Authors: Scott Abbott
atrick hurried down the alley behind the office building, clutching a plastic grocery bag stuffed with to-go containers. The velvet robe he wore had become a smothering blanket on this unseasonably warm day for mid-December, and the makeup and false whiskers chafed his cheeks. But what truly tore at his mind was Rebecca.
Had she recognized him?
Of course she hadn't. It was impossible. She would have betrayed her recognition of him in some way. She was a social worker, but nobody had that good a poker face. And that was the thing about her, her face. It was filled with some kind of remorse or guilt, or both, so much so that it was he who almost didn't recognize her at first. She was so human. Almost pretty.
Patrick had almost thrown a
quote at her: “I am a man more sinned against than sinning,” his anger at having Braden's and his life together perhaps torn apart come the New Year, but her face had stopped him. It was that face she wore, like the inescapable mask of some inner sorrow. An old-fashioned word,
, but that was what it was.
Heck, he shouldn't have approached her at all. It was enough that he had decided to stake out the corner just outside Ted Cake's office. Patrick had decided not to confront his former father-in-lawâor okay, maybe he didn't have the courageâbut he was going to give himself the satisfaction of collecting the money he needed from not only the people who worked around Ted, but now the man himself.
But his encounter with Rebecca was unnecessary and foolish. Patrick vowed he would never make that slip-up again as he turned around an office building corner and headed down a darker back service alley. He had only a half-hour before he had to take up his shift at the deep-dish pizza place. Between begging in the afternoon and the night shifts that Wally kept him on, Patrick had begun to collect a respectable amount of money. It wasn't going to win the day just yet, but perhaps in the end it would win him a Christmas with Braden, and all the weeks and months to come.
But right now he had to make his daily late-Âafternoon delivery. “Who wants a mint-conditionânot a single nibble takenâhalf a chicken-salad sandwich? It's gotâ” Patrick opened the plastic container and peered insideâ“grapes and nuts.”
“Why are people always shoving fruit into meat recipes?” groaned a great bear of a red-bearded man who sat leaning against a Dumpster, wearing a Yankees wool cap and fraying warm-up jacket.
“It's called âSweet and Savory,'” another squatter shot back at him.
“It's called âshoving fruit where it's got no business being,'” barked Red-Beard. “You know I've got a theory.”
“Another one?” a couple of voices from the shadows called out in near unison.
“Fruit's got no business being cooked, fried, or especially baked,” Red-Beard announced as he started holding court. Patrick looked at his watch, hidden under the robe covering his wrist.
“Consider the fruitcake. My theory is that there's only one fruitcake in the whole entire world. People give 'em to each other on Christmas, but nobody ever eats 'em. You ever actually seen somebody eat a fruitcake?”
The circle of squatters demurred.
“My point precisely. They just pass 'em on to somebody else the next Christmas. So, my theory is that there's only one. It just keeps traveling around the world, going from house to house each Christmas.”
“Like Santa Claus,” someone offered.
Patrick again looked at his watchâonly twenty-five minutes left now to remove his glued whiskers and wig, scrub off his makeup, get back into his street clothes, and get to work. He'd been begging for five days now, and he'd been late two of those days. Wally had offered a friendly warning, and Patrick couldn't afford to lose any source of income right now.
“Except this fruitcake is the Christmas visitor nobody wants. It should be stuck in a yuletide museum, along with the one plaid tie that keeps traveling the globe.”
“Guys, I've got to go,” Patrick announced as he pulled out another to-go container. “How about a nice carton of almost-warm pasta?”
“Sounds good,” said Red-Beard. “But what's the sauce?”
Patrick hung his head. He stood in the back alley, stuck trying to give away the food that had been left at his feet for the past eight hours, completely unaware that he was being closely observed from above.
he gaze belonged to the keenest of observers, whose scrutiny over the scene four stories below was unmatched anywhere in the offices, boardrooms, and executive bathroom mirrors of the whole of Manhattan's midtown.
Mila stood in the window of Ted's office building and looked down to where the Ghost of Christmas Present finished handing out the to-go containers to the men in the alley.
Ted sat at a desk at the far corner of an open office floor where long rows of empty cubicles sat lined with bare shelves. He looked over a private investigator's report on Patrick's state of affairs, or lack thereof. A great stack of chairs stood in the corner, covered in plastic, waiting to be unwrapped and peopled with employees who had yet to be hired to fill the growing ranks of his medical supply company. It had grown from a blossoming corporation into a conglomerate that had its hooks in every hospital in the tri-state area, and gave him more than enough heft with social services to ensure Rebecca Brody's supervisor made sure she did his bidding.
Mila studied the Ghost as he made his way back up the alley and away from the men who devoured their food. “Uncle Ted.”
Mila turned away from the window and regarded the newly renovated office space. “You were right to put your office at this end: it gives you a âcommand' position. According to feng shui.”
Ted nodded absently. “Hmmm.”
“Once I've left to go live in London, who are you going to get to pester you?”
Ted set down the report and offered a rare smile. “I'll see to that.”
“My cousin's son, Braden?”
“Just focus on your studies and let me worry about it.”
“Why is it that I never met Linda, or her boy?”
“Long time ago; doesn't matter now.”
Mila drew in a breath of courage. “If you don't mind my saying, a boy should be with his father on Christmas.”
“As my niece, I give you a lot of leeway. Don't press me.”
“You can't fire me. I'm leaving anyway.”
“Ah, but I can withdraw the offer I'm about to make to pay your tuition abroad.”
Mila stared, then laughed, “Ha! You had me there for a moment, Uncle Ted. Great poker face.”
Ted smiled. “I'm serious. Studying full time at the London School of Economics is a full-time job. I want to cover your tuition, Mila, so that you won't have to wait tables as well. It's a gift.”
“I'm speechless. I mean, thanks, but it's too much. I mean to sayâ”
“Don't say anything. You're the smartest and hardest-working combination niece and assistant I've ever had; you've earned it. And believe me, I intend to benefit fully from your advanced education once you come back to work for me, so you see my motives are completely selfish.” Ted chuckled, then paused. “Please let me do this for you.”
“Thank you. You're the most generous man I know.”
Embarrassed, Ted returned to the file as Mila regarded him for a few moments.
People never fail to surprise you
, she mused. Thoughtfully she returned her eyes to the window where, below, the Ghost made his way back around the building toward Herald Square. Mila tracked his movements as she walked past window after window, eyes never leaving the robed panhandler.
“You remember the Ghost of Christmas Present?”
“You mean the panhandler?”
“He's got a child he's taking care of.”
Ted dropped his pen in affectionate exasperation and sighed. “That man has no family to speak of.” He returned to the file. “Next time, just take a look at him. He's a lunatic making a mockery of himself for money. If he had family, they would certainly intervene. Besides, if he had a child, he would make use of that in his performances to foster pity. No, the man is alone in this world.”
Mila looked back at the beggar, who moved through the late-afternoon midtown crowd and headed for the subway. “But he does speak about his child. He talks about it every day on the street. You just can't hear it because the kid's cradled under all his songs.”
“You're not making any sense. How could you possibly tell that panhandler has a child?”
Mila kept her eyes fixed on the beggar as he crossed the street and approached the entrance to the IRT. “He was wearing a Captain Pluton Band-Aid on his finger.”
“A Captain Pluton Band-Aid? Really. If you're creating this annoying fiction as some kind of fond farewell, it's not working.”
“He's wearing a kid's Band-Aid.”
“Then he got it at a shelter, or the nuthouse for wayward beggars who dress up as storybook characters.”
“Those Band-Aids just came out yesterday, same day as the movie. A homeless place wouldn't have them. They'd have the regular kind. But a child might have them, if their mother or father bought them special.”
“Mila, the man's a con artist, pure and simple, end of story.”
Mila watched the beggar head into the subway and disappear. She said softly, “No, he's not.”
THE AUTHENTIC ELF
atrick entered Grand Central Station and rushed through the commuter crowd that streamed toward so many homeward-bound trains. Several days ago he'd picked out a bathroom in a distant corner of the great terminal to disrobe and wash off his disguise in private. It was the only reasonably private place he could find between his begging corner and the pizza place.
He'd made the mistake two days ago of sneaking into the back alley of the restaurant still wearing his beggar disguise and there had come face-to-face with Wally smoking a cigarette.
“Auditioning for a role in a pro wrestling staging of
?” asked the cynical ex-actor.
“No, I heard Macy's was trying to flesh out its Santa scene this year.”
“So you decided to show up looking like Henry the Eighth in his fairyland period?”
Patrick wouldn't make that mistake again, so he'd cased out every possible place between Broadway and the pizza place down on the lower West Side. No subway public bathroom was even close to being safe. A knife at his throat would mean his money gone, or worse. Any restaurant or cafÃ© was obviously out of the question. Drugstore or supermarket restrooms were too risky; someone who saw him enter would call the cops. Patrick didn't need that kind of hassle.
So Grand Central it was, and this bathroom was perfect. This wing of the terminal was under reconstruction, hence no passengers with prying eyes or panicked reactions. A row of empty urinals and stalls stretched out before him on either side.
Patrick stood before the restroom mirror and heaved the coins and bills from his robe pockets onto the sink's counter. It was a relief to have the weight off his frame. At the week's beginning he had gone to great lengths to bow with a low flourish, but a thousand nickels, dimes, and quarters had tutored his spine to act the part with no problem.
Patrick looked at his watch: nineteen minutes left. He'd practiced this routine several dozen times at home, peeling off the beard and spirit gum, washing off the pancake makeup and rouge, changing into street clothes, and bagging everything into a bundle in just under four minutes. But he'd initially forgotten that he'd have to somehow deal with the day's coins, which again sat before him.
Everything he'd made up until that day had already been carefully packed into hundreds of paper rolls. That's how he'd gotten the darn cut on his finger. The penny rolls were so tight that soon enough their edges sliced, deeper and deeper, into the skin of his pointer digit. But he'd finished the mountain of coin rolls himself. Like heck would he take his earnings to the grocery store where some machine would steal 10 percent to cash them in. The first five days of the three weeks he had to beg were gone, and every penny was precious.