By Linda Mooney

He watched as the woman carefully made her way through the sludge and half-melted snow carrying four large shopping bags heavy with gaily wrapped gifts.

Pilcher grinned. Judging from her designer overcoat and the expensive suede skirt that peeked from underneath it, he could almost guarantee some of those presents were costly enough to bring him a few dollars from the local pawnshops. Maybe, if he were lucky, he'd also chance upon a nice necklace or watch to keep for himself. Some of those packages were just the right size.

The halogen lights came on, triggered by the gathering gloom, throwing shadows into the trees surrounding the park’s sidewalks. Suddenly, the woman left the trail and began to cut her own path between the bushes.

Pilcher could not believe his luck. Not only was the pigeon treating him to a great Christmas, she was helping him hide the felony by traipsing off into the underbrush so he wouldn't be spotted when he hit.

Checking to make sure the sidewalk was clear, Pilcher dashed across the opening and made for the spot he'd seen the woman disappear into. Within seconds, he saw her again, this time easing down a slope as if she was heading toward a large drainage tunnel.

Wait a minute! Pilcher hesitated -- then grinned. She was heading for that drainage tunnel! Pulling his billyclub from his coat pocket, the man scanned the area once more, and followed in the woman's footsteps in the loosely packed snow.

Intent on getting her packages Below and spending the next three days with the man she loved, Catherine never heard tile mugger slip up behind her until her world exploded into a million shattering stars.

Pilcher managed to drag the bags of presents behind a wide band of trees before stopping to blow on his hands and stamp some warmth back into his feet. The take had been easier than he imagined; the woman never heard him coming and she crumpled soundlessly like tin foil when he tapped her on the temple with his 'goodnight stick'.

Congratulating himself, he giggled and reached for the first gift to unwrap it when a voice gently reproached him.

"Now, why did you go and do a thing like that?"

Glancing over to his right, Pilcher noticed a man of slender build standing and watching him from just beyond the trees.

"Whaddaya talkin' about?" he asked, defensively.

"Why did you have to go hit that nice woman and steal her presents? Where's your Christmas Spirit, man? You keep this up and Santa will leave coal in your stocking." Dumbfounded, Pilcher stared at the stranger. "Look, this is my stuff --"

"You stole it," the other man corrected. "That woman was a friend of mine and I don't appreciate what you did to her. Now, if you promise to give the presents back..."

"Are you CRAZY?"

"If you promise to give them back," the man began again, "I promise not to hurt you."

"Aww, geez, man. Do you really expect me to do that? Whaddaya take me for? A retard?"

The stranger sighed deeply, a look of regret on his thin face. "I was afraid of this," he murmured before taking a step forward.

Pilcher never knew what hit him.

Catherine felt the sharp, squeezing pain slice through her head and behind her eyes as, somewhere, a calm voice and cool hands tried to ease her agony.

"... can you hear me? Catherine? Do you understand what I am saying?"

"I’11 love you forever if you get me a couple of extra strength Tylenol," she whispered, attempting a grin. She was answered by a soft chuckle.

"I felt your pain when the man attacked you," Vincent explained. "By the time I was able to reach you, he was gone. I am sorry, Catherine."

"No... no, it was my fault. It was ridiculous of me to try and drag those Christmas gifts through Central Park alone. I should have come down beneath my apartment building, but I felt with Boomingdale's just a short distance away..." Lances of pain prevented her from rising to her elbows.

Easing her down again on his pillow, Vincent re-wet and wrung out the washcloth, folding it and placing it back across her forehead. Father entered the chamber at that moment, carrying a bottle of pills.

"Louis just delivered these. How is she doing?"

"She has a large knot on the side of her head, but her vision and hearing are unaffected," Vincent replied as he handed Catherine the medication.

"Good, good."

"Fatherr?" Catherine's voice was soft, as if speaking any louder would increase the throbbing in her skull.

"Yes, Catherine?"

"I’m sorry. The presents…the children will be so disappointed."

Father patted her hand affectionately. "There, now. The children will understand."

"Catherine, you must not blame yourself," Vincent consoled her.

"Then who is to blame?" she shot back. And, just as suddenly, tears replaced her anger. "Forgive me, Vincent, but it's knowing I've let the children down..."

Taking her hand, Vincent placed a gentle kiss on each finger. "Living as we do Below," he began, "we have learned that life does not always treat us the way we would sometimes like. Especially at Christmas, we have found the true meaning lies not in the receiving of gifts, but in the heart.., in the way we care for each other, look out for each other and help each other."

Catherine smiled, gently. "I knew you were going to say something like that."

Vincent smiled back. "Everyone is gathered in celebration in Father's chamber. Do you feel like joining them?"

Gingerly swinging her legs over the side of the bed, Catherine let him and Father each take an arm and assist her to her feet. The dizziness was slight, and Vincent gave her a nod of encouragement.

"Just remember," she warned him with a twinkle in her eye, "if I start to swoon, you have to catch me and carry me off in your arms to some enchanted castle."

"Well, it certainly won't be me!" Father exclaimed, and they all laughed in response.

Father's chamber had been decked with limbs of fir and pine that the children had scavenged from Christmas tree lots, and the women bad placed brightly colored bows throughout the room to lend it a festive air. A large tree donated by a Helper sat in a bucket of water under the spiral stairwell, lovingly trimmed with handmade ornaments and popcorn necklaces. Vincent sniffed the aroma drifting from the banquet table next to Father's desk and teasingly accused his parent of influencing the cook.

"Wassail, Father? After what it did to you last Christmas?"

"I know, I know. I should stick with the eggnog, but..."

"Catherine!" A group of children swarmed over to where she stood above the steps, eagerly bouncing around with joy and excitement. At first, she nearly retreated guiltily back into the relative safety of Vincent's chamber, until she noticed several of the boys and girls were waving toys and presents at her.

"Oh, thank you, Catherine!" Samantha beamed. "It's beautiful! And it has a little ballerina inside that goes around and around and everything!"

"Yep, you did good," Eric acknowledged.

Confused by the praise, Catherine murmured, "I don't understand..."

"Where did the presents come from?" Vincent inquired, also bewildered.

Little Kara smiled brightly up at them, clutching her Mickey Mouse doll tightly to her chest, and announced, "Santa brought them?"

"Who?" Father asked again.

"Santa Claus. He brought them while you were still Up Top."

"But he was dressed funny. Not like the real Santa Claus," Eric interjected.

"Was too! He was really Santa!" Kara defended.

Father broke in, "What do you mean. he wasn't dressed like the real Santa?"

Eric shoved his glasses back up his nose. "Well, the real Santa has a red suit and a white beard….but not this one, even though he told us he was."

Kipper spoke up. "He was our own Tunnel Santa. Or an elf.."

"In a leather jacket and a baseball cap?" Eric challenged his friend.

Slowly, Vincent and Catherine turned to face each other, the same name forming on both their lips. Could it be...? Was it possible that it was...?


Then who delivered the presents -- and they were the exact same gifts that had been stolen from Catherine -- down into the hidden tunnels?

With a single mind, the two hurried out of the room and headed directly to the Common Chamber where the full-length oil painting hung, the one by Kristopher Gentian.

They stopped abruptly at the chamber entrance, staring up in surprise and wonder at the portrait -- for on top of the frame, which was a full twenty feet above the floor, a sprig of mistletoe hung directly over the couple painted on the canvas.

"Do you think it was. . him?" Catherine whispered. "Can there be another explanation?"

"Do you want another explanation? Or is the magic he wove for us the first time enough to carry, us through this special season?" Vincent murmured back.

Looping her arms around him, Catherine looked into her love's eyes. "I think I can believe anything, now. Santa... elves…the ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Is that what you are? The ghost of my Christmas Future?"

His kiss was his answer, and her best present ever.

And high above them, the sweet single sound of a jingle bell echoed in the chamber.