Copyright © 2001 by Barbara Davies.
This story may not be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of it may be made for private use only and must include all copyright notices, warnings and acknowledgements.
This is my homage to the likes of Emma Peel, Tara King, The Men from UNCLE and James Bond. And as with those characters and their settings, my secret agents and the organisation they work for bear no resemblance to anything in the real world.
There is some bad language. What can I say? Secret agents need to let off steam somehow.
There is also a same sex relationship, but it's all done in terribly good taste. If the more explicit stuff is your cup of tea.... Sorry! My agents are British, doncherknow. <G>
SAY GOODBYE TO BOSTON
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"You are English, señorita?"
The waiter's voice dragged Ash's attention away from the stupendous view from the clifftop. "Is it that obvious?" She raised an eyebrow at the little man, whose bushy moustache was clearly his pride and joy.
"No, no," he said hastily.
He had topped up her glass while she was daydreaming, she noticed, and she took an appreciative sip of its contents. Mmmm. The local sweet wine was growing on her.
"It is your accent," explained the waiter, his liquid brown gaze intent. "Your Spanish is good, but - please forgive me! - your accent, it is a leetle..." He waggled his hand in the gesture that meant so-so.
"Rusty," she completed. "I know." The last time she had spoken it for any length of time must have been a year ago, longer... that assignment in Cadiz, with Sam.
She turned to gaze out of the little restaurant's picture window again. Sam would have loved this magnificent view of the Atlantic. She'd read somewhere that sea-faring explorers referred to El Hierro as 'the Edge of the World', and she could see why. It had been worth the arduous hike up the kilometre high cliff. The Mirador's food wasn't bad either. The rabbit in the conejo con salmorejo had almost melted in her mouth.
"You know how the bay was formed?" persisted the waiter.
Ash sighed. It was because she was eating alone, she supposed. "No, but I bet you're going to tell me." She gave the other diners an envious glance and caught a smirk aimed in her direction.
"Thousands of years ago, this volcano we are sitting on," he gestured expansively at their surroundings, "erupted and a section of the island collapsed... the result," an even larger gesture, "El Golfo."
The gigantic bay looked as though a sea monster had taken a bite out of El Hierro's northwest coastline, but Ash kept that thought to herself.
"It was a catastrophe! All that earth, sliding into the sea.... It set off - ¿Cómo se dice? - a tidal wave," continued the waiter. "The wave, it not stop until it reach the Bahamas, until it reach the USA itself!" He paused and beamed at her, as though he had personally had something to do with the event.
The urge to take him down a peg was irresistible. She widened her eyes and injected a tremble into her voice. "What? We're on top of a volcano? It's not going to erupt again, is it?"
He blinked at her. "No, no, señorita! All this was - ¿Cómo se dice? - millennia ago." He looked round uneasily, as though suddenly realising that the Mirador's management might frown on his scaring their customers. "These days the volcano is perfectly safe. Please do not worry."
She smiled at him then, a knowing smile with a slight curl to the lip that said, "Gotcha!" His tanned face flushed a shade darker and he straightened a napkin that didn't need straightening.
"If there is nothing else, señorita?" His voice and manner were stiff, his spaniel eyes wounded.
"No, thank you."
"Then please excuse me, I have much to do." With a small bow, he headed for the kitchen, and Ash resumed her contemplation of the view, feeling only slightly guilty.
As she stared out at the ocean, stretching blue as far as the eye could see, her mind was elsewhere. She had needed a break, needed time to heal mentally and physically - her hip still ached when the weather was cold. Walking the winding donkey- and goat-tracks of La Gomera and hiking through El Hierro's pine forests and along its misty cliff tops had given her time to think, to come to terms with (as much as she ever would) the disastrous outcome of her recent mission.
Sam. She squashed down the inevitable surge of grief. It was still hard, but she refused to go to that black place any more. Instead, she drained the last drop of wine.
The solitude had helped to settle her mind, and the walking had helped get her back in shape. Now it was time to pick up the threads, to get on with her life. Sam would have wanted her to, she knew. What she needed was a mindless good time. And in the Canary Islands in February, one event was guaranteed to provide such a thing. Carnaval.
Tenerife's major festival was due to start tomorrow and would last for 12 days. Her spirits lifted at the mere thought of it. It was time she started using the well-appointed casa on the outskirts of Santa Cruz that she had rented two weeks ago, time she tried out that huge bed. There were bound to be lots of pretty women at the carnival - small, buxom, and blonde, for preference - and all just waiting for her attentions.
She was suddenly eager to get back to 'civilisation', and she checked her wristwatch. If she hurried she could probably make the flight back to Tenerife. She twisted round in her seat in search of the waiter. There was no sign of him, but a heavy-browed woman was cleaning glasses behind the little bar. Ash got up and approached her.
"Per favor. Quisiera pagar." She plunged her hand in her jean pocket and pulled out a wad of pesetas.
"Si, señorita." The woman put down her cloth and hurried to accept her payment.
After the remoteness and coolness of El Hierro, which had reminded Ash of the Highlands, the bustle and heat of Santa Cruz de Tenerife was a shock. She was rapidly getting used to it, however.
She had slept deeply (and alone - though she had plans to change that) in the casa's comfortable bed, and breakfasted on bread, fruit, and coffee. She passed her morning exploring the casbah-like Our Lady of Africa market in the old quarter (she had managed to resist most of the goods on sale but succumbed to a cheap music cassette recorded by a local orquesta). Lunch in a café's shady garden had given her tired feet some respite, then she had spent the afternoon looking at Guanche artefacts in the welcome cool of the Museum of Nature and Mankind.
Now, however, it was time to party. Putting on her sunglasses, she tied a sweatshirt around her waist for when the temperature began to drop, and threaded her way between honking cars, joining the hundreds of other tourists heading towards the Plaza de España.
The massive square was flanked by unattractive concrete high-rises, but some effort had been made to brighten it up for the Carnival. Red-and-yellow flags and streamers dangled from every lamppost and litterbin. The excitement coming from the people gathering there was infectious, and Ash found herself grinning. A tantalising aroma of hot chocolate and doughnuts set her stomach rumbling so she elbowed her way towards its source - a small stall selling churros - and satisfied her hunger. Then she took a position as far from the bandstand as she could get - the salsa music was deafening - and shaded her eyes against the early evening sun.
They were preparing to elect the Carnival Queen, and Ash gazed appreciatively at the tanned beauties wiggling provocatively at all and sundry. Their completely OTT outfits, created from gaudy satin, dyed feathers, and sequins too numerous to count, would not have been out of place in Rio. The procession that followed the election would not have been out of place there either. As rank after rank of pirates (this year's theme apparently), dancers, marching bands, and majorettes marched past, the shrilling of whistles, pounding of drums, and hypnotic samba rhythms made Ash's feet itch to join in.
The view was better on the far side of the square, she decided after a while, so she headed there, brushing aside lascivious invitations and evading groping hands (nearly snapping one man's fingers before bringing her automatic reflexes under control). Once there, she leaned thankfully against a cool stone wall and turned her attention to her fellow spectators.
It was some minutes before she settled on a possible bedmate. An attractive blonde was standing on the steps in front of the Monumento de los Caídos. The woman was eating a toffee apple, and the way she licked her fingers clean when she'd finished made Ash suck in her breath sharply. She gave the blonde a thorough, and intentionally obvious, once-over before flashing her a brilliant smile. The other woman flushed and dropped her gaze, then almost at once glanced surreptitiously back at Ash.
Bait taken. Now let's see what she does with it.
Ash let her gaze drift over the other spectators, then something snagged her attention and, puzzled, she rescanned the crowd, trying to see what it was. A moment later, she had it. That man's profile was vaguely familiar.
He turned full face towards her then, and she registered high cheekbones, pockmarked olive skin, and hooded eyes so dark they were almost black. She frowned and riffled through a mental card index of terrorist mugshots. He was Libyan, she was sure of it. Small fry rather than a big fish, but still... What was he doing in Santa Cruz? A soft touch brought her out of her musing and she turned to find the blonde from the war memorial steps standing next to her, smiling shyly.
"¿Está usted esperando a alguien?"
Ash took off her sunglasses and smiled. "Not 'someone'. I was waiting for you."
The blonde blinked at her, apparently fascinated by her blue eyes. "You are English?"
A coquettish glance. "You were looking at me. Why?"
"Because I like what I see." Openly, she appraised the other woman. Then she raised an eyebrow in query.
The blonde blushed prettily. "I too like what I see," she said softly.
"That's good." Ash took her arm. "I have a casa not far from here. Later..." she paused meaningfully, "I will take you there. But for now... would you like something to eat, a lot of wine, a little dancing?" She waited expectantly.
The blonde flushed again at Ash's candour, then laughed a little at herself and nodded. "Sure, English. That would be very nice."
It was 2 am when Ash's full bladder forced her out of bed and into the bathroom. Samba music and sporadic laughter wafted in from the street outside; some revellers were clearly still celebrating the start of the Carnival. She flushed the toilet, washed her hands, then returned to her bedroom.
Her bumbag was draped over the chair where she had left it, and she unzipped it and pulled out her mobile phone. The blonde sprawled exhaustedly face down in the middle of her rumpled sheets was snoring loudly. The urge to squeeze one of Adriana's plump buttocks was strong but she resisted, contenting herself with stretching languidly and recalling recent activities. Their own intimate carnival had resulted in a memorable firework display and she planned to repeat the experience very soon - but first she had a phonecall to make.
Pulling on a silk housecoat, Ash padded downstairs to the casa's spacious dining room. Once there, she retrieved a number from the phone's memory, and dialled it. After a few moments, the receiver at the other end was picked up.
"Si?" said a sleepy male voice.
"This is Ashley Blade," she said crisply. "Scramble." Tapping a few keys activated the scrambler circuit, and the resulting white noise made her hold the phone further from her ear. Then the line cleared again as the field operative at the other end activated his scrambler too.
"Ramirez here." The man sounded wide-awake now. "What can I do for you, Señorita Blade?".
"Abdusamad," she said. "Khaleb Abdusamad." The identity of the Libyan she had spotted in the Plaza de España had come to her while she was recovering from her first climax (Adriana would not be flattered to know Ash had been thinking about work at such a moment.) She spelled out the name to the field operative letter by letter.
"I have it. What about him?"
"He's here. In Santa Cruz. Did you know? Did London? Any idea why?"
"It'll take a while to check, Señorita."
She shrugged. "I'll wait." She padded over to a cane chair and sat down, tucking her bare feet under her and thinking about the things she had yet to try with the blonde upstairs...
"Señorita... Señorita Blade, are you still there?"
"Wha-? Yes, um, I'm still here," mumbled Ash, blinking and trying to recover her wits as she pressed the phone to her ear. A quick check of her watch showed ten minutes had passed. She must have dozed off.
"We were unaware Abdusamad is here," came Ramirez's voice from the earpiece. "Thank you for the tip-off."
Ash pursed her lips. "So, will you be putting him under surveillance?"
"Minimal only. The budget wont stretch to full. Besides, London feels he's probably just here for the Carnival. Terrorists take holidays too."
Ash grunted. Do they?
"Talking of which," continued Ramirez, "I have a message for you, Señorita Blade... from the your Section Head."
She blinked. "From Thompson?"
"Yes. He says: 'He's sure he doesn't have to remind you that you are on leave.'"
Subtle as always, thought Ash ruefully. Bill Thompson was one of the few who knew just how close to cracking up Sam's death had brought her.
"You need to relax, get completely away from it all for a few weeks, Ash," he'd told her sternly. "Come back when you're rested and can think straight again. Then you can tell me who you want as your new partner."
I'm getting there, Bill. Slowly, it's true, but I am getting there. Still no idea who can replace Sam though.
"Still here," she muttered. "OK. Got that. Thanks for your help, Ramirez."
"You're welcome, Señorita Blade. Buenos noches."
"Buenos noches." Feeling suddenly tired, Ash hung up and sat for a while in the dark, thinking about nothing in particular.
The sound of bare feet slapping against floor tiles brought her out of her reverie and made her turn. A fetchingly tousled and very naked blonde stood in the doorway looking at her.
"I woke up and you were gone." Adriana yawned and scratched her head, then she smiled and struck a provocative pose. "Come back to bed, English."
Moonlight highlighted luscious curves and deepened already intriguing shadows. Ash laughed and stood up. "All right," she said. Miraculously, her tiredness seemed to have disappeared.
"He'll see you now, Miss Jacobs. Come with me, please."
Jemma stood up, straightened her jacket, and set off after the stout receptionist. Her palms were sweaty, she noticed irritably. All I'm doing is meeting my new Section Head. What on earth will I be like on a mission? She wondered if her classmates were feeling as nervous as she was.
She followed the other woman down a dingy corridor. HQ resembled an insurance company's head office rather than the Organisation's London centre of operations. For a start, there was no secret entrance. At the very least there should have been a tailor's shop façade, and a changing room cubicle whose coat hook, when turned, triggered a secret door. And where were the glamorous and virile secret agents, armed with special ID badges and improbable looking weaponry? Oh, hang on a minute. That must be me.
Jemma suppressed the slightly hysterical giggle that was threatening to emerge. Her nerves were really getting the better of her. She was relieved when the receptionist stopped in front of a door labelled 'Remington', knocked twice, then popped her head round.
"Here she is," came her muffled voice. The other woman's head reappeared and she gestured. "Go on in."
"Thanks." Jemma took a deep breath, composed herself, and entered.
A man in a pinstriped grey suit was standing by the window, next to the metal filing cabinets. At her entrance, he stopped his contemplation of the rainslicked courtyard and turned to face her.
"Welcome to Security, Miss Jacobs." He smiled, then advanced towards her and held out a hand. "I'm Ian Remington, Section Head. You'll be reporting directly to me."
She took his hand, and tried not to grimace at his limp handshake.
"Please." He indicated a red plastic chair on her side of the overcrowded desk, and, while she gingerly took it, seated himself in an upholstered swivel chair.
Jemma licked her lips. "Do you have a mission for me, Mr Remington?"
He laughed and steepled his fingers. "I'm afraid we have to get you settled in and used to the way we do things, Miss Jacobs, before we can send you on an actual mission."
She had hoped that, once she graduated, training would be a thing of the past or at least 'on the job'. Looked like she was wrong. If only I'd got that posting to Counter Intelligence. I bet Nat and Gary are getting proper assignments, working alongside someone like Blade, whereas I -
"Here's some reading material." Remington pushed a pile of documents and training manuals across the desk towards her.
I knew it. Bloody paperwork. Surreptitiously, she scanned the labels, which as she had feared referred to Overviews, Procedures, Protocols, Methods, Techniques...
"There's a lot to Security," continued Remington, oblivious to her disappointment. "You'll have covered the basics in training, but there's more to it than that. We handle security for all branches and departments throughout the Organisation. You'll need to familiarise yourself with..."
Jemma tuned out his monotone and found her gaze turning to the rain outside. It wouldn't always be like this, she consoled herself. One day she would be a proper secret agent, like Blade...
It was a cold November day - so cold that Jemma wouldn't have been surprised to see flakes of snow in the air - and the trainee secret agents had spent the bulk of it on 'exercises' in the school's capacious grounds.
Their instructor had divided up the class into two groups: hunters and prey. The latter were allowed to keep their civvies and had wrapped up well. Jemma, who refused to wear the unflattering thermal underwear provided, had discovered the hard way that camouflage fatigues did little to keep out the chill.
She had kept warm by keeping moving, and had already successfully 'taken out' three of her classmates, incurring a bruised shin and pulled rib muscle in the process. But she had lost track of the remaining 'prey', and was now hiding in the large plane tree that overlooked the entrance to the training school, hoping to catch any who tried to sneak in. Her attention had strayed - she was thinking longingly of a hot shower and some fish-and-chips - when the crunch of booted feet on gravel snagged it.
It was getting dark, and hard to see, but from the silhouette she judged that someone in civilian dress - it might even be her friend Gary - was heading up the gravel path towards the school entrance. Gotcha!
Without hesitation, Jemma leaped from her hiding place, booted feet first. The impact jarred her and sent her target flying. Then Jemma was rolling, coming to her feet, and gripping the man in the unbreakable 'Blade neck lock'. Amazingly, there was a flurry of movement, her grip was broken, and she found herself flying.
She hit the ground with a thump that drove the air from her lungs, and everything went hazy for a while. When she came to her senses it was to find a knee pressing hard on her windpipe and a lack of oxygen making itself felt.
Wha-? She stared up into the iciest blue eyes she had ever seen, and registered that her target, a woman, was... a complete stranger. Oh no!
Abruptly, the crushing pressure was gone and she could breathe again... which she promptly did, gratefully sucking in huge gulps. Air had never tasted so wonderful.
"You going to stay down there all day?" asked an amused voice.
She became aware a hand was being held out to her. She took it, and was startled at the strength of its grip and the ease with which the woman pulled her to her feet.
"So-sorry," she stammered. "I thought you were one of my classmates." She was glad the boot polish on her face hid her blush.
The woman raised a dark eyebrow at her. "And you always attack your classmates?" She laughed abruptly, revealing gleaming white teeth. "You're one of Mac's, aren't you? Playing cowboys and Indians, huh?"
"Jacobs!" Her instructor's voice carried clearly to them on the night air, and Jemma froze, then came miserably to attention and waited for the dressing down of her life.
"What on earth do you think you're playing- Ash!" Mac's voice tailed off in a squeak of surprise.
"Hello, you old rogue. Still terrorising your students, I see."
'Ash'? Jemma blinked. This woman couldnt possibly be... Of course! Who else could counter the 'Blade neck lock'? Jemma was sure her eyes must be bulging.
"What are you doing here?" Incredibly, the dour Mac was smiling. "I thought you were in Paris."
"I was," said the agent. It was no wonder Jemma had mistaken her for a man. She must be nearly six-foot tall. "Got some leave before Sam and I head out to Copenhagen though. I was just in the neighbourhood; thought I'd pop in and see my old teacher."
"Not so much of the 'old'. And I never terrorise my students." The instructor adopted a wounded air.
"Ha!" Blade nodded in Jemma's direction and he looked round, saw her rigid posture, and rolled his eyes.
"At ease, Jacobs."
With a sigh of relief, Jemma assumed a more relaxed stance.
"Apart from attacking the wrong target -," (Jemma suppressed a groan), "- she did pretty well. Used my own neck lock on me." Blade raised an eyebrow at Mac. "You haven't taught her the counter move yet?"
"That comes later." He became thoughtful. "Since you're here, Ash, why dont you take a class - these young pups could do with a word of advice from a seasoned veteran."
Yes, please, thought Jemma.
"Getting even for the 'old' crack, I see." Ash chewed her lip. "I dunno, Mac. Teaching isn't really my style."
"Well, a question and answer session then."
It was too much for Jemma's self control. "Oh yes please. You dont know how much that would mean to the class. Mac... er, I mean Mr Macdonald... is always telling us about your missions... " She trailed off, once more grateful for the boot polish.
Mac and Blade exchanged amused glances. "Couldn't have put it better myself," said Mac. He looked at Blade. "Well?"
"Oh, all right then," groaned the tall woman. "Question and answer session it is."
Jemma started. Her Section Head had come to the end of his monologue and was looking expectantly at her.
"Er, no, Mr Remington." She tapped the pile of documents with a finger. "I'll get stuck in right away."
Ash frowned at the ramshackle warehouse beside the Los Cristianos docks. Hardly one of Tenerife's top ten tourist attractions! It looked like her instincts about Khaleb Abdusamad had been right.
Adriana waitressed during the day in one of Santa Cruz's many teraza coffee shops, so Ash had had plenty of free time on her hands and had spent yesterday and today tracking the terrorist. It hadn't taken much effort to find the pension where the Libyan was staying (under a pseudonym of course), and following his movements had been easy once she hired a car. The downside was, a need for anonymity had forced her to relinquish the Ferrari 360 Spider she coveted and hire something much more modest: a Fiat Ciquecento.
Abdusamad had explored the Santa Cruz docks to start with, then headed south to Los Cristianos. And whatever he was after, it looked like he had found it. He was inside the building now, sealing the deal with the owner.
A warehouse. Hmmm. Was the Libyan expecting a shipment of some kind? The airport at Reina Sofía was only 15 km east of here and several of the other islands were accessible by boat. What was the betting it was armaments? A return visit to the warehouse tonight would be in order.
She checked her wristwatch then slipped away, keeping to the shadows. She could be back in Santa Cruz in an hour and a half (in the Ferrari she could have been back in half that time) but it was easier to stay here. Adriana wouldnt be pleased with her absence, of course, but Ash could think of worse places to spend the rest of the day. With their harbours, artificial beaches, spacious plazas, and relentlessly modern architecture that made sunglasses a must - the sun's reflection off acres of glass and concrete was dazzling - Tenerife's coastal resorts resembled one another. But Los Cristianos was one of the smaller and classier ones, and in parts had retained its fishing village atmosphere.
Ash was heading towards the market for something to eat, intending afterwards to do a spot of bikini watching on the town's sandy playa, when she realised that the scene ahead resembled a disturbed ant's nest. Dogs were barking and straining at their leashes, shopkeepers were cursing, and tourists were yelling in alarm.
The cause of the chaos wasn't hard to find. Zigzagging between the market stalls and kiosks was a curly-haired boy of about twelve, wearing a tattered T-shirt and jeans, and clutching something tightly to his chest. Hard on his heels waddled an old woman, her face furious, her massive bosom severely straining the material of her flower-print dress. Then came an assortment of men, with something of the old woman's beaky nose about them - her sons?
As she watched, one of the pursuers tried a flying tackle, but the boy leaped agilely out of reach, and the man crashed into a stall sending ripe red tomatoes, everywhere. The young thief turned briefly to thumb his nose, but kept on running. The fallen man roared with outrage and struggled to his feet, bringing down one of his companions in the process.
Ash suppressed a laugh. There was something about the boy's cockiness that reminded her of herself. It had got her into deep trouble, of course...
It was the London Evening News that had given her the idea - that grainy photo on the front page. The overweight American heiress flaunting her diamond necklace obviously had far too much money; it was only fair to relieve her of some of it.
That it was the Tower was an additional, irresistible challenge. Ash had never tried to break into that particular hotel before. Brown's, she done; the Ritz and Claridge's too - those emeralds had been the best haul so far. But not the Tower.
With her contacts it had been easy to get hold of the prestigious hotel's blueprints and wiring diagrams. And so far, breaking and entering had been a doddle. She'd climbed up the drainpipe of a nearby department store, then made her way over the rooftops, swinging hand over hand along the cables connecting one building to the next, then climbing catlike up to the spacious terrace that overlooked the London rooftops.
The trick was to get the right Penthouse - there were three on the seventh floor - but the newspaper had obligingly told her that the wealthy Mr and Mrs Mitch Spradlin were staying in the Windsor. According to the blueprints, it was the middle one of the three.
Each Penthouse comprised two bedrooms and two bathrooms but only one sitting room. And it was there that the wall safe was situated. A quick glance through a crack in the curtains of the Windsor's sitting room showed her it was empty. She smiled with satisfaction and pulled on her gloves.
The security system turned out to be one she was familiar with, easily disabled if you knew how... which Ash did. She unscrewed the casing and deftly re-routed a couple of wires. Then she turned her attention to the door that gave access from the terrace. Her picklocks had cost her the proceeds of her first burglary four years ago, but had since proved worth their weight in gold. She knelt beside the door and set to work. Seconds later, the lock clicked open, and she straightened and eased inside.
As she padded across the wooden floor and its expensive rugs, she became aware of a faint rhythmic sound. She stopped and listened, then realised it was loud snoring, coming from the bedroom.
Asleep. Hope they stay that way.
Ash pulled her penlight from her pocket. The little torch's brilliant beam revealed hefty furniture that would deliver a nasty bruise to the unwary shin, an original 1930s fireplace, and marble fixtures, but she focussed her attention on the walls. Literally dozens of framed pictures - contemporary oil paintings mostly - of all sizes and shapes, covered the sunflower yellow wallpaper.
Cursing under her breath, she considered each painting in turn. Too small. Too near the ceiling or the floor. Hmmm. Perhaps that one... The third painting was the one. Unlike the others, it was permanently fixed to the wall. She swung it open on its hinges, grinning at the little recessed wall-safe it revealed. A Jenson. She knew their secrets too.
Positioning the torch on a nearby bookcase, so it would illuminate her work area, she bent and pressed her ear to the safe's metal casing. Click... click... click. The sounds as she gently turned the dial were fainter than she liked. She pulled her stethoscope from the pocket of her leather jacket, tucked the earpieces in her ears, and placed its head against the metal casing. Much better.
It took her precisely three minutes to find the correct combination. When the last tumbler had clicked into place and released the lock, she turned the handle and swung the heavy door open. There, nestling on the second shelf, was a black velvet jewellery case. Eagerly, she grabbed it, released the catch, and flipped open the lid. Diamonds sparkled in the torchlight. She gazed appreciatively at the necklace she had last seen in the grainy newspaper photograph.
"I'll take those," came a man's voice from behind her, and simultaneously the sitting room lights came on. Shocked, she spun round, and when she had blinked her dazzled vision clear, found herself facing a burly man in a trenchcoat. Where the hell had he come from?
For a moment she considered making a break for it, but the two men standing behind Trenchcoat changed her mind - or rather the lethal looking automatic pistols they were pointing at her. Ash knew when she was beaten.
Trenchcoat held out his hand. Reluctantly, she released her grip on the black velvet case and let him take it.
"They're only paste, anyway." He tapped the case meaningfully then deposited it in one of his capacious pockets.
A trap! And she had walked right into it.
He gestured, and one of his colleagues stepped forward. She flinched when he began to frisk her, then relaxed as he kept it strictly professional. Most would have groped her. Were they police? Not with those pistols.
When he'd finished, and her picklocks, torch, and stethoscope lay in a pile at her feet, he stepped back. "She's clean."
"Good," said Trenchcoat
"Who are you?" She was pleased her voice didn't tremble.
"You wont have heard of us, Miss Blade."
They knew her name too.
"But we've been watching you since the Claridge's job. For one so young - only twenty, aren't you? - you show a remarkable talent... for burglary."
She shrugged. "Not talented enough, apparently." So they knew about the emeralds. Why hadn't they arrested her?
"You got her then?" came a woman's voice.
Ash's head whipped round. The overweight heiress from the newspaper was standing in the doorway, wearing a hideous pink housecoat and slippers. What happened to her American accent? she wondered.
"Went like clockwork, Julia. Thank you very much for your assistance. We shan't need any further help from you or Martin."
The woman nodded complacently. "Splendid. We'll be glad to get back to Wapping. Good night then, Mr Weatherby."
So they weren't even real Americans? Wonderful. Julia vacated the doorway, presumably to rejoin her husband in the bedroom, and Ash became the centre of attention once more.
"We could use someone like you," said Weatherby, as though there had been no interruption.
She didn't like the sound of that. "We?"
"The Organisation I work for."
"Organised crime? No thanks!"
He smiled at her then, a wolfish grin that told her he held all the cards. Her heart sank.
"We're the 'good guys'. And I'm afraid you dont have a choice, Miss Blade. It's either work for us, or spend the next few years behind bars watching the world go by."
She opened her mouth and closed it again. He moved over to the massive Chesterfield and sat down with a sigh of relief, and it dawned on her that the three men must have been hidden behind it, waiting for her. She could have kicked herself for her carelessness. She had been so sure of herself...
His patted the seat beside him. "Please. Join me."
Weatherby's two companions had assumed an air of relaxed alertness - blocking the way out to the terrace and the door Julia had disappeared through. Ash walked over to the leather settee and plopped down next to him.
She sighed heavily and he gave her an amused glance.
"Look at it this way. If you'd gone on the way you were, you'd have ended up behind bars for certain. This way, you get to travel the world, experience all the excitement you could possible want, do things that in other circumstances would be totally illegal. Now, does that sound so bad?"
Interested in spite of herself, Ash leaned forward. "Tell me more," she said.
And he had. But that had been 10 years ago, and Weatherby had since become Chief of the Organisation. Ash shook her head ruefully. Had she really been that green? Travel, excitement, illegal activities... right on all counts. He had skipped over the high death toll though. Weatherby had played her like the master manipulator he was.
He had been right on one other point, she conceded. The direction she was heading back then would have led her to an early grave or life behind bars... A fate which still awaited the young thief heading directly towards her. The curly-haired boy's pursuers were gaining on him. In a few minutes, they would have him.
Quickly, she scanned her surroundings. Behind her was a narrow archway; she peered through it. At first sight the alleyway was a dead end, blocked by an old-fashioned four-storey townhouse. Instinctively, she checked it for drainpipes and gutters... then realised there weren't any. She kicked herself mentally. Why would Canarians need them if they had hardly any rain? She pursed her lips and looked again. There were sturdy balconies brimming with pots of scarlet geraniums at each window - they would have to serve. The recklessness of the enterprise set her pulse racing and her heart pounding and she was sure she must be grinning like a maniac.
When the boy drew level with her, she was standing in the archway. "This way," she hissed at him. Startled brown eyes glanced her way, and she beckoned furiously. "Come on. They're gaining on you." Not waiting for his reaction, she turned and ran into the alleyway.
As she headed towards the fire escape, she became aware of footsteps behind her, and her grin widened. Good boy.
"Señorita," he panted. "There is no way out from here."
Not slackening her pace, she turned to grin at him. "There is, if you aren't afraid of heights."
His eyes widened, but he didn't say anything, merely tucked the small box in the waistband of his jeans. She took the steps leading to the front door, then leaped for the lowest balcony, using its railing to pull herself up. Balancing precariously on the narrow rail, she steadied herself against the wall then stretched to her full height. If she reached out, she could touch the balcony above. Good.
As she leaped upwards, one foot brushed against something solid, and moments later came the sound of a flowerpot shattering. She ignored it and consolidated her grip. Then, still hanging from the balcony, she twisted round to see how the boy was doing. Not well. He was considerably shorter than she was, and the distance between the balconies was too far for him. Shit!
She reached a hand down. "Here. Grab hold." He gave her a terrified look but obeyed, and with sheer brute strength she heaved him up beside her, hanging grimly on to him while he established his own grip - fortunately for her aching arm muscles, he didn't weigh very much.
"OK?" she asked. He blinked owlishly at her. "I'll take that as a yes."
There were two more levels of balconies to go, and by the time they reached the roof she had just about got the hang of it. One final heave and the boy was lying on the roof tiles next to her. "All right?"
"Si." His ashen face told a different story.
There were angry shouts of frustration coming from the alleyway below them now. Their pursuers weren't going to attempt to climb up the balconies after them, it seemed. But they couldn't rest on their laurels yet.
Ash grabbed the boy's arm and urged him up the gently sloping roof. Then they were at the apex and sliding down the other side. A sharp intake of breath told her he had seen the 30-foot drop awaiting them, but Ash ignored it, and, with the swiftness and sureness of a cat, leaped lightly across the gap to next roof. A thud alongside her told her the boy had followed suit, and she turned to reach out a steadying hand to him. He took it gratefully.
She lost track of how many roofs they traversed, how many gaps between buildings they leaped, or how much distance they covered. Eventually, though, she decided they had put enough distance between the boy and his pursuers and started looking for a way back down to street level. Once there, they simply rested for a few minutes, catching their breath.
The boy straightened and looked at her, then he turned on his heel and darted off down the deserted alley. . The flicker in his brown eyes had given him away though, and she was ready for him. She flipped over his head and landed in front of him, stopping him dead in his tracks. He gaped, then turned to run the other way. Once more she was ahead of him.
"Is this why you helped me, Señorita?" he growled. "You want this for yourself?" He pulled the shabby box from his jeans and held it out to her.
She glanced at it. If the exterior was anything to go by, the jewellery inside was cheap. "No."
He withdrew his hand and stared at her. His bafflement made her want to laugh. "Then what?"
"I want a promise from you."
He blinked. "A promise?" Calculation entered his eyes. "Why should I keep it?"
"Honour between thieves."
He laughed. "You aren't a thief."
"I was when I was your age."
Interest flickered behind the brown eyes. He pursed his lips. "What promise?"
"To return that -" she indicated the box, "- to its rightful owner. You don't have to give it to her in person, just leave it somewhere she'll find it."
He was outraged at that. "Why should I?"
She shrugged. "Because that's my price for saving your hide."
"You didn't save...." His voice trailed off at her challenging glare. "OK, you did, but..."
"Or I could return it for you." She held out a hand, making him clutch the box tightly.
"But I need it more than she does."
"That's not the point. Suppose those jewels are all she has to remind her of someone she loved?" Just as all I have to remind me of Sam are those hideous earrings he gave me for my birthday.
"That fat old cow never loved anyone except herself."
She blinked. "Your English is amazingly good, you know."
The compliment made his ears turn red and he became momentarily tongue-tied.
"So," she continued. "Will you promise me you'll return what you stole?"
"If it's just the money you were after.... Here." She pulled a wad of pesetas from her pocket and tossed it at him. His eyebrows shot up but he snatched the pesetas from the air then stooped and retrieved an errant note from the ground. "Why are you doing this, Señorita?" He stuffed the notes in his jean pocket.
"Because ten years ago, someone gave me the chance to go straight. And I took it and never looked back." She shrugged. "Now I'm giving you that same chance."
Suddenly he looked like the vulnerable boy he really was. His mouth twisted and he muttered for a while then he gave a loud sigh. "OK. I promise."
He peered at her from under long lashes. "That's it?"
Ash nodded. She could see he thought she was either naïve or crazy. And tomorrow he would probably go back to his thieving ways. But it was a start. And just maybe it would make him rethink, and one day...
"I can go now?"
She nodded again.
He smiled then, and it was like the sun coming our from behind rain clouds. "My name is Vito."
"Pleased to meet you, Vito." She held out a hand and shook his smaller one carefully. "My name is Blade. Ashley Blade." She returned his smile.
He batted long eyelashes at her. "I like my women older."
She laughed out loud. "Sorry, Vito. You're too young for me. And anyway," she said frankly, "I prefer girls."
It took him a few moments to recover his composure. "I have never met anyone like you before," he admitted finally, smiling ruefully. "It has been -" he gave her a dignified little bow, "an experience."
"I will keep my promise about the box," he told her seriously.
She nodded just as seriously. "I know."
He regarded her thoughtfully for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision. "I have many contacts in the islands. If you should need my help while you are here, you have only to ask."
His offer touched her. "Thank you, Vito. I'll remember that."
Then his gaze went over her shoulder and his eyes widened. "Look out!"
Shit! Ash glanced over her shoulder, but, of course, no one was there. When she turned back, she was just in time to see Vito's backside disappearing round the end of the alleyway. Why, you little...
His laughter floated back to her on the afternoon breeze.
CONTINUED IN PART 2
Return to The Bard's Corner