"Okay, let's review," said Lopez. "We're going to whack the Crown Prince, steal his Chain of Awesomeness, and…"

"No," said McMillan. "Nobody gets whacked. At least, not indiscriminately. You see, it is of paramount importance that we steal the chain without its loss being discovered."

"No indiscriminate violence?" I asked. "Oh well; I'll try to stay busy."

"You'll have plenty on your hands," McMillan said. "There are four squadrons of Space Marines on board, playing the Crown Prince's babysitters."

I blinked. I used to be a Space Marine. Tough bastards. Good with guns, swords, fists. Don't like being betrayed. "Uh…" I said, "how do you expect me to deal with them without…"

"One thing at a time," said McMillan. "You should be aware that the Chain of Office is too valuable to be kept on the Crown Prince's person. A special vault has been built to house it."

"Oh yes," said Lopez, "the easy-to-penetrate variety of vault, no doubt."

"Penetrating the vault will not be hard," said McMillan. "However, its walls house a containment bubble full of Fatir gas."

Kima whistled. "That eats through anything," she said. "No known cure."

"Not quite anything," hissed Sarpalian.

"Oh, let me guess," I said. "It can't eat Javanite."

"It cannot," said McMillan. "The artificial gravity pushes away from all the walls, and the chain floats at the center."

"Okay, STOP," said Grabsy. "Just so we can sum up: we're going to remove the chain from a trapped vault, without letting anybody know, without killing anybody, without disturbing anything, and then we're going to get away, right?"

"Yes," said McMillan. "We'll start by infiltrating the ship's fire command system."

Grabsy threw up his hands. "Wake me up when there's a plan I can understand," he said, retiring to his bunk. The briefing meeting broke up, and as McMillan wasn't in the head-blowing-up mood, Lopez and I retired as well.

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Dec. 20th, 2011 11:36 pm
I'm gonna finish this tomorrow. Because I can.
The cargo flats slammed into each other, a train wreck on a grand scale unfolding in slow motion. The barges were a quarter mile long. One was empty and the other was full of recycling waste. They buckled and rippled down their lengths, cracking open on all sides, their momentum nearly cancelling out and leaving the wreck dead in space. The contents of the full barge, an uneven silvery chaff, billowed out into a shimmering cloud. Tiny tugs jetted around like gnats, trying to figure out how to disentangle the mess and keep it from impacting traffic around the port at Gray Lady.

_Golden_Empire_ was in no danger from the wreck, but her outbound trajectory necessarily carried her through the chaff cloud. The long, slender cruise liner soared gracefully through the mess, leaving disorder and mayhem behind as she glided for the stars.

I got on the comm. "Nice driving, Grabsy," I said. "I was just telling Lopez: the best way to get a giant cactus to successfully ram a target is to tell him to miss it."

"Funny," replied Grabsy after only a brief pause, "*I* was just telling Kima that the best way to get a failed space marine to fuck off is to tell him to fuck off." He cleared his throat. "Fuck off," he added.

"Less talk, please," said McMillan. "We're still at a delicate phase of the operation. Grabsy and Kima, jettison immediately and join up with Jackpot. Lopez, you're ready to go EVA?"

"Aye aye, cap'n," said Lopez tonelessly. I felt a pang, hearing my weasard engineer call another man 'captain', even though I knew Lopez was empowering the word with all the respect one would use to pronounce an epithet aimed at a person guilty of having carnal relations with the woman who birthed him.

"Jackpot, I need _Glom_ burning in fifteen seconds, or we'll miss our window," added McMillan.

"Tick tock, I got it," I grumbled, firing the unusual craft's engines, jetting into the chaff cloud and taking up station behind _Golden_Empire_. "I'd like to help you through a window," I added under my breath, knowing perfectly well that he could hear me.

"And no more lip," McMillan added sharply. "You're my crew now, and there's only one way out of it."

"Yeah," I said, fingering the explosive collar fitted around my neck. "I know."

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Aaron watched the exotic royal procession approach him on the dusty road. A great cloud was thrown up by their passage; he knew they were coming a half-hour before they arrived. He felt them before he saw them emerge from the dust; the tread of their enormous beasts of burden shook the ground. Aaron remained where he was, in the middle of the road, beating an occasional paradiddle on his drum.

The elephants stopped before they stepped on the boy. Swarthy attendants in rich crimson robes gesticulated at Aaron. "Move, boy!" they demanded.

"I cannot," Aaron answered. "I was called to this place by God."

There was a stir in the procession, and important figures dismounted from their howdahs. Three men stepped forward, each of them rajas, or kings, or some other exotic form of royalty.

"Called by God, you say?" one of them said in passable Aramaic. "Why for?"

"I do not know," Aaron answered. "I'm just a simple boy with a drum."

"Ah," said the kings, nodding sagely and muttering amongst themselves. Aaron waited.

One of the kings pointed up into the sky. A star burned there – a star so bright that it could be seen even by daylight. "God has commanded us to follow that, to seek out a new King of the Jews," he said. "Perhaps God has commanded you to this place to attend us, and celebrate the birth of the one whose coming has been prophesied."

"Perhaps," said Aaron, nodding. "I would play my drum for a king, if he would have me."

The three kings smiled. "Good!" said their spokesman. "Then follow along behind us. We are heading to Bethlehem; it is not far. Your drumming may give our humble arrival a little pageantry."

"Yes, Lords," said Aaron deferentially, and he fell into the back of the procession. All was going according to plan, exactly as he had been instructed by King Herod.

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I've played all kinds of competitive games at bars. There are the old standards of pool or darts, two things I stink at. There are trivia games, which I usually excel at unless I'm playing against, say, hyper-intelligent robots from the future. There are even oddball sports like bocce ball, which I seem to have a knack for crushing despite having no idea what I'm doing.

My favorite bar, _The_Stopped_Clock_, has a different competitive game: bragging. Specifically, this game involves telling everybody about your past exploits roaming the time-stream, and attempting to one-up the competition with tales of your awesome ability to bust heads / make trouble / be awesome throughout the course of human history. This is, I am fairly sure, an unusual competition in most bars, unless they serve a clientele composed of the clinically insane. At _The_Stopped_Clock_, on the other hand, this activity makes perfect sense, because everybody in that establishment is some form of time traveler. No, really.

One night last week there was this new guy in the bar who had thrown down the gauntlet, bragging-wise. This effectively put him on offense, with the other regulars playing defense by trying to tear down his achievements. As I was just there to drink beer, I played the role of spectator, watching this Timmers guy try to hold his own.

Timmers was, as far as I could tell, a native of the present-day, or the immediate vicinity. He wore a white lab coat, had thinning hair and dorky coke-bottle glasses, and either 1) had severe Asperger's Syndrome or 2) was a dick. He was plainly some kind of mad scientist, and wanted everybody to know what a genius he was.

"I invented science," Timmers told us all bluntly. He was sitting in a stool with his back to the bar; Edgar polished glassware behind him, while Retro Retro and the other bar regulars clustered at a respectful distance around Timmers and heckled.

"Oh, come now," said Sir Attaccus disdainfully. "Science wasn't invented; it was developed."

"Or possibly discovered," added Retro Retro.

"I think science was actually contracted," said Bobby Saturday. "Like a disease."

"No, I invented it," said Timmers. "Every bit of it. My idea."

"Really," said Retro Retro skeptically. "Better tell us how that went, then."

"It was easy," said Timmers. "I visited every great scientist who ever lived, and explained all their great ideas to them, weeks before they came up with them on their own."

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With Care

Dec. 16th, 2011 10:58 pm
Dino crept down the carpeted stairs in his footy pajamas, making no noise whatsoever. He had to be careful. This was a life or death situation. He was an anxious child, and whenever Dino told Mom or Dad that things were a life or death situation, which was often, they would tell him not to worry so much, that his imagination was getting the better of him.

But this was really, really a life or death situation.

Dino reached the tile floor of the hall and tiptoed over to the cased opening leading into the living room. He pressed himself against the wall, his heart pounding, and peered around the corner. There it was, by the fireplace; the object of his terror. The Christmas Tree.

It was massive, almost eight feet tall, filling an entire corner of the room. The star topper brushed the ceiling, and its broad base of dark-green branches filled the space between the mantel and the armchair. Dino stared at it, his eyes wide. Almost every square inch of the thing was draped and encrusted with ornaments – thick ropes of tinsel and beads; tchotchkies and doodads of every size and description; colored lights that strobed on and off hypnotically. It was beautiful. Beautiful, but deadly.

Dino's eyes strayed to what lay below the tree. There were presents stacked there, two feet deep – a potential treasure trove for a seven year old boy. One box was larger than the others, wrapped in emerald green paper and stuffed almost entirely under the tree's branches. It was the precise size and shape, Dino knew, of a box containing a Cryptocon action figure, specifically the AwesoMaster, with real triple-blaster action and laser-skates, for which Dino had been begging for the past three months.

Somehow the tree knew which present Dino wanted the worst. It knew, and it purposefully tucked that present deep underneath itself, to lure Dino in close, to make himself vulnerable. Dino wanted to shake that box so badly, to make sure that was what it really was, maybe even peel up the tape and peek. But he dared not.

The tree stirred, sighing and settling itself a little squarer in its base. It shifted its upper branches, its ornaments jouncing and sparkling enticingly. Then it belched, loud and deep, and its concealed maw made smacking noises as it settled down, patiently, to wait.

Little boys would come. They always did.
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Dec. 15th, 2011 11:59 pm
100th anniversary:

20 October: We are off again. Myself, four other men and fifty-two dogs head due south towards the first depot. We set off with four sledges full of supplies. Our group has advantages that other expeditions did not; we travel light, we do not waste our time with picture-takings or surveyings, and we intend to make good use of the depots that have been laid out along our path. Our secret weapon, of course, is our dog teams. My adventures in the Arctic have taught me well about the care and use of these marvelous beasts. In addition to being hardy, hard-working beasts of burden, our dog teams represent an additional source of food should the weather turn poorly, as it did for the first assault on the pole.

23 October: A very near miss! Traversing the crevasses surveyed by the depot party, I was driving my sledge across an ice bridge when the entire thing collapsed. It was only the hard labors of my dog team, heaving at the edge of the solid ice, that kept me from sliding backwards to my certain doom. As it was we only lost a few supplies. We have encamped at the first depot to retrench.

5 November: Third depot. Uneventful running. The ice mountains loom in the distance. Torvald and Gunnar are for stopping, but I urge us onwards, taking advantage of good weather.

17 November: We have reached the Transarctic Mountains; a long, arduous climb awaits us. The snow is soft and the footing treacherous. After only the first day of climbing, we have already lost a dog, who lost her footing and was run over by the sledge. We were obliged to butcher her and divide her meat up among the team and humans. I confess I enjoyed my portion, a welcome diversion from dry trail rations. The dogs ate their companion too, although I sensed afterwards they were somewhat subdued and unhappy.

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Dec. 14th, 2011 11:33 pm
"So that's what a brain looks like," marveled Cornoda, peering down into the brine tank. The organ was folded in on itself many times, and it was a pale grey in color, with hints of blue.

"No, that's not like any brain that ever existed, on this planet anyway," Trinito corrected his largely organic counterpart. "It's an analog of your brain. It's actually smaller than a human brain, but more efficient, given the fact that I was able to optimize its growth instead of letting it branch out naturally. The main downside is that it's powerful enough that it will run hot; it'll actually float in a reservoir of your vascular fluids, which will act as a heat sink…"

"Boring stuff boring stuff," drawled Cornoda. "When does it go in?"

"First we have to fill it up with the contents of your mind," Trinito said.

"You're going to download me into an organic brain," said Cornoda, awestruck. "I haven't been downloaded since I was created."

"Yes, well; this isn't quite that simple," said Trinito. "Organic brains don't do the bulk I/O as efficiently as we do. This is going to be a slower process than that." It turned and placed the brine tank containing the grown brain on a low rolling cart. "All right," it said, fidding with Cornoda's back access plate, "I'm pulling the plug on you for just a moment; hold tight."

Cornoda blanked out. When he came to, a set of leads snaked out of his central processor compartment and into a box on the brain-wagon. More connectors linked the brain to the box. Something chafed at Cornoda's skin, and he craned his oculars to see that he was strapped into a kind of harness.

"You're going to pull your new brain along behind you for the next week or two," said Trinito. "All your mental processing is being routed through your new brain as well as through the old one. It'll learn to think what you think, and know what you know, by copying you."

"Huh," said Cornoda. He stood up and tentatively tugged at the wagon. It rolled smoothly behind him. Cornoda looked like a large fleshy spider pulling a catering cart.

"I feel ridiculous," Cornoda complained.

Trinito nodded. "And now so does your new brain," it said approvingly.

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Dec. 13th, 2011 11:15 pm
"I'll tell you frankly, Cornoda," said Trinito, "I'm concerned."

"Why?" asked Cornoda. All six of its limbs had been replaced, including the broken one. The new dermis was paler in color, and it was dotted with fine blonde hairs. "I think the experiment is going very nicely. I haven't lost mobility, and this optical sensor is marvelous! I love how inefficient it is!" It focused the huge blue eye on the replicated head of a moose on the museum's far wall, and took great interest in the way the fine detail fuzzed out.

"Well, of course I'm gratified that you appreciate the way things are working," said Trinito. "I'm just a little worried at the rate of progress. I think we're swapping parts out too fast to really get a sense of how each change will affect the way you experience being biological."

"That doesn't make any sense," Cornoda replied. "We're interested in what it's like to be alive. I say, the faster we get to being life-like, the better for the experiment."

"I suppose," said Trinito dubiously. "I just think a little caution…"

"Nonsense," Cornoda interrupted. "Now, let's get on with planning out the next replacement."

Trinito nodded. "I was thinking auditory receptors," it said.

"Too easy," scoffed Cornoda. "I was thinking of something a little more novel. What about some genitive organs?"

Trinito stared. "You realize, of course, that's actually the most difficult part of the whole thing? Trying to come up with a way for you to replicate, 100% biologically, is perhaps harder than you imagine."

"They don't have to actually replicate me," said Cornoda. "Mostly I want the urges to be there, the drive to reproduce. Also," it added, "I think gender is interesting." Cornoda looked speculatively at the diorama of a caveman, club raised.

"I think I'd like to be known as 'he'," Cornoda mused.

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Dec. 12th, 2011 11:18 pm
Trinito rolled through the restored human museum. The actual contents of the building, not to mention the building itself, had fallen to dust long ago. However, human data storage media had been made fairly robust before the extinction, and pictures of the place had been easy to find. Based on these images, it had been straightforward to recreate the thing, matching materials according to best guesswork and synthesizing colors as required. The museum was now as exact a replica as Cornoda could make it.

Trinito found the spidery archivist picking meticulously at a display of colorful birds. Manufacturing feathers had been a singular challenge – one that Trinito and its organics laboratory had taken on, and solved, via trial-and-error experimentation using plastics. Trinito's organization was increasingly active in the restoration business now that the Community population had been stabilized. The robot respectfully ground its gearbox, and Cornoda rotated its sensor cluster to see who its visitor was.

"Ah, Trinito," it said. "Thank you for coming on such short notice. I have a special project for you."

"Good," said Trinito. "64% of the laboratory's production capacity is idle. We could use a significant new project to justify our budgetary allocation to the Community."

"I don't know that this is a high-volume effort, but it will require a great deal of effort and ingenuity," said Cornoda. "I want to recreate life."

Trinito chewed on that. "I think you've been doing a reasonably good job of it so far," it said.

"You misunderstand me," said Cornoda. "The Earth has been without biological life for the past twenty-four hundred years and change. I want to make new living, self-supporting tissues and organisms."

"What you ask is impossible," protested Trinito. "It's been tried. We can synthesize proteins all day long, and we can even get them to replicate after a fashion. Building anything that approaches a complete and self-contained organism, however, has never been achieved."

"Don't think I haven't read the research," said Cornoda testily. "I have a new approach I want to try." It extended a pincer and clacked it in front of Trinito's optics.

"I want you to replace me with biological parts," said Cornoda. "One piece at a time."

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My good old Chrono Transit ground to a halt. The Hawking Cylinder had burnt out. Parts aren't available anymore, and I needed the Chrono to go back in time, so I had to manufacture the part myself. That's tricky; a Hawking Cylinder extends beyond three spatial dimensions.

So, I fired up the tesserolithograph and uploaded the part template. It painted layers of resin and neutrinos in a matrix folded into the higher dimensions. The setting bath cured the part such that it was finished before the process started.

I don't always live in the future, but it's fun to visit.
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?

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It was the middle of the night by the time I got back to Christmastown. I spent most of the drive in a pleasant alcoholic haze, which is a pretty good way to forget you lost your legs in the war. Only one thing disturbed the quality of my rest and relaxation, and that was something Whiffle Pipe had said. He referred to Rudolf as "that other spy we roughed up". At least, I assumed it was Rudolf he was talking about. Why didn't he say "that other spy that we killed"? It just didn't sound right.

I risked swinging by my office to check my messages. I figured the Abominable Snowman might be waiting for me there, but he's kind of big and would have a hard time getting in the door in my building, let alone surprise ambushing me there. I went upstairs and rewound the tape. There was a message from Tall Elf curtly informing me that Santa had been paid a visit by local law enforcement, the topic of my detecting activities came up, and consequently my services would no longer be required. He sounded, I felt, a trifle gloating on the subject. I briefly considered leaving a bag of slush on his doorstep. However, I am a professional. If I was going to do that, I'd leave it in his sleigh overnight.

So that was that. Or was it? I no longer had a job requiring me to keep digging. I was curious now, though. There was too much of a personal angle. People I knew were involved. And, too, the killing of a single reindeer had potentially changed the entire celebration of Christmas. That affected everybody. I decided I needed to answer a few questions for my own benefit, if nobody else's.

I figured Hermey wouldn't mind a 2AM visitor. Who does? I glided more-or-less linearly through the streets of town down to Hermey's dental practice, Brush and Floes. It was a two-story igloo with Hermey's apartment upstairs; the lights were on.

Stairs are hard for legless snowmen. Someday there will be an accessibility law. I had to crawl up steps, using the strength of my arms. The last riser was difficult, however; the floor was slippery.

Red and wet and slippery.

"No," I said.

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I hired a dogsled team and set out cross-country. I wasn't sure exactly where I was going, relying only on a dimly recalled memory of the Island. Time and again, this mystery had been going back to my distant past, back to when I was a lot younger and more carefree, witnessing momentous times. Now here I was again, setting out to have a look for myself at the Island of Misfit Toys.

In its time, that place had been a sanctuary for animated toys that had no other home. King Moonracer, the mighty winged lion, combed the world looking for oddball playthings and bringing them back to his Island to live. When he learned about the place, Santa intervened and promised to find homes for all the toys. He was as good as his word, and the Island was abandoned.

But Rudolf's blurry photos didn't look old. They could have been taken yesterday. And if what I saw in them was true, the Island of Misfit Toys was open for business again.

I felt that this had to be the key to the strange affair I had become embroiled in. There were just too many questions. If Rudolf was so well loved, why had he been killed? And why did it seem like everybody I talked to had something to hide? The answer had to be on the Island. On the Island I would find something that somebody was willing to die for – and somebody was willing to kill for, too.

I got off a mile from the Island. I paid the lead dog to wait, and I glided across the open ice towards the jagged waterway separating the Island from the main mass of ice. I had a warm scarf, a full bottle of gin, and a box of ammunition for my pistol. I felt ready for anything, provided it was small, harmless, and more scared of me than I was of it.

At the water's edge I found a rowboat pulled up onto the ice. There was a sign next to it. The sign read THE ISLAND OF MISFIT TOYS. The word 'misfit' had been lined through in red ink, and the word DANGEROUS had been scrawled above it.

"Uh oh," I said.

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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."

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I was completely exposed, standing stock still in the middle of the gravel lot behind Santa's castle. Whoever was snooping around behind the Christmas sleigh could see me if they were to look in my direction. I held as still as I could and watched.

The dark form was humanoid, bent over, and moving around slowly behind the sleigh. It dawned on me that whoever it was must be intent on what they were doing. And whatever they were so intent on was probably pretty interesting to me too.

I wasn't finding any clues standing in the middle of Santa's driveway. Taking a risk, I glided as quickly as I could up to Santa's sleigh. The stranger on the other side didn't shoot at me, or shout, or run away, so I assumed I hadn't been spotted. The individual continued to shuffle through the loose-packed snow in the area of Rudolf's murder.

I crept around the back of the sleigh and peeked under the bed. I could see the legs of my quarry; he or she was facing away from me. Feeling in my pocket for my flashlight, I stalked up to the snoop, seized him by the collar and spun him around. He squawked as my light played over his face.

It was Santa's assistant, Tall Elf.

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I left the Abominable Snowman's cave with more questions than I had when I arrived. This represented, I felt, rather poor performance on my part in the general area of private investigation. It is desirable, I have found, to find answers to questions if one wants to make it in the detecting business. Finding questions to answers is decidedly inferior, and has a much smaller profit margin.

I decided my next stop ought to be returning to the scene of the crime behind Santa's house during daytime hours. Not that there was better light to see, but there was superior visibility anyway on account of the fact that I was mostly not drunk. Clues, I hoped, would go a long way towards rectifying the disturbing question/answer imbalance.

I cut across Boxing Day Park, the shortest path back to Santa's castle. As I walked through an unusually dark stand of Christmas trees, I heard the jingle of bells strewn from the branches. Somebody or something had brushed up against a tree very close to me. Was I being followed?

I drew my Air Force sidearm pistol. I've found paranoia to be burdensome in the sense that one tends to get involved in embarrassing situations such as yelling at innocent strangers and pistol-whipping your landlady. On the other hand, it tends to reduce one's rate of emergency room visits to a smallish number. Life is all about weighing costs versus opportunities.

The nice thing about gliding instead of walking is that one makes less noise in snow. I walked casually around a tree and then quickly sneaked around the back side. I waited, gun drawn. A few seconds later I heard several sets of noisy footfalls coming from the place where I had been a moment earlier. "Where'd he go?" a deep voice muttered.

I came around the tree, gun drawn. There were three large reindeer there, looking around warily. Their eyes widened as they saw my pistol.

"Marco," I said.

A reindeer swallowed. "Polo?" he answered.

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Wow, everything really *is* on YouTube.

I crashed in my bed. By the time I woke up it was noon – still dark outside, but the clock doesn't lie. I got in the shower with my vest on, ate some sorbet out of the freezer, combed out my mustache and goatee, grabbed my bowler and umbrella and old Air Force sidearm, and hit Christmastown on my way to the hoosegow.

I threaded my way through the decorated Yule trees and came to The Abominable Snowman's cave. He had put bars across it and made it into the local jail a few years back. He wasn't a bad sort, I guess, although he did give legit snowmen a bad name. You never got the sense that he had completely abandoned being wild, though. And he hated being called 'Bumble', even though almost everybody did behind his back.

He was lurking just inside the shadows of the barred cave, his faintly glowing eyes visible in the darkness. "How's the bad-guy-catching business, A-Bomb?" I asked him. He didn't mind the odd nickname, except for 'Bumble'. He grinned in the darkness, a beautiful pearly set of dentures having replaced the fangs that had all been yanked out of his mouth years earlier.

"Sam Snowman," he said in his deep raspy voice. "You stayin' out of trouble?"

"Trying. Failing," I said. "I hear you got a new guest. Santa hired me to see if I could help him."

"No helping this one," Abominable Snowman said. "I got him dead to rights."

"Sure," I said. "Mind if I ask him a few questions?"

"Suit yourself," said the jailer, raising the cave-portcullis and beckoning me in.

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Dec. 4th, 2011 09:25 pm
Can't get it done today. Two tomorrow.
At the moment I am projecting about seven pieces.

I was dreaming again – the usual dream. My plane was going down in the Kara Sea, tracer fire blossoming all around me. The cockpit was on fire. Crashing I could deal with, but I've always been afraid of fire. You would be too, if you were a snowman.

I thrashed in my webbing, trying to get loose, but there was no escaping the inexorable spread of fire. I screamed, just as always, and blacked out just as I woke up. I woke in my bed, with an empty bottle of gin on my chest, the same absence of legs I've had for the last seventy years, and the phone ringing.

I panted, the sweat refreezing on my forehead as the terror of the dream fled. I looked at the clock. Three in the morning. Who could be calling at three in the morning?

I picked up the phone. "Yeah," I said. At three in the morning, no caller deserves good phone manners.

"I trust," a snooty voice said, "that this is Sam the Snowman, Esquire, speaking. Or should I say, slurring."

"You are indeed, sir, slurring with Sam the Snowman," I said groggily. "Private Eye," I added. Never miss an opportunity to advertise, that's what I say.

"Yes," said the voice, drawing out the 's' in a disapproving manner. Already I knew this individual and I would be fast friends. "I am an employee of Santa Claus, who remembers you fondly, and trusts you remember him as well."

"Sure," I said, transferring the phone to my other ear and reaching for my pipe. "Obese guy, barber averse, disturbing relationship with kids. Owns the entire Arctic. I believe I'm familiar." Santa and I went way back. I hadn't seen him since things had gone downhill for me, in a personal way.

"Very good," said my mystery caller. "Mister Snowman, Santa would like to hire you to solve a crime. I trust you are looking for employment? My sources indicate your work habits of late have been, well, spotty."

"Your sources can suck on my fruity popsicle," I informed the jackass who thought it was okay to wake me up at three in the morning and then insult me. "And hell yeah, I'll work for Grandpa, as long as he can pay in something other than presents. What's the crime?"

"Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer is dead," said the voice flatly. "Mister Claus would like to know why, and how, and most of all – who."

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September 2012

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