Robert McCall secured his scarf more closely around his neck and tucked the ends into his great coat. It was colder than the arctic in New York City, this holiday season. He looked around the darkened back street. The sky was pitch black and the velvet night was pressing on the weak glow of the streetlights. The uneven brick walls that made up the back of the church rose behind him to screen out even a part of the sky that showed one or  two stars.

Brooklyn wasnít in any sense a vacation spot, and the Greenpoint section of the borough was filled with working class people doing their best to make a good life for their families. The homes werenít luxurious, and at best there was a postage stamp of a lawn out front, but even so, riding through the neighborhood before turning to park behind the century old Catholic Church of Saint Christina, Robert noticed that the fronts of the small houses were decorated with gaudy, but still joyous Christmas lights and decorations. Everyone in such a neighborhood could be counted upon to put on their best face for the holiday season.

He turned when he heard soft footsteps coming up behind him.

"Mr. McCall?" Father Kostmayerís pale face was set in a beaming smile, "I want to thank you again, this gift to the parish is such a generous one." He grabbed for Robertís gloved hand in a strong embrace.

Robert shook his head, "No Father, I explained it. Itís not my donation, but that of a friend of mine."

Father Kostmayer's narrow face was illuminated by the weak street lamps and ambient light from the church windows. His nose and cheeks were highlighted with red from the cold as he shook his head. "I understand your modesty, but you are the one who made the connection with your friend for us to get all the toys for the children. Itís a generous thing that was done for us Ė and Iím grateful."

"Come on Nick," Mickeyís voice preceded him out of the back door of the church. He emerged a moment later, his face in an affectionate grin, the expression he saved for few people; his brother Ė the priest Ė was one of the lucky ones. Mickey was dressed in what he would call holiday cheer. A dark burgundy watch cap and matching scarf worn over his usual dull army green jacket.

"You can thank Robert Ė and me Ė for all our hard work tonight by saving us a couple of Mrs. Szymanski's Christmas babkas before you auction them off this year." He patted his brother on the back and nodded at Robert. "Her cakes are fantastic and once Nick here blesses them, theyíre sinfully delicious!"

Father Nick laughed and shrugged off his big brotherís hand. "Behave yourself! Donít let her hear you say that! She takes great pride in her baking." He smoothed his hand over his middle. "And she bakes for the priests all the time, Iíve got to start cutting down myself."

Robert shook his head and chuckled, the slender priest must be joking. He was as insubstantial as a leaf on a tree in a high wind. Robert headed toward the van and waved goodbye. "Mickey and I will contact you when the van is filled, Father. Weíll drive back tonight and lock up when we leave."

"This is so great, Mickey," the young priest hugged his brother, and Robert could hear the heartfelt emotion in his voice. "This is just the thing to make the holiday in the neighborhood as joyous as it can be. Itís been a hard year here."

Robert climbed into the van and let the two brothers say their good-bye in private. Once again, he was happy that the opportunity to perform this good deed fell into his lap. How easy the second part of the bargain Ė his part Ė would be to fulfill, he had yet to find out.

Mickey climbed into the driverís seat, waved once again to his brother and pulled out of the driveway into the street.

"Iím telling you, McCall," Mickey started, "This donation comes at just the right time for Nick. The neighborhood is changing and thereís fewer people going to Saint Chris's regularly. By his being able to open the place for a full Christmas party, with food and gifts for everyone Ė itís a big deal. He thinks itís just the thing to get people feeling close to the church again and itíll spill over for the rest of the year. " He glanced at him for a moment. "Nickís real thankful to you, and Iím grateful too."

Robert saw the sincerity in the younger manís face. He took a deep breath, now was a good time to spring the truth on him.

"I found out about the Toy Company a while ago, when I was part of the Companyís Oversight Committee."

Mickey threw a sharp look over at him as he drove, "Whatís the Company got to do with toys?"

Robert set his jaw. He had to put this as tactfully as possible. "Itís a Company front, has been for years. Control thought it up and it has come in handy."

Mickey snorted a laugh. "Control and toys? How are those two words ever connected?"

Robert made sure to place a congenial smile on his face. "Control has a knack for gauging what the tikes of America will be clamoring for in the coming months. This toy company is doing booming business Ė and it imports from all around the world, China, Hong Kong, Latin America, parts of Ė"

"Everywhere a sweat shop and cheap labor can be found huh?" Mickeyís voice was suddenly harsh.

"In all the places that toy companies have manufacturing shops, yes. Control saw the potential for a good cover company. Heís been successful in importing more than just toys."

Mickey barked a laugh, "Yeah I can imagine." He puffed out a big breath, "Well, I suppose he canít force the issue of fair employment on a front operation. Heíd have to do business the way the rest of the industry does."

Now came the time for eggshell stepping, neither letting more out than necessary, nor actually lying. "I was reminded that toys are the staple of this holiday season, and so a deal was made whereby your brother's parish would get a windfall of donations this year. It does make sense actually."

"A deal?" Mickey darted a look at him.

Blast. He might have know that Mickey would pick up on any words he might use to skirt the real issue. "A few words passed between Control and myself Ė a sort of bargain. He would send a bountiful supply of toys to Saint Christina and I would cooperate with him in a plan he was contemplating."

"Jesus, Robert, you didnít sell your soul or anything to get the toys for the kids Ė did you?"

"I hope not," Robert muttered.

"Tell me about it, maybe I can help. After all, it is my brotherís church, and the closest thing I have to a church too."

"Let me consider the offer, Mickey. Iíll decide if I need to ask a favor of you when the time comes."

"Okay," Mickey nodded. "If you need backup. You know Iíll do it."

"Thank you, much appreciated."

Dishonest as the set-up was, Robert was hoping that Mickey would remember the sincerity behind his offer. Hopefully their friendship would still be intact when they rode back to Brooklyn to deliver the toys. He made himself more comfortable as the heat began to warm the interior of the van. He nodded appreciatively when Mickey switched on the radio and classical Christmas music filled the air.


After an hour of traveling to the warehouses in lower Manhattan Ė slow going with too many cars out and too much slush and black ice on the streets Ė they got to TriBeCa and the right address.

Mickey pulled up to the loading dock and honked the horn a few times. A small door at the side of the warehouse opened, letting out a blast of bright light and a large rotund man, covered with a worn winter coat who approached the van.

"What you want?" he asked, his chewed cigar was clamped in his teeth at the side of his mouth as he squinted into the cab of the van.

"Weíre here for Saint Christinaís. To collect the toys for the donation," Mickey said, flashing a smile.

Robert detected the note of ease in Mickeyís manners. This was his milieu, after all. He grew up with blue-collar working-class men.

The man nodded and waved at someone inside the warehouse. The main dock doors opened and Robert saw a phalanx of men surrounded by boxes.

"Wow," Mickey said, "there looks like enough stuff here to keep both the church and the hospital wardís kids happy." He beamed at Robert. "Jesus, I feel like it is going to be a real Christmas this year!" He bounded out of the van to jump up on the dock and shake hands with the men there.

"Yo guys, we really appreciate you sticking around to help load the donation." Mickey patted a few shoulders and was met was smiles all around.

The man closest to the van smiled and nodded, "Our pleasure to help. Itís for kids, ainít that what the seasonís for?"

Robert got out of the van and glanced around the area. There were quite a few boxes and Robert knew that the van would be heavy on their drive back to Brooklyn. So many cartons meant that Control needed this to go well.

There, just inside the side door, stood the man himself. Control nodded to Robert and indicated that he should come into the room and join him. Raising an eyebrow, Robert looked at Mickey, whose attention was elsewhere, and Control shook his head. Robertís chest pinged. Something wasnít right, Control didnít want to speak to Mickey.

Mickey was busy with organizing the loading of the van, so Robert sauntered to the side door.

The bright lights inside pained his eyes for a moment, but not before he saw the second man in the room. Grigorii Lapachka.

Anger rose and Robert worked to quell it. Lapachka looked older than the last time he saw him, but still hale, healthy and handsome as ever. Who would know that this dapper gentleman, with a full head of perfectly coiffed, salt and pepper hair and clean and manicured nails was a duplicitous killer, rapist and torturer?

"Ah, Mister Robert McCall," Lapachka said in his usual polished way, as if welcoming a guest to tea. "I am honored to see you again." He swept nearer and extended his hand in greeting.

Contempt filled Robert. Staring the proffered hand down, he glanced at Control, who was leaning against a table, an untroubled expression on his face. Robert snapped. "I might have agreed to help you in this endeavor, Control, but that doesnít mean that I am happy doing it, nor that I will welcome this viper into my country or my acquaintance."

Lapachka backed off, hand to the side, a calm smile on his lips. "Old friend, I was hoping that you and I might Ė"

All reserve fell away as Robert lunged at Lapachka, his fist connecting soundly with the manís smiling lips.

"You will not presume to address me again!" Robert cautioned the bleeding Lapachka who had righted himself and was pulling a pure white handkerchief from his pocket to dab at his cut lip.

Control sighed audibly from his corner. "I was hoping that youíd be an example to our younger colleague on the way to swallow oneís personal feelings in order to do the right thing."

"Not the right thing," Robert corrected as he calmed himself down, "The necessary thing perhaps. But never the right thing."

"Can I hold you to your bargain then?" Control asked. "Will you still use your influence to get Kostmayer to agree to my proposal?"

Robert turned and looked Control full in the face. "I said I would. As hard as it is for me to agree with you, but this Ė" he pointed his gloved had at Lapachka "óperson is needed."

Lapachka smiled, and it was as confident and smug an expression as Robert had ever seen on another manís face.

"But I donít like it," Robert finished, "And if I ever hear that he has gone back to his old ways, I assure you Ė both of you Ė that I will terminate him myself."

Lapachka shrugged and turned away to open a drawer in a nearby desk. Robert had his pistol out aimed at the manís head before he had a chance to lift his hand to show a liquor bottle in it.

"Please, friend McCall. This bottle of Scotch is the most dangerous thing I have had in my possession since I pledged my loyalty to the United States." Lapachka opened the bottle with a flourish and lined up glasses taken from the drawer.

"Hey, Control," Mickey appeared squinting at the door, obviously his eyesight was as affected as Robert's had been by the bright lights, "I didnít know you were gonna be hó"

As Mickey saw Lapachka, Robert braced himself and stepped between them.

"What the hell is he doing here?" Mickeyís voice was stiff with anger, and Robert saw his eyes glint red with fury.

Robert stood facing Mickey, not certain how he should approach the subject.

"Heís here under my protection." Controlís voice cut through the tension in the room.

Lapachkaís voice sounded from behind him. "Old friend Kostmayer, surely you can be more forgiving ĖĎ

"Shut up," Control said, his words a stern order.

Mickeyís eyes wavered a little and then clamped onto Robert's. "Did you know about this?"

"I was made aware of the situation Ė and agreed to help Control approach you."

Mickeyís face registered confusion. "You mean youíre in favor of this garbage continuing to live?"

Lapachka cleared his throat, "I really must protest Ė"

" Ė I said shut up!" Control barked.

Robert heard a chair scrape and Lapachka expel a humph.

"Control came to me a few days ago," Robert started, doing his best to read Mickeyís face for his continuing emotions, "with the problem of trying to get your cooperation in permitting Lapachka to remain in this City, unmolested and alive."

"Why would anyone want him alive?" Mickey seared a hot glance towards Control.

"I protest, "Lapachka said.

Robert twirled to face him, "I suggest you keep your confounded mouth shut."

Lapachka smiled then, but his eyes were fixed on Mickey. His look was very pleased, and it hit Robert as wrong. The expression was almost amorous. Robertís sense of foreboding spiked. He turned back to face Mickey.

"We need him for something," Control said, and to Robertís ears it seemed he spoke half-heartedly.

"Need him?" Mickey repeated his face contorted with disgust. "Need a lying, sick monster like that?"

Robert heard movement behind him but Control was moving before Robert turned around to see Lapachka standing.

Placing himself toe to toe with the man Control spoke. "Leave this room. Get outside and wait for me at the car."

Robert caught Lapachkaís smug expression. "I will not be dismissed. After all this bad feeling is between friend Kostmayer and myself, it should be up to the two of us to smooth it out."

Robert stepped back and into Mickeyís advancing form and held his ground. He could hear Mickeyís rasping, angry breath in his ear.

"Get out and wait by the car," Control said each word separately. "I will be there in a moment." One extra long stare was exchanged and Lapachka, with a theatrical flourish and bright smile, took a step to the door, then turned around, grabbed the bottle of alcohol long forgotten on the table next to him, saluted them and walked out of a side door.

Robert turned back to check that Mickey wasnít going to follow Lapachka out, and then stepped away.

Mickeyís face was infused with anger as he snarled at Control. "You think that Iím such a pathetic fool that a donation of toys would bribe me into cooperating with you?"

"No, that would be me," Robert said.

"What?" Mickey almost spat at him.

"I was the one who agreed to help Control smooth the way to try to get your cooperation on this, but I insisted that a toy donation be made Ė as my payment."

"Why the hell would you cooperate in letting that scum remain alive and well?"

"Kostmayer," Control said.

"Iím not talking to you, dickweed," Mickey growled.

Insubordination to Control. Lovely. Mickey and Control facing off. Now Robert could look forward to having an angry bull on either side of him. Robert held a hand up to Control, hoping the man could control his ire until they wrapped up the mission at hand.

"Iíve listened to the whole rationale for permitting Lapachka a life here in this country Ė for as long as he can be of service." Robert hoped his words were getting through to his friend. "If I thought that the Company was being generous for an unworthy reason, I would not be here Ė you know me better than that, Mickey."

With a sudden look of understanding, Mickey stepped backward. "That big?"

Robert nodded. "Yes, nothing less would get me to try and dissuade you from doing what you would to that man. Nothing less than that would stop me from expediting his presence from the world myself."

"I wonít get into it in specifics," Control said, "But you deserve some information."

He pulled a chair out and indicated that Mickey take it. Finally he did, and Robert also sat as Control leaned on the desk. "Lapachka has wolfís ears. He hears everything that the terrorist community is considering. Iíve made it so that itís in his favor to let the Company know of everything that he hears."

"You canít trust him," Mickey said, his eyes hard stones. "Heíll lie to you at the first opportunity, making things worse. You canít trust him. Iíve got the scars to prove it."

Robert looked away as the memories of Mickeyís rescue from Lapachkaís possession flashed across his mind.

Lapachka had done a thorough job on Mickey. The younger agent had been badly tortured and at first glance they couldnít tell if he was still alive, his body had been horrifically covered by blood and bruises.

"Iím not a fool," Control said, "I donít trust him, but I know I can use him well, and thatís the reason that heís here in the city, alive and enjoying the Companyís largess."

Mickey suddenly looked pale, his body went rigid and sweat began to pour off him. He began rubbing his hands over his thighs as if wiping the memory of pain from them. The scars where Lapachka had ordered nails pounded into Mickey's hands seemed to be redder than usual.

"He had one man," Mickey rasped the words, "I called him the Ox, and he enjoyed his job. He got a kick from it. He even grossed Lapachka out. He left the cell whenever the Ox came in to work on me." A shiver overtook his body.

Control walked to a file cabinet, opened it and withdrew another bottle. He cracked the seal and passed it to Mickey along with a glass.

Shaky handed, Mickey poured himself a stiff one and sucked it down.

Needing one himself, Robert took hold of the bottle and a glass. He had his own memories to dull. Angola, Cyprus, Cambodia, all places that were burned indelibly onto his own flesh.

When he came up for air, he no idea how much time he had lost and Control was capping the bottle. "Lapachka hears everything. We need that right now. We keep him alive and happy Ė and he saves thousands of lives."

"Are you so sure?" Mickey asked, a mean sound coming though the tone." After what he did and how he did it, is it an equal swap?"

Control looked towards Robert, as if asking for his help and Robert found he couldnít add anything.

"It is a just exchange," Control finally nodded, "And I wonít let him get away with anything, I promise."

"Your promise isnít worth a Ė"

"Mickey," Robert found his voice, but he used it softly. "You know better than that."

Mickey turned to inspect the bottom of his glass. But his mouth was a hard, thin line.

"My word then," Robert said, "is that worth anything to you?"

"Look, McCall. Itís okay. Iím fine, no problem," Mickey set his glass down. "Iím not so sure I want anything to do with the toys anymore. Itís kinda soured on me." He stood up and turned to the door.

Robert rose up. "The toys have nothing to do with this, itís on my head, itís part of my bargain to stand here and try to talk you out of doing anything rash to Lapachka."

Mickeyís stance was that of a deflated man, he was sagging and his face no longer held any of the cheer that had been there earlier that day. "Yeah, okay, McCall."

"Mickey," Robert took a breath and glanced at Control in a pointed stare, "If I thought it was wrong I would not have agreed to let Lapachka continue to exist myself, much less talk you into being forgiving. So, it goes to follow, I would have agreed to this favor even without the payment of toys." He let his voice underline the last words as he glared at Mickey. "I see the van filled with things that will make people happy as a bonus, a way to make the Company-" he glanced at Control, "do something against its usual nature."

Control sat back in a chair, wisely keeping his mouth shut.

Mickey had his head down, looking at the floor. Slowly, he lifted his face to Robert. "I see what youíre doing."

Robert moved closer to Mickey, "And what am I doing?"

"Making the best of a bad situation?" Mickey cracked what looked like a painful smile.

"In a world of bad choices, thatís right." Robert wanted to pat his friend on the shoulder, but he didnít think Mickey could take a kindly touch at that point.

Mickey stepped to the table, grabbed the bottle, splashed another fingerís worth into it, drained the drink, then took a deep breath. "Iíd better go see how the guys are doing loading the van."

"Good idea, " Robert nodded.

Mickey slammed the glass down and left the room without a backwards look at Control.

After Mickeyís footsteps had faded Control exhaled a deep breath. "That went well," he said, with only a hint of irony.

"Well? He's angry and disappointed, depressed and bothered."

"Ah, but heís not homicidal." Control sat back, comfortably slumped. "Thatís always a good sign with Kostmayer."

Robert sighed and sank into a chair. "True."

"Iím thinking of assigning him a DND."

Robert looked up, trying to get a line on the manís thoughts. "Youíre thinking that he might not follow his promise to leave Lapachka alone ó or are you setting him up to do so?"

Control grimaced. "A ĎDo Not Detainí order on his profile for inside the country so no police department will hold him if heís found with blood on his hands is irregular. But Iím not telling him about it. That would be too much of an incentive to do what he wanted." He shrugged, "But I also know what was done to him by our guest out there, and although I wish I could guarantee that Mickeyíd leave him to me, I canít help but think that it might not turn out that way." He rubbed his forehead and looked up at Robert. "For his sake, donít let him know that Iíd understand if he broke his word. I wonít let him off, by any means, but if Mickey does something against Company policy, Iíll stow him somewhere safe until I decide what to do with him."

Disgust welled up. "Lovely, so no matter what, heís under your thumb. You want him to not harm Lapachka Ė yet if he does do something, youíll keep him healthy Ė until you can exact your own penance from him."

Control stood up and closed his coat tightly around him. "The way of the world, Old Son. You might see it as my way of owning Mickey no matter what, and I see it as protecting one of my best agents. "

Robert stood up and faced Control. "Oh right," he let sarcasm drip from his voice. "The milk of human kindness runs in your veins."

Control smiled, "I am the founder of the feast today, I am the one to give the makings of a fine Christmas to children in need."

"Then youíre either Father Christmas Ė or Scrooge?" Robert felt some tension slip away.

Control chuckled. "Pick either name. Iíve been called worse."

"As have I," Robert studied his old friend. "The penalty for living so long a life is that you get to play many parts, if you decide to get your hands dirty."

"I need to get to Lapachka in my car before the thug gets too drunk on my good scotch and decides to take over Flatbush Avenue and proclaim himself the potentate of the area Ė as heís done in other places before."

Robert chuckled, "And Iíve put off doing my share of the loading of the toys. By the way, thank you for getting volunteers to help pack the van."

"My pleasure, old Son," Control made to leave. "Christmas Eve, the regular place?í

Robert smiled, remembering the tradition they have of meeting for a quick one if they were both in the same part of the world. It had started over thirty yeas ago in a trench in Cambodia with Army chaplain and missionary, Father O'Donahugh who was ministering to the fighting men there. The conditions had been  deplorable, but he and Control and the good Father had made merry with cheap hooch and a surfeit of Christmas songs.

Robert felt the need to ask one last question, even if it left him with a bad taste in his mouth. "You say that Lapachka has turned over a new leaf. Are you certain, or is he liable to continue his unholy ways?"

A moment passed as the other man seemed to give it genuine thought. "As sure as I can be, Iíve been watching him for months. He has the profile of a man whoís trying to redeem himself."

"If indeed anyone can really redeem themselves." Robert felt a pall overtake him.

Control laughed suddenly. It was so rare a sound that Robert almost didnít recognize it.

"Oh come on, if you canít believe in redemption for the tarnished soul, then no one can. Isnít that what youíve been aiming at with all the "Equalizer" good deeds?"

"And you with youró" he lowered his voice so it was almost inaudible, "SandStar work?"

"Touché," Control smiled and walked out the back door, "See you Christmas Eve then."

"Yes," Robert said. And to Controlís departing back he muttered, "Joy to the world." Then shaking his head at the  madness of it all, he proceeded out to the loading dock.

The majority of the boxes had already been packed into the vehicle, and Robert saw Mickey standing by a group of the workmen, all laughing about something.

A truck turned the corner and at first Robert thought it suspicious, but the men seemed to be expecting it. He soon saw it was a Dunkin Donuts van, and when it stopped the men surrounded it as the driver got out and opened the back. Immediately Robert could smell coffee and chocolate and the almost overpoweringly sweet scent of sugared pastry.

Mickey caught sight of him and waved him closer.

"I asked the guys, and they recommended the Dunkin Donuts at the corner to deliver some goodies. I used the phone at the loading bay to order and get them to come."

Mickey seemed in good spirits, Robert could detect no shadows in his expression or eyes. "Good idea, Mick. If youíll allow it, Iíd like this to be on my tab for these fine fellows."

"Too late, "Mickey said "I already charged it on my card. Itís the least I can do, after all itís for my brotherís church."

One of the men near-by, took a moment from stuffing a donut in his mouth to step up to Mickey.

"Your brotherís church? The orders say Saint Chris in Brooklyn. Your brother a priest there?"

Mickey nodded, a gentle look of gladness on his face. "Yep, Father Kostmayerís my little brother."

"Well, well," the sixtyish man said, "Me and the wife are new in that neighborhood. We ainít got no kids at home no more but tell me when the Christmas shindigís gonna be held, weíll walk over and visit that night. If youíd like, my wife can bring some baked goods, sheĎs a great baker."

The manís face was so plainly filled with goodwill that Robert almost embraced him.

"Sure," Mickey said, "the partyís on the twenty-first. By all means, come to it. And bring anyone else from the neighborhood. Thatís what the Fathers at the church want. The more the merrier."

Nodding his head, the workman put his hand out to shake Mickeyís. "Thatíll be great! Nice to meet Ďcha. See you in church." He grinned, "Iím going for another jelly filled donut. The wife wonít let me have them at home." And he moved towards the truck.

When Mickey turned to face Robert, his look was once again good-natured.

"Have you calmed down about our unwanted visitor?" Robert used his thumb to point to the warehouse.

Mickey smiled, but there were dark undertones to the curve of his mouth and the look in his eyes. "I was able to chew on it a little. Did you see Lapachkaís expression in there?"

Robert remembered that the man appeared pleased and it had struck him as incongruous for the situation. "Yes, he had an almost Ė"

"Fervent? Passionate look to him?" Mickey nodded. "I got that too and then I figured it out. So Iím cool."

"Figured out what?" Robert didnít like it one bit that he was in the dark.

Mickey moved a bit further away from the group of men happily consuming doughnuts and hot chocolate. They went to a darkened side door.

"I remembered how that perv enjoyed his work." In the dark, Mickeyís eyes glinted as they moved. "He loved making men give up their secrets, making them bend to his will and do everything he wanted." A shudder passed over him, and Robert knew the memories were coursing through his friend once again.

"But I didnít break," Mickey said, "I was just too thick-headed and bone-stubborn to give in. I didnít respond to him the way he wanted Ė the way he needed his victims to act. And when I was rescued, I know it must have eaten at him that I got away before he could break me."

Robert was beginning to see. "So the man wanted to see you again today?"

"Someone who gets off as much as he did interrogatingĖ" Mickeyís voice broke, but he regained his composure right away, "ó isnít that balanced. My guess is that heís worked some of his plan with Control so that he can get his hands on me and finish what he started."

Robert thought for a moment. It all made convoluted sense. That strange expression upon Lapachkaís face when he looked at Mickey. And Controlís all but saying that if Mickey does do something, heíll be forgiven.

"You wonít be a damn fool and go after him, Mick, will you?" Robert almost didnít want to hear the answer.

Mickey stepped out from the shadows, "Not unless he makes a move for me. I can wait. Hell I waited for eighteen hours in a hole in that swamp in ĎNam, letting squads of black pajamas pass by until I saw that animal Hoang coming for me."

And he made short shrift of that man, Robert recalled.

Mickey dipped his head in a knowing nod. "Donít sweat it, McCall. I wonít do anything that will compromise anyone."

Robert grabbed him by his coat sleeve. "Do not think twice about anyoneís safety but your own if Lapachka makes a move toward you." He breathed deeply to relax, and let his friendís arm go. "Iíd back you up. Remember that." That Mickey also had Controlís support neednít be mentioned. Best not to let Mickey get too comfortable with the knowledge that Lapachkaís eventually messy end was foreseen by all.

"I know, Robert, " Mickey said, "Donít worry, I can handle anything he throws my way."

"Donít get too cocky. He might be a depraved man, but he is a resourceful one.í

Mickey looked at him and laughed. "Some say that about me."

Taken aback, Robert paused for a moment. "Same as is said about me, I suspect."

"Yep, they sure do." Mickey said with a mischievous grin. Robert scowled at him at first, but then felt his good humor breaking though. They walked back towards the loaders at the van.

"Itís all packed, buddy," A young black man slammed shut the back door of the van. He was holding a paper and passed it on to Mickey. "Sign here and youíre set to go."

Mickey looked over the paper, signed it and tore off the copy. As Mickey climbed aboard the driverís seat of the van, Robert made his way to the passengerís side. Just before entering, he waved to the workmen still munching on the food. "Good evening lads, Merry Christmas."

"Thanks guys!" Mickey shouted out the window, and amidst shouts of well wishes Mickey started the van.

Thatís when Robert heard the strains of the men starting to sing, "Oh Come All Ye Faithful". There was something wonderful in their untrained, happy voices.

Another wave out the windows and away they went toward Brooklyn and Saint Chris.

Mick pointed to the container of coffees on the seat between them, with a large box of doughnuts by its side. "Help yourself," Mickey said and he turned on the radio again to the all Christmas Song station.

As he sipped the coffee and indulged in the sweet cakes, remembering the shining faces of the decent blue-collar men as they did their good deed that night, Robert took a second to think about Control and Lapachka in their dark and silent car, traveling through their shadowed lives towards some unknown destination to work nefarious deed on equally nefarious men.

Then he realized that, all in all, he was happy that he had turned from being a Company pawn into someone who could spend a bit of time with good people and be able to share the holidayís warmth. That was something that Lapachka might never experience in his whole lifetime.

The true spirit of Christmas swelled within his chest and Robert gave a quick prayer:

God bless us, everyone.