[personal profile] hwrnmnbsol
I had to think fast. I couldn't keep taking turns to see if my shadow would stay on my tail; sooner or later he'd catch on that I had caught on. There were three basic things I could do – shake the tail, lose the tail and then follow him, or catch the tail and brace him. I opted for the last one. I had been beaten up, carried around and insulted quite a bit in the previous forty-eight hours, and I felt I was due for a little unpleasantness.

I decided to pull a Polar Bear. On the next block I spotted a promising place to do it – a homeowner's private igloo with no smoke coming out of the chimney. I ducked inside it, hoping it was unoccupied. I was lucky; the lights were off and the house was empty.

My pursuer didn't come in right away. He must have looked at that wind-flap for a minute trying to decide what to do. But I knew he couldn't resist. A polar bear knows if he waits by the air-hole long enough, a seal will stick its head through. It has to.

The elf poked his pointed hat through the doorway. I was waiting. I grabbed him by his ears and pulled him through. He yelped and stumbled, landing hard on his face. "Hi, honey; I'm home!" I said, grabbing him by a shoulder and rolling him onto his back. He was an aging elf with once-sandy hair going white, a somewhat vacant expression and perfectly straight teeth. His nose was starting to bleed. "Oh, gosh," he said, putting his hands to his face, "I hope I didn't break any crowns!"

"Hey, wait a second," I said suspiciously. The elf looked familiar to me for sure. I snapped my fingers.

"You're Hermey," I said.

He nodded unhappily. "The dentist," he said. "And Rudolf's best friend."

I pulled some ice off the ceiling, wrapped it in a handkerchief and held it to Hermey's nose. "Keep it elevated," I said.

"Ahhghhh," he gurgled. "Oh, that smarts."

"Sorry about that," I said. "How come you were following me, anyway?"

"Well, I wanted to see where you would go, what you would do," he said. "I wasn't sure if I could trust you."

"Why couldn't you trust somebody who's trying to figure out who offed your friend?" I asked.

Hermey closed his eyes. I realized that the elf was scared, and scared bad. "Listen," he said quietly, "there's bad things happening in Christmastown. Things that Rudolf found out about. It got him killed. I have to be careful what I do or say. I can't arouse any suspicions. If I get caught…" His voice trailed off.

"Caught by who?" I asked. Hermey shook his head obstinately.

"Okay, I see," I said. "That's the game. There's things you can tell me and things that you can't. Is that the story?" Hermey nodded. I nodded back.

"Got it," I said. "So, I went to see Yukon Cornelius. I guess you're the one who called me earlier?" Hermey nodded vigorously.

"Yeah. So, anyway, I'm pretty sure the prospector is caught up in all this. Confirm or deny?"

Hermey hesitated, then nodded.

"That was weird, but close enough," I said guardedly. "All right, so Yukon wants Rudolf dead. Why? And did he involve Fireball in the murder?"

"You're barking up the wrong tree," said Hermey.

"I found a nail in a tree," I said. "Mean anything to you?"

Hermey looked extremely anxious. "I have to go," he said.

"Just tell me a few more things," I pleaded.

"No! let me go!" whined Hermey. "Listen, I told you what you need to know. Rudolf found something. He had some pictures. He must have hidden them; I don't know where. But his funeral service is this afternoon; the whole town will be there, including Rudolf's family. His house should be empty." Hermey pushed past me; I let him go. He hesitated in the doorway.

"We should talk more later," he said. "I have to be at the funeral; I'd be missed. Come to my dentist shop later on. But be careful! You don't know these people!"

"What people?" I asked. But Hermey was gone.

I left a minute later, to make sure Hermey and I weren't spotted together, in case his paranoia was justified. A bell was tolling at the Christmastown Cathedral of Saint Nicholas. I walked back to Main Street and saw a steady stream of people going to church. The funeral would probably be standing room only.

I found a phone book and got the address to Rudolf's house, then glided there. It was a spacious, split-level igloo on the schmantzy side of town. There was a nice yard out front full of ice sculptures, and there was an expensive sleigh parked under a canopy. It looked like leading Santa's reindeer team must have paid pretty well.

In Christmastown nobody locks their doors, on account of the fact that there are no doors to lock, aside from Santa's castle. The front wind-flap was enormous; I didn't even need to duck to get inside. The house was roomy and lived-in, with kids' toys all over the floor and designer furniture fitted with slip-covers. Hermey was right; nobody was home.

I glided slowly through the common rooms of the family. There was a huge television, a warm kitchen with dirty dishes in the sink, a game room with a ping-pong table. I drifted up into the upper level. There were bedrooms, two big bathrooms and a study. This last looked like Rudolf's private retreat. I focused my attention on that.

The study was full of memorabilia. There were photos with celebrities, a gilt plaque reading PAN AM 103 THANKS RUDOLF - OUR SAVIOUR, and a set of 'Top Antler' awards, apparently given by Santa to the reindeer of the year. Rudolf had won a lot of them.

There was a picture of Rudolf (very young) and Santa (completely unchanged) standing together with Rudolf's nose aglow; Santa had signed it YR NOSE – SO BRIGHT! –NICKY. There was a progression of Rudolf's shed antlers, one set per decade, mounted on wooden bases, starting with a set of knobby prongs and ending with magnificent 12-point racks. There were photos of Rudolf's wife and kids, the key to the city of Oslo, and even a gold record from that time when he had done that Christmas album with Sinatra. This was a room where a successful reindeer could sit back and look at all the things he had accomplished over a long and productive life.

I picked through Rudolf's desk. There were lots of bills, personal correspondence, fan mail – tame stuff. I went through all the drawers. There was nothing of interest. There were no false bottoms. There was nothing under the rugs, folded up in books or stuffed in the light fixtures.

I paused a moment, looking again at the photo of Rudolf and Santa. Was it a bit crooked on the wall? I lifted the picture frame and flipped it over. There was a slit in the backing, and a yellow envelope was peeking out of it.

"Very good," rumbled a deep voice. I looked up. The Abominable Snowman was peeking into the room. As big and strong as he was, he had slid his claws underneath a tier of the ice-blocks that made up the igloo's outside wall, and he had lifted the entire top of the house like a bear looking into a garbage bin.

"Couldn't come in and look myself," he said. "Too big. Figured you'd be along and do the work for me, though." He thrust in his other paw. "Hand it over, Sam."

"Hand what over?" I asked.

"What you just found," said the Abominable Snowman impatiently.

I drew out the yellow envelope and waved it around. "You have no idea what's in here," I said. "Do you, A-Bomb?"

"I know what's in there," the Abominable Snowman rumbled. "It's called evidence, and you're withholding it."

"How did you know there would be evidence hidden here, I wonder?" I said. "That's some incredible police detective work. Or, maybe, you're doing what somebody told you to do."

"Enough with your lip, snooper," said the Abominable Snowman. "I want that envelope. Now."

"Okay, okay," I said, holding it up. "Here."

The cop reached down for the envelope with his free hand. The gap between the ice blocks was narrow enough that he had to take his eyes off of me as he groped downwards. As the hand came into range, I jumped up, grabbed it with both hands, and let my weight pull us downwards.

The Abominable Snowman howled, but by tipping him forwards he had lost his footing; he didn't have anything to brace against to pull his arm back. I grabbed the edge of Rudolf's heavy mahogany desk and tipped it over onto the policeman's wrist. He screamed as the heavy desk crushed the small bones of his hand. He was trapped.

I picked up the envelope and fled the scene. Now, I knew, I was in trouble. The Abominable Snowman, once loose, would probably rip me apart if he caught up to me. But one doesn't just hand clues over to the cops. It's not done. Especially if the cops are playing some kind of game of their own.

I couldn't go back to my office. I retreated to the park and opened the envelope. As Hermey has said, it had photos. I flipped through them.

They were grainy and blurred, plainly taken using a moving camera in too-bright lighting from high above the ground. The shots seemed to be looking down at a portion of the Arctic landscape; there was broken ice and blue-green seawater. But there were also structures. And things.

I cycled through the twelve photos twice. I turned them around, looking at them from all angles. It showed a huge stretch of ice separated from the main northern pack by a narrow corridor of water. I felt I had seen this before – but where?

I was sure Rudolf had taken the photos. Only a flying reindeer could vary the angle and elevation so widely, unless Yukon Cornelius had invested in a helicopter. One of the shots had been taken from quite close to the ground, and it was unfortunately very washed out, but there was an object in the foreground that I wanted to identify. It looked a bit like a person lying on the ice, but the proportions were all wrong, and the colors –

I realized I was looking at a rag doll – a doll with no eyes. Then it hit me – I knew where these photos had been taken.

The Island of Misfit Toys.

My estimate of 7 parts looks accurate.



September 2012

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