Die Alone (R)

The good boys and girls of his squad had expressed their con­dolences for his drawing the short straw shift-wise. Doubling up Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, that’s tough, they all said and he had to smile at the memory of that. Everybody’s done it at some point, they consoled, they knew what it was like. What they couldn’t guess was that he had been secretly glad for the out. Currently head­quartered in the McCallister family home in Evanston were two brothers and two sisters, their respective spouses, eight nieces and nephews, Mom and Dad, and two sets of grandparents. McCallister’s Christmases were like a day camp crossed with a political convention all wrapped up in a big red and green bow.

He loved the whole lot of them in the same conceptual, abstract way most people loved their families, but McCallister tended towards a solitary life. An ex-girlfriend, who’d finally dumped him after a year’s worth of hints about cohabitation were breezily ignored, once rather bluntly summed him up as falling somewhere between “an independent spirit” and a “disgruntled loner.” A friend used to rib him that he was just a log cabin and a pullover hoodie away from being the next Unabomber. It all rolled off McCallister’s back. He knew he was no misanthrope (he’d joined the force to help people after all), but he’d always simply been most contented with his own company.

There were times, though, when his thoughts quieted and his attention detached that he felt a gentle nagging at his core. The suggestion that he was missing something, that it might be nice to have at least one person to share his life with. But when he pondered the likelihood of finding someone who could cope with the stresses of living with a cop, understand his odd flights of whimsy, and give him his required space – well, it was one gift he never bothered putting on his Christmas list.

December 24, 2008. 6:48 p.m. Five hours and 12 minutes till end of shift.

He had been the first on the scene. No call had gone out, he’d just happened to be steering his unit down State when he saw the same crowds of last minute Christmas shoppers that had lined up on the sidewalks to get into Marshall Field’s that morning come streaming out in a mad Japanese-monster-movie panic from under the green awnings and stately giant golden horns that dressed the outside of the store each holiday season. He swerved to avoid hitting a shrieking pedestrian and kissed the curb parking his cruiser half a block down from the store. When he radioed in the disturbance and informed dispatch he was riding solo they told him to wait for backup. He rogered that and immediately countered this command by exiting the car and heading for the noise.

McCallister was the only person actually entering the store, swimming upstream against the panicked hordes scattering to the four corners of the gigantic building and pouring out of the doors of its multiple entrances. The elevator banks to his right were disgorging full cars of cartoonishly elongated faces, mothers and children and full-grown men in the grips of a base survival instinct. McCallister noticed in passing that, panic aside, they each still clutched their various shopping bags and festively wrapped pack­ages. He kept struggling and dodging forward, past the abandoned jewelry and cosmetics counters in the palatial first floor, heading through the open, yawning space for the central atrium whose enor­mous crisscrossed escalators were full of shoppers and employees alike climbing over one another to make their escape. It was an ugly sight despite the Christmas wonderland of North Pole villages and candy cane trees that had been built all around the Burnham fountain at the atrium’s center and McCallister’s head swam for a second. He stood in the midst of a maelstrom of holiday-dressed insanity, raising his voice to its highest register, asking any and everyone shoving past what had happened. In response, the slightly built and unfortunately unassuming young cop found himself nearly knocked to the floor by a trio of little old ladies wearing matching snowflake sweaters. Amongst the noise and the jostling, he caught strange disjointed references to Santa Claus and dynamite.

A strong hand suddenly gripped his right bicep and McCallister spun to see one of the store’s security guards. A thick-necked, pot-bellied buzz-cut in his late-40s whose name tag read “Chet.” “Did you call it in?” the guard asked, his eyes shifting nervously.

“No, I- What am I reporting?” McCallister asked, “What the hell is going on here?”

“’Bout ten minutes ago one of the Santas took a hostage.”

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