A time of loving, of giving. Peace on Earth and good will to all men…(Or should that be ‘persons’ in this politically correct day and age?) Yeah, right. Officer Mal Docherty hadn’t seen much evidence of ‘Peace on Earth’ recently, hadn’t seen much evidence in all his years on the force come to think of it. Yes, it was true that the crime rate had gone down in New York, so the figures said. But here on the streets, down here you saw plenty. Muggings, stabbings…and shootings - there were never any shortage of those. The last one he’d seen involved a drugs case back in August. Mal and his partner, Norman Young, had provided back-up for the cops in charge of the case, and they’d witnessed the worst possible outcome of a deal gone sour. Mal could see the blood now, exploding out of the victim’s chest as the bullet… He shook his head; he’d seen worse anyway. Much worse.
‘Here y’go, Tee,’ said Harry Grable, handing over two steaming cups of coffee to Mal. ‘That’ll keep you going for a while.’
‘Thanks, Harry.’ Mal had been coming to Harry’s stall ever since it became part of his beat a few years ago. Harry made the best damned cup of java you’d ever tasted, and his hot dogs and doughnuts weren’t so shabby either. The large man with salt and pepper hair and a glowing red nose that would give Rudolph a run for his money leant against his cart, grinning as Mal fished about in his pocket for change.
‘No need for that, Tee. On the house tonight. It’s Christmas.’
Mal looked up and down the street, surveying the scene. The swell of bodies filling up the space, bobbing in and out of stores - most notably Crosby’s, the biggest store on 34 th Street - all doing their last minute shopping. Not too far away a Salvation Army band was playing ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’. Quite who the faithful were, Mal had no idea, but the bandleader was conducting the music for all he was worth in case they happened to show up. Lights glimmered in the darkness, the festive decorations illuminating the whole area. Above, giant screens advertised everything from aftershave or perfume at one end of the present scale to outrageously expensive sportscars at the other: a stocking filler for the man or woman who has everything.
‘So it is,’ said Mal. ‘God bless us every one.’ He raised his coffee in salute, then took a sip, the liquid warming him up temporarily. It was freezing out here tonight, the weathermen - sorry, weather-people - promising snow again before the evening was out, to top up the layer that had already settled the day before last. Mal wasn’t looking forward to working on Christmas Eve, of all nights. But he and Norm had drawn the shitty straw once again so he’d just have to accept the fact that he was on shift now till the wee small hours. It meant that he’d miss all the preparations that were going on back at his home. His children, Lauren (seven) and Brad (five) getting all excited, ready to put out the mince pies and sherry for Santa, Wendy helping them make out their wish lists, a tradition from Mal’s own childhood. Then they’d put them under the tree in the hopes they’d be replaced with brightly-coloured packages tied up with bows the next morning. That’s really what it was all about, the innocence of being a kid - their belief in the magic. Mal missed that now he was a grown up.
‘You been watchin’ too many old movies, Tee,’ said Harry.
‘Yeah,’ replied Mal. There were plenty on TV to choose from at the moment, the titles more of an irony nowadays: It’s a Wonderful Life… Is that right? Still, better than living in the real world, he supposed. ‘Well, cheers, Harry. You have a good one, won’t you?’
‘You too, Tee. Say hello to the missus and the little ones from me.’
Mal raised the coffee cups, and turned his back on the vendor. He made his way past the crowds, back to the distinctive blue and white patrol car parked on the opposite side of the road. In shop windows he saw his reflection: the dark uniform of an NY policeman, peaked cap, padded jacket and belt, with baton and gun hanging from it. Mal sometimes wondered why he’d ever joined the ranks of the boys in blue. To make a difference? To make the city a safer place for your average citizen, if such a thing existed? To help create a decent world for his children, to give them something to believe in? At times it just felt like he was fighting a losing battle.
The lights changed as he got to them, the signal stating he was able to cross safely. Norm was sat in the passenger side of the vehicle. He wound down the window as Mal approached, eager to take possession of his drink. The sounds of the radio wafted Mal’s way: U2’s ‘Angel of Harlem’ playing on a non-stop X-Mas station Norm had found. Mal heard the lyrics ‘New York like a Christmas Tree, Tonight this City Belongs to Me…’ and thought how appropriate the first part was. New York did look like a Christmas Tree tonight, with all the decorations and lights, while the real thing - a giant Tree not too far away - was attracting ever more visitors. But the city did not belong to Mal, didn’t belong to anyone. It was an entity in its own right, one that shouldn’t be judged by looks alone.
‘About time,’ Norm called out through the gap in the window, ‘I was beginning to think you were grinding the beans yourself.’ He took the cup from his partner and drank a mouthful, the coffee sticking to parts of his moustache. Norm looked at Mal. ‘No doughnuts tonight?’
‘Like I said before, Norm, you can do without them.’ Mal pointed to the policeman’s paunch, hanging over his belt. ‘Save some room for that turkey tomorrow.’ Mal knew that even though they were separated Norm’s wife, Cynthia, would be cooking a huge spread the next day for him - Mal always got a report back about it when the pair met up again… And she made enough to feed most of the division.
‘Oh I can always find room for one of Harry’s doughnuts,’ Norm assured him.
‘I’m sure.’ Mal drank some more of his coffee and looked back over at the crowd again, seeing the faces this time. None of the people on the streets of New York tonight seemed particularly happy, or festive. They looked stressed, impatient, irritable. Christmas had become almost a mirror of modern day society in a way. Everything had to be done in a hurry and there was more pressure than ever to get things right: to keep up. Lose your footing on the treadmill and you were a goner. The ads showed a perfect world that couldn’t possibly exist, and was all but impossible to live up to. Happy families, friends, lovers, all gathered around the fire playing games and having fun. The reality? Most family get-togethers ended in rows, most parties relied on booze to kick start them - and as for those on their own at this time of year, thinking they were missing out, well there was no wonder the suicide rate rocketed between December 24 th and 26 th …
‘What’re you thinking about?’ asked Norm.
‘Mmm? Oh, nothin’ much. Nothin’-’ Mal’s sentence tailed off as he noticed a disturbance out on the street. There were a handful of folk piling out of Crosby’s, a couple of maroon-suited staff following them. But these people didn’t look stressed; at least, not in the same way as the other New Yorkers. They looked more panicked than anything, tumbling out of the entranceway, arms flailing as they did so.
‘Norm, take a look across the road.’ Mal pointed in the direction of Crosby’s and what was rapidly becoming a small-scale riot of sorts.
Norm frowned. ‘Something’s up.’
Mal glanced back at him. ‘No shit, Sherlock. Your finely honed police skills tell you that? Here,’ he said, handing Norm the other coffee cup, ‘hold this. I’m going to check it out.’
Mal made his way back across the road, not bothering to wait for the traffic signals to change now. Instead he dodged in and out of the cars, earning a blast on the horn from one yellow taxi-cab. The police officer pushed past the gathering crowds to get to the people in the entranceway. Just what the hell was going on? A fire maybe? That would explain the pandemonium… Or, heaven forbid, something worse. Something man-made…? Surely this city had seen enough of that kind of thing to last a million lifetimes?
‘Okay, okay, what’s the problem here?’ Mal asked, his hand on one woman’s shoulder.
She turned, a look of surprise and bewilderment on her face.
‘Ma’am. Can you tell me what’s going on?’
Still she stared at him, dumbstruck, so Mal looked around for someone else who could help. One of Crosby’s staff came up, eager to oblige. ‘Officer, oh thank the Lord.’
‘What’s happened, sir?’
‘There’s…’ the man paused, not knowing quite how to explain the situation. ‘There’s been an incident, one of-’
And then Mal heard it; the distinctive blast of gunfire, coming from inside. Somebody in the crowd screamed and there was even more commotion. Mal grabbed the member of staff before he could be swallowed up by the churning mass of bodies.
He looked the man in the eyes. ‘How many?’
‘Just one guy, he’s gone nuts-’
More shots rang out.
‘There are still people inside,’ said the man from Crosby’s. ‘Children…’
‘See that squad car over there, go tell the officer inside to radio for assistance.’
‘I…yes, I think someone’s called the authorities.’
‘Go tell him anyway!’
The man nodded and began to push back through the crowd. It took a second or so for Mal to lose sight of him completely.
Alright, Malcolm Docherty…What should you do? Back-up’s probably on the way right now… Wait for it to arrive? Might be too late by then…And he’d said there were people inside…children…I have no choice…Have to do something…
Mal had to go inside.
Fighting against the tide of humans that were still pouring from the store, he headed for the doors, and headed inside Crosby’s department store…
It had actually been less than a week since Mal had been in here, last Saturday to be precise, but it had been under such different circumstances. That day he’d been looking forward to visiting the store, bringing Lauren and Brad to town to see Santa in his den. In spite of the superficiality of it all, word had it that the fella they’d hired this year was good: extremely convincing and a wow with the children. Mal had to admit that was right. They’d queued for hours on his day off just so his little girl and boy could sit on Father Christmas’s lap. Had it been worth it? You bet. Just to see their cherubic faces light up as they entered the grotto - decorated with candy-coloured stripes, balloons, fairies, huge fluffy bears, and trees laden with baubles, stars and chocolate treats… There was even a toy train chuffing around the tracks above parents’ and children’s heads.
And then, as Lauren and Brad were finally allowed up to the podium, where Santa sat in all his glory, dressed in the customary red and white outfit, they’d both beamed so broadly all Mal could see were teeth.
‘Ho, ho, ho,’ Santa had said, also smiling - although you could only just see it behind his big white bushy beard. Brad and Lauren took their turn to whisper in St Nicholas’s ear, as female helpers dressed as elves readied presents to give them when they were done. And when Mal took their hands to lead them away, Santa pulled down his half-moon glasses and winked. Nice memories, and something to hang on to when everything else was gloomy…
All Mal could think was what a shame this had to happen here. What a shame that whatever might unfold now would wipe out that memory and replace it with something completely different, something like-
Mal heard the shots as he walked through the foyer, another handful of shoppers running past him. They were coming from the direction of the grotto he’d visited. Obviously someone else had been pondering the nature of this season a little too much, and he’d come up with his own way of coping with it. Mal broke into a run himself. But he ran in the opposite direction to the fleeing customers - drawing his own weapon as he went. There hadn’t been too many occasions when he’d had call to discharge his pistol, and only one instance when he’d had no choice but to… Mal hoped with all his heart that it wouldn’t come to that again tonight. Not tonight.
The first thing he saw as he entered the grotto was the train on the tracks above his head. It had been derailed and now hung down like a limp member, flaccid and useless. There was a break in the tracks, ragged pieces sticking out where the blast had hit it. Mal crept further inside, his forehead dripping with sweat - partly due to the change in temperature and partly to his anxiety at what he might find in here.
It was like a snapshot from some kind of nightmare, the Aladdin’s cave transformed into a hellish underworld. Bullets had riddled the brightly coloured walls, the fluffy bears and the mock presents on display. Parts of the scenery had been almost shredded in half by the gunfire, baubles on trees shattered. Mal saw an elf helper propped up against some steps, holding her arm. A stark redness was pouring through her fingers, dripping down her lime green costume. Their eyes met, and for a moment he saw a glimmer of hope in them.
Then a hail of gunfire splattered the wall behind him. Mal ducked, rolling over on his shoulder and spreading himself down on the ground flat. He tried to work out the position of the shooter based on where the bullets had come from…It was all but impossible; the whole thing had happened too quickly. From his place on the floor he could see more bodies, feet upon feet. He couldn’t tell whether the people they belonged to were just injured, like the elf, or… And he could hear children crying, adults half-screaming and half whimpering with fright. Jesus, who would do something like this?
Mal crawled along on his belly, wriggling like a snake. His hostage and siege training flashing through his mind. He should try to engage this person in conversation somehow, get them talking. At least then they wouldn’t be shooting anyone. But who was to say this guy even wanted to talk? Only one way to find out…
‘Hey,’ shouted Mal. ‘Hey you!’
Mal tried again. ‘Hey, I want to talk to you.’
Stupid…What a stupid fucking thing to-
‘Don’t want to talk,’ came the answer in a voice that was deep, gruff, and on edge. It was capped off by another shot.
Mal flinched, but persevered. ‘Then just listen, okay?’
‘You can’t be doing this…Look, put down your weapon and we’ll sort all this out peaceably, okay?’
‘You can’t sort anything out. No one can!’
Good, thought Mal, you’ve engaged him…keep going… ‘Why, what’s the problem? There’s nothing that can’t be fixed…’
‘That’s what you say.’
‘So, tell me about it. What is it, money, your job? Something more personal?’
‘My job! Hah! That’s a good one…’
Okay, so it’s his work…He’s lost his job or something…Maybe his family too? That’s enough to set anyone off…at any time of year…
‘It can’t be as bad as all that, can it?’
‘It’s worse…They…they never stop coming…’
‘Who, who don’t stop coming?’ Mal raised his head slightly, figuring he just about had an angle on the direction of the voice. Over on his far left. And then he saw the gunman, and it turned his blood colder than a winter’s day in Lapland.
There, by the side of Santa’s golden throne he stood; bottle of whiskey in one hand and a rifle in the other. By his feet was a sack of other weapons - Mal saw a machinegun poking out of the top - and tucked in his black belt were two automatic pistols. ‘The letters,’ said Father Christmas. ‘The children, the presents…’
‘Oh my God,’ Mal whispered under his breath. It was the same man who’d been bouncing Lauren and Brad up and down on his knee, who’d winked at them as they left. Mal couldn’t believe the turnaround though, from a happy, gentle fellow to raging lunatic, eyes wild, buttons undone half-way down his scarlet tunic.
‘I just can’t take it anymore,’ shouted the man. ‘It’s the same every year…They never stop coming…never…’
‘Listen…What’s your name?’
‘You know my name, my names.’
He couldn’t be serious, surely. ‘No, your real name.’
‘You know that as well, deep down…’
‘Right, okay…Listen, it’s only once a year. It’s just a job…’
The man laughed. ‘Once a year, but for sooo many years, so many decades, so many centuries. On and on, never-ending… And it’s not just a job; you can’t quit, there’s no way out. No way. It’s too much for me, too much. I can’t stand it any more…’
‘Look, I can help.’ Or at least get you some help… thought Mal.
‘No, no you can’t. It’s too late for that, much too late.’
Mal raised himself up a little, so he could see the Santa but duck down again quickly if need be.
‘Ha! I know you,’ said the man, waving his bottle in Mal’s direction.
Mal was surprised he remembered, given the amount of people who must have passed through here… ‘Er…yeah, I was in with my children...’ Talking about Brad and Lauren made him look around for the other kids in the grotto. There were several hiding behind a mock-up of Father Christmas’s sleigh, some more at the rear of a particularly large present. They looked terrified.
‘No, I mean I know you, Malcolm.’
How did he know Mal’s name? Must’ve mentioned it when he was here, that’s the only thing he could think. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘Oh yes, I know you. Remember that year you went on and on at your folks for that toy garage? Yes, the one with the little orange car wash and bell. They told you they couldn’t afford it and you cried. Still arrived though, didn’t it? You got your wish.’
‘What the f…How did you know about that?’
‘I know a lot of things, Malcolm. So many things… I know what a naughty boy you’ve been in your time as well. Haven’t you?’
‘Does Wendy know about Officer Kelly? No, I don’t think she does, does she?’
Mal’s mind was reeling. This was impossible, nobody knew about the fling he’d had with Kelly, not even Norm.
‘And that druggie. Wasn’t your fault, though. You did what you had to…’
‘Just like we all do.’
‘I said shut up.’ Mal stood and raised his pistol, aiming straight for the man’s head.
‘Go on, do it then…’ said the Santa. ‘Wouldn’t be the first time, would it?’
The crying got louder and now there was more screaming. ‘I mean it,’ shouted Mal. His hand was shaking, finger twitching on the trigger.
‘Can’t you see? All this,’ Father Christmas nodded at the grotto, ‘all this is bullshit. The world’s changed, son. You know it, I know it. Everything’s gone bad.’
Santa didn’t answer him, but Mal could see a tear trickling down his cheek, heading for the forest of white below.
‘It really isn’t too late, you know,’ said Mal.
‘Isn’t it? You really believe that? You really believe in anything anymore…?’
Mal fell silent.
‘Thought so.’ Santa raised his rifle, ready to shoot. Mal briefly saw a picture of the drug addict he’d killed all those months ago, and froze. He heard the crying of the children - of the adults - in that store. Did he really want to do this in front of them? Time was running out and he had to make up his mind.
There was a shot. And Santa dropped his gun and his whiskey. Another blast echoed around the room, then the man was falling over, toppling against the golden throne. He raised a bloodied hand to clutch at the chair arm, but it slipped off, too wet to find purchase.
Mal looked down at his pistol, expecting to see the telltale smoke rising from the barrel. But then he realised he hadn’t been the one who’d fired. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Norm there, along with a number of SWAT officers and, unless he was mistaken, a few FEDs too.
They swarmed in, checking on casualties, ushering the children to safety, securing the area. Mal moved forwards with Norm and the SWATs to find the man dressed as Santa keeled over on the floor. They snatched the handguns from his belt, kicked away his rifle, and trained their own weapons on him. Somebody called for a paramedic, and Mal noticed that a number had already entered the grotto to treat the wounded. He feared it would be too late for this particular one, though.
Father Christmas coughed, and smiled at Mal. ‘Ho…ho…ho…’ he wheezed. Then he winked from behind his pair of cracked half-moon glasses, before closing his eyes forever.
‘You alright?’ Norm asked his partner.
Mal nodded. Physically he was fine, if maybe a little shaken up.
‘Jeez Louise, look at the hardware in that sack,’ said one of the SWAT guys. ‘Guess not everyone wants computer games for Christmas…’
Mal turned and started to walk away.
Norm jogged up alongside him. ‘Hey, where are you going?’
‘Home,’ said Mal.
‘What about the report? Hey…Mal, hey wait up…’
But Officer Malcolm Docherty was already on his way out of the den.
It began snowing while Mal walked the streets, but he barely even noticed. And it was close to midnight by the time he arrived back home. Mal let himself in, heading straight for Lauren and Brad’s rooms first. They were fast asleep, their innocent faces as pale as angels on the pillows.
Mal left them in peace (heavenly peace…?) grabbed a Bud from the fridge, and walked into the lounge. The TV was on - the end of some stupid Christmas special featuring a variety of ‘Z list’ celebs. Wendy was dozing on the couch; she only stirred slightly when Mal came in. He took a gulp from the bottle just as a newsflash came up on the television.
‘…in Crosby’s tonight. The shootings left several people injured but only one person dead, the gunman - who has since been identified as a Mr Christopher Cringle. A spokesperson for Crosby’s said ‘He has only been in the employ of this store for the last month, and his credentials seemed very impressive…’’
Mal switched off the set and took another swig of the beer. The clock on the mantle chimed twelve. His eyes were drawn to the tree in the corner of the room, and the wish lists below it. He wondered whether those wishes would ever be granted, now that…
No, he didn’t want to think about it. Didn’t even want to consider the outrageous possibility that one of the last shining lights, one of the last symbols of hope was no more. That He’d been tainted by this world, driven mad by the demands placed upon him…
Cringle had just been some guy in a Santa suit, just another person who’d lost it and gone ape with America’s favourite adult toys.
‘I know you…You’ve been a bad boy…’
Mal took out his notepad and pen, and scribbled something down. He walked over to the tree, bent over, left the note there. Then he joined his wife on the couch, slumping down beside her…
And waited till morning to see if his wish would come true.
(C) Paul Kane
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.