Isobel Watkins was doing her eyelashes when her powder compact beeped. With an exclamation of mild annoyance, she set down the mascara, picked up the glittering little box, and pressed a switch cunningly concealed among its psychedelic decorations.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Miss Watkins," the Brigadier's voice said. "We've received rumours of suspicious activity. Chap by the name of Professor von Klantz. Nothing definite, but we thought you might be interested. Sounds right up your street."
"Word is he's developing some kind of potion that could make Britain the laughing stock of the world. We can't investigate further without more proof, but we thought perhaps you might like to take an unofficial look."
"Of course, Brigadier. Is there any more can you tell me?"
Once she'd been told what little there was, Isobel set the compact down, and considered her strategy. From the sound of things, this was the sort of job where she'd need a little help. She checked her diary, and determined that a quick visit to Elite Photographic Studios was in order.
After she'd finished her eyelashes, of course. One must keep one's priorities straight.
Isobel was greeted at the photographic studio like a long-lost friend, and was obliged to turn down, firmly but politely, half-a-dozen offers of drinks, dinner and dancing in fashionable nightclubs. Penetrating eventually to a dingy green room, she found the young woman she sought among seven or eight others, all wearing swimsuits that, by next month, would be the height of fashion.
"Zoë!" she called. "Can I borrow you for a bit? Don't worry, I've fixed it with Maggie and Joan."
Zoë Heriot, rocket scientist by day, photographic model by evening and occasional crimefighter by night, rose eagerly to her feet.
"Give me half a second to change," she said. "What's up this time?"
"Tell you in the car." Isobel threw her a small bag. "Wear this. You'll need it."
Zoë glanced into the bag, recognising the familiar glittering silver garment. "I thought I might."
"Apparently we're looking for a suspicious character," Isobel said, guiding her Union Jack-painted Mini through the London evening. "Professor von Klantz. He's been spotted going in and out of Annabel's Boutique on Carnaby Street, and they've had a number of odd deliveries recently."
"What sort of deliveries?" Zoë asked.
"He didn't know, but the lorry was traced to Global Chemicals of Wales."
"Isn't it just?" Isobel brought the car to a halt on a yellow line, and climbed out. "Here we are."
"Are you sure we're allowed to park here?" Zoë asked, doing likewise.
Isobel waved her hand dismissively. "If there's trouble I'll get the Brigadier to pay the fines again. This is the place: Annabel's Boutique."
"So it is. We'll have to see if we can get in round the back."
They crept into a nearby alley, trying to be inconspicuous; though given Isobel's brightly-coloured minidress and Zoë's sparkly catsuit, they were not particularly successful in this aim. Nonetheless, nobody challenged them, and presently they stood behind the shop, in a gloomy doorway.
"Now that's a very elaborate lock," Zoë said. "At least, for this time period."
"You mean it's–"
"Computerised." Zoë began to examine the device from various angles.
"I like the little tape spools. They're sweet."
"I suppose that counts as an attempt at miniaturisation. It must have cost quite a bit."
"An expensive lock means there's something interesting behind it. Can you get us in?"
Zoë's expression was smug. "Watch this," she said, pressed a button on the device and began to speak into it. "Begin. Real A, B. Read B. For A equals zero point five step B until twenty-two..."
Isobel and Zoë threw themselves to each side as the lock exploded, smoking fragments ricocheting off the walls of the alley. They waited for a little, but nobody came to investigate; so they pushed the door open, and slipped inside. Beyond was a huge, dark area, presumably a storeroom, transformed into a maze by heaps of cardboard boxes. The only light was from a handful of tiny windows, through which the sodium glow of distant streetlights crept, much diminished by cobwebs and dirt.
"I suggest we split up," Zoë whispered.
"Good idea." Isobel set off, following the wall on the right-hand side, while Zoë crept forward, glittering in the dim light.
"Found anything?" Isobel called, after a while.
"No," Zoë replied. "It's all just–"
Her voice was cut off abruptly. There were sounds of a scuffle.
"Is she secured?" a German-accented voice asked.
Isobel ducked down behind one of the stacks of boxes as the overhead lights snapped on. Once she was sure that nobody could see her, she peered cautiously round the boxes. The centre of the room was largely clear, with a metal column running from floor to ceiling. Zoë was tied to this, and in front of her stood a man who had to be Professor von Klantz.
He was a bulky man with cropped blond hair, wearing an expensively tailored suit with the ribbon of some Teutonic order in his buttonhole. Screwing a monocle into his left eye, he leaned forward, the better to examine his captive.
"What have we here?" he said. "A foolish girl, prying into matters she has no knowledge of. But this could not have come at a more opportune moment. Hans, prepare the formula."
A white-coated, scrawny medic hurried forward, with a beaker and a vial of bluish liquid. Cautiously, he opened the vial and filled the beaker.
"Thank you." The Professor took the beaker, and dismissed the man with a wave of his hand. "Allow me to explain my plan to you. The knowledge will be of no use, since you will not be able to free yourself before I put it into effect. The formula I have here –" he indicated the beaker "– when introduced into the human body in food or drink, causes the instantaneous death of every hair follicle. My agents have infiltrated every Water Board in the country, and they await only my word to set the process in motion. I think it would be amusing if you were to have, as you might say, a preview."
He raised the beaker to Zoë's lips. But before he could force her mouth open, a voice called from behind him.
"Coo-ee," Isobel shouted. "Over here!"
She had climbed to the top of one of the heaps of boxes, and had caught hold of a rope that hung from the ceiling. As the Professor spun round, Isobel swung across the room towards him, kicking out at him as she passed. Her shoe failed to connect, but he was forced to dodge, spilling half the contents of his beaker.
"Get her!" he shouted. "Erwin! Wilhelm!"
Swinging back, Isobel passed the pillar Zoë was tied to on the far side, causing the rope to get snagged. She found herself moving in rapidly decreasing circles around the pillar, and let go to stop herself colliding with it. Having managed to land without damaging her ankles, she produced a pair of nail scissors and made short work of the ropes holding Zoë.
"Thanks," Zoë said.
"Any time," Isobel replied.
Before they had any further opportunity for conversation, the first of the Professor's thugs was on them: a huge man, clad in black, brandishing a truncheon. Zoë caught him by the wrist and sent him flying into one of the stacks of boxes, which collapsed noisily. Not so much as breaking step, she swept the next man, a rat-like fellow with a knife, halfway across the floor. Before Isobel could congratulate her, a footstep behind her made her turn. Another thug was looming over her. Trying to remember the self-defence lessons that Zoë had given her, she dodged his clumsy lunge at her, caught his arm, and sent him tumbling. He was up again in seconds, charging at her once more; she sidestepped, and he collided with the pillar, collapsing stunned to the ground.
"You're definitely getting better," Zoë said, deftly sending another hapless minion spinning through the air. "But we'll have to do more work on your Tai Otoshi."
"I'll make a note of that." Isobel demolished the last thug, and looked around. "The Professor! He's getting away!"
The two hurried after the Professor, who was making for a panel on the wall. It showed a map of Britain, divided into the regions used by the Water Boards. Before they could get to him, he reached the panel, and turned.
"Don't come any closer," he said, menacingly raising his beaker. "The next interfering little girl to move ends up as bald as a duck."
"I think you mean 'bald as a coot,'" Isobel said.
"You know, I've always wondered about that," Zoë said. "I don't know much about waterfowl, but I don't remember any of them being particularly featherless. Is there anything special about–"
She kicked out suddenly, catching the beaker with her foot. Such of its contents as hadn't already been spilled hit the Professor in the face; unfortunately for him, his mouth was open at the time.
"No!" he shouted. He clutched at his scalp, to find that his hair was coming away in clumps. "You meddling British troublemakers! I'll get my revenge on all of you!"
He turned back to the panel, and pulled a vast toggle switch into the 'down' position.
"There," he said. "It's done. Irreversible. By tomorrow, every man, woman and child in this appalling island will be–"
Isobel picked up a vase of flowers that happened to be standing on the nearest heap of cardboard boxes, and brought it down on his head. He collapsed.
"Right," she said. "Let's get him tied up. And his hired goons."
"You do that." Zoë darted over to the panel.
When Isobel returned from securing the villains, Zoë was still peering at the panel. She greeted Isobel with an abstracted "That's funny."
Zoë moved a few switches experimentally. "None of these lights is on. And the switches don't do anything. I don't think that signal went out to anybody."
"Yes, I know."
"You know already? What did you..." Zoë took another look at the panel, then at the wire that ran from it down the wall. Halfway down it had been neatly severed.
"Nail scissors." Isobel grinned. "I cut it before I came out to rescue you."
"You took a terrible risk."
"Don't worry." Isobel exhibited her trusty scissors. "They've got plastic handles. I don't think electrocution would suit me."
"That's that, then." Zoë dusted herself down. "Let's call the Brigadier and get this lot put behind bars."
Isobel checked her watch. "It's only nine o'clock. If he's quick about it we'll be in plenty of time for a drink at the Inferno before they close."
"It's a hard life, isn't it?" Zoë said, slipping her arm through Isobel's as they headed for the way out.
Isobel nodded. "But someone's got to do it."