement in the doorway attracted her attention and she straightened. It was Pablo and Carlos. They gave her and Adriana a curious glance.
"Yes?" she prompted.
"We searched the house. Nothing," said Pablo, scratching his stubbly chin.
Jemma nodded. She hadn't really expected there to be anything. Blade was too careful for that.
"Perhaps she has left the country," chimed in Adriana helpfully.
"It is more than likely," agreed Carlos. "Her hire car has been found at Los Rodeos Airport." He turned to Jemma. "Señor Remington wants you to meet him in the car park there."
Jemma unfolded her arms. "And when did that little piece of news come in?!"
"Five minutes ago." He looked sheepish. "You were busy."
You mean, you were busy! Probably snatching a quick cigarette! She gave him a look, then turned back to Adriana, who had finished dressing and was now slipping on her high heels.
"Thank you, Señorita Rodriguez. You have been very helpful."
The other woman looked up, her face relieved. "I can go?"
"Yes." Jemma turned to leave, then stopped and turned back. "I'm sorry I startled you... with my gun."
Adriana shrugged. "And I'm sorry I hit you!"
The policemen exchanged intrigued glances, which Jemma ignored. "You pack a mean punch!" She rubbed her still stinging cheek.
Jemma paused. "Not much point you waiting for her here," she said awkwardly. "If Blade hasn't left the country, she will be lying low."
Adriana sighed. "I think, even if this had not happened, our time together was nearly over anyway. Yesterday, we had an argument. I think she was tired of me."
The other woman's expression was momentarily bleak. "I also."
Blade's hire car was parked in the 'long stay' zone. The little Fiat made Jemma laugh - Blade's preferences were on file and she had been expecting something sleek and sporty.
While Carlos and Pablo went to chat to the three Canarian policemen posted to keep people away from the scene, Jemma peered in the open window, careful not to touch anything - the fingerprint boys hadn't been over it yet. Loose wires jutted from under the dashboard, she saw.
"Hot wired." Remington had come up beside her. "Been here a couple of hours, they reckon, no longer."
"Do you think she's flown out?"
His brows drew together. "No."
Jemma nodded. Her Section Head might be obsessed with and prejudiced against Blade, but he wasn't stupid. The very fact Blade's car was at the airport, meant she hadn't caught a flight out. Unless it was a double bluff, of course.
"I heard there was a woman at Blade's house?"
Jemma nodded. "Adriana Rodriguez. Blade's latest holiday romance." She smiled wryly. "She thought I was a rival." Memory made her raise a hand to her cheek.
Remington snorted absently.
"Innocent bystander, that's all," continued Jemma. "No idea where Blade is."
He sighed. "She's gone to ground. The Libyans must be helping her."
Jemma bit her lip. "Mr Remington, are you sure-"
He turned a fierce gaze on her. "Yes, I'm sure, Miss Jacobs." His gaze softened and he turned and gestured towards the airport departure terminal. "But we can't assume she hasn't flown out. Procedure, Miss Jacobs. We must always follow procedure. You have airport staff to interview and passenger lists to check before we can be certain she didn't leave."
"You'll need this." He pulled a small photo from the inner jacket pocket of his suit (how he could stand wearing it in this heat was beyond her) and handed it to her.
It was a picture of Blade, wearing a stained cap-sleeved T-shirt and frayed denim shorts that revealed long, tanned limbs and dirty, bare feet. If the brilliant smile aimed at the camera lens was any indication, she had caught the gigantic fish dangling from one raised hand herself.
Jemma suppressed a sigh. "Iíll get right on it, Mr Remington."
"That's where they will wrestle," said Vito, taking his seat next to Ash on the bench.
She regarded her surroundings dubiously. What has started out as a rocky field on the volcanic mountainside was now a 9-metre wide, sand-strewn circle surrounded by rows of simple wooden benches.
Uncle Ignacio had driven them into the Mount Teide National Park just to the north of Los Cristianos that morning, negotiating the dusty roads that wound through the dramatic landscape with the sureness of a mountain goat. His home village would be much safer, he had told her. And she could understand, could she not, his wish to keep the Policia as far as possible from his family, his repair shop? Besides, his cousin, the village mayor, owed him a favour. She hadn't much choice if she wanted the big man's help, so reluctantly she had agreed.
When the villagers poured out to greet the dust-covered truck, she easily identified the mayor - the resemblance between him and Ignacio was obvious. The big man bounded down from his truck, and the two men greeted one another like... well, like cousins.
After laughter, hearty handshakes, and much backslapping, they went into a huddle, their voices growing louder and more heated as time went on. The local accent was strong, and they spoke so fast Ash had trouble making out what they were saying. The word Policia seemed to feature a lot though. She sighed.
"They always argue," said Vito calmly. "But in the end he will agree. He always does." His eyes sparkled. "And don't worry, Blade. My uncle says I am to stay and look after you."
"Thanks. I was really scared for a moment there."
He shot her a mock scowl.
At last, the mayor nodded, then both men spat on their hands and shook to seal the deal.
"They will hide you from the police," said the big man, coming over to join her. "And now I must get back. I have that little errand to run for you, Señorita."
Ignacio had agreed to take a message to Jemma. With Ash's picture all over the news (to add insult to injury, the Canarian Police had called her a terrorist), contacting the other woman herself was out of the question. She would have left Jemma out of it - the blonde had already gone out on a limb for her - but she needed information. Now the Organisation's passwords had been changed, Ash could no longer access their computerised records. But Jemma could, and she could also supply the photographs of Abdusamad and al-Akhdar that Ash needed if she was to get the hunt for them underway.
"I appreciate this, Ignacio."
"My pleasure." He grinned. "Besides," he tousled his nephew's curly hair, and Vito scowled and ducked out of reach, "chaperoning you will keep this one out of trouble for a while."
Then he had got into his truck, paused to light the ubiquitous cigarette, then put the vehicle in gear and roared off.
So here she was, effectively stranded. If it hadn't been for Vito's cheerful chattering presence, she probably would have set off walking down the mountainside by now. The villagers seemed to regard her with, at best, an awkward wariness. She couldn't blame them. For all they knew she really was a dangerous terrorist. But if she was going to stay here, she had to change their attitude towards her somehow.
"Here they come." Vito's voice was excited. Wrestling was big in Tenerife, so he'd told her, and most villages held their own contests.
She watched as two teams of twelve men took their places on the far side of the circle. The watching villagers cheered and the combatants smiled and waved in acknowledgement. Then the first pair of wrestlers took their place in the ring, bowing before approaching one another warily. Soon the air was thick with grunts and the thud of bare feet on sand as each man sought handholds on shirts and trousers and tried to throw the other to the ground.
"If they touch down with any other body part than their feet," whispered Vito, "they lose the point."
This kind of fighting, lucha Canaria, had been handed down from the Guanches - the people who had inhabited the Canaries before the Spanish came - but as she watched, Ash discerned similarities to Greek wrestling and Sumo. She appreciated the power and dexterity on display. The final pair of combatants had just started their bout when she had an idea. She turned to regard Vito.
"Would they let me wrestle?"
He looked doubtful. "It is rarely done by women. And you are a foreigner."
A huge thud - she could feel the vibration through the bench - followed by a cheer made her look up in time to see the victorious wrestler reaching out a hand to help up his beaten opponent.
She stood up then and heads turned to regard her curiously. "I challenge the best of your wrestlers to fight me," she called out, her voice carrying on the still evening air.
Murmurs of enquiry turned to disbelief and laughter as those who could speak English translated what she had said for their neighbours. The men looked sceptical, the women shocked or disapproving.
"Señorita." Two rows to her left, the mayor had stood up and was now regarding her severely. "We will make allowances for the fact you are a stranger here. But please, do not mock our traditions."
"I'm serious. I can beat your best man." At least I hope so.
The wrestlers were muttering to one another, their expressions reflecting amusement and scorn.
"What are you afraid of?" Ash's question was greeted by a murmur of annoyance.
"Don't be foolish, Señorita," said the mayor, after calling for quiet. "You could get hurt, break bones-"
"I'll take my chances."
"The Englishwoman shows courage. I say, let her fight," came a voice from behind her. Ash turned to see it was one of the younger village women who had spoken up for her. She nodded her thanks.
"But if any harm comes to her," objected another, "Ignacio will be angry with us." All eyes turned to Vito then, but the boy merely shrugged.
"All this talking is getting us nowhere," called one of the wrestlers. He was wearing a blue belt (a whisper from Vito told her it was the highest grade) and his name was Andres. "I'm willing to fight her. I won't hurt her... much."
Ash raised an eyebrow at him but said nothing.
The mayor regarded the other villagers helplessly. "We will put it to the vote," he said at last. "All those who think we should let Señorita Blade fight Andres, raise your hands." A forest of hands went up. "And all those who think we shouldn't?" This time, only a few hands rose. The outcome was clear.
"Very well." With a sigh, Ignacio's cousin gestured Ash forward then sat back down. She wove her way between the benches towards the sand-strewn ring; seconds later, Vito was hurrying after her.
"Are you sure you know what you are doing, Blade?"
She grinned at him. "No. Stand back." Gently but firmly, she pushed him to one side.
To a chorus of encouraging shouts from his fellow wrestlers, a swaggering Andres took his place on the other side of the sandy circle, directly opposite Ash. He was shorter than her by a head, she noticed, but made up for it in width. Loudly he cracked his knuckles then he gave her a ferocious grin, which she returned in kind. He blinked at that, then bowed. Ash bowed in her turn. She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, centring herself, then advanced into the ring.
In spite of Andres' bulk, he was surprisingly hard to grab hold of. She wished she could say the same about herself. Before she could get her opponent's measure, hands the size of hams had grabbed her (eliciting a collective intake of breath from the watching villagers) and if she hadn't managed to twist free, using instincts honed by years as a catburglar and secret agent, the match would have ended there and then.
As she danced out of reach, and got her breath back, two things became clear. By tomorrow she would be covered in yet more bruises. And it would be much quicker and easier just to kill him - restraining her instincts and sticking to the rules was hell.
"Had enough?" Andres grinned at her.
"No." She approached him more warily this time, but his fancy footwork was such that he almost had her over twice. She cursed and focussed her attention more fiercely.
In the end, it was sheer luck that gave the bout to her. Andres was sweating badly, and a droplet of perspiration flew into his eye. While he was blinking his vision clear, she took advantage of his momentary distraction, grabbed the coarse linen of his trousers, pivoted him over her hip, and downed him like a felled tree trunk.
There was a brief stunned silence, then the audience began to clap and whistle. Ash held out her hand to help up her defeated opponent. He ignored it, and for a moment she thought he was deliberately snubbing her. Then she registered Andres' pained grimace, the sweat beading his now ashen face, the odd position of his right arm, and put it all together. He wasn't just winded; his shoulder was dislocated.
The spectators were only just beginning to realise he was hurt when she stooped, rolled the groaning man over onto his back, grabbed his right arm, and firmly and efficiently manoeuvred the joint back into its socket. Andres' rigid grimace relaxed and he turned a gaze full of relief and gratitude on her. This time he let her help him to his feet.
"You should keep that shoulder as immobile as you can for a couple of days," she advised him quietly, as his friends came to help him from the ring.
"Gracias, Señorita." The rest of his reply was lost to her as she found herself being lifted onto the broad shoulders of her fellow wrestlers and carried round the ring in a victory lap. Vito was staring open mouthed up at her and she grinned and waved at him. He closed his mouth with a snap and waved back.
Later, in the cosy inn, mugs of cerveza was pressed on her by people eager to inform her that Andres had never been beaten before, and certainly not by a woman. As she laughed with them and sipped the light lager, she reflected that she was battered and bruised and tomorrow would probably wake up feeling like an eighty-year-old... but it had been worth it. The villagers' wariness towards her had disappeared as though it had never been.
CONTINUED IN PART 4