He suddenly felt as though he’d been struck - hard - as he was made of thick wet wood, and someone had slammed a hammer into his legs. His head jerked up - a horn sounded somewhere, something hissed then died away.

Mis - ter Potter.

There was a man seated across from him. He was slim and elegant; his silver hair was immaculately arranged in gray waves swept back from his forehead. He had a close-cut beard, white as the marble walls of the bank. He wore a coal-black suit, double-breasted, with a black rose in the lapel.

“Who - how did you - what are you doing in here? Johnson! Parker!”

“Oh, don’t bother. They can’t hear you. We’re somewhere else now, you and I. And we have things to do and things to see.”

Potter sat up straight and gave the stranger his fiercest expression, the look that made the new tellers wet themselves. “See here, sir,” he said. “I demand you -”

“Silly man,” the stranger smiled. “You have no power here. I am the Devil, come to make you a deal. Hah! Just kidding. I’m Santa Claus. No? All right, let’s try this: I am the Ghost of Christmas Future.”

Potter peered at the fellow, then laughed - a short sharp bark of contempt. He picked up his pen and looked down at the papers he had been reading before his nap. “Nonsense,” he said. “You are a charlatan from the community theater, come to frighten an old man for some devious amusement. You can’t even get your lines right. The ghost of Christmas Past comes first.”

“Not this time,” said the stranger. He laid his hand on Potter’s; it was cold and dry. “For you, my friend . . . things are different.”

The room fell away like a house of sugar in a warm summer rain.

Potter was standing - standing! His withered legs firm as the pillars of the bank - on a streetcorner. It was the afternoon, winter, no snow.

“Where - where - ”

“Bedford Falls, 1996,” said the spirit. “A little less interesting, eh?”

“The stores . . . they’re empty. Tell me, was there another Depression? Tell me! I must move to a cash position if -”

“Nothing that dramatic. Things changed. People changed. The small stores downtown are empty, but the big stores on the edge of town thrive. People have more choices, better value, goods from all over the world. They have lost their downtowns, but . . .” The spirit shrugged. “We did the whole three-ghost bit with Mr. Walton., but it didn’t budge him a bit. In any case, look there - see your bank?”

Potter stared in awe at the building - ten stories high! Sheathed in mirrored gold! At its apex, a glowing red 1. “And - the Savings and Loan?” The spirit pointed to the old Bailey S&L. Potter frowned. “Who is this Starbucks, that he could buy it from under my nose?”

“Oh, it was never yours to buy. And your bank is not your bank, either. It was bought by a multi-state holding company after your death, Potter, and absorbed into a bank whose power and riches you could never imagine. Your wealth will not survive you; taxes will take most of it. Your name will die quicker.”

Potter stared around the empty town. “Spirit!” He cried. “Is there anything I can do to change this horrid fate?”

The Spirit smiled, it was almost a kind smile.

"Men like you," he said, "will be like bugs between the thumb and index finger of a nasty little boy. The type who likes to see what squirts out when they crush them. The assets you spent a life building are no more than a rounding error to the men who buy your ledgers."

He grabbed Potter’s shoulders, and a horrible cold wave passed through the old man; the world spun, cracked, falling like shards from a shattered windshield - then he found himself outside his bank, looking through the window. He saw George Bailey, earnest, pleading; he saw himself behind the desk, regarding Bailey with contempt and amusement.

“Gog and Magog, the dress rehearsal,” said a voice behind him. Potter wheeled around - the sme Spirit was standing behind him, wearing a white rose in his lapel.

“Are you - are you also to be -”

“Yes, Christmas Present. It’s a busy night for us. I’m filling in. I repeat - are you aware what an opportunity you missed with Bailey?”

“I don’t understand.”

“People hate you. They come to you because you have the money, but if you’d merged with George and let him run the home loan department, you’d have doubled your business. They trust him. They hate you.”

“I never expected them to love me,” Potter frowned. “I wanted them to need me. They have to hate someone, Spirit.” He sneered, suddenly fond of his new idea. “I gave them a target. They always need a target. I didn’t mind, as long as they queued up to deposit their checks. You could say I performed a public service. No one ever tried to mount a run on my bank. The idea that old man Potter was insolvent would never occur to them. They hated me because I was smarter than they were. Smart enough to know better than to squander their money on some soft-hearted scheme, or entrust it to a drunk.”

“Really? They fear you, they hate you - and that makes you safe? Well. Let’s take a look at another flavor of the present, shall we? A possible present that bears the mark of your soul. Such as it is.”

The spirit put a hand on Potter’s shoulder, and the world erupted in a blizzard of noise and music. Potter goggled - the streets of Bedford Falls were ablaze with light, loud with crude jazz - letters writhed on neon signs, screams and laughter gushed in brackish floods from the open doors of every building. A few feet away, a couple had thrown themselves in the snow and were making love; by the gutter, bent over, a man was sick against the wheels of a taxi. Sirens cried in the distance.

“Pottersville,” the spirit sighed. “That's not its real name. But that's what everyone calls it. With pleasure, when they arrive. With a curse, when they awake.”