stories from home
By Paul Coren
I should have known the instant
the dame walked through my door, two weeks before Christmas, that
she'd be trouble. She was not what I might have expected. I'd have
calculated short, dumpy, old; but if anything, she looked down at
my 6'1" when I escorted her in; she was immaculate in her backless
red dress trimmed with white, black stockings and matching red pumps;
and she was young -- apparently, blonde -- probably, and a looker
definitely. As she sat down, I could see teardrops like transparent
pearls rolling down her cheeks.
"Mr. Barlowe," she said, now crying
aloud, "I'm afraid my husband is cheating on me. Can you help
"Slow down, ma'am," I replied. "Let's
start at the beginning. What's your name?"
"Ingrid," she replied, and waited
for me to say something. She was definitely a blond. She went on,
"Oh, Claus, Ingrid Claus. I'm sure you know my husband, Santa
-- everybody does." And at that she started leaking again.
"He's been cheating on me, I'm sure."
I considered this. Then, "Go ahead, sweetheart,
spill it all," and she did. Turns out she and Santa did it
364 nights a year. Santa was energetic, and there wasn't much else
to do at the North Pole besides make toys and love. But on Christmas
Eve, Santa left her behind. Ingrid looked at me pointedly, to see
if I caught her drift. I did. Hundreds of millions of children to
deliver presents to. That meant lots of mothers. Many single, or
divorced, or just lonely; some drunk on eggnog, or with morals at
a holiday ebb, or else just grateful. She was right about opportunity:
the odds were stacked high in Santa's favor. If he were so inclined.
But opportunity, I pointed out, was no crime. "A
woman knows!," she whispered, and started sobbing again.
I tried to dissuade her. Despite what she said, she
didn't know, I thought, or she wouldn't be here. And keeping a tail
on Santa - that would be dicey and then some. Plus, if she were
right, it was maybe too much information to keep a lid on. Scandal.
Headlines. Millions of people, children, would be hurt. "In
my experience," I said, "people are better off not knowing.
. . Come on Mrs. Claus, even if it's true, it's only one night a
year. Even a good man's a man." At that, she broke down completely.
And so, with an ample retainer in hand, I went after Santa. I'd
stopped believing in him years ago anyway.
Santa would be a tough nut to crack. No one's allowed
at the North Pole except Mr. and Mrs. Claus and Santa's elves. And
when Santa's on the move, he moves fast. Hundreds of millions of
deliveries in one night: the big package delivery companies could
dream - but Santa was out of their league.
I wasn't a gumshoe for nothing, however. I had a reputation
to maintain and a client to please - whatever that might mean. One
sleepless night and a dozen neat scotches later, I had a plan.
I traveled to the far north, prowling lowlife bars
above the Arctic Circle - Prudhoe Bay, Inuvik, Murmansk, Polyarny
and a dozen other freezing gin joints - until I found what I was
looking for. A nameless town in Greenland at about 80 degrees north
latitude; a smoky bar; a group of unusually small men with watch
caps over their ears and a greenish cast to their skin. One of them
in particular sweating and twitching, hopped up on something besides
the beer and vodka in front of him. I introduced myself and sat
next to him. A dozen vodkas later, I made my move.
"So, you work hard."
"Damn right," he replied. "364 days
"Pay? Pay? It's a labor of love," he laughed
bitterly. "The hours are non-stop, and so's the pressure."
"So," I said, "if you have to crank
up a little, here and there, you've got good reason, right?"
He eyed me suspiciously, then said, slowly, "That's
right. What's it to you?"
"Relax, I'm a friend. I can help you," I
said, showing my cash, "if you help me."
$10,000 later, I'd turned an elf down the garden path
for the first and last time. It can be a dirty business.
Two weeks later, back home, I sat in front of my computer on Christmas
Eve and waited. The little black button I'd had the elf sew to Santa's
red tunic should start transmitting soon. Satellite uplink, downlink,
through hacked government computers, and ultimately out a system
back door to my home in West Covina.
The screen flickered on and there he was, apparently
holding his red tunic in front of him and moving it closer, until
only his eyeball was visible, and then further away, so I could
see his whole head and chest.
"Ho, ho, ho," he said, "testing, ho-ho-ho,
testing. Darn thing seems to be working alright."
"The real Mrs. Claus is not the jealous type,
Mr. Barlowe," Santa said to the button. "You have not
been a nice boy this year." Santa had that last part right,
at least. With a flicker, the screen went black. And then, with
a crash, my whole world went black.
It was still dark when I woke up. I had a lump the
size of a walnut on the back of my skull, and the thugs who'd slugged
me had also taken my computer. But the light had gone on inside
my head. The dame had played me for a sucker!
A few days research on the web confirmed it. There,
on the company website, was a picture of her, the tall, blond, sobbing,
good-looker: Ingrid Clawson, executive vp of corporate affairs for
a major package delivery company. The play: to learn Santa's delivery
methods, or expose him as a cheating husband, or both. Either way,
Santa loses, the delivery company wins. And if they steal the goods
from me, it can never be traced back to them.
They'd figured me perfectly. And maybe to show
me their long reach and to ensure I'd keep my mouth shut, the computer
and books and clothing I'd ordered online that year were never delivered.
But Santa, at least, was still out of their league: they got nothing
on him, and my kids toys made it under the Christmas Tree just fine.
It turns out, maybe, that even in this dirty little puddle of a
world, it's still OK to believe in Santa Claus.
Despite the setting of this story, Paul Coren's
home is not Los Angeles: he lives in Santa Cruz, California, where
all the yoga instructors and the waves are above average. Since not
much is noir in idyllic Santa Cruz except the cost of housing (and,
this being California, the traffic), he has to make do with whatever's
at hand. Hence "Christmas Noir," which was written to be
performed at a friend's holiday dinner party. In fact, most of his
work - short stories, dialogues, plays and screenplays -- is written
and performed for the amusement of his friends.
When he's not writing or playing racquetball, Paul practices yoga
and qigong, and is learning how to sit quietly. He also practices
law in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.