Mall Rats & Mistletoe
I knew there was trouble the minute I stepped through the glass doors near Security. There was a smell of tension, an electric, ozone smell, underlying the usual mix of scents which blanketed this side of the mall. It left me with a metallic taste in my mouth and a pervading feeling of doom in the back of my head - and it hadn't been there during my double shift the night before.
Maybe it was just me. I'm never able to change shifts comfortably. I'd spent ten years working graveyard - so everything else seemed unnatural. Then, too, there was the image of my wife and kids seeing me off which lingered in the back of my mind, looking at me as if I was some kind of Scrooge for not spending Christmas Eve with them.
"You can call in sick once in your life, can't you?" Kathy had asked, bristling when I shook my head. "Damn it, Ed, What do you owe that place anyway? Didn't you learn anything when they took your stripes?"
It was a low blow, but one that was honestly struck. It had taken me most of a decade to earn those sergeant's stripes - only to have them vanish with the new mall policy, which said such things as rank had become irrelevant. Customers would think the guards looked too much like cops and would presume there was danger.
Above all else, one did not imply that malls were dangerous.
Yet there was another message underlying the missing stripes, one which even the Scrooge mentality of mall management wouldn't dare to verbalize just before Christmas - if the stripes were unacceptable, perhaps the guards were as well.
The mall was insanely crowded, and if there was a night when they still needed guards, this was it. Cars packed with last-minute shoppers were flowing off the ramps from the highway, making the parking lot a zoo, a blaring, cursing gridlock imitation of midtown Manhattan. They said the suburbs were supposed to be peaceful. Ha!
"Merry Christmas, Mason," the Captain said as I shoved through the gray door marked Security. It was lunchroom, dressing room, meeting room and office rolled into one small, eight by eight foot space, most of which was stolen by the picnic table in its center.
"I suppose it is for some people," I said, spinning out the combination to my locker.
The captain and the evening crew sat around the table like conspirators, rent-a-cops mingling with the regulars in a mish-mash of odd-looking, badly-fitting uniforms. Several of the more familiar faces were missing.
"Where's Billings and Tennyson?" I asked, though I already knew the answer.
"Sick," the Captain said. "That's what their wives say anyway."
"Which leaves us short for the shift, right?"
"We'll get by."
"Not if we have another thing like that Cabbage Patch crap," I said. Or any of a thousand other more serious problems which could pop up in the six hours between now and closing.
"It won't be anything like that," the captain said. "I've checked around. No toy fads this year, and they'd know by now."
But there was something. I could still smell it, despite the gray wall between me and the halls, some nasty little germ multiplying even now. The captain motioned the others out, then looked at me.
"So what's the problem? Still peeved about the stripes?"
"What do you think?" I said without turning, knowing I would rant and rave all night unless I controlled myself. "I worked hard for them."
"We all work hard, stripes or no stripes," the captain said. "Forget stripes, next year there won't even be uniforms."
"Then what do we do? Stand around with our fingers up our noses while mallrats walk all over us?"
"I know it sounds strange, Sergeant," the captain said coldly. "But that's the rules and you'll live by them."
"Don't call me Sergeant," I said, pointing to the vacant place on my arm. "No stripes."
"Go to work, Mason," he said, waving me away. "Roland has your assignment."
"Yeah, I'll go play doorman," I mumbled and pushed through the connecting door marked "Manager."
Mall managers generally lived high on the hog and Mr. Dean was no different. He justified the plush rugs and soft furniture in his office by saying he had to "keep up appearances." But pudgy Dean wasn't behind his desk when I passed his open door. Only Roland was there, seated in the communication ring at the front of the office, a greasy-haired hippie type who looked up and grinned.
"Merry Christmas, Sarge," he said.
"Don't give me that shit," I said, grabbing a walkie-talkie from the rack. "Just give me my assignment."
"Center Court and Macy's wing," the boy smirked. He liked irritating me.
"Both? How the hell am I supposed to get back and forth between them in this crowd?"
"Push and shove like everybody else, I guess."
"I'll push and shove you," I said, taking a swipe at him across the console. But he was quicker than he looked and avoided me.
"By the way, there's a complaint," he said and waved a yellow form under my nose."
That ugly feeling came again. "What kind of complaint?"
"You promise not to laugh?"
"I'm not in the mood right now, Roland. Out with it."
"I'll say you're not," Roland said and pushed the paper into my hand, snickering as I glanced over the details. The description fit a pimply-faced mallrat named Nicholas, a Paterson boy attracted, as they all were, to the glistening halls and colored lights. Most of the rats came from bad homes, deadly streets. Here, things were polished and perfect, lacking all the ugly details of the real world.
I hesitated to think of Nicholas as a good rat, but at least he was quiet, spending most of his time grubbing quarters outside Fun & Games. Sometimes the owner of Deli-on-the-Green felt sorry for him and gave him stale sandwiches.
"As usual, I can't read your scrawl. What exactly is the rat supposed to have done?"
"He's been running around the mall kissing women."
"Are you sure? I know this boy. He's shy."
"Got a description from several people," Roland said.
"All right," I said, folding the paper into my shirt pocket. "Call me if you need me or hear anything. The last thing we need is some kind of fight."
"Don't call me that," I mumbled. "We're all privates now."
"Ah, you'll always be Sarge to me."
The service hall lights were dim, part of Dean's new economy measures. I almost didn't see the mall rats sitting in the gloom near one of the supply room doorways, a ragged little group of imps who were as asexual in appearance as hippies: torn t-shirts and jeans, long hair. They saw me and scurried to their feet.
"Hi Sarge," one of them managed to say.
"Out!" I said, pointing towards the door and glow of the main corridor.
They rushed away, casting back dark looks. By rights, I should have escorted them out of the mall proper. But they would only come back in through another entrance, making the whole thing an exercise in futility. I would eventually put them out when locking up for the night.
I followed them into the wider hall, then lost them to the crowds. Whole families seemed to have invaded the place in a frenzy of last-minute shopping, looking for the glittering gifts which they truly believed could only be gotten at the mall. I had driven down Main Street on the way to work - it was a graveyard.
I suppose people thought it was safer here, under the shiny dome of glass and gilded brick. It wasn't. Malls were like concentrated little cities with all the associated problems magnified, a fact management didn't understand - believing their own rhetoric when disguising the crime statistics. My loss of stripes had been only another thread in an increasingly thick blanket of false security. Last year, Dean had ordered us to give up our nightsticks. Some of the guards quit on the spot, but I'd resisted. I wasn't one of the more macho guys to begin with. But all the reason I had to stay had vanished with my stripes.
My walkie-talkie crackled with Roland's voice.
"Mason here," I said into the plastic grill.
"The rat's struck again, Sarge," Roland said. "Over by Just Shirts."
"On my way," I said and turned the corner halfway up Macy's wing into a wall of people. It was the proverbial "sardine can," made worse by shopping bags, baby carriages and loose kids. I felt the urge to crawl into one of the food concessions and wait out the night eating hot dogs. But there were other ways to move through the mall, and I retreated into a concealed service hall, taking it to Center Court.
It was worse here. The red, green and silver Christmas display occupied the normally vacant plaza like a cancer, casting the crowds into narrow avenues along its sides. People paused at inappropriate places to gaze at the elves, reindeer and other atrocious animated creatures, the Christmas train and Santa's Cottage. Those that weren't watching the show were pushing and shoving to get around the onlookers, cursing as they slid in and out of the open storefront doorways. Kids were everywhere, perched along the low white picket fence with their noses between the rungs, giggling or pointing at the slow-moving Christmas train as it made its way to the loading platform. More kids boiled from the line of cars, with the ragged engineer screaming at them to keep their hands inside and their mouths shut. Concerned parents waved from the sidelines or took photos, the flashes of which blinded the engineer, the children and observers on the far side.
People bumped into people. The engineer looked up at me, his sour expression melting long enough to emit a besieged and helpless smile.
I shrugged, smiled and waved back weakly, then eyed the perimeter of the crowd for the disturbance. It was hard to see anything from inside the madness, so I climbed a few steps towards the second floor for a clearer view. Two lines of kids encircled the bottom of the stairs, one waiting for their ride on the train, the other fidgeting as they waited for Santa himself, trailing out into the general population from the foot of the little red Santa house just below.
Across the court, Deli-on-the-Green glowed with its usual green neon, like a Frankenstein mask covering what had once been the mall theater. Like many things since the mall's construction, the theater had become a dinosaur, its huge, single-screen space made obsolete by the multi-theater complex built on the south side of the mall. The deli was carved out of the deep cavern, and mallrats sometimes still found their way in and gathered there at night in some ritual of kinship I did not understand.
Beside the deli, Just Shirts had collected a crowd, shouting encouragement to two people who seemed ready to fight.
"Trouble, Roland!" I hissed into my radio. "You'd better call someone over here to back me up."
There was a pause, then a burst of static. "Sorry, Sarge," Roland said, then fell back into static.
"What do you mean `sorry'?" I said, hitting the radio with the heel of my hand to clean away the static. "There's forty people or more down there and I'm not wading into that mess until someone's here to watch my back."
"Mr. Dean doesn't want anyone leaving their area," Roland said in another burst of static.
"That's fine for Dean to say," I said. "Considering he doesn't have to move his ass out of his office."
I shoved the radio into my pocket and marched down the stairs, shoving my way through the rubber-neckers.
"All right, all right," I shouted. "It's all over."
While some people turned to go, most did not, keeping the circle closed around a mallrat and a red-faced Joe Six-Pack with his hands in fists.
The mallrat was holding a stick, but it was nothing resembling a weapon.
"Quit it," I told the man, while grabbing the stick from the boy. "What seems to be the trouble here?"
"He is!" the man said, snorting at me. "And you'd better arrest him before I wring his neck."
The mallrat squirmed, but his pimpled face grinned up at me with its usual unpolished shyness.
"Just calm down and tell me what happened," I asked.
"The punk got fresh with my wife, that's what happened," the man growled and glared at Nicholas.
"He only wanted a kiss," a woman standing next to the man said. Her eyes were rather sad, indicating that this fool man was hers.
"And that's not getting fresh?"
"It's Christmas," the woman said, the corners of her mouth rising with a faint, tender smile. "And he did have mistletoe."
She indicated the stick. A string had been attached to the end, and something green dangled from it like a spider from its web. The boy had apparently been walking around the mall, holding the mistletoe above those women he wished to kiss.
"I'll take care of this," I said.
The man snorted, apparently satisfied and started away. But the woman looked concerned.
"You're not going to hurt him, are you?" she asked me.
"For god's sake, come on," the man said, dragging her away. Both vanished like spirits into the crowd.
I grabbed the boy by the collar, dragging him towards the deli and the doors to the north parking lot. Outside, I pushed the boy against the glass.
"And what the hell were you trying to do in there? Cause a riot?"
The boy stared at me, blank-faced and innocent. He could have been fifteen, though I doubted it. Acne spread across his face in lumps like holly berries - he would have been handsome without it.
"I wasn't doin' nothin' wrong," he said.
I shoved the stick under his nose. "Then what's this piece of heathen crap, huh? Do you know what kind of trouble this could cause on a night like tonight?"
"Trouble?" the boy said, looking even more confused. "But we were just having a little fun."
"Fun? And here I thought you were different from the other rats - quieter, better-behaved - what's gotten into you anyway?"
The boy studied the bit of green fluff dangling from the end of the stick. It could have been a fish hanging from a fishing pole, and he, another Huck Finn, gloating over his catch.
"We was just celebrating Christmas," the boy said.
There was a lot behind those words. Paterson, with its terrible, chaotic storms of streetlife, didn't permit innocent games like these, or even the meager joy of hanging a few, bright, undefended lights from window or door. There was always something dark in the street, the crawling shadow of a bitter beast that weighed down each and every citizen like a private cross, making even the occasional happy moment seem strained and full of guilt.
That guilt went all through Nicholas, above and beyond anything caused by my accusing words. It seemed to have been whipped into him, embedded deep in his flesh like a permanent tattoo.
I shook the vision away. "Having fun? That's what you call it? I call it causing havoc and it's gotta stop. Why don't you go home and celebrate Christmas with your family?"
The dark expression grew taunt. "I don't want to," Nicholas said.
"Well, you can't stay here all night," I said. "The mall closes at midnight, but I want you to give yourself a head start and get out right now."
"I said out and I mean it. There'll be hell to pay if I find you back in here tonight."
I lightly pushed the boy toward the lot. Nicholas staggered off the curb, stopping halfway across the ramp road, his face half hidden in shadow and clouds of steamy breath.
"Can I have my stick back?"
"No," I said and snapped it over my knee, the green wood tearing before it broke. I threw both pieces aside. The sap stuck to my fingers and I wiped my hands on my pants, then eased back into the mall and stood by the door.
The boy snatched up the broken pieces and removed the string and mistletoe with an odd gentleness, glaring at me through the glass. There was hurt in his eyes, not contempt, and a lingering sense of betrayal. I jerked my thumb towards the parking lot, indicating that he should keep on going. The boy scurried away, vanishing around the gray bulk of the Sears building.
I didn't turn away immediately, staring at the normally vacant lot, now a sea of cars over which thick white clouds tumbled, waiting to dump their load of snow.
I shivered and pulled a cigarette from my pocket, my dim reflection appearing with the light of the match. The smoke eased through my lungs, taking with it some tension. Here, with the cool air of the empty, closed-off theater escaping its boards and swirling around me, there was a sense of peace. It seemed the sanest place in the whole damned mall. Although plans for a food court had long been on Dean's desk, nothing had been done for lack of money or time, or fear of disrupting the flow of business that already kept the bills paid quite nicely.
"Too much, isn't it Sergeant?" the deli owner said, handing me a warm cup of cappuccino. The large man's belly shook as he laughed, leaning beside me as we stared back into the mass of people at Center Court. "I'd hate to think of what'll happen when they all start to leave."
"I hear if they don't get home by midnight, they'll turn into pumpkins."
"Hah, ha. What about you? Are you working the overnight shift?"
"No," I said. "But I might as well be. I'm not going to get home in time to open presents with the kids."
I could still see their big eyes staring at me, silently asking why I had to go to work when Santa would be coming. Those same eyes would be popping open soon after midnight, trying to catch Santa piling gifts under the tree. It was another one of the important moments in their lives I'd miss. Soon they'd be ready to stop believing in Santa - they had already stopped believing in me.
The deli owner sensed my mood and kept silent, lighting his own cigarette as he leaned back against the glass.
"Sarge?" Roland's voice hissed from the radio, dragging me back to this world.
"What is it now, Roland?" I asked.
"It's that kissing thing again, Sarge," Roland said. "Over by Sears."
"But I just..."
The boy had gone off in that direction and had no doubt slipped back in through the mall entrance beside the store.
"That's not my area," I said. "What happened to Dean's golden rule about staying put?"
"Norton's taking care of a shoplifter at Spencer Gift. Mr. Dean wants you to take care of this."
"Tell Dean to... never mind, I'm on my way."
I slipped the radio back in my pocket and gulped down the cappuccino, turning myself towards the center of the mall. But the crowds had thickened even more, pressed shoulder-to-shoulder and chest-to-back.
"You could go around outside," the deli owner said.
"Sure - like that little punk did! Thanks for the coffee, Max. I'll kiss you later."
I shoved out the door and into the parking lot. From here, the bulging outline of the old theater was obvious, though the marquee had vanished and the slots for advertising upcoming shows were painted over. I followed the route the boy had taken. Even though I shivered, the December cold was a refreshing contrast to the closed-in, overheated mall.
"Mason!" the radio crackled with Dean's voice this time, muffled by the pocket.
I yanked the radio out and slipped away from the glaring lights of the mall, into the doorway of watering hole called Charlie's.
"You wanted me, Mr. Dean?"
"Damned straight I wanted you. Didn't Roland tell you there's a near-riot going on in Sears wing?"
"He said it was the kissing kid again."
"Well, it's getting bad. Where the hell are you, anyway?"
"Near Sam Goody's, I said. A horn blasted briefly as two young lovers shifting against the steering wheel of a parked car.
"Outside? What the hell are you doing there?"
"Trying to get myself to Sears wing, damn it," I shouted.
"Good. Clean it up before it gets out of hand. All we need is for something to get in the newspaper again."
"Anything you say," I mumbled.
"No fist fights."
I slowed down near Fun & Games. The flashing video terminals gave the whole stretch a science-fiction air, stark and strange against the opulent, Christmassy atmosphere of the rest of the mall. This was usually the center of trouble where mallrats were concerned.
Their collected faces showed through the frosted glass - not innocent, but not part of any riot either. I eased past them and down a small concrete canyon which marked the entrance to the Sears wing. Warm air struck my face as I shouldered through the glass door, along with the choking, painful reality of perspiring shoulder-to-shoulder humanity - like a tin can jammed full of rotting sardines, glaring at me as I arrived.
A circle had formed around the contenders, a younger, more vocal crowd this time, encouraging the figures as they shuffled around, throwing curses if not yet fists. The sound of all this competed with the murky Muzak, terrible tinny renditions of popular Christmas carols and bad pop songs. People inside the health food store struggled to close their glass doors, but too many people blocked their way. Elbows, arms, packages and kids poked into the various shops like a multi-limbed, all-consuming beast, its thousand eyes aglow with blood-lust.
This time, there was more than one rat involved. Milo, a stern-faced leather-jacketed Paterson tough wearing chains and boots stood between Nicholas and a hefty and furious middle-aged man.
"Back off, Milo," I said from the edge of the circle, shoving people out of my way. This crowd was different, angrier - glaring at the two rats as if they were invaders from space. The middle-class outrage of the crowd was as fiery and unreasonable as the fury in Milo's eyes, reflecting some conflict which had nothing to do with mistletoe, a fear and hatred and suspicion that had made many of them move from cities like Paterson to the suburbs which surrounded the mall.
Milo glanced up, his square Italian face greeted me with all the respect of a Mack truck. He was breathing hard. "Him first," he said, jerking a thumb towards the other man. "He's the one trying to beat on Nicholas."
The "him" in question snarled. Graying temples mocked his casual collegiate clothing, a crooked green football jersey pulled over a bulging belly. His expression was a duplicate of the earlier man's, as he glared past Milo to Nicholas. A small, red-haired woman bobbed up and down beside the man, clutching at his arm.
"Please, Gregory, don't hurt him," she pleaded. "He didn't mean any harm."
The man shook her free. "I'll take care of you later - kissing a goddamn boy in public and in front of me..."
"I'll take care of this," I said, grabbing the man by the arm.
"Like hell you will!" the man said, yanking himself free. "You ain't no cop. You won't do nothin' but put him out. I know what goes on around here."
My hand fell towards my belt where in older, better times my nightstick would have hung. Its absence startled me and I spread my feet, waiting for the man to strike. For a long moment, I felt helpless and lost. I eyed the man, sizing up his weak and strong points. The man's fists looked lethal, scarred from serious labor, maybe a steelworker or auto mechanic. The belly would be the obvious target.
"For Christ's sake," I said. "It's Christmas. You don't want this kind of hassle on Christmas."
"Maybe I do, and maybe I don't," the man said, shifting his own feet, his gaze now fully on me as if having decided who his real enemy was. "You gonna do something about the boy, or what?"
"Gregory, please..." the woman moaned, pulling on his arm.
"I'll do my job, mister. But if you hurt the boy, you're the one that's gonna spend the night downtown. Now, look, if you want to file a complaint, I can take you over to the Manager's office. But let me warn you, it's going to take an hour. So why don't you just go on your way and forget this happened?"
Doubt edged into the man's eyes as he looked at the red-headed woman. The anger was ebbing, though I had an ugly feeling Christmas would not be very pleasant for her. Her sad face suggested other mismanaged holidays, her eyes filled with acceptance and weariness.
Her gaze shifted towards the boy and softened into something more understanding, and I recognized the look from the other woman's face, earlier. It was as if Nicholas had drawn out a warm, sweet motherliness in these women with a wave of his magic wand, making them want to reach out to him, hold him. A sudden jealously rushed into me and I gritted my teeth.
"All right," the man said. "You take care of the punk." He turned away, then paused, glaring at Nicholas again. "But if I see you again, you little faggot, I'll break your head."
"You'll have to go through me first!" Milo said.
The man growled and hesitated, but was eventually led back into the crowd by the smaller woman.
I let out a long sigh, then turned towards the rats. "You've got to pull this shit on my shift, right? And you, Milo! What the hell are you dressed up for, West Side Story?"
"I got my Christmas presents early," the dark-haired boy said, his square jaw shifting boldly outward like a challenge. He was tough and knew it. But he knew me, too, and had suffered the indignity of having his butt kicked after a few other mini-riots not so different from this. He was smart enough to avoid me after that, though his tune had never changed. And now, those confrontations seemed to have faded enough for him to talk tough again, shifting his feet as if he was willing to take me and the whole staff on single-handed.
"Christmas presents, huh?" I said, the fight ebbing out of me. I felt the peak of caffeine from the cappuccino wearing off, and wanted nothing more than to find a nice little corner and take a nap. "Why didn't you keep them under the tree until tomorrow, pal?"
Milo snorted. "Hey man! Don't give me no shit. We all know you can't do nothin' no more."
"Yeah! It's all over the mall now, haven't you heard?"
"Heard what?" I asked, an ugly feeling starting up in me again. It was kind of spooky - rats seemed to gather information by telepathy.
"You ain't no cop no more," Milo said. "We don't have to listen to you."
I let out a laugh. "Is that your news, pal?" I asked, grabbing the boy up by the collar. "Well, I have news for you. I never was a cop. But that won't stop me from whipping your ass if you get on my case. You dig?"
The boy swallowed, casting a confused glance over my shoulder at Nicholas. "Hey! I wasn't making no noise, I was just sayin' what I heard."
"Then hear this!" I said, grabbing Nicholas with my other hand and dragging them both through the crowd towards the door. People eased out of the way, losing interest now that the prospect of a fight was gone, though they continued to watch me as I shoved the boys against the glass. "I want both of you out of this mall. I mean stay out, too. If I catch you back here, you'll get the whipping of your life."
Milo yanked himself free. "You don't scare us, does he Nicholas?" he said. "We both know you're not supposed to touch any of us anymore. New rules. Somethin' to do with insurance."
I stepped back, staring at the boy's face, my own face tingling with embarrassment - a shame similar to what I'd felt when they'd asked for my stripes. But there was no rage left in Milo's gaze. Those eyes looked at me with something like pity, understanding all too well what it meant to stripped of pride.
What were kids like him doing here anyway, always dancing on the edge of disaster like amateur high-wire artists looking for new kicks, dangling at the edge, waiting to slip into real trouble - serious crime and jail sentences just around the corner. Not here so much, but in the streets from which they'd run and to which they would return, when the false glitter of this place, this Emerald City, faded to reveal no safe hiding place.
But they had come looking for something - not trouble so much as answers, as if there was something here which management and the corporation had not intended, some magic formula for living a good, solid life which had been transferred to the mall along with the hopes and aspirations of old-time Main Street.
And what about home? Were things so terrible that life here, no matter how plastic, how phony, seemed preferable, even hopeful? Many mallrats took menial jobs, cleaning stores and sweeping curbs, half-making up for the curse of their presence here. But menial jobs could be found in any ghetto. No, whatever they wanted was more than jobs. They wanted some aspect of life which had ceased existing in the city, something which now only showed on the scrubbed faces of suburban children. Mason had seen rats staring in naked envy at the rich kids, as they swept in with their new clothes and shiny hair.
I was tempted to ask Milo where he'd gotten the jacket and why the price tag was still hanging from the sleeve. But it was Christmas, damn it, and I already felt too much like Scrooge. Most likely the boy swiped it from a mall farther up the highway.
"I know all about the new rules, Milo," I said. "But the old rules didn't exactly approve of us beating your brains in either, and we still managed to do that a few times. Can you dig it?"
Milo nodded slowly.
"Now, look. If I catch either of you back in this mall tonight, I'll have the City throw your asses in jail."
"On Christmas?" Nicholas said, his pimpled face shocked.
"Yeah, Nicholas. One more time with this kissing shit and it's the lock-up. You hear?"
The boy shuffled and stuck the new stick up under his arm. It looked silly, the green tuft dangling from his armpit like some strange alien growth.
"Out!" I said, holding the glass door open. The cold air blew in, its smell hinting strongly of snow. Wisps of wetness touched my cheek as the two boys shuffled out. They paused near the line of small trees that decorated the concrete space between the wall of the Sears building and the arcade. Other kids milled around the arcade door, mouthing private taunts at me.
When Milo and Nicholas disappeared around the bulge of the Sears building many of the rats from the arcade followed, a silent army which made me shudder. But the direction of their march eased my worry about them sneaking back through the deli entrance to Center Court. They were someone else's trouble now.
I leaned against the glass and lit another cigarette. The radio squawked. "Sarge? Where are you?"
"The moon, Roland. I'm on the moon."
"Sears wing, stupid. Where else would I be?"
"Well, you'd better get your ass to Center Court. There's trouble brewing again."
I half expected to hear the usual report, shoplifters in Woolworth's, or a prize fight in Sam Goody's. Maybe one of the kids was being sick in Santa's Cottage, puking on Santa's boots. Last year, Santa himself had vomited into the fountain in front of hundreds of kids and their families, drunk on two full bottles of gin.
"It's that mallrat again," Roland said. "He just hit on another lady."
"What? But they just went around the... those bastards!" Nicholas and Milo had obviously snuck back without me noticing. It was their kind of game. They normally liked doing rude things like that to rookies, and I resented the leniency in myself which allowed me to fall for it. Of any of the guards, I should have known better. I cursed myself for letting myself feel sorry for them. Christmas didn't mean any more to mallrats than it did to mall management. Both were in it for profit - though I couldn't quite figure out what kind of profit there was in a kiss.
"I'm on my way," I said, this time not bothering with the outside route. Nicholas was without doubt parading up one of the wings at that very moment, stick in hand. I barged through people, the crowd separating at the sight of my uniform.
If anything, Center Court was even more tightly packed than before, people making a solid wall before the display. There was no second floor in the Sears Wing, therefore no stairs for me to climb to get my bearings. But it only took a moment to spot the stick floating above the heads of the crowd. It might have been a stick for a balloon, except for the dangling bit of green at the end of its string. It moved, paused, then moved again, floating across the north side past Deli-On-The-Green. It rode the escalator up towards Sterns' wing's second floor, pausing again under the blue-and-white sign of Just Desserts. Though I couldn't see the immediate action, I knew the boy was stirring up more trouble up there.
This time, however, I wasn't going to placate him. I eased around the wall of people, squeezing between them and the storefronts, breaking into a slow trot along the lower level. Above me, the mall arched into high windows and lacy green plants, and on either side, a railed walkway. Stores lined either side of the upper floor, with bridges crossing over the gap at intervals. I could still see the moving stick as it passed along the parade of store signs on the left: Orbach's, Athletic Attic, The Gap, Casual Corner. Names that could have been written on the triangular wedges of some perverse roulette wheel, the boy's stick ticking off winners as it moved.
Where would it stop? Great Expectations? Arkin Jewelers? Wrangler Wranch? It wavered for a moment in front of the illuminated glass front of Tall Towne, then again at Waldenbooks, each stop accompanied by giggles, shouts and curses.
The damned fool was still kissing women, I thought, looking for a quick way up. But this far down the Sterns wing there were no stairs or escalators, and I could only imagine the merry expression on the boy's face after each little stunt. The line of Christmas decorations along the rail prevented me from seeing anything but the stick, bobbing madly with joy. Down below, the patrons were eyeing me and my obsession with the upper floor as if I were crazy, or part of some unannounced disaster which would soon affect them all. Those that did not strain their necks to see just what it was I was looking at fled down aisles or towards Center Court in a panic. The fever was spreading, and I was now part of the problem.
The stick moved on, past the widened gap to the upper entrance of Sterns. I leaped for the twisted, narrow stairs. People appeared before me at each of its turns, half-expecting me to mug them as I shoved them aside, as rude as any rat. The ruckus rose around me and behind me, a wake of angry voices promising to have my job. But my eye was on the stick as it stopped, the imagined head beneath it cocked for the sound of my approach. It suddenly reversed itself and headed back the way it had come.
The boy was running now.
I leaped up the last of the steps to the second level. A flock of elderly ladies confronted me, arms full of packages and purses, completely blocking the aisle from rail to storefront. I pushed through them, only to be confronted by a group of giggling teenage girls, then a family of five, then another group and another, like waves breaking over me as I tried to make headway in a side-stepping, shuffling dance of rage. I moved with the jerky precision of a slow-motion film, unable to find open space along the tiles upon which to stride freely.
I jerked out the radio and yelled into the mouthpiece. "Roland? Answer me, you little bastard!"
The mallrat was visible now, dancing ahead of me, making little better progress than I was, yet moving much more gracefully, like an elf dancing on snowflakes. His laughter rose above the brittle flow of Muzak, mocking me as he reached the top of the Center Court staircase.
"What is it, Sarge?" Roland's sleepy voice answered finally.
"I got the punk spotted, but I'm going to need Johnson to head him off...."
"No can do, Sarge. Mr. Dean says..."
"To hell with what Dean says. He OKed it before, over in Sears wing."
I had reached the stairs on my side and fell against the rail, puffing like old man with twenty years' of cigarette smoke aching in my lungs. I peered down into the crowd below, into the mass of color and light, the glitter of Christmas decorations and moving trains, of overdressed people and packages, of screaming children, of upturned, half-expectant faces seeking joy or some idiotic measure of satisfaction from the display and phony cheer - but where was the mallrat now?
"Johnson's got troubles of his own," Roland said, his voice lost in the cacophony of sound. I wavered, the sensory overload making me dizzy. "Man, that rat of yours is a busy little beaver, heh, heh. We've been getting phone calls from all over the mall, store owners and customers complaining about him. They want this kissing stuff stopped."
"I'm trying, Roland," I said, gripping the rail as if afraid I would fall. "Why don't you find the Captain and have him give me a hand?"
I shoved the radio back in my pocket and studied the crowd. It took me a moment, but then I saw the stick, hovering momentarily with its green magic over some poor woman's head before moving on again.
I leaped down the stairs, swimming through people till I came to the bottom, wool and soft fur sweeping around me like the sea, scented with sweat and perfume. Through all of it, I kept my eye on the stick, watching it move again, floating ahead as if drag-fishing for a kiss.
I was ten feet away from the boy when I took a flying leap over the edge of the white picket fence, catching the him by the collar. I yanked him back, then threw him on the ground. The crowd parted and stared. But it was like fighting a Cabbage Patch doll, the boy wilting under me as I twisted him face up.
Only it wasn't Nicholas - or even Milo - but another one of the Rat Pack named Dennis.
"And what the hell are you doing with this?" I yelled, waving the stick under the boy's nose, string and mistletoe dangling like something obscene. Dennis was pudgy, and his face quickly flushed red. He didn't even resemble Nicholas, and I wondered why I hadn't noticed the difference sooner.
"I wasn't doin' nothin' wrong," the boy said, snot-thick voice disguising a bit of his Paterson origins.
"My ass, you weren't and you have about two minutes to explain where you got this stick from."
"I found it."
"Look, I'm not fooling with you. If you don't tell me what I want to hear, we're going on a little trip back behind the compactor, where I know I can get some information from you. Get my drift?"
The crowd shifted, their warm breath and hot eyes aching for a bit of open violence.
"Take care of him, officer," someone said.
"Yeah, break his head," cried another.
The boy bit his cold-cracked lips, drawing a spot of blood. It didn't matter to him whether I had a nightstick or not, or even a uniform. The authority was on my face - ten years of accumulated frustration in my eyes.
"Well?" I asked. But the rasp of the radio diverted me again, Roland's voice rising from my pocket like that of a small, tin god. I ignored it. "Tell me, kid!"
"Nicholas gave it to me," the pudgy rat said, squirming.
"Oh, he did, did he?," I mumbled, straightening and staring into the crowd as if I expected to find Nicholas standing there.
"Mason!" the radio blasted.
"What is it now, Roland?"
"This isn't Roland, mister!" Dean's voice boomed. The speaker crackled with its inability to handle the volume.
"Sorry, Mr. Dean. I thought..."
"Don't be sorry, just tell me why the hell you're not taking care of this problem with the mallrats. I'm getting calls from all over complaining about this kid with his mistletoe."
"Don't worry, Mr. Dean. I've got the little bastard here at Center Court."
There was a pause. The microphone was still open, and I could hear the beep of the security system computer in the background and the slow heavy breathing of the mall manager, his fat finger heavy on the transmit button.
"That hardly seems likely, Mason," Dean said after a time. "Considering that Dalton Books just called saying they've seen the punk over in the Macy wing."
"Is that Nicholas over by Macy's?" I asked Dennis.
"It could be," the boy mumbled, chin down into his chest.
"What do you mean, could be? Is it or isn't it? How many of you..."
The horror seeped into my head like leaking oil, a shimmering, terrible vision of seventy-odd mallrats lined up side by side, each standing at attention like a gauntlet of soldiers - presenting arms with sticks, string and mistletoe.
"I don't believe it," I groaned into the radio.
"Believe what?" Dean demanded. "What's going on, Mason?"
"I'll get back to you," I said and pushed the boy away from me while I staggered through the still-gawking crowd towards the green neon deli sign and the door. The cold air struck me, wind and snow whistling in my face like stinging insects. The parking lot had already been transformed, a dusting of white covering the dark surface of the road. Car tops glinted with prism colors, light refracted through the thin layer of faceted crystals.
My attention was riveted on the islands between the rows of cars, where trees had been planted for "environmental" effect. They were scrawny and bare now, bony young weeping willows whose yellow leaves had scattered long ago, leaving only empty scarecrows behind. But they weren't lonely - the rats had not forgotten them.
They looked up and scattered at my approach. I charged after them, around the belly of the Sears building to the front of the mall, where more rats were clinging to the upper trunks of the thin trees there, swaying as they peeled branches from the top. Those on the ground grabbed the branches, quickly tied string to the ends and mistletoe to the string, laughing and swinging around like fairies waving magic wands. Armed with these, they charged on towards the waiting mall doors in a frenzy, leaving their dark mark in the snow behind them.
My radio screeched with Dean's heavy voice. And Johnson's. One by one, all the other guards' voices joined in, blending into a single squawk of outrage, almost comic in its intensity.
"You! "I barked. "Nicholas!"
Nicholas peered from the top of a tree, dark eyes catching the parking lot lights. He scrambled down to the hood of a car, then off through the maze of bumpers, more laughing rats at his tail. But I was quicker this time, cutting across the lot at an angle, rolling over the top of a car to tackle him.
"Now, pal," I said, huffing. "Do you mind telling me what the hell you're trying to do to me?"
My voice echoed off the blank walls of the mall. A snowball cracked against the hood of a car, inches from my head. I leaped up, but as I did, Nicholas rolled away, running again, waving his stick in the air.
"Merry Christmas, Sarge!" he yelled.
"I'll Merry Christmas you!" I yelled, but couldn't run any more. I leaned against the car and wheezed. The voices were going crazy over the radio, Dean's loudest of all. Yet the sound seemed somehow almost soothing. I laughed, then dragged a cigarette out of my pocket.
"Mason!" the infuriated voice howled out of the chaos. "Where the hell are you?"
"Out here," I mumbled, making no effort to speak into the radio. Only the old souls, human and animal, buried in the marshland beneath the parking lot could hear me. Only they, the cars and trees and thick gray clouds seemed real. The snow came down harder, covering me.
Merry Christmas, Sarge?
"Mason! If you don't answer me, you're fired!"
I smiled, jingled the keys in my pocket and slowly walked across the lot towards my car, bending to retrieve a single sprig of mistletoe from the ground.
I was going home to celebrate Christmas with my family.