Christmas story: A Cold Coming

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The phone cut into the night like a chain saw through glass. He moaned and lifted his head to check the clock. 5am. Again. Jesus. It felt like he'd only just got to sleep. Who was this bastard? On the sixth ring the answering machine took it. He heard Elicia's voice kick in, vowels all round and smooth like her plump English ass. "This is the residence of Joseph Rivera. Mr Rivera cannot come to the phone right now. Leave a message after the beep. Alternatively you can fax him on ..." The numbers spat out of her mouth like little ping-pong balls. The beep screeched and the phone went dead. Nothing. Just like the night before and the night before that.

Joseph Rivera was not a man who liked being woken in the night. He was old and rich enough to be used to having what he wanted and what he wanted was a good night's sleep. Whereas in the old days (the young days, that is) he could nap on the flip of a dime, now he needed two brandies, a little white pill and Elicia's hands working over his shoulders and back (no lower though - she was boringly adamant about that) before he could shuffle off his daily coil. So, naturally enough, when he got to sleep he didn't like to be woken. Certainly not by some bastard who didn't leave a message.

Maybe it was some asshole from abroad who couldn't read the time difference. His ex-partner Benny had always been bad at that; funny, since it wasn't as if Benny didn't know how to count, though the clock probably didn't have enough zeros for him. Still, it couldn't be Benny. Benny was under half a ton of Carrara marble in upstate New York, and even these new hipsy- dipsy portables didn't reach where Benny had gone. Sad though. The two of them had always had a lot to talk about: old times, old crimes. Just a shame Benny had taken to talking to the wrong people.

There had been a time when Joseph used to sleep with the phone in his hand. Business was booming, and when you had freight moving all over the world you needed to know when it got to where it was going, or more important, when it didn't. He'd have his ear to the receiver before it rang; adrenaline like a wake-up alarm in his blood. A truck weighing in too heavy at a customs point, a shipment hitting the rocks (literally) off the coast of Spain, a pregnant Indian woman who had had her delivery in the Customs intensive care room at Terminal Four, with a little help from Her British Majesty's friends. He'd heard it all in his time. No wonder he didn't like being woken in the night. It was never good news.

He shifted his bulk in the bed, but the damage was done. He hauled himself up and went downstairs to make a cup of coffee.

He switched on the outside lights and the gardens lit up like a set for a Bing Crosby Christmas movie. The grass was covered in icing sugar frost right down to the lake and those cute stone statues that Number 3 had picked up on their Italian honeymoon had icicles hanging down from their dongs. He knew how they felt. The kitchen was as cold as the inside of a meat freezer. These English bastards didn't know anything about weather. One bad winter and their trains started to fall off the tracks. Even the women were cold. He should have picked up and gone somewhere else when Erica left. This stately home crap was her idea anyway. He'd only stayed on to make her feel bad when all she got from the divorce settlement was the condo in Florida. Florida. At least it was warm. It couldn't have been her calling, could it?

Happy Christmas, you mean bastard: stay up, pay up. He wouldn't put it past her.

Number 1 and Number 2 would never have done a thing like that. Marie was too loyal and Dana, well Dana was too stupid. Maybe it had been Carla. Hey, what if it was Carla? Australia was a lot of hours away and she probably got it a bit mixed up. Yeah, it was Carla, ringing for a little Christmas peace. Or a little Christmas present. Forget it. What's the use of a daughter who doesn't love her daddy? If she liked her mother enough to live with her, she could live off her too. No. It wasn't Carla.

But if it wasn't work and it wasn't family then who was it? Three times in three days. No voice, no message. Just the call.

Ten years ago he would have had six men out back every night just in case. But 10 years ago he had something to protect, a business, something other people wanted. Now it was all just profit in the bank, figures on a bit of paper in some up-town accountant's office. No juice any more. No fun.

Problem is, with Benny gone I don't have enough enemies any more, he thought. I don't have enough friends either. Maybe he should marry again. Fourth time lucky: some ripe little peach with a cocktail of charity and silicone running through her tits. Make an old man happy. He'd make it worth her while.

He picked up the phone and listened to the dialling tone. He thought of calling Carla himself, just to say, Hi, how you doing out there? Frying up I guess? How're the kids? How many of them are there? Like a real grandfather. Naw. Forget it.

The phone had been off the hook so long, the dialling tone went dead.

Elicia let herself in with her key at twelve o'clock, all bright and Christmas breezy. "You know I can only stay a few hours today, Mr Rivera. It's Christmas Eve."

"I don't give a fuck if it's Judgement Day. Who pays your wages?"

"You do, Mr Rivera, but it's not enough to make me work Christmas or listen to language like that, thank you."

Elicia was like the schoolteacher he'd had in fifth grade. All uptight and outrage on the outside, rolling hot lava underneath. Or at least that had been his fantasy. Then and now. She stripped off her coat to show a curvy little red suit with white trimmings, just like Santa, but with the bulges in the right places. Yep, just like fifth grade. If he was lucky he might get a feel when he leant back into her massage fingers later, but it wouldn't go any further than that. Elicia had made that quite clear from the beginning, in a teasing kind of way. If he was honest, most of the time he wasn't that bothered. Jeez, he really was getting old.

" What about the housekeeper?"

She clicked her tongue. "Mr Rivera, I told you. I rang three agencies yesterday. They can't do anyone till the New Year. If you'd been a little nicer to the last one ..."

"The last one was a -"

"That's as may be, but she was also the fifth this year. You better accept you're not going to have anyone by Christmas. Do I gather you didn't sleep well?"

"The phone rang again," he said petulantly.

"Five o clock?"

"Yep."

"Did you check the fax?"

"No I didn't `check the fax'," he said, mimicking the sounds made by her little goldfish mouth. "If they wanted to send a fax, they would have got the damned number by now."

"Not necessarily. It could have been a fax-to-fax call. That's automatic."

"Well, if that's what it is, I want it stopped."

"Have you dialled 1471?"

"What?"

" 1471. It tells you who sent the last call."

Does it indeed? There had been times in his life when that would have been one hell of a useful device. She walked over to the phone, her body plump and overflowing like youth itself. She dialled and listened. Then frowned and shook her head.

"Nothing. Maybe it was international."

"International?"

"Or maybe it was Santa Claus asking what you want for Christmas." And she giggled.

He thought about saying "you", but he felt too tired.

"If it happens again I'll get the operator to screen the incoming calls."

"Yeah, that will do it." He paused. "Thank you."

His politeness registered. She put her head to one side. "What are you doing for Christmas, Mr Rivera? Will that friend of yours - what's his name, Benny - will he be dropping by?"

No. no. Benny won't be coming. He's er ... a little weighed down this year. How about you? You spending the day with that husband of yours?"

"Yes. Frank's been working very hard lately. I'm going to do him a really good Christmas, trimmings and all."

God, what a waste, he thought. A body like hers with the mind of a housewife. How about a Christmas favour for old Joseph, eh? I'll make it worth your while. The cheque's already in the drawer. But he knew better than to ask.

She took a few letters, checked a few share prices for him, and made an appointment with his accountant for the new year. As far as she was concerned Joseph Rivera was a successful Italian-American businessman who had retired to England because he liked the climate. If the DEA had ever knocked on her door and asked her about Tony Corri, she wouldn't have known the name or recognised the photo. New man, new face, new passport. It was so long ago now that Joseph hardly remembered him himself.

She left at 4pm on the dot, taking the envelope with a smile and a thank you.

"Don't I get a Christmas massage in return?"

"Oh, not today, Mr Rivera. It's only the afternoon. Anyway you wouldn't want to fall asleep too soon. You might miss Father Christmas."

"How about you do his job for him, this year, eh, Elicia?" He said in a low growl, which hurt his throat in a way it didn't use to.

"Oh, I couldn't do that," she said brightly, pulling on her gloves and wiggling her fingers into the little holes. "I'd never get back in time to put the turkey in." But at the door she turned and took pity on him. "If you're on your own why don't you go down to church for the evening carol service. They light it all with candles. It looks lovely."

The church? Yeah, why not? "It's been 39 years since my last confession, Father, and ..." He'd be lucky to get on his knees before the lightning hit him.

He poured himself a large brandy and sat by the French windows watching the day die. The dark felt thicker than usual. As he picked up the glass he trembled slightly. How come he felt so bad? What if someone was trying to scare him? Out there in the shrubbery with a portable phone, watching him through the window as he struggled to get up? Had Benny talked to anyone before he died? That wasn't what the message had said, but people don't always tell you the truth, especially when you pay them for the lie. Well, if this was an old score, so be it. Christmas was the time to settle it; a lot of spirits of past and present around tonight.

The thought acted like a shot of adrenaline. Yeah, he missed the work. It had been his life. Drugs. He'd been selling them on the streets before the streets even wanted them. In the Sixties he'd made a fortune watching his product go up in smoke, but had been smart enough to get out quickly, move to the drugs where you could rely on the curve between dependency and profit. Grass should never have been illegal, anyway. It was just a matter of time till it went legit. Only a couple of weeks ago he'd heard some English broad from a fancy newspaper launching a campaign. Legalising cannabis will hurt no one, she'd said. Maybe it won't hurt you, lady, but it'll put a lot of dishonest folk out of a job, he had replied, laughing at the radio.

He poured himself another brandy and dug around for something to eat. He defrosted a hunk of steak from the freezer and threw it into a pan. The fat spat the word "cholesterol" round the kitchen. He liked the sound it made.

"You should be careful, Mr Rivera. Your heart is not in good shape."

I could have told you that, buddy. Been broken by too many divorce settlements. "So give me the good news, Doc?"

"Your lungs on the other hand are tip-top."

"Yep." He nodded. "Never touch drugs. That's my advice."

He ate at the kitchen table as the snow came in, great wild feathers of it, silent and full. It would be hot in Australia. He picked up the phone and got directory enquiries. Adelaide was all he remembered, but against the odds he got a number.

It rang eight times. A sleepy voice answered.

"Hi. Is Carla there?"

"Carla? What ... no."

"Where is she? She does live there?"

"Yeah. But she's away at the reef with the kids. Till New Year."

"Kids? How many kids?"

"Three. Hey, who is this?"

"Wouldn't you like to know."

"Listen, do you know what time it is here?"

"Yeah" he said gleefully. "Five am. Tell her her father called. And say that I'm sending something in the post."

He slammed down the phone and wrote a cheque with a number of zeros. Who loves ya baby? He put it in an envelope. Then he remembered that he didn't have her address. He tore it up again.

A couple of hours later he went to bed. This time he turned off the answering machine and took the phone with him, along with the brandy bottle and two sleeping pills.

When the call came it took a long time to rouse him. Eventually he woke up through a fog and - when he realised what it was - grabbed the phone, his heart pounding.

"Who is it?"

The silence at the other end of the line was deep and empty, like space.

"Come on, you bastard. Haven't you got the guts to talk to me?"

When it finally came, the voice was soft and thin, masculine and feminine at the same time.

"Joseph, or can I call you Tony? You're in, at last. We're been trying to get in touch with you for days."

"Who is this?"

"Benny's told us so much about you."

"Benny?"

"Yes. Of course we knew a lot anyway. But we'd love you to come in and talk to us. Make a clean slate of it. Get it off your chest."

"Who are you?"

"Don't worry. The judgement will be completely legit."

"Who is this?" he roared. And the line went dead.

He felt a sudden screaming pain in the centre of his body, as if someone had put his balls where his heart was meant to be and was squeezing them in a nut cracker.

Jesus ...

Some hours later, up above, the night supervisor (short-staffed, as Christmas was a busy season) was checking the records.

"Hey - it says here Tony Corri died tonight. Christian, these are your initials?"

"Yes.

"But Corri wasn't due to go till '98."

"Oh. Well, I ... er ... I saw the memo about needing to get a better balance between good and evil. And I thought - "

"You thought nothing. Corri wasn't due. He had stuff to do yet."

"But the man was a disaster: drug-running, wife-beating, Only this year he had his ex-partner killed to keep him quiet."

"Nevertheless, he was due for a reconciliation with his daughter."

"You could have fooled me. I just watched him tear up a cheque to her."

"Christian, how many times do I have to tell you, not everything is about money. The guy wasn't due."

"OK. I'm sorry. What do we do?"

"You better get him back there."

"Too late. The heating's off. The body's as stiff as a corpse ... oops, sorry."

"Then you better start him off again."

"What? A whole new one?"

"You know the rules. They go too soon they get another go at it."

"I don't think - "

"You want me to take this higher?"

"No, no. OK. OK."

In the semi down the road on the estate, Elicia had woken early to give her husband a first Christmas present.

"God, 'Licia, you're lovely," he murmured, pausing for breath. "I don't want you working for that old Scrooge, no more, you hear? From now on I want you all to myself."

She laughed. "Oh, he's not so bad. That Christmas bonus was quite generous."

But Frank's mind was already distracted again. They sang in unison for a few moments, and as he stopped she thought she felt something flicker deep inside her. Now wouldn't that be the best Christmas present she could give him this year?

If it was a boy they'd call it Tony. She'd always liked that name.

Sarah Dunant's latest novel is `Transgressions', published by Virago.

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