[From time to time, I write a story in an hour based on a stock photo or other image.]

Mail Room

Detective Beeler leaped atop one of the mail conveyors and held up his hands to get our attention. It was cold on the floor so late at night and the heaters hadn’t yet kicked on so I could see his breath.

“Men, we appreciate you taking time from your families to help the NYPD so close to Christmas, but when we explain why, we think you’ll more than understand.”

I understood. My supervisor Eugene, who actually had children of his own, didn’t seem to; he stood off to the side with his sleeves rolled up and his arms folded, frowning at the cosmic inconvenience of it all. Some of the other guys didn’t look too happy either.

But for me, hey, what was I doing? Sitting around in my boarding house listening to the radio? Leaning out on the fire escape to watch the snow gather on the heaps of garbage below? When the police called us back to the distribution center, that was fine with me.

“If you’ve been following the papers the last few months, you know all about the Brooklyn Butcher. If you haven’t, well, maybe you’re better off not knowing that some sicko has been killing women and children and mailing their body parts to newspapers and the police. We don’t know who he is, only that the packages are postmarked 11256.”

I knew something about it, sure. I’d been reading the papers just like everybody else, wondering what the Butcher would send next. One week it had been a woman’s pale, lithe arm still with the silver bracelet on the wrist. Another, it was a child’s foot in a Buster Brown shoe. Then there were the ten days in a row when fingers arrived one after the other, boom boom boom. They weren’t all from the same person.

“This time, though, we’ve got a problem. When a cop or a newspaper man gets an ear in the mail, it sure isn’t fun, but at least he can handle it. I mean, we’ve all been in the War. But kids…shit.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “This year, the fucker is sending Christmas presents to kids. That’s what he calls them, ‘presents.’”

I remembered that letter now, the scary one sent to the Post with the untraceable typewriter letters. ON THIS MERRY YULE, I SHAL SEND THE CHURLDREN OF THE CITY SOME NISE FLESHY TOISE TO PLAY WIT. THE BEST TOISE ARE PEEPLE.

Beeler nodded. “Yeah, presents. So somewhere in this heap of Christmas packages there are some scary fucking things and we have to find them.”

I raised my hand. “How will we know which are the scary things?”

Beeler pointed to me. “I’m glad you asked. I’m guessing you guys aren’t too used to listening to the packages you deliver, but that’s the key here. You’re going to have to shake each one gently and listen for how it thumps.”

“How it thumps?” Eugene was always slow.

“Yeah. So you pick up each package and shake it gently. Most things, your toys and your candy, they’ll make something like a rattle, a little hollow. But something like, say, a hand makes this rasping sound as the flesh rubs against the cardboard. It’s a lot more solid-sounding, too. Kind of a ‘ssss-thump.’”

I made the sound with my tongue against my teeth and lips. Ssss-thump. Ssssssss-thuuumppp.

“Don’t be surprised if you come across any Leakers, either. That’s what we call the packages that have a little bit of blood pooling in one of the corners. Try not to handle the blood directly of course, and just put it in this bin. This is the Leaker bin.”

I raised my hand again.

“You’re full of questions, aren’t you?” Beeler said.

Eugene folded his arms. “He usually is.”

“What do we get for each thing we find?”

Beeler hunched his shoulders a little to peer down at me. “What do you get? You get the satisfaction of keeping a child from finding a severed penis on Christmas morning, that’s what you get.”

I nodded. “Okay, sure. I completely understand. Absolutely. I just thought we might make it…fun. You know, because it’s Christmas.”

“I’m not sure this should be fun,” Beeler said, “but whatever you need to do to find these things…well, we’d greatly appreciate it.”

Eugene pulled the big green button and the conveyors creaked to life. Beeler jumped down, made sure his revolver was secure, and then reached into the boxes like an old pro.

I began to whistle “Sleigh Ride.” Then I picked up the first box from my favorite pile and listened for the ssss-thump of a lucky child’s best present ever.