The Ghost of Christmas Present (15 page)

BOOK: The Ghost of Christmas Present
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The bartender set down a glass on the bar. “A dram of scotch is what'll get you seated across from the counselor. But your problem will be selecting what label I pour.”

The bartender reached down to the low-shelf well and lifted a scotch bottle with a bagpiper on the label. “Is it strife? You've got a moving violation on your record you'd like moved somewhere else? You've got a zoning issue you'd like reinterpreted for the city?”

The bartender took a bottle off the glass shelf directly behind him bearing a wax seal. “Is it wife? You've got an affair of the heart you'd like to straighten out? Maybe it's your affair. Maybe it's one belonging to your wife. Love has flown out the door and you don't want to be the one stuck with all its droppings.”

Then the bartender nodded high up the bar where just under the ceiling hung a shelf lined with spirits looking as ancient as a pantheon of vintage deities. “Or is it life?” He looked Patrick straight in the face. “No explanation needed.”

“It's life,” Patrick said.

The bartender rolled a ladder down the length of the bar, climbed up its dozen or so steps, and fished down a dark flagon made not of glass or metal, but of stone. The wide man blew off a layer of dust that flew into the air like so many collected years now drifting down to settle on the floor.

Patrick watched the glass fill to the halfway mark.

“That'll be forty dollars.”

Patrick's face fell. It was the price of a top-shelf drink in Monte Carlo, maybe. And this place wasn't Monte Carlo. But Patrick paid from the street money the cops had given back to him, then set down a generous tip. “Merry Christmas.”

Patrick picked up the glass and turned to go, but the bartender suddenly grabbed his arm without spilling the expensive liquor. At first Patrick thought he'd offended him, but the bartender simply raised the stone flagon again and topped off the glass.

“God's grace to your life.”

Chapter 21


rom the looks of the man who glanced up at him from the wood booth, Patrick was going to need all of God's grace he could get.

The man's hair was as white and disheveled as a wintry trash heap. Both eyes were road-mapped with dead-end blood vessels. And the only thing redder than his cheeks was his nose, which had enough blue mixed into its bulbous flesh to flirt with purple.

The man addressed Patrick, “Do you stand before me with a purpose? Or have you picked this very spot to forever lead the life of a statue?”

“I have a purpose,” Patrick answered.

“I would say your primary purpose is to set that glass before me. If you wish to pursue a second purpose, you may take a seat. But the latter is of small consequence to me compared to the former.”

Patrick put the glass down in front of the ruddy fellow and took a seat in the booth across from him. “Mr. McManus, I've come to ask your—”

But Patrick was silenced by a raised left hand that slightly shook as Mr. McManus, keeping his right hand on the table, closed his eyes and lowered his lips to the glass, taking a large sip of the liquor. He let the alcohol travel through his veins to work a path into his raised palm, which now steadied before Patrick's eyes. McManus opened his eyes appreciatively. “I discern that your troubles are quite dire.”

“They are. My son—”

Again, the hand was raised, albeit steadily this time. “


,” Mr. McManus said in a matter-of-fact manner as he acknowledged the glass. “It's an ancient Gaelic derivation of
uisque beatha,
meaning ‘water of life.'”

“That's very interesting, Mr. McManus,” said Patrick, who couldn't have found it less so.

“Call me Abe.”

“Very well, Abe. My son is in St. Genevieve's Hospital—”

“Your son?”

“Yes, my son. If I might be able to simply tell you my problem, then—”

“How old is your son?”


“And he's sick?”

“Yes,” Patrick replied with a growing impatience. “He's eight and he's ill, but he's going to have a procedure that will change all that. What I need is representation to handle a custody hearing in Family Court. His grandfather's trying to take him away from me.”

“I can't help you, Mr. . . . whatever your name might be.”

“But you haven't even heard my whole story!”

The bartender frowned and looked over at the booth.

“You haven't heard my story,” Patrick said again in a whisper.

“No need to hear any more. You've got an ill child under the age of eighteen. I don't take cases involving Newmans.”

“Newmans? What's that supposed to mean in ancient Gaelic?” Patrick asked as his impatience began to fester into fury.

“It's my own word for new humans. ‘Newmans.' Mr. . . . ?”


“Mr. Guthrie, I don't take cases involving children, at least living children. The unknowns are too numerous. The child's illness can always take an unexpected turn, perhaps morphing into something that changes the complexion of the case entirely, and then you have to begin the process all over again with a new jury and new appeals and re-appeals.”

“But this is not a case about his illness. It's a fight to keep my son from being taken away from me,” Patrick said and pounded his fist once on the table.

“Pipe down back there,” the bartender barked.

“I can see that our conference is coming to an end,” Abe McManus said as he went to lift the scotch glass, but Patrick grabbed it first. He threw the glass, and it smashed in the empty corner opposite the string quartet, which abruptly stopped playing.

“That'll be enough of that!” the bartender yelled as he hopped over his counter.

But Patrick wasn't aware of the wide man wading through all the patrons who'd risen to their feet in excitement. He pounded his fist on the booth again as Abe McManus could only stare at his precious “water of life” dripping down the near wall.

“Do you know how old that scotch was?”

Patrick was lifted from his seat by the bartender and hauled across the room as the patrons chanted in unison, “Eighty-sixed! Eighty-sixed! Eighty-sixed!”

Past the racehorses and boxers Patrick was roughly escorted by the bartender and a rummy. Past the dead pinball machines and liquor boxes and out into the alley, where he was tossed into metal trash cans, slamming into the brick wall behind them and landing facedown in a crate of empty peanut shells. Patrick rose to his feet, spitting out a shell and then a mouthful of blood.

“I see your face back here, boyo, you'll be coughing up your whole spleen.” The bartender and the patron went back inside and slammed the metal door behind them.

Patrick staggered up the alley back to the street's sidewalk, where several people immediately shrunk away from the bleeding man.

It's not as bad as it looks. I promise
. The words played in Patrick's head, anxious to be rehearsed and delivered to a beloved wife waiting at home, sure to be horrified, certain to comfort and heal.

But there was no one at home this December. And the last thing he'd do was bring this latest bruising into Braden's life.

A couple of Christmas shoppers pointed to his bloodied face and hurried away across the street. Maybe the old neighborhood hadn't changed that much after all.

Patrick stopped and looked at himself in the window of the pet-grooming salon. His lip was split, but not bad enough for stitches. Still, it would need to be explained to Braden somehow.

A golden retriever wearing a yuletide ribbon around its neck looked up from its crate and cocked its head at Patrick's dabbing at his mouth with his shirt. The two met eyes.

“It's not as bad as it looks,” Patrick mouthed to the dog. “I promise.”

be sat at the booth and recovered from the unexpected altercation, which had upset the pleasant and eventless Saturday morning he'd planned for himself.

“There you go, McManus,” the bartender said as he set down another dram of the expensive scotch. “Seeing as how your drink ended up on the wall, this one's on the house.”

“I appreciate a good pun, but that isn't one.”

“What did that nutter want anyway?”

“Something about keeping his child.”

Abe lifted the glass to his lip, but then caught sight of himself in a promotional beer mirror. He set the glass down, untouched.

he two vanilla yogurts sat on the hospital tray unopened next to two unused spoons.

The man standing in the room's open doorway thought the hour was late for dessert, especially as the boy lay sleeping, his thin neck and face propped with pillows toward a television playing a pirate ghost movie. Just behind it, the window showed a thick wintry downfall.

But instinctively the boy opened his eyes and saw the stranger standing in his doorway. “Who are you?” Braden asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

“Abe McManus. I know your father.”

“Are you his friend?”

“Not precisely.”

Abe felt a rough hand on the back of his neck.

“What do you think you're doing, talking to my son?” Patrick said as he pulled Abe out of the doorway and down the hall.

“Actually, I came to speak with you.”

Patrick yanked Abe into a hallway bathroom, then closed and locked the door. “Any talking between us was over this afternoon when I found myself facedown and bleeding into a trash can.”

“I am compelled to say, Mr. Guthrie, that misfortune was of your own making. You don't toss sixty-nine-year-old scotch or break a two-dollar glass. They're equal crimes at the Erin's Harp.”

“What do you want?”

“To help you with your problem.”

“I don't want your help. You don't know anything about my problem.”

“I know you're facing a custody battle against a bitter father who's never gotten over his daughter's sudden death, and a powerful grandfather who's looking to take his grandson away from you, you who owe rent, can barely keep your bulbs alight, heat in your vents, or your phone connected. Normally a grandparent would not have a hope of obtaining custody from a biological parent, but your circumstances have not only leveled the playing field, but the boy's condition has wildly slanted it in his direction. Do I have a proper command of your problem?”

Patrick leaned back against the bathroom wall. “I'd say that sums it up beautifully.”

Abe McManus sat down on the closed toilet seat and crossed his legs. “I'm going to help you fight this.”

“Why the change of heart?”

“I could bore you with my regrets, or I could convince you I'm willing to represent a man brave enough to declare his love for Corelli in a bar full of barbarians. The truth lies somewhere in between.”

After a pause, Abe shrugged. “I like you.”

“Fair enough. But if you're to help me, no drinking on the job, right?”

BOOK: The Ghost of Christmas Present
3.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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