The story so far: Tony Renzi and Bart Brewer, co-owners of R&B Automotive, have banded together to find the family of an old man who stumbled into their shop, lost and cold, on Christmas Eve.
Tony looked at Bart, then at the old man who was snoring gently, chin on chest, fedora sliding down his brow, on a folding chair on the shop floor Tony's dog, Ziti, slept, too, nestled onto the old man's feet.
"Well, what now? How do we help Gino here find his niece, when all he knows is they live near a creek and trees, and maybe own a flower shop?"
"Same way we figure out what's wrong with a Camry," Bart said. "It's like when we run a diagnostic and the computer gives us the problem code. So that tells us what ballpark we're in, maybe what section, but not what row or what seat. So we keep running tests, checking stuff out, and narrow it down."
"OK, OK, I'm with ya, we know the ballpark is Philly, basically. Do we know what section we're in at least?"
A particularly loud snore startled Ziti, who barked, waking the old man. He seemed to come to quickly, asking, "My niece, any luck finding her?" That was as coherent an utterance as he managed since he stumbled, half-frozen and bewildered, into the shop an hour before.
"Not yet, Gino. You weren't out long," Tony said. "Tell me: Did it feel to you before like this was the right area, that you were getting close to your niece's place?"
Lines creased the old man's brow: "I think so, maybe. But I got so turned around yesterday, I'm not sure. I'm not sure. But that shopping center back a mile or so did look familiar."
OK, progress . . . if you ignored that every strip mall in every suburb looked pretty much the same.
"Here's what we do," Bart said, as if he'd just figured out why an engine was misbehaving. "Let's assume we're in the right section; then the creek's probably the Wissahickoncq. We start out with these two phone books. Ton e , you take all the Bontempos. Yeah, it's not the niece's name, but maybe we get lucky and find a cousin. I'll try all the florists. Use cells, so we can give the office phone as a callback."
"Yes, sir, Commander Brewer, sir," Tony saluted, with a grin that melted the second he heard his ring tone. Colleen. Sighing, he let the call go to voicemail. He looked at the shop clock: 4:40. Forty minutes until he was supposed to be at church school listening as Bridget, his sixth-grader with a voice as sweet and strong as the seraphim, sang her Christmas pageant solo.
They set Gino up with another glass of Cchianti and some pork. After a sip, Gino leaned over and began babbling in some private, accented language to Ziti, who sat at attention while Gino scratched behind his ears.
The first six florists were closed; the seventh listened to about half of Bart's explanation, then barked, "Sorry, can't help you, trying to close up!"
Tony came running into the service bay. "I found 'em! Sweet mother of Jesus, found 'em on the fifth call. They're on their way over! Roxborough, it was Roxborough."
"You're sure, Tone, you're sure?"
"Yeah. Said they'd been calling all over for him. It was a cousin, I guess. Said he'd drive up with the nephew, nephew-in-law, whatever, to pick up Gino's car and take him back to their house. Be here in 10, he said. Thank God. Now my Christmas present from Coll won't be a bullet between the eyes."
"Well, how 'bout that?" Bart said, running two hands back along the sides of his blond hair. "Hear that, Gino? We found your family!"
Gino barely acknowledged the news, as he murmured to Ziti and scratched the dog's chest. Ziti reared his head back in canine rapture.
"Well, sure took that cool, didn't he? He's a strange one, our Gino," Tony said.
By the time a flash of headlights in the lot outside heralded the rescue party, Bart and Tony had pried Gino free of Ziti and put an old jacket of Tony's on him.
Once outside, all that Bart and Tony could make out in the glare of the idling Cadillac's headlights was a large, dark figure coming toward them, and another head bent over in the passenger seat. Then the striding figure took clearer form: a tall man in a black leather coat, open and flapping in the frigid wind. As he walked, he rubbed his bare hands.
"Do I got the right place?" he called out as he approached. "Where's Gramps?"
Tony and Bart had a decent look at the guy now. Slicked back black hair, a goatee, one earring and a tattoo of a scorpion on his neck.
Being in a people business all these years, Tony had learned not to trust stereotypes, but this character looked like no florist he'd ever seen. More like a made man, a wise guy, someone who made people push up daisies, not helped arrange them.
Tony readied his hand for a handshake, but the guy kept his hands squeezed beneath his armpits.
"Hi, Tony Renzi. This is my partner, Bart. Gino's still inside getting himself together. He's had a hard day. We're real glad we found you."
"Yeah. I'll bet. Tell Gramps to hurry. Everyone's waitin'." The guy's eyes scanned the R&B lot. "Which car's his? Got the keys? I'll drive that one."
Tony reached into his pocket for the keys to Gino's Mazda pickup, but felt a touch on his arm. Bart. At that moment, Gino opened the door; he stood in the doorway, coughing.
"You're not the florist, I'm guessin'," Bart said. "And you called him Gramps. Thought he was an uncle."
"Flori ...? Uh, that's him in the car. Hey, Gramps is just what I call any old codger. C'mon, Gino, let's go."
Gino didn't move. "Don't know you," he murmured.
"He's a little shell-shocked, I guess," Tony said soothingly. "Your nephew's over there. C'mon, Gino, let me take you to the car."
"That rusty pickup, over there, the white Mazda, that's his car," Bart barked, eyes on the scorpion tattoo.
"That piece of . . . you sure?," the guy said.
"Tony, wait a sec," Bart said, staring at the guy. "Can I have some ID, sir?"
"ID? Who do you think you are, pal?" The guy's neck swiveled back to the idling Cadillac. He gestured toward the old pickup. A pair of hands waggled on the other side of the passenger window.
"Fine, I'm out of here," the guy said, striding back to the Caddy. "Take him to your Christmas dinner."
With gunning engine, the car peeled off onto the Pike.
"Holy moley, what was that?" Tony asked, still clutching Gino's arm. Gino, who'd been shrinking back to the doorway, now stood still.
"That, pardner, was a scam," Bart said, clapping his gloved hands. "Quick move, I'll give him that, but not real thought out. When this guy got your call, he quick-figured it might be a chance to steal a nice enough car. Lots of old folks drive a Town Car, a Caddy or a Marquis maybe."
"They were just going to dump Gino and take the car? On Christmas Eve?"
"Yeah, pardner, they were. Sometimes you can be too trusting. Well, back to the phones."
Inside, Tony's phone beeped. Colleen had sent a frosty text message: "U R SO L8! IM TO ST. A. MEET. NOW!"
Tony glanced at the clock: 5:15. If he left now, he might make it. But he couldn't leave Gino here. If you start something, finish it. That rule was sunk deep in Tony's bones.
Gino leaned back on the old love seat in the front office, with Ziti at his feet. Tony smiled at the two of them: I'll get this old guy to where he belongs, if it takes all night.
The final part of the Christmas story will appear tomorrow, Christmas Eve. To comment, e-mail email@example.com or call 215-854-5943.