I should have stayed on the dais. I should have sent one of the elves to notify Security, while I perched on the throne and continued to act as a listening post for the kiddies.
But I didn’t. Like a damned fool, I decided to handle the matter myself. Like a damned fool, I wet charging off into the throng with the cherub’s cries of “Wanna see Santa, my turn to see Santa!” rising to a crescendo behind me.
The milling crush of celebrants had closed around Markey Waters and his son and I could no longer see them. But they had been heading at an angle toward the far assisted entrance, so that was the direction I took. The rubber boots I wore were a size too small and pinched my feet, forcing me to walk in a kind of mincing step; and as if that wasn’t bad enough, the boots were new and made squeaking sounds like a pair of rusty hinges. I also had to do some jostling to get through and around little knots of people, and some of the looks my maneuvers elicited were not of the peace-on-earth, goodwill-to-men variety. One elegantly-dressed guy said, “Watch the hands, Claus,” which might have been funny if I were not in such a dark and stormy frame of mind.
I was almost to the line of food booths along the east wall when I spotted Waters again, stopped near the second-to-last booth. One of his hands was clutching Ronnie’s wrist and the other seas plucking at an obese woman in a red-and-green, diagonally striped dress that made her look like a gigantic candy cane. Markey had evidently collided with her in his haste and caused her to spill a cup of punch on herself; she was loudly berating him for being a clumsy oaf, and refusing to let go of a big handful of his jacket until she’d had her say.
I minced and squeaked through another cluster of adults, all of whom were singing in accompaniment to the song now playing over the loudspeakers. The song, of all damn things, was “Here Comes Santa Claus.”
Waters may not have heard the song, hut its message got through to him just the same. He saw me bearing down on him from thirty feet away and understood immediately what my intentions were. His expression turned panicky; he tried to tear loose from the obese woman’s grip. She hung on with all the tenacity of a bulldog.
I was ten feet from getting my bulldog hands on him when he proceeded to transform the Gala Family Christmas Charity Benefit from fun and frolic into chaos.
He let go of Ronnie’s wrist, shouted, “Run, kid!” and then with his free hand he sucker-punched the obese woman on the uppermost of her chins. She not only released his jacket, she backpedaled into a lurching swoon that upset three other merrymakers and sent all four of them to the floor in a wild tangle of arms and legs. Voices rose in sudden alarm; somebody screamed like a fire siren going off. Bodies scattered out of harm’s way. And Markey Waters went racing toward freedom.
I gave chase, dodging and juking and squeaking. I wouldn’t have caught him except that while he was looking back over his shoulder to see how close I was, he tripped over something–his own feet, maybe–and down he went in a sprawl. I reached him just as he scrambled up again. I laid both hands on him and growled, “This is as far as you go, Waters,” whereupon he kicked me in the shin and yanked free.
I yelled, he staggered off, I limped after him. Shouts and shrieks echoed through the gym; so did the thunder of running feet and thudding bodies as more of the party animals stampeded. A woman came rushing out from inside the farthest of the food booths, got in Markey’s path, and caused him to veer sideways to keep from plowing into her. That in turn allowed me to catch up to him in front of the booth. I clapped a hand on his shoulder this time, spun him around–and he smacked me in the chops with something warm and soggy that had been sitting on the booth’s serving counter.
A meat pie.
He hit me in the face with a pie.
That was the last indignity in a night of indignities. Playing Santa Claus was bad enough; playing Lou Costello to a thief’s Bud Abbott was intolerable. I roared; I pawed at my eyes and scraped off beef gravy and false whiskers and white wig; I lunged and caught Waters again before he could escape; I wrapped my arms around him. It was my intention to twist him around and get him into a crippling hammerlock, but he was stronger than he looked. So instead we performed a kind of crazy, lurching bear-hug dance for a few seconds. That came to an end–predictably–when we banged into one of the booth supports and the whole front framework collapsed in a welter of wood and bunting and pie and paper plates and plastic utensils, with us in the middle of it all.
Markey squirmed out from underneath me, feebly, and tried to crawl away through the wreckage. I disentangled myself from some of the bunting, lunged at his legs, hung on when he tried to kick loose. And then crawled on top of him, flipped him over on his back, fended off a couple of ineffectual blows, and did some effectual things to his head until he stopped struggling and decided to become unconscious.
I sat astraddle him, panting and puffing and wiping gravy out of my eyes and nose. The tumult, I realized then, had subsided somewhat behind me. I could hear the loudspeakers again–the song playing now was “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”–and I could hear voices lifted tentatively nearby. Just before a newspaper photographer came hurrying up and snapped a picture of me and my catch, just before a horrified Kerry and a couple of tardy security guards arrived, I heard two voices in particular speaking in awed tones.
“My God,” one of them said, “what happened?”
“I dunno,” the other one said. “But it sure looks like Santa Claus went berserk.”