The astringent December sunlight looked, as always at this time of year, like it had been ladled into the smog with a teaspoon, like vinegar. The watery light and the goop in the air had softened shadows so that the whole composition seemed as flat as a painting, perhaps titled “Field with Lump and Cars.” The lump, a hulking, windowless, three-story ellipse with a flat roof and stains shaped like dirt icicles running down its outer walls, was in the center of a field where herds of sheep or cattle might once have grazed but which was now covered in flat black asphalt, marked in white diagonal parking lines to create an enormous herringbone pattern.
The pattern was visible because there weren’t very many cars, and the ones that had arrived were scattered around the lot as though the visitors wanted to avoid each other, perhaps out of embarrassment for being there at all. Later, I would realize that the outlying cars belonged to employees, dutifully obeying a rule that was intended to free up closer spaces for customers who probably weren’t coming.
A huge electric sign on a concrete pillar that stretched higher than the top of the building was blinking its sales pitch in green and red. It read:
Edgerton Mall Presents
Ho! Ho! Hooo!
And I was going to be stuck here until Christmas.
Only one thing came to mind, so I said it. “Bah,” I said. “Humbug.”
Santa Number One, if you were reading left to right on the top row of security monitors, was a lot thinner than Santa Number Two, with a sharp, bony face and a ropy neck that plunged unconvincingly into his yards of scarlet padding before blossoming into Santa’s expected bulk, something like the way the narrow shaft of an onion flares abruptly into a bulb. His belly may have been bogus but his merriness was almost authentic, at least at times. Santa Number Two had the requisite girth and the rosy cheeks of yore, but his Ho! Ho! Ho! rang hollow, and if his eyes had been the barrels of “Star Trek” phasers, there would have been a pile of fine ash at the foot of his plush red-and-green throne. Several perceptive kids had gotten a glimpse of those eyes and backed away fast, feeling behind them one-handed for Mom.
“Two Santas in one mall,” I said. “Says a lot for the critical-thinking skills of American retailers.”
“You got no idea,” said Wally Durskee. Wally, who was occupying the chair next to mine, was a short, serious security guy in a tight green polo shirt that was stretched over so much muscle he looked almost cubic. His carrot-colored hair was in rapid and premature retreat, and he’d developed a nervous habit of fingering a bit hopefully the newly vacant acreage above his forehead. He had the moist fish-white complexion of someone who never gets outside when the sun is shining; a spatter of freckles as a genetic accessory to the red hair; and small, deep-set black eyes as reflective as raisins that tended to jump from place to place, a tic he’d undoubtedly
developed from a great many days trying to watch thirty-two surveillance screens all at once, as we were at that moment. The jumpy eyes created an impression of unreliability although he seemed straight enough. “You shoulda been here four days ago,” he said. “Line out the front door, kids screaming, mothers having anxiety attacks. Cleaning crew swept up a couple handfuls of tranquilizers next morning, and not all legal, neither. They got into a fistfight over them. One-hour, ninety-minute wait to get to Sanny Claus’s damn lap. Kids peeing in line. Some limp washcloth emailed cell phone pitchers to Channel Four and they sent a news crew. On TV it looked like the Syrians trying to get through the checkpoints into Germany.”
I said something that must have sounded sympathetic, because Wally said, “And the only Sanny we had then was Dwayne down there, and kids’d scream to get up to him, take one look, and then scream to get away from him.”
“Dwayne is the fat one?”
“Yeah. Dwayne Wix. Even I can’t stand him, and I like everybody.”
“Sure, right,” Wally said. He blocked the headline with his hands: “SHOPPING MALL FIRES SANNY CLAUS. Anyway, he’s not our employee. We hire a contractor for all this stuff.”
“Yeah? What’s it called?”
“Ho-Ho-Holidays,” he said. “Sounds like a stammer, don’t it?”
He lobbed a suspicious glance at me but resumed his narrative anyway. Wally was a guy with a lot of narrative and no one to resume it for. “So the contractor threw in Shlomo there at the other end, half price, because it was their job to make crowd estimates and stuff.”
I said, “Shlomo?”
“Shlomo Stempel,” Wally said. “The skinny one. Kids like him. Better than Dwayne anyways.”
I said, “Okay.”
“Why, you got a problem?”
“No, why do you—”
“What do you think, there’s a tonload of unemployed Sanny Clauses this time of year? You can’t put an ad in the paper says, Christians only.”
“No,” I said. “I just don’t hear the name Shlomo all that much. You know, it’s not like Aidan or Max or Justin or whatever all the kids are called these days.”
Wally was regarding me as though he thought I was likely to charge him at any moment. “You think Sanny Claus would object?” It was apparently a serious question.
“No,” I said. “I think Sanny Claus would be thrilled to be impersonated by Shlomo Stempel.”
“Great guy, Shlomo,” Wally said. He started to say something else but picked at his eyetooth with a fingernail instead.
“So anyways, that’s why there’s two of them.”
“At opposite ends of the mall.”
“It’s a long mall,” Wally said. He smoothed the miniature desert on his head, which was already smooth. “Seventh longest mall west of the Mississippi.”
“Wouldn’t kid you. Not my style. Long story short, the place is so long there’s probably some kids, they only see one Sanny Claus.” He looked back at the screens, and doubt furrowed his brow. “If they’re really little.”
“Well,” I said, “that’s good. Kids today have enough problems without worrying about whether Santa Claus is a committee.” I stood up. The two of us were occupying creaking wheeled off ice chairs behind a scratched-up console, sticky with ancient spilled drinks, in a dark, cold, windowless room on the third floor, the low-rent floor, of Edgerton Mall. From time to time Wally toyed with one of the controls in front of him, making one of the cameras in some store somewhere in the mall swoop sickeningly left or right or zoom in and out.
“Where you going?” Wally said.
“Just getting up. So, yesterday someone added up the shoplifting reports from all the stores and discovered that it was way out of line.”
“Fridays,” Wally said. “This is Saturday,” he added, making sure we were on the same page. “Stores submit their weekly reports on Friday and the security company, the guys I work for, plugged them into a spreadsheet overnight, and it spiked like Pike’s Peak. You been to Pike’s Peak?”
“Yes,” I said, and Wally’s face fell. He undoubtedly had a lot of narrative about Pike’s Peak, all bottled up and ready to pop. “It’s a whole week’s worth of losses, right?”
“Right.” He made one of the cameras pan and then zoom dramatically but his heart wasn’t in it.
“How out of line is it?”
“Like Pike’s Peak. Maybe a hundred, hundred and twenty percent gain.” Or loss, I guess. You know, a gain in the loss.” He sketched an acute angle, point up, in the air. “Pike’s frigging
“Does the software break the data out on a day-by-day basis?”
“No. We get a one-week dump of numbers from each store, and that’s what gets fed in.”
“Why does it come to you?”
“Lookit my shirt. What does it say?”
He was waiting, so I said, “Sec—”
“Security,” he said over me. “We get the data ’cause it’s our asses when it goes kerf looey like this. Look, I’m not really sure who you are.”
“And you haven’t seen anything odd from up here.”
“If I had,” he said in a tone that suggested he’d taken most of the blame that had been ladled out during his lifetime and he was continually on the lookout for more, “you wouldn’t be here, would you? And I’m still not sure who you—”
“But you were told to help me out, right?”
He replayed the question mentally, squinting at the wall behind me. When he’d finished combing it for ambiguity and trick clauses and, I don’t know, the Oxford comma, he said, “Right. But who are you?”
“I’m a theft expert,” I said.
I could hear him swallow.