Randall would never have thought of this if it hadn’t been for the key. It was one of those little things no one could explain— a stroke of luck, kismet, providence, or maybe it was just the season. His grandmother had always believed in good luck. She thought if you waited long enough, it would turn in your favor and you would be suddenly and unexpectedly rewarded.
Not that it ever happened to her. She was dead at fifty-three of a heart attack, after working a minimum wage job for most of her life. In the last year, Randall had come to realize that luck was what you made of life. After this was over, he would not have to get up before daylight to drive the delivery truck. With careful planning, he might be able to live for a year or two without working. He wondered how much there would be in the night deposit. Could there be as much a hundred thousand? The department stores would have the largest cash flow. The other shops did not do a lot of business, but with fifty of them, it would add up to an impressive amount of cash. He thought of all the wonderful things he could buy with a hundred thousand dollars. A new car would be nice, some new clothes, and then he would head south, away from the slate gray sky and the bone-chilling temperature. He would go to some town with a warm sunlit beach. He wanted a place where he could relax, budget his money, and go for as long as possible without having to work.
Maybe there wouldn’t be a hundred thousand, he thought. Seventy-five thousand would do, but then he decided he could make it on fifty. Fifty was a good number and he didn’t need to tempt fate, or whatever it was that provided this golden opportunity.
He climbed across the console to the passenger seat where he could look in the mirror on the back of the sun visor as he put on the rest of his disguise. There was a strip of adhesive around the edge of the beard. He worried that it might come off and allow someone to see his face. The outfit had cost him twenty bucks at a consignment shop, and he was pleased to see how well it fit. He tugged the cap down over his head until it rested just above his ears and took one last look in the mirror.
“Merry Christmas, Santa,” he said as he jerked the handle on the door. It opened with a creaking noise that sent a flock of pigeons angling toward the sky. He gave the door a shove, but it wouldn’t close. After bumping it a couple of times with his knee, he heard the latch click. Despite the worn-out appearance of the car, the motor ran surprisingly well. He spent several hours looking for an older car with an ignition that would be easy to hot-wire. His luck was turning. He could feel it. This job was going to go like a dream.
There was a steady stream of shoppers rushing across the parking lot toward the entrance. Some of them were elderly people who leaned forward as if they were walking up a steep hill. The teenagers were strolling along five or six paces in front, trying to pretend they weren’t with their parents. The younger adults were either carrying a baby or leading their excited children. Some of the kids spotted him and waved. He waved back at them, but his mind was on the security office where they kept the night deposit. The rear of the building housed the storage area and the offices. This whole thing had started when he took a wrong turn in the back corridor on his last delivery. He discovered his mistake and was about to turn his cart around when he spotted the key on the floor underneath a coat rack. One side of it said, ‘do not duplicate’ while the other had a number. He was a lot more interested in the label that identified it as the key to the security entrance. Looking down the corridor, he saw a sign that said, ‘security personnel only.’ It would be a simple matter to overpower the bored security guard in the office and make his escape before anyone discovered the empty safe. This was going to be easy, too easy. He almost laughed aloud.
The group from the ‘Community Chest’ was hard at work just inside the entrance, jingling their bells and waving at customers. He waved back as he took a right turn and headed toward the end of the corridor that led into the office area. There was a bench near the ‘you are here’ sign and it would be the perfect place for him to wait until the two guards picked up the money pouches from the shops and carried them to the security office. Five minutes in the office and he would be through the back door trying to put as much distance as he could between himself and the North Pole.
He saw the long line of children as he came around the corner and realized this was where Santa—the real Santa—had set up his headquarters. Some of the small kids did a double take as he passed by the Christmas tree and took a seat on the empty bench. As he looked casually around, he saw some of the kids talking excitedly to their parents. He looked away, then suddenly realized one of the kids was standing directly in front of him.
“Which one of you is the real Santa?” a little girl asked. He turned reluctantly in her direction and saw a head of blond ringlets and a pair of serious, unblinking eyes. Her mother was hovering in the background as if she didn’t know what to do.
“I’m Santa’s helper,” he said, hoping his answer would send the kids scurrying back to the end of the line.
“Are you sure?” the little girl asked. “You look so real.”
“There is more than one Santa,” another girl said, rolling her eyes toward the ceiling. “You can talk to any of the Santa’s because they all know the same stuff.”
He was horrified to see the kids forming a line in front of him. He glanced at his watch and saw that he had thirty minutes before the guards would be pushing the cart past his bench. The first kid climbed on his lap and started reciting what she wanted in a singsong voice. He listened patiently while she ran through her list. When she finished, another child took her place. This one seemed to want almost everything in the toy department. By the end of the thirty minutes, only one child remained. This one wore a pair of mismatched socks and a threadbare coat. The woman standing a short distance away looked work-worn and near exhaustion. It was a look he was familiar with, having seen his grandmother drag wearily through each day during the Christmas season, working two jobs in order to buy his presents. The little girl climbed on his lap, then took a quick look over her shoulder at her mother.
“Are you the real Santa or just a helper?” she whispered.
“I’m the real Santa,” he said as he met her expectant gaze. She closed her eyes tightly and it seemed to him that she was not breathing. The speaker near the Christmas tree was playing Jingle Bells. Two girls dressed like elves were dancing with the music as they passed out candy canes.
“What would you like for Christmas,” he prompted when she didn’t say anything else.
“I need a car,” she said.
The other girls asked for toys of various types, but the first item on their list was a doll. She didn’t look like a tomboy, but he didn’t know that much about kids. He would have guessed her age at about seven, maybe eight at the most.
“What kind of a car would you like?” he asked, holding his hands about a foot apart.
“Not a toy car,” she said with a shake of her head that sent her shoulder length hair swinging. “I want a real car for my mommy. Someone stole ours last night. It’s the only way my mommy has to get to work. There isn’t any bus service in our part of town and she will have to walk all the way to the restaurant. We live behind the ballpark, but you already know that because you are Santa and you know everything.”
Her lips began to swell and she started to cry. He felt a thick lump forming in his throat. The car he stole was in front of a run down apartment building behind the ballpark. Lady Luck had thrown him a curve on this one.
“I know it’s a lot to ask,” she said, “but I heard Mommy talking to Mrs. Crawford, and she said if she lost her job they would put us out of the apartment.”
He could hear the pain and desperation in her voice. Did this child and her mother sleep in a room with no heat, huddled underneath a pile of quilts with their coats on for warmth? He remembered the apartment had a colorful mailbox, which had no doubt been a school project. The two names were Deidre and Molly. This was obviously Molly.
The guards had reached the door of the security office and were pushing the cart inside. In another minute or two, the door would swing shut.
“I’m sure something can be arranged, Molly,” he said and saw the surprise and happiness leap in her eyes. He needed to go. There was still time to place her on her feet and go rapidly down the corridor to the office. Surprise would be on his side, and it would be an easy matter to disarm the guards and take the money. He could return the car to its parking place in front of the apartment without anyone seeing him. He might even leave some money on the dash to buy her a Christmas present. There would be at least fifty thousand, maybe as much as seventy-five. A couple of hundred—no, make that five hundred—would buy Molly some warm clothes, and there would be enough left over so her mother would not have to hold down two jobs in order to buy her some presents for Christmas.
“You mean it!” Molly said. “You are going to get my mommy a car? You promise!”
“How would you like to have the car back that someone stole from you?”
“Oh, yes! I love that car. Mommy and I named it. We call it Roscoe. I think Roscoe is the best car in the whole wide world.”
Randall glanced toward the security office again, knowing he had to get up immediately, but as he turned the problem over in his mind, he suddenly realized that he felt languid and content with this small child sitting on his lap.
Behind him someone said, “Merry Christmas, Santa.”
“Merry Christmas,” he answered as he glanced over his shoulder and saw the security guards retracing their route toward the front entrance. He had cashed his paycheck after leaving work. There would be plenty of time to get her a doll and the other things she wanted and leave them in the passenger seat of the car. He studied Molly’s expression for a few seconds, and then he leaned toward her small, bowed head, listening to the breathless sound of her voice.
He hadn’t been this happy in years.