Disclaimer: I don't own the Mannix characters. They belong to someone else. I thought I'd just play with them for a while.
The Gift of Christmas
Joe Mannix hoisted the meta-flake green bicycle onto his shoulder and carried it down the stairs from his apartment. Waiting at the bottom of the stairs stood his secretary, Peggy Fair. Her usual business attire was topped with a Santa hat. They had attended the annual Paseo Christmas Party at the Downstairs Bar, but like others on Christmas Eve they had a few final errands to run.
"Thanks, Joe. I really appreciate you letting me keep Toby's Christmas present at your place," she said as she followed him through the festive Paseo to her car. "I drove all over Los Angeles County looking for that bike. I was lucky to find it."
"You mean Toby's lucky." Joe admired the chrome fenders, the 5-speed stick shift, the hi-rise handlebars and the banana seat. "Sure didn't have bikes like this when I was a boy." He stuffed the bicycle into the backseat of her car.
"When are you picking up your father?" Peggy asked.
"As soon as you're gone, I'm gone. His plane arrives from Fresno in about a half hour."
"Don't forget Christmas dinner's at 2 PM."
"Can't wait. Thanks for inviting us." He held the driver's door open. "Now go straight home."
"I will. Merry Christmas, Joe."
Joe dug his car keys out of his pocket. The cinnamon smell of pumpkin pies from the bakery reminded him of his mother's lokma, something he would never taste again. In the ten years since her death, he hadn't spent a Christmas with anyone in his family. Until this October he hadn't even spoken to his father, but that was the past. Forgiveness takes a long time.
"Golden West Flight 317 from Fresno now arriving at Gate 8."
Joe waded into the Santa Monica Terminal amid the crush of last minute Christmas travelers. At the arrival gate, he spotted his father. Stefan Mannix carried a brown paper shopping bag, a photo album and a small suitcase. Joe beamed; whenever his father left Summer Grove he always wore his 'special' blue suit and blue and gold striped tie. Stefan didn't consider himself properly dressed unless he wore his miniature Armenian flag pin on his right lapel. Like his son he always had one lock of hair that went astray.
"Shnorhavor Nor Daree, Pa."
"Happy Christmas? Have you forgotten that Armenian Christmas is on January 6th?"
Joe mentally counted to three. "Yes, I remember when Armenian Christmas is." He reached for the suitcase. "Let me carry that for you."
The elder Mannix shrugged away from his son. "What's the matter? You think I'm too old to carry my own bags?"
"I didn't mean that. Just trying to help." Always with his father he felt like he was twelve years old. He stuffed his hands in his pockets. "How was the flight?" he asked.
He guided his father through the crowds to the parking lot. "What's in the bag?"
"I brought presents for you, your secretary and her little boy and . . ." he said. "Armenian coffee. None of that instant stuff you drink."
"Great, Pa. Maybe you could show Peggy how to make good coffee."
"We'll see." When his father said that, Joe knew that meant he had no intention of doing it. He was convinced his father would almost always do the opposite of what he suggested.
As Joe opened the trunk of his car for his father, his car phone buzzed.
"What's that noise?" his father asked, frowning as he searched for the source of the sound.
"It's my phone."
"You have a phone in your car?"
Joe perched on the driver's seat. "Mannix," he answered.
"Joe, it's Peggy."
"Hi, Peggy. You don't have to remind . . ."
"Somebody broke into my car and stole Toby's new bicycle!"
"What? Are you alright?"
"I'm fine, but the car's a mess."
He could hear the tears in her voice. "Where are you?"
"I'm on Halpern near Normandie—the liquor store on the corner. Oh, Joe . . ."
"I'll be right there." Joe hung up the phone.
"What's wrong, Joseph?" his father asked. He settled into the passenger seat.
"Peggy's in trouble." As he drove off, he could hear his father mumbling "My son has a phone in his car," and out of the corner of his eye, he saw his father shake his head.
Arriving at Halpern Street in the fading light, Joe parked his car behind Peggy's. The street smelled of the downwardly mobile, a mixture of fake evergreen and car exhaust. Sagging garlands wrapped around the windows and doors of the Crown Liquor Store. The Christmas lights competed with the street lights to see which could give out the least amount of brightness. A few residents shuffled by.
He recognized Sergeant Les Packer of the Gang Squad and Officer Carlos Perralta. Peggy clutched a brown paper bag and paced the sidewalk.
"What happened? What are you doing around here?" Joe asked Peggy.
"I forgot to get the brandy. I saw the liquor store and thought I'd pop in and come right out. Oh, Joe what am I going to do? It took me two weeks to find that bicycle."
"Joseph, don't forget your manners."
"Oh, yeah, Pa, this is Peggy Fair, my secretary."
"Please call me Peggy."
"What kind of person steals Christmas presents from children?" Stefan asked.
"The Nomads, a bunch of local juvenile delinquents." Packer answered. "You're Joe's father?" He extended his hand to the elder Mannix. " Sergeant Packer, LAPD."
"Sergeant Packer, I'm Stefan."
"Is this what's got you out here on Christmas Eve, Les?" Joe asked. He checked the damage to Peggy's car. The right rear window was smashed and broken glass littered the seat. Her Santa hat lay forgotten next to her purse.
"We've been getting reports of smash-and-grab jobs like this all over the area. Problem is we can't catch 'em in the act, and we can't figure out where they're hiding the stolen loot. I was hoping that a visible police presence might deter them. No luck. Peggy, sorry about this."
"Are you through here, Les?" Joe asked. Packer nodded and Joe took Peggy by the shoulders and steered her to the driver's door. "This time go straight home, please."
"But, Joe . . ."
"I'll run around and see if I can find another bike. Toby'll just have to settle for what's available on Christmas Eve."
Joe watched Peggy drive away and returned to the policeman. "I assume you've tried putting a tail on some of the gang members."
"Yeah, but they know the Gang Squad and all the local cops. That's why we borrowed Carlos from your neighborhood. We even had him dress in civilian clothes."
"The Nomads made me as a cop pretty fast," Carlos said. "If we follow them, they don't go near the stolen toys. You know, this is the fifth break-in today."
"They don't know me," Stefan Mannix said.
Joe glared at his father. "What?" A sudden chill made the hairs on the back of his neck to rise to attention.
"That's very brave of you, Mr. Mannix," Packer said, "But being a decoy could be very dangerous."
"If it will get the boy's bicycle back, I'll do it."
"There's no guarantee that will happen."
"Pa . . .you're seventy-one . . ."
"What has my age got to do with this? Look, Sergeant Packer, you always say citizens don't want to get involved and help the police. Here I am. I want to help."
"Maybe . . . could have him wear a wire so we could hear everything that's going on."
"Les, you're not thinking of . . . Pa, wait a minute."
"Joseph, the police are here. You are here. I know you won't let anything happen to me."
"But the Nomads are . . ."
"a bunch of little boys. So all I have to do is follow them to where the bicycle is. The police will be following me, and you'll be following them. Therefore I'll be safe."
"Joseph! I am the father. You are the son. You do not make decisions for me." Stefan turned to Packer. "Now what is this wire thing?"
"Carlos, there's a kit in the trunk. Take Mr. Mannix inside the store and put the mic on him. Set to transmit only."
Packer took out his notebook and drew a map of the stores in the area. "With the wire on him, we'll hear everything that's happening. And we won't be that far away. There's only about three stores in the area that sell toys and bicycles. I'll plot out his route. Carlos will be on the street ahead of him, and we'll be behind in the cruiser listening in. I'll also alert the other units in the area to our plan." Packer continued drawing the map. "Oh, and Joe, bring your father by the station later. He needs to sign a release."
Carlos returned with Stefan and handed Packer the receiver unit. "I've already tested it. I could hear him just fine."
"Okay, Mr. Mannix, here's a map. We're right here." Packer pointed to a spot on the paper. "Just follow this route. You can't miss the stores." Packer nodded to Carlos to send him on his way.
"Pa, you don't have to do this. We can find Toby another bike."
"I have to try."
"Joseph . . ." Stefan touched his son's shoulder. "I trust you."
Joe eyed his father as he left. "Les, if anything happens to my father . . ."
"Relax, he's perfect. He looks like somebody's grandfather. The Nomads will never suspect him."
Joe and Packer crossed the street to his unmarked police cruiser. Packer placed the receiver for Stefan's microphone on the dashboard and grabbed the mike to his radio.
"All units in the vicinity of Halpern and Normandie, go to TAC2 and await further instructions." Packer adjusted his radio to the new channel. From the receiver, they heard car engines and footsteps, the tinkle of a bell as a door opened and closed.
"Merry Christmas, may I help you?" a man's voice asked.
"Merry Christmas to you. I'm looking for a Schwinn Stingray bicycle."
"Sorry, mister, we haven't had one of those in here in months."
"Do you know where I could find one?"
"Not really. Maybe after Christmas."
"That's too late. Thank you."
Packer started the cruiser, made a U-turn and slowly rounded the corner. He pulled up to the curb. About two blocks away, Joe saw his father leave the store. One down; two to go.
At the next store, Stefan repeated his request with the same result. Two down; one to go.
Tap . . .
"Could you stop that?" Packer asked.
Tap, tap, tap . . .
Tap, tap, tap, tap . . .
Tap, tap . . .
"Oh." Joe stopped. A moment later his left foot began a rhythm of its own.
"Jeez, you're making me nervous."
"He's not your father," Joe mumbled.
Packer drove slowly down the street keeping Stefan in sight as he reached the third store. The third store, Jenson's, didn't have any bicycles either. Right before Stefan left the store, the sergeant noticed a member of the Nomads. "See the kid who came out ahead of Stefan?"
Joe saw a young blond boy about 12 years old in a blue jean jacket and black Converses.
"That's Bird," Packer said to Joe. "All units, we have contact. Jenson's."
"What you looking for, Pops?"
"I'm looking for a . . ." Joe saw his father squint at the paper. ". . . a Schwinn Stingray. The man in the store said they are sold out. I guess I'll have to disappoint my grandson."
"I know where you could get one."
"How could you have one and not a store?"
"Don't worry 'bout that. I have a 'store.' You want the bike or not?"
"I don't know . . . it's not stolen, is it?"
"What do you care, old man? Don't want to disappoint your grandson, do you?"
"He has been a good boy this year. Let me take a look at it."
"Follow me." Footsteps echoed against concrete.
"Where are you taking me?"
"To the store."
"What is this place?"
"Stookey's Dance Hall." Three knocks, two knocks, one knock.
"Your father's good. Maybe we should use him more often."
"Don't get any ideas," Joe grumbled.
"All units – Stookey's. One unit on the backside. We're going in down the alley." Packer eased the cruiser to the mouth of the alley in time to see Stefan disappear into the back alley entrance to the dance hall.
"You've got a lot of toys in here." They heard Stefan say. "I don't see any bicycle."
The squeal of rubber on concrete.
"Just making sure the brakes work, Pops."
"That sounds like Mouse." Packer said.
"Is this the right bicycle—a stingray bicycle?"
"You got it, Pops. The Pea Picker, the latest and greatest."
"How much you want for this?"
"One hundred twenty-five bucks."
"One hundred twenty-five! The man at the store said this sells for eighty-five dollars."
"Yeah, well, in this store, we have a carrying charge."
"One hundred twenty-five dollars . . ."
"We don't have all day, old man."
"Hey, tur indz, vor yet! That's more than a hundred dollars in there. Give it back!" Packer and Joe heard scraping and voices yelling.
"All units, move in!"
Before Packer could finish his command, Joe jumped from the police cruiser and raced to the last door in the alleyway. He rammed the door with his shoulder. "Pa!" He hit the door again busting it loose from its hinges; he tumbled into the dusty back room.
"Joseph, what took you so long?"
Joe stood up to knock the dust and dirt off his hands and pants. Packer and Carlos rushed in and chuckled at the sight of Stefan sitting on top of one of the Nomads with the other two boys struggling to free themselves from his headlocks.
"Get him off of me . . . I can't breathe," gasped the Nomad beneath Stefan.
Stefan scowled at the boy he was sitting on. "You should be ashamed of yourself. Shut up, you little thief, you."
"It's alright, Mr. Mannix, we've got them now." Sergeant Packer motioned to the other officers to take the gang members. Joe reached out to his father. Stefan grasped his son's hand and rose from the floor. Carlos took custody of the Nomad Stefan had pinned.
"Thank you, Joseph."
Joe picked up his father's wallet. "Pa, what were you doing wrestling with these kids? You could have been hurt."
"You think you're the only one in this family who knows how to fight? Who taught you?"
"Well, you did."
Stefan dusted the dirt from his clothes and searched for the fallen bicycle. It laid against a pile of overturned toys. He picked it up and began pushing it towards the door.
"Wait a minute, Mr. Mannix. That's evidence."
"Les, after all my father has done, you're not going to impound the bike? It's Christmas Eve. I promise I'll bring the bike to the station so you can photograph it or whatever else you need to do."
"Well, . . ."
"Joseph's right. Let the children have their Christmas toys. I am a witness. I will testify at the trial."
"I guess I could have the parents come and identify them." Packer surveyed the stacks of toys. "And I don't really want to put all that into evidence tonight. I want to get home Christmas Eve not Christmas Day." He sighed. "Okay, Joe, Mr. Mannix, wish Peggy and Toby a Merry Christmas from the LAPD. Thanks to your father, there are a whole lot of kids who are going to have a Christmas."
"I just wanted to get the boy's bike back." Stefan studied the recovered bicycle and shook his head. "Children actually ride these things? Doesn't look like any bike I bought you as a boy."
Joe recalled his father teaching him how to ride a bike using an old red Schwinn with balloon tires. "No, it doesn't. Come on, Pa. Let's call Peggy and tell her the good news."
"On your phone in the car? Can I do it?" Stefan asked.
"I thought . . ." Joe grinned at his father's eagerness. "Of course! You can even drive if you want to."
"No, you drive. I don't think I could drive and talk on the phone at the same time. "
As Stefan pushed the bicycle down the alley, Joe strolled beside him. He placed his hand on his father's shoulder appreciating that he had been given the best Christmas gift he would ever get.