Authors: Linda Stevens
The Kid Who Stole Christmas
CAST OF CHARACTERS
—She loves toys, Christmas and children, especially Leo Lyon.
—A department-store Santa with a cloudy past and an even more uncertain future. If he crosses Shannon, he’s the one who’d better watch out!
—Rick’s best friend… Or is he an accomplice?
Johann “Pop” Lyon
—Founder of Lyon’s Department Store, he is a cagey veteran of the retail wars. But does he know when to draw the line?
—Pop’s grandson, heir to the Lyon’s Department Store fortune, and an innocent pawn of a rivalry gone awry.
—Ruthless businessman or white-collar criminal? He knows that it’s the winner who writes the rule book.
—Nathan’s wife. A beautiful woman with a heart of ice and plenty of secrets of her own.
—Hapless victim in a game of parental tug-o’-war.
Joey and Irv
—Kidnappers extraordinaire… Or are they?
n icy December wind swept down Denver’s Sixteenth Street Mall, bringing with it a few crystals of white snow. It was a cold but fragrant wind, ripe with the strange mix of country-fresh mountain air laced with city exhaust fumes. The wind came from the west, confirming that there was a storm brewing in the high country, sharpening winter’s already bitter edge.
Evidence of the last snowfall still coated the downtown streets with slush and lined pedestrian walkways with crusty, disagreeable soot-covered mounds. Undaunted, throngs of holiday shoppers jostled for position along the crowded sidewalks, swaddled in their cold-weather gear, looking like a colony of anxious penguins beneath the gray, threatening skies. But it wasn’t the storm that had them worried. A far more important event was imminent. There were only seven more shopping days until Christmas, and panic was setting in.
At the northwest end of the mile-long mall, near Market Street, where the free shuttle buses that plied the busy open-air shopping center made their turnaround, a man stood in the lengthening afternoon shadows, watching passengers disembark. From his vantage point in the entry arch of an aged, brick office building, he could observe several different parking lots with just a slight turn of his head.
Most people getting off the shuttles at this end were leaving the downtown area. After stuffing their purchases into already full trunks, they got into their shiny, expensive cars and sped off, trying to beat Monday rush-hour traffic. Now and then, a young businessman or a group of boisterous college students would continue toward the trendy taverns across from Union Station. From that direction, the faint voices of an impromptu choir could be heard rendering a slightly tipsy version of “Jingle Bells.”
The watcher did not share their merriment. He did envy them their warmer attire and cozy destinations, for his navy blue pea coat and faded jeans were scarcely adequate for the weather. But it was good camouflage and he was resigned to his fate. Hunching his broad shoulders against the cold, he moved from foot to foot in an attempt to keep his blood circulating.
Finally, he had watched long enough to satisfy himself that no one was watching him in return. He left the relative shelter of the doorway and shuffled down icy sidewalks toward the railroad tracks and their accompanying warehouse district, gritting his teeth against the frigid wind. When he found the building he sought, he forced himself to pause for a few moments and check out the area, though by now he barely had any feeling in his fingers or toes.
There was an unlocked entrance around back and he went inside. The place was still in use, as were most of Denver’s downtown commercial properties, even such disreputable specimens as this. But they certainly weren’t wasting money on electricity. As he made his way across the bare concrete floor, he could just make out the various shapes of storage boxes and crates that loomed ahead of him in the dim late-afternoon light.
It was quiet. That was why he’d picked this location. Occasionally, a clerk or loading-dock worker would show up to drop something off or cart something away, but not often, even at this time of year. At the moment, he was the only one moving around, and the only sound was the
of his heavy hiking boots echoing in the dusty silence.
When he reached the cubicle that served as the warehouse office, he stopped, alert to anything that might be unusual. Through the single, grimy window in the plywood wall, he could see a light on inside, a single overhead bulb. Beneath that bulb was a lone, cluttered desk. At the desk sat another man, clad in a gray business suit and black overcoat. He looked out of place and ill at ease with his surroundings. In his lap he held a leather briefcase.
He nearly dropped the case on the floor when the office door swung open. But then he saw that it was only the person he’d been waiting for, and he breathed a sigh of relief.
“You took your sweet time, Rick!” he admonished. “I’m about to freeze to death in this icebox!”
“Feels nice and toasty in here to me, Charlie,” Rick said. “I guess it all depends on what you’re used to. Want some coffee?”
“Sure. Decaf, please.”
“This look like the Oxford Hotel to you?”
Charlie made a face. “Perhaps I’ll just pass.”
“Like I said, it’s all in what you’re used to.”
Rick moved around the office, making himself at home. He brewed a cup of coffee in a cracked mug, using an old packet of instant and some rusty hot water from the rest room faucet. It was, he decided, some of the best he’d ever tasted, perhaps because he’d been standing in near-freezing temperatures for the better part of an hour. He took it over to the desk and took a seat across from the other man, grinning at his disdain.
“How the mighty have fallen,” Charlie said.
Rick chuckled ruefully. “I was never all that mighty in the first place. Besides, I didn’t fall. I was pushed.”
“But you don’t have to live like this.”
“Actually, I do,” Rick returned. “You’re as acquainted with my finances as I am, perhaps more so.”
“I mean, I could give you a loan. We can just call it an advance. That way, you could at least hole up in a motel for the duration. No one should be this alone during the holidays.”
The instant coffee left a bitter taste in Rick’s mouth, as did the feeling of resentment rising within him. Charlie was as much of a friend as a man like Rick could have. But Charlie simply didn’t understand. Rick was alone no matter how many people were around him. The only companionship he allowed himself was that of his own anger.
“I appreciate the offer, Charlie,” he said at last. “I really do. But I happen to enjoy the way I live. There’s a certain purity to it.”
“Purity, huh?” Charlie looked into Rick’s eyes. There was a coldness in them that had grown stronger in recent weeks. “You’re starting to scare me, my friend.”
Rick shrugged. “Sorry. Just my street attitude coming out, I guess.” He managed a sincere smile. “Now. You didn’t fly to Denver just to freeze your buns off in here and shoot the breeze, did you?”
“Too true,” Charlie agreed, popping open his briefcase. “I have some papers I need you to sign.” He held them out to Rick, along with a pen.
Rick took them and scanned them quickly, then signed on the dotted line, nodding his approval. “How about the other arrangements?”
“On schedule and as planned. They’ll handle the whole thing, start to finish. We’ll be completely in the background.” Charlie took the papers back and returned them to his briefcase, grinning broadly. “Until the payoff. Then you and Mr. Bonner will have no choice but to stop playing the vagabond.”
“I suppose.” He couldn’t afford to think that far ahead right now. One day at a time was hard enough. The stakes were just too high. “I’m applying at Lyon’s tomorrow afternoon.”
Charlie shook his head, and again studied his friend’s haggard face with a concerned, almost paternal air. “I’m not wild about that idea.”
“I’m not overly thrilled with it myself, but I simply have to be there in person. Besides, I really could use the extra cash right now. Be it ever so humble, this place is still expensive.” He smiled again. That made it two times in as many minutes. If he wasn’t careful, he might become downright jovial. “I’ve taken all possible precautions. And there’s no crime in hiring on for a part-time job, after all.”
“I suppose not.” Charlie stood up to go. “Still, watch your back, okay?”
“Sure.” Rick got to his feet and shook Charlie’s hand. “But don’t worry about me, Charlie. When you’ve had everything in the world that ever meant anything to you taken away, there isn’t much that scares you. Now, they can’t hurt me, but I can most certainly hurt them.”
eo! I’m warning you!” Shannon O’Shaughnessy glared at the heavily armed gunman confronting her, her emerald green eyes flashing defiantly. “Don’t you dare!”
“Hah! Save your pitiful threats, Amazon.” Leo raised his pistol and took aim. “Prepare to meet your doom.”
With a maniacal laugh, he fired, not once, but twice, hitting Shannon directly between the eyes. Then he spun on the heel of one neon green sneaker and sprinted out of her grasp. He was down the aisle and gone in an instant.
“You can run but you can’t hide!” Shannon yelled after him. He just laughed again. “I’ll tell Pop!”
She took a tissue out of her pocket and wiped the water off her face, counting slowly to ten as she did so. It could have been worse. In addition to the squirt gun, her eight-year-old attacker was also toting the latest gross-out toy, a slime shooter. Besides, Shannon supposed she almost deserved to be squirted for making such lame threats.
Leo Lyon could not only run like the wind, he could also hide like a fox. That was especially true in Lyon’s Department Store, a place that had been home to the boy for his whole young life. And telling eighty-year-old Johann Lyon about his grandson’s unruly behavior never did much good; though bordering on the infirm, on his good days the old man could be quite a scalawag himself. Just last week, he’d almost nailed a startled customer with his wheelchair while racing Leo through Housewares. Even his junior employees called him Pop.
So, as usual, Shannon supposed she would have to deal with Leo in her own way. There was a boxful of hand-held water cannons in the storeroom, waiting for warmer weather.
“I wonder if I could rig one to fire chocolate syrup?” she mused aloud, then shook her head. “No, he’d probably enjoy that. Maybe carrot juice.”
The entire staff was guilty of indulging Leo and his active imagination, but Shannon was especially indulgent. Though she had no children of her own, she loved them. She also loved her job. Managing a toy department was a little like having Christmas every day. And Christmas just happened to be Shannon’s favorite time of year.
It was Leo’s favorite, too, naturally. Since he was out of school for the holidays, that meant the pair of them had been having a jolly time—even if he did get out of hand now and again. Shannon was used to it. She had been something of a stand-in mother for him since he was three, when his parents had been killed in an auto accident. It was a role she enjoyed. In fact, she considered it a duty, because he was otherwise being raised by nannies, something she had endured herself as a child and knew to be a poor substitute.