(Note from Rat: This is a departure from my usual stuff--no Winterhawk, Ocelot, or Gabriel in sight--and I wrote it in about an hour. Hope you like it.)
He watched them come and he watched them go, just as he had for the past three days.
All around him the world was full of the sounds and sights and smells of the season. Overhead bright tinsel raced from one side to the other and back, its tendrils twinkling with multicolored lights fed through its strands of fiberoptics. The trees—real ones, of course: no skimping for the Silverland Mall, especially not at this time of year—towered nearly five meters high, awash with lights and sparkling ornaments and ringed with intricately-wrapped packages that no doubt contained nothing but air despite their promising exteriors. The tunes of one holiday carol after another wafted through the air, almost getting swallowed by the sounds of bustling life and commerce. All around the mall's central courtyard, gaily-dressed shoppers moved about their errands, loaded down with bags and boxes, pushing strollers containing cheerful children, cranky children, awestruck children...
He watched them come and he watched them go.
He did, after all, have the best seat in the house.
The line of children stretched back beyond his sight, each one held tightly and protectively by a parent or, more likely, by a caretaker. Each child was dressed in the height of juvenile fashion; many of them carried dolls or teddy bears or toy trucks clutched tightly in their small grasps. Some looked frightened, some thrilled, some overwhelmed. All of them, though, had almost a palpable air of anticipation about them. Something was going to happen. This was a special day.
He leaned back in his chair and observed them, his merry blue eyes tracking each face, pausing only an instant before moving on to the next one. So innocent, so angelic. So carefree. He spared a glance for some of those who stood with the children, and there he saw frustration, fatigue...urgency. Let's get this over with so we can proceed with the day's business. It was hard to spot sometimes, but it was there in almost all the faces. The adults didn't understand what this was all about anymore. They didn't remember.
He sighed, smiling slightly to himself. There was no need to get on with the day. Everything would occur just as it was meant to occur. No need to rush things.
They were going to open the gate soon, and once more it would be showtime. Would today be the day? He didn't know, and he didn't care. Time was a luxury he had. His blue eyes continued to scan the faces in the line, the precision magnification optics interfacing with the image stored in his headware memory. Children's features flashed across his mind and were discarded, failing to match. So many children. So many wealthy little children, brought here by their wealthy parents or their wealthy parents' servants, lining up so they could ask for yet more material things while all around them, sheltered from their awareness, millions died in the streets.
None of that mattered, though. That wasn't why he was here.
The gate opened, and at that instant his gaze locked on one small face. Pale, blue-eyed, with ringlets of shining brown curls. Sophisticated electronics inside his head locked in the match, identifying the target: Millicent Marie Huntington, daughter of Harold Huntington, Jr., executive vice president of one of Ares Macrotechnology's more secret divisions.
He didn't know what Huntington did, and he didn't care. Huntington was irrelevant in his mind. He allowed himself a moment to examine the child as his first "client" approached with his mother, slow on unsteady legs. Millicent was a beautiful little thing, smiling and full of life, dressed in a smart coat trimmed in expensive fake fur and a matching hat. Her legs were encased in bright holiday-print tights, and her feet covered with rakish red boots. One small hand clutched two fingers of a bored-looking woman whose mode of dress suggested that she was not the child's mother, and the other hand was wrapped around a battered teddy bear that looked like it had once been quite expensive. Her eyes were in constant motion, taking in everything around her in a kind of quiet wonder.
He smiled to himself a bit as he hoisted the first little boy into his lap and devoted his full attention to him. There was time. No need to rush. All was occurring as expected.
He looked at the little girl a few times as she and her caretaker drew closer and closer and the morning wore on. Each time she was looking at something different: once at the trees, once at the other children—and once at him. As she met his eyes, she gave him a dazzling smile of pure happiness. He returned it.
As he went through the motions with each child, the practiced delivery of his spiel and the application of his considerable charm enchanting them one after the other and suffusing their parents and guardians with the soft glow of responsibility discharged, he allowed himself a moment to wonder at what would possess his client to take revenge upon an enemy by killing his child. He had almost refused the job. Almost. But he had not gotten where he was now by refusing jobs because his conscience got the better of him. People in his line of work were not supposed to have consciences.
It had been absurdly easy to get the job. A few records placed here and there by a trusted and very proficient decker friend, and suddenly he was the ideal candidate for the coveted position he now occupied. All they had really cared about was that he looked good in the suit and didn't have a criminal record. Oh, and that he was human, of course. No metahuman Santa Clauses at the Silverland.
Not too many metahuman children either, he noticed.
As he finished with the next child in line, he patted his left-side pocket. It was still there. He felt its slimness through the velvet fabric of the red suit. Only one candy cane on the left side. All the others, the ones he had been giving each child as he or she departed, had been taken from the right side pocket. The candy cane on the left side was special. It would take only pressing it into the small hand of Millicent Marie Huntington and the deed would be done. The poison was contact-delivered and delayed-reaction: by the time she showed any symptoms, it would be too late to save her. By the time they tried to figure out what was going on, the traces would be gone from her system—and from the wrapping of the candy cane, which would undoubtedly have been discarded by the child long previously. Just another tragic sudden death.
And Santa Claus would be on his way back to the North Pole, his delivery complete.
She was coming now. He smiled at her as she approached, still holding tightly to the teddy bear. Her caretaker had let go of her hand and stood back; he caught her looking at her watch. She had places to be, he was sure. But so did this child, and from her face it was clear that this was the only place she wanted to be right now.
Her face lit up as he lifted her into his lap, his strong hands gently hefting her light weight and placing her carefully down upon his knee. "Hi, Santa!" she said. "How are you today?" Her voice was bright and full of cheer, but with none of the high, too-loud shriek he had endured from many of his previous visitors. She could not have been more than five years old.
He laughed, forcing the full-bodied "Ho! Ho! Ho!" out for what seemed like the hundredth time today. This time, though, it felt different. This was the important performance. The rest had all just been rehearsals. "I'm very well, little one! And how are you this fine day?"
She snuggled against him, switching the teddy bear to the other arm. "I'm fine, Santa, sir. My name's Millicent."
"Ho! Ho! I'm pleased to meet you, Millicent! And what can Santa bring you this year?" His mind touched over the requests he'd gotten today from all the wealthy little children, and wondered which material thing would constitute her last wish.
Oddly, though, the child looked troubled. "I..." she began, then looked shyly down at the teddy bear.
He glanced up at the her guardian; again the woman was looking at her watch. "Come, child. Tell Santa what you'd like for Christmas."
She sighed and looked up at him. Her eyes, clear and blue and guileless, met his. She looked like she was about to speak, then tightened her grip on the bear.
Almost as an undercurrent, he could sense the impatience of the long line stretched out to wait for their turn. "Tell me, Millicent dear," he said kindly. "What would you like Santa to bring you?" His hand moved down toward his left pocket, preparing to draw out the deadly confection.
Again she met his eyes. "Nothing," she said in a small voice.
He looked at her, startled, his hand halting. "Nothing? But every child wants something for Christmas. Surely there must be something you want."
"Well..." She took a deep breath. "There is something..."
"Ho! Ho! Ho! I knew it!" His hand began to move again. "What is it?" Lowering his voice conspiratorially, he added, "You can tell Santa."
Her little face came up, her brow furrowing as if she were trying to decide whether to reveal her secret. Finally, she leaned in close to him and whispered earnestly, "All I want is for my Daddy to be happy."
He stopped and looked into her eyes. He frowned. "What?"
She nodded. "That's all I want. He's been so worried lately. I don't know why. He stays up late and he's upset all the time." Tears formed in her eyes and her lip trembled. "That's what I want for Christmas, Santa. But I know you can't bring me that. It's okay."
He took a deep breath, clenching his gloved left hand, feeling the snug latex of the protective underglove beneath the white cotton. He looked at Millicent, then up at her impatient caretaker, and then at the line of children stretched out waiting. He thought about the six-figure fee he was to be paid for the successful performance of the job.
Then he smiled at her, slipping his other hand into his right pocket, where he withdrew a candy cane from the jumble of all the others. He pressed it into her hand. "Don't be too sure, little one. Santa can do anything. You go on home, and see if I'm not right."
Her answering smile was wistful, trusting, beautiful. "Thank you, Santa." Gathering herself together, she leaned upward and planted a kiss on his cheek. "Merry Christmas."
"And a Merry Christmas to you, youngster," he said, lifting her gently down and placing her on her feet. He watched her as she ran back to her guardian, who hustled her off into the crowd.
He finished out his shift. He was, after all, a professional. When he was done, he left the mall, made a single anonymous comm call to one Harold Huntington, Jr., and then disappeared from the city without a trace.
No one even saw him drop a candy cane into a trash can on his way to the airport.