WMG Holiday Spectacular 2022: Free Story of the Week

“Three Spectacular Capers and the Whatever It’s Called Beneath the Tree” by author Steven Mohan, Jr, is free on this website until December 11, 2022. The story’s also available as a part of the WMG Holiday Spectacular 2022, which brings a new holiday story to your inbox every day through New Year’s Day. For more information click here.

Three Spectacular Capers and the
Whatever It’s Called Beneath the Tree

Steven Mohan, Jr

On the Monday four weeks before Christmas, ugly clouds the color of gunmetal crowded the winter sky and an icy wind swirled scraps of paper and an empty brown McDonald’s bag around Maria Ortega’s stylish black leather boots. It was a bitter, cruel wind blowing in from Saskatchewan, or the Yukon, or possibly even Pluto. Some land with plenty of snow and socialized medicine, anyway.

Maria Ortega gritted her teeth against that mean wind. She hate hate hated the cold, but the way she looked at it the Christmas season gave her a chance to overcome this deficiency in her character. If she could offer good cheer to her friends and family even when it was eight degrees Fahrenheit outside, then no one could fault her holiday spirit.

She huddled into her black woolen coat as she pushed into Martinez’s Café down on 4th Street.

Maria loved Martinez’s. She loved the sizzle and smell of chorizo—Mexican sausage. Salsa so hot that it felt like a Chernobyl meltdown in her mouth. The taste of a slopper—a cheeseburger floating in a soupy mix of onions and green chili. The red-and-white-checked plastic tablecloths that were somehow both cheesy and endearing. She loved the way the restaurant’s heat fogged up the glass in the front door and the storefront windows.

But most of all she loved the people.

A few breakfast regulars were clustered around one of the front tables, talking up a storm—as usual. This morning’s topic seemed to be, of all things, a daring bank robbery.

“On Friday, a crack team of thieves stole eighty-two thousand dollars from the Second Federal Bank of Colorado,” reported Valerie Martello.

Slim, stacked, raven-haired Valerie was a widow. A three-time widow. She was only forty-two (well, forty-eight—Valerie lied) and gorgeous, but had few gentleman suitors. After she’d buried three husbands word had gotten around that she was bad luck—no matter how pretty she was. Martello meant carpenter in Italian, but the closest the widow had ever come to woodwork was sharpening a number two pencil.

Maria looked over at Hakeem and Sam to see if this was true, or if it was one of Valerie’s confabulations. The widow seemed to think that the occasional fib enlivened life.

“Actually,” said Sam Bukovec, who used to write for the Steel City Chieftain back when they actually gave a damn about local news (he always said), “according to the security footage there was only one thief. He was dressed all in black and impossible to identify.”

Sam Bukovec was a tall, lean man who wore black-rimmed spectacles high up on the beak of his nose. He was also a know-it-all, but not because he was snotty.

Just because he really did seem to know it all.

“One?” asked Maria. “How did one thief manage to pull it off?”

Sam leaned forward. “In broad daylight, this James Bond-character hooked into the building’s HVAC system and flooded the bank with a knock-out gas. Then he emptied all the teller’s trays and cleaned out the vault.”

Hakeem Moore ran a hand the color of rich, alluvial soil over his shaved skull, thinking. “Most likely it was the same Fentanyl-based drug that Spetsnaz employed against Chechen terrorists during the 2002 Nord-Ost siege at the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow,” he said.

Hakeem was a retired Marine gunnery sergeant who looked after the Toys for Tots barrel out at the mall. He also looked a little like the barrel. He was a big man. Hakeem seemed to remember every military incident in history since Cain picked up the first stone. For instance, he actually knew the difference between an F-35B and an F-35C and could speak knowledgably about why anyone should care.

Sam rolled his eyes. “You don’t actually know that. You can’t know that. You’re just guessing.”

“Well, one thing we know for sure,” said Valerie, “is that the bank robber had a heart. Before he hauled away all that money, he slipped oxygen masks on the tellers and bankers—even the security guard—so they didn’t die like some of the poor hostages in that Russian thing.”

“Oh, well, that’s, uh, something,” said Maria.

At this point Betty McLeary pushed her way in. The fiftyish redhead was built like a battleship. And if Maria asked Hakeem he would probably be able to tell her which one.

Behind Betty’s stained white apron she wore blue jeans and a pale yellow cotton blouse. The waitress put a hand on Maria’s shoulder. “Can I get you a breakfast burrito smothered in green chili, hon?”

Maria was tempted, but she’d already put on a couple of holiday pounds. She noticed there was a stranger sitting alone on the far side of the café, half-hidden by shadow. He was a thirtyish man with short chestnut hair and a strong jaw. He wore khaki trousers and a pale blue Oxford shirt.

And he was cu-ute.

No, she definitely didn’t need the breakfast burrito.

“Just a cup of coffee for me, Betty.”

The waitress flashed her a sunny smile and pushed her way out.

“Police got any leads yet?” asked Valerie.

Sam shook his head.

Betty reappeared with Maria’s coffee—black with three sugars. It tasted like heaven and warmed Maria down to her toes.

“What I can’t figure is why anyone would want all that money?” said Betty. “Don’t banks keep track of the serial numbers? That’s got to be hard to launder.”

They all considered that in silence for a moment.

“Maybe whoever stole it wasn’t in it for the money,” said Maria. “Maybe he just doesn’t like banks.”

They all turned to look at her.

“Well, no one likes banks,” Maria said. “They never loan you money unless you can prove you don’t need it. And they’re insured by the federal government, which is a huge benefit, but they still charge all these ridiculous fees. ATM fees? ATMs cost them much less than tellers, but they still charge their customers for the privilege of saving them money. Paper statement fees. Fees for traveler’s checks. It just goes on and on.”

They all stared at her.

Valerie twirled a lock of glossy, black hair around a finger. “You’ve obviously given this a lot of thought.”

Hakeem leaned forward in his chair. “Any idea who this bank-hater might be?”

“Obviously someone new to town,” said Maria breezily, “otherwise he would have struck before.”

“Right,” said Betty. “Like that guy.”

They all turned to look at the dreamboat in the corner.

“Know who he is?” Hakeem asked Sam.

Sam shook his head. “Never seen him before.”

Hakeem looked over at Betty.

She shrugged. “Me neither. This is his first time here.” She snorted. “He wanted a bagel and cream cheese. I got him to settle for toast.”

“So that’s James Bond,” said Hakeem, softly. He had a tendency to jump to conclusions.

“We don’t know that,” said Sam irritably. “Back in my day you couldn’t publish anything without two verified sources. You couldn’t write that water was wet without two sources. And you want to just guess that this guy is the James Bond?”

Hakeem sighed. “You’re probably right.” He shook his head. “I got to get out to the mall anyway. My Toys for Tots barrel is overflowin’. I’m on some kind of run.”

“That’s no surprise,” said Maria. “No one likes bankers, but everyone likes Marines.”

Hakeem laughed heartily and shot her with a finger gun. He stood and dropped a twenty on the table.

So did Sam. “Yeah, me, too.”

The door opened and Betty bustled off to seat the new arrivals.

“I have to talk to my friends about my new diet,” said Valerie, which meant she was going to spend the morning lying about her weight as well as her age.

She, too, left a twenty.

The sixty bucks on the table warmed Maria’s heart. All three of them were tipping big because they knew that Betty was trying to save up for an X-Station or a Play-Box—or whatever it was called. She had a seven-year-old grandson who was dying for the video-game console, but Betty couldn’t really afford it. The regulars were contributing to the cause.

Maria drained the remnants of her coffee and slipped a single bill—not a twenty—beneath the cup.

She almost left, too, but because she wasn’t ready to face that arctic wind again, she crossed the café to the cute stranger in the corner.

 

***

 

Maria knew the man wasn’t local. She knew it because (one) he was reading a newspaper, and (two) that newspaper was The New York Times.

“Pardon me,” she said.

He looked up from the paper—he was reading the New York section, what a less snooty paper would have called the Metro section—and met her eyes.

She staggered backwards and careened into a chair. She gave herself ten points for grace. She hadn’t been prepared for those eyes. They were some color that Crayola didn’t have a name for. Something halfway between hazel and green—with gold flecks. Maria had seen sapphires that weren’t as pretty.

“Yes,” he said dryly. “May I help you?”

“You think I need help?” she asked, a little offended.

“The way you crashed into that chair I thought you might need a paramedic.”

She folded her arms across her shimmering red silk blouse.

“I just tripped,” she said haughtily. “It happens to everyone.”

“Lady,” he said, “the way it happened to you, I half expected three Olympic judges to appear and give you a score on the dismount.”

“You’re a little obnoxious.”

“I have a gold medal in obnoxious,” he said. “Was there something you wanted?”

She decided this might be a good time to start over. “My friends think you might be James Bond.”

He blinked. “I couldn’t possibly be James Bond.”

“Really?”

“I don’t have the sexual experience needed to be James Bond.”

“Oh?” she said, allowing a note of disappointment to creep into her voice. “How sad for you.”

“I didn’t mean that I didn’t have any sexual experience. I just meant— Look, Bond was in like thirty or forty books and movies. And he went through two or three women per— Well, anyway, that’s a lot of women. And I haven’t— I mean I wouldn’t— I mean, to me, women are not just disposable playthings.” He sighed unhappily. “I meant it as a joke.”

“I’m going to pretend that whole paragraph didn’t just happen,” she said cheerfully.

“Thank you,” he said, clearly relieved.

She extended her hand. “I’m Maria Ortega.”

“David Rubinstein,” he said shaking her hand.

“Ah,” she said.

He pointed at her. “You’re thinking I’m Jewish.”

“Well, yeah.”

“And you’re thinking that explains the whole not-as-much-sex-as-James-Bond thing, because I’m Jewish and some people think that Jewish men aren’t very well…”

He just sort of trailed off.

She arched an eyebrow.

He punched out an unhappy breath. “Endowed. Some people think Jewish men aren’t very well endowed.”

She laughed at that, she just couldn’t help it. “First of all, I think people who cast aspersions on other people are insecure themselves.” Maria herself wasn’t super well endowed in certain parts of her anatomy, and she didn’t appreciate people who made a big deal about that. “Second, it stands to reason that any people who produced a military as kick-ass as the Israeli Defense Force don’t have anything to worry about in the endowment department.” She actually didn’t know that much about the Israeli Defense Force, but Hakeem was a big fan. “My guess is that Jewish men follow the same bell curve as other men.”

“Your guess,” he said.

“Well, I haven’t gathered enough data to compile a meaningful statistical inference.”

“Oh? And how many data points would you need exactly?” He raised his cup of coffee to his lips.

“Thirty,” she said.

He sputtered, inhaled the scalding coffee, and then was lost to a coughing fit.

Thirty?” he said, when he could talk again.

“Hey, it’s not my number,” she said a tad defensively. “That’s how many data points you need to calculate a statistically valid mean or standard deviation.”

“Okay,” he said. “And how many Jewish men have you, uh, evaluated so far?”

“None,” she said.

“None?”

“Well, there aren’t a lot of Jewish folk in Southern Colorado.” She fingered the gold cross she wore around her neck. “Besides, I’m a good Catholic girl.”

“So maybe you haven’t evaluated men of any kind?”

That is a highly rude and intrusive question.”

He rubbed his chin as if he were trying to thing of a new conversational gambit. “I presume you are a professor of statistics,” he finally said.

“Administrative assistant,” she admitted. It wasn’t a great selling point, so she hurried past it. “How about you?”

“Accountant.”

She snorted at that.

“Hey, we aren’t all cut out for the fast-paced, thrill-ride lifestyle of an administrative assistant.”

“Touché,” she said.

“So, James Bond?”

“Apparently, someone pulled off a daring daylight raid on the Second Federal Bank of Colorado last Friday, and made off with nearly two hundred thousand dollars.”

“Eighty-two thousand dollars,” he said, sipping his coffee and then setting the cup in its saucer. “Not two hundred thousand. And your friends think it was me?”

“Well, you did know exactly how much money was stolen right down to the last penny.”

“So therefore I’m obviously guilty.”

She shook her head. “No, I don’t actually think you did it.”

“Yeah?”

Maria put her hands on the adorable red-and-white-checked tablecloth and leaned forward so her face was only inches from his. “But I do think you have some deep, dark secret.”

“Yes, well, we accountants are known for our deep, dark secrets.”

She was about to extract that secret from him when Betty McCleary appeared. “Can I talk to you a minute, hon?” the waitress asked.

“Of course,” she said. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Rubinstein.”

“Um, I’m Jewish,” he said.

“Christmas is for Jewish people, too.”

“Funny how my rabbi never mentioned it.” He tilted his head. “You’re not about to ask if I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior, are you?”

“Christmas isn’t really about that.”

“Well, then the holiday sure has a funny name. What’s it really about?”

Maria gave him a broad, radiant smile. She had to admit she was a little smitten with this Jewish accountant who was eating toast and reading The New York Times. “If you’re very lucky, maybe I’ll show you.”

Then she went to huddle with Betty in a private corner. “What can I do for you?”

The waitress’s pale face was blotchy with emotion. She looked like she was about to cry—or shout. Maria couldn’t wait to see which it would be.

The waitress tried to hand Maria a hundred-dollar bill. “I can’t take this.”

“Sure you can. It’s a tip.”

“Honey, you left me a hundred-dollar tip on a two-dollar cup of coffee. I don’t think you really understand how tipping works.”

“It’s not for you anyway, Betty. Not really. So you have no right to refuse.”

The woman’s eyes were shining.

“I just have one condition,” said Maria.

“What’s that?” asked the waitress suspiciously.

Maria told her.

Now Betty did start crying. She pulled Maria into a fierce hug. “Oh, honey, you’re an angel.”

“We’re all angels,” said Maria. “Christmas is just the time of year when we remember it.”

 

***

 

On the Monday three weeks before Christmas, Maria was determined to order a breakfast burrito with chorizo and bacon and eggs and potatoes that was drowning in green chili, and the calories be damned. Surely the cute accountant had completed his audit by now and had decamped for the Atlantic seaboard, so there would be no one to mind if she put on an extra pound or two.

Of course there had never been much of a future with that one anyway. Maria knew she wasn’t the kind of woman who a man would move halfway across the country for.

Especially after only a single conversation.

She was pretty, yes. Her brown hair was tinted with auburn and she had intelligent brown eyes. Her clear skin was the color of a chocolate milkshake. (Okay, she knew that description would never make it into a romance novel, but Maria loved chocolate milkshakes—as long as they were made with real ice cream. No Soft Serve, thank you.)

She wasn’t what you’d describe as voluptuous, but she was trim. And she was a good dresser. Today she was wearing a fuzzy pink blouse that softened her lines over a black pencil skirt that showed off her legs to good advantage.

So why was she pushing twenty-nine with no boyfriend? Maria had dated three men since high school, but none of those relationships had led anywhere. She didn’t really think the problem was her looks. If she had, she’d have gotten a boob job five years ago and called it a day.

No, the real problem was her brain.

She was too smart.

What had Rubinstein said to her? I presume you are a professor of statistics.

No, she just wasn’t stupid. She knew about statistics, and the difference between Iraq and Iran, and why you put a receiver in motion when the defense was showing blitz. She knew all kinds of things. You’d think men would like that.

Apparently they didn’t.

So screw it, she was going to go for the breakfast burrito. Hell, maybe she’d have two.

That was what she was thinking as she pushed into Martinez’s Café down on 4th Street.

Maria knew she shouldn’t look in the back corner, knew that he wouldn’t be there.

She looked anyway.

He was still there.

Her mouth tasted like a dirty cotton rag that had been used to polish the silver.

Okay, there was no point in getting her hopes up. This man wasn’t going to move to Colorado for her, even after two conversations.

So she averted her eyes and went over to the front table where the regulars were camped out.

Some kind of animated conversation was going on.

“What happened,” she asked, “did James Bond strike again?”

“Yes!” said Hakeem.

“No!” said Sam.

“Maybe,” said Valerie.

Really?” said Maria. “Someone hit another bank?”

“No,” admitted Hakeem, running a hand through his silver buzz cut. “But it was still the same M.O.”

“You have no proof,” insisted Sam, adjusting those ugly black-rimmed glasses. “Absolutely no proof.”

“In a TV show it would be the same guy,” said Valerie. “But in real life…?” She shrugged.

“Let’s start at the beginning,” said Maria.

Betty butted her way in. “Burrito, hon?”

“Not really hungry,” Maria lied. “Just coffee for me.”

“The guy hit an insurance company this time,” said Hakeem excitedly.

A guy hit an insurance company this time,” said Sam, folding his arms across his narrow chest. “We don’t necessarily know it was the same guy.”

“You know the Consolidated Loss office downtown?” asked Valerie. “Well, it has a skylight in the roof. Someone cut through it with a diamond saw, rappelled down the nearest wall, blew the safe that contained all the end-of-year policy payments, and burned all those checks down to ash.”

Maria shrugged. “So what? The insurance company will just get their policyholders to write new checks.”

Hakeem shook his head, a crooked grin on his head. “Nope. The clients already paid and the checks were logged in. Technically, Consolidated Loss is on the hook for the lost money.”

“One thing’s certain,” said Sam. “If it is the same guy, then Maria’s theory about a guy who hates banks didn’t pan out.”

They all thought about that for a minute.

“Well, maybe not,” said Maria thoughtfully. “I mean, insurance companies suck. You pay them hundreds and thousands of dollars, month after month, year after year, and then when you have a loss, they fight you tooth and nail to keep from paying. My mom and dad paid homeowner’s insurance for twenty-five years and never once filed a claim. Then a hail storm comes through and everybody in the neighborhood needs a new roof. It took four months of fighting to get compensated. It was like they thought my parents had cleverly waited a quarter-century to throw them off their guard so they could slip a fraudulent roof claim in with all the genuine ones.”

“So this guy just hates business?” asked Valerie.

“Maybe he hates businesses where being an asshole is a major part of the business model,” said Maria.

“Well, the jokes on him,” said Sam. “Because he didn’t hurt Consolidated Loss, at all. I’m sure they’re insured.”

Some insurance company is going to pay,” insisted Maria.

“I’m still trying to think of a business where being an asshole is not a major part of the business model,” said Valerie.

“This one,” said Betty, setting Maria’s coffee down in front of her.

“I notice the stranger is still here,” said Hakeem, darkly looking over at the cutie-pie in the corner.

“I don’t think he did it,” said Maria.

“Oh, yeah,” asked Hakeem. “Why not?”

“Just a feeling.”

“Oh, I know exactly what you’re feeling,” said Valerie with a lascivious smile. “And that’s one feeling you absolutely cannot trust.”

“You can’t trust any feelings,” said Sam. “You have to have sources.”

“You talked to him,” said Betty. “What does he do?”

“Apparently he’s an accountant.”

Valerie snorted laughter. “I never met an accountant who was angry at business.”

Maria sighed.

 

***

 

After they all got up and left, Maria spent a good fifteen minutes nursing a second cup of coffee that Betty had brought her on the house. Apparently when you tipped a hundred dollars for a cup of coffee you got excellent customer service.

Maria wasn’t loitering for the free coffee. She was trying to get up the nerve to go over and talk to David Rubinstein, a struggle that became moot when he got up and came over to talk to her.

“All I’ve ever seen you do is drink coffee,” he said, seating himself beside her. “Don’t you ever eat?”

“A girl’s got to watch her figure, or no one else will,” said Maria with maybe just a trace of bitterness.

He shook his head. “There’s nothing wrong with your figure. C’mon. Let me buy you breakfast.”

She laughed. “You don’t usually buy someone buy someone breakfast until after you’ve…you know.”

“I like it that you can still be shy after you’ve made a considered statistical analysis of my manhood.”

“All right, I’ll get a breakfast burrito. If you’ll split it with me.”

“Why do I get the feeling that breakfast burrito’s aren’t exactly kosher?”

“Well, there’s pork fat in the green chili. And bacon inside. All mixed up with eggs and sausage. And cheese. That’s not a problem, is it?”

He laughed. “I think you understand kosher requirements about as well as you understand the purpose of Christmas.”

“The food laws made sense when the Jews came up with them a couple thousand years ago. Pork could make you terribly ill, even kill you. But I figure now that we have the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, the chance of catching trichinosis is much reduced.”

“Well, you’re probably right about that—”

She raised an eyebrow. “Probably?”

“—but I just don’t eat pork. It’s a cultural thing.”

“Take a few bites. What’s it gonna hurt?”

He frowned and leaned toward her. “Why do you care so much that I try it?”

Maria sighed. It would be easy enough for her to deflect his question with a little snark, but she found she didn’t want to. She wanted to tell him the truth.

“Because,” she said, “I’m hoping that if you taste our green chili you won’t ever want to leave Colorado.”

“I already found something here that’s more interesting than your green chili,” he said softly, those beautiful eyes staring right into hers.

“Our tamales?” she asked.

That earned her a crooked smile.

“Look,” she said. “I don’t do one-night stands. But we really don’t have an option for anything else. You’re going to finish up you audit, or whatever you’re doing here, and you’re going to leave. We maybe have a connection, but it’s not strong enough to give up your job. So we’re never going to get the chance to find out where it might lead.”

He said nothing. The smile had run away from his face.

“Please tell me where I’m wrong,” she whispered.

He said nothing. Of course he didn’t. What could he say?

Maria waited a moment and then stood, turning away from the table. Tears stung her eyes.

This had to be the worst Christmas of her whole life.

 

***

 

She didn’t go back to Martinez’s for a whole week. She didn’t want to see David Rubinstein again. She’d had such a good feeling about him. There had been a spark. He’d been funny and challenging and he’d said there had been nothing wrong with her figure.

And he’d seemed to actually like the fact that she was smart.

Maria couldn’t know for sure without spending more time with him, but she thought there might be a genuine chance for happiness with him.

And now she’d never know.

So on the Monday two weeks before Christmas she had butterflies in her stomach when she opened the door and pushed her way inside. When she saw—as she’d known she would—that the back table in the corner was empty, she knew she’d never see David Rubinstein again.

Now when the cold wind blew through her it made her want to move to Saskatchewan or the Yukon or possibly Pluto. She thought she’d never be warm again.

Why did the universe keep doing this to her?

Fortunately she didn’t have to discuss her broken heart with the regulars. They were too busy talking about the daring theft of aviation fuel that James Bond had pulled off.

“The bastard got eighteen hundred gallons,” said Hakeem. “For a CRJ 100 that’s eighty-four percent of a full load.”

Maria interrupted. “What exactly are we talking about?”

Hakeem shook his head. “Last night someone stole eighteen hundred gallons of aviation fuel out of a Bombardier CRJ 100. He was like James Bond. Apparently he crossed the airport fence line on a zip line. Then the guy chloroformed one security guard and tasered another. Then he drove a fuel bowser—”

“Bowser?” said Maria doubtfully, raising one eyebrow. “That’s not a real word is it?”

“It is,” sighed Sam. “A bowser is a large vehicle for delivering fuel to aircraft or other vehicles.”

Hakeem pointed his fork at Sam. “And you said it wasn’t the same guy.”

Sam Bukovec’s face pinched into a look of irritation. “I said there was no proof that it was the same guy. That’s not quite the same thing,”

Hakeem chortled. “Don’t try to deny it now. I was right all along, admit it.”

Valerie leaned over and touched Maria’s arm. “The police just released security camera footage. Turns out it was the same guy. Thin and wiry. And he’s dressed all in black. Black trousers, black sweater, black Rockports, black gloves, black watch cap, black ski mask.”

“Yes, thank you, Valerie. I know what all in black means.”

Hakeem glanced over at the empty table. “I noticed that our chief suspect isn’t in for breakfast today.”

“It wasn’t him,” said Maria dully. “I wish it were. If it were him they’d catch him and put him in jail and I’d have ten to fifteen years to get to know him. But it’s not him. I’m just not that lucky.”

They all stared at her.

“Well,” said Hakeem, “do you have a theory who it is? Maybe some guy who hates airlines. You know, because you buy a ticket and then you find out there’s all these extra fees for bags and in-flight meals. Some airlines even charge you to use the restroom. Can you imagine not being able to pee because you don’t have exact change? And they cram you into those little seats. Those should be against the Geneva Conventions. And they are so prissy about their safety regulations. As if having the seat back in the upright position is going to save you when a 767 lances into the earth at six hundred knots.”

“Sure,” said Maria. “Probably someone like that.”

This time Betty didn’t bother to ask her what she wanted for breakfast. She just brought the breakfast burrito smothered in green chili.

On the house.

 

***

 

Maria hated the border crossing that led from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso. It was huge—two or three hundred parallel lanes of asphalt that caught the blast-furnace Mexican sun. Well, maybe not two or three hundred, but that’s what it felt like. Heat devils roiled the air above the blacktop. Men and women in the dark blue uniforms of the Border Patrol watched the lines of cars inch forward through silvered sunglasses, their hands resting on the butts of their service pieces.

Hakeem probably would have known what the weapons were—according to Hakeem you were never supposed to call them guns, though he’d never explained why—but she didn’t.

She drove a midnight blue Ford Explorer, its cargo area filled to overflowing with Mexican-manufactured toys for which she had a bill of sale that was well below the ten-thousand-dollar value for cash required to be declared if brought back into the United States. Mexican products were supposed to be cheap knock-offs, but the toys were exquisitely crafted by artisans who really understood children and play and plastic injection molding.

Maria—or Carmen Trujillo—had a Kansas DL (fake) and Kansas plates on the Explorer (plates, also fake) and an American flag decal in the lower left-hand corner of her windshield. Every time she returned to the U.S. side of the border her heart beat like a kettledrum in her breast, but she had never once been hassled by the Border Patrol. They just checked her ID, asked her about the toys, and waved her through. Sooner or later they would run a drug dog by the Explorer, but she wasn’t worried. She wasn’t trafficking drugs.

The closest Maria had come to drugs was watching Breaking Bad.

A slim woman in that dark blue uniform indicated Maria should stop. Her black hair was pulled back into a tight bun and she was about the same height as Maria—five-two or five-three. Her skin was the same shade of chocolate ice cream as Maria’s. The two could have been sisters.

She looked at Maria’s Kansas DL and then looked up, comparing the face to the picture.

“Carmen Trujillo?” asked the agent.

“Yes,” said Maria.

“That’s funny, because I have a colleague who swears your name is Maria Ortega.”

And right then who should step up to stand beside the Border Patrol agent, but a man who had to be an FBI agent in a charcoal suit, almost—but not, quite—black, a white shirt that was somehow crisp despite the heat, and a shimmering red power tie with slanting silver pinstripes.

He grinned at her.

It was David Rubinstein.

 

***

 

The ten-by-ten-by-ten interrogation room had been constructed out of cinderblock walls painted off-white. There were cameras in the corners, small but obvious. Sitting at the scarred Formica table, Maria was sweating up a storm. Her pretty turquoise blouse was pitted out.

“Apparently you don’t get a lot of AC back here,” she said.

“AC’s broken,” said David.

“Really? Or did you just leave it off to make it more uncomfortable? You are actually going to sweat the truth out of me, aren’t you?”

“Do we have to?” he asked.

“Nah, I’ll just tell ya,” she said.

“Good,” he said.

“Though before we get started on my truth, maybe we can talk about yours. You told me you were an accountant.”

He sighed. “I am an accountant. Lots of FBI agents are accountants. Forensic accounting is a big deal at the Bureau.”

“So technically you didn’t lie. You just omitted the truth.”

He rolled his eyes. “Like you omitted the truth about you being a bank robber.”

Maria batted her eyes. “But Agent Rubinstein. I’m not a bank robber.”

“Is that so,” he picked up her DL and peered at it, “Ms. Trujillo of Wichita, Kansas.” He put the plastic card down. “Or can I call you Carmen?”

“Yes, I know it’s a felony to enter the country using a false ID, but I am actually a US citizen.”

“Why did you use a fake driver’s license?”

She shrugged. “I just didn’t want the government up in my bid-ness.”

“So you’re a crazy right-winger.”

Maria pointed a finger at him. “That’s it. That’s it, exactly.”

He sat back, fuming. He stared at her for a long time, those beautiful eyes smoldering. “Look, Maria. The perpetrator of all three crimes was a small, slender individual. And if she wasn’t overly, uh—” He colored slightly.

“Endowed,” she suggested.

“Um, well, the perp could have been a woman.”

She shrugged. “I never saw the tapes. Maybe the perp could have been a woman. But it wasn’t me.”

He leaned forward and pushed a tablet at her. It showed a grainy black-and-white photo of a woman in a huge summer hat and comically oversized sunglasses that covered half her face gassing up a dark-colored SUV whose rear license plate had been almost completely obscured by mud.

“That’s you, fueling up in Los Lunas, New Mexico, a week ago.”

Maria peered carefully at the image. “Nope. That woman’s much prettier than me.”

“We have facial recognition software.”

“Do you? Well I can’t see her hair or ears or her forehead or her cheekbones. And what if she put something in her mouth—like cotton balls—to change the shape of her jaw line? Are you sure your software ID is definitive?”

“Cotton balls, Maria?”

“She just looks like the kind of devious woman who might do something like that.”

He stared at her.

“So I guess I’m free to go now.”

“You paid cash for the gas. We’ll collect the bills. Lift your fingerprints.”

Maria frowned and then pointed down at the picture. “Isn’t she wearing leather driving gloves?” She shook her head. “This perpetrator seems to be devious. Whoever she might be.”

“You want to know how we caught you?” he asked.

“Black helicopters? UN satellites?”

“Look, when you burned the insurance checks, there was nothing to fence. And the aviation gas could just be dumped.”

That,” said Maria, “would be really bad for the environment.”

“But you couldn’t spend the money. Any bills in circulation would eventually make it back to a bank where their serial numbers would be scanned. We’d check the prints and the security video, and eventually we’d have you.”

“Allegedly,” she said.

“So you had to convert the bills someplace outside the U.S. banking system.”

“Like Switzerland?”

“Like Mexico.” He drew a deep breath. “You’ve been making multiple trips to avoid violating Mexico’s prohibition against bringing ten thousand dollars of currency into the country. You leave on a Friday and are back on Monday morning to have breakfast at Martinez’s Café.”

“Actually, when you saw me, I only stopped in for coffee.”

“You bought the toys with your ill-gotten dollars—”

She raised an eyebrow. “Ill-gotten?”

“—which you secretly donated to Toys for Tots—”

“Wow. Do all criminals donate the proceeds of their criminal acts to charity?”

“And then you received Mexican pesos in return, which you exchanged for clean dollars at a Mexican bank.”

Maria shook her head. “Wow. This all sounds very complicated. Can you prove any of it?”

“If we’ve gotten this all wrong then explain to me what you were doing in Juárez.”

“Buying toys,” she said. “For children. For Christmas.”

He slumped back in his chair. “You are very frustrating, Maria.”

She reached out and placed a consoling hand on his wrist. “Would you rather talk about James Bond’s sex life?”

 

***

 

The Bessemer neighborhood of Steel City was a rundown part of town located near the steel mill. The houses were small in Bessemer, their cracked driveways made out of sun-bleached concrete, their paint peeling from years of neglect. Every house was ringed with chain-link fences. Most of these houses had crushed gravel out front instead of green lawns. It was not unusual to see an El Camino up on blocks or a desultory pit bill chained up on the front porch.

The house that Maria drove up to was small, but it wasn’t poorly cared for. It was painted a cheerful cobalt blue, which neatly hid the smoke the mill belched out. A bright white trim for window sashes and the front door nicely accented the blue. There was a chain-link fence, but there was also grass dotted with tricycles and Big Wheels. And no beast had ever spent a blistering summer day chained up on this property.

“What are we doing here?” asked Rubinstein.

“I’m keeping my promise,” said Maria.

He blinked. “What? Which promise was that?”

“I’m going to show you the real meaning of Christmas.”

He gave her a bemused look that made her smile.

Maria rang the doorbell. After a moment the buxom waitress from Martinez’s opened the door. Betty gave a Maria a fierce hug. She was dressed in a red blouse and gray slacks that made her look a little like a stylish Mr. Claus.

“Glad you’re here, hon,” said Betty. “I think he’ll bust if we make him wait much longer.”

David shook his head. “I don’t—”

“I contributed to one of Betty’s projects a few weeks back,” said Maria, “but I had a condition.”

David raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“That I would get to witness the fruits of my labor.”

They followed Betty into the living room, where a little boy with red hair as bright as a new penny was pulling an immense box out from beneath a Christmas tree. When he finished ripping the metallic green wrapping paper apart, his present was revealed. It was an X-Station. Or possibly a Play-Box.

Or whatever it was called.

The little boy’s grin was so big that it could have powered three city blocks.

 

***

 

“So video games is the meaning of Christmas?” asked David suspiciously, as they stepped back out of the little blue house.

Maria turned to him. “Making children happy is the meaning of Christmas. Christian children. Jewish children. Muslim children. All children. Yes, some people think of it as a religious holiday. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Just like there’s nothing wrong with celebrating Yom Kippur or Ramadan or Beltane or anything else. But for me, it’s about making the lives of children brighter. All children.”

David looked down at the white porch for a moment, then shook his head. “I never thought about it that way before.”

He looked up at her, those somewhere-between-green-and-brown eyes suddenly very intense. “Can I ask you something?”

“As long as I can still exercise my constitutional right to remain silent.”

“You gave her a hundred-dollar tip before. This”—he nodded at the door—“was what that was all about, right?”

She nodded.

“And that was after you robbed the bank.”

“I did not rob any bank, Special Agent Rubinstein.”

He puffed out an irritated breath. “I saw you give her the tip. When she deposited it at the ATM, I had the bank pull the bill. It wasn’t one of the hundreds from the robbery. That tip came out of your own pocket, right?”

“Yes,” she said. “Right out of the meager salary of an administrative assistant.”

He frowned. “Why did you do that?”

“Because a hundred dollars to help make a kid like Ethan McCleary’s Christmas perfect is a bargain.”

David paused for a long moment, those eyes just gazing into hers. “Maybe I can get the charges associated with the fake DL and plates kicked. Or at least reduced.”

I would appreciate that,” she said.

“And you know the FBI does have a field office in Denver. I could request a transfer.”

“Really?” she whispered, and leaned into kiss him. It was a long, slow kiss so hot that it felt like a Chernobyl meltdown in her mouth.

After they came up for air, he said, “Of course you know this means you’ll have to give up your life of crime.”

What life of crime?” she said.

Three Spectacular Capers and the Whatever It’s Called Beneath the Tree
Copyright© 2022 by Steven Mohan, Jr.
Published by WMG Publishing as part of the WMG Holiday Spectacular 2022 project. Click here for more information.

Publisher’s Note: Pulphouse Enters Year Two

On Feb. 28, we released the first issue of Pulphouse Fiction Magazine, Year Two (that’s Issue #5, for the record). It’s the Winter Issue for this quarterly magazine edited by Dean Wesley Smith, and like all Pulphouse issues, it has some spectacularly creative stories.

Of particular note is Robert Jeschonek’s story, “Offensive in Every Possible Way.” This one was hell on our staff because we had to figure out how to format (and we had different issues in the epub and paperback versions) it while still maintaining the author’s voice (which takes Planet Bob to a whole new level). But the story is consummately Pulphouse. It’s a unique (and I don’t use that word lightly) must-read.

So, now that I have you intrigued about Bob’s story, check out the entire fantastic table of contents:

“The Geezer Squad” by Annie Reed
“The Dog That Ate Homework” by J. Steven York
“Battery-operated Boyfriend” by Barbara G. Tarn
“Offensive in Every Possible Way” by Robert Jeschonek
“Gravity Well” by Kent Patterson
“The Sport of Queens: A Lucifer Jones Story” by Mike Resnick
“The New Crop” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
“The Blind Lagoon Misadventure” O’Neil De Noux
“Practice” by Ray Vukcevich
“One-Night Stands for Love and Glory” by David H. Hendrickson
“Maiden’s Dance” by Rebecca Lyons
“The True Story of Stanley and Stella” by Johanna Rothman
“Death Be Nimble” by James Gotaas
“Under the Blood-Red Maple” by Joslyn Chase
“Head Case: A Dan Shamble Zombie P.I. Adventure” by Kevin J. Anderson
“Minions at Work: Allen Wrenched” by J Steven York

Click here to buy Issue #5 or here to subscribe to the magazine.

And if you missed my blog last week announcing the release of our first Pulphouse book, You Really Liked That?, you can buy that here.

Allyson Longueira is publisher of WMG Publishing. She is an award-winning writer, editor and designer.