Christmas Eve had always been Matt’s favourite night of the year. The reasons he liked it were not the same ones that appealed to other people. It had never been, for him, an evening of quiet relaxation and festive cheer. In fact, it was always a time of hard work, when he would put in a much longer and busier shift than usual.
But boy, was it worth it! On any other day, you had to go through every room, every cupboard and every drawer in a house to find the stuff that was worth taking, and then when you got it home you would often find that it was broken or otherwise fit only for the skip. Tonight, though, in pretty much every house on every street in any town you cared to visit, you would find a nice big pile of goodies, all laid out ready to collect, everything brand new and still in the box. Oh, and just to make it easier, they put it all under a big tree with lights on it as if to say, ‘please burgle here’. And if you were lucky, you’d even get a mince pie and a glass of sherry for your trouble.
On the down side, it was always something of a lucky dip, since everything was wrapped up in fancy paper, and you didn’t want to waste time ripping it all off before you got out. More than once, he had returned home with what seemed like a bumper haul, only to find that those enticing-looking packages concealed worthless nick-nacks. But Matt was a professional, and over the years he had become pretty good at judging from the weight and feel of a parcel, and the sound it made when you shook it, what sort of thing it might contain.
On this particular Christmas Eve, he had come across a satisfyingly large pile of presents and was briefly testing each one in turn, before placing those that passed muster in the large holdall he had brought with him. One package was proving difficult to categorise by weight and feel alone. He shook it a little and tried to identify the faint rattle that resulted. Absorbed in this task, his ears missed the opening of a door, and when they picked up the sound of small footsteps on the landing it was already too late. Desperately, he looked around him. The door was on the far side of the room, and there was nowhere to hide. Hanging from the huge tree there was a stocking, and next to it a large red and white hat. For want of a better option, he grabbed the hat and put it on. The footsteps trotted down the stairs and came to a stop. Matt started to take parcels from his holdall and put them back on the pile by the tree. Then he slowly turned around. Facing him was a boy of about seven, quite motionless, his mouth and eyes wide open.
‘Erm… Ho ho ho, little boy,’ he said in his gruffest voice. ‘What are you doing up at this time of the night?’
‘I couldn’t sleep. Are you Santa?’
‘Yep, that’s me. Come to deliver your presents and that. And what is your name, little boy?’
‘I’m Josh. Josh Bartlett.’
The little boy paused, eyeing Matt quizzically.
‘Aren’t you supposed to be fat, and have a beard? And why are you wearing jeans and a black hoody?’
‘Been to Weight Watchers, ain’t I? I kept getting stuck in people’s chimneys. All that soot doesn’t half get stuck in your beard, and it makes a right mess of red clothes. Black is much better. I’ll let you into a secret, kid. I’ve been dressing like this for years. I keep the red coat and a false beard at home, just for public appearances, like. Same with the sleigh and the reindeer. I use a Transit van now – much quicker to get around. Also, more space for presents.’ He winked.
The boy did not seem to be listening. Instead, he was trying to look past Matt and his bulky holdall at the pile of parcels.
‘Wow, look at all those presents! Christmas is going to be brilliant; I can’t wait.’
Matt stepped aside to allow him a better view.
‘Take a good look at ‘em, kid.’
Josh stood for a few moments with a strange little frown on his face, as if he was pondering something. Then he took hold of Matt’s hand.
‘Santa, please could I open a present to take upstairs with me – just one. It would be so nice to have something to play with if I can’t get back to sleep.’ Matt was about to say ‘no’, but the boy squeezed his hand and looked up at him with big, pleading eyes.
‘Oh, go on, then. But just the one, OK? And keep the noise down. I don’t want you waking your mum and dad up.’
Josh ran to the tree, picked up a medium-sized parcel and began frenziedly tearing the paper off it.
‘Wow, a Nintendo Switch! This is the thing I most wanted in the world. Thank you, thank you, Santa!’
Josh was hugging him, but Matt groaned inwardly and muttered under his breath.
‘Dammit. That’s a hundred and fifty quid down the drain, easy.’
Regaining his composure, he turned to the little boy again.
‘Right, young Josh, it’s time for you to go back to bed. And quietly, or I’ll pick up all them presents and take ‘em away again.’
The boy nodded and obediently tiptoed back up the stairs, Nintendo in hand. Matt heard the bedroom door close, waited a few seconds, then turned back towards the tree.
He reached towards one of the presents, but then paused. ‘What are you waiting for?’ he asked himself.
Suddenly, his heart was not in it anymore. It was one thing stealing stuff from people you’d never met, quite another to take it off a little boy who had looked you in the eye and held your hand. Not quite believing what he was doing, he put his hand in his holdall and pulled out a parcel. There was a label on it: ‘To Josh, from Santa’. Laughing, he put it down by the tree. ‘You are one lucky little boy.’
He put his hand in the holdall again. Wait a minute, this one was quite small and addressed to a woman. Probably jewellery – quite expensive jewellery if the state of this house was anything to go by. And this one, addressed to ‘my darling husband’, felt and sounded like something electronic. There was a 2020 reg Mercedes in the drive. They could take a little hit, couldn’t they? ‘What am I, a burglar or some kind of children’s entertainer?’ He zipped up his bag. Not much of a haul, but a lot better than nothing.
Matt crept out of the house and looked carefully around the deserted street before getting into his van. He looked at his watch. It was 2.47am. Plenty of time to do another house before the night was out. But it was cold and he was hungry and somehow all of the killer instinct had gone out of him. ‘Nah, can’t be bothered.’
He put on his seat belt and started muttering to himself. ‘You are one big, pathetic wuss, Matt Watson.’ He turned on the engine. ‘No, I’m not. I got out of a difficult fix, didn’t I? And I didn’t come away empty-handed. How many people would have panicked in that situation? Not me. Yeah, I’m Matt the Cat, the man in black, too smart to stop, too slick to catch.’ He looked in the mirror, ready to pull out. Only then did he realise he was still wearing the Santa Claus hat.
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