And, at least on my more optimistic days, it had seemed to me that Garth was healing. There had been lots of sports, including membership on a championship softball team with Garth as the star slugger and me as a second baseman who set a league record for most walks in a season, lots of concerts, lots of time with friends, especially loving women friends, lots of good food, and-perhaps best and most important of all-lots of good talk. Once again Garth had learned to laugh without shedding tears for those in the world who would never know joy or find anything in their lives funny, love without suffering pangs of sorrow for those who were alone, dine without feeling the hunger pangs of the starving, tell a joke without rage at the legions of manipulators who made other people's lives a joke. Sometimes it was all enough to make me believe that my brother was completely recovered.

Silent Night. Oh Come All Ye Faithful. Come home, Garth.

We did a lot of pro bono work, which we enjoyed-mostly investigations for attorneys who were themselves doing pro bono work for poor clients-and we made regular contributions to our favorite charities.

And, as always, we looked forward to Christmas.

From the time we arrived in New York, we had, along with thousands of other New Yorkers, taken great delight in observing one particular tradition. Each year, during the Christmas season, tens of thousands of letters addressed to Santa Claus are mailed in the greater New York metropolitan area, and they all end up at the General Post Office on West 33rd Street in Manhattan. Here, the children's letters are placed in cardboard boxes, which in turn are placed on the block-long marble counter inside the main lobby. Anyone is free to come in, browse through the letters, and select up to five to which he or she may wish to respond with gifts or services, or whatever.

Yes, Virginia. .

Garth and I always spent a good deal of time each year doing our Santa Claus number. On our appointed day or days we would go to the GPO, start at opposite ends of the counter and work our way toward the center, poring over the letters in each box, searching for the ones which it would please us the most to 'answer.' Each year, as a result of this search, ten children-usually from poor and obviously needy families, but not necessarily-received brightly wrapped packages on Christmas Eve, delivered by special messenger and directly dispatched by Santa Claus at the North Pole.

We normally began our selection process early in December, as soon as the first boxfuls of letters would begin to appear, but this year Christmas had caught up with us. Late November and early December had been uncharacteristically hectic, with a heavy workload that had demanded our personal attention, and we'd just returned from an exhausting two-week stint in the Middle East, where we'd been attending to the needs of one of our corporate clients, an oil company. It had been necessary to prepare a report hurriedly, which then had to be presented orally before the corporation's board of directors. With Santa-time quickly running out on us, Garth and I had flipped a coin; I'd gotten to deliver the report, and he'd gotten to spend the day at the post office doing a letter search for both of us. Delivering the report, and then answering a host of detailed questions, had taken me all of the morning and most of the afternoon, and then I'd eagerly rushed back to the brownstone to see what, if any, treasures Garth had been able to excavate from what had to be, by now, a severely depleted trove of interesting or worthy Christmas wishes. Garth hadn't been in our offices, and I hadn't found him in either his apartment or mine. There had been no note, no phone message. I was still waiting for him, or for some word from him. It was 10 P.M.

Huddled inside my bulky cardigan and sipping at my Scotch, I stood at the three-foot-high brick balustrade at the edge of the roof and peered up at the sky as light snow began to fall, dusting my eyelashes, the brick patio, and the dormant, burlap-swaddled plants in my garden. Within minutes the snow began to fall more heavily, filtering and diffusing the bright city lights, creating a kind of milky glow around the illuminated tops of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings. It was growing colder-or perhaps it was only the chill that had been steadily growing inside me, and which had nothing to do with the weather.

Where the hell was Garth?

Enough, I thought as I drained off the rest of my Scotch, flung the ice into my garden, and headed back inside. I'd already waited too long.

I had a list of the telephone numbers for all the hospital emergency rooms in the five boroughs taped inside the front cover of my Manhattan directory, and that's what I turned to as I picked up the telephone in my oak- paneled, leathery library-study. I was just starting to dial the first number when I heard my front door open and close. I slammed down the receiver, hurried out of the study, across the living room, and around a large Chinese silk screen into the foyer, where I stopped suddenly and sucked in my breath, shocked by what I saw.

Garth was still tough-minded, to be sure, and in some ways even more tough-minded-some would say callous-than he had been during the years when he had been a county sheriff in Nebraska, and then a much- decorated NYPD detective. In fact he wasn't callous at all, but he no longer had any time for cant, hypocrisy, or any of the sundry nonsense that flows through and around most of us during the ordinary course of our everyday lives; Garth just ignored all that. To some, this attitude made him seem emotionally flat, but this was far from the mark. The one characteristic he had retained from his poison-induced change of consciousness was a profound sense of caring, or near-pure empathy, for people truly in need. His experience had rounded off some rough edges, making him even more sensitive to other people's pain, and caused certain other rough edges to become even more pronounced-if you happened to be the cause of other people's pain, it was best seriously to consider avoiding my brother. Even his appearance had changed, inasmuch as he now wore a full beard-much more liberally streaked with gray than his long, thinning, wheat-colored hair-in order to shield himself from the curious who might otherwise recognize him as the disgraced and discredited former leader of 'Garth's People.' I was told by women friends that the beard made him look very sexy; I thought it made him look most imposing, what with his six-foot- three-inch solidly built body and piercing, light brown eyes.

Right now Garth didn't look very imposing at all; he appeared almost shrunken, with red-rimmed eyes and the kind of pallor that comes not from poor diet or lack of sunshine, but from the kind of intense, unrelieved stress that can suck at a man's guts until he's turned inside out. He looked truly haunted, as if something horrible had followed him home and was lurking, waiting for both of us, just outside the door.

'Garth!' I managed to say when I had recovered from my initial shock at his appearance. 'Jesus Christ. I was just outside, and I didn't see you coming down the street.'

'I came down Fifty-seventh and up the back way,' Garth said in a tight voice that was oddly distant, as though he could not get his mind off whatever it was that was bothering him. 'I figured you'd be up here waiting for me.'

'I was just about to start calling the hospitals, for Christ's sake! Are you all right?'

'I'm all right,' my brother replied in the same distant tone.

'Nothing happened to you?'

'No. Nothing happened to me.'

There were times, I thought, when Garth could make the Sphinx seem like a loquacious party animal. I laughed with equal parts nervousness, relief, and annoyance. 'Then where the hell have you been? One of your reindeer throw a shoe? Where the hell are my five letters?'

Garth's response was to reach into the pocket of his gray, snow-speckled overcoat and remove an envelope, which he held out to me. 'I think this one letter is about all you and I are going to be able to handle this Christmas. Read it and see what you think.'

The first thing I did was examine the business-size envelope, front and back; the paper was cream-colored, textured, heavy bond-the expensive kind of stationery that usually has a personal or corporate name and address tastefully embossed in the upper left-hand corner, or on the back. This envelope was unadorned, the stamp standard post office issue. The postmark was New York City, and the envelope was addressed to Santa Claus at the North Pole. The handwriting was a child's light, uncertain scrawl.

The folded letter inside was of a matching heavy bond, with no return address. There were a number of dark smudges on the paper, and in the creases of the envelope were tiny specks of what appeared to be dirt. The letter was written in the same child's handwriting. It read:

Dear Santa,

Please bring me a puppy to keep me company because it is very lonely in here and Mommy and Daddy won't let me go out and other kids can't come in because it is a secret place but I know you will be able to find me

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