A Very Merry Christmas

By Ed McBain [aka Evan Hunter]
Scanned & Proofed By MadMaxAU

**** Sitting at the bar, Pete Charpens looked at his own reflection in the mirror, grinned, and said, ‘Merry Christmas.’ It was not Christmas yet, true enough, but he said it anyway, and the words sounded good, and he grinned foolishly and lifted his drink and sipped a little of it and said again, ‘Merry Christmas,’ feeling very good, feeling very warm, feeling in excellent high spirits. Tonight, the city was his. Tonight, for the first time since he’d arrived from Whiting Centre eight months ago, he felt like a part of the city. Tonight, the city enveloped him like a warm bath, and he lounged back and allowed the undulating waters to cover him. It was Christmas Eve, and all was right with the world, and Pete Charpens loved every mother’s son who roamed the face of the earth because he felt as if he’d finally come home, finally found the place, finally found himself. It was a good feeling. This afternoon, as soon as the office party was over, he’d gone into the streets. The shop windows had gleamed like pot-bellied stoves, cherry hot against the sharp bite of the air. There was a promise of snow in the sky, and Pete had walked the tinselled streets of New York with his tweed coat collar against the back of his neck, and he had felt warm and happy. There were shoppers in the streets, and Santa Clauses with bells, and giant wreaths and giant trees, and music coming from speakers, the timeless carols of the holiday season. But more than that. For the first time in eight months, he had felt the pulse beat of the city, the people, the noise, the clutter, the rush, and above all the warmth. The warmth had engulfed him, surprising him. He had watched it with the foolish smile of a spectator and then, with sudden realisation, he had known he was part of it. In the short space of eight months, he had become a part of the city —and the city had become a part of him. He had found a home. ‘Bartender,’ he said.

The bartender ambled over. He was a big red-headed man with freckles all over his face. He moved with economy and grace. He seemed like a very nice guy who probably had a very nice wife and family decorating a Christmas tree somewhere in Queens. ‘Yes, sir?’ he asked. ‘Pete. Call me Pete.’ ‘Okay, Pete.’ ‘I’m not drunk,’ Pete said, ‘believe me. I know all drunks say that, but I mean it. I’m just so damn happy I could bust. Did you ever feel that way?’ ‘Sure,’ the bartender said, smiling. ‘Let me buy you a drink.’ ‘I don’t drink.’ ‘Bartenders never drink, I know, but let me buy you one. Please. Look, I want to thank people, you know? I want to thank everybody in this city. I want to thank them for being here, for making it a city. Do I sound nuts?’ ‘Yes,’ the bartender said. ‘Okay. Okay then, I’m nuts. But I’m a hick, do you know? I came here from Whiting Centre eight months ago. Straw sticking out of my cars. The confusion here almost killed me. But I got a job, a good job, and I met a lot of wonderful people, and I learned how to dress, and I ... I found a home. That’s corny. I know it. That’s the hick in me talking. But I love this damn city, I love it. I want to go around kissing girls in the streets. I want to shake hands with every guy I meet. I want to tell them I feel like a person, a human being. I’m alive, alive! For Christ’s sake, I’m alive!’ ‘That’s a good way to be,’ the bartender agreed. ‘I know it. Oh, my friend, do I know it! I was dead in Whiting Centre, and now I’m here and alive and . . . look, let me buy you a drink,

huh?’ ‘I don’t drink,’ the bartender insisted. ‘Okay. Okay, I won’t argue. I wouldn’t argue with anyone tonight. Gee, it’s gonna be a great Christmas, do you know? Gee, I’m so damn happy I could bust.’ He laughed aloud, and the bartender laughed with him. The laugh trailed off into a chuckle, and then a smile. Pete looked into the mirror, lifted his glass again, and again said, ‘Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas.’ He was still smiling when the man came into the bar and sat down next to him. The man was very tall, his body bulging with power beneath the suit he wore. Coatless, hatless, he came into the bar and sat alongside Pete, signalling for the bartender with a slight flick of the hand. The bartender walked over. ‘Rye neat,’ the man said. The bartender nodded and walked away. The man reached for his wallet. ‘Let me pay for it,’ Pete said. The man turned. He had a wide face with a thick nose and small brown eyes. The eyes came as a surprise in his otherwise large body. He studied Pete for a moment and then said, ‘You a queer or something?’ Pete laughed. ‘Hell, no,’ he said. ‘I’m just happy. It’s Christmas Eve, and I feel like buying you a drink.’ The man pulled out his wallet, put a five dollar bill on the bar top and said, ‘I’ll buy my own drink.’ He paused. ‘What’s the matter? Don’t I look as if I can afford a drink?’ ‘Sure you do,’ Pete said. ‘I just wanted to ... look, I’m happy. I want to share it, that’s all.’ The man grunted and said nothing. The bartender brought his drink. He tossed off the shot and asked for another. ‘My name’s Pete Charpens,’ Pete said, extending his hand.

‘So what?’ the man said. ‘Well. . . what’s your name?’ ‘Frank.’ ‘Glad to know you, Frank.’ He thrust his hand closer to the man. ‘Get lost, Happy,’ Frank said. Pete grinned, undismayed. ‘You ought to relax,’ he said, ‘I mean it. You know, you’ve got to stop . . .’ ‘Don’t tell me what I’ve got to stop. Who the hell are you, anyway?’ ‘Pete Charpens. I told you.’ ‘Take a walk, Pete Charpens. I got worries of my own.’ ‘Want to tell me about them?’ ‘No, I don’t want to tell you about them.’ ‘Why not? Make you feel better.’ ‘Go to hell, and stop bothering me,’ Frank said. The bartender brought the second drink. He sipped at it, and then put the shot glass on the bar top. ‘Do I look like a hick?’ Pete asked. ‘You look like a goddam queer,’ Frank said. ‘No. I mean it.’ ‘You asked me, and I told you.’ ‘What’s troubling you, Frank?’ ‘You a priest or something?’

‘No, but I thought ...’ ‘Look, I come in here to have a drink. I didn’t come to see the chaplain. ‘You an ex-Army man?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘I was in the Navy,’ Pete said. ‘Glad to be out of that, all right. Glad to be right here where I am, in the most wonderful city in the whole damn world. ‘Go down to Union Square and get a soap box,’ Frank said. ‘Can’t I help you, Frank?’ Pete asked. ‘Can’t I buy you a drink, lend you an ear, do something? You’re so damn sad, I feel like . . .’ ‘I’m not sad.’ ‘You sure look sad. What happened? Did you lose your job?’ ‘No, I didn’t lose my job.’ ‘What do you do, Frank?’ ‘Right now, I’m a truck driver. I used to be a fighter.’ ‘Really? You mean a boxer? No kidding?’ ‘Why would I kid you?’ ‘What’s your last name?’ ‘Blake.1’ ‘Frank Blake? I don’t think I’ve heard it before. Of course, I didn’t follow the fights much.’ ‘Tiger Blake, they called me. That was my ring name.’ ‘Tiger Blake. Well, we didn’t have fights in Whiting Centre. Had to go over to Waterloo if we wanted to see a bout. I guess that’s why I never

heard of you.’ ‘Sure,’ Frank said. ‘Why’d you quit fighting?’ ‘They made me.’ ‘Why?’ ‘I killed a guy.’ Pete’s eyes widened. ‘In the ring?’ ‘Of course in the ring. What the hell kind of moron arc you, anyway? You think I’d be walking around if it wasn’t in the ring? Jesus!’ ‘Is that what’s troubling you?’ ‘There ain’t nothing troubling me. I’m fine.’ ‘Are you going home for Christmas?’ ‘I got no home.’ ‘You must have a home,’ Pete said gently, ‘everybody’s got a home.’ ‘Yeah? Where’s your home? Whiting Centre or wherever the hell you said?’ ‘Nope. This is my home now. New York City. New York, New York. The greatest goddamn city in the whole world.’ ‘Sure,’ Frank said sourly. ‘My folks are dead,’ Pete said. ‘I’m an only child. Nothing for me in Whiting Centre anymore. But in New York, well, I get the feeling that I’m here to stay. That I’ll meet a nice girl here, and marry her, and raise a family here and . . . and this’ll be home.’ ‘Great,’ Frank said.

‘How’d you happen to kill this fellow?’ Pete asked suddenly. ‘I hit him.’ ‘And killed him?’ ‘I hit him on the Adam’s apple. Accidentally.’ ‘Were you sore at him?’ ‘We were in the ring, I already told you that.’ ‘Sure, but were you sore?’ ‘A fighter don’t have to be sore. He’s paid to fight.’ ‘Did you like fighting?’ ‘I loved it,’ Frank said flatly. ‘How about the night you killed that fellow?’ Frank was silent for a long time. Then he said, ‘Get lost, huh?’ ‘I could never fight for money,’ Pete said. ‘I have a quick temper, and I get mad as hell, but I could never do it for money. Besides, I’m too happy right now to . . .’ ‘Get lost,’ Frank said again, and he turned his back. Pete sat silently for a moment. ‘Frank?’ he said at last. ‘You back again?’ ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have talked to you about something that’s painful to you. Look, it’s Christmas Eve. Let’s…” ‘Forget it.’ ‘Can I buy you a drink?’ ‘No. I told you no a hundred times. I buy my own damn drinks!’

‘This is Christmas E . . .’ ‘I don’t care what it is. You happy jokers give me the creeps. Get off my back, will you?’ ‘I’m sorry. I just . . .’ ‘Happy, happy, happy. Grinning like a damn fool. What the hell is there to be so happy about? You got an oil well someplace? A gold mine? What is it with you?’ ‘I’m just . . .’ ‘You’re just a jerk! I probably pegged you right the minute I laid eyes on you. You’re probably a damn queer.’ ‘No, no,’ Pete said mildly. ‘You’re mistaken, Frank. Honestly, I just feel . . .’ ‘Your old man was probably a queer, too. Your old lady probably took on every sailor in town.’ The smile left Pete’s face, and then tentatively reappeared. ‘You don’t mean that, Frank,’ he said. ‘I mean everything I ever say,’ Frank said. There was a strange gleam in his eyes. He studied Pete carefully. ‘About my mother, I meant,’ Pete said. ‘I know what you’re talking about. And I’ll say it again. She probably took on every sailor in town.’ ‘Don’t say that, Frank,’ Pete said, the smile gone now, a perplexed frown teasing his forehead, appearing, vanishing, reappearing. ‘You’re a queer, and your old lady was a . . .’ ‘Stop it, Frank.’ ‘Stop what? If your old lady was . . .’

Pete leaped off the bar stool. ‘Cut it out!’ he yelled. From the end of the bar, the bartender turned. Frank caught the movement with the corner of his eye. In a cold whisper, he said, ‘Your mother was a slut,’ and Pete swung at him. Frank ducked, and the blow grazed the top of his head. The bartender was coming towards them now. He could not see the strange light in Frank’s eyes, nor did he hear Frank whisper again, ‘A slut, a slut.’ Pete pushed himself off the bar wildly. He saw the beer bottle then, picked it up, and lunged at Frank. **** The patrolman knelt near his body. ‘He’s dead, all right,’ he said. He stood up and dusted off his trousers. ‘What happened?’ Frank looked bewildered and dazed. ‘He went berserk,’ he said. ‘We were sitting and talking. Quiet. All of a sudden, he swings at me.’ He turned to the bartender. ‘Am I right?’ ‘He was drinking,’ the bartender said. ‘Maybe he was drunk.’ ‘I didn’t even swing back,’ Frank said, ‘not until he picked up the beer bottle. Hell, this is Christmas Eve. I didn’t want no trouble.’ ‘What happened when he picked up the bottle?’ ‘He swung it at me. So I. . .I put up my hands to defend myself. I only gave him a push, so help me.’ ‘Where’d you hit him?’ Frank paused. ‘In ... in the throat, I think.’ He paused again. ‘It was self-defence, believe me. This guy just went berserk. He musta been a maniac.’ ‘He was talking kind of queer,’ the bartender agreed. The patrolman nodded sympathetically. ‘There’s more nuts outside

than there is in,’ he said. He turned to Frank. ‘Don’t take this so bad, Mac. You’ll get off. It looks open and shut to me. Just tell them the story downtown, that’s all.’ ‘Berserk,’ Frank said. ‘He just went berserk.’ ‘Well. . .’ The patrolman shrugged. ‘My partner’ll take care of the meat wagon when it gets here. You and me better get downtown. I’m sorry I got to ruin your Christmas, but . . .’ ‘It’s him that ruined it,’ Frank said, shaking his head and looking down at the body on the floor. Together, they started out of the bar. At the door, the patrolman waved to the bartender and said, ‘Merry Christmas, Mac’ ****

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