The Christmas Invitation
by Sue K.
"This came by courier, sir," Angie said, handing Captain Lee Crane a sealed, manila envelope. Inside was another, lighter colored envelope, equally sealed. There was only his name on the front in embossed gold letters.
"Looks like an invitation of some kind," he muttered. Lee glanced at the clock on his desk. Four oíclock. Admiral Nelsonís secretary was still standing near the door. Maybe she had been told to wait for his response. "Angie, itís Christmas Eve. Head home. Iíll see the admiral when Iíve read this."
"He asked me to stick around."
A sudden inspiration prompted the young commander. "The admiral get one of these, too?"
She nodded, a twinkle in her eye. "But he didnít tell me what was in it."
Lee pried open the flap and pulled out a folded card. It, too, was embossed with gold leaf. Inside was a statement that seemed contradictory to the flowery outside. ĎYou are ordered to report to the Swiss Diplomatic Mission in Atlanta, Georgia immediately.í
"Immediately? Donít these guys know itís Christmas Eve?" he griped. "And Atlanta? Why the hell does someone want us in Atlanta . . . and at the Swiss Mission?"
"I guess weíre going to find out," Admiral Harriman Nelson replied as he strode into Leeís office.
"Whose orders, sir, if I may ask?"
Nelson shook his head. "No idea, but mine has the presidential seal."
Crane cleared his throat. "Guess thatís high enough."
"I guess so, Lee. Letís go."
"Flying Sub or commercial?"
"Neither. A charter. Itís waiting at the airport."
Lee whistled, then frowned.
"Problem?" Harriman asked. He motioned to Angie, who left toward her bossís office.
"Iíve just gotten used to being a civilian when Iím not on the boat, Admiral."í
"Thatís why Iím glad I was invited, too. I kind of like having your services to myself, too."
With a soft chuckle, Lee grabbed an overnight duffle he kept in the closet of his office for just such occasions. Angie handed a similar one to the admiral as they strode down the hallway. They were met at the top of the stairs by the Executive Officer of Seaview, Lt. Commander Chip Morton. He was prepared for travel as well. He did not say a word, but followed his superiors down the stairs.
"Merry Christmas, Angie," the admiral called over his shoulder. "Give my greetings to your family."
"Yes, sir, and Merry Christmas to you, too. All of you."
They were in the air within an hour. Lee leaned back in the plush chair of the executive jet, trying to go to sleep, but that was elusive. What in the world were they being summoned to Atlanta for? Despite the admiralís reassurances, Lee couldnít help but think ONI was trying to get his hooks into him again.
"Thereís food in the hamper," Chip said merrily, balancing a plate with a sandwich and chips on top of a glass of egg nog.
"Serve you right if we were going to a surprise party."
"At midnight? No, I think Admiral Johnson is trying to haul your butt back into ONI. I am going to happily watch Admiral Nelson pin him to the wall."
"Who needs rates to spread scuttlebutt? You generate enough all by yourself," Lee said with a grin.
The jet hit a pocket of turbulence and Crane watched Chip juggle his snack. He had to admit; his exec only lost one potato chip. Lee figured that was only because he didnít want it to land in his drink.
Chip sat down quickly in the seat next to him, pulled the tray down and dug into his snack. "Why do you think weíre being summoned to Hotlanta in the middle of the night, Christmas Eve at that?"
"Dunno." Chip didnít ask any more questions and Lee was left to his own thoughts.
The jet arrived at eleven, local time. The pilot escorted them to a waiting limo and they whisked onto the freeway heading north. He had been to Atlanta before, several times, but never this late, so he wasnít sure exactly where they were when the limo pulled up to an office building. The driver led the way inside, past two guards standing alert in an empty lobby. The trio was motioned to the elevator. Two more guards were waiting when they arrived at their floor. Again they were motioned on their way. The admiral led the way down the dimly lit hallway to the only office with any lights on. A large metal plate announced the Swiss Consulate, Atlanta Office. A guard was standing in front of the door. He turned the knob and motioned them in.
It was silent in the reception room with only a tiny lamp giving light. Lee felt chills going up and down his spine. A similar light barely lit the inner room, making it feel like a Halloween invitation rather than a Christmas one. He reflected back to Chipís explanation and suddenly it didnít seem as far-fetched. They all paused.
"You are expected," the guard behind them said, his voice spectral, but faintly familiar in the dim office.
"Expected for whatóa court-martial?" Chip muttered.
The guard chuckled, but said nothing else. Lee turned the knob and pushed open the door. He sensed others in the larger room but before he could say anything, bright lights came on. He was momentarily blinded, but the first thing he noted was a brightly lit Christmas tree occupying one corner. Near it stood a table with a variety of finger foods and drinks. After this bit of stress, Lee hoped the eggnog was spiked.
"I am so glad you came!" cried an adolescent voice. They turned and saw King Ang. "I wish it could have been bigger than this."
"We couldnít resist the invitation," the admiral responded drily, but he was smiling. "But why all the cloak and dagger secrecy?"
"Because there has been an attempt on His Highnessí life," an older man replied. Seeing their confusion, he added. "I am Dieter Bangerter, the Swiss consul. When the king insisted on honoring you with a Christmas celebration, this was the compromise which your government decided."
Another man joined them. Lee didnít recognize him, but the admiral apparently did.
"Michael! Itís been ages, you old pencil pusher!"
By this time, Ang had steered Lee over to the refreshment table. "They didnít want to do this, but I insisted. I was not going to ignore those who had saved me many times."
Lee noticed Rinjin nearby, now in Marjistan livery.* Probably he was the kingís aide now or something similar. He nodded to the former mechanic. "Your Highness, I hope this isnít putting you in any more danger." He wondered if the kid was ever going to have any peace.
"If I cannot enjoy time with friends; if I must always hide, then life is not worth continuing."
A guard approached. "Well said, my young friend." This time the lilt of the manís voice was instantly recognizable. Old John pulled off his jacket. As before his clothes were simple and unassuming.
"John!" Ang cried. He ran and hugged the older man.
The consul and American looked alarmed.
"This man is completely safe," Lee reassured the men. "He has helped His Highness on several occasions and saved my life as well."
They visibly relaxed when the admiral added his assurance.
"Ah, lad, you have grown even from the last time I saw ye," John boomed.
"I still have your flute, John. I have practiced on it quite a bit, but I donít think I will ever be able to play like you do."
"I doubt that greatly, me boy. You keep playing and youíll soon have the birds singing your praises. Still, tis the season to celebrate, so I will play a few songs before I go." He pulled a flute identical to the one he had played so long ago on Seaview. "Ye wouldnía have yours with you, would ye?"
With a grin, Ang pulled out his flute, the only thing he had been able to bring with him when he fled his country the previous summer.
John began What Child is This. Ang followed hesitantly, then more steadily as he picked up the tune. No one else said a word as the pair played the haunting melody.
"Sing along, if ye know the words," John suggested when he took a breath.
What child is this, who, laid to rest,
So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh,
John lay his flute down for a moment and looked the three newcomers directly in the eye. Whatever ye may think of me, tis only one what gets my devotion." He grinned and began playing again; Jingle Bells, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and a few others before he put the pipe down for good.
Lee handed him a cup of wassail. "Thanks, John."
"Merry Christmas to ye all. I must be going along."
"Will I see you again, John?" Ang asked. This time he remained composed.
"Of course, mílad. I will be piping at your proper coronation, maybe even at your wedding."
"Wedding?" Ang made a face. "But I will expect you at my reinstatement; in my country."
John winked and strode out of the room.
Ang sighed. Lee leaned over, "Merry Christmas, Your Highness. Iím glad you asked us to share it with you."
"I was hoping you would all be here."
Lee knew he also meant Old John. "It made the celebration complete having him here."
"It did." There was a determined gleam in the boyís eye. He seemed even more grown up and ready to take on the world.
Lee almost felt sorry for the Trilean conquerors who had taken over Angís country. Nope, he thought, they deserved what they got. And so would Angís people when the rightful king was finally able to return home.
"Merry Christmas," Admiral Nelson broke into his reverie. "And a happy New Year."
"Amen," Lee added.
*Rinjin was introduced in the story One Last Time, which this vignette follows.