Chapter 1: Unrescued
Gambit handed over the rifle, wishing desperately that Steed would come over the hill with the cavalry. Purdey was well-overdue for reporting in by now! But there was no sign of rescue – not yet.
"Sergeant," Colonel Miller nodded to his aide and the sergeant saluted. "See to him while I fetch her out."
"Right, sir." The sergeant turned on Gambit with a predatory expression and Gambit bit down hard on his impulse to go into a fighting stance. He held out his wrists instead, and let himself be tied, trying to take a crumb of comfort from the fact that his hands were tied in front of him and not behind.
It didn't take Miller five minutes to bring back Purdey. She'd been rattled, Gambit could tell, from her pallor and the lines around her mouth, but she had her head up defiantly as Miller led her out of the minefield, and there was fire in her eyes. "You okay?" she asked, when she got close enough, her eyes going just for a moment to the bindings on his wrists.
"Yeah. You?" he asked.
She nodded. "Nothing like a nice brisk run in the countryside."
He grinned. He couldn't help it. Nothing ever beat Purdey for long.
"Pleased with yourself, Major?" Colonel Miller said, an unkind smile curling his lips. "You shan't be for long. Insubordination, consorting with the enemy... A drumhead courtmartial won't give you long to concoct a defense."
"That's the trouble with you -- you don't think things through," Gambit drawled, with a confidence he didn't feel. "You just bull your way ahead and never mind the body count. You don't know anything about me. I could be an amateur horning in on your racket, or an envoy from a prospective employer, come to check out your operation. Or I could be your worst nightmare, a real professional. For all you know I've got fighter jets standing by, waiting for the signal to destroy your planes the moment they take off."
Miller glared at him, a muscle working in his jaw. Gambit smiled fiercely. "Mind you, if I were from an employer I wouldn't be taking back much of a favorable report. I could fight through any ten of this sorry lot in a row and still have enough to take you out, Miller. That is if you had the balls to take me on in an even match."
"An even match?"
"No guns, no knives. Just us. Not that you've got the guts. You're not a soldier, Miller, you're scum. I'll bet you lead from behind every time."
Miller laughed. "You'll not trick me into fighting you that way," he said. "My men know my quality."
Gambit looked around at the grim audience, several of whom were looking at Miller with uncertainty. "Do they?" he said. "I'll even add some spice to the pot. If you, or any of your ten best men beat me, fair and square, one on one, I'll tell you what you want to know."
"Gambit!" Purdey protested.
He waved her quiet. "What do you say, Miller?"
"It would hardly be a fair fight," Miller pointed out. "None of us could fight to kill – not if we wanted you to talk afterwards. You'd have no such restraint."
Gambit did look at Purdey then, for a long moment, before turning back to Miller. "If I killed one of you the deal would be off, wouldn't it? But if you'll guarantee you'll leave her unharmed, locked up but safe, when you go, then I'll promise you I'll only fight to submission or knockout."
Miller's single eye gleamed. "Done."
The soldiers formed a loose ring in the center of the parade ground. To Purdey's surprise one of them brought her a chair to sit on, but the comfort was tempered by the feel of the knife the sergeant-major rested on her shoulder as a warning to Gambit.
Gambit – allowed to come on his own, even if he was escorted by half a dozen men – came over to her while Miller was still arranging things to his satisfaction. "Very nice. Best seat in the house." he observed nonchalantly.
"This is stupid, Mike," she answered in a low voice. "Eleven of them?"
"Not all at once. I didn't manage to ride to your rescue on a gallant white steed," he said, "not in time anyway. Still, someone's got to teach Miller a lesson."
Time. Steed. She'd figured that much out – that Gambit was playing a delaying game. He hadn't done that well against the three he'd run into earlier, but she supposed it would be different fighting one at a time.
She sighed, wishing she'd been cast into a more active role than the girl who needed rescuing. The princess parts were boring, even in a play like this one. And she wasn't looking forward to being in the audience while Gambit played noble hero. But what else could they do against an entire army, except dance the dance as best they knew how? "I don't suppose they'll let you kiss me before they rearrange your face," she said, willing to play the role if it meant a few more moments of delay.
Something she hadn't expected flashed in Gambit's eyes at the question, and she found herself holding her breath as he looked to the sergeant for permission. The soldier blinked and then stepped back a pace. Still close enough to hear, still close enough to prevent an escape, but allowing the kiss. Purdey turned up her chin to meet Gambit's lips and closed her eyes against tears she had no intention of shedding. Gambit, given the license, took full advantage of it, and the kiss left her thoroughly warmed and breathing hard. She stared at him as he stepped back, wondering why she hadn't tried that one before. "Don't get killed," she ordered. "That was just practicing."
The nearest soldiers laughed, and she felt some of the tide of opinion switching over to Gambit's side. Better still she saw the cockiness return to his smile as he nodded to acknowledge her command.
"Major Gambit." Miller had finished his preparations. "Are you ready to begin?"
Gambit glanced over at the Colonel and shook his head, pausing to pull off the heavy sweater. "I'll give you this one for free," he said insolently. "Navy, not Army." He tossed the sweater to Purdey's feet and sauntered into the center of the circle of men. "Whenever you work up your nerve, then."
"Abernathy," Miller snapped, and one of the NCOs saluted.
"Take him down."
The soldier moved out toward Gambit, who waited, balanced on the balls of his feet, but motionless until his opponent took the first swing. He dodged, just by swivelling to one side, and caught the passing fist as the soldier began to draw back. In a moment Gambit had Abernathy on the ground, his arm drawn up behind his back and his face white with pain. He said something softly, but Abernathy had had enough, "Just let go!" he cried. "I concede!"
Gambit caught him by the collar and put him back on his feet, still chary, but Abernathy was too busy trying to see if his arm would work to try anything stupid. "Ice packs in your armpit," Gambit advised in a friendly way, "and heat on the shoulder. And don't lift anything heavy for a day or two."
Well, that didn't buy us very much time, Purdey thought, but as Abernathy offered Gambit a salute she realized that it had bought something else. The men of the 19th had lost a little confidence – they were watching Gambit with wariness as he saluted Abernathy back and waited while his erstwhile opponent made his way back to the ranks – but there was something like respect in their eyes as well.
Miller was icily furious. "Cornwall!" he shouted.
The bulky corporal who answered to the call was more cautious than Abernathy had been, for all the good it did him. Purdey could have told him that attacking Gambit from the front wasn't going to work. And trying to kick him in the balls would only make him mad. Gambit caught the offending foot and tucked it up under his own arm, advancing so that Cornwall had to hop backwards on his remaining foot to stay upright. That lasted until he tripped on a tussock and Gambit followed him down, twisting around the captured leg so that Cornwall had to flip onto his stomach to avoid having it broken. This time Purdey could hear Gambit's offer: unconsciousness or submission; and Cornwall must have chosen the former because Gambit karate chopped him neatly in the neck.
Having disposed of his second opponent, Gambit got to his feet and nodded to Miller. "He'll be awake in an hour or so, Colonel, but you'd best have him taken to the dispensary now so he won't get stepped on."
"He's a commando," Miller growled. "We have simpler methods of dealing with failure. Forrester," he jerked his head at one of the men nearby who picked up a bucket by his feet and went out to douse the unconscious man.
Gambit stood clear of the deluge. "He'll still need to ice the leg," he warned Forrester as the new man bent to pull Cornwall to unsteady feet. It was Gambit who offered the salute first this time, and Cornwall answered it automatically.
"Navy or not," someone muttered near Purdey. "He's a professional."
"Yeah," came the quiet answer. "Hope I'm not next."
"Sir!" the sergeant-major standing over Purdey called to Miller. "I believe Private Davidson would like a go."
Purdey looked off to her left and saw a red-headed youngster flinching even as he straightened to attention. From the surprise on Miller's face she doubted that Davidson had much of a reputation as a hand-to-hand fighter, but the boy took the inevitable order to attack Gambit with as much grace as he could.
Gambit must have assessed the situation, because he dealt with Davidson differently than he had the first two, more like a sensei in a dojo than anything else. He talked the youngster through the bout, advising him to keep his guard up, and critiquing the way he tried to strike. It was a lot more work to do things this way, Purdey realized, seeing the dark patches of sweat beginning to appear on Gambit's shirt, but it ate up a lot of time. Davidson evidently forgot what he was about, because he conceded the fight when Gambit only had him in a potentially dangerous hold, much as he would have done in a training bout, and Gambit released him unharmed.
Again, they exchanged salutes. "Good bout. Try back in a couple of years and you'll really make me work for it," Gambit told him with a grin, and Davidson returned to the ranks looking almost pleased with himself.
Miller wasn't happy.
"Goyle," he growled.
Goyle was an entirely different case from Davidson, an apparent Neanderthal with arms longer than the average and a way of moving that bespoke a lot of experience with the martial arts. He was also a cheater, Purdey realized, seeing the flash of metal in his hand as he charged Gambit.
"Knife!" She called the warning, but she wasn't the only one, and she saw the disbelief and disappointment on several faces when Colonel Miller failed to reprimand Goyle for the illicit weapon.
Gambit was forced to move around the fighting area while he avoided being skewered and tried to find a way through Goyle's defenses. He was starting to tire, too, Purdey realized, though she hoped that none of the rest of them could tell. He managed to kick the knife away eventually, but that left him open to a series of hits from Goyle, and it was only by rolling aside that he was able to break free.
He came up with grass and dirt clinging to his clothes and the bright stain of blood showing on one sleeve. That didn't worry Purdey nearly as much as the way he was pressing one hand against his side, and she remembered belatedly that he had already taken one beating today. Goyle seemed to take Gambit's posture as a sign of weakness and moved in for the coup de grace, but that was a mistake. Gambit brought up a hard knee and Goyle went down, unconscious even as he crumpled.
Gambit stood back, catching his breath and looking to Purdey before he turned to Miller. "Another candidate for pneumonia," he rasped. "Or have you run out of water?"
Miller strode forward, but only far enough to retrieve Goyle's knife. "Forrester, Rand, fetch Goyle out. He's under arrest."
Gambit waited, winding a handkerchief around the injured arm while Miller read his men a short lecture about dishonor being met with dishonor. Purdey could see several discontented faces though. If Miller had meant it, she thought, he would have called Goyle back before he'd ever reached Gambit. Still, the interlude gave Gambit a chance to rest, and that was something. And Miller ended his rant by offering his prisoner a chance to call off the deal.
"Not unless you mean to fight me now," Gambit said. "But I'll take a canteen of water, if you can see your way to it."
Miller hesitated for a moment. "What, and let you prove an idle boaster?" he answered. "Ten of my best, you said. That was only four." He looked around at the men, sensing their mixed feelings. "But of course you may have the water. Davidson, fetch him a canteen."
"Yes, sir!" Davidson snapped off a salute and vanished back through the ranks towards the barracks.
"And in the meantime?" Miller said, with a short, mad smile. "Harrison!"
The colonel strode back to his place by the sidelines while a wiry corporal came out to meet Gambit. He stopped a respectful distance back and nodded to Gambit's makeshift bandage. "Shouldn't that be tied off first, sir?"
Gambit raised a surprised eyebrow, but he answered, "Yes," and came over to Purdey, deliberately allowing himself to be back-first to Harrison as a sign of confidence in the man's honor. "Would you mind, Purdey?" he said, holding out the arm.
She made a neat knot, tucking the ends under the bandage so they wouldn't flap around. "Better?"
"Yes, thank you." He turned and went back out to where Harrison was waiting, and they each gave the other the formal bows of the dojo before stepping forward into the battle crouches of true black belts.
Harrison was really good, Purdey had to concede. And he wasn't tired, which was definitely giving him the edge over Gambit in the flashing interchanges of blows and blocks. She was tired, though, tired of being limited to spectator. She hated sitting by and watching any friend take a beating, and it was worse somehow when it was Gambit's own fault for volunteering to get pounded into mincemeat. Because that's what was going to happen if Steed didn't turn up soon. If only she hadn't got herself stuck in that minefield! They'd have got clear otherwise.
Gambit and Harrison went down in a tangle at Purdey's end of the circle and for a moment she thought that Gambit had lost, but then somehow he found enough leverage to reverse the situation and get Harrison into a scissors lock. "Ready to quit?" he asked between harsh breaths.
"No." Harrison squirmed, but Gambit just applied a little more pressure and the corporal went very still. Purdey wondered what was about to break.
"Come on," Gambit growled after a minute, having got more of his wind back in the meantime. "You don't deserve to get a bucket of water over the head."
"Why are you doing this?" Harrison asked. Purdey had to listen hard to hear them, but she wasn't the only one listening hard, and Gambit's answer came back low, but audible.
"Because I want to be able to spend the money I've got," Gambit said. "And if you lot go off to the Middle East and start World War 3 I won't have much chance, will I?" He shifted his grip a little again and Harrison went white. "Come on, concede."
Harrison swallowed hard, but called out, "I concede," loudly enough to be certain he was heard across the way where Miller was standing. Gambit released him immediately and the two of them got upright somehow without having to help each other. Purdey saw Gambit wince as he returned Harrison's salute, and he was favoring his left leg as he went back out to the center of the ring, but it was Harrison's reaction she was really interested in. He was quiet and thoughtful, watching Miller with worried eyes as the colonel waited for Davidson to finish his errand.
Gambit accepted the canteen with thanks and took a long drink before he closed it and handed it back to the private. "Have Purdey hold it, please," he said. "I shouldn't want anyone to bang his knuckles on it if I hung it on my belt."
Things weren't going the way Miller had envisioned, Purdey knew. He'd never expected Gambit to stay on his feet this long, and he certainly hadn't expected his men to treat the "spies" with anything more than disdain. But the chuckle that ran through the watching crowd told her that Gambit had won not only their respect, but a degree of liking as well. They were beginning to root for Gambit… at least for him to win through to his chance to fight Miller one-on-one… and Miller was having a hard time choosing who to send out as his next champion. An unscrupulous fighter would do more damage to Gambit, but would cost Miller respect as well.
She took the canteen that Davidson offered to her, smiling up at him. "Thank you, Private Davidson," she said, knowing that graciousness would make it seem that she was more of a guest than a prisoner.
"Don't worry, miss," Davidson blurted out. "The Colonel won't let him be killed."
Not until he talks anyway, Purdey thought, but she only nodded, smiling.
Miller had made up his mind. "Private Saunders."
The show would go on.
Saunders had come and gone, having got in a lucky punch that had left Gambit with one eye swelling shut before he was knocked cold. His successor had done more damage, mostly to Gambit's already bruised torso,and only a lucky blow with an elbow had bought Gambit the victory. To her surprise, the eighth man, an older sergeant who had been in quiet colloquy with Harrison before he was called to the field, spent half his time talking to Gambit, using a low growl that didn't carry well to the listeners. He seemed to be taunting Gambit, telling him what would happen to him, but Purdey noticed that Gambit was countering each maneuver, and when the sergeant finally went down to a karate chop Gambit was left in almost better shape than he'd been at the start of the round.
Which wasn't to say that he was in good shape. He stumbled over to her and took the canteen she offered, drinking without wasting time on talk. His hands were raw and bruised, and the sweat was pouring off of him, in spite of the brush of the cool breeze. If she'd thought she could touch him without hurting him she would have. "That's eight, Mike."
"Is it?" he said. "I'd lost count."
"Two more to go."
"Three. I still have to pound some sense into Miller." He touched the swelling near his eye. "More of a fair fight this way, I suppose."
"I suppose." She took back the canteen. "No point in telling you to be careful, then?"
"No, love," he answered. "No point at all."
She managed to keep from snorting at the endearment, but she couldn't help cocking an eyebrow and glaring. It was all very fine and well putting on an act for Miller's men, but at this rate Gambit would be patting her on the head next.
But instead of that he swept her an elaborate bow. "Doth my lady wish to tie her handkerchief 'round my joust?" he asked impishly.
"In your dreams, Mike Gambit," she retorted instinctively, grinning up at him.
But Gambit had the oddest look on his face – a smile that might have been more suited to some quiet evening playing Scrabble than this peculiar performance, and a look in the undamaged eye that she suspected was for her alone. "Shame," he said softly. "It's about the only bit of me that doesn't hurt."
Purdey felt her performance cracking. "This is ridiculous," she said suddenly. "Can't you just..."
But Gambit silenced her with a touch of cold fingertips to her lips. "Trust me. There isn't any way out but through."
She nodded, not trusting herself. If she spoke now it would be impossible to keep from saying something about Steed coming to the rescue, although she was beginning to wonder if he would. And if he didn't come... Purdey wrapped her arms tighter around the icy realization that had settled into her stomach. Gambit hadn't bargained for his own freedom if he won. Only for her safety.
"Mike Gambit," she whispered at his back as he walked back to the center of the battleground. "You're an idiot. A chivalrous idiot, but an idiot all the same."
Miller had begun to unravel. He was bouncing on the balls of his feet and muttering, with none of the manic glee that had characterized him before. His glare was travelling over the collected troops, seeking something that he wasn't finding, to judge by the deepening frown.
"What's the matter, Colonel?" Purdey drawled. "Run out of cannon fodder?" She hoped he had. Gambit might stand a chance fighting him now, and heaven only knew whether he'd still be on his feet at all after two more fights.
Miller transferred the glare to her, and suddenly smiled. "Sergeant-Major!"
"Sir!" Her guardian came to attention.
"Make him talk."
She could feel the hesitation, but then the knife was taken from her shoulder. "Yes, sir!"
Purdey wondered what it could mean. As far as she'd been able to tell, the Sergeant-Major was Miller's most devoted follower. And he topped Gambit by at least a head. There'd be no sympathy from this one, she realized, only now realizing what she'd seen the last man doing. She bit her lip and watched.
A few yards away from Gambit the Sergeant-Major broke into a run and flung himself forward in a tackle around Gambit's ankles. It worked, in spite of Gambit's attempt to dodge, and he went down on his back, bringing his arms up to protect his middle as the Sergeant-Major scrambled forward and applied a hard blow to Gambit's knee.
For the first time in all the fights Gambit cried out, a shout of pure pain that had Purdey on her feet before she realized it. Hands caught her before she could go forward, but didn't force her back into the chair. The Sergeant-Major pressed his advantage, using one hand to pin Gambit to the ground while he readied the other fist. "Talk!" he ordered Gambit. "Talk!"
Gambit spit in his eye. It didn't stop the Sergeant-Major from punching him, but it prevented him from seeing the blow that Gambit had readied – a clout across the ear that owed a lot more to the street-fights of small boys than it did to any karate dojo. That, along with a twist of his body knocked the Sergeant-Major enough to one side that Gambit was able to roll out from under and somehow come mostly upright. But he was bleeding from the mouth now, and his expression was dazed – Purdey knew that it would take a miracle for him to win this time.
Steed leaned forward in the bubble of the helicopter cockpit, studying the situation as Prentice maneuvered past the rows of barracks. They'd finally spotted most of Miller's men, gathered in the center of the parade ground, but so far there'd been no sign of Gambit or Purdey. Gambit definitely had cause for still being out of contact, he'd hardly have settled into his cover in a scant twelve hours, but Purdey was well and truly late reporting in, and given what she'd said about Miller pursuing an injured man across the artillery range, Steed felt he had good reason to be concerned.
As the helicopter neared the cluster of men Steed thought that it looked like nothing more than a gang of boys egging on a fight. A flash of red and a glimpse of blonde hair told him that Purdey was standing in amidst the forest of combat fatigues and berets, but like the others, she was focussed on whatever was going on in the open space at the center of the group. "Right over their heads," Steed ordered the pilot. "Right in the middle of that circle." Miller had to be there.
Prentice took him at his word, bringing the chopper in so low that it was only at the last moment that Steed caught a glimpse of the two men who had been battling for the amusement of the others. The shorter one had to be Gambit, though speed and angle and blood made it hard to be certain. And there, identifiable by the eyepatch even in this small sea of faces, there was Miller. Steed raised the microphone as the chopper hovered over Gambit. "Colonel Miller, we have you surrounded," Steed said, in his best no-sane-person-could-possibly-think-of-disregarding-such-a-gentleman voice. "Order your men to stand down. An armored division is coming in to collect you."
Unfortunately, it appeared that Miller wasn't sane. He snatched a pistol from the holster on his hip and aimed it at the helicopter. Prentice veered up and the bullet missed both him and Steed, but as Steed looked down through the cracked Plexiglas he saw Miller lowering the pistol to take a shot at a less mobile target.
Gambit went down, and the man he'd been fighting as well, even though one of Miller's own men had tried to knock his commander's arm up as he fired. In spite of the spin of the chopper, Steed could see Purdey dashing across the intervening yards. A few well-placed kicks and she had Miller on the ground, disarmed and probably unconscious.
"Stand down!" Steed ordered again, through the bullhorn. "Go to your barracks and wait. On the double!" He was a little surprised to hear the officer's rasp he'd thought he'd left behind after the war, but the tone obviously worked. About half of the soldiers below him turned obediently and started to walk back to quarters. Of the others, some panicked and took off in other directions and some drifted to the edge of the field to wait upon events. That left a bare dozen arguing over Miller's unconscious body and a handful turning with Purdey to deal with the two who had gone down under Miller's fire.
Steed checked the road leading into the compound as the pilot brought the helicopter level again, hovering much higher than they'd been before, and saw the incoming tanks and trucks of Elroyd Foster's division, coming to back up his hunch about Miller's activities. Foster's men would take control, no doubt, but with Purdey and Gambit still on the ground, Steed was worried that someone might think to use them as hostages.
"Take me lower," he told Prentice. He needed to see faces in order to assess the situation, not just worried blobs.
"Take you lower?" Prentice repeated incredulously. "And have them take more potshots at us?"
Steed raised an eyebrow and Prentice, grumbling, began to obey.
Purdey shoved the Sergeant-Major off Gambit, noticing with a part of her mind that the burly soldier was still losing blood from a hole in his neck. It didn't matter. The question she wanted answered was whether or not Gambit was alive.
He was. There was a long thin wound on the side of his head, probably from the same bullet that had hit the Sergeant-Major. He was bleeding steadily and he was unconscious, but he was breathing and for the moment that was all she cared about. She turned him onto his back, letting his head rest in her lap as she loosened his collar and tried to make him more comfortable.
"Purdey?" Steed's amplified voice sounded worried. She looked up at the helicopter and wondered how to convey that Gambit was alive, but most definitely not all right. "Should I send for a doctor?" Steed asked, and she nodded vigorously and then bent back to Gambit.
Gambit's eyelids were fluttering and as she wiped the blood off his forehead the unswollen eye opened and blinked at her.
"How do you feel?" she asked.
"M' head hurts," he mumbled. There was so much blood it was hard to tell, but she thought his mouth was still bleeding too. "Where're we?"
"Still at the 19th Commando," she said, but the intelligence didn't seem to do much for him. "Do you remember?"
"No," he admitted. "Feels li' I g' hit by a car..."
"Do you remember who I am?" she asked, beginning to be worried.
He blinked at her for a moment but didn't answer.
Purdey frowned. "Do you remember who you are?"
His eyes closed again. "Mike. I'm Mike. Gambit. Eng'neer firs' class, Endeavor, out of Bournem'th."
Uh-oh. Concussion, at the very least. "Not lately. Come on, Mike. We work with John Steed. Remember?"
"He sent us to find General Stevens. You had those films from Travis. Remember." It was less of a question now, and more of a command, but she wasn't sure how much good it was doing.
"So that's why you're here," a low voice said and she looked up again to find Harrison standing beside a young soldier in a lab coat. "You came to find the General. Did he even mean it about World War 3?"
"He meant it," Purdey said, remembering the fear in Gambit's voice as she'd listened through the armory door. "I don't know the details. Something about Miller not being a political animal."
Harrison nodded. "That and 500 camel saddles." He dragged the other soldier forward. "Babcock is a medic. He's good at bullet wounds and bruises and broken bones."
She nodded permission for the man to try to help her, and he knelt alongside, opening a first aid kit. But she was still watching Harrison. "Why?" she asked.
Harrison straightened to a more formal pose. "For the honor of the regiment, Miss. I've been here longer than Miller has."
Gambit was getting agitated. He batted away Babcock's hands and tried to sit up. "Miller... G't t' figh' Miller."
"You can't fight Miller," Purdey said with asperity, holding him back, even while she thanked whatever gods might be listening that he'd remembered that much at least. "You're hurt and he's unconscious."
If Gambit heard her it made no difference. He started to struggle. Figuring that he'd hurt himself - and anyone trying to hold him - she let him attempt to get up, hoping she'd be able to catch him when his knee refused to hold weight. To her surprise he managed it, although he was definitely lopsided. "Wh're's Miller?" He peered dazedly around.
"Oh for heaven's sake." She put one of Gambit's arms across her shoulders and made like a crutch as she turned him in the right direction. "He's there, on the ground, unconscious. See?"
Gambit looked for a long moment. "D'I do that?"
"No, I did. He was cheating." She glared up at him as best she could from her awkward position. "Dammit, Gambit, don't you even know that you've been shot?"
"Shot?" Gambit looked down at her, seemed to see her for the first time. "Oh," he said, and fainted.
"Blast," Steed said, watching Purdey and Gambit go down in a tangle. "We'll have to fetch them out."
"We land this helicopter before Foster's division takes control and it's bound to be hijacked," Prentice pointed out. "That's not going to do anyone any good."
"We wait until someone on the ground decides that Gambit and Purdey will make good hostages and Foster's going to hesitate. She's his niece."
Prentice had missed that, somehow. "Oh. In that case..." He buzzed the field, forcing several of the soldiers to move back or duck to the ground. "Hope you can move fast."
Steed was already unbuckling his safety belt. "I'll do my best." The moment the helicopter touched the ground he got out and dashed to Purdey. One of the soldiers was crouched beside her and Gambit, but when Steed might have tried to chase him off, Purdey shook her head, and in the end it was three of them manhandling Gambit as Prentice hovered the helicopter a few feet off the ground and right next to them. Steed supported Gambit's weight while the soldier boosted Purdey into chopper, and then she pulled from above as the two of them lifted the unconscious man onto the floorboards. Steed put a foot onto the landing skid and grabbed for a handhold, turning to offer a hand to the soldier, who took it and got a grip of his own as Prentice gained altitude to avoid the approach of half a dozen less amicably-inclined men.
It took some effort to clamber inside with Prentice maneuvering to avoid a burst of gunfire from below, particularly since Steed was trying to avoid stepping on Gambit. At last he managed it, though, and settled into the co-pilot's seat, leaving Purdey and their unexpected ally to find ways to strap themselves and Gambit in against sudden changes in direction.
"Where to?" Prentice asked, over the engine roar.
"That little hospital we visited yesterday for now," Steed decided. It was only a few minutes away by air. Dr. Peterson had impressed Steed as a competent sort, spotting that tropical fever and all, and he didn't like to waste unnecessary time with Gambit bleeding.
"Right," Prentice said, and headed out over the trees.
Dr. Peterson had only two questions: "What's his name?" and "Who do we call for his medical records?" Steed made a mental note to find out whether or not he'd be interested in filling the vacancy left by James Kendrick's retirement the month before. It took a certain amount of sangfroid to deal with the things the department was likely to throw in a doctor's path. But Peterson was certainly on-the-ball. He and his assistants had Gambit on a stretcher and back into the hospital before the helicopter's vanes had quite stopped turning, leaving Steed and Purdey and the two soldiers to follow.
Prentice was eyeing the commando uncertainly. "Who's this then?" he asked.
"Corporal Harrison helped us," Purdey said, as she reached a hand out to clutch Steed's elbow and tug him after the stretcher. "And he can disappear into the wide world for all I care, now that Miller's been stopped."
"I'd like to ask him a question or two first," Steed said, standing his ground and giving the man a smile of gratitude. "If he doesn't mind?"
"I don't mind, sir," Harrison answered, stiffly. "I didn't expect nothing else."
"Then I think we'll be able to work something out." Steed said.
"I'll just go back and see how Colonel Foster's doing, then, shall I?" Prentice said, climbing back into the helicopter with the air of a man who didn't want to be officially aware of what might happen next.
"Hold fire a moment..." Steed retrieved the bottle of bubbly and the glasses he'd stowed in the chopper out of sheer optimism and dumped them into Harrison's arms. "Thank you, Prentice. I'll call later." He waved the Corporal toward the hospital doors and patted Purdey's hand as he allowed her to drag him after Gambit. He did want to get Purdey inside -- he wasn't entirely certain that all of the blood on her outfit wasn't hers, she looked a bit peaky to him. She wasn't moving as if she were in pain, though that didn't mean much if she still had as much adrenalin in her system as he did in his own. But rushing wouldn't make that much difference now, and a cheerful, confident facade would keep Harrison in the right frame of mind.
Chapter 2: Unremembered
It wasn't like waiting in a London hospital. Here, the nights were so quiet you could hear the frogs discussing amphibian romances somewhere beyond the bedraggled willows outside the window, and every car that passed on the lane was an event. It wasn't that the nurses had nothing to do -- there were other patients down in the ward -- but in this private room Purdey was barely aware of the rhythms of the hospital unless one of them stepped in to take Gambit's temperature, or give him an injection.
It wasn't that the nurses were neglecting him, Purdey knew. If he weren't sequestered off here to keep some unauthorized person might hear him muttering secrets he'd probably have all the feminine attention he could hope for. But since someone from the Ministry had to keep an eye on him anyway, she'd volunteered for a good bit of the schedule. A chance to catch up on her crosswords between Gambit's intermittent forays into consciousness, she'd told Steed, and keep her head down for a while since Uncle Elly had gone and blabbed about the whole thing to her mum.
"Excuse me, miss." The voice from the bed was so hesitant that for a moment she thought she'd imagined it. But no, his head had turned on the pillow to face her. "Could I have a drink of water?"
"Of course," she said, getting out of the chair and coming over to stand by his bed. She poured some water into the glass from the pitcher and found a straw so that he could drink without shifting position while she held the glass. After a couple of sips he sighed and pushed the straw away, and she turned to put the glass onto the side table, expecting him to fall asleep again, the way he had done each of the other times he'd roused.
But when she turned back his eyes were open and he was still watching her, blinking now and then, but with no sign that he was going to fall back into dreaming.
"Do you know where you are?" she asked, wondering if this time he'd finally slept himself out.
"Hospital somewhere, I s'pose." He smiled a bit crookedly. "I got the cr... got the stuffing kicked out of me again, didn't I?"
"Something like that." She couldn't help but hope he'd remember himself now. But how to find out, without asking straight out and agitating him? "You wouldn't know what day it is..." she said to herself, trying to think of a different question.
"Sunday?" he guessed, and when she shook her head, got a panicked light in his eye. "Monday? But I was due back aboard by midnight. Has anyone told the captain where I am?"
"The captain?" she asked, holding him back far too easily against the pillows. Well, that didn't go very well.
"Captain Rogers. He'll think I've gone AWOL." She'd never heard Gambit sound quite so frantic -- like a kid who was certain he'd landed in trouble. She'd never heard the Cockney quite so strong, either, unless he was exaggerating it for effect.
"I'm sure the nurses have notified anyone who needed to be notified," she temporised. "And I'll check myself, in a moment, but I wish I knew what you remember."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, it's actually Tuesday," she said. "Do you remember what day you got hurt? What date, I mean."
He had to think. "The fifth, I think."
"The fifth of..."
"April." He looked up at her with an uncertain smile, his eyebrows gathering worriedly. "It's not April, is it?"
She shook her head again and took up his hand, feeling sure now that something was desperately wrong, but hoping not to alarm him. Much. Memory gone or not, he was still quick on the uptake.
"Is it 1961, then?" he asked after a moment, biting his lower lip against her answer.
He closed his eyes, and if it hadn't been for the way he was hanging onto her hand she might have thought he hadn't heard her. At long last, in a very small voice, he asked. "Can I call my Gran?"
She bit her own lip, then. She didn't know much about Gambit's family, but she was afraid she knew the answer to that one. "I'm sorry... it's... she died, I think. Years ago."
His eyes flew open, bright with alarm. "Years ago? What year is it?"
There wasn't any way to cushion it. Not when he asked a direct question. "It's 1976."
"Seventy-six?" he repeated desperately, as if he were hoping she wouldn't confirm it. At her nod he started trembling. "But that's... that's impossible. Isn't it? I can't have lost fifteen years."
"You haven't lost them." She was quick to offer that reassurance. "Just misplaced them, temporarily."
"But if I've been in coma..."
"You haven't. Not for fifteen years. You've just forgotten. You ..." She hastily exchanged 'were shot' for something less frightening. "You have a head injury." She reached over to brush a fingertip along the swirl of bandages. "A little amnesia, that's all."
"I thought amnesia meant you couldn't remember who you are," he protested, tears coming easily to confused eyes. "I know who I am. I'm Mike Gambit. I am. I haven't forgotten."
"It will be okay," she said soothingly, doing the mental calculation. In 1961 Gambit couldn't have been more than eighteen. No wonder he was frightened! "I'm sure you'll remember the rest in time. You've only just woken up."
"I was in a coma then."
"You've only been unconscious for a few days," she tried to explain, but he'd pulled his hand out of hers and turned his face away on the pillow.
"Gran's dead," he said thickly, squeezing his eyes closed. "Please, miss... go away..."
"Just for a little. Please."
The note in his voice made her feel like crying herself, although she knew that part of that feeling was from lack of sleep. But the waters were too deep. Maybe the doctor would know the right things to say.
Steed was just finishing up the summary report on the 19th Commando operation and considering ruefully how easily he'd slipped into the habit of fobbing off the paperwork onto Gambit or Purdey. Still, something had to go in the files, if only to justify an occasional review of the supply chains leading to the most self-sufficient military units. Miller had been pushing his luck, but if it hadn't been for the coincidence that brought Travis's films and General Stephens's disappearance to Purdey's attention at the same time, he might have managed to create a crisis of global significance.
Instead, he's only managed to create a crisis of personal significance. Although, to be fair, "crisis" was hardly the right word. Gambit was in no danger of dying, if Dr. Peterson were to be believed, and Steed had no real doubts on that score. But head injuries were always tricky. More than one field agent had been forced into retirement -- or worse, a desk job -- by the long term consequences of a blow to the head.
Purdey wouldn't like it, that was certain. She was fonder of Gambit than she'd ever admitted, except that once, when she'd thought she'd been facing his murderous doppelganger and not the man himself. Although in a way she'd admitted it again, hadn't she, by her insistence on staying at the hospital nearly the clock-round? Steed found his gaze wandering in the direction of the telephone. It wasn't that late. Perhaps he could give her a call, just to see whether there'd been any more progress.
As if the thought had been a summons, the telephone began to ring. He picked up the receiver, knowing without question that Purdey was on the other end of the line. "Yes?"
"Steed." She didn't sound happy. "Can you find out where Gambit was on April 5th of 1961?"
Steed scribbled the date on the corner of the report. "I can," he said. "Why do I want to?"
"Because he's finally awake and that's the day he thinks he got hurt. He's scared, and I don't think it's just the amnesia. He decided to go out the window the moment I left him alone."
"With that knee?" Steed exclaimed, looking at the neat stack of civilian clothes he hadn't got round to taking over yet. "And wearing what? A hospital johnnie?"
"Yes. He didn't get far. We caught him up in the car park, and managed to talk him into taking something for the pain." Purdey snorted. "You should have heard what he had to say when he realized he'd been sedated. What was the Merchant Navy teaching young lads fifteen years ago?"
"How to swear like sailors," Steed answered with absentminded flippancy. Of all the problems he'd envisioned, partial amnesia hadn't entered in to it, and he was trying to consider the ramifications. "He doesn't remember anything after 1961? Are you certain?"
"As certain as I can be without asking him. Right now he's pretty loopy, but he's still furious with me for tricking him." She hesitated a moment and then added. "I've never seen him lose his temper like that. He took a swing at me. Missed, of course, but still..."
"Are you all right?" Steed asked.
"I'm okay," she answered, a bit too quickly. "He was already getting unsteady on his feet. Unsteadier, I mean. All he actually managed was to fall down and wrench his knee again. Dr. Peterson says he doesn't know how Gambit managed to walk in the first place."
"I think I'd best come over there," Steed decided. Some situations benefited from personal inspection and this was definitely among them. Besides, he could chase Purdey home for a decent dinner and a night's sleep. It sounded to him like she needed both. "Just let me make a call to Files, first."
***He found Purdey in the corridor outside of Gambit's room, deep in thought judging from the pencil she was tapping against her lower lip. The crossword lay untouched on her lap. But she pulled herself out of her reverie when she saw Steed.
"Well?" Steed asked, coming to stand by her chair.
"He's convinced we're trying to trick him, for some reason. Says we could have fixed up the newspaper and radio and television just to fool him and he won't be fooled, thank you." Purdey shrugged. "And when I showed him his own reflection in the mirror he decided that he was hallucinating because of the pain medications and declared that he wasn't going to listen any more. But Dr. Peterson's nearly as stubborn as he is." She grinned suddenly. "They're in there banging heads now."
"Other than the amnesia, how is he?" Steed asked.
"Not too bad, except for the knee, I think." She angled her head up to meet Steed's eyes. "Did you find out anything about 1961?"
"If I'm not mistaken, the fifth of April, 1961 was the third time Gambit nearly got himself killed." Steed said. "He was hit by a car -- spent most of a month in hospital."
"The third time?" she asked.
"He was one of three survivors of an engine room fire in December of the previous year while his ship was in Singapore, and was mixed up in some kind of scuffle in Egypt in March that saw him bailed out of the local jail by the ship's doctor with a stab wound to one leg," Steed told her. "I think it might be well worth our time to hunt out the original ship's records, if they still exist."
"Then it's not a coincidence that he thinks he's eighteen. He's remembering being hurt before." Purdey collected her newspaper and got to her feet, studying the door to Gambit's room thoughtfully.
"Yes." Steed nodded. "I'm not entirely certain that he could have had such an exciting year by coincidence either. He might have a very good reason to think he's being tricked."
Purdey bit her lip. "This isn't going to be easy, is it?"
Steed smiled. "Oh," he said. "It might be easier than you think. I've got the perfect bribe." He waggled the paper bag in his hand and Purdey gave him a quizzical look. "Trousers." he explained and pushed open the door.
Gambit was sulking when Steed went into the room and wouldn't even look at the new arrival. Purdey, who in Steed's experience never stayed discombobulated for very long, hid her smile behind her newspaper and propped herself against the windowsill. Steed watched for a moment as the doctor tried to elicit some useful information from the injured man's monosyllables, but it was clear that Gambit was not only uncooperative, but belligerent. Not that Steed blamed him, really, since someone had taken the precaution of tying both wrists to the bedrails with strips of bandage.
He stepped forward and nodded to the doctor. "Good evening, Dr. Peterson, Gambit," he said cheerfully.
The grey-blue eyes flickered towards him for a moment before fixing stubbornly on one bound wrist. "Who the fuck are you?" Gambit growled.
Steed hadn't expected anything better, but he admonished Gambit cheerfully anyway, "Language. There are ladies present."
Gambit flushed and hunched his shoulders, but he didn't apologize or answer. Steed rattled the paper bag on the bed as a distraction. "I'm the man who's brought you something to wear," he said, taking the pile of clothing out and depositing it on the bed to prove what he was saying was true.
Gambit blinked at the offering, clearly confused. His mouth worked for a moment, but it wasn't until Steed added the shoes to the stack that he found his voice. "Those aren't mine," he said, less certain than he wanted to be.
"Does it matter, so long as they fit?" Steed asked.
Now Gambit actually looked at him and Steed smiled, not letting his own uncertainties show through. Gambit still had the black eye, of course, and the bandage around his head, but even with those distractions it was plain that something was very wrong. He waited while Gambit thought his statement through, wondering how much of the uncharacteristic slowness was due to the sedatives and how much to the head injury. But slow or not, Gambit still came to some kind of conclusion. "Guess not. Doesn't matter, anyway, with me stuck in this f.. flaming bed till someone cuts me loose."
"How long that is will depend on you," Steed said. "If you'll give me your word of honor that you won't try to run off again, I'll do what I can to persuade Dr. Peterson."
Gambit looked away and shook his head, his lower lip quivering for a moment before he set his mouth in a stubborn line.
"I already tried that one," Purdey contributed quietly from the windowsill. "No dice."
Steed raised an eyebrow, looking from her to Gambit. "Then there must be a good reason," he deduced. "What is it? A promise you've already made?"
Gambit hunched his shoulders. "Doesn't matter, you're in on it with them anyway."
"Indeed I am," Steed agreed, startling Gambit into looking up at him for the second time in five minutes. "But I'm afraid you've mistaken the point of the conspiracy. We're trying to keep you from doing yourself more damage, not fool you into believing something that isn't true."
"But it can't be 1976," Gambit protested. "It can't!"
"It can and is," Steed said relentlessly. "And I'll prove it to you, once the doctor's given you leave to take a trip to London. I'll take you to any street you like, providing it still exists, to any shop, and you can buy a newspaper. Now, I might have arranged to distort the television and radio here, and printed up a fake paper, but you must admit that no one could possibly replace every newspaper in the City with a fake."
Gambit swallowed hard and tears sprang to his eyes. "But how long before I get leave to go?" he asked, nearly whining. "I'll be stuck in here forever."
"You'll be able to take a short excursion tomorrow afternoon if you cooperate now," Dr. Peterson said. "You've got to learn to use the crutches first, of course, and I'd be happier if you were under medical observation for the next few nights, but if it will keep you from being so agitated I'm all in favor of Steed's suggestion."
"Crutches?" Gambit tugged at his bonds, but less like he was trying to get free than as if he wanted a hand to be able to wipe at his eyes.
"Crutches," Peterson repeated firmly. "You keep putting weight on that knee and you'll be using a cane for the rest of your life."
"I don't know what to do," Gambit admitted, his face crumpling. He tried to bury his face in his shoulder, to hide the tears, but the sobs came anyway. Steed touched Peterson on the shoulder and shooed him out, sending Purdey along as well with a brief inclination of his head. They didn't argue, although Purdey hesitated for a long moment in the door before leaving Steed alone to cope with Gambit.
Steed had seen how fear and pain and medication could combine to leave a man in shatters before, far too often, and he knew that Gambit wouldn't cry for very long, if only because he didn't have the strength. Once the worst of the storm had passed, Steed produced a handkerchief and used it, wondering what Gambit would have to say about being ordered to blow his nose like a small child once he was himself again -- something pithy, no doubt. But the courtesy seemed to work, and Gambit emerged from the folds of linen watching Steed with something much closer to trust.
"I'll tell you what," Steed said. "Why don't you cooperate for twenty four hours -- mind your manners and do as the doctor says -- and if we haven't managed to convince you that we're telling the truth by then I'll drop you off in London, my word of honor as a gentleman."
"My ship's in Bournemouth," Gambit objected, hiccuping as he sagged back against the pillows. Even as clearly exhausted as he was, the core of stubbornness remained.
"Then I'll drop you at Waterloo Station," Steed said. "With train fare."
"Twenty four hours?" Gambit tugged at one wrist. "I wouldn't be able to tell. No watch."
Steed unbuckled his own watch and put it on one wrist below the bandages, which he tapped lightly once he'd done. "Come on now, a promise for twenty four hours. You shan't be able to sleep with your hands tied, unless the doctor drugs you much more heavily, and you don't want that, do you?"
"I don't even know your name." But the objection was softer now, as if the mention of sleep made Gambit all the wearier.
"It's Steed. John Steed." He considered throwing in something to eat as further incentive, although he thought that Gambit would fall asleep before ever he managed to consume it. But he'd already won the day.
"Okay," Gambit conceded, "I promise to be good. But only for twenty-four hours. After that..."
"After that you can do what you think is best."
Purdey let the door slip closed, certain that Steed had things well in hand. There was something infinitely reassuring about Steed -- she'd felt better the minute he'd turned up, and obviously he knew exactly the right tack to take with Gambit, even when the man was in this wretched state. She smiled at Dr. Peterson, who was waiting nearby. "It's all right. Steed's got him to promise to cooperate. For the next day, anyway."
Peterson nodded acknowledgement. "Excellent. Gives me a chance to go through my library for everything I can find about amnesia. I'd like to get another EEG strip to send to London as well. Neuropathology isn't really my field."
She cocked her head at him. "Do you think there's permanent damage then?" she asked.
"Well, it's difficult to tell with the pain medication masking possible symptoms," Peterson said. "But, on the whole, I'd say that he's displaying fewer problems than a man with a deleterious brain injury." He gave her a brief, professional smile. "Try not to borrow trouble, if you can. If I'd thought he was in real danger I'd have had him shipped to a neurosurgery ward days ago. Most of what I've seen so far tonight is fairly typical of anyone coming out of a sustained period of unconsciousness."
"Even the swearing?"
Peterson's smile became a little more genuine. "Especially the swearing."
"Well, that's something anyway." Purdey pushed open the door a crack and peeked again, but Steed had moved around to the near side of the bed and she couldn't see Gambit's face now. "I wonder if he's hungry." Now that her own stomach was beginning to unknot she'd become aware of how empty it was.
"He might be. There should be some rice pudding in the ward refrigerator -- would you mind fetching a bowl while I see if I can get some useful answers?"
"Rice pudding?" She pulled a face. "That ought to be popular." But she went to see if he were right, regardless.
Steed intercepted her as she returned with the offering. "Thank you, Purdey," he said, co-opting bowl and spoon.
"It's for Mike," she protested.
"And I'll see that he eats it -- or at least some of it," Steed replied, taking her by the shoulders with his free arm and steering her towards the outside door. "You, on the other hand, are going to go and find yourself a proper meal and then get a decent night's rest."
"No, I mean it," he said in the tone he rarely employed but was meant to be instantly obeyed. "Eat. Sleep." He suddenly grinned. "And be back here by noon tomorrow to help me charm Gambit out of the sullens."
She couldn't deny that she was hungry and tired, and it wouldn't do any good to try, but she wrinkled her nose at him anyway. "Like you need help with that from anyone," she snorted. "If you took up snake-charming you wouldn't even require a flute."
"Just as well, since I play the flute nearly as poorly as I play the violin." The automatic doors opened as they reached them and he bowed her out as if he were standing on his own doorstep.
But Purdey paused, a few feet away and looked back. "Steed," she said. "You will call me. If anything changes, I mean."
"Of course I will." She couldn't see much more than his silhouette, standing solid against the light from the corridor, but somehow that was enough. "Goodnight, Purdey," he said, fondly.
She took a deep breath, enjoying the sensation of letting the worries fall into Steed's capable hands. "Good night, Steed," she answered and turned to go to her car. Italian? she asked herself. Or curry? Or better yet, the first thing I find?!
Chapter 3: Uncertain
Purdey got back to the little hospital just in time to catch Gambit's crutches lesson, courtesy of the ward sister. The ward sister being young and pretty, this was good value, seeing as Gambit kept colouring up every time the girl took his arm in order to steer him straighter down the broad corridor. He hadn't recovered his memory in the night, Purdey deduced cheerfully. He'd have been trying to get her phone number otherwise.
He was dressed in his own clothes at least, and if the one trouser leg flapped open to accommodate the bandage at his knee, the rest looked right enough. Someone had tackled the three-day beard, too, which Purdey considered a bonus. It had reminded her uncomfortably of "Terry Walton". Without it the bruises showed more clearly, although even the black eye was fading into a glory of greenish purple. It was just something about the expression that was wrong, still -- a tentativeness that she'd never associated with the man.
Then again, I suppose if I had lost fifteen years I'd be feeling pretty tentative myself. She looked around for Steed and spotted him at the nurses' station, in colloquy with Dr. Peterson, as unrumpled and elegant as if he hadn't spent the night away from home. They had assorted pill bottles and papers spread out on the counter, so she forbore to interrupt them, not wanting to find herself entangled in details just yet, and went to see if she could help the ward sister with Gambit.
"Need any help with the stairs?" she asked as she drew alongside.
Gambit looked up from the crutch tips he'd been placing and had to hop on his good foot when one of them skidded sideways. Purdey caught one elbow while the ward sister caught the other and between them they made certain he didn't lose his balance.
His composure was a different matter.
"You again!" he exclaimed, gaping at her as if she were wearing nothing but woad. The temptation to tip his chin up and close his mouth was irresistible, so she did it, and was rewarded by a blush that swept up to the roots of his hair and left his ears glowing.
"Yes, me again," she said to the top of his head, Gambit having ducked it down to study his toes. "Didn't Steed tell you I was coming?"
Gambit shrugged briefly and mumbled, "I dunno. He might've. But I don't know what you're called, so..." He shrugged again, and fidgeted with the crutches.
"You call me Purdey," she said, wondering if he had decided yet if he were glad to see her or not, given how angry he'd been last night. "When you're not calling me other things." She couldn't help the acid note that slipped in at the memory of his fist coming toward her the night before. It had awakened other memories, and on the whole amnesia would have been preferable.
Gambit's jaw tightened on whatever he might have answered, and he recovered his elbows from the two women. "I've got to practice," he muttered, swinging the crutches forward again. Purdey ignored the scowl and walked alongside, determined not to let her equanimity slip again.
"Yes you do," she said lightly, and turned her attention on the ward sister. "Stairs and chairs still to go, right?"
"Yes, Miss," the ward sister agreed. "Have you had crutches before?"
"Twice," Purdey said. "I fell out of trees two summers running before my parents decided to keep me busy with dance classes."
"Are you a dancer, then?" The other woman asked, although her attention was really on Gambit.
"I was," Purdey answered, taking the cue. "Royal Ballet, believe it or not. But I was never much more than the last swan on the left."
"Really? No, don't swing out so far, you don't want your center of gravity too far from your supports... That's still very good. Did you like it?"
"It was great fun," Purdey said, falling in with the conversation easily, recognising that it was meant to give Gambit time to work his own way out of whatever foul mood had taken him. And he did. By the time they'd chatted about dance classes and nursing school and steered him up a short flight of steps and down again the scowl had vanished. When they went to practice getting safely in and out of chairs he had given up even pretending not to listen.
At last the ward sister settled him for in the chair the last time and went off to fetch his noon doses. Purdey flopped elegantly into the chair across the corridor and found that he was studying her. She gave him a grin. "Tired yet?"
He shook his head, and then smiled shyly. "Well, maybe a little. It's awkward like, not being able to use both feet."
"I remember." Purdey replied, glad to have some common ground to talk about. She stretched her own legs out and contemplated them thoughtfully. "Of course, the last time I had to use crutches I was six years old and I hadn't hurt my knee, so I could set them aside and crawl if I was in a hurry."
"You were only seven when you started dancing?" He asked, doubtfully.
So you were listening even then? "Yes. Well, ballet, anyway. I'd always danced with my father. But that was when I started formal lessons. And I was behind most of my classmates: they'd started at four." She'd never really talked about the early part of her life with Gambit, not that he'd ever asked. Come to think of it, she didn't know that much about his childhood either. And now was as good a time as any to enquire. Chances were good that at eighteen Gambit hadn't learned to play his cards quite so close to his chest.
"Didn’t you have to take lessons when you were small?" she asked, doing her best not to seem overeager. "Piano? Or tap?"
He shook his head. "Never any money for it. One of the lodgers taught me how to play pub piano, though, when I was ten."
"Six chords and remember not to hit the keyboard during any part of the song where you might need a seventh." He ducked his head to hide the grin that had almost made him look all right to her, but after a moment looked up again and might have said something more if the ward sister hadn't chosen that moment to return with her tray.
There was a bowl with a spoon, as well as the glass of water and assorted pills, and Gambit eyed it unhappily. "It isn't a proper lunch," admitted the ward sister, "but you've got to take some of these with food, and besides, you'll need the strength if you're to go to London this afternoon."
The expression of dismay turned stony, making Gambit suddenly seem his proper age. Purdey knew that look. He was either frightened or about to do battle. But whether it were the mention of London or the pile of pills he was faced with, she thought it best to distract him. She got up and wandered over to confirm the contents of the bowl. "What is the matter with Mary Jane, she isn't sick and she hasn't a pain..."
"And it's lovely rice pudding for dinner again," Gambit finished the quotation softly. He picked up a spoonful of the yellowish glop and let it trail back down into the bowl. Then he squared his shoulders and fished one of the pills out from the rest. "I'm not taking that one," he told the ward sister, polite but firm. "It makes it too hard to think."
"So does pain," the ward sister countered.
"I can manage." Battle then, although Purdey could hardly blame him. Mike had never been keen on meds, not when they left him more incapacitated than the pain did. And he wasn't swearing this time, which was a plus.
"There's always aspirin," she offered. And then added, because she couldn't help being curious about what he was thinking. "You can buy some when we get to town, if you're still sure you want to go."
He looked up sharply, his expression flickering from suspicion through a kind of bleak resignation to something that almost looked like a plea for understanding. "I have to get to London," he said. "I have to."
She put her hands in her pockets to keep herself from patting his shoulder. The eyes were so damned young looking, it was hard to not want to mother him, just a little. She glanced around for something else to focus on, settled on the two men at the counter. "Right. I'll go and let Steed know that you're almost ready to go then, shall I?"
Dr. Peterson would have liked to scotch the London trip on the grounds that Gambit's refusal to take the medication was proof that he wasn't cooperating, but Steed, who had a better idea of just how much endurance his colleague could display when he needed to, merely took the pill from Purdey and tucked it back into its bottle. "We'll see if we can't get it into him once he's seen the Post Office Tower," he said.
"And if that doesn't work?" Peterson growled. "Amnesiacs can be incredibly capricious. He might look at all the changes in London and still insist that it's 1961. If only his autobiographical memory is involved..."
Steed, who had spent part of the long night reading through the same stack of books as Dr. Peterson, only grinned. "He was born in London. Sooner or later, something is bound to convince him that we're telling the truth. And we're running out of time. I only asked for twenty four hours."
"Do you really think he could get out of here now that we'd be ready for him?" the doctor snapped.
"Yes," Steed and Purdey chorused. They exchanged swift smiles and Purdey went on. "And the more desperate he is to get away, the more likely he'll do someone bodily harm as he goes. I think he may already be half-convinced that it's 1976, but that doesn't matter to him nearly as much as getting to London does."
"I don't expect we'll know that until we get him to London." Steed hooked his brolly onto his arm and tapped his bowler into place. "No time like the present."
It might have been easier to simply lift Gambit into the back seat of Purdey's roadster, but it would have been a lot harder on his already fragile dignity. Just getting to the car park left him impatient of any assistance from doctor or nurse, and he clearly had no idea how to deal with Steed, now that the prospect of proving or disproving the date was nearer to hand. But with the passenger seat cranked back as far as it would go, Gambit could sit up front in the Jaguar, even though maneuvering his injured leg into the car left him pale.
He sat very still and straight, clutching the brown paper bag of personal effects that Dr. Peterson handed over through the window. "Officially," the doctor said, "you've been discharged for transfer to your own doctor's care. Unofficially, of course, I'd like to keep track of your progress. And we'll keep a bed open here for you if you need it tonight. The number on top is for the nurse's station, and the other one will reach my answering service if I'm not home. Reverse the charges, if necessary." Peterson frowned. "I don't know how I let myself be talked into sending you off without a nurse, but Steed's promised to see you right."
Gambit studied the information written onto the bag. "That's a lot of numbers," he said softly. Then he sighed and offered a hand. "I'm sorry I swore at you."
Peterson nodded as he accepted both handshake and apology. "Remember, any dizziness, fainting fits, numbness, or spots before your eyes and you're to go straight to the nearest hospital, especially if it all seems to be coming down one side. Now promise."
"Because any of those symptoms might mean that something's shaken loose inside your skull, and it needs to be dealt with as soon as possible," Peterson met the objection dryly. "And I've put too much work into you to lose you to a preventable complication."
"Oh, I see." Gambit shrank a little. He nodded jerkily. "I'll take care of myself if I need to. I promise."
That wasn't the promise Dr. Peterson had asked for, and judging by his eyebrows he knew it, but he didn't argue.
"If you can't reach us, you can always call Dr. Kendrick," Steed told Peterson as he waited for Purdey to clamber into the back seat from the driver's side. "His number's on the medical records you sent for."
"I'll do that," Peterson warned, and Steed smiled. It would serve Kendrick right for handing in his resignation before a replacement was in hand. Still, the department had only granted the resignation on condition that he remain on retainer for complicated cases, and amnesia definitely counted among them.
"I wouldn't expect anything less," he said. Peterson was still watching his patient, frowning as if he were still trying to think of a way to forestall the expedition to London, and Gambit was studiously ignoring the scrutiny. Steed was willing to wait to see if Peterson was going to come up with a good argument, but only for as long as it took to get himself settled into position and turn the key in the ignition. He nodded to the doctor, who stood away reluctantly as Steed put the car into gear.
They'd nearly reached the main road before Steed realized that he'd forgotten something. "Seatbelt," he reminded Gambit, who obeyed the injunction absently, his attention absorbed by the contents of the wallet he had found in among his belongings.
Purdey leaned forward to ask, "Did they have shoulder belts in 1961?"
"Hey?" Gambit startled so badly he dropped the wallet back into the bag, and stared at Purdey.
"Shoulder belts?" she repeated, brightly curious, even though Steed knew she knew the answer perfectly well.
"Well... well... not in ordinary cars," Gambit stammered. "But it's a racing car, innit? That's different."
"How can you tell?"
He shrugged. "Way it's built, Miss. And the tyres. I mean, ordinary tyres aren't as wide, are they? And can't you hear the engine? It's got to be built for motor racing."
"Something very like," Steed agreed, smiling as he turned onto the dual carriageway. That sounded more like the observant Mike Gambit he knew. "Would you like to see how she handles at speed?"
"Yes, please!" Speed, at least, Gambit could be safely enthusiastic about, and he had some color in his cheeks again by the time that Steed felt the traffic warranted a diversion to the smaller, more local roads. With a little nudging from Purdey the younger man relaxed gratefully into a discussion about camshafts and fuel mixes and the differences between racing on a paved track and a dirt-track that got them through the outer suburbs of London, but he faltered when trying to describe a race he'd seen at Daytona. "'S funny," Gambit said, after stumbling to an awkward halt mid-sentence. "I don't remember.... I must have been watching the telly. Maybe the meter ran out before the end of the race." His forehead betrayed his confusion.
"Perhaps," Steed agreed. "We're just reaching town, now. Have you decided where you want to go?"
"By the bridge," Gambit said quickly, and then blushed and clarified. "London Bridge. If that's all right."
"London Bridge it is." Steed nodded.
"Why London Bridge?" Purdey wanted to know.
Gambit bit his lip, and looked at his hands. "I thought. Well, Miss... Well, I thought maybe we could get some pies to go with the newspaper. There's lots of good shops down that end." It wasn't even a very good excuse, and Gambit seemed to know it, because he started fidgeting with the paper bag again. Steed met Purdey's eyes in the rear view mirror and nodded, just a little, to let her know that he'd noticed the lie too.
"Tired of rice pudding?" she asked, a little too cheerfully, and was rewarded with a swift, resentful glance.
"Yes, Miss," Gambit answered flatly. He turned his face to the window, though Steed could see from the reflection in the glass that his eyes were tight shut. "If it's 1976, then where are all the hovercraft?" he asked, somewhere between anger and desperation.
"There are a few, mostly used as ferries," Steed said. "But they weren't quite practical as a replacement for the family car. Too wide, and too noisy. And too expensive to fuel."
"You've got all the answers, haven't you," Gambit said bitterly.
"Not all of them," Steed admitted. "If I did, I'd know how to convince you that I'm telling the truth without hauling you across three counties when you ought to be recuperating in a nice comfortable hospital bed."
"You can answer this... why didn't you want the nurse to come with us?" Gambit should have been glaring across the car, throwing down a challenge like that, but he'd only hunched his shoulders up and scooted closer to the door.
Steed hadn't expected the question, though, and he phrased his answer carefully. "She would have represented an additional layer of complication," he said. "It's bad enough with just the three of us."
"You're afraid I might say something. Something you didn't want her to hear."
"If she's a part of the conspiracy to make you think it's 1976, then it wouldn't matter to us what you said," Purdey pointed out.
"But if it is 1976..." He wrapped his arms around himself, and bit his lip, starting to shake. "Nobody knows where I am but you two. I could just disappear."
Steed turned onto the next side street, pulled over and turned off the engine. "Get out," he said, not unkindly.
"What?" Gambit and Purdey were both staring at him.
"If you try diving out at a red light, you'll hurt yourself." Steed was improvising, and hoping he'd get it right. "So if you're going to get out, do it while we're parked. There are shops just up the main road -- and a telephone booth, see? You can call anyone you like. Or keep walking. Purdey and I will give you half an hour before we start looking for you."
"Twenty minutes," Purdey said sharply.
"Half an hour," Steed repeated firmly. "Ten minutes extra grace for the crutches." He found the packet of medicines and instructions that Dr. Peterson had given him and reached over to tuck it into Gambit's bag. "Here. If you do manage to vanish on us, you're going to need these. And you'll need money for the phone." He took the change out of his pocket and added it to the rest. "Go on."
The expression on Gambit's face would have been funny, under other circumstances. He couldn't have been more stunned if Steed had pulled a gun on him. But after a moment he closed his mouth and swallowed hard. "Right," he said, setting his jaw and fumbling at the doorhandle. "Right."
"Gambit," Steed added, as the younger man fought to get the crutches untangled from the seatbelt. "You don't have to go unless you want to."
Gambit froze for a long moment, and then started moving again, a little more carefully, "I might as well buy that paper," he mumbled.
Purdey managed to restrain her indignation until the car door closed, at which point she gave Steed a short sharp piece of her mind and settled back to brood over her watch while he tuned in the racing results on the radio and pretended unconcern. After all, how likely was it that Gambit could disappear with less than five pounds in his pocket, crutches, and the head bandage like a banner attracting the eye of every passer-by?
He swung up the street, trying to think only of where to place the crutch tips on the uneven pavement. It wasn't working. There were too many other things clamoring for his attention. First and foremost, where was he? And when? All the other questions depended on those two, really, even though he was beginning to wonder if he really wanted to know the answers.
If only he could get his memories to lay down in order! It would all seem clear enough, until he tried to remember what had led up to being in hospital, and then even simple things seemed to go awry. He was sure of his name, sure of Gran and the Aunties, and of being at sea, his leg hooked around a stay for safety as he searched the horizon for the first glimpse of land from the topmost reaches of the mainmast, while the sails bellied out beneath him in the friendly wind. Sure too of an odoriferous alley and of fighting to keep his stomach in its place while blood ran hot across his hands, the blood of a man whose face refused to be recalled.
He came up to the telephone booth and dug into his pocket for the change that Steed had given him. He'd call Auntie Mabel. She'd tell him the truth, plain enough, the way she told everyone the truth whether they liked it or not. But the coins felt odd in his hand -- right and not right -- strangely shaped and yet familiar. Fifty new pence? Ten new pence? The lone shilling in the lot seemed out of place. The telephone didn't have a proper dial, either, just a series of buttons. After a moment's hesitation he thumbed the zero and waited.
"Operator." The voice on the other end of the line was young and brisk and bored.
"Please... could you tell me... is EASt 4321 still listed to Mabel Horrocks? Mrs. Alfred Horrocks, I mean?"
"East 4321? Hang about." He heard her voice, muffled, as if she'd covered the headpiece, "I've got a man asking about East 4321 -- do you know what he means?"
Another voice, still female, but older, took over. "East... that would be 327 4321. Poplar, wasn't it?"
"Yes, Missus. The Isle of Dogs." The sweat on his hand made it hard to keep his grip while he waited, and he shifted the receiver around to his other hand and ear so he could wipe his palm against his trousers.
"I'm sorry, that number is no longer assigned. Did you have a name?"
"Mabel Horrocks, or Alfred. H.O.R.R.O.C.K.S," he said, feeling the knot in his gut get tighter.
"I'm sorry, there's no listing for a Mabel or Alfred Horrocks in London."
He heard himself thanking her from a distance, put the receiver back on the hook through a fog.
After a time, someone tapped on the glass impatiently, so he wiped at the tears on his face and extracted himself from the booth, smiling and nodding at whatever it was the old lady was saying to him. He moved up the street, trying to remember what he was meant to do next. A newspaper. That was it.
There was a shop on the corner, with a stack of newspapers on a wire rack near the door. He picked one up and held out his handful of change to the man behind the counter, as if he were in Cairo again, or one of the islands where the local languages had clattered around the markets like the arguments of gulls and sparrows. The shopkeeper looked at him oddly, but took a coin from the rest and said something polite and vague.
He meant to go back then, back to Steed and the green racing car and Purdey, because he couldn't think what else to do and at least they seemed to have some idea, but as he emerged into the slanting afternoon light he caught sight of a man in a grey overcoat ducking back between two buildings. It was just a glimpse, but it was enough to send a cold grue up his spine.
I can't go back that way. The misgivings he'd had about Steed's intentions had been small silly things compared to the purely physical fear he felt now. Adrenalin cleared the worst of the fog, sent the pain of his knee and head off to Coventry, to be ignored until he had time to allow himself to notice it again. He tucked the newspaper into the paper bag with the rest of his worldly possessions and headed up the street, no longer caring if a crutch tip slid a little as he swung forward. He didn't have time to fall.
Chapter 4: Unlikely
"Hey, Mister, wait up!" Sam looked up from the plan he was writing to see who his younger brother was annoying now. But for once Peanut's motives seemed to be pure. "You've got a hole in your bag and all your stuff's falling out!"
The tall man on the crutches stopped and swung around, looking at the pill bottle that Peanut was holding up with an expression that Sam mentally classified as "sheer dismay." Not that Peanut didn't inspire terror in grownups, but that was usually only after they'd realized that the angelic face and crown of whiteblond curls hid the most innocuously devious mind in Kingston-upon-Thames. There wasn't anything Peanut wouldn't try, up to and including crawling under the chairs at meetings to tie all the grownups' shoelaces together. Three and a half years head-start just barely gave Sam enough of an edge to head off the worst disasters -- it was convenient having a Moriarty to blame his own missteps on -- but he and the others had learned long since that it was better to have some idea what Peanut was up to, even if it meant letting him tag along on far too many afternoons. Not that Peanut had ever read Sherlock Holmes!
"Watson, what do you make of our visitor?" Sam asked, and the other members of the Superlative Six and a Half (Sam had chosen the name himself after a spelling test last term, because the others had complained that "Baker Street Irregulars" didn't make sense if you didn't live on Baker Street) shifted around on the school steps to look where he was pointing. If nothing else, the man on crutches was a stranger, and that was good practice for deducing things.
"Whose turn is it to be Watson today?" Florrie asked. "I was Watson yesterday."
"I think it's mine," Peter (who had been Second Peter until First Peter had been sent off to boarding school) pushed his glasses back up his nose. "I think he was in an accident."
"Something about the crutches and the bandage on his head, right?" From anyone but Annie that would have been sarcasm, but she hadn't been allowed to play for very long and was making heavy work out of "A Study in Scarlet."
"Yeah," Peter said. "And I think he needs rescuing."
"I think we'd better get over there before Peanut tries eating some of those pills," Tinpot said, tipping the old army helmet that was the source of his nickname up away from his eyes for the four millionth time. He wore it to avoid being called Tiny Tim, since he suffered the indignity of being the smallest boy in not only his own class, but the one below. Even Peanut had topped him now, and needed to be scorned as an infant at every opportunity, which Sam allowed as he thought it salutary for both of them.
"I'll watch the stuff," Orly volunteered, predictably, his gaze already straying back into his comic. Sam stuffed the Holmes notebook into his jacket and shoved it under Orly's knees for safekeeping, figuring that even Orly would notice if one of the allotment kids tried to go after it there. The others abandoned their school satchels without precautions. No one was going to steal schoolwork.
"It's got something hanging out of it, see?" Sam ran, but it was too late. He watched with a sense of imminent disaster as his younger brother tugged hard on something that was protruding from the bottom corner of the man's paper bag, breaking it open and sending papers, pill-bottles, a wallet, coins, and other small objects scattering across the sidewalk and into the street. Peanut was left holding up a lady's brassiere tangled up with a man's green tie. "Oooo-er!"
"Peanut!" Sam grabbed the embarrassing things away with one hand while he clapped a hand over his brother's mouth to prevent him from saying anything that might make the situation worse. "Sorry about that, Mister. He's an idiot." He crumpled the bra and tie up into his own hand as well as he could and held them out. "Here's your... er... um..."
"We'll pick up your stuff," Florrie volunteered hastily. "Tinpot, Peter, give me a hand." Both boys started scrambling after the fallen goods gratefully, and Peanut twisted himself loose to join them.
"I'll get a new bag to put it all into," Annie said, ducking off hastily.
Which left Sam facing the man alone. He was a tall man, probably six foot, with dark curly hair sticking out from a bandage that had been wrapped round his head and fading bruises on his face and hands as well as a heavily bandaged knee visible through the carefully undone seam of his trousers. Around thirty, Sam guessed, although the sudden rush of pink to his face made him look younger. The blue-grey eyes flickered down to Sam's hand and then up again, and the man laughed uncertainly. "Thanks," he said, holding out a hand that trembled.
"Maybe you'd best sit down while we get your things," Sam said, as the man stuffed the bits of clothing into a jacket pocket. "You look shaky."
"Do I?" the man asked, but he let Sam lead him into the schoolyard. Sam, who wasn't sure what he'd do if the man actually did tip over, looked around to see if there was anyone who might help, but the only grownups in sight were two of the oldest old lady teachers yakking in the car park and a man who ducked back behind a van the moment he realized that Sam was looking in his direction. There were plenty of kids running around, but Sam wasn't sure that any of them were big enough except for Toad and Toad wasn't usually very helpful. Luckily, nothing happened and Sam got his man safely to the bench just as Peter called for him.
"Be right back," Sam said. He darted back, feeling oddly reluctant to leave the man alone. "What is it?"
"We've got trouble. There's six medicines listed on this paper," Peter said, tapping a sheet of handwritten notes. "But I only count three bottles."
"Turn out your pockets, Peanut," Tinpot ordered.
"I'm not that dumb," Peanut protested. "They must've fallen out the hole before he got here."
"Yeah," Sam agreed. Peanut didn't look innocent enough to be lying. "Go back the way he came and see if you can't find them before one of of the little kids does."
Peanut beamed. "Right!" he said, dumping his armful of oddments into Sam's arms and dashing off.
"I'm not the babysitter," Tinpot grumbled, but he followed suit, forcing Sam to try to balance everything until Florrie came to the rescue, taking some of it to add to the things she'd collected in the upturned bottom of her sweater.
Peter was still puzzling out the paper.
"Just six medicines, then?" Sam asked.
"I think so," Peter bit his lip. "Sam... what's this word mean?" He thrust the paper at Sam and Florrie crowded over to look too.
"What word?" Sam asked, but before Peter could answer Florrie shoved Peter's finger out of the way and the word leaped out from the rest.
Florrie whistled softly and Sam swallowed hard, feeling as if he'd come out into a world of sudden bright snow. Excited, but cold too.
"Come on," Peter said insistently. "What does it mean?"
"It means we've got a mystery on our hands, Watson," Sam said, looking back to the man who was sitting on the bench. He'd settled in like he was tired, leaning on one hand propped elbow to knee while his other supported the crutches. "A proper mystery, at last!"
It felt good to sit down, to catch his breath. He'd come five or six blocks before he'd reached the schoolyard, and the ground had been rising steadily all the while. Another day, he'd have covered the distance easily, and even now he was a little surprised at how quickly he'd caught the rhythm of using the crutches at speed. Maybe he'd had them before... Maybe. But he was tired.
And he was being followed. Probably. It wasn't unheard of for a man to turn left and then right and then left again at three corners, but it wasn't very likely. The person following him was trying to be careful, ducking aside whenever the quarry turned back to look, but they kept making amateur mistakes, allowing a silhouette to be seen reflected in windows and car side mirrors. And it was the wrong silhouette to be Steed. Definitely the wrong silhouette to be Purdey.
He grinned to himself, the thought of Purdey's shape being enough to brighten even a day like this one. What have I got in my pocket? Oh, the most wonderful things I got in it. He couldn't remember much of the poem, just the illustration of the small boy that had decorated the page and the hole that was the only thing left at the end of it. Which brought him back to the torn bag he'd let fall from his hand. Hadn't he wanted to keep it?
"Mister?" He opened his eyes and found himself under the scrutiny of the tall thin boy who'd led him to the bench and two of the others, a younger boy with glasses and a bright-eyed girl. "You all right?"
"Mostly," he answered. "Just a bit winded."
"Have you really got amnesia?" the younger boy asked bluntly.
He saw the paper in the boy's hand, recognized it as the sheet that Steed had crammed in with the medicines. But it was easier somehow, hearing the question from someone outside his own head. "I'm not sure," he admitted.
"How can you not be sure?" The girl asked.
Good question. It wasn't like what he was feeling matched anything he'd ever read or watched in a film. "Well... I know who I am. I'm just not sure where..."
"You're in London, just at the edge. Kingston Station's over that way." The younger boy waved back the way he'd come from. "But that's not amnesia is it? Being lost."
"Probably not. But I'm not sure when I am either." He nodded at the older boy's armful. "Is that today's newspaper?"
The boy turned his head to read the date below the headline. "Wednesday second October 1976... yeah, that's today."
So much for that. He pinched his nose against the sudden headache, to keep back the tears that would only frighten the kids, and took a deep breath to hold until he was sure he could trust his voice. "Seventy six," he repeated, accepting it reluctantly. Not even Steed could have got to every kid in London.
"Has been all year," the girl said. "When'd you think it was?"
That brought surprised whistles from all three of them. "I wasn't even born till 1965," the oldest boy exclaimed.
He couldn't help but smile. It was something, anyway, to have astonished even so small and scruffy an audience as this one. "Yeah. Well, at least now I know. Thanks. And thanks for picking up my stuff." He held out his hands to take his belongings back. He'd put everything in pockets this time.
"Wait," the older boy said, even as he began to hand things over. "Couldn't we help you? I mean, to get your memory back?"
"And how would you do that?" he asked, amused and a little touched by the children's willingness to help.
"Asking the right questions, and then deducing things. Like: Why 1961? What were you doing then that's so important that you've got to do it all over again?"
He stared at the boy, wondering why he'd never asked that of himself. But the answer was there, waiting. "I've got to save a man's life."
Sam swallowed hard. "Who? How?"
For all that the man must have been as old as Sam's father, he seemed suddenly much younger. "That's the trouble. I don't remember."
Sam caught a chapped piece of his lip between his teeth and worried at it, trying to think of the right question to ask next. It wasn't much comfort to think that after fifteen years there couldn't be much of an emergency -- the problem felt urgent, and that was enough to be worrisome.
"Sam! Sam!" Annie and Orly came trotting up, festooned with everyone's satchels and jackets. "Lookit what Peanut's up to!" Orly added, nodding the direction he meant since his hands were full.
Sam looked. "Bloody hell!" Tinpot was still searching the sidewalk and gutters industriously, but Peanut was creeping up behind the man by the van, his hand reaching for an overcoat pocket in what the little idiot probably thought was just the way that the Artful Dodger would do it, even though he looked a lot more like Oliver about to fall on his arse. Cursing all movies on television and his mother's love of musicals, Sam raised his fingers to his lips and whistled as loudly as he could. "PEANUT! TINPOT! GET OVER HERE!"
Tinpot unfolded himself from his crouch and waved, and Peanut immediately put on an air of innocence and began sauntering back to the schoolyard. The man in the overcoat, however, quickly turned away and stepped back, the way he had the first time that Sam had noticed him, which was funny and not in a ha-ha-ha kind of way. Sam frowned, and Peanut and Tinpot, misinterpreting his glare, began to babble explanations as they reached the bench.
"I've only found two bottles, but I'm still looking," Tinpot got out first, pulling out his prizes from a pocket and passing them to Peter.
"I told you, that man's taken it." Peanut shrilled.
"You don't know it was a pill bottle he picked up," Tinpot's disgust was plain. "He said he found a coin."
"You don't know it wasn't a pill bottle," Peanut said, balling up his fists.
Sam took a shoulder in each hand and shook them both, hard. "Shurrup. You want half the school to know our business?"
"I saw him put it in his pocket!" Peanut insisted, but much more quietly. "Whatever it was."
Orly nudged Sam's elbow. "He was watching. And Peanut's right, he did put something in his pocket."
"He's been following me," the injured man said grimly. "I don't know why."
"Maybe he's a cop," Annie suggested. "Cops follow people."
"If he was cop, he'd have chased us off. A bunch of kids? No. And besides, you're not a bad'un." Sam was certain of that, somehow, and felt rewarded by the sudden pleased glint in the injured man's eyes. He held out a hand. "My name's Holmes."
"As in Sherlock?"
"Yes. No. I mean, it's Sam, Samuel. It really is Holmes, though. Samuel Holmes." Sam knew his ears were scarlet. "But my friends call me Sam."
"My friends call me Gumby," the man answered, taking the hand at last, and giving it a grown-up kind of shake. It wasn't a real name, Sam recognized, and wondered if that was because of the amnesia, but he couldn't help but feel pleased at the thought of being worthy of friendship.
"Because your brain hurts?" Tinpot chirruped, interrupting Sam's train of thought, and he and Peanut made themselves go stiff and started shouting in slow syllables, "My...brain... hurts..." until Florrie clouted them.
"There wasn't any Monty Python in 1961," she pointed out.
Tinpot rubbed his ear. "Who said anyfin about 1961?" he muttered.
Gumby looked genuinely baffled but he smiled at Florrie. "The name's nothing to do with snakes. Just a little clayboy on the telly, gets into all kinds of trouble."
"And you're in trouble now," Sam said. "What do you need most, do you think?"
"A chance to think things through; a way to get home." Gumby answered simply. "Answers." He didn't look towards the watching man, but it was clear enough that he also wanted to go without being followed.
"Where's home?" Peter asked.
"The Isle of Dogs. Leastwise it was."
"Why go there, if it's not home anymore?" Florrie wanted to know.
"It might still be, for all I know. And I have a feeling that if I can just... follow the memories I do have, go to the places where I know I was... I might remember more."
"The Isle of Dogs." Sam felt a rush of excitement as he suddenly thought of a plan. This was better than any game he'd ever come up with. "That's on the river, isn't it? By the East End?"
"Then I know how to get you there. We just need to hide you for a little while first." Sam marshalled his troops. "Annie, tell Toad we're going to need him over by the coal chute, Peter, go home and then take the secret passage over to meet us. Tinpot, you'll be lookout. Orly, you'll help me and Toad get him down the chute. Florrie, in five minutes the parent teacher conferences are meant to be over and there'll be a gazillion grownups out here. You and Peanut come up with a way of distracting them, and see if you can't do it between him," he jerked his head toward the watcher, "and the chute. Peanut?"
"Yes, Sam?" Peanut bounced gleefully, clever enough to tell that he'd just been given a license for mayhem.
"Try not to break anything expensive, hey?"
"Sam, what are you thinking?" Florrie protested.
"Thinking about the Handy." Sam answered.
"But we're not allowed to take her out without... " Florrie's eyes widened, as she realized what Sam was up to and he grinned at her. He could always count on Florrie to think ahead. "Without a grownup."
"And Gumby's a grownup." Orly finished the thought. "Sam, that's brilliant."
"What are you talking about?" Gumby asked, looking worried.
"Talking about getting you home." Sam crouched down so that Gumby didn't have to look up at him for their eyes to meet. "You can't walk from here, it's too far. And if we put you in a cab, or take you down to the Tube, you'll be followed by The Watcher, right?"
"But this is Kingston upon Thames. The River's right down the street from us. And we've got something The Watcher doesn't have." Sam could feel the sheer exhilaration of adventure taking over his soul, knowing from the grins around him that the other kids had fallen into the plan too, as soon as they'd figured it out. Absolutely the best plan, ever. "We've got a boat."
Any idea he might have had about clearing off on his own fell away under a sudden flash of memory. His hands moving a stone back into place in a wall lit by reflections of off water, the smell of the river in his nose, and gentle movement under his feet. There'd been a boat.
He stared at the boy in front of him. "You don't know anything about me."
"I know you need help."
And that echoed too, that earnest voice wanting to help. Choosing to help, whether the help was wanted or not, and at least half aware that helping would neither be easy nor safe. It hadn't been that long since he was Sam's age... well, alright it had, but he could remember anyway, how much kids saw and knew and could do if only they had the chance. Would risk, if they thought they should. Even if he turned down the offer, tried to leave by himself, he knew that Sam would follow along.
"It's not just the Watcher," he said, wanting these unexpected allies to understand the danger. "There's another man, and a woman, likely to come looking for me. They were in the hospital when I woke up. They seem friendly, but I don't know..." He tried to find words for the way Purdey and Steed struck him as dangerous too -- gave up after a moment. "I need to know more. I need to figure out what it is I'm being followed for, what Steed's after from me. What it is I've forgotten. Who I can trust."
"You can trust us," Sam said. "I promise."
"Even if we can't get you to the boat, we ought to get you inside for a while. You're shivering." One of the other boys -- Peter, he thought Sam had called him -- pushed his glasses back into place. "I could give you something to eat while you warmed up."
His stomach growled, and he gave over arguing with himself. He wanted -- needed -- a chance to think, and perhaps a chance to let Sam ask more of his questions. And food sounded like a wonderful idea. "As long as it's not rice pudding," he sighed and nodded his acquiescence. "What do you want me to do?"
It wasn't as easy as it ought to have been, but Sam was used to that. First Florrie insisted on putting the rest of Gumby's things into her own school satchel, which had flowers on it, but a shoulder strap which none of the boys' satchels did, and when she and Orly had finished arguing about that (Florrie won, because Gumby just took the satchel and put the strap over his head without a qualm) and she'd gone off to plot with Peanut while the rest of them went down to the far end of the schoolyard, Toad was perched on the coal door, with his arms crossed and his lower lip sticking out. Sam wasn't on Toad's good side, and hadn't been since Toad had decided that school was boring and pretending was stupid. But he was big, and had muscles. Especially the one between his ears.
"What is it, Shirley?" Toad sneered. "Another adventure?" He drew out the word to make it sound as juvenile as possible.
Sam swallowed a sigh. "Just a favor. I need someone strong and you're the strongest boy in the school." It wasn't an admission he liked to make, but it was some comfort to see that saying it had put Toad off balance.
"What's it worth to you?" Toad asked warily.
"My football." Sam heard the gasps behind him.
"What the old one?" Toad ought to have known better than to ask, since he'd punctured Sam's old football himself by kicking it with running spikes on. Still, if he hadn't, Sam wouldn't have a decent bribe now.
"No, the new one. But it means do as you're told for ten minutes and no questions or telling ever."
"Even to grown ups?" Toad asked slyly.
"Especially to grownups."
"Please, Tad?" Annie added her two cents, but Sam waited. Toad wasn't nearly as stupid as he thought he was, and he was honorable in his own way. If he made the deal he'd keep it, but he'd enjoy trying to get things out of Sam on the basis of knowing that there was a secret. That was okay. Once Gumby was safely home it wouldn't matter, whether Toad knew that or not.
"Depends on what you want me to do."
"Help get this man down the chute without getting hurt." That didn't count as a question, really.
Toad looked over Gumby thoughtfully, but then spat in his hand and held it out. "Deal."
Sam spat in his own hand and they shook on it.
"Okay," Sam said. "Gumby, come over here so I can look like I'm telling you how to get over to the plantation. Orly, you get ready to open the door. Toad, when I tell you, you and me will slide down first to catch Gumby when he comes."
"That's dumb," Toad objected. "You want your strongest man on top, to slow things down. Ain't you never moved something heavy down stairs?"
"Question," Orly objected.
"That's all right," Sam said. "It was rigoric... rhomboida... it wasn't the kind of question I meant. Just do it my way -- Gumby's strong enough, but I need someone tall with me, so he doesn't have to land on his bad leg."
"Rhetorical," Gumby supplied the word Sam couldn't remember. "How far down is it?"
"Maybe ten feet, and there's a slide most of the way. Annie, you be ready to pass the crutches down." Sam waved his hand past Gumby, pointing up the road. If the Watcher was only fooled into thinking that Gumby'd gone on, everything would work out perfectly. "Here come the teachers... now all we have to wait for is..."
"HELP!" Florrie's shriek sent chills right up Sam's spine and it was all he could do not to turn and run towards her. "MRS POTTS! LOOK!"
"Orly!" Sam hissed, and Orly startled guiltily and pulled open the coal chute door. Sam jumped in, banging his funnybone on the way down and having to dodge quickly to avoid being hit by Toad's boots. He remembered that he wanted to be on the side where Gumby's bad leg would be and bumped Toad to the other side just in time. Gumby, who couldn't possibly jump down the way that Sam had, was lowering himself to the ground at the edge of the coal chute and starting down, using both hands braced against the walls as brakes, but he was still coming down pretty fast. Luckily, Toad had reached up and caught Gumby's good foot and sort of hand over handed up the leg as the man came down. Sam, whose left arm was tingling and numb from elbow to fingers, did his best, which wasn't nearly as good, and he ended up with Gumby's hand hitting him in the face and an elbow catching his ear and his own hand tangling in the strap of the satchel and the three of them nearly falling over as Gumby fell the last two feet and his good foot hit the ground and his bad foot hit it a moment later. It was even odds which one of them came out with the worst word, but they managed to stay upright, and Peter appeared out of what Sam hoped Toad would think was nowhere to help them get the man to a wall he could lean against for more certain support.
"Crutches!" Peter said, taking them as Annie handed them down and practically putting them under Gumby's arms for him. "Sam, you better get up there."
"Help me give Toad a boost up first," Sam said. "I don't think I even want to know what Peanut's thought up. Gumby, are you okay on your own?"
"MMm." Gumby made a noise, but he nodded too, and pushed Sam forward a little.
Between Peter and Sam they managed to give Toad a boost up, and Orly caught his collar and hauled him the rest of the way out. Then it was Sam's turn, and Orly and Toad hauling from above and his sore elbow making him want to swear all over again. "Close the door!" he heard Peter call up.
Orly didn't wait for instructions from Sam, he just closed the door while Annie and Toad and Tinpot helped Sam scramble around the corner of the building and started dusting off the worst of the dirt. "Mrs. Potts is looking for you," Tinpot warned. "Better get over there."
"Right." Sam wiped at his face, hoping he could look normal in spite of the panic he was feeling. "Toad. Thanks."
"Get on," Toad said with a momentarily friendly grin. "Just remember I want that football by teatime."
Sam nodded and headed back around the corner into the schoolyard, hoping that to the Watcher, it would seem as if he'd been summoned back after walking a ways east with Gumby. All the teachers, most of the kids, and half a dozen of the mums were crowded by the fence, near the ancient chestnut tree that had been there so long it had rails stuck through the bole. He trotted forward, looking for the principal. "Tinpot said you wanted me, Mrs. Potts," he panted as he reached her.
"I do." Mrs. Potts was about a million years old, and built like a shortbread tin, small and square and flat, but she had a grip like a gorilla and when she caught hold of your shoulder there was nothing to do but go where she took you. She took Sam right up to the fence. "Look up there."
Sam looked up and saw a flash of pink legs and dirty knees near the top of the tree just before something small and dark fell and bounced off his forehead.
"Ow!" he exclaimed, clapping a hand over the injury.
"Now aren't you meant to be minding your brother?" Mrs. Potts asked.
"Peanut! Get down here!" Sam yelled, obligingly.
"I'm not Peanut!" came the blithe answer. "I'm Rocky the Flying Squirrel!" More chestnuts fell, scattering teachers and kids and parents left and right. Mrs. Potts took the bombardment without flinching, but Sam -- trapped in her grasp -- couldn't do the same.
"I'll Rocky the Flying Squirrel you!" he shouted, adding a bruise on his wrist to the score. "Let me go, Mrs. Potts. I'll get him down."
"Indeed you will," she said. "I am not going to summon the Fire Brigade again this term. Do you understand?"
"Oh, please don't say that, Mrs. Potts. He's sure to accidentally set fire to something if you do."
"Then you'd best start planning on carrying a fire extinguisher!"
When the door clanged shut the coal cellar was plunged into darkness, but after a moment a torch came on and cast a dim circle of light onto his face.
"You all right, Gumby?" Peter asked.
"Give me a minute. I will be," he answered, trying to get his breathing to steady down.
"Did you hurt your leg?"
"And my arm." He swallowed hard, took a few more deep breaths. The stitches on his arm hadn't been hurting too much until he'd hit them against the wall of the coal chute. The knee had, but he'd been ignoring it. Neither could be ignored now. At least he had managed to avoid hitting his head again.
"Maybe we ought to take you to hospital."
"No. It's not that bad." He hated hospitals. But he smiled, best he could, to reassure Peter. "I wouldn't say no to aspirin though, if you can fetch me some."
Peter brightened. "Aspirin's easy. Be right back." The torchlight wobbled over to a corner of the room, where the boy crouched down to release a catch in the panelling before pulling open a concealed door. In a moment, Peter was gone, and the light with him.
It was very dark. He closed his eyes against the night-blindness and counted to twenty, letting his pupils dilate, and when he looked again he could see the outlines of the chute, just barely, outlined in some refracted scraps of light from the door above. But very little else was visible. A bulk here, a line there. The room smelled of damp and coal and mice, like another place he'd been in as a very small child. He closed his eyes again and remembered his mother's shoulder shivering under his cheek, and his granny's arms around them both, her voice cracking from note to note as she sang a lullaby to counter the fear that was waiting outside the dark, safe shelter. Granny hadn't been there in the dark the first time, the time that smelled of smoke and terror and blood -- then it had only been Mum, holding him and singing until the men had dug them out. But all the nights that followed, all the nights when the memory had taken his mother, when she had lifted him from his cot and carried him down to the cellar seeking safety from the bombs that were no longer falling, those nights Granny had come and sung them both to sleep. And when Mum had gone away, off to the green corridor that smelled of sickness and antiseptics, to fade into a silent statue of herself, Gran had still come to him singing on the nights when the loneliness had been too much for a small boy to bear.
"Nineteen seventy six," he reminded himself. Gran was long gone. If he wanted music, he'd have to make it himself.
By the time Sam got to the top of the tree, Peanut was singing rude versions of nursery rhymes in the high, clear soprano that had won him a place in the church choir right up until the day he'd been caught distributing crickets in the vestry. He might have been forgiven that if it hadn't come out that he'd released the crickets in the hope of catching the garter snakes he'd loosed upon the previous evening, one of which had found its way into one of the floral arrangements on the decani side and given the rector's wife palpitations when she'd gone around with the watering can. And of course it had been Sam who had had to catch both snakes and crickets, and put up with the verger's jokes about wanting to avoid the other eight plagues. But for the moment at least he was grateful for Peanut's infinite capacity for invention.
"I think that's enough music," Sam said, hooking a leg around the highest branch he could reach without setting the tree wobbling. "Come on down, Peanut, and tell me if it worked."
Peanut scrambled closer and shrugged. "I dunno. I wasn't looking down." At Sam's glare he put on a solemn air. "Well, you did say not to break anything expensive, and Dad says I cost him plenty already this year."
Sam shook his head. "You just forgot to look," he told his brother. "You can't fool me into thinking you've grown a grain of sense."
Peanut grinned, unrepentant. "Sounded good, though, dinnit?"
"Well, look now," Sam ordered, getting a hold of one of Peanut's belt-loops. "I want to know if the Watcher is still around." He hung on as his brother leaned out to try to peer down through the branches.
"I can't tell from here. We'll have to go lower."
"It can wait till we're on the ground, then," Sam decided. "It will look suspicious if we keep stopping along the way."
They started down, with Sam keeping Peanut in arms reach as best he could. He was surprised when Peanut asked, "Sam, if the Watcher's not a cop, what is he? And why was he fighting Gumby? You think Gumby's a cop?"
Sam caught his brother's collar and held him up a moment. "What makes you think they were fighting?"
"Both got bruises on their faces and hands, 'bout the same shade of green, too." Peanut looked up at Sam, waiting hopefully. "That's observation and dead-ducking isn't it?"
"Deduction." That was one word Sam always got right. It was too, and Sam had to admit the conclusion was probably valid. He'd have to confirm the bruises on the Watcher -- well, no, not really, Peanut usually got into more trouble for noticing things than not noticing them -- but it was a little heady to discover that Peanut was trying to emulate him. It hadn't happened often. "Very good."
"Does that mean I can be Watson tomorrow?" Peanut asked.
"Nah -- you'd look dead silly in a bowler hat," Sam answered, ruffling a hand through Peanut's hair. "I'll let you be Wiggins, though."
"I thought Orly was Wiggins."
Sam paused to rub at the bruise on his forehead. Properly, of course, Orly ought to be Watson all the time, being Sam's best friend and all, but he'd bowed out of the role so that everyone else could take a turn at it. Being Holmes's "dirty little lieutenant" had been second best, but they'd read a lot more of the stories now, and truth was, Sam thought that Orly was too tall to keep on not playing at being one of the grownups. Especially with Tinpot and Peanut around to be Irregulars. "It's about time I promoted him to Lestrade. Or maybe Mycroft. He'd be a good Mycroft."
Peanut wrinkled his nose. "Who's Mycroft?"
But Sam wasn't about to tell him that Mycroft was Sherlock Holmes' smarter brother. It was one thing to fail to discourage Peanut from making trouble and another thing entirely to put the cream pies into his hands and pretend not to know there'd be a pie fight. He started downwards again. "You'll find out when you read the books!"
Peanut followed, quickly. "Come on, Sam, just tell me!" he wheedled uselessly all the way down. Sam was just getting a foothold on the last branch when he finally changed his tune. "Cor... talk about bowlers!"
Sam looked down and missed his step, skinning his hands as he pushed away from the tree to keep from falling on the railings. He landed awkwardly and his shoes skidded on a fallen chestnut. Next thing he knew he was lying on the ground, looking up at Mrs. Potts, a pretty woman, and a tall man wearing a bowler, and desperately trying to get some air back into his lungs.
"Well, Mr. Holmes," said Mrs. Potts severely. "Now what have you been up to?"
Chapter 5: Undecided
"We've lost him," Purdey said, when they rendezvoused for the second time at the schoolyard where the trail had petered out. She was blowing hard, and Steed had the uncomfortable certainty that she'd been running for nearly the entire hour, trying to cover more ground. "I told you so."
"You did," Steed conceded. "Come along back to the car and we'll call in for reinforcements."
"That's only going to frighten him worse, you know," Purdey said. "Whatever it is he's frightened of." She was still checking every corner she could, even as she paced alongside Steed. "There weren't any clues in his file?"
"I haven't had a chance to examine it personally," Steed reminded her. "There might be something if you want to head over to the Department while I coordinate the search."
"Put Merton on it, he's good at that sort of thing," Purdey said decisively. "I'm not going anywhere till we find Mike."
They turned the corner and Steed caught her arm. "Look."
Draped on the fenders of the Jag were four kids, ranging in age from about nine to twelve. The smallest one had already spotted them and nudged his neighbor, and the rest were turning their heads like a colony of meerkats studying an oncoming danger.
"Isn't that the boy who told us Gambit went east from the school?" Purdey asked. The children had changed out of their school clothes into play clothes, but it was hard to miss the little towhead who had jumped out of the tree or his older brother in with the others.
"Definitely," Steed said. He patted her shoulder. "Cheer up, Purdey -- I think this may be an envoy."
She snorted, "And here I was thinking that he'd charmed a girl into helping him, and a lot older one at that."
Steed chuckled. "Maybe these are her younger siblings."
As they approached the car the tallest boy -- Holmes, the principal had called him -- shooed the rest off the paintwork and took a few steps forward to meet them, tugging his sweater down to cover his wrists in a futile gesture against its tendency to climb back up his arms again. He came to a kind of awkward attention, caught between excitement, belligerence, and deference to an adult, while the younger kids swarmed nervously behind him.
"Didn't you say that your name is Steed?", he asked, blushing when his voice cracked on the question.
"I did, and it is," Steed replied, assuming an air of polite attention.
"I've got a message from you from Gumby."
"Gumby?" Purdey echoed faintly, her eyebrows climbing. Steed, who was all too well acquainted with the metamorphosis of names to nicknames that happened among small boys, didn't turn a hair and kept listening.
"He says he knows you're right, and here's your watch back, but he's got something he's got to do. And when he's done it he'll call the doctor, but only if you call off your dog first."
"My dog?" Steed accepted the timepiece that the child produced, but he couldn't help frowning.
"The Watcher," the smallest boy said.
"The Watcher?" Purdey and Steed chorused, exchanging worried glances.
"You haven't got anyone watching after him?" the tall boy asked, uncertainly, looking from one to the other.
"I told you so, Sam," the one girl of the quartet -- a skinny child whose knees hung in scabbed glory from the ruins of torn jeans -- crossed her arms and eyed the self-appointed leader with scorn.
"Shurrup, Florrie," Sam tried to squash her, without success.
"If they'd knowed where Gumby was hid, they wouldn't've been asking everyone who's seen him, would they?" Florrie argued with relentless logic.
"He don't know where he's hid, so he couldn'ta told them," the diminutive boy sporting the steel helmet protested.
"He knows where we took him in, and they never even looked that way. And when Annie gets called in to tea, what'll happen? It's not that hard to find the door," Florrie scoffed.
"Wait!" Purdey interrupted what looked to devolve into a general argument. "Who are you talking about?"
"The Watcher," said at least three of them answered at once. The smallest boy added impatiently, "the man what's been following Gumby."
"You mean there really is someone following Gambit? It's not just something he's imagined because of the knock on the head?" Steed asked urgently.
They all nodded, quite serious. "Gumby thought you'd sent him, because you'd promised not to come yourself," Sam added.
"What does he look like?" Purdey asked.
"Little under six foot, not fat, but solid like. Bad skin, short dark hair. Didn't get close enough to see his eyes clearly," Sam said, and then shrugged an apology for the incomplete description.
"I think they're brown," the small towhead put in. "Maybe."
"Did you notice what he's wearing?" Steed wanted to know.
"Grey overcoat that's too small for him. Green trousers. Black shoes."
"They're not shoes, they're army boots," the boy with the helmet corrected importantly. "Like my brother's."
"Army boots?" Purdey didn't like that answer any better than Steed did. "Someone from the 19th?"
"It might be." Steed pulled his identification out of the inner pocket where it lived and showed it to the children. "Look, it's very important that we find Gambit and get him to safety. Preferably without alerting the man who's been following him. If we're right, that man is very dangerous, and I don't want any of you to be in the line of fire for a moment longer than necessary."
The tall boy bit his lip. "But... we promised..."
"No," Florrie said. "You promised, Sam. But we're not the Baker Street Irregulars and you're not Sherlock Holmes." She tugged at Purdey's hand. "I'll take you there."
Sam flushed, and shook his head. "No, Florrie. It was my idea, so if anyone's going to mess things up it ought to be me."
"We'll all go," Steed declared.
"What about those reinforcements?" Purdey asked. "If there's more than one of Miller's men here, we might need them."
She was right. He'd back himself and Purdey against a handful or two, but with nearly fifty men of the 19th Commando still on the run the odds were a bit too long. "I need to know the lay of the land, first," Steed said. "Or I won't know where to send them."
Sam brightened. "Wait! Wait!" he said, digging into his back pocket for a grubby fold of paper. "I've got a map!"
"A map!" Steed exclaimed. He felt a certain predatory glee. They'd not only get Gambit back, but they'd have a chance to gather in at least one of the fugitive commandos as well.
"Yeah." Sam spread it out on the Jaguar's hood. "I drew it myself. For being Sherlock Holmes. But it's got all the streets and buildings on it, see? And all the secret tunnels, too."
"Secret tunnels?" Purdey joined Steed in scanning the scramble of lines. Sam obviously had acquired a set of coloured pencils before he started, and his handwriting was barely decipherable, but fortunately, he'd thought that the secret tunnels deserved being shown in red and he'd provided a little legend in the corner.
"They're not really secret, not really tunnels even. It's just that during the war, people put their air raid shelters down in the cellars and someone thought that it would be easier to get at anyone who was buried if there were doors leading from one cellar to the next. So if you know where the doors are you can get in to this building here," he pointed to a blue blob next to the schoolyard, "and not have to come out again till you're down over here." Nearly three quarters of the way along the road.
"Except you have to come out onto the same road, unless you can go out the back and climb into the next garden over," Florrie put in. "That's why we've still got Gumby waiting in Peter's room until the man goes away. Only he won't now, since you can't make him go."
"And where's the man?" Steed asked.
"Here." Several hands pointed at once. "By the tobacconists. He can see the whole way down the street from there, but mostly he's watching the coal chute where we took Gumby in," Sam added.
"Does he have anyone with him?" Steed asked.
"No. But he's been on the phone... here... twice now." Sam flushed. "I deduced it wrong. I thought he must've been trying to call you."
Purdey moved the hands aside so she could see the row of buildings again. "There's a back way in to Gambit?" she asked. "A way to get to Peter's room without going in the front door?"
"There is if you can climb a tree," Florrie said.
"Steed..." Purdey was practically vibrating, like a greyhound waiting for the rabbit.
"All right, you take an RT from the boot and go see to Gambit while I plan the campaign," he said. "But be careful! If there are any of Miller's men around, they'll have recognized you by now. I don't want to lose you too."
She flashed him a wolfish smile. "Just let them try something, that's all."
Florrie led Purdey along a circuitous route, stopping at each corner to survey the street ahead before she let Purdey look round too. Purdey was amused by this, and impressed, too, when the girl explained that she was looking for army boots on strangers. "Didn't notice any before," she admitted. "But I wasn't looking for them, was I? I was watching you."
"Were you?" Purdey hadn't noticed. There had been a lot of children chasing each other and shouting in the streets near the schoolyard, but she'd been looking for someone taller.
"Couldn't keep up, though. You can't half run," that assessment was made in tones of such admiration Purdey decided it must be a compliment. "But I got close enough to hear you asking after Gumby once or twice. Didn't sound like you were chasing him to me. Sounded like you were worried." Florrie wrinkled her nose at Purdey. "He's not bad is he? Gumby, I mean? You're not the police after him? Because he said he didn't think he was and Sam believes him, but Sam believes just about anything once he starts pretending."
"No," Purdey said, "He's not bad. But this isn't a game of pretend."
"Guess not," Florrie said, and went on. When Purdey was satisfied that they didn't have anyone following them, the girl turned down a narrow lane and they ducked through a gap in an iron railing and over two garden walls before coming to a long narrow walled garden behind a three story apartment block. By the assorted toys and the carefully marked out vegetable plots, Purdey guessed that every family in the building made use of the space. But Florrie didn't even try the door. Instead she led the way to a Tree-of-Heaven that just barely supported Purdey's weight on the scramble up to a first-floor window. That gave into a bedroom where a very small boy was sitting in a crib, disembowelling a stuffed animal. He favored them with a mildly interested gaze, and then went back to pulling fluff out and throwing it onto the floor with a studious air. He wasn't Peter, though, because Florrie kept going, signalling for quiet as they passed through the flat, and avoiding the notice of the woman in the kitchen who was singing along to the radio and the clatter of pots and pans.
Safely in the hallway, with the door to the flat closed behind them, Florrie wiped her forehead. "I'd've had you meet my mum, but she'd want explanations," she said. "Peter's upstairs."
"And Peter's mum won't want explanations?" Purdey asked, following her up the steps.
"She's dead. And his dad works, so he leaves a key." Florrie reached the door she wanted and turned up the mat, collecting the key she'd mentioned. "See?" She unlocked the door and replaced the key and then ushered Purdey inside. "Peter! It's me. Where are you?"
"My room!" came the answer. A chubby eleven-year-old with glasses popped into evidence and then blinked and stepped back. "Who's that?"
"Friend of Gumby's," Florrie answered. But the question had been enough to raise the alarm and by the time Purdey reached the bedroom door Gambit was on his feet, holding one of his crutches up as if to swing. He looked even more frightened than he had before, and she could tell he was tiring.
"A friend?" he asked, tensely.
"A friend," Purdey said, being careful not to look away from his eyes. She didn't want to fight him, but she wasn't sure the reverse was true. "Gambit, Steed didn't send anyone after you, and neither did I."
"Who's that then?" he said, gesturing to the window with a jerk of his head. Purdey saw that a telescope had been set up to view the road below.
"I don't know. I haven't had a chance to look yet. May I?"
He thought about it for a moment and then nodded, putting the crutch down and hitching himself out of the way. Purdey bent to the telescope and hissed when the man's face swam into view. She'd given him the fading bruise on his chin herself, just after she'd kicked the knife out of his hand outside the armory where she'd been held prisoner. "It is one of Miller's men," she said, mostly to herself. And one with a grudge against Gambit, if Harrison’s reports were right about who killed Travis.
"What?" She looked up at Gambit, wondering if he'd been that pale a moment earlier. "What did you say?"
She glanced over to the watching children. "I can't explain it right now," she said. "But we've got to get you out of here before he comes in after you."
"Bloody hell," Gambit sank onto the bed, upsetting the bowl of cornflakes that had been left on the pillow, and then catching back language even worse as the milk soaked his trousers. "F... " He locked his jaw, visibly pulling his temper in until he could talk without swearing. "What if he goes after the kids? Peter, we've got to get the others clear of him, off the street. Now."
"What about the plan? If he thinks you've gone to the train..."
"No. I've got to lead him off." Gambit looked to Purdey. "That's right isn't it? I've got to lead him off, or he'll hurt one of the kids, and it will be all my fault."
"Yes it will," Purdey agreed, sharp with exasperation. "Why couldn't you have just come back to the car?"
"I meant to. And then I saw him following -- and there was something about him put the wind right up. Wasn't till I got up here that Sam and I worked out that he might have been sent by Steed." Gambit pounded a fist against his thigh, as if it would help him to think, and then pushed himself off the bed and hopped onefooted down to the headboard, so that he could look out the window without being so close to it as to be visible from the outside. "If I could just get to the river..."
"The river?" she asked.
"Yeah." His hand tightened on the headboard until the knuckles went white. "Something I need to ... I need to do. Or to find out if I've already done." He was trembling, his emotional balance as precarious as his physical balance. "I mean, it's been fifteen years."
As frustrated as she was by this whole complicated mess, it was clear that he was even more frustrated, and frightened into the bargain. She just couldn't stay angry with him, not when he was in this state. "At least you believe me about the year now," Purdey said, her voice softening as she went to steady him.
"Yeah. Kids don't lie about things like that." When he wasn't leaning on the crutches he was the right height again and she realized how tired she'd got of being the one looking down now that she was the one looking up. The last time she'd seen him at this angle was before Steed brought down the helicopter to fetch them away, though then his face had been a mask of gore. She rested her hand against his chest, both to support him and for the sake of feeling his heart beating underneath the cloth, wondering if he'd remember himself if she tugged on his tie, the way she had when he'd infuriated her after that horrible confusion with the doubles. The corner of his mouth quirked up suddenly, and she saw a transitory glint of himself flicker through his eyes. "But it still doesn't seem right. I mean, how's a bloke meant to have forgotten a girl like you?"
"I intend to take that up with you, once your memory's back," she answered, wondering why he looked most like himself to her when he was grim or flirting. She leaned forward and gave him a quick kiss on the lips, knowing it would disconcert him, wishing that it wouldn't. "Among other things."
"Oh, yuck, mush..." Peter's groan of dismay saved Gambit the necessity of replying, which was just as well, since judging by the dazed look in his eyes it was going to take a moment before he had enough bloodflow to the brain to be coherent.
"Are you married?" Florrie asked, and Purdey felt her own cheeks heating.
"No, no... we're just friends. And colleagues," she added hastily, kicking herself for giving into impulse while the children were in the room. Peter was looking anywhere except at the two adults and Florrie was considering them with a skeptical but interested eyebrow. "But you were right," she told the girl. "I have been worried."
"Sorry," Gambit said.
She patted his arm. "Just don't disappear on me again," she said. "And try trusting me. Steed too. We're on your side."
He muttered something about wishing he knew what side that was and sank back to the bed -- more carefully this time. When he was settled he looked up at her somberly. "Whether I trust you or not, I've still got to go out there and see if I can't lead him off. They trusted me," he nodded to the children. "Don't you see? And the sooner I go, the better."
"Not necessarily." Purdey took out the RT unit and thumbed the transmission switch. "Steed, I'm with Gambit, and I've had a look at the man who’s been following him. Definitely one of Miller's Mob."
"I see. How's Gambit?"
"He wants to go out the front door and leave the kids safe behind."
"If I thought that would work, I'd agree with him. But Sam and I have come up with a better notion. Can you get Gambit out the back way? Sam says it means going over garden walls." Steed sounded cheerful, at any rate, and Purdey wondered what he'd cooked up.
"Not easily. Those walls are four or five feet high." She felt a touch on her elbow and looked down to see what Gambit wanted.
"Can I talk to Sam?"
Purdey passed along the request, trying to squelch a pang of jealousy. What was it about Sam that Gambit trusted over herself and Steed, anyway? She handed the RT over as the boy's voice came on.
"Sam. Sam, it's too dangerous. If the Watcher's not from Steed, then he's probably the one who put me in hospital, and he's not going to hesitate to hurt you if he thinks you're in the way."
"I know. That's why we're going with you," Sam interrupted, before Gambit could repeat his offer to go out the door on his own.
"With me?" he asked instead, his forehead wrinkling. Peter and Florrie crowded a little closer to listen.
"Downriver. Like we planned, except it will be all of us. And instead of trying to come back upriver we'll call my father at work and have him meet us in the City, and then stay away until Mr. Steed's caught the Watcher and any friends he might have. They don't know about the secret tunnel, you see, so he can arrange for them to get caught the moment they come down the chute." Sam's voice was high and shaky, but certain. Purdey, watching the other three, thought that they were going to take more convincing. Peter took off his glasses and cleaned them with a shirttail as if the ritual would help him see better, and Florrie drew up one foot to rest against the other knee and balanced like a stork while she worried a thumbnail against her front teeth.
"And you think that's going to be safe?" Gambit voiced the hesitation for all of them.
"Safer than staying here," Sam said. "My dad's going to skin me, regardless, but if we're not here to be hurt, then no one's going to be able to hurt us. And the sooner the better. Only if you can't get over the walls we'll have to think of some other way to get you out of Peter's place, and that gives the Watcher more time to call in rein...reincarnations?"
"Reinforcements," Gambit corrected him with a wry smile. "All right, Sam. Give the radio back to Steed. I'll get over the walls," Gambit handed the RT back to Purdey. "Somehow."
Peter brightened. "We'll need the steps," he said and darted out of the room.
"Steed, just how quickly do you want us?" Purdey asked.
"We'll need a few minutes ourselves to get in position... start out in about five minutes," came the answer. "That should do, and we'll meet you along the way. "
"But that means we'll miss tea!" Florrie wailed, her thus-far admirable composure slipping rapidly into tears.
Purdey's doubts on Gambit's behalf didn't stop her from grinning when he instinctively turned on the charm and reached a hand out to the girl to draw her into a gentle hug. "Here, here, what's all this?"
Florrie sniffled a little into his shoulder and then drew back. "Sam sounds scared. Sam's never scared -- he's as bad as Peanut."
"Nothing wrong with being scared when there's something to be scared of," Gambit said. He turned up a corner of the bedsheet to use on her face. "Now about missing tea..."
"I'm hungry," Florrie admitted. "And Mum's making chicken."
"Well, I can't help the chicken. But tell you what," he said, picking up his crutches again. "I saw a loaf of bread in the kitchen. We'll take that and some jam with us and eat along the way. Okay? I don't think Peter's dad will mind if I add that to the cornflakes I'm going to pay for."
Florrie liked that idea. "It's not as good as chicken, but I guess it'll have to do." She smiled damply. "And there's bound to be tins of beans. Peter's always got lots of beans."
Gambit levered himself upright. "Right. Go on, then, see what you can find in the cupboards while I work my way down the stairs. I'll bet the others will be hungry too."
"Don't forget you'll need a tin opener," Purdey said. "And spoons!" she added to the child's vanishing back. She bent to move the chair out of the way so that Gambit could maneuver more easily to the door. He'd stopped to put a child's satchel over his shoulder, but when he straightened and met her eyes he matched her smile. For a moment she could almost forget. "You and your damsels in distress!"
Gambit grinned. "Damsels plural?" he enquired. "That sounds hopeful anyway. I hope most of them are a bit older though!"
Peter came back, carrying a three-step ladder over his shoulder and the brief moment of rapport was over, but as the boy led the way down the stairs to the cellar Purdey found herself contemplating it. As annoyed as she was with the man for taking off on his own, he'd benefited from it. Maybe it was being around the children that made him seem to act older than he had at the hospital, but it was clear to her that he'd discarded some of the uncertainty he'd had earlier. He was treating her more like an equal at least, and less like an authority, or an impossibly older beauty. A shame in a way, as she'd rather enjoyed being able to make him blush. But Gambit -- her Gambit -- was still inside that battered, fuzzy head, and the more she saw the more determined she was to help him back to himself.
The garden door opened easily from the inside, though it had the kind of catch that would lock automatically when it swung closed, but getting up to it still involved going up a short flight of rickety wooden stairs and Purdey could see why Gambit hadn't tried it earlier. The stairs were barely wide enough for him to use even one of the crutches, and the railing wobbled so much that she found herself catching hold to steady it as he made his careful way up into the afternoon shade of the garden. She stopped to jam the lock open, knowing Steed would want to be able to get in without climbing into windows, and then followed Gambit and Purdey down to the far end of the garden. Florrie joined them as they reached the first of the walls to get over, bringing a bulging carrysack that clanked ominously. "I hope my mum doesn't decide to look outside or we're for it," she whispered.
Gambit looked up at the open window above them and blew exasperatedly. "Lovely. I've not only got to get over the wall I've got to do it without making a noise," he muttered. "This should be interesting. All right, Peter, set up the steps."
"You can't put the crutches on the steps," Purdey protested quietly.
"I'm not going to try." He reached down and pushed at the steps, rearranging them until he had them positioned as firmly as possible in the soft ground. "Okay. Stand back."
If she'd known what he was going to do she'd have protested, but by the time she figured it out he'd already backed up a couple of crutchhop lengths and then swung forward, putting his good leg on the highest step he could manage and then flinging the crutches aside as he reached for the wall and boosted himself toward it with both arms, kicking the steps away and then swinging his legs high and around like a gymnast on a horse. Somehow he managed to end up sitting on the concrete cap over the bricks of the wall, facing into the next garden. Purdey darted forward to grab the back of his coat and arm so that he wouldn't fall.
"That was a damfool stunt," she growled, in lieu of being able to yell at him.
"It worked, didn't it?" Not without costing him a good bit of hoarded strength, judging from his pallor, and his pained whisper. "Peter. I need the steps over this side next."
"It won't work twice," Purdey pointed out, accepting the ladder and crutches that Peter and Florrie collected and handing them over once the children had scrambled over the wall. She went over next, and positioned the steps under Gambit's good foot. He scooted out until he could make the short drop to the top of the stepladder and then bent down to get the crutches and swing down to the ground, moving very carefully. He didn't protest her supporting grasp either, as she steadied him. "And there's another wall to get over."
"It's going to have to, unless you've got another suggestion," Gambit said shortly, his eyes shut tight against against the pain. "Just give me a minute."
"Well I think we can manage something similar but slower, if you don't mind waiting for Steed to help."
"I can manage by myself."
"Yes, but why bother when you don't have to?" Purdey asked, trying to keep her tone reasonable. "You're letting the kids help."
He looked at her sharply, and then flushed. "Yeah, I guess I am," he mumbled, ducking his head.
He looked at his shoes, knowing that he'd disappointed Purdey again and wondering why it bothered him so much. He liked her, and truth be told he wanted to trust her, as well. But she'd been there, when he'd woken up and she'd wanted to trick him into telling...
No. Wait. She'd had black hair, hadn't she? And a little scar across her eyebrow. He'd noticed it when she bent over the bed.
"Gambit. Mike!" Purdey sounded worried. He opened his eyes and looked at her eyebrows. They were perfect. "Are you dizzy? Do you need to sit down?"
"No. No..." he answered. "I was just... thinking of something." The memory was gone again, except for that glimpse of dark hair and the small scar. "Purdey," her name felt bare without the honorific, but right for her somehow. "Purdey, was there another girl?"
One of those perfect eyebrows canted upwards, amused. "There've been several," she said. "You'll have to be more specific."
"At the hospital. With black hair."
She had to think about it for a moment, he could see it in her eyes, but she nodded. "Two of the nurses. And a third, although I don't think she's young enough to qualify as a 'girl', at least not the kind you usually mean."
"Oh." He wasn't sure what to do about that. He didn't want to go back to the hospital if he could avoid it. But there was no way here and now to tell if Purdey were only pretending not to know which person he meant. No time for explanations either. He took a better grip on the crutches and looked around for Peter. "Which wall now?"
"Over here," Peter said, taking the ladder into the shade of a cherry tree and setting it up again. "I don't think you can jump over here -- you'd hit your head on a tree branch."
He looked up. "I don't think I can pull myself up by a branch either," he admitted. "The tree's not strong enough. Sure this is the only place to get over?"
"The other side's all roses except for here," Florrie contributed. "Let me get over first, though and I'll get Sam and the others to hurry up and come help."
"Good thought," said Purdey. "Here, I'll hold your bag. And, Gambit, once she's gone you can sit down on the ladder for a bit."
He nodded. "Probably a good idea. It's shady here, anyway."
Purdey waited until he'd managed to turn and lower himself to the ladder before she touched his cheek with the back of her fingers. "You feel a bit warm."
"You would too, if you'd tried jumping over a wall with one foot," he told her, the words coming out more sharply than he meant. After all, it wasn't like she was fussing at him as much as Aunt Mabel always did. But to his surprise, she only grinned.
"I expect I would," she conceded cheerfully. "If I was silly enough to try it in the first place." She leaned against the wall and began to rummage in Florrie's bag. "Ah, I thought so. She's put the cans on top of the bread."
He closed his eyes again, trying to remember something, anything, about Purdey from before the hospital. Something that would tell him if she were friend or foe. Something that would tell him why she'd kissed him, and whether it was her double-barrelled slingshot in his pocket. Double-barrelled slingshot? But it had been his own voice speaking, and he couldn't remember where he'd been or when -- all he was certain of was that he'd been cold and afraid. Cold, and afraid, but not alone. He thought about asking Purdey whether it was hers, but before he could decide what he'd do if she said no, he heard another voice behind him.
"Sorry to take so long," Steed's cheerfulness had an undertone of unmistakable urgency. "But we had to arrange for transportation."
Steed waited until Purdey and the boy who must be Peter got Gambit to his feet and the ladder out of the way before he boosted Tinpot over the wall and clambered over himself. Sam stayed on the rosegarden side, saying "You'll need me here to catch," when Steed glanced the question at him.
Steed nodded. On the whole he found himself approving of Sam Holmes. The ability to think ahead -- and act on those thoughts -- was rare enough in a just-turned-twelve-year old, judging from his memories of various nephews and nieces at that awkward age. Combined with the kind of mind that thoroughly enjoyed a puzzle to be solved, a discriminating ability to dance around inconvenient rules, and a quick eye for the problems and possibilities of a plan, and it was clear that Sam certainly had the kind of potential that should probably be encouraged to stay on the less shady side of the law. Although in Steed's opinion chances were slim the boy would join the ranks of Diabolical Masterminds -- not with that idealistic streak -- which was just as well, since by the time Sam reached his growth Steed would definitely be slowing down.
It had been Sam who had convinced Steed that Gambit wouldn't be able to rest until he'd had the chance to test the memories which were bothering him. Well, that and the realization that the Jaguar was under observation. They'd tested whether the motorcyclist would follow them or stay with the car by going around a corner -- Steed hadn't even had to explain why, at least not to Sam -- and when it was clear that the man was committed to following the Jag, Sam had broached his idea about using the river to get Gambit clear. Steed had revised it to include the other children, and meeting Sam's father. Then he'd bought some fish and chips for the journey, since everyone was going to miss having their tea, and they needed an excuse for having gone out of sight before they came back to the Jag and the radio to pass the plan along to Purdey.
Still, Steed had kept his doubts in reserve -- one of them being that Gambit would have the strength for the longer, slower route. It was a relief to see the man upright, and far more stable than he'd been earlier, for all that Florrie had been worried about him. Still a bit shaky physically, perhaps, but the edginess that might slip into hysteria had faded away, and he met Steed's smile with one of his own.
"Sorry I didn't come back. I meant to, but..."
"But you were being followed," Steed finished for him. "Sam told me that much. It doesn't matter now."
Gambit's smile grew rueful. "Well, I had promised to be good."
Steed chuckled. "And I promised to get you to the part of London where you wanted to go -- and this isn't it, is it? So why don't we just extend the deadline or forget about it altogether?"
Gambit's shoulders relaxed a fraction, just enough to show how tense he'd been a moment earlier. "Fair enough. As long as the kids are all right."
"We'll try to keep them that way." Steed looked over to Purdey. "If it looks like someone's following you while you're on the water, raise Harton with your RT -- he'll be listening on channel two -- and he'll take care of it."
"Right. Where are you going to be?" Purdey asked.
"Playing bait." Steed acknowledged the alarmed rise of her eyebrows with a nod. "Don't fret, I won't be alone for long. Merton, Atherton and Lessing are on their way to help out. Just as well -- the chap that our friend Sam calls 'the Watcher' has definitely got reinforcements of his own. At least two that we've spotted."
"Two of them?" Purdey echoed, as Steed took the ladder from Peter and set it up again.
"Fortunately," Steed said, "One of them is tied down with keeping an eye on my car. The other one may be a problem though." He signalled Gambit to come over. "No, with your back to the ladder," he added. "Purdey..."
She took the other side of Gambit and braced herself. Gambit got the idea straight away and let Steed and Purdey support the crutches as he got his good foot up one rung of the steps and then straightened his leg so he was a foot taller. He had to use their shoulders to go up the second step, but by then he was high enough to reach back and hitch himself into a sitting position on the wall.
"Wait a moment," Purdey said, as she passed the crutch she'd been holding over to Sam. Steed got the other crutch over and carefully pulled the ladder out from Gambit's dangling legs to fold it shut and pass it over next. At that point the problem became clear -- with the roses along the rest of the wall, only Sam was in position to help Gambit down again, and none of the rest of them could climb over to help.
But if Sam was worried it didn't show. He took charge of crutches and ladder without argument and got them set up as he waited for Gambit to swing his legs carefully up and around. "Okay, Gumby. I've got you," the boy said, holding up his arms as if to take Gambit's weight.
"I can manage most of it," Gambit said, taking hold of the crutches. "Stand back a couple of feet and see if you can't keep me out of the peonies, okay?"
"Oh... All right." Sam stood back and braced himself, ready to take the damage if Gambit started to fall.
Gambit looked down over his shoulder at Steed. "I've got to drop about four inches to get my foot onto the top of the ladder. Mind slowing me down?"
Steed chuckled as he got ahold of Gambit's belt-loop. "I never thought I'd hear you ask me that," he said. "Purdey, you take the other side. Ready... steady..."
Despite the assist from Steed and Purdey, the momentum of coming down from the wall would have sent him into the opposite flowerbeds if it hadn't been for Sam. One of the crutchtips sank deep into the soft soil and wrenched itself out of his hand. If Sam hadn't quickly substituted himself for the missing prop he'd have fallen and as it was he had to hop awkwardly to avoid knocking Sam over and going down with him. But somehow they managed to keep standing, even tangled as they were, and for a moment he found himself remembering a small cousin, helping him walk home after a disastrous ride on a bicycle with broken brakes. No. He had been the smaller one, trying to support an injured man through a hot, rancid darkness...
He opened his eyes. "Sorry," he tried to straighten, to take his weight off of the boy in spite of the protests from his bad knee. "I was just... remembering something."
"I'm the one who should be sorry," Sam said, softly. "I know you wanted to go by yourself. And I promised..."
"It's all right," he said. "It's been a hard day on promises all around." Except for one, and that was fifteen years old. If only he could remember all of it!
"Gambit?" Purdey had followed him over the wall.
"I'm okay." Or at least not much worse than he'd been before. He waited while she pried the crutch free and wiped the worst of the muck off the end. "What happens now?"
"Tinpot shows me the 'secret passage' and the rest of you head for the river," Steed said, from his side of the wall. The older man lifted Florrie's bag up onto the top of the wall with a small surprised noise. "Taking your bricks with you."
"It's not bricks," Peter said, following the baggage. "It's tea."
"Still in the original chests, I take it," Steed said, standing back to give Peter room to maneuver.
He'd nearly forgotten. "It's food. We took it from Peter's kitchen. I'll need to pay for it somehow," he told Steed, keenly aware of how empty his wallet was.
Steed nodded approvingly. "I see."
"We took the steps from there too," Peter said. "And I'll be in trouble if they got lost."
"Pass them back and we'll get them at least as far as the house," Steed said. "And don't worry about the money either," he added. "It will all be taken care of."
Sam wished he knew what it was about Steed that made Gumby worried. He could figure why Steed was worried about Gumby -- he was worried himself -- but the frown that Gumby got when Steed said he'd take care of the money didn't make sense. And there wasn't time to investigate it, because Steed was already gone with Tinpot, and Florrie was already summoning the rest of them through the gap in the fence at the far end of the yard that led to the street where they'd left Peanut guarding the "transportation."
Another question to add to the list, in case he ever had a chance to ask it. Although as far as Sam was concerned the "transportation" was a point in Steed's favor. He'd given Mrs. Moynihan ten pounds to lend it after all.
And Sam had got to ride it on the way over, which he'd wanted to do for about a million years, even if it meant Peanut got to ride too.
"A tandem bicycle?" Purdey's amused question sounded loud after all the whispering in the garden. "How far are we going?"
"Only a few blocks," Sam reassured her, as he waited for Gumby to negotiate the gap. It wasn't an easy trick on crutches. "Just down to the boathouse. But Mr. Steed said you'd want to be able to go fast if you had to. And it's mostly downhill."
"It's not going to be easy to keep the pedals from hitting Gumby's bad knee," Peter said. He and Florrie were looking at the tandem longingly, though, and Peanut was grinning back with the superior air of someone who'd already had a go.
"I can manage if it's not too far," Gumby said, hitching himself to one side so Sam could get out onto the sidewalk. "Sam, where are the others?"
"Well, Orly's down at the Handy, getting her fueled for the trip. And Annie's still guarding the coal chute. I'm going to go fetch her while the rest of you go to the river and Tinpot will meet us there as soon as he's finished showing Mr. Steed how to get through the secret passages."
"What about Toad?"
"The Watcher saw him help you get me down the chute." Gumby didn't go on to explain the problem, which most grownups would have done, but Sam could see it anyway.
Sam banged himself in the forehead for being an idiot. "Bloody hell... he's in danger too." One more complication. And it would have to be dealt with. "I'll see to Toad. You get down to the river."
Chapter 6: Unsafe
A short chapter to let y'all know I'm working on this again. I've got quite a bit of the next part written, so hopefully there won't be quite as much delay, but I'm trying to alternate around on my all too many WIPS this year.
When they reached the dock, Purdey breathed a sigh of relief. Gambit had done his best to help one-footedly, but there was no denying that the awkward way he'd had to prop his bad leg up with one of the crutches had made it harder than it ought to be to balance the bicycle. The children were all panting and laughing, giddy with the effort of keeping up, even though Purdey gone as slow as she could and still keep upright. Florrie and Peter immediately set about helping to get Gambit dismounted from the bicycle, but the youngest boy - Peanut - jumped down to the deck of a green narrowboat still carrying the crutch he'd been entrusted with. "Hey, Orly! We're here!"
"Oy!" Gambit called after him. "I'm gonna need that!"
"Peanut?" a lanky black-haired boy called from the boathouse. "Where's Sam? I need the money to pay for the petrol. They won't let us leave the dock, else!"
"He's getting Toad," Florrie called back, and then looked up at Purdey. "You don't have any money, do you? We can pay you back."
"I should think this trip would be on us," Purdey said. She looked to Gambit. "Will you be okay till I get back? It looks like getting aboard might be tricky to me."
"I'll be fine," he said, offering her a grin. "I'm a sailor, remember? I'm used to this sort of thing."
"That was with both knees," she reminded him. "You've already done enough messing about for one day. Don't you remember what Dr. Peterson said about that knee and living with a cane for the rest of your life?" That squelched him -- a little too much really, Purdey realized, when she saw the frightened eighteen-year-old looking out of his eyes. "Look, just wait up here on the dock until I get back, all right?"
"Yes, miss. Purdey." He wanted to kick himself, both for forgetting about what the doctor had said, and for the disappointment on her face when he forgot that she was meant to be a friend and not a 'Miss'. But he had forgotten what the doctor had said, and he wasn't any the happier for remembering. Was this part of the amnesia? Was he losing parts of 1976, too? Or was it just that he hadn't wanted to think about being crippled? He wished that Sam were there. Or Steed. Even if he still had entirely too many misgivings about how dangerous Steed could be.
"Gumby?" Peanut was waiting with the other crutch. He took it, saw the Florrie and Peter were watching him uncertainly too and made himself smile at them.
"It's all right. I just have be a little more careful, that's all. Florrie, Peter, you get the bike and the food on board, make sure everything's ready to cast off by the time the others catch us up. Peanut..." he looked around, saw a telephone booth on the embankment, "let's go give your Dad a call, make sure he knows you're coming."
"Mr. Steed is going to call him," Peanut objected.
"Yeah, well, he's a busy man. And it never hurts to be sure." Mike was nearly certain that Steed was intent on doing the right thing, but nearly only counted with horseshoes and handgrenades. And it wouldn’t cost that much to make sure of things.
But Peanut knew where his father worked, not the telephone number, which meant another call to the operator for help before they could try calling. And then they had to get past the switchboard operator at the office and Mr. Holmes’s secretary, who had clearly been given instructions not to believe any wild tale her boss’s offspring might tell her. After the third time Peanut “but...”-ed up against a stone wall, he took possession of the handset. “Pardon me, Miss, but it’s very important that we speak to Mr. Holmes.”
“He’s in a meeting,” came the instant reply, followed by, “who are you?”
“My name’s Gambit. And I’m bringing the children and the boat down to London, to the stairs at Cousin Lane, just above London Bridge. We should be there in hour or so, and if Mr. Holmes isn’t there to meet us I’m going to turn the lot of them over to the police.” He hung up, decisively, and Peanut looked up at him with gape-mouthed admiration.
“You didn’t wait to see if she got it right!” the boy exclaimed.
“If she didn’t,” he said, “she’ll be looking for a new job come tomorrow.”
Getting Annie started down to the river was easy enough. Sam had just told her to go inside through her house and meet Tinpot downstairs, while he took over at the coal cellar door. That might have been a mistake, actually. She could have just asked Toad to come along, and he'd probably have done it. Sam had had to resort to other forms of persuasion, and his knuckles were complaining.
But it worked. And it would keep on working as long as he didn't get so far ahead that Toad gave up chasing him. Sam looked back over his shoulder to make sure, and nearly stumbled. Toad was two houses back, red faced with anger and running hard, and not a block behind him the Watcher was coming too. Sam said a word that he was pretty sure his mother didn't know he knew and dodged into the alley behind the fish and chips shop, hoping that a fast turn or two might shake off the man, and still not discourage Toad.
He took several detours, including one under a fence, that he knew wouldn’t slow Toad down for a moment, but might give a grownup pause, so he was still a street away from the docks when he saw Annie and Tinpot sauntering down the usual way. A glance behind told him that Toad was still in view, but so was the Watcher, worse luck. Sam took a deep breath and waved one arm to make sure he caught Tinpot’s eye. “Annie! Tinpot! RUN!”
Tinpot looked past Sam, his eyes going wide like a cartoon character as he began tugging on Annie’s sleeve to get her to go faster. Sam put his head down and tried to accelerate. It wasn’t easy. His legs felt like they were made out of rubber, and shouting had used up all the oxygen he’d had to spare. But it was only a few yards now. Sam flew across the road to the riverbank, ignoring the honking and squealing of several cars, and reached the gate above the dock a few seconds before Tinpot and Annie, and slid through it, catching his fingers in the chain link fence for a brake as the other two darted past him, Toad breathing down their necks. Sam grabbed the bigger boy by the arm and haul him in through the gap before slamming the gate shut in the Watcher’s face and swinging down the bar.
“What the hell?” Toad exclaimed, staring at the commando who was already starting to climb the fence.
“Boat. Quick!” Sam gasped, pushing past Toad to leap down the stairs toward the pontoon where the Handy was waiting. He didn’t wait to see if Toad would follow, which was a mistake, because the other boy hesitated just long enough that the Watcher had a chance to catch up.
There was just enough warning that he could step back, but his grab for Peanut’s shirt went wild when Sam collided with his younger brother and the two boys went sprawling onto the boards of the pontoon. And hard on Sam’s heels the boy called Toad was just being grabbed by the man who had stood outside of Peter’s window, watching.
Without thinking, he swung out of the phonebooth, putting himself between the Watcher and his captive and the rest of the children. “Stop!” he shouted, as Toad struggled to squirm out from under the solid arm that was wrapped around his neck. “Let the boy go!” He tried to look dangerous, and impressive, like a hero in the movies, but he had the sinking feeling that he only looked constipated. “It’s me you’re after.”
“That’s right, Major,” the Watcher said, raising his arm higher, so that Toad had to give up wriggling and hang on with both hands to keep from strangling. With his other hand, the Watcher dug into his jacket pocket for a walkie talkie. “It is you I’m after. And I know better than to give up the leverage that’s going to get you to come along, nice and easy.” The Watcher thumbed the transmission button with a malicious grin. “Hawk One to Aerie, come in.”
He tried to think of a way out of this that wouldn’t get anyone else hurt. “What if I gave you my word?” he began, hitching himself another two feet towards the commando. He couldn’t stand and fight, not on crutches, but they did give him a longer reach.
“Oh, no,” Purdey’s voice came from the road above. “We’re not playing that game again.’ She dropped down the bank, landing behind the Watcher, who started to turn to meet the new threat and got a toe in the chin for his trouble. Perfect. He swung the right crutch, and sent the radio flying.
Purdey spared a half breath’s regret when the commando’s RT slithered off the dock and into the river. It would have been so nice to be able to listen in on the 19th’s transmissions. But at least when the man had dropped his radio, he’d also dropped his hostage. She really wasn’t up for another round of “Mike Gambit is a noble idiot” today. Not when she had a dangerous opponent to take down.
She gave him a little nod. “ So nice to see you again, Corporal... what was it? Teller, Killer? Keller, that’s it.” She snapped her fingers without ever looking away. No use in taking a karate stance. Not when he’d be expecting that. She stood up straight instead and took up first position. “No knife today?”
“Oh, I’ve got a knife,” Keller growled, pulling one out from a sheath hidden under his jacket. He scuttled as far to one side of the dock as he could, his head flipping from side to side as he tried to keep an eye on both Purdey and Gambit.
Purdey didn’t bother to hide her grin. She liked knife fighters. They were usually so convinced that the blade was their best choice that it was easy to get past their defences. Beyond Keller, she was aware that Gambit was trying to shoo the children towards the safety of the boat, and they were refusing to be shooed without Gambit, but she kept her concentration on her opponent. “Hm,” she said, giving the long blade a disdainful sniff. “Overcompensating much?”
As she intended, the insult had the effect of turning most of Keller’s attention onto her. Which was just as well, because Gambit had no business straining himself anymore. He was pale enough as it was. And then she couldn’t spare any more time worrying about Gambit. Keller had made up his mind and gone on the attack.
Sam tugged on Gumby’s sleeve. “Come on!” He didn’t shout because he was out of breath, but a part of his brain was happy he couldn’t make enough noise to distract the fighters. “We’ve got to get you on board before...” But he couldn’t finish the thought. And besides, Purdey didn’t look like she was losing.
“What the hell’s going on?” Toad hissed, but he’d taken Gumby’s other side and was helping Sam pressure the man into moving back along the dock. “What kind of game are you playing?”
“Does it look like a game?” Tinpot squeaked. He and Annie had grabbed Peanut, Sam was glad to see, because Peanut was too busy watching the fight to get himself out of harm’s way.
“Cor!” Peanut exclaimed, as Purdey kicked the Watcher’s shoulder, knocking him back. Sam wasn’t sure how she’d managed not to get stabbed in the process. “Go get him, Miss!”
The shout drew Gumby’s attention away from the fight, and he reached out to tap the back of Peanut’s head. “Get in the boat!” he commanded.
“You too!” Sam said, and this time it worked, at least a little, because Gumby glanced down at him for a moment. “She doesn’t need our help!” He thought that Gumby might argue, but just then Purdey managed to land a kick where no boy ever wanted to be kicked and the Watcher crumbled into a ball, clutching at the damage.
Gumby grinned suddenly. “Guess not,” he said, and stopped resisting Sam’s tugging. Purdey jumped over her opponent while he was mewling, and didn’t even look alarmed when he lurched up again to try for her. She just kicked backwards, knocking the knife into the river and the Watcher into the stairs. He sagged against them, clearly unconscious.
“Right,” Purdey said, dusting her hands (even though she hadn’t even used them!) “Just let me make a phone call to get the rubbish picked up and we can get out of here.”