The wintry air of the city reeked of coffee and cigarettes. Just the way I liked it. The steam from a fresh cup o’ joe filled my nostrils and reminded me, if ever so briefly, that I was still kicking. Some prissy crooner was mumbling through a Christmas song on the radio. Other than that, the night was as quiet as a cemetery. Just the way I liked it.
I heard the ring of the café door behind me as I sipped at the bitter elixir of life. Sure, I sit with my back to the door, but I had a full view of the intruder from the mirror above the counter. A little brat is usually harmless, but in her case, she was as harmful as they came. Naturally, she sat down next to me.
“You Holliday?” she asked in that high-pitched voice I’ve come to expect from urchins of every race, gender and size. It was the sound of scratching candy across a chalkboard.
“What of it?” I hissed, hoping she’s scram back out into the night.
“You live in my building.”
Sure, I’d seen her gawking from the third-floor window of her apartment plenty of times. Of course, these gremlins all look the same to me. Could be some other kid for all I cared. “What of it?” I answered with a healthy helping of “Get lost” in my voice.
“I need your help.” She didn’t hear it.
“Shouldn’t you be home playing with your dollies?” I sucked a final drag from my cigarette and then crushed it into the ash tray, more forcefully than I usually do. Again, she didn’t catch on. Not so bright, this one.
“Shouldn’t you be drunk by now?”
Johnny, the soda jerk, chuckled from behind the counter. I shot him a look that said, “Butt out,” and he caught on. Johnny wasn’t too bright either, but at least he knew to keep my cup warm and his thoughts to himself.
“You always a pain in the ass?”
“Only on days that end in Y.” I had to admit, I was learning to like this troll, but no way in hell I’d let her know that.
I feigned checking my watch. “Come to think of it, it must be cocktail hour somewhere.” Before I could stop myself, I kept talking. Stupid, stupid, old man. “Buy you a drink?”
She reached deep into one of her coat pockets. Naturally, I’d already made sure she wasn’t packing, but I still edged my left hand a little closer to the opening in my suit coat. You didn’t live the life I have for as long as I have by trusting anyone, much less little mongrels who reeked of tapioca and innocence.
She pulled out a wad of hundred-dollar bills and plunked them down on the counter top next to the ruins of my cigarette. “I’ll buy the first one.”
It took everything I had to keep from spitting coffee out into the air. At twenty-five bucks a day and expenses, that wad could take care of me for months. “With that, you certainly can. Johnny, get us an eggnog with bourbon. She’ll take the eggnog. I’ll take the bourbon.” Johnny just shook his head and got to work. “Where’d you get that much dough?”
“I’ve been keeping my eye on you, you know,” she said brushing off my question. “I’ve seen those shady guys you talk to. You ask for money. They tell you stuff, probably about some kind of job, and then you leave.”
“Best you stop watching all that, kid.” Something told me she wouldn’t.
“What is it you do for them exactly?”
“I solve problems,” I said as I sipped another bit of coffee, singeing the edge of my tongue. It was calloused from so many cups over the years, I didn’t even notice.
“That’s good,” the girl said. “I’ve got a problem I need solved.”
“Do you?” I chuckled. Johnny dropped the eggnog in a small, clear glass in front of her. The shot of bourbon landed in front of me. Can’t let a solider lie there alone for too long. I picked up the shot glass and toasted to her. The heavenly burn of a stiff drink was one of my favorite things in life. I couldn’t wait for the next sip. “And what sort of problem would a girl like you have? Little Johnny Junior not paying enough attention to you? Santa not bringing you want you want for Christmas?”
“It’s funny you mention Santa,” she said as she put the eggnog to her lips. “It’s him I have a problem with.”
“You’ve got a problem with Santa Claus?” Okay, I started to hate this goblin again.
“I need you to keep him from coming Friday night.”
I checked the calendar in my head. Two days from now. Oh, give me a break. Now this fiend was giving me a headache even the bourbon couldn’t cure. “Not funny, kid. Beat it. I don’t play games.”
“Do I look like I’m playing a game, Holliday?” she spat taking a slow tug on her nog and then nudged the bills towards me with her knuckles.
“Aren’t you supposed to write Santa a letter when you want him to do something?”
“I did. He didn’t answer.”
“So now I’m taking matters into my own hands.”
“Oh! Are you now? Little rich girl going to take on Ol’ Saint Nick all by herself?”
“No. I’m going to pay you to do it.”
I took another sip. At least the bourbon made me feel something resembling good. Or alive. “Let me get this straight. You want me to stop Santa Claus from visiting your house on Christmas Eve?”
“That’s right.” A tear started to form at the corner of her left eye. Her face was flushed with rage.
Over the years, there’s something I’ve learned about people. There’s always something else going on, something lurking in the shadows that no one likes to see or remember. This kid had peeked into a pretty nasty shadow, and whatever she saw had burned her good. She was sad. And she was furious. I’d seen plenty of dames in my time with that kind of emotional cocktail bubbling inside their bellies. It almost always ended up with broken hearts and bodies on the ground. Even as she licked a white line of eggnog from her lips, I knew this little dame meant business. Terrible, dangerous business.
I downed the last of the bourbon in one gulp and snatched the cash off the counter, not even bothering to count it. Tucking the bills into my coat pocket, I answered, “No problem.”
I should really think before I use words out loud.