[Editor’s note: Originally published December 26, 2009]
I never liked this time of year. It was cold.
Living in a big oak tree has its advantages. Central heat is not one of them.
Today was especially rough. It wasn’t the coldest day we’d seen, but I was hung over. Way over. And work was getting intense – something about Christmas time brings out the drama, and my stocking was jammed full of domestic cases.
I got hung over because this year, every time we tried to do a stakeout, we wound up at a bar drinking with the intended mark.
You might not think that’s very good for business. But one of my guys, Joey I think it was, had a bright idea one night. Real bright. It was such a good idea, I even paid him a bonus. (But I told him not to tell anybody – can’t let them think I’m getting soft.)
Joey said to me one night, ‘I bet that guy wants away from his old lady as bad as she wants rid of him too.’ I didn’t have time to put down my pecan sandwich before Joey was next to the guy chatting him up. We’d been sitting there a long time watching nothing. The mark’s old lady was paying us to catch him fooling around with some young cutie. But all he ever did was sit at a bar sipping low-cal beer and staring at his phone. He didn’t want to be there, but he didn’t want to be at home more. I should know better than to take these flat-rate cases, just on some insecure broad’s word, and just because she got eleven roses…
Anyway the guy was liking Joey’s idea right away. I got on my phone – yeah, I mean on it, gotta walk across the keyboard to press the numbers – and called up a lady pal of mine. Pretty soon a cute slinky redhead comes in the door, and for a few extra bucks she posed for all sorts of suggestive photos with him, some of which we didn’t even ask for. The idea was to get him out of his domestic situation as quickly as possible.
He liked that idea. Our former mark was so happy, he paid me double what Joey had quoted him. I didn’t tell Joey that part. So we had two happy clients, paid up front, and we were in a bar. We drank all night with the guy, at least until he left with his ‘new friend’. I didn’t tell her husband that part.
That’s how every job went for the last many months. Is nobody in a good healthy relationship any more?? I know it was getting to be unhealthy for us. Me and all my guys woulda had coins in our pockets, but we don’t have pockets, so we kept flipping them right over to the bartenders. I didn’t know most mornings if I was hung over or had been run over by the crowd at Wal Nut the day after Thanksgiving – that’s sure how I felt.
Today was going to be easier. I wasn’t working. In fact, I was going to a Christmas party. It was at a real nice joint, I’d have to dress up. I wasn’t too big on dressing up, but at least it was for a party and not some stiff beauty contest like a court date. And putting on the ritz was still a lot easier than what I had to do last Halloween. A friend of mine insisted I go all-out with the costume.
Tonight was going to bring back some memories. It was a jazz club – dinner, drinks, dancing, the works – all around a big piano in the middle of the stage. It was that piano that always made me think back. It wasn’t as classy a place I was in back then, but I used to tickle the ivories for a few beer nuts. Ok, actually it was a crappy little tourist-trap sideshow – but money was tight in those days. Some times you gotta swallow what’s left of your pride and do whatever it takes.
I didn’t say they were fond memories.
I got to the club and pattered in. They offered to check my hat. I said I’d keep it on, and headed for the buffet.
I was almost through licking the nuts off all the cheese balls when I saw her…
She was draped across the piano like last night’s slinky party dress, but she was still in that dress. It was cut just right, which is to say everywhere you’d want it cut. The few curves it still covered teased the silvery fabric, daring it to keep me guessing. I kept reading this real-life centerfold, turning my head instead of the magazine. Her lithe legs became exclamation points, dotted by wispy high heels, black with a little gold trim. Her shoulder length strawberry-blonde hair slid with purpose through the air as she turned her head to face me. She sat up and smiled at me.
At least I wanted the smile to be for me! I was still staring gape-mawed at her when I heard a familiar squeak. The sax player was warming up – and would you believe I knew the guy? We’d played together years ago in some smoky late-night basement clubs. Russ saw me at the same time and came over, horn still on his neck.
“Man, it’s been too long! What the heck youse been up ta?”
‘Spying on lying scum for money, mostly.’
“Oh, shuah! I shoulda figgerd you’d be writing for some political magazine by now.”
I didn’t correct him, I could see there was something else on his mind.
“Say, funny coincidence you walkin in heah just now. Would you believe our piano player didn’t show?” A musician skip a gig? Yeah, I could believe that. “You wouldn’t wanna… maybe sit in wit us??”
I was interested, but… “Us?”
“Yeah, we’re usually a hip three-piece. C.C. here is a fantastic singah!” He pointed at the dame who’d held my gaze just a moment before. She was walking toward us. It finally hit me, I knew her too! I didn’t recognize her because I was used to her being in an old t-shirt, with grape juice stains on it, gulping something hot from a giant coffee mug. I figured the babysitter for a gig like this must cost her her whole take. I never knew she could sing, but I was sure that would be heavenly too.
We caught up for a minute and then got some songs put together. Everything came right back to me and it was a great set. We put some blues back into the holiday and the crowd lapped it up, along with a few grand worth of booze. The manager paid us right on time.
It was all good, and I was feeling fine. Walking back to her car, we passed a homeless beggar. Something strange came over me. Strange and unfamiliar, but it felt good… I tossed the bum the biggest bill I had. Merry Christmas.