Saturday, December 24, 2011
The three wise men
The titan of industry sat placidly behind his antique Empire desk, his head resting against the back of his chair. An Hoyo de Monterrey Excalibur cigar jutted like a punctuation mark from his smiling lips, and his hands were clasped comfortably over his expansive waistcoat. A jeweled music box played his favorite tune – “I’m in the Money” – and he looked back with satisfaction on another year of solid financial achievement. In short, he was, as usual, rolling in the stuff, and he radiated silent contentment.
There was a soft knock on the pocket doors of the library, which subsequently opened to reveal the prepossessing figure of that nonpareil gentleman’s personal gentleman, Spurgeon (known as “The Great” among the lesser mortals of the servants’ quarters). He advanced toward the desk with a bearing that resembled the dignified enthusiasm of a Minister of the Interior, approaching his sovereign with news of a major oil strike in some heretofore barren and worthless province. In fact, there was a gleam in his eye which might justifiably have been described as merry.
“You have a caller, sir. A Mr. Claus. Or rather, to employ the far more appropriate definite, as opposed to indefinite, article, the Mr. Claus. He begs a few moments of your time.”
J. Packington Paco III beamed, and, removing the cigar from his mouth, flourished it in the manner of one of the late Napoleon Bonaparte’s Marshals, displaying his baton of office before his cheering troops. “Shoot the jolly old elf in, Spurgeon, by all means!”
J.P. rose to receive his guest as he entered the room; however, he was nonplussed to see that, far from being jolly, his visitor displayed signs of anxiety and woe. His bushy white eyebrows were drooping in a snowy frown, and he was practically wringing his red cap in his hands. As he drew near, J.P. registered the smell of strong spirits, leading him to conclude that the famous nose – “like a cherry”, as the poet says - might, on this occasion at least, be drawing its blush from an overindulgence in cherry brandy.
“Please have a seat, Mr. Claus. May I offer you some refreshment?”
“Well…maybe just a little hair of the arctic fox that bit me. And please, call me Santa.”
Spurgeon, standing tall and silent in the offing, rather like an Egyptian sarcophagus in a swallowtail coat, glided to the drink tray and poured a small sherry, which he presented to Santa.
“Oh, thank you, my good man! I’ll be frank with you, Mr. Paco, I’ve really been up against it this year. The reindeer came down with cutaneous fibromas, and, while that doesn’t really do them much harm, it gives them big warts that mess up their aerodynamic qualities. Mrs. Claus has been laid up with the gout, so I’ve been making do with peanut-butter sandwiches instead of the usual home-cooked meals. But my main problem is those damned elves. They got organized by the Service Employees International Union this year and went on strike – naturally, at the beginning of my peak season. I hired some scabs – mostly journeymen carpenters from Honduras, and a few out-of-work electronics geeks from Silicon Valley – but some of the elves broke into the shop one night, stole most of the tools and sabotaged the machinery. So, now I’m faced with a major inventory shortage, just days before the big delivery. That’s why I’m here, in fact. I say, this is splendid sherry! May I have another drop?” Spurgeon materialized from the shadows, bottle in hand.
J.P. tut-tutted sympathetically. “You certainly have run afoul of Dame Fortune, Santa. How may I oblige you?”
“I’m thinking that if you could float me a loan – say, a six-month demand note for a couple of million dollars – I could purchase the rest of what I need from Amazon.”
“But, my dear fellow, why not just buy what you need from Paco Enterprises? We manufacture thousands of products, and I’m sure we could fix you up with some short-term supplier credit.”
Santa, gasping in horror at the suggestion, choked on his sherry. He recalled that time, a few years ago, when his wife had presented him with a Perdurable Automatic Cocktail Oscillator as an anniversary gift. They had never been able to completely remove the vermouth stain from the ceiling.
“*Hack*…*Cough-cough*… Thank you,” he said to Spurgeon. “That well-timed blow between the shoulder blades seems to have done the trick. No, thank you, Mr. Paco. Er, most of the requests I’ve received are for specific brands of products made by other companies. Strange, but there it is.”
“Well, you must suit yourself. Let’s see, now. We may be able to come to terms. But there is one thing that baffles me.”
“And that is?”
“I’m puzzled as to the source of repayment. You distribute gifts, do you not?”
“Which means that you don’t get paid. How do you propose to repay the loan?”
Santa looked over his shoulder, then leaned in closer to speak in a confidential manner with J.P.
“You see, the truth is, I’ve got a very profitable sideline: selling polar bear skins on the black market. Pots of money in it. But for obvious reasons, I don’t want that to get around. Reputational risk, you understand.”
“Ah, yes, I see. Admirably enterprising, I must say. All right then. How about this: a six-month demand note, at Libor plus, say, six percent?”
“What!?! Six percent over Libor? I’ve got a darned good D&B rating. Have you seen it? I’m not some silk-screen t-shirt printer operating out of his garage!”
“And,” J.P. continued, contemplating the chandelier, “I’ll need a mortgage on your North Pole facility, along with a first security interest in the furniture, fixtures and inventory. Oh, and a lien on your livestock.”
“That sounds plenty inflated, to me!” Suddenly, Santa sat back in his chair and smiled for the first time since entering J.P.’s sanctum santorum. He began to study his fingernails intently. “Not only does that deal sound extortionate. I might almost characterize it as…naughty.” He reached into a pocket and withdrew a long list. Putting his spectacles on, he began reading it, uttering the word, “Paco”, repeatedly, in a stage whisper. After a while, he shook his head. “No, I don’t seem to see…”
J.P. erupted in one of his booming laughs. “Mwaha! Gad, sir, you are a character, if I may say so. I sense a kindred soul, I do indeed. Why, I bet our ancestors may well have sailed the Spanish Main together, under the black flag. I’ll tell you what; I’ll drop the collateral requirements and reduce the rate to Libor plus three. I can’t say fairer than that. Have I your hand on the deal, sir?”
Santa frowned meditatively for a few moments, and then smiled. He extended a mitt to J.P., and the two men pumped one another’s hands heartily.
Later, after the smoking of several cigars, the emptying of a decanter of brandy, and a departure embellished with mutual wishes for a merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year, Santa was walking out the front door when Spurgeon stayed him with an inquisitive eyebrow.
“Pardon me, Mr. Claus, but I wondered if I might take the liberty of submitting a request. You see, what with the heavy press of duty, I have been unable to address any correspondence to you in the customary form.”
“Why, it’s no trouble at all! Now, let me see,” Santa said, looking Spurgeon up and down. “What shall it be? The Oxford edition of Charles Dickens’ novels? Or perhaps a 10 ga goose gun?”
“Either would be a possession in which one would take great pride; however, I was thinking more along the lines of one of Gina Elise’s pinup calendars. You know, there’s a war on, sir.”
Santa winked. “Your patriotism and your admiration for feminine pulchritude do you credit, Spurgeon. Consider it done. And now, Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night!”