Story by Thomas R. Keith
Illustration by Cesar Valtierra
Malloy was at the window, one foot on a chair and his binoculars against his eyes, when the knock came.
If he had been anyone else, he would have sworn aloud. But Needles Malloy never swore. Not when he stubbed his toe. Not when his car wouldn’t start. Not even when some tough put a knife to his throat. He was a professional, and professionals don’t get rattled.
He even had the presence of mind to put on his hat and straighten his tie before he opened the door, to be greeted by Calodakis, the landlord, a man with a thick mustache and a thicker gut. “How are you, Mr. Jones?”
“Fine,” replied Malloy, “but busy. What’s this about? My rent’s paid up, isn’t it?”
“Sure, sure. You’re the best tenant I got. That’s why I come to tell you in person: we have to shut off the heat tomorrow. Just for a few hours.”
The only sign of a reaction was a single lifted eyebrow. “That so? How come?”
Calodakis shrugged helplessly. “The whole block’s gotta do it. Even the fancy houses across the way. Something about the water main – can’t handle hot water no more, gotta be fixed. Always something in this city.”
“Hmm. Well, I appreciate the information. Now, if you’ll excuse me…” His voice was courteous but firm.
“Yes, of course, Mr. Jones. You have a good day now. Merry Christmas and stay warm.”
Closing the door after him, Needles Malloy came as close as he ever did to a grin. Stay warm. Like a day without heat would bother him. He’d go to the South Pole in short pants if it meant a decent fee. And the fee for this job was more than decent.
If only he could find a way to pull it off.
Back to the window. Back to the binoculars. 4202 Peregrine Street, across the way. The house that might as well be a fortress. And inside it, somewhere, Nico Lanzetti.
Malloy bore Lanzetti no ill will. He even liked the guy, if you can like a man whom you’ve only seen at a distance and never exchanged a word with. It took guts for a made man to just up and quit the business. But Lanzetti made a lot of enemies when he turned songbird, and those enemies had plenty of cash on hand – enough to hire the very best. This wasn’t the kind of job where cheap and messy would do. Clean and surgical – that was the ticket.
So Malloy did things the clean way. With a little wheedling and a little well-placed bribery, he found out the address of the safe house where they were keeping Lanzetti. He rented a room across the street, and he waited. Waited for a chance.
But the chance didn’t come. The man was a damned hermit. He never stepped out the front or back door, never so much as showed his face at a window. His food was dropped off by a delivery boy every morning, always at a different time, and picked up by a nobody in a suit who must have been a cop. The door would slam, and that was it for the rest of the day. Short of storming the place with a machine gun, or outright blowing it up with a truck full of dynamite, what could you do?
With a little sigh, Malloy swung the binoculars up and down the street. It was bitterly cold, and anybody with brains was indoors. That left only a wino who slouched against an empty storefront, bottle in his limp hand, and a band of carolers. Always carolers. Normally he only killed for money, but these schmucks he would gladly deal with for free. Their loud, off-key voices floated up to him like a foghorn: “The holly and the ivy/When they are both full-grown…”
Trapped somewhere between apathy and annoyance, he watched them as they made their way to Lanzetti’s place.
Then his heart stopped.
The thick oak door of the brownstone swung open, and a gaunt, middle-aged man with olive skin stood there. He was throwing quick glances back over his shoulder as if he expected someone to come haul him off at any moment.
Malloy never forgot a face. And though the last time he had tangled with Lanzetti’s men was nearly a decade ago, the whole scene came back to him with the clarity of a photograph. Yes, there could be no doubt of it. This was the man he was after.
Lanzetti was pressing a small handful of bills into the hands of each caroler, and as he did so, he would seize each person’s hand and shake it vigorously, a broad smile on his careworn face. Once he had paid the whole group, he gave a quick nod, stepped back, and slammed the door hard.
Needles Malloy had to bite his lip to keep himself from laughing out loud. A sentimental fool. Risking his miserable neck to reward some yelping amateurs, all for the sake of the Christmas spirit. Oh, God almighty, it was too good to be true.
He went to his briefcase, calm now as a halcyon sea, and removed the false bottom. There before him was a row of hypodermic needles of various lengths and beneath it a row of glass vials containing clear liquids. The vials were not labeled. They didn’t need to be. He knew exactly what each one contained, and how quickly or slowly it would do its work.
Whistling, half-consciously, “The Holly and the Ivy,” he made his selection.
Arrivederci, Signore Lanzetti. Domani, arrivederci.
The next day was, somehow, even colder. It did not snow, but there was wind. Such cruel wind. Like the repetitive crack of a whip, it struck across the faces, breasts, arms, and legs of anyone foolish enough to brave it. So bad had the wind grown by noon that even the wino, who still lay in his torpor against the boarded-up window, stirred and moaned uneasily: “No…no more…”
You would not think, on such a day, that there would be carolers, or that they could preserve so much as a semblance of cheer. But you would be wrong. There they came down the sidewalk, the merry parishioners of St. Mark’s Lutheran, half a dozen strong and bundled up in layer after layer of fabric. Each wore a grin on his face and a wreath on his neck. The only sign of their distress was the haste with which they sang at each stop, tripping over the notes in their rush to move on: “Godrestyemerrygentlemen…Goodkingwenceslaslookedout…”
One of their numbers was unknown to the rest. He had shown up at the church a few minutes before they set out, remarking that he had heard they would be caroling today, and could he join in the festivities? They welcomed him with open arms. Such a muscular fellow, with a broad chest that could never catch a cold; and besides, he had a fine baritone voice.
As they made their way down the block, he set the pace, almost running from house to house. There was a glint in his eye, like a dog that’s treed a squirrel. And – this was the really odd thing, though they were too cold and too busy to pay it much heed – his gloved hands worked carefully, rehearsing motions over and over again in the frigid air.
At last, they came to the brownstone that the good people of St. Mark’s had nicknamed “The Tomb”. Someone obviously lived there; they took food each day, but they were never seen. It was all a great mystery and a rich source of gossip for the church quilting circle. A few of the more daring parishioners had even placed bets – small, of course – on whether anyone would make his presence known when they sang.
The muscular newcomer bounded up the front steps and knocked on the door. When there was no response, he stepped back, motioned to the others to join him, and started singing lustily: “DEEEEEECK the halls with boughs of holly, fa la la la la la, la la la la, TIIIIIIIIS the season to be jolly…” It was a marvel, really, how far his voice carried, even as the gale fought to drown it out.
A snapping sound: a bolt being thrown back. Then another, and another. The great door swung open cautiously, and a thin, slightly haggard man appeared. In the shadows of the unlit entryway, only his head and neck could be seen, seeming almost to float in space above his dark clothing; but he was smiling. Smiling like a small child who’s awoken to find a new fire truck underneath the tree.
When they fell silent at last, he gave a long, wistful sigh. “It is so nice,” he said, with a soft Milanese accent, “to hear you sing. I have not heard such voices since la buona notte di natale in the old country. You have brought warmth to my heart.”
Stepping forward, he took each one’s hand and shook it. “Thank you. Grazie. Thank you so much.”
At last, he turned to the newcomer, who made a lightning-swift, almost invisible motion with his right arm. Something that glinted in the weak winter sunlight slipped into his hand.
“Thank you,” said the Milanese, and shook it.
“It was,” replied the newcomer coolly, “my pleasure.”
For a moment, they stood there, frozen like a sculptural tableau. Then their expressions began to change. The Milanese’s smile faded, to be replaced, gradually, by a look of puzzlement, mixed with dawning recognition. As for the newcomer, he too appeared perplexed. His eyes scanned the face of the Milanese, looking for something that he did not see. Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead despite the cold.
“You,” said the Milanese slowly. “I know you. Not your name, but your face. Somewhere…somewhere, on a dock…when Marco and Lucio were…”
His jaw dropped, and his eyes were flooded with a terrible, dreadful light. The other man tried to extricate himself, but the Milanese tightened his grip until it was like a vise. “SERGEANT BLAKE!” he bawled into the wind.
The wino tossed his bottle aside, leapt with catlike grace to his feet, and sprinted toward them. The newcomer, panicked now, shoved the Milanese away. He spun – but there was nowhere to go. The carolers, acting with the instinct of the menaced, had formed a tight semicircle, trapping him. Within moments a powerful hand was on his shoulder, and he was being forced to the ground.
Nico Lanzetti, still framed in the dim light of the doorway, shook with rage. “You killed my men…my brothers…and you wished to kill me. Maledetto. Sempre maledetto.”
Malloy thrashed about like a dying fish as the handcuffs were forced on him. “I don’t understand! That toxin should have–”
Then, for the first time, he looked clearly at the hand he had shaken. Everything began to swim around him. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth and could not be dislodged.
They’re shutting off the heat tomorrow.
Every house on the block.
Even the fancy ones.
And Nico Lanzetti stepped quietly back inside the frigid brownstone, still wearing his flannel shirt, his heavy overcoat, and his thick – impenetrably thick – woolen gloves.
— ♦♦♦ —
Final Sale. By Bruce Harris, Art by Cesar Valtierra
Bill hadn’t planned on making that final sale so close to Christmas. But, a customer is a customer. He’ll soon find out that this would be without a doubt the strangest Christmas Eve he’d ever experienced.