MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Md. - Close to broke and cold to the bone, Minister Harry lingered by the grocery store's checkout counter Thursday morning, clutching a shrink-wrapped brownie, waiting as long as he could before paying his last quarter.
Stay inside, stay warm, Harry thought. A white-bearded, heavyset stranger approached. Gently pressed a $100 bill into Harry's hand.
"Merry Christmas," the stranger said quietly. "Don't lose it."
The Washington area, jolted by the random terror of 10 deadly sniper shootings earlier this fall, received surprises of a far more pleasant type this week from a mystery man whose reputation is well-known to Kansas Citians: The man who calls himself Secret Santa.
The wealthy Jackson County businessman has for years dispensed money -- always anonymously, usually in $100 increments -- in the Kansas City area to those in need.
Recently, he's gone national. Last year, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Secret Santa journeyed to New York with his Christmas cash.
In October, when the shootings began in and around Washington, it was clear to him where he had to go this year to spread his brand of holiday cheer.
"Even before they caught (the alleged snipers), I knew I had to go," he said. "These people held our nation hostage. I couldn't imagine what the community was going through."
He arrived carrying $25,000, wearing a black baseball cap emblazoned with the names of all 10 persons killed by the sniper, resolved to visit all the sites from the shooting spree and help as many people as he could.
Since the families of the snipers' victims were aided by a community fund, Secret Santa decided to focus on others -- the everyday people who lived in fear while the shootings stretched on, day after day.
Like Minister Harry, who lives under a bridge near the site of one of the shootings.
"I told him, `Don't worry, I won't lose it'," Harry said. "I didn't think it would be this cold today. Now I can ride the bus all day."
Secret Santa left the grocery store and climbed back into his ersatz sleigh: A Ford van driven by retired FBI agent Larry McCormick and escorted by a Montgomery County police cruiser and two officers. FBI agent Michael Ross, who helped lead the sniper investigation, also came along.
"Considering how traumatized this area was, this is something that in a little way is part of the healing process," Ross said.
The van cruised the same streets the snipers had, Secret Santa picking out folks who looked like they could use some help; dropping $100, $200, $300 at a time at bus stops, gas stations, laundromats; brightening some days along the way.
Leonora Licanda, whose 10-year-old son has Down's syndrome.
"It's not a little help," Licanda said after joyously hugging the others standing at her bus stop on a busy arterial. "It's a big help."
Al Mitchell, who was picking a bent-but-not-quite-broken cigarette from a strip mall trash can as Secret Santa approached. He headed straight for a nearby grocery store after getting his $100.
"It makes me feel a lot better," Mitchell said. "I'm going to get me and my wife something to eat."
Kris Henry, a grocery store clerk.
"I promised my son some shoes for Christmas," Henry said.
Vicky Omenitch, an 82-year-old retired schoolteacher.
"This is going to go right to the church," she said.
James Estep, unemployed for 15 months, who would pay some bills. Clavetia Charles, who would buy some Christmas gifts without having to wait for the post-Christmas sales. Mac Blassingame, 78 and without health insurance, who would buy some arm patches for his heart condition. Hilda Bloss, living on a fixed income, who had just bought some 99-cent gifts at the Salvation Army. Now, she could buy her daughter a nice skirt -- new.
Rent, gifts, bills. Secret Santa likes to hear all the stories, to know he's doing some good, hopes others might hear about his work and follow suit with kindnesses of their own.
"I get the most," he said. "I get my soul touched by everyone I come in contact with."
He knows some might quibble with his choice of giving, with the randomness and one-time nature of it.
"If they want to buy a hamburger and a six-pack and that makes `em happy, then I'm happy," he said. "I can't dictate what people will do with it. Everybody's got a story and they all have a need."
His motive? Call it payback to a man named Ted Horn. In full, plus interest.
Horn, now 84 and retired, was a small-town Mississippi diner owner who gave Secret Santa a hand more than 30 years ago, when he was out of a job, out of money and seemingly out of luck.
When Secret Santa finished his meal at Horn's diner, he pretended he didn't have his wallet. Horn bent down next to Secret Santa's stool, said, "I think you dropped this," and handed Secret Santa $20. Secret Santa paid the bill, gassed up his car, and sped out of town before whoever had dropped the $20 came looking for it. Only later did he realize what Horn had done for him.
"I made a vow that if I was ever in a position to help someone, I'd do it," he said.
Stamped in red on each $100 bill he gave out Thursday was "Ted Horn: 2002."
Most didn't notice. Like Mal Vasanth, 54, they were too shocked by the sight of the burly man in the Carhartt work pants, old red flannel shirt and tan vest walking through their day trailing $100 bills.
Said Vasanth, whose kids would get some extra gifts this year: "May God bless him with good health."