Little J. may live on the streets of East Harlem, but he knows those streets well enough to take decent care of himself and Gideon, the old man under his eight-year-old wing. Robbing a Christmas tree seller looks like money for jam--by now, he and Gideon have their teamwork down smooth as silk.
But when he finds Gideon badly beaten, Little J. learns that in New York City, Christmas tree lots are all part of a single operation organized out of Canada. Steal from one seller, they’ll all be after you. Little J. has to turn to somebody even bigger and scarier to rescue Gideon and himself--and net him enough cash to buy Gideon a pair of Fred Astaire shoes for Christmas.
A short work of crime and urban life from our Fingerprints line.
Little J. watched Gideon poke amongst the Christmas trees like a picky buyer. The trees probably muffled the wind some, and Little J. blew on his hands, but cold wicked up through his sneakers and double socks. He hoped he could run when the time came.
At 10 p.m. sharp a black SUV pulled up to the sidewalk stand. Florida plates. This was it.
The driver was still braking when Little J. stretched up to spray cleaner on the windshield. He had just time to smear it good before it froze.
SUV man buzzed down his window. “Don’t you know that’s illegal, kid?”
Little J. made his eyes round and dumb.
SUV man handed him a quarter. “Forget it.”
A quarter. A quarter! Dude deserved what he was about to get.
Little J. turned aside just as the Frenchie who ran the Christmas tree stand reached the car. Just like yesterday and the day before, and the day before that, Christmas Tree Frenchie had an envelope half out of his sleeve by the time he hit the sidewalk.
At 10 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, now Monday: had to be the day’s take.
Gideon tottered out of the trees and stumbled against Frenchie, catching his sleeve for balance. Cheeks rosy with wine underneath their cocoa-brown, he waved his bottle. “Join me? Keep the chill out?”
Gideon had a fancy life once, and he still kept himself neat, trimming his mustache and topping his layers of sweaters with a tweed jacket. It made people let him get close. By the time Frenchie brushed at him and told him to take off, Gideon couldn’t be brushed.
He said in pained surprise, like they were buddies, “Why do you want to be like that?”
Frenchie shook his arm, but Gideon clutched it like a bad dancer. Frenchie shook harder. Gideon kept his arm pointing down. No help for it: the envelope slithered out of Frenchie’s sleeve. Little J. snagged it before it hit the sidewalk and took off uptown without a look back. His cold feet didn’t slow him a step. He didn’t stop until he reached Mother Montemurro’s playground, at 121st and Lexington.
Most kids buried things, but Little J. had learned better. School kids playing could root up a stash. It happened all the time. Guns, too. Plus who could dig a decent hole in December? No, Little J. hid things high up in trees. Only problem, most of them were bare now. Mother Montemurro had the biggest evergreen he knew of, bigger than any of the trees on Frenchie’s lot. Before he climbed up, though, he stopped under a streetlight and ripped open the envelope to count the money.
Twelve hundred fifty-five dollars. He counted it twice, hoping he was wrong. Twelve hundred fifty-five dollars! How could that impress Mr. Sullivan?