"So, Jake, what you're telling me is that you don't know where you left that parcel?"
Jake buried his face in his hands. "No, I don't remember. I don't remember much of yesterday."
"You have a fair-sized lump on your head," Conn admitted. "The doc checked you out and said that you probably fell. He mentioned that you would end up with a bit of a headache this morning." Conn grinned.
Jake raised his head. "Listen, Conn, give me a break, will ya? It's Christmas Day, for God's sake." His voice cracked with desperation.
Conn gave Jake a silent, level stare. One finger tapped the paperwork in front of him. "You realize, Jake, that if the Chief finds out that I didn't file the whole report, I'm in deep trouble."
Jake rose, plucking his battered ball cap from Conn's desk. "Thanks, Conn. You don't know how much this means to me," he began.
"I don't want your gratitude, Jake. It won't wash here anymore. This is the third time this month I've seen you." He stood up. "The Chief will be in at nine. If you're not back here before then - and with the goods...." His threat was never finished, but Jake had no trouble filling in the details.
"You mean, you'd... Your own brother?"
"Exactly why." Conn's tone softened slightly. "Look, Jake, you've got a beautiful wife and great kids. The people of this town trust you. Don't toss all that for something stupid like this." Then the professional barrier was back. "You have two hours, Jake, then I file my entire report."
Jake scrambled for the door.
"And for crying out loud, use the back door, Jake. I can only keep my mouth shut, not the whole department's."
Jake plopped the cap into its usual position on the back of his head. He flinched as it skidded across his newest bruise. "The back door. Right, Conn. I promise, this will be the last time..."
"Save it, Jake. Just get out."
Jake crept down the deserted hallway. The Chief would be furious to see him, especially after losing something as important as... Jake shook his head, trying to deny the whole situation. He moaned as the movement send waves of pain through his head and down his spine. Carefully, he negotiated the narrow stairwell leading to the back door. The alley behind the office building would afford suitable concealment for now. The clang of the fire door slamming shut behind him did nothing to alleviate his agony.
He stopped at the top of the stairs to the parking lot. Where was he to go? Where did he leave that parcel? That all important, accursed parcel. Jake's career, his standing in the community, his home and marriage, everything that was important to him would be in ruins because he lost that parcel! Why on earth had he ever agreed to it?
Jake tried to think as he descended the concrete steps, but his footfalls kept jarring his head.
Joe's! He was at Joe's last night! Joe might have the parcel. Then he could get back to Conn and no one would be the wiser. That had to be where he left it. It had to be!
Had anyone been looking out their window that Christmas morning, they would have seen the star quarterback of '75, the kid voted "Most Likely to Succeed", the youngest son of the former Chief of Police, skulking along the alleyways like a kid playing hooky from school. Pain-wracked and bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, Jake stumbled eastward. He tried to keep to the shadows and hedges, but the crimson outfit he wore made complete concealment impossible.
"Let's see," he muttered. "I went home first, then to Joe's. I can't go home. Annie would have my hide." He leaned against a telephone pole, desolate. "And the kids! How could I be so cruel to them? Even Conn wouldn't stoop so low." His shoulders sagged in defeat. Why bother? By noontime, the whole town would know of his stupidity. So much for his political career. How could he have done this to Annie and the kids? Why?
He was ready to turn back when he remembered Conn's words. "I can keep my mouth shut..." Conn would keep quiet. Anyone who saw him last night would not remember anything unusual. He hoped. Maybe he was safe? Maybe he could salvage something from this mess.
He straightened and began to walk. It had to be at Joe's. It was there, he reassured himself.
Jake leaned on the buzzer. He finally heard Joe moving around inside. "C'mon, Joe. Answer the bloody door," he whispered.
"Jake! What are you doing here? It's Christmas Day, you stupid sod," Joe's British accent rang out in the morning silence. "I'm not..."
"Shhh, keep your voice down. I know, Joe. Look, this is important."
Joe heaved a sigh. "It always is, boyo, it always is. What's up?"
Joe, did I leave a parcel here last night?"
"A parcel?" Joe's astonishment was plain. "You woke me up for something like that? Jake, if that don't beat all. How the hell should I know if you left something here?"
"Can I come in and look? Listen, it's important."
"No, you can't." It was a blank refusal. "What kind of parcel?"
"I guess it would be about so big," Jake began, measuring an eighteen inch cube with his hands. "I think it was in a plastic shopping bag, but I'm not sure."
"That doesn't surprise me, Jake," Joe said dryly. "Nope. I didn't see anything like that when I cleaned up."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, I'm sure. I didn't find any parcel of any kind." He glanced at his watch. "Now, will you go away? I have things to do before Martha gets here with the kids and I'm late already. Martha's still mad at you for the last time, so I'd clear out, if I were you." Joe began to close the door.
Jake stopped him. "Joe, I've got to have that parcel."
Joe stared at his long-time friend. He started at his boots and traveled over the red clothing and looked Jake straight in the eye. A twinge of sympathy surfaced. "Try Wyatt's. You said something about going there when you left here."
"Thanks, Joe. You're a real pal."
"Forget it, Jake." Joe started to close the door again as Jake stumbled down the stops. "And Jake? Don't let Conn catch you?"
Jake stopped and turned. "He already has, you crazy Limey," he growled. "Why do you think I want that parcel so bad?"
Joe laughed and closed the door. Jake swore softly and hurried on to his next stop. Wyatt's.
It was going to be difficult to get into Wyatt's without being seen. Wyatt's took the better part of a downtown block. Maybe if he hurried, he could be there before the early church traffic started. The cold air braced him, making him feel