[personal profile] hwrnmnbsol
There was a payphone on the edge of the park. I called up the Abominable Snowman. He picked up on the third ring. "Christmastown Police," he rumbled.

"I know you don't want me calling you," I said, "but I had no choice. No way you're dialing me with your bum hand."

There was a hint of growl in his voice. "Sam the Snowman, as soon as I catch you, I am going to hang you upside-down in an ice cave."

"Tricky, as I have no feet," I replied. "Listen, don't bother with the phone trace. I'm going to tell you exactly where I'm going to be. You can just come on by and scoop me up."

"Sure I can," said the Abominable Snowman. "Pull the other one."

"I'm serious," I said. "I'm going to go and extract a confession from the guy who killed Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

"That guy's in jail, Sam," said the cop. "You can talk to him about it when you're roommates."

"The killer's not in jail," I said. "His name is Saint Nicholas, aka Kris Kringle, aka Santa Claus. In ten minutes, at his castle, he's going to confess to murdering Rudolf." I let that hang in the air a second. "You might not want to miss it," I added.

The Abominable Snowman cleared his throat uncertainly. "What?" he said.

I hung up. The conversation had reached its zenith anyway.

I glided towards the castle. Santa, you were beloved the world over, a champion of children, a force for good.

How could you?

All the lights were on at the Santa Claus place. When I approached the front door, no elf opened it for me. It was, however, open a crack. I walked into the front hall. No elf took my coat. It looked like the help had the night off.

I wandered through the empty halls of the castle, looking into each room. There was nobody home. I knew where I needed to go, though. I retraced the path back to Santa's den and opened the door.

Santa was sitting in his overstuffed chair, looking into the flames of a roaring fire. He had a full glass at his side, and two empty bottles on the floor. Old man was stealing my moves. He didn't look up when I came in.

"Why?" I said simply. He still didn't look up, his normally jolly face peering intently into the fireplace, eyes fixed as if hypnotized.

"Why?" he repeated. "Lots of questions there. Sit down, Sam. Make yourself a drink. Tell me what you want to know."

"I'll stand, thanks," I said. "Why'd you kill Rudolf?"

A faint frown creased his forehead. Then Santa looked at me. He wasn't smiling.

"You dumb motherfucker," said the jolly old elf. "That's what I hired you to find out. It's the one damned thing you didn't dig into. Honestly, Sam, I knew you were a drunk and a screw-up, but I had no idea how incompetent you've become."

That took me a bit aback. "Sorry to disappoint," I said. "If you felt I was such a bad detective, why'd you hire me in the first place?"

"Because you're a bad detective!" roared Santa. "Or at least you should be. Raging drunk; can't find his own ass with two hands and a full-length mirror; I expected you not to make it out of your office door! I just wanted you to clear my boy Fireball, not dig into all this other business!"

"Yeah?" I said. "What business is that?"

"Oh, shut up," said Santa disgustedly. "Don't play dumb. Obviously you're not dumb. Drunk, yes. Pig-headed, sure. Unfortunately, not dumb." He sipped from his glass, then waved a hand over his head.

"This conflict between Yukon Cornelius and myself, for instance," said Santa. "What can I tell you? It's business. Christmas isn't just some cottage industry anymore, Sam. The Christmas shopping season is a billion dollar juggernaut. There's no room at the North Pole for oil to move in and take over everything. Can you imagine it? Christmastown full of roughnecks. Bar fights, sloppy whorehouses… Oh, your dream, I'm sure, Sam. My nightmare." He shook his head.

"No, sir," said Santa. "The second Yukon Cornelius found oil, the die was cast – only one of the two of us could survive. And I mean to survive, Sam, by any means necessary. I built this town with my bare hands, out of nothing, and I'll be damned if I'll let all that just slip away."

I nodded. "So you rounded up the Dangerous Toys," I said.

"You know I love toys," said Santa. "All toys. They're like the children I never had. Even the ones that other people don't appreciate. I have to take care of 'em, find a use for 'em. But they're not safe around kids, so what could I do? I put 'em to work."

"Terrorizing Yukon Cornelius," I inserted.

"Disrupting his operations," Santa said. "Adding to the cost of doing business. That's how the game is played, Sam; you just make it harder for the other guy to do what he does."

"But then," I said, "Rudolf found out about your thugs. How?"

"Oh, how the hell should I know," grunted Santa, polishing off his drink. "Why a full-grown reindeer would go flying around the countryside on his days off is a mystery to me. He took pictures, too. Pictures! I never for a moment imagined that boy would ever betray me like that…"

"Betray you?" I said. "He threatened to turn you in."

"It was blackmail!" shouted Santa. "He said he'd tell the world about what was going on up at the North Pole, unless I put a stop to it! My God, if I didn't have enough problems, I had a mutant talking reindeer turning the goddamn screws on me!"

"So what did you do?" I asked.

"What did I do? I told him to shut up if he knew what was good for him, that's what I did!" Santa tried to drain his glass, found it was already empty, and threw it into the fireplace. Shards of glass scattered on the bricks under the mantel. "Christmas is bigger than any one individual and his boy scout ideals, Sam. I told him, I'm going to run this business the way *I* think it should be run. What else was I going to do?"

"But he didn't stop, did he?" I said.

"No, he didn't," said Santa, shaking his head. "Stupid. Stupid! Didn't have the sense God gave an ordinary reindeer, let alone a talking one. Rudolf had to go and let his little friend in on my secret."

"Hermey," I said.

"Was that his name? whatever," said Santa. "The goofball dentist."

"That was him," I said grimly. "Rudolf told him because he was afraid something would happen to him. Because you threatened him, Santa."

"He should have listened to me," said Santa. "As soon as I learned that Rudolf had blabbed to the dentist, I knew we'd have to do something."

"How'd you find that out, anyway?" I asked.

"We tapped Hermey's phone," said a voice behind me. It was Tall Elf. He had a gun – something snub-nosed and dark. It was pointed at me. My Air Force pistol was still in my pocket. Stupid. Stupid, drunken amateur.

"You're pretty quiet on those pointy felt shoes," I told Tall Elf. "I figure Hermey didn't hear you coming up his stairs, either."

"I don't know a thing about that," interrupted Santa.

"Of course you don't," I snapped. "Because that's part of business too, isn't it? Delegate; preserve plausible deniabililty."

Tall Elf smiled coldly. "I bugged it on a hunch, during a dental appointment," he said. "I'm sure you'll agree it was a wise decision."

"All right, let it go, Archibald," said Santa tiredly.

"Archibald?" I said, perking up. "That's a nice name. Here I was going to go revising my opinion of you, thinking you were a cold-blooded killer. That was before I knew you were called 'Archibald'."

Archibald's smile vanished. "I should do him right now, boss. He knows too much."

"Not in the house," said Santa.

"Yeah, not in the house," I said. "Is that what you told Archibald here about how to take care of Rudolf? Take him around the back and do for him; he knows too much?"

Santa gave me a withering look. "You think you're so damned clever," he said. "You don't know the first thing about what happened. See, I didn't want Rudolf dead. He's too valuable to my operation. He leads my sleigh through weather, Sam. The best GPS and radar technology can't replace Rudolf. Believe me, I've tried. That nose of his – I don't know how it works. I've had scientists try to duplicate what it does. They all failed. He's one of a kind, and he always knew it. No, Sam; I didn't kill Rudolf, or have him killed. I told my Dangerous Toys to rough him around a little, that's all. And that's exactly what they did."

"Yeah?" I said. "How do you know they didn't go a little too far?"

"Because my Dangerous Toys love me," said Santa. "And they don't lie to me. No, they told me they cornered Rudolf out back and kicked him around good. They left him bleeding on the ground – hurting, yes, but very much alive. How he got from there to dead is what I wanted you to find out. That's what I hired you for – to figure out that Yukon Cornelius killed Rudolf, and planted Fireball's roofshoes at the scene of the crime!"

"Yukon Cornelius didn't kill Rudolf," I said. "He planted the roofshoes, but Rudolf was dead when he got there."

"Oh, enough with your ridiculous stories," spat Archibald.

"It's not a story," I said. "Yukon didn't want Rudolf dead either. But somebody else did."

"Who?" demanded Santa. "Who in the whole world wanted Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer dead?"

"I did," said Mrs. Claus, coming into the room. Santa and Archibald stared at her. I took that moment to snatch the gun away from Archibald. I pointed it at him. Santa alternated between gaping at me and his wife.

"Oh, Nicky," said Mrs. Claus sadly. "You've never seen it, have you? You were always small potatoes until Rudolf came along. His nose allowed you to deliver presents even through the worst weather. You got your special on TV and became a big star. The season went from being you and me, with the Christmas on the side, to being Christmas 24/7. Oh, how I hated that reindeer all these long years."

"Jessica!" wailed Santa.

"I did; I did!" she sobbed passionately. "I overheard you a bit ago; you said that the toys were like the children you never had. You should have had those children, Nicky – with me! But you were always too busy! I… I just wanted my husband back. And so, when I took the pets out for a walk and saw Rudolf lying on the ground there, bleeding and broken, it was the simplest thing to give the sleigh just a little push…"

"No," whispered Santa.

"Yes!" shrieked Mrs. Claus. "What are you going to do about it?"

"The real question," I said, "is what is he going to do about it?" I pointed at the study window. The huge face of the Abominable Snowman hung there like a monstrous full moon.

The Abominable Snowman pushed the window open. "Did you get all that, A-Bomb?" I asked.

"Yup," he said.

"Well!" I said brightly. "I guess I'll leave you to take care of all this mess, then; yes?"

"Nope," said the Abominable Snowman, pointing a gun at me. It was a sawed-off shotgun with the trigger guard removed so he could get his huge finger on the trigger. A shotgun full of pellet can blow a hole in a snowman where a bullet can't.

"Sam," said Santa patiently, "the first rule of business is, get the law on your side."

"Oh," I said. I didn't have anything clever to say.

"Drop the gun, Sam," said the Abominable Snowman. "For you, this thing is over."

A creaking sound came from the rafters. Santa squinted up at them. "What the hell?" he said.

There was a loud crash and the room shook, knocking me off my feet. The electric lights went out. Mrs. Claus screamed, and the Abominable Snowman roared. The shotgun went off once. In a second, all was still. I opened my eyes. The fire was still lit, and its flames dimly illuminated the room.

The roof had been torn away; flakes of snow were drifting down into Santa's study. Santa, Archibald, Mrs Claus and myself were on the ground. The Abominable Snowman was nowhere in sight.

The room was full of reindeer.

"This thing *is* over, Santa," said a huge buck with a terrifying voice. "We were almost certain what was going on, but you had to be drawn out. Now we know."

"You fool," hissed Santa, still in his tipped-over overstuffed chair. "Dasher, you're a complete fool. This means the end of Christmas, you realize that? Think of the children. If you take me down, it's the end of everything!"

I picked myself up off the floor. "Christmas," I said, "is bigger than any one individual. Or so I'm told."

There was a scuffing sound. I whirled to catch sight of Archibald escaping through the door into the dark house. I drew my pistol, then looked at Dasher.

"We've got this now, Sam," said the huge deer. "This is a reindeer matter."

"Sure," I said, and bolted after Archibald.

He was quiet, I'll give him that. But I heard the back door slam, and I knew that Archibald was making a break for it. Santa and his wife might be a reindeer matter – I could accept that – but the elf who killed Hermey was getting away. I glided at top speed down the hall and broke my own rule, busting down the door with my shoulder to avoid slowing down.

Archibald was making a break for the treeline. With those legs of his, he would outpace me in the forest of Christmas trees. I had to catch him now, or not at all.

As I leapt off the porch, I flung my bottom ball forward and allowed my middle and top balls to fall to the ground. My largest ball shot forward, rolling across the ice of the back drive like a cannonball, and bowled over Archibald just on the edge of the meadow. My top half hopped after him. I found him face-down in the powder with my bottom ball sitting on his back, weighing him down.

"Let me up, you disgusting sot!" spat Archibald, his mouth half-full of slush.

I hopped my balls on top of each other again. "I don't like elves," I commented.

"Then you're a sot and a bigot," said Archibald.

I clubbed him over the head with the butt of my revolver. "And a bastard," I added.


"What are you going to do with Santa?" I asked Dasher.

"What do you want me to do with him? He's a Saint," said the reindeer. "We'll be letting him go. Mrs. Claus, too. There's no rule of law to hold him accountable to. The North Pole isn't an internationally recognized country. It's not even land."

The elves and the reindeer were working by torchlight, propping up the damaged structure of the Castle. I shook my head. "It's sick that they're going to get away with it. And that they're still together, too."

"Yeah, well," said Dasher. "All they have left is each other. But no; they're not really getting away with it. Santa's invested a lot of his magical power in the North Pole; when we expel him, he won't be a tenth the miraculous being he's been."

"And what about Christmas?" I said. "Santa was right about that. What about the children?"

"Well," said the big reindeer, "I want to talk to you about that. What are you going to do now?"

"I dunno," I admitted. "Probably try to quit drinking."

"What if you did that while taking on a new job?" said Dasher. "Involves shipping and client service. Lots of travel. There's even a company car." He pointed his antlers at Santa's sleigh.

"I even have a beard," I said, my eyes doing their best to twinkle.



September 2012

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