A mother and daughter scurried past her. Cassie thrust out her arm and rang the bell as if sounding an alarm during the great San Francisco fire. When the pair resolutely ignored her, she rang the bell using both hands. Still they walked past. In fact, it seemed to Cassie that they went out of their way to avoid her. In other words, she was on her own with the biker.
“We’d be grateful for a donation,” she told him.
“I was thinking you could give me one.”
“Me? What could I possibly give you?” As soon as she asked the question, Cassie realized her mistake. “Forget I asked that,” she said.
“What are you doing after this stint?” he asked.
Cassie could hardly believe this was happening and let her bell-holding hand fall to her side. “Are you trying to pick me up?” she asked incredulously. “You’re old enough to be my father.” She did her best to hide her revulsion.
“Hey, you can’t blame a guy for trying.”
“Yes, I can. Now kindly move along. You’re discouraging donations.” She scowled at him, letting him know she didn’t appreciate that he was cutting into her hourly quota.
He chuckled as though amused. “You have no idea what you’re missing.”
Frankly, Cassie was grateful for the escape. She heaved a sigh of relief when he sauntered off. Her one hope was that when he left the mall he’d use a different exit.
As soon as Mr. Easy Rider was gone, donations picked up. Still, as far as she could figure, Cassie wasn’t even close to making the recommended quota, despite her cheerful greetings.
Distracted, she didn’t notice another man approaching.
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” he said angrily.
Taken aback, she blinked, then asked, “I beg your pardon?” Obviously he wasn’t the one standing in the cold, ringing his heart out, seeking donations for the poor.
“It isn’t even December.”
“And your point is?” she challenged, which she recognized almost immediately was a mistake. She didn’t want to invite an argument, which she’d inadvertently done.
“Christmas is far too commercial.”
“Everyone’s got their hand out. I’ve had it up to here,” he said, slicing the air over his head, “with greedy beggars asking for handouts.”
“Greedy beggars?” she repeated, growing agitated. “Don’t you have any compassion for others? Where’s your Christmas spirit?”
“It doesn’t come out until December. Look at these shops! Most of them had their Christmas displays up before Halloween. All they’re after is the almighty dollar.”
“Go complain to them, not me,” she urged, hoping to send Scrooge on his way. “And when you do, say hello to Tiny Tim for me.”
“Those greedy shop owners spoil the true meaning of Christmas. And you’re no better than corporate America, stopping people as they’re going into the store. Irritating them with that stupid bell.”
“I’m not asking you for anything. The bell is to remind shoppers of the less fortunate. I didn’t stop you—you’re the one who came up to me. Furthermore…” She halted midsentence as it occurred to her that this man might be a plant of Simon’s, that he’d purposely headed right over to chat with her.
Cassie eyed him warily. “Simon sent you, didn’t he?”
“Simon? Who’s Simon?”
“This is a test, isn’t it?”
“Lady, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You can’t fool me! Simon sent you to see how I’d respond. Well, you can tell him I saw through your little charade and it didn’t work.” She felt downright smug that Simon hadn’t outsmarted her.
Scrooge stared at her, wearing a puzzled look. Then his eyes narrowed. “Lady, I suggest you seek counseling.”
“Thank you, but I suggest you make an appointment first. You can tell Simon I said that, okay?”
He backed away from her as if he suddenly suspected she carried an infectious disease.
Donations were few and far between, and Cassie glanced toward her counterpart at the other end of the mall with envy. He had more business than he knew what to do with. She, on the other hand, felt like the Little Match Girl. Using her foot, she eased the red kettle ever so slightly toward the department store entrance. She was about halfway between the two when the other charity collector noticed.
Cassie eased her foot away from the pot and gazed in the opposite direction.
“Hey, you!” he shouted, pointing an accusing finger at her. “You stay in your half of the mall and I’ll stay in mine.”
Playing innocent, Cassie pressed her gloved hand to her chest. “Are you speaking to me?” she called.
“You drag that kettle one step closer, sister, and you’ll live to regret it.”
Cassie opened her mouth, then closed it. She’d been caught. There was nothing to do but drag the kettle back, one step at a time.
Eventually Cassie returned to her original spot and figured she’d probably lost thirty minutes in this attempt to find more fertile ground. With no option other than to follow her original plan, she continued to greet the shoppers, doing her best to display a cheerful holiday spirit.
A young couple approached from the mall parking lot and Cassie made eye contact with the man. The woman, who carried a cup of takeout coffee, didn’t appear to see her, but he looked friendly enough, so Cassie rang the bell with renewed energy. These people seemed like the kind who’d dig deep into their wallets in order to help the less fortunate.
As they neared the store, just as Cassie had hoped, the man reached in his back pocket for his wallet. This was a good sign. Cassie smiled encouragingly.
The woman walked toward the store entrance, while the man paused in front of Cassie and slipped a twenty-dollar bill into the pot.
The woman quickly rejoined her husband. “How much did you put in there?” she demanded.
“Come on, Alicia, it’s for charity.”
“Charity begins at home. We’ve been through this, remember? We’re on a Christmas budget. We don’t have extra money to be giving away.”
The man grimaced apologetically.
“It’s for a good cause,” Cassie reminded the woman.
“As for you,” Alicia said menacingly. “I saw the way you were flirting with my husband. You didn’t think I noticed, did you?”
Cassie was too stunned to react. “I wasn’t—”
“Don’t bother denying it. I have eyes. Maybe the two of you are old friends.”
“Alicia,” the man snapped.
“That’s it, we’re finished. It’s over.” In a fit of anger she tossed the cup of coffee at Cassie.
She gasped and leaped back but not in time to avoid having coffee splash the front of her caramel-colored wool coat.
The man looked horrified, whispered something Cassie couldn’t hear, then hurried after his wife. “Alicia, Alicia…”
In shock and denial, Cassie stared down at her coat. Some very unladylike comments formed in her mind. However, she didn’t express them since that would reflect poorly on the charitable organization. Within minutes she was glad she’d kept her mouth shut. Because, to Cassie’s astonishment, donations started to increase dramatically following the incident. She glanced at the other bell ringer, who was scowling at her. He rang his bell louder and harder.
Cassie retaliated with an all-out rendition of “Deck the Halls” and soon had a short line, everyone waiting to drop in donations. She wasn’t sure what had changed but clearly there’d been a reversal. Perhaps her bell ringing was superior. Or perhaps that section of the parking lot had filled up. Whatever the cause, she was taking full advantage of it.
Toward the end of her shift, a sweet old lady sidled up to Cassie with a benevolent smile. She stuffed something inside her coat pocket and leaned close to whisper, “Use this to buy yourself a decent coat, dear. You poor thing.”
That was it? People thought she was a charity case and had taken pity on her. Too bad the coffee incident had happened at the end of her four hours. Who knew how much she would’ve collected if it had occurred earlier.
She nearly laughed aloud when she realized one glove was missing. Cassie didn’t have a clue when that had disappeared or how.
Precisely four hours into her assignment, when she was about ready to hand in her kettle and bell, she saw Dr. Simon Dodson. He was walking across the parking lot and headed directly toward her. And he was frowning.
Simon says: The best match for you is the one I arrange. J ust as Simon approached, an elderly gentleman stepped up to the pot and inserted a folded bill.
“Thank you and Merry Christmas,” Cassie told him cheerfully.
“No, thank you,” the old man returned. “You see, I was on a troop train in World War II and your organization met us at the station as we disembarked and handed out doughnuts and coffee. That small kindness meant the world to those of us going off to war. I’ve never forgotten it.”
Cassie hardly knew what to say.
“A lot of us didn’t come home from the war, but I’ll bet you those of us who did will always remember the friendly smiles and support you gave us. I’m an old man now and I don’t have many more years left.” He grew teary-eyed as he spoke. “Merry Christmas, young lady,” he whispered, gently squeezing her hand, “and thank you again for the sacrifice you’re making on behalf of others.”
Now it was Cassie who had tears in her eyes. She brushed them aside as Simon came closer. The old man had disappeared inside the mall by the time he arrived.
“How was it?” he asked.
Cassie tried to swallow the lump in her throat. “My grandfather was in the Second World War, too.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“That elderly gentleman,” she said, sniffling, “the one who was just here. He told me about something that happened when he went off to war and thanked me as if I was the one who’d been kind to him.”
“I didn’t see any old man.”
“You didn’t? He was here a minute ago and was…just wonderful.” She didn’t understand how Simon could have missed him. It was unlikely that he’d have eyes only for her.
“What happened to your coat?” Simon asked, apparently not interested in hearing about the man who had touched her so deeply.
“Oh, that,” she said, glancing down. “That was a lucky break. Well, to be honest, it didn’t seem like it at the time, but I collected a lot of pity donations as a result.”
He didn’t ask her to elaborate. “Your shift is over. You can leave now.”
“What about my substitute?” Cassie wasn’t about to be lured away from her duty station until the next person was firmly in place.
“That would be me,” a cheerful middle-aged woman said from behind Simon, the supervisor at her side.