The red Mustang convertible, top securely up for the weather, pulled into a parking space in front of the Sheraton. Its owner clambered out of the car, pulling his wool topcoat around himself more securely. Who the hell ever said that New Mexico had beautiful weather hadn't spent too many windy December nights near Albuquerque.
A Chevy with military tags pulled in alongside the Mustang and honked at Admiral Al Calavicci as its driver parked the car. Another man in a wool topcoat emerged, olive Class A trousers and black shoes first. "Howdy, Admiral," he called from the car as his head finally peeked out.
"Hello yourself, Colonel," Al grinned. "How's married life treating you?"
Colonel Javier Mendoza grinned at him. Mendoza had just gotten married a month before, and Al had ribbed him severely at the last Mew Mexico line officers' dinner. Some lonely, bored officer stationed at a base in New Mexico years before had conceived the idea that all of the line officers at military outposts in the state, regardless of branch of service, needed to get together for monthly dinners and drinks. How the monthly dinner had turned itself into a self-perpetuating monstrosity that Sam had dubbed "the New Mexico military Rotary Club" no one could quite explain, but it had achieved an elected board of directors—Al and Mendoza were two of the board members that year, annual service projects, and an eerily efficient fundraising capacity. Mendoza had missed the last board meeting thanks to his honeymoon, and he knew that Al wasn't likely to let him forget it. "Well," the colonel drawled, "so far, a damn sight better than it treated you, Al. I mean, I'm back from the honeymoon for two weeks and neither of us has filed for divorce yet."
"Hey," Al snarled as they walked across the parking lot, "that only happened to me once. Wife number two. We got back from two weeks in Vegas and we were both on the phone to our lawyers. I mean, I only screwed one lousy cocktail waitress twelve days into the honeymoon and my wife started acting like it was a criminal offense or something."
"God, you were a pig, Al," Mendoza cracked.
"Was?" Al reached out to open the hotel door. "Was? I hate to think I've slipped." He looked at his hand holding the door and at his free hand, then back to Mendoza. He let the door shut. "And we gotta go back, we both forgot something."
"Where's your bag, Colonel?"
"Oh, right." Mendoza slapped his forehead with a gloved palm. "The Christmas toy drive. Yeah, I have two bags in the car." Mendoza jammed his hands in his topcoat pockets, which made Al cringe inwardly—the act was an ingrained no-no to Naval officers—and joined Al in trudging back to their vehicles. "But seriously, Al, your reputation precedes you, and yeah, you've gotten boring in your old age."
Al did a double-take and spluttered. "Old age? You are gonna pay, buddy." The two officers stepped aside as another car careened around them. It was owned by one of the Air Force officers in the group, who was apparently afraid he was running late. "Damn flyboys. Fuckin' junior birdmen."
A snicker from Mendoza. "Isn't the pot calling the kettle black there?"
"Nah." Al shook his head. "Navy pilots know what the hell they're doing. And we're in a real branch of the military—not like those damned Air Force civilians in uniform."
Mendoza laughed. "Now, there I agree with you. Had to bunk at an Air Force BOQ once. The local Hilton would have been roughing it in comparison." They wormed their way through a row of cars in an effort to short-cut their way through the lot. Al fished in his pocket for his car keys; Mendoza followed suit as they approached their own cars.
"Hey," Al called over to the Chevy as he heaved shopping bags out of his trunk, "how's that new assignment of yours going?"
"The nuclear deployment report? It's coming, it's coming. I'll be done with it soon, which is a relief." Mendoza rooted through his trunk, then lifted out a large bag and set it on the ground. He returned to his trunk again. "I'd ask how yours is going but I'm not sure what to ask someone when they can't tell you what they actually work on."
"I'd tell you," Al laughed, "but you know I'd have to kill you. Your clearance isn't high enough."
"I can guess," Mendoza replied as he slammed his trunk lid. "Considering it's run by the DoD's top physicist and an astronaut, that you were both on Star Bright, and that even after what you and Beckett pulled back there the Navy won't let you go, there are some real safe bets about what you guys are doing."
Al picked up his bags, boxes of crayons and fingerpaint sets peeking out of open spaces. "I won't confirm or deny if you suggest anything, but what the hell do you mean, after what Beckett and I pulled?"
Mendoza hefted his own bags of toys—a teddy bear peeked out behind a box of Legos—and sighed deeply. "Al, everyone knows you and Beckett are shacking up. The two of you have pushed the envelope on 'don't ask, don't tell' so far it's already ripped." He started trudging towards the hotel again. "And if the Navy's refused to hang you out to dry after all this time, they're either afraid to let you go or they're desperate to keep you. Besides, they want to keep Beckett working for DoD, they're paranoid he'll go to a university, and it's no secret he told them that he wasn't running this project he's on if you weren't managing it for him. You've got the Navy by the damn short hairs, and they won't take that from just anyone, so that means you two are working in one of a couple of specialized areas. Want me to go on?"
Al snorted. "No, I want to find out who else you talk to so I can shoot them." He shifted a bag in one arm to get a better grip around it.
"I figured I was on the money," came the reply. "You work the nuke labs long enough, you hear all the project scuttlebutt. Oh, shit, look at Swanson; what'd he do, clear every damned Barbie doll out of the Santa Fe 'Toys 'R Us'?"
Al stared dubiously at the Air Force officer ahead of them. "Maybe," he said, wonderingly. "You know, my fourth wife, Sharon, she was stacked like that." He nodded towards the Barbies. "But was she ever a bitch. Left and took the dog with her."
Mendoza stepped up on the sidewalk ahead of Al. "Now, that's cold. I love dogs. I've got a couple of golden retrievers, Buddy and Rex. Wouldn't have married Connie if she didn't like dogs. You and Beckett got any?"
Al stared over at Mendoza. "I didn't confirm that, either."
Mendoza reached to grab the door this time. "Lighten up, Al. You don't think everybody here knows? Come off it. You two have been living together since you moved out here, you've brought him along to at least five or six events—for Chrissakes, Al, he makes puppy eyes at you. If anyone cared, they'd have said something about it by now. So, do you two have any dogs or not?"
They walked through the front door; Al pushed up to grab the lobby door before Mendoza could get to it. "Nah. Sam's into cats. He's got two Birmans from the same litter. Koko and Katisha."
They crossed the lobby and headed for the ballroom, following several other officers headed in the same direction. "Who's the Gilbert and Sullivan fan?"
"Sam is. He's got a music degree."
"Connie loves Gilbert and Sullivan. There's a New Year's Eve performance of 'Yeomen of the Guard' in Santa Fe she wants to go to with a party after it; you want me to e-mail you two on it, or do you have plans?"
"No plans yet—God, Sam would probably love that."
"You could stay with us," Mendoza offered as they deposited the bags of toys on a long table along with everyone else lugging bags, "but you'd have to leave the cats at home. Rex thinks they're appetizers. Wrap 'em in bacon, he thinks they're rumaki."
They pushed through the December meeting crowd, shaking hands with fellow officers. "Even the Marines," Mendoza whispered to Al, "because it's Christmas and all." Eventually they found themselves at their destination, the head table, where the rest of the board was gathering.
"Al, Javier," General Pete Sampson acknowledged. "Say hello to Major Tom Cormier from the Albuquerque Salvation Army. He's the speaker this evening. Major, these are Admiral Al Calavicci and Colonel Javier Mendoza."
"Calavicci?" the Major asked. "You were in charge of the Thanksgiving food drive, weren't you?"
"Well…" Al drawled, shrugging.
"Now, don't be modest," the Salvation Army clergyman replied. "Or you, Colonel—I understand you and that friend of the Admiral's, that Dr. Beckett, spent two days delivering packages around the area for us." Mendoza nudged Al hard in the ribs with his elbow. "We really have to thank you military folks for all of this." He looked across at the toys. "Now, that's a sight that's going to make a lot of kids happy this year." He turned to the General. "Are any of your folks going to help with the toy distribution?"
Sampson looked across the table. "Al, are you and Dr. Beckett doing that again this year?"
Al shrugged. "Of course." He grinned at their guest. "We did it last year. You think I'm gonna let anyone else have the satisfaction?" Another elbow in the ribs from Mendoza. "Of course, if we need help, I'm sure the Colonel's lovely new wife would love to play Mrs. Santa."
Mendoza knew when he'd been beaten at his own game. "Uh, sure, Al, we'd love to help."
The waiters began moving around the tables with water, coffee, and salads. "So," the General inquired, "anyone going to do the golf tournament this spring? You'll be playing, Al, I know that."
"You got it," Al told him. "My Christmas present to myself this year is a new graphite-shaft 5-iron. I've been looking for a good chance to use it, and the chance to beat the pants off of Steve Galbraith is the best chance I can imagine. I owe him one for what he did to me back at Burning Tree in '85, and now that he's stationed out here too, he's dead meat."
"Does Dr. Beckett play golf?" Sampson inquired. "You should really bring him."
"Maybe to caddy," Al sighed. "Golf's the one thing Sam doesn't do well. A medical degree, five doctorates, a Nobel Prize, he's played at Carnegie Hall, and he has multiple black belts. Can he putt? Forget it."
"No." Disbelief reigned.
"Truth." Al poured ranch dressing on his salad.
"Truth? From you? That's a first."
"Shaddup, Mendoza." Al handed the dressing to the colonel. "That's enough out of you. I'm putting you on report. You hear that, Pete?"
"I'll write him up in the morning," Sampson replied dryly as he began buttering a roll. "We've got more important things to do right now, so we can spare him for a couple of hours. After all, we need somebody to help drop all of these toys off, don't we?" he said more cheerfully, looking across the table at Mendoza.
"All right, already, you win," Mendoza sighed. "It's still gonna take a couple more guys."
"I figured," Al told the colonel. "Sam told me he'd bring the Jeep down when he was finished working." He glanced at his watch. "I figure forty, forty-five minutes. That oughta clear up a good pile of 'em."
Sampson attacked his coffee with a vengeance. "One of these days he's going to notice that you've put him on the permanent volunteer committee."
"Ah, Sam don't mind." Al peered into a basket of rolls and carefully extracted the one that looked as if it might be something resembling whole wheat. As he was about to reach for the butter plate near him, a waiter came over and whispered something in Al's ear. The roll went back down. "Excuse me, gentlemen, but I think those Catholic school kids from Saint Theresa's that Colonel D'Agostino invited are here—and naturally, she's not, so let me go take care of this, Pete." The general nodded back as Al slid out of his seat and followed the waiter to meet up with the junior caroling brigade from D'Agostino's son's school.
"The Admiral's a brick," Sampson told the Salvation Army visitor. "I don't know what I'd do without him helping run things this year." Sampson looked around the room at the other tables of uniformed diners. "The only thing, Fred," he observed to Mendoza and to the Air Force lieutenant colonel sitting beside him once Al was safely beyond earshot, "is that once upon a time only Major Warren over there, and Captain Harris and Commander Falk would have dragged their husbands into the Ladies' Auxiliary."
Mendoza coughed. "Are you suggesting something?"
"Don't ask," Sampson sighed.
"I'm not asking. Don't tell me," Mendoza replied with a near-chuckle.
"After all," Sampson responded, "it's not our branch of the service, is it? Let them worry about it. I just hope he doesn't get transferred out of state anytime soon. He and Dr. Beckett are so good at handling the children's projects."
"They probably wish they had a couple," Fred, the lieutenant colonel, mused. "Especially this time of year, you know?"
"Watch it, Fred," Sampson warned. "We don't ask, we don't tell, and we don't make too many observations about it. I was a little out of line there myself, even if we are among friends. Besides, Al doesn't need any more children, not when he has Colonel Mendoza on two committees with him."
"Hey, I resemble that," Mendoza stated. "Oh, jeez, will you look over there?" He indicated the other side of the room, where Al was gamely helping the teacher who had accompanied her class fix the littlest third-grade singer's hair bows. He and the small singer appeared to be engrossed in some extremely deep conversation which appeared to involve much pointing to Al's ribbons and asking of questions. Al appeared to be totally charmed by the attention. "You think kids even bother to notice me, Fred? Even my nephews ignore me. Connie's kids, forget it."
"Tough luck," the Air Force officer replied. "Al's got it, you don't."
"I guess." Al was now engaging two waiters and the teacher in a major discussion that appeared to have something to do with cookies. Judging from Al's body language and a few well-placed gesticulations, the message seemed to be that adults would die if more cookies failed to arrive in rapid order in the vicinity of small children. Cookies appeared to be winning the battle.
A cough came from behind the general's shoulder. "Oh, Doctor Beckett. The Admiral said you were coming. This is Major Cormier from the Salvation Army; they're getting the toys, of course." Sam and the Major shook hands. "I gather you're doing some of the hauling for us."
Sam nodded. "It's the least I could do. What do you want me to take?"
"Nothing, right now." Sampson indicated an empty space at the table. "Have a seat. The Admiral seems to be helping Mrs. O'Malley's third graders get ready to sing. I don't think it's time to do any hauling yet, so you might as well catch the performance." Sam slid into the empty seat beside the lieutenant colonel and adjusted the chair to face towards the choir.
A light, brief touch on Sam's shoulder. "Hey, you're early. Great. The kids are on in maybe five minutes. You wanna help me with these cookies?" Al jerked his thumb over his shoulder, indicating a waiter with two trays of assorted Christmas cookies that Al had wrangled from the hotel kitchen—and possibly from the clutches of the local Soroptimists Christmas dinner in the next ballroom.
"'Scuse me, General," Sam apologized. "It looks like there are starving carolers across the room."
"You go on ahead, Doctor," Sampson told him. "Looks like Al's got his hands full with that crew."
Sam rose and lifted a tray from the waiter's hands. "Molasses snaps? I love molasses snaps. My mother used to make molasses snaps every year," he burbled cheerfully to Al as they absconded with the cookies.
"You keep your mitts off the cookies, Sam. Little Cindy Lou Who over there with the red plaid bow gets first crack at them."
"Your women keep getting younger, Al," Sam advised him, eyes focused on the colored-sugar glitter on the tray in front of his face.
Sampson, Mendoza, and the rest of the table watched them walk off with the trays. "I love Christmas," they heard Sam tell Al.
"You don't know squat about Christmas unless you grew up in an orphanage, Beckett. Even my pet roach Kevin loved Christmas. Only time of the year he ever got to come out and play with the other kids' pet roaches. They used to race for fruitcake crumbs."
Sampson shook his head as the two made their way to a table near the children. "Al may be a lunatic, but I guess he's our lunatic."
The children across the room began squeaking out the first strains of "O Come, All Ye Faithful" as Sam and Al laid the trays out near a bowl of punch that a young lieutenant was helping a waiter lower onto the table.
"Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation;
Sing, all ye citizens of Heav'n above.
Glory to God, in the highest…"
Just then, at the end of the second verse, it happened.
The little singer that Al had dubbed "Cindy Lou Who," who was standing in the front and nearly center, burped.
A few Air Force second lieutenants at a table nearby couldn't quite stifle amused giggles that sent the third-grade soprano into a red-faced covering of her face with her hands. Her loss of decorum was obviously even more embarrassing to her than the original burp; she ducked out of the grouping and directly behind Mrs. O'Malley's bright Christmas-tree print skirt. The other children fidgeted but kept on with their singing.
"O come, let us adore Him,
O come let us adore Him…"
The children concluded to the expected smattering of applause, but the little singer still hadn't returned to the lineup. Looking over to the side, to the right of Mrs. O'Malley, Sampson and the Salvation Army officer, nudging each other, saw her propped up in Sam's arms to Al's face height. She was poking at Al's shoulderboard with one finger as he handed her a cup of red punch and reached for a nearby chocolate chip cookie. Just under the applause, their observers at the dinner table could make out the faint sound of Al's voice. "God, Sam, is she cute or what? Hey, Cindy Lou, did you ever have a pet roach?"
An excited, disgusted squeal. "Eeew, no!"
"Lemme tell you, you don't know what you're missing, kid."
"Al!" Sam chided as the girl buried her face in Sam's shoulder. Sampson couldn't help his own snicker as he and his dinner companion eavesdropped.
Major Cormier reached across an empty plate for his water glass and raised it towards the carolers. "Well, as Tiny Tim said, gentlemen," he whispered in the direction of Sampson, and beyond him Al and Sam, just loudly enough for Sampson to catch, "'God bless us, every one.'"