It was Christmastime. A time for families. For children. For gifts. I didn’t have a family—you don’t in my line of work—and the only gift I’d given was a bottle of bathtub gin to my secretary—with instructions to dilute it well. Good secretaries are hard to find, and although she was strictly mediocre, it was the wrong time of year to be hiring.
I was just reaching for the bottle of whisky I keep in my bottom drawer when I heard the outer door to my office open and close. Normally, my secretary would deal with walk-ins, but I’d let her leave early and she was likely back home getting to grips with either her bottle of gin or her latest lover. Or, quite possibly both.
With a feeling of regret and a sense of relief in the vicinity of my stomach ulcer, I let go of the whisky bottle and opened the top drawer of my desk instead. That’s where I keep my old service revolver, a memento of happier times when choices seemed clearer.
A figure stood outside the door to my sanctum sanctorum. It was a dame, a fact I could plainly see because she was silhouetted upon the frosted glass. I approved the silhouette and it was with some regret that I watched her open the door and step into my office. She was every inch a lady and her hair was red to match her dress.
“Mr Halloran?” she asked.
I wondered who else she thought would be sitting in my chair in my office, but nodded and said, “Yes.”
She didn’t try to plug me, which is always a plus in my book, but asked if she could sit. I gestured for her to do so.
“My name is Annie Aching,” she told me.
Her name meant nothing to me, but it seemed appropriate—I felt a definite ache in her presence. But, I kept that to myself, saying instead, “Alliterative—I like it.”
There was plenty more about her that was to my liking: She was the sort of woman who’d make the fire chief reach for his matches and set the fire-house alight. But, this was business and I wasn’t ready to get myself burnt.
“How can I help you, Miss Aching?” I asked her.
“How do you feel about dressing up, Mr Halloran?” she asked in turn.
I gave her a shrug. “If you’re proposing to put on something Parisian, I’m game.”
“That’s not what I meant, Mr Halloran. I’m talking about Santa Claus. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?”
“Overweight guy, dresses in red, bushy white beard? Sure, I’ve heard of him.”
“I’m referring to the ones who stand on street corners, collecting.”
Nodding, I said, “I’ve seen them.”
A damn nuisance, in my book, but I kept the thought to myself, interested to see where she was going.
“They’re being robbed, Mr Halloran.”
“You don’t need to keep reminding me who I am,” I assured her. “My memory works perfectly well. But, what’s your part in all this? You don’t strike me as being one of the old guy’s little helpers.”
She leaned a little closer across my desk and her next words made me wonder if she were cuckoo.
“In a manner of speaking, I am.” She sat back. “It’s my father, you see. He’s the Chief Pharaoh of The Sons of the Sand, and it’s his charity drive that’s being hit.”
I’d heard of that particular fraternal order, had seen a picture or two in the paper, and revised my assessment insofar as assuming her father was cuckoo, not her. All that wearing fezzes and wrapping new members up in bandages struck me as odd ways to pass an evening, even in a city where all the bars were under-wraps. But, they were philanthropic and the thought of some hoodlum making off with money intended for some deserving member of society didn’t sit right with me.
Nor, clearly, with her, for she was shifting awkwardly in her seat.
Miss Aching looked at me in the earnest way that only a woman can and said, “I want to hire you, Mr Halloran.”
She sighed. “My father didn’t want to involve anyone, he’s worried how this might reflect on the Sands, but I just can’t do nothing. I have a modest allowance with which I’d like to hire you.”
It turned out her idea of ‘modest,’ in regards to money, and mine were somewhat different, and I was more than happy to take the deal she offered me and agreed to take the case.
It was only then she said, “I want you to go undercover as one of our Santas, Mr Halloran.”