Christmas meant many things to Penelope Creighton Ward. Not all of them pleasant. But if asked, she would talk vaguely about shopping under sparkling lights that braved against the darkness; hot cocoa in bed, a neat stocking hung tastefully over the old mantle in her bedroom, frost, snow, tangerines, and endless Christmas parties with distant family, or local dignitaries, or clients, or dangerous people she needed to keep under surveillance. Sometimes all four at once.
Only once before had it meant a tropical island with a remarkable family she had come to regard as her own, and then it was with Jeff Tracy, someone too dashing and charismatic to be regarded as an uncle but too old and devoted to his lost wife to be looked upon as a potential romantic partner. The last time she had been to Tracy Island at Christmas it had felt oddly wrong to her. Christmas was darkness shot through with brilliant light. December mornings greying into daylight at nine am and closing out into night-time by four, the day spent in woollen pullovers through the day and cashmere in the evening. A Tracy Island Christmas meant a sarong and sunglasses against the white light that poured upon its rocks and palms, and coral fish and salads eaten poolside – or literally in the pool, in Alan and Gordon’s case and much to their father’s disgust.
She remembered Gordon as he was then – a bronzed teenager, arms akimbo on the edge of the pool, plate of food before him, body floating easily in the water, and thought in wonder of her own vague disapproval and general sense of superiority.
Thinking of him now stopped her in the act of packing to allow an exquisite little shiver to run down her spine and into her belly where it played havoc with the canapes she’d eaten at the Embassy luncheon.
Of course, packing Gordon a ball-gown brought a different sort of shiver, the sort given by a predator who spies a particularly interesting speck of prey.
She regarded the object in question. Something that would fit him, he’d pleaded, something fancy and froufrou.
“Do you even know what froufrou means?” she had teased.
“Sure.” He smiled at her in the annoying way people do when they are being conspiratorial, but not with you. “Opposite of Grandma.”
With distaste she folded the garish creation down into her suitcase. Its source was her stable-manager’s mother who had been fortuitously cleaning out her wardrobe for charity and gladly accepted a significant cheque to the charity in its stead. Penelope guessed an approximate, if not exactly good, fit.
And then Parker was there, to carry the suitcases (only four – she was being positively Spartan) to FAB1 before holding the door for her and Sherbet in the crisp chill of 3am, Christmas Eve. It would take FAB1 three hours to reach the Tracys, which meant she would arrive just as afternoon drinks were being served on the poolside – a delightful thought, but utterly discombobulating to anyone not used to the challenges of regular travel across the international date line.
“Let’s away, Parker,” she said – softly, because it was the middle of the night and she knew how well sound travelled across frosted snow. Her household staff were all no doubt deeply asleep, dreaming of running amok with Creighton-Ward Manor like they did last time she left them to their own devices at Christmas. It took two days and a gallon of turpentine to clean the stain off Great-Aunt Gloria’s bust in the hallway, and what was shoved into the mediaeval armour on the landing remained a mystery to this day, although it caused the previously upright figure to sport a decidedly louche kink of the hips.
“Very good, m’lady.” The engine started with a purr, in thoughtful stealth mode, and then they were climbing into the night, murky with low hanging cloud.
“I hope Father Christmas has his lights on, Parker. Won’t be able to see a thing in this.”
“H’I believe he’s updated to the new GPS, m’lady.” Parker’s voice remained perfectly serious. “Wonderful things, those reindeer, but they wouldn’t half take some steering.”
“Er – quite.” Penelope settled down into the wrap she’d brought into the backseat, a wholly unnecessary thing given FAB1’s heating but entirely worth it for the indulgence of cuddling against the darkness outside. “Looking forward to seeing Tyson and Maddie and the girls?”
“I should say so, m’lady. ‘Aven’t seen old Tyson, and Maddie, o’course, since ’57. Them girls are shootin’ up like beanstalks. They don’t half make a racket when they get going.”
Tyson was once a member of the Australian Federal Police. Parker was once most definitely not. There was an arrest, which became a drinking session, which somehow launched a friendship of almost thirty years. Parker was best man at the wedding and godfather to all four daughters, and he was going on to Brisbane and the Whitworth family as soon as he dropped Penelope off with that other beanstalk family.
It was another odd aspect of this Christmas, Penelope supposed, that Parker wouldn’t be there. He was such a constant in her life that she found herself looking for him wherever she was, and she suspected she’d miss him come the day. But she also knew that he was the dearest, bravest man she knew who deserved to have time just to relax and not worry about her for a day or two. The only place and people he would entrust her to were the Tracys of Tracy Island, so this would be a much-needed break for them both.
“Did you ever find out what Gordon wants with that dress, m’lady?”
“No. He’s being most tiresomely secretive about it all. But I have taken steps.”
A chuckle from the driver’s seat.
“H’I’m sure you ‘ave, m’lady.”
London flashed by, a brief burst of colour and light far below, and then, against all her intentions, Penelope must have dozed, because the next she knew the horizon was a line of soft red and they were flying into the light of a day she would never know in its entirety. The bulk of Christmas Eve 2061 was sacrificed so that she could be here, gliding down to the hidden runway revealed for them, in the blazing sun and brilliant blue sea and sky of the South Pacific.
And then the inevitable flurry of yells and back-slaps and being dragged along insistently in the boisterous welcome that characterised a Tracy Island visit. Grandma Sally interposed herself to guide Penelope to the living room-cum-communication hub as soon as she could, while Alan danced around her and Scott offered her a bewildering array of cocktail choices.
“Just a gin and tonic, thank you,” she managed to say eventually, as Kayo, ridiculously pretty in a bright red sarong, whirled her into a bear hug and Virgil offered her a tray of freshly peeled prawns.
Her eyes darted everywhere, looking for him, but it was only after she’d taken possession of a glass and a plate that he finally appeared.
“Penelope!” he said, but there was a constraint in his voice, something wholly unexpected when it came to Gordon. He sounded perfectly polite and socially pleased, and if being transported from frost to frangipani and night to day wasn’t off-putting enough, a steady and civilised Gordon was a new level of bizarre.
Truth be told, it was tremendously disappointing. One didn’t expect one’s – boyfriend? Paramour? Swain? – to be an epitome of graciousness. One’s whatever-he-was ought to be overcome by molten passion. A little Neanderthal clubbing, though ultimately dissuaded, ought to be attempted. It was the very least he could do.
Well, constraint would have been her middle name if Hortense wasn’t already there. She offered an equally temperate smile as he came towards her, his hands behind his back, a smudge of dirt on his nose.
“Gordon. So nice to see you.” She didn’t know why she did it, but something prompted her to put her hand out, palm down, as if to encourage a kiss on her wrist in homage.
Another man might be insulted, or might drop into the parody of the great lover by grandly swooping onto her hand.
Her man did neither.
He didn’t even seem to notice, so intent was he upon a spot somewhere near her ear. He moved closer, and then, astonishingly, his hands came from behind him and he brought out a single purple and white orchid, freshly plucked with drops of moisture still on it, which she barely saw before he reached up and tucked it expertly behind her ear, smoothing her hair around it.
“Wow,” he said, and it was perfect, all of it was perfect, and she knew he was about to whisper something even better as he nuzzled back in against her ear. She dropped her shoulder, turning her hips in towards him, her heart pounding with the overwhelming-ness of it all. “Wow. Amazing. Hey, uh, Penny? Can I borrow your makeup for when I wear my dress?”
*** *** **** **
“So do you know what this is about?”
She asked this an hour later in a deceptively mild voice of Kayo, who stood behind her as she sat on the lounger and peered, as Penelope did, out to the cove below. They could see a collection of inflated flotation rings, ‘floaties’, stacked carefully by the hut that housed the surfboards and jet-skis, and an overflowing cooler, full of ice and various bottles.
“Not really,” and Penelope could tell the admission was a conflicted one. “They’ve done it ever since I’ve known them. It’s something to do with their mum, I think, but they’ve never said.”
“Lucille?” That was intriguing. “And you’ve never tried to discover…?”
“Well, no. Not really. I mean, I’ve menaced Gordon. And I’ve wheedled Alan. And never got anywhere.” Penelope glanced up and behind her to see Kayo shrug. “I figure they’re entitled to their weird little testosterone rituals.”
“You think that’s it?”
“No idea.” Kayo checked herself. “No. No, I think it’s something private and nice. And I think they include me in everything else, it’s okay they have their own thing just for them.”
“That’s frighteningly healthy of you.”
“I know.” Kayo gave a sudden, scary grin. “Don’t worry. I save my un-healthiness for other stuff.”
She wandered away, back inside to help Grandma or to plot something of her own. Penelope was left considering her own state of health.
There was no doubt that what she was intending to do was morally grey, at best. But eavesdropping was something of a habit of hers; as a young, big-eyed child, the picture of innocence, she had found herself able to drift by conversations and pick up information from adults muttering together with astonishing impunity. That she was initially set upon this task by her father probably went a long way towards her tendency to gather intelligence wherever she was, and her inability to view it as anything other than a harmless necessity.
Hence, the sophisticated surveillance bug she had carefully sewn into the bodice of Mrs Corstan’s gown.
She acknowledged a twinge of something deep within her – possibly guilt. Just as possibly indigestion. (Those canapes had been brutal).
Loud, sharp footsteps behind her – and that was unusual on Tracy Island. Rubber-soled footwear was the order of the day, if footwear was worn at all. She twisted on the lounger and then had to remind herself very sternly not to stare.
Scott and Virgil were coming out through the entrance almost always kept open, the one that led to the dining and kitchen area. It was Scott’s boots that made the noise – large, authentic Texan cowboy boots, with multi-coloured leather and swirling designs up the side, mid-calf boots with two inch heels and – spurs? Her eyes travelled up from there, seeing the cut-off denim shorts, the flowery shirt and fringed vest, the kerchief around the neck and the most ridiculous cowboy hat she had ever seen outside of bad American comedies.
“Ma’am,” said Scott, serious, tipping the edge of the hat in true cowboy style.
Penelope started to laugh, which she tried to smother until it became a snort - a sound unbecoming a lady and so just as quickly extinguished until the noise she made sounded rather like a collapsing balloon.
Beside Scott, Virgil looked sacrilegiously debonair as a cardinal. In full cardinal regalia, Penelope guessed, although not being Catholic her guess was based on impressions gathered from brief sightings on the TV. Red hat, red cape and gloves, a heavy chain around his neck that looked suspiciously like something used to dip machine parts in anti-rust solution in the hangar’s workshop.
She closed her mouth and collected her wits.
“You both look splendid. Special plans?”
“Oh, no.” Virgil looked somehow both Machiavellian and cherubic as he smiled at her. “Just going for a meeting.”
“I see. Need anyone to take notes?”
“I think it’s John’s turn this year, isn’t it?” Virgil said to Scott.
“I think so.”
“And you were chair last year.”
“Yep. You and I have no official functions this year.”
“Good job. Make my bourbon a double, then.”
“I think Alan’s bringing the drinks.”
“Hmm. Better not be sodas all round.”
“Don’t worry. I saw Gordon supervising the loading of the cooler earlier.”
With another tip of the hat from Scott, and a deliciously deep bow from Cardinal Richelieu, the two left her. The whole interaction was so straight-faced that if she hadn’t seen their attire she would have thought them going to a genuine meeting.
All questions of conscience were dispatched to the secured place she sent such annoying feelings whenever they intruded on her seeing through something intriguing.
Another clatter behind her, and this time it was Alan and John.
“Oh!” she said, because really, Alan was adorable. He was dressed in an orange and black striped onesie that finished in a hood complete with tiger ears and whiskers. Beside him John was looking ridiculously tall in striped flannel pyjamas and a purple bow tie.
“Have they gone?”
“If you mean Scott and Virgil, and if you mean the cove, then yes, they’re already heading down there.” She tilted her head slightly. “Do you need a hand carrying that tail, Alan?”
“Oh, crap.” Alan looked down and around, pulling at his butt, chasing after it. “I keep forgetting I’ve got one.”
“I’ll get it,” sighed John. He grabbed it and held it up like a disdainful footman.
“You both look splendid,” Penelope said, all guile banished from her face. “Anything important?”
“Very,” said John, gravely.
“Oh, wait.” Alan patted at the pockets in the side of his onesie. “I forgot the party whistle.”
“We’ll manage without it.” John pulled Alan along by the simple expedient of heading off with the tail firmly in his grasp, and Alan, after being briefly spun about, pulled back and hurried to catch up.
The request for the dress was beginning to make sense.
Very deliberately she picked up her book from where it lay on her lap and pretended to be fascinated by it, all the time straining to hear the sound of her possible beloved coming out in what would no doubt be completely fetching drag.
“Penny! What do you think?”
She took a slow breath before replacing the book and turning slowly to see what he’d wrought.
The dress was a satin green sheath with a flurry of lace and flowers on the low-cut neckline. It clung to his body, shifting and shimmering as he paraded before her, arms open wide for her admiration. His hair was straightened and swept into a fetching bob; mascara and green eyeshadow made his large eyes look enormous.
“You look beautiful,” she said, aiming for comic insincerity and finding instead that once again, Gordon Cooper Tracy had managed to catch her wrong-footed. Because he did look – if not beautiful, then pretty, with her peach lipstick accentuating his full lips and a light blush shadowing cheekbones naturally high. There was an ambiguity to him, something sensual where humour was intended, and she found her own cheeks beginning to flush with the heat from a sudden spark low in her belly.
“It feels nice,” he said, honest as ever. He lifted up the hem to reveal battered flip flops, and it startled a laugh from her.
“Wait! I think I know what this ensemble needs,” she said, and was glad of the chance to get up and brush past him, up the stairs to her guest room. It took very little time to find what she was after, but she took a few moments to pause at the door and take several deep breaths, before heading back down to where he was absent-mindedly twirling, watching the heavy satin bottom of the skirt billow out.
“Here.” She rose on tip-toe to fasten a tiara – costume jewellery only, of course – into his thick, blond hair. “That looks lovely.” She slowed her descent, and he caught her, close, smiling down at her.
“Keep yourself busy while we have our meeting?”
“I daresay I’ll manage.” She knew the rules of flirtation dictated a demure lowering of the gaze, but she was trapped in amber, helplessly smiling back at him. “I have a simply wonderful book to read.”
“Mmm,” but he was reading her, all of her, every syllable, and she allowed him to, opening each page before him. At last, regretfully, he pulled away.
“I’ve gotta go.”
She swallowed and stepped back, freeing them both.
“Well, of course. You’re all dressed up. I would hate to see this effort wasted.”
“Never,” he said, his voice low, and for some absurd reason she shivered all over. Then he sighed. “But I better go. Are the others down there?”
“I’ve seen all Tracys present and accounted for except you.”
“Oh, hell. I better run.” He grabbed up both sides of the dress and scampered off before turning slightly to wave farewell.
Instinctively, she glanced back towards the house. No one was visible. Carefully she returned to the lounger, reached down into the large beach bag at her side, and pulled out the surveillance receiver. She waited several minutes before she inserted a tiny earpiece and innocently focused once more on the book she set up to cover the receiver from any casual observer.
It took a little careful focus adjusting, but at last the view from Gordon’s décolletage came clear. Penelope kept the viewer discreetly in her lap. Not that she felt guilty about her spyi – surveillance activities. Not a bit. It would just mean tiresome explanations, that’s all.
Alan was directly opposite, bobbing unhappily in a flotation ring, with Scott to his left, John to his right. Scott and John both looked quite comfortable, each with a drink in his hand, John with a bottle balancing against his chest. Virgil’s hand was visible to Gordon’s right, the scarlet glove now soaked into a blood-red as it gripped the edge of his floatie.
“Next year,” Scott said, and really, Penny was very pleased with the quality of the waterproof bug, his voice was crystal clear, “we are definitely not letting Gordon choose the site of our meeting.”
“What’s not to love?” She couldn’t see Gordon, of course, but she could tell he was laughing silently by the way the vision moved up and down. “This is great. Even Virgil’s having a blast.”
“Speaking of…” And Penny saw John lean over and presumably top up Virgil’s drink.
“Let’s just get this over with.” Virgil did not sound happy.
“Who’s in charge this year?” Gordon asked.
John gestured to his left, careful not to dislodge the returned bottle. “It’s Alan, isn’t it? Come on Alan, get in the chair.”
“I’m in a floatie. I can’t be in the chair.”
Scott cuffed the back of Alan’s head, but lightly.
“Come on. You need to start proceedings.”
“Okay, okay. Uh - I now call this meeting of the Tracy Christmas Club to order. We’re here to honour our mom, Lucille Tracy, who always cared about other people and never worried about being thanked. She always did things that were kind and then she wouldn’t hang around for anyone to say thank you. Like the time she drove over to the Janssen’s and she kept the garden going for the week Elke Janssen was in hospital, and Elke never knew who did it. I don’t remember that, but I remember you telling me about it, Scott.”
“Yeah.” Scott’s voice was soft. “That was Mom alright.”
Penelope saw Gordon’s hand with a glass in it rise in front of him.
“To Mom,” the other four echoed. She watched as they took a drink each, floating in the gentle swell. For a long moment they dared to look at each other, but their eyes soon dropped, and Scott cleared his throat.
“Okay, Al. Let’s get this show on the road.”
“Oh, right. Um, as the chair I get to decide what Tracy as an acronym in Tracy Christmas Club is this year. Uh - this year Tracy stands for Telling about our Random Acts of Charity in the Year.”
“Huh.” She could tell Gordon’s face was screwed up by the tone. “That doesn’t work, does it?”
“It’s assonance.” A growl from Virgil. “Near enough.”
“Puttin’ the ass back in assonance. Okay.”
“For that you get to go first.”
“But ‘Terrific’ would be better, wouldn’t it? Terrific Random Acts of Charity in the Year.”
Scott rolled his eyes. “Just get on with it. I’ll be a prune by the time we finish.”
“He’s right though,” Alan said, judiciously. “’Terrific’ is better.”
“You’re already a prune, Scotty.” The bug magnified Gordon’s giggle.
“Oh fer – someone drown him. Virgil! You’re closest. Just drown him.”
Suddenly, Penelope’s view was a mass of bubbles that eventually resolved itself into a see-sawing surface level before coming back into the clear air and the circle.
“Ha! Never even dropped my drink.”
Scott scowled. “You’re a legend. And you’re first. Go.”
“Alan’s chair, he gets to say that.”
“Go!” The effect of four voices yelling at once made the bug squeal, and Penny winced as she adjusted the volume control.
“Okay, okay. Yeesh. Alright, so, I kinda started a company and made a whole lot of money.”
“Uh – Gordon? You know this is supposed to be where we spend ten million on a charity of our choice? As in, give money away. Usefully. It’s not about start-up companies.”
Penelope’s breath caught. Charity? Ten million?
“Yeah, I know, I’m gettin’ to it. So, last year you all thought I was really lame because I spent the money on buying the land and putting up a warehouse in Mindanao to grow grasshoppers. But that was only because I didn’t tell you my brilliant plan.”
“Hey, John? In the minutes – please note we think Gordon’s lame every year.”
“Duly noted, Alan. Go on.” John was looking at Gordon with a speculative light in his eye.
“Well, this year we harvested and got the hopper meat production right, so we started the franchise.”
“We?” Scott frowned.
“Uh, Corazon Malinao and me.”
“Wait, what.” Scott held up a finger. “Wait – Corazon Malinao. Businesswoman of the year, Corazon Malinao? What on earth is she doing with you?”
“The franchise.” If she could see him, Penelope suspected Gordon was doing an eye-roll of his own. “The grasshopper burgers?”
“You don’t mean – “ This was the unseen Virgil, with outraged astonishment in his voice. “Happy Hopburgers?”
“Well, duh. We’re the only grasshopper burger franchise going.”
“No, wait.” Now John was holding up a hand, then quickly putting it down again as the action disturbed his balance and the bottle teetered dangerously. “No, even I’ve heard of these. They’re everywhere. I mean, that company made the news. Fastest growing franchise in the States.”
Scott’s eyes narrowed with suspicion.“What has this got to do with you?”
“Like I said.” Heavy patience now from Gordon. “It’s my idea. I’m all about the environment, you know that. Grasshopper is a terrific source of protein, and they can be bred and harvested using a fraction of what beef does in terms of land and feed. Plus no methane. So I bought the land, built the warehouse, got in touch with Cora, and we got that baby happening. We employ 214 people in Mindanao, and have franchised the whole thing in 21 cities in 15 states.”
“Well.” Scott blew out his cheeks, obviously nonplussed with this news. “I’m impressed, I guess. Happy Hopburgers, huh. But what has this got to do with charity?”
“Oh, it’s all non-profit. Once the franchisee gets their share, a percentage goes back to pay the Filipino workers a good wage, so that’s helping their local community big time. And Cora gets a cut, but only a small one – she really likes what we’re doing, and she’s got her own stuff happening so she doesn’t need it, you know. But then, after that anything else left over goes to support a charity nominated by the franchisee in their home town. And I think so far we’ve given out about 15 million? Yeah, about that. So, it’s good for the environment plus good for local communities.”
“I like Happy Hopburgers,” said Virgil, plaintively.
“Dude. You can still like them. What is your problem?” Gordon must have shifted around, because now Penny could see Virgil, taking a large gulp from his drink.
“I don’t know. It just seems weird. My little brother, the business mogul.”
“More like a mega-villain.” John looked amused. “With tentacles everywhere.”
Virgil shuddered. “Ugh. Can we not say tentacles while we’re floating in the actual sea?”
She heard Gordon laugh. “Don’t worry, Virg. Any self-respecting sea life would take one look at your dangly hairy things and run screaming.”
“You’re a – dangly hairy thing.”
Scott was shaking his head, slowly. “I ate six of those things after that dam subsidence in Washington State. They’re amazing. And I kind of thought at the time they reminded me of something, but I couldn’t figure it out.”
“What can I say? People really love Grandma’s special sauce. You remember when she tried to make a raspberry coulis, only she caramelised it and then added tabasco instead of balsamic?”
Alan’s eyes widened. “Wait – you mean Happy Hopburger’s Grandma’s Special Sauce is really – Grandma’s special sauce?”
There was a moment, and then the absurdity obviously kicked in for each one, and they all burst out laughing. The bug bobbled alarmingly on Gordon’s chest, and the vision became so choppy that for several seconds Penelope closed her eyes.
“Okay, okay. Order in the court. Or meeting. Whatever. Okay, so Gordon gave away ten million but made money. That’s got to be a penalty. Who’s doing penalties this year?” Alan looked around expectantly.
“I think it’s me?”
“You can’t give yourself a penalty.”
Scott’s eyes gleamed. “I suggest Gordon’s penalty is he tells Grandma.”
“She’ll kill me.”
“No,” said Virgil, “I think she’ll be pleased. Or sue you for the profits. One of the two. Both.”
Alan coughed. “Alright, next! John. What did you do with your ten million?”
“Oh, right. Wait.” John grabbed the bottle in one hand, balanced his glass, and began scrambling around in his pockets by putting one arm through the floatie. Virgil hastily leant over and rescued the bottle. Some splashing and under the breath exclamations of annoyance later, and John triumphantly dragged a little waterproof e-notebook out. “So, I got EOS to scan all the news reports through the year and any time she found an instance of a family hitting some bad luck I made sure they got the money they needed. In the end we helped – uh, hold on, I’ll just get it up for – yeah, we helped 706 people in 68 countries.” He looked up, and suddenly sent that hopeful beaming smile of his at his brothers. It was the one that always managed to catch at Penelope’s heart.
There was a murmur of approval, until Gordon’s voice cut in.
“But that’s cheating.”
“How?” said Scott.
“Getting EOS to help. We’re supposed to do this ourselves.”
“True,” said Virgil. “But I don’t see how this goes against the spirit of what we’re doing.”
“Aren’t we doing this so we stay in touch with what Mom wanted? You know, for us to always have an understanding of what is happening in the world?” Gordon sounded genuinely concerned. “How can we do that if we outsource it?”
Oh. Wrong choice of words there, because John, usually so placid, was beginning to bristle.
“Hold on, Gordon.” Scott’s word clearly remained law, even when emanating from beneath a ten gallon hat. “Let’s hear what John has to say.”
“I investigated each one,” John said, carefully, each word measured and firm. “I can tell you about them, if you want. Maybe not all 700 odd, but enough. Like the guy with the child with cerebral palsy whose motorised chair was stolen. They lived on the sixth floor of a council flat in Birmingham, in England, just him and his son. We sent a new wheelchair and found them a nicer place to live, next to his school, with wheelchair access so they could get outside easily and secure it better at night. Or there was the family in Bereznik who lost everything in the war and then got shifted off their land when the World Council decided they needed that spot for a new set of offices and refused compensation because their son was a combatant in the war. That sounded all kinds of wrong to me so I helped them out. Or the woman in New York, ran an art school for the local kids, the thing burned down in suspicious circumstances and the insurance company refused to pay out. EOS and I found them a new place for the school, and replaced all the supplies. And – “
“Okay, John. Good job,” Scot said, forestalling any further recitation. “Sounds like you’ve had a productive year,” but John wasn’t finished.
“Bottom line, Gordon – there are hundreds of families who have been helped out of a jam. Who wouldn’t have been if EOS hadn’t tapped into the news feeds and found them, and I oversaw each bit of those funds’ distribution.”
“Alright, Ginger Space Lord, I hear you. ‘M sorry. I got it wrong.”
John tilted his nose in the air.
“And say sorry to EOS, too.”
“Sorry, EOS.” Gordon laughed, and Penelope marvelled again at how easily he moved through the world, unable to take offence or brood. “It’s nice to know you two are covering us all in more ways than one.”
“Did you have any money left?” Alan’s effort to stay on task was commendable, Penelope thought. The term ‘herding cats’ came to mind.
“Um – about $5,000?”
“Penalty!” Scot hooted.
“Yep, left-over money is a penalty. Gordo?”
“Kansas Royals. Buy $5,000 worth of seats and hand ‘em out downtown before the next game. Wearing that,” he said promptly. John groaned.
“Penalty settled.” Alan clutched at his floatie as a bigger wave appeared, and Penelope’s vision swam up and down as it came through and hit Gordon. “Scott? Your turn.”
“Wait, I need another drink. Virgil?”
Gordon moved again, turning to face Virgil next to him, and this time Penelope could see that the cooler was tied with tinsel to its own flotation ring, bobbing behind Virgil and moored to his right forearm. Virgil paddled gingerly about to reach a beer, shook it free of ice, then handed it to John to give to Scott.
“Alright. Well. I got Annie Khemlani at Tracy Industries to work with the Veterans Fund people to run an algorithm on veterans across the US. Find where most lived, most used the services, and so on. Then we looked for places where there was a large number of veterans but less support, and we settled on Amarillo in Texas. A week ago we opened the newly built Lucille Tracy Veteran Support Center. It’s fully staffed with medical and counseling personnel, and all services will be provided free to veterans and their families.”
“Nice,” said Gordon, and Penelope watched as John nodded in approval.
“Any money left over?” Alan was still taking his role seriously.
“No. But I – er, I may have accessed a few of next year’s funds for – “
“Oh, alright.” He was grumbling, but Penny could tell Scott didn’t really mind. “What have you got for me, Gordon?”
“You gotta rattle a tin can for charity in a Cambridge quad. Wearing your Oxford rowing shirt.”
Scott hung his head in mock despair.
“Oookay, and now it’s – ow!” Alan suddenly swung around in the floatie. “Something just bit me.”
“What?” Virgil voice climbed a little. “What bit you?”
“A shark. White pointer. We’re all dead.”
Well. That was a level of deadpan sarcasm she hadn’t heard from Gordon before.
Alan brought a tiny crab out in front of him.
“Is this one of yours?”
There was a crackle and wildly swinging vision for Penelope as Alan threw the crab at Gordon and he defended himself vigorously.
“Virgil!” Scott’s voice rose above the mayhem. “What do you have to report?”
“Sharks hang around islands, you know,” Virgil muttered from Gordon’s right. “Well, anyway, I built a bridge.”
There were several beats of silence, as the Tracys waited for Virgil to continue. If Penelope were any kind of gambler, she would lay bets as to who would break it.
“Dental bridge? Guitar bridge? Bridge over troubled water? The River Kwai? Virgil, did you build the bridges of Madison County?”
“Yeah, thanks Gordon. No, you remember that place in Bangladesh, Nihjum Dwip? There was that new bridge, connecting it to Hatiya Island, that got lost in the tsunami in May. It kinda made everything tough. Remember there was that couple, Taalim and Aisha, and they were organising everyone, helping out? I kept in touch. And yeah, the government wasn’t going to do anything, and it was impossible to get kids to school or get their produce to market on the main island, so I kind of designed a bridge and paid for it to be built.”
“You designed a bridge.” John was squinting at Virgil, suspiciously. “That wouldn’t be that tsunami-proof bridge everyone made such a fuss about?”
“Hey, what?” Scott frowned first at John, then Virgil. “I didn’t hear about this.”
“It’s just – it’s a kind of floating bridge, it kinda gives with the surge but holds its integrity.” Honestly, Virgil was mumbling like he was admitting to murdering kittens and using them as stuffing for his pillow.
“Wooo!” Alan bounced excitedly. “I read about them! They’re awesome! Did you really design them?”
“Well played, little brother,” said Scott, smiling broadly.
“Aw. Virgil. You’re so cute.” The picture swung again as Gordon seemed to shove at his brother.
“You’re the one in the tiara.”
“True, true. I’m working it, don’t you think?”
Alan was ignoring all of this, following his own train of thought.
“Each segment is articulated, and the whole thing can rise and fall with the water level. I mean, it can make the difference between people getting evacuated from floods or tsunamis and getting caught. Virge, this is really cool.”
“Enough. It’s – whoa!” Another big wave came through and lifted them in succession, slapping against the bug and obscuring her view for several seconds.
Gordon’s hands appeared in the viewer, holding up a colourful drink. “I’m getting seawater in my mimosa.”
Virgil snorted. “A mimosa? Seriously? I disown you.”
“It matches my frock.”
“How did you get it green?” John asked, with genuine interest.
“Oh, nice. Anything else?”
“Dash of gin for the kick.”
“Something to lift the sparkling.”
Scott interrupted the double act. “Look, I hate to bring us back to business, but we still haven’t heard from Alan.”
The bug squealed again as three of four Tracy men yelled for Alan.
It was hard to tell, but Penelope thought there might just be a blush on Alan’s face. That, or the waves had caught him on the chin one too many times.
“Mine’s nowhere near as cool as Virgil’s.”
“Are you forgetting my hopper burgers?” Gordon sounded outraged.
“Yeah, no, that was cool, too. But mine’s – you guys are gonna think it’s…”
“Why don’t you just tell us?” Scott said, his voice gentle.
“Okay.” Alan blew out his breath. “Okay. So, you know I like otters. So there’s this girl in Sarawak, Najwa Sarawag, and she’s trying to save them, the small clawed Asian otter, ‘cos they’re really endangered, and she wanted to set up a park to protect their environment, and it was in the way of some people who wanted the timber rights, and the logging would ruin their environment, and she didn’t have the money, and I kinda bought the forest and now it’s protected and we’re making a sanctuary to educate people. I mean, I know it’s not people, or bridges, but animals need us too, you know?”
Penelope knew, at once, the expression Gordon would have on his face, because she knew what he thought and how he felt about the animal world. She knew how his eyes would soften, how his mouth would quirk into a fond smile, how that light would kindle in his eyes that told of battle joined in order to protect the powerless. And that knowledge, that certainty, made her gasp, unnoticed, because the story it told of her investment in this silly, ridiculous, brave and kind and caring man condemned her utterly.
“Hey, Alan?” John said, simply. “I get to look down on the planet all the time, looking at that big, beautiful globe, and you know every day I’m glad you’re all down here looking out for it. All of it. Small clawed otters definitely included.”
“Yeah. Nice job, Al.” All joking was gone from Gordon’s voice, leaving warmth in its place. “You did good. I’d high-five you, but if I come over there the big meanie sharks will gang up on Virgil.”
Penelope put the viewer down and took out the earpiece. None of this was what she bargained for. If she’d ever interrogated her own thoughts about what she would overhear she might have imagined macho posturing, or a worst moments of the year competition, or maybe a stupid drinking game.
Not this. Not five men who already did so much, and who found a way to continue to make the world a better place, anonymously, in the name of the dead mother long gone from them but still present here, in this secret and special place and time.
She felt seriously ashamed, now. She shouldn’t have watched. Vague thoughts of blackmail or teasing disappeared in sincere admiration, and an awareness that this was something she could never speak of. Her Gordon was part of a ritual that was generous and sacred, and it unlocked in her a recognition and acceptance of the waywardness of her own tightly constrained heart.
For another minute she kept the receiver quiescent on her lap; then, sighing, she admitted she needed to see the rest. Penelope Creighton Ward was many things, but a hypocrite was not one of them.
She put the earpiece back in just in time to hear the tail end of Virgil’s comment about otters and rockets and a round of hearty laughter. At last, Scott spoke.
“So I guess that’s it for 2061?”
“Hey, back off, Scott,” Virgil said. “That’s Alan’s line. He’s running it this year, remember.”
“Yes, of course.” Contrition was so rare from Scott, Penelope thought. It suited him. “Over to you for the awards, Allie.”
Alan gave a self-important cough.
“Okay. The ‘Capitalism – You’re Doing It Wrong’ award goes to Gordon.”
“The ‘If You Build It, They Will Come’ award goes to Virgil.”
“Ha! Like it, Allie.”
“The ‘Curtain-twitcher From Space’ award goes to John.”
“We’ll take that.”
Alan’s face twisted. “I can’t think of one for you, Scottie.”
“I can.” Virgil’s voice sounded deeper than ever beside Gordon. “The ‘No-one Gets Left Behind’ award.”
Scott raised his glass and nodded in acknowledgment towards his brother.
“And me. I don’t get one because I’m running it this year.”
“You otter have one though, Allie.”
“Oh, god, drown him properly this time, Virgil!”
The bug disappeared again beneath the water, showing nothing but swirls and bubbles for several long seconds before it surfaced again.
“Get off, shark-bait!”
“I think,” John said, “we need another round of drinks.”
“Hear, hear!” There was a fair amount of splashing and wallowing, as each one made their way to Virgil for a top up from the cooler floating behind him. It took some time before the circle was resumed, and then a comfortable quiet descended for a minute or so.
“Hey, Scott?” Alan said.
“Do you think…” Alan said. “Do you think she’d be proud of us?"
A moment of silence. Then Gordon snorted.
Virgil agreed, chuckling. “Hell, no. Scott still loses his cool trying to work his programmer.”
“You still forget to put the seat down. I hear Kayo yelling at you each morning.”
“Well, I hear you losing your rag each time you try to play Dominator 5 on the im-ex.”
“Alan’s balls haven’t dropped yet.”
“Yes, they have!” Alan squeaked. He coughed, and lowered his voice dramatically. “They so have.”
Scott grinned evilly. “John’s stalking his space neighbour.”
John simply lifted one eyebrow.
“So who’s won?” Gordon asked, cheerfully. “I vote for sea otters.”
“I vote for bridges,” John said.
“Wow, tough this year. I liked the bridges and the sea-otters.” Scott shrugged. “And my little brother’s a business mogul – that’s going to give me nightmares for a while.”
Virgil chuckled. “I vote for John. A hundred small acts of kindness. Or 700. Whatever.”
“Alan? Looks like you might have to make the call.”
Alan lifted his chin, proudly.
“Bridges. I think Virgil wins this year.”
A round of applause, negotiated around drinks and grabbing onto floaties, ensued.
“Your prize is – a sleep-in on the work day of your choice.”
“Sweet.” Virgil sounded genuinely pleased. “Next time Grandma’s on the warpath for housework, someone will have to cover for me. I approve.”
“Then that’s it,” said Alan.
“Wait! No it’s not. We still haven’t decided the Jeff Tracy Prom Night Most Ridiculous Outfit Award,” Gordon cried.
“Oh, gosh. Sorry.” Alan smacked himself on the forehead, and nearly overbalanced completely. “How could I forget that? Okay, um – I kinda like my tiger outfit.”
“I can’t resign, I only do this for one year. It’s John’s turn next.”
“Good,” said Gordon. “We need someone more chair-y.”
“Well,” said Alan, apparently unperturbed by Gordon’s suggestion that he was not chair-like enough, “I think it’s between Virgil and Gordon this year.”
“What about me?”
“Yeah, Scotty, maybe if you’d kept the boots on…” Alan gesture, and Gordon turned enough for Penelope to see the said boots sitting forlorn but dry on the shore.
“Distinct lack of commitment,” Virgil agreed.
“They’re my good boots!”
“And so another award was lost thanks to lack of follow through by Scooter Tracy,” Gordon said.
“I’ll follow through with my fist if you’d like.”
“Yeah, thanks, I’m good.”
“Okay, okay. The winner is – Virgil!”
“What?” Gordon’s outrage might sound real to an outsider, but Penelope heard the humour bubbling beneath. “But I wore makeup and everything!”
“So – just another Saturday night for you, then?” John raised his glass in acknowledgement of his own witticism. Alan joined him.
“Double winner.” Virgil sounded immensely self-satisfied. “Has that ever happened before? Or is it, indeed, a first in the annals of the Tracy Christmas Club?”
“Shouldn’t that be a penalty?” he pleaded to Alan.
“Yeah, you’re right. Virgil, in punishment for winning both prizes this year, you can – you can only have one helping of Grandma’s pudding.”
“That’s not a penalty!” Gordon cried. He was facing Virgil now, so Penelope saw the enormous cheesy grin Virgil gave him.
“Done.” Virgil gave a mock bow, so far as he could in a floatie. “I’d like to thank the members of the Tracy Christmas Club, for not being as all-round fantastic as I am. I’d like to thank –“
“Ooh, is that a fin behind you?”
“I think I am getting water-logged,” said John, mildly.
“Yeah. Guess we should go back. I put dibs on the lounger nearest Lady Penelope.”
Penny’s heart gave a ridiculously hard thump to hear her name.
Alan sneered, an effort that always reminded her of a Labrador puppy expressing vague annoyance. “If Penelope looked twice at you that would be the biggest act of charity of the year.”
Gordon sniffed. “Careful, or I’ll send another one of my attack crabs at you.”
“See? I told you! My nuts are getting eaten.”
“That’s a truly revolting picture. And on that note, I propose we bring this annual Tracy Christmas Club to a close,” said Scott. “Well done, everyone. And in answer to your question – yeah, Allie. I think Mom would have loved this.”
Penelope turned off the receiver.
Carefully, she stowed it in the bag by her side. She took out the earpiece, placed it beside the other surveillance equipment. The book lay unnoticed on her lap. She stared, unseeing, at the great and glorious ocean before her, at the clear sky only just beginning to gather the pink tinge of late afternoon.
Perhaps it was the sheer amount of money that dazed her. The Creighton Wards had wealth, of course, but like many older families of the realm much of their wealth lay in their properties. The thought of having fifty million dollars to give away each year was titillating, to say the least.
Perhaps it was the brilliance of these dear men she was proud to call friends. Scott’s project was straightforward in a way, but to get such a center researched, located, planned and built in a year spoke of real leadership. John’s project would have taken some seriously clever programming and a world of kindness to achieve; Alan’s took care and awareness and courage to face down strong opposition; and Virgil’s was simply astounding in its engineering genius.
As for Gordon’s… well, this was a wholly unsuspected side of him. Entrepreneurial acuity? That was, indeed, a dazzling thought.
But perhaps it was none of these. Perhaps it was the eternal, unspoken but essential ache of the only child. Perhaps it was a deep and abiding envy at their casual intimacy, at the love that so clearly bound them together, the kind of love that allowed for free insult and injury without ever fearing damage to their bond.
Whatever it was, Penelope sat very still on her lounger and gave herself over to the unfamiliar sensation of wanting.
She only roused herself to fake reading when the first Tracy brother appeared, absolutely sodden but genuinely happy, at the top of the stairs.
“Nice meeting, Alan?”
“Oh. Yeah. It was good.”
He gave her a blazing smile and dripped past her, the tail dragging sand in his wake.
Scott and Virgil appeared next, lugging the now empty cooler and arguing about something deeply technical.
“Hello, you two,” she greeted them. “Get much done down there?”
“You’d be surprised,” Scott grinned. “But at least we had a hell of a board room.”
“Hell is right.” Virgil tried wringing some of the water that weighed him down from his costume. “Never again, Scott. We need to sit on him or something.”
“It’s Alan’s turn, next year. Could be worse. Could be his bedroom.”
Both men thought of that, then both shuddered in unison.
“But at least,” Virgil said, continuing the complaint, “despite the smell, you’re not likely to get gnawed to death.”
“I dunno.” Scott stopped, looking pensive. “I looked in his wardrobe once. I still get flashbacks. Anything could be in there.”
“Hieronymus Bosch on speed,” Virgil agreed.
They slopped past her, nodding amiably. Whatever dye was used in Virgil’s cardinal costume was now running extravagantly, leaving a trail of bright red down the rocks and poolside behind him. She suspected he would be getting an unpleasant surprise when he tried showering off.
She saw another dark red coming up the path toward her. John was ungainly on the ground, the combination of space acclimation and a natural tendency towards clumsiness as his brain diverged from his body on paths of independent inquiry. He was eyeing the trail of red warily as he picked his way over to her.
She may have been feeling more than a little guilt, but that wouldn’t stop her from teasing him.
“You know, there are some benighted tribes in deepest Borneo who subscribe to a bizarre notion of wearing bathing costumes rather than fancy dress when they go swimming. I doubt if it will ever catch on. Not while the Tracys continue setting the fashion a la mode.”
John’s bowtie hung limply around his neck. The pyjamas sagged alarmingly.
“Had to be done,” he said, simply. “It’s the rules.”
But he just smiled at her.
“I’m going to get changed. Back in a bit.” He wandered past her, obviously at peace with the world even as his arse sagged almost to his knees.
Her eyes strayed to the top of the path, impatient. It seemed a long time before she saw a handful of floaties seemingly suspended in the air coming towards her.
“Gordon? Is that you in there?” She stood up and came over to relieve him of half his burden. Gradually, he was revealed to her. The bob long gone, converted to unruly waves and curls, the tiara clinging drunkenly to one side. The kohl and the eyeshadow, too, had not survived repeated immersion in the sea. But the mascara remained, and some of the lipstick. She found herself looking at the traces of each.
“Whatever were you all doing down there?”
“Secret men’s business.” He grinned at her, but unlike Scott there was something quite knowing in the look. It wasn’t sustainable; he burst out laughing.
“Oh, come on, Pen. If you can honestly tell me you didn’t rig this dress somehow and weren’t listening in on the whole thing, I’ll be – I’ll be completely amazed.”
Flustered! She was flustered. It was unforgivable. A Creighton-Ward had not been flustered since Algernon Creighton-Ward was caught embezzling club funds in Marylebone –and even then it was only because he had forgotten to put on his regimental tie in the billiard room before doing the deed.
“I don’t know what you mean.” Haughtiness was a wonderful trait in times of aerial bombardment. Gordon’s knowing looks were currently shredding every ounce of defence she had. Time for high horses, high dudgeon, and higher ground. “Really, Gordon Tracy. If you think a lady would stoop quite so low as to eavesdrop on a private meeting I have to tell you that your upbringing was quite lacking.”
“Oh, my bringing up-ness is fine. And ladies who eavesdrop may not be done, but secret agents tend to do it quite often, I believe.”
“You’re being completely unreasonable.” Somehow, even as she drew herself up in impenetrable denial, Gordon in his shiny green dress had come close enough to her that she could scent him, could see the droplets of water clinging to the chest revealed by the droop of the neckline. That alone was distracting.
“And you’re getting all uptight. But I don’t mind, Penny. If I minded, I would have had Brains do a scan on this thing.”
“Oh.” High and mighty was hard to maintain when the resentful wind required had dropped to a gentle breeze.
“The thing is – “ He stopped, and suddenly the thrilling masterful aspect was gone, and in its place was the blushing schoolboy. “I guess, I was thinking, maybe, if – if we did start – well, something, I couldn’t keep any secrets from you. And I kind of wanted to share this with you. I know it’s silly, but it means a lot to us, and I thought maybe it would mean – for you, it would…”
The nicest present anyone had ever given her, and she thought she’d stolen it.
“Gordon. Darling.” She took a breath and rallied, as best she could in the face of overwhelming ammunition in the form of honesty and kindness and chests and eyes. “I’m not terribly good at sharing things. It’s not something I do instinctively. Not like you.”
“I know.” Another of his sudden smiles. “But you’ll get used to it. When you’re a part of the Tracys, you kinda have to.”
Her heart began hammering in her throat. It made her words husky, as if they were being torn form her, as if she didn’t want to let them go when all she wanted was to tell him everything she was.
Shameful behaviour for an agent. Dreadful.
“You’ll need to be patient with me, I’m afraid.”
“Hey, Pen,” he said, and his voice was lower and happier than she’d ever heard it and she knew, then, why he’d been holding back when she arrived because all of him was there in his eyes now and it felt a little like being rolled under one of the massive waves he liked to ride so much.
And because he was already so close it made it completely necessary to step even closer and kiss him, which lasted all of two seconds before he most definitely changed it to him kissing her, and really, mistletoe be hanged, orchids were infinitely better in their ability to compel long and deep and simply wonderfully perfect kisses from blond young men with strong tanned arms that held one as one’s knees dissolved in the surf.
Scandalously, she wasn’t sure how long they stood there for, but when she found her footing again it took a little longer for her to open her eyes and see herself reflected in his amber ones. For a long moment he just stared, mouth open in order to breathe with her, then curving into his usual delighted smile.
“Okay. Best Christmas ever. But I gotta tell you, Pen, I don’t know what comes next.”
“Next. Such a lovely word.” She lowered her head to his chest. ”Seems to imply a long time, don’t you think?”
He closed her eyes and pulled her in tight again, and his chest moved them both as he spoke.
“I can hardly wait.”