While the Christmas decorations were put away this weekend (sniff), one small tidbit of Christmas remains: a short story serial I started, with the help of a text message, a good month before Christmas. Theater productions and plague stood between me and sharing it with the world, which in retrospect, was a good thing. That said, it’s written now, and for the next 4 Mondays, it is my pleasure to present the mystery/thriller short story, Three Ghosts.
Because the content does relate to recent and potentially-touchy political arguments, I’ll remind readers this is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the products of my imagination, or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Three Ghosts: Marley
“’The first Christmas card was sent in 1843, the same year A Christmas Carol was published,’ she says, trying not to let the baleful stare of her own unwritten cards haunt her.”
“Your tense is wrong.”
Dee – Deirdre O’Brien to those who hadn’t been her friend for twenty years – stopped gesturing with her eyebrows at the teetering tower of Christmas card boxes. She had not sent one to anyone on her list in at least three years, but that never stopped her from buying a new box or two every year. They always looked so pretty. It nearly broke her heart to pack them away with the rest of her things.
“It’s not about the tense, Cat – it’s about the grand Charles Dickens’ Christmas Conspiracy.”
Catherine Evans’ grey eyes just stared at her over the tops of her old-fashioned wire-rims. “Is this really your excuse this year?”
Leave it to Cat to bring sense to the nonsensical.
“I didn’t say that.”
A slow eyebrow arched above the glasses and Dee wondered how long her best friend could hold onto the schoolmarm look before one of them broke down into giggles.
“His story lamented greed and miserliness,” Dee insisted as she looked for the wrinkling around Cat’s eyes, which almost always preceded a smile. “Yet here we are, one hundred and eighty years later, celebrating a simple holiday for three months, munching popcorn while Kermit the Frog clings to Captain Picard–”
“And I’m pretty sure your cards can’t stare.”
“I’m not so sure,” Dee mused, fiddling with the lock of black hair that had escaped her pony tail. “See? The Christmas Fairy is looking a little feisty.”
“The Christmas fairy is looking a little tarty. Were you really planning on sending those to your mother?”
“Oh no – she gets these.”
Dee plucked a battered, half-empty box covered with an assortment of beatific mothers, sighing angels and cherubic infants. That she sent one of these cards every year while the others collected dust was an irony that had not escaped her.
“And just in case you were wondering, Deirdre O’Brien, your Dickens’ Christmas Conspiracy is about as logical as your need to buy Christmas cards you’re not going to send.”
“Yeah, but it entertained you for a second – besides, I might this year.”
Cat snorted. “Not bloody likely. Explain to me again why you’re moving across the globe three days before your most favorite holiday in all of ever?”
“Because seeing London all lit up for the holidays is probably the best Christmas gift in all of ever? Besides – didn’t I offer to spring for you and Henry to join me?”
“I know, I know, your soon-to-be mother-In-law would have kittens.”
“It’s not just that – it’s just . . . well, you moving to London—”
“Right, I know – but it wasn’t too long ago that you were cursing the name of every person in Parliament—”
“Yeah, well, everyone in the UK does that, Cat.” Dee shrugged and ignored the skepticism in her friend’s eyes, and the flush creeping up her own neck. “Things change – the war is over. Besides, Doctor Who makes friends of us all – and now I get to watch it for free!”
Cat’s lips twitched. Dee almost had her, and damned if she wasn’t going to get Cat to smile. It was important – ridiculous, yes, but also important. If she could get Cat to smile instead of scold, then perhaps the next three days would be . . . .
She shook her head. Never mind the next three days.
She let a sly grin shade her features as she abandoned the table strewn with the detritus of her life and stepped into the loft’s tiny kitchen. “Besides, you know I’ll be back for the wedding. Planning from afar is what I do – your bachelorette party is going to be spectacular. I’ve already hired the stripper.”
There – that did it. The twitch broke into a full-fledged – albeit shocked – smile and Dee answered it with one of her own. “Leave the cards and the packing, Cat, and have a glass of wine.”
“Just one – I have to drive, and you really have to pack. You won’t get anything done after two.”
Dee bit her lip to stop it trembling. “Yeah, just one. Come on.”
* * *
“Well done, Ms. O’Brien.”
Dee put her stack of books down with a sigh. “Pardon me?”
“The little performance with Ms. Evans. I think you convinced her quite nicely.”
She rolled her eyes. It had not been a performance, and even if it had been, she would not have been able to convince Cat of anything. Dee wasn’t the terrible liar she claimed, but Cat saw through her little deceptions all the time. Of course, the suit didn’t need to know that.
“How do you figure?”
“It’s my job to know people, Ms. O’Brien.” The suit – a one Agent Marley – looked smug.
“You’ve tapped her phone then, I take it?”
Of course he did, she scolded herself. And it was her fault. She had made Cat – made every one of her family and friends – fair game just as she had made herself fair game over fifteen years ago. That they knew nothing – well, almost nothing – did not matter. Not to Agent Marley, and not to the people who talked in that little earpiece of his.
“Tapped?” Marley looked up from the pile of Christmas cards he had been restacking on the table. Her fingers itched to slap his hands away. “How very old fashioned of you, Ms. O’Brien. No, all we have to do is sort of listen in on the digital airwaves everyone makes so readily available. Tapped is what we did to you twenty years ago.”
“Got it – so, I was right all those times I teased Cat that you lot were listening in because we could hear the clicking?” She fought to keep her face bland under his raised eyebrow. She really did want to know, but she was not going to give Marley the benefit of her obvious curiosity.
“Indeed. You should be glad we keep tabs on these sorts of things. It’s what is going to keep you alive over there.”
“You really are a bundle of joy tonight, Mr. Bourne.” Damn. That had been a throw-away answer for a throw-away asset.
Dee rolled her eyes as Marley stopped himself from walking into her bad joke. Because his first name was Jason, and because he bore a faint resemblance to a certain actor, the name had stuck in her head – even though she was not certain Agent Jason Marley knew the right end of the gun from the wrong.
“Ms. Evans was right, you know.”
“The cards. You won’t be able to send them.”
“No – sending them could alert the wrong people.” He swept the cards in question into the waiting box. Besides the last pile of books she’d unearthed from under the bed, the cards were the last to go, but they wouldn’t be joining her in London. Nothing but what she managed to stuff in her carry-on was coming with her. Everything – right down to that stack of three-year-old Christmas cards – would be put into storage for if – no, when – she got back.
The show of packing had been just that – a show for Cat.
She stopped Marley from putting the lid on the last box and reached for two cards that had fallen loose.
“I have to send one.” She scribbled a quick note into one sporting an iridescent Mother and Child and signed her name with a flourish.
“I can’t allow—“
Her head snapped up and her cheeks flushed with sudden anger. “Damn what you can’t allow. I’m throwing myself at an organization you and your overseas friends insisted was dead – the least you can do is let me send a card to my mother.”
“Is that so? And who helped with that little subterfuge, Ms. O’Brien?”
“Little? You call faking Pearse Finnegan’s death little? Face it, you fell for it, and now I’m helping you fix it.”
It was an old argument, but she liked having it. They both knew her ‘fixing it’ had happened all too easily.
It had started two months ago, when research had brought her back to Europe after a nearly fifteen-year absence. The whole trip had been a gamble. Once, she had barely been able to escape Dublin, and there was no way she should have been allowed into Heathrow – at least, not without a lot of extra scrutiny.
Yet, the lads had been inactive for so long – hell, she’d been out of the game for so long – it was easy to pretend all the focus really was in the Middle East.
But then she’d seen her husband in London.
Her head of the War Council, supposedly dead husband.
Pearse hated London.
According to those in the know, the London Game was going to be the one that finally tipped the scales for unification and independence. Of course, that plan had been laid out before the Good Friday Agreement had brokered a fragile truce between the British Army, the Loyalists and the Provisionals – and before the Dail gave up its right to the six counties, otherwise known as Northern Ireland.
The war was over – had been over for fifteen years – and Irish unification was a distant dream or moldy memory, depending on who one asked.
And yet, if Pearce was in London, now, after all this time, then it meant he had found a way around the Agreement – or thought he had.
She’d snapped a quick, blurry-but-recognizable picture but ignored the itchy feeling along her scalp and shoulders when getting that hasty digital artistry to the appropriate people had been even easier than flying into London. There was no way Pearce’s miraculous recovery from death was a surprise to the security services, and apparently, neither was her hand in the proceedings.
Agent Marley refused to squirm under her glare. “And we are most grateful to your change of heart, Ms. O’Brien, believe me.”
He gave a slight bow and Dee allowed herself a small smile. Not for the first time she suspected Agent Marley’s blandness – and general bafflement at what he had once called her unruliness – was an act. Sure, he was an ass, and it terrified her to think she was his first field assignment – but there was also a twitch at the corner of his lips that spoke volumes for his overall intelligence – or at least, her preference for faintly dangerous men. In another life – but no, that was just it. That other life was not hers anymore. She had this one. The one she had chosen.
She shook her head. Nope. She was not going to think about it. It was done and here she was, making . . . amends. She gave Agent Marley a half-hearted shrug before flicking the signed card at him.
As he fumbled with the babe born in a manger, she slipped the Christmas Fairy into her bag.
“Send it to my mother,” she ordered. “If you don’t, she’ll know something is wrong.”
Agent Marley paused and searched her face. What he was looking for – and what he found – was a mystery, but after a few deafening heartbeats, he saluted her with the Christmas card.
“All right. It will go out tonight. We will begin routing your calls after takeoff. In the flurry of moving, you forgot to activate the international band on your phone.”
“That’s not going to keep anyone for long. They’ll start to worry.”
“Perhaps, but you don’t have very long. Our intel indicates he’ll strike Christmas Day, Ms. O’Brien.”
Agent Marley turned on his heel and headed towards the door. His footsteps echoed in the empty loft.
That’s right. Three days. That was all she had left.
Three days and three ghosts.