Warnings - See Part 1.
THE SPY WHO KILLED ME
It was 10 am when Ash creaked out of bed. As predicted, the events of last night had taken their toll. And not just on her.
"I feel like a ninety-year-old," grumbled a bleary-eyed Jemma, as she joined her partner in the kitchen, where she was making coffee and toast.
"None available. Will I do?"
"Ha ha." Jemma slid an arm round Ash's waist and leaned against her.
Even in sleep, Jemma had managed to keep constant bodily contact with Ash. A need for physical reassurance after their near miss or simply a manifestation of the new sexual dimension of their partnership? Whatever the reason, consciously or unconsciously the younger woman seemed to need physical reassurance, and Ash was happy to oblige. She draped an arm round Jemma's shoulders and planted a kiss on the crown of her blonde head.
Jemma snuggled closer. While Ash had got dressed (in jeans and a sweatshirt - it was drizzling outside, and the temperature had dropped again), Jemma was still in her pink nighty. It outlined her breasts to perfection, and Ash wondered whether to skip food altogether and take her lover back to bed.
Jemma's stomach rumbled. "What's for breakfast?"
Oh well. Ash pointed at the loaf of bread. "Toast and honey. Sorry. Never did get to the shops for butter."
"We must do that first thing."
Beeps from the timer indicated that the coffee was brewed, so Ash poured them both a cup. Jemma wandered round the kitchen as she sipped hers, reading the notes pinned to the corkboard, picking up and putting down a pepper mill, a cookery book, a pot of dried Basil....
Ash extracted the toast from the toaster and popped in two more slices of bread. She found the jar of honey. He eyebrows rose as she saw it was nearly empty. Yesterday it had been half full, but that was before Jemma discovered she liked licking it off Ash's skin.
"Hey! You've got 4 messages."
She turned, knife in hand, and saw that Jemma was standing by the answerphone. She sighed. "I knew there was something I'd forgotten."
The phone had rung twice yesterday while they were in the middle of making love, but Ash had been damned if she was going to ask Jemma to bookmark where they'd got to. The other calls must have come in while they were in Hertfordshire, or overnight. After their traumatic night, Ash had been dead to the world as soon as her head hit the pillow, and she suspected Jemma had been too.
"Who are they from?" A blob of honey had trailed onto the waistband of her sweatshirt and she tried to scrape it off, but only succeeded in making matters worse.
Jemma squinted at the answerphone for a moment then pressed a button.
"Miss Blade," came the beautifully modulated tones of their Section Head's secretary, "I'm calling on behalf of Mr Thompson. He said to let you know that your appointment with Dr Aston is at 10.30am on Friday 15th." Ash's heart sank. "And to remind you that attendance is mandatory. Thank you."
Tomorrow? Why the rush?
Jemma was regarding her with a frown. "Are you going to go?"
Ash shrugged. "You heard what she said. 'Mandatory.'"
"I wonder when my appointment is?"
The answering machine beeped. "Oh, and Miss Blade." It was Thompson's secretary again. "If Miss Jacobs is with you, which Mr Thompson seems to think is more than likely," - Ash and Jemma exchanged glances (Trust Bill to pick up on it so quickly, sly old fox.) - "will you please tell her that her appointment with Dr Aston is on Thursday 14th at midday? Thank you."
"Bloody hell!" Jemma checked her watch. "Just over two hours! They could give a girl a bit more notice."
Ash crossed to the answerphone and pressed the pause button before turning to regard her partner. "Postpone it," she suggested.
"And how would that look? My very first appointment with the new psychologist and I put it off."
"Who cares how it looks? We're on leave. Last night we nearly got killed. And ... and anyway, Aston rubs me up the wrong way."
The younger woman sighed. "That may be true, but I don't think it counts as a legitimate reason for postponing, love. Besides, aren't traumatic incidents exactly the kind of thing Aston wants to help us with?" She frowned at Ash's sweatshirt. "You've got honey all over yourself."
"I know." Ash returned to the cooling slices of toast..
"You said you'd give him a chance." Jemma had followed Ash to the worktop and now proceeded to filch Ash's piece of toast.
"Hey!" Ash rolled her eyes then started to spread honey on another piece. "Not exactly. Aston asked me to give him a chance, but I think you'll find I left my options open." She put down her knife and bit into her toast, and for a moment the only sound in the kitchen was of contented crunching.
"He really got to you, didn't he?"
Ash took a gulp of her coffee before answering. "Yes."
"Um. Red hair? Trying to hide fat jowls under a beard? Wearing glasses he doesn't need? Pick one."
She sighed. "Look. I just don't like him. OK?" She tried to put her finger on her gut feeling. "And what kind of a shrink would bring up the subject of Sam out of the blue like that?"
Sympathetic green eyes regarded her. "You miss him a lot, don't you?"
"Every day." Ash examined her fingernails for a moment then looked up. "I still dream about him sometimes."
"That's only natural."
She feared that Jemma was going to delve deeper into what was still a very painful subject for her, but to her relief the other woman simply regarded her gravely for a moment then asked, "Do you dream about me?"
As thanks for changing the subject, Ash kissed Jemma on the cheek. "Of course."
"What kind of dreams?"
"What kind do you think?"
Jemma flushed a becoming shade of pink, but she didn't drop her gaze. She simply grinned at her partner and took another mouthful of toast.
Ash realised the answerphone light was still blinking. She crossed to it and poked the play button with her forefinger, smearing honey on it. Oops!
A man's voice filled the room. Uncultured, a strong Cockney accent. Instantly recognisable. Janus.
"Blade," said the caller. "We need to meet. Tomorrow." A pause as if he was checking something - his diary? "Er, that's the 14th. Usual place. Usual time."
Jemma was looking intrigued. "That was very cryptic."
Ash pressed the pause button. "A contact of mine. Codename: Janus." Real name Neal Travis.
"The god with two faces? Doesn't sound very reliable."
"Janus stretches the truth sometimes, but he never makes it up. Small time burglar, got teeth like a rabbit." Jemma wrinkled her nose at Ash's description. "Been slipping me information he's picked up on the street for three years now. Wonder what he's got for me this time."
Jemma blinked. "Why there, for heaven's sake?"
"He thinks being underground lessens the chance of surveillance." Ash shrugged. "Personally, I think if someone really wants to eavesdrop, they can do it anywhere. But if it keeps Janus happy ...."
"The 'usual time'?"
"Can I come? I've never been to Chislehurst Caves. And my session with Aston should be over well before then."
Ash pursed her lips. It might be a good idea for Jemma to meet Janus, just in case one day Ash was tied up and had to send her partner instead. "Okay. But when we get there, hang back a bit so I can clear things with him first. I don't want him getting spooked."
Jemma nodded then grimaced. "I've just remembered. I was hoping to pop back to my flat and get some laundry done this morning." She pouted. "Some leave this is turning out to be!"
Ash sighed. "Tell me about it." She pressed the play button again.
"This call is unofficial, Blade," Bill Thompson's voice echoed around the kitchen, his tone unusually sombre. "But I thought you'd want to know. There's been an incident. Cork attacked Morand and tried to kill him."
"What?" Ash felt as though someone had winded her.
"Who's Cork?" asked Jemma.
She raised a hand for silence.
"Morand's OK. A bit battered but OK," continued the Counter Intelligence Section Head. "We've had to sedate Cork and put him in a cell. Dr. Aston thinks it's some kind of brainwashing - he's working on finding out more. You can visit Cork if you want, but you won't get much response."
There was an awkward pause, and Ash pictured her boss trying to come up with the right words.
"It doesn't look good. Unless Dr. Aston can break Cork out of it, he could be permanently insane."
The answering machine gave a last bleep then fell silent. Ash resisted the urge to throw it across the room. She was still trying to make sense of Thompson's message when an arm slid round her waist and a soft voice asked, "Are you all right? You've gone really pale."
She blinked and found Jemma regarding her from close quarters. "I'm fine. It was just ... a shock, that's all."
"Oh! I've heard of him."
"Hardly surprising. He and Jeff Morand were involved in that business in Malta."
"The foiled assassination attempt?" Jemma frowned. "He tried to kill his partner then?"
"I don't believe it! Corky wouldn't harm a hair on Jeff's head. And God knows he's saved that little pipsqueak's life more than you and I have had hot dinners." Ash drummed her fingers on the worktop, her mind racing. "I hate to agree with Aston on anything, but brainwashing's the only explanation."
"And when, where, and why?" said Ash. "I have to go and see Corky. There may be something I can do."
She grabbed her black leather jacket from the chairback where she had draped it last night, and turned to take the keys to the Mercedes from the hook. It was empty, and she froze, arm outstretched.
"Shit! I forgot. No car." She bit her lip. She could always get the train to Chislehurst, but -
"You can use mine if you want to. It's at my parents' house," said Jemma. "I don't have anywhere to park it in London, and anyway the tube and bus are always handy. Want me to ask Dad to drive it up from Croydon this morning?" She blushed. "Um. It's a Citroen Dyane."
Jemma was so obviously expecting scorn that Ash laughed out loud. The younger woman's expression changed from embarrassment to indignation, and a still chortling Ash went and put her arms around her.
"It's very sweet of you, Jemma. But there's no need to put your father out. There's a car showroom just round the corner - I bought the Merc from them. They stock Lotuses too. If they won't sell me one on the spot, I'll persuade them to let me take it for an extended test drive or something."
Jemma gaped at her. "Can you afford it? Before the insurance has paid up?"
Ash winked. "Let's just say that my stint as a jewel thief was short but very lucrative. Plus, the tangible but strictly off the record thanks of grateful governments and world leaders mount up over time." She grinned. "How else do you think I can afford a flat in central London?"
"I did wonder," said Jemma. "Ooh! Does that mean one day I'm going to be able to afford something like this too?" She gestured at their surroundings - the terraced block was Georgian, but Ash had had the interior remodelled to emphasise space and light.
"I wouldn't be at all surprised." A pleased smile curved the other woman's lips.
Thoughts of Corky and Jeff's situation returned then, and Ash sobered. "I have to go." She bent to give Jemma a kiss of apology.
"If you must." Jemma gave her a little shove with her hip. Ash smiled at her, shrugged her jacket over her shoulders, and headed for the door.
"About Chislehurst," called Jemma, "since we'll both be ending up at HQ today, how about I meet you there after my appointment, we have some lunch, and then we go down together?"
Ash halted in the doorway and looked back. "Good idea," she said. "See you later."
The red Lotus Elise zoomed down the ramp into the underground carpark. Ash smiled, more than satisfied with her new acquisition. If ever a car had had her name on it, this one had. It was crouching on the showroom forecourt like a wild animal, waiting to pounce on the pedestrians walking to and fro on the other side of the plate glass.
She had slid into the driving seat - which had been positioned for someone with short legs, so she had had some adjustments to make - and had been happily trying it on for size when the salesman approached her and tried to impress her with his patter.
The gangly youth had the worst case of acne she had ever seen, and his ears stuck out like jug handles. He also seemed to think, because she was female, she was completely ignorant of what went on under the bonnet. She was about to tear him off a strip when his boss, a rotund, 'hail, fellow, well met' type with terrible taste in ties, and who had sold her the Mercedes (and pocketed a handsome amount of commission for his pains) emerged from his office. He recognised her at once and hurried over, beaming and rubbing his hands. Jug Ears glowered but allowed himself to be shooed away.
"Miss ... Blade, isn't it? Nice to see you again." The tie, in clashing shades of red, pink, and tangerine, threatened to give her a migraine. "Come to trade in the Mercedes?"
She shook her head. "Wrote it off."
The senior salesman flinched. "Sorry to hear that. Well. As always, you have excellent taste, Miss Blade. This is a Lotus Elise. We took delivery of it only yesterday. Lovely little car. Does 0 to 60 in five and a half seconds. Close to 1800cc -"
"Can I take her for a test drive?"
He beckoned to the loitering Jug Ears. "Certainly. Carl here will -"
"On my own. Only for half an hour or so."
The man with the terrible tie pursed his lips. "Well -"
She arched an eyebrow. "Do you really expect me to fit in that passenger seat?" The Elise had been built with the driver's comfort in mind, not the passenger's. Fortunately, it wasn't an obstacle - Jemma's five foot four frame would fit perfectly in the smaller seat.
"Ah! Well. Mmmm. You have a point." She could almost see his brain working. She had bought a Mercedes and the cheque hadn't bounced. Her address, in the centre of London, was on file. If she left some security -
She proffered her Driving Licence and chequebook. From the way his gaze flickered, it was the prestigious Coutts Bank logo on the chequebook that finally swayed him.
"Carl," he called. "Fetch Miss Blade the keys to the Lotus, and make it snappy."
Minutes later, she was out on the streets of London, putting the little red convertible through its paces.
It took her a few miles to get the feel of it. It was much noisier than the Mercedes had been and handled quite differently. It had a lighter, pared down, almost go-kart feel to it, and its response was fantastic. It also required much more from the driver, but Ash liked that. Guess I'm a 'back to basics' kind of woman.
The run convinced her this was the car for her. And when she drove it back into the showroom and told the senior salesman he had made a sale, his smile threatened to split his face open.
"Of course, Miss Blade. Please. Step into my office, won't you?"
After some further questions, a few phone calls, several signatures, a large cheque passed from her hand to his, and a firm handshake, the little red convertible was hers.
She eased into her parking slot, braked, and switched off the engine. As she got out, the vidcam whirred and tracked her progress. She turned and looked directly into the lens. "Yeah, it's me and I've got a new motor," she said to the hidden observer. "Like it?" Then she was jogging across the carpark towards the lift.
The cells were on a floor where most of the Organisation's employers never ventured. They were fortunate, did they but know it. Here enemy agents were interrogated, without benefit of legal counsel, and Organisation agents suspected of being traitors were held pending investigation. Ash had taken part in those investigations and interrogations a couple of times. She was in no hurry to repeat the experience. They were unpleasant and undoubtedly contravened UK law, not to mention breaking several international treaties.
She strode along the windowless corridor wondering what was waiting for her on the other side of the locked double doors at the end. Two armed guards frisked her, removed the Browning automatic pistol from her shoulder holster, then pressed a button. The doors slid open with a whirr and a clunk, and she walked through into the reception area.
The woman behind the desk looked up, nodded at Ash, then went back to her computer. A slight figure with curly fair hair and hazel eyes, wearing a black sweatshirt and faded indigo jeans, had half risen to his feet at her arrival and now he came towards her, his expression welcoming.
"Blade. Thanks for coming."
She rested a hand on Jeff Morand's thin shoulder, and gave it a heartfelt squeeze. "I came as soon as I heard, Jeff. So sorry to hear about Corky."
"He tried to strangle me."
She could think of nothing to say.
He led her to the sofa he had been sitting on, watching a daytime soap with the sound turned low, and flung himself down. She joined him. Compared to the last time she had seen him, he looked terrible. His complexion was grey, his face haggard. And there was a bandage around his throat.
"Will they let me see him, do you think?"
Jeff shrugged and examined his fingers. "Aston's with him. Maybe when he's finished?"
At that moment, a door opened and a man in a white coat, with a neatly trimmed red beard, came in. When Dr Aston saw the two of them sitting there he altered course towards them. They stood up as he approached.
"Miss Blade. I didn't expect to see you here."
Ash pointedly checked her watch. "Aren't you supposed to be counselling my partner?"
He smiled, apparently unoffended by her tone. "I'm just on my way." He turned to Jeff, his expression becoming one of consideration and sympathy. "There's no change in his condition, I'm afraid, Mr Morand. He's calm now, though. That's a good sign."
Or the result of pumping him full of sedatives, thought Ash. "How soon before he gets better?" she asked.
Aston's brow creased and he flashed her a warning glance, his brown eyes flicking to the listening Jeff than back to her. "Oh, it's early days yet," he said.
That didn't sound too promising. She glanced at Jeff and opted to change the subject. "May I see him?"
The psychologist pursed his lips then said, "I don't see why not. Though I'm not sure what purpose it will serve, as he probably won't even be aware you're there."
His gaze returned to the watching Jeff. "Best if you don't let Mr Cork catch sight of you, at least for the time being." He caught Ash's frown and clarified, "It seems to be a trigger. Whenever Mr Cork sees his partner, he tries to kill him."
She sucked in a breath. Whoever had brainwashed Sam's old friend must have had a sadistic streak to set up a scenario like this. Not to be able to even go near your partner when he needed you the most.... She wondered how she would be coping if it were Jemma instead of Corky in that cell.
Aston pulled a videotape from one of the capacious pockets of his white coat and handed it to Jeff. "This is the tape we made earlier. It might help explain the situation more clearly to Miss Blade if you just show it to her." Jeff nodded. "And now," continued Aston, glancing at the clock on the wall above the reception desk and wincing, "I really must run. If you'll excuse me?" With that, he hurried out.
"I wish he'd stop calling me 'Miss Blade'," grumbled Ash.
"Yeah." Jeff jerked his head towards the TV and video and Ash resumed her seat on the sofa while he slotted in the videotape. She had no idea what to expect, and braced herself.
The screen flickered, then what looked like the monochrome interior of one of the cells replaced the soap's colourful melodrama. The time stamp indicated the video had been taken nearly 4 hours ago.
Ash squinted. The picture was grainy, the lighting poor, but as her eyes adjusted it became clearer. Supine on the cell's single bed, staring up at the ceiling, lay a big man. His long hair brushed against shoulders and arms that were heavily muscled. He was wearing a straitjacket.
The last time she had seen Martin Cork had been at Sam's funeral. As one of the pallbearers, he had been an unexpected source of hilarity, for which he had later, and unnecessarily in her book, written her a letter of apology. It had been his height that caused the problem. No other pallbearer came close to his 6 feet 4 inches, so Sam's coffin had listed perilously, and at one point come close to sliding free. Sam would have laughed like a drain at that, she knew. She had welcomed the moment of levity, even if her laughter did turn to tears.
Minutes ticked by, and on the TV screen the figure resting on the bed remained stationary. She turned to Jeff. "Is this all there is?"
"Wait," he said. "I should be coming to see him about ... now."
The door of the cell swung open, and into the room came the man sitting next to her. He said something to the man lying almost catatonic on the bed, who came to life so suddenly, Ash jumped. The transformation was startling enough, but then the picture changed as the camera operator zoomed closer. Corky's eyes were wild, his pupils the size of pinpricks, and veins bulged in forehead and neck. At first, he struggled to free himself from the straitjacket, then, when that failed, he flung himself at his startled partner and tried to headbutt him.
"My God!" This display of naked aggression was something Ash had never seen from the gentle giant before.
Jeff gave Ash a wry glance. "Yeah. That's what I thought."
On the screen, three guards rushed into the cell and only their combined efforts and the fact that he was in a straightjacket enable them to pull the big man off his much smaller partner. Then Aston appeared, and at his urging a distraught Jeff left the cell.
It was as though a switch had been turned off. As soon as Jeff left, Corky's face smoothed and his movements calmed. Moments later, he was allowing his captors to carry him to the bed and dump him there. He lay exactly where they placed him, staring peacefully at the ceiling.
The guards and the psychologist huddled together in discussion for a moment, then left one by one, the cell door finally banging closed behind them.
At that point the video ended. The soap's actors reappeared, shouting and gesturing at one another.
"Aston was right, you see." Jeff's voice was miserable. "Whenever Corky sees me he goes berserk." His fingers wandered to the bandage at his throat.
"But who made him like this? And why?"
"Good questions." The fair-haired man's lips thinned. "Unfortunately, I have no answers."
Ash balled her fists in frustration. She had been planning to talk to Corky, see what clues to his conditioning she could glean, but judging by the video he wasn't in a fit state to talk. The only person who could get a reaction was his partner, and it was one of murderous aggression. If it were Jemma in there in a straitjacket -
Don't think about it.
"They'll snap him out of it, Jeff." She tried to sound confident. "They'll find what caused it and get him back to normal, you'll see."
He didn't say anything, but when his hazel eyes met hers, they were full of disbelief. He looked so lost and alone, so vulnerable, she stayed with him until Jemma's appointment was due to end, trying to cheer him up with amusing reminiscences. There was that time on the Reeperbahn, for example, when Jeff, Corky, Sam and Ash had drunk too much schnapps and decided to see which of them could seduce the most beautiful woman in the bar. Ash had won, of course. Viveka had been her name and the two women had spent a very pleasurable night back in Ash's hotel room.
Jeff matched her, reminiscence for reminiscence, laughing in the right places, but she could tell his heart wasn't really in it. At last, she glanced at the clock on the wall and saw that Jemma's hour was up.
"I must go. My partner's waiting for me." She stood and rested her hand on his shoulder. "Don't give up on Corky, Jeff. He's tough. If anyone can find a way through this, he can."
But his sad gaze followed her all the way to the door.
Dr Aston wasn't in his office but his secretary was. "May I help you?" The middle-aged woman in the Laura Ashley frock looked up from her computer.
"I'm looking for Dr Aston's 12 am appointment. Her name's Jemma Jacobs," said Ash. "She's supposed to be meeting me here. Do you know where she is?"
The woman checked her watch. "Sorry. She left quarter of an hour ago."
"Oh." Ash frowned. A thought struck her. The car park. Jemma knew where Ash's parking place was. Even now her partner was probably sitting in the passenger seat of her new Lotus, preparing some choice comments about Ash's tardiness.
With a hurried, "Thanks," Ash headed towards the lift.
But her partner wasn't waiting in the car park. A disgruntled Ash slid into the driving seat, pulled her mobile phone from her jacket pocket, and called up the number that Jemma had stored in its memory only yesterday.
"Hello?" Jemma's voice was almost drowned out by what sounded like a train's rumble.
"Where are you?"
"Oh, it's you. I'm on the tube."
Ash's brows drew together. "Where are you going?"
She blinked. "Your old boss? Why are you going to see him now? You were supposed to be meeting me for lunch."
"Well, you know I've been feeling rather guilty about what happened to him." A bewildered Ash knew nothing of the sort. "Anyway, I thought I'd go and see him and apologise. See how he's coping with retirement. Wish him well. That kind of thing."
"Oh." Ash chewed her lip. As far as she was concerned, Jemma had nothing to apologise for. If anyone was to blame for Ian Remington's downfall, it was himself. The former Section Head of Security had been an idiot. Still, if Jemma wanted to do this rather than come with her to Chislehurst .... But maybe there was a way to do both?
She dredged up a vague memory. "Remington lives in Wimbledon, doesn't he?"
"That's right. Dudley Road."
"How about I pick you up from there in about an hour and a quarter then? We can drive to Chislehurst Caves in my new car."
"Ash, I'm so sorry." Jemma sounded mortified. "I forgot all about Chislehurst." The train's hooter blared. "Hang on... We're just going into a tunn -"
Her partner's voice faded, and all Ash could hear was an occasional crackling on the line.
"Hello?" she said. "Hello?"
The silence seemed to go on forever then she heard, "- still there, Ash?"
"Yes. I'm still here."
"Did you say you've got a new car?"
"That Lotus I told you about."
"Wonderful. If you can pick me up from Remington's in about an hour and a quarter, that will be great."
Ash relaxed. "OK. I'll get a bite to eat, do some food shopping, and see you later."
Ash regarded the phone for a moment, then sighed and put it in her pocket. It stung her ego a little that Jemma had forgotten all about their plans in favour of traipsing out to see her old Section Head, a man that Ash couldn't stand.
She pursed her lips and considered this display of spur of the moment behaviour. Its likeliest cause was Jemma's session - Aston had probably brought to light an issue that had been preying on her mind. Bloody psychologists! I knew seeing him was a bad idea. Ah well. If it made Jemma feel better to apologise to Remington, where was the harm?
Ash checked her watch. In the meantime, if she was to get something to eat and they were to have something other than bread and honey for dinner tonight, she'd better get moving.
Moments later the little red Lotus was zooming toward the nearest supermarket.
Jemma got off the tube at South Wimbledon then realised she had no idea where Dudley Road was. Luckily, a little newsagent's shop just round the corner from the station stocked maps, so she bought herself a Mars Bar and a streetplan, unfolded the latter and located her destination on it, then set off walking.
The chocolate bar was as much about comfort as hunger, and right now she needed it. That she had forgotten all about meeting Ash for lunch and then going on to Chislehurst Caves disturbed her. Her only excuse was that the session with Aston had unsettled her more than she thought. Hardly surprising, given the ground they had covered during that hour. But still -
The thought of the other woman arriving for a rendezvous Jemma herself had suggested and finding her gone was mortifying. Poor Ash! I'll have to make it up to her tonight.
She grimaced at her reflection in a shop window. What could she tell her partner? That the urge to see Remington had been so compelling she had acted on it at once, even though details of where she was going were sketchy at best?
If I'd set off on a mission with that kind of preparation, I'd be in trouble.
Her reflection's hair looked messy, so she fingercombed it. Remington was the finicky sort, always concerned with neatness and presentation - sometimes to the detriment of more important considerations, but that was just her opinion. Ash's opinion of the former Security Section Head had been typically more forthright - 'anal-retentive prick', she'd called him. Jemma smiled at the memory.
The traffic-fume laden breeze was thwarting her efforts to make her hair presentable, so she straightened her jacket, gave her reflection one last resigned look, and continued walking. Her thoughts wandered ...
Aston scratched his beard. "You don't mind if I call you 'Jemma' during our session, do you?"
"Not at all."
The first thing the psychologist had done was measure her blood pressure, which was apparently a little high, but within normal tolerances. Then he'd asked her if there was anything in particular she wanted to discuss.
Last night's car crash was fresh on her mind, so she brought that up. The terrible moment when she thought Ash was dead had led to nightmares invading her sleep. Getting it out in the open did seem to help. Aston advised Jemma to try to focus not on what might have been but what was. That seemed to help too.
The talk had then moved on to her very first mission, in the Canaries.
"How did it feel, Jemma?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, one minute you were treating Miss Blade as a potential traitor working for the Libyans and the next you were helping her. To such an extent that you disobeyed the instructions of your Section Head, bypassed him altogether in fact. That must have been a ... confusing, even worrying state of affairs for you."
"Ah, I see." Jemma considered. "Yes, it was. At first, anyway. But my gut instinct told me Ash wasn't a traitor."
While Aston jotted something on the lined pad of A4 paper, she let her gaze wander over the impressive array of framed diplomas hanging on the beige walls, and let the sound of running water and birdsong wash over her. Must be one of those ambient sound relaxation audiotapes, she guessed. He'd probably got lots of others: rain falling, dawn in the countryside, waves on a beach, tropical rainforests, at least it wasn't whalesong -
"And you trusted that ... your instinct?"
She gathered her thoughts. "Yes... Well, eventually," she amended. "Two different people told me to trust my instincts - my training instructor, Mac, and Ash - so I did." She twiddled her thumbs.
"Well, as the saying goes, Ash would, wouldn't she?"
"True." Jemma returned his smile. "But she was right."
"It must have been quite frightening, your very first mission, backing a woman all the evidence said was a traitor, against the advice and instincts of your superior. You took a huge risk. Your career, your life even, were on the line if you chose wrong."
She nodded but said nothing. What was there to say?
Brown eyes regarded her through the lenses of his spectacles, and Jemma remembered Ash's comment about them being plain glass. "And what do you feel you learned ... if anything ... from this experience?"
She pursed her lips. "To trust myself. And to trust Ash. She's never let me down."
He twirled his pen. "And if you had to do that particular mission again, would you do anything differently?"
"Well, I'd stand up to Mr Remington earlier, for a start, make him see that his prejudice against Ash was blinding him to the truth." The words came easily; she'd thought about this particular subject a lot. " If it hadn't been for that, he would never have acted as he did. And he would never have had to resign."
Aston blinked. "I thought he took early retirement."
She gave him a wry look. "It amounts to the same thing."
"Quite." He made another note on his pad. "And why exactly do you think your former Section Head was prejudiced so strongly against Miss Blade?"
She shrugged. "You'd have to ask him that."
"Good point. Well, enough of the Canaries, Jemma." He turned the page and cleared his throat. "Miss Blade is now your official partner. And you've completed a successful mission in Brazil together - congratulations, by the way."
"So, how is that working out for you?"
"How is what?"
"Your new partnership?"
"Great." She found herself smiling.
The psychologist nodded. "Good." He raised his gaze to meet Jemma's. "Partnership is all about supporting one another, complementing one another's skills. Miss Blade is an experienced agent, whereas you are just starting out. That must be difficult at times."
She shrugged. "It isn't really. I know I've still got a lot to learn, but she's a great teacher. And I'm trying to pull my own weight."
"I'm sure you are. And experience will come with time. As will the range of skills you can contribute to a mission." He smiled. "Your partnership is a very recent one, after all."
For a moment she wondered if he knew she was sleeping with Ash. But if he didn't, she wasn't going to volunteer the information.
"Some agents find relying on their partner hard at first," he persisted. "Has that been a problem for you?"
"No. I've always admired Ash. Mac used some of her missions as training aids, and we learned some of the combat techniques she invented too. I'd trust her with my life." He made another note, and she strained to read it, but his upside-down scrawl defeated her.
"And what about Miss Blade herself? From her reaction when we met, I'd say her former partner's death wounded her deeply. Yet here she is, expected to work with yet another partner already. Does that affect the dynamic between you?" He regarded her expectantly.
Jemma frowned. "I'm not sure what you're getting at."
"Is she ... overprotective, for example? Does she refuse to allow you to play as much of a part in a mission as you would like to because it might put you at risk?"
She considered. Wrapping her in cotton wool was hardly Ash's style - you had only to experience her driving to know that. But ... "Maybe a little," she conceded. "But honestly, I think that's as much due to my lack of field experience as anything. And over time, I'm sure she will adjust. But you should be talking to her about this, shouldn't you?"
"True. And I will." Another note, then he looked up and smiled at Jemma. "It's only by taking risks that we grow."
He came out with these little bits of psychobabble from time to time, she'd noticed. They would probably irritate Ash to distraction when it was her turn to see him.
Wonder how Ash is getting on with Martin Cork and Jeff Morand? She glanced surreptitiously at her watch. Still quarter of an hour to go.
"You had a few close shaves in Brazil, I understand - I've read the file."
Jemma blinked and returned her attention to Aston. "Yes."
"It must have been terrifying at times."
"But I imagine," he probed, "that events were moving so fast, you had little time to stop and think. Now ... " He regarded her intently. "Are you getting any flashbacks, dreams?"
She bit her lip and nodded.
"It's nothing to be ashamed of, you know."
There was one incident in particular that kept recurring in her dreams: that moment in the Sao Paulo hotel room, when Ash, in pain and bleeding profusely from her reopened knife wound, had allowed herself to be captured for Jemma's sake. Jemma realised that the terror of that moment was still with her.
"You're thinking of something traumatic right now, aren't you?"
Her vision had gone blurry, and she knuckled suddenly moist eyes and tried to regain her composure. Look at me! Even my hands are shaking. "Yes."
"Tell me about it," urged the psychologist, his soft voice encouraging.
So she did. And this time the tears fell in earnest. "Sorry!" she managed, when she had finished.
"No need to apologise, Jemma." Aston's brown eyes were sympathetic. He pushed a box of tissues towards her and she took one and blew her nose. "You were terrified for your life and that of your partner. The stakes were very high, not just for you but for those depending on you. Emotion was a natural response, but the situation meant you had to keep a tight rein on it at the time. But it's over now, and this is a safe place to release that pent up emotion." He studied her. "How are you feeling now?"
She did feel much calmer, more in control. "Better," she conceded. Embarrassed but better.
"Good." He looked at his watch, sighed, then flipped his lined notepad closed. "Well, I see our time is up. And I think this is as good a place to stop as any." He smiled at her. "Adjusting to field work can be hard for some operatives, Jemma. The dangers of a mission, the dynamics of a new partnership, it all adds to the stresses and strains ... but you seem to be coping admirably, I'm happy to say."
She let out her breath in relief.
"As I said at the beginning, your blood pressure is slightly up, but it's nothing that a little R & R won't fix, I'm sure." He stood up and held out his hand. "Can you find your way out?"
It must have been because we talked about Remington, decided Jemma, because when she'd woken this morning, she'd had had no intention of going to see her former Section Head.
She paused and checked a road sign against her streetplan. Ah. So that means I must be here. Which means I need to take the first left, then the second right.
She set off along the crowded pavement, stepping over a pile of fresh dog turds, getting banged on the shin by a heavy shopping bag, and narrowly avoiding being run down by a screaming toddler's push chair. The pleasures of suburbia - it was less dangerous fighting terrorists! It was a relief when the roadsign for Dudley Road finally hove into view.
Wonder how Remington's coping? Is he married? Is his wife feeling suicidal with him under her feet all day? With a slight shock, she realised she knew nothing about his private life at all. Maybe he's single. Maybe he's gay and living with a toy boy. She snorted at the image and shook her head.
Jemma was half way along Dudley Road when a thought struck her. Forty-eight was young to be retired. Remington might have already got himself another job. Something involving paperwork and manuals, no doubt. In his place she would have.
What if I've come all this way and he's out? Yet more evidence of lack of planning on her part.
There was the housenumber she was looking for. She turned in at the little gate and walked up the short path towards the bright yellow front door with the ornate brass knocker. Why do houses still have knockers? No one ever uses them.
Jemma squared her shoulders and rang the doorbell. Moments later, Ian Remington was standing in the doorway.
He gaped at her. "Miss Jacobs!"
It was odd seeing her ex boss in something other than his habitual grey-pinstriped suit, but interesting to note that the casual clothes he was wearing - a grey Oxford shirt, and black corduroy trousers - were just as neatly pressed and just as drab. Maybe he's allergic to colour?
"Mr Remington. I was just passing -" she winced at the patent lie, "- and thought I'd pop in, see how you're getting on."
"That was kind of you."
"Who is it, Ian?" came a woman's voice from the interior.
"Someone I used to work with," he called back. "My wife, Pauline," he explained. "Come in."
He led Jemma through to the back of the house, where a surprisingly large, high-ceilinged lounge overlooked a small garden laid down to flowerbeds and paving. Later in the year, it would be a riot of colour, but now the lilacs and roses were only just beginning to bud.
Of course. I'd forgotten about the roses.
"This is Jemma Jacobs," said Remington to his wife. "She was with me in the Canaries. She used to work for me."
A round-faced woman with a snub nose and curly brown hair looked up from her paperback - a fat historical romance - and smiled pleasantly.
"Hello, Jemma. How nice of you to call round to see Ian. We don't get many visitors these days." She gestured at the small occasional table, on which was a tray containing a brown china teapot, two barely touched cups of tea, and a packet of Rich Tea biscuits. "There's still some tea in the pot. Would you like some?"
"That would be very nice. Thank you."
While his wife busied herself fetching another cup and pouring Jemma her tea, Remington made inconsequential remarks about the weather and looked longingly at the Telegraph crossword he was obviously in the middle of.
If I was married to him I'd die of boredom.
The bookshelves contained an odd mix of lurid romances (Mrs Remington's?) and gardening, travel books, and biographies (her husband's?). And from numerous photograph frames standing on every available surface, smug-looking children of varying ages stared.
Mrs Remington noticed the direction of Jemma's gaze and embarked on a wearying catalogue of the circumstances in which the photos had been taken and the subjects themselves - their son Tim and daughter Angela (whose very backsides seemed to emit sunshine), and various relatives. She seemed as fond of excessive detail as her husband.
Jemma sipped her tea and tried to look interested. Fortunately, a phone call soon took the snub-nosed woman into the front room, leaving her alone with her ex boss. She took a deep breath and launched into her speech she had formulated on the train.
"Mr Remington, the reason I came to see you today is to say I'm sorry."
His eyebrows rose.
"For what happened in the Canaries. If it hadn't been for my going over your head to Weatherby well ... " She blushed. "Maybe you'd still be with the Organisation."
He pursed his lips. "I confess, I was disappointed in you, Miss Jacobs. I had expected more loyalty from one of my own operatives."
She examined her fingers.
"But Blade seems to lead a charmed existence. I've lost count of the number of people taken in by her who should know better. It's hardly surprising she should be able to pull the wool over the eyes of a junior agent like yourself."
Jemma opened her mouth then closed it again, too dumbfounded to speak.
He shook his head, his grey eyes regretful. "Once a criminal ... But there. My superiors disagreed with me, so there we must leave it. Water under the bridge." The bitter twist to his mouth belied his words.
His gaze flicked to her then away again. "I don't blame you for what you did, Miss Jacobs, but I do think you were assigned to the wrong department. Some people just aren't cut out to work in Security. It requires a cautious, thorough, measured approach. The fact that you broke procedures clearly laid down in the departmental manual..." He shrugged. "Well. I blame those who assigned you to me, and who then failed to back me up."
She clamped down on the surge of anger. "But surely you can see that, if it hadn't been for Blade, Mr Remington, the Libyans would have set off a tidal wave. She had to do what she did. And so did I."
He gave her an indulgent smile. "I very much doubt it would have come to that. The tidal wave theory always seemed to me to be in the realms of science fiction. No, if you'd followed procedure, done your job and allowed me to do mine..."
She realised she was gaping and closed her mouth with a snap. It had been foolish of her to come. Even now, he had learned nothing. What had she been thinking? On the other hand, her journey wasn't a total waste. His words had confirmed her in her gut feeling that she had been right all along - something her session with Aston had, only temporarily fortunately, raised doubts about.
Jemma stood up and straightened her jacket, just as the lounge door opened and his wife re-entered. "I'm afraid I really must be going."
Pauline Remington's face fell. "Already?"
"I have another appointment." She checked her watch and found to her relief that she wasn't lying. Ash had said she'd be here in an hour and a quarter, and it was nearly that time now. It would also be best if Remington didn't encounter the agent he so clearly detested.
"Thank you for the tea and biscuits." She glanced out of the back window. "And good luck with your roses."
A pleased smiled replaced the peevish look Remington had been wearing. "Thank you. I plan to start showing them this year. Now I have more time on my hands..." She let him usher her out.
Jemma was just closing the gate behind her, when a throaty roar, faint at first, then growing steadily louder, made her look up. A low slung red sportscar with the top down (the drizzle had stopped and the sun was peaking through) was cruising slowly along Dudley Road towards her, its driver peering at the house numbers on either side of the road.
A feeling of gladness swept over her, and she jogged along the pavement towards the car, halting as it pulled up beside her. A red Lotus. Oh, Ash! She tried not to laugh.
"Kerb crawling again?"
The dark-haired woman pulled off her sunglasses and gave her a wink and a dazzling smile. "How much do you charge for a quickie, Miss?"
"I'm too pricey for the likes of you. But if you're nice to me, I may give you a freebie."
"Promises, promises." Ash leaned over and opened the car door. "Get in."
Jemma gave the bucket seat a dubious glance. "Easier said than done! Have you got a shoe horn?"
Ash rolled her eyes and drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. By the time Jemma was comfortably ensconced in the passenger seat, she was thanking God she had worn trousers, or the whole street would have seen her knickers.
"All set?" Jemma fastened her seat belt and nodded. "Good." With a roar, the Lotus pulled away from the kerb and headed down the road.
"Where are we going?" She squirmed in the snug-fitting seat until she was comfortable.
Ash turned to study her, a dark eyebrow raised. "You've forgotten we're going to Chislehurst Caves again?"
Jemma backhanded her partner on the arm. "No, silly. I meant which way are we going? I don't know this area very well."
"Ah. Well I do." Ash pulled up at the traffic lights. "I thought via Tooting would be the quickest." The lights changed and she put her foot down. The Lotus pulled away easily from the other cars.
Jemma wondered if Ash was aware of the feral grin she wore when she put the little car effortlessly through its paces. The tyres should have been smoking. She also seemed oblivious to the looks coming their way. Two women, one blonde, one brunette, zipping along in an open top red sportscar, their hair blowing in the breeze. Every man's dream. She hid a smile and settled down to study the streets they were driving through.
"So, how was Remington?" asked Ash.
"The same. He still thinks he was right about the Canaries. Idiot."
"Prick." Ash changed up a gear.
"And how was your friend Corky?"
"You saw him?"
"No point. He's catatonic except when Jeff's around." Ash overtook a BMW and gave its disgruntled driver a shit-eating grin.
"How's he taking it?"
"Jeff? How do you think?"
Ash glanced at her. "What for? It's not your fault."
"Still." Jemma laid her hand over the hand grasping the gearshift and squeezed.
"Were Corky and Sam friends?"
Ash nodded. "How did your session with Aston go?"
Change the subject? I can take a hint. "Okay. We talked about the Canaries and about Brazil. And about last night. He's says I'm doing well."
"Thanks. That means a lot to me."
Ash turned and looked at her, her expression surprised. "Surely you don't need me to tell you that?"
Jemma shrugged. "Maybe I do. I try to look as confident and sure of myself as you are, but I don't always feel it." That got her a squeeze of her own knee from a large hand.
"Honestly, you're doing great, Jemma. Take it easy on yourself, OK?"
"OK." They travelled on for a little in silence. "By the way, thanks for coming to get me from Remington's," said Jemma.
Ash grinned at her. "No problem."
She changed up another gear, and the little red convertible roared east towards Chislehurst.
Ash turned right off Old Hill, followed the signs to Caveside Close, then turned up the little track towards the Chislehurst Caves carpark. It was packed with visitors' cars and coaches, but she managed to find a free space and parked the Lotus in it.
She turned to regard Jemma, who had been unusually quiet for the last five minutes. Her partner had already undone her seatbelt and was getting out of the bucket seat, or rather trying to. Ash reached over and gave her shapely backside a boost.
"Thanks. Be back in two ticks." Jemma hared towards the public conveniences.
Ash grinned. So that was why she had been so quiet. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel and yawned, then decided she might as well get moving. The maglite torch was in the glove compartment. She put it in her jacket pocket, then got out, pulled up the Lotus's softtop, and secured it. Then she leaned her hip against the car, folded her arms, and whistled under her breath.
A group of schoolchildren had gathered in front of the chalet type complex that housed the ticket office, shop and cafeteria. She checked her watch. Quarter to four. Good. They would tag onto the back of the next guided tour.
Movement caught her eyes and she turned to watch a now beaming Jemma strolling back towards her.
"Better?" She straightened as the blonde approached.
"Much. Must have been that cup of tea at Remington's."
Ash laughed. "Come on then." The school children had begun filing into the ticket office, and she started across the carpark towards them.
Five minutes later, a tall young man with a beaky nose and eyes set too close together was leading them from the entrance hall down a short passage into a dimly lit chamber with maps of the cave system on the wall. There, he began to dish out paraffin hurricane lamps, one between four.
"Brrr!" said Jemma, accepting a lamp with some trepidation, nodding her thanks, then turning to Ash. "At least this is warm. You could have warned me about the cold. I can see my breath."
"It's underground. What did you expect?"
"A warning to wear my longjohns." Jemma wandered over and peered at one of the maps. "'Druids', 'Saxons' and 'Romans'? How old are these caves, anyway?"
"They're not really caves, they're chalk mines."
"And?" prompted Jemma.
"Huh?" Ash was busy scanning the faces of the people around her. Most were teenagers, but there were one or two adults, probably their schoolteachers. No sign of Janus. She checked her watch. He must already be at the rendezvous.
"How old are the mines?"
"Not as old as the owner would have you believe." The guide had overheard Ash's comment and he frowned at her. She pretended not to see.
"Gather round, everyone," called Beaky Nose. He waited for the hubbub to drop. "Thank you. Now, on the wall here as some of you have already noticed, is a map of the caves so far explored. Twenty-two miles of man-made passageway cut from the living chalk. As you can see from the map, the caves are in three main parts..."
Ash tuned out his voice. She had heard it all before. The conducted tour wound through the most recent, so-called Saxon part of the caves, then curved round to a 'temple' where Druids were supposed to have sacrificed children on an altar, before returning back to the entrance. It covered about a mile and would take forty-five minutes.
He stopped talking and guided the party quietly along the manmade passage, whose white walls were studded with chunks of flint. In places the chalk was stained brown or blue from minerals seeping through. Jemma appeared fascinated by the floor, which was curiously rippled like the seashore. Ash meanwhile was more concerned about the ceiling. It cleared her head by about a foot here. Even so, she found she was instinctively hunching her shoulders.
"Ew!" A puddle had sprinted chalky mud over Jemma's shoes and the bottom of her jeans. "Glad I didn't wear my best shoes."
"On the wall just here," said the guide, halting and pointing, "are a number of carvings by an unknown sculptor, believed to date back to the early Elizabethan period ..."
When the party moved off again, Ash grabbed her partner's arm and made her hang back.
"Where are we going?" hissed Jemma, as the last of the schoolchildren disappeared round the corner up ahead, their voices fading to nothing almost instantly, such were the odd acoustics of the place.
Ash urged her along an adjoining tunnel that snaked southeast "The Roman part of the caves. The tour never goes there."
Soon the tunnel floor was sloping downhill. They passed the limits of the electric lighting, and Ash got out her torch and turned it on. Its beam was brilliant in the darkness, much brighter and steadier than the flickering light cast by Jemma's hurricane lamp.
"It's spooky." Jemma was peering anxiously at her surroundings. "God, I hope this lamp has enough paraffin. I'd hate to be stuck down here in the pitch dark."
"Why are you whispering?"
"Well, it's so ... quiet."
Ash gave her a ghoulish grin. "As the grave, bwa ha ha."
Jemma shuddered. "Don't!"
"Sorry." Ash urged her partner forward. "Come on. It's this way."
"Where the hell are we going? Suppose we get lost?"
"We won't. I've memorised the landmarks, such as they are." She pointed at a butterfly-shaped stain on the wall. "It's first right after that. Then left."
"Oh. ... But ... Humour me. Just suppose for a minute we do get lost. How do we get out again?"
Ash rolled her eyes. "Just head north-west."
Jemma grimaced. "Which way is north-west?"
She pointed back the way they had come.
"How do you know?"
"I just do. Don't ask me how, but put me down in a strange place and somehow I always know which way is north."
"Could you be using the sun?"
"It works at night, and underground too."
"Wow. That must come in handy. Without a map, I can't find my way out of a paperbag." They walked on a few more steps in silence then Jemma said, "Birds can do that too, can't they?"
Ash arched an eyebrow. "Are you comparing me to a pigeon?"
Jemma sniggered. "More like a hawk."
"Just as well. I'd have to smack you otherwise."
"Promises, promises. ... Could you be sensitive to magnetic lines of force, do you think?"
"Oh yeah, Iron Filings Woman, that's me." The tunnel ceiling was getting progressively lower and Ash was beginning to feel edgy, even though she knew this was as low as this particular route got. "Is it a bird, is it a plane? No it's Iron Filings-"
"Just trying to keep my mind off the tons of rock hanging over our heads."
The smaller woman flinched. "Thanks!"
They turned right, then left, then passed through a cavern that was unremarkable except for stalactites just beginning to form in one corner, then emerged into yet more tunnels.
"How much further?" asked Jemma.
"And all this rigmarole is just because Janus is scared of surveillance?"
Ash shrugged. "He's got a point, you know. I bet there's not even a phone signal down here."
"You're his handler, you should have told him to meet you somewhere more convenient and less -" Jemma shivered - "chilly."
"No skin off my nose. And if he feels more comfortably talking to me here ..."
This stretch of tunnel was muddy, so Ash placed her booted feet carefully and Jemma copied her.
"Didn't I see something about this place being used as an airraid shelter once?"
"Mmm. During the war," said Ash. "Not this section though, I don't think."
"Must have been grim."
"Safer than being up top."
They were approaching the rendezvous. Ash halted and turned to Jemma, pressing a finger to her lips.
"Wait here," she said. "It's just round the corner, and I don't want to spook Janus."
"What if he's not there?"
"We'll just have to play 'I Spy' until he arrives."
"'I spy something beginning with C ... Chalk.' That'll keep us occupied for all of 2 seconds."
"Now who's babbling?"
"Sorry. It's just the thought of you leaving me here on my own."
Ash pulled Jemma into a one-armed hug. "You'll be fine, sweetheart. I'll call you when the coast's clear."
Jemma sighed, returned the hug, then reluctantly released her. "You'd better."
Ash grinned and moved on alone, switching off the torch and pressing herself close to the wall. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she detected a faint illumination coming from the cavern up ahead. Janus?
She peeked round the corner. Dim torchlight cast the elongated shadow of a man against the far wall of the cavern.
At her shout the shadow moved, shrank, and then a little man with buck teeth was coming towards her. Janus was wearing his usual shabby Parker, tatty jeans, and well-worn trainers. "Blade. You're late."
"Did anyone follow you?" His Cockney accent was thick.
"Don't think so. Didn't spot anyone, anyway."
He scratched his stubbly chin, then shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his Parker. "Okay. Same deal as usual?" His eyes glittered in the torchlight.
"Depends." He frowned and she shrugged. "Hey. You'll get what it's worth. That's all I can promise. OK?"
"OK." His sudden grin made him look even more like a rabbit. "Hope you've got plenty of cash on you then."
She held up a hand. "Before we get down to business ... my partner's waiting in the tunnel. May I call her?"
She frowned. "Yes. How did you know her name?"
"Didn't you tell me?"
"No." The last time they met, Sam had still been her partner.
"Must have heard it somewhere then." Janus's gaze became shifty under her scrutiny. She wondered whether to press him further, then decided against it.
"So. May I call her? If I can't meet you for any reason, she'll be the one who comes in my place. You should know what she looks like."
He made an impatient gesture. "Whatever. Let's get on with this."
Ash ducked back out of the cavern and called softly, "Jemma." There was no reply, so she called again, louder. This time lamplight appeared, and she saw Jemma hurrying towards her.
"Come on. He says it's OK." She entered the cavern again, this time with Jemma at her heels.
"This her?" Janus studied her partner, ignoring the friendly hand she had extended. Jemma threw Ash a look then withdrew her hand. "OK. So I've met her. Big deal." He turned back to Ash. "Now can we get on with the reason we're here in the first place?"
She nodded. "What do you have?"
"It's about you."
"Yeah. Someone is after you."
Ash blinked. "Who?"
"Now that's the interesti-"
Janus's eyes widened, and for a moment he simply stared at Ash in astonishment. Then he toppled forward, clutching his stomach and crumpled to the floor.
"Shit!" said Ash from her crouch. Her subconscious had ordered her to drop to the floor and her conscious self was only now catching up.
The initial pistol shot had been faint, but its echo was reverberating around the cavern, amplified by its acoustics. Must have used a suppressor. Jemma was still standing, frozen.
"Get down!" Ash yanked her partner to the floor just as a muzzle flash from the tunnel entrance on the other side of the cavern was followed by a sinister zing. The bullet smacked harmlessly into the wall behind her, and Ash was able to breathe once more.
There was blood on the front of Janus's Parker, and it was spreading. The buck-toothed little man stared at Ash in confusion as she ripped open his jacket then his bloody shirt.
She sucked in her breath at the sight. "You've been shot in the stomach."
"Oh God!" His face was as ashen as the chalk all around them. "Is it bad?"
There was no way of knowing. If the bullet had hit the kidneys, the liver ... "Can't tell. Doesn't look too bad, but ... Could be internal bleeding." With an anxious glance towards the gunman still lurking in the shadows, she made Janus lie flat on his back.
"What can I do?" asked Jemma. "I didn't bring my gun with me!"
Ash ripped off a cleanish piece of Janus's shirt, made a pad with it and pressed it hard against his stomach wound. The bleeding began to slow. Good. She felt for the pulse at his neck. It was racing.
"Ash?" said Jemma.
"I heard you." She thought for a moment. "Take over here." As Jemma got to her knees and took over, Ash wiped her bloody fingers on her jeans and drew her Browning from its shoulder holster.
"The shock will wear off soon, and then the pain will hit," she told Jemma, keeping her voice low so that the wounded man wouldn't hear. "What with that and the blood loss... Chances are he'll lose consciousness." Jemma nodded her understanding. "You need to keep him warm and his airway clear - so watch out for his tongue. If there's internal bleeding ... Well, just do your best to keep pressure on the wound."
"What are you going to be doing?"
A muzzle flash made them both duck, and another bullet ploughed into the wall close by. Then came the sound of running footsteps.
"Taking care of the gunman and fetching help."
Torch in one hand, gun in the other, Ash scrambled to her feet and sprinted towards the tunnel entrance on the far side of the cavern.
"Be careful," called Jemma.
Then she was out of the cavern and running, into the dark.
Ash's boots splashed through mud puddles, and her torch beam bobbed and bounced, revealing now flint fragments jutting from the walls now the dark openings of yet more tunnels. The chase had led her northeast into the Druid part of the cave system. She had never been in this particular tunnel before, and the roof was getting steadily lower. The muscles in her neck and shoulders had started to burn, her ankle twinged, and she had a stitch in her side, but she gritted her teeth and kept going.
He (if it was a he) had tried to throw her off the scent, zigzagging, stopping and hiding in the hope she would go thundering past, even doubling back on one occasion. But the muddy floor made tracking her quarry easy and she soon picked him up again. The seconds were ticking away, though, and she had yet to find help for Janus.
Had he already bled to death? She thought of her partner sitting in a cavern 140 feet underground, alone with a dead man, a finite supply of paraffin, and no idea of the direction of the exit.
I shouldn't have left Jemma.
Ash slowed, seriously considering giving up the chase. But then came the echoing sound of footsteps directly ahead, and she picked up speed again, stooping ever lower to avoid cracking her head on the descending ceiling. It dawned on her then where she must be. The bastard was taking her down 'lumbago alley'.
The roof bulged even lower, leaving less than 4 feet clearance, and she crouched to get under it. Then something - realisation that the footsteps had stopped, a flicker of movement? - made her throw herself sideways, banging her right shoulder against the cave wall, and catching the back of her head a resounding crack on the stone ceiling.
The wind of the bullet's passage was hot on her cheek. But Ash had other things to think about. She had dropped her torch, and the pain from her head was excruciating. She felt sick, a roaring noise filled her hearing, and specks of white flecked her vision.
I haven't got time for this! He's probably got me in his sights ...
Swallowing against the nausea, she raised her pistol and aimed blindly, firing off two quick shots. The noise in the confined space was deafening, the sound of the unsuppressed gunshots bouncing off the tunnel walls and ceiling and reverberating back and forth for what seemed like forever. The muzzle flashes added bright afterimages to her vision. But to her relief, the pain in her scalp was already subsiding to a dull throb, and her hearing and vision were returning to normal.
She hunkered down and waited for a bullet to come zinging out of the darkness. None came. Then she heard the welcome sound of running footsteps, fading into the distance.
Scared him off.
Using the clammy tunnel wall for support, Ash got to her feet with a groan, retrieved her torch, which luckily was none the worse for its tumble, then staggered on. She no longer cared about her fleeing quarry. Jemma was depending on her to fetch help and she would not let her down. Fortunately, she could recall the position of 'lumbago alley' on the map in the entrance room, and she headed southwest....
For the past few minutes, the ceiling had been rising steadily. Then traces of electric wiring appeared along the walls, and soon dim lightbulbs lit the way. She recognised her surroundings - she was approaching the last lap of the guided tour. The exit from the system wasn't far now. Thank God!
A man's voice, faint at first, was growing louder. It was familiar.
"This brick wall here," said Beaky Nose, "is all that remains of the war-time hospital. Now this hospital had seven wards of which two were isolation wards, and it was fully staffed throughout the Second World War by a doctor and two nurses of the British Red Cross...."
Ash holstered her pistol and broke into a jog.
"... the only baby girl to be born down here during the war. She was afterwards christened in the Caves Chapel, after the caves, her second name being 'Cavina' -"
The guide stopped in midsentence as Ash emerged into the cavern. His eyes bulged. The teenagers gasped and huddled closer to their teachers.
They've just been through the haunted cavern, and here I am with chalk all over me, looking like a ghost.
Ash strode towards the guide. "There's been an accident," she said. "A man's been ... badly injured." No need to scare them more than they already were with mention of gunshot wounds. "In the Roman part of the caves. Call an ambulance. Now."
"What?" Beaky Nose blinked at her. "The Roman section? But ..."
She grabbed pen off him, then his notes, flipped them over, and started to jot down directions on the back. "Here.... I have to get back. My friend needs me."
"Oh, but -"
Her patience was at an end. "Look, a man's bleeding to death back there, so just do it! OK?"
Then she turned and once more headed into the dark.
When Ash entered the cavern, Jemma looked up, her relief plain.
Blood had soaked the unconscious Janus's shirt, coated Jemma's hands, and pooled on the floor beside him, glistening black in the lamplight. The cavern reeked of its coppery tang.
"Thank God!" Jemma's breath steamed in the cool of the cavern. "He started bleeding again and I couldn't stop it. I tried everything Mac taught me but it didn't make any difference."
Hysteria tinged the younger woman's voice, and Ash knelt and placed a comforting arm round her shoulders. "I shouldn't have left you alone with him. I'm sorry."
Jemma leaned into her, calming and becoming less tense almost instantly. "'S okay." She sniffed, and Ash wondered if she had been crying. "What other choice was there?"
"I could've gone for help straight away, instead of being a macho idiot and chasing the bastard who shot at us."
She felt Janus's bony wrist for a pulse - it was so faint she almost missed it. If her contact survived this much blood loss, it would be a miracle.
"Here. Let me take over." She pried Jemma's ice cold hands loose from the bloody pad and replaced them with her own hands. The bleeding from the stomach wound was sluggish now. Whether that was a good sign or a bad one, she had no idea.
Jemma shook the feeling back into her fingers. "I tried to call 999," she said, "but you were right, there's no signal down here." She stamped her feet and paced a bit, groaning as the circulation returned to cramped limbs. "Did you catch him?"
There was something odd on the ground beside Janus's right hand. "Hmmm?" said a distracted Ash.
"The bastard who shot Janus."
"Oh. No. He got away." It was as though someone had tried to write something on the chalk, using blood for ink and a finger for a pen. "What's that?"
Jemma followed the direction of her gaze and squinted "Looks like initials." She directed the beam from Ash's torch onto it for a better look. "Just before he lost consciousness, he was trying to say something, but I couldn't understand him. Maybe it was then ..."
Ash's heart sank as she deciphered the scrawl. "A 'K' followed by an 'A'?"
"Could be." Jemma pursed her lips. "Does that mean something to you?"
Jemma's eyes widened. "Oh God, Ash! Do you think he's followed us back to London?"
"It's a possibility. Janus said someone was after me. And after the way we messed him about in Brazil, I'm not exactly on his Christmas card list."
"But why would he shoot Janus when he could have shot you?"
She shrugged. "He's a lousy shot?"
For the past thirty seconds, voices had been growing louder, and now a party of paramedics carrying a stretcher burst into the cavern, filling it with noise, and bustle, and lights. That was quick!
"He's been shot in the stomach," said Ash, glad to relinquish the patient into more expert hands. She stood back as the paramedics shouted incomprehensible jargon to one another, slapped a dressing over Janus's gunshot wound, moved him onto the stretcher, hooked him up to an IV, and covered him with a blanket.
"The police will want to question the two of you," warned the man in charge, as his subordinates hefted the stretcher waist-high and started back through the labyrinthine tunnels towards the surface.
Ash shrugged. "Of course."
Jemma was wiping her bloody hands on a tissue someone had handed her. It was hard to tell in this light, but Ash thought her partner's colour looked better, and she seemed to have recovered her composure.
"Come on." She glanced round the rapidly emptying cavern, her gaze skipping over the dark pool of Janus's blood. "There's nothing more for us here."
Jemma nodded, grabbed her lantern, which was beginning to flicker violently and grow dim - the paraffin wouldn't have lasted much longer - and slipped her arm through Ash's. Together they followed the stretcher crew.
"Are you all right?" whispered Jemma, after they'd gone a little way.
"I've been better." Ash fingered the egg-sized bump on the back of her head. "Why do you ask?"
"Because you're covered in mud, which mean you must have taken a tumble, and you're limping."
Ash sighed. "Yeah. All that running aggravated my ankle. And I banged up my shoulder again."
"Oh, Ash!" scolded Jemma.
"It wasn't on purpose!" she protested. That got her a roll of green eyes in return.
"And we're supposed to be on leave," grumbled Jemma, as they reached the exit at last, doused the lantern and placed it on the table with its fellows, then headed for the doorway and daylight.
Ash winced and shaded her eyes against the dazzle.
A police car, lights flashing, was waiting in the car park next to the ambulance. The officers were talking to the chief paramedic, who pointed at Ash. She sighed.
"Which hospital are you taking him to?" called out Jemma, as they stowed the stretcher and its buck-toothed occupant in the back of the ambulance and prepared to close the door.
"Chislehurst General," came the reply.
"We'll call later, to check on his progress." She glanced at Ash to see if that met with her approval. Ash nodded. The ambulance pulled away, and the police officers strode towards them.
"Here we go again," muttered Ash, just as the phone in her pocket rang. She pulled it out and answered the call.
"Blade?" asked a man's voice at the other end. It was vaguely familiar but she couldn't place it.
The voice gave the Organisation's current password, and her interest quickened. "Forensics here," he continued. "We've been trying to contact you for the last hour, but your mobile wasn't answering."
"No signal. But I'm here now." The police officers stopped in front of her and pointedly folded their arms. She gestured at the phone and continued, "So what is it?"
"It's about your Mercedes. We've finished the initial examination. And you're not going to like what we found."
"It was no accident. We found traces of plastic explosive. We think it was radio-activated."
Her mind raced as she recast the events of last night in the light of this revelation. "So whoever triggered the device must have been nearby?" Lurking near the level crossing maybe?
Jemma had been listening to Ash's side of the conversation, and now her eyebrows shot up. "Device," she mouthed. Ash nodded and mouthed, "Tell you later."
"That's our guess," continued the man from forensics. "We'll get back to you if we find anything further."
"Do that. And thanks."
She hung up and popped the phone in her pocket, then turned to face the hard-faced gazes of the police officers and sighed. What was it about her and the police these days?
CONTINUED IN PART 3