SAY IT WITH FLOWERS
"Hmm?" Opening one sleepy eye, Richard Barrett peered up at the source of the voice, and curled his lips in a small smile of appreciation. "Hmm. Please."
"Sharron? Same again?"
"Yes. Thank you Craig." Less sleepy than Richard, but certainly no less relaxed, Sharron Macready managed a bigger, brighter smile. "Need any help?"
"Oh, I'm sure I can manage." Craig Stirling's smile was, typically, biggest and brightest of all. "Back in a bit."
"Don't hurry on our account." Richard smirked at his companion, who responded by throwing a beer mat at him. He laughed. "Resorting to violence, Craig? I'm shocked."
"In a parallel universe, where 'shocked' means 'being very lazy in a pub', maybe." Craig grinned at his companion's display of mock outrage. "I'll be back in a minute. Try to stay awake that long."
"Such cruelty." Richard made a show of stretching languorously, as Craig headed off for the bar. There were not many people in the place yet, even though it was getting on for seven thirty in the evening. Perhaps it was one of those nights when everybody was watching the television. Richard hadn't watched anything in so long that he couldn't begin to guess.
"I like it here." Sharron, seated beside him, was looking about with obvious approval. He nodded, without opening his eyes.
"Yes, it is rather pleasant."
"It's even more pretty if you actually look at it."
"Probably." He turned as though to look at her, still without opening his eyes, and she punched him lightly on the arm.
"Idiot. Anybody would think you were tired."
"It's called jetlag, sweetheart. I was in Japan long enough to start getting used to the time difference."
"I know." She laughed suddenly. "Craig kept yawning at peculiar times. He says that next time you get a foreign assignment, he's going too. At least that way he gets to have the nice weather and the scenery, as well as the messed up body clock."
"Interesting." Richard opened his eyes at last, glancing over to the bar. Craig was just collecting up three new glasses, ready to return to his friends, and his attention appeared to be on the rather attractive barmaid. Richard smirked. "Might I borrow your brooch for a moment?"
"My brooch?" Sharron was perplexed. "What on Earth-?"
"Oh, let's just say that I'm anxious to get our drinks over here sooner rather than later." Richard flashed her a cool, easy-going smile, generally guaranteed to get her to do whatever he wanted. She stopped arguing, and handed him the brooch.
"Thank you." Opening it carefully, he took hold of the pin, and with a small, amused smile, jabbed himself in the thumb. Over at the bar, Craig gasped suddenly and all but dropped the glasses.
"That was mean!" Trying not to laugh, Sharron took back the brooch. Craig came back over to join them, putting their drinks down on the table.
"Were you wanting something?" He rubbed his hand rather ruefully, although there was no trace of ill temper in his eyes. Richard laughed.
"I'm sorry. I was thirsty, and it looked as though you were planning to spend the rest of the evening chatting to that barmaid. Desperate times, and all that." He glanced down at his thumb, where a single drop of blood had welled up. "Still, I'm definitely improving when it comes to the suppression of pain."
"I wish I could say the same." Craig pushed a pint glass at him. "Although a little warning might have helped."
"Wouldn't have worked then, though, would it." Entirely unrepentant, Richard raised his glass in the air in salute. "Cheers."
"Cheers." Craig raised his own glass, before sitting back down at the table. "I was getting on well with her. Now she must think I have some kind of weird nervous twitch."
"All in the name of experimentation, dear boy." Richard's joking demeanour faded. "Sorry. It was rather childish."
"True." Craig laughed, and raised his glass in salute once again. "But it was also a good field test. It's weird, you know. I'm starting to accept all of this as normal. It's almost like before the crash, before what happened to us, like that was the unreal bit. Being the way we are now feels natural."
"Yes, I agree. Weird, certainly - but still natural." Richard's smile came back out for an encore. "And I'm sorry about the jetlag, incidentally."
"I told him." Sharron smiled sweetly at Craig, a teasing glint in her eye. "Though I didn't tell him about the fit of yawning that you had in the office. Tremayne was so indignant, I thought he was going to burst a blood vessel."
"Yeah." Craig looked rueful. "Not our greatest meeting ever. It's not something I can easily explain, either."
"I rather think that Tremayne is used to things that can't easily be explained, at least where the three of us are concerned." Richard set his glass down with a sudden thump. "Come on, you two. Drink up. I see a dartboard over there, and I haven't had a game in ages."
"Darts?" Craig turned to look over at the board. "Never got the point of that game. The object seems to be to lose points."
"And besides," pointed out Sharron, clearly deciding that it was time she reined in her more exuberant companions, "don't you think that we have a slight advantage? We probably couldn't lose if we tried."
"All the more reason to play." Obviously inspired by her comment, Craig flashed her another of his broad grins and rose to his feet. "Come on. Last one to zero pays the cab fare."
"Sounds good to me." Richard took another quick sip of his beer, then also stood up. "Come on, Sharron. Otherwise it's an instant forfeit, and the taxi fare is yours."
"Fine." She flashed them both a decidedly wicked grin. "But I used to play with my father, right back when I was so small I could hardly see the board. I could beat you even without superhuman powers."
"That's fighting talk." Craig began to lead the way over to the board. "Do we toss a coin to see who goes first?"
"Ladies first," insisted Richard. Sharron shot him a disparaging glare.
"Don't you think that's giving me too much of an advantage?"
He smirked. "You haven't seen me play darts. I like to flatter myself that I can play with the best of them."
"Then how about letting me go first?" suggested Craig. Sharron laughed.
"Fair enough. And some ground rules, I think. No telepathic interference. Anybody who tries to put anybody else off gets disqualified."
"Sharron, really. As if we'd try something like that." Richard was having to fight to hide a smile. She punched him on the arm.
"You would. Go ahead, Craig."
"My pleasure." He collected a set of darts from beside the board, retreated to a reasonable distance, and eyed the board critically. With his enhanced powers of sight, he could see the small divisions as easily as if it had been no more than a foot away. With his enhanced senses, he could be completely sure of his aim. With the remarkable processing power of his brain, he could even come up with a string of instant calculations that would tell him exactly the right trajectory and force for the optimum throw. Somehow it didn't seem to take any of the fun away. In the blink of an eye he threw all three darts in quick succession.
"One hundred and eighty." Richard went to retrieve the darts. "Although traditionally one is supposed to throw a double to start the game. And now, I think, with one eye closed?"
"Show off." Craig sat down on a nearby table. "Go on then. But if you break any of the ornaments, Sharron and I have never met you before."
"Fair enough." Richard regarded the board thoughtfully, with first one eye closed and then the other. "You know, in theory it should be possible to do this facing the other way entirely."
"Probably best that we experiment in a less public place, don't you think?" Sharron sounded more amused than disapproving. Richard nodded in agreement.
"Yes. You're probably right. Oh well, just with the one eye closed, then."
"Think you're something really special, don't you." Speaking with the unmistakable drawling tones of a would-be bully, a man at a table close by stood up. He was about Craig's height, with a much bulkier build, and hands the size of beer jugs. "Coming in here, acting like you own the place, swaggering about in front of that dartboard like a some kind of lord."
"That certainly wasn't my intention." Ever calm, ever collected, Richard smiled a tight half-smile, his voice eminently reasonable. "Were you wanting a game yourself? My friends and I have to be leaving shortly anyway."
"A game myself?" The big man smiled unpleasantly. "Actually that might be an idea. Us against you." He gestured with one of his improbably large hands towards two other people sharing his table. "Winner takes all."
"All?" asked Craig, one eyebrow raised. He got a dirty look by way of answer.
"All. Everything. What have you got?"
"I think the gentleman means money, Craig." Richard made a show of putting down the darts and pulling out his wallet. "Let me see. I have five pounds and couple of ten shilling notes. And roughly one hundred yen, though I'll understand if you don't want that."
"Richard..." Sharron was looking uncomfortable, not liking that they had suddenly become the centre of attention. Most of the people in the pub were looking their way now, attracted by the loud voice of the gorilla with the beer jug hands.
"It's quite alright, Sharron. Just a friendly wager." He was smiling at her, in his usual, unflappable Richardy way, and she found herself nodding slowly.
"Alright. I have a little money with me." She pulled some notes out of her purse, and put them down on the table that Craig had been sitting on. Richard put his own money on top, and Craig tossed a haphazard collection after it. Half of his money seemed to be dollar bills and French francs, but there were English notes in there as well. Their big challenger smiled in satisfaction.
"I'm going to enjoy winning that lot."
"You haven't won it yet," Craig reminded him. Sharron smiled faintly, deciding that she might as well join in with the fun.
"Yes. How about showing us your money."
"My money?" He eyed her as though he had never imagined to be spoken to directly by a woman. "Sure." Pulling out a dirty wallet, he threw a scrumpled collection of notes and coins at the table top. A sixpence bounded away across the floor. "Us against you then. I'm willing to go easy on you though. One of us, against one of you. Keeps from drawing out your humiliation, if you see what I mean."
"Fine by us." Richard was still smiling politely, hiding the glint of steel in his eyes. "We could toss a coin to decide who plays."
"There are three of us," pointed out Sharron. "Unless you have a three-sided coin..."
"Touché." He inclined his head in a gracious nod. Beer Jug Hands merely leered.
"I'll save you the bother. You choose one of us, we'll choose one of you."
"I don't know." Unhappy with the idea, as he rather suspected who would be chosen, Craig made as though to move forward. Sharron, who also suspected who their opponent had in mind, quickly interceded.
"That'll be fine," she said firmly. Beer Jug Hands grinned even more unpleasantly than before.
"Good. Then I choose you. You ever play darts before, little lady?"
"I've seen it played a few times." She smiled as ingenuously as she could manage. "But the rules look terribly complicated."
"I don't think we need to worry about rules. First one to zero from three hundred and one works for me." He leaned a little closer to her, and she forced herself not to back away. "The sooner it's all over and done with, the sooner you can come and have a drink with me. Right?"
"That's very kind." She tried to ignore his hand, creeping ever closer to her. "But what if I win? You might not want to have a drink with me then."
"If you win?" He patted her hand, and she quelled the desire to slap him. "Well we'll worry about that if it happens." Still smirking, he looked towards Craig and Richard. "Who do you choose?"
"Oh, I think we'll go with you." Richard was still managing to keep up his smile, although it was beginning to threaten to crack. "Always choose the organ grinder, rather than the monkeys."
"Now wait just a--" One of the other men began to stand up, but Beer Jug Hands shot him a sharp look.
"Leave it. It'll all be over in a moment anyway." He flexed his fingers, and turned his attention back to Sharron. "Want me to go first, and show you how it's done?"
"If you don't mind." She made a show of looking interested, and even a little grateful. He merely smirked, then collected up three darts, and threw them at the board. He scored respectably enough, although without quite matching Craig's earlier trio of treble twenties. Sharron managed to look suitably impressed.
"Oh, very well done." She gave him a little flutter of applause. "And you got one in the middle. That's the best one, isn't it. The cow's eye?"
"Bull's eye." He leaned close to her as he returned from retrieving his darts. "And yes. It's the best one."
"I'll have to try to hit it myself, then." She accepted another set of darts, and weighed them in her hand. "Oh dear. I hope I don't hurt anybody with these."
"Don't overdo it, love." Keeping his voice at a level too low for any ordinary human to hear, Richard smiled steadily at her to disguise his brief communication. Sharron got the hint. Frowning in a moment of apparent concentration, she threw the three darts, quickly, one after the other. Just as Craig before her, she scored three treble twenties, though instead of looking pleased, she scowled.
"Oh dear. I was aiming for that middle one."
"Beginner's luck," muttered Beer Jug Hands, rather annoyed that his lie about the bull's eye being the target to aim for, had failed to work in his favour. Craig fetched Sharron's darts for her.
"We'll see," he told their opponent. Beer Jug Hands sneered at him, and threw again. Again his score was respectable enough, and again Sharron followed it with three treble twenties. Their opposition began to twitch.
~We might have to get out of here in a hurry.~ Speaking to the others through their shared telepathic link, Craig didn't take his eyes off the two men still seated at the table. They were not taking their friend's defeat with good grace. Richard's voice answered inside his head.
~You could be right. Still, the odds are in our favour.~
~It's a bit too public,~ suggested Sharron, who didn't like the idea of a pub brawl at the best of times. Richard and Craig flashed her a joint smile, in perfect tandem.
~They try anything, and we've got the moral high ground,~ pointed out Richard. ~You just concentrate on playing darts.~
~It might be best if I lost,~ she shot back, breaking off for a moment to congratulate Beer Jug Hands on his third turn at the game. She could sense her friends' outrage without needing to hear their replies. ~Alright, alright, I didn't really mean it. He deserves to be beaten by a woman. But we shouldn't get into a fight.~ Stepping up to her place, she once again took her retrieved darts from Craig, before switching back to normal speech. "I'm afraid I haven't really been keeping track of my score. Is it sixty-one points that I still have to lose?"
"Yes." Beer Jug Hands was speaking through clenched teeth. She smiled at him politely, and nodded in thanks.
"Right. Oh dear, I do hope that's possible." Frowning in apparent thought, she squinted at the board, and promptly threw two triple tens and a one. Nearby came the growl of a chair scraping the floor, as one of Beer Jug Hands' friends pushed himself to his feet.
"It's a hustle." He spoke so loudly that anybody in the room who had not already been watching the game immediately turned to look. The smatter of applause that had broken out at the moment of Sharron's victory died away. "They're professionals or something. We've been conned!"
"Now now." Richard's voice was still level, and still perfectly reasonable. "We didn't ask for this game. We didn't set this up. You were quite convinced that your side was going to win. Does that really sound like a hustle?"
"No." Interjecting with an obvious desire to prevent a brawl, the bartender did a good job of making himself look as large as possible. "That looked a fair game from where I'm standing."
"Yeah, well for all we know, you're part of the con." The third man rose to his feet, joining his friends in their stand-off. He was slightly smaller than the other two, but still looked more than capable of taking care of himself. Richard raised an eyebrow.
"Come on. There's no need to be unfriendly."
"Who's being unfriendly?" Beer Jug Hands cracked his knuckles and took a step forward. "We're just going to take the money we're owed. That's all."
"That's all, huh." Very slowly, Craig moved forward, standing in front of Sharron. Behind him, neatly hidden from view, she closed her eyes and began to concentrate. Richard meanwhile, stepping up to stand alongside Craig, picked up an empty ashtray and toyed idly with it in one hand. Their movements were swift and smooth, each of the three perfectly in tune with the others.
"No trouble please, gents." The bartender was beginning to look worried. Nobody replied. Instead, with a shared look of confidence plastered across their faces, Beer Jug Hands and his friends began to advance.
With a crack of glass, at their first step the light bulb above them exploded, pitching their part of the room into semidarkness. Richard responded instantly, hurling the ashtray at one of the men, striking him in the chest and knocking him over backwards. Craig caught hold of Beer Jug Hands by one arm, spun him sharply, and sent him reeling away against a table. He landed in a heap, beer from a fallen glass trickling down onto his face. That left only the third man. Sharron dealt with him no less quickly, tripping him up, and sending him on his way with a shove hard enough to catapult him into a chair. He landed with a grunt, and didn't bother getting back up again. Richard collected up the money, tossed a ten shilling note at the barman, then led the way quickly to the door.
"Well, that wasn't a bad evening," he observed, as they walked together down the street. Craig laughed.
"Nice trick with the light bulb, Sharron."
"Thank you. I need to practice, though. I was beginning to think that it wasn't going to break." She laughed briefly, looking rather abashed. "If the people who gave us these powers knew that we were using them to win money at darts and fight with the locals, they'd probably be horrified."
"The fight wasn't exactly planned. And anyway, it wasn't a fight." Richard was busy trying to separate out the money, but he paused to flash the young woman a reassuring smile. "Our playing darts was supposed to be an exercise. We can't sit on our laurels, you know; not while we're still learning about these powers. We have abilities that we're only just discovering, and they need to be honed. Tested and experimented with. You know that."
"I know." She smiled her thanks as he handed her the money that she had parted with earlier, as well as her share of the extra. "Are we really supposed to be making a profit on it, though?!"
"Compensation." Craig grinned at her. "You wanted to break that guy's jaw. I could feel how wound up you were back there."
"Precisely." Richard waved at a passing taxi, and it pulled over to the kerb beside them. "Call it his penalty for being sexist."
"That I can live with." She raised an ironic eyebrow as Richard opened the back door of the taxi for her. "What penalty do I demand from you?"
"Ah, but this isn't sexism, sweetheart." His smile was gently mocking. "It's good breeding."
"Idiot." She climbed into the car, and the others followed suit. Richard laughed.
"And just to make you feel better about it all, you get to pay the fare." He beamed at her, all apparent innocence. "How's that?"
There were always files coming in to the office. New cases to take the place of the old; more work, always needing to be done. William Tremayne often felt that no sooner had he seen one case finished, one murderer or thief or spy dealt with, then there was another one coming along. More assignments to be shared out, more agents to send out into the world, more detecting and inquiring and researching to be done. The Nemesis Organisation was always busy. He was proud of its good name, and the fact that so many different people and companies trusted it, but there were times when he could almost wish for a little less trust. A little less work.
The newest file was on his desk within hours of the closure of the last case. Two of his agents had just returned from a mission in Dubai, and he had packed them off for a weekend's leave in the South of France. No leave for him, though. Hitting the button of his intercom, he raised his voice, not just for the benefit of his secretary, but for the three people that he knew were waiting with her.
"Send them in now, please, would you?"
"Certainly Mr Tremayne." The bright and efficient voice of his secretary sounded as cheery and as alert as ever. She got as little rest as he did, he mused. She never complained. Of course, she wasn't the one who risked sending agents to their deaths every day.
"Thank you," he told her, then turned his attention back to the latest file. The latest case. He had picked the right people to deal with it, he was sure.
They were an odd bunch. Once upon a time he would never have thought of them as the team that they now were. Stirling and Barrett had a history together certainly, but he had never imagined that they would form such a close working relationship with the comparatively inexperienced Macready. He expected all of his agents to work together well when required, but that was all. Then had come that terrible aeroplane crash out in Tibet. Tremayne had seen pictures of the wreckage, and he couldn't understand how they had managed to come out of it unscathed. It had brought them together, though. He understood that. He had fought in wars, and he knew how hardship and danger could tie bonds that nothing could break. It had its benefits for him, too, so he didn't question it. The three of them worked far better as a team than they had ever done individually. Their workload had almost doubled, their clean-up rate halved, and he thought of them now as his top agents. There were others with more experience, perhaps, but Craig Stirling, Richard Barrett and Sharron Macready had a natural aptitude that always seemed to work in their favour.
They complemented each other well, too. That certainly helped to make them a good team. Barrett was the level-headed type, ever practical, ever precise. He could always be counted upon to provide a reasoned analysis, and to maintain his perspective. In contrast Stirling was less controlled, less collected, with more of a tendency to react to things emotionally. He relied on instinct far more than Barrett, and they balanced each other well. Macready was a good bridge between them, a stabilising influence, with good instincts of her own. Others might worry about sending a woman out on agency work, but Tremayne had no such worries about Macready. She was a match for her male colleagues, and had proved that time and again. Certainly Barrett and Stirling were happy to listen to her, and even on occasion to follow her lead. Together they managed to get things done that might have daunted other agents, and if Tremayne had his suspicions about just how they had become so efficient, and how it was that their work was quite so unmatched, he kept them to himself. The trio were on the right side. Whatever unanswered questions he had didn't matter, as long as he was sure of that.
"Sir." Craig Stirling came in first, his pace quick, strides long. He always gave the impression that he was anxious to get back to work, as though the downtime between missions didn't suit him at all. Far less formal than his two compatriots, he didn't stand on ceremony now. Tremayne nodded in acknowledgement of the greeting.
"Craig. Richard, Sharron."
"Sir." Richard was holding the door open for Sharron, and she shot him a look of faint annoyance, that clearly said this was part of some on-going piece of antagonism between them. There was amusement in Richard's eyes. Tremayne chose not to intervene.
"What's up?" asked Craig, nodding at the file on Tremayne's desk. The Nemesis commander opened the file up, and skidded it across the desk towards him.
"I appreciate that you've only just returned from London, so I apologise for sending you back there again so soon. But in the early hours of yesterday morning, there was a bank robbery there. A number of safety deposit boxes were stolen."
"That's police business, surely?" Richard picked up the file and glanced through it. There were lists there of jewellery and other items that had gone missing. Tremayne nodded.
"Usually, yes. However one of the boxes in question belonged to a rather important British government minister. There were items in that box that were... sensitive, shall we say. It appears that we're dealing with an ordinary gang of thieves, and they probably have no idea what they've taken. I'd like to get it back before they find out."
"Is a bank vault really the place for state secrets?" Craig took the file from Richard and glanced through it, although in point of fact he had already seen much of its contents through his colleague's eyes.
Tremayne shook his head. "Not usually, no. Though one can forgive a man for thinking a bank secure. However these are not the usual kind of state secrets, and apparently it was thought best not to deal with them in the usual manner. It's unconventional, but not unheard of, to store them in this way."
"And you're sure that it was simply a gang of ordinary thieves?" Sharron was committing to memory the list of items stolen as Craig flicked through them, although her attention remained apparently focused upon Tremayne. "It's not a question of somebody knowing what was there, and faking an ordinary robbery to cover up the theft?"
"I don't think so, no. A security guard was able to get a look at one of the thieves before he was hit. He's identified the man in question from police files, and apparently it's somebody who is known to be a thief." He produced another file, and handed it over to Sharron. "His name is Jeffrey Arnold. I suppose it's possible that he was hired by somebody else, but otherwise it's nothing but an ordinary raid. Arnold is a career criminal, but there's nothing to tie him to anything that might involve international politics."
"There's a warrant out for him, I suppose?" asked Richard. Tremayne scowled.
"There was, and he was picked up last night. Unfortunately the police had to let him go, as apparently he has an alibi. Nobody is questioning the security guard's identification of him, so we can safely assume that the alibi is a faked one. Arnold has enough experience to make it convincing, though, and the police can't do a lot more until they can crack it."
"Which is where we come in?" asked Craig. Tremayne nodded.
"Arnold has a day job, as it were. He's a florist. And one of his sales girls just happens to have taken an unexpected holiday."
"I take it that I'm going to be filling in for her?" Sharron, who had read and memorised the file in her hands almost as soon as she had opened it, was still idly flicking through it for Tremayne's benefit. She set it down now, and met his eyes as he nodded.
"Yes. I can't see there being any danger. Your job is to keep an eye on him, and perhaps to get to know the people around him. Be friendly, but not too eager. See if you can find out who he knows, and who his friends are. That might help us to discover who else took part in the robbery, and where the goods are. Perhaps also whether or not they were hired to do the job."
"I understand." She nodded briskly. So too did Richard.
"Either Craig or I will be close by. Don't go taking unnecessary risks."
"The way that you and Craig never do, you mean?" She shot him a look that spoke sarcastic volumes, and he smiled his usual cool smile.
"I don't have to worry about myself, do I."
"Richard is right," interjected Tremayne. "No unnecessary risks. Just take it easy. Richard can follow Arnold if he leaves the shop. Between the two of you, you ought to be able to come up with something."
"And me?" asked Craig. Tremayne handed him a third file.
"You're going to check out the alibi. It's quite possible that the person providing it is a part of the gang in some way. Arnold obviously trusts her, so she's worth investigating. There's a chance that she might know something about the robbery."
"She?" asked Richard. His tone was one of detached interest. Craig flashed him a grin.
"Yeah." He had opened up the file, and was eyeing the picture inside it rather appreciatively. "And she's not bad for a bank robber."
"Well, if you happen to find yourself in need of some assistance at some point..."
"Oh, I think I can handle her. Thanks."
"Neither one of you is going to be 'handling' anyone. This is about observing, and finding out as much information as possible." Tremayne looked around at the little group, a meaningful expression on his face. "Understood?"
"Understood, sir." Richard brought his smirk under control. "We'd better be getting started. Is there anything else?"
"No, I don't think so. Just remember, it's important that we get hold of the contents of that safety deposit box, but it's also important that you don't tip your hand. If it looks as though Arnold has attracted anything more than the usual police interest, he'll get suspicious, and he might start wondering just what all of the attention is about. If he doesn't already know what was in that box, I don't want him finding out. There could be extremely serious international implications if those papers fall into the wrong hands."
"Sir." Sharron looked critically down at her attire. "I suppose I'd better go and change. I don't feel like a flower seller dressed like this."
"I'll give you a lift. We can run by supply, and get a tracking device. Maybe a bug or two. See about planting something on Arnold or his car." Richard headed for the door, pulling it open. "Coming Craig?"
"Yeah." Stirling threw down the two files that he still held, and headed after the others. "A tracking device isn't a bad idea."
"Don't you want to study the files in a little more detail first?" asked Tremayne. All three of his agents looked back at him, all of them, for the briefest of moments, looking like children caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Richard answered first.
"No, it's okay thank you. I think we've memorised the salient points." Sharron nodded.
"Yes, I think we've got all we need."
"Yeah." Craig offered his boss an easygoing grin. "What they said. Goodbye, sir." Together they left the room. Left alone, Tremayne gathered together the three files, and flicked thoughtfully through their contents. Already memorised. It was impossible, and he knew it; but once again he put the questions to the back of his mind. All that mattered was that they got the job done. Whatever else happened, he just had to keep telling himself that.
Richard shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and wished that he had something to read. Since receiving his powers he had filled boring hours more than once by re-reading the books that he had stored in his now phenomenal memory - but just now he didn't fancy any of them. After all, they were memorised; it wasn't as though he didn't know how they ended. He had chatted to Craig for a while, through their telepathic link, but Craig was with his contact now. Richard was alone with his boredom.
It had been easy for Sharron to get the job at the florist. By pretending to come with the recommendation of the conveniently absent salesgirl, it had been easy for her to present herself as the perfect holiday stand-in. She had been snapped up on the spot. It was a busy little shop, which explained why Arnold had been so anxious to hire a replacement, and Richard soon stopped bothering to count the many people who went into the shop during the course of his vigil. They were all logged carefully away in his brain, and at some point he would check the files to see if any were known to the authorities. Nobody behaved suspiciously, though. Nobody rang any alarm bells in his head. He was disappointed. Patience was one of his better virtues, certainly, but at the moment it felt as though he was the only one of the three with nothing to do. He didn't especially like the feeling.
Sharron left the shop at lunchtime, shortly after Arnold had also departed. She ran across the street, and they made a show of greeting each other as though he were her boyfriend, arriving to take her out to lunch. A woman watched them from the window of the shop, Richard noticed, but she didn't seem to be watching particularly hard. He mentioned her to Sharron as he started up the car engine, and got a brisk nod in reply.
"That's Margaret. She's the other salesgirl. She has to stay behind and man the shop during the lunch break, just in case. They're closed, but I suppose Mr Arnold doesn't want to run the risk of being robbed."
"Wouldn't it be a delightful irony if he was." Richard smirked to himself. "So, does the legendary Mr Arnold strike you as the dangerous type? And how about Margaret? Might she be in on it?"
"Margaret thinks the world of him. She'd do anything he asked, but he obviously didn't ask her to give him an alibi. I don't know if that means there are limits to her loyalty, though, or if he just didn't think to ask her. Or she might be known to the police herself, so her word wouldn't carry the right kind of weight."
"We can check that easily enough. How about Arnold himself?"
"He seems nice enough." She frowned to herself, watching the buildings go by as they drove through the streets. Jeffrey Arnold's car was just up ahead, but he didn't seem to be in any hurry to get anywhere. "It's all an act though. He's funny, and he's very friendly, but underneath that he's different. Almost creepy. He doesn't act like a master criminal though."
"They're not all mad or power-crazed." Arnold's car slowed to a halt at the side of the road, and Richard drove past, eventually pulling his car in some distance further on down the road. Sharron nodded.
"I know that. We've met enough criminals in our time to know that they come in all shapes and sizes. What I mean is, he doesn't act like somebody with many secrets. I don't think he knows what he's got."
"Simplifies our job if that's true, doesn't it. We just need to find the stuff and get it back, in that case. Did you plant the listening device on him?"
"Yes." She smirked. "It wasn't difficult. He doesn't exactly keep his distance."
"Oh yes?" Richard raised a suggestive eyebrow, and she sighed in mock exasperation.
"Not like that. He greeted me like he was a drowning man, and I had the only lifeboat. It's bizarre. The amount of business that they do in that shop, you wouldn't think that he would have to resort to robbing banks as well. He must be a rich man just from selling flowers."
"I wouldn't have thought that there were that many people wanting to buy flowers in the course of one day." Richard frowned. "Are you as suspicious as I am?"
"I've been suspicious all morning. There's definitely something going on."
"Then we shall have to concentrate on finding out what it is, won't we. Drugs in the bouquets?"
"Anything is possible, I suppose. Margaret would have to be in on it, though." She shrugged. "Well, I suppose the next move is to try to get in on it myself then. Whether it's drugs or something else."
"We have to assume that at least half of the customers are genuine. Maybe more, given that there's a hospital nearby - and several offices that might have regular orders for floral displays. But if it is drugs, he could still be distributing a lot of the stuff every day. And if he's involved in one area of major crime, I suppose it makes it less odd that he's still mixed up in large scale robberies."
"You're making him sound like a major part of the local serious crime scene." Sharron had more than enough experience with criminals to know that the sweetest little old lady could be a sinister mass murderer, but it was hard to equate the image of Jeffrey Arnold with this picture of a major drug dealer. His warm and friendly façade might be an act, but he still didn't seem the type to be involved in large scale drugs trafficking. "You're right, though. He's certainly not just a florist."
"And perhaps he's about to give us some answers." Arnold was going into a café as they spoke, sitting down at a table with a man who had clearly been waiting for him. A man of roughly his age and build, though with a suit of a rather more expensive cut. Sharron opened up her handbag, and took out a small plastic and metal box roughly the size of a make-up kit. It would receive the signals transmitted by the listening device that she had planted in Arnold's pocket, though to help prevent her cover from being blown, it relayed its signal at a volume far too low for an ordinary human to hear. As soon as she turned the box on, Arnold's conversation with his mystery companion was as clear to Richard and Sharron as though they had all been seated together at the table in the café. The reception was perfect, and their enhanced hearing caught every word. It was clear from the start that it was no ordinary pleasant lunch that they were overhearing.
"You're five minutes late, Jeffrey." The unknown man spoke briskly, and without the note of friendship in his voice. Arnold sounded subdued in his answer, and not at all like the confident man that Sharron had got to know during the course of the morning.
"Yes, I know. I'm sorry, but I can't leave the shop until lunchtime. You know that. And the traffic was a little heavier than usual."
"I'm not interested in excuses. Why would I be? I tell you to meet me, you meet me." They saw him lean back in his chair, fingers steepled, a thin smile making his face look unpleasant and cold. "Just give me your report."
"Yes, of course." Arnold accepted a plate of sandwiches and a cup of coffee from the waitress, though he hadn't ordered anything. A regular order, then. Clearly he came here often. "Everything is going to plan. I was arrested, just as we knew I would be, but my alibi held, and they had to let me go. Since then everything has been like clockwork. The shop has been as busy as usual. I've had about seven bids in so far this morning. I'll pass the details along tonight."
"Bids?" repeated Richard. Sharron shrugged, just as perplexed. It didn't sound like a narcotics operation after all. The conversation had hit a dead spot, however, for Arnold and his companion had both turned their attentions to their food. "I think we've got things the wrong way round, Sharron. It's not that he's sending things out in the bouquets. It's the customers who are slipping things to him."
"But he doesn't deal with the customers. Margaret and I do. He potters about and arranges flowers, and talks to people occasionally. The rest of the time he spends at his desk at the back of the shop room. He says that he likes to watch over everything while he gets the paperwork done."
"How do the customers pay?"
"Cash. I haven't dealt with anything else yet."
"Notes or coins?"
"Well both of course, but..." She smiled suddenly. "Notes. Of course. I didn't even think about it. I've not been looking at anything more than the denomination of the notes, but there could well be something written on them. And if they're bidding on something, they'll have written numbers. Lots of bank notes have things like that jotted down on them."
"Precisely. Perhaps you need to start looking more closely at the money."
"If I can see what's written on them, it might give us some more clues, certainly. I can't suddenly start examining all the notes, though. There are three of us in the shop, plus the customers. It would look suspicious."
"True." Richard's eyes brightened momentarily. "I could drop by claiming to be a policeman. I could warn you that there have been counterfeit notes spotted in the area. You'd have to look at the money then."
"And they might decide that it's not worth it, and tell me to leave. Or it would be easy enough to make sure that I only deal with the ordinary customers. Assuming he knows who the special ones are."
"Let's give ourselves an advantage, and assume that he doesn't. He mentioned bids, so let's assume that there's something he's selling. Stolen goods, most likely. Why would he know everybody that he deals with? Every businessman has clients that he's never met before."
"True. Though it would be risky to deal with total strangers if it's stolen goods that you're selling. Unless they're very sure of their security."
"True enough." They fell silent for a while, listening for further conversation from their suspects. There was none. The two men remained wordless until Arnold had eaten the last of his sandwiches, and drunk the last of his coffee, and even then they didn't speak again immediately. He stood up, tossing some money down onto the table, and nodding at somebody behind the till.
"I'm sorry that I was late. But there's no reason to worry."
"Of course there's reason to worry. You were seen in that bank. You were identified."
"I handled that. I told you. My alibi is good."
"You trust this woman. I've never met her. What makes you think that she won't crack with the police breathing down her neck? They've been looking for a way to get you off the streets for years. They know that you're a crook. They know that you're behind half of the robberies on their books, so they're going to do their damnedest to break that alibi."
"They won't succeed." Arnold stepped away from the table, suddenly looking far more the other man's equal than he had before. "I'll see you later. Good afternoon."
"Better get back to the shop," commented Sharron. Richard nodded thoughtfully, gunning the engine as Arnold came out of the café.
"We'll get you back there before him, don't you worry. Can't be late back from lunch on your first day."
"Not if I'm hoping to ingratiate myself into whatever operation he's running, no." She glanced over at him, and he knew what her next words would be without needing telepathy to tell him. He knew because he was thinking the same thing. "He seemed very sure about that alibi, didn't he."
"Yes, he did rather." That, though, could not be their problem just now. "Sounds like Craig has got his work cut out."
According to the file her name was Judi Westwood, and she was a nurse in a small, privately run hospice that had a regular order for flowers from Jeffrey Arnold's shop. Aside from a date of birth, current address and the note that she was single, that was all that Craig had to go on. He had had less in the past, though, and if nothing else he appreciated a challenge. So after waiting outside the block of flats where she lived, until she returned from her shift, he put on one of his most engaging smiles, did his best to look faintly rumpled, and contrived to accidentally bump into her whilst not looking where he was going. Laden down with groceries bought, no doubt, in the hurry to be home, she had stood helplessly in the middle of the pavement, as he caught a loaf of bread in one hand, a box of eggs in the other, and managed to catch a bag of apples on one foot. An easy task for a man with superhuman instincts, but all achieved with the look of slight desperation of someone aghast at his own clumsiness, and desperate to make amends. She had laughed, when she had realised that the eggs were not going to break, and the apples were not going to bruise, and his eager American tourist act won her over in no time. Soon enough he was helping her to carry her shopping upstairs to her flat, all the while regaling her with tales of the fabulous things that he had seen on this great trip abroad. Craig's smile had always been effective in such situations, but coupled with his superhuman intuition, it was well-nigh foolproof. Soon enough, seated on an old blue couch in a small, comfortable living room, he was sipping tea and listening to Judi Westwood complain about her job. She was nice enough, he thought, though there was something sad about her. Something distant that he wasn't sure he would ever quite be able to reach.
"Good grief!" She was staring at the clock in amazement, long after they had come upstairs together. "Look at the time! I've kept you here talking for nearly two hours, and I don't even know your name. I haven't even told you mine. What on Earth must you think of me?!"
"I think that you're great." He managed to look sufficiently bashful. "I couldn't do your job. All those sick people? You must really need to unwind after spending all day in a place like that."
"I wish I did." She looked away slightly, and he saw that distance in her eyes once again. He could guess at its source, at least to a degree.
"I'm sorry. Am I muscling in on somebody else's territory here? I mean, I don't want to cause offence, but I'm all alone over here, and you seem so nice."
"Thank you." She managed to look faintly embarrassed. "I am sort of... I mean, in a way I... Not that we ever..." She sighed. "Let's start again, shall we? My name is Judi. Judi Westwood."
"Judi. That's nice." He set aside his cup, and made a show of formality that he guessed would charm her still further. "Craig Stirling. I'm pleased to meet you, Judi."
"I'm pleased to meet you too." She laughed slightly at the clownishness of it all. "And yes, I do have somebody. We just don't get to go out very much, because of his work."
"Then come out with me." He held up a hand to forestall a complaint that didn't actually seem to be coming. "Just as friends. I'm all alone in this country, and you're all alone right now too. You need cheering up, and I want somebody to talk to. It's the middle of the morning, so it's not like I can smuggle you off somewhere underhand, right?"
"True." She smiled, though the distance was there once again in her eyes. "It would be nice to get out of here for a bit. I was going to make myself an omelette, and see if there's anything on TV. Not that there usually is, at this time of day. I'd read the newspaper, but when you work in a hospice the last thing you want when you get home is to read all that depressing stuff. Or it's the last thing that I want, anyway."
"I'll bet." He flashed her another burst of the Craig Stirling Farm Boy Grin. Patent Pending. "You need people. A restaurant. Somewhere cheery."
"There's a takeaway down the road a little way. We could go and eat in the park." She spoke casually, but there was a faint hint in her voice that suggested she really did need this. Craig, already beginning to feel bad about deceiving her, was happy to oblige. He stood up in a rush, taking her hand and pulling her gently to her feet.
"Great. That sounds perfect. We can take a walk in the park, and maybe feed some ducks. What kind of a takeaway is it?"
"Indian." She laughed briefly, with far more humour than before. "I don't know if ducks like curry."
"Sure to." He shrugged. "Anyway, we don't know till we try. Come on."
"You're a strange man, Craig Stirling." She let him lead her to the door, then pulled back slightly. "No strings attached, right?"
"Do I look like a puppet?" He smiled warmly at her, a smile that people generally found it hard not to respond to. "Come on. I'm hungry. So are the ducks."
"So am I." She followed him without protest, then, down the stairs and back onto the street. After that he followed her, back along the road, out of the residential section, to a place where a newsagents and a boarded up greengrocer's marked the start of the shops. The takeaway was unmissable, with its red and gold paint, and air of would-be splendour; and Craig, who since the plane crash could speak half a dozen languages fluently, and could easily have conversed with the shop's owners in their own tongue, stumbled and stammered his way through ordering as though he had never set foot in an Indian restaurant before. By the time they were heading towards the park Judi was laughing freely, and behaving as though they had known each other for years.
"So what I really want is to retrain as a doctor," she was saying, as they walked through a pair of wrought iron gates and into the park. "Except I'm not sure that I would be able to help the patients as much then. Not in the same way, I mean."
"You'd miss the personal touch." He spotted a bench near a large, duck-strewn pond, and headed for it. She nodded.
"Yes. Nurses get to spend so much more time with the patients. And it's not that I don't find my work rewarding. It just gets so complicated, and--" She broke off. "I don't think I've ever met anybody who let me talk like this. You must think that I'm awfully rude to keep going on."
"No, of course not. You need to talk. That's why we came here, right? You needed to let off some steam." They reached the bench and sat down, sorting through the various foods. "Think of me as your friendly neighbourhood psychologist."
"That doesn't sound like something especially friendly. So is that what you are?"
"What, me?" He shook his head. "No way. No, I'm actually a secret agent. I travel the world, fighting crime and righting wrongs." She laughed again at that, and he decided that he liked her laugh. It didn't sound as though it belonged to somebody who lied to the police to help bank robbers escape.
"A secret agent? So are you after a deadly Communist stronghold hidden in the English heartland?"
"No, nothing like that. I only fight Communists at the weekend. At the moment I'm after a criminal network. Large-scale theft, that sort of thing."
"Are they suitably desperate and dangerous?"
"Sure to be." He grinned, enjoying the joke, as well as the age-old trick of telling the truth in a purposely unbelievable way. She grinned back.
"Can I be a secret agent too? It sounds like fun."
"Oh, it is. International travel. Sun, sea, adventure. I'll put a word in for you with my boss, if you like."
"And is the pay good?"
"I guess. I've never really thought about it. We get free Super Secret Agent uniforms, and all that kind of thing."
"Miniature weapons and cars with guns behind the headlights?"
"That's right." They fell silent for a while, eating their lunch. Craig threw some at a passing duck. It was all very companionable, very easy-going. It didn't feel like an interrogation. Eventually, when they had both grown tired of eating, and one of the braver ducks was busy cleaning out a tub of rice, Judi glanced over at her unexpected guest.
"You doing anything tonight? I - I mean, you said that you didn't know anybody, and I've been invited to a party. I thought you might like to come."
"You don't think that your boyfriend will mind?" He was assuming that her boyfriend was Jeffrey Arnold, and that the flower-seller had better things to be doing then joining Judi at a party. She shook her head, though, and looked away.
"No, he won't mind. He's coming, but I shouldn't think he'll notice what I'm doing. He always uses these occasions to do business. For once, I think I'd like to have somebody else to talk to."
"I can hardly refuse that, can I." He helped her to collect together their debris, and they deposited it into the nearest litter bin. "Okay, sure. Where is this party?"
"Not far from here. Remember the place where you bumped into me? Just next to that, there's a cross roads. It's to the left. Number seventeen. Red door, big monkey puzzle tree in the front garden. Wait for me there."
"You're on." She looked oddly delighted, and once again he felt bad for the deception. She looked as though she needed a friend, and he was only supposed to be doing this to get information out of her. Richard would quirk an eyebrow, and tell him that he was being sentimental. And Richard, as usual, would probably be right. Still feeling guilty, he decided to move things up a gear. It wasn't hard to call up a concerned expression.
"Judi... is everything okay? I mean, I don't want to pry, but we've known each other for... heck, it's got to be several hours. That's a long time. I can tell when you're feeling down."
"Everything is fine." The words fell out of her mouth like the words of a poem learned by rote. No natural rhythm, no emotion. Just words. "If I seem out of sorts, it's just my work. Spending all that time every day in a hospice is bound to have an effect, isn't it."
"I guess so." He smiled, but his heightened sense of empathy was ringing alarm bells. He was sure that he would have been picking up on these signals even before the plane crash. "I don't want to upset you, or overstep any boundaries or anything. Sometimes a stranger can see things, though, you know? Fresh eyes, and all that. I just get the impression there's something else bothering you. Are you in any kind of trouble?"
"Aren't we all, in a sense?" She smiled a very beautiful, very genuine smile, that fell away almost instantly. "I should be getting home. He said he'd call me."
"Your boyfriend?" It came out more challengingly that he would have liked. "Sorry. But if things aren't right--"
"Things are..." She interrupted him sharply, only to trail away in an obvious quandary. "I should be getting home."
"Sure. I'll walk you." He offered another amiable grin, but the smile that she gave him in return was barely a shadow of those he had seen earlier. He had definitely struck a nerve. The partial success didn't make him feel especially good, and he back-pedalled slightly. "Unless you'd rather--"
"No." For a second her smile was real again, but it faded away almost instantly. "I like the company. I've really enjoyed spending time with you today, Craig. You made me forget things for a while."
"I'm glad." He hesitated slightly, then decided to jump right in. "You know, talking about things could help a lot more. If there's something that you're worried about. Some kind of trouble that you're in? I could help."
"I doubt it." She looked away, then turned back with a forced smile that didn't even nearly reach her eyes. "Thank you. For the food, for the company, for the change of scenery. For everything."
"That's goodbye, isn't it." They had barely left the park, let alone reached her flat. She nodded.
"Yes. For now. I still want to see you tonight.
"If there's something wrong--"
"I've known you five minutes." She gave an embarrassed little smile, and a shrug. "Maybe it's a British thing. Tonight, Craig."
"Number seventeen. It's a... it's a not-a-date." He offered her a smaller smile this time, brief and sympathetic, then watched her as she headed home alone. For a moment he thought that he should follow her. He was still assigned to watch her, after all. In the end he decided against it. She needed a friend, not a spy. Time to leave her in peace.
The flower shop seemed less frenetic in the afternoon. A steady trickle of customers came through, and Sharron checked all of the money that passed through her hands. Several of the notes had numbers written on them, but as she had told Richard, that was hardly anything unusual. She listened in to every conversation that Arnold had, but heard nothing significant. Occasionally he chatted to her, always jaunty, and had she not been able to see so easily though his act, she knew that she would probably have enjoyed his company. He was a good actor, but the layers beneath that amiable façade unsettled her. It seemed that he had invested quite some time in creating his public image. He was the respectable owner of a successful florist shop, and there was no way that he was going to allow the other side of his personality to show itself during business hours. Sharron was not a normal person, though. Her senses were far from normal, and she could see what was invisible to others. When he smiled at her, she smiled back - but she didn't want to. She wanted to turn around and walk away. Subduing her unrest as best she could, she made herself concentrate on other things instead.
She began by checking the cash register, when Margaret went to get them all some coffee from the little kitchen at the back. Arnold was busy with paperwork at his desk, and with her remarkable strength it was an easy job for Sharron to pull open the drawer of the till, without needing to draw attention to herself by ringing up a sale to get it to open. Inside were most of the day's takings, and she went through them methodically. Her enhanced speed-reading skills meant that she had little need to spend any length of time studying each note, and she flicked through them all quickly, committing the various scribblings and annotations to memory. That done, she set about examining some of the bunches of flowers, just to be sure that there was nothing hidden inside them after all. Margaret laughed at her when she returned with the coffee.
"Looking for poisonous spiders?" she asked. "Most of those flowers were grown in greenhouses in this country, you know. Sorry to disappoint you."
"That's hardly a disappointment." They shared a laugh. "Actually I was studying the displays. I'd like to learn flower-arranging."
"Oh, there's not much skill to what we do in here. It's mostly just keeping an eye out for things that look good together. Think about colour and height, and then see what happens. I can give you a few lessons if you'd like. If you stay with us long enough."
"I'd like that." Sharron put on her best smile, despite her minimal interest in floral arrangements. "I'd like to stay here, too. I know I'm only filling in for somebody, but it's been great so far today. Mr Arnold seems really nice, and you're really nice." She managed to blush slightly. "And I could really do with the money. You know how it is, sometimes."
"Oh, we all know that." Margaret smiled in sympathy. "Well, the job is yours as long as it lasts. You're fitting in well so far."
"Thanks. It certainly looks like you need the help in here. I never thought that a florist would be so busy. Business customers?"
"I suppose so." Margaret gave no impression that she was hiding a secret. Sharron still was none the wiser as to how involved the woman was in any of this. "We usually hit a quiet period for a few hours after lunch. It'll speed up again later. All those businessmen taking flowers home to their wives. Probably because they're feeling guilty about all the flowers that they bought for their secretaries this morning."
"Sounds about right." They shared a laugh, which Arnold obviously heard. He glanced up from his desk.
"Enjoying yourselves?" he asked. Margaret composed herself.
"We were discussing the customers, Mr Arnold."
"Oh." He came over to join them, absently tidying some of the floral displays. "You're surprised that there were so many of them this morning, Miss Macready?"
"I was rather, yes. Not that I mind. It's good to keep busy."
"My philosophy exactly, my dear. I like to run a busy shop. They're old customers, for the most part. People who have been coming here for years. Tried and trusted. They're not terribly original in their choice of flowers, but they keep the money coming in."
"Which is what's important." Sharron contrived to blush slightly. "Sorry. I didn't mean to sound so coarse."
"Not at all. Money is what keeps us all here, isn't it. I don't know about you, but I didn't open this shop just for my love of chrysanthemums. Not by a long shot. Do I take it that you'd be interested in a more permanent position?"
"I'd love a permanent job, yes. I know I've only just started here, but--"
"A good businessman can tell a good worker in only a very little time, Miss Macready. I was watching you this morning. You're good with the customers, you're good at handling the money, and you clearly have initiative. I see no reason why we shouldn't find you more work to do. It's true that I only took you on as holiday cover, but if you happen to have any secretarial skills, I might be able to offer you an office job from next week."
"Thank you." She managed to sound delighted, though secretarial work interested her rather less than flower arranging. "That would be wonderful. Look, I know this is a little sudden, but could I buy you both a drink after work? I really feel that I should say thank you."
"That's very thoughtful." Arnold pulled a flower from a nearby bouquet, and handed it to her with a smile. "But I'm afraid I've other plans. Some friends are throwing a party tonight, and I have to go there more or less straight from work. Why don't you come along, though? If we're all to be working together in the future, I think that we should get to know each other a little better. A party is a good place to get to know somebody. Don't you think?"
"Yes, I suppose so." She looked over at Margaret, searching for signs of disapproval, but didn't see any. "Though I shall have to call my boyfriend and tell him."
"By all means." Arnold gestured to the telephone. "You go ahead and do that. There's time. Business will be picking up again before very much longer, though, so don't take too long."
"Thank you." She headed for the telephone, pricking up her ears as she went. Arnold and Margaret would never suspect that she could hear them, though even without the bug planted on Arnold, her superhuman hearing could easily hear them from the other side of the room. She thought that she detected disapproval in Margaret's tone.
"You don't know her. We ought to be far more careful about who we offer work to."
"What harm can it do? I don't plan on telling her anything. She'll never know that this place is a front."
"She might suspect. How long do you think the police will stay away? It's a wonder that they haven't been in to interview you today. They're not happy about having to rule you out over that alibi."
"It's not me they're going to be interviewing over that. It's Judi. And she won't sell me out. You know that."
"I don't know that. She's your girlfriend, you said. Girlfriends have their limits."
"Not this one." Sharron could hear the tone of smugness in Arnold's tone, and was amazed at how different it made him sound. He was usually so jovial. So amiable. She had known, of course, that it was all an act, but to hear that act dropped was still a surprise. "Macready is a good worker, and she's respectable. Somebody like that is a good person to have in the office. I'll get her personal information for the employment records, and then I might even be able to set up a bank account in her name. Could be useful."
"I suppose." Over on the other side of the room, Sharron was dialling the number of a payphone near to where Richard had parked his car. She glanced up as she did so, and offered Margaret a little wave. It was returned, but Sharron's enhanced sight was far too good to miss the dark glimmer in the other woman's previously friendly eyes. "I still think we should be careful, though."
"I'm always careful." Arnold turned back to his desk, not giving a second thought to Sharron and her phone call. For her part, as she passed on the message about the party to Richard, she let her eyes drift off Margaret and over towards the window. She was looking for Richard, though she couldn't see him. Instead, she thought that she saw somebody else, watching from a car across the way. A policeman, perhaps, keeping the place under surveillance... except that a policeman should not have made her sixth sense jingle quite so much. Richard promised to check the man out, and she told herself to leave it at that, but her senses still buzzed. Hanging up, she went back to eavesdropping on Jeffrey Arnold. If nothing else, it was a good distraction.
"Any problems with your boyfriend?" asked Margaret, coming over to join her. Sharron shook her head.
"No, he doesn't mind. It's not like we had any plans. He's very understanding."
"You could always take him along. Is he the man who picked you up at lunchtime?"
"Yes." Sharron smiled, as though faintly bashful. "He wanted to take me out to lunch to celebrate me getting the job. I doubt he'll be quite so thoughtful every day. The funny thing was, I was sure that I saw Mr Arnold in the café opposite us. A business lunch, I suppose?"
"I wouldn't know." Margaret smiled a tight smile, that neatly put an end to that conversation. "Come on. We have a little time before the place gets crazy again. Come and have a look at these flowers, and I'll talk you through some of the basics of arranging."
"That would be lovely." Sharron followed her obediently across the room, though she was still listening to Arnold, and still trying to watch for the unknown man across the road. She couldn't see the latter any more, and wondered if he had gone. Perhaps she had been mistaken in her suspicions. Margaret was asking her questions about her favourite flowers, though, and she couldn't wonder about it all as much as she would have liked. Dragging her mind back to the present, she smiled a steady, bland smile, and gave Margaret the lion's share of her attention. If only the conversation were more interesting than bouquets and baskets. Next time she was leaving the flower arranging to Richard and Craig.
"Hey." Sliding into the passenger seat of Richard's car, Craig greeted his partner with a slap on the shoulder. "Anything interesting going on?"
"All in all, today has been about as interesting as a school field trip to a gasworks." Richard raised an eyebrow. "Actually, that seems positively enthralling in comparison. How about you?" There was no reply, and he turned from his surveillance duties to fix Craig with a searching stare. "Ah. Trouble?"
"Not necessarily." Craig managed to sound perfectly nonchalant, but got a disparaging 'hmph' in reply.
"Craig, that innocent act of yours might fool Tremayne, but it's a non-starter with me. We can't keep secrets from each other. Not anymore."
"Yeah." Craig dredged up a small, rueful smile. "Not great for privacy, is it."
"You feel my pain, Craig. Do you think I don't feel your unrest? Judi Westwood has got to you, hasn't she."
"Maybe." His smile became broader, more real. "Yeah, I guess she has. She's in trouble, Richard. I don't like lying to her."
"You're not lying to her. Not really."
"I might just as well be, and you know it. She needs a friend right now, not some guy spying on her, and selling her out to the authorities. She's not in on this with Arnold, I'd swear to that."
"She's lying for him to the police. If it came to a trial she'd be committing perjury for him. That's not exactly not being 'in on this'." Richard sighed. "Is she very pretty?"
"It's not about looks. You know me better than that. It's about her. She doesn't feel like a criminal." Craig's voice was beginning to rise, and he forced himself to lower the volume back to a normal level. "I've been trusting my instincts for a long time, Richard. Since long before we got these powers, and all the extra senses that came with them. You know my instincts are good."
"I know that you trust them." Richard, more a man of head rather than of heart, had never quite understood his colleague's trust of hunches, though their new powers had showed him that instincts were not just idle guesswork. Nowadays he himself worked on instinct far more than he had before. He could hardly blame Craig for being that way. "Okay, so supposing that you're right, and she's some sweet innocent girl led astray by Jeffrey Arnold. What then?"
"I don't know. I just don't feel right leading her on like this. She's asked me to some party tonight. It should be a good chance to talk to her."
"A few glasses of wine, and we could get what we need." Richard nodded. "Sure. Just be careful. There are a lot of people at parties. That means that there are a lot of chances to be overheard. There could be friends and colleagues of Arnold's there too."
"I know." Craig still didn't seem happy. Richard shot him a sideways look.
"You're not using her, Craig. If you're right about her being innocent then what you're really doing is helping her; and she'll appreciate that when this is all over. And if she's as guilty as the rest of them... well. Then there's definitely no need to feel guilty. Either way, you're not using her."
"I suppose." Craig smiled his thanks, apparently somewhat mollified. "So what have you found out? Has it all been boring?"
"Lunchtime wasn't too bad. Not that I actually got to eat anything." Richard stretched out his legs, and put his hands behind his head. He had a remarkable ability to make himself look luxuriously comfortable wherever he was, which Craig rather envied. "The flowers seem to be some kind of cover. Arnold met with somebody over lunch, and they talked about bids. Sharron and I are working on the assumption that some of the customers are using flower-buying as a cover for making bids in some kind of auction. Stolen goods, most likely. It could be that Arnold's thievery is a variation on the old idea of stealing certain items to order for collectors."
"Makes sense. Good way to get the best price." Craig nodded slowly, liking the idea. "Means that he probably doesn't know about those governmental papers yet."
"True. He's going to want to go through his latest acquisitions, though. Probably sooner rather than later. How long is it going to take him to realise that he's got something official?" Richard scowled. "He's probably got the stuff stashed somewhere, and he's waiting to be sure that he can get to it without being seen. He'll want to make sure that he's not being followed, which means I'll have to be careful. Otherwise he'll just lead me around in circles all day. And today has been quite boring enough without that to add to the fun."
"Oh, go on. You love it all really." Craig grinned at him. "There anything you want me to do?"
"No, I think I've got it all covered, thanks. Though if you want to stick around here for a while, I certainly won't object. I think I'm allergic to stake-outs."
"I know what you mean. By the time the first few hours are up, you'd be happy to get shot at just to shake things up a bit." Craig had done his share of surveillance work in the past, and was well-versed in the hours of boredom, and the fruitless longing for something to happen. "Sharron still selling flowers?"
"Something like that." There was dry amusement in Richard's tone. "I'm sure she's having the time of her life."
"Hardly. She's probably wishing she was you right now." Craig laughed. "She's bored. Feel it?"
"I feel it. With the pair of us sending out boredom waves, it's a wonder half of London can't feel it." Richard arched an eyebrow. "You're not bored, though."
"No you're not." His partner gave a drawn out, theatrical sigh. "Oh how the other half do live..."
"Jealousy doesn't become you, Richard." Craig smiled, somewhat ruefully. "Though it might have been simpler if we'd swapped assignments at the start of this."
"It might. But on the other hand, I might have fallen in love with her as well, and then where would we be."
"I'm not in love with her." Craig glared. "Idiot. I should have left you here to get bored on your own."
"You're a team player, Craig. You couldn't possibly have left me here when I needed you."
"I think I could have lived with the guilt." They shared a smile. "The plan's really just to sit here until this Arnold guy comes out?"
"That's the plan." Richard pulled a flask from under his seat. "Fortunately I've brought reinforcements."
"Hardly, dear boy. Hardly. This is tea. Honestly, you Colonial types." He poured them both a mug of tea, and handed one to his companion. "Have a rummage in the glove compartment. There should be some biscuits in there."
They passed a companionable few hours, though Arnold did not leave the shop for any further meetings. Deprived of the chance to do any tailing, and perhaps bring the case to a close, Richard and Craig spent the time largely playing games. It was all practice rather than genuine entertainment of course, testing their telepathic skills, and their new sense of group empathy. It was fascinating how close they had become as a unit, able to feel each others emotions, and experience each others pains, fears and discomforts, as well as pleasures. Exploring these new abilities, and trying to push them further, was always an interesting exercise. Richard's boredom was soon forgotten, despite the continuing fruitlessness of his stake-out.
"We'd make a great side-show," joked Craig, at the end of yet another mind-reading game. They had been drawing increasingly complicated pictures for each other to See and copy. "If Nemesis ever kicks us out, I think we could make a killing in a fair."
"Stirling The Splendid and Barrett The Brilliant. Or perhaps not." They shared a laugh, falling silent when a distant sound came to them. "Do you hear that?"
"It's a telephone. A loud one."
"Not louder than usual, necessarily. I think it's more the timbre of the ringing." Richard sat up straight. "It's a payphone. Sharron."
"Using a telephone?"
"For cover, yes. Hang on." Richard slid out of the car, and headed for the telephone box on the corner of the street. When he returned from the call, Craig was climbing out of the car.
"Looks like Sharron's got an invitation to this party too." Richard leaned on the roof of the car. "But you heard that, presumably."
"Yeah. And I heard about a car she wants you to check out. You want some help with that?"
"No, I don't think so. It's almost certainly a policeman, and even if it isn't, it's best to keep things quiet. Are you off?"
"Yeah. I'm going to head on back to Judi's place, and see what she's up to. I'll check in later."
"Fine. Keep your eyes open, and don't be too trusting. And that goes double at that party tonight. It could be a good place to pick up some information, but if you're too wrapped up with your little friend..."
"I know. It's a good opportunity, and with two of us there, we ought to be able to make some headway. I'll keep focused, I promise. Will you go through the shop while we're all out of the way?"
"Yes, I rather think I will. I may not get another chance. I'll check Arnold's house, too, and your friend Miss Westwood's. Don't let any of them leave the party too soon."
"Sure. Don't go taking any risks tonight."
"You're the one who's going to be hobnobbing with the crooks. I'm just rifling through their belongings."
"All the same. You never know what might happen - and we don't know who that car belongs to, either, so watch yourself. I'll catch you later."
"Bye." Richard watched him go, then turned around to search out the car that Sharron had told him about. A blue saloon car, she had said - but the only blue saloon that he could see was pulling away from the kerb, and heading off down the street. He walked about a bit, but there was no sign of any more. Returning to his car, he slid back inside, and settled down once again in his seat. A few more hours waiting here, and then things might just start to get interesting. Far more interesting than red herrings dressed as blue saloons. With luck then, the case would start to move forwards at last.
Craig had been at the party for some fifty minutes when Sharron arrived. He didn't see her, but he felt her - a buzz in his mind, that told him she was close by. She felt it too, and greeted him with a telepathic hello, like the thought of a smile that warmed him. They swapped small talk from opposite ends of the house, whilst mingling with a peculiar mix of psychedelic young dancers and business-suited middle-aged types sipping coffee and wine. Judi was off talking to the hostess, and Craig had been left alone with a pair of air stewardesses dressed in matching pink mini skirts and orange tie-dyed shirts. Given that Sharron was stuck with somebody who was talking endlessly of flower-arranging, he was inclined to think that he had got the better deal.
"Sorry. I wasn't expecting to be so long." Judi's voice came from behind him, so quietly and yet so distinct above the hubbub that it was almost as though she too had spoken inside his mind. The air stewardesses drifted away smiling coyly, and Craig almost blushed.
"Your friends seem to think that we're a couple."
"Oh, they're not my friends. I have no idea who most of these people are." Judi smiled at him, looking almost completely happy. "Isn't it nice?"
"If anonymity's your thing, then yeah, I guess so." He looked about, feigning cluelessness. "So which one is your boyfriend?"
"I think he's over by the door. His business associates keep turning up, as usual. He'll be nattering away with a bunch of them for the rest of the night, given half a chance." She took his hand. "Want to dance?"
"Oh, I don't dance." He shook his head, to emphasise his refusal. "But you go ahead. I'll watch."
"If you're sure." She wandered away, already swaying to the music, and he watched her go. She seemed very different here, very alive. Either Arnold had said something to her to lessen her fears, or being in this lively place, with so many strangers, was helping her to overcome her concerns. He suspected the latter. If, as Craig suspected, her worries were caused by the lies she had told the police, it seemed unlikely that Arnold had suddenly let her off the hook.
~Hi.~ Sharron had come up behind him, just as Judi had done; her voice really inside his mind, and not just seeming that way. He didn't turn around.
~Hi yourself. Enjoying the party?~
~I might do, if I can keep away from the walking lesson in flower-arranging. It's my own fault. I pretended to be interested. I just didn't expect her to keep going for so long.~
~Probably lonely. Hardly anybody here seems to know anyone else.~ Craig turned his head slowly, as though apparently giving the room a casual scan. ~I was listening in on your conversation earlier. Sounded inspiring.~
~You can be the florist next time, then. How are you on arranging long-stemmed roses?~
~Hey, when I was a kid I spent a summer working in a flower shop. It was mostly sweeping up leaves and petals, but it wasn't such a bad place to work. I wouldn't have minded if there had been a shop assistant who looked like your friend Margaret, either.~
~You'd mind if you'd had to spend all afternoon pretending to be interested in her theory on the best distribution of greenery.~ She sighed. ~Are you making any headway? I've been offered a job with Arnold on a permanent basis, so if we need to settle in for the long haul, I'll be well placed.~
~Judi is opening up. She's pretty on edge, though. Anxious. I don't think she likes lying for your boss.~
~I don't blame her. I get the impression he could get nasty. He's a good actor, though. Comes over all charming and friendly, though there was always something about him that bothered me. Then when he thought I couldn't hear him, he started planning how to set up a bank account in my name.~
~Implicating his latest employee in his dealings. Nice.~
~Exactly, and I have to wonder how many times he's done it before. I won't be sorry to put him behind bars. You think that you can make the girl talk?~
~Yeah.~ He was sure of that, though he still felt bad about manipulating Judi. ~Given a bit of time, she'll change sides.~
~Good. Listen, I'd better mingle. See you around.~
~Stay in touch.~ He didn't need to look to know that she had gone, his senses telling him as soon as she had moved away. Several moments later the music ended, and Judi found her way back over towards him.
"What do you think? Do I have a spectacular future ahead of me as a dancer?"
"You were very good." He brushed her hair away from her eyes. "And disturbingly energetic."
"The secret is Ribena." She leant closer to him. "But mixed with white wine. I'm not that well behaved."
"I'll have to try it some time." He couldn't help but be caught up in her sudden rush of enthusiasm. "So what do you want to do now?"
"Talk. Mingle. Party stuff." She smiled with a curious kind of energy, taking his hand and pulling him into the thick of things. It was certainly a lively party, and in no time at all they were in the middle of somebody's conversation. Everybody seemed in high spirits, everybody was a stranger to almost everybody else. Everywhere was a confused and confusing welcome, a sense of great cheer, and a genuine warmth and merriment. Time slipped away unnnoticed. Craig knew that he was probably enjoying himself far too much.
"I feel like we've been here forever." Half-giddy from the crush of people, Judi at last led the way back towards the comparatively quieter edge of the room. Craig glanced at his watch.
"Not quite. Closer to two and a half hours. Are you okay?"
"Wonderful." She looked it, too. "Everything seems so far away in here, doesn't it. As though the rest of the world was somewhere else entirely." She laughed. "And I've hardly drunk anything yet, or had anything stronger."
"You don't need anything stronger." He had known that she was enjoying this escape from her real world, but he hadn't thought that she might be tempted by that kind of escape. She threw a mock scowl his way.
"I'm not a fool, Craig. And I'm enjoying myself quite enough anyway. It's nice to get out of the hubbub every so often, though, don't you think?"
"Sure." He couldn't help smiling at her. "What next?"
"Oh, I should probably be dutiful, and see what Jeffrey is doing. I don't want him getting jealous. I'll be back in a minute though."
"Sure. I'll wait over by the window."
"Trying to escape?" She flashed him a parting smile, and disappeared back into the throngs of people around them. Craig had to smile at her exuberance. She seemed so different, away from the trappings of her every day life. If only he could get her away from Jeffrey Arnold permanently.
~Looks like Arnold is in the kitchen with a man he met earlier today.~ He couldn't see Sharron, only hear her suddenly inside his head. ~Richard and I saw them together in a café at lunchtime.~
~Yeah. Richard told me you'd seen a meet. Can you hear what they're saying?~
~It's a little difficult in all this noise. I'm going to try to get a little closer. How are things going with you?~
~They're er...~ He thought about Judi's casual flirtation, and smiled slightly. ~They're going pretty well.~
~Good. I'll speak to you in a little while.~ He caught sight of her briefly, as she moved closer to the kitchen, but a trio of sailors came between them, and he lost her. He turned away and headed for the window, where he had told Judi that he would be. Sharron would be fine. It wasn't as though he had to worry about her all that much nowadays.
There was a lot of noise in the flat. Sharron had hoped to overhear something important, but even with the microphone that she had planted on Arnold, it was hard to hear much. The tiny volume of the speaker in her bag didn't carry well over the music and chatter, and even her much enhanced hearing couldn't pick out much of the conversation that was going on inside the kitchen. What she heard was not particularly enlightening. Arnold's associate appeared to be called Charles, and he was clearly agitated about something. What it was, she couldn't hear. Judi joined them then, fighting her way through a crowd heading in the opposite direction, and battling off the clinging hands of what looked like a drunken chartered accountant. Sharron heard Charles turn on the girl in a fury, hearing something about everything being jeopardised - before somebody nearby turned up the up on the record player, and half a dozen young girls standing between Sharron and the kitchen door burst simultaneously into song. It was obviously a favourite tune of theirs, and they sang at the tops of their voices.
"What... same... I..." Snatches of the conversation came to her, mingled aggravatingly with snatches of other conversations. She zeroed in as much as she could, increasingly well practised now at honing her senses. "And I'm telling you!" The words blasted straight out of the kitchen door, though clearly not loudly enough to have alerted anybody else to the argument that was going on. She manoeuvred herself around until she could see in through the door, and concentrated hard on the people inside. The man called Charles had turned on Judi, but no sooner had his words crystallised into perfect audibility, when a crowd of merrymakers jostled and knocked against Sharron, pushing her closer to the doorway. The commotion caught Arnold's attention and he glanced up, his eyes meeting hers.
"Hi!" She threw him a smile and a wave, all innocence and apparent delight. "This is a great party. Come and join in."
"No. Thank you." He had been angry, and she could hear the strain in his voice still. He smiled easily though, and his eyes were warm enough. "Come on in here a moment, Sharron. I'd like you to meet my girlfriend."
"Hello." Summoning up a beaming smile, Sharron went to shake hands with the girl. Judi smiled awkwardly back at her, then left the room in such a hurry that it was painfully clear she was thankful for the distraction, and the chance it had given her to escape. Charles stared after her, then dredged up a smile of his own.
"So you're Jeffrey's latest employee. He'll be glad of somebody to help him out in the office. He's hopeless with paperwork."
"Well I'm happy to be doing it for him." She smiled genially at anybody who happened to be looking her way. "I'm sorry. I'm disturbing you. You obviously have things to discuss."
"Not at all." Arnold slipped an arm around her shoulders, drawing her into a half-hug that she was tempted to escape. "Stay here for a bit. Get to know me properly. Charles, too - he's a colleague of mine, so you're bound to see him around. Isn't that right, Charles?"
"I suppose so." Charles went over to the table, and began mixing a collection of drinks. "Same again, Margaret? Jeffrey?"
"Thank you." Margaret went to help him, handing a glass to Sharron. "Charles makes a wonderful margarita. You must try one."
"Thanks." She took the glass, still smiling, still trying to be as nonchalant as she could possibly manage. "I still feel badly about interrupting you though. I really should..."
"Drink up. Sit down, join in the conversation. We were only talking about flowers." Arnold's smile was the kind that it was hard not to return. She sipped the margarita obediently, then, unsure what else to do, did as he had suggested and headed for a chair. Charles pulled it away from the table for her as she reached it, and she nodded her thanks. Only as she sat did her instincts suddenly cry out to her that something was wrong, just before the side of a hand chopped sharply at the back of her neck.
She fell forward awkwardly, her enhanced strength preventing unconsciousness, but the sheer force of the blow confusing her momentarily nonetheless. Her recovery was quick, but something was stabbing at her arm... She turned to look, tried to pull away from the needle, but it was already sunk deep. Her arm snagged on it, and she couldn't free herself. Fury rose for an instant inside her - fury at her own failure to prevent this. She was supposed to be virtually unbeatable. Supposed to be virtually infallible...
Supposed to be. Closing her eyes, she felt consciousness slip away, and could do nothing to stop it. As the needle slid out of her arm, and Charles stepped away, she tumbled forwards onto the floor. It was a hard impact, but she didn't feel it. She was already too far gone.
Back out in the full swing of the party, Craig had been rejoined by Judi almost as soon as she had left the kitchen. She fought her way through the crowd towards him with little regard for feet stepped on and elbows knocked. He greeted her with a cheery smile, but it wasn't reciprocated. Something was clearly wrong.
"Judi?" He reached out, intending to cup her chin in one hand, but stopped short of doing so. She was still in a relationship with somebody else, and it was unfair of him to send out the wrong signals. "Has something upset you?"
"No..." She sighed. "Yes. I think I want to get drunk."
"I wouldn't recommend it." He was frowning at her, his concern obvious, and she gave a loud sigh.
"Stop being kind. Sorry. I just... I really want to get drunk."
"It won't solve anything, you know. Listen, if your boyfriend--"
"It's not him I'm angry with." She forced a smile. "Okay, I won't get drunk. I want something, though. You?"
"Yeah. Sure." One drink wasn't going to affect his reactions. Not nowadays. "Nothing too strong though, okay? It's really not what you need."
"Feels like it." She turned away, collecting a pair of drinks from one of the many trays dotted about the room. "Here. I think it's some kind of cocktail. Knowing my luck it's non-alcoholic. Cheers."
"Cheers." He took a tentative sip, and finished the drink quickly. It had a sharpness to it that he didn't like, but there was a strong taste of fruit juice that largely helped to make it palatable. "Now how about we talk through what's bothering you? I don't like seeing you like this. It's--" A blow on the back of the neck. Hard. Sharp. Fast. Falling... arm hurting... vision blurring... He gasped, and stumbled against the wall. "Sharron."
"What?" Judi was frowning at him, but he pushed past her, intent on reaching the kitchen. Sharron was in trouble. He knew it like he knew his own name. He wasn't halfway to the kitchen, though, before his movements seemed to become sluggish. His head hurt, and not from any kind of sympathy pains. Quite suddenly his legs felt like lead.
"Craig?" Judi was at his elbow. She looked worried. Frightened. He frowned at her.
"You... you drugged me?"
"Don't be silly." She was taking his arm, smiling at anybody who looked their way, saying something about too many cocktails. Nobody was really paying any attention. He tried to speak, but the words wouldn't come, and his tongue felt as heavy as his legs. Only when they reached the kitchen, and he saw Sharron sprawled on the floor, did he rally - and then only for a moment. The whole world was spinning by then.
"Mr Stirling. Good of you to join us." He didn't know the speaker. Probably the man that Richard and Sharron had seen with Arnold at the café. Craig tried to answer him, but he still couldn't get his tongue to work. Or anything else. Wobbling uncertainly, he looked once more to Judi. He liked to think that she was looking guilty, or sad, or something other than pleased that she had ensnared him. His focus was going though, and he couldn't be sure. Couldn't be sure of anything. His strength failing him, he crashed to the floor.
"A clean sweep." The voice came from far above him, contented and smug. Craig couldn't lift his head to see the speaker. Helpless as a newborn child, he did the only thing that he could do - and thought. Thought of Richard, thought of what was happening, reached out with his mind to find the third member of their team. Summoned all that remained of his strength, and focused it upon Richard, hoping that he would be heard. If an answer came, he didn't receive it. Exhausted by the effort, he was unconscious before his own message was done.
Richard went through every possession that Judi Westwood owned, though he felt wrong for doing so. Possibly it was Craig's fondness for the girl that he was feeling, though he didn't think so. He wasn't inclined to the same feelings of empathy that Craig experienced. His strengths lay in different areas. Maybe it was the sadness he saw in the eyes of the girl whose photograph stared back at him from the wall. Such a small photograph, simply framed, of her and Jeffrey Arnold; not much of a memento, really. It hardly seemed like a romantic keepsake, and she had hung it there apparently almost dutifully. Determined to remain impartial on the subject of the girl, Richard made sure that everything was back as it should be, then scowled and headed for the door. He had already been through Arnold's flat, not that he had expected to find anything there. He hadn't really expected to find anything at Judi's, either, though it had had to be searched. Even a small possibility was a real one; even an unlikelihood was better than nothing when there were so few avenues to be explored. Locking the place carefully behind him, he left her flat and headed down the stairs. The shop next, he supposed, though that seemed as unlikely as everywhere else. Nobody would be fool enough to hide stolen goods in a place where any innocent shop assistant might find something. But there might be something there. Some kind of a clue. It was the best that he had to go on.
He was halfway down the stairs when Sharron lost consciousness. He felt it like a dizziness that washed over him, and he knew straight away that she was in trouble. The details weren't clear, but the awareness of danger was. Breaking into a run, he dashed down onto the street, and climbed quickly into his car. It was as he was reached for the ignition that Craig blacked out as well. Richard breathed out long and hard, and closed his eyes for a second. There were images in his mind, in a brief, confused rush, that he knew had been sent to him by Craig. Not a good deal of it made sense. Drugged - Sharron - Arnold - Trouble. Nothing clear.
"Blast." Something had clearly gone very wrong - and he had no idea where the others were. A party, they had said. Something being thrown by friends of Arnold's and Judi's, presumably. That hardly narrowed it down any. Switching on the engine, he pulled the car out into the traffic, and drove slowly along the road. The feelings had been strong. He was sure that his two friends could not be far away. Closing his eyes for a second, he tried to collate the thoughts. In the end he had to steer the car to the side of the road again, and think it all out properly. A party. A house, most likely. And a nearby house. He knew that he and his companions could send thoughts to each other over long distances, but they had felt close by. The sensation had been intense. Drawing in a deep, deep breath, he closed his eyes again and concentrated hard. This was one of his great strengths, where his precise nature and personal control gave him an advantage. He could focus his skills to an impressive degree; find things that others could not. He had a degree of concentration that was near as not second to none.
"Come on... come on..." There was no use calling to Craig and Sharron. They might be able to hear him, but he doubted that they would be able to respond. Not if they were still unconscious. He had to rely totally on his own mental powers. Clearing his mind as far as he was able, he drew in a deep, long breath and focused on a single thought. Unity. There were times when he and the others felt almost like one unit, and by imagining himself as one third of that unit, in need of completion, he could let his senses reach out for the other two thirds. It was as though his head was tingling, the electrical signals of his brain racing as his focus deepened and his concentration grew. Cars sped past him unheard. A pair of children ran past, shouting to each other as they went, but he didn't notice them at all. All that he saw was Craig and Sharron. All that he heard was the silence of deep thought.
"Where are you...? Where are you...?" He muttered the words to himself without being aware of them, like a mantra that focused his mind further still. Pictures began to drift in front of his eyes, but it was some while before they made sense. Some while before he could see them for what they were. A house, whitewashed and modern. A room full of people, thronging and swaying. A small kitchen, enclosed, bright, smelling of disinfectant and red wine. Another long, deep breath. Another moment to hone his powers still further, and slowly, in his mind, he moved back. Out of the kitchen, out of the house, into a garden and onto a street. A street lined with similar buildings, and leading to... leading to... a crossroads near to Judi's house. Richard's eyes snapped open, and he grinned in sudden satisfaction.
"Got you." It was a matter of minutes, then, to find the street; to find the house; to pull his car in at the side of the road, and give the building a proper once over. There were people leaving it, laughing and joking, many of them clearly drunk, some of them singing. Richard saw sailors, air stewards, trendy young types and businessmen in expensive suits. An odd mixture, but by the looks of it they had all been having a fine time together in that whitewashed house. Every so often the door opened to reveal another batch of departing partygoers, and a burst of music escaped the building with them. Finally the door opened again, and this time brought silence with it. The music had stopped - the party was over. Richard lowered himself down in his seat, and narrowed his eyes.
Arnold and his lunch partner came first, a slumped form supported between them. His head was hanging down, but Richard could see that it was Craig. He didn't seem to be walking at all on his own. He looked simply like a man who had had too much to drink, and was being helped home by some friends. One or two of the last lingering guests even cheered. A second later Judi and Margaret came out, bringing Sharron in just the same way.
~Craig? Sharron?~ There was no answer. ~Craig? Can you hear me?~ "Blast." He stayed where he was, looking on as his two confederates were loaded up into a large saloon car, then watched it drive away. He didn't have to take any risks by getting too close. He could follow it easily enough without keeping it in sight all of the while. As he drove his mind was working overtime. How had Craig and Sharron been found out? Craig sometimes had a tendency to leap in without looking, but Sharron was always level-headed. And besides, there was little likelihood of their covers being blown at a party. A crooked policeman, tipping off the enemy? A little bird, noticing that Judi had been spending time with another man? An image drifted into his mind, of a blue saloon car driving away just as he had set out to investigate it. A blue saloon car that Sharron had asked him to investigate... and which had driven away just as Craig had left him. A blue saloon car that he was following now.
"Damn!" He punched the steering wheel hard. It hadn't been coincidence that the car had driven off just as Craig had left. It had been following Craig. Somebody had got suspicious somewhere. Somebody had seen something. He guessed that he must himself have been linked to Sharron - by Margaret, perhaps, since she had seen them together at lunchtime - and then Craig, perhaps already under suspicion for being with Judi, had also been seen with him. It implicated all three of them in one quick swoop - and probably implicated his car, too. There was nothing for it but to pull in down the nearest side road and rethink his strategy. Arnold and his little band would know his car, and were likely on the look out for it. If he was seen following them, they would either lead him on a wild goose chase, or try to lead him into a trap. Neither was particularly inviting. With a tight, determined smile, he left his car, and began trying the handles of others parked nearby. It didn't take long to find one that was unlocked, and it took him just a moment to hot-wire it. He grinned in wicked satisfaction. Definitely something to be said for a scientific education, he mused, and with a new gleam in his eye he set out once again to follow his friends. With luck he would have them free in no time at all.
Sharron awoke to a sensation not unlike a hangover. Keeping her eyes closed, she listened carefully, taking stock of her surroundings before she let show that she was awake. She could hear nobody in the immediate vicinity save one person, and her senses told her that it was Craig. She opened her eyes and looked around.
She was in a small storeroom, rather like a stock cupboard - filing cabinets against one wall that looked old and battered; various office supplies stacked here and there, though mostly covered in dust; a truly ancient typewriter standing on the floor nearby. Even the chair that she was sitting on was old, and felt like it belonged in an office. Thick ropes bound her hands behind her back, fixing her to the chair, and further ropes tied her ankles to the chair base. Apparently the chair was on castors, and had some limited degree of rotation, not that that was of much use to her now.
"Tell me I haven't been drinking as much as it feels like I have." Craig was just coming round, raising his head and blinking about at the room. "Ouch. My apartment needs a spring clean."
"I don't think this can be the place where the party was being held." Not one to waste time on unnecessaries, Sharron was already at work. "How far do you think we were taken?"
"Not far." Craig tried to stretch. "We weren't unconscious much more than half an hour or so. Forty-five minutes, tops."
"I'm sure." He tested his ropes, and winced. "What's wrong with good old-fashioned cord? I don't think we can break this stuff."
"Even super-strength has its limits. What if we work together?"
"It's possible. Anything's possible. It'll take time, though." He rocked about a bit, trying to manoeuvre his chair around so that they were back to back. Sharron did likewise, and soon enough they were positioned more or less as intended. Sharron felt Craig's fingers run along the ropes that bound her wrists.
"What do you think?" she asked him. He didn't answer immediately. "Can we break them?"
"I don't know. These are thicker than the ones I've tried that trick on in the past. This is heavy duty stuff. We'd probably do better just trying to undo the knots."
"Fine." She shifted about a bit in her chair, trying to reach his ropes. "You know, I get the distinct impression that somebody doesn't want us to leave."
"You reckon?" She heard Craig laugh softly, and felt his hands scrape against hers. "You know, you could be right. They don't make captors like they used to."
"Who do we write to, to complain?"
"Kidnappers' Guild?" Craig muttered something under his breath as a knot slipped away from his fingers. "Damn. Can you move slightly to the right? Your right, that is."
"Probably. Can you--" She broke off. "Do you hear that?"
"Three of them, by the sound of it. Oh good. Interrogations are always so much fun." She was silent briefly, taking a moment to be serious. "Do we tell them anything?"
"Like what? If they think we're the police, fine. Maybe. But we can't let them suspect that there's more than the police after them. They'll want to know why, and it won't take them long to figure out that they've got something more than the usual."
"Right." She pulled away from him, wriggling around so that her chair was more or less back where it had been. He did likewise. "But if I ever become a politician, make sure that I don't put anything secret in a safety deposit box." Craig seemed about to say something in reply, but the scraping of the door lock silenced him. A moment later the door was pushed wide.
"You're awake. That's convenient." They both recognised Charles, though only Sharron knew his name. Behind him stood Jeffrey Arnold, and behind him, oddly cowed, was Judi Westwood. Craig flashed her a gentle little smile, but she didn't respond.
"What's all this about?" Deciding to take the initiative, Sharron met Charles' stare directly. He laughed.
"You're joking. You're going to start pretending that you're innocent now?"
"You obviously don't think that we are." She glanced over at Craig, hoping for support, but he seemed to be trying out his telepathy on Judi. "What is it that you think we did?"
"Think? Your friend here has been putting pressure on Judi. You got a job at Jeffrey's shop. And the pair of you have a shared contact who was parked outside the shop for most of the day. I'm not a fool, Miss Macready. I know when there's something going on."
"It's all in your imagination. I needed a job. As for who I happen to be friends with, well that's my business. What exactly could we be up to? Some kind of hostile take-over of the flower business?"
"I always wanted to own a florist's shop," interjected Craig, though his eyes never left Judi. Arnold moved rather pointedly into his line of vision, so that he could no longer see the girl.
"This isn't about a take-over," he said. Craig transferred his smile from Judi to Jeffrey.
"No, it isn't."
"Then what is it about?" Charles was not built for playing the rôle of heavy, but he tried it on anyway, stepping forward to loom over Craig as best he could. "Who are you people really?"
"I guess you're too good for us." Craig nodded slowly. "We knew that our cover story wasn't the greatest one ever, but we didn't think you'd see through it so quickly. We're from Geneva. We represent certain... interests. People who might want to do some business in this part of the world, if you get my meaning. You've turned some heads, Jeffrey. Now, I don't know about your buddy here, but the people who employ me are very interested in employing you too. Word is, you can get into any bank, and take whatever you're asked to get. That right?"
"I--" Arnold's eyes narrowed. "Which 'interests' do you represent? Are you with the police?"
"Do we look like policemen?" Craig's tone, so even and warm, was pitched just right to charm the likes of Jeffrey Arnold. "You know you're good, Jeffrey. Right? How long have you been playing this game? Getting people to bid for what you steal, after they've asked you to steal it? It's perfect! Damn near genius. And stealing extra stuff as well, to muddy the waters a little, and to get yourself a little more to sell... You've thought this through perfectly. I love the florist cover. Has a nice secret agent spin to it. And believe me, pal, I'm not the only one who thinks this is good. Right Sharron?"
"Certainly." As ever she was perfectly composed. "It's a beautiful set up. Such a shame that it has to end."
"End?" After visibly preening at all of the praise, Arnold suddenly looked taken aback. "Who says it has to end? It's the perfect plan, you said so yourself."
"Yeah, but Jeff, you were seen. A security guard recognised you, and you've got the cops well and truly suspicious." Craig's eyes gleamed calculatingly. "If you want to carry on making robberies, you're going to have to have the most air-tight alibis ever, and pretty soon you're going to slip up. It's over for you." He smiled slightly. "In London."
"In London? What do you mean?" Arnold's expression cleared suddenly. "You mean... you want me to relocate?"
"Exactly." Sharron offered him a dazzling smile. "Come with us, back to Geneva. Well why not? Like Craig says, it's over for you here. Over there, though, you'll have a clean slate. If the police here don't know that you've left - and we can get you over there without them knowing a thing, believe me - then they won't be forwarding any information about you. You could grow a moustache or dye your hair or something, anyway. You'd have most of Western Europe, then. This same operation, transplanted over there. Our employers would look after you. You'd have all the commissions you can cope with."
"And you'd be making a lot more, too." Craig could see the flickers of interest in the other man's eyes, and knew just how to build the flames. "Sure, there'd be a percentage that'd have to be paid to our employers, but the sale prices would be so much higher than you're getting over here that you'd never notice that. There's a lot of money in Europe. A lot of art treasures."
"And we already have some work lined up for you." Taking up where Craig had left off, Sharron kept the conversation going, giving Arnold less time to think. "Did you ever see a Fabergé egg? I know that a lot of people think they're a little tasteless, but you do know the kind of prices they command? One night's work, Mr Arnold. You'd be getting the kind of money that it would take you months to earn over here."
"And we'd still be running auctions to try to get the best prices?" Arnold's eyes were glittering with greed. "No going with the first offer?"
"Sure we'd be holding auctions. That's part of what we love about your operation over here." Craig beamed at the other man, his natural geniality holding him in good stead. He looked as though he didn't know how to tell a lie. "No running a shop, though. Be better if you stay on the move. We'll sort out the details, and you get to travel all over Europe having fun between jobs. It's a great set up, Jeff. I certainly can't see any flaws."
"I can." Silent during the discussions, though clearly unhappy, Charles stepped forward again now. "Sounds to me like you're setting him up with the perfect operation, but he's not a one-man team. There's three of us - plus the girl over there. Me and Margaret, we both play our part in this. I don't much like the sound of your offer."
"Well I was told to deal direct with Jeff here." Craig would have shrugged, had he been able, but the ropes would not allow him to complete the gesture. "Nobody said anything about partners. We just need the thief."
"We come as a unit," reiterated Charles. Craig frowned, looking across at Sharron.
"What do you think? You reckon they'd buy partners?"
"I don't know." She also tried out a shrug, and had to give up. "It's not like he'd have any need for them. Our team would be handling everything." She looked over at Charles. "Do you speak any European languages? If you were going to fix up the deals or the sales, you'd need to be able to speak several languages, I would think. Certainly French. How about Italian?"
"I..." His expression darkened. "Look, this is my operation. I set this up! You can't come running in here, offering jobs to my people and leaving me out in the cold. I won't stand for it."
"Well it's inconvenient, I must say." Craig frowned, as though deep in thought. "I guess we could try to come up with something for you. Of course I'd think a whole lot better if my hands weren't tied."
"Try again, smart mouth. Your brains aren't in your hands." Charles folded his arms, trying again to look menacing. This time it worked, a little. He was obviously very angry. "Okay, so we'll lose Margaret. I never liked her anyway. But if I don't go along, Jeffrey doesn't either."
Sharron looked directly at Arnold. "Is that how you feel as well?"
"I..." Initially he had looked certain to accept the offer, but now he looked unsure. "Just who is it that you work for?"
"Take a wild guess." Craig's smile hadn't wavered, but there was a gleam in his eyes now that hinted at a challenge. "And let's just say they're the kind of people you're better off not saying no to."
"For goodness sakes, say yes." Judi spoke up for the first time, her voice quavering slightly. She didn't come out from her position behind Arnold, almost as though she feared the consequences. "He's talking about the Mafia."
"You keep out of it." Arnold spun around to face her, his voice suddenly belligerent. Craig saw her shrink back slightly, and Sharron felt his dislike of her erstwhile 'employer'.
"You got to make your choice, Jeff." He kept his distaste out of his voice, showing remarkable constraint. "Are you in or not?"
"You've got to be kidding." Charles shook his head. "No. Jeffrey, tell them no. Have you any idea what you'd be letting yourself in for, getting mixed up with the Mafia?"
"I thought you wanted to join up with them too?" For some time Jeffrey didn't meet anybody's eyes. Then he looked up again, and stared straight at Craig. "He's right, isn't he. The Mafia would just use me. I might get paid well to begin with, but what then? What happens to me if I make a mistake, or if I do something that you don't like? Or if you decide that you don't need me anymore?"
"Trick is to enjoy yourself in the meantime." Craig kept his voice and his stare very level. "Make the most out of life. You never know when it's going to end."
"So this great offer is only good for as long as your bosses think that they want me? And then I find myself being thrown into some European lake with weights tied to my feet? That doesn't sound like such a great offer to me."
"That's your decision." Craig sounded as though he didn't care for a moment what choice Arnold made. As though he were just a messenger with no interest at all in what went on. Sharron matched his expression exactly, but her mind sought his.
~Don't you think you're pushing him just a little? If he thinks he's in danger from the Mafia, he's going to want us out of the way.~
~Trust me.~ He threw her a grin that existed only between their minds.
~Do you know what you're doing?~
~Don't I always?~ He was already speaking again to Charles and Jeffrey, but she threw back an answer anyway.
~Rarely.~ Inside her head she felt him smile.
"Listen, you make your choice, we'll take the message back. It's perfectly simple." He sounded faintly irritated, as anybody might be when kept tied up in a storeroom. The two men exchanged a glance.
"And then what?" asked Charles. "Your employers just accept the answer and forget about it?"
"No. Probably not. You should listen to Judi, you know. Accept. It's safer for everybody."
"Please, say yes." Judi was visible properly again now, moving out of the doorway so that Arnold was no longer blocking her from the others. She looked horribly pale, and horribly small. "There doesn't have to be any killing. It's not necessary."
"You heard him! If we say yes, they'll still kill us. Just later rather than sooner. I don't want that, Judi. Maybe you'd be glad to get me out of your hair, but what if they come after you too? Hadn't thought of that, had you. You know just as much as I do, and they know about you. So if I say no, you're dead too. And if I say yes? Maybe they'll also want you out of the way."
"And maybe I don't care. I just don't want--" Her eyes trailed across to Craig. Arnold's face changed in an instant.
"So that's it. It's not my life you're worried about, is it. If we say no, the only way we can avoid being killed is if we stop these two ever delivering the message back to their bosses in Geneva. You know what that means."
"Jeffrey, please." She shied away, and for a moment Sharron thought that Arnold was going to hit her. Clearly Craig did too, for she felt the adrenalin rush through him, and saw the muscles in his arms jump and strain. In the event all that Arnold did was take a step towards the girl, before giving up and looking away.
"Well it's nice to know how things stand," he said coldly. Judi just looked at the floor. Charles drew in a long, deep breath.
"I don't have a gun," he said after a moment. Arnold didn't bother looking at him.
"I have," he said simply. At the café he had seemed to be the junior partner in this endeavour, remembered Sharron. Now he was taking the lead. It was clear that the dynamic had shifted irrevocably. "It can take weeks for a body to surface in the Thames. Some of them probably never do. And nobody is going to suspect us, anyway."
~I do hope you know what you're doing,~ sent Sharron. Craig nodded slowly, a gesture that could have been meant for anybody.
"So you've made your decision, then. You do know that when we don't go back home, somebody there will assume you're responsible?"
"So? We won't be here any longer. You've given me an idea, Mr Stirling. I'll go to another country and start up again. It won't be so hard to get past the police."
"Got it all thought out, haven't you." Craig smiled a sad little smile. "So I guess that means it's all over." Judi looked away, and he felt yet another rush of guilt for everything that he had done to her that day. "Hey, don't look like that, Judi. It's all part of the job. You always know the way it's going to end one day, when you're in this business. If not one of the bosses, or a business rival, then some cop somewhere." His gaze switched suddenly to Arnold. "But I want to ask you something first. One thief to another. Okay?"
"One question. Fine." Arnold folded his arms, staring down at Craig with a new glint of steel in his eyes. Decisions made, he seemed suddenly a very different man. Craig nodded.
"Thanks. It's about your last job. We've had a guy searching all over for the loot. He's been following you, and searching every place, and he's come up blank every time. Our boss wanted that haul. Seems there's some piece of jewellery that he wants. He's got its twin or something. Told us not to come back without it. So since you're going to kill us, and it's all over... where'd you stash the stuff? It can't hurt to tell us now."
"I don't suppose it can." Arnold was silent for a long while, then he shrugged. "Alright. It's here. There are some payphones by the entrance, and the stuff is inside them." He laughed. "The police have never found this place, so I'm not surprised your man didn't."
"I see." Craig smiled ruefully. "And this is some disused office, I guess."
"Charles' old business. He had twenty-five employees here before he went bankrupt in '62. But that was a second question. We only agreed on one."
"Touché." Craig nodded his acquiescence. "You're a smart man, Jeff. Real smart." But inside he was smiling warmly, and at the gentle touch of welcome inside her head, Sharron was soon doing the same.
~Richard? Richard, did you hear all of that?~ Casting around with her mind, she tried to seek out the source of that gentle hello. Craig was holding the attention of the others, so she had no worry that she would be disturbed. ~Richard?~
~I'm here. I heard it.~ His voice was as calm and as precise as always. It was good to hear him. She almost smiled for real, rather than just with her thoughts.
~How far away are you?~
~You can't tell?~ He sounded faintly chiding, though with a glimmer of humour in his words. ~I'm in the building. Shall I come to you first, or get the spoils?~
~Better find them first. This lot might bolt. We shouldn't take any risks.~
~If you're sure.~
~I am.~ They might be about to get shot, or they might not be. She wasn't entirely clear how imminent their execution was - but if she and Craig couldn't escape without Richard's help, they were in the wrong business. Richard seemed to hear that thought, and laughed quietly.
~All the same, shout if you need me.~
~We won't need to. You'll hear the gunshots. Oh - and look out for Margaret. She's around here somewhere.~
~Thanks for the warning. Now take care. I'll be with you in a little while.~
~We'll be here. Hopefully not still tied to chairs.~ He laughed again and was gone. Sharron fought back a smile of her own, returning her full attention to the room. Judi was fighting back tears, looking like she wanted to make her escape. Charles shouted at her, the strain showing on his own face, and his eyes showing signs of panic. Only Arnold looked unconcerned by the prospect of committing murder. She remembered his joviality earlier; how he had played the part of a charming man. He was very different now.
"Are you really going to shoot us, Jeff?" Craig's manner was still easy, but his eyes stared almost unwaveringly at Judi. Arnold's face seemed set in a cold, tight smile.
"Scared?" he asked. Judi gave a louder sob, and Charles rounded on her again.
"Shut up! Why don't you leave?"
"She stays." Arnold's voice was steady and cool. Judi shook her head.
"I can't. Please, just--"
"Let her leave, Jeff. What's the sense in keeping her here? She'll only get in your way." There was the hint of cajoling in Craig's tone. He sounded almost as though he were patronising Arnold - and Arnold, unsurprisingly, reacted badly.
"She stays. I want her to watch me kill you. You've got in my way and hers enough today, and she's going to watch you die. It might make her behave a little better in future." Judi gave another loud sob, and Charles slammed his fist against a filing cabinet. The metallic crash was loud, and Judi jumped violently, before bursting into tears.
"Let her leave, Jeff." Craig still sounded faintly patronising, like a hostage negotiator laying it on too thick. Arnold was really beginning to simmer, and as his pulse rate rose, so too, it seemed, did the volume of Judi's crying. Sharron composed a perfectly questioning frown, and directed it at the girl.
"Is there something wrong, Judi?" It was a question filled with apparently genuine innocence, and as such nearly made Craig laugh. Judi's weeping broke off for a second, and she stared straight at Sharron, clearly trying to speak. As his girlfriend fought back the tears to try to phrase her misery at the killing of his enemy, Arnold's temper at last broke free. As though something inside him had snapped, he spun around to face her, Charles reacting in the same instant, and apparently to the same trigger. And at that moment, minds as one, Craig and Sharron made their move.
They leapt to their feet, even though their ankles were tied to the chairs, their superior strength and balance allowing them to stay standing. As Arnold swung back around, one hand already scrabbling for the gun that clearly was in his pocket, Craig launched himself forward. It was an ungainly move, and necessarily so, but the force that propelled him was superhuman. Crashing into the thief, he knocked him into the door's edge, then fell backwards onto the chair. It broke apart from the force of the impact, but Craig's hands and feet were still tied.
"Why you--" Charles was starting towards him, but Sharron had already hurled herself forward. She collided with him before he had gone more than a step, and they fell together against a filing cabinet. Stunned by the unnatural force of the blow that she had dealt him, Charles slid in a heap to the floor. His confederate still struggled to reach the gun in his pocket, but sprawled on the floor, still tied hand and foot, Craig kicked out with the force of a mule. His feet struck Arnold's knee, the thief's leg gave out completely, and he fell hard. The gun skittered away, and Judi gave it a hard kick. It disappeared beneath a pile of junk.
"You'll pay for that." spat Arnold. He was struggling to get back to his feet, but his leg would not co-operate. "I'll break that pretty face of yours so that--"
"You'll just sit still and wait for the police." Sitting up straight, Craig offered Judi an encouraging smile. "That was nice work. Now I want you to find a phone that works. Go to another building if you have to. But call the police."
"If you do you'll be arrested too. You'll spend the next ten years in prison." Arnold was struggling desperately to rise, but was still incapable of it. Sharron, still tied to her chair, and now in rather an ungainly position beside the stricken Charles, shook her head.
"He's wrong, Judi."
"I don't think I care anymore." The girl came over, righting Sharron's chair. "I want to do the right thing, that's all. I never expected guns, and killing. Or-- The Mafia wouldn't want the police here, would they?"
"I was lying about that. I've lied to you a lot today, and I'm sorry." Craig looked her straight in the eye. "But I'm being honest now. I'm going to help you, like you just helped us. You won't go to prison, Judi."
"I believe you." She looked very young, and very scared, but she nodded quickly, and hurried for the door. "Maybe I should find something to cut those ropes with before I leave you, though. I-- Oh, good heavens!"
"What?" Struggling up to his feet, Craig tried to see what had so startled her. When he saw what it was, he had to laugh. Sharron scooted over on her chair.
"What on Earth...? Oh." It was Richard, bedecked in stolen jewellery, with Margaret held in one hand, and a manila envelope in the other. He was eyeing the scene before him with a raised eyebrow.
"Having fun, are we?"
"Absolutely." Craig looked around with a cock-eyed smile. Well, he had been found in worse situations, he supposed. Much worse. "I was wondering when you'd turn up."
"I come bearing baubles, state secrets and a flower seller." Richard raised the other eyebrow. "Though a penknife might have been more use. Are you two quite comfortable?"
"Great, thanks." Sharron was caught by a sudden urge to laugh. "But if you don't mind..."
"Oh, right. I suppose we'd better get organised." Thrusting Margaret into an empty chair, Richard hauled Arnold upright, and did the same with him. Judi retrieved the gun for him, and he flashed her a gentle smile.
"Thanks. Now go and make that phonecall." His smile became a frown. "And... it's Judi, isn't it."
"Well, when you ask the police to come..." He grinned suddenly. "Be sure to ask them to bring a sharp knife."
"What's the word from Tremayne?" asked Sharron, as Richard slid into the seat opposite her, at the pub to which they had naturally gravitated. He took a sip from the pint that she had ordered for him, and leaned back in satisfaction.
"We're wanted in Geneva. It seems that a number of Greek fishermen have gone missing recently, and naturally enough Tremayne wants us to handle it."
"There's always something."
"Which is just the way we like it." He sipped the pint with obvious enjoyment. "Sorry to have slunk out on you earlier, but there was a car that needed returning to its owner, and I thought it best that the police not see it. How did things go down at the station?"
"How do you think." She smiled at him, clearly amused. "Jeffrey Arnold was trying to insist that Craig should be arrested for breaking his leg, although it turns out that it wasn't broken at all. The police thought it was very funny. They're delighted with us. All that recovered loot, plus Judi retracting her statement from earlier, should give them enough to put that little gang away for a long time. Judi was very brave."
"They're going easy on her?"
"I think they must be." She pointed towards the bar, where Craig and Judi were standing together. The girl had a little colour back in her face, but she still looked subdued. "The police were willing to overlook her lying to them, especially with us speaking up for her. She did help us out in the end, after all. The only real crime that she committed was drugging Craig, and he doesn't seem to hold that against her."
"I wonder why."
"Well, she does have a nice smile." Sharron seemed filled with sympathy for Judi. "She was obviously terrified of Arnold. That's the only reason she did what she did."
"She certainly doesn't seem like a bad kid." Richard returned his attention to his pint. "And you seemed to think that Arnold was good at playing the charmer. It must have been easy for him to draw her in to begin with."
"Exactly. He's very good at pretending to be all warm and friendly. I can just imagine him seducing her, and then suddenly changing. She would have been too afraid to leave him, and too afraid to refuse to give him that alibi. No wonder Craig said that she seemed so upset before."
"Yes. Well let's hope that he's been able to get over his attack of guilt. I can't see Tremayne being too happy if we head over to Europe with her in tow. She's very sweet, but I don't really want a team mascot."
"Craig is just trying to help her out, that's all." Sharron glanced over at the pair again, as they began to head towards the table. "Be nice."
"I'm always nice." He stood up as they came, offering Judi the most gracious of smiles. "Hello again. I'm glad to see that the police didn't hold you."
"That's mostly down to Craig and Sharron." She was blushing slightly. "I should probably still be there. I lied to the police, and I helped--"
"Hey. We talked all that through, okay?" Craig gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Nothing bad happened, and you came through in the end. Just because some guy frightens you into lying to the police is no reason for you to go to prison."
"Thank you." She drew in a deep breath, fighting back a renewal of tears. "Well, anyway. I wanted to say goodbye to all three of you. I... I still have no idea who you are really, but you've been wonderful. Thank you."
"All part of the service." Richard offered her his seat, but she shook his head.
"Thank you, but no. I should be going. I've decided that I'm going back to my mother's for a while. I called her from the police station, and told her everything, and I've just had the publican ring for a taxi. It'll be here in just a moment, and I should wait for it outside."
"That sounds like a fine idea, Judi. Go back home and take a breather." Sharron smiled warmly at the girl, and Judi nodded.
"I shall need it. The trial won't be easy. I shall have to give evidence of course. Will... any of you...?"
"No. We were mixed up in this for a reason. The thefts and the rest of it don't concern us. And besides we've been called for debriefing on another mission." Richard shrugged. "No rest for the wicked. We're always on the go."
"It sounds exciting." She managed another smile, then touched Craig's hand and walked away. Their last sight of her was as she walked out of the door, squaring her shoulders and lifting her head with new determination. Sharron offered Craig a gentle smile.
"She'll be okay."
"Yeah, I think she will." He sat down, obviously preoccupied. Neither of his companions needed to ask how he felt, for they could feel something of his mixed emotions for themselves. "So, we're heading back to Europe, then?"
"Like I said, no rest for the wicked." There was another pint on the table, and Richard pushed it across to his friend. "Drink up. You know Tremayne. If we're not on the next plane, he'll want to know the reason why."
"Is the next job anything exciting?"
"All I know is that it involves Greek fishermen. Which definitely sounds to me like a good step up from London florists." Richard raised his glass. "To the Mediterranean." For a moment he stared hard at the man opposite him. "She'll be okay, Craig."
"I know." He smiled suddenly, his eyes as bright as ever. "To the Mediterranean, then." His glass clinked first with Richard's, and then with Sharron's. "Maybe we should try to spin that mission out a little longer."
Richard laughed. "I'll drink to that."
"You two would drink to anything." A sudden sparkle showed in Sharron's eyes. "How long until the flight leaves, Richard? Did Tremayne say?"
"We shall have to leave for the airport in half an hour or so. Why?" He saw the direction of her gaze, and rolled his eyes. "Sharron..."
"Well why not? We were rudely interrupted the last time, after all. And we do have half an hour to kill."
"And you still want to prove that you're the superhuman darts champion of the world, I suppose." Richard shared a look with Craig, and they both smiled, then rose as one to their feet. "Alright, sweetheart. You're on."