Kerry sprang her little surprise on me the week before Christmas. And the worst thing about it was, I was no longer fat. The forty-pound bowlful of jelly that had once hung over my belt was long gone.
"That doesn't matter," she said. "You can wear a pillow."
"Why me?" I said.
"They made me entertainment chairperson, for one thing. And for another, you're the biggest and jolliest man I know."
"Ho, ho, ho," I said sourly.
"It's for a good cause. Lots of good causes--needy children, the homeless, three other charities. Where's your Christmas spirit?"
"I don't have any. Why don't you ask Eberhardt?"
"Are you serious? Eberhardt?"
"Somebody else, then. Anybody else."
"You," she said.
"Uh-uh. No. I love you madly and I'll do just about anything for you, but not this. This is where I draw theline."
"Oh, come on, quit acting like a scrooge."
"I am a scrooge. Bah, humbug."
"You like kids, you know you do--"
"I don't like kids. Where did you get that idea?"
"I've seen you with kids, that's where."
"An act, just an act."
"So put it on again for the Benefit. Five o'clock until nine, four hours out of your life to help the less fortunate. Is that too much to ask?"
"In this case, yes."
She looked at me. Didn't say anything, just looked at me.
"No," I said. "There's no way I'm going to wear a Santa Claus suit and dangle little kiddies on my knee. You hear me? Absolutely no way!"
"Ho, ho, ho," I said.
The little girl perched on my knee looked up at me out of big round eyes. It was the same sort of big round-eyed stare Kerry had given me the previous week.
"Are you really Santa Claus?" she asked.
"Yes indeedy. And who would you be?"
"That's a pretty name. How old are you, Melissa?"
"Six and a half."
"Six and a half. Well, well. Tell old Santa what it is you want for Christmas."
"What sort of dolly?"
"A big one."
"Just a big one? No special kind?"
"Yes. A dolly that you put water in her mouth and she wee-wees on herself."
I sighed. "Ho, ho, ho," I said.
The Gala Family Christmas Charity Benefit was being held in the Lowell High School gymnasium, out near Golden Gate Park. Half a dozen San Francisco businesses were sponsoring it, including Bates and Carpenter, the ad agency where Kerry works as a senior copywriter, so it was a pretty elaborate affair. The decoration committee had dressed the gym up to look like a cross between Santa's Village and the Dickens Christmas Fair. There was a huge gaudy tree, lots of red-and-green bunting and seasonal decorations, big clusters of holly and mistletoe, even fake snow; and the staff members were costumed as elves and other creatures imaginary and real. Carols and traditional favorites poured out of loudspeakers. Booths positioned along the walls dispensed food-- meat pies, plum pudding, gingerbread, and other sweets--and a variety of handmade toys and crafts, all donated. For the adults, there were a couple of city-sanctioned games of chance and a bar supplying wassail and other Christmassy drinks.
For the kiddies, there was me.
I sat on a thronelike chair on a raised dais at one end, encased in false whiskers and wig and paunch, red suit and cap, black boots and belt. All around me were cotton snowdrifts, a toy bag overflowing with gaily wrapped packages, a shiny papier-mache version of Santa's sleigh with some cardboard reindeer. A couple of young women dressed as elves were there, too, to act as my helpers. Their smiles were as phony as my whiskers and paunch; they were only slightly less miserable than I was. For snaking out to one side and halfway across the packed enclosure was a line of little children the Pied Piper of Hamlin would have envied, some with their parents, most without, and all eager to clamber up onto old St. Nick's lap and share with him their innermost desires.
Inside the Santa suit, I was sweating--and not just because it was warm in there. I imagined that every adult eye was on me, that snickers were lurking in every adult throat. This was ridiculous, of course, the more so because none of the two hundred or so adults in attendance knew Santa's true identity I had made Kerry swear an oath that she wouldn't tell anybody, especially not my partner, Eherhardt, who would never let me hear the end of it if he knew. No more than half a dozen of those present knew me anyway, this being a somewhat ritzy crowd; and of those who did know me, three were members of the private security staff.
Still, I felt exposed and vulnerable and acutely uncomfortable. I felt the way you would if you suddenly found yourself naked on a crowded city street. And I kept thinking: What if one of the newspaper photographers recognizes me and decides to take my picture? What if Eberhardt finds out? Or Barney Rivera or Joe DeFalco or one of my other so-called friends?
Another kid was on his way toward my lap. I smiled automatically and sneaked a look at my watch. My God! It seemed as though I'd been here at least two hours, but only forty-five minutes had passed since the opening ceremonies. More than three hours left to go. Close to two hundred minutes. Nearly twelve thousand seconds...
The new kid climbed onto my knee. While he was doing that, one of those near the front of the line, overcome at the prospect of his own imminent audience with the Nabob of the North Pole, began to make a series of all-too-familiar sounds. Another kid said, "Oh, gross, he's gonna throw up!" Fortunately, however, the sick one's mother was with him; she managed to get him out of there in time, to the strains of "Walking in a Winter Wonderland."
I thought: What if he'd been sitting on my lap instead of standing in line?
I thought: Kerry, I'll get you for this, Kerry.
I listened to the new kid's demands, and thought about all the other little hopeful piping voices I would have to listen to, and sweated and smiled and tried not to squirm. If I squirmed, people would start to snicker--the kids as well as the adults. They'd think Santa had to go potty and was trying not to wee-wee on himself.
This one had cider-colored hair. He said, "You're not Santa Claus."
"Sure I am. Don't I look like Santa?"
"No. Your face isn't red and you don't have a nose like a cherry." "What's your name, sonny?"
"Ronnie. You're not fat, either."
"Sure I'm fat. Ho, ho, ho."
"No you're not."
"What do you want for Christmas, Ronnie?"
"I won't tell you. You're a fake. I don't need you to give me toys. I can buy my own toys."
"Good for you."
"I don't believe in Santa Claus anyway," he said. He was about nine, and in addition to being belligerent, he had mean little eyes. He was probably going to grow up to be an ax murderer. Either that, or a politician.
"If you don't want to talk to Santa," I said, feigning patience, "then how about getting off Santa's lap and letting one of the other boys and girls come up‹"
"No." Without warning he punched me in the stomach. Hard. "Hah!" he said. "A pillow. I knew your gut was just a pillow."
"Get off Santa's lap, Ronnie."
I leaned down close to him so only he could hear when I said, "Get off Santa's lap or Santa will take off his pillow and stuff it down your rotten little throat."
We locked gazes for about five seconds. Then, taking his time, Ronnie got down off my lap. And stuck his tongue out at me and said, "Asshole." And went scampering away into the crowd.
I put on yet another false smile behind my false beard. Said grimly to one of the elves, "Next."
While I was listening to an eight-year-old with braces and a homicidal gleam in his eye tell me he wanted "a tank that has this neat missile in it and you shoot the missile and it blows everything up when it lands," Kerry appeared with a cup in her hand. She motioned for me to join her at the far side of the dais, behind Santa's sleigh. I got rid of the budding warmonger, told the nearest elf I was taking a short break, stood up creakily and with as much dignity as l could muster, and made my way through the cotton snowdrifts to where Kerry stood.
She looked far better in her costume than I did in mine; in fact, she looked so innocent and fetching I forgot for the moment that l was angry with her. She was dressed as an angel-- all in white with a coat-hanger halo wrapped in tinfoil. If real angels looked like her, I couldn't wait to get to heaven.
She handed me the cup. It was full of some sort of punch with a funny-looking skinny brown thing floating on top. "I thought you could use a little Christmas cheer," she said.
"I can use a lot of Christmas cheer. Is this stuff spiked?"
"Of course not. Since when do you drink hard liquor?"
"Since I sat down on that throne over there."
"Oh, now, it can't be that bad."
"No? Let's see. A five-year-old screamed so loud in my left ear that I'm still partially deaf. A fat kid stepped on my foot and nearly broke a toe. Another kid accidentally kneed me in the crotch and nearly broke something else. Not three minutes ago, a mugger-in-training named Ronnie punched me in the stomach and called me an asshole. And those are just the lowlights."
"That didn't sound very sincere."
"The fact is," she said, "most of the kids love you. I overheard a couple of them telling their parents what a nice old Santa you are."
"Yeah." l tried some of the punch. It wasn't too bad, considering the suspicious brown thing floating in it. Must be a deformed clove, I decided; the only other alternative--something that had come out of the back end of a mouse--was unthinkable. "How much more of this does the nice old Santa have to endure?"
"Two and a half hours."
"God! I'll never make it."
"Don't be such a curmudgeon," she said. "It's two days before Christmas, we're taking in lots of money for the needy, and everybody's having a grand time except you. Well, you and Mrs. Simmons."
"Who's Mrs. Simmons?"
"Randolph Simmons's wife. You know, the corporate attorney. She lost her wallet somehow--all her credit cards and two hundred dollars in cash."
"That's too bad. Tell her I'll replace the two hundred if she'll agree to trade places with me right now."
Kerry gave me her sometimes-you're-exasperating look. "Just hang in there, Santa," she said and started away.
"Don't use that phrase around the kid named Ronnie," I called after her. "It's liable to give him ideas."
I had been back on the throne less than ten seconds when who should reappear but the little thug himself. Ronnie wasn't alone this time; he had a bushy-mustached, gray-suited, scowling man with him. The two of them clumped up onto the dais, shouldered past an elf with a cherubic little girl in hand, and confronted me.
The mustached guy said in a low, angry voice, "What the hell's the idea threatening my kid?"
Fine, dandy. This was all I needed--an irate father.
"Answer me, pal. What's the idea telling Ronnie you'd shove a pillow down his throat?"
"He punched me in the stomach," I said.
"So? That don't give you the right to threaten him. Hell, I ought to punch you in the stomach."
"Do it, Dad," Ronnie said, "punch the old fake."
Nearby, the cherub started to cry. Loudly.
We all looked at her. Ronnie's dad said, "What'd you do? Threaten her too?"
"Wanna see Santa! It's my turn, it's my turn!"
The elf said, "Don't worry, honey, you'll get your turn."
Ronnie's dad said, Apologize to any kid and we'll let it go."
Ronnie said, "Nah, sock him one!"
I said, "Mind telling me your name?"
It was Ronnie's dad I spoke to. He looked blank for two or three seconds, after which he said, "Huh?"
"Your name. What is it?"
"What do you want to know for?"
"You look familiar. Very familiar, in fact. I think maybe we've met before."
He stiffened. Then he took a good long wary look at me, as if trying to see past my whiskers. Then he blinked, and all of a sudden his righteous indignation vanished and was replaced by a nervousness that bordered on the furtive. He wet his lips, backed off a step.
"Come on, Dad," the little thug said, "punch his lights out."
His dad told him to shut up. To me he said, "Let's just forget the whole thing, okay?" and then he turned in a hurry and dragged a protesting Ronnie down off the dais and back into the crowd.
I stared after them. And there was a little click in my mind and I was seeing a photograph of Ronnie's dad as a younger man without the big bushy mustache--and with a name and number across his chest.
Ronnie's dad and I knew each other, all right. I had once had a hand in having him arrested and sent to San Quentin on a grand larceny rap.
Ronnie's dad was Markey Waters, a professional pickpocket and jack-of-all-thievery who in his entire life had never gone anywhere or done anything to benefit anyone except Markey Waters. So what was he doing at the Gala family Christmas Charity Benefit?
She lost her wallet somehow--all her credit cards and two hundred dollars in cash.
Practicing his trade, of course.
I should have stayed on the dais. I should have sent one of the elves to notify Security, while I perched on the throne and continued to act as a listening post for the kiddies.
But I didn't. Like a damned fool, I decided to handle the matter myself. Like a damned fool, I wet charging off into the throng with the cherub's cries of "Wanna see Santa, my turn to see Santa!" rising to a crescendo behind me.
The milling crush of celebrants had closed around Markey Waters and his son and I could no longer see them. But they had been heading at an angle toward the far assisted entrance, so that was the direction I took. The rubber boots I wore were a size too small and pinched my feet, forcing me to walk in a kind of mincing step; and as if that wasn't bad enough, the boots were new and made squeaking sounds like a pair of rusty hinges. I also had to do some jostling to get through and around little knots of people, and some of the looks my maneuvers elicited were not of the peace-on-earth, goodwill-to-men variety. One elegantly-dressed guy said, "Watch the hands, Claus," which might have been funny if I were not in such a dark and stormy frame of mind.
I was almost to the line of food booths along the east wall when I spotted Waters again, stopped near the second-to-last booth. One of his hands was clutching Ronnie's wrist and the other seas plucking at an obese woman in a red-and-green, diagonally striped dress that made her look like a gigantic candy cane. Markey had evidently collided with her in his haste and caused her to spill a cup of punch on herself; she was loudly berating him for being a clumsy oaf, and refusing to let go of a big handful of his jacket until she'd had her say.
I minced and squeaked through another cluster of adults, all of whom were singing in accompaniment to the song now playing over the loudspeakers. The song, of all damn things, was "Here Comes Santa Claus."
Waters may not have heard the song, hut its message got through to him just the same. He saw me bearing down on him from thirty feet away and understood immediately what my intentions were. His expression turned panicky; he tried to tear loose from the obese woman's grip. She hung on with all the tenacity of a bulldog.
I was ten feet from getting my bulldog hands on him when he proceeded to transform the Gala Family Christmas Charity Benefit from fun and frolic into chaos.
He let go of Ronnie's wrist, shouted, "Run, kid!" and then with his free hand he sucker-punched the obese woman on the uppermost of her chins. She not only released his jacket, she backpedaled into a lurching swoon that upset three other merrymakers and sent all four of them to the floor in a wild tangle of arms and legs. Voices rose in sudden alarm; somebody screamed like a fire siren going off. Bodies scattered out of harm's way. And Markey Waters went racing toward freedom.
I gave chase, dodging and juking and squeaking. I wouldn't have caught him except that while he was looking back over his shoulder to see how close I was, he tripped over something--his own feet, maybe--and down he went in a sprawl. I reached him just as he scrambled up again. I laid both hands on him and growled, "This is as far as you go, Waters," whereupon he kicked me in the shin and yanked free.
I yelled, he staggered off, I limped after him. Shouts and shrieks echoed through the gym; so did the thunder of running feet and thudding bodies as more of the party animals stampeded. A woman came rushing out from inside the farthest of the food booths, got in Markey's path, and caused him to veer sideways to keep from plowing into her. That in turn allowed me to catch up to him in front of the booth. I clapped a hand on his shoulder this time, spun him around--and he smacked me in the chops with something warm and soggy that had been sitting on the booth's serving counter.
A meat pie.
He hit me in the face with a pie.
That was the last indignity in a night of indignities. Playing Santa Claus was bad enough; playing Lou Costello to a thief's Bud Abbott was intolerable. I roared; I pawed at my eyes and scraped off beef gravy and false whiskers and white wig; I lunged and caught Waters again before he could escape; I wrapped my arms around him. It was my intention to twist him around and get him into a crippling hammerlock, but he was stronger than he looked. So instead we performed a kind of crazy, lurching bear-hug dance for a few seconds. That came to an end--predictably--when we banged into one of the booth supports and the whole front framework collapsed in a welter of wood and bunting and pie and paper plates and plastic utensils, with us in the middle of it all.
Markey squirmed out from underneath me, feebly, and tried to crawl away through the wreckage. I disentangled myself from some of the bunting, lunged at his legs, hung on when he tried to kick loose. And then crawled on top of him, flipped him over on his back, fended off a couple of ineffectual blows, and did some effectual things to his head until he stopped struggling and decided to become unconscious.
I sat astraddle him, panting and puffing and wiping gravy out of my eyes and nose. The tumult, I realized then, had subsided somewhat behind me. I could hear the loudspeakers again--the song playing now was "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer"--and I could hear voices lifted tentatively nearby. Just before a newspaper photographer came hurrying up and snapped a picture of me and my catch, just before a horrified Kerry and a couple of tardy security guards arrived, I heard two voices in particular speaking in awed tones.
"My God," one of them said, "what happened?"
"I dunno," the other one said. "But it sure looks like Santa Claus went berserk."
There were three of us in the football coach's office at the rear of the gym: Markey Waters and me and one of the security guards. It was fifteen minutes later and we were waiting for the arrival of San Francisco's finest. Waters was dejected and resigned, the guard was pretending not to be amused, and I was in a foul humor thanks to a combination of acute embarrassment, some bruises and contusions, and the fact that I had no choice but to keep on wearing the gravy-stained remnants of the Santa Claus suit. It was what I'd come here in; my own clothes were in Kerry's apartment.
On the desk between Waters and me was a diamond-and-sapphire brooch, a fancy platinum cigarette case, and a gold money clip containing three crisp fifty-dollar bills. We had found all three items nestled companionably inside Markey's jacket pocket. I prodded the brooch with a finger, which prompted the guard to say, "Nice haul. The brooch alone must be worth a couple of grand."
I didn't say anything. Neither did Markey.
The owner of the gold clip and the three fifties had reported them missing to Security just before Waters and I staged our minor riot; the owners of the brooch and cigarette case hadn't made themselves known yet, which was something of a tribute to Markey's light-fingered talents--talents that would soon land him back in the slammer on another grand larceny rap.
He had had his chin resting on his chest; now he raised it and looked at me. "My kid," he said, as if he'd just remembered he had one. "He get away?"
"No. One of the other guards nabbed him out front."
"Just as well. Where is he?"
"Being held close by. He's okay."
Markey let out a heavy breath. "I shouldn't of brought him along," he said.
"So why did you?"
"It's Christmas and the papers said this shindig was for kids, too. Ronnie and me don't get out together much since his mother ran out on us two years ago."
"Uh-huh," I said. "And besides, you figured it would be easier to make your scores if you had a kid along as camouflage."
He shrugged. "You, though--I sure didn't figure on somebody like you being here. What in hell's a private dick doing dressed up in a Santa Claus suit?"
"I've been asking myself that question all night."
"I mean, how can you figure a thing like that?" Markey said. "Ronnie comes running up, he says it's not really Santa up there and the guy pretending to be Santa threatened him, said he'd shove a pillow down the kid's throat. What am I supposed to do? I'd done a good night's work, I wanted to get out of here while the getting was good, but I couldn't let some jerk get away with threatening my kid, could I? I mean, I'm a father, too, right?" He let out another heavy breath. "I wish I wasn't a father," he said.
I said, "What about the wallet, Markey?"
"The wallet and the two hundred in cash that was in it."
"This stuff here isn't all you swiped tonight. You also got a wallet belonging to a Mrs. Randolph Simmons. It wasn't on you and neither was the two hundred. What'd you do with them?"
"I never scored a wallet," he said. "Not tonight."
"I swear it. The other stuff, sure, you got me on that. But I'm telling you, I didn't score a wallet tonight."
I scowled at him. But his denial had the ring of truth; he had no reason to lie about the wallet. Well, then? Had Mrs. Simmons lost it after all? If that was the case, then I'd gone chasing after Waters for no good reason except that he was a convicted felon. I felt the embarrassment warming my face again. What if he hadn't dipped anybody tonight? I'd have looked like an even bigger fool than I did right now...
Something tickled my memory and set me to pursuing a different and more productive line of thought. Oh, hell--of course. I'd been right in the first place; Mrs. Randolph Simmons's wallet had been stolen, not lost. And I knew now w ho had done the stealing.
But the knowledge didn't make me feel any better. If anything, it made me feel worse.
"Empty your pockets," I said.
"Because I told you to, that's what for."
"I don't have to do what you tell me."
"If you don't, I'll empty them for you."
"I want a lawyer," he said.
"You're too young to need a lawyer. Now empty your pockets before I smack you one."
Ronnie glared at me. I glared back at him. "If you smack me," he said, "it's police brutality." Nine years old going on forty.
"I'm not the police, remember? This is your last chance, kid: empty the pockets or else."
"Ahhh," he said, but he emptied the pockets.
He didn't have Mrs. Randolph Simmons's wallet, but he did have her two hundred dollars. Two hundred and four dollars, to be exact. I don't need you to give me toys. l can buy my own toys. Sure. Two hundred and four bucks can buy a lot of toys, not to mention a lot of grief.
"What'd you do with the wallet, Ronnie?"
"Dumped it somewhere nearby, right?"
"I dunno what you're talking about."
"No? Then where'd you get the money?"
"I found it."
"Uh-huh. In Mrs. Randolph Simmons's purse."
"Your old man put you up to it, or was it your own idea?"
He favored me with a cocky little grin. "I'm smart," he said. "I'm gonna be just like my dad when I grow up."
"Yeah," I said sadly. "A chip off the old block if ever there was one."
Kerry and I were sitting on the couch in her living room. I sat with my head tipped back and my eyes closed; I had a thundering headache and a brain clogged with gloom. It had been a long, long night, full of all sorts of humiliations; and the sight of a nine-year-old kid, even a thuggish nine-year-old kid, being carted off to the Youth Authority at the same time his father was being carted off to the Hall of Justice was a pretty unfestive one.
I hadn't seen the last of the humiliations, either. Tonight's fiasco would get plenty of tongue-in-cheek treatment in the morning papers, complete with photographs--half a dozen reporters and photographers had arrived at the gym in tandem with the police--and so there was no way Eberhardt and my other friends could help but find out. I was in for weeks of sly and merciless ribbing.
Kerry must have intuited my headache because she moved over close beside me and began to massage my temples. She's good at massage; some of the pain began to ease almost immediately. None of the gloom, though. You can't massage away gloom.
After a while she said, "I guess you blame me."
"Why should I blame you?"
"Well, if I hadn't talked you into playing Santa..."
"You didn't talk me into anything; I did it because I wanted to help you and the Benefit. No, I blame myself for what happened. I should have handled Markey Waters better. If I had, the Benefit wouldn't have come to such a bad end and you'd have made a lot more money for the charities."
"We made quite a bit as it is," Kerry said. "And you caught a professional thief and saved four good citizens from losing valuable personal property."
"And put a kid in the Youth Authority for Christmas."
"You're not responsible for that. His father is."
"Sure, I know. But it doesn't make me feel any better."
She was silent for a time. At the end of which she leaned down and kissed me, warmly.
I opened my eyes. "What was that for?"
"For being who and what you are. You grump and grumble and act the curmudgeon, but that's just a facade. Underneath you're a nice caring man with a big heart."
"Yeah. Me and St. Nick."
"Exactly." She looked at her watch. "It is now officially the twenty-fourth--Christmas Eve. How would you like one of your presents a little early?"
"Depends on which one."
"Oh, I think you'll like it." She stood up. "I'll go get it ready for you. Give me five minutes."
I gave her three minutes, which--miraculously enough--was all the time it took for my pall of gloom to lift. Then I got to my feet and went down the hall.
"Ready or not," I said as I opened the bedroom door, "here comes Santa Claus!"
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