Monday, 20 December 2010
" 'TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS "
I was asked by someone (DB!) who frequently drops in here to 'get writing'! Well, the 'muse' hasn't struck (yet!) but I was shuffling around folders on my laptop and came across this little piece.
Afficionados of Lee Child will recognise the character of Jack Reacher. On one of the forums discussing his books, they often have an invitation to pen a Christmas 'Reacher' story. Luckily, Lee Child appears to take this in good spirits (I wonder if he ever picks up any tips? ;-p). Anyway, here's what I wrote last year - hope you enjoy!
" 'TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS "
'Twas the night before Christmas…….and all through Jack Reacher’s mind nothing was stirring. Except one thought. What the hell just happened?
He could smell a warm, spicy fragrance, like cinnamon. It tickled at his nostrils and agitated his brain into action. A quick mental stock-take suggested no apparent injuries but he had the mother of all headaches. He tried to sit up. That’s when he realised he couldn’t move. Ropes, handcuffs, any kind of ‘normal’ restraint he could cope with, but this - this was something different.
The cinnamon aroma was joined by something else, or maybe his addled brain had only just become aware of it. A dark, and mellow smell. Coffee. Man, he’d kill for coffee right now. Yeah, right, he thought. How d’you ‘kill’ when you can’t even move? When you can’t even open your eyelids?
So, work the problem, find the solution. He pulled his mind away from the immediate situation and tried to think back, to what had happened before. The last thing he remembered clearly was climbing off the bus in…. Damn, he couldn’t even remember the name of the place. Ok, night or day? It was dark. And cold. And he’d been hungry.
Time to try the eyelids again. Well, he could move his eyeballs. And he could feel the hardness of the floor he seemed to be lying on. So, progress of sorts. Now he thought of it, he was still hungry. Whatever had happened must have occurred before he made it as far as getting a meal.
The coffee aroma was stronger now. Or was it just the fact his senses were responding more readily? Either that or he was dead and in his own private hell, being taunted by something he’d never taste again.
He heard a dripping noise. Good. Another sense returning. He counted off the rhythmical splatting sounds. They were coming from somewhere behind him. Try the eyelids again. A slight flicker. Try again. Reacher felt a stickiness trying to hold his eyes shut, but eventually one eye opened. A shock of colour hit his optic nerve and fired up images in his brain.
He spent a few moments trying to work out what he was seeing, his sluggish mind trying to process an unfamiliar sight. No. He’d seen that image before, but something looked wrong. He waited patiently for his brain to catch up. It looked like a tree, but it was horizontal, not vertical. Wait. He was horizontal. He was lying on the floor looking at a tree. A special kind of tree. He remembered now. It was Christmas Eve. The sparkling lights winked back at him as if to say ‘Yes, Christmas and Santa Clause and candy canes - the whole package’.
He felt the coldness of the floor against his face and the tingling that meant his brain was responding to the nerve signals his body was sending out. Touch, smell, hearing, sight.... Damn. His mouth felt like shit. And tasted like it too. He realised he must have been drugged. But why? And by whom?
He willed his hand to move and was surprised that his fingers flexed easily. He found he could roll over onto his belly. It took a moment to recover from that activity, but then he pulled his right leg up underneath him and eased up until he was on all fours. The queasy sensation in his stomach lasted a few seconds, as his equilibrium settled, and then he straightened up into a kneeling position.
“Merry Christmas!” boomed a voice, somewhere to his left. Reacher slowly turned his head. The room was brightly lit, he saw tables and chairs and garlands strung up across the walls. And then he saw the figure, seated behind what looked like a shop counter.
“I hope you’ve been a good boy!”
Reacher steadied his eyes on the man. He recognised him at once. His coat was a big giveaway, and his facial hair. He’d seen him before, alright. What he didn’t quite recall was the gun in the man’s hand. It was pointed at him.
“I take it that’s not a toy,” he said, nodding towards the weapon as he pulled himself to his feet. If the man wanted to kill him he’d have done it already. He kept that thought on a back burner while he continued getting used to being upright.
“Yeah,” joked the man. “I pulled it right out of this sack, here!” His eyes changed. They weren’t so merry and bright now. “Of course it’s real - like me to prove it?”
Reacher saw the gun barrel dip to a vague area below his waist. Again, he thought to himself, why now? Why drug him and bring him here if someone was just going to shoot him anyway. And just how had he been drugged? A tinkling bell rang out, interrupting his thoughts, as the door opened.
“Stop fooling around! Put the gun away”! The blonde in a miniscule elf outfit stepped quickly inside the door. She flipped the sign to ‘Closed’ then turned and stared up at Reacher. “Oh, you’re awake then!”
“What’s a big girl like you doing dressed up like that?” he replied. At around five feet ten inches she seemed a little tall for your average Christmas Elf, but he had to admit she was the prettiest elf he’d seen in a long while, with curves in all the right places and endless legs. Ms Elf looked sourly back at him and something seemed familiar about her face. Not the sour expression, but the eyes. He’d seen her before. She’d been on the bus. The bus he’d stepped off when it pulled into - where?
“Ok,” she snapped, directing her words towards Santa, behind the counter. “Let’s get ready.” She began pulling at the back of her costume, Reacher heard the ripping noise of Velcro being pulled apart and watched as she shimmied out of it and kicked it away, tossing her hat on top. She looked up at him, pulling her blonde hair back into a ponytail, totally unashamed to be standing there in not very much at all. If he thought all his Christmases had come at once, Reacher didn’t show it.
“Shame about the height,” she mused, reaching behind the counter to pull out a black skirt and top. She dressed quickly and Reacher remembered it wasn’t polite to stare. He turned towards Santa and saw he had morphed into a man wearing a faded t-shirt and jeans. The white hair and beard were replaced with a shaven head and a chin that bore several scars.
“Put those on!” the elf replied, flinging Santa’s cast-offs towards Reacher. He paused for a moment wondering what the hell was going on. The smell of coffee was strong as ever and he glanced longingly towards the machine behind the counter. Ms Elf was now transformed as she tied an apron around her trim waist. It bore the legend, ‘Café Arabesque’. He could imagine those long legs doing just that as he watched her move behind the counter.
“How about a coffee?” he asked, nodding to the machine. She gave a half-smile, which improved her features remarkably.
“Sure,” she said, almost politely. “But get dressed!” She busied herself at the coffee machine. Reacher noticed she handled it like a professional barista, which wasn’t all that surprising, as she seemed to be in charge of what was going on. And not just in the coffee-making department.
He turned to the matter in hand, trying to work out how he was going to fit the Santa outfit over his huge frame. He tossed the stuffing out of the inner pouch, leaving the jacket like a limp red rag in his hands. It had been loose on the other man, who was nearer six-one and had a lighter build. Reacher pulled the jacket on, easing it across his shoulders. He felt one of the seams ‘give’ slightly, but it just about reached around. The trousers were like baggy pyjamas, until he pulled them on over his pants, seeing the hems land somewhere around mid-calf. He caught sight of himself in the mirrored effect of the glass door. It wasn’t pleasant.
“Here,” said Ms Elf-turned-barista, pushing a cup towards Reacher. He stepped closer towards the counter and clasped the drink in his hand. He pulled the Santa beard down under his chin and savoured the rich aroma as he lifted the cup to his lips. It tasted as good as it smelled. Almost the finest coffee he’d had in a while, but not the finest ever. He could remember that particular one well; it set a benchmark against which all others were tested. But, this was good, especially as it cleared away the dryness in his mouth and ratcheted-up the efficiency of his brain.
Reacher sipped at the steaming hot drink, turning round slowly, checking the place out. He hated to waste good coffee but he was willing to make the sacrifice, just this once. He sauntered towards the other end of the counter, where the reject Santa still trained a gun on him, the barrel moving to keep pace with Reacher.
“Damn, fine,” he said, turning slightly and nodding over the rim of the cup at her. “You guessed well.”
“You didn’t say how you wanted it.”
“You didn’t ask!”
Without pause he pulled the cup away from his mouth and threw the contents in the man’s face, watching him loose his grip on the gun, pawing at the scalding coffee that burnt his face and eyes.
Reacher grabbed the gun and put him out of his misery instantly. The man toppled back off his chair, crashing into the shelves behind him before landing in a heap on the floor. A crimson line ran down from his forehead, bleeding out into the coffee trails across the man’s face. Bone and blood and brain matter were spattered over the upper shelves, bearing testament to the efficacy of a semi-automatic pistol at such close range. He would have just slugged the guy rather than shot him, but the man’s reflexes were fast and Reacher had spotted the flash of the knife that was being aimed at his gut.
He turned away, keeping the weapon in front of him, and walked closer towards the barista, his eyes focussed on her face, but aware of any sudden movement she might make. The close fitting top outlined the flesh of her arms meaning he’d notice the tightening of her muscles and have fair warning of her impending actions.
She stared back at him. Cool. Not even a glance at the dead body that was already beginning to add a new and unsavoury aroma to the establishment, as the sphincter muscles relaxed.
When Reacher was directly in front of her, he lowered the gun and put the cup down gently on the counter.
“I’d really like another,” he said. “But I’ll settle for a few answers.”
She relaxed slightly, now the gun wasn’t pointing directly at her.
“Drifter, right?” she said softly. “I watched you get on the bus. You didn’t
carry any luggage, no book to read to while away the long hours, no music. You didn’t pay attention to anyone else, found a seat on your own and just settled back and slept. Glad to be in the warm, I guess.”
Reacher tried to recall such an image in his mind. He’d gotten on countless buses in different places, and her description of his actions was pretty spot-on. Except the faces. He always checked out who he was travelling with. Who was going to want to talk and keep him awake? The mom’s with young kids - the kids he wasn’t really too fussed about but a screaming, fractious infant might make him want to get off at the next stop, regardless of where that might be.
Service men going home on leave - yeah, maybe he might be willing to share a seat with one of them. Pretty women. He wouldn’t want to sit next to those. In his experience a pretty woman travelling alone on a bus usually meant trouble of one sort or another, either in their past or coming up ahead. Besides, it was better to sit further away in order to be able to admire the view.
Now he looked at her face he began to remember something. Two rows behind him, on the opposite side. She’d been wearing glasses then, her head buried in a book.
“So,” he said, finally. “You want to tell me what this is all about?” He glanced around the coffee shop. It was a fairly average-looking establishment. The front opened out onto a small open forecourt. It was deserted. Of course, it was Christmas Eve. Office workers and shoppers would have been home hours long ago, or still sitting in bars getting drunk because there was no-one they wanted to go home to. The hour was late and this didn’t strike him as the sort of place that stayed open all night.
“We’d planned a little late night shopping,” she began. “You know the sort of thing. A few little last minute Christmas purchases, a few diamonds, that sort of thing.”
Reacher followed her gaze out of the window across to a small jewellery store across the way.
“Except we were a man down,” she continued. “Lucas’ brother got sick.” She looked down at the pathetic corpse at the other end of the counter. “I was travelling back here, ready to take over and do the close down. You know, do the decent thing, let the boss go off home early to be with the wife and kids. Then Lucas rings up and tells me his brother Martin got the flu. Can you believe it?”
Reacher was piecing the jigsaw puzzle together in his head, but he was still several pieces short of the full picture.
“So why the dressing up?” he asked.
“Because, anybody seeing us is going to be able to give a really good description to the police, right! ‘Yes, officer, I saw Santa and his elves robbing the jewellery store’ -like that’s going to be believed! By the time they’d have decided the witness wasn’t drunk or off their heads, we’d be long gone.”
Reacher thought about it. She was either extremely stupid or extremely clever. At this moment, with the remnants of the drug still kicking around in the back of his brain, he wasn’t entirely sure which.
“But why me?” he asked. “And why drug me?”
“We needed a big guy, to lift the safe.” She looked him up and down, admiring what she saw. “You seemed to fit the bill!”
“You’re a drifter, who’d miss a drifter, if you see what I mean?” She smiled again, raising one eyebrow that said he’d be a loose end that could be neatly tied off later. Permanently.
“And I couldn’t take the risk you’d not come quietly, if you got injured you’d be no use to us.”
“So how’d you do it? How did you drug me and get me here?”
“That was the easy part,” she said, spreading her hands out on the counter and taking her weight as she eased forward. “You like my perfume?” she said, leaning forward. Reacher was aware of the sultry mix of exotic oils and floral notes, evaporating from the heat of her body. It was heady and intoxicating, but hardly enough to render him unconscious.
Then he remembered something. He was standing outside the bus, debating where to go in search of a meal, maybe a room as well. Some one tripped over behind him. He recalled the bag that fell, its contents rolling out in different directions. He remembered what looked like a perfume atomiser that had spun away and come to rest against his shoe, and the hand that had retrieved it before he could do likewise. A pretty face. A woman travelling alone. Trouble.
The barista straightened up, standing back and mimed using the atomiser, as if spraying him in the face. Now he recalled a different smell, a light chlorine odour that stung at his nostrils.
“I had to be careful how I did it, so we wouldn’t have far to move you. Lucas had the van just around the corner. We drove into the back of the shop and dumped you here, and then I went out and delivered coffee and cookies to the guy in the jewellery store. Mr Weinsfeld doesn’t celebrate Christmas but, hey - the man’s working late, why not spread a little seasonal cheer? I gave him a stronger spray - he’s still out cold, in the back room.”
“So why’d you get out of costume?” asked Reacher. “Aren’t you worried about being recognised?”
“Night watchman calls round in half an hour,” she replied. “If I’m closing up I give him an extra coffee. On the house. I want to make sure he remembers me being in here, in uniform.”
“Pity he’ll see more than that,” said Reacher, looking at Lucas’ body.
The barista leaned a bit closer, her perfume a welcome change from Lucas’ aroma.
“Of course, we could still go with my plan,” she said. “I’m sure you could move Lucas to somewhere… more comfortable. I could meet the watchman at the door; say the drains are backed up….”
Reacher had to admire the cool tactical skill she displayed. She didn’t miss a beat. But he still had the gun. He raised it slowly into her line of sight.
“You trust me that much?” he said, watching the slight quiver around her fading smile. “Make me another coffee, while I think about it.” He had to point the gun nearer to make her move, then sat down at a table opposite, thinking about what he was going to say when the night watchman arrived.
The barista nervously carried the coffee over to his table, a tremor visible in her hand.
“Sit down,” said Reacher. He only had to say it once. She dropped like a stone onto the chair across from him and sat bolt upright. The cool exterior had gone. She wasn’t in control any more. She didn’t know what was coming next.
Reacher savoured the drink, although it wasn’t as good as the previous one, the one he’d had to sacrifice on Lucas’ face. She must have been nervous, didn’t wait long enough to get the right balance of flavour. No matter. He’d tasted worse. A lot worse.
He finished his drink, wiping his mouth and laid the cup down on the table and glanced at the door, then turned and looked to the other end of the shop. He stood up and saw her flinch at his enormous height stretched above her. She watched as he picked up the gun, her mouth opening to scream, or maybe to beg for mercy. He put a finger to his lips to silence her, and in the distance they heard a tune being whistled. It was a pretty discordant version of ‘Silent night’ but it heralded the night watchman, on his rounds.
“What are we going to do?” she hissed.
“You,” replied Reacher, “you are going to say someone came in, tried to rob the till. Lucas, here, tried to be a hero and stop him. Now, go get that sack. Put the cash from the till in it and bring it back here.”
She got up and crept behind the counter, pulling the sack towards her. God, Lucas smelled awful. A brown stain had puddle around the seat of his pants. She was gagging on the close proximity of the stench and scrambled back towards the till, stuffing notes into the sack. She handed it over to Reacher.
“Now drop your cell phone in there, too,” he ordered, while he kicked at the junction box by the payphone on the wall, dislodging the wires and rendering it useless.
She pulled the phone from under the counter and slipped it into the sack along with the money and the boxes of presents that every self-respecting Santa sack should be carrying.
“What are you going to do,” she asked, her voice now timid and shaking.
“Me?” replied Reacher. “I’m a drifter. Who’d know I was ever here?” He swung the sack up onto his back and walked towards the rear door.
“But what about me?” she whispered.
“You haven’t killed anyone,” he said. “You haven’t stolen anything. About all you have done is knocked out some poor guy who’s right now probably still dreaming of sugarplums dancing in his head. And you made some damn fine coffee.” He walked on towards the back of the shop, then turned. “And if you say anything different I’ll hear about it and I’ll start remembering where to find you.” He chuckled and tapped his nose then turned out of the back door and was gone.
He crossed the back parking lot, and slipped out along a back street. The night air was cold but he kept a reasonable pace, a late night Santa on the way to his last drop. He was glad of the hood on the jacket and the beard acted as a wonderful muffler.
He turned at the end of the street. It was deserted, but one building was lit up and he could hear people inside. He crossed over and climbed the steps, laying the sack on the floor and peeled off the jacket and trousers. He picked out the cell phone and then stuffed the clothes into the bag along with the money and the presents and the beard he’d ripped of his face. He pocketed the gun and the phone and stepped silently down the steps and made his way from the church. It was as good a place as any to leave the sack. Someone in there would put the contents to good use. The gun and the phone would be ‘re-homed’ too, but not here.
He heard the sirens growing closer and saw the lights flashing and the discordant change of tone as the two police cars speeded past him, up towards the coffee shop. The night watchman must have arrived soon after he left.
Now there was another sound. A rich, clanging, seasonal sound. Church bells sounding out good will to all men. It was no longer the night before Christmas. Reacher smiled, thinking about the surprise on the church steps.
“Happy Christmas to all,” he thought. “And to all a good night,” then crossed the road and went in search of a bed.
© Sue Harding 2009