Nick of Time

It was just another Friday night. Or late afternoon, to be exact, but all I had on my mind was Friday night. It had been a rough week, and I had managed to put together a real nice string of them lately. It was the eighth rough week in a row – not that I was counting.

My landlord was, though, which is why I was trying to get out of the office in the afternoon, and hit the downstairs bar before he’d show up to collect the rent. He says it’s six weeks late. Some people have no patience.

Merry Xmas, punk!

I swept my correspondence (with the phone company) and the other bills off my desk and into the top drawer, and leaned back in my chair. For some reason, I started to hum a song, and not just any old song, but “Last Christmas” by Wham. Well, then I caught myself, and carefully added the exclamation point to the band’s name in my mind, while humming the song all the while.

I wasn’t sure why that particular song had entered my brain because I sure wasn’t a Christmas person. My idea of a perfect Christmas didn’t include reindeer or sweaters or children singing, that’s for sure. I can’t say I hated Christmas, I just didn’t care. The reason for the song entering my brain came to me, though.

She walked in, humming the song, just as I had put my feet on my desk, trying to decide which bar to go to when I left the office. She entered my office without knocking, but I forgave her as soon as I saw her. She was, in a word, breathtaking, stunning, gorgeous, yes, a real looker. She stopped at the door.

“Um, is this the office of Mr. Elvez, the detective,” she said and I could feel how she fanned the cool air onto my face with her eyelashes.

“I’m Elvez,” I said, – I guess I forgot to mention it in the beginning – because I was.

“I think I need you,” said the dame.

Need me? Nobody had ever needed me, not even my mother, except when she needed someone to bring her another box of chocolates. “You never know what you’re gonna get,” she said, but I always knew. She always wanted that Swedish-imported Aladdin chocolate, and she knew exactly what was inside.

“Need me?” I asked the lady, took my feet off the table and sat up straight. I threw a piece of chewing gum in my mouth.

“Yes, sir, I need your professional services,” she replied.

“Yes, of course,” I said, like a deflated balloon, if a deflated balloon could speak. “What seems to be the problem, miss…?”

“Please, just call me Mary,” she said.

“Fine. Mary, please have a seat, and tell me everything.”

She sat down on a chair I had found on the street the day before, and if she smelled something, she didn’t say anything. That made me happy. She pulled off her gloves and put them on my desk, pushing my can of Diet Coke aside a little. Then she cross her fingers, and put her hands on her knees.

“Mr. Elvez, I want you to find my husband,” she said.

“Sorry, babycakes, you’ve got the wrong guy. I don’t do missing people, and I don’t drink milk,” I said. I hoped she’d get my quip about milk, with the photos of missing people on milk cartons and all.

“I’m afraid he may have met someone else,” Mary went on. “You’ve got to help me, Mr. Elvez. You’re the only one who can help me,” she said, and pulled out a handkerchief. It was white, with lace, and it had a big letter “M” embroidered on it.

“Well, do you have any idea who it might be? Any leads? Where is he now?” I asked.

How could I say no if I was the only one in the world who could help her? Well, I couldn’t. Me and my cursed mother issues.

“He’s at home, but it’s the strangest thing. He disappears every year around this time, is gone for about 24 hours, and then comes back as if nothing’s happened. No explanations. But when he gets back, he smells like semi-domesticated animals, if that’s any help to you, Mr. Elvez.”

“And you have no idea who this possible other significant other, a more significant other, if you will, might be?”

“It’s not EB, that’s for sure, because last year, it was EB who kept me company when my husband was gone. She would have been my first guess otherwise.”

“EB…?”

“Easter Bunny. She came over last year when my husband disappeared. And, Mr. Elvez, I hope you don’t think I’m just some hysterical woman who went and gone crazy as soon has her husband’s not calling to tell her when he’s coming home. Mr. Elvez, this has been going on for a hundred years.”

“I’m sure it’s been going on for a long time, miss … Mary, but there might still be a perfectly logical explanation.”

“Not ‘a long time’, Mr. Elvez. About a hundred years. Ninety-eight, to be exact. Every year, it’s the same thing. The darker it gets outside, the less he talks, and the more he spends times in his little shed. He closes the door with three different locks, and if I didn’t know better, I’d swear he doesn’t sleep at all until, well, after he comes back from wherever he’s been. Then he sleeps a week.”

I had to admit that the case was titillating.

“Fine. But I want 300 dollars a day.”

“Not a problem.”

“Plus expenses.”

“Of course.”

Mary stood up and reached out her hand. I took it and gave it a shake, then I took the three hundred-dollar bills from her.

“I’ll start tomorrow. I’m sure you can find your way out on your own,” I said, and pointed to the door. No point in giving Mary any false hope. She put on her gloves, turned around and walked to the door. There, she suddenly turned again and said. “If you need anything else, just whistle. You do know how to whistle, don’t you?”

And with that, she left my office, whistling Wham’s “Last Christmas” all the way to the front door. I saw her appear on the street, and then disappear around the corner.

I heard steps from the hallway, and they were coming towards my office. I locked the door, turned off the lights, and dove under the desk. It was the landlord, and this was going to be a long night. Then I noticed something under the chair that Mary had sat on just a minute earlier. It was a small bell. I gave it a shake, but nothing happened.

I woke up under the desk a good eight hours later. Nothing like a good night’s sleep to get a man going and the brain recharged. I got up, and tiptoed to the door. The landlord was nowhere to be seen so I got back inside and drank the rest of my coffee from the day before.

I stared at the note Mary had written for me. It just said, “Nick”, that was her husband’s name, and then the address to their house, but maybe so I didn’t get any funny ideas in the big head of mine, she had also written “the shed’s in the back” in a curvy handwriting.

“Nick, Nick, I’m gonna get you,” I muttered, put the piece of paper in my suit pocket, put my hat on, and headed out.

But I didn’t head out to the shed. That would have been an amateur move, and I, Sonny Elvez, was no amateur. No, siree, I went to see Nick’s buddies. One of them would be the weak link.

I knocked on Wolf-Man’s door a half hour later. He was on the list of Nick’s friends I had asked Mary to give me. Apparently, Wolf-man had a bit of a rap sheet at the local precinct. Nothing major, just petty thefts and violations of restraining orders. He was a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer, Mr. Phig had told me, but I was a man who wasn’t looking for yes or no answers, but more elaborate ones.

I was sure he was looking at me through the peephole, so I smiled and tried to look like a Jehova’s witness. Or maybe somebody in the Jehova’s witness protection program. I chuckled. That was a good joke, have to remember it.

“What do you want?” Wolf-Man barked at me.

“It’s about your buddy Nick. He’s gone missing. Wouldn’t have any idea of where he might be? People are getting worried, you know?”

“Nick’s fine, don’t you worry about him.”

“He sure seems to spend a lot of time in that shed of his.”

“What’s it to you … fatso. You look like a pig, man.”

I didn’t like the look on his face, so I started to make my exit, but I had one ace up my sleeve.

“Mary’s worried. She may leave Nick, you know, if she doesn’t get an explanation.”

Wolf-Man just stared at me, and if I didn’t know better, I’d swear I saw a tear in his eye.

“Mary shouldn’t be worried. Anyway, just leave. Talk to Ded Moroz.”

And he closed the door.

Well, one one street comes to a dead end … you turn back and make a right-turn. I had heard of Ded Moroz, a Russian emigrant who had once been the king of the streets, whose parties had been a must-show for the coolest people in town, especially the ones from Eastern Europe. Things had gotten a little frosty for him lately. I found him in a trailer on the edge of town.

“Hey, Moroz! You dead?”

I chuckled again.

“Oh, if I only got a penny every time I heard that one,” said the old man who was sitting by the side of the dirty trailer.

“Here’s a penny, old man,” I said, and flipped a coin towards him. “But I’m not here to talk about money. Seen your buddy Nick lately … he must be a busy man this time of year.”

“Maybe. Who’s not busy this time of year, though.”

“You busy?”

“Not as busy as I used to be. But I’m busy, yeah. What’s it to you? I don’t know where Nick is, although, if I know him right, he’s probably in that shed, locked up doing who knows what.”

“That was going to be my question. Who knows what he does in the shed?”

“Beats me, copper.”

“I’m not a cop.”

“Still don’t know.”

“Know anyone who might know?”

“Maybe Rudy.”

“Thanks, Moroz. And, try to stay alive, will you.”

Did I chuckle? Maybe a little.

Rudy, Rudy. I headed straight to the red-light district where I knew he’d had his base for the last … well, a long time. He had come a long way. When he was a kid, the neighborhood kids had teased him and bullied him, a lot, but somehow he had managed to push through. He always got good grades in school, and he got a scholarship to a real fine university somewhere up North, and when he came back, it was like a whole new man had been born.

Rudy Reigndear was the former mayor of the town, a future presidential candidate, and a current voluntary worker in the red-light district. None of the bad stuff had made him bitter, none of the bullying turned him angry. He was the beacon of our city, the one man who’d lead us out of the darkness. If anyone would, that is.

I didn’t know Nick and Rudy knew each other, but then again, I didn’t know much, but I knew that Rudy knew everybody.

“Mr. Reigndear?” I said as politely as I could. His office was a old grocery store, and it was mostly dark, except for one table light on a desk where the rice and pasta used to be.

“Come on in, I’m back here, Aisle 5!”

I walked up to his desk. He was hunched over a map, with red lines going from A to B, from G to T and from, well, you know, from a lot of places to a lot of other places.

“Oh, it’s you, Elvez,” he said. He was an old classmate of mine – but I never bullied him. I think he remembered it.

“Got a case,” I said. “Trying to figure out what Nick’s up to.”

“Is he up to something?” Rudy said without looking up.

“Mary thinks so. She says Nick’s been acting weird this time of year for the last century or so. Know anything about it?”

“Nope,” he said. “Anything else you want?”

Now, even somebody who wasn’t a detective would have understood that something was up, and I was a detective so to me it was obvious. I also knew Rudy was going to clam up on me, so I just nodded and told him I was going to go. But when I got out, I hid myself behind a car and waited for Rudy to take me to Nick.

Just two hours later, my bet paid off. Rudy came out of his office, with the map rolls under his arm, and ran to his car. I was crouching behind said car, which was unfortunate, but I didn’t need to see where he was driving to know where he was driving. So I took the bus to Ear Mountain Road in Little Finland, the address Mary had given me.

It was called Little Finland, because the neighborhood was small, and because Rudy, then the mayor, had thrown darts onto a world map to come up with a name for the area, and he had hit something called “Turku” in Finland.

When I got there, I saw that the lights were on in the shed, and that Rudy’s car was outside. I tiptoed to the window took a peek in. There they were, Rudy and Nick, and they were upset about something. Rudy was doing most of the talking, and Nick just nodded every once in a while. Then he looked at his watch, and wiped some sweat off his brow. And then they both started to load a huge sleigh inside the shed, with boxes. There were hundreds, thousands, millions of boxes. They came in all shapes and forms, and somehow Nick and Rudy managed to load the sleigh in just a few minutes.

And then: a sudden stop. They both stopped. Nick dropped a package, Rudy turned his head and looked at the window. He was looking at me, or I think he was, at that point I couldn’t see clearly anymore, with all the steam from my breath blocking my view. Nick rush to the door, I ran towards the main house, where I knew Mary would be, but before I got there, Nick tackled me.

I pulled his beard but the man wouldn’t give up, so I did.

“I give up!” I yelled.

“Fine. So now you know. But you don’t know anything, you understand!”

“I don’t know!”

“What?”

“I don’t know if I do know or don’t know!”

“You haven’t seen me or Rudy here tonight, OK? You don’t know what is going on in the shed. And you’ll tell Mary that I am not having an affair, isn’t that right, Mr. Elvez? You’re a nice boy, aren’t you, Mr. Elvez?”

“I am, I am a nice boy. I’ll tell Mary you’re not having an affair.”

And so I did tell Mary that. It felt good, because it was the truth. I had delivered, I kept my promise to my client, and I was finally going to get paid. And for the next fifty years Mary didn’t worry about Nick at all.

When I got back to the office on Xmas Day, with six fresh hundred-dollar bills in my hand, I was surprised to see a new leather armchair in there, where that chair I had found on the street had been. There was also a new sofa on the other side of the room.

“Nick,” I said. I jumped on the sofa, and it moved a little. When I got up to put it back into its place, I found a tiny bell on the floor next to it. I gave it a shake and it jingled. It made me think of “Last Christmas“. You know, that song by Wham!

How does that make you feel?