Joseph Brant parked his car in the lot near the Burger king exit, white Christmas lights blinking in the string of maple trees along the wall, framing the doorway like a cluster of stars. For a moment, he made no move to turn off the engine, letting the car heat swarm over his legs and chest, seeping down into bones that had ached for days. His chest smelled of Vicks and his breath of cough syrup. Even with the heat turned up full, he felt the cool draft creeping through the cracks and crevices of the car door. He should have stayed home under a thick pile of covers with chicken soup, orange juice and the TV set tuned to old holiday movies.
Yet home wasn't home any more, and for week's he'd been the unwelcome guest of his in-laws, they eyeing him with distaste over the dinner table; he eyeing them with the growing panic they might put him out on the street. In that atmosphere, Brant almost preferred the mall where he knew as a guard he could count on a certain amount of respect, even on Christmas Eve, even from old fathead Dean, who'd been eyeing him with suspicion ever since the robbery three days earlier.
Brant didn't how to play the part of hero, didn't know how to take the credit without feeling an egomaniac. Unlike many of the other guards, Brant did not secretly pray to be a cop, did not bring handcuffs and mace to work as added appendages to the Mall's uniform. He enjoyed strolling through the vast caverns, especially at night, clicking the key into the check point boxes, echo ringing through the empty space in a haunting song. Even with the mall filled, Brant enjoyed the roll, because unlike a police officer, he could float in and out of the crowds without overdue notoriety, people immune to his presence the way they could never be with a cop. Old Dean seemed to want his guards like that, too, and apparently disapproved of heroes, who took it upon themselves to stop robberies or rapes or stabbings that routinely plagued such malls.
``You're not a cop,'' Old Dean told each new recruit when they came on. ``You wear a uniform, but that's where the similarity ends. You're here to direct customers, to help them if they have a problem, to deal with parking, kids and shoplifting. That's all. If I catch you being a hotdog, you're out of here.''
Brant wondered if stopping a robbery equated with being a hotdog? Did Dean dare fire him after the newspapers had made such a big deal of the scene? How would upper management react to seeing headlines saying: Guard fired heroism? Brant shivered, coughed, then twisted off the key, letting the engine sputter to a stop, as tiny fragments of snow began to peck at the windshield-- each hard flake sticking for a moment before melting away. The world beyond the car began to smear, though along the walks the snow made inroads, promising a white and painful Christmas.
The cat appeared the moment Brant stepped out of the car, slipping from beneath the frame as if she had ridden on the front axial, her back glistening wet from the melting snow, rubbing a bit of this off on Brant's uniform as she pushed her head into his shin. Brant laughed and bent and picked up the pregnant beast.
``Idiot animal,'' he said. ``Don't you know it's too cold out here for you. What are you trying to do, freeze your babies before they're born?''
Poor Digit to yelled at whatever she did, a legend among the mall guards for her ability to get in and out of the mall at will. Now with more reason to be inside, the cat's presence outside surprised Brant. He scratched behind the creature's ear and drew an almost pigeon-like cooing; he and the animal much too similar in their attachment to the Mall: needing to be here, but rejected by it. He shivered, then carried the cat away from the parking lot to the trash area outside Burger King where he set her down on the moist pavement where warm air seeped out from under the glass doors. The cat wouldn't freeze here, and might even get herself a free meal. The store tossed out tons of half eaten burgers. She stared up at him from walk, caught in a shaft of angled light, the blinking colored lights inside the store showing her large black eyes.
``Now don't you go looking at me like that, Digit,'' Brant said. ``This is the best I can do. You know what Old Dean would do if I dragged you into the mall with me. We'd both we sitting out here, you wondering where to have your babies, me wondering how to tell my wife I lost my job.''
The cat blinked, then moved away, apparently interested in something among the bulging plastic bags around the dumpster. Satisfied with the compromise, Brant headed towards the mall doors, the bottoms of his slick black dress shoes slipping on the gathering white. He felt drunk, though knew this was the first sign of illness coming on. Even with the most common cold, his stomach grew queasy, like the first stages of sea sickness. Old Dean might catch a clue to the illness, but wouldn't send Brant home. Dean didn't work that way, not on Christmas Eve with a mobbed mall and staff thin from the more artificial kind of holiday flu -- men refusing to give up time with their family for the insanity of last minute shoppers.
Indeed, for some reason, thicker crowds had come this year than usual, packing all four entrances to the parking areas, the ribbon of headlights stretching out along the two main highways in four directions. Guards assigned to traffic duty, cursed cars and banged hoods with their flashlights in a frustrated attempt to keep them from killing each other.
``It's bad, Joe,'' Leyner said when directing Brant through to the security area, the man's noses dripping madly with a more obvious manifestation of a cold. ``These people are desperate to get gifts. I wouldn't want to be inside dealing with them tonight.''
Even with the Leyner's help, parking took over an hour, the extra traffic, forcing Brant to weave through the fringes of the outer parking lot in order to avoid the gridlock nearer the sprawling mall buildings.
Inside, the glass doors, Brant stopped, struck by the sudden assault on his senses, of Christmas music, Christmas foods, and Christmas lights. A carnival would have seemed less confusing, and with his fever, he had to grip the door handle to keep his head from spinning out of control. Was he crazy giving his bed and pillow up for this?
Two guards appeared at the mouth of the Security tunnel, both stopping just outside its set of double metal doors. They eyed Brant, but didn't acknowledge him, chins rising with an indignant air as they quickly turned away towards the center of the mall -- both as peeved at Brant as Old Dean was, only for different reasons. Most of the other guards resented the attention Brant had gotten over the robbery business, the newspaper and television cameras turning the mall office into another sort of carnival with the other guard on the wrong side of the lights. If anyone should have been a hero, they figured, it should have been one of them, one of the multitude of men who prepared perpetually for such an eventuality. This mall like most mall had an over-abundance of want-to-be-cops, all of them looking for the break that would trade their mall badge for one with much more meaning and power. The fact that Brant hated that whole aspect of the job only infuriated them all the more. How could a wimp like Brant be any kind of hero? Why should such a chance come to him? A few brave souls on the staff like Leyner till talked to Brant, and in their dim way admired him for his lucky break -- it giving them hope that they might get a break of a similar sort which could propel them into a career with one of the local police departments. The fact that such opportunities always came with a high degree of risk, didn't seem to occur to them.
``Hey Joe!'' someone shouted when Brant reached the door, and as he turned, Willy Crayen appeared out of the donut shop, coffee in one hand, coffee roll in the other, somehow managing to wave both hands without spilling the coffee. Brant stopped and waited for the stocky man to catch up, noting how Willy had managed to do damage to his uniform, a drip of coffee standing the front of his uniform shirt like a drip of brown blood seeping deeply into the fabric, where unlike the coffee roll crumbs, could not be wiped away. Old Dean would see that and have a fit, Brant thought, but then shrugged, knowing that the manager would not send Willy home despite the provocation.
``What the hell are you doing here, Willy?'' Brant asked once the man had gotten near enough to hear over the Muzak version of Christmas music.
``Going to work, what else,'' Willie said with a broad grin that had done much to win him friends among the merchants and customers. At 23, he looked and sounded and act like every family's bachelor uncle. Food stores fed him. Clothing stores clothed him. Hairstylists did his hair. With fringe benefits like that, no one blamed him for volunteering to fill every sick shift and every vacation day, nor did the overtime hurt the man's pay check.
``But it's Christmas eve, Willy,'' Brant said. ``I know you love this place, but there must be something better you could be doing.''
Willie shook his head, the few clinging crumbs falling from his puffy cheeks. ``I've got a good book back in my room at the Y. But the place is so quiet with everybody off to see their families, I was about to go crazy. Besides, Old Dean called me up, saying lots of people hadn't come in, and figuring I wasn't going to get anything read with all that quiet, I figured I'd come here. Besides, everybody's being so nice to me tonight on account of it being Christmas Eve.''
``Everybody?'' Brant asked. ``What about Henkel? You mean to tell me that Bastard's got enough Christmas spirit to stop picking on you for one whole night?''
``No,'' Willie said with a laugh. ``But he's not here either, took off to see his family in Florida.''
``Yeah, I suppose even that jerk has a family, though God knows how anyone could love him.''
``Oh, I don't mind him, Joe,'' Willie said. ``Half the time he's as lonely as I am.''
``Lonely? With all the girls he gets?''
``None of those girls stay with him long,'' Willie pointed out.
``I suppose not,'' Brant said, still unconvinced about how lonely the mall's cruelest and yet most attractive guard could be. Willie was the lonely one, the one who deliberately volunteered for night shifts in order to wander the empty halls, drawing even more mockery from guards like Henkel who called him the ghost of Meadowlands Mall. ``By the way, I saw your cat outside.''
``Digit?'' Willy said, his soft blue eyes turning towards the dark doors, his gaze searching the walkway just outside. But under the limited illumination of the flashing Christmas lights, no cat showed. ``What's she doing outside on a night like this?''
``Probably seeking peace,'' Brant said. ``Things usually calms down around this time. With all the last minute shoppers, she probably wanted to find someplace where she won't get trampled by hurried Christmas shoppers flocking to last minute sales.''
The cat knew better than to wander into the mall during the day when Old Dean and his pack of henchmen would pack her up for the pound the minute they saw her. The only safe time was night, when the mall closed down and the lights dimmed, and the great halls became Willy's vast playland, and the bosses -- like Old Dean -- went home to their families, forgetting this place entirely.
``But she can get hurt out in the parking lot, too,'' Willy said. ``She might wander under a car or something.''
``She's smarter than that,'' Brant said, keeping the fact that he'd found her under his own car a secret from Willy. He didn't see the point of worrying the man more than necessary, a small Christmas gift, and most likely the only one he could afford to give the man. ``I saw her last by the burger king trash. She'll likely eat as good as you do tonight.''
Willy grinned. ``She's have to find a whole side of beef for that,'' he said. ``I've had two full diners already with people promising me a few more before they close.''
``You'd better keep that much quiet,'' Brant said, lowering his voice as he glanced towards the door, half expecting Old Dean to come crashing out at the news. The man had rules against guards taking gifts from the merchants.
``You get paid to work here,'' he said routinely at the monthly staff meeting. ``You don't need no fringe benefits.''
``Oh, don't worry about Old Dean,'' Willy said. ``He's in the office. I heard him over the PA system a minute or so ago, calling for our shift to punch in.''
``He's panic already?'' Brant mumbled. ``That doesn't suggest a good night for us.''
``Maybe not,'' Willy said. ``But if we don't go in and see him, he'll blow his cork.''
``Good point,'' Brant said, as the two of them turned toward the doors, the smell of cooking bagels oddly absent, though the store to the left of the doors was still open for business. Normally, they cooked all night, filling this whole side the mall with the bready aroma. It's absence made the place seem alien and wrong, and made the smell generated from the t-shirt shop to the right and its hot irons that much stronger. People lined up to get personalized t-shirts as cheap stocking gifts for forgotten loved ones. Brant sighed, shoved through the double doors to the hall beyond, then stopped abruptly.
``What the hell...?'' he muttered, as an assortment of mall rats grinned up at him from either side of the hall, black, white and yellow faces all equally dirty, all as equally startled by Brant's appearance as he was at theirs. They ranged in age from seven to seventeen, almost all coming here via the bus from Paterson to what they perceived as the Mecca of merchandizing, a Disneyland of clothing, games, music and food from which -- when they could get away with it -- they took what they wanted.
Now the gang of them, girls and boys, seemed search for something among the cracks of the hallway, their heads bent, their faces rigid with expression of concern. Brant had never seen such looks on them before, always struck instead by the footloose attitude they had, as if nothing bothered them in this little Emerald City of theirs.
``Just what the hell is going on here?'' Brant asked sharply, drawing up the faces, each expression instantly changing from intense concentration to panic. The nearest figure, a girl with dirty blond pig tail tied with an even dirtier red strip of cloth, muttered as curse beneath her breath, then shouted warning to the others.
``Beat it! It's the Ratbusters!''
Those heads that hadn't turned towards Brant and Willy, now jerked up from the far end of the hall, their eyes surging with sudden consternation, annoyed at the interruption, and frightened at the possibility of getting put out for the night for being in an unauthorized area. Just as quickly, they scrambled away, darting through the network of non-public hallways as knowledgeable of the security and delivery routes as Brant was, the clatter of their shoes and the squeak of their sneakers the only indication they had been there at all, and then, after another moment, those sounds ended as well, leaving Brant scratching his head as he stared after them.
``What the hell was that all about?'' Brant asked.
``I don't know exactly,'' Willy said, staring also, yet without the same stern expression. In many ways, Willy was as much one of them as they were, grown up, fitted into a uniform, but just as much in love with the place, and that the mall rats admired. Sometimes, they would talk to Willy, telling him things they declined to tell anyone else. ``But some of it has to do with your stunt at the bank.''
``Oh no,'' Brant moaned. ``Like I need them hating me, too. What's their reasoning? Are they looking to be heroes or what?''
``One of the robbers used to be a mall rat,'' Willy said. ``They don't like people who bust rats.''
Brant shivered, then shook his head. ``It seems no one like heroes anymore,'' he said. ``Oh well, let's get on with this. We'll keep an eye on the rats tonight. I've got a sickening feeling about how this night is going to go.''
Then, both men proceeded down the hall, passing the back doors of the shirt shop and the bagel store, passing the now-closed front office that housed the mall's daytime staff -- although lights glowed inside and Brant could see the radio desk occupied with Roland, the dispatcher. The smug face grinned through the glass and waved Brant inside. Taking a deep breath, Brant pushed through the door, his wet feet striking the inch thick carpet which Old Dean had recently installed.
``Mr. Dean has been looking all over for you two,'' Roland said in a high pitched voice that always annoyed Brant, a voice so smug and so superior Brant often fantasized squeezing the boy's throat just to silence it. ``And he isn't happy either.''
``So what else is new?'' Brant asked, reaching up to the radio rack to select his walkie talkie, unclipping it, pushing the button to hear the static and whine that emerged from the radio consol behind which Roland sat.
``Hey! Don't do that!'' Roland complained.
``I have to see if it works,'' Brant said with a grin and a wink. ``Where is old Scrooge anyway?''
Roland hooked his thumb towards the metal doors marked ``Security,'' one of the man small illusions that the mall created behind the scenes -- like a movie set with many facades of things without real substance. The security office -- dubbed that way by Old Dean -- served a multiple purpose, as locker room, meeting room, lunch room and, yes, office. Brant pushed through into the room beyond, struck by the smell he'd always previously associated with high school locker rooms, body odor infecting already stale, unventilated air. He could sardine lunch Old Dean had eaten here the day before, and the excess cologne Henkel used as part of his secret for catching (if not keeping) his women. Grey metal lockers enclosed the room like someone's poor taste in paneling, their faces as blank as the faces of the guards who stored clothing in each.
The only face with expression was Old Dean's, and it stared up from the end of the long meeting table, the deep set and enraged eyes imprisoned in a webwork of wrinkles and anger. His mouth soured the moment the Brant and Willy entered.
``Well, well, if it isn't our hero,'' the old man croaked. ``I suppose you had to sleep late after all those interviews.''
``I'm sorry I'm late,'' Brant said. ``Traffic on the highway was hell, and it took me a half hour just to get in the parking lot...''
``I don't want to hear about it,'' Old Dean snapped, holding up his wrinkled hand like a traffic cop. ``I have other concerns.''
The old man climbed out of his seat, standing for a moment to catch his breath after the exertion, shaking a little as he clutched the table, and propelled himself across the short distance to a nearby locker. With unsteady fingers, he spun the dial to the combination lock, then snapped open the locker door. Then, with more distaste than weakness, he withdrew something from inside, something wrapped in white tissue. After an equally uncertain return trip, he dumped this on the table.
``We found this in the office again,'' he snarled, his upper lip curling like a dog's. The napkin held two brown chunks of cat droppings. Brant and Willy exchanged humored glanced, but drew austere again as the old man's angry gaze pinned them. ``I thought I told you two to get rid of that cat?''
Willy swallowed with great difficulty, and then stared down at his pudgy fingers. ``We did,'' he lied.
``Then where the hell did this come from?'' Dean exploded, waving his hand in the general direction of the tissue and its contents.
``Maybe there's another cat in the mall,'' Brant suggested. ``With the doors open and closing all day long, and the meadows just outside, we're lucky we don't have all sorts of creatures wandering through this place. One of the merchants told me he thought he saw a woodchuck by the fountain. I know we've got a few birds or bats. I hear them flying in the rafters when I make the rounds.''
``I don't care about birds, bats or woodchucks,'' Old Dean said, jabbing his finger down onto the table, his finger tip landing dangerously near the tissue. ``I just won't have any cats in my mall. Is that understood? I want that cat found. Tonight. I want it in my office by the end of your shift, so I can dispose of it myself. Is that understood?''
``But Mr. Dean...'' Willy moaned, his voice so full of hurt that Old Dean could have guessed the previous lie just from the tone.
``It's big mall, Mr. Dean,'' Brant put in quickly to cover his friend's emotional outburst. ``And it's going to be a busy night. We might not have time to go looking for a cat in the middle of it.''
``I don't need excuses,'' Old Dean said with an angry glint in his eyes. ``You and Mr. Crayen know this mall as well as the mall rats do, every corner and crevice. I want the cat found and found tonight, or the two of you won't be working here come Monday.''
Old Dean then turned and hobbled passed both guards, pausing only briefly in the doorway to glare back at them.
``I mean it,'' he said, then slammed the door behind him.
``Merry Christmas to you, too,'' Brant snapped, fingering his radio as if he had a mind to send his resignation via Roland, but let his finger fall from the transmit button.
``Not on Christmas,'' he thought. He didn't have the heart to go home bearing his joblessness rather than presents. Still, the oddity of night lingered around him like static electricity. He could feel its touch through his uniform, a biting sense of anticipation which did not leave him hope for a better evening ahead. Christmas Eve was never a good day in the mall. Last year, a guard vanished entirely, sending for his paycheck from California.
``Old Dean couldn't have meant that,'' Willy whispered, the horror so thick in his voice that Brant struggled to make out the words. ``He wouldn't really -- kill Digit, would he? Not on Christmas Eve.''
``No,'' Brant said. ``Knowing that old bastard as well as I do, I think he might torture it until midnight, and then bash it against the wall outside Bamberger’s.''
``Don't say that!'' Willy hissed, glaring at the door through which the old man had just gone, his expression saying Old Dean might take up this as a suggestion.
Brant sighed. ``I don't think our failing to bring in the cat is grounds to fire us,'' he said, as he thumbed the combination to his own locker and then snapped off the lock. ``Perhaps if we keep Digit out of sight tonight, he'll forget her. I suspect there will be many more things to worry about tonight besides a cat.''
It was the cat's daily visitations that got her in so much trouble, insisting upon sneaking into Old Dean's office to deposit her waste -- and on his brand new carpet no less. If she'd only done her thing outside in the bushes or even in the halls, Old Dean would not have noticed or care, coming and going as he did with blinders to everything in the mall but his own small alcove of an office. How the cat got in and out of the office was as big a mystery to Brant as was her ability to get in through locked mall doors at night. She might have been a ghost for all her skill, slipping through the glass doors or concrete walls.
``I wish we could find Digit a good home,'' Willy muttered.
``We've been through all that already,'' Brant said. ``My in-laws barely put up with me. I bring home another mouth to feed and they'll have us all out on the street, and you certainly can't sneak the little beast into the Y without them finding out.''
``I mean a home someplace else,'' Willy said.
``Forget it,'' Brant said, closing his locker door with a bang. ``That little beast would only find her way back here. This mall is her home. She's adopted it, and it -- except for Old Dean -- has adopted her. Let's just worry about keeping her out of the Mall till closing, then when Old Dean goes off to his Christmas, we can find her a nice, warm comfortable place to hang out.''
Brant, after securing his locker again, and worried glance at Willy, yanked open the heavy metal door to the office again, stepping across the threshold from scuffed tile to thick carpet. The smug, pimply face of Roland greeted the two men -- eyes gleaming with the satisfaction of know both had been reamed out by Old Dean. The reason rarely mattered to the lean dispatcher, whose obvious envy of the Guards' unfettered life in the mall translated into bitter humor. After three years as Old Dean's mouth piece, Roland hated everyone and everything, and made no effort to hide his feelings.
``Congratulations, Willy Weasel,'' Roland said issuing Willy a sheet of paper detailing his night assignment. ``You won the lottery tonight. You got Sterns and the game room.''
``What?'' Brant exploded. ``You can't give Mall Rat City to just one guard.''
``We're short handed,'' Roland said coolly, yet with the glint of laughter in his eyes. ``We can't put two people on one post. In fact, Willy has to cover Sterns, too.''
``Give Mall Rat City to me,'' Brant said.
``No can do,'' Roland said, handing Brant another legal sized piece of paper upon which the dot matrix printer had printed out is assignment. ``You have Bamberger’s and the food concessions.''
``Both? That's crazy? I'll be running my ass off all night.''
``Hey,'' Roland said with a shrug of his shoulders. ``I don't make the assignments, Mr. Dean does. You have a problem, go talk to him.''
Roland hooked a thumb towards the glass door behind which Old Dean sat at his desk, the small wrinkled figure overwhelmed by a huge desk and walls full of ledgers and journals and books on business. The man's sour expression enough to discourage anyone from seeking to disturb that repose.
``Suppose I trade assignments with Willy?'' Brant asked. ``His legs are better than mine, and I can handle the Game room more easily.''
Roland shook his head. ``You know how Mr. Dean feels about that,'' this dispatcher said. ``He hands out his assignments with a purpose. He doesn't like other people messing with his scheme.''
``But it doesn't make sense, damn it!'' Brant said, slamming his hand down on Roland's radio consol. ``Those rats are vicious.''
``Mr. Dean is under the perception the Mall Rats like Willy.''
``Sure, they do,'' Brant said, deliberately avoiding his partner's games. ``But they also think they can get away with murder around him, and with him covering Sterns as well as the game room there's bound to be a peck of trouble before the night is over.''
Brant did not mentioned how much more strain Old Dean's cat-hunting assignment might also cause, but the thought of riots flickered in the back of his mind.
``We can discuss all this with Mr. Dean if you like?'' Roland said, his dirty finger nail poised over the intercom button.
Brant glanced through the slightly tinted glass door at Old Dean again, and fully imagined the scene which would follow, a scene of the old man's raspy yells, telling him and Willy to do what they're told and keep quiet about it. Brant sagged, then shook his head.
``No, never mind,'' he mumbled and motioned Willy towards the hall way door. ``We'll work it out ourselves.''
Willy started to object, but Brant gripped the pudgy man's flabby upper arm and propelled him out.
``I think we should talk to him,'' Willy complained after Brant got him into the service passage outside the office. ``There could be real trouble tonight with the rats, once they get wind we can't watch them all the time.''
``You know it and I know it, but there's no point in trying to convince Old Dean about it,'' Brant said, still driving the smaller man forward, away from the office, out of earshot. ``But we can cover each other. When you're not by the Game room, I'll be there.''
``But if Dean finds out...''
``Old Bastard doesn't need to know,'' Brant said as both men plunged out into the gathering madness of the Mall.
They separated at the food court, Brant turning right towards the big red glittering sign that marked the end of the wing and the beginning of Bamberger’s. Around it, a half dozen struggling stores clung to its crimson arches, hoping to suck in some of the masses who came and went, huge signs pasted to the inside of the smaller stores' windows, advertising pre-Christmas sales that indicated serious problems with the current economy. Yet even during other seasons, the smaller shops struggled, as brainwashed shoppers moved straight from TV sets to the department stores, barely glancing to either side.
Tonight, however, desperate customers roved the halls seeking out any retail source for their last minute shopping. On Christmas Eve life became equal for the multinational corporation and the going-out-of store. Shelves emptied. Wrapping paper crinkled. People barged out from this door and that wearing begrudgingly sedated expressions. Brant grinned and tucked himself into a corner, leaning against an unused segment of wall to watch the activities. Despite the desperation, he found peace in the process, a sense of finality that every other day of the year lacked. All these people's searching came to an end at midnight when the mall closed and they crawled out from under its flotilla of lights with or without presents -- to face their children, parents or friends before their blinking Christmas trees.
Watching the whole scene without being involved gave Brant immense pleasure, a pleasure that partially explained his volunteering for duty. Few people noticed him, let alone bothered him, in their rush from store to store. Something far from true back home where his wife's relations would spend the night eyeing him with suspicion and accusation, wondering allowed just how they could have let their precious daughter or niece marry a bum like Brant. Why couldn't he provide for her the way the rest of the family had provided for its daughters?
None seemed to understand how times changed, and how stark the 1990s had become compared to the gloriously luxurious and hopeful decade of the 1950s. Somehow the price of a home had spiraled beyond the ordinary working man's ability to pay. Even apartments had become sink holes into which men like Brant sank dollar after dollar to benefit some already wealthy landlord. Real estate agents wanted blood and or a family's first born as down payment. But the in-laws hadn't shopped for a home recently. They'd made their wealth after World War Two, not post Vietnam. They could only glare and condemn, until even a madhouse mall on Christmas eve seemed a relief.
Then, Brant's radio burped static and Roland's squawking voice calling his name. Brant sighed, reached to his belt and unhooked the instrument, lifting it reluctantly to his lips so as to whisper his response into the mouthpiece.
``What is it, Roland?'' he asked softly.
``Mr. Dean wants you to go over to Center Court,'' Roland responded, managing to shape even his staticy voice into an insult.
``But you just sent me over to Bamberger’s,'' Brant protested. ``Don't tell me you want me to cover Center Court, too.''
``There's been trouble,'' Roland's scratchy voice said.
A chill went through Brant, one that struck at the bones and resounded inside of him, chilling his insides organ by organ till finally, reached his brain.
``On my way,'' Brant said, snapped the radio back onto his belt and hurried through the crowd back in the direction from which he'd come, going straight, however, when he reached the side wing near Burger King and the bagel shop, straight into the mouth of the roaring crowd.
A barrier of baby carriages blocked his way, a moving wall of metal, flesh and soft fabric, meandering along without care or concern for whose heals the wheel struck. Brant dodged around them when they broke at the food court, working between this set of wheels and that like a fullback, the red lights of the Gap a blur to one side of him, the white and pink lights of Mr. Cards a blur on the other. Then, as he passed the Swiss Colony store, he found a thread in the crowd he could rush through without having to push or shove. Even then, as he ran down the hall from the food court towards the center of the mall, people parted, alarmed by the sudden charge of a uniformed man, or perhaps only the smell of cooking baked potatoes and Chinese noodles that clung to him as he ran. The Hanover store, the Melburn store, the store for Kinney Shoes flashing by on either side, unfamiliar faces that would take time to get used to, new places setting up shop on the ruins of someone else's faded dreams. Mall life was a crap shoot for most businesses with the bigger gamblers -- the national chains -- the only ones relatively certain of success. The smaller shops, the ones that had started here with the mall, vanished one by one as management hiked rent and their percentage of the sales after the initial lease ran out. These shops, Brant knew, had moved up from cities like Paterson with great initial enthusiasm, seeking their fortunes in the halls where no rain or snow could discourage browsing customers, where no muggers prowled and panhandlers begged, where mall security -- in the innocence of the planners -- acted more the role of guide than guardian.
Of course, reality tainted the dream mall. While no political figure could hand out pamphlets in these sacred halls, or panhandlers ask for money, muggings occurred all too frequently in that dark ether of the parking lot. Cars vanished from where people parked them, or found themselves missing vital parts when patrons came back from shopping. But the biggest crime came from the mall itself, which charged stores so much that many business hiked the price of goods or vanished, leaving the masses of patrons to choose goods from the bigger more financed stores.
Center Court, when Brant finally arrived, had only a few new stores, though the crowd came to this section less for shopping than for the Center Court's Christmas display, the bright, green, red and orange lights flashing off and on from Christmas Village like a bad LSD trip -- made worse by the insane insistence of tourists snapping flash pictures, despite rules against photography in the mall. The tinsel and the fake snow made it all more confusing as Brant came to a halt at the small, white picket fence that surrounded the block long display. He blinked, trying to sort through the mess to find the problem. For one thing, the train that circled along the inside of the fence seemed too slow, and its engineer shaking his head in a sad, sardonic way. The engineer, still with his load of kiddies strung out behind him in the various cars, pointed towards the spot where red and white peaked roof Santa's booth should have huddled under the stairs. Instead, bits of cheap ivy and tinsel littered the top of the fake snow, with the wire from the Christmas lights around it like a barbed-wire barrier. The poor sucker management had hired as this year's Santa, stood outside the booth about fifty feet, his face so red he might have been the real Santa, though the enraged stare and waving fist did not fit the part. Brant sighed, and worked his way along the fence until he reached the ravenous Santa.
``What happened?'' Brant asked, pulling the fat man into the narrow service doorway, one of the many doors leading to the back passages.
``I don't know,'' the man said, breath stinking of alcohol. ``I just went to take a piss and when I got back, the booth was gone.''
Brant stared at the space, and slowly scratched the back of his head. ``Who the hell would want the thing,'' he mumbled with the dry chuckle that had perpetually got him in trouble at school, less humorous than a nervous habit indulged in when puzzled. Since many things at school puzzled him, teachers took him for a wise guy and routinely sent him to the office. The Santa Claus impersonator eyed Brant as the teacher's had.
``I don't think this is funny at all,'' he said. ``People bring their kids to see me. What am I supposed to do, stand here next to the train station and look pretty.''
``I was joking. I just can't see anyone having much use for a ten foot high Santa house.''
``It was the mall rats,'' a husky voice said from just across the aisle, as the short, balding owner of the tobacco shop jabbing his smoking cigar towards the door in front of which Brant and the Santa stood. ``A bunch of them swarmed over it the minute the Santa left, took it apart, and carted it off.''
``And you didn't stop them?'' the infuriated Santa said.
``Hey! Do I look like a Security guard? I don't get paid to stop these thieves, and after what happened over at the bank...''
Brant grit his teeth as both men stared at him, their hard eyes blaming him for not putting a stop to the deterioration of the mall. The talk had been around since the day Brant started working here, but in those days it had been general talk, aimed at no one, blaming no one, full of the usual racist implication that allowed malls to exist in the first place. Many of the original store owners had come here with the mall's opening to avoid the blacks and Latinos that suddenly owned the inner city. They came expecting to regain the largely white population of places like Wayne which has ceased to shop in Paterson.
Now, that black population followed them here, as the white population moved on to bigger and brighter malls, spreading their money among the specialty shops rather than among the common good shops this mall offered. Mall management made up for the loss by lobbying for bus service. At first, the store owners greeted the buses with enthusiasm. Labor was always short, and the wealthy white kids from Wayne refusing to work for the wicked wages these owners offered. The buses brought many more desperate kids, kids whose families had suffered with the moving of the stores, and who now helped supplement their family incomes by working as clerks, stock people, fitters and such. For a long time, the mall resemble a post 1960s world, blacks serving whites. But over time, others came, kids from 5 to 20 with wide eyes and little inclination to work or serve the wealthy whites. Many of this breed could barely afford the bus fare, let alone buy anything in the shops. Many of these wandered the halls and back passages in packs, scrounging up what they could find, stealing anything that wasn't bolted down.
Yet over all the time Barnt had worked here, he had never heard of them stealing a shed. They preferred tiny things that could carry home as gifts, or sell to pawn shops along main street, Paterson. They stole stereos, jewelry, clothing, even food, but buildings were generally not a primary item.
Brant looked at the men; they looked at him, expecting something more from him than an expression of surprise. Since his accidental disrupting the bank robbers, people around the mall began to look to him for answers, shaping him into the great white savior that would rescue the mall from the hovering hand of ethnic multiculturalism. The whole prospect made Brant ill, and he gripped his radio hard, struggling to keep himself from an appropriate answer. He'd seen other mall guards vanish due to unpopularity among the merchants.
The bank robbery had done much to change the relationship between merchant and mall rat, too. Before the robbery, the rats annoyed merchants, raised their shoplifting expenses, even drove customers to irate fits of passion. But now, after the robbery, fear vibrated these halls, the old fear, the honest fear, the fear of walking out one night to find pistol or knife at a man's throat, threatening more than the profit margin. This was the Paterson many of these merchant had struggled to leave behind, the Paterson from which the mall had been built to protect them, and now, it roamed the hallways like a ferrous tiger, waiting to leap out the minute they looked the wrong way, and they blamed management and the mall guards the way they used to blame the police
Why wasn't something being done? Didn't they pay enough in rent and percentage fees to deserve protections? Or should they seek some new mall, better mall, where management guaranteed them no risk -- at even more exorbitant prices, the way Wayne had provided whites protection from Paterson's violence with higher taxes.
Brant shuddered, and then fingered the button to his radio, debating how to phrase his statement to Rolland in the office. Finally, he sighed and said, ``This is Brant in Center Court. Some mall rats stole Santa's hut.''
On the other end, voices sounded, Rolland pressing down the transmit key as he talked with someone else in the room. Brant could not make out the words over the static, unable even to tell the gist of the conversation. But when Roland's voice finally boomed over the walkie-talkie's small speaker, it sounded stern.
``They stole what?''
``The hut,'' Brant repeated. ``The stupid little house where he sit to greet the kids.''
``Why the hell would they steal that?''
``How the hell am I supposed to know. But I have an eye witness here who says they did.''
This time the pause lasted longer, and the exchange on the other end more vehement. From it, however, Brant gather it was not to Old Dean that Roland spoke.
``I don't think Mr. Dean is going to like this,'' Roland said when he returned to the radio. ``It smells too much like that one Christmas... But I'll go tell him.''
Yes, it smelled of that now legendary mistletoe Christmas, the one often whispered about among the guards, but rarely brought up before Old Dean -- who's face still went red at its mention.
``BRANT!'' Dean's voice exploded over the radio, straining the small speaker's volume capacity. ``Don't give me this shit, Brant. I don't need none of your sick humor.''
``This is no joke, Mr. Brant.''
``Then find those goddamn little animals, and send them off to the police. I'm not going to have them disrupt this mall like that did...'' he choked off the words in a furious cough. ``I won't have it! You hear me?''
``I'll do my best,'' Brant said, and cut off the radio as Old Dean snorted -- though he knew the man would send out a bulletin to the rest of the guards, asking them to be on the lookout for one ten-foot high Santa's hut being carried off by a few dozen kids, or maybe with Old Dean in such a foul mood, he might just order the guards to toss out every mall rat they came across, a fine merry Christmas to kids who likely had no better place to spend their holiday. Brant sighed, struggling to find strength for such a monumental task. The mall rat population sometimes exceeded two hundred. Even on a good day with the full complement of twenty guards, Brant doubted the Mall's ability to vanquish them all.
``Well?'' the slightly drunken Santa asked, one end of his beard tilted to reveal a brown moustache. ``What are you going to do about my house?''
``We're working on it,'' Brant mumbled, thinking it time for a hot cup of coffee in some dark, safe corner. But as he turned Santa grabbed his arm.
``But I got a line of kids waiting to talk to me,'' he said. ``You mean I got to stand here and talk to them like this?''
``I find some folding chairs,'' Brant said, detaching himself from the man's fingers, then strode around the long end of Center Court's display, all too aware of the tobacco man's shaking head and the general sense of disapproval the merchants had for Brant's attitude. Across the artificial snowy landscape, the green neon light of the deli glowed, like an oasis in the middle of this human desert, a strangely unattended place with good food and cheap prices that harped back to the original store on Broadway and Main Street in Paterson. A whiff of its corn beef floated over to Brant and he followed it willingly, stopping short only when something small, dark and pregnant leaped over the low white picket fence and into the white fluff of the Christmas display.
``Damn it, Digit,'' Brant moaned. ``I know the mall's usually closed by now, but you can't sleep here.''
The cat stared up at Brant from where she had made a bed for herself in the cotton, her golden eyes sparkling with the lights from the insane variety of stores around her. She opened her mouth, let out a soft sound not quite a meow. Brant, glancing at the train, which was just then reloading with kids, lifted one weary leg over the fence, then the other. Balancing himself on the thin railroad track for a moment, he reached for Digit, picked her up carefully, and then retreated back over the fence.
``You can't stay,'' he said, drawing laughing glances from the patrons as he weaved through them and around the huge display. The owner of the Deli waved. Brant nodded, following the narrow hallway to one of the many back side exits, where -- once through the glass doors -- he deposited the cat on the walk.
The cat glared up at him with a miffed expression, clearly discontented with the cold and the smog stained real snow piled high on either side of the walk, hardly the stuff she intended for a bed.
``Later, Digit,'' Brant explained. ``I let you back in when Old Dean's gone.''
Then, shivering, Brant eased back through the doors into the mall, hurrying down the show hallway to the Deli counter, where the grey-headed owner greeted him with a grin.
``Looks like they have you playing dog catcher tonight, Joey,'' the man said, taking up a Styrofoam cup and filling it with scalding black coffee straight from the urn.
``Rats and cats, Louie,'' Brant said, taking the steaming cup from the man. ``But no dogs, yet.''
``Give it time,'' the man said, pouring a half cup of coffee for himself, but into a cracked ceramic cup, the kind Brant's parents used to have in the kitchen cupboard, a kind now associated with dilapidated silver highway diners and city-bound greasy spoons. ``In this place anything can happen.''
Brant nodded, lifted his cup in salute to the man, cut a hole in the plastic top from which to sip, then worked his way back into the crowded mall, a ugly little world of plastic and glitter, pasted together like a side show trick for the benefit of the wealthy whites in Wayne, few of whom knew the difference between quality merchandise and the cheap imitation stuff from Taiwan. Sometimes, when he strolled along the halls studying the window displays, Brant wondered who was the bigger thief, the Mall Rats or the Mall -- or should Brant say the Corporation that funded the Mall, that heartless structure of business people who with a hand shake bulldozed meadows, undid the economics of whole cities, and created a fantasy world to which generations flocked, picking their pockets without risk of arrest. People here handed over their money willingly, without even drama of a bank teller during a robbery.
``Brant!'' Dean roared over the radio. ``Where the devil are you?''
Brant sighed, stopped and unhitched the radio from his belt, pausing a moment to swallow a sip of coffee before pushing the button.
``I'm at Deli on the Green, Mr. Dean,'' Brant said.
``Well get your butt over to the Sterns wing. Hastings is in trouble.''
``Trouble?'' Brant said, tossing his coffee into a nearby trash can. ``What kind of trouble?''
But the radio stayed dead and he cursed the man who sent him cryptic messages. Brant reclipped his radio and then set off on a jog, straight under the stairway overpass, passed the fountain, the moving train, and the Santa Claus now seated on a folding metal chair in the hut's vacant space. Through the crowd, Brant weaved, drawing curses and stares from patrons who didn't appreciate his pushes and shoves.
``Watch it, buddy!'' a huge brute with a butch haircut and a belly five inches over his belt.
``What it yourself,'' Brant yelled back over his shoulder, too much in a hurry to tell the man off properly, and too worried over the prospect of another robbery to think up any stronger retort.
Willy popped up near the Teddy Bear Shoppe, running full tilt from his post at Sears. He puffed a little, holding his walkie talkie in one hand and the remains of a roast beef sandwich in the other.
``What's going on, Joe?'' he asked, falling into pace beside Brant as both men weaved through the crowd.
``I don't know yet,'' Brant said, yet sensed something strange as he came to huge window display at Zan's. Another angry merchant stood outside the main door, hands on hips, wearing an expression too similar to Santa's. He glared at the guards as they stopped, shaking his forefinger at them.
``It's those Mall Rats,'' he said accusingly, his grey suit and grey tie making him look like a school teacher with Brant and Willy his errant pupils. ``They took two of my most expensive stuff animals, and I want them back.''
``Where's Hastings?'' Brant asked, glancing around for some sign of the blue uniform among the crowd, seeing only the wall of curious faces now taking in this scene as their evening's entertainment.
``You mean the other guard?'' the store owner asked.
``Yes,'' Brant said. ``I was told he had some trouble.''
``Trouble?'' the man snorted. ``If chasing mall rats is trouble, then he had plenty of it. God knows why you people can't do your job better and keep these young hoodlums out instead of coming around after they've stolen something. It's no wonder so many store owners are moving over to Morristown where they hire State Troopers for guards.''
``And the customers pay the added salaries in the prices of the goods,'' Brant added, drawing down the man's stern grey brows.
``What are you saying to me?''
``I'm saying you can have all the security you want if you're willing to create a police state, but sooner or later, you'll be on the wrong end of that security and regret it.''
``My, my,'' the man said. ``You are something of a radical.''
``No, sir,'' Brant said. ``I just work for a living. But it has been nice chatting with you. Now would you mind pointing out which way Hastings went?''
``Your friend went up those stairs,'' the store owner said. ``Chasing a half dozen of the monsters. But the one with my stuffed animals went down along this hall towards the Center Court.''
``That's impossible,'' Willy said. ``We just came that way. We couldn't have missed him in the hall.''
The store owner snorted. ``The guards at the Morristown Mall wouldn't have missed him,'' he said. ``But with the guards here, anything is possible.''
``We missed him because he must have cut through one of the access tunnels,'' Brant said, ignoring the store owner. ``I'll go check with maintenance to see if anyone saw the brat. You go double check Center Court, just in case this ass is right.''
``What was that?'' the indignant store owner howled, but both men rushed away, back in the direction from which they had just come, Brant pausing at a huge green metal door, as Willy raced on.
Beyond the door, the mall world changed into something far less dramatic, a work world where all the seams and joints showed, like the back side of a Hollywood movie set, the tiles scuffed from wheeled dollies coming to the stores from the loading dock at one hidden corner of the mall. Discarded boxes littered the outside of each doorway, as store owners dumped their empties out for maintenance to take of. With the Christmas rush, maintenance had been swamped, falling behind in their duties so that the long webwork of hallways stood crowded with boxes and bags.
At first, he didn't see the rats scattered among the trash. While they could not fold themselves into the corners well enough to hide -- arms, legs or heads protruding from every angle, the less frequent lighting provided more darkness, and Brant had to blink a few times to notice the oddity. Some farther down the passage hadn't yet noticed his entrance, nor had made any attempt to concern themselves, still walking along the narrow supply passage, heads bent as if in search of something -- the way they had earlier when Brant had seen them by the security office.
``All right, friends,'' he said, in a voice that only vaguely imitated some of the sterner guards. ``Why don't you tell me what's going on here?''
A head jerked up among the searchers, the frightened eyes suddenly taking note of their companions already partially in hiding. ``Ratbusters!'' the rat cried, drawing up the heads of those that had not heard Brant. Then, everything seemed frozen, the rats staring at Brant, Brant staring at the rats, ending when Brant took his first step. The rats scattered, stumbling over boxes and trash bags and cartons full of Styrofoam peanuts, the rumble of cardboard and gasp of their breath accompanying the slap of their sneakers across the worn tiles. They ran towards the distant door, one which came out eventually near Security and the bathrooms. Brant started to give chase, leaping over the most immediate bundle of trash before tripping over something that wasn't cardboard or plastic, something that seemed to spark against his feet as he twisted to one side, something that let out a soft meow.
Brant, when he recovered his balance, glanced once at the distant door and the disappearing figures he knew he could no longer catch, then down at the cat -- which now rubbed against his leg and purred, pushing its small hard head into his shin.
``Damn it, Digit,'' Brant said, lifting the creature up from the trash strewn floor. ``You want to get yourself hurt?''
The cat meowed again, the gold almost entirely obliterated by the dialed pupil. Brant chuckled, knowing the creature could likely take better care of itself in these halls than Brant could under similar circumstances, have lived here through its thousand daily routines, men and women coming through here with displays for stores or floor polishing equipment, or shipments of food or clothing or sporting goods. For all those opportunities, the cat had learned to duck under around or through obstacles. A little trash would not hurt it, although Old Dean might.
Brant had no intention of letting the old scrooge get his hands on Digit, picturing the man's bony hands around Digit, drowning cat and kittens in one single thrust. Old Dean sometimes wandered these halls, too, preferring them for some reason to the wider, well-lighted halls. Sometimes, Brant got the feeling Old Dean hated the mall as much as anybody, hated the glitter of the stores and the sound of the muzak, hated the patrons and the store keepers as much as he hated the rats. He reminded Brant of Anglo-king, marching along the walls of his castle, surveying his empire through peep holes and weapons caches, too frightened or ashamed to face any of his subjects.
``I've got to get you out of here,'' Brant said, glancing around, realizing that he could not take the cat back through the open halls. Merchants would see him, and complain, other guards would see the cat and tell Old Dean news. Not only would Brant had to endure the old man's rage for disobeying a direct order, but would have to live with the mockery of the guards who would ask him from what robbery Brant had rescued the cat. So Brant followed along the passage, down towards the door through which the rats had just gone, easing by the side passages to the right -- which led to the Security office and Old Dean. From it, he could hear the echoing rasps of Roland's radio system and the gurgle of lunch room's soda machine. With each step, Brant expected to hear Old Dean's voice bellowing out: ``And what exactly have you got there, Mr. Brant?''
Yet the only sounds came from the cat and the mall. The cat purred in his arms, the black and white creature trusting Brant with her life and kittens. The mall murmured, the sounds of the outside creeping into this narrow space like the voices of ghosts, not quite real or distinct, muzak echoing beyond the point at which its tunes could be recognized, while the chatter of the crowds sounded like the drone of insects.
Then, he emerged again, into the narrow section near the t-shirt shop and the bagel place, a relatively unoccupied section of hall way. The few teenage girls to glance up at his appearance, looked disappointed, having expected one of the other, more macho guards. They nodded at Brant, having seen him numerous times during their waits, giggled a little when they saw the cat, but went back to their gossip when he passed, getting themselves ready to flirt with the others when they came. Meanwhile, Brant reached the glass doors and shoved his way out to the cold, back to where he small datzun sat in its parking space, back to the now piled high trash from Burger King. He dumped the cat there, and glared at it.
``Stay out, Digit, or I'll have to lock you up in my car,'' he said, standing over the pathetic beast, who stared up at him with its large innocent eyes. He and the cat both knew he could not lock anything up, after having been caged for so long by his inlaws at home.
Once back inside the mall, Brant stared around, angry at the mall, angry at himself, wondering why he could have left his wife home with those insane people she called family, wondering how he could turn his recent heroic act in a job that would let him move out. He found himself studying the faces of the people around him, the girls seated giggling outside the security door, the clerk in the t-shirt shop steaming on messages for Christmas, the cook in the bagel shop sweating into the batter from the excess steam. Then, behind him, the door swung open and he whirled around and caught the grim-faced rat in midstride -- the rat having gotten his directions mixed, coming in without noticing Brant uniform.
``All right,'' Brant growled, expressing more anger at the boy than the boy deserved. ``What the hell are you mall rats up to and what is that you have in your...''
The mall rat kicked Brant in the shin.
The act came as more of a surprise than the pain, though Brant's fingers fell from the boy's arm instinctively, and boy raced out into the crowd the moment he got loose. For that instant, Brant stared, caught between needing to grab the boy again and reaching for his leg. The flashing Christmas lights and blaring music added to his confusion, suddenly making thinking hard. He tried to reconstruct the shape of the thing contained in the mall rat's arms, forming a hazy outline in his head -- an indistinct object as valueless as Santa's hut or as meaningless as a stuffed animal. These crimes didn't make sense to him. They lacked the dignity of the bank robbery, or the profitability.
Finally, Brant got his feet to move, as the boy twisted through the crowd, sprinting around baby carriage and wheel chair with the skill of an Olympian runner, leaping over benches, shoving his way through plants, drawing curses and stares, but no other pursuit. Brant huffed and puffed as he charged, already weary, already wondering if coming into to work had been such a great idea. At that moment, even the inlaws seemed less disturbing, their bland angry faces part of the price he had to pay for marriage and happiness.
Just ahead, the boy came to a halt in front of Plymouth Clothing, stared back at Brant, glanced to the right, then the left, then took they the left back towards Center Court. Brant grinned.
``Got you, sucker,'' he said and grabbed his radio from his belt, pressing down on the button. ``Willy. Can you hear me?''
``Loud and clear.''
``Where are you?''
``Center Court, like you said.''
``Good, because I've got a hot one coming right at you, a small blond-headed causation carrying a bundle of some sort. Let me know when you see him.''
Meanwhile, Brant kept his eye on the bobbing blond head, wondering where the other guards had gotten off to, and why Old Dean hadn't exploded over the radio at him for his brief, dramatic, but unofficial use of the radio. He liked to keep all the protocols in, especially using Roland as a go between, despite the fact that it was often quicker and easier just to talk directly with one another. Then, the boy shifted across the hall to the other side, taking a clear path passed the glittering front of Bentley's Jewelers. The glimmer of the diamonds drew Brant's attention when he reached them, and reminded him of the abuse he'd taken from the inlaws for not supplying their daughter with a proper gem. How could he tell them he had refused the bank's reward.
Suddenly, ahead of Brant, appeared a slow moving family, one that dammed the whole aisle, strolling along, hand in hand in hand in hand like one of the sound barriers the wealthy bastards in Morris County had installed along the sides of the highway. Brant weaved, bobbed, trying to keep the shrinking rat in sight, then managed to slip around the family as they came to the displays at Carrol's gifts. He emerged victoriously into the wider area of Center Court, but found no rat.
``Damn,'' he said and leaned his shoulder against the cold post, searching the faces of the crowd for some sign of the blond head, not certain how he had managed to lose the little monster having kept his eye on him most of the run. ``Forget it, Willy,'' he said into the radio. ``I lost him.''
``I didn't,'' Willy's voice said out of the radio.
``He's headed up stairs.''
Brant's head jerked up, and caught sight of the blond head again, a head weaving its way up the crowded stairs towards the second floor of the Sterns wing. Brant shoved his way through the crowd, passed the weary train engineer, passed the frustrated Santa Claus seated on his metal chair, passed pregnant ladies and old men with canes, then up the stairs -- three and four at a time. Once up top, he halted, lost in the glitter of the lights and the chatter of the people. He stared around. All the heads and faces looked the same to him, all wearing the same hypnotic stare of the last minute shopper, people swarming from Orbach's Department store on one side to Great Expectations haircutters on the other, swarming and swaying as if on the deck of a great ship.
``Willy?'' he whispered into the radio. ``I don't see the boy any more. Do you?''
A strange laugh came over the speaker and Brant found himself staring down at the radio in his hand.
``You'd better come see this for yourself, Joe,'' Willy's strange voice said. ``You wouldn't believe it otherwise.''
``Where are you?''
``The upper parking deck.''
``But that section's closed,'' Brant said, picturing the big yellow warning signs that had been posted around it for months, picturing, too, the tumbling chunks of concrete that would fall down on people's head if the rats drove a car up there. ``I'm on my way.''
He ran, black uniform shoes slipping on the slick tiles, turning right in front of Orbach's, then through the Orbach arch towards the wing no one used. The signs posted out in front of it like great yellow shields. He slipped them, and towards the unlighted glass doors that led to the deck. Willy knelt just inside them, staring out. Brant skidded to a stop beside him.
``What is it?'' he asked in a whisper as his gaze searched the dim exterior, and then froze. Through the doors and to the left, someone had set up the Santa Claus hut -- all ten feet of it rising up from the snowy concrete like a huge red chimney. A stolen string of Christmas lights had been installed inside, making the interior glow with a variety of colors. Mall Rats stood around the opening where -- if the hut had been left at Center Court -- kids would have lined up to meet Santa. All stared down. All held something soft, a stuffed animal or a piece of clothing. Some made of fur. Some made of less valuable material. Everyone of the mall rat's face caught in an expression of serious rapture. They didn't giggle. They didn't pat each other on the back. They just stood and stared.
``That's it,'' Brant mumbled, no longer able to put up with the night's antics. ``This whole thing has gone on way too long.''
He shoved open the glass door, its scraping sound drawing the reluctant attention of each rat, who stared at him with outraged eyes.
``Would you mind telling me what's going on here?'' Brant asked.
At first, the rats remained, caught between Brant and whatever attraction the Santa hut held, then, finally, with the same dreadful reluctance, one of them cried out ``Ratbusters!'' and all of them scattered, out across the vacant deck parking and down the two crumbling ramps to the greater parking lot below, a swarming herd of mall rats seeking to escape him.
Willy hurried passed Brant to examine the hut, then stopped short at the entrance, his broad face drawing an expression of utter shock.
``Joe,'' he whispered and motioned for Brant to come over. ``I don't believe this.''
Joe, still staring after the mall rats, sighed, and then eased over to his partner's side, expecting to find a cache of stolen goods, rivaling in value that which had been stolen during the bank robbery.
``Jesus Christ!'' he hissed, staring down at the floor of the hut, at the fake cotton-like snow and straw basket, surrounded by stuffed animals or soft toys. In the basket, lay Digit, licking her three new born kittens.