My fingers shook as I snatched the cigarette from my lips the next night. The air around my apartment building was colder than the shadows. I had instructions from my client, a wad of cash in my pocket and a loaded gun in my holster. I had everything I needed.
I was home. Not my apartment, but my real home. The shadows of the city. Darkness welcomed me like a forbidden lover, caressing me with her black widow arms. From here I watched the world pass me by, and I was always glad to see it go.
The little girl was upstairs now, tucked safely in her bed and dreaming about all the presents that would appear under her tree tomorrow night, even if I managed to solve her little problem. Kids are full of hopes and dreams, like a boat on the ocean. Shoot enough holes in them though, they’ll sink just the same.
I heard his footfalls coming from a mile away. He didn’t even try to hide his approach. I’m sure there was a time when he did. Now he knows what he wants and he’s not afraid to let the world know it. I stomped my cigarette out and retreated into the shadows.
He stepped out of the gray night into the dim glow of the street lamp. I couldn’t see the face under his fedora, but I knew it was him. Santa Claus, in the flesh. He took a drag on his cigarette, and I saw his true face in the red-hot glow. He wasn’t much to speak of, almost like every other Joe on the street these days. Dark stubble hid his complexion, but he still looked young, early twenties. I could see the bags under his eyes and the red on his nose. A hint of his red and white costume peeked through the top of his fitted, black overcoat.
The front door to the apartment building opened, and she slipped outside. The little girl’s mother. I’d seen her around the building too. She’s impossible to miss. Sea blue eyes and cosmopolitan hair, but a body that looked like it was meant to be stored inside an apron. I could even see the apron flow in the breeze as she hurried to him.
They embraced in the chill of the night. The Mother and Santa. While Father and the little girl slept upstairs, sugar plums dancing in their heads and all that. Right out here in the open. She doesn’t care to be discovered either. Let the world know their sin. If only the rest of the world were so open-minded as they.
What a crock.
They talked in whispers for a moment or two, then Mother got very upset. Santa got upset too. I smirked. Something wasn’t going according to plan.
I remembered watching these two earlier today at the department store. When Santa went on a break, they embraced like newlyweds in a lonely corner in the back of the storage area. Now they argued back and forth for a minute or more like an old, married couple.
Then Santa started to get reassuring. His hands wrapped around her waist as they spoke. They swayed gently to a song that only they could hear. They kissed again, and Santa shuffled off down the street, their business completed for the time being.
Mother gazed as Santa disappeared into the night, her arms wrapped across her breasts in a vain attempt to trap heat against her shell of a body. The love in the air between them was so thick it choked me. Once Santa was out of sight, she turned back towards the door.
Time for me to make my move.
“I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus,” I said as I stepped from the shadows.
Mother almost jumped out of her skin. She stifled a yelp with a hand to her mouth, then she squinted in my direction. “Who’s there?” she whispered.
“Just a little shepherd,” I said as I approached, popping a cigarette out of the pack. “Keeping watch over the flock by night.”
“I know you. You’re that strange man from room 112. Holliday?”
“And I know you. The housewife from room 304. Well,” I turned towards the direction of the departing figure, “perhaps not for much longer. Everything ready then?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You and Santa there. Ready to hit the road and never look back?”
Mother’s jaw dropped. “I … I don’t know what you mean.” She put on a brave face.
“Please,” I said finally standing next to her. I offered her the cigarette, and she took it like a dog hankering for a treat. “Santa found a way to fill your stockings just the way you want?”
Mother didn’t blush. In fact, the shock of my arrival drained from her face. “Do you believe in love, Mr. Holliday?” Her voice was cooler now. Alluring. She looked at me with greedy eyes like a vulture eyeing its next meal.
“No. But I do believe in chemistry.”
I held up a single wood match. “Chemistry. How chemicals and elements mix together to make the world around us. How they react and interact with each other. Fascinating stuff. Take this match for example. Alone, it’s inert. Simple. Cold. But you add a little spark.” I scraped the match across the red lighting strip, and the tip blazed to life. “And you can have a fireball.” I leaned over and lit her cigarette, then shook the match out. “Chemistry’s a dangerous thing. Add too big a spark, you could get burned.”
“Love can burn too,” she mused as she took a drag, her eyes never leaving mine. We stood quiet for a moment as she adjusted the plans in her head. I could wait. I don’t sleep much. “I take it Walter hired you to follow me.” She looked up at the dark window on the third floor. “What does he want?”
“That depends. What do you want?”
She smoked and looked deep into my eyes, like Jesus staring down from the cross at his congregation. Her sin had been exposed, and yet she didn’t care a lick about it. She was in love, and if there is anything in this life that makes us do incredibly stupid things, it’s love. And money. Case in point, me, standing in the cold, watching strangers ruin their lives. “I want my freedom,” she finally answered.
“Yeah? Freedom from what?”
“From this,” she spat as she yanked the straps of her apron. “From this ridiculous life I have. From that whining little brat. From that half of a man. From making meatloaf and dusting the same lamp shades day after day after day. That’s no way for me to live. That’s no way for anyone to live.”
“And Santa Claus there? He’s ready to load you up on his sleigh and show you a whole new world?”
“He’s a real man,” she sighed as her eyes sized me up head to foot and back again. “He gives me whatever I want.” Her eyes blazed as she slithered her tongue across her lower lip. “And what do you want, Mr. Holliday?”
“The usual. Air, water, food, gravity.”
“I see,” she mused as she glided closer to me. I could feel the warmth of her breath on my face. She smelled of floor wax and strawberries. “And when was the last time you had any … chemistry … Mr. Holliday?” The fingers of her free hand tickled the edge of her apron as they followed the curve of her body.
“I tend to avoid explosions, when I can.”
“Pity. Sometimes a man needs little bang in his life.”
“I prefer not to get shot too.”
“Well then,” she snorted, “what will it take for you to go back to your little hole and forget that any of this ever happened?” She stretched her neck up and to the side, offering it to me like a virgin to the vampire.
I’ll admit, I considered taking her up on the offer. I’d already wasted a day of my waning life tracking her and Kris Kringle around town. A couple of bucks and I could walk away, far away from this love-blind dame and her sad situation. My stomach twitched at the idea of tasting how warm and sweet that neck might be. But as I looked into her eyes, I didn’t see the lost wife. I saw the little girl who had looked at me with a fractured visage of love and revenge and asked me to solve her problem. She was my client, after all, and doesn’t the client matter most of all?
“Sorry,” I said, putting my hands on each of her shoulders and easing her away from me. “When I take a job, I see it through, even when it kills me.” She raised an eyebrow like I’d given her a new idea or something.
She took another drag and looked back up at her dark apartment window. “What are you going to tell Walter?”
“The question is, what are you going to tell him?”
Her eyes narrowed as her lips pursed. “Tomorrow night, I’m leaving and I’m never coming back. One way or another.”
“Unless what, Mr. Holliday?”
“Unless someone keeps Santa Claus from visiting you on Christmas Eve.”
She took a deep drag as she considered me one last time. The amorous woman was long gone. Now I faced a tiger who’d been backed into a corner. I’d seen the look dozens of times over. I knew what was coming next. She threw the cigarette to the ground and stomped on it. “Someone like you, Mr. Holliday?” She leaned in close to me and growled, “I can’t wait to see you try.”
With a humph, she climbed the stairs and slipped back into the darkened building.
Broken hearts and bodies on the ground, I thought as I watched her go. I wondered which one I would be as I clenched the money in my pocket. It seemed to burn in my hand, like the fires of hell itself.