Third Santa on the Left
by Gar Anthony Haywood
The last words Emory Gillburton ever said were the last ones Peebles and Grimm wanted to hear on Christmas Eve.
He said, “Santa Claus.”
Harry Peebles heard him perfectly, had no doubt in his mind that he had, but he looked at his partner anyway and said, “Tell me he didn’t just say, Santa Claus. Please, Sonny.”
But Mendelsohn “Sonny” Grimm had heard Gillburton perfectly well himself, and all he could do was nod his hairless head at the black man he’d been partnered with now for going on eleven years. “Man said, Santa Claus,’” he said.
“Sonofabitch,” Peebles said.
The two men were homicide detectives out of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Hollenbeck Division, and the Emory Gillburton shooting had been an inheritance of sorts. Another team of detectives, Marty Cohen and Rick Furitani, had originally been assigned to the case, but had been pulled off at the crime scene to deal with a more pressing triple homicide over in Echo Park, leaving the remainder of the Gillburton investigation to Peebles and Grimm, lucky bastards that they were. It seemed that somebody had shot and robbed the 47-year-old bus driver in a Silverlake bank parking lot immediately following his use of the bank’s ATM machine around 2:45 that afternoon, and Peebles and Grimm had started their investigation into the incident by trying to interview him in the County General emergency room. They’d been with Gillburton for all of ten minutes when he first gave up his shooter, then his eternal spirit.
Peebles and Grimm didn’t like batting clean-up for Cohen and Furitani under the best of circumstances, but now the two men really felt screwed.
“We gotta hunt down Santa Claus on Christmas Eve,” Peebles said, jamming a Raleigh filter into his mouth just to spite the No Smoking sign on the wall beside him. “Ain’t that a bitch?”
“Maybe he misunderstood the question,” Grimm suggested. Looking at all the angles, as always.
“I asked him who shot and robbed him. What’s to misunderstand?”
Grimm shrugged. “He was in a lot of pain. He could’ve been delirious.”
“I see. So what question do you suppose he thought he was answering, saying ’Santa Claus’? For five points, who’s the fat guy in the red suit comes down your chimney every year on the twenty-fifth of December?’”
Grimm didn’t bother to answer that. When Peebles was being sarcastic, it was useless to even try to talk to him.
“Let’s go out to the crime scene,” Grimm said instead, “check out the video and talk to the witnesses.”
There had in fact been three witnesses. They all said what the bank’s surveillance video had already proven, more or less.
Santa Claus had wasted Emory Gillburton.
“You gotta be fuckin’ kiddin’ me,” Peebles said after hearing the last witness’ testimony.
“Yeah, I know,” the witness said. He was a 22-year-old satellite TV installer named Rudy Castro who’d been on the roof of an apartment building adjacent to the bank parking lot when the Gillburton shooting went down, allegedly right before Castro’s eyes. “Like I told the other two cops, I couldn’t believe it, man. Santa Claus with a gun, poppin’ a cap in some poor guy at the bank.”
Castro had been back up on the apartment building’s roof, completing his install job, when Peebles and Grimm found him. The three were standing now in the far corner of the bank parking lot where Gillburton had been killed.
“You get a good look at the bike?” Grimm asked. Castro and the bank’s surveillance video had agreed that “Santa” had fled the scene on a bicycle before disappearing from view.
Castro shrugged. “It looked like a kid’s bike. ’Cause it was, like, too small for him. I think maybe it was yellow?”
“Yellow,” Grimm said, making a note.
“It was crazy, man. Like ... like—”
“Like something out of a movie,” Grimm said.
“Yeah. Just like in a movie.”
Peebles looked at both men like they were insane. “What movie you guys ever see where a bicycle ridin’ Santa Claus is blowin’ innocent people away on Christmas Eve? Who the hell makes a movie like that?”
Grimm and the kid glanced at each other, then Grimm said, “We just meant it was movie-like in the sense that it was too surreal to be real.”
“Yeah,” Castro agreed, nodding. “That’s what I meant.”
Peebles glared at him for a moment, then asked him if he’d heard Gillburton’s killer say anything, either before or after the shooting. He knew the kid would only say no like both of the other witnesses, customers who’d been entering and exiting the bank, respectively, but the question had to be asked.
“Yeah, I did,” Rudy Castro said. “He said, Ho, ho, ho, asshole!’ Then, bam! he reached out and capped the guy, grabbed the cash in his hand and rode off.”
Grimm started laughing.
“Say what?” Peebles said.
“He said, Ho, ho, ho, asshole,’” Castro repeated, openly embarrassed to be reporting such nonsense. “I know it sounds crazy, but that’s what I heard, I swear to God.”
Grimm reached up with one hand to cover his mouth, but it wasn’t much help. He was laughing too hard now to be discreet about it.
Peebles himself was chuckling before long. He couldn’t help himself either. Castro stood there watching the two mirthful cops he was sandwiched between and wondered what he should do. Would it be okay to laugh along with them, or could he possibly get himself arrested that way?
Recognizing the kid’s dilemma, Peebles quickly pulled himself together and officially dismissed him. Then he started reviewing his notes, a tearful Grimm doing the same.
“I don’t know about you,” Peebles said finally. “But I’m gonna have a long talk with Marty and Rick. See how they’d like drinkin’ their eggnog through a straw this holiday season.”
“Yeah. This was a setup,” Grimm agreed. He flipped through his notebook a while longer, then said, “But at least we seem to have a pretty consistent description of our perp.”
Peebles, who had lost his sense of humor by now, three minutes generally being the extent to which he could maintain one, said, “A fat white man in a red suit, white hair and beard, black boots and belt ... it’s Santa Claus, Sonny, what other kind’a description were you expectin’?”
“Lotta skinny Santa Clauses running around this time of year,” Grimm said. “Short and tall ones, too. This guy our witnesses are describing, he sounds like the genuine article.”
“There ain’t no genuine article,” Peebles reminded him.
“You know what I mean. Like on all the Coca-Cola ads. That genuine article.”
Peebles took in a deep breath, let it out. “Jesus Christ, where are we gonna start? There’s gotta be fifty thousand Santa Clauses runnin’ around on Christmas Eve!”
“True. But maybe only one of ’em had a motive for murder.”
“Murder? You sayin’ this wasn’t a random robbery?” Peebles asked.
“I’m not saying anything, yet,” Grimm said. “But everybody agrees that Gillburton handed over his money without argument, and the surveillance video bares that out. Maybe the only reason he got wasted was because that was the whole point of the exercise.”
Peebles nodded, but he dared not believe it could be true. If Gillburton’s shooting had been a random act, they could be working this thing for weeks. But if it had been premeditated murder, with a little luck ...
“Okay. Let’s go see the vic’s friends and family,” Peebles said. “And the first person wearin’ a red velvet suit, that’s our man.”
Being sarcastic again.
The reaction Emory Gillburton’s wife had to the news of her husband’s demise was not the one either Peebles or Grimm would have predicted.
“So there really is a Santa Claus,” she said.
A lengthy silence followed.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” Grimm said finally, doing a double take.
“It was a joke,” Hillary Gillburton said. Smiling so the detectives could both see that it was true.
“Forgive us for saying so, Ms. Gillburton, but you seem neither surprised nor unhappy to hear of your husband’s death,” Peebles said, making no attempt to diminish the accusatory tone in his voice.
“Surprised? I’m surprised, sure. But unhappy?” Hillary Gillburton shrugged. “I don’t think so.”
“You two weren’t getting along?” Grimm asked.
“Only recently ... say, the last seventeen years.”
“So why’d you stay together?”
The widow sighed, said, “Emory was dependable, in his way. Between slapping me around and sleeping with every other woman who’d have him, he was a good provider. I can’t remember the last bill we didn’t pay on time. I know that doesn’t sound like much to you, but to a woman my age, with this face and this body, it’s about all you can still hope for.”
Peebles and Grimm glanced at each other, both men equally impressed by the lady’s calm in the face of what most people would consider an untimely family tragedy.
“Ma’am, can you tell us where you were this afternoon between the hours of two and three o’clock?” Peebles asked.
“Two and three? Sure. I was at church. The Women’s Club was helping prepare the altar for midnight mass.”
“What church is that, ma’am?”
“Saint Theresa’s. It’s on Glendale and Fargo, down near the freeway overpass.”
Grimm nodded his head at Peebles to let him know he was familiar with the church she was talking about.
“Would it be possible to talk to any of the ladies who were there with you this afternoon?” Peebles asked. “You have any names or phone numbers you could give us so we could talk to them?”
“Of course. You want to see if I was really there, right? Because you’re thinking I might’ve killed Emory myself.”
“It’s procedure, Mrs. Gillburton, that’s all,” Grimm said. Before Peebles could say what Grimm knew he was thinking, that hell yes, she was a suspect in her husband’s murder, and if her alibi didn’t pan out, she was going to spend Christmas Eve night downtown, answering a few more questions.
“I look like Santa Claus to you?” Hillary Gillburton asked.
“Nobody’s suggesting that at all,” Peebles said.
“I know I’m carrying a few extra pounds, mostly in my hips and my ass, but to accuse me of looking like Santa Claus ...”
“We don’t mean to accuse you of anything, ma’am,” Peebles said patiently. “We just have to consider all the possibilities. You understand.”
Hillary Gillburton didn’t understand at all, but she went to go get her purse anyway.
“Jesus Christ,” Peebles said ninety minutes later. “I don’t believe this.”
It was five o’clock in the afternoon. The Gillburton investigation was still ongoing, it was still Christmas Eve, and Peebles was still bent out of shape about all of it. He and Grimm were at their desks at Hollenbeck, having called all of Hillary Gillburton’s sisters in the St. Theresa’s Parish Women’s Club, and the two detectives were no closer to closing the case now than they had been over at County General when Emory Gillburton had breathed his last. His widow’s alibi was rock solid, every friend on her list had placed her at the church at the time of her husband’s shooting, so unless she’d had an accomplice, her life as a murder suspect was over before it had even had a chance to begin. The cops were back to square one.
“So what now?” Grimm asked his short, squat partner, seated at the desk directly opposite his own.
Peebles tossed a couple of Excedrin tablets toward the back of his throat, swallowed some water down to go with them. “What else? We round up some losers, hope one of ’em makes a good Santa Claus.”
“Yeah. Guess that’s all we can do, huh?”
“The widow didn’t do it, and she can’t think of anybody else who might’ve. It’d be a hell of a lot easier to look for somebody who had motive, but if the lady can’t think of anybody ...”
“So maybe she hired it done,” Grimm suggested.
“Or had a boyfriend do it. Yeah, that’s a definite possibility. More obvious one, though, is the worst for you and me.”
“It was just a robbery, like it looks. Poor bastard was just in the wrong place, at the wrong time,” Grimm said.
Peebles nodded. “In which case, we could be lookin’ for anybody. Any lowlife with access to a Santa costume and a piece.”
The black man went to the nearby coffee machine, admired the station’s Christmas tree standing beside it. He noticed the festively wrapped present he and Grimm had placed beneath the tree for Cohen and Furitani was still sitting there, waiting for one or both of the detectives to find it. Peebles hoped to God he and Grimm were around when they finally did.
“So,” he said to Grimm, returning to his desk with a fresh cup of java. “You wanna pull the list, or should I?”
It was the same insincere offer he always made when there was computer work to be done. He had no intention of pulling the profile list, and Grimm knew it. The bluff used to bother Grimm, but not anymore. He had long ago learned to appreciate the fact that his partner could at least pretend to be considerate of him from time to time. A lot of cops weren’t that lucky.
He pulled the profile list himself and was almost, but not quite, happy to do it.
The most frustrating thing about career criminals from a cop’s standpoint was, they almost never had an alibi for anything. Which was great if you only had one suspect in a case, someone you wanted to nail for a crime very badly; he or she’s got no alibi, you’re halfway home to putting the sonofabitch away. But if you had, say, a half-dozen or more possibles to sort through, and none of the fools had an alibi worth a damn, well, you were fucked. Because they all could have done it, and it might take you weeks, sometimes even months, to find the guilty party hidden among all the innocent ones.
Peebles and Grimm started out with a profile list of 31 possible suspects for the Emory Gillburton shooting. They pared that down to 17 without ever leaving the station by eliminating those individuals they were able to determine were either dead, or in prison, or out-of-state, and then they hit the streets to do the real grunt work. It was a little shy of seven in the evening when they rolled their unmarked Ford out of the Hollenbeck parking lot.
By nine-thirty, roughly two-and-a-half hours later, they had reduced the number of lowlifes on their list to nine. Nine Caucasian scumsuckers who liked to hold people up at gunpoint and could not prove by any reasonable means where they had been between the hours of two and three-thirty that afternoon when the late Emory Gillburton had been shot.
The two detectives could have hauled them all down to the station and put them in a line-up, but Peebles was totally against that idea. Not that he had a problem listening to bad guys bitch and moan about being harassed, or anything, but this being Christmas Eve, he wasn’t up to all the physical activity it would have taken to get some, if not all, of these clowns to cooperate: running, tackling, kicking, and scratching, et cetera, et cetera.
So, in the end, they only took two people in, one for each of them. Edward Boosman for Peebles, Danny Volks for Grimm.
Peebles liked Boosman’s looks; he was the right weight, the right height, even the right hair color for the man they were looking for. Grimm liked Volks just because. That was what Grimm always said when a suspect smelled right to him for no reason Peebles could fathom: “just because.” Volks had a history of pulling ATM jobs, it was true, but he bore about as much resemblance to Santa Claus as Grimm did himself.
One other difference between Boosman and Volks was the way in which each had reacted to the crime they were suspected of committing. Volks thought it was a joke too good not to laugh at, while Boosman saw no humor in it whatsoever.
“You think I’d do somethin’ like that?” the fat man asked, genuinely insulted by the very idea. He’d shot three people in his extensive criminal career, crippling one and almost blinding another, but the cops were supposed to see he was too decent a guy to ever stoop so low as to besmirch the name and reputation of Santa Claus.
While all Volks said, on the other hand, was, “You guys are too much,” over and over again, as he wiped tears from his eyes the whole way down to Hollenbeck.
Peebles and Grimm found six other bodies down in lock-up to join Volks and Boosman in a line-up, then called their three witnesses in to look the eight men over. Despite the fact no one was made nor allowed to actually dress like Santa Claus, a more bizarre experience could not have been had by all. It went something like this:
Grimm: “Number Six, repeat the line again, please.”
Number Six, very faint: “Ho-ho-ho, asshole.”
Raucous laughter from everyone on stage.
Rudy Castro, the witness: “Could you ask him to say it louder?”
Grimm: “Louder, Number Six.”
Number Six, his voice booming now: “HO-HO-HO, YOU ASSHOLE!”
Laughter again, this time from everyone in attendance, witnesses and line-up participants alike. Even Peebles had to stifle a chuckle.
Grimm, to Castro: “So what do you think?”
Castro, shrugging: “I don’t know. Without the costume, it’s hard to tell.”
Peebles: “But you can see the man’s face without the costume.”
Castro: “Yeah, but his voice is too clear.”
Peebles: “Too clear?”
Castro: “The other guy, the real one, his beard was all in his mouth, you could hardly understand what he was saying.”
Grimm told Number Six to put his hand over his mouth, try the line one more time.
Number Six did.
Subdued laughter followed.
Castro was silent for a long time, then: “Nope. This guy’s too short.”
And so it went.
As comic relief, the line-up was a big hit. But as a method of determining who had robbed and murdered Emory Gillburton, it was a total and complete failure. By the time it was over, just a few minutes shy of eleven-thirty, all Peebles and Grimm knew for sure that they hadn’t known before were the names of eight people who almost certainly had not committed the homicide in question. The process of elimination was an integral part of all good police work, it was true, but at this rate, the two detectives weren’t going to find Gillburton’s killer until a day or two short of the next century. And this still being Christmas Eve, Peebles’ wife Clarice wanted her husband to play hooky, sneak off home around midnight tonight at the latest.
He put the call off as long as he could, then just before twelve, went to the phone on his desk to give her the bad news.
The first thing she said when she answered the phone, without even asking who was calling, was, “This isn’t going to happen, Harold, is it?” No sign of Christmas cheer in her voice whatsoever.
Peebles closed his eyes, pressed a thumb hard to his right temple to alleviate the first painful waves of an oncoming headache. “Baby,” he said, “listen to me ...”
Grimm sat opposite his partner and watched Peebles squirm, trying to explain how a case involving a foul-mouthed, homicidal Santa Claus was more important than the black man’s family waiting for him at home. Grimm could tell just by Peebles’ responses that he had toys to assemble and packages to wrap, and if Clarice had to do these things for him, she was not going to be easy to live with for some time. Peebles might not see a smile cross her face again until the half-time show of the Rose Bowl game on New Years Day.
Adding to Peebles’ frustration was the fact that he could only hear about two out of every three words his wife had to say. Lester Bostwick had handcuffed a drunken prisoner to a railing near his desk in the squad room, then walked off to the storage room for a fresh box of staples in mid-report, leaving the guy there to ruin “Silent Night” for the by now all but empty room’s entertainment. Peebles kept yelling over his shoulder for the guy to shut up, but he’d only do so for a while, then start right back up again. Grimm had to get up finally, go over there to talk to the man face-to-face.
“Detective Peebles is trying to talk on the phone,” Grimm said, peering down into the thirtyish white man’s cherry red face. “Please be kind enough to refrain from singing until he’s through.”
Bostwick’s prisoner blinked at him a few times, then nodded his head enthusiastically. “Yessir,” he said.
Peebles was hanging up the phone when Grimm returned to his desk, looking like he was in for a blue, blue Christmas.
“Not good, huh?” Grimm asked.
Peebles shook his head. “No. Not good.”
“Now? It’s midnight Christmas Eve, Sonny. Everybody’s either in bed or in church, one or the other.”
Bostwick’s prisoner started singing again.
“Where the hell is Lester?” Peebles asked angrily, scouring the room for the vanished detective. The only other cop in sight was Eddie Collier; Cohen and Furitani still hadn’t dragged their sorry asses in off the street.
Collier looked up from the magazine he was reading, realizing he was the only one around to answer Peebles’ question, and said, “Down to materials, I think he said. For Wite-Out, or somethin’, I don’t remember what, exactly.”
“Why the hell isn’t this prisoner of his in holding? I can’t hear myself think for all this guy’s goddamn White Christmas!”
Peebles stood up, went over to read the arrest report Bostwick had been typing when he disappeared. The singing beauty handcuffed to the squadroom railing was one Bruce Jaspers, age 32, who’d been brought in on an aggravated assault/drunk and disorderly charge stemming from a barroom brawl in Echo Park. Something about he and another guy throwing billiard balls at one another.
“I’m taking this clown down to holding,” Peebles said, using his own keys to uncuff Jaspers from the railing. Jaspers kept right on singing, didn’t even seem to notice the cop was there. “Lester comes back, tell him that’s where he can find his prisoner.”
“Sure thing,” Collier said, his face already buried in his magazine again.
“I’ll come with you,” Grimm said, getting up to join his partner. He couldn’t think of anything better to do.
It was a long, depressing walk downstairs to the holding cell. Neither cop spoke on the way, the burden of a case they hadn’t come close to solving in almost ten hours of trying weighing heavily on their minds. Between them, Lester Bostwick’s friend Jaspers was still singing, having moved on from “Silent Night” to “The Christmas Song” without any noticeable change in tonal quality. Peebles and Grimm just let him croon, too tired and dejected to do anything else.
It wasn’t until Peebles was loading Jaspers into the holding cell that either of the two cops found the energy to speak again.
“You wanna call it a day?” Grimm asked.
Peebles slammed the door behind Jaspers, said, “What the hell, why not.”
“We could always go through the profile list again, make some more phone calls.”
“I don’t think so. I’m wasted, and I’m hungry, and I’m sick of hearin’ this guy butcher Christmas carols. Let’s go home, try startin’ fresh tomorrow.”
They started walking away, toward the stairs leading back up to the squad room, just as Jaspers broke into a rousing rendition of “White Christmas,” Peebles’ all-time favorite Christmas song. The black man couldn’t help but wince.
“Bing Crosby’s gotta be spinnin’ in his grave,” he grumbled, not really caring if Jaspers overheard him or not.
The two cops were halfway up the stairs when Jaspers stopped singing just long enough to answer the insult.
“Ho-ho-ho, asshole,” he said.
Peebles and Grimm stopped dead in their tracks, glanced at each other.
Then Grimm, being the true optimist of the pair, allowed himself a tiny grin.
Christmas day, three out of three witnesses identified Bruce Jaspers as the man who, disguised as Santa Claus, had robbed and murdered Emory Gillburton a little more than 24 hours earlier. Rudy Castro, the last of the three witnesses to pick Jaspers out of a line-up, said simply, “Third Santa on the left,” trying to be funny, and that was that. Peebles and Grimm had their man. Finding a nine-millimeter Smith & Wesson automatic and an overstuffed Santa Claus costume in Jaspers’ Glendale apartment later that day was only icing on the cake.
“Rather be lucky than good any day,” Peebles said as Jaspers was being booked. It was one of his many pet expressions. “If that fool hadn’t lost his temper in that bar and start throwing eight-balls around ...”
“Yeah,” Grimm said, nodding as he sipped at a cup of hot cider. “Guess we owe Lester one for making the collar, huh?”
“Lester can kiss my ass,” Peebles said. Detective Bostwick wasn’t in the Hollenbeck lunch room at the time, so it seemed like a safe enough comment to make.
“Marty or Rick say anything to you about their present?” Grimm asked, grinning.
Peebles laughed and shook his head. “You?”
“They wanna know who would sell such a thing on Christmas Eve, and why in God’s name it’s legal in this state to do so.”
Peebles almost spilled his own cup of cider, just imagining the look on Cohen and Furitani’s faces.
Next year, he bet, they’d clean up their own damn messes during the holidays.