Claire Kincaid comes up with an original plan to express gratitude to her boss for her first Christmas in the district attorney's office.

Secret Santa
By Kathie Murphy


"It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas,
Everywhere you go..."

Ben Stone hums absently as he puts the bow on the last in a pile of inexpertly wrapped packages that teeters on his desk. The tiny bottle of perfume had almost been his undoing -- his fingers are really too clumsy to get around such a small package -- but he had heard his new file clerk wish for Chanel No. 5 early in the fall, and had noted the fact for future reference. Every December, he makes a pilgrimage to the midtown shopping district: reveling in the lights, the decorations, the general happy bustle of the holidays, and selecting a gift for each member of his staff.
These are not the usual gloves and scarves and bottles of liquor that other attorneys dispense condescendingly to their subordinates; each is a gift perfectly suited to its recipient. Ben had waited in line for Barbra Streisand to sign a copy of the new autobiography that Greg, his intern from NYU, wanted desperately. He had bought a new winter parka for the janitor, who spent every cent he made on feeding and clothing his family, Ben had learned. For his secretary, who kept the whole office supplied with gourmet treats, he had made a special trip to Zabar's for a basket of goodies she wouldn't have to share. He had even learned that Claire Kincaid, his new assistant, planned a trip to Tuscany in the spring, and had found a beautifully illustrated guide to the region for her. He has these gifts, and all the others, squirreled away in anything in his office that locks -- empty file drawers, his credenza -- until he has assembled everything he needs.
It is midnight, and Ben has been wrapping packages since the last person left the office, but he is as exhilarated as he always is, this one night in the year. The gifts would appear on desks and in mail slots in the morning, on a day carefully selected not to coincide with any religious holiday. His staff would wonder aloud who sent them, as usual, and Ben would deny all knowledge. A gift would be left on his desk as well -- a bottle of his favorite gin, a cashmere scarf -- to throw everyone off the scent, and he would say gruffly, "I see Santa Claus has been here again. I thought we weren't going to have any of this nonsense this year." Nods and winks would be exchanged among his subordinates, but no one would have the temerity to thank him. He would have made his position clear. Ben Stone is not a sentimental man -- least of all at Christmas.



Claire Kincaid is getting tired. She had said goodnight to her boss and ostentatiously left the office at seven, returning by the fire stairs at ten-thirty. She is holed up in the ladies' room, peeking out frequently to make sure Ben is still in his office. Why do I get myself into these things? she wonders, as she makes yet another cautious trip to the spot where she can see his shadow through the glass. Robinette warned me about trying this.
On her first day as Stone's assistant, Paul Robinette, the outgoing ADA, had been showing her the ropes. At lunch, he had mentioned in passing that Ben gave these gifts. "Mention something in July, and you'll find it on your desk at Christmas. But he doesn't like to be thanked. He'll slap you down worse then he would if you lost him a case." That was all Claire needed to hear. She loved a challenge. A few weeks before, she had gone to every member of the staff, explained her plan, and solicited donations. Now here she is, stuck in the ladies' room as she has been every night for the last week.
No one could predict exactly when Stone would produce his packages, so someone had to spy on him every night from the last day of Hanukkah through Christmas Eve. There was no doubt in anyone's mind who that someone should be. It was Claire's idea; let her do it, was the consensus in the office. And, to be honest, she doesn't really mind. It feels like sneaking downstairs on Christmas Eve, after her parents are in bed, to check out her presents; coupled with the illicit thrill of spying on her boss, who could resist? Her patience has been rewarded; tonight is the night. Now all she has to do is wait.
Ben starts off down the hall, carefully carrying only as many presents as he can handle without denting the bows, or -- worse yet -- dropping something on the floor, whistling now, something Claire recognizes even through the bathroom door as "Jingle Bell Rock." He returns once, twice; on the third trip, he clunks something down on his desk, turns off the light, and heads for the elevator, carrying a shopping bag filled with tag ends of wrapping paper and all the other detritus he can't risk leaving in his office wastebasket.
Claire steps cautiously out of the ladies' room, counting the faint beeps she hears from the elevator to make sure Ben has really gone to the ground floor. She glides down the hall to the janitor's closet, taking the key she has been entrusted with from her pocket. She notes with satisfaction the slightly misshapen packages on every desk, and can't resist picking up her own. Probably a new Black's Law Dictionary, she thinks, hefting it in one hand. She opens the closet and brings out two packages: one large, one fairly small, both heavy for their size. Her heart beats a little faster, both from the exertion and from the suspense she feels. What if Stone comes back? But she reaches his office safely, opening the door with her foot -- thanking heaven no one locked doors in their office -- and heaves the boxes up onto his desk, displacing the package he has deposited there. A bottle. How unoriginal, Claire says to herself, tucking it under her arm.
Now for the final touch. In the break room, she fills a glass with the milk they put in their morning coffee and steals a few cookies from an open package. These go on a tray on Stone's desk, along with a note Claire has hastily scrawled on a Post-It. She knows Ben will be in the office again before the milk has time to get warm -- he's always in earlier than anyone else -- and she wishes she dared to stay to see his face when he sees the metamorphosis that has taken place in his office. Reluctantly deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, she puts the bottle in her briefcase and leaves.



Ben is back at work at seven the next morning. He's been letting a few things slide, and he wants to get everything off his desk before Christmas. He stops in the doorway of his office, stunned. The bottle of The Glenlivet he intended to take his old friend Barney Hoskyns for Christmas is gone, replaced by something much larger, wrapped in the kind of paper he never bought because it was too expensive to ruin. As he comes closer to the desk, he sees the tray of milk and cookies. The note, written on one of the neon-pink Post-Its that had come by mistake in the last office supply order, stands out like a beacon. He picks it up and reads unbelievingly, "Merry Christmas from the real Santa Claus!"
How long has it been since anyone gave him anything but a duty gift? Ben can't remember. Even his daughter buys him only what she knows he will use -- socks, a tie, a book he's mentioned -- no surprises there. He can't resist tearing into the paper on the large package: not methodically, saving it to use again as he normally would, but like a child who can't believe that Santa has finally come. When the wrapping is strewn over the desk, he is shocked at what has been revealed. Santa Claus has hit him where he lives. A state-of-the-art CD boom box with a five-disc changer and remote control; and to accompany it, a stack of his favorite jazz recordings. He'd been putting off replicating his record collection on compact disc, grudging the time and the expense, and had never thought of listening to music in the office. But faced with the temptation, he succumbs. Why not? he thinks as he pries the staples out of the box.
By the time others begin to trickle in to work, Ben has rearranged the books on his shelves to make room for the CD player. Claire smiles to herself as she hears Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas echoing through the office. Stone stands framed in the doorway.
"Ms. Kincaid," he says severely, "I see that Santa Claus has been here again."
"Yes, I believe he has," she replies sweetly. "I think he meant this for you," she continues, handing him the package she's been hiding behind her back. Ben recognizes it as the gift he wrapped for himself the night before.
"I'd like to thank him," he says, "but I guess he's gone for another year."
"I guess so," she answers, with a hint of a wink, as she turns to leave.
"Thank you, Claire," Ben says softly, but she pretends not to hear.


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