THE AFTERNOON BEFORE CHRISTMAS
By Mark Murphy
My old friend, Lt. Bill Lloyd of Homicide, leaned over the table and pointed a reasonably well-manicured finger at the picture in the paper as we sat in the mall's food court.
I'd already seen the photo as part of my job as a copy editor for The Demeter Dispatch. I'd even written the headline that had been appearing with it for the past few weeks:
HAVE YOU SEEN THIS MAN?
"Sure glad I'm not working Missing Persons," he drawled. He always drawled, even though he'd left the wide-open spaces of Texas for the sometimes hip-deep snows of Upstate New York when he was a kid. We'd grown up together.
"They've been getting a lot of pressure from upstairs," he said, "and of course those jolly old elves from the FBI have been making their cheery presence felt."
"So they think Chet Nelson was kidnapped?"
His eyes narrowed. "I didn't say that, Chuckie."
"You didn't not say it. Now it's Christmas Eve, and his family probably wants him back by the stroke of 12, right?"
"Maybe. Or maybe not."
I was curious to know what he meant, and I knew he knew I was curious, but I was darned if I was going to give him the satisfaction of asking right away.
So, I looked at Chet again. He was in his early 60s, a little gray hair, gray mustache, friendly eyes offset by a firm, lips-only smile. Would I buy a used basketball from him? Maybe, but his chain of sporting goods stores only sold new stuff.
After I got tired of looking at him, I pretended I was interested in my surroundings, which this afternoon consisted mostly of mothers and kids--almost all of them tired, some kids bawling, a few mothers about ready to do the same. There were quite a few guys, too, last-minute shoppers looking as if they'd been caught in the headlights of Santa's sleigh.
Santa was there, too, without his sleigh but with a tall, black-haired woman in a red dress from the Central Mission. He rang a bell with his right hand, his left tucked in his pocket, as the twenty-ish girl stood by the kettle. Every time someone passed by she jumped up and down saying, "How you doin'?" or "Happy holidays," whether they dropped something in or not.
There was nothing else to see, so I looked at Lloyd again. "His wife doesn't necessarily care whether he comes back or not,” he said. “They've been on the outs for years. But she's a drama queen, and with her dough my bosses are a captive audience."
"Son and daughter. She left town years ago. He stayed, tried to work for the old man, couldn't cut it and is currently subsidizing several liquor stores. Mommy won't let Chet toss Sonny out."
"One big happy family."
"However," Lloyd held up a finger, "there's Chet's niece, Tania Wolfowitz. A junior at Demeter College. Really seems to care about him. Stops by headquarters every day."
"Well, that's something. And he hasn't had that bad a life – being on an NCAA-winning team, parlaying that into a three-county sporting goods empire, leading the chamber of commerce, charity drives...."
"And owing money to Sylvester Pike."
That made me sit up. "Oh?"
"At least he used to. Gambling. It got settled. We've heard he paid Pike off. But there are always rumors."
I almost didn't catch that last sentence because a man had walked up behind Lloyd. I couldn't see his nails, but if the guy's camel-hair coat was any indication it was a cinch they were even better-manicured than Lloyd's. I might, just might, be able to afford a coat like that – if I owned the newspaper.
"Interesting conversation, Lloyd." The man sat down with us and turned to me. "It was nice seeing you."
He smiled, red hair tilting back toward the ceiling. It was a hint I was supposed to take.
I stayed put. "Always nice being seen."
He leaned toward Lloyd. "This guy doesn't get it."
Lloyd sat up. "No, it's you who doesn't get it. This is Chuckie Charles. He's a friend. He stays. Chuckie, Gregory Breen."
Gregory Breen – counsel to many "legitimate" businessmen. Nice going, Chuckie. Smart-mouth him again and you might wind up in Cowego Lake sleeping with the fishies – if Cowego Lake were clean enough to have fishies.
Breen turned to Lloyd. "Your boys have been leaning on my boss. You've been getting the wrong information. He and Nelson settled things a long time ago. The boss doesn't know anything about him."
"Anything we can prove," Lloyd said.
I didn't have a stopwatch, but they probably stared each other down for about 10 seconds. And probably not for the first time. Then Breen laughed and Lloyd laughed – both through clenched teeth.
Breen got up. "Happy holidays." Then he smiled at me. "You too." Something in the way he said that made me glad I was in a place that sold underwear.
A minute after he left, Lloyd and I decided we'd had enough excitement. As we left, we each put something in Santa's kettle, and he rang the bell each time.
The female dynamo put an arm around him. "Isn't he great? I didn't even know he was going to be here today. I thought I'd be here all by my lonesome!" She swayed from side to side, the epitome of merry. Santa rang the bell again. Then Lloyd's cell phone rang.
"Yes..." I didn't like the look on his face. "Be right there."
He looked at me. "Dead man in the lake. Good possibility it's Nelson. Same age, build."
The woman shook her head. "That missing man? How sad."
"Can't say for sure," Lloyd said, shooting me a warning glance.
"But I can let the paper know that an unidentified man was found, right?"
"Yeah – but leave it at that." Then he was gone.
I walked down the hall and got on my cell. Took me 20 rings to get someone in the newsroom to answer; Christmas Eve is party time.
When I finished, an older guy with a sling on his right arm had just dropped some money in the basket and was reaching out to Santa.
Then I saw it.
Something small and bright and gold.
But not a Christmas light....
Five minutes later, while Santa's hyper helper was getting coffee – as if she needed the caffeine – I approached him. "When I was a kid I asked you for an Etch-a-Sketch. I got it. Thanks."
This startled him, but after a moment he gave me a slight "You're welcome" nod.
"I thought it was the most magical toy of all time. And I'm sure it's still a very good toy. But one morning I left it on the living room floor and my mother accidentally stepped on it and broke it. I was able to see what was inside it, how it worked. It was fascinating in its own way, but it wasn't magic anymore."
Then I yanked his left hand out of his pocket. Whaddya know – my hunch was right.
"No wonder you've been hiding it – not everyone in town has an NCAA ring. I saw it when you took out your left hand to shake hands with that guy who couldn't use his right arm."
He tried to stay in character, but his eyes widened.
"You can't let it go – it’s a symbol of the most magical time of your life. Since then, it's been a long, downhill slide. So, you stash some money away, maybe dye your hair, shave the mustache, disappear for a while. I bet you've been showing up unexpectedly at fundraisers all around town, saying so-and-so sent you – you know the names of all the key players in the nonprofit world – and who's going to turn down Santa? You get to be someone else and help others.
"But you've got to make your own kind of magic – as yourself. And there's someone you've been forgetting." I held out my cell. "I did some checking. There’s a phone listing for a T Wolfowitz. Maybe you know the number."
He took the phone.
"Not so fast," I said. "Chet Nelson comes back tomorrow, right?"
He looked at the floor and nodded. It would make a great story for the day-after-Christmas paper.
He went off to make the call, and suddenly Ms. Holly Jolly Christmas was wagging a finger in my face and grinning.
"Hey! Did you just give Santa a present? That's against the rules! He's supposed to give you a present!"
I gave her a smile and a shrug. "Maybe he did."
Then I went off to find an Etch-a-Sketch.
Mark Murphy’s work has appeared on the Over My Dead Body!, Mysterical-E, and Mouth Full of Bullets websites and in Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine. His website is murphyscraw.blogspot.com.
"The Afternoon Before Christmas" was originally published by mysteryauthors.com in 2006.
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