By Martin Ross
Category: Holiday, historical
Rating: PG-13 for violence
Summary: Christmas 1957: Cold War waged on, Hollywood’s Master of Suspense was riding on a tide of box office success, and a pair of unlikely conspirators were about to experience a key shift in the battle for Man’s survival.
Disclaimer: Mulder, Scully, and their colleagues in skullduggery were created by Chris Carter. Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, and their colleagues in good-natured deception are portrayed here in fictional (?) form.
“Do you enjoy a good riddle?” Hitchcock asked Cary Grant.
“Not after three of these,” the actor mused, swirling his ebbing gin martini. “But I’ll bite.”
Grant was one of the few actors the famed director had ever loved or respected, and amid this pack of narcissistic method actors and Hollywooden artistes and beatniks, Hitch had clung to the former Archibald Leach like the lifeboat of his 1944 melodrama.
The pair had conspired on the flagstone patio of the Southern California bungalow Hitch and Alma had rented for the winter. For his own part, the graying matinee idol had played a Hitchcockian game of cat-and-mouse all evening to avoid Ian Fleming, a middle-aged writer of exotic potboilers who’d been after Grant to play his womanizing, martini-swilling spyboy – a character for whom he reportedly had been the model.
Grant had been hip-deep in Hitchcock’s latest, North by Northwest, and was beginning to tire of contrived cloak-and-dagger hokum – even the refined hokum Hitchcock so effortlessly turned out. Of late, he’d entertained retiring from the film scene, though he hadn’t yet dropped that one on Sir Alfred. Hitchcock. His friend was only beginning to rally from the loss of Grace Kelly, who’d two years before surrendered the mantle of Hitchcock Blonde for a seat at the throne of Monaco.
“The two gentlemen by the bandstand, to the left of Mr. Welles,” Hitchcock intoned, staring into the brightly lit bungalow as if it were the sprawling screen of Graumann’s Chinese. “What would you make of them?”
Grant blinked away the effects of his third martini and considered the two tuxedoed men. The shorter, plump gentleman immediately caught the eye: The left side of his deeply-lined face was horribly disfigured, a long bone-white trench extending from his jowl across his sagging eye into his receding hairline. The scarred man was somber despite the Yuletide revelry of the occasion; he murmured out of the side of his mouth to the taller, distinguished, mustachioed man beside him.
“I’d assume those are wartime injuries,” Grant ventured. “From his age, I’d guess they were sustained during the last great war, and from the way he holds his cigarette – a Gauloise, by the way – I’d surmise the gentleman is of French extraction.”
Hitchcock smiled approvingly.
“The cut of that tux tells me he’s a man of some means and impeccable taste. He could easily have those scars erased, but he chooses not to. He wears them with pride, as a badge of honor. French Resistance, perhaps? What was that short you did for the Information Ministry during the War? Aventure Malgache? I assume that’s how you met this curious man, and how he comes to be spending Christmas Eve with the Master of Suspense.”
Hitchcock winced slightly at the tired PR moniker. “Or you’ve been chatting up Alma, with whom I spotted you earlier this evening. Indeed, Monsieur Belmonde is a guest of honor, a man of great fortitude.”
Grant grinned. “The Great Detective exposed. And the other gentleman?”
“Ah, and there lies our riddle,” Hitchcock murmured. “Allegedly, our new friend is Lucien Cuenot, cousin to our intrepid Monsieur Belmonde. A Parisian importer, as the story goes.”
“Of course, you don’t find that story plausible.”
“Actually, I find it quite tantalizing — the type of gambit for which a writer or director of the darker arts hungers.”
Grant reconsidered the pair huddling in Orson Welles’ not inconsiderable shadow. “I have to admit, my fascination is not piqued.”
Hitchcock smiled. “I conversed briefly with Monsieur Cuenot over hors d’oevres. A charming, fiercely intelligent man who is a complete and utter imposter. A highly competent one, I must acknowledge. However, the study of drama and character tune one’s ear to even the slightest nuance of dialect and accent. He is as French as you are a wheat farmer from the Nebraska plains. Specifically, he is as French as a Stuttgart swine farmer.
“Further, his choice of pseudonym is both audacious and telling. His ‘namesake,’ Lucien Cuenot, was a frequently neglected French scientist in the field of genetics. He helped demonstrated that the principle of Mendelism — a concept of which I have not the slightest knowledge nor interest — applied to animals as well as to plants. A middle-aged German masquerading as a brilliant but obscure French geneticist — obviously, a man of ferocious ego and a bent toward science. And where have we seen that before?”
Grant was into the game now. “And who would we cast? Walter Slezak? George Sanders? The inimitable Mr. Welles?”
“The audience would spot him within the first five minutes and flee for the exits. Louis Jourdan or Jacques Tati, perhaps. But that is quite beside the point. It’s an irresistible riddle. Why would a man of Monsieur Belmonde’s ironclad convictions, bearing the marks of Gestapo torture, traffic with a Nazi?”
Scully surveyed the trio sprawled before her, hypnotized by the electronic images dancing in the darkness of the Lone Gunmen’s offices. Underneath a loop of green tinsel – Frohike’s sole concession to the yuletide season – Jimmy Stewart was disheveled and distraught.
“Cool Ranch me,” Melvin Frohike mumbled.
Mulder fired the foil bag at the conspiracy buff. “Trade you the Tacos at Midnight.”
“Shhh,” Byers scolded.
Scully sighed. “When you asked me if I liked Jimmy Stewart on Christmas Eve, I simply assumed…”
“Shhh,” Mulder and the Gunmen hissed in unison. Her partner turned lazily. “Vertigo’s Hitchcock’s greatest film, and this is a studio master. A studio master. Well, a copy, anyway.”
“It’s a Christmas miracle,” Scully proclaimed. “Not to mention a breach of intellectual property law and several federal statutes. Wait, Byers – I don’t want to know. Plausible deniability.”
“Kim Novak,” Frohike murmured dreamily. “What a dame.”
“I thought you guys had some earthshaking discovery for us. Mulder and I are heading out for my mom’s in, oh, about nine hours.”
“Langly’s still working on the images,” Byers noted, pausing Kim Novak in mid-air. We’re talking about a video transfer from a badly deteriorated reel of Super 8 film that sat in some no-name actor’s basement for nearly 50 years.”
“Lucky thing that guy in Fresno found the footage at an estate sale, and put it on eBay before some Hollywood collector caught on,” Frohike said, sweeping ranch powder from his stained Stephen Hawking tee. “Langley’s a closet Orson Welles freak. Has every piece of film the big man made, including Citizen Kane in five languages. The fact the film was taken at Alfred Hitchcock’s 1957 Christmas party is icing on the cake. And that put us in the mood to revisit Hitch’s Technicolor period.”
“We’re going to revisit some of my worst periods if we don’t skip to the main feature pretty quickly,” Scully warned.
Byers and Frohike looked to Mulder. Mulder shrugged, glanced imploringly at his partner, and finished his last Dorito.
“He is watching us again,” Conrad Strughold, AKA Lucien Cuenot, murmured, pretending to admire Marilyn Monroe’s admirable attributes.
Belmonde accepted a fresh snifter of brandy from Santa — one of a crew of Hitchcock-hired actor/waiters — with a gracious nod. “You assumed none of this vapid Hollywood mob would ever have heard of Cuenot,” he murmured in his native tongue. “Your Nietzschean sense of hubris will prove your undoing, my ‘cousin.’”
“Ah,” Strughold grunted with a nearly flawless Gallic accent. “These preening fools are absorbed in a world of romantic fantasy. We are men of science, Man’s greatest hope of salvation. We are of no consequence or interest to these professional imposters. If they had any idea of the real drama unfolding about them. Forgive me if I enjoy a small joke at their expense.”
The Scarred Man smiled grimly. “A small joke. Had Cuenot but known what he would help unleash on the world. At the hands of your monstrous Mengele.”
“Mengele was short-sighted. So concerned with elevating his ‘master race’ to superhumanity that he couldn’t be bothered with the future of our species.”
“And you, mon frère, were his top student, eh?”
“Indeed. And please do not forget that you’ve thrown in with the devil.” Strughold patted his colleague’s shoulder. “But there is no value in exhuming past grievances. I am concerned about the Englishman, however.”
“He is a storyteller, a fantasist,” Belmonde dismissed. “Why did you insist on such a public meeting?”
“Where better to discuss the salvation of the planet than in the bowels of Man’s foolish vanity? Herr Hitchcock – pardon, Monsieur Hitchcock – would appreciate the irony, no?”
“You know, Orson Welles died the same day as Yul Brynner,” Langley observed as the huge .mp4 file processed. “They were both in The Battle of Neretva, a 1969 Yugoslavian flick about Slavic partisans in World War II. Supposedly it was a heart attack, but Welles was cremated against his wishes. I always wondered if, somehow, the Yugoslav secret police…”
“On your own time, Geek Squad,” Scully snapped, peering at the monitor. “Let’s see what couldn’t wait until after the last egg nog.”
“95, 96, 98 percent,” Byers counted anxiously. He sighed in relief as the file finished rendering.
“Houston, the Eagle has landed,” Langley announced. The Gunmen cackled. “Like THAT really happened. OK, and here we are…”
A Quicktime window popped onto the screen, and within seconds, a grainy video began to unreel. It was, indeed, the graying Orson Welles, destined a year later for renewed acclaim in A Touch of Evil and eventually for jug wine commercials and voiceovers for the Muppets and Bugs Bunny. He grinned briefly for the camera, raising his cocktail and moving out of frame.
“I am blown away,” Scully breathed.
“Critics,” Langly muttered. “Welles is but a supporting player in this featurette. Look to the left – no, not Santa. The two distinctly non-Hollywood types – they guy with the Zorro scar and his BFF.”
Four heads nearly touched, then Mulder pulled sharply back.
“What the f—” Scully whispered.
“Katsuhiru is up to something,” Strughold informed the Scarred Man as they moved into the lavishly paneled den of Sir Alfred’s rental. “Something beyond the syndicate’s agenda. Hirohito has visited the family’s offices repeatedly, and one of Japan’s leading entomologists, Matsui Yonishi, also a frequent visitor to the Katsuhiru offices, committed a particularly gruesome act of hari-kari, leaving behind his wife, three children, and four grandchildren. Our contact informs me Matsui had become depressed, occupied in the past few months, for no apparent reason. We suspect this may have been related to Katsuhiru’s ‘project.’”
“The Japanese, they have always been somewhat ‘independent,’ no?” Belmonde rumbled, concerned. “You don’t believe they have developed a liaison with—”
“I do not know what to believe,” Strughold shrugged, absently touching the now-divided Motherland on a huge marble globe. “I know that we must uncover whatever it is they are up to. If it is a threat, we must neutralize it. If they are operating on their own agenda, we must bring them back into the fold.”
Strughold and Belmonde turned abruptly. The pudgy little man smiled angelically and moved toward the shelves.
“A thousand apologies, gentlemen,” Hitchcock murmured, stretching to retrieve a faded volume. “The enchanting Miss Hepburn inquired about a first edition Tolstoy I acquired in my travels. I trust you are enjoying our holiday gala.”
“Oui,” Strughold smiled, closing the six feet between them and pulling War and Peace from the shelf. He towered above the director. “Here you are.”
“Thank you,” Hitchcock beamed. “I shall dispatch one of our jolly elves to deliver some liquid refreshment.”
“Please do not worry yourself,” the Scarred Man bowed graciously. “My cousin and I were merely discussing a family matter. We shall rejoin the festivities momentarily.”
“Family love is messy, clinging, and of an annoying and repetitive pattern, like bad wallpaper,” the portly director nodded.
Strughold smiled. “Well stated, my friend. Thank you for your hospitality.”
Hitchcock bowed and disappeared into the corridor.
The Scarred Man frowned. “The quotation is familiar, but I cannot place the originator.”
“Friedrich Nietzsche,” Strughold murmured, still smiling. “He is a man of playful wiles.”
“As you said, he is a man of romantic fantasy,” Belmonde responded emphatically. “Whatever suspicion he may entertain is the product of a fertile imagination, and soon he will tire of this matter. We have issues of far graver significance to ponder.”
“Strughold,” Mulder whispered.
Conrad Strughold was an odd piece of the mounting puzzle Mulder and Scully had been assembling for more than a decade, all jagged edges and subtle curves that appeared to fit nowhere. What was known – at least to global police and intelligence agencies and more fanatical History Channel devotees – was that Strughold was an apprentice, quite possibly a favored protégé, of Josef Mengele, the SS’ notorious “Angel of Death.”
However, while Mengele earned his place in the annals of atrocity through crude and sadistically calloused human experimentation and voodoo genetic theory, his charge reportedly was more intrigued by the subtleties of heredity and the chromosomal structure. And, according to the few available historical accounts, far less infected with the rabid bloodlust of his “mentor.” Though scientists wouldn’t identify the double helix of DNA until 1953, opening the way for use of genetic markers and biotechnology, some suggested that in a different world, Stughold might have helped father modern genetic engineering.
As it was, Conrad Strughold vanished about a year before Mengele had fled for South America, leaving behind nary a scrap of research or speculation. Over the next several decades, a few blurred and suspect photos emerged, a few mysterious deaths, an isolated strand of scientific data that suggested Strughold’s theories, but the former Nazi “doctor” successfully evaded detection or apprehension.
Langly, lenses opaque in the monitor’s glow, nodded gleefully. “I ran facial recognition on old photos of Mengele’s merry gang of Nazi psychos and those video files from your informant. It’s definitely the scary old bastard. What was he doing at Hitch’s crib?”
“How about the other man, the Phantom of the Opera?” Byers queried.
“Dude, that’s where it really gets freaky-deaky,” Langly exalted. “Adrian Belmonde was one of the heroes of the French Resistance back in WW 2.0, wasted more Nazis than Captain America and Indiana Jones combined. Until the Gestapo captured Belmonde and gave him that permanent dimple you see there. I googled up our little Christmas rave, and I found out on a Hitchcock-centric blog that Belmonde was one of the guests of honor. Hitch had wrapped Vertigo and was working with MGM on North by Northwest, and Belmonde happened to be in L.A. meeting with Paramount about a movie about his Resistance years. Never got made. Question is, what’s a righteous dude like Belmonde doing with a Nazi scumbag like Strughold?”
Scully had fallen silent and contemplative. “It opens three major possibilities,” she now murmured. “One, Strughold was not entirely the ‘scumbag’ history recounts. At some point, the enormity of his deeds weighing unbearably upon him, he fell into league with Belmonde and the French Resistance. I find that theory implausible – even if Belmonde could accept Strughold’s penitence out of convenience, I can’t imagine our scarred friend could stomach a long-term friendship with a fascist mass murderer.”
“Two. Belmonde was not quite the ‘righteous dude’ history purports him to be. He was, what, a Nazi sympathizer? A double agent? What was his agenda? Even if Belmonde’s repeated heroism and pain at the hands of the Nazis were all part of some elaborate ruse, again, why would a man remembered as a virtual saint risk associating with an infamously evil fugitive. It doesn’t wash.
“That brings us to a third hypothesis,” Scully sighed, peering at the grainy, festive, perplexing image on Langly’s monitor. “Strughold, a scientist in good standing with one of the most unspeakably monstrous cabals in history, was allied with Belmonde, a man who had devoted his life to destroying that evil. What brings two such men together, and sustains such an unholy alliance?”
Frohike’s gnomish face darkened even in the dual glow of the computer screen and Christmas lights. “Shit.”
“A common enemy,” Mulder finally supplied.
“And a pretty fucking scary one,” Langly suggested.
Between a few snifters of Sir Alfred’s finest Armagnac brandy and a carol-fueled atmosphere of holiday festivity, Belmonde finally was able to enjoy the party, though he continued to track his “cousin’s” movements around the huge living room. Strughold seemed to have given up on his obsession with Hitchcock, and the former Nazi was now basking in his deception.
Indeed, worthy of the Master of Suspense, the Scarred Man mused as Strughold charmed the charming Doris Day by the buffet. If the wholesome actress but knew she was nibbling hors d’oevres with a monster who’d once assisted that monster Mengele in the “surgical” theater. If the pretty blonde had been privy to Strughold’s periodic postwar “housecleaning” – the quiet acts of homicidal expediency Belmonde had been forced to tolerate in the interest of the species. Their interest, he shuddered.
The murder of a Hollywood giant, a popular figure like Hitchcock would rouse a firestorm of attention. It could destroy the little they’d managed to accomplish over the past nearly 15 years. It could mean the death of them all. All over the death of a whimsical, foolish old man no doubt conjuring his next box office smash.
Belmonde chuckled at his use of the American vernacular. He might have enjoyed his travels in America – the people in general were warm and appreciative of their liberty, the scenery breathtaking, the food delightful if a bit heavy — if not for the grave nature of his life’s business. And, of course, his constant travel companion.
The Scarred Man politely gestured for another Armagnac.
“In fact, some in the Catholic Church continue to argue Hitler was possessed by the devil,” Prof. Henry Jones Jr. grinned crookedly. “I think they underestimate what mankind can do all on his own, without any demonic help.”
“Indeed. Madmen all.” ‘Monsieur Cuenot’ winced, secretly delighted he’d managed to pull the wool over the renowned archaeologist. Strughold had recognized the celebrated relic hunter/adventurer from an item in the L.A. paper – Dr. Jones recently had helped foil a Soviet plot to appropriate hidden Vatican treasures for the glory of Mother Russia. Jones was just the type of challenge Strughold relished, and Belmonde’s earlier chidings had only emboldened him to toy with Hitchcock’s guests.
It didn’t hurt that he agreed wholeheartedly with Dr. Jones’ assessment of his former colleagues in the Reich. Madmen all. The very idea that these grandiose, cerebrally bankrupt fools were superior, that the human species could be segregated and ranked by race, ethnology, and belief system. Mass homicide and goose-stepping jingoism.
Not that Strughold by any means could be called a humanist. Jews, Christians, Nazis, communists – all part of the same parade of greed, neuroses, sadism, and superstition. Men like Alan Desper, the jackal Mengele, were ripe as they say for the picking. Strughold had accumulated knowledge and power through their scientific fumblings. If he were a spiritual man, he might have seen the hand of cosmic fate or God preparing him for that night in 1943, the battle he now waged with Belmonde and the others.
Belmonde, now, was quite another story. He believed. In the better nature of humanity. In the essential justice of the universe. In the common good. Belmonde was not weak – Strughold recognized and grudgingly admired the ferocity with which the Frenchman fought for his fellow Man. He was merely misguided, misdirected, a romantic.
“Supposedly, Hitler hired Erik Jan Hanussen, a quack clairvoyant, to help him hone his ‘special skills,’” Jones barked derisively. “Mind control, crowd domination. The little hyena never realized that when people have no hope and a head full of rage, they’ll listen to any maniac holding out what looks like a life vest.”
“I understand Der Fuhrer was obsessed with finding the Holy Grail.”
“I, ah, I think I read that somewhere, too,” Jones murmured cautiously. “He thought, somehow, that tapping into the essence of everything holy would empower his unholy ambitions.”
“Holy?” Strughold chuckled despite himself. “You are a man of science. You believe in such concepts? Holiness, moral evil?”
The archaeological grinned. “I’ve looked them both in the face, including Der Fuhrer. He was actually a lot runtier than they said. No, good and evil are as real as the periodic table and the cells that make you and I what we are. You don’t believe that, even after what your cousin and yourself went through in the War?”
Strughold shrugged sheepishly. Time to pull back. “You see such horrors, it can shake your confidence in humanity, in the basic precepts of good and evil, in God. Please forgive me — on this, of all nights…”
Jones shook his head. “Maybe we both could use a little more Christmas ‘spirit.’ Let me buy you one of Sir Alfred’s fine cognacs.”
“Professor Jones?” The lanky man wobbled behind the archaeologist; Strughold could smell the distillery fumes. “Orson says you can help settle something.”
Jones grinned back at Strughold. “Sure, pal.”
“He says that War of the Worlds thing he did on the radio wasn’t any show – that the Martians were for real, and the Army made him cover it up. Thatsh horseshit, you should pardon my language.”
“And you don’t believe him?” Jones played along, winking at the “Frenchman.”
“He says,” the lush leaned in. “He says they’re still here.”
Jones forced his face into an expression of grave anxiety. “Just how much did Mr. Welles tell you?”
The drunk back-pedaled. Gene Kelly deftly danced out of his orbit. “Whaddya mean?”
“How much did Mr. Welles reveal about the Martian invasion of Grovers Mills?”
“Hey, whoa, Jones. We was just horsin’ around, and you knowin’ all about kinda ghosts and goblins and the like, I thought you might…”
Jones leaned in; Strughold suppressed a grin. “Listen, friend. It would be in the interest of your continued health to forget anything Orson Welles said tonight. I’m going to have a little chat with our talented friend right now and remind him of his federal confidentiality oath.”
“Jeez, buddy, jeez.” The tall man had gone pale, his reddened cheeks the only chromatic counterpoint. Jones cackled and grabbed him by the shoulder.
“Relax, friend,” the scientist assured him. “Orson’s up to his old tricks, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to play along. We all know there’s no such thing as Martians, right? Right, M’sieur Cuenot?”
“Of course not,” Strughold smiled.
“I better get my friend a fresh Scotch,” Jones said, patting the drunk’s arm. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Cuenot.”
“Yes, yes,” Strughold bowed as Jones and his “friend” retreated toward the bar. And that’s when he spotted Santa Claus.
Santa’s eyes locked directly on Strughold’s, and the faux Frenchman realized St. Nick had been studying him. Strughold’s brow arched. Santa nodded abruptly, the ball on his velvet cap bobbing.
Strughold felt a sudden sense of anxiety and something else – an old feeling, like sonar or the kind of sixth sense that little madman Hitler had claimed to possess. They were here, and trying to find the door into his mind.
He jumped unconsciously as Santa appeared at his elbow.
“Dr. Strughold?” the jolly elf rumbled. “Let’s talk.”
“You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch,” Thurl Ravenscroft scolded the bogus Santa as he plotted the theft of Whoville’s accumulated gifts.
“I thought we were done,” Scully muttered, glaring as Mulder and Frohike glanced reluctantly up from the screen. Jimmy Stewart had had his spiritual epiphany, Charlie Brown and Linus had saved a tree, and the boys had moved on to the Seussian classic as Byers and Langly plugged away a few yards away.
“There’s nothing we can do,” Mulder whined. “We’re onto something huge, Scully – I can feel it. Strughold was in league with Belmonde. One of the good guys. Because of the Desper connection, the way he’s constantly sabotaged whatever progress we’ve made, my assumption had been Strughold was working with the others. Now, I don’t know. What if, somehow, he’s actually fighting the invading force?”
“The invading force?” Scully said. “Mulder, maybe you better ease up on the eggnog.”
“Sorry – Frohike made me watch Santa vs. The Martians. That Pia Isadora was always one the cinema’s great forgotten treasures. My point, Scully, is that maybe Strughold has an agenda beyond our comprehension. Maybe one not even Belmonde realized.” Mulder rose, loosing a snowfall of Cheetos dust. “Hey, Langly, whattaya got there?”
“Chill, bro,” the Gunmen grumbled. “Only that I can’t find any record of Belmonde’s death. I’ve hacked every major world database, and the last thing I found was some 1967 Look piece on old resistance fighters with a photo of the old dude.”
“In ’67, Belmonde would have been, oh, 49,” Frohike calculated. “He’d be pushing the century mark by now. He’s got to have cacked.”
“Not everybody subsists on a diet of cheese puffs and Red Bull,” Scully chided. “Look, let’s pack it up for tonight and start fresh on the weekend. I’ve got two dishes to prepare and Mulder’s gifts to rewrap.”
“It’s the thought that counts,” Mulder offered.
“Oh, there was a thought involved?”
Mulder nodded toward the furtive green ghoul on the screen. “Guy was an amateur,” he told Frohike, who expelled Dew through his nostrils.
“Humbug,” Scully growled.
Santa and Strughold found a quiet spot under a palm in the sprawling backyard. The mythical elf was an absurd figure, festive in appearance, sardonically grim in demeanor.
“My friend,” Strughold began. “You somehow have mistaken me for this doctor, this Strughold. Lucien Cuenot. And you would be?”
“Don’t you recognize me?” Santa asked calmly. Strughold continued to resist the force nudging at his thoughts. “Dr. Strughold? Let’s not play games.”
The former Nazi was silent. Then Strughold nodded. “Why are we here?”
“Curiosity, let us say. You’ve been up to something, haven’t you? You and your friends. You know you cannot win – that’s why I’m here. You cannot win.”
A smile formed on Strughold’s somber face. “Then why don’t you simply finish me now?”
Santa shook his head. His eyes were deeply rimmed pools. “I am not you. You and your kind murdered with ease, wiped out entire families with the wave of a hand. The story of mankind – death and horror. I am not you. Your fate will be far worse.”
Strughold again nodded. His fingers had been submerged in his jacket, wrapped around a cool cylindrical object, one he’d appropriated from one of Them in a South American jungle eight years ago. It was the only sure way of killing Them, short of a rocket attack.
Now, his hand emerged in a single smooth arc; he raised the weapon and buried the pick-like blade in Santa’s chest. Velvet and padding melted away at the force of Strughold’s blow, and “Santa’s” costume darkened. The elf dropped to his knees, a look of mingled astonishment and terror sparking in his eyes above the beard.
“Bóg pomaga mnie,” Santa whispered.
Strughold froze, ice forming in his chest. He had mastered a dozen languages over the years in his quest for knowledge. Polish, as it happened, was not one of them, but he’d heard the phrase often enough, in the camps, in the labs.
God help me.
“I knew it was you the minute I saw you,” Santa rasped with a ghastly smile. “It was fate, taking this job, winding up in the same room with you. The chance to avenge my Sofia, the others you butchered. Well. At least I’ll see her soon enough.”
Blood leaked from his lips – red blood – and the man fell forward into the grass. Strughold scrabbled to his feet, considering his options. The Hollywood Hills were less than a quarter-mile away – would a drop from the heights obscure the deep stab wound? Better yet – Los Angeles was known for its criminal violence, for its young toughs. A common street robbery, Santa Claus found exsanguinated by dawn’s light. The slavering California press would love it.
Getting the body to the car would be the challenge. The rental coupe had been valet-parked, and he’d first have to locate it. Then drag the cumbersome corpse past all these people. This gaudy red suit would not help.
Yes, first order of business was to disguise the body by removing its disguise. Strughold dragged Santa into a nearby thicket and tugged at the bloodstained jacket. The waiter/elf had worn a T-shirt under his costume; Strughold glanced briefly at the tattoo with which his mad colleagues had branded the unfortunate man.
“It would appear you have a curious predicament.”
Strughold looked up, reaching instinctively for the Mauser he’d kept in his cumberbund. A short, portly bald man stepped carefully through the foliage.
Hitchcock smiled. “Good evening.”
Laughter and libidinous murmurs erupted near the house, and Strughold was forced to shelve his immediate plan. He nonetheless pulled the weapon from its makeshift holster.
“I assume this gentleman is deceased?” Hitchcock inquired, examining the corpse from a respectful distance. “This is going to play havoc with the caterers.” Strughold did not speak. “You must pardon me. Gallows humor is my weakness. Yours, apparently, is an inclination toward homicide.
“I didn’t mean to intrude, but you present a fascinating conundrum. First, Monsieur Belmonde appears on my doorstep with an unannounced German posing as his Gallic cousin. Then you abruptly leave the celebration in the company of one of my waiters. I must confess, I’ve been monitoring your movements throughout the evening. Oh, and by the way, you just missed an absolutely smashing rendition of ‘Silver Bells’ by Miss Doris Day.”
“You are quite insane,” Strughold marveled.
“No, I am not,” Hitchcock concluded after a moment’s reflection. “I am reasonably confident you won’t discharge that horrid weapon within earshot of my guests. Though I suppose you might possess a stray garrote on your person. But let us temporarily abandon the unpleasant topic of my violent death. As a man who has made a career of the macabre, I find this all quite tantalizing. How did you intend on disposing of our unfortunate S. Claus?”
Strughold shrugged. This absurdist discussion would give him time to consider how best to murder the little director. “A staged robbery in an alleyway or on the docks. I was reasonably certain you and your celebrated friends would not miss one waiter within a troupe of anonymous Santas. I would guess the service you hired is not unaccustomed to the help simply, how do your gangster films put it? Taking a powder?”
“Yes,” Hitchcock beamed. “Delightful. But how in the world did plan to you remove St. Nick from the premises without attracting unwelcome attention?”
“I suppose a distraction of some sort would have been required.”
“And your companion, Monsieur Belmonde. Is he aware of your rather un-Christmaslike conduct this evening?”
“He will not be pleased by this development, though he was concerned I was instead inclined toward eliminating you.”
Hitchcock grimaced. “I’m afraid my surveillance technique leaves much to be desired. Oh. I nearly forgot. Motive.”
“Your motive. Why would you impale this seemingly benign icon of the yuletide season, Mr.…?”
“Strughold.” It hardly mattered. Hitchcock would not leave here alive. “I suppose fear would best describe my motive. As it would turn out, somewhat displaced fear.”
“Displaced? I assume your fear was of exposure. Yes, I spotted the markings on your friend’s arm. They are unfortunately too familiar. He recognized you, and threatened to divulge your past political affiliations. In your place, I would find that prospect utterly bone-chilling. But you now believe your fear to have been displaced?”
Strughold was growing tired of this eccentric little man. “I pray this won’t offend you, but you know nothing of real fear.”
“You might be surprised. By the way, as you’ve been kind enough to reveal yourself to me, I should reciprocate, Dr. Strughold. Allow me to show you my true face.”
Strughold brought the mauser up, but “Hitchcock” was faster. The little man wrenched the weapon from the Nazi’s grasp even as his features melted and he grew to tower over Strughold.
“No,” Strughold choked.
“This is the real fear you spoke of?” “Hitchcock” asked. Except he now spoke in a guttural Germanic accent…
“Where were you?” the Scarred Man demanded as his “cousin” reappeared at his side. “I was afraid you had foolishly decided to follow through…”
Strughold sighed. “You were right. There is no use in losing our heads, eh? He is a foolish old man who will likely forget the both of us by morning tea. But I must take my leave. Tell them those ‘pigs in the blanket’ hors d’oevres made me nauseous.”
Belmonde nodded, appearing somewhat relieved. “I will remain. Somehow, I am in need of some holiday cheer and human comfort.”
“Of course,” “Monsieur Cuenot” nodded curtly.
“You guys leaving already?” Langly whined, peering from around his monitor.
Scully nodded as she shrugged into her coat. “I persuaded Mulder to celebrate Christmas while it’s still Christmas. He’ll be back to play after he unwraps his toys and awakens from his turkey-induced coma.”
The gangly geek leapt up. “Hold up, dudes.” He disappeared briefly into the darkness beyond the Gunmen’s bank of technology and emerged with a pair of parcels brightly wrapped as if by a drunken lemur with a jumbo roll of tape.
Frohike and Byers beamed as their partner made the presentation. “Me and the guys wanted to get you something special. You’re like our best buds, and we appreciate you guys keeping us looped.”
“I’m going to burst into girlish tears,” Mulder suggested, nonetheless ripping greedily into his gift. Seconds later, paper covered the floor and Mulder stared mutely at the object in his hands. “Oh. My. God.”
“Just came in — full-spectrum, 10-megapixel camcorder,” Frohike grinned. “High-def, 1080p, tricked out with UV and IR sensitivity. For the ghost hunter who has everything. Scully?”
Scully smiled, sighing, and more carefully worked her parcel open. It was flat, an inch thick, roughly 8 by 11. She nudged the wrappings aside and gasped.
“Mulder,” she whispered, staring into the grainy, smiling face of Captain William Scully, who was accepting a respectful embrace from President John Fitzgerald Kennedy on what appeared to be the deck of a naval carrier. The framed image blurred before Scully’s eyes. “I have no words–”
“It was after the Cuban Blockade in ’62,” Byers related gently. “An archivist at the Naval Academy owed us a big one. We thought you’d like it–”
Scully wrapped the Gunmen in a fierce and prolonged embrace before he could complete the sentiment.
“It appears your notorious guest is taking flight,” Grant smirked, turning from the patio doors. “Shall I give chase?”
Hitchcock had been staring off into the Hollywood Hills. Now he returned to his friend. “Oh, Monsieur Belmonde’s cousin. I had quite forgotten about him.”
“This insidious war criminal simply slipped your mind?”
“As you so obviously have surmised, I was having a bit of sport with you.” Hitchcock paused. “You must admit, it was an intriguing concept. At least, it might have been a few years ago. I fear today’s jaded audience requires something a bit more, ah, visceral than sinister Germans and cocktail parties and wisecracking, square-jawed heroes. Oh, I beg your pardon.”
“Not at all, old man,” Cary Grant grinned, absently rubbing his own cleft chin. “I find myself gradually being replaced by gargantuan tarantulas and teenage werewolves and Elvis Presley’s pelvic region. Perhaps I should sprout an extra few appendages or some new facial hair.”
The reproving tone shook the pair from their whimsical reverie. Alma Hitchcock was a tiny woman, shoulder-high to her creative and marital collaborator, but the party’s backlighting cast a formidable shadow across the patio stones.
“Yes, dear heart,” Hitchcock murmured with merely a hint of irony.
“We have a houseful of guests, and you two have been huddling out here all evening like a pair of conspiratorial schoolboys. It’s extremely rude.”
Hitchcock looked to Grant, who shrugged. The little director sighed.
“Besides,” Lady Hitchcock continued. “You need to ride herd on your disreputable chums — I believe Orson’s a bit full to the gills with Christmas cheer. He swears he spotted you cavorting about in the wood behind the house.”
“Come along, then,” Grant urged genially. “Best fetch him a black coffee or the next thing you know, the old boy will start seeing Martians in the bougainvillea.”