'Sorry.' My feet had automatically started for home. 'Habit.'

We walked to her place, a small studio flat over a newsagent's. 'Convenient for the morning Times.' I was expecting a cramped hole in the wall, but it was tastefully decorated to give it that lived-in look without being cluttered. It was small for my taste, but it was comfortable in its own way. I sat on the worn couch as she turned not he fire. As if she were reading my mind, she said, 'I know it's a bit small, but it's good enough for me.'

'I was just thinking that it has a comfortable feel to it.'

'Good. Make yourself at home while I get us something to eat.' She went into the kitchen. 'I don't have much. I hope sandwiches will be okay.'

'Fine. I'm not picky.' I was a bit nervous, sitting on the couch doing nothing wile she prepared lunch. 'Do you have paper? I could start on the list.'

'There's some in the drawer of the coffee table. I'll be there in a few.'

I found the pad where she said and a pencil alongside it. I didn't know where to start. I'd feel a bit self-conscious if I started with my associates. I decided on the Harrod's people.

SUSPECT MOTIVE MEANS OPPORTUNITY Barbara Evans advancement signature time to go to bank beforehand David Perry " " " Jonathan Grant money " hired someone?

'Couldn't that apply to all of them?'

'Yeah, you're right. Why don't you do it?'

Rod Masters money forger/con artist time in A.M. Maggie ? " con artist "

'I guess we all fit into the same category. We all wanted the money and we all had the time to get to the bank in the morning. This is a tough one, boyo.' She sat on the couch next to me and took a bite of sandwich. 'Beer or soda?'

'Beer, I guess.' I was beginning to feel uncomfortable with her so close. 'Um, I think we should go about this differently. Start with what happened and work backwards?'

'What do you mean?'

'A sort of process of elimination. We figure out how the actual theft was done. We then go to the "Opportunity" category and see who could have done it. From there we go to "Means" then "Motive"--narrowing it down each time.'

'Isn't that pretty much the same thing?'

'Well, kinda. But this way we start off with what we know.' She nodded and I began. 'One: whoever it was knew who signed on the card and either forged the withdrawal or stole a pre-signed one. Two: X had enough time to get from the bank--which opens at 9.30--to the presentation ceremony at Harrod's at 10.00, leaving fifteen minutes, if he was at the doors once the bank opened.'

'Could be done by Tube. He'd have to wait for a bus or taxi and he'd get stuck in traffic in his own car.'

'Good point.' I finished my sandwich. 'There's still one thing we don't know: who was able to sign for it?'

'You'll find out tonight.' She smiled.

'You sure have a lot of confidence in me.'

'Someone has to. Doesn't look like you do.'

'Thanks a lot.'

'Let's not think about this anymore. Without any new information, we're only giving ourselves a headache.'

'Good idea.' I stood and started to put on my coat. 'Thanks for lunch.'

'What do you think you're doing? Just because we're not talking business doesn't mean you have to leave. It's Christmas Eve and it's no time to be alone.' I didn't know if she meant me or herself.

'I've got to be at my place in case any of the others call.'

'Fine. I'll come too.'

* * * *

I didn't have much at home in the way of dinner, so we stopped and got some Indian take-away. We got back to my place and I could hear the phone ringing through the door. Once I opened it, I dropped the bag on the kitchen counter and ran to answer it.

'How nice of you to answer. I was just about to hang up.' It was Rod.

'Any news?'

'None to speak of. I checked the cabbies that usually wait there. I even found the one who was there in the morning. Nobody flagged him down and he was the only one there.'

'Well, cross that out. No one'll be around tomorrow so we'll have to wait. Enjoy the next two days and don't worry about it unless you get a sudden brainstorm. Okay?'

'Sure thing, boss.'

'If you hear from the others, pass it on.'

'Gotcha. Happy Christmas.'

'You, too.' I hung up the phone.

'Who was it?'

'Rod. He checked out the cabbies down by the bank. It seems that your idea about the Tube was right. It'll be hard to trace that way. I came late so I have no idea of the order of how everyone else arrived.'

'I didn't make it at all. I couldn't get away from work.' She sat down in a chair in the living room. 'So, what are we going to do?'

'Wait for more information like you said. We can also plan my visit tonight. You'll have to give me a general idea of the layout and any other necessities.'

'This isn't exactly what I had in mind when I told you my idea. This is getting a bit deep for me.'

'Kind of a baptism by fire? Normally, they run smooth. Someone just picked the wrong guy to cross.' I took off my tie and went into my room to get a jumper. I came back feeling much more comfortable. Louie had started the fire and put on the radio. The BBC was playing Bing Crosby again. 'Make yourself at home.'

'Thanks. I already have. Nice place you have here. How long have you had it?'

'Not long, a couple of years. It's in a central enough location.' I put the food in the fridge for later. 'Can I get you anything?'

'No, nothing right now.' She looked around. 'Pretty big place for just you.'

'Well, it's not just me. My roommate's away for the hols. Her friends get together every year and she went to join them.'

'She? You've got a girlfriend?' Louie was surprised.

'She's not a girlfriend, not really. She stayed to help nurse me after the shooting and decided to stay. There's nothing between us.' Unfortunately.

'What does she look like?'

I walked into the living room. 'Here's a photo,' I said, taking out my wallet.

'You carry a picture of her in your wallet? You must like her a lot.' She looked at the picture. It was one of my favourites of Sophie. I took it myself when we were at one of the parks just a couple of months ago. She was laughing at something and the wind was blowing her hair. I guess I was a little less than objective.

'Do you think that this thing tonight is such a good idea?'

I was glad to hear that I wasn't the only one having second thoughts. 'I was going to ask you about that. I did want to call it off, but wondered what you thought. I'd be way out of my league. I've never burgled before--if that's the right word. We've got to find another way.'

'I don't want you to think I'm not worried, but I can't seem to concentrate on this on Christmas Eve. Maybe if we ignore it, something'll come to us.' She stood and walked around the room. 'How come you don't have a tree? You don't have any decorations at all.'

'Just never got around to it.'

'Tonight you will. Get your coat.'

'What?'

'We're getting a tree and decorations.'

'No way are we going to find that stuff. it's too late.'

'You're not the only one with connections.'

* * * *

I was standing in the middle of Trooping the Colour and the drums combined with the horses' hooves were giving me the mother of all headaches. Then the kettle whistled. A kettle? I sat up in bed and instantly regretted it. Too much mulled wine and holiday cheer last night. I wondered how Louie was feeling. I grabbed my robe and shuffled down the hall to the kitchen. 'Couldn't you sleep?' I asked.

'It would be hard to sleep and travel and the same time.'

'Sophie? What are you doing here? What happened to your friends?'

'Nothing. They're just idiots, that's all. I guess I've changed and I realised how shallow they are. So, I came back here to be with a real friend.'

'Oh.' I saw her bags in the corner and sighed with relief. She hadn't been to her room yet. She hadn't seen Louie.

'Is that all you can say?'

'Sorry. Just surprised, is all.'

'It also looks liked you really hung one on last night, too. I've never known you to drink excessively. Here, let me pour you a coffee.'

'Ta.' I sat at the table and watched her move around the kitchen. God, she's beautiful. And she came back to spend Christmas with me! She put some bread in the toaster and sat down with me as she waited. 'Happy Christmas,' I said, raising my mug in a toast.

'Happy Christmas.' We clinked mugs and drank.

'I thought I smelled coffee.' It was Louie wearing one of Sophie's night-gowns and robe.

Sophie turned to me and I felt like curling up as small as possible. I didn't say a word.

'Hello. You must be Sophie. I hope you don't mind that I borrowed some of your things, but it was late when we finished decorating and Nick said I could stay. My name's Louie. It's really Louise, but my friends called me Louie.'

Sophie's toast popped up and she went to get it. 'Would you like some, Louie?' She got out some more bread.

'Yes, please.'

'Have you known Nick long?'

'Only a couple of weeks.'

'Oh?'

'No, it's nothing like that.' She seemed embarrassed. 'No, we're business partners.'

'So, you're in the, ah, trade as well, are you?'

'Yes, though I'm not as accomplished as Nick.' She sipped her coffee.

I felt it was my turn to say something. 'We met at Theresa's party, then again at Mike's. She had an idea for a con so we got together and worked on it. She works at Harrod's. . .'

'So you decided to con them out of the Christmas charity but it backfired and someone stole it first,' Sophie finished.

'How did you know?'

'A strange new invention called radio. "Ned Allen" sounded suspiciously like one of your aliases and it decided me on coming back.'

'I think I've lost my touch. The past two cons I've tried have gone wrong.'

'Why don't you fill me in on everything and I'll tell you what I think. Maybe an objective perspective is what you need.'

We told her about the idea of the con and everyone who was involved. Louie pulled out a Polaroid photo she had taken the other night when we were celebrating the good news. She knew Rod and Maggie. 'That's Gary-- he's American--and that's Ellen.'

Sophie studied the photo intensely. 'I knew she looked familiar. Her name wasn't Ellen at the orphanage.'

'You were at an orphanage?' I couldn't believe it. Just when you thought you knew someone.

'It's something I don't like talking about. Where are you going?' She directed this at Louie who was rushing into Sophie's room.

'We've got to get dressed quick.'

'Why? What's the deal?'

She stuck her head out the door. 'The other night we were all talking about what we were doing for Christmas and Ellen said that she was going home to spend it with her family!'

I got up and talked to her through the closed bedroom door. 'So, maybe she was adopted?' I looked at Sophie who shook her head. 'Okay! Wait for me!'

After I had dressed, we locked up the flat and headed outside. 'Right. Now that we've got ourselves a suspect, where do we go? If it was Ellen, she could be anywhere right now,' said Louie.

'She doesn't know that we've caught on to her. She doesn't know about Sophie. She might just stay home and leave the day after tomorrow.'

'Public transport is running on a holiday schedule, so she'll have a harder time getting anywhere,' added Sophie.

'That's fine, but where does she live?'

'Good question. We'll have to go to the office and check the files. I asked that everyone give me an address and phone number.' We walked to the Tottenham Court Road station and board a train bound for St. Paul's. It wasn't as crowded as a normal weekday, but it wasn't as empty as I thought it would be. I felt sorry for the engineers who were missing Christmas morning with their families. Christ! What about my own family? They'd never forgive me if I missed Christmas with them--again.

I unlocked the office door and went inside. Sophie followed and smiled. 'Coming up in the world, eh?' She walked to the window. 'The Old Bailey. Nice touch.'

'Thanks.' I pulled out the file I was looking for. 'Here we go.' I ran my finger down the list. 'I've never heard of this street. Do either of you know it?'

'I'm just a transplant, remember?' said Louie. 'If it's not on or near a major artery, I'm lost.'

'I've never heard of it either. Do you think it's in the suburbs somewhere?'

'She doesn't look the suburban type to me. I think I should invest in an A to Z.'

'What about Gary? They always arrived together. Maybe he knows where she lives.'

'Good idea.' I picked up the phone and dialled the number. 'Gary, this is Nick. Yeah, Merry Christmas. Listen, do you know where we can find Ellen. Why? She took something of Louie's by mistake. Yeah, it's pretty important. The South Bank? That narrows it down a lot. Can you be more specific? You took the Tube. Which line; Victoria, Bakerloo, or Northern? Black? What do you mean, "black"? Oh, colour-coded.'

'Northern,' Sophie mouthed.

'Okay, that's the Northern line. You got off at a major train station. Near a big church? Like a cathedral? No, you've been a great help, Gary.' I hung up the phone. 'If he's gonna stay here, he's got to learn to give proper directions.'

Louie took a map out of her purse. 'Like I said, I get lost. Here's the Northern line and the South Bank stops. The only one that remotely fits his description is the London Bridge stop: major station and Southwark Cathedral.'

'Looks like we've got a little trip ahead of us,' said Soph.

'That map doesn't list her street, does it?' She shook her head. 'Didn't think so. Let's get going then. I've got plans for the holidays.'

During the ride I thought about Ellen. I should have realised form the beginning that her naïveté was just an act. Especially when she was flattering me on that walk back to the office. She must have had this thing planned once we asked her. Part of me wanted to kill her, and part of me admired her for carrying it off. But how did she get the signature? If she were a forger as well, she'd still need one to copy. I'd have to ask her about that.

We found Ellen's building with only a little difficulty. It seemed that everyone we asked had their own idea of where it was. We went by the majority and thus found ourselves in a small cul-de-sac with her building on the cusp. She had a top floor flat and we trudged up the steps with Sophie in the rear. I rang the bell and waited. We knew she was home, we heard her moving about.

She answered thee door with a rushed air. 'Oh, Nick, Louie. What a surprise. I was just getting ready to go to my parents' for the holidays. I guess I can spare a few minutes.'

'This isn't a social call, Ellen,' I said.

'Oh?'

'We know you have no family, that you were raised in an orphanage,' said Louie.

'We also know that Ellen isn't your real name.'

'What nonsense! Who's been saying such things?'

Louie and I parted so Sophie could confront her. 'Hello, Jackie. It's been a long time.'

Seeing that her lie had fallen apart, Ellen--or Jackie--collapsed onto the sofa. 'God, I really thought I pulled it off.'

I sat next to her. 'What made you do it? You were going to get a decent enough cut.'

'After all the years I've spent doing baby scams and small-time thefts, I was due for something big. How old do you think I am? Twenty? Twenty-two? I'll be thirty next year, and what have I got to show for it? Bugger all! I figured I had worked hard enough and it was my turn in the sun.'

'Now we know why, but how?' asked Louie.

'Let's just say I have certain "assets" and I know how to use them. I approached one of the junior members of the Board--not as myself, of course--and convinced him to look at your operation. How else do you think you got noticed?' She was quite smug about it. 'I was allowed access to his office and discovered that he was one of the signers on the account. I took one of the account slips and hid it in my purse until I had perfected his signature-- more of a childish scrawl, actually. It was easy.'

'But the manager at the bank said it was a man who got the money.'

She looked at Louie. 'You haven't been doing this long, have you? I dressed up as a man. A good con artist is also an actor. Why am I telling you all this, anyway?'

'Because we're not the police,' said Sophie.

'And we're not going to turn you in,' I added. 'Why should we? I know Rod would want to hang you from the nearest tree, but I don't think we're in the best position to judge. You'll return the money--anonymously, of course--and take your cut as planned. Then you can go on your way. We won't tell the others what happened, but, if you ever try to pull this again, word'll spread do fast, that no one'll go near you. Understood?'

She nodded and shook my hand.

'What are you going to do for Christmas?' asked Louie.

'Now that I've had to cancel my earlier plans, nothing.'

'Why don't you come with us to Nick's?' asked Sophie.

Ellen turned to me questioningly. 'Well. . .'

'My mum's place, actually. She does an open house for the neighbours so you don't have to worry about being an imposition. It could be fun, just what you need.'

Ellen smiled. 'You've got yourself a deal.' She put on her coat and picked up her purse, inside which was the bank check.

Louie went with Ellen to drop it off at the local police station while Sophie and I took the Tube back to my flat so I could get the presents for my family. She took a small package out of her bag and handed it to me. 'Happy Christmas, Nick.'

Surprised, I opened it after giving her mine. Inside was a beautiful ________. 'Soph, it's wonderful, thank you.' I kissed her full on the lips. I pulled away once I came to my senses. 'Sorry. Got carried away.'

She smiled and reached into her pocket, pulled out a small twig and held it over her head. 'You have to now. Mistletoe is a Christmas tradition.'

I laughed and kissed her again. Christmas is truly a wonderful time of year!