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Jolly Old St. Nicholas: A Christmas Mystery Short Story

IN THE December 21 ISSUE

FROM THE 2012 Articles,
andMysteryrat's Maze
SECTIONS

by Jim Cort

As Christmas day gets near, we have one more never before published Christmas mystery short story for your holiday reading.

“Jolly old Saint Nicholas, lean your ear this way. Don’t you tell a single soul what I’m going to say.”

“So my kid says, ‘I don’t think there is any Santa Claus.’” Detective Sergeant Stan Gawecki ate the last of his cruller and took another sip of coffee from the paper cup.

Detective Mick Ashford said, “Who’s this? Tommy?” and stopped the car at a red light. He was a big black man, six inches taller than his partner. He and Gawecki had been together for almost five years.

“Yeah. Eight years old, he is,” said Gawecki. “Where does he get this stuff, eight years old?”

“So what did you do?” said Ashford. The light changed and he eased the car through the downtown traffic. Market Street was festooned with tired red plastic garland stretched from light pole to light pole. Attached to each light pole at a height of seven feet, green plastic Christmas trees alternated with red and white Santas. They looked ghastly in the street lights.

“I told him, if there’s no Santa Claus, who fills you and Becky’s stockings?”

“What’d he say to that?”

“He said, ‘You and Mommy do it after we’re in bed.’ Just like that. Eight years old.”

“Kid’s a detective,” said Ashford. He made a right turn onto a side street, leaving downtown behind, and the traffic lessened.

“What’d you say then?”

“I didn’t know what to say,” said Gawecki. “I was stumped. But then Eleanor says, ‘If that’s true, then who fills up Daddy’s and my stocking?’ Stopped him dead in his tracks. He hadn’t thought about that.” He finished his coffee, crushed the cup and dropped it in the plastic litterbag dangling from the window handle. The litterbag had been Ashford’s idea.

“So he agreed to go?” said Ashford. He could see a cruiser parked at the far end of the next block.

“Yeah, we all went down to the ball field and watched Santa Claus land in his helicopter. Jeez, there must have been a million kids there. I’m glad I’m not in uniform anymore. That’s a thankless job, crowd control.”

“It is that.” Ashford parked behind the cruiser and they both got out in front of Sweeney’s Pub.

They walked through the raw December cold to the blacktop parking lot behind the building. Gawecki flashed the potsie and a uniform neither of them knew lifted the tape and they ducked under. The first thing they saw was a yellow Camaro parked in a space near the back. The next thing they saw was the blood.

There was a ragged semicircle of blood on the blacktop. A dark smear ran from the semicircle across the parking lot to a ditch about eight feet away. A single foot in a tan work boot protruded from the rim of the ditch.

Jack Napolitano, the county medical examiner, came out of the ditch and joined them. “Mick. Hey, Stan. How’s Eleanor and the kids?”

“Fine, Jack,” said Gawecki. “How’s Grace?”

“Compared to what?” Napolitano gestured back to the ditch “Looks like our old friend the blunt instrument, multiple blows. I don’t think he felt the last few. Back of his head’s like pudding.”

“When, Jack?” said Gawecki.

“It was pretty cold last night,” said Napolitano, “but I’d say he’s been dead eight, ten hours.”

“So, between one and three o’clock this morning?”

“Yeah, somewhere in there. We’re ready to pack him up and get out of here. You want to take a look?”

They didn’t, but they did.

According to his driver’s license, the victim was Harry Broderick, white male, five feet seven, one hundred and seventy pounds, brown and blue, 31 years old. Address on Purchase Street. His wallet was still in his pants with eighteen dollars in it. The other pockets held a pack of Camels, a matchbook from someplace called T&A Lounge with a phone number and the name “Mindy” written inside, a ring of keys, eighty-seven cents in change, a stubby pencil and a soiled blue bandanna. They bagged it all. Ashford called in the Camaro and it turned out to be Broderick’s.

The two of them went back to the ring of blood.

Ashford stepped back, his soft brown eyes darting from place to place on the blacktop. “The killer came from behind,” he said and pointed to the red semicircle. “Hit him here, once, maybe twice, and knocked him down.”

“And then went to work on him,” Gawecki said.

“And had time enough to dump the body when he was done,” Ashford finished.

A uniform named Deitz walked up with a fair-haired bearded man dressed in dungarees, a flannel shirt and a green fiberfill vest. “This is Walter Jobs,” she said. “He’s the day bartender here at Sweeney’s. He’s the one who found the body.

“Tell us what happened, Mr. Jobs,” said Gawecki.

Jobs said, “I don’t usually come in this early–”

“About what time was that, sir?” said Ashford.

“I’d say about quarter to nine,” said Wally Jobs. “Anyway, I saw the Camaro parked over there, but didn’t think too much about it. There’s not that much parking on the street and sometimes people park in the lot overnight. I don’t bother about it. They’re usually gone by lunchtime.

“If I hadn’t dropped my keys when I was locking the car I don’t think I woulda seen the blood. But I did drop ‘em and there it was, all that blood, and then I saw the foot, and then I went straight inside and called you guys.”

Ashford said, “Would you know if this guy was in the bar last night?”

“Nah. I get off at six. You wanna talk to the night man, Charlie Novack.” He pulled a dog-eared paper from his wallet and read them Novack’s phone number.

“Thank you, Mr. Jobs.” Gawecki handed him one of his cards. “If you think of anything else, please give us a call.”

“Yeah, sure,” said Walter Jobs. “Can I open up now?”

“Not today, sir.”

As they walked back to the car, Ashford said, “How’d Becky like it, the Santa Claus thing?”

“She loved it,” said Gawecki. “She wasn’t too sure at first about getting on his lap, but that guy they had playing Santa, he did a real good job, put her right at ease. Different guy from last year. Eleanor took a ton of pictures.” They reached the car and Ashford unlocked it.

Ashford said, “So, looks like Santa is safe for another year.”

“Looks like,” said Gawecki. “You want me to drive?”

“You drive like an old lady, Stan.” Ashford got in and unlocked the passenger door. “I always figured Santa Claus was a white folks’ problem,” he said. “We got Kwanzaa.”

“Yeah, what the hell is that, anyway?” said Gawecki, as they drove away.

#

Linda Broderick stared at Ashford and Gawecki when they told her. She was an average-sized woman with delicate features. She was dressed in a plaid flannel shirt and an oversized blue cardigan and blue jeans. She had brown curly hair, small brown eyes and a tiny nose, and full lips around a small mouth. Her makeup was heavy, and under her left eye the greenish remains of an old bruise showed through.

She and the two detectives were sitting at the kitchen table of the first floor of her two family house on Purchase Street. Through the doorway they could see a four or five year old boy watching TV.

“What’s going to happen to the station?” Linda Broderick finally said.

Gawecki said, “Ma’am?”

“The gas station,” Linda Broderick said. “Harry owned the Mogas station on Dwyer Road. That’s our only source of income aside from a little rental money. I don’t work. I was just wondering what was going to happen now…”

“I don’t know, Ma’am,” said Gawecki. There was a pause and Linda Broderick began plucking at something they couldn’t see on the sleeve of her sweater. Her fingernails were cut short and the red polish on them was chipped.

“We need to ask you a few questions, Mrs. Broderick,” Gawecki said, “about your husband, about his movements last night.”

I don’t know anything about that,” said Linda Broderick. “He didn’t come home last night.”

“Weren’t you concerned?”

“No, he did that sometimes, not come home.”

“Do you know where he might have been?” said Ashford.

“No.”

There were unwashed dishes in the sink and crumbs and an open loaf of bread on the counter. A small puddle of milk lay on the table from the bowl of Froot Loops that she had hastily cleared away. Gawecki shifted in his chair to make room to cross his big legs and noticed on the windowsill over the sink a small green plastic pot holding a single perfect geranium.

“Mrs. Broderick,” he said, “your husband was found in the parking lot of a bar on Devon Street called Sweeney’s Pub. Does that name sound familiar to you? Do you know if it was his habit to go there?”

“I guess he went to bars all right. Sometimes when he did come home, I could tell he’d been drinking. But that name doesn’t mean anything to me. I never knew where he went.” She sounded uninterested, as though she were reporting things she had heard about someone else.

Ashford said, “Does the name Mindy mean anything to you?” and when he was met with a blank stare, he asked, “Mrs. Broderick, do you know if your husband was seeing another woman?”

“I don’t know, maybe,” said Linda Broderick. “Harry never said anything.”

“Would you know of any enemies he had?” said Gawecki, “Someone who might want to harm him?”

“No. Harry had kind of a temper. I guess he could have gotten someone mad at him, but I couldn’t say who.”

She gave them a snapshot of Harry when they asked her. He was sitting in an armchair with the boy in his lap. “Harry and I got married right out of high school,” she said. “He was captain of the football team. I was a cheerleader. That’s how we met.”

Gawecki waited to see if she wanted to say anything else, and when she didn’t, took a card from his pocket and handed it to her. “We’ll be going now, Mrs. Broderick. If you think of anything that might help us, please call me at that number. Thank you for your time.”

“Sorry about your loss,” said Ashford.

They all stood and Linda Broderick paused to look into the living room at the little boy watching TV. “I guess I’ll have to tell Ricky,” she said.

On the TV a cartoon Santa was telling a sobbing cartoon girl that Frosty was made of Christmas snow and so could never really die.

#

Leo Moss was a tall, thin man with a scruffy beard and bloodshot eyes. “I figure I’ll stay here until someone tells me to go,” he said. “It’s not like I got a lot of other irons in the fire, you know what I mean?”

Gawecki said, “Yeah.”

“Do you know what she’s gonna do with the place, the wife?”

“No,” said Gawecki.

The office they were in was cramped, dusty, and smelled of petroleum. A metal desk and chair took up most of the room and against the opposite wall was a vending machine. Gawecki glanced at it but the few snacks it contained looked very old and he lost interest. Through a doorway to the left they could see the work bay: tools lying on the oil-stained floor and a blue Plymouth on the lift. In the corner cases of motor oil were piled shoulder-high in three stacks. Ashford touched Gawecki’s arm and pointed at the cases. Gawecki nodded. Ashford strolled over to the cases while Gawecki spoke to Leo.

“Can we ask you about Monday night?”

“Yeah, sure,” said Leo.

There was a pause and then Gawecki had to say, “What happened Monday night?”

“Nothin’ happened. Everything was like always. Harry left about five o’clock, like he always did. Said he was going to Sweeney’s.”

“Who was here when he left?” said Gawecki.

“Just me and this guy Sid. He works part time a coupla hours nights.”

“Sid who?” said Gawecki.

“Carlton. Sid Carlton. He lives over on Preiss Avenue someplace.”

Gawecki wrote it down.

“Anyway,” Leo went on, “he left, and me and Sid stayed till eight, and then I locked up and we went home.”

“Anything unusual happen? Did anyone come by looking for Harry, or anything like that?”

“Nah. His old lady called, but she did that sometimes.”

“Harry’s wife.”

“Yeah.”

“What did she want?”

“Wanted Harry, I guess. I didn’t take the call. I see Sid on the phone and I hear him say, ‘He’s over at Sweeney’s’ and then he hangs up. So I ask him who was that, and he says the wife. So I tell him, Harry don’t like us telling his wife where he is. We’re supposed to say, you know, ‘He’s out,’ or ‘He’s not here,’ or something. Harry used to get real pissed about that.”

“What time was this?” said Gawecki.

“Seven, seven thirty, something like that.”

“What kind of a guy was Harry? Who’d he hang around with? Did he have any friends?”

“He didn’t have no friends that I knew about.
He had this temper, you know? You talk to him long enough, you wind up in a fight.”

“Did you ever fight with him?” said Gawecki.

“Nah,” said Leo. “I get along with everybody. It’s a gift.”

“Yeah. What about girlfriends?” said Gawecki.

“All the time to hear him talk. He liked ‘em with big fronts.”

“Somebody named Mindy?”

“Could be. I didn’t pay much attention. I figured he was bullshitting most of the time.”

“One more thing,” said Ashford from the stacks of cases, “where’d you get this oil?”

“I don’t know nothin’ about that,” said Leo.

“The lot numbers check against a shipment that was stolen last week. How did it get here?”

“A coupla guys delivered it.”

“What guys?”

“Hey, a coupla guys, that’s all. They talked to Harry. These guys, they were…you know–” He flattened his nose with a grimy finger. “I didn’t ask no questions.”

Gawecki said, “They come in a truck or a car or what?”

Leo hesitated.

“A truck or a car or what?”

“A truck, a panel truck.”

“Company name?” said Ashford.

“Aw, Jeez…”

“Come on, Leo.”

“Dun-Right,” said Leo, “Dun-Right Plumbing.”

“That’s a good boy,” said Gawecki.

#

“Charlie Novack, the night man at Sweeney’s, said Harry was pretty much of a regular. He said Harry came in Monday night about ten.”

Ashford and Gawecki were sitting in Lieutenant Kraft’s office, bringing him up to date. “Harry was by himself,” Gawecki went on, “and already pretty drunk. He proceeded to get a whole lot drunker and left about 2:30, also by himself. Nobody went out after him as far as Novack could see. The place was pretty much empty by then. Novack closed the place up at 3 a.m. and left.

Kraft said, “He didn’t notice the body or the car?”

“Says he left by the front door and walked home, which was only a block away on Dix. He never went near the parking lot. Didn’t see Harry; didn’t see his car; didn’t see anyone hanging around.”

“What else?” said Kraft.

“We’ve got the autopsy report.” Said Ashford. He read, “No defensive wounds. Murder weapon looks to be a metal bar or pipe. Time of death is between one and three AM Tuesday, but we know from this guy Charlie that Broderick left there alone around two-thirty. We figure that’s when he was attacked, since he never made it out of the parking lot.”

Kraft said, “Somebody was waiting for him.”

“That’s what we think,” said Gawecki.

“How does the oil fit into to this?”

Ashford said, “The oil is definitely from the shipment that got boosted last week over on York Street. Word is the Testaverde family is involved, and Dun-Right Plumbing is one of their fronts. It’s possible someone with a temper like Harry’s could rub these people the wrong way.

“But the big news,” said Gawecki,” is Linda Broderick. Turns out she’s been a frequent visitor to the Emergency room at Sacred Heart over the past four years.” He referred to a sheaf of papers in his lap. “August ’06: Two cracked ribs. Said she fell down the back steps. January ’07: broken arm. Said she slipped on the ice. Another broken rib…Then April, ’09: dislocated shoulder. Wouldn’t say how that happened. Looks like Harry’s been smacking her around. I figure she gets tired of being a punching bag, waits for Harry outside Sweeney’s and bops him when he comes out.”

“Maybe,” Ashford put in, ”but I don’t think we should forget the Testaverde angle.”

Lieutenant Kraft looked from one to the other.
“Keep checking up on her. Look into the Testaverde thing, too. Here’s something else: This Leo character told you Harry said he was heading for Sweeney’s at five p.m.. But the night man says he didn’t get there till ten.”

Gawecki said, “Yeah?”

“So where was he?”

They talked to Mindy. She was a young shapely black girl with flaming red hair and a big front. She was a dancer at the T&A Lounge and had been seeing Harry for a few weeks. She said Harry spent a couple of hours with her and left her place about eight o’clock.

There were half a dozen matchbooks from various bars in the station’s desk drawer. They used them as a sort of tour guide, trying to fill in the two hours from the time he left Mindy to the time he showed up at Sweeney’s. They tried the Elite, Wally’s Go-Go Paradise, and The 119 Club. Everybody knew Harry, but nobody had seen him on Monday night. At Donn’s Early Light on Montgomery Street, it was a different story.

“Monday night? Yeah he was here.” Jim Donn handed the picture back. “Drinking boilermakers and giving everybody a pain. One of those mean drunks, you know? After a couple hours I had to ask him to leave.”

“When was this?” asked Gawecki. He helped himself to handful of peanuts from the bowl on the bar.

“About quarter to ten.”

“How’d he take that?”

“He wasn’t happy about it, but he went. Thing is, I began to worry maybe he couldn’t drive like he was. I followed him out into the parking lot and tried to get him to take a cab, but he wouldn’t do it. Took a swing at me and told me to go to hell. So I decided screw it and let him go.”

“Did he have a fight with anyone while he was here?” Gawecki ate a few more peanuts.

“You want a beer or something with those?” said Jim Donn.

Gawecki said, “Naw,” and ate a few more.

“Any fights?” said Ashford.

“Nothing serious. Nickel-and-dime stuff, you know. Just like, insults. Nobody in particular.”

“Anybody with him when he left?”

“No, he left by himself. There was one thing, though. I kinda thought somebody was tailing him.”

“What makes you say that?” asked Gawecki. The peanuts were all gone. Jim Donn didn’t offer to refill the bowl.

“Well,” said Donn, “he got into that yellow Camaro of his and pulled out, and another car at the far end of the lot put on its lights and pulled out right after him. It looked like whoever was in that car had been sitting there waiting.”

“What kind of car?”

“I didn’t see it too good in the dark. It was a little car.”

“Like a sports car?” said Ashford.

“No, kinda boxy. A compact car.”

“You didn’t recognize the car?”

“No, like I said, I didn’t see it too good in the dark,” said Donn. He shook his head. “It’s a shame what happened to that guy, and so close to Christmas, too.”

#

Linda Broderick had company when they arrived. There was an elderly man with bushy gray eyebrows she introduced as her uncle, and a young woman in a brown dress she introduced as her cousin. “A tragedy,” said the cousin, “a real tragedy.” The uncle smiled and nodded.

A pudgy man with mild blue eyes and a soft voice was sitting on the sofa. This was Wesley Straker, she said. “Wesley and I went to high school together. I haven’t seen him in years.”

Straker spilled his drink when she introduced him. “I read about it in the papers,” he said as he mopped up the mess with a handful of napkins. “Just stopped by to see if there’s anything I could do.”

Linda was dressed in a plain black dress with a string of pearls. There were chips and dip on the end table. The apartment smelled of coffee brewing. Ricky Broderick was sitting on the rug, apathetically piling up wooden blocks.

The last guest was Mrs. Tartaglia, the Broderick’s tenant who lived upstairs. “But she’s more like a member of the family, really,” said Linda.

Mrs. Tartaglia was a tiny hatchet-faced woman dressed in black and grays with steel gray hair.
She looked like you could strike a light on her. Her expression softened at Linda’s compliment, but then turned flinty again when she turned to face the detectives. She went up to Gawecki and pulled him down to her level by the lapel of his coat. “I got to talk to you,” she said, in a thick Italian accent. She gestured toward Ashford. “I got to talk to both of you there-“ she pointed-“la cucina…in…ah, kitchen. Scusi, Linda.”

Ashford and Gawecki followed the woman into Linda Broderick’s kitchen. They stood by the doorway to keep an eye on the parlor.

Mrs. Tartaglia said, “She’s a good woman.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Gawecki.

“Is no her fault, what happen.”

“Do you mean, her husband, ma’am?”

“Si, si.” She nodded vigorously. “Is his fault. He bring on to himself, capisce?”

In the living room Linda Broderick chatted with the cousin.
The uncle was eating chips and sipping a soda. Wesley Straker reached down and patted Ricky on the head. His foot knocked over the pile of blocks. Ricky ignored him and started stacking them again.

“I know,” Mrs. Tartaglia went on. “I live up there. I can hear. Sometime I hear the bambino, he cry. Is a disgrazia. Is no her fault what happen. Is per defendersi, capisce?

“I don’t think I understand what you’re-“

“Ma!” She made a sweeping gesture with her hand. “You are polizia. I know polizia. All polizia they think the same. I know. You use the law to punish the innocente. She have already be punish long time. Is no right.”

Ashford said, “Ma’am, I don’t know why you think we’re here. Are you saying you know something about Mr. Broderick’s murder?”

Mrs. Tartaglia paused and looked defiantly at both of them. “No, I no say that. I don’t know nothing. But I tell you: you no make trouble. Is no right. Leave Linda alone. Leave the bambino alone. He don’t know nothing. You remember, eh?” She turned on her heel and walked back into the living room.

Ashford looked at Gawecki. “I guess we’re dismissed,” he said.

In the living room, the guests were leaving. Mrs. Tartaglia said, “I take the bambino upstairs, eh?” Her eyes made a not-too-subtle swing toward the detectives.

Linda said, “Oh, sure, Mima, thanks.” She went on with her goodbyes.

“Ricky,” called Mrs. Tartaglia, “vieni qua. Come. Tia Mima got biscotti for you, vieni, gioia.”

Ricky got up and walked across the floor. He allowed Mrs. Tartaglia to give him a big hug. The two of them followed the guests out the door. The old woman paused long enough to give the detectives one last withering glare.

Linda sat in an armchair; Ashford and Gawecki sat on the sofa. There was a Christmas tree in the far corner of the room now, hung with glass and plastic ornaments: balls, crescent moons, cartoon characters, reindeer, skiing Santas, sledding Santas and skating Santas, and girdled by a multicolored chain made of strips of construction paper. Linda said, “What can I do for you?”

“We wanted to ask you again if you had any idea where your husband was on Monday night,” Gawecki said.

“No, I told you, I never knew where he was.”

“The men at the gas station say you phoned about 7:30 that night, and they told you he was at Sweeney’s.”

Linda gave them a blank look. “Maybe I did,” she said, “I don’t remember. I’ve been taking this cold medicine and it leaves me a little fuzzy.”

“Mrs. Broderick, we’ve gotten some information that you’ve sustained quite a few injuries these past years, trips to the emergency room…”

Linda Broderick said nothing.

“We were wondering how you came by those injuries.”

“Accidents. I had some accidents.” Her eyes began darting from one detective to the other.

“Cracked ribs, a broken arm, a dislocated–“

“They were just accidents, that’s all.” Linda’s voice rose in pitch slightly. “I’d fall or bump into something. Just accidents.”

“All right, ma’am. Just two more questions. What kind of a car do you drive?”

“An old Dodge Dart. Harry brought it home one day. Why do you need to know that?”

“And, where were you between 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning on Tuesday?”

Linda Broderick stared at him again. A realization came to her eyes and she started to say something, but stopped herself. I was here,” she said stiffly. “I was in bed asleep.”

“Thank you ma’am. We won’t bother you any more at present.” They both stood up.

Linda Broderick stood as well. “I was a good wife, detective. My husband loved me. And I loved him.”

Back at the precinct, Ashford and Gawecki spoke to Sergeant Fosca at the front desk. “Hey Fosca,” said Gawecki, “somebody said something to us today in Italian. Per defend-what was it?”

“Per defendersi,” said Ashford.

“Yeah,” said Gawecki, “what does that mean?”

Fosca said, “ It means like, protecting yourself.”

“Self-defense?” said Gawecki.

“Yeah, self-defense,” said Fosca.

#

“Detectives, please come and sit down.” Brian Testaverde gestured to two empty chairs at his table. He was dressed in a charcoal suit, pink silk shirt and gray silk tie. His watch was gold and his cufflinks were gold set with rubies. His sleek black hair was expensively styled and his fingernails were impeccably manicured. He was sitting at his favorite table in Zeppole, an upscale Italian restaurant in the financial district. There were no other customers: the place didn’t open for lunch for another half hour.

Ashford and Gawecki sat down.

“You remember Paulie?” said Brian.

Paulie was a stolid lump of man sitting next to Brian whose bulk took up most of one whole side of the table. He looked up from his plate of linguine long enough to say with his mouth full, “Hiya doin’?”

Testaverde said,” Can I order you something?” He gestured to the plate in front of him. “I can recommend the scampi.” He snapped his fingers, and a waiter started toward them.

Gawecki said, “No thanks.”

Ashford shook his head.

Testaverde waved his hand dismissively and the waiter returned to his station. “I take it your visit is official.”

Gawecki took the snapshot of Harry Broderick from his pocket and held it up. “We want to talk about this guy. His name’s Harry Broderick. We think maybe you might have done some business with him.”

“I do business with a lot of people.”

“Yeah, well, this would involve some cases of motor oil from a shipment that was stolen.”

“I understand that sort of thing happens,” said Testaverde.

“These particular cases of oil reached Harry Broderick in a truck from Dun-Right Plumbing. That’s one of your companies, isn’t it?”

Through the window they could see a sidewalk Santa on the other side of the street, ringing his bell forlornly next to a cardboard chimney. He wasn’t doing much business.

“Look at that guy,” said Brian Testaverde, gesturing toward the Santa. “Just some skinny kid in a red suit with a stringy beard hanging off his chin looks more gray than white. Not even a pillow under his coat. You’re supposed to tell your kid, ‘No, this sorry-looking bastard isn’t Santa Claus. He’s one of Santa’s helpers.’ That’s a laugh. Guy looks like he can’t even help himself. You have kids, don’t you, Detective?”

“Is Dun-Right Plumbing one of your companies?” said Gawecki.

“That’s one of my holdings, yes. As I said, I do business with a lot of people. I don’t see why you expect me to remember one particular-“

“We thought there might have been some problem with this Harry Broderick. Maybe something about payment. We think maybe you had to deal with him.

“Somebody killed the guy,” said Ashford.

Testaverde paused for a moment and regarded the two detectives thoughtfully. Paulie kept eating his linguine. Testaverde said, “Listen, I don’t want to get in a big thing here with you accusing and me denying and everybody losing their tempers and saying things they’re going to be sorry for. It’s Christmas time, for God’s sake. This guy getting killed–I guess this little kid’s without a Daddy now. On Christmas. That’s a sin, you know?”

“Yeah, we kinda thought so too,” said Ashford

“Well, I want to cooperate. You want to find out who did this Howard-“

“Harry.”

“Harry. That’s what you’re interested in, am I right?” He pointed to the photograph. “Can I have that a minute?”

Gawecki handed him the photo and Testaverde slid it across the table to Paulie. “Paulie, did we whack this guy?”

Paulie’s eyes rested on Testaverde, then flitted over to the detectives and back to Testaverde again. “Nah, we didn’t whack that guy,” he said, and then went back to eating.

Testaverde picked up the photo and handed it back. “Not one of ours,” he said.

Gawecki took the picture. The two men turned to go.

“Oh, Detective,”

They turned back and Testaverde was holding something in his hand. It was a hundred-dollar bill.

“Buy your kids a Christmas present.” He said with a pleasant grin.

Gawecki stepped up to him and took the bill. “Thanks, Brian.” he said.

Outside, Gawecki strode across the street and Ashford followed. They stopped by the Santa and Gawecki waved at Brian Testaverde through the window. Then he dropped the hundred-dollar bill in Santa’s chimney.

“Merry Christmas,” said the Santa.

“Fix your damn beard,” said Gawecki.

#

A skinny waitress in a red checked apron brought their lunch and went away. Gawecki had the Bar-B-Q Burger with extra onions and fries. Ashford had the tuna plate. “So what did you wind up getting her?” said Ashford.

“A hair dryer.”

“Uh huh.”

“I figure it’s something personal, you know?”

Ashford chewed a scrap of lettuce meditatively, considering his options. Finally he said, “She’ll love it, Stan. Women really go for stuff like that.”

“That’s what I thought,” said Gawecki. He took a bite of his burger and slivers of barbecue onions slid out the other side and patted onto the plate.

“How can you eat that?” said Ashford.

“It’s good,” said Gawecki. “Anyway, I say it’s the wife. She had years’ worth of motive. She’s got no alibi, and a car like hers was seen following Harry around.”

“I don’t know. I can’t see her managing the body.” Ashford took a forkful of tuna salad and a sip of sparkling water.

“You can do what you have to do, Mick.
She lied to us about knowing where he was, she lied about the abuse.”

Ashford said, “A lot of these women are ashamed to say anything, like it’s their own fault or something.”

“Come on, Mick. She lied because she knew it would give her a motive.”

“What about Testaverde? You’re not saying you believe him?”

Gawecki’s napkin came away from his lips with a long terra cotta smear of sauce. He picked up a French fry and pointed with it. “I wouldn’t believe Brian Testaverde if we were both in Hell and he told me it was hot. But this doesn’t feel like a mob thing. It doesn’t feel like business. To hit a guy that many times, that’s personal. You have to know him well enough to hate him.”

“Stan, with Harry Broderick, that wouldn’t take very long. “

“I still say it’s the wife,” said Gawecki. “The old lady practically said so.”

Ashford said, “Yeah,” in an abstracted way.

“What?”

“I’m thinking about what that old lady said.”

“Yeah, self-defense. I’m telling you, it’s the wife.”

“No, not that. ’Leave Linda alone. Leave the bambino alone.’ Remember?

“Yeah?” Gawecki prompted.

“Why would she single out the kid like that?”

#

Ricky Broderick sat on a wooden chair by the principal’s desk with his hands folded in his lap
. He did not raise his eyes.

Mrs. Powers said “We were going to have early dismissal today because of the holiday.”

“It won’t take long, ma’am,” said Ashford.

“I really think his mother should be present.”

“He’s not a suspect, Ma’am, he’s a witness. You can stay right here if you want.”

Gawecki squatted next to Ricky and was sorry he had. He said, “Hello, Ricky.”

Ricky Broderick said “’Lo,” without taking his eyes from the floor.

“Ricky, do you know why I’m here?”

Ricky shrugged.

“We thought there might be something you want to tell us about your daddy.”

Ricky squirmed silently. “Aunt Mima said I shouldn’t tell,” he said at last.

Gawecki said, ”Did you tell your Aunt Mima?”

Ricky said, “I tried to, but she wouldn’t let me. She said I shouldn’t tell. She said it should be a secret.”

Mrs. Powers said, “Detective, I’m not sure–”

Gawecki ignored her.“I know,” he said to Ricky, “but some secrets are too big to keep– secrets about someone getting hurt or someone doing bad things. You knew that. That’s why you wanted to tell Aunt Mima. You can tell me. Did you know I’m a policeman?”

Ricky said nothing.

“Would you like to see my badge?”

Ricky nodded and Gawecki took out the detective’s shield and showed it to him. Ricky’s eyes got very wide. “So you see,” Gawecki said, “you can tell me this secret, and it’d be OK.”

“OK,” said Ricky.

“What would you like to say?”

Ricky’s eyes strayed to the other grown-ups in the room. “I’ll whisper it,” he said, and leaned forward with his hand cupped next to his mouth.

#

Linda Broderick opened the door at Ashford’s knock. She was in a red velvet dress with lace at the neckline and cuffs. Her brown hair was swept up and held in place with a tortoiseshell comb. Her nail polish had been freshly applied.

“Good evening, Mrs. Broderick. May we come in?”

“Can’t this wait?” she asked with an uncomfortable glance back into the room. “I’ve got company.”

“This is important, Ma’am.”

Linda Broderick stepped aside with a resigned shrug and Ashford and Gawecki passed inside.

They were in the living room. A cut-glass dish of ribbon candy sat on the coffee table. The Christmas tree lights were blinking prettily. Wesley Straker was sitting on the sofa. Ricky sat on the floor with a toy truck. He glanced at the detectives when they came in, but then quickly looked away.

Gawecki said, “Hello, Mr. Straker.”

“Oh, hello,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”

“May we talk with you?” said Gawecki.

Linda Broderick said, “Is everything all right?”

“Has there been a development in the case?” said Straker.

“Is there someplace we can go?” said Gawecki.

“The bedroom,” said Linda.

The three men went into the bedroom. Ashford stood by the door way. Straker said, “What’s going on?”

Gawecki said, “Please sit down, sir.”

Straker sat on the bed.

“I spoke with Mr. Mott of the Business Association. He tells me you were the Santa Claus who landed in that helicopter on the–” he glanced at Ashford.

“Fifteenth,” said Ashford.

“Yes, that’s right,” said Straker. This was my first year. The fellow that used to do it retired to Florida. Pretty exciting in that helicopter, let me tell you.”

“Did you see Ricky Broderick on the fifteenth?” said Gawecki.

“Detective, there must have been a couple hundred kids sat on my lap that day. I can’t remember–”

“He remembers you,” said Gawecki. “He told us what he said he wanted for Christmas. Would you like to tell us about that, Mr. Straker?”

Straker drew his tongue over his lips and swallowed. He said, “You know, when Linda was in high school, she looked like an angel. She was so beautiful it hurt your heart to look at her.”

Let him talk, thought Gawecki. Let him take his time. “You were in love with her.”

“That seems like a mild way to put it,” said Straker. “ I could never work up the nerve–She was a cheerleader, had guys flocking around her, rich kids, athletes. I wasn’t anybody. President of the chess club, that’s who I was. Just nobody.

“Then we graduated and she married Harry, the big jock, just like everyone thought she would, and I went on to college. My uncle got me a job here and I came back. I never heard from her, or about her. I thought I’d forgotten her until Ricky sat in my lap there in the football field, and I saw Linda waiting on the grass. She’d changed, but she was still lovely. I got chills. I realized who this little boy was, and I got a chill right down my spine. And then he told me what he wanted for Christmas.”

“What did he tell you, Mr. Straker?” said Gawecki.

“He wanted his Daddy to stop hurting his Mommy. He said his Daddy hit his Mommy and made her cry and it scared him and please couldn’t I–couldn’t Santa-make it stop. That was all he wanted.”

“And what did you say?” said Gawecki.

Straker looked at him with his mild blue eyes. “I told him I would. I promised him it would stop.”

They heard a gasp, and saw Linda at the doorway with her hand to her mouth and her moist brown eyes very wide indeed.

#

Processing Wesley Straker took the better part of two hours. By the time Stan Gawecki got home, a dismal rain had started and the wipers dragged streaks across his windshield.

Gawecki brought the Winfield Sentinel in from the driveway and laid it on the hall table. The front-page story was about the suit brought by the ACLU to block the erection of a manger scene on city property. He could hear the TV in the family room. Santa Claus was asking Rudolph to guide his sleigh through the storm. He also heard his little girl crying.

His wife Eleanor was in the kitchen, surrounded by racks and sheets of cookies, some baked and some unbaked. She gestured with a floured hand. “Can you deal with that?”

Gawecki took a finished cookie and went into the family room. Becky was curled up on the sofa in her pink Barbie pajamas, her back to the glittering Christmas tree. Tiny plastic Santas capered and danced on the boughs. He sat beside her. “Hey, Punkin, want a cookie?”

She shook her head and Gawecki shrugged and ate the cookie himself. “What’s the matter, Punkin?” he said.

Becky rolled over. Her face was red and hot with tears. “Daddy,” she sobbed, “Tommy says there’s no Santa Claus. That’s not true, is it Daddy? Isn’t there a Santa Claus?”

Gawecki gathered her into his lap and hugged her. On the TV, the Snowman sang: Have a holly jolly Christmas! It’s the best time of the year!

“Sure, honey,” he said. “Sure there is.”

You can find more Christmas short stories, in KRL’s Terrific Tales section.

Jim Cort has been writing and publishing stories since 1982. He is a former tech writer, writing instructor, and English teacher. He lives in Northern New Jersey with his wife, daughters, dog, and several uninvited mice.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 E. B. Davis
Twitter: @ebdavis6
December 22, 2012 at 2:18am

Nice story, Jim. I liked the characters and theme, weaving the backstory into the case and proving that Santa Claus exists.
A recent post from E. B. Davis: Splitting ChristmasMy Profile

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2 Jim Cort December 26, 2012 at 8:30am

Thanks, EB. You had doubts about Santa?

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3 Kathleen Puckett December 22, 2012 at 11:23am

This was a very nice surprise. As former law enforcement, the partners rang true to me. Nice foreshadowing with the spilled drink, and good subtlety at the end. Thanks, Jim

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4 Jim Cort December 26, 2012 at 8:32am

Thanks, Kathleen, for your kind words and for the benefit of your experience. It’s very encouraging.

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