A red-cheeked guest clomped up to the front desk, shaking snow off a wide-brimmed hat. "It's coming down like the Dickens out there," he said.
The young couple he'd just put up in Room 313 might have been right, Tshaka thought: It probably would have been foolhardy to drive a pregnant woman back to Philadelphia in this storm.
Tshaka, trim in his blue Excelsior chain blazer, closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, hoping the scent of evergreen and the sounds of merriment would wash away his inner funk. What a day, full of stress: the flu bug that decimated his staff, the resulting room-service and room-assignment screwups, the impending arrival of the flinty Stone, the dicey decision to let that couple with no credit card or money camp in 313.
Underlying it all was the drumbeat of despair in his heart over Jacqui and the kids. Would she relent and let them spend Christmas together, or was this "separation" a euphemism for something more dire?
Suddenly, his ears detected something new in the noise from the bar, a different timbre, one of anger. He opened his eyes just in time to see one Wise Man shove another into the back of a wing chair. The second of the soused Magi gathered himself, then lunged at the other with a wild swing, yelling, "You stole that commission from me, you $#&*@*!"
In the seconds that it took Tshaka to stride across the lobby, a shepherd and an angel had managed to separate the combatants. Tshaka recognized one as John Hennessey, a Realtor he'd met at a Chamber breakfast. He didn't plan to waste time finding out who the other guy was.
"John," Tshaka said soothingly, palms up, looking into Hennessey's flushed visage. "Let's chill, OK, friend? Let's not spoil the holiday mood. I'll call you a cab, OK?"
He looked at the robed revelers holding each drunken pugilist by the arms.
"I'll get two cabs. Can one of you go with John and someone with this other gentleman?"
"Sure, Tshaka, no problem," said an angel whom he suddenly recognized as the manager of the bookstore across the street.
"Good. I'll make the calls," Tshaka said, turning to go, then felt his heart nosedive to his loafers.
Giles Stone stood just inside the front door, brushing snow off his camel coat and taking in the tableau with wry menace.
Tshaka hustled over.
"Mr. Stone, glad you made it through the storm!"
"What are you running here, Steward, a biker bar?" Stone asked through an icy smile.
Tshaka clutched Stone's elbow.
"Let me take you back to the office," he said.
Before they could take a step, John the doorman peeked his head in the door: "Mr. Steward, sir, you've got to come see this!"
Excusing himself, Tshaka stepped outside, where a curtain of fat, moist snowflakes was beginning to drape a white mantle across Main Street's signature lampposts.
"Look! Down there!" the doorman said, pointing toward the Hill-to-Hill Bridge.
A clump of snowballs with legs was moving up the sidewalk toward the hotel, a high-pitched bark emerging from somewhere behind the pack.
It took a second for Tshaka's brain to sort out the incongruous scene. Those were sheep, a half-dozen or so, and that was Hardy, Miss Minerva Watson's Shetland sheepdog, his leash trailing in the snow, herding them frantically up Main Street. In the distance, Tshaka could see Miss Watson, slipping and waving her arms as she struggled up the wet sidewalk, far behind Hardy.
As the Express-Times would report the next day, Miss Watson had been giving Hardy his usual walk through the historic industrial quarter down the hill from the hotel, where Tshaka had often exchanged hellos with her while taking a cigarette break. The sheep, the hooved stars of the Live Christmas Pageant's manger scene, had just been herded into a truck for transport back to a farm near Bath when the truck skidded and slammed into a tree.
That stunned the driver and knocked down the truck's back gate. The sheep, finding themselves on the ground, huddled there until Hardy caught sight of them. His genes on fire, Hardy pulled free of old Miss Watson's grasp and began doing what Shelties do, herding the flock up the hill and up Main Street.
They were about even with the hotel awning now.
Behind him, Tshaka heard Stone's voice: "Steward, what is . . . ?"
When Stone opened that door, a light clicked on in the sheep's dim brains: Warm! Pen! Must go! With Hardy nipping at its rear, the woolly phalanx made a sudden left toward the open door as Tshaka cried out, "Mr. Stone, no!"
Stone's face morphed in a millisecond from indignation to terror as the woolly clump surged by, knocking him back into the lobby and into a prickly evergreen. Appalled, Tshaka had the presence of mind to lunge and grab Hardy's leash before the dog could follow the flock through the door. He handed Hardy over to the doorman and raced inside.
Over at the lobby bar, laughter pealed, fingers pointed. Tshaka caught a glimpse of Jen, the young desk clerk, looking stricken, then followed her eyes to the spot near the grand staircase where the sheep's momentum had run out. They huddled together there, looking sublimely stupid..
"Steward! Steward, you moron!" Giles Stone's voice sliced through the laughter. "Help me up!"
Stone slumped awkwardly against a Christmas tree that had itself teetered back against a wall. He fumbled to get his right arm untangled from a string of white lights. A welt on his left cheek testified to a close encounter with a tree branch.
Pine needles showed on the shoulder of his camel coat and blind fury on his face.
"Good Lord," Tshaka murmured.
Tomorrow - Carol 4: We Three Kings of Orient Are
Go to www.philly.com/specials/99/inn to read previous parts of this fictional commentary online. To comment, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com or call 215-854-4243.