“Empty your pockets,” I said.
“Because I told you to, that’s what for.”
“I don’t have to do what you tell me.”
“If you don’t, I’ll empty them for you.”
“I want a lawyer,” he said.
“You’re too young to need a lawyer. Now empty your pockets before I smack you one.”
Ronnie glared at me. I glared back at him. “If you smack me,” he said, “it’s police brutality.” Nine years old going on forty.
“I’m not the police, remember? This is your last chance, kid: empty the pockets or else.”
“Ahhh,” he said, but he emptied the pockets.
He didn’t have Mrs. Randolph Simmons’s wallet, but he did have her two hundred dollars. Two hundred and four dollars, to be exact. I don’t need you to give me toys. l can buy my own toys. Sure. Two hundred and four bucks can buy a lot of toys, not to mention a lot of grief.
“What’d you do with the wallet, Ronnie?”
“Dumped it somewhere nearby, right?”
“I dunno what you’re talking about.”
“No? Then where’d you get the money?”
“I found it.”
“Uh-huh. In Mrs. Randolph Simmons’s purse.”
“Your old man put you up to it, or was it your own idea?”
He favored me with a cocky little grin. “I’m smart,” he said. “I’m gonna be just like my dad when I grow up.”
“Yeah,” I said sadly. “A chip off the old block if ever there was one.”
Kerry and I were sitting on the couch in her living room. I sat with my head tipped back and my eyes closed; I had a thundering headache and a brain clogged with gloom. It had been a long, long night, full of all sorts of humiliations; and the sight of a nine-year-old kid, even a thuggish nine-year-old kid, being carted off to the Youth Authority at the same time his father was being carted off to the Hall of Justice was a pretty unfestive one.
I hadn’t seen the last of the humiliations, either. Tonight’s fiasco would get plenty of tongue-in-cheek treatment in the morning papers, complete with photographs–half a dozen reporters and photographers had arrived at the gym in tandem with the police–and so there was no way Eberhardt and my other friends could help but find out. I was in for weeks of sly and merciless ribbing.
Kerry must have intuited my headache because she moved over close beside me and began to massage my temples. She’s good at massage; some of the pain began to ease almost immediately. None of the gloom, though. You can’t massage away gloom.
After a while she said, “I guess you blame me.”
“Why should I blame you?”
“Well, if I hadn’t talked you into playing Santa…”
“You didn’t talk me into anything; I did it because I wanted to help you and the Benefit. No, I blame myself for what happened. I should have handled Markey Waters better. If I had, the Benefit wouldn’t have come to such a bad end and you’d have made a lot more money for the charities.”
“We made quite a bit as it is,” Kerry said. “And you caught a professional thief and saved four good citizens from losing valuable personal property.”
“And put a kid in the Youth Authority for Christmas.”
“You’re not responsible for that. His father is.”
“Sure, I know. But it doesn’t make me feel any better.”
She was silent for a time. At the end of which she leaned down and kissed me, warmly.
I opened my eyes. “What was that for?”
“For being who and what you are. You grump and grumble and act the curmudgeon, but that’s just a facade. Underneath you’re a nice caring man with a big heart.”
“Yeah. Me and St. Nick.”
“Exactly.” She looked at her watch. “It is now officially the twenty-fourth–Christmas Eve. How would you like one of your presents a little early?”
“Depends on which one.”
“Oh, I think you’ll like it.” She stood up. “I’ll go get it ready for you. Give me five minutes.”
I gave her three minutes, which–miraculously enough–was all the time it took for my pall of gloom to lift. Then I got to my feet and went down the hall.
“Ready or not,” I said as I opened the bedroom door, “here comes Santa Claus!”