"So, Jake, what you're telling me is that you don't know where you left that parcel?"
Jake buried his face in his hands. "No, I don't remember. I don't remember much of yesterday."
"You have a fair-sized lump on your head," Conn admitted. "The doc checked you out and said that you probably fell. He mentioned that you would end up with a bit of a headache this morning." Conn grinned.
Jake raised his head. "Listen, Conn, give me a break, will ya? It's Christmas Day, for God's sake." His voice cracked with desperation.
Conn gave Jake a silent, level stare. One finger tapped the paperwork in front of him. "You realize, Jake, that if the Chief finds out that I didn't file the whole report, I'm in deep trouble."
Jake rose, plucking his battered ball cap from Conn's desk. "Thanks, Conn. You don't know how much this means to me," he began.
"I don't want your gratitude, Jake. It won't wash here anymore. This is the third time this month I've seen you." He stood up. "The Chief will be in at nine. If you're not back here before then - and with the goods...." His threat was never finished, but Jake had no trouble filling in the details.
"You mean, you'd... Your own brother?"
"Exactly why." Conn's tone softened slightly. "Look, Jake, you've got a beautiful wife and great kids. The people of this town trust you. Don't toss all that for something stupid like this." Then the professional barrier was back. "You have two hours, Jake, then I file my entire report."
Jake scrambled for the door.
"And for crying out loud, use the back door, Jake. I can only keep my mouth shut, not the whole department's."
Jake plopped the cap into its usual position on the back of his head. He flinched as it skidded across his newest bruise. "The back door. Right, Conn. I promise, this will be the last time..."
"Save it, Jake. Just get out."
Jake crept down the deserted hallway. The Chief would be furious to see him, especially after losing something as important as... Jake shook his head, trying to deny the whole situation. He moaned as the movement send waves of pain through his head and down his spine. Carefully, he negotiated the narrow stairwell leading to the back door. The alley behind the office building would afford suitable concealment for now. The clang of the fire door slamming shut behind him did nothing to alleviate his agony.
He stopped at the top of the stairs to the parking lot. Where was he to go? Where did he leave that parcel? That all important, accursed parcel. Jake's career, his standing in the community, his home and marriage, everything that was important to him would be in ruins because he lost that parcel! Why on earth had he ever agreed to it?
Jake tried to think as he descended the concrete steps, but his footfalls kept jarring his head.
Joe's! He was at Joe's last night! Joe might have the parcel. Then he could get back to Conn and no one would be the wiser. That had to be where he left it. It had to be!
Had anyone been looking out their window that Christmas morning, they would have seen the star quarterback of '75, the kid voted "Most Likely to Succeed", the youngest son of the former Chief of Police, skulking along the alleyways like a kid playing hooky from school. Pain-wracked and bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, Jake stumbled eastward. He tried to keep to the shadows and hedges, but the crimson outfit he wore made complete concealment impossible.
"Let's see," he muttered. "I went home first, then to Joe's. I can't go home. Annie would have my hide." He leaned against a telephone pole, desolate. "And the kids! How could I be so cruel to them? Even Conn wouldn't stoop so low." His shoulders sagged in defeat. Why bother? By noontime, the whole town would know of his stupidity. So much for his political career. How could he have done this to Annie and the kids? Why?
He was ready to turn back when he remembered Conn's words. "I can keep my mouth shut..." Conn would keep quiet. Anyone who saw him last night would not remember anything unusual. He hoped. Maybe he was safe? Maybe he could salvage something from this mess.
He straightened and began to walk. It had to be at Joe's. It was there, he reassured himself.
Jake leaned on the buzzer. He finally heard Joe moving around inside. "C'mon, Joe. Answer the bloody door," he whispered.
"Jake! What are you doing here? It's Christmas Day, you stupid sod," Joe's British accent rang out in the morning silence. "I'm not..."
"Shhh, keep your voice down. I know, Joe. Look, this is important."
Joe heaved a sigh. "It always is, boyo, it always is. What's up?"
Joe, did I leave a parcel here last night?"
"A parcel?" Joe's astonishment was plain. "You woke me up for something like that? Jake, if that don't beat all. How the hell should I know if you left something here?"
"Can I come in and look? Listen, it's important."
"No, you can't." It was a blank refusal. "What kind of parcel?"
"I guess it would be about so big," Jake began, measuring an eighteen inch cube with his hands. "I think it was in a plastic shopping bag, but I'm not sure."
"That doesn't surprise me, Jake," Joe said dryly. "Nope. I didn't see anything like that when I cleaned up."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, I'm sure. I didn't find any parcel of any kind." He glanced at his watch. "Now, will you go away? I have things to do before Martha gets here with the kids and I'm late already. Martha's still mad at you for the last time, so I'd clear out, if I were you." Joe began to close the door.
Jake stopped him. "Joe, I've got to have that parcel."
Joe stared at his long-time friend. He started at his boots and traveled over the red clothing and looked Jake straight in the eye. A twinge of sympathy surfaced. "Try Wyatt's. You said something about going there when you left here."
"Thanks, Joe. You're a real pal."
"Forget it, Jake." Joe started to close the door again as Jake stumbled down the stops. "And Jake? Don't let Conn catch you?"
Jake stopped and turned. "He already has, you crazy Limey," he growled. "Why do you think I want that parcel so bad?"
Joe laughed and closed the door. Jake swore softly and hurried on to his next stop. Wyatt's.
It was going to be difficult to get into Wyatt's without being seen. Wyatt's took the better part of a downtown block. Maybe if he hurried, he could be there before the early church traffic started. The cold air braced him, making him feel more awake than he had a right to be. This would be a tough one to shove under the bed, if word got out.
Slinking through the alleys, all thought except of his destination put to the back of his mind, Jake covered the distance quickly.
His fists raised echoes as he pounded on the door. "Henri, you just have to be here," he moaned, with a nervous glance for any traffic. So far his luck had held, but time was running out.
Then he noticed the doorbell. It took almost five terrifying minutes of frantic ringing to get Henri to answer the door. Jake was in a nervous sweat.
The big man took one look at Jake and chortled. "You no make the good Pere Noel, mon ami. Your hat, she is not quite the thing," he smirked.
Jake scowled back at his former football teammate. "Where's my parcel, Henri?"
"What parcel, Jake?" Henri was confused.
"The one I left here last night."
"You came in empty-handed, Jake. You didn't leave anything here."
"I don't believe you," Jake said, trying to push past him.
A huge hand stopped him. "Jake, you and I go back a long way. You may be more powerful now, but I'm still bigger than you. When I say, you come her empty-handed, you did. Comprends?" Henri's voice had softened into menace.
Jake deflated. Henri had never lied to him before. "I just have to find that parcel," he said, sadly.
Henri shook his head. "Jake, if it's any help, you said you were hungry when you left here. Have you tried Mandy's?"
"Right, Henri. Sorry to have bothered you. Have a good Christmas." Jake's voice was flat with disappointment.
"De rien, mon ami. You will find it. If not, you come back and we see what can be done, okay?"
Jake bowed his head. "Thanks."
Jake no longer cared if he was seen. Mandy's was two blocks away, by Main Street. That was the route he took. The only traffic he saw was a lone taxicab, cruising down the street. As he pushed open the door to Mandy's a bell tinkled gaily.
"Jake," Mandy's mosquito-whine voice buzzed from the back of the empty diner. She waddled out from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel. On a polite day, Mandy was described as being five-feet, pick a direction, with the personality of an Oriental dragon guarding its hoard.
"Jake, whyfore you come here look like that? You come to bust up place again? You go. Now. You lose face with friends." As Jake walked past here, she observed."You lose button, too, Jake."
Jake shrugged. "I lost a parcel last night."
"You lose more than parcel, Jake. You look silly in red suit. Why you not go home and find better clothes? Suit lose button. Look like bum!"
Jake sat down at the counter. "I need a coffee, Mandy," he said.
"You no have coffee in my restaurant in funny suit. You go home, Jake."
"Back off, Mandy. I'm stuck in this until I find my parcel. Then I'll go home."
Mandy stood, arms akimbo, glaring at Jake. "You want coffee in my place, you go home. You no wear silly suit, you get coffee."
"Mandy," Jake warned. "Mandy, I want a coffee."
"You go, Jake. I call cops."
"Who do you think sent me here, you stupid woman? Get me a coffee and give me my parcel."
"You no leave parcel here, Jake. You go find parcel, then get coffee." Mandy pushed Jake off the stool.
He could take a hint. He headed toward the door. He gave up. He may as well just go back and face the Chief.
Mandy's voice drilled into his morose thoughts. "And, Jake, you no come back 'til you find new suit, okay?"
Jake left the diner and began walking. His thoughts were funereal. He was a candidate for the mayor's job in next month's elections. He was an official in the church. He was the coach of the championship football team, for crying out loud. He had a beautiful wife and terrific kids. In one night, he'd managed to lose it all.
Here he was, on Christmas Day, wandering around the streets wearing nothing more than a ball cap, a pair of boots, and his red flannel long-johns. Annie had threatened to leave him if he ever again went out drinking like he had last night. He was sure the parents of his football team didn't want an old drunk teaching their kids. Some example I'm setting, he thought glumly. A drunken mayor! Yeah, right. He'd be lucky to keep his job as city councillor. This was one stunt that couldn't be overlooked. How could he have taken a dare to walk around in his long-handles and then forget where he left his clothes?
Maybe he should just go down to the docks and jump. It would be easier than facing his family and friends.
All because he's lost that stupid parcel with his clothes in it. That stupid, stinking, vital parcel - lost! And for what? A few stupid drinks? His entire life was for a drink. A stupid drink.
Wheeling to face the way he'd come, Jake gave voice to his frustration. "Is there no one in this god-forsaken town that knows where I left my clothes?"
His words echoed off the buildings and faded into a deafening silence.
Jake jumped, somehow surprised to hear another voice. A cab had pulled up in front of him and he hadn't even noticed.
"Hey, Jake. For Pete's sake, get into the cab before Officer Connors sees you like that! You're missing a vital button, too." The cabby grinned. "You'll freeze your butt off."
Jake looked over his shoulder. So he was. He hadn't noticed.
"Boy, were you drunk last night," the driver chuckled. "I saw you earlier and mentioned it to the dispatcher," he said, as Jake got into the cab.
Jake groaned. Too many loud-moths would have heard that! The whole town must know already!
"Don't panic, Jake. I only said that I saw you up and about. I'm not that mean. Anyway, the dispatcher says you left a bag of clothes at the cab stand. I'll take you there and then, where? Home?"
Jake stared at the cab driver. He had found his parcel! He could go home fully dressed and no one would know anything else! His honour was saved!
Jake straightened in his seat and said, "Home, James," in his finest mayoral voice.