The Paint Gun
  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.

It was nice, the rest of the day. They spent it alone --aside from the guards-- renewing their core family spirit. They ate meals together; went onto the seemingly endless back lawn to walk together, although Steed had to bow out of kicking the football around or playing croquet or leaping any horses over a hedge; sat in the second floor drawing room together, Emma and Elly reading, a convalescing Steed leaning back napping in his recliner as Eddie lay sleeping on Steed's lap and abdomen; played Snakes and Ladders together, Steed and Elly beating Emma and Eddie; and then once the night came on looked out their expensive telescope to be awed by the heavens above (Steed identifying one roundish group of stars as the constellation Steedus Bowlerus). Emma put Elly to bed, and Steed put Eddie to bed; the nanny wouldn't show up until tomorrow. It was nothing but peace and fun and happiness all day at the Steed household, a welcome respite from the violence and corporate problems in the world both Emma and Steed would return to the next day --Emma traipsing off to work in the morning, and Steed being visited by a number of Ministry related personnel.
Steed and Emma stayed up longer after the children were in bed, sitting together on a couch, holding hands, talking about Emma's take-over of Targill, Inc., and the evolving future of Knight Industries. They reminisced a bit about their time as partners, when they faced all sorts of diabolical masterminds determined to take over the world; Steed joked that he would one day have to go after his own wife, it seemed.
They laughed at that.
It was good to be home, to be together. Steed looked pale and drawn, and yawned a few times. He rubbed his broken chest through his clothes. They didn't discuss the shooting or the guards outside protecting them or the fact that the unknown man responsible was still at large. Steed reassured Emma that indeed Eddie would grow and that there was yet no need to take him to a doctor. Emma regaled Steed with the advanced level of reading comprehension Elly exhibited.
"You've given me three wondrous gifts, lovely lady," Steed said, sipping on his first brandy in over two weeks, his tired eyes sparkling with love. He hated that hospitals didn't allow alcohol in them and wondered if as Head of the Ministry he could create a new statute that listed brandy as a very important healing medicinal that was to be offered to all hospital patients once they were able to drink. The alcohol was helpful in dulling the aching pain of his fractured bones.
"We only have two children, Steed," Emma smiled, kissing the back of his hand. "Unless you're counting the horse I bought you for your birthday earlier this year."
"I was also counting you."
"John…" Emma murmured, kissing him.
Steed had made a mental decision in the last two days to rationally force himself to renew his relationship with Emma as it had always been, and put aside any emotional issues of distrust. Here, now, it was so easy to do so. Emma was so beautiful and her high cheekbones seemed to own the room, demanding his eyes never leave them. He saw the anxiety and the need in her eyes for him to not have that dreadful incident ruin the way they meshed so perfectly. To think that Emma would deliberately wish to hurt him was utterly ludicrous; without a doubt the stupidest thought that Steed had ever let flit through his mind.
Steed pulled back from the kiss as a sudden, somewhat unexpected but most definitely welcomed energy kindled his libido. "Let's make love," he said, deciding immediately to make use of that lusting surge.
Emma laughed at his blunt words, ecstatic they had been spoken, the answer to her prayers. "Lovely!" she agreed, another little laugh of joy rolling out of her.
"You'll have to be on top, I'm afraid, due to these ribs," Steed said, tapping his chest lightly. Then he lowered his eyebrows in mock deep thought, "Or, perhaps we could lay side by side, me on my right side, and you and your naked breasts on your left side, your hair spilling over onto your face so seductively, your slim neck open to my tongue, our free arms gripping each others' low backs, our legs wrapped together as I enter you, and for a few seconds neither of us can move as we enjoy how very blissful that immediate joining feels, as wonderful and electric as the very first time we made love… --Emma sat staring at him transfixed, as he paused, "hmm'd," and then continued-- …or I could be on top leaning a little to the right, but I'd have to go very slowly, enjoying every tight, warm inch of you, using my hips in gradual movements, and you could caress the nape of my neck which drives me wild with passion while I bent forward just enough to kiss and lightly bite your breasts…"
Steed and Emma's body temperatures had suddenly approached that of the boiling water. They both sat still, beginning to breathe very fast, their wide-eyed blank faces illustrating their trance-like state as they allowed their minds to eagerly visualize the continuation of Steed's words. Steed grew very hard under his trousers; Emma grew very moist under her light summer dress.
Emma stood up quickly, gently pulling a still weakened Steed to his feet. "We'll figure it out," she said.
"Yes, we'll muddle through, somehow," Steed concluded, happily escorting Emma out of the drawing room and into their bedroom, allowing her arm around his waist to steady him.
They muddled through it fine, erotically and satisfyingly fine.

Chapter Seven

On that same Monday, Desmond Kipner made a surprise visit to his cousin Darlene, after another alcohol induced epiphany. She was a daft hippie left-over from the 1960s, and had even visited Haight-Ashbury as a sacred monument to a stand against "the lords and ladies of repression," meaning the English aristocracy, which she, frankly disdained. Among the marijuana she had smoked during those years, she had also been introduced to the healing properties of other herbs and with the modest inheritance she garnered when her widowed father died of a heart attack, she built up rather a fine armamentarium of herbs in tea and tincture form. She called herself an herbalist and treated, to Desmond's mind, any idiotic bloody stupid enough to seek medical advice from her.
Desmond and Darlene weren't close, but they hadn't ever had any particularly nasty words, either. It was another thematic item in Desmond's life --their relationship contained no passion such as friendship or hatred, but simply limped along on the basis of a shared bloodline.
Darlene, however, knew about toxic herbs, as in very small doses they were used to treat various illnesses. In high doses, however, they could kill.
Desmond wanted a fatal dose of poison, tasteless but powerful.
He called up a surprised Darlene, who welcomed him to visit her in the quaint town of Hingham, Norfolk. He took the train and arrived at her small and smelly shop off the center of town, filled with multitudinous herbs, unknown potions, soaps, satchels, potpourri, aromatic candles and the like. Some sort of supposedly relaxing music with mandolins and flutes filled the air. Darlene herself, thirty-eight and never married, which to Desmond raised questions of her sexual leaning which he would never have the gumption to ask, was dressed in a long, flowing gown with beads around her neck. She was plump and large-breasted, though in a way that seemed completely natural to her, as if she was representing the earth she so cherished with the roundness of her own body.
"Well, I say, Dezzy, I never imagined to see you here," she declared, rising off her chair as the opened front door to the shop hit a strand of bells hanging from the ceiling, adding that gentle cacophony into the music-filled room.
He had always hated the diminuitive "Dezzy." However, since he had a need for Darlene's good mood, her knowledge and her poisons, Desmond decided to let it pass without a snarling comment, as he had since he was five years old. One day he might tell her what he thought of that nickname.
"Well, I've a need for some advice from you, dear cousin," he said, quite happy at the puffed up proud response his words initiated in Darlene.
"Oh? What advice is that? Are you sick?"
God forbid he would ever go to a quack like her if he was. "No, I'm fine. It's just that I've taken up writing as a hobby. Murder mysteries. Plan to equal Agatha Christie in popularity." He was deliberately keeping things light, to keep her from becoming suspicious in any way.
Darlene chuckled. "Setting small goals, eh? Well, I don't write at all, although maybe later you can hear me play the violin. I've become quite proficient, if I do say so myself."
"Lovely," Desmond lied, committing himself to get out of hearing her play. "What I need from you is a bit of a talk on herbal poisons. See, I want to have one character poison another."
"Dear me, that's not too terribly original, is it?"
"There is no originality left, Darlene. It's the way the same old plot unfolds that counts, not the innate originality of it. Can you tell me about poisons? Don't you have some around here?"
"Well, I've got a few I use in certain diseases. In very tiny amounts that won't kill anyone. Others that are much more fatal I've just collected for fun. Let's go back in here." She lead Desmond behind a counter and through a curtain that separated the outside room from the back storage area. There were bottles of herbs there, too, all labeled efficiently, either in dry form or in a dark, liquid form. Over in the corner of a work table, there were a line of bottles with big red skulls stickers stuck on them.
"Voila! My poisons," she said, pointing at them.
"Where do you get them?" Desmond asked, walking up to them and reading their names.
"Oh, one has their sources after being involved in herbs for as many years as I have," she answered.
"How does each one affect somebody?"
Delighted that her rarely seen cousin was showing such in interest in her herbal knowledge, Darlene went through the poisonous herbal liquids one by one, regaling Desmond with the effect each one would have on a "murder victim" --she laughed when she said that-- and how soon the poison would take effect. As luck would have it, one poison in particular seemed perfect for Desmond's purposes --it was relatively tasteless, acted rather quickly, and was quite often fatal if medical help wasn't received extremely rapidly. The bells rang in the outer room, indicating a person had entered and Darlene excused herself from Desmond to attend to her customer. With a flash of movement, Desmond took a vial out of his pocket and poured some of that last poison into it, closing up both bottles afterwards. He put the vial back in his jacket pocket and wandered out to see Darlene ringing up a purchase and gaily talking with the female customer. He sighed. He supposed that he was obligated to spend more of the day with Darlene to not cast odd suspicion on his sudden interest in her poisonous products. He looked at her ample figure and figured that she probably could cook a tasty supper; that would help make his day more worthwhile than it had already been, before he took the night train back to London. To John and Emma Steed.

Desmond, although not of the upper classes himself, like any other Londoner understood that the veddy rich people, the aristrocracy often shopped at Harrod's, the snobbish department store in the middle of downtown that boasted a gourmet food section on its lower floor. There was a produce department full of the finest and most select vegetables, and another large room next to it that contained innumerable fine and rare cow, goat and sheep cheeses and two counters where one could order all sorts of Epicurean prepared foods. There were fresh breads and pastries, too. It was a cornucopia fit for the tables of the wealthiest people living in the city or those who worked in the city though lived north of it.
Like Emma Peel.
Early Tuesday morning from his small home in London, Desmond called the food department to place an order in Emma's name, as her new amanuensis, and was greeted by a bass voiced male Harrod employee in a formal but accepted manner. He mentioned that he hoped Mrs. Steed was well and they were delighted to fill another order for her, although this was much earlier in the day and in the week than she usually called. Would she be picking it up during her weekly Thursday evening visit? Desmond said no, she'd pick it up tomorrow, as it was for a last minute party. Desmond then called back a couple of hours later and cancelled the order, stating Mrs. Steed was suddenly canceling the party as her guests were suddenly called overseas. She was sorry for the inconvenience. She would make her usual order in another day or two.
Desmond hung up the phone. He wasn't too worried about that little sham he had perpetrated; he knew that it was unlikely the same person would answer the phone when Emma called; the morning and later shifts would no doubt maintain different people. It was Tuesday; Emma would pick up her groceries on Thursday. There was a chance that while she shopped, he would be able to poison some of her food choices. He pursed his lips at the thought that her children might eat from the food; he really only wanted to kill her husband. Even in his hatred of her and all the luck and grace that Emma Steed paraded around with her, killing children seemed dreadfully nasty and not something Desmond wanted to be responsible for. He hoped that in Harrod's food department, for once, luck would shine on him and he could poison a food dedicated solely to Mr. John Steed.

Chapter Eight

On Tuesday, Emma Steed kissed her still sleeping husband's lips and climbed out of bed. Showering, dressing in a simple but expensive dress of dark blue, grabbing a quick sip of coffee, a quick bite of buttered toast prepared by their early arriving nanny, and she was out the door, in her Lotus and speeding to Knight Industries' corporate headquarters in a tall downtown London business building that her company owned, taking up the whole fifteenth floor for their own purposes. She blatantly ignored the female security agent in the car with her who followed Emma up to her floor where she would spend the day outside Emma's office. There was nothing Emma could do about this intrusion into her personal world until that bastard was found. Steed was adamant about her being protected at all times. She had to give the security woman credit for silently melting into the background to the extent that she was by no means annoying outside of her very presence. The agent symbolized the cautious and prudent inability to escape the reality of their lives; that someone was trying to kill Steed.
Emma was halfway excited to return to her office and halfway dreading it. She loved running the company and the adrenaline rush it gave her to be in charge of hundreds of employees, trying to maximize the creative output of her researchers, build the highest quality parts, ship those parts all over the world, and keep doing so all with the goal being a healthy bottom line. It wasn't exactly fighting off diabolical masterminds, but it was still quite a decided rush. She normally had enough confidence and self-esteem to handle any crisis, or any office intrigue. Yet, today, returning to work when everyone would know she had shot her husband… Emma tossed her hair back from her face. She would just have to take hold of any gossip and squelch it immediately; she would simply take control… of everything. There was the final phases of the merger to have to deal with and if any employee seemed to be focusing more on the fact she had almost killed the most perfect man walking the face of the earth, they could focus on that when they were put on the dole.
Resolved, Emma parked her car in the underground garage and took the executive elevator up to the top, fifteenth floor. She sailed out of the elevator as if she hadn't been gone from work for almost two weeks, and strode down the hallway as if she had no troubles at all, as if she owned the world. She noticed the hushed tones, the mouths becoming silent as she walked by; she noticed the stares --those eyes, those mouths-- but instead of cringing inside she merely remembered her love-making with Steed last night. It kept her rock steady, kept her strong. It was all her normally poised and self-assured personality needed to roll through the day, as if nothing had happened.
People came up to her and offered condolences on the shooting, and hoped that her husband was recovering well. It was awkward for her to smile and nod her head silently in thanks, but it was better yet for the air to be cleared from the start, so they could all concentrate on their business affairs.
She greeted her personal secretary, Madge Hawkins, who stood up promptly from her desk chair once she espied Emma. Madge, Emma's secretary for who knows how long, was one of the old school, thin, in her 40s and not afraid to show the grey hairs that her age belied. She came complete with thick black glasses, proper trim dresses, a puckered face, and a nature that was not merely competent, but actually qualified to run a whole country, let alone the affairs of her CEO boss. She was as reliable as the Bank of England.
Madge handed Emma official paper after paper, in exact order of importance, told her the schedule of her meetings for the day and who would be attending them all, belatedly welcomed her back, and expressed her expectation that her husband was recuperating most speedily, all in the same dry, unemotional tone that Emma thought was a bit spooky on one hand and a bit monotonous on the other. Emma once again glanced at Madge's wedding band and wondered for the umpteenth just what sort of man had married her…
But, then, her phone rang on two lines simultaneously. Madge handled the callers effortlessly, putting the less vital caller on hold, whilst indicating to Emma that she needed to answer the other person promptly. Emma's day had begun in earnest, and she entered her office, all other thoughts fleeing from her head.

Although Emma's CEO office boasted a large, connected bathroom complete with a shower and gold-limned faucet knobs, Emma was forced to make a rare appearance in the main female employee's bathroom in the afternoon. After leaving her second meeting of the day in an small conference room quite a distance from her office she felt compelled to seek immediate relief for her very full and uncomfortable bladder. In her closed stall, Emma was consternated to hear by chance some of the true feelings that infected her employees. As she was rolling her panty hose back up her legs, she heard the door into the bathroom swing open and a couple of women walk in.
"Serves the bitch right, in my opinion," one said.
"Ah, she doesn't deserve to be called that, Evangeline."
"Bloody hell she doesn't. My boyfriend worked at Targill for twelve bloody years, since out of University, and just like that he's made redundant. What does she care about the ones she's fired?"
"Well, she's arranged that they have brilliant redundancy pay; most of them could live off the money they were given for a whole year. That's a long time to find another job. Seems pretty fair to me."
"Bollocks. How many administrators are needed in the world? Jeremy is totally depressed about ever finding a similar job at the same pay and he's a right bore to be around now."
There was a pause as the women continued to fix their make-up and their hair.
"If you ask me," Evangeline added, "she deserved to shoot her husband."
The other woman was obviously shocked and offended. "What a dreadful thing to say! I don't want to discuss this anymore."
"All she does is look out for herself, no matter who gets in her way. To hell with her, I say. Let a little calamity enter her oh so perfect life."
It was then that Emma, a maelstrom of emotions raging, screaming, shrieking inside her, made her exit from her stall. The women glanced at who had over-heard them, and the blood drained from their faces as they noticed Emma staring at them. They had never ever expected Mrs. Steed to be in their bathroom.
Silence fell around them. Silence so deep it was actually deafening. The women both had their hand over their mouths and stood immobilized like statues.
Emma spoke first. "Your names."
With choking and stuttering, they mentioned their names.
Emma continued, "Evangeline, go back to work. If I ever hear you talk like that again, not only will I fire you with no warning, but you shall receive no compensation and I will personally strive to ensure that you are hired by no other company in England. Do you understand?"
Evangeline nodded. "I do, Mrs. Steed. I'm sorry for--"
"--No more words," Emma cut her off. "Enough has been said, don't you think?"
Evangeline's eyes began to water, smearing the mascara she had just lent so much energy to fix. She nodded again.
"Get out of here."
The woman fled out the door.
Emma turned to Diana, the one who had consistently defended her. "Would you please come to my office, Diana?" And without waiting for an answer, Emma stepped from the bathroom and maneuvered down the hall, Diana tailing after her.
Emma settled down by the time she reached her office and ushered Diana into the luxurious and plush space, modern in bearing with a large plexiglass desk, pastel colorings, and light wood accents to the furniture. She motioned for Diana to sit on the sofa and then sat at the opposite end herself.
"Diana, tell me," Emma began, "what I just heard from Evangeline. Are there many people who feel that way towards me and the merger between Knight Industries and Targill, Inc?"
Diana could not keep eye contact with Emma. Emma was only ten years older than her, yet such was Emma's powerful presence in the company that being with her was extremely intimidating for the woman.
Finally Diana spoke, in a small, quivering voice. "There are some people a little upset here, not many. Of course you can understand that the Targill employees you, er, Knight Industries made redundant are more upset."
"How do you know that?"
"Well, Evangeline told me what Jeremy said. I don't know anyone who works at Targill myself, Mrs. Steed."
"Even though our redundancy payments were so generous?"
"Even so, I suppose. It doesn't seem right to me, I can say. I think you were very generous myself."
Emma smiled, then stood up. "Thank you, Diana. You may go now."
Diana rose and seeing Emma's smile garnered the courage to risk asking a question herself. "Mrs. Steed, please forgive me for asking, but why didn't you sack Evangeline for her horrid words? You certainly had every right to."
"Well, I'd rather make a loyal employee than another enemy, if I can. I hope that Evangeline turns herself around; if she doesn't, I'll no doubt wind up firing her in the future." Then, signaling the end of all discussion, she added "Good-bye, Diana."
Diana took the cue and left. Emma was then left with the memory of the words Evangeline had said, which elicited the twin responses of boiling rage and unbearable nausea and distress. It was the mouth and eyes staring, judging her all over again in her life. She sat down on the sofa, shaking a little, holding in her tears until a few minutes passed and her natural calm and orderly self reappeared. She criticized herself for caring so much about what her employees said. All of them had been, and would continue to be treated fairly, much better than any other company dealt with their underlings. If they still chose to be nasty and vicious about it, that was their fault, not hers. She had nothing to feel responsible for --mergers happened, jobs were made redundant, and that was merely the world of business. Emma stood up resolved to put this jarring episode behind her, straightened out the wrinkles on her dress, brushed her hair off her face, collected a folder from her desk and strode poised to her board meeting, but the first thing she noticed about the ten people who greeted her were their mouth and eyes.

Chapter Nine

Starting Tuesday, Steed had organized his day into efficient blocks of time. There was waking late and sadly alone in bed, missing but understanding his wife's need to arrive at work promptly, dressing casually to walk as far and as long as he could before tiring; then some light weights to strengthen his arm and legs, weakened from his two weeks in a hospital bed, and finally some deep breathing exercises to make sure he kept his lungs inflated and therefore less prone to get another infection. There was showering, formally dressing in his eternal suits --his closet empty of his ruined best blue suit-- and breakfast. There was spending a half hour with his children, since he was home, reading to them or playing a board game or leading a slowly walking horse with Elly on it, Eddie sitting on Steed's shoulders with his legs around his father's neck. Steed would not be able to ride any of his horses for several more weeks. Then, as the two were reassigned, moping, to their nanny's charge, Steed began his Ministry work. Purdey and Gambit came by with other top level personnel from The Ministry and cases were discussed that were under investigation, problematic criminals were profiled, various budgets were studied, applications for membership were analyzed, shared spying networks with other intelligence agencies were evaluated, technology and research was studied, and so forth. There was a great deal of communication regarding finding the man who was responsible for Steed being shot; all of it was frustrating, aggravating and futile. The Ministry still had no idea at all who was behind that dastardly plot. Steed's tightened jaw line was all the response they received from him after he heard the unhelpful update on the investigation, which of course would continue forever, until the man was found. It was all the response the contrite agents and administrators needed to redouble their efforts.
There was always too much to do, and not enough energy for Steed to do it all. After three hours there was lunch and then a nap for Steed --he wasn't happy having to have to lie down, and his Ministry colleagues were grumpy at the loss of valuable work time as they amused themselves for an hour at Steed's billiard table, but it was a necessity plain and simple. Steed was too weak to work through the day without a break, and the sleep also helped settle down the continuous aching in his ribs, which also tired him out. There were a number of more hours of work after his nap, and then around 5:00 p.m. the Ministry people left, Steed spent another hour with his children, whilst the well paid nanny made their evening meal, and Emma arrived home. There was dinner and then more time as a family, and a few loose Ministry ends tied up via phone calls. There was the physical push for a fatigued Steed to do his evening walk and the evening light weight and deep breathing routines. There was putting the children to bed, letting the nanny go to bed, and then an exhausted Steed himself falling asleep, Emma either joining him, or staying up later to do some of her own office work. Now that Steed was working so hard, his energy was so low at night, he and Emma were not able to make love.
So went Tuesday and Wednesday.
On Thursday, with things progressing so smoothly at the office regarding the final stages of the merger, in which both companies were in complete agreement, and Emma could leave the details to her chief financial officer and president, she decided to make it only a half day of work. That way she could get home early and maybe convince Steed to end his working day early too; giving them more time and energy for each other. She still felt a burning desire to have their physical joining renew their bonds of love.
Upon getting to her office, Emma called Harrod's and ordered some food for an pick-up early that afternoon. The woman answering the phone assured her everything would be ready to go when she arrived at the food department. The day was spent busily but without any crises to jump to, so by 1:00 p.m., Emma decided to leave, get their food at Harrod's and drive home, arriving at 3:00 p.m. where she hoped she could pull Steed away from his work and up into their bedroom. She was confident that when she greeted him with a little nape of the neck rubbing, cheek kissing, her hand innocently following the contours of his buttocks under his trousers, she could convince that there was at least one thing equally important as state security.
She arrived at Harrod's asking the security agent ever present with her to stay in the car; she wouldn't be more than twenty minutes. She would not agree even after Emma told her that nothing could occur among all the customers in the store, and it would be so awkward for her to have someone obviously guarding her whilst she finished her shopping. The agent stood firm; she would follow Emma wherever she went. Emma frowned and got out of the car.
Harrod's was still busy even for an early summer afternoon. Of course, there were tourists galore making up many of the shoppers, but even so, Emma recognized a couple of people in her social circle and chatted very briefly with them. She was in a rush to return home and after assuring them her husband was recovering fine, she set off to go downstairs to the gourmet food department.
Desmond Kipner saw her descend the stairs as he milled about the forty foot long cheese counter, in a bundles of clothes retrieved from used clothes stores that would fit the fashion of a plump old lady pensioner. He had maintained his clean-shaven face, and gotten make-up and putty from a fancy dress shop and a book of make-up guidelines from a bookstore. With those, he transformed himself into a classic senior citizen; it was part of his gift, to apply the creations of other in a masterful way. It really was a good costume; he looked seventy-five years old, mild, wrinkled, and female. He shuffled convincingly, using a cane to move along. He wore thin gloves to hide his masculine and younger hands from sight. He had arrived at Harrod's around 11:00 a.m., planning to spend the day in the store, wandering around the rooms that Mrs. Steed would need to pass to attain the food department stairs and the food department itself, buying things sporadically to avoid being asked to leave, and constantly searching for Emma Steed. It had only taken two hours and there she was, with a very solemn woman, shorter but more muscular than Mrs. Steed, tailing along beside or behind her, wearing sunglasses to hide her eye movements.
Desmond was still hoping this would work. He had practiced pouring a little of the poison out in a carefully prescribed manner all night and felt he could be successful at ruining some food, as long as he was certain it was for John Steed and not their children or guests.
Thanking the counter man for the wrapped package of sheep cheese imported from Greece, Desmond began hobbling over to where Mrs. Steed was taking a shopping cart and entering the vegetable department. He sidled near to her as the security agent stood in the doorway between the two food rooms, wanting to watch both the stairs and the other doors and the elevator that lead into the section where her charge was shopping.
Desmond's heart was racing as he came up to Emma Steed's left side, her cart already full of lettuce and other fruits and vegetables. Mrs. Steed used tongs to put the largest medjool dates ever grown into a small paper sack she held in her left hand.
"Oh, aren't those lovely, dear," Desmond crackled in a aged voice he had also practiced all last night. "Do they taste good?"
"Yes," Emma smiled at her in a friendly way. "They're a favorite of my husband's. I've never seen them as lovely as this."
Desmond was stunned at the fortuitous nature of Emma's disclosure. It was like God was handing him a golden opportunity of revenge.
"I'm sure your children like them, too. You do have children, don't you? Such pretty little ones, I'm sure. My Donald is in South Africa, in banking. I see my two daughters much more often, and my little grandchildren. I don't know if they like dates or not."
Emma smiled again, winking. "We hide these from the children, so only my husband eats them. He has always had a sweet tooth, but now can only eat these without his joints getting very stiff. It's his special treat. I buy them just for him."
"What a devoted little wife you are!"
If Desmond had been a writer and created a scene for him to poison John Steed, he could not have put better dialogue into Emma Steed's mouth. It was a miracle. The dates would be the avenue of his killing Steed. Cupping the vial of poison with his thumb under his hand, as the security woman looked to the left and Emma focused on grabbing more dates with the tongs, Desmond brought his hand over the bag and poured the poison liquid into it; it didn't take much. Two dropperfuls worth was all, Darlene had said. Continuing his smooth motion, Desmond reached for a pear, which lay beyond the sack in the fruit section. He put several pears in a plastic bag, ecstatic that the dates would absorb the liquid and hide the mild flavor of the poison. It was perfect; singularly perfect. Not even a drop of fluid had hit the side of the bag. Putting the pears in his little shopping basket, Desmond then hid the vial back in a pocket in his sweater. A couple more dates were added and then Emma rolled the top of the bag closed and put it in her cart.
"Maybe I should try them," Desmond creaked. "I have an awful sweet tooth, as well, for marzipan. And goodness knows my joints are stiff!"
Emma patted Desmond's gloved hand and grinned as she pushed her cart away.
Desmond watched her pick up her pre-packed bag of staples, pay for it all, and leave, the guard as usual protecting her.
But, not protecting Steed. No old lady had ever smiled more widely or shown such white, straight teeth as Desmond did right then.

Chapter Ten

Steed was at home with Purdey and Gambit, Bradford Willaby, Mark Davis --all ministry colleagues-- and Dr. Phillip Harrison, his internist, who had stopped by to make sure that Steed was doing well. That was the sort of special treatment of which Steed, very special to the government, was guaranteed to be the recipient. Dr. Harrison had just finished a very cursory exam of Steed --blood pressure, pulse, temperature, listening to his heart and lungs-- proving Steed was doing satisfactorily and Steed had put his clothing back into immaculate shape. Dr. Harrison was packing up his black doctor's bag whilst Steed and Mark Davis once again began discussing a one agent who was getting a bit too much into the drink, and therefore were at risk for blabbering information about the Ministry to whomever. Davis thought they should make an example of him and deal with him harshly. Gambit chimed in, knowing one of him personally and mentioning the family difficulties he was experiencing, asking that maybe a leave of absence for awhile instead of formally releasing the person of all his duties would be more amenable to the situation, detailing all the cases the man had worked on previously.
They looked at Steed for his decision when suddenly Steed's face went quite blank and his back stiffened up. Ignoring their inquiries, Steed looked through the window of his study and saw Emma driving up in her Lotus, her female security guard with her.
"Steed, what's the matter?" Purdey asked again.
"My neck is tingling," he answered.
"Your danger sense?" Gambit asked, hoping that one day he too would develop such a highly attuned nervous system.
"Yes. Someone must have followed Emma home. Let's not alarm her, though." However, he knew his children were out on the back lawn with their nanny, and became slightly alarmed himself.
He left the window and went into the hallway where he greeted his wife, who kissed him firmly on the lips. The security guard behind her was carrying a large sack of groceries. Emma reached up and took out a small paper bag and before Steed could calmly and smoothly usher her aside to speak to the guard, she was opening it up as she grabbed his arm and playfully tried to pull him into the kitchen.
Steed kindly disengaged his arm from his wife's hand and asked her to wait a moment. His danger tickle playing havoc with his neck, he scratched his skin there and approached the security agent who was looking around for the way to the kitchen herself.
"Sarah, did you see any car following you here?" he asked.
She snapped to attention. "Certainly not, Sir John," she replied. "I would have reported that immediately." No matter how many times Steed had asked the security people to simply call him "Steed," their formal standards of behavior and serious demeanors precluded casual means of address. They were, thankfully, the only people who rigidly insisted at all times of using Steed's loathed knighted title when speaking to him.
"Are you sure?" he inquired again, his tickle dancing all over his neck.
"Absolutely sure, Sir John. No car, helicopter, motorcycle, or plane followed us home. My exam of the car upon leaving Harrod's revealed no bugs, transmitters or bombs."
Steed nodded his approval, though he was unconvinced of the facts. "Very well. You can put the groceries on a counter in the kitchen." He pointed the way and the agent went off with a "Very well, Sir John."
"Steed, stop being so suspicious and have a few dates," Emma said, holding open the bag to him. "These are the largest and most succulent medjool dates I've ever seen."
Steed, his lips pursed together as he stared outside, was becoming frantic about something dangerous surrounding him and his family. To appease Emma quickly whilst he organized a search of the grounds, he took four dates from the bag, smiled at Emma and kissed her cheek in thanks.
"How are they?" she asked as he still held them, turning around to speak to Purdey and Gambit.
A little flustered by Emma's focus on the dates, he put one in his mouth, and ate it quickly. It truly was absolutely delicious. "Lovely," he said, adding, "Why don't you help Sara put away the groceries? I'll be back in a minute or two." He put the pit from the date into his hand as he placed another date in his mouth.
Emma saw Steed's eyes dart outside and saw the tension in his colleagues and Dr. Harrison.
"Is something wrong?" she asked.
Steed sighed, spitting out the second pit. "Maybe. My tickle seems to be in hyperdrive."
Emma went a little pale.
Steed took charge with a series of orders. "Purdey and Gambit, you stay here with Emma, Dr. Harrison, Willaby and Davis. I'm going to speak to the security people outside."
Gambit complained. "I'm going with you. Purdey and Sara can take of everyone inside. I'm not letting you walk around alone."
Steed nodded. "Alright."
Emma whispered, "Oh no, has that man been seen around the house?"
Steed shook his head. "Nothing has been seen. It's only my sense of danger going off that is putting us on alert."
He turned abruptly and left with Gambit by his side, putting a third date in his mouth. Outside, he spoke to Gleason in the front who denied any sighting that was suspicious and certainly no one had been seen on the grounds, Sir John. He radio'd to Jergens on the back lawn, watching the children, and Jergens confirmed that all was well and fine, although Elly was having fun kicking a ball at Eddie with a force that consistently knocked the little laughing lad down. Harper in the wood around the house also checked in with nothing to report.
Steed was totally confused. His danger signal was increasing with each minute that passed, until it was stinging the back of his neck. It never before had grown to be this fierce. He pulled the third pit from his mouth. He told Gleason to keep sharp and then walked to his children on the back lawn. They waved at him when he approached. Steed stood on the grass, the day warm and easy, the sky blue, the vista filled with his playing children and nothing ominous. He was at a loss. Why would his tickle have started when Emma arrived home? Something must have arrived home with her. He told his children that for right now they had to go inside and play in their toy room, (which was almost as big as the back lawn). The nanny lowered her eyebrows anxiously but Steed shook his head quickly and she compliantly dragged the two disgruntled children back to the house. Steed put the last date in his mouth as he stood motionless on the back lawn, slowly looking inch by inch at the whole expanse of his property, trying to concentrate on feeling where the danger was lurking, and who or what was causing it. He stood there, gradually turning his head from far left to far right, and only when a pounding headache began in his temples some long minutes later, probably from the sun and his worrying, did he emerge from his failed attempt to locate the threat and begin walking back to the house. He took the fourth pit out of his mouth as a decided nausea grew in his stomach, and he had to swallow down a sudden mouthful of saliva. A burning sensation began irritating his stomach as well, which quickly elevated in intensity. He grunted in discomfort and stopped moving forward, holding his throbbing forehead in his hand.
"Are you okay, Steed?" Gambit asked, looking at him closely. "You're a little flushed."
It took a few seconds for Steed to respond, but then he smiled insincerely, and said, "Under a bit of stress, I suppose."
"It's funny, your danger sense going off, when there's nothing apparently going on."
But, something was going on, as Steed began walking again. Only it seemed to be going on inside of him instead of outside his house. The nausea and burning continued, until it seemed that a flame was ignited in his stomach charring away the lining, and he had to swallow saliva numerous times to not wind up drooling or disgustingly breaking his gentleman's code by spitting onto the ground. He breathed deeper and deeper to try to prevent himself from vomiting. What on earth was going on? What was happening to him? It was only through sheer will-power that Steed managed to walk fairly normally back to his driveway, although Gambit kept glancing at him questioningly.
But the time he reached the front of his home, the headache disappeared completely but was replaced with a disorienting feeling of dizzy light-headedness. Steed's vision began to blur and he stumbled sideways into Gambit, grabbing hold of his friend until he felt steady enough to stand on his own.
"Steed?" Gambit asked. "What's going on? Are you sick?"
"Don't know. Feel a little strange," Steed mumbled, but it sounded far away. There was the door to his house and failing to grasp the doorknob with an uncoordinated hand, Gambit reached over and opened it instead. Steed propelled himself in a zigzag gait into the entranceway, his danger sense shooting actual pain into the back of his neck. The nausea could not be avoided now, and the burning brought tears to his eyes, which were fairly blinded. He felt a terrible weakness pervade his limbs like his bones had vanished instantly and there was nothing to hold him up. An epiphany of understanding suddenly hit him like a blow to his face, and he intuited the reason for his danger signal shrieking and his body's bizarre problems. He knew what had happened. What was the matter with him. What was going on. But, it couldn't have happened. It was impossible. It could not have happened. No. No. No.
But, it had.
Emma had poisoned him. The dates were poisoned. He was being poisoned. Poison. Poison was flooding his system. He saw his folly regarding his misinterpretation of his tickle of danger: he had actually reacted to Emma herself, not to an enemy that had followed her home. Reacted to his wife, his lovely lady, the light of his life, who had returned home bearing him poisoned gifts.
Steed found a small table to lean on and could only make out shadowy figures around him. One or two of them were holding his arms to support him, their voices too fuzzy for him to clearly discern. He held out his open hand holding the four date pits and then turned his palm over and let them drop to the floor, his pale face wearing the same look of horrific confusion and shock it had been right before he had tumbled over the balcony wall.
"Emma… love," he managed to croak, despair filling him as he tried to find her among the blurred images in front of him, "you… poisoned me…"
The nausea and weakness took over then and breaking away from those holding him up, Steed fell to his hands and knees and began vomiting dreadfully. He rolled over onto his side, flopping down like a wet rag as he lost all power to his limbs. He vomited over and over, almost continually, the fluid coming out burning his esophagus, burning his mouth, his chest and abdomen heaving with the force of the expulsion of the thin, acrid liquid. He couldn't see, he couldn't stop vomiting even though he tried to hold it in, it hurt so much to vomit, it burned so badly, but he couldn't stop doing it. He wanted to wrap his arms around his stomach and protect himself from the fire raging within him, but he couldn't move at all. He felt light-headed and very, very faint. There were voices all around him, people touching him, holding his head down, taking off his coat, rolling up his sleeve, but he didn't care what they said, what they did. He didn't care about anything.
A sense of profound loss and grief rippled through him, tearing him up inside as much as the poison was doing. Emma had poisoned him. That was his last devastating thought before he sank unconscious, vomiting up poison and bile as he did so.

"Hold his head down so he doesn't aspirate his vomitus," Dr. Harrison directed the kneeling Purdey, as he fumbled to put a blood pressure cuff around Steed's bare arm. He quickly took his blood pressure and pulse and listened to Steed's heart. "Damn it! His BP is only 78/48 and his pulse is down to 40. Respirations 12. He'll go into shock if his vitals lower any further. We've got to get him to the hospital now." Then he turned around and asked Emma, "What did you poison him with?"
Emma seemed dissociated from her body, like she was standing beside it watching a terrible tableau unfold before her that she had no real connection to. Her mind worked slowly, reviewing all that had happened in the last few minutes. Steed stumbling into the house looking dreadful, being held up by Gambit and Dr. Harrison, claiming she had poisoned him with the dates and then falling to the floor and beginning his nightmarish spasmodic vomiting, spewing poison, dates, bile and a little blood all over the rug. Purdey and Gambit and two other men stared at her with disbelief and incrimination written all over their faces, whilst Dr. Harrison examined him.
Gambit stood by her stunned body and shook it hard, repeating Dr. Harrison's question, which brought Emma back crashing into herself, whole, aware, and terrified.
"I didn't poison him," she managed to say. "I don't know what's going on."
"He sensed danger when you arrived. You gave him the poisonous dates. Look at him! We all saw you do it. Why, Emma, why?" Gambit enquired harshly.
"You have to believe me! I didn't poison him! I mean, I didn't want to! I mean, I don't know how it happened! I don't know what poison is involved! Oh, my God!" Emma yelled.
Dr. Harrison gave Steed a quick shot of epinephrine and then chimed in, "We've got to get him to the clinic right now! Gambit, Davis, help me pick him up."
Purdey told Sarah to stay at the house, watching the children, just in case something else happened, and to clean up the vomit before Steed's children saw it. They would interrogate her later. Luckily the children were upstairs and ignorant of the traumatic event going on in the entranceway with their father. Purdey instructed Willaby to report back to the Ministry with Davis to notify the agency of the details. As the others lifted a limp Steed up, stomach downwards in case he vomited again, Purdey --on orders from Gambit-- grabbed the rest of the bag of dates and a stunned and frantic Emma by the arm. They ran out after the men heading for Steed's massive Jaguar parked in the driveway.
The men piled Steed supine into the back seat, covering him with his jacket and raising his legs; Dr. Harrison sat with him. Gambit was the driver and Emma dashed into the front passenger seat. Purdey would follow in her own car, after telling the outside guards what had happened and ordering them to stay fully on alert. It was organized chaos.
After a few minutes of rushing down the narrow country roads to the Ministry's country clinic Dr. Harrison said urgently, "Hurry, Gambit, his BP and pulse have dropped down even lower! His heartbeat is going to stop soon!" The doctor fumbled in his black bag and shot Steed with a second injection of epinephrine; that helped stabilize his vital signs, but the doctor knew the poison could soon overcome them, again. Steed needed stronger drugs at the hospital, if he lived long enough to receive them.
Emma sat on her knees facing Steed behind her. She was in shock herself. She had no idea what had happened. What was going on. Except that Steed was poisoned and was dying, again. And it seemed to be because of her, again. She had come home to make love to her husband and had instead fed him poison.
"Steed, Steed, oh my love, I didn't poison you. I don't know what happened. Oh, no, please don't die, please don't die, please don't die…" the words faded into the air, but she kept up that thought for hours. Through their arrival at the hospital, through the same gurney journey as almost three weeks ago, through the same steel doors closing in front of her, through her soul-emptying stupor in the waiting room, through official looking people trying unsuccessfully to talk to her about dates and Harrod's and why she would poison Steed, until she stood up screaming at them all, pushed them out of the room, told them to go to hell, and sat back down again hugging herself and weeping, once more immediately beginning to repeat that heart-numbing mantra.

Chapter Eleven

Entering the hospital Steed was on the brink of entering into a fatal shock. An experienced team of highly trained medical professionals, lead by Dr. Harrison, urgently worked on him for a couple of hours. They performed gastric lavage on him and poured activated charcoal into his intestines, trying to prevent him from absorbing more of the poison. They put him on oxygen. They gave him anti-emetics. They gave him IV atropine and dopamine and were successful in stopping the continual decline of his blood pressure and pulse, though there was only a slight elevation of those vital indications of life. They monitored his blood gasses and his urinary output. They gave him an IV of alpha-lipoic acid to protect his liver and help his liver more quickly metabolize and thus excrete the toxin from his system. They saw he had a reddened irritation on the skin of his chin from his vomitus and did an endoscopy, discovering that he had three small ulcers in his stomach, one deep enough to be bleeding a little, and one in his lower esophagus from the substance that had become so caustic inside him.
Others in the clinic analyzed the dates with the leading edge technology available in the forensic lab, trying to ascertain the exact poison Steed had ingested. After some hours they matched the machine read-outs with that of false hellebore, also known as veratrum viride, a poison that had severe lowering effects upon one's cardiovascular system, with the potential to be decidedly deadly. They were surprised that the herbal poison had so badly ulcerated him; it was rare for that to happen with that particular herb. Steed's tissues must have been unusually sensitive to some of the alkaloids in the plant.
Still others went to Harrod's and confiscated all the dates; they were assured that no one else had called Harrod's mentioning distress from eating them. The whole of Harrod's food section after hours was searched for any sort of container of poison. Nothing was found. Numerous random dates were analyzed and all were found to be poison free. They questioned Sarah over and over again, asking her to review all that she had seen whilst in Harrod's food department. She reported she had guarded Emma all day long, although had not been in Emma's precise presence all the time. In Knight Industries she was stationed outside Emma's office or meeting rooms. Regarding Harrod's, she mentioned the people Emma said a brief hello to, and then described the plump old lady talking to Emma, detailing her clothes exactly, but did not see any suspicious action committed by her. That was the only person who had approached Emma in that whole department; Emma had seen two acquaintances before descending the stairs to the lower Harrod level. She had not seen Emma put poison in the dates. Emma had driven the car from Knight Industries to Harrod's and from Harrod's to Hertfordshire, with the groceries stored in the boot. Sarah took them out at the home and carried them inside. Sarah, a star security agent, who had worked under Steed's direction before, was impeccably trusted and undeniably loyal to Steed, as were all the security staff. She had minimal debts, was unattached romantically at the present, did not drink or do drugs (a urine test was performed) and was understood to be beyond suspicion.
Not so with Emma Steed herself.
"Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me," seemed to be the motto that everyone approached Emma with as she tried to be left alone with her husband. He lay sedated once more in a hospital gown, once more in a hospital bed, oxygen cannula in his nose, IV line in his arm, electrodes on his chest monitoring his heartbeat, catheter again in his bladder. Drugs kept him alive now; not tubes. Without them Steed's blood pressure and pulse and respiration would quickly sink down and stop. He would simply… stop. He was stabilized, again his durable body not dying as it should have, as it definitely would have if Dr. Harrison hadn't coincidentally been there with his shots of epinephrine, to repeatedly give Steed the subtle stimulating edge he needed to survive until they arrived at the hospital. His body had been able, with that little bit of help, to hang onto the merest thread of life.
Again, she had almost killed him. She had only wanted to make love to him.
Instead, somehow, she had poisoned him.
She sat by the bed and watched the now unfriendly nurses consistently check on Steed. None of them brought her food, but she could not have eaten it, anyway. For the first day she resisted being interrogated by the Ministry investigators, but by the morning of the second day, as Steed lay improving slightly as the poison continued to clear from his system, they were adamant she attend to their request for an interview. Purdey sent her a look of compassionate regard --wonderful Purdey-- staying with her in Steed's room whilst Auntie Greta was at their home with the nanny, playing with their children and assuring them that their father's stomach flu would be over soon. And then he and their mother would come home. It seemed better to have Auntie Greta there, with them, instead of with Emma at the hospital, as the children cherished her, and Emma was worried about them with this second sudden disappearance of their parents from their lives. So, before following the Ministry officials into a room at the back of the clinic, she made a phone call home. Adding more nervousness to Emma's anticipatory anxiety was Greta's telephone report that the children indeed were not handling their parents' second abrupt absence as easily as they had the first time. They were not eating very much, nor playing, but rather sat about rather dejected. She and the nanny were taking them into London shopping and promised both of them they could buy whatever they wanted --clothes and books for Elly, toys and more toys for Eddie. She also said they could also each chose a gift for their father. That had seemed to perk them up a little.
Emma spoke to both children and each expressed their unhappiness with their father now being sick, and both parents gone again. Emma assured them they would be home much sooner than they had the first time and it had all been quite a shock when daddy suddenly felt rummy, but we all had to rally round and be our normal, happy selves when he came home. Right? It would help him very much if they had happy smiling faces on when they saw him. They agreed and the phone call ended.
Emma hung up the phone, feeling very nauseous.
Mummy had poisoned daddy.
She entered a room with the two late 20s Ministry men, both well-built, one blond, one black hair, and one woman, shorter than the men and with close-cropped brown hair. The blond fellow set up a tape recorder on the oval table. Emma hadn't asked, but wondered if she could have a barrister with her; if she should request one. Then she realized that she was perfectly innocent of any injury done to her husband, and decided to not bow to fear. Years of dealing with corporate intrigue were a good background for what she assumed would be the focus of this discussion. She sat down with a self-assured face whose eyes did not flinch from direct contact with her questioners.
"Mrs. Steed," the woman began, sitting down next to Emma as the men stood behind her, "I'm Helen Breckenridge, and this is David Thurlston and Roger Cullington. We would like to ask you a few questions in our capacity of Ministry investigators, like Purdey and Gambit are. However, it was felt best that neither of those two friends of you and your husband's were involved in this meeting. I hope you understand."
"Certainly," Emma said, very matter-of-fact.
"Right. Well, then, Mrs. Steed, can you please tell us what exactly occurred from the moment you woke until the moment you returned home on Tuesday, 19th August, 1978? Please take your time, mentioning everything no matter how meaningless you might think it is."
Taking a deep inhalation, Emma related to the three Ministry employees all that had happened to her that day; all the conversations she had had; all the meetings; her decision to arrive home early to spend some more quality time with her recovering husband; all her phone calls, including the one to Harrod's, as she placed her weekly order for staples that they packed up for her; her visit there and her talking to the old woman, purchasing her food and driving home, Sarah with her all the while. It took some little time to walk through that day, but the three agents never lost their attention to every word Emma said.
"Thank you, Mrs. Steed. Now, how do you think the dates became poisoned? Do you have any theories?"
"Well, I imagine the only person would could have done it was the old lady, though I never saw her do so. However, at times I turned away from her as I picked up more dates. Once she reached for some pears, brushing against the bag. I didn't take any other notice of her. She seemed perfectly harmless."
"Are you saying that you yourself did not poison the dates?"
Emma had expected this blunt query, but it still made her mad to hear the accusation. "I did not poison the dates. I would never poison my husband. It's ludicrous to suppose so and insulting to boot. We have a most intimate and joyous relationship. You found no poison on me when I was searched a few hours ago, and I am wearing the same clothes I was yesterday."
"Well, it was not a complete search," Helen stated. That is, Emma finished the sentence herself; no body cavities were searched. Without a barrister involved, Emma Steed drew certain lines in life. The Ministry hadn't pushed for those extra invasive procedures after her firm rejection of them. Things had been a little lenient given the status of her being Steed's wife and the important CEO of Knight Industries. Combined with the fact that there really was no evidence that Emma was involved in more than being the bearer, they had no right to insist, although it was obvious people were growing suspicious of her.
"Was any poison found in Harrod's, on the floor, or hidden in the turnips, for example? I did buy turnips, you know."
"Mrs. Steed, perhaps you will allow us to ask the questions."
Emma waved a hand nonchalantly, "Of course."
"Did you know the old lady? Did she give her name?"
"No. And no, and I didn't ask. It was one of those quick and insignificant meetings with a person one participates in out of politeness and civility."
"Well, this may not have been so insignificant a meeting." Before Emma could comment, Helen went on. "Is there any way that the woman was a man in disguise? The man, especially, who gave you the paint gun?"
Emma had wracked her brains wondering that for hours and hours. The old lady had been bent over a little, but if she stood straight, was she the same height the man had been? Her head was wrapped in a little bonnet, and her hair was gray, but was the head the same size, the facial structure the same, under what would have been expert make-up? Were the gloved hands the same size as that of the man who had held up the real paint gun and shot her white vase red? If the voice was not cackled, would it be the same tone and use the same inflections as the man had used?
It was possible. But, she wasn't sure. She just hadn't paid that much attention, so absorbed in picking the dates and giving them to a husband who should have rewarded her with at least one magnificent orgasm. Emma sighed. It served no purpose to not be completely honest at all times.
"Maybe. Probably. I just don't know for sure. The disguise was excellent if it was him."
"Did you ever meet that man before the night he came to your house with the paint guns?"
An odd question. "No, of course not." However, one wasn't a genius without the ability to make rapid deductions. Emma perceived that they were beginning to think that maybe she had set up a ruse to kill her husband, using the man, and maybe the old lady/man as red herrings. Perhaps paying them to give her the methods for her to kill her husband to bring attention them and have it look like she was guiltless of those crimes.
Helen opened her mouth to speak, but Emma jumped in, her patience wearing thin and her need to be back by Steed's bed exponentially raising. "I did not set up involved schemes with the motive to murder my husband! If that's what you think then arrest me and set the charges; otherwise, I will not participate in such ridiculous and slanderous questions. It's obvious that the old woman or person in disguise poisoned the dates, probably when she or he reached for the pears, as I described. If you follow any other angle, especially one that includes me as primary suspect you shall be hearing from my barristers, and I have very good barristers."
The three agents looked at each other, rather taken slightly aback that Emma had so quickly reasoned out their next line of questioning. Emma stood up, angry and agitated. "I'm going back to Steed," she declared with a scowl that dared any of the three to even think of stopping her. She walked around the table and opened the door, as the agents did nothing to prevent her leaving. Giving them a last glance of disdain she then turned to leave and came to an abrupt halt in front of Dr. Melvin Silver, the sixty year old head psychiatrist at the Ministry, a smallish, grey-haired man with a thin left leg in a brace, the result of a bout of polio he had as a child. Dr. Silver leaned on a cane and held a file folder in his hand.
"Emma, what excellent timing!" the doctor said. "Thank you for opening the door for me. Now, I wonder if we might have a word or two together."
At that the three agents filed out of the room, squeezing between an unmoving, arms crossed Emma Steed and the door frame. They left the tape recorder behind.
Emma still stood in Dr. Silver's way. "May I come in?" he asked. "I should like to have a private chat with you, if you would be so kind."
Dr. Silver was probably the only person Emma knew who was smarter than she was. He was, without a doubt, an unbelievably brilliant man and a very intuitive and incomparable psychiatrist, so proficient at getting to the core of a patient's problem that it seemed at times to almost border on the magical or the telepathic. He was also Steed's friend, and respected Steed a great deal, and had professionally aided him once or twice in the past when even Uber-agent Steed had reached a breaking point of stress. Emma had met him socially several times and, she was sure, they both mutually admired the others use and application of their way above average brain. Emma resented that she was now to be analyzed for being daft or loony or psychotic, but if she had to go through such a humiliating and unnecessary inquisition, she had to admit that Dr. Silver would be her first and only choice of psychiatrist to do it. The man was rational, patient and compassionate.
Silently, Emma moved to the side, allowing the physician entrance into the room.
She sat back down at the table, leaning back and crossing her arms in front of her again. Dr. Silver moved his body more deliberately than Emma's rushed actions, sitting down next to her --which took her a little off guard, expecting him to sit across the table-- and seeming to take an eternity to align his cane against the table, open up the folder, take out a pen and open it, and then settle into the chair and look at her.
"Please forgive my consuming so much time as I arrange myself. It's not some sort of test to see if I can psychologically unhinge your evident composure, it's merely that I'm getting older and stiffer," the doctor said, smiling genuinely at her, his small white teeth and slightly wrinkly face giving him the appearance of some benevolent gnome.
Emma found herself smiling back. For all his off-putting skills in probing one's brain, Dr. Silver was so congenial and open, and the least prepossessing man one could find, that people naturally gravitated to being calm and cooperative with him. Emma sighed inside as she discovered she was failing victim to that same mentality, yet, she didn't yet feel the need to engage in building up massive defenses against his prying. That might come later, but for now, Emma reigned in her frustration and aggravation with the whole situation and decided to be at least, for a little while, to hide her sharp incisors and be…nice.
"That's fine, doctor," she replied, noticing Dr. Silver was not bothering to turn on the tape recorder. "I hope this doesn't take too long; I want to get back to Steed."
"Of course. You know why I am here. After being the actual person who shot and then poisoned Steed, both times coming very close to killing him, the Ministry, and frankly, the Prime Minister and other high level government types, feel the need to make sure that you are not personally responsible for the attempts to kill Steed. No one is saying you are, we are just… wondering about a few things. You know that Steed is the head of the Ministry, but you may not be aware of how he has become, honestly, the linchpin of a great deal of British security and our relations with our communist antagonists."
"I have had a clue to that affect," Emma said, a bit sarcastically.
Dr. Silver took no offense at all. He was famous for being utterly imperturbable. "Good, then," he said. "Well, let's get going. I heard your little tirade through the door, so I understand, I think, essentially how the chat with the agents went. So, let's take another tack entirely, shall we? Right, then. Tell me, how have you and Steed been getting along lately?"
What bloody nonsense, Emma thought. "Just as we've always gotten along, extremely well."
"There have been no fights or bickering?
"None. We are, as you know, a most intimate and compatible couple."
"Yes, I know. It's really quite sweet and good for Steed. He was becoming such a sad, tired and bitter man before you came back to his life. And you gave him two children. Do you agree on how to raise them? Any differences in child-rearing ideas?"
"None. We both adore and love our children and spend all our free time with them. They afford us no trouble. We have a nanny and a maid to help us, as we both work. You know all this, doctor."
"Perhaps I do, but let's continue anyway, hmm? It's all part of the protocol. How have things been going with you and Knight Industries? Any untoward stresses?"
Emma shook her head. "No, not really. We just merged with Targill, Inc., to expand out electronics division but that has gone smoothly." Emma didn't feel the need to share the fact that a few random, unimportant, low level employees were not happy with being made redundant. "We gave redundancy pays to employees that were forced out of their job, that were astronomical and letters of recommendation."
"Very considerate of you. How is business otherwise? Are you getting good contracts? Is your shipping line seaworthy?" He smiled again.
"In all regards, Knight Industries is floating healthily in the black."
"But, really you aren't given that much press, nor were you listed among the most respected CEOs in the country in 'British Business World's' yearly compilation." 'British Business World' was the number one British magazine in the country, and the most read. It was harshly judged as being renown for its sexist attitudes, and it tended to overlook the women involved in the highest branches of business, yet it still set the business standard in the country. Emma's exclusion from its list of Top CEOs had been a terrible and obvious slight.
"No, I wasn't. Everyone knows the magazine is the last bastion of men whose view on gender roles have never progressed passed 1850."
"But, still, I should imagine it stung a little. After all you've done; after all you've achieved."
Emma was silent for a few seconds. "Yes, it stung a little." Actually, it had stung a lot, but no one had seen her throw the magazine across her office room, and no one had need to know how much it had hurt. She had taken over the company when she was 21, after the deaths of her parents, her brother, and had stuck with it against all obstacles, against all prejudices, transforming Knight Industries into the growing, trusted, reliable, and leading edge corporation it was. She had deserved recognition for that from those stuffy, old goats. But, instead, they hadn't even mentioned her. It was so biting an insult that even her own top level employees had been too embarrassed to mention it to her.
"I'm sure Steed was sympathetic."
Steed. She had come home the night of the day the magazine came out still feeling unappreciated, ignored, and most of all bitterly angry. When she opened the door to the house, candles were lit, and a gourmet meal was on the dining room table; the children were not at home. ("I gave them sticks with bags of food tied on the end, pushed them out the door and told them to fend for themselves for awhile because mummy and daddy needed time alone," he had joked, before telling her smirking face that Cousin Charlotte had taken them for the night.) He was there for her all night, never mentioning the article, which she was sure he had read, and all his attention to her that night were designed to show what mattered the most in her life. He simply took care of he r--serving the food, listening to her vent, complying with her need for and holding her hand all during a long evening walk, massaging her shoulders, her feet, her whole body when they returned, and making gentle love to her over and over. Only once very indirectly had he referred to "British Business World" by whispering to her in-between thrusts that "Nothing matters, nothing at all, only us, the two of us, our children, and the joy we all bring to each other." He had even brought her breakfast in bed early the next morning. It was pampering of the highest, most altruistic sort. It had made her see how meaningless and unimportant "British Business World" and all the sexist pigs who ran it were. She didn't need their approval; she had the love of her husband, a much finer and better man than any of them.
"Yes, he was. Marvelously so," she agreed, lost in her remembrance. "He helped me see their snub was a trivial and inconsequential event; that there were much better, more ideal things to appreciate than 'British Business World.'"
Dr. Silver nodded his head. "He's a good man. And very much in love with you."
Emma was silent. No reason to comment on the obvious.
"However, in Steed's working world, his rise in status has been accompanied by the most astounding recognition of his abilities, his experience, and his value to the country."
Emma suddenly had an inkling as to the point of the psychiatrist's questions. Warily, she responded, "That's as it should be. He's the best agent Britain ever had or probably ever will have."
"Very likely so. However, Emma Steed has never been one to settle for second place in any relationship. Competition and winning are two of the most driving factors of her personality."
It was a little odd hearing oneself spoken to as if in the third person, yet that did not prevent Emma's perspicacious genius from discerning the path down which Dr. Silver was traveling. Another aspect of Emma Steed's personality was a dislike of mental game-playing; she decided to follow Hollywood film-makers and cut to the chase.
"I did not set up plans to kill my husband because he is universally recognized as being outstanding in his field while I was not publicly recognized at all in mine."
Dr. Silver acknowledged Emma's keen perception. "Touché," he said. He added after a pause, "However, jealousy is a very powerful emotion."
"I do not compete with Steed. I'm proud of him. I worked with him for two years; I know how good an agent he is. I expected him to reach the level he has with the government."
"Sometimes, however, psychologically people do things that might be abhorrent to them, but they feel compelled to do to fill some void in them."
"How very uninteresting." Emma's spiny back was flared now.
"Sometimes for reasons they might not even understand."
She began tapping her fingers on the table. "This is ludicrous."
"Even if Steed wasn't killed, the attention turned to you, the publicity given to you in the papers, was notable. That was quite a write-up in 'The Guardian' about you, your past, and your fashioning Knight Industries into the giant it is today. Do you know, there is a medical condition called 'Munchasen Syndrome by Proxy', whereby a parent makes their child sick so that the parent gets attention from the medical community while the child is being cared for. Could that be happening with you, only related to Steed?"
Emma's pupils dilated in outrage. "There was no publicity with the poisoning. If that was the case, I would have poisoned him when we were in a public setting to get even more newspaper space."
"Good point," Dr. Silver conceded, "I've thought of that. It could mean that either your machinations are slipping in their logic as you sink further down into a type of insanity, or you are trying to throw us off track by making it seem as if you wouldn't have poisoned Steed as no publicity was involved. You have the intelligence to set up a plan like that and you have the money to buy some unknown man's cooperation for a hefty fee and a guarantee of never being caught, perhaps using a Knight Industries plane to escape to rural Spain, or some other isolated spot."
Emma was standing up yelling without any conscious knowledge of having risen from her chair. "Or," she roared, 'it could mean that I had nothing to do with any of this except for shooting a faked real gun and unknowingly giving poisoned dates to my husband!"
Dr. Silver looked up at her placidly. "Yes, that is the third possibility."
Emma continued loudly lifting her arms in the air, "A possibility! Damn you all! I would give my life for Steed's at any moment, without a qualm. If you think I am guilty of this then charge me and I'll get a barrister. Now, that would be publicity --Emma Knight defending herself against Super Secret Intelligence Agency's charges of attempted murder. I won't put up with this shite any further. For god's sake, have me take a lie detector test! I would pass in a flash! Steed is everything to me! Everything. I would give up Knight Industries in a second to capture the man who has done this to him, to us. All that matters to me is him and our children. Nothing else! So, excuse me but this interview is over! I want to see Steed!"
She took a step towards the door. The doctor reached over and grabbed hold of one of Emma's forearms; his palm was warm and his grip was firm. "Emma, please sit down. I am on your side, you know."
She stared at him. "Oh? Really?"
"Yes, definitely. I know you aren't directly responsible for any of this. I know you've been a victim, as much as Steed has. Sit, please. This little exchange was merely a test, nothing more."
Emma's eyebrows were lowered over her eyes in a threatening pose, but she sat back down, nonetheless.
"Yes, and we haven't done a lie detector test on you as I am sure that no matter what happened you could convince it of your innocence. In this case, of course, you would be convincing it of the truth."
Emma sighed. "What is all this about?"
"Oh, a preliminary examination to see if I felt that you might actually be guilty. Although you have glimpsed suspicious glances and perceived disapproving attitudes directed towards you with this latest attack on Steed, let me assure you that no one, really, thinks you are trying to kill Steed. I think it's fairly obvious that you are merely the focal point for everyone to be exhibiting their infinite frustration and fear regarding Steed being struck down again; you are, in other words, an easy target for displacement of their rage. But, The Ministry has not been serious about your complicity, and after my report, will certainly disavow any idea of your guilt."
Emma was curious. "What makes you so sure that I'm not guilty?"
Dr. Silver smiled and shrugged, as he wrote in his folder. "Just a feeling. But, I know I'm right, if I may say so without appearing to be an egomaniac. Just good at my job." He paused in his writing, and looked up at Emma. "You might be surprised to learn who I hold more responsible than you."
Emma sat upright, leaning in towards the physician. "You know who is responsible? Who did this to Steed?"
"In a way, yes; in another way, no. Let's just say I can't have anyone arrested, though I will, I'm sure, be speaking to a certain person about their involvement."
"Tell me," Emma implored.
"I can't."
"You have to. You have no right to keep that from me. That man needs to be stopped before-", she stopped herself from saying more.
"--before he, God forbid, actually succeeds in his attempt to murder Steed. Yes, I know. It may surprise you to learn that the loss of Steed would not only upset me as a Ministry employee, but also because I think he is a very amazing man and I'm proud to claim his friendship."
"Then tell me who you suspect."
Dr. Silver put down his pen and looked Emma in her brown, intense eyes. "Believe me, I do not know who handed you the gun or poisoned the dates. It would serve you no purpose right now to hear my somewhat related views."
"If they don't find that man, I'll search him down myself."
"That would not be such a good idea. What would you do, kill him?"
"Yes, absolutely."
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that. Now, I have a report to write, and you have a husband to sit beside. Go on," he said, smiling widely, "you're excused." She stood up, touching his shoulder in a feeling of comradeship. "Emma," Dr. Silver added, as she walked behind him, "I want you to know that you can always call me up, if you need to. I don't think Steed is going to handle this poisoning very well. It's going to be a real struggle for him to come to grips with you having given it to him. Trust is such a guiding ideology to him; it's what he's needed to survive as he has for so many dangerous years. Be assured that I will make a little analysis of him once he's awake, before he goes home. However, also be prepared for some tough times ahead in the next several weeks, especially until they catch the man or men who are answerable to these attacks. You two are a wonderful couple, truly made for each other. I will be wholly on your side, willing to help either of you or both of you day or night if the need arises. And, in the next several days or week, I'll be checking in on Steed again at your home to see how he is doing."
There was a certain ominous tone to the doctor's words that made Emma's response catch in her throat for a moment. Then she said, "Thank you, Dr. Silver."
And with that, she exited. Dr. Silver put his pen down long enough to say a short prayer for the Steeds, giving them the strength to weather through this terrible series of events. He knew Emma had, in reality, the right to know on whom Dr. Silver placed a good deal of blame for the shooting and poisoning of her husband, but he was leery of telling her whilst she was still so upset and frazzled. After all, the person Dr. Silver was convinced was partly guilty and responsible for Steed's injuries was none other than… Sir John Steed himself.

Chapter Twelve

The poison slowly removed itself from his system. On the second full day Steed was in the hospital they were able to reduce the dosages of medicines keeping him alive. They kept him sedated, still, and would do so until he was able to be off all the medicines, which they believed would be on the next day. It was Saturday, and instead of staying the night in the hospital as she had Friday night, Emma went home to be with her children, who greeted her avidly but soon fell into a funk regarding the absence and continued illness of their father.
"Will he always be going to the hospital now?" Elly asked. "I want daddy to stay at home."
"Daddy must stay at home," Eddie reiterated, moping dejectedly, his small hands in the pockets of his short trousers.
Emma sat down and pulled her children closer to her. Elly, with Steed's thick, curly, brown hair; Eddie, with his soulful grey eyes. Yet, for all of them it wasn't enough that Steed was only there in his children; he had to be present himself.
"It's very hard on all of us that daddy has had to go to the hospital again and get help from the doctors. Your daddy is very strong, though, and has done well both times he's been there. Daddy isn't happy being away, either! No one likes this, and we are all hoping with all our hearts that daddy never has to get hurt or be sick again. Now, when daddy comes home, which should be by Monday I think, he will probably be very weak and tired and you must not ask him to be very active with you. He'll need to rest a great deal, but he'll be fine in several weeks. Try not to mope and frown around him too much. That doesn't mean that you can't be sad he isn't yet his strong self, but he will recover and leap over hedges with you on horseback soon. Have faith. Your father has a body that knows how to heal itself up back to perfect health. We shall have to love him very much, and be patient, and feed him good food, and laugh and smile around him; that will all help him get well quicker. Do you think both of you can do that? For daddy? Can you smile when you see him?"
"We can do that, mummy. For daddy," Elly nodded.
"For daddy, I'll smile all day long!" Eddie said. "And, I'll feed him camel soup!"
Emma laughed. She brought her children closer to her and hugged them both between her arms; they wrapped their arms around her back and each other. Emma almost lost herself in the joy of the moment; with these two little people that kissed the side of her face simultaneously. They were her children, her family, her dream come true.
Yet, it was Elly, leaning against her chest who said what they were all thinking.
"Now we just have to add in daddy and all will be right again."

By Sunday Steed's vitals were able to maintain a low normal status on their own without the addition of drugs. The doctors were sure that little by little Steed's cardiovascular system would return to normal functioning within the next week, although the weakening affects of the poison, coming so quickly after he was seriously shot, worried everyone about the effects it would have on his innate vitality and his mood. Steed was not one to revel in feeling under the weather, to say the least. And, the ulcers would take longer still to heal and give him some chronic pain if he didn't take the prescribed antacids, and he wasn't one to revel in taking medicines, either.
If the Ministry as a whole really had been a British lion, the roar of disappointment in their preventing Steed, their highly esteemed boss, from being attacked a second time would have been heard around the world. Efforts were doubled and redoubled in attempting to figure out who it was causing all this trouble. They thought about reporting Steed's death to the press to ward off future assaults on him, but then realized that if he was alive, the man would try a third attempt and this time, indeed, they would be waiting. If Steed agreed, that would be the plan they would unfold.
Steed was allowed to wake on Sunday, after Emma had with a nurse's aid shaved his bearded face. He blinked himself alert with Dr. Silver and Emma in the room, standing side by side. It had been the psychiatrist's idea to be there with him when Steed awoke, and she welcomed his presence, knowing that Steed's last thought had been she had poisoned him. There was only one IV line in the back of his left hand, giving him fluids and the alpha lipoic acid. When his eyes were open, Steed stared down at himself, taking in the hospital gown; he closed his eyes briefly and then opened them again, turning his head to see his wife and the psychiatrist. His right hand moved on top of his stomach, and he grimaced as his hand rubbed it. He stared at Emma with a vulnerability haunting his pupils; she kept her anxious eyes on him, as she automatically chewed her lower lip.
Dr. Silver spoke first. "Is your stomach burning a little? It's not the poison. That's pretty much all cleared out. But, you've got ulcers, Steed, from the poison. Three in your stomach and one in your esophagus. A few canker sores have developed in your mouth. They should heal up within the next several weeks. Otherwise, you seem to be recovering fine, physically, from the poisoning."
Except that he looked wan and debilitated and somewhat crushed in spirit. But, Dr. Silver had only said he was fine "physically."
"You poisoned me," he said, his eyes not leaving Emma's face. His voice was raspy and sore, not from a ventilator, but from the irritation the poison had caused as he had vomited it.
A thin stream of tears fell from Emma's eyes and she wiped them quickly away. "Steed, I had no idea the dates were poisoned. We believe it was an old lady, or probably a man disguised as an old lady, I met at Harrod's who poisoned them. I had no idea. I would never had given you poisoned dates."
Dr. Silver explained what had happened a bit more explicitly while Emma stepped forward and grabbed hold of Steed's right hand, kissing his forehead.
"I see," Steed said, curtly, not responding to his wife's affectionate advances.
The doctor then detailed the idea the Ministry had of not reporting his death, but instead admitting he was still alive, increasing security considerably whilst allowing the man to try once more, so they could capture him. Did Steed approve of the plan?
Steed didn't answer for a few moments as Emma kissed him again. "I don't know. Let me think about it."
That was a bad sign. Steed was, if anything, justly famous for his quick and sure decision making. Dr. Silver was sure this was a manifestation of a depressive state of mind. However, all that could be discussed later. Satisfied that Steed had not woken up hating Emma, Dr. Silver told Steed to contact him whenever he needed someone to talk to, and excused himself from the room. He knew the Steeds needed time alone to process what had happened; his personal meeting with Steed to discuss the reason why he was foolishly allowing himself to be repeatedly injured could wait a little longer. All that mattered was he speak to Steed before another near fatal scheme occurred; but the doctor didn't believe that would happen for at least a week or so. That gave him a little time to demonstrate his apparently endless stores of patience, and his honored silence, both which he had developed by treating intelligence agents for thirty years. Once the door closed behind his exit, Emma spoke.
"Steed, what are you thinking? Do you forgive me for poisoning you?"
"Nothing to forgive. Twasn't your fault." He spoke monotonously and kept his eyes from looking at her. He wished he fully believed his words, but blaming her for stupid carelessness wouldn't help anything. Yet, he knew his body language was giving his inner feelings away and he couldn't stop himself from telegraphing that.
Emma leaned over him and held his face in her hands, forcing him to look at her. "John, there are many ways to die. By being shot, by being poisoned. The worst kind of death occurs by allowing some crazed lunatic to ruin one's idyllic marriage, letting him break the chain of love that binds an adoring husband to an adoring wife. Letting him blacken and shrivel what has been and can still be forever golden and bright. I was the vehicle of your first two near fatalities, and I hate myself for it, but don't let that maniac transform you into the carrier of the other, more invidious, kind. Please, I beg you."
Steed's knew her speech was from the heart and rang with truth. His eyes filled with tears. "I thought you had poisoned me."
Emma lay flat on his chest, wrapping her arms under him as he drew her down to him. "Never. Never. Never. If you die, I die. Please don't hate me for being such a fool and not catching the poisoning of the dates. I hate myself enough for both of us. Please don't let him draw us apart."
Steed whispered back, "I don't hate you. I don't want us to be apart. But…"
Emma sat up looking at him, her heart pounding in fear. "But…what?"
Steed looked away, and Emma saw from the thinness of his face that he had lost weight. "I know I'm supposed to be so durable, so undefeatable, so strong, but…"
He paused and Emma didn't rush him.
"But… I don't know if I can go through this again. Having you almost kill me. I'd rather be back in Nee San, with all its endless horrors. At least then, those who brought me pain were my enemies. It made it so much easier to handle."
Emma grasped Steed's hand and held it tighter than she ever had. All sense of anxiousness and defenselessness left her aura and she assumed the solidity of a mountain; Steed was drawn back to studying her, mesmerized by her change into an unstoppable force. She spoke, her blunt and solid tone sounded like a hammer casting her words in stone, "You won't go through this again."
Because, Emma thought, no matter what the Ministry did or didn't do, she was going to find the man and kill him.

Steed was allowed to return home on Monday, granted leave to work as much as he could, but to rest plenty everyday. He had his antacids in his jacket pocket, but Emma had already called his friend Hal, who specialized in herbal cures. Slippery elm capsules were waiting for him at home, guaranteed, Hal had claimed, to soothe his esophagus and stomach lining, and heal up ulcers as quickly as possible.
That was good news. Steed would welcome any good news into his life. Almost being killed twice in one month was enough to enervate the body and spirits of anyone, even a secret agent used to a life of danger and risk. The poison, he remembered how it had so quickly drained him of his life force, causing him to pass out; he had learned that it had come very, very close to simply shutting off his heartbeat, simply ceasing his life. If Dr. Harrison hadn't come by to check on him… Emma would have been a widow, for real this time; his children would have been fatherless; and all the joys Steed looked forward to reveling in the next years of his life, the next unique phase he would enter as father and Head of the Ministry would have ended, tragically, and so awfully sadly.
What sort of monster uses a man's wife to kill him? What sort of enemy had Steed made? What had he done to the man? What hatred embittered him? Steed had arrested many men in his career, but for the life of him couldn't understand from where in his past this evil spectre haunting him had arisen. It didn't help his mood to know that his body was so terribly weak, and the man responsible was still at large probably planning to strike again.
It had only been a week ago that Steed had been wheeled out of the secret clinic, and now here he was again, repeating the same process. This time, however, he was grateful for the ride as he didn't think he could have walked the whole distance from his room in the secured intensive care unit of the hospital to the front door. Just three weeks ago, he had been so healthy, so hale. A touch of gloom sat on Steed's shoulders as he was wheeled around a corner. He was really at ground zero with his body --he felt he could just about fall asleep in the chair. He was unsure about seeing his children… What would they think or say when they saw how poorly he looked? How fatigued and weak he was? He couldn't ride a horse for them. He couldn't play croquet with them. He couldn't hold them both in his arms. What good was he to them?
He was unsure about eating any food that Emma placed in front of him…
He was unsure about The Ministry being able to track that fellow down and stop him from striking again…
He was unsure about his ability to make a full recovery --it seemed an over-whelming task to him now. The work involved; the time; the persistence.
His stomach hurt. He had had an ulcer after Nee San, a stress ulcer they had called it. He didn't remember it quite hurting this much, but that had been a long time ago. Maybe that was the key, Steed thought, as the front doors to the clinic softly slid open automatically and he saw Emma and Gambit standing at the front of the car with Purdey ready to sit next to him in the back seat; ready to protect him, ready to give their lives for him. He just had to wait for twenty-two busy years to pass, the time since he had been jailed in Manchuria, and then, all this pain and distrust and gloom would seem like it too, hadn't been that bad.
Emma drove the Jaguar up their long curving drive and Steed saw his children standing in from of the house with his Auntie Greta, eagerly waiting for him to show up. He smiled at the view and allowed the warmth of that scene to gladden his heart.
"Aren't they adorable?" Purdey grinned. "Good genes, no doubt about it."
"Elly is growing like a beanstalk," Gambit added. "And that Eddie, what a character, the way he repeats things. He's so verbally advanced for only three. Probably will grow up to be an actor, I imagine."
An actor! Neither Emma or Steed had considered that!
"Well," Steed drawled, "it beats being an astrophysicist." The boring (to Steed) career choice Emma had stated during her second pregnancy she was confident their child would ascend to.
It was dangerous, but Emma was able to turn around and stick her tongue out at him while bringing the car to a halt and not running anyone over.
It was a good, fun way to return home. It brought hope into the car, and all four of the people felt strengthened by it.
Steed opened his car door with two darling, precious faces standing nearby. He waved to his Auntie who blew a kiss back. Then he saw Elly flash into an exaggerated smile and bump Eddie's upper arm, almost sending him flying, as she instructed, "Smile, Eddie." His tiny son complied, shining all his white teeth in a grin that would win some Halloween Jack O'Lantern award. Very over-dramatic, Steed thought, bemused, wondering if indeed his son was set for the stage. Elly's mouth was curved upwards herself, almost to her ears, but there was one tooth missing already from her upper row of teeth.
Steed braced himself and then stood up, holding onto the car for support, Gambit and Purdey watching him with eagle eyes. His vision went dark for a few seconds, as his low blood pressure temporarily failed to keep blood flowing to his brain, but in seconds it equalized and he had enough power in his legs to pause and let his sight return, which it did within seconds. He closed the car door behind and stood looking down at his children. They stood, with those odd and charming smiles, staring up at him. Emma was hugging Auntie Greta hello as Steed decided he better act quickly to prevent his children's faces from getting stuck that way.
"Hello," he said.
"Hello, daddy!" they yelled back, immediately starting to smile again.
"What are you doing?" he asked, good-naturedly, slowly kneeling down on the ground to be at their height.
"Mummy told us to smile when you came home," Eddie said.
Elly nudged her brother again. "Ssshh, Eddie, don't tell him that. Mummy wanted it to appear to be natural. To not show him we were sad he was gone."
Eddie leaned forward to his father who turned an attentive ear to his son. Eddie put his hand to his mouth, and whispered, loud enough for everyone to hear, "I didn't tell you that."
"Mum's the word," Steed winked at him, his finger in front of his lips. Emma bit her lips together to keep herself under control, while Greta delicately covered her mouth with her hankie.
"Good," Eddie said. He pulled back, smiled grotesquely again for a moment and then asked, "Can I stop smiling and hug you now? It's starting to hurt."
"I've been waiting for that very event," Steed grinned, as his children rushed into his arms, a chorus of "We missed you!" filling the whole front lawn. If his non-arthritic left knee hadn't been on the hard ground, he would have fallen backwards against the side of the car, but since he had stabilized himself, he was able to receive them both gladly and stay upright. After a good long minute of holding their father, Elly took a close look at him.
"You've lost weight," she declared, touching his face. "I don't like that. You'll have to eat a lot. Mummy will feed you big meals."
Mummy will feed you dates. Steed shook the thought from his head as a certain silence fell on the four adults. He wrapped his right arm around his son, nodding for him to hold on. His son grasped his lapel and his neck, as Steed, reaching out for Gambit, was carefully helped to his feet.
"Is your tummy all better, daddy?" Eddie asked, as he put a small hand over Steed's abdomen once they were standing.
"Almost all better."
"And your broken bone?"
"It's better, too."
"All better?"
"Not all better, but better. Now, let's go inside, shall we? Elly, will you hold onto mummy's hand again? So, we'll be one happy family again."
"Sure, daddy. Hi, mummy. But, what about Auntie Greta?" she said, kissing Emma on the lips as they clasp hands together. Steed brought Eddie to Emma and they kissed, too.
Steed answered, "Unfortunately, your Auntie has to leave. However, I think you should say 'Thank You' for her taking care of you so very well."
The children thanked her and she bent over and embraced Elly and then came to Steed and kissed Eddie.
"John, goodness, do take care of yourself," she said. "Get well soon." It was evident she would have said much more had the two of them been alone. Steed acknowledged the unspoken emotion of caring she dared not release in front of the children by planting solid smacks on both her cheeks, bringing tears to her eyes she quickly wiped away.
"I will, dear Greta. Thanks for all your help." He was tiring just standing in the driveway holding his son. His recliner seemed to be beckoning to him from inside the house. Greta waved, said good-bye to Purdey and Gambit with a finger-shaking and a whisper that Steed figured was her ordering them to make sure he stayed well. She then drove off in her Peugeot.
All four Steeds entered the house, the children chattering away, asking Steed question after question about his stomach flu, as Purdey and Gambit stayed outside to coordinate security with the three agents already guarding the house. They were taking no chances this time.

Steed slept most of the morning and afternoon in the drawing room in his recliner, his children staying, unusually, in that room all day as well. They moved parts of their bedroom and toy room into that large space, reading or playing by their father. When Eddie felt tired and wanted a nap, he climbed onto his father's lap and simply slept on him. Emma split her time between the drawing room, her office --chatting with a multitude of different people at work-- practicing her yoga in their exercise room, and preparing meals. Elly usually followed her to copy her yoga movements as best as possible, but that day, her daughter stayed with her sleeping father in the bright, cheerful room. Emma didn't complain about the mess the drawing room was becoming; Steed was alive, and the children needed to be near him. Who cared about a mess?
She woke Steed for lunch, carrying a tray for him that held a thick turkey sandwich, a cup of mixed fresh fruits and berries with some almonds mixed in, a large mug of tea, and five slippery elm capsules. Steed got up groggily, ignoring his pounding heart at being served by his wife. In the hospital they had further discussed the dates being poisoned and realized that through the remembered dialogue, Emma had ensured that the dates were only to be ingested by her husband. The old lady had even made sure, through questions, that her children would not eat any. It seemed that there was a conscience in the attempted murderer, and it brought relief to both of them that indeed it seemed their son and daughter were safe from any malicious influence. This food she served was for obviously bought for the whole family; it should be safe. Steed shouldn't be hesitating like he was to partake of the meal; he was hungry and his stomach seared his ulcers. He needed food to dilute the acid it made.
Conversationally, as if there was no reason to mention it, Emma said, "I just ate a sandwich and had a fruit cup myself."
Steed closed his eyes, growing angry that some unknown monster had made his wife feel compelled to assure him the food he was receiving from her was safe to consume. There hadn't been too much anger inside Steed, yet; he'd been too weak to dredge it up. Yet, now, he felt it beginning to boil within him. He looked at Emma, her face soft and yearning for his approval, for his trust. He had to find some other outlet for it than his dear wife.
"It looks lovely," he smiled. "Thank you." He quickly swallowed the herbal pills, then picked up the sandwich and took a large bite from it, waiting, waiting, waiting… but for nothing, for no reason. There was no danger signal, there was just his traumatized mind. At some point, Steed had learned the ability, if needed, to detach himself from the emotions he experienced; that way, he would not lose himself in them if he didn't want to. He could rationally view his fear, his hate, etc., and he could pull back from becoming lost in it. This he choose to do now; he stepped back and saw his concern over Emma giving him lunch, but just watched it like it was a movie occurring inside him, whilst he said "Um-um, good" and smiled at her. The fear in his mind would fade; he had had lots of fears fade. She didn't need to know about the fear, she didn't need to know that eating hurt his canker sores, that it bothered his irritated throat to swallow anything but liquids. The sores would heal. His throat would heal. His stomach would heal. His mind would heal. He would regain his strength, his vitality. He was not stuck being a tired, weak old man at age fifty-six who couldn't run and play with his children; he would eventually recover. It couldn't happen soon enough for him. This wasting away the day sleeping out of real need to rest actually scared him a little. He hadn't been this low in a long time. As much as it irritated him, he would work hard to be back to normal as quickly as was possible. He owed it to himself, his children, his wife, and even his country.
To the best of his ability, he wouldn't hurt Emma in the meantime.
He could only imagine what he would feel like if he had been the cause of nearly killing Emma. Of course, he'd never have been that careless with a paint gun nor by talking to a stranger so openly when there was an anonymous enemy lurking about… but if he did create that hypothetical daydream, he knew he would have felt terribly guilty and would have been further emotionally and mentally destroyed if Emma had overtly blamed him. He knew from a discussion in the hospital that Gambit had initially been cruel to her, disbelieving her innocence. Gambit had mumbled an apology to her later, once the facts were known, but Steed knew that Emma was still bothered by his critical condemnation of her.
It was up to him to do his best to keep his fear of another attack under control and support Emma as best he could. He took another bite of food.
Relief flooding through her at the sight of Steed munching away, Emma was implored to get lunches for her two "starving" children, her son illustrating his claim by staggering here and there about the room until he fell to the carpeting dying of hunger, kicking his legs in the air a few times for dramatic effect, while his elder sister put her hands on her hips and rolled her eyes, saying "What next?", though his father applauded noisily calling out "Bravo! Bravo! Encore!" with a very ungentlemanly mouthful of food, which made Emma put her hands on her hips and roll her eyes, saying, with a smirk, "Honestly."
She could not have been happier.

Eddie had wanted to be put to bed at 8:00 in the master bedroom so he could sleep with his father, when he went to sleep later, but his mother told him "No, love," his father kissed him and said, "There's a good lad," and they both drew the covers over him as he lay in his own bed. Elly made Steed read her two books before she would allow him to turn her light off. Then she wanted some water. Then she heard a noise in her closet. After checking to make sure there was nothing scary in them, Steed came back and sat next to her in her bed, kissing her and assuring her he was not going away again. Only then was he able to leave.
He and Emma talked a little alone at night, discussing the new kink in putting their children to bed, and then other, more pleasant things, but this time, his libido did not eventually kick in. He took his last serving of the slippery elm capsules and then collapsed in bed the earliest Emma had ever seen him; by 9:30 p.m., after a day of essentially doing nothing but sleeping. When she went back to check on her son thirty minutes later, he wasn't in his bed; she found him cuddled up next to a pajama clad Steed. He had probably been lying awake the whole time, waiting for his father to finally enter his bedroom.
Emma grit her teeth together, loathing the new insecurities her children were depicting. Loathing how some unknown man had taken all the nurturing, all the comfort, all the security they had imbued in their children and ruined it, teaching them about fear and possible loss and worry.
Who the hell could that man be?
How the hell would she find him?
She wracked her brains all night, and for one of the only times in her life, her genius brain did not solve this conundrum.
She joined her husband and son in bed at midnight, and got one hour of sleep herself before Steed jerked wildly awake crying out from a nightmare, shocking his son into consciousness, who launched into a frantic outburst of hysterical tears at seeing his father so unsettled. Emma succored to both of them, hugging her howling son to her chest while she rotated between kissing her husband's sweaty face, his eyes closed as his breathing rate decreased, and her son's head, as he gradually stopped weeping. When Elly appeared in the doorway to their master bedroom, wondering what was the matter with Eddie, Emma handed the boy to Steed's receptive arms, who rocked him back and forth, (grunting a little from the pain it caused his ribs), while shushing him gently and telling him everything was fine, was okay, he was sorry for scaring him, he'd just had a silly dream. Meanwhile, Emma put Elly back to bed, assuring her that all was well. Some long minutes later, after her son and husband lay down together again, falling back asleep, Eddie clinging desperately to his father, whose arm surrounded Eddie, not her, Emma silently lashed out the most excremental curse she had ever dared to conceive directed at a man she didn't know.
She was not so lucky getting back to sleep herself.

The straw that broke Emma's back and drove her into obsession occurred the next day. The nanny was back, but the children still desired to stay around their father; thus the nanny was a fourth person in the drawing room. Steed was able to take a brief walk, but otherwise, it was resting, reading, sleeping, taking slippery elm and eating. He answered a few Ministry phone calls, and made the decision to allow them to state he was not dead in some article in the newspaper. Of course, Steed's relatives were aware of Steed's recent trouble, and that he had survived it, but otherwise, Steed and Emma had kept mum about his second hospitalization to friends and had not returned calls left on their message machines. Now they would begin to connect with their social circles and try to beat their prey out into the open. Hoping, of course, he didn't get his prey, Steed, first.
Gambit controlled the security around Steed's mansion, and Purdey was assigned to Emma, for whenever she left the grounds. Those two friends and colleagues of Steed had Steed's permission to take over guarding him and his family.
Near supper was when everything exploded for Emma. She was preparing the food, not trusting anyone else to do it, ironically, when Steed entered the kitchen for a glass of milk. Not his usual beverage choice, but a sure sign his ulcers were acting up. He looked pale, and feeble, almost fragile: his hair was messy from resting in the recliner, with some strands hanging over his forehead; his tie was undone (he had decided to keep up sartorial appearances of health by dressing in his usual suits); he yawned widely; he held his hand over his abdomen, over his broken bones and ulcers; and he walked carefully and slowly, not with the jaunty grace that radiated a sensuality no woman could fail to notice.
"Hello, lovely lady," he said.
"Hello, handsome man."
They smiled and then Steed opened up the refrigerator and pulled out the milk. He poured a glass for himself, and put the gallon jug away. He took a sip and scrunched his face up with dismay.
"Eech. They should sell milk with brandy in it."
"Oh, yes, a perfect way for little growing bodies to build strong bones, while wobbling their bicycles into trees."
"Ha, ha!" Steed chuckled, finishing his drink and putting the glass in the sink.
He walked over beside her on the left as she cut up vegetables for a massive dinner salad.
It happened instinctually, reflexively.
Emma turned to Steed to speak, swinging the knife in her right hand about in an unconscious motion. Before she could say more than "I wonder--" Steed's hand flew out lightning fast and grabbed hold of her right forearm, harshly slamming it to the countertop, causing the knife to fall out of her hand, and bringing real pain to Emma, who cried out.
They were both stunned by his action. His self-protective action. He had seen his wife, seen the knife in her hand insouciantly waved around, and had, startled from some place deep inside him, thought he might be in danger and acted accordingly.
Steed was motionless from surprise and held her in that pinned position until she grabbed his upper arm with her free hand and broke through his daze pleading in a choked voice, "Steed. Let go of me." He immediately did. Emma took several steps away holding her wrist in her hand, tears brimming in her eyes.
"Emma, I'm so sorry," Steed said, staring at his hand as if it was not part of him, as if it was some alien hand that had replaced his own. "I didn't mean it. I don't know why it happened."
"Because I shot you and poisoned you and now, now you don't trust me anymore."
"That's not true. I do trust you. I do. I don't know what happened. It was stupid, a mistake."
But it was no good. Emma ran from the room, tears streaming down her face. Steed watched her go, physically unable to rush after her. Instead he punched the countertop as hard as he could, leaning on it afterwards hating himself for no longer trusting his wife deep inside where lived his fear and his suspicion, two aspects of him he had just discovered that were stronger than his rational brain. His hate also spilled over to that unknown man, his reflexes, and all the trouble that continually entered his life, even after he had quit looking for it. The only people he didn't hate were his wonderful children, who had lost a certain sense of faith in the world, and his beloved Emma, and --contrary to what he was striving not to do-- he had just hurt her the worst.

The rest of the evening Steed and Emma did the best they could to keep their children from discerning Emma's inconsolable distress, and Steed's growing depression. They played a couple of games with their children, and watched a little TV with their children, but not with the giggling fun and rousing energy they usual exhibited when they were all together. A couple of times Steed followed Emma out of the room when she excused herself for a moment, but was rebuffed in his attempts to patch up the hole he had shredded in Emma's heart. She didn't want to talk about it; nor was she amenable to his hugs dodging out of the way of his encircling arms.
The children were placed in their own beds and they told Eddie that daddy was back to stay and he could trust that daddy wouldn't leave again without telling him, like he did when he went away on business. Why didn't he try to sleep in his own bed tonight? Eddie said he'd try, and smiled broadly when Steed kissed him with a "That's my brave boy."
Emma disappeared after that, and Steed read a book for a couple of hours, dozing now and then. Quitting the novel, he found Emma in her study, hanging up the phone excitedly speaking the words "Madge, I'm sure that's it."
"You're sure what's it?"
"It's not important," she said.
"I'm interested, anyway. Come on, humor me."
With a touch of asperity, Emma said, "It's just something regarding a new research line at work."
Steed didn't believe her, but didn't think it was worth more contention to push that line of questioning. The only Madge Emma knew was Madge Hawkins, her secretary. He doubted Emma discussed new lines of research with her secretary at 10 o'clock at night.
"I think I need to go to bed. Are you coming or are you staying up a bit longer?"
'It's only 10:00 p.m. I'll stay up longer."
Steed came up to her, brushing her hair back from her head. Emma looked straight ahead, not reacting to his touch.
"We could snuggle for awhile," he said.
Emma stood up. "No, not until this is settled. Until that man is found. Until you trust me again."
"I do trust you!" Steed said strongly.
"No, Steed, you don't. Not really. You think you do, maybe, but you definitely don't inside down deep where your true feelings lie. You proved that earlier tonight."
"--John, don't worry," she said, suddenly softly, touching his arm. "I'm going to make things right again for us."
He took her hand and kissed it. "How?"
"I've got an idea."
"Oh? What is it?"
"I think I'll keep it to myself for awhile. I'm not too thrilled with the Ministry's incompetence in handling this disaster so far."
"The Ministry is devoting enormous resources to finding him--"
"And haven't, yet. They don't even have a clue."
"We just have to be patient."
Emma exploded. "Patient?! The hell we have to stay patient! I'm not going to sit around twirling my thumbs and then possibly be stupid enough to almost kill you again. I won't wait for that! I won't be patient for that! I won't let him turn you totally against me. I won't let him destroy you, me, our family. After all we've been through, after all we finally achieved, after all we're finally due." She would have gone on but the combination of rage and tears that poured from her eyes gagged her and she pulled her hand from Steed's grasp and ran from the room.
Steed reviewed his entire life standing there alone in her study and realized he had never, ever, felt more helpless in his life. He went into his bedroom, changing into his pajamas, dealing with his evening toilette and then going to bed. He was exhausted, body and soul, made worse by the empty half of the bed next to him. He could have used a good half hour of snuggling with his shapely, beautiful wife. He heard the bedroom door creak open a little and a tiny little form stood by the opening, shadowed by the light in the hallway.
"Daddy, would you be mad at me if I slept with you again?" his son asked.
"No, Eddie, I wouldn't be mad at you," Steed sighed.
"I promise I won't cry if you have another bad dream."
When Steed had been Eddie's age, although he had been overall a good, obedient, and kind-hearted lad, he had begun already some of the escapades with which his youth was to be filled to the brim. Already a certain daring, a certain courage, a certain innate desire to push things to the limit, to attempt to dance around rules and regulations had manifested, even if it was only to steal another glass of lemonade when his father had told him he couldn't drink anymore. Steed had imagined his son, born of a secret agent who had spent a life often in peril, would have been a hellion from the start. But, Steed saw his large-eyed boy staring at him uncertainly, his pajamas droopy and wrinkled, tightly clutching his teddy bear, and realized his affectionate, sensitive, delicate son was made of emotional glass, not steel. Steed's heart loved him all the more for it. Steed would protect his gentle son as valiantly as he had devoted his life to protecting his country.
Steed lifted the sheet and light cover off his body, creating a space for Eddie to climb in next to him.
"Son, whatever you do or feel is alright with me. I'm sure it was scary for you to see me scared. Just like I don't like it when you have a nightmare. Good thing, eh?, that neither of us have those dreams too often. Now, come in to bed with me."
Eddie ran to the bed, climbed onto to it and then arranged himself next to his father's torso. "Where's mummy?" he whispered.
"She's staying up late, working," Steed said back.
"Staying up late, working," Eddie repeated, closing his eyes, resting the stuffed animal he was holding on his father's stomach.
Steed watched his son fall asleep in the dark, his chest rising and falling regularly, filled with none of the wonder Steed had about just what Emma was indeed so committed to working on.

Chapter Thirteen

Steed and Eddie woke up together, lazily, to a bed half empty. Steed noticed, however, that his wife's pillow was squashed in, and Emma's nightie was lying folded on her dresser, clear indications that Emma had at least slept with them for part of the night.
Father stretched his long, lean body, and son obediently stretched his short, thin one. Steed's stomach gurgled, and Eddie giggled hearing it. Last night's dinner had been finished by the nanny, and although they had made their children eat well, neither Steed nor Emma had had much of an appetite. Now, however, Steed woke quite hungry, and his ulcers were burning away like a little campfire inside him. Maybe some food, while settling down the pain, would also give him the impetus to go for a morning walk and do his muscle strengthening exercises. He really had to begin seriously getting himself back in top form.
"I'm hungry," Steed said. "Are you?"
"I suppose we'll have spiders and eggs for breakfast," Steed mused, as Eddie rubbed his bearded face enthralled with its rough texture, so infrequently having seen his father's face anything but pristinely shaved and cologned.
"Oh, daddy, not that again!" a female voice exclaimed from the doorway. Elly was up and dressed and had, as usual, a book in her hand. She stood with her arms held akimbo.
"Not that again!" Eddie said.
"What?" Steed asked, faking innocence.
"Telling us we're going to eat disgusting animals or insects for our meals. Nanny Drysdale is making ham and eggs with tomato slices and whole wheat toast. And you two are very late getting up! Mummy has already left to go to work and Nanny says you need to call your office, because the phone has rung for you several times already. Breakfast will be served in twenty minutes." She waved her index finger at them, both still under the covers of the bed. "Now both of you, get up and get dressed!"
Elly Steed, five years old going on married. Steed had obviously misjudged which child was born to be the hellion.
Her daughter added in a much smaller tone, "Can I tell nanny you'll be ready, daddy?"
"Ay-ay, Captain!" Steed saluted sharply.
"Ay-ay!" Eddie yelled, copying Steed's salute.
Elly, seeing her father wasn't upset at her for her strident and authoritative tone, laughed gaily and ran from the room. Steed and Eddie rose and got ready together. Having showered together, and wearing towels wrapped around their waists --which Steed had done for his son-- a fascinated Eddie sat on the counter next to the sink in Steed's master bathroom, holding an electric razor in both hands as he was allowed to shave the stubble off his father's cheeks and chin.
Steed, leaning forward, closed his eyes as he changed his face's position to give Eddie more access to his morning beard; Steed needed all the fun he could get right now. It was a good balance what with dealing with his convalescence, having an upset wife, and apparently needing to dive back into Ministry work. No doubt his Assistant, Simon Damery, was feeling over-whelmed with basically being in charge for the last three weeks. Letting Eddie try his hand at barbering him was an amusing diversion. Yet, Steed suddenly snapped his eyes wide and rose straight up as he realized he didn't require all the shearing his son believed he did. With a firm yet friendly "I say!" he grabbed the razor back and shut it off, keeping his gleeful son from succeeding in shaving off all his short, curly, grey chest hair.

Concluded in part 3

©  Mona Morstein 2000
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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