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Garrison had once again lived through the 'Merry Month of May-Hem', though he and Sergeant Major were convinced their nerves would never be the same.

(Still, although he'd never discuss it with Gil or any of the others, however much he would prefer to avoid a repeat of the other entries for that month, Craig HAD decided he could possibly become quite accepting, even comfortable with Goniff's unusual, inspired, quite educational adaptation of the concept, the one introduced at the Cottage.)

{"Maybe more than comfortable - addicted, perhaps?"}

Now, though, once again looking at that 'Theme of the Month' list he'd pulled from the corner of his desk, reading aloud what they had to look forward to next, he and Sergeant Major Gil Rawlins shared a heart-felt groan.

"A 'June Full of Puns', Gil. That's up next. Meghada mentioned that, you know, when we were back in the limericks stage, and was really NOT thrilled at the prospect. Seems she got her fill of puns early on with her brothers. Though, lucky her, with whatever job she was headed out on this morning, she'll probably miss most, if not all, of it this time around."

He noted that Rawlins was looking downright envious of that so-convenient escape.

In fact, Garrison, stopping in at the Cottage to borrow a map or two of a region he wasn't overly familiar with, had caught her just on her way out. He'd not totally trusted in that brisk explanation he'd been given as Meghada made ready for a hasty departure from the Cottage early that morning.

"Clan business, Craig. Already told Goniff when I passed him the supply of motion sickness packets. Not sure when I'll be back. Could be a few weeks. DO try to stay safe, yes?? I'd say stay out of trouble, you AND the guys, but I know not to ask for the impossible. Let AJ or Michael know if anything dire arises," she'd thrown to him as quickly as she'd thrown her duffle into the back of the car.

In fact, he'd asked her about that, with more than a little skepticism on his face and in his voice.

"And you're sure you're not just avoiding an entire month of puns from the guys?" he'd replied. He remembered quite well her stated opinion of such from an earlier conversation. The snort, the sideways glance he got in return seemed to contain an undue amount of amusement.

"Now why didn't I think of that? It's actually quite an appealing notion, come to think of it. I might have been tempted in that direction even without this Gathering-In Call! But, no, truly I wouldn't abandon you and the guys just to save my own sanity, would have been willing to face the risk, the utter agony of enduring a month of puns - several puns a day - for thirty long, veeery looong days - but only out of overwhelming love and devotion, you know. But duty calls. When the Clan whispers "who will do this impossible thing? Who can we call on? WHO??", what can a humble Clan Dragon do but bow her head and step forward to do her duty?"

Yes, that overly-dramatic statement, complete with facial expressions and broad gesturing, definitely had a considerable measure of amusement built in, and that smirk . . .

{"Humble Clan Dragon, my Aunt Fannie!"}

Her tone turned to one far more brisk, "of course, the Grandmother didn't exactly 'whisper', it was more of a shriek, but still . . . "

He'd watched as, with a wave, she drove off in a cloud of dust. He was still not totally convinced, although bringing in the leader of the Clan DID seem to point to a certain serious, even urgent situation awaiting her skills.

Bringing his mind back to the present, noting it was not yet 0800 hours, he debated whether it was really too early for a drink. Obviously Rawlins was thinking much the same from the longing glance the non-com sent in the direction of Garrison's bottom desk drawer.

"Isn't there something you can do, Lieutenant?" Gil pleaded. "I mean, to taper them off a bit? I remember last year, you know, AND this year's Limerick nonsense, and while you'd think just a silly sort of word game would be innocent enough, it was right wearing before they finished," Gil pleaded.

Well, Garrison had to admit Gil was right, on both parts. Not only were the word games wearing on the nerves after awhile, he found himself mentally joining in, which was even MORE disconcerting. Talk about a bad influence!

Now, they were facing another June, {"thirty days! Thirty very long days!"}.

Garrison started thinking once again about whether he could convince the world to trim down that twelve-month calendar to something more manageable. Though Meghada had laughed and asked him when he broached the subject over a stiff drink, "even if you brought it down to one very, very long month of 365 days - is there a theme you'd be content with dealing with for that length of time? One that would keep them interested? At least this way, you get to exercise DIFFERENT nerve endings, Craig!"

And while he had to admit she was right, still, it took its toll.

When even Actor joined enthusiastically into the monthly contest (or the periodic display of male plumage, as Garrison sometimes thought of the whole routine), you knew it was getting out of hand. Oh, nothing (yet, anyway) as traumatic and heart-stopping as those belated April Fools Day events that time, especially Goniff's finale, but still, enough to get on your nerves. Especially when they'd made it a point, each of them, to deliver at least one new pun every day of the blasted month last June, even if they'd had to shout them over the roar of an airplane's engine or whisper them in a waiting ear to avoid being heard by enemy sentries.

{"Even if they each keep it to just one a day - four times thirty means I'll be a gibbering idiot by the time July rolls around!"}

Still, he'd just run a masterful con on the experts up at HQ, leading them off in a new direction while making them think it was really THEIR brilliant idea, which gave him a certain level of confidence. Surely he could do something similar with his own guys, even though they were smarter by far than those so-called experts, especially in the area of con jobs. Well, it was worth a try anyway.

It was after considerable thought that he approached the guys about 'making the game a little more challenging AND rewarding'. He figured that would work better than a 'let's soft-pedal it for awhile, guys, to preserve my and the Sergeant Major's sanity', approach and he was right. Oh, he was sure they knew he was conning them, but they seemed willing to play along just in order to find out how.

"And how to figure out a way around it, I'm sure," he'd admitted later, with a laugh.

Sergeant Major Gil Rawlins had nodded glumly. "Imagine you're right on that, Lieutenant. Imagine they will, too, knowing them."

That 'challenge'? There could be only three entries from each man over the whole month, there had to be a story behind every entry, and the story had to be real, verifiably real.

And, to give more scope and get a higher score, it could involve an idiom, adage or aphorism, along with or preferably even INSTEAD of the pun. MORE points for one of those than for one with just a pun, in fact. With extra points for including both, of course, (otherwise the con would be just TOO obvious), though he figured there wouldn't be too many of those.

Still, he figured that should make them spend a lot more time on figuring it all out and preparing their three entries, and not as likely to revert to the old scheme and try and hit him with four (or more) new ones on a daily basis. Besides, with the schedule he had the feeling HQ had in store for them, that was probably all they'd have time for.

{"Maybe they'll even stick with idioms and the rest, ditch the puns! Puns really do get to you after awhile! Four times thirty equals - oh good grief! No, four times three is much more likely to leave me without treacle in my brain! We'll probably be busy enough they won't even miss the rest."}

That parachutes and flying bullets seemed the more attractive alternative made him think of Meghada's escape in a more sympathetic vein.

"Remember - verifiable! That means, whatever you decide, the underlying story has to involve something that really happened," he'd told them sternly. "And Gil and I will be the judges of which one wins the pot. Yes, there's a prize, just to keep your interest and make sure you abide by the rules. And yes, the prize will be worth your while."

(Garrison hadn't figured out what that prize would be, but if it could cut down on the frazzling of his and Gil's nerves, he would make it worthwhile, no matter what it cost him.)

They were busy the first part of the week, indeed, for pretty much the full month, across the Channel and tending to a couple of very odd jobs up in London. And Garrison's layout worked pretty well, the guys focusing on their own limited entries; well, along with trying to shoot down the others being tentatively presented by their team mates. Of course, some of those blasts were because the entries were so totally lame as to be worthy of derision, but some because they just didn't want THAT little treasure up in competition with their own efforts.

Still, spaced out over the month, around other activities - both Garrison and Gil agreed; it was going to be quite a challenge in itself to decide on the best one of the lot. Oh, not every one was great, some were truly groan-worthy, but all certainly had SOME merit.

While the topics were varied, Sergeant Major DID point out to Garrison that "per'aps an overly full representation from London, but them blokes up at HQ DO make tempting targets, don't they, sir?" and Garrison couldn't disagree.

 

*ROUND ONE:

First Contestant - Casino:
"Moore no sooner told us how 'spot on' we'd handled that job, really come through for them, ya know, when I heard him complaining to Colonel Hays just how we just didn't 'put the shoulder to it' like he'd expected. I just have to wonder how the mealy-mouthed bastard sleeps at night. But then I figure - it's probably the same way he talks - first on one side, then on the other."

That little story from Casino was perhaps a bit short, but it truly DID meet all the criteria. Still, it seemed to lack that certain something that signaled a winner.

Second Contestant - Chief:
"Heard two of those hot-shot efficiency experts from HQ, they got finishing lecturing to the Team Leaders, they went walking along when they spotted some tracks. They follow them along for awhile, then they start arguing, each saying they're the only one smart enough to figure out what was making them. One claims they was deer tracks; the other argues, no, more like bear tracks. They lean over to take a real good look, still arguing. Right about then, the train plows into them."

Chief left it there, ending abruptly, not thinking it needed any smoothing, any softening. Then again, he might be right. Garrison was tempted to leave that one in the pot, just because it was so on the mark, but really, it didn't fit the criteria. Well, not as verifiable, anyway, since he hadn't heard of any of the efficiency experts going missing recently. Though, the 'tracks' vs 'tracks', and that hard 'thud' of an ending probably DID allow for it to make the cut for at least an 'Honorable Mention'. And he had to give points for it giving him a lovely visual during the next meeting where those so-called efficiency experts would expound on all their theories, and get to arguing about which one's school of thought was really right. Yes, he'd leave that one in, ignore the 'verifiable' part. Chief had a solid entry for certain!

Third Contestant - Actor:
Actor's was declared an obvious winner right up front - at least by the con man himself. "Includes a variety of your requirements, Craig!", and he did lay out the aphorism right up front. "A bad workman always blames his tools." Well, a piss-poor briefing by Major Cornington, leading to a mucked up mission, just pulled off by the skin of their teeth, luck and skill playing equal parts certainly explained THAT one.

And with Cornington, it wasn't like with Kingston, who put out details like a miserly host lays out a buffet table for twelve with food for possibly three people, all on a severe diet, just out of pure pissiness.

No, with Cornington, he just couldn't be bothered to take the time to give a decent briefing or the effort to read the supporting documents, double check what so-called facts he'd pulled together. There were some who claimed he was functionally illiterate, didn't really know HOW to read, but surely that was an exaggeration. Possibly it was simply that he had a dim view of 'facts', or he figured if he opened his mouth, whatever fell out should qualify just because he said it.

But none of that really mattered, because, according to him, the briefing had been 'perfect, absolutely perfect!', and in HIS opinion, if anything had gone amiss, it was entirely Garrison's fault for not listening, or perhaps not understanding or maybe willfully misinterpreting what he'd said.

Actor's rendition of that little episode had everyone either laughing or swearing, depending on which part he was talking about at that particular time.

"Well, no puns, the idiom seemed vague, though a good aphorism. Probably not destined to be the best entry in the pot, Actor."

That opinion was voiced by Garrison, being rather surprised at the con man presenting such a limp entry. The men broke out into a laugh when Actor apologized with seeming sincerity.

"My mistake, Craig. I must have misunderstood you, that a pun wasn't strictly necessary if I met the other guidelines, though I DID include one, I assure you. And - you said 'idiom'? Oh, I thought you said the story must contain an - -, well, something else. So sorry."

That smug look did NOT point to any 'sorry', though, only deep satisfaction.

Garrison kept losing his train of thought for the rest of the day, into the night, found himself trying to figure out if something unspoken could still be a pun. And then wanting to kick himself for getting so wrapped up in their games that he was even THINKING about whether that should or shouldn't be a qualified entry!

Fourth Contestant - Goniff:
"Now, that's just cause you aint none of you a chemist! Any chemist would know - alcohol is ALWAYS a solution."

Well, that story was from their early days, even one told on himself, back when Goniff relied on the liquid solution more than he should have, and while that was no longer the case (him having other sources of comfort and means of driving the night demons away now), it was verifiable.

And, in that particular case, it really HAD been the solution to their difficulty. Who knew it wasn't only guys who liked a good snootful?? From the way that big metal tin can had sounded by the time they got to their destination, probably got hangovers too, and needed a good snooze afterwards. Yes, that met the criteria. Probably not a winner, but still . . .

 

*ROUND TWO:

First Contestant - Casino:
Casino's second entry, while containing a couple of maybe-puns as well as an idiom, had received protests for "being more bragging about you and that Camie woman, her skills and all," as Chief noted.

Goniff smirked and added, "and, Casino? 'A mighty oak'? Come on! We've all seen it, remember, at 'rest' AND at 'charge', and it's nice enough, but it ain't THAT big!"

Garrison agreed 'little strokes fell mighty oaks' technically fit the requirements, and he supposed they could get in touch with Camie (no pun intended, well, not one Garrison would admit to) for verification of that encounter. Still, the bragging part?

"It is in very poor taste, you have to admit," he said, shaking his head in reproof.

But Actor supported Casino, as much as he himself had groaned at the story.

"Craig, these are PUNS! Surely being in bad taste is not a matter for disqualification. In fact, some say it is even mandatory."

Second Contestant - Actor:
This one was regarding Major Richards, as told by Actor, from that little job where Richards was smug as could be at what he'd just pulled off.

"But his look of satisfaction turned to one more of shock and dismay when he turned to look back in triumph and, not seeing the six-inch drop from the doorway, ended up flat on his face at the bottom of the steps. So, as you can clearly see, 'from the sublime to the ridiculous is but a single step.'

"Or, if I might be so bold as to add another entry out of turn, perhaps 'He who laughs last, thinks slowest', as Goniff is now proving," glaring at the pickpocket sitting stonefaced across from him, not even a hint of a smile showing.

Well, Actor was a little miffed - he'd told a very amusing story, he thought, well qualified as a June entry, and the others had at least smiled as he ended that story, although those smiles had seemed a little strained for some reason. Goniff, however, had sat there just staring at him, brows raised, head now tilted to one side in silent reproof.

Of course, it being their resident pickpocket, the retort came quick and sharp.

"Or maybe 'e who laughs last, or maybe don't laugh at all, is the one who sees the one you're telling that story about standing behind you, and figures 'e needs to keep 'is ruddy mouth shut?"

And sure enough, when Actor snapped his head around, hoping Goniff was just conning him, there was Major Richards, arms akimbo, not a hint of amusement on his face at the story he'd just caught the tail end of. Well, it HAD been told at his expense, and he still remembered the look of hidden amusement from Garrison, who'd helped him up, and the not-so-hidden amusement on the faces of the other men at that time.

Richards lost no time in responding, much to Garrison's amusement now.

"Just what was that you were saying, Actor? 'From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a single step?' Yes, I believe you've now proved that equally as well as I did, don't you agree, Lieutenant? Though I must say, Goniff's retort was really quite apt, as well."

"Ei, Major! Didn't know you were going to play, too!" Goniff exclaimed, with an enthusiastic nod. "That's great! And, right off the cuff like that! Impressive, that's w'at that is!"

Sharing a drink poured out by a highly-amused Garrison, Actor was still a little disgruntled. The others had voted that, not only was Goniff's response worthy of being counted as a special entry, with extra points for being spur of the moment, but Richards' would be counted for just as much.

His complaint to Garrison had a hint of a whine to it. "But it was my story, initally, Craig, and they added hardly anything, just twisted it! That just does not see quite fair, especially with your allowing them a greater number of points than I received!" received no sympathy.

Garrison explained, somehow managing to keep a straight face.

"For spontaneity, Actor, for spontaneity. I agree with Goniff, it really was impressive on both their parts."

 

Third Contestant - Chief:
After giving a very brief synopsis of that job up in the Netherlands, he delivered the punch lines.

"Mission went okay. Warden sprained his right wrist, but on the 'other hand', he was just fine. ---- Just ask him."

Chief delighted everyone with that one and there was no one who would have voted against him. To see him participating to that extent, his enjoyment in 'getting' the whole thing and coming up with something that suited, since that first one had been good, but hadn't been a verifiable real story. Yeah, they all enjoyed that! So it wasn't outstanding, but at that point they were inclined to hand the trophy to him, just for the pleasure in his face at presenting it.

Fourth Contestant - Goniff:
"So, after the bee 'ad been spending 'is time flitting all around the place, chatting up this flower, then another one, then taking the time in between to 'ave a few words with the pencil cactus, the prickly pears, and the tree saplings 'anging around the edges, the gardener caught on, started yelling and swatted at the confused bee and made 'im leave.

"And then that one rose explained to the other one, 'don't be upset, dear. After all, if 'e can't make up 'is mind tween us and them, 'e's not really a bee, 'e's more of a 'may-be'."

Oh, the undercurrents with that one! Goniff had told that story with a sly glance at the safecracker. Chief had given Casino the oddest look, and Casino, that always-sure-of-himself personality, had been wide-eyed and flustered, trying to figure out what the pickpocket was saying, what the Indian was thinking. Everyone just busily ignored all the undercurrents, hiding any resulting snickers or groans. Heaven knows they each had undercurrents of their own to deal with.

Garrison considered disqualifying that one on the basis of not being verifiable, not being able to ask the flowers or saplings or various insects, even the gardener, the appropriate questions, but figured it didn't stand a chance on winning anyway. Besides, he figured Goniff knew that, was telling the story for some reason other than the contest, probably one Garrison was better off not inquiring into too closely.

And really? He didn't want to hear the details that might MAKE it verifiable. Would Casino really have attempted two women, both with the name of Rose, at the same time? And even if he had, especially with those looks Casino was getting from Goniff and Chief, it seemed like there was 'may-be' more to it.

Garrison groaned to himself {"now they have ME doing it!"}

THIRD ROUND:

First Contestant - Casino:
For the final round, Casino delivered what they afterwards called a 'two-fer'.

"Shelly had this kinda rope belt she wore under her clothes, didn't take it off when she got out of the rest. Damned annoying - you start moving too fast, it was scratchy as hell. Just couldn't build up a lot of momentum, ya know? I started to untie it, get it out of my way, she slapped my hands away. Afterwards, asked her what it was for, she told me, "well, I like it nice and slow. That's to keep guys from going too fast. You know, a speed bump to put the brakes on a speed hump."

"Real wise-ass of a broad! Seemed to have all the answers. I asked her how long she'd been in the business, said ever since she got kicked out of high school for bad scores on the final exam. Said the head nun told her not to worry, though, even if she wasn't all that smart; that she'd make it just fine if she just stuck to her strong points. Told her there was an old saying, 'even if you can't be the sharpest tool in the tool shed, you can always be the ho.' Shelly said it was the best career advice she'd ever had.'

 

Second Contestant - Chief:
"Told me when he got up and started to walk over there. "Yeah, yeah, kid, whatever. I'm telling ya, 'a bird in the hand is worth not beating around the bush."

Another memorable one from Chief, who was really starting to get the hang of things.

"Well, Casino, you may think that way, but the lady didn't seem to agree, not from the pint she dumped over your head! Maybe cause while you were talking to her, you were already checking out those OTHER two 'birds' sitting with her at the time. Maybe next time you'll remember, your hands can only hold so much at one time! And that it might be smarter to do a little 'beating around the bush' instead of walking up to a woman and suggesting "hey, gorgeous. Let's you and me and these other two broads go somewhere and #*@^!"

Yes, well, Casino HAD been both drunk and overly blunt, no one could argue that. Garrison wasn't so sure if that one really qualified or not, but he had to admit, it was funny as hell. He could see the whole scene, playing out before his eyes!

 

Third Contestant - Goniff:
"Just like two guppies in one a them big fish tanks, they were - one saying to the other ''ow the 'ell do you drive this thing?"

Oh, that one from Goniff was verifiable for sure, though it seems the other guidelines were fast going by the wayside.

Garrison had to laugh, remembering. Casino had always swore he could drive anything that moved, and Chief pretty much felt the same, though he wasn't as vocal about it.

Still, that experimental German tank? If the situation hadn't been so serious, Garrison could have laughed even then - his two 'experts' staring at that dashboard with totally blank looks, then looking at him, the rising panic in their eyes as they realized half the German army were coming after them and they hadn't a clue how to start the damned thing!

It had taken Goniff, of all people, to save the day, snarling at them "'ow about you try that big green button under the ruddy dashboard, ei?? Only thing up there, ain't it??! It's gotta do SOMETHING!"

Fourth Contestant - Actor:
But then came Actor's end shot, one that scooped the pot. He had just finished recounting that wild episode with the team, Ainsley's group, the O'Donnell woman, and Lieutenant Spears.

Casino snorted, "so, yeah, that was a hell of a time, and that's one heck of a story, alright, Beautiful. I'm just saying I don't see what it has to do with the Theme of the Month. Didn't hear no puns or any of that other shit the Warden talked about - idioms and aphorisms and things like that."

"Casino, of course there is an idiom, one that fits perfectly, as well as a pun. Did she not save us - us, Craig, Ainsley and his two men, as well as Lieutenant Spears? All nine of us? In a most time-ly manner? No matter how annoyed Lieutenant Spears was with her for the manner in which she did it, or how impolite his language might have been. Surely that speaks for itself."

Actor waited for the coin to drop, knowing it was just a matter of time; after all, he'd quite clearly laid out every aspect of the matter. It would spoil the fun, at least somewhat, if he had to state what he considered the obvious.

"Well, yeah, but what . . . ".

And Casino's jaw dropped, and he choked out a laugh as he realized.

"You gotta be kiddin' me!", he protested, as Actor continued.

"Although I would hesitate to apply that particular perjorative to her, still that WAS how Lieutenant Spears referred to her, was it not? And she really DID appear at just the right moment."

"So - 'A Bitch In Time Saves Nine'??? You're really gonna go with that, Beautiful? I wanna be there when you lay that out for her! And what about you, Goniff? You and her are real tight! You gonna stand for that?"

The Englishman looked up and shrugged, even though there was considerable amusement in his blue eyes.

"No reason not, Casino. 'Eard someone else call 'er that to 'er face, told 'er "you're a right bitch, you know that??!" Up at HQ, it was, that Major Wells. She just stared at the bloke at first, then nodded and smiled like 'e'd just 'anded 'er a bouquet of flowers, and said "thank you, Major; it is so nice to 'ear that you appreciate my finer points! Not everyone does, you'd be surprised to know." Just left 'im standing there with 'is mouth 'anging open.

"Told me later, she was a little surprised at 'im, 'anding out a nice compliment like that, seeing as 'ow they didn't really see eye-to-eye on much, but that it 'AD it seemed right funny, the tone of 'is voice. "Why, if you didn't know better, you'd almost think that was a BAD thing, from the way Wells said it!" she said.

"Course, could tell by that grin that she knew ruddy well 'e 'adn't meant it that way, as a compliment, but that's 'ow SHE sees it. Expect she'll think Actor's story is funny as 'ell."

 

After hearing that final entry and declaring Actor the winner, handing over the pouch of fine tobacco as reward, Garrison went to bed chuckling to himself; for a month where he'd thought that Theme of the Month would drive him out of his mind, he'd found himself actually enjoying what they came up with.

{"And I still have the other 'rewards' tucked away for next time around - that tin of good tea - Twinings - for Goniff; that old book on bladed weapons for Chief; for Casino, that 'exotic' French calendar I found in the same shop I found the book - twenty years out of date, but those illustrations! Damn!!!! Those will NEVER go out of style! Just have to get something else Actor would like to replace that tobacco. Maybe brandy. Nothing like being prepared, and it's not like they're going to put the brakes on the 'Theme of the Month' list."}

Oh, and he couldn't WAIT to see Meghada's face when they shared the winning entry with her. Actor had just better hope Goniff was right, otherwise things could get a little tricky. Oh, well, he wouldn't worry about that now - there was that new mission he was supposed to get the guys ready for, a joint one, which rarely went well. Still, he had to chuckle, thinking about all the entries for June. He drifted off to sleep, still thinking.

{"Wonder what they'll come up with for 'Jokey July'? Should be interesting. Wonder if I should have set limits on that, too? No, that shouldn't be nearly as nerve-wracking as some of the rest."}