Happy New Year! It’s official. It’s now 2018.
And yet, I come offering my 2017 Christmas story. It’s a long one. (Had I been a wise woman like Jilly, I would have posted it in two parts.) It’s involves a bit of romance. And a clandestine organization. And, as promised, flamingos. Whether you’re nursing a hangover, agonizing over returning to work, or mulling over your new year’s resolutions, I hope you enjoy it!
They Shoot Flamingos, Don’t They? A Christmas(ish) Tale
There had to be a better way to make a living.
Going straight was for the birds. Literally. I glanced down at the deflated inflatable flamingos I clutched by limp necks. Who the hell had ever heard of flamingos in a Christmas lawn display? There weren’t flamingos in Bethlehem or at the North Pole. No respectable Christmas story featured the ridiculous pink birds. But Mrs. Leary had insisted that the damned things – part of her year-round yard décor on her 2-acre plot in the heart of Beverly Hills – be included in the Christmas decoration design.
“Miss Klauson, you wanted to see me?” Old Mrs. Leary, probably never very tall but now well under 5 feet, with tight shoulder-length curls shot through with gray, tottered toward me.
“Please, it’s Sandy.”
Sandy Klauson. Seriously. I mean, Jesus of Nazareth. Never let it be said that Ms. X doesn’t have a sense of humor, but if she had to cut me loose a few weeks before Christmas, she sure as hell could have come up with a better cover name for me. And a better civilian job. And a better place than LA at Christmas time, under a beating hot sun with nary a snowflake in sight. X had probably done it out of spite, but it was ridiculously unfair. Anyone could have made the mistake of tranquilizing an overly handsy ambassador from a small but important US ally. OK, so it was more of a choice than a mistake, but still.
Mrs. Leary sucked in her breath and opened her eyes wide in surprise. “Oh, this is a catastrophe!” She reached out and petted one of the limp plastic birds. “My dearly departed husband gave me these flamingos on our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. I’ve had them in my yard ever since.” Her eyes filled with tears.
Well hell. So much for the suggestion of rehoming the birds in the trash can.
“I don’t know what happened.” I didn’t mention the small slits I’d found in their throats. “I found them like this. But I’ll fix them for you. We’ll make them good as new.”
Mrs. Leary wiped away a tear. “Oh, you’re a good girl. Thank you, dear.”
As the old lady returned to the house, I looped around the outskirts of the palatial building until I found TJ, the job foreman, and explained the dilemma and my plan. “I’ll just take the van, find a garage or bike shop, and have someone fix these for me, like a flat tire. I should be back in a few hours.”
Across the lawn, the old lady emerged from the side door with her oversized chauffeur – whom I suspected doubled as a body guard – steadying her, and headed for the detached garage. Her daily 2 PM outing to get a newspaper, a cup of tea, and a comb-out at the beauty parlor. Yes, I’d clocked her movements and done some recon. So sue me. Old habits die hard.
I turned back to TJ, who’d been watching me watch her. He had his own interesting habits, and with his height and heft, I wouldn’t mind having him at my back in a fight, just like Derek…I wouldn’t let my mind go there. Still, TJ would have been good Company material, and if X hadn’t lost her mind and fired me, I might have recruited him.
TJ shook his head at me. “Get the old lady’s birds fixed. But you can’t take the van. We still have half the strings of lights in there. Take an Uber and get a receipt.”
I nodded and headed for the front gates, which stood wide open to give us easy access to our van and equipment that Mrs. Leary refused to let us park in her driveway. I’d just pulled out my phone to contact an Uber – and yes, I would save the receipt and turn it in for reimbursement, thank you very much, since X had frozen my assets – when something caught my eye. Something that didn’t belong on this neat, narrow, tree-covered street in the Hills.
The scuffed black work boots immediately gave away the game. Half a block down and on the other side of the road, leaning against the side of a shiny, black, expensive-looking pick-up truck, thumbs hooked in the belt loops of his jeans, wearing a tight blue tee shirt that showcased his broad chest his rock-hard biceps, with his long legs stretched in front of him and crossed at the shank of those boots I’d know anywhere.
Obviously, he still read lips, as he touched the brim of his baseball cap and grinned at me. I did the only sensible thing one can do when Derek is within a five-mile radius. I ignored him. I looked back down at my phone, hell-bent on ignoring the fact that my hands were trembling so hard I was having trouble opening the app.
The phone rang in my hand and I nearly jumped out of my skin.
So much for years of training and field work. This was the problem. This was why X had split us up a year ago. We’d been the team with the highest close rate in the Company, but we’d been up to our naughty bits in a steamy affair, and we’d been distracting each other. I’d wanted to kill her on the spot at the time, but seeing how he could still get to me had me rethinking her wisdom. And he wasn’t even close enough yet for me to smell him or taste his skin or feel his…Holy hell. The phone was still ringing.
I answered it. “What the fuck?”
“I missed you, too. Come closer.”
“Not a chance. I have my orders. X finds out I’m consorting with someone from… my past and I’m dead.
“X is in a chalet in the French Alps with a leggy blonde she met in Paris. Come closer. I need you.”
I dropped the phone and nearly fell on my ass. This was bad. So, so bad. Why in the hell had I thought celibacy was the right choice after X sent Derek away? It will focus me, I’d told myself. Help me get my head back in the game, I’d said. I hadn’t counted on seeing him again. It’s not fair to be parked in front of a buffet of mouth-watering delicacies when you’re starving, knowing you can’t touch the goodies. And god help me, I wanted to touch all the goodies.
I thought about making a run for it, but he’d already closed half the distance between us and while some of my body parts were on fire, there was barely feeling in my legs. I focused on Pranayama breathing. Deep, even breaths. I slowly put one foot in front of the other until I was actually walking. But damn it, I was walking toward him.
“I wasn’t kidding. I need your help.”
We stood just a foot apart. I clenched my fists at my sides to keep myself from laying my palms against his chest. Which gave the unfortunate appearance of wringing Mrs. Leary’s flamingos’ necks.
“I’m supposed to do a solo, but this target requires a team.”
I shrugged. “So get a team.”
He shook his head. “No one can get here fast enough, and you know how thin we’re stretched over the holidays.”
Adrenaline shot through me and my hands shook for a different reason. What the hell was I thinking? That I was bored stiff and death at X’s hands was starting to sound better than a life with lawn ornaments. “What’s the play?”
“The Santa Baby.” He grinned at me like the wolf to Little Red Riding Hood. “One of your best.”
And one of the easiest. I could do it in my sleep. Hell, I probably had. “All right, but if X finds out, it’s on your head. And I only have a few hours.” I held up the birds still clutched in my left hand. “And we have to stop somewhere to fix the flamingos.”
He raised his eyebrows but didn’t ask. “You and the flamingos get comfortable in my truck. I’ll grab the phone you dropped and make sure no one saw us together.”
Damn it, I’d been ready to leave my phone behind. Distracted. Totally distracted. “OK, but do not shoot any of my co-workers.”
I quirked an eyebrow at him.
“Yeah, don’t answer that.”
I sat in the passenger seat of Derek’s truck, thankful for the tinted windows as I held a silver bit of material that was approximately the size of a large band aid in my hands and contemplated how I would get into it.
We were parked on another residential street, this one not as nice as Mrs. Leary’s, but still pretty damned swanky. We’d been watching a house with no gate but a long driveway, where vested valets hung around the fountain out front, amongst a parking lot’s worth of expensive cars. I assumed our mark was one of the party guests.
“So, what’s this guy’s crime? Making a movie starring the Rock?” I giggled at my own cleverness.
Derek shot me a less than impressed look. “The Rock goes by Dwayne Johnson now, and he has nothing to do with this. Our guy is mobbed up. Russians. Nasty ones. And trying to snake his way into the movie business.”
“How hard can that be? In this town, can’t he just throw out some money and see who bites?”
“Apparently, even Hollywood has standards. There’s been some resistance to being his laundromat.”
I nodded. “Dirty money. So that’s where they draw the line.”
“Not everyone, but someone got spooked and called a friend at one of the three-letter agencies, and they called X.
“And here we are.” Great. Mobsters. They tended to be more handsy than ambassadors, and I was about to slip into something indecent to entice them. I held up the tiny scrap of cloth. “If I’m going to squeeze into this thing, you’ll have to close your eyes.”
He grinned again. I didn’t like it. He was grinning way too much. “Like I haven’t memorized every inch of you. I could pick out your body parts from a line-up.”
I shrugged, figuring that buffet with the untouchable goodies could work both ways, pulled off my work outfit of shorts overalls and a tee shirt, and slid the shimmery thing over my head.
“You know gold’s more my color.” I adjusted the girls so the low-cut neckline showed them off to perfection.
Derek shook his head. “No. You always say that, but you’re definitely a silver blonde, not a gold. And speaking of hair…” He pulled my ponytail free from its holder and ran his fingers through my loose hair.
I pushed away his hands. “I’ve got it.” I tried to sound annoyed rather than turned on, and probably did a good job of it.
“Perfect. You look desperate to get laid.” OK, maybe not such a good job of it. “Poor slob won’t know what hit him.”
“If the recon on this job was bad enough to confuse a solo hit with a team effort, how can you be so sure I’m his type?”
He narrowed his eyes as he stared out the window. “Well, there’s a ninety percent chance you’re his type. If he falls into the other ten percent, come back here and I’ll slip into that dress and you’ll take the gun. Just keep your shooting hand steady. I wouldn’t want you to hit the wrong man.”
“Ha ha. I’m an excellent shot and you know it.”
Derek leaned in close. “How about a kiss for luck, just like old times?”
No. Of course not. We absolutely couldn’t. “OK. For luck.”
He planted one hand on each side of me on the seat and bent his head toward mine. His soft breath tickled my lips and I sighed, like the pathetic creature I am.
“Hold that thought,” he whispered, then shifted back into his own seat. “It’s show time.”
I followed his gaze out my side window and saw a thirty-ish guy with thinning brown hair and serious stubble, holding a Santa hat and beard in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other, clad in a Santa suit complete with belly padding.
“You didn’t tell me we’re pulling the Santa Baby on Santa.”
“Don’t worry, little girl. The real Santa is safe and sound at the North Pole. This is just one of his helpers.” He leaned close to me again and whispered in my ear. “Besides, you’re always on Santa’s naughty list anyway. Which reminds me, take off your panties.”
That shot an electric jolt straight up my spine. “Are you crazy? Right now?”
He laughed. “See, your dirty mind is what gets you on the naughty list. The lines are showing through your dress. It ruins the effect.”
I gritted my teeth as I slid off my panties, neither of us missing the fact that he’d ordered me out of my underwear and I’d obeyed. I’d make him pay for this, one way or another.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” I said. “To do the Santa Baby, I need—”
He pulled a whisky bottle from under his seat. “To smell the part.” He handed it over to me. “Just like at the dentist office. Rinse and spit.”
I pulled off the cork, took a swig, and swirled it around my mouth. It was warm and rich and I swallowed it, loving the burn that lit its way down my esophagus.
“What the hell? You’re on the job.”
I shook my head and handed the bottle back to him. “You forget, I don’t have that job anymore. I’m just helping out an old…colleague.”
I eased open the truck door and slid down to the pavement. Carrying my stilettos, I snuck down the sidewalk and kept out of Santa’s view, then crossed the street, slid on the shoes, and walked back up the sidewalk, making a beeline right for the jolly red target. When I had his attention, I added a woozy wobble to my step, which is harder than it sounds in four-inch spike heels.
“Santa!” I exclaimed as I came upon the mark. I lurched forward and leaned against him. “I hope you have your sleigh. I need help getting home.” I stuck out my lip in a spoiled party girl pout.
He flicked away his cigarette. “Sorry, baby, I didn’t bring my sleigh today.” He glanced behind me. “Anyone with you?”
I shook my head. “I was at a party, and I left, and drove my Beemer right up over a curb! Now it’s stuck.” Again with the pout, which he seemed to like.
“I could, uh, help to get you unstuck, but I’m not sure I should put you behind the wheel in this condition.”
“How about I call you a cab.”
Oops. “No! I’ll need my car later.” I turned the pout to a sultry smile. “How about you drive me home, then call a cab to get back. It’s only 15 minutes each way.” I ran my hands over his fuzzy white lapels and dropped my voice to a whisper. “There might even be a surprise for you under my tree.”
He swallowed audibly and smiled at me with too many teeth. “Well, I do like surprises.” He ran his hands up my arms and squeezed my shoulders while I focused on not gagging. “Hold that thought.”
He ran up the driveway while I kept myself out of view behind a tall hedge.
“Hey, Vito!” Santa called. “I have to run an errand. Be back in 45.”
Forty-five minutes! With half an hour of travel time, that meant he’d left a whole 15 minutes to spend on me. Asshole. He was making this whole hit thing easier and easier.
By the time he got back to me, he was panting with exertion. Yeah, fifteen minutes had probably been optimistic.
“I’m stuck down this way.” I smiled up at him as he took my arm and propelled me forward with just a little too much force. I waited until we were at the exact spot Derek had pointed out, then turned toward the bushes and made gurgling noises.
“Oh, shit.” Fifteen-minute Santa laid his hand on my exposed back. “You gonna hurl?”
I stood up straight, wishing I had a better upchuck reflex. I’d have been tempted to use it on him. I turned toward him and reached out my arms. “No. I just need to stand still for a minute. Just one minute. Really still.”
He held onto my arms and stood still with me, just like a good little target.
His eyes went wide at precisely the split second I heard the whizzing sound and the impact in the side of his neck. He fell forward into me, and with his last bit of strength, made a claw with his right hand and copped a feel. I brought my knee up hard into his gut, eliciting a satisfying grunt, then let him drop face-first onto the pavement.
“Perv.” I crossed my arms over my chest and waited for Derek to pull up so we could toss this piece of trash into the truck bed.
I stared out the window of a 50th floor suite of one of the high-rise hotels in downtown LA. I rubbed my arms, chilled by the AC. If it had been up to me, I’d have been back in more suitable clothing by now, but Derek had parked me by the window and asked me to be patient.
“When will the clean-up crew get here to deal with our Santa problem?” I asked. He’d asked me to be patient. I didn’t say I’d listened.
He stood behind me, reached his arms around me without touching me, and presented Mrs. Leary’s flamingos with healed neck wounds. “Oh my gosh, they’re perfect! The patches are even pink.” I turned toward him and he propped his hands on the window sill on each side of me. “You had a repair kit with you. It had pink patches. Almost like you knew you’d need them.”
There was that infuriating grin again. “I had to find a way to get your attention and get you out of work during the afternoon.”
I threw the flamingos onto a nearby chair and glowered at him. “You ever think of texting ‘Hey, meet me for a cup of coffee’?”
“Nope.” He leaned close until his lips were just an inch away from mine. “You ever think of yelling at me less and kissing me more?”
He placed his hands on my outer thighs and slid upward.
“About that clean-up crew.” I asked again.
“Close by. But you know LA traffic. It could take a while to get here.”
I didn’t get to ask any more questions because he’d finally pressed his lips to mine and his hands had slid further up my body, reminding me I wasn’t wearing any panties. He just deepened the kiss and had me rethinking ever wearing underwear again when a noise came from the bedroom.
“Hold that thought,” he whispered in my ear, then pulled away from me.
He pulled a syringe and medicine bottle from the same leather bag where he’d stashed the flamingo repair kit. “Sounds like Santa needs another dose of Christmas joy.”
“There wasn’t enough tranquilizer in that dart to knock him out for more than an hour?”
Derek tapped the syringe to expel the air bubbles. “They have us using lower doses these days. Seems somebody tranqued an ambassador and knocked him out for 15 hours. Nearly caused an international incident, if memory serves.”
Geez, office gossip. For a clandestine operation, the Company sure was chock full of chatty Cathys. “Don’t believe everything you hear. It wasn’t a minute over 13 hours.”
He laughed as he disappeared into the bedroom. When he re-emerged less than a minute later, his smile was gone. “Back-up crew texted. They just pulled into the garage. Time for us to go.”
I didn’t know how much I’d enjoyed the afternoon until faced with the prospect of its end. “Well, shit. I was just getting used to you again.”
“Likewise. But we have to finish our mission.”
“Finish? But the back-up crew’s here to take Santa.”
He nodded. “Now we need to take care of his accomplice. She’ll know we’re onto her by now, since her contact missed their daily meeting.”
That jolted me to attention. “Wait, daily meeting? At 2 PM?”
“Yes, in fact, that’s right.”
“And their meeting place is a beauty parlor.”
“Get that smart lady a prize! So, you ready to slip back into something less revealing and take down a kingpin masquerading as a nice little old lady?”
I nodded. “Still, Mrs. Leary? She really is nice. A little lonely. Talks about her late husband all the time.”
“Before you get too sentimental, you should know Gladys Leary is a cover name, and she’s never even been married.”
I looked at the flamingos, those annoying damned birds. She’d made me feel sorry not only for her, but for a bunch of kitschy lawn ornaments. “Oh, that old biddy is going down!”
The plan was simple. Lure her outside to look at the flamingos, give the back-up team time to get in place so they could neutralize the body guards inside the house, then stab her in the neck with a hand dart. Easy peasy.
I had one hand on Derek’s truck door handle and the other wrapped around the flamingos repaired necks when something important occurred to me, almost too late. See, distracted! “What about the decorating crew? I don’t want them getting caught in any crossfire. I mean the back-up team should—”
Derek had furrowed his brow as I’d been speaking, as though willing me to understand something.
It hit me. “The crew is the team. TJ and the other guys are Company.”
“The smart lady gets another prize.”
Now I grinned at him. “And I get to choose it, too.”
I slid out of the truck and walked the half block to Leary’s – or what’s her name’s – house. I waved at TJ as I came up the drive.
“Good to see you Sandy. You get those birds fixed?”
“Yes sir. I’m about to inflate them right now and show them to Mrs. Leary.”
“I’ll let her know to come see you.”
A few minutes later, I’d inflated and stood up the birds and waited for the old lady to join us. Derek hadn’t been wrong about her being pissed. The set of her jaw and glint of anger in her eye even gave me pause, and I’ve stared down some bad-asses in my day. But when she saw the flamingos restored to their glory and holding air, she clapped her hands together.
“Oh Sandy, that’s marvelous!” Her smile faded slowly, and my Spidey senses tingled.
She turned slowly toward me. “Sandy. Sandy Klauson. What a ridiculous name.”
She shoved her hand into the pocket of her loose, flowered dress, but I already had the dart in my hand. I shoved it into her neck and pressed the button to pump her full of tranquilizer before she could even hope to wrap her withered old hand around the tiny pistol we found on her.
“For someone named Gladys, you sure are judgmental.” Still, I caught her in my arms as she fell. I laid her gently on the ground. She might be a liar, a criminal, and in bed with the Russian mob, but it’s not like she tried to cop a feel.
“Nice.” Derek bent beside her to check her pulse and pulled open one eyelid to look at her pupils. “But I have to agree. What kind of name is Sandy Klauson?”
“You’ll have to take that up with X. On second thought, don’t. Don’t mention you even know where I am.”
“It’s a little too late for that,” said a woman from behind me.
Oh shit. I pasted a smile and what I hoped passed for an expression of innocence on my face and turned to face Ms. X. “Ma’am, what a surprise! I’d heard you were vacationing in the French Alps.” I shot a murderous glance at Derek.
“I was, and I was supposed to stay there through the end of the holidays, but I got word Gladys was preparing to disappear before the end of the year, so we sped up the timeline.”
“We. The timeline.” The cobwebs were clearing, but I didn’t like what was hiding behind them. “It was a set up. This whole thing was a set up!”
“Yes and no.” X crossed her arms over her chest and watched as TJ and one of his men carried off Mrs. Leary or whatever the hell her name was. When it was just her, Derek, and me, she continued. “I wasn’t lying when I said you were too angry and it was making you a danger to yourself and others.”
“Hey, that ambassador had it coming.”
She smiled. I wasn’t sure I’d actually ever seen X smile. Her face is narrow and birdlike and she wears her dark hair in a very severe bun, so a smile just looks creepy as hell. I sincerely hoped I’d never see her smile again. “Lots of people have lots of things coming, Cynthia, but we’re not their judges or their juries.”
“Yes ma’am.” We’d already had this conversation, but the weeks I’d spent away from the Company had given me enough perspective to appreciate it now. “I understand why you had to let me go.”
“Good. And after your performance today, you’ll understand why I’m bringing you back.” She took a deep breath and spoke the next words as though they pained her. “And it occurs to me that I might have been hasty in splitting up my best team, despite the good reasons I had for doing it.”
My heart pounded with joy, but my brain put on the brakes. “Not so fast. There’s the matter of back pay.”
“No need. You’ve been paid all along. Deposits went straight into one of your accounts. One of the reasons I wanted you frozen out of your assets. That, and to make sure you didn’t quit the decorating job before we completed the mission.”
A trial. This whole damn thing had been a trial. I scowled at Derek, who threw up his hands defensively.
“I just heard about all of it two days ago, I swear. If I’d have known—”
“He’d have told you everything, which is exactly why he didn’t have a clue.” X shot him a withering look, but he took it like a man and only withered a little bit. “Now that this is wrapped up, your next assignment awaits.”
“No.” I crossed my arms over my chest and held my ground. She wasn’t getting off that easily. Or that cheaply. “I’m not going to come running back just because you snap your fingers.”
“If you’re waiting for an apology…”
I wasn’t that stupid. I shook my head. “More like cold hard cash. A twenty percent raise.”
One of her eyebrows shot up.
“And a vacation for the rest of the year.” I winked at Derek. “For my new partner and me both. We’ll be ready to report for duty first thing January second.”
“The raise, of course.” Which meant she’d planned to give it to me anyway, which made me wish I’d held out for more. “As for the vacation, do your really…” She shook her head. “Where would you even go over the holidays on such short notice?”
I grinned. Derek caught the look and shook his head, but what the hell. ‘Tis the season and all that. If X decided to kill me, it would be a lovely time of year to die. On the flip side, if she let me live, there’d be wine, chocolate, snuggling in front of a roaring fire, and doing delightful and unspeakable things to my once and future partner. “I hear there’s chalet going to waste in the French Alps.”
“For the record, X,” Derek said, “I had nothing to do with this.”
Ms. X’s face was bright red, but she gave a curt nod. “Fine. I suppose I do owe you…something. I’ll phone ahead and let them know my friend Sandy will be taking over my reservation. Now get out of my sight before I decide to hurt you.”
She didn’t need to tell us twice. A few minutes later, we sat in Derek’s truck, laughing our fool heads off, giddy with the joy of a mission well-done and the Christmas miracle of having escaped X’s wrath.
Derek grabbed my hand and kissed it. “You know, of course, she’ll hand us our asses every chance she gets for the next year.”
“I’ll be disappointed in her if she doesn’t.” I leaned forward and kissed him, then nibbled his lower lip.
“You know, I still have that hotel room, and Santa’s long gone by now. You could slip back into that silver dress…”
I kissed him deep and hard, slipping my hands under his tee shirt and sliding skin over bare skin. But payback is a bitch, and I owed him. I pulled back and whispered in his ear. “Hold that thought.”
I took pulled his tranq gun off the back seat and loaded a few blanks in it.
He reached for the gun. “What the hell?”
“Trust me.” I rolled down the window and took careful aim, hitting first one flamingo, then the other, right in the pink patches on their necks. I watched with immense satisfaction as they slowly collapsed onto the ground. “Now, let’s get out of here. We have a plane to catch.”