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.
By John Crowe Ransom
By night they haunted a thicket of April mist,
Out of that black ground suddenly come to birth,
Else angels lost in each other and fallen on earth.
Lovers they knew they were, but why unclasped, unkissed?
Why should two lovers be frozen apart in fear?
And yet they were, they were.
Over the shredding of an April blossom
Scarcely her fingers touched him, quick with care,
Yet of evasions even she made a snare.
The heart was bold that clanged within her bosom,
The moment perfect, the time stopped for them,
Still her face turned from him.
Strong were the batteries of the April night
And the stealthy emanations of the field;
Should the walls of her prison undefended yield
And open her treasure to the first clamorous knight?
"This is the mad moon, and shall I surrender all?
If he but ask it I shall."
And gesturing largely to the moon of Easter,
Mincing his steps and swishing the jubilant grass,
Beheading some field-flowers that had come to pass,
He had reduced his tributaries faster
Had not considerations pinched his heart
Unfitly for his art.
"Do I reel with the sap of April like a drunkard?
Blessed is he that taketh this richest of cities:
But it is so stainless the sack were a thousand pities.
This is that marble fortress not to be conquered,
Lest its white peace in the black flame turn to tinder
And an unutterable cinder."
They passed me once in April, in the mist,
No other season is it when one walks and discovers
Two tall and wandering, like spectral lovers,
White in the season's moon-gold and amethyst,
Who touch quick fingers fluttering like a bird
Whose songs shall never be heard.
Emma Peel stood by the edge of the pond in back of her stately home in Libourne, France. A sunny spring day with a light breeze failed to lift her spirits from the dark disposition that had become a too frequent emotional state. The arguments with Peter about his drinking, and the growing instability of his moods were making her life with him more and more difficult. Slowly dissolving away were his witty statements, his intellectual curiosity, his love of the outdoors, and his desire to make their marriage a unique and special bond full of respect, fun, love and tenderness.
His years in the jungle of Brazil had been very harsh, true. Once the electrical system on his plane had failed and it had begun its screeching plummet into the isolated jungle, Peter had fought to open the escape hatch. He had finally done so manually and ejected out of the craft, but at a perilously low altitude. His parachute opened but really had little time to break his fall and he crashed into age old rosewood and rubber trees that had never even imagined an Englishman, let alone felt one bounce off so many of their inflexible branches.
Peter had awoken broken in body and mind, a total amnesia erasing his knowledge of himself and his previous existence. With attentive care by the natives of the area, he was able, after many months to walk and regain his strength. Physically he could have left the jungle, but baffled by his complete memory loss and struggling with a post-concussive confusion of thought, he knew of nowhere else to go, and so he stayed with the tribe.
His constitution had not evolved in the jungle, though, and he suffered chronic ailments from the strange foods, and the insects, worms, and germs rampant in the tropical geography. Headaches from the severe head injury he had suffered plagued him. He was tolerantly allowed to live with the tribal people, but he was not treated as an equal, and was oftentimes shunned by most of the natives, leaving him feeling lonely and depressed. When, after almost three years, his memory had slowly returned and his thought processes cleared, and he remembered who he was, Peter left the village and managed to travel to Manaus, where he collapsed at a hospital ailing from chronic diarrhea, worms, headaches, fevers, and nightmares. He spent two months there benefiting from Western medical care, and when he was stronger and healthier, he had contacted the British government which promptly arranged his quick return to England.
Emma had been contacted immediately, of course, and met him at the airport. They spent several quiet days in London together, before the news of Peter's return leaked out and hit the headlines of the paper. It was then that Emma realized she had to make the hardest choice in her life: leading her thrilling, passionate and wonderful life with John Steed; or, reclaiming her life as wife to a man she had thought was long dead, Peter Peel, who's immense joy at seeing her showed in a smile that looked like a brilliant sun was suffusing his face with the purest of golden light.
Had she still loved Peter? Her grief when he had supposedly died had felt like someone had taken a black marker and colored all the organs of her body that empty tone, until a cavity of darkness had seemed to exist inside her. But, she had recovered, and moved on, and had met and loved another man -even more than Peter?- and he had, she knew, loved her back. Yet it was only apparent though through the soft, yearning, trusting look in his eyes and in the beautiful and passionate ways he touched her and joined with her, so that she had never wanted to move from beneath him. No words; neither had ever used words to express their feelings. Hurt so deeply before in their lives, neither had been able to.
She had peremptorily considered both men, but knew in her bones right away what choice she would make. Duty, honor, responsibility; "till (real) death do us part"; ideas of a normal life complete with children; the hope that she might return to age twenty-four and finally watch all her dreams come true as she had imagined them; hearing Peter say how much he needed her, loved her, wanted to be with her so fully once again, how much through all his appalling travails the thought of her had made him fight to live all those left an indelible imprint upon her. Her heart felt an odd admixture of joy and dread as she chose to go back to her husband.
She had told Peter all about her years since he had disappeared, about her work as an agent for the top secret organization known only as The Ministry, and of John Steed, who had been her partner and lover during that time. She had seen Peter's pupils constrict into pinpoints, and his brows lower during her confession, no, not confession, her admission, but had not yet understood how deeply her relationship with Steed had rankled him. They had decided to move into her country home after she said good-bye to Steed. Peter would pick her up at his apartment. It was an unusual way to bid adieu, true, and she owned Steed so much more than the unforgivably brief farewell she was giving him, but if she had arranged it in any other fashion, had allowed any more time than a quick and courteous good-bye, she doubted if she would have been able to leave him at all. She knew he would be hurt, angry, confused, deeply so, but she also had faith in Steed's ability to go on in life through his pain, through his disappointments, assuming his gentlemanly demeanor, locking his distress all tidily away in a corner of his mind like he did with so much of his tumultuous past. She had once been responsible for adding two scars to his battle-weary body, now, she would be responsible for adding another scar to his haunted, yet strong and resilient mind. She trembled inside at the thought.
Peter Peel's return to London made the papers the day she went to see Steed, March 16th, 1968, stopping by his flat in the late morning. Although she wore her most insouciant smile, she knew as soon as she burst through his doorway that he knew what she was doing --saying good-bye, good-bye forever my love. She walked across the room to where he stood holding up his newspaper, so that the stark headlines leapt into the room with them, crowding out so many other very important words.
It had all happened so rapidly, this abrupt ending, both their emotional walls went up so thickly that their hesitations became too impenetrable to breach. The walls tried to hide their mutual love, but the stones crumbled when they stood near each other, when they saw each others' eyes, and to survive this brutal termination civilly, they retreated into casual speech that burned their tongues when spoken.
"Steed, you've seen the newspapers?"
She had taken the paper from his hands, which he had been all to willing to let go of, and glanced at the front page story.
"Trust him to make a dramatic reappearance. Found in the jungle."
"The Amazonian jungle."
"They've flown him back." (she didn't say they'd been together already for several days) "He'll be picking me up in a few minutes."
"Here?" Steed had asked, and she heard in his tone the sad shock upon this final impingement of their privacy, the harsh cracking of their intimate lives -here it really was, a new, unwanted reality forcing it's way to him, pushing them apart, taking her from him.
She walked some feet away from him, holding her hand over her mouth. She nodded once.
Steed followed, standing silently so closely to her, yet growing so distant, as if already he had entered her far yet pleasant past. He stood immobile, his soft eyes, half-lidded, looking at her full of unspoken anguish. She paused for a moment, then reached out her hand and put it on his chest, the chest she had stroked and hugged for nearly three years.
It was hard for her to breathe, as the room seemed to be closing in, compressing the air too tightly for her to manage to inhale. "Always keep your bowler on in times of stress," she had said gently, each word floating from her mouth laden with grief and abiding affection, "and watch out for diabolical masterminds."
Steed flashed a tiny smile, his "I'm very uncomfortable at the moment" grin (how many different grins of his had she been able to decode over the last years?). "I'll remember," he said, so quietly she had to lean forward to hear him.
"Good-bye, Steed," she whispered. She kissed his cheek. She hadn't dared to touch his lips, hadn't believed she could have ever separated herself from them. She turned quickly and began striding fast from the flat, only holding back her tears with the most intense self-control.
"Emma," Steed called out to her, stopping her dead in her tracks, "thanks."
Emma. Only in the passion and honesty of their love-making did he call her that. In that one word, all his feelings for her burst through his reserve. "Emma" had been the proof of their intimacy, the glue of their special bond; it had, frankly, been Steed's "I love you". A stabbing pain in her stomach, she smiled sadly at him and left without looking back. She fairly flew down the stairs, almost running into a young lady looking for Steed's flat. Emma felt no jealousy or anger at her quick replacement; it just magnified for her the understanding of how upset Steed was via his need to immediately escape into his work. She had learned so well how to interpret Steed's actions. He had no doubt called The Ministry's Personnel department as soon as he had learned of Peter's return, which, due to his friendly connections with so many high level administrators in the various governmental agencies, had been, no doubt, as soon as Emma herself had. That meant he had guessed correctly that she would leave him. That did not ease the sharp pain in her soul upon her doing just that. If Steed was so compelled to begin training someone else right away, it meant he couldn't even deal with just one day sitting around lost, realizing Emma was gone forever. She understood that his rapid reassignment to another woman did not minimize his depression one little bit but, rather, underscored his heartbreak.
She pointed the way for the woman, and told her how he liked his tea stirred anti-clockwise; it was one of the silly things he did for no other reason than it was odd, and people noticed it, and he liked to appear to be a harmless eccentric. But he was so much more than that. Had been so much more than that to her.
When she got to the street she stopped dead still in amazement. Peter had shown up in an open-top Mercedes sports car, dressed just like Steed in three piece suit, bowler, and mid-length winter coat. My God, he had even dyed his blond hair brown. She felt anger erupt volcanically, over-shadowing her despair about leaving Steed. She knew Steed was watching from his living room window, and this, this caricature of him, this mockery of him and his uniqueness, which Emma had so loved about him, hit her like a brick in her face. It was a sick practical joke. Her regret for sharing with Peter so much about Steed actually made her feel like she would vomit, and she felt like she had horribly betrayed Steed. Peter's cold and callous treatment of Steed and her life with him cracked open a brutal streak in Peter that she had never seen before. But she had learned things from Steed in their time together, many things, like composure under pressure, and so, as a dutiful wife should, she had climbed into the car, Peter acting the noble gentleman by closing her door behind her, and then darting around the car to climb into the driver's seat. She stared up at Steed and smiled lamely as she drove off with her husband, who, freshly returned from the jungles of Brazil had managed, already, to raise her ire higher than it had ever been in life.
As soon as they turned the corner, Peter lifted his bowler off his head and threw it in the back seat of the car, laughing hysterically at his actions. Emma's sorrow and distress poured out of her in a vitriolic scathing that left them both speechless; she, due to emotional exhaustion, and he, suffocating from effrontery and disdain.
They had good and bad times in Emma's house in Surrey, as any couple did. Peter had returned to England at the beginning of a rainy spring, and the cold and damp of the climate aggravated his achy joints, and his descents into moroseness. He wanted to move to the balmy climate of the south of France, which suited Emma perfectly, as the nearness to London, to Steed, tugged at her heart constantly. They traveled around France and found a lovely chateau in Libourne, fifteen miles from Bordeaux on the southwestern side of the country. It was a large estate, well landscaped, with a pond in back of the house and woods a half mile away, surrounded by the quiet of neighboring vineyards. The turquoise blue of the sky was decorated with the tranquil puffs of fluffy white clouds.
They had moved in by the end of summer. They began a relaxing country life of riding, archery, travel, long walks and gourmet dinners. Emma painted and sculpted, published articles in science, chess, and bridge magazines, and worked on science projects in her home's lab under the direction of a couple of university professors. She also kept in close connection with Knight Industries, flying back to England once a month, spending two days at the company, and then flying back to Bordeaux. She saw friends and relatives, but never went to London. If, though, over the months here and there various amiable military connections had casually mentioned something about Steed, she had let them tell all they knew, feigning a mild interest, but listening with utterly rapt attention to all their information, almost wishing she could take notes. There had been his relationship with that woman on the stairs, Tara King, and his continued successes as an agent had elevated him to higher and higher positions of trust and responsibility in The Ministry. Steed had also suffered a few more injuries by and by. She didn't heed the injury stories as they brought Steed's defined and athletic body too sharply into focus, and her concern for him became too graphically poignant.
Peter's recurrent migraines and loss of perfect vision prevented him from being an RAF pilot anymore, which irked him greatly, but there was nothing he could do about it. So they bought a private plane, and after being recertified, Peter began flying again in a civilian capacity. He took a position with an large aeronautics firm in Bordeaux, and used his engineering degree to help design military aircraft.
Every two or three months, Peter would have a couple of weeks of terrible moods, turning inconsolably irritable and confrontational, demanding, and sexually aggressive to the point that Emma, when those times occurred, would retreat to Paris or Lyon, where friends lived. She sought out, at first, physicians and neurologists who might shed some light on these abrupt personality changes, but since Peter refused to undergo any sort of medical or psychological examination, they were able to offer her no real answers. When she returned home, though, he would be all apologies, have flowers strewn through-out the house, have chocolates and diamonds delivered daily, and would be so tender with her, make love to her with such urgency and passion, her heart would once more melt into their marriage.
She began, after awhile, to truly love him again, not like she once had, innocent and carefree, but with a maturity that lent a certain solidity to their rejoining, an affirmation that they, together, could overcome whatever life threw at them. They laughed a lot together, and were able, when Peter's mood was stable, to fall into a comforting and enjoyable existence. And, even if occasionally another man, tall and muscular, came into her thoughts, she was, as the years passed, more and more able to close him up tightly in her mind, put him in a locked mental trunk, and just not let him out. Whenever at first she had casually mentioned something about her time with Steed, some interesting case perhaps, Peter had turned to into a perfect stalactite, icy cold, verbally spearing her with a pointed sharpness. She had learned to keep those years to herself, to never speak about Steed. Her whole being outwardly acted as if he had never been part of her life; yet, her insides assumed an imponderable weight when even the smallest image of him wafted out of the closed trunk she had wrapped with innumerable padlocked chains.
Slowly, as time drifted by, Peter's moods grew worse more frequently, as if the reason for the every two to three month explosion never really left him, but began lingering in his system, slowly poisoning him, and, as an inevitable consequence, their relationship. He took to drink. He began coming home very late from work at the aeronautic firm, inebriated, and she could hear him drive up the road and down their driveway to the house at very dangerous speeds. She would maintain her patience as best as possible, sitting down and talking to him about his problematic behavior, and when it continued she would yell, pack and leave. Once she arrived in Paris, Lyon, Tours, wherever, no longer staying with gradually suspicious friends, but in expensive and silent hotels, he would call her and plead for her to return home, begging forgiveness, declaring his limitless love for her. Eventually, she went back, and he was his old, sweet, light-hearted man she loved, cared for, and wanted to spend her life with. And then it all began again. And, like in some dream, here it was, two and a half equally turbulent and delightful years since his return, and the turbulence had been gaining the upper hand for the last four months.
Emma stood by the pond, her arms crossed in front of her. She wondered what nightmare or brain chemical or memory or whatever still went wrong several times a year with Peter, worsening their generally precarious relationship. She had never discovered the reason for his instant transformation from wonderful husband to spiteful boor, and Peter had never talked about it. It seemed to be the key to all their troubles over the years; that recurrent poison. It was strange and perturbed her. At those quarterly aggravations of his mood, she had begun to perceive when he looked at her a combination of pain and accusation, which, when she had finally asked him about it, he had blatantly ignored, absolutely refusing to elucidate upon her queries. He would just turn away from her. She sighed; how many times in the last year had she finally admitted her fatigue and unhappiness with her life only to herself, of course. She was much too English to have shared her marital difficulties with more than a couple of her closest friends; to the world they were as joyous as could be. They held hands at the symphony, and attended art shows, sat next to each other at restaurants, traveled to Monte Carlo, and still rode and walked the country lanes -all when Peter had a good and friendly disposition. They had never fought in public. In their roller coaster marriage only the high peaks were known to the outside world, even if many more dips occurred. Peter had wanted children, but she did not feel their present household would be a healthy atmosphere for their upbringing and so had held off becoming pregnant, praying each month that a welcomed stability would one day embrace their marriage. It was so ironic. She was respected and admired by so many people, who envied her looks, her wealth, her intelligence, her creativity, her life. However, not many of her own dreams had actually come true. And here she was, already thirty-four.
Once more the thought of leaving Peter came to her. Why not? But she had good reasons for not deserting him -she indeed loved him and she knew he loved her; she believed in the sacred vows of marriage; he needed her deeply, needed to know she was committed to him; she feared he would worsen greatly if she did leave him. And, in some inexplicable way, over the years Emma had a creeping belief slither through her that somehow, in some way, maybe she was more responsible for Peter's stormy tempers than she knew those accusatory looks he cast her way and if that was the case, she was morally obligated to stay with Peter and try to work it out.
Emma moved a strand of her auburn hair back from her face, her mind wandering free from her troubles of the moment, her cares disappearing into a calm and meditative state. Suddenly she heard a once familiar voice speak behind her, "Mrs. Peel, we're needed." Instantly alert, Emma whipped her head around in a blur, but there was no one there, just the rose trellises, the fountain, and the hedges lined up into sequential squares. Guilt enveloping her, Emma began trotting quickly back to her house, to her husband, to the man she assured herself she loved in heart and soul.
There were times that Steed's gentlemanly attitudes rather incommoded him. As he sat in a coach aisle seat, having exchanged his first class assignment with an elderly woman who had made quite a loud fuss at the gate over her lack of first class accommodations, he reflected that this was one of those times. His over six foot frame fit within the confines of the coach seating though was unused to such spare spacing for his long legs. But, it wasn't a long flight from Rome to London, the plane was a 747, he had been assured of the endless gratis alcohol he would have benefited from in first class, and he was just glad to be going back home to England, even if he was a little compacted doing so.
He had spent the last three weeks in Rome by request of the Italian government, which had been having some problems with the Mafia, and its apparent desire to expand into the market of distributing military supplies; a few British expatriates had been found to be organizing the sequestering of the pilfered items for sale. Steed had been sent by the Ministry to look into the situation, lend what organizational ideas he could on a preliminary basis to the government, and then make a full report back in England so a comprehensive investigation could be fully established.
It had not been too exciting an assignment, but it had some large and dangerous implications, so Steed had willingly gone. Besides, he had been able to have a number of meals at Luigi's, and the trip was worth that at least. It would be nice to get back to his house and horses, though, and Lady Millicent Foster. Lady Foster, a willing and winsome woman provided him with some escape from a certain tendency to loneliness he sometimes had had to admit to himself, in the last few years, crept through his mind. She had no permanent designs on him, nor certainly had he such plans for her; they just knew how to enjoy each other's company.
Since Tara had been reassigned to help run a group of agents working out of Prague, Steed, had once again been granted solo agent status for the last ten months, even though he was forty-eight. An extremely fit forty-eight, true, more so than agents twenty years his junior. He upheld a regularly intense training schedule at Hal Anderson's estate, a convenient one mile from his newly purchased manor, which contained a world class gymnasium in a large outbuilding that had been organized by Hal's health-obsessed grandfather, who had, humorously to Steed, died when he fell out of a tree he had been climbing at age seventy-eight. That establishment had provided Steed for thirteen years with a private place to maintain his impressive physical fitness and reflexes, which enabled him to yet be an active field agent. And he was a man the Ministry knew had to be let into the field regularly. A complete desk assignment would see Steed handing in his resignation papers, although he had slowly grown into a somewhat integral position in various managerial aspects of the Ministry. He was firmly believed to be utterly trustworthy, was respected for his long years of successes, and probably knew more about the entire security organizations in Great Britain than was good for him. With Colonel Dreyford head of the Ministry, with whom Steed had always had a very good relationship, Steed knew that there were whispers that one day Steed himself might take over as head of the Ministry. And, Steed had to admit to himself, allowing his ego the slightest buff of pride, the Ministry had had no reason to regret their dependence on him. Oh, Steed knew he wasn't liked by all the administrators, professional jealousy and all that, but the Colonel held all the potential back-stabbing and inter-department troubles carefully in place, so Steed was spared the inconvenience of having to address those who made it clear they did not exactly always wish him well.
Steed sat back in his seat, a box of chocolates bars from Pizzorno and Prata for his brother George's children under the seat in front of him, and he thought about which horse he would take for a run tomorrow. Napoleon was still a frisky bay, who loved leaping over fences; Victoria was more the steady, strong grey who could, it seemed, carry him for endless miles. It was May, and England was beginning to blossoming under a still weak yet shining sun and clear blue skies, so welcome after the long grey, wet days of their thoroughly miserable winter and drenching spring. The weather of this 1969-70 winter had indeed been the worst for the last ten years. Steed wanted to enjoy the slightly chilly yet sunny weather to escape the inevitable bad weather doldrums; and there was no guarantee how much longer this respite from constant drizzles would last.
The passengers boarded and seat-belted themselves into place. The plane taxied towards the runway and lined up in back of three other planes waiting for the clearance to depart. Suddenly, four men stood up from their seats, brandishing firearms. One man ran down the aisle from the main compartment to the pilot, one man ran to the back of the plane, and two stayed in the center of the craft.
"This plane is ours!" the apparent leader of the group declared, in Italian and English. "Anyone moving from their seat shall be shot."
Steed, who had been laying back with his eyes pleasantly closed, imagining the smells and sights of a sunny English spring atop a prancing stallion, opened his eyes calmly, the tenseness of his body in no way reflected in his apparent nonchalant attitude. Many of the other passengers had, expectedly, screamed in fear and consternation, but the leader had demanded their silence and had emphasized his order by enough gun-waving that people immediately complied. Steed studied the man -he was in his late 20s, dark haired, no doubt of Italian nationality, thin, wiry, and with fearful yet determined eyes. Steed recognized the inherent danger in a man such as him; he very well might kill someone. His glimpse of the other three men revealed two more Italians, probably in their early thirties, and one younger man, English by the looks, brown haired and more excitable, almost frantic. Rather out of the national character that, Steed mused.
The leader went to the front of the plane, apparently to confer with the pilot about his demands for releasing the plane and the passengers. The stewardess were gathered together and ordered to the rear of the plane. Already police cars and a few ambulances had sped to the side of the plane, their lights flashing in the darkness of the late night.
Steed sighed. First a coach seat, and now this. Sometimes things just did not go right. Something would have to be done about Italian airport security; this was an inexcusable occurrence when he was a bit tired. Still, no gentleman would allow a fellow airplane passenger to be killed by madmen with guns; it just wasn't done. Steed felt out of the loop not knowing what was the reason for their abduction, and so, when the leader returned from the cockpit and began to stride arrogantly down the aisle, causing a fearful hush to descend on each row he passed, Steed raised his hand when the leader was next to his seat.
"I say," Steed asked, in English, so the man would not know he was fluent in Italian, "would you mind having the courtesy to tell us why our flight to London is being delayed? It is rather bothersome. I have some horses that need riding or they'll kick down the stable walls in frustration."
Steed smiled at him in his most foppish, benign way.
The leader glared at him a moment. "Shut up," he snarled. Then he paused for a moment and strode to the galley separating the two main compartments. Speaking loudly in English he punctuated his words by rapid and sharp arm movements. "I will tell you all why we have taken this plane hostage! It is to defend our poor brothers from the repression by the corrupt Italian police, who jail and torture innocents. When the government will release the Circle of Seven, then I will release this plane. If they do not do so in five hours, I will shoot a passenger, and then another one, and another one every two hours until I have proof they are now free men."
The Circle of Seven. Steed had heard of them from his Italian associates. A group of seven men the police had rounded up that had terrorized the country with bombings to protest Italy's crackdown on Mafia political connections. Their arrest and quick, successful prosecution had been a major coupe for the police, but had enraged the criminal elements. This was, apparently, these felonious fellows brilliant idea of a counter-coupe.
Steed shook his head. So much violence in the world -sometimes it seemed to permeate his life, saturating him as coldly as did the wintry rains in England. He checked the time on his watch to mark when exactly five hours would be upon them. The situation did not look good and he resigned himself to the fact that he was going to probably have to act at some point. He would not let anyone be shot, that was a certainty, and the men had not given the authorities much time to arrange any kind of thought out rescue which would not lead to a gunfight and many civilian deaths and injuries. Steed's quick and experienced mind took in the setting of the plane and he understood instinctively what position the gunmen had to be in for him to assure a complete and easy rectification of the situation. If one man was forward in the cockpit area, two others were visible by either the front or back galley areas and if one man then walked by his side, his gun arm accessible after a quick debilitating blow to his throat or face That was a pretty feasible idea, even if he had to call one of the men over to him on some sort of silly pretense to grab hold of his weapon.
Steed sat back waiting for the deadline to arrive; perhaps the authorities would release the Circle, or perhaps some other rescue mission would occur. However, if the five hour limit was nearing, and the leader's trigger finger looked itchy, Steed would act. In the meantime he read the in-flight magazine, and comforted the extremely nervous woman next to him by patting her hand and flashing her his most relaxed and debonair smile. At times he closed his eyes and leaned back on his seat to rest peacefully.
Time passed and the mood of the plane was one of palpable fear; it seemed to make the air dense and hard to breathe. People sat quiet and immobile, their eyes at their feet whenever one of the men walked by them. However, after about three and a half hours, two twin children, about two and four years old, began to cry at the front of the compartment Steed sat in, twenty-some rows up. The woman with them gently tried to silence them, but they complained they were hungry and continued their stubborn crying. The man standing in the galley by the woman and her children put up with it for several minutes, but then it grew too much for his already frazzled nerves.
"Shut those children up!" he yelled to the woman.
"They're hungry," the woman explained in a clear, fearless voice. "I brought no food with me. We would have landed in London by now, if you hadn't decided to play your silly games on the plane."
Steed heard her resolute voice, bravely standing up to the gunman, and a tingling thrill traversed the length of his body. Mrs. Peel! He hadn't had any contact with Mrs. Peel in over two years, since her husband had returned and they had moved to southern France, where the climate was more conducive to him after the years in the jungles of Brazil. Whose children were those; they couldn't be hers, unless she had adopted ? Steed remembered once or twice, as he had watched Mrs. Peel sleeping so calmly beside him idly wondering if they might one day have had their own Steed brought himself back to the present, hiding the pain of her leaving him deep inside, where it lay silent with so many others pains of so many different types Steed had experienced in his life. Yet Steed couldn't help acknowledging that their nearly three years together had been so wonderful for him, she had been so wonderful for him, and then he pushed that deep inside, too. He had missed her, even though he had immersed himself so totally in his work, and that yearning for her, her company, her laugh, her touch, went deep inside, too. He felt almost full to bursting holding all his painful memories and intimate cravings of her inside.
The gunman and Mrs. Peel were having quite a little exchange of unpleasantries, and even if it hadn't been Mrs. Peel, Steed would have felt obligated to intervene. The fact that it was a certain auburn-haired beauty made the whole effort more delightful to him. Just as the gunman seemed ready to commit some sort of violent affront against Mrs. Peel, his voice screaming at her, filling the whole plane with his grumblings and warnings, Steed put two chocolate bars in his breast pocket and stood up.
"Excuse me, yoo-hoo," Steed's voice rang out as he waved his hand at the gunman, getting the fellow's full attention. "Would you mind terrorizing the lady and her children a little louder? I can barely hear it from here." And he put his hand down, smiling widely, his face the essence of blithe tolerance.
At those words, Mrs. Peel gasped in relief, her heart feeling like it just stopped dead in her chest. Steed. She turned her head around and peered over the top of her seat, and saw his tall, lean, muscular form, his brown head of hair still thick and full. He stood in a loose way that she remembered from years ago masked his strength and the lightening strike of his power. She turned back in her seat and felt like a warm blanket had descended over her, soothing her and protecting her. Steed was in the plane, and she knew that she and the children would be all right. Everything would be all right. She had stood up to the gunman firmly, though inwardly she had been terrified. Now she felt her fear drain fully away.
The gunman uttered an expletive in Italian, crossed over to Steed's side of the plane, and darted down the aisle to him his handgun held out in front of him.
"What do you think you are, some kind of fucking wiseass?" he yelled at Steed, surprising Steed with his informal choice of words.
Steed's eyebrows raised high on his forehead. "Actually," he answered, "I can assure you that I rarely, if ever, think of myself in quite that terminology. As a rule, I avoid any association with brusque American colloquialisms. So déclassé, don't you think?"
"How about thinking you're a dead man?" the man asked, leveling his gun at Steed's temple.
Easy, Steed, he told himself. "Actually, I am much more familiar with thoughts such as that," he admitted, truthfully. Steed bent his left arm slightly in preparation of knocking away the gunman's arm if he sensed the man was actually of the mind to shoot him.
The man cocked the trigger and one could have heard a pin dropping on the carpeting of the plane. Another gunman stood watching from the galley in back of Steed. "Maybe," the gunman said, "I should just stop all your thoughts."
Steed subtly breathed deeply to maintain his calm and to energize him. His heart raced and he felt a bead of sweat form on his forehead, yet he spoke in a matter-of-fact manner. "You may shoot me if you wish, and the world will care not a jot. However, if you think that you can kill those two crying children, you are absolutely dead on wrong. If harm comes to either of them, the authorities and the Mafia will become so outraged that you will never get off this plane, or out of this city alive, and you know it."
Steed turned his head and looked the gunman in the eye, glad to see a pensive attitude perfuse the man's face. The man didn't remove the gun from Steed's temple, yet his tone was less aggressive as he asked, "So, do you have some brilliant idea to get those brats to shut up?"
Steed smiled widely and very slowly lifted his right hand to his inner breast pocket removing the two chocolate bars. "Why don't you offer these to the little ones? What they lack in nutritional value, they shall no doubt make up for in their ability to satiate empty little tummies." Still smiling he held out the bars to the man.
The man removed the gun from Steed's temple, and let the trigger back down. The entire cabin seemed to sigh in relief. He grabbed the bars, and Steed sat down, beginning to reread the in-flight magazine. The man strode away, thrust the bars into Mrs. Peel's hands, and after a few minutes the plane was blessed with quiet children again. When a few other children began to cry here and there, the gunmen returned to Steed for more chocolate bars. Then he came to get some for himself and the other hijackers. Steed grumbled silently; he had promised the chocolate bars to his brother's children. Now, he'd have to order another box through the post.
More time passed. Steed found his eyes continually wondering over to the area where Mrs. Peel sat in front of him. He couldn't see her, but just knowing she was there was enough to have his concentration fail. No wonder he had realized he needed to stay so far away from her; it was too hard being in her presence, and not be able to ask her opinion on a case, to run his fingers through her hair It surprised him, frankly, his reaction to her being on the plane. He tried to lose himself in the last night he and Lady Foster spent together, but Mrs. Peel's body kept transferring itself into his fantasy.
It was pure duty that enabled Steed to focus again at the situation at hand. When there was only fifteen minutes before the gunmen had threatened to kill a person, Steed checked his watch and decided to get this over with before things escalated and a civilian got hurt. Mrs. Peel might get hurt. He dreaded the next few minutes but realized he had no choice. As if to emphasize the stark reality of Steed's decision the leader of the men came into the main area of the plane.
"People!" he yelled to the passengers, "The authorities have so far decided to bluff with us, thinking we are not capable of acting as we have told them we would. This is unfortunate, for it means that if they continue to evade our demands, in fifteen minutes one of you will die."
Steed waited, lifting his body and consciousness to a state of highest alert. Luckily, eight minutes later the gunmen fell into the position Steed needed: the leader back in the cockpit, one at the back of the plane, one in the galley in front of Steed and one in the galley behind him. An agent's duty is never done, Steed thought, and when the gunman in the galley in front of him turned to face the more forward compartment, Steed leaned over the aisle, twisting to face the man behind him. It was the Englishman. Waving the man over, the gunman, suspicious yet curious, slowly came up the aisle, leading with his gun. Steed turned back in his chair, thanking the Fates for scared amateurs, and balled his right hand into a tight fist. When the man was two feet from him Steed erupted out of his seat like a volcano, his fist smashing into the man's nose, crushing it entirely, his left hand grabbing the gun from the man's hand and immediately transferring it to his right hand. As the Englishman cried out and fell backwards to the floor, the man forward to Steed turned back and Steed shot him once through the heart. Then Steed darted to the rear galley and shot the man in the back of the plane once through the forehead. Steed then took off down the aisle and caught the leader leaving the cockpit in response to the gunshots. Steed shot him through the heart as well. Racing back down to his seat, he stopped ten feet from the gunman on the floor, who was holding his nose in one hand, while his other hand crept up under his pant leg, where Steed could see a holster wrapped around his shin.
Steed lifted his gun and pointed it at the supine gunman. "Please remove your hand from your leg. As a fellow Englishman, I have no desire to shoot you. I should much prefer to turn you over to the authorities alive."
The gunman stared at Steed. "You shot my best friend."
"And as much as I abhor violence, I will shoot you, too, if you do not move your hand from your leg."
The man kept his arm by his ankle.
"Don't be a fool, man," Steed urged. "Don't make me do it."
The hijacker stared at Steed without blinking. The entire cabin held its breath.
With a yell, the man's hand flashed to his leg, and Steed shot him through the heart. The hijacker's body whipped backwards onto the floor, twitched once, and was still. Steed had long ago learned to shoot to kill when he was forced to use a firearm in the first place; he hated using firearms. Relief flood through the cabin, tears trickled down cheeks, and hugs were plentiful, although no one moved from their seats.
"Who are you?" an anonymous voice asked. "James Bond?"
Steed found it difficult to remove his eyes from the dead gunman on the floor. A nausea settled in his stomach. "Yes," he said, softly, letting his gun hand fall to his side, "I'm James Bond."
Avid whispers filled the cabin.
After a moment, Steed requested that a couple of strong looking men remove the bodies out of the aisles into the galley spaces, while he went to tell the pilot that the problem was over. The plane's exit door was opened, and Steed descended the stair ladder that was placed underneath the portal. He met with the authorities and began relating the details of the events in the plane. The men asked a great deal of questions which Steed had no problem answering until his eyes caught Mrs. Peel and the little boy and girl deplaning. Then Steed's and Mrs. Peel's eyes locked onto each other and kept contact until Mrs. Peel entered the bus sitting on the runway being used to return the traumatized passengers to the terminal. Neither had waved, neither had smiled; no one else would have noticed their connection, except for the men with Steed who had to repeat their questions when his mind seemed to drift for a minute.
Steed met Mrs. Peel in the terminal later, in the room where the passengers had been sequestered; all the rest had gone home, but she was still there, without the children. He had dealt with all the authorities, and had convinced them to not let his name be released to the press. That wasn't good advertising, secret agent-wise.
Mrs. Peel stood up when Steed approached, once more admiring how kind the years had been to him, but knowing that his minimally wrinkled face, lithe and muscular form, and athletic grace was due to a stringent training schedule and a relatively sparse and healthy diet. Mrs. Peel knew she had lost a little of her slight figure though by no means was out of shape herself.
Steed stopped in front of her, keeping his hands at his sides. "Mrs. Peel, what a delightful coincidence to meet you once again, although the circumstances were far from ideal." He let his eyes wander over her unabashed. "My goodness me, you are looking as lovely as ever."
It's like a disease, she thought. Catching his charm, like catching a cold. It infused her, warmed her like a fever, and brought back memories singular for the happiness and fondness they still elicited in her. "Steed. You're looking well yourself." She smiled at him. "That was some affair on the plane. I'm sorry it had to end like it did, for you." He really did abhor violence, she knew. Odd job, in some ways, for a man like him, so basically decent and convivial.
"Yes, well, tell me. Were those two children your own, Mrs. Peel?" he motioned her over to some seats and they sat down next to each other.
Still the same old Steed in so many ways. She let him change the subject, let the violence become another story he just wanted to forget. "No, they're not mine. They're my friends, who I was visiting for a couple of weeks here in Rome. I was on my way back to England to check up on Knight Industries tonight. I was just bringing the children to London for them to spend the summer with their father. My friend is divorced."
"How unfortunate for her. Where are the children now?"
"The mother never left the airport, wanting to watch the plane depart. When it didn't and she found out what was going on well, once the children were back in her arms she took them right home. What were you doing in Rome?"
"Oh, this and that. Buying chocolate bars and eating seafood penne pasta. Trying to stop the Mafia from selling machine guns. You know, the usual."
She almost reached out and touched his arm playfully, but contained herself. "The usual," she grinned and nodded.
There was a pause in their conversation. Steed broke it, safely. "Are you enjoying the south of France?"
Mrs. Peel was slow in answering. She had never lied to Steed before; but she hadn't spent so much intimate time with him without learning a thing or two about redirecting dialogue. She knew he was asking about her and Peter, but she had no desire to discuss that with him. "The scenery is outstanding, the weather is wonderful, and the fruits are delicious. There is a chèvre goat cheese my neighbor produces that is exquisite on a bed of green lettuce. And of course, being so near Bordeaux, we are never to far from the most delectable wines." Then Mrs. Peel added something without thought, her mouth suddenly deciding to speak words her brain would never have allowed. "You should come down and visit some time. Let me show you the sights."
And Steed's mouth answered equally without the inhibitions of thought. "How about tomorrow?"
They spent a night in separate rooms in the hotel the airline had arranged for the ill-fated passengers, and in the morning flew together to Bordeaux. They had a charming time talking of Knight Industries, of Morocco, of English politics, of Steed's new country house and horses, and of shooting and archery, hobbies Mrs. Peel had maintained, although her martial art skills she had allowed to wane. She spoke about the work Peter was doing in aeronautical engineering with a French firm, and the sporadic flying he still enjoyed. They studiously ignored Steed's work --since Mrs. Peel no longer had security clearance-- and their shared past history together.
Peter was in Paris visiting one of his childhood friends, and did not know that his wife had been on the hijacked plane as she had left the exact date of her leaving Rome up in the air. At the hotel that night, Mrs. Peel had called him, explaining she had indeed by a passenger in the new infamous flight, and assured him she was fine, and no, he could just stay in Paris enjoying his own brief holiday. She mentioned she had met an old friend on the plane, and had decided to go to England next week and take her friend down to the chateau the next day. She carefully avoided saying whether her friend was a "he" or a "she", and hid her accountability by telling herself she had every right to visit with Steed, an old and dear friend. If Peter didn't know about, that was definitely for the best. If he couldn't trust her, she knew she could trust herself.
Upon arriving in Bordeaux, they checked Steed into a hotel, and arranged a hire car which Mrs. Peel drove to her lavish estate in Libourne. From the road as they approached the turn-off into her drive-way Steed admired the large squarish chateau, which was surrounded by a lawn full of gorgeous landscaping of trees and bushes. The a small pond in the back of the house, and woods a half mile away, pleased his bucolic soul.
"I say, Mrs. Peel, you certainly have chosen well," Steed admired as he lifted her bags out of the boot. "This area is beautiful. Look," he pointed off to the side of the house, "your rose trellises are already replete with red and pink petals."
That was what was so perfect about the English gentleman, Mrs. Peel thought. One minute killing hijackers, the next truly and unabashedly glorifying the gifts of nature.
"Yes, I'm quite happy here," Mrs. Peel said, as she unlocked the front door and entered her home. Steed followed, easily hefting three bulky pieces of large luggage. He put the luggage down in the hallway and looked around blatantly regarding her choice of décor. Mrs. Peel excused herself and went to the bathroom, leaving Steed alone in the imposing elegance of the large entranceway.
Shifting back and forth on his feet, Steed began a strange interior dialogue with himself. Steed, my man, what on earth are you doing here, he asked himself? Why, just visiting Mrs. Peel whilst her husband is out of town, he answered. No harm in that. Except there's a good chance that Peter Peel wouldn't be happy to see you, here, alone, with his wife, and you know how happy you are to be here, alone with her. It doesn't really matter, he told himself. She's just a good friend. Yes, because she can't possibly be anything else. He had no response to that but a tight frown. That is what you have been hiding from yourself for six years, he continued. Notice how good it feels just to be near her. Shaking his head, Steed walked to a white stone wall replete with hanging pictures of modern art, and tried to interpret the incomprehensible images to avoid those bizarre thoughts. He shrugged. He was just a little over-wrought from his stress of yesterday, that was all.
Mrs. Peel returned, smiling when she noticed Steed studying of one her modern art paintings, a Jackson Pollack, which was mainly an orange, blue, white, and yellow thick mishmash of squiggles. She knew he had hated such art, couldn't understand it, that it had been like screeching nails down his Edwardian blackboard soul. She would have bet her fortune he still found such works useless; that he still didn't like art that was less than one hundred years old.
"Well," she asked, appearing by his side with her arms crossed, "what do you think?"
Ever the gentleman, Steed hesitated, "Well ". He leaned forward, narrowing his eyes, until his nose was inches from the canvass. Then slowly, he turned his head until it was parallel to the floor; he then put it in the same awkward position on the other side. Finally he stood up, snapping his fingers.
"I've got it," he said.
Emma raised her eyebrows and tilted her head at him.
"It's a depiction of my Auntie Orphelia mistakenly doing the jitterbug during the Oktoberfest Polka contest in Düsseldorf. Caused quite a commotion. Beer steins went flying. " He leaned forward again, and pointed at one particularly thick blue vertical squiggle near the bottom of the painting. "See, that's her leg." He tsked, tsked, and whispered into Mrs. Peel's ear. "She always did take after the more stout-thighed Steeds."
Auntie Orphelia. Hearing about one of Steed's infinite Aunties was like music to Mrs. Peel's ears, and she openly giggled, which brought a wide smile to Steed's face that lit up his eyes.
"Well, that certainly is an interpretation which had escaped me," she admitted. "Now before you stick any other misguided terpsichorean relatives in my little gallery, shall I show you the grounds?"
Steed brought Mrs. Peel's luggage into her bedroom, patently ignoring looking at the bed, and then they went out and spent an hour exploring the property. Steed let pass the brief impulses to toss Mrs. Peel in the pond and jump in after her, to ask her to race him to the edge of the woods, to slip her arm through his as old friends had the right to do. She was still so intelligent and enchanting, yet, there was, he perceived, a sense she was slightly uncomfortable around him. It was her husband, he intuited. Steed knew he shouldn't be alone with Mrs. Peel in the seclusion of her home, but, after all, it was just for a day, he was staying at a hotel, and he was, unfortunately, a gentleman.
They returned to the house and had a light lunch, then decided to once more go outside and continue to appreciate the sunny, warm spring day. They saddled two of her horses, and took off walking down the rural dirt lanes.
They rode all afternoon around the countryside, and Mrs. Peel once more marveled at Steed's comfort on a horse. Had he changed at all, she wondered? Or was he as he had always appeared with her --steady, firm, strong, eternal Steed. Would he never settle down? She allowed her memories to bring a few of their passionate nights together to her mind before shutting it all out again. She had shut it all out for two long years. Yet, just being by his side, ten feet apart, she could feel her attraction for him bubbling in her blood. The smell of his cologne so masculine, so alluring Why had she invited him here? It had been a very big mistake. But now it seemed impossible to ask him to go. They spent the hours rotating between bantering conversation, and the agreeable silence that two people bound together in genuine communion could serenely maintain. She wondered if Steed had ever learned of Peter's cruel joke that day he picked her up at Steed's flat; if so, he certainly held no grudge against her, and for that she tossed him a smile that brought an even larger one to his face.
They returned to her stables as the sun was setting and rubbed the horses down. During that time a rather loud ungallant growl sprang from Steed's stomach. He placed his hand over his abdomen and raised his eyebrows in mock consternation. "Dear me, how utterly rude."
"I get the hint, though," Mrs. Peel smiled. "There's a lovely restaurant three miles down the road. A small place owned by a darling young couple who specialize in the most delicious chicken dishes you can imagine."
"Sounds perfect," Steed agreed. "Shall we walk? I just can't seem to get enough of this vibrant French air." And if they walked, it was just that much more time he would have with her until he had to return to his empty hotel room.
They washed up, and strolled to the restaurant. They had a luscious dinner, and stayed there until the restaurant closed at 11:00 p.m., when they began the easy trip back to Mrs. Peel's home. Walking by her side in the crisp night air, a billion stars above them glittering and twinkling, Steed wondered about Mrs. Peel and her relationship with her husband. Steed had, through a reliable and button-lipped friend or two, launched a few inquiries into how Mrs. Peel was doing over the years, and no real awkward information had returned. She had been as busy as ever with Knight Industries, her scientific research, her artistic endeavors, and with her husband, with whom she was apparently happy. It was just like Steed had imagined it would be after she had left him; she had resumed her blissful life with the true love of her life, and Steed had resumed his secretive work. It had all been for the best, for both of them really, hadn't it? But he couldn't help noticing how well they still interacted, how her eyes had sparkled in the sunlight, how his body once more, after so long in exile from her, yearned to press her tightly to him, to caress her and enter her once again
On a whim, Steed darted off the road and headed for a hill a quarter of a mile away, calling for Mrs. Peel to follow him. They climbed the little bluff and then sat down on opposite sides of a boulder, and watched the night sky replete with stars in the moonless sky.
"Wish upon a star, Mrs. Peel," Steed said, "and maybe it will come true."
He did not know if she did, but he complied with his own directive, and he was glad Peter Peel was not there with them and was not a mind-reader. They spoke for a little about the different constellations, and then their conversation died and they just sat quietly watching the heavens, each to their own thoughts, so very comfortable just being near each other. An "Oh, look!" flowed from them whenever they espied the occasional shooting star. Cognizant of the growing lateness of the hour, and the loose lips of rural country folk, Steed stood up, brushed off his suit, and holding out his hand, helped Mrs. Peel to stand. It was the first time they had touched in over two years, and electricity flooded through both of them. He held her hand longer than needed after she was upright; Emma did not pull away. Steed took a deep breath and then released her hand with a quick grin.
"Well, best be getting back to the house," Steed said, abruptly beginning to descend the hill. Mrs. Peel followed, marveling at how well he could change a subject without even saying anything. Steed spent the rest of their time returning to the chateau talking about his cars, surprising Mrs. Peel with his purchase of a Jaguar and a Land Rover, resigning his dear Bentley to the rare trip around the countryside.
"Next thing I know, you'll be dressing in blue jeans and a tied-dyed T-shirt," Mrs. Peel laughed.
"What are blue jeans?" Steed asked, and Mrs. Peel didn't really know if he was serious or not. It didn't matter. What mattered was how wonderful it was to once more be in Steed's amiable company.
They both dreaded each step back to her house, and Steed's departure to his hotel. He was returning to England tomorrow, and there was a good chance they would never see each other again. If Mrs. Peel spent any time with Steed in England on her trips there well, she knew the gossip would splattered her life with Peter like rotten tomatoes thrown at a bad actor. No, they both silently realized this was their only time together, brought about by some murderous gunmen and the odd caprices of either a cruel or kind Fate. Neither was exactly sure which Fate it was.
They arrived back at the house at 1:00 a.m. Although they were both feeling fatigued, they decided to shoot a game or two of billiards, in her large drawing room at the back of the ground floor, before they were forced out of sheer exhaustion to realize Steed's visit was over. Steed won the first game by one ball, wondering aloud if he had ever told Mrs. Peel about his Auntie Mable, the infamous billiard player in Norfolk who used "a rubber-banded bunch of that very long spaghetti" as a cue. This time Mrs. Peel was only able to keep a straight face by clenching her teeth together with as much tensile strength as she could manage. Steed removed his jacket and they began a second game. They were halfway through it when, curiously, they heard a car drive up and screech to a halt, a door slam outside, and then the front door slam shut. Suddenly Peter Peel appeared in the doorway of the billiard room, disheveled in his two piece suit and slightly off balance. Mrs. Peel and Steed put their cues on the table when they saw him and Steed's sense of danger rang alarms in his system. He put his jacket back on.
My goodness me, Steed thought, Is this Peter Peel? He has blond hair, and doesn't dress at all like me. And Steed, his mind so very nimble, put together in a second the truth of the event that had occurred outside his flat that one day years ago. He held no antipathy towards Mrs. Peel, but a rising acrimony directed at Peter Peel flooded his system. Yet, for Mrs. Peel's sake, he would be the utmost gentleman he could.
Mrs. Peel's eyes widened and her jaw dropped a little. "Peter, she said.
"Yes, Peter," he said, his words slurred a little. "I knew it. I knew it," he continued. "Really, Emma, my dear, pronouns do go a long ways towards creating or disarming suspicion. And then when I was able to pull in a few favors and learn who else was on the plane with you Well, it didn't take a genius to put two and two together." He sauntered into the room, folding his arms in front of him as he leaned against the wall, contempt twisting his countenance into a harsh and ugly mien.
He stared at Steed, who stood casually, one hand hanging by his side, one in a trouser pocket. "So, hero, a little billiards foreplay before the main action begins?" Peter asked.
Taken aback for a moment by those words, anger quickly flared in Steed, but he held himself in check. The man was obviously drunk, and it appeared to be a condition with which he was familiar. Was this a regular part of Mrs. Peel's life? Was Peter Peel an inebriate? If so, why would Mrs. Peel stay with him -because of duty and empathy and love?
"Peter, there is no reason to become vulgar," Mrs. Peel, began, her ire up as well as her embarrassment. "That was terribly uncalled for and rude beyond measure. Steed and I merely spent a pleasant day together and were just engaged in a billiard match before he returned to his hotel in Bordeaux. He is registered there, you know."
"Yes, well, I'm sure he is," Peter smiled, still holding his eyes on Steed, as he lifted himself from the wall and began a slow walk over to Steed. "You agent types always know how to cover your tracks, don't you, Steed? Oh, don't get me wrong. I'm sure Steed would have gone back to his hotel at some point; say around noon tomorrow? After all, what's that axiom? Absence makes the heart grow fonder? Yes, yes, that's it. I must admit that I never expected to see you both with all your clothes on, though. I began running up the stairs to the bedroom, when, to my surprise, I saw the light on in here. What's the matter Steed? A little slow on the move lately?"
Steed's gentlemanly demeanor dissolved like ash in the wind. He could take practical jokes, and he could take insults directed at himself; but, how this man could sustain casting all manners of unfair and drunken aspersions on Mrs. Peel Steed was outraged, and felt his conditioned muscles tensing in preparation for use. He took his hand out of his pocket, and curled his hands into lightly held fists.
"Now, listen here, Peter," Mrs. Peel began, but Steed lifted his palm to her, motioning her to not say anything more. If he could, he would try to salvage this situation, for her sake.
"Please, Mrs. Peel," he said. He strode to Peter Peel. "Hold your nasty tongue, Mr. Peel," he fairly growled. "Have a care. I'm leaving, before I make you regret your rash and impudent words."
Peter flicked his head to his wife, standing behind Steed by the billiards table. "Surely you won't go without a kiss good-bye, Steed?"
That did it. Steed grabbed Peter's labels and pushing him back with incredible force he thrust Peter against the wall, lifting Peter and holding him slightly higher off the ground so that Peter was forced to stand on his toes. "If you will not cease your abuse of your wife on your own, sir, then I shall force you to cease your abuse of my friend," he said, his words dripping with menace.
"Your friend? Oh, spare me, please. How you two kept it secret from me these two years I have no idea, considering the money and resources I've spent to uncover your adulterous dalliances in England, Paris, Lyon, and who knows where else." Peter held onto Steed forearms and scoffed. "She's much more than your friend, Steed."
"What on earth are you talking about? It has been over two years since I have even seen her!" Steed felt his raw anger gaining on his self-control. He was very close to striking Peter.
"Over two years, you say? You've never seen each other since we moved from England, you say? Then tell him, Emma, tell him who you call out to in your sleep so many times a year."
Steed froze at those words. An explosive silence filled the room.
"Tell him how you call out 'Steed, Steed'!"
Peter struggled against Steed, at first with the assurance that he would surely be able to break the hold of a man thirteen years his senior. However, his maneuvers to free himself were to no avail, as Steed's iron clasp held firm, with no apparent effort on Steed's part. "If you were anyone else, I mean anyone else, I would break your jaw," Steed said, his harsh voice coming from far down in his throat.
"Let me go, damn you," Peter said, realizing his helplessness in Steed's grip.
"Steed, let him go," came Mrs. Peel's weak voice from behind him. Steed turned his head sideways and his intestines felt like they were stuffed with clay. Mrs. Peel's eyebrows arched up anxiously, her eyes, distant and haunted, bore into Peter's face, seeking forgiveness. Her cheeks seemed sunken and pale, and her hands covered her mouth as if it had been her, not him, that had just spoken such vicious lines. Steed read her features with the intuition of twenty-five years in the field, and saw printed in her face and in her manner such a grievous guilt that his sympathy for her overcame his loathing for her husband. Steed let Peter go, who, once released, stood haughtily on the floor, rearranging his suit and tie back in order. Steed stepped to the side of the room as Mrs. Peel strode up to Peter. "What did you just say about me?"
Peter snorted. "I never woke you, my dear, when you moaned Steed's name in your sleep. Though, it was as clear as if he was laying by your side, not me. Which, for all these past years, apparently he was."
"That's not true," Mrs. Peel said, flatly, a sense of defeat already pervading her words.
"Oh, it's true all right," Peter stated firmly.
He turned to Steed. "Get out of here, Steed, before I call the gendarmes."
Steed had been standing to the side, trying to maintain his equilibrium. He felt disoriented, as if he had slipped the borders of this earthly dimension, and had fallen into the ephemeral world of dreams and visions, like Alice in Wonderland. His eyes gazed at Mrs. Peel --Mrs. Peel, who called out his name in her sleep-- and her beautiful image pulled him back into sharp focus.
"It's not true, Mr. Peel," he managed to say, softly. "Since you both moved here, we have never met at all before today."
Peter rolled his eyes. "And I'm Santa Claus." His eyes then burned into Steed, hatred dilating his pupils into enormous black circles. "Get the hell out, you bloody damn bastard."
Steed turned to face Mrs. Peel, who had turned away from both of them, her eyes closed, locked, Steed believed, in terribly tainted thoughts. Had this day been a terrible mistake or a new beginning, Steed wondered? She would not look at Steed, but he wouldn't let it go. She called out his name in her sleep. Even absent in her life for more than two years, she called out his name. If he had been standing in front of another firing squad, his heart would not have pounded so fully. He kept his eyes on her as he spoke to Peter Peel. "Alright, I'll go." Then he inhaled as fully as he was able, and slowly exhaled as he called out to Mrs. Peel, who seemed a thousand miles away. "Mrs. Peel, Emma, will you come with me?"
She shook her head once, eyes still closed, still not looking at him. "Good-bye, Steed," she said, very gently, though the words flew through the air and struck his chest like a sledgehammer.
"As you wish, Mrs. Peel," Steed said, and strode out the room as fast as he could with his dignity intact. He almost ran to the hire car once he was outside the house. As he drove to the hotel at hellish speeds, his one regret was that he hadn't broken Peter Peel's jaw. Barely noticing the road pass by, Steed's mind was possessed with bewildering reflections. Had Mrs. Peel really called his name out so often, for so long? If so, why had Mrs. Peel stayed with Peter? He drank, was abusive, and had vilified her with the most heinous of calumnies. Mrs. Peel could go anywhere. Do anything. Have any man she wanted. One that would treat her the way she deserved to be treated, who understood her, respected her, admired her, trusted her. Someone who's name she called out in the middle of the night he was obsessed with that knowledge, and wished he had never heard it uttered. And because he really was a very decent man, Steed, hating himself for it, actually garnered some pity for Peter Peel, for Emma's night-time verbal transgressions no doubt cut him deeply. Then, hating himself even more, Steed pitied himself.
Steed left Bordeaux early the next morning, taking the train to Paris, and the ferry to London. He always took the long way home when he was in a foul mood. It gave him time to regroup his self-control, his professional demeanor, his calm, reserved nature, before he wound up back in his organized life in England. He stood on the deck in the wind, watching the ferry cut through the water, the white waves splashing up the sides of the bow. He focused on the opposing horizons, slowly watching Great Britain appear and France disappear. Steed took the train back to London, and sat somewhat in a motionless daze, not really noticing the lovely spring scenery passing by. When he reached the city, he reported in to the Ministry, and then drove out to his country manor. He didn't call Lady Foster. He waited a week for Mrs. Peel to contact him, then waited one more. And when she didn't, Steed shrugged it all off outwardly, but inwardly pounded down with every last ounce of his emotional reserves, stuffing Emma Peel so far into the hidden depths of mind that his whole body felt bruised from his efforts. He promised himself that Mrs. Peel would from now on stay purely in the realm of memory. It was over for good; he just could not bare anything like that ever again. He would not ask his friends about her; he would excuse himself if they mentioned her in conversation.
So decided, Steed called Lady Foster, and in his bed, he repeatedly and energetically renewed for them both the pleasures of life, until his good humor and insouciant charm was once again fully reinstated, and Lady Foster joyously cried Uncle. His foul mood disappeared, and once more he was his debonair and elegant self, the man-about-town, the agent extraordinaire. Two months later, Lady Foster gripped Steed tightly and yelled out in delight one last, sweet time, then left to live with her son in New York City. Steed immediately surprised himself and the Ministry by requesting that he be given a new partner to work with.
Knowing Steed always favored female colleagues, Agents assigned him a very responsible and flippant one, named Purdey, and then, in an unusual move, added another partner, a man named Mike Gambit, an able fighter who they hoped would learn to be as astute and cunning as Steed. To the Ministry's pleasant realization the three formed a cohesive and effective team immediately; to Steed and Purdey's pleasant realization, after several months of working together, they formed a delightful team undressed. She was twenty years younger than him, true, but he had a strong and honest affection for Purdey, and she had an even deeper regard for him. Steed's life went on. There were assignments in England and abroad, and gourmet dinners and symphonies and operas and parties, and horses and polo, and time with his brother George, and his ever stringent training schedule, and Purdey and a few other women with whom he eagerly shared intense moments of ecstasy. It was his same old life, and he could truthfully tell himself he was happy with it, used to it, and would settle for it for the rest of his life.
Six months later, in June, Steed spoke to Mrs. Peel on the phone regarding an unsolved mystery of theirs that had reared its head again, and she told him she was no longer Mrs. Peel. He had hung up the phone and proceeded with the case, yet afterwards, a few subtle inquiries had informed him of Mrs. Peel's divorce. Steed returned to his country home and waited for her to call back, to invite him back, suddenly hopeful that he could change his life for something so much more than he had. He knew he couldn't make the first move, that if he did and she turned away from him again, a third time, it would devastate him, and he couldn't risk that terrible pain. He assumed she knew that, as she had been able to intuit so much about him, and had understood him so well. Steed waited three weeks, and when there was no call, he told himself it didn't matter, and sent silent good wishes to his old friend and colleague. No one ever knew he had, for those long weeks, been praying for his phone to ring, and once more Steed went on with his defined and active life. When Mrs. Peel was brought up in conversation around him, he made a short yet tender rejoinder, hoping to end the topic, and, if it continued, Steed again excused himself from the person or persons he was with.
But, every so often, when Steed was alone and it was the middle of the night, he lay awake in bed and, just for a second or two, briefly allowed himself to wonder if a certain sleeping auburn-haired beauty was calling out his name.
It had all fallen apart not long after Steed's visit to their chateau. Emma had wanted to make amends to Peter, but hadn't known how. How to apologize for a subconscious yearning that had broken through her rational and practical mind, how to explain her calling out the name of a man she had supposedly emptied herself of once Peter had returned; how to prove that Peter was the man she truly loved. Had she called out Steed's name as she lay curled next to Peter asleep after their love-making? She had cringed at the thought: at the idea that she could be so cold and callous even in her sleep; and, at the idea that Steed, she could no longer deny it, still filled her heart as he had for those wonderful years so filled her life. And twice she had turned Steed away.
Peter hadn't made her turmoil easier by his relentless inability to believe that she had been faithful to him. She understood that mindset, that it was less painful to believe in her adultery and her affection, therefore, for Steed, than it was to realize that a man she had had not contact with for years was still the man she loved the best, even though Peter had been there, by her side, willing and wanting to love her, make her his wife once again, after so many years apart. And she had taken all that potential beauty and crushed and ruined it, turning Peter's blessedly restful nights laying once more by the woman he loved after so long a time of suffering into the most dark and bitter hours.
When Steed left, Emma and Peter had looked at each other for a long moment: the one in shame, anguish and guilt; the other in pained accusation and hatred, and they had known their marriage was over, that their past dreams had vanished like a candle blown out by a hurricane. For the worse of it was that there was no way Emma could guarantee it would not happen again; there was no way she could be assured that she could overcome her feelings for Steed. She had thought him locked away, chained away, and yet he had escaped, and had survived to live on in her, just as he had always seemed to do in life. Survive and live on.
The divorce was filled with paperwork but was surprisingly free of nasty and horrible words. It had taken a few months, but when it was all settled, Emma stayed at the chateau and Peter packed up and went back to England, and then moved on to America, Southern California of all places, to work with a large aeronautical firm there. The climate would be good for him, and being far from Emma would be even better.
"Enjoy yourself with Steed," had been his last words to her, said with a certain asperity, yes, but more, with the heavy tones of sadness.
She hadn't waved good-bye, had just watched Peter drive away, that late summer day in September. She watched a group of sparrows dart among the trees in front of her house, and although guilt still pervaded her soul, she also could feel, as she lost sight of Peter over the small hill, a freedom, a lightness return to her.
She did not allow herself to withdraw this time from life for long --a month or so only-- and then she dove right in to socializing, her science projects, her chess and bridge studies, Knight Industries. She stayed in Libourne as she had grown to love the land, and the people and her chateau. She changed her name back to Emma Knight. She thought of contacting Steed, but just couldn't call him, couldn't make that first move; her guilt over Peter prevented it. It seemed that running to Steed would invalidate the years she struggled to be a good and caring wife, would reduce her efforts to the half-hearted motions of someone who had never really cared about Peter. But she had, deeply so, and as a result she knew she just could not be the one to make that first contact of renewal.
Once she spoke to Steed, in June, six months after they had met, and at the end of their brief chat Emma informed him she had changed her name. Steed had sounded so insouciant, as usual, so matter of fact, so friendly; she had hung up from him, hoping he'd call back. Steed would know that she couldn't be the instigator, he was so astute, Emma knew how much he cared Yes, she had turned Steed away two times, but she knew how persistent Steed could be when he truly wanted something. She waited by the phone for weeks. And when he didn't call, she had to face the fact that it was truly over between them, that he had decided to move with his life and relegate her to his past like so much other pain. She was sought after by many men on her trips to England, and dated sporadically, but none of the prospects interested her. Besides, Emma still was of a mind to live permanently in France, which was not to most of the men's liking. So, when Emma neared her thirty-fifth birthday, and a widowed man in his forties from Bordeaux --who had the largest vineyards around-- came calling, a man she had met once or twice before, Emma opened the door for him. He was good looking, though his shoulders were somewhat round, and he had brown hair, though it was not very thick, and he had brown eyes, not grey, and they were neither overly sparkling nor at times lost in the past. But Jean-Luc Chenier was stable and friendly, a good cook, and wanted children, and had loved Emma from a distance for the two years she had lived in the area. He met her friends, and they accepted him, though, Emma thought, they looked at her bluntly and quizzically when she began showing up with him, and for the life of her she couldn't figure out why.
She had fun with him, even if it was of a mature nature. He never dragged her to a hill to watch the falling stars, and never tilted his head parallel to the floor when looking at a painting, and did not make her giggle with his thousand and one odd and unusual Aunties. But, Jean-Luc was charming, and attentive, and respected her intelligence and wooed her with songs, and music, and poetry and long walks in his vineyard. And when Jean-Luc asked her to marry him at her thirty-fifth birthday party, in April of 1971, Emma allowed herself to say yes, because no one could blame her for being with him, and because he was someone she enjoyed being with. Emma knew she wasn't really in love with Jean-Luc Chenier, but he was a dear sweet man, and they were comfortable and happy together, and looked forward to the laughter of children, and the rekindling of dreams that while not of the utopian nature of either of their youths, were still fresh and clear as the late autumn air.
The decision surprised everyone; Jean-Luc, Emma, and all of Emma's friends and relatives, whose congratulations lacked a certain sincerity, and were reduced even more by those raised eyebrows and shaking heads. Emma had challenged a couple of her closest friends to explain those looks, but had received contrite silence in return, and the subject had been gratefully dropped on both sides.
Only one old friend, Gloria Wimple, herself divorced and childless, who lived with Emma a great deal at the Libourne chateau, had once asked as they sat among the hedges of the back lawn, "What about John Steed?"
Emma had shrugged her shoulders, gripped her paintbrush firmly, and continued touching up the leaves in the far trees on her painting. "What about him? It's over," she had replied, curtly adding, "Please don't bring him up again." Emma had told no one, not even Gloria, the truth about her cries of Steed at night. About her guilt. Had told no one that Steed had never called her back.
And Gloria, her best friend, didn't ever mention Steed to her again.
There was only one thing Emma feared. She had not slept with Jean-Luc yet, had decided to wait until the marriage, and that had not been a problem for the patient man. It was not that she wasn't attracted to him, it was only that she feared what she would call out when she lay asleep against his side. Only by convincing herself that it really was over, forever, did she gain the confidence that all would be well in the middle of the night. They planned the wedding for August. There were biological clocks to consider after all, and the getting on with life as best one could, when one had no other choice.
It was an overcast April day in 1971, and Steed and Purdey looked over the reports sitting on Steed's desk in the Ministry. Steed's mouth was set in a rare, extended frown and if he had had a window in his office, Purdey knew he would have stood and walked to it, glancing out into the distance. But, Steed didn't have a window, and didn't need one; he rarely spent much time in his office. The office was unusually sparsely decorated for Steed, who appreciated being surrounded by furnishings and décor that were expensive yet not ostentatious. There was only one wall-hanging, a seascape, and a notable dearth of knick knacks and bottles of alcohol, testifying to Steed's rare appearances in his office. Combined with Steed's notorious reputation for his sparsely detailed reports there was additional proof his time spent behind his desk was minimal at best. Although Steed was being put, gradually, into more and more administrative duties, grooming him for the real chance that after the Colonel, he would head the Ministry, Steed was still at heart and for the most part still an active field agent.
At first reluctant to continue him in that role, the Ministry had realized it was the only way to hold on to him as part of this most secret and important of security organizations. Besides, Purdey could confirm with no hesitation whatever that Steed was still in remarkable shape, and that for all its scars, his body was still lithe, muscular, and very, very attractive. Not that the Ministry cared about that later descriptive, but Purdey did. It made night's like last night very, very pleasant. Steed's voice refocused her thoughts.
"There's no doubt about it," Steed said, his voice heavy. "There's no way this group of agents should have been discovered if their covers had not been blown. This was a very secure set-up."
"You set it up, didn't you, some years back?"
"Yes, I did," he said softly.
After a pause, Purdey asked, already knowing the answer to her question, "Who is responsible, do you think?"
Steed looked up at her, eyes narrowed. "A traitor," he said simply.
"And finding that traitor, and the way the information has been transferred, is your job, Steed," came an authoritative voice from the doorway. They looked up and saw Colonel Arthur Dreyford, tall and grey-haired, with a large grey mustache hanging over the sides of his lips standing straight as if always at attention. He was a distinguished looking man, even if his nose was a bit hawkish, and his shoulders a bit too rounded from age.
Steed and Purdey stood up in respect; not that Steed always stood up to superiors, but he and the Colonel were friends, and were full of admiration for each other. It was the Colonel who had defended Steed against his few detractors at the Ministry, those who had harassed him for his unorthodox ways they found overly suspicious, conveniently forgetting all continuous and innumerable successes Steed had had for the Ministry over the long years using those very techniques.
The Colonel stroke into the room. "Sit down, sit down." They obeyed as the Colonel pulled a chair up near the desk. "So, Steed, horrible isn't it? Those poor people. Damn bloody traitor ought to be drawn and quartered. What makes it worse, is that this is the second group of agents that have been caught in the last two months. Panic buttons are about to ring, and quite righteously, I should say."
"Are there any leads?" Steed asked
"Well, we feel it must be someone working for M16. Those bloody fools have enough moles in their organization to start a farm and breed them. So it's been decided that we shall over the investigation. The only clue we have is a rather enigmatic name 'Tunis'; got that one from one of our double agents working with the fellows who captured our men."
"Tunis? Do we have any information on someone calling themselves Tunis? Mean anything to M16?"
"No, we know nothing else. All the double agent has been able to tell us is the fellow's name is Tunis and that he's in England, handing information over to our communism loving comrades."
Another man came to the doorway of Steed's office, holding a briefcase.
"Cullen, come in," the Colonel said, reaching out for the briefcase, which the man eagerly handed to him, glancing over at Steed with a touch of hero worship in his eyes. Cullen stood waiting for directions. "Good-bye, Cullen," the Colonel added, and the man nodded and left. "Good junior clerk, that fellow," the Colonel mumbled, as he put the case down on Steed's desk, lined up the locks in the right combination, and then popped open the lid, exposing a stack of folders.
"Right, here you go, Steed. We gave the eggheads in the basement the facts and they diddled their computer knobs and fiddled with their slide rules and came up with the files on this lot, as the most likely suspects from M15, M16, and a few other of our security brethren." The Colonel stood up and ran his fingers along his mustache. "Wonder what those chaps would say if they knew we had files on all of them, that we watched the watchers, secured the security?"
Steed smiled. "I rather think they'd be a little put out about it."
"Ha!" the Colonel laughed. "Always the understatement from you, eh, Steed? I rather think they'd come after us with a vat of tar and a bag of feathers. Still our secret little stash has solved more than one problem for our dear green island." He slapped his thigh forcefully. "Well Long Live the Queen, and have at it, Steed and Purdey. I should be much put out myself if we loose another man." And he turned and strode to the doorway. Before leaving the room the Colonel turned back around and spreading his view over the small office, his eyebrows raised. "I say, where's that Gambit chap?"
A slight bit of hemming and hawing came from Steed and Purdey, and they looked at each other before returning their gaze to the Colonel. "Well, Purdey knows best," Steed said, smiling at her, although she did not smile back.
"Purdey, my dear?" the colonel asked.
Purdey took a deep breath, and decided honesty was the best policy. "The fool broke a leg parachuting on Saturday," she said.
"He wasn't on a case, was he?" the Colonel asked. "I don't recall "
"No, no case," Steed said blithely as he pulled a file out of the briefcase. "Just decided to impress a certain woman by opening his chute at the last moment. In this case, the last moment was one moment too long."
The Colonel shook his head. "How long will he be out for?"
"A good two months, at least," Purdey said. "He's taken a medical leave of absence and has absconded to Bermuda."
"Well, I'm sure you two can manage on your own."
Steed and Purdey shared a look, allowing smirks to touch their lips. "We'll muddle through somehow," Steed assured his superior.
"I'll keep him in line, don't worry," Purdey added, patting Steed's broad shoulder.
"Right, then, I'll leave you two alone," and Colonel Dreyford left, closing the door behind him.
"I wasn't aware I needed to be kept in line," Steed said, handing Purdey a file.
"We'll, you were a quite a bit out of line last night," she answered, opening it up and perusing the information.
Steed opened up his folder as well and began reading it. "Was I?"
"You were," she said, her head buried between the folder.
"But if I was, I don't recall you doing anything to actually reign me in. In fact, if I remember correctly--"
"I'm sure you don't."
"Correctly you were much more the instigator than I."
"What kind of thing is that to say for a gentleman?" she asked, playfully flopping the file down on the desk. "You shall besmirch my innocent reputation."
"My dear," he smiled at her over the top of his file, "surely you know by now --I am not a gentleman. And as for you being innocent, well "
"Read your file," Purdey ordered, following her own directive, holding her giggle in solely by force of will.
They spent the entire morning and afternoon in Steed's office, going over each file, reading, interpreting, intuiting, and discussing each person detailed. There were not too many people, only twenty-eight, as not many had access to the two entirely different groups of agents that had been arrested. Yet, there were junior clerks, regular clerks, administrators, secretaries, and the assistant directors, and upper echelon directors. They categorized each person into low, moderate, and high risk; and decided to start investigating the nine high risk personnel they found most suspect, who could have known about both groups and who were not graded by The Ministry analyzers to be entirely trustworthy.
They picked up their false identity cards from the subterfuge department, so that they could pose as either M15, M16, Scotland Yard detectives. Purdey was even given a red security card, which every agency from the police and Scotland Yard, to all the military intelligences, to every security force, to M15 and M16 was trained to understand superceded any other authority. It was only a card a few Ministry personnel were gifted with; and the other organizations didn't even know who exactly were the people that carried it, what organization they belonged to. They only knew that the carrier was to be given any and all leeway to do anything they needed without fear of arrest or detention. Steed had had such a card for ten years, though it was the first time Purdey was allowed to carry one, and it impressed upon her the extreme seriousness of the case.
It was four o'clock when they were done at The Ministry, too late to enter the home of any of the agents in the file, as 4:00-9:00 p.m. was generally understood to be the worst times to enter a home, due to people returning from work, cooking suppers, getting ready for spending the evening out. Steed and Purdey agreed to meet at ten p.m. that night, to break into two of the suspect's homes who their files said would be out on Friday nights.
The investigation was about to begin.
Later that afternoon, John Steed relaxed on a chaise lounge in the small backyard of his brother George's fine London home, in a quiet street in St. John's Wood. George, his elder brother by almost two years lay similarly on a lounge on Steed's right. George's pretty and delightful wife Amy, resplendent in a spring outfit of flowery design, decorated Steed's left, sitting in a cushioned lawn chair watching their two children --Paul, ten, and Marilyn, eight-- chase each other around the landscaped lawn.
Steed placed his empty glass of tomato juice on the ground and closed his eyes, sinking his long and lithe body deeply into the chair.
"I say, John," George said, "if you had a late night, and please don't tell me with which gorgeous lady, we can always make up the guest room so you can get some proper sleep."
Steed opened his right eye and glanced at his brother. "That won't be necessary," he said. "I'm really quite comfortable where I am." He closed his eye and settled his head back down on the pillow. "Though the lady is beautiful."
"But, of course," George said, sipping on his own tomato juice, grinning.
"For someone who married a woman as lovely as Amy, George, your smirking attitude is rather duplicitous."
George and Amy smiled at each other. "Oh, let John have a nap, George," she said. "After all, for all we know, he has another date with her tonight."
"Actually, I do," Steed added in, thinking, Though we shall engage in actions of an entirely different nature from last night's long hours of the most pleasurable intimacies.
George and Amy laughed. "Dear me," George said. "Perhaps we should lock the children up in their rooms to afford maximum silence thus enabling you to best regain your strength."
"My strength, as you say, is just fine, thank you. And let the children be, please. I am never more relaxed in life than when I can hear their exuberant laughter," Steed once more opened up an eye to gaze at his brother, and was rewarded with a look of utmost affection.
As Amy playfully hushed George, Steed once more closed his eyes. Not really tired, he just allowed himself to rest as his mind gently wandered over thoughts he had examined before. He had to admit to himself he greatly enjoyed spending time with George and his family, for of all his four siblings, it was George that welcomed him into his home so openly, and with, frankly, with so much adulation. Although George was Steed's elder brother, their relationship in life had always been reversed, with George looking up to Steed as a younger brother would. Steed knew that George thought him taller, more handsome, more athletic, more confident, more independent, more mysterious, more debonair, more insouciant, more wealthy, more important, more capable of defending himself and whatever he believed in. And in truth, without erring on the side of boorish braggadio, all that was true. As a result, George doted on Steed, admired, respected, and wondered about him. And loved him, that was evident. Not that George had verbally admitted it, he hadn't, just in the way that he smiled when Steed came over, his eyes lighting up eagerly, opening his home generously to Steed whenever Steed could fit George into his busy life, George's feelings were made obvious. Steed felt deeply for his brother as well, yet was even more reticent in his expression of his fondness for his elder sibling. Years of maintaining a cool affectation under all sorts of highly charged situations had turned Steed into an extremely reserved man emotionally, even for an Englishman. And love? The most intense emotion of fall?
Steed had not been able to say those words for twenty years. Verbalizing those words had been a block in him he had just had to acknowledge and live his life around. After all, he occasionally justified to himself, if the first woman he said "I loved you" to was killed in front of him by the Nazis, and the second woman he had begun to feel that towards had turned him into the Chinese authorities, well, it just seemed a rather jinxed thing to say. To anyone. At anytime. Steed frankly didn't trust the emotion, seemed to be entirely associated with pain for him, and for twenty years he had been entirely unwilling and unable to declare it as a feeling.
Steed was not ignorant of the fact that around some people he actually felt that purest of emotions. He did his best to relay his affection regard to his family through other words, looks, smiles and gifts. And, caresses, when he had been with Mrs he shook his head once to clear that thought, annoyed at his mind for its unacceptable step onto an off-limits pathway. Those gestures were the best he could do, and Steed believed, from the responses he received from George, Amy, and all his nieces, nephews, that it was an effective approach, though, he understood, flawed.
Well, it didn't matter with the rest of his family, anyway. He didn't have much of a relationship with his other three siblings, Edgar, Phillip, and Elizabeth. Edgar, the eldest, flatly disdained Steed, would hardly even say hello to him without the word dripping with acid and disgust. They had never been close, Edgar having been the responsible, quiet, scholarly, very serious and proper son, and Steed having been, well, just about the exact opposite --active, playful, loud, friendly, bright, and affectionate. And, the light of his mother's eyes, it was true, although her preference had never really been overtly demonstrated, though families, can, of course, discern very well the subtle manifestations of parental favoritism. It was just the way she looked at him, called his name, tousled his head, lingered over his bed saying good-night, clapped loudest at his athletic endeavors, smiled broadest when he managed to do well in his schoolwork. That is what had grated the most on Edgar, her first son, Phillip her second, and had hurt Elizabeth her only daughter, but not in one bit had it upset George, who had been, from the first, aligned in all points on her side.
Their father had been more egalitarian with his affection, until their mother had died, and then somehow their father had transferred his lost love for her onto Steed as well, so that no matter what Steed did, he could not loose his father's favor, even though Edgar and Phillip (not Elizabeth nor George) had no difficulties in continuing to void their warmth towards him. And, as it had been related to him later by George, when his father had called out his wife's name then Steed's name as he died, Steed missing and presumed dead in China, Edgar, who had been by his father's side for weeks, developed a scowl that had seemed to pockmark his face when in Steed's presence ever since.
Edgar had ever been the responsible one, Vice-President of First Bank of London, financier, with veddy proper wife, whose nose was elevated in the air at all times. It brought a grin to Steed's face when he thought of Edgar's children, supposedly veddy proper as well, taught to disdain Steed as a rogue and rascal; yet, how many times had they snuck to his side at some family function --as all the children did at one time or another-- to try to learn who Steed was, what he really did, this tall, dark uncle of theirs, outcast yet so sure of himself in all ways. And now, their grand-children did the same. It pleased Steed to know that he fascinated all of the youngsters. He had always liked children.
Brother Phillip, a cardiologist with a practice inclusive of all variations of titled aristocrats, hypertensive and arrhythmic from lives of indulgence and slothfulness, was a follower of Phillip, much like George was a follower of Steed. It was much the same with Phillip and his wife, children, and grandchildren, though Phillip had always been more much silent, had let Edgar do the leading. And so, when tempers had grown heated, and arguments flared, it was Edgar who had done most of the vitriolic yelling, Phillip who had stood by his side, George who had gently asked for peace, and Steed who had strode angrily from the room.
Of the one woman amongst the siblings, Elizabeth mainly sided with Edgar. It was not because she had herself any specific antipathy towards Steed, really, it was just that she and her family spent quite a lot of time with Edgar's family, and Elizabeth, being of a mild and gentle nature, allowed herself to be swayed to Edgar's views as the path of least resistance. Yet, secretly, Steed and Elizabeth had met for lunch occasionally and had enjoyed each other's company greatly so.
As for all of Steed's innumerable aunts, an amazing six on his mother's side, and seven on his father's, most of whom he had lived at least shortly with on and off after his mother's death, as Tara had once said, "littering his childhood with all manner of stately homes", there were only two of the nine still living who truly kept in close contact with him. Aunt Penelope, with her rock hard biscuits, and Aunt Greta, whom had offered her secluded Cornwall cottage to him to complete his recovery from Nee San, that odious Chinese compound he had been a prisoner in, once his long stay at a medical facility had been over. Steed had to admit to himself, he felt overwhelming affectionate regard for Aunt Greta. The other aunts, eccentrics to their core, were pleasant to him, it was just that they could not understand him or his life, could not understand his frequent absences, his injuries, his privacy and silence, his bacherlorhood, and so they were uncomfortable around him, and distant, though always invariably polite.
Actually, that pretty much defined his relationship with the entire rest of his family --uncles, cousins, second cousins, all of them.
Except the children. Children had always been drawn to Steed. Everything about him enthralled them. He was the outcast, the most handsome, the one whispered about, the one who had shown up at various family get-togethers with a bruised face, an arm in a sling, a slight limp, blatantly lying about the cause of his injury. He was the strongest, who could throw a ball too far for the eye to track, who was an archery expert shooting only bulls-eyes, a shotgun master who had never missed a clay pigeon, who had eagle vision, who wore a bowler hat and carried an umbrella even in the middle of summer. He was the one that got important phone calls, who generals had come to the house for to drag him away from the party. He was the one who had grassed Cousin Martin the black belt justlikethat! with one lightening punch, when Martin had made Miss Evangeline Pitcard cry from a cruel reference to a painful part of her history. And when Martin, fifteen years junior to Steed, had risen from the ground with fire in his eyes, and threats pouring from his foul mouth, silencing the entire family there on the lawn, Steed had just grassed him again, and suggested he leave in a calm voice dripping with menace, and Martin had meekly obeyed. Steed was an enigma to them, and also, more importantly a confidant. If his siblings only knew how often their children and now grandchildren came to him at parties or called him at home for advice, for a listening ear, understanding innately Steed was someone that it was safe to confide to, who had had many experiences in life and who had, perhaps, gained a touch of wisdom they could apply to their own life. Even if it was just to deal with a fellow eight year old who was a bully, or to help them get over their fear of monsters in the dark, or how to make it up to a girl they dated after they had forgotten to get her a birthday present.
Steed had to admit to himself that aside from the children, his relatives had rather good cause to dislike or be distant from him. After the war, he had returned a silent, morose, withdrawn and angry young man, and had, after not long at home embarked on a life that for the next fifteen years had him rarely in contact with any relatives, rarely in England for that matter, rarely giving his family much thought at all. He had been almost forty when he had returned to England more permanently, needing to become civilized again, reclaim his gentlemanly heritage, and become once more the decent and gentle human being he had always needed to believe was his first and truest nature. Even then, those first years, he had only slowly re-entered his siblings' lives; for one thing, they had, understandably, long since stopped sending him invitations to family celebrations, so he hadn't been on the lists to know what was happening when.
It was only through George and Aunt Greta's influence that Steed had been allowed once more into the family fold, and Steed had to give himself some credit for his success in that regard. As often as possible he went to the events, the reunions, the get-togethers, the parties. How many times over the years had he just finished an assignment and showed up at a party to pleasantly socialize, avoiding any alcohol (as it didn't mix well with his pain-killers, his doctors had warned); only, after 2-3 hours, to politely excuse himself and return home, collapsing on his bed in a state of aching fatigue?
Steed had tried, as best he could, to reintegrate himself into his family, like any civilized and decent gentleman would; and if his greatest achievements in that area had been in cementing the love of George and his family, and his Aunts Greta and Penelope, and becoming an important part of the children's lives, then he would be very satisfied with that, and consider himself a truly lucky man.
Steed was extremely glad that George was so happy. Married for eighteen contented years to his first wife, Annie, a kind and unassuming woman who had been unable to bear children and who had been of a generally sickly disposition, George had honestly grieved her death and his unwelcome solitude. It had been a blessing for him to have met Amy, ten years his junior, at a charity ball; their marriage and Amy's immediate pregnancy had brought joy to the whole family. Such sweet and tender people! Their home, for Steed, felt much like a haven from all threats and worries as soon as he stepped in their doorway.
So Steed sat, eminently relaxed, until he perceived the shuffling of tiny feet getting nearer and nearer to him. Yet, he still was surprised when suddenly a water balloon exploded against his chest, the liquid splattering him from chin to thighs. Steed shot to his feet instantly, to the high-pitched, excited screams of the two children, and quickly chased them down one by one lifting them upside-down and swinging them around and around until laughing uproariously they apologized for their wet prank.
Steed put them down, noticing that George and Amy must have returned briefly to the house. After a moment or two when the children regained their equilibrium, they danced around him hands reaching for his waist, begging to be twirled like that again.
Steed's eyes narrowed as he knelt down in front of them. "Only," he whispered, "if you each hit your father with a water balloon when he returns from the house."
"But he shan't be very happy with us if we do that," Paul answered.
"Don't worry," their uncle said. "I'll protect you from him." And the children studied his grey and firm eyes, his tall, muscular and handsome body, his determined and strong face, and they knew that Uncle John could and would protect them from a huge fire-breathing dragon if one swooped down from the sky, so they agreed. Filling two balloons from the spigot by the house, they waited a few minutes by the sliding glass door that led into the backyard, as Steed stood holding his finger to his lips. When George came out, carrying a tray with glasses and a large flask of ice tea, the children launched their balloons, each landing a direct hit on George's legs.
As George stood stunned by their actions, trying to become angry, but failing, the children ran back to Uncle John the instigator, the protector, who easily caught their bodies leaping into his arms, and he flipped them upside down and twirled them round and round, reveling in their joyous screams and laughter.
Later that night, when the exhausted children had been put to sleep, and Amy had left to spend a little time with a troubled friend, Steed and George relaxed in large leather chairs in George's study, glasses of port in hand. They talked about politics, about Steed's polo club and horses in general, about this and that, just enjoying each other's company, grinning at each other's water wrinkled clothing.
Rather abruptly, just as Steed had refilled his level of port --George definitely bought excellent brands-- George put his own glass down on a side table, and his clear blue eyes grew serious.
"John," he asked, softly, "tell me, when did you first know you were a brave man?"
Steed was greatly taken aback by the fantastic inquiry. He blinked a couple of times. "What?"
George persisted, "When did you ever first know that you were a brave man?"
"A brave man? George, what are you talking about?" This was getting into an area of discussion that Steed was renown for avoiding. How many times had everyone friends, family, acquaintances, the house-cleaner, tried to get him to mention anything about his life, his work. How many times had he had to manipulate conversations onto new topics, politely beg leave from answering, make some sort of witty reply, or when, for some reason, someone was particularly perseverant, just leave the room, and perhaps the party? Yet, never had George done that, though Steed could see in his eyes, like he saw in everyone's, the constant, never-ending questions of just what was Steed about? George had always let his love for Steed over-ride his curiosity. Steed began to feel faintly uncomfortable.
George exhaled deeply. "John, you know you are a brave man. I don't know what you do, no one really does, and I don't want or need to know, but, I do know that bravery is a part of it."
Steed sat silently.
"I just wonder," George continued, "if you were always a brave man from the first, or if you developed the attribute of bravery as a result of being put in so many situations over the years where it was needed."
"Isn't your dinner sitting well with you, George?"
George allowed a brief grin, but then leaned forward earnestly, "I'm serious, John. I know the Steed's have a long reputation of being courageous; my God, we've fought in every war probably since the Celtic uprisings against the Romans," he said, pausing to scratch his forehead. "I just wonder if bravery is an inherent part of our genes, or something that innumerable individual Steed's were able to personally cultivate."
Steed swallowed his port and then placed his small glass down on the side table by his chair. "George, what exactly is this all about? Are you thinking of changing occupations?"
George leaned back in his chair heavily. "No, no I'm not. I am not a fearless man."
Steed shook his head back and forth, lost for a moment, until a sudden concern making his heart speed up. "George, there's nothing wrong with your health, is there?"
George smiled, pleased to see such evident worry suffuse his brother's face at the thought. "No. My health is fine. I'm sorry, John. I don't mean to be so enigmatic; after all, that is encroaching on your territory, isn't it?"
"Indeed it is," Steed answered. "You're supposed to be the open, gay fellow."
They let a moment of quiet settle the room. Then Steed asked, "So, do you want to tell me what that peculiar line of questioning was about?"
George waved his hand nonchalantly. "Oh, I don't know. Mid-life crisis? I suppose it must be something as banal as that. What else makes a pacifistic, introverted father wonder if he is a brave man. But I see the way the children, all the children look at you. We all do. They know you could protect them against anything. I just wonder, as a father, if I can protect them as well. Against what? I have no idea. Just protect them, courageously; unflinching in the face of danger. A staunch and stalwart man. Remember, I never left Dover during the entire war, while you were out there doing God knows what, and doing God knows what since then. I have never been tested."
"George, you're a barrister, and a good one. You try cases in court against very stern and austere judges, and against opposing barristers who look for the slightest slip upon which they may launch a full attack. That takes a great deal of mental concentration, strength, and courage. I know; remember, I've seen you do it a few times."
George leaned forward again, his interest in the conversation renewed. "It's not the same, John. It's not being a fearless man, like you."
Steed turned his head away at those words. A secret sore point jabbed at his chest. It was a matter of perspective, really. Yes, Steed overcame his fears when it came to guns and secret meetings; but, George had risked loving another person again, admitting it, honoring it, and had extended that intense vulnerability to procreating children. That was something that Steed had not really been able to do for twenty years. Oh, he always said that being an agent precluded love, commitment, marriage, but really, many agents married. Though not Steed, he did not take his emotions that far, even when he had a woman like Mrs Well, what did it matter now? Steed returned his look to George, who looked positively pensive. Perhaps he could help George a little; if Steed's life of bravery was something he needed to feel better about himself, Steed had the idea to help him in a very simple manner.
Steed scooted his chair closer to his brother. "Look, George, since your birthday is coming and Amy is out at the moment, how about I show you how to pick a lock?"
George's eyes widened. Steed never talked, showed, acknowledged anything about his work. Oh, Steed knew of the unending whispers, guesses, wonders, that sprang to life as soon as his back was turned, but never condescended to show interest or overtly be bothered by it. What was his ridiculous explanation of himself, he was "an irresponsible, slothful, insouciant man-about-town who traveled here and there, and was a bit accident prone." Yet now, for the first time in his life, he was willing to admit to the dangerous and mysterious undercover nature of his life, something he had never shared with any other family or friend. George's heart swelled.
"Sure," he said, not quite believing this was happening.
Steed grinned at took a leather case out of his jacket's inner breast pocket.
George's eyebrows raised. "Do you always carry picklocks with you?"
"No," Steed said matter-of-factly, "just sometimes." He opened the case on his lap, revealing thin pieces of metal with corrugated edges, each in an individual compartment. He rubbed his chin. "Well," he added, looking at George, "I think the front door shall best serve our purpose." And closed the case, held it in one hand, and stood up. In five quick steps he was in the hallway heading towards the entrance to the house. His voice floated down the hall. "Coming, George?"
Realizing this was really occurring, George stumbled up from his chair, and dashed to join his younger brother standing by the opened front door. He went outside and stood on the front step, as Steed locked the door and then closed it, joining George on the stoop. Steed pulled two picks out of his case, and in a flash had unlocked the door, proving it by opening it up to an astonished George. Steed reached around the door and locked it once more, then handed the picks to George. He held back his amusement; he had no belief that George would succeed in picklock proficiency at all. And he was right --George dropped the picks, almost bend one applying too much pressure, and then fiddled in the lock roughly to no avail. Steed patiently offered a hint or two every so often, enjoying George's blatantly clear enjoyment of the activity.
Leaning over the lock on the door, they were both surprised by a familiar feminine voice behind them. "What on Earth are you two doing?" Amy asked.
Letting go of the picks, George stood up, whipping around to face his wife; Steed slowly rose and turned in a smooth, unperturbed movement, subtly nudging George away from the lock as he did so. Steeds hands lifted behind his back to grab hold of the picks in the lock.
"'We're uh, er, that is, we " George stammered.
"I was just mentioning to George the new lock I'm thinking of installing at the old country manor. Three deadbolts, newly alloyed steel; rather impervious to thieves. We were comparing it to the lock on your front door." A tiny click occurred and George glanced down behind Steed's back to see him remove the picks and slide them into a trouser pocket, that bland smile never leaving his face. Steed opened up the door, motioning for Amy to enter the house. "Madame, après vous," he said.
"Thank you. Let's all go inside, shall we, or one wonders what the neighbors shall begin to think." She pecked George on the lips as she passed the portal.
"John, that was magnificent," George beamed, as Steed removed the picks from his pocket and replaced them in their slots in the case. "Thank you very much."
George's adulation shone in his eyes, his affection for his brother never more unmistakable, more grand in its expression.
And then somehow George inexplicably let slip words that he never imagined he would say to his reserved younger brother. "John, you know I love you, don't you?"
The shock of that public statement burst among the two Englishmen like a bomb, and George's face blushed beet red, as he raised his fist to his mouth and coughed and then cleared his throat a few times. The brothers looked away from each other, all of a sudden greatly interested in the street, the sky, the houses across the road. The silence grew heavy as Steed, speechless, found it hard to even swallow.
"I'm sorry about that, John," George managed to mutter, noticing his brother's uneasiness. "Don't know what got into me."
Steed closed his eyes as his face stayed turned from his brother. He was bothered not so much by his severe discomfort at George's blunt disclosure but by his being bothered by it in the first place. Why was it so excessively awkward for him to hear those works, and so impossible for him to say them? No, I'm not a fearless man, Steed thought. But what he feared most was accepted as a fact of life by people, in fact was considered the point of life to them. It would not have been so bad if Steed could not feel what he couldn't say, but he could and that made it all the worse. Steed hated how those special words caught in his throat, refusing to be uttered by him to anyone. So he stood there, stiffly hiding from his brother, with no ability to voice his mutual feeling. Yet, he could not deny that his entire being felt warm and thankful standing there with George, and what finally broke through his reticence was the feeling that at that moment, all was truly well with him and the world. Even if he couldn't tell his brother such.
Still, Steed never lacked for gestures, so he held out the set of picks to his brother, looking him firmly in the eyes. "Here, George, take them. However, I don't want to hear of you embarking on a life of crime. Amy would never forgive me." He paused as George's hands slowly rose to claim the present, trembling with excitement.
"John, I, I " George began, speaking oh so softly.
"No criminal activity, right?" Steed joked.
"John, really, of course not," George replied. "I'm a barrister."
"Good. Well then, Happy Birthday," Steed said, smiling.
It was enough for George. As George knew it had to be. They returned inside the house before the neighbors really did begin to wonder, and were greeted by cups of jasmine tea from Amy. Steed spent another hour socializing in the amiable and tender atmosphere Amy and George created for him, George's words on the front stoop their personal secret never to be mentioned again. When it was time to go meet Purdey, Steed rose, gave Amy a quick hug, his brother a firm handshake and then left the happiness of his George's heart and hearth for the cold, dark world he had made his own.
George Steed sat in his office reviewing his next client's file. It was a difficult case; the physician had, it seemed, been a bit careless with his diagnosing. George sat pondering the best way to approach the case; it was the physician's first charge of malpractice, and he was an earnest enough fellow who seemed to truly care for his patients. It really was too bad the misdiagnosed patient was Lord Crumley's wife.
It was late, almost six, when the last of his colleagues and the office secretary stuck their heads through the door of his office to bid him good-night. It certainly wasn't unusual for George to be the last member of the staff leaving; his determination to understand his cases and search for ways to defend his clients was ingrained in him, and he'd rather stay at the office until he was clear on his defense procedure than return home early to his dear wife and children and spend their time together with his mind idly back at his office, and have them notice his insincere attention to them.
After another 20 minutes, George had formatted the questions he would ask the physician at their meeting tomorrow, and toss off to the fellow the line of thought he had created to prevent him from losing his license. George folded the file and put it to the side on his desk. It was quiet in the office suite. He stood from his leather chair and walked around his large mahogany desk and strode to the door of his office. Looking out into the suite, he saw an empty secretary desk. There were no busy little paralegals rushing around dropping books and papers, and the other three offices were dark, their doors closed.
Perfect, George thought. He went back to his desk and unlocked the upper right drawer with a key on his keychain. Opening the drawer he pulled out the picklock case John had given him a couple of weeks ago. George had been regularly practicing on the doors of his fellow barristers after hours a few times a week. Although he had not yet been able to unlock any door, it was a game to him, rather fun, and if it brought him closer to John, and John's secretive and brave work, so much the better. He looked forward to one day demonstrating to John that he could unlock his front door with his finely honed skills. In the meantime, it was safe to practice here as George had always generally been the last to leave, and so his staying a bit later to pick a few locks would broach no suspicion.
George walked to the office next to his, Frederick Sloan-Beck, a rather reserved and unfriendly chap who was a quite brilliant barrister, and who had been with the firm for years, though not as long as George had. With enough pleasant insistence, George had broken through Frederick's reserve, and Freddy was quite settled with exchanging greetings with George daily in the morning and exchanging good-night with him when he left, promptly at five each evening. George had been working on his door, mainly because it was closest to his office and if he heard anyone coming in through the main suite doors, it would be just a fast dash for George back into the security of his own office.
George was dreadful at picking locks, and he knew it. He had no real feel for it; and still shook his head in awe at the memory of John picking his house's lock from behind his back. What a man his brother was. What an amazing man. George pulled open the little case and removed two picks, the same ones John had chosen for his front door. There were six other picks in the kit, and George had no idea what made one different from another, or how one discriminated which pick was used for which type of lock. He hadn't gotten that far in training with John before Amy had returned home, and he certainly wouldn't ask John to explain the locks again. That would make him immediately suspicious and ruin the whole surprise of proving his aptness.
George knelt down on the floor, his knee resting on a cushion from the sofa in his office. He was too old to be trying to pick a lock, to old to wonder if he was a brave man. But, he couldn't deny the thrill in his heart at he set himself to his task, risking being found in a very incriminating action with the resultant loss of his position and public humiliation and arrest for breaking and entering if he was caught. Yet, here I am, he thought, trying to pick a lock. Maybe I am a true Steed after all.
George labored at the task for fifteen minutes; he allowed himself no more than a half hour's time at this silly diversion before he returned home to spend time with the family he was so grateful he was a part of. It was the most fantastic of occurrences when at twenty-five minutes, George maneuvered a pick in a way he would have though he had done a hundred times before, and he felt and heard the lock fall to the right. My God, I've unlocked the door, George thought. I've actually unlocked the door. He had never really thought it would happen, and yet, here he was, a genuine spy.
George stood up smiling, and put the locks away in the case, which he placed in his suit jacket pocket. He moved the doorknob back and forth, proving for himself that it was indeed unlocked. Then he stood still wondering, Now what? Since he had not ever planned on opening a door, he had not thought this far ahead. Now he pondered his next move. He should just lock the door back up and go home. That was the honorable and right action to take. He had no right to snoop in Freddy's office; he had no reason to. George incidentally wondered if Freddy had a file he needed, as sometimes barristers would confer on cases, get a second opinion as it were, as a success for a particular barrister was a success for the entire firm, and the opposite affair was true as well. It was no loss of pride to give a colleague a file, mention the idea one had in mind for approaching the case in court, and see if they agreed or disagreed with the decision. That would give him a very valid reason to enter Freddy's office. Thing was, George just couldn't remember him giving Freddy a chart for the last month or so. Maybe Freddy had forgotten to water the two plants on his bookcase shelves, and George, a nature lover, would be saving their lives if he went in
Now he was getting ridiculous. Either he just went home, a successful picklock artist, or he just snuck into Freddy's office to sneak in like a brave spy would, searching for documents that the other side had stolen What, he wondered, would John do?
George poked his head into the office, pushing the door open by increments, keeping the office dusky by not switching on a light and just letting the glow from the central fixtures perfuse the space. It was a large office, they all had large offices, and three walls were covered with shelves of books and two potted ferns. No sofa, just four chairs, as well as his solid cherrywood desk and leather chair, behind which was a window facing Big Ben. Then, checking once more that no one was at the suite doors, George entered Freddy's office, leaving the door open. It was not much a surprise; he had been in Freddy's office innumerable times in the past. Just had never trespassed as he was doing now. Feeling rather like a criminal, George studied the books in the shelves, then found himself wandering closer and closer to Freddy's desk. He sat in Freddy's chair, which he had never done, and then, as if by habit, opened up the desk drawers which were unlocked. Miscellaneous papers, a date book, pens, paperclips and other office supply items; nothing too unusual. George took out the date book and randomly flipped through the pages, noticing birthdays, dinner dates, client meetings, again nothing odd or unusual. Suddenly George laughed, what had he expected to find? George reviewed the spy novels he had read and the movies he had seen. Did he think Freddy would have a piece of paper taped to the bottom of a drawer; was Freddy really a traitor, spying for the other side? Indulging his childish imagination he idly let his fingers run over the bottom of an opened drawer, and then George froze. There was a paper taped to the bottom of the drawer. No, an envelope, an envelope taped to the bottom of his drawer.
George panicked. Closing the drawer too quickly, the sound of its slamming shut echoed through-out the room, making him jump. He stood up and dashed for the door, locking it, and then taking the time to deliberately close it softly. He put the cushion back on his office sofa, picked up his briefcase, and left the suite. George tried to convince himself that he would never pick Freddy's lock again, never check out what was in the envelope, but, it was a good thing he wasn't talking to a judge, as he was failing to even convince his scared yet intrigued self, let alone an impartial and judgmental third party. As George drove home his thoughts scurried around his head. Once arrived at his beautiful home George frowned to himself as he turned his car off in his driveway. He couldn't ever imagine John running from a room; no, if he was to join the list of brave Steeds, he would have to learn what was in that envelope. It would be a harmless enough activity, yet courageous all the same
George put his decision aside as he entered his home, kissing each of his children as they ran up to greet him, and then put his arm around his wife as they walked into the kitchen to the lovely aromas of warm food baking.
Daniel Tenby searched through the post organized in his postbag. There was Mrs. Foxworth with her package from her son; there was little Eddie Smythe with three birthdays cards; there was Corporal Evan Rodgers with a letter from Greece. House by house fat, balding, single postman Daniel Tenby delivered mail on his route, to people he barely knew, yet knew had more interesting and loving lives than he did. Catalogs they got, letters from friends and family members, letters from people in foreign and exotic countries, places that Daniel, with his fears and his insecurities, had never traveled to, would never travel to. Letters from sons, daughters, wives, husbands, grand-parents, lovers--all people Daniel, raised in an orphanage, had never personally known, and was still, in his loneliness, terribly bereft of.
"Good afternoon, Daniel," Mrs. Catherine Edwards greeted him as he strode up her walk to her front door. Behind her Daniel noticed two children race through the hallway, silly in their youth, filled with giggles and happiness. He had never had such a childhood, had only read of it in books.
He tipped his hat at Mrs. Edwards. "Good day, Mrs. Edwards," he replied. He handed over the post to her, smiling automatically at her thanks.
"Oh, Daniel, I wonder if you could help me. I am expecting a rather important letter from a solicitor in Norwalk. You haven't seen it, have you?"
Daniel Tenby looked through his postbag very earnestly, checking each letter and compartment, though didn't find the missive. "No, It's not in here today, Mrs. Edwards," he said, shrugging his shoulder. "I shall keep my eye out for it, though."
As he strolled back down to the street, Daniel stroked the one letter hidden in his jacket he hadn't given to Mrs. Edwards, and put it back in his postbag. None of them would really notice one missing piece of mail; they had lives to live. And when the long route was over, and Daniel returned to his little home on Edgewater St. he let himself into the dark house. He owned a cat that didn't like him, that ignored his entrance as it lay on the sofa in the front living room. It didn't bother Daniel much that his cat didn't like him; no one really liked him. He was not a likable man. He was silent and moody, and couldn't hold a proper conversation, and ate too much, had no interesting hobbies, no skills, and had too large a nose. Daniel didn't even like himself. No one had ever really been cruel to him; it was just that no one had ever really noticed him.
Daniel had given up on women completely, although for him it was not much to give up. He'd had maybe two or three brief dates in his life, and if not for prostitutes, would still be a virgin at age thirty-six. Daniel turned on the telly, and brought a bag of chips, a few candy bars, and a couple of cans of Coke out to the coffee table in his living room. Then he went to his carryall and took out all the post he hadn't delivered to the people it belonged to. He didn't exactly know why he did it, stealing other's post. Perhaps because all he got was bills. Perhaps because he envied them all, with their friends and families. Perhaps because he had control over other people for once in his life. He didn't know or care. It was something he did; had done for several weeks, now. He had every intention of continuing to do so. It was fun. Let all those people think they were ignored in some way, when a piece of mail they wanted just didn't show up.
Daniel put the post, unopened, into a postal sack he had stolen from storage at the post office he worked out of and that sat on one of the chairs in his living room. It was half full. Tomorrow he was being put on a new route. North of town. Rich people in their large manors, manors Daniel Tenby would never live in. Well, he would live in their post instead.
Daniel drank a can of Coke in one unbroken swallow, then belched loudly. Belching was one of the few things he did well. Then he sat down on his sofa, and spent the night eating chips and chocolate and watching the telly. No one rang him on the phone, no one knocked on the door. Usually, as the sky darkened overhead Daniel's mood darkened equally so in his house. Yet, even though it was still just him, and his cat that didn't like him living in his house; for the last several weeks, the sickening loneliness that kept him awake with stomach pains was abated by a bag of other people's pos that kept him company.
And he had been sleeping well for the first time in his life.
It was all George Steed could do to get through the day, keeping his mind focused on the case with his physician. He had spent a long time talking and questioning the physician, and then had studied the previous cases related to his problem that his paralegals had uncovered. He had reviewed the demands made by the barrister representing Lord Crumley. He had done it all admirably and with his usual pain-staking attention to detail; but, here and there through-out the day, he would feel his stomach tighten as his after hour plans slid into his consciousness.
Finally, after all the good-byes had been said, George ordered the papers on his desk, stood and put his jacket back on, and then took a cushion from his sofa and placed it on the floor under the doorknob of Freddy's door. Placing the picks in the lock, he replicated his movements of the previous night several times, and, to his pleasure and surprise, was able to unlock the door in less than five minutes. George replaced the picks in the case, put the case in his breast pocket, and slowly turned the doorknob. He entered the room, and darting his eyes to the left and right, he quickly strode to the desk and sat in Freddy's leather chair. Swallowing hard, George opened the top middle drawer of Freddy's desk and pausing a moment, he then ran his hand along the underside of the drawer. Feeling the envelope still taped there, George gently pulled it off. There was no writing on it and it was sealed shut, but in one of Freddy's personal office stationary envelopes, of which there were quite a few in a holder on the desk, so steeling himself George tore open the envelope. He took out the enclosed papers and perused them.
It was a brief will for someone named Payton Malcolm Diddering, leaving all his money and possessions to his brother Alfred William Diddering. Paperclipped to the will was a piece of paper with the message: Tunis meeting, 12 May, 7:30 p.m., The Boar and Goat, Whitby St.
12 May, that was today, and George knew The Boar and Goat; he had lived in that neighborhood when first graduated from University. George checked his watch, 6:08 p.m., then stopped and snorted. What was he doing? Planning on going there to spy on them? What a ridiculous idea. Amy always had dinner ready at 7:00 p.m., it would be rude to be so late without phoning her first. And if he called her to tell her he'd miss dinner tonight, why reason could he give? Would he lie to her, the first time ever? Or, could he just mention some work he had to do, without going into the specifics, allow vagueness to replace overt prevarication. Yet, there was something about this whole affair that rather tickled George's soul; after all, John would no doubt go to the meeting. How much fun it would be to tell him of his adventures, what a laugh they would have, and John would be so proud of George, see that he, too, was a brave Steed, a courageous man.
After all, what could it hurt, really? A little eavesdropping wasn't such a great sin, and he could just pray extra fervently at Church on Sunday for forgiveness. He had always been so straight, had always toed the line like any other responsible citizen; what would it hurt just once to leave his settled, calm life and enter into an evening of surreptitious lurking? If he was noticed, why, he would just beg off saying he had gone to the pub in a moment of nostalgia for his early life.
So settled, George called his wife from Freddy's desk, told her he'd be too late for dinner tonight, and that he would see her probably by 10:00 p.m. Amy told him not to work too hard, make sure he did get something to eat, and that she'd look forward to seeing him then. She put each of the children on the phone to say hello to him as he'd return home after their bed-time, and George told them each how much he loved them. George hung up after sharing a kiss with Amy over the phone. He put the will in a new envelope and retaped it under the drawer, and put the old envelope in his pocket, to be thrown out in another trash container outside the office.
George left the office and stopped in a fish and chips shop, buying a serving of both which he slowly ate for dinner, chatting a bit with the fellow eating next to him at the counter. He spent some time talking with Paper Petey, the man who owned the newspaper kiosk where George had bought his morning Times for years. Then he went for a little walk on the streets, and, at 7:15 p.m. George returned to the carpark, and drove to The Boar and Goat. He parked a block away, and entered the busy pub around 7:40 p.m. George ordered a beer at the counter and then turned to examine the rest of the noisy crowd, searching for the face of Freddy. Glancing around a partition separating the main pub area from where smaller tables dotted the room, and aperitifs and dinner was served, George saw the back of Freddy's head in a far corner. There were two other men at the table, one sitting next to Freddy, and one opposite. The one beside Freddy had short black hair, and was thin and well dressed, like Freddy. The man across was was black haired but thicker set, and dressed in a typical suit of the civil servant. He appeared nervous, fidgety; his eyes wandering all over the room, and he chain smoked. As if in a movie, the table behind Freddy's head conveniently emptied, and enjoying the game, George strode quickly to it, beating a man and a long-legged woman who had been eyeing the table as well. In the main dinner area on the other side of the pub, reservations were needed to be seated, but this area was first come first served. Sitting down so that the back of his head was next to the back of Freddy's, George allowed the table to be bussed, and buried his head in the menu a waitress offered to him, focusing all his attention on trying to hear what the three men at the table behind him were saying. He ordered a salad. George was only able to catch a few scattered words, due to the noise and the mumbling of the occupants at the table, and could only discern when Freddy was talking.
"Needed the money!" "Turn yourself in," "Would defend you," "Foolish", "Investigation," "What do you want?," "Go to jail," "Secrets." After several minutes, the room grew a bit quiet in one of those ways that conversation tends to ebb and flow, and George heard the end of a sentence "--grocery corner of Simpson and Dartford" and then more conversation.
"I have to go to Hampstead Heath at 1:00 a.m. Whitestone Pond. North side. It's all set up. But, I'm going to see if I can get the money and keep the parcel somehow. Mail it back to the office once I'm safely away."
"I don't want to know," Freddy said.
"Don't be stupid," said the man next to Freddy. "I have to. I want that money. But, don't worry, this will be the last time."
"You make me sick," Freddy.
"Freddy, please, that's not helpful," the man beside him said.
"Payton," the fellow continued, "just take care of yourself. Think about it --you don't want to leave England and live in hiding for life. Jail is better than death. Freddy is a great barrister, he can get the lowest jail term possible."
"I don't know it I could stand jail."
Freddy spoke harshly, "If you leave, everyone will know it was you and you won't have any peace anyway. You've made your bed and now you must lay in it. I will help all I can, not for your sake, but for Alfie's."
More silence. The salad arrived. The men stayed silent as George picked at the salad.
"Let's get out of here," Freddy said. George heard their chairs scrapping on the floor and he bent down to tie his shoe as they passed by his table. Once they were around the partition, George came back up and after a few more minutes called for his tab and left.
As he drove home, George considered what he had heard. He had been around enough crime all his life, although indirectly, to understand that the man who sat across from Freddy had committed some crime, was still involved with criminals, and was trying to figure out what to do about it all. Apparently he had made some money in his felonious actions, for he had been contemplating leaving the country soon; however, his crimes must have been of a particular heinous type with Freddy's caveat that the authorities would search for him wherever he went. If he stayed, however, the man seemed destined for at least some prison time. He must be involved with the Mafia or some other gang activity to be fearful of his life, and need to create a will.
It must be a dreadful position to be in, George thought, to have no way out. To be between a rock and a hard place. His kind heart actually went out to the man a little, for his regret of his criminal actions and his sad realization that his comeuppance was due. George wondered who the man was sitting next to Freddy.
But, mostly George wondered if he would go to Hampstead Heath tonight at 1:00 a.m. It was ludicrous to even consider it, he knew, ridiculous, absurd. He should just call the police and have done with it. But what could he report? Some unknown man with an unknown criminal past was meeting other unknown people who may or may not also be of the criminal element. Hardly feasible to do that. Besides, it would seem, well, traitorous to Freddy, an acquaintance if not a friend, to have spied on his private affairs in some silly game and then use that information against him and the other man who apparently trusted him.
No, no police. Perhaps, George smiled, he should call John and ask for advice? But, really, that seemed just as futile as calling the police, if not even more so. George had ideas that his brother's concerns rose higher than that of a typical street hooligan; that if the police weren't interested, John certainly wouldn't be. Besides, George wasn't ready yet to tell John about his picklocking proclivities.
So that begged the question, was George going to Hampstead Heath tonight? It seemed like it might be exceedingly dangerous, if that man was going to meet other criminals. Why should George go? What would it benefit him? What would overcome the risk? Only one thing, the assertion that if he went, he would be able to call himself a brave man. But, what was this obsession with bravery that seemed to almost haunt George of late? What did he need to prove to himself, and why? He was a good man, a capable barrister, a loving husband, doting father, a responsible citizen --no one could look at his life and say he had not been successful in all its different aspects, was not indeed, a lucky, blessed man? Why could he not just let his life go on like that? Edgar and Phillip would guffaw at him for his thoughts of late; so would any of his friends, so complacent and so self-satisfied.
But, John, wouldn't John support and appreciate it if he illustrated that he too, like John, was a brave man, a man who could also wave the banner of Steedish courage in his genes, that it coursed through his blood as fiercely as it did through John's. Well, George modified, maybe not as fiercely as through John's but was at least present in him. And really, what harm could come from him just following that man in the bar and watching, from afar, him meet a few other criminals? He remembered how John used to wake him when they were young and convince him to sneak out of their house in the middle of the night with him to gaze at the stars and discover that the normal nighttime world was so marvelous, quiet and almost exotic, so different from daytime existence. And when George had grown fearful at the cooing of an owl, or the rustling of leaves by the wind, shying and whimpering to go back to the house, John had held his arm tightly, told him it's all right, and smiled his fears away.
George was forty-six years older, now, and had never smiled his fears away on his own.
He would do it tonight, alone, on Hampstead Heath.
© Mona Morstein 1998
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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