"McDaid’s has changed," Mark thought. It hadn’t changed a lot, but it had changed. The food was still good, the waitresses were still pretty, and ESPN was still on the big screens; but the crowd had gotten a lot younger. To be fair, Mark’s days as a "regular" here had been two presidents, three grandchildren, two major surgeries, and several girlfriends ago; so he had to admit that it might not be McDaid’s that had done all the changing. Even so, there seemed to be a lot more college kids in the crowd these days. Not that there was a crowd tonight–he actually had the patio all to himself.
A waitress came out to check on him. She had long chestnut hair, exactly the sort of deep brown eyes Mark was a sucker for, and a body that had obviously spent a lot of time jogging along Bayshore Boulevard. Then Mark remembered that she had probably been finishing up kindergarten when he had first visited McDaid’s, and suddenly felt very old and slightly creepy.
The waitress flashed Mark a generically flirtatious smile and asked, "Is there anything else I can get you?" Mark knew the smile was just part of her job, but it still made his heart skip; which in turn made him feel even older and creepier.
"It’s getting a little chilly, could I get an Irish coffee?" he asked.
"No problem," she replied as she took his plate. "You sure did like those fish and chips," she observed.
"It’s been a while since I last had them; been out of town." Mark replied. "It’s still okay for me to smoke out here, isn’t it?"
"They don’t call us ‘Cigar City’ for nothing," said the waitress. "I’ll be right back with that Irish coffee."
Mark leaned back in his chair, and lit up a cigar. The city lights washed out most of the stars: but Mark was pretty sure that the little speck of light hanging over the palm trees was Jupiter. He took a drag on his cigar and relaxed. A few minutes later the waitress returned with his Irish coffee. Mark was happy to discover that it was real Irish coffee; not just a cup of stale bar coffee with a shot tossed in. It was a slow night, and the bartender had taken the time to mix the drink right. As he sipped his drink, he could hear "Jingle Bell Rock" playing inside.
The door to the bar opened behind him, and for a moment the music got louder.
"Mind if we join you?"
Mark was startled. He had assumed it was the waitress coming back to check on him, but the voice was definitely male. Mark silently cursed himself. Retirement must be making him sloppy.
Mark turned and saw that his visitor was a man, mid-thirties, wearing a suit. No telltale bulges, so he was most likely unarmed. The suit looked expensive. Judging by the tailoring, it had been custom-made, but not for its current owner. Its retro-classic look came from lapels that had last appeared in GQ over a decade ago. Mark guessed "upscale re-sale." Accompanying him was a nine or ten year old girl with bright red hair who was obviously well loved. She was wearing shiny new shoes, a brand new jacket, and a new dress that was immaculate, freshly pressed, and most likely had come from Target.
"Pull up a chair," replied Mark. He stabbed out what was left of his cigar, stood and extended his hand. "Mark Ryan," he said. The man returned the gesture with a firm handshake. "Don Harvey," the newcomer replied. "And this is Isobel."
As Don settled Isobel into her chair, Mark noticed that Don wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. Given the state of modern medical care, and Don’s re-sale suit, Mark assumed "DIVORCE" and decided not to ask where Mommy was. Instead he turned to Isobel and asked, "Aren’t you a little young to be hanging out in bars, Isobel?"
"We just got out of midnight mass," Isobel replied with a level of seriousness that belied her age. "And Daddy is always taking me to bars."
"It’s 1:30 A.M. on Christmas morning. There aren’t a lot of places open," added Don.
Isobel looked at Mark. "What does it say on your hat?" she asked.
"What do you think it says?" asked Mark.
"S.O.C.O.M." Isobel read out. "Sock-om? That doesn’t sound like a real word."
"That’s because it’s not a real word. It stands for ‘Special Operations Command,’ and you say it ‘sew-kom,’ not ‘sock-OM.’ I used to work there."
Just then the waitress appeared bearing menus, and Isobel became absorbed in the weighty issue of deciding between chicken tenders or a grilled cheese sandwich.
Mark turned to Don and asked, "So you’re not from around here?"
"No," Don replied. "We’re from Atlanta. Just came down to spend Christmas with Grandma."
At this point Isobel interrupted. Evidently she felt Don wasn’t providing Mark with enough background information, and decided to correct that as only a child could. "Grandma Sue is my mommy’s mommy," Isobel said. "She wanted me to spend Christmas with her, so she flew me and Daddy down for a visit, but not Mommy because Grandma Sue’s mad at Mommy for dumping me and Daddy and marrying Chet. We get to stay at Grandma Sue’s condo, and we met her cat Cheshire, and today we all went to the beach. The people that run the condo, they put out a big plate of cookies at the front desk this afternoon, but they were all gone before we got back from the beach so I didn’t get any. Grandma didn’t come to mass with us because she’s old. Thursday me and Daddy and Grandma Sue are going to SeaWorld, and I’m going to get to see penguins! I love penguins. I have a stuffed penguin at home. Then we’re spending the weekend at Disney World. I like Florida."
Her stream of consciousness having run dry, Isobel returned to her cost/benefit analysis of the kid’s menu, completely unaware of the multi-kiloton truth bombs she had just dropped into the conversation. Mark could see that Don was embarrassed, and unsure of what he could say that wouldn’t make it worse.
Mark broke the awkward silence. "Same thing happened to me," he volunteered to Don. "Wife took the kids and moved to L.A. Must have been fifteen years ago. I was in Afghanistan at the time." He took a sip of his Irish coffee. "I guess that’s why I’m here right now."
"What do you mean?" asked Don, happy for any excuse to change the subject.
"After Afghanistan they rotated me back here to SOCOM. That was ’03 and Tampa was stuffed to the gills with military. There were so many that Uncle Sam didn’t have anywhere to put us, so the government started renting out apartments. A bunch of us wound up living about a mile from here. We were all new in town, none of us knew anybody, so we’d all come here on weekends to watch ESPN. For the Army/Navy game there were enough of us here that we took over this entire patio. I made some good friends, it was fun."
Mark smiled at the memories, and took a sip of his drink.
"The Special Ops community was pretty busy in those days. It didn’t matter where your family lived; you were never there anyway. Most guys got divorced. I just rotated from one assignment to the next. Kuwait, Iraq, back to Tampa, Djibouti, then up to Elgin for a while. After that it was back to the Sandbox, then to the Pentagon, then off to one of the ‘-stans,’ and then back to Tampa. Before long you find your only friends are folks in the same line of work as you. Then people start to retire. You tell each other you’ll keep in touch. Sometimes you actually do."
Mark took a sip of his coffee, and then continued. "Then about six months ago, I had a car wreck. My leg got squished, my hip got crushed, and I woke up in a hospital bed talking with a retirement counselor."
"I’m sorry to hear that," said Don.
"Don’t worry about it," said Mark. "Nothing the surgeons couldn’t fix. The problem was where to go after I was all fixed up."
"So you picked Tampa because your kids live here?" asked Don.
"No," said Mark. "My son is in Seattle, but he has more kids than he does house. My daughter’s in her third year of college at Loyola Marymount, and the last thing she wants is Dad hanging around. They aren’t interested in getting to know me. Too many years have passed. Too many missed birthdays. No, I picked Tampa for all the practical stuff: nice climate, VA hospital, PX, commissary, low taxes. To be honest though, I think I really picked it for the good memories. Problem is, the good memories came from my friends, not from the place. The place is still here, but all my friends are gone."
At this point, the waitress returned, and Mark ordered another Irish coffee. After considerable deliberation, Isobel decided upon the chicken fingers, but her attempt at getting a Coke was vetoed by Don on the grounds that it would keep her awake, and a Shirley Temple was ordered for instead.
"Isobel," Mark asked, "are there any Christmas movies that you like?"
"Daddy always says the best Christmas movie is Die Hard, but the best Christmas movie is really the Charlie Brown one."
"How can you say that?" replied Don, playfully pretending to be shocked. "Die Hard isn’t just A Christmas movie, it’s THE Christmas movie. It’s got Christmas music, and a Christmas tree, and one of the guys wears a Santa hat. What more do you need? Of course it’s a Christmas movie!"
"He only wears the Santa hat after Bruce Willis kills him and stuffs his body in the elevator. That’s NOT a Christmassy thing to do. Die Hard is NOT a Christmas movie," declared Isobel with little-girl certainty. The issue thus being closed, she picked up a crayon and began solving the maze that had been printed on her placemat.
Mark turned to Don. "It’s really none of my business," he said, "but most ten year old girls don’t visit bars or watch R-rated action movies. Aren’t you worried about what your ex will say?"
"Most ten year old girls don’t have to watch their mom pack up a U-Haul, drive off, and leave her behind," Don replied bitterly. "After that, I kind of figured that sheltering her from the ugly things in life was pretty much a lost cause. The best thing I can do for her now is remind her she’s loved, increase her self-confidence, and make sure she knows what’s out there, what she’s going to be up against."
"So you think that if you take her to a bar for dinner when she’s 10, she’ll be less interested in getting a fake ID and sneaking in to one when she’s 19," said Mark.
"Exactly," said Don.
Mark thought about that for a minute. He had his doubts about Don’s theory, but his own kids would rather spend Christmas without him than with him. He decided that gave him no room to criticize anyone’s parenting choices.
Isobel had solved the maze on her placemat, and was beginning to look restless. She reminded Mark of his own daughter. He remembered how he always used to tell his daughter the most outrageous bedtime stories, and how she would laugh as the story got increasingly ridiculous. It was one of many things he missed… and in an instant he decided to seize this opportunity.
"So Isobel, how do you feel on the issue of Santa Claus?" Mark asked. "Real or not?"
"My friend Mary still says Santa is real, but I don’t think so," Isobel replied.
Mark looked around, as if checking to see if someone could overhear him, then he spoke in a slightly hushed tone. "Well, Isobel, I’m not supposed to tell anyone this, but you’re both right."
"What do you mean?" asked Isobel.
"Well," whispered Mark, "Santa was real, but he’s not anymore."
"What?" said Isobel.
"It’s a secret, so you have to promise not to tell anyone," said Mark, "but you’re a lot more grown up than the other kids your age, so I figure you can handle it. Do you think you’re grown up enough to keep a big secret, and never, ever tell anyone?"
"I am," Isobel replied solemnly.
Mark shot a look at Don, and Don gave him a slight nod of approval. Mark took a swallow of his Irish coffee and started.
"You see, Isobel, it all started back in 1971. Santa was flying down from the North Pole like he did every year when he got picked up by a DEW. Line station near Hudson’s Bay. Two F-100’s from the Colorado Air National Guard were scrambled to intercept. There was a mix-up in the orders, but somewhere over Wapusk National Park they caught up to the sleigh. It was a foggy Christmas Eve, and the pilots couldn’t see anything, but they did pick up a powerful infrared source, probably Rudolph’s nose. In any case, the mission commander disobeyed orders and fired two Sidewinder missiles. The first missile failed, but sadly the second one worked perfectly. Blew Santa right out of the sky. The sleigh caught fire and spun in. Nobody made it out. There were burned toys and pieces of reindeer meat scattered all across the landscape. It wasn’t pretty. I saw the films."
Isobel looked at Mark skeptically, but he continued with the story.
"When President Nixon found out we’d shot down Santa Claus, he was angry. I mean really, really angry. He knew that if anyone found out, it would be a diplomatic disaster. The USA would become the country that killed Santa. Every child on Earth would hate us. Every parent on Earth would boycott us. There would have been riots, a depression. We would have gotten kicked out of the UN, lost all our allies, and in the end, we would have lost the Cold War."
At this point the waitress returned with their food. For a moment Isobel devoted her attention to the chicken fingers, and Don to his shepherd’s pie. Mark took the opportunity to quietly pass the waitress his credit card, with a wink and a nod towards Don. She nodded and went back inside.
"So what did the President do?" Isobel asked, her mouth full of French fries.
"Well," continued Mark, "the first thing he did was send a submarine up to the North Pole to break the news to Mrs. Claus, and to apologize. I pity the poor guy that had to do that… Mrs. Claus and the elves were upset, but they agreed not to sue. There was an out-of-court settlement and we set them all up with new identities through the witness protection program. Mrs. Claus moved to Miami Beach. A few years later she married a retired podiatrist from Brooklyn. Now she’s very active in Hadassah. The elves decided to stick together. Pooled their money and opened a bakery."
Isobel had finished a chicken finger, and after a drink of milk she looked up at Mark. She seemed to sense that she was being teased, but she still had a child’s trust in the authority of adults, and Mark was playing it straight, so she wasn’t 100% sure. She asked, "If those guys really shot down Santa Claus, how come kids still get toys every Christmas?"
"That’s a good question, Isobel," said Mark. He took a long drink of his Irish coffee and looked at Don for help. Don replied with a glance that said "You got yourself into this," so Mark continued.
"The President decided that to keep the whole thing secret, the military would have to start delivering all the toys that Santa should have. That’s no small project, let me tell you. That same year he cancelled the last three moon landings, and had all the scientists and engineers re-assigned to "Operation Secret Santa." They started research into stealth technology, geolocation satellites, computerized delivery drones, and precision guidance systems that could drop a package down a chimney from high altitude.
"All that tech was going to take years to develop though, and they had to deliver toys the very next Christmas! The President needed people who could parachute out of the sky anywhere on Earth, break into twenty or thirty houses each, deliver all the toys, make it back to a rendezvous point before dawn, AND never ever tell anyone. So they set up a Joint Task Force. CIA, Rangers, SEALS, Green Berets and Air Force PJ’s. That Christmas we delivered forty-three million toys to kids all over the U.S., Northern Europe, Australia, and South America."
"Why did you need Air Force Pajamas?" asked Isobel.
"What?" Mark asked.
"You said you got Air Force PJ’s," explained Isobel.
"’PJ’ stands for ‘Pararescue,’" said Mark. "Not ‘pajama.’"
The look on Isobel’s face did not denote belief. "Pararescue would be PR, not PJ," she said seriously.
"’PJ’ used to stand for ‘parajumper,’ but they changed the name," Mark said. "We rescue pilots who’s planes have been shot down. Sometimes we help rescue astronauts. We do all sorts of things. I used to be one."
"You were an Air Force Pajama?" asked Isobel, in a tone surprisingly cynical for one so young.
"I was a Pararescueman, for goodness sake!" said Mark in frustration.
Isobel continued to stare at Mark while she chewed on another French fry. Meanwhile, Don tried not to chuckle and looked up something on his smartphone.
"He’s telling the truth, sweetheart. It’s right here," said Don, showing Isobel his phone.
Isobel thought about this for a moment while she continued eating her fries, and decided on a new line of inquiry. "Where did they get all the toys from?" she asked.
"The President tasked the NSA to read all the letters that kids send to Santa every year. That way we know what the kids want. NSA puts together the "Naughty/Nice List" and sends it over to CIA. CIA uses a network of Asian front companies to purchase the toys, and then cross-indexes them against the NSA list. Costs hundreds of billions of dollars. Why do you think the deficit is so high? You don’t think the Army really pays $500 for a hammer, do you?"
"What happened to the pilots?" asked Isobel. "The ones that shot down Santa."
"The rumor was that they got sent out to a secret base in Nevada, called Area 51. They live in a secret house way underground, near where the aliens live. It’s a nice house, has a pool and a big TV. It’s just that since this is so secret they are never, ever, ever going to get to leave," replied Mark.
At this point Isobel’s former skepticism vanished. "I know Area 51! That’s where they keep the grey aliens!" she said excitedly. "The ones who crashed at Roswell! Daddy’s sister lives in Roswell! When we went to visit her, she took us to a UFO Museum! I learned all about it! They had fake aliens you could take pictures with, and all sorts of mugs, and shirts, and hats and UFO toys stuff. It was fun."
By this point Don was having a hard time keeping a straight face, but Mark found that he was just getting warmed up. He took another swig of Irish coffee and continued.
"As the years went by, ‘Operation Secret Santa’ kept getting bigger and bigger. Fortunately for us, in a lot of countries children don’t get their toys on Christmas Day. In Spain, Greece and Italy they get them on January 6th. Russia banned Santa, so the kids there get presents from ‘Grandfather Frost’ on January 1st. In lots of countries they don’t celebrate Christmas at all. This made it easier, because we didn’t have to deliver all the toys in just one night.
"Even so, deploying that many men, with that many toys, to perform that many burglaries, it was just a matter of time before somebody got caught and word leaked out. After a couple of close calls, the Air Force started pushing to take over the toy delivery program. They wanted to find some way to deliver the toys from the air."
Suddenly Don interrupted. "Is that why President Reagan was so dead set on building the B-1 and the B-2? He didn’t need them to drop bombs, he needed them to drop TOYS?"
Mark looked at Don as if to say "Who exactly is telling the story here?" and continued.
"By the early 90s the guys at Lockheed thought they had the toy delivery problem licked. They had developed a special drone they called the M.I.T.T.D.P., or "Mit-Dip." That stood for ‘Multiple, Independently Targetable, Toy Delivery Package." You could load several thousand Mit-Dips into a plane and then just release them over a city. They fall for few hundred feet, then pop out a small set of wings, and ignite a tiny rocket motor. Each one then use GPS to fly to a particular pre-programed house, and go straight down the chimney. Once inside the Mit-Dip searches for a Christmas tree. As soon as it finds the tree, it drops off the toys, flies up the chimney, out into the sky and self-destructs. The pieces are even designed to look like snowflakes when they come down."
"What if the house doesn’t have a chimney?" asked Isobel.
"Well, if the house doesn’t have a chimney then the Mit-Dip will go in through an air vent, a window, an air conditioning duct, or, if we’re lucky, an open door on the roof. If that doesn’t work, we do it the old-fashioned way, and have one of the Special Ops teams break in."
Isobel was starting to nod off now. It was way past her bedtime, and she had a tummy full of French fries and chicken fingers. Nonetheless, she was doing her best to stay awake and listen to Mark’s story.
"Then one day a new general took over the project," continued Mark. "He saw that the problem was the toys themselves. You can’t fit a fire truck or a BB gun or a Barbie Dream House down a chimney. We needed the kids to want smaller toys."
"Smaller toys?" asked Isobel as she rested her head on the table.
"Small toys that everyone wanted," answered Mark. "So, the general made friends with the aliens, and got them to teach us all about electronics. Then he worked really hard and made friends with some of Santa’s elves. He even got permission for the elves to work with the aliens. Do you know how hard it is to get security clearance for an elf?"
Don nearly spit out his drink at that thought, but Isobel only nodded. "Is it hard?" she asked sleepily.
"Very hard." Mark said with mock seriousness. "Just imagine doing a criminal background check on someone who’s over three hundred years old. But the general got it done. So the elves and the aliens got together and figured out how to make the best toys ever. Toys that were small and more fun that footballs and bicycles. They came up with iPods, and iPhones, the DS, Minecraft and Wii and MarioKarts and all sorts of wonderful things."
Isobel started to snore.
"Thank you," whispered Don. "With all the excitement today, I was afraid she’d never go to sleep."
"Thank you," replied Mark. "It’s been almost 20 years since I got to tell a little girl a bedtime story. It saved my Christmas."
Don stood up and started to reach for his wallet. Mark reached across the table and gently grabbed his arm. "My treat," he said. "You just take that little girl home and make sure she has the best Christmas you can."
"Thank you," said Don. "Thank you very much."
"Speaking of home, do you need directions to your in-law’s condo?"
"That would be a big help!" Don pulled a note out of his pocket, and read it aloud. "She’s at the Wexford Tower, 3501 Bayshore Boulevard, apartment 1056."
"Take a right out of the parking lot. Go straight on Howard Street till it dead-ends at the bay. That will be Bayshore. Then take a right onto Bayshore and keep going till you see the tower. You can’t miss it."
Don carefully picked up Isobel, being sure not to wake her. Like all parents, he automatically checked to make sure that nothing had been dropped or was being left behind. Seeing nothing missing, Don turned to go, and Mark quickly went to the patio door and held it open.
"Thanks again," Don whispered, "and Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas to you too," said Mark, "and thanks for making an old man happy."
Mark closed the door behind Don, walked over to the table and took out his wallet. He looked at the bills inside, thought "Why the heck not?" and placed them all on the table. Then he sat down and again looked up at the stars. After a couple of minutes, he heard a car start in the parking lot. Mark watched as it made a right turn, and drove down Howard Street towards the bay.
As soon as the car’s taillights disappeared, two men got out of another car. This one had been parked across the street. Like Don, they too were wearing suits, but theirs were black, and bulged slightly over their shoulder holsters. They walked up to Mark.
"You shouldn’t have done that, General Ryan. Spilling the whole story to them like that," one of them said.
"You know you’re going to have to come with us now, sir," said the other.
"That’s okay," Mark replied. "I’d rather go back to ’51 and finish my days there than sit alone in some empty condo. Feeding stray cats and watching The Price is Right isn’t my idea of a life. At least at ’51 I still have some friends; even if they are short and grey." Mark paused for a moment. "What are you going to do about the dad and the little girl?"
"They’re fine." replied the agent. "The dad got a little close with that B-1 bomber remark, but we can overlook it. He thinks it was all a big gag. The daughter’s too sleepy to remember anything anyway."
"What about the waitress?"
"She spent most of her evening flirting with the bouncer, didn’t hear a thing. However, they’re getting ready to lock up now, so we really need to move out, sir."
"Well then, let’s move out." said Mark. He got up and the three of them walked out of the patio gate and down to their car, moving slowly due to Mark’s limp.
"Just one thing," Mark said. "Could you guys do me a favor?"
"Sure thing, General."
"Call Colonel Short. Ask if she can divert a spare Mit-Dip to 3501 Bayshore Boulevard, apartment 1056. Tell her it’s for a ten year old girl that’s had a really rough year. Oh, and make sure the packages are rigged so they say the toys are from a relative, not Santa. The girl has an aunt in Roswell, so you can go with that."
One of the men took out his phone and quietly tapped it. "The aunt already got her a Barbie, I Can Be Sea World Trainer doll on Amazon. It arrived at the condo three days ago."
"Did it include the Antarctica Penguin Fun Playset?" asked Mark. "She likes penguins."
The man tapped again. "No sir, it did not, but just give me a second." he replied. He tapped the phone twice more. "Sir, Colonel Short says she has the Penguin Fun Playset loaded and ready to deploy. ETA is 47 minutes. That should be enough time so that everyone in the condo will be asleep. The Colonel’s arranged for one of our undercover teams to deliver a special batch of fresh cookies to the front desk tomorrow, too. Should be enough that the Isobel will have plenty."
"Thank you, and give my thanks to Colonel Short."
"No problem, General. Anything else? Need to run by your place for something?"
"No. I’m good. Just have the cleaners send my stuff out to ’51. January’s still Reticuli-American Heritage Month out there, isn’t it?"
"Sure is, sir. I hear Voxxnax personally sent back to the homeworld for a fresh shipment of Spoo. Should be a hell of a party."
Lieutenant General Mark C. Ryan, U.S.A.F. retired; former commander of the single largest and most secret operation ever run by the United States Government, quietly got into the back seat of the car and buckled his seat belt. "I’m glad to hear that," he said. "There’s nothing quite like a good plate of Spoo."