by Mona Morstein
Author's warning: Mona Morstein adamantly states that any reader MUST be over 18 years old to read her stories and if someone DOES read her story they are agreeing to that point and ARE over 18. If you ARE over 18, ENJOY; if you are NOT, then
other authors have stories you can read and enjoy.
Right before the reorganization of the Ministry, the most secret security organization in Great Britain, there were two main leaders of it: Mother, a wheelchair bound, corpulent, irritable man; and Father, a prim, terse, straight-backed, plain dressing, blind woman. Between the two of them the functioning of the Ministry ran smoothly; cases were successfully handled and agents were successfully managed. Of all the agents involved with that covert organization, the most valued and respected was John Steed, and it was that tall, lean, square-faced handsome man that had led the two leaders to meet in private late one night in Father's spacious office.
"Did you hear what happened last night, Mother?" Father asked, as she stood solid as a thin oak, though less willing to bend in response to the winds of life.
"About Steed? Of course I did. Had quite a job of hushing it all up today, I can tell you," the fat man said, his aide-de-camp, a strong, buxom Amazonian woman, standing silent as a mute behind his wheelchair, ever ready to cater to his every need.
"This is the fourth such event in two months. I fear that he is reverting."
"Nonsense. Steed? Why, he's solid like a rock. He's just a bit upset about Tara, that's all. Nothing more to it than that."
"Mother, I know how much regard you hold Steed in. I, however, always try to keep my personal feelings out of my analysis of any situation--"
"--Not having any personal feelings no doubt makes it easier for you, Father. Rhonda, a brandy if you please." Mother didn't really like Father, nor Father Mother, and neither was willing to take slights graciously.
"If I may continue, Mother? I fail to see how you can justify Steed's putting eleven men in the hospital in the last two months as being just 'a bit upset about Tara.' Not to mention, the men at the bar."
Mother knew that the bar incident was a wee problem. Steed in all his finery just walking into a lower working class bar last night, in Whitechapel of all places, for no reason, really, than, well, trying to pick a fight by just affecting not his normal attitude of carefree insouciance, but a more pointed, judgmental response to provocations by the locals. He had succeeded in riling them, and then had succeeded in having five of them need hospital care, two requiring surgery. Steed had needed stitches in his head. An altogether disturbing action on his part and, if nothing else, totally against all Ministry rules--they couldn't have trained, deadly agents walking around randomly fighting the very civilians they had sworn to protect.
Mother took a sip of the fine brandy Father always kept in her office, even though Father herself never touched a drop. With a sigh he relented that point, "Yes, I must admit the incident at the Black Pony Inn is utterly inexplicable. However the other eleven man were clearly related to the case he was working on. Which, I might add, he just successfully concluded."
"You stretch the truth, Mother," Father clarified. "The first three men were related to the case, and I have no problems with Steed being rough with the men that stabbed Tara. He had to take care of them quickly to enable him to get her to a hospital. She was bleeding very badly. However, his decision, unwarranted and unapproved by either of us, to then go after all the leader of that criminal organization, using violence as his method, is what worries me."
"He did uncover the leader, and a Colonel in the Air Force to boot!"
"Yes, but, Mother, please focus on the issue. Which is, clearly, that Steed used violence and intimidation to gain his information, not subtle investigation, not charming prying, not gently insinuating himself into the outer edges of the gang to slowly work his way to the top."
Mother finished off his brandy. Steed was someone he highly respected; yet, he couldn't deny the truth of Father's words. "I suppose we have to face the facts that our plan didn't work out?"
Father sat down in a chair, her legs tightly together, her hands on her thighs. "It did work for awhile." And then this reserved, hard woman surprised Mother by adding, "Poor Steed. If only Peter hadn't come back. Do you know, Mother, that once or twice I have had the terrible thought of wishing that Peter Peel had really died in his plane crash?"
Mother had never heard such a sharing from Father in his whole association with her. It dawned on him that she, too, had true feelings for Steed, not just as the invaluable asset he was to the Ministry, but as the remarkable man he was.
"It was a good plan, Father," he said, knowing it had mostly been her concept. As much as Steed and his amateur colleague Emma Peel had played a game of attempting to hide the true nature of their relationship, that of intimate lovers, everyone knew how deeply they felt for each other. London was a town of seven million, true, but in many ways it was still a small town--Steed and Mrs. Peel were seen everywhere together, especially when they were not working on a case: at restaurants, picnicking, socializing at parties, at the symphony, the theatre, and so forth. And, although he tried to hide it from his coworkers, from his friends, from Mrs. Peel, and mostly from himself, watching Steed when Mrs. Peel came into a room made it evident how much he cared for her. His eyes lit up, his controlled yet perceptible smile, his casual though immediate stroll over to her, how very comfortably near he always stood to her.
And for almost three years Emma Peel stood equally close to him, and smiled controlled yet brightly at the sight of him.
Add in an every six months psychology work-up by the very diligent and intuitive Dr. Silver, and it was put down in his psych chart that he was in love with Mrs. Peel. Very against the rules, mind you, and if they hadn't been such an amazingly successful team, the Ministry would never have allowed them to continue as partners. But, every single case they investigated they solved; every single threat they overcame; every single diabolical mastermind was readily dispatched. Steed, to ensure he was at top form and ready to rescue Mrs. Peel in any way at any time, kept up a rigid secret regimen of training that maintained his fitness level at professional athlete status. He drank, but never too much; ate well, but never excessively; was healthy and happy. Mrs. Peel had enabled him to shed the last vestiges of his rogue personality, had fostered in him his full transformation to debonair gentleman without inhibiting any of his sharply honed traits that maintained his edge as a top agent. And, Mrs. Peel herself was an amazing amateur agent, and became a valuable asset to the Ministry as well; even the fully trained Ministry female agents were only equal to some--and never surpassed any--of her innate skills and abilities. So, the Ministry turned a blind eye to the depth of their feelings for each other and allowed them their professional and personal victories.
When Peter Peel was found and returned home, Mother, Father, and the Ministry psychiatrist Dr. Silver gathered together to figure out what to do about Steed. Emma would leave him, that much was unfortunately obvious. All three feared the effect that would have on Steed; all three feared that Steed would lose in one fell swoop all his debonair and collected nature, his Edwardian gentleman self, that he had fought for years to reclaim after years of living as a darker, angrier man.
Steed didn't handle losing well --not of his freedom, not of a case, not on the polo field, and not, they knew, of Emma Peel. It was an aspect of his personality that made Steed strive to be the best he could be in any given activity: agent, sports competitor, lover.
The three of them had decided to not give Steed time to think, time to grieve, time to drink, time to fully acknowledge his loss. Right with Emma's departure, they had ordered him immediately teamed with a young woman, Tara King, who was barely out of the Ministry's Training Academy, and who, it was well known, had quite a bit of hero worship for Steed.
Steed protested at first, but had no real strength at the time to fight the decision; he knew he needed his work to keep going and if his bosses had dictated that Tara was his partner than that is what he accepted. And for a little over a year, their plan had worked excellently. They kept Steed busy with one case rapidly following another, barely giving him any time for holidays. Steed, taking the responsibility for caring and watching over a brand new, inexperienced agent very seriously, had kept his training schedule going, had limited his alcohol intake, and taught Tara how to be an agent with his flair for calmly figuring out who was doing what illegally, and then with a decided sense of unruffled composure taught her how to stop the criminal. He honed her fighting skills, and eventually, when she wore down his resistance, he became her occasional lover as well. The Ministry permitted that as they had with Emma; it increased Steed's commitment to keep Tara safe, and that kept him a sharp agent, kept him from falling into a pit of grief so deep over Emma that he never could climb back out.
Some changes in Steed had, nonetheless, occurred. He was less buoyant, less lively, less gregarious but he was still a vital agent who never failed on a case. He had fallen a few steps, but not far enough to be any sort of real problem.
nd then Tara was stabbed twice in the abdomen, one wound deeply nicking the liver, one wound perforating her intestines. She survived, barely, scars deforming her fresh, young skin, and went out on medical leave for a couple of months. During her recuperation --in which Steed went after the head of the gang-- she realized that she would never have Steed's love, and realized that she didn't want to ever get stabbed again. She had formally resigned from the Ministry two weeks ago.
Steed had absolutely refused to be given a new partner. He had made the ultimatum that he worked alone, or he resigned as well. This was where things now stood. The Ministry did not want to lose their agent John Steed--by his quitting, or by his abnegation of all he had become as they feared he would on solo status.
"Father, what do you suggest we do?"
"I suggest we grant him solo agent status and watch him as closely as possible. What else can we do? If Steed resigned, it would be a huge blow to the effectiveness and morale of the Ministry. No, we'll just have to let him go and pray that somehow he doesn't fall too far."
It was like Steed had suddenly woken from a dream into a silent nightmare of reality.
Steed had known silence in his life. The silence of midnight surveillance, of a solitary cell, of a battlefield when all the wounded are removed and just the dead remain. He had known the silence of the stalk, of escape, of having killed a man with his bare hands. He had maintained silence when reprimanded, when around estranged relatives, when he discovered his friend had betrayed him. He had known the silence of hesitation, the silence of fear, the silence of reticence, the silence of vulnerability, the silence of complacency. He had grown comfortable with such silences, as comfortable as possible, like growing comfortable with a wine that is just a touch too dry. It was his work, it was his career, it was, mostly, who he was deep inside.
But this silence, the worst silence of all, he couldn't grow comfortable with it. He couldn't accept it. He couldn't explain it away satisfactorily. The silence of loss, of loneliness, of need. The silence of a bed too large for just one person, the silence of having no one to admire the sunset with, of having no one to kiss and to say, to finally say, "I love you". The silence of hope destroyed, happiness destroyed, trust and faith destroyed.
At first, when Emma Peel had left him to return to her husband Peter Peel, miraculously returned from the jungles of Brazil, Steed had handled it quite well. Honorable, nobly. They had spoken about the day before the headlines hit the paper. It was what she had to do, return to him, they both knew it, and Steed watched her leave and wished her well. He was given a new partner, so young and inexperienced that he had been forced to care for himself well, to ensure he could care for and train her. He was given case after case, relentlessly, endlessly, not having time to realize what change, what horrible change had been effected in his life. Therefore, he had kept his life as usual--working, training, going to his club. Busy, he had kept so terribly busy, telling himself that he didn't miss her, he didn't need her, he didn't ache for her. And for a year it had worked, basically; the despair had been held at bay, the anger had been contained inside, the futility had been masked, the need had been subservient to higher, better causes. Then --after Tara's stabbing, when he was suddenly without a partner-- like waking from a stupor, from a coma, slowly did he emerge from his shock and began to realize that Emma really was gone, she had really left his life. And when she just didn't pop up at his door day by day, the door he continually stared at, waiting for the bell to ring, waiting for her to flow into his apartment, that perfect combination of intellect, beauty, and style, he began to understand that she never would pop up at his door. That he had lost her, truly, forever. He had woken up from his life to realize Emma was never going to be in it again.
It was then he began getting a bit angry and he watched dispassionately as it oozed a bit out of him as he continued over the last four months to find the leader of the gang who had injured Tara. A few men wound up in the hospital as a result, criminals all of them, and he just hadn't cared. His emotions had dwindled down to a very narrow range --anger, apathy, and despair.
His despair began to come upon him at odd moments. At his club when he was playing billiards or listening to some anecdote repeated by some old colonel, a bomb went off inside his head destroying all thoughts but one --she's gone, she's gone, she's gone, and he had to stop the game, excuse himself, leave the club. Sometimes, it happened just when he was walking done the street and he saw a favorite theatre or restaurant or he saw something of interest and just naturally turned to her to point it out and she wasn't there by his side, and it felt like a javelin had been thrust through his chest. Sometimes it happened like now, in the middle of a oppressive night when he woke up, crying like a child, having dreamt Emma lay beside him, her heart beating so loudly it seemed amplified, resounding throughout the room, the sweetest melody he'd every heard; it reassured him, soothed him. Then in the dream she left him and he begged her not to go as she walked through his door, not to leave him. But it was too late, she was already gone though he heard remnants of her heart beating like an echo in his soul until that comforting lub-dub faded entirely away, and he was left with silence. Waking, Steed wiped his face of the tears --self-deprecating his open display of sentimental emotions-- got up from his lonely bed and sat by the window, looking down at the dark and quiet street below him for her little Lotus Elan to come whipping around the corner. It never came. She never came. He watched till morning, anyway.
It was stupid, pathetic, this delayed destruction of his heart. He should just get up and go back to bed, just shrug her off, get on with his life. He should be thankful he had her for three wonderful years, be glad that she'd found happiness again with her husband. A gentleman would do so.
But, with Tara's injury the past fourteen months of his life had suddenly been exposed for what it was--a sham: a futile attempt to deny the truth, to delude himself into believing that his life was the same without her; that he could just go on without her. That he didn't really need her. That a new partner, an obsession to work all the time, or play cricket and polo, or keep busy at his club, or sleep around with nameless, faceless women was all he needed in life to be fulfilled.
He wasn't fulfilled; rather, he was filled with remorse. He had never taken Emma Peel for granted, she would have icily pushed him away at the merest hint of that, and rightly so. Yet, he had done so with their relationship; their being together. Once they had understood and exchanged their love for each other, so very rarely spoken, but so very often shown, in private, maybe sometimes, even though they tried to hide it, in public, as well, he had just believed that he had finally been given something more precious than he had even hoped to encounter in life. A reward beyond all earthly worth for all the travails he had overcome year after year until he had arrived at the moment in time when he had met her, and fool that he was, he believed she had felt that way, too. And he had just assumed, just taken for granted, like an agent should never do --never, ever assume-- that they would naturally be together forever. Ironically, the day before he'd she'd come to tell him Peter was alive --turning his blood into a thick, stagnant paste-- he had, in fact, made the wondrous decision to
Steed put that useless picture from his head.
He did not begrudge Emma her leaving, but he did her not coming back How gullible he had been, how stupid, to believe that she had ever loved him, that her lips upon his had been that passionate, that her eyes when she saw him enter a room had been that welcoming, that happy.
He had been a fool to believe in her, in their relationship. He would never be so gullible again.
Steed had heard that she and Peter were enjoying themselves like the rich socialites they were; travelling around the country and the Continent, visiting Dukes and Earls, being happily interviewed in the newspapers. It was obvious Emma had quickly and successfully let go of him and their time together she didn't need him anymore. Probably never had. He had just been a playful diversion removing her from her grief of Peter's absence; someone to challenge her genius with bizarre mysteries to solve; someone to have sex with; a dinner companion. No more. It was obvious he had really been no more than that to her. She had played a game with him, for her amusement and entertainment, setting all the rules, and he had been drawn right in as her temporary pastime. But, now, with Peter returned, Emma choose a new and better life. She had moved on to more fulfilling times, and left Steed far behind. The game had ended, badly, for him. He would play no more games with anyone.
Yet, he still wanted her to come back
He missed her and his grief for her, finally so fully realized, kept getting heavier, pulling him down, far down, into the bowel's of hell, into his past. Erasing everything he'd worked so hard to become: a respectable gentleman, a trusted and high-level agent, and a lover of one single woman he could call his own, his wife.
Steed avoided looking at couples; it was easy for him to turn his eyes from them. None were as handsome a pair as they had been, none sparkled as much, none merged so completely. Other couples were pale and grey in comparison, just like each day was pale and grey. Their silly gestures of love, their hand holding, their smiles at each other, their little touches, it made him mad to be subjected to such gross displays of affection. But, then again, many things made him mad, lately.
He had had sex with Tara, and with other women besides her; but sex with them was so barren, so meaningless, so average. Reduced to the basic element of simply achieving an orgasm. He thought he would hold off from sex for awhile from now on; his libido wasn't so high anymore, anyway.
A car drove by down on the cobblestones in front of his apartment building, a Volvo. Emma would never buy a Volvo yet he turned his head to watch it travel the length of his street without stopping
So easy. It had all been so easy around her. She had filled in all the empty spots in him, had healed all the cracks lingering in his soul, had brought him a peace, contentment, friendship, and love that he had never expected to find, never expected to revel in, never expected to lose. And when he had lost her, he now saw that he had lost something even more vital --himself, the man he had been for such a sweet, short time. Or that is, the man he had tried to be. The man he had been with her. With her absence, now Steed felt old patterns rising in him, felt his true self once more rising to the surface of his personality, his angry self, his uncaring self, his reckless self his rogue self.
Tara's stabbing had not been a good thing for her or him. Trying to impress him, Tara had entered into a situation that was beyond her rookie skills, and she and been almost fatally injured as a result. When Steed found her, and the men who had stabbed her, it was like some chained thing had ripped its shackles from the wall and went on a rampage inside him; he went on a rampage outside, beating Tara's attackers critically. It had surprised him, his violence against those men. If that had been the only manifestation, he would have justified it easily, let it go. But, it hadn't been. The thing had been set free, and Steed continued his rampage, until the Colonel had been uncovered and arrested. To celebrate, last night he had walked for miles in the city, until he entered a back street pub full of locals in Whitechapel and put several of them in the hospital too. Oh, in self defense; but, still, his very presence had instigated their ire and their attack. He knew it; he had wanted it to happen. The painful stitches in his head felt like a sort of truth, and felt good, familiar. He understood them; and he seemed to understand very little lately.
He should feel contrite about the incident, but instead, he felt a sort of wicked glee, mixed with an indifference that if he had been beaten to death, it really didn't matter. Steed was interested in how natural it all felt, the violence, the daring, his dancing around the rules and regulations of the Ministry --it felt like this suffocating cloak of civilization he had wrapped himself in had been no more than a part of a costume for a fancy dress party, and now, disdaining that cloak, his true skin was once more on show. Scarred, it was, his skin, and wary of caresses. The scars went very deep.
Mother and Father were concerned about him. Dr. Silver was concerned about him. They had reason to be, he knew. Subtle, it was very subtle what was happening to him, but it was happening nonetheless. He was changing. Or, more truthfully, just allowing certain changes that were beginning to occur, not fighting their appearance, not, honestly, caring to.
He had cared, and it had just gotten him pain of the deepest, worst kind. He felt unending loss, he felt betrayed, he felt bitter and foolish. Why should he care again? What did any of it matter? He had come in from the cold, from having lived a rough life and survived. He had cared back then, about being successful at his work, about surviving the dangerous situations he so frequently found himself in. He had done very well; had been an excellent, though problematic agent, and had lived through years that had claimed the lives of many, better men than him. Returning home to Britain, this island he relished, he had thought the hardest part was over. In England he had found his way back to being civilized, a gentleman, calm, cool, collected. Well-dressed, obeying the forms. He had a bit of money, enough to live well. When he had met Emma Peel, and they became partners, and then lovers, and then fell in love, it was as if all his work for surviving what he had in life, for changing as he had back to his heritage of being a gentleman, for believing in spending his life protecting his country, for becoming an outstanding agent, had been justified, validated, rewarded.
And then, like handing a roll to a starving orphan, only to steal it back again in a callous act of derision, Emma had left him. It should not have mattered that much, he thought; he had lost a great deal before--his freedom, his optimism, his health but then Steed realized that he had never handled those losses well, either.
He had never handled any loss well. It filled him with anger, angst, ennui. And this loss, well, really, no pain he had ever experienced matched the pain he felt when Emma had kissed his cheek that last time one and a half years ago. It was like her lips had been barbed or drenched in acid; that soft peck had slashed, burnt into his skin and sent venomous pain coursing throughout his body, paralyzing him as he watched her run out the door of apartment, run out of his life.
Steed watched the empty street for a car that never came listened for a knock that never hit his silent door
He should have gotten over her by now; but instead, he was sinking down further into a morass of gloom.
Tara was no longer an agent; he no longer had her as a responsibility. He was on solo status. He was alone. He would keep working; his work was important. It was all he had for a long time, and all he knew how to hold on to. But, he would work in a different way. A nastier way. An old way. No more debonair tolerance for the despicable slime that continually hurt innocent people, that wanted to ruin their lives, destroy their hope, plunge them into despondency. They needed to be caught and punished and he was the man to do it. And if he died trying to make things right or better, then so be it. He didn't really care. That was the only difference now, from his past years before his return --he still cared about his job, just not about surviving. He couldn't really understand what he needed to survive for.
So quickly he was going backwards. Backwards in time, in attitude, in personality. Losing ground. Losing himself. He looked at it with a certain fatalistic resignation. He had tried to be an Edwardian gentleman; he had tried to wear the suits; to be charming and pleasant; to enjoy the fine things in life, the fine people he met. It had been a valid experiment that had ended in disaster. Rogue agents don't meet the fine people; rogue agents don't meet Mrs. Peel's. Rogue agents don't fall in love. Rogue agents don't feel the pain of loss. They do their job, by any means possible; they live, they die. That's all.
That's all. A desire to see a job done right. No other caring was involved. Not for an absent colleague, not for an absent lover, not for an absent love, and especially, not for himself.
Steed began working alone. At first he took cases confined to Great Britain and solved them all usually with a modicum of violence involved; he was rarely injured himself, and never seriously. Not because he didn't take terrible chances, he did; but because he was too good an agent, too fit, too athletic, too quick, too able to defend himself, too good a shot, too canny, experienced, and intelligent to fall for most of the villains' nefarious plans. After another two months, he knew he had to leave England. He was tired of the worried and judgmental looks his club members, his family, his friends gave him when they saw the hard glint in his eyes. He was tired of always looking so nice, of having to care so much about his clothes, his hair. Some days he just didn't feel like showering, or caring if his socks matched his suit. He didn't smile much; didn't joke much; didn't talk much. He no longer felt like he fit into the society he worked to hard to become a part of; he no longer cared to fit in either. He eventually avoided his club, he did not go to affairs he was invited to, he did not visit family members. He took to carrying a gun. When he could, when it wouldn't impair his working, he drank too much, which still was not too often as he kept busy with one assignment after another, barely giving himself time to sleep and change clothes. Wanting to leave England for awhile, he asked for an assignment to investigate a new international drug cartel that was flooding England with heroine, and had already killed four Ministry agents who had been told to track down the source of the cartel. Briefly, to keep him interested in staying in the country, Mother tried to convince him to look into some odd doings at a warehouse in the dockyards instead; strange noises and lights coming from the warehouse had been reported to them, but Steed flatly refused, demanding the other case. He was therefore assigned to find evidence to indict the leader of charges of drug trafficking, and, drug cartel file in hand, excused himself from Mother's unhappy face. He spent several days reviewing all the reports the other agents had gathered before their deaths, and then reviewed all the information the Ministry and other countries' intelligence operations had discovered about this new cartel.
The trail seemed to have a branch in Morocco; Steed knew Morocco and had some contacts there. Dressing casually, closing the closet on his suits as he was closing the door on his esquire life, Steed packed a small bag, gave his basic itinerary to the Ministry, told them the sort of false life he'd need for them to create for his role, received a very ample allowance for operating funds, and flew to Morocco, posing as a arrogant drug dealer himself. It felt good for Steed to leave England; gave him freer access to be and do what he had to without the blue summer skies and lush English countryside nagging at his soul. He had returned to England six years ago to reclaim himself; that self gone, a self he realized had been a mere illusion, he felt better roaming around without any ties upon him.
Steed's Moroccan contacts were playing both sides, but he expected that, and escaped the couple of traps that were set up to capture him. Finally, he lost a tail and following him back to his headquarters and confronted a minor boss. Enough money and a verification that he was who he claimed to be (a drug dealer named Robert Tyler with a long prison record, hefty bank account, and a textile firm in Lancaster through which he laundered his drug money), and a promise that he could increase the heroine distribution in England tenfold, and he was sent to meet the next higher rung in the cartel ladder. He was sent all over Europe, constantly attacked by rival dealers who had heard of his appearance, leaving a trail of severely wounded men wherever he had been. A few men he shot in self-defense. Venice, Monte Carlo, Athens, Istanbul, Amsterdam, the cartel kept him moving. He always arrived promptly at his meeting place and sometimes was greeted by a person, sometimes just a card was taped on a door or wall giving him directions to his next location, and sometimes he met men with clubs, knives, or handguns. It was a test of financial and mental resources, and defensive skills, and Steed passed each test admirably --impressively surviving on his own, and little by little hearing enough to piece together an idea of who might be at the top of the ladder watching over his empire of filthy little drug distributors. And when Steed wound up running a few times from the local police to maintain his cover once the gunshots had died down, and his opponents had died, it just make him feel comfortable, like he was a reversed prodigal son, returning back home to the sordid life he knew best after a failed attempt to live faraway in a genteel mode that was outside his basic nature and station. He organized a couple of drug deals into Great Britain to improve his standing in the drug organization, arranging everything covertly through Ministry and Scotland Yard deep cover contacts, so that the deals appeared to be successful by having the delivery men paid off handily and reporting back that everything went smoothly, but the drugs were immediately confiscated as soon as the cartel agents returned safely to the Continent. Yet, the deals did enhance Steed's reputation, and aided his investigation, which had to grow more underhanded and subtle to hide his true purpose for joining the cartel.
To the Ministry's comfort, Steed was still alive three months after first beginning his investigation, and finally had, in Rome, hired two men to engage in a bit of injurious interrogation of someone who was a personal courier for the head of the cartel; the men found out who that head was, a rich man in Spain, Don Pedro Garcia. They told Steed, and apologized for not being able to find a specific location in Spain before the man fell unconscious. Having the Italian police arrest the courier, Steed traveled to Spain. It took a very subtle bit of investigative criss-crossing of the country, but Steed eventually found the head of the cartel without having given himself away. He did it leisurely, taking the time to stop in various towns and make some contacts in Spain using the unlimited funds available to him through the Ministry. Don Pedro, he discovered, lived in a large mansion in Castuera, his small home town south of the Sierra Morena mountains in the Andalucia area of Spain. Spanish wasn't Steed's best language, but it was an easy enough tongue, so he got by fine in the country.
Waking from his pointless and bothersome dream of missing Emma, which Steed wished he would stop having, Steed coarsely wiped his face of the tears, and decided to spend a few days surveying the area around Don Pedro's mansion on horseback and foot. He had learned in his dealings with the drug organization that Don Pedro was a nasty fellow, and it never hurt to be prepared and have an escape route already figured out.
When darkness fell on the third night, one year, seven months, and twenty-two days after Emma had left him, satisfied he understood the area well enough, Steed donned a rucksack, and dressed in black pants, black shirt, and hiking boots. Carrying a gun and a knife, Steed left his seedy hotel in Cabeza del Buey, the next town south from Castuera, and set off to burgle the Don's fine mansion and find the evidence he needed to have the drug dealer arrested. He couldn't go in the form of a gentleman, hiding his ulterior motive behind the façade of insouciant charm and friendly charisma, because he had in the last months disavowed entirely those old lies he had previously fashioned into such useless golden idols. He would just break into the house and steal what he needed like a common spy. That was who he truly was.
How does a person live day by day when every hour they are savagely torn in two between gratitude and despair, the former descended from heaven, the latter risen from hell, the combination causing havoc on Earth?
Emma Peel had struggled to learn how, reaching the defeated, subconscious conclusion that becoming apathetic and lethargic was the answer --not having the energy to curse the Fates, to have to care, to have to make a decision. She just wound up stepping through life in a hollow manner; lacking motivation, lacking spirit, lacking independence and resolve.
Innately lacking herself.
When she had driven off with Peter to their new home in the Midlands, it had been like learning to live with a different man, for Peter Peel was a different man from the one who she had married almost eight years ago. And, a very different man from whom she had loved all the years of Peter's absence. Peter, of course, agreed that he might be a tad altered, but stated forcefully that Emma was the one who had vastly changed, that their recent arguments were her fault and Emma knew that in some ways that was true. Besides, she didn't care to contest the point of who was the cause of their arguments anymore. She didn't have the energy.
And the fact of the matter was, she had changed. When Peter had reclaimed her she was different than he had remembered --she was more self-assured, more observant, more happy with who she was, and more, well, eccentric. Steed had handled her whimsical immense blocks of stone to be sculpted and test tubes and beakers with bemused appreciation; Peter saw it as odd. But, best or worst of all, she was more demanding in bed. Or not demanding, just had, well, higher expectations that Peter grew frustrated trying to consistently achieve.
Steed had grown hard in his consistently achieving them.
Emma put Steed out of her head, again. How many times a day she put him from her mind, she didn't know; it was less now that at first. She had tried to count once, but then realized that it was unfair to Peter to focus on her ex-lover like that.
Ex-lover wasn't quite right. Ex-love. Such a wonderful ex-love.
Emma put Steed out of her head.
It had been a struggling combination of sheer excitement and black depression Emma felt leaving Steed's side and falling into place beside eager and thrilled Peter. Ecstatic, joyous, bubbly, silly Peter, so glad to be alive, so glad to be back in England, so glad to be with his wife --Emma had been drawn along his tide of infectious exultation; he had laughed all the time, pointed out the colors and scents of the flowers, the settled tranquility of the sunsets, and made love to her as best he could as frequently as he could.
She had laughed, sniffed the flowers, ooh'd at the sunsets, and climaxed with him. The early days with him had been good, she couldn't deny it. They were like young lovers again, rediscovering with love all the new aspects about themselves, and all the old traits they had loved in each other. Her family, his family, they had all been so happy and relieved that everything was good again for the two of them; so many endless parties, so many old friends inviting them to visit, so many congratulations, so many newspapers writing up the fantastic tale of Peter and Emma Peel, so much travelling, like newlyweds, so many people saying how very lucky she was, he was, they both were, what a miracle it all was she had been swept away by the incredible amounts of goodwill and joy people constantly threw their way
There was this other man, you see, back in London she never said, she never mentioned no one ever said, no one ever mentioned
Peter had some scars from his crash into the jungle, though not as many as Steed. She would run her finger along them in their post-coital embrace and sometimes --finally able to rest and think after another crazy, hectic day among his second cousins or childhood friends or after visiting the pyramids-- she imagined a broader, more muscular back with a different set of scars was laying over her. The handsome head attached to it with the thick head of brown hair, whispered, "Oh, Emma, that was so very, very fine; you are so very, very fine " in a slow, quiet, low voice she only heard him use in bed. Quickly, quickly, she would wipe away the inevitable tear. Peter never saw the tear. Peter never used a slow, quiet, low voice in bed. Peter only made love once. And never lifted her up against a wall, or leaned her over his car like Steed had, so urgent for her that it took her breath away and took her to heights of pleasure she willingly climbed, only to shake and fall off her peak into his strong arms, knowing without a doubt he would always be there to support her. That he would never leave her. He may not have ever said that specifically with words, but nothing was more obvious to her, or to him.
Then, she had left him
It had not been quite so bad that first year. She had been kept so busy: setting up a new house, living with someone all the time, learning about him, having him learn about her, travelling throughout the Continent, going to constant parties, expanding a line of defense computer components at Knight Industries, helping Peter decide what he wanted to do in life; it had been a whirlwind of activity, of emotions that had kept her on a somewhat even keel
And, then, about fourteen months after Peter returned, once the invitations trickled down, once the travelling stopped, once the new Knight line was progressing fine, once they became old reporting news, once she knew about him and didn't always quite like what she saw, once he knew about her and didn't always quite like what he saw it was like she had woken up from a dream into a nightmare of split reality. This real life here, with her husband, and their entire orbit of supportive friends and relatives, and that past life of hers in London, just her and one tall man, but what a man he was
It had spilled out of her by accident, one night, when she and Peter were having dinner and he mentioned eating a raw snake in Brazil, how it hadn't tasted that bad. Emma just naturally brought up that Steed had once served her a rattlesnake stew, the snake being a gift from a Texan friend of his, and went on pleasantly describing Steed's excellent culinary skills, which he was generally too lazy to make use of, but the stew had been absolutely delicious, flavored a bit in the mesquite way of the Southwest
Peter's look had stopped her anecdote in mid-sentence. A combination of anger and dismay. They never talked about Steed, about her relationship with him either as colleagues or as lovers; it was as if those three years of her life just vanished into thin air when Peter returned. But, they hadn't, and little by little as her life with Peter slowed down and settled into a routine of domesticity, Steed came more and more to mind.
She should have been over him. It was a delightful three years, filled with an infinity of marvelous memories, but it was over. She had Peter back and he was her husband. He was who she had married. He was who everyone was so enamored with, so amazed by, so in awe of.
How many times had she heard she was so lucky, wasn't she, to be married to remarkable Peter Peel. Such an amazing man, to have survived that horrid plane crash and made it back home to you. It's a fairy tale come true, is what it is. His love for you must be so very strong, to have it keep him alive all those forlorn years; you must feel very blessed. That last comment hurt the most.
Yes, hurt. It didn't make her grateful or feel blessed. Why couldn't Emma feel that way? Why couldn't she just live with Peter and be happy, and knowing, as she did, that Steed, durable, eternal, solid Steed was going on with his life just fine without her. Had grieved her for awhile, no doubt, but had been able to overcome their parting like he had overcome so many other things in his past. She had heard he had a new woman partner Women flocked to him, he never needed to sleep alone, never needed to do anything alone; he had his work, his club, his polo, his handsome, debonair self that could seduce any woman his eyes fell upon he didn't really need her. He had obviously happily moved on without her, not looking back at all. She should just let him go herself.
But instead, she had begun to feel so lost without him. The artificial noise and hubbub that had surrounded her, insulated her, was now removed and Emma was finally able to see that it had been misguided, a celebration of expectations, not actualities.
People had expected her and Peter to rekindle the love they had had years ago, and led by that obligation she had embraced her new life with Peter with gusto and yearning. Now, a year and a half later, the last champagne bottle cork popped months ago, their actual relationship was being found to be much less than ideal.
Emma liked Peter; he was a likeable man. He was a decent person, generally kind, inquisitive, and articulate. He enjoyed cultural events and being active outdoors; he was still a bit of a daredevil and enjoyed parachuting and scuba diving. He was a history buff, especially of British wars throughout the ages, and an airplane buff. He was neat and tidy and good-looking enough, though his blond hair was just a bit too thin, his face just a bit too round, and his body just a bit too soft. He had a pleasant laugh.
But he was also arrogant, a bit snobbish, a bit boorish. He was very competitive, even in story telling, having to one-up anyone's else's anecdote. He was open to hearing Emma's opinion on all matters, but just naturally assumed his word as her husband would be the final say. He could mope for days and after they argued would withdraw until Emma approached him to make peace in their household. His ego lead him to believe he was right where humbly asking would have shown him he wasn't always --such as how he touched Emma in bed. He wore his experiences in the jungle as a badge of honor he loudly paraded in front of everyone, waving it like a flag wherever he went; it grew tiresome to Emma who was used to a stoic man carrying his difficult experiences covertly hidden underneath a quiet gentility and immaculate suits, those fine cloths completing masking the scarred history of the imperturbable man who wore them.
She grew annoyed at Peter's sense of superiority, at his addressing her as if she was still his fresh new wife eager to please him, eager to have his love. She didn't feel appreciated by him, didn't feel that he really made any effort to see her as she was now. She was a respected University lecturer, a respected CEO of a major Corporation in England, she was a leading authority on chess, on physics, on bridge; she was in top shape; she was a martial arts expert; she was talented in sculpting, painting. She had been a secret agent
Emma began to see, by Peter's slight putdowns, by his ignoring of her accomplishments, that he was jealous of her. Of how she had matured, of how she had grown, of who she had become without him and who she continued to be with him. She wasn't just Mrs. Peter Peel, wife of an air force ace pilot, or now, wife of an air force hero who had survived three years in the jungles of Brazil. She was her own independent woman, who happened to be married to Peter Peel.
Peter didn't like that. And he especially didn't like that during the years he had been gone, she had been with another man, and it hadn't been just some silly fling, or only encompassed having someone to see a movie with or share a fine restaurant meal. No, Steed had been someone she had given everything to, someone she had given all of herself to, and had been rewarded by getting all of herself and more back, handed to her on a golden platter of love.
Emma and Peter had gradually begun to fight, though not all the time; that would have made it all so much easier. Sometimes they got along well for days, still glued together by the joyous words and attentions of everyone around them. But, little by little they had begun to argue more --she didn't feel he treated her as an equal, didn't feel he appreciated all she was and could do. He didn't feel that she gave him enough attention, that he was always second to her own interests, that she didn't shower him with enough affection or regard. It was tiresome and tiring bickering; the fighting totally exhausted her. Emma never remembered being so fatigued, so lacking in energy. Some days it was difficult getting out of bed, getting dressed, getting motivated to do all the activities that used to fill her with spirit and excitement. Her sex drive fell like a meteor.
Yet, she knew, Peter needed her so much, loved her so much. And, she loved Peter and it was important not to hurt him, important to keep smiling for the endless masses of people who had celebrated their reuniting, to not disappoint them, to not bring shame to herself or Peter. They were respectable; there were appearances that needed to be maintained, for her company, for their lives. She had kept their house in the Midlands all during the years Peter was gone, but had rented it out; by some sick coincidence, her renters had moved out two months before Peter's surprise return, and Emma hadn't had the time to find new renters. Peter saw it as another confirmation of their destiny together; she saw it as having been too happily busy with Steed to worry about the old house she had lived in with Peter.
And so now, waking up from the dream of the past year and a half, she was coming to understand that if she did love Peter, then she was truly in love with Steed.
Steed. Steed had effortlessly made her feel that she was as special and respected as she needed to feel. Without being in the slightest patronizing or superficial he fed her sense of self so constantly that it had seemed that he had actually become a part of her, the best part, the most fulfilled part. Steed, who best defined what a gentleman truly was, what a lover was, what her true love was.
She missed Steed. Sometimes at a party she would spend the evening glancing around looking for him to appear on the periphery, leaning on his umbrella, tipping his bowler to her, and then saunter over gliding smoothly to her on his sexy, limber limbs. But, he was never there. And, why should he be she had left him, and he was much too much the gentleman to come looking for a married woman to steal away besides he had his own happy life now without her
Emma felt trapped; trapped by two disparate forces. One --to stay with Peter because of her love for him; because of societal conventions; because everyone expected her to be happy and want to be with Peter; because the thought of leaving him was so tiring (the explanations to everyone drained her even thinking about them, and the imminent judgmental, disapproving looks and whispers of her friends and relatives and societal and business acquaintances made her uneasy); because their home was comfortable, and he wanted to start a family and she always desired to have children; and, because she knew everyone went through tough times in their marriage and only quitters gave up so easily.
But that second force pulled her so strongly the opposite way --her growing realization that a life without Steed was a horrible punishment for having mistakenly married Peter in the first place; that without Steed in her life something beat slow and regular in her chest, but it wasn't her heart, as it seemed to her that vital organ lay pounding loudly next to Steed in his bed in London, comforted by his tall, friendly presence, even if he didn't know it was there; that her deepening grief being apart from him was suffocating her life with a dark black cloud of depression that hung a curtain of gray over her eyes, turning all the bright world into a dull and dreary existence.
It was tiring, very tiring. She should try to make things work with Peter, but she wanted to return to Steed, who was already moving on in his life with other partners, other women. She had nowhere to go, and there was nothing to do, so little by little she just accepted her life, living it like a zombie that knew how to smile and laugh at a party; that knew how to applaud when her husband did well at his tennis match; knew how to cry out louder than she was brought to in bed; knew how to yell back when she argued with Peter; knew how to casually look for Steed sitting in the classroom she lectured in or appearing in the art gallery she was walking in and hide her disappointment when of course he wasn't there; and knew how to wipe away her tears before Peter could espy them.
She thought she hid it all so well; even Peter was not aware of the sleepless nights she suffered through, walking through their house, wanting to hear a Bentley drive up to her front door. But, as the months rolled by, people started noticing Emma was not quite the same chipper woman; was not so out-going; dressed in plainer clothes; looked a little pale; had she lost a little weight? She missed a few board meetings; she had other professors cover her classes; she stopped painting; stopped smiling. She sat around a lot, not doing anything. A few days she just didn't leave her bed; she couldn't find a reason to.
She was not happy being with Peter, she was not happy being without Steed. She felt obligated to stay with Peter, yet wanted to be with Steed.
Peter didn't understand what was going on with her, and didn't really have the sympathetic mindset to ask her anything aside from "What's wrong?" When Emma replied "Nothing," as she had to --having no vigor to actually state the cause of her unhappiness, nor the energy to go into endless discussions about what was ruining her usual frisky elan-- he asked no more, and just complained about her and her worsening moods. It wasn't fair to him. Maybe she should see a doctor. Maybe she should take some pills. He hadn't come back from hell to live with a wife like her.
Emma remembered how, early in her intimacy with Steed, she had occasionally woken up crying over Peter. Steed had held her and comforted her and welcomed her spending as much time as needed pouring out her heart over her husband's death. He listened and acknowledged her loss, then asked what could he do to help, what did she need?--did she want a drink? a nice hot bath? to have him leave? or did she want him to stay? --as he wiped away her tears with the gentlest finger she had ever imagined a man could have.
She had never wanted him to leave.
No one would let her cry over Steed. So, she just began to cry over other things.
Peter noticed she wept so much more at movies, at the opera, even sometimes during TV shows. She cried when they argued, which gained in frequency. Peter had hired on at job at an engineering firm that wanted to transfer him to their larger office in Brussels to take over the vice-presidency; Emma didn't want to move there. Didn't want to leave England; break that last tie to Steed. Peter thought the change would do her good--new views, new friends, new food, new experiences. And it would be very good for him and his career. It became a big issue between the two of them. Peter decided to fly to Brussels to check out the company and real estate there; Emma stayed in England adamant about not living in Brussels.
When Peter left, Emma's friend Georgia Bell invited Emma to join her and her husband in a party in Spain, with a man who had recently started to enter their mutual social worlds charming the women and men in England and on the Continent, a Don Pedro Garcia. He had been inviting a few people to spend a week at his home in Spain for a gala affair all spring long, and the Bells had just received their invitation, with the allowance to bring another one or two people with them if they wished. Certainly Don Pedro wouldn't therefore mind if the Bells brought Emma along. July in Spain would be hot, but Don Pedro's house was air conditioned.
And so one year, seven months and nineteen days after she left Steed, Emma, too upset at Peter to think of a reason why she couldn't go, too afraid to be alone in their big house with her worsening depression, decided even more distance between her and Peter would be good for a week. Hoping that maybe the fun of the event would perk her up, she left a brief note for Peter saying she was on a short trip to Spain, then slowly and mechanically --like a robot with low batteries--packed a bag and went.
The Sierra Morena mountains stand no higher than two thousand feet and angle slightly from the southwest to northeast in the lower half of Spain, being at the top of the section of Spain known as Andalucia. At that relatively low height, the mountains still contain trees --pines and oaks-- and harbor some small population of deer. The southern aspect of the mountains drops precipitously down into the potentially fertile valley of the river Guadalquivir, although droughts were common and the harvest often capricious. That was the childhood home of Don Pedro, and was where his estate still existed, about 30 miles outside Cordoba in the province of Cordoba. The land had been in Don Pedro's family for two hundred years and unlike the estates of many landowners that had once lived around him, his acreage had not been broken up into petty little plots of land due to inheritance squabbles and family fighting. Don Pedro still retained a large parcel of orchards and farmland.
The Bells and Emma flew into Madrid, and then took a small plane to Cordoba, landing in the afternoon. They were met by a uniformed chauffeur with white gloves in Don Pedro's pay who refused to allow them to carry their bags and who drove them the thirty miles to his estate in Castuera not one mile above the speed limit. To Emma the land was somewhat harsh and often barren but still beautiful, with low scrub bushes, aromatic sage, grasses, prickly pears, and fields of red, blue and yellow wild flowers decorating the wide expanse visible outside her car window. Some rain had come, the chauffeur said, and that is why everything was so lush. The Sierra Morena mountains were outlined in the distance; a nice break from the flatness of the lands around her, but too small to be imposing. Emma noticed a large lizard sitting on a rock by the road flicking its tongue out as they drove by.
The chauffeur explained Don Pedro's family history. His family had made money in successful coal mines up north, in Pamplona, but again, unlike many of their wealthy contemporaries, had never chosen to leave their estate and move to Madrid or Barcelona into an expensive villa surrounded by all the sophistication of urban culture. No, Don Pedro's ancestors stayed close to the land, their independence and their resolve tied to demanding their arid homeland produce sustenance for them. The estate grew oranges and apples, raised pork, and farmed wheat, all done by peasant workers that held a high regard for the Garcias for the fair pay and treatment they had received for generations at their hands. Oh, they were severe, the Garcias, demanding hard work and work done well, but when it was, the peasants didn't suffer from abuse or neglect.
The car passed an impressive amounts of orchards and wheat fields. Eventually they approached the mansion of Don Pedro and the car turned right onto a curved, paved driveway, passing through an open metal gate interrupting a high and thick granite wall with broken glass affixed to the top.
"Don Pedro likes his privacy, I see," Sydney Bell casually mentioned.
"Indeed, sir," the chauffeur answered, in a heavily accented English. "There are, you know, all sorts of criminals about. However, do not worry, you will be safe and well taken care of by Don Pedro."
Emma's eyes reflexively looked to the chauffeur as he mentioned "criminals," but she made no comment, having no interest really in the topic, and returned her view to the approaching beautiful home of her host. The Cadillac stopped by the entrance, and she exited the car before the chauffeur could rush out and open her door; he was a little put off by that breach of etiquette. Emma could not have cared less. His good mood was reinstated when the Bells waited for his assistance.
Emma studied the house with the air of observation her years of working with Steed had naturally developed. It was a two story sandstone house with a porch that was also walled off and gated, though the gate was swung open as had been the one at the head of the driveway. Palm trees and ferns decorated the porch and a trestle with roses hung was attached to each side of the wall; other flowers, begonias, jasmine, tulips, were set in pots until the air was heavy with aromatic scents, seeming to deplete what little energy her slow, lethargic body had for use lately.
Steed loved flowers. That one, there, that blue carnation, it would look so perfect in his lapel when he wore that light blue suit and golden yellow tie
If anyone noticed Emma give her head a quick, mind-clearing shake, they did not comment.
The chauffeur directed other uniform servants to remove the luggage to their guests' bedroom, and then led the way for the Bells and Emma to follow into the house. It was cool inside, and obviously air conditioned; Emma thought that would take a great deal of money to maintain such an enjoyable temperature throughout the hot summer months.
The house was elegant and very Spanish, which to Emma's English eyes meant a bit garish. Just a touch too many wall hangings, colorful blankets and paintings --her eyebrows raised at the sight of a Goya and an El Greco, Don Pedro's family did have money; just a touch too much silver and turquoise proudly positioned in the display cases; just a touch too harsh, with too many archaic guns and shiny swords positioned in the hallway; just a touch too much furniture filling the rooms in a mixture of dark woods and bright fabrics.. The entranceway was marbled, and there were more potted plants all around the rooms they walked past. The house was typically symmetrical in the Spanish way, two large square sections to Emma's left and right, the wide marble hallway that connected them with the stairway slightly off center to the right. They exited the house in the back, entering the courtyard, with its one open side facing a field of apple trees and the mountains only thirty miles away. Beyond the courtyard to the right she saw a chain link fence that surrounded a shiny swimming pool; two young women in bathing suits reposed on chaise lounges on the white deck, each reading a book. She saw a couple of men riding through the orchard on horses, their cowboy hats protecting them from the warming afternoon sun. The courtyard was large, with a pool of water in a long rectangular basin in the middle, arches of ivy encircling their heads, statues of bullfighters waving their capes, more plants all around them. Against the left wall of the courtyard was a buffet table of meats, fish, fruits, rice and vegetables, behind which stood a solemn servant dressed as fancily as one who would have been approved to serve the Queen.
Emma had to admit Don Pedro had a lovely Spanish home, beautiful lands, and was a conscientious host.
Now she just had to discover his flaw.
"There's always at least one major flaw with these gracious gentleman, my dear," a smiling Steed had advised her once at a party, as he caught her ogling a dashing Army Colonel making the rounds enchanting all the women, as the officer approached her, "except, of course, with me."
The happy memory of her response --a loud snort, and Steed's fake insulted face. She smiled as she recollected him trying to hide his jealously as she danced a number of times with the Colonel; Steed never could hide his apprehensive umbrage well, no matter how realistically he thought he was acting normally. He became a bit too flippant, a bit too biting of his rival, a bit too overly unconcerned --gestures that reeked of a covetous attitude he would have denied loudly and endlessly-- and then later, much later, he became a bit too quietly grateful when she had made it very clear to him that he had no need ever to be jealous of any other man
Now, looking back, Emma couldn't quite remember which major flaws of Steed had made her snort. She remembered him being a as close to a pure gentleman as she had ever met. Overlaying a strong, cunning, very capable, effective, deadly man of action. An admirable mix in a man. An admirable man.
Another head shake.
"Ah, I see our latest guests have arrived, Rafael," said a man of medium height, as trim as could be, as he strode over to the chauffeur and Emma and the Bells. He spoke in perfect English with a rich Spanish accent flair.
"Yes, sir, Mrs. and Mrs. Harris Bell and Mrs. Peter Peel," the chauffeur said, bowing slightly in deference to his employer.
"Ah, Mr. and Mrs. Bell, I'm so very pleased you accepted my invitation to travel to glorious Spain and spend some days with me in my humble home," the man said, shaking Mr. Bell's hand firmly and then lifting Mrs. Bell's hand and kissing the back.
"Very grateful for the invitation, Don Pedro," Mr. Bell answered. "You've quite a handsome home and estate."
"Thank you. I'm so glad you approve. Rafael will show you to your rooms now. I'm sure you will wish to wash and change from your travelling clothes, yes? Then, perhaps, you would like a swim? Or, do you ride a horse? You shall not complain of boredom here, I assure you. Now, please do let me attend to my other guest."
The Bells nodded and suddenly Emma was looking at her host, having her hand kissed, too. He was not exactly good-looking, his face was too angular, his long, waxed at the end mustache too narrow. His pitch black hair was cut short, like one would see on a statue of a Roman senator. His eyes and mouth were a shade too small for his face, making him look, well, like he didn't smile easily and could be a very dangerous man. Emma hated judging her host in that fashion, but it was a feeling that set her slightly on edge. He was dressed in white shirt with smaller black jacket, cut short in the Spanish style with a large emerald set in his bolo tie; it was matched with a large emerald set in a gold band on his ring finger. An expensive watch blared from his wrist. Emma found the jewelry very pretentious.
"I am delighted to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Peel," Don Pedro said in a smooth voice that was deeper than she would have thought his slim body could produce. "How wonderful for the Bells to bring you. It is to have the pleasant surprise of meeting beautiful women like yourself that I allow my invited guests to bring one or two others."
Emma was already bored. She had no energy for small talk. She probably shouldn't have even come. Yet, she was here, Don Pedro was her host; she owed him some formal and gracious response.
"Thank you, Don Pedro. I haven't spent much time in Spain at all, and none at all in rural areas. It's beautiful, even in its harshness."
"Ah, indeed, Mrs. Peel. And where there is harshness there is strength, don't you agree? One must be strong to survive and prosper in frequently arid, unproductive lands." A glint, Emma noticed a decided glint in his eyes.
"Yes." She had no more ability to speak. She just wanted to lay down.
Don Pedro astutely noticed her mood. "When Rafael returns, I shall have him escort you to your bedroom, to have some time alone. When you feel like rejoining us, please do so."
Emma felt a tinge guilty over her obvious disinterest in continuing chatting with Don Pedro, which he had understood, but she was equally happy that it appeared he was not put out by her desire to retreat into her bedroom for awhile. She and the Bells were supposed to be here for five days; that would afford plenty of time to socialize in the way a well-bred Englishwoman was able to do, even if she was tired to her bones.
Rafael returned and Emma was taken upstairs to a room at the far end of the hall, right next to some glass doors edged with a curtain of thin white material. The doors opened onto a balcony running down half the side of the house. Once in her room, small, but well appointed with thick mattresses on the four poster bed, dresser, plenty of hangers in the closet, and full bath, she kicked off her sandals and then lay down on her bed still dressed in nice slacks and short-sleeve top. A familiar heaviness claimed her, but not sleep, and after a few minutes she noticed tears spilling out of her eyes, though it happened so regularly now, she didn't even know why.
The "gala affair" was frankly Victorian, Emma decided two days later; something from the 1880s. The days passed with extensive breakfast and lunch buffets --with meat, much pork, and fish; rice in several different sauces or plain; artistic displays of fruits and vegetables; French desserts; Belgium chocolates; English teas and Italian coffees. Bottled water and lemon slices were plentiful. The bone china was lovely, the glasses crystal, the cutlery silver.
Dinner was a sit down elegant meal and formal attire was requested. Seven courses long and decidedly epicurean, Emma wondered just who Don Pedro was trying so hard to impress --his guests, or himself? He had the good manners to not comment on the small portions she took nor the food she left on her plate. Even if her appetite had been its normal hearty self, there was enough food to feed probably all the peasants who worked for him, let alone the affluent group of eight other visitors she was among. Emma reviewed the people that sat around the dining room table with her: From Bristol--Dr. and Mrs. Richard Downey; From Paris--Mademoiselle Bourcier and her twenty-something, full-figured daughter Yvonne; From Austria--Herr Frantz; From Rome--Senore Pannelli; then the Bells and her. Nine in total. Somehow, over the two days Emma had found the strength to at least introduce herself and hold desultory conversations with them, learning who did what and getting a basic glimpse into each visitor's personality, although she was certainly not going to win any awards for being the most gregarious. Both the Herr and the Senore quickly understood she was not amenable to any personal attentions, as her chilly rebuffs and holding of her wedding band closely up to their eyes undeniably indicated.
The activities during the day were numerous --croquet, riding, archery, swimming, shooting, nature hikes over the hills before the sun rose too high, and reading (Don Pedro had an impressive library of Spanish and English books). At night, there was always some live music playing and there was a bit of dancing, of drinking, socializing, and sometimes charades. Perhaps, Don Pedro or Yvonne sang (they both had wonderful voices), or they all engaged in lively political or topical discussions.
Positively Victorian, yet in its own way, where each guest was allowed to independently decide want they wanted to do when, very relaxing and enjoyable.
Don Pedro spent much but not all his time with them. Sometimes he disappeared for minutes, sometimes for hours. A few times some men showed up and Don Pedro left to speak with them.
Emma played a little croquet, went on a few rides, dove into the pool a couple of times, and applauded Don Pedro's rendition of opera and romantic songs; yet, she stayed inside more than the others, usually alone, and usually in the library on the first floor. She liked the coolness of the room, and felt comforted by the walls of bound volumes that spoke to her mind, allowing herself at least temporarily to forget her emotions. The furniture was extremely plush; thickly padded dark brown leather cushions in chairs with wooden arms wide enough for three of Emma's forearms to fit on top. She liked sinking into it, wondering if she concentrated hard enough she could have her body entirely liquefy, disappearing down the sides of the cushions into the depth of the chair never to be seen again, never to be torn in two again.
But she didn't liquefy; instead, on the third day, she noticed a bookend at the far side of the long, tall shelves of books. It was a statue of a comely, yet shy Spanish woman, her coquettish nature illustrated by her hands clasped low in front of her, and her shoulder elevated as she turned her head to the side. Her billowy dress blew slightly up as if she existed in a windy day. Emma, attracted by the sheer innocence portrayed by the artist, stood up and went over to the figurine and lifted it up to study it closer. Looking at its marble base, Emma was surprised to see that there was a hole in its center; in fact the hole went straight through into the statue itself, all the way, Emma perceived, to the shoulders of the woman, where, when she held it just right to the light, she thought she could see a bit of metal. Intrigued, she sat back down with the statue on her lap and speculated why the statue was hollowed out in that singular manner.
It was after a few minutes of unsuccessful thought that her eyes wondered over to a long thin piece of wood attached to the wall next to the bookcases on a metal base, from which hung a small Spanish flag. It seemed to be the exact thickness of the hole and did it have a piece of metal at its tip? Gathering more interest in this than in anything else in her life for the last several months, Emma flicked her eyes around to make sure she was alone, then stood up and casually walked over to the flag. One more check to make sure no one was watching, for she felt rather silly more than cunning, she raised the statue over the stick and slid it down the piece of wood. There was a soft "click" as the two squares of metal connected and then with the weight of Emma's hand the stick tilted downwards, and a sheet of panelling popped out from the wall, exposing a narrow hidden corridor behind the wall.
Having no clue as to what she thought she was doing, Emma lifted the statue off the stick, placed it back on the bookshelf in the exact position she had taken it from, and with one more glance around the room and down the hallway, she grabbed a candlestick with a tall white candle it in and the matches beside it, and stepped into the narrow corridor and closed the paneling behind her.
She lit the candle and used the small flame of it to examine where she was.
It was dusty there, and somewhat claustrophobic, but she had been put in enough situations working with Steed to have learned how to overcome the rising incapacitation of fear. Emma took some deep breaths and calmed herself, allowing curiosity to replace anxiety. The path to her right ended just two feet away, so she began walking to her left, winding her way around a several tight turns until she stopped to listen to three different voices she could just barely make out through the wall to her right. She leaned her ear to eavesdrop, knowing it was wrong to do so, but too involved in the whole secret passage discovery to stop herself at this point. The three men spoke in Spanish, a language she could understand fairly well. The deep bass voice she immediately recognized as belonging to her host; the other two were unknown to Emma.
"<--in Rome, Don Pedro. Our police source there found out from the courier that he gave the men who beat him your name and country of origin. Someone is on to you.>"
Long silence. Don Pedro, spoke, "<I see. Who is it?>"
"<We don't know. The two men who beat him disappeared; who hired them is a complete mystery.>"
"<And the courier?>"
"<Taken care of, Don Pedro. An unfortunate, ah, heart attack is on his death certificate.>"
"<Good. Very good. Don't look so serious, my friends. Now that we are aware of some danger, we will be prepared, yes? Set up some extra guards, José. How is business otherwise?>"
"<Everything is fine. We are making progress in New York.>"
"<Good, then go and have some food, then leave. I have guests to attend to.>"
"<As you wish, Don Pedro,>" said the one.
"<Good-bye, Don Pedro,>" finished the other.
Emma left and retraced her steps back to the library. "Every gracious gentleman has a major flaw," Steed had said. It was apparent she had found Don Pedro's. He was an international criminal. Of what sort, she didn't know, yet, but he was a criminal, she was sure, with Italian police in his pocket to boot. Like Beresford had used cypernauts nefariously. Like Prendergast had killed people in Berlin. So many "gentleman," so much evil. So many flaws.
And then there was Steed. "Except for me" he had said, and Emma now realized that maybe, just maybe, he had been completely truthful. After all, hadn't that Colonel been found to have tremendous gambling debts? Steed certainly hadn't been perfect, but he'd been forever honest, loyal, and true. Qualities that seemed to Emma to be found in limited and declining quantities on Earth.
Shaking her head free of its thoughts, Emma found the panel door and making sure she heard no people, she opened it quietly, stepped back into the library, licked her fingers and extinguished the candle, closed the door back into perfect camouflage, replaced the candle as it had been, and then returned to the other guests playing croquet on the lawn. Her mind came back with an encore thought, though, and for a moment she forgot herself and searched for Steed casually holding a mallet in hand, to have him help her solve this mystery.
He wasn't there, of course, on the lawn. And suddenly, the thrill and excitement of her discovery faded completely away.
At 11:00 p.m. that evening, Steed sneaked up to the periphery of Don Pedro's house. He had ridden a horse up to a mile away from the expansive abode and then tied him to a bush, making his way on foot closer, as he darted nimbly and silently through the orchards and away from the men patrolling Don Pedro's property. Steed finally knelt watching the house one hundred yards away. Lights and music still came from the courtyard, and for a few seconds Steed felt a sad nostalgia for the times he had been a comfortable part of that sort of wealthy set; it was so recently his life, yet seemed so long ago.
Bringing himself back to the present, he studied the home and decided the window he would use to break into Don Pedro's house, later, when the signs of revelry settled down. He turned his attention back to the revelers; his binoculars couldn't detail any specific individual. He just caught men and women people moving about. He caught the sight of more guards; he would have to be very careful. Steed was surprised that Don Pedro always had this many men about; with the courier held tightly under police guard there wasn't a way for Don Pedro to know his real name and country of residence had been uncovered. Don Pedro must just be a very cautious man.
Steed sat down under a tree and with the patience he was renown for began to wait for his chance to completely ruin Don Pedro.
At midnight the party began to break up, and the guests, one by one, or in couples, returned to their bedrooms, downing one last drink, sharing one last anecdote, demanding one last song from the jazz band that had regaled them all night. Emma demanded nothing, and when the Bells were the first to excuse themselves, she quickly followed suit. In her bedroom she could eventually hear the other guests walking down the hall to their rooms, until everything grew quiet. Emma had decided to not tell the Bells about her discovery of Don Pedro's illegal activities until they were all safely back in England; until then she would just act normally. Well, whatever normal was for her lately.
She undressed and put on her nightgown and then lay in bed, exhausted in so many ways, yet not the one that enabled her to fall asleep. How long Emma lay there she didn't know, when suddenly she heard a great commotion in the yard under her window. Even after one and a half years of retirement from being an agent, some reflexes remained, and she dashed to her window, opened it up, and stood to the side to not be visible. She was just in time to see a bit of metal flash in the moonlight and hear someone whisper fiercely in Spanish, "<No guns! Don't use guns!>" Someone else, a bit further away called out, "<This way!>" leading the men she could now espy beneath her in that direction. She followed them out into the hallway, then cracked open the glass doors leading to the balcony just enough for her to scoot through, closing the after her. She fell to her hands and knees in the cooler night air, thus staying hidden behind the wall. She heard two men stayed behind watching the others run off.
"<We'd better wake up Don Pedro,>" one said.
"<He won't be happy,>" the other one stated.
"<At least he's winged. Antonio got him in the leg. He can't get far hobbling like he was.>"
She heard the men reenter the house.
Emma went back to her bedroom and dressed quickly in her darkest slacks and long-sleeve top and her gym shoes, and then grabbed a candle from the candle holder on her dresser, and a book of matches she removed from a drawer of her night table. She opened up her bedroom door, glanced down the hallway to make sure it was empty, and then left her room. She ran down the hallway and then slowly descended the stairs into the library, where she used the statue to open up the secret panel door. Inside the hidden corridor, Emma lit the candle to use for light. She followed her steps of earlier that afternoon --that walking around the house nonchalantly she had figured out was Don Pedro's study next to the library-- and soon stood in the same area, listening once again to voices behind the wall.
"<--must have sneaked in through a window, Don Pedro. You didn't want to have the alarm on in case a guest wandered about. He was good, I'll tell you that. No patrols saw him outside and no one heard him inside. If Diego hadn't decided to smoke one of your cigars, and came upon the man putting your books in his rucksack, then he would have been gone without a trace.>"
"<So, Diego, it seems I must reward one thief tonight, yes?, and try to kill another. Be glad you are the former,>" Don Pedro said.
"<I am, Don Pedro.>"
"<What happened next?>" Don Pedro asked.
"<Well, Diego held him at gunpoint, took his gun and knife, and called in me. I have to admit, he was a cool fellow. Didn't show any fear at all. He, uh, actually lit up one of your cigars, himself.>"
"<What did he look like?>"
"<He was in his forties, tall, thick brown hair, broad shoulders, lean and fit, a bit of a cleft chin. English by his accent, which he didn't try to hide>."
Emma blinked rapidly several times in the dark corridor as her stomach wriggled and kicked around inside her. Surely, it was just a coincidence. A lot of men fit that description
"<And his name? Did he say his name?>" Don Pedro asked.
"<Yes. Grayson Thomas. An English name.>"
Oh, god, Emma thought, her eyes widening as she put her hand over her mouth. Grayson Thomas. It was true, it had to be true. That was one of Steed's aliases. She remembered asking him about it.
"It's Thomas Gray, just about, in reverse," he had explained, pouring them both a brandy. "Added the 'son' to Gray to make it a more realistic Christian name."
"Thomas Gray?" she had asked.
"Yes, you know," he said, handing her the alcohol and sitting down next to her, "the poet who wrote 'Elegy in a Country Courtyard.' Contains that famous line -- 'far from the madding crowd'. You know it?"
She had nodded. "But, why the reversal of his surname and Christian name?"
He had smiled that smile that deepened his eyes into eternity. "Because, my dear, my line of work is not 'far from the madding crowd'; it IS the madding crowd. The reverse, see?"
Emma had not always appreciated Steed's cynical sense of humor.
But, it had been his alias, no one else's, and he fit that description perfectly. Suddenly Emma gasped as she remembered what the man had said underneath her window "At least he's winged."
Struggling to maintain her composure, Emma realized she had missed a few sentences.
"<--broke my damn nose, Jesus's arm, and knocked Diego out. He's still out. Happened so quickly; the man must be a professional. Ducked out the window as I radio'd for help.>"
"<And?>" Don Pedro asked, his low voice full of warning.
"<And, the men went after him. Antonio shot him in a leg with an arrow as he ran across the apple orchard. Still, before we could get to him he took to horseback and so did Antonio and the others. Found the arrow broken in two in the orchard; he must be bleeding a bit if he pulled it out. I told the men to not use their guns which would wake your guests.>"
"<And you are sure none of them woke up?>"
"<None have been seen, Don Pedro.>"
"<Good. Have someone watch the hallway to make sure no one leaves their room. I am putting the alarm system on now in case this Englishman had accomplices. Make sure everyone remembers the code numbers.>" There was a pause. "<Alright, it's on. So, Antonio shot him, and he still got away?>"
"<Yes, but he can't get far.>"
Suddenly Don Pedro exploded. "<He better not get far! He stole my account books from my locked drawer, my address book and the delivery schedule for the next month from my wall safe. With those he could ruin me! And the bastard also stole my family's most valuable heirloom, the necklace given to my ancestors by Queen Isabella. That necklace is priceless. I want that man found, tonight! Do you understand? Tonight!>"
There was a radio beep, then she heard the unknown man say, "<Don Pedro, Antonio reports that he shot the man a second time, knocking him off his horse, and he still scurried away. Must have the constitution of an ox. They're continuing to look for him.>"
"<Hold on a minute, gentleman,>" Don Pedro said, and then everyone stopped talking.
Emma began shaking uncontrollably in the corridor. Steed, here, in Spain, at Don Pedro's? By himself? Without a partner? With no back-up but a horse? Just sneaking in to burgle the house? That wasn't like him; it more a part of his Cold War past method of working. Confusing. And now learning he was injured winged in the leg shot off his horse She was full of concern and worry and that birthed a determination to go and help him, which filled her with more energy than she had felt in total for the past three months.
Emma left the corridor, again snuffed out the candle with wet fingers to prevent smoke from drifting off, and then without another thought dashed out into the dark, slightly breezy night, hiding from any men she noticed about. Don Pedro had electric torches hanging off pegs in the courtyard to enable his guests to safely walk about his land, admiring the night sky, without tripping on the uneven ground. All but one was missing; she took that one, tested it to make sure it worked and then ran out into the fields. She knew the surrounding areas from horse back riding and taking a touring car ride with Rafael into the nearby towns. She knew Steed, knew him so well; she knew where he would go if he was injured and scared. She set out north for a ten mile long night's jog using the road for a guideline, but sticking to the dry land a hundred yards from it. When she came upon a large snake laying on the open ground in the first half mile, she nimbly danced around it and just kept going. She could hardly believe that in just a couple of hours, she'd be with Steed again. It charged her legs with stamina and her pace never faltered.
Emma Peel found the two hundred year old Church of St. Mary by the blue light of the moon, still high in a cloudless sky. It was in the middle of the poor rural town of Montoro and was made of stone, like all the buildings, except the homes constructed of mud, but was taller at three stories and once had an attached bell tower. There was no bell tower and no bell now, Don Pedro had explained as they had driven by it, for it had all fallen down one hundred twenty years ago, and the people had decided they liked the building better without it, so hadn't built another. Don Pedro said he would have bought a new bell for them, but they liked the silence of the Church now; it fit the silence of the land; the silence of their complacent lives. They needed no ornaments for their faith, and no new towers nor bells.
Emma entered the church shining her torch before her; no church door was ever locked in this area, Don Pedro said, no thieves would steal from such a holy place. The first floor of the Church contained the pews, solid oak and well varnished; one window was stain glassed and some lovely religious icons were held on little shelves supported around the walls. There was a sense of peaceful acceptance and of undeterred reverence in the chapel, even with it being empty, and even with the results of raw violence Emma was sure now hid above it.
It wasn't that Steed was religious and that was why he hid in the church; it was because it was the highest building in the area, giving him the best view of men approaching him, and in general criminals did not think of churches as places to search. Emma wondered how far he had traveled until he was shot off his horse and had to walk the rest of the way. She wondered how he had managed to evade his pursuers so completely. She wondered a million other things as well.
Finding a side door in back of the altar, she pushed it open and saw a wooden stairway. Emma climbed up a flight of stairs and then without stopping to examine either of the three rooms on the second floor, she ascended to the third floor. A spot of blood on the wall at the top of the landing discovered by her torch beam made her gasp but also filled her with hope and joyous disbelief. Disbelief that here, now, after interminable nineteen months, she would finally see Steed again.
She made her way tip-toeing down the hall by habit. The third floor was arranged just like the second. The first two rooms were empty, but in the third she saw Steed sitting on one bent knee on the floor by a window, his right leg bent up with his foot on the floor. With the moonlight shining in through the window she saw the rent in the Steed's trousers and through it the circle of gauze wrapped around his thigh. A roll each of gauze and of tape, a penknife, and an open rucksack lay on the floor next to him.
Steed was bent over, his left arm curled in front of his body, his right hand reaching in front and over his left shoulder to grab hold of an arrow sticking out of the top of it. She saw him tug at it as he emitted an exclamation of pain; the arrow hardly moved and Steed's hand fell to his side, his chest visibly expanding and contracting with his breathing.
Emma took a step into the room, her heart beating so fast it seemed to not be beating at all.
"Steed ," she said.
He turned his head a little and then had to complete the turn using his whole body to fully view her, the arrow imbedded high up in the muscle of his shoulder obviously impairing the movement of his neck. His face entered the moonlight, and the beads of sweat on it were like sparkling pale blue diamonds. His eyes narrowed a little upon viewing her.
"Mrs. Peel, how kind of you to appear to me as a hallucination," he said. "But, really, I wonder if you might not exchange yourself for some more pertinent visualization --a three-headed bull, or, grotesque Picasso images floating about. Something more Spanish, to fit the situation." He turned back to the window and once more grabbed hold of the arrow.
She took another step closer. "I'm not a hallucination, Steed. I'm real."
Steed nodded a few times. "And a contrary vision to boot. Well, nothing like keeping to form even as a delusion."
Emma wasn't too pleased to hear that. Had she really been that contrary with him? What did he mean? Of course, letting someone know you love them with all your heart and then leaving them could be considered "contrary." Emma watched as his right hand struggled to reach the shaft of the arrow, but it was so impossibly situated that he was unable to grab hold of it whether he stretched over or under his back. Emma imagined he wanted to break it in half like the one in his leg, so he'd have less to pull through the wound; it was a hopeless task. Even if he could have reached the shaft, which he clearly couldn't, she saw see from fifteen feet away that it was a hollow metal arrow, not wooden, and he wouldn't obtain the leverage necessary to crack its higher tensile strength. After a few deep, preparatory breaths Steed understood the futility of his actions and again grabbed hold of the arrowhead, yanking hard; he got an inch or two of movement but at a agonizing cost. He cried out and collapsed forward, his eyes scrunched closed and his face a pure grimace. His right hand gripped his left upper arm tightly and he moved in a slight rocking motion back and forth in his distress.
That catapulted Emma into action. She dashed forward and grabbed hold of Steed's right shoulder, kneeling by his side. However, as soon as her hand landed on his body, Steed sat up wide-eyed and in a flash scooted backwards away from her. That sudden retreat concurrently frightened Emma who fell backward herself, landing on the floor. They stared at each other for a few seconds until Emma's calm returned and she spoke.
"Steed! For goodness sake, it is really me, Emma. Let me get that arrow out of your back."
"What are you doing here?" he asked, in no way showing he welcomed her being there or her offer of helping. Emma was deflated by his reaction to her, but was adamant that she would help him.
She explained her puzzling presence. "I was staying at Don Pedro's, part of his party guests, and eavesdropped on him and some men talking about a burglar who was apprehended, and then escaped, wounded. I knew it was you they were talking about, and I knew you would be hiding here."
"Go back to Don Pedro's. Peter is probably looking for you." Curt, rude, dismissive. Well, two could play whatever awful game Steed was playing.
"I'm not going," she said, standing up, and looking down at him. "Besides, Peter is in Brussels."
"Good for Peter. Go anyway."
"I'm not going and you're in no position to make me go."
"I didn't need to make you go before," he said. "You did it perfectly well yourself. Now, do it again."
Tears sprung to Emma's eyes, but she blinked them away. Steed had never spoken to her in this brusque, insensitive way, had never spoken to anyone that way, not even the worst of the criminals they had captured. What was going on with him? A horrible idea came to Emma that Steed hated her now. It almost made her faint, and only her resolve to come to Steed's aid kept her knees from giving out.
"No," she repeated, walking closer to him. He shied away again. "Stop being so stubborn. Let me remove that arrow. I can break the shaft in half."
Steed paused before answering. "Fine. Remove it, then go."
"Fine," she said, too upset to tell him she loved him, that his words were tearing holes in her body just like the arrow had in him. She wondered if he would tenderly call her "Emma" at all; she was beginning to seriously doubt it. She was beginning to doubt that her life would ever be happy again.
It took some strength to bend the shaft the numerous times it required to finally have about 2/3 of the hollow metal shaft break off, leaving only the slightly barbed head and the other 1/3 to pull out.
"Steed, prepare yourself. This will hurt you," Emma advised as she took the arrowhead firmly in hand.
"Ah, ever so consistent, eh, Mrs. Peel?" he replied, flippantly, as he closed his eyes again and clenched his jaw together.
Ignoring his vicious comment, Emma took a deep breath, and bracing one hand on his right shoulder, with a smooth, powerful pull removed the arrow from his back in one motion. Steed couldn't help crying out a little sound of pure pain, and then he was silent, leaning back against the wall and unfolding his legs as he slid down to sit on the floor. Emma picked up the rolls of gauze and tape.
"Now, I'll wrap this around the injury. You're bleeding quite a bit. Let me help you take off your shirt."
"No!" Steed immediately said, his right arm raising as if to defend himself from her. He then repeated, softer, "No." Then, in his nicest tone since she had come into the room he dropped his hand back down and added, "Please just go away."
"Steed, why are you being this way?" Emma asked.
Steed glared at her. "Ask your ring finger."
She glanced down at the wedding band tightly wrapped around it. She didn't wear her engagement ring with it, with the ostentatious diamond on it, never having been much for showy jewelry.
Then he repeated, firmer, "It's been smashing fun seeing you again, but now, please just go away. It is your specialty, after all."
She couldn't keep the question at bay any longer. "Do you really hate me that much, Steed? Do I now just fill you with loathing?"
Steed turned his head away from her, his eyes closing. "Yes, Mrs. Peel, I really hate you. Now, will you go away? Go back to your happy life, your wonderful husband, your newspaper interviews, your endless social fetes, your painting, your lectures. No need to bother with me."
Tears rolled down Emma's cheeks. "I don't believe you hate me," she said.
Still he would not look at her. "Mrs. Peel, what does any of this matter? Go back to Don Pedro's before he notices you're gone. Then go back to Peter."
Before she could tell him she didn't want to a low bass voice filled the room as Don Pedro and several man entered it.
"It's quite too late for that, Mr. Thomas, or should I say, Mr. Steed," Don Pedro intoned. Then he bowed to Emma courteously. "I want to thank you for helping us to find my late night burglar friend, Mrs. Peel. It is not your fault that when I turned on the house alarm system as I spoke to Manuel, it detected your presence behind the wall. What a curious little wonder you are to have discovered that hidden lair of mine! On a whim, I decided to have you followed and you led us right to our thief! I owe you my sincere thanks, madam."
Emma didn't know what was more disturbing to her: having led Don Pedro to Steed or Steed's sharp laugh as he was hauled roughly to his feet by a couple of burly men and dragged away, limping severely on his right leg, saying as he passed her, "Yes, you certainly get points for consistency, Mrs. Peel."
They didn't take Steed and Emma back to Don Pedro's mansion, but instead removed them to another house at the far edge of Montoro. It was a two story house, also made of sandstone, but its floors were uneven wood, its walls were bare of décor though not of various insects adhering to it, and the sparse furniture was old with torn fabric. A mouse scurried into the woodwork as they entered the house in a grim line: first, an employee of Don Pedro's, then Emma, Steed being dragged by two other men, another man in back of them, and then Don Pedro. Don Pedro had afforded them the favor of allowing them to ride on horseback to the house instead of lugging Steed like a suitcase down the long main street in the tranquil, sleeping town. Two of the other men had walked.
Emma was pushed upstairs and deposited into a room with bars on the windows, a few cushions and a mattress strewn on the floor being the only furniture. A bare light bulb hung suspended a foot from the ceiling at the end of a frayed electrical cord. The leer of the man who shoved her frightened her, but she acted like she didn't even notice, sauntering off into the room as if everyday she was held prisoner in a rural town in Spain by an international criminal without anyone knowing where she was. The man stared at her for several moments, disgustingly licking his lips, and then left, closing and locking the door. Emma spent the next half hour practicing karate moves she hadn't diligently performed for over a year.
Then she stopped and sat resting on a small pile of cushions. Another half hour later, around three in the morning, the door opened and Steed was pushed into the room. He stumbled forward and fell to the floor as the door closed behind him, the lock turning as loudly --it seemed to Emma-- as a volcanic eruption. Steed struggled to get into a kneeling position, using just his right arm and left leg; Emma went to help him.
He shrugged her hand off his shoulder. "Leave me alone. I can manage. You've caused enough problems already, haven't you? I don't need your pity."
She retreated to her pile of cushions and watched Steed crawl awkwardly to the mattress where he fell onto his back. His face was very bruised, and she imagined by the way he restlessly attempted to find a comfortable way to lay that he had suffered other blows to his body, but ironically, she could see through the hole in his shirt that the men had wrapped his shoulder wound with the gauze. Probably they hadn't wanted him passing out too early from blood loss.
"Steed, I'm so very sorry," she said, lamely.
He didn't respond.
"Why is Don Pedro beating you?" she asked. "Why not just kill you?"
"No need to rush him, Mrs. Peel. Don't worry, I'm sure he'll get around to it sometime soon," Steed answered, his right hand massaging his temples.
She couldn't say anything without some caustic reply. For the sake of conversation, she decided to put up with him. She didn't, just couldn't, believe that he hated her. There had to be something else going on.
"But, is he trying to get information from you?"
"What does he want to know?"
"Oh, where I hid his accounting book, address book, delivery book, and his family's priceless and irreplaceable necklace."
"The books I can understand. Why did you take the necklace?"
"Just to anger him. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Not so sure, now."
"So those items weren't in the rucksack?"
"You know, I don't remember you asking stupid questions when we were colleagues."
Emma received her chastisement silently and dourly. She had to admit, it had been a stupid question. If the items had been in the rucksack, they wouldn't have to beat their location out of Steed. She was also aware of Steed's choice of term for defining what they had once been --"colleagues", not the more intimate "partners."
"Sorry," she said contritely. "I guess you hid them when you were escaping, thinking you might be caught."
"Correct. But, I'm sure you can imagine I never anticipated the manner of my capture."
Irritation flared in Emma, taking her by surprise, and words spilled from her mouth before she even knew she was speaking. "I already apologized for that. What the hell is the matter with you? Fine, let's just sit here like perfect strangers. I thought I knew you better than I apparently did." She added, sarcastically, "I'm sure you can imagine I never anticipated that if I met you again, you'd be such a nasty, unforgiving man."
Steed spoke several seconds later, in a quiet voice. "No, I don't suppose you would have anticipated that, if you ever met me again."
His emphasis on "if". Not when we met again. Not returned to you again. It was all so clearly implied in his gentle tone. Could she dare to believe that the hurt she had detected in his words was real? It had been insensitive and callous on her part to say "if," but she was so addled by his unexpected attitude it was hard for her to find her bearings. Yet, his response had been telling, hadn't it? Emma began to think that things were very different indeed between them than what Steed was illustrating with his offensive verbalizations.
"Let a nasty, unforgiving man rest in-between his beatings, won't you, Mrs. Peel? I suddenly feel very tired. No more talking, please."
Emma understood tiredness; understood fatigue. She leaned back against the plaster, peeling in places, and let Steed alone for awhile. Then, after twenty-five minutes, seeing he wasn't falling asleep she asked, "How many men are there in the house now?"
She saw him sigh deeply. "Four. Don Pedro and the three others."
"We could take four men, in the past."
Steed said nothing.
"It's worth a try, isn't it?"
"What? Are you just going to let them beat you to death?"
"It's an option," Steed finally answered in an infuriatingly placid voice.
"No, it's damn well not!" she yelled back.
"Your concern is touching, but one and a half years too late."
Again Emma felt herself losing control. She almost began to tell the whole story of her life since they had been apart, of the artificial euphoria that had mostly claimed her that first year, and of missing Steed and feeling trapped ever since. Yet, there she was still, with a wedding band on her ring finger and she had no right, yet, to take it off
So, instead, Emma retreated to a childishly defensive stance and spat out, "Fine. Go be beaten to death. At least that will close your mean little mouth, you bastard."
The problem was the "she could be equally scathing" effect was entirely ruined by tears washing down her cheeks. She saw Steed's head lift and he looked at her, blankly, and she wiped her face of the tears as best she could.
"Go ahead, say something spiteful about me crying," Emma said, straightening her back to prepare her dignity for his next vicious attack.
Steed let his head fall back to the mattress. "
"What's the point? Your tears are empty gestures--" he began, but before Steed could continue, the door opened and in a second he was grabbed by two men and lifted up, grunting in pain, and then as the third one held Emma at bay with a gun, Steed was swept out the room.
They brought him back an hour later, and his crash to the floor as they tossed him into the room was abrupt and ungainly. Emma ran to him and although he croaked, "No, don't," this time she ignored his directive and helped drag him back to the ratty mattress. Once there, on his back, his lip cut and swollen on one side, an eye half-closed from swelling, an eyebrow torn open, blood coming from a nostril, and other bruises discoloring his face, she dared to put her hands on his chest, over his long-sleeved black pullover shirt.
"Did they break any ribs?" she asked as her hands probed over his bones. He was still so solid under her fingers, so firm, so muscular
"No. Stop that," he gasped, thickly, having a hard time talking through his injured mouth, as he pushed her hands away from his torso. He added as she reluctantly, but obediently, clasped her hands on her lap, "But, I think that's next. They're a bit on the amateur side of things, which changes my ideas about letting them kill me."
"Oh, now you don't want to be beaten to death?" she asked.
"Well, not by amateurs. Takes too long. Too much talking. They've hardly kicked me at all."
"That's not funny."
"I'm not laughing. Now, back to your side of the room." He turned his head away from her on the bare mattress, and closed his eyes.
Ordered away just like that, Emma didn't move from her perch on the edge of the mattress. "Are you in much pain?" she asked.
"A lot. A great deal."
"Oh, then--yes." Then after a bit he added, with his eyes still closed, "Mrs. Peel, I don't know what they have planned for you. If you see a chance to escape on your own, take it. I would be, from now on, slow and unsteady, and would only hamper your flight to safety."
"I'm not leaving you here. I got you here. Forget it."
"Can't you just call me 'Emma' once?" she interrupted.
"Why should I call you that?" he immediately rejoined in a pointed tone, his eyes snapping open to scowl at her, his forehead wrinkled in anger.
Because, because she had no good reason why he should. Emma was terribly embarrassed the question had blurted out of her, and she stood and moved back across the room and sat down on her small pile of cushions.
"I'm not leaving you here," she whispered too softly for Steed to hear.
The men came back several hours later. Steed was sleeping when they came in, three of them, closing the door behind them, their glances switching back and forth between Steed and Emma. When they looked at her, Emma felt real fear, rising panic, their faces graphically relaying their desire to enact every women's worst nightmare
"Your friend sleeps, yes? Maybe we wake him up?" one asked in accented, though acceptable English. He was short and pudgy, and had several missing teeth. The rest were stained tobacco brown.
Emma didn't answer, though she kept her eyes defiantly on him. She would not cower before these men, no matter what they did to her.
"Manuel, wake him up for the pretty lady."
Another one, just a little taller, and stocky, not chubby, with long sideburns, went to Steed and stomped on him hard in his upper chest. Steed woke up with an "Oomph!" and quicker than Mrs. Peel would have thought possible given his injuries he was sitting up against the wall, taking in the whole situation in a flash, and rubbing the area where Manuel's foot had landed.
"He's awake, Antonio."
Antonio, Mrs. Peel, thought. The one who had shot Steed twice. He certainly makes up in archery skills what he lacked in looks, charm, and benevolence.
"You and Carlo have fun with him; I get to know Mrs. Peel better. We make good use of time until Don Pedro returns, yes?"
So, there were only three people in the house, now. Just these men. Carlo looked like the most imposing of them, he was the tallest and it was obvious from his lean though defined form that he trained regularly. Still, they could take these men if Steed wasn't so incapacitated. Steed had been trying to stand up, leaning his back on the wall and using his right arm to push himself up as his good left leg upheld his full weight, but one solid punch from Carlo's fist sent him right back down to the mattress. Carlo and Manuel began to kick him but Steed was able to curl into a ball and cover up protecting his head and chest so the blows were mostly ineffectual in damaging vital areas; still they fell on his arms and legs and back and prevented him from beginning the chance to actively defend himself.
Emma's brain raced for ways to help Steed when Antonio brought her back to the real threat that was facing her. Antonio knelt in front of her, grabbed hold of her hair and turned her head to him, his ugly face and noxious breath sickening her. She was more repulsed by him than she had ever been by anything or anyone previously in her life.
"Oh, beautiful lady, you will enjoy what I do to you," Antonio said, as he ran his hand over her cheek, then dropped it lower, rubbing it over her breasts.
Emma controlled her desire to fall apart into fear and reacted. She drove a hard punch into Antonio's nose causing him to release his grip on her hair; then she pushed him away and stood up to help Steed. Carlo, however, had decided that he agreed more with Antonio's idea of fun and while Manuel continued to kick a grunting and helpless Steed, Carlo confronted Emma as Antonio rose from the floor, madder than the devil.
Antonio rushed her and she dodged his grasp by tossing him into the wall behind her, but then Carlo was quickly upon her, tackling her at the waist and knocking her to the ground. Emma fought and screamed, hitting, scratching, kicking, but when Antonio soon recovered again and added his strength to Carlo's the men were able to subdue Emma, Carlo laying on top of her smirking with lust whilst Antonio held her arms down on the floor above her head.
Oh, God, no, please don't let this happen, Emma prayed, despairing, the whole world contracting to that moment, that terror.
Carlo leaned over and kissed her aggressively as his hands began running hungrily over her whole body, finally slipping underneath her top and bra and grabbing her breasts roughly. His legs began prying hers apart. Antonio bent her arms so they were touching the top of her head; that way he could move nearer to her whilst still completely restraining her upper limbs. He put his head next to hers, and Emma gagged with rising nausea as he licked her ear and then in halting English told her what he would do to her when Carlo was done. Emma fought back tears of humiliation and violation as she closed her eyes, not believing this was really occurring only to snap them open them seconds later at the sound of a strangulated gurgle. She saw an arm wrapped tightly around Carlo's neck lifting his head up higher and higher. Carlo sat up straddling Emma's legs trying to reach behind him. Steed. Steed's strong arms were around Carlo's neck, Steed's powerful body behind it, Steed's enraged face above it. Carlo was lifted even higher, until he was stretched up on his knees, his arms waving futilely.
Antonio stopped his filthy oral prelude as he noticed Carlo's distress. He released Emma's arms, stood up by her side, and reached for the gun in his vest; before he could get to it, Steed's long leg had connected solidly with his groin. Antonio's face turned a sickly shade of green as his hands covered his genitals and he fell to his knees, spittle coming from his mouth. Emma pulled her legs out from under Carlo and rolled out of the way, shaking too much to help Steed, who didn't appear to need her aid, anyway. She was stunned by the ferocity stamped on his face, but had the presence of mind to tear herself away from his frenzy to espy that Antonio's gun was behind her would be rapist, out of Antonio's reach. Steed continued his relentless chokehold on Carlo, and as the blood supply to his brain was totally cut off, Carlo fell unconscious. Steed took Carlo's head and bashed it furiously into the wall numerous times, until a thick layer of blood covered the area of the wall where Carlo's head was striking and Carlo's body twitched twice.
Letting Carlo's bloody corpse drop to the floor, Steed turned to face the defenseless Antonio, one hand still covering his genitals and one hand propping him up off the floor. Steed's foot landed a direct blow on the temple of Antonio's bowed head. His skull hit the wall and then the chubby man flipped over onto floor, landing unconscious on his back. Without hesitation, Steed's hiking boot sole came down vigorously and crushed Antonio's throat flat. Then Steed repeated the smashing blow once more to be sure. Blood erupted from Antonio's mouth and his throat was mangled; it was a terrible sight to see, and Emma turned her head away.
Emma looked over to the mattress and saw Manuel laying on his side, also unconscious, but not battered nearly as badly as Steed had battered Carlo and Antonio. She had never seen Steed kill anyone the way he had the two men who had tried to rape her she had never imagined he could feel such rage She scrambled to her feet pulling her clothes together; Steed was sweating heavily and breathing in harsh rasps.
"Go," he said, waving her away as his right leg gave out and he fell to his knee.
"You're coming with me," she answered, grabbing his upper arm as she picked up Antonio's gun and pulled Steed to the door. He limped badly, and held his right hand over his wounded shoulder, but allowed himself to be led. They left the room and went downstairs, Steed needing to lean on the wall as he descended the stairs, Emma holding him up from the other side.
Once on the first floor, Steed hobbled into a room and retrieved his rucksack. Emma hid the gun in it then put it on her back. They moved as quickly as possible to the front door; it was now early morning, and the town was beginning to come alive. The sky was pale yellow, a few children already played outside, and a woman could be seen beating a rug with a stick in front of her home. None of the horses were visible and they didn't know where they had been stabled. Like manna from heaven, they noticed a bus rolling through the town, and saw two men waiting by an old and faded bus stop sign, one with a patched up duffel bag as his only luggage.
"The bus," Steed said. "I'll return for the stolen items later."
They walked to the bus stop, standing in line behind the other two men. It was hard for Steed to climb the high stairs onto the bus, but he managed with Emma helping to pull him up. He pulled a wallet stuffed thick with money out of his rucksack on Emma's back, and paid the bus driver a fare for the both of them, then replaced the wallet. Why Don Pedro hadn't taken such monetary bounty from Steed Emma didn't know, but it was a blessing, nonetheless. Steed asked what was the final destination of the bus and was told "Madrid," over two hundred miles away. As the bus accelerated forward, spewing dark exhaust after it, Steed and Emma made their way down the aisle, swaying with the side to side motion of the ancient, creaky vehicle. Steed almost lost his balance a few times, but a steadying arm from Emma and he remained upright. Aside from the two people who had entered the bus with them, there were ten others already seated in the torn and uncomfortable seats. A cage of chickens sat in the overhead compartment above one aged, overweight woman.
They sat down near the back of the bus, Steed slouching in evident fatigue by the slightly open window that wouldn't close. He stayed as far away from Emma as possible, trying to compress his tall and muscular body into the corner of his seat, and therefore had road dust mix with the sweat and blood on his face as they motored down the road. No one had seemed to pay any attention to the condition Steed was in which was fine with Emma.
There was so much Emma wanted to say, so much she wanted to discuss. It wasn't the right time now, but even so, she didn't feel as if she knew how to talk to Steed anymore. Or, this strange Steed she had never seen before. Biting, cynical, distant, violent. So very violent. Yet, he hadn't fought back when they had been beating him, only when they had attacked her However, even if he hated her, she was sure he'd never countenance her being raped. She didn't know what exactly what was going on; the last she had heard about him a year ago, he had a new partner, he was playing cricket, he was going to his club. The same old Steed she had known and loved. And still did love. Whispers in the Ministry halls of who and what Steed had been before her, before Cathy, floated through her head. Is that what had happened? Had he gone back to some former state of being? She yearned to talk to him but held her tongue. Whatever was going on she didn't know, but she knew one thing. That even though Steed was so different, just sitting next to him, not even touching him, brought her both a renewed level of enthusiasm and a renewed interest in life.
And made her want to touch him so very badly
If only she could be sure he didn't really hate her.
© Mona Morstein 1999
No aspect of this story may be used elsewhere without the expressed prior written consent of the author. These stories may not be altered in any way or sold; all copyright information must appear with this work at all times. Please read disclaimers and warnings on top of each story. Feel free to send constructive comments to the author.. :o)
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