Action Figure (Some Parts Sold Separately)
by Amy L. Hull amilynh at comcast dot net
Written for: Mark in the Yuletide 2008 Challenge
"Ralph!" A fist beat at the wood of the front door. "Ralph!!" The doorbell began to ring in syncopation with the percussive knocking. "C'mon, Ralph! Open up!"
Ralph stumbled forward, still tying his robe, and unbolted the door. Only his hand pressed flat against the wood kept the next pound from sending the door into his nose. Clenching his jaw, he leaned against the door frame as Bill pushed past him into the house.
"Bill," he acknowledged.
"Gotta get the jammies, kid. We've gotta act fast and--"
"This one's big and--"
Bill stood by the dining room table, picking up papers, letters, candlesticks, and other clutter and setting them down, his typical scattered, disinterested Columbo impression in full swing. Without even glancing up he said, "Come on, come on! Start getting ready."
"Bill, it's two in the morning."
"Yeah, but this is when it's going down."
Ralph closed his eyes, trying to think of words for an appropriate response, and heard another sleep-heavy voice.
"Do you realize that it's Christmas Eve? Christmas Eve of our first holiday as husband and wife?" Pam raked a hand through her tousled hair, holding it out of her eyes.
"Well," Bill shrugged, "technically it's Christmas Day, if Ralphie here is right about the time."
She took a deep breath, her lips tightly clenched as she turned to Ralph. "I thought you told me he was going to be in Colorado, that we were sure to have a quiet holiday."
"Oh, I was. But then I got wind of this and, well..." Bill laughed gleefully, rubbing his hands together.
Her eyes widened and Ralph stepped between them, "Let me handle this, honey."
Bill grabbed his shoulders and began to steer him towards the bedroom.
"Let's just get you out of this..." Bill took a step back and his lip curled. "What is that?"
"They're our Christmas Eve gifts to each other--" Ralph began, but Bill bent nearly double laughing.
"The 'Mister' and 'Missus' matching Santa Claus robes? Oh, that is rich. The fluffy white furry bits make it especially...something. Now get out of that and into the suit, Ralph. If you'll wear that silly get-up you can't complain about the suit. Go."
"Bill, Ralph is not going anywhere until you explain what is so important about this and what is going on." Pam's expression was now set in the unyielding mask that said she was not only awake but in attorney mode.
"Counselor, we don't have time--"
"Make time, Bill. It's two a.m. and most everyone is asleep. They'll stay that way for the ten minutes it takes you to bring us on board."
Ralph crossed his arms and nodded.
Bill looked between the two of them and his shoulders drooped slightly in defeat. "Fine. But I'm not sitting down."
Ten minutes later, Pam sighed. "He's right, honey. Let's go get dressed."
Both men turned simultaneously.
"Don't look at me like that. I'm coming with you." She crossed the room then glanced back, holding out one end of her robe's tie. "You want to try and stop me, Ralph?" She wiggled her eyebrows and slipped into the bedroom.
"This doesn't look like a toy company, Bill," Ralph said in an exaggerated stage whisper.
"Shh! Ralph! And keep your flashlight pointed down. We're trying to avoid getting caught." His voice dropped and he muttered, "You'd think he'd have learned by now," before turning to Ralph again. "It's not a toy company, boy genius. This place distributes the toys after having them mass-produced somewhere overseas that takes away jobs from good Americans so they don't have the money to buy the toys for their kids at Christmas."
Bill continued to walk cautiously, oblivious to the head shakes Pam and Ralph exchanged as they crept behind him in the darkened corporate hallway with its trendy mauve and teal carpet accents.
They turned a few more corners, moving past dark wood furniture and more of the trendy decor and wallpaper. Bill gestured for the other two to stay still while he craned his neck around a corner, then beckoned them as he slowly stepped into the next hallway.
"And here it is, boys and girls." He manipulated his lock-pick, looking at the ceiling as he felt for the tumblers to fall into place. He laughed as he turned the knob. "Ready to catch some jerks using children's toys at Christmas to undermine this fine country?"
With another glance at the hallway, they slipped quickly into the office and Pam closed the door silently behind them.
"What is this, some kind of shrine?" Bill's expression was somewhere between horrified and disgusted as he panned his flashlight across the walls.
"Well, we're clearly in the right place if they're sneaking the classified information out in the action figures for Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends."
"I told you, Counselor, they're hiding the microfiche in the dolls."
"Yes, Bill. They're called 'action figures' because big macho men like you wouldn't buy 'dolls' for their little boys."
"Damn straight." Bill looked smug.
Ralph just grinned, his flashlight trained on shelves lined with plastic toys. "Look at that display! They have five different eras of Spider-Man toys! And the prints on the walls are of practically every major character!"
"Let me guess. You read comics as a kid," Bill said dryly.
"As a kid? Comics aren't just for kids, Bill! I still read them with Kevin. He just loves this show. For Christmas this year I got him Spidey notebooks, pencils, a few comics of his own, his very own web-slinger Underoos, and one of the small action figures."
"He's proud of all that," Bill said, cringing and turning to Pam. "Does he have any idea what he's doing to that poor kid?"
Ralph just kept going, "Spider-Man is the big thing this year, and the Saturday morning cartoon is all Kevin talks about. Any time I have him, we watch it together. But this office...look at these original prints...they've got character designs for the Hulk, for Wolverine, Professor X... Bill, this is amazing."
"Like the A-MAZ-ing Spider-Man and his A-MAZ-ing friends?" Bill's grin showed all his teeth.
Ralph glared while Pam giggled. His reverence quickly returned as he scanned the walls and shelves. "They must have worked with Marvel on action figures for a long time to have all this stuff...either that or this guy is a real fan himself."
"Actually, 'his' name is Margaret." Both men frowned and Pam pointed. "It's on her nameplate on her desk."
"Well, maybe she's...maybe her son..." Bill stammered.
"You know, women DO read comics."
"Oh, Counselor, if only I'd known--"
"Oh, come on, Bill. I'd think you'd be all about how comics are an American gift to the world, especially since all the superheroes are men. I mean, look around here."
"There are women, too. I mean, one of Spider-Man's amazing friends is Firestar. And look--there's Jean Grey, and Rogue, and..." Ralph stopped as Pam stared at him, her jaw set tensely. "Maybe we should look for evidence and get out of here?"
"All right then, Ralph, go around the room touching the phone, the desk, anything you think you might holograph off of. Counselor, you check the files to see if anything pops out as illegal."
A few minutes later, Ralph had checked the phone, the blotter, the day planner, the pencil holder, even the fancy pens. "All I'm getting are images of children, mostly playing with the Spider-Man stuff."
"Just what we get for letting broads get into business," Bill muttered.
"I'm helping here, but that doesn't mean I won't smack you for being a chauvinist," Pam called from where she was paging through file folders.
"See what I mean?" Bill said into Ralph's ear.
"Could we please focus on the case?"
"I may have something here," Pam said, looking closely at a file while shining her flashlight onto it. "This lists a set of serial numbers for complete sets of action figures that were produced here in the States and sent to 'special customers' and most of them look to be addresses that are either governmental or of embassies or consulates. Looks like you might be right, Bill." She continued with an exaggerated spookiness to her tone, "There might be a toy plot against the government."
Bill grabbed the file. "All right, let's take these pages and check them out."
"That's illegal search and seizure, Bill," Ralph protested.
"That's why I turned on the Xerox machine I saw just around the last corner. Ralph, why don't you go invisible and make copies of these, and we'll leave everything just like we found it."
"And that's why I thought it was such a great idea for you to come along, Counselor. Good work." Bill grinned at them both. "Well, go on, Ralph, you heard the lady. Get copying!"
"Wait." Ralph looked at the door, concentrating. "You two! Get under the desk," he whispered. "A security guard is headed this way. He vanished, then whisked around the office, closing drawers and putting back the couple of things they had moved.
The guard poked his head in the door, gave it a pass with the flashlight, then harumphed and closed the door. They heard his footsteps recede down the hallway.
After a minute, Ralph peered out the door. "All clear," he said, and Bill and Pam disentangled themselves from their hiding place under the desk.
As Pam drove, Ralph held up a fuzzy image in black and white. "This is the set of action figures that got sent to the Chinese, East German, Russian, French, Japanese, North Korean, and Finnish Consulates, as well as several embassies. It looks like they're each getting full sets--just special prototype ones--of the Spidey, Iceman, and Firestar."
"Well, given the numbers and information Bill had, and the most efficient route from here to get the addresses listed for consulates or embassies of countries with not-entirely-friendly governments, I think we should check the Chinese Consulate first."
"Fine. Pam, can you get us to a toy store before you drive us there?"
"What?" Bill's objection was loud enough to be painful. "It's Christmas morning. They're all closed and we'll just find out what kinds of weapons plans were hidden inside those special ones when we get there." Bill held up a screwdriver and hammer.
"If we're going to check each of these and take them if they've got secret information, we've got to have replacements for the toys we take."
"Bill! Stop it! These could just be Christmas gifts for the Consul's children."
"Child. Remember those are the commies who control how many children their people have."
Ralph rolled his eyes. "Child, then. But who's to say that child doesn't love Spider-Man? If we're going to find the message in this toy, we have to make sure we have a replacement. I am not going to take away some kid's best Christmas gift."
"Ralph, if this is just because it's some superhero toy and you have some kind of superhero complex...."
"I am just not going to be the guy in the red suit who ruined some kid's Christmas. Especially if it's a kid who loves comics and superheroes."
"Oh, come on, like the commie Chinese--or any of the others--let their kids read or watch American comic books. You know this is just a ruse to get some kind of plans or information out of the country without question. I mean, who would stop a kid with a doll?"
"Yeah, Bill. Who would do anything to a kid's toy?" Ralph stared pointedly at him.
Pam ran a hand down his arm. "Don't even bother, Ralph. He's not going to get it."
"Anyway, I am going to go into the building, invisible, with the backup toys, look at the information in the doll...action figures...and slip out again. With any luck, I'll be able to x-ray vision the toys before the kids even open them."
Since they were at a red light, Pam leaned her head back on the headrest and closed her eyes a moment. "Tell me again why we're worried about this right at this moment?"
"We don't know when someone might leave the country...or if one of the kids might damage the information. I've got to go with Bill this time. We are on the clock, and it's already six a.m." He began to struggle out of his street clothes.
"You don't really think that the parents would let the kid play with the action figures if they were worried that the information would be damaged, do you?"
"Well, if I don't miss my guess, it's commies, and you know how those commies hate Christmas."
"Yeah, Bill. 'Commies' are responsible for all the evils of the world," Pam said tiredly.
"See? Now you're catching on. Who knows? They might even spoil their own kid's Christmas by taking away or destroying those dolls to get the info once they're out of the country." Bill grinned. "But we're going to stop them." He nodded. "Oh, yeah. We're going to stop them."
Ralph used the suit's telekinesis to unlock the door of the third store they tried and returned empty-handed again.
"I don't get it. We found Spidey and Iceman at the first store. Where are the Firestar figures?"
"Haven't you been listening to our good friend here, Ralph? No red-blooded American guy is going to let his son play with dolls...and no little girl wants a superhero." Pam glared over her shoulder at Bill.
"Counselor, you're on the ball today with these things."
Pam turned back to the road, knuckles white as she gripped the steering wheel. "Where next?"
"I'm just looking through these papers to see if there's any indication of what serial numbers of toys were sent to which stores, to see if any might be more likely to have the Firestar figures. I'm thinking maybe one of the comic book stores instead of the major toy stores."
"That would be about right. Those geek-havens would be the places to give little boys girlie dolls."
Pam hit the gas and Bill fell back against the seat.
Ralph reappeared outside the car after the second comic shop with a victorious grin, holding up a Firestar figure. "I left money on the counter for them for this one just like at the other places. It's getting late. I'm going to fly to the Chinese consulate from here," he said, tucking the three toys under his arm.
"Okay, honey, we'll see you there," Pam called after him. As they pulled out, a pair of kids walking a dog on the sidewalk shouted and pointed.
"Look at that!"
"Whoa! You think that's Santa Claus?"
"No, stupid, there are no reindeer!" There was a pause. "And I don't think Santa comes that close to crashing into roofs, either."
"Oh, Ralph," Pam said fondly, shaking her head as they pulled out of earshot of the kids.
It was over an hour later that Ralph popped back into visibility next to the car where they were parked around the corner from the consulate.
"Well?" Bill asked excitedly. "Was it them? What were they smuggling? Can we go in and arrest them now?"
"You were right, Bill." Ralph opened the car door and sat down.
"What was it? Weapons? Secrets?"
"It was plans."
"Ralph, what kind of plans? And are you all right?" Pam reached over and ran a hand along his face and through his hair.
"Plans for a nuclear submarine."
"I knew it! Those commies are always up to no good! All right, Counselor. It's time for you to go home. Just get me to a phone. I've got to call--"
"Bill. They were plans for a toy nuclear submarine. And a letter."
"I think the CIA would appreciate being involved...and..." He trailed off and looked at both Pam and Ralph watching him expectantly. "Toy. Did you say a...toy submarine?"
"Yes. And there was a letter in the action figures as well. If you combine the microfiche embedded in all three, it shows the dimensions for a 4-inch toy submarine. There's also a letter from one of the toy designers from this company."
"Yeah? What secrets is he giving away? Does he have some kind of military contract as well?"
"He's writing to his mother, by way of a distant cousin."
"And what is he saying?"
"Bill," Pam said softly, as Ralph looked at his hands, "I don't think the letter has anything to do with national security. Does it, Ralph?"
Ralph took a deep breath. "No. No, it doesn't."
"Well, then what is it? Spill it, Hinkley!"
"It's a letter to his mother. He says that he loves her and misses her and wishes he could visit her, but since he defected, he's not allowed back into the country. He sent the toy model so they can make a few to sell on the black market. He promises to try again next year to bring her and his other siblings to the U.S." Ralph looked back at Bill. "Merry Christmas," he said sadly.
"Hmpf. Well, maybe we could track down the designer and try to help him with immigration red tape before next Christmas," Bill muttered.
Pam was silent as she steered the car toward home.
Bill sat up from where he'd dozed on the couch for a several hours and blinked. "Are you two for real? You didn't really change into matching holiday sweaters."
"Mine lights up." Ralph grinned as he pressed the button that lit Rudolph's nose, then reached over to jingle the bell on Pam's sweater's Santa hat. He let his hand brush down her side and then, one hand against the dark green of her skirt, pulled her in for a kiss.
"Oh, get a room, you two. Maybe come back wearing something less...stupid?"
Pam rolled her eyes. "It's festive, Bill. Do you remember that? Festivity?"
"You've got plenty of that with holiday cards taped to the wall and that tree that's going to make me sneeze."
"We decorated it yesterday with Pam's family heirloom ornaments and a bunch we got this year just for us. Christmas is about family, after all," Ralph said, squeezing Pam to him with an arm slung around her shoulders.
"And Ralph used his super-speed to string the popcorn and fresh cranberries." Pam tried to look disapproving, but a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth and Ralph's eyes sparkled as he kissed her. "We argued about the top, though. Ralph wanted an angel and I wanted a star."
"Maybe you should compromise with a Superman 'action figure'." Bill laughed at his own joke.
Pam and Ralph looked at each other. "The Firestar," Pam said, grinning. "We could put her in a dress and put her on top.
"Perfect!" Ralph declared and started rummaging for a tree hanger. "So, will you stay, Bill?"
"I don't do holidays. I do my job so other good Americans can enjoy them. Anyway, like you said, Christmas is all about family, so I'm...well, I'm going to get out of here"
"Bill, I am not letting you go sulk in that room that's a refugee from a Sam Spade movie for Christmas. You are family, and you're going to stay for Christmas dinner."
"Just settle in and drink this," Pam said, pressing a glass of eggnog into his hand. She patted his shoulder and winked as he frowned at it. "Trust me."
He took a hesitant sip. "Ah, Counselor, you do take care of me."
Ralph's eyes narrowed "Pam, what did you put in the eggnog?"
"Nothing, dear. Just get dinner on. Now that Bill's settled, we'll turn on It's a Wonderful Life and the rest of the holiday specials while you cook."
"Ralph's cooking? I think that's a good reason right there for me to go home."
"I'm making a menu that rhymes: hams and yams." Ralph grinned.
Pam rolled her eyes and said, "I'm looking forward to your green beans almandine and the pumpkin pie. I'm going to get myself an eggnog and then make the whipped cream with a dash of bourbon."
"Bill took another swig of his eggnog. "Hmm...well, as long as I'm here...could I have another one of these?"
"Back with it in a few," Pam promised. She plugged in the tree as they left the room and the caught a glimpse of Bill smiling at the sight.
Many, many thanks to Merlin Missy, Inga, Constance, and Triciabyrne for the verylastminute beta help, and special thanks to Yahtzee for the title! Additional thanks to Merlin Missy and her and my husbands for ideas about the story and plot and which governmental agencies are responsible for which jurisdictional aspects of law enforcement.