Trouble in the Village
I went back to the office in self-defense.
Since I was without an apartment and the condo I had just bought on the corner of Sussex and Wellington wouldn’t be ready until the summer, I’d had to find a temporary place to live. My friend Terry and his wife Betty had threatened to set up a bedroom for me in their burb house if I didn’t find somewhere other than my office to live in. So I’d rented a hotel suite at the Delta. The furniture was bland but serviceable, I had a kitchenette, and the bed was firm. After I bought a CD player and a few discs, I was happy as ice in a glass of scotch.
Unfortunately, the guy living beside me also brought his music along. He and I started a musical war: he blasted alternative funk, I cranked up the opera. He won a few skirmishes, but after half an hour of Tosca or Die Walküre, he’d usually pack it in and go nuke his brain at the closest coffee house, plugged into his MP3 player. I could tell he was almost ready to raise the white flag.
Until two days ago, that is. The slob got himself a girlfriend. Like any sop who wants to keep his woman, he let her choose the music. I’d been hearing Christmas songs through the walls for three hours, even over Rake’s Progress, when I gave up, put on my coat and retreated to the office. I passed by the little shit on my way out. He waited at the door, grinning from ear to ear and humming Joy to the World.
Business had slowed way down. It was all this peace and goodwill-to-all crap that got in the way. Every year it floored to me how everyone –make that a whole chunk of civilized North America— went nuts at Christmas.
What stuck was the way people got all gooey, “let’s forgive and forget”, until the first of January. Then, it was back to business as usual, and let’s kick the hobo under the bridge while we’re at it.
The city looked awesome, though, with the hundreds of trees decked out in lights. It was the music, that sweet, sappy music, I was burping on.
So I sat in my office, twiddling my thumbs and pondering where I could go to avoid listening to Here comes Santa Claus one more time, when I heard a heavy set of feet coming up the stairs to my door. I waited until a thin, dark shape appeared on the other side of the frosted glass before I called out.
“Come on in, it’s open.”
The doorknob rattled, the door opened. I took stock of the man coming inside. He was dressed in a Santa Claus costume; good quality cloth, realistic-looking fur, expensive boots. The suit hung on his frame as if he’d recently lost weight, and the black belt was cinched to the last hole. His grey beard was matted. there were purple bags under his eyes. He sat down across from my desk with a groan. That was no jolly Santa.
“I dropped in on the off-chance you would be in your office,” the man said. “I want to hire you.”
He had a slight accent I couldn’t place. “It’s unusual for me to do business that close to Christmas.”
“I was told you’d just finished with a case, and were at loose ends.”
The only case I’d been involved lately was a matter of realigning parallel universes and moving backwards in time. I doubted that was the case he referred to. “Who referred you?”
He blinked. “Could I trouble you for a coffee? I’m parched.”
I poured him a cup, added milk and sugar as per his instructions, then sat back. “Why don’t we start with the beginning?”
He blinked again. “That would take quite a while.”
“Sinterklaas. But you can call me Nicholas.”
“I see.” Some obscure bit of memory surfaced. The name Santa Claus had been derived from the Dutch Sinterklaas, which meant Saint Nicholas. I sighed inwardly. I’d forgotten that Christmas also brought out the kooks and the weirdoes, like the man in front of me who thought he was living Miracle on 34th Street.
“I know what you think,” he continued. “You haven’t believed in me since you were seven years old and you caught your mother put presents under the tree.”
That gave me a little jolt. I never told anyone I’d seen her, but it was true I’d stopped believing in Santa right then. “That was a good shot in the dark,” I said.
He sighed. “In other circumstances, I would not insist that you believe who I am.”
I sat back. At the moment, I had nothing better to do than listen to a possibly entertaining yarn. “Okay, Nick, tell it to me. Then I’ll see if I’ll take the case.”
He rubbed his eyes. “Someone is trying to kill Christmas. I want you to find out who, and stop them.”
You had to have patience with kooks. Their train of thoughts were usually tortuous and hard to follow. I couldn’t see how anyone could kill Christmas but the old guy obviously believed it. So I just nodded encouragingly.
“We haven’t been able to compete with toymakers for a long time, and we haven’t been trying. We’ve branched out, you see. You need that to survive. Now someone is trying to take that away from us.”
“You’re not making toys anymore.”
“We still are, but on a reduced scale. Tell me, what’s the point of giving toys? It’s to make children believe in something good. The three girls I helped in the fourteenth century had a happy life because of the gifts I gave them. When the connection between belief and toy giving was lost, we had a summit and decided to get to the root of the problem. So now our gifts are more in the life-changing variety, if you see what I mean.”
“You had a summit. With your elves?”
He frowned. “With the Brotherhood members.”
The conversation was definitely getting loonier. “I don’t think it’s well known that there’s more than one of you. I suppose that’s how you spread the load.”
“We wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise. I wouldn’t want to have three hundred inhabited planets to myself. I’d be burned out in no time, even if the holidays are staggered throughout the galaxy. They’re not all called Christmas, of course, but the intent is the same everywhere.”
“I see. You haven’t answered my first question. How did you hear about me?”
He threw me a pitiful look. “Don’t be naïve. I may be over seven hundred years old, but I still have connections.” He pointed a finger toward the ceiling.
I followed his gesture. I didn’t think he meant he was connected to the ceiling. Well, enough was pretty much enough. I shook my head. “I’m sorry, Nick, but I don’t think I can take this case.”
Nick nodded. “I was pretty sure you’d say that. I’ll make a deal with you. Come to the Village with me, talk to people. I’ll stay out of the way. After that, if you’re still not convinced, I’ll take you back and you won’t hear from me again.”
“Do they all speak English where we’re going?”
“That contraption you’re wearing on your wrist ought to do the trick.”
Okay, maybe Nicky knew more than I thought he did. I’d unrolled my sleeves when he had come in, so he couldn’t see my telecarb. The strip of alien matter around my wrist not only allowed me to travel to other worlds, it also acted as a two-way universal translator. I got up. “I guess you’ve been talking to Trebor.”
Nick smirked. “My Thrittene equivalent gave you to them. That’s one present that worked fine,” he added, rubbing his hands together.
My mouth opened, then indignation slammed into my gut. “Isn’t there anyone who didn’t manipulate me in that damn case?”
“You got your Christmas present, too. A little early, I admit, but that couldn’t be helped.”
I felt the blood leech from my face, leaving the skin tight and moist at the same time. “Annie.”
I strode to the window and stared at the red and green lights blinking in the tree beside the house. Annie, my love, my mate. Killed by the maniac I’d caught trying to control the universe. The posthumous message she’d left for me had allowed me to look ahead again instead of trying to join her.
“The message,” I said through clenched throat. “It was you.”
“A combined effort, with my Pleroman counterpart.”
“So you knew she’d die.”
“No. But we have ways to go back, to influence events in very small ways, and always for the better good. The Brotherhood must endorse every such move, then it’s passed on above for approval.”
I chuckled, but it sounded like I was choking. “The Santa Corporation. And you want me to help you maintain an organization that manipulates people that way.”
I turned when he said nothing. He stood there, looking appalled. “You would have preferred to see the universe destroyed?”
“I wouldn’t know about it now, would I?”
“What about your friends, your family? Surely you don’t wish them that kind of fate.”
“Again, who the hell would be here to know?”
“I see.” He straightened, but a football could now fit in the bags under his eyes. “Maybe I do have the wrong person. Sorry to have bothered you.”
In the space of a heartbeat, I realized that if I’d reacted to what he’d told me it was because I believed him.
Somehow, without really wanting it, I’d made friends across the galaxy, beings that had been willing to take risks and help me defeat a madman. There were friends here, too, like Winston downstairs and Terry and Betty and even Claire, who hated my guts. Terry’s kids, my sister’s. Did I want them to live without the spirit of Christmas for the rest of their lives? Without hope? Maybe that was a crueler fate than letting the universe implode.
“Wait,” I said, stopping him from opening the door. “I can’t guarantee anything, though.”
His shoulders sagged, and he nodded. “Let’s go.”
I picked up my fleece-lined leather jacket and my gloves. “Do I need to be better dressed than that for the North Pole?”
For the first time, he grinned. “You’ll be fine.”
I locked the office door behind me and followed him down the stairs. “So, where did you park the old sleigh?”
“She’s been retired for some time.” He opened the outside door. “These days I use this.”
Across the sidewalk was parked a brand-new, gold Lexus SC430 two-seater. “It’s a good thing you’re not delivering presents any more,” I said. “You couldn’t fit a couple of train sets and a doll in that baby, let alone a pair of skis.”
Except for the bucket leather seats, the interior looked like the cockpit of a plane. No driving stick or wheel, just a console that advanced as soon as Nick sat down. He punched in a series of numbers, the small screen showed a rotating map I recognized as our galaxy. Quickly, the screen zoomed on a planet, then on a spot on that planet. All I could tell was that we weren’t going to the North Pole.
Nick mumbled something in the headset he’d put on. The street in front of me blurred then when it cleared we faced a low-slung building the size of two football fields that looked like a combination of lava flow and soap bubbles. “Don’t try to use your telecarb to go back,” he said as we got out of the car. “We traveled sideways. There’s no way your device could find the way.”
The sky was green and multifaceted like the lenses of a fly. The air was pleasantly warm, but I kept the jacket, just in case. “The factories,” he said as he pointed to the building. “On the other side is the Village.”
A red beam scanned us, then the main doors, wide as a house, opened silently. I had learned, through two intergalactic investigations, that a lot of aliens were oxygen-breathing beings, or could adapt to it relatively easy. I now saw that I might have come into contact with only a limited sample of aliens. The main hall extended into a circle with multiple doors, each one indicating the kind of breathable atmosphere that was behind it. I wasn’t a chemist, but most of them looked to be toxic to my own system. Other doors indicated the number of atmospheres, some of which would crush my body.
“How do you guys communicate?”
“We have a conference room especially set up. There’s also The Bar.”
“Let’s start there, then.”
“Ah, here comes Garth.”
A beanpole of a man rushed towards us. He had the mournful face of an undertaker and the black suit to go with it. His hands were hooked one into the other at chest level. I had to look up when he stopped in front of me.
“Garth,” Nick said, “this is Jack Meter. You’ll escort him around, show him whatever he wants to see.” Nick turned to me. “Garth is my aide.”
“That would make you the chief elf, then.”
Garth didn’t bat and eyelid. In fact, he hadn’t blinked once. “The title is outdated, but yes.”
His voice was soft and soothing. If I didn’t look at him, I could imagine him singing a lullaby. Any kid who had a gander at him, though, would probably join the monsters under his bed rather than stick around for the song.
“Garth can reach me anytime,” Nick said. He nodded then left me with Garth the Ghoul.
“You’ll want to visit the factory, then,” he said.
I had intended to get to the Bar first but, what the hell, I was flexible. “Sure.”
I followed Garth through a set of doors and hallways until we’d walked what seemed to be a few kilometers. The hallways were by no means empty. We met several other elves, these much friendlier-looking but also curious. Every one of them deferred to Garth.
As we walked, Garth filled me in, his soft voice going no further than the space between us. “The factory is very small, by any standard, but well equipped with state-of-the-art computers and robotics. We make old-fashioned toys, most of them tailor-made to a particular child. Needless to say we need to work quickly and seamlessly. The programming alone is complex, with many variables, and they change constantly. Six months ago, someone introduced a virus in our system. We lost invaluable time. Two months later, our wood stores caught fire. We had to re-order, and that delayed us as well. Last week, one of our robots went amok and almost cut four of our workers in two with its laser. It turned out someone reprogrammed its servo system.
I whistled. “Someone’s doing a good job.”
“All this started six months ago, you said. Any new employees in the past few months?”
“No. Our attrition is very low.”
By the noise on the other side of the door, it seemed we’d arrived. Garth had called the factory small. If the size of a car manufacturing plant could be called small, then this was.
Rows of gleaming steel counters topped with robotic arms performed all sorts of operations in a flurry of movement. Elves dressed in grey overalls and hard hats supervised the output. Even though the toys whizzed by me at full speed, I spotted a wooden locomotive, freshly painted black and green, a dark-skinned doll with a missing leg and a kerchief over her obviously bald head, a keyboard with images instead of keys, a stuffed bear with a bandage wrapped around its arm.
The activities were frenzied; Santa’s Workshop was trying to make up for lost time. Garth showed me around, pointing out features, introducing the supervisors at each station in his soft voice that, strangely, cut through the noise.
“This is Brenda,” he said, as he stopped by a station that made science stuff like microscopes. The thirtyish woman filled her overall in all the right places. I grinned at her. She narrowed her eyes and nodded. “She’s been with us for near forty years,” Garth added.
“Forty-two,” Brenda said.
“Making toys sure keeps you looking young,” I said, grinning again.
“You don’t know the half of it, sonny.” She turned her back on me and fiddled with the control of her station.
Garth pulled me by the sleeve. “Brenda will be one hundred and ten next month. None of our elves are younger than seventy-five. When they come to work for us, they undergo a procedure to help with the energy level.”
I was afraid to ask how old he was, considering. “That’s some procedure.”
“When they decide to retire, the procedure is reversed, and they pass on.”
Garth showed me into the computer room. Banks of machines lined the walls, emitting the usual white noise but, after the din in the plant, it sounded as quiet as a church. It was also cool in there, reminding me even more of the cathedral we used to go to on Midnight Mass. The place was so huge they couldn’t afford to heat it, but the congregation’s body heat sure warmed it up quickly. Now you’d end up shivering the whole time.
I looked around. On one side of the room, two elves in overalls but minus the hard hats sat at consoles. They turned at our entry.
“Hey Garth, what have you caught?”
The one who’d spoken didn’t look a day past twenty-one.
“Jack Meter,” Garth said. “He’s investigating the sabotages to the plant. This is Elmer.”
“Kickin.” Elmer pumped my hand hard enough to stretch my rotator cuff. “Listen, I got to finish installing this patch, but maybe we could have a drink later on?” Still holding my hand, he pulled me close. “I got some theory who did it,” he said in a stage whisper.
“Sure.” I tugged on my hand and he let go. “How about in an hour or so?”
“Perfect. This is Toots.” He pointed at the other elf, who had barely glanced at us.
Toots was short and squat and looked grumpy. She darted a glance at Elmer, then went back to what she was doing. Joy to the World.
Through the hum of machines, I recognized the music that was playing. The celestial voices of Anonymous 4 drifted around us, singing O maria stella maris. I used to own that CD. It got blown up with the rest of my apartment.
“You guys aren’t playing Christmas music,” I said to Elmer.
Both men grimaced. “Please,” Elmer said, “is there anything so uncool as all that sap? Rudolph and his nose went the way of the dodo a hundred years ago.”
I grinned. “There’s only so much Bing Crosby you can listen to.”
I was still grinning when Garth and I went out of the computer room. “I’ll show you to your quarters, if you wish,” Garth said.
“I wasn’t planning to stay overnight.”
“You’ll have to. Sinterklass had business to conduct on Ganymede. He’ll be back tomorrow morning.”
That worried me. Every client who comes through my office door has something to hide, or is lying outright. They have their own motives for hiring me, and it sometimes takes a lot of digging to get to the truth. Just because I was dealing with Santa Claus didn’t mean that the pattern had broken.
Instead of going back through all the doors and hallways we’d taken to get to the plant, Garth turned right and hopped on a golf cart. As soon as I sat beside him, he gunned the engine, the doors melted and the cart shot forward. I stared at Garth. He was grinning for ear to ear, a wicked gleam in his eyes. The delight in his face transformed him from Doctor Doom into Dennis the Menace. “How do you like this beauty?” Garth said. “It can go from zero to sixty is four seconds.”
He drove like a maniac through the Village, a hand on the wheel, the other on the horn. “Get out of my way, you moron!” What looked like a bug on stilts tottered.
Garth braked in front of a gingerbread house. If I hadn’t been white-knuckling the dashboard, I’d have gone through the windshield and over the hood.
“Where the hell did you learn how to drive?”
Garth cackled. “I don’t get to do this very often,” he said as he stepped down from the cart. “Sinterklaas doesn’t approve.”
“There’s your house. I hope you’ll be comfortable.”
It was a gingerbread house. I wondered if I could eat the walls.
“Nick mentioned he thought the sabotage went further than the plant,” I said as I went inside. The living room furniture was covered in faded red and green plaid. A small kitchen, bathroom and bedroom –king-size bed with red-and-green quilt— completed the quarters I’d been assigned. I zeroed in on a CD selection. No opera, but mainly classical. All the comforts of home. I turned to Garth, who hadn’t answered my question.
When I raised my eyebrows, he shuffled, the undertaker look back on his face. He cleared his throat. “Sinterklaas is convinced someone wants to destroy the spirit of Christmas.”
“But you’re not.”
“I don’t know. The sabotage is real. Other things happened, too, but they could be attributed to administrative errors.”
“Nick hired me to find out who wants to kill Christmas. First, though, I have to figure out why. It’s my job to decide if the threat’s real.” I sat on the couch, gestured him to the easy chair in front of me.
He sat down, hooked one hand into the other. “There was the delay in getting the target list to Centaurus. Many Centaurian lost faith, because Nargh couldn’t perform his duties in time. Admin claimed they sent the list, Nargh said he never received it. Then Narma’s list got screwed up. Altlob received the naughty list instead of the needy, so that all good deeds went awry. We were told it was a programming glitch that caused confusion with spelling. Then, what convinced Sinterklaas that something was amiss happened three days ago. He received his list, and everything seemed in order, except the assignments were very strange. The Fathers don’t usually question their duties. That’s decided at a higher level, and the reasons are not to be debated, but Sinterklaas’s assignments included killing a little boy’s dog, breaking down a welfare recipient’s car, burning down a poor family’s shack.”
“What’s a typical assignment?”
“Last year for example he had two long-lost brothers find each other, he got a homeless person taken in by a good Samaritan, and engineered a pregnancy for a couple desperate to have children. Some are quite complex schemes, involving relationships between several worlds.”
“Yeah. I heard about that.”
Garth frowned then continued. “They’re not always feel-good assignments. Sometimes someone has to die in order to save someone else, or someone has to lose everything in order to realize what is really important, but, in Sinterklaas’s words, they never made skin crawl. So he decided to send back the list for review, just in case. Admin was horrified. All the assignments had been reversed, somehow.”
“Did Admin say how it could happen?”
“They had no idea.”
“Nargh and Altlob. Are they around?”
“They should be on site. Everyone ends up at the Bar at one time or the other. I could arrange for them to meet you.”
“Sure. I’ll mosey on there right now.”
Garth stood up eagerly. “I’ll drive you.”
“How far is it from here?”
“Just a couple of blocks.”
“That’s okay, I’ll walk. It’ll give me a chance to check out the town.”
“If you wish,” Garth said, his tone sullen. “I’ll arrange for the two Fathers to meet you. Altlob is large and purple. Nargh is furry and looks like. . . a tumbleweed.”
“What’s the going currency at the Bar?”
“Everything is free. Uri will now you’re coming anyhow. He’s the bartender. He’ll fix you up.”
I left Garth with his toy and walked in the direction he pointed me. My house wasn’t the only gingerbread one in the village, but there were a lot of weirder structures planted along my way. Some looked filled with liquid, others had no openings that I could see, and one in particular looked like someone’s living nightmare. It continuously changed shape and color, as if it were writhing in pain.
Garth had been good at his word. I had barely walked two blocks when I arrived at the Bar. I sincerely hoped that was it, because, from the outside, it looked more like a balding porcupine than a tavern.
As I got closer, I saw that the quill-like spikes were tubes that entered the dome of the structure. They were of various sizes, some wide and flat, others narrow and high.
Beings moved in and out of these tubes in a steady stream. I imagined not all of them were Fathers, but aides like Garth or whatever passed for elves in those cultures. As soon as they were out, the air shimmered and they were enveloped in what I supposed was their own environment. There was magic at work, it seemed, or a damn good engineered environment.
I used the tube that seemed that had a human figure stamped on its side. The door opened automatically and I came into a darkened interior. I never understood why it was important to dim the lights in order to drink, but it seemed it was as much of a requirement as having a glass-drying bartender behind the counter. Across the room, his eyes zoomed on me, sliding out of his face and moving forward and back until he appeared satisfied of what he saw, then retracted them.
I walked to the counter. “You must be Uri,” I said.
“Guilty as charged.” His voice was tinny and came out of a whole under a makeshift nose.
“You’d think they would have called you Tin Man.”
“One Wizard of Oz joke and you’re out on your ear.”
“Sorry. I’ll have a drink, then.”
“Coming up.” He put a steaming cup of java in front of me.
“I was hoping for something with a bit more kick.”
“The Bar is dry until after Christmas. Sorry.”
“I thought it was Christmas every day, here.”
“There you go.”
Someone slapped my shoulder. Elmer stood beside me, grinning. “Isn’t it a bummer? That’s the only thing I find hard in this place. I’ve been desperate for a beer for years.”
“I’m a whiskey man myself,” I said, nodding to Toots, who stood behind Elmer, arms crossed under her breasts. I picked up my coffee. “Why don’t we get a booth?”
“Sure, man. You go with Toots, I’ll order for the both of us.”
I picked a booth that let me observe the comings and goings around the Bar. The counter was semi-circular and moved up and down to accommodate patrons who came in from three levels. Once inside, the aliens met and formed varied groups. There didn’t seem any problem with mixing atmospheres. Another feat of engineering. Trebor would have said that the technology was much too complex for my small brain to understand.
Toots sat in front of me, saying nothing. She was the saddest-looking elf I’d ever seen, even if my experience with them was limited. She darted a glance at the counter where Elmer chatted with Uri, then looked back at me. “Eight o’clock tonight, in the computer room,” she whispered. “Need to talk to you. Come alone.”
She had said the words so quickly and softly, I wasn’t sure I hadn’t imagined them. She glared at me, as if to warn me not to say anymore. One thing was obvious; Toots didn’t want to talk in front of Elmer or anyone else.
Her eyes flickered to the side. Elmer put the drinks down. “An orange julep for Toots, cappuccino for me.” He pushed Toots against the wall as he sat down beside her.
“So, what do you think of the Village?”
“Interesting,” I said. “A bit confusing, too.”
“I bet Garth got you into his cart.” At my grimace, he laughed. “Fresh victims are rare, these days.”
“You said you had a theory about the sabotage.”
Elmer’s face sobered. “It has to be the MWTA.” At my questioning glance, he elaborated. “The Multi-World Toy Association. They want monopoly.”
“My understanding is that your factory is very specialized.”
“That’s where the profits are. You rake in the brownie points with these ones, don’t you see. The toys and stuff are more work-intensive to produce, but they sure add up.”
“Brownie points for what?”
“Oh, you know. Better technology, higher level data management, increased resources for difficult projects, interalien exchanges, that sort of thing. You get a higher profile, bump up your reputation, your people are more interested in believing in you than in getting toys. If the MWTA gets to do both, it wouldn’t have to worry about losing a share of the market.”
“They want to get into the do-gooder business.”
“Hey, when all is said and done, it is a business.”
“That’s not what Nick led me to believe.”
Elmer shrugged. “He’s just using different words to say the same thing.”
For some reason, I found Elmer’s cynicism chilling. Maybe there was still a bit of the idealist in me, because I didn’t like that Santa Claus saw his assignments as a ratings exercise.
“Who’s the head of MWTA?”
“Coltran Streeter. A big, mean sob, if you want my opinion.”
“How often does he come here?”
“He can’t come here. No one from the MWTA can.”
My skin itched, which was the sure sign that things didn’t add up.
“Who has access to the factory’s computer room?”
“Just me and Toots, now. Before, pretty much anyone. We’re not into locking doors.” He finished the last of his coffee. “I gotta go, man. A few things to finish up at the shop, then I’m going to dinner with friends. Hey, why don’t you join us?”
“Pizza at Mamma Zola’s. The best in the galaxy. “Let’s go, Toots.”
Toots, who hadn’t touched her drink, slid out of the booth and followed Elmer out.
A large shape obscured the light. I looked up into the face of an eagle. A purple eagle, with red eyes and a red beak. His iridescent feathers were a dizzying mélange of purples that would make a peacock croak with envy.
“You must be Altlob,” I said.
“I be he.”
Since he had talons instead of hands, I kept mine to myself. The seat across from me changed into a perch and Altlob hopped on it. “Contacted me, did Sinterklaas, before left he.”
Either Altlob was grammatically challenged, or the language was particularly difficult for my translator. “I heard there was a screw-up in your list assignment.”
He blinked and snapped his beak. “Not a mistake that be.”
“You think it was deliberate.”
“On that we agree.”
“How much damage did it do?”
“Received I the list of naughty. Rewarded they were for their being nasty. Needy be angry and repudiated I be. For a reversal of deeds entered I a plea.”
“Can that be done?”
“Never one accepted because seen as flighty. But never before were lists transposed so badly.”
“Who you do you think who would want to do that kind of damage?”
“The MWTA, definitely.”
“Stand to gain do they. Coltran Streeter, President he be. Most vile and nasty.”
“Why would he want to destroy you?”
“Not only me. All of us, most definitely.”
I nodded. Elmer had given me a motive, but it rang false. I doubted that a punk like Streeter would want to get into the good deeds business. Something Elmer said, though, had triggered that telltale itching, but I didn’t seem to grasp what it was. I slotted the feeling into my right brain and let it run there on its own. I chatted with Altlob for a while longer. I didn’t learn anything new, but I got a kick out of his rhyming.
Altlob fluttered his wings and hopped off his perch onto some kind of trolley.
“Do you have any idea where I could find Nargh?”
Altlob fixed me with his red stare for a few seconds. “Not here now Nargh be. Know not where did he flee. Very depressed was he.”
“If you see him, would you mind telling him I’d like to talk to him?”
Altlob extended his neck forward in a short jab and the trolley began to roll down the aisle. As he advanced, the aisle widened to the width of a highway. Altlob unfurled his great purple wings and propelled himself forward. The sound of feathers cutting the air was louder than a car engine. As soon as he was airborne, the aisle narrowed back to its original size. Beings on both sides continued their conversation as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Come to think of it, Altlob taking flight was probably a common occurrence.
I had only forty-five minutes before my meeting with Toots, so I decided to bypass the pizza with Elmer and ordered another coffee with a BLT, lots of mayo. I sat at the counter to eat it.
“Got to go back to the factory for a bit,” I said to Uri. Any chance I could get transportation?”
“Easier than that,” he said. He lifted a flap in the counter that wasn’t there a second ago and pointed to a door that had just materialized beside him. “Take that, and you’ll be there.”
“More sideways travel?”
“Something like that. Don’t understand it myself. I just tend bar.”
“Yeah, and I’m the next Santa.” I went through the door and, sure enough, I stood in front of the factory door. When I turned around, there was only a plain wall in front of me. I checked my watch: two minutes to eight, so I’d traveled in time, as well. It obviously didn’t affect me in any way. My telecarb would have warned me of danger or potential harm. I hoped.
I went into the factory and looked around. The place was a lot quieter, with most of the machines turned off. Brenda was still working, doing what appeared to be some maintenance work on one of the robotic arms. She waved at me but didn’t stop. I made my way to the computer room.
The door was closed, so I knocked and waited. When I received no answer, I turned the knob.
The door opened and I stepped inside. The place appeared empty. I was about to turn around and ask Brenda about Toots, when a familiar smell registered: blood. There was another smell under it but I didn’t wait to identify it. A foot stuck out from behind a desk.
When I approached it, the smell of blood became stronger. I swallowed, braced myself. Sure enough, Toots lay face up on the floor, her head in a pool of blood and grey matter. I didn’t need to check if she was dead. Her wide open, empty eyes didn’t leave a doubt. I crouched and carefully turned her head. She was still warm. There was a hole at her temple the size of a golf ball. I got up and looked around for the weapon but couldn’t find it. It had to be something pointy, yielded with a lot of force. Judging from the way Toots had fallen, she had been sitting at her desk when someone whacked her. I didn’t quite work, though. Whether the killer had faced her or come from her side, she would have seen the blow coming, would have backed away or turned her head.
I went outside and signaled Brenda. “Did you see anyone come in tonight?”
“You’re the first, although I’d just come back from my break when you came in. Why?”
“Get a hold of Garth right away. It’s urgent.”
She looked at me curiously but nodded and walked to a communication unit. I went back inside and did what I was supposed to do: looked for clues.
That elusive smell under the taint of blood was gone. I roamed around, trying to remember if everything was in the same place as it was before. Something on the floor by Toot’s foot caught my eye. I picked it up between two fingers. It was a piece of brown fuzz, a bit like the dust bunnies that used to live under my bed. It wouldn’t have caught my eye except that the computer room was as clean as an operating theatre. No dust anywhere. I picked up a piece of paper and folded the fuzz into it before I put it in my pocket.
Garth came in, his face more ghoulish than ever. “Mr. Meter, we’re in the last preparations for Christmas. I hope this is important.”
“It is.” I pointed to the spot behind the desk.
He came forward and cranked his neck. When he saw Toots, he blanched and staggered. I grabbed his arm to prevent him from pitching forward over the corpse. His upper arm was like a stick with skin but no muscle. I could imagine breaking it if I exerted only a bit of pressure.
As I saw him change to green, I picked up a garbage pail and shoved it at his midsection, then got him outside. He circled it reflexively with his arms. “Oh my,” he said after a few deep breaths, “murder in the Village. It will create havoc.”
“She said she wanted to speak to me. Do you have any idea why?”
Garth shook his head. “Toots hardly spoke to anyone, kept to herself. The only person that could get her to say more than two sentences together was Elmer, and then it was only about her beloved computers. Oh, Lord, this is awful.”
“I’ll call the infirmary.”
“Good idea. You’d better tell Nick to come back, too. He’ll want to be here.”
“Yes, of course.” Now that he had a goal and a sense of purpose, he bustled out to the communication unit. I stayed on the scene. Murder had upped the stakes considerably. This wasn’t the deed of someone who wanted to get into the feel good business.
Garth came back inside but remained far from Toots’s body. “They’ll be here shortly,” he said. “They asked me to wait, make sure no one else comes in here.”
“Good. Garth, did Toots have any enemies?”
“No one here has enemies. We’re all elves, for goodness’s sake. We’re carefully selected. Besides, you probably noticed Toots didn’t talk much. She kept to herself.”
Yes, I thought, and those were the kind of people who saw and heard too much. “I need to talk to Coltran Streeter.”
Garth grimaced. “I see you’ve heard the conspiracy theory.”
“You don’t believe the MWTA is involved?”
“The MWTA members make toys. They’re not into abstract concepts such as improving the emotional wellbeing and overall lives of their customers. All the MWTA wants is for them to buy more toys.”
“They may not want to take over, but simply to ruin the Brotherhood’s reputation. That way they sell more toys to disgruntled ex-believers.”
“That’s possible, I suppose.”
“Regardless, I want to talk to Streeter. Where does he park himself?”
“I’ll take you to him, if you want.”
I turned around. Elmer hovered at the door, his face waxy pale. “Is it true Toots is dead?”
Garth moved to block the view of the desk. “It is,” he said in a gentle voice. “I’m sorry.”
Elmer shook his head. “We were together not three hours ago. She was fine then.”
Garth cleared his throat. “Elmer, she was murdered.”
His eyes widened. “What? That’s impossible. Who would want to kill Toots?”
“That’s for me to find out,” I said. “There’s no point in sticking around, Elmer. Let’s go.”
I grasped his upper arm and turned him around. He followed me out, looking over his shoulder. “Maybe I should stay, help Garth or something.”
“There’s nothing you can do.”
“But we worked together. I can’t just leave her there.”
“Garth will take care of her, you know that. You can help her by taking me to Streeter.”
He frowned at me. “You think Streeter did this? Did you find a clue that points to him?”
“I’m just following up on your theory. I want to get a feel for him.”
We walked down two blocks to a small house. A sedate compact was parked in the driveway. “It’s not Sinterklaas’s Lexus,” Elmer said, “but it works the same way.”
I sat down beside him and the same faint odor I’d noticed in the computer room wafted towards me. I now knew what it was. “How was the pizza?”
Elmer started. “What? Oh, yes, the pizza. Great as usual.”
“You said the last time you saw Toots was about three hours ago. Did she go for pizza with you?”
“No, she went back to the office. She said she wanted to finish something.”
“And you didn’t see her after that.”
“No.” He tapped a sequence on the panel in front of him. “Why are you asking me all these questions?”
“I want to have a picture of what Toots was doing before she was killed.”
“It’s not difficult. She either worked or stayed home. She wasn’t the most social person.”
“Yet she came with you to meet me.”
“I know. That was totally out of character.”
And might have clued in her killer that she knew something. “Who else was with you?”
“Guys from the plant. I’ll give you a list if you want.”
“Please. Did you come straight from the pizza parlor?”
“No. As usual, I ate too much. I took a walk to work it off.” He hesitated. “I see why you’re asking. It couldn’t be any of the guys. I’ve known them for a long time.”
“How sure can you be that none of them came back to the factory?”
He didn’t speak right away. “We’re here,” he said instead.
I looked out. Elmer had parked in front of a mansion that was a mix between a medieval castle and the Blob. “I take it Streeter isn’t human.”
“No. I’ll wait for you here, if you don’t mind. I don’t speak Centaurian and this place gives me the creeps.”
“Streeter’s Centaurian? Like Nargh?”
“Yes. I’d be careful if I were you. Centaurians are renown for their quick tempers.”
“I’ll remember that.”
I got out of the car and climbed up the ramp that led to what I supposed was the door, a semi-circle that towered at least two meters above me. The ramp had two deep gouges in it, like a worn path. Since I couldn’t see a doorbell, I knocked. The door immediately rolled sideways to reveal a darkened interior.
I stepped inside. The door rolled back, cutting off most of the light. I waited for my eyes to adjust. My telecarb warmed slightly, indicating the possibility of danger. Soon I could make out a continuation of the gouges in the marble-like floor. I decided to follow them.
The sound of my steps bounced somewhere and came back distorted, like the sounds of a warped vinyl record. I crossed a large hall. At least I thought it was a hall. I couldn’t see further than a few steps on all sides. I stopped when the gouges formed a Y. Another ramp climbed to a second floor on the left. On the right, there was another round door.
The ramp looked steep and there was no balustrade I could hang on to, so I chose the door. As soon as I got closer, the door rolled open to show another dark interior, although this time there was a bit more light. I stepped inside, looked around.
The room was completely empty of furniture except for a table with a hurricane lamp on it. My telecarb warmed up. Quickly, I stepped away from the doorway.
A loud metal click close to my ear made me start. I turned around. “A visitor,” a voice rumbled. “How delicious.”
A round shape filled the doorway. Silver grey fuzz covered it completely so that it was impossible to know whether it was backwards or forwards. It advanced towards me and I understood the gouges in the floor. The feet were tire-size metal wheels, sharp as pizza cutters. Little sparks flickered off them as the giant hairball moved.
It happened in a fraction of a second. A pincer-like hand shoot out of the fuzz towards me.
My telecarb burned.
I was on the other side of the room.
“We all have our little tricks.”
“Indeed. The chase is part of the fun.”
“Listen, fuzz ball, I’m not here to become your lunch. I’m looking for Coltran Streeter.”
“You found him.”
“Just my luck,” I muttered. Louder I said, “I’d like to ask you a few questions about your interest in the Brotherhood.”
Streeter advanced. “I have no interest in the pathetic bunch.”
I backed away. “I should have said in trying to discredit them.”
“Is it working?”
“You’ve made a tactical mistake in killing one of them.”
“Killing? I can’t even set foot in the Village.” He moved closer.
I backed away towards the door. “Someone has to give the orders.”
“I have other interests these days. I am getting out of the toy business. It’s beginning to bore me.”
He threw a punch at me. My telecarb responded and landed me behind him. He giggled. I shivered. If that pincer of his had hit me, it would have done a lot of damage. Or made a big hole, I thought suddenly.
“What’s that new interest of yours?” I said.
“Vices. Much more profitable. Gambling, especially.”
Gambling? Everything became clear at once. I had the motive, and knew who the killers were. Yes, there had to have been two of them. One to keep Toots distracted, the other to administer the blow. All I had to do now was get out of here in one piece.
“I can tell the Brotherhood to forget about you, then.”
“Oh, I’d hate for them to forget me. Let’s say our clientele will be different from now on.”
“I’ll relay the message.”
The pincer slashed again, this time a lazy gesture, which put me even more on my guard. “I haven’t had fun like this in a long time,” Streeter said. “Everyone is so tame. Few last as long as you have.”
Game over, I told myself.
With surprising speed, Streeter bore on me. His pincer whipped out.
Outside, I thought.
As I dematerialized, the pincer rammed into my chest.
Undead and whole, I landed on the outside ramp.
I ran down to the car. Elmer was asleep. I knocked on the window. He jumped, rubbed his eyes, then gaped at me.
“Surprised to see me?” I said as I sat inside.
Streeter was rolling down the ramp. Elmer glanced at him, then at me. “Ah, no. I just thought you’d be longer in there, that’s all.”
“Let’s get out of here.”
“Did you learn anything useful?”
Relief fleeted across his face. The reaction was swift and I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t been expecting it.
Nick was waiting, even more tired-looking than before. His eyes were red-rimmed, as if he had cried recently.
“How are you doing, Elmer?” he said.
“I still can’t believe Toots is dead.”
“I want you to take the day off.”
Elmer gaped. “I can’t do that. That would mean canceling Christmas.”
Nick wrung his hands. “We can’t very well continue as if Toots wasn’t gone.”
“If it were me,” I said, “I’d want to keep busy.”
“I could work from home,” Elmer said.
My eye caught a brown tumbleweed rolling down the street towards us.
“Here’s Nargh,” Nick said. “He probably wants to speak with you.”
Nargh was much smaller than Streeter, and brown instead of grey, but he was still imposing, at least a head taller than I. He stopped in front of us. “You must be the investigator,” he said.
“Guilty.” I remembered that my telecarb didn’t work in the Village. I backed away, making sure there was enough space between us.
“Want to speak to you.”
I had an idea. “Why don’t we all go to the Bar? I’m sure we all could use a drink.”
Nick narrowed his eyes but said nothing, just nodded.
“I want to speak to you alone,” Nargh said.
In a pig’s ear, I thought. “You’ll get your chance.”
We made our way to the Bar. I noticed the gouges Nargh’s wheels left in the street healed immediately behind him.
When we came in, I walked to Uri. “There may be trouble. Just be ready.”
Nick had selected a round table, and everyone was already seated. Altlob had joined us and perched beside Nargh. I stayed on my feet and stared at Elmer until he fidgeted in his chair. Then I looked at the group around the table.
“Nick hired me to find out who was trying to kill Christmas,” I said in a voice loud enough to be heard across the room. Everyone in the Bar hushed up. “Before I could find who, though, I had to figure out why.”
Uri brought me an espresso. I took a jolting sip. “Elmer here had the theory that the MWTA wanted to steal the Brotherhood’s jobs and run the whole show themselves. That didn’t quite ring true to me.”
“But the MWTA it be?” Altlob said.
“Nope. Just one member of it.”
“Who, for goodness’s sake?” Nick said.
“Coltran Streeter.” Nargh shifted, rolling closer to me. I moved out of reach. “When I visited Streeter today, he told me he was getting out of the toy business for a more profitable venture: gambling. I believe he wants to transform the Village into the largest casino in the galaxy.”
The room erupted. I winced. Having an international translator wasn’t an advantage when everyone spoke at the same time. I raised a hand and the noise subsided.
“This place can accommodate all types of species in a controlled environment. The Bar is proof of that. It’s the perfect place, in the perfect plane. Streeter’s goal is to render the Village obsolete, by slowly eroding confidence in the Brotherhood until it became ineffectual. Then he would have taken over, either through an invasion coup, or, more simply, by buying the real estate.”
“You have no proof of that,” Nargh said.
“I don’t. It’s a best guess. But who murdered Toots isn’t.”
I let the room exclaim on that for a while, then I raised a hand. Silence fell. “Streeter isn’t allowed in the village, so he needed accomplices, someone who could do the dirty work for him. It was a simple thing for Nargh to say he’d never received his list.”
“I never did receive it. You can’t say I did.”
I turned to Elmer. “Very few people have the technical knowledge to alter computer programming.”
Elmer paled. “Sinterklaas, don’t let him insult me like that. I’ve been a faithful employee for years.”
“One who’s talking about doing good deeds as if it were a business. One who knew that Streeter was big, even though the fuzzball had never set foot here before. One who delivered me to Streeter, which nearly got me killed before I got away. Surprised you, didn’t it?”
Elmer jumped to his feet. “I’m not listening to another word.”
“Sit down, Elmer.” Nick’s voice was quiet but sharp. Elmer sat down.
“When I discovered Toots, there was a familiar smell in the room,” I said to Elmer. “Did you ever notice how food smells cling to our clothes?”
“I recognized that smell later when we sat in the car together: it was pizza. You didn’t walk aimlessly after leaving the restaurant. You went directly to the computer room. I bet if we ask around the Village, no one saw you taking a stroll. You must have taken one of the sideways doors.”
“That can be easily proven,” Nick said. “There are records of every use of the doors.”
“I bet you Elmer wiped out that entry, didn’t you, Elmer?”
Elmer sat, his hands crossed, white-knuckled. He didn’t answer.
“The system is redundant,” Nick said. He looked every one of his seven hundred years. “We have backups.”
Elmer started and gawked.
“While you’re at it, why don’t you check if Nargh used it as well?”
“I will lodge a complaint with the Brotherhood for this insult. I am leaving.”
Altlob flapped a wing and Nargh bounced into the table. “Staying you’ll be.”
I fished out the piece of paper in which I had folded the bit of fluff I had found. I handed it over to Nick. “What does this look like to you?”
Nick opened the paper. “Nargh’s hair.”
“I found it in the computer room.”
“It was planted there,” Nargh said.
I gave him my patented gimlet stare. A pin dropped with a ping at the other end of the Bar. “I’ll tell you how it happened: Elmer noticed Toots speaking to me. Maybe he was already suspicious that she knew or saw something. Toots was very quiet, never went anywhere, but this time she came along. That alone must have made him suspicious. So he contacted Nargh, who was off-world. Nargh comes back on the sly. Elmer enters the computer room and stands in front Toots’s desk. Maybe he confronts her, or just chats. While they’re arguing, Nargh sneaks in beside her and hits her on the side of the head with his pincer. Problem solved.”
Nargh snarled; my telecarb burned but nothing else happened. I jumped back, but not fast enough. A searing pain cut across my upper arm. I looked down. The sleeve of my leather jacket gaped and blood pumped out of a deep gash in my bicep. It splashed on the floor and was absorbed immediately. Then a gale nearly made me fall. I heard a squeal and raised my head. Altlob flew in a holding pattern above the table, Nargh caught in his talons.
“Tried to escape, did he,” Altlob said in between snaps of his beak.
Elmer still sat at the table, pale, wild-eyed.
Uri came up to me, took off my jacket, and wrapped a tight bandage over the cut. “It will need stitches.”
“Yeah. Later.” Lightheaded, I sat down. Nick raised questioning eyebrows at Uri. “Both Nargh and Elmer took the portal to the computer room,” Uri said in his tin voice, “very close to the time Toots was killed. Elmer also made a communication to Centaurus a few hours before. To Coltran Streeter’s mansion. Nargh’s transport log indicates he came from Centaurus –Streeter’s coordinates.”
“Streeter must have told Elmer to get me there,” I said. “He decided I was becoming a problem. If my telecarb hadn’t worked on Centaurus, I’d be a small pile of bones right now.”
“Why, Elmer?” Nick said.
Elmer shook his head and closed his eyes.
“I bet you Nargh and Elmer has a gambling problem. How much do you owe Streeter, Elmer?”
“Pretty much everything I have,” he muttered.
I was suddenly exhausted. “Well, that settles that,” I said. “I’ll let you deal with them.” I had a feeling the longevity procedure would be reversed for these two. Then again, maybe not. You never knew with do-gooders.
Nick got up. “I’ll drive you to the hospital.”
He said nothing on the way there. When I stepped out in front of the Civic Hospital in good old Ottawa, he said, “How much do I owe you?”
“Forget it. Consider it my good deed for the year.”
Nick nodded. “No offence, Mr. Meter, but I hope never to need your services again.”
As usual, I had mixed feelings about solving another case. The satisfaction was there, but the cozy complacency Nick and the Brotherhood had been living in was shattered. Evil could insinuate itself everywhere, even in magical places, and the Fathers, despite their great age, could still yield to temptation.
I got patched up then went back to my hotel suite. For once, my neighbor’s room was silent. I took a couple of painkillers, fell into bed and oblivion.
When I woke up the next day, I realized it was Christmas day. I was supposed to go to dinner at Terry’s and Betty’s. I got up, padded into the living room to check the weather on the tube, when I stopped dead. In a corner was a fully decorated Christmas tree, complete with blinking lights. Unless I’d done it in my sleep, I wasn’t the one who’d put it up. I moved forward. Under the tree, neatly folded, was a brand new leather jacket.
Yes, Jack, I thought, there is a Santa Claus.