Fisher slowly slips even lower into the seat, stopping only when he’s finally to the point he’s left peering over the steering wheel in order to see the alley just across the street. It’s a never mind alley, dark, even at this hour of the morning, as a row of taller brick buildings, well past their glory days – though Fisher doubts there ever were any for that sorry lot – block out the light from the front, while an ancient fence and tall hedges – interlaced with creosote-soaked telephone poles, their long-forgotten lines tangled in tree branches – form a thick wall along the back.
He’s been here twenty minutes now, though it seems like twenty hours. Either way, it’s been long enough his neck is starting to get stiff and worse, the salt-sprinkle of snow has begun to build up on the windshield.
“Perfect,” he groans, “just perfect. It’s not like Christmas isn’t bad enough already with the stupid crowds, the obnoxious lights and decorations everywhere, and that rent-a-Santa guy ringing his annoying bell at the front of the stores, giving you the sad puppy eyes trying to guilt you out of your last dollar. So, sure – let it snow. Let’s have a white Christmas and seal this stinkin’ deal.”
He waves a dismissing hand to nobody, and then, straightening in the seat, smiles sheepishly, realizing that, once again, he’s talking to himself in the car.
“Maybe it’s time I need to get myself a cat. Or dog. I’m guessing a girlfriend would be a bit too much to ask,” he says looking skyward.
After another wave of the hand, this one with much less enthusiasm, and a couple of rolls of his neck to bring about a satisfying pop, he reaches down to flick on the wipers, letting them take several crunchy sweeps to clear the snow. He tries hard at resuming his surveillance, staring with groggy eyes down the alley, but despite his determination, he finds his gaze beginning to wander, his interest beginning to wane, and soon his focus falls on the buildings.
And for some reason, he’s particularly drawn to the last one on the left.
Which, of course, makes no sense. With its cracked windows in lopsided frames, crumbling dank walls whose only coat of paint appears to be the bright spray of graffiti, and a rusting red and white awning, or what’s left of it, poking out off the backside, like the alley itself, it’s really not much to look at.
But then again, as he lets his imagination run wild, he begins to dream up secrets that may be hiding in this old building’s past. He can almost see one of those early Fords, or maybe a Lincoln – whatever it was Capone used to drive – pulling up in the alley in the dark of night, a gangster or politician slipping out and ducking under the cover of that awning to avoid the rain – and maybe the leering eye of those wearing a badge. There’s a special knock one has to use, and when the door opens, just enough to let someone through, the smooth sounds of illicit jazz drift out into the night air. A Speakeasy – yeah, he could see that. Or maybe, and even more likely, a gambling casino. Dice and cards and free-flowing champagne.
But then a sly smile crosses his face.
A brothel. Yeah. A brothel. That fits the bill quite nicely.
His smile widens at the thought, and he wants to give it a moment or two to rattle around in his head, but realizes it’s time to get back to the business at hand. So, with a reluctant sigh, and a bit of a frown, he peels his gaze from the building and gives the alley another hard look.
Only to see nothing. Yet.
“Come on….” With a long stretch, followed by an equally long yawn, he checks his watch for what seems the third time, then, not quite believing what he’s seeing, double checks by looking at the screen on his iPad.
“How can that be?” he thinks out loud, rubbing his eyes as his words crescendo into another yawn.
Coffee. He needs some coffee. Not enough sleep last night.
As if sensing his impatience, one of his many less than desirable traits – just ask his mother, she’d be more than glad to list them in alphabetical order – the giant green garbage truck lumbers up the alley. It looks more like a prehistoric creature lost in time than a mechanical marvel, and as it slows, taking aim for the crusty and dinged trash bin, it begins to hiss and growl, the sounds only cementing the Cretaceous image floating in Fisher’s mind.
The massive prods swivel down and the truck lurches ahead, snatching its prey. With another whoosh, the bin pivots upward and back, its contents quickly consumed by the hungry behemoth.
It’s there it stays, however, which gives cause for Fisher to lean forward, sit on the edge of his seat. He knows, or is at least pretty sure, what comes next, and scoops up the iPad, pointing its camera in the truck’s direction.
The driver’s side door opens, and a woman, every bit as massive as the truck, steps out. She’s at least six-foot five, probably a good two hundred and fifty pounds, yet wears her required green uniform. Though it seems to be stretched at every seam.
But it’s not because, like the truck, she’s ever consuming, rather that bulk is muscle. For a moment, Fisher lets his imagination again run wild and sees her swatting a hand at her truck and then watching as it simply blasts off into the hedgerow just behind.
He begins to snap pictures now, making a record of the woman as she reaches back into the truck and pulls out a large bag. It seems to be some sort of duffle, and after a quick glance into the bag, she tosses it over her shoulder and heads for the dilapidated building. As he looks at the close-ups on the screen, he can see several tattoos peeking out from the uniform’s edges – a snake slithering up her neck, a dragon’s tail whipping out from her sleeve. She crosses the alleyway in a few hurried steps, then has to duck down to fit under the tilted red and white awning. He can only see her boots as she hops up the couple of steps to knock on the back door, then nothing at all as she disappears within.
“I KNEW it,” he says. “Misuse of company time and equipment at the very least. Just like the earlier stop…” He swipes at the iPad, sifting through the pictures until he finds the group he’s looking for. In them, the woman, much the same as here, carries a bag into a building, in this case a home, stays a short while, then moves to the adjacent home, doing the same. When she returns to her truck, the bag is empty.
But what might be in these mystery bags? He takes another long look at the structure in front of him. Crack house? Stolen property – fencing operation? Is she sifting through the trash she collects – definitely against company policy – and finding salable goods?
Something is amiss here.
As he swipes at the iPad yet again to add to his report, the woman reemerges from the building, the bag obviously empty. But before he can bring the tablet up to snap another shot, there is a tap on his window to the side.
Startled, he turns to see a large, heavyset man standing at his driver’s side door. His clothes are older and disheveled – something one might buy at a thrift store – his thick beard a mix of white and gray, and a stack of snow-white hair cascades out from under a dingy looking stocking cap. With a wink – was that a twinkle in his eye? – he makes the “roll down your window” gesture.
Fisher lets go a long huff. For the love of… just what he needs – some homeless guy begging while he’s trying to wrap up this investigation.
With a quick glance at the door lock to make sure it’s set, he waves him off and turns back to his iPad.
But the man, insistent, persistent, or just plain annoying, raps at the window again.
“Mortimer Fisher? May we have a word?”
“Listen, Bud, would you just go… wait, how do you know my name?”
“Oh, Morty, Morty, of course I know your name.”
Morty. He hates that nickname. Mom still uses it to this day. That and “Pumpkin”. Ugh.
Morty… uh, Fisher, fake smiles, then waves the man off again. “Look, Mister, I’m working here – something you probably know nothing about – and need to get this finished up. It’s important, so please, leave me alone and be on your way.” He shifts in the seat, focusing his gaze and the iPad’s camera straight ahead through the front windshield. But with his being distracted by the bum, he’s missed out, and instead of seeing the woman, all he sees is the monstrous truck backing its way down the alley, leaving only a “BEEP, BEEP, BEEP” in its wake.
He slaps a fisted hand to the steering wheel and gives his head a shake. “Now look what you’ve done. She’s getting away.” Gritting his teeth, he drops the iPad onto the seat. “Look, Slimeball, you’ve just ruined my chance here. Now I have to chase her down to the next stop.”
“The County Hospital, if I recall correctly.”
“Yes, as a matter of fact… wait. There you go again. How do you know that?” Fisher lets his head drop, then runs an open hand down his face. “I don’t know what you’re up to, but I’m already tired of your little scheme. So, leave, or I’m going to have to call the cops.”
With that, Fisher holds up his cell phone to emphasize his point.
But the man’s response is a warm smile that turns into a bit of a chuckle. After another moment, he does a little shift with his feet and gives his beard a good tug. “My, my, Morty. You most certainly have changed. Remember when you used to really look forward to Christmas? Believe in all that good cheer? Smile once in a while?”
“Yeah, yeah… blah, blah, blah. There is no ‘good cheer’, my friend, this time of year… or any other.”
The man leans back, as if in deep thought, then kneels closer to the window. “I beg to differ, Morty. And I think you might be quite surprised when all is said and done. But, let’s get back to that, and believe me we will. You see, I’m actually here to talk with you about your ‘work’. You’re writing up Rosie, right?”
So that’s what it’s all about, he thinks. This guy is in cahoots with Rose. She’s sent him here as a distraction while she goes about her little drug deals or selling off the stolen property.
But before he can reply, the homeless man continues. “You had a feeling earlier about that building, didn’t you? Do you have any idea what it is?” he says, pointing a white-gloved hand toward the red and white awning.
“You bet. Most likely a crack house. If not that, some sort of pawnbroker for stolen goods, would be my guess.”
The man leans back, placing his hands to his ample belly, and gives off a warm, deep, and roaring laugh. Despite the moment, despite how wrong all of this seems, Fisher can’t help but smile. The laugh is infectious.
“My poor, poor lad. So very cynical you’ve become. So quick to assume the darker side of things.” He stops, grabs another handful of beard, and looks away wistfully. “But, then again, in this world today, I guess there can be a case for due cause. So easy to assume the worst in the world. In people.” He leans in close to the window and gives Morty another wink. “No, son, that rickety old building is a shelter. Young single mothers, mostly high school age, and mostly minorities, who are no longer welcome at their schools, or sometimes in their homes, are given a place to stay. A place to be safe. On each of the three top floors there are six rooms, each with a private bath, each, sadly, full at the moment. There’s a common dining and kitchen area on the first floor that doubles as a schoolroom during the weekdays. It’s all funded by grants and donations, but, you know how that works, and money is always tight.”
Fisher sucks in a breath, somewhat taken aback, “Okay, fine, but why are you telling me this, and for God’s sake, what’s that got to do with Rose?”
Another beaming smile crosses the man’s face. “Ah, yes, our dear Rosie. May I sit with you?”
“Not a chance, Buddy.”
“So be it.” With that, the man places a finger to his nose and gives it a good rub. There’s a flash of blinding white light, and then he’s gone.
“Over here,” says the man, now sitting on the passenger’s side of Fisher’s car.
“Never mind that for now. Let’s take a little journey.”
Fisher recoils back as the homeless guy reaches over, but the man’s too quick, and he can only wince as the man brushes a gloved finger across his nose.
With his touch, there’s another blinding flash, and suddenly Fisher is standing in some sort of workshop. Saws, drills, lathes and other metal and wood working machines take up most of the large center floor area, while neatly organized tools hang on pegboard walls just above tall toolboxes to each side. Somewhat dazed, he slowly spins around, now facing the rear of the shop where a number of racks filled with stacks of wood, metal, and various plastics cover the wall.
Well, at least most of the wall. Located dead center, and about head-high, three giant gold-plated belts hang in a row on stainless steel plaques. The first, mounted to the left, is shaped like a fat bolt of lightning, while the next is an oval, and the last a blast of fireworks. Even from where he stands he can easily see the inscriptions engraved into their front plates. Next to a fully bloomed rose that includes a stem with thorns, the first reads:
Rumbling Rose 2009 Women’s World Wrestling Champion
The next two are exact duplicates, with the exception of the dates – 2010 and 2011.
“She was a wrestler?”
“One of the best, if not THE best. World champion three years in a row, as you can see.”
He, nods, thinking about her amazing physique, and suddenly it starts to make sense. At least some of it. “So, what happened? I mean, why is she collecting trash… and selling stolen goods or drugs or whatever?” He waves an arm around the room. “And what’s all this about?”
The homeless man – though Fisher is starting to have second thoughts about that label – gives his head a shake, but in the end, smiles. “It’s one tough business, my friend. Lots of pressure. Lots and lots and lots of competition, and most will do whatever it takes to take you out. Even if whatever that might be is not quite on the up and up.” He pauses, taking in a deep breath. “It’s an enormous challenge to stay in the game, much less on top of it. But it takes even more to avoid giving in to the temptations that lie out there. No matter how hard you train, how strong you think you may be, sometimes you’re just not strong enough.”
“Oh.” His thoughts twirl around for a minute or two, before the realization slowly sinks in. “So, she started using?”
“Sadly, yes. HGH and steroids. Amongst other things. None of it good. And with that, her world crashed down around her. Total collapse. Next thing you know, she’s driving that great big ol’ dinosaur of yours.”
Fisher lets it all soak in for a moment, then once again waves his arm around. “So, if that’s the case, what’s all this? Why am I here? Never mind HOW I got here.”
The man lights up in another smile, one that seems to brighten the room itself. “She makes things here. Toys. Little shelves. Jewelry and jewelry boxes. Fixes broken things that need a new home, particularly the home that probably can’t afford such a luxury.” He moves to the side of the room where a couple of the duffle bags like the ones Fisher had seen Rosie carrying into the buildings throughout the morning sit in a bin. They are filled to the brim, and when the man opens the first one, Fisher sees several wooden cars, each painted with care, and each wrapped in thick red ribbon.
“This is for this afternoon’s run. That little foster care home over on Fifth.”
“The dumpy place?”
“Yes, the ‘dumpy’ place. The cities and counties are overrun with other expenses, and there are just too many families, broken or not, that need help. Sadly, programs like these take a poor – pun intended – last place. Rosie tries to help where she can.”
Like a poked balloon, Fisher feels as though his air has leaked out and his shoulders seem to sink all the way to his ankles. “How long has she been doing this?”
“Ten years now.”
“What! Why am I just finding out about this? And why doesn’t the company know? They’ve sent me out to fire her for wrongful use of company time and equipment, and rather, she’s a shining star.”
“We see what we care to see, sometimes. Nothing more.”
Fisher drops his head. “I guess I have to admit, I’m just as guilty as anyone else.”
The big man shrugs, then lets go a long breath, something between a sigh and a gasp, before spinning toward the middle of the room. As he does so, a button on his cheap jacket pops loose, leaving the top to fling open just enough Fisher can see a magnificent red winter coat with fluffy white trim peeking out from underneath. At first he’s left aghast, but after a moment of thought, the revelation seems to tickle a yearning to “see” even more. With that, he takes a step back, sizing up this strange man. It’s then he notices that the dirty sneakers that once adorned the man’s feet have turned into thick, black boots, the tops of which rise up and fold over in a comfortable roll between his ankles and knees. A set of gold-rimmed glasses that definitely weren’t there before, sit at the end of his nose, framed on either side by bright rosy cheeks.
Yet, even with all the wonderment before him, it’s seeing the cap upon the man’s head that freezes him to the spot. What was once a dingy, torn mess of a hat, has magically transformed into a beautiful red stocking cap that sports a thick fluff of white trim along the bottom, and carries a ball of white puff at the end.
We see what we care to see…
With the bright spark of revelation, his eyes go wide, wider than he ever thought possible. “Wait… you’re…you’re… Sa—“
“I think it’s time for us to go now,” the man interrupts, holding up a gloved hand.
And with that, he leans in close to Fisher, beams that heartfelt smile, gives an exaggerated wink (complete with the twinkle), and claps his hands.
Fisher wakes with a start, still scrunched down in his seat, the prehistoric sound of a garbage truck working a load somewhere off in the distance. Giving his groggy head a shake, his dry eyes a rub, he looks up, only to see that the windshield wears a thin blanket of snow.
He flicks on the wipers, allowing them to take several sweeps to clear the nasty white stuff off, then reaches down for his iPad, which has somehow dropped to the floor. When he straightens, he’s shocked to see the giant green garbage truck parked to the rear of the building. The trash bin has already been picked up and emptied, and the woman – Rose, or Rosie, which seems to better suit her – is stepping out, the giant duffle bag tossed over her shoulder.
He shakes his head again and gives his face a decidedly good slap with an open hand, before staring even more intently out the front windshield.
He watches Rosie duck under the low-hanging awning – again? – followed by the knock on the door, which he oddly can hear even with the window closed.
Fisher quickly checks his watch, then, not quite believing what he’s seeing, double checks by looking at the screen on his iPad.
“How can that be?”
Had he dozed off while he was waiting? Was it all just a dream, including the jolly old homeless man who was really… really… well, was he really?
He decides there’s only one way to be sure. Opening the car door, he jogs across the street, nearly slipping a number of times on the freshly fallen snow, and carefully approaches the garbage truck. He takes another look to be sure she’s not returning yet, then opens the driver’s side door. There, sitting in the opposite seat, are two more of the duffle bags. He sneaks a peek into the closest – handmade wooden toys, including cars and tractors and sailboats – and then the other, which is filled with like-new appliances – a small microwave, a mixer, even a toaster, and more. Each item in both bags is wrapped in a thick red ribbon and has a little tag dangling from the side that reads: From Santa.
Quietly closing the truck’s door, he starts back for his car, but just as he reaches the road, another thought hits him and he instead moves over to the side of the decrepit building. With his back to the wall, he inches up to the window and risks a glance inside.
Several young women, most with a baby in their arms – children with children, he can’t help but think – are gathered around a long table which features a tiny Christmas tree as its centerpiece. Rosie is at the far end, a smile as big as… well, that homeless guy… and every bit as warm. The bag is open beside her, and she seems to have a little system by which she reaches down into it, pulls out a box, and then calls out a name. Over and over as their names are called, the young women’s faces light up and they race around the table to Rosie’s side. Before she can even give them the present, they wrap the enormous woman in a hug as big as her. And when they do, he’s pretty sure he sees that little twinkle, the same one that you-know-who had in his eyes, light up in hers.
Turning, he walks slowly back to his car. His mind, however, is going a thousand miles an hour as the “events” of the morning, real or imagined, swirl through his head.
One thing’s for sure, the gifts in those bags and the joy on the faces of those young women were real. As real as it gets.
By the time he’s sitting in his driver’s seat, he knows what he has to do to make this right. Grabbing the iPad, he taps the screen to life and brings up the “Disciplinary Memorandum Investigative Report for Rose Nicolas”. It’s several pages long – he should know, he wrote each and every one of them over the course of the last week – and filled with critical suppositions and assumed corporate policy violations. He stares at the screen for a moment, though he’s not quite sure how he feels. Shame? Sadness? Yet, at the same time, there’s an element of joy mixed in there.
Of Christmas – dare he say it?
He takes in a long breath, then swipes the menu, choosing DELETE from the list of options.
Are You Sure? The program grimly asks.
He taps YES, then picks through another corporate document menu, this time picking: Nomination for Employee of the Year.
He smiles and begins to type in her name, but then stops.
Rosie’s been doing this for ten years now completely on her own. Without any acknowledgement, recognition, accolades, or help. Maybe the last thing she wants is everyone nosing into her – and the people she helps – business. Much less a framed award to hang on her wall – after all it probably wouldn’t match up to those belts.
Or the feeling in her heart when she sees the warm smile on the faces of those she helps.
He tosses the iPad onto the floor and slips out of the car knowing the “real” right thing to do. His timing is perfect, as Rosie has just stepped out from under the awning, empty bag over her shoulder. He runs again, this time more carefully, and they arrive at the truck at the exact same moment. She’s a bit startled at first, but stops and gives him her full attention, though her eyes are a bit narrowed. Curious or annoyed, he’s not sure.
Fisher stands there, mouth agape, for a moment too long, not quite knowing what to say or do. This was supposed to be easy. And feel good. And now he’s as nervous as can be.
Just when it seems the silence and tension have become unbearable, there’s a “harrumph” from the side. Fisher and Rosie turn at the same time to see the homeless guy – or whoever he is – standing there with a smile as big as the giant green truck.
He takes a step closer and places a white-gloved hand on each of their shoulders. “Hello there, Rosie. I’d like you to meet an old friend of mine. His name is Mortimer Fisher. He’s heard a bit about what you do through the grapevine,” he says with that now famous wink, “and he’d love nothing better than to somehow offer up some help.”
The man then steps back, giving his head a slight tilt. “I’ll let you two get to know each other and work out all the details.” He takes a quick glance at his watch, smiles that smile that warms Fisher to the bone, then nods to the both of them. “My, my, it’s getting quite late, and I’ve got a busy night ahead of me. Merry Christmas, Morty. Merry Christmas, Rosie.” And then, with another twinkle-filled wink, he turns and disappears into the light shower of snow.
“Busy night?” asks Fisher.
Rosie’s eyes go wide as she connects the dots. “Of course,” she says putting a hand to her mouth. “It’s Christmas Eve.”
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
A tip of the hat to Doug Bartlett, Mike Borjon, and Chuck Anderson, who were my inspiration for Rosie’s workshop, as for several years, like Rosie, they spent numerous hours in their own marvelous workshop making wooden toys for those kids who otherwise may not have had a little something under their tree. It’s nice to know that there are those who still have it in them to bring a little magic to the season.
After a long career of tinkering in telecommunications, Jim Bartlett switched to tinkering with words, both, of course, requiring a stretch of the imagination. He has since been fortunate to have a number of stories, ranging from flash to novella, featured in Fiction on the Web, CrimeSpree Magazine, Short-Story.me, Ontologica, The Scarlet Leaf Review, Fairlight Books and a number of other wonderful publications. Most recently one of his stories was featured in the print anthology, The Best of Fiction on the Web, 1996 – 2017. While mentally he strolls along a warm California beach with his wife and golden retriever (shhh, she doesn’t know she’s a dog), physically they reside on a special little island in the Pacific Northwest.