Bob Marley was dead to begin with. I don’t know why that thought entered my head, but it may have had something to do with the radio station playing reggae on Christmas Eve.
I was in my office in the
The structure was a four story building in a city where only two story structures could be built. It was a cubist, architectural eyesore, in a city where all other buildings were required to have a Spanish-style motif. So, it was sixty-five big ones spent for an edifice that broke every standard the city had ever established. It wasn't even decorated for Christmas.
The way this project had been ramrodded through the city council, I wouldn't doubt there's a body or two doing the concrete boogie in the foundation. Intimidation and greed can move mountains a hell of a lot quicker than faith. Somebody ought to start an investigation. But not me.
No. Not me.
I'm a private eye, but my heart isn't in the game anymore. I'm an ex-cop, an ex-husband, an ex-altar boy, and an expert at self-delusion. I hadn't had a client in a month, my rent was overdue, my heart had a hole in it, and I was down to my last fedora. So much for a merry Christmas. Bah humbug.
I milked the last of the bourbon bottle into a tooth glass and swilled the swallow down. I looked out the window at the Christmas lights in the surrounding hills and despised each and every one.
The door to my office swung open and a dame stepped in. Trouble always starts with a dame. This wasn't just any dame, mind you. This was a dame named Tricksy Spillane – more trouble than a bitch in heat at a dog show.
Tricksy had been my last partner before I was bounced from the force a couple of years prior to retirement. She was a looker with legs going straight down to Hades, blond punked-out hair, and a libido that was kinkier than a permed afro.
She swayed over to my desk one hip at a time on spiked heels that defined cruel. The rest of the voluptuous package was wrapped in a gray trench coat. The collar was turned up and the belt cinched tight at her almost invisible waist. There was a soft tinkling whenever she moved as if she were an android and some of her parts were loose. In Tricksy's case, however, it was probably just her morals.
"Merry Christmas, Ebenezer." Her voice was honey over a three day growth of beard – throaty and full of prurient promises. It brought images of torch songs immediately to mind – silk stockings being dragged over smoke and whiskey and the bad lighting in a hundred cheap motel rooms.
"Bah humbug," I said.
"Sounds as if you've got a bad hairball there, Ebby baby. Maybe you should be drinking Petromalt on the rocks instead of the rot-gut in your hand."
"Go scrooge yourself," I said, setting the bourbon glass down on the desk with a bang. "What do you want coming 'round here anyway, Tricksy? Can't you see I'm busy celebrating?"
"Busy wallowing in self-pity."
"What do you know about anything? Get lost, why don't you?"
She hitched one of those marvelous hips onto a corner of my desk, leaned forward and placed the palms of her hands flat on my blotter. The view down her trench coat was enough to make a grown man cry. I brought my eyes up to her face. Her baby blues smirked at me, knowing they'd caught me looking. She breathed deeply and the tinkling noise made itself heard again.
"I'm on my way to a party, Ebenezer, but I wanted to stop by and give you a Christmas present." She undid the belt at her waist and the trench coat fell open. Underneath was a sliver of a black sheath covered in chains of tiny silver bells. It was cut low on top and short on bottom to save on weight. Two things appeared to be holding it up, and they were both pointed at me.
"You expecting an assassination attempt?" I asked.
"Humor was never your strong suit, Ebby."
"I’m more a polyester guy. It's lighter than those bell chains you’re wrapped in."
She shimmied her gorgeous shoulders and the bells tinkled louder than a young boy in the morning. "Polyester doesn't feel near as good with nothing on underneath."
I swallowed. "There is that," I agreed.
She twitched the trench coat closed, disappearing all that lovely, bell-chained wrapped, feminine flesh, and treated me to one of her rare smoky laughs – an aphrodisiac for the ears.
"Ebenezer, you were a good cop once, but you allowed yourself to be foisted on Romeo's petard." She reached into one of her trench coat pockets and pulled out a fresh pint bottle of bourbon. She hefted the bottle in her hand, as if judging its weight, then set it in the center of my blotter. "The facts were clear," she said. "Romeo was a dirty cop. He got what he deserved."
I shook my head at her, feeling the cold in the pit of my stomach. This was something I didn't want to get into. I felt like a tiger looking at a staked goat. The tiger knows it's a trap, but it has to eat the goat anyway.
I looked at the bottle and licked my lips. "Romeo was my partner before you, and what he got was dead. Whoever did it is still out there running around when he should be worm food. Tonight the bastard is probably swilling wassail, eating plum pudding, and counting visions of sugar plum fairies. So, it ain't such a merry Christmas, if you ask me."
"Stop it, Ebenezer. You want to blame everyone but yourself for your troubles. You ended up in this dump trying to follow the trail to the Romeo's killer. You did everything you could, but in the end all you hit was a brick wall. You were making too many waves. Making the department look bad. Telling everyone that if Romeo was crooked, there had to be somebody higher up more crooked."
I shrugged, feeling renewed anger. "Internal Affairs did a whitewash. It was a typical damage control action – fry the little fish, but let the sharks keep swimming."
"So you claim, but there was never any evidence."
You couldn't let it go, though, so they found a way to expose you for the drunk you are, and you ended up out on your ear."
I didn't need this stuff. "Romeo was the worst of cops and the best of cops. He may have been on the take, but he was there when I needed him –"
"Yeah, yeah. I heard it all before, Ebby. He saved your worthless life. So what? He's dead and buried."
"He was my partner. I owe him. You of all people should know what that means."
Tricksy smiled and stood up. "Yeah, I know what that means." Her voice had softened. "You were my partner also. You taught me a lot when I was still wet behind the ears. I owe you."
"What does that mean?"
"It means that while you've been sitting on your sorry butt scratching both your groin and a living by peeping in keyholes, I've been using what you taught me to dig up Romeo's killer."
I felt my bowels clench.
She smiled again. Thin lipped this time. She knew she'd hooked me good. "I know who killed Romeo,” she said.
Sweat broke out on my forehead and my heart was pounding my ribs hard enough to break them. I finally forced out the one important word. "Who?"
"I owe you a chance to figure it out for yourself, Ebby," she said. "But it's going to be up to you to do the right thing."
"Why the games?" I asked.
"Why don't you just hang around and have a drink," she said, ignoring me. "Maybe it'll give you some inspiration. Think about things, Ebby. See if there isn't a way for you to square your past and change your future."
She started to walk out of the office, tinkling all the way.
"Wait," I said.
She turned and, just like Santa in the story, she lay a finger alongside her nose. "Merry Christmas, Ebenezer. Keep up the good fight."
She rose up the proverbial chimney before I could stop her. But then again I wasn't sure I wanted her stopped. I'd learned a long time ago playing with Tricksy was like playing with a flamethrower – sooner or later you were going to get burned. She was a good detective. Maybe too good. If she could prove who killed Romeo the prior troubles would be nothing compared to the coming storm.
I reached forward for the bottle she'd left on my desk. The seal was already cracked, but I wasn’t going to deny Tricksy a swig or two off the top. I sat there contemplating the bottle. I tried not to think about the glad tidings Tricksy had brought my way. Well, I had my visit from an angel. Now, all I needed was a visit from three wise-guys to make my Christmas Eve complete. If I'd had a manger handy, I'd have crawled in and gone to sleep.
When the cuckoo clock on my wall chirped one a.m., Tricksy’s bottle was three quarter's empty – even from an optimist's point of view. I didn't remember falling asleep, but then they say your memory is always the second thing to go.
I jerked my head up from the desk when there was a loud clatter outside my office. My door swung open and somebody ducked their head to enter.
"Santa?" I asked.
"Call me Ishmael," the black giant said. Mickey Mouse would have envied his voice. This guy was going to be a whale of a lot of fun.
"I'll call you whatever you want,” I said, thinking of the old joke about what you call a six hundred pound gorilla. "But as I remember, the last time you and I did the nightstick and handcuff two-step, you were called Tiny Tim. What's with this Ishmael stuff? You convert to Muslim all of a sudden?"
The giant smiled and what light he wasn't blocking glinted off a gold front tooth. He looked around the office. "Ain't much," he said.
"You a critic for Decorator's Weekly? You don't like the furnishings then make like a tree and leaf."
"How 'bout a drink for an ol' friend?"
"You were an informant, not a friend. What do you want?"
"Come on, we be goin' for a sleigh ride."
"I'm not going anywhere."
Suddenly, Ishmael had my collar in one of the meat hooks he calls hands and I was upright and heading for the office door. My head was swimming and I realized the bottle Tricksy left behind had been doctored. I'd been slipped a mickey as easily as a john trying to pick up a
I don't remember the sequence, but the next thing I knew, we were in Ishmael’s sled – a convertible Caddy held together by rust and luck. The cold wind cleared my head, but my body felt too heavy to move. I could only hope we were going on a sleigh ride and not a slay-ride.
The Caddy was light blue with dark blue trim. There was also something familiar about it.
The streets were deserted and it didn't take us long to drive to the small strip mall where Romeo had been gunned down in a drive-by shooting. It was at the top end of the same boulevard where the
I knew now why the Caddy was familiar – the guy who blew Romeo's brains out had been driving one just like it. A drive-by shooting using a Caddy convertible. Who says crooks can't have class?
The windows of the stores were like blind eyes staring into my soul. I don't mind telling you I was scared – feeling more like Halloween than Christmas.
Ishmael pulled the Caddy over and parked under one of the spreading oak trees lining the sidewalk. Actually, it was not just one of the spreading oak trees. It was the spreading oak tree. The one under which Romeo had died.
"What are we doing here?"
"Consider me the Ghost of Christmas Past," Ishmael said. "Christmas day, one year ago, Romeo be catching the bullet train right here at this stop."
"Tell me something I don't know." I looked at the sidewalk and imagined I could see the remains of the chalk outline where Romeo's body had fallen. I felt sick. Romeo, Romeo, why for did thou die here, Romeo?
"You always be tellin' me I was your best snitch. Ain't that right, Ebenezer?"
"It's still Mr. Ebenezer to you, punk. But yeah, you was a good snitch. If you couldn't get the information by asking somebody, you'd beat it out of them. Pretty effective."
"But you're gone now, Ebby, and I still gots a jones to feed."
"Ain't Tricksy taking care of you? I passed you on when I was bounced."
"Detective Spillane, she's a nice lady. She don't talk mean like you – just dirty. She even pay more than you."
"Then she's a fool."
Ishmael C-clamped my throat back against the headrest. "Don't you be talking bad about Detective Spillane. You hear?"
"Yeah," I barely managed to croak.
"She bin askin' questions 'bout who killed Romeo –"
"I already asked all the questions," I said, after Ishmael gave me my throat back. "There aren't any answers."
"There be answers," Ishmael said. "They just ain't the ones you want to hear. You know who killed ol' Romeo. You just don't want anyone else to know."
I wanted to ask, "What are you talking about?" but my head was swimming again and things went blank.
When the haze cleared, I was sitting propped against the glass door of the bookstore. Ishmael didn't seem to be anywhere around. I peered through the glass and saw a soft light in the bookstore's back room and it drew me like a moth to the flame.
Things were getting mighty weird. Whatever Tricksy had slipped me was bringing on the paranoia big time. I clawed my way to my feet and freed my forty-five from under my left pit. The butt of it in my hand felt as warm and familiar as a lover's breast.
The address on the glass door was 2-B. Maybe I could run, but I couldn't hide. If I left now, the past would just catch up again later. 2-B or not 2-B? That is the question. Whether it is better to suffer the cruelties and self-recriminations of a coward, or to take up my forty-five against whatever sea of troubles lay ahead and by charging straight ahead defeat them.
Stream of consciousness wasn’t one of my strong suits either. I pushed open the door and bulled in hard and fast. I took the corner into the back room like a whirlwind and was brought up short by a classy looking dame munching on milk and cookies.
"Ah, Ebenezer," she said, in a calm voice. "I'm so glad you came. It's Christmas time in the city, you know? And I'm just checking my list to see whose been naughty or nice."
"Isn't that the big fat guy in the red suit's job?"
The dame laughed. "Don't be silly." She took a huge scroll off her desk. It had SANTA'S LIST in big letters at the top. She started unravelling it as if she were a kid playing with a toilet roll. "Now, let me see – Ebenezer? Ebenezer? Hmmmm." She slid on a pair of reading glasses, which had been bouncing on her remarkable pulchritude on a chain around her neck.
"Ah, here you are." She squinted a little. "Oh, my."
"Oh, my?" I asked.
She turned to me, brushed the forty-five away, and walked into the main part of the store. I felt foolish holding the gun. I slipped it back under my pit for safe keeping and followed the dame. She turned on a low light at the front desk.
She was studying the list again under the light. "Oh, my. Oh, my. Oh, my!"
This was getting monotonous.
"Can we cut to the chase here?"
"I'm surprised at you, Ebenezer. You have been a naughty boy."
"Who are you? My mom?"
"No, Ebenezer, I'm the Ghost of Christmas Presents."
"Give me a break. And don't you mean the Ghost of Christmas Present?"
"Ebenezer, you little dickens. You always were a nitpicker."
"Used to sell those nits by the bushel load. Made for good off-duty income."
"Yes, it certainly did."
"Hey, I was only joking."
"No, you weren't, Ebenezer. The nits you picked were everybody's little secrets. Cops get to know lots and lots of secrets. They get to know all the skeletons in all the closets, where all the fabled bodies are buried."
"It goes with the territory. You find out stuff, you make an arrest –"
"Ah, Ebenezer, but that's where you became a naughty boy, isn't it? Instead of arrests, you started making blackmail demands. No, no toys for you from Santa anymore. Just a lump of coal at the bottom of your stocking. You crossed the line, Ebenezer. Naughty, not nice."
I felt grim. This broad was getting under my skin. She knew too much for her own good, and mine. My forty-five was hanging heavy in its holster. "Make your point,” I said.
"The point is, Romeo wasn't the dirty cop. You were. Blackmail is such a sordid little sideline. Romeo was on to you, wasn't he? Partners are close, very close. You couldn't keep something like blackmail hidden from him forever."
I felt as if I was sweating blood. My head was starting to sway and fear was crawling out of my gut like an evil specter. "You don't know what you're talking about!"
"Oh, yes I do, Ebenezer. It's all here on Santa's list." The dame held up her scroll. "All the naughty and nice things everyone does. I check it twice and then forward a copy to St. Peter."
I gave the dame a quizzical look.
"What?" she asked. "You didn't know Heaven subscribed to our mailing list? Absolutely. Helps keep the lines down at the Pearly Gates if St. Peter already has St. Nick's list. There's a lot more riding on this naughty or nice stuff than just a new red bike or a lump of coal."
"Give me that list," I said. I reached out to grab it, but the big dark opened up again and I fell in.
When I came around, I was back in my office sitting behind my desk. I thought maybe I was looking in a mirror, but then I'd never installed a mirror in the client seat opposite my own. I closed my eyes and shook my head, but I was still there when I looked again.
"What are you selling?" I asked. "Gold? Frankincense? Myrrh?"
"You don’t look as if you could afford anything, boy," my mirror image said. "In fact, you look like Hades."
"If you're me," I said, "then I don't look too bad."
"I'm you, alright, but I'm you before you became what you are now."
"Run that by me again. Ain't you supposed to be the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, or some such nonsense? I mean, let's keep the story straight."
"There may be no Christmases left for you, Ebenezer. This might just be it."
I stared into my eyes and knew I was telling myself the truth. I reached for the remains of Tricksy's bottle with a shaky hand.
"You drink too much," I said to me.
"What are you? My friggin' conscience?"
"Whoa," I said. I was taken aback, despite myself. After a second, I found the nerve to ask, "What about Ishmael and the weird dame with the list?"
"All parts of you – just like me."
"Get outta here."
"Ishmael is the brute in us come to the surface, the terror that helped us face down scumbags without succumbing to fear."
"And the dame with the list?"
"We were a good cop, because we were anal-retentive. Always had her around to take care of the details."
I went for my forty-five, fear running my every emotion, but mirror image or not, real or imagined, Mr. Conscience was faster. He was there first and snatched the gat away.
"Come, come, Ebenezer. It's Christmas Eve. Is this any time for gun play?" He threw the gun on the desk in front of me. I went to grab it, but it was suddenly heavier than an anchor.
"What do you all want from me?"
"Redemption, Ebenezer. Redemption."
I started to cry. "There is no redemption. I killed him. My partner. Romeo found out about the blackmail. I couldn't let him tell the world I'd crossed the line, so I drove by and shot him like a punk in the street. I planted evidence. Made him the bad guy –” I blubbered on an on, the words flowing out in huge waves, gasping for breath between tears. "But nobody knew. Nobody knew. Just me."
"Santa knew," Mr. Conscience said. "He knows who's been naughty or nice."
"There is no redemption for what I've done," I said to me again.
"There is always redemption. There is always forgiveness. Especially, on Christmas Eve."
I looked at the weapon on my desk. "You want me to smoke my gun?"
"There’s no redemption in suicide. There has to be atonement."
"I can't carry this burden anymore," I said, yanking at the gun to pull it free from the desk.
"Ebenezer, calm yourself."
I stopped my frantic tugging. There was something, something from the part of me that hadn't turned rotten.
"Don't fight yourself anymore, Ebenezer. You know what is right. You've strayed from the path, but you still know what is right. You can still be forgiven – can get yourself back on the nice list – get a red bicycle for Christmas.
I sat back slowly in my chair and closed my eyes.
It was cold up on the roof. I was sitting at the base of the bright neon star topping the
I'd had alcoholic blackouts before. I'd even seen the creatures brought on by the DTs. But I'd never experienced anything like the hallucinations Tricksy's bottle of bourbon delivered.
I looked at the neon star. It was Christmas. I loved obvious symbolism.
Next to where I was sitting were the two items. My forty-five and my cell phone.
Naughty or nice.
A red bicycle or a lump of coal.
Redemption through confession and atonement. Or having St. Peter displeased when he came to my name on his copy of Santa's list.
I'd been a nice cop once. I was a naughty ex-cop now.
Could there really still be a chance to get back on the right side of the list.
When I made it, the choice wasn't really that hard.
I picked up the forty-five and snuggled the tip of the barrel up against my temple.
I always did have a flair for the dramatic.
I held my pose for a second and then slid the magazine out of the gun butt, flipped out the bullets, and scattered them over the edge of the building like hard raindrops.
I watched them fall and listened to them ping off the concrete so very far below.
I walked back and picked up the phone.
I dialed the number of the detective squad room. I knew it by heart.
She answered. I knew she would.
"Hello, Ebenezer," she said.
"I was beginning to worry," she said. "I thought maybe I'd overestimated you."
"How'd you like to come over?" I asked. "I have something to tell you."
"I hope it's more than Merry Christmas."
"Bring your handcuffs,” I said and hung up. Tricksy was kinky enough to like the last part.
I looked out across the city. Christmas lights twinkled with promise in the false dawn.
Merry Christmas, I said to myself, beginning to unwrap the gift of redemption. And to all a good night.