It's always rather a pleasure to watch Steed fight. He may look the part of a City man, but I shouldn't have agreed to work with him for this long if he were not quite able to hold his own in the pugilistic arts.
Under usual circumstances I would have been back to back with Steed as he valiantly fought his attackers. On the other hand, it is not entirely unusual for us to be pursuing matters that require discretion. As, at the time, I was posing as a society matron, it was really not within my power to come to his immediate aid.
Besides, my sheath was fresh from the atelier of Givenchy. I don't consider myself a vain woman, but it did seem a crime to mar the perfectly understated little black dress.
The remarkable thing about Steed's particular fighting technique is his aptitude for using the objects around him as extemporized weaponry. However, on this occasion I was surprised to see that he was cradling something in his left arm. He was neither willing to use it as a weapon nor to drop it so that his hands would be free.
In his right hand, as usual, was Steed's umbrella. It is funny how many people will underestimate a man simply because he is the merest touch soft around the jowls and in possession of something as mundane as an umbrella. I was sure that his antagonists would soon learn better than to think that Steed was an easy target.
We had all been at the the theatre. I, with my assignment, Mrs Ella Campbell, wife of a Government Minister suspected of leaking official secrets, and Steed pursuing the other end of the affair. For a week he had been silently, secretly shadowing his target, a member of the Ruritanian diplomatic mission.
After we left the theatre I had put Mrs Campbell into a taxi, ignoring her the soft pleading of her eyes for my continued company. She was far too young for her Ministerial husband. Ella Campbell was fresh out of an Edinburgh boarding school, and clinging to her first London friend like a particularly sentimental limpet. I was not entirely proud of befriending her for the sake of the nation, but it had to be done.
I was pleased to have the chance to walk to my flat alone. I had been in Mrs Campbell's company continuously for the last two days and my head was full of frocks and nonsense. Yet I was no closer to determining whether Mr Campbell's actions were treason or carelessness.
If the answer was carelessness then Campbell would be none the wiser as he was used to pass misinformation to the Ruritanians and their Soviet allies. If the answer was treason then Campbell would swiftly find himself facing a choice between the hangman and becoming a double agent.
There was nothing more to be done that night. I turned toward home. As I walked, my attention was drawn to a scuffle in an alley way. It was the alley leading not to the stage door but to the delivery bay of the theatre.
The street I was on was still bustling with other theatre patrons, leaving in little clusters, laughing and chattering about the play that we had seen. I broke away from the crowd to recce the action in the alley. It was then that I realized that it was Steed at work.
His assailants, for there were two of them, were wearing the sort of shoddy-cheap suits that come out of the Eastern bloc these days. I recognized them from briefing photographs: mere secretaries to the Ruritanian mission. Large, muscular secretaries. The taller one with the scar down his cheek was called Kristoff. The other one was Von Strackenz. With a name like that I would have thought he would be doing better for himself than working as a heavy.
I crouched between a pile of discarded pieces of plywood leaning against the entrance of the alley wall and an empty crate, out of sight of the street. From there I was able to see all that was going on in the alley without being under Steed's feet. The lights all around the theatre district made the night almost as bright as day time. I settled in to watch the proceedings.
For all their bulk, I suspected the Ruritanians would be little challenge to Steed. Even less if Steed would just put down whatever he was holding in his left hand.
He did not, but he did lash out with the tip of his umbrella, catching Kristoff behind the knee on what we had been taught was a nerve point. I could hear the sharp crack of the steel against flesh and bone even as I saw Kristoff go down to one knee. Kristoff was not to be underestimated, though. He grappled Steed's legs roughly, attempting to bring Steed down with him.
Meanwhile, Von Strackenz was doing his best to get hold of Steed's arms from behind. I dare say if Steed were not so nimble he would have been in a pile on the ground under the Ruritanians and fighting from a disadvantage in a jiffy.
But he was nimble. I knew he had been seeing a master for stick-fighting lessons, but I didn't expect him to use the umbrella to vault himself out of Kristoff's grasp. Von Strackenz tripped on the prone Kristoff as Steed danced lightly away from him.
Steed was not in the clear, however. Von Strackenz, and Kristoff, who was pulling himself to his feet, were between him and the end of the alley. And I couldn't assume that Steed wanted to flee from the combat; if he was fighting instead of spying from the shadows he probably had an aim other than merely not getting himself killed.
Von Strackenz and Kristoff edged toward Steed. Kristoff was clearly wary of the might of Steed's brolly, but Von Strackenz had not felt its bite yet. The two mumbled to each other in the guttural tones of Ruritanian. They dove on Steed simultaneously, but he was ready, for he slipped between the two of them. Before they could turn he punished them each for their impertinence with a swift rap across the small of their backs, right over the kidneys.
They wheeled on him, and I could see that Von Strackenz was utterly enraged at this assault. His eyes were lit with a rash fire. I knew that it would be his undoing; Steed's fighting style is unforgiving to any man who is not thinking clearly.
The Ruritanians' fighting technique seemed to lean heavily on grappling. This was unfortunate for Kristoff and Von Strackenz. Steed, while a reasonable wrestler, is largely disinclined to allow brutes to lay their hands on his Saville Row tailoring. Furthermore, strategically, he had nothing to gain by allowing them into range. Von Strackenz lunged, and Steed's lashed out, viper quick, a clean hit with the point of his umbrella to Von Strackenz's solar plexus.
Kristoff was smarter and had sidled to Steed's left. I worried, only a little, because Steed was fighting with one hand out of commission, and I didn't know why. If things reached a desperate point then my cover and the Givenchy dress could hang, I'd be at Steed's side in a moment. But I didn't think it would come to that.
Steed was having none of this. Before Kristoff could close the gap between them, Steed kicked out, again to Kristoff's knee, this time the heel of his shoe connecting with the front of the same knee that he'd hit before. Kristoff staggered, but didn't go down. In fact, he was showing remarkable resilience. With Steed off balance, Kristoff charged forward. Steed kicked again, but he only caught a glancing blow to Kristoff.
Steed pivoted, fast and graceful and with another surprise up his sleeve.
"Mrs Peel, you're needed," he said, as he turned.
After the fight, it occurred to me that he must have caught the scent of my perfume in the alley way. After all, it is distinctive. I stepped from behind the crate, and Steed tossed whatever was in his left arm to me.
"Watch the claws!" he said, as the bundle flew at me. I caught a bedraggled long haired black cat in both hands, holding it well away from me. It looked a fright. Apparently it didn't think much of my looks, either. It hissed at me.
With both hands free, Steed spun back around, only just in time to fend off Kristoff's attack. Von Strackenz was single-mindedly running himself into the tip of Steed's umbrella every time he tried to advance, and must by now be gathering a collection of small, round bruises in unfortunate places. It was like watching a fencing match where one man had lost his épée and his good sense. I might have laughed if the cat had not been glaring at me so ferociously.
Steed fended off Kristoff with his left hand, and went in for the coup de grâce on Von Strackenz. It was a thrust and wicked jab of the umbrella to Von Strackenz's undefended throat that sent the man to the ground, his face turning blue as his hand grasped at his throat. Steed was now free to finish Kristoff.
To narrate this makes it sound as if it took a matter of some time, but in the middle of a good fight, it may only be a minute or two that passes before all the fuss is over. That was how it was now. Kristoff had at last got within the grappling distance that he wanted and was trying to remove Steed's head from his shoulders by main force. Steed's hands and feet are deadly weapons and he is quite attached to his head.
Steed is too accomplished to make the mistake of gripping Kristoff's wrists as Kristoff throttled him. The strong Ruritanian would not be moved that way. Instead, Steed brought his hands up, elbows high and forward, and struck down with his hands, catching Kristoff's thumbs and bending them downward and out, away from Steed's throat with an explosive burst of force. He followed through quickly, remorselessly, throwing boxing blows to Kristoff's face and body.
Kristoff was no boxer and kept trying to grab Steed, who once again was moving, dancing around his second victim, quicksilver graceful in his motion until a final uppercut to Kristoff's square chin took the man down for good.
Steed brushed his hands off, shaking them out and examining his fists with some interest before leaning over Kristoff. He searched the man's pockets thoroughly, finally standing up with a triumphant cry of "Aha!" and a bundle of papers in his hand.
"Mrs Peel. How delightful to see you," he said as he approached, looking pleased with himself.
"I am afraid you blew my cover. Not to mention your own," I said. I wasn't too cross. I assumed that Steed had a reason. I supposed that he would tell me now.
"We won't need to worry about that, the cat is no longer in the bag," he said, brandishing the papers.
"I happened to know that tonight, Kristoff would have important documents with him. I hoped to pick-pocket him, but when that seemed impossible, I provoked him into chasing me into this alley."
He looked delighted with his presence of mind. I should have known all along who was the provocateur of this little scene. He continued to explain why he was no longer concerned about staying out of sight.
"The Ruritanians have been very naughty. However, Campbell has merely been careless with his carbons. I overheard some quite ungracious gloating by Von Strackenz to that effect. We had to retrieve the particular missing memo that Kristoff was carrying tonight, but the Ruritanians don't know that we know who our end of the leak is."
"Could be any old Cabinet Minister, you mean?" I said. It had, in fact, taken time to narrow the leak down to Campbell.
"Exactly! So good old Campbell can keep being careless, only with the papers we wish the Ruritanians to see. We'll step up surveillance on Kristoff and Von Strackenz so it doesn't seem like we're letting them get away with something. They'll have to work a little harder to get just precisely what we want them to know."
This was said with one of Steed's insouciant smiles. I would worry that it was too easy, but Steed makes the impossible look routine.
I gestured toward Steed with the disgruntled cat that was still held gingerly in my hands.
"But what about this? Does it have a microdot on its collar? Has it swallowed a bug? Why am I holding this cat?"
Steed leaned over and scratched the feline behind the ears. It butted its head against his hand and started to purr. The look of blind adoration in its eyes resembled that of Mrs Campbell when she tried to talk me into a nightcap after the theatre.
"Oh no, she was just underfoot in the alley when I led the Ruritanians out of the theatre, and I didn't want puss getting hurt in the affray. The documents were all on Kristoff. Now let's go and find out where-"
Steed paused to turn over the collar tag on the cat that I was still holding at arms length.
"Where Miss Tibbles lives, shall we?"
And he walked out of the alley, umbrella under his arm, looking just exactly like a man who had had a pleasant night at the theatre.