By Stephen Reid
“I refuse to don this ridiculous costume..”
Albert sucked in his belly and swelled up like a rooster. “A saint I ain’t, Mac. I am a highly regarded thespian.”
“You’re a highly regarded has-been, is what you are, Albert. Now sit down and try those boots on.” I had to pick the lock of my filing cabinet to get at the office bottle. Albert was going to make a fine Saint Nick; he just didn’t know it yet.
I was pouring him a shot from a bottle of Irish when someone started pounding on the door.
My office is in back of the Venus Theatre. You have to come down an alley and when you get to my door, the sign says “Rob Someone Else.” Whoever was out there wasn’t standing on any welcome mat.
The pounding started again, this time accompanied by shouting. “Mac! I know you’re in there. Open up… Mac?” I threw back the deadbolt and cracked the door, two inches. Just enough to glimpse the trouble–red hair and troubled green eyes.
“Gallagher, what are you doing here?”
She pushed past me. “I wanted to make sure…” Gallagher stopped short when she saw the Santa outfit crumpled on the floor. “Oh, Albert, this is so sweet of you.” She leaned in and left the ghost of a kiss on his reddening cheek.
“The kids will be so surprised. They’ve been impossible for weeks. They’re really looking forward to this party!”
Before Albert could object, Gallagher turned on me. “This is such a wonderful idea, Mac. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it for the other years.”
“Only too glad to help out, aren’t we Albert?” I tried to meet Gallagher’s eyes. “Albert’s done Shakespeare and Shaw. He once received 11 curtain calls at the Royal Alexandra–the Queen Mother herself was in the audience. Playing Santa for a bunch of or phans should be a cakewalk. Right, Albert?”
But Gallagher didn’t wait for Albert’s response. She was busy giving me the hard check–she wasn’t quite sold. “I’m still having trouble with the idea of you volunteering to help out the Children’s Shelter. We’ve been…um, I mean, I’ve known you… for a long time.” She started in, eyes narrowed and finger wagging,” If you’re using the Shelter, Mac MacCauley… If you’re up to another one of your stunts, I’ll never forgive you.”
I couldn’t raise my gaze much above those target red nails so I pulled out the only weapon I could–bald face denial. “Gallagher. Don’t be so paranoid, it’s Christmas, what could I possibly be up to?”
That was always our problem. Gallagher knew me.
“The Mayor’s annual Christmas party is so important to the Shelter. We just can’t risk any of your tom foolery. Much of next year’s funding depends on the impression we make tonight.”
She pulled the bottle from my hands and dropped it in the waste basket. Then Gallagherleft the way she always did. She didn’t say goodbye and she didn’t close the door.
“I never thought I’d see the day you’d start lyingto Gallagher,” Albert said when only her sweet nutlike smell remained in the room.
“Look at it this way. She gets her Santa Claus, the kids are happy, and we get inside the mayor’s party.” I held up the china-white invitations with our names embossed in gold face. “Now this job is worth a g-note on an even split That’s five hundred bucks your way. You used to enjoy being a highly overpaid actor.”
“You’re a truly unscrupulous human being.” Albert said, trying the false beard on for size.
“Thank you.” I picked the bottle from the waste basket. Albert was right. After 15 years as a private investigator–the last 10 as a practising drunk–I had lost my licence twice and my self-respect more times than I could count. The chances of me ever regaining either were about halfway between zero and entropy. Albert was abou tmy last friend left standing.
Albert was finally donning his gay apparel, grumpily. “Mac, I don’t even like children, let alone know how to talk to them.”
“You don’t have to talk. Just listen. Now wipe that lipstick off your cheek and let’s get out of here. I told Solly we’d hookup with him by five.” Dropping Solly’s name was one way of galvanising Albert into action.
“Why don’t you just put a gun in your mouth and see how many times you can pull the trigger? It would be a lot less messy than getting busy with Solly.”
I ignored him and squinted at the small print on the bottom of the invitation. It read “Black Tie Optional”. When I looked down at my rumpled options I knew I’d better borrow Albert’s key to the Venus.
The side door said “Closed Until Further Notice,” but I didn’t have forever. I found wardrobe and helped myself to a tux that had been custom fit for Abraham Lincoln on stilts.
It was ten to five when I parked my Plymouth across from the Children’s Shelter. The kids from this part of town had never grown up believing in Santa Claus, they knew better. No stranger would dare enter this neighbourhood after dark.
I left Albert, a spiffy Saint Nick, fuming in the front seat. The motor was still idling. “If anyone tries to steal the hubcaps Albert, ring your bell.”
The streetlights cast shadows like bruises over the Children’s Shelter, a depression-era wooden two-story. The Shelter’s ancient house mother was expecting me. Momma Eansweredthe doorbelllugginga bag oftoys. I was almost back to the sidewalk when a voice came out of the shadows.
“Who’s your tailor, MacCauley?” Solly was grinning through his toady lips. He was flanked by two Refrigerators in trench coats.
I set the sack on the ground and stared at my watch. Solly caught my drift and turned to business.
“Five hundred for you, five for Santa over there. And this…” He handed me another package, the size of a pound of butter. “This goes behind the big Bible in the library.”
I nodded and dropped the bundle into the sack. Five hundred one hundred dollar bills, all crispy and new. I was carrying fifty climes into the mayor’s party.
“I got a soft spot for you MacCauley.” Solly straightened my bowtie and patted me on the cheek. “I like you but if you screw this up, you’ll get a visit. Know what I mean?” He tilted his head towards the Refrigerators.
I walked away. It wasn’t smart to walk away from Bedbug Solly Fogel but being told you might get a visit was a little like being told you might get terminally ill. Solly was the neighbourhood banker–only when his customers defaulted on a loan he repossessed their kneecaps.
“Albert?”I was putting the sack in backseat. “What do you think Solly’s got going with the Mayor?”
“I don’t even want to start thinking Mac. Please, let’s just go and get this over with.”
Albert wasn’t happy–whether it was being conned into playing Santa Claus or being conned into helping me–he didn’t speak again until after we’d left the last of the city slush and were speeding along a freshly plowed West Saanich Road towards Deep Cove.
“And Mac, this is definitely the last time I get in volved in one of your illegal schemes.”
“Albert, relax, why don’t you? We’re simply delivering an honest bribe.”
“That’s an oxymoron, Mac.”
“It’s only money, Albert.” It had all started last Tuesday. I got hooked in a game of seven-card lowball in the back kitchen of Saigon/Saigon. By sun-up I had sailed for eleven hundred and Solly was standing there with my marker in his duke. He took me to an all-night diner down on the bottom of Wharf Street. Over eggs over-easy Solly explained to me how I could pay it off. When I told him I’d think it over, he stuffed my marker into his greasy mouth and chewed slowly. It was an offer I could understand.
“There they are.” Albert pointed. The headlights picked out a couple of yawning lions. I steered the Plymouth through the stone gates and we started up a quarter-mile lane that cut a lazy S through a stand of barren oaks, then climbed gently to a fieldstone mansion ablaze with Christmas lights.
I picked Solly’s package out of the sack as we got out of the car. “I feel overdressed,” Albert said, taking the old cow bell out of his pocket.
“Me, too.” I tugged down my tails. But when the parking valet approached, neither of us felt half so bad. He was dressed like the label on a bottle of gin.
We climbed the stone steps and were pumped through a short receiving line–the mayor, two judges, a deputy mayor and his wife. They all had names like villages in old English novels.
A wall of cocktail chatter hit us as we were ushered into the ballroom. Waiters holding aloft trays of canapes moved through the crowd like they were ice-skating to string music. I recognised three ex-cabinet ministers, two French hockey players and a leading lady from the CBC. The other 200 guests were recognisably wealthy.
Albert started attracting children under a Christ mas tree so tall it reached for its own star in the ceil ing’sdome. The sound ofexpensive liquor being poured over ice caught my earandI headed in the direction.
A young bartender with a smile that belonged in a chewing gum ad asked me what’s my poison. I pointed to a bottle of 12-year old Scotch and turned to scan the room.
The Mayor had come in from the receiving line and was facing off with the two hockey players. Albert was being wrestled on to a throne by a half-dozen of Gallagher’s brats. I leaned back against the bar and watched Gallagher herd the rest of her charges. She sounded like Santa trying to round up his reindeer: “Come Dona,come Pablo. Please, Gordo! Guillermo!”
Gallagher was as close to a saint as they come. That had been another one of our problems.
I picked up my cut crystal whiskey glass and strolled over to where she sat with a troubled youngster in her lap.
“Hey, Gallagher? What’s bothering the little one?”
The little one answered for himself in a short burst of Spanish, but it was defiant in any language.
“Jaime’s only been in Canada a month,” said Gallagher. “He says he wants to go home and free his country.”
A minor ambition for a 5-year old. I flagged down a waiter, relieved him of a tray laden with Tropical Punch and cookies. “Ever try shortbread? Come on with me sport, we’ll sort this out.”
Jaime understood shortbread better than he did my English, but he followed me anyway. I knew most of Gallagher’s kids these days came from a country within artillery range of the Panama Canal.
“Look, kid, the legal age for guerrillas is some where around 8 1/2. Hell, I got a scotch here more than twice your age, so you might as well enjoy yourself while you can. This ain’t a bad country long as you got a drink.” I toasted him with my glass; he slurped his Tropical Punch. “Can you say, ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’? Try it. Tee-nage… yeah, that’s it. You’re going to need to know stuff like that in order to survive up here, partner.”
By the time we’d eaten our way though most of the tray, I’d given him the full course in guerrilla day care, and he was yammering away back at me in Spanish.
“Mac, don’t let him eat that much. He’ll get sick.”
Gallagher arrived and Jamie ran off to jostle with the rest of the kids waiting in line to see Santa.
“Hey, how do you like that? Not so much as an ‘adios’.”
“You’re good with kids, Mac.”
“For the first five minutes, anyway.” Then I saw, again, the vintage sorrow in Gallagher’s eyes. I can’t afford to love you the way you are, MacCauley.
Before I could even mumble my excuses Gallagherhad already turned her back and was walking towards the children. Albert was going ho-ho-ho, but was starting to sound as though he meant it. I ditched my drink and crossedthe room, a bad taste building in my mouth. Find the Bi ble, stashthe fifty thou! Get Albert andget out ofhere. I was just a guy with a job.
I chose a hall, any hall. Chances were sooner of later I’d bump into a library.
It didn’t take long. The door was open enough for me to see the mayor stubbing out a small cigar.
“Smoking. Hardly popular anymore,” he said as I approached.
“Mr. Mayor? Solly sends his holiday greetings.” Hell with putting it behind the big Bible, I reached under my cumberbund.
“Solly?” He noticed the wad of money and waved me off. “Oh, good heavens no. I never touch the stuff. Old money is dirty and new money cuts your fingers. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
Maybe if he hadn’t left me standing there or maybe if Gallagher hadn’t got under my skin the way she always did, I might have just left his fifty grand in the library and called it a night. Gone home. Got drunk. Maybe I just got tired of being predictable. I headed back to the party holding the fifty G’s up my sleeve.
Albert was leading a conga line of kids around the big tree, with Jaime holding onto the lady from the CBC. I culled him from the snake line and leaned into his ear. “There’s been a change of plans,” Albert stiffened as I explained while shoving the fifty thousand hard against his ribs. I faded back through the conga line before he could tell me what I already knew: Solly would keep me alive long enough to sell my organs.
Albert stood on his throne, ringing the cowbell until the waves of chatter subsided. I figured if I broke camp right now I could be on the road long before Solly got the word. I wondered if the Plymouth would make it as far as the Port Hardy ferry terminal.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Could I have your attention please?” Albert was looking straight at the mayor, who was now bumping elbows with one of the ex-cabinet ministers. I decided to hang around long enough to watch the payoff. I only hoped the picture on the mayor’s face would be worth the loss of my legs.
“Ladies and gentlemen! Santa has just received an anonymous donation for the Children’s Shelter. FIFTY GRAND! THAT’S FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS!” Albert tossed the money into his sack and held it high. “Here it is everyone! The Honourable Mayor Devonshire’s Christmas Stocking Fund.”
The room erupted like a game show audience at jackpot time. I waited for the wheel of awareness to come to a full stop on Hizzoner’s nose. But it didn’t. He simply joined in.The mayor was clapping his hands much too hard for a man who’d just given away all that sugar. Devonshire was either the thickest mayor we’d ever had–or Solly’s package was intended for someone else!
I started across the room. Guests were reaching into their pockets for their own chequebooks and Albert held the sack open wide. The lady from the CBC was translating for Jaime what Albert had told the crowd, someone had just given Santa enough money for Jaime to send a whole army of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to free his country.
I pushed my way through the crowd trying hard not to bump any elbows in mid-cheque. The mayor grabbed my arm and gave me a big wink. “Good show!” he whispered. “I won’t tell a soul. You have my word on it.”
He winked again, the other eye this time. I wrenched myself free and headed down the hallway so fast my hips hurt. The sweet nutlike smell reached me before I’d even opened the library doors.
Gallagher was holding the Bible in her hands. When she saw me–credit due–she played the game better than I’d ever seen it played. She simply opened the book like she was intending to read it all along.
“You won’t find it there, Gallagher.”
Her composure drained like the model’s bathing suit in a trick ballpoint. “Mac, close the door, please. How much do you know about this?”
Gallagher put the Bible back on the shelf. She kept her back turned on me as she spoke.
“When I first opened the Shelter I didn’t know how it would survive. So after I had tried everyone, I went to Solly for a loan. I paid it back, the Shelter got on its feet and the rest is history. Then,” she took a breath and turned to face me, “at Christmas that year, I received the first envelope of cash. Five thousand dollars. A man phoned, told me to look under the front door mat. Every Christmas since I’ve been getting phone calls, and bigger amounts of money.”
The question must have been sticking out like the bones on my face because she went on to say she supposed Solly had his reasons for wanting to be anonymous. A loan shark with a heart wasn’t exactly conducive to good business.
“I’ve always been afraid that if Sollythought any one knew, themoneywouldstopcoming. Now it seems it has.”
I heard the sound of running shoes laying rubber in the hall, before Jaime burst into the library, speaking Spanish a kilometre a minute. When he finished, Gallagher turned on me, striking a pose so hard you could nail boards to her.
“I thought it was a bribe for the Mayor. Then I decided the Shelter could use the money more than he could.”
Her face softened. “Oh, Mac. You’re hopeless.”
I knew that.
Jaime took each of us by the hand and pulled us out into the hallway. Albert nearly knocked us over with the lady from the CBC in tow.
“Mac! Virginia here remembers me in Abelard and Heloise. She’d like the network to sponsor a play for the Children’s Shelter. Maybe we can even revive the Venus.” Albert was getting more saintly by the minute.
Gallagher was smiling and by the time Virginia led Santa and Jaime back to the party, she had started laughing. “You know Mac, for a lowlife you’re not such a bad guy sometimes.” She was beginning to catch on.
She led me to fresh air. We stepped out on to a front porch as big as the future. The snow was coming down hard and she tugged me closer. Gallagher tilted her face. It was like kissing a moth.
I heard giggling and turned to see Jaime standing in the doorway.
“Vamoose, Jaimie!” she waved him back inside. When she heard the latch click, Gallagher kissed me again. “I suppose I’ll never learn to close the door, will I, MacCauley?”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR (2005)
Stephen Reid first gained notoriety as a member of Canada’s notorious Stop Watch Gang, a team of daredevil bank robbers who pulled off a string of heists from Miami to Montreal, and ended up on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. While serving time for those crimes, Reid wrote his first novel, Jackrabbit Parole (1986), a highly entertaining fictional account of a bank robber who escapes from prison and goes on a robbery spree. It proved to be quite a success, both critically and commercially. He received parole in 1987, and lived quietly on Vancouver Island with his wife, Susan Musgrave, a well-respected writer herself, who had served as his editor for the novel. They had kids, and tried to get on with their lives. Reid taught creative writing and worked as a youth counsellor. But their life took another hop in 1999 when Reid was involved in a failed bank job and ensuing shootout with the cops in Victoria, British Columbia, and was charged with ten counts, including attempted murder and armed robbery. It got him 18-year sentence (in all, he served time in over twenty prisons in Canada and the United States). The good news was that he started writing again, editing and contributing to Out of Bounds, a prison magazine, and won the 2013 Victoria Book Award for his second work, A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden: Writing from Prison. He was granted parole in February 2014, but died only a few years later, in 2018.
Copyright © 2005 by Stephen Reid. Illustration by “Nixon.”