Parkington leaned back in his large leather chair and swiveled around from his desk. A touch of two concealed buttons lowered the lights to a scant glow as the mechanized drapes parted with the whisper of expensive fabric. He looked down across the expanse of the main floor, a feeling of personal proprietorship flooding over him as he viewed the shoppers waving items in the air to attract the harried clerks. Even with the recession, the profits of this Christmas season would better than double those of last year. He waved an indulgent hand toward the scene. "Beautiful, isn't it, Parker?"
The young man standing beside him nodded, knowing Parkington's satisfaction derived from his having wrested control of merchandising policy from the aging president of the largest and most prestigious department store in the state.
The foundation he'd so carefully built, Parkington knew, would carry him above his present status. President and CEO by fifty was his goal, six years in which to attain it. And who better to take his place as general manager when he moved up than the young man beside him. True, Parker now worked only such hours as he was not in class, but once he received his degree in merchandising, he would be a valuable and trusted associate. His ambition and drive were commendable, particularly his ability to spot potential problems, such a shoplifters, and deal with them both swiftly and ruthlessly. Even more pleasing to Parkington was seeing Parker emulate his own tough emotionless stance regarding anything but the profitability of the store.
Lost in his musings, Parkington was startled when Parker suddenly darted from the office. As he watched, Parkington saw Parker emerge on the main floor and collar a young boy in Childrens Clothing and push him in the direction of the service elevator. His glow of satisfaction diminished, Parkington touched buttons, drapes closed, lights came up. Damn shoplifters, he thought, can rip a store's profit ratio to shreds in no time.
His office door opened. Parker pushed the trembling boy in before him and laid the pilfered items on Parkington's desk: gloves, heavy wool socks, a thick flannel shirt. The items exposed, the boy began to whimper.
"He had these under his coat," Parker explained.
"I ... I didn't mean to take them. I ..."
"I suppose you were comparison shopping, then," Parkington snarled.
"No. I mean they're ... they're for my brother. It's Christmas. He needs them bad. If I don't get him something, he'll never believe in Christmas again."
"I see. It was to be merry Christmas at our expense." Parkington looked at the youth, seeing the frayed threads of the windbreaker, the poorly patched jeans, the pinched face, the long stringy hair cut unevenly. The boy dropped his face in his hands.
"Well, Parker, you know our policy."
"Yes, sir." He reached for the boy's arm. "Come on, kid."
The boy shrank back. "Don't arrest me, mister, please don't. If you put me in jail my brother will die. There ain't anybody to take care of him but me."
"Get him out of here," Parkington snapped, watching as Parker jerked the boy roughly by the arm toward the door and the waiting elevator.
Don Parker felt nothing as he waited for the elevator to descend. The boy was giving him no trouble, and Parkington seemed pleased with his performance. He admired Parkington, his ability to make difficult decisions quickly, his sixth sense in selecting merchandise which sold rapidly at excellent profit margins, his lack of personal involvement in anything but profit. As long as he could perform in the same manner, Don knew his own future was secure.
At the stationhouse, Don filled out the forms and watched the desk sergeant turn the culprit over to the jailer. As the boy was about to be taken to the cell, he broke away and ran to Don.
"Look, mister, I know I was wrong, but please go see if my brother is okay. Will you?"
The jailer grabbed for the boy. "Wait," Don cautioned. "I might if I get the time." He jotted down the address in his pocket secretary and arose. The store was closed now, so he could go home. He would turn in his copy of the report and arrest form to Parkington tomorrow.
Don's small apartment was cold. The few furnishings would not have been of such superior quality without the generous employees' discount he received. Parkington was generous with employees who produced profits, hard as nails with those who did not. Don opened a can of soup and heated it while an English muffin toasted. He ate them rapidly then fell into bed. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve, an employees' nightmare.
Into the vision of his closed eyes swam the pinched face of the jailed boy, tears in his eyes as he begged him to look after his brother. The vision vanished. He listened - there it was again, that dull thud-thud. Thud-thud, the bed seemed to jolt with each sound, bringing its imperative frighteningly closer. With a sharp cry, Don sat upright, cold perspiration running down his face, listening for a repetition of the sound. He'd been dreaming!
Relief didn't come. A tiny conscience gnawed at the back of his mind. What was it he had not done? The face of the boy appeared once more. Of course! He had not checked on the boy's brother. But hell ... No! Yes! He gave up, arose, and slipped into heavy clothing and fleece lined boots. He picked up his car keys and went out.
Twice the blinding snowfall almost made him turn back, but he slowed and worked to maintain control of his car on the icy streets. Warehouses towered around him; patience turned into rage. He was a fool to believe anything the boy had said; a bigger fool for coming out in weather like this. Damn! Nothing but warehouses. No one lived in this area. Furious, he backed the car into a recess to turn around. The headlights slashed across a narrow frame structure jammed between warehouse walls. From the upper floor danced a flickering light.
Don stomped on the brake pedal, the car skidded into a snowbank. Fire! He must find a phone. His foot never touched the accelerator. What if someone were in there! He sprang from his car to half run, half slide across the icy pavement. He put his shoulder against the door; it crashed open. He stood in a hall, unpainted plaster lying in chunks on the floor like dirty snow. From above came a feeble cry - "Billy!" Don raced up the stairs. One foot broke through a rotten tread, jagged splinters tore at his leg. He freed himself and ran on, unmindful of the pain as the cry was repeated. Don tore open the door and stopped. Flames from a rusted through oil heater licked upward, the fumes choking. In a far corner, a small boy supported by crutches cowered away from the inferno. Don dashed through the flames, grabbed the child, and ran from the building.
Don switched on the lights, pushed the thermostat higher, and sat the child on a chair. The frail figure was unmistakable as the one he'd been seeking, the face a miniature of the jailed boy's. He wore only a thin cotton shirt, frayed jeans. A stricken look seized Don's face. The child's feet were not feet at all, but small misshapen knobs covered by cotton socks. Oh, God, the boy hadn't been lying!
He knelt by the chair. "What's your name, son?"
"M ... Mike. Where's Billy? He didn't come home. He promised he wouldn't be gone long. It was cold."
Don looked into the troubled eyes. "I know where he is. Let's get you cleaned up and I'll get him for you."
While the child lay in a steaming bath, Don opened another tin of soup, wishing there were something more substantial in his larder, but because he took most of his meals at the store's dining room, he kept little on hand. When he looked at the child eating, a moment of laughter escaped him at the way his T-shirt enveloped the tiny frame. Once the child had finished the soup, he placed him in his bed and tucked the covers. Sobs came, and through them, "Billy. I want Billy."
Don stroked the child's hair comfortingly. "Go to sleep and I'll go get him. I won't be but a few minutes."
The precinct sergeant was nodding. Don slapped the desk with his hand. The sergeant jumped. "Oh, it's you, Parker."
"That kid I brought in earlier; I want him out. Now!"
"Hell, don't you know what time it is?"
"I don't care." Involuntarily his eyes sought the wall clock - 1:40. "Get him out here. I'm dropping the charges."
The sergeant's mouth dropped open. "You what? You goin' soft, Parker? You're the hardest-nosed sonofabitch I know, outside of old Parkington."
"It's something I have to do."
"Jeez, I never thought I'd see the day." he pushed a form across the desk. "Fill this out and he's all yours."
The boy's fists rubbed sleep from his eyes as he followed the grumbling jailer into the room.
"Next time, don't wait until the middle of the night to change your mind," the jailer snapped.
The boy stood in bewilderment until he recognized Don. "What's wrong? Is it Mikey?"
Don took the boy by the arm. "He's fine. Let's go."
"Then why'd you get me out?"
Don could not answer, for the answer lay unformed in his heart. In the car, he asked, "Were your parents home? I didn't see anyone there but Mike."
Billy shook his head. "Mom's dead. We ain't seen the old man in better'n a month. He's off somewhere fallin' down drunk, like usual."
"Who takes care of Mike?"
"Don't get me wrong, you do a good job keeping the kid clean and all, but how do you live?"
"Like always. When things is tough like now, whatever I can pinch. Hey, this ain't the way home."
"Mike's not at home, he's at my place."
I ... I didn't go when I left you. It was late. When I got there, the place was on fire."
"He's okay, Billy. He's frightened, but I got him out before he was hurt."
The car had barely stopped before Billy was out, running for the door of the apartment house. Once he had seen his sleeping brother, Billy lay his head against Don's chest, sobbing in relief.
With Billy at last in bed beside his brother, Don looked at them and returned to the living room to pull out the sofa-bed for himself.
The alarm shattered his sleep. Once he collected himself, the presence of the brothers brought reality to the dream of the evening before. He fixed breakfast for the boys, taking only coffee for himself.
It was time for him to go. "Billy, I'll have some things sent in from the market for your lunch. I'll be back in time to fix dinner. I want your promise that you won't leave before I get home. There's the TV and magazines. Wait for me, please."
"Well," said Billy after a look at Mike, "I guess it won't hurt to stay that long, at least."
Don charged into the store, punched his timecard. With a general assignment, he could move about the store at will. In each department he visited, helpful clerks sent his purchases to shipping, keeping their boundless curiosity to themselves until their break. His last stop was the kitchen of the store's dining room, where he laughed at the expression of the dietician as he explained what he wanted, her curiosity as unfulfilled as that of the others.
Don handed the sales slips to the assistant cashier. As she checked the file, she looked up in surprise. "Why Mr. Parker, this will take your entire bonus check. I didn't know you had children?"
"I don't, Miss Anson, but they're things I want."
Apparently his presence was felt throughout the store, for try as he might, not one shoplifter could he find during the day. When the closing chime sounded at five, he was walking toward Parkington's office, somewhat surprised that he hadn't been summonsed earlier.
Parkington glanced at him sourly. "Hardly earned your salary today, did you?"
Don recognized the attempt at humor. "Perhaps all the crooks shopped early this year as our ads suggested."
"Where's the store copy of the complaint from last night? You should have had it on my desk first thing this morning."
"Here, sir." Don extended his hand and let the shreds of paper drift to the top of the desk.
"What are you doing? Have you taken leave of your senses!"
"No, sir," Don replied quietly, looking the angry man in the eyes. "I've just found them. I've dropped all charges against the boy. He was telling us the truth, except that his situation was far worse than he intimated. I've always admired you and what you stand for, and I've tried to be what you are. But now, Mr. Parkington, you can take your profits, your job, and your particular brand of Christmas spirit and stuff them. I quit!"
Don stalked from the office, stopping to pickup his purchases of the morning and squeezed into the small space left in his car.
"How'd you make out, Billy?" Mike sat enthralled before the TV.
"Fine. We had sandwiches from the stuff you sent."
With Billy's help, the table was spread with a feast from the containers Don had brought home. Billy placed the last bowl on the table, as Don picked up Mike. Of all the things he'd felt important while he was shopping, he'd forgotten the most important - crutches for the child, to replace those abandoned to the fire.
The exclamations of the boys as they ate moved Don in a way long forgotten. He hurried to keep Mike from large second-helpings, knowing an excess could make the child ill. "Later we'll have some ice cream, Mike. How about that?" He said in response to the disappointment he saw arising in the child's eyes.
Once the remains were cleared away, he carried Mike to the sofa then looked around. "Doesn't look much like Christmas Eve around here, does it, Mike?"
The child's eyes searched his face. "I wish I had a Christmas tree. You know, with lights and tinsel and all."
"I forgot about that." Don sat Mike on the sofa and opened the door to the hall. The tree he'd found was smaller than he wished, but it was shapely. He placed it in the bay window. Billy brought in a large carton and they strung the lights. Don held Mike in his arms as the child hung ornaments on the branches. Seeing Mike's eyes grow large when the lights flashed on and the pleasure on Billy's face rekindled long forgotten memories of his own childhood.
As Don dipped the ice cream, Billy touched him on the arm, a grave look on his face. "Thanks, Mr. Parker. I always wanted Mikey to have a good Christmas."
"If you believe it's going to be a good Christmas, then it will be." He held out the bowls and smiled. "Take one to Mike."
With Billy beside his brother, Don went into the bedroom and returned with two boxes, setting one by each boy. Mike's hands dug into the fleece lining of the coat, alternately stroking it against his cheek. Billy held up heavy wool slacks and a thick flannel lined jacket. "You ... you didn't pinch'em, did you?"
Don laughed. "No. They're paid for. Try them on."
Before he would touch the clothing further, Billy ran for the shower. While Billy bathed, Don trimmed Mike's hair, then Billy's, before leaving them to dress. But for their pinched faces, the transformation was unbelievable. How could anyone not want such beautiful children, Don thought as he looked at them.
From a near-by tower, the music of bells drifted into the room.
"Listen," Mike called, "it's so pretty. Can't we go out and hear?"
Another memory stirred in Don. "Put on your coat."
With Mike astride his broad shoulders and Billy by his side, they walked the short distance to the church. Large wreaths adorned the doors, the stained glass glowed with warm light. They stood listening to the bells, watching people move inside, hearing the organ each time the doors opened.
"Can we go inside?" Begged Mike.
Slipping the child from his shoulders into his arms, Don climbed the steps and slipped into the candle-lit nave, finding seats in the last row of pews. As the service began, he felt Mike snuggle against him. One arm went around the child on his lap, the other about Billy's shoulders.
Once the boys were in bed, Don placed a few toys, additional clothing, and the electric train under the tree. This last had been an extravagance, yet he had bought it, anticipating Mike's delight. He returned to his bedroom to look at them sleeping peacefully, Mike's outstretched hand touching Billy lightly.
Here, he finally understood, was Christmas - trust, love, and all things good - lying in his bed. There were other stores, other jobs where a man could be concerned with things above profit.
He returned to the sofa-bed, to drift into dreamless sleep, the chill of ambition replaced by love - the gift of a shoplifter.