MY GAL SUNDAY
From Chapter 1
"Heap on more wood! -- the wind is chill;
But let it whistle as it will,
We'll keep our Christmas merry still."
Congresswoman Sandra O'Brien Britland looked up to see her poetry-spouting husband, the former president of the United States, standing in the doorway of her cozy office in Drumdoe, their country home in Bernardsville, New Jersey.
She smiled affectionately. Even in a turtleneck sweater, jeans, and worn ankle boots, Henry Parker Britland IV exuded a natural born-to-the-manner persona. The touches of gray in his dark brown hair, and thoughtful creases in his forehead, were almost the only signs that Henry was approaching his forty-fifth birthday.
"So it's Tennyson we're quoting," she said as she uncurled herself from the couch where she had been reading the seemingly endless stack of material about pending legislation. "I gather the 'All-Around Hunk' is up to something."
"Not Tennyson, love. Sir Walter Scott, and be aware I will hang you by the thumbs if you call me 'All-Around Hunk' again."
"But People magazine just voted you that for the fifth year in a row. That's a real record. Pretty soon they'll have to create a 'Perennial Hunk' award and retire you from active consideration."
Seeing the mock-menacing look on Henry's face, Sunday said hastily, "Okay, okay. Just kidding."
"Your saw, Mr. President." Sims, the butler, appeared in the doorway, carrying a shiny new saw across upturned palms. He displayed it to Henry with the same reverence he might have shown in tendering the crown jewels.
"What in heaven's name is that all about?" Sunday exclaimed.
"What do you think, darling?" Henry inquired as he studied it carefully. "Well done, Sims. I think this should handle the job quite adequately."
"Are you planning to saw me in half?" Sunday asked.
"Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth had quite a successful act staging that scene. No, my sweet love, you and I are going into the woods. This morning when I was riding I spotted a magnificent evergreen that will be perfect for our first Christmas tree. It's at the north end of the property, out past the lake."
"You're going to cut it down yourself?" Sunday protested. "Henry, you're taking this 'all-around' business too seriously..."
Henry held up his free hand. "No arguments. I heard you say several weeks ago that one of your happiest memories was going out with your father to buy the Christmas tree, then helping him carry it home and trim it. This year, you and I are starting our own tradition."
Sunday tucked a runaway lock of blond hair behind her ear. "You're serious, aren't you?"
"Absolutely. We're going to tramp through the snow into our woods. I am going to cut down the tree, and together we're going to drag it back here."
Henry beamed in satisfaction at his plan. "Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. If we get the tree in and up today, we can start trimming it this evening and finish tomorrow. Sims will bring out the boxes from the storeroom, and you can select any ornaments you choose."
"We have quite a selection, madam," Sims volunteered. "Just last year Lanning decorators came as usual and did the blue-and-silver effect. Quite beautiful. The year before we had a white Christmas. Ah, yes, it was much admired."
"Lanning must be having a heart attack that you're not having him in this year," Sunday observed as she put the files and notepad aside and stood up. She walked over to Henry and put her arms around his waist. "I can see through you. You're doing this for me."
He cupped her face in his hands. "You've had a rough few weeks. I think we're putting together exactly the kind of Christmas you need. All the household help except for Sims gone, the Secret Service guys home with their own families. It'll be just the two of us and Sims."
Sunday swallowed over the sudden lump in her throat. Her mother had had an emergency triple bypass several weeks earlier. She was now recuperating at the Britland estate in the Bahamas, with Sunday's father in attendance. But it had been touch and go for a while, and the fear of losing her mother had shaken Sunday to the core.
"If it's quite all right with you, madam, that I stay..." Sims said, his tone questioning, his voice dignified, his demeanor as always stately.
"Sims, this has been your home for over thirty years," Sunday said. "You bet we want you to stay."
She pointed to the saw. "I thought woodchoppers used axes."
"You get to carry the ax," Henry said. "It's cold out there. Wear your ski outfit."
From behind the thick trunk of a hundred-year-old oak, Jacques cautiously moved his head to observe the tall man cutting down the tree. The lady was laughing and seemed to be trying to help, while the other man, who looked something like Grand-père, just stood there.
Jacques didn't want them to see him. They might give him back to Lily, and Lily frightened him. In fact, she had frightened him since she first arrived to baby-sit him while Maman and Richard went on their trip.
Maman and Richard had been married last week. Jacques had liked his new daddy a lot, until Lily told him that Maman and Richard had phoned to say they didn't want him anymore and had told her to take him away. Then they got in Lily's car and drove for a long time. Jacques remembered that he'd been asleep when a loud noise woke him, and the car spun around, then went off the road. The door next to him flew open, and he ran away.
Why didn't Maman give him to Grand-père if she didn't want him
Even though he was going to be six soon, and Maman kept calling him her "little man," it was too much for Jacques to understand. All he knew was that Maman and Richard did not want him, and that he didn't want to be with Lily. If he could just talk to Grand-père, maybe Grand-père would come and get him. But what if Grand-père told him he had to stay with Lily? Better not to talk to anyone, Jacques thought.
Opposite him, the big tree came down with a crash. The tall man and the lady and the man who looked like Grand-père began to cheer, and then together they took hold of it and started to drag it away.
Silently, Jacques followed them.
"Almost satisfactory evergreen, sir," Sims remarked, "but perhaps it could be a trifle more centered."
"It isn't in the stand straight," Sunday observed. "In fact it's slightly lopsided. That's why it looks off center."
She was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the library going through the neatly packed boxes of Christmas ornaments. "However," she added, "considering the energy you two expended getting that tree into the stand in the first place, I'd suggest you leave it alone. It will be fine."
"I fully intend to," Henry said. "Which color scheme are you using?"
"None," Sunday told him. "All mixed up. Real loving- hands-at-home. Multicolored lights. Tinsel. I wish you had some battered ornaments that you remember from the time you were a kid."
"Better than that, I have your battered ornaments," Henry told her. "Before your folks left for Nassau, your dad retrieved them for me."
"I shall fetch the box containing them, sir," Sims offered, "and perhaps you and Madam would enjoy a glass of champagne while you decorate your tree."
"Fine with me," Henry said as he rubbed callused palms together. "You're ready for some bubbly, aren't you, sweetheart?"
Sunday did not answer. She was staring out at a spot just past the evergreen. "Henry," she said quietly, "please don't think I'm crazy, but for a second, I thought I saw a child's face pressed against the window."
Richard Dalton glanced briefly at his wife of seven days as they turned off Connecticut's Merritt Parkway and onto the road that led to Darien. In fluent French, he said, "I owe you a real honeymoon, Giselle."
Giselle DuBois Dalton tucked her hand under her husband's arm and answered in accented English. "Remember, Richard, from now on you're supposed to speak only English to me. And don't worry. We'll have a real honeymoon later. You know I wouldn't want to leave Jacques alone with a strange baby-sitter for more than a few hours. He's so shy."
"She speaks fluent French, dear, and that was important. The agency recommended her very highly."
"Even so." Giselle's voice sounded troubled. "Everything was so rushed, wasn't it?"
It was rushed, Dalton thought. He and Giselle had planned to be married in May. But the date got moved up when he had been offered the presidency of All-Flav, the worldwide soft drink company. Prior to then, he had been director of Coll-ette, All-Flav's chief competitor's French division. They had agreed that nobody only thirty-four years old turned down that kind of job, especially when it came with a substantial signing bonus. Giselle and he had been married last week and a few days later had come to the house the company rented for them in Darien.
On Friday evening the housekeeper, Lily, who they had been told would not be available to start with them until after Christmas, had unexpectedly shown up. So on Saturday morning, Giselle's father, Louis, urged them to go to New York for a brief honeymoon weekend. "I'll be here with Jacques until noon on Monday. Then Lily can certainly mind him for a few hours until you return Monday afternoon after the company luncheon," he had said.
But the company Christmas luncheon had run longer than expected, and now, as they got nearer to the Darien house, Richard could feel Giselle's tension building. He understood her concern. Widowed at twenty-four and left with an infant son, she had gone to work in the publicity department of Coll-ette; it was there that they had met a year ago.
It hadn't been an easy courtship. Giselle was so fiercely protective of Jacques, so afraid that a stepfather -- any stepfather -- wouldn't be good to him.
They also had expected to live in Paris indefinitely. But then, in just a matter of a few weeks, she had to both change her wedding plans and relocate. Richard knew that Giselle's biggest worry, however, was that the change -- a new father, a new home -- was too abrupt for Jacques. Besides, he was barely starting to learn English.
"Home sweet new home," Richard said cheerfully as he steered the car into the long driveway.
Giselle was opening the passenger door even before he braked.
"The house is so dark," she said. "Why didn't Lily turn the lights on?"
Richard's flip suggestion that Lily was obviously a thrifty French lady died on his lips. The house had a deserted air about it even he found ominous. Although it was almost dark, there wasn't a single light shining from any window.
He caught up with Giselle at the front door. She was fumbling in her purse for her key. "I have it, dear," he told her.
The door opened to reveal a shadowed foyer. "Jacques," Giselle called. "Jacques."
Richard flicked the light switch. As the area brightened, he saw a sheet of paper propped on the foyer table. It read: "N'appelez par la police. Attends nos instructions avant de rien faire."
Don't call the police. Wait for instructions.
"Miss LaMonte, how are you feeling?"
She opened her eyes slowly to see a solicitous state trooper looking down at her. What had happened? she wondered briefly. Then vivid memory came flooding back. The car had blown a tire, and she had lost control. It had gone off the road and down the embankment. She had smashed her head on the wheel.
The boy. Jacques. Had he told them about her? What should she say? She would go to prison.
She felt a hand on her shoulder. She realized that a doctor was standing on the other side of the bed.
"Easy," he said reassuringly. "You're in the emergency room of Morristown General Hospital. You've had a pretty bad bump, but otherwise you're fine. We tried to notify your family, but there's no answer yet."
Notify her family? Of course. She still had the card case Pete had lifted, with the real Lily LaMonte's driver's license, registration, medical insurance, and credit cards.
Despite her throbbing head, Betty Rouche's ability to lie returned with lightning speed. "Actually, that's fortunate. I'm joining my family for Christmas, and I wouldn't want to frighten them with a call."
Where should she say she was joining them? Where was the boy?
"You were alone in the car?"
A vague impression of the passenger door opening filtered through her clouded memory. The child must have run away. "Yes," she whispered.
"Your car has been towed to the nearest gas station, but I'm afraid it needs major repairs," the state trooper told her. "It may well be a write-off."
She had to get out of here. Betty looked at the doctor. "I'll have my brother come back and take care of the car. Can I leave now?" "Yes, I would say so. But take it easy. And see your own physician next week."
With a reassuring smile the doctor left the cubicle. "I'll need you to sign the accident report," the trooper told her. "Will someone pick you up?"
"Yes. Thank you. I'll phone my brother."
"Well, good luck. It could have been a lot worse. A blowout and no air bag..." The trooper did not finish the thought.
Ten minutes later, Betty was in a cab on her way to a rental car agency. Twenty minutes after that, she was on her way to New York City. The plan had been to take the boy to her cousin Pete's house in Somerville, but no way was she going there now.
She waited until she was safely out of town before she pulled into a gas station and phoned. Now that she was somewhere safer, she had to vent her fury on the cousin who had talked her into this crazy scheme.
"It's a cinch," he had told her, "the kind of break that comes along once in a lifetime." Pete worked for the Best Choice Employment Agency in Darien. He called himself a trainee, but Betty knew his job ranged from running errands to mowing lawns for the rental properties the agency managed.
Like her, he was thirty-two; they had grown up next door to each other and, over the years, had gotten into a lot of trouble together. They still laughed about how they had trashed the high school, an adventure for which other kids got blamed.
But she should have known Pete was out of his league with this crazy scheme. "Look," he had told her, "at the agency I heard all about them, this couple with the kid. This guy, Richard Dalton, just deposited a check for six million bucks; his signing bonus, they call it. I've even worked at the rental place they'll be living in. Another executive had it six months ago. And I know Lily LaMonte. She's been used by other people through the agency, and she's the only one they have who is right for this job. They need a nanny who is fluent in French. Well, I happen to know she's going to New Mexico for Christmas. So you take her place. You're her type and age, and you speak good French. Once the couple takes off, you take the kid to my place in Somerville. I'll handle picking up the ransom and all that. It'll be a swap. We get a million bucks to split between us."
"And if they call the cops?"
"They won't, but even if they do, what does it matter? Nobody knows you. Why suspect me? We won't hurt the kid. Plus I'll be in a position to watch what's happening. Part of my job is to keep that place plowed and shoveled. We're gonna have more snow. So I'll know if there's any sign of cops there. I phone and tell Dalton to leave the money in their mailbox tomorrow night and the kid's home for Christmas. Get the cops and they won't hear from us again."
"And if they do bring in the cops, what do we do with the child?"
"Same thing we do if we get the money. No matter what goes down, you leave the kid in a church in New York. Their prayers will be answered."
To Betty it sounded like trashing the school and getting away with it. Pete wouldn't hurt the kid any more than she would. Just like it never even occurred to them to burn down the school. They wouldn't have done that. When he answered the phone, Pete's voice was edgy.
"I thought you'd be in Somerville hours ago."
"I might have been if you'd made sure that lousy car had decent tires," Betty snapped.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
She could feel her voice rising as she told him what had happened.
He interrupted her. "Shut up and listen to me. The deal's off. Forget the money. No more contact with them. Where's the kid?"
"I don't know. I woke up in a hospital. Apparently the boy had run off before the cops found me." "If he starts talking, they'll tie him to you. Do they know you were renting another car?"
"The cabdriver knows."
"Okay. Dump that car and get lost. Just make sure you lie low. Remember, there's nothing to tie us to the missing kid."
"Sure there isn't," Betty exclaimed bitterly as she slammed down the phone.
"Sir, there's no report as yet of a missing child," the policeman told Henry. "But I'll take the boy to headquarters; a representative of Family Services will pick him up there if no one comes for him soon. Chances are, though, that some mighty worried people are searching hard for him right now."
They were clustered in the library at Drumdoe. The room was dominated by the towering, still-unadorned, slightly-tilted Christmas tree, which remained exactly as it had been when Sunday spotted Jacques's face at the window. Realizing he had been seen, the little boy had tried to run away, but Henry had rushed out in time to catch him. When their gentle questions yielded nothing but silence, Henry had phoned the police while Sunday unzipped and removed the child's outer jacket. Gently she had rubbed warmth back into chilled small fingers, all the while keeping up a steady stream of words, hoping to win his confidence, heartsick to see the terror in his blue-green eyes.
Now the policeman squatted in front of the child. "About five or six, wouldn't you think, sir? That's what my sister's kid is, and he's about this size." He smiled at Jacques. "I'm a policeman and I'm going to help find your mom and dad. Bet they're looking all over the place for you right now. We're going to go for a ride in my car to the place where they can pick you up. Okay?"
He put his hand on Jacques's shoulder and started to ease the boy toward him. His face contorted with fear, Jacques pulled back and turned toward Sunday, grabbing her skirt with both hands as though begging for protection.
"He's frightened to death," Sunday said. She knelt beside the quivering boy and put her arm around him. "Officer, can't you just leave him here? I'm sure you'll get a call about him soon. While we're waiting, he can help us trim the tree. Can't you, little guy?"
Sunday felt the small boy shrinking against her. "Can't you?" she asked gently. At his lack of response, she said, "I think he may not be able to hear."
"Or speak," Henry agreed. "Officer, I think my wife is right. You know he's safe and warm here. We'll give him dinner; certainly by then you'll have learned who he is and where he belongs."
"I'm afraid I can't do that, sir. I will have to take him to headquarters. We'll need to take his picture and have an exact physical description for the teletype alert we'll send out. Then it will be up to the Family Services people to decide if we can place him with you until he's claimed."
Maman had taught him a long time ago that if he ever got lost, he should go to a gendarme and tell him his name and his address and his phone number. Jacques was sure that this man was a gendarme, but he couldn't give him his name or address or phone number. Maman and Richard had given him away to Lily, and he didn't want her to come for him, ever.
This lady reminded him of Maman. Her hair was the same color and the way she smiled at him was the way Maman smiled. She was gentle. Not like Lily, who did not smile, and who made him change into the uncomfortably tight clothes he was wearing now. Jacques was hungry and tired. And very afraid. He wanted to be back in Paris, safe with Maman and Grand-père.
Soon it would be la Fête de Noël. Last year Richard had come to their house with trains for him. Jacques remembered that together they had laid the tracks and set up the train station and the bridges and the little houses along the tracks. Richard had promised they would set them up this year in the new house. But Richard had lied to him.
Jacques felt himself being picked up. They were going to take him away, back to Lily. In terror, he buried his face in his hands.
Two hours later, when Lily had not appeared, and the gendarme brought him back to the big house, Jacques felt the scared feeling start to go away. He knew Lily wasn't in this house. He would be safe here. Tears of relief welled in his eyes. The door opened, and the man who looked like Grand-père let them in and led them back to the room with the Christmas tree. The tall man and the lady were there.
"The child was examined," the policeman told Henry and Sunday. "The doctor says he's in good health and seems to have been well cared for. He still hasn't spoken, and he refused to eat anything, but the doctor says it's too soon to tell if it's a physical problem or if he's just frightened. We have his picture and description on the teletype. My guess is that he'll be claimed pretty soon, but in the meantime Family Services okayed his staying with you."
Jacques did not know what the gendarme had said, but the lady who looked like Maman knelt down and put her arms around him. He could tell she was kind; he felt safe with her, a little like the way he had felt when Maman had loved him. The giant lump in his throat began to melt.
Sunday felt him tremble against her. "It's okay to cry," she murmured, as she stroked his silky brown hair.
Richard Dalton watched helplessly as his wife sat staring at the phone. Giselle was clearly in shock. Her pupils were enormous, her face expressionless. As the hours passed and they heard nothing from Jacques's kidnappers, his every instinct insisted that the police be called. But at the suggestion, Giselle became almost hysterical. "Non, non, non, you cannot, you will not. They will kill him. We must do what they say. We must wait for instructions."
He should have known something was wrong when that woman showed up unexpectedly, he told himself bitterly. The agency had been adamant that she would be away over Christmas and could not begin working until the twenty-seventh. We should have checked, of course, he thought. It would have been simple just to call the agency and confirm. But how did the woman who had said she was Lily LaMonte know to come to the house? Obviously it had all been planned; she was to abduct Jacques at the first opportunity. It was Giselle's father who had finally convinced them to accept the woman who called herself Lily LaMonte, and who urged them to spend the weekend in New York. It was ironic as well, for he would be distraught if anything happened to Jacques. No, it was not his fault, Richard thought. We probably would have entrusted Jacques to that woman today when we went to the company luncheon. He shook his head. Maybe, maybe not, he thought. It's too late to wonder about such things now.
He had to do something though. The inactivity was driving him crazy. He had to believe that this was about money and that they would get Jacques back by tomorrow.
He sighed. Maybe it wouldn't be that quick. His signing bonus had been well publicized. It was logical for the kidnapper to assume that he could put his hands on six million dollars. But surely no one would expect that he would have that kind of money available at short notice. The most he could get from a cash machine was a few hundred dollars.
The kidnapper or kidnappers had to be planning to keep Jacques overnight. If they phoned by morning, he would be able to get cash from the bank. But how much cash? How much would they demand? If it was in the millions, it would take several days to get it together. No bank had that much ready cash on tap. And large withdrawals meant questions.
Giselle was weeping now, tears that slid silently down her cheeks. Her lips were forming her son's name. Jacques. Jacques.
It's my fault, Richard thought. Giselle and Jacques came with me willingly, and look what I've done to them. He could not stand the inactivity any longer. He had promised Jacques that they would set up his trains in time for Christmas. He looked about the room. The boxes were in a corner of the family room in which they were sitting.
Richard got up, went over to the boxes, and squatted on the floor. His strong fingers ripped the seal of the first box apart, and he reached in and pulled out sections of track. Last year, on Christmas Eve, when Jacques opened the brightly wrapped packages in Grand-pe´re's house, Richard had explained that Santa had left this present early so that he could help Jacques put it together. When the tracks and the trains and the bridges and the houses were completely set up, he had pointed out the switch to Jacques.
"This is what makes it start," he had explained. "Try it."
Jacques had thrown the switch. The lights in the little houses blazed, the whistles blew, the crossing gates came down, and as he cautiously opened the throttle, the antique Lionel locomotive with six cars behind it chugged for a few moments, then raced forward.
The look of awe on Jacques's face had been indescribable.
Come on, Jacques, Richard prayed, I'm going to put this train set together again, and you've got to get back here to run it with me.
The phone rang. He jumped up, managing to take it from Giselle's grasp before she had a chance to speak. "Richard Dalton," he said crisply.
A voice, low and husky, obviously attempting to be disguised, asked, "How much cash you got in the house?"
Richard thought rapidly. "About two thousand dollars," he said.
Pete Schuler had changed his mind. Maybe he could get a few bucks out of this after all.
"Did you call the police?"
"No, I swear we didn't."
"Okay. Leave the cash in the mailbox now. Then close all the blinds. I don't want you looking out, understand?"
"Yes, yes. We'll do anything you say. Is Jacques all right? I want to talk to him."
"You'll talk to him soon enough. Put the cash out where I told you and the kid is trimming the tree with you tomorrow night."
"Take care of him. You've got to take care of him." "We will. But remember, any sign of police and he's in South America being adopted. Got it?"
They haven't threatened to kill him, Richard thought. At least they haven't threatened to kill him. Then he heard a click. He put the phone down and put his arms around Giselle. "He'll be returned to us tomorrow," he said.
The window of the second-floor center bedroom looked out directly over the curbside mailbox. It was at this window that Richard established his observation post, peering through a slit in the draperies. The phone, on a long extension cord, was positioned right next to him. He knew that Giselle might not understand any instructions the growly voiced caller would give. Clearly, she was on the verge of collapse, but he did manage to get her to lie on the bed near the window, an afghan tucked around her. His final preparation had been to adjust his camera to allow for the minimal lighting conditions.
As he settled in for his watch, Richard realized despairingly how little he would be able to learn about anyone who attempted to take the money. The street was unlighted, the sky filled with heavy, threatening clouds. He would be lucky to even determine the make of car the person was driving. I should call the police, he thought. That's probably the one chance we would have to follow whoever comes here for the money.
He sighed. But if he did notify the police, and then something went wrong, he would never be able to forgive himself, and he knew that Giselle would never forgive him.
His mind flashed back to when he was nine years old, and to the piano lessons his mother had made him take. One of the few songs he had managed to get through without a mistake was "All Through the Night." He remembered that his mother would sometimes sit beside him on the piano bench and sing the words while he played:
Sleep, my child, and peace attend thee
All through the night.
Guardian angels God will send thee
All through the night.
Let guardian angels take care of our little boy, Richard prayed silently as he listened to Giselle's soft sobbing.
A final fragment of the song ran through his head: "And I my loving vigil peeping, all through the night."
Dinner was simple: salad, French bread, pasta with basil and tomato sauce. The child sat with Henry and Sunday at the table in the small dining room. He took the napkin from beside the plate and placed it on his lap, but did not look at Sims when offered the bread and did not touch the food.
"He has to be hungry," Henry said. "It's nearly seven-thirty." He took a bite of the pasta and smiled at Jacques. "Ummm... delicious."
Jacques looked at him gravely, then averted his eyes.
"Perhaps a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich?" Sims suggested. "How you enjoyed them when you were a lad, sir."
"Let's just ignore him for a few minutes and see what happens," Sunday said. "I think he's terribly frightened, but I agree, he must be hungry. If he doesn't start eating in a couple of minutes, we'll switch menus. Sims, if we do try the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, substitute milk for the Coke."
She twirled pasta onto her fork. "Henry, don't you think it's very odd that the police haven't heard from anyone about a missing child? I mean, if he were from a house around here, any normal parent would have been calling them immediately to report him missing. My point is, how did he get here? Do you think he might have been deliberately left on our doorstep?"
"I can't believe that," Henry said. "Anyone deliberately planning to leave the child here would have to be psychic to know that we sent the Secret Service guys home for these few days. Otherwise they'd have been seen and questioned at the gates. I think it's more likely that for some incredible reason he simply hasn't been missed yet."
Sunday glanced at Jacques then quickly back at Henry. "Don't look now," she said quietly, "but a certain little guy is starting to dig in."
For the rest of the meal, she and Henry chatted, ostensibly ignoring Jacques, who finished the entire plate of pasta, the salad, and the Coke.
Sunday noticed him eyeing the bread, which was out of his reach. Casually she nudged the basket nearer to him. "Another observation," she said. "He wanted the bread but couldn't ask for it, and wouldn't reach for it. Henry, this child, whether you realize it or not, has very good table manners."
After dinner, they went back to the library to finish trimming the tree. Sunday pointed out the last full box of ornaments to Jacques, and he began handing them to her. She noticed how careful he was as he plucked them, one by one, from the cardboard separators. That's something else he's done before, she decided. Later she noticed that his eyes were beginning to droop.
When the last ornament was taken from the box and hung on the tree, she said, "I think somebody needs to go to bed. The question is, where do we put him?"
"Darling, there are at least sixteen bedrooms in this house."
"Yes, but where did you sleep when you were this guy's size?"
"In the nursery suite."
"With your nanny nearby?"
Sims was piling the empty boxes together. "Sims, I think we'll put our little friend on the couch in our sitting room," Sunday said. "That way we can leave the bedroom door open and he can see and hear us."
"Very good, madam. As to nightdress?"
"One of Henry's tee shirts will do fine."
Later that night, Sunday awakened to a faint stirring from the next room. In an instant she was out of bed, across the carpet, and at the door of the adjacent sitting room.
Jacques was standing at the window, his face raised to the sky. A faint drone caught her attention. A plane was passing overhead. He must have heard it, she thought. I wonder what it means to him.
As she watched, the little boy walked back to the couch, got under the covers and buried his face in the pillow.
Christmas Eve dawned crisp and bright. A dusting of predawn snow left a glittery, fresh surface on already white lawns and fields. Henry, Sunday, and Jacques went for an early morning walk.
"Darling, you do know we can't keep him indefinitely," Henry said. A deer ran through the woods, and Jacques rushed ahead of them to witness its swift flight.
"I know, Henry."
"You were right to keep him near us last night. I think I'm starting to realize what it will be like when we have children of our own, sweetheart. Will they all sleep on the couch in the sitting room?"
Sunday laughed. "No, but they won't be in another wing of the house, either. Have you finished your Christmas greeting for the Internet?"
"Yes, I have. So many people from all over the world wrote to us this year that I think it's an appropriate time to convey our good wishes and gratitude to them."
"I do too." Then Sunday's voice changed. "Henry, look!"
Jacques had abruptly stopped running and now stood looking up longingly at the sky.
They could hear the drone of an airplane far above. "Henry," Sunday said slowly, "another clue: I think that little boy has recently been on a plane."
Pete Schuler was not comforted by the realization that he had two thousand, three hundred and thirty-three bucks in his pocket, even though the windfall did mean that he could take the rest of the winter off and go ski somewhere. Several questions still nagged at him. Where was the kid? Why didn't he show up? His dumb cousin, Betty, had lost him somewhere in New Jersey. How come some nice, concerned citizen hadn't found him and turned him over to the cops? Suppose the kid had had an accident? He turned the questions over in his mind, his nerves jumping.
Betty was at her friend's pad in New York, that dump in the East Village. Pete dialed the number. Betty answered. Her voice was ragged. "The kid back home yet?" she asked.
"No. Where the hell did you lose him?"
"Bernardsville. That was the name of the town. Do you think he got run over or something?"
"How am I supposed to know? You're the one who lost him." Pete hesitated, considering. "I'm pretty sure the parents haven't called the police." He wasn't about to tell Betty that he had gotten any money. "But we need to know what's going on. Just in case they have some kind of tracer on him, you take a bus over to New Jersey, call the Bernardsville police from a phone booth, and ask if a five-year-old kid was turned in to them. Got it?"
"What good will that do? What do you think they'll tell me?" Betty asked. Why did I get into this? she was thinking. If something has happened to this kid, I could go to jail for the rest of my life.
"Do it. Now! But be careful. If they have the kid they'll ask you a bunch of questions," Pete snapped.
At two o'clock, Betty called him back. "I'm not sure if they have him or not," she said. "They asked me to describe the child. I hung up fast."
"That was stupid," Pete told her curtly. He broke the connection. If the Daltons hadn't yet gone to the police, it was a sure thing they would very soon, especially if they didn't get further word from him. He drove to a gas station in Southport, and shut himself in the phone booth. He would have to make the next move himself.
The phone was answered on the first ring. "Richard Dalton." "There's been a delay," Schuler said in the same semi-disguised voice he had attempted before, speaking through a handkerchief over the mouthpiece, the way he had seen it done in the movies. "Just don't panic. Got it? Don't panic!"
Richard Dalton heard the click as the caller hung up. Something has gone wrong, he thought. Whoever had taken the money came on foot, he realized. That was why he hadn't seen anyone. All night long he had stayed awake, watching for a car to drive down the block. It hadn't come. Still, in the morning the money was gone. Somehow he had completely missed the person who had taken it.
The phone rang again. Dalton grabbed it, identified himself, listened, then covered the mouthpiece with his hand. "It's your father," he said, "he wants to speak to Jacques."
"Tell him Jacques and I are out, doing our last-minute Christmas shopping," Giselle whispered. Her face was a mask of fear and pain. Richard could hardly bear to look into her eyes.
"Louis, they're out shopping," Richard said. "We'll surely speak with you tomorrow."
As he replaced the receiver, Giselle screamed, "Tell him that Jacques and I are Christmas shopping." She fell to the floor in a faint, accidentally hitting the switch for the electric train. The lights blazed on, the crossing gates went down, the locomotive chugged, then roared.
Dalton strode across the room, snapped off the switch, then cradled his wife in his arms.
At five o'clock on Christmas Eve, the police chief of Bernardsville phoned and asked to speak to Henry. "Mr. President," he said, "there are flyers being distributed in all the neighboring areas about the boy. The FBI field office and all fifty states have his picture and description. We've checked with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. So far, we're drawing a complete blank. I can tell you though, that we did get one odd phone call today, asking if a five-year-old boy had been turned in to us. This is beginning to look like an abandoned child situation. Has he said anything yet?"
"Not a word," Henry admitted.
"Then we think it best if we take custody of the boy. We need to take him to the hospital and have him evaluated properly to see if he really can't speak, or if perhaps he's been traumatized."
"Hold on, Chief, please."
Sunday had sent Sims to the local Toys-R-Us, and he had returned laden with gifts. Most of the presents were still wrapped. They had opened a few, however, including a large box of heavy plastic interlocking building blocks, with which she and Jacques were constructing an elaborate tower. She listened with dismay as Henry repeated the message. "Henry, it's Christmas Eve. This little boy can't wake up in a hospital tomorrow."
"And we can't keep him indefinitely, darling."
"Tell them to leave him with us until Thursday. At least let him have Christmas. He's comfortable here, I know he is. And something else, Henry. Sims bought some new clothes. The stuff he was wearing appears new but doesn't fit him. There's something strange going on. I don't think he was abandoned; I think his family doesn't know where to look for him. Tell the police that."
Jacques did not know what the nice lady who looked a little like Maman was saying. He did know that he was glad to be with her, as well as with the nice tall man and the old man who looked like Grand-pe´re. Maybe if he was a very good boy they would let him stay with them. But he also wanted to be home with Maman and Richard. Why had they sent him away? Suddenly he couldn't hold the sadness in any longer. He put down the small block he was about to place on the very top of the tower and began to cry -- silent, hopeless, lonely tears that even the nice lady who rocked him in her arms could not prevent.
That night he could not eat dinner. He really tried, but the food wouldn't go down his throat. Later they went back into the room with the Christmas tree, and all he could think about was the train set he and Richard were going to put together in the new house in Darien.
Sunday knew what Henry was thinking. They weren't really helping the little boy. He was grieving, a silent, persistent grief that all the toys in the world wouldn't help. Maybe he did belong in a hospital where he could get professional help.
She experienced the same helpless feeling she had had when she waited with Henry and her father during her mother's operation.
"What are you thinking, love?" Henry asked quietly. "Just that we'd better let the professionals take over tomorrow. You were right. We're not doing him any favors keeping him here."
"It doesn't feel much like Christmas Eve," Sunday said sadly. "A lost child... I can't believe someone isn't looking for him. Can you imagine how we'd feel if our little boy were missing?"
Henry started to answer, then tilted his head. "Listen. The Christmas carolers are coming."
He crossed to the window and opened it. As the crisp air blew into the room, the carolers drew nearer to the house. They were singing "God Rest You, Merry Gentle- men."
Let nothing you dismay, Sunday thought. Softly she hummed with them as they switched to the familiar poignant words of "Silent Night."
She and Henry applauded, as the group launched into "Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly."
Then the leader of the carolers approached the window and said, "Mr. President, we learned a special song for you because we read once that it was a favorite of yours at school. If we may..."
He blew on the pitch pipe and the group softly began to sing,
"Un flambeau, Jeannette Isabelle,
Un flambeau, courrons au berceau.
C'est Jesus, bonnes gens du hameau
Le Christ est ne...."
From behind her, Sunday heard a sound. Jacques had remained hunched on the chair opposite the couch, where they had been sitting when the carolers had appeared. As she watched, he bolted upright. His half-closed eyes opened wide. His lips moved in synch with the singers'.
"Henry," she said quietly, "look. Do you see what I see?"
Henry turned. "What do you mean, darling?"
Without seeming to study Jacques, Henry stared at him intently. "He knows that song." He went over and scooped the little boy up in his arms.
"Again, please," he requested when the carolers stopped. But when they sang the song again, Jacques sealed his lips.
When the carolers had left, Henry turned to the little boy and began speaking French. "Comment t'appelles-tu? Ou habites-tu?"
But Jacques only closed his eyes.
Henry looked at Sunday and shrugged. "I don't know what else to do. He won't answer me, but I think he understands what I'm asking."
Sunday looked thoughtfully at Jacques. "Henry, you must have noticed how fascinated our little friend was when a plane flew overhead this afternoon."
"You pointed it out to me."
"And the same thing happened last night. Henry, suppose this child just got here from another country. No wonder he hasn't been reported missing. Sims brought back one of the flyers with his picture and description, didn't he?"
"Henry. You were going to put a Christmas greeting on the Internet, weren't you?"
"My annual message. Yes. At midnight."
"Henry, do me a favor." Sunday pointed to Jacques. "This year put the flyer with his picture and description on as well, and especially ask people in France and other French-speaking countries to take particular note of his picture. And from now on, talk to me in French. I may not get much of it, but maybe we'll make a breakthrough."
It was quarter of six in the morning in Paris when Louis de Coyes, his coffee in hand, went into his study and turned on the computer. Christmas morning alone was an unhappy prospect. At least later he would join friends for Christmas dinner. The house was lonely without Jacques and Giselle, but Louis was well satisfied with his daughter's choice of a husband. Richard Dalton was the kind of man any father would like to see his daughter marry.
And they would visit a great deal, he was confident of that. They had promised that the lessons he had begun to give Jacques on the Internet would be continued. Someday before too long, he and his grandson would be able to communicate regularly by E-mail. In the meantime, it was now almost midnight on the east coast of the United States, and he wanted to read the Christmas message that Henry Parker Britland IV was about to send to his well-wishers. Louis had once met the former President at a reception at the American embassy in Paris and had been impressed by his ready wit and genuine warmth.
Five minutes later, an incredulous Louis de Coyes was staring at the picture of his grandson, whom the former president had described as a missing child.
Six minutes later, Richard Dalton, while preparing to form some excuse for Giselle not coming to the phone to speak to her father, was shouting, "Oh my God, Louis, oh my God."
At 2:OO A.M. the bell rang. Henry and Sunday were waiting for Jacques's parents. "He's asleep upstairs." Jacques was having a dream, but this time, it was a very good dream. Maman was kissing him and whispering, "Mon petit, mon Jacques, mon Jacques, je t'aime, je t'aime."
Jacques felt himself being lifted up, blankets tucked around him. Richard was holding him tight, was saying, "Little boy, we're going home."
In the dream, Jacques slept in Maman's arms in a car for a long time.
When he awoke, he opened his eyes slowly, the sad feeling creeping over him. But he was not on a couch in the big house. He was in his own bed. How did he get here? Was the dream not a dream after all? Had Maman and Richard come for him because they loved him?
"Maman! Richard!" Jacques called eagerly as he hopped out of bed and ran into the hallway.
"Down here, Jacques," Maman called. And then he heard another sound floating up from downstairs. The chug-chugging of his trains, and the whistle blowing for the gates to lower. Jacques's eager feet barely touched the stairs as he rushed down them.
"Not much sleep last night," Henry observed as he and Sunday drove home from church.
"Nope, not much," Sunday agreed happily. "Henry, I'm going to miss that little guy."
"So am I. But before too long I expect we'll have one -- or two -- of our own."
"I hope so. But isn't it incredible how fragile life is? I mean that call about my mother last month?"
"She's doing fine."
"Yes, but we could have lost her. And little Jacques. Suppose that woman who took him hadn't had the accident right here in town. God only knows if she wouldn't have panicked and maybe hurt him. I hope they catch her soon. We do all hang by a thread."
"Yes, we do," Henry agreed quietly. "And for some of us, that thread is going to be cut very soon. Don't worry, the police won't have a problem finding that woman and her accomplice. Both were apparently clumsy about covering their trails."
They drove through the open gates of Drumdoe and down the long road to the house. Henry parked the car in front of the steps. Sims had obviously been watching for them, because the door opened as they crossed the porch.
"Little Jacques is on the phone, sir. His mother tells me he has been playing all morning with his trains. He wishes to thank you for your goodness to him." Sims beamed. "He wishes to offer you a Joyeux Noël."
As Henry hurried to the phone, Sunday grinned at Sims. "Your French accent is almost as lousy as mine," she said.
Copyright © 1996 by Mary Higgins Clark