Chapter 4

HAVE YOURSELF A NASTY LITTLE CHRISTMAS

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Josh wiped the tears off his face, took a deep breath, and headed up the walk to his house. He was still shaking from having seen Santa take a shovel in the throat, but now it occurred to him that it might not be enough to get him out of trouble. The first thing his mom would say was, Well, what were you doing out so late anyway? And dumb Brian, who was not Josh's real dad but Mom's dumb boyfriend, would say, "Yeah, Santa would probably still be alive if you hadn't stayed so long at Sam's house." So, there on the front step, he decided to go with total hysteria. He started breathing hard, pumping up some tears, got a good whimpering sob going, then opened the door with a dieseling back sniffle. He fell onto the welcome mat and let loose with a full fire-truck-siren wail. And nothing happened. No one said a word. No one came running.

So Josh crawled into the living room, trailing a nice fiber-optic string of drool from his lower lip to the carpet as he chanted a mucusy "Momma," knowing that it would completely disarm her temper and get her all fired up to protect him from dumb Brian, for whom he had no magic manipulation chant. But nobody called him, nobody came running, dumb Brian was not sprawled across the couch like the great sleepy slug that he was.

Josh wound it down. "Mom?" Just the hint of a sob there, ready to go full bore again when she answered. He went into the kitchen, where the memo light was blinking on Mom's machine. Josh wiped his nose on his sleeve and hit the button.

"Hi, Joshy," his mom said, her cheerful overtired voice. "Brian and I had to go out to eat with some buyers. There's a Stouffer's mac and cheese in the freezer. We should be home before eight. Do your homework. Call my cell if you get scared."

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Josh couldn't believe the luck. He checked the clock on the microwave. Only seven-thirty. Excellent! Latch-keyed loose like a magic elf. Yes! Dumb Brian had come through with a business dinner. He grabbed the Stouffer's out of the freezer, popped it  -  box and all  -  into the microwave, and hit the preset time. You didn't really have to peel the plastic back like they said. If you just nuke it in the box, the cardboard will keep it from exploding all over the microwave when the plastic goes. Josh didn't know why they didn't just put that in the instructions. He went back into the living room, turned on the TV, and plopped down on the floor in front of it to wait for the microwave to beep.

Maybe he should call Sam, he thought. Tell him about Santa. But Sam didn't believe in Santa. He said that Santa was just something the goys made up to make them feel better about not having a menorah. That was crap, of course. Goys (a Jewish word for girls and boys, Sam had explained) didn't want a menorah. They wanted toys. Sam was just saying that because he was mad because instead of Christmas they had snipped the tip of his penis off and said mazel tov.

"Wow, sucks to be you," said Josh.

"We're the Chosen," said Sam.

"Not for kickball"

"Shut up."

"No, you shut up."

"No, you shut up."

Sam was Josh's best friend and they understood each other, but would Sam know what to do about a murder? Especially a murder of an important person? You were supposed to go to an adult in these situations, Josh was pretty sure of it. Fire, an injured friend, a bad touch, you were supposed to tell an adult, a parent, a teacher, or a policeman, and no one would be mad at you. (But if you found your mom's boyfriend lighting a giant chili-dog-and-beer fart in the garage workshop, the police absolutely did not want to know about it. Josh had learned that lesson the hard way.)

A commercial came on, and Josh's mac and cheese was still surfing the microwaves, so he debated calling 911 or praying, and decided to go with the prayer. Like calling 911, you weren't supposed to pray for just anything. For instance, God did not care whether or not you got your bandicoot through the fire level on PlayStation, and if you asked for help there, there was a good chance that he would ignore you when you really needed help, like for a spelling test or if your mom got cancer. Josh reckoned it was sort of like cell-phone minutes, but this seemed like a real emergency.

"Our Heavenly Father," Josh began. You never used God's first name  -  that was like a commandment or something. "This is Josh Barker, six-seventy-one Worchester Street, Pine Cove, California nine-three-seven, five-four. I saw Santa tonight, which was great, and thank you for that, but then, right after I saw him, he got killed with a shovel, and so, I'm afraid that there's not going to be any Christmas and I've been good, which I'm sure you'll see if you check Santa's list, so if you don't mind could you please make Santa come back to life and make everything okay for Christmas?" No, no, no, that sounded really selfish. Quickly he added: "And a Happy Hanukkah to you and all the Jewish people like Sam and his family. Mazel tov." There. Perfect. He felt a lot better.

The microwave beeped and Josh ran to the kitchen, right into the legs of a really tall man in a long black coat who was standing by the counter. Josh screamed and the man took him by the arms, picked him up, and looked him over like he was a gemstone or a really tasty dessert. Josh kicked and squirmed, but the blond man held him fast.

"You're a child," said the blond man.

Josh stopped kicking for a second and looked into the impossibly blue eyes of the stranger, who was now studying him in much the same way a bear might examine a portable television while wondering how to get all those tasty little people out of it.

"Well, duh," said Josh.

The Christmas tree took a wide left onto Cypress Street. Finding that somewhat suspicious, Constable Theophilus Crowe pulled in behind it as he dug the little blue light out of the glove compartment of his Volvo and stuck it on the roof. Theo was relatively sure that there was a vehicle under the Christmas tree somewhere, but all he could see right now were the taillights shining through the branches in the back. As he followed the tree up Cypress, past the burger stand and Brine's Bait, Tackle, and Fine Wines, a pinecone the size of a Nerf football broke loose and rolled off to the side of the street, bouncing and thumping into one of the gas pumps.

Theo hit the siren one time, just a chirp, thinking he'd better stop this before someone got hurt. There was no way that the driver under the Christmas tree could see the road clearly. The tree was driving trunk first, so the widest, thickest branches were covering the front of the vehicle. The tree's tires chirped with a downshift. It killed the lights and screeched around the corner on Worchester Street, leaving a trail of rolling pinecones and pine-fresh exhaust.

Under normal circumstances, if a suspect tried to elude Theo, he would have called it into the county sheriff's immediately, hoping a deputy in the area might provide backup, but he'd be damned if he was going to call in that he was in hot pursuit of a fugitive Christmas tree. Theo turned the siren onto full shriek and took off up the hill after the fleeing conifer, thinking for the fiftieth time that day that life had seemed a lot easier when he'd smoked pot.

"Boy, you don't see that every day," said Tucker Case, who was sitting at a window table at H.P.'s Caf��, waiting for Lena to come back from freshening up in the rest-room. H.P.'s  -  a mix of pseudo Tudor and Country Kitchen Cute  -  was Pine Cove's most popular restaurant, and tonight it was completely packed.

The waitress, a pretty redhead in her forties, glanced up from the tray of drinks she was delivering and said, "Yeah, Theo hardly ever chases anyone."

"That Volvo was chasing a pine tree," Tuck said.

"Could be," said the waitress. "Theo used to do a lot of drugs."

"No, really  -  " Tuck tried to explain, but she had headed back to the kitchen. Lena was returning to the table. She was still in the black tank top under an open flannel shirt, but she had washed the streaks of mud from her face and her dark hair was brushed out around her shoulders. To Tuck she looked like the sexy but tough Indian guide chick in the movies, who always leads the group of nerdy businessmen into the wilderness where they are assaulted by vicious rednecks, bears gone mutant from exposure to phosphate laundry detergent, or ancient Indian spirits with a grudge.

"You look great," Tuck said. "Are you Native American?"

"What was the siren about?" Lena asked, sliding into the seat across from him.

"Nothing. A traffic thing."

"This is just so wrong." She looked around, as if everyone knew how wrong it was. "Wrong."

"No, it's good," Tuck said with a big smile, trying to make his blue eyes twinkle in the candlelight, but forgetting where exactly his twinkle muscles were located. "We'll have a nice meal, get to know each other a little."

She leaned over the table and whispered harshly, "There's a dead man out there. A man I used to be married to."

"Shh, shh, shh," Tuck shushed, gently placing a finger against her lip, trying to sound comforting and maybe a little European. "Now is not the time to talk of this, my sweet."

She grabbed his finger and bent it back. "I don't know what to do."

Tuck was twisted in his seat, leaning back to relieve the unnatural angle in which his finger was pointing. "Appetizer?" he suggested. "Salad?"

Lena let go of his finger and covered her face with her hands. "I can't do this."

"What? It's just dinner," said Tuck. "No pressure." He had never really dated much  -  gone on dates, that is. He'd met and seduced a lot of women, but it was never over a series of evenings with dinner and conversation  -  usually just some drinks and vulgarity at an airport hotel lounge had done the trick. He felt it was time he behaved like a grown-up  -  get to know a woman before he slept with her. His therapist had suggested it right before she'd stopped treating him, right after he'd hit on her. It wasn't going to be easy. In his experience things went a lot better with women before they got to know him, when they could still project hope and potential on him.

"We just buried my ex-husband," Lena said.

"Sure, sure, but then we delivered Christmas trees to the poor. A little perspective, huh? A lot of people have buried their spouses."

"Not personally. With the shovel they killed him with."

"You may want to keep it down a little." Tuck checked the diners at the nearby tables to see if they were listening, but they all seemed to be discussing the pine tree that had just driven by. "Let's talk about something else. Interests? Hobbies? Movies?"

Lena tossed her head as if she didn't hear him right, then stared as if to say, Are you nuts?

"Well, for instance," he pressed on, "I rented the strangest movie last night. Did you know that Babes in Toyland was a Christmas movie?"

"Of course, what did you think it was?"

"Well, I thought, well  -  now it's your turn. What's your favorite movie?"

Lena leaned close to Tuck and searched his eyes to see if he might be joking. Tuck batted his eyelashes, trying to look innocent.

"Who are you?" Lena finally asked.

"I told you."

"But, what's wrong with you? You shouldn't be so  -  so calm, while I'm a nervous wreck. Have you done this kind of thing before?"

"Sure. Are you kidding? I'm a pilot, I've eaten in restaurants all over the world."

"Not dinner, you idiot! I know you've had dinner before! What, are you retarded?"

"Okay, now everybody is looking. You can't just say 'retarded' in public like that  -  people take offense because, you know, many of them are. You're supposed to say 'developmentally disabled. "

Lena stood up and threw her napkin on the table. "Tucker, thank you for helping me, but I can't do this. I'm going to go talk to the police."

She turned and stormed through the restaurant toward the door.

"We'll be back," Tuck called to the waitress. He nodded to the nearby tables. "Sorry. She's a little high-strung. She didn't mean to say 'retarded. " Then he went after Lena, snatching his leather jacket off the back of his chair as he went.

He caught up with her as she was rounding the corner of the building into the parking lot. He caught her by the shoulder and spun her around, making sure that she saw that he was smiling when she completed the turn. Blinking Christmas lights played red and green highlights across her dark hair, making the scowl she was aiming at him seem festive.

"Leave me alone, Tucker. I'm going to the police. I'll just explain that it was just an accident."

"No. I won't let you. You can't."

"Why can't I?"

"Because I'm your alibi."

"If I turn myself in, I won't need an alibi."

"I know."

"Well?"

"I want to spend Christmas with you."

Lena softened, her eyes going wide, the swell of a tear watering up in one eye. "Really?"

"Really." Tuck was more than a little uncomfortable with his own honesty  -  he was standing like someone had just poured hot coffee in his lap and he was trying to keep the front of his pants from touching him.

Lena held out her arms and Tuck walked into them, guiding her hands inside his jacket and around his ribs. He rested his cheek against her hair and took a deep breath, enjoying the smell of her shampoo and the residual pine scent picked up from handling the Christmas trees. She didn't smell like a murderer  -  she smelled like a woman.

"Okay," she whispered. "I don't know who you are, Tucker Case, but I think I'd like to spend Christmas with you, too."

She buried her face in his chest and held him until there was a thump against his back, followed by a loud scratching noise on his jacket. She pushed him back just as the fruit bat peeked his little doggie face over the pilot's shoulder and barked. Lena leaped back and screamed like a bunny in a blender.

"What in the hell is that?" she asked, backing across the parking lot.

"Roberto," Tuck said. "I mentioned him before."

"This is too weird. Too weird." Lena began to chant and pace in a circle, glancing up at Tuck and his bat every couple of seconds. She paused. "He's wearing sunglasses."

"Yeah, and don't think it's easy finding Ray-Bans in a fruit-bat medium."

Meanwhile, up at the Santa Rosa Chapel, Constable Theophilus Crowe had finally caught up to the fugitive Christmas tree. He trained the headlights of the Volvo on the suspect evergreen and stood behind the car door for cover. If he'd had a public-address system he would have used it to issue commands, but since the county had never given him one, he shouted.

"Get out of the vehicle, hands first, and turn and face me!"

If he'd had a weapon he would have drawn it, but he'd left his Glock on the top shelf of his closet next to Molly's old nicked-up broadsword. He realized that the car door was actually only providing cover to the lower third of his body, and he reached down and rolled up the window. Then, feeling awkward, he slammed the door and loped toward the Christmas tree.

"Goddammit, come out of the tree. Right now!"

He heard a car window whiz down and then a voice. "Oh my, Officer, you are so forceful." A familiar voice. Somewhere under there was a Honda CRV  -  and the woman he had married.

"Molly?" He should have known. Even when she stayed on her meds, as she had promised she would, she could still be "artistic." Her term.

The branches of the big pine tree shuffled and out stepped his wife, wearing a green Santa hat, jeans, red sneakers, and a jean jacket with studs down the sleeves. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail that trailed down her back. She might have been a biker elf. She rushed out of the branches as if she were ducking the blades of a helicopter, then ran to his side.

"Look at this magnificent son of a bitch!" She gestured to the tree, put her arm around his waist, pulled him close, humped his leg a little. "Isn't it great?"

"It certainly is  -  uh, large. How'd you get it on the car?

"Took some time. I hoisted it up on some ropes, then drove under it. Do you think there'll be a flat spot where it dragged on the road?"

Theo looked the tree up and down, back and forth, watched the car exhaust boiling out of the branches. He wasn't sure he wanted to know, but he had to ask. "You didn't buy this at the hardware store, did you?"

"No, there was a problem with that. But I saved a ton of money. Cut it myself. Completely totaled my broadsword, but look at this son of a bitch. Look at this glorious bastard!"

"You cut it down with your sword?" Theo wasn't so worried about what she had cut it down with, but from where she'd cut it. He had a secret in the forest near their cabin.

"Yeah. We don't have a chain saw that I don't know about, do we?"

"No." Actually they did, in the garage, hidden behind some paint cans. He'd hidden it when her «artistic» moments had been more frequent. "That's not the problem, sweetie. I think the problem is that it's too big."

"No," she said, walking the length of the tree now, pausing to jump through the branches and turn off the Honda's engine. "That's where you're wrong. Observe, double doors into the chapel."

Theo observed. The chapel did, indeed, have double doors. There was a single mercury lamp illuminating the gravel parking lot, but he could clearly see the little white chapel, the shadows of gravestones showing dimly behind it  -  a graveyard where they'd been planting Pine Covers for a hundred years.

"And the ceiling in the main room is thirty feet tall at the peak. This tree is only twenty-nine feet tall. We pull it through the doors backward and stand that baby up. I'll need your help, but, you know, you don't mind."

"I don't?"

Molly pulled open her jean jacket and flashed Theo, exposing his favorite breasts, right down to the shiny scar that ran across the top of the right one, cocked up like a curious purple eyebrow. It was like unexpectedly running into two tender friends, both a little pale from being out of the sun, a tad humbled by time, but with alert pink noses upturned by the night chill. And as quickly as they appeared, the jacket was pulled shut and Theo felt like he'd been shut out in the cold.

"Okay, I don't mind," he said, trying to buy time for the blood to return to his brain. "How do you know the ceiling is thirty feet tall?"

"From our wedding pictures. I cut you out and used you to measure the whole building. It was just under five Theos tall."

"You cut up our wedding pictures?"

"Not the good ones. Come on, help me get the tree off the car." She turned quickly and her jacket fanned out behind her.

"Molly, I wish you wouldn't go out like that."

"You mean like this?" She turned, lapels in hand.

And there they were again, his pink-nosed friends.

"Let's get the tree set up and then do it in the graveyard, okay?" She jumped a little for emphasis and Theo nodded, following the recoil. He suspected that he was being manipulated, enslaved by his own sexual weakness, but he couldn't quite figure out why that was a bad thing. After all, he was among friends.

"Sweetheart, I'm a peace officer, I can't  - »

"Come on, it will be nasty." She said nasty like it meant delicious, which is what she meant.

"Molly, after five years together, I'm not sure we're supposed to be nasty." But even as he said it, Theo was moving toward the big evergreen, looking for the ropes that secured it to the Honda.

Over in the graveyard, the dead, who had been listening all along, began to murmur anxiously about the new Christmas tree and the impending sex show.

They'd heard it all, the dead: crying children, wailing widows, confessions, condemnations, questions that they could never answer; Halloween dares, raving drunks-invoking the ghosts or just apologizing for drawing breath; would-be witches, chanting at indifferent spirits, tourists rubbing the old tombstones with paper and charcoal like curious dogs scratching at the grave to get in. Funerals, confirmations, communions, weddings, square dances, heart attacks, junior-high hand jobs, wakes gone awry, vandalism, Handel's Messiah, a birth, a murder, eighty-three Passion plays, eighty-five Christmas pageants, a dozen brides barking over tombstones like taffeta sea lions as the best man gave it to them dog style, and now and again, couples who needed something dark and smelling of damp earth to give their sex life a jolt: the dead had heard it.

"Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah!" Molly cried from her seat astraddle the town constable, who was squirming on an uncomfortable bed of plastic roses a few feet above a dead schoolteacher.

"They always think they're the first ones. Ooooo, let's do it in the graveyard," said Bess Leander, whose husband had served her foxglove tea with her last breakfast.

"I know, there are three used condoms on my grave from this week alone," said Arthur Tannbeau, citrus farmer, deceased five years.

"How can you tell?"

They heard everything, but their vision was limited.

"The smell."

"That's disgusting," said Esther, the schoolteacher.

It's hard to shock the dead. Esther was feigning disgust.

"What's all the racket? I was sleeping." Malcolm Cowley, antique book dealer, myocardial infarction over Dickens.

"Theo Crowe, the constable, and his crazy wife doing it on Esther's grave," said Arthur. "I'll bet she's off her meds."

"Five years they've been married and they're still at this kind of thing?" Since her death, Bess had taken a strong antirelationship stance.

"Postmarital sex is so pedestrian." Malcolm again, ever bored with provincial, small-town death.

"Some postmortem sex, that's what I could use," said the late Marty in the Morning, KGOB radio's top DJ with a bullet  -  a pioneer carjack victim back when hair bands ruled the airwaves. "A rave in the grave, if you get my meaning."

"Listen to her. I'd like to slip the bone to her," said Jimmy Antalvo, who'd kissed a pole on his Kawasaki to remain ever nineteen.

"Which one?" Marty cackled.

"The new Christmas tree sounds lovely," said Esther. "I do hope they sing 'Good King Wenceslas' this year."

"If they do," spouted the moldy book dealer, "you'll find me justly spinning in my grave."

"You wish," said Jimmy Antalvo. "Hell, I wish."

The dead did not spin in their graves, they did not move  -  nor could they speak, except to one another, voices without air. What they did was sleep, awakening to listen, to chat a bit, then, eventually, to never wake again. Sometimes it took twenty years, sometimes as long as forty before they took the big sleep, but no one could remember hearing a voice from longer ago than that.

Six feet above them, Molly punctuated her last few convulsive climactic bucks with, "I  -  AM  -  SO  -  GOING  -  TO  -  WASH  -  YOUR  -  VOLVO  -  WHEN  -  WE  -  GET  -  HOME! YES! YES! YES!"

Then she sighed and fell forward to nuzzle Theo's chest as she caught her breath.

"I don't know what that means," Theo said.

"It means I'm going to wash your car for you."

"Oh, it's not a euphemism, like, wash the old Volvo. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge?"

"Nope. It's your reward."

Now that they were finished, Theo was having a hard time ignoring the plastic flowers that were impressed in his bare backside. "I thought this was my reward." He gestured to her bare thighs on either side of him, the divots her knees had made in the dirt, her hair played out across his chest.

Molly pushed up and looked down at him. "No, this was your reward for helping me with the Christmas tree. Washing your car is your reward for this."

"Oh," Theo said. "I love you."

"Oh, I think I'm going to be sick," said a newly dead voice from across the woods.

"Who's the new guy?" asked Marty in the Morning.

The radio on Theo's belt, which was down around his knees, crackled. "Pine Cove Constable, come in. Theo?"

Theo did an awkward sit-up and grabbed the radio. "Go ahead, Dispatch."

"Theo, we have a two-oh-seven-A at six-seven-one Worchester Street. The victim is alone and the suspect may still be in the area. I've dispatched two units, but they're twenty minutes out."

"I can be there in five minutes," Theo said.

"Suspect is a white male, over six feet, long blond hair, wearing a long black raincoat or overcoat."

"Roger, Dispatch. I'm on my way." Theo was trying to pull his pants up with one hand while working the radio with the other.

Molly was on her feet already, naked from the waist down, holding her jeans and sneakers rolled up under her left arm. She extended a hand to help Theo up.

"What's a two-oh-seven?"

"Not sure," said Theo, letting her lever him to his feet. "Either an attempted kidnapping or a possum with a handgun."

"You have plastic flowers stuck to your butt."

"Probably the former, she didn't say anything about shots fired."

"No, leave them. They're cute."

    

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