Aside: Bonus content
(DON’T JUDGE ME)
Emma Johnston. 6. Baptised. Eighteen minor episodes of violence. Four incidents of disrespect. Minor covetousness. All accounted for and repented. Check.
Byoba Zungu. 5. Baptised. Mostly inoffensive record, couple of misdemeanours primarily due to overactive imagination. One incident of disrespect – the man looked down from the pallid corpse-light of the screen for a moment, ran a weatherbeaten hand through his greying hair – one incident of disrespect unrepentant, judgement call: disrespect provoked, incident sub-threshold. Check.
James Hale, 6. Baptised. Two hundred sixty episodes of –
“Nick? Hello in there?”
He looked around. “H-mm.”
“Lunchtime, Rudi and Don and I were headed down the pub. You coming?”
“I’m good.” He patted a silver-wrapped package hiding among the desk toys, paperwork, stationery and general kipple of the faux-mahogany desk.
“How’s it coming, anyway?” The redhead peeking around the door stole a look at his work. The windows and databases and logos on the right-hand screen meant nothing to her, but the Word document taking up the left-hand one, one particular line highlighted in ghastly green, was an item with which everyone at the office was very familiar.
“Eh, not too bad.” The man shifted; his office chair creaked slightly. “It looks like this is a relatively good year. Only three typographical errors in as many days” – he glanced at the left-hand screen – “although I think I might just be about to pick up a mis-assignment.”
“Damn, really? Tell me more.” She insinuated herself into the office.
Nick pressed a couple of keys, did something with the mouse, entered a password and a file came up on the right-hand screen. “Fraid so. File reads like a hardened criminal’s rap sheet. Over two hundred IoVs, six with genuine intent, three counts of GBH, although absent the subsidiaries you’d expect. No recorded repentances. Why the hell this guy’s on the list -”
She saw the name. “James Hale? There’s an appeal on that file, isn’t there? I think I remember putting Sandra on it.”
Nick moused over to ATTACHED DOCUMENTS; sure enough, there was the file. Paperwork served and filed, appeal by injured party, no charges. He opened the scan, a computer-enhanced picture of a fire-blackened note written on pink writing paper in yellow crayon. A slight noise of satisfaction escaped him: ten years ago this would have had to have been done by a craftsman with an eyeglass and a pantograph.
Dear SATAN I hope you are Wel. For Christmas I want [INFORMATION REDACTED TO PREVENT CROSS-CONTAMINATION – SANDRA]. Pleas do not say my Broter is norty he does not Neam It and he would onyl Eat the lump of cole. Love Nova. [Crossreferenced. Novangeline Hale, 6, NICE LIST] Novangeline. Who the hell calls their child Novangeline.
Nick swore. “Judgement call, no previous review. Missed the bugger on my last pass. Sorry, Jessie, this’ll take hours and I’d better get on. D’you mind letting Rudy know?”
“The list will still be there after lunch, Santa -”
He spun his chair to face her. “Jessie. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times -”
“-We don’t speak dead languages in this office,” she chorused. “Sorry. Offer stands, Nick. You should get out more.”
“This isn’t just about professionalism, Jessie. We owe it to them to get this right and you know that as well as I do. It’s why we implemented continuous-improvement, it’s why I fought tooth and nail to keep that double pass on the proofs, it’s why this organisation is a three-sixty-five day commitment. We are working with and for some of the most vulnerable members of-”
“-Okay. Okay. I get it. I was just trying. See you later.” She closed the door on her way out, muttering. “If he doesn’t let up, he’ll be on his way to a heart attack.”
Santa turned back to the screen, back to the endless tide of human misery as seen through the eyes of children. Cross-check the boy’s activities, run the expert system over a statistical sample of those IoVs, watch a couple of selected ones (read the intention behind those narrowed little eyes), run a weighting on the girl’s testimony, access the boy’s medical records and run a brief sanity check for diagnoses of mental illness or other diminished responsiblity. And finally just eyeball it. The office junior had done her best, but at its heart behind the ISO 9001 and the six-sigma continuous improvement and the best-practice codes, this was still a skilled job and there was one man alone who could do it.
The boy stayed on.
“It’s not your fault.” This was Sandra’s third cup of coffee and it was 10.45. Her expression was that of one holding onto a precipice with fingernails. Jessie passed her a tissue and she blew noisily. A paperchain rustled; Rudy, standing on a couple of chairs, was silently taking down the office Christmas decorations. “Nobody could have predicted the incident. You were only on the first line; you know that all our work is double-proofread, and you know that not only was your assignment decision reviewed at the highest level but it was upheld. This wasn’t a failure, and I mean that. You did everything right. Coincidences happen and that is all that this was.”
Sandra looked away. “Tell that to the family.”
Jessie was about to respond when the door opened. The room fell silent. Nick never came in here. Nick hardly even left his office. “Sandra.”
Jessie caught the look of pure terror. Sandra wiped her eyes, stood up. “Um, yes?”
“Walk with me.”
He held the door for her and fell in step.
“Where are we going?”
“Fresh air.” They stepped out into the courtyard. It was bright, fresh, brisk and cold, a picture of a January morning. “I got the papers this morning. Bad business. Figured you might like to talk.”
“What’s there to say, sir? I let you down, I put a kid on the wrong list. You told me yourself, we own our mistakes here. It’s on the policy statement.” She wasn’t looking at him. She leaned against the wall, looked up at the clear blue sky. “So I’m off the Appeals team. Do I get to offer a resignation?”
“Sandra. Jessie probably told you this already, but I’m going to go ahead and say it again anyway. Your appeal decision was caught on the second proofing pass, and checked over thoroughly by hand. By me.” That made her blink. It was in the nursery rhyme, of course, he was proverbial for it, but she hadn’t thought for a second that the boss actually checked – he was still talking. “That little boy is disturbed in the head. The appeal was on grounds of diminished responsibility. You followed procedure to the letter, you made a judgement call, and your call was the right one.” The big man started to pace. “You read the policy statements and the mission statement. We’re in the business of moral decisions. It’s not an easy one. Jessie interviewed you herself and I approved your appointment: you’d be wasted working on the factory floor.” He turned to face her. “I decline to accept your resignation.” She was still staring up at the clouds. “Look at me.”
She turned her head, looked Santa Claus in the eye. His expression was sad, serious. It didn’t sit well with the smile-creases of his seamed face.
“Remember the rhyme, Sandra. He knows if you’ve been bad or good – did you think that there was a magic age when that ceased to apply? Do you believe in Santa Claus, little girl?” And for a moment he was older than the hills and twice as craggy, the red suit trimmed with silver fox-fur, the neatly trimmed white goatee merely the shadow of a great full white beard.
“Yes.” It was a whisper.
“Then believe it when I say you did the right thing. Now go on with you. Have the day off. The list will still be there tomorrow.”
“Thank you, sir. But if it’s all right, I think I should get back to it. We owe it to them.”