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Free Christmas Mystery Short Stories
Three Travellers —by Edward D. Hoch
(A short story mystery before the First Christmas, featuring three characters from the original. The Wise Men are headed West, and stop at an oasis for the night.)

Now the three had journeyed several days when at last they came upon the Oasis of Ziza, and Gaspar who was the wisest of them said, "We will rest our horses here this night. It will be safe."
"Safe for horses and men," Melchior agreed. "But what of the gold?"
"Safe for the gold also. No one knows we carry it."
The sun was low in the western sky as they approached, and Gaspar held up a hand to shield his eyes. It would be night soon.
A young herdsman came out to meet them and take their horses. And he said, "Welcome to the Oasis of Ziza. Have you ridden far?"
"A full moon's journey," Gaspar replied, speaking in the nomadic tongue. "What is your name?"
And the herdsman answered, "They call me Ramoth, sire."
"Here is a gold coin for you, Ramoth. Feed and water our mounts for the journey and another will be yours on the morrow."
"Which way do you travel, sire?"
"Towards the west," Gaspar said, purposely vague.
When the young herdsman had departed with the horses fat Balthazar said, "I am not pleased, Gaspar. You lead us, it is true, but the keeping of the gold is my responsibility. And travellers guided by the heavens would do well to journey by night."
"The desert is cold by night, my friend. Let us cease this bickering and settle ourselves here till the dawn."
Then Melchior and Balthazar went off to put up their tent, and Gaspar was much relieved. It had been a long journey, not yet ended, and he treasured these moments alone. Presently he set off to inspect the oasis where they would spend the night, and he came upon a stranger who wore a sword at his waist.
"Greetings, traveller," the man said. "I am Nevar, of the northern tribe. Do you journey this route often?"
"Not often, no. My name is Gaspar and I come with my two companions from the east."
Nevar nodded, and stroked his great growth of beard. "Later, when the sun is gone, there a are games of chance--and women for those who have the gold to pay."
"That does not interest me," Gaspar said.
"You will find the companionship warming," Nevar said. "Come to the fire near the well. That is where we will be."
Gaspar went on, pausing to look at the beads and trinkets the nomad traders offered. When he reached the well at the far end of the oasis, he saw a woman lifting a great earthen jar to her shoulder. She was little more than a child, and as he watched, the jar slipped from her grasp and shattered against the stones, splashing her with water. She burst into tears.
"Come, child," Gaspar said, comforting her. "There is always another jar to be had."
And she turned her wide brown eyes to him, revealing a beauty he had not seen before. "My father will beat me," she said.
"Here is a gold coin for him. Tell him a stranger named Gaspar bumped you and made the jar break."
"That would not be true."
"But it is true that I am Gaspar. Who are you?"
"Thantia, daughter of Nevar."
"Yes, I have met your father. You are very lovely, my child."
But his words seemed to frighten her, and she ran from him.
Then he returned to the place where Melchior had erected their tent. They had learned from past encampments to leave nothing of value with the horses, and Gaspar immediately asked the location of the gold.
"It is safe," Balthazar told him. "Hidden in the bottom of this grain bag."
"Good. And the perfume?"
"With our regular supplies. No one would steal that."
Melchior chuckled. "If they did, we could smell out the culprits quickly enough!"
And then Balthazar said, "There is gaming tonight, near the well."
"I know," Gaspar replied. "But it is not for us."
The fat man held out his hands in a gesture of innocence. "We could but look," he said.
And Gaspar reluctantly agreed. "Very well."
Later, when the fire had been kindled and the people of Ziza came forth from their tents to mingle, the three travellers joined them. Almost at once Gaspar was sought out by a village elder, a man with wrinkled skin and rotting teeth. "I am Dibon," he said, choosing a seat next to Gaspar. "Do you come from the east?"
"Yes, from Persia."
"A long journey. What brings you this far?"
Gaspar did not wish to answer. Instead, he motioned towards a group of men with small smooth stones before them. "What manner of sport is this?"
"It is learned from the Egyptians, as are most things sinful." Then the old man leaned closer, and Gaspar could smell the foul odour of his breath. "Some say you are a magus."
"I have studied the teachings of Zoroaster, as have my companions. In truth some would consider me a magus."
"Then you journey in search of Mazda?"
"In search of truth," Gaspar replied.
Then he felt the presence of someone towering over him, and saw it was the figure of Nevar. His right hand rested on the sword at his waist. "I would have words with you, Gaspar."
"What troubles you?"
"My only daughter Thantia, a virgin not yet twenty, tells me you gave her a gold coin today."
"Only because I feared the broken water jug was my fault."
"No stranger approaches Thantia! You will leave Ziza this night!"
"We leave in the morning," Gaspar said quietly.
Nevar drew his sword, and Gaspar waited no longer. He flung himself at the big man and they tumbled towards the fire as the game-players scattered. Gaspar pulled Nevar's sword from his grip.
Then Thantia broke from the crowd, running to her father.
"This stranger did me no harm!" she cried out.
"Silence, daughter!" Nevar reached for a piece of burning firewood and hurled it at Gaspar, but it went wide of its mark and landed on a low straw roof nearby.
"The stable!" someone shouted, and Gaspar saw it was the herdsman Ramoth hurrying to rescue the horses. The others helped to quench the flames with water from the well, but not before a quantity of feed and supplies had been destroyed.
Then Gaspar and Melchior went in search of fat Balthazar, who had disappeared during the commotion. They found him behind the row of tents, playing the Egyptian stone game with a half dozen desert-riders. He had a small pile of gold coins before him.
"This must cease!" Gaspar commanded.
The nomads ran at his words, and Balthazar struggled to his feet. "It was merely a game."
"Our task is far more important than mere gaming," Gaspar reminded him, and the fat man looked sheepish. "While you idled I was near killed by the swordsman Nevar."
"A trouble-maker," Balthazar agreed. "I will not rest easy until Ziza is behind us on our journey."
Then as they passed the burned stable on the way to their tent, old Dibon approached them saying, "This ruin is your fault, Gaspar. Yours and Nevar's."
"That is true, old man. We will stay here tomorrow and help rebuild the stable."
Dibon bowed his head. "A generous offer. We thank you."
But when they were alone, Balthazar complained, "This will delay us an entire day!"
"We will travel a distance by night, as you wished."
Now another surprise was waiting at their tent. As Melchior raised the flap to enter, there was a whimper from within. Gaspar pushed past his hesitating companion and lit the oil lamp. By its glow they saw the girl Thantia crouched behind a pile of robes. "Please!" she gasped. "Please hide me. My father has beaten me and I fear for my life!"
"I fear for ours if he finds you here," Melchior said.
Gaspar held the oil lamp closer and saw the bruises on her face and arms. "We cannot send you back to him. Remain here with Melchior and Balthazar. I will return shortly."
Then he made his way to the place where old Dibon rested, and he told the elder what had happened. Dibon nodded and said, "My daughter and her husband will find room for Thantia until Nevar regains his senses. You were wise to come to me."
Gaspar and his companions delivered the girl to Dibon, and went with them to the dwelling place of Dibon's daughter. Later, in their tent, Balthazar grumbled again about the delayed departure. But they settled down at last to sleep, as the fires of the encampment burned low around them.
In the morning, by the first rays of the rising sun, Gaspar was awakened by Balthazar's panic-filled voice. "Wake quickly, Gaspar!" he pleaded, shaking him. "Someone has stolen our gold!"
Gaspar saw at once that the words were true.
The leather sack of grain contained only grain now. Though the tent showed no sign of forced entry, and though their regular supplies were untouched, the gold had vanished.
"I cannot believe it!" Melchior gasped. "How could a thief have entered while we slept? "
Gaspar agreed such a thing was impossible. "The gold was stolen before we retired last night," he reasoned. "We were away from the tent during the gaming and fire, and again while escorting Thantia. A thief could have entered at either time."
"What of the perfume and incense? " Melchior asked.
"Untouched," Balthazar said. "My special knot is still in place on the other bags."
"Only the gold," Gaspar mused.
"It is truly as if someone knew where to look."
"The girl!" Balthazar exclaimed. "We found her in here! She could have searched for the gold and found it."
"Possible," Gaspar admitted. "But I cannot bring myself to believe it."
"We cannot leave Ziza without the gold," Melchior said.
"Let us put our minds to the problem while we work at the stable," Gaspar said.
Now when they reached the stable Nevar was already there, toiling with the others. He paused in his labours when he saw the three, and shot an accusing finger at Gaspar. "You have stolen away my daughter. I will revenge myself!"
"Your daughter is safe, in the care of Dibon and his family."
His words quieted Nevar, but Melchior asked, "If he was so concerned, why did he not come after us in the night?"
Balthazar agreed. "Or did he come, and steal our gold away?"
Then presently old Dibon appeared, with the girl Thantia at his side. She cast not a glance in her father's direction, and he went about his work ignoring her. Gaspar laboured diligently through the morning, instructing Dibon and the others in Persian building techniques. He too ignored Nevar, not wanting more trouble.
Once, while Balthazar was off to the well for water, Melchior whispered, "Is it possible that our companion betrays us, Gaspar? Might he have stolen the gold himself to cover his losses at the stone game?"
But Gaspar would hear none of it. "We must never doubt each other, Melchior. In my heart I know Balthazar is innocent, as I know you are innocent. And I remember the scene at the stone game. There were gold coins in front of him. He was winning, not losing."
"How will we recover the gold, Gaspar?"
"Through the power of our minds, Melchior. We are wise men, and we must use our minds to determine the thief's identity."
"But there is no clue to his identity!"
"Sometimes the lack of a clue can be one."
Balthazar returned with the water and they drank eagerly. Later as they ate of their supplies, Thantia came to them. "I thank you for helping me," she said. "The elders have spoken to my father and he has promised never again to beat me. I will return to him now."
"We need no thanks," Gaspar assured her.
Then old Dibon came to join them. "How may we repay you for your work on the stable?"
"You may recover our stolen gold," Balthazar blurted out.
"Gold? Stolen gold?"
"It was stolen from our tent," Balthazar hurried on, before Gaspar could silence him.
"There are no thieves in Ziza!"
"There is one."
"I will summon the elders. We will search for your gold."
"No, no," said Gaspar. "We will recover it."
"But how?"
"By finding the thief. It is best to say nothing and catch him off guard."
Old Dibon bowed his head. "I will do as you suggest."
"One favour. Could you ask that our horses be brought to us? We must appear to be leaving."
Then, as they waited, Balthazar gathered their supplies. And Melchior said, "I have put my mind to the problem, Gaspar. But there are too many possibilities. The girl Thantia could be the thief, or her father Nevar. Or any of the game players."
"Or old Dibon himself, " Balthazar added. "There are too many to suspect."
Gaspar nodded. "What is needed is an oracle."
"You mean to kill a beast as the Romans do?"
Gaspar shook his head. "My oracle will be a living animal." He saw the herdsman Ramoth leading their horses. "My steed will tell me who has our gold."
"Your horse?" fat Balthazar laughed. "Who learns anything from a dumb animal?"
Gaspar held out some grain for the horse. "You see how he eats? He is hungry."
"What does that tell us?" Melchior asked.
"That our gold was stolen by Ramoth!"
It was after Dibon spoke to Ramoth that the young herdsman confessed his crime and begged forgiveness. When the missing gold had been returned to Gaspar's hands, the others questioned him.
"How did you know it was Ramoth?" Melchior asked. "We barely spoke to the youth. "
"My horse told me, as I told you he would. The horse was hungry, so had not been fed. You see, the thief never touched our other supplies, never unfastened Balthazar's special knot. How could he have found the gold so easily, without searching for it? But the gold was hidden in a sack of grain, and after the fire destroyed the stable, Ramoth came in search of feed for our horses. He came while we were away, and looked in only one place--the grain bag. Feeling the weight of it, his fingers reached through the grain and came upon the gold. He stole it, but then could not take the grain lest we realize he was the thief. So the horses went hungry."
"You are a wise man, Gaspar," Balthazar conceded.
"As we all are. Come, let us mount."
"It will be dark soon," Melchior said.
Gaspar nodded. "We will get bearings from the star."
Dibon was by the well to wish them farewell. "Ramoth will be punished," he promised.
"Show mercy," Gaspar said.
"Do you ride west with your gold?"
"West with gifts for a King. Gold and frankincense and myrrh."
"Good journey," Dibon said.
He watched them for a long time, until the three vanished from sight over the desert wastes.

Here Comes Santa Claus —by Bill Pronzini
(Department store Santas dread the visit of a rotten kid. Nameless detective meets one in his stint in the plush chair, and ho-hos into a holiday scam in this short story.)
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."
"A dolly."
"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."
"Poor baby."
"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.
"What for?"
"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?"
"What wallet?"
"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."
"Who's she?"
"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!"
Silent Night —by Marcia Muller
(A Sharon McCone short story: She searches for a runaway teen on Christmas Eve and learns some of life's tougher lessons.)
"Larry, I hardly know what to say!"
What I wanted to say was, "What am I supposed to do with this? The object I'd just liberated from its gay red-and-gold Christmas wrappings was a plastic bag, about eight by twelve inches, packed firm with what looked suspiciously like sawdust. I turned it over in my hands, as if admiring it, and searched for some clue to its identity.
When I looked up, I saw Larry Koslowski's brown eyes shining expectantly; even the ends of his little handlebar mustache seemed to bristle as he awaited my reaction. "It's perfect," I said lamely.
He let his bated breath out in a long sigh. "I thought it would be. You remember how you were talking about not having much energy lately? I told you to try whipping up my protein drink for breakfast, but you said you didn't have that kind of time in the morning. "
The conversation came back to me--vaguely. I nodded.
"Well," he went on, "put two tablespoons of that mixture in a tall glass, add water, stir, and you're in business."
Of course--it was an instant version of his infamous protein drink. Larry was the health nut on the All Souls Legal Cooperative staff; his fervent exhortations for the rest of us to adopt better nutritional standards often fell upon deaf ears--mine included.
"Thank you," I said. "I'll try it first thing tomorrow."
Larry ducked his head, his lips turning up in shy pleasure beneath his straggly little mustache.
It was late in the afternoon of Christmas Eve, and the staff of All Souls was engaged in the traditional gift exchange between members who had drawn each other's names earlier in the month. The yearly ritual extends back to the days of the co-op's founding, when most people were too poor to give more than one present; the only rule is Keep It Simple.
The big front parlor of the co-op's San Francisco Victorian was crowded. People perched on the furniture or, like Larry and me, sat cross-legged on the floor, oohing and aahing over their gifts.
Next to the Christmas tree in the bay window, my boss, Hank Zahn, sported a new cap and muffler, knitted for him--after great deliberation and consultation as to colors--by my assistant, Rae Kelleher. Rae, in turn, wore the scarf and cap I'd purchased (because I can't knit to save my life) for her in the hope she would consign relics from her days at U.C. Berkeley to the trash can. Other people had homemade cookies and sinful fudge, special bottles of wine, next year's calendars, assorted games, plants, and paperback books.
And I had a bag of instant health drink that looked like sawdust.
The voices in the room created such a babble that I barely heard
the phone ring in the hall behind me. Our secretary, Ted Smalley, who is a compulsive answerer, stepped over me and went out to where the instrument sat on his desk. A moment later he called "McCone, it's for you."
My stomach did a little flip-flop, because I was expecting news of a personal nature that could either be very good or very bad. I thanked Larry again for my gift, scrambled to my feet, and went to take the receiver from Ted. He remained next to the desk, I'd confided my family's problem to him earlier that week, and now, I knew, he would wait to see if he could provide aid or comfort.
"Shari?" My younger sister Charlene's voice was composed, but her use of the diminutive of Sharon, which no one but my father calls me unless it's a time of crisis, made my stomach flip again.
"I'm here," I said.
"Shari, somebody's seen him. A friend of Ricky's saw Mike!"
"Where? When?"
"Today around noon. Up there--in San Francisco."
I let out my breath in a sigh of relief. My fourteen-year-old nephew, oldest of Charlene and Ricky's six kids, had run away from their home in Pacific Palisades five days ago. Now, it appeared, he was alive, if not exactly safe.
The investigator in me counseled caution, however. "Was this friend sure it was Mike he saw?"
"Yes. He spoke to him. Mike said he was visiting you. But afterward our friend got to thinking that he looked kind of grubby and tired, and that you probably wouldn't have let him wander around that part of town, so he called us to check it out."
A chill touched my shoulder blades. "What part of town?"
"...Somewhere near City Hall, a sleazy area, our friend said."
A very sleazy area, I thought. Dangerous territory to which runaways are often drawn, where boys and girls alike fall prey to pimps and pushers...
Charlene said, "Shari?"
"I'm still here, just thinking."
"You don't suppose he'll come to you?"
"l doubt it, if he hasn't already. But in case he does, there's somebody staying at my house--an old friend who's here for Christmas--and she knows to keep him there and call me immediately. Is there anybody else he knows here in the city? Somebody he might trust not to send him home?"
"...I can't think of anybody."
"What about that friend you spent a couple of Christmases with--the one with the two little girls who lived on Sixteenth Street across from Mission Dolores?"
"Ginny Shriber? She moved away about four years ago." There was a noise as if Charlene was choking back a sob. "He's really just a little boy yet. So little, and so stubborn."
But stubborn little boys grow up fast on the rough city streets. I didn't want that kind of coming-of-age for my nephew.
"Look at the up side of this, Charlene," I said, more heartily than I felt. "Mike's come to the one city where you have your own private investigator. I'll start looking for him right away."
It had begun with, of all things, a moped that Mike wanted for Christmas. Or maybe it had really started a year earlier, when Ricky Savage finally hit it big.
During the first fourteen years of his marriage to my sister, Ricky had been merely another faceless country-and-western musician, playing and singing backup with itinerant bands, dreaming seemingly improbable dreams of stardom. He and Charlene had developed a reproductive pattern (and rate) that never failed to astound me, in spite of its regularity: he'd get her pregnant, go out on tour, return after the baby was born; then he'd go out again when the two o'clock feedings got to him, return when the kid was weaned, and start the whole cycle all over. Finally, after the sixth child, Charlene had wised up and gotten her tubes tied. But Ricky still stayed on the road more than at home, and still dreamed his dreams.
But then, with money borrowed from my father on the promise that if he didn't make it within one more year he'd give up music and go into my brother John's housepainting business, Ricky had cut a demo of a song he'd written called "Cobwebs in the Attic of My Mind." It was about a lovelorn fellow who, besides said cobwebs, had a "sewer that's backed up in the cellar of his soul" and "a short in the wiring of his heart." When I first heard it, I was certain that Pa's money had washed down that same pipe before it clogged, but fate--perverse creature that it is--would have it otherwise. The song was a runaway hit, and more Ricky Savage hits were to follow.
In true nouveau style, Ricky and Charlene quickly moved uptown--or in this case up the coast, from West Los Angeles to affluent Pacific Palisades. There were new cars, new furniture and clothes, a house with a swimming pool, and toys and goodies for the children. Lots of goodies, anything they wanted--until this Christmas when, for reasons of safety Charlene had balked at letting Mike have the moped. And Mike, headstrong little bastard that he was, had taken his life's savings of some fifty-five dollars and hitched away from home on the Pacific Coast Highway.
It was because of a goddamned moped that I was canceling my Christmas Eve plans and setting forth to comb the sleazy streets and alleys of the area known as Polk Gulch for a runaway...
The city was strangely subdued on this Christmas Eve, the dark streets hushed, although not deserted. Most people had been drawn inside to the warmth of family and friends; others, I suspected, had retreated to nurse the loneliness that is endemic to the season. The pedestrians I passed moved silently, as if reluctant to call attention to their presence; occasionally I heard laughter from the bars as I went by, but even that was muted. The lost, drifting souls of the city seemed to collectively hold their breath as they waited for life to resume its everyday pattern.
I had started at Market Street and worked my way northwest, through the Tenderloin to Polk Gulch. Before I'd started out, I'd had a photographer friend who likes to make a big fee more than he likes to celebrate holidays run off a hundred copies of my most recent photo of Mike. Those I passed out, along with my card, to clerks in what liquor stores, corner groceries, cheap hotels, and greasy spoon restaurants I found open. The pictures drew no response other than indifference or sympathetic shakes of the head and promises to keep an eye out for him. By the time I reached Polk Street, where I had an appointment in a gay bar at ten, I was cold, footsore, and badly discouraged.
Polk Gulch, so called because it is in a valley that has an underground river running through it, long ago was the hub of gay life in San Francisco. In the seventies, however, most of the action shifted up Market Street to the Castro district, and the vitality seemed to drain out of the Gulch. Now parts of it, particularly those bordering the Tenderloin, are depressingly sleazy. As I walked along, examining the face of each young man I saw, I became aware of the hopelessness and resignation in the eyes of the street hustlers and junkies and winos and homeless people.
A few blocks from my destination was a vacant lot surrounded by a chain link fence. Inside gaped a huge excavation, the cellar of the building that had formerly stood there, now open to the elements. People had scaled the fence and taken up residence down in it; campfires blazed, in defiance of the NO TRESPASSING signs. The homeless could rest easy--at least for this one night. No one was going to roust them on Christmas Eve.
I went to the fence and grasped its cold mesh with my fingers, staring down into the shifting light and shadows, wondering if Mike was among the ragged and hungry ranks. Many of the people were middle-aged to elderly, but there were also families with children and a scattering of young people. There was no way to tell, though, without scaling the fence myself and climbing down there. Eventually I turned away, realizing I had only enough time to get to the gay bar by ten.
The transvestite's name was Norma and she--he? I never know which to call them--was coldly beautiful. The two of us sat at a corner table in the bar, sipping champagne because Norma had insisted on it. ("After all, it's Christmas Eve, darling!") The bar, in spite of winking colored lights on its tree and flickering bayberry candles on each table, was gloomy and semideserted; Norma's brave velvet finery and costume jewelry had about it more than a touch of the pathetic. She'd been sitting alone when I'd entered and had greeted me eagerly.
I'd been put in touch with Norma by Ted Smalley, who is gay and has a wide-ranging acquaintance among all segments of the city's homosexual community. Norma, he'd said, knew everything there was to know about what went on in Polk Gulch; if anyone could help me, it was she.
The photo of Mike didn't look familiar to Norma. "There are so many runaways on the street at this time of year," she told me. "Kids get their hopes built up at Christmas time. When they find out Santa isn't the great guy he's cracked up to be, they take off. Like your nephew."
"So what would happen to a kid like him? Where would he go?"
"Lots of places. There's a hotel--the Vinton. A lot of runaways end up there at first, until their money runs out. If he's into drugs, try any flophouse, doorway, or alley. If he's connected with a pimp, look for him hustling."
My fingers tightened involuntarily on the stem of my champagne glass. Norma noticed and shook her elaborately coiffed head in sympathy. "Not a pretty thought, is it? But what do you see around here that's pretty--except for me?" As she spoke the last words, her smile became self-mocking.
"He's been missing five days now," I said, "and he only had fifty-some dollars on him. That'll be gone by now, so he probably won't be at the hotel, or any other. He's never been into drugs. His father's a musician, and a lot of his cronies are druggies; the kid actually disapproves of them. The other I don't even want to think about--although I probably will have to, eventually."
"So what are you going to do?"
"Try the hotel. Go back and talk to the people at that vacant lot. Keep looking at each kid who walks by."
Norma stared at the photo of Mike that lay face up on the table between us. "It's a damned shame, a nice-looking kid like that. He ought to be home with his family, trimming the tree, roasting chestnuts on the fire, or whatever other things families do."
"The American Christmas dream, huh?"
"Yeah." She smiled bleakly, raised her glass. "Here's to the American Christmas dream--and to all the people it's eluded."
I touched my glass to hers. "Including you and me."
"Including you and me. Let's'just hope it doesn't elude young Mike forever."
The Vinton Hotel was a few blocks away, around the corner on Eddy Street. Its lobby was a flight up, over a closed sandwich shop, and I had to wait and be buzzed in before I could climb carpetless stairs that stank strongly of disinfectant and faintly of urine. Lobby was a misnomer, actually: it was more a narrow hall with a desk to one side, behind which sat a young black man with a tall afro. The air up there was thick with the odor of marijuana; I guessed he'd been spending his Christmas Eve with a joint. His eyes flashed panic when I reached in my bag for my identification. Then he realized it wasn't a bust and relaxed somewhat.
I took out another photo of Mike and laid it on the counter. "You seen this kid?"
He barely glanced at it. "Nope, can't help you."
I shoved it closer. "Take another look."
He did, pushed it back toward me. "I said no."
There was something about his tone that told me he was lying--would lie out of sheer perversity. I could get tough with him, make noises about talking to the hotel's owners, mentioning how the place reeked of grass. The city's fleabags had come under a good bit of media scrutiny recently; the owners wouldn't want me to cause any trouble that would jeopardize this little goldmine that raked in outrageously high rents from transients, as well as government subsidized payments for welfare recipients. Still, there had to be a better way...
"You work here every night?" I asked.
"Rough, on Christmas Eve."
He shrugged.
"Christmas night, too?"
"Why do you care?"
"I understand what a rotten deal that is. You don't think I'm running around out here in the cold because I like it, do you?"
His eyes flickered to me, faintly interested. "You got no choice, either?"
"Hell, no. The client says find the kid, I go looking. Not that it matters. I don't have anything better to do."
"Know what you mean. Nothing for me at home, either."
"Where's home?"
"My real home, or where I live?"
"Both, I guess."
"Where I live's up there." He gestured at the ceiling. "Room goes with the job. Home's not there no more. Was in Motown back before my ma died and things got so bad in the auto industry. I came out here thinking I'd find work." He smiled ironically. "Well, I found it, didn't l?"
"At least it's not as cold here as in Detroit."
"No, but it's not home, either." He paused, then reached for Mike's picture. "Let me see that again." Another pause. "Okay. He stayed here. Him and this blond chick got to be friends. She's gone, too."
"Do you know the blond girl's name?"
"Yeah. Jane Smith. Original, huh?"
"Can you describe her?"
"Just a little blond, maybe five-two. Long hair. Nothing special about her."
"When did they leave?"
They were gone when I came on last night. The owner don't put up with the ones that can't pay, and the day man, he likes tossing their asses out on the street."
"How did the kid seem to you? Was he okay?"
The man's eyes met mine, held them for a moment. "Thought this was just a job to you."
"...He's my nephew."
"Yeah, I guessed it might be something like that. Well, if you mean was he doing drugs or hustling, I'd say no. Maybe a little booze, that's all. The girl was the same. Pretty straight kids. Nobody'd gotten to them yet."
"Let me ask you this: What would kids like that do after they'd been thrown out of here? Where would they hang out?"
He considered. "There's a greasy spoon on Polk, near O'Farrell. Owner's an old guy, Iranian. He feels sorry for the kids, feeds them when they're about to starve, tries to get them to go home. He might of seen those two."
"Would he be open tonight?"
"Sure. Like I said, he's Iranian. It's not his holiday. Come to think of it, it's not mine anymore, either."
"Why not?"
Again the ironic smile. "Can't celebrate peace-on-earth-goodwill-to-men when you don't believe in it anymore, now can you?" I reached into my bag and took out a twenty-dollar bill, slid it across the counter to him. "Peace on earth, and thanks."
He took it eagerly, then looked at it and shook his head.
"You don't have to."
"I want to. That makes a difference."
The "greasy spoon" was called The Coffee Break. It was small--just five tables and a lunch counter, old green linoleum floors, Formica and molded plastic furniture. A slender man with thinning gray hair sat behind the counter smoking a cigarette. A couple of old women were hunched over coffee at a corner table. Next to the window was a dirty-haired blond girl; she was staring through the glass with blank eyes--another of the city's casualties.
I showed Mike's picture to the man behind the counter. He told me Mike looked familiar, thought a minute, then snapped his fingers and said, "Hey, Angie."
The girl by the window turned. Full-face, I could see she was red-eyed and tear-streaked. The blankness of her gaze was due to misery, not drugs.
"Take a look at the picture this lady has. Didn't I see you with this kid yesterday?"
She got up and came to the counter, self-consciously smoothing her wrinkled jacket and jeans. "Yeah," she said after glancing at it, That's Michael."
"Where's he now? The lady's his aunt, wants to help him."
She shook her head. "I don't know. He was at the Vinton, but he got kicked out the same time I did. We stayed down at the cellar in the vacant lot last night, but it was cold and scary. These drunks kept bothering us. Mr. Ahmeni, how long do you think it's going to take my dad to get here?"
"Take it easy. It's a long drive from Oroville. I only called him an hour ago." To me, Mr. Ahmeni added, "Angie's going home for Christmas."
I studied her. Under all that grime, a pretty, conventional girl hid. I said, "Would you like a cup of coffee? Something to eat?"
"I wouldn't mind a Coke. I've been sponging off Mr. Ahmeni for hours." She smiled faintly. "I guess he'd appreciate it if I sponged off somebody else for a change."
I bought us both Cokes and sat down with her. "When did you meet Mike?"
"Three days ago, I guess. He was at the hotel when I got into town. He kind of looked out for me. I was glad; that place is pretty awful. A lot of addicts stay there. One OD'd in the stairwell the first night. But it's cheap and they don't ask questions. A guy I met on the bus coming down here told me about it."
"What did Mike do here in the city, do you know?"
"Wandered around, mostly. One afternoon we went out to Ocean Beach and walked on the dunes."
"What about drugs or--"
"Michael's not into drugs. We drank some wine, is all. He's... I don't know how to describe it, but he's not like a lot of the kids on the streets."
"How so?"
"Well, he's kind of... sensitive, deep."
"This sensitive soul ran away from home because his parents wouldn't buy him a moped for Christmas."
Angie sighed. "You really don't know anything about him, do you? You don't even know he wants to he called Michael, not Mike."
That silenced me for a moment. It was true: I really didn't know my nephew, not as a person. "Tell me about him."
"What do vou want to know?"
"Well, this business with the moped--what was that all about?"
"It didn't really have anything to do with the moped. At least, not much. It had to do with the kids at school."
"In what way?"
"Well, the way Michael told it, his family used to be kind of poor. At least there were some months when they worried about being able to pay the rent."
"That's right."
"And then his father became a singing star and they moved to this awesome house in Pacific Palisades, and all of a sudden Michael was in school with all these rich kids. But he didn't fit in. The kids, he said, were really into having things and doing drugs and partying. He couldn't relate to it. He says it's really hard to get into that kind of stuff when you've spent your life worrying about real things."
"Like if your parents are going to be able to pay the rent."
Angie nodded, her fringe of limp blond hair falling over her eyes. She brushed it back and went on. "I know about that; my folks don't have much money, and my mom's sick a lot. The kids, they sense you're different and they don't want to have anything to do with you. Michael was lonely at the new school, so he tried to fit in--tried too hard, I guess, by always having the latest stuff, the most expensive clothes. You know."
"And the moped was part of that."
"Uh-huh. But when his mom said he couldn't have it, he realized what he'd been doing. And he also realized that the moped wouldn't have done the trick anyway. Michael's smart enough to know that people don't fall all over you just because you've got another new toy. So he decided he'd never fit in, and he split. He says he feels more comfortable on the streets, because life here is real." She paused, eyes filling, and looked away at the window. "God, is it real."
I followed the direction of her gaze: beyond the plate glass a girl of perhaps thirteen stumbled by. Her body was emaciated, her face blank, her eyes dull--the look of a far-gone junkie.
I said to Angie, "When did you last see Mike... Michael?"
"Around four this afternoon. Like I said, we spent the night in that cellar in the vacant lot. After that I knew I couldn't hack it anymore, and I told him I'd decided to go home. He got pissed at me and took off."
"Why do you think? I was abandoning him. I could go home, and he couldn't."
"Why not?"
"Because Michael's... God, you don't know a thing about him! He's proud. He couldn't admit to his parents that he couldn't make it on his own. Any more than he could admit to them about not fitting in at school."
What she said surprised me and made me ashamed. Ashamed for Charlene, who had always referred to Mike as stubborn or bull-headed, but never as proud. And ashamed for myself, because I'd never really seen him, except as the leader of a pack jokingly referred to in family circles as "the little Savages."
"Angie," I said, "do you have any idea where he might have gone after he left you?"
She shook her head. "I wish I did. It would be nice if Michael could have a Christmas. He talked about how much he was going to miss it. He spent the whole time we were walking around on the dunes telling me about the Christmases they used to have, even though they didn't have much money: the tree trimming, the homemade presents, the candlelit masses on Christmas Eve, the cookie decorating and the turkey dinners. Michael absolutely loves Christmas."
I hadn't known that, either. For years I'd been too busy with my own life to do more than send each of the Savage kids a small check. Properly humbled, I thanked Angie for talking with me, wished her good luck with her parents, and went back out to continue combing the dark, silent streets.
When I arrived at Mission Dolores, the neoclassical facade of the basilica was bathed in floodlights, the dome and towers gleaming against the post-midnight sky. The street was choked with double-parked vehicles, and from within I heard voices raised in a joyous chorus. Beside the newer early twentieth-century structure, the small adobe church built in the late 1700s seemed dwarfed and enveloped in deep silence. I hurried up the wide steps to the arching wooden doors of the basilica, then took a moment to compose myself before entering.
Like many of my generation, it had been years since I'd been even nominally a Catholic, but the old habit of reverence had never left me. I couldn't just blunder in there and creep about, peering into every worshipper's face, no matter how great my urgency. I waited until I felt relatively calm before pulling open the heavy door and stepping over the threshold.
The mass was candlelit; the robed figures of the priest and altar boys moved slowly in the flickering, shifting light. The stained glass window behind the altar and those on the side walls gleamed richly. In contrast, the massive pillars reached upward to vaulted arches that were deeply shadowed. As I moved slowly along one of the side aisles, the voices of the choir swelled to a majestic finale.
The congregants began to go forward to receive Communion. As they did, I was able to move less obtrusively, scanning the faces of the young people in the pews. Each time I spotted a teenaged boy, my heart quickened. Each time I felt a sharp stab of disappointment .
I passed behind the waiting communicants, then moved unhurriedly up the nave and crossed to the far aisle. The church was darker and sparsely populated toward the rear; momentarily a pillar blocked my view of the altar. I moved around it.
He was there in the pew next to the pillar, leaning wearily against it. Even in the shadowy light, I could see that his face was dirty and tired, his jacket and jeans rumpled and stained. His eyes were half-closed, his mouth slack; his hands were shoved between his thighs, as if for warmth.
Mike--no, Michael--had come to the only safe place he knew in the city, the church where on two Christmas Eves he'd attended mass with his family and their friends, the Shribers, who had lived across the street.
I slipped into the pew and sat down next to him. He jerked his head toward me, stared in openmouthed surprise. What little color he had drained from his face; his eyes grew wide and alarmed.
"Hi, Michael." I put my hand on his arm.
He looked as if he wanted to shake it off. "How did you...?"
"Doesn't matter. Not now. Let's just sit quietly till mass is over. "
He continued to stare at me. After a few seconds he said, "I bet Mom and Dad are really mad at me."
"More worried than anything else."
"Did they hire you to find me?"
"No, I volunteered."
"Huh." He looked away at the line of communicants.
"You still go to church?" I asked.
"Not much. None of us do anymore. I kind of miss it."
"Do you want to take Communion?"
He was silent. Then, "No. I don't think that's something I can do right now. Maybe never."
"Well, that's okay. Everybody expresses his feelings for... God, or whatever, in different ways." I thought of the group of homeless worshippers in the vacant lot. "What's important is that you believe in something."
He nodded, and then we sat silently, watching people file up and down the aisle. After a while he said, "I guess I do believe in something. Otherwise I couldn't have gotten through this week. I learned a lot, you know."
"I'm sure you did."
"About me, I mean."
"I know."
"What're you going to do now? Send me home?"
"Do you want to go home?"
"Maybe. Yes. But I don't want to be sent there. I want to go on my own."
"Well, nobody should spend Christmas Day on a plane or a bus anyway. Besides, I'm having ten people to dinner at four this afternoon. I'm counting on you to help me stuff the turkey."
Michael hesitated, then smiled shyly. He took one hand from between his thighs and slipped it into mine. After a moment he leaned his tired head on my shoulder, and we celebrated the dawn of Christmas together.
Reference Answer:
Do You Think Arnold Whisker Is Guilty?
Arnold Whisker is at the police station. The police are asking him about a bank robbery which took place on April 25th. They think he did it. A detective asked Arnold, "What were you doing on April 25th?" Arnold told him about that day.
There are a lot of mistakes in Arnold's story. First he said his suit was blue, but later he said it was green. There are six other mistakes like that. Can you find them? Here's his story:
In April I was living in Castle Street, at No. 32. I had a little flat there. The flat was in the basement. The 25th? Yes, that was a Tuesday. That Tuesday morning, I got up very early. The house was very quiet. In fact it was completely empty. I put on my blue suit and left my flat. I didn't have any breakfast, because I didn't have a cooker in that flat.
I went down the stairs to the ground floor. I met Mrs. Jackson in the hall. She said, "Good morning, Mr. Whisker. Where are you going? That's a lovely green suit."
I said, "I'm going for a walk."
"In this weather!" she answered.
I said, "I know it's cold, but I'll be OK. I've got my scarf and gloves."
No one saw me in the street. In fact, all the streets were empty. It was a typical Sunday. I walked all morning in the hot sunshine. At midday I had lunch in a restaurant. In the afternoon I went to the cinema. It was a good film—a horror film. It lasted an hour. I came out of the cinema at about eleven o'clock. I got home and felt very hungry. "That's because I didn't have any lunch, " I thought. So I went into my kitchen, and cooked some supper. Then I went to bed. That's all.
The detective found the six other mistakes in the story. Did you?
A list of contradictions in Arnold's account:
  Statements Conflicting Statements
1 The flat was in the basement. I went down the stairs to the ground floor.
2 The 25th? Yes, that was a Tuesday. It was a typical Sunday.
3 I put on my blue suit... That's a lovely green suit.
4 I know it's cold... I walked all morning in the hot sunshine.
5 I had lunch in a restaurant. That's because I didn't have any lunch.
6 In the afternoon I went to the cinema. I came out of the cinema at about eleven o'clock.
7 I didn't have a cooker in that flat. I went into my kitchen, and cooked some supper.