Silent Night by Marcia Muller Mystery Short Story

The transvestite’s name was Norma and she–he? I never know which to call them–was coldly beautiful. The two of us sat at a corner table in the bar, sipping champagne because Norma had insisted on it. (“After all, it’s Christmas Eve, darling!”) The bar, in spite of winking colored lights on its tree and flickering bayberry candles on each table, was gloomy and semideserted; Norma’s brave velvet finery and costume jewelry had about it more than a touch of the pathetic. She’d been sitting alone when I’d entered and had greeted me eagerly.

I’d been put in touch with Norma by Ted Smalley, who is gay and has a wide-ranging acquaintance among all segments of the city’s homosexual community. Norma, he’d said, knew everything there was to know about what went on in Polk Gulch; if anyone could help me, it was she.

The photo of Mike didn’t look familiar to Norma. “There are so many runaways on the street at this time of year,” she told me. “Kids get their hopes built up at Christmas time. When they find out Santa isn’t the great guy he’s cracked up to be, they take off. Like your nephew.”

“So what would happen to a kid like him? Where would he go?”

“Lots of places. There’s a hotel–the Vinton. A lot of runaways end up there at first, until their money runs out. If he’s into drugs, try any flophouse, doorway, or alley. If he’s connected with a pimp, look for him hustling.”

My fingers tightened involuntarily on the stem of my champagne glass. Norma noticed and shook her elaborately coiffed head in sympathy. “Not a pretty thought, is it? But what do you see around here that’s pretty–except for me?” As she spoke the last words, her smile became self-mocking.

“He’s been missing five days now,” I said, “and he only had fifty-some dollars on him. That’ll be gone by now, so he probably won’t be at the hotel, or any other. He’s never been into drugs. His father’s a musician, and a lot of his cronies are druggies; the kid actually disapproves of them. The other I don’t even want to think about–although I probably will have to, eventually.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“Try the hotel. Go back and talk to the people at that vacant lot. Keep looking at each kid who walks by.”

Norma stared at the photo of Mike that lay face up on the table between us. “It’s a damned shame, a nice-looking kid like that. He ought to be home with his family, trimming the tree, roasting chestnuts on the fire, or whatever other things families do.”

“The American Christmas dream, huh?”

“Yeah.” She smiled bleakly, raised her glass. “Here’s to the American Christmas dream–and to all the people it’s eluded.”

I touched my glass to hers. “Including you and me.”

“Including you and me. Let’s’just hope it doesn’t elude young Mike forever.”

The Vinton Hotel was a few blocks away, around the corner on Eddy Street. Its lobby was a flight up, over a closed sandwich shop, and I had to wait and be buzzed in before I could climb carpetless stairs that stank strongly of disinfectant and faintly of urine. Lobby was a misnomer, actually: it was more a narrow hall with a desk to one side, behind which sat a young black man with a tall afro. The air up there was thick with the odor of marijuana; I guessed he’d been spending his Christmas Eve with a joint. His eyes flashed panic when I reached in my bag for my identification. Then he realized it wasn’t a bust and relaxed somewhat.

I took out another photo of Mike and laid it on the counter. “You seen this kid?”

He barely glanced at it. “Nope, can’t help you.”

I shoved it closer. “Take another look.”

He did, pushed it back toward me. “I said no.”

There was something about his tone that told me he was lying–would lie out of sheer perversity. I could get tough with him, make noises about talking to the hotel’s owners, mentioning how the place reeked of grass. The city’s fleabags had come under a good bit of media scrutiny recently; the owners wouldn’t want me to cause any trouble that would jeopardize this little goldmine that raked in outrageously high rents from transients, as well as government subsidized payments for welfare recipients. Still, there had to be a better way…

“You work here every night?” I asked.


“Rough, on Christmas Eve.”

He shrugged.

“Christmas night, too?”

“Why do you care?”

“I understand what a rotten deal that is. You don’t think I’m running around out here in the cold because I like it, do you?”

His eyes flickered to me, faintly interested. “You got no choice, either?”

“Hell, no. The client says find the kid, I go looking. Not that it matters. I don’t have anything better to do.”

“Know what you mean. Nothing for me at home, either.”

“Where’s home?”

“My real home, or where I live?”

“Both, I guess.”

“Where I live’s up there.” He gestured at the ceiling. “Room goes with the job. Home’s not there no more. Was in Motown back before my ma died and things got so bad in the auto industry. I came out here thinking I’d find work.” He smiled ironically. “Well, I found it, didn’t l?”

“At least it’s not as cold here as in Detroit.”

“No, but it’s not home, either.” He paused, then reached for Mike’s picture. “Let me see that again.” Another pause. “Okay. He stayed here. Him and this blond chick got to be friends. She’s gone, too.”

“Do you know the blond girl’s name?”

“Yeah. Jane Smith. Original, huh?”

“Can you describe her?”

“Just a little blond, maybe five-two. Long hair. Nothing special about her.”

“When did they leave?”

They were gone when I came on last night. The owner don’t put up with the ones that can’t pay, and the day man, he likes tossing their asses out on the street.”

“How did the kid seem to you? Was he okay?”

The man’s eyes met mine, held them for a moment. “Thought this was just a job to you.”

“…He’s my nephew.”

“Yeah, I guessed it might be something like that. Well, if you mean was he doing drugs or hustling, I’d say no. Maybe a little booze, that’s all. The girl was the same. Pretty straight kids. Nobody’d gotten to them yet.”

“Let me ask you this: What would kids like that do after they’d been thrown out of here? Where would they hang out?”

He considered. “There’s a greasy spoon on Polk, near O’Farrell. Owner’s an old guy, Iranian. He feels sorry for the kids, feeds them when they’re about to starve, tries to get them to go home. He might of seen those two.”

“Would he be open tonight?”

“Sure. Like I said, he’s Iranian. It’s not his holiday. Come to think of it, it’s not mine anymore, either.”

“Why not?”

Again the ironic smile. “Can’t celebrate peace-on-earth-goodwill-to-men when you don’t believe in it anymore, now can you?” I reached into my bag and took out a twenty-dollar bill, slid it across the counter to him. “Peace on earth, and thanks.”

He took it eagerly, then looked at it and shook his head.

“You don’t have to.”

“I want to. That makes a difference.”


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