by CE Fox
Jim Reed hefted his wailing, squirming son onto his right hip and rubbed his left leg where the toe of
Jimmy's cowboy boot had buried itself in the muscle not two seconds before. "Jean, whose idea was it
to buy Jimmy cowboy boots?"
"I think it was yours, dear," Jean replied absently as she dug through her purse for Jimmy's pacifier.
"Oh." Jim winced as the decibel of Jimmy's wails reached levels that usually shattered crystal. A woman in the line just ahead of them turned around and gave father and son a dirty look. Her little three-year-old girl was behaving like an angel, whereas Jimmy-well, at the moment, the only heavenly beings he could be compared with were of the fallen variety. Jim turned his back on the woman and her perfect child. "Uh, Jean, I don't think Jimmy likes this whole Santa idea."
Jean found the pacifier and stuck it in Jimmy's mouth. The wails magically vanished. "He just needed his pacifier."
"How do you know these things?" Jim asked in a tone of awe.
"It's a genetic thing, hon. Don't worry about it. You don't have the gene."
I can subdue a three-hundred-pound maniac berserk on LSD, but I can't quiet a one-year-old. Jim patted a now docile Jimmy on the back, turned around to check on the progress of the line and caught another dirty look thrown by the Evil Mother ahead of him. Her toadying little brat gave him an echo of the look from knee level. Caught like a deer in the headlights in the twin beady glares, Jim was tempted to go for his gun. He shifted Jimmy and managed to pull his own shirt-tail up high enough for the woman to catch a glimpse of his off-duty holster on his belt. The woman blanched and turned hurriedly back around.
Jean's elbow buried itself between his ribs. "Ow," he whined. "What'd you do that for?"
"Behave," she hissed.
"What?" Jim asked innocently. "I'm just trying to keep a good hold on our son."
Jean rolled her eyes, and Jim grinned and went back to watching the line ahead of him. He was tall enough to be able to see over the heads of most of the parents to where the action was. A bored-looking man in a phony white beard and ill-fitting red velvet suit was mechanically going through the motions of listening to one child after another recite his or her list of Christmas wishes. The man's eyes didn't twinkle. He didn't have rosy cheeks. Heck, he isn't even fat. "I could be a better Santa than that guy," Jim muttered to Jean. "Look, why don't we go to the Sears downtown? I bet they have a good Santa there."
"Jim, we have stood in this line for forty-five minutes. I'm not going to leave to go stand in some other line just because this guy's Santa suit doesn't fit him."
"But, hon, this guy's a joke. He doesn't even look like Santa!" Jim's voice got a little louder than he intended, eliciting another glare from the Evil Mother ahead of them.
"Jim, hush," Jean said quickly, giving the woman a weak smile. The woman sniffed and turned around again.
"I don't like him," Jim whispered loudly, but Jean just shook her head at him. So he went back to watching the pseudo-Santa's lackluster performance. One particularly snotty kid whacked the man in the head with his toy baseball bat. The man yelled out a word Jim thought was inappropriate for Santa to say and threw the kid back at his mother. "Jean, I don't like this guy," Jim said again. "There's something hinky about him."
"'Hinky', listen to you. You're not on duty, and he's not a criminal, Jim. He'll be fine when it's little Jimmy's turn, I'm sure."
Jim had his doubts. "He's a phony, Jean!"
"Oh, like there's a real Santa?" Jean whispered.
"No, there's not a real Santa," Jim scoffed, again forgetting to keep his voice lowered, "but there's gotta be a better-"
The four-year-old kid behind them suddenly shrieked. "Mommy! That man said there's no Santa!"
Jim felt his face turn sixteen shades of red. He immediately had a horrible flashback to the day before when he and Pete had arrested Santa in front of a crowd of booing citizens and their children. "Ma'am, I didn't say that," he stammered as he tried to explain. "I mean, I said it but that's not what I meant-"
"How could you say such a thing!" the woman interrupted. "And in front of my baby!"
"Look, lady, let me explain . . ."
But the woman grabbed her screaming child's arm and hurried away before he could finish. In short order, four more crying children were led away by mothers giving him looks most people reserved for Hitler.
Jean shut her eyes wearily. "Jim, will you please be quiet before you ruin everyone's Christmas?"
"Well, bah humbug to you, too," Jim whispered, stung by the fact that Jean wasn't standing up for him.
"Look, Ebenezer," Jean hissed. "If you would just settle down and keep your mouth shut for the next fifteen minutes, we can get the stupid picture and go home."
Jim lowered his voice to match hers. "If it's such a stupid picture, then why are we spending my hard-earned cash on it?"
"Because we want to look back on Jimmy's second Christmas with warm memories!"
"Warm memories of an idiot in a red suit pretending he cares?" Jim asked incredulously, his voice rising again.
"He does too care!" piped a grating little voice from knee height.
Jim looked down at the Perfect Angel Spawn of the Evil Mother, who was glaring at him with twice the fury of her mother. Oh, no, here we go again. He tried to smile at the little girl. "Uh, sorry. Of course he cares."
The little brat reared back and kicked Jim in the shin. He yelped and danced out of the way, bumping into Jean, who in turn bumped into the lady behind her, knocking her off balance. As Jim grabbed for his wife with his one free hand, he watched in horror as the rest of the mothers and their children slid domino-style to the floor. He helped Jean to her feet, trying to ignore the fact that now not only was the woman ahead of him glaring, but forty other women behind him looked like they wanted a piece of his hide. "You okay, Jean?"
"I'm fine, aside from being embarrassed to death. Jim, why in the world-"
Jim noticed a security guard started walking purposefully toward them. The shorter man's walk looked vaguely familiar. "Oh, terrific," Jim muttered under his breath.
"Reed, havin' a little problem here?" Ed Wells tipped his head back to stare up at Jim. He wore his security guard hat the same silly way he wore his LAPD uniform hat, pulled down nearly to the top of his eyebrows so he had to tilt his head back to see under the brim.
"Uh, no, no problem. Ed, what're you doing here?"
"Moonlighting, Reed. It's called moonlighting. I'm earning a little extra Christmas money."
"Officer, I want this man arrested!" the Evil Mother suddenly intoned, elbowing her way between Jim and Ed.
Jim glared at her. "Lady, if your daughter hadn't kicked me, none of this would . . ." He suddenly clamped his mouth shut as he realized that he sounded just like all the bickering people he encountered on patrol. "Ed, look, we'll leave. I don't like this Santa anyway."
Ed looked up and down the line of outraged women. "Anybody hurt?" he called. A chorus line of shaking heads answered, so he eyed Jim up and down. "Look, kid, before you turn this mall into a full-blown 415, try the Sears downtown." Ed leaned closer. "The Santa over there's a lot better than this one anyway."
Jim gave his wife an I-told-you-so glance, then stepped out of the line.
"Oh, and Reed!" Ed called after them.
Jim was tempted to pretend he hadn't heard, but he paused and turned. "What?"
"I'll be sure to give Sears a call, let 'em know Calamity Jim's on his way!"
Jim didn't answer. He put Jimmy in his stroller, then pushed it rapidly toward the mall exit, walking so fast that Jean had to practically run to keep up with him. He finally slowed down as they approached the doors. "Jean, I don't think I'm going to have warm memories of this."
Jean looked at her husband, then at her son, then started giggling. "I will!"
"Jean!" Jim protested.
She held open the door for him. The jingle of a Salvation Army volunteer greeted them on their way out. Jim bumped the stroller over the door jamb. He paused to dig out some change to drop into the red bucket hanging in a stand beside the door.
"Merry Christmas, sir!" called a hearty, cheerful voice. As Jim dropped some coins into the slot, he glanced at the man ringing the bell. The man had twinkling blue eyes above a carefully trimmed white beard. Jim looked closer. He even had rosy cheeks. Jim's eyes widened in surprise as the man winked at him.
Jim looked at Jean, then back at the man, who had bent down to show Jimmy his bell. A slow smile crawled across Jim's face. "Hey, Jean," he said softly, nodding at the man. "Get out our camera."
"Why?" Jean asked.
"I think we found the real Santa," he said softly. He took the money he was planning to use for Jimmy's Santa Claus photo and stuffed it in the bucket. "Hey, mister? You wanna hold my son for a minute?"
The man smiled as Jean handed their son to him. "Hey, young'n! Looks like you got you a smart papa!"
Jim blushed as he focused the camera. Through the viewfinder, he watched as the man tickled Jimmy's tummy. Jimmy smiled broadly and Jim snapped the picture. As he watched Jean take Jimmy back, he felt a warm glow settle somewhere to the left of his heart.
Jean caught his eye and smiled. "What'd I tell you?" she whispered.
Jim smiled at her, then turned and shook the man's hand. "Merry Christmas, sir."
The man winked again and laid his finger alongside his nose. "And to all a good night!"
Author's Note: Merry Christmas to Adam-12 fans every where!