Deadlier Than the Male

The station waiting-room was empty except for the young woman. She stood at the far end where the dying embers of a coal fire fought the advancing chill of a spring evening, and tried to avoid looking at her watch.

A porter came in and heaped fresh coal onto the grate, forcing her to retreat as smoke billowed out, driven down by back-draughts from the chimney. She smiled at him as he stood upright, and he acknowledged her presence by touching his cap. Loitering a little longer than he otherwise would, he cast as many glances in her direction as he dared. She was the kind of woman that men hurried to serve.

You didn't doubt she had a wardrobe, and on some other day she might be a riot of colour. But today she was a study in monochrome: a short black-and-white hounds-tooth jacket over a blouse with ruffles, a white pleated skirt with black trim that swung, like her hair, when she turned. And below that, real-leather boots that zipped up to the knee. Other women would have chosen a modish white, but hers were black, conveying just a hint of menace. She topped off the collection with her own unique touch - a peaked seaman's cap that was straight out of The Battleship Potemkin.

Apparently oblivious of the impression she had made, the young woman stood in the middle of the room with her right elbow cupped in her left hand, her long fingers absently tapping her cheek. Finally, with a sigh, she gave in and checked the time.

I'll give it fifteen more minutes, she decided. After that, it's meeting aborted.

Away from the fire she was cold again. It was a tiny country station, but it had been built on the grand scale of the mid-Victorians, who considered heat-retention an unnecessary luxury. The high ceiling sucked up most of it, and what was left vanished through the double-doors of the waiting-room every time it opened. Those had been made especially tall in case an eight-foot man in a top-hat needed to get in without stooping.

A deep drumming noise from the station yard drew her to the window, where she was just in time to see a large open-topped car with antique wire wheels pulling up. She was able to identify it as a make and model her uncle had once owned, crashed, replaced, and crashed again. Hand-built to specifications that ensured no woman would ever want to climb into one, the 4.5 litre Bentley was the kind of public hazard that a few decades ago had been steered around the Brooklands circuit at frightening speeds by rich young men in leather helmets and flying-goggles. The coachwork on this one was a shade known as "British racing green", which clashed somewhat with the driver's own colour scheme - a sky-blue worsted suit with matching waistcoat and bowler hat. Showing an aristocratic disdain for normal modes of exit, such as doors, he vaulted over the side of the car and landed lightly on his feet with what can only be called a British racing grin.

Despite her annoyance, the young woman emitted a loud laugh and stepped up closer to the window. Oh, whacko, she thought, it's Bulldog Drummond. Let's see what he does next.

Judging by their disdain for comfort, the people who built that Bentley were the grandsons of the people who built this station. But neither seemed to be related to the builders of the white Lotus Elan parked a few yards away, which was the only other car in the station yard. That little gem was plainly the work of the artisans of a different dynasty. It was bound to catch the eye of the man in the bowler, who stepped up for a closer look. He circled it cautiously, taking in its aerodynamic curves, its cute fold-away headlamps, its sheer polished modernity. Beside the Bentley it looked like a toy you could pick up and put in your pocket. But it had style. He seemed impressed.

Then, abruptly deciding to lose interest in the Lotus, he raised his brolly skywards and sighted along it. Holding the crook tight in to his shoulder, he did a quick traverse, swivelling on his feet as if following the flight of a clay-pigeon catapulted from its trap.

"Pow!" His imaginary shotgun gave a kick and the imaginary target exploded into imaginary fragments.

Still grinning, he hooked the brolly over his arm and stepped briskly across the yard and up the steps into the ticket hall.

No, thought the young woman, not so much Bulldog Drummond as Burlington Bertie from Bow. Can I even stand to be in the same room? She remained looking out of the window with her arms resolutely folded, and held that position even when she heard the door open half a minute later. She heard his footsteps behind her on the stone floor, heard him stop near the fireplace, imagined him warming his hands at the blaze.

"Everyone likes a nice fire." His voice was a bit louder than necessary, she noted, but it went with his clothes and his car.

She turned then and produced one of her not-quite smiles, the kind that activated only one side of her mouth.

"Except when it's accidental."

He beamed at her. "Good point," he conceded. Then his smile dropped a few degrees, showing a touch of steel. "But that's not the right response."

He raised his brolly and pointed it straight at her chest.

"No, it isn't," she agreed, matching his steel with some of her own. "The right response is 'especially a coal fire'. But, you see, I've been waiting nearly half an hour in this cold and draughty place - the name is too long for me to read, or else too long for me to remember, but something like Little-Dumpling-in-the-Stew - and my sense of humour isn't what it was when I arrived. As a result I'm feeling less indulgent towards the kind of fun and games you people delight in than I otherwise would be."

"Gosh, you know how to cut a chap down," said the man, who had been leaning further and further back during her speech, as if retreating under the force of successive blows.

"Still," he went on, "I take your point. I can only offer my profuse apologies."

She was about to bat that one away, but his regret seemed genuine enough. She held her tongue.

"The problem is, dear lady, I'm not allowed to explain the reason I was delayed, and you're not allowed to ask. Which leaves me in a bit of a pickle. Because I can see you're annoyed, and I have no way at present of getting back into your good graces."

She considered this, tempted for a moment to press home the advantage.

"All right," she said finally. "Apology accepted, even if it doesn't come with an explanation. But I'm wondering what you'd have done if there hadn't been a fire at all. They might have run out of coal." She raised a quizzical eyebrow.

"Now that is a good point," he said, and pulled a notebook and pencil out of his inside pocket. "We'll have to revise our procedures to allow for contingencies like that. Heavens! We could have been standing here for hours stuck for something to say!"

He went through an elaborate pantomime of writing it all down, frowning with apparent concentration as his pencil flew busily across the paper.

Despite herself, the woman allowed her half-smile to flower into a full one. She stepped forward then, using springy little steps to show that her mood had changed into something more playful.

"I can see why they had to use Mr Fenby to soften me up before they let you near me," she said with the hint of a laugh. "I think you are what they used to call 'a bit of a card'."

"Oh, I deny that," he said, putting away his notebook. "However, talking of cards, you might as well take a look at mine." He reached into his top pocket and produced one.

She inspected it with a sceptical look. "Hmm. I won't question the 'John Steed' bit, but 'Lucifer Lighting Systems' sounds rather unlikely."

"Oh, that's a shame. I had great hopes of that one. Well let's see..." He pulled out a whole fistful and shuffled through them, reading them off and handing them to her one by one.

"Plexoframe Toy Manufacturers..."

"Nope."

"Sheet-music publisher..."

"Nope."

"Drains inspector..."

"Definitely not!"

"Monty's Second-hand Cars..."

"Oooh...but nope!"

"Secretary of the Flat Earth Society..."

"Ahh, now..."

"Winkelman's Theatrical Tailors..."

"That's the one!" she cried, brandishing the card triumphantly. "Show me no other! Winkelman's Theatrical Tailors is the only one I'll believe!"

"Do you know, I think that's my favourite too," he said, taking the cards from her and putting them back in his pocket. "Well, so much for the party games."

Steed suddenly moved with deft steps across the room to the window overlooking the station yard, scanned the view swiftly, and then returned to his position at the fireplace, humming softly. She had the impression he was a man who continually watched his back, even while appearing not to. She also had to admire the speed with which he'd turned the mood around. He was like a magician winning over his audience with genial patter while pulling tricks they couldn't see.

"Now," he said after a pause, "Shall we get down to business?"

"Very well, let's. I can't wait to find out what kind of business. Getting information about that has been as hard as getting an answer from the Income Tax Office. What exactly is it you want from me, Mr Steed?"

"Oh, just call me 'Steed'. Everyone does."

"All right. Steed, then. And my name's Emma Peel."

"I know."

"But I suppose you'll have to just call me 'Peel'. I mean, if we're sticking to English boarding-school forms of address..."

"Oh, I couldn't do that. I like 'Mrs Peel' so much better. It draws the demarcation lines between us very nicely."

"Good, it saves me the trouble of drawing them myself."

Steed laughed. "I can see we're going to get on very well, Mrs Peel."

"Don't count on it. You didn't make a very good start. However, there still remains the question of who you are - I mean really are. For all I know, you could be a diabolical mastermind intent on taking over the world."

"That is my ambition," Steed said gravely, "but for the moment my time is fully occupied by government business. And satisfying you on that point was one of Fenby's functions. You were invited to attend room 422 in the Ministry building at the end of last year so that you could see where he worked, and that he was what he claimed to be."

"And who is responsible for my being unable to get into my flat for the past several days?" she asked. "I've had to stay with a friend. It's very inconvenient."

"Sorry. That'll be Fenby again. He's perhaps a little over-zealous in his precautions, but we've got to make your flat secure. We've got to fit some hardware. And he'll be in there once every few weeks to do what we call 'spring-cleaning', checking for any listening devices, things like that. And he'll have to spring-clean your car from time to time as well. But you'll never see him. You won't even know he's been."

"Call me old-fashioned, but I find that thought rather chilling."

"Oh, you'll get used to it."

"If my sixth sense is anything to go by, I've been getting used to it for some time," said Emma. "Ever since I came back from the Far East last year I've this feeling of being...shadowed. You know?"

"Yes, I do. And it's a useful feeling. That sixth sense of yours could save your life one day."

"I've taken to doing double-backs on the road," she went on, "making U-turns at unexpected moments. I'll make two or three circuits at a roundabout and watch my mirror to see if anyone else is doing the same. Or I'll pull into a lay-by and scan the traffic as it passes, looking for cars I think I've seen before. Sometimes I'm sure I've spotted one, and I lie in wait, trying to catch it coming back the other way. But it never does. So then I think, either I'm mistaken, or..."

"Or else your shadow knows you've clocked him, and he's keeping his distance," said Steed, completing her thought for her. He grinned. "I knew you were right for us."

"The right brand of paranoia?"

"I prefer to say... observant and alert. Tell me more about what you sensed."

"Things became a little more concrete last month when I received an invitation to a reunion at Oxford," said Emma. "Which turned out to consist of two people - me and my old tutor from Somerville College."

"Ah, yes, Guy Murdoch. He worked on communications systems for us in the war, you know. Used to get his inspiration lying in a hammock on the roof of the Ministry building at night watching the searchlights and listening to the bombs falling. Some of his best ideas came out of those sessions. How is the mad old blighter?"

"He's in fine fettle," said Emma. "We dined in Hall, and then spent an hour in his study where he kept refilling my sherry glass and telling me how well my contemporaries were doing. He was having a dig at me, of course. I should have been a prominent scientist by now. Instead I had no job, no prospects, utterly at a loose end. He pottered about the room tut-tutting and saying, 'It's no good, you know, just free-wheeling through life'. It was like being eighteen again and being hauled up for turning in an inadequate essay."

Steed nodded. "Go on."

"Then he asked me how I'd feel about, as he put it, 'doing something for democracy'. Well, I'm no fool. I know all the secret back-doors of the English establishment. So I was instantly on my guard. I said being asked to fight for democracy was like being asked to fight for the Church of England or the Women's Institute. He thought that was funny."

"So do I. I can imagine you knitting tea-cosies for the cause."

"Or baking treacle-tarts," said Emma with a laugh. "However, I said that when you look at the competing systems, you think they might be worth fighting against."

"Good answer."

"It seemed to satisfy him anyway. He said he wanted me to meet an acquaintance of his, a Mr Fenby, who was something to do with the Home Office. I met Fenby back in London. He turned out to be an interesting if slippery character. But we had some stimulating chats, and went for long walks on Hampstead Heath. I hadn't said yes to anything yet, but I noticed regular amounts being credited to my bank account every month from a concern called Byzantium Holdings. Which struck me as a rather blatant way of forcing someone's hand."

"Just think of it as putting down a deposit," Steed said smoothly. "An option to buy."

"The question is, Steed, who is the next recipient in this game of pass-the-parcel? Is there someone else beyond you, or are you the end of the line?"

"The end in more than one sense," said Steed. "Because with me the line closes down completely, at least as far as you're concerned. From now on I'm your only contact. Nobody else exists, not even Fenby. You might as well remove his number from your book, because if you tried ringing him now you'd get "number unobtainable".

"Nice."

"And, as far as Ministry records go, you don't exist either. I won't say there isn't a file on you. Of course there is, but the Ministry doesn't have it, and there is nothing in official records to connect Byzantium Holdings with any government department."

"Oh, I get the picture," said Emma with an exaggerated bow. "The phrase 'deniable operations' springs to mind. I'm out on a limb, then. How comforting."

"We both are - but you a bit more than me." Steed hesitated a moment. "You can still say no."

"But you know I won't," Emma said quickly. "Your people must have had enough psychological profiles done to be able to predict my response in any situation."

"Well, it's true we've had the witch-doctors on the case," Steed admitted. "It's mandatory. But we treat their reports with caution. In the end the judgement of experienced field-men is the best guide."

"And you think you know a lot?"

"We try to cover the ground. We know all your friends, the kind of social circles you move in, the lovers you've had, where you shop and how much you spend, the places you've been on holiday. We know the brand of scotch you keep in your drinks cabinet and what time your bedroom light goes out on an average night - 11.15, I'm told."

"Phew!"

And," he added, "we know what a headache you can be to surveillance teams."

"Well, it looks like I've had my t's properly crossed and my i's well and truly dotted."

"Sheer detail." Steed waved a dismissive hand. "Necessary, of course. But other things tell us more. The three weeks you spent in the mountains is one."

"Oh, yes," Emma said, almost accustomed by now to the idea of having her life under the microscope. "That extraordinary invitation came out of blue just after I met Fenby. Foolishly I accepted, and found myself the only woman amongst a group of twenty very butch men from every regiment of the British Army tramping across the Pennines in the dead of winter. Thanks for that."

"The Ministry of Defence runs survival courses like those every year," said Steed. "It's to size up likely recruits for the SAS, the SBS or the Royal Marine commandos. Not in your case, of course. But you enjoyed it?"

"You mean, living off grubs and trying to build a shelter out of sticks and clods of earth in the middle of a hailstorm? Yes, Steed it was the holiday of a lifetime. I only wish I'd taken pics for my album."

"Three of those very butch men were RTU before the course was complete," Steed pointed out.

"RTU?"

"Returned to unit," said Steed. "Couldn't take it. You were there to the end."

"Don't mistake stubbornness for enthusiasm, Steed. I hated every minute."

Steed gave her his widest smile. "You know, Mrs Peel, I believe you could be the fulfilment of a prophecy. A palm-reader once told me 1965 would be my favourite year, so I've been expecting some welcome news. I was thinking my Rio Tinto shares might shoot up in value, for instance, or I could have a big win on the Grand National, or the Beatles might go back to Liverpool and get proper jobs. But a third of the year has gone by already and nothing has happened to cheer me up."

"Poor you."

Steed's smile faded. "And then there's this appalling business coming up, of course."

"I'm sorry - what appalling business?"

"Oh, didn't I mention it? How remiss of me. I was talking about what's going to happen in about..." - he pulled a pocket-watch out of his waistcoat and consulted it with a frown - "...two minutes from now. Gosh! I did cut it fine, didn't I?"

"You mean...here?" Emma blinked several times, wondering if she'd heard correctly. "Steed, is this why the meeting had to be here?"

"It's exactly why."

Her eyes flashed briefly. "You might give a girl a bit of notice."

"Oh, don't worry. It'll all go smoothly."

Emma walked over and stood against the wall, as if creating some distance between them might give her a better perspective.

"Why is it so difficult to get any answers about the nature of the work?" she demanded.

"Because I only know what the work is when the case arises," said Steed. "And every case is different. Suffice it to say we're satisfied that your qualifications are the right ones."

Emma said nothing.

"Why don't you just ask yourself, 'What am I good at?'" Steed suggested. "Whatever it is, we know about it, and want to use it."

"I have a good education," said Emma cautiously.

"Oh, come now, Mrs Peel. You're too modest. If your IQ was a temperature reading it would be close to the melting point of steel. Of course we want that. It goes without saying."

"I have certain physical skills?"

"Of course you have. You can take apart a dozen different kinds of gun and put them back together again. You can load and fire them faster than a diabolical mastermind can blink. You can fence, and use a crossbow. Your skills in judo and karate are lethal, and you can kill a man at twenty paces with a single arch of your delectable eyebrow."

"Now you're being facetious."

"Oh, apologies again," said Steed, who didn't sound at all sorry. "But you must be aware of the impression you make, Mrs Peel, if only as a physical presence. Especially this evening." He indicated what he meant by using his brolly as a pointer, drawing an imaginary circle around her salient features. "What with that Bolshevik cap and those KGB interrogator's boots, I suddenly feel the urge to confess all."

A loud laugh burst from Emma before she could choke it back.

"I must say, you're a cool customer, Steed. You can say everything and nothing, all in the same sentence. Is this what they call 'the art of indirection'?"

Steed grinned. "Saying everything and nothing is how I failed my school exams, Mrs Peel."

"You're certainly failing mine," said Emma. "I still don't know what is expected of me."

"Well, let's not play Twenty Questions," said Steed. "It's not easy to predict where trouble will arise, and what kind it will be. Or not any more. The world has changed. It isn't as ideological as it used to be. Old enemies are not so dangerous, and the new ones aren't like the old ones."

"You mean the isms have become wasms?"

"I say! That's very good!" Steed looked like he was just about to reach for his notebook again.

"I'd like to take the credit," said Emma, "but I was quoting General Eisenhower."

"Really? Then he's risen in my estimation. It's as good as anything Winston ever said."

"But he said it before he found out the Russians were building an atomic bomb."

"Ah, yes. There's that," said Steed thoughtfully. "But technology itself has created new forms of mischief. Computers, lasers, satellites in the sky, biological weapons - hush!" He cocked his head to one side, listening intently.

Emma listened too, and detected the faint rumbling sound.

Steed tapped the floor with his brolly. "Time to move."

Emma followed him to the door and out onto the platform, where four or five people were waiting with bags and coats.

"Watch to the right," Steed said.

An engine appeared from round a bend pulling half a dozen carriages and passed under a footbridge, gouts of steam and smoke bouncing off the arches above and cascading downwards. It shuffled slowly into the station and drew to a halt. Two passengers got out from different carriages, followed by three more. Doors banged. The porter's trolley rattled by.

"What are we looking for?" Emma whispered.

"Everything. Observe, Mrs Peel. Just observe."

But there was nothing to observe. Nothing at the front end, where the engine sat making noises like pots boiling over on a stove. Nothing at the rear, where the guard stood on the platform with his flag pointed downwards. Rags of black smoke drifted past, carried by the breeze, causing Steed to tilt back his head and draw in his breath with a prolonged sniff. He seemed to savour the acrid scent.

The waiting passengers got on. Doors banged again. Then nothing.

After a two more minutes, the guard blew a whistle and waved his flag before climbing back into the van.

"Steed- "

"Shhh! Listen!"

The engine blew a blast of high-pressure steam at the sky with an angry bark - Woof! The carriages squeaked and juddered. Two more barks from the engine and they began to move.

Emma scanned the train from end to end, waiting for something to happen. She glanced at Steed again, who seemed lost in contemplation. Looking past his back, she scrutinised the passengers who had got off and were heading for the exit, but there was nothing remarkable about them. In a few more seconds the platform was deserted. The guard's van rattled past, leaving her staring at the opposite platform. That was deserted too.

"Steed!... In the name of all that's holy- "

Steed had his head turned. He was watching the red lights on the rear of the train diminishing into the gloom, and watched them until they vanished.

Finally, he turned to Emma with a sad smile.

"One of the stalwarts, Mrs Peel. A real warhorse. A U-class locomotive, mixed-traffic, 2-6-0 configuration, producing nearly 24,000 pounds-foot of traction energy."

Emma raised an astonished eyebrow. "Thanks, Steed. I really wanted to know that."

"Not a glamorous engine," Steed admitted. "Not like your Coronation class or the Great Western's Castle class. It's an unpretentious little loco," he went on, as if discussing a vintage wine. "It doesn't promise more than it delivers."

"But it does deliver what it promises," supplied Emma. "And has a taste that lingers. Oh, good."

"Tapered boilers, of course," Steed said, apparently unable to recognize sarcasm.

"Who could approve of any other kind?"

Steed descended to earth a little. "You're wondering why I brought you here."

"You could say that."

"Well, it's as a witness to history," he announced. "Tonight that little engine is making its last journey, apart from the one that takes it to the scrapyard. But more than that, it's the last time any engine like it will travel this stretch of line. From now on it's all electric. The barbarians have won."

There was an extended silence while Emma mentally assembled her question.

"And that," she said carefully, "is the 'appalling business' you spoke of?"

Detecting the dangerous edge to her voice, Steed spread his hands in a gesture of incomprehending innocence. "I couldn't miss it, Mrs Peel. I had to be here."

The look on Emma's face was like a wind from Siberia. Steed could feel himself frosting over.

"Something to tell your children and grandchildren?" he offered, without much hope. Things weren't going quite as he'd envisaged.

Emma marched past him, making the ticket-hall in a dozen purposeful strides before he could even shoulder his brolly.

"Think of it," he said, picking up the pace, but careful to follow at a safe distance, "those flying pistons driving the great iron wheels, two, four, six at a time..."

She was down the steps, and heading across the station-yard. Steed hurried in her wake.

"... regulator hard over, flames dancing in the firebox..."

A door slammed. The Lotus thundered into life. Steed had to skip sharply to one side as it reversed.

"...the plaintive whistle of the Night Mail heard no more," he went on bravely. "It's the end of the age of steam, Mrs Peel, and you were there!"

The Lotus stopped alongside him. Emma lowered the window.

"You know, Steed, I believe we will get on. But only if you agree not to speak to me for the rest of your life."

She slammed the car into gear and it zoomed away, spitting gravel from its back tyres.

"Nothing worthwhile should be too easy, Mrs Peel!" Steed shouted after her, remembering to tip his bowler.

But Emma Peel's Lotus was already turning out of the yard and onto the main road, heading south.

The End