"Naughty or Nice"
October 2009, ISBN 10: 0-505-52753-7
ISBN 13: 978-0-505-52753-0
Only winos and weirdos shopped at the Piggly Jiggly Supermarket after midnight.
And a thirty-year-old, desperate woman dressed as Santa Claus.
Correction. A thirty-year-old, desperate woman dressed as Santa Claus, packing
a forty-five in her pocket.
As she waited her turn at the service desk, Jessica Jones grimaced at the
ludicrous situation she found herself in. It was the "Christmas Curse," of
course. For as long as she could remember, something really awful happened to her during
the Christmas season.
She'd thought she was over the bad luck for this year when her fiancée, Burton
Richards, dumped her two weeks ago, but, uh-uh, the fix she found herself in now was even
worse. A definite ten on the Christmas Curse Richter scale.
Jessica hitched up the wide belt of her sagging Santa stomach with determination. Like
the old song goes, I'm not gonna take it anymore.
A very tall, broad-shouldered woman walked by, swishing her hips in a red nylon
mini-dress--not a good choice for a cold Philadelphia winter. Clearly a male,
cross-dressing prostitute. She...he...smiled at her and made a kissy sound through thickly
painted lips. Criminey, Santa was being propositioned by a whore.
Jessica shook her head vehemently.
The hooker shrugged, as if to say it was her loss, and walked over to the
An old man standing in front of her, waiting to have his welfare check cashed,
turned and slurred out, "What'dja say?"
His boozy breath about knocked her over, especially with her knees knocking
together and her hands shaking so badly she stuffed them in her wide pockets. She shifted
the pillow higher and felt with her right hand for the pistol which nestled against her
thigh. Help! This is not happening. "Nothing. Just get moving, okay?"
"Some grumpy Santa you are," he muttered.
Her eyes darted about the area, casing the automatic exit doors, only a few feet
away. She was the last person in line. The only other person nearby was a gorgeous guy in
a light brown ponytail, leaning lazily against the wall, scratching off a lottery ticket.
He wore a Santa Claus outfit, too, but his hat, beard and wig were stuffed in his belt.
He looked like Brad Pitt, but older...and better.
The Brad-Santa looked up, gave her a quick once-over, and winked.
Darn! Caught smack dab in the middle of a leer! Her heated face probably
matched her suit. Jessica lifted her chin haughtily and pretended she'd been looking at
something else, like the bare wall behind him. Hah! Who am I fooling? And, Lordy,
haven't I had enough of womanizing egomaniacs in my life? I can't believe I'm about to
perform a criminal act, and I'm ogling some lech in costume.
The lech laughed.
She was about to snarl, but it was her turn.
Taking a deep breath, she stepped forward. "Put up your hands. This is a
stick-out," she yelled in a too-shrill voice to the gum-chewing guy behind the
counter whose name badge read, "Frank Brown, Assistant Manager." He gulped and
swallowed his gum with a squeak.
Brad peered up at her with faint interest through eyelashes that could double for
brown feather dusters. "Stick-up, baby. You mean, stick-up," he offered
helpfully, his lips twitching with amusement.
"This is a stick-up, Frank," she amended to the assistant manager,
brandishing her gun. Thank heavens, the thing isn't loaded. Then I'd be in big trouble.
Pointing the weapon at the smiling Santa, she ordered, "And don't give me any of your
lip, buster, or I'll wipe you up, too."
"Wipe out, not wipe up," the long, tall Santa laughed.
His ridicule made her so mad she clenched her fingers over the gun which, to her
amazement, caused it to go off accidentally. And, Holy Cow, it shot a big hole in the
Pepsi machine about three feet to the right of the jerk's ear.
Her heart slam-dunked to her throat. Oh, no! Julio told me it wasn't loaded. I
even shot it once in the woods and nothing happened. It can't have real bullets in it. It
She took another look at the Pepsi machine. There was an opening the size of a
basketball in the glass front. The bullets were real, all right. Oh, geez! She
The hooker called out, "Way to go, Big Boy! Ho, ho, ho!"
And the Brad-Santa ducked.
Through her peripheral vision she saw a young girl at a cash register, a bag boy
and two customers throw themselves to the floor.
One man cried out, "Oh, God! This is probably one of those maniac postal
workers, taking us hostage. I'll miss Christmas with my kids." Then as an
afterthought, he added, "Hallelujah!"
"Do you think we'll make CBS News?" the female clerk asked.
"Wouldn't ya just know this would happen on a bad hair day?"
"Holy Shit!" Brad exclaimed, his lottery ticket fluttering to the floor.
"Are you nuts?"
Her heart was slowing down to a gallop. Okay, that was a close call, but I'm
okay now. No serious damage. I can mail a check next week. Calm down. Pretending that
her shot had been deliberate, she threw her shoulders back and aimed directly at the
shivering assistant manager, being careful not to touch the trigger again. "You're
next, Frank, if you don't give me my money."
"An...anyth...anything you want," Frank sputtered. He started to stuff
bills in a cloth bag.
"NO!" Jessica interrupted sharply. "Just thirty-nine,
"Wh-what?" Frank choked out.
Everyone was gawking at her like she was a psycho. She was, of course. "You
heard me. Give me thirty-nine dollars and ninety-five cents. And make it quick. I've got
an itchy thumb here."
"Trigger finger, sweetheart," the smirking Santa corrected again,
snickering. "You gotta get the lingo right if you're gonna follow a life of
She frowned with confusion.
"It's an itchy trigger finger, not thumb," he explained
God, he's gorgeous. Maybe he's Brad Pitt's older brother. Then, Get a
grip, girl. Since when do movie stars shop in a seedy Philly supermarket!
"Thumb...trigger finger...big difference!" she said, waving her gun dismissively
at him. "And stop interrupting me."
"Hey, be careful where you aim that thing," he growled, edging his way
toward her. He probably planned to tackle her. Not a good idea when the curse was in
"Stay where you are," she warned, raising the revolver higher.
He stopped, eyeing her warily.
"Thirty-nine, ninety-five!" Frank squealed. "Hey, I know who you
are. You're that whacko nun who came in here last week demanding her money back for a
defective Buzzy Burp Bear."
"I am not a nun," Jessica said weakly.
"Piggly Jiggly has a two-week refund policy," Frank rationalized to the
wino and Brad, "and the damn nun...I mean, the nun...had it for a month before she
brought it back. Said it wouldn't burp. Hah! She'd probably been playing it non-stop all
that time...wore out its burp battery."
"A nun?" the wino whimpered, backing away from her as if she had
"I am not a nun."
"Hot damn!" the Santa-with-an-attitude whistled. "A holy
"I am not a nun."
"Clara...that's your name...Sister Clara," Frank chortled. "Boy,
you are in big trouble, lady. I'm gonna report you to the police...and the
"I'm not Clara, I tell you. I'm...I'm Clara's hit guy." She realized her
mistake immediately, and before Santa could pipe in, she corrected herself, "Hit
man." Then she added, "And I'm not in big trouble because you owe me...I mean,
Clara...the money for the stupid bear, and that's not stealing. And I'm going to pay for
the damage to the Pepsi machine. So there!"
"And here I thought I was gonna have a dull Saturday night. This is more fun
than playing the lottery, or doing laundry." Jessica gave the
crud-that-would-be-a-heartthrob a withering look. As if he had any difficulty filling his
nights! He probably had women lined up with numbers. He probably drove a Porsche. He
probably had a penthouse. He probably posed for centerfolds.
Unfortunately, she knew a few guys just like him; in fact, one of them had been
her Christmas Curse six years ago. Except he'd looked like Mel Gibson, with a paunch.
The guy's arms were folded casually across his chest and he grinned from ear to
ear. Even with the padded Santa suit, she just knew he didn't have a paunch.
"Give me my freakin' money," she demanded, turning back to Frank as she
felt the situation deteriorating around her. "I'm not leaving without my thirty-nine,
"Tsk-tsk, nuns aren't supposed to swear," Santa chided.
"Tell it to your reindeer, bozo."
She had no choice then, she had to show she was in control. She aimed for the
Little Debbie cupcake stand over to the left. Although she fired two shots, the second one
came up blank. That must mean the gun was empty now.
But, more important, instead of hitting Little Debbie, she winged the pyramid
display of Buzzy Burp Bears. Immediately, brown fur flew everywhere as stuffed animals
careened to the floor and a chorus of bears began burping to the tune of Jingle Bells. It
was a scene right out of The Three Stooges, or her worst nightmare.
Everyone's mouth dropped open in surprise, including the jerk Santa's.
"Now...give...me...my...thirty-nine, ninety-five," she spat out evenly
in her best Clint Eastwood voice, and tacked on in a gravelly rumble, just for effect,
"or make my day."
Frank didn't hesitate. With quivering fingers, he counted out the bills and coins
and shoved them across the counter.
She put the money in her pocket and was about to leave when she saw a flash of
dark blue race through the exit door. A security guard. Immediately, a loud alarm
began to ring throughout the store. Oh, great! What should I do? What should I do?
Jessica tried to think what a genuine robber might do. A hostage. I need a
hostage. Quickly, Jessica looked over the possibilities: Frank, the wino, the
cross-dresser, the sales clerk, the two customers, or Brad Pitt.
"You're coming with me," she yelled at good ol' Brad.
"No, I'm not," he said, backing up.
"Yes, you are. You're my hostage." She leveled her now-empty gun at
him--first, at his chest, then lower. Yep, a guy like him would care more about protecting
those assets than his heart. Her upper lip curled with disdain. "Listen, Mr.
Legend-of-the-Fall, I'm in the middle of my Christmas Curse, and I'd hate to see your dead
body be my bad luck this year."
"Curse?" Brad barked with disbelief. "You're pulling a heist
because of PMS?"
She blinked at him with confusion. "Oh, you idiot! Not that kind of curse. My
Christmas Curse is the real kind--black magic, evil eyes, that sort of thing."
"Give me a break!"
"Really. My parents died in an automobile accident on December 20 when I was
ten. The following yule season, I was in the foster home from hell. I broke my leg on
Christmas Eve when I was twenty."
"Oh, yeah? Then how about the time my dog Fred impregnated a pedigree poodle
at that fancy private kennel five years ago, even though he was fixed? That curse cost me
a thousand dollars in legal fines."
"Apparently Fred's fix-job leaked." His hazel eyes twinkled with humor.
She sliced him a look of disgust. "I will never forget my Christmas party
blind date last year with the guy who arrived wearing a plaid hunting cap with ear flaps.
The wheels of his pick-up truck were so high I had a nose bleed for a week."
"I once had a blind date with a girl who had tattoos on three-fourths of her
body," he contributed irrelevantly. "Does that qualify as a curse?"
"Quit stalling," she ordered, realizing that he was trying to keep her
talking until the police arrived. Even though she knew her bullets were gone, her hand
still shook when she raised the gun in a threatening manner.
He said a foul word under his breath as his eyes darted to her trembling fingers.
She could practically see the gears grinding in his chauvinistic brain. While he might
take a chance on her not shooting, he had to be worrying about her panicking, or her
Raising his arms above his head, Brad surrendered. "All right, all right,
take it easy, babe. I'm all yours." It was a real Kodak moment.
Actually, there was probably a security camera filming it for posterity. But she
couldn't think about that now. With the barrel of her pistol pressed into the back of the
guy's neck, she pushed him forward through the doors, yelling over her shoulder, "If
anyone follows me, this creep is dead. Do you hear me?"
At first, Luke Carter had been amused by Dirty Harriet. But not anymore. He walked
compliantly out of the grocery store, his arms upraised, a gun crammed into his nape, but
he was really, really pissed. It was humiliating for a man of his background to be
kidnapped by a dingbat Santa.
And he just knew that the six o'clock news tomorrow was going to have a stillframe
from the security tape of Santa being taken hostage by Santa. The news media would make
him the laughing stock of the country.
Luke could have taken the woman down in a flash...in the beginning...before she'd
started ripping out bullets. Hell, he was a bodyguard. And he was wearing a bulletproof
vest, having just come off of an assignment. It was his job to disarm potential political
assassins or crazy celebrity fans. He'd been trained in the CIA, and had done very well
these past five years--thank you, very much--operating his own private bodyguard business,
But the worst danger in the security business was a looney-bird. And if a
woman--who might, indeed, be a nun--dressed as Santa Claus, wielding a forty-five, ranting
about Christmas Curses, and robbing a supermarket for thirty-nine friggin' dollars and
ninety-five cents wasn't a looney-bird, he didn't know what was.
It was all his sister's fault, and he was going to tell her so, too...if he
was alive after tonight. Since he'd already rented the Santa outfit for his gig protecting
Janet Jackson at her concert today at The Spectrum in South Philly, Ellie had talked him
into playing the jolly ol' fellow for her third graders' Christmas party afterward. It had
seemed reasonable to zip on over to the elementary school where Ellie taught, and it had
been fun, too.
Later, they'd gone out for pizza and she'd berated him, ad nauseam, about the
dismal state of his personal life. Too many women--"bimboes" was her exact
word; no commitments--"How long are you going to mourn Ginny? She's been dead
five years"; his biological clock ticking away with no children in sight--"Men
don't have biological clocks," he'd pointed out; dirty laundry up the kazoo--okay,
she had a point about the laundry piled up in the back of his car; and on, and on, and
on. So, Ellie was responsible for his present predicament. If not for her nagging, he
never would have come out at midnight to do his laundry, and met Ms. Psycho Santa.
"Where to, babe?" he asked with a sigh of resignation. "Where'd you
park the sled?
Ms. Santa hesitated, glancing toward a van hidden around the side of the mall
behind a dumpster. Emblazoned across its sides was the logo, "Clara's House." Hell,
she must be a for-real nun, like that Frank character said.
He immediately made a mental revision in his strategy. Planning to take the perp
down at the first opportunity had been his original plan. Then he'd been unconcerned about
whether the weird woman got hurt in the process.
But he couldn't in good conscience risk taking out a nun. His sister would never
forgive him. The news media would have a field day. His business would be shot to
Besides, she was kinda cute.
"Where's your car?" she asked, biting her full bottom lip--a nervous
habit he'd noticed right from the start which only called attention to her puffy, very
kissable mouth. Very. "The van's too easy to follow. And stop jerking around
so much. I don't want to shoot you accidentally."
"How about not-so-accidentally?"
"Don't tempt me."
Man, oh, man, she reminded him of one of those "Magic Eye" pictures.
Once you saw the hidden image, you couldn't stop looking at it. Her lips were like that.
Now that his splintering brain registered how sensual her lips were, they drew his eyes
like a testosterone magnet. Maybe I inhaled too many bleach fumes tonight.
"My car's over here," he said, chastising himself silently for his
wandering mind, as he indicated a metallic gray Bronco across the empty parking lot,
"but, listen, I left all my clothes in the dryer over at the Suds 'n Duds." He
pointed to the laundromat down a little ways in the strip mall. "That's why I was in
the supermarket. I needed quarters for the machine, and that slimeball assistant manager
at the supermarket wouldn't give me any change unless I bought something. So, I got a
lottery ticket. Hey, I left my ticket back on the floor. Maybe I'm a millionaire. We
should go back and check." He was deliberately blabbing away in hopes of diverting
her attention for a moment so he could grab for the piece.
"Forget the clothes...and the lottery ticket, buddy. This is more
important." She walked him over to the car with the forty-five still imbedded in his
neck, too high for his lead corset to protect him.
"I hope you've got the safety clip on that gun," he said.
"What's a safety clip?"
"Don't worry, I'm being careful."
"Yeah, like you were careful with those farting bears."
"Oh, God, you are crude. They were burping bears."
"Well, that's better, of course. Did anyone ever tell you that you have
She blinked at him as a current of electricity--also known as lust--ricocheted
from her lips to her toes and made a few pit stops along the way. Oooh, this guy is
smooth. "Yeah, my Christmas Curse eleven years ago."
"Larry the Lizard told me I had a sexy mouth. That was just before he laid my
best friend, Alice."
"I wouldn't lay your best friend," he vowed. "I'd rather
"Get serious." They were on the driver side of the car. "Now,
slowly, I want you to take out your keys and open the front and back door." When he
did as ordered, she told him to get in the driver's seat. "I'll sit behind you where
I can aim my gun right for your head."
"Puh-leeze!" Luke frowned. This is not good. He'd been hoping she
would sit in the passenger seat where he could more easily grab for the weapon...or his
own rod on the floor under the driver's seat.
Oh, damn! Her eyes had honed in on the tip of his revolver peeking out like
"Move back," she demanded, training her firearm on his face, while she
leaned down and picked up his gun gingerly between a thumb and forefinger. For a moment,
he saw fear flash in her eyes. "Are you a crook or something?"
He couldn't help but grin. "You mean, like you?"
"No, not like me, you jerk. I mean a real crook. A bank robber, or a rapist,
or a murderer."
He shook his head. "I'm not a bad guy. Well...uh...I'm not all that good,
"Shut up," she snapped, motioning him into the car.
"Testy, are we?"
She slipped into the back seat, immediately positioning her gun with a bead on his
unprotected skull, the whole time muttering about Jeffrey Dahmer and Freddie Kruger.
"How 'bout lowering the gun, sweetheart. I'd hate to get my hair
mussed," he teased.
She started to comply.
That's it, honey. Put my metal undershirt in your cross-hairs.
Then she changed her mind when she realized his back was pressed against the seat.
He was easing the Bronco out of the parking lot when he saw in the rear view
mirror a police car, bubble gum light flashing, pull in front of the Piggly Jiggly. The
two officers who got out didn't seem in any big hurry. They probably thought it was a
"Where to?" he asked, slanting the woman a look over his shoulder. She
was biting her bottom lip in concentration.
Those lips again.
"Just head down the highway. I have to think."
That would be a refreshing change."You could probably take off your
disguise now," he advised. He'd like to get a better look at her. All he'd been able
to see thus far were high cheekbones, a light sprinkling of freckles over a slightly
upturned nose and big, big brown eyes. She was probably a redhead, if her eyebrows were
any indication. He hoped she was ugly, so his wandering lust would come to a halt. Even
so, he wondered, with total irrelevance, what kind of body she hid under that Santa
But then he immediately brought himself back to reality. Why the hell should I
care? I know my personal life is going down the toilet lately, but this is the pits. I'm
having freakin' impure thoughts about a nun with PMS?
"Geez, watch the road," she shrieked as he almost ran over onto the
berm. Luckily, there wasn't much traffic. "And I'm not taking off my
Yet? "Why not?" he asked suspiciously.
"Pay attention, and drive faster," she commanded, ignoring his question.
When they'd traveled a few miles, she told him to turn right onto a rural road. After a
prolonged silence, she added, "So, if you're not a crook, how come you have a
"I'm a bodyguard."
"A bodyguard!" she exclaimed. "Like Kevin Costner?"
"Yep! Except that women say I look like Brad Pitt." He cast a sidelong
glance at her over his shoulder, and jiggled his eyebrows. Women loved it when he did
"You're too old to look like Brad Pitt."
"Hey, I'm not that old. I'm only thirty-five. How old are you?" Boy,
see if I waste my eyebrow jiggle on you again!
"Thirty, and, believe me, I feel pretty darn old sometimes."
"Thirty? Old? No way! Back to me...," he said, cruising along at
seventy-five, carrying on a casual conversation, as if he weren't a hostage and she wasn't
She made a rude sound of disgust, and mimicked, "Back to me..."
"What's that snort supposed to mean?"
"Men. Everything always comes back to them. And I don't snort."
"Are you trying to say I'm vain?" She snorted again, and it was a snort,
no matter what she claimed. "Just because I'm in my prime?"
"And because you think you look like Brad Pitt. An older Brad
"You've got a real attitude problem, lady. Anyhow, you really don't
think I look like Brad Pitt? You called me Mr. Legend-of-the-Fall," he reminded her.
"A slip of the tongue," she asserted. "With all that hair, you look
more like Michael Bolton."
"Michael Bolton! Are you blind? He's blonde, and has a big nose, and a
receding hairline. And he doesn't even have good hair." Affronted, he gritted his
teeth and stared straight ahead. Now that he thought about it, he had noticed a few
extra hairs in his brush lately. It took iron will power not to touch his brow, just to
check for a receding hairline.
He tilted the rear view mirror so he could see her face and noticed her
smiling...at his expense. Was he that transparent? Or narcissistic? Probably.
"If you're really a bodyguard, show me some proof. Do you even have a license
for this firearm?" She pointed to his revolver which lay, outside his reach, on the
far side of the back seat.
"Yeah, in the glove compartment." He reached over slowly, making sure he
didn't make any abrupt moves that would surprise her "itchy thumb." Pushing
aside a set of handcuffs and a box of condoms, he picked up his wallet, tossing it back to
her. He was hoping she'd drop the weapon when she reached to catch his wallet, but no such
luck. She let it fall into her lap. Instead, her eyes were riveted on the glove
"Oh, god, are you a pervert?"
"A gun and handcuffs and a box of condoms! Boy, oh, boy, this is the worst
Christmas Curse ever. The 'Midnight Ride With Paul the Pervert'."
"Call me crazy, but I can't for the life of me see the connection between a
gun, handcuffs, condoms and perversion. Do you know many perverts who use condoms?"
"I don't know any perverts, at all." She riffled through his wallet
then, checking his driver's license, muttering, "Lucas Carter," then studying
his gun registration and his business card for WATCHDOGS, Inc. "So, you really are a
bodyguard, huh?" she commented with curiosity.
"For how long?"
"What'd you do before that? CIA? Ha-ha-ha!" she mocked, leaning forward
and picking up his handcuffs, examining them idly, even clipping one on her left
When he didn't answer, her mouth dropped open. "Oh, great! Don't tell me I've
kidnapped a CIA agent."
"Golly, gee! That makes me feel better."
Then, before he could blink, she reached over the seat, locked his right wrist to
her extended left, and pocketed the key.
"Sister, you are driving with your lights on dim." He tugged on the
cuff, but she held firm.
"I am not a nun."
Cursing silently, he berated himself for his carelessness. Never underestimate the
enemy. Never. How could he have forgotten that golden rule of the security business? His
biggest mistake was treating this Santa/bimbo/nun like less than the threat she posed.
"So, Luke, do you know any Mafia?"
Her totally off-the-wall question floored him speechless for a moment. "No,
"Un-uh. But I need to find some bad guys to rob. Real quick."
This Mother Teresa clone was not playing with a full deck. "Let me get this
straight. You're going to pull another robbery, and you'd like to target the mob."
"I did not rob the Piggly Jiggly. I was just getting back my money.
That's not a robbery," she declared vehemently. "I would never rob honest
people, not that I think Piggly Jiggly is all that honest. But I need cash, desperately,
and that means I've got to find some bad guys."
He groaned. This was turning into the most bizarre nightmare. "Why do you
need the money?"
She refused to answer.
"How much? I've got about fifty dollars in my wallet."
She sniffed indignantly. "That would be robbing."
He crossed his eyes with frustration. How do I reason with a lunatic?
"Besides, it's not enough. I need about five hundred dollars. And, take my
advice, you don't look at all like Brad Pitt when you cross your eyes. If fact, you look
Don't react. Be cool. She's just a dumbbell pretend nun. What does she know
about good-looking men? "We could stop at an ATM machine to get more money. My
bank will let me take out three hundred dollars at a pop."
"I told you I'm not going to steal from innocent people. If Julio hadn't
stolen my car and purse with all my credit cards, I wouldn't have any problems, at all. I
could have cashed a check or used my own ATM or VISA card. Nope, I need bad guys."
He shouldn't ask. He really shouldn't. "Who's Julio?"
"Some teen-age miscreant whose life won't be worth beans when I get a hold of
"Well, that explains everything. Listen, Ms. Claus, or Sister Claus...what's
your name, by the way?"
She hesitated for a long time, and Luke practically heard the devious churning in
"Tiffany," she announced finally. "Tiffany Blake."
He let out a hoot of laughter. "Sister Tiffany?"
"I told you, I'm not a nun."
"Okay, Ti-fan-ny. Now that you've done your 'Tiffany Does Piggly Jiggly'
routine, what next?"
"Pull over here," she said abruptly. "That's where I'm going to
pull my next job. Oh, this is perfect. Surely, the people who run this place qualify as
Luke swerved into the parking lot with a screech of brakes and gaped at the
flashing neon sign in front of a corrugated metal building. "SAM'S SMUT SHOP." A
handmade posterboard next to the red door listed a delectable menu of "triple x-rated
videos, sex toys, peep shows." Then, "Body piercings and nude massages, by
"You're going to rob a porno palace?"
"Yep," she said with a bright burst of enthusiasm. "Good idea,
Oh, Lord! "Do you think the Christmas Curse is contagious?"