CHAPTER 1: "That applies, as well, to our agents of the fairer sex."
"Indeed, it's a striking turn of events," said John Steed on the line, as he tossed a dash of vodka into his Kenya coffee, in lieu of breakfast. "After a year on the run, it appears our man has come back to the scene of his crime... Yes, just like one of Dame Agatha's novels. A pity she didn't quite live to see it. And for the perfect final chapter," he remarked, as he capped the Stoli, "it's just when we happen to be nearby. So we can close the case personally." He gave his nourishing repast a swirl, and leaned back with satisfaction. "It would seem the chap's famous luck has run out at last."
Tara King strolled her Chelsea flat, with her Art Deco phone in one hand, and the receiver in the other. She said nothing, for a long moment. "Are you still there?" Steed inquired. His voice bespoke a slightly greater concern than a simple pause would call for. "His alleged crime," she finally averred, with a lowered tone. This was technically correct, of course. No trial yet, and he had vowed his innocence before vanishing. But my God, Steed thought... given the verdict at the inquest... how could she fail to...?
"I'm frankly relieved," she then observed, sparing Steed the need to follow up. "In fact, I've had an uncanny sense, the past few weeks, that we somehow went from being the hunters, to the hunted. Had you noticed it?"
"Well, frankly, no. At least I've seen no evidence, that I'm aware of. However," he went on, leaning forward now, "I would never disregard your intuition. We know his Lordship has an eye for the ladies." He added, a touch more seriously, "...perhaps a special eye for the one on his trail."
"I hardly think so," Tara quickly scoffed. Yet, although she had spoken of it to no one, that very thought had in fact occurred to her. As she had walked the misty streets of London, or gazed from her bay windows at night, she would reflect, He's out there somewhere. Out there watching, and planning... what?
"In any event," Steed concluded, on a cheerier note, "the matter should be resolved before we lay our heads to our pillows tonight. So I will meet you at Mother's, 'round eleven, for the briefing." He tucked his own handset into its cradle, with a smile, and set the instrument aside. It was always a pleasure to touch base with his charming partner, and be the bearer of good news. And he keenly relished the capture of the elusive pimpernel, whom the press had so glamourized.
In fact, he was walking right into their hands. Not such a cunning character after all, Steed mused, with a quiet chortle. Coming back just when... – and he suddenly paused, with a glance back at the phone. Just when we happen to be nearby... so we can close the case personally.
"Her Majesty's Secret Service can be a harsh mistress!" declared Mother, sharing the wisdom of his years. Steed sipped his tea, with a tolerant air. Tara looked a bit bewildered. Her portly superior took note, and added, "That applies, as well, to our agents of the fairer sex."
"But, I've never had a mistress," she replied, ingenuously. "Although I have been..." – Steed raised an eyebrow. Then she finished, "...harsh at times." She took another sip of her own tea, and set the cup on the charger held by the tall, silent figure to her right.
"Thank you, Rhonda," said Mother to his able wheelman, bodyguard, and Girl Friday (who could, in fact, knock any girl or bloke into next Wednesday). With no visible acknowledgment, she accepted the other two cups, and withdrew to other duties.
Mother clapped his hands down onto his thighs. "Now back to the case, and back to the chase."
"The case of the chase!" Steed quipped. And Mother glowered on cue.
"Yes, quite. As you know, our sources tell us our quarry returned to ground this past evening."
"Weary of running, perhaps?" Tara suggested, with a more elegiac tone. "Wishing for a final night at home, before Dartmoor?"
Steed's hand, as he was snugging his umbrella stay, stilled for a moment.
"It's difficult to say," Mother opined, oblivious to any untoward note. "He is a mercurial fellow. A high stakes gambler, in more ways than one. Be that as it may, Miss King, you will proceed to the estate, whilst Steed liaises with the local authorities to make the pinch." Mother's speech often veered from stuffy formality to dime-novel dramatics.
Steed massaged the gnarl of his chair arm for several seconds. Then he interjected, "Quite honestly, Mother, I'm no good at handling officials. Tara would do much better. I can cool my heels outside the gate, and wait until she and the law arrive." He could sense Tara's glance, and avoided her eye.
"Nonsense. We need your ministerial status at the station, to ensure the Chief Constable's full cooperation. Tara will take up Surveillance Point Alpha. We have pulled all our other people back, so as not to risk alerting the target. And with any luck, within twenty-four hours, we shall be toasting another victory for justice and the Crown."
Tara picked up the dossier from the end table, and looked once again at the rogue aristocrat's photograph.
"Such a handsome face," she observed, with a soft catch in her voice. It was not the first time she had noticed.
At the words, Steed stole his own glance at his partner.
"Indeed," Mother remarked briskly. "Such a pity he went over to the Dark Side."
Tara touched the photo with her fingertips. What is it like, she sometimes wondered... on the Dark Side?
CHAPTER TWO: "Surrender now, and it will go easier for you."