Warnings - See Part 1.
THE SPY WHO KILLED ME
A ray of sunlight woke Jemma, who blinked while awareness of her surroundings returned. She shaded her eyes against the glare then turned to study the woman lying next to her.
The crease that had appeared between Ash's brows last night while she waited to hear if Janus would survive (he was 'critical but stable', was the last they'd heard) was thankfully absent. She looked younger and more carefree in sleep, as though no Libyan terrorist was trying to kill her. As though she hadn't recently aggravated the knife wound in her right shoulder or bashed her head on a low rock ceiling - Jemma had caught Ash dabbing TCP on the egg-shaped lump and tutted loudly before taking the antiseptic-soaked cotton wool from her hands and doing the job herself.
"Are you having sweet dreams?" Jemma brushed an unruly lock of black hair out of Ash's eye then planting a fond kiss on her cheek. "My sleeping beauty."
Dark eyelashes fluttered at her touch, and Ash's breathing caught before smoothing out again. Jemma eased herself out of bed and headed for the bathroom.
She brushed her teeth and gazed at her tousled reflection in the mirror. If it is Abdusamad ... Once more she was in that hotel room in São Paulo, when Khaleb Abdusamad and his thugs had burst through the door.
"Stalemate, Blade." The Libyan had been watching events with hooded eyes and arms folded. He sounded amused.
"Look out!" called a horrified Jemma, as the thug standing immediately behind Ash drove his fist into Ash's shoulder wound.
The other woman fell to her knees, her face twisted in agony, and Jemma surged forward. But the sharp sting at her throat reminded her of the knife, and she froze, helpless.
"Idiot! That was too hard," shouted the Libyan. "If you've crippled her and she's no good to us...."
After an eternity of waiting, Ash looked up. Her face was the colour of whey, and sweat beaded her forehead and upper lip.
"Are you with us again, Blade?" asked Abdusamad.
"No thanks to you." Ash had been exploring her bandaged shoulder with one hand, and her fingers were bloody, but her voice revealed no sign of the pain she must be in. "What do you want?"
"Why should I want anything?"
Ash gestured at Jemma, and Jemma knew then that her partner was willing to sacrifice herself for her sake. It was a sacrifice she didn't want, not even if the world were about to end.
Leave me. Save yourself, Ash, she urged silently.
But of course Ash hadn't. She had taken the long view, the calculated risk, and it had paid off.
Jemma put the toothbrush in the rack, and ran a hand through her hair. And now, if they were right, Abdusamad had followed Ash back to London and tried to kill her ... twice. With no concern for bystanders. Jemma discounted the danger to herself - she was an agent, she knew the risks, but Janus ... A memory of trying to stop the sudden rush of blood from the little man's stomach wound made her heart pound. She pushed it away and took a calming breath.
If I get hold of Abdusamad before Ash does, I'll hack his goolies off ... without anaesthetic!
She wandered through to Ash's kitchen, opening and closing drawers and cupboards until she found what she wanted. As she grilled sausages, bacon, mushrooms, and tomatoes (Ash had restocked the fridge and larder yesterday, fortunately), it dawned on her that she was probably cooking far too much for two. But the whole point of pampering someone is to go overboard, isn't it? While the coffee brewed, she put another couple of slices of bread in the toaster and broke another egg into the frying pan.
Ash had changed her position slightly but was still sleeping when Jemma crept into the bedroom. She placed the breakfast tray on the bedside cabinet beside the bed, then went over to the windows and drew the curtains. The sun streamed onto Ash's face, but she slept on. Jemma rolled her eyes. She supposed she should be flattered that Ash's internal alarm systems weren't triggered by her presence. But the food was getting cold.
Taking a rasher from Ash's plate, she wafted it above her nose. Almost at once a nostril twitched, then long eyelashes fluttered open and a hungry blue gaze regarded the thin slice of grilled bacon.
"Nuh uh!" Jemma snatched the rasher out of reach before even white teeth could snap closed on it. "Sit up and eat properly."
"And a good morning to you too," said Ash, yawning. But she sat up, stuffing the pillows behind her back for support, and allowed Jemma to place the breakfast tray on her lap and put a knife and fork in her hands.
"Breakfast in bed." Ash sliced off some bacon, dunked it in the egg yolk, and shoved it in her mouth, mumbling something that Jemma with difficulty translated as: "What have I done to deserve this?"
She perched on the edge of the bed and prepared to tackle her own plate of food. "Nothing ... yet." Mentally she crossed her fingers. "Remember I asked if you'd visit my parents with me?" The fork froze halfway to Ash's mouth and horrified blue eyes turned to regard Jemma. She hid a smile and ploughed on. "Well, I said we'd pop over for lunch today."
"Today?" repeated Ash faintly.
"Um. Yes." Jemma loaded her fork with sausage and mushroom and took a bite.
"I've got that appointment with the quack this morning."
"Damn! I forgot about Aston." Jemma thought quickly. As long as Ash was there in good time for lunch... "If I go on ahead by train, you can drive down and meet me at my parents' after your appointment, can't you?"
Ash crunched a piece of toast and thought about it. "OK."
Jemma breathed a sigh of relief. "Do you know Croydon?"
"Not well, but I'm sure I'll find your parent's place if you leave me directions." Ash paused, then continued hesitantly, "Do they know about us?" She gestured at the two of them, at the big bed.
"No. They know you're my partner, but ... No."
Ash raised an eyebrow. "Don't you want them to know?"
"Of course I do. I came out to them a couple of years ago and they were fine.... But let's get them used to you being on the scene first, OK?"
"OK." Ash reached for her mug of coffee and took a gulp. "One good thing. It means your father won't be wagging his finger at me about my 'prospects' and giving me his 'my daughter is used to a certain standard of living, you know' speech."
Jemma laughed at the image that conjured up. "He wouldn't anyway. And don't worry. They'll adore you."
"Mm." Her partner didn't sound convinced.
"They will," insisted Jemma. Then she paused. "Though Maggie might take a little while to come around."
"She's your older sister?"
"Yeah. You know how siblings can be."
"I don't actually. Never had any."
They hadn't talked much about Ash's background, but Jemma knew her partner's childhood had been very different from her own. Jemma's surroundings had been happy, secure, loving ... At fourteen, the orphaned Ash had been living on the streets, protecting her honour with fists and feet. She'd catburgled merely to put food in her mouth at first. Then she'd discovered she had both the talent and the taste for it. If it hadn't been for Weatherby's intervention ... Jemma was glad beyond measure that her partner hadn't ended up in prison.
"Well, take it from me," she said. "Sisters can be a pain." She bit her lip. "But if Maggie's a bit prickly, please try to make allowances, Ash. It's partly my fault. I tend to go on and on about how great you are. It puts her back up."
"'How great I am'?" Ash gave her a charmed smile.
Jemma blushed and poked her partner in the ribs. "Now don't go getting a swelled head."
A dark eyebrow arched. "Moi?" Jemma just shook her head and smiled.
They finished eating, then she collected up the dirty plates, stacked them on the tray, and prepared to take them back to the kitchen.
At the bedroom door, Jemma paused and looked back at Ash, who had got out of bed (That sleepshirt really does show off her legs to perfection!) and was searching the built-in wardrobe for a clean shirt and a pair of chinos - yesterday's jaunt down the Chislehurst Caves had left Ash's favourite pair of jeans fit only for a charity shop, and she wanted to look smart for Jemma's parents.
A rush of affection washed over Jemma. "Thanks," she said.
Ash looked round in surprise. "For what?"
"For agreeing to meet my family. It means a lot to me."
The other woman shrugged. "You're welcome." Then her face split into a lascivious grin. "Breakfast in bed isn't enough compensation though. I shall expect something extra later on."
Jemma laughed. "I'll see what I can do."
"Get ready, girls," shouted Phil Jacobs. "I'm nearly through."
Jemma gazed up at her father through the tree branches and sighed. I wish Ash were here. We could use someone tall.
Beside her Maggie was also on tiptoe, her arms stretched high over her head, her skimpy T shirt showing acres of midriff and a ring through her belly button. Jemma winced at the sight. Maggie hadn't mentioned she'd had a piercing done. Was it the influence of that new musician boyfriend of hers? What next? A tattoo?
Jemma's father pulled the handle of the pruning saw towards himself, then pushed it with all his might. He might be short and tending to a beer gut, but he was stronger than he looked. Steel teeth bit into the thick branch, showering sawdust over Jemma and her sister. She sneezed at the smell of freshly cut wood and braced herself to take the weight.
"Watch out!" he yelled.
With a splintering sound, the branch dropped. They barely caught it in time. Manoeuvring the heavy branch safely away from their father's cold-frame, which was currently protecting bedding plant seedlings against the frost, Jemma and her sister lowered it to the lawn with a thud.
"If I'd known this was the 'little job' you had lined up," grumbled Maggie, wiping the splinters and lichen from her palms onto her jeans, "I wouldn't have come."
"Me neither." Jemma pulled her blouse down, and wondered what was so interesting about her midriff that Maggie should have been staring at it. Comparing belly buttons? Then she remembered her bruises, which were less colourful than they had been but still visible. Ah.
"Now, girls." Their father jumped down from the old beech tree with a thud and came towards them, pruning saw in hand. "You surely can't begrudge helping your poor old Dad out every once in a while, can you?" He kicked the branch with a boot. "Besides, it's only fair, since your mother's been in the kitchen slaving over a hot stove all morning ...."
"Yeah, yeah." Maggie waved a dismissive hand.
"'Poor old Dad'?" Jemma grinned.
"These grey hairs," he pointed at his thinning blond crown, "are in no small part due to all the things you two have put me through. And let's not mention my blood pressure."
"Humph," said Maggie.
"What 'things'?" asked an indignant Jemma.
"Too many to mention." He grinned and tucked his hand through her elbow. "Come on. Let's go inside and get cleaned up before your mother comes looking for us."
The three of them wandered back up the garden and into the kitchen, where Jemma's mother tutted and sent her husband to get changed out of his grubby shirt and baggy corduroys. An aroma of roasting turkey, parsnips, and potatoes met Jemma's nostrils and her stomach rumbled.
"Smells great. I'm starving."
"Good," said her mother complacently. "It's almost ready."
The clock on the kitchen wall said 12.55. Jemma frowned. Ash should have been here by now. Would they have to keep her meal warm for her? Not a propitious start.
"So where's Miss Wonderful?" Maggie was drying her hands on a towel.
Jemma bridled at the nickname. "If you mean Ash, she'll be here." She washed her hands at the sink while her mother checked the tenderness of the sprouts with a skewer then got out a packet of Bisto and set about making gravy.
"Maybe she got lost," said her mother
"Maybe." Jemma chewed her thumbnail. The directions she'd given Ash had been clear, hadn't they?
Janet Jacobs opened the oven door to take out the turkey, which was huge, its skin crisp and a wonderful golden brown, and had been 'resting'.
A dull roar coming from outside the front of the house, made Jemma turn.
"What's that?" asked Maggie. The roar continued for a few seconds then stopped.
"A red sportscar's parked in our drive." Their father was standing in the kitchen doorway, dressed now in a smart blue shirt, trousers and shoes. "Is this your friend, Jemma?"
Relief washed over her and she nodded. "Sounds like it."
"Good," said her mother. "We're all here then .... Will you carve, dear?" Phil Jacobs grunted and picked up the carving knife and fork, but was stopped by her sharp, "Use an apron, silly!"
Jemma left her parents to their bickering and went outside to greet Ash, who was pulling up the Lotus's softtop and securing it.
Net curtains twitched next door, and Jemma hid a smile, ignoring the faces peering round it. When she was a teenager, her peers had often talked about boyfriends and flashy cars (in fact, the cars often seemed more important than the boyfriends) and boasted of impressing the neighbours. Such things hadn't been a high priority on Jemma's list - she was still coming to terms with being gay and had missed out on a lot. Now she conceded that it did indeed feel good to have people admiring Ash and her sportscar, and to know that they were here purely for her benefit.
She traipsed towards the Lotus and beamed up at her partner. "Hi! What kept you?"
"Traffic." Ash accepted her hug with a smile of her own. "Am I too late?"
"No. Your timing's perfect in fact." Jemma turned to lead the way indoors. "It's turkey with all the trimmings."
"I was expecting sandwiches and soup."
"So was I. I think Mum's trying to impress you."
Her partner chuckled. "Does she do that for all your friends?"
"She didn't for Nat and Gary. They got a quiche lorraine from Marks and Sparks and an apple for afters."
Ash's brows drew together. "Hmmm. If I'm the guest of honour, I'd better be on my best behaviour."
Jemma closed the porch door behind them and showed Ash along the hall and into the kitchen, deserted now except for her father who was putting slices of turkey and dollops of sage-and-onion stuffing onto her mother's best plates. The flowered apron he had donned brought an amused grin to Ash's face.
"Goodness." His eyes widened as he took in Ash's long chino-clad legs, then moved on up past the white shirt ... and up. "Jemma said you were tall but - Ow!" He rubbed the ribs that Jemma had just poked and went slightly pink. "But where are my manners? You must be Ash. Nice to meet you." He extended a hand. Ash shook it.
"And you must be Jemma's father. Nice to meet you too."
He glanced at the open door to the dining room. "Er, my wife is-"
"Here," completed Jemma's mother, coming through the door with Maggie at her heels. "So glad you could come at last, Ash. We've heard so much about you." She frowned at her scowling daughter. "Maggie, say hello to our guest."
The grunt, grudging smile, and cursory handshake her sister offered made Jemma sigh and hope Maggie wasn't going to be in one of her ungracious moods.
Janet Jacobs had been inspecting the plates, and now she gave her husband a nod. "Looks like we're just about ready, dear. Can you get the tureens out of the oven and turn it off?"
She turned to Jemma. "Show Ash the bathroom, dear, so she can freshen up if she wants to, then bring her through." Picking up two plates, she instructed Maggie to grab two more, then disappeared back into the dining room.
"Come on then." Jemma led Ash to the downstairs loo and waited outside until she heard the toilet flush followed by the sound of running taps. Moments later, Ash reappeared. Her hair was freshly combed and she looked slightly nervous. Jemma hid a smile.
"All set?" she asked.
"Not really. But the condemned prisoner will be eating a hearty meal at least."
"It won't be that bad."
"Chislehurst Caves?" asked Jemma's father.
"That's right," said Ash. "Have you ever visited them?"
The first course had gone reasonably well, much to Jemma's relief, and there hadn't been too many awkward silences. Ash had contributed her share to the conversation, starting with some well-received compliments about the meal and continuing with confirmation that there was indeed a Carmen Miranda museum in Rio and Jemma hadn't been making it up.
Jemma was proud of her parents for trying to set Ash at her ease, though did her father really have to tell her partner that anecdote about two-year-old Jemma and the paddling pool? She was less proud of Maggie, whose conversational skills seemed to have dwindled to the occasional grunt and who spent her time either stuffing her face with turkey or glowering at Ash.
The first time the glower had been turned on her, Ash had glanced in surprise at Jemma, who was sitting next to her. Jemma had mouthed "Ignore her," and, under cover of the tablecloth, given Ash's thigh a gentle squeeze. A warm hand had patted hers in response. After that, by unspoken agreement, everyone around the table ignored Maggie's occasional rudeness.
"Never got around to it," answered her father. "We must visit Chislehurst some day, mustn't we, dear?" He glanced at his wife who nodded.
"The guidebook is full of half-truths and exaggerations," said Ash, "but even so ..." She glanced at Jemma, received an encouraging smile, and continued, "There's a lot to see. Of course with Jemma along things are never boring."
Jemma blinked. "Hey!"
Ash winked at her and began a long and entertaining tale about their recent trip to Chislehurst, which featured Jemma and the druid altar, and a practical joke that ended with the hair of the tour guide turning white with fright. It was of course total poppycock, and from the amused glances being exchanged by her parents, and the rolled eyes of her sister, everyone present knew it. But it was funny, and, more to the point, there was no mention of anyone almost bleeding to death on the cave floor.
"I don't know. The things you girls get up to!" said her mother, smiling and shaking her head, then starting to clear away the plates. Jemma rose to help her.
"You didn't believe all that rubbish, did you?" asked Maggie, before a sharp glance from her father quelled her.
"So, Ash," he said, turning the conversation into calmer waters. "I hear you and Jemma are both on leave now. What are your plans for the rest of it?"
Jemma didn't hear the reply, because by then she was in the kitchen, helping her mother get out the dessert dishes and cut slices of freshly baked apple pie.
"Your friend seems very nice, dear." Her mother got the carton of cream out of the fridge. "Gorgeous looking too, isn't she? Her blue eyes are stunning! I shall have to keep a close eye on your father."
Since it was well known that Phil Jacobs had never shown the slightest interest in any woman except his wife, Jemma simply grinned.
"I don't know what's up with Maggie, though," continued her mother, frowning. "Do you?"
Jemma sighed, shook her head, and loaded the dishes onto two trays. "Maybe she's had an argument with Steve?"
"We can only hope," muttered her mother under her breath. They both disapproved of Maggie's latest boyfriend, but knew better than to make him more attractive to her by telling her so.
The older woman picked up a tray and carried it to the door, where she turned. "Ready to return to the fray?"
Jemma nodded, grabbed the other tray, and followed her through, just in time to hear Maggie saying, "... but spending your vacation with people you work with! Don't you get sick of the sight of one another? Normal people would."
Jemma could tell Ash was annoyed, but her partner answered calmly enough, "We don't just work together, Maggie, we're friends."
Jemma put down her tray with a thump. "You'll have to excuse my sister, Ash. Just because she can't make friends with the people she works with ..."
Maggie's face reddened. "That's because they're a bunch of losers."
"Ah, apple pie." said her father, loudly and a little desperately. "My favourite."
"So what happened to Nat and Gary?" continued Maggie. "I thought they were your friends, Jemma. So how come you're spending your time with Ash and not with them?"
Jemma suppressed the urge to give her sister a box on the ears and sat down. "As a matter of fact I'm seeing Nat and Gary tomorrow. A bunch of us from training school are getting together." She turned to Ash, "I told you, didn't I?" Ash nodded, so she turned back to her parents. "It's kind of a reunion do. We're going on the London Eye, then for a meal."
"That'll be nice, dear," said her mother, putting portions of apple pie in front of everyone and gesturing that they should help themselves to cream..
"'A bunch of us from training school'," mimicked Maggie, grabbing the jug before Ash could. "Don't you have any friends from outside work?"
"That's enough!" A loud slap made everyone jump - Jemma's father had brought his palm down on the dining table. "Maggie, we have a guest." He had gone rather red in the face. "So will you please stop sniping." He turned to Ash. "I apologise for my oldest daughter. She's doesn't usually act like a spoilt teenager."
Ash shrugged and mumbled something indeterminate. Maggie meanwhile had turned bright red and shut up like a clam. They ate their pie in a rather strained silence, and Jemma wished the meal were over. It soon was, and it was a relief when her mother refused Jemma's dutiful if reluctant offer to do the dishes and her father suggested she might like to show Ash the garden, since Ash, living as she did in central London, must miss having one of her own.
Jemma gave her parents a smile of profound gratitude, grabbed Ash's hand, and beat a hasty retreat. Once outside, she breathed freely again.
"Well, that went well," said Ash wryly.
"Hey, it wasn't your fault. The food was great. So were your parents. But I can see what you meant about siblings being a pain." They walked down the garden and stopped ostensibly to admire a newly dug flowerbed. "Maggie doesn't like me, does she?"
Jemma sighed. "I don't know what's going on with her. She was all right earlier - a bit sniffy about you, but all right."
Ash shrugged. "Hey, it's no skin off my nose." But Jemma could tell that her partner was a little hurt. In fact, come to think of it, Ash had been acting more subdued than usual ever since she arrived. Had she really found meeting her parents so daunting?
Time to reward her for her sacrifice, she decided. She looked around then pointed. "There's a patch of woodland at the bottom of the garden. Want to see it?"
Ash arched an eyebrow at her then shrugged. "OK."
Jemma glanced back at the house. Through the kitchen window, she could see her parents and Maggie busy washing and drying the dishes. Hooking an arm through Ash's, she tugged the taller woman down the garden, then under cover of a copse of silver birches, wrapped her arms around her neck and pulled her head down. What started out as an affectionate kiss quickly became something much more intense that made Jemma's stomach lurch, her toes tingle, and her pulse race.
"Did anyone ever tell you that you kiss really well?" she gasped, when they broke for air and simply stood for a while in each other's arms.
"You're not too shabby yourself," said Ash.
"I'm a quick study." To prove it they kissed again.
"Jemma. Where are you?" The shout was a distant one, the voice her sister's.
Jemma sighed and broke the kiss. "What now?" Reluctantly, she disentangled herself from Ash's embrace, walked out into the open, and stared up the garden towards the house.
Maggie was jogging towards her. "There you are. Phone call for you, Jemma. It's Nat, about tomorrow, she said."
"Oh." Jemma turned to Ash, who was standing under a tree watching her, and grimaced. "I'd better take it." Her partner nodded and Jemma hurried towards the house, passing Maggie on the way.
Her parents were putting away the last of the dried dishes as she passed through the kitchen and went into the hall where the phone was. She picked up the receiver.
"Hi, Nat. What is it?"
"You left your mobile off," accused her friend. "Took me ages to track down your parents' number."
Jemma frowned. "Sorry. Forgot. Anyway, I'm here now, so -"
"Did we settle on meeting at the London Eye at 10.30 am or 11? Only I can't remember, and neither can Gary."
Jemma rolled her eyes. "Neither. We compromised on 10.45."
"Oh, that's right. Thanks."
"Is that it?"
"Yep. That's it. Why? Did I interrupt something important?"
Only a nice kiss and cuddle with Ash. "Um. No. We'd finished eating and were just doing the dishes."
"So. Did she pass the audition?"
"Blade? Did your parents like her?"
"I think so. Maggie seems to have got a bee in her bonnet about her though. She's been positively ... churlish. Dad wants to take her over his knee and spank her."
Natalie chuckled. "Well, you do tend to overdo the 'Blade is wonderful' stuff a tad."
"It's the truth!"
Another chuckle. "Admit it, you always were a Blade groupie."
Jemma's cheeks warmed. "Hey! A little respect here. She's my partner now."
"And don't we all know it." In the background a man's voice said something to Natalie and she grunted. "I've got to go, Jemma. Unlike some people I could mention, I have a job to do."
"Hey, I earned every day of my leave!"
"You keep telling yourself that. Bye."
"Bye." Jemma put down the receiver. The roar of a car engine starting up close by piqued her interest. She went through into the front room, looked out the window, and to her astonishment saw the red sportscar reversing out of the rather tricky drive at a lethal speed. Ash was at the wheel.
What the - Ash hadn't passed her in the hall; she must have gone round by the side entrance. But why would she go without telling Jemma? An emergency of some kind?
She rushed outside and ran to the end of the drive, just in time to see the Lotus disappearing down the road. Disconsolately she retraced her steps in time to meet her parents coming out of the front porch, with Maggie not far behind.
"Did Ash have to leave suddenly?" asked her mother.
"Apparently." Jemma frowned at them. "I was on the phone. Did she say anything before she went?"
"To us?" said her father. "No."
She turned to Maggie, who was lurking in the doorway. Something about her sister's expression, half-defiant, half-guilty, made Jemma's heart sink. She pushed her way between her startled parents and stopped in front of her. "What did you say to her?"
"Nothing." Maggie's voice was defensive, and her parents exchanged a worried glance.
Jemma folded her arms and held onto her temper with difficulty. "I don't believe you."
Maggie looked down, toed the doormat, then looked up again. "OK, I may have told her a few home truths." She ignored the shocked gasps. "But they needed saying."
"Such as the fact that she's doing a lousy job of protecting you."
Jemma sucked in a breath. "You said what?"
"Well, you've only been in the job a couple of months - it stands to reason she's the one meant to look after you while you learn how to do the James Bond thing." She frowned at her parents' expressions. "Don't look at me like that! We pretend Jemma's just an ordinary civil servant, but we all know she isn't really. How many pen pushers go on self-defence courses and learn marksmanship, how many take trips at such short notice to the Canaries and Rio? Hmm?"
Anger simmered in the pit of Jemma's stomach. "And what makes you think Ash is doing a lousy job?"
"I've got eyes, Jemma." Maggie folded her own arms. "You came back from Tenerife with a bandage round your throat." In reflex, Jemma's fingers touched the recently healed cut, and her sister gave her a knowing glance. "You didn't get that windsurfing. ... Then there's this." She reached out and tugged up Jemma's shirt, revealing the fading bruises on her midriff. "Where was Miss Wonderful when you got that little lot, hm?"
Her mother gasped and put a hand to her mouth. "Jemma!"
An annoyed Jemma yanked her shirt back down. "That had nothing to do with Ash not looking after me. If you must know, she's saved my life several times over."
Her thoughts turned to her partner's uncharacteristic behaviour. Ash never ran from anything, yet Maggie's words had somehow penetrated that tough veneer and sent her fleeing? It didn't make sense.
She turned to her father, who was running his fingers over his spreading bald spot, something he only did when he was anxious. "Where are my car keys?"
"On the hook in the kitchen. I'll open the garage doors for you, shall I?"
"Please." Jemma couldn't look at Maggie - she was afraid she'd say or do something unforgivable - so she stalked past her sister. The keys to the Citroen were hanging in the kitchen just as her father had said, and she grabbed them and made her way round to the garage.
She gave her hovering father a wan smile, slid into the Dyane's driving seat, and pushed the key in the ignition. On the third attempt the engine started - not bad, considering it hadn't been given an outing for several months. Careful of the boxes and accumulated junk that shared this half of her parents' double garage, she backed the car out into the drive and halted.
"Jemma." The passenger door's open window framed her father's concerned face. "Is there really any point in you going after her? In a Lotus, if your friend doesn't want you to catch up with her, you won't."
"That's what I'm banking on." That deep down, she wants me to catch her.
Her mother's face joined her father's. There was no sign of Maggie. Inside sulking, no doubt. "It was nice seeing you, love, even if things didn't go quite as planned. Come again soon, and tell Ash we'd love to see her again too." She paused and frowned. "I do hope she's all right. That Maggie!"
"So do I," muttered Jemma. Then with a wave and a blown kiss, she turned her attention to the tricky task of backing out the drive.
"Where are you?"
"Sitting in a field." Ash sounded sheepish.
"Yeah. With cows in."
That her partner had answered her mobile at last was a good sign, decided Jemma. That she was attempting humour was even better.
She had quickly realised that trying to track Ash down without her help would be hopeless - the red Lotus Elise had last been seen zooming southeast, but Ash could have ended up anywhere. So, after driving around aimlessly for half an hour, Jemma had parked the Dyane and tried contacting Ash by phone. It had taken her five attempts.
"Um. If I'm going to find you, you have to be more specific." She crossed her fingers that Ash wouldn't put her off or, worse, hang up on her.
"The B269," said Ash. "There's a lay-by."
Jemma sighed with relief. Not far. "There must be lots of lay-bys."
"The one with a white hot dog van parked at one end."
"Urk! You didn't eat anything from it, did you?" Jemma swapped her phone to her other ear, switched on the ignition, and put the Citroen in gear.
"I'm not that crazy!"
"Glad to hear it." She glanced both ways then pulled out into the traffic. "Stay put, love. I'll be with you in a bit, OK?"
"OK." Ash rang off.
As she drove, Jemma pondered what she should say to Ash. Should she tear her off a strip for rushing off without a word, or commiserate with her for Maggie's rudeness. She turned onto the B269. A little of both, maybe.
Soon she came to a lay-by. No hot dog van. She drove past. Her destination was two miles further on. Jemma parked next to the deserted red sportscar, got out, ignored the eager eyes of the hotdog seller, and scanned her surroundings.
A field? Must be on the other side of that barred fence.
She forced her way through the scrub and long grass that fringed the gravelled stretch of lay-by, climbed onto the fence's bottom strut, and peered over. There was indeed a field on the other side, and towards the far side of it, several brown-and-white cows were contentedly chewing the cud.
Vaulting the fence, she walked towards the brooding figure of her partner, who was sitting on the grass. Ash's arms were wrapped around one drawn up knee, on which her chin was resting. As Jemma drew nearer, Ash turned to look at her.
"Hey there," called Jemma, avoiding a cowpat.
Jemma plopped down onto the grass beside her partner and examined her. Ash looked vaguely embarrassed and bemused, but otherwise OK. Jemma leaned over and gave her a heartfelt hug. "Are you all right?"
"I think so." To Jemma's relief, Ash leaned into the hug and then returned it. "You?"
"I am now."
"Don't know what came over me. Sorry. I ... I just had to get out of there."
For a long moment, they simply held one another, then Jemma released Ash, sat back, and took in her surroundings. At that moment, a cow decided to answer the call of nature, raising its tail and producing a jet of steaming liquid.
"Nice view," said Jemma.
"The countryside in all its glory."
Silence fell. It was Ash who broke it. "Your parents must think I'm crazy." She grimaced. "Running off without a word."
"They were worried about you. Maggie told us what she said to you." It was Jemma's turn to grimace. "I can't believe she was so rude!"
Ash shrugged. "She was just looking out for you. It's in the older sister's job description, I believe."
Blue eyes turned towards her. "I'm a big girl, Jemma. I can take care of myself. Normally your sister's sniping and insults wouldn't have got to me, but today, for some reason ... " She trailed off.
A thought struck Jemma. "Aston."
"What about him?"
"You came straight from your appointment with him. He talked to you about Sam, didn't he?"
Ash blinked. "As a matter of fact he did. Kept harping on about his death until I could have bashed his brains out."
"That explains it."
"I noticed after my session with Aston yesterday I felt unsettled, off balance ... in my case it was about Remington. That's why I went to see him."
Ash's brows drew together. "You're saying that he softened me up, so Maggie's accusations about losing another partner if I'm not careful got through?"
Maggie said that? Oh boy!
Jemma nodded. "I've heard that counselling makes you drop your shields. It can take a little while to get them back up." She chewed the inside of her lip. "I thought you were acting a little more subdued than usual when you arrived."
"I was feeling low," admitted Ash. "All that stuff he brought up about Sam ... Damn it! I knew seeing that quack was going to mess with my head."
"But you're feeling better now, more ... yourself?"
Ash considered then gave her a warm smile. "Yeah. It's worn off. I don't think Maggie would get the same reaction from me now."
She reached out an arm, and Jemma obligingly snuggled into it, snaking her own arm round Ash's waist. They sat in contented silence for a while, until one of the cows wandered closer to them, raised its tail, and started producing a cowpat.
"Oi!" Jemma waved a hand at it. The cow's eyes widened in panic, and it stopped shitting instantly and bolted.
"It'll be constipated forever now," said Ash.
"And need several sessions with Aston to get over the trauma."
Jemma chuckled. Her partner was definitely feeling better.
"Don't blame Maggie for what she said," said Ash, after a while. "She was just protecting you. If I was your big sis, I'd protect you too."
Jemma grinned. "I'm glad you're not. My feelings for you definitely aren't sisterly."
Ash donned a mock shocked expression, then relaxed and gave her a squeeze. "Mine too."
The evening was drawing in, and clouds were gathering. Looks like it's going to rain. As though the mere thought had triggered it, small drops of rain began to fall.
"We'd better get going," said Ash, getting to her feet and pulling up Jemma.
"Yeah." They turned and walked back towards the fence. Ash helped Jemma clamber over it, then got over herself. They waded through the scrub and long grass back towards the parked cars. The hot dog seller's van had gone.
Ash stopped at the sight of Jemma's battered old Dyane. "Orange?"
Jemma put her hands on her hips. "Hey. I was feeling sunny that day. You're lucky I didn't paint flower petals all over it. Want to make something of it?"
The tall woman's lips were twitching as she tried not to smile. "No no. To each her own." She paused. "Are you going to drive it back to your parents' house, or bring it up to London?"
"Well ... I don't have anywhere to park it in London, so ...."
"You do now. There's a parking spot free in the garage that goes with my flat." Ash chuckled. "Can't wait to see Ted's face when he claps eyes on it though."
Jemma let that insult go. "Ted?"
"The parking attendant."
"Ah." The rain was coming on faster now, and Jemma raised a hand above her head in a futile effort to provide shelter, then hunched her shoulders and reached for the door handle. "I'll take you up on that offer, then. It would be nice not to always have to get the tube or bus, or to depend on you to ferry me around."
"I don't mind."
"But I do."
Ash shrugged, and crossed to her Lotus, unlocking the door, and sliding into the driving seat. "OK." She called. "Follow me." She gave Jemma a shit-eating grin. "I'll drive really slowly so your poor old crock can keep up."
Jemma gave Ash the V-sign and opened the door of her Dyane.
"So. Any plans for the evening?" asked Ash.
Jemma looked up from the local newspaper. "I thought we were going to the hospital."
A phone call an hour ago to say that Janus was making good progress (the hospital had downgraded his status from 'critical' to 'comfortable') and was expected to regain consciousness that evening had brought Ash much needed relief. At last something was going their way. Now if Janus could confirm that 'KA' did indeed stand for Khaleb Abdusamad and maybe give her a clue as to the Libyan's whereabouts....
"That won't take long," said Ash.
"Hmm." Jemma bit a fingernail. "Friday night. We could always go to the pictures."
"And snuggle in the back row?" Ash grinned. "We could indeed. Any particular film in mind?"
"Well." Her partner turned to the newspaper's entertainment section. "There's that new one with Sandra Bullock."
Ash managed to keep her grin with an effort. "You'd like to see that?"
"If it's OK with you."
Sitting through two-and-a-half-hours of inanity wouldn't make it up to Jemma for Ash's behaviour at her parents' house, but it was a start. "OK." Jemma's pleased smile made the upcoming sacrifice worthwhile.
The phone rang, and Ash rose, crossed to it, and picked up the receiver. "Hello."
"Blade," said a familiar male voice.
Thompson. A prickle of apprehension shot up her spine.
"There's no easy way to tell you this. Morand's dead."
"Cork killed him."
A hand on her biceps, and Jemma's soft voice in her ear asking, "Are you all right?" brought Ash back to her surroundings. She forced a smile and mouthed, "I'm OK." The blonde looked a questionmark at the 'speaker' button on the phone, and at Ash's nod pressed it.
"Sorry, boss," said Ash. "For a moment I thought you said Corky killed Jeff." Jemma's eyes widened and she put a hand to her mouth.
"He did." Thompson's voice echoed round the kitchen.
"Jesus!" It was like a bad dream; but she was wide awake. "How?"
"There's an enquiry going on into that as we speak. But it looks like he sneaked into Cork's cell during the guards' shift change. Probably thought the bond between them was strong enough that his partner would rough him up but not kill him."
"That was a hell of a risk!"
"Yes." The Counter Intelligence Section Head sighed. "Morand must have figured it was worth allowing Cork to complete his programming (as much as he could, anyway), in the hopes it would snap him out of it. The irony of it is, his plan worked."
Ash blinked. "Corky's sane?"
"As sane as the rest of us, according to Dr. Aston. Which isn't saying much, of course. ... Pity, really. At least if he were still off his trolley he'd be unaware of what he's done."
"Poor bastard! Does he know why he did it?"
"His memory's patchy, but from what we can make out, he believed he was saving Morand from a hostile."
She shuddered. And all the time Corky was really killing his own partner.
"Anyway, I thought you'd like to know."
"Thanks." Ash bit her lip. "Can I see him?"
"It won't do any good. The debriefers have had a crack at him already, but we're still no closer to knowing the where, when, who, why, how ... "
"For God's sake, I didn't mean interrogate him. Corky's a friend."
After a long pause a chastened Thompson said, "Sorry, Blade. Of course you can see him. I'll add your name to the visitor's list."
She looked a query at Jemma. "Corky first, something to eat, then the hospital?" she mouthed. Jemma nodded.
"Thanks," she told Thompson.
"Give my regards to Jemma."
"You just gave them yourself," called Jemma.
"Ah, you're there? Sorry I had to spoil your leave again."
"Me too," growled Ash.
"Well. I'll see about that visitor's list." And with that he rang off.
Both women returned to their seats and regarded one another bleakly. Jemma ran a hand through her hair.
"I can't imagine what your friend must be going through, Ash."
"I can, unfortunately."
A hand reached across and squeezed hers. "Sorry. Didn't mean to bring up bad memories."
Ash sighed. "No way to avoid it really, is there?"
"Sorry about the Sandra Bullock film."
"We can always go tomorrow night. Anyway, there are chores to do. Can't run out of clean underwear, can we? "
Ash raised Jemma's hand to her mouth, and kissed each knuckle in turn. "What would I do without you?"
Her partner smiled back at her. "Run around naked?"
Ash nodded her thanks at the guard, who closed the cell door and locked it behind her.
"Corky." The big man lying on the bed didn't react to Ash's voice so she tried again, louder. "Corky. It's Blade."
Martin Cork sat up slowly, and turned towards her. The evidence of tear-tracks on his unshaven cheeks almost broke her heart.
"Blade." His eyes and voice were dull, and she wondered if he was on tranquillisers. "They told me you were coming."
There was a single chair. She pulled it closer to the bed and sat down.
"I'm so sorry." He grunted. "Is there anything I can do? Jeff's family ... the funeral ..." She trailed off, conscious that she was probably making matters worse.
"The last thing they want is my help." Corky hung his head. Long brown hair, which he normally wore tied back in a pony tail, formed a curtain that hid his handsome features. "Can't blame 'em," he muttered. "I can't stand the sight of me either."
She reached across and grasped his hand. "They're in shock and grieving, Corky. They'll come around in time. Jeff would have wanted them to. They have to know that."
"Do they? I killed him! Killed my own partner." His voice dripped horror and self-loathing.
She leaned forward. "No you didn't."
He looked up at her then, his eyes haunted. "I've seen the video footage, Blade. And the fingerprints on his throat. They're mine."
"But you thought you were killing a hostile. One who was threatening Jeff."
"That's no excuse."
"It's every excuse. In your right mind there is no way you would have harmed a hair on Jeff's head. You know it, and so does everyone who knows you. Once they've had time to think clearly, his family will know it too."
"I wish I could believe that." There were deep shadows under his eyes. She remembered how that felt.
"Look, I know what you're going through."
For a long moment he didn't speak, then he said softly, "Sam?"
"That's right. Sam. So I know that things'll probably get worse before they get better. But they will get better."
He shook his head, and she was reminded of a bear, bewildered and stunned by its wounds.
"Someone else killed Jeff. They used your body to do it, that's all. You have to hang onto that."
"I should have been strong enough to beat the conditioning. It was Jeff, for God's sake!" Corky's eyes brimmed and he turned his face away from her. "And now he's dead." His voice was thick with grief.
She gripped his hand more tightly. "But you're still here."
"I wish I wasn't."
Ash sucked in a breath. "Jeff wouldn't want that, and you know it."
Broad shoulders sagged and he bowed his head, but after a moment he gave a single nod.
Thank God!. "Look," she went on. "What you have to focus on now is catching the killer."
His head came round, eyes blazing. "I hope he rots in hell!"
"So do I." She bit her lip. "Thompson told me you've been debriefed. But they didn't come up with much."
"I've tried to remember. Over and over. Tried to work out how they got to me and when and how ...." He looked at her. "Dr. Aston even tried hypnosis, but nothing came back to me."
" Perhaps in time ... if you don't push it ... something'll surface." She pursed her lips. "Somewhere there's a clue to the bastard's identity. And sooner or later we'll find it."
"I hope so."
She glanced at her watch and released his hand. "Sorry, but I have to go. One of my contacts got shot yesterday. He's in the hospital. I said I'd meet Jemma, then go and see him."
"How's that working out ... with Jemma?" That Sam's old friend could think of her in his own distress touched her deeply.
"Great. After Sam I thought ..." She shrugged. "But it's working out really well."
Corky's eyes glistened and he looked away, and she knew he was thinking of his own partner. She got to her feet and knocked on the door. Through the reinforced glass, she could see the guard getting up from his chair and walking towards the cell.
"Hang in there, big guy."
Then came the sound of the door being unlocked, and with a last pat of Corky's shoulder, she left him to it.
Ash parked the Lotus Elise in the hospital carpark and got out. She had no small change on her, but Jemma did. So while her partner scurried over to the ticket machine, she leaned against the car and pondered what questions she would ask Janus. Which reminded her .... She patted the pocket of her jacket, feeling the bulge that was the wad of banknotes. Janus had always preferred payment in cash rather than by cheque. It was less ... traceable.
"Got it." Her partner had returned from the vending machine. "I bought us a 1-hour ticket. That should be long enough, right?"
"Plenty." Ash accepted the sticky piece of paper and attached it to her windscreen, then set off towards the hospital's main entrance, Jemma falling into step beside her.
"Why are hospitals like mazes?" grumbled the younger woman, as they stared at the crowded directions board in the lobby.
Ash pointed to the legend 'Intensive Care Unit' and the red arrow pointing to their right. "That's what we want. If Janus is still there, of course. The nurse I spoke to said something about transferring him to an ordinary ward."
"He must be doing well, then."
"'Conscious but sleeping', was how she put it."
They set off along an endless corridor, past a garish painting by a local artist that made Ash wince, then followed more arrows right, left, right again. A choice of stairs or lift faced them.
"Stairs," said Jemma. "We've had two big meals today. I need to work it off."
Ash grinned. After meeting Jemma, they had headed for a bistro not far from the hospital, and Jemma's company and deliberately light-hearted chatter had gone a long way to dispelling the gloom left by her visit to Corky.
A sign on the wall of the stairwell indicated they had reached the floor they wanted, so they exited and followed the arrow to 'ICU Reception'.
Ash walked past the unoccupied rows of red plastic chairs to the counter and waited for the freckled young woman behind it to finish her phone call - she was giving directions to a relative by the sound of it. At last she put down the phone and turned a smiling face towards the two women.
"Can I help you?"
"I hope so," said Ash "We're here to see Ja ... er, Neal Travis."
"Are you relatives?" The receptionist's fingers clattered over the keyboard.
Information flashed up on the screen. Then the young woman's smile faltered and. "I'm so sorry, but I've got bad news. Mr. Travis passed away half an hour ago."
"What?" Ash pressed her hands flat on the counter and leaned forward. "There must be some mistake."
"Yes," chimed in Jemma. "We were told he was so well that they were even considering transferring him to an ordinary ward."
"Oh." The receptionist turned back to her keyboard. "Well, just to be on the safe side, then, I'll check for you again." Keys clattered rapidly once more and the screen data flickered. "No. I'm sorry," she said, a little defensively, "but that information is correct."
Ash drummed her fingers. Something smelled off. One minute Janus was recovering well, the next he was dead? "What did he die of?"
"I'm afraid I can't divulge that kind of information to anyone except his next of kin -"
Ash scowled, and the receptionist's freckles stood out in stark relief against her suddenly pale skin. "Tell me anyway." She pulled out the ID that said she worked for the Home Office and slapped it down on the counter.
The young woman looked at it and swallowed. "Er. Um. Well." She glanced at her screen, and cleared her throat. "It says 'respiratory arrest'."
"Um. There's a post mortem scheduled to find out what caused it."
"Not good enough. I want to talk to someone who's prepared to guess at a cause. Now."
A tug on the hem of her jacket made Ash glance at Jemma. "Be nice," mouthed her partner. Ash sighed, but when she turned back to the receptionist, she plastered on a smile. Unfortunately, it seemed to make the young woman even more nervous.
"Would Mr Travis's named nurse do?" asked the receptionist, her voice several tones higher.
Ash's brows drew together. "Who?"
"The nurse allocated to oversee his care."
"Fine. Get her."
At that, the receptionist began to breathe more easily, and once more her fingers clattered over the keys. "It was Nurse Jones." She peeked at Ash. "I'll call her for you, shall I?"
"I should warn you," continued the receptionist, regaining some of her self-assurance as she picked up the phone and punched in a number, "that they're rushed off their feet this evening, so it could be a while ..." She indicated the red plastic chairs. "Oh, hello." She turned away from the counter. "Sue here from Reception. Can I speak to Megan Jones?"
"Come on." Jemma grabbed Ash's elbow. "Let's leave her to do her job and go and sit down for a bit."
Ash allowed herself to be led to the waiting area, but she was too jazzed by what had happened to Janus to actually sit. Jemma watched her pace up and down for five minutes then said, "You're making me dizzy. Not to mention wearing a hole in the carpet tiles."
Ash grunted and flung herself into a red plastic chair. From there, she had an excellent view of the swing doors leading to the ICU. She slid low in her seat and spread her legs in an unladylike manner. "I've a good mind to barge right in there and take a look at the body myself," she grumbled. A chuckle made her look at her partner. "What?"
"Would you even know what to look for?"
She sat up and put her hands between her knees. "Unexplained puncture marks for a start."
Jemma blinked. "The old 'airbubble in the bloodstream' trick?"
"No. That's slow, it's also hit and miss ... and an IV is as good a way to introduce an airbubble as an injection. I was thinking more of poison - there must be plenty of the stuff lying around in a hospital - or a needle in the brain."
"In the ICU? With people around all the time?"
Ash shrugged. "If the killer got hold of a nurse's uniform or some doctor's scrubs ... Why not?"
The double doors to the ICU swung open and a small round-faced woman in a nurse's royal blue uniform, came out. She glanced around, spied Ash and Jemma, and headed briskly towards them. Stopping directly in front of them, she folded her arms in a brisk, no nonsense manner.
"I'm Megan Jones." Her voice had a pronounced Welsh lilt. "I understand you're from the Home Office and have been asking about a patient named Neal Travis."
This must be who she had spoken to on the phone just over an hour ago, realised Ash. She stood up, and the little nurse blinked up at her and took an involuntary step back.
"My name's Ashley Blade. And this is my partner Jemma Jacobs."
"Ah. We spoke on the phone."
Ash nodded. "What can you tell us about Travis's death?"
"Other than it was unexpected and we tried everything we could to resuscitate him, nothing. But we hope to learn more from the post mortem." She looked round distractedly. "In fact we're waiting for a porter to collect the body. I wonder where he's got to? We need the bed."
"Could it have been foul play?" asked Ash.
Nurse Jones's eyebrows shot up. "This isn't a spy novel, Miss Blade. Mr. Travis had recently suffered major blood loss and trauma. There are numerous other possible causes - and in my view far more plausible and compelling ones - than foul play."
Ash balled her hands. "He was shot," she said. "It's not that far fetched to imagine his killer might have come back for another go, surely?" (I should have foreseen this and posted a guard. Sorry, Janus. )
"Well, no. But the log show he had no visitors." The nurse's cheeks flushed with annoyance. "Are you implying that someone in the ICU -"
"If I may butt in," said Jemma, her tone conciliatory. "No, we're not suggesting that you or any of your staff had a hand in his death. But is it possible that someone posing as an ICU doctor or nurse could have gained access to the patient?"
Nurse Jones blinked. "Well, of course it's possible ... but not very likely."
Ash had had enough. "I want to see the body." She started towards the ICU's swing doors, then halted as Nurse Jones interposed herself. "Get out of my way." From behind her counter, the receptionist was regarding the confrontation with wide eyes.
Nurse Jones sighed. "Very well. I'll take you in to see him. But only on two conditions."
Having won the battle, Ash could afford to be magnanimous. "Yes?"
"The ward has thirteen beds, and twelve of them are occupied. You don't upset the other patients, or their visitors. "
"You wear an apron and gloves like everyone else."
"I'll put on a bloody balaclava and wellingtons if that's what it takes."
For the first time since they had met, Nurse Jones's mouth quirked into a smile. "That won't be necessary," she murmured. She turned and headed for the swing doors. "This way, if you please."
Inside the swing doors were lockers full of equipment. From these, Travis's 'named nurse' produced three sets of sterile white gloves and plastic yellow aprons. The latter were supposedly kneelength, but when Ash had pulled hers over her head and tied it at the back, she discovered it only reached half way down her thighs.
When they were ready, Nurse Jones collected her notes from her desk, then led them single file across the cavernous room, over shiny floors that smelled of disinfectant, past beds where relatives with bags under their eyes were sitting next to loved ones festooned with cables and catheters and surrounded by beeping monitors. The other members of the ICU staff cast curious glances at them as they passed, but quickly returned to tending their patients and machines.
The curtains had been pulled around the bed at the far end of the room. Nurse Jones didn't pull them back but slipped through a gap. Ash ducked her head and followed. The contrast with the rest of the ward was startling. No wires and tubes connected this patient to the wheezing ventilator, syringe driver, or banks of monitors. The machines were silent, power lights off, screens dark.
Ash paused as Nurse Jones pulled back the sheet. Regret rose in her as she gazed down at the buck-toothed little burglar. He looked peaceful at least. A bandage hid the almost wound in his stomach and a memory of Jemma's bloodcovered hands surfaced. Ash pushed it away. Now was not the time for memory or emotion.
Beside her, Jemma drew in a shaky breath. Ash wondered if her partner had ever seen a dead body before. Janus's skin looked pale and waxy, and had acquired a blue-grey tinge.
"You wanted to see him," murmured the nurse. "Well here he is."
"Thanks." Ash moved to one side of the bed, and gestured to Jemma to take the other. Gently she turned Janus's head to one side, then leaned over and scrutinised the back of his neck for marks. Nothing. Damn! I was so sure.
"What are you looking for?" asked the watching nurse.
"Unexplained puncture marks." She glanced at Jemma. "Check his arm." Her partner nodded and set to work.
The hospital gown had left the little man's arms bare - fortunately his body hair was relatively sparse. Ash grabbed his left hand (like his lips, the fingernails were unnaturally pale), raised his arm and examined it.
"What's was this for?" She pointed to a puncture wound in his forearm.
Nurse Jones checked her notes. "IV."
Ash nodded and continued her scrutiny. Nothing untoward. Jemma was having the same luck. She moved down to his legs. Still nothing.
"What's this?" asked Jemma, looking up. "Did you inject something here?"
The Nurse moved to join Jemma, stooping and examining the back of Janus's right calf muscle. "It looks like an injection." She straightened and began to flip through her notes, looking increasingly concerned. "There's no record of it here," she said at last. She threw Ash an apologetic glance. "I'll make sure that the post mortem focuses on it."
"Thanks," said Jemma.
Ash nodded absently. She was scanning the ceiling tiles for video cameras. There weren't any. "I don't suppose you have any video footage of this ward?"
"Monitoring is restricted to the maternity wards, I'm afraid. To stop babies being taken."
"Wonderful!" murmured Ash under her breath. She pulled Jemma aside. "Looks like we're going to have to do things the hard way. Question the ICU staff, and any relatives who visited other patients today ... See what they can remember about anyone who went near Janus's bed. Chances are, they won't remember much."
Her partner nodded then cocked her head to one side. "Um, Ash. Shouldn't we phone HQ, get some trained interrogators down here?"
Ash pursed her lips and considered. Time versus efficiency. Though her instinct was to get stuck in right now, it was probably not wise. Dealing with members of the public, especially those under stress because their loved ones were in intensive care, was probably not her strong suit.
"OK," she said at last. "Get us some backup."
Ash stood on the welcome mat outside her flat's front door, and searched her jacket pocket for her keys.
"It just doesn't add up," panted Jemma, jogging up the steps to join her and resuming the conversation they had been having on and off since they left the hospital.
"I know," growled Ash. "It's not Abdusamad's MO at all. Firearms, explosives - yes. But a drug used only by anaesthetists?" She shook her head and turned back to the door. "Whoever killed Janus had to have a medical background."
It was nearly midnight. They had spent the intervening hours at the hospital, questioning witnesses and waiting for the post mortem results.
There were traces of a drug called anectine in Janus's system. The injection had triggered instant respiratory, stopping first his lungs then his heart. No wonder the ICU staff had been unable to save him. It was ironic. If he'd still been on a ventilator, he'd have survived. At least it had been quick.
Ash sighed. It had been a shitty day. All she wanted now was a hot bath and a long sleep. She selected a key, slid it into the top of the three double door locks, and turned it.
"Maybe Abdusamad hired someone with medical knowledge to do the hit?" suggested Jemma. "That would explain why no one recognised that picture of him."
True. Once seen, they would surely have remembered the Libyan's distinctive profile. On the other hand ....
"Maybe people just saw what they expected to see." Ash turned the key in the bottom lock. "Wearing hospital scrubs, acting like he had a right to be in the ICU ... In that get-up, he was all but invisible."
She opened the final lock, and pushed open the front door, hearing a faint snick of a lever releasing as she did so. Reflexes honed by years of being first a catburglar and then a secret agent took over, and she threw herself backwards, her outstretched arm knocking Jemma offbalance and tumbling her down the steps.
A roaring boom drowned out the smaller woman's shout of protest, and a flash of light seared Ash's retinas. The shockwave boosted her several feet into the air, turning her head over heels before dropping her onto the road. A passing car swerved to avoid her then the impact knocked the breath out of her.
She was dimly aware that a dazed-looking Jemma was lying only a couple of feet from her, and that splinters of wood, shards of glass, and chunks of masonry were raining down around them. Crawling over to her partner, she flopped protectively on top of her. Something solid thumped her in the back, and tried to make herself smaller.
"You're suffocating me," came a muffled voice.
"Sorry." She pushed herself up onto her hands and knees, trying to give Jemma more room, and in the process inhaling a lungful of brick-dust. When her coughing fit had finally passed, and she had wiped the tears and dust from her eyes, she became aware that the shower of falling debris had stopped. Cautiously she raised her head and turned to survey the scene.
The steps up to her flat were still there. But what had once been its front door and wall was now a gaping hole.
CONTINUED IN PART 4