And then the bells rang.

And then the bell rang -

And every time the bells ring it’s some damn fool wanting something or the other, usually money. he thought, fighting up and out of the deep thick sleep. Potter snatched the phone from the cradle.

“Potter,” he snapped. But then something flooded back into his body, some sweet recollection that evaporated almost the moment he tasted it -

How did his fingernails get so dirty?

“ - are you listening, Potter? I said, it’s all gone south, the whole damn thing. You said you had the board sewed up. You said you had every vote.”

“Stop. What the devil are you talking about -”

“Who’s this Christopher Geist the Third, is what I’m talking about. Tall guy. Snappy dresser. Gray hair. He shows up and spreads around some photos of Wainright and the chippie. Same ones you used on the chairman. Says you were trying to apply pressure to Sam. Didn’t make any accusations, didn’t say blackmail, but he didn’t have to. Says he checked out the dame, it’s all on the level, she was trying to get Sam’s help with a friend, a guy who's in dutch with bank exminers or something. This Geist character wonders aloud what the law might make of your ploy. Half the board resigned on the spot and I don’t have to tell you which half. You there?”

“I’m here.”

“Well, stay there. Deal’s dead. Watch your back. I gotta go. I’ll send my bill the usual way.” The phone went dead.

Potter stared at the receiver, numb.

How did he get the pictures? The safe -

Potter pushed back and wheeled over to his safe. His hands were sweaty, and he overshot the combination twice. Finally the door opened, and felt for the folder of the negatives he’d used on Wainright. They were there, as was the envelope he’d gotten from that drunk Billy - but fat lot of good the money would do him now, he was out ten times that much from this evening’s fiasco. And there was something else -

- he felt something pierce his thumb - he yanked his hand out of his safe, scowling; a bead of blood formed on the tip of his finger.

He felt in the darkness of his safe again, felt something soft. Henry Potter closed his hands around the sharp thin stem, and took out a single black rose from his safe.

----

Shortly after one, the doorbell rang at the Bailey household. George awoke with a shot of dread sluicing through his heart - but no. No. Everything was fine. Even that regulator fellow had contributed and ripped up the papers right in front of him, and they all smiled. He said he’s square it with his boss -


The bell rang again.

- If his boss was the sort of fellow you could square these things with, that is.

“George?” Mary was awake. George could see her worried face in the moonlight. He’s seen the same expression earlier in the night when everyone was dumping their money into the basket. The expression that said she wondered whether this was their life to come - trouble, error, last-minute deliverance. How long would the Bailey luck curse them? George used to ask, in jest. And he knew she asked herself How long would the Bailey luck save them? Really no answer for that, and he knew it.

George put a finger to his lips - shhh - and went downstairs. He opened the door, half expecting Bert the Cop to tell him someone was breaking into the bank.

An elegant gentleman in a black suit was standing on the porch. George could smell the rose pinned to his lapel.

“This is a little late,” he said. “but I hope it helps.” He handed George a cigar box. The man gave a slight bow and backed off the porch. George watched him walk down the sidewalk, whistling, his silver hair shining in the light of the moon.

George opened the box. Coins. A dollar or so. He frowned, looked at the lid of the box -

First National Bank of Me

He grinned. Some kid’s donation. At this hour? Well, he’d given it to his father. Maybe dad worked late. George closed the door. He was about the dump the coins into the basket on the dining room table, when he noticed that one of the coins was gold.

Been a while since he’d seen one of those.

George knew something about coins. It was one of his hobbies. A man could look at coins and imagine all sorts of things. Where they’d been. What they’d done. He put aside rare coins that came into the bank, figuring one day he’d tell the kids about them. If they were interested.

The gold coin was in perfect condition.

The gold coin was double-struck.

Two faces on top of one another, separated by a hair’s breadth. Ruined, he thought, but all the more valuable for it.

George felt his breath catch in his throat. A double-struck gold fifty-cent piece - well, by golly, that was about as rare as they came. He looked at the dimes, nickels, pennies. - ordinary. Old, but ordinary.

Among the common currency, a valuable mistake. There was more money in the cigar box than there was in the basket.

But the money in the basket was all he needed.

He looked at the basket, and wondered how many coins and bills were rare, how much extra money he could find . . . he could sift through the basket, looking for more . . . he could find something rare, something whose true value the donor didn’t know . . . mistakes, honest mistakes from which he could profit -

Honest mistakes from which he could profit -

George Bailey poured the coins into the basket. He plunged his hand into the money burying the coins, mixing the double-struck piece with its kin, over, and over again until his hands felt coated with the shopworn aroma of the coins and the bills.

“Let old man Potter sort it out,” he said. He went upstairs and got into bed. Mary asked what happened, and he said he’d tell her in the morning. He put his hands on her face and kissed her.

“Merry Christmas,” George Bailey said.

“Your hands,” she murmured, half asleep. “Your hands smell like roses.”