I'm not going to completely blame the holiday season for everything that happened on Gilda Road during Christmas Eve this year, but I can't stress enough how absolutely none of the stuff that went down would have happened if the calendar had read "March 24th" instead of "December 24th", I can tell you that. I don't even really celebrate Christmas, not in the way people do on TV anyway. I'm not talking about religious affiliation so much as I mean opening presents under a big, decorated tree with the family at 7am, right before heading to grandma's house to carve up a plump goose, everyone sweating profusely under thick wool sweaters as Bing Crosby goes on and on about how cold it is.
No, I don't have a family - well, other than the gigantic one back home in Colorado. But that meant that there were a thousand miles between the Miggins clan and my life in Peoria - not that the months leading up to Christmas this year could have been called much of a life. I moved to Illinois for engineering work at a very well-known machinery company that's named after a butterfly larva, I think you know which one. I had three years there of not knowing how good I had it before I got laid off and had to re-figure things out. I held out hope for another engineering spot to open up. No such luck. And nothing comparable to my old job even existed back in my hometown, so I was pretty much stuck. Nothing came along except a few odd jobs here and there, along with a half-decent gig tending the bar down at Kendig's.
I'll get back to Kendig's in a minute, but here's where I have to say that I get the whole Spirit of Christmas thing, my whole circle of friends did too (yes, I have friends). We weren't into buying each other big, expensive gifts or traveling to Jamaica to do the coconut rum, anti-Bing Crosby thing. And the Miggins family wasn't checking their mailboxes for so much as a postcard of a reindeer from me; they already knew I cared. All of this is to say that money was as close to not being a concern as it could be, but I was still concerned about it all the same. You see, Christmastime is a time to be to be with friends, and that takes money: money for food and events if the group goes out, money for a decent bottle of wine (or three) if the group stays in. It's hard to see a friend without dropping thirty bucks in some way or another.
Okay, mention of money brings me back to Kendig's. I had spent a good amount of time there when I still had my cushy engineering gig. It was one of those dive places that charged too much for cheap beer, but less than half of what every other bar charged for good whiskey. I had gotten to know the owner, Sammy Kendig, pretty well back in those days. I'd play around and show him and his staff how to make High Plains drinks from my college days, crazy cocktails like Red Hot Jolly Green Giants or Catsup Bombs (never "Ketchup"). When Sammy heard I was out of work, he let me tend the bar or work the door so that I could make rent during especially dry months.
His generosity should be evidence plenty, but I can't stress enough that Sammy really was just a cool guy and the greatest boss a person could want. He was a big, funny dude that all of Peoria seemed to know and love. He had a way of settling disputes and calming down drunks before they got out of hand - and you'd better believe that takes serious skill when the customer in question is a blitzed-out debutante who suddenly decides she's Muhammad Ali for the night. We all loved Sammy. We'd ask him "how high" before he'd even have to tell us to jump. Hell, I would have asked the same question if he'd told me to grow taller.
Well, Christmas was getting closer and Sammy had spread Kendig's staff schedule a little thin when it came to doling out the good weekend night shifts. It had been a hard year for many people in the Kendig's circle of friends, and Sammy's big heart had overcrowded his proverbial coattails. He was nice enough to have me on as a backup bartender one Saturday evening early in the month, but a flash flood kept the place cleared out. I was cut by nine o'clock on my only weekend shift for the entire month of December. Just as I had started to contemplate how long I could live out of my car without freezing to death, Sammy offered me another opportunity.
"Hey, Miggins." It was morning on the day before Christmas Eve and Sammy had called me at home. I was still in bed, "bed" being a terrible futon in my circumstance.
"What's going on, Sammy?" I prayed that he needed a bartender that night, or any night that week. Christmas was a busy time for bars, and people out reveling tended to be extra generous during the holidays, especially to those on the service side of merriment.
"I know you're looking for some extra cash this month."
"Well, I've got kind of an odd job for you, if you think you're up for it." He kind of cleared his throat as though he had more to add. A few seconds went by. "So what do you think?" he asked me.
"What do I..." I laughed a little. "Look, I'm not in any position to say no, but you do have to actually tell me what it is before I say 'yes', you know?"
"Oh, right. Sorry." Sammy obviously hadn't had his morning carafe of coffee yet. "Do you know Lucas Wellesbourne?"
The name sent a shiver down my back. I knew who Wellesbourne was, everybody did. But I couldn't imagine Sammy having anything to do with that old crankwad. If Sammy Kendig had a polar opposite, it would have to be Lucas Wellesbourne, Peoria's greatest villain. I hated him before I met him, just from the stories that people would tell me about him. He was the disgusting, rich, old miser that ruined communities as he told the people that lived there how lucky they were to have him. There was one night a couple of summers prior that one of Wellesbourne's goons had pushed me up against a storefront window for accidentally sitting on the old jerk's car. The confrontation was all I needed to confirm the rumors about old man Wellesbourne. I assumed that the next words out of Sammy's mouth would be that somebody wanted him assassinated, which was a line I couldn't imagine crossing...except maybe for nasty, old Lucas Wellesbourne.
"Sure, I know him. I met one of his thugs one night after I leaned on his car."
"That sounds about right. Well, Mr. Wellesbourne has a job for you."
"Oh, Mr. Wellesbourne has a job? For meeee?" My mocking tone was not lost on Sammy.
"Look, I know he's a pretty lousy individual, but me and him go back a long time. Pretty much my whole life. My dad used to be partners with him, back before Wellesbourne Properties bought up half of downtown."
"I never knew about that," I said. It was true, though I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. That brand of boozy confessional was more expected in a place like The Last Hurrah over in Northpoint Plaza, but not at Kendig's. And certainly not courtesy of Sammy Kendig himself.
"Yeah, I don't like to talk about it much. Dad died around the time that Wellesbourne started his reign of terror on the poorer neighborhoods. Look, I don't have time to get into this."
I could tell that Sammy was frustrated to have to do anything on the old bastard's behalf. That let me know that Sammy wasn't being coerced; he was probably just trying to help me out.
"Okay, so what's the job?" I asked.
Sammy explained to me that the job was just for Christmas Eve. It was more or less a security detail, but it had to be super secret for some reason. I guess that's why Wellesbourne couldn't just get a rent-a-cop or something. It went against every fiber of my being, but I needed the money, I really needed the money. I said yes.
"I'll do it. I don't know how I'm going to restrain myself from spitting in his face when I see the old jerk again though."
"Oh, that reminds me," Sammy said. "You're gonna need to shave, comb your hair, and wear a suit. And, before you ask, I'm not joking."
"Hey, money's money, right?" And with that, the call was over.
"Thanks, Sammy," I said to my mostly empty studio apartment.
The next day, I borrowed a suit from a friend in exchange for three piano lessons in January. I'd only had three lessons myself back in middle school, but I figured I could use YouTube to refresh me a bit and wing it from there.
At 5:45 that night, I hopped in my car and headed to Wellesbourne Estate.
Before I could get to the house, I had to get into the neighborhood, a row of especially giant mansions on Gilda Road. There was a guard posted in a small booth next to the main gate, a stern-looking woman with a pony tail and a forced cheery smile. She was wearing a shiny elf hat with little ornaments lining the brim, but she quickly removed the festive hat once I pulled up, and her face instantly dropped the holly jolly routine. I suppose my sun-faded, 10 year old Honda wasn't very "Gilda Road" and therefore not deserving of any additional holiday cheer.
The guard stepped out of the booth and peered into my car like somebody had handed her a carton of eggs and asked her to guess which one was rotten.
After a moment, "Name, please."
"Yeah, sure. I'm Stan Miggins."
"Name of the resident, please."
"Oh, right. Um, Lucas Wellesbourne?"
The guard looked at me as if I'd asked her for a lift to the airport. I swished my mouth from side to side, as though that were a normal thing that people did. After a tense moment, she went back into the gate booth and made a call. She didn't come back out again after she apparently got the confirmation that she needed. The gate opened and the stony woman waved me inside.
The houses along Gilda Road would have been impressive any time of year, but the holiday season had obviously spurred the owners into some weird kind of decoration competition. There were lights everywhere, along with blankets of fake snow, a forest of Christmas trees, and two separate Santa villages. A gingerbread house stood prominent, as big as a tool shed, though probably not edible. This was all very nice, though the lack of people wandering around made it clear that nobody could get past security into the neighborhood to enjoy it.
I slowly continued driving down the block. I drove past a man dressed like Santa that was walking from one yard to the another, probably bored out of his mind without anybody around to sit on his lap or tug at his beard. I honked my horn to try to wish him a Merry Christmas, but he took one look at my sad car and kept walking. Apparently even lonely Santas on Gilda Road were stuck-up snobs.
I continued down the block to the Wellesbourne house, which was unsurprisingly at the very end of the street. In stark contrast to the rest of the neighborhood, Wellesbourne's house didn't have a lick of decorations on it, not so much as a wreath on the door. The effect was more than a little creepy, since it made his house look like this strange, dark corner on the edge of a galaxy of lights.
I pulled up to the curb and, buttoning up my snug, secondhand jacket, quickly made my way to the colossal front door of the devil's lair.
None other than Sammy Kendig himself swung the door open to greet me. My reaction lacked nonchalance.
"What the freakin' hell, dude?"
"Shut up, pay attention, and be cool," Sammy hissed at me, the words of warning lingering harsh under his breath. Then loudly he exclaimed, "Good evening, Mr. Miggins. I trust you found the estate without issue."
It's here that I have to say that I thought Sammy was a great guy and all, but he was far from my closest friend. But this act? He was surely playing a part, but I couldn't figure out why. And that scared me. Every fiber in my being told me that things were about to get weird - and no doubt illegal. I really didn't want to end up in jail, especially on Christmas Eve. But Sammy's eyes begged me to play this part opposite him, and I could only secretly wonder why it was laid on me without rehearsal.
"Sure. Yeah, without issue," I exclaimed loud enough to reach any eavesdropping ears. Sammy then ushered me into the dark recesses of the Wellesbourne estate.
I expected that Sammy would take me to some cavernous room with a roaring fireplace, sparse decorations, with wicked, old Lucas Wellesbourne sitting in the room's lone decoration, a sinister arm chair with a too-tall back. He would be cradling a glass of sherry in one of his hands, plotting his next move against James Bond.
But instead of all that, Sammy took me to a cozy kitchen where a man who looked like a 1950's grandpa from a Norman Rockwell painting, complete with sweater vest and bow-tie. It was Lucas Wellesbourne, but not as I had imagined him. This version of Peoria's resident Citizen Kane was happily stirring a pot of hearty soup over a gas stove top.
"Ah, you must be My Man Miggins!" he exclaimed upon seeing me enter the room. "Care for some tomato soup?" He pronounced 'tomato' in the faux-classy way, but it was clear that he was doing it in the dad joke kind of way.
"Oh, no thanks," I said, suddenly feeling like a bit player in a Hallmark movie. Wellesbourne then went on to tell me the soup recipe's backstory, how it was passed down from his great grandmother, Claire, whom (he explained proudly to me and Sammy) had served as inspiration for the character of "Clara Dawes" in D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers before moving to Illinois to start a family. Two minutes later, the three of us stood around Wellesbourne's kitchen island bar, each of us enjoying a bowl of hearty tomato soup.
After washing the dishes and placing the leftover soup in a reused plastic container that had once housed sandwich meat, Wellesbourne excused himself to finish readying himself for some kind of party, leaving me and Sammy alone.
"Okay, this is really weird, Sammy." I was sure to keep my voice low, though loud enough for Sammy to gauge my indignation. "Are you like an undercover butler or something?"
"No, I'm here for just tonight, same as you. Wellesbourne gives all of his normal guys the week of Christmas off and hires temps at double the wages."
"Huh. You'd think that the regular staff would jump at that and stay on for the extra cash."
"No need, not with the Christmas bonuses he gives them each year." Sammy suddenly seemed impatient. "We're getting off track here."
"Right, right. So, what's the deal for tonight?" I asked.
"Well, I'm kind of like an assistant, so I'm going with Mr. W to some party downtown. You've got another job."
Rather than tell me, Sammy beckoned me into a hallway and down to a closed door that had a numerical security pad next to it. He slowly tapped his nose twice - some sort of signal that I swear I had never seen him do before - then led me back to the kitchen.
"Okay, what was that?" I asked once we had returned.
Sammy rolled his eyes like I was the stupidest man alive. He began to explain, "Okay-"
Just then Wellesbourne returned. Sammy took his hand off of my shoulder and straightened his posture. The old man was now wearing an expensive suit and a tie with little candy canes on it. This was the Lucas Wellesbourne that I had seen in the papers and 10 o'clock news - minus the candy cane tie. Sammy shot me a 'keep quiet' look.
"Okay, I guess we're just about ready. All set, Samuel?"
'Samuel' and 'Mr. W' were two forms of two names I never wanted to hear again after that night. Sammy nodded to Wellesbourne who looked at me and said, "Have you met Juniper yet?"
That's how I found out I wasn't hired for the night to look after Wellesbourne estate or some secret thing locked behind a locked door. Wellesbourne took me into a small screening room that housed a library of old movies on DVD to go with the big screen on the wall. In the corner, a big wolfish-looking creature lazed on a giant pillow that was probably softer than my bed.
"Now, Juniper is part Husky, part Border Collie," Wellesbourne explained to me. "Some would call her a Bordsky, but I just call her the Big Boss. She loves this room, so you can usually find her in here watching old war films. I don't know why, but Juniper adores the sound of artillery fire for some reason."
I turned to Sammy, but got nothing in return. Wellesbourne didn't seem to notice and continued with Juniper's odd introduction.
"She's a friendly dog for the most part, but she suffers from a bit of separation anxiety when she's alone, so I need someone to hang back when I'm away. Someone that understands her mentality. Samuel says you are among the best in Peoria."
He looked at me as though this information should have triggered a response.
"Oh, yeah. Totally," I said. "So, is there an emergency numbers that I can call if there's a...well, emergency?"
Wellesbourne looked displeased by my question. He then turned to Sammy and nodded.
Sammy cleared his throat and began. "Mr. Wellesbourne asks that you do not try to contact him this evening, not under any circumstances. If you do try to contact him, consider your employment terminated immediately and, should Juniper come to any harm as a result of your actions, you will be investigated for purposeful harm to Mr. Wellesbourne."
Wellesbourne tried to shake off the seriousness of Sammy's warning with a bashful smile, casting it away with his hand still at his side. "Sorry that sounds so executive. It's just that I'm a very busy person, even at social functions. I'd hate to miss an important call and leave Juniper in peril. Please continue, Samuel."
"If you are in need of advisement," Sammy said, handing me a card with nine numbers on it. "Please call this number and ask for Mr. Trundle. He is Juniper's regular handler and can be summoned for emergency purposes."
"I'd rather you didn't, though," Wellesbourne interjected. "Dan Trundle will be with his family this evening and it'll cost a small fortune in overtime pay to summon him during his vacation. Plus, Juniper has been fine all week, so there are absolutely no concerns on my part."
As Sammy gave me more instructions by rote about the dog's diet and playtime regime, Wellesbourne said his goodbyes to his prized pet. Juniper responded by flopping her tail against the big pillow, though her head remained on its fluffy perch. The old man and Sammy began to walk toward the front door, but I managed to grab Sammy by the arm as Wellesbourne left to retrieve his overcoat from another room.
He gritted his teeth and very lowly said to me, "You would have said 'no' if you knew everything. Trust me. You'll figure out what's going on soon enough."
Wellesbourne returned, ready for his party, and Sammy got the door for him. With a cheery wave and a jarringly loud "Merry Christmas!" the old man took his exit with Sammy, leaving me and Juniper to the great, dark house on Gilda Road.
I stepped back into the movie room where Juniper still lay upon her pillow.
"I think that 'Merry Christmas' was more for you than me," I told her. She looked at me without moving her head. I figured that if she liked war movies, then I'd be doing a good thing to turn one on for her. I found the cache of remotes by the large leather couch, but I couldn't figure out the controls. I was just about to use my phone to find a video of somebody playing Call of Duty or something when I heard a loud crash come from the kitchen.
"Did you hear that," I asked the dog. She gave no response, not even a raised ear. "Not much of a guard dog, are you, girl?" Not being a character in a horror movie, I went to go investigate the loud noise.
No, I wouldn't call that night a horror movie, but I hadn't realized it at that point that I was definitely in a supernatural tale.
I walked into the kitchen and found the empty pot that Wellesbourne had used to cook the tomato soup laying on the ground between the kitchen island and the oven. I picked it up and said "tomato" to the empty room for no reason at all, pronouncing it like Wellesbourne had earlier. I laughed a bit and put the pot back on the drying rack.
Behind me, I heard the sound of chains being rattled. I froze in terror.
"Wellesbourne..." The voice sounded dusty and cracked, like weathered tree bark. "Wellesbourne, you must change your ways."
I couldn't speak. I slowly turned around and saw a what looked like a person standing behind the kitchen island, hovering and emitting a blue-green glow. The vision was definitely in the form of a man, probably in his mid-fifties, dressed in a suit not unlike the one Wellesbourne had worn earlier - again, minus the candy cane tie. Though the thing appeared to be a real person, the hovering and glowing tipped its hand as actually being a ghost. Chains were wrapped all around it, which also seemed weird.
It continued in its low, crumbling timbre. "You must learn the true meaning of Compassion and of Empathy. You must learn before it is too late, Wellesbourne."
I found my voice. "I...I'm not Wellesbourne," I told the ghost.
"What!" it exclaimed, glowering at me with all its might.
"I'm not Lucas Wellesbourne. I promise."
It glowered at me for a moment longer, then relaxed its gaze.
"No, you're not, are you?" it said.
"Sorry." I couldn't think of anything else to add, so I said it again. "I'm sorry."
"Well..." The ghost looked around, then disappeared. I relaxed a bit, but then it returned seconds later. "Well, where is he? Where is Lucas Wellesbourne?"
"Out at a party."
"Out at a party!" The ghost seemed mad. "That's not where he's supposed to be!"
"Again, I'm sorry."
Sounds of gunfire erupted from elsewhere in the house. Both the ghost and I peered into the hallway to locate the source.
I turned to the ghost and said, "Sorry, I have to check on that."
I soon found that the noise was coming from the screening room. I ran in and saw that a war movie, there in all of its black and white glory, was indeed playing on the big movie screen. Juniper laid as she had before, though her eyes were cast toward the film and her tail thumped happily.
"How did you do that?" I asked her. The ghost appeared behind me.
"What's going on in here?" it asked.
"Well, the dog likes war movies and I guess she knows how to turn them on herself. Smart dog."
The ghost floated closer to the dog, inspecting her.
"She doesn't seem to be bothered by the noise."
"Her name is Juniper," I said, trying to sound like we were all just having a casual evening. "No, Wellesbourne said she likes it."
"Wellesbourne!" It suddenly remembered the mission. The ghostly blue-green color glowed warmer with the memory of its target. "Where do I find Wellesbourne?"
I waved my hands a bit to try and calm the ghost down. "Believe me, I wish I could tell you. I don't even really work here. My friend Sammy Kendig set this up, but it's been weird since..."
The ghost held up a single finger and floated toward me, stopping inches away from my face. "Did you say Sammy Kendig?"
"Yeah, Sammy Kendig. Owns Kendig's Bar down on Niagara Street?"
The ghost looked mournful. "That is my son."
"Your...?" I sat on the leather couch. "Whoa."
The ghost hovered at the edge of the couch, fiddled with the dangling chains around its midsection a bit.
"Yeah." The ghost watched the screen as a few bombs drop onto running soldiers for a bit, then continued. "I used to work with Lucas Wellesbourne, bore witness as greed began to transform him into a monster, but I did nothing to stop the process. The promise of a substantial future and pervasive legacy had gripped me, consumed my every thought. My own greed laid out the plans that ultimately created Wellesbourne's vast fortune, but I didn't live to share in the bounty. That simple irony, however, was lost on my otherworldly handlers. The price of my deeds had sealed my fate all the same; my actions had damned me to an afterlife of regret. On this eve, I am sent to perhaps save Wellesbourne from his avaricious ways and maybe spare a part of my soul that wears these chains as a constant reminder to the burden on my everlasting soul."
The ghost looked to me, just as a tank exploded in the movie.
"But this stuff with my son is heavy."
I nodded my head and tried to be respectful, even though I was still very shaken up by being haunted for the first time in my life. Plus the loud movie wasn't helping.
"I'm Jason Kendig, by the way," the ghost told me. The cloudy nature of its physical form couldn't mask its miserable expression. Being a ghost must be kind of a sad life, especially during the holiday season.
"Stan Miggins. Nice to meet you."
With that, the ghost rose to the top of the screening room and disappeared through the ceiling.
I caught my breath a bit after it was gone, though my head felt hot and sweaty. I retreated to another room of the house, leaving Juniper to her war movies. Finding some sort of study, I collapsed into the most comfortable random chair I'd ever sat in outside of a furniture store. Rich people sure could afford nice stuff. I contemplated calling Sammy to tell him about his dad, even though I took the warning about getting automatically fired to extend to Sammy's phone as well. It might sound crazy now, but I knew I still wanted the money after that night was all over.
Then it hit me. Sammy knew that this would happen! And the next step would likely include that locked room that he'd shown me while Wellesbourne was getting dressed.
I ran down the hall to the security door. Once I got there, I waited for some sort of sign that I was in the right spot. I thought maybe a mystical light would shine or the door would turn a different color and open, but nothing happened. I looked at the keypad and thought maybe something had given me clues earlier to figure out the code, but nothing occurred to me. I tried out a few series of numbers but got a red light as a response from each of them.
The only solution I could come up with at that point twisted up my guts to even think about, but I had to give it a try.
"Um, Mr. Kendig?" Nothing. "I could use your help here, I think! Mr. K.?"
Silence, then suddenly:
"What do you want, Miggins?" The blue-green glow flickered behind me, causing my toes to curl.
"Um, okay," I sputtered. "So, your son was here earlier and he showed me this door."
Mr. Kendig's ghost blankly stared at me. "And...?" he finally asked.
"Well, that's it. He just showed me the door. I assumed I was supposed to get inside of it, but I can't."
"Okay. Great story." The ghost began to leave.
"Wait! I think Sammy knew that you would come here tonight and maybe help me get into this room."
"What makes you think that?"
I thought for a moment. "I guess I don't have a reason, but it makes sense, right? The door, the dog, the ghost...I mean, you?"
"You're not very smart, are you?"
I shrugged. "Jury's out. Can you help me?"
The spirit sighed and gathered its spectral chains off of the floor. It then began to spin around, and continued spinning until somehow its form began to elongate and narrow, becoming as thin as a piano wire. The spirit then launched itself into the keypad, which soon began to glow the same bright blue-green hue of the ghost. Sparks flew, some mechanism inside the lock exploded, and the closed door creaked open.
"Thank you, spirit," I told Kendig as I walked into the windowless room. It was some sort of office. Kendig hovered near me as I turned on a light and began to look around. There were a few file cabinets and a desk littered with documents that I could really understand.
Then I saw it, there in the center of the room. It was a scale model of downtown Peoria, pretty hard to miss.
"Oh, neat," I exclaimed as I went for a closer look.
"What is that?" the ghost asked, now hovering above the model.
"It's Peoria," I said. "Well, the downtown area anyway."
"I don't recognize it."
"Oh, yeah. Well, it's probably a little different than when you were...you know."
"Yes, when I was alive."
"Yeah. Let me show you." I pointed out a few additions that had been made to the city since his time, things like the Riverfront Market and the Civic Center.
"Well, I recognize those. Those were both there when I was alive."
"Ah. Okay." I felt like an idiot for not knowing the dates for things. Then I noticed something. "Hey, everything between Niagara and Main is different. I don't see even Kendig's on here."
Seeing it clearly, the ghost and I looked to each other, like detectives finding a crucial clue. The ah-ha moment was cut short, however, as elsewhere in the house, something heavy crashed through something else that sounded even heavier. Yelling and the clangs of stuff being smashed started very soon after.
"Security breach! Freeze!" I didn't recognize the voices, but they sounded authoritative. I dove underneath the scale model's table. Kendig disappeared through the wall to inspect the commotion. He soon reported back to me.
"It looks like the police were summoned when you incorrectly entered the code for this room. The sounds of the war movie and fact that no lights were on outside gave them cause to break down the front door."
"Oh, freakin' hell," I said, the hope of any pay for the night detonating in my mind.
Then fits of barking erupted from near the screening room. The ghost vanished again. I slowly crawled out from underneath the table. I figured that if the dog was now involved, then there would be no escaping some form of punishment.
"It appears that a massive bout of separation anxiety has caused dear Juniper to lash out at several officers, which caused them to retaliate with tear gas. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, the dog has escaped through the crashed front door into the neighborhood."
"Okay, I don't need any more details, Mr. Kendig," I said, suddenly feeling quite dispirited. "I think I'd rather just be surprised from here on out."
I walked out of the room and through a cloud of smoke that had consumed the entire floor. My eyes watered as I passed a policeman that had lost consciousness during all the commotion. I grabbed him by the arm and tried to drag him out, but the tear gas and a general lack of muscles soon caused me to leave him only a couple of feet from where I'd found him. Making my way past several broken pieces of furniture and the demolished front door, I walked into the yard and was immediately tackled by the security guard I'd met earlier. She had obviously been in a rush to help out since she was still wearing her shiny elf hat, the little ornaments jingling festively along the brim.
The guard soon had my neck in a unyielding hold that soon caused spots to dance before my eyes, like sugarplums falling onto freshly-driven snow.
As I began to pass out, I looked out into the neighborhood and saw that the world's loneliest Santa Claus was scared out of his mind, trying to climb up onto the roof of that tool shed gingerbread house. I swore that the King of the Elves was screaming for Rudolph to save him, but he might have just been shouting "roof" and "dog" to the police that were running to and fro in all the chaos. Juniper was there, snarling and snapping at poor Santa's heels all the while. As the oxygen was cut off from my brain and darkness clouded the world, I concluded that Juniper was more of a guard dog than I have given her credit for. Or perhaps all
those war movies had instilled something in her that a lifetime of
luxury couldn't suppress.
During the minute or so that I was knocked out, I had a weird, short dream set to that Nutcracker music. But this story is long enough without a Russian ballet break, so I'll get on with it. Regardless, I was wide awake and firmly back in the Land of the Conscious throughout my subsequent arrest and booking.
In a weird bit of holiday irony, I ended up sharing a jail cell with old Saint Nick himself. It turned out that our lonely Santa from Gilda Road was actually a dangerous criminal that had been going house-to-house robbing the people inside. While I was dog-sitting and entertaining a ghost, most of the neighbors were gagged and tied to chairs, trying their best to call for help. Juniper was a hero dog after all!
"I had cased that block for months," Santa confided to me and a few other Christmas Eve undesirables. Luckily, he didn't seem to recognize me as the guy that had honked at him, or accidentally let the dog loose to corner him. "I scaled the gate, took those snoots down one-by-one, all by myself. But I knew not to go after Wellesbourne's place, and all because of that freakin' mutt."
"I hear she was raised on nothing but war movies," I opined. The other Christmas Eve jailbirds lifted their eyebrows in appreciation.
"That doesn't surprise me," Santa said, pulling off his red hat and scratching his head. "I was raised on biker movies myself."
I think that Juniper's opportunity for heroism may have been why Lucas Wellesbourne himself showed up to the police station and dropped all the charges against me. He waited for me at one of the officer's desks in the bullpen area. Sammy was nowhere to be seen, but I wasn't sure yet if that meant he'd gone undetected.
I apologized to Wellesbourne for all the destruction and chaos that I'd caused. He accepted, and we walked out of the station together. It was now Christmas morning. The festive lights and ornaments that lined the street along the front of the police station actually made me feel cheerier, despite my present circumstances and company.
"The extraordinary thing, Mr. Miggins, is that you chose to not use this to enter my private office." With that, he removed from his jacket pocket the card that Sammy had given me for the dog expert. "This isn't Mr. Trundle's phone number. It appears as though Samuel tried to slip you my security code undetected."
I felt like an idiot, but I was pretty used to the sensation by then. I had ransacked my brain for something that was sitting in my pocket the whole time. The card had been just given to me by the person I was abetting seconds before he left the soon-to-be crime scene. Unlike Santa, I did not see a future in crime for myself.
"How did you get that?" I asked, wondering how Wellesbourne could have removed it from the personal possessions I'd had to turn over to the police. In response to my question, he only lifted an eyebrow to tell me what I already knew, that the cops here would have given Lucas Wellesbourne anything he asked. He ran Peoria, and not secretly.
"Don't worry," he said. "I'm not angry with you and certainly not with Samuel. It's no secret that I've wanted to develop the land surrounding his bar. I'm sure hard evidence would have caused some stir of public outcry, perhaps blocking my legal advances."
"Damn straight," I said.
"But what you probably didn't surmise from the model in my office is that I plan to include all of the businesses in the new development, and pay them handsomely in the process."
"I guess I did not surmise that, no."
"No, it's something that I've been meaning to bring up with Samuel for a few months, but when he approached me for work as my temporary assistant this year, I thought perhaps he would have jumped at the opportunity. I was just about to tell him about his good fortune when the party's host alerted me that the police were storming my house, breaking my property, setting off artillery, and let out poor, sweet Juniper."
"Sorry," I said, apologizing once again to a man I thought I hated.
"I trust that you met Samuel's father this evening?"
The shock of that question hit my face quick. "How did you know?" I asked.
"Because Jason Kendig has appeared to me on Christmas Eve every year for the past twelve years."
At that moment, a long, black car pulled up in front of us. Wellesbourne offered me a ride to my car. I I accepted and, along the way, he told me about the first Christmas Eve that the elder Kendig had visited him, the state of his life at that time, the unending greed that had consumed him before he was beset to change his ways.
"And I listened to his warning. Or, I guess I tried to listen. It was very easy to be a perfectly good person that first week, just after having those damned chains rattled in my face. But then it was the new year and business continued. Hard choices had to be made. Then Kendig appeared to me again that next Christmas, a real stickler for perfection. And so I tried my best again to do better, but then somebody was caught stealing from the company in March and the board forced me to fire him."
Wellesbourne shrugged and continued. "I don't know, maybe he had a sick kid or something that I didn't know about? It counted against me though, I know that much." He sighed.
"I guess it gets tricky," I offered him, deciding to not bring up the hired goons, the indulgent mansion without any Christmas decorations, and the poorer neighborhoods of Peoria that Wellesbourne had legitimately played a part in destroying.
"You're damn right it gets tricky," he said. "And then the spirit appeared again that next Christmas, and again and again, each time forgetting the previous year's progress. It was like I was as bad as I always was, which created a small case of contempt on my part, I'll admit it."
I noticed that we weren't heading back to Gilda Road, and my sudden nervousness must have been apparent.
"Relax, I'm not taking you somewhere to be 'taken care of' or anything like that. I may be visited by a ghost every Christmas Eve, but I'm not a madman."
The car pulled up to Kendig's Bar. Wellesbourne smiled at me and said he could use a drink. He held the door open for me and I walked into my home away from home. The place was as festive as I'd ever seen it, which meant there were a few more lights than usual and some mistletoe dangling above the liquor bottles behind the bar. It was still before noon (and Christmas morning), so only a couple of hardcore regulars were there. Sammy was the only one working, washing glasses left over from the previous night.
Wellesbourne leaned in and said to me low enough for Sammy not to hear, "Now, let's find something besides ghosts to talk about, Mr. Miggins. The first round is on me."
Sammy was beyond concerned at first, seeing me and Wellesbourne there, but the old man soon let him know that all was forgiven. Most importantly, Juniper was safe and sound, resting at home to the sounds of Casualties of War. The three of us drank ale. Sammy brought out a cheese plate as Wellesbourne went over his design to incorporate Kendig's into a new plan he had for the neighborhood. Sammy fought hard against it, but he was listening and they were discussing it like real people, so that's something.
For my part, I was starving after a long night in jail, so my concentration was mainly on the cheese tray. After stuffing my face for a few minutes, I wandered over to the jukebox and found a Bing Crosby song on the menu. It wasn't one of his Christmas tunes, but it didn't matter. I was with an old friend and maybe (but not probably) a new one, each of them reaching out and trying to do better. I thought about how I wanted to do better too. After all, the afterlife was apparently real, and holy heck did I need to get my act together.
Okay, that's pretty much the end, but here's one last thing. Then maybe you can tell me what you did over the holidays.
After we left Kendig's, Wellesbourne delivered on his promise to bring me back to my car. After a too loud "Merry Christmas", he handed me a generous check for that previous night's work (especially generous considering the circumstances). With the payment, Wellesbourne included a small gift that I immediately unwrapped as soon as I was back behind the wheel of my old, collapsing Honda.
The present was a used copy of D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, the book that Wellesbourne's grandmother was supposedly in. Thumbing through it, the story really didn't look like my kind of thing. I'm not much of a reader, to tell you the truth, but I decided I'd give it a try - you know, in the spirit of trying to do better.
As I began to drive away from Wellesbourne's home, I could hear another big, loud war movie playing inside the screening room for Juniper. The gunfire and falling bombs were clear as a bell, even over the loud rattle of my car's engine. I couldn't stop smiling during the whole drive home, because I could feel something, or maybe someone from far away, telling me that it was going to be a very good Christmas.