Virgil Tracy frowned. He couldn't get the chording on his latest musical effort just right. He'd written what he'd thought of as a toss-off to apologize to his grandmother for creating a mess a couple of weeks earlier. But as often happened, the simple little tune had stuck with him, and the perfectionist in him demanded that he fiddle with it until it was flawless.
"Hey, Scott, so what's going on?" Virgil looked up as his brother John entered the family lounge. The blond had only gotten home from his month long rotation on Thunderbird Five a few hours earlier, just in time to celebrate New Year's Eve with the family.
Scott, who'd been relaxing with a book, raised an eyebrow. "What makes you think something's going on?"
John rolled his eyes, and stated the obvious. "Alan."
Virgil couldn't help the tight little grin that bloomed on his face. His youngest brother, Alan, had flown Thunderbird Three up to Thunderbird Five to relieve his brother. Despite being emphatically told not to give John any information, he'd obviously tipped his hand. Probably just by stares and jittering legs alone.
Scott paused before answering. "We're going to have a family meeting a little later. We'll let you know then."
Virgil watched as the cocky self-assured attitude drained out of his brother. "What did I do?"
Virgil snorted, "Oh, like you don't know."
John turned his laser focus on his brother. "As a matter of fact, I don't, Virgil. Why don't you tell me?"
The challenge was there, but Virgil refused to rise to the bait. "Scott told you, we're having a family meeting about it. Why don't you just relax and have some eggnog?"
"Oh, if you two think I'm going to stick around for a witch hunt, you're nuts. I think I'll just head over to my observatory."
John turned and headed for the hallway, but was stopped when his father appeared, blocking the way. "John. Good to see you, son. Come have a seat."
Trapped, John simply nodded, and moved to the couch. When Scott caught Virgil's eye, they both moved together to flank their younger brother. Virgil sat down on one side of John while Scott took the other. Jeff sat at his desk, and put a call in to Alan, and summoned Gordon from wherever he was.
John watched warily, but Virgil noticed he didn't actually stiffen until Jeff also summoned their grandma. Gordon bounced in, saw what was happening and pulled up a chair. When Ruth came in, she pursed her lips. "Virgil, Scott, move away from your brother. You should know better than to try and intimidate him."
Ruth moved to where Virgil was sitting, and with a preemptory motion, got him to get up and move to a chair. She sat down next to her blond grandson, and took his hand. "How are you, baby? I've missed you so much."
John relaxed a bit and responded, "I'm fine Grandma. At least for now. Ask me again in half an hour."
John looked speculatively at his brothers and father. Jeff wasn't inclined to make his son wait. "John, I need to know how you got that reindeer on and off the island. We haven't found any trace of it, so we know it's gone, but surely, son, you didn't risk our security for a little prank?"
John's eyes flickered over to where Gordon sat, but Virgil wasn't buying it. In the week since Christmas, he and Scott had hashed it over, and had come to the conclusion that despite Gordon's known prediliction for pranks, there was no way the red headed Tracy brother could be responsible. A live reindeer had made an appearance on the rooftop of Tracy Villa on Christmas Eve, and had just as suddenly disappeared. Aside from the fact that Gordon had been in sight of one or the other brothers, the prank was deemed too sophisticated and complex to be his doing. In fact, the only one capable of pulling it off, in Virgil's opinion, was John.
John looked around the room and the accusing stares, and turned to his eldest brother. "You're buying into this, Scott? You think that I was able to orchestrate a living breathing reindeer from outer space?"
For a moment, Scott looked uncertain, but then firmed up. "It's a case of Occam's Razor, Johnny. The simplest explanation is the most likely."
"And the simplest explanation is that I would break security to have someone come onto the island with a reindeer that he or she somehow hauled up to the roof with no one noticing, or tripping any alarms, then removed the same way?"
"Nobody else could have, John. We were all stuck on the island for weeks before Christmas." Gordon piped up.
"And I somehow was able to leave Thunderbird Five to set it up?"
Virgil frowned. "No, of course not. You set it up through the internet."
John looked over at his brother. "And, of course, I'm the only one with internet access, right?"
"Enough. Son, look me in the eye, and tell me you didn't do this," Jeff said, sternly.
John didn't even flinch. He looked his father in the eye, and said, "No, father, I didn't not arrange to have a reindeer delivered to the island."
Virgil frowned at the declaration. One of the reasons he'd been able to suspect John was because his father had asked each of them that same question point blank, and everyone had declared themselves not to be the culprit. Both he and Scott shifted in their seats. Either no one was responsible, and it really was one of Santa's reindeer, or one of their brothers had lied straight to their father's face. Neither option seemed possible.
John shook his head. "Better question, Dad, is do I know who did it? The answer is yes, I do."
Scott and Virgil both sat up straighter. Alan, from his post on Thunderbird Five, asked the question on everybody's lips. "Who, Johnny?"
"How do you know if you weren't in on it?" Gordon challenged.
Ruth, saw the look in her grandson's eye, and raised a hand for silence. "I think John has a story to tell us. Go ahead, baby."
With a quiet smile for his grandma, John settled back. "Well, when I saw that thing on the roof, I couldn't believe my eyes, just like everybody else. I mean, how did they get it there? How did they get it on the roof? I didn't buy for a minute that Santa had deserted it there."
Scott's eyebrows went to the top of his head at that. Virgil snorted. John continued, "My first thought was that it couldn't possibly be real. I was just about to suggest that it was a hologram when Scott went over and whacked it."
"I didn't whack it. I thought it was a hologram too. I expected my hand to go right through the thing."
"Uh-huh," John responded dryly. "So my next thought was if it wasn't a hologram, then it had to be fake. Of course, Scott was proclaiming to one and all that it was real, and I immediately figured that he was behind it all."
"What? Me? You've got to be kidding!" Scott frowned.
John continued as if the interruption had not occurred. "I ran a thermal image of the roof, and that seemed to bear out my suspicions. There was a heat signature for the reindeer, but it was nowhere near as hot as a live animal would be."
At this point, everybody was staring at Scott. Gordon quipped, "Wow, I didn't know you had it in you, Scotty."
"John, that thing felt real to me. It grunted when I hit it, for God's sake!"
John sat nodding. "It most certainly did, but I knew for a fact that it wasn't a live animal. So I thought to myself, who could design a reindeer so lifelike that if would fool a smart guy like Scott?"
Frowning, Jeff shook his head. "Son, if you're going where I think you are, I suggest you stop. Brains would never waste his time on something like this."
"Exactly, Dad. I knew that it couldn't be Brains, or realistically, anybody else in the family. No time, and better things to do. So then, the question became who in their right mind would design a realistic robot reindeer?
"Walmart?" Gordon ventured.
Virgil shook his head. "If it was Wally World, there'd be reindeer on everybody's front lawn."
"You're right, Virg. It was entirely too sophisticated for a mass market product, but if not for Walmart, then for who?"
Virgil looked around, but everyone seemed just as mystified as he was. Again it was Alan who prompted his brother. "Who, Johnny?"
"The million dollar question, Al. I didn't have a clue, so I got on the internet. 'Robotic reindeer' didn't bring me anything, neither did 'living Christmas decorations' or 'realistic artificial animals.' Actually, it took me most of a day to track it down."
"You found it." Jeff stated rather than asked.
"Why yes, I did, as a matter of fact."
When John paused, Ruth prompted him, smiling gently. "Well, don't keep us in suspense, baby. What did you find?"
John smiled back at the diminutive woman. "Grandma, do you remember last winter when Caravan Pictures failed?"
Ruth nodded, and Virgil found himself nodding, too. It had been in all the news. The moviemaker had gone belly up when its president had absconded with the company treasury. The man had been caught some time later, but it was too late, all of the company's assets had been liquidated. "Well, one of the pictures in production at the time was a Christmas movie about Santa's reindeer. There were several working models made, including one called 'Dasher.' The production notes said that all of the models were fully functional, and couldn't be distinguished from the live reindeer on set."
"It's a movie prop?" Virgil couldn't help a vague sense of disappointment. He'd known perfectly well that the reindeer they'd seen hadn't actually come from the North Pole, but still, it had made a nice fantasy.
"Absolutely." John nodded.
"Okay, so how did a movie prop land up on our roof on Christmas Eve?" Gordon asked.
"Ah, well, that's a story in itself. Once I identified the reindeer, then I had to track down what had happened to it. Actually, that wasn't so hard. I found an article about everything being liquidated, and I discovered that all of the reindeer props had been put up on EBAY. I went into archives, and found that most of the reindeer had been bought up by Henson Studios, which made sense because they were the ones who developed them in the first place."
"Who got Dasher, son?"
John looked his Dad right in the eye. "It went to a private party with the handle of fireplug248."
Scott frowned, "Wait… fireplug248? Isn't that Stu Kopecki's handle?"
"It certainly is." Jeff sat frowning at the revelation. "Why would Stu buy a movie prop?"
"Actually, Dad, he didn't. The final price on the thing was $32,000.00. No way Mr. Kopecki could raise that kind of money."
Gordon started to smile slowly. "Dad, you dog!"
Virgil nodded. It made sense. His father had the wherewithal, and Stu was one of his oldest friends. It even explained how each of his brothers had been able to deny knowledge. He looked at Jeff with new respect.
Jeff looked around at his sons, surprise in his eyes. "Now, wait a minute, boys, you can't seriously think that I was behind this?"
"Give it up, Dad. Johnny's got you pure and simple," Alan practically crowed.
But John was shaking his head. "I thought so at first, but then I looked a little closer at the timing of the whole thing."
"What timing?" Scott asked, his own soft smile showing his pride in his brother's detective work.
"Well, first off, the winning bid came in at the last minute. And was a good two thousand dollars over the existing bid. Right there, I knew it couldn't be Dad. I mean, when has he ever overbid on something?"
"If not your father, then who, baby?" Grandma asked, softly.
"See, it was all about the timing. The reindeer went up on auction on June 7th, and ended on June 18th. The winning bidder only made the one bid on June 18th."
John paused again, and looked around hopefully. When no one made the connection, he said, "Now, who got himself injured on the 16th, and discovered that he was going to be going up to see Stu the next week?"
Every eye in the room turned to Gordon, who laughed and clapped. "Damn, Johnny, but you're good!"
Virgil felt his jaw drop. "It was you all along?"
Frowning, Jeff interrupted. "Son, you swore to me that you weren't responsible."
Gordon lifted a finger, "Actually, Dad, what I said was that I wasn't responsible for bringing a live reindeer to the island. And I didn't."
Scott sat looking stunned. "You spent $32,000.00 for a prank?"
"Well, not just a prank. I'm shipping it up to the Tracy Foundation. Can you imagine the looks in kid's eyes if a real reindeer delivers their Christmas presents? It can go into hospitals, and do home visits, and walk in the Kalvesta Christmas parade. It'll pay for itself in kid's smiles." Gordon shrugged.
Virgil sat back and nodded. His brother really was incredibly big-hearted. And warped. Definitely warped. He looked over at Scott, and in a silent communication decided to let the whole thing slide. At glance at the monitor told him that Alan wouldn't be so generous.
As if on cue, Kyrano appeared with a tray full of champagne flutes, a reminder that this was New Year's Eve. As the drinks were handed around, Virgil smiled. He had no idea what the next year would bring, but he knew it would be interesting.
"Happy New Year, everybody." Jeff lifted his glass, and everyone clinked the flutes, replying with their own wishes for the New Year.