“The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.” ~Delo McKown
“They’re gone,” Mrs. Binderburg said. She set a plate of cookies on the kitchen table and lowered herself into a straight-backed chair. She stared at the cookies for a time, then pulled a wad of tissue from the pocket of her housecoat and blew a goose call into it.
“You’re sure?” Mr. Binderburg asked when she finished.
She looked out the window at the broad stump which was all that remained of the 100-year-old fir tree that once shaded their house. The folks from Rockefeller Center had paid them handsomely for it the day before and then hauled it into the city.
“The cookies went untouched,” she said, “so I’m sure they’re gone.”
Mr. Binderburg bowed his head and wrapped his wrinkled hands around his coffee mug as a tear worked its way down his cheek. “After all these years.” He raised his head, placed his hand gently on top of Mrs. B’s, and smiled.
“Thank God,” he said.
Tony Paschetti looked down in shock from the scaffolding surrounding the great tree in Rockefeller Center. He gripped the rail and stared at the scene on the ice rink below where a heavy-set man lay flat on his back, his arms and legs moving almost imperceptibly. Tony hadn’t seen the ornament fall, but he’d heard the commotion from below and feared the worst. The injured man lay like a target on the ice, surrounded by an inner ring of shattered ornament and an outer ring of curious on-lookers.
Moments later Abe Joli, the job foreman, arrived at his side. “Geez, Tony, how’d that happen? Don’t tell me you ain’t usin’ the locks on the bulb hangers.”
“‘Course I am,” Tony said, “ya think I’m nuts? I’m not out to kill anybody.” He looked up at the scaffolding and the brightly colored canvas which covered the huge tree while it was being decorated. “Somebody had to throw it off,” he said. “There’s no way a falling ornament could’ve slipped through that canvas.”
The two workers watched as a trio of emergency medical technicians burrowed through the crowd to reach the downed man.
Abe shoved his hands in the pockets of his work pants. “It don’t look so good for you, Tony. I mean, what’re the cops gonna think? You’re the only one working on this side of the tree.” He shook his head. “I hope for your sake you don’t know that poor slob down there on the ice.”
Detective Sergeant Mona Deevers pulled the collar of her coat close around her neck and looked down at the deserted ice rink from the plaza end of the Center. The decorations were magnificent, as usual. The bright colors of the many huge fiberglass toy soldiers all around added to the festive look of the massed state flags at the other end. Rockefeller Center had everything, except people.
“It’ll be Christmas in a few days. This place oughta be jammed.” She shivered. “It looks about as happy as a funeral parlor.”
Her companion, a uniformed officer named Bailey who had been on hand during two of the last four tree-related accidents, nodded. “Yeah, that fits–only the joint’s a graveyard. If ya ask me, I’d say that tree is haunted.”
Deevers laughed. “You don’t really believe that, do you?”
He shrugged. “We’ve had guys stationed all around that tree since the second accident. There’s no way anyone could’ve got past ’em, climbed up the tree, and tossed those ornaments. But, they did. They hit the Zamboni machine twice before the driver refused to bring it out anymore.”
“I’ll bet it’s the wind,” Deevers said. “It’s gotta be. I’ll bet there’s a new building or something that’s caused the wind to behave differently.”
“I talked to one of the guys who decorates the tree every year,” Bailey said. “According to him, there’s no way an ornament could come loose on its own. They’re actually locked on the branches.”
Deevers turned to look at the officer and noted a change in the shadows behind her. “Look out!” she screamed as one of the gigantic toy soldiers toppled over and landed within inches of them. Deevers looked up from her hands and knees at the deserted sidewalks all around. Even the Metropolitan Art Museum shop had closed early for lack of customers.
“Did you see anyone?” she asked.
Bailey shook his head. “I told you the place was haunted. Now do you believe me?”
Mrs. Binderburg poured her husband his second cup of coffee and helped herself to another sticky bun–just one of the many culinary wonders she regularly produced. And she had the ribbons from the county fair to prove it.
Mr. B. set the newspaper down on the table and uttered a deep sigh. “They’re in the city ya’ know.”
She nodded. “I figured as much.”
He sipped his coffee. “We really oughta do something.”
“Why? We had ’em for years. It’s time somebody else took the responsibility.”
“But nobody else understands them like we do.”
Mrs. B. gently wiped her mouth on her napkin. Sometimes the caramel from the buns would stick to the little hairs on her upper lip. She hadn’t yet figured out how to remedy that. “I never claimed to understand them.”
“Well, no, me neither, but we’ve dealt with ’em longer than anybody else. That should count for something.”
“It counts for us being rid of them,” she said emphatically. “We’ve earned our holiday. Let the city folk earn theirs.”
“Who died?” asked Deevers as she stepped from her unmarked car and approached the uniformed officer who had called in the report of vandalism.
“Very funny,” he said. “I was standing right here when it happened. One by one, each flag dropped halfway down the pole and stopped.”
“Then you must’ve seen who did it.”
Bailey shoved his hands in the pockets of his blue greatcoat. “I didn’t see a soul. Folks come by all the time, but they don’t stay. It’s too dangerous.”
Deevers looked around at all the downed toy soldiers and crushed Christmas tree ornaments. Yellow police investigation tape mingled with streamers, garlands and holiday ribbons. Though colorful, the effect was anything but cheery.
“Well, they’re taking the tree down in a couple days, and that should be the end of it.”
Bailey looked at her and shrugged. “I hope you’re right, but I’ve got a funny feeling you’re not.”
He paused to measure his words. “No,” he said, “more like fear.”
Mr. Binderburg clicked off the television and stormed into the kitchen. “Get yer hat and coat, Millie. We’re goin’ to the city.”
Mrs. B. frowned. “Now? I’ve got a sheet of brownies in the oven.”
Mr. B. unfolded the earflaps on his camouflaged hat and slapped it on his head. “Leave ’em. This is more important. I just heard that a cop at Rocky Center was nearly killed in some bizarre accident. I can’t imagine what those little buggers did, but if that poor guy doesn’t make it, I’ll feel responsible. I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t want to hear about anyone else gettin’ hurt just so’s I can have a pleasant Christmas. It ain’t right, Millie, and you know it.”
He hurried past her to a cookie jar shaped like a fat, cherubic friar, and dumped its contents into a plastic bag.
Mrs. B. reached for the bag. “You can’t take those! They’re for the Women’s Group at church.”
“Not anymore,” he said. “Now get a move on while I warm up the truck. We’ve gotta stop at the nursery on the way.”
Deevers met Bailey in the squad room, now dimly lit and otherwise unoccupied. “I read your report,” she said. “But I’ve gotta tell ya, it doesn’t make much sense.” She sat down close to the big patrolman. “The captain asked me to see if I could help you clarify it.”
Bailey crossed his arms and squinted at her. “You think I made it up?”
“You think maybe I wrapped myself up in all those flags?” He unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it open to reveal broad bands of elastic bandage. “Whoever did it fractured three of my ribs.”
Deevers put her hand on Bailey’s shoulder. “I’m trying to understand–really. But if you couldn’t see your assailant, how can you say it was a ghost, or anything else for that matter?”
“I didn’t say ‘ghosts.’ I said ‘spirits.’ There’s a difference.”
“What is it with you, Deevers? You weren’t there. You don’t know what happened. I’ve tried to warn people, but no one listens. Rockefeller Center is haunted! Anyone with half a brain can see that.”
Deevers pushed her chair back and stood up. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“The tree’s coming down this afternoon,” she said. “Maybe that’ll make a difference.”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Bailey said as he re-buttoned his shirt. He gave her an intense look. “Will the department have people out there while the work goes on?”
She nodded. “The union wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Deevers watched as an elderly man and woman exited an ancient Ford pickup truck which they’d parked illegally. She couldn’t help but smile as an officer intercepted them before they had waddled a dozen paces. She watched them argue for a few moments, but when they became angry, and the cop had to restrain them, she sauntered over to investigate.
“Easy, officer,” she said, turning so he could see her shield. “What’s the problem?”
“I told them they’d parked in a loading zone, and if they didn’t move their truck, I’d have to have it towed away.”
She turned to the old couple. “He’s right you know.”
The old woman looked at her companion. “See? I told you.”
“Hush, Millie. These folks just don’t understand the situation. Once they do, I’m sure they’ll let us leave the truck right where it is.”
Deevers dismissed the officer and then glanced at the bag of cookies in the old man’s hand. “Is that your lunch, or are you bringing snacks for the workers?”
“Neither. It’s uhm, a little hard to explain.”
“Give it a try Mr….”
“Binderburg,” he said. “Walt Binderburg. This is my wife, Millicent.”
“It’s bait,” the old woman said. She pointed at a mini-grove of fir trees jammed in the back of their truck. “He thinks we can lure them out of the big tree and into the little ones.” She sighed. “Then I guess we’ll have to take ’em home again.”
Deevers conquered the urge to smile. “Take who home again?”
“That’s the hard part,” Walt said. “We’re not exactly sure what they are.”
“What, or who?” Deevers asked.
“We’ve never actually seen ’em,” he said. “They’re only active around Christmas.”
Mrs. Binderburg exhaled impatiently. “Tell her the whole story, Walt, or don’t say anything. She’ll throw us in the loony bin.”
“That isn’t too likely,” Deevers said, smiling. She nodded at the old man. “Go on.”
“We used to make ornaments out of bird seed and suet and hang them from that big tree.” He pointed to the giant, scaffold-shrouded fir towering over the skating rink. “It used to be in our back yard y’know.” He paused. “There’s not much time left. Can we put these cookies out while we’re talking?”
Deevers frowned. “Well–”
“It won’t take long, I promise. What can it hurt?”
Deevers looked back at their truck. Traffic was light. She shrugged. “Sure.”
The old couple split the contents of the bag and took turns setting them out on the pavement as they walked.
“Anyway,” Walt said, “one year we noticed that the ornaments were being eaten mighty fast, even though we never saw any birds. We thought it was squirrels or something at first, but we never saw any of them either. It didn’t make sense. So, the next year, we didn’t put any out.” He shook his head. “That’s when the trouble started.”
Mrs. Binderburg took over the story as he worked his way through the scaffolding.
“He shouldn’t be in there,” Deevers said.
The old woman waved off her objection. “He’s gotta get close enough to get their attention. There’s so much going on right now, it’s important we reach them right away.”
“Why?” Deevers asked. “Christmas is over. The damage has already been done.”
Both of them turned at the sharp growl of a chainsaw. The old woman grew visibly upset.
“They’re just cutting off the limbs,” Deevers said. “Makes the tree easier to transport.”
Mr. Binderburg rejoined them, dusting the knees of his worn coveralls. “That’s it,” he said, “nothing to do now but wait.” He stared at the workers who had cranked two more saws and were busy slicing limbs from the tree. He shook his head.
While Deevers watched, one of the larger limbs rose two feet off the ground and flew toward a workman. She yelled to get his attention, but the racket from the chainsaws drowned her out. The worker went down hard when the limb smashed between his legs and twisted viciously. His chainsaw hurtled into the air, then bounced off the cement sidewalk amid a shower of concrete chips.
“Stay here!” Deevers barked as she hurried toward the downed man. The chainsaw rumbled on the cement a few feet away from him. He seemed unhurt, and she helped him up. Despite her protests of innocence, he continued to look at her as if she were his assailant. Finally she just walked away.
“They’re just askin’ for trouble,” Walt said. “I wouldn’t stir ’em up any more than they already are.”
Deevers looked deep into the old man’s eyes, searching for some sign of insanity, but what she saw was care and concern. When the old man reached for his wife’s hand, Deevers made her decision.
“I’ll be right back,” she said and signaled to the foreman standing under a makeshift plywood shelter. Their argument didn’t last long, but when Deevers offered to cover the cost of an early dinner, the foreman told his crew to take a break. Deevers hurried back to the old couple who sat huddled in their truck with the motor running.
“You were going to tell me about some kind of trouble you had when you quit putting out food for the birds.”
“Right,” said the woman. “It wasn’t bad at first, the doorbell would ring at night, and sometimes the trash cans would be knocked over. We thought it was kids, but when we looked in the snow for tracks we never found any that they might’ve made.”
Deevers raised an eyebrow. “What kind of tracks did you find?”
“Small ones,” Walt said, “about the size of rabbit tracks, but nothing I could identify.”
“We tried to ignore it,” said the woman, “but the trouble only got worse. They broke windows, destroyed lawn furniture, flattened truck tires. It was awful.”
The old man chimed in quickly. “We called the cops, and they left a car by the house all night, but the vandalism went on like before. I stayed up all night a couple times myself–”
“With a camera and a gun!” exclaimed Mrs. Binderburg.
“But I never saw them,” he said, “even when they smeared stuff on the walls or threw snowballs at the squad car.”
“Nothing worked,” said the old woman, “until we started putting food back out on the tree. After that, things got better. From then on, when the Christmas season started, I’d bake something different every day and leave it outside. The only time we had any trouble was when I forgot, or if we took a trip somewhere. By New Year’s Day things usually went back to normal.”
Deevers scratched her head and looked back at the trail of cookies the old couple had left behind. Several disappeared as she watched. She looked in the back of the truck where the last of the goodies had been scattered. One by one, those, too, evaporated.
“Assuming everything you’ve told me is true,” Deevers said, “and these peeved pixies, or whatever they are, were the cause of all the problems we’ve had here, there’s still one thing I don’t understand.” She put her hands on her hips and tilted her head to one side. “Why are you trying to claim them? What’s in it for you?”
The old man looked at his wife for a moment, then back to the detective. “It’s Christmas, right?” He shrugged. “They’re the only family we’ve got.”