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The Christmas Sleigh Ride Affair

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Prologue: Sheriff Mike Marconi, senior police officer in Christmas County, carefully pulled off to the shoulder of Highway 14 at the point where it divided into the new section and the older one. It was starting to snow again and he pulled his collar up tighter around his neck. Glancing around uneasily, seeing the clouds overhead, he shivered and decided he'd stop at McGee's Tavern after he got off duty, maybe indulge in a rare glass of something stronger than beer. He rarely drank anymore, but there was just something about this time of year that called for it.

Opening the trunk of his car, he pulled out the 'Road Closed' signs and started to trudge toward the old section to the north. It was deadly still, enough he was startled to hear a voice coming from behind.

"Here, let me help you with those, Sheriff."

 

It was Christmas Eve, and the teams of Solo/Kuryakin and Slate/Dancer were headed home after a successful operation in Phoenix, Arizona. A new Thrush operation there had been stopped almost before it got started, and the principal players now in the hands of the authorities. They all would have preferred flying, of course, but an airline strike made that impossible, so they were in for a very long drive.

The four UNCLE Agents were in a rental car well above the grade the Accounting Department would be happy about paying for, mostly because of Napoleon's refusal to take the tiny weather-beaten alternative offered, and this being the only other available choice. Well, the others hadn't argued too much; that first car didn't look like it could make it even a quarter of the way without breaking down, and if they were going to travel all that way, it would be nice to not be totally squished.

Of course, it was highly-satisfying getting the mission completed successfully; it was nice to be headed home again. But the timing could have been better, to their minds, anyway. Getting back home in time for Christmas just wasn't going to happen, which was a little disappointing for they all had made plans.

There was the UNCLE Christmas Party, first of all, which they would have normally attended; it would have already started, would last til mid-evening. Illya wasn't much one for parties as a rule, but the food was usually plentiful and he would have been encouraged to eat all he wanted; that made it worth attending and putting up with the women who tended to gush over him at times, AND watch all the other women who tended to gush over his partner. Of course, if he'd had his druthers, he'd have just gone with the food and avoided BOTH layers of gushing, but he had stoically intended to put up with the latter to get access to the former.

Mark had plans afterwards to meet a few blokes he knew from home to lift a pint or two. Napoleon had planned to attend Midnight Mass at the Cathedral, and then head back to his apartment to meet Illya for a little pre-dawn Christmas morning cheer.

April had invited the other three agents to a Christmas Day brunch at her flat, so had intended to go home after the party to spend late Christmas Eve putting the finishing touches on those preparations. Gifts would be exchanged after brunch, and she had selected a nice bottle of their favorite drink for Mark, Illya and Napoleon - gin, vodka and Scotch respectively - something they would be happy with, but not encroachingly personal. Now, none of that was in their immediate future.

"Now which way? It looks like the road divides up ahead," Napoleon asked, it being his turn to drive. The increasingly icy road was making steering difficult, with the snow decreasing visibility to a mere ten feet or so in front of the car. Somehow, the movement of the car brought Napoleon's mind to the sleigh rides he used to go on when he was still a teenager, a 'civilian', not an agent for the UNCLE. Somehow he remembered enjoying that slipping and sliding of the horse-drawn conveyance a lot more fondly than what the rental car was doing now. Of course, back then, he'd have had a cooing girl his own age in his arms, not struggling with a reluctant steering wheel; that probably accounted for the difference.

Illya was studying the map with a flashlight, zeroing in on the section for Christmas County, Kansas, then glanced ahead in the darkness through the falling snow and sighed.

"It is not really a choice, Napoleon. It would appear only one is open to traffic, just as the woman at the gas station told us. Still, according to the map, both sections eventually join up in the town of Mayersville, so it probably doesn't matter anyway. She just said that only one of the ways would be open at this time of year, and it would appear she was correct."

And if it seemed a little odd for the highway to divide and then later rejoin, there was probably a good enough reason for that. Perhaps some matter of geography or natural hazard that made the route problematic during harsh weather, something of that nature. If Old Route 14 was any more risky in heavy snow than what they were already traveling, none of them had any interest in venturing along it.

He made the slight turn, steadied the car as it threatened to slid sideways, and drove on for awhile, hoping conditions didn't get any worse.

"Can't you turn that off, Napoleon?" Illya asked irritably as the volume of the radio increased slightly. Mark and April had to agree, it was jangling their nerves by now.

It was a Christmas song, nothing more, one made popular by Nat King Cole. Some called it just 'The Christmas Song', others knew it as 'Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire'. A song from the 40's, a little sweet and nostalgic, as so many were. Even so, Napoleon and the others were beginning to discover it was a little annoying, seeing as how it was being played on every radio station they could bring in - every station (well, all three of the ones within range), over and over again. All across what had seemed to be half the state of Kansas, though it truly hadn't been THAT long, just since the turnoff. Probably a technical glitch, somewhere, but annoying anyway.

Why did it make them tense with apprehension? Perhaps it was their training that made them just naturally suspicious of odd occurrences.

Perhaps it was the flat countryside, the road seeming neverending, not a town, not a house, nothing now for miles, not since they'd turned onto this stretch of highway, except for the so-called roadside attractions with their persistent, indeed overwhelming, holiday themes that kept popping up on one side or the other.

Perhaps it was that blasted charm bracelet of April's, tinkling away madly, not in time, but in counterpoint to the music. Napoleon told himself the bracelet was just getting into the holiday spirit, but somehow, just hadn't managed to convince himself. And from the looks on everyone else's faces, he hadn't convinced them either. Sometimes he sincerely wished she'd leave the damned thing at home!

And that blasted song! Over and over and over, it repeated itself, til the words echoed in his head. Though, somehow, he'd remembered that line being a little different, something like 'tiny tots, their eyes all a'glow, will find it hard to sleep tonight'.

Funny, to have misheard it all these years. Yet he could hear it quite clearly now, probably because of it being repeated over and over again. 'Tiny tots, their eyes all a'glow, will make it hard to sleep tonight.'

Then, the next line started to seem a little off as well, and it seemed he wasn't the only one who thought so.

April said uneasily, "when did it switch from 'they know that Santa's on his way', to 'they're waiting, knowing you're on your way'?"

He'd have just shut the radio off, except the blasted thing was stuck in the 'on' mode.

"There's another one," Mark said glumly. "Just how many of those places ARE there, anyway?"

Yes, there was another sign up ahead, for yet another holiday roadside attraction. This one was 'Frosty's Winter Holiday Park'. Twenty minutes back there had been 'North Pole'; prior to that, 'Santa Land', and the first of the lot, 'Santa's Workshop'.

April's charm bracelet had been jingling like crazy ever since the first one had come into view, pausing for a few minutes, then starting up again, repeatedly. Now, just for a few seconds it stopped, just as the radio went silent.

They all heaved a deep sigh of relief. Frankly, BOTH the song AND the bracelet were getting on their nerves.

Then, the music started again, a different song, 'Frosty The Snowman', and that damned bracelet started up again as well, not a jingling, more of a clanging now.

{"Almost like the bell on an oldfashioned horsedrawn fire engine,"} Napoleon thought uneasily.

"Well, at least it's not more of those 'chestnuts roasting'," Napoleon laughed, trying to hid his nervousness. {"Why do I keep looking in the rearview mirror like something's following us? I've looked a dozen times, and there's no sign of anyone, none at all."} He'd thought they were free from any Thrush pursuit, but still, the hair on the back of his neck was on constant alert.

"Napoleon, I am not terribly familiar with this 'Frosty', but is he USUALLY depicted in such an unsettling manner?" Illya asked, taking in the various lighted signs with illustrations and paintings they were passing.

"Why, I suppose it's pretty standard," Napoleon answered. "I'll admit I'm not overly conversant with Frosty, myself, but a magical snowman, it's a charming picture, don't you think?"

"Not from the looks of THAT, mate," Mark assured him, pointing to the large glowing figure of a snowman placed at the highway exit.

"Though it matches with the description in the song, I suppose, but doesn't he look rather, well, sinister? Eyes made out of coal are one thing, but those are rather glittery, like fiery embers. Mouth a little too red, teeth a bit too prominent. And sharp-looking to boot. And those arms reaching out towards us? Rather offputting, to my mind."

April shivered in the night air. "And listening to the song now, although it never occurred to me before, it sounds too much like the Pied Piper to suit me."

"You have a point, April luv. All that dashing out of town, leading all the children along behind, the coppers on his trail. That one didn't end well, if you'll remember."

No, they were all most happy to get to where they couldn't see even the shimmering lights from Frosty's Winter Holiday Park. Napoleon scolded himself. {"You're letting your imagination and their foolishness get the better of you. Frosty's head did NOT turn to watch us go past!"}

"Napoleon, did you see -"

"No, whatever it was you thought you saw, no, I didn't!" Napoleon refused to even consider what April had been about to say; flat out did not want to hear it!

The other three exchanged glances at that fervent denial of something not even spoken yet.

Soon there was a new attraction to the left.

"Don't you think it odd, that there are that many Christmas attractions out here, lights blazing, and we've not seen another car? Even with the snow, you'd think there'd be SOMEONE out and about. And if not, wouldn't they shut down for the night? What's this one?" April asked.

"Reindeer Frolics," Mark read on the arched entrance, all outlined in twinkling red and silver lights.

The music switched again, this time 'Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer' getting his turn. The words didn't seem any different than what Napoleon remembered them, and he felt some of the tension disappear.

That is, until Illya expressed his far-too-depressing thoughts. Well, that was Illya, a cynic to the bone. Of course, he had reason and more to BE a cynic, but Napoleon kept trying to get him past it, at least to some extent.

"So, he was an outcast due to his appearance, taunted, made fun of, pushed outside the society he was born into. Then, when there is an extraordinary NEED, when that society can use him in some way, taking advantage of his physical attributes they formerly made fun of - even though he is totally untrained for the job he is to be given, which you would think could be rather dangerous - he is made much of, cajoled into thinking they now accepted him. One wonders what his position will be the week AFTER, Napoleon. Will they remember his contributions and give him a place of respect, or will he once again be on the outskirts? And even if they do make a place for him, would not some lingering resentment be there, on his part, for their delay? Perhaps even on theirs', for having to accept someone they consider 'less' into their midst?"

Mark agreed, "reminds me of Kipling and his poem 'Tommy', you know. No respect, no acceptance for the common soldier, not til there's bullets flying, and trenches to be manned, and cannon to be rushed - then it's all smiles and handshakes and 'we value you'. Til the fighting is over, of course."

"And I always rather LIKED that Rudolph story," April bemoaned. "Now, after hearing you two, I never will again. And truthfully, now I wonder if Rudolph regretted making that run. I imagine he won't a second time, not if they push him away afterwards."

"Oh, probably he will, April-love. Just like the British soldiers, they knew, they understood the hypocrisy, but really, what choice did they have? Turning their backs would have made them even more the outcast, not that they'd have been given that choice, of course, and for most, there was the underlying patriotism, and the need for at least some acceptance."

"Remind me to pick other companions for a jolly Christmas roadtrip next time," Napoleon complained. "Well, at least you shouldn't have any problem with THIS one; it's all happy and light," he commented as 'Winter Wonderland' came through loud and clear on the radio.

"So, Illya, are you going to mess with this one too?" Napoleon gently teased. "Maybe say that 'gone away is the bluebird, Here to stay is a new bird' maybe refers to Thrush winning out over UNCLE?"

Illya smarted just a little under that teasing, though that thought HAD crossed his mind. "Perhaps not that, Napoleon, though it is an interesting thought. As long as that other line doesn't hold true, I will be content for the moment," the Russian calmly retorted.

"Other line?" April asked.

"That 'walking in a winter wonderland'. I am more than content to be in a warm car, especially with all this snow."

Just at that moment, the car stopped, dead in its tracks, with no warning. They sat there, shocked, and a concerted groan filled the car. They had the damnedest luck with cars!

Napoleon turned the key again and again, only to get a grinding noise, certainly not the smooth purr it had given before.

Looking out the window past the swirling snow, they could see lights off to the right, marking the entrance to the latest holiday attraction.

"Well, it looks like we're stuck with asking for some help. Maybe they have someone who can jump start us," Napoleon said with a deep sigh.

He wasn't looking forward to trudging through the ever-deepening snow, not even the few hundred yards to that lighted entrance to what appeared to be 'The Winterland Express'. There was a brightly-colored train, engine, two cars, caboose, moving slowing around the perimeter of the park; they could see it from the car, the smoke billowing from its smokestack. He wondered where the passengers had parked their cars; they'd hardly be running the train unless they had customers.

At first glance it looked as if the place was deserted, even with the blaring music and chooo-chooo-chooo of the train's whistle and the whooof-whooof of the smoke stack. But suddenly they moved past the entrance and a bunch of small children ran by, giggling, trying to escape the laughing elf chasing them with a stuffed candy cane the size of a baseball bat.

Seeing the four, the elf screeched to a halt and sauntered up to them. "You've come to ride the train? You're in luck! It'll be making another round in just a few minutes. Better get some popcorn to take with you; Jasper over there makes the best popcorn."

"Ah, thank you. But we're really wanting to find someone who can help us with our car. It stalled just at the highway out there."

The elf just stared at them like he wasn't sure what any of that meant. "Don't think popcorn will do anything for a car. Never heard that it would," he said doubtfully.

Napoleon rethought his approach, or at least, who he was approaching.

"No, I don't think it would, actually. But perhaps Jasper, or someone else, has a car we could use to jump start ours? We have the battery cables already. Perhaps if we could speak to whoever is in charge here?"

The elf scratched his head with abnormally long fingers clad in the bright green gloves that matched at least part of his costume, the rest being gold and red with a dash of purple.

"You could ask Rudolph, I guess. He's over in that direction. He's the one with the bright red nose and horns. Can't miss him."

And with that, the elf was off again, once again chasing the group of children who'd been waiting impatiently.

"Well, that went well. Shall we see if we can find Rudolph?" Napoleon sighed.

To get to where Rudolph, whoever he was, was supposed to be, they had to pass the paused train. A happy-looking conductor, looking more than a little like Captain Kangaroo, waved an invitation to come aboard, but the four agents just smiled a regretful refusal and went on their way.

Mark took a long look back. "April, do those people look particularly happy to you?" watching the faces at the windows of the train.

April looked and shuddered. Napoleon and Illya followed suit.

"Frankly, I've seen similar expressions in a painting of Dante's Inferno," Napoleon offered, but in a low voice, not to attract any attention. And there was more than a little truth to that statement; the expressions were more indicative of horror, perhaps sheer terror, than anything else, even if mixed with hopeless resignation. {"Damned souls on a train to hell."}

 

"Well, now, I believe you were looking for me? I'm Rudolph," a cheery voice came from behind them, and as they turned, the train took off down the track.

"Oh, we settled in here way back," the perky man known as Rudolph offered as he handed around cups of coffee to the four visitors. "Me and several others. All looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life; too many people, too much noise, new ways we didn't much like. From a lot of different areas, different in a lot of ways, but turned out we all had an idea about how to make Christmas a little special for those travelling through. Couldn't reach an agreement on just how to go about that, so we each put together our own ideas, made our own place. Figure it all works out; like they say, something for everybody."

That nose really was red and even had a deep glow. Napoleon wondered cynically just how much the man had to drink on a nightly basis to get just that effect. And nose aside, those antlers were overkill, to say the least. They certainly looked real, and should have been far too heavy to be supported by that brown cap they were attached to.

"So you're open just in December?" April asked politely, sipping at the eye-watering mixture in her cup. Coffee mixed with turpentine would be her best guess.

"Actually, we're only open on Christmas Eve - just twenty-four hours total. But, it's enough to amuse us, give the travelers a thrill or two. We've thought about doing a few other times a year, bring in other holidays - April Fools Day, Halloween, Fasching, Perchtenlaufer, that sort of thing, but decided we'd just stick with what we knew best. Place really was booming in the forties and fifties, lots of new material to fit in, but then things got a little dull out there in the wide world. Nothing much fun at all, and they'd built the new extension to the highway, and that cut down on business. Still, we keep at it; it's our hobby, sort of - our calling, you might say. Glad to give you a tour," he offered.

Mark smiled politely, "that's all quite interesting. But we really weren't intending to stay long; we have places we need to be. I believe Napoleon was asking about someone being able to give us a jumpstart?"

Rudolph smiled, and a shiver went up and down April's spine, and she tugged at Mark's sleeve, getting his attention. Her bracelet was doing everything but jumping off her wrist!

Mark glanced over, then behind her, and his eyes widened.

"Napoleon, I really think we need to leave now, get back to the car!"

"Well, if this good gentleman will . . ." Napoleon started to say, but then that charming smile faded as he looked at the huge cat standing there glaring at them. It was taller than Rudolph, even WITH those antlers, and it obviously was not in the mood for purring.

The four agents backed up carefully, glancing at the smiling Rudolph.

"Ah, my manners, my manners! This lovely creature is known as the Yule Cat. And he tells me NONE of you got new clothes for Christmas! How unfortunate! You really SHOULD have worked harder during the year, you know. Ah, well, it DOES have ITS job to do."

Rudolph turned, patted the monsterous creature on the shoulder. "Happy hunting, my friend," and turned and sauntered away.

Illya swallowed heavily, saying in a deeply aggrieved voice, "but I always LIKED cats!", before he joined the others in a rapid retreat.

They'd taken off running, pistols drawn, but hesitating to use them for fear of drawing something else down on them. And it appeared there were quite a few other things TO be drawn down, for now the hissing cat had been joined by those children from before.

Tiny tots, none more than knee-high, all with their eyes glowing and those obscene titters coming from their smirking mouths. Frankly, the knives in their hands didn't help the impression, and April, for one, could have done without those large nutcrackers scattered here and there, the jaws steadily chomping in a most threatening manner.

At their right lumbered Frosty, rounded body made of packed snow, with his wicked smile of sharp teeth, his eyes like burning embers, arms outstretched towards them. He was joined by an entire herd of tiny reindeer with their sharp antlers and teeth like wolves and hooves that clicked against the ground like castanets.

And mustn't forget (would NEVER forget!) the lurking Krampus leering at them, dripping a mixture of drool and blood.

They ran, dodged, and finally ended up at a large shed. It looked solid enough to hold off their pursuers, and they dashed inside, barring the door behind them.

"Well, Ho! Ho! Ho! What do we have here?" came a booming, jovial voice behind them, and they whirled to see a jolly fat man, white hair and beard, dress in red velvet trimmed in white fur. It was Santa, sitting at his workbench.

It appeared he was making dolls, carving features with his sharp chisels and small hammers and other woodworking tools. Small dolls that appeared to be screaming in pain, bleeding from each tap of the hammer.

Santa looked them over carefully, then smiled broadly, "yes, you will do nicely. Now, which one is to be first? Perhaps the pretty lady? She'll make a lovely Princess - what is your name, my dear, so I can put it on the nameplate?"

"Ah, I don't think so," April declined with a forced, but very polite smile. "I'm really not the princess type."

"Well, perhaps later. You, you are a little tall for the part, but my intuition says you are to be a Emperor Bonaparte, all dressed in his best uniform. Or you? Ah, yes, a Russian dancer, or perhaps a gypsy? And you? I'm not so sure about you, young man. A trapeze artist? A juggler? A clown? Do you have a preference, perhaps?"

Mark gave him an uneasy smile. "Actually, I'm not quite in favor of any of those. In fact, we are in a bit of a rush, you see; hardly enough time to really make it worth your while."

"He's quite right. I'm afraid we are in quite a hurry. Our employer is expecting us back and we're already running late," Napoleon said as he eased his way back toward the door.

"Napoleon, look," Illya warned him in a low voice, and the uniformed soldiers, all moving stiffly, as if made from tin, emerged from the shadows and clomped forward, surrounded them.

Resistance was futile, and they found themselves bound and gagged and brought to Santa, one by one, somehow reduced to no more than doll-size. The night rang with their screams, the floorboards of the barn ran red with their blood, and then it was over, and they lay limp, helpless, death surely only moments away, their only comfort being in the slight grasp of a friend's, a partner's hand on theirs.

And then a bell clanged out in the night, one loud clang followed by another and then another - twelve times total, until the entire barn shook with the magnificence of the sound. In the loudness, in the intensity, it was easy to believe those were far away church bells, not the bracelet on April's wrist using every bit of power it could muster to sound that Midnight calling.

"Damn!" Santa swore in annoyance. "Someone remind me to get my watch fixed! It's five minutes slow! Oh, well," he sighed, and faded from view, along with the soldiers, and then even the barn itself.

It was another five minutes before the church bells in the surrounding towns rang out loud and clear, began to signal Midnight had come, but by then Santa and all the others who had gathered here had gone, thinking their time was past. Just as well; they probably wouldn't have taken it gracefully, knowing they'd been misled like that.

 

Napoleon blinked his eyes, moved cautiously, surprised that he COULD move, considering all that had taken place. But there was no pain, no blood. He wiggled his fingers, holding his hands up in front of his eyes. Yes, all of his parts were still attached, which certainly wasn't as he'd remember it.

He looked frantically around for his companions, finding them curled in balls on the ground nearby. Rushing to them, he helped them to their feet - first Illya, then April and Mark.

Now they stood, in the middle of a snowy expanse, nothing in sight except their car a few hundred feet away. Silently they made their way toward it, and wonder of wonders, it started immediately, at the first turn of the key.

The discussion was hushed, their voices faltering as they told what each of them remembered. That the memories were in agreement was more of a matter of discomfort than otherwise. That April now had a severe burn around her wrist under her bracelet was grimly noted and accepted, just as she gratefully accepted the application of burn ointment her partner carefully applied, moving the bracelet respectfully higher on her arm out of the way. No way was he going to try and remove it!

"I wonder if we would still be alive if another five minutes had gone by before the bells started ringing?" Napoleon mused.

"And why did it wait so long?" Illya asked.

April ran her fingers over the bracelet, seeming to listen, then nodded. "There's a limit to its power. What we, what THEY heard, was rather like a pre-echo of the real bells, and five minutes was the outside limit of what could be done."

They all considered that in silence. They were all thankful for many things - that they were still alive, that they had been granted those vital five minutes, that the car had started, that the snow had stopped. And that the blasted radio was now silent!

 

It was another hour before they reached the place where this road adjoined the other, and soon, a small town where they stopped for food, and to catch their collective breaths. Luckily there was an all-night diner that hadn't closed for the holidays, a place they were welcomed in and quickly bustled into a booth closest to the heaters.

"You came WHICH way??!" the waitress asked, her jaw dropping in shock. Without waiting for them to repeat what she'd already been told, she turned to holler at the man behind the counter.

"Joe! They came up the old highway! Last night!! Thought Mike was gonna close that off til after the 26th!"

The grizzled man in the white apron frowned, "always does; no reason why he wouldn't have THIS year. No sense taking chances. You didn't see the 'Closed Highway' signs?"

Upon hearing there had been no signs on that fork, though there had been on the other one, blocking it from access, none that any of the four had spotted anyway, Jodie and Joe exchanged worried looks.

"You don't think they've figured it out, maybe? Sent some of them out to switch the signs after Mike put them up?"

"Better put in a call to the Sheriff's Department, let Mike know these folks just came through."

The phone rang and rang and rang. Meanwhile, prone in a snowdrift, head twisted to the side, vacant eyes staring into an eternal nothingness, Sheriff Mike Marconi awaited the next roving patrol, probably the car driven by his nephew Cody Andrews. The 'Road Closed' signs would also be found, dumped in the field to one side.

Mike Marconi hadn't been the first to die in the line of duty in Christmas County, die protecting the citizens and those passing through; Cody was going to do his best to be sure he was the last.

Christmas County was going to have to come up with something better than just closing off Old Route 14 before next year, he knew. Just what, he didn't have any idea. Maybe the National Guard? They hadn't been interested before, but maybe now? Still, how do you explain something like the annual occurrence in Christmas County, out on Old Route 14.

 

Back in New York, April scurried around putting the finishing touches on the brunch she had promised Mark, Illya and Napoleon. Luckily she'd done all the grocery shopping before she left, and what was needed fresh she'd placed on order at the market she frequented. She just had those three last items, special gifts, to find and wrap and put under the tree.

Yes, they'd missed the UNCLE Christmas party, not getting back to New York til the 27th, and had spent most of that day being debriefed from the Phoenix assignment. There had been a separate debriefing, one which only Alexander Waverly witnessed, where they somewhat reluctantly laid out what they remembered from their trip through Christmas County.

"Hmmmm. I made an inquiry or two, after you reported in, Mr. Solo. It would appear the Sheriff of Christmas County was found dead on Christmas morning. His neck had been broken, his body abandoned in a snow drift beside the highway. His successor had a rather odd story to tell, one that bears out YOUR account. I believe we might have to take a hand there, next year, to see if we can't be of some assistance. I have our research department working on some possible remedies."

The four looked at each other uneasily. It was easy to tell they really hoped to be on a different mission next year, hopefully on the far side of the globe. One Christmas Eve in Christmas County was more than enough.

Now, looking around her flat, April was well satisfied. The tree was still in place, though perhaps looking a little dry around the edges. The bayberry candles burning softly in sconces around the room, and she'd been able to get evergreens garlands from the discount flower mart where they'd been ready to discard them since no one bought such things AFTER Christmas. In fact, Margaret had told April, "dearie, take whatever you want! Save room in my trash bin, it would!"

The ham was done, just resting its juices; all the rest just now set out on the folding tables she'd pushed together to make a buffet. Gifts were piled around the tree; she chuckled to herself, thinking the Yule Cat wouldn't be coming for any of her three friends. In addition to the gifts already there - a bottle of Scotch, vodka, and gin, each designated for the one who would most appreciate it - Napoleon now had a fine ascot and matching handkerchief to go with that smoking jacket he affected at times, Illya a lovely red sweater, and Mark a Carnaby shirt in rich turquoise. Just as she checked off the last item on her list, the doorbell rang.

"Welcome! Merry Christmas, even if it is a little late," she urged them in, taking their coats and hanging them in her tiny closet. Their gifts were added to those already under the tree, and they gratefully gathered on the sofa and in the easy chairs to share a drink and the hors d'oeuvres she'd prepared.

And when the gifts were opened, and shared, and exclaimed over, she realized the Yule Cat was out of luck with her as well. Yes, there was a very nice bottle of wine from Napoleon, a book of Celtic poetry from Mark, and Illya had given her a recipe book of Russian desserts, but in addition, it seemed the guys had gone together and bought her that darling but far too expensive suit she'd been drooling over for the past month, Scottish wool in a lavender heather tweed, with a dreamy lavender silk blouse for underneath.

It was afterwards when Napoleon cleared his throat and made an announcement. "I have an apology to make, and an toast to propose. April, I was wrong about that bracelet of yours. As far as I am concerned, it's welcome along anytime! In fact, I think it should become a permanent member of the team!"

They all laughed when the bracelet tinkled gaily in response, nothing like its usual warning vibrations.

"And the toast - to us, all of us. May the New Year be bright and triumphant for each of us and our friends. And may we spend NEXT year's Christmas holiday somewhere OTHER than Kansas!"

That got a sincere and hearty "Hear, Hear!" from everyone.

Of course, 'other than Kansas' left a lot of options. Who knows where some of those might lead them?