The Steele Before Christmas

By Lauryn Poynor


Author's Note: Season's greetings and thanks go out to my tireless beta readers Anne and Susannah.


A pounding at the door that sounded like the beginnings of a minor earthquake awoke Steele from deep slumber. He glanced at the luminous face of the clock and groaned aloud. That spring, the case of the missing Pick-6 ticket had been an unsettling reminder of his once precarious past - from feast to famine - broke and on the run. Memories of that past had invaded his dreams of late. Awakening to find himself safely ensconced in civilized surroundings, he was in no mood to tear himself away from the comforts of goose down pillows and a Perfect Sleeper mattress.

Throwing back the covers, he fumbled for the light switch and struggled furiously into his robe. "Bloody hell. Can't a man enjoy a simple eighteen hour nap without interruptions?" He strode out of the bedroom, muttering imprecations of doom under his breath at his mysterious and untimely visitor. "If there's a ghost out there dragging a chain behind him he's early. A Christmas Carol, Alastair Sim, Michael Hordern, United Artists, 1951."

He flung open the front door to find not Marley's ghost, but a decidedly more ordinary looking human visitor wearing a porkpie hat and carrying a small suitcase. Steele blinked in surprise before ushering him inside the door.

"Good Lord, Herbie. What on earth are you doing here? A bit far from your usual patch, isn't it?"

Herbie's native habitat was the racetrack. He moved through the madding crowds at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and Del Mar like a horseplaying chameleon, seemingly always around, but able to blend into invisibility when the need arose. It was a talent that served him well. Herbie often had better luck with disappearing acts than he did with horses. His full moniker, and the only one anyone really knew him by, was Hot Horse Herbie.

He was called Hot Horse Herbie because he always had a hot horse and a convincing tale to tell. To hear him tell it his hot horse was always hot as the tip of a lit cigar, with the desire to run burning within like a magnesium flare, bright and inextinguishable, to the finish. A horse that could not possibly lose a race unless it fell down dead out of the gate, which happened once with one of the hot horses, making Herbie persona non grata for several weeks. All Herbie asked for in his long and undistinguished career was a small commission from those lucky few to whom he gave a winning hot horse and swift forgiveness from the far greater number whose hot horses were not so hot. He sometimes got the former but rarely the latter.

Steele offered Herbie a chair and sat back wearily on the couch. Herbie perched on the edge of the chair, clutching his suitcase in his lap.

"I'm in deep this time, Harry. Deep as a well dug to China. You gotta help me." Herbie put down the suitcase and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a cigarette and lit it with trembling fingers.

Steele rubbed his eyes and tried to force his sleep-fogged brain to concentrate. "'Fess up, mate. Did you give a losing tip to someone wearing a badge?" The question was a bit of a joke but it could happen. Racetracks had plainclothes security people and some of them had less appreciation than others for the way characters like Herbie added to the "romance" of the turf.

Herbie gave him an offended look. "A badge? Of course not Harry. What do you take me for? That's not it at all. It's worse. Much worse than you could ever imagine. I still can't believe it."

"Herbie, it's three o'clock in the morning. It's not a good time to play twenty questions. Could you be a little more specific?"

Herbie stubbed out his cigarette and looked across at Steele uneasily. "You're half right, Harry. It was a losing tip - but she seemed like such a nice girl. I didn't know who she was, I swear." He trailed off nervously like a comedian without a punch line.

Steele's patience was wearing thin. "Spit it out Herbie. Who was she, then?"

"Pittsburgh Phil's girlfriend."

"Pittsburgh Phil's girlfriend," Steele repeated flatly, feeling slightly numb with shock.

"It all happened about four weeks ago. She was supposed to bet a grand on a horse called Loose Living in the third race off the form at Hollywood Park. She was there all alone and I sat down next to her and I was talking and then she was listening and saying she had this gut feeling that my horse was going to win and the next thing I know she grabbed her purse and took off like a shot for the betting window and -"

"Herbie, I don't mean to seem unduly curious and I fully realize I'm going to be sorry I asked, but this horse of yours - does he have a name?" Steele rubbed his forehead as if trying to soothe an oncoming headache.

"He's a veteran campaigner Harry. I'm sure you know him."

"The name, Herbie." Steele gave him an unblinking stare.

"Never Surrender."

"Nev- you're joking. Never Surrender? That horse was with Grant at Appomattox. He's eligible for Social Security for God sake."

"I know Harry, I know. I thought he had one more good race left in him. Herbie chewed his thumbnail in agitation as he recalled the fateful moment. Besides, I never thought the dame wouId go for it. It wasn't a pretty sight. That Loose Living is a real racehorse. He breezed home at 5-1. He looked like Secretariat running against a bunch of $10,000 claimers."

Steele raised an incredulous eyebrow at this exaggeration.

"OK, Harry. Maybe Seattle Slew. But that's still a hot horse in my book."

"Why didn't you get away clean after the race?" Steele queried. "You said the girl was alone."

"I tried Harry, but she got this death grip on my arm and starts bawling about how Phil was going to kill her for losing the money and then one of his goons comes up and she spills the whole story. He says I owe Pittsburgh Phil over six grand plus interest. Afterwhich he knocks me to the turf and tap dances on my ribs which pained me more than somewhat. He pulls me up and I tell him I have to go to Oxnard to my brother's to borrow the money so he says I've got 24 hours. I've been at my brother's farm for the last four weeks."

Steele had never known Herbie had a brother - or any relations for that matter. In the odd fraternity of the racetrack it was irrelevant. Philosophy trumped ancestry. Often all one knew of one's fellows was if they were show bettors, played favorites, or went for long shots.

"I wondered why you had gone missing. You've been in Oxnard all this time?"

"You think I'd let Pittsburgh Phil know where to find me? My brother's place is in Fillmore. Nothin' there but cows and some old railroads. They call it 'the little city that could'"

"Could what?"

"Beats me Harry. I haven't figured that out yet. The burg is as dead as a cheap flashlight battery. The only action I get is hustling kids for quarters down at the pool hall. It's more than a man should be asked to endure. I gotta get back to civilization." Herbie sprang up and began to pace distractedly across the carpet.

"Icy calm, mate. We'll think of something." Steele scratched his forehead. "What about your brother?"

"Everything's in his wife's name. She won't let him lay a hand on it."

"Anyone else? Other relatives? Friends?"

Herbie stopped pacing and sat down, thoughtfully chewing his bottom lip. "To tell the truth, Harry, you're the only guy I know who might be good for it. I can pay it back, I promise. Once I get back to the track. After this, my luck can only improve, right?"

Steele considered the problem. It wasn't that he couldn't spare the cash. It might be the easy solution. But there were unwritten laws against loaning money to guys like Herbie. Steele had rarely found reason to dispute the maxim that "all horseplayers die broke." Self-preservation dictated that one should proceed with extreme caution. Herbie was not the most discreet of men. If word got out that he had loaned Herbie over six thousand dollars, Steele wouldn't be able to set foot on the track without every player in sight begging for a handout.

"I'm not going to just give you the money. Somehow you're going to have to earn your way out of this. And I don't mean at the betting window. Although I do believe a visit to the track is in order."

Herbie gave Steele a glance that looked alternately hopeful, then frightened. "Are you sure that's such a good idea? Somehow I don't think Pittsburgh Phil is going to be in a forgiving mood."

"I entirely agree. Our paths have crossed before. I doubt he remembers me with kindness, either. Unfortunately our options are limited." Steele looked thoughtful for a moment then continued decisively. "As I see it there's only one way out of this."

"There is?"

"Even a man like Pittsburgh Phil has to have weaknesses - unprotected areas. The trick is to find them and be ready to take advantage."

"If he doesn't kill us both on sight first."

"Don't worry. You're not going with me." Steele looked down at Herbie's small suitcase. "But you're also not settling in for a long winter's nap. You can't stay here, mate. I'll find somewhere safe for you in the morning. In the meantime you can borrow the couch."

"Thanks, Harry. It's funny. I feel safer already." Herbie brightened and unzipped his suitcase, pulling out a battered Racing Form. "Harry, if you are going to the track tomorrow there's a horse named Nothin' But Net in the fifth race that can't miss. He's got nothing but black ink in his workouts and I heard- "

"Good night, Herbie." Steele turned sharply on his heel, strode into the bedroom and shut the door.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~

Steele squinted through the windshield at the bright sunlight as he maneuvered the Auburn through the traffic. "Herbie, I'm curious. If Loose Living is the next Seattle Slew why was he at 5-1?"

"He's been on the vet's list for a while. Had a long layoff. They sure had him ready to go that day, though. A lot of punters were wishing they'd put some money down."

"Pittsburgh Phil seemed to be in the know, didn't he?"

"Yeah. I'd be surprised if he doesn't own a piece of that horse."

"Through some compliant third party, no doubt."

"He's cozy with the horse's trainer Charlie Weeks. Weeks has a lot of winners. And a lot of breakdowns. It all evens out I guess. Que sera sera." Herbie shrugged his shoulders.

Pittsburgh Phil and Charlie Weeks, Steele thought grimly. Alike under the skin. Both users of humans and horseflesh for a buck. He felt a spark of sudden anger. He floored the accelerator and sped into the passing lane.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~

George Edward Mulch lived in a non-descript one room apartment off Hollywood Blvd. Steele knocked on the door, waiting outside with Herbie in tow. They could hear Mulch in the midst of a sales pitch talking excitedly over the phone.

"George?" Steele knocked again with growing impatience.

Mulch opened the door, motioning them inside. "I was just on the phone with a business associate. Potential investor. Very heavy operator in the direct mail industry."

Mulch moved several stacks of colorful flyers off the small sofa to make room for his guests.

Steele made the introductions. "Herbie, meet George Edward Mulch. George meet Herbie, um-"

"Moskowitz," Herbie finished. He and George shook hands.

The apartment was remarkable only for its clutter. There was one decorative item, however, which stopped Steele in his tracks. It was a large framed movie poster of "Johnny Apollo." It hung above the sofa and was hard to miss, as were the two autographs in bold silver ink across its surface.

Steele stared at the poster in disbelief. "Lloyd Nolan and Dorothy Lamour," he mused aloud.

"Yeah." George gazed proudly up at his prized possession. "There was a screening of "Johnny Apollo" at the Nuart and they were both signing autographs after the show. I was telling Miss Lamour about my 'Roadmap to the Stars' idea and she was almost speechless with excitement. Then Mr. Nolan just snatched up this poster and had them both sign it. I got so caught up in the moment I forgot my sales pitch. They handed it to me and left in a flash. Said they had a pressing engagement."

"I don't remember any screening? When was this?" Steele inquired sharply.

"After you and Miss Holt came to see me about those letters. A week later, I think."

"I see," Steele said in clipped tones. "While Miss Holt and I were flat on our backs in hospital after risking life and limb, you were off schmoozing with Lloyd Nolan and Dorothy Lamour. Wonderful."

Mulch continued on, oblivious to Steele's displeasure. "When you're an idea man like I am it pays to keep up your contacts in the entertainment industry."

Steele, still feeling slightly miffed, moved on to the business at hand. "Remember your instructions George. Herbie never leaves your sight." He removed a hundred-dollar bill from his wallet and stuck it in Mulch's shirt pocket. "If you need food, send out for it. I'll be back for him in a couple of days."

"But, Steele," Mulch complained. "I'm a busy man. I have appointments lined up. People to see."

Steele started to protest, then relented. "All right George. Anywhere you go - he goes. But stay out of trouble." Steele fixed Herbie with a baleful glare. "The rules of the game, Mr. Moskowitz. The ponies are off limits. I don't want you within ten miles of a horse, in the flesh or on a satellite feed. Understand?"

"Ok, Harry. No problem. I've learned my lesson," Herbie agreed contritely.

Steele highly doubted it.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~

Steele glanced down at the Racing Form that Herbie had left on the car seat. Various picks had been circled, among them Nothin' But Net. Herbie's hot horse was a lightly raced four year old from the Kentucky circuit, prone to injury but always winning at a decent price. Steele could feel his pulse quickening just a fraction. Perhaps Herbie was actually on to something. Perish the thought, old sport, he admonished himself.

The reason for being of any racetrack was to make money. Some, like Santa Anita, managed to retain the romance and tradition of the sport in the process. At Hollywood Park, tradition and romance were often mowed under, trampled underfoot, and drowned out by ringing cash registers. A huge screen dominated the infield and many of the lakes and flowerbeds which had once given it a certain charm had been paved over. At the intersection of art and commerce, art was always the road not taken.

Steele walked up to the second floor of the clubhouse, keeping a watchful eye out for Pittsburgh Phil. He spotted a familiar face at the bar.

"Steele, you're in luck, buddy. "That tip you gave me on Iron Bar last Sunday was sweet. I got to cash a good ticket for a change. I'll buy you a drink."

"Actually, Weasel, maybe you can return the favor."

"There's not much on the card that excites me but - "

Steele ordered a drink and took a seat next to Weasel at the bar. "I'm looking for some information, but not on a horse. Are you acquainted with a gentleman known as Pittsburgh Phil?"

"Yeah, but I don't think you want to be."

"We had an unfortunate close encounter a few months ago. Have you seen him around?"

"Not lately. Not that I'm likely to."

"Why? What's he been up to?"

Weasel snorted with derision. "Mr. hotshot detective. Don't you read the papers? The Feds have him on a laundry list of indictments. He's under house arrest - when he's not in court. Some of the charges may actually stick."

"I thought he was just a loan shark."

"He's been moving up in the world. A couple months ago he moved in on the Milano brother's action here and across town. Half the bookies in this place are paying him protection. Word on the street is, someone under wraps for the Milano brothers is wired for sound. I can believe it. They'd be glad to work on the sly with Uncle Sam to get rid of him."

"How do you know so much about all this?"

"Let's just say I have a certain family connection. A cousin or two, once removed. I keep my ear to the ground. Despite what you see in the movies, omèrta is becoming a myth. Everyone's a gossip these days."

"You have unexpected depths, Weasel."

"Glad to help. I'd say Phil is feeling a lot of agita right now. He didn't exactly help his case in court yesterday."

"What happened?"

"The Fed's attorney asked him about his connections with Carmen Milano and Phil went ballistic. Called Milano and his brother every name in the book and questioned the parentage of everyone in the courtroom - including the judge. Not a smart move, you'll agree. Why are you looking for our Phil - or should I reverse that question?"

Steele told him the sad tale of Herbie's misadventure. "I don't have a clue where Herbie can find over $6,000. Maybe the safest course would be to sit tight and see how Phil fares in court."

"If the guy walks he'll be in a mood to commit murder when they turn him loose. I heard he busted up with his girlfriend - now I see why. Besides, Joey Salazzo, AKA Joey "Stugots" is handling the business interests while Phil is otherwise occupied. Unless Phil clears the marker Herbie's still on the hook. If any of Phil's goons spot Herbie they'll turn him upside down and shake him like a tree."

"Graphically put." Steele glanced at his watch. Laura was probably wondering why he wasn't at the office. "Thanks for the information, Weasel. If inspiration strikes - give me a jingle."

"You got it."

Steele got up from his chair, pulled the Form out of his coat pocket and gave it a lingering glance. He tapped it against his palm then looked away - the picture of indecision.

Weasel regarded him curiously.

"My mother, Mrs. Steele -"

"Yeah?"

"Taught me never to play a hunch."

"You're a big boy now."

Steele pulled out his wallet and peeled off a fifty dollar bill. He handed it and the Racing Form to Weasel. "Bet this on the nose for me on Nothin' But Net in the fifth."

"Sure thing, Steele. It'll be our little secret."

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~

Laura was wearing a hole in the carpet around the perimeter of Steele's desk. She paced and shouted while Steele sat, head down, hands clasped in a posture of contrition.

"We barely escape with our lives six months ago and now you want to go tweaking Pittsburgh Phil's nose over some screwball horseplaying friend of yours. It's crazy. You're not going back out to the track alone."

Steele's head came up and he glared back at her. "I can take care of myself. I have for a long time now."

"That was before it made a difference to me."

"Fine." Steele stared at the ceiling and let out an exasperated sigh. "We'll both go. There's just one slight problem."

"Just one?" Laura replied, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

"We don't have a plan."

"How brilliant of you to notice." She stopped pacing and faced him. "It seems that the first thing we need to do is to study history - 'family' history if you get my meaning. I want to know who all the players are before I meet them in the flesh."

Steele looked slightly pained. "Legwork, Miss Holt?"

"Grab your coat, Mr. Steele."

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~

Several hours after looking at Mafia mug shots and rap sheets Steele and Laura were scouting the crowds at Hollywood Park, looking for familiar faces. They found some, but not of the organized crime variety.

"Benny, Sid, Nathan. In the chips these days?"

Laura recognized the three shills from the poker game in the Eddie Grogan case.

"Hello, Harry," they said in unison.

"Hello beautiful." Benny gave Laura a leer and a wink.

The group stood in line at the betting window catching up on the outcome of the case in Vegas and regaling each other with past triumphs at the table.

Laura was nodding off until she was surprised by a surreptitious pinch on the rear from Nathan. This breach of etiquette was repaid with an equally nonchalant high heel to the foot of the offending party. Laura decided it was time to move to other pastures. "I'm going to the clubhouse Mr. Steele. Care to join me?" She walked toward the stairs.

"Won't be a moment, Laura." Steele lowered his voice, hoping Laura was out of earshot. "You three happen to know the outcome of the fifth race on the card today?"

"Sure, Harry, said Sid. "Horse named Tetros won it by a head. Kentucky bred called Nothin' But Net took it to the wire. It was a helluva race."

"Damn. Mother was right."

"What was that Harry?"

"Never mind."

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~

"Well I certainly haven't seen any suspicious looking characters other than the Three Card Sharp Musketeers," said Laura, stifling a yawn. I still can't believe you left your friend Herbie with George Edward Mulch. That's like trying to light a candle in a dark dynamite factory. Chances are it will only lead to disaster."

Laura and Steele sat at a table in the crowded clubhouse. Laura scanned the room. Steele idly watched the action on the monitor, a maiden race with the outcome up for grabs.

A group of three disgruntled women sat at a nearby table. "I got that beat by a long chalk. That deadbeat Frank hocked my ten year old's coin collection for a fifty dollar ticket. Bet on a nag named Coin of the Realm. Thought he couldn't miss."

"Ha!" said the youngest of the trio, "That's amateur night. My husband Tony the genius is always two months behind on the house rent. Then I find out he's bought a time-share in Del Mar so he can hang out at the track all August."

The last woman, a big-haired blonde chimed in. "You're telling me. My old man hasn't done a lick of work in August since Nixon was president. I got fed up once and sent him to Gamblers Anonymous. They ask you to answer all these questions. If you answer 'yes' to seven out of twenty it proves you're a compulsive gambler. He said 'yes' to all twenty and asked if they wanted to go for twenty-one, double or nothing. Some things never change."

"All three of us can just forget about celebrating Christmas this year. There's only one thing that will do any of us any good," said the first woman, "and that's to have some charity skip the sermon and write us a big, fat, check."

Laura looked over at Steele who had suddenly quit watching the race and was staring, transfixed as though he had undergone a religious conversion akin to St. Paul's on the road to Damascus.

"Laura, that's it! How we can clear the markers!"

"What?"

"The Lemon Drop Kid. Bob Hope, Marilyn Maxwell, Paramount, 1951. Bob Hope is in hock to a mobster so he sets up a charity at Christmas to collect the money to pay off the debt."

"I think you've finally gone over the edge. What charity?"

"Laura look around you. Are you insensitive to the plight of those women?" Steele indicated the threesome at the table. "Doomed to a lifetime of debt and misery. No presents under the tree at Christmas. And all because their husbands are hopeless horse degenerates who can't resist that carryover Pick-6 just beyond the horizon."

"I'm touched by your belated sentiments, Mr. Steele. I must say I never thought I'd hear those words from a man who's spent enough money at the track to float a small third-world country."

"Come now, Laura. Don't I buy you a Christmas present every year?"

Laura threw up her hands in amazement. "I can't believe I'm even considering this hare-brained scheme. Even if we did set up a charity we couldn't keep the money. Besides, those women need it more than your friend does."

"I'm not proposing that we keep the money. Just take a small piece off the top for Herbie. After all, he was the inspiration for the idea."

"Well, I suppose if everything was done by the book a small percentage could be set aside." Laura drummed her fingers on the table, a look of doubt still clouding her features.

"I take it you're not rejecting the proposal."

"I just don't like taking money from people on false pretenses. There has to be a better way." She fell silent and then a smile slowly formed across her features.

"Laura, I like that look in your eye."

"Your friend Weasel said that Pittsburgh Phil was having a bad day in court."

"Yes, but I don't think I follow you."

"The man's facing multiple indictments, some of which relate to his track operations. What better way to make restitution than to give a large donation to some of the people he's hurt the most, albeit indirectly. A show of remorse, especially after his recent outburst in court, couldn't hurt his chances. All we need to do is convince Pittsburgh Phil that it would be in his best interests to write the check."

"What about our best interest? I don't relish the prospect of asking the man for money. The last time I did it almost killed me."

"I didn't say it would be easy, Mr. Steele. But think of the end result if we could pull it off. The man would end up paying off Herbie's debt out of his own pocket. And still helping people in need in the bargain."

"I have to admit it would be poetic justice, wouldn't it? The more I think about it, it's not a bad idea. In fact it's brilliant." Steele flashed her a smile. "I knew there was a reason I kept you on the payroll."

Laura rolled her eyes heavenward.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~

Laura and Steele were ushered into the office of Theodore Caddell. An honors graduate from Stanford Business School, Caddell had retired early from Merrill Lynch after securing a substantial personal fortune. He now made a comfortable income setting up and administering large foundations for wealthy clients.

"Teddy. It's been a long time. Our paths haven't crossed since you made your first million. That was some party." Laura smiled and embraced him. "Teddy, this is my partner Remington Steele."

Teddy shook Steele's outstretched hand. "Ted Caddell. Pleased to meet you Mr. Steele. I've read a lot about you."

Teddy motioned them both to a chair and sat perched on the edge of his mahogany desk.

"You know, Laura when my secretary informed me you were coming I wondered if you'd forgiven me. All that wine and music kinda made me lose my head."

Steele flashed the both of them a look of sudden suspicion.

"Water under the bridge," Laura reassured him.

"Don't worry, I've learned my lesson, Laura. You've got a mean left hook." Teddy rubbed his jaw in remembrance.

"Miss Holt's the muscle of the organization."

This assertion caused Teddy to glance curiously at Laura who remained admirably deadpan. He looked back at Steele, who was the same, then forged ahead. "So Mr. Steele. Laura tells me you'd like to set up a charitable non-profit."

"Yes, it's been an interest of mine for some time. I've seen first hand what the evils of gambling can do to the families of those um, afflicted. What we have in mind is something that will help those in need in a material sense. A fund to assist the wives and children of dedicated or should I say, incorrigible horseplayers. To give the families something to fall back on when their luck runs out so to speak."

"Teddy," Laura began, " We'd like to set everything up and then retain you to oversee the fund. The problem is we haven't much time to get the ball rolling. There are several ah, particular hardship cases which need immediate attention."

"Well, Laura if you'd like to get this up and running right away I'd suggest you partner with an existing organization such as 'Gambler's Anonymous.' You draw up your business plan and pitch it to them and see if they will enter into what's known as a 'fiscal sponsorship.' They'll oversee your financial affairs and ensure authorities that standards are being met and the charitable purpose is being achieved. Many non-profits start out this way to test the waters. If everything runs smoothly then we can set you up properly on your own whenever you like."

"That sounds splendid, Mr. Caddell. Time is of the essence," Steele averred.

"Mr. Steele, have you given thought to what you'll call your non-profit. It's very important to have a descriptive name which spells out the purpose of your organization."

"How about this one," Steele replied with growing enthusiasm. "The 'Wives of Horseplayers of America.' The 'W.H.O.A. Fund.' Memorable, yet succinct."

Caddell raised an eyebrow in surprise. "You know, that is rather catchy. You sure you haven't done this before?"

"Not really. I do attend a lot of charity events. I suppose the lingo is beginning to rub off."

"Well, Laura, if you can shoot that business plan over to me I'll contact some groups and see if we find you a sponsor."

"Thanks Teddy. You're a godsend." Steele watched Laura and Teddy's parting embrace through narrowed eyes.

Teddy released her. "Don't be a stranger."

"I won't. I'll get back to you tomorrow with that business plan."

"Look forward to working with you, Mr. Steele." Teddy and Steele shook hands.

"Likewise, Mr. Caddell."

They left the office and started for the elevator.

"The W.H.O.A. Fund? Is that the best you could do?" Laura said scornfully.

"Do you have a better idea? Your partygoing friend seemed to like it. Just what sort of celebrating was going on at that Bacchanalian bash of his?" Steele gave her a penetrating glance.

"Nothing I couldn't handle."

"Why is it that we can't seem to conduct business without tripping over some former suitor of yours?" Steele and Laura stepped into the empty elevator.

"Is it my fault the male sex finds me irresistible?"

Steele stared appraisingly at the object of desire in question and pulled her into his arms. "Care to test that theory, Miss Holt?"

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~

Laura and Mildred were stretched out on the couch, semi-exhausted from their previous all-nighter composing the charity's business plan while Steele was on his office phone drumming up recruits.

"Jackie, I know you're just home for the holidays but you owe me mate. Lest you forget, I know about that little bookmaking scam of yours at juvenile camp. Shall I call your mother to the phone? I want you here in full kit with Christmas bells on, sharpish, in an hour."

Laura stuck her head in the door. "Teddy just called. He was able to negotiate a better deal with our sponsor. We only have to give them eight percent. He's really good at this. That was a great idea having us collecting as Santas. People are conditioned to give to someone in a red suit ringing a bell. We won't have to spend as much on advertising."

Mildred appeared in the doorway. "Speaking of advertising, Miss Holt, how long before those flyers are delivered from the print shop?"

"Maybe you'd better check on that Mildred. Have you rounded up the troops yet, Mr. Steele? I hope you told them to go by and pick up their Santa suits first. We need them dressed and ready to go."

"Just lined up the last holdout." Steele got up from his chair and put on his suit jacket. "I'm going to go pick up Herbie and George."

"I'm heading for the costume shop. Would you like me to pick up your suit?"

"Actually, my tailor should just about have mine finished." He pulled out a business card from his pocket. "Here's the address."

"You have a tailored Santa suit?"

"Of course, Laura. You wouldn't want the head Santa to be wearing something off the rack."

"Why do I ask? Give me the card," she said resignedly.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~

Mulch answered the door in complete Santa regalia. "Steele, I've been showing Herbie how he can expand his business by leaps and bounds using direct mail. We've made up some sample flyers and newsletters."

Herbie was sifting through stacks of colored paper on the coffee table.

"It's a thing of beauty, Steele." Mulch handed him a flyer. "'Herbie's Hot Picks of the Week.' Each horse on a different color sheet. Horse of a different color, get it?"

Herbie piped up enthusiastically. "With this newsletter, Harry, I can sell subscriptions and reach a lot more customers. Besides, I'm gettin' too old for field work. I'm not as fast as I used to be."

"I've noticed."

"I figure Herbie and I can take these to the track with us and do a little business on the side."

"The only business you'll be doing is collecting for the W.H.O.A. Fund. Besides, you're not going near the track. I've something else in mind for the two of you."

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~

By late afternoon, all Santas were suited up and ready for inspection. Steele passed in review, walking up and down the row, with a military air. "That's it. Chest out. Stomach out. Adjust those pillows. Symmetry. That's what we're after. The thin - uh, fat red line."

"How's the inspection going, chief?" asked Mildred who was clad in a "Mrs. Claus" outfit.

"Miserably. They look like a police line-up. I feel like I should be standing behind a piece of one-way glass. A movement in the line caught his eye. "Jackie put that Santa hat back on. Cover up that hair."

Weasel gave Jackie a nudge. "Yeah, you look like one of the BeeGee's long lost cousins."

"Last warning, Weasel. No talking in the ranks until you're dismissed. Now, let's review. We're going to deploy in groups." Steele passed out some flyers from Hollywood Park among the Santas. "The area that your group will cover has been circled on the map on page three. Here are the ground rules."

"Steele, Herbie and I didn't get a flyer," interrupted Mulch.

"Remember, you and Herbie have an off-track assignment. You're going to The Galleria. There should be tons of foot traffic there at Christmas time. Mildred, I want you to go with them and make sure they collect their share and behave themselves."

"You got it, boss."

"Now, where was I. The rules. You get two fifteen minute breaks and one hour for lunch. These suits are rented so when you eat use napkins, OK. That means you Weasel. Jackie, I want you to see Weasel doesn't make change. I don't want our donors going home with funny money. As for you, Jackie, remember all contributions must be voluntary. No light fingers, if you please."

"Whatever you say. My way's a lot faster."

"I do say. Jackie, give Sid back his wallet. Now, remember no betting while in uniform. It's contrary to our noble cause. Besides, it sets a bad example for Santa to be standing in line at the two dollar window."

Monroe strode nonchalantly through the office door, resplendent in a gray pin-stripe suit set off by a claret Hermès tie. "I got your message, Mick, eleventh hour though it was. Why didn't you call me sooner? Afraid of the competition perhaps?"

"Not at all," said Steele, looking him over with disdain. "Couldn't you at least dress appropriately for the occasion? Where's your Santa suit?"

"The costume shop is working on some special alterations, so it's mufti till tomorrow morning. Of course I'll still be lookin' good." He tweaked the tip of Steele's Santa hat. "Some of us don't have to wear a funny hat to stand out in a crowd." Steele rewarded this last with a sour smile.

Laura emerged from her office clad in fur-trimmed red. The festive ensemble was enlivened by extremely short skirt and black leather boots. She turned and did a catwalk strut in front of the assembly. "How do I look?"

She was rewarded by a chorus of catcalls and whistles.

"That's what I call standing out," said Monroe, giving her an appreciative once-over.

Steele came up behind her and breathed in her ear. "Now I know why Santa only works one night per year."

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~

After popping briskly out of the gate in the early going, Laura and Monroe found the pace of donations beginning to slacken in the long stretch run before sundown.

"We'll never make it to the wire at this rate, Monroe," said Laura dispiritedly.

"I see you're picking up the jargon." Monroe said absently. His attention was caught by two parked shuttle buses slowly unloading their cargo of passengers onto the grass.

"In situations like this, milady, comfort may be found in the 'Meditations' of Marcus Aurelius - 'always take the short cut, and that is the rational one.'"

Laura was often taken by surprise by Monroe's erudition. His knowledge was eclectic, but apt to be useful. She imagined Monroe, like Steele, was largely self taught. Both men had been destined by nature and circumstance to travel unexpected and often dangerous paths, gathering bits and pieces of enlightenment where they could find them.

Monroe surveyed the scene with a gleam in his eye. "Short cut or no," Monroe confessed, "I'm not the sort of man who can resist a captive audience."

Laura laughed. "I'm familiar with the type, Monroe. Lead on."

Monroe walked into the midst of the disjointed crowd standing in front of the buses. After introducing them both, he began intoning in a preacher's singsong. "Is there anyone of you fine citizens here today who can give me the answer to a very important question? There was no response. "Well, then is there anyone who can give me the answer to a very important question - for fifty dollars? The question is very simple. No tricks. What do you say to a horse when you want him to stop?"

"Whoa?" asked a man in a polyester jacket, who was clutching a Racing Form and an assortment of tout sheets.

"Give the man a fifty."

Not quite sure where this was heading, Laura peeled off the fifty from a roll of bills and handed it to the astonished man. He looked down, open-mouthed, at the easiest money he'd ever made at the track in his life. Laura scanned the gathering group and began to smile. Monroe had the crowd's attention now, and the outcome was a foregone conclusion. They just didn't know it yet.

He spun for them a tale in the gambler's vernacular of wins and losses, peaks and valleys, profit and loss. Of opportunities wasted and loved ones wronged. Of the promise in the words of Isaiah: "Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain."

Confessions began to fly thick and fast. The women looked to Laura for guidance and sympathy, the men flocked to Monroe. Laura was hesitant at first, but Monroe's confidence gave her courage and soon she was responding on cue. As the two of them worked the audience, the call and response became as seamless as the point and counterpoint of a Bach fugue.

Laura continued to play to the distaff side, and Monroe exhorted the men.

"Ladies, what prized possession of yours is sitting at the pawn shop?"

"My grandmother's silverware!"

"My engagement ring!"

"My boy's stamp collection!"

"Men, what dearly beloved object has become a mere pawn in your game?"

"My big screen TV!"

"My power tools!"

"My Willie Mays baseball!"

"Does it have to be this way? Just say W.H.O.A.!"

"Just say W.H.O.A.!" "Just say W.H.O.A.!"

Laura was finding the experience pleasurably different, yet familiar. There was the same indefinable electricity in the air that she felt sometimes when she and Mr. Steele worked closely on a case. Like a horse and rider perfectly meshed - synchronized down to the closest fraction. She wondered, not for the first time, about Steele and Monroe, and how two people, different in race and background, could be so alike.

After the crowd began to move on, lighter in wallet, but richer in spirit, Laura and Monroe took a breather and sat under a tree on the cool, damp, grass.

"You're a magician, Monroe. In the Middle Ages you would have been burned at the stake."

"Excessive charm has its dangers. Speaking of charm, lady, your improvisations were delightful."

"I've had a lot of practice. Improvising, I mean."

"Mick told me how you invented Remington Steele. I knew then that he'd found the perfect partner."

"Monroe, there's something I've been wondering about for a while. I've been afraid to ask, and probably I shouldn't..."

"Ask away, fair lady."

"You've known, um, 'Mick' for a long time now." Laura hesitated, then said softly. "You have a long history togetherů memories ůsome that may not be pleasant ones. What happened with the two of you - in Barbados?"

Although he didn't seem surprised by the question, his response was guarded. "What has Mick told you?"

"Nothing, really. Just something he let slip, once."

Monroe raised a questioning eyebrow.

"The night Rudy was killed someone rigged a bomb in my loft. Mr. St-, Mick, was able to disarm it. We spent the night at a hotel. We were both scared out of our wits so neither of us got much sleep. I was lying awake and Mick was tossing and turning, mumbling something. I could only make out bits and pieces."

He held her gaze steadily but she could sense the conflicting emotions just below the surface.

"Only the two of us, and one other, know the truth of it," he said quietly. "Mick will tell you when he's ready." A fleeting shadow crossed his face.

"I'm sorry, Monroe," she said contritely. "You know how I am about unraveling mysteries."

"No need to apologize." She could see him visibly begin to relax.

"Both of you, enigmatic to the last," She smiled at him, trying to lighten the mood. "You're just alike."

"Mick and I? Alike? You wound me, lady. Now that requires an apology."

"I'll buy dinner."

"You're on."

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~

The next morning Laura, Steele, and Monroe were eating lunch in the Turf Club and totaling up the day's receipts. "How much have we taken in so far, Miss Holt?"

"About $8,000. Not a bad morning's work for everyone. We made $6,000 yesterday once we got rolling. Monroe can play an audience like a violin. Some of those old horseplayers were weeping tears of remorse."

"Old horseman's adage - blood will tell, fair lady," said Monroe. My grandfather was a preacher. Could work a tent better than any man alive."

Laura laughed. "You should have seen him, Mr. Steele. The Elmer Gantry of Hollywood Park."

"And his crowd pleasing assistant. Your lovely lady has a rare talent, Mick. She's far too gifted for your sort. She needs someone who can match her stride for stride. Not a dull plodder like yourself."

Steele ignored the gibe. "Like your audience, I've been spelIbound by Miss Holt for quite some time. Sorry I missed it. I had my hands full keeping an eye on Jackie and Weasel. I'm having to frisk them on the hour." Steele rose from his chair and put on a long coat over his Santa suit. "Monroe, watch the till. I'm going to make a small wager. Care to join me, Miss Holt?"

"I thought you'd never ask, Mr. Steele."

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~

Mildred, Herbie, and George were watching the action near the entrance to "Toys R Us." Customers had lined up outside the doors after a rumor had spread that a new shipment of Cabbage Patch dolls had arrived. Many shoppers were conversant with siege tactics, prepared for the long haul with provisions and accoutrements close at hand - bag lunches, lawn chairs, and bestsellers to read.

Herbie nodded sagely as he watched from the sidelines. "Rumors. That's just how it is at the track. You've got your eye on a hot pick with a morning line of 12-1 and a rumor starts about how they've been keeping him under wraps and the next thing you know he's been bet down to 5-2."

George nodded in sympathy. "You know, if they worked with their suppliers they could inform their best customers through direct mail when a shipment arrives and target their market. They could control when the crowds were coming and wouldn't have to have extra labor on hand all the time. Maybe I should go talk to the manager."

Mildred listened with growing irritation. "Will you two stop yapping and help me set up this table. We've got to get these signs and flyers out in time to work this crowd."

The trio looked up at the approach of a rival Santa carrying a table and assorted signs. "What are you people doing here?" he asked gruffly. "'Toys R Us' is my territory. So's that bench you two are parked on." He pointed at Herbie and George.

"Yeah? Funny, I don't see your name on it." Mildred stood with hands on hips, primed and ready for a battle of wills.

"I've been working the 'Toy's R Us' beat since this mall opened for business." The Santa took the table from under his arm and began to set up.

"Beat it, whisker-face. Possession is 9/10ths of the law. Besides, my friend there is the direct mail supervisor for 'Toys R Us."' She indicated George who beamed proudly. "Should I get on the horn to the corporate headquarters and tell them some small time St. Nick asked him to vacate the premises?"

"OK, lady. You win." He gathered up his belongings with an injured air. "Jeez, it's a jungle out here."

***

Benny, Sid, and Nathan sat drinking together in the clubhouse. They had tried to put together a show parlay, but it had

self destructed by the third race. Their pick got boxed in behind the leaders and had to go wide, finishing a disappointing fourth.

"Damn and blast all jockeys. Hanging's too good for 'em," railed Sid. The trio tore up their tickets in disgust.

Steele came up behind the group. "Back to work, gentleman. I thought I told you, betting was off limits." He winked at Laura.

"It's lunch time, Harry. Give a guy a break." Nathan shifted his considerable bulk, favoring his sore foot.

"I'll let it go, this time. Mind those uniforms. No chili dogs allowed."

"Harry, you know my wife won't let me eat that stuff anymore," whined Nathan. "My cardiologist put me on an exercise program. I'm supposed to be at the gym right now."

"Nathan, how far would you say it is from here to that two dollar window?" asked Steele.

"I don't know Harry. About a hundred feet?"

"Tell your doctor not to worry. You probably walk at least a mile a day."

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~

Between the direct hit scored by Herbie, Mulch, and Mildred on the 'Toys R Us' crowd and the generous gifts of other shoppers, the take for the W.H.O.A. fund was beginning to add up.

Mildred glanced worriedly at the cash drawer. "I'm going to take this money down to the bank for deposit. It's over there next to Banana Republic. I'll leave enough for you two to make change."

Herbie and George sat down tiredly on the bench, grateful for the temporary reprieve.

"Remember your orders. No business on the side. After your break you keep on collecting the dough. I don't want the two of you moving more than twenty feet from your assigned post." Mildred gave them a final warning glare and set off for the bank.

Herbie and George waited for her to round the corner, then sprang into action, pulling stacks of flyers from various hiding places inside their Santa hats, boots, and coats.

George hurriedly gathered his stacks of flyers on the benefits of direct mail marketing and tucked them under his arm. "The crowd seems to have thinned out enough now. I'm going to go talk to the manager at 'Toys R Us.' I'm sure he's never before encountered someone of my expertise." He strode purposefully toward the store, a man on a mission.

Herbie was busily arranging his "Picks of the Week" flyers on the bench when a potential customer approached. She was a solemn-eyed, brown-haired girl, eleven years old, going on twelve. "Are those your horses?" she asked Herbie curiously.

He cleared a spot for her to sit down. "I don't own 'em honey. I just pick 'em. You know, like those movie guys with the 'thumbs up, thumbs down' gig."

She digested this bit of information, then said wistfully, "I wish I had a horse. My parents won't even buy me a pony."

"Yeah? Neither would mine, kid. You ever go to the track?"

"Nope. They won't take me there either."

"Well, if you ever get there you're gonna need a system. That is, if you want to pick a winner. Horses have two things - speed and stamina, uh, that means they can go the distance. You go back as far as twelve generations in a horse's family tree on his father's side, see. Then you figure how many great sires or 'chefs-de-race' passed these qualities down the line to your horse."

The girl stared at him in polite confusion. "I don't think I get it."

Herbie pressed on. "You rate the chefs-de-race by speed and stam- aw, never mind, kid. It's a complicated mathematical formula. Lot's of grownups can't figure it out."

"I'd like to go to the track," the girl said eagerly. "It'd be even more fun than watching the Kentucky Derby on TV. I bet I could pick a winner."

"I bet you could, too. Listen, my father, God rest him, gave me a piece of advice I'll always remember. He said never lose your heart to a horse."

"What does that mean?"

"Never mind, kid. He was wrong. There's nothin' like it. Picking your first winner. To see that horse going all out, surging over the finish line. It's like it's happening just for you."

"I wish you could make my parents understand. How I feel about horses, I mean."

"When you get older, there'll be other things. Your first date. Prom night. All that stuff. You'll forget about horses for a while." The girl looked doubtful at this prediction.

"But once you've lost your heart to the ponies, you always come back. Trying to get back that feeling of that first time. I've been doing it all my life. So have most of the other bums I know."

Herbie's reverie was rudely interrupted by the simultaneous arrival of the girl's parents and a furious Mildred. The girl's mother grabbed her offspring by the arm and dragged her off the bench.

"Where have you been, young lady? We've been looking all over for you."

"Remember what I told you kid."

"I will." A mute understanding passed between Herbie and the girl like a secret handshake. A new initiate had been welcomed into the fold.

Mildred huffed down at Herbie like a fire-breathing dragon. "I can't leave you two alone for a minute. I warned you about business on the side. The boss is going to have my hide. Where's Mulch?"

"Uh, he stepped out for a moment," said Herbie nervously, unwilling to turn in a fellow miscreant.

"Where is he, you bum?" She grabbed him by his fur-trimmed jacket. "Give, or I'm taking all of 'Herbie Hot Picks' to the recycle bin."

"He's over at 'Toys R Us.'"

She released her grip. "That wasn't so hard, was it?"

Mildred saw Mulch deep in conversation with the store manager. The latter was smiling politely and glancing at his watch. "You know, I had an idea for a doll once that was even better than this Cabbage Patch deal," Mulch enthused. I'll bet with the resources of your company I could really make that idea fly."

George shrank back as he saw a spitting mad Mildred barreling toward the two of them. "Uh, I think it's about time for me to feed my reindeer."

"You'd better believe it, buster."

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~

Laura and Steele found Weasel and Jackie chatting up two blondes by the track's main admissions booth.

"Break time's over. Places please." Steele peeled one of the blondes off of Jackie's arm. "Sorry luv, he's on the clock."

"Some Christmas vacation," moaned Jackie. You know how hard it is to attract women in this get up? This Santa hat's ruining my hair style."

"Your hair seems to have a mind of it's own. I'm sure it will recover."

"You know, as well as we're doing, it's still slow work." Laura looked thoughtful. "It may be time soon to go after bigger fish."

"You mean Plan B?" asked Steele. "Pittsburgh Phil? Got any ideas yet on how to bag our quarry?"

"Inspiration is lacking at the moment."

Weasel spoke up. "I hear he likes schoolgirls."

"Schoolgirls?" asked Steele curiously.

"Yeah. All these mob guys went to Catholic schools. Phil's a reject from Our Savior of the Five Wounds. So are the Milano brothers. I should know. It's my alma mater. Phil likes to pretend he's the Big Man on Campus - which he never was at school from what I hear. There's always girls over at his compound playing dress-up."

Steele looked over at Laura, his gradual smile breaking in to a wide grin.

"Mr. Steele. What's wrong? I don't like the way you're looking at me." Puzzlement gave way to burgeoning shock as Laura realized that hand up or not - she had just been volunteered for a part in the high school play.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~

"This is by far the most ill gotten, ill conceived, illogical idea you've ever come up with."

"Would you stop fidgeting Laura?" Steele was trying to fasten a fraternity pin to her shirtfront. "I haven't pinned a schoolgirl in years." He stood back, surveying his handiwork. "Perfect."

"When did you ever meet any schoolgirls?" she inquired with doubtful sarcasm.

"What cherished memories. Those halcyon days at University. The secret initiations, the clandestine rendezvous, the ivy covered walls. Actually, that ivy could be a bit slippery if you weren't careful."

She considered this revelation doubtfully. "Which University was that, Mr. Steele? The one on the Cam or on the Thames? Or do you know the difference?"

Steele remained perfectly straight-faced. "What does the geography matter? It's the experience that counts, especially in regard to schoolgirls."

Laura rolled her eyes. One of these days, Mr. Steele, she vowed silently, I'm going to throttle all of your secrets out of you.

Laura was dressed in a very short plaid skirt and starched white blouse. Her hair was pulled back into a pony tail and she wore a pair of white Keds which set off her long, tanned legs to perfection.

"I think the ensemble is complete," said Steele with a satisfied smirk. "Weasel, you're the expert. Does she pass inspection?"

"She's got my vote for best student body."

Steele dusted an imaginary speck from the frat pin with a proprietary air. "Just remember, she's spoken for."

"By Marty Kloppman. It's his frat pin."

"The man already gets a box of kisses every Christmas. That should satisfy all prior claims."

Laura glanced down at the pin and sighed. "I've been meaning to give it back to him. He pinned another sorority girl my sophomore year. She had a very large - trust fund. She's Mrs. Kloppman now."

Laura picked up her purse and moved toward the door, her face set with grim determination. "Enough reminiscing. Let's just get this over with, shall we?"

Steele helped her into her coat. "Best cover up in front of those Feds. You don't exactly look philanthropic."

"You're so right, Mr. Steele." She gave him a murderous stare. "Charity is the farthest thing from my mind."

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~

Laura's purse was checked for weapons and she was frisked by a female F.B.I. agent before she was allowed into Phil's presence. Two male agents flanked her as they approached the door. The senior of the two opened it and said in bored tones, "Phil. You've got a visitor. A Miss, uh - "

"Kloppman."

"She's here about some charity donation."

"What donation?" He turned and surveyed Laura who had opened her coat just a fraction.

"Better to give than to receive I always say." He ran his hands through his greased-back hair and gave her a wolfish leer.

The agents left the room and closed the door.

"Now, Miss Kloppman. Sit down here and tell me about your - needs."

"Well Mr. um..may I call you Phil?" Laura repressed a shudder as she slowly removed her coat.

"You can call me day or night."

She sat down next to him, her skirt revealing a tempting expanse of thigh.

"Phil, I represent a charity which I believe is very close to your heart."

"How close?"

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~

Steele and Weasel sat in the car outside the gates of Phil's shiny, new compound in Trousdale. Steele's face was lined with worry. "Laura's certainly been in there a long time. How long does it take to write a check?"

"Yeah. It's not like Phil. He's always been a fast closer if you know what I mean."

"I'm going in there."

"Steele, the place is crawling with Feds. I'll lay you even money your Virgin Mary in training can take care of herself. If I'm right, it won't be the first time Phil doesn't make it to first base with a schoolgirl. He'll think he's having a high school flashback."

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~

Laura leaned back, straightening her frat pin and tightening her collar after catching Phil looking down her blouse.

"You know, you remind me of my history teacher. Sister Mary Cherry we used to call her. We were always wondering what kind of underwear she wore under that habit."

Laura was praying fervently and vengefully for a bolt of divine lightning to strike Phil dead as a doornail. She wondered how many credits she had on account as a lapsed Episcopalian.

When her prayers went unheeded Laura steered the conversation back to the mission at hand. "I'm sure a man as devout as yourself realizes that it's never too late to make amends for the sins of the past. Our organization recognizes that people may fall short of the mark but they can be redeemed. All it takes is an act of charity to wipe the slate clean."

"I understand about restitution, honey. But a man in my position can't afford to show fear. I'm supposed to kiss and make up with the Feds? The people I deal with every day are animals. They smell fear."

"Would you be dealing from a position of strength from a prison cell? Justice has a long memory. So does Judge Kendrick. What was that name you called him? That transcript will be a riveting read at your sentencing hearing, don't you agree? Contrition is good for the soul."

"OK, sweetheart. You win. The money's yours. On one condition."

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~

Steele and Weasel looked up to see Laura running for the car.

"I got it! Signed, sealed, and notarized." She waved the check in the air.

"How much, Laura?" She handed Steele the check.

"Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars!"

"Believe me," said Laura breathlessly, pulling her coat tightly around her. "I had to pay for every one of those zeros."

"Laura what happened in there? Are you sure you're all right? I was beginning to worry." Steele searched her face frantically and realized he had no real clue what she had been through. "Did he try anything? If he did, Feds or no, when I'm done with him he'll just be a greasy spot wearing a cheap suit."

"Can the tough dialog, will you? It doesn't impress me. Besides, I've had all the macho posturing I can stomach for one day." She gave both Weasel and Steele a withering glance and stalked away from the car.

"Laura, wait." He caught her and turned her to face him.

She glared back, breathing hard, only able to gasp out one word. "Men!"

"Laura. Forgive me. Please. I should never have asked you to do this. I can't believe I've been so bloody selfish. I should have gone after that money myself and taken it out of Phil's hide."

She snorted contemptuously. "That approach would have gotten you killed - and us nowhere."

"Maybe you're right. But this never would have happened if I hadn't been trying to find some clever angle. I should have just loaned Herbie the money." Steele stroked Laura's cheek softly. "I'm sorry."

Laura let him gather her into his arms. Despite her residual anger she enjoyed the sensation and began to feel her equilibrium recover. "I'm all right, really. Just thankful I never went to Catholic school."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Oh, nothing. I get the feeling the experience warped a lot of young minds."

"That's a rather sweeping generalization."

"Sorry. You're right. I'm sure Phil is a special case."

"Just exactly what did he ask you to do for that check?"

"You're not going to leave this alone, are you?"

"No."

"I had to stand on a chair."

"A chair?"

"And sing the school fight song. The unorthodox version. 'Give 'em hell, Our Savior.' Somehow I don't think Jesus would have approved. According to Phil neither did the principal. Phil and his singing school chums were expelled their senior year. Of course, the fact that they belted it out after the homily at Christmas Eve Mass might have had something to do with it."

Steele fought an incipient urge to make the sign of the cross. A man like Phil was capable of anything. Maybe those were just the preliminaries. The next question was perilous but he had to know. "Laura, is that all?"

"Isn't that enough? Laura barked at him. "It was disgusting." She had a sudden queasy flashback of Phil sitting on the floor trying to peer under her skirt.

"Yes, but did he-" Steele started to probe further but was stopped by her murderous expression. "Let me rephrase, um, what happened next?"

"The alma mater. The chorus was sheer poetry." Laura sang out in ladylike tones, hand over her heart. '"Sons and daughters, sing her praises, with this joyful tune. Hail to thee, our alma mater. Hail to thee, Five Wounds.' I forget the rest."

"I hope that's all of it."

"Well, except for the confession booth."

"Laura, you didn't."

"Impersonate a priest? No. I got a last minute dispensation."

"From the Pope?"

"From Phil's lawyer. He walked in with some papers for Phil to sign. I think I made his day, actually. He thought the donation was a brilliant move. Phil took credit for the idea of course. He even got one of the FBI clerks to notarize the transaction."

"Laura, Phil's lawyer was right you know." Steele tilted her chin up to face him. "It was a brilliant move. Herbie owes you a lot. So do all of those families you're helping. So do I. Then again, I always have."

Laura looked him in the eye trying to discern if it was idle flattery. She finally decided it wasn't and her anger began to dissipate. She felt herself weakening, yearning to give in and just let him hold her. Stubbornness and a hint of shrewdness held her back. It wasn't yet time to let him off the hook. Not when advantage could be gained from letting him dangle.

"You certainly do owe me, Mr. Steele. I plan to devote all my waking moments to defining exactly what, how, and when." She turned on her heel and marched briskly back to the car, Steele following a subservient three steps behind her.

Weasel looked up nervously at their approach, wondering if the storm had passed. He whistled tunelessly and studied his fingernails.

"Mr. Steele," said Laura firing a final shot across the bow. "The next time you try to recruit me for one of your scams remind me to take a long vacation. Somewhere very remote. Maybe I can spend next Christmas in Nepal."

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~

The First Christmas Ball for the W.H.O.A. Fund was a smashing success. Steele gave a stirring speech which had many of the city's movers and shakers opening their calfskin wallets and beaded purses. With assistance from 'Gambler's Anonymous' and various social services, many needy families enjoyed Christmas dinner and presents under the tree.

Steele managed to escape from the avid attentions of a group of society matrons. He made his way through the crowd to Weasel who was newly arrived on the scene.

"Well, did your tete-a-tete with Phil's enforcer go according to plan?" Steele asked somewhat apprehensively.

"Without a hitch. You shoulda seen Joey Salazzo's face when I gave him the money. He was wondering if Herbie had stumbled on the hot streak of his life."

Steele felt an uncomfortable flash of déjà vu. I hope it doesn't encourage him to sample some of Herbie's 'Hot Picks' or we could be back where we started."

"Don't think so. I told him Herbie had borrowed the money. From a member of the 'family' so to speak."

"Well, I suppose that's true, relatively speaking. Bar's open. I'll buy you a drink."

"A small commission would be nicer."

"It's all been taken care of. We just added another line item to Herbie's consulting fee."

"Fair enough, pal. Now I can re-carpet my summer home."

"Still the El Dorado? Third Cadillac from the left?"

"You got it."

Laura almost bumped into Teddy Caddell who was making his way through the crowd with a glass of eggnog.

"Well, Laura. How's that left hook? Do I get the chance to go a few rounds or am I down for the count?" He bobbed and weaved, punching the air with his free hand.

Laura's face flushed with embarrassment as an awful possibility flashed through her mind. It suddenly occurred to her that Phil's compound was probably wired for sound and the recitations of a certain Miss Kloppman might be on the playlist of the F.B.I.'s Greatest Hits. She stared numbly past Teddy's shoulder.

"What is it Laura? Did I say something wrong?" asked Teddy, utterly dazed and confused.

"I wonder if that cash bar is still open. I need a drink." She elbowed him aside and walked off with a distracted air.

"Well, so much for the two of us hitting the canvas together," Teddy mused philosophically. He downed his eggnog and moved off in search of greener pastures.

Mildred gave Herbie and George the news that the markers were clear and it was all systems go. "Stay out of trouble, you bums. Say," she whispered in Herbie's ear. "Give me a stack of those 'Hot Picks.' That 'Toys R Us' manager gave me his phone number. He asked me out to the track tomorrow. Wish me luck." She stuck assorted flyers into her purse and walked jauntily to the buffet.

"Ya know, Herbie that reminds me," said Mulch. "I think once your 'Hot Pick's' build a little momentum we could branch out into a line of toys. 'Herbie's Horses of a Different Color.' We could start out selling 'em in the track gift shop with a free 'Hot Pick' in the box for dad. Who knows? Once it takes off we could be in malls everywhere. Then there's fast food tie-ins, Saturday morning cartoons. 'My Little Pony and Rainbow Brite' will be eating our dust."

"You think so? I guess every little girl wants a pony. Maybe that would tide 'em over until the real thing comes along."

They walked off, talking a mile a minute, bound by the brotherhood of the sales pitch and dreaming of conquests yet to come.

A ragged line of Santas stood at the cash bar and watched the action from a safe distance. One family with twelve kids in tow made a run for the presents with much pushing and shoving of each other and unfortunate bystanders.

"Mick, I'll lay you a dollar at 4-1 the red-haired boy reaches the presents first."

"Done," replied Steele swiftly.

"He's certainly broken well out of the gate. He's clear of the field," observed Monroe

One of the four youngsters vying for second tripped and veered wildly, collapsing a nearby pole and theater ropes.

"The fat kid's lugging out," remarked Steele. And I think we just lost the quarter pole."

The cries of parents calling for order and children screaming with delight inspired the contenders to new heights of speed and strategy. A lanky boy with dark hair and a Dodgers cap disentangled himself from a group of four bringing up the rear. He was far off the pace but beginning to gain ground with a long, reaching stride.

Monroe cheered on his pick with cries of "go, Big Red" as the runners headed into the stretch.

"I think Big Red is tiring, my friend," noted Steele with a grin. "He should have saved something for the finish."

"Nonsense, Mick. My chestnut's a front runner. He doesn't like to be rated."

"I hope he has more than quitting speed," said Steele. "I think he's going to need it."

The boy in the Dodgers cap had moved into second and was challenging for the lead. He turned on a final, desperate burst of speed, culminating in a flying tackle which knocked Monroe's favourite out of the running.

Monroe stared in utter amazement at this blatant misconduct. "I think an inquiry is called for my friend. Where are the stewards when you really need them?"

Steele held out a hand. "My winnings, please," he said smirking.

Laura, emboldened by her first Margarita, came up behind Steele and put her arms around his waist.

"Mind the pillow Laura, you'll spoil the line of Santa's suit."

She purred seductively in his ear. "What do you say, big fella? Let's go back to my place for a nightcap. There's something I've been curious about for a long, long, time."

"Really?" Steele flashed her a lascivious grin.

"Does Santa sleep with his whiskers outside the covers or in?"

"Miracle on 34th Street. Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, 20th Century Fox, 19-"

Laura silenced him with a kiss.
 
 

THE END

 


December 2000

 

[ Steele A State Of Mind ]