Story by T.G. Haynes / Illustration by Cesar Valtierra
If you’re wondering why they called me instead of the boys in blue, I was the guy they turned to when whatever it was that needed cleaning up was so bad they didn’t want your average cop handling it in case he sued the city for psychological trauma. Today was my lucky day; I got to meet one of my heroes. They say you should never meet your heroes, that you only end up disappointed if you do. I was disappointed alright. My hero was lying face down in a pool of his own blood.
People ask the dumbest questions in times of crisis. The store manager, who was hovering somewhere behind my left shoulder, coughed politely and stammered, ‘Is he dead?’
I tipped my hat back on my head and, for no good reason, rubbed my right temple. ‘Well if he isn’t, he’s gonna have one helluva hangover in the morning.’
The manager looked nervous. ‘What are we going to do?’
I stood up. ‘We’ll have to call the coroner.’
He looked puzzled. ‘I mean about Christmas. This week is our busiest of the year, it’s the final big push. What are we going to do without our Santa Claus?’
This guy was all heart. Here was me thinking that he actually cared when all the time his mind was on the takings. ‘Well, I guess you’ll have to get someone else to fill the role.’
‘But it’s Christmas next weekend. There won’t be any decent Santa’s left. All of the other stores will have snapped them up by now.’
I shrugged. It wasn’t my problem. After all, I had enough on my plate as it was. I was the one who was going to have to solve this mess and I had no idea where to start. I mean, it was Santa for Chrissake, it wasn’t like the guy had any enemies. Everyone loved Santa Claus, didn’t they?
‘Then there’s the children,’ the store manager babbled on.
‘Precisely. Who’s going to tell them?’ He looked at me imploringly.
‘Uh-uh. You’ve got the wrong guy.’ I turned and was about to leave when he spoke the magic words.
‘I’ll make it worth your while…’
Which was how, fifteen minutes later, I found myself standing in front of an army of pre-pubescent monsters. They gazed at me expectantly. On the plus side, most of the kids had their mothers with them; one or two of whom weren’t bad looking. I cleared my throat. A hush fell over the assembled crowd. You could hear the proverbial pin drop. I half thought about throwing one to the floor, just to see if the sultry red head in the front row would bend over and pick it up. I smiled at her. She smiled back. It was pointless. I knew the instant I opened my mouth she’d hate me. They’d all hate me. Ah well, life’s like that I guess.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, I’m afraid I have some very bad news…’
— ♦♦♦ —
They didn’t take it well. A couple of the parents actually went out of their way to tell me what a despicable man they thought I was. I felt that was slightly unfair. They could have at least had the decency to get to know me a little and find out first hand for themselves. The lift doors pinged open and the only other hero I had ever worshipped stepped out. Agreeing to become partners with Stephanie Jones had been one of the better decisions I’d made in my life. Apart from the fact she was the best detective the city had ever known, she also had a body that made grown men consider doing deals with the devil. I’d had at least one attempt on my life that stemmed from the fact I got to share an office with Steph six days out of every seven. Who said jealousy couldn’t drive a man insane?
Alas, an office was all we shared. I kept kidding myself that there might be something more between us. On one occasion I thought I was on to something. Unfortunately, when I sobered up, I discovered I was wrong. And yet the way she flirted with me allowed me to live in hope. Who knows, maybe one day she’d take pity on me. Steph smiled. One of the office juniors fainted.
‘Who is it this time?’ she asked, straight to business as ever.
I gestured at the bargain blanket that was now covering the corpse. Steph knelt down and snatched it aside. Her expression was difficult to read. Then, as she went to stand up, she keeled over. I was almost shocked. Steph tended to leave the unprofessional behaviour to me. I was at her side in her trice. I picked her up and looked at the store manager. He ushered us into his office, where, inconveniently, we found inspector Jack Calloway waiting.
‘So, how come you get the nod before me?’ he bridled.
I helped Steph into a chair. ‘Not now.’
‘You got that vulture instinct, Lasky.’
‘I said not now.’
‘What’s the matter with her?’ Calloway asked.
I scowled at him. Finally he got the picture and shut up.
‘Steph, Steph.’ I slapped her right cheek, very gently.
Her eyes flickered and she stared up at me. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me.’
‘You OK?’ Calloway growled.
She nodded, not entirely convincingly. ‘Fine.’
‘Good,’ Calloway said, ‘then maybe we can get down to business. Who was he?’
The store manager piped up, timidly. ‘His name was Nick Klaus.
‘You mean The Nick Klaus?’
‘No, his son,’ the store manager replied.
Calloway looked relieved.
This exchange left me in the dark, so I decided to join the party. ‘Anybody mind telling me who Nick Klaus is when he’s at home?’
‘Father Christmas you dummy,’ Calloway snapped.
‘I hate to be the one to tell you this Jack, but…’
Calloway balled his hands into fists. ‘Don’t say it, Mike. Don’t even think it.’
My jaw had had the pleasure of meeting Jack Calloway’s knuckles before; it wasn’t overly eager to get re-acquainted. That said, Jack was a big boy now, it was about time someone told him the truth about Father Christmas. Before I opened my big mouth Steph saved the day by explaining. ‘Nick Klaus was Sears and Roebuck’s store Santa for the past forty years, only due to ill health this year, he couldn’t do it, so his son, Nick Klaus Junior, took over the reigns.’
The store manager nodded to confirm her story.
For a second, Calloway looked almost human. ‘Nick Klaus senior will always be my Father Christmas.’
Steph put a hand on his arm in an affectionate gesture. ‘He’s everyones Father Christmas, Jack.’
This was all very well but it wasn’t getting us anywhere, so I brought the conversation back to the matter at hand. ‘So that’s Nick Klaus junior lying out there?
The store manager nodded.
‘Any clues?’ Calloway asked.
‘Nothing obvious,’ I said.
Doubting me, Calloway went to take a look for himself. When he returned, a couple of minutes later, something was bugging him, I could tell.
‘Go on, spit it out,’ I said.
‘What did you make of that mark underneath his right arm?’
‘The one that looked a bit like a tyre track from a bike?’
Calloway nodded. I turned to the store manager. He shrugged. ‘We were putting out our range of children’s bikes a couple of days ago. It could have been one of those that caused it.’
It seemed perfectly plausible to me. Calloway and Steph agreed, which wasn’t what I wanted to hear, because it left my list of possible suspects looking decidedly blank.
— ♦♦♦ —
Steph and I attended the funeral. I was quite surprised to find that, apart from Nick Klaus senior, we were the only ones there. It was the kind of crowd I expected to get at my funeral. A stray dog joined the congregation at one point and sniffed around the coffin, but when the priest launched into his bit about eternal life, the dog left. I didn’t blame him. The world was insulting enough as it was without someone making it worse by giving you false hope of a happy ever after-life.
When the service ended I went over and paid my respects to old man Klaus. He muttered something that I didn’t quite catch. His accent was incredibly thick. I couldn’t place it exactly. European, no doubt, but where, I hadn’t a clue. Further south than from where my lot descended from, that was the only thing I was certain of. A car pulled up at the cemetery gates and Steph offered to push him over to it.
‘Thank you,’ Nick Klaus senior said.
Steph was unusually quiet, so I did the talking. ‘They tell me that you were Sears’ Santa for forty years.’
Old Man Klaus held his head high, proudly. ‘Forty Two. Until these stopped working.’ He smacked his right hand hard against his legs. ‘It’s a terrible thing getting old Mr…?’
‘When the body no longer obeys the mind…’ He trailed off and shook his head.
‘At least you got the chance to grow old.’
‘You mean my son?’
He lapsed into a lengthy silence. At first I took it for grief, but then I began to get this feeling that there was something more to it than that, so when we reached the cemetery gates I tried again. ‘Is there anyone else who can carry on the family tradition?’
‘No. Nick was my only child.’
‘Don’t be. He would not have been a good replacement.’
Steph opened the back door to the car and between her and the driver they bundled old man Klaus inside.
He mumbled something that sounded like, ‘Clemens Carsony…’, then closed the car door. I saw him in profile for the first time and realised why Calloway had gone all misty eyed at the mention of his name. From that angle, he didn’t just look like Santa, he was Santa. The car pulled away and Steph and I trudged off down the frosty drive.
— ♦♦♦ —
Being fresh out of leads we had no alternative other than to visit the Father Christmas retirement village on the outskirts of town. Being solely occupied by ageing Santas, the place had a slightly surreal atmosphere. On the whole, the retirement homes I’d been unlucky enough to visit tended to be a great advertisement for suicide – depressing places that afforded little comfort and even less joy. The Christmas retirement village bucked that trend. I hadn’t felt so much love since my best friend’s wife last held me in her arms. We put the word out and pretty soon a skein of Santas flocked into the day room in order to try and help us.
Santas of every type, size and description came flooding through the door: Jamaican Santas, Japanese Santas, Indian Santas, Inuit Santas, it was like a Christmassy League of Nations. Willing though all of them were, either they didn’t have any information that was useful to us or we didn’t understand what they were saying, for one or two only spoke in their native tongue. We nodded, politely, drank far too much sherry laced tea and ate an obscene amount of mince pies. I’d had worse afternoons.
The last few Santas trickled through the door. These were the ones who were frailest in terms of health. Most were wheelchair bound. I was just about to start chatting to one of them when one of the members of staff summoned me across to the phone. On picking up the receiver I heard a familiar guttural drawl. It was as if Scrooge himself had decided it was time to end the fun.
‘That you?’ Calloway rasped.
I didn’t answer immediately. My eyes were firmly fixed on Steph and not entirely for the wrong reasons. The Santa who had just wheeled himself up to her greeted her as if he knew her. With Calloway droning on I couldn’t make out what the Santa was saying, so I mumbled a non-commital ‘Uh-hu’ into the receiver and held the phone away from my ear.
I decided that my hearing must have been playing up. That was the second time someone had spoken that day and I hadn’t understood what it was they had said. I strained my ears, but all I could hear were the dulcet tones of the City’s finest police inspector.
‘Are you listening to me?’ Calloway said, sounding aggrieved.
‘Of course,’ I lied.
‘So have you ever come across one of these things?’ he asked.
‘One of these what?’ I was doing my best to ignore him, only one of Calloway’s many annoying traits was that he was migraine inducingly persistent.
Steph glanced over her shoulder at me. Her face betrayed a characteristic that I’d never associated with her before. She seemed kind of nervous. She was trying her best to hush the Santa in the wheelchair, only he was babbling on like the little brook in the Tennyson poem. The more I listened to him, the more relieved I felt. No wonder I didn’t understand him. Whatever language he was speaking it sure wasn’t Anglo-Saxon. I decided to turn my attention back to Calloway.
‘Steyr, Steyr!’ Calloway hollered.
What was this, try to make Lasky look like a chump day? Now Calloway wasn’t making any sense either. ‘What?’
Calloway sighed. ‘Do I gotta repeat myself?’
‘The bullet that they dug out of Nick Klaus junior, it was from a Steyr eight millimetre. Have you any idea what one of those is?’
I didn’t answer. I’d been distracted by Steph’s Santa once again. Actually, not so much by the Jolly Old Gent himself as by what he was sitting in. I stared at the wheels of the chair. A horrible hunch was starting to form in the back of my mind. As the Santa burst into song, Steph tried to shush him.
‘Lasky?’ Calloway bellowed.
‘Got to go Jack.’ I slammed the receiver down as he launched into a verbal volley.
I made my way over to Steph and her Santa. She stood up and tried to usher me away. Before she could do so I played my hunch and wished the Santa a Merry Christmas.
Though he didn’t speak my language, my greeting was universal enough for him to understand. His face lit up. ‘Kellemes Karacsonyi Unnepeket!’
Steph caught hold of my arm. ‘It’s not what you think.’
Santa muttered something else. It sounded like, ‘Viszontlàtàsra,’ but I was no longer listening.
— ♦♦♦ —
As we drove to Old Man Klaus’s house, Steph tried her best to persuade me that I was wrong. I kidded myself into thinking that maybe she was just jealous that, for once, I’d solved the case before her, but I knew there was more to it than that. Far more.
When we knocked on the door it took Old Man Klaus a while to answer. It was fair enough. Wheels don’t move as fast as legs. As we followed him back inside the house I couldn’t help noticing the imprints the wheelchair tyres made on the linoleum in the kitchen.
‘So, have you made any progress?’ he asked.
‘I think so.’
‘Hungarian,’ I said.
Old Man Klaus smiled. ‘Very good, Mr Lasky. Not many people have the ear for my language.’
‘You told me earlier that you’d been Santa at Sears and Roebuck for forty two years, but Steph here thought it was only forty.’
‘She’s wrong. I started working at Sears in eighteen ninety, forty two years ago.’
I nodded. ‘Granted. But, as ever, Steph’s right.’
‘Because you didn’t work Christmas nineteen fifteen or sixteen, did you?’ When Klaus didn’t reply, I persisted. ‘You were dishing out presents in a foreign field, weren’t you?’
Steph tried to interject. I ignored her. ‘Ever use a Steyr eight millimetre, Colonel Klaus?’
He raised his head and stared me, a proud look upon his face. ‘It was the preferred pistol in my regiment of the Austro-Hungarian army.’
I didn’t say anything, I knew he’d continue.
‘Forty Christmas seasons I worked that store, as Stephanie here rightly said. I was this town’s Father Christmas. I always knew it had to come to an end one day. I knew I’d have to give it up. Each year I urged the store to look for a new Santa, but each year they prevaricated until my legs finally gave up on me and I could walk no more.’
He lapsed into silence. I filled the gap. ‘Why?’
‘Worthless!’ Old Man Klaus spat. ‘My wife gave her life giving birth to him and he repaid her by…’ He shook his head. ‘I caught him once playing with his young cousin when she was just a little girl. I should have shot him then.’
‘Only you didn’t, did you?’
‘More fool me.’
‘You waited until it was too late.’
Old Man Klaus laughed, dryly. ‘Not quite. I got him in the end. So go ahead, slap the cuffs on me, Mr Lasky.’
‘Nice try, Mr Klaus, but it won’t wash.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘I have to give it to you, the tyre track was a nice touch.’
His eyes nearly burnt a hole in me his stare was so intense. I ignored the look and continued. ‘But that grotto is up on the fifteenth floor. The lift stops at the fourteenth.’
‘No wheelchair access. It wasn’t you who fired that gun.’
Old Man Klaus paled. ‘You’re wrong. I…I… got out and crawled, such was my determination.’
‘He didn’t, did he Steph?’
‘Sorry, partner,’ she mumbled.
I drove home my point. ‘You were the young cousin.’
Steph nodded, imperceptibly.
It was decision time. My conscience lost. It didn’t stand a chance. ‘You know, I can’t help thinking that the evidence is pretty flimsy.’
Steph bit her bottom lip. ‘You reckon?’
I scratched my chin. ‘I’m sure if you looked in the phone book you’d find thousands of Klaus’s who held a grudge against Nick junior.’
‘There’s only three,’ Steph said.
‘There you go. Besides, who else other than me is going to remember that Klaus was your mother’s maiden name.’
‘No one?’ she said, hopefully.
Old Man Klaus caught on. ‘You mean?’
‘I mean, case closed.’
He weighed his words carefully before remarking. ‘You’re a good man, Mr Lasky.’
‘Not if I can help it,’ I replied.
Steph bent down at her uncle’s side and whispered something in his ear. I wandered over to the front door. As my fingers closed on the latch she said, ‘My uncle has a spare room. We could stay over if you like.’
I opened the door. A blizzard was blowing. The wind howled mournfully. I’d waited many a long year for Steph to whisper those sweet words, only now she finally had, circumstances were such that my conscience needed a little time to adjust to the fact she wasn’t the perfect angel I’d made her out to be. It felt about minus forty outside. It was much colder than that in my heart.
I turned around. ‘Maybe in the New Year?’
Steph smiled, sadly.
‘Kellemes Karacsonyi Unnepeket,’ I said, before closing the door behind me and walking out into the deep snow.
This one takes an odd twist on the cozy mystery formula. An intrepid former reporter turned Hollywood flack writer stumbles onto a dangerous creature that he pursues. Could this truly be a…dare he imagine…werewolf? When he chases the thing into tavern, he encounters a bevy of characters, all suspect in his mind.
He must find out which one is the beast that’s turned into its human form before the beast is forced to turn again and kill everyone in the place. The game is afoot! Don’t miss our last story of the year next week!