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Mary Paige Gentry stepped into an icy puddle of water as she exited the taxi with not only one high-heeled shoe, but both of them.
"Darn, darn, darn!" she said, trying to turn back to the driver without stepping into the cold water again. The cabbie raised bushy eyebrows and she tossed him a glare. "I assume you didn't see that puddle when you pulled up?"
"Yeah, right," Mary Paige muttered, blowing out a breath that ruffled her bangs. "Just wait for me, okay?"
She didn't hang around for his response because, after the day she'd had, something had to go in her favor. She slammed the door and leaped to the curb, managing to clear the puddle she'd previously waded through. Having the cab wait for her would cost a small fortune, but she was way late to her uncle's infamous Christmas kickoff bash, thanks to her boss, Ivan the Terrible.
The frigid water seeped into the toes of her shoes as she walked toward the iron-barred glass door of the convenience store anchoring a corner in Fat City. Stupid, stupid! If she hadn't let vanity rule, she'd be plodding around in her cute fleur-de-lis rubber boots with warm tootsies. But because the strappy high-heel, pseudo-Mary Janes had called her name that morning, she would risk frostbite for the remainder of the evening.
Flashing neon signs hung garishly on the front of the store, bright cousins to the various cigarette ads, and from somewhere to her left, music bled onto the street. The door to the convenience store swooshed open, and she moved aside to avoid a woman who burst out, clutching a paper bag containing a fifth of something potent. Her elbow caught Mary Paige's arm, but the woman didn't even acknowledge the offense. She merely growled something about skinny blonde bitches and waddled down the block.
"Really?" Mary Paige called after her, even as part of her relished the backhanded compliment since she'd spent the past two months doing Zumba and eating foam chips in an effort to fit into a size eight again. As she reached for the closing door handle, she heard a low moan to her right. Her hand paused in midair, hovering above the cold metal.
Pulling her jacket closer to her chin and nuzzling into the cashmere scarf her ex-boyfriend had given her last Christmas, Mary Paige peered into the darkness beyond the blinking lights lining the eaves. At first, she saw nothing in the shadows, but then spied movement.
She stepped toward the noise, her feet squishing in her wet shoes, her teeth starting to chatter. The light plink of sleet on her shoulders made her wonder if she was somewhere other than New Orleans. They rarely saw anything frozenexcept daiquirisso it had been quite the sensation when they'd gotten a blast of winter the day after Thanksgiving.
Newspapers stirred and she made out the form of an elderly man wrapped in a thin blanket, moving among discarded boxes and newspapers quickly becoming sodden with the sleet.
"Sir? You need some help?"
The man stopped his rustling and flipped her the finger.
"Guess that answers that question."
She turned around, ignoring the tug at her heart. Why didn't he go to a shelter, anyway? Too cold out for someone to be sitting around with nothing more than a thin blanket. She glanced to the corner and found the cab still waiting. Good. A man who listened. An early Christmas miracle.
She entered the warmth of the store, blew on her hands and scanned the cramped aisle. Nope, none of it would do. Bottled water, sanitary products and condoms. The necessities of life, sure, but nothing that would help her tonight.
The second aisle proved as fruitless. Nothing but potato chips, cartons of cookies and packages of those powdery little doughnuts. Mary Paige's stomach betrayed her with a growl as she eyed the pink snowballs. She shook her head and rounded the end cap, where she scanned the new offerings, methodically sweeping her gaze along the aisle, mentally discarding everything until Bingo!
Hanging innocently at the end of the aisle was the most repugnant pair of Christmas socks she'd ever seen. They were bright green with sparkly silver-tinsel trees around the ankles, adorned with bright cherry-red pompoms. The tops had garish silver lace that matched the flashy trees and small jingly bells. They were hideous and absolutely perfect for the white-elephant gift required for Uncle Fred's crazy pre-Christmas party. Mary Paige snatched them as if they were the Holy Grail. Finally, something had gone right.
She hurried toward the register, hating that she'd already taken too much time in this little stop, hating that the homeless curmudgeon outside the door weighed on her conscience. Yeah, he was a miserable old goat, but it was the beginning of the Christmas season, and it was colder than normal outside.
Perhaps she should get him a little something to warm him up?
A coffee bar sat to her right, featuring a self-service, instant cappuccino machine. Not the best, but certainly good enough. Mary Paige glanced at the register. Only one person in line. Surely five more minutes wouldn't hurt. She spun toward the bar, snatched a medium-size cup, centered it beneath the spout and pushed the button. It filled quickly. She plopped a lid on and grabbed two sugar packs along with a stir stick.
Darn. Two more people had joined the queue behind the woman paying.
She got in line, shifting back and forth on her frozen feet trying to restore the circulation and wondering why she even bothered with an old bum outside a convenience store in the middle of Metairie. He'd probably hurl the cup at her and ruin her only decent jacket. Par for the course considering the day she'd had. A run in her stockings, a nervous stomach that had sent her to the bathroom twice, a coffee stain on her pristine white blouse and a tongue-lashing from Ivan the Terrible when the towering pile of receipts on her desk didn't add up for their biggest client. She really wanted to go home and curl up in her ratty chenille robe with a glass of wine. Instead, fierce love for Uncle Fred sent her scurrying across the city in a cab she couldn't afford, wearing shoes now frozen stiff.
Mary Paige finally reached the register, where the cashier snatched the socks from her, scanned them and dropped them into a plastic sack.
"Ten thirty-seven," the cashier said, not even bothering to make eye contact with her.
Mary Paige rooted in her purse for her wallet. Ugh. She'd left it in her desk after doing some online Christmas shopping. But, luckily she always kept some cash in the side pocket along with her ATM card. Her fingers crisscrossed in a desperate search. No cash.
Thankfully a second swipe netted her the ATM card. She glanced at the cashier, who glared knowingly in return.
"Uh, do y'all have an ATM?"
The cashier pointed to a machine sitting below a glowing sign as a man behind her in line growled, "Jeez, get your cash before you get in line, lady."
Something inside Mary Paige snapped. "Listen, buddy. I have had a hell of a day and my ex-boyfriend stole all my cash. Give me an effing break here!"
The man stepped back, throwing up his hands before giving her a smart-ass gesture toward the ATM.
She prayed as she entered her PIN that her account wasn't overdrawn. Things had been so hectic lately she couldn't remember the last time she balanced her bank statement. Please, please let the stupid machine spit out the money.
The machine whirred and coughed out the amount she'd requestedthirty bucks.
Whew. Hibernia Bank had just earned itself a place on her Christmas-card list.
Mary Paige popped back in line as the rude construction worker rolled his eyes and blew garlicky breath on her neck with theatrical exaggeration. Mary Paige shrugged at the cashier. "Happens to the best of us, right?"
The cashier held out a palm and gave no response, making Mary Paige feel like even more of an idiot. She placed a ten-dollar bill in the outstretched hand of the cashier along with three dimes and a nickel, the sum of all the change she could scrape up from the bottom of her purse. The cashier cleared her throat and looked pointedly at the money.
"Oh, sorry." Mary Paige scooped two pennies from the take-a-penny, leave-a-penny container on the counter. "There you go."
She grabbed the coffee and the plastic bag, swerved around Big and Beefy, desperately wanting to give him the fingermuch as the old bum had given her earlierand stalked out the door.
"Ow." Hot coffee splashed on her fingers through the open drinking spout. "Double darn it."
She shook the liquid from her fingers and caught sight of the cab out of the corner of her eye. Thank God he'd waited, and thank God the ATM had delivered the money she needed to pay for the cab. Shoving the bag with the socks under her arm, she held up a finger indicating she would be a minute longer, then headed around the corner to the old man.
As she approached the alley, she was swamped by a feeling of deja vu. How many other times had she done this kind of thing? Ten? Twenty? More? As much as she would like to be a hard-ass career gal, she knew her heart was of the Stay Puft variety. Not even rudeness would deter her from doing what was right.
"Yoo-hoo? Mister? I have a little something here to warm you." She stood in front of a Dumpster bookended by two large cardboard boxes. Flaps hung over, providing little shelter, and the man seemed to be curled into a pile of wet newspapers. A broken cyclone fence stretched behind him, leading the way to an abandoned bakery showcasing yawning windows. Dismal wasn't the word for the small corner of the world this man occupied in the frozen rain. "Sir?"
He said nothing.
"I've brought you some coffee."
The papers moved. "What the hell ya want?"
"Just thought you might like something to warm you."
"Coffee?" The papers shifted as the man unfurled like a gray troll from beneath a bridge, his grizzled face parting sodden sales flyers, pinning her with sleepy blue eyes. "Coffee, did you say?"
Mary Paige thrust the cup toward the man.
His eyes swept Mary Paige from head to foot, causing a flash of alarm within her, but then he looked away before extending a thin arm toward the steaming cup. As he leaned forward, the papers parted, revealing a body woefully unprepared for the frigid weather. His pants were thin and patched, his flannel shirt threadbare in a few spots, but most frightening of all were his bare feet.
Aw, heck, no. Not bare feet. Anything but bare feet.
The plastic bag holding the socks grew heavier.
Pretend like you didn't see his bare feet, Mary Paige. Just hand him the coffee and go.
But she knew she would not. Could not.
No time to get another pair. Plus, the only other socks inside were a pair of plain blue ones. There had been only one pair of perfectly horrendous Christmas socks, and she knew they hadn't been intended for anyone at Uncle Fred's house. Not Aunt Betty with her giant mole, or Cousin Trav with his ugly comb-over, or Mr. Dan the eccentric butcher, who showed up to Uncle Fred's party every year uninvited. Nope, these Christmas socks were for the bum who had flipped her the finger.
She sighed and bent down, meeting his gnarled fingers with the cup. "You don't have any socks. It's awfully cold out here for bare feet."
The man took slurping sips of the scalding liquid as if it were nothing more than lukewarm tea. "Yes, socks t'would help, I imagine."
"Yes, well, I happen to have a pair right here. How about we put these on so you don't freeze your toes off? And then, I can take you to a shelter where you can get some hot food and a warm place to sleep."
The man peered at her over the rim, his disarming blue eyes measuring her. She ripped her gaze from his and dug the ugly socks from the plastic bag, eyeing his dirty but, oddly enough, well-manicured toes. She tore the tag from the socks and bent toward the man, uncertain as to whether she should actually lift his foot. "Should I help you put these on?"
The old man clasped her hands, stilling them as she picked at the sticker stubbornly gunking up a sparkly silver tree.
"You ever read A Christmas Carol?"
"I beg your pardon, sir?"
"You know old Ebenezer Scrooge?"
"Oh, yeah, of course." She nodded and the blunt ends of her bob swung into her eyes. She tucked the wayward strands behind her chilled ears. "The socks. Let's get them on you."
"Yes," he said staring at the gaudy socks in her hand. "What I meant was the Spirit of Christmas."
"What?" Mary Paige said biting her lip and scrunching each sock so she could jab them onto his almost-blue feet. "You mean the ghosts, like the ghosts of Christmas past?"
"They were all part of the Spirit of Christmas, right?" His voice was low, intense and raspy and also quite refined. Odd for a street person. She slid the first sock on his right foot.
"Mmm-hmm." She shifted her weight so she wouldn't fall on her butt onto the slick concrete. She wasn't the most graceful of gals.
"Well, you're the Spirit of Christmas," he said, jabbing a finger at her.
"Maybe so," she said, hoping to pacify the old man, as she put the other sock on his deathly cold foot. She prayed she had hand sanitizer in her purse. No telling where the man's feet had been even if he had trimmed his toenails.
"There. Nice and toasty. Let's get you out of this weather." She prepared to rise, but the man clasped her wrist. She pulled away but he held firm.
"I'm sorry I was rude to you earlier."
"That's okay. You're enduring a hard time right now," Mary Paige said, trying to wrench her arm from his grip, growing uncomfortable with his familiarity. "Living out on the streets makes a man defensive. I understand. If you will let go of me, I will see that the cab driver pulls around so we can find you a nearby shelter."
The man ignored her. "What's your name, my child?"
Mary Paige stared into his hypnotic blue eyes and responded without thinking. "Mary Paige."
"Well, Mary Paige, can I offer you a gift in return for the one you have given me?"
She shook her head. Jeez. There was no telling what the bum would give her. Visions of grimy bottle caps or shiny pieces of glass danced in her head. What valuable object would soon be hers? "You owe me nothing. Now let's get"
Her words died as the man released her hand and fished around inside the pocket of his worn flannel shirt.
Dear Lord, please don't let it be his old socks. Or something dead.
She should get out of here. The old man could be nuts, rooting around for something more sinister than a piece of old junk. He could have a gun. Or a knife. Or a piece of paper.
The man held a paper that had been folded several times and smiled at her, his teeth remarkably straight and white. A gold crown winked at her from the back of his mouth, sparkling as much as his blue eyes. "I needed to know your name, my child, so I know what to write on this."
He unfolded the paper and extended it to her. She took it as if she were in a trance before finally glancing down. It was a check. She blinked.
It was a check for two million dollars.
Signed by Malcolm Henry, Jr.
The Malcolm Henry, Jr., of Henry Department Stores.
She blinked. "I don't understand. Where did you get this?"
He grinned. "My child, you are the Spirit of Christmas."
A flash of light blinded her, forcing her to squinch her eyes together. When she opened them, she found another man emerging from behind the Dumpster. The light was so blinding and her feet were now so numbed by the cold, she stumbled back, tilted and fell, landing hard on the icy pavement.