It’s two weeks before Christmas and Meg Brandt, a department manager at Wambash’s, “the store with the answer to all your family’s needs,” has problems beyond the usual seasonal chaos. Her department is losing cash from the registers. Inventory is leaving the premises unrecorded and unpaid.

Security is focusing on her, since the losses are happening on her watch. Her efforts to track down the source of the disappearances have produced no results, and her career appears to be headed for oblivion. When the store’s new security officer starts showing unusual attention to her, Meg isn’t sure what to think. He’s attractive in any number of ways, but she can’t be sure if his interest is personal or professional.

 

 

Blue December

Blue December
Light, Contemporary Romantic Suspense set at Christmas
Length: Short Novel
A re-edited version of the 1991 Avalon Book
Updated for re-release in ebook.
Amazon Kindle

With money disappearing from registers in her department and inventory going AWOL as well, Meg Brandt is having a really bad Christmas.

Chapter One

The sound system suggested that everyone should "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas" but no one around, including Meg, seemed to be heeding the advice. The customer leaning against the sales counter wasn't jolly; the other six waiting in line behind her didn't look at all amused; Heather, the young sales associate, was close to tears; and Meg's stomach begged for another dose of Maalox.

She glanced again at the piece of paper she held. "I'm sorry," Meg repeated. "We just can't accept checks that aren't imprinted." And especially not for three hundred and twenty dollars, she thought. She didn't say so aloud. Meg looked up and met the woman's furious eyes.

"I don't see why not, " the irate customer said. "I used one at J.C. Penney just this afternoon."

Meg didn't voice her doubts on that score. "It doesn't matter. Our store's policy--"

"Are you trying to imply that my check isn't good?" The woman interrupted, her pitch and volume rising to levels that would begin to attract attention in the next aisle. "It's libel or something like that. You're just assuming the check is bad 'cause my name ain't printed on it? I could sue you. Can't you call the bank or something?"

You know very well it's almost nine o'clock and the banks are closed, Meg thought. She swallowed her growing irritation and suspicion with an effort of will and managed to sound calm. "I'm afraid not. Do you have a credit card you could put this on?"

Glancing at Meg, Heather shook her head and said, "The machine wouldn't take either of them."

Figures, Meg decided, guarding her face. "We could hold these things for you for a day or two," she offered. "You can go to the bank tomorrow and cash a check. Or if you prefer we could put them on layaway."

"I had to drive twenty two miles to get here," the woman protested, "and I got arthritis and it ain't easy for me to move around. I came here special today just to get them clothes." She launch into a loud, angry tirade which questioned the store's devotion to its clientele, its absurd and libelous policies, and the integrity of the associate and Meg herself.

Meg nodded to Heather to cancel the transaction and take the next customer's merchandise while she walked around the counter and manuevered the woman a little to the side. The outburst continued unabated.

The customer grew even louder after Meg told her that the store manager wasn't currently available, nor the assistant manager. The woman was turning red in the face, and since she was rather overweight anyway, Meg began to worry about the possibility of a heart attack. People were stopping to stare and gape at the spectacle they presented.

Meg was so focused on the angry woman, wondering how she was going to both soothe and get rid of her that she actually jumped when a male voice behind her asked, "Is something wrong?"

She whirled to face the newcomer, a virtual stranger who, nevertheless, acted as though he belonged there. No, not a stranger. Meg remembered that he'd been introduced at the last staff meeting as the new assistant to the head of security. At the time she'd been torn between wondering why the head of security suddenly needed an assistant and watching the reaction of the female clerks to the new employee, so she hadn't actually paid much attention to him. Anyway that had been almost a week ago and the pre-holiday chaos had occupied most of her waking (and some of her sleeping) moments since.

She avoided making an introduction -- she couldn't remember the man's name -- and explained the situation to him. He had cool hazel-green eyes which melted into warmth and fiery charm, directed toward the angry woman with all the deliberate aim of an archer. Within minutes he was guiding the woman toward the customer service desk so she could lodge a formal complaint. Meg breathed a sigh of relief as they left. When the man turned to glance at her briefly as they rounded the corner to the main aisle, she offered him a grateful smile. The look he gave in return held no hint of warmth or charm. It wasn't unfriendly either. She searched her mind for a description. Unreadable. Inscrutable -- that was the word she wanted.

Meg initialled the voided transaction slip, hoping she could now get back to her desk and the stack of sales registers which refused to balance out.

No such luck, of course. She'd barely tucked her pen back into her pocket when the public address system summoned her to the Junior's department. A customer was attempting to return a dress for which she had no sales slip. Wambash's normal policy allowed merchandise to'be exchanged without a sales slip, but not returned for cash. Exceptions required staff approval. Even at that, the policy tended to be abused.

This case proved pretty straightforward. The woman had bought a size nine dress in a fit of blind optimism, but ten minutes inside it had forced vanity to yield to comfort. Unfortunately they hadn't any size elevens in that style, or anything particularly similar.

Meg looked at the outfit. The tag had been torn off, but the little plastic cord still hung under the arm. She sniffed lightly and nodded. It hadn't been worn or laundered; the brand-new, fresh-from-the-store odor still clung to the material.

"I think we can give her money back," Meg said. She took the refund slip the associate handed her and filled it out quickly, signing her name on the bottom. She left it for the young woman working the register to ring up.

While she walked back to her office, she wondered if the irate woman whose check she'd refused really would file a complaint and what the fallout from that might be. Not much, she suspected. She had worse problems, anyway; the discrepancy in the sales figures weighed heavily on her mind. She turned her thoughts to the mystery of the frequent cash losses from the registers and considered possible explanations for the shortages. Once in her tiny cubbyhole of an office, Meg had to pick her way around the boxes of defective merchandise that ringed her desk. She almost got into her chair before the phone rang.

One of the temporary seasonal associates wanted to know if they had any more of a particular girl's dress. A customer wanted it in a size six and all they could find were fours, eights, and tens.

"Did you check the stock room?" she asked the woman.

"I didn't see any there."

"That's where they'd be if we had any more. You might call across town and see if they have one. The number should be posted next to the phone."

Meg sighed as the woman on the other end hung up. The sound system was pouring out a soothing rendition of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." As she picked up the top sheet from the stack of sales registers, the irony of the carol's title struck her. No one considered Christmas a restful season any more. The closer it got to the twenty-fifth of December, the more the customers grumbled and the employees griped. There was never enough personnel, colds and flu took their toll, and the temporary help hired for the season frequently proved unreliable, if not worse. Retail workers had nightmares about the Yuletide.

Lately Meg had been having nightmares, period. Her dreams tended to be populated by dancing stacks of green-bar computer paper with figures from the registers that never equalled the adding machine tape totals of the actual cash recorded by the bookkeepers. That her department wasn't the only one experiencing shortages didn't comfort her much. There was also the problem of the disappearing inventory--some fourteen thousand dollars worth of it in the past six months--which might or might not be related to the lost money.

She pulled open the bottom drawer of the desk, found the bottle of Maalox, and took a good swig straight from the container. Her temples were beginning to throb, too, which was at least one pain too many. She found the Tylenol, and swallowed a tablet dry. It stuck in her throat. Meg rattled the two cans sitting at the back of her desk. One still had a small quantity of Diet Coke in it, so she used it to wash down the pill. The liquid was warm, flat and tasted like prune juice as it mixed with the Maalox in her mouth.

 

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Blue December
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