Chapter 3

HOSED FOR THE HOLIDAYS

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Tuesday night. Christmas was still four days away, and yet there was Santa Claus cruising right down the main street of town in his big red pickup truck: waving to the kids, weaving in his lane, belching into his beard, more than a little drunk. "Ho, ho, ho," said Dale Pearson, evil developer and Caribou Lodge Santa for the sixth consecutive year. "Ho, ho, ho," he said, suppressing the urge to add and a bottle of rum, his demeanor more akin to that of Blackbeard than Saint Nicholas. Parents pointed, children waved and frisked.

By now, all of Pine Cove was abuzz with expat Christmas cheer. Every hotel room was full, and there wasn't a parking space to be found down on Cypress Street, where shoppers pumped their chestnuts into an open fire of credit-card swipe-and-spend denial. It smelled of cinnamon and pine, peppermint and joy. This was not the coarse commercialism of a Los Angeles or San Francisco Christmas. This was the refined, sincere commercialism of small-town New England, where a century ago Norman Rockwell had invented Christmas. This was real.

But Dale didn't get it. "Merry, happy  -  oh, eat me, you little vermin," Dale grinched from behind his tinted windows.

Actually, the whole Christmas appeal of their village was a bit of a mystery to the residents of Pine Cove. It wasn't exactly a winter wonderland; the median temperature in the winter was sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit, and only a couple of really old guys could remember it ever having snowed. Neither was it a tropical-beach getaway. The ocean there was bitterly cold, with an average visibility of eighteen inches, and a huge elephant seal rookery at the shore. Through the winter thousands of the rotund pinnipeds lay strewn across Pine Cove beaches like great barking turds, and although not dangerous in themselves, they were the dietary mainstay of the great white shark, which had evolved over 120 million years into the perfect excuse for never entering water over one's ankles. So if it wasn't the weather or the water, what in the hell was it? Perhaps it was the pine trees themselves. Christmas trees.

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"My trees, goddammit," Dale grumbled to himself.

Pine Cove lay in the last natural Monterey-pine forest in the world. Because they grow as much as twenty feet a year, Monterey pines are the very trees cultivated for Christmas trees. The good news was you could go to almost any undeveloped lot in town and cut yourself a very respectable Christmas tree. The bad news was that it was a crime to do so unless you obtained a permit and planted five trees to replace it. The Monterey pines were a protected species, as any local builder could tell you, because whenever they cut down a few trees to build a home, they had to plant a forest to replace them.

A station wagon with a Christmas tree lashed to the roof backed out in front of Dale's pickup. "Get that piece of shit off my street," Dale scrooged. "And Merry Christmas to all you scumbags," he added, in keeping with the season.

Dale Pearson, quite unwillingly, had become the Johnny Appleseed of the Christmas tree, having planted tens of thousands of seedlings to replace the thousands that he had chain-sawed to build rows of tract mansions across Pine Cove's hills. But while the law stated that the replacement trees had to be planted within the municipality of Pine Cove, it didn't say that they had to go in anywhere near where they had actually been cut down, so Dale planted all of his trees around the cemetery at the old Santa Rosa Chapel. He'd bought the land, ten acres, years ago, in hope of subdividing it and building luxury homes, but some hippie meddlers from the California Historical Society stepped in and had the old two-room chapel declared a historic landmark, thus making it impossible for him to develop his land. So in straight rows, with no thought for the natural lay of a forest, his construction crews planted Monterey pines until the trees became as thick around the chapel as feathers on a bird's back.

For the last four years, during the week before Christmas, someone had gone onto Dale's land and dug up truckloads of live pine trees. He was tired of answering to the county about having to replace them. He didn't give a damn about the trees, but he'd be damned if he'd put up with someone siccing the county watchdogs on him over and over. He'd fulfilled his duty to his Caribou buddies of passing out joke gifts to them and their wives, but now he was going to catch a thief. His Christmas present this year was going to be a little justice. That's all he wanted, just a little justice.

The jolly old elf turned off Cypress and headed up the hill toward the chapel, patting the thirty-eight snub-nose revolver he'd stuffed into his wide black belt.

Lena hefted the second Christmas tree into the bed of her little Toyota pickup and snuggled it into one of the ten-gallon cedar boxes that she'd nailed together herself just for that purpose. The underprivileged were only getting four-footers this year, maybe a foot or so taller once in the box. It had rained only once since October, so it had taken her nearly an hour and a half to dig the two saplings from the hard, dry ground. She wanted people to have live Christmas trees, but if she went for full seven-footers she'd be out here all night and only get a couple. This is real work, Lena thought. By day she did property management for vacation rentals at a local realtor, sometimes putting in ten- or twelve-hour days during the peak seasons, but she realized that hours spent and actual work were two different things. She realized it every year when she came out here by herself and got behind her bright red shovel.

Sweat was pouring down her face. She wiped her hair out of her eyes with the back of a chamois work glove, leaving a streak of dirt on her forehead. She shrugged off the flannel shirt she'd put on against the night chill and worked in a tight black tank top and olive drab cargo pants. With her red shovel in hand, she looked like some kind of Christmas commando there at the edge of the forest.

She sank the shovel into the pine straw about a foot from the trunk of the next tree she'd targeted and jumped on the blade, pogoing up and down until the blade was buried to the hilt. She was swinging on the handle, trying to lever up the forest floor, when a bright set of headlights swept across the edge of the forest and stopped with a stereo spotlight on Lena's truck.

There's nothing to worry about, she thought. I'm not going to hide, I'm not going to duck. She wasn't doing anything wrong. Not really. Well, sure, technically, she was stealing, and breaking a couple of county ordinances about harvesting Monterey pines, but she wasn't really harvesting them, was she? She was just transplanting them. And... and she was giving to the poor. She was like Robin Hood. No one was going to mess with Robin Hood. Just the same she smiled at the headlamps and did a sort of "oh well, I guess I'm busted" shrug that she hoped was cute. She shielded her eyes with her hand and tried to squint into the headlights to see who was driving the truck. Yes, she was sure it was a truck.

The engine sputtered to a stop. A slight nausea rose in Lena's throat as she realized that it was a diesel truck. The truck's door opened, and when the light went on Lena caught a glimpse of someone in a red-and-white hat behind the wheel.

Huh?

Santa was coming out of the blinding light toward her. Santa with a flashlight, and what was that in his belt? Santa had a gun.

"Dammit, Lena, I should have known it was you," he said.

Josh Barker was in big trouble. Big trouble indeed. He was only seven, but he was pretty sure his life was ruined. He hurried along Church Street trying to figure out how he was going to explain to his mom. An hour and a half late. Home long after dark. And he hadn't called. And Christmas just a few days away. Forget explaining it to his mom, how was he going to explain it to Santa?

Santa might understand, though, since he knew toys. But Mom would never buy it. He'd been playing Barbarian George's Big Crusade on the PlayStation at his friend Sam's house, and they'd gotten into the infidel territory and killed thousands of the 'Rackies, but the game just didn't have any way to exit. It wasn't designed so you could ever get out of it, and before he knew it, it was dark outside and he'd forgotten, and Christmas was just going to be ruined. He wanted an Xbox 2, but there was no way Santa was going to bring it with a home long after dark AND a didn't even bother to call on his list.

Sam had summarized Josh's situation as he led him out the door and looked at the night sky: "Dude, you're hosed."

"I'm not hosed, you're hosed," said Josh.

"I'm not hosed," Sam said. "I'm Jewish. No Santa. We don't have Christmas."

"Well, you're really hosed, then."

"Shut up, I am not hosed." But as Sam said it he put his hands in his pockets and Josh could hear him clicking his dreidel against his asthma inhaler, and his friend did, indeed, appear to be hosed.

"Okay, you're not hosed," said Josh. "Sorry. I'd better go."

"Yeah," said Sam.

"Yeah," said Josh, realizing now how the longer it took him to get home the more hosed he was going to be. But as he hurried up Church Street toward home, he realized that perhaps he would receive an emergency reprieve on his hosing, for there, at the edge of the forest, was Santa himself. And although Santa did appear to be quite angry, his anger was directed at a woman who was standing knee-deep in a hole, holding a red shovel. Santa held one of those heavy black Maglite flashlights in one hand and was shining it in the woman's eyes as he yelled at her.

"These are my trees. Mine, dammit," said Santa.

Aha! Josh thought. Dammit was not bad enough to get you on the naughty list, not if Santa himself said it. He'd told his mom that, but she'd insisted that dammit was a list item.

"I'm only taking a few," said the woman. "For people who can't afford a Christmas tree. You can't begrudge something that simple to a few poor families."

"The fuck I can't."

Well, Josh had been sure the F-word would get you on the list. He was shocked.

Santa pushed the flashlight in the woman's eyes. She brushed it aside.

"Look," she said, "I'll just take this last one and go."

"You will not." Santa shoved the flashlight in the woman's face again, but this time when she brushed it away, he flipped it around and bopped her on the head with it.

"Ouch!"

That had to hurt. Josh could feel the blow rattle the woman's teeth all the way across the street. Santa certainly felt strongly about his Christmas trees.

The woman used the shovel to brush the flashlight out of her face again. Santa bopped her again with the flashlight, harder this time, and the woman yowled and fell to her knees in the hole. Santa reached into his big black belt and pulled out a gun and pointed it at the woman. She came up swinging the shovel in a wide arc and the blade caught Santa hard in the side of the head with a dull metallic clank. Santa staggered and raised the pistol again. The woman crouched and covered her head, the shovel braced blade up under her arm. But as he aimed, Santa lost his balance, and fell forward onto the upraised blade of the shovel. The blade went up under his beard and suddenly his beard was as bright red as his suit. He dropped the gun and the flashlight, made a gurgling noise, and fell down to where Josh could no longer see him.

Josh could barely hear the woman crying as he ran home, the pulse in his ears ringing like sleigh bells. Santa was dead. Christmas was ruined. Josh was hosed.

Speaking of hosed: three blocks away, Tucker Case moped along Worchester Street, trying to exercise off his dinner of bad diner food with a brisk walk under the weight of a large measure of self-pity. He was pushing forty, trim, blond, and tan  -  the look of an aging surfer or a golf pro in his prime. Fifty feet above him, a giant fruit bat swooped through the treetops, his leathery wings silent against the night. So he could sneak up on peaches and stuff without being detected. Tuck thought.

"Roberto, do your business and let's get back to the hotel," Tuck called into the sky. The fruit bat barked and snagged an overhead limb as he passed, his momentum nearly sending him in a loop around it before he pendulumed and settled in upside-down attitude. The bat barked again, licked his little doggy chops, and folded his great wings around himself to ward off the coastal cold.

"Fine," Tuck said, "but you're not getting back into the room until you poop."

He'd inherited the bat from a Filipino navigator he'd met while flying a private jet for a doctor in Micronesia; a job he'd only taken because his U.S. pilot's license had been yanked for crashing the pink Mary Jean Cosmetic jet while initiating a young woman into the Mile-High Club. Drunk. After Micronesia he'd moved to the Caribbean with his fruit bat and his beautiful new island wife and started a charter business. Now, six years later, his beautiful island wife was running the charter business with a seven-foot Rastafarian and Tucker Case had nothing to his name but a fruit bat and temporary gig flying helicopters for the DEA, spotting marijuana patches in the Big Sur wilderness area. Which put him in Pine Cove, holed up in a cheap motel room, four days before Christmas, alone. Lonesome. Hosed.

Tuck had once been a ladies' man of the highest order  -  a Don Juan, a Casanova, a Kennedy sans cash  -  yet now he was in a town where he didn't know a soul and he hadn't even met a single woman to try to seduce. A few years of marriage had almost ruined him. He'd become accustomed to affectionate female company without a great deal of manipulation, subterfuge, and guile. He missed it. He didn't want to spend Christmas alone, dammit. Yet here he was.

And there she was. A damsel in distress. A woman, alone, out here in the night, crying  -  and from what Tuck could tell by the headlights of a nearby pickup truck, she had a nice shape. Great hair. Beautiful high cheekbones, streaked with tears and mud, but you know, exotic-looking. Tuck checked to see that Roberto was still safely hanging above, then straightened his bomber jacket and made his way across the street.

"Hey there, are you okay?"

The woman jumped, screamed a bit, looked around frantically until she spotted him "Oh my God," she said.

Tuck had had worse responses. He pressed on "Are you okay?" he repeated. "You looked like you were having some trouble."

"I think he's dead," the woman said. "I think  -  I think I killed him"

Tuck looked at the red-and-white pile on the ground at his feet and realized for the first time what it really was: a dead Santa. A normal person might have freaked out, backed away, tried to quickly extract himself from the situation, but Tucker Case was a pilot, trained to function in life-and-death emergencies, practiced at grace under pressure, and besides, he was lonely and this woman was really hot.

"So, a dead Santa," said Tuck. "Do you live around here?"

"I didn't mean to kill him. He was coming at me with a gun I just ducked, and when I looked up  -  " She waved toward the pile of dead Kringle. "I guess the shovel caught him in the throat." She seemed to be calming down a bit.

Tuck nodded thoughtfully "So, Santa was coming at you with a gun?"

The woman pointed to the gun, lying in the dirt next to the Maglite "I see," said Tuck. "Did you know this  - »

"Yes. His name is Dale Pearson. He drank."

"I don't. Stopped years ago," Tuck said. "By the way, I'm Tucker Case. Are you married?" He extended his hand to her to shake. She seemed to see him for the first time.

"Lena Marquez. No, I'm divorced»

"Me, too," said Tuck. "Tough around the holidays, isn't it? Kids?"

"No. Mr., uh, Case, this man is my ex-husband and he's dead."

"Yep. I just gave my ex the house and my business, but this does seems cheaper," Tuck said.

"We had a fight yesterday at the grocery store in front of a dozen people. I had the motive, the opportunity, and the means  -  " She pointed to the shovel. "Everyone will think I killed him."

"Not to mention that you did kill him."

"And don't think the media won't latch onto that? It's my shovel sticking out of his neck."

"Maybe you should wipe off your prints and stuff. You didn't get any DNA on him, did you?"

She stretched the front of her shirt out and started dabbing at the shovel's handle. "DNA? Like what?"

"You know, hair, blood, semen? Nothing like that?"

"No." She was furiously buffing the handle of the shovel with the front of her tank top, being careful not to get too close to the end that was stuck in the dead guy. Strangely, Tuck found the process slightly erotic.

"I think you got the fingerprints, but I'm a little concerned about there where your name is spelled out in Magic Marker on the handle. That might give things away."

"People never return garden tools if you don't mark them," Lena said. Then she began to cry again. "Oh my God, I've killed him."

Tuck went to her side and put his arm around her shoulders. "Hey, hey, hey, it's not so bad. At least you don't have kids you have to explain this to."

"What am I going to do? My life is over."

"Don't talk like that," Tuck said, trying to sound cheerful. "Look, you've got a perfectly good shovel here, and this hole is nearly finished. What say we shove Santa in, clean up the area a little, and I take you to dinner." He grinned.

She looked up at him.

"Who are you?"

"Just a nice guy trying to help out a lady in distress."

"And you want to take me out to dinner?" She seemed to be slipping into shock.

"Not this minute. Once we get this all under control."

"I just killed a man," she said.

"Yeah, but not on purpose, right?"

"A man I used to love is dead."

"Damn shame, too," Tuck said. "You like Italian?"

She stepped away from him and looked him up and down, paying special attention to the right shoulder of his bomber jacket, where the brown leather had been scraped so many times it looked like suede. "What happened to your jacket?"

"My fruit bat likes to climb on me."

"Your fruit bat?"

"Look, you can't get through life without accumulating a little baggage, right?" Tuck nodded toward the deceased to make his point. "I'll explain over dinner."

Lena nodded slowly. "We'll have to hide his truck."

"Of course."

"Okay, then," Lena said. "Would you mind pulling the shovel  -  uh, I can't believe this is happening."

"I got it," Tuck said, jumping into the hole and dislodging the spade from Saint Nick's neck. "Call it an early Christmas present."

Tuck took off his jacket and began digging in the hard ground. He felt light, a little giddy, thrilled that he wasn't going to have to spend Christmas alone with the bat again.

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