Warnings - See Part 1.
A VIEW TO A KISS
Her captors hadn't bothered to blindfold Jemma, for which she was grateful. The big car was heading south, she saw, along the busy main road that led out of the city.
"Where are you taking me?"
The curly-haired driver ignored her, and the man sitting next to her turned the page of his Playboy.
"I asked -"
"Shut up." The balding man with the shaggy moustached didn't even glance up, he was too busy turning the centrefold sideways for a better look.
The muscle-bound thugs (who Jemma had dubbed Curly and Baldy) had watched alertly while, at Ash's insistence, Jemma was allowed to change into a T-shirt and jeans. Then they tied her hands behind her back and bundled her down the hotel's stairs into the back seat of a waiting BMW, and, unfortunately for her, made sure the doors were locked.
She tested her bonds unobtrusively. Too tight. At least they had stopped holding that knife to her throat. Maybe I can headbutt Baldy, kick out the window, wriggle through it... and knock myself out and get run over by all this heavy traffic. Maybe not.
She wondered what Ash was doing. The last she had seen of her partner, the tall woman had been kneeling on the hotel carpet, clad only in the T-shirt she had slept in, face pale and clammy with sweat, long fingers smeared with her own blood. Even then her concern had been for Jemma. Pale blue eyes had signalled as clearly as if she'd spoken aloud, "Go with them. Trust me."
The older woman was right to play for time, Jemma conceded. 'Where there's life there's hope.' But she didn't have to like it. Ash should have left Jemma to take her chances and saved herself. Anger smouldered as she remembered that brutal punch to her partner's shoulder. If she ever came across the thug who had done that again....
I'll find a way out of this for us... somehow. She had to. Their future prospects currently looked dim to non-existent.
Jemma was under no illusions. The Libyan had promised to release them once Ash had stolen the emerald (which, in her present state of health, was by no means a certainty), but he wouldn't just let two British agents go. Either he would try to use them as a bargaining chip - but the Organisation never negotiated with terrorists - or he would kill them himself, and use their corpses to cause trouble with the Brazilian authorities,
A road sign featuring the silhouette of an aeroplane flashed by. So that's where we're going.
A few miles later, her suspicions were confirmed as they approached Congonhas Airport. The BMW turned off the main route, leaving the airport buses and tourist traffic behind, and following an access road that snaked round to the workshops and hangars at the rear.
At the first hangar they came to, the curly-haired driver frowned and looked around as though searching for something. He slowed the car, and wound down his window. A man in grubby white overalls left the little single-engined plane he was working on and came obligingly towards them, wiping his hands on an oily rag.
"Oi! Onde está o avião do Pimentel?" asked Curly.
Pimentel? Why is that name familiar?
The mechanic replied in rapid Portuguese and gestured towards the taxiway, where several small aircraft were parked, their pilots huddled together, smoking furtively and talking.
"Chocante." The driver waved his thanks, then the BMW picked up speed and headed for the taxiway.
As they drew closer to the parked planes, Jemma saw the logo emblazoned along the side of one of them: Pimentel Industrias. Must belong to that industrialist Celio told us about. She remembered the handsome young Brazilian waving at her through the cable car window as it descended, and wondered what had happened to him.
Curly pulled up alongside the jabbering pilots, and a stocky young man in a navy peaked pilot's hat and short-sleeved, pale blue shirt separated himself from the huddle and walked towards them.
"Oi." He nodded familiarly at the driver, then saw Jemma sitting in the back seat and grinned.
Her escorts unlocked the doors, and helped her out. At the sight of her bound hands, the pilot's smile disappeared and he looked round anxiously. He said something sotto voce. Baldy shrugged, removed his jacket, and draped it round her shoulders, hiding the evidence of her captivity.
It was now or never. She opened her mouth to call for help... then doubled up as Baldy's elbow gouged her solar plexus. I can't breathe!
"Tudo bem?" called one of the pilots. He sounded concerned.
"Tudo bom," replied Baldy. "Obrigado." His reassurances must have worked, because no one came to investigate Jemma's condition. Instead, under the guise of helping her, rough hands propelled her across the taxiway towards the Pimentel aircraft, then up its steps.
The pilot made his way forward to his seat, and busied himself with pre-flight checks, while Curly and Baldy bundled her into one of the cabin's twelve passenger seats and strapped her in.
She found she was able to breathe again, only small breaths at first, but eventually the pain eased and she was breathing normally once more. She gave the thug who had winded her a baleful look. He grinned, settled down in his own seat, and pulled out his copy of Playboy.
Moments later came the whine of the engine starting up, and the propellers began to turn, slowly at first, then faster. The pilot spoke briefly with the control tower, then called something back to them; her two companions grunted and made themselves comfortable. Then the little plane was taxiing towards the runway....
They had soon left São Paulo's high-rises behind, and were heading inland over pine-forested hills, rivers, and lakes. It reminded Jemma more of Southern Germany than South America. She pressed her nose to the window.
Those must be coffee plantations, she decided, staring down at the scenery whizzing beneath the plane. Then came treeless acres of waving crops and vast expanses of tall grass ideal for grazing. A herd of cattle stared resentfully up at the droning intruder, and she sighed and wished she was down there with them.
The forest resumed - green swathes of tropical forest, broken only by crumbling highways which connected astonishingly spacious, modern cities like shiny beads on a threadbare necklace.
One hour after it had left São Paulo, the plane began to descend. There was a clearing in the forest up ahead, Jemma saw, accessible from the highway. A sprawling complex of warehouses, office blocks, and carparks came into view. Moments later, she was jolted against her seat belt as the plane bounced and juddered and they came in for a very bumpy landing on the little airstrip.
"Opa!" called the pilot, turning and grinning unapologetically back at his glowering passengers. He taxied to a halt and switched off the engine. The sudden silence was startling.
Curly and Baldy stood up, stretched and yawned, then reached over, unbuckled Jemma's belt, and hauled her upright. Her legs were cramped from inactivity, and her solar plexus still stung, but she wouldn't give them the satisfaction of groaning aloud. She straightened painfully, limped towards the exit, and stumbled down the steps.
While men in grubby white overalls helped the pilot push the plane towards a hangar, Jemma's burly escorts directed her towards a four-storey office block several hundred yards away. She was glad of the chance to stretch her legs as they strode across the concrete carpark. Then they were pushing open the office block's double doors and going inside.
An unnecessary shove between the shoulderblades from Baldy sent her stumbling past the startled receptionist. The woman behind the desk clearly saw Jemma's bound hands but rather than protesting she flushed and turned away.
Guess they're all scared if they say something they'll get the sack, or worse.
They took the lift to the top floor, and moments later she was entering a huge office. Executives the world over would covet it, she mused, gazing at the large picture window and massive, leathertopped mahogany desk.
The door opened and her escorts straightened up. The owner of the office entered. He was not alone.
Mauro Pimentel (Who else could it be?) looked as though he had stepped out of a TV hair-care commercial. His abundant silver hair had been coiffured within an inch of its life. His skin was deeply tanned and unnaturally unlined, his eyes almost as vivid a blue as Ash's.
He took one look at Jemma and her bound hands and halted. "What is she doing here?" His voice rose to a panicky squeak.
The olive-skinned man accompanying Pimentel removed his cigar from his mouth. "Insurance," he said placidly.
Jemma recognised the second man instantly. Minyar al-Akhdar. She had seen a photograph of the plump Libyan asking Ash for directions in a Tenerife café. It had been part of a clever frame-up meant to cast doubt on the loyalty of the Organisation's top agent, but Jemma had exonerated Ash in the end. She wondered what the devious terrorist was up to now.
The industrialist turned towards al-Akhdar. "I told you, I want nothing to do-"
The Libyan's gaze hardened. "You're not calling the shots any more, Mauro. Get used to it."
Pimentel balled his fists, crossed to the picture window, and stared moodily out of it. "Who is she?" he asked at last, turning to regard Jemma.
She opened her mouth but a look from al-Akhdar quickly closed it again. "Do not concern yourself with her. All I require from you is somewhere secure to keep her for a day, maybe two."
The silver-haired man nodded tightly. "There's probably a storeroom free. Would that do?"
Pimentel stalked towards his desk and picked up the phone. He spoke Portuguese so fast all Jemma could make out was the word 'seguro', then waited, the muscles in his jaw working. Finally he spoke a few words more and put down the phone. "There is such a room," he told the waiting al-Akhdar.
"One of my men will be along in a minute to guide her there."
"See, that wasn't so hard, was it?" The Libyan smiled.
Pimentel grunted and resumed his position by the window, which boasted a view of the complex. She wondered what it was he manufactured, and why it should be of interest to al-Akhdar.
A knock at the door made them all turn. A man in janitor's overalls came in and waited expectantly. Curly and Baldy grabbed one arm each and propelled her towards the guide.
She sighed. Here we go again.
They retraced their steps downstairs to reception, then headed across a large carpark to a warehouse. Inside, the hangarlike space had been partitioned into smaller units. The man in janitor's overalls walked quickly along the central corridor, looking forward stolidly, as though to disassociate himself from the two muscle-bound Brazilians and their blonde captive. They came to an intersection with another corridor but continued on.
Jemma guessed that the rooms on the left, which were without windows, were for storage, whereas those on the right.... The signs on the doors featured the word Laboratório, and the double-glazed windows, doors, and high quality seals, indicated self-contained environments. She slowed and peered through a window.
Litmus and filter papers had been stacked against the glass, obscuring the centre of the large laboratory from view. On the left, workers in white coats and face masks were pouring different coloured chemicals into giant flasks, heating them, and stirring the result with glass rods. She couldn't see what happened next, but the process seemed to reach its conclusion on the right hand side of the room, where workers were carefully scraping white crystals off filter papers into plastic pouches and weighing them.
A large hand yanked her forward with a jerk.
The next few windows provided glimpses of yet more workers, flasks, and crystals. She had begun to think the warehouse was dedicated to manufacturing synthetic cocaine (Or whatever it is.) when she passed a door which featured the words Proibido para pessoas não autorizadas below a raised hand inside a barred red circle.
She peered inside interestedly. In that particular lab, she saw, the workers were wearing full protective suits and breathing apparatus. Then they were past and she could only chew her lip. What the hell are they making in there?
Their guide turned left and led them to the end of another corridor. He swung open a heavy metal door. "Aqui," he said, reaching inside and flicking a switch. Dim light lit the interior.
My hotel room, I presume.
"Inside," said Curly. He thrust her through the door. She turned to request that her hands be untied at least, but the door was already slamming shut.
"Hey! What if I need to go to the -" A solid clunk was followed by the sound of bolts sliding home. "Guess I'll just have to pee in a corner or something." She sighed and turned to examine her surroundings.
The room was currently empty, though it bore evidence of once having been used as a store room - a crushed cardboard box in the far corner and an empty drum leaning against one wall. No windows. Only the door she had come in by. A single overhead bulb. (Thank God the light switch was inside. She wouldn't have put it past her captors to leave her in the dark).
She upended the battered drum and sat on it. Hard on the buttocks, but it would do. The rope had rubbed her wrists raw, and not being able to move her arms was causing cramp in her shoulders. If she could just get them round to the front....
For the next ten minutes she struggled to tuck her legs up out of the way and ease her feet over her bound hands. By the time she succeeded, she had lost more skin from her wrists and bruised her knuckles, and she was full of admiration for Harry Houdini.
Jemma raised her arms as high as they would go and stretched luxuriously. "Ooh!" The relief was intense.
She got her first good look at the rope. It was twine; maybe she could gnaw through the strands one by one with her teeth? (Where's a rat when you need one?) She didn't feel up to the task at the moment, though, so she postponed it by scrutinising every inch of her surroundings once more.
Weren't secret agents supposed to be able to escape by unscrewing handy grilles and slipping into air conditioning ducts? She wrinkled her nose. If so, someone wasn't keeping their side of the bargain. There was an air vent in the ceiling, but the grille was so tiny only a cockroach could have got through it. The drain in the centre of the floor looked even less promising. Well, if nothing else, she could always pee in it. It would be marginally less disgusting than using the corner of the room.
The cardboard box was dirty, but its label was still legible. It had once contained sodium fluoride, she discovered. She pursed her lips, then tossed the crumpled cardboard aside and examined the steel drum. The label was not in such good condition. It was smeared with grime and who knew what else. She reached in her jean pocket, pulled out a tissue, spat on it, and scrubbed at the label. The improvement was marginal, but if she squinted....
Laboriously she spelled out the chemical name: phosphorus trichloride. She blinked. Surely not? Heart hammering, she reread the label, hoping she had got it wrong. She hadn't.
No wonder they were wearing breathing apparatus!
On her recent training course, during the section that covered terrorism, Mac had told the class about the Aum sect's attack on the Tokyo subway. He had gone into some detail about the chemicals used. Phosphorus trichloride was one. There were two other ingredients.
Some kind of alcohol, wasn't it? And ace.... nitri.... She scowled in an effort to remember. Acetonitrile. What was the betting another of the storage rooms in this vast warehouse contained those.
Jemma shivered, and it wasn't from the cold. If her suspicions were right, the industrialist was not only allowing his considerably chemical manufacturing resources to be used to make drugs, which was bad enough, he was also making... sarin!
Nerve gas, in the hands of terrorists. Oh God! I hope I'm wrong.
Ash stared at the blueprints of Nathaniel Blucas's private gallery, and resisted the urge to pull out her hair. Not only had the wealthy American installed cameras, motion detectors, microswitches, and infra red beams - all controlled and co-ordinated by an up-to-the-minute-computer system - two armed guards also patrolled the little São Paulo gallery at regular intervals.
The level of security shouldn't have surprised her. The emerald that Abdusamad coveted had turned out to be worth one-and-a-half million pounds! She didn't like to think what the Libyans would do with that much money if they got hold of it. She also didn't like to think what they would do to Jemma if they didn't.
She glowered at the stocky guard barring the exit. She had been stuck in this tiny room ever since they let her dress, blindfolded her, and took from the hotel in the back of a car. The Libyan had asked her what she needed and she had thought for a moment, then told him. He had returned with her requests within the hour. Efficient.
A recent issue of 'Hello!' lay open on the table next to the blueprint. Though initially startled that Abdusamad should buy the English version of the glossy magazine, which often featured the homes of the rich and famous, Ash now realised it made sense.
During Blucas's recent interview and photo session, safe in the misguided belief that his state-of-the-art security system was foolproof, he had been only too glad to show off some of the antiquities and rare gems in his collection, especially his latest acquisition, the Moghal Emerald. There was even a picture of it. The rectangular-cut stone was the size of a small tablet of soap, and every inch of its surface was covered in intricate Indian carving.
Ash had been studying blueprints and maps, trying to formulate a plan for breaking into the gallery, for three hours solid, and she needed a break. She yawned and stretched, careful of her shoulder, which now sported a fresh bandage. Abdusamad had been solicitous of her wound, but she had no illusions. Once she had stolen the emerald and handed it over, he would crush her like a bug. Jemma too. She wondered where the other woman was and if she was all right. She had to believe she was.
The door opened and the Libyan himself came in. He smiled insincerely at her, then took a seat on the other side of the document strewn table and steepled his fingers. "Have you come up with a plan?"
"Yeah. Drive a battle tank through the gallery wall, and pick the emerald out of the rubble," she said caustically. "No. I need the specs of-"
But he was no longer listening. "You're stalling." His pockmarked cheeks darkened with anger and his eyes flashed. "Must I remind you what's at stake?"
Inwardly, Ash kicked herself. She was quickly learning that al-Akhdar's second-in-command was a powder keg, liable to explode at the slightest setback to his plans. "I already know what's at stake," she said quietly.
"I dont think so." He beckoned to the guard by the door, and the stocky man came forward, bent his head respectfully, and listened while Abdusamad whispered something in his ear. He nodded once, and then departed. Ash's spirits picked up but she kept her expression blank. If the Libyan had just done what she thought he had, this little disagreement might work to her advantage.
A few moments later, the guard returned. He was carrying a phone with a speakerphone attachment. He plugged them both in, placed them on the table, then murmured - not quite sotto voce - to the Libyan, "They said it will take a few minutes, Senhor. They have to fetch her."
Ash suppressed a smile.
They sat in silence, Abdusamad biting his nails, until the phone rang. The Libyan picked up the receiver, listened for a moment, then gave a satisfied nod. He reached over and switched on the speakerphone.
"Miss Jacobs," he said, "do you have something to say to your friend?" His voice was amiable, but his expression was far from friendly.
"Ash? Is that you?"
It was unmistakably her partner on the other end of the line, and her heart soared. "Yes. It's me. You're on speaker phone," she warned, eyeing Abdusamad warily. "Have they hurt you?"
"Not so far. What about you? What about your shoulder?"
"I'll live. Listen-"
"No, Ash. Please. Do what they want you to." At her words, Abdusamad smiled widely, his teeth white against his olive skin. "If you don't, I'm afraid I'll lose my nerve."
Ash kept her poker face in place with some difficulty. Jemma was speaking very oddly - the blonde must be trying to tell her something.
"I understand," she said, though as yet she didn't. "Please, look after yourself." She hoped Jemma would pick up her own unspoken message. Her young partner must engineer her own escape from wherever they were holding her, and not wait for Ash to get her out. If she delayed it would be too late.
"I will. You too."
A lean finger flicked off the speakerphone switch. "Enough," said Abdusamad. He slammed down the receiver. "We have your friend. She is safe. That can change." He pushed back his chair and stood up. "You will steal the emerald. Am I clear?"
Ash nodded. "Very. I need detailed specs of the systems in the guardroom. And everything you have about the security company that maintains them." She had been about to ask him for them when he lost his temper.
He gestured at the guard. "See to it she gets what she needs." The man nodded and went out. Seconds later, a replacement guard came in and took his place by the door.
"No more delays, Blade," said the Libyan. "You have twenty-four hours or your friend will die. After that," he flashed her a smile, "maybe we'll try picking the emerald out of the rubble as you suggested."
Ash pushed back her peaked brown hat and gazed boldly into the camera lens. She hoped the men Abdusamad had assigned to keep an eye on her had stayed out of sight round the corner as agreed. It would be just like the two dimwits to blow the whole operation before it got started.
"What do you want?" came a man's voice over the intercom in Portuguese. She had started thinking in that language ten minutes ago, so conversation would flow more easily.
"CrimeGuard Systems." She held her fake ID up to the lens. "I'm here to fix the fault."
There was a puzzled silence. "What fault?"
She rolled her eyes. "Don't tell me those idiots at HQ have cocked it up again?" She checked her clipboard. "According to this, there's an intermittent fault on the line connecting Senhor Blucas's system to HQ. They're not sure whether the problem's at our end or yours. You could be robbed and we wouldn't know anything about it." She clucked. "No reinforcements. You wouldn't want that, would you?"
She could almost hear the man at the other end thinking. Then came a soft buzz and the door catch released. "Come in."
"Thanks." She hefted the heavy case in her right hand then pushed open the door to the little gallery with her left. As she ventured inside, she hoped that her escorts wouldn't attempt to dash in after her - the camera link was still live and she didn't want the guards spooked. Talking of which....
Waiting for her was a crew-cut young man in a short-sleeved white shirt that revealed muscled biceps. His hand was resting conspicuously on the gun at his belt, a Ballester Molina M1916.
"You're working late," he said, glancing at his watch. It was almost 3 am.
"Overtime, thank God." She smiled at him. "I can really use the money."
He grunted and held out his hand for her clipboard. He ran his eyes over it, then handed it back. "Open the case."
Ash put it on a table and opened it, revealing a computer technician's toolkit and a jumble of computer discs and spare parts. He poked them carelessly with one forefinger then nodded and let her close it.
"I'll also have to frisk you," he said, his gaze going to her cleavage - the stolen uniform jacket was slightly too small.
She held out her arms and resigned herself to being groped. Sure enough, he patted her breasts and buttocks longer than was strictly necessary. She was glad she'd insisted on trousers and flat shoes rather than the short skirt and highheels CrimeGuard made its female employees wear. It was bad enough having to wear dark brown.
"Seems OK," he said at last, straightening with a smirk. "Follow me."
He led her upstairs to an office full of monitors and computers. The other guard, an older man with a greying moustache, was sitting in a chair, supposedly keeping an eye on the monitors. He looked up and grunted something unintelligible then turned his attention back to his newspaper.
Ash moved confidently towards the master computer and placed her case on the desk next to it. "So," she said, opening it and pulling out a disc. "Have you noticed anything odd about the system in the last couple of days? Any unexplained errors, freezes?"
The crew-cut young guard shrugged. "All that hi-tech stuff's beyond me." He grinned. "If I see someone unauthorised on the premises, I shoot. Simple." The older guard stroked his moustache but said nothing.
She held up her hands in mock fear. "Hey, I'm on your side."
Ash sat down at the master computer and for the next ten minutes pretended to be running checks on its software. At first, the young guard peered nosily over her shoulder, but he soon got bored and wandered away. A few minutes later, she heard the beeps of a Gameboy. She suppressed a smile.
"System checks out OK," she said loudly. "Maybe it's the wiring." She got up and moved round to the back of the computer where wires trailed in a spaghetti-like tangle. The guard glanced up from his Gameboy but after a cursory glance looked down again. With a loud rustle of newspaper, his colleague turned a page.
Now or never. She reached for a screwdriver, also palming a wirecutter and the little gadget she had made earlier. Quickly, she connected the device, piggybacking it onto the line connecting the master computer to the servers at the CrimeGuard HQ. It didn't look pretty, but it would transmit a constant 'status OK' signal whatever happened. If the alarms went off now, no one outside the gallery would know.
All done. Belatedly she registered that the electronic beeps had stopped. She looked up just as the young guard loomed over her, the beginnings of a frown on his face.
"What's that?" He pointed at the gadget parasitising the HQ link.
"That?" Calmly, she straightened up. "Oh, it's -" With two rigid fingers, she jabbed a nerve in his thick neck. "- nothing to worry about."
He was still falling, when she started towards his colleague. The older guard swore, dropped his paper, and reached for his gun, but he was much too slow. By the time Crew-Cut had crumpled to the floor, a startled Moustache was on his way to join his companion in the Land of Nod.
OK. Ash sucked in a calming breath, then dragged the unconscious guards into a corner and made them comfortable. She removed their automatic pistols, checked they were loaded, and shoved them in the waistband of her trousers. Then, as an afterthought, she checked their pockets for extra clips, and took those too. They should be out for a couple of hours, and not much the worse for their experience.
A buzzer sounded, and she glanced at the bank of monitors. The camera above the gallery entrance was active. Her two escorts were standing there, waiting.
She flipped on the intercom. "Yes?"
"You said you would let us in after fifteen minutes."
"Slight change of plan."
"Nothing to worry about. Tell your boss everything's on track. I should have the emerald in -" she checked her watch, "- three minutes." Idiots!
She switched off the intercom, then all the mikes and cameras in the gallery, and erased the last 30 minutes of tape they'd recorded. Then she took the white gloves from her case and pulled them on, ignoring the distant banging - the thugs at the front door, she supposed. Leaving the guards gently snoozing, she headed downstairs and into the exhibit room.
It was the easiest burglary she had ever committed. Heedless of the infrared beams and motion sensors, she sauntered past valuable paintings and curios, stopping occasionally to admire one. Up in the guardroom, alarms would be shrilling, but there was no one awake to hear them.
She stopped at the cabinet containing the Moghal Emerald, tried the door, and laughed. It wasn't even locked. As she extracted the large green gem from its cushion, there came the faint snick of a microswitch. But what was one additional alarm among so many?
Ash admired her prize and weighed it assessingly. Must be over 200 carats! Nice. Pocketing the precious jewel, she strolled towards the exit.
Abdusamad's thugs were waiting for Ash outside the gallery, and they didn't look happy. The taller man, who was in charge, had the gun, a US surplus .45-calibre automatic, she noted interestedly. He pointed it at her. "What the fuck are you playing at? We agreed we'd all go inside."
"No worries, boys," she said peaceably. "I got the emerald and that's all that matters. Here." She reached one gloved hand into her pocket and pulled out the huge gem. "Want to see?" Their eyes bulged and the junior thug reached for it.
"Nuh uh." She held it out of reach. "My friend's life depends on this. You tell Abdusamad you've got it, so he can keep his side of the bargain, and then I'll hand it over."
The two exchanged glances, then the one in charge shrugged. "Orders were to tell him anyway. Keep her covered. I'll call him."
Junior took the gun while his companion pulled out a mobile phone and punched in a number. While he spoke to Abdusamad, Ash twirled the emerald idly between gloved fingers. Both men were looking at the massive stone in her left hand, not the other hand stealing beneath her jacket.
"Did your boss tell you it's worth a million and a half pounds?" she asked conversationally, easing one of the pistols free of her waistband.
The smaller man didn't answer. But the gun muzzle pointing at her chest wavered as he licked his lips and regarded the Moghal Emerald avidly.
"Yes, Senhor," said the taller thug respectfully into the phone. "No, no problems. Yes. I am looking at it. To Wai Ling Chen? Now?" His face fell. "But it is very early. No, of course I am not questioning your instruct- At once, Senhor. The Embassy will be expecting us? Yes, Senhor. What about -?"
As he listened intently, his gaze flickered to Ash then skittered away again. "I understand. Yes. Quite clear. I'll take care of it personally." She guessed that her death sentence had just been pronounced.
He pocketed the phone, then gestured to the shorter man. "Give it to me." Junior started to hand the gun back, and for a moment both men were looking at the weapon rather than her.
"Since you asked so nicely." In one smooth movement Ash drew the M1916 and fired.
Mac had taught his students that it was important to conserve energy and stay calm. So, once Jemma's captors had returned her to her cell (talking to Ash on the phone had put her in a much better frame of mind), she invoked a meditative state. It would also help to keep her hunger at bay. No one had bothered to bring her food - not a good sign.
The sound of bolts sliding open brought her out of her trance. She got stiffly to her feet. The door swung open, and she saw the two thugs who had escorted her from São Paulo.
"Out," called Curly, gesturing with a gun.
"Manners," she murmured, stepping past him. Baldy did a double-take when he saw her bound hands were in front of her once more, but much to her relief he made no attempt to remedy the situation. Instead, he grabbed her by the biceps, swung her round to face right, and gave her a shove between the shoulderblades to set her in motion.
"Where are you taking me?" she asked, as they walked her back along the corridor. The two men were too busy talking and laughing to notice she had spoken.
She could understand only a few words of their chatter. 'Chefe' must be Pimentel or al-Akhdar. 'Emeralda' was obvious. When Blade's name was mentioned, her pulse began to pound. Had Ash succeeded in getting the jewel? It looked highly likely. I hope she's OK.
The curly-haired driver laughed and gestured obscenely at Jemma, and she had a sinking feeling her usefulness was at an end. Ash was right. I've got to make my own way out of here.
At that moment, a lab door up ahead opened, and a middle-aged man wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a white coat stepped out into the corridor. He turned and began to walk towards them, then paused, frowning at the sight of Jemma's bound hands and the thugs either side of her.
"What's going on? Why is she-" Baldy stepped forward aggressively and started to shout abuse at the man.
Jemma saw her chance. She stamped on the arch of Curly's foot and kicked him in the knee. He howled but kept hold of his gun... until she brought her bound fists down on his forearm. Nerve-deadened fingers dropped the weapon with a clatter, and it skittered along the corridor out of sight. I could have used that! She brought her fists up, under his jaw. He went down like a stunned ox.
A startled Baldy turned from berating the man and leaped towards her. She rammed her elbow into his midriff. Breath whooshed out and he doubled over. Hurts, doesn't it? Her next blow caught him on the temple. He crashed into the wall, slid inelegantly to the floor, then lay still.
The man with the glasses had made no move to help either her or the thugs. He was too busy cowering. She eyed him and decided he was no threat.
"Got a knife?"
He lowered the arm he had raised defensively and shook his head. She sighed and began to go through the supine thugs' pockets; Baldy owned a Swiss army penknife. Yes!
She opened the saw blade. "Hold this." Pressing the knife into the startled man's hands, she rubbed the rope up and down the blade... unsuccessfully. "No." She adjusted his shaking hands. "Like this." He nodded and this time held the knife steady.
It took her a few minutes, but at last the final strand parted. She massaged her wrists and groaned with relief. Then she took the knife from her helper's unresisting hands.
"Give me your coat." Obediently, he unclipped the ID badge from his lapel and began to shrug out of the lab coat. "I'll take the badge too." He clipped it back on and she slipped her arms into the coat's sleeves and shrugged it over her shoulders. It was a bit on the large side but it would serve.
"Thanks. Now get lost." The man with the wire-rimmed glasses stared at her. "Shoo." She waved her hands. He blinked, then, with a last uncertain glance at her, bolted down the corridor. She watched him turn a corner, then headed in the opposite direction.
What Jemma needed was a diversion. The warehouse was full of chemicals, for God's sake. There must be something she could use. Explosives would have been nice, but she didn't dare risk them. The last thing she wanted to do was release nerve gas from a sealed lab.
She opened the door of what she assumed was a storage room, and peered round. Easy chairs lined its perimeter, and on a dented table sat coffee-making equipment and dirty mugs. She blinked. Must be the Break Room. Her spirits rose at the sight of the door labelled 'Toilette'. She peeked back out into the corridor - no one was after her yet, but it wouldn't be long. She retreated inside.
She was about to flush the toilet when a distant alarm started to shrill. Here we go. Moments later came the sound of pounding feet. She waited until they had passed the break room, then stuck her head out. All clear. She jogged further along the corridor, opening each storage room door she came to.
The shelves of the third one yielded solvents, preservatives... and a canister of potassium permanganate. Levering off the lid with a crowbar someone had obligingly left lying around, she regarded the purple powder interestedly. Hmmm. She started to manhandle the canister over to the door, but it was much too heavy. Her brows drew together then smoothed, and she scooped as much of the purple powder into the pocket of her coat as she could.
Jemma became aware of a faint murmur of conversation. She eased the door open a crack and peered out. Not far down the corridor, a group of white-coated workers had gathered; they were milling around anxiously. As she watched, more workers joined the throng. She couldn't understand what they were saying but it was a good bet they were discussing the alarm.
A final look round the storeroom, to make sure there was nothing else she needed, then she turned up her collar, opened the door, and stepped into the corridor. Her head-down posture conveyed purposefulness, she hoped, and when a harassed-looking technician, heading past her to join his brethren, didn't even glance her way, she decided her strategy must be working.
She came abreast of another storage room and ducked inside it. I need glycerol or glycerine. Either will do.... Hurriedly, she scrutinised the shelves.
Jemma was turning away in disappointment when she saw the plastic container of glycerol, half obscured by a sack of zinc powder. Resisting the urge to punch the air, she dragged it from its hiding place in the corner.
Outside in the corridor, angry voices were coming closer. "Loira está na mira, atire!" yelled someone.
Something about a blonde and 'on sight'? She didn't like the sound of that.
Jemma hurriedly dragged a sack of sulphur powder towards the door then did the same with the sack of zinc powder she had found. She slit both sacks open with her penknife, then tipped them over and mixed the yellow and grey powders together roughly with her foot.
That done, she risked another glance into the corridor. Two men with their backs to her were blocking her view of the workers. She recognised the curly hair and balding bonce instantly. Curly had found another gun from somewhere, she saw with dismay. She ducked back out of sight, and tried to calm her pounding pulse.
This had better work. She squatted beside the zinc-sulphur mixture, scooped out a hollow in its centre, and emptied the purple contents of her pocket into it. Then she reached for the glycerol.
"Procure em cada comodo," yelled someone outside her door.
Carefully, Jemma dribbled glycerol onto the potassium permanganate. Nothing happened. Shit!
The door crashed open with a bang. Curly gaped down at her - he had clearly not expected to find anyone in the storage room - then he smiled nastily and raised his gun. A slight fizzing noise made her glance down, just as a purple flame sprang up. Time to get the hell out of here.
Like a sprinter coming off her blocks, she threw herself at him.
The curly-haired man went flying, then she was past him, hurtling past a wrongfooted Baldy towards the huddle of white-coated workers. Perhaps the presence of other people might deter the thugs from shooting at her. Crump. A bullet ploughed into the wall beside her. So much for that theory!
Kerrang. Another bullet ricocheted down the corridor. A young woman gaped at her suddenly bloody forearm and screamed. That was a signal for mass panic.
As Jemma elbowed her way through the melee, another bullet whizzed past her, so close she could feel the wind of its passing on her cheek. It smashed a laboratory window and disappeared inside. Seconds later came a sound like fire crackers going off.
She had no time to wonder what the noise might be, because just then came a whoosh from back up the corridor. She glanced round, in time to see thick black smoke billowing from the storage room, then visibility in the corridor dwindled to nil, and people began coughing and spluttering and banging into one another.
Not a bad diversion if I say so myself.
Jemma turned a corner, and headed for the exit.
From her hiding place behind a wall, Jemma watched a fire engine roar into the car park and screech to a halt. The white-coated workers, huddled there like sheep, drew back to give them room. Like them, Jemma watched the fire crew spill out of their appliance and put on their breathing apparatus. Their fire-fighting equipment was foam based, she noticed with relief. Fire wasn't actually that big a problem as far as the sarin went - it would destroy it - it was water that would spread it disastrously.
What were the symptoms of this particular nerve gas? Headache and anxiety? Runny nose and tightness in the chest? Well, she had all those, but that was just from the smoke inhalation, wasn't it? Anything else was too scary to contemplate, so she pushed such thoughts away.
For the past ten minutes, she had been listening to the detonations ripping through the warehouse, increasing in volume and presumably severity. At first, she'd wondered if the explosions were her fault. It was a while since Mac's lesson. She'd been aiming for thick smoke, but perhaps she had got the ingredients or proportions wrong. Then she remembered the sound of firecrackers coming from inside the lab and knew it was probably a stray spark from a ricocheting bullet that had caused the blaze.
Cretins! Shooting when all those chemicals were lying around.
The fire-fighters disappeared into the warehouse, and she turned her attention to suitable escape vehicles. She was somewhere deep in the Brazilian countryside, so it would need to be sturdy. Of course, she could always just wait. The smoke billowing up from the burning warehouse must be visible for miles and there was no way such a blaze could be tackled by in-house fire-fighters alone. The authorities would arrive and she could throw herself on their mercy....
Yeah. And find out the hard way that Pimentel has the local police chief in his pocket. Better to take my chances on my own.
Movement made her turn. A familiar plump figure was scurrying across the car park, heading towards what looked like the entrance to an underground garage. Al-Akhdar leaving his sinking ship? Jemma slunk along the wall after him.
It was cool in the underground garage, and badly lit. She paused while her pupils adjusted to the darkness. For a moment, she thought she had lost her quarry, then she heard the sound of voices, and swung round.
He was on the far side of the hangarlike underground chamber, talking to a burly man in blue overalls, who was wiping his hands on a rag. Using trucks and supporting pillars as cover, she made her way towards them. She was half way there when the voices became shouts. The mechanic threw down his rag. The Libyan pulled out a gun and shot him in the head
Jemma was still frozen with shock - the mechanic had been unarmed - when the Libyan marched towards the vehicle he had been working on. It was a murky green transporter of some kind, a massive thing with eight axles, shoulder-high wheels, and a double-doored cab. As the plump man swung himself up into the cab, she turned and ran for the exit. Behind her, the transporter's engine coughed sluggishly into life.
At the entrance, she paused to ease the stitch in her side and studied the underground garage's structure. Then she leaped, grabbed hold of one of the supporting struts, braced her feet, and began to climb. Flakes of rust ground into her palms, and she wished she had worn gloves.
From outside came a muffled boom; the fire was still not under control, by the sound of it. From inside came the crunch of massive wheels rolling towards her. She glanced back and saw the transporter was mere yards from the garage entrance. For a moment she panicked. She was a sitting duck! Then she realised that the brilliant sunshine would make it difficult for al-Akhdar to make out details inside the gloomy garage.
She inched along the girder that formed the upper frame of the entrance, pressing her back to the wall and trying to anticipate the transporter's path. Then the lumbering vehicle was passing beneath her, its wash buffeting her, the stink of its exhaust choking her. It was slightly farther over than she had been expecting. Too late to do anything about it now.
Jemma let go and jumped, crying out as she banged her elbows and knees, and grabbing for a handhold but finding only smooth curving metal. She felt herself began to slide over the side. Shit! Then something stood proud under her fingers, a ridge or a rim of some kind. She hung on to it for dear life.
She was suddenly in full sunlight. She blinked and waited for her pupils to adjust, then saw that the transporter was heading round the edge of the car park, its destination the complex's exit. If I let go and one of those huge tyres runs over me.... She tried not to think about that, or about her arms, which felt as though they were being ripped from their sockets, or the fact that one of al-Akhdar's men might see her clinging to the side and take a pot-shot at her.
The transporter swerved sharply to the left, pressing her into its side, and the pull of gravity seemed to lessen for a moment. She twisted round, spied the windows in the transporter body, and reached out a foot towards a sill. On the second attempt she managed to get a purchase on it with her toe.
The vehicle straightened up, and her momentary advantage vanished. But it had been enough. She brought her other foot across to the sill, and at last was able to ease the unbearable strain on her arms.
As the transporter roared out onto the highway and swung left, she saw that the guardpost was unmanned. Presumably the guards were helping with the fire.
She concentrated on getting her breath back, and let her trembling arm muscles relax, then, using the top of the window as a toehold, powered her way up the side of the transporter. When she finally hauled herself onto the roof, she was gasping for breath and shaking.
Two long horizontal tubes, like giant steel cigar holders, lay along the full length of the roof. The V-shaped space between them would provide shelter from the slipstream. Gratefully she lay down in it.
Now the immediate danger was over, she could afford to glance back. Oily black smoke was still climbing into a clear blue sky, and belatedly she registered the sound of yet more explosions. She sighed, then turned her attention forwards. The road, visible over the cab roof, stretched in front, bounded on either side by endless forest. She wondered where al-Akhdar was going. And why he had picked this particular means of transport to get there.
Then she shrugged, curled up in her uncomfortable metal hollow, and pillowed her head on her hands. Wherever they were going, she was going to need all her strength when they got there. She might as well try to get some rest.
CONTINUED IN PART 4 (Conclusion)
Return to The Bard's Corner