Outside Nordstrom Department Store
"I'm glad you got back okay, Jarod."
Jarod laughed. "I'd be ashamed of myself if I couldn't fly a plane
from Charleston. Besides, Ethan would have told you if anything had happened
"I know. Well, thanks for the call. Both Ethan and I will be fine."
"Thanks, Dr Goetz. Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas to you too, Jarod."
Jarod disconnected the call and slipped the cell phone into the pocket
of his jacket. He leaned back against the
wooden bench with a sigh of relief and gingerly licked the tip of his
ice-cream cone. When tasting a new flavor, Jarod was always cautious,
although he hadn't managed to find one he disliked so far. Like the wine
taster he had once been for a few weeks, he savored the flavor of the
dessert for a moment before nodding. Yes, he definitely liked Rum 'n'
Jarod sat and enjoyed the sights of Christmas in the street around him,
even the piped Christmas carols that appeared
to be annoying other people. He could never understand how something as
wonderful as Christmas could possibly annoy some people in the way that
it seemed to. It sometimes saddened Jarod that people weren't able to
realize how lucky they were to simply be able to experience Christmas.
Jarod thought back to the thirty-three Christmases that he had spent inside
the Centre, unable to know what was going on in the outside world.
Jarod shook his head to try to rid himself of the memory of those depressing
times. His eyes took in the tinsel in the shop windows and the banners
that hung from street lamps. He looked with pleasure at the decorated
Christmas tree in the doorway to the mall. Happily soaking in the yuletide
atmosphere, Jarod was unaware of the looks that he was receiving from
passers-by. Certainly people ate ice cream all year round, but sitting
outside when it was snowing to do so?
The sounds of bells distracted Jarod from his thoughts and he glanced
up the street in time to see a carriage, pulled by two brown horses, making
its way up the street. Riding in the sleigh was a group that looked like
a family. Two adults sat facing two small children, who were bouncing
around on the seats and giggling excitedly. Jarod couldn't help laughing
at the sight and nearly choked on his ice cream. The wagon continued along
the road in front of him and, as it passed, Jarod spotted a group of men
congregated outside the large department store on the other side of the
road. Cramming the last of the cone into his mouth and rapidly swallowing,
Jarod got up and dusted the snow from his arms and legs before making
his way across the street and mingling with the group of men.
* * * * * * * * *
Blue Cove, Delaware
The door to Sydney's office slammed back against the opposite wall and
he knew of only one person in the Centre who would behave that way. "Good
morning, Miss Parker."
Miss Parker stood in front of Sydney's desk and dropped a bundle of folders,
all bearing the Centre's insignia, onto the flat surface. Both Miss Parker
and Sydney watched silently as the pile slowly slid sideways and fell
onto the floor, scattering sheets of paper all over.
"Those," Miss Parker nodded in the general direction of the
mess. "Those are the files you loaned me about my mother. With a
few others that I had Broots borrow when your back was turned." The
woman settled herself in a chair opposite Sydney and rested her feet on
the desk with her hands tucked behind her head. Ignoring her, the psychiatrist
turned back to the papers he had been looking through.
The silence continued for a few more seconds until Miss Parker swung
her legs down and stared at the other occupant of the office. "You
surprise me, Sydney. I came in here expecting a speech about respecting
other people's privacy and about the crime of stealing and instead I get
Sydney sighed and looked up, pushing the papers to one side. "Considering
that we both knew what I was going to say, it seems like a waste of my
breath to say it and your time to listen to it, wouldn't you agree?"
Miss Parker looked at him closely for a few seconds. "What's the
matter, Syd? Is it that we were only a few seconds behind the Grinch at
his last lair, because, believe me, that's getting to me more than it's
getting to you. At least you don't have to answer to my father when he
"It's not that." Sydney broke across the tirade that he had
heard from Miss Parker increasingly more often since Jarod's latest escape
from the Centre.
"Well, what is it then?"
"I don't know. I suppose it’s just -- well, it's Christmas."
"Great. Another damned day when the shops are shut. What's so wonderful
Sydney eyed Miss Parker closely. "So if that wasn't the reason you
gave Broots the long weekend off to spend with his daughter, I wonder
what was. Could it have been that you were feeling particularly generous
that day? No, that wouldn't be like you at all. Perhaps you were unwell?
But then you don't look that sick."
"All right, all right!" Miss Parker shifted uncomfortably in
her chair. "He asked for it and it's only fair that one of us gets
to spend time with family this year." Suddenly she looked up, pain
and embarrassment obvious on her face. "Family. Of course. That's
it. It's only been two years since your brother -- God, I'm sorry Syd.
I didn't realize."
"It doesn't matter, Parker."
"Yes, it does. And you're here, working, instead of..." Feeling
uncomfortable, Miss Parker sought to change the subject. "Funny that
we haven't heard anything from Jarod as of yet about our last mishap.
Usually he likes to rub it in when we’re that close."
"Maybe he doesn't know."
"Very funny, Syd. Of course he knows. Somehow, he always knows."
Miss Parker got up out of her chair and was about to leave Sydney's office
when the door opened and Sam looked in.
"A package, Miss Parker."
"No ma'am. For Sydney."
"What are you waiting for then? Give it to him."
Automatically Sydney stretched out his hand and took the package, putting
it down on the desk in front of him and staring blindly at it, recognizing
immediately the bold printing on the mailing label. Still, much as he
wanted to see what it contained, something held him back. He tried to
focus on the object and block out thoughts that Miss Parker's comments
had brought to his mind.
"Well," Miss Parker's voice made him jump. "Aren't you
going to open it?"
* * * * * * * * *
Outside Nordstrom Department Store
Jarod introduced himself to the group of men standing around the doorway.
As he had approached, a sign on the wall had told him their purpose. 'Santa
school. Novices welcome.' Jarod had tried not to grin as he thought that
few of them could be as much of a novice about the dealings of Santa as
"So, Jarod, what do you do?"
"Oh, this and that."
"Ah, Jack of all trades."
Jarod tried not to let the confusion show on his face. "No, not
The man laughed. "Fine. I'm Peter, by the way. Peter Stevens."
Jarod shook his hand. He was about to make a further comment when another
man came up and tapped Peter on the shoulder. "Have you seen Wilson?"
Peter looked puzzled. "Charles Wilson? No, now that you mention
it. I haven't seen him since last Christmas. But he must be here somewhere.
He wouldn't miss a year. He never has." Peter looked at Jarod, who
had stayed silent but was listening to the conversation with flattering
eagerness. He was about to say something when the door next to the group
opened and a woman stuck her head out.
"Santa Class of 2000? Come on in."
She propped open the door and the group of men shuffled their way inside,
Peter pulling the door shut as he entered.
"For those of you who are new, I'm Rose Clark and I'll be teaching
you all how to be Santa. Could all of you line up at the table and..."
Jarod joined the rest of the group as they went to register. The non-appearance
of Charles Wilson had him intrigued and he figured the best chance he
had to work out what was going on was to join the group.
"And so you want to be Santa?"
Jarod came out of his thoughts with a start, realizing that Rose had
spoken to him. "Er, yes. I guess so."
She looked him up and down for a moment before looking at the pages on
the table in front of her. "Usually we have people in an older age
range, Mr. Noël.…"
"Don't worry, Rose," Peter Stevens stepped forward. "I'll
make sure he comes up to scratch."
"We-ell," Rose spoke warily, "if you think you can, Peter.
Mr. Noël --"
"Okay, Jarod." She smiled. "If you'll just fill this form
out for me and then we can begin."
* * * * * * * * *
During the break for lunch, Jarod listened while the other men discussed
the fact that Charles Wilson still hadn't turned up.
"Every year without a break since 1988 and now, this year, he doesn't
"I talked to him a fortnight ago and he said then that he would
"Did he say anything that might have indicated…?"
"What's been happening to him…?"
Gradually the talk changed to other subjects but Jarod kept thinking
about the man and wondered what could induce a person who obviously liked
children so much to fail to appear from something that he had done for
so long. He picked at the meal he had bought at the store's canteen until
Peter took the fork out of his hand.
"Something on your mind, son?"
"You could say that."
"Well, what is it?"
Jarod paused, thinking as he did so that no one could look much more
like Santa that Peter Stevens, even without the costume. "Tell me
what you know about Charles Wilson."
"Wilson? He's in his late forties, never married, no children. Loves
kids though. He must or he wouldn't have done this for so long. He lives
with his mother as her care-giver."
"She started developing dementia several years ago -- Alzheimer's
Disease, actually. As it became worse, she needed more and more care."
Another man leaned across. "He had to put her into a home several
weeks ago. It got too much for him to deal with." The man moved closer
to them but then turned to another group. "Cochran!"
A man looked around at the three of them. "What?"
"Didn't Judy Wilson get put into your nursing home several weeks
ago? Allan Cochran's a male nurse at an aged care facility," the
man added in explanation to Jarod.
Allan Cochran got up and came over to join them. "I don't really
know," he said in answer to the question. "I started my Christmas
vacation at about that time. I did remember hearing something about it
"So you wouldn't know if anything happened to her to upset Charles
"I don't think she's dead, if that's what you mean. Besides, we
take care of the people at our home." He spoke defensively and Peter
patted him on his shoulder.
"Cool down, son. No one's accusing you of locking her away somewhere,
never to see the light of day again. Of course you take care of your clients.
You'd have to, or you'd have no clients." He laughed and turned
back to Jarod. "So, Jarod, you say you're fairly flexible in your
work. You must have done some interesting stuff then."
"Sure." Jarod saw the amusement in his eyes and decided to
play along. "I've done everything from thoracic surgeon to an FBI
Agent." He joined in the laughter that greeted his statement. "Sometimes
it feels like I have a new identity every other week."
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod looked down in consternation at the pile of items that had appeared
in front of his seat during the lunch break. With a somewhat helpless
air, he picked up a couple of objects, only to replace them and sit staring
at the pile for a few seconds.
"Kind of overwhelming, isn't it?" Jarod turned to see Peter
smiling at him. "I felt like that the first time that I was here
too. But it all sorts itself out." He leant over and plucked the
false beard from the pile. "Here Santa, let's try this on."
Jarod grinned in reply. "I thought I was only getting four foot
helpers, not six foot ones."
Peter laughed with the deep hearty amusement that Jarod had already noticed
and picked up the list of names that came with the outfit. "Now let's
see. Golly gee, would you look at that! No 'Jarod' on my 'Nice children'
list. You've got a nasty surprise coming to you on Christmas Day, little
"Oh, no!" Jarod joined in the game. "Please Santa, I want
a train set and a bike and a puppy and a new computer game and..."
Jarod stopped to draw breath and Peter took advantage of it to slip the
elastic supports over the back of his head and position the beard carefully
on Jarod's face.
"Wonderful!" Peter proclaimed. Jarod sneezed and rubbed his
"You aren't allergic to it, are you?" An anxious voice from
across the room startled both men and Jarod looked up at Rose with twinkling
"Oh no, ma'am. The only thing I'm allergic to is pistachio nuts."
"Are you sure?" She came across and resettled the beard on
"Positive. I had all sorts of tests for allergies when I was small.
I think I'll just have to get used to it, that's all. And it might be
a bit dusty." Jarod picked up the glasses and settled them on the
end of his nose, as it had showed him in the picture on the walls. "And
what do you want for Christmas, little girl?" Jarod deepened his
voice in an imitation of Peters and Rose laughed.
"Well, maybe you were right. Maybe you can play Santa after all."
"Ma'am, I can play anything you want me to!"
* * * * * * * * *
Blue Cove, Delaware
"Sydney, you've been staring at that thing for twenty minutes. For
God's sake, open it or I'll take it from you and do it myself!"
Sydney looked up and gave Miss Parker a weak smile. "Patience was
always one of your virtues, Parker."
"Just open the damned thing, Syd."
Sydney sighed and picked up the postaged parcel. Picking up a letter
opener, he slit the package and tipped the contents out onto the desk.
A small, square parcel fell onto the desk, wrapped in brightly colored
paper. As Miss Parker shifted impatiently in her chair, the psychiatrist
carefully unwrapped the object, eventually revealing a square jeweler's
As Sydney opened the parcel, the light of his desk lamp fell on the contents,
briefly dazzling him with a golden light. Turning the box slightly, Sydney
gasped as he took in the golden medallion that lay there. The front held
an engraving of a building that Sydney instantly recognized and Miss Parker
heard him mutter the words 'Mount Pleasant Home' under his breath. Sydney's
eyes widened as he looked more closely and realized that words had been
engraved on the face of the medal, around the edge of the picture. The
words were familiar - the same as those that had appeared on the cross
at Jacob's gravesite. There were figures as well, dates: 1934-1998. With
reverent, hesitating hands Sydney gently picked up the gold chain and
allowed the medallion to spin in the light for a few seconds. Eventually,
he held it still in the palm of his hand and turned it over to look at
Sydney's eyes filled as he absorbed the image and he sat still for one
brief instant before lunging for his desk drawer and extracting two sheets
of paper. Laying them flat on the table, Sydney compared the picture and
the drawing that Jarod had made of his and Jacob's First Communion with
the detailed, engraved image that appeared on the back of the medallion.
It was identical in every detail, even to the crucifix that appeared behind
them. With an impatient hand, Sydney wiped away the tears that were threatening
to fall and he carefully put the golden disk down on his desk on top of
the pictures, the chain spread out behind it like some mystical tail.
Then Sydney folded his hands and sat staring at his Christmas present
* * * * * * * * *
Outside Nordstrom Department Store
Jarod packed the last of his Santa gear into a bag that the school had
provided as Rose came over and handed him a slip of paper.
"Congratulations, Santa. You've got one of the toughest assignments
for your first year."
Jarod looked at her with a smile. "Ready and eager. Where is it?"
"Right here at Nordstrom. It's one of the busiest shopping centers
in Baltimore. I wouldn't have given it to you except for the fact that
everyone else has been here for at least one year and is familiar with
"It's no problem," Jarod promised with a grin. "I'm sure
I'll manage." He paused. "Who was doing Nordstrom last year?"
Rose sighed. "Charles Wilson. That's been his regular store for
years, and he does it well." She smiled. "You've got a high
standard to aim for."
Jarod saluted at her in true military style. "I'll do my best."
"And saints can't do more." She hugged him. "Thanks Jarod.
And if you get stuck, my number's on the sheet."
"You're welcome. And don't worry. Everything will be fine, I know."
Jarod picked up the bag and left the room.
Outside the room, he found Peter waiting for him. The two men left the
building together and headed out into the lightly falling snow.
"Trying to get on the good side of the teacher now, are you? I never
would have picked you as the 'sucking-up' type."
"Never mind." Peter shook his head in amusement. "Are
you planning to visit family for Christmas?"
Jarod shook his head slowly. "I don't think so. I'm not sure that
"So what will you do on Christmas Day?"
"I don't really know. Just hang around, I guess."
Peter looked at him. "You could come and have Christmas dinner with
"Myself, my daughter and grand-daughter. Since my son-in-law died
four years ago, they always come over and we have a great time. I'm sure
that they'd love to meet you."
"That sounds wonderful. I'd love to." Jarod paused. "Should
I bring anything?"
"What can you make?"
"I can make a great fruitcake." Jarod's lips twitched as he
remembered the revenge a few years earlier that had necessitated his learning
how to do just that.
"Sounds wonderful. Sure. Bring it along. I haven't tasted good fruitcake
since my wife died."
"When was that?"
"A little over ten years ago, now."
Peter smiled. "Don't be. She suffered so much at the end that it
was a relief for everyone when she passed away. "He slapped Jarod
on the back. "Well, this is my stop. I'll see you around. Don't forget,
though. Christmas Day."
Jarod grinned. "I sure won't. Have a good time."
"You too. And good luck."
* * * * * * * * *
Blue Cove, Delaware
"So what do you think it means, Syd?"
Sydney looked up from the pendant and smiled weakly. "Isn't it obvious,
Parker? You said it yourself, just before. It has all to do with family.
Jarod's reminding us of the importance of this time of year."
Parker was about to respond when the phone on Sydney's desk rang. Miss
Parker pressed the speaker.
"Oh, M...Miss Parker..."
"What is it, Broots?"
"You...you won't believe it!"
"What won't I believe?"
"Yes. Weird. What else is new?"
"Broots, if you don't tell me what this weird thing is, I'm going
to reach through the phone and wring your scrawny little neck!"
"I...I got a Christmas present."
Miss Parker slumped down in her chair and buried her face in her hands
before looking up again. "Hate to break it to you but it is that
time of year again. If you don't want one, you can always come to work
Sydney leaned over and put his hand on her arm. "Who is it from,
"What?!" Miss Parker leapt to her feet and stared at the phone.
"Jarod sent you a Christmas present?"
"So what is it?"
"It's a Shaggy doll."
"You know. A doll of the character Shaggy. He was in the cartoon
series called 'Scooby Doo, Where Are You?' that started airing in 1969
and has gone through a whole heap of changes..."
Miss Parker slammed her palms down on Sydney's desk. "All right,
Broots, we don't need its case history!” Sydney suddenly laughed and Miss
Parker looked at him, derision on her face. "You watched an inane
cartoon from the late sixties?"
"It wasn't inane." Miss Parker could hear the indignation in
Broots' voice and she struggled not to smile.
"So are you going to bring that Christmas present in for us to look
at or keep enjoying your vacation?"
"Uh, I get a choice?"
"Yup, but make it snappy."
"Okay, I'll see you after Christmas. And Miss Parker, Me --"
Parker hit the button that disconnected the call and Broots' voice died
into sudden silence. "Okay, so who made up the Scooby gang?"
Miss Parker was thinking aloud to herself but Sydney answered for her.
"Four humans and one dog -- Shaggy, Velma, Fred, Daphne and Scooby."
"So Jarod is trying to tell us…?"
"Maybe nothing -- but there had to be a reason that he would send
Shaggy to Broots. Shaggy's a bit of a coward, runs away from danger --
but is very loyal."
"I know that, Syd! So Jarod got that personification right. What
Sydney turned to his computer as a voice alerted him to incoming mail.
He opened the attachment and both he and Miss Parker stared at the picture
of Velma that appeared on the screen. Sydney began to laugh helplessly.
"So if you're Velma and Broots is Shaggy, that leaves..."
"You and Lyle."
Miss Parker suddenly turned and, followed by Sydney, the two ran down
the hall to her office. She, too, had a new message and it showed another
cartoon figure. Miss Parker looked at Sydney, who was looking puzzled.
"It's neither Fred nor Daphne. More like a hybrid of them both."
Miss Parker sat down suddenly in her chair. "So that leaves Lyle."
"And Scooby," Sydney added, his lips betraying his amusement.
Miss Parker looked at him sharply.
"Scooby would live in a dog house, wouldn't he?"
"We-ell, I guess."
"A tin dog house? Like a tin shed?"
Sydney picked up on her train of thought and, biting his lip, tried not
to betray his amusement.
"Hmm," Miss Parker fought down her own giggles. "I hope
baby brother finds his dog house comfortable."