Natasha silenced the music she’d been listening to at full volume, and frowned.
‘Ava, I’ve made it clear that I’m not doing Christmas this year. No tree, no lights, no dried out turkey, no bread sauce - why the hell does that stuff even exist? Yes, I’d love some sort of regurgitated bread goo all over my dinner which, when combined with gravy, will form a lumpy slick on my tongue.’
Ava Turner braved a few more steps into the room, stopping short of actually sitting down. Her best friend, Professor Natasha Forge, was in no mood for a cosy chat nor was she going to respond well to a pep talk.
‘Okay, so what do you want to do on Christmas Day?’ she asked.
‘Honestly, probably just sleep. I want to not feel sick for a day. I want to not look in a mirror and be reminded that chemotherapy took my hair. I want my mobile not to beep at me when it’s time to take yet more medication.’
Ava nodded and allowed herself to flop into an armchair.
‘I get it,’ she said. ‘This year…’
They stared at one another. Finishing the sentence would have been pointless repetition of a conversation had too often in the previous months since Natasha had been diagnosed with breast cancer. The back door slammed and heavy footsteps stomped on the doormat.
‘Do not bring walk that mud through my kitchen!’ Natasha shouted.
Words were muttered low in French.
‘How many months have I lived with you both now?’ Luc Callanach asked her as he appeared, shoeless, removing his hat and scarf. ‘Several, correct? And on how many occasions have I walked mud through the house?’
‘None,’ Natasha said, a grin finally appearing on her face. It always did when Luc arrived home, Ava noted. She wasn’t jealous. It was a relief to see Natasha smile, to know that her best friend was still there, beneath the pain and the fear. ‘And that’s because I remind you every single time you get home.’
Luc collapsed onto the sofa next to her, slid an arm around her shoulders and kissed Natasha’s temple. ‘So have you decided how you want to celebrate Christmas Day yet? I’m on call but hopefully I won’t be needed. Ava’s free all d
ay, but that won’t help with the cooking unless we’re having a “remove the outer packaging, pierce the film and microwave for 3 minutes” Christmas dinner.’
Ava threw a cushion which he ducked neatly.
‘Christmas is off the menu,’ Natasha said. ‘The worst thing is the predictability of it all. How did a tradition become such a drag?’
‘It seems a shame to ignore it completely,’ Luc said.
‘The magic’s gone from it. There are some things you just can’t get back. I’m going to bed.’
‘Let me help you,’ Ava said, getting up.
‘I’m fine. You and Luc can stay here and whisper about what how grumpy I’m getting. It’s fine. I don’t blame you.’
Ava grinned. ‘You think I’d bothering whispering, woman? If I want to say something, I’ll say it to your face.’
That got half a smile in reply as Natasha made her way up the stairs to her bedroom.
‘What are we going to do?’ Ava asked when Natasha was out of earshot.
Luc shrugged. ‘These things have a way of working themselves out. Natasha’s in a difficult place. Wait and see how she feels in the morning.’
‘I don’t want to waste a Christmas with her, Luc. It’s too precious. I know I’m being selfish, but I want every memory I can get. The thought of pretending Christmas isn’t even happening tomorrow feels like such a loss.’
‘Ava,’ Luc said, pulling her to her feet. ‘Go to bed and stop thinking about it. Natasha should get the day she needs, that’s the most important thing.’
‘Am I at least allowed to give her a present?’
‘Only if you’re got one for me too.’ He kissed her on the cheek and followed Natasha up the stairs.
The doorbell rang at 6.46am on December 25. Ava was the first to get there, shivering in a t-shirt and pajama bottoms.
‘Sergeant Lively? What the hell’s going on?’
‘Need you out of the house straight away, ma’am. We’ve had a specific threat in relation to this property. We’re not currently sure if the target is you or Detective Inspector Fancy Pants with his designer stubble.’
Ava sighed. ‘Knock it off, Sergeant. It’s too early for you and DI Callanach to start scoring points off each other. Get off the doorstep and brief me about this threat.’
Lively stepped inside.
‘Non-specific at the moment. Someone called in the address and said they knew MIT officers lived here.’
‘We should listen to the tape,’ Ava said. ‘DI Callanach and I will go to the station. You get Professor Forge to a safehouse.’
‘Tape won’t help, ma’am,’ Lively sa
id. ‘They used a voice changer.’
‘Ava, what’s going on?’ Natasha asked. She stood at the top of the stairs, arms folded.
‘Nothing to worry about,’ Ava said. ‘But we’ll need to leave for a few hours while my team secure the property.’
‘We’ll take good care of you, I promise,’ Lively said.
Natasha took a deep breath. ‘Right,’ she said. ‘Give me five minutes then I’m all yours…’ She waited for the introduction.
‘This is Sergeant Lively,’ Ava explained. ‘Sergeant, Natasha will need to be taken somewhere comfortable and warm. She’s currently going through…’
‘Don’t you bloody dare,’ Natasha said. ‘This is turning out to be a more exciting Christmas Day than I could possibly have imagined so I’m banning the C word for 24 hours, got it?’
‘Got it,’ Ava said quietly and Natasha marched away to get ready.
‘I like her,’ Lively smirked. ‘By the way, the Superintendent’s asked for DI Callanach to remain here. Sir, you should make sure you’re visible within the property during the day. Curtains drawn, take the opportunity to open the front door a couple of times. We’ll have units in the vicinity but it seemed better to maintain an opportunity to make an arrest.’
‘I don’t agree, sergeant,’ Ava said. ‘As the senior officer here, I think leaving DI Callanach vulnerable is a mistake.’
‘Sorry, ma’am, but the evil Overbitch says you’re a witness and potential victim so you’re not to be involved in operational planning. You and Professor Forge will be taken to a hotel and remain there until matters are finalised.’
‘Lively, I made it very clear that you cannot call Superintendent Overbeck…alternative names. Now, I need to…’
‘You need to leave, quickly.’ Luc said.
‘Whoever made this threat could be watching right now, and it’s not fair to leave Natasha vulnerable. Let Lively escort you. I’ll stay in contact and we’ll decide when it’s safe for you to return.’
Natasha descended the stairs carrying a backpack and looking intensely happy. Ava got changed and grudgingly followed her out of the house.
‘Stay safe,’ she said quietly to Luc as she exited.
‘I’ll be fine, I promise,’ he replied.
Ava phoned every hour on the hour. Natasha was in the background demanding updates as she described the hotel suite they’d been allocated and ate her way through the menu. At 6pm Superintendent Overbeck stood the operation down, explaining that they’d identified the source of the threat and that it had been nothing more than a time waster playing a prank.
Ava unlocked the front door, mid conversation with Sergeant Lively.
‘I still want whoever did this to be charged,’ she said. ‘That’s a day of police time, not too mention the expense of the hotel suite and the distress that could have been caused.’
‘You’re kidding,’ Natasha laughed from behind her. ‘A 5 star hotel and the best cocktails I’ve ever tasted on the one day this year I was given permission to drink. No home cooked food, no crap TV and no tinsel. It was everything I wanted.’
‘I’d still like to know the identity of whoever called in the threat. It might be someone I’ve come into contact with before. I’m not sure we should be ruling out a genuine problem so quickly.’
Lively laughed. ‘Oh, I think we can be quite sure, ma’am. Mind you, the perpetrator owes me a bloody big favour, getting me out of bed so early when I wasn’t even on duty.’
‘Thank you, sergeant,’ Luc said from the far end of the hallway. ‘I’ll remember.’
‘That’s a year’s worth of the drinks being on you. Well, I’ve a bottle of the good stuff with my name on it. Good evening ma’am, Professor.’ He did a mock salute. ‘And may I wish you a very happy Christmas.’
Lively left looking smug. Ava stood, fa
ce like thunder, hands on hips.
‘Luc, what were you thinking? I’ve been worried about you all day. Natasha was…’
‘I was fine,’ Natasha interjected. ‘But I don’t understand…’
‘Could you please both wait a minute?’ Luc asked. ‘Just sixty seconds more? Then you can spend the entire evening being angry or moaning or asking questions. Follow me.’
He walked into the pitch black back garden and told Ava and Natasha to stand still while he disappeared into the shed.
With the flick of a switch the garden was lit up with string after string of golden fairy lights. In the centre of the lawn, three deckchairs had been covered in cushions and blankets. Luc walked to a small iron fire pit in the middle of the circle of chairs and lit the kindling.
‘Christmas dinner,’ he explained. ‘Apparently baked potatoes cooked in foil is about as far from turkey and the trimmings as we could get. That was Lively’s idea. I am insisting on melting a decent French brie inside each potato though. And I chose French wine too.’
‘Luc,’ Natasha said softly. ‘Is this what you’ve spent all day doing? You set the whole thing up to get us out of the house?’
‘It’s not like you’d have gone willingly,’ Luc said.
‘And the hotel suite? The bar bill? Are you paying for that too?’
‘You’re both so hard to buy for, and it was a present I didn’t even have to wrap. Now sit down. There’s one last surprise left.’
They settled themselves on the lawn chairs and wrapped up warm as Luc served drinks.
Switching off the lights again, he pulled a
remote control from his pocket and pressed a couple of buttons. The back wall of the garage came alive with movement and light.
‘Star Wars,’ Natasha gasped. ‘My favourite movie.’
‘I borrowed the projector form one of the team,’ Luc said. ‘Now, has this been a sufficiently non-Christmas Day for you?’
Natasha threw off her blankets and walked across to hug him.
‘It’s been perfect,’ she said. ‘Don’t let Ava tell you any differently.’
They watched the film, ate, drank and laughed late into the night. Ava helped an exhausted Natasha to her room then rejoined Luc by the fire.
‘Was the Superintendent in on it as well?’ she asked.
‘She had to be, in case you phoned her, as were the on-call team at the station.’
‘That’s quite the charade. You could have told me, you know. It would have been easier. I could have been better prepared…’
‘Ava,’ Luc said quietly, slipping his arms around her shoulders. ‘What makes you think this was Natasha’s gift?’
Ava shrugged. ‘But it was everything she wanted - the break in tradition…’
‘And what you wanted was to see her excited again. To see her smile. You wanted her to have a day where you made a new memory together.’
Ava looked away too late to hide the shimmering in her eyes.
‘So what am I supposed to give you as a gift that can ever match up to this?’ she asked.
‘Just this moment,’ he said. ‘It’s more than enough.’
*Happy Christmas from Luc, Ava, Natasha, Sergeant Lively & Superintendent Overbeck *