Gunselle leaned on the buzzer. It must be 2:00 am. Her bottom lip burned from biting back pain. Her left hand kept the side of her midsection together, blood chilling on her fingers. She wore an expensive fur coat she hadn’t had to pay for. It covered a holiday-red party dress with a wide black belt and white fur collar. The dress had a hole in it.
“Your boss sent me,” she mumbled to the man who opened the door. “Said you’d sew me up.”
“What boss?” said the man. He seemed perturbed about being roused from bed so early on Christmas morning. Or maybe it was the thought of his wide-eyed wife standing behind him holding her silk robe closed. Or the little girl on the stairs, a toy bear clutched against her chest.
“You know who,” said Gunselle. “Don’t be a fool.”
“Let her in if she’s hurt,” said the wife, twisting her brow into an anxious display.
“Jesus Christ,” said the man. “Get inside.”
Gunselle lifted one foot over the threshold before stopping. The wife hurried to pull Gunselle’s free arm over her shoulder, helping her into the entryway. A large Christmas tree glowed in the living room.
“Cozy scene,” said Gunselle. “Where do you want me to lie down?”
“This is a private clinic,” said the wife. “We have an examination room. Come.” She walked Gunselle down a short hallway. The little girl ran ahead to open a door and turn on alight. She stood to the side as her mother helped Gunselle out of her fur coat and got her seated on the padded table. The doctor washed his hands at a sink while his wife removed Gunselle’s pumps, then lifted her knees and swiveled her fully onto the leather pad with practiced ease. Gunselle grimaced as the woman removed her torn black stockings. The wife tried to ease Gunselle’s hand from the raw hole in her side, but Gunselle wouldn’t budge.
“Have you ever treated a gunshot wound?” The woman’s soft touch felt good. She had a narrow, plain face. Wispy blonde hair.
“I was an army nurse in the Philippines,” she said, gently lifting Gunselle’s left foot. “These toes are broken,”
“You should see the jolly fucker’s nuts.”
“Go to bed, Jenny,” said her mother. “Now.”
The little girl moved to the door. No further. Gunselle could tell she was eyeing her comical costume with confusion.
“Sorry for the rough language,” said Gunselle, feeling the woman’s fingers creep around her waist. “The slug’s still in there. Probably a .32”
Out of the corner of her eye, the doctor appeared with a syringe.
“Let’s get it out,” he said.
* * *
Gunselle opened her eyes. Pink light filtered into the examination room through gauzy curtains. The stench of antiseptic filled the air. Gunselle lifted the blanket. The lower half of her costume had been cut away. She studied the bandage. A dull pain burned like a hot coal. The coal glowed brighterwhen she poked it.
“Ow. FUCK. I hate Christmas parties.”
“You’re pretty,” said a child’s voice beside her. “Are you Mrs. Claus?”
Gunselle lifted her head to look into the blue eyes of the child. Jenny.
“No, honey. I’m Santa’s cookie.”
“Santa didn’t eat his cookie last night,” said Jenny. “I don’t think he came at all.”
“Mrs. Claus must have gotten him, too.”
“You’ll figure it out someday. What time is it? It’s barely light outside.”
“Mommy and Daddy are sleeping. I have to wait to open my presents.”
“Mommy and Daddy had a long night,” said Gunselle. “Grab my purse. I don’t feel like getting up.”
Jenny retrieved the brown leather bag from a chair.
“See what you can find in there,” said Gunselle. “I’ve brought gifts.”
Jenny lay the purse next to Gunselle’s hip and popped the latch. She lifted one side and peered into the gloom. Reaching in she pulled out a thick wad of bills.
“That’s for your Daddy. Merry Christmas to him.”
Jenny lay the money aside and reached in again. She pulled out a large silver brooch. It held ten diamonds, all real, and the gems sparkled like a little girl’s eyes.
“That’s for your Mommy. Merry Christmas to her.”
Jenny set the brooch aside and dug in again. This time she pulled out a handful of short, brass, copper-tipped cartridges.
“I thought there was a candy bar in there,” said Gunselle as she collected them from the girl. “I really ought to get a second magazine instead of letting all these loose rounds roll around in my purse. Faster reload if more coppers are on the way. Right?”
“They’re pretty,” said Jenny, eyeing the cartridges, her hand in the bag again. “No candy bar.”
“You can keep these if you promise not to put them in your mouth.”
“I’m not a baby.”
“How old are you? Ten?”
“Then that’s how many you can have. Merry Christmas to you.”
“Thanks,” said Jenny, as Gunselle dropped six cartridges into the girl’s open palm.
“When you’re bigger, ask your Daddy to buy you a little pistol to keep in your purse to fend off tramps. Make sure it’s a Savage. Model 1907.” Gunselle remembered an ad she’d seen in a magazine. “William Pinkerton carries one. So does Buffalo Bill.”
“Yeah. And it holds eleven slugs if you pull one into the chamber.”
“That’s a lot.”
“Sometimes you need a lot,” said Gunselle.
“Is your gun in here?” Jenny dug to the bottom of the bag, pulling out a wrapped prophylactic.
“I left it at home. Pretty dumb, huh? Put that back.”
“Did Mrs. Claus really shoot you?” asked Jenny, squeezing the little package.
“Yeah, but she was drunk and missed my big heart. Now I’m mad at her.”
“Don’t kill Santa.”
“Of course not, kiddo,” said Gunselle, stroking the girl’s hair. “Not our jolly Sugar Daddy.”
Russell Thayer’s work has appeared in The Phoenix, Evening Street Review, Cirque, Close to the Bone, Bristol Noir, Apocalypse Confidential, Hawaii Pacific Review, Shotgun Honey, Punk Noir, Pulp Modern, and Tough. He received his BA in English from the University of Washington, worked for decades at large printing companies, and currently lives in Missoula, Montana.