Present and Accounted For
“That’s your disguise?” Napoleon Solo’s three words generated a sparkly mist in the frigid night air.
Illya looked down at himself, the black turtleneck and slacks and rubber-soled shoes. “It’s traditional.”
“No. This—” Napoleon spread his hands, giving full visual access to his splendid Santa Claus suit, complete with fake curly white beard and a belly full of pillow padding. “—is traditional.”
Illya shook his head, finished checking his gear, and closed the satchel. “Not for a mission it isn’t.”
“For a mission at Christmas it is.”
Illya considered further. “It doesn’t really suit you.”
“On Christmas eve, Santa suits everyone, my Russian friend.” Napoleon made a ‘ho-ho-ho’-shaped moue.
Illya rolled his eyes and hefted his satchel from the trunk of the car. “Let’s go.” He didn’t comment on Napoleon’s bag of tricks – red velvet and immense, like the costume, rather than the battered duffel he generally used in cases like this. But he supposed Napoleon had a better sense for these sorts of American holiday subtleties. Perhaps at this time of year Santa Claus was more invisible than a man in cat-burglar attire.
He led the way down the quiet, lamplit residential street to a house that stood away from the others and well back from the road, behind a tall brick wall and locked iron gates.
He kept walking, past the gates and out of the light of the nearest lamp, then stopped in the shrubs near the wall. Napoleon’s pillow bumped him from behind.
“Napoleon, control your stomach.” He dug into his bag for the grapple and rope.
A softly snorted laugh was followed by, “It’s freezing.”
“You’re a poor excuse for Saint Nick if you can’t stand a little cold,” Illya said. “Come on.” He tossed his bag over, flung the grapple, tested the rope, and climbed to the top of the wall. Napoleon handed up his own bag of tricks – bulky and heavier than Illya would have expected – and Illya deposited it in the snow-dusted shrubberies on the inside before dropping down himself.
He turned to wait; in a moment a white-tufted red hat appeared, followed by Napoleon’s face and fake beard, then an arm. Next Santa flung a black-booted leg over, then the other. Napoleon balanced his pillowy body on top of the wall for an instant, looking around, then jumped. He landed off kilter, pitching forward onto his partner, tumbling them both onto the snowy ground.
“Sorry about that.” Napoleon stared at him, familiar eyes in a face made strange by the white beard. The contrast was briefly, almost comically, sinister.
“Is that a pillow under your belt,” Illya said, deadpan. “Or are you—”
Napoleon pushed himself off his partner, not gently. “Ho. Very Ho. Did I mention Ho?” He got to his knees, awkward, then to his feet, hefting his bag. “I’m off balance with all this velvet and leather and pillows and stockings filled with Christmas joy.” He shivered. “You’d think all these layers would be warmer.”
“I don’t remember anyone asking you to play jolly old elf tonight.” Illya got up, brushed the icy snow off his backside, and gathered his own items of mayhem. He took a moment to reconnoitre the house.
“There.” He pointed. “The room to the left of the doors.”
“Hope the good little boys and girls are nestled all snug in their beds,” Napoleon said, low. “Or this is going to be a short mission.”
Illya shushed him, then beckoned him forward. As they crunched across the snow-crusted lawn, Napoleon grumbled under his breath, something about Mr Waverly, holiday pay, stockings, and coal, if Illya wasn’t mistaken.
“Quit complaining,” he said. “It’s not as if you had anything better to do tonight.”
“I had a date.”
Illya shot him a look. “You couldn’t have. You asked me to join you for Christmas eve dinner.”
Rubbing his gloved hands together, Napoleon gave him a dirty sidelong glare. “And you turned me down.”
Fighting a grin, Illya said, “Exactly.”
“So I asked Nadine in Section V if she wanted to join me for some roast beef and New York pudding.”
“That’s Yorkshire pudding.”
“Nadine’s a native New Yorker.” Napoleon attempted a lascivious smile, but somehow it came out a grimace. The cold, probably.
Illya had no difficulty erasing any trace of sincerity from his voice and face. “Sorry. This mission is a bit more important than your interoffice fraternizing.”
Napoleon shrugged. “I’m here, aren’t I? Jimmy the window already.”
Inside, they glanced around the holiday-ready room, seeking the best place to deposit their little surprises. The multicolored tree lights provided just enough illumination, Illya thought, to give them a false sense of security. He moved very carefully.
“Under the tree?” Napoleon whispered. “It’s the last place anyone would look.”
“You’re diabolical,” Illya said. Napoleon’s grin was visible even through the beard. He set his bag in front of the banked fire and started digging. Illya went to the doors and peeked out into the hallway. All was dim and quiet, but he did note the alarm box – complete with small red flashing light – and wires next to the front door before he returned to his partner.
Napoleon was a big fluffball of red and white and black in front of the fireplace, pulling out one small item after another and singing softly, “Ho ho ho, who wouldn’t go … ho ho ho, who wouldn’t go-o—”
“I’m just getting in the spirit,” Napoleon whispered back, placing each of the small but power-packed items just so.
“You are putting them under the tree?” Illya asked.
“Where else do you put presents? Where the boys and girls can find them. Where are the detonators?” he turned to Illya, again rubbing his hands together.
“You have a sick sense of humor, Napoleon.”
“It is Christmas.” Getting awkwardly to his feet, Napoleon bumped into the fire irons and Illya shushed him again. Irritated, Napoleon twisted around to get himself untangled. More clanging, thudding, and soft curses ensued.
Illya’s warning was cut off by one fatally loud clang as the whole mess fell over on the brick fireplace surround, followed by a flailing Napoleon.
Lights sprang on outside the room – from upstairs, probably, and Illya darted to the window, pausing with one leg over to look back. Rather than being right behind him, Napoleon was still on the floor in front of the fire, looking like a beached red-velvet whale.
“Napoleon!” Illya hissed. “What are you doing?”
“The damn’ suit’s caught in the …” A yank, and the sound of iron utensils clanking, finished the sentence for him. He spared a second’s attention from his predicament to glare directly at Illya. “Go! I’m right behind you.”
The shriek of an alarm cut him off. Both men froze for one decision-making second, and Illya started back as the lights came on in the corridor outside.
“Go!” Napoleon snapped, strain twisting his voice as he yanked at his costume.
Another hot split-second glare. “You can’t rescue me if we’re both caught. Go. Come back when things’ve calmed down again. Go!”
Shouts from down the hall pushed at Illya. With a sharp curse he dove out the window and into the bushes, turning to yank the window down behind him. One quick glance through the frost-rimed pane showed a phalanx of men surrounding Napoleon, who straightened out of his defensive crouch – still hooked to the damned fireplace tools – and put his gloved hands in the air.
Illya let fly with another piercing curse as he raced across the lawn. After that he was silent, saving his energy for speed and thought. He had some preparations to make before he came back for his partner.
Illya returned to the house, tired and irate, in the bleak grey of dawn. He drove in past the open gates, parked in front of the house, and walked straight in without ringing the bell. The canned holiday music and live laughter directed him to the front room they had infiltrated only hours before.
Still in his Santa suit, Napoleon sat in a tall-backed chair beside the enormous Christmas tree, ho-ho-hoing for all he was worth and beaming a most father Christmasy smile at the mass of children – a dozen or so – surrounding him. A cup of hot coffee steamed on the table beside him, but his attention was on the kids. Carefully – teasingly – he picked up one of the gifts he and Illya had planted hours before, turning it over in his hands as if unsure whether it would be safe to hand it to the madly eager boy or girl whose turn it was. The staff stood at the back of the room, coffee cups in their hands, smiling indulgently.
“Hm…” His voice was pitched as low as Illya had ever heard it; it sounded strained. “What could this be? Who could this be for?” He shook it, then peered at the tag. “Ellen. Is there an Ellen here?” He studiously overlooked the little black-haired girl wildly waving her hands, scanning the other giggling children, until Ellen couldn’t stand it any more.
“Me! I’m Ellen!”
Napoleon looked down, faking surprise, then handed over the booty. Ellen snatched the gift and fled; another child took her place, and Illya watched from the doorway until every present had been distributed and every child was sastisfied.
Temporarily. He knew very well that no spy, however talented, could provide these dozen children what they needed – what they needed much more than a few hours of holiday magic.
We can’t give them parents or a home. But we can give them this. Napoleon’s giving it. And Illya knew he’d never be able to express what he felt seeing Napoleon like this.
“And here’s one of my helper elves!” Napoleon was coming toward him, an elderly man in tow. Illya found himself introduced to Dr. Karl Macklin, the head of the Appleseed Orphanage, with whom they shared the acquaintance of kindly philanthropist Alexander Waverly.
Once Macklin had thanked them and returned to his mild festivities, Illya pulled Napoleon aside and whispered:
“How’d you talk yourself out of being arrested?”
Napoleon cleared his throat. “A little discreet name-dropping had the staff eating out of my hand.”
“Mr Waverly?” Illya guessed. After all, he was the reason they were here in the first place. Napoleon gave him an affronted look.
“No, Mr Santa Claus.” He glanced around to see if anyone was within hearing distance, then touched Illya’s arm. “Let’s make a break for it. I’m starving, and their coffee tastes like a THRUSH interrogation technique.”
As they headed for the door, Illya felt compelled to say, “You survived your capture admirably.”
Napoleon paused in the hall. “Well. I can’t say it was the most exciting Christmas I’ve ever had,” he allowed, glancing back at the melee. “But it was very … rewarding.” The gentle pleasure in his face almost made Illya forbear teasing him.
Almost. “Better than a Christmas eve dinner … et cetera … with Nadine?”
Napoleon gave him a sidelong look. “You forget she was my second choice.”
Illya smiled. Fought it. Lost. “Yes. Well. This—” with a nod toward the orphans – “wasn’t how I expected you to spend your Christmas eve either.”
“What do you mean?” Napoleon pulled off the beard as they headed out the door.
“Once we were done planting our packages, I had a little Christmas surprise of my own planned. It was quite annoying having to rearrange … things because you were so careless as to get yourself captured.”
Napoleon’s brows rose and his voice dropped. “Oh really.”
Illya eyed him, unmoved (outwardly). “Really.”
Napoleon dropped hat and beard on the hood of Illya’s car, easing as close as his pillow would allow. “And just what did this little surprise consist of, that you had to go and rearrange it because of my carelessness?”
“Some things simply won’t keep,” Illya said, cross. “Not even in this weather.”
“It was ruined, then?” Napoleon said, lightly. Too lightly; Illya heard the disappointment. Probably Napoleon had meant him to – he didn’t let much slip, not even to Illya.
“Ruined is a strong word. Perhaps I can improvise something. In honor of your performance in there. If you don’t have other plans for the day.”
Napoleon positively beamed. “It’s going to take the whole day?” He caught Illya’s elbow, squeezed. “Merry Christmas to me. Let’s go.” He gathered up his Claus accoutrements and jumped into the car. Illya came around, slid behind the wheel, and sighed to keep from laughing.
“Who needs children when I have you?” he pretended to grouse.
Napoleon sat back and glanced at him, a louche look ruined by the pillowy red bulk of his suit. “Well, now that you have me, what are you going to do with me?”
“That,” Illya said, starting the car, “will keep. At least for a little while.”