Santa Claus' sleigh pulled through the streets. He looked through the crowds of people like a nostalgic old man would page through volumes of old sports cards. These sports cards were judged by quality, and were either naughty or nice. The naughty sports cards would get a lump of coal. And the nice sports cards were nice and Santa Claus was nice to them.

This young man known to himself as Santa Claus glanced into his rearview mirror and saw a police car slowly pull out of a side street and head his way. The car's siren was sounding its redundantly lazy bawling, intending that Santa Claus stop his sleigh. He stopped his reindeer by pushing the brakes and the police car pulled up behind him.

Let's see . . . was this policeman naughty or nice? He looked into his rearview mirror again and saw it was the old retired butcher's daughter. A policewoman! This woman hadn't done anything naughty. She wouldn't get coal this Christmas.

"Merry Christmas," Santa Claus said to the policewoman as he rolled down the window. "And a happy New Year."

The policewoman raised an eyebrow. "Jim, it's July. And listen, I got a call about an hour ago that you're scaring the children." She looked at her steno pad like a doctor looking at his clipboard about to announce the time of death. "Said that you were talking to a little girl." She looked up at Santa from her pad.

It had been a few hours ago, around noon, and he saw a little girl playing jump rope. He pulled up next to her and the girl stopped jumping. "Are you having a nice winter break?" Santa Claus asked, and didn't wait for an answer. It was July. "Look, just because you're outside playing your little children games doesn't mean—"

"Mommy!" exclaimed the little girl. She had walked up to the car and was now standing a few feet away from it. "There's a stranger—"

"Don't interrupt me when I'm talking to you!" Santa snarled. "Listen, you might as well get something out of this. Even though I look so nice and merry, well, don't judge a man by his beard." He laughed as the little girl looked at Santa Claus' small little brown beard.

"Mommy!"

He pulled away.

"Listen officer, is there anything wrong with giving someone a little advice? I mean, come on—a man can't even talk to a little girl anymore without being stopped by a police officer! What has our world come to?" Santa asked, smiling. His bright, blue eyes stayed cold and never looked away from the officer's.

The officer sighed. "Listen, Jim, I'm gonna let you off the hook this time. Look, I'm sorry about your wife . . . I guess you kind of took it hard . . ." The officer stared into his cold, blue-gray eyes. Not a tear stood in them. "Yeah, um . . . so just promise me you won't do anything next time? 'Cause next time I might just have to take you to the station. Now, I'm not kidding." Santa Claus' eyes never wavered. Just that same, cold, blue look and that smile. That icy feeling sent shivers down the officer's back. That look was uncannily familiar. But from where?

"So I can go?"

"Sure," said the officer, deep in thought. And even when the man was driving off, she could still see the widower's cold blue eyes flickering from the road, to the officer in the rearview mirror. Back and forth, back and forth—it was hypnotizing. And that same grin, or smirk, or whatever. She had seen that expression before . . .

A few years before, when she had been chief deputy and on top of the world, she had gotten a call from the chief. "There's a murderer on the run, Helen. He's got blue eyes and he's bald. He drives a Mercedes. The license plate is . . ." The chief went on to provide more details. The chief deputy took it all in eagerly because back then, something like this was new and exciting. There's a period in a police officer's career in which they mature and see what this business is all about. They learn what they're risking being a police officer when they get their first tense murder case. It gets scary. Some officers like the feeling of potential danger, but others just quit. They are just so afraid of the roller coaster.

Hours after she was on the case, she got a call from "Helicopter" Jeff Jenkins. "He's on I-90 and going west—now he's getting off of the freeway—to Randolph . . . Now he's going down side streets . . ." Helen followed the directions, and called for backup. Three other police cars and a SWAT team were speeding toward Randolph by eight, just two hours since after she started the case. When the whole team finally found the murderer's decrepit Mercedes on a dark side street, the killer sped away.

They chased him down St. James Street, down Patricia Lane, and finally cornered him by the country club on the Westside. He jumped out of the car and dashed into the darkness of the country club. That's when Helen got mad. Fear was the last thing on her mind—she was nervous, not scared. Getting out of the car, she took the radio with her so Helicopter Jenkins could give her the murderer's position using the infrared camera. Feeling prepared and angry, Helen turned on the flashlight and Jenkins told her where the murderer ran.

Helen was supposed to have been home an hour before, but it didn't make that big of a difference. She had no one to go home to, except her father, who was in a retirement home in Cleveland. Helen's father was crazy and had Alzheimer's.

Helicopter Jenkins interrupted her thoughts and said, "C'mon Hel. Move, why're you just standing there? He's about a hundred feet away from you."

"All right." Helen started walking, and asked if she was getting closer.

"Run, he's getting away," Jenkins said.

"There's other officers you know," Helen said and laughed. "You—"

"Guys, you all watch out! He's coming back towards all of you!"

Helen, growing uneasy, flashed the flashlight beam around and pulled out her gun. She saw other flashlight beams dancing around on the grass. That assured her a little. That's when the first gunshot went off.

Off in the distance Helen could hear the faint whine of the helicopter, and that's all she could think about. She was more scared than ever in her life, and she didn't like it. But she was still shining her flashlight around and it finally landed on a man without a police officer's uniform.

"That's him! That's him!" screamed Helicopter Jenkins.

"Guys, Tom's been shot!" exclaimed another officer. "I think he's hurt bad."

Meanwhile, Helen's flashlight was still on the murderer. Even though the light was straight in the murderer's eyes, his eyes did not even flinch. Frozen in terror, Helen's eyes were locked on his. The murderer's eyes were a cold grayish-blue and his smirk was unmistakably evil. The murderer stared back at Helen, and drew his gun, and loaded it. He pointed it at Helen . . . and—

The second gunshot went off. Helen closed her eyes and sank to the ground. Yells of officers echoed in her head. She felt a warm, hard lump in her throat and she clutched her stomach. She felt moisture on her hand—blood. A tear slipped down her cheek, and Helen wondered if this was what death felt like. She could see the murderer's face still in her mind even though her eyes were closed. Her heart jumped and shuddered, but after awhile nobody came to her to help her. She had been shot—hadn't she?

Helen looked up with reddened eyes and tearful cheeks and saw the murderer being taken away on a stretcher. Looking down on her hands, she saw that they were covered with sweat. Realization crept into her mind as she walked to her police car hurriedly, trying not to let the other officers know about her traumatizing experience. She imagined that tomorrow, the officers would be standing in groups with coffee and donuts, sharing their first anecdotal murder case, each exaggerating their own to make it more exciting. Helen imagined that she might get a few laughs from her own experience, but she wouldn't tell them how scared she was—just that she thought that she had been shot.

As she closed the police car door, she heard a voice that made her jump so high she hit her head on the ceiling. "Hi Helen." It was Jenkins over the radio. Thank God. "I was just wondering if you'd like to get coffee tomorrow morning . . . before the highway shift, that is." Even though Helen couldn't see him, she knew that Jenkins smiled right then. "Helen? You there?"

Helen contemplated it, and came to a final decision. "No, I'm sorry. I've got . . . another assignment tomorrow morning. I've got to get out as early as possible to go to Toledo. "Oh." Helen could hear Helicopter Jenkins sigh. "Then, I guess I'll see you . . ."

"Soon," Helen said.

"Soon." Jenkins agreed.

Back on the road where she remembered her first murderer case, she knew what had been in Jim's eyes, and she didn't like it.

Santa Claus' sleigh wasn't full of presents. It wasn't full of anything. He drove on and on until the sun set, and finally he came to a fast food restaurant. He wondered if the road would ever stop, and he would like to know, but he was hungry so why not grab something to eat first. After the cheeseburger and cola, he resumed his travels across the countryside, the dim, polluted, beautiful countryside that whizzed past his car but came back in his rearview mirror. Yes, life was like that a lot—just memories of this and that—

That's when Santa saw Bob Castioli changing his tire on the side of the road; the old man that had bugged him so much when he was a child. That mindless old jerk . . . Through the light of his headlights, he saw how rich Mr. Castioli looked. The rich jerk—he ought to teach him a lesson. Not to be mean to kids like him ever again.

Santa Claus took out his revolver and pointed it at Mr. Castioli, and Mr. Castioli didn't even seem to notice him. Claus looked around and saw that there was nothing here but long cornfields: what he called the rural suburbs. Nothing was here to videotape him, nothing to hear him, nothing to see him. It was perfect.

He rolled slowly up to Mr. Castioli and shot him in the head, who slumped to the ground. Santa had delivered the first present on this perfect July Christmas night. Once again Santa looked around, saw nobody was there, and sped up again. Mr. Castioli was naughty this year. He was even naughtier seventeen years ago . . .

Seventeen years ago Bob Castioli ran an antique shop that welcomed visitors with couches and a fireplace, but barely anybody knew that that was actually Mr. Castioli's living room. There was one thing that everyone in east Randolph knew about Mr. Castioli and that was that he despised children. People told fairy tales about him—like how he would gobble little children up if they set one foot on his property after closing. But Young Santa didn't believe any of those stories until then.

Back then, the antique shop was on the first floor and most of Mr. Castioli's living quarters were on the second floor while the basement was storage. Storage, they said, of everything from Halloween costumes to little boys' heads.

"If you don't believe us, why don't you walk on his property tonight, huh? Why don't you?" Someone from his sixth grade class somehow convinced him to walk on Mr. Castioli's property at night. To show them he had really been there, he would tear off a piece of bark from the old oak tree in the front lawn.

"You're on!" Young Santa said. Later that night, he snuck out of his house and ran down the long, twisting street to Mr. Castioli's antique shop. It was raining, and there was mud on the side of the road, so he jogged in the street. Right when he was about to get to the shop, he almost didn't notice the car pummeling toward him. There was a loud honk, and he jumped out of the way went sprawling into the mud. Wiping his face with his muddy hands, his eyes burned and he rubbed them for the rest of the way to the shop.

He ran up to the old oak tree and tore at a piece of bark—but it wouldn't give. He heard footsteps coming down the stairs through the sound of the rainfall. He tried another piece—but that one wouldn't budge either. He heard the front door creak open, and he froze, rain, mud and sweat dripping off his face in streams.

"Who goes there? Ah, a little boy! Why don't you come in?" Mr. Castioli smiled, and Young Santa ran for his life. But, unluckily, he slipped and fell into the mud again. Back then, Mr. Castioli was young and agile, and he quickly picked him up and brought him into his foyer. "Now don't you move! Mud will get on everything! Now just wait—James Parsons—while I call your mother."

Young Santa sobbed and trembled as he listened to Mr. Castioli on the phone. "Hello? Mrs. Parson? I have your son here—it looks like—oh, he's quite all right, he's covered in mud . . . well, I think he ran away . . . yeah . . . he beat some other kid up too—I watched it, yes . . . no, I don't know the other boy's name . . . his right eye is dreadfully red, I'm afraid . . . yes, pardon me . . . he just told me that he hates you, and that's why he ran away . . . yes, he's crying now . . ."

Young Santa couldn't bear to listen to these lies. He covered his ears and cried, and cried, and cried.

He never did get that small, little piece of bark.

Back on the road, Santa Claus thought, Yes, Mr. Castioli deserved it. He deserved it all right. He probably did gobble up little kids for lunch—yes, Mr. Castioli deserved it—Santa Claus' grin finally broke and he sobbed and sobbed as if he was that little boy who had been caught peeling bark off an oak tree seventeen years ago. He sobbed until he came to the next naughty person he knew.

Helicopter Jenkins, up in his helicopter, was just finishing his night highway shift when he remembered that he was supposed to be cashing in his winning lottery tickets tonight. Ten o'clock at the latest. He immediately swooped down towards headquarters, wondering if he would make it on time. It was nine-fifteen already.

Oh, he missed Helen, too. He loved Helen in fact. Even though he kept asking her out, for some reason, she always refused. Not meanly, nicely. As if she was just being polite. But he knew that tomorrow, he would ask her out again, and this time not over the headset during a case. This time he would bring her flowers. Plus, she wasn't even working on a case right now . . .

About a mile away from the helicopter on the ground, Helen sat in her police car and said into the radio, "Ah, I'm going to check on a suspicious character—it's just a hunch, Bradley. I'll call if I need backup. Over'n out." Helen hung up the radio and muttered to herself, "I hope I don't regret this." She put her foot on the gas and sped towards Randolph.

When Helen was a little girl, she and her mother used to go to the minimart every week to get Helen a Hershey's bar and to get her mom a pocket pack of aspirin. Helen didn't even know that there was aspirin or what it was until a fateful afternoon during one of those candy bar trips.

"Mommy, should I have the dark chocolate or the almonds?" asked Helen, waving the two bars in front of her mom's face while she waited for the aspirin.

"Almonds," Helen's mother said. She watched the brown clock on the wall by the door tick and tock for ten minutes, and by then she had moved up in line once. The entry door opened, and a man strode in. Helen's mom almost told the man to go somewhere else because the service was so slow. The man snarled, "Alright, all the money in the register! Give it to me!" He had two guns. One was pointing at the never-ending line and the other one was pointing at the sales clerk.

Helen's mom shrieked, and Helen saw a little boy sneak past the holdup man, and the clerk saw him too. No one made a noise, and the sales clerk took as much time as possible taking out the money from the cash register without getting shot.

The little boy walked into the back room and dialed 911. The sales clerk said to the robber that she had this rare disease that makes people go really sssssllllllloooooooowwwwww.

When the man with the gun just leaving, the police cars pulled up and arrested him. The newspaper headline the next day read: JEFFREY JENKINS (8) SAVES THE DAY. That's the reason Helen wanted to become a police officer when she grew up. She wanted to be heroic like that little boy—like Helicopter Jenkins.

Helen stared ahead to the road, wondering if this was such a good idea, being a police officer. She always was gullible and scared, but she just loved police work. She loved the rush and the fear.

The short yellow stripes on the road became hypnotic, harmonizing with the classical music she was listening to. She snapped the radio to a rap station. She would never fall asleep listening to this.

She stopped and got a hamburger and lemonade. After finishing the food, she got back on the road. Shortly, she saw a man lying on the side of the road.

"Brad? Brad!"

"What, what?"

"I think my hunch turned into a murder," Helen said as she got out of the car. "Oh, it's Bob Castioli!" Helen yelled. "I need backup! I'm on Main Road, almost twelve miles from Randolph."

"I'm on it!" Brad said. "You need the helicopter?"

"Maybe," Helen said and checked for the man's pulse. Dead. "Yeah, just in case. I've got a hunch that the murderer is Jim Parsons, you know—his wife died last year."

"I know him," Brad siad. "Anyway, go, go, go, before the murderer gets away!"

"I'm going, I'm going!"

Santa Claus had already passed two more people that he didn't know when he came to a little girl sitting in the car with her mother. The mother—it was the girl from high school that was the school bully. And the little girl—it was the girl that Santa had talked to that morning.

Two shots. Bam, bam. Dead. Next time don't judge a man by his beard.

Santa Claus snickered, but his snicker turned into a groan, and his groan turned into a sob.

Santa Claus had a very painful life. His parents were both divorced, and his mother had been hit by a drunk driver three years earlier. His wife had died a years before—also by a drunk driver. Even though Santa Claus was crazy, he wasn't a drunk and he knew better. He wasn't that stupid.

After a few minutes, he came to a minimart. He could see through the window that there weren't that many people inside. That way, he could change his mind before he would be damned for the fourth time.

Helen's police car roared down Main road, siren screaming. There were two police cars behind her, and a helicopter circled overhead—except it wasn't Jenkins, it was Helicopter Johnson tonight.

Her headlights spotted the dead woman and child in the car. "A child? A child!" Helen screamed, a tear running down her cheek. Her heart pounded.

Jeff Jenkins was at the drugstore turning in his lottery tickets. "Thanks, man," Jenkins said. He looked down at the five clear, crisp twenties in his hands. "I think I'll get some flowers with some of this."

"Married?" the clerk said and smiled.

"No," Jeff said, "But I like her. Oh, and also can I get some beer?"

"Sure, that'll be fifteen fifty-seven." The clerk rung it up and took a twenty from Jeff's hand.

"Keep the change," Jeff said. "I've got enough of it." He opened the pack and took out a beer.

"Hey, you're not supposed to drink that here," the clerk warned.

The sides of Jenkins's mouth turned up as he twisted the cap off. "What harm could one quick one do?"

A year earlier, Helicopter Jenkins had just finished his highway shift when he saw he was near an airport. It's not smart to get near an airport when you're in a helicopter without permission.

"Holy—"

Jenkins saw a plane coming directly at him. He frantically flipped switches and he sped forward. The helicopter blade missed the side of the plane by inches. How lucky he was. Hoping that word of this wouldn't reach the chief, he zoomed down and headed towards headquarters—but he took the long way. He tuned in his radio to Helen's.

"Hi Helen. I was just wondering if you'd like to get coffee tomorrow morning . . . before the highway shift, that is." Even though Jenkins couldn't see her, he knew that Helen smiled right then. "Helen? You there?"

"No, I 'm sorry. I've got . . . another assignment tomorrow morning. I've got to go out early tomorrow as possible to get to Michigan."

"Oh. Then, I guess I'll see you . . ."

"Soon," Helen said.

"Soon." Jenkins agreed.

Back in Helen's police car while she was chasing Jim Parsons, she knew that after this case, she would say yes to Jenkins' invitation. She knew she was ready, and she just hoped that nothing would go wrong in this case. But hey—three people are dead. It's gone wrong already. She had also gotten another hunch. Something even worse is going to go wrong.

She looked back at the flowers in the back seat she would give him before the highway shift tomorrow morning.

Santa Claus put the gun in his pocket and walked up to the minimart doors. He looked inside. There was his old high school teacher, Mr. Wilson. He was his favorite teacher ever. And look—there's Mrs. Jamieson, his old next door neighbor! Oh, Jesus Christ there's a drunk! Hell is where that drunk should go! Hell!

Santa could hear the roaring of police sirens as he shot Jeff Jenkins in the head. Santa Claus had delivered the last present—but had he?

Jim Parsons slumped to the floor, sobbing like a baby. He could hear the sirens wailing, he could hear the helicopter humming its crazily relaxing monotone, and he could hear the scream of Mrs. Jamieson. He could hear his heart thumping and the sales clerk running. He could still hear that gunshot. Crying, he took the gun and pointed it at his head.

It was time for the last present.

The next morning Helen took the day off.

It was before highway shift and she was at that coffeeshop she and Jenkins had talked about for years, and she was drinking coffee and eating donuts. She watched through the large picture window as the helicopter rose up into the air and started the routine helicopter shift.

Routine, routine, life is too routine. We humans lead lives that are so predictable that when something a tiny bit out of the ordinary happens, it's chaos. That's why her friend had died, that's why Parsons had gone on his rampage, that's why she was a policewoman. There are few people in the world that can deal with that—and Jeffrey Jenkins was one of them.

And that predictability was also why she was quitting being a police officer. It was just too traumatizing, too scary, too unpredictable . . .

But at least the murderer was caught.

A tear slipped down her cheek as she thought about Jeffrey Jenkins and the ordinary, routine life that could have been theirs.

THE END