The boy immediately thrust his hand behind his back. If I hadn’t been suspicious before, I certainly was now. He mumbled something that might have passed for an apology and started to edge away from me. I clamped my hand around one thin arm. He jerked at it in vain.
“Whaddya think you’re doing, man?” he protested. I noticed he kept his voice deliberately low, obviously to keep from attracting attention.
I had to hand it to him, he had guts. Or he was simply that desperate.
“Show me your other hand,” I demanded, nodding to the one that remained behind his back.
“Why should I?” he snarled. “Who the hell are you?”
“I’m the man who’s going to see what’s behind your back. And if it’s what I think it is, you’re in a world of trouble.”
His expression grew even more sullen, and I could fairly see the wheels turning inside his brain as he debated what he was going to do. When I saw his eyes begin to gleam, I knew he’d gotten an idea, and I tensed, in case his idea was to run for it
“I’ll scream,” he threatened, and he had that triumphant expression of someone who thinks they’ve just played a winning hand. “I’ll yell for security and tell them you touched me inappropriately. Then they’ll lock you up for being a pervert.”
Too bad he had no idea who he was dealing with. Still keeping him tightly in check, I used my free hand to flip open my jacket and reveal my badge. His face fell at the sight.
“You’re a cop? Goddammit. No fair. Hey, it’s Christmas, let me go.”
By now, even the unobservant clerk had noticed us. He and his customer were looking our way, and he seemed more than a little concerned. I suspected he was thinking of calling mall security himself. On impulse, I gave him a sheepish grin. “Kids !” I said, and shrugged one shoulder as if to ask what can you do with them. Then I pushed the kid around a post and out of sight. I made sure not to cross over the boundaries of the store. If he had what I thought he had, that would probably trigger some kind of alarm. Jewelry stores didn’t just leave things where anyone could grab them without their own lines of defense.
“All right, now show me what you’ve got behind your back.”
He must have figured I had him dead to rights. Slowly he obeyed, pushing his clenched hand where I could see it.
“Open your fingers so I can actually see it,” I directed him. He released his grip on the object with reluctance. In the palm of his hand sat a bracelet. Aquamarine stones in a silver setting, as well as some diamond-shaped yellow stones that might have been topaz.
“So what’s that for? A Christmas gift for your girlfriend?”
“No,” he said quickly. “Don’t have a girlfriend.”
“Don’t have a boyfriend.” He vehemently shook his head, his bangs falling into his face. He threw back his head to get the hair out of his eyes.
“Then why steal it? Were you going to hock it or what?” I was confused as to what he’d want with something like this. I assumed he wanted it for the money, but why? I hoped it wasn’t for drugs. “Looking to score something?”
He gave me a look that clearly said he thought I was particularly stupid to even ask him that. Okay, maybe he didn’t look like a stereotypical drug-using teenager, but I didn’t like to assume anything.
I remembered Ethan would be waiting for me, and I was losing time. I still needed to get to the boutique and get our presents. I’d have no chance of wrapping them now. Maybe I could talk the clerk into doing that?
He mumbled something, very softly, and I couldn’t make it out. “I didn’t catch that, what’d you say?”
He took a breath and repeated, “I said, it’s for my mom. For Christmas.”
I gave him a long piercing look. He looked less belligerent than he had before, more frightened. As if the enormity of what was happening to him had finally funk in. His eyes glistened suspiciously. Was he going to cry?
I took the bracelet out of his hand. He made no attempt to hold on to it. It really was pretty. The kid had taste. I debated simply replacing it in the display case, but I didn’t think I could get away with that. Keeping my hand on his arm, I walked him up to the clerk and waited for his attention.
“Can I help you with something?” he wanted to know.
“We were just looking at this.” I handed him the bracelet. “But we’re still making up our minds.”
“Well, we close in just about an hour,” he said, frowning.
“Thanks, we’ll be back before then. Thanks for your help.”
I had no time to waste. I nudged the boy out into the mall, debating what to do with him. Just across the way was a cookie store. I remembered they sold hot chocolate too. I towed him with me and ordered two cups and two gooey cookies. I gave him both the cookies, then pointed to one of the seats in the middle of the broad mallway and directed him to sit. I sat beside him, sipping my drink.
“So, what’s your name?” I asked.
“Lenny,” he replied, eyeing me with what was probably suspicion. “You trying to pick me up or something?”
I almost snorted chocolate through my nose at his question. “No, I’m not, for crying out loud. Don’t worry, I have a boyfriend, and you’re not him.” I shook my head. Kids. The things they came up with. Sheesh.
“Why are you stealing a gift for your mom? Why don’t you get a job or something?”
“I can’t, I’m too young,” he replied. “Besides, Mom doesn’t want me to. She wants me to study, get good grades so I can go to college. Like we can afford that.” He snorted, his eyes meeting mine defiantly.
“What’s your dad say?”
“Nothin’. He’s a bum. She threw him out years ago.” He glared at me, as if daring me to make something out of that. I couldn’t, of course. It hit far too close to home.
“So, you’re having a tough time of it, huh?” I heard my voice soften, despite myself. This kid reminded me a bit too much of myself. It wasn’t so very long ago I was in his shoes, and I remembered what it was like.
“We’re doing fine,” he said, but his quavering voice belied his words.
“Lenny, you ever been in trouble before?”
He shook his head.
“Do you know how much it would hurt your mother if she found out you were stealing?”
“But it’s for her,” he protested.
“Especially if it’s for her. That makes it worse, not better. You want her to feel guilty when I’m sure she’s done nothing but do her best for you, right? I bet she works hard to make sure you have a place to live, food to eat, clothes to wear… and anything extra she can afford. Am I right?”
He nodded sullenly.
“Don’t you know this would kill her?”
My words must have unlocked something in him. A tear trickled down one cheek, and then another. He swiped at them with one jacket sleeve, but I’d already seen them. I was about ready to cry myself.
“Lenny, you can’t do this. You have your whole life ahead of you. I think you’re a good kid. Don’t screw yourself up now.”
He sniffled as he raised his head and stared at me. “What do you care? What does it matter to you? I’m just some punk kid, and you’re a cop. Bet you got it made, don’t you?”
“If I, as you say, have it made, it’s because I worked to get where I am,” I responded. “Worked damn hard. Nobody handed me anything.”
“Yeah. Listen, I know what you’re going through.”
“How can you know that?” He sounded more than a little skeptical.
“Because I’ve been there myself. My mom raised me alone. I never knew my dad. She worked damn hard, up until the day she died. I still miss her.” My own eyes were misting. I hadn’t counted on that. I sniffled to keep the tears from falling.
I think my words got through to him, judging by the horrified expression on his face.
“How old are you, Lenny?”
“I was just a little older than you when my mom died. You never know what will happen, you have to do what you can when you can. But you have to do it the right way, do you understand?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
I wanted to do something, wanted to let him know that all people weren’t the bastard dad they’d done without. That someone cared enough to try to make a difference.
“Do you think she’d like that bracelet?” I asked.
“Yeah, I know she would. It would go good with her eyes. My mom’s pretty,” he admitted.
“C’mon.” He’d finished his cookies, and drained the chocolate. I set my cup down and watched as he stood.
“Where we going? You taking me in?”
“No, just come with me.”
As we headed toward the jewelry store, he started to panic. “Please, don’t turn me in. I promise I’ll never try anything so stupid again, I swear.”
“I’m not,” I assured him. The clerk was still at the counter, his previous customer gone. He smiled at us as we approached him, probably sure he was about to make a sale.
“That bracelet we were looking at, how much is it?” I asked. He told me the price and I nodded.
“Okay, we’ll take it. Can you please wrap that? And quickly. We’re in a hurry.”
“Certainly, sir.” He took the bracelet and set it into a nice box, then wrapped it in shiny gold paper as I took out my wallet, and the cash I’d put there. I gave him the amount he’d asked for, he gave me my change and wished us Merry Christmas.
I walked Lenny back out of the store, still holding my wallet in my hand. I gave him the wrapped bracelet. “This is for your mom,” I said. “For Christmas. And this”—I gave him the remainder of the cash I had—“is for you to take your mother out for the best Christmas dinner you can get. Do you understand?”
He looked as though he didn’t really understand, but he took the cash, and put it into his own wallet. “Why are you doing this?” he asked. “What do you want me to do for you for this?”
“What I want you to do is to make your mother proud, study hard, and go to college. There are ways. I did it. Scholarships and grants. The better your grades, the better scholarships you can get. I don’t want to see you in any trouble, either, you got it?” He didn’t have to know I wasn’t even part of the local police department. That would remain my little secret.
“Yeah, I got it. I swear I will. You’ll never hear of me being in trouble, I promise.” He swiped one hand across his heart, as if to emphasize his words.
“Okay then, Lenny, you go on now. Have yourself a merry Christmas.”
He realized I meant what I said and started to bolt, headed toward the entrance to the mall. Suddenly he stopped, dashed back and threw his arms around me in a surprise hug.
“Thanks,” he said. “I’m sorry… I promise I’ll be the best ever. You’ll see.” Then he turned and hurried away. I watched until I could no longer see the top of his dark head.
At that moment, I felt my phone vibrate, and I drew it out of my pocket. Ethan. Holy shit, he must be wondering where I was.
Are you on your way?
I texted back, Yes, and replaced my phone.
Great. Now I had no time to get anything else for Ethan for Christmas. How was I going to explain that to him? Looked like I’d just fucked up our first Christmas.
to be continued