by: Christopher Yensan
The Calculator Kid series — mystery stories uniquely inspired by both James Cagney in White Heat and Encyclopedia Brown — returns to Across The Margin with a holiday themed installment where a search for Father Christmas sets forth…
Last Thursday, about an hour before gym class, I was sitting in my office (which doubles as the boy’s bathroom on the second floor, C Hall, just down from the teacher’s lounge) on a stool I had “borrowed” from the janitor’s closet, reading the school paper, when my secretary Miss Marmot buzzed in on line one. Yeah, I know, we only got one line, and it’s just two cans strung together with a piece of twine, but you get the idea.
“Got someone out here to see you, boss,” came her muffled voice through the line. At least, I think that’s what she said. The tin can on my end was pretty beat up.
“Send ‘em in!” I yelled through the door.
This better be good, I thought, stuffing my hands in my pockets and tipping back on my three-legged stool. Two other kids had been in already this morning, but they weren’t looking for me to solve a case for them, they just had to use the bathroom. One of those kids was Joey “Pork and Beans” Fatoni, who ate a can of pork and beans every day for lunch, and I had to air out my office for about half-an-hour after he left.
The door swung open and Timmy Two-tone walked in. I didn’t know what his real last name was, but everyone called him Timmy Two-tone because he always wore two tones of the same color, the lighter tone on the shirt and a darker tone on the trousers. Today he was wearing a caramel-colored button down shirt and dark chocolate dungarees. The top three buttons of his shirt were undone, and his skinny, chalk-white chest caught the glare of the overhead fluorescents pretty good. Timmy Two-tone was a kindergartner, and I wondered how he got all the way up to C Hall without being spotted by a teacher.
“What can I do you for, kiddie?” I asked, popping a stick of chewing gum into my mouth and stuffing my hands back into my pockets.
“Who you callin’ kiddie, you two-bit flea-bitten excuse for a security guard!” Timmy had a New York accent so thick you could’ve cut it with a knife. And speaking of knives, as small as Timmy was you usually felt like you needed some sort of protection when he was around.
“Take it easy, Timmy,” I said, flashing a big, friendly grin. I tipped my stool forward so my feet were flat on the ground and pulled my hands out of my pockets slowly, so he could see I wasn’t packing any heat. The last thing I needed was for Timmy Two-tone to think I was gonna pull a water-pistol or something on him. “I was just having a little fun with you, that’s all. Say, you got a pretty big attitude for a kindergartner.”
“I ain’t no crummy kindy-gartener,” scowled Timmy. “I’m in first grade this year. I should be in the same class as you, but I got held back a couple of times.”
“A couple of times already? You’re ahead of the curve there, buddy-boy.”
I leaned back on my stool again and looked Timmy Two-tone up and down, slowly. This kid’s got a screw loose, I thought. It seemed like a good idea not to get him too worked up, at least not just yet. Better put on the kid gloves for this one.
“What is it you said I could do for ya again?” I asked, real friendly-like.
“I didn’t say.”
“All right. Whaddaya say we start there. How can I be of service to you?” I checked my watch. I didn’t want to be late for gym class. Coach had told me yesterday if I was late again I was gonna have to run an extra three laps, and with all the candy-bars I had been putting down lately that was not something I was looking forward to having to do. “You in a hurry or sumptin’?” asked Timmy Two-tone sarcastically.
This guy was beginning to get on my nerves.
“Lay it out for me, Timmy. I ain’t got all day.” Sometimes the client needs a little shove in the right direction.
“All right, if that’s how it’s gonna be, then here it is,” said Timmy Two-tone. “I need you to find someone for me.”
So that’s what it was — a missing persons case. Not a bad line, if you can get enough information up front. The main problem with this type of case, though, is that the person being looked for usually has a good reason for not wanting to be found.
“You’re missing someone?” I asked. “Have you checked the playground? I would pay special attention to the loose dirt underneath the swing set.”
“Very funny,” said Timmy, not laughing. “Very humorous. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a real comedian here. Listen, if you can’t do it, just say so, I’m sure we can find someone else to locate our missing person for us.”
“Whaddya mean by our missing person?” I asked, feeling a little uneasy all of a sudden.
“I mean, me and the boys, that’s all,” he said with a smirk.
So Timmy Two-tone was already mixed up with the “boys.” He couldn’t mean anyone else but Tony Cannoli and the riff-raff he hung around with, like Anthony Spumoni, Stephan Abruzzi, and Joey Fatoni. Joey Fatoni had done more than just stink up the joint this morning, he had probably been sent in by Tony Cannoli ahead of Timmy Two-tone to check me out and make sure I was legit. I didn’t like the set-up, not one bit.
“Listen, Timmy,” I said, tipping my chair back again and picking up my newspaper, “why don’t you run along and tell Tony and the boys I ain’t interested in working for your little club. It doesn’t exactly give me a thrill thinking about getting involved with you bunch of junior mobsters.”
“Oh, we’re mobsters, are we?” asked Timmy. “Is that what you think about me and my pals?”
“See you in the funny pages,” I said, hoping he would get the message and scram. I directed my full attention to my paper, pretending to be engrossed in a story about the upcoming school chess championships, but I could feel Timmy Two-tone standing there staring holes through my paper. After a moment Timmy broke the silence.
“I bet you like your fancy office here,” he said. “Your fancy stool and your fancy little school paper. You like all that, I bet, don’t you?”
“What, this dump?” I asked, looking around the boy’s room. “Not a chance, boyo.” What kind of hole was Timmy Two-tone living in that he thought a three-legged stool propped up in a corner of the little boys’ room was fancy? But as I looked around at the graffiti on the stall doors, at the dirty sinks with their foggy mirrors hanging above them, their empty soap dispensers attached precariously to the wall nearby, and at the overflowing trash can by the door, I couldn’t help feel a little sentimental about the place. It was my own little nook, my own little corner of the school, and, truth be told, as filthy as it was I did sorta have a soft spot for the place. I guess Timmy Two-tone read my face as I looked around.
“Yeah,” he said, “that’s what I thought. You like your fancy digs. Well listen, pretty boy, if you want to keep all this you better rethink this missing persons case for us.”
“Or what?” I asked.
“Or you’ll be using the broom closet in E-Hall for an office, and there ain’t much light in there to read a fancy newspaper by, trust me, I know all about it.”
I was curious to know how Timmy Two-tone knew all about the lighting situation in the janitor’s closet, but decided not to open that particular can of worms.
“You got until tomorrow at lunch to get back to us,” Timmy Two-tone said and left the room, leaving the door open behind him. As he left, I saw Melissa Marmot through the doorway, quickly trying to conceal her end of the tin can telephone.
“What were you up to, a little eavesdropping?” I asked, pointing at the can Melissa Marmot was clumsily concealing behind her back as I wandered out of my office. Timmy Two-tone had already disappeared down C-Hall.
“Oh, that,” said Melissa Marmot, turning a little red. “Yeah, I did accidentally overhear some of what you and Timmy were talking about, but not much. This line is not exactly clear, you know. It’s sorta like making a trans-Atlantic call from a pay-phone on a busy street corner in Manhattan, or something.”
My thoughts exactly. But all the same, Melissa Marmot had overheard some, if not all, of my conversation with Timmy Two-tone.
“Well, kiddo, whaddaya think? Should I take Timmy Two-tone’s case?”
“Well, gee, I don’t like the idea of you getting mixed up with Tony Cannoli and his cronies!”
“Listen, sweetheart, if I let every junior mobster in this school intimidate me I’d never get any work done.”
“Still, you oughta be careful. Tony Cannoli is a fourth-grader, and he is easily twice your size. And besides, I saw his buddy Stephan Abruzzi scale the peg-board in the gym in no time flat! He’s as big as a sixth-grader!”
I cut her off with a wave of my hand.
“The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” I said.
“And the harder they punch,” added Melissa Marmot, handing me her end of the tin can telephone. “But suit yourself, it’s your funeral. I’ve got to get to Language Arts class, we’re supposed to be learning about irregular plurals and I wanna ask a question about the difference between persons and people — that one just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
I had no idea what she was talking about, but I made a mental note to look it up later. You never know when something is going to be important down the line.
“You run along to class,” I said as she stomped off down the hall, “I’ll watch the fort here for a bit more and then head over to gym class a little early, I don’t want to have to run those extra three laps today.”
“Not that some extra exercise would kill you!” she joked over her shoulder, patting her stomach in jest, and then disappeared around the corner to B Hall.
I snooped around a little at lunch, but no one was talking about a missing person. It occurred to me that if someone from the school really was missing they’d be talking about it in the front office, so I managed to get myself sent to the principal’s office in sixth period for a little back-talk, but the secretaries were all stone-faced and mum on the topic, and all I managed to get for my trouble was detention.
The next day at lunch I settled my tray down at the fourth-graders’ table next to Joey Fatoni.
“How’s the pork and beans today?” I asked casually.
“A little light on the pork,” he answered through a mouthful of pintos. “Something I can do for you, pal?” he added, setting down his milk carton and giving me the once-over.
“Sure there is,” I answered calmly, keeping my eyes on my tray. “You can stop stinking up the boy’s room in C Hall, for starters.”
Joey Fatoni shoved his tray to the side and pushed his folding chair backwards with a screech and began to stand, but before he could get to his feet I stopped him with a pat on the arm.
“Hey, Joey, I’m just having a little fun with you,” I said cheerily. “Sit down, finish your lunch. When you’re done, you can introduce me to Tony Cannoli.”
Joey scooted his chair back and pulled his tray towards himself with a scowl. “Nobody meets Tony Cannoli unless Tony Cannoli says so,” he grunted.
“Try telling that to the PTA,” I said, not laughing. “Listen, Joey, maybe you didn’t get the memo, but Tony Cannoli definitely wants to meet me. Today. Right now, as a matter of fact.”
Still scowling, Joey looked me up and down again. I smiled and nodded affirmatively to let him know I was on the level, and he scraped his chair back again and stood up. “Come with me,” he said sullenly. “We’ll see if Tony wants to meet you or not.” He led me out of the cafeteria and over to study hall. Stephan Abruzzi, looking like a miniature weightlifter in a tight-fitting houndstooth sport coat, was standing guard outside the door.
“Go on in, he’s expecting you,” Stephan said to me. Joey Fatoni looked surprised at first, and then his expression changed to irritation when Stephan indicated that he should wait outside with him.
I stepped inside and saw Tony Cannoli, Anthony Spumoni and Timmy Two-tone eating lunch at a couple of desks they had shoved together in the center of the room. Timmy Two-tone, outfitted in an aqua shirt and dark blue trousers, smirked at me triumphantly from behind his carton of chocolate milk. Tony Cannoli and Anthony Spumoni were wearing matching open-collared Hawaiian shirts and white pants.
“Pull up a chair,” said Tony Cannoli in a hoarse whisper, as he wiped the corners of his mouth with a paper napkin. He indicated a nearby desk with a wave of his hand. I walked over and slumped down into the chair with one arm hanging over the back of the seat.
Anthony Spumoni sprang to his feet. He grabbed me by the lapels and sat me up straight in my chair.
“Didn’t your mother teach you any respect?” he seethed, his face an inch from mine.
“Well, she certainly taught me not to speak with my mouth full,” I retorted, pulling a handkerchief from my pocket and wiping my face. Anthony Spumoni raised his hand in the air, but Tony Cannoli stopped him with a cough before he could bring his fist down into my face.
“Boys, boys!” whispered Tony Cannoli authoritatively, waving us apart. “What’s going on here? Let’s eat our lunch like civilized human beings! We’re not Neanderthals, are we?”
Anthony Spumoni and Timmy Two-tone looked at Tony blankly, apparently at a loss for the meaning of Neanderthal.
“He’s talking about cavemen, you goons,” I said. “Or haven’t you gotten to that in your science class yet?”
Tony Cannoli chuckled as his henchman took their seats again. “Very good, very good,” he said to me appreciatively. “It’s always a pleasure to be in the company of someone with a working intellect. Listen, I have heard you have quite a fondness for candy bars. Would you like me to send one of the boys down the hall to the vending machine, or…” Tony Cannoli trailed off, his face the very picture of a perfect host.
“No thanks,” I answered. “The school has been on a health kick lately and all they have down there is granola bars. I’ll stop by the convenience store on my way home and pick up some Baby Ruths. Say, how’d you know I like candy bars? You must really do your homework.”
“Actually, I pay some of the more intelligent kids in the class to do my homework for me,” Tony Cannoli answered, smiling. Anthony Spumoni and Timmy Two-tone got a big kick out of that. “That’s what makes me such a good businessman. Which brings me to the reason I asked to see you today.”
Here we go, I thought. This oughtta be good.
“You already know I want you to find someone for me,” started Tony in his patented hoarse whisper. “But I want to make this very clear — what I am about to ask you to do doesn’t go beyond the confines of this room. Is that clear?”
“Sure, clear as day,” I said. “But do you want to get to the point? I don’t want to be late to fourth period.”
Tony Cannoli leveled a dull stare at me. He was all business now, and I could see he didn’t appreciate the quips. When he’d seen I got the message, he continued.
“I want you to find someone for me,” he said, “but this has to stay very hush-hush. If it gets out, it could ruin my reputation with some of the other kids at the school, and I can’t have that. Am I making myself understood?”
“Oh, I gotcha loud and clear,” I answered, leaning closer.
“Good,” whispered Tony Cannoli. “The person I am looking for is Santy Claus.”
I hadn’t seen that one coming. It took me a minute to realize he was serious.
“You mean Santa Claus, as in big red suit, lots of toys, reindeer and sleigh Santa Claus?” I asked after a moment. “Is that who you’re talking about?”
“Exactly,” said Tony Cannoli, “that’s exactly who I am referring to. Is that going to be a problem for you?”
“Well, gee, I wouldn’t even know where to start,” I answered.
“Understandable,” said Tony. “I appreciate your honesty. Let me tell you why I am even asking you to do this for me. You see, much of what our parents tell us doesn’t make sense to me, especially where holidays are concerned. We have bunnies, leprechauns, elves, and all sorts of nutty things flung at us all year round. I mean, the Easter Bunny? Who in their right mind would ever believe that is real? A bunny that dyes eggs and then hops around hiding them in people’s yards? Gimme a break! Even some of the stuff that I know is true doesn’t make sense — take the Pilgrims, for example. They ate a nice meal with some Indians once as a friendly gesture, and now we cram all the turkey and stuffing we can get down our necks every Thanksgiving? It seems a little extreme. And how is a little piece of candy with the words Be Mine written on it supposed to make me feel a deeper connection to my loved ones on Valentine’s Day?”
This was all starting to sound a little crazy to me. I checked my watch again.
“Look,” continued Tony Cannoli in a sympathetic tone. “I know it sounds screwy, but of all the things we have been told, Santa Claus actually makes a little sense. He flies around the world and delivers gifts to kids. That’s nice. I like it. I’m sure he probably has a whole team of delivery guys doing most of the work for him, but I can relate to the fact that he wants to take all the credit. It’s his idea after all, right? It’s his operation.”
“Sure,” I said, but I wasn’t. I was beginning to think Tony Cannoli was having a laugh at my expense. I was getting a little steamed. “So you want me to find Santy Claus for you, so you can thank him for all the nice presents he’s left in your stocking and under the tree for you over the years. Is that it?”
“No, no, that’s not it at all!” said Tony. “I want you to find him for me so I can get in on a piece of the action!”
I looked at him blankly, and then at Anthony Spumoni and Timmy Two-tone. They all looked dead serious.
“Listen,” continued Tony in a deadpan voice. “An operation like that — you gotta have advertising, you gotta have stockholders, you gotta have a lot of capital to keep something like that running smoothly. I want to find Santy Claus and see if I can’t shake him down a little, get a little something extra for me and the boys here.”
“You wanna shake down Santy Claus?” I asked, flabbergasted. “And I suppose you just happen to have something really good on him? Some juicy tidbit that he wouldn’t want to let leak to the general public at large? Is that it?”
“Sure I do,” said Tony Cannoli confidently. “I happen to know that he delivers presents to kiddies whether they have been naughty or nice. I happen to know that very intimately, as a matter of fact, and I don’t think he would want that to let that get out. At least, I don’t think most parents would want that to get out.”
I was dumbfounded. Tony Cannoli had just told me he wanted me to find Santa Claus for him so he could get in on a piece of the action. Whether Santa Claus even existed or not was still up for debate in my mind, but the idea of shaking him down was beyond me.
“So, do you think you can help me out?” asked Tony. “I should just mention that I get very upset when people tell me no.”
Once again, I got the message.
“My fee is thirty-five cents a day plus expenses,” I sighed.
Tony Cannoli snapped his fingers and Anthony Spumoni dropped some crumpled dollar bills and a couple of grimy coins on the desk in front of me.
“That’s an advance for three weeks. Whatever you don’t use of that can go towards expenses. It’s going to be very nice working with you, my friend,” Tony said, flashing me a big grin.
I pocketed the money and stood up to leave.
“I’d appreciate daily updates on the case—” started Tony, but I cut him off.
“If you want me to work on this case for you, you’re gonna have to let me do it my way,” I said firmly. “That means when I find out something, I report it to you, and not beforehand. And I don’t need these hooligans stinking up my office in the meantime. Is that clear?”
Tony Cannoli regarded me calmly for a moment, and then nodded.
“You take your time,” he whispered. “When you get it all figured out, you let me know. Just try to get some answers before December. I want to have plenty of time to get in on the action for this year. Capiche?”
I turned and pushed the door open, slamming it inadvertently into Joey Fatoni who had his ear pressed against it, apparently listening to the whole conversation. I jostled past him and Stephan Abruzzi and headed across campus for my next class. I arrived moments after the bell had rung and got chewed out by the teacher, Mrs. Einbrow, but fortunately I didn’t get another detention.
For the next few days, I steered clear of my office. I didn’t want to run into any of Tony Cannoli’s gang unexpectedly, and I needed some time to think. I asked Miss Marmot to bring my messages to me at lunch, which she did, but she wasn’t too happy about it.
“I told you not to get mixed up with that crowd,” she said daily, handing me my crumpled messages. They were mostly notes from the office Miss Marmot had intercepted before they got mailed to my house, inquiring when I would be back from my extended family vacation in Puerto Rico. “You’d better steer clear of the office for awhile,” she said one day. “I think one of the secretaries thought she spotted you at your locker the other day. They are starting to get wise that your family didn’t really go out of town for a month.”
I decided to stay off campus completely for a few days, and spent my afternoons at the local public library instead, doing a little research. One of the librarians there, a Mrs. Brockthorn, according to her nametag, was very helpful, although at first she seemed to think I was there for the afternoon story-time.
“I’m glad you could make it,” she said cheerily after I had trudged up the granite steps and entered the brass-and-glass revolving doors. “Our reading of The Very Hungry Caterpillar will begin shortly.”
“Gee, that sounds swell,” I said brusquely, “but I’m in a bit of a rush. Where can I find some books on the history of Santy Claus?”
“Oh, my, we don’t start reading those until after Thanksgiving!” she exclaimed. “You’re a bit early for that this year!”
I don’t really have time for this, I thought.
“Thanks anyway, lady,” I said absently as I headed past her towards the reference section but she stopped me with a motherly hand on my shoulder.
“Listen, if you really want Christmas books I can show you where we keep them. I’m a little worried you’re going to miss the story time, though. It starts in five minutes.”
“I’ll do my best to hurry,” I assured her with a tense smile, thinking it would be easier to just let her think that was what I was there for. She led me to an aisle that had dozens of oversized picture books with glossy images of Santa and his reindeer on the covers. “Say, these look like fun,” I said, flipping distractedly through a couple of titles, “but I’m really more interested in the history of ol’ Saint Nick and his band of merry elves.”
“Oh, well, that isn’t as exciting as these books here, but if you’ll follow me…”
Mrs. Brockthorn led me to the reference section and handed me a thick book called Father Christmas and the Legend of the Holiday. There were a few other books on the shelf with similar titles that I grabbed before settling down at a nearby table to peruse the texts. Mrs. Brockthorn mentioned something else about missing story-time, but I was already absorbed in my reading and after a moment or two she wandered off, wringing her hands and saying something about how kids just don’t seem to appreciate a good story-time anymore.
I spent the rest of the afternoon at the library, as well as the next week or so, reading everything I could about the legend of Santa Claus. When I felt I had all the information I could handle, I went over to the desk where Mrs. Brockthorn sat.
“Thanks for your help, you’re a real class-A dame,” I said, handing her a crumpled bill. “Go ahead and keep that,” I added as she looked at the money, “I may need some more information over the next few days.”
Frowning, she reached over and put the bill in a metal box labeled “Overdue Reference Materials” and I made my way back out the revolving door and down the steps to the street. I headed back over to the school, where I found Miss Marmot and asked her to tell the office I was back in town. I needed to do a little more research at the office, but first I had to go and see an old friend. I found Juicy Fruit in the locker room, changing back into his street clothes after gym class. He was alone in the room, sitting on a bench in nothing but a towel.
“Say, how’s tricks?” I asked as I entered the room. When I saw he was just sitting there in a towel, I added, “What gives?”
“Someone changed the lock on my locker while I was in the shower,” he said glumly. “I can’t get to my clothes.”
“What do you know about Tony Cannoli and his gang?” I asked, stooping down to take a look at his locker. “This looks like a standard pin-and-tumbler lock, right?”
“Geez, I don’t know,” said Juicy Fruit. “I never saw it before now. The one I had on there before had a neat little picture of Donald Duck on it. You put the key into his beak to open it.”
I pulled a paper clip from my pocket and straightened it out flat, and then made a little loop in one end.
“Tony Cannoli,” I said, holding up my improvised lock-pick for him to see, “and you get your clothes free of charge. No one has to know you were stuck in nothing but your towel.”
“He’s into a lot of stuff,” said Juicy Fruit. “What do you want to know?”
“I want anything you can give me on him or his crew,” I said, working on the lock. “And you better get talking, or your gonna end up wearing nothing but your towel on the bus ride home. I don’t think you want to live that down for the next fifteen years, do you?”
“Gimme a break, pal!” he said, but when I made like I was gonna pull the paper clip back out of the lock he started talking. When he was done spilling the beans about Tony Cannoli I gave the makeshift pick one last turn and his lock popped open with a click.
“You might wanna keep that somewhere handy,” I said, tossing the paper clip onto the bench next to him. “And consider getting a combination lock. Most of the kids around here don’t know how to pick ‘em so easily.”
Juicy Fruit was delirious with gratitude, and I left him to get dressed in peace. I headed over to the office and told the secretary there that I was the new editor of the yearbook committee and she let me into the reference room where I spent some time looking up back issues of the student yearbook. I took a few notes and made a couple of photocopies and then went to find Tony Cannoli.
“How’s the pork and beans treating you these days?” I asked when I saw Joey Fatoni at his locker.
“The boss has been looking for you,” said Joey. “He said I should tell you to go see him right away if I ran into you.”
“Lead the way,” I said brightly as Joey slammed his locker shut and locked it with his key. I grinned and he led the way sullenly to the back resource room of the library.
“Catching up on a little reading?” I asked when I rounded the corner and saw Tony Cannoli and his henchmen sitting at a long table in the corner. They were all dressed in matching dark sport coats and white pants, with the exception of Timmy Two-tone, who was wearing a light mauve shirt and purple trousers.
“Come, come, sit, sit” whispered Tony hoarsely as he waved me over. “It’s good to see you again. I was a little worried you weren’t going to come through for me, especially when the boys told me you had headed to Puerto Rico with your family.”
“I got your information,” I said, and was promptly hushed by the librarian with a shush and a stern glare.
“Good, good,” whispered Tony. “By the way, these librarians here, they’re very strict.”
“Yeah, I sorta figured that out,” I whispered back. “Look, here’s the way it stands. Santy Claus exists, but I can’t tell you where to find him. That’s tough luck for you, I guess.”
“I think it might turn out to be tough luck for you,” said Tony Cannoli, losing his smile. “I gave you very specific instructions—”
“Yeah, I remember,” I interrupted. “You wanted to shake down Santy Claus for all he is worth. You don’t exactly forget something like that too easily.”
“So you say he does exist,” whispered Tony Cannoli. “Let’s start there. How did you find that out, if I may ask?”
“There’s been more written about this guy than the pope,” I answered, and tossed him a manila envelope with photocopied pages inside. ‘You can read about it for yourself in there. And believe me, there’s a lot of crazy stuff in there to read. According to my research, Santy Claus lives anywhere from the North Pole all the way to Spain, depending on the time of year, and travels via reindeer, white horse, and cargo ship. He also travels with a variety of companions, ranging from elves to real people, and some of them sound pretty tough. A little tougher than these goons here.” I looked around at Anthony Spumoni, Stephan Abruzzi, Joey Fatoni and Timmy Two-tone, who weren’t looking too happy right about then.
“But how do you know he’s real?” persisted Tony Cannoli.
“Oh, I never said he was real,” I answered point-blank. “I just said he exists.” The group of gangsters stared at me blankly.
“Look,” I said in a softer whisper. “As long as kiddies believe in Santy Claus, he will continue to exist for them in stories and in legends. If parents want to tell their kids about him, he will be there year after year until the kids grow out of the stories. Whenever that is should be up to them, though, not up to you with your screwball shake-down scheme and your tacky clothes.”
Stephan Abruzzi and Joey Fatoni jumped to their feet.
“Sure!” I said. “Go ahead and slap me around a little, if it makes you feel better, but I did a little extra research and found out it is very uncouth to wear white pants in any month with an r in it. That pretty much eliminates the entire school year.”
“Are you gonna let him talk to you like that, boss?” asked Timmy Two-tone, also rising to his feet.
“Cool down, Timmy,” I said. “I got a little bit of information that you might be interested in, too.”
Timmy Two-tone shot me a nervous glance, and I continued.
“Sure, it’s all in there,” I said pointing to the manila envelope. “I found out your real last name is Swinson, and you’re not even Italian. By the way, your yearbook picture is very flattering.”
Timmy Two-tone licked his lips and looked at Tony Cannoli. “I don’t know what he’s talking about,” he said weakly, suddenly losing his thick accent.
“Also, I know about you hassling Juicy Fruit. I saw his Donald Duck lock on Joey Fatoni’s locker just now, out in the hallway. You wouldn’t want that tidbit to leak to the guidance counselor or the principal, would you?”
“It’s all conjecture, hearsay,” answered Tony Cannoli grim-faced. “It’s too thin, it wouldn’t even hold up in detention hall.”
“Maybe not, but this probably would,” I retorted, tossing a miniature cassette tape onto the table. “I took the liberty of recording our lunchtime conversation a couple of weeks back. You’ll especially like the part where you talk about hiring other kids to do your homework for you. And don’t worry about getting it back to me, that’s a copy, you can keep it for your files.” I stood up to leave. “Anything else I can do for you boys?” I asked big-heartedly.
Tony Cannoli and the others sat there, looking at their hands for a moment, and then Tony Cannoli looked up at me.
“This isn’t over, pipsqueak,” he hissed.
“I’m sure it’s not,” I said, and then repeated it in whisper before the librarian could shush me again. “I’m sure it’s not. It’s been great doing business with you, I’ll send you a bill for my expenses.”
I left the library and headed over to C Hall, where I found Melissa Marmot outside my office.
“How’d it go?” she asked nervously.
“I don’t think we’ll be hearing from that bunch of junior mobsters anytime soon,” I answered with a smile.
“And I don’t think you’ll be taking any missing persons cases any time soon,” she retorted.
“Hey, that’s swell!” I said. “You got your question answered about the difference between persons and people! I looked that up for you while I was at the library, but I see you don’t need the information anymore.”
“Yeah, my Language Arts teacher straightened it all out for me. You should try going to class occasionally, it’s very educational.”
“I’ll take that under advisement. In the meantime, how about I buy you a chocolate milk before next period? I think we have a few minutes.”
Melissa Marmot removed her hall monitor sash and stuffed it in her pocket.
“I thought you’d never ask,” she answered. “Cafeteria or vending machine?”
“Whatever you like, kiddo,” I answered.
“You know,” teased Miss Marmot as we headed down C Hall in the direction of the cafeteria, “I kinda missed you while you were in Puerto Rico.”
“Honey,” I said, “I think I just got back into town.”