CAUGHT ON CHRISTMAS EVE

This story was  originally published in “The Gift of Murder,” an anthology published in 2009 by Wolfmont Press. It was also included in my collection,  “Short Stories of Earl Staggs,” published in 2011.

 

Caught on Christmas Eve

A short story

by Earl Staggs

Bill Andrews stopped on the sidewalk outside Kronemeier’s Department Store and swiped snow off the shoulders of his overcoat. The place hadn’t changed since his last visit to his hometown three years ago, but small towns like Boone never changed.

The wide display windows of Kronemeier’s heralded the season with Santa surrounded by elves in his toy shop in one, Rudolph and his reindeer pals in another, and a fat Christmas tree with blinking lights in the third one. The tree lights reflected in the windows of cars parked along the street, giving the cold night air the twinkling glow of hundreds of multi-colored fireflies. A live jolly Santa stood beside the revolving entrance doors ringing his bell, smiling, and bellowing a “Ho, ho, ho” and a “Merry Christmas” to everyone who dropped money in his collection bucket. On the wall over his head, a loudspeaker offered “Jingle Bells” in competition with “The Little Drummer Boy” from Martha’s Boutique on the other side of the town square.

Last minute shoppers bustled by in both directions, crunching in the two inches of snow already covering the sidewalk and ignoring the light snow still falling. Soon they’d be home with their families to finish decorating and wrapping or relaxing in the warm contentment and anticipation that only comes with a white Christmas Eve. For now, they happily handed over savings and Christmas bonuses to merchants. Stores like Kronemeier’s happily added it to their cash register drawers. An open invitation to anyone with guts and a gun, Bill thought. His hand touched lightly over his waist, feeling the .38 holstered there, a reflexive action many years in the making.

Bill pulled a ten dollar bill from his pocket and dropped it in Santa’s bucket.

“Ho, ho, ho,” Santa said. “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas to you,” Bill said. He stepped into the revolving doors and entered the store.

Once inside, he wiped his feet on the mat and looked around. No security cameras anywhere. Mr. Kronemeier was old school. He probably had a security officer in the back room with his feet up on a desk, waiting for someone to call and tell him the store’s being robbed instead of walking the store as he should.  The interior of the store, about the size of a hangar for a small jet, glittered end to end with red, green and gold tinsel, garland laced with lights, and ornate colorful decorations hanging from every unused surface. Lines of two and three customers at each counter waited while clerks dressed as elves punched keys on cash registers, swiped credit cards, and bagged their purchases. Other customers ambled along the aisles, stopping to touch something here, examine something there. Friendly chatter mingled with “The Twelve Days of Christmas” from speakers spread throughout the store. At the far end, a Santa similar to the one outside smiled with a toddler on each knee as Mrs. Claus snapped the picture.

Bill walked down the center aisle past the Clothing section on his left and Toys on his right. In Clothing, a woman paid with a credit card, then shoved the card into the outside pocket of her coat. A good hand could lift it out of there and she wouldn’t feel a thing. In Toys, a man paid in cash from a large wad. Follow him out to his car, stick a gun in his back, take everything, and be gone in ten seconds. They make it so easy.

Bill continued past Shoes and Sporting Goods, moving toward Jewelry. When he reached the jewelry counter, he stopped.

That’s when he spotted the boy.

Most of the customers in the store were mothers and grandmothers looking for more gifts to wrap and place under their trees at home. Men carrying bags and packages accompanied some of them, nodding approval each time their ladies asked them about an item. The men, Bill figured, were anxious to get the shopping finished so they could go home to assemble what had to be assembled, finish any decorating still needed, then settle into a recliner, shoes off and feet up.

But the boy was alone and stood stiff as a post, facing a counter lined with racks of ladies jewelry. Bill guessed him to be twelve at most. His unruly dark hair needed cutting and his rumpled plaid winter coat was at least two sizes too big. Probably a hand-me-down. Every few seconds, the boy’s head turned to the left, then to the right, as if checking to see who was nearby and might be watching. The earrings, necklaces and bracelets on the racks started at $29.95 and went up. Bill found it hard to believe this kid had that much money, if any at all. The boy was not here to buy. He was here to steal. He was waiting until no customers were close by and the clerk behind the counter was distracted.

Bill felt an ironic grin coming on, borne of a twenty-five-year-old memory, and wiped it off with a hand across his face. For several moments, he watched the boy continue his routine of standing in one spot, looking around, doing everything to advertise his intention except carry a sign saying I’M A THIEF.

                Not too smart, kid.  A good lifter doesn’t just stand there. You move around, browse a little, act like a real customer.

Bill watched for another minute. The last remaining adult customer moved on to another aisle, leaving the boy all alone in Jewelry. The boy reached forward, plucked a bracelet from a rack and pretended to look it over. His eyes, though, stayed glued on the clerk wiping the counter only a few feet away.

                Another mistake, kid. Do it in one move. Pick it up, put it away.

When the clerk went to the far end of the aisle to help a customer, the boy made his move. The hand holding the bracelet slid into the pocket of his coat, then reappeared empty. He turned and started walking away at a quick pace.

And walked right into Bill, who had stepped in front of him and blocked the aisle. The boy froze and looked up at the tall man in his path. His eyes widened and his face paled.

Bill stared down at him. “What’s your hurry, boy? I saw what you did. I know what you’ve got in your pocket.”

The boy didn’t speak. He glanced around Bill, then swung his head to look behind himself.

“Thinking about running?” Bill said. “Don’t try it. I can run faster than you and I’ll take you down before you get to the door.”

The boy looked up into Bill’s face. His shoulders slumped and tears were already making their way down his cheeks. His upper lip quivered.

Bill’s voice was firm. “What’s your name?”

After he wiped a hand across both cheeks to clear away the tears, the boy stammered, “Ja . . . Jacob, sir.”

“Tell me something, Jacob. Have you ever stolen anything before?”

Jacob lowered his head and wiped his face again. “No, sir.”

“Well, that was obvious. You’re not very good at it. Who’s the bracelet for?”

Jacob stared at the floor and mumbled something Bill didn’t understand. Bill cupped the boy’s chin in a hand and raised his head. “Speak up, boy. I didn’t hear you.”

“It’s . . . for my momma, sir. For Christmas.”

“So you think it’s okay to steal a Christmas present for your momma?”

“No, sir. I know it ain’t right to steal.”

“Then why did you do it?”

Jacob looked down again, then wiped his runny nose with the back of his hand. “It’s . . . it’s . . . just . . . Momma works so hard to take care of us kids and never gets anything for herself.”

“How would your momma feel, Jacob, if you were arrested for shoplifting?”

Jacob’s shoulders rose and fell in a shrug.

“Don’t you know that once you’re arrested for something, it stays on your record forever? You won’t be able to get a decent job so you’ll go on stealing. Sooner or later, you’ll wind up in jail for the rest of your life.” Bill was exaggerating for effect. The kid would probably only get a harsh scolding. “What would that do to your momma, Jacob? Did you think about that?”

Jacob sobbed out loud, but managed to stammer, “ N . . . No, sir.”

“I didn’t think so,” Bill said. He noticed a man come out of a door in the far corner of the store. Bill knew that’s where the offices were. The man was sixty-ish, beefy, wore a dark suit, white shirt, dark tie, menacing scowl and walked like an ex-cop. He might as well have had RENT-A-COP tattooed across his forehead.

Bill went down to one knee and raised Jacob’s head to his own eye level. “Jacob, do you want to break your momma’s heart forever?”

Jacob shook his head. Between sobs, he asked, “Are you goin’ to tell on me?”

“No, I’m not going to tell on you.”

Jacob reached into his pocket and brought out the bracelet. He held it toward Bill with one hand and wiped both cheeks with the other. “Here,” he said.

Bill pushed Jacob’s hand back toward his coat pocket. “No, Jacob. I want you to take it home to your momma.”

The boy’s bloodshot eyes opened wide. “But . . . it ain’t paid for.”

“It will be. I’ll pay for it. That makes it my Christmas gift to your momma. Your gift to her is going to be something else.”

“What?”

“You’re going to do two things, Jacob. First, you’re going to swear to me you’ll never steal again. Okay?”

Jacob nodded. “Okay.  I swear.”

“Good. The other thing you’re going to do is this. Every time your momma wears that bracelet, you’re going to look at it and remember how you almost ruined your life. Even on days when she’s not wearing it, you’re going to think about how you almost broke her heart forever. Have you got that, Jacob?”

“Yes, sir.”

Bill glanced up and saw the security officer only three aisles away and closing fast. He pulled a business card from his pocket.  “Take this home with you.  If your momma has any questions, have her call me.  Now get out of here before I change my mind.”

Jacob wiped his cheeks again, said, “Yes, sir” again, and hurried around Bill, heading toward the front door. He stopped ten feet away and looked back. “Mister?”

Bill turned to face him.

“Thank you,” Jacob said. “And . . . and Merry Christmas.”

Bill smiled. “Merry Christmas, Jacob.” He watched the boy disappear through the front door of the store and reached into his pocket for his wallet. When he turned back to the counter, he saw the security officer talking to the clerk at the other end. The girl pointed at Bill. Bill waited.

The man left the girl and approached Bill. “Sir, I need to talk to you.” His manner was gruff and authoritative, but not aggressive or confrontational. Straight out of the police academy manual.

“Certainly,” Bill said. He motioned for the clerk to come over.

“The girl here,” the security officer said with a jerk of a thumb at the clerk, “called and told me some kid was hanging around in a suspicious manner. Now she tells me the kid copped a piece of jewelry and you talked to him and let him leave the store with it.”

Bill looked thoughtful for a second. “Yeah, that about sums it up.” He handed money to the clerk and told her what it was for.

The man’s eyebrows dipped in a look of concentration. The poor guy had no idea what to do next. The clerk handed Bill a receipt and change.

The security man apparently had decided on appropriate action by then. “I’m Pete Witkowski and I’m Chief of Security here at Kronemeier’s. I’ll need to see some ID.”

“Sure.” Bill pulled back the right side of his coat to reveal first his badge, then his service 38. “Bill Andrews,” he said. “Baltimore PD. Robbery Division.”

Now the poor old retired cop was thoroughly confused. It took a few seconds, but he came up with his next course of action. He asked, “Why did you let that kid go?”

“So he could go home to spend Christmas with his momma. I’m sure he won’t ever steal again. Besides, I wanted to repay a kindness someone did for me a long time ago.”

“Well, I’ll have to see what Mr. Kronemeier has to say about this.”

“Good idea,” Bill said. “You can ask him right now. Here he comes.”

August Kronemeier, a tall and energetic eighty-year-old with a full head of white hair and a thin gray mustache worked his way through customers in the main aisle, smiling and greeting most of them by their first names.

When he reached the jewelry counter, Pete Witkowski said, “Mr. Kronemeier, this

man—”

“Bill!” The old man interrupted his security officer and brushed past him. “I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow.”

“I decided to come straight from work and drove down tonight. I figured you’d be here at the store.”

The old man laughed. “Of course I’m here at the store. Where else would I be on Christmas Eve? Now, somebody please tell me what this little conference is all about.”

Bill deferred to Pete with a nod of his head. The security officer related what had happened and finished his story with, “I don’t think that’s right, Mr. Kronemeier. Even if this guy paid for the stolen merchandise, that kid should’ve got what he deserved.”

August Kronemeier rubbed a hand across the back of his neck and smiled. “Pete, I think the boy got exactly what he deserved—a second chance. I remember another boy just like him, about the same age, who came in here on Christmas Eve to steal something . . . how long ago was it, Bill?”

“Twenty-five years, sir. And I’ve never forgotten the break you gave me.”

“Well, I think you learned your lesson and you turned out all right. Let’s all hope that boy tonight will, too.” He threw an arm around Bill’s shoulders. “Now, how about we go to my office and have a glass of eggnog.”

“I’d love to,” Bill said. He grinned. “Then let’s talk about upgrading security measures here at the store.”

 

The End