Copyright © 2003 by Barbara Davies.
This story may not be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of it may be made for private use only and must include all copyright notices, warnings and acknowledgements.
This is my homage to the likes of Emma Peel, Tara King, The Men from UNCLE and James Bond. And as with those characters and their settings, my secret agents and the organisation they work for bear no resemblance to anything in the real world.
There is some bad language and violence. What can I say? Secret agents need to let off steam somehow.
It is some years since I last visited London and much has changed. Though I used guidebooks and maps to supply uptodate information, some errors are bound to have crept in. All errors are mine. I hope they don't spoil your enjoyment.
This is the sequel to Say Goodbye to Boston and A View to A Kiss and will make a little more sense if you have read those first.
THE SPY WHO KILLED ME
(Email: email@example.com )
It was dark, cold, and wet outside Lambeth North tube station.
"Typical," muttered Ashley Blade.
If she'd had her way, they'd have taken a taxi from Victoria (Sod expenses - I'd pay for it myself.), but it was raining hard and there wasn't one to be had for love or money. She peered at her surroundings, then sighed. "Never an umbrella-seller around when you need one. Still," she glanced at her partner. "It isn't far."
Jemma Jacobs turned up her collar against the rain and tried to stop her teeth from chattering. "A plastic mac would come in handy."
If Ash had been wearing a jacket she'd have stripped it off and offered it to the younger woman. But she wasn't. In fact neither of them was wearing a jacket or a coat. She sighed. The mission in Brazil had wreaked havoc on their clothes. The sooner they could get home and change into something more suitable for April in London the better.
Hunching her shoulders, Ash stepped out into the downpour. A trickle of rain went down her neck and simultaneously a passing motorist drove through a huge puddle, spraying muddy water all over her. She stared down at her soaked jeans in disbelief then gave him the V-sign. Unaware, the driver sped on into the night.
Jemma joined the now dripping Ash, clearly trying not to laugh. "Look at it this way," she consoled. "Now you can't get any wetter."
In other circumstances, the conversation might have taken a sexy turn. But at the moment Ash's ardour was feeling distinctly dampened. She shifted her travel bag to her other hand.
"Come on. The sooner we get this debriefing over with, the sooner we can get home and dry off. That's if my central heating system hasn't conked out while I've been away."
Jemma made spaniel eyes at her. "Are you sure we can't just turn around and fly back to Rio? Or Tenerife, come to that? Somewhere it's warm and the sun is shining ...."
"If only." Ash hooked her arm through the younger secret agent's, and urged her into a fast walk, then slowed her pace to take into account Jemma's shorter stride. Her shoes were now making disgusting squelching noises, which she resolutely ignored. "Still. You'll be glad to see your family, won't you?"
"True. Can't wait to tell them all about Brazil."
Ash gave her a curious glance. "You won't tell them everything, surely?"
"Of course not. Official Secrets Act, and all that. But they know I was with you. And that we went to Rio and the Iguaçu Falls." Jemma's green eyes sparkled. "I can't wait to introduce you. You will come and visit them with me, won't you?"
"Um. We'll see," temporised Ash. "Did you mention your bruises?" Her partner's midriff had been a glorious kaleidoscope of purple, green and yellow last time Ash looked.
"No. Nor the knife wound in your shoulder. They'd only worry."
"Probably wise." They headed north along Pearman Street in thoughtful silence, then Ash ventured, "Are you still sore?"
"A bit." Jemma yawned. "What about you?"
She wondered whether to downplay her aches and pains, then realised Jemma would soon winkle the truth out of her, anyway. "Ankle's a lot better, but my shoulder aches. And I could sleep for a week."
"We're a right pair, aren't we?"
Ash shot her partner a shit-eating grin. "Should have seen the other fellow." Jemma laughed. "Besides, it's nothing that a spot of leave won't fix." Ash gave the arm crooked through hers a squeeze.
The entrance to the underground carpark came into view and they hurried down the ramp. Once under cover, Ash stopped, put down her bag, and tried unsuccessfully to brush off the worst of the rain with her hand. Jemma did the same.
"Do I look awful?" The smaller woman's blonde hair was plastered to her head, her shirt so soaked it was almost transparent. Ash took a moment to admire the younger woman's breasts.
"You look fine."
The corner of Jemma's mouth rose. "Sweet talker."
They grabbed their bags and cut across the vast and now mostly deserted carpark towards the lift that was one of several entrances to The Organisation's London HQ. Ash halted by it, then pressed the call button.
"Boring old lifts in carparks," grumbled Jemma. "Why is it never a phone box with a false back to it, or an 'agents only' double-decker bus?" She saw Ash's puzzlement. "Sorry. I've been watching too many 'Avengers' DVDs. Mum bought them for Dad. He's a fan of Tara King."
"Ah. I prefer Mrs Peel myself. "
A loud ping announced the arrival of the lift and the door slid open. Ash's mock bow elicited an exaggerated curtsey from Jemma, who entered first. Ash joined her, placed her bag on the floor, and pressed '3'.
"I expect being a jewel thief was more glamorous," said Jemma.
Ash grinned. "It had its moments."
"Do you ever miss it?"
"I'm happy doing what I do now." She glanced at Jemma. "I thought we cleared up that little matter during that polygraph test."
The tension left Jemma's shoulders. "That's right," she murmured. "We did. You also asked if you could put your face in my cleavage."
Ash snorted. "That's what happens when my inhibitions are unleashed. Sorry."
"Don't be. I was flattered, and tempted, even back then." The younger agent grimaced. "But Remington was watching, so ...."
"That would certainly have put a damper on things." If there hadn't been a video camera recording their every movement, Ash would have leaned over and kissed Jemma. She contented herself with a warm smile instead.
The lift stopped and the doors opened onto a shabby lobby that wouldn't have been out of place in an insurance company, except that arrows pointed the way to 'Intelligence', 'Counter Intelligence', 'Armoury', etc
They nodded at the receptionist, who was in fact a member of Security and had been monitoring their progress on her screens ever since they entered the carpark, then headed along the appropriate corridor.
Jemma turned to Ash. "What do you think he'll ask us?"
"Why we ordered room service? Nah. Just joking. Thompson already knows the gist of it, so it won't be a full debriefing. He'll probably just want to tie up any loose ends."
"Are there any?"
"A few. Such as the fact Khaleb Abdusamad got away."
"Oh." Jemma sighed.
They reached their destination, and Ash opened the door. Bill Thompson's secretary had clearly gone home for the day - her computer was switched off, her desk was the picture of tidiness.
Just then, the door to the inner office opened and a stocky man with a bushy moustache came out, manila folder in hand. He did a double take at the sight of them.
"About bloody time!"
"Nice to see you too, boss," said Ash. "And it's your fault we're late. Since when have you been too damned stingy to spring for a taxi from Gatwick?"
The Section Head of Counter Intelligence flushed. "Since the new budget restrictions came in. Sorry." He peered closer at the two of them and grinned. "You look like a pair of drowned rats!"
"You don't look too hot yourself," riposted Ash. Jemma sniggered.
"But where are my manners?" said Thompson, gesturing. "Come in. Did you have a good flight?"
"A loud and very fat American sat next to me," said Ash, pushing past him. "Draw your own conclusions."
She dumped her bag and sank gratefully into one of the two easy chairs on this side of the walnut-veneered desk. Jemma took the other.
Thompson meanwhile had discarded his file and was rummaging in a cupboard. He produced two fluffy white towels, which he flung at them. "Knew these would come in handy one day. Here."
"Thanks." Jemma mopped the rain from her face then started on her wet hair. Ash did likewise.
He busied himself spooning ground coffee into a cafetiere sitting on a filing cupboard next to the little sink and tiny fridge. Unlike some Section Heads, Thompson had never insisted his secretary work overtime and was quite happy to make his own hot drinks. "I take it you could both use a cup?"
"Please," said Ash. Jemma gave an eager nod.
He filled the kettle from the tap and plugged it in. Then he threw an unopened packet of McVities Digestives at Ash, who snatched it out of the air. She opened it and took a biscuit, then passed them to Jemma, who took several.
Thompson retrieved a carton of milk from the fridge, then folded his arms and regarded his two operatives. "The President sends his thanks, by the way. Good work, both of you."
Ash swallowed the last of her biscuit - it had relieved her hunger pangs for now - and grunted.
"President?" The crunching noises coming from Jemma had stopped. "Of Brazil?"
Blonde eyebrows shot up, and Ash gave an amused snort.
"I think he's getting tired of having to thank you two for saving his country from disaster," continued Thompson.
"And we're getting tired of having to do it," murmured Ash. A foot kicked her ankle - the good one, fortunately. She raised an eyebrow at Jemma, who gave her that 'behave' look (she seemed to be doing that a lot, lately). She sighed.
The kettle clicked off, and their boss busied himself pouring boiling water onto ground coffee before turning back to them. "It was close."
"The mission? Yeah. Closer than I'd have liked," conceded Ash, remembering the missile with its payload of Sarin. "Did they dismantle the ICBM?"
Jemma reached for another digestive.
Thompson nodded. "The Brazilian authorities are also following up how a Chinese TEL got into terrorist hands."
"But the trail of destruction you two left in your wake will take longer to sort out."
"'Destruction'?" said an indignant Jemma, through a mouthful of crumbs.
Thompson scratched his nose and grinned. "Blade's missions frequently leave chaos in their wake. You get used to it."
"Hey!" said Ash, for appearance's sake. "No bystanders died. We got the job done. What more do you want?"
"What more indeed? Anyway, it's nothing a little time, soft soap, and compensation won't sort out." He took three china mugs from a cupboard and poured coffee into them, then handed them round. "Help yourselves to milk." He pushed the carton of milk towards them.
While they did so, he took his seat, and steepled his fingers. "So. How's the shoulder?"
Ash took a gulp of coffee. "How do you think?" A foot kicked her ankle again and she gave Jemma a reproachful look. "Sore," she amended.
"And you, Jemma. I hear you took quite a battering too."
"It's mostly bruises. I'm feeling a lot better already, Mr Thompson. I could sleep for a week though."
"Well, both of you are due some leave, so that shouldn't be a problem."
Jemma smiled with relief.
"Now. Let's get down to business." Their Section Head pulled out a file from a drawer, and spread its contents on the desk in front of him. "There are still one or two loose ends that we need to tie up." He removed the cellophane wrap from a fresh audiocassette, popped it into the tape recorder, moved the microphone closer to Ash and Jemma, then switched it on.
"First," said Thompson, "our man in Rio, Celio Pacheco. His body hasn't been recovered yet. Any ideas?"
Ash felt a pang at the thought of the young Brazilian with the limpid eyes and corny chatup lines. Losing one of the good guys never got any easier.
She lost herself in memory for a moment, then began, "Well, we last saw him going down on the Sugar Loaf cable car ...."
"I think that's it for now." Thompson switched off the tape recorder, leaned back in his chair and stretched. Ash resisted the urge to do the same - her shoulder wasn't quite up to it yet. "I'll have my secretary transcribe the tape. If I have any follow-up questions, I know where to find you, and I'll be in touch.
"In the meantime, consider yourselves officially on leave for the next four weeks." He stood up. "When you come back, I want you both 100 percent fit and raring to go."
"Will do." Ash rose to her feet, and Jemma did the same.
He came round his desk to join them. "Enjoy your break. You earned it. The bad guys lost again ... thanks to you."
Ash allowed herself a moment of satisfaction. "Thanks."
Thompson was about to say something more when a knock at the door interrupted him. He frowned and checked his watch. "Come in."
The door opened and a man peered round it. His hair was red, as was his neatly trimmed beard, and he was wearing a white coat and tortoiseshell spectacles.
"Sorry to interrupt your debriefing session, Mr Thompson," said the new arrival, who Ash judged was in his early thirties. "But you did say I could have a word with you before I left."
The Section Head's frown cleared. "Ah, Dr Aston. I forgot you were working late. Good timing. I was just about to mention your role in the department." He turned to Ash and Jemma. "This is our new psychologist. Dr Aston meet Ashley Blade and Jemma Jacobs, two of my top agents."
Jemma's cheeks pinked at the compliment.
"Pleased to meet you," said Aston. "I've heard a lot about you." He held out his hand, and Jemma took it. Then he turned to Ash. His handshake was soft, and she released herself from it quickly.
"Psychologist?" she frowned at Thompson. "Why in God's name do we need a shrink?"
"If I may, Mr Thompson?" Aston's brown eyes were eager.
The Section Head shrugged. "Be my guest."
"I'm here at Mr Weatherby's invitation." Ash opened her mouth, but the white-coated psychologist raised a hand and ploughed on. "Hear me out, please. In our line of work, secrecy is mandatory. Which often adds stress to an already stressful job."
Jemma was nodding, but Ash kept her opinion to herself. His lenses were plain glass, she'd noticed. Was he trying to look older, or more intelligent?
"Not being able to confide details of a mission to family or friends can be frustrating," continued Aston, "even though it's done out of concern for their safety as much as anything. Sometimes it's not even their advice or help we're after. We just want to share our worries and fears with someone who understands. ... Well, from now on," he beamed, "that's my job. I'll be helping all the Organisation's operatives to unburden themselves of anything that might be troubling them, and providing them with new perspectives on old problems."
"Count me out," said Ash.
Aston looked stricken by her response. "Miss Blade, think for a moment. When Sam Carney died, wouldn't you have found it helpful to talk to someone who understood what you were going through?"
The unexpected mention of Sam's death robbed Ash of breath for a moment. It also angered her. Who did this jumped-up quack think he was? "I doubt someone like you would have understood," she grated.
Jemma shot her an anxious look, and she took a calming breath. Something about Aston was setting her on edge. It wasn't only his handshake that was too soft for her liking, or that he wore spectacles when he didn't need to. That ingratiating smile and manner of his, those fleshy jowls the beard was meant to disguise, the full lips ... She knew she wasn't being fair, but -
"That's hardly fair, Miss Blade." Aston wagged a finger at Ash and she resisted the urge to bite it off. "Believe it or not, I'm a very good counsellor. It's true I may not have 'in the field' experience, but I've been well trained. All I'm asking is that you give me a chance."
"These ... consultations, or whatever it is you call them," chimed in Jemma, trying to defuse the sudden tension in the office. "Will they go in our files?"
The psychologist shook his head. "My notes, and the tapes of the sessions themselves, will be held for a limited period only ... and under lock and key," he added, forestalling Jemma's next question. "It's all strictly confidential, Miss Jacobs. Whatever is said between the patient and me remains private."
Ash had had enough. She headed for the door. "It's immaterial. I have no intention of consulting you."
A loud throat-clearing stopped her in her tracks, and she turned. "I'm afraid it's not optional," said Thompson.
"What?" Her brows knit.
"Regulations, effective from last week. The Organisation has been lagging behind for some time in the area of counselling, and Weatherby wants to change that. From now on, all agents will have an initial session with Dr Aston. After that, well .... whenever an agent experiences a potential source of trauma, Dr Aston will be expected to counsel them about it."
Jemma placed a restraining hand on Ash's forearm. "It makes sense," she reasoned. "You know how upset some agents can get when they have to kill for the first time."
Aston nodded and smiled his approval. "Precisely, Miss Jacobs."
"Anyway, it's Weatherby's orders," repeated Thompson.
"Fuck Weatherby," muttered Ash. "All these budget cuts, yet this gets the green light?"
Aston raised a placating hand. "We got off to a bad start, Miss Blade. My fault, I fear. You've just got back from a stressful mission, you're tired, and my timing is ... unfortunate. But please, just give me a chance. I'm here to help you and your partner, Miss Blade. Whether you believe it or not."
She glared at him. He smiled back.
"Ash?" murmured Jemma.
"Yeah yeah." She sighed and looked at Thompson. "No exemptions? " He shook his head. "Well, if I must, I must."
"Excellent." Aston beamed at her. "My secretary will be in touch with both of you to make your initial appointments."
Ash's car was where she had parked it when she left for Tenerife - in the remotest part of the underground carpark. A vidcam whirred, focussed, and tracked their progress. She waggled her fingers at it.
"Nice!" Jemma was regarding the metallic blue Mercedes SLK 230 with envy.
Ash gave its hard top a fond pat. No point retracting it in this weather. "Did you miss me?" she murmured to the car, before opening the boot and flinging her bag inside. After Jemma had done the same, she closed the boot, slid into the driver's seat, reached across and opened the passenger door. "Get in."
While Jemma made herself comfortable, Ash put on her seat belt and inserted the key in the ignition. The engine started first time, quickly settling into its usual throaty purr. Not bad after two months' inactivity. She revved the engine a few times, just for fun and to release some of the irritation remaining from her meeting with Aston, then glanced at her passenger. "All set?"
"Great." She glanced in the rear view mirror, then twisted in her seat, and with one hand on the steering wheel reversed at high speed all the way out of the car park.
The blonde's knuckles whitened on the dashboard. "Show off!"
Ash laughed, did a U-turn that threatened to leave skid marks on the road, then continued on in a more conventional manner. Fat raindrops splattered the windscreen and she switched on the wipers. "So. Shall I take you home to your flat? Where is it? Bethnal Green?"
Jemma bit her lip and simply looked at her.
She tried to interpret her expression. "Don't you want to make sure everything's all right, check your answerphone messages ... pick up a change of clothes?"
"Um. You can lend me a nighty, can't you?" Jemma's cheeks had gone a charming rosy colour. "The rest'll keep until tomorrow."
Ash's smile broadened. "My place then?"
"If that's all right with you."
She reached over the centre console and patted Jemma's knee. "Very. I just didn't want to take it for granted."
Jemma blinked. "For granted? I thought I made my interest pretty clear in Iguaçu."
"You did." Ash had woken to find a small hand cupping her breast. An intense kissing session had followed. She chuckled. "Still, no harm in checking, is there?"
The blonde rolled her eyes then blew her a kiss.
Still chuckling, Ash turned the Mercedes left at the T-junction, put her foot down, and changed up a gear. The Queen Elizabeth Hall appeared on the left, the National Film Theatre on the right, then she was heading out onto Waterloo Bridge, the streetlamps a shimmering reflection in the Thames.
"We'd better pick up some supplies," reminded Jemma as the little 2-seater roared on towards the Strand. "Milk, bread, that kind of thing." Her stomach rumbled.
Ash nodded. "And a takeaway?"
"That would really hit the spot. Um. Fish and chips?"
"OK. I know just the place."
While Jemma wandered round Ash's flat in Albert Terrace, drawing blinds and curtains and switching on lights, Ash turned on the central heating and listened anxiously. A low hum and a gurgle of water through pipes brought a sigh of relief, then she went back to the kitchen, which smelled like a fish and chip shop.
Mmm. She licked her lips.
Ice crystals were threatening to explode the icebox, she saw, as she put the milk in the door rack. She made a mental note to defrost it. The loaf went in the breadbox, then she grabbed the hot parcels of fish and greasy packets of chips from the worktop, which still bore faint traces of powder (she would have to have a word with the fingerprint boys - leaving evidence of their search was careless, not to mention dangerous) and took them through into the sitting room.
She threw herself down on the settee, kicked off her shoes, and, while she ate, used the TV remote control to channel-hop. Nothing caught her fancy. What's the point of having a state-of-the-art TV if there's nothing worth watching? She switched it off and put her newest audio cassette in the entertainment centre instead.
A toilet flushed, then Jemma reappeared. She put her hands on her hips and regarded first Ash then the pile of food steaming on the coffee table. "No plates? Didn't your mother teach you anything?"
"Tastes better straight from the paper," mumbled Ash round a mouthful of battered cod.
"You mean you couldn't be bothered."
Jemma threw herself down next to Ash, reached for her own portion of food, then stopped. "Ketchup?"
"Kitchen cupboard. I like mine with just the salt and vinegar."
Jemma looked undecided then shrugged and began cramming chips in her mouth. After a moment she asked, "What are we listening to? Sounds a bit Canarian."
"It is. I got the tape from a market in the old quarter in Santa Cruz. Do you like it?"
Jemma cocked her head to one side, considering. "It's OK," she said doubtfully.
Ash suspected their tastes in music were at opposite ends of the spectrum. But as long as the other woman didn't actively object to it ...
She ate until she was pleasantly stuffed then offered Jemma her leftovers, which were accepted gratefully. Crumpling up the greasy wrappings, she lobbed them at the waste paper basket across the room ... and missed.
"Pathetic! I'm too knackered to see straight."
"Me too." Jemma kicked off her shoes and drew her legs up under her. "Thank God we've got some time off."
"Yeah." Ash yawned, then reached over and brushed a strand of blonde hair behind her partner's ear. "Got any plans?" She nibbled an earlobe, but it was more out of habit than because she was in the mood. She was exhausted.
"Well, first," said Jemma, stroking Ash's cheek and looking into her eyes, "I'd like a hot shower and a warm bed."
Ash glanced at the clock on the wall. Nearly midnight. The water should be hot enough by now. "I think that can be arranged." She managed to get to her feet on the second attempt and reached out a hand to Jemma. "Come on."
With a groan, the younger woman joined her. In stockinged feet, they staggered towards the bedroom, switching off the entertainment centre and tripping over one of Ash's discarded shoes on the way. In the doorway Jemma paused and looked back.
"We should really tidy up, you know."
"Tomorrow," said Ash.
"You're such a bad influence," grumbled Jemma, but she allowed Ash to urge her on.
"I certainly hope so."
In the bedroom, the still packed bags beside the bed regarded Ash reproachfully. She moved them to a corner to be dealt with tomorrow. A quick rummage through the drawers in her built-in wardrobe found a pink nighty (it had been a Christmas present from someone, but Ash didn't like the colour and had never worn it) and a sleep shirt for herself. She placed them on the bed, then went through to the adjoining bathroom where Jemma was waiting patiently for her.
Ash undressed her partner quickly, then allowed her to return the favour. "I'll need some help." She indicated her wounded shoulder.
Jemma obligingly began to unpeel the bandage. "After you've washed it, we'd better put on a fresh dressing," said Jemma. "Have you got one?"
"In there." Ash indicated the medicine cabinet, then a huge yawn overtook her. She hoped the shower would wake her up.
The hot needles of water on her neck and shoulders did revitalise her flagging energy a bit, before Jemma's soapy hands provided stimulation of a different kind. They spent a while kissing and exploring, ensuring every nook and cranny of each other's bodies was well and truly clean, but in the end a reluctant Ash decided not to take things any further.
"Tomorrow," she promised, over another yawn that threatened to crack her jaw. "OK?"
Jemma smiled her understanding and nodded. They towelled one another dry, applied a fresh dressing and clean bandage to Ash's shoulder, and returned to the bedroom. The pink nighty was a bit too large for Jemma but it made her look adorable.
Ash's bed was kingsize, but, as if pulled by magnets, both women gravitated towards its middle and snuggled up, arms wrapped around one another.
"Sleep well," murmured Ash, closing her eyes and allowing sleep to spirit her away.
A kiss brushed her cheek. "You too," came a murmur in her ear.
Jemma awoke feeling wonderfully relaxed and at peace, her cheek pressed against a soft cotton surface that was moving up and down. Ash's scent - a familiar blend of warm skin, faint perfume, and fresh sweat, that shouldn't have been enticing or intoxicating but somehow was both - was strong in her nostrils, and it took her only moments to get her bearings.
Ash's bedroom. That huge bed of hers.
She glared at the white sleep-shirt, wishing it would vanish and allow her to press herself against Ash's naked back instead, then grinned as memory of a previous awakening returned. At least this time her disobedient hand hadn't strayed during the night and embarrassed the living daylights out of her. Even if it had, though, she now knew that Ash wouldn't mind.
A rush of euphoria made her feel quite giddy. Two months ago, her only experience of the Organisation's most renowned secret agent had been that inept encounter at the training school, where Jemma had ambushed Ash in error and had the tables well and truly turned on her for her pains. Now they were sleeping together. And with a little luck, doing more than sleeping.
Mindboggling! Her grin widened. But in a good way.
Sunlight was streaming through a gap in the curtains. The rain's stopped too. Jemma yawned, then, careful not to wake the woman lying next to her, rolled onto her back and glanced at the alarm clock on Ash's bedside cabinet. The digits on the clock face made her blink with surprise. No wonder she felt well rested.
Beside her, Ash stirred, then also rolled onto her back. She knuckled the sleep from her eyes and yawned.
"Afternoon, sleepyhead," said Jemma.
"It's after twelve. We overslept."
Ash's raven-black hair was tangled and matted, but it just made her look even sexier. Jemma gave in to an urge to kiss her on the cheek.
"Doesn't matter, we're on leave, remember?" Ash cocked her head to one side and regarded Jemma. "Sleep well?"
She nodded. "Like a dream. How's your shoulder? Feeling any better?"
The older secret agent stretched experimentally, then gave a pleased smile. "Much."
Blue eyes twinkled as Ash rolled towards her and murmured, "In fact I think we can risk improving on that good morning - sorry, good afternoon - kiss."
She proceeded to show Jemma her interpretation - an unhurried, thorough exploration of lips and teeth and tongues that left Jemma breathless and her heart thumping so loudly she was sure the older woman must be able to hear it.
Ash broke the kiss at last, and a bemused Jemma watched her partner get out of bed and stride towards the bathroom door. She couldn't help noticing that the sleep-shirt was so short it was barely decent, and the tanned legs seemed to go on forever.
"Hey! Where do you think you're going? You can't get my blood pumping then scarper, you know."
Ash stopped in the doorway and looked back at her, even white teeth gleaming. "Call of nature. Back in a moment. Keep it warm for me, will you?" She disappeared.
Jemma rolled her eyes and folded her arms, and grumbled under her breath. Ash's absence was probably only a few minutes but to Jemma it seemed like an ice age. She glanced at the bedroom cabinet and suddenly remembered the sex toys Ash kept in there. That sparked off a chain of thought that rapidly spiralled into overdrive. It was one thing to be the junior agent in their partnership, but when it came to sex ...
Ash reappeared in the doorway. "Did you miss me?" Her grin disappeared as she instantly took in Jemma's worried demeanour. "What's wrong?" She crossed to the huge bed and climbed in beside Jemma, pulling the duvet back up.
Jemma bit her lip. "Aside from me being a relative novice at this and you being an expert, you mean?"
"We can soon correct that." Ash reached for her but Jemma held up a hand and Ash stopped and sighed. "Something else?"
"You know what you said before about a romantic involvement screwing up our partnership." Jemma was suddenly uncertain. "Suppose you're right?"
The older woman leaned back against the headboard and folded her arms. "I thought we'd been over this. You were the one who said Thompson will just have to assign us new partners."
"I know. But suppose I'm wrong. We've got such a great partnership." Jemma wiped her suddenly damp palms on her nighty. "We do, don't we?"
Ash's brows knit. "I'd trust you with my life. So yeah, I'd say we work pretty well together."
Jemma let out her breath in relief. "Thanks. You don't know how much I needed to hear you say that."
Ash put an arm round her shoulder. "You're welcome. As to messing up our partnership, I think we've already come too far to back out now. This unresolved sexual tension is... distracting. If we don't do something about it soon, Jemma, we're going to get careless, botch a mission, and then Thompson will have to split us up anyway."
She considered that and came to a decision. "I ... I don't think I can stop now anyway." She snuggled closer and felt Ash's arm tighten around her. "And what's more," her tone was unrepentant, "I don't want to."
Ash kissed her gently on the cheek. "Me neither."
For a moment longer they lay listening to the dull roar of the Regent's Park traffic outside. Then Ash plucked at Jemma's nighty. "Lift up your arms."
She raised an eyebrow at the order but obeyed. Ash pulled the garment up over Jemma's head, and the air was suddenly cool against her skin. Long fingers caressed her breasts, and she began to shiver with excitement, feeling an overwhelming craving to touch Ash's skin in return. But that damned sleepshirt was still in the way. Impatiently, she tugged it off, regarding Ash's nakedness with approval.
Ash laughed. And after that, neither woman needed words much any more.
Jemma lay on her back, arms and legs outstretched, a blissful smile on her face. Is this what a jellyfish feels like?
"Are you all right?" Ash's face loomed over her.
She tested her toes to see if they would still wiggle - they would. She could also catch her breath again, and the bright spots had disappeared from her vision. "Mmmm."
"That's all I get for my efforts? 'Mmmm'?"
Jemma chuckled. "How about: Wow! Good grief! You should get a medal."
Long fingers brushed the hair out of her eyes. "My pleasure."
Jemma's smile broadened. "Mine too."
As she had expected, Ash had known exactly when, where, and how to touch her and had lost no time in doing so. It had been an intensely stimulating, pleasurable ... and educational experience. She had tried her best to return the favour, and, judging by Ash's reaction, had made quite a good job of it. Her partner's competitive streak had surfaced then, and Ash insisted on 'rewarding' Jemma again. An offer like that was not to be turned down, even if it did leave her feeling completely boneless.
Warm lips brushed her cheek. "I think you can take off your L-plates now, Miss Jacobs."
"Not bad for a beginner, eh?"
Ash blew her a raspberry. "Don't get cocky. Your clutch work was a little jerky in places and your steering could still use some improvement."
"Ah. All that 'left a bit, right a bit, there .... no, THERE!' stuff, you mean?" Jemma laced her fingers together and rested them comfortably on her stomach.
"But I think you were getting the hang of it by the end."
"Magnanimous of you, I'm sure."
Jemma found the energy to roll over and give the other woman a hug. When Ash held her close and stroked her hair and back, unexpected emotion welled up. Her vision became blurry, and she sniffled and tried to speak but couldn't around the huge lump that had appeared in her throat. Ash hugged her and made soothing noises while she regained her equilibrium.
"Sorry," she managed at last, accepting a tissue from the box Ash kept on the bedside cabinet and giving her nose a vigorous blow. "Don't know where that came from."
Ash smiled at her. "Don't worry. I'm flattered."
Jemma took refuge in humour. "Yeah, well don't let it go to your head, Miss Institute of Advanced Motorists. A few more lessons and I'll be giving you a run for your money."
"Is that a threat or a promise?"
Jemma's stomach growled, making them both laugh.
"Sounds like you could use some leftover fish and chips," said Ash.
"And here was I thinking this giddiness was due to you and not to my low bloodsugar."
"Watch it, blondie." Ash mock-scowled at her and Jemma wrinkled her nose in reply, then considered seriously the question of food.
"What happened to that bread we bought?"
"It's in the bread box. I can do you some toast if you want." Ash slapped herself on the forehead. "But I forgot to buy any butter." Then her frown cleared. "There's probably some honey in the cupboard though. Would that do?"
It sounded nice. Sticky, but nice. Jemma nodded her approval.
Jemma leaned her head back against the headrest, rested her elbow on top of the car door, and grinned. "This is the life!" Zipping through the countryside in a Mercedes SLK 230 with the top down, and with a gorgeous woman at her side. Who could ask for more?
She glanced at Ash. Her Ray-Bans were no longer necessary - the sun had almost set - but with her long black hair whipping out in the slipstream, they certainly added to her allure.
As if she had heard her thoughts, Ash glanced up at the darkening sky, then took off her sunglasses and put them in the glove compartment.
"Hungry?" The pale blue eyes that Jemma could never get enough of were regarding her.
"Yes. Who would have thought staying in bed all day could use up so much energy?"
Ash winked. "It's what you do in bed that counts."
She laughed. "No wonder I'm starving."
Jemma's stomach had suddenly decided that, nice though bread and honey was, it really needed something more substantial. Given the choice between ordering a takeaway or being driven to a little restaurant just over the Hertfordshire border that Ash knew of, and which apparently did great pub grub, she had opted for the latter. The exotic food of the Canaries and Brazil had been wonderful, but she had eaten her fill of it and now had a hankering for plain English cooking.
In the distance was a level crossing, but the red-and-white poles were in the vertical position, the flashing lights dark. The blue sportscar roared towards it without slowing, and Jemma's guts tightened.
Ash had a reputation for being bit of a speed freak, but circumstances had restricted her to driving a Volkswagen Gol in Brazil, so this was the first time Jemma had experienced it first hand. Well, if you discount that Cessna. I thought my hair was going to turn white.
Her partner liked to drive just under the speed limit. Fortunately, she was an excellent driver, and the Merc's tyres seemed to cling to the road surface like limpets, but still ...
"If you want me to slow down, just say so," said Ash.
Must've been the white knuckles. "You do seem to like going fast."
Teeth gleamed. "With a car like this, it would be a waste not to."
Jemma was reluctant to deprive Ash of her fun. Maybe focussing on the countryside would help. "No, I'm fine. Go ahead."
"Thanks." At the last minute possible, Ash braked. The tyres bumped across the railway tracks, then they were over the other side of the level crossing and picking up speed once more. Jemma unclenched her fists and stared at the passing scenery.
They were winding through small villages with picturesque greens and duckponds and, in one case, a set of public stocks that could have come straight out of an episode of 'The Avengers'. Outside one pub, several locals were sitting on benches in the unseasonably mild Spring weather, enjoying a pint. Heads turned to watch the Merc zoom past, and one red-faced old man raised his pint in salute. Ash grinned at him and waved in return. The last Jemma saw in the rear view mirror he was being pounded on the back by his drinking pals.
What was this pub they were going to? The something Hart? She turned to ask Ash, but just then the Mercedes began to slow and Ash changed down a gear then took the next turnoff left.
"Not far now." High hedges just beginning to burst into leaf obscured the view on either side as Ash took the lane at a fast clip. Jemma bit her lip and tried not to think about cars coming the other way.
"How did you find this restaurant in the first place?" she asked. "I haven't seen any signs for it." Ash tapped a finger to the side of her nose and grinned.
A fork in the road appeared up ahead, and she took the right branch. The hedges were marginally lower along this stretch, and in the twilight Jemma could see rolling fields and copses. A hundred yards further along the lane was a wide, gated drive with two pillars on either side of it, topped by stone urns. The huge iron gates were open, so Ash turned in, the Merc's tyre's sending up a spray of gravel.
At the far end of the drive, surrounded by trees - and was that a lake in the distance? - was a massive Georgian country house. Ash ignored the imposing main entrance, with its ornate columns, and drove round to the side. There was a strip of gravel there, almost full of other vehicles.
Ah. Jemma had spotted the signpost on which were the words 'The White Hart' and a silhouette of a stag and a huntress (with those breasts it was definitely a huntress). It was pointing to what had presumably once been the house's tradesmen's entrance.
"I thought you said they did pub grub. This looks more like a Country House Hotel."
Ash parked the Merc next to a green RangeRover. "The restaurant's in the basement." She undid her seat belt. "The rest of the house is private." She opened the door and got out.
Jemma undid her own seatbelt.
Ash came round to Jemma's side, opened the door for her, and said, "Shall we?"
She gave Ash an appraising glance - the older woman looked stunning in a black leather jacket, white T-shirt, ripped blue jeans that matched her eyes, and boots. Hooking her arm through Ash's elbow, she allowed herself to be led across crunching gravel toward the Restaurant entrance.
As they drew nearer, the faint sounds of music and laughter, and delicious cooking smells wafted towards them. Her stomach gave an appreciative gurgle.
They took several steps down, then Ash was ducking her head to avoid the door lintel. Being considerably shorter than her partner, Jemma had no such problem. Inside, the room was deceptively large. One end was taken up by a bar and the doors to what must be the kitchens, the rest was given over to tables, most of which seemed to be occupied by same-sex couples.
The waitress, a dumpy woman with brown curly hair, saw Ash and arrowed towards her, a broad smile plastered on her face.
"Nice to see you again, Miss Blade. Your table's waiting."
She turned and led them towards a table by the window, with two place settings and an unlit candle in the centre. Ash pulled out Jemma's chair and waited for her to take it, then took her own seat. The waitress pulled out a lighter, lit the candle with it, then gave them two menus. Ash ordered a half bottle of the house red for Jemma, but stuck to mineral water for herself.
"The roast beef's good," suggested the waitress. "And the Welsh lamb." She glanced at Jemma in apology. "But I forgot to ask if you're a vegetarian."
"No chance!" Jemma's stomach rumbled as she read the appetising descriptions in the menu and she exchanged a wry glance with Ash. "The roast beef and Yorkshire pudding sounds wonderful. I'll have that." She pursed her lips. And Banoffi Pie for afters?
The waitress made a note on her notepad.
"The lamb, please." Ash closed up the menu and handed it back. Jemma did the same. While the waitress bustled off, Ash glanced at her surroundings then back to Jemma. "So. What do you think?"
"Nice." She leaned forward and murmured, "But is everyone here gay?"
Ash's mouth quirked. "Well, it's not compulsory."
"I know that. But what are the odds?"
Her partner shrugged. "Gay people feel comfortable here. It's hardly surprising word gets around."
"Ah." She took a sip of her wine and gazed out of the window, listening to the tasteful guitar music plinking in the background. The White Hart didn't believe in making its customers shout above the din, thank God.
"The view's not quite up to El Hierro, is it?" asked Ash, taking a sip of her water.
Night now blanketed the exterior. They could have been situated next to a gasworks for all Jemma could make out. El Hierro? "Oh, that restaurant at the end of the universe, you mean?"
She gazed into Ash's eyes, which were reflecting the flickering candleflame, and smiled. "The view seems just as gorgeous to me." She raised her glass of wine in salute then drank deeply.
Ash's mouth quirked. "You're such a romantic, Jemma." She clinked her glass of water against Jemma's wineglass, then cocked her head to one side. "Or should I call you JJ now?"
Jemma blinked. Ever since she had been a little girl, friends had called her JJ. She chewed her lower lip and thought. "No," she said at last. "It makes me feel like a child. And with you I'm certainly not that." Ash raised a meaningful eyebrow and Jemma blushed as a vivid memory of their recent lovemaking came to mind. "You're much more than just a friend. Besides. I like the way you say my name."
"Jemma," murmured Ash obligingly.
As usual, a thrill skittered down her spine. "Yes. Like that."
A hand reached over the table and clasped hers. "Jemma it is then."
A shadow loomed over them, and they looked up to see the server bearing their order. For the next ten minutes, conversation took second place to eating. The beef was indeed good. And the Yorkshire Pudding rivalled anything Jemma's mother could have made for crispness and taste.
Jemma glanced across at Ash's plate, wincing at the glistening pink interior of the lamb. "Good?"
Ash nodded and raised another forkful to her mouth.
One of the two diners at the next table, a Stevie Nicks clone in a green-and-pink off-the-shoulder chiffon dress, was staring at Ash's profile. She had been doing so, on and off, since they sat down. Jemma couldn't blame her - even on an off day, Ash was striking - but the attention was getting a bit tiresome. It was also being unspeakably rude to her own dining companion, a woman with grey, cropped hair, who was wearing a lumberjack shirt and denim jeans.
Ash didn't seem to have noticed her admirer, or if she did was ignoring her. So Jemma took it upon herself to glare at the woman in green and pink, then she topped up her empty glass from the carafe of red wine and took a sip.
"I was thinking of ordering the Banoffi Pie for afters." She speared a roast potato on her fork.
Ash blinked. "Have you got room? I can just about manage a sorbet, but that's all."
Jemma munched her potato then swallowed. "My family say I have hollow legs."
"Then go for it. But don't say I didn't warn you."
When they finished their main course, Ash signalled the waitress who hurried over to clear their plates away and take their orders. Ash ordered the banoffi pie for Jemma and added, "And I'll have the lemon sorbet, please."
When their desserts came, Jemma set to with gusto, but the portion was enormous, and, for all she adored the taste of toffee and banana, she was soon flagging.
"Oh dear!" she groaned.
Ash had picked at her sorbet before setting it aside and was now watching Jemma's progress with wide-eyes. "Leave it. Or we'll have to hire a forklift truck to get you out of here."
"But it's too delicious to waste. Besides, they'd never get a forklift in the door."
"There's always the window." Her partner turned and scanned the room. "I'll ask for a doggy bag. Do you want me to order the coffees while I'm about it?"
The woman in pink and green was once more ogling Ash. Her grey-haired companion turned and gestured angrily towards Jemma's table, her voice rising. The first woman shrugged.
"What is it?" Ash had followed Jemma's gaze and was regarding the arguing couple with curiosity.
"Of you? She's got good taste." The Stevie Nicks clone became aware of Ash's regard and batted her eyelashes.
Jemma's patience snapped. "For God's sake, Ash. She's been making sheep's eyes at you all evening. Are you telling me you didn't even notice?"
A loud slap drew her attention back, just in time to see the grey-haired woman in the lumberjack shirt rising to her feet and marching towards the exit. Her dinner companion blinked after her, one hand pressed to her cheek.
"I sensed she was staring our way a lot." Ash shrugged. "But it's a free country. Anyway, she's not my type."
Jemma glared at her, "What's that supposed to mean. If she was your type, you'd invite her over?" She kicked back her chair and stood up, aware that she was overreacting yet unable to stop herself
Astonished blue eyes were fixed on her. "Of course not." A hand reached for her arm, but she evaded it easily. "Jemma."
She turned and threaded her way through the tables towards the exit, following in the footsteps of the grey-haired woman, and ignoring the heads turning to follow her progress. A muffled curse preceded the sound of chair legs scraping across the floor. She couldn't bring herself to look back to see if Ash was following her.
Outside, Jemma stopped on the gravel, and stared up at the full moon, shivering as the cool of the night air contrasted with the warmth of the restaurant. Nice exit. But what do I do now? Walk home? Damn!
Her stomach was uncomfortably full, and she felt miserable, and unutterably foolish. She bowed her head and, overcome with self-pity, began to sniffle.
It was there that Ash found her a few minutes later. She put her arms round Jemma and held her close. "Hey."
"Hey yourself." Jemma nestled into the embrace with a feeling of utter relief.
A hand reordered her hair. "What was that all about?"
She took the tissue that had appeared from nowhere and wiped her nose. "I have no idea. I was weeping on you earlier too. Maybe I'm PMSing or something."
Being around Ash always had a tendency to make her feel giddy and offbalance, reflected Jemma, but things had never got quite this out of hand before. Perhaps it was their new physical closeness that was knocking her emotions out of whack. If so, she hoped she would get her equilibrium back soon, or she was going to be a fat lot of use to Ash on a mission.
"More likely you just had too much wine." They stood in silence for a while, Ash's hand stroking Jemma's back. "You know what I think?"
"Maybe what just happened is a sign of insecurity."
Jemma pushed herself slightly away from Ash and stared up at her, squinting to make out her features in the moonlight. "What do you mean?"
"Well, now I've had my wicked way with you, why would I want you to stick around? Especially when other women, like that one at the next table, are throwing themselves at me."
Jemma gaped at her. "But -"
"You've read my file. You know my track record. Why should we be any different from my previous relationships? Right?"
"Don't be silly. That's not -" Then Jemma stopped, considering. Was that what this was all about? "You know," she said slowly, "you may have a point." Ash sighed, and Jemma closed the gap between them once more, wrapping her arms around the taller woman's waist. "It's not that I don't trust you," she added.
"No? You may trust me with your life, Jemma, but your heart's a different matter."
She tried to put her vague thoughts into words. "I think that, maybe, deep down, I still can't really believe that all this," - she gestured - "you and me, I mean, isn't just some wonderful dream. Part of me thinks that I'm going to wake up and it will all be over."
Ash looked honestly perplexed. "But why?"
"Come on, Ash." Jemma rolled her eyes. "Because someone like you wanting to be with someone like me is well ... frankly incredible. So incredible it must be impossible."
Ash snorted. "You're giving me far too much credit, Jemma, and yourself too little." She stroked Jemma's cheek with her thumb. "Because I do want to be with you, you know. Even if you don't believe it."
Jemma turned to peer up at her. "Do you?"
Lips pressed themselves against hers as Ash let a kiss speak for her. And for a timeless moment, all thought left Jemma's brain. When she came to her senses again, she was clinging to Ash, making strange whimpering sounds.
"Do you believe me now?" whispered Ash in her ear.
Jemma couldn't speak yet, so she nodded instead.
"Good. Glad that's settled. Now let's get you home to bed."
Jemma gazed up at the moon, glad that Ash had decided to leave the little Merc's hardtop retracted. It was fine night, though a cold one, and the sky seemed even more full of stars than usual. But maybe that was just the effect romance had on her.
She turned up her collar against the cold night air and glanced at her companion. Ash grinned back at her. Though Jemma still felt slightly embarrassed about her emotional outburst at the restaurant, Ash had apparently dismissed it from her thoughts. She tried to do the same.
"Tomorrow, I must pop back to Bethnal Green.... I've run out of clean underwear," she added, in case Ash thought Jemma was trying to avoid her. "There's probably a stack of bills waiting for me. I'll do some laundry, make a few phonecalls to friend, then come back to your place." She hesitated. "If that's OK?"
Ash nodded. "I've got some laundry and shopping to do too. And the fridge to defrost." She put her foot down and changed up a gear.
Jemma clutched the doorsill and glanced at the speedometer. This stretch of road was long, straight, and deserted and must be irresistible to speed merchants. She recognised the houses they were passing. Couldn't be long to the level crossing.
"The day after tomorrow," she continued, pleased her voice didn't betray her edginess, "I thought we'd go over and see my parents." Was that a grimace on Ash's face?
"If that's what you want," said her partner, her voice resigned.
"I do." Jemma heard a faint popping noise. It was hard to tell where it had come from, the wind was gusting, sometimes whipping Ash's words away. It was probably just a car backfiring.
"That's what we'll do then," said Ash, more positively.
Up ahead, the level crossing had come into view. This time the red-and-white striped poles were horizontal, and the red lights were flashing. A train must be due. Jemma waited for the Merc to slow. It didn't.
She blinked at Ash's exclamation and turned her head. The other woman was stamping on the brake, but the Merc was continuing on its merry way unchecked. "What?"
"No brakes." Ash tried to change down a gear, and Jemma braced herself for a terrible grinding noise. None came. It was the same thing with the handbrake - no effect. Ash gave the steering wheel an experimental twitch from side to side. Nothing happened. "Controls are screwed," she said.
Jemma's heart was racing now. She blinked as her partner, penknife in hand (where had that come from?), ducked down in the driving seat and began to fiddle around under the dashboard. Seconds later, a panel popped free and Ash was yanking at wires. Jemma reached over to take the steering wheel then realised there was no point.. Oh God!
A train had started over the crossing. From its brightly-lit interior, bored faces stared out into the night, eyes widening as the passengers registered the sportscar racing towards them.
Ash twisted her head and looked up at Jemma. "We're going to have to jump."
"Don't argue with me. We haven't got time."
It was Ash's grim expression that decided Jemma. She nodded and released her seat belt, which for a horrific moment she thought had jammed. The road surface was whizzing past. She tried to consider it dispassionately. Height wasn't the problem - the Mercedes was low slung - but at this speed they'd be lucky if they didn't break anything. Still, it was that or -
The clanging of the crossing alarm was audible now, as was the thundering clickety clack of the train wheels on the track. The dark-haired woman was still bent almost double, fiddled with the wires under the dashboard.
"Ash? What are you doing? Come on!"
"Right behind you," came a muffled voice.
Jemma eased herself up until she was standing, half crouching, on the passenger seat. The slipstream threatened to bowl her over the rear of the Mercedes, but she hung on to the headrest, slitting her eyes against stinging particles of pollen and dust.
"Try to aim for somewhere soft," shouted Ash. "And remember to tuck and roll."
Soft? Jemma regarded the kerb and pavement whizzing past in despair. Best not to think about it. Just do it.
With one last glance at her partner and a quick prayer to the Almighty, she sucked in her breath and jumped.
More by luck than judgement, Jemma landed on hands and knees, but her momentum sent her rolling over and over, and she ended up dazed, nauseous, and breathless on her back in someone's garden hedge. For a timeless moment she lay stunned, then she scrambled to her feet.
Where is she?
Jemma turned and saw that the blue Mercedes had almost reached the level crossing. A dark head bobbed up behind the steering wheel, and her breath caught in her throat. You bloody idiot! You said you were right behind me.
As she watched, the sportscar swerved slightly to the right. Has she managed to get the steering back? Fingernails dug into her palms and she realised she had clenched her fists.
With a little luck the car might miss the rear of the train, but first there was the level crossing's half barrier to deal with. The Merc's bonnet slid under the barrier with no trouble, but the windscreen wasn't so lucky. The resulting explosion of steel and glass made Jemma flinch, and, aboard the train, passengers gawped.
Jemma's hand went to her mouth. Oh God oh God oh God oh God ....
The dark head bobbed up and her heart restarted, only to stop again as the car's left wing clipped the back of the final carriage. The impact slewed the Mercedes sideways, sending it careering over the level crossing towards the half-barrier on the far side.
"Watch out!" she shrieked, just as Ash ducked back down and narrowly avoided being decapitated.
The London-bound train racketed on into the night, its goggling passengers pressing their noses to the windows. As the sound of its wheels faded into the distance, Jemma was already running after the Mercedes, which had spun out of sight.
She was halfway over the level crossing when the night breeze brought a loud crump to her ears. Heart pounding, she slowed and shaded her eyes against the fluorescent glare of a lamppost.
The blue sportscar had come to a rest a hundred yards down the road in the middle of what had once been someone's garden wall but was now a tumbled pile of bricks. Smoke was curling up from the crumpled bonnet, and as she watched flames flickered into life.
Heart in her mouth, she quickened her pace, but she hadn't gone more than a few steps when she sensed movement in a garden to her right. A large bedraggled clump of marram grass was shivering. Its movements couldn't be due to the night breeze - they were too irregular, too jerky.
As she regarded it in puzzlement, the fronds of grass parted, and a dishevelled figure emerged. Jemma gaped at it in utter relief, before flinging herself forward.
"Oof!" Her partner staggered under the impact of Jemma's embrace and sat down in the clump of grass. If it hadn't been damaged before, it was now.
All along the road, lights were going on, and windows and doors were opening as the residents came out to see what all the ruckus was about. The Mercedes was now burning fiercely, and in the distance Jemma could hear sirens.
She hugged Ash with all her might. "You're all right! I can't believe it. You're all right."
"Yeah. Tore my jacket though." Ash fingered a rip in the soft black leather of one sleeve and frowned. "What is it with me and jackets?" Her expression softened as she turned to regard Jemma. "What about you?"
"Me?" Jemma glanced down at herself. Adrenaline was a wonderful thing, she reflected. Only now were the heels of her hands beginning to sting - gravel in the scrapes, probably. As for her knees, the thick denim of her jeans had taken the brunt of the impact. "Just grazes. Getting the wind knocked out of me was the worst."
Ash smiled and hugged her. "We were lucky," she said. "Though we probably won't think so tomorrow when we wake up feeling like eighty-year-olds."
A fire engine arrived, and Jemma turned to watch the crew tumbling out and starting to deal with the burning sportscar. Most of the residents were also watching.
"Looks like it's a write-off."
Ash sighed. "Damn! I loved that car."
"Get another one."
"Nah. I hate to repeat myself." She grinned. "Maybe I'll get a Lotus. I've always wondered what it would be like to drive one."
Jemma rolled her eyes.
Just then, a police car drew up, lights flashing, and not far behind came an ambulance. The two police officers, a man and a woman, immediately set about interviewing people. Their first witness was the owner of the wall that had brought the Mercedes to an abrupt halt. A fat man with a bulbous nose, he shouted and gesticulated, getting redder and redder as he gestured at his ruined wall.
Ash grimaced and struggled to her feet. "Come on." She pulled Jemma up by the arm and urged her towards the paramedics, who were looking round for the occupants of the sportscar, whose flames the fire crew had succeeded in dousing. "Let's get you checked out."
In spite of her partner's protestations, the paramedics checked Ash over first. She got off with a dab of antiseptic on a cut to her cheek. Next they turned to Jemma, and cleaned the gravel out of her scraped hands.
Ash glanced at the police officers, who had finished with the wall owner and were striding towards her with grim faces.
"Uh oh. Time to face the music."
"It wasn't your fault," protested Jemma, nodding her thanks to the paramedics who were packing up their kit and preparing to leave. "If it hadn't been for you, there could have been God knows how many more injured. At the very least they'd have a derailment on their hands. As it is ... well what's the damage? A wall, a car, and some bumps and bruises. Not bad, if you ask me."
The ambulance drove away, and Ash put an arm round Jemma's shoulders and waited for the beetle-browed male officer and pinched-faced female officer to reach her. "We don't know whose fault it was, Jemma. I'm going to get the lab boys to go over that Mercedes - or rather what's left of it - with a fine tooth comb." She pursed her lips. "Weird. I've never had controls go so completely dead on me like that before."
A thought occurred to Jemma, and she pulled out her mobile phone and dialled a number. Ash raised an eyebrow. "Liaison," she said. Ash gave her an approving nod.
The voice at the other end was brisk and no nonsense, and once Jemma had stated her identity, the week's password, and said what she wanted, he told he not to worry, he would get right on it. As she hung up, the police officers reached them.
They quickly lost interest in Jemma once they learned she was merely Ash's passenger, and she watched from the sidelines.
At first, her partner clearly found it hard going. The two officers ignored her explanation about how the controls had become suddenly unresponsive. Beetle Brows produced a breathalyser kit, and aggressively ordered her to blow into it while Pinched Face fingered her handcuffs with a speculative look. Only when the result had been proved resoundingly negative, did their manners improve and they start to listen to what she had to say. Then a call on their radios from HQ came through and their attitude changed to one of reluctant co-operation and grudging respect. The Organisation's Liaison Officer had obviously succeeded in oiling the wheels in the right circles.
Ash winked at Jemma and mouthed 'Thanks'. She grinned.
By the time the police car had driven away, Ash had given the mollified owner of the wall a number he could call once he got an estimate for the rebuilding costs, and the police had given her permission to get the Mercedes towed, providing she made sure a copy of the lab's findings was also sent to police headquarters. The Organisation's tow truck, was on its way to collect the crumpled, burned-out wreckage, and would drop them off at Ash's flat in Primrose Hill on the way back.
It was just as well it was a fine night, thought Jemma, as the last of the emergency vehicles drove away, and, show over, the residents retreated indoors once more. She felt suddenly weary, and a glance at the woman sitting on the wall next to her showed her partner felt the same. She draped a comforting arm round Ash's waist, and Ash reciprocated with one round her shoulders.
Flashing yellow lights made them both look up. Jemma breathed a sigh of relief as a tow truck came into view and began to slow. Ash let her arm drop from Jemma's shoulders, and pushed herself up off the wall.
"Can't wait to get home," said Jemma, straightening. "What a day!"
Ash grunted. "Yeah. And it started out so well."
CONTINUED IN PART 2