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.
A tapestry floated through Steed's vision, large and square, of a size to fill the wall of a castle. It hung from a rope that stretched from the ancient past into the unknown future. On the tapestry innumerable events of his life were sketched one by one and then sewn by a needle and thread that moved on its own, flittering around the sides of the tapestry. Using multicolored yarn that would last a thousand years, the needle followed the outlines of his childhood, his school days, his military career, his post-war years, his long years as an agent, one by one sewing into posterity the important aspects of who he was, what he had lived, what he remembered, what he had become. The scenes quickly coalesced one by one from the edges to the center as the needle darted around sure and confident. Soon, all there was left was the center, a murky vagueness, a shifting and smoky ill-defined picture in front of which the needle paused, in mid air, still as a windless day, unable to imprint its work and complete its task. The center, the point to his life, the reason all those other scenes existed, the reason Steed existed. It cleared a little, and something familiar yet ethereal appeared, something if it just found a touch more form he would be able to recognize, but then it disintegrated into wisps of nothingness, never truly illustrating the core of his being, and the tapestry fell far back into a bright light, the light of birth, the light of death. The needle, patient and tolerant, stayed still, waiting, waiting for the tapestry to reappear, to give it a chance to complete Steed's life and finish for all time a whole and unified piece of art, until an unbearable longing took hold of Steed and he turned away from the tapestry he felt rather than saw it shrink and disappear behind him the sense of loss so acute it pulled him from sleep.
Steed woke slowly, letting the dream gradually fade from his consciousness. It was not the sort of dream that snapped him awake, wide-eyed and grunting in fear; it was intriguing and yet, on the whole, meaningless. It was another of his recurring dreams, though newer, just a few years old, and coming to him every couple of months or so. He spent only seconds envisioning the blurry center portion of his life and when he could made nothing of it, when he could not figure out what event in his life deserved that center spot, he let it go. It wasn't important. It was just a dream. If his years as an agent had afforded him any one attribute for which he was greatly thankful, it was the ability to just let unsettling images fade from a mind that had been unsettled way too many times in the past.
Steed turned his head and saw, to his left, a woman sleeping by his side. For a moment he couldn't remember her name; soon, "Lydia" was recalled. Generally Steed was brilliant with names; he knew so many people and it was important to acknowledge them all. Yet, Lydia looked a bit like "Sabrina", who had looked a bit like "Jennifer," his last three lovers in the past eight months. All long dirty blond hair, long lashes, and thin. Preferred dark red lipstick. It was just a coincidence of appearance, for although Steed had a certain type of woman he preferred to bed, it was not that specific. Being tall helped, as Steed was tall, but pretty, beautiful, or merely stately would be fine; thin, curvaceous, or at least not overweight would suffice; blond, redhead, brunette; long hair, short haired; quiet, witty; twenty years younger than him or his own age; it was, on the whole, all the same to him. He just liked women as a gender. He liked to have one in his life, he liked to take one to dinner, to a show, to buy jewelry for, and to sleep with. Mostly, he liked to have a female companion around him. Something about their scent, their softness, their intelligence all rolled up into a curvy package was pleasing to him. Far ahead of his time in that regard, Steed's respect for women had been fostered early in his life. He had grown up surrounded by numerous world-traveling, no-nonsense, intelligent aunties, who had enamored him and guided his sight to seeing the equality that women were capable of achieving in a man's world. And, throughout all the different ways of viewing the world that had claimed his mind at various times during his life, that one attitude had never been distorted or destroyed. It was one of the most solid cornerstones of his personality, his esteem for women. It had spilled over into his work as exhibited by his desire to be partnered with them, and share their intuition, their specific way of interpreting a situation that oftentime could break out of his masculine precepts that were not always the key to analyzing the clues of a case. And, of course, it frequently spilled over into his play.
Steed watched Lydia sleeping, their love-making of the night before coming to mind. Without detracting from the utility and competence they displayed in the world, Steed was honest enough with himself to also know women provided some other services that also drew him to them regularly. Certainly, the best was having a release for his sometimes endless libido, allowing him to bring pleasure to someone else, when otherwise his life dictated he brought trouble to people. It was an equilibrium of female bliss versus criminal trouble; balancing both ends of the spectrum brought a stability to his life. Steed had grown, over these last years, to depend on being stable.
Lydia stirred beside him and ran her hand through his hair. Steed was used to that; women had always loved his hair, thick and soft and brown, and still so even though he was fifty-one. It felt good to him to have their fingers playing with his hair, especially when they scratched his scalp or rubbed the back of his neck. Steed had always liked being gently touched, in bed, in private. It was, quite frankly, soothing, and recharged him. It brought back the reality that the dark, nasty world that often wrapped around his soul like a suit made from thorny brambles was removable, that he could hang up that suit, his job--the job he loved--in the closet. He could put that job aside, that job he could never quit, and for a time become naked, forgetful, the woman under or over him the salve that took the pain away, and brought to him a new morning, a new day, a new strength, a new resolve. There, in private, it was just him and his lover, and he used his body to bring joy, not violence or death; he used his mind to understand her needs and wants, not to figure out how to capture someone, how to foil some lunatic. It was a balance he thrived on, and incorporated into his life to help maintain who he was, neither romantic nor rogue, neither martyr nor manipulator, just a gentleman, staid, stolid, civilized. Yet, because he only needed to achieve a certain balance, a relativity, he only gave to the woman that much that was needed to settle back into the middle of his personality, and nothing more. Reserved in public, adamant that emotions needed to be almost entirely controlled in front of others, he needed only small doses of passion to recuperate from the grumbling aggravation he allowed his enemies to elicit in him. Once, one lady, Clara, told him that making love to him was like making love to a very skillful, very caring, well endowed mannequin.
"All body and no soul," she had said, tapping him on his solid chest.
That hadn't taken him by surprise or offended him; he understood what she meant. He portioned out himself by teaspoon, not by ladle, even in bed.
"But what a body," Clara had added, smiling, as she rolled on top of him.
Through a variety of exercises, including long walks, horseback riding, cricket, polo, fencing, weights, Steed kept himself around 175 pounds of lean muscle, forswearing desserts in his diet, though allowing alcohol. He still had a hardened abdomen, broad shoulders and pronounced biceps. He knew the importance of keeping fit if he wanted to continually attract women into his life. Money, charm, a handsome and relatively wrinkle free face, and a short lion's mane of hair would only go so far. Also, there was the balance of the obvious fact that he was obligated to stay in rather decent shape to maintain field status at the Ministry, and not be a risk to his partners. That balance, work and women, kept him active in his training.
"I thought you said you usually slept in," Lydia murmured, her hand reaching out to touch Steed's firm, naked chest, running through the sparse elongated diamond of hair that ran from between Steed's nipples down over his sternum.
"Dream woke me up," he answered, smiling as she rolled to him and lightly kissed his lips, her hand lowering down to his thighs, brushing against his penis, already erect and demanding.
"Oh? What was it about?" Now her hand landed on his manhood, rubbing up and down its long shaft.
"Medieval art," Steed answered as he took her in his arms and lay over her, beginning the dance of love in which he was so very proficient, and which brought a decided aspect of sun into the overcast late January day. Their mutual cries of delight soon filled the bedroom in a concert of shared trembling.
They dated for another month until--as usual--Lydia expected too much from Steed, some form of commitment, some acknowledgment of their being a couple, some sense that she was as important to him as his two partners, his mysterious work--whatever it was. When Steed was unable to say the right words, to assure her that was the case, or ever would be the case, she understand the superficial depth of relationship she had with him, and would always have, and took her toothbrush and her brilliant white smile and walked out the door.
"Should be a revolving one, eh, John?" was Lydia's last sentence as Steed gently shut the door behind her and her pretty blue dress, that hugged her shapely hips so tightly, the final click as much a symbol of his habits with women as would be him carving another notch in the headboard of his bed.
Not a bad last line, Steed had to admit, as he heard her car speed off down his long driveway to the country road that would take her back to her apartment in London. He had heard many last lines--calm ones, resigned ones, angry ones, accusatory ones, sad ones, funny ones. It was interesting to him to try to guess which sort of line the woman would use; it was a test he gave himself to analyze how well he psychologically interpreted them. It was important for an agent to have a grasp on understanding how people would react in any given situation. He was only right about half the time, though.
Even for a man as experienced as he was, women were often more unpredictable than a double agent.
He regretted Lydia's leaving; she had a libido that matched his own healthy one. They liked the same music, the same food. She enjoyed riding horses. She had given up trying to pry into his past, into his present, into his scars, with a resigned complacency that was unique for its quick control of curiosity. That enabled them to pass the time together in a style that was friendly and easy. But, he knew she would leave sooner or later, they all left, one by one, or he made them go when they began to bore him or attempt to leash him. Or, if he was honest with himself, he began finding fault with them, and therefore thickening the wall of emotion he usually had between him and his girlfriend. She wasn't witty enough, or intelligent enough, or athletic enough, or didn't have any sort of unique flair that could captivate him, or always acted subservient to him and not as his equal or his better, or wasn't confident enough, or whose smile failed to beam out across the room mesmerizing him, or well, he just found fault with them, and at some point they both knew the relationship had stumbled and crashed to the ground. There was always a moment when the women stared at him, silently or verbally accusing him of falling short of what he could be, of what they could be together, of judging her when she had tried to meld herself to his life as best as possible, when the phone rang or Purdey and Gambit arrived and he left them, again, alone in his home, in a restaurant, at some party, one too many times. But he never made any promises to them, never broke any vows, and that counted for quite a lot to Steed. He never betrayed their trust; never had cause to feel guilty or ashamed. Therefore, he could always justify his gentlemanly demeanor as the woman collected her belongings and desultorily wandered or stormed out the front door.
It was all for the best. Steed would never marry; had convinced himself that to do so would be selfish and inconsiderate. Since there was a good chance he could die any day whilst on one of his cases, it would be unfair to offer a life to a woman and then have it all end, suddenly, implacably, leaving her alone and widowed after such a short time together. If he was unwilling to desist in placing himself at risk, he had no right to even allow the thought of wedded union to enter his mind. Seeing woman as friends and as lovers was all he could expect from his life, even if it turned his front door into a revolving portal.
It was a big house to be alone in, square and Georgian, with large, open, opulent yet tasteful rooms merging into each other. The décor was exquisite: fine mesh carpeting, fine hardwood furniture, pictures by famous artists expertly framed and hanging on the walls. A few rooms were decidedly masculine, dark, heavy wood, cigar boxes and alcohol decanters present; but mostly the rooms were the sort that made one feel stiffly at home, making sure one's fingers were clean before handling a bust of Nelson. It was very tidy and very clean at all times. Steed was a fastidious man, in his hygiene, in his dress, in his home, and in how he ran his life. Loose ends were no more welcome in his shirt cuffs than floating around his work or play activities. There was nothing sloppy in how he managed his female relationships. He was honest with his girlfriends, and true to himself from the start; they had no cause to think poorly of his actions or his words, and very rarely did, their anger, when it occurred, he knew, more at what they could not have than at him.
Steed knew how to be alone, even on a snowy day in February, when he once more suddenly found himself to be so. It was easy in the lap of luxury his off-work life had become. He had a drink. He finished reading a book. He went for a walk, bundling up against the chilly weather and snow flurries. He took care of his correspondence, taking the time to pen a short missive in answer to a letter from an old war buddy with whom he still kept in sporadic contact. Later, as evening began descending upon the land, darkening it gradually, as if the world was slowly being blinded, Steed sat and reflected upon Oscar Turnbull, a childhood friend who had been a CEO of an electronics firm for years, dropping dead of a heart attack the previous week. He had only been fifty-three, two years older than Steed. He remembered Oscar being shy and quiet, with thick glasses even at Eton, yet loyal, decidedly loyal, and not much more had been needed to ever attract Steed's friendship. He remembered Oscar having a bit of a breakdown hearing that his two brothers had been killed in a war he was unfit to participate in due to his poor vision, but he had pulled himself up out of it with admirable strength, aided by a habit of chain-smoking that he kept up all these years. He thought of June, Oscar's wife, plump and a pianist par supreme, and their three children.
After pouring a second brandy, Steed once more returned to a topic he had began to ponder sometimes--he wondered what exactly did happen when one died. He thought that if nothing else, it would be a bit of decent, undisturbed rest. Heaven with angels and harps? Seemed utterly fantastical and childish and even though Steed had seen fantastic things in his job as a Ministry agent, he no longer could tolerate childish views on serious topics. Reincarnation? Millions of people believed in that idea, and it had its intriguing allure for Steed. If it really happened he fancied he would like to return as a stallion, a thoroughbred; such freedom to run at speeds no one could catch, such stamina, such sleek grace and beauty. If he was ordained to return as a human, it would be, perhaps, as a priest, or some other man of peace. Someone who was gratned a taste of rest on earth, not just after it. What if there was Nothing? A void? It was possible. To just disappear completely, like a fallen flower wilted and dissolved by the forces of the earth. Missed by a few for the beauty it imparted, for the good scent it offered to the world, but alive in memories and replaced by other flowers of equal value. Hell? Did that exist? Well, Steed had always liked the heat of Palm Springs and he had survived rotten hellish gaols. He should do fine down there, if that was real and he wound up in the abysmal fires. There was a chance, if one's past was recounted in front of some formal judge after one died Steed's past was something he always put aside; he had always done the best he could, and repented very little of his often tumultuous history. There was no point in doing otherwise while he was still alive. It was one of his personal Golden Rules--the keeping the past in the past. Bringing parts of his past into his present had never benefited Steed, and had often brought pain or trouble. The recent affair with Mark Crayford was a perfect example, as was the case with Purdey's Lawrence; those problematic cypernauts; Bristow and his fatal games; Chessman with his hotel recreating Nee San's hellhole; his reccurrent nightmares of his incarcerations, of being betrayed, shot nothing good had ever come from the past returning into Steed's life. He doubted it would benefit before some angelic tribunal, either.
Whatever occurred after death, Steed would attempt to keep from discovering it for as long as possible.
Oscar had been a good man, and it was always sadder when a good man died. Steed wished his wife and children well. Steed had seen many good men die, men who had no more risk in life than safely driving through rush hour traffic; and there Steed was--elegantly appearing from a life of being beaten, stabbed, shot, captured, tortured, alone in enemy territory to solemnly attending another funeral. He had attended innumerable funerals; had tossed in a mountain of dirt upon those shiny coffins. Many of his fellow agents had died over the years, most friends or at least acquaintances, all of them tied respectfully together by their endless commitment to protecting their country: Ronny Wescott, Paxton, Bobby Danvers, Lucas, Dobson, all those agents of Floral department, Jarrett, Penman, Trouncer, Stannard, David Miller, Irwin Gunner, Merton, Marlow, Willie, Marty Brine, Freddy Mason, Martin, Pelbright, Colonel Thompson the names stretched to infinity it sometimes seemed. And yet, after a life such as he had led, there he was still alive; a bit scarred, sometimes a bit stiff in the morning, sometimes woken up by horrific nightmares, but still, somehow alive after all the danger, the intrigue, the violence, the betrayals, the diabolical masterminds, the criminals and the spies that he had encountered and overcome so often over the years. No wonder he had some sort of mythical survival status at the Ministry. When he turned fifty, Steed began toying with the idea that he very well might live to an old age, a rare act of forward thinking he had evaded for so long. So he bought his house and set himself up to do so as a landed squire, and committed himself to avoid thinking about all those people who never had the chance to settle down their lives as he had begun to do.
His country house with the extensive landscaped lawn fit who he was now--a bit more relaxed, a bit more serene and composed. It had been necessary for him to reach some sort of balance, to attain a retreat from the tension, the adrenaline rushes of investigating some breach of security or safety in the country; if he lived with eternal wariness at work, he strove for comfort and relaxation at home. This quiet country atmosphere made it easier to let things go. When the long list of the dead invaded his peace of mind, when some traumatic event from his past burst into his consciousness like a supernova, when he wondered what things might have been like if this or that had not happened to him, or this or that had here, in his comfortable home, or outside amongst the glories of nature that covered his grounds, he could breathe deeply, emptying his mind of disturbing images and letting it all go. Steed inhaled and exhaled fully several times, letting go of Oscar. Just one more person gone from his life. They all settled like a layer of cobwebs on his skin and fine clothes and every now and then he simply had to brush them away.
It was quiet in the house, though not too dark. Steed didn't like the dark, when he was still awake; gaol cells were always dark, and he had been in a few of those. He wondered through his home, full of so many rooms Steed sometimes didn't enter them all for weeks. In the not too distant past, Steed would have felt compelled to drive to town, to dig up work, or shop or keep himself active and busy. Down time, quiet, alone time had been anathema to his restless soul. Now, such days as today were days he honored as moments in time he revel in calmness and safety. He could happily amused himself for weeks at a time at this stage in his life.
Steed remembered his auntie Greta recollecting that he had been a frenetic whirlwind for most of the early to mid-60s, completely bored if he had more than an afternoon to spend on his own. That was indeed the case; Steed knew he had been many different men in his life and that hectic, manipulative, fidgety man had been one of them. Yet, as he meandered throughout his wine cellar, satisfied with his collection, the conversation still nagged at him.
"I was full of nervous energy," he had smiled to his Auntie Greta as they discussed those recent past years of his in his kitchen, the difference of him then and presently. It was not a subject that drew Steed out of his generally reserved shell, usually if the topic was himself, his lips seemed glued together, but he felt it was rude to not make some comment after his Aunt's brief treatise about how different he was now.
"I always saw it as being full of the joy of life," she had answered, drying off her teacup. Then she sighed, "Too bad things change so much in life, sometimes."
"But that implies that now my life is not joy--" Steed had begun.
"Exactly," he aunt had curtly interrupted. Holding out the teacup to him she had then asked, "Would you put this in the cabinet, John? My arthritic shoulder aches a little today."
Steed had disagreed with her comment, but silently put the teacup away. As he climbed the cellar stairs to the main floor of his house, he saw his life as still being joyful now, if at a slower, more serene pace. Everyone slowed down as they aged, and so had he. It was inevitable; it was expected. Sometimes he wondered if his aunt was truly turning a bit daft.
At 8:00 p.m. that evening, Steed went out for a late dinner at a restaurant only twenty minutes from his home. He was a regular there and chatted gregariously with the owner, who spent some time sitting at Steed's table, and the cook who came out to ask how the filet mignon tasted. He noticed a new waitress, a redhead, medium height, with green eyes that shouted out their presence in her otherwise plain face. She was too busy serving tables across the room, only passing Steed on her way to and from the kitchen, so Steed never had a chance to garner her attention. He made a mental note to return to the restaurant soon, and be seated in her section of the room. He arrived home around 10:00 p.m., too early to sleep, to late to make much of the day. He turned on the TV, but never one much infatuated with it, only watched the news and then switched it off. He played several games of billiards with himself, and then it was a reasonable time for bed, and he climbed to his first floor bedroom.
After taking care of his evening toilette, Steed, in light blue silk pajamas, lay down in his bed. He looked out the window of his bedroom into the dark night, the sky heavy with blackness, foreboding more foul weather to come, hiding the beautiful and mystical constellations and the ethereal moon. The glory of nature suffered at times from the harshness of its own powers. Steed wondered if in some ways that was applicable to his life, but before he could process that idea, he fell peacefully asleep.
There was a woman at the party he went to four nights later, an Italian, Angela, who was dark haired and dark-eyed, will full lips but a nose just a bit too large for her long face. Tall, around forty, with a lovely bust and a smooth way of walking on very high heels. Steed watched her in her extreme irritability, barely able to converse with anyone, strongly admonishing a man who was obviously her brother for having dragged her to the affair. Steed sidled up next to her as she stood by the wine table, muttering under her breath in Italian, "Stupid boring English parties; pathetic English wine."
Steed smiled at her and held out his forearm to her, answering in precise and impeccable Italian, "I entirely agree. Shall we go? There's a lovely restaurant about thirty miles from here that caters to wayward Italian beauties needing to sample some fine Tuscany meals and dry white wines."
She went with him, entwining her arm in his, and they chatted about her widowhood and her year-long travels with her equally widowed brother. She was bemused that for every foreign city she mentioned, Steed knew where to get a gourmet supper. She agreed that visiting England in late winter had been a poor idea, and smiled at Steed suggesting she return during the summer, when there were so many more things to do than try to stay warm. They ended up back at the apartment she and her brother were sharing together during their stay in England, Steed kissing the back of her hand goodnight, flashing a look indicating at any time he would enjoy kissing her everywhere else on her body. She flushed and left him, warned by her brother, who had been warned by others at the party, that Steed went through women like a cat plays with mice.
"Squeak!" Angela grinned. She would have gone home with Steed that night if not for a lingering sense of propriety, bred into her by pious nuns, that one didn't jump into bed with a man on the very first date. She deliberately forgot what they said about the second date, which was the next night, dinner and a play and ? She hadn't had a lover in over a year; a little bit of fun in the dreary English winter would certainly enliven the trip.
Her brother then reminded her they were leaving England for the Caribbean in just three weeks, and they still hadn't been to Scotland.
Angela never made it to Scotland, but once as they laid in bed resting from rather strenuous but wonderful exertions, Steed spoke knowledgeably about every scene in a picture book of Scotland he had bought her as a going away present.
When she left the next day, rushing out his front door to the impatient honking of her brother fuming in his sedan, a quick kiss on the cheek her playful good-bye, holding onto the Scottish book as she waved while getting into the car, Steed felt good about himself as he waved back. As they sped off for the airport Steed mused that sometimes things went right with him and a woman.
Cases flowed to him as if the Ministry's pandora box had been opened and set free to the wind. A few crazy scientists, a few spy cases, other oddball dangers that were assigned to the Ministry to look into. He had a relationship with a plain but stately woman named Laura during his third run in with the cypernauts. He found himself honestly fond of her and felt good when she loved the show horse he gave her for a present. Yet, his assaulting Fitzroy twice and the large bump on the back of his head received when a cypernaut struck him bothered her for the violence it showed came so easily to him both as administrator and recipient. But what hurt the most was the phone call she answered at his house from the female Dr. Marlow, who--when assured by Laura she was just Steed's cousin--explained to her Steed had flirted with her at the computer lab during his investigation. She had tracked him down, and was wondering if he was still interested in sharing a locker with her. Telling Dr. Marlow she'd tell Steed she called, Laura hung up, naturally surprised and very hurt, and she made her sad decision to end their time together. A few nights later they sat holding hands on a sofa listening to a recording of a Bach sonata. When the phone rang, necessitating Steed excusing himself from her presence to secretly remove himself into another room for almost a half hour. Steed returned to the room smiling and rubbing his hands together in eager anticipation of nestling down beside her for more than a bit of hand-holding, Laura was gone, leaving the record playing and her horse in the stables. Steed rang her up, and she kindly asked him not to again, considerately telling him about Dr. Marlow's phone call. That sat sourly in Steed's stomach; he had just been innocently flirting for the sheer fun of it with Dr. Marlow. He never assumed Laura would learn about it. He tried to assure her that what had occurred in the lab, which was nothing but a few meaningless quips, was nothing she should get upset about. Yet Laura was adamant in her refusal to renew her acquaintance with Steed, even though he sent her a bouquet of flowers. So, she was merely added to the list of people Steed let go, although he did so with a momentary frown darkening his features. He contemplated calling Dr. Marlow, but then thought that maybe a break from women would suit him for a little while.
He played bridge three nights later during a large six table match, his partner Sir Marc Kinion, assigned to him by random draw. His is opponents were Mr. and Mrs. Denis Bitford. Whilst lighting a cigar as his wife contemplated her next bid, Mr. Bitford said, "I say dear, did you know that Peter and Emma Peel are getting divorced? It's all the buzz at my club, which Peter belongs to, you know. And, after all the hoopla of them getting back together, what, I should think almost four years ago."
If Mr. Bitford missed that he had committed a tremendous faux pas, given the personage of one his fellow bridge players, his wife, after a quick, anxious glance to Steed, did not. Seeing Steed absorbed with studying his hand in preparation for his bid after hers, she smiled in an insincere way, and said, "Really, dear, that's not the sort of thing we should discuss now, is it?"
Her husband missed her implication. "Well, were you aware of that? You know Emma better than I know Peter. I should have thought you would have told me."
Mrs. Bitford spoke quickly, "Three spades," widening her eyes as she threw an earnest plea of silence to her husband who answered with a questioned brow.
"Well, did you?" he repeated.
Mrs. Bitford sighed deeply. "Yes, I've known for a couple of months. They've been unhappy for some time. Now, dear, please focus on the game."
"I wonder went wrong between them. Seemed a perfect match to me," Bitford added.
Sir Marc stepped in now, aghast at Bitford's persistence in this conversation, thinking he must be an absolute daft idiot. The previous intimate relationship between Steed and Mrs. Peel--torn apart by the fairy tale return of Peter, thought dead for years--was a topic everyone knew about and no one ever mentioned in either Mrs. Peel's or Steed's presence. It was an unwritten rule of polite society, for both of them were exceedingly well-liked and neither seemed the least inclined to discuss their mutual years together, or, even, each other in the present day. In fact, it was well known that neither enjoyed being at an event when the other was present, although, the two or so times that had happened, they had courteously bid hello to each other. Rumors abounded that neither of them had ever really lost their feelings for each other, and that was why they preferred to avoid each other's company, although rumors abounded about everything and everyone and most were, of course, unmitigated hogwash. Nevertheless, as best as possible, invitations were carefully organized to ensure Steed and the Peels were never invited to the same affair. Mr. Bitford's blatant disregard for Steed's sensibilities was outrageous.
Sir Marc curtly asked, "I say, have we come here to play bridge or gossip like common bar patrons?"
Mr. Bitford took offense. "Pardon me. Well, then, Steed, it's your bid."
For the first time since Bitford had spoken, Steed looked up at the others at his table. The odd tingling that had traveled throughout his body at Bitford's shocking proclamation had gradually disappeared and he felt relaxed again. "Four hearts," he said.
The rest of the evening went well. If at other affairs he attended, Steed began hearing murmurs start when he left a room, or stop when he entered, he was perfectly happy to put it down to his imagination, which he knew it wasn't. It did not stop him from enjoying himself. Two weeks later, at the beginning of a warm April, when he opened up the London Times one morning as he sat down to have his first cup of strong black coffee and saw, in the lower right column of the first page the headline "Air Ace Peter Peel and Knight Industries Chairman Wife Emma To Divorce," Steed saw the truth to the gossip that had engulfed his aristocratic friends for the last fortnight. A maelstrom of memories of working with Mrs. Peel flooded his head almost making him dizzy with their attack on his equilibrium; but with a few deep breaths he was fine again, clear-headed, and stable, letting those memories go. The coffee suddenly seemed too acidic and Steed made a mental note to buy a new can when he next had the chance. He had stuck a piece of whole wheat bread into the toaster and even though it popped up, he had strangely lost the little appetite he could rouse in the morning. Steed, never one to succumb to the tantalizing allure of gossip, had been able to ignore all the whispered comments of his friends and acquaintances with ease; yet, he could not ignore the fact of the newspaper article. Mrs. Peel Her husband had come back from Brazil, what, nearly four years ago. Mrs. Peel She had been a fine colleague, spirited, fiery, intelligent, lovely; their work and play had been so wonderful, so... He thought of the photo of her on his table in one of his drawing rooms. It was surrounded by pictures of Cathy Gale and Tara King, but the photo of Mrs. Peel was bigger by necessity because even taken with a camera her face was larger than life, manifesting too much life and energy for a smaller portrait to contain. Yet, when he thought of her now, all that arose in him was the recollection of the pain her leaving had brought him, and like an innocent child learning that a stove top is too hot to touch after he is burned badly by putting his hand on it, Steed had finally let go of Mrs. Peel committed to not being burnt again. Steed looked at the headline, sympathetic to her plight. Too bad her marriage hadn't worked out. She had been a good friend. He wished her well, but knew, if anyone had the resiliency to move on and succeed in creating a new, rewarding life, it was the indomitable Mrs. Peel.
It was three weeks later as he gulped down another cup of coffee he noticed another headline that caught his attention, "Mystery Attack In A French Town," which detailed the unusual story of a soldier in WW II Russian uniform who had killed three youths with both machine gun and grenades in a filling station, before escaping into the woods around the town. Calling Purdey and Gambit to come to his country home, Steed then set to thinking about seven years ago, in 1965, when he had been with Mrs. Peel. There had been the bizarre occurrence of a man who, dressed up in a similar outfit, after shooting up a salvation army headquarters in Berkshire, ran away and died in a nearby field, aging years after he died. That had never been explained, and the story in France set his old agent senses on edge; he was sure it was more than coincidental, and wondered if he should check it out. If Mrs. Peel was here, he would have asked her
It was a whim, nothing more. Nothing more could come from it than an acknowledgement of their partnership years ago, an agreement that the French affair and the Berkshire affair were probably related, and a passing mention he hoped she was going to find happiness in her life, as he had in his. But, then again, he had no idea even if she wanted to hear from him. That unknown factor stalled his inertia to phone Mrs. Peel.
However, forty minutes after putting the paper down, as if he was watching himself from across the room, not in actual conscious control of the way his body was behaving, Steed found himself ringing a friend of Emma's attaining the new phone number to her recently purchased London penthouse apartment. He smiled. She always had liked commanding views of everything.
As if he was being controlled by a diabolical watch on his wrist, he dialled her number, rather excited to be doing so. Mrs. Peel answered on the first ring.
"Hello, Steed," she said.
"Mrs. Peel," he responded, pausing for a long moment after hearing her voice. "How'd you know it was me?"
"I read the paper."
She had read the article about the French town and thought it suspicious; his hunch had been right. That assured him he would have to go to France. He wondered how she had known he'd call; as always she had surprised him with the astounding levels of her brilliance and perspicacity.
"You haven't changed. You've got a long memory," he said.
"Long, happy memory."
Steed spoke in soft tones, drawing the word out in agreement, "Yes." It was then that Purdey and Gambit entered his dining room, approaching him while he was on the phone.
"You're going to France, then," Mrs. Peel deduced.
"Yes, we're leaving right away."
"Well, good luck, Steed. And, I've changed my name. I'm not Mrs. Peel anymore."
He read the paper, too. He had done so three weeks ago.
"Yes, I know. But you're still Mrs. Peel to me. Good-bye."
He heard her earnest words and felt her welcoming tone and using the excuse to himself that Purdey and Gambit had arrived and were entering the room, which was true, he had quickly signed off from the call, getting right to the case with his two colleagues. Besides, there had been nothing else to say between him and Mrs. Peel, anyway. Even idyllic things end and people had been, from the beginning of time, forced out of paradise. Life had moved on for both of them. Maybe here and there he'd run into her at a party, but they were now two people with very separate lives, with no real points of connection but fond memories of the past and the good times they shared together. She had been Mrs. Peel to him then, and would stay that way eternally in his mind. Putting the phone call aside, Steed realized there was a case to focus on--and there would be more and more cases after this one. He got right to the point with his younger partners discussing the recent happening in France. If he saw a strange look in Purdey's eyes, a combination of curiosity and concern, it was none of his business to ask about it.
The case took them to Paris. At the end of the investigation Steed was shot, the bullet wound cracking his left collar bone and then ricocheting through the muscle of his left arm, luckily missing all the nerves, but hitting the brachial artery. The pain of the broken bone was tremendous and Steed lost a great deal of blood quickly from the entry and exit wounds in his arm and the ruptured artery; however, heroically, he was able to protect the French Prime Minister from an assassin's bullet before passing out. Purdey and Gambit found Steed lying unconscious on his side, pumping blood out steadily into a growing red puddle under his arm. They applied a tourniquet and rushed him to a hospital, where he spent over a week before being released to his hotel room in Paris. He spent another several days there, gaining the strength to travel home whilst being awarded a number of awards by French and Soviets diplomats. Two weeks after arriving in France, the Steed, Purdey and Gambit flew home, Steed's left arm in a wide white sling that did not detract from his handsome three-piece suited form.
Steed was dropped off at his home and was surprised to see his tall, thin, grey-haired bun-headed Auntie Greta waiting for him inside. She had a key to his house, true, as she was an occasional visitor who loved to stroll the grounds, but at this early spring time of year she most loved to be in a hermitage in her cottage in Bude, Cornwall.
"Auntie Greta," Steed smiled, bending forward in a forty-seven year old reflex that allowed her to peck his cheek hello. "What are you doing away from your cottage?"
"I came to take care of you, John. Purdey called and told me you were shot."
Steed knew Purdey kept his relatives informed of his injuries through Auntie Greta, everyone understanding that if it was up to Steed himself, no one would be told he was wounded.
"Take care of me?" He put down his suitcase and patted his left arm with his healthy right. "That was unnecessary. I'm healing pretty well. I can manage fine on my own."
"I don't think you can," she answered, continuing on before a surprised Steed could reply. "No, I think I better stay with you for awhile, help you out. Being alone when you're damaged isn't healthy, you know. You might not remember to do what you need to do to heal."
It was the way her eyes seemed to concentrate to the size of a pinpoint sending some invisible signal to him that unsettled Steed.
"I'm not that 'damaged,' as you say," he explained. "I've had worse injuries and recovered on my own. I'll do a bit of physical therapy as I've been told to do, and then viola, they said I'll be fine. "
"Well, your arm will be better at least. No, I'm sorry, John, I've decided to move in for a little while, and I'm sure you wouldn't mind spending some quiet evenings with your favorite auntie chatting and reminiscing. After all, I'm almost seventy. I could drop dead at a moment's notice."
"I doubt that," Steed said, picking up his luggage as he moved towards the stairs. "You're fitter than most people half your age." He turned back to her. "However, I have learned that arguing with you is as effective as telling the sun not to rise. If for some odd reason you feel compelled to stay with me for a few days--"
"--weeks. Months. Years. Who knows? As long as it takes."
Steed eyebrows lowered in confusion. "As long as what takes?"
She shrugged. "It."
Steed blinked his eyes a few times. "Either my home in now situated in Wonderland, or you've finally gone daft, old girl."
"It's probably a little of both, don't you think? Now, off to unpack and get some rest. Dinner will be at 6:00 p.m., sharp. I know you like to eat later but it's not good for the digestion. And all those restaurants you go to--you need some home cooked meals for awhile. Now, up you go." She pushed him towards the steps, which he dutifully ascended. As he reached the final step she called after him. "I don't suppose you still like cookies and milk after dinner, do you, John?"
Steed's full inhalation was evident, and the fall in his shoulders illustrated the slow exhalation that followed. "A brandy will suffice."
"Right. With or without the cookies?"
No real answer came down the stairs but the muffled sounds of "Mad as a Hatter," as Steed moved off to his bedroom.
Steed said nothing as he noticed Auntie Greta settle into his home with him. It struck him as an odd thing to do, but nonetheless she was his auntie and her will was impossible to sway. Besides, Steed did like spending time with her; she was chatty, but knew when to be quiet; friendly but never obsequious; pragmatic but avoided preaching; made pleasant conversation but rarely pried. She was, pure and simply, good company. And good company was very soothing to him. Steed had been a little optimistic regarding his injury, for a week after he was home, three weeks after he was shot, it still ached dreadfully and his left arm was very weak. He was assured by Ministry physicians that with a hard month's work, it would probably return to almost 100%, if not entirely so. He hated the work involved with recuperating. Auntie Greta was a help with her unflagging cheerfulness when his mood lowered into moping and frustration with his being injured again. If there was one thing about his life and his work that he had grow tired off, it was getting hurt. It happened much less frequently than it had when he was younger, when he thrived on accepting dangerous assignments that no one else would touch, for good reason, and he had scoffed at, and at times, welcomed, violent confrontations. Now he strove to avoid having situations elevate into violence, especially when his own self was at risk of experiencing it. Being injured destroyed his equanimity more completely than anything else. Therefore, when Auntie Greta swept into a room seeing him sunk into a chair, sulky and glum, and seemed to know just what to do and say to elevate his spirits, he was indeed glad she was around.
He began using low weights as soon as he could, resting his elbow on a table to take the strain off his healing collar bone, lifting and lowering his forearm slowly. He could do few sets at first, and it took all his gentlemanly resolve not to throw the weights with his good arm across the room in disgust. One day, after his afternoon session, Auntie Greta entered the living room, ordering him to "Move over," away from the side table his left arm was resting on. When he complied, she sat down next to him, rolled up his shirt sleeve as high as she could and began massaging his arm, "Just like I used to massage your legs at night when you were young and had those growing pains, remember?"
He had not thought about that in years, but Steed remembered.
"And look at the growing pains you have now," she said, wistfully, as she dug her hands into the muscles of his arm.
"What growing pains? Ouch!--a little softer with the kneading, please. It's not a lump of bread dough," Steed complained.
Auntie Greta continued as if she hadn't heard Steed's request, "What growing pains? Why, this empty house, of course."
Steed stared at her hands, as they seemed to actually enter his skin, disappearing into the depths of his arm. "What, pray tell is the connection between my manor house and childhood leg aches? I say, Auntie, just break the arm in one or two places, all right? Please don't crush the entire bone." He hoped his sincere grimace would add impetus to convince her to be more gentle.
Auntie Greta switched to rubbing the whole length of his arm from wrist to shoulder, stopping to knead his triceps and biceps, then repeating her technique. She did this a number of times, until Steed hoped his wouldn't chip his teeth by clenching them so hard. "I've got to break up the scar tissue from the bullet, John, and get the blood moving."
"Did you get your massage training in a class taught by an enraged gorilla? I think that's enough for today," Steed pulled his arm back suddenly, out of Greta's reach, hiding it and cradling it with his right one. "Thank you very much. Your services shall not--"
Steed stopped talking as he moved his arm slowly back and forth. "You know it is a little less stiff after that Dance of the Barbarian Raid you just played on it "
"Of course it's less stiff." Auntie Greta grabbed it back and then rolled down the sleeve, replacing the cuff link. She patted his arm and then stood up to leave.
"Auntie, you never answered my question," Steed said as put on his jacket, and replaced his left arm in its wide white sling.
"Which question was that?"
"What is the connection between my manor house, leg aches and growing pains?"
She shook her head back and forth, clucking in disapproval. "They're both the pain of moving from one stage of life to another, John. Sometimes you ask the most obvious questions." And with that she left the room.
Steed looked around his house. A subtle clarity of what she meant began to appear in his mind, so he got up and went for a ride on one of his mares. There he realized he no longer had leg aches, and had already bought his home, so there was no point analyzing the transition from one stage to another. Old stages were the past, and as Steed slowly walked his horse through his extensive lawn, he did what he always did with the past, what he did best in life; he let it go.
Auntie Greta came home from the grocery store two weeks later to find a tall, buxom redhead in her forties in the living room, drink in hand. Steed was still on medical leave of absence; his collarbone was healing nicely, and his left arm was making rapid gains, yet he was not able to pull a heavy chair back from a table with it. Yet, he felt well enough, apparently, Auntie Greta frowned, to apparently put in an active night on the town and then no doubt in bed. Greta was well aware of her nephew's reputation as a womanizer, and knew the reputation was well earned. This would not do at all.
She put the sacks down on a table and asked, "Who are you?"
The woman smiled, "Felicity Runford. You must be Auntie Greta. Steed told me to expect you."
"And where is my nephew?"
She raised her eyebrows and leaned forward conspiratorially. "He had an important phone call and went into his study."
"Oh, he used that line on you, eh?" Auntie Greta said, sitting down opposite the woman.
"The ''important phone call, top secret line'".
"But, he does work for the government. Somehow. Everyone knows that. Some sort of hush-hush V.I.P. fellow." She smiled, showing bright white teeth. "It's very intriguing. Very attractive."
"He's lying to you," Auntie Greta said point blank.
"What? Lying to me? About what?"
"He's in there talking to another woman he's seeing. She's in Paris right now. She calls everyday at this time. The third woman he's seeing is over visiting her brother in Ireland. She calls in the morning. He did that 'top secret' call to me a few days ago when the phone rang and he left the room. I lifted up the receiver and heard him talking to Suzanne. In French."
"He's seeing two other women besides me?"
"Yes, you're just the fill-in woman, my dear, I'm sorry to say, until one or the other of those two return. I imagine the whole relationship will be few nice dinners followed by a bit of sex and then you'll be out the door. I really dislike that aspect of John, he's such a cad at times, but he is too old to discipline. However, I thought it best to let you know what was going on before you became too involved. It's no use talking to him about it; he'll deny it vehemently. He really can be such a selfish scoundrel."
Shock, hurt, then anger appeared on her face as Felicity stood up. "Well, I never!" she said, collecting her things and leaving. Her car roared away and then silence descended on the house as Auntie Greta smiled, stood up and brought the sacks of food into the kitchen. Her heartbeat, racing all during her prevaricating with Felicity, soon settled down. Some minutes later Steed entered the room.
"Did you happen to see a lovely redhead sitting on a sofa as you came in?" he asked.
"Yes, I did, John," she answered as she put away the vegetables.
"Do you know where she went?"
"She left, rather in a huff, I should say."
"In a huff? Do you know why?"
Auntie Greta turned and looked at Steed. She shrugged her thin shoulders high. "I have no idea why. She seemed angry waiting for you and then said, 'Well, I never' and left."
"That's very strange behavior; I wasn't gone that long. I wonder if I should ring her up. I have tickets for two to the opera tonight."
"Well, sure, ring her up. See what happens. She seems to be a very difficult woman, though; she was quite rude to me. If she won't go, by the way, I will. I love the opera."
Steed frowned. "She was rude? She didn't seem like a rude woman to me. In fact, I met her at one of Sir Emory's charity bashes Tuesday night, which are always rife with concerned, caring, single women all of which Felicity seemed to be." He rubbed his chin with his hand. "Very strange behavior."
"Well, she may be concerned and caring, but she has the patience of an fly, apparently. Very bad personality trait for one of your dates, wouldn't you say?"
"I suppose so." He sighed heavily and then looked at his aunt and smiled. "Well, maybe you and I should go, then "
"I'd love to. I've got just the dress. Will you take me to dinner first? You've got reservations somewhere, don't you? You and your restaurants."
Again he drifted off into thought for a moment. "Yes, I have reservations. At a restaurant in Chelsea." Shaking himself out of his reverie, he slapped his thigh in resignation. "Well, that's it, then. It's you and me for the evening, Auntie. You'll be my date."
"Delighted, I'm sure," she replied, grinning widely.
He found her an hour later, bedecked in her fine blue dress and long double-strand of pearls, talking on the phone, her hand covering the mouthpiece.
"Yes, it worked fine. You would have loved it. Have confidence--" she said, before seeing Steed in the doorway, dressed immaculately in a dinner jacket, no longer needing a sling for his arm, though it hung and moved a bit stiffly. His lean body, broad shoulders, and thick brown hair brushed perfectly off his forehead accentuated his attractive masculine form.
"Good-bye, Daphne," Greta said quickly and loudly. "I'll get back to you soon." She hung up the phone and smiled. "You are a handsome man, nephew mine."
"And you are positively bewitching. Who was that?" Steed asked, as she came from the room, wrapping her left arm in his good right as they strolled to the entrance hallway.
"Who? Daphne? Oh, just a friend of mine, a young married woman from Cornwall who worries about her cooking skills. I fixed up one of her recipes and rang her to assure her it was quite edible."
"Was that the funny tasting casserole you made the other night?"
"No, that was one of my recipes, dear."
Steed's eyes widened briefly. "Of course, I said 'funny tasting' by mistake. I meant to say, uh, hmm "
"Honey tasting. Like nectar of the gods." He placed her wrap around her thin shoulders. Even in the mild spring evening weather, Greta's thin form easily became chilled.
"How kind of you to say so. It's one of my favorites. Now that I know you like it so much, I'll make it again next week."
"I'm perfectly willing to try other of your recipes as well. There's no need to repeat them so frequently." He opened the door and motioned her outside to his waiting Jaguar.
"I hope you lie better in your job, John," she said as she passed him. "Whatever it is."
"I do. Much better, Auntie."
They had a delightful evening.
Steed introduced another new woman to Auntie Greta four evenings later, Beth Somebody. Greta left them alone, but spied on them every so often; when Steed removed himself to the bathroom she knew this would be her only chance. She decided to enact Plan Two, as Steed was not on the phone. Greta sighed; her nephew probably had a black book the thickness of the twelve volume O.E.D. She wondered if she could make enough plans to chase all his women away, before he realized what she was doing or came to his senses about what woman he was meant to return to. She promised herself she would go to Church on Sunday to expiate her upcoming sins. She hoped the closest one would have a short service.
Hiding a long kitchen knife in her handbag, she entered the room. This would have to be fast. No dallying.
"Hello, Auntie Greta," the full-lipped, thin blond woman said, sitting demurely with her legs crossed in a chair.
Greta put her handbag down on the sofa and then lifted up the woman's, holding in her horror at her own action. She opened it up and scrambling about inside Beth's purse, found the women's driver permit and read it. "Ah-hah, that's your address," she said in her best imitation of what she thought a cackle would sound like.
The woman stood up. "I say, whatever do you think you're doing?"
Greta said curtly, "Shut up! I'll not let John ruin the good Steed name any longer!"
Beth held out her hand. "May I have my handbag back, please?"
Greta put the purse back into her handbag and threw it on the sofa. "Take it, you--" she thought of the worst word for a loose woman she could bring herself to say "--you evil nymphomaniac."
Beth's mouth dropped completely open. Her lips made several motions to speak before she was able to get out a word. "What?"
Greta knew she didn't have much time, so asking God for forgiveness she launched into a flurry of crazed language. "You think you can just come into my house and destroy its name by doing all sorts of disgusting things upstairs with my nephew? Well, let me tell you that if you ever spend more than one night here, I'll do unspeakable things to you as you sleep." She ripped a cushion off the sofa holding it out in front of her. "Suffocate you with a pillow, maybe, or maybe--," her eyes narrowed,"-- even worse. Or, if I couldn't do it then, I'll sneak into your house at 135 Mayview, Kensington, and--" here she put the cushion back in place and took the long knife out of her own handbag slashing it downwards, wondering exactly how hot it was in hell "do something very, very bad. If you ever mention this to John, you'll regret it, I swear to the demons in my head you'll regret it. I have a car; I can drive. They think I'm normal, but I've already killed a dog." Greta did not add that was her beloved aged labrador who had needed to be euthanized two years ago for terrible arthritis. Greta leaned forward looking as evil as she could, trying to mimic Scrooge in his office the day before he saw the various ghosts. "Do you understand?" Getting into the energy of the moment, Greta allowed her face to contort into a gruesome twitch a couple of times then stared over Beth's shoulder at something behind her. Greta pointed the knife at the empty space and hissed, "Get away from me, I'll bring you another victim soon." Beth instinctively turned around, her eyes wide; when she saw nothing she looked again at Greta as the old woman added, "I'm giving you just this one warning. Act normally tonight then go away forever, and you will be safe. One night, that's it."
Beth had gone as white as a sheet and before she could answer, they heard Steed approaching. Greta put her knife calmly in her handbag and strode to the doorway, saying in a completely normal voice, "How wonderful to have chatted with you, Beth. I'll try to visit you soon in Kensington, my dear." As Steed arrived at the room, she said, "Goodnight, John" and went to her bedroom, trembling a little from her act. What we do when the cause is just, she sighed, praying that her ruse had worked.
After that night together, Beth wouldn't accept another date with Steed. Steed rang her asking if she'd like to go on a drive into the country and frowned at Beth's curt statement that she wasn't interested in doing so; when he rang her again wondering if she'd like to spend the day riding around with him on his horses, he was frankly perturbed when she stammered she wasn't interested in seeing him ever again and "Please don't call me anymore."
"Dry spell, John?" Auntie Greta asked, as she sat knitting beside the phone Steed slowly hung up.
"I suppose so. I thought we had gotten on rather well." He drummed his fingers on the receiver.
"Well, I'll go riding with you."
Steed smiled at her. "Why not?"
"Just walking, mind you. My old bones aren't able to do anything else."
"It's all I can do now, too, Auntie, until this collar bone heals."
"Well, then," she said, putting aside her knitting, "shall we go?"
When they returned in the early evening, Steed turned on the lights all around them. He sat in a sofa, holding onto a brandy as Auntie Greta sat across from him with a cup of hot tea in her hand.
"That was a lovely ride, John."
"Yes," he sighed. "I find it very satisfying owning a home, out in the country, away from the bustle and rush of the city. I'm much more relaxed now."
Greta asked, "Or, have you just given up?"
Steed swallowed a sip of brandy and then looked up confused. "Given up? Whatever do you mean?"
Greta shrugged. "It was just a thought." She looked around the room from the far right to the far left, then behind her.
Steed asked, "What are you doing? What are you looking for?"
Greta turned back to him. "I'm wondering when you're going to fill up your satisfying home with things of worth."
Steed's eyes rose up to his hairline. "Things of worth?" He spread his hands wide. "Everything here is the finest. I spared no expense at decorating."
Greta finished drinking her tea, placing her cup on her saucer. "You can't kiss a chair, John, no matter how plush it is. I said things of worth. Permanent worth."
Steed was silent for a minute, staring at her, then said, stonily. "I've got all that I need."
Greta stood up. "Yes, if you've given up, I suppose you do. Excuse me whilst I get more tea."
They had a quiet evening after that, Steed choosing to spend his time talking with a visiting Purdey and Gambit discussing some cases, and then reading alone in his study. When he was sure Greta had retired to bed, which she did early, preferring early rising as well, he strode around his house, looking at all the rare wood furniture upholstered in the finest material, at all the expensive knick-knacks, at the silver cutlery, the gold-trimmed frames hanging the fine art he owned, the hand-made Persian rugs. He looked out a side window to his stables, which housed his lucrative purebred horses that he was making a name for breeding into sleek and fast animals. He couldn't see the beautifully landscaped lawn, stretching out for a couple of hundred yards. It was all gorgeous, all expensive, all things of worth. And while he couldn't kiss his belongings, he brought in women he could. It was all he needed. All he would need for the rest of his life. He didn't know what Greta had really meant, but he cringed inside as, suddenly, a noise penetrated the solitude of his large country manor surrounding him with the clinking of a chained and moaning ghost. He looked around but nothing was in the room aside from things he couldn't kiss.
Auntie Greta returned from a trip to London a few days later and met Steed outside in the afternoon, by his stables.
"Lovely May day, isn't it?" she said, smiling at him and kissing his right cheek.
"Yes. We've had wonderful weather all month."
"Always by your stables, aren't you?" she asked.
Steed answered, "Well, I'm breeding horses, now. Lots to do."
Greta stroked the side of the fine stallion Steed was rubbing down with his right arm. "Yes, lots to do. And besides the horses, you're entertaining beautiful women. One right after the other, apparently."
"Occasionally. Now and then. Not so successfully, nowadays," he murmured, smiling at her.
"Can't keep a steady one around, eh? Is your luck always this bad?"
Steed's eyes narrowed a little. "No, it's not always this bad."
"Yet you never hold onto any woman for very long, so the buzz around town goes."
Steed went around the other side of the horse, away from Greta, to brush the horse down there. "They tend, after awhile, to expect more than I can give. My life doesn't really enable me to focus on them in a steady way."
Greta asked, pulling a carrot from her pocket to feed to the animal. "Your life, or your heart?"
Steed frowned, "Now, look here, Auntie--"
Greta held up a finger. "If you mean to chastise me, John, for asking such personal questions, I should like you to remember that I am eighteen years older than you and I expect you to treat me as such."
Steed answered sharply. "That's fine and I would never be rude to a woman no matter what her age, but--"
Auntie Greta interrupted him. "--I just fail to understand your whole attitude regarding women. Seeing one right after the other when one is in one's twenties is expected, but when you're fifty-one years old? What you plan to do when you're fifty-five or sixty? Still pick up women at any party or charity bash you go to? Can you find nothing more meaningful to do with your need for companionship? Doesn't the idea of finding and staying with one woman, a woman you love, make much more sense?"
Steed did not speak for a few seconds. "I appreciate your age and the respect due to you as a result of it, but it may be a revelation to you that I am a fully independent adult myself, not an eight year boy seeking direction and advice. I do not need to receive constant comments on how you think I should live my life."
Auntie Greta went on, "Do you remember that horrible accident you had with your cousin Lewis--that irresponsible idiot--when you were eight? How he convinced you to roller skate tied behind his car and you wound up being dragged God knows how far? Remember how badly you were hurt? Your broken knee and all that torn skin? How you cried and cried saying how much it hurt?
Steed grew exasperated. "For goodness sake, I was just a child, then. What has that to do with anything?"
Greta paused before speaking. "I think, in some ways, it would have been better if you had kept a part of you that eight year old boy. Letting yourself and others know when you are in pain."
A long pause. A gravelly voice. "Well, I didn't."
Greta smiled. "True. What Englishman does? And you, dear nephew, are the most English man in England, aren't you? I suppose all these trappings of a landed squire you wear hide your pain, doesn't it? That's why you cover yourself so fully in it. I just wonder that all of it isn't suffocating you."
Steed turned from the horse. "This conversation is useless. I'll see you back at the house."
Greta grabbed hold of his right arm as he passed her. "I'm sorry for disturbing you. I just wonder why such questions disturb you."
Steed gently removed her hand from his arm and then said a bit curtly, "Look, I'm not in the mood--In fact, I'm never in the mood for this."
"Shall I change the subject?"
"Change it to whatever you want. I'm going for a walk."
As he stamped off, Greta yelled after him, "I thought you said you were never rude to women."
He returned to the house three hours later, as Greta was setting the table for dinner. The delicious aroma of roasted chicken permeated the kitchen and dining room.
"That was some walk," she commented.
"Just enjoying the lovely spring day."
When they were eating Greta casually said, "Do you know who I met in town at an art gallery on Stratford Avenue? Emma Knight. I haven't seen her in years. Bumped into each other near a watercolor of the Alps."
Steed's fork stopped midway to his mouth, as his whole body froze. A couple of seconds later his body began working normally. "Oh?"
"Yes. With that slim body and a shorter haircut she's still a sight to see."
"Did you buy anything at the gallery?"
Greta ignored his inquiry. "She asked about you. How you were doing. She'd heard you'd been shot. Did you know that you're a regular part of societal gossiping? I told her you were on the mend."
"She mentioned you rang her up after the newspaper story of her and Peter's divorce. What was that, about five weeks ago?"
"There was a similarity in a French incident to a mystery that occurred in Berkshire when Mrs. Peel and I were partners."
"So, you just decided to call her up about it? Like you called her up when another one of those robot thingies attacked you, I assume?"
"I never called her then."
"Oh, but that Berkshire case you shared was different, somehow. I see. Unless it was just the timing of the case that was different coming a few weeks after a certain newspaper article."
There was silent eating for a few minutes. "You were a wonderful couple, back then," Greta sighed.
Steed stood up abruptly. "And 'back then' is where that will all stay. Very tasty chicken, Auntie. Thank you." He left the table.
"Emma, my dear, this will be more difficult than we thought," Greta muttered.
In his study after his abrupt words to his aunt, with the door closed behind him and a whiskey poured and waiting for him on his large cherrywood desk, Steed lifted the dumbbell up and down slowly. He was using a twenty pound weight now and was pleased that his arm, after six weeks, was doing so much better. He no longer had to rest it on a table to do his exercises. He would be able to remove the awful collar bone brace in two more weeks, he had been told, and at his last doctor's visit two days ago, his left arm strength had tested out to 70% of his right. He had even gotten used to the daily brutal massages his aunt inflicted on his arm, which his physical therapist said was an excellent addition to the stretching and exercises.
He felt a little sweat bead on his brow as he reached the end of his third set of fifteen biceps lifts and his arm shook a little from the last effort needed. When he was done, Steed downed the whiskey as a reward for dealing with the boredom of the repetitive motions, and then did three sets with the weights lifting his arm out straight behind him and then lowering it as he focused on his triceps, keeping his form perfect to not aggravate his shoulder.
When he was done, he wiped his forehead with his handkerchief, refilled his whiskey glass, put back on his blue jacket, and sat down in his black leather reclining chair. He was annoyed with his auntie lately, with her seemingly endless cryptic statements of which even Steed, although not normally an introspective man, was able to perceive the meaning. Between those tense conversations, his sneaky belief she was deliberately chasing away his women friends somehow--for whatever reason she felt compelled to do so--and the fact that he now had the use of both arms, Steed was of the mind to ask her to leave his home, and just let him and his life be left alone peacefully. Although she had been good company at first, she was now becoming something of a irritant.
Greta would never understand him. A sweet, feisty woman from a boisterous family of eccentrics, with three sisters she was close to and a husband she had adored and who had adored her until his sudden death eight years ago of a stroke. Her only son lived in South Africa with his Afrikaner wife; they were close, but did not see each other frequently. Greta was an artesian well of joy, watering all those around her from an endless supply of gaiety and enchanting quirkiness. She had even done it with him, all those long years ago, almost twenty years ago, when he recuperated at her cottage after his return from Nee San, and her bubbly presence, her infinite patience, her level-headed acceptance enabled him to shake off the trauma of his years incarcerated in that abysmal prison. Let alone how they had thrived on each other's presence when he had been a young boy, especially before her late marriage.
He owed her for all that. A great deal. A debt that no amount of "thank you's" could repay. But, she had never needed him to say "Thank You."
Steed drank down the rest of his whiskey. He was tempted to have a third, but allowed the temptation to fade away unheeded. He very rarely drank over the limit of acceptable behavior now. Two whiskeys, when alone in a room, was enough.
It was almost the beginning of June, and although it was near 7:30 p.m., it was still very light outside. Steed went for a walk around his grounds. He was soothed by the beauty of the rows of hedges and bushes, by the oak, willow and beech trees, by the healthy grass, by the flowers selfishly bursting out their color to attract the bees, by the fact that he owned it all. The flowers--yes, they were selfish, but also selfless as well. For their red, yellow, white, pink colors enhanced the lives of all who saw them: sometimes it was possible to be selfish and selfless at the same time. Steed imagined that his relationships with women fit that description--he used them to relieve his libido, but strove to ensure they enjoyed their time together equally so. Selfish and selfless. Maybe that was why he still liked putting a carnation in his lapel hole; a desire to acknowledge a kindred trait.
The air was sweet with the spring blossoms and the sky was cloudless. It was quiet in his back lawn as he randomly strolled here and there, stopping to sniff a rose, or pat a tree trunk. For a moment, he engaged in the futile wish that things would never change, that he could imprint himself and his land in a picture for all eternity, with him eternally content, eternally healthy, eternally satisfied, and eternally changeless.
Steed closed his eyes and allowed the tiny breeze to caress his face; it was like the touch of a fine-boned woman. He opened his eyes and saw the truth of the nature that surrounded him; the leaves would eventually die and drop off, the flowers would wilt things would change.
Steed sighed. He hated change. Change had never come easily to him, had never been welcomed by him. Usually it had thrust itself into his life with the impact of a tidal wave, with the roar of a tornado; rarely had it been the subtle transformation of one season into the next. The War, being betrayed then captured by the Chinese, being betrayed then shot in Berlin, being left for another--all had changed his life and him and none of it had happened of his own intent, none of it had been good. All of it had been painful. Some changes could start out wonderful and then turn very, very bad; they were the worst of all. Now, he finally had arranged his life to control all the factors of change, he finally had control of himself, he could keep things just as they were. He had young partners at the Ministry to do the more energetic dirty work, and allow him to cruise smoothly through most investigations, his risk of injury, of death, still present--as he arm attested to--but much less. He no longer slunk around alleys; he no longer went over the wall; he no longer received unsavory assignments to do unsavory things. He was in control of the cases he took and directed. He had changing women,true, but always in the same essential way, a door opening, some good times, a door clicking shut. Predictable. The same. No real change. No real pain.
He didn't trust change.
It was a good life--he was healthy, wealthy, respected, and liked by innumerable people. He had his horses, his restaurants, his women; he traveled, he rode a lot, still played polo, still bowled at cricket. He socialized a great deal. He had learned how to relax when not working and spend time quietly at home. He had immense experience, was an excellent agent, and had some little wisdom about life. He knew himself as deeply as he felt it was important and vital to probe. He had never written them down, as he was not that sort of fellow, but he ran around five rules in his head that he used as guidelines to live by: Always act like a gentleman; Don't carry a gun; Avoid violence as much as possible; Respect silence / keep secrets; and Let the past go. Those sentiments were his Bible, his rallying cry, his core around which he viewed people and the world and make his choices in life.
They kept him stable; they kept him civilized; they kept him from falling backwards to a past person he did not wish to return to; they kept him the most trusted agent in the country; they kept him from changing anymore. He refused to change anymore. He had fought hard to attain the life he now had; it was where he destined to stay for the rest of his time on Earth. He had learned, after fifty-one years, to never welcome the past back into his life and to be very wary of it. To avoid it. No matter what it was, who it was. It was the past; it was let go. Things were fine now; he wanted things to stay the same. There was just, now, this beautiful home of his, his fulfilling career, his award-winning horses, his delectable women friends, his health, and the expensive luxuries that his money afforded him. It was good. It was enough. It made him content. He would do all he could to make sure it never changed.
Calling Mrs. Peel had been a mistake, and exactly why he had done it he still didn't know. It had seemed a gentlemanly thing to do, to pay his respects, and, for a moment, rekindle the memory of their time together via the connection to the recent Berkshire death. He had not meant it to be anything more than it was, a brief hello, and had her obviously pleasure at his call and her line "happy, fond memories" had taken him by surprise. He was glad to know she remembered him and their time together in that way, as did he. She had been one of the few good discoveries in his life. But, like so much of his life, suddenly, a hated headline had come crashing in the door--a man from her past had ripped them apart, ripped him apart--and he had moved on, to this house, to this life, firmly closing that door behind him, letting those years with Mrs. Peel go. It was the only way to survive, and Steed had shown the world he was a consummate survivor. And a survivor needs rules, needs structure, needs to let the past go and face the world squarely, day by day. Yet, as Steed stood straight in his resolve, he pictured Mrs. Peel, slim and with a shorter haircut, her cheekbones, her smile. She had been a rare fine colleague, a rare fine lover, a rare fine friend. Of all that he had let go in life, Steed mourned the doing so of her the most.
Steed wandered back inside, and went into the billiards room. Removing his jacket, he racked the balls, and then chalked his cue. Greta walked in as he leaned over the table preparing for the breaking shot.
"Are you still mad at me, John? If so, I'll have you remember how quickly I forgave you after you threw a croquet ball into my car window, smashing it to pieces."
Steed had not thought about that in years, either, but he remembered it. How old had he been? Eleven? He smacked the white ball expertly and it dove into the ten balls aligned in a triangle at the other end of the table; one went into a hole and the others spread out across the table in a professional pattern.
"I didn't do that," he said. "My friend Eddie Taylor-Todd did. He had decided delinquent qualities. I took the blame for him, though."
"Really? I never knew that. Why?"
"He was my friend. It didn't seem right for you to swat his behind."
Another archaic memory popped into Steed's head. "And, I wasn't responsible for eating your entire pecan pie that one time, either, for which you swatted my behind and then made me stay in my bedroom the entire next day. That was Jeffrey." One of his three brothers.
"But, you took the blame for that, too."
Steed eyed the balls choosing the best shot, then leaned over the table with his cue in position to hit the ball. "He asked me to. He was going to that musical retreat in Devon and didn't want to miss it by having to sit in his room." Steed glanced up over the table at her and grinned. "Your punishments were well known."
"Well, you were a noble child. All that reading about knights and chivalry, no doubt."
"However, I was the one who ruined your oil painting of Lake Derwater by adding those patriotic streaks of red, white and blue. I think I was about nine, then."
"That was you? No one ever admitted to it."
Steed knocked in another ball. "Yup. Me."
Greta became noticeably agitated. "That was a wonderful picture before you destroyed it with your thoughtless doodling. Why, I should, I should--"
Steed stood up to his full height, six feet one inches tall, broad shouldered, lean, with a latent strength that even his three piece suits and charming demeanor couldn't fully hide. He looked at her, a tiny smile lifting up the sides of his mouth. "--swat me on the behind?" he asked, evenly.
"Yes, swat you on the behind, you insensitive brat!"
Steed leaned over the table again cue in hand. "Sorry, auntie, I now reserve that right for women just a little younger than you."
She glared at him. The silence was deafening. Steed tried to ignore her for a shot or two, but his eyes kept flickering her way, amused at her ire over something that occurred forty years ago. She stood stock still with her arms crossed tightly and her face carved in disapproval, like a statue of a humourless dictator. Little by little her rigid stance began affecting his concentration, and when Steed missed a shot that he should easily have put away, he stood up, sighed and said, "Alright, alright. I'm sorry for ruining your picture."
Auntie Greta immediately brightened into her usual electric self. Her arms fluttering about she said, "Oh, don't worry about it. It was just a silly little painting. But, thank you for apologizing. Do go back to your game. Perhaps afterwards we'll play some backgammon."
He thought about bringing up asking her to leave, but it didn't seem the right moment to do so, when they were getting along so well. "Backgammon would be fine," he said, redirecting his attention to the table.
They played for a couple of hours, Auntie Greta getting better rolls of the dice, but Steed playing with more cunning--they won fairly equally. When they finally put the board away they wandered out into the back lawn to look at the stars, Greta covered in a light jacket.
Greta watched her nephew studying the cosmos. "You always loved the night sky, John. Why is that?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. It's beautiful, I suppose." Then, uncharacteristically, he added, "I remember, as a boy, thinking when I stared out my bedroom window at the sky when the rest of the house was asleep that although one day had ended, a new, fresh one was just around the corner." He smiled at his aunt. "Bringing new, fresh fun I couldn't wait to experience."
"Is that what you still think?" she asked, softly.
His head shook slowly back and forth. "No. But, it's still very beautiful; that never changed."
Aunt Greta followed his eyes up into the sky. "No, that never changed," she repeated. "But, so much else does. For all of us. Some good, some bad. I suppose what we all have to learn in life is to welcome the good changes and come to peace with the undesired bad ones, and learn to separate the two."
Steed looked at her; he saw the love she felt for him radiating out of her moist blue eyes. Some little chink appeared in a wall deep inside him and he found himself asking, "And if there hasn't ever been any lasting good changes?"
Aunt Greta answered, "Then it's damn well time there was one."
Steed shook his head again. "No. Nothing is guaranteed to work out well. It's best in life to welcome no changes."
"Seems like welcoming no changes is a great slogan for death."
He had come this far, he would allow just a little more. "Auntie, you don't know. You can't know."
She put her arm on his shoulder. "Then tell me."
Respect silence, keep secrets. The chink was rapidly repaired; the wall was ten feet think again. Steed said nothing, just kissed her forehead and walked away. Greta looked up at the constellations expanding throughout the front of the universe. John was wrong about many things, she knew, but he was right that the night sky was beautiful.
Steed brought home a black-haired Latin beauty from a party he went to in London two days later, and, full of suspicions, he instructed her to ignore anything...odd his aunt might tell her if they had a private moment together. It was just getting onto 10:00 p.m. when they arrived at Steed's manor house, and Auntie Greta was still up. Introductions were made, and then Steed and Carmela sat down with drinks in hand to chat. Just to prove his suspicions, after twenty minutes, Steed excused himself to go to the bathroom, although just waited around the corner out of sight. Frowning, he heard his aunt enter the living room area where Carmela was, and as he came around the corner after her he was aghast to see her rifling through Carmela's handbag, as Carmela stood hands on hips in surprised vexation.
"Auntie Greta, what on earth are you doing? Give Carmela back her handbag," he ordered.
His aunt turned a shade of white, yet drawing herself up, she did as told in a stately manner.
Steed clenched his jaw for a second and then said, in a low, steady voice, "Auntie, would you mind having a little talk with me?" It was by no means a question. "Carmela, please excuse my aunt and me for a few minutes." Steed waved his hand towards the entranceway. "After you, my dear."
Greta, her lips pinched, his back and neck straight and firm, left the room. Steed, a quick smile and evident leer offered to the affronted Carmela, whispered, "I'll make it up to you later," and then followed his aunt from the room.
She had gone to his study and stood waiting for him to join her. He entered the room, closing the door behind them. They stood looking at each other for a few seconds.
Steed spoke first. "I don't know what this is all about, but I am not amenable to it continuing. What you could possibly have against my dating women I have no idea, but it stops now."
Greta knew she was going to be asked to leave and decided to stop dodging around the whole point to her visit and Steed's life. "Well, then, you aren't as smart as I thought you were," she replied, stiffly. "There's only one woman you should have in your life. Emma Knight."
Steed's face set into a blankness, only his lowered brows and steely eyes proving his irritation. A few seconds of heavy silence settled in the air like the menacing odor of ozone presaging an approaching thunderstorm.
Steed finally spoke. "Since my arm is nearing a full return to health, I think it's time I thank you for your pleasant company, excellent meals, and helpful massages, and ask you to leave. Tomorrow." His tone left no possibility of discussion.
"Fine, I'll leave," Greta answered, raising her finger to him, "but you need to think about how you are wasting your life on worthless women who--"
"Right, then. Good-night," Steed interrupted, as he turned and left the room.
"You you intractable fool," she muttered under her breath, to the empty room.
Steed indeed made it up later that night to Carmela to her repeated satisfaction. The next day, early in the morning, Steed awoke from his Tapestry dream, wondering briefly what made up that center part. Knowing Greta's early rising tendencies, he rolled out of bed and put on a pair of trousers and a shirt. Going downstairs, he found Greta washing up the dishes of her breakfast of toast and one soft boiled egg. He helped her with her luggage, putting it into the boot of her car. They were civil and friendly to each other. She pecked him on the cheek, Steed kissed her forehead and then, shaking her head back and forth at him, patting his chest a few times, she got into her Volvo and drove off.
Back in his bedroom, he found Carmela still asleep. Her straight black hair that reached her shoulder blades, sharp, dark features, and long, curved form under the covers seemed sensually snake-like to him. When she opened her eyes, stretched out gracefully, languidly, and spotted Steed standing over her smiling, she reached out her hand for Steed to take, inviting him back into bed. He did not dally.
He and Carmela saw each other regularly in the usual way Steed entertained women: their time was filled with opera, country drives, riding, gourmet dinners, theatre shows, parties, and after hour activities. His arm completely healed, he began playing cricket and polo, cutting a dashing figure particularly in his polo trousers and shirt. Steed and Carmela kept pleasant company, neither one demanding or desiring much unnecessary talk, and her dark sultry looks well complimented his tall, English elegant and sophisticated bearing. Steed hoped that maybe for awhile things would last with Carmela, now that Auntie Greta and her nefarious influences were out of his life. She seemed to like him as much as he liked her, and her private, late-night way of thanking him for a new sapphire necklace or ruby brooch clearly gave him the sort of positive feedback which would have induced any man to maintain his generosity. It was certainly better than being alone. If he could just ignore that she did not have much of a sense of humor, and was completely unable to indulge in playful banter with him. And that she had never really done anything impressive or accomplished with her life, had never gained much of an education, had few hobbies and none she had practiced into expertise. Carmela had merely lived a life of wandering luxury receiving a generous allowance from her wealthy father in Portugal. He was happy that so far their enjoyment of each other's company over-ran his judgements of her.
It was early July when Steed received a call one morning from Hugh Briggs, the Director of Foreign Operations at the Ministry, asking him to come to the Ministry's secret office building for a special meeting. He called Carmela, telling her that unfortunately their trip to the Lake District would have to be postponed. She handled it well, to his relief, though he had not had to cancel too many dates yet with her in their time together.
He arrived at the Ministry in a three piece blue suit, wearing a matching bowler and swinging a matching umbrella, even though the above average warmth of the summer was heating up England. He walked into the Director's office and was greeted by him and Todd Penn, the Ministry's specialist on Arabian Affairs, of which Steed himself was considered an expert.
"Steed, thanks for coming. We've got a bit of a favor to ask you," Briggs began, when the three men were comfortably seated in an informal circle of leather chairs.
"Oh? What's going on?" Steed asked.
Briggs nodded to Penn to take over and the thin younger man, bespectacled, with thinning black hair smiled and turned to Steed to speak.
"We've been getting some disturbing tidbits of information from the Iranian spy you planted in Baghdad in the early sixties, Darius Mahdi. The archaeologist, remember?"
"Well, he still sends over information on an irregular basis, and his latest letters detail a growing situation in Iraq we feel is very important to look into. There seems to be a rogue Colonel in the south stirring up Pan-Arabian ideas and also trying to destabilize the government. If this fellow, and we don't yet know his name, comes to power and extends his influence into the governments of other countries, we could lose the Arabian allies we have in that region. The Soviets seems to be waiting and watching, wanting to hedge their bets on whether to support the government or re-align themselves to this Colonel chap. We need more information from Darius, but he's loathe to send too much through our couriers. Apparently, there is more suspicion among the Iraqis of spies in their midst. He wants someone to come over to him and specifically named you. He still trusts you a great deal."
"Can't you tell him that I no longer personally run agents? I turned him over to you fellows years ago."
"Yes, and we've had a good relationship with him, but, he doesn't know any of us personally, like he met and was charmed by you. I think you are the only one he'll trust and we need to know this information."
Steed frowned. This was not the sort of assignment he wanted at all. He knew he could turn it down, but he felt some lingering responsibility to Darius, an archaeologist in Iran he had met and convinced to spy for England when he was given a professorship at Baghdad University. Besides, he realized that if some truly destabilizing influence was blossoming in Iraq, that was vital information for both Britain and the U.S. to uncover.
"What would be my cover? How long would I be gone?"
"Well, in terms of cover, that has worked out very well to our advantage. Darius' department at his University is generously funded by a private foundation trust in Leeds, and has uncovered a Mesopotamian temple by Karbala. As a result, your friend, Adam Willis, an archaeologist at Oxford who is associated with the foundation is going over to supervise the work there for a month or so, to see that everything is organized correctly and within budget. We'll use one of your aliases, Joshua Casement, and make you an administrator of the Leeds trust fund, checking on the use of monies donated. Darius has arranged to work on that site himself. You'll talk with him and return home. We'd like you to leave in three days. What do you say?"
"Has Adam been briefed on this?"
"Yes, and although he's not too happy with the idea, he understands the necessity and is willing to go along, as long as he isn't dragged into any subterfuge himself."
Adam had been in military intelligence with Steed during the war, but as soon as that terrible conflict had ended, he had gone back to University and gotten a doctorate in archaeology specializing in ancient cities in Arabian countries. Steed meanwhile, had gone wondering around several Arabian countries for several years, learning the language like a native. No one knew exactly what Steed had done during those years, but he had come back with some money, the yearly income of three Saudi Arabian oil wells, and an intimate knowledge of all aspects of Arabian culture. Although he didn't parade it around, Steed was still fluent in Arabian, as well as many other languages. He had been used, here and there, as a man to send into Egypt, Beirut, Iran, during the years when he had worked mainly as an overseas agent. Steed had not kept in contact much with Adam Willis, as Adam had married, had children and settled down, but he remembered Adam's courage and friendship during the war, and did not worry about using Adam as his partner in this affair.
"What's the risk of danger?" That was a question that Steed had only begun asking as he had aged, since in his mid-forties, when running headlong into danger, excited for the chance of action, and laughing at violence had lost its allure.
"Very low. You'll fly in, meet with Darius at the temple site, and as you wonder around looking at relics, he'll tell you what we need to learn. Then you'll fly home. You'll be there for just one day."
It seemed very safe to Steed and he knew it was very important to the country to get a full analysis of the current situation in Iraq. It would be very hot there, in July, and dry, but there was a certain beauty about the desert that Steed found impressive and attractive. He had to admit he wasn't too keen on the food or alcohol, aside from the medjool dates, but if he was only there for a day, even he wouldn't miss English stout or lamp chops.
"All right, I'll go," Steed said. The three men stood up.
"Good," Briggs said. "Now, it's off to archaeology class for you. You should be able to hold your own at least in the basics of ancient Mesopotamian temple construction and worship."
Steed sighed. There were decided times he wished he had chosen another line of work.
Steed spent two days being privately taught about Mesopotamia by Adam Willis, half the time actually listening and taking doodle-filled notes, and half the time drifting off thinking of Carmela, what new piece of jewelry he might buy her, and how she might reward him for the purchase. However, as much as Steed tried to hide it under a disarming personality honed to listen more to others than exhibit his own expertise and knowledge, he was quite intelligent and unusually shrewd. He grasped new information exceedingly quickly, assimilating even arcane knowledge easily, had a marvelous memory attuned to dates and names, and to complete his mental gifts was able to take hard facts and figures and extrapolate from them people's actions and even their personal beliefs. So, even though he paid attention only half the time, Steed still left his crash course understanding the different dynasties of Mesopotamian rule, the various temple duties, the lay-out of a typical temple, and what they should expect to uncover at this new site. It was enough for all of them to feel he could wander around a dig and maintain his cover without difficulty.
Steed informed Carmela he was travelling on business for, he hoped, just a couple of days. He told her she had free access to the horses and his grounds, and that his stable lad would help her if she wanted to ride when he was gone. He gave her a lovely gold bracelet, and she gave him a thank you that left him breathless.
Carmela was lounging on his sofa the next afternoon like a hungry lioness eyeing long-sought prey, when Steed came downstairs with a packed suitcase; when she sensually licked her lips, it was all he could do to not risk Purdey and Gambit finding him in a state of inflagrante delicto right there in his living room. Luckily they arrived at that moment in a Ministry car to take him and Adam to Gatwick and with a light peck that Carmela turned into a crushing embrace, he was out the door just in time to prevent an erection from occurring. He was dressed in a white linen suit, with light blue shirt and white tie, and fancy straw hat. Purdey made a very flattering comment on him and his attire, and wished she was going to Iraq with him. Although she greatly respected his experience and capabilities, she was also quite protective of him in a way that flattered and pleased him. Gambit drove them to Adam's house and when Adam didn't appear right away upon the arrival of the car, Gambit made to honk the car horn.
"That's not necessary. I'll go and get him," Steed said, wishing to avoid the rudeness of a car horn summons of Adam. Steed got out of the car and walked up the nicely hedged walk of Adam's home in Hampshire. It was a much smaller home than Steed's, Adam only having the salary of an archaeology professorship for his sole income, but it was quaint and cheery. The lawn was lushly covered by all manners of plants from roses and carnations to lavender bushes and rhododendrons. Steed knocked on the front door, and it was opened by a black-haired boy around eight years old, with wide brown eyes that seemed to take up half his face. It was Saturday, not a school day, which was why the lad was home.
"Hello," Steed smiled. "Is your father in?"
"Are you Mr. Steed?"
"Yes, I am."
"Daddy said to let you in. He's saying good-bye to mummy."
Steed wandered in, the boy closing the door behind him. The boy pointed down the hallway then ran upstairs. Steed came to a study at the end of the house, and found Adam and his wife Elaine in a firm embrace, kissing tenderly. Steed, ever the gentleman, stood around the corner, allowing the couple their last moments of intimacy for a month.
"Take care of yourself over there," he heard Elaine say.
"I will. And you and the children take care here."
"We will. I love you. I can't wait to see you again."
"I love you, too, my dear. It's just one month. The days will fly by."
"The days shall creep, but I'll bear your absence as best as possible."
It was lovely, their exchange, and Steed was romantic enough to appreciate the depth of love the two felt for each other, even after fifteen years of marriage. He had often told women that his only marriage had been to his job, his profession, and it was true. Sometimes--when he foiled the plans of some scientist or criminal who would have wreaked havoc with the safety of the country and its citizens--it seemed to him the highest and best marriage he could ever have committed to. At rare other times, like now, listening to that good-bye, a certain little tightness in his gut for a moment crushed his confidence in having made the right choice...
There was a pause in their conversation, and with a plane to catch, even though Steed knew they were kissing again, Steed "ahem"ed a little loudly and entered the room as if he had just come upon them.
"Oh, pardon me, Adam, Elaine," Steed said, as the Willises broke apart. "Your son let me in."
Adam smiled. "That's little Steven. Chloe and Francis are upstairs, rather solemn due to my departure."
They were still entwined in each other's arms. Steed smiled, "We should be going, Adam. We do have a plane to catch."
Adam pulled apart from his wife. "Oh, indeed. I'm terribly sorry old boy. Haven't ever spent this much time apart from the family, you see. I guess it's easy for you, to fly anywhere for any length of time, without a wife and children to miss, or to miss you."
Steed didn't answer. Suddenly, for some reason, his time together with Carmela last night seemed somehow cheapened. Yet, business was business, and they had to leave.
"Where's your luggage?" he asked Adam.
"In the living room." Adam gave his wife one more peck on the lips. "Got to go, love. I'll call regularly."
The kids were called and came downstairs, one by one being kissed by their father, ten year old Chloe and eleven year old Francis dejected and Steven continually asking his father to bring him back something from ancient MessyPotta. When Steed and Adam were finally ensconced in the sedan, after what seemed a cacophony of endless good-byes from everyone to everyone, Steed made a mental note that if he ever traveled with Adam again, that they next time he arrived at Adam's house, he'd let Gambit honk the car horn.
Iraq in ancient times was called Mesopotamia, "the land between the two rivers," the Tigris and the Euphrates. It was known as the Cradle of Civilization, for it was there in about 4000 BC that the inventive Sumerian culture thrived. Land was first cultivated for crops, early calendars marking the passing of the year were used, and the first written alphabet originated there. After the collapse of Sumerian rule, the land was known as Babylonia, eventually becoming the most famous and wonderful city of the ancient world.
After the death of Babylon's king Nebuchadnezzer, the land was invaded many times, including by Cyrus the Great and Alexander the Great. It came under Persian rule in the second century BC and stayed under that Empire until it was captured by Muslims in the 7th century AD, when the capitol of the country was moved to Baghdad. Mongol invaders next caused havoc in the country in 1258, and after many wars over supremacy, the Turkish people conquered the land and ruled without invasion from the 17th century until the 19th.
During the first World War, Turkey allied itself with Germany; when British forces invaded Mesopotamia in 1917, Turkish rule collapsed and the British took over with a British Mandate. It became a kingdom in 1921, though full independence from Britain was not achieved until 1932, when Iraq was formally conferred the status of an independent state by the League of Nations. Iraq remained strongly pro-British during the early years of WW II, although a military conflict between Britain and Iraq occurred in 1941, when a new pro-British government was installed. In 1958 an uprising occurred against the King and he was killed; the country was proclaimed a republic after that. Since then, up until 1973, when Steed was visiting, leaders had changed often due to constant military coupes which fractured the country's political stability. Clearly, though, the general stance of Iraq was one of growing hostility towards the West. The more Steed thought about Iraq's turbulent past in general, and particularly so in the 20th century, with its frequent changes in leadership, he had to agree it made good sense to have him visit a contact living in Iraq to record his personal analysis of the situation.
The British Air flight from London Heathrow direct to Baghdad that Friday afternoon was uneventful. Adam stated that if traveling with Steed meant flying in first class all the time, he'd be amenable to working again with him. The check through customs went well, Steed's fake passport and papers all in immaculate order. Steed was surprised when instead of being met by Darius at the airport, they saw another, strange man holding up a sign saying "Willis/Casement." They went to him.
"Salam," the man said in Arabic. "My name is Ali Tikriti, and I am here to pick you up as a favor for Darius Mahdi."
"Salam," Steed answered back. "I'm Joshua Casement, and this is Dr. Adam Willis. Is something the matter with Darius?"
"No, not with Darius, but with his wife who is with child. She had to be rushed to the hospital five hours ago because of some severe intestinal complaint. He called me up and asked me to take care of you until his wife is better. Let us get your luggage, and then I will take you to your hotel for tonight. Tomorrow, we will go to Karbala."
Steed did not like this. He didn't know Ali Tikriti, and who he didn't know he instinctively didn't trust. He decided to allow Ali to run the show and in that way he could study the man and get a feel for him.
"Are you an archaeologist, too, Mr. Tikriti?" Adam asked.
"Yes, I am. I work with Darius. We are very excited to begin uncovering this new temple. It's an exhilarating time to be an archaeologist in Iraq now, Mr. Willis."
"Indeed. What volumes of history lay hidden in the sands of your country, Mr. Tikriti."
The two dove into a discussion of the sites under current excavation, and of the anticipated findings in the new temple in Karbala. Steed kept to the background, allowing the two experts to discuss their specialty. Ali was a thin man of medium height, with short black hair, thin lips and eyes set too close together, as if he was born to hunt prey. He was dressed in loose pajama trousers and a cotton tunic; his army boots were incongruent with his native outfit. He was unusually reserved in his body movements, walking and speaking stiffly, as if he was a machine that needed to be lubricated to operate with smooth, normal motion.
Steed rented a Range Rover and followed Ali to the Marriot Hotel in Baghdad, where they were staying. Once in their comfortable and well-appointed individual rooms, Steed did a quick check for bugs and recording devices. He found none. He and Adam met Ali downstairs for dinner in the restaurant that was replete with Western meals and even alcohol on its large and expansive menu. Discussions were limited to the archaeological finds in Iraq and England. After coffees, as it was quite late, the two Englishmen decided to go to bed. Before he returned to his apartment, Ali gave them instructions to get to Karbala and hoped he'd see them there as soon as possible; it really was a remarkable discovery, he stated for the umpteenth time.
The next morning Steed called Darius' home. The phone was answered by his eldest son, who gave Steed the phone number of the hospital where his mother was ill and his father was visiting. Steed rang that number and reached Darius.
"Salam," Darius said.
"Darius, Salam," Steed answered in Arabic. "It's me, Joshua Casement from England." Darius and Adam had both been instructed of Steed's cover name. "I'm sorry to hear that your wife is ill." He did not add that it was a great inconvenience to him, as it certainly meant he'd have to stay longer in Iraq.
"Yes, it is a dysentery, they think, although certain symptoms confuse them. We are very anxious, as she is very sick and is only three months pregnant and has miscarried our last two pregnancies."
"But, I know you made a special trip here to talk to me about archaeology and I am sure that in a day or two we will be able to meet. Is it rude of me to ask you wait until her condition is better? I do not want to leave her alone in the meantime. She wishes me to stay at her side at all times. Perhaps for a day or two you will enjoy seeing the new temple we found and you are funding."
Ever the gentleman, Steed said, "I'm sure I will." It was his cover; he had no choice.
"I have set up a hotel for you there, the Desert Oasis. Please forgive me, Mr. Casement. The doctors hope the dysentery will pass from her system with fluids and medicines within a day or two."
"Very well. Tell me, this Ali Tikriti, is he trustworthy?"
"Oh, yes, very much so. He will be your guide until I am there myself. He's been my assistant for years. He is a fine man."
Steed was surprised to hear such a ringing commendation of Ali, as Steed's own assessment had been that he was hiding something, that he needed to be treated as a potential threat. Perhaps being overseas on the sort of mission he no longer enjoyed was making him overly wary and too quick to judge others.
They spoke specifics of the name of the hotel and how to get to it and then hung up. Steed and Adam had a leisurely breakfast and then checked out of the hotel to begin the drive to the temple south of Karbala.
Steed was reassured that he had not cause to be suspicious of Ali Tikriti, and accepted the fact of Darius' wife's illness as one of those odd coincidences in life that things when something started off on an inconvenient foot. It would have elevated his whole trip into an unwanted level of covert intrigue if Darius had admitted he harbored doubt against his colleague. As they drove south to the lovely Euphrates, Steed allowed his worries to dissolve as he and Adam spoke only in Arabic to brush up Adam's language skills.
There was only one problem to Steed lessening his concerns: Ali Tikriti really was spy of sorts, and Darius Mahdi had no clue of that at all.
Ali Tikriti, one of the few men from his village in the south that had garnered a University education, had wondered about Darius Mahdi for a few years--wondered about his occasional pro-Western comments, wondered about his irregular correspondence to an English colleague in Cambridge, and the return letters that he received. He had not aligned himself with Darius with any presumptions his mentor acted in certain undercover capacities--Ali had truly been interested in learning of archaeology--but his suspicions about the man had begun soon after having him as his tutor. On a couple of occasions Ali had steamed open both Darius' out-going letter and the return one from his English colleague, and had deciphered in a few hours of concerted effort alone in his office that Darius had, in code, told the English that there were indeed biological warfare containers hidden at several archeology site along the Euphrates. Ali investigated Darius' bank account, which he learned grew noticeably larger than what his salary would enable him to save. Ali wondered about Darius' Iranian heritage, which was always looked at askance and wondered how long he should watch Darius before turning him over to the government as a spy. Ali was the only one aware of Darius' activities, and it seemed to him that he would bide his time, and wait; at some point, when Iraq was of enough interest, Ali believed the English would send an agent or two in to personally investigate. Those agents--if captured by Ali's clan--would be invaluable to their guerilla associations with the Soviets, and would enable his tribe to trade the agents for Soviet support and guns. None of this had been planned before his entrance into University and his acquiring his position with Darius, but Ali was a cunning man and had reaonsed all this out over the two years he had been Darius' protégé. His people could then support the Colonel, so when he took over the government, he would look with favor on Ali's tribe, allowing them to gain control of the other southern tribal sects. Then Darius could be arrested and killed.
Ali was sure the two Englishmen who had just arrived were British agents; at least the tall one in the white linen suit was one. He was too observant, and too watchful, too silent. Surely word of the Colonel and the trouble he was beginning had reached Western ears and they had sent one or two agents to examine the condition of previous ally turning ever more hostile to them. Perhaps the loquacious Willis fellow really was an archaelogist, but he couldn't be sure. Once Darius had told him they were arriving, it had been easy to sneak into the Mahdi home and poison Darius' wife's herb tea, thus taking Darius out of the picture long enough for Ali to deal with Dr. Willis and Mr. Casement.
Ali hated the West and was a firm proponent of the Ba'th ideology, which desired to create a united Arabian Middle East, to thus control all the oil production and distribution, bringing the devil-spawned West to its knees. He did not mind the idea of war at all, and if two Englishmen were the first casualties of an impending conflict, then so be it. Their lives were nothing to him but a means to an end.
Ali, in charge of the Karbala dig, was staying in a small apartment for the summer as it was cheaper than living in a hotel. He had had to make a special trip to Baghdad to pick up the two Englishmen, but he hadn't minded at all. It was clear that neither of them held him with any wariness, so he was sure that Darius knew nothing of his plans. Ali stopped by the hotel in the morning and met Steed and Dr. Willis just as they were leaving. He assured the two men he would be in Karbala later that day himself, having to take care of a little matter at the university before he left. The temple site was only ten miles out of town; they would arrive by noon.
Steed did not like the look of Ali's eyes, or the way his shoulders swaggered a little. There was something about the man that didn't set well with Steed. But, he could make no valid excuses for two archeologists not wanting to visit the site they had flown three thousand miles to visit, and he had Darius' word that Ali was harmless, so he drove off with Adam to Karbala.
Iraq was a land of four distinct geographic sections. Its northern border with Turkey was a mass of mountains rising to its highest peak at over 1two thousand feet, creating cold, snowy winters, and spring melts that flooded the land below them. The southeast area of the country, by Kuwait and Iran, was full of marshes, swamps and reedy waterways, and was the lowest land level of the nation. Southwest, heading towards Saudi Arabia, was barren, stony desert, entirely unarable, hot, and sweltering, and composing a third of Iraq's land mass. And in the center of the country, where existed Baghdad, Karbala, An Najaf--the cities of the rivers--and the land around them was green fertile plains where the only crops were grown, and not many then, as the soil could be high in saline content and make the dirt useless. Most commonly, as he drove to Karbala, leaving the city behind, Steed saw wheat, barley, cotton, date palm and poplar trees.
Karbala was a sacred city to the Shi-ite Muslims. It contained about one hundred thousand residents and was sixty miles southeast of Baghdad, but still within the watery influence of the Euprates. A great martyr, Husayn, had died there and was honored with a lovely temple in the city, plus the Shi-ite Muslims he had died to protect made an annual pilgrimage to Karbala in reverential obeyance of his memory.
The site of the Sumerian temple was about ten miles out from the town, which Steed drove around, not wanting to stop to check in at their hotel until later. He followed the clear directions Darius had given him and came upon the site by 11:00 a.m. Parking the Range Rover, Adam immediately ran off to find Ali, whilst Steed decided that since he didn't have a book to read, and since his cover was that of fund administrator, he should wander around the diggings, looking like he was actually interested in what they were finding.
It was a sunny day, but there was a sweet wind blowing that evaporated the sweat and kept the temperature tolerable. The preliminary site was large, extending for at least a hundred yards in length and slightly less in width, forming itself to be more rectangular than square. The walls of the temple were visible in numerous areas, and young men and women dressed in trousers and loose long-sleeved shirts brushed and scraped at the ruin, with others organizing, classifying and cataloguing all the pottery and animal bones found in the area. Adam and Ali--who arrived not too long after they had--spent hours discussing the layout of the rooms, the sacrifice area, the fine relics found in what they assumed was the high priests' chamber. Within a couple of hours Steed grew tired of acting interested, decided that as the administrator the Trust's money was being well spent, and then, bored and sweaty, went inside one of the large tents set up that contained cold water and some fruit and refreshments. The wind had stopped blowing by the afternoon, the temperature had climbed to ninety-four degrees F°, the blue sky was cloudless, and even inside a tent, it still seemed like his head was starting to simmer. Steed liked dry, hot heat--which was unusual for an Englishman--but, didn't tend to stand around in it all day long, "ooh-ing" and "aah-ing" over pieces of broken clay or a sacrificed goats foreleg. But, he had done innumerable stake-outs in his career, and had patiently waited for people to appear, for notes to be passed, for gaolers to let him out of his cell, so he knew he could pass a couple of days of boredom in Iraq without too much effort. His hiking boots easily kept his footing firm on rocks and stones and his white handkerchief mopped his sweaty brow all too frequently. He spent half his time hanging around the side of Dr. Willis, as he figured he was expected to do, and half his time on his own, watching others go about their business. They ate meals of dolmas and yoghurt, and when the sun finally set and a slight wind returned so the weather cooled just enough to make being outside bearable, Steed and Dr. Willis climbed in the Range Rover and drove back to Karbala to check into their hotel for a shower, dinner and an evening of backgammon and whiskey at a table in the hotel lounge. Adam called his family and spent some little time talking to them in between games. Steed had a passing fancy to call Carmela, but realized that was an inane fancy. There was no need to create the idea that there was more to his relationship with her than there was.
The next day was the same as the first, except this time Steed had bought a book from a bookstore down the street from the hotel, which he read in the tent when he could sneak away from the archaeology experts wanting him to come and see what they had just found, so he could report it to the Trust. On returning to their hotel, there was a message from Darius to call him back. Steed did so from his hotel room, which he had also checked for bugs, by rote, as he generally did when on this sort of assignment. Having found none, he felt safe using that phone, and called Darius at his home, as requested.
Darius answered on the second ring. "Salam, Mr. Casement. I'm very glad you called."
"Salam. What's going on? How's your wife?" Steed pictured the man, at 6'4" taller than he was, but dark-skinned, gangly, with round-shoulders, an angular face and friendly brown eyes.
"She improves, Ahamad Allah." Praise be to God. "I should be able to visit you in two days. We have a lot to discuss. I'm glad you came. There is trouble in the world of archaeology; conflicting viewpoints of cultural linguistics, of olden methods of decorating pottery, of record keeping."
Steed reviewed the catch phrases the Ministry had set up for usage: cultural linguistics was Soviet presence in Iraq; decorating pottery was armaments build-up; record keeping was government divisiveness. Darius was clearly stating there were political problems and weaponry concerns in Iraq that needed to be discussed.
"Two days is fine," he said, dreading the extra time in the hot country. He was beginning to miss his Guinness. He'd have to call the Ministry's secret number and relate to them that he was staying for several more days. He'd already cancelled the return flight he had arranged originally and left it open for him to return when he could. "Dr. Willis and I are spending our days at the new temple site."
"That's good. There is much to see there. We hope the Leeds foundation will continue to fund the work; the government is cutting back on archeology monies due to its need to spend finances elsewhere."
"I'm sure the foundation is very interested in continuing to pay for the dig."
"Good. Well, then I'll see you in a couple of days."
"Yes. Good-bye. I'm glad to hear your wife is better."
"Yes. We are very fortunate. God has blessed us."
They hung up and after dinner, as Steed and Adam played another evening of backgammon, Ali came to them. He waved a piece of paper very excitedly and pulled up a chair beside them.
"My friends, please forgive this intrusion, but it was so important I felt the need to seek you now, at your hotel, instead of at the site tomorrow. Guess what?" he asked, his eyes glowing.
Adam took the bait. "What?"
"I have in my hand a report that a boy walking in the desert found the top of a stone wall of some building sticking out of the ground seventy miles southeast of An Nasinyah, in the rural areas. There are numerous small towns at the edge of the desert proper, very poor people, usually, but they have numerous goats and sheep to shepherd about."
"Seventy miles southeast of An Nasinyah?" Adam asked. "But there's not been an archeological find there yet, has there? Who would live in the desert? Where would they find water? It's a long way from the river."
"I do not know who would live there but there have always been rumors that a group of Israelites came there after the destruction of the second temple in 70 A.D. We wonder if there wasn't some little spring there that extended past the rural villages and could have enable people to inhabit that region. The topography does lend itself to suggest that, perhaps, some tributary of the Euphrates, was on the surface then, two thousand years ago. Or perhaps they had dug a deep well, finding water far below the land. It is worth checking out, no? The boy told his parents; they called the university and the university tracked me down today, as Dr. Mahdi is still with his wife."
"That's an outstanding find, if is exists."
"Exactly, Dr. Willis. If it exists. I was wondering if you and Mr. Casement might not want to go down there tomorrow and investigate it for me. After all, it would make the Leeds foundation happy to have one of their own people make such a major discovery, wouldn't it? Perhaps they might extend their funding ?" Ali looked at Steed during that last question.
"Perhaps," he answered.
"That's very considerate of you, allowing us to have first dibs on a possible major find." Adam turned to Steed. "What do you say, Mr. Casement? You told me that Mr. Mahdi won't be in Karbala for another two days; perhaps you and I tomorrow would enjoy a drive into the desert?"
Ali added. "You could drive down and back in one day, if you start early tomorrow morning. I have the directions here; they are fairly clear."
Steed took the paper and studied the wording. It seemed genuine; it was on University stationary, from the office of the Head of Archaeology, which was Darius, but signed by his secretary, Maha Azim.
"Well, Joshua, what do you say?" Adam asked.
Steed shrugged. Doing anything, even going for a drive, was better than another hot day standing around looking at six thousand year old smashed wine ampullas. How anyone put up with spending their whole lives digging into the past, Steed had no idea. "Sure," he said. "That'll be fine."
Ali lay in his bed that night, too excited to sleep. It was not that hard being a spy, he thought. It just took planning, brains, courage and deviousness, all of which he was proud to say he had in abundance. He had had his uncle call the university with the shepard boy's finding, knowing Maha Azim would contact him immediately. He had also instructed his uncle, who was a guerilla leader for his village that two English agents would be taking the desert road to the high rocks that looked liked the profile of a man, which stood far from anywhere at the edge of the shifting sands of the Assyrian desert. He convinced his relative that it would do them all good if the two men were secretly captured and brought to the Soviets, showing their fearsome allies and the Colonel the ingenuity and abilities of Ali's clan. What they did with the English agents, Ali didn't care. They were just Western pigs, anyway, and Death to Western Pigs. His uncle would drive ahead of the Englishmen's Range Rover, and hide with three other men along the roadside, where the directions ended at the rock face. They would be armed with rifles, while the Englishmen were weaponless. Casement and Willis would just disappear. And Maha Azim would never tell anyone about the note, as she was already Ali's secret fiancee. He did not love her, but she was a useful connection and she was pretty.
Steed and Adam left very early the next morning, before sunrise; that way, following the directions they would be at the supposed site still early in the morning, around 9:00 a.m., not too hot to wander around looking for the top of an ancient building peeking out of the ground. Ali told them that the father had not left a name, so the specific shepherd boy could not be tracked down. However, Ali also mentioned that the remnants of the village of Bannu, a Babylonian settlement near Qishn, had been found by a three children hunting deer; and the Assyrian temple near Harad, with its large winged bull statue almost entirely intact, had also been found by natives riding on horseback. Adam concurred; he was aware of the serendipitous discovery of the Assyrian temple. So, this was something to look into as well, Ali assured them, even without the boy's guidance. Adam was almost giddy with anticipation.
Steed followed the directions on the map, winding them ever farther from the paved main road that connected the middle of the country with the southern portion. They had turned off at the marked road indicated at An Nasinyah, and then relatively easily had been routed into the empty desert environs, with hilly rocks and sand and few plants the only tedious scenery. They passed a few small settlements of cement homes, and kept travelling southeast. But, by 8:30 a.m. they found themselves unable to progress any further. The dirt road they were on was covered with a rock slide from the hill to their right, just where it took a sharp bend, and, there was just a rather steep drop-off to their left into a valley, that even Steed, in his Range Rover, was loathe to go down. The map mentioned that this road would go for another five miles at the point the rocks gave way to the flat, dry desert, bereft of even the few scrub plants the hilly rocks contained. There, they would be in the area of the shepherd's boy report.
"Well, drat," Adam said, as Steed pulled to a stop. "What rotten luck to run into a landslide." They got out of the car and looked around, at the bright white day that was already heating up the air, and the desolate land around them. "Let's have a climb and see what we can," Adam suggested.
Adam began walking up the little hill to their right, and Steed, sighing, followed him. It made sense to get a higher look at the lay-out of the land, but exerting himself in the heat was not his natural inclination. He was of a mind to get back in the Rover and drive back Karbala to a cold beer and his air-conditioned hotel room. However, a quick look was a nice way to stretch his legs. At the top of the hill, an odd thing happened. Steed got a sense that something was matter, that there was danger around him. It was a feeling that he had developed over the years being an agent, and had saved his life more than once. He carried a water canister and a binoculars on his belt and taking out his powerful binoculars he looked out across the valley, a half mile away. There he saw something that made his mouth drop open. There were two men and they had a mortar launcher aimed at him and Adam. The landslide had not been a natural phenomenon Had they been set up? Steed chanced upon them just as he saw the launcher jump and emit a puff of smoke and two seconds later a terrifying "Boom" came to his ears
His eyes wide, Steed turned to Adam--who was shielding his pupils from the sun as he looked forward off into the distance--and yelled "Look out!" before the world exploded around him.
Everything slowed down as Steed suddenly floated through the air, and there was no sound. He could not tell whether he was going up or down, or whether the spray of rocks he saw above him was going up or down; nevertheless, when he collided, somehow, with something, so hard it felt like his torso was shattered to pieces, the world grew white and fuzzy, and then when the rocks descended to him or he flew up to them, the world turned black, all black nothing but black
There was no doubt about it; mortars were fun. Jamshid and Abbas, seventeen and nineteen year old brothers, had borrowed a mortar and ten shells from the stocks of weapons the Soviet captain had brought to their village of Behbahan. They had justified the usage of them by telling themselves that when they mastered aiming the mortar, they would be invaluable assets to their tribe, when they rose up with the Colonel to take control of the country and make it a bastion of pure Ba'th ideology. That day was coming, soon, and Jamshid and Abbas would be at the forefront of the battle, which one day they would extend to all Arab countries, removing all vestiges of the filth of Western culture from them, and reinstating the strict laws of Moslem religion to those defying the precepts of it.
With those fanatical excuses, they had taken the weapon and gone into the desert to practice using it. They had left early in the morning, when it would be cooler, so they could walk many miles into the desert away from their village, where no one would find them. They had a pair of excellent binoculars, also a gift of the Soviet captain, who was supporting their Colonel covertly against the weak government. Setting up on a hillside, they had targeted a hill across the bare and barren valley, home of a few hardy, thin bushes and not much else. It had taken them seven mortars to hit the top of the hill, causing a cascade of rocks to coming crashing down onto the flat, dirt road underneath it. The boys had been delighted by the avalanche of stone, and proud of their aim, and so they sat down and smoked a few celebratory cigarettes, drinking water and eating some dates, joking about how they would become famous mortar men, known throughout the country for their unerring accuracy. It was then that they were surprised to see a Range Rover drive up that little used road, halting out of necessity at the stony barrier to their further passage. Using their binoculars, Jamshid and Abbas had been delighted to discover that they were Western pigs, devils of the world. Eyeing each other in a conspiracy of death, the waited until the two men climbed to the top of the hill, and then, on a whim dropped a shell down the short muzzle of the mortar, still untouched from where they had targeted it so successfully. They watched with their binoculars as one of the men, dressed in all white, noticed them with his binoculars and took a step towards the other before the whole top of the hill exploded. When the air cleared of dust, the two men were nowhere to be seen.
Jamshid and Abbas laughed at that, clapping each other on the back, even though inside, they both felt a bit sick, like the dates they'd just eaten had been poisoned. It was the first time they had ever killed anyone, and neither said it, but it didn't seem to be the glorifying task they had been told it would be. Instead they felt as if a layer of dust had settled on them that they would never be able to wash off. They stood, put the mortar back on the burro, and returned to their village, hiding the mortar back in the shed the weapons were stored in. Neither told anyone about what they had done.
Moaning woke Steed up. Terrible moaning. Steed opened up his eyes, and they filled with the grit that had been sitting on his lids. He blinked a number of times as his eyes teared, trying to remove the irritants, shaking his head to clean his face of more sand and dirt; after awhile enough had been removed that he could see. He saw blue sky straight above him, and wondered what had happened then his memory replayed the mortar shell sighting The mortar shell! Steed immediately noticed a hundred things at once: the moaning coming from his side; his own body, laying on a slight incline, his head to the bottom, his arms out to his sides, his legs straight above him, a disembodied lower leg next to his left chest
A lower leg
Steed started and lifting his head up he saw that his legs and feet were still attached to his body, and then struggling to get up, to find Adam, the reality of his situation came crashing home to him. He couldn't move his arms or legs; he couldn't feel them. Numb, he was numb; his whole body was numb. He saw a piece of metal in his left thigh; he couldn't feel it. His hands were resting on the sandy ground palms up, he couldn't move his fingers, he couldn't feel the sand against the back of his hands. He couldn't move anything but his head and neck; he was paralyzed, from his chest down, paralyzed a cry of panicked horror escaped his mouth his back must have been broken by his fall down the hill when the mortar shell exploded he couldn't move at all
Oh, no, not that, anything but that he thrust his head up tensing his neck as much as he could ordering his limbs to move but still he couldn't budge an inch and threw his head to the right, then the left, several times, but that was it, no part of his body moved with him He closed his eyes and let his head drop back down to the hard ground as the sickening fact rotted his insides he was paralyzed he'd never move again never feel anything again paralyzed he had expected to be shot to death, stabbed to death, had his head caved in by some blow, but he had never imagined, never conceived that this would happen to him after all the injuries he had he had never thought this one would occur
The moaning snapped him out of his self-pity and he turned his head as far to the left as he could --there, about ten feet away, was Adam Willis, minus his right lower leg. His right hand was also gone and Steed could not espy it in his limited range of vision. Both those amputated limbs poured blood out onto the thirsty ground. Adam gripped his right leg right below the knee with his left hand to try to stop the bleeding, but wasn't having much success. The amputations had not been clean and jagged tears kept the blood flowing.
"Steed! Steed! Help me! I'm bleeding to death! What happened? What happened? Steed, help me."
Steed tried to forget his own problem as he watched Adam laying helpless on the ground. Focusing on helping Adam would keep him from panicking himself. "Take your belt off and tie it around your leg," Steed said.
"For god's sake man, come and help me out," he cried.
"I can't move," Steed said, "I'm para--"the enormity of that word took hold and choked him, after a couple of breaths he was able to say it--"paralyzed."
"Paralyzed? You can't move?"
"I can't move," Steed repeated. "Not my arms nor my legs."
"Oh, my God, you broke your back. Oh, God, we're both going to die here. Oh, God, we're going to die."
Steed knew the situation was bad, but he had to maintain control over it as best as possible. "Adam, stop that and tie a tourniquet around your leg."
"How? I've only got one hand!"
"You can use just one hand. It'll work. Take out your belt. Now, man, do it now." Steed spoke as forcefully as he could. "How long was I out?"
"I don't know. Not long. Fifteen, twenty minutes. Steed, I'm scared. I'm really scared. I don't want to die." He took his hand from his leg and fumbled with the belt, but was able to draw it out from around his waist.
"Adam, don't panic. People know where we are; they'll come looking for us. Good, you've got your belt out." Steed's neck grew tired in the awkward position he had to hold it in to see Adam. He turned it to the right to stretch it out and then glanced back at his friend. "Now, put it around your leg."
"Oh, my leg is gone. I don't have a leg "
"Adam, stop moaning. Put that belt on at the bottom of the stump, yes, like that, now, pull it tight. Now keep it tight by wrapping the belt around several times and then tucking the end into the straps, yes, that's good."
Only, it wasn't that good; it wasn't that tight. Blood still spurt out of the rough, uneven wound and it still fell from where his forearm was torn. Adam lay down on the ground.
"Dear God, I'm going to die oh, Elaine, Francis, Chloe, Steven I'm going to die "
"Don't say that. Keep your spirits up. Now, untie one boot and use the lace to tie a tourniquet around your right wrist. He had to constantly cajole and order Adam to do anything, but after a few minutes, the shoelace was in place with the aid of his teeth, and it slowed the bleeding down.
Adam curled onto his side and started to weep.
Steed had never felt more helpless in his life. "Adam, we may not have entirely stopped the bleeding, but if it slows down enough you'll live until we're found."
Adam gripped his right forearm with his left hand. "It's hard to breathe "
Steed noticed a piece of shrapnel in the man's right chest; probably it was in his lung, and his lung had probably collapsed. He wasn't going to live, it was obvious. Unless whoever had shot at them decided to come to their aid immediately, a fanciful proposition, Adam was going to die. The shell had knocked them both over the hill they had walked up, and they lay about thirty feet from the top on the other side from the road and their Rover. Nothing surrounded them but the dry sands, rocks and scrub bushes of the hot Iraqi desert, and more empty hills devoid of people, doctors, help. They were on their own. Who had shot at them, and why, Steed had no idea. He knew that even if they came to check on him and Adam, if they found them alive, they'd probably just shoot and kill them with bullets, anyway. If they could just last until they didn't return to Karbala and Ali became concerned if he hadn't sent them to be killed himself or, better, if Darius realized they were in trouble If they could last through the heat of the day, without shade, without water then maybe they had a chance. Steed noticed the water bottle at his hip. He couldn't touch it, couldn't reach it. It might as well have been on the moon Or the sun the hot, white, relentless sun.
Adam whimpered from his side. "Steed, I don't want to die. Why did this happen? I've got things to live for. People who depend on me. People who love me, who I love back. Oh, God, I don't want to die." He began to cry, rocking back and forth on the ground. Steed closed his eyes, but he couldn't shut his ears to the sound of Adam weeping, repeating, "I don't want to die" over and over. It went on for long minutes, along with him groaning, and mentioning he was still bleeding over and over again. Steed lay on the ground, his attempts to soothe and appease Adam drowned out by Adam's constant whining. After awhile, even though Adam's lamentations were fully understandable, they became more than Steed could bear to hear.
Words came from Steed harshly, the tensions of their situation spilling out of him, "Pull yourself together, man!" It was a very poor choice of words given the man's amputated condition, and Steed winced at his own horrible gaff, mortified that he had lost control and yelled such inappropriate words at the dying man.
"That's easy for you to say," Adam screamed back. "You've got no family. No one who loves you. No one who cares, really cares if you die. No one who's life revolves around you. If you die, it won't be a big deal. One less agent for the country. That's it. Nothing more than that. It won't be a big deal. No big deal at all. But, I've got a family, a wife whose world is entwined with mine. You can't understand. You've never loved. No one's ever loved you. But, it's not the same with me. It's not the same with me. I've got a reason to live."
He probably would have continued his rambling attack on Steed if he hadn't began crying again, and this time, Steed was glad for his tears. He had lain on the ground, immobile, listening to the vitriol pouring from Adam towards him, and for the first time in his life, Steed didn't just cast aside what he heard as unimportant. Those words had been tossed at him in less acute ways a number of times in the past from both relatives wondering at his established bachelorhood, like Auntie Greta of late, and his women companions, one by one wondering why he couldn't commit himself to them. He had ignored them all, shrugged them off as easily unheeded commentary of his life and who he was. Yet now, the closest he was to death in over ten years, the words rang in his head like Big Ben-- "If you die, it won't be a big deal. It won't be a big deal. One less agent " Adam's little speech appeared photographically in Steed's head, as if it had been chiseled into stone in his brain, never to decompose, never to melt away, never to be forgotten.
Some of it was true --he was just one more agent. It might take a couple of years for the Ministry to recover from his death, as he was a very important agent, but it would. However, it wasn't true that he had never loved, nor that --he believed-- no one had ever loved him it just hadn't worked out for Steed, like it had for Adam and Elaine and now, it was all too late to think of that anyway and he would die here, unloved now, with no one depending on him to live, but it would be little less meaningless knowing that once, well once but, that was years ago in another life and this was his life now and he couldn't undo what had been done. Steed had really begun to believe he would die an old man in the comfort of his home; this, this sort of death so unexpected so meaningless it shook him to his core. It was just supposed to have been a simple little trip to Iraq; what had happened? Who had shot at them? Had they been betrayed? Why? Why shoot them like animals, and leave them to die. It didn't make sense. None of this made sense. And that just increased the awful reality of their situation.
It took another twenty minutes for Adam to die, and to the end he wept, and prayed to God, and lamented his dying. He made Steed promise to look after his family, to make sure they were taken care of, which Steed did, softly, and compassionately. When Adam suddenly became silent, Steed turned his head to look at him, laying on his side, his eyes open yet lacking life. Steed turned away, away from Adam, away from his foreleg beside him, away from another horrible death, away from another tragedy, tragedies which seemed to shadow his life like a obelisk blotting out the sun
The sun there was no blotting out the sun.
Adam died around 10:00 a.m., and it was already ninety-eight degrees F° in a cloudless sky. Steed had been laying in the full sun for an hour, and was already covered in sweat. His hat was gone; his tie was tucked under his jacket and his couldn't quite reach the material to pull it over his face with his teeth. Sweat dropped in rivulets down his face, the salt making it dryer and tighter. There was a very sore area on the back of his head where his head lay and it felt like there was a bump there; when sweat reached it there was more sharp pain, making Steed realize his head was cut as well as swollen. The glare of the sun was too much for his eyes, and he kept them closed. He kept his face turned to the right until the left half was burning so badly it seemed it would spontaneously catch on fire; he turned it to the left then, until the right burned hot, then he went back to the right. Perspiration drenched his body, but he couldn't feel it; he could see it when he occasionally lifted his head up to examine his body, and try to move it, he could see the growing patches of soaking wet clothes, and could feel his mouth growing parched, thirsty, chapped.
He couldn't see his watch, but he noticed the sun's passage, hourly, across the sky. Time seemed to slow and in the quiet of the desert he felt a loneliness he had never felt in his life. Who knew where the closest human being to him was. In all the world, with all that was going on, he lay there, on the hard ground, and no one knew, or if they knew, they didn't care. There was no bird, no fly, even to keep him company. Just the sun, and that was no friend to him. Although he enjoyed the heat, and had been to Palm Springs a few times, Steed was still an Englishman, born and bred for innumerable generations into the rainy, moderate temperatures of England. He had no innate ability to handle such intense heat, had not assimilated to the fearsome furnace of being in a desert. The hours passed like years to him. He grew dizzy, faint, and unbearably hot, hotter than he had ever felt, or imagined a person could become. The air seemed too hot to breathe, too thick, it took hard work to maintain his respiration, to inhale. His skin was English skin, totally unprepared for sun exposure of this intensity and his face and neck burned like a marshmallow over a fire.
fter a couple of hours it didn't matter which way his face was turned --the skin was terribly burned equally-- but he kept the routine up, anyway.
When he was younger, even during his time with Cathy Gale, he had maintained regular meditation sessions, focusing on one thing, a flower, for example, to keep his mind trained to tone out unwanted thoughts, unwanted questions, unwanted pain. But, Steed had stopped doing that long ago, thinking such training was no longer necessary and egotistical enough to believe that if he even had the need to mentally escape some unpleasant reality, he would be able to do it easily without practicing it several times a week.
He wished now he had kept up those sessions, and imprecated himself for his foolish belief that even though he still worked in a dangerous job he would never again find himself in a bad situation, in some cell, in some interrogator's room, in real pain. He remembered what he had done and began that technique again, not staring at something but imagining his home and lawn in England, the cool beauty of it, the greenery, the lushness, the large, stately weeping willow that held mastery over the side of his house, the horses that he rode over the perfectly weedless grass, the rains that refreshed the land, refreshed his English soul. He did well for awhile, picturing that, taking himself from the desert, but then his extreme discomfort would hearken to him, calling him back to Iraq, to the sun, to the waves of heat rippling all around him, roasting him, killing him.
The water on his hip began tormenting by early afternoon. It seemed there was no fluid left in his head, that he was puckered up, shriveled, shrunken, his body tightly covered with skin two sizes too small for his skull. His tongue and lips were swollen. He tried to milk his saliva glands for just a little saliva, but nothing came out any longer. He lay there, on the ground, motionless, paralyzed, sweltering in the summer sun, a terrific headache encompassing his whole skull, his heart pounding in his temples so fast he thought his heart would burst completely and he would be granted a quick, merciful death, like Adam, who had died horribly, but not as badly as this. Steed waited to die as the long afternoon passed, second by ticking second, minute by interminable minute, hour by infinite hour, his thoughts jumbled, confused, disoriented. Sometimes he forgot where he was, sometimes he found himself mumbling, though not knowing what he said, or to whom he was speaking. And, worse of all, he heard Adam saying his death would be no big deal that all this suffering was his own, and no one else's.
By the end of the day, Steed was still somehow alive. It had not been his desire, nor had it been a result of his mental fortitude --his continued existence was solely due to the fact his body had not yet died. His eyes were swollen shut, his lips blistered and cracked in numerous places, his face and neck tightened from the salt in his perspiration, and burned as if there were red-metal plates held against his skin. His tongue had thickened noticeably and was so dry it adhered to the roof of his mouth. His head spun and he was extremely light-headed; if he opened his eyes, the world flew around him haphazardly. When he could think he thought of rain, of baths, of showers, of waterfalls, of all the lakes in England, of drinking anything, beer, champagne, wine, brandy, coffee, tea, ice tea, milk, water, water, water just a drop, a cup, a few cups, a gallon, a mere gallon, slowly, savoring it, rolling it around in his mouth pouring it over him water lovely cool water
Steed had lain on the ground the whole day, doing nothing but not dying. At twilight, he felt a slight wind touch his agonized face, and the temperature cooled a little. He had made it through the day, his level of fitness keeping him alive, but he knew he might not survive the night, and he would certainly not live through another day in the desert heat. He hoped the weather would cool perceptively and give him some much needed relief. Maybe, the moon would come out, and he could crack open an eye and see the beauty of the moon, and maybe some stars, and he could try to hope for a better day tomorrow.
It was not long after dark settled upon the land, as the wind began picking up, that Steed heard some soft padding, muffled noises and growling near him. Able to open his eyes to slits, Steed saw the moon was half-full; it was enough light to see the immediate space around him. He looked over to Adam from where the sounds were coming and was appalled at what he saw. Steed had seen many dreadful things in his long, eventful life, but nothing as dreadful as this --a pack of eight wild dogs was eating Adam Willis, shoving him around on the ground, tearing his clothes with their paws to get to his body underneath. Steed gagged on the sight and turned away, trying to erase the terrible image from his brain, wishing he had never turned to see what the noises were. He heard a battle between two dogs and then some scuffling and then one yelped and broke away, coming nearer to him. Steed opened his eyes as best he could and turned back to his left in fear. A mangy dog the size of a small Labrador, sores evident on its body, its hair a thin tangled mess was coming over to him, to Adam's foreleg, and to Steed's helpless immobile body
The dog stared at the leg, but soon it's attention was drawn to Steed. It walked to Steed's left thigh and began sniffing at the blood on Steed's leg surrounding the area where the piece of shrapnel lay above his knee. Another dog by Adam was jostled to the side by a larger dog and padded over to Steed as well.
Steed had not been so terrified since he lay in a cell in Nee San, twenty years ago. He could stand dying of heat, thirst, but to be eaten alive, unable to move, unable to defend himself, to just lie there and watch it occur that couldn't happen he couldn't let that happen
Steed lifted his head and gurgled a sound as loudly and fiercely as he could. He slurred words, "Go away. Get away from me. I'm still alive. Go away, you mangy dogs. Don't touch me. I'm still alive." His mouth was too dry to articulate clearly; his lips too painful to move with finesse, and he realized that the words were more important to him than the dogs. He shook his head back and forth to prove to the beasts he was alive, and chase them back to Adam's body. He yelled as best he could, over and over, staring at them through eyes he couldn't move into an expression of anger. The dogs began growling at Steed, cautious of him, feeling threatened. He met their verbal threats with his own noises, as his failing voice was pushed to its limit, hoarse and creaking; he felt blood on his lips from the deep cracks that were spread out all over them. In a sudden hunching over movement, the dog at Steed's thigh crawled back to his left side, growled a few times and then launched itself at Steed. It bit into Steed's flank roughly shaking its head back and forth as it chomped on Steed's body. Not out of pain, as there was none, but out of horror, Steed lifted his head as high up as possible and screamed to the heavens. To his disbelief, his vocal defense was successful. The dog let go of his side, grabbed the foreleg and ran off, the other dog tailing after it. It was useless to try to examine the wound the dog had made, as there was nothing Steed could do about it; he didn't even feel it. Exhausted and terrified that some other dogs would come to him, Steed let his head fall to the ground, and lay there listening to his friend being devoured by the remaining dogs, their gluttonous mastication resounding throughout the night air. He remained ever vigilant of hearing the sound of an approaching canine, as he glimpsed the starry sky through swollen eyelids, attempting to convince himself it was a dream that Adam was being wholly consumed. He gagged a few more times as the beastly feast continued, remembering how tenderly Adam and his wife had bid good-bye to each other. The dogs stayed at Adam's body for a very long time.
The wind, which had been a pleasant breeze, suddenly grew even more intense, and with its increase in pressure the sand began stirring into a sandstorm. The dogs ran off, to find some hole or rocky shelf that would protect them from the swirling dust and sand, dragging bits of Adam with them, but Steed was unable to seek such relief. Steed tucked his face into a shoulder away from the direction of the wind, and closing his mouth breathed through his nose, and that as little as possible. His years of practicing holding his breath came in handy as he took a breath only every minute or so to avoid breathing in as much sand as he could. The air rattled around him, and the world dissolved into a wavy wall of sand and grit. He felt the sand land on his face and neck and knew it was covering his body as well though he couldn't feel it do so. Steed realized if the storm kept up he would die of either breathing in too much sand or being buried alive. So, it was an odd sort of blessing when the storm turned out to be of short duration. After fifteen minutes the wind died down completely as if it had never been raging around him in the first place. Steed shook his head a few times to clear off what debris he could, but a good deal of sand stuck to his face seemed permanently glued there. The sand that had gotten down his throat and into his chest caused him to cough in paroxysms for many minutes until his sun-induced headache returned in full-blown force.
Many grains were in his eyes and irritated them; the few tears he was able to rally as a result of his coughing fit cleansed his conjunctiva in a paltry manner and there was nothing else he could do but wonder how so much dust had passed through such swollen eyes. It took him quite awhile to settle down after the storm, and he glanced over to Adam and saw only the man's head, severed from the rest of his body, which was completely gone. His belt lay on the ground and assorted bits of clothing. Steed had been in the War, had been in Nee San, had scurried through years of nasty tradecraft, and he had never seen anything as terrible as Adam Willis' torn face looking at him. He settled his head down on the hard ground, hoping the dogs would come back and rip his throat out, finishing it already, ending the horrible burning pain in his skin, the horrible thirst that tormented him, the hopelessness and despair he felt. It was an inane struggle to survive when he would live out the rest of his life a quadriplegic. That fitness he had maintained for his work and his women now became an albatross of survival around his gritty neck.
Eight mortar shells were found to be missing in an ammunition check at the guerilla camp. It was brought to the attention of the Colonel, who had returned from meeting with a few other guerilla leaders discussing the formation of a concerted anti-government effort. His pleas had been to no avail. The Colonel was obsessed with being the leader of the country and that did not sit well with the leaders of the other guerilla tribes in the area. The Colonel called the men of Bebhaban together and demanded to know who had used those eight mortars, and so fearsome was his demeanor that Jamshid and Abbas immediately admitted to practicing their aim in the desert. Then, to try to garner some approval for their surreptitious use of the weapon, they bragged that they had fired upon two Westerners and had, apparently, hit them. This interested the Colonel greatly, and he asked them if they had checked to see if they were dead. The teens told him they hadn't, but informed the Colonel the men had driven a nice Range Rover. The Colonel told them that first thing in the morning they would go with some other men and capture the vehicle and either man if he was still alive. They might prove valuable to the Soviet Captain, who was returning in five days on Saturday. They were then told to never use a weapon without authorization again, on pain of death. Jamshid and Abbas acquiesced, not too keen on the idea, anyway, even though they were patted on the back by several men and given a proud look by their father.
Ali's uncle waited the whole day for the Englishmen to show up at the end of the road, so he could capture them and turn them over to Colonel Hussein and bring honor on his clan. When the day was over and the four of them were sweltering from the heat, they climbed into their old Jeep and drove off madder than hell with Ali. Yelling at each other, blaming each other for the wasted day, Ali's uncle drove faster in his desire to return to his village and use the phone in the general store to call Ali, cursing him and his children for seven generations for sending him on this futile errand. It was then, when he turned an abrupt corner he had safely traveled earlier that very day he saw boulders the size of goats in the road, blocking the way. He slammed on the brakes, but they were old, and not much help for quick deceleration; crashing into the rocks the Jeep flew over the edge of the road and rolled down fifty feet into the valley, ejecting and killing all four men.
© Mona Morstein 2000
No aspect of this story may be used elsewhere without the expressed prior written consent of the author. These stories may not be altered in any way or sold; all copyright information must appear with this work at all times. Please read disclaimers and warnings on top of each story. Feel free to send constructive comments to the author.. :o)
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