Warnings - See Part 1.
SAY GOODBYE TO BOSTON
Part 5 (Conclusion)
Ash peered out at the silhouetted island drawing slowly but steadily closer, and wondered what Jemma was doing. Fielding calls from London, probably.
She had rung the other agent the moment she understood what the Libyans were up to and told the shocked blonde to notify both HQ and the Canarian authorities immediately. The phone call to the Tenerife Field Office had undoubtedly been traced, but since she'd be long gone it no longer mattered.
Getting to Santa Cruz de la Palma by hydrofoil would have taken far too long, so Ignacio had called in a favour from a pilot friend. When the big man and Ash, Guido, Conrado, and Vito (the twelve-year-old had returned from the village last night and neither Ash nor his uncle could deter him from coming) arrived at Reina Sofia airport, a Piper Malibu Meridian was fuelled and waiting on the runway for them. They had scrambled on board the little 6-seater turboprop, strapped themselves in, and cheered as the pilot took off, leaving startled airport officials still racing across the concrete towards them.
Ash glanced at the sea below them. Small boats and fishing vessels were heading for Tenerife. Coincidence, or had the evacuation of La Palma already got under way? She checked her watch then grunted in frustration. The Libyans hadn't given any indication when they planned to detonate.
"Something wrong?" asked Ignacio from his seat next to her. "Other than the obvious," he added.
"I have no idea how much time I have... or donít have."
Notifying the Canarian authorities had been a tough call, but there had really been no choice. Ferrying La Palma's 80,000 inhabitants to safety in La Gomera or Tenerife would take time. Especially since the authorities would presumably have to keep the presence of the Semtex quiet or risk outright panic.
It would make her own job harder, though. She suspected the lack of bomb disposal experts in the vicinity (unless there were some currently holidaying in the Canaries), meant she would have to deal with the threat herself. But by now there would almost certainly be a security cordon around the summit, and if, in spite of Jemma's efforts on her behalf, they still believed she was a terrorist.... She sighed.
"When I get my hands on Abdusamad..." muttered Ignacio. He was taking the threat to his fellow Canarians personally.
Ash grunted. "Get in line."
They flew over yet more small craft and she suddenly wondered whether the Americans were evacuating their eastern seaboard too. Or were they instead sitting tight and hoping for the best? After all, it wasn't as if the CIA had blown the whistle on the terrorists. The intelligence had come from a British agent - one currently suspected of being 'rogue' into the bargain. But if they ignored the tip and there was a tsunami, well, they could say good bye to Boston, New York, Miami....
"Five minutes," called the pilot.
At least Washington now knew exactly what they were dealing with rather than that vague threat to 'disrupt their economy'. The Americans wouldn't accede to terrorist demands, no matter how dire the threat, but they could stall and buy Ash valuable time.
Suddenly, La Palma's eastern coastline was rushing towards them, and the volcanic slopes of its southern spine were dead ahead.
"We're here," called the pilot unnecessarily. "But Control are telling me not to land."
"Ignore them," said Ash crisply.
"Si," said Ignacio. "Do as Blade says. Take us in."
The pilot glanced at them, bit his lip, then shrugged. "OK."
Then the plane was banking, beginning its descent towards the Aeropuerto de la Palma.
A battered minibus was waiting for them at the end of the runway, as far from the control tower as it could get. Even as they disembarked and ran towards it, an airport security van, lights flashing, was heading towards the Piper. Ash hoped the pilot could talk his way out of trouble.
Vito was the last to climb aboard, and his door was still half-open when the driver gunned the engine and the minibus shot forward, its tyres complaining. Ash reached past the off-balance boy and yanked the door closed. He toppled into his seat with a grunt.
The driver, a little man with a big moustache and an even bigger beer belly, aimed the minibus at a suspiciously fresh gap in the airport's perimeter fence. "Where to?"
Ignacio shrugged and gestured towards Ash.
"The Cumbre Vieja," she said. "As near to the summit as you can get."
They headed predominantly west, along a winding road that climbed past lush vegetable gardens, banana plots, and vineyards. Ash noticed that all the traffic they passed was heading in the opposite direction, away from danger. She chuckled wryly.
"Blade?" Vito's brown eyes were fixed on her.
She shrugged. "We must be crazy."
"Of course. We are heroes!" His eyes sparkled. "This is a great adventure."
"Yeah, right." Ash gave him a crooked smile.
The tools and containers inside her haversack were digging into her hip, and she shifted it into a more comfortable position. Then, purely for something to do, she stripped down the Super Star automatic Ignacio had lent her and carefully cleaned and oiled it. As she reassembled the Spanish gun and shoved it back into the shoulder holster the big man had also lent her she became aware of Vito's wide-eyed stare.
"Hopefully I won't have to use it," she told him. To her amusement, the boy seemed more disappointed than relieved.
A pleasant fragrance wafting through the window drew her attention back to her surroundings, and she saw that they had left the vineyards behind them and were now surrounded by Canary pine forest.
"Road block," called the driver, braking so suddenly it threw them all forward in their seats. Ash followed his gaze to the barrier manned by two men whose pea green uniforms indicated Civil Guard.
"Is there another way?"
Shit! Ash chewed her lip. What were the odds the police still thought she was a terrorist? She decided to risk it. A police escort could get her to the summit faster...
"Keep going," she instructed, "but take it slowly. Despacio."
The driver nodded then put the minibus in gear. As they approached the makeshift barrier, the two policemen behind it looked up and stepped forward. The one on the right was holding up his hand in the universal stop sign when his colleague's eyes widened and he shouted and reached for the holster at his belt.
"Floor it," yelled Ash.
"ŅQué?" The driver gaped at her.
"Put your foot down... NOW." Looks like I'm still on that damned list.
The driver stamped on the accelerator and the engine roared. Like a rocket, the minibus headed for the barrier. For a moment, the two policemen froze, disbelief written all over their faces, then they dived for cover. The vehicle barely checked as, with a loud splintering crack, the wooden barrier gave way. Then they were through and climbing.
Ash glanced at the wing mirror, and saw one of the policemen talking urgently into his radio while the other raised his pistol and pointed it at -
The mirror exploded.
"Hey! They're shooting at us," yelled Vito indignantly.
The window next to Ash vanished in a shower of flying glass and she flinched as a splinter nicked her cheek. At me, you mean. Then the winding road curved and they were out of gunshot range and she breathed a sigh of relief. It was one thing risking her own life, another risking that of a twelve-year-old boy.
"That was close," said Ignacio.
She nodded. "And it's going to get worse. They've radioed ahead."
"But if they do not allow you through in time..." The big man's voice trailed off, and, just audible above the labouring engine, Ash heard the faint rhythmic drone of rotors.
She leaned out of the non-existent window and craned her head round, trying to spot the helicopter. Must be that faint speck to the east. She pulled her head back inside the minibus.
"Perhaps they wonít need me anyway. That may be the bomb squad coming in now."
"I thought you said there weren't any disposal experts in the vicinity," said Vito.
"I did." Maybe this is going to pan out OK after all.
The driver changed down a gear. "Not far to the summit," he called.
"Good." The pines were gradually thinning as the slopes changed to outcroppings of basalt sprinkled with a black layer of ash and pebbles. There wasn't going to be much cover from here on in. "Stop here," she ordered.
The driver braked obediently and the vehicle came to a halt in the middle of the road.
"I'm going the rest of the way on foot," she explained, as she opened the door and got out. Vito made to follow her but she stopped him and made him get back inside. She shifted the strap of the haversack so it wasn't cutting into her shoulder. "They'll be expecting me to be on the minibus."
"You wish us to play innocent tourists forced to drive here at gunpoint by the bad English terrorist?" Ignacio grinned at her.
She snorted. "It might be more convincing if you claim to be lost and deny all knowledge of me."
Vito sat forward in his seat. "But what about the bullet holes?"
"What bulletholes?" She gestured at the missing wingmirror and window. "You drove too far over and caught them on an overhanging branch."
Ignacio looked shrewdly at her. "Will their questioning us provide enough of a diversion for you, Señorita Blade?"
"I donít know. But at least it'll tie up some of the manpower they've got looking for me."
He nodded then stuck out his meaty hand. "Good luck."
She took it and gave it a shake. "Be careful. They'll shoot first, ask questions later."
"You be careful too."
The droning noise was louder now and they could see the police helicopter approaching through the trees.
"Go with God, Señorita." Ignacio's gaze was solemn and she held it for a moment, before nodding.
"Thanks for all your help, Ignacio.
"De nada." He nodded in return then turned and gestured at the driver. "Drive." The minibus chugged up the road and disappeared from sight.
Ash took a deep breath and scanned her surroundings. That looks like the most direct route to the summit. She set off at a fast clip, feeling her calf muscles start to pull before she settled into a more comfortable stride. At first a carpet of pine needles cushioned her sneakers, but as she climbed and the trees thinned, she found herself more and more pounding over crumbly earth, pebbles, and bare black rock that demanded her full attention if she wasn't to slip and break an ankle.
She wondered what the time was but decided not to look at her watch. She would either get to the summit in time or she wouldn't. And if she didn't, well, there was nothing she could do about that now.
Jemma peered down at the boulder-strewn ridge. The Cumbre Vieja looked just as it had on the satellite photos - minus the police crawling all over it, of course. The mixture of blue, brown, and pea green uniforms indicated that all three branches of the Canarian police force were represented. Many were scowling up at the helicopter and hanging onto their peaked hats as the downdraft from its rotor blades threatened to blow them off, and all were armed.
The Provincial Governor, who had commandeered this helicopter for an impromptu inspection of the area, and, with Weatherby's intervention, had grudgingly allowed Jemma to hitch a ride, was talking to his aide, so Jemma took the opportunity to question the pilot.
"What are all these policemen doing here?" she asked him over the mike. "They can't all be part of the reception committee for the bomb squad!"
"A precaution. The Libyans may have left someone behind," came the pilot's voice in her headphones.
"A suicide bomber?" She shuddered. "God, I hope not."
It gave her a perverse sense of satisfaction to see all this activity, which was due in no small part to the efforts of her and Blade. Not that it had been easy to set things in motion.
Remington thought Blade's information might be a decoy to distract attention from events unfolding in the USA. In the end Jemma had gone over his head. She would pay for it later, she supposed. A black mark on her file? Transfer to a different department?
She had tracked down Weatherby himself to his club in Whitehall. The Chief was in the middle of dinner when he took her phone call, and tore her off a strip. Didn't she know there were channels for this sort of thing? Junior agents should know better than to disturb their elders and betters for trivial information blah blah blah.... When she finally managed to get a word in edgeways, however, he grasped the situation's urgency instantly. She sensed him listening intently to her every word and intonation as she outlined what she and Blade had found out.
"You have data to back this up?" he had asked crisply, and when she answered in the affirmative, requested a look at it. She had gone to Ramirez and with the startled field officer's help sent all the information through to London. Ten minutes later, a phone call from Weatherby had informed her that the information was on its way to the White House. The Chief had congratulated her on her decision to interrupt him and Blade's Section Head had personally rung her to express his gratitude.
The Governor finished his pontificating and glanced out the window, nodding with satisfaction as the helicopter settled gently onto a flattish patch of ground. As the whine of the motors died away, his harassed looking aide squared his notes and put them in his briefcase. Jemma unbuckled her safety belt and prepared to disembark.
An area of the Cumbre Vieja's summit had been cordoned off with flapping red-and-white tape. The Semtex must be there. She scanned the area for the tall agent but could see no sign of her. I thought Blade would be here by now.
Much to everyone's appalled disbelief (and Jemma's secret satisfaction) the plastic explosives had indeed proved to be where Blade had specified - packed in one of the faultlines that had opened up during the eruption of the summit back in 1949. A meeting of the emergency services had been convened and the Provincial Governor informed of the threat. At Weatherby's request, Jemma had attended.
It was at that meeting that the Police Chief sheepishly admitted a bomb squad would have to be flown in from the Spanish mainland. (The squad with the US fleet in the Med. would take even longer to get here.) Jemma had sucked in her breath then mentioned, as Blade had told her she might have to, that the agent was skilled in bomb disposal and already on her way to the area. There was only one fly in the ointment - Blade's details were still on the 'wanted terrorist' list. The Police Chief had gone red in the face and promised to rectify that.
When Blade arrived, she would need all the help she could get. Not that I can offer much, thought Jemma ruefully. Mac didn't show us how to disable state of the art timing devices. Thank God, she knows what to do!
She climbed down from the helicopter, ducking her head instinctively even though the blades were now stationary. Fortunately, everyone's attention was focussed on the Governor and his aide, which meant she could slip away and get on with what was important. She headed towards the cordoned-off portion of the summit, past men constructing banks from earth and boulders - for protection against a blast, they told her (the rock meant foxholes were out of the question). She wondered whether to tell them not to bother. If the western flank of the ridge slid into the sea they would all go with it.
At the tape, she paused and craned her neck. It was just possible to see inside the two metre wide crevice that was the fault. Those creamy slabs piled on top of one another must be the plastic explosive.
"Señorita?" She turned to find a civil guard Police Sergeant regarding her suspiciously. She dug in her pocket and showed him her id and authorisation.
He grunted. "Even so. It is not safe here, Señorita. Though the timer is not yet activated, it is more than likely booby-trapped. The smallest movement could -"
A shot rang out, and he spun on his heels. "Qué?" Then he was running towards the guard who had fired his gun and was now shouting to his colleagues. The Sergeant bellowed at him and he flushed then replied.
"What is it?" asked Jemma who had followed hard on his heels.
But the Sergeant was rattling out orders like a machine gun and seconds later several of his men were scrambling down the rubble-strewn slope towards a clump of pines. He watched them go, a predatory gleam in his eyes.
"A hostile," he replied. "One of my men spotted her at the same time a checkpoint was reporting a minibus full of locals trying to gain access." He smiled grimly. "They claim to have got lost but it was clearly a diversion."
Jemma's stomach lurched. 'Her'? 'Hostile'? "Hang on a mom-"
The guards reached the pines and vanished among the trees. Simultaneously, a familiar tall, dark haired figure, wearing a T-shirt and jeans and carrying a haversack, darted out into the open.
"They've flushed her out," said the Sergeant.
Blade's gun was clearly still holstered, and her hands were purposely held away from her body to show she was no threat. Even so, a jittery guard near Jemma raised his pistol and fired. Powdered rock puffed up in front of Blade's right foot. She checked, then continued on.
"Donít shoot," yelled Jemma, watching in amazement as the other agent jogged almost unconcernedly up the slope towards her, her progress followed by several gun barrels. "She's one of ours!"
The Sergeant's head jerked round at that, his expression a mixture of disbelief and irritation. Knuckles whitened as fingers tightened on triggers.
"You've got to believe me!" Jemma's heart was in her mouth. Abruptly she remembered something and shoved a hand feverishly in her pocket. "Here. Look at this -" She pulled out the crumpled piece of paper and shoved it at him.
Something in her expression must have got through to the Sergeant, or maybe it was the Canarian Police Force logo on the photocopy of the Police Chief's orders that she had grabbed before she left Tenerife. "Hold your fire," he called distractedly as he read. His men muttered, but to her relief they lowered their guns.
By the time Blade was near enough for Jemma to make out the pale blue of her eyes and hear her panting, the Sergeant had finished speaking angrily into his radio and was turning an apologetic gaze on Jemma..
"A mix-up at HQ," he said tersely. "The Policía Nacional received new instructions about your colleague but forgot to pass them on to the Guardia Civil. They are rectifying that 'oversight'." His lips twisted slightly on the last word.
Blade drew to a halt in front of Jemma, then bent to ease a stitch in her side. Her upper lip was beaded with sweat. "Fancy seeing you here," she gasped.
Jemma didn't know whether to hug or hit the tall woman, so she settled for putting her hands on her hips and glaring. "What the hell did you think you were doing? You could have been shot!"
"Oh, that." Blade's voice was dismissive. "I saw you were up here with them. I knew youíd talk them round. Good flight?" She accepted a canteen from the Sergeant and took a long and clearly welcome drink of water.
"You know, if you'd come to the Field Office in person, instead of phoning then going all cloak-and-dagger on me, you could have come by helicopter too."
A raised eyebrow met that remark. "Think so?" Blade handed back the canteen to its owner with a smile of thanks.
Suddenly uncertain, Jemma chewed her lip. "We...ell." Now she thought about it, at that point there had been a distinct risk Ramirez might have shot Blade on sight. But what did it matter now?
The other agent had got her breath back (She must be really fit to have recovered so fast, thought Jemma enviously) and was already turning to the Sergeant. "So. Want to show me this bomb of yours?"
He regarded her sceptically then shrugged. Whatever had been his instructions over the radio, it seemed Blade was to be given carte blanche. "This way," he said.
Ash eased herself gingerly into the deep crevice, which was two meters wide at the top but narrowed rapidly. Never thought I'd see a faultline quite this up-close-and-personal.
Acutely aware of booby-traps, she kept her movements controlled and her breathing shallow as she examined what the Libyans had done. The slabs of Semtex were sweating gently in the heat. I know the feeling.
The crevice was too narrow for all the Semtex to be piled in one heap, so the Libyans had deposited smaller piles of the plastic explosive at intervals, each connected to the next by fuse wire. The wire was probably superfluous, but they clearly weren't willing to take the chance some of the Semtex might not detonate. She reached for the cutters inside her haversack then decided to wait until after she had dealt with the booby trap.
"How's it looking?" called Jemma.
Ash straightened carefully, her head and shoulders emerging from the crevice, and looked back at the other agent who was kneeling by the flapping tape four metres from her. "Too early to say," she called.
The blonde had refused to fall back with the police. Afraid signals from radios, computers, or mobile phones might set off the radio-controlled timer, Ash had extended the diameter of the cordoned-off area by a further 30 metres and banned any more helicopter flights. (The Provincial Governor had been outraged but she was immune to his protests. She had last seen the buffoon careering down the slope in search of a police car to commandeer. If the bomb went off, he had no intention on being anywhere near it.) But Jemma wanted to help, insisted on it, in fact. Even if it consisted of merely relaying information. Stubborn is her middle name, thought Ash wryly.
She smiled reassuringly at Jemma, who seemed to have attracted the eager attentions of a tanned young civil guard (and who could blame him?). She thought about ordering him back with his colleagues, then shrugged. If he was chatting Jemma up, it would at least keep her mind off more frightening things.
Stooping once more, she began working her way along the crevice, negotiating her way carefully over the earth and rubble that had fallen into it since its formation. When she reached the timer, she halted and squatted in front of it. Bog-standard technology, she was relieved to see. And the display remained encouragingly dark.
She wondered where the trigger signal would come from - a plane flying overhead, a boat hiding among the flotilla of craft fleeing from La Palma? Deliberately she pushed that thought away and focused her attention on the timer, examining it from all angles, following every wire to its destination and guessing its purpose. Finally, she was satisfied that there was only one booby trap - a movement-sensitive device.
Bomb disposal experts usually had hi-tech machinery at their beck and call, and were encased in protective body suits. Ash had neither. She smiled ruefully, reached for her haversack, then hesitated.
"How long 'til the Spanish bomb squad gets here?" she called, hoping Jemma could hear her.
There was a pause while the blonde presumably asked for a status report. "Half an hour," came back Jemma's muffled voice.
"Any word from Washington?"
Another pause. "The Americans are still talking and the Libyans are still listening."
But for how long?
Ash pulled out her wire cutters and the can of quick setting epoxy resin she had asked Ignacio to get for her before they left Tenerife. The bomb squad would have a fit, but they weren't here, and sometimes you just had to improvise.
Muttering a brief prayer to any divinities who might be listening (Ash wasn't religious but she had no qualms about hedging her bets), she aimed the can's nozzle into the gap between the movement sensor and the slab of Semtex it was resting against. As foam billowed out of the nozzle, she directed it gently, almost lovingly, to and fro, building up a latticework of white strands, gradually encasing the sensor in a hardening white mesh.
The heat helped the resin to set almost instantly and when she was satisfied the sensor was sufficiently immobilised, she put down the can and reached for her haversack. Her heart was going like the clappers and sweat was trickling between her shoulderblades, but her hands were steady, she was pleased to see.
She took a deep breath, then exhaled. Using wire from the reel in her haversack, she deftly spliced in an alternate circuit, which would hopefully mislead the timer as to the motion sensor's status. Then she snipped the original wires, and ducked...
Ten seconds later, realising she hadn't been splattered all over the Cumbre Vieja, she began breathing again.
"Everything OK?" came Jemma's voice.
"Jus-" Ash stopped and cleared the frog from her throat. "Just peachy! I've disabled the booby trap. Bought us some time for the bomb squad to get here at least."
"Can you get me a spade or shovel or something?"
While she waited, Ash eased along the crevice again, snipping the fuse wire between each pile of Semtex as she went. Movement caught her eye and she straightened and glanced up. A blonde head was peering in at her.
"This do?" A hand holding a latrine spade appeared.
Blade took the tool. "Perfect. Thanks."
As Jemma retreated out a view again, Blade began shovelling the loose earth and debris from the crevice floor and packing it into the gap between the first pile of Semtex and its neighbour. It was a makeshift job, she had to admit, but better than nothing. She had just finished and resumed her position by the timer when the display came to life. Bright red digits flickered. 3:00 changed to 2:59, then to 2:58....Uh oh!
"Blade," came Jemma's shout, her tone urgent. "We've just heard: the Libyans have walked out of the talks."
"I know," she called. "They've triggered the timer."
"What?! How long have we got?"
"Was three minutes. Less now. The Bomb Squad?"
"Still ten minutes away."
Shit! "Guess I'll just have to tackle the timer myself, then."
"Not if you wish your friend to live," came a male voice.
What the -? Ash straightened up to her full height to see what was going on. Jemma was lying face down in the dirt, the young guard straddling her and holding a knife to her throat.
Jemma winced as the razor sharp knife bit into her skin. Talk about Jekyll and Hyde! One minute the young man had been chatting her up, complimenting her on her beauty, her hair, her figure, as well as being helpfulness itself - It was hot wasn't it? Would she like some of his water? The next, he was sweeping her legs out from under her, knocking her down so they were out of sight of the guards behind the tape.
She could have kicked herself. Of course the Libyan suicide bomber would be in disguise. And what better camouflage than a civil guard's uniform? Somewhere, its original owner lay dead or dying. And she was next.
"Throw down your gun," called the Libyan to Blade.
The tall woman hesitated. Her expression was the grimmest Jemma had ever seen, her lips pressed thinly together, her eyes like blue chips of ice.
"Do it...or your friend here gets her throat slit from ear to ear. I wonít tell you again."
Jemma struggled to break his grip. His response was to wrench her left arm higher behind her back until she thought it would break. The knife pressed deeper and her neck stung fiercely. She was sure she must be bleeding. She arched her head back, to escape the knife and to see more clearly what Blade was doing.
Wordlessly, the other agent reached for her shoulder holster, unclipped the gun, and pulled it free with two fingers. She threw it away, and it landed with a thud.
What are you doing? Jemma tried to speak, but the knife was pressed so hard into her throat she could barely swallow.
"That's good," purred her captor. "Very good."
Forget about me, Blade. Disarm the bomb. If you don't, I'm dead anyway... we all are. As blue eyes locked on hers, she had the distinct impression Blade knew what she was thinking.
Abruptly, the other agent ducked back into the crevice, and Jemma braced herself for the slash of the knife opening her throat. So this is it, then? This is how it ends?
There was a sudden blur of movement and something flew past her ear. A sharp gasp was followed by something collapsing on top of her, pressing her face into the dirt and causing the knife to twist painfully against her throat. For a moment she thought she was going to suffocate, then the oppressive weight disappeared, and strong hands under her armpits dragged her to her feet. A screwdriver had sprouted from the young Libyan's neck, she saw hazily.
Blade's breath was warm on her face, her voice loud in her ears, as the tall woman yelled urgently, "It's gonna blow! Run like Hell!"
A mighty shove in the small of her back had Jemma hurtling off-balance down the slope. Ahead of her, she saw policemen rising to their feet, heads turning towards her, eyes widening, mouths opening. A deafening rumble obscured what they were shouting, as the earth itself seemed to rise up and shake her by the scruff of the neck. Then the Cumbre Vieja rippled, and people started toppling like ninepins.
Oh, my GOD!
She was falling head over heels, engulfed in a hail of pebbles, and earth and rolling boulders. Then her progress was brought to an abrupt and painful halt as she encountered something unyielding - an outcrop of rock, she registered dimly. Something big and fortunately quite soft, in places at least, landed on top of her, and for the second time in the last five minutes all the air left her lungs.
Jemma lay still, unable to do anything but gasp for breath. Whatever it was that was on top of her was shielding her from the worst of the debris raining down around her. After a few minutes the torrent of rocks became a rain of pebbles, became a light pattering of dust, then, finally, stopped altogether. She blinked her blurred vision back into focus, noting that the deafening rumble had died away. No birds sang and the silence was so intense she could hear the waves crashing on the black sandy beaches far below.
"Wha-?" The thing that had wrapped itself protectively round her stirred and unwound itself and she found herself staring into familiar blue eyes. Jemma gaped at Blade. Then impulsively she engulfed the other woman in a fierce hug. "We're still alive!"
"Yep," came the muffled reply.
A thought struck her, and she released the other woman and turned urgently to face west, searching for the tidal wave that must even now be racing across the Atlantic... The sea was its usual placid self. She turned an amazed gaze on Blade. "But how -?"
"The flank didn't slide far enough." Blade's smile was dazzling in her dirty face. "You look like you've been in a landslide," she added.
"Funny. So do you."
Feeling like a doddery old age pensioner, Jemma let Blade help her to her feet. Now that all her other senses were returning, she was aware of the cut on her throat stinging like crazy. Before she could touch it, Blade intercepted her hand and examined the cut herself
"It's quite deep," she said. "But it'll heal, and it shouldn't leave a scar."
Jemma nodded her thanks. Together they limped up to where the cache of Semtex had been, and where the Sergeant and some of his men were now standing and pointing. A leg jutted out of a pile of rocks, and Jemma recognised it as belonging to the Libyan who had held her hostage. An image of a screwdriver sticking out his neck came back to her and she shuddered..
"Are you OK?" asked Blade.
"I guess. Just realising how close I came to - you know."
The tall woman nodded but said nothing.
Jemma had been piecing together the moments after she was taken captive, and now she blinked in realisation and turned a flabbergasted gaze on the tall woman. "Did you choose to save me rather than disable the timer?"
Blade shrugged. "Calculated risk. I'd done what I could to minimise the explosion. And I was out of time anyway." She seemed to be blushing and Jemma was going to pursue the topic further but they had reached the Captain, and like him turned to regard the crevice which had moved ten metres down the western flank of the ridge.
"We were lucky," he commented. "Not all the Semtex detonated."
Blade nodded. "Lucky," she repeated, winking at Jemma, who made a mental note to get the details from Blade later..
A persistent drone had been growing steadily louder and Jemma turned and shaded her eyes, spotting its source: a helicopter with Spanish markings.
"The bomb squad," she said.
"In the nick of time."
The Sergeant hadn't noticed Blade's dry tone. He nodded gravely. "Indeed. Looks like we will no longer be needing your assistance, Señorita."
Four Spaniards in protective suits now clustered around what was left of the crevice, studying the remains of the unexploded Semtex. (Bet they're boiling to death inside those, thought Ash). Specialist tools hung from their utility belts and made their pouches bulge, and boxes of specialist equipment littered the slope nearby.
She exchanged a wry glance with Jemma. "C'mon," she said, grabbing the blonde by the elbow and leading her downslope. "Let's leave it to the 'experts'."
"Where are we going? The helicopter's back there." The puzzled blonde gestured with her thumb then stumbled on a pebble and almost fell.
Ash shot out an arm to steady her. "Careful." The other woman looked as exhausted as she felt. "I need you to use your clout to straighten things out for some friends of mine."
"Clout?" Jemma gave her an amused glance. "What makes you think I have any?"
"Well, you've done pretty well so far."
The blonde's cheeks pinked prettily. "So, what 'friends' are these?"
"Some locals who've been helping me out. Itís time to return the favour."
Wearily they descended the hundred yards to the treeline, then angled left, heading towards the checkpoint just visible through the Canary pines. Parked nearby, Ash saw with relief, was a minibus which lacked one wingmirror and a side window.
As they neared the cluster of tents that had been erected in a clearing next to the barrier, a Lieutenant wearing the brown uniform of the Policía Nacional stood up and began to clap. One of his men joined in, then another.
Ash threw the blonde an embarrassed glance. "Must have mistaken us for celebrities."
The corner of Jemma's mouth twitched. "We'll be starting a new fashion trend next."
"Riiiiiiight!" Ash glanced at the other woman's blood-stained T-shirt (the cut on her neck had bled) and dirt-streaked, tattered jeans, then inspected her own attire, which was in an even worse state.
The Lieutenant was holding a hand out to her and since there was no way to avoid it without offending him, she shook it. Other policemen had come to see what was going on, and now they gathered round the two women and began slapping them on the back.
Everyone was speaking at once. Ash held up a hand for silence and they quieted.
"Gracias, gracias," she said. "Es muy amable de usted, but -" Thinking in Spanish was taking too much effort, so she switched to English. "- I need a favour."
"Si?" said the Lieutenant. "Just name it. We heard what happened up there." He gestured towards the summit.
"You are holding some friends of mine, one of them only a boy... They were in a minibus - " She gestured at the battered vehicle parked nearby.
Comprehension dawned in his brown eyes. "Si, a minibus. The occupants are over there." He signalled to a policeman guarding one of the tents, and the man ducked inside then emerged, shepherding some familiar figures in front of him.
Vito's ferocious scowl was replaced by a smile when he saw Ash, then his gaze lighted on Jemma and his expression changed to adolescent lust. Ash kept her face straight with some difficulty.
"Um..." Jemma glanced doubtfully up at her. "These are your 'friends'?"
"Yep." Ash had to concede that the big man and his companions looked more like pirates than respectable businessmen. But then, people on the run tend not to mix in polite society.
The Lieutenant was looking ill at ease. "Señorita. I apologise, but these men have been detained for questioning. I cannot release them, you understand, without authorisations, paperwork - "
Ash nudged Jemma. "'Clout'," she mouthed. "Sweet talk the Lieutenant, flash your ID, or something."
"'Or something'?" The little blonde gave her what used to be called 'an old-fashioned look' but obligingly pulled out her ID and took the Lieutenant to one side. The 'discussion' that followed seemed, to Ash's amusement, to involve Jemma talking animatedly and the Lieutenant listening long-sufferingly. The little blonde seemed blithely unaware her every move was being monitored by a lovesick twelve-year-old boy.
Ash folded her arms, leaned against the barrier, and whistled under her breath. The policemen had got over their bout of hero worship, she was relieved to see, and had returned to their duty - which seemed to involve drinking coffee and playing cards.
A short while later, the Lieutenant had issued new orders, and Ignacio, Vito, and the three other men were trotting towards her, broad smiles on their faces. She resigned herself to more backslapping, then Jemma joined them and she made the introductions all round. Ignacio greeted the blonde with a familiar wink and a pat to her backside which Ash thought was going to earn him a slap across the face, but surprisingly it didn't. As for Vito, for a moment, Ash thought they were going to need a crowbar to pry him loose from Jemma's hand.
She turned to the big-bellied driver. "Your minibus still working?" He nodded. "Great. Let's go."
"Where to, Señorita?"
"The airport, of course." Ash couldnít wait to get back to her casa in Santa Cruz de Tenerife. A hot Jacuzzi and a soft bed were waiting there for her - she could sleep for a week.
While their companions walked towards the battered bus, Jemma delayed her with a hand on her arm. "Airport? You have a plane?"
Ash grinned. "Oh. Didn't I mention that?"
"It'll be a squeeze, but Vito can always sit on your lap."
Jemma rolled her eyes and stalked towards the bus. Ash chuckled and followed her, taking the opportunity to admire her shapely backside.
In the event, Vito sat on his Uncle's lap - he had a better view of Jemma from there. "Did you used to be a thief like Blade, Señorita Jacobs?"
The other woman blinked. "No," she told the curly-haired boy.
"Can you wrestle as well as Blade?"
"'Wrestle?'" Jemma turned an incredulous glance Ash's way, but she pretended not to see it. "Er, I donít think so, no."
"Oh.... Do you have a boyfriend? Or do you prefer girls like Blade does?"
"Vito!" Ignacio's voice was sharp. "All these questions! Leave the señorita alone. Can't you see she's exhausted?"
The boy subsided, grumbling. Shame, thought Ash. I would have liked to hear the answer to that one.
At the rear of the minibus, Guido and Conrado were talking about the Carnaval. Tomorrow was the final day, apparently, and there would be a big procession ending with the bizarre ritual known as 'the Burying of the Sardine'.
It's nearly over? Some vacation that was! thought Ash ruefully. She relaxed back in her seat and let the buzz of conversation wash over her.
The driver glanced at her, then reached for the radio switch and raised an eyebrow in query. She nodded, and moments later music filled the minibus. As the bare slopes gave way to lush vineyards, Ash's thoughts drifted back to the Cumbre Vieja.
Seeing Jemma taken hostage had given her a flashback to Copenhagen. She remembered that day in the Vesterbrogade vividly - she should do, she'd relived it often enough in her nightmares. In Denmark, her instincts had been screaming at her to protect her partner, but she had overridden them, done what he had asked her to. And Sam had died. On the Cumbre Vieja, her instincts had screamed at her again. This time (Sorry, Sam, she thought mournfully) she had trusted them, and the little blonde was chattering vivaciously behind her.
In retrospect, she was shocked rigid by what might have happened had her calculated risk not paid off. It had been a close call, a very close call! And right now the citizens of the USA could have been paying very expensively for her decision. Her hands were shaking with reaction, she saw; she clasped them together firmly and hoped no one else had noticed.
A newsreader interrupted the music.
"What is he saying?" Jemma had leaned forward and her head was now close to Ash's.
"It seems," said Ash, trying to listen to the fast, colloquial Spanish and translate at the same time, "that the predicted eruption of the Cumbre Vieja turned out to be much smaller than the scientists had feared. There was no structural damage, and the only casualties were a couple of policemen killed in a landslide." She glanced at Jemma.
"The Libyan and the guard whose uniform he stole," murmured the blonde, her gaze distant.
The newsreader's voice was continuing. "The evacuation has been aborted. People may return to their homes immediately," translated Ash. "In unrelated news, it seems the severe tornadoes forecast for the eastern seaboard of the USA have veered safely out to sea and those who were evacuated 25 miles inland are to be allowed back to their homes."
"'Unrelated'", said Jemma dryly.
Ash nodded. "Completely."
The music resumed and the minibus continued towards the airport.
Gary gulped his beer, sighed contentedly, then wiped the foam from his moustache. "So, what's she like in the field then, JJ?"
Jemma sighed. "Who?" But she already knew. Ever since she had got back to London, her fellow agents had been talking about the near disaster in La Palma, Jemma's part in it, and, of course, Blade's. Perhaps they'd lose interest once the enquiry was over and things had died down.
"Ashley Blade, of course," said her former classmate.
Jemma shrugged. "Remember all the things Mac told us about her? They're true."
"Really?" He blinked. "I thought he was exaggerating."
"She can be as irritating as hell, she improvises outrageously, she takes insane risks... and I'd trust her with my life." In fact I did. Absently she fingered the plaster on her neck. Beneath it, the cut was healing nicely, and, as Blade had said, without leaving a scar.
"Worked out whether you fancy her or not yet?" Gary was doing his usual trick - drawing doodles on the table with his forefinger, using spilt beer for ink.
"I -" Jemma's cheeks grew hot. How could she tell him the answer when she didn't know herself?
He looked up at her and grinned. "She's still in the Canaries, you know. Told Bill Thompson that, since her holiday had turned into a mission, she was entitled to more leave in lieu. She got to keep the casa too. Jammy sod!"
So she's still out there. Jemma sighed.
When they had flown back to Tenerife, both agents were almost dead on their feet, so Ignacio had graciously consented to drive them back to Santa Cruz. Even so, Blade had had enough energy to prevent Jemma from getting out of the truck without first promising to spend the last day of the Carnival with her. Both knew by then that Ramirez had booked Jemma onto a flight back to London the next evening and, consequently, she had the day to herself. Rather apprehensively, she had agreed.
She needn't have been worried though. Batteries recharged from a good night's sleep, she had been more than ready to celebrate life. With Blade keeping an eye out for pinching fingers (a growl and a glare from the dark-haired woman seemed to prove an effective deterrent to most of the lascivious men), they ambled along the decorated streets of Santa Cruz, stopping to watch exhibitions of folk dancing and wrestling, or to listen to the bands playing traditional instruments. (Though Blade clearly enjoyed the music, Jemma still found it something of an acquired taste.)
As evening drew in, and even Jemma had to concede she couldn't eat one more churro, they joined the onlookers cheering eight men bearing a 10-metre long cardboard sardine on its way to the waterfront. When, at last, the fish had gone to its glorious end on a funeral pyre, mourned by its 'widows' (who, oddly, seemed to be men in black hats, veils, and high heels!), a firework display began.
As she and Blade gaped up at the gaudy pyrotechnics unfolding high above them in the night sky, Jemma sighed happily and counted it a day well spent. Later, on the plane, contemplating an uncertain and suddenly rather bleak future, she was able to take some consolation from that fact.
Wonder if Blade and Adriana are back together or if she found herself another luscious blonde for that huge bed of hers.
Gary's eyes lit up and he waved at someone behind her. "Over here, Nat."
Jemma craned her neck round and saw a small redhead in a black leather jacket making her way between the crowded tables towards them. "Hi, Nat," she called. "Glad you could make it."
"Hi yourself." The other woman plonked herself onto the uncomfortable wooden chair next to Jemma with a sigh of relief. "Traffic's murder," she complained. "Whose idea was this anyway?"
Jemma shrugged. "It was the only time you were both free. Me, I can make it anytime." Currently, she had all the time in the world to do whatever she wanted (except leave the country). If she'd been in the Canary Islands, it would have been great having so much free time. But back here, in a cold and rainy English March...
Natalie patted her arm sympathetically. "I heard about your suspension, JJ. Doesn't seem fair."
Jemma sighed. "Yeah, well. At least it's with pay. They have to go by the book, you know." A memory of Remington going on and on about following procedure made her wince. "I disobeyed orders from my Section Head, didn't I."
Gary kicked his chair back and stood up. He raised an eyebrow at Natalie. "What are you having?"
"Have they got Old Peculiar?" asked the redhead.
Jemma nodded. "They've got everything." She had chosen the crowded little London pub precisely because it stocked the real ale that her friends were partial to, and because it was near her flat. Herself, she preferred white wine.
"Great. Iíll have a pint of that, Gary, please." He nodded and wandered over to the bar.
"So." Natalie turned her attention to Jemma. "When will you know?"
"The results of the enquiry? Day after tomorrow."
"If itís any consolation, I hear Mac put in a good word for you."
"Good old Mac."
"And Counter Intelligence. Thompson spoke personally to Weatherby on your behalf."
Jemma smiled. "That'll be Blade's doing."
"I haven't met her yet." Natalie grimaced. "I'm still on the very bottom rung. Be ages before I get to go on a mission with someone like her. What's she like?"
Here we go again. "Well - "
But as usual, Natalie hadn't waited for an answer. "We've all been green with envy, you know, JJ," she continued. "There were Gary and me thinking you'd drawn the short straw; at least we were doing missions - boring ones, true - surveillance of drop points and that kind of thing - but the real thing, you know?"
"We both imagined you doing a dull old desk job in Security. And all the time you were swanning around the Canary Islands doing real secret agent stuff with Ashley Blade." Natalie's expression was a mix of envy and rueful congratulations.
"Well, it wasn't quite like that -" Jemma broke off as Gary returned with Natalie's pint. He threw a bag of salted peanuts onto the middle of the table then sat down.
"No, I don't suppose it was. Cheers." The redhead took a gulp of her beer.
"I happened to run into Blade by accident really," mused Jemma.
Gary spluttered beer everywhere as he laughed out loud and Natalie pointedly got out a tissue and mopped up the worst of it. "You did that once before with her, JJ." he joked. "Literally fell right out of your tree."
Jemma flushed a little at the memory of her very first meeting with the tall woman. "Some friends you are!" she protested, reaching for her white wine. "You're supposed to be on my side."
"We are, dear. Though sometimes we may not act like it." Natalie flashed a cheeky grin at Gary who mouthed moi? and assumed an injured expression. Then he became serious.
"It'll all turn out all right in the end, JJ. I'd bet on it."
Jemma shrugged and reached for the bag of peanuts. "Well, I certainly hope so. Because if it doesn't, I'm out of a job."
Ash gazed out of the little restaurant's picture window at the bay one kilometre below, then for the third time in as many minutes glanced at her watch.
Jemma's plane should have landed at El Hierro's little airport three quarters of an hour ago, and if she'd immediately taken the taxi Ash had arranged to have waiting on the tarmac...
The Mirador's front door opened and in walked a familiar looking blonde carrying a suitcase. The short skirt revealed shapely ankles, noted Ash appreciatively. Then her gaze travelled upwards. Uh oh!
Jemma looked hot and sticky, and her expression was a study in confusion and irritation. She hadn't seen Ash yet, so, as the maître d hurried over to greet the new arrival, Ash took another sip of her wine, and turned to regard the spectacular view of the Atlantic again. Moments later, she was aware someone was standing next to her.
"What the hell is going on?" came a testy voice.
Ash suppressed a smile and looked round. "Hello, Jemma. What does it look like? I'm buying you dinner."
She gestured at the empty seat opposite, and after a startled pause, Jemma slid into it.
"I've just got off the plane," she muttered. "Couldn't you have at least have let me get washed and brushed up first?"
"No problem." Ash beckoned the waiter over, and moments later he was leading the still flustered blonde towards the washroom.
When Jemma returned five minutes later, her blonde hair was neatly brushed, and she looked a lot less frazzled than she had. She grabbed the glass of wine Ash had ordered for her in her absence and downed it in one. The waiter happened to be passing, and he refilled it. When he had gone, she looked at Ash and said simply, "So?"
Ash handed her the menu, which was firmly rebuffed.
"I didn't mean that and you know it." Jemma sighed. "You love this cloak and dagger stuff, donít you?"
Ash nodded gravely. "So if it's not the menu you want, I guess you want to know why you're here."
Jemma nodded. "All they told me was that my suspension was lifted. I'm back on active service; meanwhile Remington is taking early retirement."
"More time to prune his roses," agreed Ash. "Couldn't happen to a nicer bloke!"
Jemma ignored the interruption. "Then I was told I was being transferred to Counter Intelligence and to report to you here for further instructions." She regarded her surroundings curiously. "Where is 'here' anyway? No, forget I asked. Knowing you, it's probably the restaurant at the end of the universe and a nearby galaxy is about to explode."
Ash pretended to be hurt by the accusation, but Jemma ignored that too.
"'She'll give you the details of your next mission,' said my new Section Head. Well, I'd already learned my lesson about not obeying orders, thank you very much, so I said, 'Yes, Mr Thompson. Three bags full, Mr Thompson. No, no need at all to tell me insignificant little details like why I'm returning to the Canaries."
Jemma's voice had risen in volume and Ash noticed that the waiters and the Mirador's other diners were regarding them covertly, perhaps hoping for a brawl.
"So, I packed my bag," continued Jemma regardless, "caught the next flight to El Hierro, and here I am... completely in the dark." Breathless from her outburst, she settled for glaring.
"Have you finished?" asked Ash gently.
Jemma had the grace to blush. "Sorry. I get crabby when I'm tired and hungry. Did someone mention dinner?"
Ash laughed out loud then and handed over the menu, which this time was eagerly accepted. The disappointed spectators returned their attention to their own concerns, and Ash began suggesting main courses, helpfully translating the Spanish. When they had both decided and ordered, she set about putting Jemma out of her misery.
"OK. First, donít blame Bill Thompson for keeping you in the dark. I wanted to tell you the news myself. He agreed, but it put him in an awkward position."
Jemma selected a bread roll and began to butter it. "What news?"
"That our next mission will be in Rio de Janeiro."
The other woman blinked. "Rio? I'm going to Rio?" She swallowed audibly. "Hang on a minute. Did you say 'our' mission?" She reached for her wine and took a huge gulp.
Ash nodded. "That's right. Our as in 'you and me'.
"Was that Thompson's idea?"
For once, Jemma was speechless, so Ash took advantage of the silence to continue. "And since there didn't seem much point my coming back to England, I thought you should join me here and we'd fly on to Rio together tomorrow."
The wine in Jemma's glass seemed to have vanished and Ash was about to signal the waiter to top it up when she had second thoughts. Hangovers weren't a good idea when you were flying the next day. "Mineral water," she said instead.
Obligingly he brought a tall glass filled to the brim, and Jemma drank deeply while she got her head round the news. "But that means I'm your new partner?"
"And we're both going to Rio? As in Brazil?"
Ash's resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "Got it in one."
"Wow!" The smile the blonde gave her was positively beatific. And when the waiter appeared with their food, the smile stretched even wider, if that was possible.
"Eat up," ordered Ash unnecessarily. Jemma's cutlery was already moving at the speed of light; only when the edge had been taken off her hunger did her knife and fork slow to more normal speed.
"So why are we going to Rio?" asked Jemma placing her knife and fork neatly together on the edge of a plate that looked like it had been licked clean.
"Because all the women are tanned and lovely?"
Jemma rolled her eyes. "Besides that."
Ash smiled then became serious. "Because according to the latest intelligence, Khaleb Abdusamad is there. But more importantly, Minyar al-Akhdar is there too," she said. "And I donít know about you, Jemma, but I have a score to settle with the man who framed me as a traitor and nearly wiped out the East Coast of the United States."
Jemma fingered her throat, which Ash was relieved to see was healing nicely. "Me too."
Ash gestured at the view below them. "See that?"
Jemma looked puzzled by the change in topic but she nodded politely. 'Nice view."
Seeing their interest, the waiter assigned to their table hurried across. "Want to know how the bay was formed, Señoritas?" he asked eagerly.
"No," said Ash crisply. "Thank you."
Crestfallen, he went away again. "That was mean," said Jemma. "Besides I want to know." She gave Ash an astute look. "Bet you're going to tell me, huh?"
Ash gave her a shit-eating grin. "Thousands of years ago, Señorita Jacobs, thees volcano -" she adopted an execrable Spanish accent that made the blonde's eyes bulge, "erupted and," she gestured exaggeratedly, "a section of the island collapsed... the result," an even larger gesture, "El Golfo."
"How much have you had to drink?" asked Jemma pointedly. Ash ignored her.
"Eet was a catasssstrophe! All that earth, sliiiiiding into the sea...! Eet set off - ŅCómo se dice? - a tidal wave." She gave Jemma a tragic look. "The wave, it not stop until it reach the Bahamas, until it reach the USA itself!"
At that, Jemma's chuckling died and she gave the huge bay below them a longer, more searching look. "Wow," she said at last. "That nearly happened again, didnít it?"
Ash nodded ."But with your help it didn't." She poured some of her remaining wine into Jemma's empty glass then raised hers in a toast.
"Partners," she said solemnly.
Jemma imitated the gesture. "Partners." Then she grinned and added, "Look out, Rio, here we come!"
Ash laughed. Jemma was going to be a handful, she just knew it. There was also an additional dimension to this partnership which was going to take some thinking about. After all, she had never been sexually attracted to Sam. "Look out," she agreed.
They clinked their wineglasses together, and drained their glasses dry.
My thanks go to friends and fellow bards Carrie Carr, Midgit, Advocate, and Keket for their feedback during the final editing stages of this story.
Thanks also to AJ for correcting my Spanish. (Any errors still remaining are mine not hers. <g>)
The threat posed by the Cumbre Vieja to the eastern seaboard of the USA is a real one. The New Scientist Article 'The Drowning Wave' by Tristan Marshall, from which excerpts have been taken, can be found at: