“They said there’d be snow at Christmas,
They said there’d be peace on Earth,
But instead it just kept on raining
A veil of tears for the virgin birth…”
Kate leaned across and switched the radio off. It must have been at least the fourth time they’d played that record since they set off from home three hours ago. There were more irritating Christmas songs – there was always something about Noddy Holder’s voice that made her want to break something – but it was starting to wear a bit thin. She peered out into the darkness through the drizzle smacking against the windscreen before it was lazily smeared away by the intermittent wipers and allowed herself a small smile. The song was right about it always raining at Christmas.
In the passenger seat her son stirred and yawned sleepily. She made a small mental bet with herself what his first words would be.
“Are we there yet?”
She smiled again. We have a winner…
“Almost. We’ve just reached the outskirts of town. Five more minutes, maybe ten.”
He leaned forward to look out of the glass, the soft glow from the dashboard casting his drowsy face with Christmas hues of green and red. The puppy fat was starting to smooth out, and she detected more than a hint of his father’s jawline showing through. He certainly had his eyes, soft and watchful, an introspective stare. She hoped it went no deeper than that. There were some family traits she hoped he’d never inherit.
“It’s still raining, then.”
He sighed, softly. “Does it ever snow at Christmas here?”
"I like snow."
"I like it too, except when I have to drive through it."
"Oh. I didn't think of that."
"That's all right."
“I expect it’s snowing in Geneva, though, isn't it.”
She felt a pang. A cold one at that.
“I expect so. Are you sorry you came with me and didn’t go off with grandpa?”
He was ominously quiet for a moment. The chill increased.
“No,” he said finally. “I like it here.” Her turned his face towards her and smiled. “I like it when it’s just the two of us.”
She smiled back. The chill evaporated.
“I like it here too.” She reached out and gently tousled his hair. “Especially when I’m with you.”
“Aw, mum, don’t.” He made a play of squirming out of her grasp, but she could tell he was as pleased as she was.
They bumped along in warm silence for a moment, and then he pointed suddenly.
“Look! There’s the old pub on the corner. I can see the climbing frame.”
She made a play of looking out. “Oh yes, so it is. I think it’s bit dark and cold and damp for climbing on, though.”
“I wasn’t dropping a hint, actually," he said with mild disapproval. "Can we have lunch there one day?”
He leaned forward and squinted. “Have they got new lights for Christmas?”
The dingy sodium glow of the street light by the tiny carpark in the front of the building had indeed been supplanted by something new – flashing blue and white lights, mounted on top of a police patrol car parked across the bays. Kate narrowed her eyes suspiciously.
“No, I don’t think those are Christmas lights.”
“Oh! Is that a police car?”
“Is someone in trouble?”
“Probably. I expect it’s just a case of someone taking on a little too much of the Christmas spirit, that’s all. Don’t stare, dear. It might not be very nice to look at.”
Despite her advice to her son, she found she was slowing down as they went past and doing exactly that herself. Rubbernecking was clearly an instinctive thing. She tried not to do more than glance at what was happening in the carpark, but something rather more than gallows curiosity made her look a little more closely.
Four or five people were standing in the pub entrance, glasses in hand, gawping on as two police officers, burly and anonymous in their peaked caps and thick raincoats, were delicately manoeuvring a tall figure into the back of their car. She only caught a glimpse of the person, a gaunt, dishevelled man with a very short, military style haircut that accented his prominent ears, but their eyes met, and she experienced another pang. An odd one at that.
“Are you all right?”
“What was it? I didn’t see.”
“Just a man. Nothing else to see, really.”
But she leaned her foot on the accelerator and soon the pub was far behind them in the dark.
The man’s face lingered, though.
The cottage had been in the family for years. Her father had bought it not long after his colonelcy – his “Norfolk retreat”, he always called it, “somewhere to exercise the Black Dog.” It took her years before she understood what he’d really meant by that, and by then, she had a Black Dog of her own.
It wasn’t much more than a simple two-up, two-down, but it had all the mod-cons, except – and very deliberately – a telephone. “I don’t want any distractions here,” her father always said. But they turned up all the same, one way or another.
There was a large open garden that backed into a wood where in her childhood – such as it was - she’d spent many a happy hour playing. It was also within “good yomping distance” of the beach, should the weather ever improve. She somehow doubted it would, but it was nice to have the option. Even in this weather, the sea still had a certain fascination.
The cottage was furnished sparsely but comfortably, antique only in age rather than value. ‘Lived-In’ more than accurately described it now, though when her mother had been around, it was far more spick-and-span. Not that her father wasn't house-proud, he was simply more interested in being comfortable rather than stylish.
There were surprisingly few mementoes and nick-nacks from its owner’s military past – a couple of regimental photos, a few pieces of vintage brass shell-casings on the mantelpiece and that was about it. Kate was always rather glad that her father didn’t bring too much of his working life into this home, anyway.
The place was looked after by a caretaker who, before retirement, had served with her father back in his “Blood and Thunder Days” - one of the lucky survivors from those days, she supposed. He’d evidently given the place a good going over just before they arrived, for the cottage smelt of fresh paint and Dettol rather than stale air and damp linen, and the fire was all laid in with a full basket of logs beside it. She lost little time in lighting that, and soon the cottage was full of the cheerier aroma of wood smoke and the warm crackle and whoosh of the fire gradually closed out the chill hammer of the rain against the window panes.
The rest of the evening was spent unloading the car and stocking the grumbling old fridge-freezer and the big walk-in larder for the week ahead. Her son approached the task with an enthusiasm fuelled by two-parts curiosity at what she’d brought in the way of supplies (she detected a slight wrinkling of his nose at her choice of Christmas crackers) and one-part wanting to get out of the rain, which had increased its ferocity since their arrival. She made a small prayer that the caretaker had been keeping an eye on the roof – one or two of the slates looked decidedly dodgy.
Once all was aboard, she fetched out a large battered cardboard box full of Christmas things from the cupboard under the stairs. Most of the decorations, not least of all the tree, were older than she was, but sentiment overlaid a rose-tinted hue to the battered baubles and the tatty tinsel bought decades ago from shops that no longer existed. Just the touch of one or two of them brought back bitter-sweet memories... and a lump to her throat.
Instead of wallowing in nostalgia, she busied herself in the kitchen and left her son with the rest of the box to dress the tree and the room. He always seemed to enjoy it - he was a lot more creative and imaginative than she ever was. She hoped he'd remain that way. It would be nice to have a genuine artist in the family for a change…
She’d settled on a couple of pizzas for supper for convenience and to save on washing up, and was trying to ignore the bottle of wine on the worktop while she prepared them. She fully intended to put it away in the cupboard after she took it out of the box but of course she’d ‘forgotten’.
She wished she could forget the bottle. But then there were a lot of things she’d rather forget. Pretending that the bottle could assist with that wasn’t exactly helping either.
Still… it is Christmas. It is cold, and it’s been a long drive. I think I’ve earned a drink. Right?
“Just one,” she murmured, opening the cupboard where the glasses were kept. “Just the one…”
As her fingers closed around a tumbler there came a knocking at the front door. She heard rustle of tinsel and a tinny clatter as some decoration or another bounced to the floor, followed by a childish but mild oath from her son.
“Mum!” he called irritably. “Someone at the door!”
“All right, I heard. I’m coming.”
Sighing, she turned and moved out of the kitchen and towards the hallway. With any luck, it was simply someone lost and in need of direction. She certainly wasn’t expecting visitors. Her father and his wife were tucked away in Geneva, as they inevitably were at this time of year. All of her friends were with their families, observing Christmas in their own ways. Her ex was somewhere in Scotland with his latest beau. Would he remember to phone tomorrow and wish Gordy a happy Christmas this year, or would he forget like last year? She wasn’t sure if Gordy cared any longer if he did either. She supposed that should have worried her, but…
No, she couldn’t think of anyone else who’d want to crash their Christmas, unless…
She suddenly thought of that man in the car park again, and she found herself glancing back towards the living room, where her handbag was resting on the dining table. In the handbag was something she hated and resented very deeply, not least because of what it was and what it did, but also because of what it made her feel like for having to carry it around.
Let alone having to actually shoot someone with the pistol.
Instead she steeled herself.
I am not going to over-react. I will not get it out and stick it down my waist-band like some gangster. Not with Gordy in the room. It’s Christmas, for God’s sake.
“Maybe it’s carol singers.”
Her son’s voice behind her made her jump slightly, and she turned and frowned at him.
“Perhaps. Gordy, please stay in the living room.”
He frowned too, perhaps seeing in her expression some of the apprehension she was feeling.
“Is everything okay?”
“I’m sure it is. Just go back inside, please.” She managed a smile. “Okay?”
“Okay.” He turned, with a little reluctance, and went back inside the living room.
Taking a deep breath, she moved to the door, and opened it.
Two men were crowded into the narrow wooden vestibule which afforded scant protection from the stinging winter rain. One of the men she recognised; he was wearing a heavy black police overcoat with sergeant stripes on the shoulders and a peaked cap which he took off respectfully when she opened the door, revealing a short fuzz of grey hair above a weather-beaten, pleasantly ugly face that belonged to the kind of amiable local Bobby who seldom these days existed outside the archives of George Dixon and Fancy Smith. He belonged to the little station located in the town, and likely had worked there all his life. She’d seen him a few times down the years, once, in the days before mobile phones, when he’d come calling on her father to import some dread message that had him packing them all up and scuttling back to London, all the way making profuse apologies and excuses to increasingly deaf ears. Another nail in the coffin of his marriage…
The other man she didn’t know; he was smaller, darker skinned with a neatly trimmed professorial moustache and beard and sombre grey eyes behind steel framed spectacles beaded with water. The rain had plastered his black hair across his forehead and darkened the hunched shoulders of his fawn-coloured raincoat several shades browner. He appeared to be carrying a doctor’s bag, unless her eyes were deceiving her.
Both were trying to smile, but in that unconvincing, bearer-of-bad-news way that she knew only too well. She’d had to use it herself a few times down the years.
She was suddenly very tempted just to slam the door in their faces, lock it tightly and retreat to the living room with her son and pretend nothing else existed.
But she didn’t.
“Good evening, Dr Stewart. Sorry to trouble you at this hour.” The sergeant spoke with a local drawl that usually sounded pleasantly amiable, but there was a noticeable strain in his tone to match the look on his face that didn’t bode well.
Perhaps it’s my father, she thought dismally. Perhaps that’s why they’re here. Something has happened to him. I knew I shouldn’t have kept my phone switched off…
She kept her tone neutral. “Good evening. Sergeant… Bayliss, isn’t it?”
“That’s right, ma’am. This is Dr Choudhury. He’s a local GP, helps us out when needed.”
The small man raised a hand as if to doff a cap or tug a forelock. He had a softer voice with a sing-song accent. “Good evening. Sorry to disturb you.”
The wind suddenly caught the rain and battered it around them, making them all duck instinctively. Kate stepped back and ushered them inside, courtesy over-riding her reluctance… and dark suspicion.
“Please, don’t stand out there in the rain. Come inside. Can I offer you a drink? Tea, coffee, or something stronger?”
The sergeant looked tempted, as policemen usually do when offered refreshment, but the doctor answered for him with a glum but very definite shake of his head.
“Thank you, no. I’m afraid this isn’t what you might call a social call.”
Kate closed the door behind them, her heart sinking. “Oh?”
“I’m afraid so, ma’am.” The sergeant paused, and suddenly raised his eyebrows and smiled broadly at something behind her. “Hello there. It’s Gordon, isn’t it?”
Kate turned to find her son peering at them curiously from the living room doorway. She turned back to the sergeant.
“Yes, that’s my son. Gordy, do you remember Sergeant Bayliss? And this is Dr Choudhury.”
Gordy goggled at them both. “Are they here to arrest us?”
The sergeant chuckled. “No, don’t you worry now, son. We’d just like a word with your mother, that’s all.” He glanced back at Kate and his smile thinned. "In private, if you would."
Kate motioned to the boy. “Gordy, go back in the living room and finish decorating the tree, please. I’m sure we won’t be long. Close the door behind you to keep the fire in. I don't want you catching a chill.”
"Okay," he sighed.
She waited until he’d gone back inside and closed the door behind him, and then turned to the sergeant. She kept her voice low.
“Is this about my father?”
He cleared his throat and shuffled his big feet rather embarrassedly.
“Um, no. No, it’s nothing to do with your father at all.”
She felt a small surge of relief. “Oh. Oh, well… good. Well... what… what can I do for you, then?”
He began awkwardly turning his cap between his large fingers. “Well, it’s just… well, we rather need your help, actually.”
“Perhaps if we explained what we are doing here, then,” began the doctor softly but rather tersely, putting his bag down and removing his glasses and wiping at them a little too briskly with a handkerchief that looked as damp as his raincoat.
“If you could,” she replied with forced patience. “It is Christmas Eve and rather late in the evening. We've had a long drive and we're both very tired.” She frowned darkly. “Is it my office? Have they called you, or something? I’m sorry, I must have forgotten to switch my phone back on.” Actually she hadn’t forgotten at all, but she wasn’t going to tell them that.
“No. No ma’am, nothing like that. It’s… well…” The sergeant shot a look at the doctor which was almost pleading. The doctor squinted up at the sergeant, frowned and put his glasses back on.
“We have something of a situation back at the station,” the doctor said. “Something which… appears to involve you, I’m afraid.”
“Me? How? We’ve only just arrived.” She forced a smile. “I don’t think I tripped any speed cameras on the way.”
“Oh! Oh no, nothing like that, ma’am," replied the sergeant, "nothing like that at all. You’re not in any trouble, no, I assure you.”
“Then what is this about?”
The sergeant looked at the doctor again, but he had taken his glasses off again and started rubbing more vigorously than ever. Both men were obviously extremely embarrassed – or even nervous – about something. So nervous and embarrassed that they could barely talk about it. But what?
The sergeant coughed and cleared his throat again. “Well… this evening, at around half past seven, we had a call to the Tyburn Arms on the main road into town. Perhaps you know it?”
“Yes, we drove past it this evening.” She frowned. “Half past seven you say?”
“That’s right. Why?”
“Well, we drove past the pub at about that time, and we saw two of your men putting someone into their car.”
The sergeant and the doctor exchanged a look. “That would have been him, then,” said the sergeant, more to the doctor than her.
“The gentleman in question,” replied the sergeant.
“Who is he?”
“We don’t rightly know. He didn’t have any means of identification on him.”
“And you think I might know him?”
“Well… yes.. You see, he didn't say much after we got him, but he did ask for you by name.”
“Yes. Kate Lethbridge-Stewart. That is still your name, I take it?”
“Well, I do just go by Kate Stewart these days, actually, but… yes, that is still my full name. Look, I don’t think I recognised him, but then I didn’t see him for very long. Do you want me to help identify him, or something?”
“Something like that.”
There was a vagueness to that response she didn’t like at all.
“Well… can’t it wait?”
“Under normal circumstances, yes, I would have left it ‘til the morning, but with tomorrow being Christmas Day an’ all…”
“Yes, yes,” she sighed. “I take your point. But how does he know me? Did he say he was on his way to visit me?”
“He didn’t say that, no. He just said he knew you, and we were to seek you out.”
She blinked at them both for a moment. They both stared at their feet.
“What was he doing there, then? I mean, why did you arrest him?”
“Well, he was causing a bit of a scene, like,” explained the sergeant.
“What sort of a scene?”
“Well… he was upsetting the landlord. And the other patrons.”
“How? Was he violent?”
“Well, no, not violent, exactly, but he was behaving… well... oddly. Kept talking a load of gibberish. Landlord thought he was mebbe ‘on something’. You know, drugs.”
Kate glanced at the doctor. “Was he?”
“No,” replied the doctor shortly.
“You examined him after arresting him, then?”
“Oh yes. I examined him.”
Both men glanced at each other again, but both seemed reluctant to say anything. Kate sighed and folded her arms.
“Oh, come on. What is it you’re not telling me?”
“The man in question…” the doctor began haltingly, “displayed something I’ve never come across in over twenty years of medicine.”
A nasty chill feeling started to creep over her.
“What… what was that?”
“He… the man… is ectopic.”
“He has… a double heart-beat.”
Under the circumstances, Kate didn't want to leave her son in the cottage by himself, but the wily Sergeant Bayliss seemed to have already thought of that. There was a young WPC waiting in a police car outside, and Bayliss assured her that Gordy would be quite well looked after by the young lady in her absence. Gordy was as initially reluctant as Kate was, until Kate took him to one side and remarked that there were plenty of teenage boys in the land who would give their eye-teeth to spend Christmas Eve in the company of a pretty WPC. Girls might only had just begun to blink on his ten-year old radar, but the notion seemed to appeal, and Kate was satisfied that the girl seemed friendly and trustworthy enough.
Bayliss seemed pretty clued in about a lot of things, in fact. Dr Choudhury had been all for sounding all the official whistles and bells until he gently warded such notions off in favour of seeking her advice. Maybe her father had taken him into his confidence some time ago, especially in case of emergencies. He'd always put a lot of faith in salt-of-the-Earth NCO types, and for all his apparent awkwardness, he didn't seem the type to lose his head.
Choudhury, on the other hand, obviously had some notion that something big was in the offing, and he'd like to be a part of it; she’d seen it before when medics or scientists had this kind of carrot dangled in front of them. He was clearly irritated by the sergeant's intransigence, and now he had her to deal with. He especially didn't like the cloak-and-dagger aspect, and she could quite understand why. She could even sympathise.
“Some things need to be kept in the dark, however much we may wish to illuminate them,” he father always said. Oh, how often they argued about that…
"I would have liked to have taken a blood sample at least," Choudhury pouted during the drive back into town.
"I'm very glad that you didn't."
He took off his glasses and cleaned them again. This seemed to be something of a nervous habit for him, and one she was starting to find rather irritating. Without them, his face had a rather hungry, needful aspect, and there was more than a note of entitlement in his voice. Professional conceit, perhaps - he was obviously a man used to people doing things his way.
“I understand you work for a government department that deals with... unusual phenomena.”
“Actually it’s run by the United Nations rather than HMG. And I’m on something of a sabbatical from them at the moment.” Possibly permanently, she didn’t add.
“But… you do have experience in matters like this.”
“This sort of thing falls within their… our remit, yes. Doctor, I appreciate you co-operating with the sergeant like this, and I hope I can continue to count on this, but I’m sure you appreciate that something like this needs to be treated with some delicacy.”
“I did apprise Dr Choudhury of your position, ma’am,” Bayliss said from the driving seat.
"Thank you, sergeant."
But Choudhury really wasn’t happy. "I really don't see why, though."
“I assure you, Dr Choudhury, that I’m no fan of secrets myself. But I’m sure you appreciate that some matters need to be kept confidential. Particularly when it involves the health and safety of the community.”
He squinted at her. “Do you think there is such a threat?”
“Well, I won’t know until I’ve found out. Look…” She reached into her pocket and produced a plastic card. “Doctor, I’m going to give you this card. It has a number to call in case anything happens to me. It’s a direct line to some people I work with in London. They will ask you some questions - just tell them exactly what they want to know.”
“What happens then?”
“Then it becomes their problem, not ours.” She managed to smile and patted his arm. “Don’t worry about it, though. Probably nothing will happen at all. This is just a last resort. I’m sure it won’t come to that.”
I hope, she didn't add. At that moment, she really wasn't at all sure about anything any longer.
I wish I’d had that drink after all…
At least there weren’t many other witnesses. The station was likely sparsely occupied at the best of times; let alone Christmas Eve when most people were tucked up at home with their families.
Bayliss’s staff appeared to consist of one pensive looking PC leaning on the front counter, and another guarding a locked interview room just down the corridor from the front office. She could guess who was in there.
"You didn’t put him in a cell?"
"No room at the inn,” the sergeant joked feebly. “We’ve only the two cells, and there’s a couple of drunks sleeping it off in them," explained Bayliss. "Dr Choudhury was giving them the once over when we brought our friend in. I could move 'em if you like."
"No. The interview room is fine." She gave him a searching look. "Are any of your men armed?”
"No. Didn’t seem necessary.” He rubbed his jaw nervously. “Do you want them to be? Normally I'd need authorisation from County, but on your say so I could -"
Kate shook her head some vehemence. "No. No guns. In my experience, they're seldom any use anyway. You said he's not been violent, anyway."
"Yet," murmured Choudhury bleakly.
Kate gave him a baleful look. “I think if he meant any harm, he wouldn’t have allowed himself to be brought here.”
"Kicking off at the Tyburn Arms doesn't strike me as much of a prelude to an invasion," remarked Bayliss with a grin.
It was Choudhury's turn to give him a baleful look. “Unless it’s a trick.”
“We’ll see,” replied Kate.
They walked up to the door. Kate felt more apprehensive than she'd ever felt before. It took all of her self-control not to snatch the card from Choudhury and put in that call for help herself.
But she didn't. She couldn't explain why, even afterwards - it was protocol, after all. Perhaps she'd just had enough of protocol. Perhaps she wanted to prove it wasn't necessary, as she’d been saying all along.
“Why are we always pointing guns at things? Why do we never just talk to them first?”
Her father always used to just roll his eyes.
That was it. Perhaps... just perhaps... there was something in that man's eyes that reminded her of something. Something she hadn't felt in a long time.
And then she realised. It wasn't apprehension she was feeling. It was excitement. Something she thought the job had killed a long time ago.
The PC guarding the door nodded at them as they approached. He kept his voice low.
"He's not said another word. I don't think he's even moved."
"You've been keeping an eye on him?"
"Oh aye. Took him in another cuppa five minutes ago.” He grinned. “He likes his tea, I'll give him that. He's had four since he got here."
“Would you get another? One for me, too, please.”
He glanced at Bayliss for assurance, who nodded. The man turned and hurried off down the corridor.
"Do you want us to go in there with you?" asked Bayliss.
"No. But I would like to borrow your bag, doctor. Check for myself."
With some reluctance Choudhury passed his bag across.
"I still think we should notify County HQ," he grumbled.
"No, doctor. It's better if I try to deal with it first. I do know what I'm doing. And if something - God forbid - does go wrong, just call that number. All right?"
He sighed, but he nodded all the same.
The PC came back with a small tray bearing a couple of plastic cups brimming with steaming tea. Kate tucked the doctor’s bag under her arm and took the tray from him. She nodded to Bayliss.
"All right, sergeant, open up."
"Okay. Just yell if you need us. We'll be right here."
She winked. "Oh I'll do more than yell.”
Bayliss grinned and motioned to the PC. He unlocked the door, and Kate opened it and went through, closing it behind her.
Her first impression wasn’t all that great. But then her father’s hadn’t been either. He’d told her all about the first time they’d met, and the grisly circumstances behind it. At least she wasn’t pointing a pistol at him.
She'd often wondered what she would do, what she would say, when she did finally meet him...
Or what he would do, and what he would say to her.
He didn't look all that impressive, a lot like the ‘squaddie on the trot’ impression she’d gained from her sighting at the pub. The bony face was gaunt, almost vulpine, the crew cut almost painfully short. But then he never looked impressive. She wondered if that was part of the point. All the same, there was still some stand-out quality to the man. The eyes... yes, it was definitely the eyes.
"Whatever face he wears," her father had always said, "his eyes remain the same. Not the colour, specifically, but just the way he looks at you. He knows. That's all. He just knows."
The man sitting at the table in front of her, clutching a half-empty cup of luke-warm police tea, clad in a shabby leather overcoat and a grubby green pullover, was looking at her exactly that way. Oh, he knew, all right.
His tone was soft but it gave the impression of being deliberately set to a low volume. It was accented, slightly, which did surprise her, though she knew it shouldn't.
"You do know me, then?"
"I don't think we've ever met before."
He looked off into the distance for a moment. "No, I don't think we have. At least, I don't remember if we did. I just know you, that’s all."
She set the tray carefully down on the table, put the bag down and pulled the chair out, but didn’t sit down yet. "How?"
"Your dad. Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. The Brigadier. Half expected I'd see him here, today, actually."
He just shrugged. "Reasons. Where is he, then?"
"Geneva. What reasons are they?"
He ignored her question. "Geneva, as always. Still on the job, then?"
He pushed the half-empty cup aside and reached for a new one. "But the torch has been passed."
Kate sat down. "I wouldn't go so far as to say that."
"Ah. Like that, is it?”
Again he ignored her, just took a sip of tea. He smacked his lips appreciatively. “How is your dad then, these days?"
"You don't approve."
She blinked at him in surprise. "I beg your pardon?"
"You never did. I suppose it's because of your mother. The divorce, and all that."
"I don't dislike his wife," she replied stiffly.
"But you're not spending Christmas with him. Them."
"No." She shifted in her seat. "I wanted to spend Christmas this year with my son. By ourselves."
"Oh yeah. Gordy. Nice lad."
"He is.” She leaned forward. “You do seem to know a lot about me, but I don't know anything at all about you."
He smiled innocently. "Don't you?"
"Well, I do know there's a doctor the other side of the door that says you have two hearts."
"Yeah, I know,” he chuckled. “You shoulda seen the look on his face!"
"Yes, he's not a happy bunny. Would you, uh, mind if I verify that for myself?"
"Not at all…”
She reached down for the bag, but froze when he spoke again.
She stared at him. "But?"
"Would you mind wearing gloves?"
"My hands are clean."
"That's not what I mean."
"What do you mean, then?"
"I'd rather you didn't touch me."
“Are you infectious?”
“I’ve been told my smile is.”
She managed to keep a straight face. “Did Dr Choudhury wear gloves?”
“No, but then he doesn’t know me. You do.”
“Ah. So it’s personal.”
“Something like that.”
She let her smile out. “Am I that repulsive, then?"
He looked embarrassed. "Get away! It's nothing like that. It's just...” and he gestured vaguely, “reasons."
“To do with personal contact. Between us, specifically.”
She thought for a moment, and then nodded. "Very well, then. Just to please you, I'll wear gloves.”
She took a pair of latex gloves from the box inside the bag and put them on, then stood up and moved carefully round to him with the stethoscope. He smiled obligingly and lifted up his jumper. She leaned forward and gingerly applied the instrument to his skin, suddenly very conscious of how close they now were. He didn't look at her, but looked up at the ceiling, a enigmatic smile playing about his mouth. She'd have loved to known what he was thinking. Or then again, maybe it's best I didn't...
And there it was. Unmistakable. Two hearts, beating away. Strong and steady.
"So," he said after a long moment.
She went back round and sat down. She had to, as her legs were beginning to feel decidedly shaky suddenly.
"What are you thinking?"
“You tell me. You appear to know everything else.”
"You’re thinking I’m an extra-terrestrial."
"I am. And?"
"You’re thinking I’m may be a particular kind of extra-terrestrial."
"What might that be, then?"
“And are you?”
He shrugged. "Used to be."
"Why only 'used to be'?"
His gaze flickered, and rather self-consciously he reached for his tea again. "Reasons."
"Which you won't give."
"Which I can't give," he said into his cup.
He took a swig, rolled it round his mouth, and then put the cup down and tapped his temple. "Memory. Don’t remember."
"Ah. I've heard of this before. It’s post-regenerative amnesia, isn’t it? You’ve changed, very recently."
“Clever old Kate. Yes, I have. But that’s not why I don’t remember.”
"Why is it then?"
He put the cup down carefully. "Because… I'm not sure I want to remember."
"But you remember me. You remember my father."
"Oh, I remember all about you. Other people, other places, that’s all there.” He looked down at the desk, face creasing slightly. “I just… I just don't remember who I am." He looked up again, and his eyes were burning. “I don’t remember, because I don’t want to remember.”
"Why? No, let me guess – reasons.”
She sighed and folded her arms. "What am I to do, then?"
He shrugged "What do you want to do?"
"Find out if you are who I think… I hope… you are."
He raised his eyebrows. “Hope I am?”
She grinned crookedly. “Reasons.”
He laughed for a moment, and then he became very serious.
"What if… I don't want you to find out?"
“You’d stop me?”
He picked up his cup and took another swig. He didn’t meet her eyes.
"That… might lead to some people making some nasty assumptions," she added ominously.
She picked up her cup and swirled the liquid inside it around. “People I… used to work with. You know who.”
"Well, I thought I did. What assumptions might they be making then, Kate?"
"That you're not who I would hope you to turn out to be."
"Perhaps I'm not. Or at least, not any longer."
"Perhaps. We do know of several other Time Lords. Not all of them are as... benevolent, as some."
He laughed again, a little bitterly she thought. "Well, I'm not the Master, am I,” he began carelessly. “No beard, for a kick-off. And I'm definitely not the Rani. I mean, haven't got... well... two of those, have I?” He gestured to her chest.
She frowned at him disapprovingly. "Crude."
"Maybe I am now. Or maybe I always was, if I’m not the person you hope I am."
"Well. Maybe we ought to find out for sure."
"How?" He leaned forward, eyes glittering. “What are you gonna do, eh? Fly me off to some secret lab, open me up and have a poke about? Pump me full chemicals and make me blab?”
She set her cup down with an angry clatter, making tea slosh all over the table-top. “I thought you said you knew me.”
“Then you know that’s the last thing I’d ever do.” She paused reflectively. “It’s the last thing my father would have done, too.”
“I know,” he sighed.
"Then tell me why you asked me to come here!" She found she was nearly shouting now, and forced herself to calm down. Getting angry wasn't going to help.
"Because I know you. And because you know me."
"Do I? I am starting to wonder."
He just grinned. "That’s a start.”
“Wondering about things. See, it’s all about the choices, innit."
"For you, and for me."
She felt suddenly uncomfortable under his searching gaze. "I really don't know what you mean."
"I think you do.” He leaned forward to stare even closer at her. “You want to jack it all in, don't you? Get on with something better than what your dad did. Not go down the same route of failed marriages and broken homes that he went through. Not put your son through the same things you suffered growing up."
She stared back at him open-mouthed. "How do you know..."
He just shook his head. And she remembered what her father said.
He knows. That’s all. He just knows.
“Maybe I am,” she replied slowly.
"No maybe about it, is there?"
She flicked irritably at the side of her cup, making the tea splash. "And what about you? Eh? What are you thinking of jacking-in, then?"
He gestured vaguely. "What I was before. What I could be, still. History repeating itself. Just like for you."
"Failed marriages and broken homes?"
"In a sense. Only on a slightly grander scale in my case, of course."
He held up his hands. "No, I'm not belittling what you’ve gone through, honest, ‘cause I know you’ve had a bad time of it. It’s just… look, I've had a millenia of it. A thousand years of… of failed relationships and broken homes. Or the time traveler's equivalent, at least. How do you think I feel?"
“I can’t even begin to imagine,” she replied softly and honestly, “and I won’t pretend to try. But what’s your alternative?"
"Same as yours,” he shrugged. “Something else."
“Remains to be seen, don’t it? That’s the problem.”
"But change, anyway."
"Change isn't always better… is it?"
"Well, there'd be no butterflies without it."
"That's not what I mean."
He looked at her earnestly. "What do you mean, then, Kate?"
Her face twisted slightly. "I mean... change for changes sake. Simply because... you're hurt. Tired. Lonely. Even though you know... what you're changing to... isn't the right thing to do. And that that choice you make... will haunt you. Because you’re turning your back on something… something that did work. Something that could work again, if you… if you tried to make it do so again."
“Like your mum and your dad,” he observed gently.
“I suppose so,” she sighed. “I suppose so.”
He stared at her for a moment, and then a broad smile spread slowly across his face.
"I think we see the light, don’t we?"
She narrowed her eyes at him. "Oh, what…? Is that what this is about? You persuading me not to make that choice?" She shook her head. “Dad was right about you being a devious, manipulative git sometimes.”
"Maybe I was, but you’re misinterpreting me now. I don’t think it’s about you. I don’t think it’s about me, either. I think it’s maybe it's about both of us. Persuading each other, like. Kindred spirits at a crossroads, staring into the face of adversity."
"Is that what we are?"
"That's how it feels."
There was silence for a moment.
"What do you want to do?" she asked.
"What do you want to do?"
"I asked first!"
He smiled, and then he slowly reached his hand out.
"Take your gloves off."
She considered for a moment, then complied, tossing them aside.
"Now… gimme your hand."
She started to hold it out, and then hesitated.
"Are you sure?"
He looked squarely at her. "Are you?"
She thought for a moment.
She smiled back.
"Yes. Yes, I am."
She reached out. He grasped her hand.
There was faint prickle, like a static shock, that made them both twitch in their seats. She blinked, and a blur of sound and images, too fast and loud for her to comprehend, seem to flash through her mind. She blinked again, and it was gone.
They let go and leaned back in their seats, breathing slightly heavily suddenly.
"Are you... all right?" she finally asked.
"Yeah,” he nodded. “You?"
"I think so."
"Well, I think so too. In fact, I think… I feel great. Fantastic, even!"
He stood up suddenly and started bounding enthusiastically around the room, arms and legs pumping, grinning from ear to ear. Then he stopped next to her, and thrust his hand out again, still grinning wildly.
"How do you do, Kate Stewart,” he announced crisply. “I don't think we've ever been introduced. I'm the Doctor."
She couldn’t help but grin back. He was right - it was infectious.
"I know,” she said.
"And best of all,” he laughed, “Now I know too!"
And she started to laugh as well. Long, loud peals of happy, joyful laughter.
The door suddenly swung open and Bayliss burst into the room, Choudhury and the PC crowding the doorway behind him.
“Is everything okay?” he asked breathlessly.
Kate grinned at him.
“It is now,” she said.
Sergeant Bayliss was content to write the whole thing off.
“It’s Christmas,” he said. “A lot of bloody funny things always happen at Christmas.”
She couldn’t help but agree.
Dr Choudhury grumbled, but then he had loftier notions than an ordinary copper only interested in patrolling his beat. Bayliss assured Kate he’d straighten things out.
"He's not a bad bloke really. Just a bit... bored. Stuck in a rut. Looking for a bit of change. You know."
She knew only too well.
The rain at least had stopped when they walked out of the police station. Side by side they walked down the street,Kate having turned down the offer of a lift home simply as an excuse to spend a bit more time in his company. For she knew that time was precious, his more so than hers. Though he’d have never agreed with that.
"What will you do now?" she asked.
He was looking up at the sky through a patch in the clouds, where a solitary star was twinkling millions of light years ago. She wondered if he’d ever visited it.
"Go find the TARDIS. Try again."
"Try again, not start again?"
"No. This isn’t so much of a beginning, as a continuation. I started this all a long, long time ago, see. Now, I've just got to go and pick up where I left off."
She studied him closely in the dim winter coldness. "Where was that? I know it was somewhere bad, wasn't it? Something so bad that reduced you to... to this."
He came to a stop and smiled one of his rare, 1,000 year old smiles at her. "You're a very perceptive woman, Kate Stewart."
She stopped and blushed, despite the cold. "Oh, I guess I’m just a chip off the old block."
"I'm glad you see it that way now."
"Yes. Yes, I think I do too.” She licked her lips nervously. “Doctor..."
He turned his face away from her. "I can’t talk about it, Kate,” he replied sadly. “Not yet. I’m ready to be me again, but I’m not… not ready to talk about that. Please… please don’t ask.”
She found she had to swallow before speaking again. “No, it wasn’t about that. I want to ask you something else.”
He squinted at her suspiciously. “I know we bonded a little tonight, but I’m a bit long in tooth for marriage, y’know.”
She had to laugh. “God forbid! No, listen… seriously. Why not... why not come back home with me. Gordy would love to meet you. Spend Christmas with us."
He stared down at his feet and scuffed at the pavement shyly. "Oh, you don't want me hangin’ about. Right misery guts, I am. Especially at Christmas. You do know ol’ Charlie Dickens based Scrooge on me, right?"
"Oh, don’t be silly. Look, what else are you going to do?"
"I told you. Find the TARDIS.”
“I dunno! Just... drift. Like I always do."
She stood in front of him and took his hands and squeezed them. "No one should be alone at Christmas, Doctor. You least of all."
He blinked at her, and opened and closed his mouth a few times. Then he smiled awkwardly.
"I haven’t got you a present, though."
She smiled warmly back.
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.”
Warmth in his smile too, and then he squeezed her hands.
"You just reminded me of something else."
"Why humans are my favorite species."
Arm in arm, they turned and hurried off down the street towards the warmth and light of the cottage, and Christmas.
As they passed one of house, soft music swelled and drifted from within, seeming to trail in their wake, echoing slightly in the breeze as a male voice began to sing:
“I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave new year
All anguish, pain, and sadness
Leave your heart, let your road be clear
They said there'd be snow at Christmas
They said there'll be peace on Earth
Hallelujah, Noel, be it heaven or hell
The Christmas we get, we deserve.”
‘I Believe in Father Christmas’ lyrics by Greg Lake.
edited for spelling & punktuation.