I blew into town on a DC8 loaded with Christmas presents, and was the last guy off the plane. I just kept sitting there, looking out the window at the monuments across the river. The last time I was here somebody told me Washington was sinking into the mud. It was a lie.

My appointment with Mrs. Claire Winchester Worthington was at 10 o'clock, at her husband's office at 17the and K. I went over there, and a secretary looked me into a $600 chair. I put a couple of Sen-sen on my tongue and washed them down with a swalow of rye. Then the secretary told me to go in.

I knew Claire Winchester a long time. From the Coast, when she was a blond. I was in love with her then, but I didn't find out until afterward. Afterward was when she married Wentworth Worthington, the lawyer from Richmond. Now she was a blond again, I noticed, and she still did the same things to a cashmere sweater as before. I didn't say anything about it, though because her lamps were leaking like her whole head gasket had blown.

"Harry, I've got trouble," she said. "It's my daughter, Carolyn. She's been acting very strange lately. I'm afraid she's fallen in with a bad crowd. You've got to help me."

I could see there was still something between Claire and me. It was an executive desk about eight feet wide, with her husband's name in bronze and a miniature pine tree decorated with Krugerands. I said I would see what I could do, and went out. The Slip

I finally picked up the kid's trail the next morning on Wisconsin Avenue. Christmas shoppers were all over the sidewalks like ants. I recognized her walk right away -- it was Claire's, 20 years ago. She went into Saks and through some skirts. She went into a gallery and fingered some prints. When she ordered lunch in a cafeteria. I slipped into a nearby booth. Next thing you know, she comes over, big as life.

"What's the beef, mister," she said. "You've been treading my heels all morning."

"Your mother's an old friend. Asked me to help out," I said.

"Just because I'm dating a married man?" the kid asked, cool as an egg cream.

I couldn't help it -- I reached for my gat. I swung around hard, looking for the creep. If he had been there, it would have been the last place he'd ever been. But Carolyn just giggled.

"Believe that, I'll tell you another one," she said.

I explained to her that her mother was worried, that it was Christmas, that little girls should be home decorating the tree in their houses, not keeping unknown company on the streets.

She looked at me with her baby blues. "What do mom and Wentworth care," she said. "They're going to Tortola for Christmas. Without me. Let's get out of here."

I picked up the tab, paid it, and we went outside. A Santy Claus in a red suit asked me for a donation, but when I looked up, the only thing I had on my arm was the sleeve of my trenchcoat. The kid had given me the slip. The Trip

I went to Claire's house on Foxhall Road, and a housekeeper with a face like an ax split the door open maybe six inches. "Harry France to see the lady," I said. She looked at me like I was a draft heading for the bassinet, but I got in. Claire's house was pretty big, but the martini she handed me was small.

"I told you Carolyn was clever, Harry," Claire said right off. "She outsmarted you -- just like Diamond Jake that time he told you to meet him for dinner at Grauman's Chinese, and you sat through the premiere of 'Miracle on 34th Street' with chopsticks in your lap while he escaped on the bus to Tijuana."

"Never mind the history books," I said. "What's this about you and Wentworth Worthington cutting out for Tortola for Christmas? And leaving the kid with the housekeeper."

"Went already bought the tickets," she pleaded. "If I don't go with him, he'll cancel my Neiman-Marcus charge plate. But Carolyn's going to ruin everything, just because she doesn't like her stepfather. You've got to stop her, somehow."

I took my hat and beat it. I had always wondered what you called somebody named Wentworth. Now that I knew, it made me sick. Sen-sen Diaster

Once burned, twice careful. The next day I kept a half block behind as the kid went up Wisconsin. It doesn't pay to blink in my business, and if I had I wouldn't missed her cut into a small doorway. I watched for an hour, and 14 guys went in there, too. Mostly big ones, carrying packages. It was starting to snow. I lit another Lucky, but the taste was gone. I threw down the butt and went in.

It was pretty dark, and I had my roscoe out. Some kind of warehouse it was. There were benches and lockers, and a lot of evidence that the place was used every day. But no Carolyn.

A fat guy came out of the dark, and I grabbed him by the whiskers and stuck the .38 in his face. He yelped like a dog, and his eyes got big. "Who're you?" he wanted to know.

"I'm a ventriloquist, but roscoe here ain't no dummy," I said, sticking the heater up his nose. "One false move and your hay fever problems are over forever. Where's the blond kid?"

"Working the streets, like the others," he gasped.

So it was a scam, a con, a flim and a flam. I should have known the true color of Christmas was long green, but at the moment I was seeing red. I drew back my left mitt to punch out his lights, but something in my back popped and all I could do was stand there like the Statue of Liberty. The fat guy took off, and I headed for a chiropractor.

While the doc was doing his stuff, I ruminated on the case so far. One blond kid, mixed up in the rackets. One beautiful lady, hooked up to a husband that should've been me. If I earned my $25 a day, Claire and her lawyer bozo would be smoching on the beach, while Carolyn got to sing madrigals with ax-face. Look, shamus, I said to myself, you do what you have to do. Yeah, I said back to myself, but I don't have to like it.

I passed the doc my pint of rye, but he seemed to be waiting for something.

"You wouldn't happen to have any Sen-sen . . . " he said.

What the hell. I gave him a couple. Had a couple myself. We washed them down with rest of the pint. It was Christmas Eve. A Splash and a Dash

I took a little walk to clear my head, which felt like the inside of the Liberty Bell just after it cracked. There were Santy Clases all over the place and a couple of platoons of last-minute shoppers. I walked down past the White House and said hello to some of the bums on the grates. They said hello back. I went out on the Ellipse and looked at the sky, but it made me dizzy. Too many stars, too many years, too many memories. After a while I went back to my room at the Hotel Washington and had a couple of bellhops in for a splash. Ordinarily, I don't like bellhops. It didn't take me long to remember why. I lay down on the bed about 9 o'clock and closed my eyes. The next thing I heard was the ringing of the phone.

"Mr. France?" It was Carolyn.

I said I was who I am.

"Meet me outside the Old Ebbitt Grill in five minutes," she said. "I need your help."

I crawled back into my shoulder holster, banged my hat on and went on out. The Ebbitt was right across the street, filled with bright-eyed youngsters drinking stout. They came and went, and I looked at them close, but none of them was Carolyn. I figured I must've got my instructions wrong, and if so, I was slipping, and if I was slipping, well, I was going to get out of the business once and for all, before I shot off my toe. It had been known to happen. I didn't want it to happen to me.

There was a Santy Claus in front of the bar, jingling a hand bell. I grabbed the Santy by the coat and reeled him in like a clothesline on a pulley. "I want you to tell me about a blond girl, maybe 15, who might've just been here waiting for somebody."

It was a pretty skinny Santy, so I looked harder. I recognized those eyes right away. Claire's, from 20 years ago. And they were leaking brine all down her cheeks.

"I've got a plan," Carolyn said, wiping her cheek with her fake whiskers. "Since you've got your big flat foot in my Christmas already, you might as well be of some help."

I listened, and I liked what I heard. I liked it so much I went back to my room and hung one of my socks at the foot of the bed. In the morning, when I woke up, there was a pint of rye in it. No kidding. The Holiday Travel Crunch

The cabby dropped me off at Foxhall Road at exactly 1 o'clock Christmas afternoon. I tipped the driver 10 bucks out of Wentworth Worthington's expense account. There was a big limousine on the street, which I walked past on my way up the driveway.

The housekeeper was off someplace sharpening her face, so I just went on in. The foyer had four suitcases in it. I heard talking upstairs. A man's voice. And Claire. They were heating up a bit. The house was very neat. No messy wrapping papers anyplace, no packages cluttering up the Persian rug. No fire in the fireplace. No Christmas tree.

Claire came downstairs and looked at me. "Carolyn's gone again," she said. "But Wentworth says he doesn't care. We're going to Tortola anyhow. The plane leaves in 52 minutes. Oh Harry, what am I going to do? If only you'd been able to straighten things out with Carolyn, none of this would've happened."

"Wait a minute, sweetheart," I said. "You're taking the fall on this one."

Her face was all wet, and her lovely blond hair was pinned back like a scholgirl's. She looked at me like in the old days for just a minute, then shook her head as if to clear it. "What do you mean, Harry?" she said. "And what's all that commotion outside?"

As she spoke a lot of cars were pulling into the drive-through. Carolyn got out of the first one, along with four Santy Clauses. Another four Santys got out of the next car, and there were five more cars. Some of the Santys carried packages, and some carried ornaments, and three of them carried an enormous Christmas tree, which they took right into the living room. There were so many Santys that at first you didn't notice the little kids. There must have been 50 of them.

The kids got ahold of the packages, and that was that. Wrapping paper started flying all over the place, and the Santys were drinking champagne out of the bottle and bouncing the kids on their knees, and Carolyn was in the middle of it all, laughing her head off. Pretty soon Claire was laughing, too, and everybody was laughing including the nuns from the Orphans Home, one of whom, I kid you not, pulled a pint of rye out of her habit and passed it to me.

"Not yet," I said to her.

Down the stairs came Wentworth Worthington. He was a big bruiser in a three-piece suit and a University of Virginia class ring that made it look like he was going steady with himself. His hair was gray at the temples, but his face was beet red.

"Claire!" he bellowed, pushing the Santys out of the way and grabbing two suitcases in each hand. "I don't know what's going on here, but you and I are leaving right now."

Carolyn bubbled up to him. "Oh, Stepfather darling, it's all right," she said. "Mr. France is going to drive you -- right away. Mother will be out in a moment."

"Tell her to make it snappy," he said, passing me the four suitcases. "The longer I stand here, the less tan I'm getting." The suitcases weighed a ton, but I got them in the trunk of the limo. I held the door open for Worthington, just like a regular limo jockey.

"I'm going back in and get Claire," he said, not looking at me.

Then he looked at me. And he looked at roscoe, because roscoe was looking at him. Then Wentworth Worthington and roscoe and me got into the car, and we drove to Dulles airport, to the Quantas terminal, and we saw Mr. Worthington off to Yanchep Sun City, a nice resort about 2,000 miles across the desert from Sydney.

Just before he boarded the plane, Wentworth Worthington muttered something unflattering about Claire between his teeth. But I was able to set the matter straight. If I know my orthodontics, and I do, his new set of dentures will be ready when he gets back. The Spirit of Christmas Present

When I returned to Foxhall Road, there was a huge fire in the fireplace, and Frank Sinatra was singing "I'll Be Home for Christmas" on the hi-fi, and the orphan kids were playing with their presents. The other Santys had a little ceremony and gave Carolyn an award for collecting more money for the orphanage than anybody else.

I was kind of happy too, because Claire was looking at me in a funny way, and in a funny way I remembered that look. You get older, maybe, but you don't forget.

"Now?" the sister said, holding out her pint.

"Now." I shared my last Sen-sen with her, and we washed them down while Carolyn and the kids and the Santys sang "Noel" around the fire.

"God bless you, Mr. France," somebody said as Claire leaned warmly against my shoulder. It was Christmas. Maybe he would.