by J. Ferguson a.k.a. Timeless A-Peel
Disclaimer: I don't own The New Avengers, nor any of the associated characters. They belong to The Avengers (Film and TV) Enterprises. I don't own The Avengers, either, or any of its characters. They belong to Canal+ (Image) International. This story is written for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement intended.
Timeline: Part of the arc continuity, somewhere in the early parts of 1977/season 2, between Merry Christmas, Mr. Gambit and Brazil. I suppose you could call it part 5.5 in the arc series, a little detour off the arc's usual beaten path. No prior knowledge of the rest of the series required for this one, though a knowledge of the early episodes of season 2 would give you a little context. If you're new to the whole arc series, please see my profile for an explanation (and more reading material, if you're interested).
Author's Note: Life got away from me again, making updating difficult, but this chapter is longer than the last two, so hopefully that'll make up for it!
Purdey turned up at the Ministry early the next day. Gambit's odd behaviour had haunted her all through her drink with Steed, and well into the night as she tossed fitfully in her bed, and desperately tried to sleep. She couldn't help but think something was wrong, even though there were a hundred perfectly innocent explanations to explain why Gambit was acting strangely. If he was acting strangely. But no, she could feel it. Her finely-honed sixth sense, developed in the field, was particularly keen when it came to her partners. She could read them like the proverbial book, and she knew when something was out-of-kilter. Unfortunately, unlike a book, she couldn't skip over the tiresome filler in the middle, and straight to the exact cause of Gambit's unease. That would take more work, and she meant to make a start on it today, just as soon as Gambit came in.
As Purdey strode down the sterile departmental corridors, lost in thought, she rounded a corner that took her past the Ministry's computer lab. Much to her surprise, she caught a glimpse of a familiar head and shoulders through the doorway as she passed by. Gambit. She executed a quick about-face, and peered carefully around the doorframe. He was seated at one of the workstations, consulting something on his monitor. It looked like he was working. Purdey glanced at her watch. At this hour? It was surprising enough to find Gambit in this early, well-before he was expected, but for him to be working as well, at a time when they had no assignments—well, it was unheard of. Something was clearly going on, and she meant to find out what it was.
Somehow, she didn't think going up to Gambit and asking him just what he thought he was doing would prove fruitful. So instead of making her presence known, she watched him instead, trying to ignore the little voice in her head that was intent on listing the moral and ethical quandaries that accompanied a spy's choice to switch her attentions from the enemy to her own people, particularly her own partner. She silenced it by telling herself she was doing it for his own good, but even she found that explanation wanting. She shook her head to clear it, and forced herself to focus on watching Gambit.
Gambit, thankfully, was too engrossed in what he was doing to notice her lurking in the doorway. After a moment, he hit a few keys on the keyboard, and the screen flickered in response. Purdey was too far away to read what it said, but whatever it was, Gambit shifted from his current position of repose, to sitting upright and alert. He pulled a pen and paper from his pocket, copied something down with great care, and then hit a few more keys. The screen flickered once more, but Gambit was already on his feet, stowing the pen and paper in his jacket and turning toward the door. Purdey acted quickly, darting out of doorway, and ducking behind the corner of the corridor, praying that Gambit wouldn't follow. Luckily for her, she heard his footsteps retreat in the opposite direction. Once they had sufficiently receded, she hazarded a glance around the corner to check on his progress. There was a lift at the end of the corridor, and Gambit pressed the call button, then rocked impatiently on his heels while he waited for it to arrive. When it did, he stepped inside, and Purdey went back into hiding before he caught sight of her at the other end of the corridor. It was only when she heard the lift doors slide close, and the hum and whir of the mechanism as the lift spirited her colleague off to another floor, that she abandoned her cover, and moved down the corridor to track his progress. The indicator informed her that the lift was headed down. Far down. Very far down. As far down as anyone in the Ministry could go without taking on a side job as a coal miner. Purdey watched the lift indicator come to a stop in the Ministry's basement with pursed lips. There were several departments confined to the bowels of the Ministry, but there was no doubt in her mind as to which one was Mike's destination. She also knew he was going to be there for some time, which meant she had a chance to do some checking up. She quickly returned to the computer lab, located the in-house telephone mounted on the wall, and lifted the receiver. "Hello," she said in response to the operator's inquiry. "I'd like to request a technician, please."
The technician, or 'boffin' as most of the Ministry's employees referred to them, perhaps rather uncharitably, was an affable young man of about 25, blond, with the seemingly standard-issue thick-rimmed glasses that announced his status to the world. His name Merton, and he was almost too happy to help.
"Had a bit of trouble, have you, miss?" he inquired, as Purdey led him to the monitor so recently occupied by Gambit.
"In a way," Purdey conceded. She'd carefully constructed her story while she waited for the technician, praying all the while that he wouldn't turn out to be some sort of stickler who cross-checked everything before he made a move. "You see, my partner was doing some research for an assignment earlier today, and he took the printout with him when he went to follow a lead. Somehow he managed to spill coffee all over it." She shared Merton's sympathetic laugh, and dared to hope that he was buying all this. "Anyway, now he can't remember what was on it, and he's called me asking if I can backtrack through the system and find his research trail. But I'm afraid I don't know how."
"Ah." Merton nodded sympathetically. "Not many people do. They don't cover it in basic training for your lot, you see, even though I've been telling them they should. Lost research trails are only going to come up more and more often as we move to electronic databases, and it's going to be a massive waste of time if we have to come up and retrieve them every time someone hits 'delete' by accident." He seemed to realise who he was talking to, and added quickly, "Not that you did that in this case, miss. It's really not your fault, and I don't mind helping you at all."
Purdey smiled sweetly to allay his fears. "I'm very grateful," she told him, and was amused to see a blush creep over the young man's cheeks.
"Ahem," he began, clearing his throat. "I'll have a look, then, shall I?" He started typing, quickly, fingers dancing over keys as screens appeared, and disappeared just as quickly. Purdey had to admit she was impressed—she wasn't bad with the machines, but she wasn't an expert, and certainly wasn't up to this man's level. Even Gambit was better at it than she was—he actually liked the things, and had spent more time with them than was strictly necessary. Purdey could understand their usefulness as a tool, but she had no particular desire to muck with them in her leisure time, and Steed had no use for them at all. He was more than happy to leave that sort of work to Gambit and Purdey whenever possible.
"Just about there," Merton was saying, and Purdey snapped out of the reverie she'd been lulled into by the rhythmically flashing screens. Eventually, one, final screen popped up, the prime feature of which appeared to be a table without any data in it. Purdey frowned at the image.
"Is that it?" she wanted to know, looking to Merton, but his frown was mirroring hers.
"No," he murmured softly, then felt her eyes on him and turned his head to explain. "Well, I mean, yes, it is, but there's no data concerning past research trails."
Purdey felt a hard knot form in her stomach. "Do you know why?" she asked, doing her best to keep her voice level
"Well, I can't be certain," Merton began, fiddling nervously with his glasses. "But it seems—I mean, it looks—as though your partner, or someone else who used this machine after him, wiped the trails."
"Is that difficult to do?" Purdey inquired.
"Not if you know your way around the system," Merton admitted, regarding Purdey with a newfound unease. "Is your partner good with computers?"
"Yes," Purdey replied distantly, unable to keep the worry out of her voice.
Merton seemed to sense that she wasn't pleased with this development, and tried to put her at ease. "Well, we don't know for sure it was him—could be anyone who used the lab. And even if it was, agents do it all the time. You know, to keep things under wraps. You're a suspicious lot, aren't you?" He laughed nervously, but Purdey didn't join in this time. She knew that no one else had used the machine after Gambit—she'd made sure of it, waiting by it until Merton returned. That meant Gambit had wiped it, most likely to cover his tracks. And at the moment, she couldn't think of a single good reason for him to do so. The illegitimate reasons, however, were now presenting themselves to her with haunting clarity.
"Yes," she confirmed, in belated acknowledgement of Merton's comment. "We're very suspicious. And sometimes I wish we weren't."
Purdey hated visiting Button-Lip. The department was located in the bowels of the Ministry, and was assigned the not-insignificant task of protecting all of her employer's most important secrets. Trips to the department were not common, but almost always essential. Their work had brought Purdey here a handful of times in the year or so since she'd achieved agent status. Every time she'd brought Gambit, or, rather, Gambit had brought her. Gambit had spent much more time there than she had, in his seemingly never-ending quest to plumb the depths of every file room the Ministry had to offer, in search of lost secrets and a good read. His adventures had led him to strike up friendly relations with Button-Lip's department head, the coolly-efficient Cynthia Wentworth-Howe. A dedicated worker who had single-mindedly climbed the rungs of the intelligence services in pursuit of her goal, Cynthia now occupied her ideal position as gatekeeper of the Most Secret files the service had to offer. To most, she was a foreboding figure, standing tall and unyielding, striking down any unwary agent who chose to come her way without proper clearance. Those that had done their homework received professional, if chilly courtesy. John Steed had famously cracked her resolve a decade ago with an anecdote about a salmon in Bond Street. Since then, only one other man had managed to get something approaching a warm smile out of her, and that man was Mike Gambit.
Purdey didn't know how he'd managed it, but Cynthia was never anywhere near as formidable when Gambit was around. Files that she would normally be loathe to even admit existed were not only opened, but handed over without hesitation. Granted, Gambit had a way with women, but Cynthia wasn't an ordinary woman, and ordinary charms didn't work on her. Purdey suspected it was down to a strange blend of professional respect and physical attraction—one-sided, or so she liked to think. She definitely didn't like thinking about whether or not it went both ways, or whether Gambit had gained personal access to Ms. Wentworth-Howe's legendary garter keyring...
Purdey stepped out of the lift at the bottom floor of the Ministry, strode down the grey, cavernous, forbidding corridor, and paused outside an unmarked door. She always needed to brace herself before she entered Button-Lip's inner sanctum, and with good reason. It was rather like walking onstage to perform for the most critical audience known to man. Her dancing days pale in comparison.
Squaring her shoulders, she turned the doorhandle, pushed open the door, and stepped inside. She may as well have been entering another dimension.
The sheer size of the place was always the first thing that put her off. After the narrow, unspectacular corridor, the mind just wasn't primed for the high-vaulted ceilings and vast sprawl of the room. It stretched out in all directions, clean and crisp and white. There were two neat columns of desks up the middle, each desk occupied by one of Button-Lip's file clerks, heads bowed as they got on with their no-doubt important tasks of encrypting secrets, or whatever it was they did all day. To either side of them were the filing cabinets, row upon row of them, all grey, all arranged facing inwards, towards the desks. They eventually gave way to row upon row of shelves, which tapered off into the peripheries of the room, eventually disappearing into a strange horizon. It was as though the whole room was designed to throw one's sense of space and perception off-balance. That was the first thing Purdey hated about it. The second thing was yet to come.
Purdey took a step forward. The impact of her high heel on the tiles instantly rang out, deafeningly loud. In unison, the heads of the clerks snapped up, dozens of pairs of eyes fixing on her with efficient precision. Purdey took another step, willed herself to fall into a natural walking rhythm. She didn't get flustered easily, but there was something about the clerks, whose eyes managed to follow her without ever turning their heads. Those eyes, so used to perusing secrets on a daily basis, seemed to have acquired an almost-supernatural ability to glean one's own secrets, seemed to look straight through into the brain and the heart, and see them all, printed out in block letters, just waiting to be pulled out, examined, and then filed away, only to be extracted when necessary. Those eyes seemed to know everything, and Purdey hated them. She suppressed a shiver. Usually she'd have Gambit with her, striding on ahead, and she could use him as a shield, following in his footsteps, as though his form could act as interference against the laser gaze. Gambit never seemed to worry about those eyes would uncovering his own secrets. She knew he had some. Then again, perhaps he was too old a hand at keeping them. That was why she was here, wasn't it? Because Gambit had a secret, and as a result, for the first time in more than a year, Purdey didn't have a shield.
Making her way as quickly as possible past the clerks, Purdey hurried over to the one, solitary desk set apart from the others, where a blonde woman was poring over some papers. Unlike her clerks, she hadn't looked up upon Purdey's arrival, and she was stubbornly refusing to do so even as Purdey came to a stop just inches from the edge of her desk. Purdey pursed her lips in annoyance. Cynthia always did this to her. If Gambit was with her, she'd be on her feet by now.
"Ms. Wentworth-Howe?" Purdey inquired, and her voice rang out in the room, earning her another simultaneous head-snap from the clerks.
Cynthia glanced up at her over the tops of her half-moon reading glasses. "This is Button-Lip, Purdey," she reminded, like an overly-strict librarian. "We speak softly here, if we must at all."
Purdey fought the urge to pull a face, forcing an apologetic smile onto her lips instead. "Sorry," she apologised, in a much quieter tone.
Cynthia nodded, once, as though approving Purdey's choice of decibel. "How can I help you?"
"I'm looking for Gambit," Purdey told her. There was no point in beating about the bush with Cynthia, and anyway, Purdey wanted out of here as quickly as possible. She could feel the clerks' eyes on her back. "Has he been here?"
"What makes you think he's been here of all places?" Cynthia wanted to know, and Purdey just barely managed to refrain from grinding her teeth.
"Because I saw him take a lift to this floor," she explained patiently. "And the only place down here Gambit's even remotely interested in is Button-Lip."
Cynthia inclined her head, as though receiving a compliment. "Well, as flattering as it is that Mr. Gambit thinks so highly of our department, I'm afraid I can't help you."
Purdey arched a sceptical eyebrow. "So he hasn't been here?"
Cynthia was unfazed. "As I said, I can't help you."
Purdey could tell when she was being given the runaround, even by someone as inscrutable as Cynthia Wentworth-Howe. "Is he here now?" she asked pointedly, never breaking eye-contact for a moment.
"Without wishing to appear rude, Purdey," Cynthia began, finally removing her eyeglasses and meeting her gaze head-on, "I must remind you that Button-Lip is a very busy department with an absolutely crucial remit in the intelligence services. There are secrets which must be processed, protected, and be safely kept under lock and key. Locating mislaid agents is not part of that remit. If you've somehow managed to misplace your partner, I'm afraid we're not the people to ask."
Purdey held the gaze a moment longer, then straightened up with a sigh. Whether Cynthia was intentionally avoiding answering her questions, or simply being difficult for the sake of it, she wasn't going to help her. There was no point in pressing her further. Cynthia was powerful, more powerful than she looked, and the last thing Purdey needed was her fellow blonde placing a call to McKay, who would want to know just why Purdey was making unexplained trips to Button-Lip when she wasn't even on an assignment.
"All right, I won't take up any more of your time," she sighed, keeping the hostility out of her voice. "But if you happen to see Gambit, you will tell him I'm looking for him?"
"Of course," Cynthia agreed. "So sorry we couldn't be of more assistance. Good-bye."
"Good-bye," Purdey said crisply, and endured the walk of the thousand eyes for the second time in almost as many minutes. It was only when the door was safely shut behind her that another, almost-invisible one opened, blending seamlessly into the white wall that housed it. Mike Gambit stepped out and closed it carefully behind him. He moved to where Cynthia still sat, pondering the door so recently shut by Purdey. The clerks turned back to their work. They knew which secrets were never meant for their eyes.
"Thanks, Cynthia," Gambit murmured in gratitude to the blonde.
"I won't lie for you, Gambit," Cynthia reminded tersely, fidgeting idly with her glasses, before twisting round to fix him with her penetrating gaze. "I didn't just now. I avoided the issue. But I won't outright lie to someone who is more persistent than Purdey. Not even if it is Purdey. I have a job here, and I won't compromise it, or lose it, on your account."
"I'd never ask you to," Gambit assured, knowing full well that she meant it—she was too dedicated to hold out for his sake. Her hard-won fondness for him only stretched so far, and he didn't particularly want to test it. This favour was his choice to grant, and his alone—he didn't want to drag anyone else into it if he could help it. He looked down at the papers he held in his hands. "I, uh, made a copy of that report when I was in there." He nodded at the invisible door from which he'd just emerged. "Redacted, of course. I don't think there's anything too inflammatory left." He handed the papers to Cynthia for her inspection. She replaced the reading glasses and gave them what would appear, to the casual observer, to be a cursory once-over, but was, in reality, an expert eye trained to pick out top secret information.
"Yes, that's fine," she confirmed, handing back the pages, which Gambit folded and tucked away in his breast pocket. "Don't flash them around, though, will you? I don't want anyone coming to the erroneous conclusion that I make a habit of this sort of thing."
"Don't worry. The only person who'll be looking at them signed the Official Secrets Act years ago."
"Yes, I know," Cynthia said crisply. "Why do you think I'm letting you take them?"
Gambit smiled wryly. Trust Cynthia to be two steps ahead when it came to other people's secrets, although his search criteria hadn't exactly left much to the imagination regarding the identity of his mysterious associate. "You seem tense, Cynthia. I should take you out for dinner when I'm finished, give you a chance to relax."
"You can take me fishing," Cynthia countered, shuffling some of the papers on her desk. "This Saturday. There's a lovely little stream that's said to be promising, but it's off-road. Your Range Rover should manage it much better than my little city car." Gambit pulled a face at the idea of freshly-caught fish smelling up the interior of his Rover, but Cynthia was unfazed. "You can pick me up at seven in the morning. Bring your own waders."
"All the other girls supplied them," Gambit quipped, but there was a sigh in his voice. He nodded at Cynthia, who looked quite insufferably pleased with herself. "See you at seven." He trudged toward the exit, and swore he could hear the clerks chuckling in his wake.
Gambit eased the door open, and peered cautiously out into the corridor, just in case Purdey was still out there, trying to catch him on the way out. She was, though not so much lying in wait as waiting for the lift. It could be temperamental at times, especially where the basement was concerned, and could take absolute ages to pick up its human cargo. From Purdey's impatiently-tapping foot, she'd been waiting for some time.
Gambit stood there, just watching her, arms crossed, gorgeous figure draped in something light blue and sleeveless. It would bring out her eyes, he knew—he hadn't been able to see her from his hiding place, just hear her voice, and now he had a picture with no vocals. They blended together in mind, the voice anxious, annoyed, frustrated, strident, officious, and a dozen other things he picked out unconsciously by way of months of familiarity; the body betraying her mood with a head bent in thought, a slightly jutted-out left hip, and he knew from experience that she'd have her right thumbnail pressed to her lips, a habit that asserted itself whenever she was trying to work out a problem out. He knew there were a hundred different things zipping around that fabulous brain at warp speed, trying to work out just what was going on. He knew she was annoyed with him, worried, probably very, very bemused, and suspicious. She knew he was hiding something, and if he wasn't careful, she was going to find out before he had a chance to wrap this up, or worse, she might share her concerns with someone else. Right now she didn't have enough to go on to do much more than worry and try to keep tabs on him. He was going to have to tread carefully if she wasn't going to start digging up something more concrete. And that meant he was going to have to get better at lying to her.
Gambit hated lying to Purdey, particularly when it mattered, and she hated him when he did it. Occasionally it was necessarily—the doppelganger assignment had been one such case. But it always stuck in his craw, and he always had to endure Purdey's look of mild betrayed as penance. He wasn't sure what kind of look she'd give him if she worked out what he was doing, but he didn't want to see it. Or hear the words that accompanied it. He suddenly felt very, very guilty for misleading the figure, standing alone at the end of the corridor, whom he was quite obviously causing distress. Sorry, Purdey-girl, he apologised mentally. But I promised to do someone a favour. He ducked back inside Button-Lip before she had a chance to see him.
Purdey, as though sensing his eyes on her back, whirled round suddenly, scanning the corridor for any sign of life. But there was no one. Purdey pursed her lips in annoyance, wished she'd managed more than meeting a dead-end in the form of Cynthia. The lift dinged cheerfully, announcing its arrival. Purdey stepped into it reluctantly, knowing that there were answers down here, just outside her reach. She'd been stymied this time. She'd have to try a different strategy. She pushed a button and the lift doors slid closed.
Back in Button-Lip, Gambit returned to Cynthia, smiled a bit sheepishly. "Is there, uh, another way out? Purdey's taking a long time at the other end."
Cynthia's smile was conspiratorial. "This is Button-Lip, Mr. Gambit. We'd look very silly without at least one secret exit, wouldn't we?"