S. P. Sinor
Larry peered at his watch by the light of a nearby
"Time to go shopping," he said.
He was normally very prompt about doing things, but
Christmas shopping was something that he always waited
until exactly 8:00 P.M. on Christmas Eve to do. After
all, it was a tradition with Larry. Traditions were
important things, especially where he had grown up.
Start at 8, finish by midnight. Four hours was
pushing it, but he had never had any problems before,
and there was no reason to expect any this year.
Midnight: the Witching Hour; or rather,
Clausing Time. Larry grinned at his own
joke. Since childhood he had been proud of his sense of
humor. He loved puns and other outrageous jokes.
The people heíd grown up around had certainly been
cheerful, but they would never have appreciated the kind
of humor that Larry liked.
He checked his bag one more time: lock picks, rope,
latex gloves, plastic bags to use as shoe covers, black
ski mask and an assortment of odd items that he thought
might come in handy. You never know what you might need.
Under a black flight jacket he wore a matching
jumpsuit. He had worn it to work, decorated for the
season of course. Now all the "decorations" were safely
stored in a plastic bag under his car seat.
Most of the other male hairdressers at Madame Xís
salon dressed outrageously, trying to outdo each other,
but Larry was fairly conservative. Thatís how he got so
many of the older, richer clients. They might like to
look at the more outlandish dressers, but they wanted
their hair done by someone who was expert in the classic
styles and could carry on a conversation, (read, listen
He didnít have a family anymore. Heíd left home a few
years before and had never looked back. Marilyn and
Chuck Ryan and their twins, Tracy and Stacy, were
Larryís best friends. In fact, if he was being brutally
honest, they were really his only friends. Larry had met
them when heíd first come to town, alone and broke. They
had all but adopted him, and he owed them a lot. They
were his family now.
He wanted to give them nicer Christmas gifts than he
Larry checked his shopping list. There was no one
special in his life at the moment, although he did have
his eye on someone who worked at the small art gallery
next to Madame Xís. His name was Mark. Larry had stopped
in the gallery a few times, mainly to see Mark. They
hadnít gotten to the getting-together-after-work stage,
yet; certainly not to the Christmas gift stage, so three
gifts would be all he needed.
The first stop would be at Mrs. Richardsonís, for
that sterling gravy boat. She intended it for her
newly-married granddaughter, but the pattern also
matched Marilynís pattern. Then to the Smiths. What Mrs.
Smith didnít confide to him, Mr. Smith did. The video
games they had bought for their grandchildren would
thrill the twins. After the Smiths, he would pick up a
silk shirt for Chuck at the Arnoldís. It should be just
the right shade of blue, providing Mrs. Arnold had
bought the shirt Larry had so thoughtfully suggested.
The Richardsons, Smiths and Arnolds were all going to
be at the Hobart Johnsonís Christmas Eve party. Besides
New Years, this was the one night of the year that they
all stayed up, and out, until after midnight.
Even though Pam Johnson had invited him, somehow
Larry didnít think he would make it.
"Larry, why donít you drop by and join the party? You
already know most of the guests, and youíre such an
amusing young man. Weíd love to have you."
Amusing. That word really grated on his nerves. What
he wouldnít stoop to for his career. All three ladies
had been eager to discuss with him what they would wear
to the party. They seemed to value his advice, and
especially, his attitude. Larry had learned when he was
very young what an asset the correct attitude could be.
When he couldnít even fake the "correct" attitude his
family demanded, he had decided to leave his home, and
had never regretted it. Here, he had been able to
maintain an attitude that had gotten him to the position
of senior hairdresser at Madame Xís. With just a bit of
luck, it would eventually get him his own salon.
Maybe he should go to the party, just for a few
minutes. The Johnsonís house was so big, like the guest
list, that he could be there for ten minutes, say heíd
been there all evening, and no one would know the
difference; an alibi of sorts, just in case.
He could also pick up something there, for himself,
since he had no way of knowing what it would be. The
other gifts should be no problem. His clients always
bragged about how elaborately the stores wrapped their
packages, just the sort of information that one filed
away for future reference.
Larry parked his dark green Volvo a few doors down
from the Richardsonís house. The car was old, but it was
a classic and he took good care of it. One must keep up
appearances. It was just the kind of car no one would
pay any attention to in an upper class neighborhood like
The winter wind whipped his hair as he put the ski
mask and other Ďprotectionsí on. It had been a dry
winter so far, and tonight was clear and dark, just
perfect for Christmas shopping.
He slid along the walls of the house until he came to
the back door. Carefully, he worked the door lock until
it snapped open. That gave Larry thirty seconds to reach
the alarm box and punch in the deactivation code. He did
it with ten seconds to spare. When the system was being
installed last spring, Mrs. Richardson had let slip what
the code was, which, knowing her memory, would never be
He paused for a moment in the living room door. Even
without lights he could see the Christmas tree,
decorated in silver and red. The gravy boat was in a
green foil box with a gold ribbon and bow, marked To
Maria, From Grandmother.
He hid it inside his jacket and retraced his steps,
closing the door carefully behind him, not forgetting to
turn the alarm back on or to remove his ski mask.
One down, he thought.
The Smiths didnít live very far from the
Richardsonís. Everything in this part of town was old:
houses, trees, people, and money. Most of his clients
lived in this neighborhood, knew the same people,
shopped at the same stores, got their hair done at the
same salon, by the same person.
Larry wasnít too concerned about being found out. He
never shopped at the same homes two years in a row and
never took more than one gift at a time. No sense taking
chances. Larry researched each store very
carefully: security, pets and the possibility of someone
still being home on Christmas Eve.
The Smiths lived on a block with an alley. The
backyards had high stone walls and alley-entrance
garages. Larry already knew of a spot on the wall where
he could boost himself over.
As he hit the ground, he heard the yap, yap, yap of a
"Oh, no!" He could see the dog jumping and barking
furiously about ten feet away. "Where did that thing
He thought of just going back over the wall, but that
would mean giving up the games for the kids. He knelt on
one knee and softly called the dog.
"Here pup, pup, pup. Come on, I wonít hurt you. Come
To his surprise, the dog ran over and began to lick
"Well, hi, fella. What are you doing here?" There was
enough light from the yard lamp to read the dogís tags.
Muffy, Owned by Robbie and Nicole Smith.
"Oho, so thatís it. Just visiting, are you? I suppose
that you canít stay in the house with the cats, because
you might terrorize them. Let me tell you a secret,
Muffy. Those cats could have you for lunch. Better you
do stay outside. How about I try to find you a snack
while Iím inside? Would you like that?"
The Smiths didnít have an alarm system, thinking that
the wall around the yard was all the security they
needed. Maybe he should discuss that with them Ė next
He had no trouble jimmying the back door, being
careful to not leave any marks. Their tree wasnít lit
either, but light coming in from the window bathed it in
a glow, and he could see that it was decorated
beautifully. The Smiths had always had excellent taste.
He carefully looked through the packages under the
tree until he found the right one: To Robbie and Nicole.
Then he saw another one like it. Two! He hadnít thought
of that. He couldnít take both, but which one?
"I guess Iíll just play eenie, meenie to decide. I
hope I pick the right one."
He set both gifts on the floor and waved his hands
over them until they settled on one. Placing the other
one where he had found it, Larry hid his choice inside
his jacket and made his way to the kitchen.
"Mustnít forget Muffy," he said, looking in the
pantry and the fridge. Nothing. What were they doing,
putting the little furball on a diet? Then he noticed
some leftover steak wrapped in plastic. "Iíll bet Muffy
will love this."
Bribe in hand, Larry stepped out into the backyard,
just as the dog came yipping around the corner of the
"Okay, okay. Here you go." Larry tossed his
present for Muffy under the bushes where any remnants
wouldnít be noticed.
Now he was getting hungry.
"Maybe I should take a break and visit the Johnsonís
# # #
Larry checked his watch by the dome light of his car;
it was only 9:30. He was doing well enough that he could
allow himself an hour at the party and still make the
last house on his shopping list.
It wasnít far to the Johnsonís. He parked in an
inconspicuous place and started putting back on
everything heíd taken off: a scarf Ė red and green, of
course: a pin here, an earring there, and several rings.
He combed his hair and locked the car behind him.
Canít be too careful around here at night, especially
with so many expensive cars. Besides, heíd heard about a
gang of thieves who ripped off Christmas presents from
The front door would not be a good idea; after all he
"had been here for some time". There were party noises
coming from the rear of the house as he turned the
corner into the backyard.
A dark figure stumbled out of the bushes and ran
right into him. "Whoís Ďat?" the figure, a man, slurred,
clutching at Larryís arm. "Why, itís Mr. Larry! Hey, how
long you been here? Great party, huh?"
Larry was amazed at the change in Mr. Smith since
heíd come by the shop that morning for a last-minute
holiday trim. The dapper, retired stockbrokerís shirt
was hanging loose from his belt, there was a stain of
what looked like mustard on his pant leg, and the manís
breath smelled strong enough to strip a varnished table.
"Why, Mr. Smith, you let me in the front door about
an hour ago. Donít you remember? Oh, well, I suppose you
might have been a bit distracted. I saw who you were
talking to. Donít worry, I wonít breathe a word. Now, I
thought Iíd help myself to a bit more of that wonderful
shrimp dish. I just canít help myself."
Larry was glad that Mrs. Johnson had discussed the
menu with him. Knowing about the shrimp might help avert
a potential problem, if not disaster. Although, in his
current condition, Mr. Smith would be lucky to remember
what state he was in, let alone what happened an hour
"You go right on ahead. Iím just goiní to get a
little fresh air." Mr. Smith giggled as he staggered
around the corner of the house.
Larry smiled to himself as he walked through the back
yard. He saw an almost empty glass on the deck railing
and picked it up to serve as a prop. Putting on a big
smile, he slipped in through the back door.
Larry had been in the house before and knew that
there was a small bathroom near the back door. He went
inside, sprinkled a little of the bourbon from the glass
on his face like aftershave, emptied and washed the
glass, and put about half an inch of water in it. Then
he flushed the toilet and went back out. He drained the
glass, making sure to be a little unsteady on his feet
as he made his way toward the dining room, nodding to
people he didnít know and exchanging pleasantries with
those he did. Larry felt sure that he had left the
impression that he had been there for awhile until he
ran into Mrs. Johnson.
"Why, Larry, I didnít know you were here. When did
you arrive?" She didnít seem nearly tipsy enough to fool
for long. Best not to spin too elaborate a tale, he
"Mrs. Johnson," he exclaimed, putting an arm around
her shoulders. "I didnít see you when I got here, and
then I got into a fascinating conversation with one of
the other guests. You know, I donít remember what he
said his name was, but he seemed to want to talk about
his golf game, and before I knew it, it was an hour
"Iíd had a couple of drinks and just had to get some
fresh air. I sat on your delightful deck until I got
cold and hungry and decided to come back in and indulge
myself at your wonderful buffet. I do hope thereís some
of that shrimp dish left, but Iím sure that you would
never let anything run out. You are such a marvelous
He was babbling, he knew, but it fit in with the
festivities and he certainly didnít want her to be
"Why, Larry, thank you!" Maybe he had fooled her,
after all. "Please, go eat. You shouldnít be drinking on
an empty stomach. Iíll see you later; I must check
something in the kitchen."
She waved him toward the dining room.
The table was covered with nearly two dozen dishes,
all of them looking expensive and very fattening. Larry
had always been small and slight, so he didnít worry
about calories as he loaded down a plate. After having
the bartender fix him a real drink, he looked around for
a somewhat secluded spot to eat.
He found one behind a sofa in the den, nearly
tripping over someone who was already there.
"Iím s-s-sorry," the man whispered. "Iíll move over.
Iím trying to hide from my wife for a little while. She
doesnít want me to have any fun. Said I couldnít have
any more to drink, because I might embarrass her. Sheís
a real tyrant, but she also has money, so what can I do?
Sheíll probably find me pretty soon, but Ďtil she does I
can do this." He took a sip of a very substantial drink
he had hidden between the sofa and the end table. "Are
you hiding from your wife, too? I wonít tell on you if
you donít tell on me. Say, do you play golf?
"I could play golf all day, and sometimes I do. Myrna
doesnít play, says itís a stupid game, but she doesnít
make me quit. Sheís always busy with her club meetings
and things, and she says it keeps me out of her hair.
Iím pretty good, too, if I do say so myself. Iíve got a
real low handicap, and the pro at the country club says
with a little work, maybe I could turn pro myselfÖ."
Larry couldnít get a word in, but he really didnít
have anything to say anyway. Golf interested him about
as much as watching grass grow. He settled back to eat
and let the man talk. The poor guy was obviously starved
for some attention. He didnít sound drunk, but either he
was, or his elevator didnít go quite to the top.
After awhile, Larry glanced at his watch.
11:00! How did that happen?
He had one more place to go before he was finished,
and he didnít have much time, not even to find himself a
present from the Johnsonís. After making a quick excuse
to his new "friend", he went into the little bathroom
again, washed his hands and flushed, and casually walked
out onto the deck. There didnít seem to be anyone
outside right then, but just to be on the safe side,
Larry clung to the shadows as he worked his way out to
where he had left his car.
Fortunately, the Arnolds didnít live that far.
In less than ten minutes he was cruising their
street. Apparently, one of their neighbors was having a
party, too, and the block was lined with late-model
cars. Finally he saw a small space just around the
There wasnít any kind of fence or wall surrounding
the Arnoldís property, but they did have a thick growth
of hedge. They didnít have an alarm system, either. The
neighborhood itself was protection, they assumed. "And
who am I to argue with them," Larry mused, as he slipped
through a space next to the alley-access garage.
Sometimes he found his lack of size to be an asset.
Thankfully, there would be no Muffys, here. Mrs.
Arnold abhorred dogs and was allergic to cats.
He gently worked the lockpick, eventually hearing the
satisfying click of the lock opening.
Once inside, it took Larry a few minutes to get his
bearings. Heíd heard about the house but never been
inside: utility room to the left, kitchen to the right.
And beyond a closed door a hallway that led to the rest
of the house.
He turned the knob and eased the door open as
silently as possible. Still no sound. A few cautious
steps led to another hallway and the living room. On the
left, beyond a large squared-off set of double doors, a
grandfather clock stood to one side.
11:30. No problem.
The tree was majestic; yeah, that was a good word for
it. Gorgeously decorated, it stood at least seven feet
tall, filling the bay window at the front of the room.
It had been years, too many years, since anything
associated with Christmas had filled him with such awe.
Seeing it lit would have been nice, but not worth the
The only part of Christmas that had ever really
excited him had been the Christmas tree: finding a
perfect one, setting it up, and especially decorating
it. He could have only a very small tree in his
apartment, but he tried to make it as beautiful and
special as he could.
"Come on. Youíve got work to do, and youíre running
out of time." He began searching carefully through the
pile of gifts. The one he wanted was wrapped in
multi-colored foil with a red satin bow.
"Here we go." He said spotting his prize. Then he saw
a second package, with identical foil and bow; then
another and another.
"Four! Four!" he muttered. "Two at the last place
were bad enough. Couldnít that old biddy have been more
He had three choices: unwrap each one, take them all,
or just grab one and take his chances.
"With my luck they might all be bowling shirts."
Taking a deep breath, Larry sat down on the floor and
began to carefully unwrap the first package. Being foil,
the paper didnít tear when he pulled off the tape. That
"Hounds tooth pajamas. How tacky."
The second package yielded a golf shirt.
Just as Larry began to peel the tape from the third
package, he heard something from outside. It was just
midnight, the large mantle clock, a replica of an
antique wind-up clock, or probably it was the real
thing, tolled midnight. It couldnít be the Arnolds, they
shouldnít be leaving the party yet, much less be home
already, unless one of them was sick
Hurriedly replacing the presents, Larry looked around
for a place to hide. He had just ducked behind a corner
chair, when he heard a horribly familiar chuckle. Larry
turned slowly toward the fireplace, which, until now,
had been empty even of gas logs. Now a crouching, rotund
figure, in red and white, stood there, a bulging sack
over one shoulder. The newcomer laid down the bag,
straightened and turned toward the chair that Larry was
"You!" both of them said, simultaneously.
"Hi, Nick," Larry said.
"Well, well, Laric, fancy meeting you here. Iíd
wondered if Iíd ever cross paths with you again. Now,
donít tell me that you live here. Youíd never be
able to afford a place like this. Besides, except for
Christmas trees, your taste was never quite this
traditional." Nick gestured at the holly wreath, the
manger scene and the candles on the mantle. "So tell me,
what are you doing here at midnight skulking around
someone elseís Christmas tree?"
Larry just stood with his mouth hanging open, then
swallowed. "Uh, nothingÖnot anything, just ... visiting
here. Iím spending Christmas with my friends, the
Arnolds, and I couldnít sleep, so I thought Iíd sit here
in the living room and look at the tree for awhileÖ and
call me Larry!"
"Laric, you know you canít lie to me, never could, so
tell the truth."
"Hey, wait a minute. What are you doing here, Nick?
These people donít have any small children. Why are you
bringing presents here?" Belligerence should be the next
course of action, or so Larry hoped.
Nick picked up his pack and moved toward the tree.
"No, they donít. But they do have grandchildren who will
be here early Christmas morning. Remember, I know
everything when it comes to this sort of thing.
"Now, donít you think itís about time you came back
home? Iíll even give you a ride. I could use some help;
Iím not getting any younger. Oh, by the way, weíll put
back those presents you took earlier this evening as
Larry felt a chill run down his back. "I donít know
what youíre talking about. Iím not going Ďhomeí. I am
home. Iíve got a good life here. For the first time Iím
happy. I always hated it at the North Pole. Thatís why I
left." He slumped into the chair he had hidden behind.
"I never fit in. My lifestyleÖwasnít exactly encouraged
there. Iím not going back with you. Youíd better get
finished and go. I imagine that the Arnolds will be
coming home pretty soon. You donít want to get caught."
"No fear of that, or donít you remember?" Nick
settled into another chair, looking like he could wait
forever. From one pocket of his jacket he produced a
blackened briar pipe. He inspected the bowl, produced a
small bag of tobacco, refilled the pipe and put it
between his teeth. A long thin line of white smoke
emerged. "Have you forgotten, on Christmas Eve at
midnight, time all over the world stops until Iíve
finished all my rounds? I have, literally, all the time
in the world. "Now, you can come with me willingly or
not, your choice. I donít mean to leave without you."
"I could just leave, you know. You canít hold me
here." Larry looked toward the door.
"Go ahead and try," Nick urged.
Larry collided with something at the door that
threw him back across the room, rolling to a stop at the
base of the Christmas tree
"What?" he cried, and tried again. Picking himself
up, this time from in front of Nickís feet, he
understood what Nick had been trying to tell him. The
only reality at that very point in -- time -- was that
very room. The only way to get out was for Nick to let
"Oh, I see. Iím stuck, huh? Well, go on, leave your
presents for all the good little girls and boys and go
on to the next house. I told you, Iím staying."
"You werenít listening. Iím not leaving without you.
Youíre not supposed to be here, Laric. Youíre an elf,
not a human. You donít fit in."
"Yes, I do. I do fit in," Larry insisted. "More than
I ever did at the workshop. That bunch can be intolerant
of alternate lifestyles. Iíd be miserable for the rest
of my life. Besides, I hated smiling all the time. OK,
OK, I have to smile a lot now, but now I donít mind. Iím
doing something I enjoy. And Iím planning open my own
"At least Iím not tied down to the same thing day in,
day out. I hated putting those toys together. It was
boring. Talk about a dead-end job. Even a ditch-digger
can aspire to better things, here. At the North Pole
itís either elf, reindeer or you. Iím obviously not a
reindeer and I canít see you retiring soon. Iíll do
anything you want if youíll let me stay here."
Nick hesitated, his eyes locked on Larryís. "Iíll
consider it. First, return what youíve taken tonight.
Oh, I know what youíve been doing. Iíve known about it
from the beginning, but I could never catch you. Second,
no more, what do you call them, shopping expeditions.
Then, pay back every one of the people youíve stolen
from. How you do it is your business, but it has to be
done by Christmas next year."
"Nick, give me a break. I donít make that kind of
"Then take a second job. Take it or leave it, Laric,
your choice." Nick pushed himself to his feet and began
to place additional presents around the tree. "Now hurry
up. Iím not even half through and Iíve got a hot bath
waiting for me at home."
"All right, I said Iíd do anything. Iíd better hurry
if Iím going to return the other things. After all, itís
midnight, isnít it?"
"It is. Iíll tell you what. Weíll pick up the other
two packages from your car and Iíll deliver them for
you. You can go on home and think about how to repay the
rest of the people you stole from Oh, by the way, Iíll
be back next year to check on you, now that I know where
to find you."
# # #
"Larry, what a nice way to thank your clients for
their patronage," Mrs. Richardson commented as she
handed Larry a red and green foil coupon with the words
"Complimentary VisitÖMerry Christmas" printed on it.
Larry had tried to calculate the values of all the
Ďgiftsí he had acquired from his clients over the past
several years. Then he figured how many free salon
visits it would take for each client to be compensated
for what had been stolen. It turned out to be quite a
tidy sum. If Larry hadnít had enough customers he had
never "shopped" from, he wouldnít have been able to pay
his station fees to the salon owner, or to cover his own
"Itís the least I can do to show my appreciation to
my very favorite clients. Now, not everyone got my
Christmas coupons, so letís be discreet, shall we?"
"Of course, Larry. I certainly wouldnít want to
embarrass anyone. You have a wonderful holiday, and Iíll
see you on New Yearís Eve." Mrs. Richardson waved her
fingers as she left the salon.
He had exchanged nearly those exact words several
times this week. That last appointment with Mrs.
Richardson had completed his obligation to repay all his
debts, and by Christmas Eve, as promised.
"Just let Nick come. Iím ready for him," Larry
thought defiantly as he cleaned his station before
leaving. He was spending Christmas Eve with the Ryans.
Last Christmas he hadnít been able to give them
anything, due to his unfortunate meeting with Nick. Heíd
apologized to his friends, but they had been entirely
"Larry, your friendship is the best gift you could
possibly give us. Now donít be silly and come eat."
However, this year he wouldnít show up empty-handed.
Heíd shopped early and frugally for them, and had done
better than heíd thought he would. Heíd found sweaters
for Marilyn and Chuck at a close-out store, and CDs for
Tracy and Stacy there, too.
This year he was spending the night with them, and
going to sleep before midnight. He didnít want to repeat
his encounter with Nick.
# # #
"Merry Christmas, everybody!" Larry cried as he
watched his friends opening their presents.
"Larry, there are a couple of envelopes on the tree
with your name on them," Marilyn said.
"Oh, yeah. A couple of my clients gave them to me
yesterday, so I brought them with me to open today."
Larry had brought only one envelope with him, but he had
an idea where the other one came from.
He opened the unfamiliar one first. It was just a
piece of paper with the words "Well done" printed on it.
Even though it had no signature, he knew who it
The other one was from Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Mr. Smith
had dropped it by the salon yesterday, but had said not
to open it until Christmas Day. Inside the Christmas
card was a handwritten note "We have a business
proposition for you. If we can come to an agreement, we
might be willing to financially back you in opening your
own salon. Come see us after New Years."