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Friday, January 16, 2015

Farewell, My Portly


     I was reading the Sports page down at Rudy’s Red Nose bar, sipping eggnog and listening to Dean Martin croon “Baby It’s Cold Outside” on the jukebox when Frosty walked in. He sat down on the stool next to me, took off his giant, bulbous snowman head and put it on the bar between us. 
     “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, this suit is hot,” he said with a slight southern twang, tugging at the fuzzy white poly fiber around his neck.
     I peeked over the top of The North Pole News at him. He was about 35, six feet of large-boned galoot in a fuzzy white Frosty costume, and he was sweating like Santa Claus in July. The sweat rolled off his cro-magnon ridge, down his nose to his chin, where it drizzled south to his craw and then disappeared down the neckhole of the snowman outfit.
      Frosty grabbed a handful of bar napkins and began sopping the sweat from his brow. It was like trying to mop Niagara Falls with a doily.

     He saw me looking at him and smiled. “I play Frosty in the Christmas pageant every year. Came here straight from the performance.”
      The bartender sauntered over and dropped a coaster next to Frosty’s head. “What’ll you have, pal?”
      “Bottle beer,” said Frosty. “Coldest you got.” 
      The bartender brought his beer and Frosty grabbed it with his big, white snow mitten, raising it to his lips. He guzzled half the beer, then held the bottle to his shiny forehead and closed his eyes. “You’re Johnny Jingleballs, ain’t you?” he said. “Holiday Dick?”
      I felt a twinge in my giblets. “I might be,” I said, putting the newspaper down on the bar in front of me. “Who wants to know?” 
      He reached over and tapped the front page of the paper, under a headline that read: “Hit-and-run kills Grandma; Santa accused.” He said: “She was my grandma.”
      I gave him a sympathetic look. “Sorry for your loss,” I mumbled.
      “Detective Francis Ryan with the NPPD said I could find you here. He said you could help us.”
      “How’s that?” I said.
      “He said there wasn’t nothin’ they could do – the police, I mean. Shoot, they know it was Santa Claus who done it. They found hoof prints on Grandma’s forehead an’ everything. Hoof prints! And my little boy, Elmo, he saw Santa fly by in his sleigh right after she was hit.” He leaned over close to me then, so close I could smell the b.o. rising from inside the snowman suit. “Mister, Grandma got run over by a reindeer.”
      “So why don’t the police arrest Claus?” I said.
      A look of disgust came over his features. “Well, Jiminy Christmas! Everyone knows the fat man runs this town! He owns the police, lock, stock and barrel. The mayor, the D.A., the city council, all of ‘em. They all work for the Santa outfit. Everyone’s terrified of Kringle and his midgets. You’re our last hope, Mr. Jingleballs. Please help us bring Grandma’s killer to justice.”
       I took a little silver flask out of my coat pocket and splashed some bourbon into the egg nog. I lifted my glass and downed it in one gulp, then set the glass back down on the newspaper, just below the photo of Grandma. It was an action shot of her bowling down at the North Pole Lanes. I looked at her, a tough-looking old bird in a blue and silver wig. She could have been anyone’s grandma. Even mine. “All right,” I said. “I’ll take the case. I get $200 a day, plus expenses.”
      He exhaled loudly. “Thank you, Mr. Jingleballs! Thank you! You don’t know how much this means to us…” He reached down into the neckhole of the Frosty costume and pulled out an envelope stuffed with bills. He counted out $500 worth and slapped them on the bar in front of me, next to the giant Frosty head. “Will that be enough to get started on?”
      I picked his money off the bar. “Yes,” I said. “That’ll be fine.”
      He grabbed the big snowman head off the bar. “Bless your heart, sir,” he said, extending one of his big, white Frosty mitts.
      I shook it. He had a grip like the Abominable Snow Monster.
      “You’ll be in touch, then?” he said, pumping my hand like he was trying to draw water out of me.
      “Uh huh,” I nodded.
      He finally released my arm and put the snowman head on, his own noggin disappearing into the bulbous white dome, and then he stood up, all Frosty now. He grabbed hold of his carrot nose and straightened his head, then reached over and took his beer from the bar, lifting it to Frosty’s mouth. He leaned back, draining it, then put the bottle back down on the bar. He had to turn his whole body to look at me. “Thumpety thump thump,” he said. “Look at Frosty go.” Then he turned and walked out of there.        

***

     It was after six by the time I left Rudy’s, and it was already dark as midnight. But that’s not saying much in North Pole, where we get about four hours of daylight in winter, if we’re lucky. The snow had taken a breather, and it was only about ten below, but the wind was howling up Blitzen Street, dropping the wind chill down another ten degrees. I zipped my parka up tight around me and pulled the hood down close over my head to keep the wind out. That was a mistake. I had no peripheral vision with the hood on. But then, I wasn’t expecting trouble. Not so soon, anyway.
      They must have come out of the alley behind Mrs. Claus’ cookie shop. They made no sound, not on those tiny little feet. There were at least five of them, none more than three feet tall. I had just passed Kringle’s department store, my mukluk’s making crunching sounds in the snow, when I caught the faint whiff of reindeer poop, and then something small and very hard – like a tiny hammer -- hit me on the right shin. A sharp jolt of pain radiated up my leg, and I let out a howl they could hear all the way over on Santa Claus Lane. Then another of those little toy hammers hit me behind my left knee, and I went down like a fat man down a chimney.
      They went to work on me then with their little tools. I didn’t get a good look at any of them. All I saw were pointy little ears, pointy little noses and candy-striped hats. Tiny green and red boots curled up at the toes. They giggled and snarled at me in tinny, high-pitched voices as they pinged and gouged me with their miniature tools. Then one of the little ginks jumped on my chest and piped: “This is just a warning! Lay off the Grandma case, Jingleballs! Lay off or next time we won’t be so jolly!” Then he raised one of those little silver hammers and brought it down hard on top of my head, and everything went black, like someone had pulled the plug on all the Christmas lights in town. 


***

      I came to a couple of years later, lying on my back in the snow, staring up at one lonely star, twinkling brightly in the pitch-black sky above. I was groggy as one of Bill Cosby's dates. I couldn't feel my nose, and my head throbbed, and when I reached up to see why I found a lump on my forehead the size of a golf ball. That’s when I remembered the elves and their hammers. I crawled across the alley to the corner of Kringle’s dumpster, and pulled myself to my feet. Sharp, jagged bolts of pain shot out from my knees and ribs where the little hammers had done their work. Luckily, nothing seemed to be broken, as far as I could tell, but I was limping like Walter Brennan in Rio Bravo from my kneecapping. I staggered up the alleyway to the curb and found my Olds, climbed in and turned the key.
      I had an office with a bed in the back on Humbug Boulevard, on the wrong side of Christmastown, above a topless bar called Jiggle Bells. By the time I got there, the lump on my head had grown to baseball size, so I decided to stop for a pick-me-up.
      I limped into Jiggle Bells and took a seat at the bar. Kandi Kane was working the stage, going through her routine to Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby.” I downed a nog and watched her take off her stockings and hang them by the fake fireplace with care. When she was done, I downed another and watched Sugar Plum take the stage. She swung around the Festivus pole for awhile, then finished her set, wrapped the goods up in a flimsy Oriental robe and sashayed over, as Phyllis Navidad took the stage behind her.
      “Well, well, well, look what Santa dragged in,” said Sugar Plum, taking the stool next to me.
      “Hello, Sugar,” I said, glancing up from my glass. She was about five feet of green-eyed firecracker with a cute little upturned nose for the fairies to ski-jump off of, and a set of gams you don’t see this side of a ballerina. She kept her coal-black hair clipped short in a pixie cut, which only accentuated the fact that she looked like the sexiest elf in the treehouse. It was no wonder Kringle wanted her for his workshop. He’d been hounding her for five years now, but she had scruples. Instead she worked part-time upstairs, running my office, and part time dancing at Jiggle Bells. For a secretary, she was an awful distraction, for me and my clients, if I ever had any.  
      When she saw what was left of my face she went all to pieces. “Johnny! What happened? Why is your nose blue?” She leaned over for a closer look at the damage, putting her hand on my knee for balance. I practically jumped off the stool. It hurt worse than Christmas in ’82, when I’d asked Santa for a BB-gun and all I got was an ugly sweater.
      “Sorry!” she said, removing her hand.
      “It’s okay,” I said, rubbing my knee and wincing. “I got Gillooleyd over on Blitzen Street. Kringle’s boys.”
      “Those little toy knockers? What does Kringle have against you, Johnny?”
      “This…” I took the newspaper story about Grandma’s hit-and-run out of my coat pocket and set it on the bar.
      She glanced at it. “What’s that?”
      “Work. I got a client.”
      “That’s good, Johnny. Hey, Mac!” she called out to the bartender. “Bring me the peas, will you?”
      I started to protest. “You don’t have to…”
      “Shut up,” she said.
      Mac the bartender shuffled over with a bag of frozen peas and handed them to her. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s get you upstairs.” Then Sugar took me by the hand and led me towards the door.
       We went up a set of dark stairs, Sugar Plum leading the way and me following, one painful step at a time. At the top step was a door with a frosted glass window: “Johnny Jingleballs, Private Detective.” Sugar pushed it open and we went through the office to another door at the back that said “Private.” We went through that one, too, and into my dumpy room. She let me drop into an old leather chair, smushed the peas onto my forehead and told me to hold them there and be quiet, then she went into the kitchen to mix me some medicine – rum and egg nog.
      She put unguent on all the sore spots while I took my medicine and filled her in on Grandma’s case. “I want you to call NORAD first thing in the morning,” I told her. “Have them check their radar reports, see where Santa was at the time Grandma got run over.”
      She nodded, then led me over to the bed. She undressed me, gently, rubbing more unguent on all the black-and-blue spots where it looked like Kringle’s pygmies had been playing Whack-a-Mole with my ribs. Then she put me to bed. She even tucked me in, then leaned down and gave the bump on my forehead a soft kiss.
      “You’re an angel, Sugar,” I said, pulling the blanket up snug to my throbbing dome.
      “I know,” she said. “Now get some sleep, and for God’s sake, see if you can stay out of trouble until morning, at least!” She turned off the light. I waited until she left, then I closed my eyes and drifted off to dreamland, with visions of Sugar Plum dancing in my head.

***

     It was still dark at ten the next morning when I drove downtown and parked in front of the County Building. I shook the snow off my mukluks and walked in. The lobby was deserted as I headed for the stairs, my rubber soles making wet sucking noises on the freshly waxed linoleum.
     The door in the basement had “Morgue” lettered on pebbled glass, behind which a light shone brightly. I pushed it open and limped into a bright, sterile room lined with silver tables. Most of the tables were bare, but a couple had dead bodies stretched out on them. Over one of the stiffs leaned the County Coroner, Violets McGee, an enormously fat man wearing a long, white apron and bright orange rubber gloves. He had a large bald spot on his head and dark little button eyes he could have pilfered from Frosty. When he looked up at me and suddenly smiled, I could see the button eyes had dark suitcases under them.
     “Well,” he said. “Johnny Jingleballs. As I live and breathe.”
     “Hello, Violets,” I said, limping over to him.
     He caught a glimpse of my face then, and let out a laugh that turned into a hacking cough. “Christ, Johnny, you look worse than my customers. What happened?”
     “I ran into a few of Kringle’s flunkies last night,” I said, tapping a coffin nail out of a pack of Luckys.
     He shook his head, chuckling. “That Dutchman is one mean s.o.b. What’d you do to get on his naughty list, John?”
     I struck a match and lit the coffin nail. “I’m lookin’ into the Grandma case. You remember, hit-and-run job. Little old lady supposedly got flattened by a reindeer…”
   The dark button eyes lit up like bulbs on a Christmas tree. “Sure. It was in all the papers.” Violets nodded at the cigarette that dangled from my mouth. “You know you can’t smoke in here, Johnny,” he said. “It’s 2014 fercryinoutloud.”
     “Sorry,” I said. “I keep forgettin’.” I tossed the butt through the open door into the corridor. “Can I take a look-see at Grandma?”
     “Sure,” he said.
     He shuffled across the room to another table, where a body lay, covered with a white sheet. Violets pulled the sheet down to reveal an old woman’s placid, grayish face. A blue and silver wig piled in a typical grandmotherly bun lay askew atop her otherwise bald head. Beneath the wig, a pair of what looked like hoof prints were indented into her forehead.
     “Reindeer?” I said.
     Violets shrugged. “Who do I look like? Marlin Perkins?”
     “I read something about some ‘incriminating claw marks’ on her back,” I said.
     The coroner’s dark button eyes flashed again. “Not claw marks,” he said. “Claus marks. As in Santa Claus. Not my words, mind you. That’s what the grandson called ‘em.” He leaned over, putting his fat, pink mitts on Grandma’s shoulders, and, grunting like a weightlifter deadlifting a dumbbell, heaved her up on her side, revealing what appeared to be a couple of  long, red scratches with flecks of green on the old lady’s upper back.  
     I took a long gander at them. “Get any DNA?” I said.
     Violets shrugged, dropping Grandma back onto the table. “Report hasn’t come back yet. I wouldn’t hold my breath waitin’ for it, either…”
     “What do you mean?”
     “I mean it wouldn’t be the first time in a case Kringle was fingered as a possible suspect that the lab report turned up missing.”
     “What about Grandma?” I said. “Toxicology report come in?”
     Violets let out a series of rasping coughs. When he’d settled down, he said: “She was loaded when she died. Point nine blood acohol. Pure egg nog.”
     “Anything else?”
     He shook his head. “Nope. She was on several medications, but she’d left them all at home. She was on her way to get them when this happened, according to witnesses.”
     “So what do you make of it?” I asked him.
     He pursed his fat lips. “Hmph. Cause of death was sudden impact with something large moving at a high rate of speed. Hoof prints indicate some sort of large ungulate, but without DNA or something more from the lab, the evidence is inconclusive.”
     “Meaning what?” I said.
     “Meaning I’m not about to be the only one stickin’ his neck out so Kringle can chop it off,” he said.
     It was still dark out when I made my way back to the Olds. I felt my cellphone buzzing in my pocket, so I fished it out. It was Sugar.
     “I just got off the phone with NORAD,” she said. “It took some flirting, but I got a major to pull the satellite reports on Kringle’s Christmas Eve flight. He said they should have something for me by tonight.”
     “You’re a peach, Sugar,” I said.
     “How’s that bump on your head?”
     “It’s a lot better,” I said, looking at it in the rear view. “Thanks for taking care of me last night.”
     She laughed, and I could picture those green glims twinkling. She had a nice laugh. “Wait’ll you get my bill. Where are you?”
     “I’m just leaving the morgue,” I said. “On my way to Kringle’s.”
     Her voice was tinged with worry. “Oh, Johnny, I wish you wouldn’t…”
     “It can’t be helped,” I said. “I need to take a look at his sleigh. Besides, I want to look the fat man in the eyes.”
     “Oh, all right. But Johnny?”
     “Yeah, Sugar?”
     “Be careful.”
      Fifteen minutes later I was on the outskirts of town, parking the Olds in the shadow of the 50-foot Santa statue outside the Kringle compound on St. Nicholas Drive.
     This is where the fat man ran his whole operation. There was Santa’s Village, with its toy workshops filled with pint-sized toy pounders busily working, the sleigh garage, reindeer stables and airstrip. And then a string of cranberry-colored bunkers housing Monsanta, Kringle’s mysterious science division. Beyond that rose Kringle’s mansion, a huge, white Christmas package of a house that rose up out of the snow like a double-slice of angel food cake at the end of the parking lot.
     I shushed my way through the snowfilled lot to the gigantic, red door and used the big, brass doorknocker. A moment later, an elf in a red-and-green tuxedo answered.  
     I looked down at the tops of his pointy ears. “I’m here to see your boss. The Big Kahuna. Top Dog. Head Honcho. The Connection. Kringle. He home?”
     “You mean Santa?” said the elf in a cheery voice so high it would have made sled dogs cry. “Who should I say is calling?”
     “Tell him Johnny Jingleballs is here,” I said.
     Knee-high Jeeves closed the door in my face and I waited. A couple of minutes later he came back and let me in. He led me down a long hallway lined with million-dollar sculptures and billion-dollar paintings, into an office no larger than your average airplane hangar. At one end there was a large, stone fireplace surrounded by dark, brown leather chairs. At the other end was a big, oak desk, behind which sat the fat man himself. Santa Claus. Aka Kringle. Aka Father Christmas. Aka jolly old Saint Nick. He looked like all the pictures you’ve ever seen, only different. Sure, he was jolly – about 300 pounds of middle-aged, cherry-nosed, rosy-cheeked fat man. But it was an act, right down to the merry dimples in his rosy red cheeks: they were implants. He still had the white beard, but his head was shaved completely bald. A fuzzy white wig sat on the corner of his desk like a tuft of cotton candy. Instead of the red suit you always hear about, he wore an expensive designer job, pinstripes, with no tie. His shirt collar was unbuttoned down to his unctuous moobs, a trio of splashy gold chains draping his tanned, hairless chest. And clenched in his teeth, instead of a pipe, was a big, fat Cuban cigar.
     In the corner of the room, behind the desk, stood a scrawny Christmas tree, all covered in tinsel and fancy ornaments. It looked sickly and yellow, like it hadn’t been watered in a long time.
     On either side of Santa’s desk lounged a plethora of peewee wise guys, tough-looking little munchkins in fancy suits, with their pointy ears jutting out from beneath the brims of their little fedoras. Some of them carried machine guns, some just pistols. One sat on the edge of the desk, casually flicking a switchblade open, then shut, open, then shut, as if he couldn’t wait to use it.
     “Sit down, Mr. Jingleballs,” said Kringle, gesturing with his cigar to an empty chair across the desk. “I’ve been expecting you.”
     I walked over and sat down, facing him. “You have, huh? How’s that?”
     Claus sat back in his plush office chair, his hands folded over his basketball-sized belly that jiggled slightly when he breathed. “I’ve been watching you, see?  Did you know you talk in your sleep?” He lifted a remote control, pointed it at a giant flat screen mounted on the wall opposite and pressed a button. The screen flickered on and we were looking at a recording of someone sleeping in a darkened room, snoring like a lumberjack. It took a moment before I realized the snoring shlub on the screen was me. Kringle chuckled, a soft “Ho-ho-ho,” escaping his lips. “Oh, I know a lot about you, Johnny,” he said. 
     Revulsion shuddered through my marrow. “You’re a sick man, Santa,” I said. “So, seeing as how you know everything, you must know why I’m here, then?”
     Cherry Nose took the cigar out of his mouth and shook his head sadly. “Grandma,” he said. “Sad business. I’ve already told the police everything I know.”
     “Oh, so they already asked you where you were when the old dame got run over?”
     Some of the rosy red went out of his cheeks. “Yes, as a matter of fact, they did,” he said. “As I told them, as near as I can calculate, at the time of Grandma’s unfortunate accident, I was in Berlin, Germany. At the Krieg house, to be precise, delivering toys, a tie, three pairs of socks, an ugly sweater, one very skimpy negligee, and a lump of coal for little Heinrich.” His eyes twinkled and he showed off a set of sparkling white cookie clamps. “He was a naughty little boy this year.”  
     “Any witnesses?” I said.
     He smiled softly, and shook his head. “Oh, no. They were all fast asleep.”
     I raised an eyebrow. “So you broke in? Entered the premises uninvited?”
     “On the contrary,” said Kringle. “They left a snack for me. Milk and some streudel. And this note.” He handed over a yellowed piece of paper with some scribbling on it. In German.
     “This doesn’t prove anything,” I said. “Anyone could have written it.”
     He shrugged, taking the note out of my hands. “They could have, but they didn’t.” He leaned back in his chair, and began to rock softly, and spoke through the cigar that was chomped tightly between his teeth. “I didn’t run Grandma over, Mr. Jingleballs. I’d like to help you, but I don’t know anything about the unfortunate incident. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m a very busy man…”
     I sneered at him. “Oh, you’re busy, all right, Kringle. Busy lying, cheating, swindling, blackmailing, and yes, murdering. You’re nothin’ but a cheap, lousy, no-good gangster, and I’m gonna prove it! You’ve stuffed your last sock, mister!”
     One of his midgets – the jittery one, with the switchblade – made a move toward me, but Santa waved him off. “It’s okay, Pinky,” he said. Then the fat man leaned forward, his twinkly eyes blazing, nostrils flaring.
     “I come up the hard way, Johnny. I come up from the gutter in Amsterdam. I got no education, but that’s okay. I know the streets. When I come over, I make all the right connections. I meet the right woman: Mrs. Claus. I go straight to the top. And you know how? Cause I know that in this country, you gotta make the money first. Then, when you get the money, you make the toys. And when you get the toys, then you get the kids. And when you get the kids, then you get the power! Now, look at me, Johnny. There’s no stoppin’ me! I got the power. You know how? Secrets, Johnny. I know everyone’s secrets.” He stood up, pointing the remote at the giant TV screen, and he began changing the channel. And each time, another poor shlub flashed across his screen. Some of them were naked. Some of them were alone, some not. Some were famous. Politicians, journalists, celebrities. And they were all doing something they shouldn’t. Something they didn’t want anyone to know about.
     “See that, Johnny?” boomed Kringle. “See that? I see them. I see everything! I know when they’ve been sleeping – and with who! I know when they’re awake! I know when they’ve been bad or good – mostly bad – so they better pay off for goodness’ sake!” He liked that one, tossed his head back and laughed, a hearty “Ho-ho-ho!” jiggling his stomach like a bowl full of jelly. 
     Then he leaned over, opening the top drawer of his desk, and took out a thick, black ledger, holding it up for all to see. “Oh, I’ve got a list, Johnny. And I’ve checked it twice. Names, dates, bad deeds. You name it. It’s all here. So I don’t know what you think you can do to me, but whatever it is, you’d better think twice. I’m Santy Claus. The most powerful man in the world. And you? You’re nothin’ but a cheap little two-bit peeper who lives in a cheap little apartment above a cheap little saloon and drinks too much. Come after me, will you?” He laughed. “Well, go ahead. I’ll smash you into little pieces, like hard candy that your grandma leaves piled up in a dish, and that pile never gets any smaller, does it, Johnny? You know why? Cause everyone hates hard candy, Johnny! They hate it, cause it stinks! It stinks, Johnny! But they love me. Everyone loves me. Cause I’m Santy Claus, see, and I bring ‘em presents! So go on, make your wild accusations, peeper. No one will believe you. And even if they did, they won’t do a thing about it, ‘cause I’ve got this.” He held up his big, black ledger again, and shook it at me. “So you better watch out, Johnny, and I’m tellin’ you why. Cause you’re on my naughty list. So hang your stockings and say your prayers, and stay outta my way. Or Santy Claus might just pay you a visit one of these nights.” Then he waved his cigar at his pint-sized goons. “Get him outta here,” he sneered. “Get him outta my sight.”
     A couple of the pointy-eared pygmies grabbed me and dragged me down that long hallway to the door. Then they opened the door and threw me out into the snow. I picked myself up, knocked the snow off my pants, and headed for the Olds. But before I got there I took a detour, making for the back of the Kringle mansion, where they kept the garage, a big, red, barn-shaped structure beyond the giant Santa statue.
     The front door of the garage was locked up tight as Santa’s stretch pants, so I crept around the side of the barn until I found a window. It was locked, too. I took my coat off, wrapped it around my fist and knocked a hole in it, then reached in and undid the latch. I slid open the window and climbed in.
     Daylight was just stretching its frosty fingers across the heavens, throwing shards of light through the windows of the garage, and across a row of fancy, gleaming sports cars lined up along one wall, staring at me through their darkened headlamps. Santa had a weakness for flashy toys. There was a red Aston Martin One-77, a blue Lamborghini, a gold Bentley, a silver Mercedes, a black Porsche, a red Ferrari, and a yellow Bugatti. One for every day of the week. It was like James Bond’s wet dream. But I wasn’t car shopping, so I moved past the auto showroom to another section of the garage, where they kept the sleighs.
     There were five of them, all red, with gold runners and plush, red leather benches for Kringle to rest his fat can on during his annual round-the-world trip. They looked like all the pictures I’d ever seen of Santa’s sleigh, with one exception. Behind the chassis, on the undercarriage of each sleigh, was an attachment, a contraption made out of a series of thin, metal tubing – spray arms used for crop dusting. I spied some chalky white residue in the opening of one of the tubes and knelt down to scrape some off with my finger. It was white and gooey, and smelled like poison. Off in the corner of the garage, near the last sleigh in the line, were stacks of large, black barrels labeled “Stampede” -- Monsanta's brand of fertilizer. I went over and had a look, dipped my finger in and tasted it. It was the same stuff I’d found in the sleigh’s crop dusting arm. Kringle was using his sleigh to spread fertilizer. But why?
     I went around inspecting each sleigh, taking pictures with my cell phone. There weren’t any grandma-sized dents in any of them, but that didn’t let Santa off the hook, not by a long shot. After all, it was hoof prints they found on her head, not sleigh marks.
     It was almost noon – 30 minutes past sunrise – by the time I’d finished, so I snuck out the same back window I crawled in, to make sure no one saw me from the Kringle house, then I crept along the back of the garage to another set of buildings. This was the Monsanta section of the Kringle complex, a sprawling complex of large, warehouse-style structures where Santa’s science division did its mysterious work.
     I scooted along the outside of the first building until I came to a window. Peeking inside, I saw something that turned my stomach. Inside were dozens of reindeer, kept in cages – horribly deformed. Some with two heads, some with extra legs. Still others had no legs at all. I watched as a couple of midgets in white lab coats injected one of the poor beasts with a large needle, then led her onto an electric lift. He pressed a button and they went up to a platform fifty feet above the floor, where he and a bunch of other pint-size poindexters pushed her off. They stood there gawking over the edge and watched her plunge straight down into a heavy synthetic net below. They jotted something onto their little clipboards, then scurried back downstairs to repeat the process, changing the dosage in the injections, until finally one of the sleigh-pullers actually took off and flew around the building.
     So that was Kringle’s game! Genetically engineered reindeer! That’s how he got them to fly!
     I walked back through the snow to the Olds, climbed in and drove out of there, got on the highway headed back into Christmas town. My head was spinning like a dreidle down at Hiram’s Hannukah Shack. After a quick stop at Rudy’s for a Monte Cristo sandwich and a nog, I decided to check out the crime scene, so I drove out to the suburbs across town. I ducked under the yellow police tape and crunched around in the snow for a while, looking for clues, but there weren’t any, so I hoofed it around the corner to Grandma’s house.
     I rang the doorbell of the big, ranch-style home, and Frosty opened the door, only without the snowman suit, this time. He seemed surprised to see me.
     “Mind if I come in and ask you and your boy a few questions?” I said.
     He pulled the door open wide. “Sure, come on in, Mr. Jingleballs.” 
     I walked in to a big, cheery living room. They were all there, the whole family, eating figgy pudding and watching football on a big screen TV. Junior sat on a plush maroon couch next to his mother, and Grandpa was in the corner, drinking beer and playing cards with a busty blonde about 40 years his junior. Must be the Cousin Mel I’d read about, I thought. Grandpa seemed to be doing pretty well for a guy whose wife of 50 years had just been steamrolled by a caribou.
     In the corner stood a big, blue Christmas tree, as phony as the breast implants that strained Cousin Mel’s ugly green Christmas sweater like a pair of holiday hams. There was nothing under the tree save an old fruitcake, shaped like a hemmorhoid cushion and stuffed with colorful glow-in-the-dark candied fruits and nuts. Frosty saw me looking at it, and said, “That’s Grandma’s last fruitcake. Well, her only fruitcake, really. She made it back during the Nixon administration. Every year she wraps it up and gives it to a different family member.” He paused, wiping a tear from his eye. “It was my turn this year. We took the rest of her presents back, but somehow it didn’t seem right to get rid of that fruitcake.”
     For a moment I thought he was going to choke up, but Frosty gathered himself, then turned to the rest of his family. “Hey everybody,” he announced. “This here’s Johnny Jingleballs. He’s investigating Grandma’s death, and he wants to ask y’all some questions.”
     He stepped back then, leaving me in the spotlight. I cleared my throat. “Did any of you see what happened to Grandma on Christmas eve?” I said.
     Grandpa stopped playing cards long enough to say, “Elmo there’s the only one. He was out on the porch when she left.”
     I turned to Elmo. “Is that true, son? Did you see what happened to Grandma?”
     The little kid glanced nervously around the room. “Uhhh, yeah,” he said in a soft voice. “I guess.”
     I walked over to him. “Okay, Elmo. Tell me exactly what you saw. What happened to Grandma?”
     Elmo fidgeted next to his mother. “Grandma got run over by a reindeer,” he said. “Walking home from our house Christmas eve. She’d been drinkin’ too much egg nog, and we begged her not to go. But she’d left her medication, so she stumbled out the door into the snow.”
     “Did you see what happened after she went outside?” I asked.
     Elmo’s eyes darted nervously to his father, then to Grandpa and Cousin Mel. “Well, uhh, she went around the corner. Then I heard a crash. Right after that, I saw Santa and his reindeer, in his sleigh, flying really fast around the corner, where we found Grandma the next morning.”
     “And what time was that, Elmo? Do you remember?”
     Elmo shook his head. “Huh-uh.”
     “I do,” said Grandpa. “It was ten o’clock, on the nose. I know ‘cause ‘A Honey Boo-Boo Christmas’ just come on the TV. You could check with the network. They’ll tell you.”
     My cellphone rang as I was walking back to the Olds. I looked at the little screen flashing the caller’s name, and I answered. “Hello, Sugar.”
     “Johnny,” she said. “NORAD confirms Kringle’s alibi. Their radar shows him in Berlin, Germany, at the time Grandma was killed. But get this: there was a mysterious malfunction of the Santa tracking radar that lasted about ten minutes, from 9:55 to 10:05, North Pole time.”
     “Ten minutes?” I said. “That’s like an eternity in Santa time.”
     “I know,” said Sugar.
     I opened the door to the Olds and climbed in. “But why would Kringle fly all the way back here just to run somebody’s little old grandmother over? It doesn’t make sense. Unless…”
     “Unless what, Johnny?”
     “Sugar, I want you to head down to the library. Check the back copies of the newspaper, genealogy databases, anything you can get your hands on.”
     “What is it that I’m looking for?” said Sugar.
     “Any connection between Santa Claus and Grandma,” I said.
     “Okay. Where are you going to be?”
     “The Hall of Records,” I said.
     Darkness was falling over North Pole by the time I got back downtown, the moon rising like a giant pumpkin head above the city. I parked the Olds next to a tinsel shop, across the street from the Hall of Records, and started hoofin’ it through the snow toward the city offices. One of those dimestore Santas was on the sidewalk with a kettle and a couple of elves, ringing his big, brass bell. I fished a nickel out of my pocket and dropped it in the bucket as I walked by. The bell stopped jangling as I went past, which I remember thinking was odd, just before the phony Santa brought it down hard on the back of my head. Then the bells started chiming again, only this time they were ringing inside my coconut. They went ding-dong, ding-dong, and I grew wings, went breezing off up to the whipped cream clouds to frolic in a marshmallow world. 


***

     When I came spinning back to earth, I found myself back in Kringle’s office, slumped over in one of those big leather chairs. There was a fire blazing in the big stone fireplace, and the fat man sat behind his desk, blowing smoke rings from the big, fat cigar in his mouth. The lights of the Christmas tree reflected off his shiny dome, blinking on-and-off, on-and-off. A few of his munchkin gunsels were there, too, including the elf with the switchblade, sitting there on his corner of the boss’ desk, flicking the knife open and shut, open and shut.
     I sat up straight in the chair, trying to shake out the cobwebs while Santa talked. “I warned you, peeper. Keep your nose out of my business, I said. Isn’t that right, Pinky? I told him that, didn’t I?”
     The pygmy with the switchblade stopped flicking his knife and looked over at me, sneering. “Yeah, boss,” he said in a sharp-edged voice. “You told him.”
     “So what are you going to do with me, fat man?” I said, rubbing the back of my head. “Everyone knows you killed the old lady. You’re goin’ down on a vehicular homicide rap, Santa.”
     Santa waved his stogie dismissively. “I already told you, I was in Germany when that went down. But we’re beyond that now. I’ve got a $3 billion enterprise here. I can’t have some two-bit gumshoe running all over town stirring up trouble. Dragging my good name through the mud with these baseless accusations. No, I’m sorry, Johnny, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to sleep with the penguins. Pinky…”
     He stood up then, heading for the door, while Pinky and seven or eight of his dinky Dillingers pushed me along behind him at the point of their submachine guns.
     Kringle led the procession outside, and we went tromping through the snow to the complex of warehouses beneath the big Monsanta sign, the snow falling softly from a pitch black sky. It was a silent night, all was calm, not a soul was in sight, except for the fat man, me, and the eight machine-gun toting elves who were marching me out to my final resting place.
     Santa led us to the last warehouse, at the far edge of the property. We went inside and someone turned on the lights. The place looked like a small factory, with four conveyor belts spidering out from different sides of what looked like a giant soup pot in the center of the room. Various brightly-colored, plastic chemical jugs sat on shelves lining the walls. There were “Danger!” “Flammable!” and “No Smoking!” signs everywhere.   
     Kringle led us to the big soup pot dingus at the center of it all. He turned towards me, taking the cigar out of his mouth and waving it like a wand. “This, Mister Jingleballs, is where we make our own special blend of reindeer food, with all the secret ingredients that help Donner and Blitzen and the rest be all that they can be. Only tonight we’re going to make a batch with a very special ingredient. You.”
     He snapped his fingers and five or six elves scurried off to the corners. They each came prancing back carrying one of those big, plastic bottles full of chemicals, began opening valves on the centerpiece and pouring the chemicals in.
     Santa waved his stogie. “That’s enough, boys,” he said, grinning at me. “We have to save room for the main ingredient.”
     The elves stopped pouring and set the heavy jugs down. I could see they were still half full. Santa gave a nod and one of them pushed a button on the dingus and it shuddered to life with the roar of a thousand pistons. The whole contraption started shaking and roiling, steam rising from the open top of the soup pot. It made a noise that went gloppita-gloppita-gloppita. Then Santa reached up and grabbed hold of a large metal clamp attached to a chain that descended from the ceiling, pulling it down to eye level.
     “Bring him over here, boys,” he said. As they prodded me over, I looked up. I could see what was going to happen. He’d put me in the clamper, raise me up above the gloppita-gloppita machine and drop me in. In a little while I’d be Jingleballs stew.   
     I looked at the dingus admiringly. “I gotta hand it to you, Kringle. You got all the angles covered. But what happens when the kids find out what you’re doing? Genetically mutating reindeer with drugs and chemicals? You think they’ll still love you then?”
     The fat man grinned at me. “Now, now, Johnny, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. The little buggers want my reindeer to fly, I make them fly. And how do you think Rudolph’s nose got electricity? By immaculate connection? Hell no! Monsanta did that.”
     He grabbed me by the lapels and swung me around, so my back was to the dingus. As he maneuvered the clamp over my head, I kicked over one of the half-empty chemical jugs and watched the bright green liquid ooze out across the floor, over his boots and the little, upturned toes of his elves, all the way to the wall. The one with the shelves where all the rest of the chemicals were stored.
The sickly tinge of acid crept up my nostrils. Recognition dawned on Santa’s jolly red face. His implanted dimples stopped being so merry, and the smile vanished from his droll little mouth. As his eyes widened, I grabbed the cigar from his lips and dropped it into the puddle of chemicals draining from the plastic jug. I dove one way and Santa dove another.
     There was a loud fwoo as the whole mess went up in a giant ball of flame. I rolled over two or three times and covered my mouth as the warehouse filled with poison smoke. The elves were screaming, running around on fire, waving their little arms in the air and trying to put themselves out. I got to my feet, my eyes locked on the fat man across the room. He glared at me, his face twisted into a malevolent grin.
     “So that’s how you want to play it, huh?” he yelled. “You wanta play rough?” He leaned down and picked up a tommy gun from the floor. “You wanta play games? Let’s play! Say hello-ho-ho to my little friend!”
     I sprinted for the bank of windows along the far wall as he swung the big gun around at me and pulled the trigger, screaming. Santa’s machine gun belched flame as he cut a jagged swath of death across the room: rat-a-tat-tat. One of those bullets caught me in the shoulder and I went down, but it was only a flesh wound. I rolled and came up running, head low, flames lapping at my heels as machine gun fire lit up the warehouse. I knew I only had seconds before the fire hit the rest of the chemicals, and then kablooey! I dove for the window, crashing head-first through the beveled glass and landing in the snow outside, got to my feet and ran for the garage as the warehouse exploded behind me in a deafening fireball. The shock wave sent me flying forward, and I landed face-down in the snow, with pieces of wood and rocks raining down around me. Turning, I looked back at the gaping, smoke-filled hole in Kringle’s Monsanta factory. A thick column of black smoke billowed out from the wreckage, mushrooming up into the sky.
     I turned and stumbled into the garage, grabbed a set of keys from the wall and pressed the button. The lights of the red Aston Martin One-77 flashed on, and the horn sounded. I climbed in, put the keys in the ignition, and pressed the accelerator to the floor, driving straight through the garage door as dark, stubby forms appeared at the front of the house: Santa’s shrimpy soldiers, armed to the teeth. I wheeled the Aston-Martin around the giant Santa statue as the elves fired, bullets pinging off the Aston’s paint job.   
     Up ahead, more of Kringle’s helpers stood at the edge of the property, submachine guns in hand. I ducked as they fired, the Aston’s windshield exploding in a burst of machine gun fire. I drove straight through three of them, their little bodies hitting the Aston’s bumper with a series of small, percussive thuds. The others kept firing, bullets pinging the Aston, creating tiny holes in the passenger door. My other shoulder was bleeding now, but it, too, was only a flesh wound. I shifted the car into fourth gear and peeled out down the road before the elves left alive could get me. Ahead, the highway filled with flashing lights and sirens as a wave of police cars and fire trucks passed me, heading for Kringle’s compound. I slowed to the speed limit, but kept going, heading for the softly glowing lights of Christmastown.

***

     Later that night, after Sugar Plum finished putting unguent on my various cuts and bruises, I poured us each a tumbler of nog. As I handed her a glass, she pointed up. Mistletoe. The little minx. Twenty minutes later, we came up for air.
      As I softly caressed her scapula with my incisors, I could feel a vibration come from her pocket area. “You like that, eh, baby?”
     “No, that’s not it, Johnny. It’s my cell phone.”
     She peeled off of me and read a text. Then she gave me the frowny face. “Kandi Kane came down with the flu. I’ve gotta go to work.”
     She stood up, straightening her short skirt, then walked over and grabbed her coat and purse. A manila file folder fell out onto the floor.
     “Oh!” she said, handing it to me. “I almost forgot.”
     I took the folder, frowning back at her. “What is it?” I said.
     “That research you wanted on Grandma. Remember? You wanted me to see if there was any connection between her and Kringle? I went to the library, then to the Hall of Records. It’s all in there.” She leaned over and gave me a kiss, then turned and headed for the door. “See ya later?” she asked, opening the door.
     “Yeah,” I said, opening the folder as I tapped out a Lucky. “Later, Sugar.”         
     The next morning I got up bright and early and went down to the corner for an eyeopener. I caught a glimpse of the front page of the News. There was a picture of Monsanta on fire – the giant Santa statue engulfed in flames -- under a banner headline that read, “Kringle Missing as Explosion Rocks Santa’s Village.”
     I threw a nickel down on the counter and headed for the Olds, but I had to fight my way through the crowds. There were little kids everywhere, standing around reading the newspaper, bawling their eyes out.
     “Say it ain’t so, mister!” cried one little girl in pigtails, tugging at my coat. “Say Santa wasn’t a crook!”
     “Sorry, kid,” I said, as I climbed into the Olds and slammed the door.
     I headed for the suburbs, parked up the street from Grandma’s family’s house and hoofed it up their driveway to the door. I could see them all inside, through the big picture window of their cheery, ranch-style home. I lit a cigarette and watched them for a minute. They were sitting around the table, eating figgy pudding. What was left of a goose sat on a plate between them, nothing more than a few bones with bits of goose flesh stuck to them. There was a football game on the big screen TV, and there was Grandpa, a happy wide smile playing across his wrinkled face, drinking beer and playing cards with cousin Mel.
     I rang the doorbell and Frosty let me in. He was smiling, happy to see me.
     “Mr. Jingleballs!” he said. “Come in, come in!”
     I went inside and knocked the snow off my mukluks.
     “We sure wanta thank ya for what ya done,” said Frosty, clapping me on the back. “We read about it in the paper this morning. Didn’t we, Grandpa?”
     The old man glanced up at me from behind his cards and grunted. Frosty picked up the newspaper and showed me the front page.
     “Sure is somethin’,” said Frosty, shaking his head. “Who woulda ever guessed ol’ Santa was messin’ with them reindeer genetics and all, like that? And droppin’ fertilizer on folks outa his sleigh just so’s their kids’d have birth defects, and he’d have enough midgets to work in his toy factory. It just don’t seem possible that a feller could be so evil, and yet so loved at the same time.”
     “That fat bastard got what was comin’ to him,” said Grandpa. “After what he done to Grandma.”
     “Yeah,” I said. “You’re probably right. He got what was comin’ to him. Except he wasn’t the one who ran Grandma over.”
     The room grew suddenly quiet. Someone muted the TV, Elmo stopped eating his figgy pudding, and Grandpa and Cousin Mel dropped their cards on the table and stared at me.
     “What’s that you said?” said Frosty.
     “I said Santa wasn’t the one who ran Grandma down. The NORAD reports show that he was thousands of miles away at the time, in Germany, delivering presents. Sure, there was a 10 minute gap in the coverage, and technically Kringle coulda made it back here in time to squish Grandma, then turned his sleigh back around and headed back to Germany in time to continue his run, but why would he do that? He had no motive, you see. Not like you did, Grandpa.” 
     Elmo got a funny look on his face and said, “Dad, did he say that Santa didn’t run over Grandma with his reindeer?”
     “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, kid,” I said. “But that’s right. Your grandpa lied to you. All of you. You see, you don’t have any ‘cousin Mel.’ I checked. This dame is nothing more than a floozy your Grandpa’s been foolin’ around with on the sly. The two of them bumped off your Grandma for the insurance money and tried to pin it on the fat boy.”
     The kid looked confused. “Fat boy?”
     “Santa Claus,” I said. “The portly one. You know, jolly, morbidly obese master of midget toy-tinkers and flying reindeer. Drives a sleigh, wears a lot of red…”
     “I know who Santa is, dummy,” said the kid, sneering.
     “Not really, kid,” I said. “But that’s another story…”
     Grandpa lifted a glass of beer to his thin lips, still smiling. “Aren’t you forgetting that Elmo here was standing on the porch the whole time, and heard the accident? He saw Santa and his reindeer come flying around the corner right afterwards, while I was inside the whole time, isn’t that right, boy?”
     Elmo looked confused, his head swiveling from his grandpa to his dad. “Uhh… dad?”
     “Stop it,” I said. “You paid the kid to tell that story. It won’t hold, and you know it.”
     Grandpa pursed his lips. “What about the hoof prints on Grandma’s forehead, and the incriminating Claus marks on her back?”
      I took a long drag from my Lucky Strike. “That’s easy,” I said, blowing a wreath of smoke towards him. “You’re an avid hunter, aren’t you, Grandpa? You’ve bagged your limit in deer every season since 1952. Don’t bother denying it, it’s in the city recordbooks downtown. Furthermore, I’ll bet if I search your garage, I’ll find plenty of trophies. Animal heads. Horns. Antlers. Even hooves. As for the Claus marks, well, all you have to do is take a look at Cousin Mel’s nail polish there. Red, with flecks of green in ‘em. For the holidays.”
     Suddenly Grandpa jumped to his feet, a sneer on his lips and his left hand rising. There was a little silver-plated .32 in it, belching flame. I took one in the shoulder and went down, reaching for my .45. I rolled over in the thick, orange shag, scooted beneath the Christmas tree and pointed my big gun at Grandpa as he fired again, blowing a couple of Christmas bulbs to smithereens right above my head. Pop! Pop-pop-pop! Pop! Grandpa grabbed little Timmy and held him tight in front of him, using him as a human shield while he blasted away with his popgun. Dried pine needles and bits of tinsel puffed into the air like angel wings, while ornaments exploded all around me, tiny shards of glass and plastic licking my face. I reached for the nearest thing I could find: Grandma’s fruitcake. It was like lifting a bowling ball as I hoisted it up in front of my face to use as a shield. I got to my knees as one, two, three bullets thwacked into the thick, spongy goo, pop-pop-pop. And stuck. Grandpa’s .32 was no match for the chopped candied fruit, dried nuts and raisins. He kept firing, but his bullets couldn’t pierce the 20-year-old, sugar-and-brandy-soaked dessert. I rose to my feet, still holding the gelatinized fruit-loaf. Grandpa must have had an extended ammo clip, because he kept blazing away, and the bullets kept flying, popping Christmas ornaments and splatting into the jellified cake brick. But Grandma’s fruitcake held! I moved toward him as he fired, my fruitcake shield quivering with each bullet that pierced its globulous surface. And then, finally, Grandpa’s gun made only a clicking sound. He was out! Snarling, he pushed little Timmy at me and ran for the door. I aimed my big gun and squeezed the trigger three times, but it only took one. It caught Grandpa in the spleen and put him down for the count. The other two were just to give the blood spatter boys something to do.   
     Before I could celebrate, though, Cousin Mel was all over me like crumbs on a monkey, clawing bright red gouges in my cheek with her long, red-and-green nails. I popped a tooth out of her kisser with my left and shot her twice in the duodenum with my .45. She’d live, but not in style. Not unless Gucci makes colostomy bags.      
     Later, after they carted Grandpa away in a rubber sack, I told the whole story to the cops down at the station house. When they were satisfied, my old chum, Sgt. Ryan, walked me to the stationhouse door. “Well, Johnny, looks like you’ve solved another one. What’s next? You gonna investigate that string of robberies over in Whoville?”   
     “Who knows?” I said, and we both had a nice laugh.
     On the street, the kids were still blubbering over the fat man, but he didn’t care. What did it matter what people said about you once you were dead? Singing your praises or covering you with mud, you were dead, you were taking the long winter’s nap, you were not bothered by things like that. Dirt was the same as air to you. You just went on napping, not caring about who was naughty or who was nice. 
     I walked out of the precinct house and headed up the street to the grotto behind St. Nick’s Cathedral. I sat down on a bench and looked at the live Nativity scene. There were the Wise Men, with their gold and frankincense and myrrh, standing around looking at Mary holding the little baby Jesus. And there was Joseph, hanging around in the background like a sap. Like a third wheel, wondering what hit him. Or maybe he was wondering what hit his virgin wife. Or maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he just took it all in stride and said, “Let it ride, bub.” Then again, maybe he wanted to hire a private dick to find out the truth about Mary and her little bundle. It could be an explosive case, I thought. One for the books. It might even pay. After all, there was gold. And myrrh. I didn’t give a hoot for the frankincense.
     By this time I was getting thirsty, so I reached into my pocket for the flask, but I could tell before I got it to my lips it was just about empty. I sat there awhile, contemplating my options. When I got tired of contemplating, I heaved myself off the bench and headed for the third magi, and his myrrh.

THE END

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