On December 15, 2005 I posted this story to my website about what happens when Santa Claus takes a walk on the wild side in Detroit. It holds up surprisingly well and considering I wrote it and was still surprised by it, I thought you all might enjoy it as well.
NICKY THE SAINT
I never would have guessed Santa Claus had a gambling problem until an elf told me he was into the Detroit mafia for over 50 grand.
We were having drinks at the Hazel Park Racetrack, a long reputed mob hangout. I was still in my work outfit of red velvet pants and black boots. The matching coat and beard were in my car. The elf was wearing jeans and a Detroit Lions sweatshirt. An obvious tourist.
“And I’m supposed to help him how?” I asked.
“You gotta find him first. He came down here almost three months ago and we haven’t heard from him since.”
“Down from the North Pole?”
“Yeah, but now it’s getting to be that time of the year…”
“Christmas is only a couple weeks away and you don’t have a boss,” I said.
“That’s not the problem. He hasn’t had a leadership role in years, he’s more of a figure head. But we’re worried about him. What if these goons…you know…”
“Whacked Santa Claus?”
The elf nodded. I got up from the table and pulled a $10 bill from my wallet.
“I’m outta here,” I said. “This is ridiculous.”
“We figured as much,” the elf said, calmly. “So we’re prepared to offer you a hefty fee. In cash. Up front.”
As he spoke, the elf reached under the table and slid a briefcase my way.
“Five thousand dollars,” he said. “You can check.”
I kept the briefcase on the ground, but popped open the locks and looked in. It was full of bills. I couldn’t tell if it was exactly five thousand dollars but it was a lot. More than enough to get me out of my own debt hole.
“You want to pay a mall Santa Claus to find out who whacked the real Santa Claus?” I asked.
“No, no, you don’t have to find out who killed him, just if he’s dead or not. So we can start to look for a replacement.”
“And why me again? There are better people in Detroit for that. What about Amos Walker or Ben Perkins?”
“Walker is a crotchety SOB and nobody’s seen Perkins in years. You’re a mall Santa who used to be a cop. Seems like fate to me,” the elf said.
“This is ridiculous,” I said.
“But lucrative,” the elf said.
I thought about it for a bit more, wondering if I could get away with taking the elf’s money and then disappearing with it. Finally I sighed and nodded.
“I’ll look around. Where are you staying?”
The elf smiled and scribbled an address on my napkin. He was staying at the Days Inn by the airport.
“I’ve got family to visit so I’ll be in and out, but I wrote my cell phone number on there for you,” he said.
I couldn’t help but stare,
“What?” he asked. “You think elves are born in test tubes up North? I’m from Grosse Pointe. My dad’s a General Motors exec.”
“Whatever,” I said. “I’ll call you.”
* * *
The mafia in Detroit is not as strong as it once was, but there was still a cop or two who kept tabs on the drips of their activity. One of these cops is my friend Dale. I met him at the Elwood Diner by Comerica Park and he let me buy him lunch.
“I’m looking for a new guy on the scene. Not your traditional Italian goomba or anything, this guys more, uh, northern…and jolly,” I said.
“The turn over in this racket now is crazy and it’s hard to keep track of the low men as they come and go. But now that you mention it, there has been a guy out the last few months making some waves.”
“Older guy?” I asked. “White hair, kinda chubby?”
“They call him Nicky the Saint,” Dale said, “On a counta he looks like St. Nick.”
“At least their creativity has suffered.”
“He got something you want?”
“Just need to talk to him. Somebody from his old life’s looking to catch up.”
“That’s never good,” Dale said.
“I said I’d look. Didn’t say how hard though.”
“Guess it wouldn’t hurt to talk to him. Lemme make a call.”
I ordered some pie while Dale made a couple of calls on his cell phone. As I was about to ask the waitress for more coffee, Dale flipped his phone shut and said, “Hooter McGee’s, by the airport.”
“Santa Claus hangs out at an Irish strip club?”
“He looks like Santa, he’s not actually Santa. I think he might be Canadian.”
I thanked Dale and then headed out to the finest Irish strip club in Detroit near the airport.The lunch buffet crowd was dwindling when I arrived and a tall woman with a snake and bowler hat was dancing on the main stage. The everyday tacky pub decor had been covered with once a year tacky Christmas decoration. I paid the $10 cover and grabbed some of the potato bites from the buffet before being approached by a waitress wearing a short skirt, tank top, and faded red Santa hat.
“Buy a lady a drink?” She asked.
“I thought we were supposed to buy the strippers drinks, not the waitresses.”
“Jerk,” she said.
“I’d like to buy Nicky a drink though. Nicky the Saint.”
“Don’t know no Nicky the Saint, bub. So buy a drink or scram.”
I pulled a scrap piece of paper from my pocket and wrote something on it then handed it to her wrapped with a fifty dollar bill.
“If you happen to run into anyone named Nicky on your way to the bar, give him that for me would ‘ya.”
“Jerk,” she said, walking away.
A few minutes later, the waitress returned with a pink cup full of something fizzy.
“Take this into the VIP room and he’ll talk to you there,” she said.
“He’ll have his clothes on though, right?”
“Jerk,” she said.
I took my drink to the VIP room, in the back and sat down on a ratty old couch and tried not to touch it with any exposed skin. There were four couches in the room, two against each wall with a small divider between them. This is where you paid more money for the stripper to get totally naked and if you paid enough, they were rumored to do other things. Like bathe. As I continued my survey of the room, a fat man with all of his clothes on sat down next to me.
“It’s time, isn’t it?” He said.
The beard and the hair were the same white color I’d expected, but both were trimmed closely for a more elegant look. And instead of the red velvet outfit, he was decked out in a grey pinstriped suit with a crimson shirt and matching tie.
“Time for what?” I asked.
“You know. Please don’t make me say it.”
“Say it,” I said. “You know what happens if you don’t.”
He looked around the room suspiciously, then whispered, “Murder. It’s time for the murder.”
I nearly spit my fizzy concoction out of my nose.
“Murder,” I said.
“I know. I know.”
“I’m not who you think I am,” I said. “I’ve been hired by a group of your former employees…up north…to find you.”
“The elves sent you?”
“What do they want?”
“They’re concerned about you. Afraid you got yourself whacked.”
“I suppose I should have called them to let them know I decided to stay.”
“And take up life as a mobster.”
“It was fun at first. Break a leg here, crack a skull there. They were all naughty, I checked.”
“But now they’re moving you up the chain?” I asked.
“They want me to kill my bookie. The one who got me into this life. He helped me pay off my debt.”
“By breaking legs?”
“I’ve always been the good guy. It was fun to live on the wild side for a while. And the money is amazing.”
“You could buy yourself a lot of toys,” I said.
“The money for toys never came out of my pocket. It was all in stocks and some annuities. We got in on Microsoft early. I drew a small stipend to cover expenses and that was it.”
“So what happens if you don’t kill the bookie?”
“They kill me.”
“Are you ready to go back to your former life?”
“I’d love to,” he said. “I’ve thought about escaping to the North Pole several times but I knew these goons would follow me and I didn’t want to put the elves at risk.”
“Hmmm. I think I may know someone who can help you.”
* * *
“Jimmy Hoffa, meet Santa Claus,” I said.
“I thought you were dead,” Santa said.
“And in a couple days they’ll think the same thing of you,” Hoffa said, grabbing Santa by the shoulder and directing him toward a large couch in a huge hotel suite in a location I can’t disclose.
The two of them talked for a while and Santa explained his problem to Jimmy. When Santa was done, Jimmy poured two glasses of scotch for them both and raised his glass.
“To the death of Santa Claus,” he said.
I excused myself and left them to finalize the details of the “murder.” Since the early eighties, as mob guys started turning snitch left and right, Jimmy Hoffa has made a tidy fortune helping them disappear. Sure, the government offers witness protection, but can witness protection convince a cynical nation that a guy is buried under no less than three different sports stadiums? And can witness protection make you a legend in the process of helping you disappear? I think not. And I was more than certain witness protection couldn’t hide Santa Claus.
My suspicions were confirmed later when I read in the Detroit News that a “reputed mob leg breaker and dead-ringer for Santa Claus” had been murdered in a gangland hit on Christmas Eve. There were pictures and everything. My guy on the force said the street version had Nicky the Saint being whacked by the Russian Mob for trying to horn in on their rackets. Nobody was going to miss him.