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'Tis the Season to be Murdered

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The soft snow drifted gently down on to the bushes that flourished on the perimeter of Lord Bromsgrove’s stately home. In one of the bushes, two men crouched. One was tall with a beaky nose, and the other was short and stocky. They both wore brown, flat caps and long, beige coats. The tallest one held a pair of binoculars to his eyes and peered through them at the windows to the drawing room. Inside, Lord Bromsgrove, a portly middle-aged man, opened a box full of Christmas decorations.

“Has he taken it out yet, Cliff?” asked the short man, impatiently. In his hand, he had a small black box with a red button, and he desperately wanted to press the button.

“Be patient, Derek,” replied Cliff.

In the drawing room, Lord Bromsgrove unpacked the contents of the box. He paused to examine one bauble closely. It resembled a snow globe. He shook it and watched as the “snow” in the sphere fell.

“Now,” ordered Cliff. His companion responded by pushing the red button.

Suddenly, the flakes inside the bauble swirled together to form a miniature tornado. “That’s unusual,” said Lord Bromsgrove and then the bauble exploded.

****

In her flat, Emma Peel was standing on top of a stepladder, hanging paper chains from the ceiling. Upon hearing the front door open, she glanced down and saw John Steed. In his right hand, Steed carried a slim, rectangular box wrapped in tartan paper.

“Season’s greetings, Mrs. Peel!” said Steed, cheerfully.

“Merry Christmas to you too.” Emma climbed down the ladder to meet Steed. “For me?” she said as Steed presented her with the box.

“It is indeed.”

Emma took the box off him. “Thank you, I’ll put it under the tree.”

“I’d rather you open it now: I never could stand the suspense of waiting until the day itself to open presents.”

“There’s a lot to be said for anticipation.” Emma commented as she indulged him, tearing off the paper, and opening the box. She frowned in puzzlement. “There’s nothing in there. I didn’t expect diamonds, but I thought there would be something.”

“Mrs. Peel, why would you want meaningless, material tokens of affection, when there’s my undying admiration for the taking?”

Emma gave him a look and put the back of her hand to his forehead. “Are you all right? I suspect you haven’t quite recovered from going undercover in the rakes’ ward at the Happydale Home for the Irredeemably Dissolute.”

“What made you think I was undercover?” said Steed, with a wink. “If you look closely at the box you will find there is something in there.”

Seeing nothing on further inspection, Emma turned the box upside down and a folded piece of paper dropped out. Emma picked up the paper and unfolded it. Written on the paper was one sentence: ‘Mrs. Peel, we’re needed’.

“I preferred it when you’d come and directly ask for my help.”

Steed wagged his finger. “Ah, but where would the fun be in that? This morning, Lord Bromsgrove’s valet found his master dead in his ancestral home. While decorating his tree an explosion killed him. He’s the third to die hanging Christmas decorations this week. First there was a Mr. Chantry, who was discovered entangled in fairy lights, and Lady Denby was strangled with a paper-chain.”

Emma looked up at her own paper-chains - they didn’t look as cheery as they did a moment ago. “’Tis the season…” she said, with a shrug. It wasn’t the first time she had learnt how deadly seemingly innocuous items could be.

****

Emma’s boots crunched over the remains of Lord Bromsgrove’s Christmas preparations.

“The blast hasn’t left us with many clues,” said Steed, looking around the drawing room.

“Hmm,” said Emma. She knelt down to peer closely at the scorched rug. She picked up pieces of scattered cardboard and examined them. One in particular caught her eye. She stood up and passed it to Steed. “There’s a company name on the strip, ‘Nolly’s Christmas Decorations’. Could explosives have been put in the box at the place of manufacture or did someone buy the box before tampering with the contents?”

“As we passed through the village outside Bromsgrove Hall I noticed a Christmas shop. I think it would be sensible to start our enquiries there,” said Steed.

****

“Just the place,” said Steed, pointing with his umbrella at a sign that read ‘Saint Nicholas - the Year Round Christmas Shop. Prop: S. Nicholas’. He held the red shop door open for Emma and then followed her into the establishment. At one end of the shop were children’s toys and at the other end, gifts for adults, like bottles of port and sherry. In the centre of the shop, there was a round table on which were models of a turkey, a goose and a joint of ham, along with a sign advising to order early for Christmas. Steed undid the buttons of his coat and moved away from the roaring fire that had stockings hung above it. It was stiflingly hot and the smell of gravy added to the stuffiness. On hearing the shop’s bell, a man came out from the back. He was a tall man, dressed in a scarlet three-piece suit, with matching tie and a white shirt. He had a long, white, neatly trimmed beard.

“Good day to you,” said the man. “Can I be of service? I am Mr. S. Nicholas, the owner. The ‘S’ stands for Siegfried, by the way. I’ve never been entirely sure if I should be grateful I was christened with that particular name.”

“Good day to you, Mr. Nicolas,” said Steed and tipped his bowler hat. “I’m sorry to take you away from your roast dinner.”

“Oh, don’t apologise,” said Mr. Nicholas. “It’s not my dinner; it’s the smell of ‘Granny’s Turkey Dinner’. It’s one of our more popular scents in the Eau de Christmas range. Those who love the idea of Christmas dinner, but have a small appetite which hinders the ability to enjoy a feast generally buy it. There’s a 3-for-2 offer on scents, including ‘Over Cooked Sprouts’ and ‘The Smell of Eyebrows Burnt by the Flames From a Lit Christmas Pudding Laced with too Much Brandy.’”

Emma raised an unsinged eyebrow at the title of the last scent. “While I can’t say we’re not tempted by the offer, what we’re really here for is a set of new baubles. We are after a particular make.”

“We stock a wide variety of brands to suit all tastes and pockets,” said Mr. Nicholas, with confidence and gestured at a set of decorated trees.

“Do you stock Nolly’s baubles?” asked Emma.

“Nolly’s? I’m afraid I don’t. Nolly’s is very exclusive - their products are only available directly from them. They don’t supply to retailers.”

“Have you any idea how to contact them?” said Emma.

Mr. Nicolas considered this for a moment. “I think I have an address. It’ll be in one of my old contact books, but as far as I know, they haven’t moved to new premises. Help yourself to a sherry, while I search for it.” Mr. Nicholas turned and left the shop for his office.

“Well Steed, man can’t live by champagne alone,” said Emma, picking up a decanter from next to the till and pouring some sherry into two small glasses.

“Mrs. Peel, I have always believed in having a varied diet,” said Steed and sipped his sherry.

****

Steed smiled at the pretty receptionist on the front desk at Nolly’s. “Hello, we’re interested in buying decorations for our home.”

The receptionist didn’t show any enthusiasm for Steed’s request and drew out a notepad and pen from a desk drawer. “If you put your name down I’ll add it to next year’s list for Christmas orders.”

“Next Christmas?” said Steed, affecting a crestfallen air. “It’s my son Johnny’s first Christmas and me and my wife,” Steed put his arm around Emma to emphasise his point, “want to make it perfect.” Emma concealed her amusement. Steed continued, “If you saw his cherubic face you would understand why we want to delight him with Nolly’s decorations.” Steed put his hand into his jacket pocket, took out his wallet, opened it and showed the receptionist a black and white photo of a smiling, chubby baby.

“He’s adorable,” cooed the receptionist, softened by the picture. “I’m sure Mrs. Laurel would love to give your baby the perfect Christmas. If you’ll take a seat, I’ll phone Bennett to take you to Mrs. Laurel’s office.”

After seating themselves by the entrance, Emma whispered to Steed, “Do you always carry a picture of a baby with you?”

“It’s a snap of my god-daughter,” whispered back Steed.

Emma frowned in thought. “Isn’t she in her first year -”

“- of a biology degree at Oxford,” he finished her thought. “Yes, she is, but it’s such a sweet picture I couldn’t get rid of it for sentimental reasons.”

After witnessing the effect the photograph had on the receptionist, Emma wasn’t entirely convinced that was the real reason.

****

Bennett, it turned out, was Mrs. Laurel’s butler. He was over sixty, stooped, had a small pointed beard and his white hair curled in, emphasising his high cheekbones. He was shuffling his way down a long corridor followed by Steed and Emma. Bennett paused in front of a door with a discreet sign reading ‘Mrs. N. Laurel. M.D.’ He opened it and announced, “Mr. and Mrs. Steed to see you, ma’am.”

Steed and Emma walked in past Bennett. The room they had entered was a generously sized, light and airy office. The walls were painted egg yolk yellow and the furniture was flamingo pink. Opposite them, sitting behind a desk, was a small, plump woman with grey hair, in a turquoise blue and cream dress and matching jacket. Over by the window, flicking through papers in a manila folder stood a man in his twenties with auburn hair, in a dark, almost black, purple suit.

“Ah, the Steeds. Dora tells me you are planning baby’s first Christmas,” said Mrs. Laurel.

“We are,” confirmed Steed.

“Do sit down,” said Mrs. Laurel, spreading an arm out towards a pair of chairs.

Steed and Emma sat down on the squashy, pink seats.

“I know what you are thinking: pink and yellow isn’t very festive, but I find cheery colours keep me in the right mood for the season. Now, how did you find out about us?”

“Lord Bromsgrove recommended your company,” replied Steed.

“Ah, Freddie. He’s our oldest and best customer. Every year he simply has to have the latest lines to decorate his mansion from top to bottom. He started buying from us when my father was in charge. In fact, my father named the company after me - my first name is Noele. I aim to keep Nolly’s exclusive and Lord Bromsgrove’s continued patronage allows us to keep the client list small, as you can read for yourself.” Mrs. Laurel pushed over a list of customers on her desk towards Steed. Steed couldn’t believe his luck - he hadn’t thought it would be so easy to find out who bought from Nolly’s. Disappointingly, none of the names on the list matched the other victims of the Christmas killings.

“Do you have a particular colour scheme in mind?” asked Mrs. Laurel, when Steed put the list back on the desk.

“We were thinking of blue for little Johnny,” said Emma.

Mrs. Laurel smiled. “Blue for a boy, yes, we have just the thing. Anthony, dear, take the Steeds to see our Baby’s First Christmas range.”

The man by the window looked reluctant. “Can’t Bennett take them? I’ve a meeting with the works manager in five minutes, Mother.”

“Mr. Fosdyke will understand that it’s for friends of Freddie, and you can set up the train track that goes round a Christmas tree. You know how clumsy Bennett can be.”

“Very well,” said Anthony, with a sigh.

****

“That was -” began Steed.

“- the very opposite of illuminating,” finished Emma.

“Minating?” suggested Steed.

After a tour of Nolly’s, Steed had driven Emma back to her flat. She had asked Steed to stay for a nightcap. Steed was sitting on the sofa, nursing a glass of brandy, while Emma was next to him tapping a pen on a notepad.

“I think we’ll have to make a return visit and see if we can find anything else out, surreptitiously, of course. If the link isn’t someone at the factory who wants to make the client list more exclusive, there may be some other clue hidden away,” said Steed.

“Such as a dusty old group photo of the deceased, along with several potential suspects?” said Emma.

“If that’s the case, I hope our killer takes their foot off the pedal and doesn’t make our investigation too easy by being the last person standing.”

“Even finding out how the booby trapped ornaments are getting into the orders would be useful,” said Emma and chewed the end of her pen thoughtfully.

“Perhaps something will come to me in my slumbers,” said Steed with a yawn, as he warmed his brandy glass between his hands.

****

The sobbing housekeeper led Steed and Emma into the front room of Mr. Lumsden’s Victorian villa.

“Here they are, Mr. Lumsden and Mr. Worthing,” the housekeeper said and turned her head away from the distressing sight. Two men lay dead at the foot of a Norwegian fir tree. A thick layer of pine needles partly covered the corpses.

“It’s not a load of baubles this time,” said Steed, noting the way his feet didn’t crunch across the deep pile of a red and blue rug in front of the hearth.

“Something has gone pop though.” Emma rooted around in a box marked ‘Nolly’s’. She drew out tinsel, baubles and stockings. When she found a cracker, she paused. She waved the small, gold cracker at Steed. “An efficient way to take out two?”

“They are for decoration, not pulling,” said Steed.

“People get carried away at Christmas after a few eggnogs.”

Steed looked doubtful.

“They would have been decorating the tree together,” said the housekeeper.

“Together?” repeated Steed, regarding her with interest.

“Oh, yes, Mr. Lumsden and Mr. Worthing don’t - didn’t - have any close family and Mr. Worthing would come over for Christmas. They’d been firm friends since Mr. Worthing became the accountant for Nolly’s. They met at the bank; Mr. Lumsden was the firm’s bank manager.”

Steed and Emma exchanged glances.

****

In the packaging department of Nolly’s, Steed silently padded past piles of boxes. The lighting was poor in the warehouse; the purple walls and the dark green floor sucked up the light. Occasionally, Steed would stop, take down a box, open it up and inspect the contents. Carrying on his inspection, Steed went over to a corner where the boxes were half filled. He took out a set of incomplete baubles and wondered if the missing items were going to be replaced with something more explosive. Steed looked around and saw a sign reading ‘Seconds’ hung above a long table that was piled with a jumble of baubles, tinsel, paper chains, Christmas fairies, crackers and other decorations. He moved over to the desk and tried to make some sense of the pile. Moving a tangle of chains to the side, he saw a fine black dust. The dust he recognised instantly as gunpowder. Excited by his find, he began to carefully pull the rejected baubles apart. Engrossed in this task, he didn’t see the large pile of boxes that came crashing down on him until it was too late.

****

“It’s very kind of you to show me the baby range again, especially at this time of day, when you would be going home,” said Emma to Bennett, as they walked down a corridor.

“It’s no trouble, miss,” replied Bennett, somewhat incorrectly. He, like many a man, had taken a shine to Emma and was only too happy to take her to view Nolly’s ranges as many times as she wanted. “A butler is always on duty.”

“This is the room, isn’t it?” asked Emma, as Bennett walked straight past a door with a sign reading ‘New at Nolly’s’.

Bennett turned back to face her. “Is it? I need some glasses, but Mrs. Laurel doesn’t like me in them. I’ve spent so many years working here, I find my way round by memory and that’s not what it used to be. If you’ll allow me, miss.” Bennett pulled the door open and a small, baby blue tin train rolled out. It halted when it ran into Bennett’s foot. He picked it up and smoke started to pour out of the funnel. “That’s clever, I didn’t know they could do that and now it’s starting to toot. Charming isn’t it?”

A look of alarm crossed Emma’s face. The noises coming from the train sounded more aggressive than sweet.

****

Steed slowly came to. He found he was leaning uncomfortably against a fake fir tree. There were other trees lined up either side of him. One of the branches of the tree tickled his nose and made him sneeze. He tried to cover his nose with his hands, but couldn’t, as they were tied behind him around the tree’s middle. His legs were bound together too. He tested his bonds for any weaknesses - it was to no avail, he needed help to loosen them. All he could do was wait. Experience had taught him eventually either a diabolical criminal mastermind or Mrs. Peel would turn up. If only he had been tied to a chair; they were, on the whole, a lot more comfortable, thought Steed. Before Steed could find a way to relax against the tree, Anthony Laurel came walking into Steed’s eyeline and was flanked by two men. The men both wore matching flat caps and long, beige coats.

“I heard you sneeze, Mr. Steed, are you allergic to our products?” said Anthony.

“I take it you haven’t come to release me, and that you’re responsible for the recent spate of deaths,” said Steed.

“Correct, on both counts.”

“But why?” asked Steed. As well as playing for time, Steed was interested in Anthony’s motives.

Anthony was in the mood to talk. “You might say I don’t take kindly to what should be mine by rights being moved out of my reach.”

“And that would be?”

“You’ve met my Mother. She’s no spring chicken, at her time of life she should be at home knitting in a rocking chair, not running the company. I should be running Nolly’s! But, no, they all conspired against me. Lord Bromsgrove, the old toad, said he couldn’t bear to deal with the firm if she didn’t run it and then there was the accountant telling the bank manager he didn’t think I’d be any good as the managing director. They couldn’t keep their opinions to themselves, could they? Neither could stuck-in-the-mud traditionalists like Lady Denby, who didn’t want to invest in developing my ideas. Then there was Mr. Chantry, the union rep, who caused a hoo-hah about me trying to get the lazy workforce to put more hours in, well, he’s now on an everlasting tea-break.”

Whilst Anthony had been talking, Steed had sensed movement in amongst the trees, followed by an unknown ally picking at his bonds. “And you are going to replace them with those who have the vision to say ‘yes’ to you,” said Steed.

Anthony pursed his lips together with displeasure. “I wouldn’t be so quick to make smart remarks in your situation. Cliff, Derek, remove him from my sight - permanently!”

Emma sprang out from the trees. “That won’t be necessary.”

“Mrs. Peel!” exclaimed Steed, although he wasn’t as surprised as he sounded. Now his rescuer had revealed herself, he shook off the ropes that had bound him.

Emma eyed the tree Steed had been tied to. “Why am I not surprised to find you were under the fairy?”

“I never could resist the charms of a beautiful doll,” replied Steed and grinned.

Anthony didn’t share Steed’s joy. “Don’t just stand there gawping - get them!” he ordered his men.

The two henchmen moved to attack. Cliff went for Steed, while Derek charged at Emma, who sidestepped him at the last moment. He went headlong into a stack of boxes, which toppled down on him while Emma dodged them. Derek pushed the boxes away, dazed, and continued his pursuit. Emma circled away from him to find a clear space to fight; Derek took this as a sign of weakness and a triumphant expression spread across his face.

Cliff wasn’t as confident about besting his opponent. Steed was blocking every blow. In desperation, Cliff chanced a wild, right hook at Steed’s jaw. Steed grabbed Cliff’s wrist and flipped him head over heels. Like Derek, Cliff was uncommonly resilient and staggered back to his feet. Cliff, however, wasn’t interested in fighting a battle he couldn’t win; he backed away from Steed and into a table. He glanced over his shoulder and then stared straight back at Steed and smirked. He threw an arm out to the side and grabbed from off the table a small black box, with a couple of switches on it. He flicked a switch and, from under the table, a length of gold tinsel snaked out and made for Steed. Steed tried to stamp on the tinsel, but the tinsel curled around his ankles and tripped him up.

Cliff laughed when Steed hit the floor. “And now I’ll twist it round your neck!”

In the centre of the room, Derek was grappling with Emma and attempting to throw her to the floor. She dealt with him by kneeing him in the stomach. As he sagged, winded by the assault, she delivered one of her trademark karate chops to his neck. With Derek rendered unconscious, Emma went to find out how Steed was doing.

Steed was struggling to control the tinsel; it thrashed itself out of his arms and moved up his chest. Cliff was so focused on strangling Steed, he didn’t notice Emma stalk up to him and mete out another of her deadly blows. Cliff dropped like a stone to the floor as Emma wrenched the control box out of his grasp. She wiggled the switches experimentally, sending the tinsel racing off Steed and after Anthony. Sensing that it was all over, Anthony ran to the fire exit. The tinsel couldn’t be outrun and tripped Anthony up, as it had with Steed. Emma then directed the tinsel to coil itself tightly around Anthony’s hands and feet, rendering him immobile.

“What’s going on?” cried Mrs. Laurel, in shock at the scene before her. She had just entered the department in time to see her son attacked by tinsel and take in the damage caused by the fighting. Boxes and their contents were strewn everywhere. She ran to her son’s side and crouched down beside him. “What have you done to my poor boy?”

Emma and Steed calmly walked up to her and explained Anthony’s plot to take over Nolly’s.

“Anthony, is this true?” asked his mother.

“Yes, it is true,” responded Anthony, resigned. “If only you’d done the decent thing and stepped down. I wasn’t waiting until you shuffled off this mortal coil. I’m a fully grown man; it’s beneath me to take orders from my mum at my age.”

Mrs. Laurel stood up. “Murdering those who disagree with you is hardly the act of a mature adult. And how could you have killed Freddie Bromsgrove? He was almost family, and wouldn’t have harmed a flea. Neither would have the others. And why attempt to kill Bennet? It doesn’t make sense.”

“I was sick of him hanging around, I thought if he went it would send the message it was time for you to retire.”

“I do hate to say this of one’s own son, but Anthony, I never thought you were made of the right stuff to run the company. Whenever you’ve been given any responsibility to develop and market a new range, you made a hash of it.” Mrs. Laurel turned from Anthony towards Emma and Steed as she continued. “I was about to leave my office to inform my son that I had decided to stand down as managing director when Bennett told me Mrs. Steed had saved his life. Just then I realised I should follow my heart. What’s the point of running a successful business if there’s no one to come home to at night? So I proposed to him. As soon as it can be arranged, Bennett and I are going to marry, and go on a trip around the world.”

“Bennett!” exclaimed Anthony, dismayed. “But, Mother, he’s the butler and an old and decrepit one at that.”

“I don’t care if he’s old and decrepit, I love him. I am also going to change my will and hand over the reins to my niece, Eileen. She’s a capable girl and that new husband of hers is an accountant. Which is a blessing, since I doubt it’ll be easy to hire a new one, after what happened to sweet Mr. Worthing.”

“He was just an accountant. I’m your son, you should care more about me,” whined Anthony.

Emma raised an eyebrow at the proceedings and lent over to whisper into Steed’s ear. “I think it’s time we left; family arguments can get very nasty at Christmas.”

“I agree, let’s go and get some fresh air. I know of a French restaurant, with an excellent atmosphere, ten minutes drive away,” said Steed.

****

“You have been busy,” said Emma, walking into Steed’s flat. The last time she had visited the walls had been bare, but now they were festooned with row upon row of cards. “Those are somewhat drab.” Emma pointed at the offending row of cards.

“They’re from fellows detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. They mainly wish me a merry Christmas and death in the New Year,” said Steed.

“It’s nice they want you to have a good Christmas.”

“I feel terrible about not sending a card back, but what can I do when they are sent anonymously?”

Emma nodded in sympathy at Steed’s predicament.

“As you’re early, I thought we could pull a cracker or two before going to the theatre,” suggested Steed.

“Is that wise?”

“Don’t worry; they aren’t from Nolly’s. My great aunt, Perlita, made them,” called Steed over his shoulder. He had gone into the kitchen to find the crackers.

Knowing Steed’s great aunts, this didn’t fill Emma with confidence. She sat down on the sofa. She hadn’t been sitting for long when she heard a bang followed by a yelp of pain. In response, she jumped up and dashed into the kitchen. Steed was sitting on the floor, with one hand clamped over his right eye.

“Are you all right?” Emma asked, concerned.

“Nothing a glass of something alcoholic couldn’t cure, but not champagne - it doesn’t want to be friends with me.” Steed patted an open bottle, next to him, on the floor.

“What were you doing opening champagne?”

“The crackers are behind the champagne in the kitchen cupboard and a glass of bubbly would’ve set us up nicely for this evening’s entertainment,” explained Steed.

“What’s wrong with the mulled wine on the stove?”

“That was for later.”

Emma shook her head at him. “Let me look at your eye.”

Steed obediently took his hand away from his face as Emma bent to examine him.

“I’ll get a steak out of the fridge, although I doubt it’ll prevent you from looking like you’re angling to take over the role of the Beast in Beauty and the Beast tonight. I’d imagine the scene where the Beast turns back into a handsome prince would have to be axed if you did get the role.”

“Nonsense, Mrs. Peel. I’d simply keep the bruised side of my face upstage, while the audience gasps in delighted awe at my perfect left profile.”

Emma slapped the steak on Steed's eye a little more roughly than she planned. Steed didn’t mind too much. Mrs. Peel verbally disparaging his exaggerated claims would have hurt more.

The End.