CHAPTER 2: "Surrender now, and it will go easier for you."
An hour later she was exiting a call box, beside a BP station in Swingingdale. Thirty minutes, she reflected, tapping her nails on the front wing – and decided her plan would still work.
She took the layover to top her petrol, and toweled off the roadster's windscreen and quarter glass. On the spur of the moment, she had circled home after the briefing, and dropped off her Lotus. Then she untarped and rolled out the AC 428, for the first time in three years. Lately she'd been sensing a need in her life to get back to beginnings – and the dark scarlet gran turismo had been the first car of her career. In fact, a professional gift from Steed (when he opted to keep his Bentley). So garaged or not, she planned to never part with it. Next stop: Bingham Manor.
"Her Majesty's Secret Service can be a harsh mistress..."
Tara reflected on Mother's adage, as she crept along the dimly lit corridor, at the heart of the stately, shuttered mansion. The official plan, of course, was to wait outside the gate, and enter with Steed and the authorities. But after months of pursuit, and the end in sight, Tara felt a powerful urge to meet the mysterious fugitive alone, if only for a final minute.
It would be her first, and last, chance. She couldn't fathom her reasons, exactly – nor what she would say, or do, or even what she expected. But something in her heart and mind impelled her to take the risk. She wanted to confront him, not in shackles, amid a crowd of detectives – but free, and the two of them alone together. Face to face. Pursuer to prey. Woman to...
She stopped short, at the creak of... a footstep? A hinge? Probably just an old house, flexing its joints. In any case, there was little to fear. She had often pummeled multiple assailants, in short order, with her jujitsu and karate and the occasional item of home decor. Of course, sometimes these bouts went awry, and she would fall into their clutches instead. (She was prone to chloroform, it seemed.) It was then she would find herself tied up in chairs, or strapped to a mad scientist's lab table, or even bound to a Chinese torture rack. In fact, Steed had once remarked after yet another rescue, "I do wonder if you're beginning to enjoy these situations." It was only a jest, of course. But as he walked away, she had glanced back at where she had lain – and gently touched her throat.
The passageways were more eccentric than she remembered from the architect draughts she'd seen. Within minutes, she was quite lost. Even so, she had a sense that this was exactly the way she would find her quarry, if she ever would at all. He might, she guessed, be lost himself; in another realm or dimension, even. Somewhere in the house, or far beyond... or as near as her next breath. And to find him, she would have to leave behind her logic, and rules, and remembered floor plans – and follow her instincts. Words came to her, from an American theatre show. We're two lost souls... on the highway of life. The lyric ran through her mind, until, as she walked through the stillness, she softly gave voice, "...but ain't it just great... ain't it just grand? We've got —"
She broke off, as she rounded an odd-angled corner. And there she found herself at an unfinished oak door, recessed into the wall. From her study of the case, she knew it led to the basement... where it had happened.
She touched the bare wood, as conflicting emotions coursed through her. What was down those steps? Was the truth there? Was nothing? She looked at the wrought iron latch, awaiting her hand. All this time... the mystery, the wondering. She had to find out. The chance was now. And she reached down.
Then something else caught her attention. From further ahead in the darkness, she could swear a voice... a woman's voice, a familiar voice... had spoken her name.
She dismissed the notion, and turned back to the basement door. No time to chase fancies. She needed to know what happened that night. This moment might never come again. She steeled herself, and grasped the fateful handle. This is it. And she chucked it downward.
Then came the mysterious call again; more clearly this time. "Tara. Tara King..." And now she noticed a crack of light beneath another door at the far end of the passage. That wasn't there before – was it? Oh, it must have been. She reminded herself that sometimes, in low light, a blind spot will hide what you're looking straight at. "Come this way..." said the voice, drifting down the hallway. It wavered a bit, but still sounded familiar. She was sure she knew who it was, yet couldn't quite peg it. She looked back at her hand on the down-turned handle, and hesitated. "This way, Tara," the voice repeated. It felt more personal now; more coaxing. Like rippling fingers, summoning her. "Come this way... This is what you want."
She paid heed this time, and went onward, towards the second door. Walking by feel and hearing, more than by sight. As one might in a dream. The light under the door ahead seemed to change, as she neared it. Becoming brighter; more golden. As she moved along, she pondered the voice that had preceded her. It was clearly not the earl's. Was it a guiding angel from Heaven? Might it even be, perhaps, the ghost of Miss Riv–?
At the threshold, she drew a breath; and said a quick prayer, for God to bring good from whatever would happen. Then she turned down the handle, gave a push, and stood back as it swung open.
She heard nothing. Saw no movement. And observed what appeared to be a large, high-ceiling boudoir. The lighting was soft and subdued. But she could see the room was lushly furnished, in a strange mix of periods; with perhaps an Edwardian emphasis. There were velvet couches and settees, and hanging tapestries. Rakish paintings adorned the walls. On a mantle she noticed a French bracket clock, strikingly similar to a collector's item of her own. And partly visible to the right, was a gorgeous canopy bed.
She carefully stepped inside – and as she crossed the threshold, the scene seemed to brighten, into clarity. As if she had stepped through a veil, into another world. She looked about, from wall to wall, and floor to ceiling. Even amid her apprehension, she caught her breath at the spacious, richly appointed interior. It recalled the Arabian Nights seraglios she had imagined, in her mind's eye, while reading forbidden romances in her girlhood.
As she took it in, by the light of torche lamps and a Baccarat chandelier, she felt an odd stirring. Like a maestro was drawing his bow across one of her deepest heartstrings. The sensation grew stronger at each detail, each moment, as 'round she looked. Her visual survey ended on the large, plush, satin-clad bed. Its ornately carved posts shone with the scarlet of Madagascar rosewood, her lifelong favourite; framing lace-lined draperies, and pillows cased in thick silk. The matching sheets were turned down, almost invitingly. She took two steps nearer. Her breathing deepened a bit as she stared at its luxuriance. She was strangely drawn by it. Beckoned. Even... aroused.
She had taken lovers, of course, in the years since moving to London. But always they disappointed. The affairs never gratified her secret yearning... her dreams of the wanton embrace with her back to the Earth, and the handsome, powerful, overwhelming victor above her, who desired her more than the whole world. So at present, she walked the city alone.
She shook off the reverie, as her academy training kicked in. This was no time for silly musing, she chided herself. Richard John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan, was still at large.
"Your Lordship!" she announced. "The police are on their way. It's hopeless! Surrender now, and it will go easier for you." She looked about the capacious room. There was no answer. Only the characteristic click-a-tick, click-a-tick of the bracket clock in the silence. She continued – her voice a touch more husky than she wished, "Lord Lucan... this is Tara King. I – I think you know me. I promise I will stand with you at the trial, and testify that you came forth peaceably." Still no response.
She stepped to the centre of the room, and stood. Watching, and listening. Then, on an impulse, she said more gently, "Richard...?" At this, a sound behind her made her turn quickly. But no, there was nothing to see. And nothing more was heard. So she reined in her nerves, and began a professional sweep of the room; by the book. Sweep, and secure. Checking every wardrobe and wall curtain, and possible concealment.
As she searched, she noticed an exotic scent in the air, which she traced to a bouquet of orchids in a fluted Moroccan vase. She was something of an expert on tropical flowers, and their cultivation in temperate climes. At a conference in Washington, she had even traded (botanical) secrets with fellow orchid fancier, James Jesus Angleton. But she could not recognize this species. And yet, as she nestled the blooms in her fingers, and studied them, something started to click. It was on the brink of her memory. The vivid colour... the outsized stamens and pistils... the unique curvature of the petals, almost like spirals. She had seen these flowers someplace before. But she couldn't, quite, remember where.
She set the matter aside, and continued her reconnoiter – though now more slowly, and thoughtfully. Her senses were wary. Nothing like this room had appeared anywhere in Lord Lucan's official file. Not even in his unofficial "black ops" file (which Tara had skimmed very unofficially... while a records clerk was out seeking, for her, a packet of Dunhill Lights)
So in that case, where did it come from? What was it for?
Who was it for...?
CHAPTER THREE: The hint of the forbidden