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.”
“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.