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Christmas Cheer

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When the phone rang, Dortmunder scowled at the kitchen, and then at Andy Kelp, who threw his hands up.

"Not me," Andy protested. "I'm here!"

"I thought maybe you had some kind of phone that would answer another phone," Dortmunder muttered, leaving three people saying "What?" as he sloped off toward the kitchen.

Not that he answered it right away. A phone ringing on Christmas Eve could not be a good thing, he reasoned. He had no family. May had a sister, but they couldn't stand one another. So much for calls of Christmas cheer. That left only various types of trouble. There were 364 days for trouble, Dortmunder thought as he glared at the phone. Christmas Eve, you were supposed to not have any.

On the 23rd ring (he kept reaching for it and thinking, no, that's the last, and waiting) May came into the kitchen. "Either answer it or we'll use it as dance music," she said. And when he didn't crack a smile, "Here, let me do it."

If it had to be trouble (what else was there?) he wouldn't stick it on May. Dortmunder picked up the receiver. "What?"

A voice like San Francisco in 1905 rumbled, "Dortmunder?"

Not trouble. This would be Trouble.

"Tiny?" Dortmunder's brain shifted into bob and weave. "Tiny! Thanks for calling to wish us a Merry Christmas. Wishing you and J.C. one as well—"

In the living room, the party sounds had resumed. Over the phone came the sound of tectonic plates subducting. "Meet me at the O.J. in an hour."

Dortmunder tried a last weak bleat. "But it's Christmas Eve—"

"I know. That's why we're meeting at the O.J. in an hour."

"But I—"

"Call the others. Bring Kelp." Dortmunder opened his mouth to save Andy's Christmas Eve, at least, but the crustal temblor now issued from the Abyssal Plain, "I can hear him yapping in the background."

The phone went dead.

Dortmunder went out into the living room, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. "That was Tiny. Wants us at the O.J. in an hour. I have to call everyone," he added bitterly.

"Whydya answer the phone?" Andy asked, but they all knew that was rhetorical, because they knew Tiny Bulcher. He was quite capable of sitting there until the phone had rung, say, 1,479 times—until his patience ran out. Then he'd storm over, kick the door down, grab Dortmunder, and shove the phone into orifices for which it was not designed.

Anne Marie and May exchanged looks. No use in complaining—they knew Tiny as well. "More eggnog for us," was May's only comment.

*

*Ring*

"Yah?"

"Dortmunder here—"

"You bastard, Dortmunder—"

"There's a meeting in an hour—"

"—whaddaya calling today for? Don't ya know—"

"at the O.J."

"—it's Christmas Eve, for chrissake? I've got better things to do than—"

"Tiny called the meeting."

"Oh. Right. O.J., ya say? Hour? Gotcha."

*Click*

Two more variations on this conversation occurred. On the fourth call, Dortmunder heard crackling, static, and honking. Since the targets were now Stan Murch and his mom, these sounds were reassuring.

"Hallo?" Stan barked into the cell phone. "Mom! No Canal Street, I told ya, there's construction—"

Mrs. Murch's voice crackled in the background. "Not today there isn't. Canal to Orchard and then down Houston—"

"There's a meeting—" Dortmunder began.

"What's that? What, Dortmunder? Mom, look out for that limo, what is it with these guys, you get a car a mile long and think the traffic rules—"

"Meeting! O.J.!" Dortmunder yelled.

"No can do," Stan returned cheerfully. "We've got tickets to—"

Dortmunder said the magic words—not that Tiny Bulcher would ever remind anyone of magic, except maybe in a Stephen King story—and Stan clicked off. But not before Dortmunder heard him arguing with his mom whether it was better to cut up First Avenue to East 23rd, while his mom championed Bowery over to Broadway.

A short time later, Dortmunder and Andy Kelp slouched into the O.J. Bar & Grill, glad to be out of the bitter cold. Not that the bar was conspicuously warm. It was more like the Mammoth Cave, a consistent temperature year round. The bar's air had been slowly transmuting since the speakeasy days, a fug that contained archaeological strata the closer you got to the floor.

In the front window, someone had set up an aluminum tree that looked like it had been a Blue Chip Stamp prize in 1958. It had been stored all these intervening years on one side, so some of the branches stuck out more or less like a real tree might possibly have done at least once since the era of gymnosperms. Speaking of sperm, the other side reached rigidly upward at an angle that would cause Freudians to reach for their couches and notepads. Dortmunder, who hated Freud, looked away.

"The vodka-and-red-wine's already back there. With a couple others, the rye-and-water and the beer-and-salt," Rollo said, wiping his hands down a dirty apron that had a Santa Claus face on it. The jolly round nose and the broad pink tongue stretched over a part of Rollo's anatomy that again recalled the Freudians, something that Dortmunder bitterly resented on an evening already pretty much in the toilet. There were the Freudians again, dammit.

"Yes," Dortmunder said, echoed by Andy at his shoulder, "That's right." And, with an attempt at politeness, "Nice tree, Rollo."

"Put it out for the customers," Rollo said, getting out the Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon—Our Own Brand. He waved the bottle in the direction of the regulars hunched along the bar.

"You shouldn't have," Dortmunder said sincerely.

The regulars would not have noticed a Christmas Tree if it had kissed Santa under the mistletoe. (Of which there was none in sight, Dortmunder was glad to discover.) They were too busy in their roles as Aristophanes chorus.

" . . . everyone knows Christmas Eve is Eve from Adam and Eve," the first regular was saying.

The second regular nodded sycophantically over his drink. "Right, right. You got your snake and your apple and tree, which is where you get your Christmas Tree."

"No," the third regular said. "You guys don't know nothing. Adam and Eve is in the Bible, but there's no Christmas Tree in the Bible. You got your star, yeah, and your three white men—"

"Wise men," the fourth regular corrected somberly.

"Who you callin' a wise guy?" the first regular said, swinging his head out and glaring down the bar.

Dortmunder accepted a tray and headed toward the back, Kelp following to hold the door.

"Anyways it was kings. We three kings, on account of the exploding cigar. You learn that in Sunday School."

The voices faded as Dortmunder and Andy shuffled past the two battered doors labelled POINTERS and SETTERS. Here Dortmunder paused, looking suspiciously at the warped door frame above the dog silhouette for POINTERS. Some weisenheimer had affixed a withered piece of mistletoe with grubby tape.

Dortmunder paused, thinking of the store room. With Tiny Bulcher in it, looking like Jabba the Hut with legs. He thought of Ralph and Stan and Gus Brock. He thought of himself and Andy and the regulars and Rollo.

"Here. Take this," Dortmunder said, shoving the tray at a surprised Andy.

Dortmunder ignored Andy's squawked questions. He reached up, took the mistletoe down, and shoved it in his pocket. There were just some things a guy didn't want to think about.

Dortmunder opened the green door into the storeroom, which was, as usual, packed with crates, the fug here paleolithic. Tiny Bulcher took up half of the round wooden table by himself. At either end sat the guys who'd come in first, leaving the bad seats—back to the door—to Dortmunder and Kelp.

Dortmunder sighed as he set the tray down onto the age- and grime-corrugated felt covering the table. Stan was here, nursing his beer, but his mother was out in the cab, probably picking up a fare or two. She refused to come into the O.J. because she was sure the seats would give her some kind of disease.

"What took ya?" Tiny asked.

"I had a few phone calls to make," Dortmunder reminded him.

Tiny's brow ridge lifted, an effect that looked a little like Mt. Rushmore animated by a Disney Imagineer. A rare impulse of fairness seemed to seize him, for he swung out two mighty hands, and Gus and Ralph leaped backwards out of their chairs. "Siddown," Tiny invited with a genial wave at the chairs. Kelp and Dortmunder dropped into the still-warm chairs.

Gus and Ralph sighed as they took the two bad seats.

"All right, Tiny, we're here," Dortmunder said. "Now you tell us why we had to be here on Christmas Eve."

"Because it's Christmas Eve," Tiny answered, making it clear that he thought this obvious.

Shufflings of feet and shifted arms indicated four men trying not to relieve themselves of an otherwise justified irony. Tiny did not like irony, at least when expressed in his direction. Dortmunder knew his own face conveyed nothing but its usual Monday morning slump, so he just waited, and sure enough, Tiny said, "You know. The season of Christmas cheer. Of good deeds. We're going to do a good deed."

Three pairs of eyes sidled Dortmunder's way. He wondered when the vote had taken place appointing him the fall guy, but said encouragingly, "Oh?"

"You know that my roommate, Josie, has among her legitimate businesses a travel agency."

Nods and shuffles indicated awareness of J.C.'s many business ventures. Everyone liked J.C., especially since she'd taken up with Tiny, which relationship had almost inspired him to behave within conceivable range of a semblance of civilization.

"She got into the luxury resort package tour business, on account of her being head of state of her own country, which will one day be a luxury resort. When I retire, I will be host of this resort," Tiny enlarged with the air of a man who has never worried about boring his audience. "I would like that, being host of my own luxury resort, as I like to think of myself as a hospitable kind of guy."

More shufflings of feet and clinkings of ice cubes indicated polite agreement, or at least polite . . . nonpartisanship.

"Every luxury tour she plans gives the tourist a good time, and employs people honestly, and puts money in her pocket. A win/win all around." Tiny's fist crashed to the table as emphasis. Just a gentle thump—for Tiny, but half Gus's drink sloshed out of its parent glass; the others, more used to Tiny's style of discourse, were holding their drinks.

"So when Ms. Matlock McKendrick Jones-Bartholomew caused a lawyer to send a harsh notice to Josie, demanding money back, plus reparations for suffering, it is cause for dismay. It means that somebody, somewhere, along the line, is not doing their job. And because it could not be Josie, who always gives the customer what they ask for, I decide that it must be someone else down the line."

Tiny paused to slurp at his wine-and-vodka, leaving Dortmunder and the others plenty of time to contemplate Tiny in the role of investigator.

"But there were no complaints anywhere. Everyone on that tour swore that Ms. Matlock McKendrick Jones-Bartholomew was a satisfied customer, if a cheap tipper. So I asked Wally Knurr to do a little work. You know Wally, the computer man," Tiny said. "He willingly gave up his time—" (People did tend to willingly give up time when Tiny asked) "—to track down this Matlock McKendrick Jones-Bartholomew, and we found out some surprising things."

"Like?" Dortmunder handled his role well.

"Like she has a habit of going once or twice a year on a luxury tour. Always booked by a new travel agent. Sometimes one in France, or in England, or California, but this time right here in our country, New York, from Josie. After each tour she books by all these different travel agents, Ms. Matlock McKendrick Jones-Bartholomew then gets a lawyer to send a threatening letter. A lawyer dealing with banks by the name of Carnegie Theodore Jones IV."

"This Jones being—"

"Her loving husband of two years. Her name before that was Mrs. Matlock McKendrick Auerbach-Bartholomew, and the year before that, Mrs. Matlock McKendrick Clotworthy-Auerbach. She was born as Miss Laura Lynn Evans, way back. This Jones fellow has been her lawyer, or her something, for a while. His name is on these letters."

"So it's a scam?" Kelp asked. "That what you're sayin'? Get the luxury tour, then get your money back? Sounds all right to me."

Various nods and shuffles of agreement.

Which stopped when the Abyssal Plain shifted again, right there in personal person, with hints of possible volcanic activity. Into the sudden silence, Tiny went on, "It's not all right when Josie is scammed. Anyway, Josie dug up this next part herself, because she also arranges trips to these spas here in the city, where women go for a day, drop a few large, and they do things to them. What my ma used to call beauty treatments—"

Everyone considered Tiny's mother and beauty treatments: no, did not compute.

"—but which they call 'work' now. Spine work, chakra work, eyebrow work, mud work, deep muscle work. Josie told me this, ya see. So when this Matlock McKendrick Jones-Bartholomew gets her money, because most pay up, they don't want court, or bad publicity, she takes her ten thousand and treats herself to one of the high end spas."

Getting twice the use from your money sounded like a good idea to everyone present, but nobody wished to be the one to point that out to Tiny.

"And we come in how?" Dortmunder asked.

"Wally got us the address, the schedule, and the details on this fine couple. We are going to visit them, and give them the opportunity to spread Christmas cheer around by giving us Josie's ten thousand dollars back. We will not say it's for Josie," Tiny further explained. "We will just make it clear that a ten thousand dollar donation, on general principles, is appropriate to the season."

Since no one had anything to say to that, the rest of the session went quickly. Tiny had worked the paper logistics out with Wally Knurr. The estate was of course guarded, but the security was cheap, and the floorplan of the mansion conveniently kept the servants out in the back, where the couple never had to see or hear them except when summoned. An in and out job—they'd be back well before morning, and could lay two large underneath the tree for their loved ones, Tiny finished. Josie had insisted that she didn't care about the money. Insurance had covered her. It was Tiny's idea to split the money between the guys, while teaching Ms Matlock McKendrick Jones-Bartholomew (and her scammer of a husband) a lesson in seasonal good will.

The prospect of two gees lightened Dortmunder's gloom slightly as he ambled after the others past the Didis and Gogos still hunched on their stools, waiting for a sleigh that was never going to come.

" . . . sure he had exploding cigars," the first regular was reminiscing to the others. "That was part of the comedy routine. Marx was on Vaudeville in the olden days. My uncle used to talk about 'em. Groucho had three brothers. Lessee—Hippo, Bozo, and Karlo."

"Karlo! Hippo and Karlo Marx? I know those guys," exclaimed the third, waving his empty beer mug. "They were all Commies—got hauled before Congress, where they wouldn't talk. Turns out, one of 'em couldn't talk."

"Alla Hollywood got drug into that." The second nodded sagaciously. "By Joe McCartney."

"Joe McCartney! That musta been right before he started the Beatles."

The air outside smelled fresh and sweet. As everyone's blood reoxygenated, Kelp joined Stan and his mom in the warm cab, which drove off toward the nearest high end hospital. Stan's favorite method for car acquisition being to impersonate a doorman, the chances of quickly finding what they wanted were hit or miss. Kelp understood the art of the good ride, relying on medical professionals and the quiet atmosphere of a posh hospital to make the best choice in automobile.

A short time later, Dortmunder sank back in the comfortable seat, smelling that new car smell and listening to the expensive whisper of the climate control. He tuned them all out, reflecting on the real truth: that nobody hates being stung like a crook.

 

*

The roads were clear, the drive swift. Kelp having thoughtfully included a GPS system in his requirements for transportation, there was no confusion in finding the place, despite the fresh fall of blue-lit snow rendering the Connecticut countryside featureless. They paused along a secluded road and Tiny passed out the Santa Claus ski masks he'd bought. Then they rolled to the Jones' gate.

As promised, the security system was one of those crackerjack jobs that look expensive and futuristic, what with the buttons and controls at your end in the house. The fact is, if you really are worried about security, you pay to have real humans guarding your perimeter, not wires that, for all the digital muscle-flexing sent along their routes, can still be cut.

The team carefully set the gate to look untampered-with for any roaming constabulary, and proceeded up the long drive to the house. Tiny growled in disgust when they discovered the impressive spread of windows across the front to be uniformly dark. He'd been practicing his speech about Christmas cheer to his companions in the car, a rehearsal that had made them all glad that this job was not located in Vermont.

Tiny was a practical man, he assured his companions. Since they were there and all, they may as well take their fine—there had to be a safe around somewhere—and maybe he could leave a note bearing his message. He rather liked that idea. Something that would, of course, not point back to Josie, but would be generally instructional and also seasonally appropriate.

The door locks were as easy as the gate, and they crossed the entry hall into a living room about the size of an aircraft carrier flight hangar. Doors opened off left and right, barely visible in the moonlight reflecting off the snow outside the windows, blue or green LED lights here and there indicating various techtoys waiting to be clicked on. Far in the distance came the sound of raucous laughter, the clink of glass.

Then voices rose in singing—Spanish. The guys froze.

"Gotta be the servants," Kelp said.

"Probably drinking up the bosses' booze," Gus commented.

The point was, no servants would be allowed to whoop it up that loud if the mistress and master were home.

"Okay, definitely in and out," Tiny said.

Everyone agreed. So the fellows split to check various doors in search of a safe. And if anyone happened upon something really nifty on the way, hey, it was Christmas, wasn't it?

"Dortmunder," Tiny said. "I think this is what we're looking for."

He stood beside a double door of such gravitas only a lawyer's study could lie behind it. Sure enough, here was the expected desk of some kind of super-costly endangered wood, the bookcases crammed with leather-bound law books, the gilt lettering glinting faintly. Dortmunder eased the doors shut as Tiny made certain the drapes were firmly closed, then they flicked on the light.

A short search, and there was the safe, behind the desk, directly next to the little fridge containing a sixer of designer water and a couple magnums of really good champagne. Dortmunder was just running his hands over the safe to get the feel—warm up to the work—when the double doors opened. He paid no attention. Tiny, the equivalent of a Panzergrenadier detachment, was better equipped to handle any servants wandering around in search of more of the boss's liquor.

But he didn't hear the sounds of scuffle, thud, or crash.

What he heard was a high voice, "Who are you?"

Dortmunder slowly straightened up and turned around. There in the doorway, next to a frozen Kelp, stood a Little Girl.

Because of the Santa Claus ski masks, Dortmunder could not see his colleagues' faces. But he could tell from Kelp's wooden aspect that he did not know what to do about this new wrinkle. Even Tiny had frozen. His usual M.O. being to squash what he couldn't threaten, he knew what Josie would have to say about squashed Little Girls.

Dortmunder hated kids. That is, he hated kids on a job. Kids as kids were fine—in their place, which was the rest of the world outside his own place. On the job, they were nothing but trouble.

The Little Girl was a sturdy specimen of her species, wearing a nightgown with a fuzzy pink robe over it, and carrying something hairy that Dortmunder at first took to be a doll, until it moved. It was one of those super small dogs with the bug eyes that idiot rich women had been carrying around in their purses for a time. When he was a kid, idiot rich women had pinned jeweled cockroaches to their bosoms to crawl around on gold chains. This fad hadn't been much of an improvement over that one.

Tiny's head swung Dortmunder's way. His mask was stretched to the limit, giving his jolly Saint Nick face a weird grimace that looked more like Jabba the Hutt. Kelp, the dolt, just stood there.

"We're Santa's helpers," Dortmunder said.

The girl actually relaxed a little—not a lot, just a little—which brought her other arm into view. She was holding a cell phone in a pink and purple plastic case. Her thumb hovered, probably over the speed dial. Like where someone had programmed in 911. Even Dortmunder, who hated technology, phones especially, knew about speed dial.

"Your boxes are out in the garage. You musta got mixed up," she said.

Silence, except for the scratching of the little dog who wanted to get down and sniff, and in the distance, an untuneful rendition of "Hijo de la Luna."

Still the fall guy, Dortmunder thought. "Garage? Boxes?" he said, watching that thumb.

"Your boxes are supposed to be the ones in the garage," the Little Girl explained. She wrinkled her nose. "Papa Tad didn't say anything about the other boxes."

"What other boxes?" Dortmunder asked,

"The ones in the wine cellar. Papa Tad said if I did everything right, I would save him a lot of money, having to pay somebody just to sit here on Christmas Eve just for boxes. Nobody would want to miss Christmas Eve! Anyway, your boxes are out in the garage. I still don't quite get how that works, but maybe there's a couple of hospitals?"

Roll with it, Dortmunder thought. "Why don't you show me the stuff in the wine cellar," he said, adding, "In case we're supposed to take both."

"Oh. I didn't think of that. Papa Tad didn't say anything about that. Want me to call him, just to make sure?"

Tick, tick. Somewhere in the house was an old grandfather clock. The little dog snorted, trying to get down. Dortmunder hazarded one of those guesses that can either get you out of trouble, or far deeper into the kimchee. "Do you think he'd like to be bothered?"

The little girl shook her head so hard that brown curls bounced. "I was only supposed to call in an emergency. And well, this isn't, is it? You're here, and the boxes are here and all?"

"How about you just show us the boxes, and we'll figure it out, and we'll be the ones who call him if there's a question. Then you don't get yelled at," Dortmunder suggested.

"Oh, good idea! I rather you called him. He can be really crabby. Come on, it's this way," she said, and scampered briskly off.

Dortmunder and Tiny followed, Dortmunder making violent motions toward the safe behind his back. Kelp slipped inside the office, and shut the doors gently after Tiny.

"I like to think of the sick kids getting the toys right when they wake up. I sure would like that," the Little Girl chattered as they passed down a long hall. "I don't know when they'll get back from their stupid hotel. Sure is boring waiting!"

"Waiting is really boring," Dortmunder said agreeably.

This seemed to be the right answer. The Little Girl dropped the pink and purple cell phone into the pocket on the side of her fuzzy pink robe. "You scared me a little," she confided. "So did the other guys, the ones that came earlier, I mean, when Papa Tad and She thought I was in my bathroom barfing. I mean, I was in the bathroom, but not barfing. But I couldn't get the lock to unlock, so I looked out the window, and there they were. Those guys wore plastic masks. But after the lock worked, and La Mere was crabby, getting ready, so I just stayed out of the way. Anyway, I like being in charge, and best of all, that means the servants get to have their Christmas party. Which is nice, since I never knew Papa Tad ever gave any of his servants, like, time off. I'm double-glad I didn't go to that stupid party."

"Party?" Dortmunder said, as the little girl stopped beside a plain steel-reinforced door and tapped out a code that Dortmunder memorized.

The door swung open, revealing a stair leading down into the wine cellar.

"I hate their stupid parties. And I really really really hate La Mere. Isn't that stupid, La Mere, and none of us are French? She makes me call her La Mere, my mom says because it makes her sound younger, but I just say She. That's because the servants call her She. That's Matlock McKendrick. Isn't that a stupid name? Her real name is Laura Lynn, but she said rich girls aren't called Laura Lynn, and Matlock McKendrick sounds professional, and the other names are her richest husbands. I think Matlock Mckendrick sounds like one of Papa Tad's law friends. I hate her parties. I never had to go until he married her. Last time I went, I was soooooo bored, the food was all weird stuff, and the other girls were snobs. And She said like twenty times oh, what will she ever do, her waist is smaller than mine."

The Little Girl's slippers wisped on the stone stairs as Dortmunder and Tiny followed. The Little Girl, it seemed, had decided to trust them, for now she was uncorking in the manner of Little Girls the world over. As she led them to another locked door, then tapped out the code, she chattered on. "She picked out these twin dresses, and mine made me look like I'm six years old. When I said I wouldn't wear it she smacked me. And she wouldn't even give me ten dollars for the Christmas fund at school, you know, where you put the money in, and they buy something for our sister school in Africa. She said, how do you know your ten dollars don't just go into someone's pocket, and when I offered to show her the website with the school, and the things our donations built, well, she just laughed, and so I barfed."

"Oh?" Dortmunder said, hazy but persevering.

"All over the leather seat in the Jag. I can barf anytime I want to. It's my best trick. Well it's my only trick, except for snorting milk through a straw and spitting it out but everyone just thinks that's gross. So Papa Tad said to just leave me because she could get more mileage out of a sick kid, but I'm not exactly sure what he meant by that."

"Papa Tad? He's your dad?" Dortmunder asked, wondering why Wally Knurr hadn't warned them about a kid. But then he he'd been investigating the woman, not the man.

"No! His name is Carnegie Theodore Jones, and he gets mad if you forget the Eye-Vee after. That's Roman numerals, you know. Anyway he's legally my dad. You see, my mom had me when she was sixteen, I was an oopsie, and so her mom made her give me up, and I was adopted, but she never lost track of me, and anyway, those people broke up, I don't even remember the man, but the lady married Papa Tad, who adopted me as part of the marriage. But when they got a divorce, she didn't want me, because her new guy already had three girls, so Papa Tad got stuck. He keeps me in school year round, which I don't mind, because I love Saint Hilda's. Here they are. All ready for the sick kids! Anyway, Sister Mary Benedict is the Headmistress, see, and she's like a super-nice grandma. She says I'm smart, and she lets my mom, my real mom, visit, and Rick once, too, even though Mom doesn't have any like legal rights, and they aren't married, because Rick thinks Mom could do better than him. And Mom doesn't want to make him feel pressured, isn't that just like grownups? Anyway men aren't supposed to come visit at school unless they're your parents. But Headmistress likes Mom, says she's more responsible than most people because she learned the hard way and she likes Rick and she says that it takes a village to raise a kid and it's so important for . . ."

While the Little Girl chattered on about how Papa Tad wouldn't let Mom have her over at her house, and why not, just because she was poor didn't mean she wouldn't be a good mom, Tiny unlimbered a crow bar from somewhere around his person and applied it to one of the crates.

Noticing him at last, the Little Girl broke off mid-sentence. "What are you doing that for?"

"Just to make sure everything is the way it's supposed to be," Dortmunder soothed.

"Oh! I don't blame you. Know what Papa Tad's last wife, Nila, said? The one before La Mere? Nila said, 'When Matlock McKendrick dumps him, be sure you count the silverware.' I asked Mom what that means, and she said it means a thief, but La Mere can't be a thief because She's super rich." The Little Girl clearly relished the nasty emphasis on every 'She' and 'Her.' "One thing we know for sure, She is a cheapskate, Mom says. Like She wouldn't give me the ten dollars for the African sister school, and She was going to have Cha-Cha here just killed, after She got sick of having him in Her purse because he wanted to you know, play, like a dog, and not just sit all the time, but I rescued him. Said I would take care of him myself, and I have. But anyway, She's rich and She does those fund raisers where I have to be the call girl."

The crow bar rattled to the floor. Tiny picked it up, sent back a glowering look, then hustled out and up the steps.

"You what?" Dortmunder asked.

"Have to be the call girl," she explained. "Until La Mere married Papa Tad I only came here at vacations. Otherwise I stay at school for months and months and months. But you know, when La Mere wants me, She has Papa Tad's secretary call up the school, and say that it's a legal requirement for me to spend time, and yaddayaddayadda, and he sends a limo to pick me up and we always end up going to these parties. See? They call, and there I am, I have to go."

"Oh. Right."

"La Mere makes these little jokes about how much I like dogs and how I go to Catholic school and the moms all coo at me like I'm not real and the girls all look down at me, and no one thinks I notice even though I'll be eleven in three months and fourteen days. They all tell La Mere what a great mother She is, what a laugh, and how She sacrifices for the greater good, then after the party's all over She dumps me back at the school until the next party."

Dortmunder thought of Sister Mary Benedict, and Catholic School, and the season, then said carefully, "I don't think call girl is the right term."

"Why not?"

He waggled a hand, and his head, and his shoulders twitched and his eyes shifted, but when that didn't explain, he tried a new tack. "You know what rent-a-cops are?"

The kid looked scornful. "Of course I do! They're the guys with the badges and guns that Papa Tad gets to guard the place when he does his big summer barbeque for the bank bosses. He gets guards so the homeless people won't come and steal any of the food out of the trash. Like there are any homeless people anywhere around. And anyway, Rosa always packs it up and takes the extras to church to pass out when they go to the homeless kitchen. I know because I help her. But Papa Tad doesn't know," she finished in triumph. She set the little dog down. "Go ahead, Cha-Cha, go in your basket."

"Rosa?" Dortmunder repeated as the tiny dog mountaineered up the steps, and away.

"The cook. Rosa cooks, and Raynardo and his sons do the grounds, and Rosa's cousin Lilla and her two sisters do the rooms. They live in the little house way in the back. It's only got one potty. Euw! But Rosa says not to complain because La Mere said she'd turn them in. They want to get green cards, that's for people who—but you didn't tell me why you said rent-a-cops."

Dortmunder's brain, being unused to little girls, didn't zip along the loops in the conversational Moebus strip as fast. But eventually he caught up. "Sounds like you're more like a rent-a-kid than a call girl." There, that was pretty safe.

"Oh, I know what you mean," the kid said, nodding and looking wise. "I'm not a dummy! You can't have rent-a-kids because nobody is allowed to work under sixteen. Otherwise, I could be one, couldn't I? Wow, if I could really be one, I could make enough so Mom could get me back. I'd advertise, rent-a-kid for when you have to have an instant kid for grownup parties for parents. I know just how to behave, I even know how to eat cake off a plate on my knee. We practice that in etiquette class at school. I never thought it would come in handy, but it has . . ."

As she talked on, Tiny clattered down the stairs again, sounding like a landslide of boulders. Kelp was on his heels. The Little Girl chattered on as Tiny and then Kelp peered into the crate that Tiny had opened.

Dortmunder shifted position, and while the girl talked blithely about etiquette lessons, and how gross and disgusting it was to have to dance with the boys at St. Mark's because they all had wet hands and smelled like gym socks, he noted the address labels on the packing cases listing a New Haven city hospital as recipient, and the contents listed merely as used toys donated to the Santa's Helper League.

But the contents were not any used toy Dortmunder had ever seen. The packaging was crisp and new, the lettering in Japanese. Judging from the size of each retail box, the tech toy inside was somewhat larger than a handheld computer. Kelp's eyes widened. He was behind the chattering kid; over her head his lips formed words. Dortmunder couldn't make words out of those writhing lips. He also hated Charades.

Tiny bent down, enormous hands on his knees. Making an effort to be friendly, he said, "Any more Santa's Helper deliveries here, Little Girl?"

Dortmunder and Kelp backed up, frightened far more by the sight of Tiny in that distorted knit Saint Nick trying to be jolly than they ever had been by Tiny trying to be threatening.

But the kid didn't seem to think anything amiss. "My name is Ashley," she announced. "There are six Ashleys in my class, but we all spell our names different. First there's Ashlee Davis, and then Ashleigh Jabi, and Aisling Stein, but she pronounces it—" She paused on the stairway. "Aren't you coming? I'll show you the garage."

"Uh, sure." Tiny followed Ashley out, her voice floating steadily behind.

"You ever been to Electric Town?" Kelp said.

"Where? Oh, you mean Disney World—"

"No, I mean Electric Town in Tokyo."

"Never been to Japan."

"Well, if you ever go there, what you do in Electric Town is step into the future. The stuff those Japanese got in there, it's at least a couple years ahead of anything we got here. The kids over there, they're playin' with the stuff our kids here will be whining about next Christmas, costing half a gee apiece, if not more. These here are the next thing in GameBoys. Way next, because it's interactive—"

Dortmunder waved a hand. "Never mind what it does. So what you're saying is, this guy's a fence?"

"I think the broad is a fence, though the guy must know about it. His specialty, according to the stuff I found in the safe, is much bigger, which if you've heard the news lately about the crash in mortgages—"

Dortmunder just waved a hand. "Never owned a house. Never intend to."

"Okay, okay. Taking people's houses. And kicking their ass to the curb. You get your people talked into this balloon mortgage, low payments up front, and someday you owe the dough, and work it so some day comes quicker than you think, and if you don't have it all, you lose it all. Stan and Ralph are unloading the safe."

"What do we do with banking stuff?" Dortmunder asked.

"Josie knows," Kelp said, brandishing Tiny's cell phone. "She won't mess with the mom and pop foreclosures, that's like goin' after people like Stan's Ma. But those fake corporations, they're fronts for big trusts, she says there's some good hunting there. At the very least, him and his bank buddies have been makin' us look small time."

"We are small time," Dortmunder began. He did not like all this bank talk. Banks made him twitchy, like lawyers and cops. This place here, they were batting two for three.

Clatter, chatter! Tiny and Ashley were back, Tiny looking like a serial killer's idea of Santa Claus, as Ashley babbled on. " . . . and Mom and Rick really like each other, and he likes me, too. You know how, some people, you take a look and you like them? Rick was like that. He didn't say anything how tall I am, or what subjects I like, or stupid stuff, he asked me what my favorite house is at Hogwarts!"

Kelp intercepted a massive shoulder jerk from Tiny, and correctly interpreted it as 'Keep the kid busy.' Showing what Dortmunder thought amazing versatility, Kelp was saying, "So what did you think of the end of the last Harry Potter book?" as Tiny gestured Dortmunder up the stairs.

"Gold mine," he said, breathing heavily, and not from clambering stairs. "The broad seems to be running scam on posh charities—she goes to rich women clubs and like that, shows off the kid like flashing a ring, gets big ticket donations. Delivers crap from school toy drives and the like at the other end. All the dough directly into her pocket, but it's all tax write-off for the corporations, so they don't check."

Dortmunder signaled with the hand again. "What's the guy's angle on the broad's scams? Sounds like this luxury tour thing is nickel-dime compared to the rest of this stuff."

"Probably just doin' it 'cause he can," Ralph said, rubbing his head as he sauntered up. "No skin off his beezer, sends a heavy letter off on the embossed letterhead, laugh over the small guy, or small gal—" A nod at Tiny. "—people caving right in."

Stan said, "I cased the bedrooms. Those two have got closets the size of a shopping mall. He's got Revolutionary Era coins. Left 'em—everyone knows who owns what. She's got jewelry enough to stock a store, and a huge collection of rare amber. Old stuff. Ma likes amber," he finished. "But Dad only got her the one little pendant when he cashed in his War Bond. Don't you think that'd make a good stocking stuffer?"

"I think Mrs. Murch would like that very much," Dortmunder said, and got his idea. "And the jewels are always handy. Tiny, bring up one of those boxes of Japanese gizmos."

"And?"

"Just hide it outa sight for now. What's inside the boxes in the garage?"

"Old crappy toys. I busted one open. The kid wanted to donate something she had out in the garage."

"Some hospital guys are supposed to be one the way to get that stuff right now, according to the kid."

Tiny's knit cap stretched, Saint Nick broadening to a manic dementia. He loped off down the hall to the wine cellar. No one offered to help. He could probably lift not only a couple of those boxes, but any of the guys seated on one.

Tiny had just retreated with a box into the lawyer's office when headlights lasered in through the bank of front windows.

"Truck," Stan said, squinting at the lights. "I think—yeah, that's the name of the hospital on the side."

The truck turned along the drive, moonlight shining on it.

"Make sure Andy keeps the kid outa sight."

Ralph said, "Last I heard, when I was checkin' the bedrooms for swag, she was showing him the bigscreen TV."

"Good. Keep 'em there."

Ralph vanished. Dortmunder—chosen unanimously as the fall guy—ambled to the front door and slipped out. He was still wearing his mask. The truck had driven slowly up the sweeping drive, to come to a halt near the garage complex off to one side. Two guys got out, looking around. Even in the moonlight, they seemed uneasy as Dortmunder sloped up to them.

"Evenin'," Dortmunder said.

"You part of the Santa's Helper League?" one of the men said. "Hospital delivery—"

"That would be me," Dortmunder said. "Bob Diddums."

"Lenny Katz," the driver said. "Listen, Bob, your gate is on the blink."

"I know. We reported it, but you think you can get repairmen out on a holiday, even golden-time? Come right in. Be sure to bring dollies. Your delivery is downstairs, unfortunately."

"Says here we're supposed to pick up the toys in the garage," the second guy said, smacking the back of his gloved hand on a clipboard.

"We're Santa's Helpers," Dortmunder said. "There are about fifteen kids asleep in the room near the garage, so we shifted the boxes downstairs. We don't want the kids to wake up. Spoil things. When they wake up, Santa was here and gone, giving the toys to the sick kiddies, see?"

Maybe not quite, but it did sorta explain the mask, and anyway, this Bob Diddums guy was so slouch-shouldered and slow, and this was one of your rich houses. Everyone knew rich people were crazy. It was late, Christmas Eve, Lenny and his crew just wanted the job done so they could get home. Dortmunder got all that in their shrugs, scuffs, sighs.

The other two guys brought out a couple of battered dollies, Dortmunder waved at them to be silent, and let them in the dark room, gesturing toward the hall. The guys complied. In fifteen minutes the boxes were up and out. The hospital guys got Dortmunder to sign their lading bill, which he did—Santa J. Claus—in a scribble that looked vaguely Arabic. Then they were off.

"Okay, what now?" Kelp asked, yawning. "We better scram before the scammers get back."

"I don't think they're going to," Dortmunder said. "The kid mentioned something about a hotel. But the party was at some house. I think they're probably already asleep. Left the kid to the servants."

"Why dya think they're inna hotel, Dortmunder?" Ralph also yawned.

"Because I think the guy changed the plans when the kid turned up sick. I bet he decided they could use her for the toy hand-off. He didn't have to stop his party early, come home to make sure the coast was clear for the second one, 'cause the kid was sure to be asleep."

No one wanted to take the bet. "What do we do?" Ralph asked.

"I'm afraid you gotta fix the gate electricity, just to let these new guys in, Kelp. Can you do that? The rest of you, get the old toys downstairs into that cellar. Then you salt a layer or two of the Japanese toys a good six inches on top of the old toys. They all oughta have the same sorta label, if I'm right. What is it, just past one? What I'm betting is, the guys after the real goods will be showing up say three a.m., when no one is awake. If I'm wrong, we have a quiet drive home, with what we've got. If I'm right, we score."

"There's also the possibility of being wrong in a big way," Ralph warned.

Tiny chuckled; a fight would be his idea of Christmas cheer.

"Where's the kid?" Dortmunder asked.

"She konked out in the TV room, right in the middle of telling me the differences between the Harry Potter books and movies," Kelp said. "I almost fell asleep myself. I put an afghan over her and shut the door."

"Good."

As they got the last part of their plan ready, in the background, the servants' party finally wound down. There came faint clinkings and clatterings as the cleanup was done, and then those lights winked out, just as the guys finished and took their waiting positions.

The world was dark and cold when a new truck nosed along the driveway, using only its parking lights. So they'd gotten in through the gate. Now . . .

The new guys let themselves into the house. These were not shambling hospital workers paid minimum wage. They were clad in black, efficient, fast. From the sounds, Kelp reported later from his position at the other end of the hall, they swiftly checked not one but several of the boxes. Though they checked without turning on lights, so they did not see that the layer of techtoys only went about four deep in the front row, and one deep in the rest of the boxes.

Which they carried up the stairs, out the door.

Then their leader paused before closing the wine cellar door, and tossed something inside. He followed the last of his guys out, and the truck doors closed with an expensive tunk! The truck rolled back down the drive.

Dortmunder gave Kelp the code to the wine cellar, and he ran off. Ralph and Stan made double sure their own prints were gone, but left anything the second set of guys might have touched.

Kelp reappeared with padded mail envelope in hand. "Fifty large," he reported. "In cash."

"Merry Christmas," Tiny said, chuckling, and headed off toward the car, which Ma Murch had rolled to the door. The others followed, and there came muffled sounds of people shifting loot around to make room for their bodies.

Dortmunder did a last sweep. He remembered the kid.

On impulse he ran down to the den, where she was curled up under a throw rug. He picked her up, and toted her rapidly back through the house to a fenced-over service porch, and into a small, cheaply made annex beyond. A trace of spicy party food and liquor remained in the air, but there were no lights, no noise.

Dortmunder set her on the small, rump-sprung couch. The kid woke, looking around groggily. "Are you people still here?"

"We're leaving," Dortmunder explained. "But seeing as it's Christmas, I wanted to give you some Christmas cheer." He reached into his pocket, then slapped something small and scratchy into her hand. "Here ya go."

She squinted and sniffed it. "What is that?"

"Mistletoe."

"Euw!" she pronounced. "I don't wanna kiss anyone. Except Cha-Cha."

"Naw, not for you. Put it up for your Mom and Rick. See if it works."

"But I won't get to see them for weeks—there's another big party on Christmas, and another one on New Years."

The sirens were getting closer. "Oh, I think you're gonna see 'em sooner than you think. Go back to sleep. Christmas will come faster."

She nodded drowsily, snuggling back down. Then lifted her head. "You think it'll really work? Can this stuff really make them kiss and get married?" She uncurled her palm just a little.

He laughed, straightening up and backing to the door. "Hey, what's the worst that can happen?"