"McCue you gotta help me."
I've heard that tune lotsa times since I put up my shingle in Treegreen. This was a first, though, even for me.
"Let's go over it again, Mr. . . . er . . ."
"Santa will do, Gavin. No need to be formal with me."
Right. I got Santa Clause sitting in my client's chair, it's a month before you-know-what, I ain't exactly on his "nice" list, and I'm supposed to be informal.
"O. K., Santa," I say. "Let's go over it again."
"It's my sister," he says. "You gotta understand. She's been driving me nuts!"
"So you said," I respond, propping my feet on my desk. "Remind me how."
"Ever since she came to visit last week," he says, fumbling for his pipe, "She's been insufferable--annoying the elves, rearranging the workshop, upsetting the reindeer." He slides his pipe into his mouth and gets it going. The smoke, it encircles . . . well, you know.
"No too long ago," he points the pipe at me, "She tried to paint Rudolph's nose. Said that red was passeí and that the neighbors were whispering. It's the freaking North Pole! We got no neighbors!"
By now he's shouting.
"Easy, easy, big guy," I say. "Just stay calm. We'll get through this. Here," I open my desk drawer and take out a flask. "Have a swig of this." I pass it. He opens and upends it down his throat. Several gulps later he hands it back--noticably lighter.
"All of this would be bad enough," he says, leaning across my desk, "But the woman never shuts up. Natter, natter, natter--and all she does is criticize. 'This room's a mess,' she'll say 'There's toys everywhere!' or 'What is with the reindeer in the living room? Momma would have a conniption!' or 'Must you smoke that thing in here? It smells like burning mistletoe!'"
I interrupt. "And what does your wife say about all of this?"
"What can she say? It's my sister! And she feels a little sorry for her because the woman just lost her fifth husband."
"Her fifth . . ." I murmur.
"Yeah, she wears 'em out."
"No. I told ya, she wears 'em out. Talks 'em to death. They usually choke trying to get a word in edgewise."
"C'mon, you're kiddin'" I say.
"Do I look like I'm kidding?" he says, his merry blue eyes blazing. "Try growing up with her, if you don't believe me. I was 25 before my mother knew what my voice sounded like. And that only happened because my sister got laryngitis for a couple of days. That's why I came to the North Pole in the first place--to get a little peace and quiet."
"O. K., O. K.," I soothe. He's starting to turn purple. "Siddown, siddown." He settles back into the client chair. I'm grateful again that it's as comfortable as it is ugly. "Now," I prod, once his blood pressure falls a bit. "What is it you want me to do?"
He looks a bit uncomfortable. "Well," he says, "This is a little embarassing . . ."
I wave my hand. "Believe me," I say, "There's no need to feel that way. I've been in this business a long time."
"When I heard about the latest funeral, I felt bad for her. I thought we'd give her a place to stay until she got back on her feet. I should have realized what was going to happen when she kibbitzed my driving on the way here in the sleigh." He closes his eyes and passes a hand across his forehead. "That was the start of it. I tried, I really did. I ignored the comments about the neighborhood, the sniping about the elves, even the complaints about the tinsel in her room. But last week, when she told me to lay off the mashed potatoes . . . well, I did it."
"I hired someone to get rid of her."
Nonplused, I think, aptly describes my mood at this point.
"You hired someone to kill your sister?" I splutter.
"Of course not," he says, shocked.
"Well, that's good, I . . ."
"Just to . . . get rid of her. I gave specific orders . . . no killing."
"And now," I say, "You want me to keep them from taking her."
"No," he says, "I want you to get them to bring her back."
I'm in Polar Opposites, a watering hole south of magnetic north. I'm cold, tired, and trying hard to avoid getting picked up by one of the local working girls.
"Wanna rub noses?" a walrus-fur clad cutie asks.
"Sorry," I murmur, "Got a cold . . ."
"I got tissues . . ."
"No fun that way," I growl--chauvinist oinker that I am. I turn back to the barkeep. "So, you know Clause?"
He's polishing a glass. He's big and he's hairy and looks almost as stupid as he's acting.
"C'mon, you know him," I say, tipping back a beer. "Fat guy. White beard. Gets real busy around this time of year."
"He was in here last week. He was looking for something . . . special wasn't he?"
He shrugs again.
I finish the beer. So far, the conversation's been pretty one-sided.
"He's deaf, you know."
I turn to see the same walrus-furred cutie grinning at me.
"Stone deaf. Been that way all his life."
I chew on this a while.
"Buy a girl a drink and I'll get him to tell you what you want to know."
It's my turn to shrug. I turn back to the barkeep and hold up two fingers. Two beers slide across the bar. I sip; she guzzles.
"OK," I say as she sets down her empty glass, "So, ask him if he knows where Clause's sister is."
"Bear," she says, turning toward him, "Where's Clause's sister?"
He shrugs . . . again.
"He don't know her," she says.
"I thought you said he was deaf," I say.
"He reads lips," she says.
"He didn't read mine."
"He doesn't read guys' lips. Thinks it's a little . . . you know . . . " and she waggles her hand. "He likes to read a girl's lips, though. Makes him fun to talk to . . ."
I mull this over for a while and turn back to the big guy. He's staring into the middle distance.
"Hey," I poke him in his larger-than-average tummy, "I'm asking urrrrrk"
I'm not really asking urrrrrk. I'm hanging by my throat from a fist roughly the size of Passaic. My feet are two inches above the floor and I'm turning an interesting shade of mauve.
"He doesn't like to be touched," walrus-girl says. "Bear, put the man down. You remember what happened last time."
Fist . . . opens . . . and I'm drawing air into my bruised throat. I might be able to swallow again in about six weeks.
"Ask him," I croak, "If he knows who might know."
"That's a little complicated for bear," she says. "Fact is, anything beyond 'gimme a beer' and 'where's the john?' is a little complicated for him. Bear," she says, turning to the hulking hair pile, "Know Santa?"
A smile lights what passes for bear's face.
"Santa needs to find Yenta. Where is Yenta?"
"Yenta?" I ask.
"That's her name."
"I thought her name was Rosie."
She lifts her shoulders. "Everyone here calls her Yenta."
She turns to me. "You really don't know her, do you?" Back to bear. "Yenta, bear. Where's Yenta?"
The lummox thinks about it . . . thinks about it for a long time. I'm beginning to suspect he's fallen asleep when he shakes his head.
"Really, doesn't know, huh?" I ask.
"Guess not," she replies. "And that's odd. Bear knows just about everything about just about everybody around here." She turns to me. "If she's around, she ain't been in here."
"Yes, the locals call her Yenta," Clause says, ticking an item of a list he's checking, "So what?"
I'm in his workshop after leaving Polar Opposites. The clutter and thrum of the place is getting to me a bit.
"So, it might have been nice to know that before my throat got clutched by the abominable barkeep."
"Look, McCue," Santa says, "I didn't hire you to probe my family background. I hired you to find my sister and bring her back."
"And information," I stress, "helps me do that. Keeping information from me doesn't. So," I dodge a scurrying elf with a load of toy soldiers. "Any information you'd like to pass along?"
"Nothing more to tell you," he says, bending over a pile of gears and ratchets.
"You sure? Might not be something obvious. Maybe something I can't get from a simple background check?"
He stops. Looks at me.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean the Internet is a wonderful tool. You can find out all kinds of stuff about people. Especially if they're famous. Especially if they been around for a long, long time . . ."
I move toward a pile of rag dolls. Pick one up.
"Looking for stuff about you, for instance, I got all the usual: the sleigh, the elves, the chimney fetish . . ."
"I also found a whole bunch of names," I continue. "Kris Kringle, Saint Nickolas, Father Christmas, and several versions of Santa Clause." I drop the rag doll and turn toward my client.
"Funny thing," I say, "Almost all of the names weren't names at all. They were more like . . . titles. I mean Kris Kringle, OK, but the others?" I shake my head. "I just couldn't picture a new mother naming her baby 'Santa' or 'Father' or 'Saint.'"
I pick up a top. "Now, because I couldn't picture that, I started probing deeper. Wasn't easy. Took a long time. Surf the 'Net for Santa Clause and you get lots of hits. Finally though, on about the 126,000th link, I found a reference to an itinerant toymaker who lived in the Middle East about 3050 years ago."
I toss the top from hand to hand. "Seems like this guy made all kinds of toys back then. Sold 'em, traded 'em, and gave 'em away to poor kids on one night every year. This was long before Christmas, mind you, but he did it anyway. His name was Sender Cohn," I spin the top ". . . and he was J . . ."
But before I can continue, I'm being carried out of the workshop. Next thing I know, I'm standing in below-zero temperatures with an apoplectic fat guy clutching my lapels.
"Be quiet, you fool," he says, looking over his shoulder. "What if the elves had heard you?"
I nod. "That might queer your sweet deal with the toy companies."
He releases my lapels, stunned.
"How much do you know?" he asks.
"Enough," I say. "You had it made, didn't you? Got every toy company in the world paying you off. And why not? You're the best marketing agent in history! You practically created the retail industry. I mean, think about it: toy company CEOs know that parents don't believe in you. And they know that kids do. They know that parents are gonna buy toys for those kids and pretend they came from Santa Clause. Whatever they're paying you, it isn't enough."
"Oh sure, you continue to make toys. You give them away, too. But you love that. Always have. Been doin' it forever, almost. And the toy companies love it, too. Helps keep the magic of Christmas alive. And it's that magic that keeps parents buying toys. Keeps the cash registers ringing." I shrug. "But all of that was going to end, wasn't it? All because of your sister . . ."
"She never could keep her nose out of my business," Santa mutters.
"Wasn't so bad when she was married," I continue. "Different last name, lived with her husbands. After this last one died, though, you made the mistake of feeling sorry for her." I tap his round little belly with my finger. It shakes. "You thought you'd take her in for a while, but you forgot . . ."
"I forgot that she never liked the Christmas shtick," he says. "Said it was a shanda and that momma was spinning in her grave." Heís agitated now and all of itís coming out. "Stubborn, ootzy little nebbish. You know, she never liked me. Always doing things for spite. Wouldn't let me call her Rosie. Oh no. Insisted on Yenta. 'They named me after bubbe,' she said. 'You want I should forget they named me after bubbe?'"
He turns to me. "But when she decided to take back her maiden name, that was the last straw. Everyone knew she was my sister. How could I let her go around saying she was Yenta Cohn?"
"Be a bit awkward," I agree.
"Awkward, shmawkward, it would have ruined everything."
I nod. "I can see your problem. So where is she?"
"Where is she?' I repeat. "Where you got her stashed?"
"Wha . . . but . . . you . . ." Hey kids! A sputtering Santa! Be the first on your block . . .
'C'mon, we both know you got her," I wave my hand. "Time to drop the razz."
He stands up straighter. "I don't know what . . ."
" . . . I'm talking about, yeah, yeah." I finish for him. "Look, it wasn't a bad plan. First you kidnap your sister. Then you go hire some poor jamoke to find her. Jamoke looks for a while, then gives up. You tell everyone about your misfortune and the incompetent shlemiel you hired. Then you go back to doing the mistletoe and holly routine." I start to rub my arms; it's getting colder, if that's possible.
"Your only mistake was picking me as the jamoke," I blow on my hands. "I don't give up. And I been around long enough to know the old switcheroo when I see it. About the only thing I couldn't figure is what you're planning to do with her," I turn over a palm. "I know you aren't gonna snuff her, so I figure you got her stashed somewhere safe and fairly comfortable. How long you plan to keep her there, I don't know. But it doesn't matter," I shrug. "That's over. Tell me where she is."
He's shaking his head. "Even if this ridiculous theory of yours was right," he says with a sneer, "Why on earth would I tell you where she is?"
I move closer to him. "To keep me from going to the cops . . . to keep me quiet . . . because of my winning personality and kindly disposition . . . all of these are good reasons," I throw an arm around his shoulder. "But I got a better one: you're gonna tell me where she is because I got a way to solve all of your problems." And I lean close to whisper in Santa's ear . . .
"So where was she?"
I'm in my office after telling the tale to Heather on the day before Christmas. Heather's case load as the Angel of Death is light during the holidays. She's a good listener, easy on the eyes, and never spreads a story.
"Doesn't matter," I say, sipping egg nog. "As soon as Santa heard my plan, he took me to her."
"And you," she says, "Introduced her to that bartender."
"Just call me cupid," I smile.
"But, how did you know they'd hit it off?"
"Wasn't hard to figure," I say. "She likes to talk. He likes to read lips . . . women's lips. Match made in . . ."
"Watch it, Gavin," she says, with a smile. "So they got married quickly . . ."
"Short courtships, long marriages."
". . . and now there's no problem about her name. She's happy. Bear's happy. Santa's happy . . . "
"And my bank account's happy," I say. "Got a couple of bonuses from the toy companies."
"Good for you," she says, and finishes her egg nog. She starts out my office door and I check my watch.
"Hey, I gotta get to the store before it closes," I say, grabbing my hat.
"Forget the carrot for the reindeer and the cookies for Santa?" she asks.
"Carrots, I got," I say. "And cookies were last year." I prop my hat on my bean. "Naw, this year I'm gonna leave him potato latkes. Couldn't hoit."
x x x
Ordinarily I donít publish my own stories in this venue. I just finished this one recently, though, and I wanted to share it with my friends at Anotherealm. Itís a bit too close to Christmas to count on it appearing in another forum, so I thought Iíd put it . . . briefly . . . up here. It does not qualify for the Readerís Choice or the Higney Award and Iím scarcely going to pay myself for it, so I guess I can ask for your indulgence. Hope you like it. -GM