The radio inside Vincent Bayonne’s Chevy Vega chirped, distorting the punchline of George Simon’s joke, which hung in the air. Leaning against his Vega’s hood and smoking a cigarette, Bayonne smiled, shook his head, exhaled a cloud of smoke, and inhaled a bellyful of cold, crisp, winter oxygen spiked with exhaust. The dry concoction caught in his lungs and burned. Bayonne squinted, his eyes welling. He and his partner had enjoyed a quiet week, but they both lived alone and felt the melancholia lingering during the bear days of winter, those coldest of days in the Midwest when the nights remain long and the holidays became inconsequential. Bayonne could see his exhalation in the winter night, a sure sign he was alive, but he couldn’t feel himself kicking.
Simon, who stood with his feet shoulder width apart, his hands in his pockets, his head turned down as he listened, jarred by the radio from the middle of a chuckle, said, “That’s only two blocks away.”
“A jumper was reported on top of the Chester Building. That’s only two blocks away.”
Built in the nineteen thirties to house the corporate offices and distribution center of Chester Mercantile, The Chester Building had once been the tallest building in the city, a pristine, if drab, illustration of the city’s sense of pragmatism, industry, and unchecked growth, the city’s trajectory at the time, a headlong rush toward modern cosmopolitanism. A building of vertical, parallel lines and a honeycomb of windows set within a bland concrete facade, The Chester made no pretense toward beauty. It maintained an ever stalwart, perpetually erect posture that although no longer the largest, longest, or thickest edifice in a city doubled in size since The Chester’s inception, demanded a sense of proportionate respect for its sheer obstinacy in maintaining an outdated worldview, a sense of utilitarianism despite the emotions such an eyesore evoked. In the seventies, The Chester Mercantile Company had merged with The Spencer Field Clothing Company to form Chester and Spencer Field Incorporated, and the offices had moved to a building made of glass in a southern suburb, an unobstructed view for a postmodern sensibility that defied definition. Now home to a bank, two law firms, a floor full of therapists, and an advertising agency, a cornucopia of the priestly class if ever one existed, The Chester Building, too inert to change with the times, remained an often-overshadowed modern monstrosity in the midst of the Downtown skyline, the cluster of skyscrapers stretching several blocks from Capitol Hill toward the lakeshore.
Bayonne flicked ash onto the sidewalk. “We’re off duty, and we’re homicide detectives.”
“Just once, let’s get there while the body’s warm. Besides, have you got something better to do?”
“Something better than a jumper?” Bayonne weighed the four cocktails he’d had with dinner against the empty house and long drive south of the river. Bayonne pushed off his Vega, tossed his cigarette into the gutter, and said, “I guess not. Hop in.”
Simon opened the door and slid into the passenger seat, and Bayonne lowered himself into the other side, fired the engine, and switched on the cherries and berries in his dash. He spun the wheel, flipped around, turned right at the intersection, and parked a block and a half later. They’d hardly needed flashing lights, but a perk is a perk. While Bayonne tossed a handful of mints into his mouth, Simon told dispatch to show them responding to the call and requested backup from a patrol unit.
Inside the building, a security guard led the way, and Bayonne and Simon twiddled their thumbs as the elevator improved their stature in the community. The elevator shaft ran through the center of the building from the basement to the observation deck, where the two detectives stepped into a dimly lit room covered in carpet but noticeably devoid of furniture. All four external walls contained floor to ceiling glass stretching from concrete pillar to concrete pillar. A walkway encircled the glass enclosure, and the glass walls and concrete pillars rose in an arc toward a peak.
Sitting on the ledge outside the railing that separated the walkway from the great beyond, the jumper dangled his legs. The white male appeared to be in his mid-thirties and wore a red Santa suit, the fake beard pulled below his chin. He held a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag.
Bayonne opened the door to the observation deck, and the wind hit him in the face. He paused for a moment with his eyes pinched shut, and he heard a gentle melody in G Major.
Santa was singing Good King Wenceslas.
George Simon grabbed Bayonne’s arm and pulled him out of the wind. “We need a plan.”
“I was going to climb out there and ask him for a drink.”
“The idea is to get him in here with us, not to get you out there with him.”
“There’s more booze out there than in here.”
“If you need me, I want you to tip your hat in my direction. Keep in mind, it won’t look too good for you if Santa plummets to his death, and it won’t look too good for me if you go with him.”
Bayonne pulled his arm from Simon’s grasp. “If things go south, your look will be the least of my worries.”
Simon nodded. “Just take care of yourself.”
Santa, despite a working knowledge of who’s naughty and nice, seemed not to notice Bayonne easing his weight over the railing and balancing first one foot and then the other on the ledge before lowering to a seated position. Santa ignored the detective, focused on the view, and described snow that lay deep and crisp and even, which it rarely did in a city with a swarm of snowplows.
“Do you mind if I get a pull of that hooch?”
The man held the bottle out to Bayonne without otherwise acknowledging his presence.
Bayonne took a pull, passed the bottle back, and offered the man a cigarette. “That was always my favorite Christmas song.”
“What did you call me?”
Bayonne offered St. Nick a light, and the not-so-jolly young man leaned into the flame.
Santa sucked on the nail until it glowed, removed it from his mouth, and said, “Christmas songs are called carols.”
“Only if you go caroling. If you’re sitting on the roof of a building and contemplating suicide, they’re just songs.”
“I’m wearing a Santa suit. Do you really want to argue with me about Christmas etiquette?”
“I see your point. Why are you wearing a Santa suit? Christmas was a month and a half ago.”
“I try to keep Christmas all year round.”
“You can’t keep it in your closet?”
The man took a pull from the bottle and passed it to Bayonne.
“My son couldn’t celebrate Christmas this year. I always wore this suit for him, and he got a big kick out of it. Without him, I don’t have a use for it anymore, so I thought I’d wear it one more time.”
Continued in Part Two.
Image by Tanya Dusett of Unsplash.