In the early morning of December 20th, Steve dropped by Oscar’s office to present him with his traditional gift before bidding him farewell for an entire month. He had decided to grant himself an extended vacation during the holidays in order to spend quality time with his parents. After bidding farewell to his boss he drove to the airport and flew to Ojai ahead of time to surprise his folks.
Following a smooth landing in California Steve drove a rental down the country road leading to his family farm. His face wore a permanent grin as he mentally relished his freedom for the next four weeks. So absorbed in his thoughts was he that he barely noticed the Sedan in front of him screeching to a halt. He slammed on the breaks but the distance between the two vehicles made it impossible for Steve to avoid collision. To his horror he sent the Sedan spinning out of control and witnessed it ending its course in a deep ravine.
After shaking the dizziness away from a blow to the forehead, Steve bounced out of his car and dashed to the driver’s aid. He hurtled down the hill to the smashed car, adrenalin coursing through his veins at the strong scent of gasoline. He adjusted his photo lens to detect any sign of fire as he continued his frenetic slide down the hill. He peeked inside the crushed carcass to spot a little girl unconscious in the back seat. With one bionic pull he yanked the door of its hinges and stretched out to reach the girl still strapped to her seat. He ripped the seatbelt off her and gently lifted her in his arms to pull her out to safety. He carried her to a safe spot where he gingerly laid her on the ground. As he returned for her parents, the car exploded, hurling Steve backwards, his back hitting the ground with a muffled thud that momentarily knocked the wind out of him. As he elbowed himself into a sitting position and took in the horrid sight of a mother and father being burnt to death, a harrowing feeling grew in the pit of his stomach at the thought of causing this tragedy.
No time to dwell on the lost souls; he had to care for the sole survivor, a young girl he roughly estimated to be seven years old. He crawled over to her listless body sprawled on the ground and groped her neck to feel a pulse. He heaved an inward sigh of relief at the strong beat underneath his fingers. After giving her a cursory examination for any broken bones or bleeding wounds, he lifted her in his arms and scaled up the hill. The arduous climb up took longer than expected but thankfully, police cars had already converged to the scene of the accident. An ambulance arrived as Steve showed on top of the hill with the girl in his arms.
“Great timing, guys!” Steve heaved out, flashing a fleeting smile of gratitude to the two policemen as he carried the girl to the back of the ambulance.
“What happened?” one of the cops asked while helping Steve with the young victim.
“Accident. I’m partly to blame.” Before elaborating on his statement, he gently laid the girl down on the gurney and let the paramedics take over. He inhaled a deep breath to wash the remaining adrenalin from his system and then turned to the policeman anxious to get an account. “I was driving down the road when all over sudden the car in front of me screeched to a halt without any warning. I slammed on the breaks but I couldn’t avoid the collision. My car rear-ended them and they careened down the hill. I tried to save them all but the car blew up. I could only save the little girl.
“How many other passengers were in the car?”
“Two. A man and a woman. Presumably her parents.”
“We will need a deposition from you after the doctors check you out. Hop in the back of the ambulance. We’ll take care of your car. I just need your name and phone number.”
“Sure. I’m Steve Austin. And you can reach me …”
“The astronaut?” the starry-eyed policeman interrupted.
“Man! This is true honor to meet you, Colonel Austin. I won’t shake your hand in case there’s something sprained or broken.” Steve flashed a strained smile of gratitude.
“Oh and you can reach me at my parents’ house at 555-7856.”
After jogging down the information, the cop assisted him in the back of the ambulance and banged the doors shut.
At the hospital, Steve insisted on contacting his personal physician in Washington before any tests were to be conducted. Rudy spoke to one of his esteemed colleagues about Steve’s special nature and following a thorough examination and a few stitches above the right eyebrow, the doctor released his patient with instructions to take it slow until the headaches subsided.
“Thanks Doc.” He took the shirt handed over to him and slipped it on. “I’ve been meaning to ask you. How’s the little girl?”
“A bit shaken up but otherwise she’s fine.”
“Physically, that is.”
“We haven’t been able to locate any relatives. We’ll have to contact Child Welfare.”
“I was wondering if I could bring her to my folks’ house instead. I’m sure she’d prefer spending a good old-fashioned Christmas with a tree, presents and eggnog than at a center for lost children.
“I can’t argue with that. Are you sure you want to? I mean this child is in shock. She may not be receptive to your kindness no matter how hard you try.”
“I’ve been there myself, doctor. I know how to handle it,” Steve said confidently as he tucked his shirt inside his trousers. His face puckered at the pain radiating through his side. “Guess I’m still a bit tender back there.
“That’s why you need to take it slow for the next few days. I’ve prescribed medication for your headaches. Here.” He tore the sheet from his prescription pad and gave it to Steve. “Take this down to a pharmacy to have it filled out.”
“I’ll have the little girl ready for you in about an hour. In the meantime you could go grab a bite to eat down at the cafeteria.”
“And have me poisoned?” Steve joked, throwing an elfish wink at the doctor. “I go down a few blocks and see if I can find a small bistro.”
“Across the street. Alfredo’s. If you love Italian that’s the place to satiate your hunger.”
“I might pass on pastas given my the killer headache, but thanks anyway. ”
After snacking on a light ham sandwich that he washed down with coffee, Steve returned to the hospital. He stepped up to the Nurses’ station to enquire about the girl. The nurse directed him to the waiting room where she sat quietly with another nurse by her side.
Steve walked up to the two ladies and hunched down before the timid little girl. “Hi, I’m Steve. What’s your name?”
The girl lowered her head to hide her shyness; silence was her only answer.
“Her name’s Ellen. Ellen Creyton,” the nurse answered.
“Ellen? That’s my mom’s name. She’s going to be delighted to see you.”
“Ellen, this is the nice man who is going to take you to spend Christmas with his family.” The girl risked a glance at Steve who flashed his trademark lopsided smile. Ellen responded with a small shy grin of her own. The nurse could tell the handsome man had already won her heart. Ellen looked up at the nurse who nodded her approval of Steve. Without uttering a single complaint, she slid down the seat and clasped Steve’s hand.
“Is there any further instructions from the doctor as to how to care for her?”
“Other than the medicine he gave you, she doesn’t need anything more than a lot of tender loving care.”
“That’s what we intend to smother her with.” He tugged on Ellen’s hand to steer her towards the exit.
“Colonel Austin,” the nurse hailed from behind as she hurried up to him. “Word of advice: don’t get too attached,” she spoke in a hushed tone so that the girl wouldn’t hear. “ I speak from experience.”
“Thank you. I’ll try my best but I think it’s already a lost cause,” he sighed resignedly, gazing at the little girl who reciprocated his smile.
Helen and Jim were anxiously waiting the arrival of their son with his special guest. Helen was in a tizzy after hearing about her baby’s accident that she could hardly sit still. She kept gazing out the window hoping to get a peek at a taxi driving up the driveway. When it finally did, she whooped with joy; her heart pounding hard inside her chest as she breezed past Jim on her way outside to meet with her son.
“Steve!” Helen exulted with outstretched arms ready to embrace her boy. “I was so worried.” She clenched him into a soul-stirring hug, heedful not to squeeze too hard for risk of hurting him. “How are you? Let me look at you.” She brushed a trembling hand against his cheek as she took in the few cuts on his face, mostly noticing the bandage on his forehead. “How’s the head?”
“Not bad, considering. The doctor gave me some painkiller to lessen the headaches. Otherwise I’m just fine and so happy to be here.” He fell into his mom’s arms once more to feel her motherly presence in the wake of a near-fatal tragedy. He pulled back and turned to Ellen standing beside him. “Mom, this is Ellen.”
“Ellen?” she exclaimed in surprise. “Why I’m Helen too. Nice to me you, young lady.” Helen offered her hand but the shy little girl cringed behind Steve’s legs.
“She’s a little shy. I took me a while to get her to trust me…I think. She won’t say much.”
“That’s understandable under the circumstances. Bring her inside.”
As Steve took the small hand in his he could feel her grip tightening around his fingers. He glanced down at her to notice her face all puckered and her eyes bulging out of their sockets. He stopped and squatted down to clasp both her hands. “What’s the matter, Sweetie?” His brows knitted in worry as her tiny frame began to shiver. “Hey! Don’t be afraid.” He pulled her close to him and held her for the longest time, sensing she needed to feel secured. “I’m here. No one’s going to hurt you, Ellen.” He slowly peeled her off him and took her hand to lead her inside the house.
Whatever qualms she experienced rapidly vanished upon setting her sight on the glittering Christmas tree. Steve threw a knowing wink at his folks who nodded back.
“Would you like some milk and Christmas cookies?” Helen asked the starry-eyed child. “I just made a fresh batch.”
The shy girl cowered behind Steve’s legs and gave a faint nod of the head. While Helen went to fetch the snack, Steve brought her closer to the tree. Her little face lit up with glee at the sight of all the presents underneath. “Why has Santa Claus brought your gifts early? He’s supposed to wait till Christmas,” she asked, perplexed. She stared up at an embarrassed Steve who turned to his father for help.
“Ellen you see Santa has so many houses to visit on Christmas Eve that he drops off the gifts early where there are no young children.”
“Ah I see.”
Steve heaved an inward sigh of relief at the little girl’s understanding of his father’s spontaneous explanation.
Meanwhile in another part of town….
“I hope you didn’t come here to tell me you failed?” a scruffy-looking man chided.
“I couldn’t help it. There was an accident,” the woman answered sheepishly.
“Is Austin dead?”
“No. But the people in the other car were”.
“I don’t care about these people,” he lashed out at the woman, making it harder for her to keep her composure. “All I care is to see Austin dead.” He opened the top drawer of his desk and took out a small vial. “Here, take this. That should do the job. Two drops and he’s dead,” he crowed with a Machiavellian grin.
“How do I go about trickling the drops in his glass?”
“You figure it out. I want Austin dead by the end of the week,” he commanded authoritatively with steely eyes that bore a hole into her.
“Couldn’t this wait till January? After all this is Christmas.”
“Don’t you go soft on me, Debra. Just do your job.”
Although a professional hitman, Debra Carson didn’t feel right killing a man she’d admired for a greater part of her life, but was aware of the consequences should she fail at her task. She squeezed the vial in her hand and gave an acknowledging nod of the head to her boss before exiting the grand office. She closed the huge oak door and leaned against it as she tried to digest the heinous assignment given to her. Could she carry out the plan?
Sitting in her car parked across from the entrance to the Elgins’ farm Debra began plotting her next move. She struggled against the dictates of her conscience prodding her to drop the assignment and flee the country. Emotions were lethal in her line of duty and therefore had to be eradicated. She had to convince herself that Steve Austin was merely a pawn on the chessboard of international espionage and that he had to be eliminated in order to win the game.
She opened the glove compartment and took the vial in her hand. She marveled at the deathly power it held to end a life in mere seconds. A few drops and it’s all over. The urge to throw it out the window was overshadowed by her boss’s threat to kill her. She had no other alternative but to carry out her instructions.
“This is the last time,” she mumbled angrily to herself, clutching the vial in a fist of fury. She leaned her head back on the headrest and inhaled a deep shuddering breath. “I’m sorry Steve,” she exhaled heavily. “I wish to God it was someone else.” She closed her eyes in utter prostration; her heart aching at the mere thought of poisoning the hero she’d worshiped for many moons. A crunching noise roused out of her torpor. She looked out the window to see Steve’s car heading out towards town. She placed the vial back in the glove compartment before putting on the ignition. “It’s now or never,” she signed resignedly with a heavy heart as she put the car in forward gear.
She parked her car at a safe distance from Steve’s and watched him step out and walk over to the passenger door. Debra’s heart sank to her shorts at the sight of the little girl bouncing out of the car and clasping Steve’s hand to head inside a toy store. “Why couldn’t he have been alone?” she deplored.
She followed the pair inconspicuously through the store but found it hard to remain focus on the assignment at hand as each of the girl’s squeal of delight and peal of laughter made her heart quail. She couldn’t afford to drop her armor and allow emotion to soften her. “Focus, Debra. Focus,” she berated, finding it impossible to reason with herself.
She saw the perfect opportunity to execute her task during a lunch break. She entered the restaurant behind Steve and Ellen and asked to be seated at the table next to theirs. She hid her face behind the menu, occasionally peering over the rim to catch glimpses of the pair enjoying a light conversation. She willed Steve away so she could approach the table and engage in small talk with the girl while she deftly trickled the drops in his glass of water. As luck would have it Steve left the table to visit the men’s room, leaving Ellen alone to pour over her menu.
Debra collected her thoughts and summoned up her courage to go over to the next table. “Excuse me Miss. I wonder if you know where I can find the ladies’ room?” She kept her eyes on Ellen as she discreetly hovered her hand over Steve’s glass. She was about to drop the lethal solution when he surprised her from behind. She swiftly retrieved her hand and hid the flask inside her fist.
“Hello? Something we can help you with?” Steve asked Debra whose face flushed in embarrassment.
“She asked me where to find the ladies’ room.”
“Oh, it’s down that corridor,” Steve motioned with the hand, “and first door on your left.” He cocked his head and frowned quizzically at the woman’s familiar face. “Have we met before?”
“I don’t..don’t think so,” she stuttered nervously, frightened at the thought of her identity being uncloaked. “But I do know you. The famous astronaut. It’s an honor to finally meet you,” she improvised to veer off topic. She extended her hand and he clasped it in a friendly handshake.
“Are you dining alone?” Steve asked casually, hoping the lovely lady would accept to join them for dinner.
“As a matter of fact I am. “ Debra realized she spoke out of haste; throwing herself in the lion’s den. A lengthy conversation was bound to give Steve an idea of her identity.
“Would you like to join us?”
“Maybe I shouldn’t,” she turned to Ellen whose consenting smile made it harder to refuse the invitation. “I see you already have a dinner date.”
“Ellen? Do you mind?” Steve asked, already knowing the answer. Ellen bowed her head shyly and gave a small nod of approval.
The threesome enjoyed each other’s company for the next two hours. Smitten with the pretty blonde Steve ventured to ask her on a formal date.
“I thank you Steve, but I can’t,” Debra replied with a small quaver in her voice.
“I thought we were getting along?”
“We are and I’d love nothing more than to get better acquainted. It’s just…”
“No it’s not that. Please just leave it at that. It’s better if we don’t see each other anymore.”
Steve shrugged and shook his head in dejection. “It’s a shame. Just as we were having a good time.”
“Steve, don’t get me wrong. I would like to go out with you but I can’t.” She looked away to hide the tears threatening to her eyes. “God why did this have to happen?” she chided herself.
“Hey! “ Seeing the desperation etched on her face, Steve took her by the shoulders and gazed into her teary eyes. “What is it?” He brushed his hand against her bedewed cheek. The feel of it triggered a flood of tears.
“I can’t tell you,” she sobbed.
“Okay. I won’t force you. But I can’t help feel responsible for making you cry. Whatever the reason might be I’m the guilty party.”
“Yes you are,” she answered angrily in spite of herself. “Why did you have to be so nice?”
“Steve,” she began to say, then hesitated. “I…I…”
“I was hired to kill you,” she breathed out in hushed tones so Ellen wouldn’t hear.
Steve shrunk back at that confession. His stare followed her hand as it pulled out the vial from her jacket pocket. “I was ordered to trickle a few drops of this lethal poison into your glass, only I couldn’t do it. I’m a professional hitman. Never failed in my tasks before but somehow I couldn’t carry out this assignment.”
She shook her head. “Lots of reasons. I’m not supposed to have any emotion.” She gazed into his bewitching blue eyes and leaned forward to brush her lips against his. “You won’t see me again, Steve. I’ll go into hiding and never bother you again. But beware. Someone wants you dead and no doubt he’ll hire another gunman to finish the job.”
“Who is it?”
“I never ask my clients’ names. I just get paid for doing the job.”
“Do you know his face?”
She nodded silently.
“Good. Then once we identify him I’ll get my boss to send a few men to his hideout and we’ll put him away for good.”
“You think it’s that easy?” she scoffed.
“We’ve dealt with those kinds of varmints before and it won’t be the last time. As for you you’ll get protection. A new identity.”
“Steve, it won’t work. He’ll find me whatever I do, wherever I hide.”
“I won’t let him get to you.” He pulled her into his arms and held her in a tight embrace. He suddenly felt a tug on his pants. He looked down to see little Ellen staring up at him.
“Is everything alright?” she asked, concerned.
“Yes, Sweetheart. Everything is fine. Debra is going to be staying with us for a few days. Would you like that?”
Ellen nodded enthusiastically and clasped Debra’s hand. “Looks like you’ve made another friend,” Steve remarked to the distraught woman whose face lit up with glee.
Back at the house Steve contacted Oscar to send over a list of FBI and OSI wanted criminals to enable Debra to make a positive identification. Once she did, Oscar dispatched a team of agents to break into the man’s hideout but somehow he had flown the coop hours before.
Meanwhile Debra felt at ease enough with the Elgins to open up about her past. Steve discovered that Patricia Atkins was her birth name, one that was known only to her parents and a few close friends.
Two days after Christmas, the phone rang. All were on edge as to what horrible news might befall them. They remained rooted to the spot as Steve mustarded up the courage to answer the phone.
“This is Steve Austin. Any news?”
“Yes we do,” replied the doctor on the other end. “We heard of a living relative. Problem is we can’t locate her.”
“What her name?”
Steve’s eyes widened in surprise. “Did you say Patricia Atkins?” he confirmed, turning to the woman sitting on the sofa. She shot Steve a puzzled look as she slowly stepped up to him. “I think I know that name. I’ll make enquiries and get back to you.”
“Okay. In the meantime we’ll keep looking. How is Ellen doing?”
Steve glanced over at the tree under which the little girl was amusing herself with a giant dollhouse. “She’s doing splendidly. No complain. Only a few recurring nightmares about the accident but that’s to be expected. We have it under control so far.”
“I’ll be waiting to hear from you. Happy New Year.”
“You too. Thank you, Doctor.” Steve hung up the phone and kept his hand clenched around the receiver in deep thought.
“What about me?” Debra asked.
“Apparently you are Ellen’s only known relative.”
“That can’t be. I have no family. At least I don’t think I have. They are all dead. Could be another Patricia Atkins.”
“Maybe, but look at her,” Steve motioned to Ellen playing with her dolls. “Don’t you see a family resemblance?”
“Perhaps the hair, but other than that…”
“I say you are this little girl’s salvation.”
“Steve you can’t be serious! Even if I was related to her, do you see me taking care of a child?”
“Yes,” His answer was swift and sure. “I’ve seen you with her. You’re a natural. You’d make a great mother.”
“I’m a wanted criminal.”
“Not for long. Oscar is arranging it so that you can be exonerated. All you have to do is come clean about your past jobs and the people who hired you.”
Debra huffed out an annoyed sigh. “How can you trust me? You barely know me. I could abandon the child and flee the country for all you know.”
“Why do you care about what happens to me?”
“First because I feel you deserve a second chance to redeem yourself and I know you’re willing to work at that. Most importantly you’re Ellen’s last known relative; her last chance at happiness”
Seeing how he wasn’t getting through to her, Steve decided to take Debra out for a walk in order to further discuss the matter away from innocent ears. It took some major convincing but in the end Debra agreed to let Steve handle her case. The bonus was that she would have the chance to get better acquainted with her handsome suitor.
Two weeks after Christmas, the threesome flew to Washington where Steve offered the hospitality of his humble abode to his two favourite ladies. Debra had eased herself into the role of mother. She and Ellen had bonded much to Steve’s relief who loathed the idea of having to send the little girl to an orphanage.
Oscar had managed to get Debra a hearing on her past activities but the FBI deemed her too dangerous to let her roam about freely. However they agreed to release her into Steve’s custody providing she remained in Washington.
The bet was on as to how many days would cascade down before Steve and Debra announced their engagement. Steve was somewhat reluctant to ask the pretty blond’s hand in marriage without consulting with his parents first. Debra’s past was still an issue even after 16 months of courtship, but the lady had proven herself worthy of becoming Mrs. Steve Austin.
She wed her dashing prince under her real name of Patricia Atkins and together the couple legally adopted Ellen. Two years later, the little girl became big sister to a little brother.