Home For The Holidays
By St. Crispins
Heathrow Airport, London. Christmas Eve, l967.
The place was a complete madhouse. There were people everywhere: draped over chairs in the waiting room; perched atop mountains of baggage in the aisles; lined against every inch of wall space in the terminal. Babies screamed. Couples argued. Children sprawled sleeping, among the luggage.
Some passengers cursed to themselves or at each other. Some leaned against the counters, silent and philosophical, and some just wandered about aimlessly, with a glazed, faraway look of hopelessness on their faces.
Above it all, the muzak doggedly repeated its endless loop of popular carols. At the moment, an anonymous chorus was promising that they'd be home for Christmas but that was clearly wishful thinking. The fog outside was as thick as eggnog and all flights were delayed until further notice. No planes were coming in, none were going out and nobody was going anywhere.
If there is a Purgatory, this is what it must be like, April Dancer thought to herself, as her eyes systematically scanned the chaos.
"We'll never find them," Mark Slate muttered, from behind her. As he followed Dancer through the maze of humanity, he shook his head in frustration: it was like looking for a pine needle in a haystack.
But his partner was not about to admit defeat. "C'mon Mark, we're supposed to be intelligence agents, remember?" she reminded him with a laugh. Then, leaning close, she whispered, "Besides, I'll bet I know where to look."
Undaunted, Dancer led the way through the terminal, combing the bars and snack counters, scouting the perimeters beyond the crowds. Common sense told her that in the midst of a crisis, her friends' survival instincts would drive them to seek a safe refuge at the nearest watering hole.
And she was right. The large comfortable lounge at the end of the building was packed, but April found her quarry almost immediately.
"There they are," she announced to Slate and pointed. In the far corner, unobtrusively but strategically positioned with their backs to the wall and a clear view of the room, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin sat side by side behind a small table.
Illya was hunched over his drink, but Napoleon was stretched out, relaxed and casual, his legs crossed at the ankles and propped up on a nearby chair. Despite the mobs of people milling around, no one sat at the table with them.
"Excuse me, sir, but is this an exclusive club or can anyone join?" the woman agent inquired, catching Solo's attention. He looked up at her and his face broke into a broad, winning smile.
"April! And Mark! What are you doing here?"
Solo unfolded his body as he rose to his feet. He hugged Dancer and extended a welcoming hand to her partner.
"On our way back to New York, from Glasgow," Slate said as he shook it. The British agent tipped his chin to Kuryakin, who peered over his glasses and returned the nod.
"Merry Christmas," Dancer exclaimed, adding, "or not so merry, considering the circumstances."
"How did you find us in all of this?" Napoleon asked and April chuckled and fingered his tie. It was a brilliant, fire engine red.
"Are you kidding?" she said. "I could spot my Christmas present a mile away. It certainly looks festive."
"And it makes an excellent moving target," Kuryakin agreed dryly, but Solo waved a careless hand in the direction of the Russian.
"Don't listen to him. He's just envious. I like it."
Dancer leaned forward to give him a kiss, but Solo blocked her lips with his finger. "Careful sweet, I'm contagious," he warned her and promptly collapsed into a fit of sneezing.
"Oh, not, not again," Dancer sympathized. The two senior agents moved aside to make room and she sat down in a chair between them. Slate took the seat opposite.
"That makes the third cold since Labor Day," the woman agent said as Solo pocketed his handkerchief and rubbed his watery eyes.
"Napoleon's constitution hasn't been quite the same since that bout with pneumonia last year," Illya agreed.
Slate searched for a waitress. "So you fellows thought you'd lie low for awhile, like a pair of 'maiden aunts'?"
"Why not? There's nothing we can do about the fog," Solo said. "Anyway, the Old Man will never know."
"On the contrary," Slate corrected him. "He knows already. We just spoke to headquarters."
"That's how we discovered you two were here," Dancer added. "He told us that —." The sound of Solo's beeping communicator abruptly cut her off.
"Uh-oh, speak of the devil . . ." the Enforcement Chief sighed, patting his breast pocket. He reached in, retrieved the silver pen and coughed.
"Do you want to take this or shall I?" he asked, turning to his partner. Kuryakin shrugged.
"It's your call. Privileges of rank and so forth."
"Thanks a lot," Solo sputtered, between coughs. He uncapped the communicator. "I'll remember that the next time we have to decide who breaks down the door first."
Then he cleared his throat and said, "Solo here."
"Mr. Solo?" Alexander Waverly's filtered voice crackled above the static. He was not happy. "Where the deuce are you?"
"Ah, I'm afraid we're still in London, sir."
"London? Why aren't you on your way to Berlin? And don't babble about the weather. We don't have time for such nonsense."
Solo squeezed his eyes shut, wincing. He groped for a proper reply, but there was really nothing he could say. Waverly didn't wait for him to respond.
"Need I remind you gentlemen of how sensitive this affair is?"
"No, sir . . ."
"It is absolutely imperative that you make contact with Dr. Vransky as soon as possible. His life hangs in the balance, not to mention the fate of the entire world."
"Oh no," Illya murmured, keeping his voice low, "not the entire world again. This time, couldn't it be just a continent or two?"
"What was that?" the voice from the communicator demanded.
"Nothing sir," Napoleon cut in quickly. "Don't worry, sir. We'll think of something."
"Do so, Mr. Solo. I don't care how you get there, but get there. I'll expect to hear from you tomorrow — from Berlin!"
". . . And a Fröliche Weihnachten to you, too, sir," Solo said sarcastically as the transmission went dead. He capped the communicator and Slate sighed. "Not exactly Father Christmas, is he?"
"What's he still doing there anyway?" Dancer wondered aloud. "Doesn't he realize that it's Christmas Eve?"
"Awaiting the arrival of three ghosts, no doubt," Kuryakin replied and downed the last of his drink. Slate narrowed his eyes thoughtfully.
"Vransky . . . I've heard that name before. Isn't he that defecting scientist? The chap with all the interesting deterrence theories?"
"The same," Solo said heavily.
"Oh yes, now I recall. I read about him in the overnights. According to Section Three, it's a ghastly mess. The CIA and the KGB are at each other's throats, fighting over him. And then there's the British and the Czechs hovering like vultures in the background, ready to pick up the pieces. Sounds like a bloody free-for-all."
"That's why Waverly wants Illya and I to baby-sit. We're going to try to inject a little East-West diplomacy."
Slate laughed ruefully and shook his head. "Good Lord, I don't envy you. Better be careful. You could get caught in the crossfire."
"Yeah. We know."
The conversation tapered off as the waitress arrived. She'd finally found her way to their table. Slate ordered a gin and tonic for April and a glass of stout for himself.
"Refills, on the vodka and brandy?" he asked. Illya nodded but Napoleon pushed his snifter aside.
"Forget the brandy. It isn't doing me a damn bit of good." He inclined his head toward the waitress. She looked annoyed and harried as she shifted tiredly from one foot to the other.
"Tough night, huh?" Solo flashed her a warm, commiserating smile. Surprised by this unexpected note of kindness, the young woman lit up like a Christmas tree.
"You got it, Mate," she grinned. From behind his glasses, Kuryakin watched the interplay with resignation. Never fails, he thought.
Solo's expression turned winsome. "Be an angel and bring me a vodka martini. Very dry, with a twist of lemon."
"You got it, Mate," she repeated and waded back into the crowd. Solo turned to his partner. "How is it that Russians never seem to catch any colds? It's the vodka, isn't it?"
Illya nodded. "Works like antifreeze." Mark and April laughed but Napoleon had more pressing matters on his mind.
"So what do you think?" he asked his partner, his voice turning serious. "Section Five sent in a support team this morning. Vransky's in protective custody."
Kuryakin considered for a moment. "Finding alternative transportation may be more trouble than it's worth. The fog will probably lift and we still have fifteen hours to get there. I say we gamble and try to wait it out."
"And if we're wrong?"
The Russian agent chuckled. "Then I'll tell Waverly that it was your idea."
"As they say, with a partner like you . . ."
Solo tried to snort but his nasal passages were too congested. Instead, he exhaled a deep, long breath through his teeth, bowed his head and closed his eyes. "Frankly, I don't care what you tell him. I feel too miserable to move anyway."
"Poor darling," Dancer crooned and reached out a hand to stroke her friend's cheek. "You should be in bed."
Solo opened one eye. "Is that an offer?" He laughed ruefully and leaned back in his chair. "Actually, I'm having enough trouble keeping my spirits up, never mind anything else."
"Hmm, speaking of spirits —" Mark cut in. "I think I might have just the thing to clear your sinuses."
The British agent rummaged through the overnight bag parked beside him and pulled out a small flask. "Here we go."
Solo narrowed his eyes as he uncorked the cap and tried to sniff the liquid inside. "What is it?"
"Oh, just a wee bit of Highland hospitality. Go ahead. It's good for what ails you."
Napoleon took a sip and gasped. The liquor took his breath away and it was a few seconds before he could speak again. "Scottish moonshine?" he finally managed to croak.
"The best," Slate replied, beaming. "Over 150 proof."
"Chrissssst —," Solo hissed between coughs. April watched him anxiously. "I don't think that was such a good idea Mark . . ."
" — No, no." Solo shook his head vigorously. He gestured in her direction. "It's — okay — really."
But April remained unconvinced. She studied his tearing eyes. "Are you sure?"
Solo nodded and took another, more cautious sip.
"Breathing easier now?" Slate asked after a moment.
Solo cleared his throat and grinned. "No, but it doesn't matter. You could break both my thumbs and I wouldn't feel a thing."
"Any gossip from the London office?" Kuryakin inquired, changing the subject as the waitress returned with their order. Slate waited until she was gone before answering.
"They've promoted Wescott again. He's running the Paris Bureau now —."
Solo made a face. Despite Wescott's competency, he didn't like the man. They had a definite conflict in personality.
" — and Brian Morton's back from Antarctica. All's forgiven, it seems."
"Or it just became too crowded down there," Kuryakin commented. "Lately, the Old Man has been downright cantankerous."
April Dancer tasted her drink and listened to the conversation with half an ear. She usually spent the holidays at her brother and sister-in-law's: three kids and a big house packed with relatives.
The woman agent looked down at the shopping bag beside her, filled with gifts for her nieces and nephews, and sighed to herself. They'd have to do without Aunt April this year . . .
". . . oh, and our girl, here, took out McTavish," Slate was saying. "You remember him, don't you? Cock-of-the-walk in Edinburgh?"
The other two agents nodded. They remembered the wiley Thrush chief all too well.
"Bang," Slate said, pointing his index finger like an imaginary weapon. "One shot, right between the eyes. The rotter's history now."
"I'll drink to that," Solo said, switching to his martini.
"You'd drink to anything tonight," Kuryakin chided his friend, but he lifted his glass too. Dancer tilted her head to one side, embarrassed by the special attention.
"Actually, I owe it all to Illya." She turned to Kuryakin. "I took your advice and traded in the C-.22 for a nice Beretta."
She opened her jacket slightly to reveal a soft shoulder holster, nestled a little below her left breast. "And you're right. It is faster to draw a gun from here then from a purse."
"Absolutely," Kuryakin agreed and offered her an encouraging wink. "There's no reason that a female agent should not be as well prepared as a man. She can end up just as dead."
"To April, then," Slate declared and downed a healthy mouthful of the stout. The other agents did the same with their drinks. Above them, a music box version of "White Christmas" was playing for a third time. Solo glanced out a nearby window and began to hum to himself.
"If this is London's idea of a white Christmas," he observed aloud, "I'd rather be in New York." He settled back in his chair and stared out into the foggy night. His voice turned wistful. "I've been home for Christmas only three times in ten years."
"I haven't been home for ten years, period," Illya said flatly as he sipped his vodka.
"Christmas isn't much in the Soviet Union, is it?" Slate remarked.
"No, but we do have a huge festival in December. When I was a boy, I loved to watch them sculpt these wonderful statues of snow . . ."
And as the men compared the various seasonal pleasures of Russian winters, the Rockefeller Center tree and British plum pudding, April thought about her family.
What were they doing now? Sitting down to dinner? Exchanging presents? Decorating the tree?
April pictured herself in the midst of the annual gathering, remembering how uncomfortable she always felt. In her mind, she sensed the disapproving nods and murmurs behind her back and heard the inevitable questions:
Oh my, but dear, why must you carry that gun all the time?
Why don't you switch to a safer profession? What's wrong with teaching? Or real estate?
If you want to do something worthwhile, why don't you become a nurse? Or go into social work?
When are you going to settle down and get married like a normal person? . . .
"Did you hear about the agent who hid a thermite bomb in her Playtex bra?" Slate was asking as Dancer drifted back to reality. The conversation had shifted from reminiscences to raunchy jokes, helped along by the arrival of another round of drinks.
"Poor girl crossed her heart and blew up her chest," Slate chuckled and Solo shook his head in mock disgust.
"If you think that's bad, Napoleon, you should hear the one they're telling about you."
"Uh-huh. Goes like this: "What do fresh eggs and Napoleon Solo have in common?"
He paused for effect but Kuryakin supplied the punch line: "They're hard to crack, they get laid every night and they both can be found under a warm chick in the morning."
"You've heard it?" Mark groaned.
"That's an old one," Solo told him wearily. "And originally it went 'between the legs' of a warm chick in the morning". He offered them all a good-natured shrug. He'd grown accustomed to the jibes and jokes of jealous colleagues and obviously, at the moment, he was feeling no pain. Kuryakin took the opportunity to change the subject to the new communicator Section Eight was currently field-testing and Dancer's thoughts began to wander back again to her relatives and their endless questions.
How could she answer those people? What could she say? They had never been stalked or threatened or interrogated. They didn't know what it was like to sleep, to make love — even to go to the bathroom — with a weapon close at hand. None of them had ever felt the warm breath of a bullet as it whispered by or that intense, heart-stopping rush of adrenalin, as fleeting but as wonderfully potent as a sexual climax.
Of course, the job wasn't all romance and high adventure. There were times, like tonight, when it could be soul numbing and downright tedious. And there was always Gentleman Death to consider, her ever-present traveling companion, who was cold and cruel and did not always play fair.
Still, in the end, April Dancer preferred holding Life in her hands to being entombed by it. She always forgot how out-of-place her family made her feel, how very little she had in common with them. But each year's celebration made her remember, all over again.
Sitting safe and snug in their split-level houses, her brothers and their wives and children couldn't share her risks, her values, her triumphs and her fears. Even if they tried, they wouldn't understand.
But the men now sitting around her did. They knew what she knew, and a great deal more. Together and separately, they were everything to her. One was her partner, as close as a brother. One was her intimate confidant and occasional bedmate and the third, her experienced colleague and trusted friend.
This is my family now, she told herself . . .
Suddenly, a voice came over the intercom, announcing that the weather had improved and that flights would resume momentarily. All around the agents, the frustrated crowd rumbled with relief and anticipation. Some people even applauded.
Sitting next to Dancer, Solo exhaled a deep breath. His mood was more resigned than pleased. "Cheers," he said, lifting his drink. "We who are about to die, salute you."
He drained his martini glass, pushed back his chair and sauntered away, a little unsteadily, in the direction of the waiting room windows. Dancer shivered. The toast was more than an idle joke. Considering the gravity of the situation in Berlin, it was all too possible that Solo and Kuryakin would not see the New Year.
On the other side of the table, the Russian checked his watch. "Almost midnight," he said to himself. "We still can make it."
Impulsively, Dancer reached out and clasped his hand in hers. Behind his tinted glasses, Kuryakin looked at her a little startled. Then he ducked his blond head and smiled shyly.
Dear, sweet Illya, she thought, so quiet and unassuming. And yet the man knew more about weapons than a professional assassin and could drop an adversary running, with a single shot at forty yards.
"One more for the road?" Slate asked from across the table. Dancer studied her partner: he was always so even-tempered and affable, whether he was socializing with some fellow agents or blowing up a Thrush complex.
"No, that's it for me," Kuryakin said. "I think Napoleon has had enough as well."
Dancer thought of Solo. A patient and generous lover, he would touch her with the tenderness of a bridegroom. Yet, she had seen him use those same hands to break an enemy's neck as easily as one snaps a stalk of celery.
And where do I fit in? she wondered. Do I truly belong with these men? Have I become like them? And if so, does it show?
"I'll admit it's a useful device," Kuryakin said, returning to the debate over the merits of the new communicator. "But considering the size, the range is too limited."
"But with modifications —," Mark countered, and the two agents resumed their discussion. No longer interested in talking shop, Dancer left the table and wandered off to find Napoleon. He was standing near the large windows, watching the planes take off into the thinning mist.
As a muted brass quartet blared the first few bars of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, the woman agent slipped under Solo's shoulder. She guided his mouth to hers and offered him an unexpected kiss, ignoring his earlier warning.
"What's that for?" he asked softly as she withdrew.
"Oh, nothing really. I'm just glad we all could be together tonight. It happens so rarely."
Solo wrapped an affectionate arm around her and pulled her close. Outside, a 747 taxied down the runway.
"Looks like you'll be home for the holidays after all," he said.
Dancer leaned her head against his chest and smiled.
It doesn't matter any more, she told herself. I am home, already.