I scanned the street outside the window of my apartment as I poured a fresh glass of comfort and joy. The sun was going down on the city, and soon Christmas Eve would be shrouded by the comforting void. Soon Santa would be on his way, and I was ready to greet him with more than just milk and cookies.
Every Christmas Eve was dark, cold and full of lies. Children expected a fat man to land on their roofs courtesy of flying mammals while schlepping every desire they’d confessed to him over the past twenty-four days. Adults yearned for peace on Earth and good will towards each other. Sure, that’ll be the day. Silent nights, holy nights, shepherds, wise men. Take your pick, they’ll let you down. It’s all just an illusion. The only thing you can really believe in is the darkness and the cold, without and within.
The day had taken long enough to get over with. I’d watched as Mother and the little girl left their apartment this morning. The little girl giggled as she held her Mother’s hand. She didn’t know everything Mother had planned to do tonight. She didn’t think about the painful days and years ahead. All she knew was the happiness she felt at that moment. Like I said, full of lies. Mother caught me following them and locked her eyes to mine. With a small smirk, they headed off on their merry way.
I’d grabbed my camera and followed them. Naturally, they’d gone to the department store. While my client examined the toy aisles one last time, Mother and Santa talked briefly. He gave her a wrapped package that she quickly tucked away in her purse. They parted without a hint of affection. My client gave Santa the evil eye as they left. Their plan was afoot. No turning back now.
The same was true for me. I finished off the glass to steel my nerves. Nothing to do now but wait until Santa Claus comes to town.
Finally the street lights flickered and blazed to life, replacing our dearly departed star. A few families continued to walk the streets. Their smiles left scratches on my eyes. I checked my gun one more time. Ammo good. Safety off. Satisfied, I slipped it back into the pocket of my trench coat. Just in case Santa decided to be bad for badness sake.
Santa’s department store would have closed for the holiday two hours ago. I’d walked the beat from the store to his place and back to my building a couple of times. He should arrive any minute now.
I went over the speech I’d prepared one last time and eyed the envelope on the end table. Let’s just say I have ways of convincing people to do what I tell them to do. Santa would leave, one way or another, and my client would get what she wanted. Job finished.
Five minutes passed.
The streets couldn’t get any darker. Still no Santa.
Something’s wrong. Their plan must have changed. If she wasn’t just going to meet up with Santa and leave forever, then what was Mother going to do? Did she change her mind? I remembered the look she shot me with this morning. I could still feel the hole it burned on the back of my eyes. No way she’d just give up.
Then I remembered the wrench that had been thrown into their plans two days ago. I had a pretty good bet what her plan had turned into.
Part of me wanted to leave them all alone. Let them fend for themselves and allow Fate to play out the hand it’s dealing to that sad little family. I’d promised my client I’d keep Santa from coming tonight. It was clear now that he wasn’t. I’d done my job. But the money in my pocket, now neatly pressed into a thick envelope, felt like a tinsel noose pulling me down to a holly grave.
I understood the danger the little girl was in because I’d gotten involved. I remembered the look on her face in the café as the tears welled in her eyes. I knew what I had to do. Stupid, stupid old man.
I snatched up the envelope and stormed out of my apartment. I arrived at room 304 less than a minute later. I knocked three slow knocks.
The metallic jingle of locks getting adjusted and the door swung open. Father stood before me, his face contorting from shock to confusion. “Can I help you?” he asked.
“No, but I’m willing to bet you need my help,” I growled as I pushed past him into the apartment.
“Definitely not Santa Claus,” I said as I removed my hat.
“Dear?” Mother sang from another room, “is everything all right?”
“This,” Father stammered, “a man is here.” Father stood guard by the door, perhaps waiting for the right moment to open it and show me out. A real man would have done that already. I chuckled to myself. Half a man, indeed. Maybe Mother had a point.
“Man? What man?” Mother asked as she sauntered into the room. She stopped cold at the doorway, and the blood drained from her face. Mother caught herself and brushed her hands on her apron. “Oh, Mr. Holliday. Dear, you remember Mr. Holliday, from the first floor?”
Father stumbled through his memory, searching for verification. “Ah, yes, yes, of course!” he answered unconvincingly. “Merry Christmas to you, Mr. Holliday. Can I get you a drink or something?”
“No, but I do have something for you.” I slapped the envelope down on the coffee table and patrolled in front of the window. I pulled the cigarettes out of my coat, lit one and tucked the pack deep into the pocket. “Merry Christmas,” I added, half-heartedly.
“The ghost of Christmas present.”
Father slowly made his way to the coffee table and picked up the envelope. “Huh,” he chuckled as he opened it, “I wonder what it could be?” He pulled out the contents, and his eyes went wide as his face turned white. “What?” he stammered as he looked at the first photograph. Then he looked up to Mother. “What is this?” He turned the photo around. It was a picture I’d taken just the day before. Mother, at the department store. Well, out the back of the store, engaged in a warm, tight embrace with Kris Kringle himself.
Mother stood silent, her face as stoic as concrete.
Father flipped to the next picture. The same scene, from a different angle. “Sorry about the quality of the pictures,” I quipped, “I’m not much of a photographer, and the lighting was a challenge.”
Another flip. Mother and Santa after they’d finished. Father’s eyes began to wet. “How,” he stammered and cleared his throat. “How could you?”
The air was thick with truth. I had to stop myself from turning the Christmas tree lights off.
Father pulled a piece of paper from the envelope. “What’s this?” he sputtered.
“That’s your latest bank statement,” I answered through a puff of smoke. Don’t ask me how I got it. Let’s just say I know a lot of people in this town who had problems that I had solved for them. “You’ll notice it’s five-thousand less than it should be.”
Then he flipped to the last photo, a picture I’d taken just a few hours ago. Mother accepting the package from Santa. “This … this is from today,” Father managed to get out. “This is the outfit you wore today.”
“Oh, Walter,” Mother sighed. “You weren’t supposed to know. You weren’t supposed to know any of it.” Mother shot me a look that would have killed another man on the spot. She reached into a pocket behind her apron. When her hand returned, she pointed a revolver right at Father’s heart. “I’m sorry, Walter, but this is the only way.”
A hint of movement outside caught my eye, and I risked a quick glance. There he was. Santa Claus. Standing in their spot under the street lamp, waiting for the new Mrs. Claus to join him on his sleigh ride out of town. “Looks like Santa gave you what you asked for Christmas,” I mused.
Mother’s face flushed with rage. The lovesick tiger had returned. “Shut up, Holliday. Took you long enough to get here. I almost had to eat that cursed roast beef. But now that you’re finally here, it’s time for all of you to die.”
Father and I looked at each other as he raised his hands up over his head. Amateur. I took a drag from my cigarette. “I’ll take that drink now, Walter, if you don’t mind.”