Story by Manfred Gabriel
Art by Bradley K. McDevitt
Yew Evergreen sat in his cramped office, plugging through the mind-numbing letters to Santa. piled on his tiny desk, a desk which wobbled unevenly until he found a copy of Charles Dickens’, ”A Christmas Carol”, to shove under one of the legs. The letters were overflow, mostly brats on the naughty list. Kids who pulled their sister’s hair one too many times or lied to their mother about breaking her favorite coffee mug. Rough letters with poor grammar and penmanship, scrawled demands for pellet guns, remote control cars, and hideous, big-eyed dolls they’d seen advertised on TV.
He read each letter then stamp it with DENIED in bold red ink before tossing it into the out bin by the door. Gingersnap, the pretty young elf who collected the mail, with round eyes and a button nose that would make Frosty the Snowman jealous, would roll by with her cart at the end of the day and collect them all, haul them off to be shredded. They made nice bedding for the reindeer.
He’d watch Ginger walk away on those slender, red stockinged legs of hers, knowing she’d be back first thing tomorrow with a cheery good-morning and a stack of new letters for his inbox almost twice as high as the one today. It was three days before Christmas, and the naughty children tended to procrastinate.
Stamping another letter, Yew stamped sat back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. His office was in the basement, bare-walled, stone floor, no windows, no radiator, the only heat from boiler pipes that ran along the ceiling and made knocking sounds that drove him half-mad. Another elf told him the room was converted from a storage room for misfit toys before they found that island to dump them on. He had no reason to doubt it. He reached down into the bottom desk drawer, pulled out a bottle of nog, took a swig straight from the bottle.
“You should put that away. Who knows where they’ll send you next.”
Yew hadn’t noticed the Misses until he heard her sweet, silky, come hither voice. She wore a short red skirt, a fur-collared bustier that revealed the gentle slope of her breasts. Heeled boots completed the outfit, impractical in the snow but perfect for accentuated legs so long, even Ginger would die for.
“I can’t get much lower than this,” Yew said.
She smiled, her eyes twinkling like an icy pond in the moonlight. Less than a year before, the Big Man had left his wife of one hundred years for her, and no one, least not among the male elves, could blame him.
She walked towards Yew. He stood, straightening his forest green waistcoat. His pointy nose came no higher than her navel. She bent forward to kiss him, leaving a hint of holly red lipstick on his cheek. She settled down in the chair on the opposite side of his desk, crossing her legs and making herself as comfortable as possible. It was, after all, made for someone of his stature, not hers.
“It’s not the same upstairs without you,” She said.
“Talk to your husband about that,” Yew replied.
“I would if I could, but he’s gone missing. That’s why I’m here.”
“That’s Holly’s job now. He’s the new Chief of Security.” Yew took another drink from his bottle to keep the worry creep into his voice. The Big Man was known to take off now and then without warning, to the Bahamas or Hawaii, someplace warm. But never this close to Christmas, with so much to do. Yew cared about the Big Man. It wasn’t his fault Yew got demoted. You don’t get merry on nog and moon the crowd from atop the Big Man’s float at the Macy’s Day Parade without consequences. After that, he was lucky he wasn’t thrown out of the village altogether.
“Holly’s a fool. Him and those goblins he brought in. He couldn’t find the Big Man on his sleigh Christmas Eve. I need you.”
“Sorry, too much to do here.” Yew slapped a palm on the letters in front of him.
The Misses straightened her top. Yew couldn’t help but stare. “You know what he told me?” She said. “He told me you were the best chief of security he’s ever had. It hurt him to have to send you down here. I bet, if you helped now, it would go a long way in getting you back in his good graces.”
Yew thought this over. He missed being Chief of Security even more than he imagined he would, settling the inevitable disputes between the other elves over who got to hang the mistletoe, breaking up the younger elves smoking garland behind the workshop, but most importantly, keeping the Village a secret from outsiders, the amateur explorers and just plain curious. He was good at it, too, even if he was half in the stocking most of the time. If finding the Big Man could just get him out of here, back on some patrol or guard detail, it would be worth it.
Yew turned over the letter he’d been reading to take notes. “Tell me what happened.”
“There’s not much to tell. He went with one of the smaller sleds, like he does sometimes to clear his head. Drove it into the forest and never came back.”
“Who was pulling?” Yew asked.
“He didn’t get airborne if that’s what you’re asking. It wasn’t one of the fliers. Just an ordinary reindeer.”
“Sure he didn’t have an accident?”
The Misses laughed. “The Big Man wipe out on a sleigh, no chance. Holly had his elves comb the forest anyway. No luck, of course.”
Yew wasn’t sure if this was foul play, but he was already scribbling the names of the usual suspects. “I’ll see what I can do.”
The Misses beamed. Yew’s heart skipped a beat. “I knew I could count on you.”
As she was halfway out the door, Yew stopped her with a question he’d been meaning to ask since they married last Christmas Eve. “What do you see in him, anyway?”
She frowned. “I know you all think it’s about the free toys, but I’m not like that.”
She grinned. “I like the way his belly jiggles when he laughs.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Contrary to popular opinion, the Big Man was not loved by one and all. Some found him overly jolly, others didn’t like being watched and judged. Two-thirds of the world didn’t even celebrate Christmas, and of those that did, only children believed in him anymore. Most of these people were far away, didn’t even know how to find him if they wanted to. This was made easier by the myth that he lived in the North Pole. Nonsense. The ice floes were melting, and the ones that were left could never support a single workshop, let alone the entire Village. Besides, there were no reindeer. They didn’t live forever, and even with a steady supply, not all of them could learn to fly. Besides, the Big Man liked his venison.
And no, it wasn’t in Lapland, either, no matter how much the Finns like to brag about it as they baked in their steam rooms. Just where it was, only a few outside the Big Man’s inner circle knew for sure. Spy satellites could have located it years ago, but the Big Man had made deals with everyone from the CIA to the GRU to the Mossad to make sure they looked the other way whenever they orbited overhead. They knew enough not to mess with a guy who could see them when they were sleeping, know when they were awake.
Yew finished his shift and headed along the snow-packed streets of the Village. The days were short and it had already been dark a couple of hours, the aurora borealis aglow above the peaked roofs of the tidy row houses, workshops, and warehouses where an army of elves lived and worked. Gabled roofs and eyehole windows were bedazzled with garland, wreaths, and flame-free candles. A few elves he knew from better days hurried past him on one errand or another. They avoided his gaze. He’d become a pariah since the incident.
The stables and sleigh house sat at the edge of the Village. The Big Man didn’t just have his famous Christmas Sleigh, built to lift the weight of an elephant herd in presents, he was a collector of all sorts of vehicles that ran on skis – racing toboggans for speeding down hills, leisure sleighs for midnight rides, and of course, the one that he took out a couple of nights ago and never returned.
Yew entered the stable, a long, low wooden building with ten spacious paddocks. The first eight were home to the reindeer of song and legend, by now fourth or fifth generation in a line, but named the same, Comet, Cupid, Dasher, Dancer, Donner, Blitzen, Prancer, Vixen painted in gold lettering on the doors, their tack, bells and all, hanging neatly on the far wall. They eyed him indifferently as he trudged past. The ninth paddock sat empty, the name peeled and faded, a warning to any of the others who thought they were too good for the rest, fly off to start a solo career. Last Yew heard Rudolf was doing Christmas Markets in Eastern Europe just to make ends meet.
In the tenth paddock stood a white stallion. Rupe was tending him, as Yew knew he would be. The Big Man’s assistant loved that horse more than any person, naughty or nice.
“Don’t you have some letters to stamp?” Rupe said, barely looking away from his horse as he brushed its mane. He wore his typical brown cloak, the hood pulled back to reveal a mass of black hair, a thick beard. His staff leaned against the door to the paddock, a cloth sack of ashes.
“Don’t you have some naughty kids to punish?” Yew replied, nodding toward the sack.
“Never hurts to be prepared.”
Yew stayed outside the paddock door. Rupe’s horse had a reputation for kicking. He’d broke Rupe’s hip once, and it never did heal right. “Hear the Big Man’s gone AWOL.”
Rupe set down his brush, limped over to where a pitchfork lay in the hay, started mucking the stall. Yew wrinkled his oversized, oversensitive nose. “What’s it to you?”
“I’ve been asked to look into it,” Yew said. He didn’t mention the Misses, but Rupe seemed to know anyway.
“So, she put you on the case,” Rupe said. “She’s always been kind of sweet on you.”
Yew blushed at the suggestion. “This is strictly business,” He said.
“You think I had something to do with it?”
“If something happened to him, you’d be next in line for the job. You are his companion after all. You know the ropes.”
Rupe tossed some manure in Yew’s direction, a bit splattered on his waistcoat. “You think I want that job? All those selfish brats who already have too much asking for more? Spending all night half-frozen in a sleigh, risking slipping off an icy roof or getting stuck in a chimney at every stop? Not for me. I’ll take the rotten kids any day. Give them a lump of coal and let them think themselves lucky I didn’t hit them with my sack.”
“But he gets all the kudos for being nice. While you, you get the bad rep of being the villain.”
“Being the villain isn’t all bad. Nobody expects much of you.”
Yew only half-believed him. The Big Man had adopted Rupe when he was just a boy, raised him to be his assistant, to take over the family business someday. Rumor had it, Rupe was getting impatient. Yew watched Rupe finish mucking the stall, not saying a word. He had learned that people sometimes started talking just to break the silence.
“You still here?” Rupe put down the pitchfork, took up his staff and sack. “Well, me and Halifax here, we’ve been gone the past few days. Gathering rocks in case the coal runs out. Kids are worse than ever these days. You can ask him if you don’t believe me.”
Yew stepped aside as Rupe opened the paddock door and shut it behind him, heading out of the stable.
After he’d gone, he had a long talk with Halifax. His horse was rusty, but he managed to make himself understood, learned that Rupe was telling the truth. And horses, unlike reindeer and people and even elves, never lied. They also weren’t that bright. Yew had a feeling there were some things the horse just didn’t know.
— ♦♦♦ —
The pine trees that surrounded the village were tall and conical, their needles ever glistening with ice that shined like moonlight. The balsams, scotch, and firs were the perfect homes for nesting winter birds, for squirrels, and the occasional owl. That’s the way the Big Man liked it, Christmas all year round.
But beyond those pleasant pines were masses of twisting trunks, more maze than forest. Designed to ensure that anyone daring to wander beneath their dark boughs would become bewildered and lost, lucky to find their way out again.
Yew had no such trouble as he made his way along a path few could see. After all, he had designed these woods to keep the curious out. He leaped over thick roots, sprang across patches of snow. He even dared to whistle a carol or two. He felt like his old self again, working at the one thing he knew how to do. He tried not to think about what would happen if he failed to find the Big Man. There would still be Christmas, but it wouldn’t be the same. Those who still believed in him would have their faith shattered for years to come, perhaps even forever. And as Virginia was told all those years ago, it wasn’t him, but the idea of him, that mattered.
Eventually, Yew came to an enormous tree, black bark, gnarled branches, roots as thick as the Big Man’s arms. Beneath those roots, there was a hole, a den, and from it peaked two red eyes. Krumpus had heard and smelled him coming.
“What you want?” Krumpus growled.
Yew stood a few feet from the hole, his hands behind his back. Krumpus was the Big Man’s punisher, terrible to behold. A goat’s horns, a wolf’s fangs, sharp claws, and steaming breath. Rupe was responsible for the children on the naughty list, but there was a special list of children beyond the naughty list. Children who tortured animals, who started fires, who beat up on other kids because of the color of their skin. Krumpus existed for those children. There was more than Rupe’s bag of ashes or a stocking full of coal in store for them. Yew knew that as someone not on this special list, Krumpus could not harm him. Still, he kept a healthy distance.
“Has the Big Man been here lately?” Yew asked.
“I answer to him,” Krumpus said.
“He’s missing, you know. I thought you might be able to help.” Krumpus wandered these woods at the darkest hours, acted as a de facto guardian. He saw things. If the Big Man had been out this way, he would know it.
“He come by now,” Krump said, referring to the fact that the Big Man would visit him before the Big Night, to coordinate their activities. “Haven’t seen him yet.”
“I heard he had gone out with one of his sleds and a young reindeer, never came back.”
Krumpus was not too bright. His nostrils flared as he thought, made a sudden connection. “Found reindeer dead. Sled in pieces.”
“And you said nothing?”
“No Big Man,” Krumpus replied.
“And the sled, the deer, where are they?”
“Sled left to rot. Deer delicious,” Krumpus licked his black lips with his pointed tongue.
Krumpus told him where to find the sled. It wasn’t far. He located it next to a big tree, bark damaged where the sled, or the reindeer, had hit it. The sled was upended. There were no footprints, no tracks of any kind. If there had been, they were all lost in the recent snow. He wondered how the Big Man could have made such a mistake, expert driver that he was.
He inspected the sled itself, made a discovery. Elves never shivered from the cold, they were so used to it. But this discovery sent a shiver up Yew’s spine from fear and dread. One of the rails was off in the front where it connected to the sled. It had been sawed three-quarters of the way through, sure to break. It didn’t happen after the crash, but, more likely, had caused it.
— ♦♦♦ —
Yew sat by the dwindling fire in the front room of his rowhouse, a half-empty bottle in one hand a full mug in the other. He was slowly but surely becoming more noggy.
Through the wavy glass of his front window, he could see the snow beginning to fall again. The Big Day was only two days away, and he had not found the Big Man. Instead, he had only come up with more questions.
Someone rapped on his door. Without thinking, he went to open it. Two of Holly’s goons, followed by Holly himself, pushed their way inside, their peaked caps coated in snow.
The two goons grabbed him. They were big but slow, and he could have overwhelmed him with his speed if not for the nog. Instead, he was quickly subdued, his arms pinned behind his back.
Holly strode up to him. He was shorter than his goons, shorter than Yew, shorter than most of the other elves. He compensated with his meanness. Without a word, he slugged Yew in the jaw, snapping the other elve’s head back.
“What’s that for?” Yew managed to say, despite the taste of blood in his mouth. “You already got my job, isn’t that enough.”
“It’s for sticking your pointy nose where it doesn’t belong. Heard you been looking for the Big Man. That’s my territory now.”
“Yeah, heard you weren’t doing much about it.”
“From who, that hussy he calls a wife? She doesn’t no nothing. I’m on the case. I got leads, and you’re in my way.”
“You’re just afraid I’ll find him before you. Maybe he’ll see I’m the right one for the job after all.”
Holly’s tiny mouth twisted. “Me, afraid, of a nog like you? Hardly.”
“Then why are we talking?”
Holly punched him again, in the stomach this time. His goons let him go and he crumpled onto the floor. Holly kicked him in the back as the three left.
“You stay out of our business. Keep to your naughty letters. It’s where you belong.”
After they’d shut the door, Yew tried to pull himself up, but fell. He was half passed out from the pain, his vision blurry, when he thought he heard the door open again, felt a warm hand on his cheek.
He wandered in and out of consciousness, vaguely recalling being lifted onto his bed, a blanket thrown over him. He recalled a voice saying that they, “did a number on him,” felt a warm, wet cloth on his bruises and sores. When he finally fell asleep, he dreamt of snowflakes on trees, being lost in the woods he knew so well.
Yew woke to the morning light shining through his window. The room was warm from a fire in his stove. Someone had put a kettle on for tea, but whoever had helped him to his bed and tended his wounds was nowhere to be seen. He groaned as he rose, reaching the half-finished bottle of nog.
By the time he finished, his pain had turned to anger. He wanted to find the Big Man more than ever. Not just to save Christmas, or get his old job back, but because he wanted to stick it to Holly and his goons. Now, if he could only find his boots.
There was a knock on his door. He wasn’t in the mood for visitors, but he growled that whoever was outside could come in anyway.
The Misses stood in the doorway. “I wanted to make sure you were okay,” She said. “I would have stayed the night if I could have.”
“It was you?”
She nodded, strode over on those long legs, sat down on his bed, crossed her legs. “I was coming to tell you something, about my husband. I arrived just as Holly and those two elves he calls deputies were leaving.”
Yew thought about this and nodded. “What did you come to tell me?”
“You’re still drunk.” She frowned. “Maybe I should come back when you’re sober.”
“I’m not that drunk.”
She rose, walked towards him. He could smell her peppermint perfume. “Before he left. He said something about being tired of the job. Wishing he didn’t have to do it anymore.”
“Doesn’t sound like him,” Yew said. “He doesn’t just love Christmas. He is Christmas.”
“I thought so, too, but then he went on about how it shouldn’t be about him, about presents, that there’s more to it than that.”
Yew humpfed. He wasn’t very religious. Most elves weren’t. For them, Christmas preceded the nativity, was as old as the Winter Solstice itself.
“You haven’t been around him lately. He’s been moody. Sits up all night, pretending to check his list a third time, but he’s really just staring at the page. He doesn’t turn it. His eyes don’t move.”
“So what, you think he ran off?”
She nodded. “Or worse. I thought you should know.”
“Why didn’t you say something before?” he asked.
She tilted her head, shrugged. “I don’t want this to get out. I don’t want to hurt his reputation. I thought you didn’t need the information. But now, I thought you could use it.”
After she left, Yew lay on his bed and let the world spin around him as he tried to clear his head. The Misses had brought him this information only now. But she didn’t know he’d found the sled, that one of the rails had been cut. She told him this to throw him off for some reason. She had been caught in a lie.
— ♦♦♦ —
Everyone has a file. The Naughty and Nice List is not a list at all, but a huge, cavernous room deep beneath the Village that would make J. Edgar Hoover and Heinrich Himmler salivate. The elves had tried to get the Big Man to digitize the lot, build a database, but he was too old-fashioned for that. And so, a paper record on every child he’d ever given a Teddy Bear or a Train Set to was kept in this room. Row upon row of metal cabinets neatly kept and indexed. Yew went there to look for the Misses’ file, but it wasn’t there.
No one knew much about the Misses before she arrived in the Village, announced by the Big Man as his fiancé. Most were just glad he’d finally found someone. The story went that they had met at the tree lighting at Rockefeller Center. The Big Man liked to go to such events, incognito of course. She was a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall. She tugged on his sleeve and told him he’d make a great Santa. He ho-hoed at that, was smitten at once.
Yew’s mind reeled. It was possible she could have removed her file, but he doubted it. The place had more data on people than Google and Facebook combined, its very existence a tighter secret than the location of the Village. Yew only knew of it because of his former position, was just lucky they hadn’t changed the magic word for entering when he was demoted. Then again, that would have been Holly’s job, and the Misses was right, he was an idiot.
Then he remembered another cabinet. It was at the end of the room, larger than all the rest. The Krumpus cabinet. He said the magic words to open it. The Misses file was there, its manila folder marked with a large black X.
— ♦♦♦ —
Yew found the Misses where he expected to find her, in the Big Man’s office. What he did not expect was for her to be sitting on Rupe’s lap. They were in the Big Man’s oversized chair, the map showing the route for the Big Day laid out across his massive, mahogany desk.
“Replacing him, huh,” Yew said.
“Someone has to do the job, and it doesn’t look like you’ll find him in time, so I asked Rupe here to help out.” The Misses had a pleased grin on her face. She didn’t seem the least bit concerned that they had been caught together. Perhaps she thought it didn’t matter anymore.
Yew walked over, sat on the Big Man’s desk, so he could be eye-to-eye with the two, he didn’t bother to move the map, which covered all of South America. “You counted on me not finding him, didn’t you? That’s why you put me on the case. Let the old nog mess up, meanwhile, you look like you actually cared, like you weren’t the one behind this all along.
“He’s my husband, ” she protested.
“Yeah, that’s why you’re on another guy’s lap. You’re smart, I give you that. Playing the long game.”
“You’re noggy,” Rupe said.
Yew nodded. “Doesn’t mean I’m not right.”
The Misses slid off Rupe’s lap. “Now, why would I want to do a thing like disappear the Old Man? I have it easy up here.”
“I found your file. Appears you were a naughty little girl back in the day. Depantsing your best friend in front of the whole school, stealing money from your mother’s purse, even torturing your cat by flinging lit matches at it. You were one of Krumpus’ special cases. He scared the living daylights out of you one Big Night when you were ten. You woke up to his red eyes, his fangs, the stench of his breath. You screamed, but no one heard you. Oh, I know how Krump operates. Next morning, no coal, but no gifts either.
“You should have learned your lesson that first time. Most do. Instead, you got worse each year. Blamed Krumpus. But more than that, blamed the Big Man.”
“Your guessing,” Rupe said, but Yew could tell by the look on the Misses face that he had guessed right.
“I should have killed him in his sleep,” She said.
“No, that would have been too good for him, wouldn’t it?” Yew hopped down from the desk. He suddenly felt a head taller than the Misses and Rupe. “You wanted to discredit him, so you charmed Rupe here into cutting the rail on his sled, forcing an accident. Then, when he was passed out in the snow, you had Krumpus take him away. He’d miss the Big Night, and after that, no one would believe in him anymore. Rupe here went along so that he could be the hero. As for Krump, when the Big Man finally emerged from that stump Krump had him under, Krump would be disgraced for kidnapping. The fright of her ten-year-old nightmares would go down with the Big Man.”
“Krump would never turn on the Big Man,” Rupe protested.
“He would. He did. She can be very persuasive. You know that. Good thing I can be persuasive, too. Got him to come clean. Lead me to the Big Man.”
“You’re lying,” the Misses said.
Yew shook his head. “He’s in the infirmary right now. A bit beat up, his beard ragged, lost a bit of his ho-ho-ho, but he’s otherwise okay, ready to make his ride.”
The Misses put her head in her hands, began to sob. Rupe got up and took off out the door. Yew let him go. He had some of the security still loyal to him waiting outside. He wouldn’t get far.
“Quit the crocodile tears,” Yew said to the Misses. “You’re just lucky the Big Man has a good heart. You need to be gone by morning.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Yew looked out from his office window. It was mid-summer, long days, patchy grass could be seen amongst the melting snow. He had a good heart, too. Once the Big Man reinstated him, he didn’t fire Holly and his goons for what they had done, though they were reassigned to the tedious job of guarding the reindeer sleigh, a job that included mucking the stalls. Rupe got Yew’s old job going over the naughty kids’ letters. Krumpus, angry at himself by being taken in by a pretty face, promised never to be so stupid again.
Last they heard of the Misses, she was living in a trailer park in Des Moines and trying to get on a reality TV show. As for the Big Man, he was dating again. An older woman with almost as much of a belly as him. Yew had her checked out against the files, found her as nice as nice can be. Often, as he walks past the Big Man’s office, he can hear them both laughing behind the closed door.
Ho, Ho, Ho!
— ♦♦♦ —