Story by Bruce Harris
Illustration by Cesar Valtierra
Pennsylvania Station bustled. Two days before Christmas, Bill Ballentine wondered if New Yorkers were especially crazy, rude, or both, having put off their shopping until now. Not that the Albany-based pipe salesman had gotten a gift for his wife yet. He had time. But when it came to business, Ballentine was as efficient as a pipe cleaner. His 1948 season Christmas sales were wrapped up before Labor Day. This year was no exception. Until the phone call.
“Bill, this is Oscar Wynne. You know, Midtown Tobacco Shoppe.”
“Oh, Hi Oscar. I –”
“I’ve got an emergency situation and I need your help.” Everything was a big production with Wynne. “I’m completely sold out of the Air-Flow pipes you sold me. It’s a disaster! I had no idea they’d be this popular,” Wynne said.
“I told you –”
“Never mind what you told me or didn’t. I need two dozen smooth finish and another two dozen in sandblast by tomorrow morning. I can’t be disappointing my customers this close to Christmas!”
“Take the train down tonight and meet me first thing in the morning.”
“And Merry Christmas to you,” Ballentine said into a dead phone. The irascible Wynne had already hung up. It was Ballentine’s last year on the job. After three decades, he’d be retiring at year’s end. Now this. Anyone else, Ballentine would have told him off. Not Oscar Wynne. Despite the fact that he constantly interrupted everyone and typically acted out, the two got along. The Midtown Tobacco Shoppe was New York City’s largest. Wynne was also Bill Ballentine’s best customer. And, Wynne was fond of Ballentine’s wife. On two recent visits to Albany, following the death of Wynne’s wife, he spent time at the Ballentine home enjoying some home-cooked meals. Cursing, Ballentine shook a fist in the air. “One of these days,” he said to no one. He tried warning Wynne at the time of the sale to purchase more Air-Flows, but the know-it-all refused. Ballentine knew about the planned magazine ad campaign, featuring a New York Yankees all-star touting the smooth finish Air-Flow and a Brooklyn Dodgers star lauding the qualities of the sandblasted finish. As was his custom, Wynne had cut off Ballentine before the salesman finished his spiel. He gathered the pipes into his briefcase, went home to tell his wife, packed a bag, and headed to the big city.
— ♦♦♦ —
The woman who bumped Ballentine as he neared the 7th Avenue exit smelled of cheap perfume. She’d be better off spraying herself with Professor’s Blend, a popular cherry-flavored pipe tobacco, he thought. Outside, the night wind stung his face, like the unpleasant bite from breaking in a cheap pipe. Ballentine sold his share of those as well. He turned up his collar, making his way toward 33rd Street. A block from the hotel he heard a scream. Ballentine did a double-take, but the image, that of a sack-carrying Santa Claus racing down the fire escape of a six-story brick building, remained the same. The only difference; Santa was several steps closer to the sidewalk upon a second glance. Only in New York, Ballentine said to himself. And, it’s not even Christmas!
“Hey you!” Santa screeched. “Wait!”
Ballentine looked around. No one in sight. “Me?” he asked.
Santa continued his frantic descent. Third floor…second…first. Down came the metal ladder. Halfway down, Saint Nick leapt onto the sidewalk. Ballentine stood as frozen as the moonlit air. Santa ran, said nothing, dropped his cloth sack at Ballentine’s feet, and disappeared around the corner. A hand on his shoulder interrupted the pipe salesman’s trance.
“Whatcha got there, bub?” The policeman was a foot taller than Ballentine.
He jerked a meaty thumb in the sack’s direction. “Hard of hearing, are ya? I asked you what’s in the bag?”
Ballentine looked from the bag, then back to the cop. “Oh, that? It’s not mine.”
The policeman glanced around the street. “No one else here ‘cept you and me, bub. Bag ain’t mine. That leaves you. What’s in it?”
Ballentine thought about telling the cop what had happened, but he didn’t believe it himself. Santa Claus scurrying down a fire escape? Dropping a sack of toys before taking off? No way. He made something up. “If you must know,” Ballentine began, “it’s full of toys. It’s almost Christmas, you know?” The cop said nothing. Ballentine continued, “Toys. For children. I’m playing Santa Claus and these are the toys I’m giving away.” Despite the chill, Ballentine felt sweat beads on his forehead.
“Santa, huh?” The cop shifted his cap back on his head before repeatedly smacking his nightstick against a hardened palm. “Guess you won’t mind me taking a peak inside.”
“Course not,” Ballentine muttered. The now enlarged sweat beads began a slow descent toward his eyes.
The cop hadn’t waited for Ballentine’s approval. He had two gifts in his hands, tearing open each. He and Ballentine stared at a doll and a baseball glove. Ballentine thought the cop looked disappointed as he dropped the two items back into the sack.
“Where’d you get them, bub? Got a receipt?”
“Um…no. They were donations. The boys at the firehouse collected and donated them. I just picked them up a short while ago. I –”
“Where you gonna be Santa?” the cop asked.
“Where?” Ballentine repeated.
“That’s what I asked. Where?”
The lies were piling up. Ballentine’s mind went blank. “Midtown Tobacco Shoppe,” he blurted. He regretted the answer as soon as he said it.
The nightstick palm-pounding resumed. “Funny place for a Santa Claus, don’t ya think? Not too many kids I know buying cigars.”
“The way it was explained to me,” Ballentine began. He spoke slowly, trying to formulate an answer as he spoke. “The store owners figure some of their customers could be in the doghouse for spending money on themselves this time of year. This way, Santa is there, handing them gifts for their kids. It makes everyone in the family happy. Makes sense.” Ballentine didn’t believe a word he said.
The policeman stopped slapping the nightstick. A cynical grin replaced a momentary befuddled look. “What’s in the briefcase, bub?” he asked.
Unconsciously, Ballentine tightened his grip on the briefcase. “Pipes. I’m bringing them to Midtown. Special order.”
It looked to Ballentine like the cop was about to search the briefcase. He was cold and tired and not a little confused. “Officer, I’ve had a long day. My hotel is two blocks away. Before you ask, there’s clothes in my suitcase. I can show them to you. If there’s nothing else, I sure would like to call it a day and check-in.”
The cop stared for a few seconds. “Okay, bub. But, don’t try leaving town tonight or tomorrow. We’ll keep an eye on you.” The cop walked off, but not before glancing several times over his shoulder at Ballentine.
— ♦♦♦ —
“Tough thing,” the hotel desk clerk said. He lowered the newspaper and faced Ballentine. “Getting so this city’s not safe for nobody no more. Name?”
“Bill Ballentine. From Albany. One night.” Ballentine thought about the policeman. “Maybe two or three nights,” he said.
“Christmas on the road, huh? That’s tough.” The clerk shrugged. “Eight bucks a night.”
“Okay.” Ballentine paid for one night. He began walking away, but the clerk kept talking.
“Imagine, a dead body, and just a couple of blocks from here. Used to be a good neighborhood.”
Against his better judgment, Ballentine asked. “What body?”
“Early this morning,” said the desk clerk. “Brick building. The one with the Ovaltine sign painted on its side. They found –”
“Did you say Ovaltine?” Ballentine asked. His mind returned to Santa Claus fleeing down the fire escape. Behind St. Nick, painted on the building’s side was an Ovaltine ad.
The clerk blinked. “Yea, Ovaltine. They found a woman’s body in the basement. Shot. Imagine that?”
All Ballentine could utter was a weak, “Imagine that,” before gathering his belongings and heading to his room. His head spun. He needed a drink. Two days before Christmas, he found himself in New York City for hopefully only a day, thanks to Oscar Wynne, the hard-headed owner of the Midtown Tobacco Shoppe. The guy needed more pipes to sell and Ballentine could not say, no. He let out a laugh at the thought of not having gotten his wife a Christmas present, yet here he was, the new owner of a bag full of gifts. He got the idea that maybe not everything in the sack was toys. Perhaps the bag contained adult presents as well? Something for Mrs. Ballentine? He dumped the contents onto the bed. His eyes focused not on the dozen toys, but on a gun. Ballentine picked it up and sniffed. It had been recently fired. He dropped it as if it was electrified. Before he could think of his next step, he heard a knock. Ballentine grabbed the gun, shoved it back into the sack, and covered it with the toys. “Who is it?” he asked. No response. He repeated the question with the same silent result. Ballentine inched the door open. He didn’t recognize the face, but the scent assaulting his nasal passages was familiar. The woman who bumped into him at Penn Station.
“May I come in?” she asked.
“Who are you? What do you want?” Ballentine wished he’d never taken Oscar Wynne’s phone call.
“You have something of mine,” she said.
For the first time, Ballentine got a good look at the woman. “I think you’re mistaken,” he said.
“I think not,” she said, walking into the room. “Put your hand in your jacket pocket.” Ballentine did. “Other hand,” she said.
To his surprise, Ballentine felt something smooth and hard. He removed the item, a sparkling ruby ring, its color identical to his unexpected guest’s hair. It was also the color of his wife’s hair. “What the –”
“That’s it. Hand it over,” she said.
Ballentine gripped the jewel. “That’s what? What’s this all about? Who are you?”
Before she could answer, another knock on the door. The door swung open. “You!” It was the same cop who had earlier questioned Ballentine.
“Thank goodness you’re here, officer,” the woman said. “This man stole a valuable jewel of mine.”
Ballentine looked from one to the other. “I did nothing of –”
“He’s got the ruby in his hand. Look,” the woman said.
“Let’s have it bub,” the cop said. “I’m getting real tired of running into you.”
“There must be some kind of mistake,” Ballentine said. “I never saw this woman before in my life.”
“He’s lying! Why don’t you ask him about our meeting in Penn Station.”
“What of it, bub?” the policeman asked.
Ballentine felt his cheeks flush. “Well…um…she bumped into me, but I wouldn’t call it a –”
“I told you, officer. Arrest this man.”
“I’m taking you both downtown. I’ll let the captain sort this out. Let’s go.”
It was as if Ballentine had no control over his mouth. “There’s a gun under the bed,” he said, immediately regretting it.
A smile creased the cop’s face. He sauntered over to the bed, lifted the bedsheet with his nightstick, bent down, and sorted through the toy sack. “So there is, bub. So there is. I’m sure you can explain it.”
“I’m sure I can’t,” the four additional words flowed from Ballentine’s mouth without warning. “I mean, I put it there.” The policeman’s eyebrows rose. The redhead backed up two steps. Ballentine continued, “I found it. It’s not mine. It was in that sack of toys.”
“The one Santa Claus dropped at your feet?” the cop asked.
Ballentine nodded. “I’d never seen it before. I think it’s been fired.”
“Oh my God!” the woman shouted. “I heard a woman was shot tonight not far from here. He did it!” she screamed, pointing to Ballentine. “He killed her!”
“Let’s go, both of you,” the cop said.
Ballentine sat alone for hours in a holding room in a building the cop said was temporary police quarters. He was released in the morning with a warning not to leave the city. He wearily returned to his hotel room. He just wanted to lay in bed and sleep but checked his watch. Ten o’clock. “Oh no,” Ballentine said. He raced to the hotel’s lobby. “You got a phone here?” he asked the clerk. Without looking up from a newspaper, the clerk pointed.
Shaking, Ballentine slipped in a coin and dialed. “Mr. Wynne, this is –”
“I know who this is. This is the man who is supposed to be in my store at this very minute. This is the man who is supposed to be delivering pipes to me right now. This is the man who promised to save my Christmas selling season. What are you doing calling me? What happened? Where are you? You’re late! I need those pipes. I have customers waiting.”
Ballentine laughed. He hoped Wynne didn’t hear it.
“What’s so damned funny?” The words screamed into Ballentine’s ear. So much for not hearing.
How could he explain what happened? That he spent a strange night at a most peculiar police station under suspicion of theft and murder? Ballentine just wanted to sit on his Albany home couch, next to his wife, in front of the fireplace enjoying a quiet, peaceful Christmas. He remembered he still hadn’t gotten the Mrs. a gift. Despite promising himself not to wait until the last minute this year, Ballentine again had procrastinated.
“Ballentine! Are you there? Where on heaven’s earth are you?” Wynne yelled.
“I’ll be right over, Mr. Wynne. Just give me a few minutes to –”
“You’ve got less than five minutes!” Wynne disconnected the call.
In record time, Ballentine bathed, shaved, changed clothes, grabbed his briefcase and beelined to the Midtown Tobacco Shoppe. He found a group of men restlessly waiting in and around the store. He hadn’t taken more than one step in the store when he heard Wynne.
“It’s about time you got here.” Then, in a much more pleasant voice, Wynne announced, “The Air-Flow pipes you have all been waiting for have arrived, gentlemen. Thank you all for your patience and patronage. I’ll be happy to personally serve each and every one of you in just a few moments. In the meantime, please look around the shop. We have some wonderful new tobaccos and cigars for your pleasure and enjoyment.”
Once Wynne and Ballentine were behind closed doors in the store owner’s office, his tone changed. “Where have you been?” Wynne asked. “Never mind. Don’t answer. You have the pipes?”
After the last customer left, Wynne closed the store and joined Ballentine in the office. “Well, that’s that,” Wynne said. “You came through for me, Ballentine. I want to thank you. You’ve got one pipe left in that briefcase of yours. Not a bad day’s work. Why don’t you take the late train home so you will be in time for Christmas?”
The pipe salesman was too tired to respond. He weakly waved his hand acknowledging Wynne. “I wish it were that simple. You don’t know –”
“Open up!” came a voice from outside. The two men walked into the retail area. Ballentine froze. At the door were the policeman and the red-headed woman.
“I wonder what they want?” Wynne asked. “One way to find out.” He unlocked the door. “Merry Christmas, officer. Ma’am. Looking for a last-minute gift?”
The cop shook his head. “Nope. Looking for him,” he said, pointing toward Ballentine.
“Officer, you’re making a big mistake,” Ballentine began, “I swear I haven’t –”
He stopped short. The policeman, the woman, and Wynne burst out in fits of laughter.
“What’s so funny?” Ballentine asked.
“You,” Wynne said. “This was all my idea. I orchestrated the entire thing. I hope you can forgive me.”
“Forgive you for what? What idea?” Ballentine was slack-jawed..
“This whole charade. Sometimes I can’t resist a little good-natured subterfuge.”
“Good-natured subterfuge? I don’t –”
“I want you to meet Henry Altman and Mary Ellen Johnson,” Wynne said. “They’re friends of mine.”
Ballentine didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, run, or all three. “Friends? He’s not a cop?”
“Not a cop,” said Altman. “I borrowed this uniform from a buddy of mine. Told him it was all a prank.”
“But what about the gun? And the dead body? And the –”
“All an act,” Wynne said. “Let me explain. There was never a dead body. The hotel clerk was in on it as well. He just told you that.”
“But the gun. I smelled it. It had been fired.”
“A replica gun. It wasn’t real. We just smothered the barrel with burnt gunpowder,” Wynne said. “As for the Santa Claus who came down the fire escape and handed you the bag of toys, that was me.”
“How about her?” Ballentine asked, pointing to the redhead, Mary Ellen Johnson. “And the ruby ring.”
“She is a friend of mine. An amateur actress, and a good one I might add. I knew what train you would take from Albany to Penn Station. Mary Ellen was to watch for you when you arrived.”
“How would she know me?” Ballentine asked.
Wynne said nothing. Instead, he directed his gaze down toward Ballentine’s briefcase and the gold BB stenciled on the leather flap.
Ballentine was about to say something but stopped. Then, “And the ring?” he repeated.
“Ah, the ruby. It’s real. And it’s yours,” Wynne said.
“Mine? I don’t understand,” Ballentine said.
“This entire charade was for your benefit. Or, should I say for Mrs. Ballentine’s benefit? Knowing you as I do for so many years, I figured you hadn’t bought her a Christmas present yet. Am I correct?”
Ballentine reddened. Henry Altman, the fake policeman, handed Ballentine the ruby ring. “She’ll love it,” Altman said. “She’s a lucky woman.”
“But why?” Ballentine asked.
Wynne put his hand on Ballentine’s shoulder. “You and your wife have been so nice to me on so many occasions. I wanted to pay you back. I know you are retiring, and I knew you would come down to New York two days before Christmas just to help me out. That’s the kind of guy you are. I’m proud to have done business with you and to call you a friend.” Wynne extended his hand and the two men shook.
“I don’t know what to say,” Ballentine said.
“Don’t say anything. Get yourself on the last train to Albany and get home to your wife. It’s Christmas Eve for goodness sake!”
Exhausted, Bill Ballentine waited for his train home. His attention turned toward the shoeshine stand. There, on the raised chair, sat Santa Claus. He was surrounded by a group of children. Ballentine approached.
“Please Santa,” he heard one of the girls say, “I just want a new book for Christmas. I love to read.” Another young, high-pitched voice said, “Santa, I’m hoping for a firetruck that has bells and rings real loud.”
Santa looked as worn out as Ballentine felt. “I’m so sorry children,” he began, “but I’ve run out of gifts. I have to return to the North Pole and –”
Ballentine couldn’t hear the rest. Santa’s words were drowned out by the children’s collective sighs. The pipe salesman looked down. He still had the sack of toys Wynne had given him earlier. He held the bag behind his back.
“Boys and girls,” said Ballentine, “I believe if you close your eyes real, real, real tight and wish hard enough for a gift, Santa’s elves might be able to deliver some in time for Christmas. What do you say?”
The excited group cheered. “Okay, eyes closed? Tight? At the count of three, open your eyes. One.” Ballentine moved to the seated Santa. “Two.” He handed Santa the sack of toys. Saint Nick’s grin revealed tobacco-stained teeth. As Ballentine walked back toward his train’s gate, he yelled, “Three!”
Bill Ballentine sat in a train seat as it wended its way toward Albany. The children’s laughter and happiness buzzed in his brain. What a trip it had been. With one exception, the train car was empty. Two rows up, he noticed the now sound-asleep Santa Claus from the shoeshine chair. It must have been a tough day for this Kris Kringle. Ballentine reached into his briefcase and removed the one remaining Air-Flow pipe. He rose, took a few steps, and gently placed the pipe’s stem between Santa’s lips. Santa’s eyes opened. He managed a wink before going back to sleep. Ballentine returned to his seat, hoping he had time to wrap the ruby ring
— ♦♦♦ —
We wish you all happy holidays and a prosperous new year!