21 Dec For Goodness’ Sake (Part 2): Not So Silent Night
“For Goodness’ Sake (Part 2): Not So Silent Night”Written by Ryan Harville Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 42 minutes
For part one of this story, click here.
Well, well, well. Look who’s still alive and kicking! It’s me in case you were confused. Rudolph, or Rudy, if you prefer. For now, at least. Last time we spoke I was on my last legs, riddled with cancer and tellin’ you a grand ol’ story from my hospice bed. A lot’s changed since then, and I am going to tell you about all that, don’t you worry. But before I tell you what’s new, I need to tell you another story from the past.
We’re gonna have to talk about the last job I pulled with Nick, and the events that led up to it. There’re some details buried that need to be dug up, cleaned up, and shined to a high polish. I need to see my reflection in the details if that makes sense. I figure if I can see myself there, then you ought to be able to see me just fine. I need you to, ‘cause seein’ is believin’, right? It may be a long story. When my tongue starts flappin’ I ain’t never quite sure where it’s going to land. I’ll try not to bore you but either way, just let an old man babble for a while, will ya?
It had been about a year since me and Nick shut down ol’ Scratch’s kiddie video operation in Hanlon. If you ain’t heard that story, you may just want to stop here and give it a listen. It’ll sure make a lot more sense if you do. Anyway, we’d spent the spring and summer months as we usually did, livin’ off the grid at a campground in Tennessee. We worked odd jobs here and there when we needed money. I’d cut wood for tourists in the area, and Nick would stand out in front of some local dives and look intimidating, occasionally knocking some skulls together if it came to that.
I had a small trailer with a few amenities, stove, microwave, bathroom, and such. Nick lived in the back of the Bronco, sleeping beneath the camper shell on the back. There was room for both of us in the trailer, but Nick liked being outdoors. He’d come into the trailer and shower and heat up some food when he needed, and once a week or so we’d sit around the campfire, grill some meat, and drink some beer, but other than that Nick was in the woods.
I don’t know where he went, and I never questioned him about it. It was his business, and I didn’t pry. He’d just yell that he was taking off, so I’d know he was leaving, then he’d come back hours later, often with a couple of fresh rabbits hanging from his belt, sometimes with a deer slung over his shoulders. We’d eat like kings for days after.
But sometimes, I don’t know, maybe once a month, he’d be gone all night. He always came back at dawn, emerging from the tree line like a sasquatch, big shoulders hunched, his silver hair a mess of trapped leaves and stuck branches. I did ask about the overnight outings once, years ago. He just told me it was something he had to do and left it at that. I didn’t press him, just nodded, and left him be. Nick seemed reserved after these trips, calmer even. I can tell you what I think but I don’t know if it’s true. After years of traveling together, I could predict when he was going to leave for the night. Whenever dusk came, if Nick was looking up at the sky with that faraway look he gets, then I knew he’d be gone that night. To be more specific, if I’d catch Nick staring up at the North Star, then it was going to be one of those nights.
Was he praying, meditating, or…shit, I don’t know, doing yoga out in the pine needles? Can’t tell you. But I always had the feelin’ it was something like that. Something that calmed him, something that pointed him in the right direction.
Okay, got the preamble out of the way, so now here’s the point. Like I said, it was about year after we gave that pornography producin’ piece of shit his lump of coal, and Christmas was coming up fast again. Nick had been out on one of his overnight excursions and I was fast asleep in bed when what sounded like a boulder pounded on the trailer’s flimsy door.
“Goddamn!” I yelled, sitting straight up in bed. “Hold on a damn second!”
I disentangled myself from the sheets and made my wobbly, sleep-drunk way to the door. I opened it up and there stood Nick, silhouetted against the coming dawn, his eyes a bit wild.
“You scared the shit outta me, man!” I said. “What’s got you riled up?”
As usual, his voice was rocks grinding against themselves in a landslide. “We need to talk.”
“It can’t wait ‘til the sun’s up?” I said as I rubbed my eyes.
“No,” he said.
“Okay. You coming in?”
“No. Come out here. I’ve got a fire goin’.”
I stepped out into the predawn gloom, the night’s chill surrounding me in an instant. My threadbare pajama bottoms did nothing to help but the fire did. I sat down on my usual stool and scooted myself closer to the flames.
Nick sat his big frame down on the uprooted stump he used as a chair. He had on an old Alabama Crimson Tide ball cap, his silver hair streaming from beneath it. His white cloud of a beard was dotted with caught pieces of dead leaves and reached down to his bare chest. Other than the hat, all he had on was an old pair of Levi’s jeans. Nick and the cold were like old friends and enjoyed each other’s company very well.
He leaned forward and handed me a crinkled and torn swatch of newspaper.
“Read it,” he said.
“Where the hell did you get this?”
“Don’t matter, just read.”
I sighed and got to reading it. It didn’t take long. “Three missing kids, all from the same area in Texas?” I asked.
“Four, now. That article is a few days old. Another was taken last night.”
“And how would you know that?”
“I just do,” he said. “It’s like I could hear their voices for just a moment last night. Scared voices in the dark. Locked in somewhere and waiting for the worst.”
I tossed the newspaper in the fire and watched it curl as the flames devoured it.
“I’ll get dressed and get the Bronco ready,” I said. “Then I’ll plot a route on the map.”
Nick nodded. “This might be a bad one for us, Rudy. The pornographer was bad, yeah, but this…this is somethin’ else. We caught him by surprise, but I don’t think we’re going to be that lucky this time. I can feel the pressure, the resistance, as easily as if I had my hand against a wall.”
“Then we handle business like we always do,” I said with a shrug. “‘Cause I’ll guaran-goddamn-tee you one thing: no matter what we’re up against, I ain’t stoppin’ ‘til every asshole involved gets his coal.”
He surprised me with a smile. “You’re one of the good ones, Rudy,” he said. “Always remember that.”
I took the compliment with a nod, but all in all, the way he said it didn’t sit right with me. Pardon my poetry, but it had the sound of finality, if you will. Yep, it sounded final as shit.
I ain’t gonna bore you with all of the details from the trip. Lots of asphalt was passed and lots of coffee was consumed as I navigated us southwest. When I wasn’t looking at the map, I was switching out cassette tapes as Nick requested. I lost track of all the tapes along the way, but I remember cycling through Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger and Pantera’s Cowboys from Hell more than a few times. Metal always calmed ol’ Saint Nick right down. Music soothes the big-ass beast, or somethin’ like that.
If you ain’t never been to Texas, I’ll tell you right now that the son of a bitch is huge. Now, you’re probably picturin’ a map in your head, and you’re thinking “Yeah, no shit.” But if you ain’t never actually ran the roads then you just don’t know. We had about a fifteen-hour drive and reaching the Texas state line was only half the trip! The other half was just gettin’ to Moreno. Would’ve saved some time if we hadn’t skirted around Dallas, but Nick never liked driving through Dallas. If you’ve ever done it then you know why. I’d rather have a staring contest with the Devil than go through Dallas at rush hour.
We finally made it and found the nearest service station after passing the Moreno town line. Nick pulled up to the pump and I went inside to pay and pick up a paper.
The attendant was a young guy, probably just out of high school, wearing glasses, a few pimples high on his forehead. He looked up from the book he was reading as I walked in.
“Howdy,” I said. When in Texas you gotta speak the lingo so you don’t spook the natives.
The boy nodded his head but didn’t say anything.
I pulled two twenties out of my pocket and set them on the counter. “Thirty for the Bronco out front. You got a paper around here?”
He pulled out a newspaper from beneath the counter and passed it over.
“You keep ‘em behind the counter?”
The boy nodded. “Yeah. Some people just stand around reading and don’t pay, or they just walk out with them. So, we keep them back here.”
“Whoa,” I said with a smile. “I didn’t realize a town this small would be a hotbed of criminal activity!”
The attendant looked serious, obviously not catching onto my winning wit. He glanced around as if making sure we were alone. “Mister, you don’t know the half of it,” he said, his voice low.
“Do tell,” I said.
“Between us and the two neighbor towns to us, we’ve had three kidnappin’s in two weeks.”
“You’re shittin’ me,” I said, knowing it was already four, but I guess word wasn’t out on the newest one yet.
“Nope,” he said. “Dead serious. Cops and state troopers are all over the place. Folks are talking about the feds coming here too. If you’re just passin’ through, then make your passin’ quick. You’re apt to get pulled over and questioned driving around here.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said. “They got any leads?”
“Not a one as far as I know.”
“Well shit,” I said. “That’s just about the saddest thing I’ve heard. And so close to Christmas.”
The boy solemnly nodded. “Makes me sick, thinking about those families, missing their kids on Christmas morning. It’s a goddamn shame.”
“Don’t you worry, son,” I said, putting the newspaper under my arm and heading for the door. “The sons of bitches responsible will be getting coal this year. Guaranteed.”
“I hope so,” the boy said. “Whoever it…wait a minute.” He was looking out the window at Nick. “That guy with the beard, he with you?”
I eyed him. “Yeah, so?”
“Holy shit,” he said. “Now I swear up front that I ain’t pullin’ your leg, but yesterday a man came through and left a message for you and your friend.”
Well, out of all the things he could’ve said, that was definitely the oddest.
“Say again, uh…Mark?” I asked, reading his name off his nametag. My stomach was an acid covered knot. I hadn’t even heard what the message was, but my guts knew I wasn’t apt to like it.
Mark ran through his hair and a ragged breath escaped his lips. “It’s crazy. I completely forgot that guy even came in until I saw your friend out there. How does that happen?”
Evil magic shit, I thought.
“No idea,” I said. “Just calm yourself down a bit and tell me what happened.”
Mark nodded. “Yesterday afternoon, I was standing here like usual, and this guy walked in. I don’t remember what his face looks like exactly, I just remember his smile. Not like that, I ain’t…like that. His teeth were just-”
“Sharp?” I cut in. “Like fangs?”
“The opposite,” Mark said with a shake of his head. “They were damn near perfect. The straightest, whitest teeth I’ve ever seen. And his hair was slicked back like the dudes in old black and white movies. Plus, he was wearin’ a suit, with a tie and all. He looked like he could sell you anything if that makes a lick of sense.”
It didn’t, but I didn’t press him on it.
“Well, he doesn’t sound familiar to me,” I said. “What was the message?”
Mark’s brow furrowed, lookin’ like a freshly tilled field. “He said he’d meet you tonight at nine, out at the Sheep’s Shed. It’s a bar, ‘bout twenty miles west of here, off Highway 302.”
“Was that all?” I asked. “Just the Sheep’s Shed at nine?”
Mark looked down at the counter, his head shaking just a bit.
“Son, you alright?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said shakily. “Yeah, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you come in. What can I do for you?”
I knew, damned if I know how I knew, but I knew he’d just lost what we were talking about. Our whole conversation just gone with the wind like the seedhead of a dandelion.
“Thirty in gas for the truck outside,” I said. “And the paper. You can keep the change.”
“Thanks, sir,” he said with a smile. “Much appreciated.”
I nodded and went back to the Bronco.
“About damn time, Rudolph,” Nick said, squeezing the handle down on the nozzle and letting the gas flow.
“Yeah, about that…”
“Seems somebody left us a message with the kid in there.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Exactly what I just said, Nick,” I said and leaned against the pump. “Somebody left us a message. Kid said he looked like Fred Astaire, if ol’ Freddy was still alive, kickin’ , and sellin’ vacuums door to door. Wearin’ a suit and tie, too.”
“Uh-huh,” Nick said and stroked his beard. “I don’t know anybody like that. I’d assume it was Scratch himself, sounds like a costume his vain ass would put on, but he can’t come up here. What’d he say?”
“Said to meet him at a bar tonight at nine.”
“That sounds like a trap.”
“I thought so too. But it’s a bar full of people. Not even Scratch could make a whole crowd come after us. Especially if we’re on our best behavior.”
Nick thought about it. “Still, I don’t like it.”
“Well, shit,” I laughed. “Neither do I. But if it has to do with those missing kids then I think we have to check it out.”
Nick’s face grew more serious than usual, downright grave, in fact.
“Are you thinking we should, Rudy?” he said. “Or do you know it? Do you feel it?”
I didn’t know what he was asking, not on the surface anyhow. But just like I knew without knowing what he did overnight in the woods, and I knew without knowing that the boy in the gas station had forgotten me already, I did know what he was asking. I got this feeling, the same kind I would get when I didn’t know which direction we were supposed to go, even with a map in front of me, but I always got us where we were going. I just knew.
I swallowed. “Yeah, Nick. I feel it.”
He nodded. “Alright, then. We’ll go. In the meantime, find us a job. Gotta be a mall around here somewhere.”
“Already on it,” I said, waving the newspaper at him.
The pump stopped at thirty dollars. Nick hung the nozzle back up and we got in the truck.
I started to open the paper, but my fool mind wouldn’t let go of a question.
“Why is it that we always end up finding a gas station somewhere that has some ominous shit waiting for us?”
I thought he’d laugh, but he just stared ahead.
“People make paths, Rudy. Trails through forests, highways through deserts. Thousands of people treading the same ground, and the ground connecting them all. Emotions released with every step, every rotation of the tires. Anxious people, happy people, depressed, ecstatic. Don’t matter. It all leaves a mark in their wake. The places they converge, the intersections where their paths cross, there’s an energy that hangs over the ground like a mist. It’s easy to find what you’re looking for in these places, and easy for something to find you too. It’s all connected. Just roads, highways, and paths humming with energy, with information.”
I was silent for a moment but of course my silences never last long.
I turned to face him, and took a moment to get my words right, to express exactly what I needed to. “What in the fuck are you talking about? I barely understood two sentences in all that.”
This time he did laugh. “You will, Rudy. I swear to you, brother. You will.”
He cranked the engine, and we were off again.
Wouldn’t more than fifteen minutes and we were parked in front of a shopping mall two towns over. We got out and I took the lead through the sliding glass doors.
Things already looked and felt bad. For one, we didn’t pass a soul on the way in, and for two, the mall looked damn near empty even so close to Christmas.
“It feels like we’re walkin’ through a deflated balloon,” I said. “Where the hell is everyone?”
Nick shook his head, his big white beard shaking with it. “I don’t know. Let’s try and find the office.”
We walked through the empty space, boot heels clicking on the gaudy tile, still colored in pastels and neons left over from the 80s. Most storefronts were closed, metal bars and grates pulled shut against the rest of the mall. A few still had at least one visible person minding the store. I watched as a middle-aged woman slowly folded pairs of jeans to add to a display. It struck me as a sad sight. Couldn’t tell you why exactly. Maybe it was like putting a face on all the nothing surrounding us.
There was a sign ahead near the ceiling that read “Office” and pointed down a hall. We walked to it and turned the corner only to be met by a security officer standing between us and the office. He was a young black man in a blue and gray uniform, baldheaded and standing nearly as tall as Nick. Damn near as big too.
“Help you, gentlemen?” he said, eyeballin’ us from forehead to feet.
“Yessir,” I said. “We’re looking for the manager of your establishment here.”
“What you want with Mr. Perez?”
“We are in the business of entertaining children during the holiday season,” I said with what I hoped was a genuine smile. “My friend Nick here plays Santa, as you may have already guessed by the silver mane and white beard, and I handle the business and traveling arrangements. Name’s Rudy. And you are?” I stuck out my hand.
For just a sec I thought he wasn’t going to take it but after a little hesitation he did and shook my hand with a slightly less than painful grip.
“Officer Robinson,” he said. “Frank.”
Nick cut in with his usual demeanor. “What’s happened here?”
Frank raised an eyebrow. “What’re you referrin’ to?”
“This place is a tomb,” Nick said. “Where is everyone?”
Frank licked his lips. “You ain’t from around here, are you?”
“Nah,” I said. “We travel a lot, working the Santa gigs all over the place this time of year.”
Frank sighed. “Look, the town’s in a bad way. Kids have gone missin’. Everybody’s scared of their own shadow. People are staying home and keepin’ their kids right where they can see ‘em.”
“Well, shit,” I said, trying to seem ignorant. “How many are we talking about?”
“Just got word this morning of the fourth. I don’t think anybody really knows yet but…the girl was Mr. Perez’s daughter. That’s why he ain’t in today. Probably won’t be back anytime soon either.”
“Can’t blame him for that,” I said. “I’m sorry as shit to hear it.”
“Any idea who did it?” Nick asked, as blunt as ever.
“Nah. Police think it must be a stranger. Mr. Perez and his wife are heartbroken. No marital problems, no other relatives on this side of the border. I don’t get it. Sofia is a sweet girl, always has a smile for everyone. She doesn’t deserve this. Nobody does.”
There was a moment of…how do I describe it? It was like static electricity, a small charge that was barely noticeable, floating over the air.
“You blame yourself,” Nick said. “Why?”
I opened my mouth to ask how, and the hell Nick would know somethin’ like that but no words came out. I knew he was right; I could feel it too. Frank’s guilt was so thick I wondered why I hadn’t noticed it outright.
Frank’s expression changed quickly from shock to suspicion. “How the hell–”
Nick placed his hand gently on the man’s shoulder. “Don’t matter, and it ain’t important. You can tell me. It won’t leave this little triangle we have here. Why do you feel guilty about Sofia bein’ snatched up?”
Frank started at Nick. “Your eyes…they’re like snowflakes, spinning and–”
“That’s right,” Nick said with a nod. “Like looking in a shook-up snow globe. Relaxin’, ain’t it?”
“Yeah…yeah, it is.”
“Okay, well you just keep looking and tell me about Sofia.”
He nodded. “Sure. I was on duty yesterday. Sofia came around after school. She’d do that sometimes, come hang around with her dad. He’d give her a couple of quarters for the arcade machines, but no more than two. He said too many arcade games would rot her brain.” He smiled. “So, I always made sure to pass her a couple more in secret.”
Nick and I both smiled along with him.
“What happened next?” I asked.
“After she came back from the arcade, Mr. Perez wasn’t done working so he asked her to entertain herself for just a bit longer. She asked for some more arcade money and he said no, but she could go visit Santa if she wanted.” “Ya’ll had a Santa here?” Nick said.
“Yeah. His last day was yesterday. Said he had another gig lined up that paid more, and after the disappearances there wasn’t much for him to do here anyhow. I ain’t gonna lie, I was happy to see him go.”
“I just didn’t like him much. Gave me the creeps. He never did anything wrong that I saw. I just didn’t like him. Anyway, she went and stood in line and eventually saw the guy. When she was done, she walked past the hallway here and kept walking, right out the front door. Nobody has seen her since.”
“You got cameras around here?” I asked.
Frank nodded. “Yeah. I made copies of the tapes and gave them to the police. You can see Sofia talking to Santa, then walking away. You see her again when she passes by camera two near the front door, but when she’s supposed to be walkin’ out, right past camera one, she ain’t there. The front doors open but she never comes out.”
“What about Santa?” Nick asked. “Anybody question him?”
“Yeah, but nothing came of it. He was still in his seat and seein’ kids, all of it on camera.”
“Okay,” I said. “But just in case, you mind given’ us any info you got on him?”
Frank blinked. “You guys…you ain’t just here for a job are you? You’re…somethin’ else.”
I smiled. “Yep, somethin’ else is definitely what we are.”
“You can trust us,” Nick said, his voice kind.
“His name is Andy Avery,” Frank said. “Came in everyday with booze on his breath. Wasn’t falling down on the job or anything but he was certainly hittin’ the bottle before he came in. I know he’s renting a room somewhere but I ain’t sure which cheap motel it could be. He told me was taking a day off before moving on, so if he’s still around you’d probably have luck finding at him at the Sheep’s Shed, it’s a–”
“We’re familiar with it,” Nick said.
I smiled and rubbed my hands together. “Gotta love that sweet synchronicity.”
“What are you talkin’ about?” Frank asked.
“Nothin’,” I said, shaking my head. “An album by The Police back in ‘83. Great album.”
Nick gave me a look that made me stop my tongue from flapping. He turned back to Frank.
“Frank, listen to me,” Nick said. “Do you trust me?”
“I… yes. I do.”
“Then believe me when I say this: none of this was your fault. You’re a good man, I can read it written on your heart. Let it go. Holdin’ on to it only makes it worse.”
Frank nodded; one tear spilled down his cheek. “I’ll try, I promise.”
“Good,” Nick said. “Now me and Rudy here are goin’ huntin. I don’t know what happened to Sofia or the other kids but I’m gonna find out. And when I do, when I know who’s behind it, I’m gonna tear them open and see what comes spillin’ out.”
“Nick here is many things,” I said. “But he damn sure ain’t a liar. Some bastard’s gonna pay. Bet on it.”
Frank’s expression softened into confusion. “Who the hell are you guys?”
“The A-Team, Sherlock Holmes, and the Spirit of Christmas all wrapped up with a bow,” I said.
Nick clapped the man on the back, we said our goodbyes, and then we got back on the perpetual road.
We grabbed some burgers from a nearby diner and ate in the Bronco as the sun went down over the parking lot.
I finished my last bite and chased it with a sip of Dr. Pepper. “So?”
“So, what?” Nick asked.
“What’re you thinking?”
“What’re you thinking?” he said, then bit off a fourth of his burger.
“I’m thinking we get to the bar a bit early and stake the place out ‘fore going in. See who’s coming and going. Look for anything out of the ordinary.”
“Sounds like a plan, Rudy.”
I gave him a raised eyebrow. “That’s it? You ain’t got a thing to add?”
He swallowed the bite he’d been chewing on. “No. You got it under control.”
“What if I don’t?”
“You do,” he said. “Quit doubtin’ yourself so much.”
“Yes, you are,” Nick said. “How long have we been handin’ out coal, Rudy?”
I sighed. “Tell you the truth, it’s hard to remember. Five years? Ten?”
“Somethin’ like that, maybe,” he said. “Now, listen. If I dropped dead right now–”
“Probably going to, with the way you shove those cheeseburgers down.”
He ignored me and continued. “If I dropped dead here and now, I wouldn’t worry about those kids one bit. I’d go wherever I’m going without a care, ‘cause I know you’d finish it, Rudy. You’d get where you need to be and handle business. This is a long way of saying that I trust you and your judgement. You got to know that by now. It’s time to stop believin’ so much in Saint Nick here and start believin’ in yourself.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I didn’t feel like I was second guessin’ myself, but if Nick thought that I was, felt that I was, then I sure as shit was. Even if I couldn’t see it.
“You’re the magic and the muscle, Nick,” I said. “I might could talk my way through some hairy shit, but you can just tear your way through. We ain’t exactly even in that regard, if you hadn’t noticed.” Much to my shock and surprise, he laughed. “You ever seen me work out?”
“I don’t know. Figured you might have a Bowflex stashed out in the woods somewhere or some shit.”
“Nope. I’m big ‘cause my daddy was big, simple as that. My strength comes from believing in myself, and other people believin’ in me too.”
“Bullshit,” I said. “That sounds like a public service announcement after some Saturday morning cartoon show. Next you’re gonna tell me ‘knowin’ is half the battle.’”
“You can think that if you want, but it’s true.”
And goddamnit I knew he wasn’t lying, but I couldn’t rationally bring myself to take it as gospel. Mostly ‘cause it sounded fuckin’ nuts. Now why after all this time of seeing the shit Nick could do, did I think this was the craziest thing? Because he was right, I could feel it, and it scared the shit out of me.
I didn’t say anything, just watched him as he stared off into the sky. I followed his gaze and wasn’t surprised in the least to see the North Star twinkling in between the receding sunlight and the coming dark.
The Sheep’s Shed was probably exactly what you’re already picturin’ in your head when I say it was a bar settled on a strip of lonely Texas highway between towns. It was a squat square made of cinder block, all painted gray that may have once been white. The name of the joint was badly painted in italics across the front wall. But what the building lacked in flair was surely made up for by the godawful, gaudy neon sign on wheels parked by the road.
We parked the Bronco as far from the door as we could and sat and watched. It wasn’t even an hour ‘fore we spotted Andy Avery. He pulled up in a decrepit F-150 whose rust spots were spray painted over with a color that barely matched the dusty maroon. A bumper sticker on the back read “Come Sit on Santa’s Lap!”. The truck’s door opened with a squeal and out stepped Avery, his gut hanging over the waistband of his dirty jeans, and his long beard more yellow than white. Looked like pissed-on snow.
One side of Nick’s mouth rose up in a soundless snarl.
“Let’s go,” he said.
We got out and walked slowly, giving Avery a chance to settle in. I made sure my pistol was still snug in the back of my waistband before I opened the door.
Motley Crue’s “Kickstart My Heart” was pumped up loud enough to make my eardrums throb in time with the beat, but the rowdy voices of all the drinkers inside still leaked through the thunderous guitar riff that sounded like it was comin’ from a V8. Smoke hung in a layer across the ceiling, the nicotine-stained bulbs above casting a sickly yellow light overall.
Nick elbowed my arm to get my attention, then nodded his head towards the back corner of the bar. Avery sat by himself, a beer bottle and a glass of dark liquor on the table in front of his belly. His eyes were firmly fixed on the ass of a young lady playing pool nearby.
I damn near stood on my tiptoes to talk into Nick’s ear. “I’ll get his attention, then you slip in on the other side.”
He gave me two quick nods, then I made my way through the swarm of dirty, after-work bodies, a deadly combo of too much, perfume, aftershave, and smoke swirling in my wake.
I passed between Avery and the woman he was eye-fuckin’ and the bastard called out to me.
“Hey, asshole! Yer ruinin’ my view!”
The woman took notice and gave him a look like she just saw some freshly flattened roadkill. She tossed the cue on the pool table and walked off while giving him the finger.
Avery started laughing and I saw my opportunity. I started drunk-laughin’ then sat down beside him in the booth.
“Sorry about that, friend!” I said. “I wish I’d have a longer gander myself. She was built like a brick shithouse!”
“You’re goddamn right about that!” His laugh went up an octave, and he took another drink from his beer. He didn’t notice Nick slide into the booth and sit down beside him.
I leaned closer to him, the smell of sweat stinking up my personal space.
“Speaking of pretty young things, tell me about those missing kids,” I said.
His face bleached of color. “The fuck you are talking about?” he stammered.
I saw Nick reach down slowly, and knew he was pulling his knife from his boot.
“I’m talking about them kids that have up and disappeared here lately,” I said. “Tell me about them.”
“I don’t know shit,” he said. “Now–”
Nick put his bearpaw of a hand on Avery’s shoulder and held him firm. The bastard turned to look at Nick and I could see his eyes widen even from his profile.
“Keep your ass on that seat, grifter,” Nick growled. “Here’s the situation: I’ve got seven inches of steel that’s pointed directly over your femoral artery. One small push and you’re gonna bleed out faster than the time it takes me to spit in your dying face and wipe your greasy blood off my knife. Is that clear?”
Avery nodded. “Please don’t kill me,” he whined.
“That all depends on how much you want to tell us where those kids are,” I said. “C’mon, jackass. Spill it.”
“I-I don’t know,” he stammered, then yelped as Nick pressed the tip of the blade through the fabric of Avery’s jeans. It was superficial but seein’ the bastard’s blood start to spread did make me smile.
“I don’t know where they are! That’s the truth!”
I snapped my fingers under his nose to get his attention off his leg. “Alright, let me rephrase the question for you. What did you do to those kids?”
“I…,” he began to lie, but stopped and shook his head. “I didn’t harm them, okay? I just…oh shit—”
“Man, I tell you what,” Nick said. “I know I may look strong, but boy is this knife gettin’ heavy. It’s liable to just fall and stick your leg like a lawn dart all on its own accord.”
“Okay, okay, shit, okay,” Avery panted. “A couple weeks back a guy approached me, said he’d pay me two grand if I did somethin’ for ‘em.”
“Go on,” Nick said.
“He wanted me to talk to the kids that visited the mall,” Avery said, sweat beading on his pasty forehead. “Find out which ones was havin’ trouble at home. Maybe likely to skip school or talkin’ about runnin’ away. You know–”
“Kids that wouldn’t be missed for a bit if they came up missin’,” I said.
“Yeah,” Avery said. “And I did. But when the end of my two weeks was comin’ and I hadn’t found another kid…he got greedy and snatched the mall manager’s little girl. I knew damn well that was definitely gonna get noticed, she wasn’t the type to run away, so I left. Goddamnit, I should’ve left sooner.”
“Don’t fret about that,” I said. “We would’ve tracked your bulbous ass down wherever you went. Who were the guys paying you?”
“If I tell you,” he said in a weak voice. “They’ll kill me.” Nick’s eyes blazed as he pushed his face within an inch of Avery’s.
“What the fuck do you think I’m going to do you, asshole?” he said, his voice like the rumble of storm clouds. “You think this knife’s for show? I push down another two inches and you better hope there’s a goddamn surgeon knockin’ a few back in the bar tonight.”
“It was a church van!” Avery squeaked. “He didn’t tell me his name, but I saw the van he came in. He’d parked way back in the parkin’ lot of the mall but I still saw it. It was from that big church, off I-20 headin’ towards Midland. Biggest damn church you ever saw.”
Me and Nick shared a glance. His face showed disappointment more so than surprise.
“What do you think?” I asked.
Nick looked back at the pitiful sack of shit. “Let him go.”
I stood and gestured for Avery to leave the booth. He stood and I grabbed him by the beard.
“You say one word about our conversation here and I’ll make it my mission to find you and stick that knife up your ass. And you better never let me find out you’re playin’ at Santa again.”
Avery nodded shakily and squeezed past me. For an older, alcoholic fat man he sure did make great time gettin’ out the door.
I sat back down beside Nick. “I know why you let him go.”
“He was already dyin’, wasn’t he? I could feel he was sick, somethin’ in his guts but I couldn’t make it out.” “Cirrhosis in his liver,” Nick said, then downed Avery’s whiskey in one gulp. “And his stubborn ass ain’t gonna get it looked at ‘til it’s too late. He’s gonna die miserable and in pain.”
“You can tell the future now?” I said and laughed. “We gotta get you booked on The Tonight Show, maybe we can finally make enough money to retire.”
“Nothin’ like that,” Nick said. “Yeah, I can tell he’s sick, but the rest is just knowin’ people. Guy like that…he’s just gonna press on ‘til he starts pissin’ blood. Doctor will tell him to stop drinkin’ but he won’t.”
“Makes sense,” I said, then noticed the big red Budweiser clock on the wall. “Shit. It’s about time for our appointment.”
No sooner had the words left my ever-runnin’ mouth when the bar’s door lit up around the seams. Needless to say, I was dumbfounded as hell but I was more surprised that no one else in the place was looking at the light but me and Nick.
It faded after a few seconds, and I watched through the afterimage as the door swung open.
Now, I’m strictly a ladies’ man. You can love whoever you please and you won’t hear a peep outta me, but I always walked a straight line on that road of love if you’re pickin’ up what I’m layin’ down.
All that’s to say the man who walked into the bar was about the handsomest man I’ve ever seen. He had a face like a movie star, or a game show host or somethin’ like that. All cheekbones and bright eyes. His tailored suit hung on him perfectly as he navigated through the crowd. When he got close to us, he smiled, and if I didn’t already know, one look at his pearly whites told me this was the man who left the message.
“Gentlemen,” he said, his voice comin’ outta his lips like silk wrapped in velvet. “May I join you?”
Nick eyed the man, lips rigid and face stern. “Go ahead,” he said.
The man pulled out his handkerchief and wiped a nearby bar stool before dragging it in front of our table. We watched as he folded the handkerchief back to perfection before placing it back into his front pocket then sat down.
“Who are you and what do you want?” I said, trying to sound annoyed even though I felt like shittin’ my britches.
“Straight to the point then,” the man said. “I’ve come to discuss your current…job? I guess it’s not really a job, but something a bit grander in your estimation. An adventure, maybe. Either way, we have things to discuss about your involvement in the situation with the missing children.”
I laughed. “That was a whole lot of words to say nothing.”
“Just say what you came here to say in plain English,” Nick said.
“Friends, I can assure you that I–”
Nick leaned forward and rested his arms on the table. “I know who you are, and we ain’t friends. Just tell us why you came all this way for a vigilante Santa and his partner in crime.”
“Ah, but you sell yourself short,” the man said. “You’re not merely–”
“I don’t sell a damn thing. That’s your job, Phanuel.”
Phanuel grinned. “Have we met before, Nicholas? I think I would remember if we had.”
“No,” Nick said. “But your face gives you away. Way too pretty to be from around here.”
The gears in my head all clicked into place and I damn near jumped out of my skin. So of course, I chose my next words carefully and played it cool.
“Holeeeeeey shit!” I said. “You’re an angel!? Are you fucking kidding me?!”
Phanuel nodded and leaned over the table. He pointed one expertly manicured finger towards his eyes. There were wheels in them, spinning and turning over each other in the pale blue of his irises.
I sat back in disbelief. I’ve felt demonic presences before, hell I even talked to Ol’ Scratch himself on a payphone. But up until I saw Phanuel’s eyes I never even entertained the idea of seeing an angel in the flesh. Well, maybe not flesh. I still ain’t sure what exactly they’re made of to tell you the truth.
“Don’t be too impressed,” Nick said with a smirk. “Noah’s great-grandaddy barely even gave him a mention. And Abraham’s kids cut him out altogether.”
“That’s,” Phanuel sighed. “Not entirely true.”
“Close enough,” Nick said. “What does Sky Daddy want from us?”
“Well,” Phanuel said. “If you’re referring to our Lord and Creator of All, he wants you to stop.”
In a day full of surprises, that was assuredly a big one. “He wants us to stop?” I said. “What? Stop looking for the kids?”
“In a word, yes.”
Nick shook his head. “Ain’t happenin’.”
Phanuel shrugged. “One way or another, you must give up on this job.”
“I’m neutral,” Nick said, anger in his voice. “I don’t answer to him or Scratch and you damn well know it. I’ve got my job and you’ve got yours.”
“Yes, well, my job at the moment is to deliver this message. Stay away from this one.”
“I know the rules,” Nick said. “You can come visit our plane here, so you got one up on Scratch. But just like his Infernal Majesty you can’t do shit to us.”
“Free will is surely a bitch,” I said.
Phanuel’s smile dropped from his lips. “All true, I’m afraid. But you forget the many skills that have been bestowed to me. The most powerful of which is that I can be very, very persuasive.”
“Just a second,” I said. “Let’s say, hypothetically speaking, that my associate and I decide to listen to you. It would sure go a long way with us if you told us why we needed to call this whole business off.”
“I’m not required to explain to you God’s reasons,” Phanuel said.
“And we ain’t required to do shit either. Humor me.”
Phanuel looked from me to Nick. “Fine,” he said. “The person you’re ultimately after is a very prominent man with a very large following. In time, the church he has built will triple in size. He will instruct others who will go on to found churches across the country, with their influence spreading over the globe. Countless people will benefit, innumerable souls could be saved. We must allow this sapling to grow and blossom into a tree of salvation whose branches will widen over the Earth. This is the Will of our Lord, our God.”
“That man you’re talkin’ about is a pedohile at best and a murderous pedophile at worst,” Nick said flatly. “I don’t give a shit if he’s Christ Himself come again, that asshole is gettin’ his coal tonight.”
Phanuel sneered. “You upjumped monkey,” he said. “You stupid, stupid ape. These words came from the creator of the very universe!”
“Which one?” Nick asked with a nonchalance that I envied at that moment.
“Do not quibble over semantics with me,” Phanuel said. “I’ll not warn you again. Let this one go or there will be consequences.”
“We’re done here,” Nick said, rising to his feet. “Get your sparkly feathered ass outta here before I get violent.”
Phanuel took a deep breath then let it go as his smile returned. “That’s all you animals know is violence. If that’s what you want, so be it.” The angel turned to leave, then snapped his fingers. TVs I hadn’t noticed before above the bar turned on and the jukebox turned off. He swirled a finger in the air and everyone in the bar turned to face the glowing screens.
Phanuel walked away, and as soon as he was out the door he appeared on the TVs, sitting behind a news desk, mugshots of me and Nick that didn’t exist hovering over his left shoulder.
“Good evening,” he said. “There’s been a breakthrough in the case of Moreno’s missing children. The two men shown here, Nicholas White and Peter ‘Rudolph’ Lynch, are wanted for questioning. If you have any information on the whereabouts of these men, please…”
I didn’t listen to the rest of the bullshit. I was too busy watchin’ about two dozen or so people all start muttering to each other and looking around. Then their eyes fell on us and all hell broke loose. Cries echoed in the bar.
“Holy shit, it’s them!”
“Somebody call the cops!”
“Fuck the cops! Grab ‘em!”
The crowd moved toward us. Some people grabbed pool cues, others chairs. The bartender bent below the bar and came back with what was most definitely an illegally sawed-off shotgun.
“We gotta go,” Nick said.
“No shit! But there’s alotta them and a little of us,” I reached behind me, meaning to pull out my pistol when Nick put his hand on my shoulder.
“No guns,” he said.
“This is as sure as shit the right time for one!”
“You show that and the bartender is apt to open up with that shotgun. People are gonna get killed.”
The first guy brave enough to step up threw a haymaker that connected with Nick’s jaw. Nick shrugged it off and buried his fist in the man’s guts, dropping him like a sack of rocks.
The next two decided to jump across the table. I grabbed one by the hair mid-slide and slammed his face down onto the wood. His nose broke and splashed blood on my good flannel shirt, which pissed me off somethin’ awful. I pulled him down off the table and onto the seat and used him as a stepstool to get up on the table.
Which with the beauty of hindsight was a really stupid mistake.
The bartender had a clean line of sight over the crowd and fired. Two things saved my ass: Nick grabbin’ me by the pants leg and pulling me down, and the fact that the dumbass bartender was way, way out of range.
Bottles flew out of the crowd, smashing against the wall over my head and showering me with brown glass and beer.
The shotgun boomed again, and the room went silent. Well, the people went silent. The sound of a phone ringing was pretty damn loud in the new quiet.
The bartender dropped the gun to the floor with a clatter. His eyes were half-open and vacant as picked up the receiver and listened.
“Phone for Rudolph,” he said and set the receiver on top of the bar.
Nick and I looked at one another. He was still in a boxer’s stance, fists up and ready. He lifted his chin towards the bar and I slowly got up and wiped the beer from my eyes with my sleeve.
It was surreal walking through the crowd of people who just seconds ago wanted to take us out back and string us from the nearest tree. They just stared ahead, unblinking and unmoving.
I reached the bar, then cleared my throat as I picked up the phone.
“That looks like a fine mess you two have got yourselves in,” the voice on the other end said. It had a tone that implied the speaker was thrilled about said mess.
“Your Infernal Majesty,” I said, laying on as much sarcasm as I could get my tongue to muster up. “How lovely to hear from you again. It’s been too long! Me and Nick were just sayin’ the other day we should have you over and do some grillin’, maybe play some cornhole after–”
“Insufferable, as always,” Scratch said. “Yet here I am, suffering through it anyway. Though I must warn you, I am much better at inflicting suffering than you, so spare me your incessant drivel and just listen.”
Well, shit, I was curious. “I’m listening, your Unholy Evilness.”
“I am in…a giving mood. Tis’ the season, after all. So, I’m going to hold these people here for a few moments while you and your associate abscond.”
I didn’t know what the word meant exactly but I caught his drift.
“And why in your hell would you help us out?”
“Don’t be dense,” Scratch said impatiently. “As much as I’d like the Reverend you’re hunting to continue going along gloriously sinning, it’s in my best interest to have you and the Saint dispose of him. It’s as simple as that.”
“You seriously think I’m about to make a deal? With you?”
“It’s not a deal,” Scratch said. “I’ve already enthralled the crowd, it’s up to you if you’d like to use this opportunity to leave and continue on with your…crusade. Either way, the clock’s ticking.”
I could already see the crowd stirrin’ again. “Fine. But I ain’t thanking you.”
“No need,” Scratch said, sounding bored. “Just take care of the reverend. That will be thanks enough.”
I tossed the receiver back to the barkeep. He didn’t move a muscle, just let it hit him in the chest and fall to the ground.
“Let’s get while the gettin’s good,” I called out to Nick.
He made his way over to me. “Who was on the phone?”
“Scratch,” I said. “The Infernal Asshole wants this reverend planted six feet under.”
Nick shrugged. “Alright, let’s do it.”
I honestly didn’t expect him to take the news that easily. Between that and him tellin’ the angel that we were neutral, I was confused as shit. Not for the first time, I wondered how much Nick wasn’t telling me. About how much I still had left to learn.
Once we were back safe and sound in the Bronco and heading up the dark highway, I decided it was time I got some answers.
“What the hell was all of that?!”
“All of what?” Nick said.
“Are you kidding? A goddamned angel just showed up in a bar and tried to kill us, Nick! And you sat there holdin’ a conversation with him like that shit happens every day! Not to mention I had another pleasant chat with the fucking Devil–”
“Calm down, Rudy.”
“Nah, fuck that,” I said. “We’ve been handling this business together for years and I’ve always left you be, never questioned you, never pried, but goddamnit, Nick, you’ve got to give me some answers here! Ain’t I at least owed that much?”
He was silent as I sat there fuming. Another mile passed, and another.
“Okay,” Nick said.
“‘Okay’?” I said. “Okay, what?”
“I’ll tell you everything after this is over.” I just nodded, still pissed but willing to give him a little more time.
Our nearly silent drive out to the church took about an hour. We saw the massive cross reaching up to the sky well before we saw the building. Avery was right about one thing: it was the biggest damn church I’d ever seen.
I whistled. “Jeeesus Christ,” I said. “Get a load of that.”
“It makes you wonder how much Jesus has to do with a place like that,” Nick said. “Look at that gaudy shit. You can’t throw a rock around here without hittin’ a person who’s in need. But where’s the money goin’ here? Same place it always goes, to make a rich man richer.”
The Bronco’s headlights preceded us into a nearly empty parking lot. A few of the vans that Avery had mentioned were there, lined up on the side near an unmarked set of double doors painted to match the beige exterior of the building.
“There,” I said. “We go in there.”
Nick parked us near the vans, and we got out. I reached back under my seat and grabbed a long, flathead screwdriver and a rubber mallet. He kept a lookout as I went van to van, placing the blade of the screwdriver in the corner of a window and tapping the handle with the mallet. The windows fell to random shapes of safety glass, scattering like dropped diamonds on the asphalt. Once that was done, we went to searching.
I was looking through the glovebox of the third van when Nick tapped me on the shoulder, making me nearly shit myself. I half fell out the door. “Goddamn man,” I said. “Scared the shit out of me. You got something?”
He held up a backpack. Small, pink and purple, with one of them My Little Pony’s on the front. Under one of the straps, written in marker, was the name Sofia Perez.
“Let’s get in the building,” Nick said. “We don’t know if he’s got ‘em here or–”
“They’re here,” I said. “I can feel it.” And I could, like little candle flames in the dark.
Nick nodded, walked over to the Bronco, and came back with his crowbar.
He made short work of the doors, just shoved the flat end in between them and kept pushin’ ‘til they popped apart. They opened up on a dark hallway, not pitch black though. There was a lamp far off at the other end.
We crept along slowly. There were a couple of offices, a small kitchen, and a conference room. IThe church looked more like an eight to five office building along the back hall.
The lamp we’d seen earlier was on an end table beside a small couch, and on the couch was a sleeping man. He was layin’ on his side in a gray suit, and the magazine he’d been perusin’ was spread open on the floor where it had fallen from his fingers. I tip-toed around to where his head was, but I don’t know why I bothered sneakin’. If he didn’t hear us gettin’ through the door than he damn sure wasn’t gonna wake up from me walking across carpet.
I carefully placed the tip of my screwdriver into his ear and nodded to Nick. He bent and tapped the man on the forehead.
The man nearly jumped when he saw Nick staring at him.
“Whoa now, partner,” I said softly. “You feel that in your ear? That there is a screwdriver. So, if you ever want to use this ear again you better keep quiet.”
He put his hands up feebly. “We-we don’t keep any cash here–”
“Bullshit,” Nick said. “The whole building stinks of other people’s hard-earned money. But that ain’t why I’m here. Where’s the kids?”
He started to shake his head, so I put just a little pressure on the screwdriver.
“Answer the man,” I said. Nick leaned in close. “Look, we only want the reverend. You can walk out of here. There ain’t no police comin’ or anything. You can just go, right after you tell us where the reverend and the kids are.”
“K-keep going down the hall, second door on the left,” he said. “They’re all in there.”
“Thank you,” Nick said, then looked at me. “Rudy, you got any more questions ‘fore we set him loose?”
“Yeah, just one,” I said. “Who was it that took the kids and brought them here?”
The man started cryin’.
“I’m so sorry, God forgive me, I’m sorr–”
His last words were cut off as I swung the mallet down on the end of the screwdriver’s handle. The length of steel sunk all the way in with a noise I can’t quite describe but was music to my ears. The man flopped with a convulsion or some shit then finally laid still, blood tricklin’ out from his nostrils. I tossed the mallet down beside him and pulled my pistol from behind my back.
“You ready to finish this?” I asked Nick.
He nodded. “Lead on, Rudolph.”
We made our way to the door. The nice and neat etched sign on the front read “Playroom”.
I could hear Nick grinding his teeth behind me.
Taking a deep breath, I grabbed the knob and turned it, swinging the door open.
The room must’ve been a place for parents to drop off their young kids during services. The walls were painted in soothing pastels and decorated with stars and shapes and numbers. Bible verses in cartoon fonts were hung here and there. A toy chest stood open in one corner beside a rack that had kids’ costumes hanging from it. There were even some cribs in the back.
Near the front of the room was a young black boy, probably no more than ten years old, dressed like a doctor. A plastic stethoscope hung from his neck and over his white coat. Sofia sat on the floor in front of him. I guess they didn’t have any kind of patient costume because she just had a sheet wrapped around her in the front, the back safety-pinned at the nape of her neck and opened like a hospital gown. The other two children, a small white boy, probably six, and another hispanic girl around the same age, sat on a couch in the middle of the room. They were watching the other kids playin’ at doctor like it was a theater production.
And sittin’ right between ‘em was the reverend. He had his arms across the kids shoulders and was smiling ‘til he saw the door open. He was dressed in a bathrobe and sock and nothin’ else. The robe was open in the front, exposing a chestful of graying hair. The belt was loosely tied, and the way he sat with his legs open gave the entire room a view of his meager manhood. He was just sittin’ there enjoyin’ the show, like it was the most normal thing in the world.
His eyes fell on us and his smile died as he tried to stand and cover himself.
“Nope,” I said, and tapped the barrel of my pistol against my thigh. “I’m gonna need you to just sit tight for a minute.”
The youngest kids on the couch were silent and staring, but the kid in the doctor costume started to cry.
“Are we in trouble?” he said. “I didn’t want to do it, don’t tell my Daddy, please…”
Nick brushed past me and swept the boy up in his arms before I could so much as blink.
“Shhh, hush now,” he said, in his most soothing Santa voice. “You’re not in any kind of trouble, not one bit. And I should know because I have to make the lists every year.”
The boy pulled his wet face from Nick’s shoulder and really took a good look at him. “Santa?” he said, his eyes widening. “The one and only,” Nick said. “And I promise you Marcus, everything is gonna be okay. It might not seem like it right now, or even tomorrow, but I swear it will. Now I need you to do something for me. I need you to be my helper.”
The boy nodded enthusiastically as Nick set him down on his feet.
“I want you to take Sofia here, and Anthony and Lily and walk right down this hall here and wait for me by the door. Can you do that for me?”
He nodded again. I don’t think he could do much else seein’ how transfixed he was on Santa Claus standing right in front of him, motorcycle boots and all.
Nick helped Sofia to her feet. “Sofia, ya’ll follow Marcus and we’ll be right out.”
Slowly the children gathered and held hands, forming a line, and Marcus led them out the door. He turned and looked at Nick.
“Santa, is the reverend on the naughty list?”
“He is indeed.”
“Is he gettin’ coal for Christmas?”
“You can bet on it,” Nick said.
“Good,” Marcus said, nodding sternly. He began pulled Sofia’s hand. “Come on, guys.”
Once we figured the kids were out of earshot, I closed the door. Without hesitation, the reverend started flappin’ his gums.
“Look, I don’t who you are–”
“Who the fuck do I look like?” Nick growled.
I circled the bastard and yanked the belt from his robe with my free hand. “Ow! Hey, that hurt!” he bleated.
“Good,” I said. “Now lean up and put your hands behind your back. If I tell you twice it ain’t gonna be nice.”
He leaned forward and did as he was told. I stuffed the pistol into my waistband then went to work tying the bastard’s hands together.
“None of this is what it seems!” he cried. “I found those kids and brought them here until the police could get here! That’s it!”
Nick stared at him with enough intensity that even I felt scared.
“Lies drip from your lips like poisoned honey,” Nick said and grabbed a fistful of the asshole’s thinnin’ hair. His other fist got to movin’, slamming into the middle of the reverend’s face.
He cried out and tried to free himself from Nick’s grip. “No sir, we’re just gettin’ started,” I said.
The reverend spat blood out onto his chest hair. “Who the fuck are you!? You walk in here, acting like a piece of shit, two-bit Santa Cl–”
“Ho,” Nick said, driving his fist into the man’s teeth.
“Ho,” he repeated, as the next punch broke the reverend’s jaw.
The final strike sent at least a few teeth tumblin’ to the carpet.
Nick sank his bloodied hand into his pocket and brought out two lumps of coal. He sat one to the side and broke the other clean in two.
“Rudy,” he said. “Hold his head still.”
I grabbed each side of the reverend’s head, my hands gettin’ slick with blood and sweat.
The bastard’s eyes were wide and wet, and blood flowed freely from his mouth as he muttered some shit, I didn’t understand, nor did I care for him to elaborate on.
“This year is special,” Nick said, pinching a piece of coal against each of his thumbs. “This year, we’re gonna make a snowman right here in Texas.”
Nick lunged forward and shoved the coal into the reverend’s eyes and kept pushin’ ‘til they popped, and blood ran down his swollen cheeks.
Jesuuus Christ, did that man squeal.
The reverend’s head shook furiously, and I nearly lost my grip. But I held on and kept him still as Nick took the other lump and shoved it into the bastard’s red hole of a mouth.
Nick stood back, breathin’ heavy.
“Do the honors, Rudy,” he said.
I came back around to the front of the couch, pulled out my pistol, and put three rounds into the mewling asshole’s heart.
We loaded the kids up into the back of the Bronco, reassured them again that they were safe, and closed the tailgate and camper window.
“What’s the plan for gettin’ them home?” I asked.
Nick shrugged. “Figured I’d park a couple of blocks away from the nearest police station, let them out and watch them ‘til they got inside.”
“Then we’re gonna have our talk, right?”
He looked down. “Rudy, I’m gonna tell you everything you need to know. You’re done for now.”
I figured my hearing must’ve gotten messed up from the gunshots.
“This is where our paths go different ways.”
“What the fuck are you talkin’ about different ways? We’re a team! Where is this shit comin’ from?”
“It’s the way it’s gotta be. You’ll understand, in time.”
He made to turn away from me and I grabbed him and spun him around. “No, fuck that, not after what we’ve been through, after all these years–”
“Do you trust me?”
His words made me stop blubberin’. “Y-yes, Nick. Of course, I trust you, but–”
“Then do as I ask. Take these,” he handed me a keyring. “It’s the keys to one of these vans. I took it off the guy on the couch. Get away from here and ditch it somewhere–”
“I ain’t a fuckin’ amateur,” I said. “I know what to do with a stolen ride.”
“I know,” Nick said. “It’s just hard to drop the teacher role sometimes, but I guess that’s what I have to do now. Now go, Rudy. Go live your life, take a vacation, whatever. Just do what you want to do while you’re still young enough to do it.”
I knew he was serious, and I knew I trusted him, so I did the only thing I could do. I wrapped him in the manliest bearhug I could manage and told him goodbye.
That was damn near twenty years ago. I made my way back to Tennessee and although I’m not proud to admit it, I drank and sulked a year away. I was just lost in every damn sense of the word.
One night I stumbled out of my trailer and started yelling up at the goddamned sky like a lunatic. Screaming questions about what the fuck was I supposed to do now until I fell over on my back and looked up at the sky and there she was.
The North Star.
I stared up at her and was surprised as shit when I felt my anger draining away bit by bit. I didn’t know what my purpose in life was or any zen shit like that, but I was calmer. Then I rolled over onto my side and blew chunks everywhere. Judge me if you must but life ain’t always like a movie. You can find peace and puke a bunch of whiskey up at the same time. It happens.
I eventually went to work cuttin’ lumber again, ended up hired at a mill, and in a few years became a foreman. I had some relationships along the way. No weddings, but a couple of long-term situations where I was as happy as a man in love could be. Long story short, life went on for me just like everybody else.
Until the cancer hit. Which is where my last story began. If I remember correctly, I predicted I wouldn’t last ‘til the next Easter. Well, joke was on me, I didn’t make even much past New Year’s. I’m just gonna lay this next part out for you with no dramatics.
Yep, honest. I laid there as the heart monitor flatlined and my breathing stopped, and everything went to an empty black. If there was an afterlife, then I didn’t see hide nor hair of it.
I woke up to the sound of a zipper surely bein’ unzipped, which is a pretty terrifyin’ sound to wake up to.
The black was peeled back at the sides and the night sky was full of stars. The smell of pine was strong, and the air was frigid, but it felt heavenly. I sat up and looked around.
Speakin’ of wakin’ up in a terrifying situation, I soon discovered I was sittin’ half in and half out of a body bag in the middle of the woods. If you’ve never done it, I wholeheartedly do not recommend it.
I thought hard about my first words as man newly brought back from the dead.
“What in fuck is going on?!” I yelled into the freezing air.
A voice came from my left. “I’ll tell ya if you promise to quit hollerin’.”
There was Nick, sitting on a tree stump, bare chested and soaking up the cold.
“It’s damn good to see you, Rudy,” he said.
Once I got myself out of the bodybag, Nick handed me a fresh set of clothes, then went about startin’ us a fire.
“Nick, seriously I’m grateful to be livin’ and all, but as you may can guess, I am confused as fuck.”
He laughed. “I know. I was too when it happened to me.”
The kindling came to fiery life and in moments the fire was blazing.
“When it happened to you?”
“After all these years, Rudy,” he said. “After all these years I’ve got a Christmas present for you. Sorry, if it’s a little late, but a story can only be told when it’s time to tell it. And now it’s time.”
I only nodded, not knowing what to say.
He took a deep breath, exhaled, and began.
“My real name is Thomas Miller, and I’m over a hundred and fifty years old.”
You’d think I’d be shocked, but it wasn’t the craziest thing that had happened that day.
“I was a Union soldier in the War Between the States. The Civil War, whatever you want to call it,” Nick continued. “And in 1862, three days before Christmas, John Morgan’s men attacked the supply line we were guardin’. I caught a bullet and was left for dead. Which I soon did. Die, that is. When I woke up a man with a long white beard was standing over me and telling me to get up out of the mud. He said he was Nicholas White and that he had a job for me if I wanted it. I spent the next few decades in his employ, learning from him and handin’ out coal to folks who needed to be stopped from whatever atrocities they were committing. He showed me the path to Polaris, and when the time came, I took over. Name and all.”
“What’s Polaris?” I asked.
“More like who is Polaris,” Nick said. “And she’s right up there.”
He pointed, but I didn’t even have to follow his finger to know he was pointing to the North Star.
“She?” I asked. “You’re sayin’ that the star…”
“Isn’t exactly a star, yep,” he said. “She’s what guides people like us, people who go around helpin’ kids who need it. Every time you needed directions, knew a name you had no way of knowin’, or just knew what the right thing was to do, that was all her.”
I shook my head. “Wait, you said people like us. There’s more vigilante Santas runnin’ around?”
“Indeed, there are,” Nick said. “A bunch. Nearly every society datin’ back to who knows when has a version of good ol’ Saint Nick.”
My head was about to burst with questions that I couldn’t keep from flyin’ outta my mouth. “How do Sky Daddy and Scratch play into this?”
“They don’t,” Nick said simply. “Why not?”
“‘Cause there’s Heaven, there’s Hell, and things in between. And things beyond. We just have to work around them, and with them, occasionally.”
“And I’m guessin’ there’s a reason why we only go huntin’ for assholes around Christmas,” I said.
“That’s when we’re most powerful. Nothing much beyond that. Not that you can’t use what you got year-round, but…shit. Okay, it’s like hibernating, but for us we do it in the summer months. We rest, gather our strength then spend the coldest months delivering coal.”
“And what about–”
“Rudy, listen,” Nick said. “We ain’t got much time left together. I gotta be moving on.”
“What?” I asked. “I see you for the first time in decades and now you’re walking out again? Fine, but one more question.”
“Shoot,” Nick said. “Why’d you leave? Why’d you abandon me at that church?”
Nick shrugged. “To give you something I wasn’t given. A chance to live your life a while longer before you start your new job.”
“So, you’re telling me…,” I stopped and took a breath. “You’re telling me–”
“You’re Santa Claus,” he said. “And I couldn’t have picked a better one.”
I sat there with my jaw bobbin’ up and down ‘til he walked over and knelt in front of me.
“I ain’t got a sword or nothin’,” Nick said. “So, I can’t knight you or whatever and say some magic words that’ll make it all seem true to you. But if you trusted me once, you can trust what I’m saying now: you’re Santa. And you’re gonna be great.”
He wrapped his arms around me, and I hugged him back fiercely.
“I’ll be seein’ you, Saint Nick,” he said.
I nodded into his shoulder. “It’s been a pleasure, Thomas.”
He stood up, gave me a small wave, and walked into the trees. A minute passed, maybe two, and everything lit up. Not like fireworks or anything, but like it suddenly changed from a fingernail moon to a full moon for just a moment.
And I knew Nick…sorry, I’m Nick now. Still getting used to it. I knew that Thomas had gone to be with her, with Polaris, way up there in the black of space.
I sighed and stood. Gettin’ out of the woods wasn’t a problem since I knew the directions to any place I could imagine. Which got me thinking: If I knew where damn near anything was located, that meant he knew all along. Ergo and therefore, I spent all those years readin’ a damn map and plottin’ routes when he already knew where we were goin’ the whole time!
I looked up at the sky and smiled.
“You asshole,” I said.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableRyan Harville Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🔔 More stories from author: Ryan HarvillePublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: N/A
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