The Boat
  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.


Chapter One

Emma Steed would have married her husband John two years ago even if he had still insisted on motoring around London in a large, awkward, and conspicuous 1928 Bentley. The fact that he had decided to purchase a Range Rover and Jaguar for daily use a few years before their nuptials, reserving his beloved Bentley for rare weekend jaunts into the country, just made everything so much better for her. Especially since she herself still had the proclivity to still foolishly drive a tiny little sports car that barely seated her tall and handsome husband, let alone the three well to do women that she was chauffeuring in Steed's roomy and elegant Jaguar to the opening of the latest show at the Excalibur Ten, the most prestigious art gallery in London. It was the only thing about Steed that had changed since she had known him for ten years, and she could think of nothing else about him that she didn't want to stay just exactly as it was. Steed had left early this lovely July morning to continue an investigation with Purdey and Gambit; Emma had plans to meet him later at Steed's Stable Mews apartment to prepare for her favorite party of the year. First, though, Emma's day was taken up with these women. They had just finished a luscious lunch at The Burgundy Room, and now were on their way to the gallery opening, Emma maneuvering the Jaguar through streets of London.

"So, Emma, dear, I've heard that Clive convinced you to put another couple of landscapes in the gallery again," Martha Kendrick-Ratherly said. She was seated next to Emma, a sixty year old patron of the arts. Dressed in an elegant dress draped with three rows of pearls and pearl earrings, Martha was a refreshing and unusual member of the upper class --independent, out-spoken, opinionated-- who was unfortunately married to a man with a trouble with alcohol.
"Yes, Martha, he did," Emma answered. "Though my water colors don't really belong in a showing of French and German modern oil painting. He's just doing it to be sweet."
"He's doing it because your last three paintings sold within two weeks of being hung on the wall," Constance Woodward said from behind her, a lovely blond just a few years older than Emma, and like Emma, still shapely and vivacious. "No need to indulge in false modesty around us, Emma. You've a beautiful style and real talent."
"Thank you, Constance," Emma said, touched by the praise for a mere hobby she dabbled in.
"And a fantastically handsome husband to boot. Some women have all the luck, eh, girls?"

Emma smiled at the general "mmm-mmming" that took place.
"Marion, why didn't Howard drive you to the opening, as usual? He isn't ill, is he?" Constance asked.
"The poor old lad is down with the gout, I'm afraid," Marion Whitfield said. "Constance, what about you? You don't usually carpool. Where is Teddy?"
"Off to the doctor about his stomach this afternoon. Digestion is rather a difficult affair of late," Constance answered. "I never should have married a man sixteen years older than me; it's just one illness after another. And you Martha? Why are you riding in Emma's Taxi Service today?"
"Mallory was a perfect ogre last night. Went through half a bottle of gin and then decided everything he looked at was wrong, myself included. We had a terrible row and I'm still cross at him."
"For god's sake, Martha, why don't you just divorce the beast?"
"Oh, Constance, because I love him, and it would take the lawyers years to wrangle out a divorce settlement we would both agree to."
"Teddy can be a bear at times, as well. Barristers! If a case isn't going well, neither does our marriage. Rows about dinner, travel destinations, clothing purchases…"
"Howard had a falling out with our son, Denis," Marion added into the confessional, "because Denis is leaving his vice-president position to work for a charity, transferring to a considerable pay cut as one can imagine. I support Denis; it's put a strain between Howard and I".

Silence fell over the car.
"Emma, what do you and your John argue about?" Constance asked.
Emma blinked several times at the question. "Argue about?" she repeated. She tried to remember if she and Steed had ever argued… she couldn't think of one situation. They allowed each other their own busy lives, and were always so glad to see each other that they naturally gravitated into their consistently fun and amiable relationship.

"We don't argue," Emma said, shrugging. "Steed is a very easy-going fellow."
"Oh, come, come, Emma, it's us, your friends. You've been married for two years now, surely you must have had a bone of contention with Steed somewhere along the line," Constance said.
"Constance, honestly, we haven't," Emma protested. "We mesh perfectly."

The Jaguar approached an intersection, and the women saw a man with a large briefcase running at full speed from the street on their left to the intersection; a tall, brown-haired, well-dressed man closely followed on the man's heels. The lead man ran to a sedan across the intersection in front of the Jaguar, and opening a car door as the vehicle began to move forward, he dived into the interior while slamming the door closed. The tall man turned the corner and in one great effort launched himself onto the back of the sedan just before it quickly accelerated. Scrambling desperately he was able to pull himself up to the roof of car, laying flat and holding onto the sides of the roof as the car sped off.

The four women sat frozen in the car, staring after the sedan and the man hanging onto the top of it, his legs swinging wildly from side to side.
"I say, Emma, wasn't that your husband, John?" Marion asked.
"Er, yes, yes, it was," Emma answered, her eyes bugging out for a second. She tapped her hands on the steering wheel as she impatiently waited for the light to turn, her heart racing inside of her chest. The light taking forever, and seeing no cars approaching from the left or right, Emma hit the pedal and illegally sped through the intersection.
"Dear me," Martha said.
"John is a little bit older than you, isn't he, like my Teddy?" Constance asked.
Emma drove forward as fast as she was safely able to following the sedan with Steed on top. The car had turned off the larger street and began moving through the side streets of London, whenever possible swerving from side to side in an attempt to dislodge its undesired overhead occupant.
"Yes, Constance, he's fourteen years older than me."
"So that makes him…"
"Goodness, is he always so…active?"
"When he wants to be, he is." Then Emma glanced at Constance through the rear-view mirror, smiling, "Day or night."
All three women said, "Ooohh."

Emma turned her attention back to the road and was horrified to see the sedan crash into another car in the middle of the cross roads ahead of her, knocked to the side as a result of the impact. Her breathing stopped as she saw Steed fly forward off the roof of the car and slide over the bonnet and onto the road, landing hard on his right shoulder and turning over several times before coming to a complete stop. As the sedan, its bonnet terribly crinkled, tried to turn over the engine again, Steed stood up shakily, unsteady and momentarily disoriented. Just when a policeman approached the scene of the accident, the sedan started up and Steed dove onto the deformed bonnet as it sped off again, using his body to obscure the wind screen as much as possible. Emma drove the Jaguar around the victim's car and took off after the sedan again.

"Terribly sorry for the detour, ladies," Emma said, feeling that some explanation was necessary. "I hope you won't mind arriving at the art gallery a few minutes late."
"No, no, not all at," Constance said. "Perfectly understandable."
The other women nodded their heads in agreement, repeating 'Yes, perfectly understandable."
Thank goodness for English reserve, Emma thought.

"Uh, does Steed do this often?" Martha asked.
Emma sighed. What could she tell these women? They didn't even know The Ministry existed; no one did outside of Ministry employees. Or ex-employees. Let alone know that Steed was the absolute best agent in that most secrete organization in the country.
"Oh, sometimes," she said.

The sedan did not get very far with Steed on the bonnet; by the zigzagging of the driver, it seemed obvious to Emma that the man was panicking. Her eyes widened as once more the sedan crashed, this time into a Peugeot parked at a kerb; Steed was once more thrown from the car. He flew backwards over the Peugeot, landing on his side on the pavement, rolling again in several tight circles before coming to an abrupt stop at the cast iron gate of a house. This time the sedan was too damaged to continue being driven. The driver, less stunned than the man with the briefcase, who sat bent over holding his forehead, opened up his car door and exited with the clear intention to escape.

"Steed…" Emma whispered. She wondered what to do. Long off the Ministry rolls, still in shape but long out of fighting form, Emma felt helpless watching Steed and knowing that if she joined into the situation she very well might do more harm than good. If Steed noticed her, she knew his attention would be drawn to her, his concentration ruined. So, torn by her concern for her husband, Emma kept the car far enough away that Steed wouldn't notice it, yet allowing Emma to see everything occurring, so that if Steed did get gravely wounded, she would be right there to help him.

Emma said a silent prayer when Steed stood up using the fence for leverage, and stumbled over to another parked car at the kerb. He stayed bent over its bonnet, his hand held against his head for a second or two. Brushing his hair back, Steed then looked up and noticed the man escaping. Garnering reserves from somewhere, Steed leapt over the bonnet of the car and within a few steps had tackled the driver. They both got to their knees, but Steed was surprisingly quicker, and grasping the man by his shirt, Steed thrust him up against a car and punched him several times in the abdomen and then several more times in the face. The driver slid to the pavement, and as Steed gasped for air in his lungs he flashed his red card at an approaching Bobby, who immediately fell to obeying Steed's directives. Motioning for the policeman to arrest the driver, Steed took off after the other fellow, the one with the large case, who had recovered and was running down the street away from Steed. Limping slightly at first, but then smoothing out to a full easy gait after twenty-five feet, Steed fumbled in his pocket for a small radio which he briefly spoke into as he dashed away from Emma.

"Steed must be in rather good training," Constance said.
"Yes, indeed, rather good training," Marion repeated, Martha nodding her head in agreement.
"Yes, and he certainly, er, has a capable punch," Constance added.
"Well, he does play quite a bit of billiards," Emma said. As the women looked at her their eyebrows drawn together in their confusion, she added, "Strengthens the shoulders."

They say that spouses begin to look and act like each other; it was only to be expected Emma would develop an ingrained and covertly misleading manner like Steed had.
Emma, driving carefully around the two badly damaged vehicles, followed her husband down the road, progressing slowly. She was thankful that for the moment no other cars were behind her.

After passing three streets Steed caught up to the man and brought him down from behind, their velocity causing them to stumble forward several paces before they landed on the sidewalk, rolling out of control a few times. As they got to their knees, Steed's target swung his briefcase and hit Steed a powerfully solid blow to the chest. Steed crumpled backwards to the ground, his arms reflexively protecting his torso and head. Holding the briefcase in both hands, the man struck Steed's back and arm a couple of times more and then ran away, turning right at the next intersection to head back to Lancaster road. Emma watched Steed turn prone on the sidewalk and then gradually push himself up, pulling his legs under him. A few helpful civilians who had seen him hit lent firm hands to get him on his feet. He swayed a few times, glancing around apparently gathering his wits. One of the civilians pointed the way the man had run and Steed, taking a few deep breaths, began jogging off, once more talking into his radio.

"Emma, I'm sorry, I have to ask. Exactly what does Steed do?" Constance asked. "That policeman back there hopped right to his orders."
"Constance… he doesn't tell me what he works on," Emma said, honestly. Since Emma was no longer working for the Ministry, Steed wasn't able to share his cases with her.
"But, what organization employs him? We've all wondered for years."

Emma didn't answer. They'd have to wonder longer. She drove off after her husband, and by the time she had turned right she saw Steed, his jog accelerating almost into a run again, dodge left onto Lancaster Road. Emma took the turn and was amazed at what she saw.

The man with the briefcase was stopped on the sidewalk over the bridge, Purdey and Gambit aiming their guns at him, his hands up over his head with the briefcase held high in them. Purdey and Gambit were frantically gesturing for the man to put the case down, but instead, as Steed neared him from behind, the man tossed the briefcase up high over the bridge. Purdey and Gambit lunged forward in instinctive desperation but were much too far away to do anything.

What Steed did next broke Emma's silent self control and she cried out "Oh, my God!"

Steed leapt onto the low protective wall of the bridge with one leg and then launched himself horizontally far into the air. Impossibly catching the tossed the briefcase, with a mighty sideways heave he twisted and flung it back over the wall where it landed safely on the sidewalk. Emma's stomach shrank when she then lost sight of Steed as, arms and legs spinning, he continued falling to the cold, terribly polluted, and dangerous Thames river forty feet below the bridge.

"Steed's fallen into the river!" Martha yelled out. "Good heavens, what a drop!"
Emma was barely aware of Gambit shooting the man, the whole problem to all of this, as the fellow reached for the briefcase again once it landed by his feet. She screeched the Jaguar to a halt in the middle of the bridge, the cars behind her breaking suddenly to avoid a collision. Grabbing a pair of large binoculars from the glove compartment Emma dashed out of the car, and blithely mindless of the danger she traversed the remaining three lanes of the four lane road hardly noticing the cars that went out of their way, with skid, horn, and swerve to miss her. Standing on the opposite sidewalk she looked for Steed in the swiftly flowing current that had taken him under the bridge, praying that he would surface safely after such a long fall into the deep river. Forty feet! That could have kill him!
The Thames was at high tide. That meant the waterway was even more dangerous due to the rapid speed and strength of the current. Biting her lower lip, Emma swept her eyes back and forth along the river.

"There he is, Emma," Purdey said, pointed from Emma's left.
Following Purdey's finger she saw Steed floating downstream from the bridge, struggling to remove his jacket and tie. As he got those articles off, releasing them into the dank water, Steed opened his upper shirt buttons then, bobbing up and down, already filthy from the tainted water, with some difficulty was able to remove his shoes. Once those impediments to swimming were eliminated, Steed began a breast stroke fighting the current as he headed for the far shore, three hundred and fifty feet away. His right arm broke his smooth rhythm as Steed had trouble lifting it completely over his head in the full sweeping motion required to effectively enhance his movement forward.

"What's the matter with his right arm?" Purdey asked.
"He injured it, er, being thrown from the top of a car when it crashed into another car. Twice," Emma explained in a monotone, her emotions so embroiled inside her that all that could squeeze out of her was a shocked deadpan. At Purdey's questioning look, Emma added, "I just happened upon him chasing the man with the briefcase and followed him here. I think he must be injured, at least slightly. Can't you call for a boat to pick him up?"
"Gambit's doing that now," Purdey said. "But it may take too long."

Emma wanted to ask what was in the briefcase, why was it so important that Steed would do such a rash and insane thing, but she didn't, knowing that Purdey would not have been able to tell her anyway. Her forehead wrinkled in rising anxiety; the Thames was unsafe for the strongest and healthiest of swimmers, let alone her tired, injured, and weak husband. She glanced back and saw the shadowy cars of The Ministry directing the police activities in collecting the dead man and the briefcase; she was relieved to see that her car was being ignored by the police, probably on either Purdey's or Gambit's orders. She turned back to the water and saw that Steed, quickly drifting far away from her, had changed to a left sidestroke position which kept his right arm from needing to raise above his head. He made very gradual progress cutting across the uncooperative current, and putting the binoculars to her eyes she saw Steed just float for a few seconds as he tried to gather his strength and recover his breath. He wiped his hand over his face, holding it over his eyes, as if something had got into his them and caused some irritation. Emma prayed that Steed would be able to fight the fast and powerful current to reach the bank soon, thus preventing him from being floated down where the river widened out, having his laborious journey be extended beyond what his stores of energy might be able to supply.

"Steed will shower for three hours after this, I bet, using up six bars of soap, and two containers of shampoo," Purdey said, though softly. Emma appreciated her attempt both to joke through their nervousness and affirm her confidence in Steed's successful navigation through the river.

Steed began to swim again. Though his strokes grew less and less perfect in quality he steadily maintained them, cutting through the rush of defiled water, his incredible level of fitness and his immeasurable determination seeing him through this crisis. Long minutes passed. By the time Emma was scarcely able to view him through the strongest Ministry binoculars Research had developed, she was rewarded with seeing Steed reach the bank, and with the help of pedestrians who had noticed him swimming and who had run down the nearby Embankment steps to offer aid, he was dragged out of the disgusting river and laid, barefoot, half-dressed and completely enervated, on the ground.

It was then Emma saw a darkly painted motorboat zipping through the water towards the bridge.
"Nothing like closing the barn door after the horse has run off," Purdey murmured, in obvious disdain for the late appearance of Steed's rescue craft.

Emma felt the tension drain out of her like a blinding sun inside her had becoming a cooling sunset. Steed was alive and safe.
"Thank God," Emma said.
"Thank God," Purdey repeated.

Emma took a deep breath in and exhaled fully. "Purdey, I would very much appreciate that you don't tell Steed that I was here today. There' s no reason to, and I don't want to upset him."
Purdey looked at Emma. "Don't worry, Emma. Steed won't find out. It's a good idea to keep it from him. I think he'd be quite put off to learn you saw him act like an idiot."

Good old Purdey. Never one to mince words. Emma was glad that they had become close friends after her marriage to Steed. It certainly helped that Steed had been instrumental in Purdey meeting her fiancé as well. Emma smiled, and decided to risk a comment. "I'm sure he thought the briefcase was important enough to cause him to 'act like an idiot'."
"Oh, it was, it was. Fate of all England, and all that. Oh, yes, he's quite the hero in the hush-hush world now, again, I can tell you that. If the contents of the briefcase had hit the river… sshh, don't tell anyone… some scientist's poison… strongest ever discovered… Yet…" she shrugged, "the thing is, Steed is quite important himself."
"Yes, yes, he is. He is indeed," Emma agreed. She leaned forward and gave Purdey a quick hug, which Purdey returned. "You're a dear. Thank you. I better get back to my car, before my passengers mutiny."

With a little more care and awareness Emma made it back across the wide road in one piece. She entered the car and put the binoculars away as if she had stopped for no more important reason than to view a rare bird she had espied chirping in a tree. The women asked her a million questions in less than a minute and finally Emma, waving to Gambit as she drove off, raised a hand and asked for peace, deciding it was best just to be curt and to the point.

"Ladies, my husband is safe and sound. I should like to forget this whole event took place, and to that intent, please let's just drop the subject and head to Excalibur Ten, where our presence, though late, will be most welcomed. I also ask you to keep this afternoon just among the four of us; it is highly recommended you do so as you will not find any substantiation of this story in any news sources, from television broadcasts to The Times."

The ladies stared at her as if she was announcing she had decided to have a third arm surgically implanted in her head. Finally Constance spoke.
"What a life you must live, Emma," she said.
"It's not a bad life at all, Constance," Emma said, feeling a little defensive. Then to lighten the mood, she added, "Remember, we never argue."
The four of them laughed at that all the way to the art show.

Emma arrived at 3 Stable Mews at 7:00 p.m. that evening. She parked the Jaguar in the garage, and began climbing the stairs to their apartment. She was right on time to shower and dress for Sir Eustace Rosten's yearly fete, the party that Emma had to admit she enjoyed more than all the other endless social gatherings she and Steed attended. This was the affair Emma actually looked forward to. Full of scientists, philosophers, clergymen, judges, artists, and so on, Sir Eustace's house became, for twelve solid hours the epitome of an intellectually oriented salon, and Emma thrived on the conversation and ideas shared and discussed throughout the night. After lauding the sunrise from the top of Sir Eustace's large townhouse in Chelsea, Sir Eustace served his famous breakfast --whose international delicacies surpassed even that of his Epicurean supper of the previous night. For Emma, it was the perfect party --she reveled in the intellectual, philosophical, and gastronomical satiety.

Sir Eustace tendered invitations to married couples only, both of whom had to arrive together to gain entrance into his home. In Sir Eustace's eccentricity, his obsessive need to promote the birthing and nourishing of ideas and concepts, of creativity and respectful debate, he needed the evening to be pure in it's design to stimulate and enlighten his guests. He was loathe to have any visitor descend to the trivial allure of flirting within the confines of his home; a risk he believe existed with any unaccompanied individual. The fact that his own wife had left him for another man when he had traveled extensively on business had only solidified Sir Eustace's judgmental attitude towards single people at parties, whether married or not.

Thus Emma's conundrum. Would Steed be able to attend tonight? Or would his fatigue and/or his injuries prevent him from doing so? Of course, Emma wasn't supposed to know about Steed's difficult afternoon, and she had no hopes that Steed would be forthright about what had happened. In the two years since they had married, Steed had returned home three or four times, acting as if his day and the case he had been on had ended easily, with no strenuous activity imparted. It was only when he had stiffly undressed at night and her wide eyes had taken in the gauze and his bruises… "Tripped over an ice cream cone in Regents Park" he had sheepishly and ridiculously told earlier this year, in March, when he had returned home from a case hardly able to bend his spine forward or backwards. That had been the last time he had attempted to frivolously distract her from the results of his dangerous life with a patently untruthful remark designed to have her roll her eyes at him and afford her the knowledge that he should rather have his injuries pass unmentioned.

She had let it pass unmentioned. She had married a man split in two halves --he could be loquacious, even gregarious at times, friendly, chipper, a fascinating raconteur; yet, he was also the most silent of men when it came to his work and his past. Two and a half years of marriage and eight years since she had first met Steed, Emma still didn't know the full story of the scars on his muscular body she otherwise knew so very, intimately well. She had asked about them once or twice, been soundly redirected to some other conversation and never asked again, respecting Steed's need for privacy. Steed had never offered to tell about his scars on his own, proving that need existed.

Emma unlocked the door to the apartment and was greeted by the sight of Steed, cleansed to a pristine sheen and resplendent in his dinner jacket, slouching on the sofa, a brandy resting on his leg. His head rested against the top of dark brown leather couch and his eyes were closed. Emma wondered if he was asleep.
"Hello, lovely lady," a familiar voice said, warming her, as she closed the door behind her. "How was your day?"

Well, Emma thought as she smiled back at his handsome face, I saw my husband roughly tossed off a car twice, hit by a briefcase several times, dive into the Thames, and fight his way to the shore. I've decided to call a spade a spade and just sew him a bulletproof cape with the giant letters JS in the middle, for him to wear when he goes flying out to defend the innocent against the crazed and evil. Super Bowler Man, fighter of diabolical masterminds.

"Fine," she said. "And yours, how did it go?"
Steed waved his hand about, "Oh, swimmingly."
Swimmingly. If she didn't love Steed so very much she would have thrown her handbag at him. Instead, she fought back a resigned laugh, and walked over to him kissing him on the top of his rich thick hair, still solidly brown with no grey hairs.

"Case closed?" Emma asked, plopping down next to him on the sofa. He took her hand in his and kissed the back of it.
"And hermetically sealed. Did your Excalibur Ten opening go well? Sell any paintings?"
She told him about the showing and had to relate that, unsurprisingly, none of her paintings sold. Instead she had purchased a landscape of the Eifel valley in Germany.

"You're dressed early and ready to go," she stated, admiring how his trim figure enhanced the perfect tailoring of his dinner jacket. On a mischievous whim, she decided to see how far she could push her husband into remaining his unspoken self regarding his afternoon adventure.
"Yes," he said. "Got a little, well, disheveled this afternoon, and thought an early shower would be best."

Only Steed would use the word "disheveled" to describe being subjected to all the poisonous effluvia simmering in the Thames, the result of hundreds of years of uncontrolled dumping of all of London's waste products into the foul waterway.
"Too bad. I was hoping to shower together." Emma let her hand travel down the buttons of Steed's fine white shirt, then over his black cummerbund, to rest lightly on the zipper of his perfectly creased pants.

Steed leaned forward and kissed her lips, then nodded towards the kitchen and the circular stairway in it that led to the large bedroom and bath on the upper level of the flat.
"We'll save that for later. Don't want to be late for the party, or should I say "The Party." Mustn't keep all the big brains waiting for the smartest one of all to arrive. Their brilliant opinions will seem pointless without you there to expand and elucidate upon them."
"You flatter me," Emma said, affecting a nose in the air pose of superiority. Yet her mind was busy analyzing Steed's mood.

Steed was not interested in sex? Then indeed he must be bruised, bandaged, and sore underneath his clothes; nothing else would have stopped him from undressing Emma right then and there. Or hopping back into the shower with her.
Emma kissed his forehead and stood up, deciding to push things one little bit more.

"Let's walk to Sir Eustace's, shall we? It should only take a half hour, and since," she grinned at him, "we'll shall be ready do go with plenty of time to spare, considering it doesn't take me long to get ready, and nothing apparently and unfortunately will prevent me from doing so. Since it's a lovely summer evening, the stroll would be quite delightful, don't you think?"
Steed looked up at her blinking a few times. "Yes, a stroll would be delightful," he said.

A certain little sadness suddenly fell over Emma, and saying "Great" she hid her discomfort at forcing Steed to exert himself further by waving at him and heading for the stairs. If only, she thought climbing upwards, if only, just once, he would open up and share with her. She would see his injuries later this evening as they disrobed for bed, but just once before they wrapped their arms around each other, Emma conscientiously striving to avoid holding him too tightly over a wound, just once she would like for Steed to tell her his day had been hard, and he was in pain. It was not his nature, she knew, but if Steed could just break out of his marbled ideals of silence, codified through thirty years of intelligence work, he would find that he had nothing to fear from Emma in his doing so.

They walked along the street arm in arm, Steed limping slightly, Emma's heels clicking against the sidewalk as they sauntered. When Emma made an obvious glance down at his right leg, Steed mumbled, "It's an old roller skating injury."
"Indeed," she answered, waiting and willing for his upcoming lie, masquerading it as an inevitably entertaining yet questionable tale of his incredibly accident prone youth. Steed twirled his umbrella a few times building up the tension.

"Mad Cousin Lewis," he began, "in his 'racing phase,' convinced me that being attached via strong hemp to the back of my father's Mercedes, whilst I was on roller skates and as he drove the car quickly down the country lane, would be a grand old thing to do."
"And you agreed?"
"As any eight year old red-blooded lad would."
"The result being…"
"…an immediate spill followed by being dragged down the road for nearly one hundred yards; the shredded ruin of the wedding suit I was wearing for Cousin Ellen's marital event; the almost complete removal of all my epidermis; a broken right kneecap; and a firm agreement by all the relatives that Cousin Lewis needed to be 'sent away' for some little time."
"And what ever happened to poor misguided Cousin Lewis?"
"He decamped to Bolivia and made his fortune in coffee beans."
"Ah." The unsettling thing was, even through the fantastical evasive verbal maneuvering Steed incorporated as regularly as he incorporated air into his lungs, sometimes Emma had the worrisome idea that maybe those unbelievable childhood stories of his had actually occurred. If so, John Steed had been immensely lucky to reach sixteen years old, let alone survive World War II and a lifetime of spy work.

They chatted about last year's affair at Sir Eustace's, Emma hoping that the specialist in Jungian studies from Bonn would be there again; Steed hoping that Sir Eustace had stocked up on enough chalk to keep his pool cue shooting straight all evening long. Hours and hours of "cerebral debauchery" did not appeal to Steed, although he could hold his own on a variety of erudite subjects if pinned into a corner. Steed was much smarter and more astute than he often openly demonstrated, secure enough to contain the impressive depth of his knowledge on many topics, and content to be seen just as a witty conversationalist. It was solely part and parcel of him hiding so much of his life from others, his sanguine nature comfortable with showcasing himself in public as merely a light-hearted gentleman with a bantering and convivial demeanor. He was attending mainly as Emma's escort, to allow her entrance into the brimming tide of educated wordplay that so excited her.

Steed glanced down the length of her body, ogling her. "You look ravishing in that dress, my dear," he said. "I fear that Sir Eustace knows too well the reaction of the male gender. If you were to appear alone, like that, the male philosophers and scientists would remain speechless the entire evening. It would put a decided crimp in eliciting the answers on how to match plaid with paisley, or whatever else you discuss so avidly."

Emma never tired of hearing Steed compliment her. She beamed and placed her arm around his back, allowing it at times to slip a little too low for Steed's public ease. Steed wrapped his arm around her waist, and then suddenly stopped their forward progression, his head stock still and his eyes slightly blank, as if he was sensing something beyond the level of normal perception. Which he was.

"Something's wrong," he said, and removing his bowler he ran to the corner of the block with Emma right behind him. That occasional sixth sense he had developed, Emma thought. A tickle of danger on the nape of his neck. As they glanced down the street to their right they saw the trouble; a terrace house was on fire, several open windows showing the macabre dance of the flames while a dark smoke poured out of them.

Steed jogged toward the crowd as a spare woman dressed in a plain frock and carrying a bag of clothes came running down the street from the other direction, screaming hysterically.
"My children! My children! They were in the house! I just went to my sister's for a few minutes, to get the clothes they left there. Oh, my God! Has anyone seen my children!"

None of the neighbors had. As panic escalated among the increasing crowd, Emma watched feeling a bit thick and numb as she saw Steed shake the woman gently to focus her coherency, asking her questions about the number --two-- and age of the children --four and six-- and where she had last seen them in the house --a bedroom on the second floor. As tears streamed down the mother's face and no fire trucks approached, Steed cast a quick, open glance at Emma, his face unreadable, blank, yet in his eyes Emma saw a universe of emotions all directed at her. Emma felt a chill run through her, and then Steed simply turned, dropped his bowler and brolly to the road, and ran towards the front door of the three story tall inflamed building, opening it and hunching over as he disappeared into the fiery structure.
A comic book hero, Emma thought, dully. I shall have to sew him up a bulletproof cape.

Long minutes passed. People stood all around Emma, and random noises and sounds filtered into her ears.
"Where's the bloody fire engines! Bloody slow fire brigade!"
"My children, my children!"
"Jesus, look at the flames. House must be a tinderbox."
"Do you think he'll find the children?"
"I can't believe he ran into the house, children or no. No one could survive in there."
And then there in the distance, growing quickly, the sound of a siren.
But more immediately, more importantly, a yell, "Sweet Mary, look!"

They looked, everyone one of them following the man's arm midway up the house, to the second floor, where Steed leaned out a window holding onto two small children wrapped in towels, flames visible behind him, and smoke encircling him.
His voice, hoarse and raspy from behind the wet hand towel he had wrapped around his mouth, cried out, "Catch the children!" All the men in the street hopped over the low fence that separated the sidewalk from the small patch of grass that lay in front of the house, holding up their arms for the small ones to be dropped into. One by one, the children fell into strong, waiting arms, and their mother fell to her knees, sobbing in thanks. As the fire engine pulled up, Steed sagged, and fell back into the room, seeming to land directly on the flames. People screamed; Emma closed her eyes.

She opened them a few seconds later when she heard someone say, "There he is!" and as the firemen came tumbling off the engine, grabbing their hoses, unhitching the fire hydrants, Steed leaned out of the window and fell forward, his left arm holding onto the window frame so that his downward momentum was jerked to a halt as his long body straightened out. His right pant leg over his calf was on fire. Steed released his left hand and landed on the ground beneath him, but he was tilted awkwardly so his legs slipped out from under him upon impact and he crashed hard to the grass on his side. The firemen were right there; their hoses put out the flames, then they lifted him by the arms and dragged him away from the structure, as other firemen began spraying it with the high velocity water from their hoses.
Steed's head sagged forward and as the men sat him on the step of their truck they put an oxygen mask over his face, which Steed grabbed and used to take deep draughts of air, coughing quite a bit at first.

Emma came to him. Steed was filthy and wet, again, covered in smoke and sweat; a walking, watery ash tray. His lower right pant leg was in rags from the fire.
"Oi, sir, what's your name?" a fireman asked.
"Crofford. Elliot Crofford," Emma answered. The fireman looked at her. "I'm Mrs. Crofford, his wife."
Aliases. Never rescue children without one.
"Mr. Crofford, are you okay?" the man asked.

Steed's eyebrows raised high at that question and in an indignant manner he moved the mask off his face and said, stonily, "No, I'm not okay! Do I look okay?"
Emma froze at those words. For Steed to admit to being "not okay," he had to be seriously injured.
"What's wrong, sir?" the burly fireman inquired.
"What's wrong? Look at these clothes!" Steed said, loudly, sucking on more pure air before he could speak again. "Do you know how well tailored this dinner jacket was? It fit me perfectly! Now look at it. It's ruined. Completely ruined!"

Or Steed had to have had his sartorial elegance decimated beyond repair.
Steed put his face back behind the mask, his face fairly glowering, coughing regularly, his hand rubbing his right lower leg. The fireman looked up bewildered at Emma, and she said, "I think he's fine. I'll take over from here."
"He should probably go to a hospital, ma'am. He may have had, er, a bump on the head inside the house."
"No, no, he's normally this way," Emma assured him, patting his arm. The man wasn't so reassured.
"Run along now and put out the fire," she directed him, delicately pushing the man away from them.

A coughing fit came over Steed. When it settled down, Emma held out his bowler and umbrella and said, "Well, you've still got these." And then her heart melted and she knelt in front of him and added, "Steed, I love you. But sometimes you scare me to pieces, you dear, brave man."

After a few minutes the woman and her two children came up to Steed. Like Steed the children were filthy, but they had escaped the smoke and flames by hiding in a closet and then being immediately wrapped in wet towels by the man who had found and saved them.

"My God, sir, how can I ever thank you for saving my children?"
Steed took the mask off again. He stood up and turned to put the mask on the step, uncomfortable with the intensity of the woman's gratitude. Emma knew Steed would have stayed breathing behind the mask longer if the woman hadn't appeared.
"Don't worry about it. I'm just glad they're safe and sound," Steed mumbled, hiding some coughs behind his fist.
The woman took his hand. "God bless you, sir," she said.
"Thank you," each of the little ones rang out, turning back to him and waving as their mother lead them away.
Steed waved back. As more fire trucks arrived, and the police, Steed said, "Let's get out of here."

They walked back to 3 Stable Mews, only fifteen minutes away, although Steed limped a bit more and he had random coughing fits. Steed told Emma what had happened inside the house, Emma taking it in calmly like a nice agent's wife should, as if he was merely relaying his performance on a polo field. Once back at their apartment, Steed told Emma to wait downstairs for him, and he slowly climbed the stairs to shower again and change into his spare dinner jacket. Emma would have liked to examine him for all the wounds of the day, and was concerned about whether his calf had been burnt by the flames that had crisped his pants but Steed said he was basically alright, they had to hurry now to get to the party, and so, reluctantly, she agreed to wait for him to reappear.

When he did, thirty minutes later, as handsome as ever, a little heavy on the cologne to cover any smoky aromatic residue, Emma stood up, handed him a coffee and asked, "Are you sure you're fit to go to the party?"

She could see some fatigue etched on his face, and his movements were decidedly stiffer, though not to the point where they illustrated an obvious impairment. His limp was more noticeable, but again, nothing that a simple act of prevaricating wouldn't hide. He sipped on the hot beverage then put it down on his desk.
"I'm fine, and certainly not in rough enough shape to cancel your eagerly awaited evening plans. However…"
"I wonder if you'd mind if we drove to Sir Eustace's. That is, if you drove. Advertise that women's liberation idea for all his guests to see."

Emma smiled. "Of course I'll drive." She put her arms around him, and kissed him long and hard. They stood thusly entwined for some time, and then Steed had to break away to cough. The paroxysmal attack was bad enough to bend him over, and he leaned on his desk, hacking deeply for a good minute.
"Just how much smoke did you inhale?" she asked, concerned.
"Not much. I mainly held my breath," he answered as his bronchials relaxed. "Still, it's rather nasty stuff." He stood up straight and burst for the door, grabbing his bowler and umbrella. "Well, enough dallying and small talk. Let's get a move on."
"Why you sound positively excited to mix with the sages of Europe."
"My dear, you entirely misinterpret my exuberance. I am solely of a mind to mix with Sir Eustace's gourmet buffet spread. I am, quite frankly, starving."

They arrived late, but in the fashionable sense, so they were allowed entrance without any problems. It was a grand old Georgian townhouse, taking up half a block, that had been in Sir Eustace's family for two hundred years. Decorated in dark woods, with Persian carpets, porcelain vases, paintings with large and gaudy frames, furniture from many lands and many different historical periods scattered hither and yon lacking any thematic plan, the rooms inside were a testament of their host's nonconformity to decorative laws. Yet it still managed to be warm and friendly, offering the guests the same tolerant, nonjudgmental attitude the house itself opined. Steed dragged Emma past innumerable people she desired to converse with, with a "First comestibles, then communication" directive.

They ascended the broad staircase to the second floor --the slight effort eliciting a few coughs from Steed-- and there, on the side of the drawing room that was large enough to almost host an indoor football tournament, Steed exclaimed a happy "Ah hah!" as he found a twenty foot long table of food. He piled his plate high with various delicacies, Emma being more judicious, and they found a table to sit at. Steed ate with relish, his accompanying beverage being water, of all things, and he unusually avoided the wine that Emma motioned for a server to bring over to them. That was Emma's first warning bell, but she deftly put it aside, too absorbed in the upcoming evening.

The first and second floor rooms in the house were roughly divided into intellectual sections --philosophy, earth sciences, physics, math, art, politics, humanities, spirituality/religion, medicine, law… and people were allowed to travel to one room and subject matter as they pleased. At least one specialist in each topic --and usually three or four-- sat eagerly in each room, pontificating their opinions and waiting for some guest to begin a discussion. Strong dissension occurred, was in fact welcomed, the only rules to the evening being no cursing, no yelling, and no violence.

Once Steed was sated Emma dragged him to the physics room, where she engaged in a lovely discussion of astrophysics with the top scientist in that field in Europe --Herr Wilhelm Konstein from Munster. Steed stood in back of the small group, and as Emma glanced at him occasionally she was happy to see him listening to her discourses, and seeing his glowing smile when she challenged Herr Konstein on several key points he had made in a tone of inviolable authority displayed his pride in her. She didn't really need him to be proud of her, but it made her feel good nonetheless.

The hours passed, for Emma in heavenly discussions on innumerable topics; this one night feeding her soul for half a year. At 10:00 p.m., she found herself in the philosophy room and the woman leading at that time, Freda Lustgraff, decided that watching the news broadcast that night would well illustrate various mores and rites afflicting modern societies. As the guests stood watching the television, Emma heard a cough and then felt Steed come up behind her putting his hands on her shoulders; she placed her hand down on his thigh. The newsman gave the usual reading of the day's current events, and although there was no report on the doings on and under Waterloo Bridge, there was a local report of a man, a Mr. Elliot Crofford, who had selflessly ran into a burning house and saved the lives of two children. The newsman then digressed and wondered if this was the same "mysterious" Elliot Crofford who had stopped a bank robbery in Manchester the year before, who was responsible, by witness accounts, for interfering and preventing at least three muggings over the last five years, and who had saved a lad from drowning in the Ure River four years ago. The newsman then asked for any information from any viewer who might know who "Mr. Crofford" was, reported to be a tall, brown-haired, handsome, and well-dressed man.

Emma leaned back to her husband and spoke out of the corner of her mouth, "Looks like it's time to shop around for a new alias."
Steed, his eyes wide, whispered back, "Indeed!"
Ms. Lustgraff picked up on that topic and opened a discussion on altruism and Good Samaritanism. Steed politely left the room.

Emma had images of Steed all night, flickering in and out of rooms, playing billiards with other rather disinterested spouses. She noticed he was drinking just water, only water, and the thought crossed her mind that he only did that when he had taken pain killers and couldn't mix alcohol with the drugs. But then the anthropologist made an absurd and unsubstantiated comment about the aborigines living on the Andaman islands, and Emma quoted from the research article that refuted his comment but continued his line of thought with the Anasazi Indians of the American Southwest.

At midnight Steed's limp worsened noticeably, but the math professor from Cambridge misinterpreted a cosine in the proof of Danielson's treatise on the trinomial theorem, and Emma had to grab a piece of chalk and demonstrate the original meaning.

At 1:00 a.m., Emma saw Steed stumble tiredly exiting the room and he walked into the edge of the entranceway by mistake, bouncing off, pulling his jacket down to compose himself and then meandering into the hallway. Her body jolted to stand and go after him, but the artist's discussion of post-modernism as a guideline to society's subconscious yearnings was too enthralling, and she stayed seated listening.

At 2:00 a.m., Emma returned from the bathroom and glimpsing a shadowy figure in the weaponry room she entered and saw Steed, off in a corner alone, hunched over a display case of maces, his head bowed heavily, his right hand rubbing his right leg… but she had left a fascinating talk on the need for capital punishment in a civilized society. She stopped briefly to ask if he was alright, and receiving a quick nod of affirmation and a short smile, she returned to the law room.

At 3:00 a.m., Sir Eustace came up to Emma still in the law room and requested she follow him. A little annoyed, Emma excused herself and accompanied Sir Eustace to the third floor of his home, devoid of labeled rooms and guests. There down the hallway, next to the library, in the room which housed Sir Eustace's collection of suits of armor from all different countries, she saw two long legs sticking out from between a set of French and Spanish knightly regalia. Emma walked slowly towards the legs and soon could see Steed, her husband, slouched in a plush burgundy chair, his head tucked on a shoulder, his left arm bracing his right, his right leg straight out, his left leg bent. He lay sleeping, with a look of utter exhaustion suffusing his pale face, and lines of pain evident around his eyes and forehead.

"I found him here just by chance," Sir Eustace reported. "Came to get a reference book from the library and saw some legs from the doorway. I say, Emma, he doesn't look well. Is he ill?"
"Yes, he is," Emma said softly, touching Steed's face.
"Oh, well, I'm quite sorry to hear that. What is he suffering from?"
Emma sighed, guilt and shame filling her. "From a selfish and inconsiderate wife."

She knelt down by his side and began shaking Steed gently, calling out his name. It took a bit of effort, but finally Steed's eyelids blinked a number of times and he awakened. He saw Emma by his side and said, "Hello, lovely lady," brushing her hair back from her face with his hand.
An agony of love for Steed pained Emma; how could she have ignored all the earlier signs of his need to return home and just callously considered those stupid talks more important than him?
"Steed, come on," she said, softly. "It's time to go home."

She pulled Steed to a full sitting position, and now she couldn't at all discount his grimacing, his grunts at the soreness of movement.
"But, is it dawn already?" he asked.
"No. However, it's still time for us to go home. I'm done here tonight. Come, can you stand up?"
She and Sir Eustace were needed to get Steed to his feet, and once there he tottered and oscillated holding Emma's arm for balance.
"Little on the weak side," he smiled.
"Lean on me," Emma said; he did, and she led him out. Steed limped heavily on his right leg, not bending it at all, his eyes half or full closed. Emma cautiously adjusted to his awkward gait.

"Sir Eustace, may we use the back stairwell? I should rather not descend down to the main entrance. Perhaps one of your servants could bring our Jaguar around the back of the house?" No need to have everyone staring at her incapacitated husband; Steed deserved better than that.
"Of course, Emma. Of course. I fully understand."

It was hard going, getting Steed downstairs with his right leg so immobile, and his stiffness and fatigue so encompassing. They had to stop once for a coughing fit. Gradually they made it, having no other choice but to push on, and soon they were outside putting Steed in the car. Emma waved her thanks to Sir Eustace as she drove off. Steed leaned his head against the window and fell asleep even though it was only a fifteen minute drive back to their apartment. She pulled the car into the garage and then managed somehow to get Steed out and pull, drag, and almost carry his exhausted and injured body upstairs to their apartment, and then upstairs to the bedroom.

Emma sat him down on the bed, and as he fumbled unsuccessfully with buttons and cufflinks she pulled back the cover and the sheet, undressed the upper half of his body, then laid him down and removed the rest of his clothes except his briefs. Steed was asleep almost immediately. Having free reign to investigate what the day had wrought upon Steed's muscular, lean, and defined body Emma saw the brace around his upper right arm and shoulder, the large bruise in the middle of his chest, felt the knob of a bump on his head, saw the bruises and abrasions on his arms, legs and back, his swollen right knee, and last, undoing his less than perfect taping of gauze over his lower right leg, she noticed the dark angry red field of skin upon which sat a multitude of large second degree burn blisters.
"Oh, Steed," she cried. The burns alone must have been acutely painful to him; combined with the remnants from his afternoon escapades… he surely had been dreadfully suffering all evening.

No, they didn't argue. No, she didn't ask him how he had come by his scars. And no, he didn't allow his injuries and wounds, garnered in such serious activities, to ruin his wife's trivial fun.

She put some herbal salve on his burns and redid the bandages, then covered his body with the sheet. She found the pain pills in his dinner jacket and put them back in their bathroom cabinet next to the only other prescriptions in their home, a different pain remedy, and her birth control pills. Steed had chosen to use the weaker drug; the ones designed to get keep him going, perhaps barely, yet not knock him out as the others often did. Steed's system was remarkably sensitive to medications, and he loathed taking them. Tomorrow Emma would call Hal Anderson, Steed's homeopathic and herbal orientated friend, and inquire what he would recommend for Steed's wounds, as Steed generally preferred those natural sorts of medicines if he could. Emma walked back into the bedroom and stood over Steed, and she experienced the frequent feeling that she was only half a person standing there, and that Steed was truly the other half of who she was.

Emma undressed and lay down next to her sleeping husband, kissing him over and over as he dozed, caressing him, holding him, until she rested against his chest, lulled by its steady rising and falling, and the slow, strong beat of his heart, his enormous heart that she loved so very much, and she fell asleep still remorseful, yet ever thankful.

Chapter Two

It was a terrible autumn, cold, unendingly damp and miserable. Starting in early October, the rains had fallen with a continuity that had weighted the souls of many a hardy native of Great Britain. Now, a month later, in November, the skies were still infected with a rash of grey thick clouds, that seemingly dumped all the waters of the world onto the umbrella carrying, coat collar lifting, running, ducking, pale inhabitants of those soaking wet isles. Rushes of wind usually accompanied the downpours, and more than one person cursed the weather as their hats flew off into the strong shifting air.

North of London was not exempt from the gales, nor from the miserable wash of water delivered from the sobbing skies.

Yet, early one Saturday morning Steed and Emma, ensconced in the spacious master bedroom of their large manor home, showed not the least concern nor irritation at the weather. They were not even aware of the buckets of water thrown against their bedroom windows with tempestuous regularity.

"Steed…" Emma moaned, as her husband conformed his body against her back, his arms wrapping around her front beginning to rub her breasts as he kissed her neck, his foot rubbing her leg, the sign of his hard and hungry arousal evident next to her buttocks.

Steed said nothing, his hands, mouth, and penis talking for him. His eyes closed as he thrilled in this closeness to Emma, this favorite position of his; wrapping her so close to him so he felt if he just waited a few minutes, she would waver, dissolve, and be physically incorporated into his body. He loved encompassing her so totally, protecting her, covering her up from all the world but him, and with his touches, his kisses, having it bring her nothing but escalating pleasure. He knew that although Emma couldn't hold him in this posture, couldn't hug him, bite him, caress him, still she relished laying like this in front of him, allowing him full access to her body, allowing him to take her to the highest pitch of response their joining could bring. To Steed, it was the most wonderful win-win situation he had ever encountered in life.

Steed began slowly and lightly to rub her breasts with both hands, his fingers barely contacting the nipples, yet in that gentle exploration they grew hard and pointed. Slowly, so slowly he continued, the minutes ticking away ignored, whilst he kiss her shoulder, her neck, her hair, and murmured in deep, gravelly tones what he wanted to do to her, what he wanted to make her feel, how much he loved her, both the low tonal depth and the meaning of his words setting Emma's hair on edge and enhancing her shivers, moans and moistness.

Slowly, so slowly Steed's hands pressed deeper on her breasts, rubbed her nipples just a tiny bit rougher, his leg left leg intertwining itself between hers and pulling her compliant left leg away from her right, separating those shapely limbs so that the wonderful apex between them was made openly available to Steed's limber, strong, eager, and skillful fingers. As Emma lay in the crook of his right elbow, Steed's right arm maintained it's enjoyment of her breasts, while his left arm slid slowly, so slowly down her abdomen, taking time to massage it, press it towards him, hold her. Time, there was in actuality no time there with them, just that moment, and the next moment of growing desire. Steed moved his hand down the side of Emma's leg, in back to her buttocks, kissing her waist, and then as he straightened up to curve his body alongside Emma's again, Steed's hand traversed her inner thigh, felt her pubic hair, and then slowly, so slowly slid down to her most intimate area, already drenched and warm, yet increasing abundantly as Steed whispered in Emma's ear, "I want you so very badly."
Emma responded simply with a whine of need.

But, he made no move in that regard. Whispering, "I know what you like," "I want you to feel exquisite pleasure," "Let me take you slowly, deeply," Emma shuddered in pure, unmistakable lust, her breaths already jerky, her hands reaching around to touch Steed's face, his hair, his arm, his thigh.
"Steed, oh, this is wonderful… do what you want… you're so very good to me," she moaned.

Steed smiled in a wily way and ran his fingertip over her clitoris, slowly, back and forth, as Emma arched her hips to his movements; sometimes Steed thrust two fingers into her matching her slight rhythmic motions, feeling for the spot inside and on the top that made Emma bite her lip in her craving. Then back to the clitoris, planting the cornerstones of Emma's climax, which Steed had plans to build into a veritable skyscraper. All the while his erection grew firmer, hotter, drops of semen spilling out in anticipation of its ultimate release. He rubbed his penis against Emma's buttocks in an irregular manner that matched the sporadic nature of his breathing, as his arousal drew in sudden inhalations that were held quite long and then exhaled forcefully.

Steed's hands worked slowly, so slowly, until finally, when his fingers were inside her, Emma grabbed his hand and kept them in her vagina, pushing herself against them. At that signal, Steed slid down a little and angling himself correctly, he lifted her left leg with his left arm, laying it on his prominent hip bone, and then he used his hand to position the tip of his penis against her inviting opening. And slowly, so slowly, he began thrusting against it in small movements, barely entering her, his hand returning to her clitoris, his other covering her breast, his open mouth on her shoulder, sucking and licking the skin.

She was his. All of her was his. So many years he had missed her, wanted her, desired her, and she hadn't been there by his side, hadn't been in his life, this soft and gracious woman, this genius, this sprite, who made him young, made him happy, made him so very thankful. He had her, entwined in his arms, his legs, his thrusts, he could hold her tight, hide her from the world, kiss her, enter her, and say, without any hint or demand of possession, she's mine. Because she wanted to be. Because he was hers in willing exchange.

Emma bent forward, lifting her hips up to him as much as she could being so entirely ensconced in Steed's body. "Steed, deeper, go deeper," she urged.
Steed went deeper. Slowly, so slowly, he went deeper, entering half of his long penis in her and then so slowly pulling it out, knowing that the ecstasy that coursed from his genitals throughout his whole body was simultaneously occurring in Emma. In and out he went, each set lasting several seconds, and then after another couple of minutes, he went in as deep as he could, still so slowly they could feel every inch of friction traveling the length of their connection. Deep, Emma loved him to go so deep. It never hurt her, it just made everything more dramatic, more alive for her. Steed removed his finger from her clitoris and placing in over her pubic hair he pushed Emma down towards him at the end of each of his slow thrusts; after a few of those Emma cried out, "Oh, John!" His first name, which she used so rarely, so sporadically it was still new and fresh, and each time Steed heard it he flushed with feeling.

Emma began shaking against Steed, who knew how to prolong her orgasm, who knew so much about her body, and wished to be an endless student of it, so still pulling her down to him, he thrust shortly yet deeply, faster than before but not much faster, feeling his penis hit her far inside, and Emma put her hands on his forearms, wrapped her ankle around his lower leg, and shook roughly over and over again.

When Emma finally stopped her waning twitches, Steed, still hard in her, let her rest for a few minutes. They spoke words of tender love, still meaningful and heartfelt after two years of marriage, still undiminished in their ardent expression of devotion. For so long as Ministry colleagues neither had been able to share their true feelings; both too afraid of exposing their vulnerability, too fearful of the intensity of their passion, both too emotionally scarred from past hurts. Only when Emma had left Steed to return to Peter had they both been faced with the devastating fact of the depth of love they had shared, and then so suddenly lost. When they had finally gotten back together years after their sad parting, their previous walls of reserve had crumbled into dust as in their joy at their reunion they had overtly expressed their desire for each other through word and touch. From that moment on they thrived upon making fond and endearing comments regular parts of their conversations.

Steed brushed Emma's hair back from her face, kissing her ear, her armpits, her shoulder, his neck, her back. Then Steed, wishing to begin all over again asked gently, "Please, once more this way."
"But I can't touch you," Emma answered, not really complaining.
"You touch me more than you know," he answered. "All the time. In every way. Especially like this."

It was a response that Emma had no desire to argue with, and she held back tears of love for her husband as he once more repeated a pattern that never grew tiring for either of them, never ceased in making up for all the long years apart.
Her breasts, her abdomen, her thigh, her buttocks, her clitoris and the inside of her fully lubricated vagina. Slowly, so slowly. Then Steed, already inside Emma, began to move languidly again, those small thrusts at first, increasing in speed and depth at a higher rate this time, but still in concert with Emma's reactions, her stimuli, her drive. And then there was no slowness about it as Steed rapidly charged into her as far as he could, pulling her down to him, holding her tightly against him, bending her slightly toward her stomach to free up his lunges more, his left leg wrapped against hers.

It went on and on, the approaching crescendo like a tidal wave crashing towards the shoreline, that tower of their climax ringing warning bells of anticipatory rapture. They could feel their groins being flooded with sensations of raw, indescribable pleasure, so unwavering and fierce that the rest of the world was blanked out, nothing but this existed, this joined sharing, this profound and furious moment. Time completely disappeared, its passing no longer marked by seconds and minutes, but solely but their fervent grunts, their groans, their heaving their bodies together, their staccato panting.

They came together, each other's release spurring the other to a more stupendous climax, heated, convulsive, vocal, their muscles spasming, the bliss spreading throughout their blood and bones. Who yelled louder wasn't discernible, and Steed thrust again and again and again, even after he was no longer tumescent, in a reflex of passion that slowly, so slowly relaxed.

Long minutes of no words. None needed. Breathes returned to normal respiration rates. Heartbeats settled down. Sweat began to evaporate.
Finally, Steed pulled out of Emma and turning her toward him they joyously embraced, adding their legs into the hug as well.
Emma curled up against Steed as he looked out the window and said, "Look, another rainy day."
Unmoving, she glanced at the watery pane, "Uh-huh."

Steed smiled down at her, his hand caressing her back. "I've got to go to the office today. Too bad, it being the first day you'll be home in a week. We could've spent the day playing draughts."
"You cheat at draughts."
"I do not! I merely engage in offensive tactics that, perhaps, depend upon a slightly irregular interpretative analysis of the standard rules."
"You cheat at Scrabble, too."
"My goodness me! Are insults to my shining character the thanks I get this morning after, well, after…" Steed's face drifted off into remembering their just finished act of delight, "…after, that fantastic wake-up call I, er, extended to you. I could have just let the alarm ring, you know."

Emma sat up resting on her elbow, her chin cupped in her hand, and drummed her free fingers on Steed's washboard abdomen as her forehead crinkled in thought. "I think you also cheat at chess, but I haven't been able to quite catch you at it."
Steed's eyes widened and his cheeks puffed out. "Is there anything you believe I don't cheat at, pray tell?"
"Yes," Emma said, suddenly serious, staring at him in a mesmeric thrall, "you don't cheat with me. When you hold me, when you touch me, you're all there, all of you, your body, your mind, your emotions, I can feel it… it's so beautiful to feel. Steed, it sounds so corny, but I can't even tell you how much I love you… there just aren't the words. Imagine being loved by someone so completely, so fully, that their love for you is their blood, their air. I love you even more than that."

She kissed Steed's paralyzed lips, then pulled back smiling at him, her eyes, windows to her soul, so clearly showing her soul was merged with him.
Steed stayed stock still listening to his wife, her words so unexpected, so boldly honest, so obviously genuine; he was speechless, over-whelmed, and he tilted his head to the side and looked away for a moment, an odd sensation of mistiness growing in his eyes.

Emma turned his head back facing her, noticing but not commenting on his teary eyes, and they kissed again for a long tender time, neither in any particular rush to separate. When they did eventually part, still nuzzling their faces together Steed, in his usual manner of diffusing a scene he felt uncomfortable with --even if it had descended from heaven, even if his discomfort was concurrently the most awesome blessing he had ever received-- murmured a soft quip, "I don't cheat at chess."
Emma murmured back, "What about gin rummy?"

Emma stayed in bed for another two hours after Steed had needed to arise, shower, dress, and leave for the Ministry. It felt lovely to be able to catch up on her sleep a bit; the last week had been terrible busy and frenetic for her. How she had agreed to teach a special lecture series in anthropology at Cambridge every morning; and then have to rush back to London to attend meetings with members from several foreign militaries visiting England specifically to garner information about Knight Industries new jet fighter wing stabilizer; and then find time to visit her friend Gloria Wimble in the hospital where Gloria was recovering from a car accident that had broken her leg in two places; combined with her volunteer work at Excalibur Ten; and then there was charity ball for the deaf and blind school… Emma was exhausted. Rushing out the house at 6:00 a.m., no time for breakfast, and often not home till midnight. It was a schedule she may have thrived on ten years ago, but not now.

Now she liked to be home with Steed. Oh, yes, have a life as well, but not one that so effectively crowded out her mornings, afternoons, and evenings with her husband.
"If I was a moping man, my dear, I would win some kind of contest, I dare say," Steed had said, smiling at her in the middle of the week as once more she had stumbled out of bed, avoiding his encircling arms.
"Patience, Steed," she had answered, splashing cold water on her drowsy face to speed her awakening. "By tomorrow I'll be all yours again."
"You'll probably wake-up remembering that you forgot to feed some cousin's hamster, and off you'll go, running out the door before I can have my way with you."

Emma had peeked her head around the bathroom door. "So you miss me that much, eh?"
Steed, laying on his back, his hands under his head, bent his head forward motioning to his groin, which rose impressively under the sheet and cover, "See for yourself."
She had dashed back to the bed, kissed his forehead, "Tomorrow," and then sprinted for the shower, her clothes, her car keys and been out the door in a flash.
Emma had looked forward all yesterday to them having a quiet day at home, aside from a few pleasant moans and yells, so when Steed had told her he needed to spend today, Saturday, at his office, she had hid her disappointment. She had been very pleased that Steed had not been in quite the rush she had been to leave their bed this morning before assuming his working responsibilities.

Emma finally stretched and got out of bed, padding softly over the carpeting to their large bathroom with two sinks in the counter, a bathtub with a Jacuzzi in it, and a large shower that easily accommodated too dirty people. And two dirty-minded people as well. She hopped in the shower luxuriating in the warm water long enough to be labeled a full-blown Sybarite. Afterwards, Emma dried herself off, dallied with her hair a little and then in her years' long reflex reached for the small, flat, round container holding her birth control pills. Popping it open and reaching for one of the little white pills something struck her forcefully, and a tightening in her stomach alarmed her she had too many pills left for the month.
Whizzing days and pills through her quick mind, Emma calculated with growing dread that she had missed four pills…she hadn't taken her birth control pills for the last four days. Somehow in her chaotic pace she had forgotten to take her pills. And this morning she and Steed…

Uh-oh, she thought. And then she thought of Steed's answering line, "Very uh-oh."
Emma put the case down on the counter amazed at her absent-mindedness. She had been on the Pill for thirteen years, ever since she and Steed had become lovers when she had been his Ministry colleague… to forget to take them, it was like forgetting to use her legs to walk… She must have taken one on Monday and then been so harried at her schedule that Tuesday through Friday she had rushed off without remembering… Her gynecologist had warned her at the very beginning that if she even missed two days in a row… let alone four…
Very uh-oh.

They had been married for two years, and a few times had discussed having a child, Steed being surprisingly open to at least consider the topic, if for no other reason than he knew how much Emma had cherished the idea of having a child. Yet, then Steed would be called away on an assignment, or Emma had to rush to Knight Industries, or immerse herself in writing an article in a physics magazine, or any of the other three thousand things they seemed to be involved in, and the topic had dropped out of their industrious lives for awhile. When she and Steed finally had time together, had a few days, took a holiday and traveled, it was so glorious just to be alone with each other… to have no interruptions interfere with their plans, their luscious activities… That's why Emma had never pushed the issue; she wasn't sure if she was really ready for parenthood, let alone Steed. Yet, could she really say that on some hidden psychological level she hadn't wanted to forget to take her little pills of protection? One didn't just completely forget such long-term habitual behavior even when one become temporarily rushed in life. Was she just getting older and more inattentive, or was she getting older and somewhere inside of her deeply wishing for a child?

Rather lewdly, Emma wondered if Steed's issue hadn't suddenly brought the child issue strikingly back into their lives. She was thirty-seven already and Steed was fifty-one, both rather set in their ways and their lives. Even knowing her husband so well, Emma had to admit that she had no idea how Steed would react if he ever came home and Emma met him at the front door holding up some newly purchased baby clothes, smirking as she said "Dada." She pictured his widened eyes bugging out entirely from their sockets. Emma laughed a few times. Yet after that image, what would Steed say?

For goodness sake, Emma, she chastised herself, what are the chances that after thirteen years, missing one interval of four days of pills followed by one sex act will result in you becoming --she finally allowed the word to enter her head-- pregnant. It was absurd. The chances were astronomically against it at her age. Yet, for some strange reason, as Emma placed her hands over her pelvis, her imagination running wild, she thought that something felt, well… different… in there, and a smile lit up her face.

The Ministry was the most secret security organization in Great Britain. Out of the seven departments at the Ministry --Administration, Espionage, Agents, Research, Analysis, Subterfuge, and Operations-- the department of Research was, (for all the name conjured up boring analysis work done with dusty books by thin, bespectacled pale men whose slide rulers were their best friend) one of the most vital sections of the organization. It was broken down into the various subsections of Equipment development, Suspect Background, Entering and Searching, and Criminal/Related Watching (C/RW). Although the first three division enabled field agents to work better, more effectively, and safer on their investigation, the last category was the Research division they most highly appreciated. For the field agents who risked their lives against all types of depraved, maniacal, brilliant, loathsome, and dangerous malefactors out to pit their own twisted plans against the stability and safety of Great Britain, Criminal/Related Watching formed the core of researchers whose job it was to guarantee as much as possible that agents were not a target by vengeful people related to those same malefactors.

On a daily basis in Research, which contained the largest employee list in The Ministry and was active fully twenty-four hours a day, study was done on a multitude of topics: for the scientists in Equipment it might be developing the latest microlaser to enclose in a belt buckle; in Background it was uncovering the hidden past of a main suspect in an investigation; in Entering and Searching it might be entering a baronet's manor to search for a diary of illegal deeds. The members of C/RW kept track of those arrested and incarcerated by Ministry Agents, learning who visited them in jail, when they were released, keeping aware also of the families and associates of the criminals, especially those that Analysis had decided might pose the least iota of revengeful risk to the agent who had been involved with the particular criminal's imprisonment. Criminals, once they were released from gaol, if they ever were, and any suspicious family members or associate were tracked for life by the C/RW researchers. If a criminal escaped from gaol, or if a released criminal or family member or associate ever seemed to be searching for the arresting agent, then Research rang brazen bells in the Ministry. The agent was then secured as needed until the crisis passed, whether that entailed re-imprisoning the criminal, killing the criminal, gaoling the suspicious person, or killing the suspicious person (the killings being arranged and carried out by Espionage). It was brutal and cruel, but the Ministry held the safety of their active agents more important than anything else in the country, and the organization had free reign to proceed as necessary to ensure their active agents were fully and entirely guarded from the horrors of sudden attacks of retaliation against them.

It was an arduous Research task, but it was eminently successful; in the twenty years of the Ministry's existence, no agent had been the unwitting victim of retribution by a criminal, family member or associate once they had expressed their concerns to Research. Every now and then an agent had inklings of someone out to get them and just felt they could handle it independently; sometime they could, as when John Steed and Mrs. Peel overcame Paul Beresford many years ago, and sometimes they couldn't, as the deaths of six agents in twenty years from improperly reported threats proved. Research was constantly telling agents to report any overt or covert menace to them with greater or lesser success from men and women used to being completely self-sufficient.

It was true that in actuality revenge was a rare and unusual occurrence for a number of reasons. First, true spies were loathe to initiate vindictive reprisals; on some level, they knew their work was a game with winners and losers, with each side understanding they would regularly rotate between those two categories. Second, in general the average person that the Ministry took interest in was oftentimes a loner, oftentimes disassociated from his or her family or social relations, with cronies that would aide him or her in their mad activities for financial gain, but who did not have the loyalty or wherewithal to seek retribution by the agent who crushed their plans. Third, most people really were not of a violent, and especially premeditated violent, nature. However, the Ministry still took great care in maintaining its awareness of any threatening individuals, or even potentially threatening ones, and tracked them regularly. And, indeed, occasionally the organization did invoke its limitless powers to squelch that rare threat to a particular agent when it arose.

Aside from the Ministry's rousing success in keeping the country clear of despotic and scientific madmen, which was its greatest pride, ensuring its agents were devoid of any deadly reprisals was its second most boastful axiom. In this way, the security and therefore performance of the agents was magnified a thousand-fold. Their mental and emotional mindsets being greatly relieved of concerns of retribution, they were able to concentrate wholly on their assignments and then when done relax and let the tension of the job dissipate as much as possible, keeping them vigorous and refreshed, and not bogged down with ceaseless worries about themselves and their families.

In those twenty years many agents had lost their lives during an investigation but none had lost their lives from known threats from their personal files once they had reported their concerns to Research. However, three agents had been killed while off duty by the most insidious of all the Ministry's enemies--the Unknown Factor. The Unknown Factor (UF) was the term used to describe an act of revenge on an agent by person or person's unknown; person or person's who had taken the agent by complete surprise, and somehow slipped through the finely meshed net of the Ministry's C/RW division, which had knowledge bases in many different countries regularly searching for angry people seeking retaliation. Yet, for all its valiant efforts, C/RW was not omniscient. For example, Mark Crayford, a man classified as long dead, had secretly resurfaced in England launching a volley of revengeful deeds against John Steed several years before, before he had been truly killed by the bullet lodged near his heart.

C/RW was not perfect, but only three dead agents from Unknown Factors in twenty years wasn't a bad record, (and those six other agents killed from trying to deal with acts of revenge on their own); it was low enough that it didn't rust the shine of Research's competence by the agents of the Ministry. It was not that they were lulled into a false sense of security; active agents were rarely fully lulled by anything, nor did it make them careless. The C/RW and UF categories just settled down into such a low threat that it usually didn't enter the minds of most agents on any consistent basis. Revengeful incidents were put to the mental side much as the random events of being in a car accident or airplane crash. They occurred, but so infrequently and without warning, that one just didn't bother worrying about them.

November 11th, 1961. Steed handled a case for the Ministry on his own, dealing with a collection of a farmer/scientist intent on killing all the cattle in the country except their own hybrid, which was immune to the virus that they would soon disperse to all the herds in Great Britain. Steed foiled his plans and he was duly arrested and imprisoned. Research C/RW set up a file on the man and began a background search of his family, employees, associates, and friends, and upon joint review with Analysis, it was decided that there was no immediate or future threat of revenge to Steed by any of the related parties. In terms of immediate menace they were quite right; none occurred. In terms of future threat, they were not wrong either regarding the information they had examined; none of those people ever became a future peril to Steed either. However, unbeknownst to all, three integral people had been over-looked and remained an entirely hidden yet entirely real omen to their highly prized agent. Twelve years later, those three would become The Ministry's fourth case of unpredictable revenge, the fourth event termed an Unknown Factor.

November 11th, 1973. Just thinking of the date caused a pressure in Eldon and Mary Gilmore's heads that squashed all rational thought, and solely harbored hatred and a monomaniacal plan to acquire an eye for an eye. For twelve years, ever since they had been ten and eight years old respectively, they had learned to hate one man, and had been instructed to kill one man --John Steed. Where other children had had certain professions drummed into their heads, had been told to follow certain religions, certain societal precepts, Eldon and Mary and their step-brother Craig, all raised by their grandparents, had been drilled in the ideation that John Steed had killed their mother, destroyed their father, and so had earned his death through them.

"Your mother loved your father very much, she did," their grandmother would tell them over and over at bedtime as if she was reading them a Grimm's fairy tale. "And if she had married him, you would have been able to go back to her and live with a real mother and rich father."

Suzanne Gilmore, their mother, in actuality had had a terrible and obvious crush on Adam Benton, the farmer/scientist gaoled by Steed. He, though, had despised her, and their relationship was a paradoxical mix of her approaching him and him rebuffing her. She knew he hated children, and so had never mentioned her three offspring, the first born out of wedlock during a terrible relationship sundered by her husband's alcohol and drug problem, the next two also born out of wedlock though to a different father; all three lived with her mother in the Orkney islands. She would have done anything to have won the wealthy and brilliant scientist's heart. When he had been arrested and gaoled, Suzanne had visited him in the prison just once, long enough for him to tell her that an agent named John Steed, from London, had been his downfall, and long enough for him to say in no uncertain terms that he loathed her and didn't wish her to visit him anymore. Suzanne had told her doting mother of the whole incident via letter, and then committed suicide. Her mother, bereft now of her only daughter, not long after the death of her criminal husband, had dedicated her life to instilling a hatred of John Steed in her three little grandchildren.

Where Eldon and Mary looked like siblings, blond-haired, with obvious Nordic ancestry lightening their hair and complexions, sharing intellectual and sensitive natures, and medium tall slim builds that were maintained with an active outdoor life on their grandmother's small farm, Craig Gilmore (named after Suzy's first lover for convenience), belied a completely distinct heritage. At twelve he was already nearing six feet tall, which he surpasses by at least five inches by the time he was seventeen; his bulk equally stood out on his frame with his height. The only thing not large about Craig Gilmore was his brainpower. Twelve years after their mother's suicide Craig, chronologically one year Eldon's senior, intellectually ten years his junior, was 6'5" tall and weighed seventeen stone, all muscle.

They were all silent children, Eldon and Mary thinkers, and Craig, a plodder, with nothing ever stimulating him to ruminate upon, except doing whatever Eldon directed him to do. They had each other and had never searched out other friends. Eldon spent all of his time ordering books from catalogs reading about spies, about how one built radio trackers, how one created tranquilizer darts, how one tapped a phone. He befriended the chemist in town and worked there after school learning about drugs. He set up a lab in the barn, and experimented with the darts on himself and Craig. When Eldon had reached twenty-one, he decided that it was time to start the process of retaliation, time to begin searching down and killing this mysterious John Steed. Using a lifetime of illicitly earned money their deceased grandfather had stored all around their home, they bought a new boat and learned how to sail it with local men from their island. They traveled to Scotland and docked it at Glasgow then came back to say their good-byes to their grandmother in the summer of 1972. All three of them then left the Orkneys, departing to establish themselves in England, in London, going to the big city from their tiny village, yet arriving as anything but innocents. Mary and Craig found jobs which, when combined with a stipend from their grandmother was enough for them to get by in the city, living frugally and allowing Eldon to begin their investigation. They rented a small furnished house on a month to month basis.

John Steed had not been listed in the phone book, but other Steeds were. So Eldon started randomly watching the homes of these other Steeds, hoping that John had a penchant for visiting relatives, and at one, several weeks later, listed under Amy Steed, he had seen a tall, very handsome, well-dressed man, with bowler and tightly furled umbrella, and jaunty walk --the exact description of Steed they had been given-- drive up in a Jaguar. He had rejoiced that Steed still apparently either lived in or frequented the city. Once Steed departed the house a few hours later, Eldon followed Steed for a little while, until Steed stopped at a wine shop where he saw the proprietor greet him handily, and then he drove on before Steed became suspicious of Eldon's trailing him.

It was all they knew of him; his relatives, with whom they held no grudge and so would cause no harm, and his wine shop. Eldon couldn't risk showing up by his relative's house again; yet, he didn't know where else to find him.

Over a meal of potatoes and bratwurst, it was decided they would use the wine shop as their target, with the idea being that Eldon would become employed there. That had not been such an easy task. From Eldon's casual inquiries into available positions while he purchased a bottle of fine Claret, dressed in his most expensive suit, he learned that Mr. Fitzsimmon Fowler --the owner-- was a careful man, a cautious man, who expected his workers to have the highest qualifications and knowledge base if they were to be of service in his establishment. Mr. Fowler's customers were of the finest families in England, and had expectations of superior recommendation for all their alcohol needs. Eldon smiled and said "Of course," He then studied wines for six months nonstop, eight hours a day, until he knew the intricacies of each type of alcohol: how exactly it was made with which exact ingredients, where it was from, the best years of each brand, which type would best complement what type of food, no matter how the food was presented or spiced.

Presenting himself to Mr. Fowler again in the spring of 1973, his hair and newly grown mustache dyed black, Eldon underwent a test that would have intimidated most lifelong oenophiles, and passed without missing a single question. Eldon kept his joyous exhilaration subdued under a mien of disinterest and detachment when a position was eagerly offered to him by an impressed Mr. Fowler, and he merely nodded to verify his acceptance. He used an alias and a fake address on his job application.

Eldon was not surprised to begin work in the back room, stocking, ordering, cleaning, only being allowed to fill in at the counter when several customers at once were requiring assistance. Yet, his aid to those clients was exemplary and so little by little Mr. Fowler, pleased with his prospect, began incorporating Eldon into the daily functioning of the wine shop. Yet there were only so many hours Eldon was hired for, and it was the height of his frustration to not be at the shop when John Steed had stopped in, or to be there but be forced to stay in the back room, or to be in the front, at the counter with Steed when several other customers were present concurrently and so Steed could not be attacked.

Yet Eldon had patience. He had waited twelve years. And he could feel the net closing over Mr. John Steed. He and Mary and Craig --who also had dyed their hair and used aliases-- went over their plans again and again. Kidnap Steed. Take him to their hide-out. Kill him and get rid of the body.

By Autumn of 1973, Mr. Fowler felt comfortable enough with Eldon to let him close the shop by himself; this pleased them both a great deal --Mr. Fowler was able to return home earlier and rest his arthritic joints sooner, and Eldon hoped, no knew, that one day Steed would come in alone, late, needing a bottle of some type of alcohol. Oftentimes it occurred that Mary and Craig came to the shop via the back door at night when they were both done working and stayed with Eldon, sharing in Eldon's dreams of capturing Steed, and wanting to be immediately available to help him if, no when, Mr. Steed obliged their wishes.
One day, just like that, it happened.

Steed had spent the entire day in the Ministry catching up on his paperwork, which any other agent could have had done by 2:00 p.m. But paperwork brought tears of boredom to Steed's eyes, and so much to the chagrin of anyone else trying to get work done in the Ministry, Steed would fill out a form or two then, in his listless doldrums, walk around the halls until he found someone to talk to, or had a cup of coffee, or wandered to Research wondering about the latest toys they were developing. He kept an eye free to survey so he could duck behind walls and the occasional chair to avoid being seen by the rampaging Head of Administration, demanding to be told where Steed was and when would that paperwork be presented to his department for processing. Steed would put paperwork off for months, until even his recalcitrant mind knew that he had no choice but to deal with that dreaded responsibility.

Then Steed, sighing long enough to blow up a large balloon with the air he exhaled, would drag himself back to his office and repeat the whole process. He knew that the sooner he was done, the sooner he could organize a preliminary investigation into a report that some botanist had figured out how to breed green and blue colored dandelions in Sussex (just to see if he had a nefarious purpose for doing so, if indeed he had discovered that), and then the sooner he could go home to Emma, and maybe play some Scrabble, trying not to cheat. Yet, the burden of forms in triplicate was very odious to his nature --they were the last lingering taint of his problems with authority that had frequently plague his career, especially up until he had begun working with Emma.

Steed sat at his desk drumming his pen on the report he should have been filling out, his eyes narrowing in loathing at the small stack that sat to the left of that individual piece of paper. He glanced out the window in his sparsely decorated office and was rewarded with thick grey skies and cheerless gales of rain. No horseback riding today, or tomorrow by the looks of it. Gathering his motivation, Steed gritting his teeth and filled out the form. He knew his reticence was clichéd; field agents were generally notorious for giving an outraged Administration appallingly inadequate descriptions of their cases. Steed decided there was no need to buck the trend and he scribbled out three paragraphs describing a two month investigation which had taken place in three countries and resulted in eight deaths and the arrest of a foreign dignitary. He dotted the full stop with some little force and then sat back in his chair, immensely satisfied with himself. It was 11:00 a.m., he had been there two solid hours and had filled out four forms, with a total of fourteen paragraphs between them.

Feeling that he should be rewarded for his efforts Steed decided having an early lunch, considering he had not had breakfast, would be most welcomed. Putting on his coat, bowler, and grabbing his brolly, Steed sauntered down and around the hallway to Administration's office, waited until he heard the man pick up his phone, then ducked into the room, plopped the four pages down on his desk, said, "Off to lunch," and then quickly strolled down the hall, leapt down the stairs, and was on the street at the exact moment that Administration saw the scanty offerings Steed had laid down and the Head's blood pressure rose dangerously.

Feeling that a nice long, leisurely repast would give him the motivation to focus his concentration in the afternoon, Steed went to his club, had some chicken cordon bleu, and then played a little billiards with Colonel Anstruther, who had a talent for knocking a ball completely off the table at least once a game. After the second match, Steed decided that it was best to return to the Ministry and he arrived back at 2:00 p.m. Administration was waiting for him in his office and displayed in his tone, volume, and vocabulary that he did not possess the gentlemanly traits of the man he was addressing. Steed took the dressing down calmly, using the time to daydream about how he and Emma would spent their time in bed that night.

Once Administration stormed from the room, Steed took off his coat, hat and sat back down in his chair, staring at the stack of papers as if they were loathsome insects infesting his desk. But, realizing he had no choice and hating it, one by one he scribbled information down on them, switching to writing in French and German for the fun of it at times, sometimes in mid-sentence. He was done by 5:00 p.m. and he handed them in to Administrations in his most charming and convivial tone, though his calling the Department Head "your most papered Highness" did nothing to alleviate the animosity Administrations felt towards him. Purdey and Gambit and a new Ministry agent soon arrived and the four of them figured out a brilliant plan to inveigle the new agent into the confidence of the botanist, warning him to contact them at the first sign of real trouble. They were done at 5:30 p.m., and since Purdey had a dinner date with her fiancé, and Gambit always had some woman to meet, everyone dispersed quickly and Steed was left alone in his office.

He put his coat and bowler on and then lifted up the phone and called Emma. She picked up quickly.
"Hello?" she asked, and he voice was like a soothing balm after the raw irritation of dealing with endless reports.
"Hello, lovely lady," Steed smiled into the phone.
"Steed," she said in a happy tone that Steed relished. "Are you still at the office?"
"Yes, but everything's done. I've got to leave as soon as possible to avoid being shot by Administrations."
"Ah, your usual paperwork problems? What did you do this time; write them out in Morse code?"
Steed's eyebrows raised high up into his forehead. "Morse code? That is an excellent idea, my dear." He scribbled "Morse Code" down on a memo pad and stuck the note in the front drawer of his desk.

In the slight silence, Steed thought he could hear Emma rolling her eyes up into her head, before she asked, "Yes, well, then are you coming home now?"
"I'm just about out the door. I was wondering, though, if I should stop and pick up anything on the way home."
"Well…" Emma said, pausing in thought, "I've been a busy little girl myself, you know. I've got a whole salmon dinner with wild rice and mushrooms and a salad full of mixed greens. It seems to me that if you picked up a bottle of white wine, something a little on the dry side, it would complement the meal exactly."
"My dear, our thoughts agree entirely. Consider it done. I shall have to phone Fowler's and ask him to stay open just a wee bit more, for the sake of a frequent customer. With the weather, I think I'll be home by 7:00 p.m."
"Good. I'll look forward to it. You'll be quite happy with the dessert I've chosen; that is, how I plan on, well, feeding it to you…" Emma began to describe in very clear terms just what she had in mind.

It suddenly became rather too heated in the room for Steed and he fanned his face with his hand. "Say no more! I shall drive home at reckless speeds, running over any interfering pedestrians."
He heard Emma laugh. "Good. See you soon. Love you."
"See you soon. Me too, you."

After hanging up from Emma, Steed called Fowler's and spoke with the new, knowledgeable lad, identifying himself and requesting that the shop stay open for just a few minutes longer for him to pick up a bottle of their finest dry white wine. He could be there in twenty minutes. Gratefully, after a long pause, the youth agreed to Steed's unusual solicitation.

Steed hung up and with an urgency now not solely born out of avoiding the impending wrath of Administrations, but synergistically tied to a desire to arrive back at his manor as soon as possible, he grabbed his umbrella and jogged for the stairs, ignoring the screams of "Steed! Bloody hell! Get back here!" coming from an agitated Paperwork Highness far down and around the hallway.

Steed was sure next time the screams would be elevated into one hundred decibel shrieks after Administrations read his reports written in Morse code.

It took actually twenty-five minutes for Steed to arrive, and Eldon, Mary and Craig were ready and in place by the time he did. The shop was fully lit yet the sign hanging inside the door said "Sorry, Closed. Please return again." Steed was able to park his Jaguar in front of the shop and he leapt out of the car nimbly, sprinting into the store to avoid being overly wetted by the continuing downpour.

Steed strode to the counter, and hit the little bell on the top; a tiny ding! sounded.
Eldon came from behind the curtain separating the front of the shop, with its plethora of shelves laden with many different expensive and delicious alcohol products.
"Ah, Mr. Steed," he said. "Good evening."
"Thank you for staying open, uh…" Steed stumbled over his ignorance of the clerk's name.
"William, my fine lad. I very much appreciate it. Have quite an evening prepared, and a bottle of the proper vino is just the thing to highlight the occasion."
"Of course, sir. May I enquire as to the nature of the occasion being celebrated?"
Steed leaned forward and whispered, "Dinner. And Dessert."
Eldon, as he should have been, was unflappable. "Indeed, sir. Now, I believe you mentioned requiring a dry white wine?"
"Not "a" dry white wine. Your finest dry white wine!"
"Yes, well, I believe the Chateau Verrier 1949 would suffice. I do have a bottle in the back, if you would excuse me for a moment."
"You can have two moments, William."
"Very good, sir. Please wait by the counter, if you would be so kind. I should be loath to have anyone else believe that our establishment is still open by viewing you through the windows. If we ignored them whilst still serving you, it would lend a certain flavor of favoritism that would be most unworthy of our reputation."
Steed nodded his head gravely. "Of course."

Eldon retreated through the curtain whilst Steed leaned on an elbow on the counter. Suddenly a certain tickle crept up the nape of his neck as Eldon came out from the storage area tenderly holding onto a bottle of wine in one hand, his other hand hidden behind his back. He put the bottle down on the counter, and as Steed's eye's naturally fell to the label, the lights in the store went completely out, encasing the room in darkness.

Steed's tickle grew as he heard Eldon say, "Oh my, the storm must have knocked down some power sub-station."

But as Steed stood and glanced outside the rest of the store lights on the road and the streetlights were still on. His sense of danger was wrecking havoc with his neck. What was going on? There was a puffed sound and Steed felt a sharp jab in his cheek. He brought his hand up and felt a small dart protruding from his skin; as he pulled it out confused and bewildered a wave of dizziness immediately swept over him.

No! he yelled to himself. What's happening? This can't be happening! What's going on? Who is the youth? Why…? Steed staggered under the influence of the drug. Is it poison? An anesthetic? Am I going to die? I don't want to die. Not now. Not with Emma… Steed turned toward the door and took a step towards it falling down to his hands and knees, shaking in his panic and his strenuous efforts to move, his bowler falling off his head and wobbling away from him. If he could reach the door, get outside, someone might see him, someone might help him…
Emma… Not this… It was growing darker to Steed, the lights outside getting dimmer. He heard a man's voice behind him speak as if in slow motion…"Shooooot hhhiiiiimmm aaaagggaaaiiiiinnnnnn…" Steed struggled desperately to crawl forward, but his arms and legs were so quickly losing strength he couldn't seem to command their movements anymore.

Steed felt another tiny sting in his neck… and as everything fell away from him--his sight, his body, his thoughts --a last picture of his wife, of Emma smiling at him, curdled his insides and he fell unconscious to the floor.

It was very workmanlike. They put Steed's body and bowler in the back of the van they had bought, tied hand and foot and gagged. With the double dose of drugs in his system they expected him to be unconscious for at least twelve hours, yet they were taking no chances. Mary drove Steed's Jaguar to the enclosed garage space they had rented for a year, and parked it in there; Eldon and Craig, after rubbing all of Steed's fingerprints off the shop fixtures, picked her up there. They went back to their furnished house, and packed up the few items they had brought with them, knowing that they needed to be able to travel lightly and quickly.

The only loose end would be the sudden disappearance of the three of them from their respective jobs; yet, since they had worked under aliases and in disguise they shouldn't be traceable in that manner. They called the landlord of their house and told her that they were moving and wouldn't be paying next month's rent.
Then they drove off to Glasgow.

Emma Steed was not too worried when Steed wasn't home promptly at 7:00 p.m. The roads were difficult and slippery with all the rain, and Steed wouldn't really rush down them in this weather, even with his Jaguar. She had figured he would be a bit late. She put the fish in the oven to cook, expecting him in a half hour. When Steed didn't show up at 7:30 p.m., she pulled the food out, and begin to bite on a fingernail instead of the perfectly prepared meal.

By 8:00 p.m. she was pacing around the house. By 8:30 p.m. she was staring out the front window in the living room begging, pleading, ordering her husband to come home.

By 9:00 p.m. she was frantic and she called Purdey's flat. Purdey wasn't there so she rang the Ministry's emergency dispatch number, identified who she was and her code name and asked to have Purdey call her immediately at home. It took five minutes for the phone to ring, and Emma's heartbeat was racing by then.

"Steed?" she fairly screamed into the phone. "Is that you?"
"No, Emma, it's me, Purdey. What's going on? I got an emergency notification at the restaurant."
"Is Steed there with you?"
"No, I'm with Clive. Gambit and I left Steed back at the office at 5:30 p.m…Emma! What's going on?"
"It's Steed," she said, fighting back tears. "He told me at 5:30 p.m. he'd be home by 7:00 p.m. But he hasn't come home yet. I don't know where he is. Something's gone wrong; I can feel it."
There was a pause on the other end of the phone. "Emma, tell me exactly what you and Steed spoke about."
Emma told her about their conversation.
"Alright. Emma you stay home, right by the phone. I'll take over from here and will get back to you as soon as possible. Don't worry. I'm sure he's okay."
"No, you're not," Emma said, a tear trickling down her face.
Another long pause. "Just stay there. I'll get back to you." Purdey hung up.

Purdey hung up the phone and then dialed the emergency dispatch number. After identifying herself and her code name Purdey initiated a Maximum Red Alert regarding John Steed, the highest state of alarm the Ministry had. That activated everyone and within one hour all the Heads were at the Ministry with Purdey and Gambit, and a full complement of Ministry clerks had been called in to assume their subordinate yet necessary positions. Purdey relayed the information she had received from Emma, and within minutes Research had agents on the way to Fowler's Fine Spirits. They found nothing; no evidence that Steed had even been in the place. Every morgue and hospital in the country was alerted and given a description of Steed though naming him Andrew Ellison --his scars would make for an easy identification of his body. No such body was identified. The airports were notified, and the seaports, again giving his description and the alias --he had not been observed in any of those places. His car had not been seen or found by the police. On and on they went investigating every avenue they could think of, constantly checking with Emma to update her and ask if Steed had finally returned home. No criminals from Steed's past had been released from prison. They had no one under suspicion. Fowler was no help; he gave a description of his new worker "William Acton" but had nothing but praise for the hard-working youth, although one time Mr. Fowler had gone back to the store to collect a book he had left there and had discovered William talking with another man and woman in the back room.

Very much against the rules, but that was the only mar on Williams otherwise spotless employee record. Mr. Fowler gave them Acton's job application and they went to his address; a family of five lived there and were obviously completely innocent of any wrong-doing. They did research on the other information William had given on the form and found out it was all invented as well, including his phone number. To be thorough, they called their connections in other countries, including some that were not too friendly with them, and were assured that they had nothing to do with it.

They were left with those three people: William and the other two. Three entirely unknown people, from unknown origins, with unknown motives, with aliases…gone to an unknown area. Steed was probably with them, but why, how, where, for what purpose…they had no idea.

Steed was gone. Had just vanished without a trace. The best and most valuable British agent had been taken by three unknown persons for reason or reasons unknown.

An Unknown Factor had struck, and had taken their premier agent, their most important agent, their most knowledgeable agent, their most experienced agent… and God knew what they planned to do with him.

Purdey and Gambit arrived at Emma's front door at 2:00 a.m. Their downcast faces, anxious eyebrows, and solemn lips told her everything, confirmed everything her head and heart had already known.

She opened up the door a little more and let them enter the house. She closed the door gently and leaned back against it, her eyes closed.
"Emma…" Purdey began. "He's just vanished. We think three people did it, but we don't know if they really did, we have no idea who they are, and if they did take him we don't know how or why, or where they took him. We don't know if he's still alive, but we have no reason to believe he isn't. His… body hasn't turned up anywhere… though…" All three filled in Purdey's unspoken words --Though they could have buried his body, or thrown it into the Thames…
"And if he is still alive," Emma said, tears dropping down her face and falling to the floor, "it would probably be Wales all over again, wouldn't it?"

Purdey had told her about Wales, about what happened that terrible week-end three and a half years ago when Steed had been captured in northern Wales and brutally tortured for information, barely surviving that ordeal, and only doing so because Purdey had been able to get him to excellent medical care just in time to save his life. Steed had mentioned his wanderings to Emma that had taken place for awhile the summer after his being captured, but had never talked about his experience in Wales.

Purdey and Gambit turned their heads away. "Maybe. We just don't know," Purdey said, her eyes beginning to collect tears as well. "We just don't know anything. If it was those three people, they're young; we don't know… what they would do… to Steed… or why," She turned back to Emma who held a hand over her face. "Emma, we're so terribly sorry."
"Remember, Emma, it's Steed. If anyone can escape, can figure out a way to get back home, here, to you, it's him. He's an amazing agent. An amazing man," Gambit said.

Emma looked up at both of them, a tiny smile breaking into the grief suffusing her face. "Yes, he is. Thank you both for coming all the way out here. Please keep me informed."

Gambit walked back towards the door but Purdey stayed still. "Emma, if you don't mind, the Ministry would like me to stay with you for the next several days, just in case… well, if there's an odd phone call, or a ransom note arrives, or someone shows up with information… Would you mind terribly if I stayed with you?"

They were friends. Close friends bonded together by a flippant, light-hearted manner, and a love for John Steed. Purdey, in love with Clive Miller, her fiancé, still carried an abiding love for Steed, who had been her occasional lover before he had reconnected with Emma; that joined the two of them together instead of tearing them apart.

"Purdey, of course you can stay. I should like it very much," Emma said. She didn't want to be alone in the big manor house anyway, with nothing to distract her from seeing Steed in every nook and cranny.
"Right, then," Gambit said. "I'll get your bag, Purdey, and then head back to the Ministry." He ran back to the car, turning his collar up against the rain.
"Hmmf," Purdey said, "at least something good might come out of all this. Gambit is becoming a civilized gentleman."

Emma smiled at her. It would be good to have Purdey around, yet even still Emma couldn't stop a black chasm from ripping her insides apart, and filling her with dread, anguish, and unimaginable sorrow. Like Peter; just like Peter. One moment here; next moment nowhere. Gone. Never seen again. Dead. Peter had come back, yes. But she loved Steed so much more and his disappearance seemed so much more hopelessly final to Emma. Steed had enemies. Enemies sought revenge.
Two and a half years they had been together now. She had kept them apart for four years, to be with Peter, a foolish decision, a horrible decision, and Steed had waited for her. When they had finally met again, Steed had greeted her not with hatred or bitterness, but with such an immense and willing love that Emma had had joyfully wept in his arms on their honeymoon. They had only had two and a half years together.

On top of which, she might be pregnant. With Steed's child. A whole life, a whole family dancing through her head all day, however silly and fanciful; and now, the core around which it all revolved was just poof! vanished; gone; tortured; dead. Hadn't his sense of danger warned him of trouble? Why didn't he carry a gun? Was he already screaming out in pain? Was he already dead?

The shock finally hit Emma like a axe swung into her abdomen, and Purdey forced several glasses of brandy down her throat to calm her shaking. She moved like a zombie all night, staring into visions of emptiness and loss, but Purdey took care of her, putting the food in the refrigerator, cleaning the pots and pans, leading her upstairs to her bedroom, getting her ready for bed. Purdey then went into one of the guest rooms. Emma lay stiffly in bed and, for the second time in her life cried for hours during the night at the sudden and wrenching loss of her husband, her loss of Steed so all-encompassing it pervaded everything, changed everything to an empty void, colorless, black and hopeless. Everything but one tiny circle of light she felt stirring deep inside her, and she put her hands on her pelvis, imagining they were Steed's calloused yet soft and gentle hands, tender hands, extensions of a tender heart, and through her burning acrid tears, Emma begged, pleaded and ordered Steed to come back home to her.

Chapter Three

There was mostly shifting views of grey and black, muffled, echoing sounds, a sense of being separate from himself, lost in ill-defined surroundings, of floating in insubstantial realities. He was caught in air, in space, there was no ability to focus his vision, to gather the wisps of fleeting thought; he had no eyes, he had no body, he had no mind. It was empty, so very empty, and he couldn't seem to break free.
He was neither hot nor cold, experienced neither pain nor pleasure. He didn't know his name, where he was. He just hovered in the ether, in the grey-black, rocking gently back and forth in a world he couldn't understand.

Sometimes the grey-black lightened just a little; sometimes from out of the unknown he saw a form, a Pillar standing over him. That happened when he thought he could begin to feel his body, move his hand, almost, almost remember who he was. Then The Pillar leaned over him, held his nose and he couldn't breathe and he felt his mouth, it was being opened and something dreadfully bitter poured into it; he tried to struggle but didn't know how to make his body work, it wouldn't work, and he had to breathe, so he swallowed the liquid and then The Pillar released his nose and mouth and faded away and the grey-black was reinstated and he was bobbing up and down, up and down again, lost, formless, alone.

And then eventually the grey-black lessened and then The Pillar came and poured the fluid down his mouth, and the awful grey-black returned. How many times that was repeated he didn't know; he couldn't remember how to count.

Sometimes he saw a golden face light up the grey-black, a vision, a woman smiling at him, and he was drawn to her though did not know who she was, and he was sad when the vision faded away. Sometimes he there were other things in the grey-black, scary things, that flew and darted around him, or lurched up with claws and horns; he was helpless against them and when they swung their claws at him he tried to cry out, but couldn't make a sound.

He skimmed through the grey-black for endless inconceivable eons. He was tired, so very tired, and weak. He wanted to leave the grey-black, he knew he hadn't always been here; he wanted to go back to where he was from, wherever, whatever that was, but saw no doors, did not know up from down, left from right, how to get out.

Gradually, the grey-black lessened again, and just when he was able to form the merest of thoughts, just when somehow he realized the key to his imprisonment in the ether lay in the liquid --the grey-black returned after the liquid-- The Pillar came back. Living stone, it stopped his nose, opened his mouth, and poured the draught down his throat, clamping his mouth shut until it saw him swallow and then it let his air come back.

In despair, he felt the grey-black folding back over him, enclosing him and trapping him in its lonely void. For a moment, a word flitted around with him, keeping him company, "liquid," "liquid," "liquid," but then it soared away from him, and though he knew something had been important about it, he no longer knew what it was or what the word had meant. There was just the grey-black, infinite and appalling.

Eldon Gilmore was a patient young man, albeit a frustrated murderer. He was also a good elder brother to his sister Mary, had cared for her all her life, protected her, watched out for her. He had tried to heal every hurt animal she found and brought home; ensured that any child that teased her, teased her only once; put up with her wanting to play tea time with him; and encouraged her in her collection of dolls. He rarely yelled, never hit, and listened to all her teen-age whining and complaints with a calm and mature ear. But, he was beginning to lose patience with her now for the first time ever in his life.

It had all gone very well for them; their plan had worked perfectly. They had driven to Glasgow and in the middle of the night had smuggled the still unconscious Steed, encased in a carpet roll, into their boat and hidden him down the stairs in one of the cabins below deck. They had spent the night on the boat and the next day Mary had sold the car in a used car lot and taken a cab back to the Marina. Even though the weather was stormy and windy, they had cast off and traveled up the Western coast of Scotland with the intention of shooting Steed, dumping him in the ocean and then sailing back to the Orkneys for a year or two respite from the attentions of any police or security organization.

It was a hitch-free, perfect plan, hatched and nurtured lovingly, patiently, for Eldon was a patient man. It had gone so very well until they had been at sea and Mary, dear, sweet Mary, had had a unfortunate change of heart.

She didn't want to kill Steed. Now, with their revenge so near it pulsed through the walls of the Eldon's and Craig's arteries, Mary had second thoughts. Eldon wouldn't kill Steed unless they all agreed. He wouldn't risk that sort of contention between them, feed the chance of betrayal of two of them by one. It was all or nothing.
So, he had Craig go down and regularly drug Steed with a medicine he had learned about while working for the pharmacist and had stolen from him little by little, a medicine that would keep Steed entirely incapacitated for twelve hours per dose while he worked and cajoled and pleaded with his younger nail-biting sister, trying his hardest to convince her that Steed deserved to die, that he had to die.

Especially now that they had kidnapped him, he couldn't live to track them down.
She was waffling; she was unsure. But she hadn't yet agreed. They had been stuck on the damn boat in the rain for days because she still wouldn't agree. Her and her damn injured birds, and damn injured cats and damn injured rabbits; now it was a damn secret agent that her sentimental soul cared about. The secret agent that had ruined the man who would have been their father, the man who had been indirectly responsible for their mother's death, the man their grandmother hated, and righteously so, the man who had been their target for twelve long years.
Steed had to die. Eldon sat in the nice cabin on the top deck with Craig and his sister. Checking his watch, he motioned to Craig it was time again to give Steed a dose of the medicine. As his hulking step-brother left, Eldon clenched his teeth and then with the sweetest smile he could muster turned to speak with his sister again, his weepy sister, and finally convince her of the moral correctness of Steed's death. That it was good and fine to kill the man downstairs. Mary looked him in the eye and listened to him.

Once more the grey-black began to lessen, and he developed a bit of clarity of vision. He seemed to have a head, he had eyes, slowly they could move, slowly he could look. It was blurry and odd, things wavered and shifted. His thoughts were jumbled, indistinct, he couldn't make sense of things, though some of them looked familiar. The grey-black continued to merge into a solid form; he looked up and saw a flat murkiness, yet it was distinguishable with a round beam shining in it. After some time he thought "ceiling," "light."

He tried other objects and it took forever for his mind to uncover what they were but finally a few subjects were discernible: wall, door…
The door moved. A large shape came toward him, a stone, The Pillar, blocking out the light.
There was something he needed to remember…
There was something that made him go back to the bad grey-black…
Fingers closed off his nose and pried open his mouth.
The liquid. The liquid made him go back, back to the grey-black, the emptiness, the haunted void.
The bitter fluid was poured into his mouth and his mouth was held closed, he was aware enough that the grip on his jaw was painful. He heard some deep, low, harsh words sink down to him from up in the sky, from the top of The Pillar, "Swallow the drink, you bloody bastard."
Swallow. He didn't want to swallow the liquid. But he needed air; he couldn't breathe.

He swallowed holding the distasteful fluid in his mouth. Swallowed nothing several times, keeping the dreadful liquid from going down his throat.
The Pillar grunted and released him then went away; the door moved, and then it was still.
He had a head; he could turn his head. He turned it and opened his mouth and most of the liquid spilled out next to him, wherever he was; but some stayed in his mouth and it rolled down his throat as he straightened his head back up.
The grey-black grew over him and he screamed a silent "No" as he was dragged back to the blank and barren existence, devoid of self and hope.

He had been spinning through the grey-black, flying past images --faces, landscapes, grotesque animals, ghouls-- when the grey-black begin to part, the spinning eased, and borders appeared. Fuzzy, obscure borders and he watched them as they settled into clearer objects, as his double and triple vision coalesced into a single view.
A ceiling. A light.
The grey-black was receding faster than it ever had.
A wall. A door. He grew fearful seeing the door. Behind the door was The Pillar, who made him drink the liquid. He hated the liquid. He looked around some more.
A… desk, that was the word. A… chair.
He closed his eyes; he was so weak, so tired. He just wanted to sleep, but he was afraid he would wake up in the grey-black, so he opened up his eyes again.
The room. He was in a room. With a desk, a chair, another chair, two chairs, a table. He saw papers on the desk, and pens. A coffee maker on the table, with filters and coffee next to it. Something in a plastic bag.
He turned his head more and saw a tiny bathroom off the room.
He then looked down at himself. He was on… a bed, no, a cot. Cot. He stared at his hands and feet, something was the matter with them; tied with rope, that's it, they were tied with rope. Shoes gone. Jacket gone. Tie gone.
I'm in a small room, on a cot, my hands and feet are tied. That means something. He waited for it to come to him.
Pensioner. No, prisoner. He was a prisoner.
He rested his head back on the pillow and lay there for some minutes breathing heavily, his mouth as dry as a desert. He just couldn't remember what…
Then a shock wave went through his body as he remembered his name. Steed. I'm John Steed. With that key recollection everything fell into place in his previously addled mind.
Kidnapped. From the wine shop. Taken here. He looked around. Don't know where here is. Drugs. They've kept me on drugs. How long? Didn't swallow the large dose; spat drugs out and they wore off early.
Have to escape. Get back to Ministry. Get back to Emma. Emma… his heart filled with affection… my love, don't give up on me yet.

Steed rolled to his side and swung his bound legs over the edge of the cot, and then struggled a great deal to sit up. He was weak and nauseous, and very dizzy. He opened his eyes and stared aghast at his left arm; it had become the wing of a bird, still secured to his normal right arm, but a giant wing nonetheless with feathers galore. Panic swept through him, and he closed his eyes and repeated "This isn't real, this isn't real." He managed to sit immobile for a few moments to let his equilibrium rebalance and to have his arm reappear. Questions paraded through his still foggy mind.
What's the drug they gave him? Powerful. Hallucinatory. Why is he still alive? They haven't interrogated him. What do they want? How long has he been here? Twelve hours? A day?

Cracking his eyes just a slit he saw he had two normal human arms again. Immense relief calmed his system. He noticed his jacket hanging over a chair. It wasn't far away from the cot, but Steed wasn't sure he knew how to move his body yet. It seemed a foreign thing to him, thick and awkward. But in that jacket was a sharp penknife…

Steed braced himself and lurched off the cot in the general direction of the target chair. He felt like he was parachuting through the air with no control, no way to move, to stop, and he fell to the floor on his stomach several feet out from his jacket. The floor spun wildly around like a top, and Steed grabbed hold of it as best he could to prevent himself from being sucked away to a wall, a victim of the terrible centrifugal force that permeated the room. Then the turning stopped, and Steed relaxed. He brought his legs under him and using all his tied limbs slid to the chair. He then managed to lift himself up so his hands were on the seat, and somehow he found a reserve of strength still left inside him and used his arms and back muscles to pull himself up off the floor and twist around, sitting down on the chair. He was out of breath and perspiring.

After a few minutes he was able to reach to his right side, put his fingers into his right jacket pocket and remove the penknife in there. They hadn't taken it away.
They. Whoever they were.

He took out the knife and opened it with his teeth. Then placing it between his knees he sawed through the rope secured around his wrists, which were chaffed and sore. When the knife cut through Steed pulled his arms apart and the rope unraveled and fell to the floor.
Almost free.

He took the penknife in hand and bent down to cut through the rope fastened around his ankles. As he was slicing the cord, it suddenly transformed into a rattle snake which angrily shook its rattle as it flashed its fangs at Steed and struck him a solid bite to his left forearm, right through his shirt. Then it slid speedily away. Steed sat up stunned and reflexively tore his shirt wider at the puncture marks and then cut an "X" deeply into the skin above where the fangs had entered. As the blood poured out he began sucking it out faster, spitting it onto the floor. When he began the third of such movements Steed's eyes fell upon his legs, still entwined with rope and he paused, blinking several times… rope. Rope. No snake. Rope.
He lifted his lips off his skin as the spell of the hallucination was broken. His whole body shuddered.
Powerful drug indeed.

Steed looked at his arm, his shirt now devoid of the two round fang puncture holes, blood trickling down onto his hand. Finding his tie in his left jacket pocket he tied it around the knife wound, then wiped his hand clean on his pants. He cut through the rest of the rope keeping his eyes closed. When he was completely free he opened them again, and his eyes fell upon the coffee pot.
Coffee. Coffee would be good. Would help to clear my thoughts.

Steed place his hands on the arms of the chair and pushed himself upright. He had poor balance and an unbelievable feebleness existed in his legs. He staggered to the table and fell to his knees before it his arms landing on the top of the table just barely keeping him from falling completely to the floor. His head fell forward.
This was bad. He was so weak. So enervated. So tired. He had to become stronger to escape. Steed lifted his head and saw the plastic bag; inside were two chocolate bars. Food. He needed food. Reaching for them he grasped the bag and pulled it towards him. Still kneeling on the floor Steed clumsily attempted to break open the paper wrapping of one bar, finally relying on his teeth to do so. Once the bar was open he ate it in four quick bites, and whether it was his imagination or not, he felt immediately better and stronger once it hit his stomach. He tore the wrapper of the second bar with his teeth and ate it just as quickly, upset that there was no more food, however execrable, on the table.

He definitely felt better. The internal trembling decreased and he could feel a strength come back to his arms and legs. Even his mind seemed sharper.
Steed leaned into the table and stood up, still light-headed but with a finer sense of self-possession. He reached for the coffee pot and pulled it from the machine. He turned and stepping carefully and delicately he made his way to the bathroom. He flipped the light switch on and went to the tiny sink to fill the container with water. As he approached the faucet Steed casually glanced at his reflection in the mirror above the sink, and he dropped both his jaw and the coffee pot at the sight of himself.

It wasn't the whiteness of his face. It wasn't the reddened conjunctiva. It wasn't the large black rings that encircled his sunken eyes. It wasn't the chapped lips. It was his beard. He knew his beard. He put his hand up to his chin, feeling the mixture of dark brown and grey whiskers.

Four days. My beard is four days old. A chill went through Steed and his gains in strength fell right out of him. Making matters worse the mirror then melted and dripped down the wall landing in a puddle on the floor. Steed turned away and sat down heavily on the lid of the commode. Ignoring the hallucination he had just witnessed, he thought, I've been here, drugged, for four days. Four days. That helped to explain his weakness --they probably hadn't fed him, had given him the barest amount of fluid to drink.

Four days. The Ministry hadn't found him in that time. It was an Unknown Factor event. They had no clues. Steed had no clues. They wouldn't be coming for him; he was on his own. Suddenly a realization jabbed a searing pain deep in his intestines. Emma! Emma had had no word of him for four days. He had just disappeared, had not come home, and he had promised her he always would…

He would. He would go home to Emma. He had been on his own so many times before, this was just one more time. He had pushed himself so many times before, he would push himself just one more time.

Steed stood up and was thankful to see that the coffee pot had not broken by its fall into the sink, and that the mirror had somehow miraculously reattached itself in its solid state onto the front of the bathroom cabinet. He filled the glass container to the top with water, needing two hands to hold it as he carried it back to the machine on the table. He put the filter in the top, added two times the normal amount of coffee into it, placed it in the filter holder and then poured the water into the top of the machine, turning it on after he had replaced the pot under the water spout.

He pulled the chair to the table that had his jacket on it, and put it on. Finding his shoes, he put them on as well, then he sat in the chair waiting for the coffee to brew, keeping an eye on the door, watching for it to move. Aside from his penknife, there was no other weapon in the room. If The Pillar came back, whom Steed assumed must be a rather large fellow… he'd swing a chair at him as soon as possible, pour hot coffee over him, gouge his eye out, do anything to overcome him.

I will go home, he avowed to himself. No matter how difficult, I will go home. Get out of this house, find someone, run through woods, steal a car, whatever; he would go home.

The room rocked slightly back and forth as Steed reached for the pot full of the dark black beverage; he poured it into one of the two coffee mugs that sat next to the machine. Maybe the coffee would further clear his head so that he wouldn't feel like he was rocking back and forth all the time. That made him a bit queasy.
Steed sipped on the strong coffee and when it was a little cooler, he drank it down in large gulps, letting the warmth and caffeine saturate his system. He poured himself a second cup and then continued all the way down until he had imbibed the entire eight cup pot. He turned the machine off and stood up, feeling much more alert, much more energetic.
Ah, caffeine and chocolate --a secret agent's helpful meal.

Well, it was now or never. No use dawdling when he had an escape to achieve. Rather confident, Steed took a step towards the door and then stopped dead in his tracks as he saw the floor dip down precipitously under his foot, opening into a chasm in the ground. Instinctively acting to avoid falling into the opening, Steed launched his foot up and over that danger leaping over it, stumbling into the wall on his descent. As he lay squatting against the wall, he closed his eyes tightly, feeling his confidence at his chances of attaining freedom melting away like the mirror. When he finally glanced out from under narrowly slit eyelids, he saw the floor was just a normal floor again. Steed clenched his jaw tightly.

How long will those delusions persist? Steed didn't know but he chastised himself for acting so stupidly. I've got to get my reactions to the delusions under control. They aren't real. It's just some lingering aspect of the drug in my system; it will go away eventually. I've got to be more rational, less reactive when they strike. Come on, Steed, you can tell a vision from reality. Act that way. Stop jumping like a little girl seeing a mouse.

Steed stood up and went to the door. Very slowly he opened it and peered out of the room. No one was there; no William from the wine shop, no Pillar. He saw a couple of more doors closed and a ladder at the end of the short hallway. Steed felt his heart begin pounding hard, and he couldn't blame it all on the eight cups of double strength coffee he had just drunken. It served an agent no good purpose to not be truthful with one's emotions; Steed was afraid. He didn't know who had captured him, or why. He didn't know where he was. How many of them were here? He had only the energy of two candy bars in four days to see him through any active confrontation. He hoped he could just sneak out of the house or cottage without being seen.

Telling himself that waiting never got a person anywhere, Steed slid around the door and closed it silently behind him. He took long soft steps to the ladder, which ended at a hole in the ceiling. What kind of house had a ladder… a sneaking suspicion began to fill Steed's worried mind. Taking several deep breaths, Steed climbed up the rungs without making a noise, as he neared the top he could here a man's voice forcefully yet not angrily trying to implore someone to agree to something. A women's voice answered very softly, and he could just make out her saying, "Yes, yes, you're right."

A woman. If he could just grab hold of the woman, threaten her, he would have some leverage in trying to escape. It wasn't the most gentlemanly thing to do, but Steed didn't think being a gentleman would aide his surviving this affair. He prepared himself and then in a flash he shot out of the hole in the floor, surveying the room in an instant. He saw a woman sitting opposite a man --his face looked familiar, but his clean-shaven face and blond hair seemed somehow out of place. They both stared at Steed wide-eyed and then Steed saw The Pillar, a giant of a man, fly off a sofa with an explosive curse and come at Steed, hatred marked all over his face.

"You bastard! I'll beat you to a pulp," the man yelled.
"Well, my dear, well? Now look at what's happened!" the other man yelled, standing up as well. "Damn it all to hell!"

Steed ducked out the door to avoid the man's attack and as streaming rain hit his face and wind bent him over he came face to face with the worst possible scenario he could have ever imagined.

He was on a boat. Trapped on a boat. His suspicions had been right --the rocking, the ladder. He dashed to the railing and saw only open sea. As the large man came out the door, Steed ran down the deck to the other side of the boat, and there in there distance, two miles away, he could see a shoreline. Even though twilight was falling, he could make out a rocky shoreline. Yet, two miles of rolling, storm-tossed ocean lay between him and the shore. Steed's heart sank. This was very bad.

Turning to his left he saw the large youth come at him with an axe. Staring a moment in fear, Steed dodged the downward swing of the weapon at the last moment, which hit the brass of the railing right next to him, and he slipped on the wet deck as he spun around trying to prepare to defend himself again. On one knee, Steed ducked under a wide swing that imbedded the axe in the wood of the cabin. The man released his grip on the axe and more quickly than a scampering Steed would have given him credit, reached down and grabbed him by his lapels. In one easy lift, Steed was pulled to his feet and too weak to fight for release from the brawny grip, he received a crushing blow to his face that sent him spinning back down to the wet and rocking deck. Stunned, he was helpless when the man lifted him up and punched him in the face again; this time he fell back against the central cabin wall. Before his knees could give out Steed was struck in the abdomen with several devastating blows. As he crumbled forward, the wind knocked out of him, vomiting up coffee, Steed was grabbed by that tremendously sturdy arm made of iron and he didn't even see the blow that hit him; he just had a sensation of disorientation, of his limbs flailing about, and then he came to a stop on his knees leaning against the railing, the downpour causing rivers of water to flow down his drooping head.

He was still conscious, and even though he couldn't move he could see what was happening. The large man, The Pillar, was tearing the axe out the deep slit it had formed in the wood; the other man, William, yes it was Mr. Fowler's William, shaved and blond, approached from Steed's right, a gun held in his hand, the woman by his side. He fired the gun and a bullet hit a post of the railing one foot from Steed. Steed started and now his heart was racing.

Steed had no choice. He was between a rock and a hard place. There was just one alternative to them killing him and he had to take it, no matter how frightening, how impossible the alternative was. He would not be killed like a sitting duck and he had no strength or quickness to fight them, armed with weapons as they were. He would take the only other option.

"Hold it, big fellow," William ordered, as he stopped seven feet from Steed. Craig stood still, the axe hefted yet stationary . "We have to wait for… her to agree."
He was good, Steed thought. Didn't mention a name or the relationship of the woman to him. Although it was obvious they must be closely related, probably brother and sister.
"Well? Do you agree?" William asked the young lady. Steed's incredibly astute mind put the jigsaw puzzle together. She had been the hold-out. William and Craig had no reservations about killing him; apparently the lady had and that's why they had kept him alive, though drugged. Not to interrogate him; but to wait to kill him until she agreed. A rather all for one, one for all group of young, vengeful murderers.

Steed saw her eyes, soft at first and then hardening into flint, and after so many years in the field, he knew what her answer would be now as the whole episode had come to this crisis. In the guise of moaning and somewhat collapsing from his injuries, Steed turned to his side and crouched down as if in pain, though really he was readying himself to spring up at any moment. He had two questions to ask though first, that burned within his brain demanding a response, an explanation.

Steed, drenched from the rain, looked up through the pelting spray of water at William and asked, "Who are you people? Why are you doing this?"
None of them answered.
"Mary?" William asked. He used her name. He was sure of her answer, too.
"Kill him," she said.
As William pointed his gun and the large man raised his axe, Steed sprang up like a tiger and flew over the railing, diving frantically into the rolling stormy sea, two miles from the rocky shore.

Chapter Four

For Emma Steed, the world, once so vibrant, colorful, and alive had shrunken up into one, desolate word. "Nothing."
Nothing. There was nothing. That was the word that encapsulated everything --nothing. What had The Ministry found --nothing. What clues did they have --nothing. What theories did they have --nothing. Who were those three people, where were they from, where had they gone --nothing. How many other people did they suspect, were they watching, investigating, questioning --no one. What could they tell her --nothing. What hope did they have for her--nothing. They were so very sorry but that was all --nothing. Steed had meant everything to them, but --nothing.

Purdey went home by the third day, telling Emma that she and Gambit would check in daily. It was a nice gesture but what did it really mean to Emma --nothing.
Her friends and relatives and Steed's relatives called her and what could she tell them --nothing.
Did she want company, food, help --nothing.
What did she think as she sat alone on the sofa in their living room --nothing.
What did she feel as she sat alone on the sofa in their living room --nothing.

Steed's tickle of danger. She remembered several months ago how he had felt the danger of the fire, and had run into the burning house to save those two children.
His sixth sense; its importance had been invaluable.
What was its importance now --nothing.
What was the present now --nothing.
What was the future now --nothing.
But… there was still the past.
A past she remembered.

She remembered just two months ago, when the summer had still been fair and they had plans to leave for a vacation in the country, first visiting some old friends of theirs and then moving on to the Lake District. Both of them had arranged to have five days of free time, yet from the moment they woke the first day of their holiday, the phone hadn't stopped ringing. Knight Industries calling for Emma; the Ministry calling for Steed. Knight Industries again for Emma; Steed's nephew Willy very upset over his girlfriend. Emma's friend Lucille having a marital crisis. Emma broke a shoelace. Steed's electric shaver didn't work, and he nicked his chin using a straight razor. Emma spilled orange juice on her blouse. By the time both of them were in the Jaguar, luggage packed away, finally heading to their little holiday to enjoy the last of the warmth and the sun, Emma was irritable and annoyed with their extremely inauspicious beginning. They she realized she had forgotten her gift for her friends and they had had to turn around and go home again. By the time they were on the road for the second time, neither was really the picture of calm happiness.

They had driven only fifty miles when a tyre blew, loudly, and Steed masterfully slowed down and pulled the car safely off the road. They got out and examined the tyre; there was a large nail in it, they were on an isolated side road, they had a carful of luggage, Steed in his fine suit would have to change it, they would be even more tardy at arriving for lunch at their friends' manor.

Emma launched into a harsh curse or two and kicked the flat tyre a few times. Steed just stood there, hands in his pockets, his lips frowning slightly, none too eager to dirty his hands, but not overtly particularly upset.
"Don't you ever curse?" Emma asked her husband, wanting to kick the tyre again.
Steed shook his head slowly side to side. "No."
"Well, why not? Here's the perfect time for it. What a dreadful morning!"
"Oh, I don't know."

She had looked at him, as he continued to stare at the tyre like he was trying by mental power to fix the rent in the rubber so it would rise up whole and full of air again. Then Steed turned and looked around the road and up at the blue summer day. He noticed her watching him and he smiled at her questioning face.
"I mean, look, it's still a beautiful day; you're still my beautiful wife; we still have our health; we're safe and sound…" he shrugged, and began to remove his jacket. "Good for the soul to get one's hand dirty in honest hard work. And besides, it's not that bad, what's happened today."

Steed set about taking the luggage out and placing the cases in a neat line on the side of the road. Next he lifted the car up on the jack and twisted the lug nuts off with the wrench. Emma stood by his side as he worked, curiosity replacing ire inside her.
"Have you ever muttered an expletive?" she asked.
"Oh, once or twice. When I was younger."
"And then?" If he dodged around the inquiry Emma would have stopped prying; she knew the game they play with Steed's past, she understood how far to press as she determined if he would open up or would prefer his usual reticence. Surprisingly, this was one of the rare times that Steed actually spoke about his past.

He stood up and pulled the tyre off the wheel, then rolled it to the boot and took out the good spare, rolling it to the left front wheel it would go onto.
"And then my dear Auntie asked me not to." Seeing his wife's interest, Steed rested the tyre against the side of the car and stood up. "She was my mother's favorite sister and was always very kind to me. She'd been ill for some time, and it made her feel better to rest some in a chaise lounge outside when the weather was calm, the air fresh. I was near her one day, playing with a couple of mates on the back lawn; things got a little rough, and one of them broke a croquet stick against a tree, snapping the end off. Knowing my father's imminent reaction to that, which would not be of a pleasant nature, I… cursed a few times. My Auntie heard and called me over. She was very weak, and pale, but as lovely as she had ever been, even though there was a smell of illness about her. She told me how much it hurt her to hear me curse and pleaded with me to promise that I would never speak so rudely again; that it wasn't "gentlemanly" and that I was to be a gentleman. She had never had children and she and I had always relished the company of each other, so I, of course, agreed to her request. She reminded me of that promise a few days later just before she died." He stopped.

Emma let the pause linger as she waited for him to finish.
Steed bent down and worked the tire onto the hub. "I haven't cursed since," he said simply, as he began screwing on the lug nuts. "Seemed the best way to do that was to try not to get angry; not let things bother me. Be a gentleman. Wasn't very good at that for a long time," he sighed, "a very long time, but over the years I've made progress."
"Yes, a great deal of progress, apparently. But, when you got angry before… what happened then?"
"Oh, well, I usually killed someone."
Emma smiled. "Without cursing."
"Of course. I made a promise."

It was odd; instead of ensuring the complete ruination of her morning, the flat tyre had initiated a discussion with her husband she had never had before, and she and learned something dear and beautiful about him. He love of his auntie; his belief in honoring his word; his letting the petty aggravations of life stay what they were, petty and unimportant, unworthy of comment or emotional investment. "It's not that bad, what's happened today," he had said; and she saw his body every night, his so badly scarred body, and saw him wake terrified from ghastly nightmares, dreams in which she knew he was just reliving some horror from his past. Much worse things had happened to him than a nicked chin, punctured tire, and late lunch date. She wasn't sure if one should call his generally unflappable demeanor being a gentleman, or wisdom.

When Steed was done with the tyre, and had put everything away, she helped him on with his jacket, brushed some errant pieces of hair off his forehead, and kissed him on the lips.
"I say, I didn't know you went for the mechanical types," he quipped. "Let me pop a hole in another tyre, if that's the case."
"Don't bother. I go for gentleman types as well. Who don't curse. Who rarely get angry, then when they do, they kill someone," she smirked.
Steed snapped his fingers like a rifle shot. "I know just the fellow for you," he declared, opening up her car door.
"Sorry," Emma said, entering the vehicle, "I'm already taken."
"Lucky fellow," Steed said looking down at her.
"Lucky me," she replied, smiling at him.
And the day was suddenly bright again.

Continued in part 2

©  Mona Morstein 1999
No aspect of this story may be used elsewhere without the expressed prior written consent of the author. These stories may not be altered in any way or sold; all copyright information must appear with this work at all times. Please read disclaimers and warnings on top of each story. Feel free to send constructive comments to the author.. :o)  

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