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The honor of your presence is required At an undisclosed location,
December Twenty-fourth of this year,
At eight o'clock in the evening,
for a black-tie affair,
At which time an explanation Concerning your anonymous gift will be offered.
Enclosed are all pertinent travel arrangements for both you and One guest of your choosing.
Sam Balfour spared a last disinterested look at the words on the invitation and then lightly tossed it and a dozen others onto the large mahogany desktop.
S. Edward Balfour IV sat back in the burgundy leather chair that was two sizes too big for him now that the years had begun to shrink him, tented his fingers atop a generous belly and looked across the desk at his nephew. "You're making a point with that gesture, aren't you, son? Do I get three guesses now as to what that point might be?"
"No need for guessing. Let's just let these serve in lieu of a November progress report, why don't we? I'm sorry, Santa, but our fellow man is living down to my expectations again this year, rather than up to yours. Three good-hearted givers and fifteen bottom-feeding takers. I just got word that the last one, the youth counselor in Florida, took off for Vegas within three days of getting a cash gift. I warned you about cash gifts. Three, Uncle Ned, three out of eighteen. That's a new low."
"All right, I suppose I'll agree to accept that deviation from the usual monthly report. But please let me remind you, Sam, that the gift is always given with an accompanying note that instructs the recipient to do what he or she feels best."
"Right. And for most of them, what they feel best is to keep their good fortune to themselves, and thehell with everyone and everything else. Kind of like the guy who grabs his bread from the middle of the loafand then leaves the bag open so that the rest of the slices get stale. Hey, as long as I've got mine, who cares about anyone else, right?"
"And here I was going to add that I was wondering if that new low, as you call it, disappoints or delights you, Sam. But that would be only a rhetorical question, wouldn't it, son?"
"It doesn't matter what I think, Uncle Ned. That's not the point," Sam said, not liking the defensive tone of his own voice. "You've been doing this for nearly ten years now, and each year the numbers get worse. What's it going to take to convince you that people aren't what you'd like to believe them to be? By and large, we're a bunch of grasping, self-serving bastards, some of us putting a good face on for the world, sure, but all of us are really out for number one, and nobody else."
"And some of us may even be cynics," Uncle Ned said, his tone more amused than accusing as he sat forward in his chair once again. "I agree, Sam, that the responses to this year's gifts have been fairly disappointing. When I began this, more than half of the recipients took their gifts and turned them into something good, something that served others rather than merely themselves."
"Yeah, I knowconsidering the greater good over the individual benefit. Terrific in theory, lousy in practice."
"Not entirely. You said there were three."
Sam felt sorry for his uncle and employer. "Look, you gave it your best shot, Uncle Ned. But let's just send the three who passed the test their million bucks, have them sign their confidentiality agreements and put this project to rest, okay? No party this year. It's senseless. Unless you want to invite all the others as well and watch their faces as Bruce explains the rules and only three of them get checks."
"You'd enjoy that, wouldn't you?"
Sam shrugged. "Maybe. No. No, I don't think so. I mean, what's the point? As far as I'm concerned, the ones who react the way most of them do are the normal ones. Only an idiot gives away what he can keep. You knowdon't look a gift horse in the mouth? You gave, they took. Why should any of them do anything differently?"
"Oh, Sam. You're breaking an old man's heart here. You really are."
Sam half sat on one corner of the large desk. "I'm only saying what I believe. Besides, Uncle Ned, I've shown you the articles in the newspapers. That dame, that Leticia Trent, she isn't giving up. Word is getting out on what you're doing."
"Yes, yes, I know. The reclusive billionaire Santa Claus who gives out unexpected gifts so he can watch what the lucky recipients do with them and then awards the generous with one million tax-free dollars in their Christmas stockings. It's rather shocking, how on the money she is with her stories. But it's only rumors so far, remember, no more than speculation. I'm not worried. I'm rather flattered, in fact, to be seen as some modern-day Kris Kringle." He patted his stomach. "I'm even working on the bowlful-of-jelly belly."
Then his uncle sobered. "This is what Maureen wanted, Sam. This is what she and I did those last few years before she was taken from me. This is her legacy. I'm not going to stop, not until the world has run out of good people, and I don't think it ever will."
"I understand. I'm sorry I brought it up," Sam said, reluctantly giving up the fight. Aunt Maureen had been bedridden for the last five years of her life, and the generous project had been her idea. She and Uncle Ned would scour the newspapers, the Internet, every day, looking for possible worthy recipients of unexpected gifts, be it the gift of money or something else of particular interest to the individual selected.
If the person kept what was given, used it selfishly, that person was out of the running for the larger gift at the Christmas Eve gathering. The initial gift would have been earned, as Maureen saw it, but no additional gift would be coming to these people.
Sam privately thought that Maureen and Uncle Ned were playing God with other people's lives, but he had always kept that opinion to himself. It was watching his uncle's generous heart being bruised year after year that made Sam want to see an end to the project.
Sam also knew his uncle's arguments for keeping the project going.
Uncle Ned had sworn that the searching, the choosing, the anticipation, the joy when people they'd chosen had done such magnificent things with their gifts, had kept his beloved wife alive long past the predictions of her doctors.
Now maybe the project was doing the same for her husband, a thought that, when he admitted it to himself, scared the hell out of Sam. Because if Sam didn't believe in the goodness of man all that much, what he really hated was the reclusive billionaire part, as his uncle had been hiding from the world since the day Maureen died.
"Yes, sir," Sam said, picking up the invitations that would not be sent this year, intending to toss them in the trash.
"You might want to hang on to one of those." His uncle opened the top center drawer and pulled out a dark green file folder. Sam knew the drill. Green, for giving. "I've selected one more recipient for you."
"You don't give up, do you?" Sam reluctantly took the folder. "Even if this one works out, Uncle Ned, you'd still only be four for nineteen. You wouldn't consider that a good return on your investment if these people were stocks or bonds."
"But that's the point, Sam. People can't be toted up on a balance sheet. People can't be assigned to the profit or loss columns of a ledger. I wish you understood that. You worry me, son. Your poor opinion of people in general worries me, as you've no good reason to hold such low opinions. Anyone would think you grew up in a hovel, downtrodden and oppressed in every way, rather than here, which I would think even you would say is the lap of luxury."
Sam smiled. "I know. I almost developed a speech impediment, trying to talk with that entire set of silver flatware in my mouth."
Uncle Ned tipped his head to one side and smiled at his nephew. "Did you ever consider that it might be the company you keep that's colored your judgment, inside and outside of your business dealings with some of the less than munificent of corporate leaders? Not that they aren't all beautiful women."
"They are that, and always in it for what they can get out of itor out of me. Thankfully, they're also disposable and interchangeable, rather like the corporate leaders. But we'll leave psychoanalyzing my inappropriate response to being born with a silver spoon in my mouth for another time, okay?" Sam said, holding up the folder. "I'll take this to Bruce and get him started."
"No, Sam, you won't. There's been a change of plans. This one you'll handle yourself."
"Me? Uncle Ned, come on. I handle the paperwork, the gifts, the funds transfers. I take care of the invitationsall three of them this year. I arrange for the damn million-dollar checks and the Christmas Eve party. Bruce takes care of everything else, the meeting, the greeting, the hosting and most especially the delivering of the initial gifts and the follow-up. Not my job, not my table, you know?"
"You'll do what I tell you to do, Sam," his uncle said, his tone the one that had, in earlier years, been the terror of several boardrooms. "This one's local. You won't have to travel or lose any time from your busy schedule of running my companies and sleeping with any pretty woman with a pulse. Although that redhead last month would have tempted a rock."
Sam looked at his uncle in astonishment. "Pardon me? What was that? You're keeping tabs on me as well as your recipients? Wonderful. You'll have to excuse me now, so I can go find Bruce and break his nose for him."
"Leave Bruce alone. He only does what I tell him. Depressingly well in your case. I had to warn him not to bring me any more, shall I say, interesting photographs of you and your interchangeable and disposable young ladies. Frankly, I'm surprised they don't all have constant chest colds, the way they dress. You're my sole heir, Sam, my brother's child. I love you. But I don't like what I'm seeing. You're turning cold and perhaps even hard. You may well be on your way to being a user, and will end up a lonely, disillusioned old man."
"And here I thought you liked me," Sam complained, trying to deflect his uncle with humor. "I'm your namesake, remember? Raised at your knee, taught everything you know? I never realized I was such a sad disappointment to you."
"Don't fight me on this, Sam, because you won't win. You've known nothing but the cutthroat world of business, and you're very good at it. Well, and your ladies. According to Bruce, and those photographs that have been burned into my retinas, you're more than very good with them. In fact, I believe Bruce's last communication to me before I told him to stop included the words he could give seminars."
"Well, thank you, Bruce." Sam grinned. "I'd still like to break his nose. After that, I may ask him for a few eight-by-tens."
"Smiling and being funny won't get you out of this, Sam. Humor me. Let me try to show you what Maureen showed me. I've sidelined Bruce and his camera."
"You're actually serious, aren't you?"
"Deadly serious. Beginning to end, Sam, you will handle this prospective millionaire. You will bring me all the reports. I don't know what will happen, although I've chosen this person very particularly and will admit that my hopes are high. I want to see if you'll have your bad opinion of your fellow humans reinforced, or if you'll begin to see what Maureen taught me to seethat the good in this world outnumbers the bad."
"But never outnumbers the greedy," Sam said under his breath on his way back to his own suite of offices in the immense Philadelphia mainline mansion.
He tossed the green folder on his desk, refusing to look at it, and went to lunch. He was pretty sure he was having blonde today .
While holding a phone to her ear, Paige Halliday frantically rummaged through a sheaf of notes on a desk piled six inches high with sliding stacks of papers.
"No, Claire, I'm sure I'm right. I just can't find my darn notes! Ten lords a-leaping. Not twelve. Twelve is Damn, what's twelve, Claire? Oh, God, maybe you're right and I'm wrong. Where am I going to find a dozen lords a-leaping? I didn't think I could find ten. Are you sure? No, wait, I found my list, I've got it in front of me right now. It's twelve drummers drumming. Ten leaping lords. You got those? Please say you've got those. Yes, I'll hold."
Paige slumped against a corner of the desk, wondering why she'd so blithely said sure, no problem when her client had asked for a display of the Twelve Days of Christmas at the last minute, making the display a part of their mall-wide after-Christmas sales.
What were they planning? On the fifth day after Christmas my true love gave to me five golden ringsmarked seventy percent below the normal sale price? On the ninth day after Christmas my true love gave to menine ladies dancing through the home goods department in search of January white sale bargains?