Copyright © 2001 by Barbara Davies.

Warnings

This story may not be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of it may be made for private use only and must include all copyright notices, warnings and acknowledgements.

Disclaimers

This is my homage to the likes of Emma Peel, Tara King, The Men from UNCLE and James Bond. And as with those characters and their settings, my secret agents and the organisation they work for bear no resemblance to anything in the real world.

I have never been to Brazil; I used a guidebook instead. Some errors are bound to have crept in. I claim artistic licence. <g>

There is some bad language. What can I say? Secret agents need to let off steam somehow.

There are also same sex relationships, but it's all done in terribly good taste. If the more explicit stuff is your cup of tea.... Sorry! My agents are British, doncherknow. <G>

Sequel Alert

This is the sequel to Say Goodbye to Boston and will make a little more sense if you have read that first.

A VIEW TO A KISS

by

Barbara Davies

(Email: bhdavies@cheltenham1.demon.co.uk )

 

Part One

"Won't be a minute," said Ashley Blade. "I just need to get some local currency." She strolled towards the Casa de Câmbio in Arrivals, glad to stretch her legs after the long flight.

The woman behind the counter looked up and smiled; her face was deeply tanned, her smile brilliant. "Sim?"

After a month of speaking Canarian Spanish, Portuguese came awkwardly to Ash. She thought for a moment. "Eu gostaria de trocar meus travellers checks?"

The Brazilian woman nodded, and a relieved Ash slid a traveller's cheque across the counter. Moments later, she found herself in possession of some coloured real notes in a variety of denominations. "Muito obrigada."

Ash crammed the money into the secret zipped compartment of the belt she had brought especially for the purpose. Then she hurried back to the spot near the carousel where her partner, Jemma Jacobs, was guarding their luggage.

The blonde smiled up at her. "Everything okay?"

She nodded and reached for her bag. "Let's go." Jemma picked up her own suitcase and followed her.

As they walked towards the Aeroporto Galeão's exit, Ash scanned for signs of danger. Jemma's head, she couldn't help noticing, was swivelling for entirely different reasons. Green eyes open wide, she was avidly taking in all the sights, smells, and sounds, among them the sensual female voice announcing plane arrivals. Ash suppressed a smile. She had been the same when she first came to Rio de Janeiro.

They emerged into brilliant sunlight and sweltering heat. Pity they couldn't have delayed this until it was cooler, thought Ash, but sightings of Libyan terrorists waited for no one, especially when the terrorists in question were Minyar al-Akhdar and Khaleb Abdusamad. She pulled out her sunglasses and put them on. Jemma followed suit, then turned towards the taxi rank.

Ash stopped her. "Those cost too much," she cautioned. "Follow me."

The blonde shrugged, shifted her heavy suitcase from one hand to the other, and trailed after her.

Normally she wouldn't have bothered trying to save a few reais, but after her Section Head's stern telephone call about 'the revised budget' she supposed she'd better make the effort. The Organisation's new Finance Director was slashing costs across the board, and she hated to think what the hotel London had selected for them was like.

A little way from the airport, around a corner, she found what she was looking for: several yellow cabs with blue stripes. Their drivers turned eager grins her way. She peered in the window of the first one, gave it a quick once-over, then declined.

"Não. Desculpe," she said firmly, ignoring the angry glance the driver gave her.

The next cab proved more suitable. It wasn't unknown for taxis to make off with the luggage, so Ash closely supervised its loading then opened the back door and waited for Jemma to climb in.

While they settled, the driver switched on his meter and turned his head enquiringly.

"Hotel Senador, Flamengo, por favor," called Ash. If she remembered rightly, the journey to that part of the City should take them about half an hour.

"OK."

The taxi headed out into the late morning traffic at a speed that would have done Ayrton Senna proud. Ash and Jemma exchanged rueful glances.

"So, what was wrong with the first taxi?" enquired Jemma.

"His meter was out of order, and his price list was photocopied." Rio's international airport receded into the distance behind them. "He'd have charged us through the roof."

"Ah."

The taxi turned onto the expressway and picked up yet more speed.

"I wish I was driving," muttered Ash.

"I wish you were too."

They travelled in silence for a while, then Jemma suddenly pressed her nose against the glass. "Wow! Look at that."

On their left, the sparkling blue of the Baía de Guanabara had come into view. Ash smiled at her partner's enthusiasm. "We should be able to do some sightseeing," she promised. "It wonít be all business."

"You ladies are here on business?" came the driver's voice over the roar of the engine. Ash had been aware of his brown eyes watching them in his rear view mirror.

"Yes." She raised her voice so he could hear her. "We're here to negotiate a textile contract with a Brazilian firm. Our company's based in England," she added blithely, ignoring Jemma's amused glance as she donned the false identity London had created for her.

"Textiles?" The cab driver nodded sagely. "We have many such factories here in Brazil."

"That's right." It was Jemma's turn to chip in. "The Brazilians came to Yorkshire last month. Now it's our turn to return the favour."

He shook his head. "Rio is the most beautiful city in the world," he chided. "You must make time to enjoy yourselves while you're here." He took a corner at breakneck speed, throwing Jemma into Ash's lap. She blushed, disentangled herself, and muttered an apology. Ash grinned. She hadn't minded at all.

"Two such pretty ladies," continued the cab driver, "will not lack companionship for long. We Cariocas have a lust for life, for romance." He nodded earnestly.

"So I've been told," said Ash. "I'm just disappointed we couldn't be here last month for the Carnival."

"Ah, Carnaval."

He took the bait, as Ash had intended, and needed little input from his passengers for the rest of the 15-kilometre journey. She didn't bother mentioning that she had already been to one carnival this year - in Tenerife - and that was quite enough.

Ash gazed dubiously up at the hotel's exterior as the taxi driver honked a farewell then drove off. The paint wasn't peeling... yet.

"Is this where you usually stay?" asked Jemma.

"No. Last time, I stayed in Ipanema. Still, this place can't be too bad. After all, it's got two stars." She picked up her bag, pushed open the front door, and headed for the lobby.

No one was on the reception desk, so she thumped the bell hard. A harried, middle aged woman appeared, removing a pair of pink rubber, washing-up gloves. "Sim?"

Ash was about to answer in Portuguese when she remembered she was supposed to be a tourist.

"Good morning," she said, checking her watch surreptitiously. Yes, it was still morning. They had gained 3 hours on the flight. "I'm Georgia Kenyon and this is my colleague Molly Blythe." She caught Jemma's almost imperceptible wince and suppressed a smile. The blonde hated the names London had chosen for them. "You have a reservation for us, I believe."

While she spoke, the receptionist was checking her computer screen. "Ah, yes. Standard room, double occupancy - is that correct?" She glanced up.

Ash nodded glumly. "Correct."

Normally she would have welcomed the chance to share a room with a woman as attractive as Jemma - all sorts of opportunities would undoubtedly arise - but before leaving Tenerife she had resolved that the blonde was 'out of bounds'. Seducing her new partner (always assuming she was susceptible to Ash's charms) could complicate matters considerably. Better not to risk it.

"Sign here, please." The receptionist slid the register across the counter and both Ash and Jemma filled it in, the blonde hesitating momentarily before signing her alias.

"Breakfast is included at no extra charge. Your room key."

She held out a tiny key attached to a bulky keyring. Ash took it and memorised their room number: 203.

"Your room is on the second floor. The stairs are over there." The woman gestured vaguely then grabbed her rubber gloves and disappeared back to wherever it was she had come from.

Jemma grimaced and reached for her heavy suitcase. "No porter?"

"Doesn't look like it."

Ash was heading towards the stairs when the receptionist reappeared looking even more harried.

"Excuse me. I forgot. There is a letter for you, Senhorita Kenyon."

She stopped, retraced her steps, and accepted the anonymous looking white envelope. "Thank you."

"I hope you both enjoy your stay at the Hotel Senador." With a distracted smile, the receptionist disappeared into the depths again.

By the time they had reached the second floor, Jemma was swapping over the hand holding her case every three seconds. (Jemma's idea of packing 'lightly' had turned out to be different from Ash's.)

"Nearly there," encouraged Ash, spotting room 203.

She crossed to it and slipped the key into the lock. The door opened onto a clean room, but that was all that could be said in its favour. The twin beds were lumpy, and the furniture worn. The refrigerator was empty and the air conditioning horrendously noisy. Sweat or sleep. Wonderful.

"Hey, there's a bidet," called Jemma, who had put down her case and disappeared into the bathroom. Minutes later came the sound of a toilet flushing, and the blonde reappeared.

Jemma flopped down on the twin bed nearest the window, glancing out at what should have been a spectacular view of the Baía de Guanabara but was instead another hotel. She turned to give Ash an interested glance. "So, whoís the letter from?"

Ash pulled the envelope from her jean pocket and examined it. "Delivered by hand." She ripped it open. It contained a letter and a small passport photo. She studied them briefly. "Celio Pacheco."

"Who?"

"Our man in Rio. He'll meet us at 5pm, at the restaurant on the Morro da Urca." She showed Jemma the photo. The handsome young man in it was wearing the smug expression of one who believes he's God's gift to women. He would almost certainly attempt to chat Jemma up. She sighed. If her hunch was right, Jemma would be immune to male flattery, but still -

"The restaurant on the what?" The blonde interrupted her reverie.

"It's the first cable car stop on the way to the Pão de Açúcar."

Jemma grimaced. "And where's that?"

Ash had been purposely obscure, drawing out the suspense, because she suspected her partner would like her eventual answer. "The Sugar Loaf."

There was a moment's silence then the other woman punched the air. "Yes! I've always wanted to go there." She paused. "As long as no seven-foot-tall man with lethal steel teeth follows us onto the cable car."

Ash laughed. "That only happens to James Bond. Anyway, as far as anyone knows, we're just two Yorkshire businesswomen on the loose in Rio. What could be more natural than that we visit one of the most famous landmarks in the world?"

***

Jemma surveyed her surroundings and tried not to wince. She hoped the chef had better taste than the restaurant's decorator. The fact that the little Churrascaria was just over the road from their hotel had swayed her decision. Now she was regretting it.

"It's called gaúcho kitsch." Ash's blue eyes twinkled.

So much for hiding my opinion. Her stomach rumbled loudly and she flushed.

"I'm hungry too," the older agent consoled her. "We've been up 3 hours longer than everyone else, remember?"

"Yeah." Jemma fiddled with her cutlery. "But I'm still not sure about eating Brazilian food on my first day. Maybe we should have gone to that Italian place you suggested after all."

"Don't be silly. You won't catch a stomach bug here."

Ash's face lit up as she caught sight of something over Jemma's shoulder. The blonde twisted in her seat, and was met by a waitress carrying a tray, and an appetising aroma that brought saliva flooding to her mouth.

"Ooh!"

The smiling Brazilian woman set a huge plate in front of Jemma, then moved round to Ash's side of the table.

Jemma looked at the skewers packed with barbecued beef and pork, onions, and something pale yellow called 'mandioca', apparently. She needed no encouragement to dig in. The mandioca tasted a little like potato.

When she was stuffed to the gills and her plate was clean, she licked her fingers, and leaned back. Ash was regarding her amusedly. "I may never move again," she admitted.

The other woman laughed. "Oh yes you will. We've got several hours to fill before we meet Celio, so I thought we might as well walk to the Sugar Loaf."

"Walk?" Jemma groaned.

"Certainly." Ash was unyielding. "The best way to see the sights is on foot."

They paid for their lunch, then Jemma let herself be led out into the brilliant sunshine once more. She put on her sunglasses, and was glad she had plastered herself with sunblock back at the hotel.

"First things first." Ash headed for a shop that sold cheap clothes, hats, and other goods. A few minutes later, they were both kitted out in broadbrimmed sunhats and Ash had also bought herself a cheap plastic watch that wouldn't break her heart if it was stolen. (They had left their expensive watches back at the hotel.)

The tall woman set off purposefully towards the bay. Jemma was gratified to find that they had soon left the built-up area behind them and were strolling through a huge park.

"Would you believe this is reclaimed land?" asked Ash.

Jemma glanced around in surprise. The landscaped lawns and grassy mounds were dotted with sculpted bushes, flowering trees, and groups of mature, towering palms. "Really?"

"Yes. This was once part of the bay."

She could see the Baía de Guanabara itself now, its blue water dazzling in the sunshine. And on the other side of it, to the southeast, was the distinctive dome shape of the Sugar Loaf.

"Wow!" was all Jemma could manage.

Ash laughed. "Shall we get out of the sun for a bit?" She led her partner towards a museum-like building. It would at least be cool in there, thought the blonde. Inside, she stared at her surroundings in disbelief. Ash suppressed a chuckle and, since she was carrying their money in her belt's concealed compartment, went to buy the entrance tickets.

Jemma pasted on a mock scowl and waited for the dark-haired woman to return. She put her hands on her hips and tapped her foot meaningfully.

"So you think I'd look good wearing a fruit basket on my head?"

Ash gave her a shit-eating grin. "Wouldn't everybody?"

Jemma rolled her eyes and snatched the ticket. "Give me that."

It amazed her that anyone would devote a whole museum to Carmen Miranda, but they had. There were over 3,000 pieces in the collection, she read. Performance and dress clothes, accessories, shoes, photos, advertising material, caricatures, videos, contracts, scripts and records....

It was too much really, and by unspoken agreement, they went round the exhibits at breakneck speed, bought a couple of postcards to send to friends and family, then exited into the sunshine again.

"After that, I need a sit down," said Jemma.

Obligingly, Ash led her to a stall selling iced drinks and fruit juices. They bought themselves cokes, then sprawled on the grass.

For a while, they simply sipped their drinks in silence and fanned their faces with their hats, then Jemma asked, "So, how much time have we left to kill?"

The other agent glanced at the cheap watch. "Another two hours. Enjoy it while it lasts, Jemma. Once we know what the Libyans are up to, it could get hectic."

She sighed. Why couldn't they just be here on holiday together?

Two women joggers were approaching along the trail, and Ash openly appraised the blonde one, taking off her sunglasses and flashing her a charming smile. Both joggers glanced interestedly at her, then giggled at one another, and ran on.

Oh please! Ash was much easier on the eye than those bronzed bimbos, but what did she know? Jemma leaned back against a tree, pulled the brim of her sunhat over her eyes, and let her eyelids flutter closed. "Wake me when you're ready to move."

"Sure," came Ash's lazy drawl.

"What the -? Get off me you little -" Crunch.

Ash's exclamation didn't faze Jemma one bit. After all, the tall woman was there with her in her dream, a very nice dream, in which they were just about to share their first kiss. Damn! She could feel herself surfacing and tried desperately to sink back under and pick up where she had left off.

"Oof!" That didn't sound like Ash. Thud.

If only the scuffling wasn't quite so loud. How was a girl supposed to sleep around.... Scuffling? Jemma sat up with a jerk and pushed up her sunhat, just in time to see a youth in blue jeans and a red T-shirt limping away across the park. One hand was pressed to his bleeding nose, the other clutched his groin.

"Tried to steal my passport." Ash held out a hand. "Come on. It's time to go."

Jemma accepted the strong grip and let herself be pulled to her feet. Memory of the dream lingered, and she steeled herself to meet the other woman's gaze as if nothing had happened. During the dream, the kiss had seemed inevitable, natural, but now she felt offbalance and slightly embarrassed. Guess the hero worship has finally turned into something stronger. Question was, what was she going to do about it?

She bought herself time by brushing off the specks of grass and bark that clung to her clothes, then pushed her sunglasses higher up her nose.

"Come on. We're late." Ash set off purposely towards the strip of beach. Jemma trailed after her, wishing her legs were as long.

As she hurried, she tried to piece together what had happened. How the youth had even got near to Ash was a mystery. And - Belatedly Ash's words registered. "Late? But I thought...."

"I dozed off, OK?" muttered the other woman, her tanned cheeks flushing a darker shade. "Must be jet lag."

"Oh." That explained it. Jemma hid a smile. Knowing how lethal Ash's reflexes were, the youth who had woken the tall woman was lucky not to have suffered far worse injuries.

They hurried along Botafogo beach, past several workout stations, where muscular locals, men and women alike, were assiduously sculpting their bodies into works of art.

"It makes me tired just looking at them," muttered Jemma.

Ash had been anxiously turning and scanning the main road that ran alongside them, and now her expression brightened. "An Urca bus. Come on." She broke into a jog and Jemma reluctantly did likewise.

They caught the bus with seconds to spare, then Ash was giving the collector enough money for both their fares to the Sugar Loaf. Jemma followed her through the turnstile and took her seat next to her with a sigh of relief.

A cable car was waiting at the station when they reached the Praça General Tibúrcio. Ash bought their tickets, and they boarded quickly, then the doors slid closed with a clunk, and they began to ascend.

Jemma scrutinised their six fellow passengers carefully. Tourists, just like them, she decided. Well, she amended wryly, perhaps not quite like us. After all, how many of them were dashing secret agents travelling incognito? She smiled.

Ash raised an eyebrow. "What?"

"I think I'm jetlagged too," she confided. "My thoughts are all over the place."

"Hardly surprising. London, Santa Cruz, Rio... in just three days! You've been overdoing it a bit, you know."

"I know." Jemma would have liked to spend longer than one night in Ash's comfortable Tenerife casa, but London considered unravelling the reason for the :Libyans' presence in Rio to be top priority. Maybe when they had more time, when this assignment was over...?

Ash pressed her mouth to Jemma's ear. "No sign of Jaws yet."

"No, thank God." The feel of Ash's hot breath had sent a tingle down her spine. Belatedly, she realised she was supposed to be admiring the view from the cable car. The bay was an intense blue, and Rio.... Wow! The driver had been right. From up here, the city looked beautiful.

"It's even better at night," said Ash, noticing her rapt expression. "When the lights start to come on."

There was a violent jolt, and for an all too brief moment, the dark-haired woman's arm was wrapped round Jemma, steadying her. Then the cable car trundled into the Morro da Urca stop, and with a loud clang, the securing arms dropped into place. Ash released her hold as the doors slid open.

"We're here," she said unnecessarily. "Let's see what Celio has got for us."

Jemma sighed and followed Ash out onto the hill.

He was sitting in the little restaurant, pouting sulkily and looking frequently at his watch. Ash and Jemma exchanged glances then walked towards the Organisation's man in Rio. His brown eyes lit up when he saw them.

"Oi, Senhoritas 'Kenyon' and 'Blythe'." He ran a hand through his unruly hair in an unsuccessful attempt to straighten it, then gave them the traditional Brazilian greeting. Ash rolled her eyes but dutifully returned his kisses to each cheek.

Jemma was surprised when he bestowed an extra, rather bristly kiss on her. Three kisses were reserved for close friends. She narrowed her eyes at him and he gave her a wide smile in return.

"Please." He gestured, and they sat down.

A waitress hurried over to their table. Ash looked at Jemma. "Coffee OK?" She nodded. "Dois cafés." The waitress nodded and trotted off to get them. Ash placed her hat on the table and ran a hand through her hair.

"Do you know how we Cariocas like our coffee?" asked Celio, fixing limpid eyes on Jemma. Ash snorted derisively but he ignored her. "Strong as the devil, hot as hell, and sweet as love."

Jemma tried not to laugh at the young man's chat up routine. He seemed to realise she was immune, and he sighed and sat back.

Their coffees arrived soon after and she took a sip then grimaced. Wordlessly, Ash handed her the sugar. She shovelled some in until the coffee was drinkable.

"Right," said the older agent, when the waitress had gone. "Enough of the chit-chat, Celio. Have you brought the parcel I asked for?"

"Yes."

With his foot, he slid something towards them under the table. It brushed against Jemma's leg and she looked down. A supermarket carrier bag. How classy. She reached in and felt the familiar outlines of the two Browning automatics they had sent via the British Embassy's diplomatic bag.

Ash raised an eyebrow, and Jemma nodded.

"Ammo too?" asked Ash.

"As requested."

"Good." The tall woman drummed her long fingers on the tabletop. "We're going to need a car too. Something it's easy to get spares for. Can you arrange that?"

He gave a thumbs-up. "OK"

"Now. What news of Laurel and Hardy?" Since Abdusamad was lean and al-Akhdar patently wasn't, London's choice of codenames had been obvious.

Celio relaxed and sat back. "The news is mixed. They both disappeared from Rio yesterday -"

"What?" exploded Ash.

He raised a restraining hand. "- and reappeared in São Paulo."

Ash subsided, muttering, and he winked at Jemma.

"Laurel has been mixing with petty criminals," continued the young man. "Hardy has been spending time with a man named Mauro Pimentel." He waited expectantly. Jemma took the bait.

"Who is he?"

"A Brazilian industrialist, very rich. He manufactures chemicals."

Ash pursed her lips. "Now what would they want with chemicals?"

Celio shrugged. "Unknown, but I am working on it. It could be they are simply after Pimentel's money. Lately, there has been a spate of robberies in Rio and São Paulo. I think Laurel and Hardy have been doing some fund raising."

"For what?" chipped in Jemma.

He flashed her an apologetic smile. "Again, unknown."

Ash was gazing absently out over the bay as she mulled over this latest information. Jemma nudged her, bringing her back to the here and now.

"So what's next?" she prompted. "We go to São Paulo?"

The tall woman nodded then switched her piercing blue gaze to Celio. "Can you book us into a hotel there?"

"Tonight?"

She thought for a moment then shook her head. "Tomorrow should be soon enough." Her fingers drummed on the table. "We'll drive there."

A downward bound cable car rumbled into the stop and Celio glanced across at it then back to the two women. "Is that all, Senhorita 'Kenyon'? If so, I'll go and get started on the arrangements now."

Ash nodded. "That's all."

He stood up, gave Ash a respectful nod and Jemma a charming smile, then headed off towards the cable car. The last they saw of him, he was waving at them through the window as it disappeared on its journey towards the base station.

Jemma glanced up at the Sugar Loaf. So near and yet so far. Then she turned back to Ash, and tried to hide her disappointment. "So. Is that it, then? We go back to the hotel to pack and get ready for São Paulo?"

Ash smiled and shook her head. "Not likely. Since we only have one night in Rio, we're going to make the most of it."

She stood up, grabbed her sunhat, then beckoned to Jemma. "Come on. I want to show you the most spectacular view in Rio." As if on cue, an upward bound cable car rumbled into the stop....

***

Ash watched Jemma fling herself backwards onto the bed, and cover her eyes with one forearm. "I'm knackered."

In spite of their hectic day, Ash felt restless rather than tired. Maybe it was just anticipation about tomorrow's long drive to São Paulo? Which reminded her. Where the hell's that car Celio was supposed to be getting us?

The phone on the bedside table rang, startling Jemma, who lifted her arm and watched Ash pounce on the receiver.

"Yes?"

"Is that room 203?"

She recognised the night receptionist's voice. "Yes."

"A man has left something for you at the desk, Senhorita. Will you collect it as soon as possible, please?"

"I'll be right down." She slammed down the receiver then met Jemma's interested green gaze. "I think the car's here."

"Oh, good. What sort is it?"

"Donít know. Want to come and find out?"

"OK." With a groan, the blonde heaved herself up off the bed. "Why did you let me eat so much?"

Ash shrugged. "I thought you were enjoying that filet mignon."

"Then I was." Jemma held a hand to her stomach. "Now I'm not so sure." She burped then blushed, the tips of her ears turning pink. "Sorry!"

Ash laughed. "A walk will do you good."

"Bully."

She threw Jemma an indulgent glance. "You're as lazy as Sam was." Thinking about her dead partner was getting easier, she reflected thankfully.

"Am I?"

Ash nodded and opened the door.

"Is that good or bad?"

"I'll let you know."

They headed downstairs to reception, where the item left for her proved to be a bulky envelope. Inside it was a set of car keys. Jemma examined them while Ash read the accompanying note. Job done, the receptionist disappeared into the back room.

"Volkswagen," deduced Jemma.

Ash pulled a face. "Really?" She preferred her cars sleek and sporty.

Placing her hand in the small of Jemma's back, she guided her outside. The night air was pleasantly cool after the heat of the day. "Itís green and parked down the road a bit, according to this. I've got the registration number." She scanned the number plates of the vehicles parked across the road and pointed. "That one."

"The 2-door Volkswagen Gol?"

Glumly, Ash strode towards it. "Yes." She slipped the key into the lock and opened the driver's door. Jemma came up beside her. She was trying not to laugh.

"How come James Bond gets Aston Martins and you get Fiat Cinquecentos and Volkswagen Gols?"

"Yeah," grumbled Ash. "How come?" She reached inside the glove compartment and found the papers Celio had told her would be there. "Still, spares should be a doddle, and that's the important thing. Right?"

"Right." The blonde didn't sound convinced.

Ash slid into the driver's seat, then looked up at Jemma. "Want to come for a test drive?"

The other woman shook her head. "I'm tired. If it's all right with you, I think Iíll go to bed."

"Good idea." To be truthful, she was a little relieved. Being constantly in Jemma's company, while delightful, was straining her self-control to breaking point. Ash kept wanting to touch her, to stroke the fine blonde hairs on her forearms.... It hadn't been this bad in Tenerife, she mused. Something had changed between them. Or maybe she was just still jetlagged.

She checked her watch. It was 9.30pm. "I'll be back before midnight."

Jemma raised her hand in a little wave. "OK. See you then."

Ash watched the blonde walk back towards the hotel, found herself admiring the shapely backside and gave herself a mental slap round the chops. She sighed, and set about shoving the car seat back as far as it would go (that was the trouble with being six feet tall). After experimenting with the various switches for a while, she was satisfied she knew all she needed to, so she strapped herself in and turned on the ignition. The engine sounded a bit rough, but at least it went. She pulled out into the traffic.

Instinctively, she headed for the parts of Rio that she was familiar with - Copacabana and Ipanema. A spot of girl-watching, maybe even girl-catching would be a pleasant diversion. As she drove slowly along the Avenida Atlantica, she gazed out at the laughing Cariocas and tourists intent on enjoying the nightlife. This scene needs music. She switched on the Volkswagen's radio, and tuned it to a station playing bossa novas. Perfect.

At the end of the Copacabana beach, she bore right, then right again, ending up on the Avenida Viera Souto which ran alongside Ipanema's beach. Tonight, there were plenty of leggy Ipanema women to be had (and Ash was an expert at judging availability). But her heart just wasn't in it. Sex with a beautiful stranger seemed to have lost its allure. She sighed. Perhaps I am tired after all.

Intending to call it a night and head back to the hotel, she took the next right. Half way along the road, her surroundings began to seem familiar. Puzzled, she slowed the Volkswagen to a crawl while she got her bearings. Ah. Wasn't this the Rua Teixeira de Melo? Which meant the Alegria Café should be just about... here.

She pulled up outside the brightly lit bar cum café, smiling at the memories it evoked, especially those concerning a certain voluptuous Carioca woman. Four years ago, she and Sam had come to Rio to recover from a strenuous assignment. She had been checking out Rio's gay scene, when she came upon the little women-friendly bar.

Giseli hadn't been Ash's usual 'type' at all. She was ten years older, her curly hair and large eyes were brown, and her figure might politely be called 'generous'. But there was a vivacity to the small Brazilian woman, a frank carnality that was irresistible. She had spotted Ash standing by the bar and openly made a play for her. By the end of the evening, she had won her too.

Ash smiled, remembering their brief time together, much of it spent inside a motel room (which Brazilians unashamedly hired by the hour whenever they needed somewhere private). It had been an intensely pleasurable time and she had learned quite a few new techniques from the other woman. Then her holiday drew to a close, and, as they had known it must, their relationship ended. There had been no recriminations though. They had parted as friends.

She realised she would really like to see Giseli again. Perhaps it was coincidence, or perhaps her subconscious had brought her to the Brazilian's favourite watering hole. Whatever, she parked the car under a streetlight, locked it, and headed for the Alegria.

The sounds of Acid House grew louder as she pushed open the outer door. It could have been worse, she saw from a poster - it could have been Disco night. Opening the inner door brought a blast of warm air smelling of perfume, alcohol, smoke, and sweat. She inhaled it, smiling at the memories it brought.

Interested looks followed Ash's progress as she made her way through the heaving throng of women, but she ignored them. What were the odds Giseli would be in tonight? And what were the odds she would still be the person Ash remembered? They were both four years older. A lot could have happened....

She drummed her fingers on the bar and scanned the drinks list until at last the busy bartender noticed her and raised an eyebrow.

"Um Camouflage," she said, deciding to be adventurous.

A tap on her shoulder startled her and made her turn. She found herself looking down into familiar, warm brown eyes.

"Blade. I thought it was you."

Ash returned the delighted smile. "Giseli. How are you?" The other woman had a few more fine lines around her eyes and mouth, but other than that she hadn't changed at all.

"Well, very well. And you?"

Throat clearing from behind proved to be the crop-haired bartender. Ash apologised for keeping her waiting, paid for her drink, then carried it over to an empty table. Giseli took a moment to excuse herself from the party of friends she was with, then brought her beer over. They sat on hard chairs and gazed openly at one another.

"So. How long are you in Rio this time?"

"Just tonight." Ash tasted her drink gingerly and decided adulterating whiskey with coconut water was not the greatest idea anyone had ever had.

"One night?" The Brazilian looked outraged.

She shrugged, feeling embarrassed. "It was going to be longer but - "

"I see." Giseli took a gulp of her beer. "Still, one night is better than none." She thought for a moment. "And your friend... What was his name? Ah, yes. Sam. He is with you?"

Ash sighed. "Sam's dead," she said quietly. "He was killed last year."

Giseli laid a tanned hand on her arm. "Sinto muito." She looked genuinely sad to hear the news. "He was a nice young man. You must miss him."

Ash looked at her hands. "I do," she admitted.

"So," Giseli's change of tone and posture indicated a change of topic. "You are here alone?"

"Er, no. I have a new partner. Her name is Jemma. She's at the hotel. We only arrived today so she was tired." Ash shifted uncomfortably in her seat.

Giseli gave her a penetrating look. "Is she pretty, this Jemma of yours?"

'Of mine'? Ash blinked. "Yes, she is."

"Nice figure?" Giseli made an hourglass shape with her hands. "Ripe, luscious?"

Thinking of Jemma's body in those terms brought a rush of heat to Ash's cheeks, and she took another gulp of her drink then wished she hadn't. "Well, yes... but...." She frowned. "Giseli, what's all this got to do with anyth-"

Giseli's fullthroated laughter interrupted her, and all around the bar people's heads turned towards them. "Everything, my friend. Oh, everything.... A pretty woman is in your hotel room, Blade, yet you are here with me." She squeezed Ash's arm. "You are on edge, all wound up, yes?"

The tall woman regarded her ruefully. She had forgotten how perceptive Giseli could be. "Yes," she admitted.

Giseli finished her beer and stood up. "Drink up."

Ash blinked at her. "But-"

The small woman's heavy brows drew together and she put her hands on her hips. "We have only one night, Blade. Are you going to sit here, wasting precious time?"

Throat suddenly dry, Ash gulped down what remained of her Camouflage. Then she stood up and followed Giseli....

The Brazilian woman blew Ash a kiss, gave her a little wave, then disappeared inside her apartment block. For a long moment, Ash regarded the space Giseli had occupied, then she pulled herself together and checked her watch.

Shit! It was just after midnight. If Jemma was awake, she'd be worried. Quickly, she put the Gol in gear and headed back towards the Flamengo district and the Hotel Senador.

She hadn't meant to stay out this long, but time had got away from her while she was with Giseli. The Brazilian woman had taken her to a motel room, removed Ash's clothes and pushed her down onto the circular vibra-bed. She had started with a light massage then moved on to more carnal activities, which at one point had utilised a sex toy from the sterilised selection provided in the motel's bedside cabinet. Ash had given as good as she got, though. And by the time they were through with one another, they both felt as boneless as jellyfish and very pleased with themselves. She yawned and thought longingly of her bed.

Amazingly, the parking spot outside the hotel which the Volkswagen had earlier occupied was still vacant. She parked there, turned off the ignition and got out. Another yawn overtook her, and simultaneously something hit her left shoulder from behind.

Momentary numbness was followed by stabbing pain. Fuck! A surge of adrenaline banished her tiredness, and she swivelled, ramming the heel of her right hand into the bridge of the attacker's nose. He dropped his bloody knife and toppled backwards like a tree trunk, dead before he hit the ground.

Ash explored the back of her shoulder with her right hand, her fingers coming away sticky with something that looked black in the lamplight. Blood. The wound was bad, she realised, but not life threatening. The thick leather strap of her shoulder holster must have turned the blade away from anything vital.

She wiped the blood on her jeans and was stooping to remove the man's ski mask and see who he was, when two more men, also wearing ski masks and dressed in black, emerged from the alleyway alongside the hotel. This was no casual mugging; they had been waiting for her.

She eyed them warily as they split up, then twisted to one side and delivered a series of kicks to the first man's groin and chin. His head snapped back with a sharp crack and he collapsed to the pavement.

Now for the other -

Three more men slunk out of the alleyway, all holding wooden cudgels. They joined the surviving attacker and began circling her.

Enough! She drew her Browning automatic and fired two shots in quick succession. Two men dropped their cudgels and clutched their knees; one started to scream like a stuck pig.

If that racket doesn't make someone call the police, nothing will.

The remaining thugs took up positions on opposite sides of her and started looking for an opening. One feinted with a switchblade. She evaded the knife and raised her pistol.

Three more men in ski masks appeared. Are they breeding in that alleyway?

The momentary distraction was enough. Pain flared as a cudgel found its target - her right forearm - and, unable to help herself, she dropped the gun. The odds against her reaching the hotel had just increased dramatically.

She dodged a blade, then a blow. One of the thugs reached for her gun and she gave him something else to think about with a kick to the groin. Her own attempts to retrieve it were thwarted, as the thugs forced her steadily backwards, away from both her gun and the hotel.

Did they know about Jemma? Have they already killed her? Ash suppressed a momentary panic. If they'd kidnapped or killed the blonde, the police would be crawling all over the place by now, surely.

Another flurry of kicks and punches left a man moaning and clutching his broken nose. But they were wearing her down - eventually they would get the better of her.

The last thing she wanted was to lead these killers to her sleeping partner. Maybe she should decoy them away from here, take them out one by one or give them the slip, and double back.

OK. That's the plan. With a last longing look at the hotel's lights, she barged into a surprised attacker, winded him with an elbow in the solar plexus, and headbutted him. It created the gap she needed, then she was through and running. The men shouted and ran after her.

I'll try to get back to you, Jemma, I promise. Ash ran into the night....

 

CONTINUED IN PART 2