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Five Finger Christmas
About the Author: Brandon Barrows is the author of several novels, most recently STRANGERS' KINGDOM. He has published over seventy stories, selected of which are collected in the books THE ALTAR IN THE HILLS and THE CASTLE-TOWN TRAGEDY. Visit

The man on the monitor was small and balding, wearing a dark-colored shell coat several sizes too large for him. Four days before Christmas, calling the store crowded was an understatement, but unlike most of the shoppers, he wasn’t in any hurry. He moved through the store slowly, his head casually, but almost constantly, moving, as if he was trying to take in every inch of the place and everything it held. I had to keep switching cameras, and sometimes change an individual camera’s position, to keep track of him, but I managed. Since one of the floor managers called the security office, saying the man gave her a bad feeling, I hadn’t let him leave my sight for more than a few seconds.

The man stopped at a display of stocking stuffers—mostly electronic gadgets that didn’t work as advertised. They were all small, but a few were pricy, and each had a good mark-up. They practically flew off the shelves this time of year. He unzipped his coat and flapped the open halves, like he was hot. He probably was, with all the warm, moving bodies in the place.

The little man leaned close to the gadgetry, as if inspecting the fine print on one of the packages. When he did, the flaps of his coat draped across part of the display. His hands went into his coat pockets, so deep they were almost up to the elbow. Then he withdrew his hands, straightened, and moved on, zipping his coat as he went.

I lifted the walky-talky from the desk. “Mr. Cadshaw, you there? Over.”

“Go ahead, Ben. Over.”

Ben, he called me, while I had to always make sure to address him as Mr. Cadshaw. He loved his little digs. For a part-time job two months a year, Bell’s Department Store was a good gig. It paid well, gave me a discount on holiday shopping, and I could set my own hours, fitting them in around my regular work schedule. Year after year I came back, but it wasn’t all candy-canes and sugar plums. Every job has irritations.

“Got a probable booster down in sundries. No, wait—he’s moving into jewelry. Can you send someone up to watch the monitors? I want to get down to the floor for a closer look at this guy. Over.”

Cadshaw said he’d be up himself. As the store’s operations manager, he was the number two in the management chain. He must have had better things to do, but that was just what he was like: if there was anything going on, he wanted in on it. Not because he liked excitement, but because he didn’t trust anyone else to do anything right—which meant his way, naturally.

On the monitor, the man in the shell coat leaned on a glass counter. Mid- to high-end jewelry of all sorts was displayed inside the case, but atop it were arrangements of cheaper stuff—costume jewelry and plastic watches, mostly. I zoomed the camera in as far as it would go, just in time to see his hand come to rest on the counter, next to a stack of small boxes, each containing a rhinestone pendent.

He did it casually, as if he wasn’t even aware of it; it wasn’t bad acting if you hadn’t been observing him. As I watched, his hand doubled into a loose fist, swept across the counter, and went smoothly into the pocket of his coat. When it came out, it was empty.

The security office door opened and Cadshaw stepped in. “What’s up?”

I glanced his way, pointing at the screen. “This shoplifter I’ve been watching. He’s good. Probably a booster.” A professional who stole to resell, rather than someone doing it for the kicks.

I stood, pushing the rolling chair out with my hips. “I’m gonna go keep a closer eye on him.”

Cadshaw leaned close to the monitor, fiddling with the mouse to pull the zoom out for a fuller picture of the man. He looked at me. “This shabby little guy? He looks like someone’s deadbeat dad.”

“Maybe he is,” I said and left the office.

It took a few minutes to find the shoplifter again. When I did, he was in menswear, engrossed in a selection of bright, gaudy Christmas ties. I’m not much for fashion, but even I knew they were nothing anyone with any sense would wear, except maybe as a joke. They were all pure silk, though, and expensive. As easy as ties are to fold or ball up, they were high on the pilferage list.

This story appears in our DEC 2022 Issue
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