Thrilling Detective is pleased to present this seasonal, non-P.I. tale.
And what do you want for Christmas?

A Gift for the Conklin's
by Kim Sellers

. ..He stood hidden in a dark corner of the lobby, waiting. It was cold, too, what with people coming and going every two minutes. For the umpteenth time he checked his watch. It flashed 7:23 P.M. "I should've worn a sweater, " he thought, "I'm freezing my ass off."

. ..Again, the doors opened, and again there was a piercing shock of cold wind. The lobby Christmas decorations flapped uncontrollably like plastic pennants over a used car lot. The visitor, a well-bundled woman, stomped the snow from her boots, as she slowly made her way to the elevator, leaving behind her a trail of small, dirty puddles. Pointing a long, red-tipped finger she stabbed the elevator button, and then, watched impatiently as the floor numbers blinked on and off on the display panel above her. She was tall and attractive, but she was not the woman he was waiting for. A chill of dread shot through him, and stuffing his trembling hands into the oversized pockets of his raincoat, he felt the cold, hard steel of the gun. It made his stomach turn.

. .."My wife usually gets home by a quarter till eight," he'd said. "It depends on whether she stops for a bottle of wine or not, but usually, she's home by eight at the latest."

. ..The husband was short and squatty with thinning hair. From inside his coat pocket he removed a photograph of a woman and showed it to him.

. .."She's tall," he said, "five foot nine or ten. And as you can see, short black hair, green eyes, and very little makeup, except for lipstick. Her name is Emily."

. ..He looked at the picture deliberately, the man had forgotten to add attractive, he thought, which made him wonder why he wanted him to do this terrible thing. But, then, knowing the man as he did, he wasn't surprised. The woman's picture slipped neatly into his shirt pocket.

. ..The two had been talking in a dark, sleazy bar in Hollywood. On the radio, in the background, Bing Crosby was singing, "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas."

. ..Just six months before, he had worked for the man. Then came the lay off. Now, sitting across from him, the man plying him with drinks, telling him that he needed a shower, shave, and some decent clothes, he handed him a thick roll of bills.

. .."There's ten thousand dollars."

. .."That's a lot of new clothes," he replied.

. ..The man added: "It's worth it." No-shit.

. .."I told you that I'd be out of town that night, but I'll be home Sunday morning, after 4:00 A.M. I want to see you then, okay?"

. ..He agreed, reluctantly.

. .."Listen," the man reaffirmed, "I need to trust you. I've just given you a lot of money, I'd like to know that I can trust you?"

. .."You can trust me," he said. "For Christ sake I use to work for you."

. ..What he really wanted to tell the man, was that he was an idiot that he'd always been an idiot. But the guy was paying him ten thousand dollars for doing him this favor. Favor, that was a joke. Well, favor or not, he'd do it. He'd do it because he didn't have a choice. The man knew that he was about to lose his house, and maybe his car. Worse, he'd have to skip child support payments and the kid's Christmas gifts. Ha! That was laugh. He knew that his Ex- would have him thrown in jail, if he even hinted that he might miss a support payment.

. ..'Tis the season to be jolly. He hated himself.

. ..Perry Como was singing, "Little Drummer Boy." He asked the man, "Is your wife close to anyone in her apartment building?"

. .."Her neighbors," he said, "Richard and Marie Conklin. But they're vacationing in Europe."

"Good," he commented.

. ..It was 7:38 when he saw her exit the cab outside the apartment house. He thought that he'd looked at her picture so often that he'd have recognized her in a pitch-black alley. The gift-wrapped package that had been resting at his feet fit nicely under his arm, and he stepped out from the dark obelisk to meet her at the elevator.

. ..His sudden appearance startled her, and she asked: "Where did you come from, the lobby looked empty."

. .."I've been waiting," he shivered. "I don't live here, and . . ."

. .."You poor thing, you look frozen to the bone."

. ..She was carrying a small grocery bag. Sticking out of the top of it, was the dark narrow neck of a wine bottle.

. .."You've got that right," he said. "I've been freezing my butt off." That made her laugh.

. ..The elevator landed, he held the doors for her. Inside, her finger poised, she asked: "Floor?"

. .."Three," he said.

. .."Great," she said, punching the button. "Are you visiting?"

. .."I wanted to surprise the Conklin's."

. .."Oh," she squealed, "it'll be a surprise all right."

. .."You know them?"

. .."They're my neighbors, but I'm afraid they are vacationing in Europe."

. .."Just my luck," he groaned convincingly.

. ..She glanced at the elaborately wrapped package.

. .."Is the gift for Marie and Richard?"

. .."Yes, it's special too."

. ..The elevator doors opened. She studied him.

. .."If you'd like you could leave the gift with me. They'll be back in a week or two."

. .."Would you mind?"

". ..Of course not. Don't be silly."

. ..He followed her down the hall to her apartment. Watched her as she carefully inserted her key into the deadbolt-lock. Then, hesitating, she said: "Here I am letting you into my apartment and I don't even know your name."

. ..He smiled, earnestly, "Derrick, Derrick Gardner.".

. ..She opened the door, and stood aside for him, "Hi, Derrick, I'm Emily."

. ..The apartment was blessedly warm, but what made it even warmer was the extravagant Christmas decorations, and the large, white artificial tree that dominated a corner of the apartment. When she switched on the lights, the tree exploded with bright, colorful lights, and shining ornaments.

. .."Wonderful," he remarked sincerely.

. .."Thank you, I'm glad you like It."

. ..She moved briskly from the doorway into the living room.

. .."I love decorating for the holidays," she said, as she turned on the stereo, filling the apartment with the sound of Christmas music.

. ..She said: "Let me take your raincoat,"

. .."No," he replied, remembering the gun. "No, I can't stay."

. ..It was clear that she was disappointed. But extending both hands, she offered to take the gift for the Conklin's. She pleaded:

. .."At least you can have a glass of wine with me, can't you?"

. .."Sure, I can do that," he said.

. ..The softness returned to her face, and hurriedly, she removed her long winter coat and while brushing the dampness from it, she hung it carefully in the hall closet. Watching her, he noticed an envelope sticking out of one of the pockets. She closed the closet door and turned.

. .."Sit down and relax. I'll be right back."

. ..He sat on the couch. On the coffee table in front of him was a smelly ashtray overflowing with stale cigarette butts. None of the butts had lipstick on them.

. ..Returning with their wine, she noticed the ashtray, too. She blushed.

. .."Oh, a friend spent half the night with me last night." Shaking her head disapprovingly, "Nasty habit, smoking." Then she removed the ashtray to the kitchen.

. ..When she returned, she sat in the leather recliner across from him, slipped off her shoes, crossed her long, slender legs, and took a healthy swallow of wine. Again, he watched her. It was as though he couldn't take his eyes from her. She closed her eyes and when she swallowed her taste of wine, her neck quivered sensuously.

. .."I feel embarrassed," he said.

. .."Embarrassed?" "Why?"

"I find you extremely attractive."

. ..God! He thought. But before he could retract a word, Emily said, "Thank you, Derrick, but if you don't drink your wine, it'll get cold."

. ..They laughed aloud.

. .."It was nice of you to say that Derrick. To be honest, I haven't had many nice things said to me lately. You see, my husband and I have just recently separated and -"

. .."I'm sorry," he interjected. He really didn't want to hear it, but she continued undeterred.

. .."On the contrary, my husband is the one who should be sorry. I think he's seeing another woman." She looked straight at him, "Please don't say you're sorry."

. ..He didn't say anything, but nervously turned his wineglass over in his hands until he noticed the greasy fingerprints. He'd have to make sure that he took care of that. What was bothering him, was her husband's story. He'd said that Emily was having the affair that when he had found her out and asked for a divorce, she'd laughed in his face and told him, "Never."

. ..He'd also said that it hadn't been the first time she'd had an affair, either, and that she'd given him the clap twice.

. .."She's trash," he'd said.

. ..Emily broke his digression. "I know I shouldn't bother you with my troubles, I don't even know you."

. .."Actually, it sounds like you could use someone to talk to." She smiled.

. .."I'd like to talk to you. You're a man and maybe your point of view would help me to understand my husband."

. ..Without thinking, he asked: "Was this your husband's first affair?"

. ..She laughed aloud, "Oh yes, let's talk, you're funny."

. .."What did I say that was so humorous?"

. .."You asked if this was my husband's first affair, it just struck me as funny."

. ..A tear was poised at the corner of her eye; slowly he reached out and dabbed it away. Emily grasped his hand, thankfully.

. .."My husband thought he was good in bed, a real lover. And I guess that'd be okay, except that he was always trying to prove it with other women . . ."

. .."And you, Emily?"

. .."Me? What?"

. .."Are you squeaky clean?" She dropped his hand like a hot rock.

. ..Then taking a deep breath, she said, "I guess I deserved that, but it hurts just the same." She lifted her wineglass and took another healthy swallow. "I've never cheated on my husband, Derrick. Until recently, I loved him. But the second time he gave me the clap, well, I had to leave him."

. ..He sat dumbfounded, wondering why her husband would have blatantly lied to him. Was it really he and not Emily, who had done all those mean things?

. .."More wine?" She asked.

. .."Yes, thank you." Then, "Have you considered divorce?" The question seemed to surprise her.

. .."No. My husband's totally against it. He knows it would cost him a small fortune." She lowered her eyes. They were beautiful eyes.

. .."I know I should," she continued. "But I've been reluctant. Maybe I'm just holding on because I'm afraid to call it quits. We've accumulated so much: the two homes, the stocks, the classic cars he likes to collect, and, of course, his business."

. ..He whistled, "Maybe I should get to know you better, Emily."

. ..She smiled, coyly. "Maybe you should."

From the stereo Nat King Cole began singing, "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire."

. .."Oh," she cried, "I love this song. If you'll stay Derrick, I'll make us some snacks and build a warm fire-"

. .."Let me," he said, "I make a great fire."

. ..Her eyes shined, "Okay, but, please, let me take your coat."

. .."No, I'll hang it up. You make the snacks."

. ..He built a cozy fire. She spread out a blanket in front of it, added pillows, snack plates, and another bottle of wine. She told him that the wine was something she'd been saving for a special occasion.

. .."What do you do for a living?" Asked Emily.

. .."I'm an unemployed engineer."

. ..She looked shocked, "I don't believe it, my husband owns an engineering company. Maybe he'd hire you. Of course I couldn't recommend you, because that'd kill your chances."

. .."Then I wouldn't want the job."

. .."Oh, please don't be prideful."

. .."I'm not. After what you've told me about your husband, I don't think I like him."

. .."Well, it'd be better than being unemployed wouldn't it."

. .."As much as married would be better than unmarried?"

. ..She raised her hand at him in jest, "You cad!"

. ..He seized it in midair and held it tight. They stared into each other's eyes.

. .."Well, what are you going to do now?" She asked.

. .."Kiss you."

. .."Do it."

. ..They kissed. Then kissed again.

. ..Later the next morning, while he was retrieving his coat from the hall closet, he again noticed the envelope sticking out of Emily's coat pocket. Up close, he recognized the familiar corporate logo. That's interesting. Without a second thought, he transferred the envelope to his own pocket.

. ..They were standing at the front door, when he asked her the time.

. .."It's past two in the morning," she said. "And what have you been doing young man?"

. .."I'll never tell," he said.

. .."Will I see you tomorrow?"

. .."It is tomorrow."

. ..They laughed again.

. .."I wish I didn't have to go, but there's someone I have to meet. Don't worry, I'll be back to wake you."

. .."Promise?"

. .."I promise."

. ..He walked a short distance down the hallway, stopped, squeezed the gun and turned.

. .."Merry Christmas," he told her. She smiled softly.

. .."My gift is my passion."

. .."We have given each other much more, Emily."

. .."What do you mean?"

. .."We've given each other new life." And he wasn't kidding.

. ..She closed the door, leaned against it, and thanked God.

. ..Then, springing from the door, she moved directly to the telephone, dialed, and waited. When the party answered, she said, hurriedly:

. .."Darling, he just left. You can pick me up outside in ten minutes. Of course he's going to see him. I made certain of that. It's none of your business how; I did what I had to do. Please, honey. Let's don't argue. We have less than two hours before our flight. No, by the time he gets back here and figures everything out, it'll be too late. Because you and I, darling, will be on our way to Paris."

. ..But he had already resumed his place in the dark corner of the lobby. One hand tight on the gun, the other clenching the envelope and the Pan American airline tickets for two.

. ..The elevator doors opened - the Christmas decorations flapped - violently.

Copyright (c) 1998 Kim Sellers

Kim Sellers recently relocated to Charlottesville, VA. He is employed with Value America, a growing internet store. He relocated from Los Angeles,where he worked with The Hollywood Thesbian Company and Upward Bound Productions. He's had several poems published and has written a screenplay, which was actually touched by an agent.

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