“Susan, it costs too much. It has to go back.”
“Really, Dario? For all we know our lives are on the line.” She shifted her weight to the other foot, considering a way to persuade him. “Besides, we can use the webcam when the baby comes. That way, it’s not a waste of money.”
Dario rubbed the stubble on his chin, “That could work, but I’ll have to leave now. The others will be at the office soon. I’ll need enough time to plant the webcam in the Christmas tree. Then I’ll make sure it’s capturing the right angles. This should be good.”
“I hope so,” Susan wrapped her arms around herself. “I don’t like someone prying into our lives like this.”
“Don’t worry, hun,” he stroked her cheek then bent to look her in the eye. “We’ll know soon.”
Susan hoped so.
Dario parked two blocks away, then walked to his office building. He wore a hat to conceal his identity from the Secret Santa, just in case he or she was lurking. He entered the side door, constantly looking over his shoulder. It was this moment Dario realized this ordeal had him on heightened alert. There were things he never noticed before like the dark corner when he entered the building near the stairs. Now, he wondered if the predator was watching its prey from these very shadows.
Dario shuttered the thought, racing up the stairs, skipping over some to speed the process. When he reached his floor, he eased the door and snuck in being as quiet and unnoticeable as possible. He bumped into a cube wall or two, managing to make it to the Christmas tree.
He pulled the webcam from his coat pocket, taking the other hand to shine his cell phone towards the tree. He positioned the webcam in a way that mimicked an ornament. This was one of those times Dario was thankful for technological advances.
He dimmed the cell phone and made his way to his cube. When the light hit his desk, there was a black envelope with a gold leaf design around its edges. Dario’s body went cold. He dropped the cell phone, scurrying to turn on the desk lamp. Trembling, he looked down the aisle between the cubes looking for Secret Santa. The limited visibility revealed nothing.
Dario rushed to the bank of light switches. Still shaking, he staggered back to his desk. He opened the envelope and found tickets to the production of Swan Lake. As with the previous gifts, the note declared From Secret Santa, but this time there was something added – Nice try!
He threw the note at the desk. He assumed the unknown individual knew about the webcam. Paranoia kicked in with a vengeance.
He jumped at the sound of his name.
“Hey, man. Are you alright,” the co-worker’s brow furrowed, then eased. “The day’s just getting started. You shouldn’t be stressed yet.”
Dario didn’t respond. Blank-stared, he rose from his chair, heading to the bathroom. He didn’t know what to do. He and Susan hadn’t discussed a Plan B.
Dario hadn’t slept the night before. He was too scared and wired. With red eyes that didn’t blink and Frankenstein-like movement, he trudged into the office with the others. Some whispered amongst themselves out of concern. Others went along their way as if nothing were amiss.
Nearing his desk, his stomach tightened. He peered around the cubicle wall as if something would jump out. When he looked at the desk, there was nothing there. A sense of relief filled him. He text Susan.
Then it happened.
“Dario, this was in the mailroom for you.”
It was a yellow interoffice envelope with multiple names scratched through except his. Part of him was on egg shells. The other assuring him it was ordinary office stuff.
Chills ran up his spine as he discovered yet another gift certificate. This time for a maid service . Dario’s face twitched. He had had enough. Something within broke.
He marched down to the lobby, posting himself in front of the security officer at the desk.
“Yes sir, how can I help you?”
“You guys video all the movement that happens in this building, right?”
“Sir, that’s something I cannot disclose.”
Dario kept his composure outwardly while his insides were on fire, “I really need your help.”
“Sir, are you in danger?”
“Here’s the situation. For the past eight days, someone has been leaving gifts on my desk. I don’t know who it is, but these gifts have been very personal. I haven’t been able to sleep, my girlfriend’s upset, and I really need your help trying to figure out who it is.”
The security officer laughed, “I wish I had that problem.” He straightened up when he noticed Dario wasn’t laughing too. “Look sir, the best I can do is direct you to HR. But keep in mind that things like this have legal red tape and that can take a while.”
Dario’s shoulders slumped as he slinked away.
The incognito gift-giving continued. Day nine presented VIP access to a gentlemen’s club. On any other occasion, Dario would have welcomed the gift. Day ten revealed a suit from Lord and Taylor. Day eleven was an engagement ring from Piper and Sons. It was this gift that provided a clue.
Two months prior, Dario asked his co-workers how he should propose to Susan over Christmas. But only one saw the engagement ring online from Pipers and Sons he wanted to buy. And that co-worker was Caroline.
“Caroline, can I talk to you for a moment?” His tone and facial expression were angered. This was one of the few times they matched.
“Sure Dario. What’s going on?”
He pulled Caroline into the copy room and shut the door. “That’s what I’d like to know. Why have you been sneaking around leaving gifts on my desk?”
“What? I haven’t left-“
“Save it. You’re the only one that knew what ring I was going to buy for Susan. What I don’t understand is your angle with all the other stuff. Especially about the sonogram. How did you do that?”
Caroline’s eyes widened as the offenses flew. “Dario, I really don’t know what you’re talking about. Believe me, I don’t get paid enough around here to buy anyone an engagement ring. And second of all I have no clue about a sonogram.” She folded her arms, “Did you ever consider that anyone else in the office could have heard our conversation that day or went through your computer when you stepped away. You never lock that thing.”
Dario said nothing. Caroline waited for an apology. Dario stared at her as if removing layers to determine if she was lying. Caroline left.
Day 12 – Christmas Day
Susan and Dario sat at the kitchen table eating breakfast with nerves on pins and needles. They didn’t know if there would be another gift considering the office was closed for the holiday. Then humor sunk in. The duo joked about ways the final gift could arrive – from Santa coming down the chimney to three wise men bearing the gift.
“Really interesting how that nut pulled this off,” Dario remarked.
“Downright clever.” Susan looked down at her ring finger, humming a few bars of a familiar carol. Then she sang, “Eleven, ring from Piper and Sons. Ten, suit from Lord and Taylor. Nine, naked ladies dancing.”
“Eight, was the maid service. Seven, tickets to Swan Lake. Six, I’m the geese that’s laying.”
In mid-swallow, Dario spewed coffee across the table in laughter at Susan’s last comment.
She giggled before continuing, “Fii-ve, at the Golden Rii-ng. Four, a calling watch. Three, at the French Hen. Two, an ornament of doves. And Dario’s partridge in pear sauce.
Dario smiled, clapping at Susan’s spin on their uneasy situation.
They jumped, looking at one another wondering what to do next. Dario crept towards the door, peering through the peephole before opening.
“Merry Christmas, Dario!”
“Merry Christmas, Claude. C’mon in.” Dario knew this had to be it – the twelfth gift.
“I can’t stay. I just wanted to drop this off. Somebody left it on my porch this morning. Thought it might be a gift from one of your loved ones.”
Dario rolled his eyes as he accepted the last gift from his neighbor – or at least he hoped it was the last. “Thanks Claude. Did you see who left it?”
“No, that’s the strangest thing. Somebody rang the doorbell. I opened the door, and nobody was there. Just this box with your name on it.”
“Well, I really appreciate you bringing it over.”
“Anytime. Merry Christmas, and tell Susan the same.”
Dario opened the cardboard box. Inside a small device lay with a note – Play Me. He pressed the button. The ratta-tat-tat of a drumroll played. After the cymbal crash a distorted voice mentioned a website then a dollar amount Dario had to rewind to make sure he heard right.
For ten thousand dollars, I’ll keep the secret. Pay nothing, and lose it all.
Puzzle-faced, Dario and Susan hurried to the laptop to find out what the website was all about.
Susan gasped, then covered her mouth. Dario’s eyes grew the size of saucers. He turned towards Susan, “something you want to tell me?”
“That’s not me!”
Dario looked at the screen again, comparing the wanted poster to Susan. “Oh really? Sure looks like it. On the run, are we?”
“I promise you, it’s not me. This has to be some kind of joke.”
“A sick one, don’t you think?”
“Dario, it’s not me. I’ll prove it.” Susan called her parents. They confirmed she had been adopted. Her twin had been placed with another family, and rumor had it she’s a handful.
That still wasn’t enough. It wasn’t until he read about tattoos and a birthmark that he believed her. Susan didn’t have as much as a mole on her body.
Susan was offended. Dario explained his apprehensions with everything that had been happening. She understood and eased. They kissed to make up.
The couple’s heads snapped simultaneously towards the door.
“Dario don’t open it.”
He paused for thought.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Well, the person said they wanted money or they’d tell. So maybe it’s them. Don’t open it. Could be dangerous.”
“If that’s the case, I want to know who’s behind all of this so I can kick their-.” Dario trailed off as he peered through the living room blinds. “It’s Barb, and one of our clients. That’s odd.” He opened the door.
In unison the visitors yelled, “Merry Christmas!”
“Well Merry Christmas! What are you guys doing here?” Susan joined Dario’s side.
“Can we come in,” Barb asked.
The two filed into Dario’s foyer. Barb spoke, “Dario you remember Bob?”
Dario shook his head in agreement.
“Well, he has something to tell you. Go ahead, Bob.”
Dario listened with curiosity at first. Somewhere along the way he went deaf. Bob’s lips were moving, but nothing was coming out. His hearing returned when the decibels rose in Susan’s voice.
“So you mean to tell me, for the last twelve days you harassed and scared the bejeepers out of Dario and me, using our personal information for some OFF-THE -WALL REALITY SHOW?”
Embarrassed, Bob cleared his throat. “Well, harassed is a strong word, don’t you think? We’ll compensate you and, uh Dario for the footage. We just need you both to sign a waiver.” Bob passed the paperwork to Susan. “And the gifts are yours. Once this airs, the ratings will go through the roof. You’ll both be famous. Won’t that be grand?”
Dario finally spoke, “Barb, you knew about all of this?”
Responding nervously, “Uh, yes.” Then courage kicked in. “But Dario, it’s a huge account and we’re making a lot of money and you will too. I thought you’d be a good sport about it. Especially since you like free-”
“I quit! GET OUT!” Dario shoved them out the door.
In the end, Dario and Susan sued the marketing firm and its client – and won. With a portion of the settlement they subsidized their wedding, created a college fund for the baby, and socked away for retirement. The rest they invested wisely, never having to work again.