Kate Flora: As I’ve done for the past three years, I’ve written a Christmas short story for you. Hope you enjoy it. The earlier stories, if you’re curious, can be found at http://www.kateclarkflora.com
Hugh Lawson would be the first to admit that he was a bad guy. Not even ashamed of it. He was a proud bad guy. An accomplished thief—he preferred thief to burglar, it seemed classier—and one who had striven, despite the risks of his craft, to do it well, leaving as little harm as possible in his wake.
There were those who would say that taking others possessions did, by that very fact, do harm, but Hugh had always chosen his targets with care. He did not steal from the struggling single mom or the elderly. Rather he considered himself kind of a Robinhood figure, a redistributer of wealth, except that he didn’t usually give to the poor, except to his own poor self. Which was okay. A man had to live and a roof overhead, some food in the cupboards, and a reliable truck weren’t too much to ask, especially from those who had more than enough.
But now it was Christmas, the season of giving, and for the first time in his nearly forty years, Hugh Lawson was feeling a twinge of sentimentality. He was trying to figure out why.
Was it the two Covid years when most everyone was forced to live more secluded, fearful lives? People had become like animals in their winter dens, poking fearful faces out to see if it was safe to emerge. All that effort to stay safe had been exhausting. Errands quick and furtive. Gatherings curtailed. Smiles mostly hidden behind masks, leaving only the crinkling around their eyes to show warmth or merriment. As if in response, to raise people’s spirits, there was an abundance of holiday lighting around. Yards were littered with inflatable Santas and snowmen and sleighs. Plastic deer wound with lights when there were plenty enough real deer already.
Was it possible his sentimentality was actually stirred by all those gaudy lights?
It didn’t seem likely. Mostly the Covid years had made his job much harder and his bank account much leaner. People—rich people or the very comfortable—weren’t traveling as much. City people were hunkering down in their weekend or summer houses, leaving them less vulnerable to his predations. All the resultant stress ought to have made him more bitter and cynical, and yet despite all that, he was feeling a touch of Christmas spirit.
If he were to examine himself carefully, he’d have to conclude it was that damned little girl. The girl who wasn’t supposed to be there.
With the cupboard getting bare and his bank account dwindling, he’d chosen his target house carefully. A mini-mansion with a three-car garage and two expensive cars inside, along with a boat that probably cost more than all he had stolen over the years. He’d studied the family’s movements, their patterns, when they came and went and who was in the household. He’d watched them drive the family dog—the obligatory golden retriever—to be boarded while they were away. He’d watched the dad load luggage in the honking big Lexus SUV and skiis on the roof. Watched the trim, blonde mom load a cooler into the back seat. He’d watched the two children, a tween girl and a teen boy, climb in the back, the parents climb in the front, and the whole family had driven away to spend the holiday week at their ski house.
The light from the kids’ individual tv screens was already a bluish glow in the back seat before they were out of the driveway.
Now their house was all his. He could choose his day without worrying about someone waking up or getting up to use the john. He’d had that happen. Of course he had. He had more than two decades inside other people’s houses. It was almost eerie sometimes, waiting there in the dark, watching some unsuspecting homeowner walk right past him, never for a second suspecting he was there. He’d wondered how they felt when they discovered they’d been robbed. Did they wonder whether it was happening while they made that sleepy trek to the bathroom? Was their sleep forever uneasy after that? Hugh wasn’t afraid of the dark because he was the thing that went bump in the night.
Once in a while, those quiet nocturnal invasions dished up something more interesting than a somnolent adult stumbling to the toilet. Once he’d slipped into a closet, leaving the door open just a crack, and seen a gorgeous young blonde, stark naked with hair almost to her ass, teetering down the hall in a pair of scarlet, feathered mules. It had taken willpower not to sigh in appreciation. He didn’t think he’d ever seen more perfect breasts.
Another time, the homeowner, a mid-thirties guy clearly addicted to the gym, had done a similar parade of male pulchritude. That hadn’t done anything for Hugh except provide a slight nudge toward taking better care of himself, a nudge that had come in handy when a not at all sleepy homeowner had chased him with a handgun and Hugh had needed a burst of speed and some strong arms to get himself over a fence and away.
Once, in a slightly decrepit mansion, he’d found a tipsy matron sitting in the dark, in a room illuminated only by a blazing fire. She’d looked up when he came in, given him a wave, and said, “Sit down and have a drink with me.”
Even in her late sixties, she was beautiful and she’d dressed up for her evening of drinking by the fire in a silver skirt and a black velvet jacket. Her Scotch was good and her stories of her very adventurous life even better. She’d started out as an aspiring actress in New York City. Found she could support herself better as the mistress of a prosperous business man, and he’d kept her in fine style until he died. They’d traveled all over the world together, to places both exotic and scary as well as cities like Paris and London. The man’s wife didn’t like to travel and didn’t mind if her husband traveled with his mistress. When her benefactor died, he’d left her this mansion and enough money to keep her for the rest of her life.
She was getting older now, his friend Cora was. No longer traveling much and without a family, awfully alone in the world. He worried about her living by herself but when he’d voiced his concern, she didn’t want to hear it. “I’ve always taken care of myself, Hugh,” she said, “and I’d hate to have people fuss over me like I’m an old lady.”
For years they’d had the tradition that sometime during the holiday season, he would break in, and they would spend the evening drinking and talking by the fire. She always had a new story and loved to hear about his adventures in the world of housebreaking. Recently, he’d been breaking in more often. It was his way of keeping an eye on her. The last time, back in October, she’d seemed sadder and more fragile, and told him that he didn’t need to pick the lock, he could just ring the doorbell. It felt like some kind of capitulation to aging and he hated to see it.
Since October, he figured he’d have to break in more often than once a month. Who else was going to keep an eye on her? She had a cleaner who came in, but the woman was very much an employee and not a friend. He couldn’t see her worrying about Cora the way he did. Was it absurd or just a part of his rather alternative life that he’d been the one who installed nightlights throughout the house and insisted that she get a cell phone and keep it charged and with her at all times?
Unlike his ongoing relationship with Cora, most of his adventures were one offs, small things that stayed with him. The funniest thing that had happened had been the time a guy absentmindedly peed in the closet Hugh had been hiding in, right on Hugh’s feet. Hugh almost always left his shoes by the door. It was quieter in his stocking feet. He’d helped himself to some excellent stuff on his way out. He figured he was owed. And careless as it was, he left his urine-soaked socks in their kitchen trash.
A close second, in his world of funny adventures, was the time a small boy took his hand, said, “Daddy, I can’t sleep. Read me a story,” and Hugh had read the boy back to sleep. That was the closest Hugh had come to being a parent. The randomness and risks of housebreaking were not compatible with being a family man.
It wasn’t an entirely worry-free business, for all that he relished it. Sometimes behind the facades of wealth and comfort, he found empty rooms and a vast pretense. Other times, despite the elegant finished exteriors of the houses, he found shocking squalor, the dirt and the smells putting him off even trying to steal. He was a bit fastidious and wouldn’t have wanted those people’s possessions anywhere near him. More than once, despite his diligent prep work, he’d found a dog inside. The vicious ones were scary but even a sweet-natured dog could make a lot of noise.
The hardest was the time he’d watched a stealthy father heading for his young daughter’s bedroom, the man’s bad intentions clear from his face even in dim light. It had taken all of Hugh’s self-control not to act, not to ruin his own life along with the father’s.
When that father had disappeared into the girl’s room and closed the door, Hugh was ready to beat feet out of there, but after that frozen moment, he couldn’t. He’d known he had to act, whatever the consequences, so he pulled his balaclava down to cover his face, and stepped into the room. Hugh was not a small man and he pulled himself up to his full height and spread his arms wide as he said, in a deep voice, “Leave her the fuck alone!” That sent her father scurrying out again.
He waited a moment, watching, until the father had returned to his bedroom. Then he saluted the girl, said a quiet “good night” and headed for the stairs. She followed him to the door, whispering “Thank you” as he slipped away. Despite the risk that the man might have called the police, he took the time, downstairs in the garage, to leave a note on the father’s windshield that said: I know what you’re doing. Stop it or the cops will know, too.
Also on the way out, he’d helped himself to a few things from the man’s study, things he hadn’t meant to take, including a fancy watch, a thumb drive he was sure had child porn, plus an unopened bottle of Pappy Van Winkle. He’d always wanted to try it. When he took a drink later, to celebrate getting out of there unscathed and to settle his nerves, he thought it was overrated.
The next morning, he’d watched when the father left for work. The man had clearly read the note, because he kept looking in the rearview mirror like he was expecting a cop car any moment. Hugh could only hope the note had worked. The note and the scare he’d given the man. He’d always wondered. And worried a little. He’d checked out the thumb drive, and he was right about the kiddie porn, so once a year he sent the man a note, reminding him he was being watched. There wasn’t much else he could do without disclosing who he was or how he knew. But in the moment when he and that little girl had exchanged looks, he’d felt a kinship. She’d been so calm, finding a guy in a black mask in her room. Maybe balanced against being assaulted by her father, a masked man chasing her father away wasn’t so scary.
If he were of an authorial bent, he could write a heck of a memoir about his escapades. The things people collected. The way they lived. Not, unfortunately, without incriminating himself. Sadly, that would have to wait until he was old and the statute of limitations had run.
He was already feeling the years. All those hours crouching in his truck, scoping out jobs had been bad for his back, and the tension and sudden bursts of anxiety had ruined his digestion and his nervous system. According to most measures, he was in the prime of life, but sometimes these days he felt old and spent and wondered how he could go on doing this for another thirty years. It made him sympathize with cops. A little bit, anyway.
Despite his late mother’s repeated admonition that he should learn himself a trade, he’d resisted. Now he didn’t have many other skills to fall back on. Not unless some company would hire him to break into people’s houses to see how secure they were, like software companies did to check the security of their firewalls. He had done a brief stint working for an alarm company, so he did have some expertise in that department. He’d learned how to disable them and that installing those systems wasn’t how he wanted to spend his life. Whatever the toll it took on him, he couldn’t imagine a life without the planning, the anticipation, those jazzy jolts.
He pulled his thoughts away from body aches and memory lane and back to the house. He knew to avoid the ring doorbell, with its ever watchful camera. He knew which outside lights had motion sensors and which inside lights were on timers and when those lights went out. He knew where on the street to park, in the driveway of another empty house, where his truck wouldn’t be illuminated by street lights. This house was going to be his holiday gift to himself. These were the kind of people who had nice electronics, good jewelry, and stashes of cash around “just in case.”
A few times, he’d noticed a ratty black Corolla that also seemed to be watching the house, but he’d dismissed it once he saw that the driver was a tired-looking young woman
with a child seat in the back. She wasn’t the type to be scoping out a robbery, he was sure of that. Probably a cleaner waiting for it to be time for the next job.
Two a.m. was the time he’d chosen. It was the quietest time of the night. Few people coming back from parties and too early for early workers to be heading out. Police patrols in this neighborhood were on a clockwork schedule. It was going to be a very dark night, the moon rising late and only a sliver, and the weather was mild and dry.
At one-thirty, Hugh went to his closet and searched through the collection of uniforms he’d bought at Goodwill. Plumber or electrician? Which was more likely at this hour? He settled on plumber. Anything involving rogue water was definitely an emergency.
He’d never been able to find a shirt with “Hugh” on the pocket—maybe all the plumbers were Joes and Guys and Toms—so he’d had his name put on one of the Goodwill ones. It always made him feel a little bit special when he buttoned on that crisp green shirt with his name on the pocket. A foolish vanity, perhaps. If he was caught, he’d be better off claiming to be Bob or Joe. He always carried a false ID when he was on a job. Matching green pants and as a concession to the likelihood that they’d turned down the heat while they were away, he had a green vest. Cotton, not nylon. Nylon clothes rubbed against things with annoyingly loud sounds. Puffy vests tended to catch things and pull them off shelves.
In his garage, he got the magnetic sign for “Lawson’s Plumbing” and stuck on the truck door. Then he drove off into the night, looking forward to his next adventure. If he’d listened to his intuition, that little voice that said, “Don’t. Something’s gonna go wrong. Abort! Abort!” none of this would ever have happened. The voice had kept him out of trouble many times. This time, he ignored it.
He parked in the driveway and carried his bags—empty but purporting to hold plumbing tools—across the street and around to the side, where a door led into the garage. He’d unlocked it a few nights ago, and a quick test with his gloved hands told him the homeowner hadn’t relocked it.
Inside the garage, he found the fuse box and disabled the alarm system. He might not have studied for a trade, as his mother wished, but a number of his friends had gone to trade school, and they’d been generous about teaching him what he needed to know to be a successful housebreaker, as had his former employer.
Quietly, he let himself into the house, shedding his shoes by the door. Once or twice, he’d had to leave so quickly he’d left his shoes behind. Not a big deal. He always wore a new, cheap pair a size larger than his own. His real shoes would wait for him in the truck. Yes, it could be pretty unpleasant rushing through snow, ice, or rain in his socks, but far less unpleasant than going to jail.
He paused after removing his shoes to listen to the house.
Silent except for the normal mechanical hums.
Two things, though, were surprising. First, the house was warm. Most people—even the well-to-do—turned their heat way down if they were going to be away for any length of time. Second, it smelled of baking. Again, while people might bake something to take away with them on a trip, the family had been gone for at least twelve hours, while this smelled like freshly made chocolate chip cookies.
It had been a while since he’d had one of those. The smell reminded him how hungry he was. He could never eat before–? Before what? A gig? A caper? That was it, a caper. That put a light hearted spin on it, though the reason he didn’t eat was because he always got so nervous that if he ate, he’d throw up. He was sure the cops had a way of tracing people through their vomit. Not that he was in anyone’s system. Through a combination of caution and luck, he’d never gotten caught. Still, every time he left home on a caper like this, he was aware that it could be his last.
He stayed by the door until his eyes had adjusted to the dark. This family had a lot of nightlights around, and those, plus the glow from so many appliances and devices gave a fair amount of illumination.
Hugh had a system. He’d start upstairs, then do the downstairs and be gone. Over the years he’d gotten very efficient. He knew the best places to look, where people hid things, and where they’d simply stashed them sorta kinda out of sight, like a roll of bills or expensive jewelry in the back of a dresser drawer. He headed up the stairs to the master bedroom.
He had his hand on the doorknob when he heard a rustling behind him. Turning, he saw a small girl in pink footie pajamas. She had a mass of golden curls and a few red creases in her cheek from sleep. He wasn’t very good at guessing kid’s ages but he thought maybe she was four. She was staring up at him with a teary face. “Where’s mommy?” she asked.
He froze. There wasn’t supposed to be anyone here, and certainly not a small child and her mother.
Where was mommy? Who was mommy?
“Downstairs baking cookies for Santa,” he said, holding out his hand. “Come on, let’s get you back to your bed.”
“It’s not my bed,” the small girl said, taking his hand. “I’m just borrowing it. Mommy says we aren’t doing any harm and it’s better than living in the car.”
Oh damn it. The ratty Corolla? The tired woman with the child seat in the back, the one who’d seemed to be watching the house? Scoping it out like him but with a different purpose?
“Do you live here?” the girl asked. “Are you going to throw us out or call the police?”
Not very likely, Hugh thought, seeing his plans crumbling. If he followed through with his caper, he’d be putting the woman and her child at risk. True, they’d already put themselves at risk by being here in someone else’s house, but squatting, or unauthorized housesitting, was a far lesser crime than stealing the owner’s possessions.
He squelched a frustrated “DAMMIT!” and let the girl lead him back to a bedroom.
The room was a sweet pink extravaganza, perfect for a little girl. Just not for this little girl.
Then he heard a voice calling, “Carly? Carly, honey, are you talking to someone?”
“Mommy!” said the girl, running for the door.
Hugh followed at a slower pace. He didn’t want to scare the woman. She might scream and then where would they be? True, the houses here were farther apart, as befitted a street of mini mansions, but on a quiet night the sound might still carry. There might still be members of the three a.m. club, those whose sleep was always interrupted by their thoughts and worries. The guilty. The women with hot flashes. The casual partners who’d spent the night but wanted to be gone by dawn.
From the hallway, he heard the girl say, “Mommy, I found a man in the hall. He was putting me back to bed.”
That brought the stern admonition, “Carly, you stay right here,” and hasty footsteps. The woman from the Corolla threw open the door, blocking it as much as she could with a small and slender body. She glared at him, her eyes fierce. “Who are you?” she demanded.
“I might ask you the same question,” he said.
A standoff while they stood and stared at each other.
“Your daughter is perfectly safe,” he said, adding, “From me, that is. Though it seems we are each spoiling the other’s plans.”
“I was so careful,” she said, tears spilling from her eyes. “I just wanted Carly to be somewhere warm and nice for Christmas. We were at a shelter but . . .” Her breath caught. Then she said, like somehow she felt safe confessing to a fellow criminal, “But there was a man who kept looking at Carly . . . and I knew that look.”
It came to him then, looking at the small woman in the doorway. Something about the eyes, and her upright stance. And he knew.
It hit her at just the same moment. “You!” she said. “My God! It was you, wasn’t it, who stopped him? Stopped my father from coming to my room. I was . . . I’ve been . . .” She looked down, then back at him. “I’ve always been grateful to you for that. Because he stopped. Some people let it ruin their lives, what he did. I was determined not to let that person be me.”
Her eyes fell to the carpet again. “And yet look at me. Alone with a small girl of my own and it’s Christmas and not only do I have nothing to give her, I can’t even keep her safe.”
People put so much pressure on themselves when the social safety net fell apart. He knew about that from his own family and friends. His father violent. His mother helpless, always hoping for rescue instead of trying to rescue herself. Now his parents were both gone, nothing but rotten memories and nagging voices in his head.
Now what was he supposed to do? He could take them, this mother and small girl, back to his place, but his place was small. Enough for him, because it had a garage, but not big enough for three.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He was. Sorry for spoiling her plans. Sorry that his were also spoiled.
“It’s not your fault,” she said. “It’s almost funny, you know, how we both found this place. How our paths crossed again after so many years. I really have always been grateful.”
But not grateful for having to leave the temporary sanctuary she’d found.
“You don’t have to leave,” he said, sadly kissing his financial fix goodbye. “I’ll leave. You can go ahead like you planned.”
He watched her consider the idea, then reject it. “It won’t feel safe,” she said.
An instinct. And he knew about instincts. Like the one that had told him not to come here at all.
Then he thought about Cora, all alone in that big house. Maybe she’d enjoy some company at Christmas. She’d often lamented the fact that her “arrangement” as she called it, had precluded her from having a family.
“I might have a place for you to stay,” he said. “Do you mind waiting in your car while I . . .” He stopped. Couldn’t bring himself to say aloud, “While I finish my caper.”
Silently, she nodded, though her face was heartbreakingly sad.
“Let me make a call.”
Cora was surprised to hear from him, he could tell that from her voice. Even though he’d often visited her at early hours like this. She said she never slept. She was also lonely, as she immediately said, “When are you going to come by? I’ve been hoping—”
Soon, he thought. His Spidey sense was telling him to hurry things up. That something was about to go wrong.
“How would you feel about some houseguests for a few days? A mom and a little girl who have no place to go?”
She started to temporize, wanting time to think about it. A long time loner. Not used to being spontaneous.
He was never abrupt with her but tonight there was no time for a casual approach.
“It’s kind of an emergency,” he said. “Even if you could take them just for the night, until I can fix up something else.”
Another hesitation. He could feel time, and the night, slithering away like a basket of eels. And danger, some kind of danger, getting closer. But Cora didn’t like to be pushed. He could only go so far.
At about the point where he was ready to say to hell with her and take the woman and child back to his place, Cora cleared her throat.
“If it’s important to you, Hugh, I’ll do it.”
And so he told the woman to gather her things and her daughter, helped her take them out to the car, and gave her directions to Cora’s house.
“I’ll be along as soon as I can to get you settled.”
His sense that everything was about to go wrong was now more like a clanging bell than a niggling sense. Still, after they departed, he took a few quick minutes to search through the master bedroom. He was rewarded with an envelope full of money, a small cloth bag with what had to be a thousand dollars’ worth of jewelry, an expensive watch, and a handful of easy to sell small electronics.
He was heading into the garage when something made him pause. He opened the envelope, took out the money, and stuffed into the inside pocket of his vest. There in the bottom of the envelope was a tiny tracking device. That made him wonder about the easy availability of the watch, so he left that, and the envelope, on the counter. The rest of the stuff left with him.
He got as far as the garage when he heard a scratching sound, and something like a low moan. Something like a dog. But he’d seen them take the dog to the kennel, hadn’t he? He tried to think back. Had they had more than one dog? Could they possibly be the kind of people who would leave a dog behind?
He wouldn’t be surprised. Disappointed, yes, but people’s behavior disappointed him all the time.
When he let himself out of the garage, locking the door behind him, he heard the sound again, and then a nose was pressed up against his leg. A dog. Their dog or someone else’s dog, or an abandoned dog. He didn’t know. All he knew was that he had to get out of here, and it looked like the dog was coming with him before it could make a fuss. He could deal with the difficulties of a canine companion later.
Hugh, with the dog happily sitting in his passenger seat, was heading down the road in his van when two police cars went tearing past him. Trust your intuition, it reminded him. That voice he’d almost ignored was there to save his ass.
As soon as he found a place to turn off and park, he changed his shoes, pulled the sign from his door, hid his loot inside his spare tire, and changed from his vest and work shirt into a sweater and an oversized parka. He needed the parka’s warmth right now. He was shaking and his heart was pounding so hard he could barely drive.
By the time he got to Cora’s he was a basket case. Was this a message from the universe that it was time to change his ways, even if he had no idea what another way might be?
Cora and the woman—he realized he’d never learned her name—were sitting by the fire sipping something rich and brown in small elegant glasses.
“Carly’s gone to bed,” the woman said.
Cora left her throne-like chair and came and hugged him, something she’d never done before. She looked regal in something dark red and velvet. After the hug, she pushed back and studied him. There was nothing faded or feeble in her look. “Thank goodness you’re okay. I was worried when Sarah told me what happened,” she said. “Want something to drink?”
Sarah. Now he had a name.
“Need something to drink,” he said, dropping into his usual chair. “Missed getting caught by the cops by a hair.”
He looked around the room, a room he’d visited so many times, nearly always in the dark of night until recently. He was surprised to see a Christmas tree, decorated and draped in old fashioned lights, including ones that had always been his favorites: bubble lights. As Cora handed him a generous pour of bourbon, he looked at her for illumination.
“You’re not the only one with a sixth sense, Hugh,” she said. She settled back into her throne and the dog, which he couldn’t bring himself to leave in the truck, settled down at her feet.
“A woman, a child, and a dog?” she said. “Hugh, what’s gotten into you?”
“Maybe it’s the holiday spirit,” he suggested. “People do get lonely at Christmas.”
She laughed. “And maybe I’m the only friend you’ve got.”
Which wasn’t true. Hugh had a number of friends. What he didn’t have was family. This odd grouping—an aging beauty, a homeless mother and child, and a professional thief, plus what looked, now that he saw it in the light, to be a homeless dog—was just the right kind of family. A found family, made from odd parts.
“The only family I’ve got,” he corrected, and it felt just right.