Her front door had been unlocked.
Mrs Emma Peel registered this fact before she'd put key to lock. She took a step back and considered.
She knew she'd locked the door before going out to her morning's practice at a nearby karate studio. No one else had a key to her flat: she'd only moved in two months ago, after the unending, all too dead silence in the home she'd shared with her (presumed) late husband Peter. The silence, however, had followed her here.
After pushing aside the useless ache the thought gave her, she put down the bag she carried and then went boldly inside, ready to fight any miscreant or burglar who might be lurking. But two steps in, and – “Uncle Reginald.”
“So sorry, my dear, so sorry to have just come in like this, dreadfully bad form.” Reginald Knight, a very model of a modern major-general in all his red-faced, spit-and-polish glory, rose at her arrival.
So did another man, albeit with more grace than did her portly uncle. She couldn't make out his face, there in an odd slice of shadow, but the set of his shoulders gave her a pang of familiarity. “Dreadfully bad form,” he echoed in a smooth voice which nevertheless danced on the edge of a laugh.
She shut the door behind her. “Uncle,” she said. “To what do I owe the... pleasure?”
Crossing to her, he kissed her offered cheek and then led her a few steps in. “Well, my dear – before I begin, may I introduce Mr John Steed. A Ministry man, you know.”
“Which Ministry?” she said.
“Oh, that would be telling,” Mr Steed said, as he moved out of shadow.
She caught her breath. For a moment – just a moment – she thought she saw Peter come back to her. Another look, however, revealed differences. This Steed was so polished that his surface all but reflected the sunbeams coming through the wall of windows: perfect suit and tie, bowler hat held in one manicured hand, the curl in his hair ruthlessly controlled. Still, she didn't think he should be underestimated.
When he took her hand (which she didn't remember extending), she knew she was right. There was strength hidden behind the polish.
“Mrs Peel,” he said. He neither bowed nor kissed her hand, either of which she wouldn't have put past him, but smiled, an incongruously merry expression. “Your Uncle Reginald said that you might have an hour or two to help me.”
“Did he?” she said neutrally.
“It's your cousin Kitty, you see,” Uncle Reginald said. What he left unspoken was that Miss Katherine Knight was a misandrist of notable proportions, who had willingly spoken to no male in or out of the family for fifty years. “Arbor Cottage, yes?”
“Yes,” she said.
Steed's eyes, she saw, went very bright when he was amused. “It seems,” he said, “that she saw something nasty in the woodshed.”
For the first time since learning of her husband's presumed death, Mrs Emma Peel burst out laughing.
“My dear Mrs Peel, despite my literary jest, it really might be a serious matter,” Steed said, his words almost lost in the wind.
He'd put the top down on his Bentley convertible when, dressed more appropriately for a country excursion, she'd joined him on this afternoon trip into the wilds of Surrey. Uncle Reginald had bolted shortly after introductions had been made, something about a crisis at the War Office (Major-General Reginald Bertram Knight not being one for newfangled names like the Ministry of Defence). Steed had driven them through London traffic without much more than a smile now and then, but it seemed that the near proximity of second cousin Kitty's cottage allowed for more information.
Therefore Mrs Peel pushed her hair out of her eyes and said astringently, “So I gathered from the breaking-and-entering, although you've certainly taken your time in explaining. What is this matter?”
He slowed for a curve in the narrow lane, and gave her a sidelong look. “Do you recall Miss Knight's nearest neighbour?”
“Haven't visited for years, but....” She sought to recall her last trip. Springtime, between Hilary and Trinity terms at Somerville her second year. Cousin Kitty then had been a sprightly seventy-five-year-old, the terror of the village WI and beyond; she'd had a running battle with the soi-disant squire of Little Fire, a newcomer who believed in loud noises at all times, even during Evensong. “I believe it was someone called Terence Hawk.”
“Quite right.” There came that smile again, and this time she saw the danger in it. “Mr Terence Hawk, maker of weapons and all-round unpleasant fellow.”
“You disapprove of guns?” she said.
“I hear you are a fine shot, Mrs Peel.” This time his smile was friendly. “I don't care much for guns, no, but I am unalterably opposed to an Englishman making secret weapons deals with our Soviet brethren.”
“And Terence Hawk would be one of those fellows,” she said.
They'd slowed in front of a monstrously pretentious gate barring a gravelled drive. The stylized figure of a hawk grasping an indeterminate, broken figure in its talons marked the sign overhead. Grasping Hall.
Steed waved one neatly gloved hand at the sign. “I do wonder who's meant to be so grasped. There have been rumours about dissension in Mr Hawk's fields.”
“A question of prey, you mean?” They shared a knowing look. Then, since they had very little time before they reached Arbor Cottage, she said, “So what did Cousin Kitty see?”
“We're not sure,” he said. “She rang your Aunt Emily this morning and said something about, yes, an ugly sight out in the garden shed. She'd been feeling unwell these past months, but this morning being so fine– “ A smile at that, and the drift of clouds overhead. “– she'd gone out to look at the bulbs in the shed, and she saw 'a horror, Emily, a horror. There's a man about.'” As he spoke the last words, he imitated the creaky alarm of an octogenarian.
“You would make a very fine old woman,” she said. “So Aunt Emily told Uncle Reginald, and he told you?”
“He told someone in my office – the strange goings-on being perhaps more than a local constable should investigate, what with Mr Hawk already a person of interest to us. Footloose and fancy-free as I am, I was given this duty, with this very pleasant company.”
“I suppose you find that approach effective in some quarters,” she said.
He laughed – and then drew the Bentley to a stop a few yards away from the Arbor Cottage gate. She sensed his mood changing, even before he said softly, “'Ware danger.”
Behind the low stone wall, the blossoming apple trees, and the arch of budding roses over the path was her Cousin Kitty's charming home. Its front door hung awkwardly open, as if its hinges had been broken.
She and Steed looked at each other. In that significant exchange of silent information she found a peculiar sense of comfort in their minds' meeting. And then she thought only of Cousin Kitty and hidden danger and loss.
She took the lead: avoiding the gate, which so often had creaked a warning, and vaulting over the stone wall. He was right behind her. When they reached the open door, however, he took off his bowler hat and dangled it in front of the threshold. No sound from inside – Wait. A moan.
She was the first in.
What at first glance looked like a crumpled heap of clothes on the bottom step of the staircase was not. When Emma knelt at her cousin's side, she saw the old woman's chest rise once, twice, and she put out her hand to check her pulse.
At the touch, Cousin Kitty opened her eyes. “Nasty....shed.”
“Yes. We've come to investigate it for you,” Mrs Peel said.
“Feathers,” Cousin Kitty said. “Claws.” Then she closed her eyes, and, as Mrs Peel eased her onto the thick rug on the polished oak boards, sank into herself. The next words were a breath, a flutter of feathers indeed: “Get that man away.”
Mrs Peel turned to find Steed not quite hovering. “Where is it?” he said quietly.
“I'll take you.”
She led the way through to the kitchen. The backdoor was cracked open, the spring wind a cold-edged intruder.
Steed said, “While ordinarily I'd say ladies first, if you'd allow me?” This request was pro forma only, as he'd already shouldered in front of her. He opened the door and took a step into the kitchen garden.
What appeared to be a giant hawk, all feathers and claws and hooked beak, came at him.
Steed ducked, leapt, and then took the creature down. It was, she saw, clearly a man underneath the raptor disguise.
She didn't linger. The shed was just on the other side of the arbor for which the cottage was named. She ran through dappled light to the white-painted doors of the shed.
Inside was something ticking, an amplified clock.... She decided not to speculate further. She opened the door.
Again, feathers and claws and hooked beak, hot breath on a cold day, and the ticking, the ticking, the ticking –
She used her assailant's weight against him, letting him overbalance, head first, onto the flagstone path. Then she slammed the costumed head against the stones one more time, just to make sure he wouldn't attack again.
When she turned back to the shed, she saw four things which shouldn't be there. An oversized alarm clock, the positions of the hour marked not with numbers but with words: it was half past Too Late. The bloodied body of a sparrowhawk. A wooden case, its slats on one side broken so that metal gleamed from within. A tweed-clad body, lying face down, with one scratched hand touching the case.
The ticking, the ticking, the ticking marked the time since death.
“Don't touch it,” said Steed as he reached her. The warmth of him standing so close shocked her. It reminded her how cold she felt deep down, where her grief lived.
But that unhappy realisation didn't mean she wouldn't keep up her end. “Of those many horrors, Steed, which do you feel should remain untouched?”
“All of them.” He smiled into her eyes. “Mrs Peel, it's your first case. No need to dive into the muddy dark on your first trip to the pool.” He briefly rested his hand on the small of her back, even as he turned his attention to the contents of the shed. “I rather think that's one Terence Hawk, brought down by a bigger bird. And I rather think you might do well to look in on your cousin Kitty.”
“I rather think you're right.” She mirrored his touch even more briefly and then turned away.
Along the path were the unconscious bodies of the assailants she and Steed had beaten. As she stepped over them, she thought about the implications of Steed's words. Your first case. Your first trip to the pool.
As she collected her querulous but ambulatory cousin Kitty, made her tea, and rang both the local doctor and Aunt Emily for assistance, she thought about them still.
When an hour later Steed asked her if she'd like to be driven back to London, and thence to Brown's for tea, she said yes.
They didn't talk of the case until the tea was poured.
“It seems,” Steed said as he pushed the cucumber sandwiches in her direction, “that Terence Hawk had been targeted by some fairly nasty individuals once he'd rejected their bid on his latest weapon system. A belated case of patriotism, it appears.”
“The nasty people being our Soviet brethren?” she said mildly, and sipped her tea.
“Full marks, Mrs Peel.” He smiled at her. “Apparently they'd used psychological warfare on him for some months –”
“The clock, the hovering hawks.”
“Exactly. Got him on edge, poor villain, as they renewed their efforts for the weapon. They'd used your cousin's garden shed as their staging point during her months of illness.”
She hesitated over the cucumber sandwiches, then chose a smoked salmon. They didn't need to discuss Cousin Kitty's remorse over ringing Mr Hawk that morning – to give him a piece of her mind for frightening her, she'd said, “not to lure him to his death.” But when he'd come to inspect the shed after lunch, so had his enemies.
Mrs Peel and Steed had just been half past Too Late.
“More tea, Mrs Peel?” Steed said, at which she realised she'd drifted into unhappy reverie. He was gazing at her with annoying sympathy.
So she smiled, and poured her own tea, and took a scone as well.
Their talk during the rest of their tea was superficial but cheerful. They knew many of the same people, it appeared; they knew some of the same horses. She found it comforting, the familiar cut-and-thrust of witty anecdote, the steam of the second pot of tea curling around his smile. She found herself smiling too, eased by his company.
And so she waited until his Bentley drew up in front of her building before she said, “What did you mean earlier when you called this my first case?”
His gloved fingers beat a tattoo on the steering wheel before he said, quiet and serious, “I'm looking for a partner, you see. Not in the Ministry, but someone who can move freely outside it. Mrs Gale, who's worked with me for the past few years, has left for warmer climes. And you, Mrs Peel....” His look was steady, with only a hint of the lightness he was capable of. “Well, Mrs Peel, you're needed.”
She took his nearer hand – even through the fine leather the heat of his body radiated – and held it. He returned the pressure of her fingers without force, and then waited for her to speak. The city around them seemed to sink into murmuring, there in the falling dusk, as if waiting too.
It wasn't a difficult decision. “Do you fence, Steed?”
“Indeed I do,” he said.
“The next time you call, I'll have a foil ready for you.” She released his hand. “Until the next case, then.”
Smiling, he touched his hat. “Until the next case, Mrs Peel.”
She walked swiftly up to the front door of her mansion block, then turned. His car idling almost without sound, he still watched her. He still smiled.
There in the murmur of the falling dusk, she burst out laughing, and the unending, almost dead silence of the past few months shattered, and she felt quite warm.