The shack was the smallest home on the short gravel road. At first glance its origins as a storage shed were obvious. A quick second look revealed the crooked mismatched windows and a shadowy doorway with the torn screen door that flapped idly in the cold fitful wind.
Inside it was dark and cold, so cold the water dregs in a dirty cup on a crate next to the sagging bed had a thin skin of ice. The man stretched out in the bed struggled to breathe, wheezing and groaning with each breath. He shivered as he huddled beneath ragged blankets and two old, dirty coats piled on him for warmth. Snow flakes whirled through the broken window pane above the bed, settling in the worn fabric folds covering him.
In the tiny bathroom, a desperate conference occupied the old man’s companions. Harold the rat moderated, earnestly leading the discussion about what to do for Otto, their human sleeping in the next room.
"He needs a doctor," Harold growled. "We need to call 911."
"No one will come because none of us can tell them what's wrong." Sally Squirrel sighed, close to losing her patience. Harold just wouldn't listen. "In the TV shows, the operator always asks what the emergency is. We can't tell them."
Mick, the chipmunk tentatively cleared his throat. "Siggy could bark."
Harold's whiskers bristled and he snorted in disgust. "And what good will that do?" One ear, ragged and torn, twitched in agitation.
"It always worked for Lassie," Mick's wife, Daffy retorted while pulling her scrap of blanket closer to her thin chest. "It worked for Benjy, too."
"Those are TV dogs. Of course it worked. TV isn't real, you know," Siggy woofed softly. "I don't mind barking, mind you, but I doubt that it would do much good. Besides, even if the emergency people came, that wouldn't solve our problem. How are we going to let them know who he is? How are they going to know he's the Christmas Angel? If they just think he's a bum, nobody will ever know how generous and unselfish he is. And his family might not find him."
Gloom settled over the small group. Then Daffy hesitantly offered, "If we could get his treasure box open, we could place one of the money bundles on the bed with his red coat and hat. There can't be that many red cowboy hats or red and green coats made from a Navaho blanket in Cleveland and they'll take a closer look because of the money."
"How do we get the box open?" Sally's reasonable question was unanswerable. They had no idea where Otto had hidden the key.
Siggy sighed gustily and softly padded from the dank bathroom out into the main room. The others could hear faint clicks and scratches. Then Siggy reappeared with a battered basket stuffed with odds and ends clutched precariously in his mouth. He dumped it on the floor in the center of their little circle and tipped it over.
Pitty Paw, a mottled gray cat, who remained silent until then, patted through the rag-tag collection until she spied a broken nail file. "Aha! Isn't this what that silly woman on CSI used last week?"
The whole group studied the broken file dubiously. Finally, Sally slowly nodded. "It might work. The rest of you keep looking through this junk while Pitty Paw and I go try to open the lock."
Sally and Pitty Paw went out into the main room and trotted briskly over to the bed. Wiggling through the small space between the boxes stuffed under the bed, they wove through Otto's jumbled belongings until they reached the treasure box against the back wall. Sally brandished the rough little file and then poked it in the keyhole. Immediately, it jammed tight and they couldn't get it unstuck. After several more futile attempts to free it, Pitty Paw silently went to fetch help.
In a few minutes, she returned with Jacko, Harold's right paw rat. Jacko silently studied the problem before worming around in the dust bunnies until he was flat on his back with his powerful hind legs pressing against the file. "You two brace me so I don't slide all over," he directed a bit breathlessly. "I'll push on three. One…two…three!" Jacko lashed out with both hind paws. There was a faint ping before the file when flying off into the darkness.
Sally sighed. "Bother. Thank you, Jacko. I'll just go see if I can locate the stupid thing so I can try again. Next time, I'll try not to get it jammed."
"Hold up there," Harold whispered loudly behind them. "We found a key." He dragged it up to the treasure box and dropped it with a faint clank. "Try this, Sally."
She clutched the key in her tiny paws and carefully inserted it into the keyhole. "It fits." Jacko helped her maneuver the key back and forth until they heard a tiny click and the lock sprang free. The lid tilted up revealing a narrow gap.
Harold tilted his head and peered into the box. "I see the money bundles. Let's drag one out so we can get this done." They huffed and puffed and tugged and pushed and pulled and it was all in vain. The box lid, jammed against the bottom of the bed, wouldn't open any further. There just wasn't enough clearance to extract one of the thick bundles of money.
Pitty Paw crouched down with her head on her paws and thought. "Do we need the entire bundle?" she asked.
They all stared at each other for a few moments before Harold shrugged. "I don't think so. What's your idea?"
Pitty Paw crept forward, grasped the tattered green pile of bills poking out through the opening with her sharp teeth, and yanked. There was an ominous ripping noise, and abruptly, she crouched in front of them with a mouthful of money, sticking out in all directions like so much lettuce. She spat it out with a grimace and poked it in Harold's direction with her nose. "There is the money. Now what do we do?"
Sally and Jacko gathered up the money while Harold scampered back to the bathroom to work out the next steps. By the time they crawled out from under the bed, Siggy was trotting across the room with Otto's red and green coat clutched in his mouth. He dumped it on the bed across Otto's feet and went back for Otto's hat. When she saw that Siggy couldn't shake the hat loose from the hook where it hung, Sally skittered up the coat tree, pushed the hat until it teetered on the very edge and then flicked it once with her fluffy tail.
Seconds later, they all stood around trying to stifle their laughter because the hat landed squarely on Siggy's head, slumping down over his ears and one black eye. His damp black nose poked out from under the brim. He sniffed and tossed his head, dislodging the hat.
In a very few minutes they had everything arranged so that they were ready to make the important call to 911. Sally tipped the phone off the hook and methodically poked at the numbers with her tiny fisted paw. Shortly, the operator answered and Siggy began to bark…
By the time the first police car responded, Siggy was nearly hoarse. The officer quickly called in a request for an ambulance. While it was enroute, he noticed the animals, all sitting in a composed little group next to the bed. Keeping his eyes on them, he called out to his partner, "Joe? Come in here for a second."
Joe poked his head inside and demanded, "What? I'm trying to talk to the guy that lives across the road."
"Look at the animals, Joe. When have you ever seen a bunch like this all together? A dog, a cat, two rats, four squirrels and three chipmunks--all together in a little group. They aren't acting like they're afraid of us, either."
While the two officers watched, Sally climbed up on the foot of the bed and sat next to the bright red cowboy hat. Tilting her head to one side as though to say, "Well?", she waited for them to make a move.
Cautiously, Officer Joe slowly approached and lifted the hat. He turned it in his hands, noting the name printed in the hat band. "Mike, I think this guy is that Christmas Angel that hands out money every Christmas. You know the one that gives away fifty dollar bills down in the projects?"
"This guy?" Mike scoffed at the very idea. "He's just some bum."
"I don't think so. The name in this hat is Otto McKenzie."
"Otto McKenzie? What would a millionaire be doing in a dump like this?" Mike held out his hand for the hat so he could see for himself.
Joe handed over the hat and pushed back his own hat, scratching his ear in thought. "I seem to remember reading that McKenzie walked out of his headquarters one day and just disappeared. There was something about him resigning because of unethical business practices by his board of directors. He turned them into the SEC and most of them went to jail."
"Well, if he's really McKenzie and also the Christmas Angel, I guess we know where the money came from. Wasn't there a special program on TV not too long ago about him? I think his children have been searching for him. I'll bet this will make for a real happy Christmas for them." Mike heard the sirens approaching and went to direct the EMTs. In the hustle and bustle of getting Otto ready for the ambulance, the officers lost track of the animals. When they finally had a few minutes to close up the little house, the animals were no where to be found.
Both officers looked very carefully before conceding that the animals were gone, but when they had locked up and returned to their patrol car, they both agreed that there was something very odd about the little group. They acted like Otto McKenzie's guardian angels.
From their observation point, deep in a bush at the corner of the little house, the animals watched the patrol car slowly move down the gravel road.
"Otto will be alright, now," Harold declared with satisfaction. "We did a good job. His family will appreciate him now and be glad to have him home."
"Well," Pitty Paw observed thoughtfully. "I hope on the next assignment God gives us, we get to have hands."
"And can speak to humans," Siggy growled hoarsely.
Then with a flash and twinkle, they were gone.
The Christmas Assignment by Anny Cook, copyright 2006