Christmas at Scuzzy O' Malley's
George R. Lasher
It all started the year after we moved from Dublin to Chicago. At the age o' nine, I lost me Mum and Da in a Christmas Eve boatin' accident while they vacationed in Florida. Six years later, on the day before Christmas, I nearly died after bein' shot in an alley by a burglar wearin’ a Santa suit. Six years further down the road, again on Christmas Eve, I got shot a second time. The shooter, a drunken, enraged husband, wore, you guessed it, a full Santa Claus outfit. That little fiasco ended up with me gettin’ thrown in prison for somethin’ I never did.
In spite o' everythin', I always believed that fate, God, Jesus, all the angels, and especially Santa would pay me back for all o' me misery. Even in the darkest o' times I never dreamed I’d end up broke and alone - so broke I’d be on the verge o’ losin’ me bar.
Well, me bad luck day had rolled around again. On what shoulda been a busy night, only two people besides me were in the bar. Both came in drunk as a fiddler’s bitch and passed out.
The first was me partner, Danny Wysocki, a retired, widowed, ex-cop we all call Gunner. An institution here since long before we took over this place, Gunner lay face down in a cocktail of drool and whiskey in the back corner, behind the pool table.
The other guy, some old vagrant I’d never seen before, lay propped against the wall in a small, poorly lit booth at the back of the bar by the loo. I thought about tossin’ the pissy-eyed stranger out, but bein’ Christmas Eve, I had a touch o’ good will in me heart and decided to cut him a little slack.
Standin’ in the doorway, listenin’ to the intermittent buzz o' the neon sign blinkin’ on and off and the distant noises o' the rush hour traffic, I ran a hand through me thinnin' red hair and scanned the western horizon. Silhouetted against a backdrop o' orange and pink clouds, the newly completed overpass stood out like a sore thumb. Announced three weeks after I bought me bar, the Illiana Expressway's construction took six years. Five months ago they cut the ribbon and opened it up. If theyda took another six years to finish it, I wouldna have minded it at all.
The Illiana Expressway reroutes commuters away from my side o' town, past the newer, trendier shoppin' malls a coupl’a miles to the west, on the other side of the business district. Ever since it opened, the decent businesses in the old ward have been relocatin' or shuttin' down. Like a spreadin’ infection, massage parlors and even seedier enterprises have moved in around me, takin’ advantage of the nose dive in property values and monthly lease amounts.
Me bar ain’t one of them fancy joints with disco music or a hot band. I may have a juke box with some tasty tunes on it, but there ain’t no dance floor. Peanuts, pickled eggs and pretzels pretty much make up the menu. There’s booze and beer - bottled or draft. The pool table’s not exactly level and the sticks, those what ain’t been broken, are all slightly warped.
Why don’t I fix this place up, you wonder? Yeah, right. I can’t even afford to pay me insurance premiums. So why don’t I sell? I wish I could, believe me. Thanks to the sons-o'-bitches that decided where to put the new expressway, this bar is now on the bad side of town, on the wrong side o' the tracks, on the down side o' the slippery slope that leads to . . . well, it leads to here.
Like the blinkin’ neon sign says, you’re at Scuzzy O’Malley’s. I'm Scuzzy.
~ ~ ~
If you’re puzzlin' over how I come by the name, I’ve been called Scuzzy ever since I got suspended for what school records list as lewd conduct while I sat on the back row durin' Mrs. Tinsdale’s tenth-grade algebra class.
Hey, just so there ain't no misunderstandin', me package never left me pants. I'll admit to readjustin' it and givin' it a little rub. But it warn't much more than what you see a ball player do in a baseball game, and I sure didn’t know Mrs.Tinsdale had her eyes on me.
On the last day of school before Christmas vacation, Ramona, the hottest girl in school, sashayed into home room wearin’ a clingy, cashmere sweater and an eye-catchin’ mini-skirt. She sat down in the desk beside me, leaned over and whispered somethin’ that lodged in me mind like an arrow goin’ through me head. The words that slipped out o' her perfect, pouty lips crept quietly through me ear canal like a band of Comanche Indians sneakin’ up on a wagon train and proceeded to massacre the synaptic soldiers o' good sense before they knew what hit ‘em.
Thinkin’ ‘bout what Ramona said got me so excited I couldn’t think o' nothin’ else for the rest o' the day. That’s what this freckle-faced Irishman had on his mind when he got tossed out o' Mrs. Tinsdale’s class.
I remember Principal Stern lecturin’ me. "You're headed the wrong way, O' Malley!" He predicted I'd wind up at the end of a rocky, dead-end road, bein' labeled as some kind o' pervert. Understandin’ the severity of the situation, I fought to keep a straight face while listenin’ to him, but his acute case o' irritable bowel syndrome made it impossible. Right in the middle o' his lecture he let one loose that literally brought tears to me eyes. He proceeded to acknowledge it by sayin’, “Stomach’s giving me a little trouble, today.”
That did it. I couldn’t help meself. I hooted like a crazy man in the loony bin for a coupl’a minutes while Mr. Stern shouted for me to get a hold o' meself. Wipin' away tears o' laughter, I replied, “But that’s exactly what I’m in here for, Mr. Stern — gettin’ a hold o' meself. Make up your mind, man!”
Our little one-on-one culminated with the appearance of his hand-carved board of education and the deliverance of ten pops. The fat, fartin’ bastard said he felt sorry for me Aunt Martha, who took me in after me folks died, or he’d have expelled me then and there, for sure.
He called her with me standin’ there and made sure she heard every detail. Thirty-six years later, I still remember the smug look on his bloated, pock-marked face as he watched me squirm. He used words like degenerate and mas-tur-ba-tin'. He said the latter as if it was four separate words, draggin' each syllable out, for effect, with his I’m-better-than-you, Georgia drawl.
~ ~ ~
Rememberin’ I still had a bar to run, I crawled out o' that stinkin' cesspool o' memories lookin’ to blame someone for all o’ me troubles. Glarin' at the sky, I shook my fist and shouted, “Even Ebeneezer Scrooge got a break, didn’t he? Startin’ tonight, don’t ya think it’s time I got just one lousy break, huh?”
‘Bout a half-a-block away, a bag-lady pushin’ a grocery cart down the sidewalk stopped, turned 'round, and shouted back, “You talkin’ to me?”
Even from so far away, in the dim light of the street lamps, I could see she didn’t have no more than five or six teeth in that mouth o' hers. She coulda been one o’ them ghosts from Christmas past, or some kind o’ angel sent down from heaven to help me, but I shook me head and waved her away. If she was your typical angel, then God’s dental plan ain’t so good. Or maybe everyone in heaven has bad teeth 'cause the greedy, rat-bastard dentists were sent to hell.
Back to me gettin’ shot. At first, the doctors didn’t figure I'd make it. All I’d been able to tell the cops was that the thief wore a Santa suit. Most bad kids just get a lump o' coal in their stockin’. I must’a really been bad that year!
I’d been mindin’ me own business, waitin’ to meet Ramona in the alley behind Dave Gypster’s Jewelry. I hadn't been there five minutes when some guy in a complete Santa suit, with the beard and white hair, busted out o' Gypster's back door. He bumped into me, and as we both went down he dropped his red sack, filled to the brim with the jewelry he'd pinched.
Right before he squeezed the trigger I remember starin’ at that short gun barrel, thinkin’ me time had come. The next thing I knew, me teeth were chatterin’ while a white tornado o' doctors and nurses swirled around me in the emergency room.
I awoke to see Ramona, smilin' down at me like an angel of mercy, but this angel’s teeth looked okay. She should’a felt pretty guilty. After all, if she hadn't suggested we meet behind Gypster's, I wouldna've been walkin’ in the alley that day.
~ ~ ~
Near closin’ time last night, outta the clear blue, Ramona came by - first time I'd seen her in years. When I asked what brought her to me little hole-in-the-wall bar, she dug down in her purse, pulled out a sprig o' mistletoe, held it up and said, “Hey, don’t we have some unfinished business, mister?” When I resisted, poor Ramona thought I didn’t think she looked sexy anymore, or somethin’. She started to cry, and when Ramona gets her waterworks started, flood warnin's go up for miles around. We musta gone through half-a-stack of cocktail napkins after we ran out o' Kleenex.
Ramona said she'd left her husband a coupl’a days earlier 'cause she'd found out he cheated on her. She admitted that she'd cheated on him a few times, well, maybe more than a few, but she'd be damned if she'd allow him to cheat on her. She cheated because sometimes he'd get drunk and whack her around. Evidently realizin' how much he stood to lose if she went to the police or filed for divorce, he'd come back and give her a mink coat, or a diamond bracelet. Ramona considered it a fair trade, but she warn’t gonna put up with him cheatin’ on her. She said she knew things about old Nicky boy - horrible things that would destroy him if they ever became public knowledge.
I figured she musta been justified in doin' what she'd done, and told her as much.
She responded by askin’, “Was I justified in testifying that you broke into my house and tried to rape me on Christmas Eve?” Ramona's eyes clouded up again, meanin' her famous Niagra Falls impression was next on her agenda.
Now don’t go gettin’ confused. I'm talkin' 'bout a different Chistmas Eve. Another stroke o' misfortune that happened durin' me junior year at the university, six years after me little incident in the alley. And don't go lookin' bug-eyed 'bout me goin' to college. I had a job to pay for me schoolin', and I made pretty good grades—so, there.
Ramona had dropped out o' college and got hitched the year before to Nicholas Gypster, son of the Gypster Jewelry store chain founder, Dave Gypster. But, like I already told ya, Nicholas turned out to be an asshole and started beatin’ her.
I recall bumpin' into her at Woodman's Grocery Store on Christmas Eve and seein’ bruises on her right arm and on her knee, partially hidden by her skirt. Meanin’ well, I asked if she'd hurt herself exercisin’ or somethin’. She started to cry, and I don’t mean just a little boo-hoo. It was like, call a doctor, call a priest and have him perform an exorcism before her head starts to spin.
I ushered her out o' the store and into her silver Jag. Nobody ever claimed Nick was cheap. Between sobs she told me about the abuse she'd been subjected to. She asked if I'd follow her home. I told her I didn’t think that'd be too smart, but she started to beg. She said Nicholas would be at work until at least ten and that she couldn’t bear the thought o' bein’ alone. “Besides,” she said, “Don’t we have some unfinished business?”
Me little soldier was ready to go to war faster, with less provocation, and less thought about the consequences than Donald Rumsfeld. I followed Ramona over to her place and, at her insistence, went in for a drink, or two.
Pointin' at an expensive-lookin' sofa, she told me to make meself at home and suggested I put on some music while she slipped into somethin' a little more comfortable.
Ramona had on black, high heels that sank way down into the thick, red carpet that ran up the middle of the stairway. Payin’ far more attention to this lesson than the ones Mrs. Tinsdale taught in algebra class, I watched her glide up those stairs. Her right hand lightly balanced on the polished wooden banister that curved around as it rose towards the second floor.
When she reached the top of the stairs she turned to look back down. Seein’ that I was payin' close attention to her every move, she blew me a kiss and disappeared into her bedroom. I continued to stare for a minute, enchanted by what I'd just observed and wonderin' how she might appear when she came back out.
Rememberin' that Ramona asked me to pick out some music, I tore meself away from the foot o’ the stairs and browsed through the collection of vinyl LP’s and them new-fangled, compact discs that she and Nicholas had amassed. I came across a Joe Cocker CD that included “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” Rememberin' Kim Basinger dancin' in the buff to that tune in the movie, 9 1/2 Weeks, I nodded and slipped it into the CD player.
Hearin' her bedroom door open, I looked up. Wow. Ramona wore a startlingly low-cut, sea-foam-green gown that flowed off o' her shapely shoulders and cascaded over the curves of her body like a shimmerin’ waterfall down the side of a mountain.
“Well?” she asked. “Did you pick out any music?”
Now I know how helpless Ulysses and his sailors felt when they heard the voices of the Sirens. Righty, that's my right hand, hesitated above the button to start the CD. On that particular Christmas Eve, with Ramona waitin’ at the top o' the stairs, he warned me, “This is another man’s wife and another man’s home, James. Just because he isn’t expected until ten doesn’t mean he couldn’t walk through that door at any moment.”
Righty had a valid point, but what can I say? Young and dumb as they come, I whispered, “Sorry, Righty,” and pressed the play button.
As ole, raspy-throated Joe serenaded us, I told Ramona, "This is how Christmas should be." I remember thinkin' all o’ me troubles were behind me when the bedroom door flew open.
Whirlin' around, I fully expected to see Ramona’s husband, but I didn’t figure he’d be wearin’ a complete Santa suit. Nicholas Gypster staggered in earlier and more scuttered than anyone, other than Righty, anticipated.
I couldn't believe his stupid question. “What’sh going on here?” Trollied or not, if this Bozo couldn’t tell, I warn’t gonna pick him to be on my team the next time I played charades.
Nick pulled a gun out o' his pocket and, as if the cosmic mechanism that turns the world changed gears, everything slipped into slow motion. While Ramona continued to scream, everything turned Déjà vu-ish. The weapon looked startlin'ly familiar as Nick’s finger tightened on the trigger.
Slippin’ in and out o' consciousness I couldn’t figure out why I'd been handcuffed to the gurney, which I thought was a tiny lifeboat. I heard Nicholas say, "Yes," when the cops asked if he wanted to press charges. Then someone informed me that I had the right to an attorney. By the time we reached the hospital I couldn’t focus on nothin’. I closed me eyes and floated away on the good ship, Anesthesia.
When I came to, ‘stead o’ Ramona, one o' Chicago's boys in blue stared down at me. Although me throat felt terribly dry and me tongue seemed too thick, I managed to ask, “Are ya like, protectin’ me, or somethin’?”
“I’ve been assigned to guard you,” he replied.
I sighed a warm, Demerol-influenced sigh. Warn’t that nice? Concerned for me safety, the police stationed an officer in me room to look after me. Me smile inverted, however, as I wondered if Nicholas mighta got away. Worried that he might still be lookin’ to finish the job he'd started, I asked, “Did ya catch him?”
“The man who shot me, Nicholas Gypster.”
The officer replied, “Mr. Gypster hasn’t been charged with any crime, Mr. O’Malley.”
Durin’ the trial Ramona looked like a trapped, frightened animal, glancin’ over at me from the prosecutin’ attorney’s table. I knew Nicky made her say those horrible things about me. Three times she broke down cryin’ durin’ her testimony forcin’ the judge to announce a recess until she could go on. She warn’t cryin’ because of what I’d put her through, as the jury supposed. She broke down because she wanted to tell the truth, but couldn’t - not unless she wanted to be beaten within an inch of her life by Nick, the prick.
I’ll never forget that tall, skinny, jury foreman. He stood proud and straight in the corner of the jury box, holdin’ that slip of paper with me destiny scrawled on it. He seemed so certain he and his fellow jurors were renderin’ the right decision.
~ ~ ~
Six years later, shortly after bein’ released on parole, I ran into some high-school buddies who had done pretty well. Billy Maloney married into wealth and became the Deputy-Mayor of Joliet. The other, Jimmy Ferguson, inherited a successful road construction company from his dad. The state always seemed to have work for Jimmy’s crews.
They said they bought a bar on the upper-eastside of Chicago and needed someone to run it. For twenty years things sailed along smoother than a sailboat on Lake Michigan in summertime. The bar made money hand-over-fist until one day, me buddies said they were gonna sell the place. They asked if I might wanna buy it. I said, yeah. Three weeks later I owned the place. Three weeks after that, on Christmas Eve, the highway department unveiled their plans to build the new expressway.
~ ~ ~
A sleek, black Mercedes pulled into the handicapped parkin' slot near the front of me bar. As the driver's side door swung open I flicked the remainder of me self pity and what was left of me cigarette aside. I didn’t want to. I was addicted to both.
When I took me place behind the bar, I got a queasy feelin' in me gut. The driver of the Mercedes wore a Santa Clause suit - red hat, black boots and all. Even under the gold, wire-rimmed, round glasses and white beard I knew this man’s identity. “Well, Ho, Ho, Ho,” I mumbled, without a hint o’ jolly to it. Nicholas Gypster had come to see me. Why? I didn’t know.
~ ~ ~
“You ruined my life, you miserable bastard!”
Based on what you’ve learned so far, I’d imagine most of you assume this outburst came from me. I'da had every reason to shout those words at Nicky. On the other hand, there may be those who suppose those words coulda been screamed by ole Nick after almost three decades of ongoin’ marital problems that he mighta felt I initiated.
Well, you’re all wrong. Gunner shouted those words as he rose up from the puddle o’ drool and whiskey that served as his pillow. Through his bloodshot eyes, he believed he saw the man who transformed him from a respected police officer and happily-married man, into a drunken, bitter widower.
You might wanna grab some Kleenex for this part - I’m serious, it always tears me up. Three years to the day after I got shot in that alley behind Gypster's Jewelry, Nicholas’s father, Dave, and Gunner’s wife, Barbara, were both killed during a second heist.
Barbara’s boss told Gunner that Barbara had been worried sick about havin’ to work late at the License Renewal Department. Bein’ Christmas Eve, the office closed at three, but her supervisor asked her to do another forty-five minutes worth of work.
Bank records show she barely made it to the drive-thru in time to cash her paycheck. After countin’ it out, she headed across town, navigatin’ the slippery roads at what she normally woulda considered unsafe speeds. “Ice or no ice,” she told the bank teller, “I’ve gotta get to Gypsters.” She musta figured they’d be closin’ early like everybody does on Christmas Eve.
A friend of Barbara’s, walked out o’ Gypster’s as Barbara drove up and parked in front o’ the store. She said Barbara nearly cried with relief when she saw the open sign still flashin’.
Knowin' she'd only be a few minutes, Barbara still fumbled in her change purse, searchin’ for a quarter to insert in the parkin’ meter. Her friend remembered that the wind blowin’ in off of Lake Michigan was makin’ a complete mess of their hair. She suggested that Barbara should just go on in, and not worry about the parkin’ meter. She told Gunner that Barbara said, “It wouldn’t look right for the wife of a police officer to get a parkin’ ticket.”
The video monitors at the jewelry store showed the rest. Red-cheeked from the bitin’ cold and breathin’ a big, happy sigh ‘cause she'd made it in time, Barbara brushed her hair out o’ her eyes and mouth. She pulled some money from the right hip pocket of her bulky, wool coat and laid two twenties and a ten on the counter. Fifty bucks would pay the balance due on the sentimental gift she'd selected for her husband and, soon to be, father of their first child.
Mr. Gypster punched the appropriate key for layaways and tucked the bills into the register. He reached down below the register and grabbed a blue, felt box. ‘Stead o’ simply handin’ it to Barbara, Dave musta felt compelled to come out from behind the counter.
The store’s video monitor system didn’t have audio capability, but lip readin’ experts figured out most o' what was said. I tried readin' the transcript once and couldn't finish it, but Gunner's told me the story a hundred times. Sometimes he breaks down and starts cryin' in the middle. Sometimes I do. Sometimes we both start bawlin'.
Handin’ the receipt and the box to Barbara, Dave said, “Did you know I sold your Dad the engagement and wedding ring set he gave your mother?”
“Yeah, Dad told me that, Mr. G.”
“He did, huh?” Gypster nodded. “Well, you tell your mom she can bring those rings in anytime for a free cleaning. She can bring any of her jewelry in and we’ll clean it, whether it was purchased here or not.”
“Mom still gets compliments on that ring. She said you’d do a good job on the engraving for me.”
“So how long, now, before the baby’s due, Barbara?”
“Doc says three months.” She beamed with all the radiance a healthy, expectant mother could exude. Carefully, she lifted the pocket-watch out of the box and inspected the inscription. “All my love, for all time - Barbara.” It was perfect. Evidently imaginin' how pleased her husband would be, she was smilin’ from ear to ear when the door that led to the back offices burst open.
A man wearin’ a Santa Clause suit emerged from the area where Dave and his employees worked beyond the view of browsin’ shoppers. Brandishin’ a short-barreled pistol in his gloved right hand, the bandit bellowed something like, “Nobody moves!” The beard that he wore made it almost impossible for the lip readers to be certain about what he said.
With his hands in front of him, held palms out in a calmin’ gesture, Dave started movin’ toward the silent alarm that could be activated by the button under the counter. He said, “Settle down mister. I’ll give you all of the money in the register. There’s a lot!”
The robber pointed the gun at Dave, freezin’ him in his tracks. He waved him away and evidently said he would get the money, himself. Again, with the fake beard obscurin’ most o’ his mouth, nobody can be sure what he said.
Dave shook his head and plainly said, “No, let me get it.” He turned toward the brass antique register and reached for the alarm button when the burglar fired twice.
Thrown back, Dave slammed into the wall, knockin’ the glass-framed, tax I. D. certificate that held the store’s first collected dollar to the floor. Clutchin’ at the chest of his white shirt that was turnin’ red as rapidly as his normally red face was turnin' white, Dave managed to stay on his feet and staggered forward. With considerable effort he coughed up one final word, “Why?”
He began to sag, slidin’ down behind the counter. Before he collapsed, he managed to do one, last thing. He pressed the silent alarm.
Barbara screamed, her eyes bulgin’. Made awkward and slow by her watermelon-sized belly, she lunged for the door, but the counterfeit Santa jerked her back. He grabbed a fistful of her long, brown hair. She lost her balance and tumbled in a clumsy heap to the floor. Big tears began to flow from Barbara’s eyes. Her chin trembled as she struggled to sit up.
With her husband’s new pocket-watch held tightly against her chest, she begged the red-suited bandit to let her live. “I’m pregnant!” she wailed, starin’ up at the snub nosed, .38 caliber revolver. “Please, don’t shoot me! Please!”
Less than four minutes elapsed from the time the alarm went off to the moment when the first policeman, Gunner, arrived on the scene. The suspect was gone. Gunner’s wife, Barbara Wysocki, was already dead, shot twice - once in the head and once in the stomach. The empty box the pocket-watch came in lay on the floor in a spreadin' pool o' dark blood.
Law enforcement experts scratched their heads. They called it a clean getaway. Since the jewelry store security system lacked audio capability, voice analysts couldn’t identify the suspect. The lip readers said Barbara hadn’t known her killer. She had simply begged for her life. Most felt that the killer would never be found.
Gunner didn’t agree. He said he didn’t care how long it took, he would find him. He would find him and he’d kill him. He’d find him in hell if he had to wait that long, but he would find him.
Now, as he looked up, Gunner saw a gold pocket-watch in the white-gloved, left hand of the inebriated Santa. The pocket-watch looked exactly like the one his wife purchased. Convinced that Gypster killed Barbara, Gunner shouted again, “You ruined my life, you miserable bastard!” and then coldly added, “I’ve waited a long time for this.” He struggled to his feet, stumblin’ and almost fallin’ as he reached beneath his jacket, fumblin’ for the gun nestled in the concealed holster he wore.
Nicholas Gypster wasted no time stuffin’ the watch back into his pants. He pulled a gun from the right-side pocket of his Santa jacket. Squintin’ and grittin’ his teeth, Gypster squeezed that trigger again and again, wishin’ death with each pull, but the gun never fired a single shot.
After about ten clicks from the firin’ hammer fallin’ on empty chambers, he stopped and stared at the revolver in total disbelief. “It’sh not shooting,” he slurred. “I know I loaded it, but . . .” Stupefied, he stared down the end of the short barrel, tryin’ to figure out what coulda gone wrong.
Flashing a wry smile, Gunner said, “Ain’t that a bitch? Gun won’t fire, huh? No bullets?” He raised his own weapon and said, “Here, I’ll let you have one of mine.” Without hesitation he fired a single shot into the middle of Nicholas Gypster’s forehead, droppin’ him on the spot.
Gunner walked forward, bent down, and reached into the left pocket of the red Santa suit. He pulled out the watch, examined it, and said, “This looks like the watch Barbara bought for me.” After a moment of silence he added, “The one I never got.” He flipped it over. The frozen expression of hate he’d presented to St. Nick melted away. A mixture of love and loss replaced the contempt as he stared at the engraved inscription with watery eyes. A single tear trickled down the side of his face. Finally, he stuffed the watch into his pants pocket.
Noddin' in recognition of a job well done, Gunner cleared his throat and said, “Now that’s what I call a classic case of self defense.” He shoved his gun back into its holster, and went back to his favorite table. He collapsed onto his chair and beckoned to me. “Scuzz-meister, call the gendarmes. And if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, bring me a mug of coffee . . . black.”
Ready to make Gunner’s coffee, I came 'round the corner o’ the bar and noticed me cell phone’s voicemail light blinkin’. Realizin’ I’d set it on silent and had the vibrate intensity too low, I winced when I saw eleven voice mails. They were all from Ramona. Eleven? I changed the settings and it started to ring before I could hit the button to call her back. Ramona doesn’t give up easy.
“Why haven’t you been answering your phone?” She shouted. “Is he there, yet?”
“Well, I had it set on silent, and yeah, I assume you’re referrin’ to your husband?”
“Scuzzy, he’s there to kill you! Get your ass out of there!”
“Ramona, I gotta call you back. I gotta call the police . . .”
“No, Scuzzy, No!” She insisted. “He’s killed before. He won’t hesitate to do it again!”
I was so intent on gettin’ her to listen to me that I hadn’t paid any attention to what she said. “Ramona, stop. Just stop, will ya? He’s dead!” Then, what she had said sunk in. “Wait a minute, what‘d you just say?”
“I said he’s killed before, and . . .” Hyperventilating on the other end, Ramona suddenly stopped and went silent. Her next words were, “Wait a minute, Scuzzy, what‘d you just say?”
“I said, he’s dead.”
The silence made me think the phone had dropped the call, but then she came back. “He’s dead?” She had understood, but it hadn’t registered. Again, she asked, “He’s dead?” A smidgeon of hope crept into her voice. “Really?”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “Yeah, he’s really dead. Gunner shot ‘im.”
Gunner yelled from his table, “Scuzzy, are you gonna call the police, or what?”
Wavin’ to indicate my intentions of gettin’ off the phone, I pressed it harder against me ear and questioned Ramona, “You said he’s killed before? You didn’t say nothin’ 'bout that last night. So, how do you know that, and who’d he kill?”
“I’m coming down there,” she insisted.
“No, Ramona, just stay where you are. The police are bound to call you. Hang on.” I turned around to Gunner, who looked really annoyed, and asked, “Hey, the cops will call Gypster’s wife, won’t they?”
“Fuckin’ A,” Gunner replied, “but not ‘til you get around to calling them, so they’ll know her husband is dead!” I was about to say somethin' else to Ramona, but was stopped by me sharp-shootin’ partner, who shouted, “Barkeep!”
“Whaaaat?” Now I was the annoyed one.
Gunner shouted again, loud enough, I thought, to wake the dead, although the drunk in the back booth never stirred, which by the way he never had - not even when the shootin' occurred. “Coffee, and then call the police! Okay?”
Ramona sounded frantic. “Scuzzy, are you still there?”
“Yeah, yeah, Ramona, I’m here. Look, maybe you oughtta get down here. I gotta call the cops.” I closed the phone, slipped it into my pocket, and turned to Gunner. He struggled to his feet again and pointed at the coffee machine. “Okay,” I said. “Now for the coffee!”
“’Bout time,” Gunner replied. He walked ‘round the pool table, steadying himself by usin’ the side rails for a brace. As he approached Gypster’s body, he said, “Don’t worry about calling the cops. By the time you do, someone will have already come in to investigate the stink of a rotting corpse.” He bent over and raised the white, blood-flecked, ball of fur at the tip of the floppy red cap that lay across the dead man’s nose and mouth. He flipped the ball to the back of Gypster’s head, pulled the fake beard down, and gazed into the pale, lifeless face. “I oughtta shoot him again,” he sneered. He mighta, had the front door not swung open.
Pete, from down the street, walked in. Thin as a toothpick - drug addict thin, Pete never seemed stoned when he dropped by. Not only had he never mentioned his last name, he'd never said anythin’ about himself, like what he did to get by. “Hey guys,” Pete started out. “Weatherman says we got a storm headed . . .” then he saw Gypster’s body and said, “Whoa!” His bug-eyed stare switched back and forth from the body, to Gunner, to me, then back to the body. “What’s goin on here?”
Gunner answered matter-of-factly, “I shot this guy who was getting ready to shoot me and Scuzzy.”
“Yeah? Well, tell me how that played out. And then, Gunner, I wanna know what you’re doin’ walkin’ around more than half sober?”
Gunner flipped him off and replied, “I think he thought Scuzz was bonin’ his old lady.” He turned towards me, expectin’ me to back him up. “Right Scuzz? Ain’t that what you told me last night?”
I warn’t thrilled with Gunner’s lack of compunction in sharin’ the intimate details of me personal life. Clumsily, I attempted to defend meself. “Uh, yeah, I mean, no. I warn’t bonin” his old lady, but I, uh . . ." I shrugged. "Yeah, I think that’s why he was here.”
I regretted ever openin’ my yap last night and tellin’ Gunner about Ramona’s unexpected visit. Funny thing about that – Gunner hadn’t seemed very surprised. He sorta acted like he already knew she had been here. But maybe it was just the booze dullin' his senses.
Normally, he'da been here the previous night. He woulda seen Ramona come in, assuming he hadn't passed out. But he called and said his old junk heap wouldn’t start. He said he was havin’ it towed to his brother’s gas station. They were gonna work on it and get drunk together. Since leavin’ the police department, car repairs and an occasional missin’ person case are Gunner’s sources of income.
If you’re wonderin’ why I woulda trusted Gunner with that delicate information, it’s because I trust him more than anyone.
When I got me chance to buy this place, me bein’ a felon and all, I never coulda got a liquor license if not for Gunner agreein’ to be me partner. I coughed up the money for the down payment and legal fees, but his name appeared on the application for the liquor license.
I’ve never forgotten that, but he plays it down. Says he figured I’d let him drink for free and allow him to sleep it off here each night. That’s not all - get this. Durin’ the years before they finished the effin’ expressway and the bar still made money, Gunner never let me cut him in on the profits - never once. But after things got bad, when I didn’t have the scratch to pay me bills, he paid what I couldn’t afford out o’ the big insurance settlement he got after Barbara was murdered. Now, is that a great friend or what?
While I made the coffee I commented that it’d been a while since I’d had a dead body on me barroom floor. “It’s only happened once before," I said. "A coupl’a years ago. An old man, geez, he must’a been over 80, was playin’ pool with one o' his buddies and just keeled over. Coroner's report listed natural causes.”
"Gotta look out for them natural causes," Pete agreed. "They can kill ya."
Pete flipped his cell phone open and dialed 9-1-1. He sounded ready to give his name and then suddenly decided not to, for reasons unknown, “Uh, this is, uh, uh, I’m calling to report there’s been a shooting at Scuzzy O' Malley's and a man is dead.” Pete gave the cops the bar’s address and added, “It’s Nicholas Gypster, the jewelry store owner. He’s dead.”
“Whiskey?” I asked, as Pete closed his cell.
“Yeah, that’ll do,” Pete replied, settlin’ onto one o’ me five barstools. The cracked, red plastic seat cushions badly needed recoverin’.
I was pourin’ a shot when the front door swung open again. Another one o’ me regulars stepped in - Darnell Jefferson. Danglin’ 'round his neck, Darnell always wore a pair of flyin’ goggles, the way most folks wear a gold necklace or a chain. Covering his bald head, he wore a Christmas-green-and-red, knitted beanie. Darnell unzipped his beat-up, old leather bomber-jacket that looked like it went through World War I and II, and nodded when Gunner called out, “Look who’s here, Scuzzy, it’s the Tuskegee Airman, himself.”
Darnell waved, halfheartedly, at Gunner before spying the dead Santa on the floor. “Sheee-it” he exclaimed. “What’s this, Scuzzbag, some new kind of holiday decoration?”
“Yeah,” Gunner answered for me. “You should’a got here earlier. It was full of hot air, like one of those big lawn decorations, but it developed a leak.”
“You need to see if you can get your fuckin’ money back,” Darnell suggested.
Still perched on his stool, Pete swiveled towards Darnell and pointed at Gypster. “You know who that is, don’t you?” He waited while Darnell bent to get a closer look and added, “I called the police. They oughtt’a be here any minute.”
Squintin’ as he stared into Santa’s glazed eyes, Darnell said, “Ain’t that the ‘If you didn’t buy at Gypster’s, you got gypped’ guy, from the jewelry store commercials?”
“Yeah, that’s him,” I said. “I think he came here to kill me.”
Standin’ back up, Darnell turned to me and asked, “Why would he want to kill you, Scuzzy?”
Pete answered for me. “Scuzz was porkin’ his old lady.”
“No Shit?” Darnell shook his head, starin’ at me like I shoulda had more sense.
Outside, sirens wailed, headed in our direction. Before the first cop got out of his squad car, the meat wagon pulled up and parked behind them. A couple of TV news vans screeched to a halt behind the ambulance. Painted in blue, WGN’s logo adorned the side of one. WLS appeared on the other, in red.
The first cop that came in seemd as nervous as a new inmate taking his first prison shower. In a high-pitched, Barney Fife voice, he commanded everyone to stand back. Then he planted his hands on his hips and asked if anyone touched the body.
Swivelin’ back and forth on their respective barstools, Pete and Darnell seemed intimidated, but not me. Standin’ behind the counter, I stared down at the floor, shakin’ me head and grimacin’. I knew, for sure, what was comin’ next.
I winced as me partner raised his right hand and waved it to get the young cop’s attention. Once he had it, he confessed in a loud voice, “I touched him officer. After I shot him, I rolled him over, pulled his red pants and boxers down, and rear-ended him once, real good. But that’s all. Then I pulled his britches back up and pretty much got him back in the same position he died in. That’s not gonna cause a problem is it? I mean, I can go now, right?”
Gunner's pretty subdued when he’s drunk, which is most of the time. But when he starts to sober up he has a tendency to say things.
Pete and Darnell looked like a couple of owls. Their eyes got big and their heads swiveled back and forth from Gunner to the cop, to me, to the dead man on the floor, and then back to each other again. Gunner’s statement froze Barney Fife in his tracks.
He was standin' there like a statue, lookin’ shocked, when the detective-in-charge lumbered in. Wearin’ a tan, full-length camel overcoat and a classic fur felt, Stetson fedora, the chief was a tall guy. I’m guessin’ he’s about six-four, tippin’ the scales 'round two-fifty. Judgin’ by the closely cropped, gray hair below the rim of his hat and his tired, weather-worn face, he’s pushin' sixty.
I could tell by lookin’ at him that he'd seen it all during his time on the force. He surveyed the joint, catalogued the faces, and stared down at the body. “Don’t just stand there with your donut-hole open, Mahoney," he barked. "Start taking statements.”
Gunner couldn’t leave well enough alone and blurted out, “Yeah, Mahoney. What are you waiting for, Christmas?”
That got the chief’s attention. He turned towards Gunner. “Who are you, sir?” he inquired.
“Daniel Wysocki,” Gunner responded with a half-assed salute in his typical, smart-assed manner. “Licensed P. I., retired from the Chicago P. D. after becoming seriously P. O ‘ed. I’m your only suspect in what, to you, may appear to be a homicide case, but will ultimately prove to be a case of self-defense.” Gunner voluntarily withdrew his pistol from his shoulder-holster, laid it on the pool table and raised his hands, signifying surrender.
Sizin' up his suspect, the detective’s eyes narrowed. “Wysocki, huh?” The chief rubbed his cheek and said, “That name rings a bell for some reason.” He ordered Mahoney to bag the gun, motioned for Gunner to sit back down, and turned with the rest of us toward the sound of the front door openin’ to see who else was joinin’ the party.
One of the news crews pushed through the door before the detective could say a word. A big, hi-def camera with a blindingly bright light perched on the shoulder of one guy, while another, holdin’ a microphone, cleared his throat and started rehearsin' his intro for this late breakin’, Christmas Eve news story. “For WGN this is Jerry Vanderwall on Chicago’s east side, where Nicholas Gypster, owner of Gypster’s Jewelry has been shot to death.” He turned to the camera-totin’ newsperson who wore a padded set of headphones and asked, “Did you get that Benny? How’re the sound levels? Is the lighting okay?”
The cameraman nodded and said, “Yeah Jerry, no prob, buddy.” I didn't know how long Benny had been away from the Bronx, but his accent had stuck. “Lemme get a close-up here, real quick.” Jerry moved out of the way and stood by the front door, clearin’ his throat, while his partner focused on the corpse, zoomin’ in with his big lens. Walkin’ around to get different angles, he said, “Oh yeah, oooh,” and “Oh baby,” like he was shootin’ a nude centerfold.
“Be careful there, Benny,” the chief cautioned. “Don’t touch anything. You know the crime scene rules, this isn’t your first dance.”
“Yeah, chief, I do know da rules,” Benny assured him. “Like you said, dis ain’t my first dance, so uh, couldja waltz back a step or two? Lemme get in, real tight, okay?”
“Benny,” Vanderwall asked, “how would it sound if I wrapped this piece up saying something like . . ." he cleared his throat. "A bright career comes to a dark conclusion? I like that - it’s gritty. What do you think, huh? I think it sizzles, man. What a night, huh? First we get to do the Isaac Stern, Porno-Principal story, and now this! I love Christmas!" Boilin' over with enthusiasm, he pumped his fist. "I got a great idea! We can call this piece, Eastside Santacide, or how about, Who shot Santa? Whadya think, huh?”
I blinked as a segment of the newscaster’s words resonated in me mind. “Isaac Stern, Porno- Principal?” No way, I thought. Not my old principal. Man, talk about your Christmas miracles! First, justice for Gypster, and now I find out that Stern got what I always knew he deserved. Lefty slapped the side of me face to make sure I was awake.
“'Scuse me!” I shouted from behind the counter. Vanderwall looked around. I could be wrong, but judgin’ by his expression I’da swore he thought I wanted his autograph.
He gave me a receptive smile, and asked, “May I help you, sir?” I’ll be damned if he warn’t fumblin’ around in his suit jacket, no doubt for a pen.
“Mr. Vanderwall,” I inquired, “Did I just hear you say somethin' about my old high school principal?”
I knew it. His attitude fell from affable to annoyed in one fell swoop. He seemed disappointed that I didn’t want an autograph. But bein’ a pro, he coughed once and recovered. “Was your old high school Principal Isaac Stern at Roosevelt High?”
“Yeah, that's the guy,” I nodded.
“Then you’re right. I was talking about your school’s principal.”
“I’m not sure I heard you right,” I said. “What'd you say about him?”
Vanderwall always spoke in that ring-announcer voice. After clearin’ his throat again, he answered in deep, rich tones, “He was arrested late this afternoon on charges of possession and distribution of child pornography and solicitation of sex from a minor who is a current student.”
Benny, the cameraman, turned towards me and added, “The man is a bonafide sick-o.” I wasn’t quite sure if Benny meant Stern or Vanderwall, so I just nodded. He was probably right, either way.
Meanwhile, a second cameraman, this one from another news crew, made his way to just inside the front door and turned back towards his station’s van, kneelin’ to capture the right angle for the appearance of the breath-takin’, Sharon Sanders. The self- proclaimed, “Diva of Dirt,” had a mid-day show on WLS.
More sure-footed in her red, five-inch Prada heels than I am in my old, worn-out Hush Puppies, she glided down the three steps from the van and crossed the street, oozin’ confidence, charisma, and the kind of jaw-droppin’ sex appeal that made men and women alike turn their heads and stare in awe.
With all eyes on her, except Nicky’s, and even he might have stolen a glance, the celebrity strolled into the bar wearin’ a sparklin’, Christmas-red dress. She brushed past Benny and Jerry as if they warn’t even there. Leanin’ across the bar, she squeezed her way between Pete and Darnell. Assumin’ a provocative posture that revealed a hell of a lot of cleavage, she lifted the microphone in her right hand to her fat, crimson, collagen-enhanced lips.
“'Excuse me, mister rugged, good-looking bartender,” she said in a bawdy, Mae West, bedroom kind’a voice. “What’s your name and what do you do here?” She batted her mascara-laden eyelashes.
I opened my mouth and managed to say, “O’Malley, I run the place,” before Gunner let loose with a loud, wolf whistle. Damn, I wish he hadn’t done that. I was mortified, but Sharon seemed to take it in stride. She focused on me, the only evidence that she’d heard Gunner bein’ a slight widenin’ of her eyes and archin’ of her perfectly tweezed brows.
With everybody watchin’, waitin’ to see what I'd say, me throat suddenly felt parched. I looked away and coughed once before saying, “Please, ma’am, forgive me partner. He’s under a great deal of stress this evenin’.”
“No problem,” she said with a smirk, “I get that all the time. By the way, what does he do here - I mean besides shoot customers and embarrass you?”
Overhearin’ the question, Gunner shouted, “I sit around waitin’ for big-tittied, talk-show hostesses to wiggle into this bar and bend over in front of me.”
More owl-eyed than ever, Pete and Darnell swiveled back around on their barstools towards Gunner.
“Don’t worry ‘bout a thing, Scuzz,” my partner waved from his chair, “I’ll tell her what I do.” With the lights from both news departments’ cameras trained on him, Gunner proudly proclaimed, “I’m the head of the human relations department, here. I conduct sensitivity and sexual harassment seminars for our employees.”
Pete and Darnell burst out laughin’. So did officer Mahoney, ‘til he caught the chief detective’s eye. That broke his giggle box.
A commotion at the front door interrupted Sharon’s attempt to interview me. Another of my regulars, a guy I call Dirty Harry was tryin' to come in and was bein’ blocked by one of the cops. I call Harry, Dirty Harry, because of the nature of his business. He owns the massage parlor across the street. Tonight, Harry was accompanied by Mustang Sally, a freckle-faced, red-headed whore. Her moniker is based on the fact that she spends her time drivin’ around town, pickin’ up “dates” in a meticulously maintained, metal-flake-orange, 1965 Mustang.
“Let them in!” I shouted. “He’s a regular customer of mine. So is she.”
The chief detective stepped over to the bar. “Nobody’s coming in and nobody’s leaving 'til we say so.”
“So, who died and made you king?” I asked, squintin’ to read the name on his badge. “Look here, Detective Wary, you can’t keep my customers —"
“Not only can I keep your customers out, O’Malley,” Wary growled, “but I can shut down your little shit-hole bar and arrest you for interfering with a homicide investigation.”
“Homicide?” I cried out. “Homicide? This ain't no homicide, you blitherin’ idiot! This is a case of self defense!”
“Oh sure, and who says so, besides the man who did the shooting and you?”
Our attention turned to the front door again. Dirty Harry started to scuffle with the cop posted outside. The cop pushed Harry and he took exception to the shove. He reciprocated with a harder push, accompanied by a foul-mouthed barrage of support from his refined escort. Sally shouted, “Get out of our way, you overpaid, putrid piece of pig shit!”
After a few more pushes and more eloquent metaphors from Sally, the shit really hit the fan. We had ourselves a full-blown donnybrook. All we needed to properly augment the evening’s entertainment was a fiddle and an Irish penny-whistle, so’s we could have a lively rendition of “The Fox and the Hound.”
As officer Mahoney and Detective Wary hustled through the door to give their guy a hand, I prayed none of ‘em would get thrown through the plate-glass front window. They were followed outside by Benny, the WGN cameraman, and Jerry Vanderwall.
Jerry stood in the doorway, warnin’ Benny not to get too close, while Sharon shouted orders to her cameraman, whom she referred to as Phil. “Get your ass out there!” she screamed.
Pete and Darnell jumped off of their stools, like they might be about to join the fracas until I got their attention by sayin’, “No sense in gettin’ arrested tonight, boyos. We can enjoy the fight from in here. How ‘bout another drink, lads?” They nodded and sat back down, pushin’ their shot glasses to within my reach.
I glanced over to check on Gunner, worried that he might get involved, and just about had a heart attack. He was gone! Not only that, but the back door was wide open!
“Where’s Gunner?” I shouted to Pete and Darnell.
“I’ll check the john,” Darnell offered. He pulled his goggles over his eyes, like a pilot goin' into combat.
“I’ll go out back and see if he’s in the alley,” Pete shouted, already headed in that direction.
In the blink of a fake eyelash Sharon Sanders made her decision as to whether she should follow Pete or stay and watch what developed out front. She raced over to the front door, pushed Jerry Vanderwall out of the way, and grabbed her cameraman, Phil, by the collar. They were both racin’ back through the bar towards the back door when Phil’s foot caught the tip of our dead Santa’s black boot, causin’ him to go sprawlin’, hi-definition camera and all, just as Gunner and Darnell came walkin’ out of the men’s room.
“Can’t a man drain his lizard without everyone coming unglued? I was shaking the dew off my lily when Tuskegee, here, comes running in with his goggles on, ready for action.” Gunner grunted as he bent down to help the cameraman. Seein’ Sharon standin’ there tryin’ to catch her breath, with her prodigious chest heavin’, Gunner grinned and asked, “What’s wrong, sugar-tits, d’ja miss me?”
“Yeah,” Sharon countered. “Like a nasty, urinary-tract infection."
“I’m hurt,” Gunner complained, placin’ his hand over his heart, “really hurt.”
Sharon pointed her microphone at Gunner and nodded to Phil who had hoisted his camera back up on his shoulder. “Do you have any idea who that man was that you shot?” she asked.
“Yeah, I do. He was the guy that killed my wife and unborn child.”
Sharon turned to Phil. “Are you getting this? Is that camera okay?”
Phil nodded from behind the camera’s viewfinder. “Yeah, the image is clear. The sound’s good.”
Sharon turned back to Gunner. “What do you mean by saying he killed your wife and unborn child?”
Gunner reached into his pants, probably preparin’ to show her the pocket-watch, when the thing I feared would happen finally did. Swingin’ ‘round and ‘round like a pair of figure skaters in the Winter Olympics, Dirty Harry and his blue-uniformed dance partner exploded through the plate glass, front window. They tumbled over the bottom of the sill, onto the barroom floor, sendin’ glitterin’ safety glass crystals in all directions. While the rest of us ducked, they continued to struggle, rollin’ over and over, poundin’ on each other. Finally, they rolled right onto our dearly-departed Santa.
Detective Wary threw his hands up in the air and cried out, “Ah, for the love of Mike! Look where you’re going, will you?”
Everybody in the bar, ‘cept me, cheered’ for their favorite. Sharon gave up on tryin’ to speak to Gunner for the moment and started shoutin’ with everyone else. I stayed behind the bar, tryin’ to figure how I’d be able to afford gettin’ that window boarded up and replaced.
Also, I wondered why it was takin’ so damn long for Ramona to show up? I knew she still lived in Gypster’s big house behind the jewelry store. Her backyard fence bordered the alley I was walkin’ down when I got shot at the age of fifteen. I didn’t have to worry about her whereabouts very long, though, because right that minute, here she came. The headlights of her silver Jaguar shined straight into the bar through the glassless, front window panel.
‘Cept for the cop on the floor, all the other cops raced outside. They converged on Ramona like ants at a picnic, wavin’ and tellin’ her she couldn’t park there. Even Dirty Harry and his wrestlin’ partner stopped tryin’ to kill each other. They got up, curious to see where everybody went and why all the shoutin’ died down.
Ramona rolled down her window. “That’s my husband lying dead in there. I’m Mrs. Nicholas Gypster.”
That must’a been the password. She parked and proceeded to parade through the bar’s front door with Detective Wary trailin’ close behind, wavin’ a notepad he held high in the air, sayin’, “Mrs. Gypster, Mrs. Gypster, we have a few questions, Mrs. Gypster. If you’ll just answer a few . . .” He fell quiet as Ramona reached her dead husband’s body.
Talk about a Kodak moment. On one side of our deceased Santa stood Ramona, hands on hips, with a harsh look on her face, wearin’ a white ermine jacket over a flowin’ green dress and matchin’ green, patent leather Manoloblahniks. On the other side, Sharon Sanders completed the picture in her bright red, low-cut dress and red Pradas, holding out her microphone.
“Tell us what you’re feeling, Mrs. Gypster,” Sharon prodded, “grief, guilt,” she paused to dramatize her last option, nodding knowingly as she added, “or maybe greed? After all, you stand to inherit several million dollars.”
Ramona looked up and replied, “Anger, Sharon. Quite frankly, I feel angry.”
“Tell us more,” Sanders urged. “Tell us what you’re angry about.”
“I’m angry that a shit-stirrin’ bitch like you is stickin’ a microphone in my face and askin’ me a god-damned question like that at a time like this!”
Darnell jumped up from his barstool, pumped his fist, and shouted, “You go girl!”
Pete, who had come back in from the alley, added further support. “Yeah, girl, don’t take no shit from her!”
Caught up in the moment, I shook a fist in the air and yelled out, “Yeah, kick her ass, Ramona!”
Sanders spun around and came after me. Stickin’ the microphone back in me face, she accused more than asked, “You know this woman?”
Blinkin’ and squintin’ as the bright light from Phil’s hi-def camera blinded me, I looked away and said, “Since high school.”
“Hey, wait a minute!” Detective Wary stepped up behind Sanders. “I think I remember you. You wouldn’t be the O’Malley that Nicholas Gypster shot roughly thirty years ago, would you?” When I didn’t answer, he continued, “You’re the one that broke into their house and tied Mrs. Gypster up, aren’t you?”
Oh, great! This registered about a ten on the old, fuck-me meter. Why couldn’t this gray-haired, retirement-home, poster-child of a fat, geriatric cop have been one of those who developed memory loss at an early age?
“What’d you do, O’Malley, lure Gypster here?” Wary poked a finger into me chest and asked, “Was this your way of getting revenge for him catching you assaulting his old lady?” Man, the chief really thought he was onto something.
“Hold on there, Detective Wary,” shouted Gunner.
Both of the cameramen swiveled around as me partner stood up for me.
“Thirty years ago, Mr. O’Malley may have intended to boink the bejesus out of Mrs. Gypster . . .” At this point I wasn’t sure if Gunner was helpin' me or not. I held my breath as he continued, “But what you don’t know is that my partner entered her bedroom at Mrs. Gypster’s request. She never testified so in court because Nicky threatened her life, and she probably knew that he had killed before.
The look of incredulity on Chief Wary’s face was classic.
“Thank you Denny Crane,” I cried out. The cameras turned back toward me. “What was I gonna do?” I asked, “I couldna say anythin’ that might get Ramona hurt. Gypster had beaten her black and blue already to get her to say those things about me.”
“Is that true, Mrs. Gypster?” The Chief asked.
“Yes,” Ramona nodded. “I invited Scuzzy, uh, er, Mr. O’Malley up to my bedroom on Christmas Eve, thirty years ago.” I heard relief in her voice. Finally she could talk about what happened. “Nicholas threatened to kill me if I said anything in court, and I knew he was capable of it.” Her emotions were beginnin’ to get the best of her, makin’ it difficult to continue. “He used to get drunk and beat the shit out of me. You see, he got drunk one night and told me about how he murdered . . .”
Oh, no…Ramona began to cry. Don’t let this be one o’ her Niagra Falls impressions, I thought. She brought both hands up to cover her eyes. She turned away from the cameras and bent forward, her shoulders shakin’ as she sobbed.
Benny looked up briefly from his viewfinder to see Jerry, and couldn’t believe his eyes. Jerry had a hanky out and was handin’ it to Ramona. “You poor thing,” Jerry said, puttin’ an arm around her shoulder. “You poor, poor thing. How terrible it must have been for you.”
Ramona dabbed at her eyes and blew her nose before saying, “Thank you.” She handed the soppin’-wet handkerchief back to Jerry, who eyed it as if he didn’t really want it back. Evidently not knowin’ what else to do with it, he grimaced and stuffed it into his pants pocket.
Attemptin’ to get Ramona to face the camera again, Jerry placed his hands on her shoulders and began to turn her slowly, sayin’ “There, there . . . tell us what happened. You said something about a murder. Now, Mrs. Gypster, tell us what you meant when you said that . . . What murder?”
Before she could speak, Gunner interrupted, “The murder this miserable son-of-a-bitch committed. That’s what murder. The Christmas Eve murder of my wife, Barbara and our unborn child. And the murder of Dave Gypster, his own father.”
By now, a wide-eyed, Officer Mahoney held a tiny recorder, gettin’ every word. The cops that opened the alley door came back in and stood behind the chief, sayin’ they found nothin’ that they felt could be useful.
Dirty Harry and his buddin’ lexicographer, Mustang Sally, were standin’ next to the cop with whom Harry had rumbled. The officer held two teeth in his right palm. Awed by what he was hearin’ and because his mouth hurt, his jaw hung open, exposin’ the empty spaces where his teeth had been.
Sharon Sanders gritted her teeth, pissed that WGN’s Jerry Vanderwall had stolen the spotlight.
Pete from down the street swiveled back and forth on his barstool, until I quietly reminded him that he chose the one that occasionally fell off its pedestal. Darnell leaned forward on his, takin’ everything in through his flyin’ goggles.
The unconscious drunk remained in the back booth and, oh yeah, St. Nick? He was still deader than a box of rocks. I hadn’t had this many people in me bar at one time in months and I couldn’t sell a single friggin' drink.
With the plate glass window bein’ shattered, the bar was gettin’ cold pretty fast. You could feel chilly little puffs of wind sneakin’ in for a quick peek around and then runnin’ back out to tell their siblin’ breezes they oughtta go in as well.
Ramona continued to cry, coverin’ her face so the cameras wouldn’t reveal how her runnin’ mascara transformed her into an Alice Cooper look-alike. “Oh Scuzzy,” she sobbed, “I was so scared for you. I called your cell twenty times, but I kept getting your voice mail.”
Sharon charged in. “Does this mean that the two of you arranged this whole thing - set some kind of elaborate trap so Mrs. Gypster would inherit a fortune and you two could be together with no husband to interfere?” Waitin’ for an answer, the talk show hostess held the microphone out stiffly with both hands like some new kind of divinin’ rod capable of discoverin’ truth, or scandal, instead o’ water.
Ramona stopped cryin’, which surprised me. She got a strange look on her mascara-smeared face and turned to confront the toast of the talk shows. I urged her to take it easy, saying “Ramona, calm down, now. Don’t do anythin’ foolish.”
In a squeaky, tension strained voice, she replied, “Foolish? Me?” She proceeded to slap the mike out of Sharon’s hands and snatched the blonde wig right off of her head. Almost before the suddenly brown-haired Sanders could scream, “You Biiiitch!” they were both down on the floor, scratchin’ and bitin’ and cussin’ worse than Dirty Harry and the cop that guarded the front door.
After takin’ a coupl’a good right hands, Sharon’s collagen filled lips puffed up like an inflatable life preserver. Ramona also blackened one of her eyes and left a series of scratches down her right cheek.
Ramona fared better, but wasn’t unscathed. She suffered some wicked scratches on her neck and right arm, and a vicious bite mark on her left forearm.
Sharon Sanders resolved that she wouldn’t be guilty of doin’ what she had seen so many losers do with their lives. She wasn’t about to quit that Christmas Eve. She wouldn’t be beaten to a pulp by some cheatin’ bitch in her early fifties, about to inherit millions. Somehow, she knew this Christmas Eve story would be shown everywhere and would be talked about for years to come. This piece would be her launching pad - the one to put her over the top! They would have to carry her out before she would give up . . . which is exactly what two paramedics did about three minute later.
The two gals were swingin’ away with all the accuracy of Dick Cheney on a Texas quail hunt. Blood streamed from Sharon’s nose and lips, a fair amount had spattered the ermine jacket that Ramona wore.
That’s what gave Ramona the edge she needed. Later, she confided to me that when she saw Sharon’s blood all over her beautiful jacket, she decided to put an end to the circus. No more throwin’ roundhouse punches that hit nothin’ but air. Instead, this time the piston-like, right hand she threw landed on Sharon’s swollen kisser harder than the American justice system hit Mike Tyson.
The paramedics outside in the meat wagon hadn’t expected to do anything more than pick up a stiff. They were warm and cozy, sittin’ in the ambulance, listenin’ to Nickelback, singin’ “I wanna be a Rock Star.” Suddenly someone pounded on the passenger side door, sayin’ Sharon Sanders, the TV star had been knocked out. Personally, if I were Sharon, knowin’ that those two greasers would be touchin’ me would’a woke my ass up quicker than smellin’ salts.
Ramona sat in a chair, holdin’ her right hand. I opened the supply cabinet below the bar lookin’ for a couple o’ clean towels, grabbed a pair of threadbare, blue ones and wrapped one around a coupl’a handfuls of ice cubes. I held a small portion of the second cloth under a stream of warm water for a second, dampenin’ it enough to remove the mascara from Ramona’s cheeks. Comin’ ‘round the edge of the bar, I said, “Here Ramona,” holdin’ the towel with the ice out to her.
Seeming to appreciate the gesture, she smiled, took the towel, and pressed it against her bruised right hand. While I dabbed her face with the wet cloth, she said, “Hey Scuzzy, did you notice the ambulance just drove off?”
“Why, Ramona? Do you need to go to a hospital? I thought you might be needin’ a rabies shot.” I pointed to the bite mark Sharon left on her arm, tryin’ to lighten things up.
Seein’ that she warn’t payin’ no attention to me, I turned me head in the direction of her stare. Her eyes focused on her husband's body. “I don't mean to seem disrespectful of the dead,” I said. “But didn’t you hate him?”
Ramona nodded, numbly. “Yeah, I did, but still, in his way, which pretty much sucked, I think he may have loved me.”
“I thought you said he beat you?” I reminded her.
“He did.” Her head bobbed as she considered the complex, conflicted life she had led and the one ahead of her now. Suddenly, she turned towards me and said, “He did beat me, Skuzzy, but you know what?”
I turned toward Ramona and looked into her eyes. She was gonna tell me, whether I asked, “What?” or not.
She leaned over towards me and lowered her voice so no one but me could hear. “I beat him this time.”
“Yeah, well, I guess you did," I nodded in agreement. "You outlived him, if that’s what you mean.”
She shook her head no and leaned over to whisper. She cupped her left hand to the side of her mouth as a shield, the way little kids do to prevent anyone from hearin’ or perhaps readin’ their lips when they share secrets. Her lips nestled into the hollow of my ear, so near I could actually hear them part and draw air as she prepared to speak. I could feel the wet warmth of her breath with each word, “I took the bullets out – of – his - gun.” As I pulled away from her lips and turned to stare, her eyes were full of pride and payback.
Already numb from what I heard, I walked towards the front of the bar, feelin’ the temperature drop with each step as I neared the busted-out, plate-glass window. The safety glass crystals crunched like gravel under my feet as I leaned out through the open space where the glass used to be and peered up into a dark, but active, sky. In The Tribune, they predicted snow on the ground before dawn on Christmas mornin’, but it was tonight I worried about.
Somethin’ seemed strange about the way things were shapin’ up. Gypster was dead. Me old high school principal, Isaac Stern, had been busted for possession of child pornography. And although I was happy to see her, Ramona was here. With the exception of me parents’ deaths, she’d been the catalyst for all of the crazy shit that ever happened to me on Christmas Eve. Above me, a herd of weighty, windblown clouds rolled by, rushin’ through the sky like livestock bein’ driven down some celestial trail.
Pete and Darnell came up behind me and watched for a minute before Pete spoke up. “Whatcha lookin’ for up there, Scuzz?”
“Ghost Riders,” I answered without turnin’ around. "Somethin’s different ‘bout tonight, mate. I can feel it. Somethin’s in the air.” I gave up searchin’ for answers in the sky and turned towards Pete and Darnell.
“What are ya gonna do about getting that window boarded up on Christmas Eve, Scuzz? Pete asked.
I had no idea. But one thing demanded immediate attention. I walked past the two of ‘em and said, “Gott’a go shake hands with the unemployed.”
“You gotta what?” Pete looked a bit thrown.
Havin’ previously heard this sayin’, Darnell explained, “He’s gotta take a whiz.”
“Me eyeballs are floatin’,” I replied, and continued towards the loo,
Standin’ at the urinal with me Shillelagh in Righty’s familiar grip, I pissed a stream strong enough to write me name in the rust and hard-water-stained porcelain. What’ll Sharon do about gettin’ knocked clean out? I pondered what might happen if she got some bad advice and decided to sue Ramona. Hell, for all the good it would do her she could sue me, too.
I reached up and pulled the lever down to flush away the urine. As the water color changed from a brackish yellow to clear, once again, I felt a pair of eyes borin’ into the back o’ me head, like someone was waitin’ for their turn at the pisser. I turned ‘round ‘spectin’ to see Pete, or Darnell. Instead, I saw the old drunk that had been passed out in the booth at the back of the bar.
“Glad you were able to get up, boss,” I said. “Anythin’ I can get fer ya? Some hot joe, perhaps?” His eyes troubled me. They didn’t have no shine to them, at all. They were dull and lifeless - as gray and ghost-like as the storm clouds I watched stampedin’ through the sky a few minutes ago. His pasty complexion didn’t look right, neither. It reminded me o’ the old horror flicks, like “Dawn of the Dead.”
His mouth twisted into somethin’ vaguely resemblin’ a smile, though it could also have been a grimace. He said, “Ain’t you a fine lad, now? Kind hearted, y’are. You could’a throwed me out like a sack o’ rotten potatoes. Instead ya let me lie there in your booth, given’ me every chance in the world to pull meself together and retain a tiny shred o’ dignity on Christmas Eve.” He sounded sober as a judge, which bothered me considerably.
“T’warn’t nuthin’,” I assured him.
“T’was too,” he came back. “You’re a good man, James. Not perfect, mind ya, but good enough. You’ve had a lot o’ bad breaks, but it ain’t turned ya bitter or mean. There are those who’ve taken note of that.”
“Yeah, well, that and a dollar’ll get me a ride on the bus downtown, won’t it? What I want to know is how you know my name, and how would ya know anythin’ about the hard times I’ve seen? Who are ya?” I demanded.
Unfazed, his expression remained the same. His empty eyes didn’t appear capable of sight, yet at the same time I felt like he could see clean through me - through all me misfortune, pain, and despair. He came forward and I retreated ‘til I brushed against the urinal behind me.
I gritted me teeth as the old stranger placed a pale hand on me shoulder. It sent shivers down me spine. His icy touch took me back through time to when I was a little tyke, standin’ numbly at the graveside o' me parents. Holdin’ a pitifully wilty little bouquet of hand-picked flowers, I felt lost and alone, wonderin’ what would become o’ me. When he released my shoulder, just as swiftly as it flared up, the image faded. The deeply buried memory rarely surfaced, except in me nightmares. The clarity cut deep into me soul and had me wipin’ tears out o’ me eyes as if I was still that little boy cryin’ at the funeral of his Mum and Da.
“Right about now,” he said, “you’re wonderin’ if I’m a spirit, aren’t you, James? You believe in spirits don’t ya? Somewhere, deep down inside, you believe there’s a bit o’ truth in tales about things like leprechauns, puka horses, and banshees. Earlier tonight ya thought that nearly toothless old basket-lady dressed in flitters was a spirit of some kind, didn’t ya?”
“No, no way,” I lied, “Besides, how wouldja know about that? You were passed out in the back booth.” He took a step towards me, causin' me to instinctively move backward and bump into the urinal behind me, again.
“Wall, she warn’t no spirit, but I am, James O’Malley. I am!” he pointed to himself with the thumb on his left hand.”
“So, it’s a spirit y’are?” I stared at this man, if man he was, hard as I could, hopin’ to find somethin’ that made sense. I figured if I could talk meself out o' believin’ him, then this whole thing might all just go away. Pete would be standin’ there 'stead of Jacob Marley, or whoever this apparition might claim to be. Doin’ me best not to sound intimidated, I speculated, “You’ve come to visit me on Christmas Eve, have ya? What does that make me, now, Ebenezer Scrooge?”
“You’re not needin' a wake up call such as Mr. Dickens wrote of, Mr. O’Malley. You ain’t been failin’ the tests o’ life. You’ve been passin’ ‘em all, ‘ceptin maybe the ones back in Mrs. Tinsdale’s algebra class. All you need is some good luck, like you asked for earlier tonight when you stepped outside to smoke a harry. Yes, lad, I heard ya, and I’m here to give it to ya.” He folded his arms in front of his chest, kind’a smug like, and asked, “D’ ya have a problem with that?”
“Luck, you say? Call me an ungrateful git, but I ain’t seen no pot o’ gold at the end o' the rainbow. Boss, since you showed up, a rich man's been shot dead and is lyin’ on the barroom floor in me place o’ business. There’s a camera-man ridin’ off in an ambulance with a famous TV reporter who just got knocked out cold. She thinks I helped arrange the murder of that millionaire, so I can go through the rest of me life shaggin’ his wife and spendin’ his money! I’ll be lucky if I don’t get the death penalty! So you can take your luck and you can stick it up your sickly lookin’ arse!”
“Go on now and make a fuss, James O’Malley. Stand there tall and proud and tell yourself you’re just imaginin’ things. But its luck I’ve been sent to give ya and it’s luck you’re gonna have.”
The door to the men’s room opened and Wary walked in, lookin’ relieved to see me. “I thought you might have gone out a back window, or something,” he said. “After all, you had a motive, O’Malley. I’m not saying you did what Sharon Sanders accused you and Mrs. Gypster of . . . not yet, anyway, but I wouldn’t leave town if I were you.”
“Oh, I don’t have to worry 'bout a thing, detective,” I replied. “Ask me old friend,” I pointed. “He says I’m ready to go on a lucky streak to make up for all the shite I’ve been through.”
The detective looked in the direction I pointed and then looked at me, squinting. “What are you trying to pull, O’Malley?” he asked.
“Pull?” I had no idea what he meant.
“That’s right, pull. You’re pointing at imaginary people, acting like you’re about as far gone as that old man that’s passed out in the back booth.
I put me hands on me hips. “Why do people always think I’m tryin’ to pull somethin’? I ain’t tryin’ to pull nuthin’, detective, not amnesia, not insanity, not anythin’, understand? The question is, what’re you tryin’ to pull? Maybe the old man was in the back booth, earlier, but me peepers tell me he’s standin’ here with us, right now.” I stared at the spot where the old man still stood - me seein’ him clear as day and the detective evidently not seein’ him, or at least unwillin’ to admit he saw him.
Addin’ a jigger of concern to the suspicion floatin’ in his voice, detective Wary turned back toward me and said, “If you keep this up I’ll have to call the men in the little white coats to come fit you for a restraining jacket.”
The restroom door flew open again and here came Winkin, Blinkin and Nod. “The barkeep ain’t out there,” the first of the three cops said, blinkin’ with surprise when he saw me.
“You sure?” Wary asked, with annoyance and sarcasm.
“Uh, yeah, now I am.” The cop scowled at me realizing my presence made him look like a fool.
“Well,” Wary asked his trio, “let me test your acute powers of observation again, if I may. Let’s have a show of hands. Did any of you happen to see an old man in a booth as you came back this way?”
The three cops looked at each other. Finally, the one nearest to the door raised his hand, slowly, as if he worried about what would happen next. “I saw him,” he said.
Then the second cop raised his right hand. “Me too,” he said, leaving only officer Cargill unspoken.
“Is this one of your trick questions, detective Wary?” he asked.
“Evidently for you it is, officer Cargill,” the detective responded, “but your fellow officers seem to have handled it easily enough.”
“Okay, okay, I saw him,” Cargill interrupted. “So what?”
The detective turned toward me and shrugged before turning back to Cargill and sayin’, “Would you just step outside for a moment and check to make sure he’s still there? Then, let us know, would you? I know it’s a lot to ask, but I’d appreciate it.”
Cargill went out and then returned before the door finished closin’. “Yeah, he’s still there.”
“Still there?” Wary asked.
“Yeah, detective. He ain't moved a muscle.”
To prove to meself that I warn’t ready to go off and weave baskets, ‘stead of pourin’ drinks, I stormed out of the men’s room, past the pasty old man and Wary, Winkin, Blinkin, and Nod.
The snug in which the old man had taken up residency sat right outside the restroom. Because of the smells when the sewerage gets backed up, which is pretty often due to the antiquated plumbin’, customers don't often sit there. The only time anyone squeezes into that booth is if they feel like they might toss their cookies. After all, when you think you’re gonna blow chunks, the less steps to the loo, the better.
Now I got worried. He sat there just like the three stooges had said. How could he have been in the john with me and still be out here?
Everyone came up behind me - the detective, the three keystone cops from the john, twitchy officer Mahoney, Pete from down the street, and Darnell, with his goggles pulled over his eyes for battle. Jerry Vanderwall and Benny tried to squeeze through to the front, past Dirty Harry and Mustang Sally.
Sally inquired as to why, the flyin’ fuck, every cock-sucker in this shit-hole of a bar seemed so God-damned concerned about some vagrant, puss-faced, flea-bitten, rat-bastard that had been passed out for who knows how fucking long?
Remind me to have her deliver my eulogy.
Bringin’ up the rear, Ramona and Gunner stood patiently behind the rest, waitin’ to see what I’d do.
“Hey there, old man.” Righty poked the old coot. It felt like pokin' a sack o' sand. “Hey, are ya okay, old fella?” He'd been propped against the wall, but after bein' jostled, Methuselah began to tilt towards me, like a towerin’ Sequoia bein’ cut down. Someone should’a yelled, “Timber!” because he came crashin’ down sideways like a dead man. The left side of his face smacked the worn out, faded cushion of the bench without him even puttin’ out an arm to break his fall.
Behind me I heard several gasps and a flurry of profanity from Mustang Sally. Everyone shrank back a step.
Officer Mahoney squeaked, “Check his pulse!”
“Call an ambulance,” Jerry Vanderwall commanded in his deep, authoritative voice.
Righty bravely reached down and placed two fingers on the spot where the carotid artery would be pulsin’, or not. The skin was cool to the touch. There warn’t no hint of a pulse. Lefty responded by pressing so hard against me chest I thought he was tryin’ to give me CPR.
“Oh, Geez,” I whispered. Shakin’ me head, I looked up at detective Wary and said, “I think he’s dead.” I backed out o' the booth to let the police do whatever they wanted.
Shaken by the realization that I'd either flipped, or had been talkin’ to a dead man, I made me way across the floor to the bar. I sat on one of me barstools, makin’ sure I avoided the one that falls off its pedestal. In me pocket, me cell phone began to ring. Glancin' at the LCD screen, I noticed it said, “PRIVATE,” instead of displayin’ an incomin' call number. I answered, “Hello?”
The hair on the back of me neck stood as I recognized the voice. “Sorry fer havin’ to be so dramatic, Mr. O’Malley, but you walked out o' the men’s room 'fore I could give ya a message from your Mudder and your Da.” The old coot was speakin’ to me on my cell while I watched the cops standin’ 'round his dead body. “They said to tell ya they’re sorry ‘bout their boatin’ accident and havin’ to leave ya at such a tender young age. They understand why you’ve done a lot o’ the things you’ve done. Overall, they’re right proud of the way you’ve hung in there, ‘specially considerin’ that your Aunt Martha warn’t all that happy 'bout havin’ to take care of ya. Furthermore, startin’ with this Christmas Eve, they want ya to enjoy the rest o’ your life. Merry Christmas, James.”
I heard a click and he was gone for good. Lefty was back up, pressin’ against me chest again. For the first time ever, me right hand felt like joinin’ him, but couldn’t. Stuck with holdin’ the phone, Righty just pulled it away from me ear and held it steady in front of me while I attempted to deal with what just happened.
“Who was that, Scuzzy?” Ramona asked.
My eyes waterin’ up, I stared at her, too shook up to speak and not havin’ the faintest idea o' how to answer, even if I were to find me voice.
Rather than interrogatin’ me the way Aunt Martha would’a, with questions like, “What’s wrong with you? Why won’t you answer? What’re you tryin’ to hide?” Ramona did none of that. She tenderly slipped her arms around me and hugged me without sayin’ another word.
~ ~ ~
After the tow truck hauled Nicky's black Mercedes away, detective Wary and his keystone cops turned things over to the late arrivin’ forensics crew. Man, were they ever pissed about the way the crime scene had been violated. Dirty Harry and Mustang Sally were the first customers allowed to leave. Sally saluted that decision with a final, eloquent outburst, “Well bend me over and bite my frostbitten buns, it’s about time.” They rode off together in her orange, metal flake Mustang convertible, fishtailin’ in the ice, already formin’ on the road.
The forensics crew finished up 'round midnight and told the rest of us we could go. Pete and Darnell said Merry Christmas to Ramona and me. They walked off, down the street, cursin’ the ass-freezin’ temperature, made to feel even colder by the wind and the light mist. I heard Darnell say he hoped they got where they were goin’ before it decided to either pour down again or started to snow.
Gunner gave me an awkward hug, somethin’ he'd never done before, and then turned to hug Ramona. Their hug lasted a little longer than I woulda thought normal for two people that were total strangers before tonight. I heard her say, “Thanks Mr. Wysocki, thanks for everything. You’ve done us both a big favor.” As he walked to his old jalopy I wondered why she thanked him and how she even knew Gunner’s real name.
“I’m not about to pay double-time to have someone board up that window on Christmas Day,” I told Ramona. “If the place gets even more messed up, so be it. I won’t be allowed to open again until the police say I can, so screw it.” The rain had almost stopped completely, but the wind really whistled now, makin’ me wish I'd worn somethin’ thicker than the old red sweater I had on over me flannel shirt.
Shiverin’ slightly, Ramona asked, “Remember when you came home with me on Christmas Eve, so many years ago?”
“Yeah, I do,” I replied and smiled back at her. “I remember Joe Cocker, silk scarves, a four poster bed, and a gun.”
“I think we have some unfinished business, mister,” she leaned over and kissed me, ticklin’ me lips with her tongue and I kissed her back. “Do you feel up to it tonight?” she asked.
“I feel up to bein’ with you, but I can’t make any promises ‘bout me knob.”
“You could stand outside, naked, ‘til it gets hard - that shouldn’t take too long.” Gigglin’, Ramona took me hand in hers and led me down the three steps, onto the sidewalk and over to her white, Jaguar XJ.
The first flakes of snow began to fall as she clicked the remote key to unlock the XJ. Tossin’ her ruined, ermine jacket into the back seat, she motioned for me to get in on the passenger side, “Wanna go for a ride, Scuzzy?” she purred.
“Yeah, but first answer this for me, how did you know Gunner’s real name?”
“For a split second Ramona looked like a kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar, but she came back with, “I heard him give it to the police.”
I nodded, but couldn’t remember if she’d gotten to the bar yet when the police took Gunner’s name. I bent down, got in the car and buckled up as she slid in to the driver’s seat beside me. She lifted the leather-covered top to the Jag's console, reached down into it and retrieved a small, round pill box that she handed to me.
“What’s that?" I asked.
“A crutch for Tiny Tim,” she arched her eyebrows and added, “Viagra - it was Nicky’s.” She turned the key and the engine growled. The radio instantly blared to life.
“Once again the lotto numbers for tonight are . . .” I smiled, mildly surprised when the first two numbers were on my quick-pick ticket. I started to get a little excited as he read the third number which matched mine, again. “That oughtta be good for fifteen bucks,” I commented, secretly wishin’ for, and maybe even expectin’ another miracle. After all, it was luck that I was supposed to have, wasn’t it?
In the scant second before the readin’ of the fourth number me heart rate accelerated, but when it didn’t match, the sweet little tingle of anticipation turned sour. I turned to Ramona and stuck out my lower lip in a classic pout. “I knew I shouldna got me hopes up.”
Acceleratin’ into the middle lane she glanced towards me and said, “Don’t be disappointed, ya dope,” she turned on her windshield wipers as the snow began to come down harder, “We already hit the jackpot. We just got away with murder.”
Was she kiddin’, I wondered? I knew Nicky meant to kill me, but surely Ramona and Gunner hadn’t used me to lure him to the bar, had they? It bothered me, but not enough right then to make me tell Ramona I didn’t want to finish our long-unfinished business.
~ ~ ~
The light from the mornin’ sun peaked through the bedroom curtains as Ramona woke me up with a kiss. “I enjoyed our celebration last night,” she whispered in my ear. “I’m glad that pill helped get your little soldier back on his feet.” She chuckled in a throaty, satisfied-sounding way and asked, “Do you believe in happy endings, Scuzzy?”
I yawned and stretched for a moment before I answered, “Happy endin’s? What, like the kind they give in massage parlors? Yeah, I believe in those.”
She smiled, and said, “No, goofball. I mean happy endings, like ours. It’s all going just like Gunner and I planned. It’ll probably take a while for me to get all of Nicky’s money and gain total control of his stores. But after all the baloney pertaining to his death blows over, I’ll sell Gypster Enterprises and we can go away somewhere. We can forget about the bar, the jewelry store business, and the rest of the world.”
I thought about keepin' it to meself, but like an itchy scab on a slow-healin' wound, I had to scratch at it. “How long have you known Gunner?" I asked.
Ramona frowned and said, “He found me about a month ago. He said he was tryin’ to solve his wife’s murder. I told him what I knew. Nick had been beating me a lot lately - drinking real heavy. Several times he got really drunk and rambled on about killing his father and about the pregnant woman he shot. He also said he shot a kid in the alley behind the store, several years earlier. Scuzzy that was you! I think if he had ever remembered telling me, once he sobered up, he might have killed me to keep me quiet.”
Learnin' that I'd been used as bait for the bad Santa didn't exactly thrill me. "I feel like a damned minnow on a hook, Ramona. You shoulda told me." I attempted to get up.
Ramona pressed me back down, sayin’, “We decided we wouldn’t tell you about it, in case anything went wrong.”
I saw that kind o' strategy explained in a movie, once. Plausible deniability, they called it. I rolled that around in me head and guessed that it made sense, kinda. One thing still bugged me. “You guys didn’t, by any chance, hire a set of old, drunken twins - one to sit in the back booth and play dead, and the other’ paid to act like some kind o’ Christmas sprit, or somethin’, did ya?”
I got a well-deserved, what‘s-wrong-with-you stare from Ramona. Her expression persuaded me to wave away the bizarre but only rational explanation I could come up with.
“Never mind," I said. "It’s all just a little overwhelmin’.”
I tossed the covers back and started to get up, but once more, Ramona held me down. Her right hand pressed firmly on my chest, she said, “Don’t be in such a hurry to get out of bed, Mr. Scrooge.” A long, golden silk scarf still dangled from where I had tied it around her wrist last night. She placed her head on me chest and sighed, “Let’s just lay here a while.”
Enjoyin' the feelin' of her warm skin against mine, I didn’t argue. I closed me eyes and relaxed, breathin' in the fragrance of her hair, which smelled like a spring bouquet of flowers.
Ramona broke the silence by sayin’, “Next year let’s go somewhere for Christmas to get away from the cold. Nicky once took me to a beautiful little tropical island where the food and drinks were marvelous, swim suits were practically forbidden, and the weather was always warm, but not too hot. I always wanted to be there with someone I loved.”
She wrinkled her nose, winked at me in a delightfully seductive way and said, “Let’s see if we can get a rise out of Tiny Tim this morning.” She took her time as she leisurely worked her way down the middle o' me chest and had just gotten past me stomach when she paused and exclaimed, “Well, will you look at that? Talk about a Christmas miracle, God bless us, everyone. I don’t think he needs his crutch anymore.”
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