I scratched my beard. It felt like two days growth, but it was more likely four. And here I was again, on Christmas Day. The ranking brass that should have normally rushed to something like this were too busy with their families and celebrations. Luckily for them, I no longer had a right to any of that. I looked around the room. People moved in and out, doing their job, performing the last rites, talking on their cell phones, taking pictures and notes, all while stepping carefully around the body.
It was the old bastard, all right; laying by the fireplace, contorted in an unnatural pose. The streaks of blood ran down from the mantelpiece, which he had likely grabbed in a desperate escape attempt. The blood pooled around his body, seeping through the seventies shaggy carpet. Bright red on dark, quite festive, if you ask me, but still in the back of my throat I felt the acid souvenir of the Scotch I had liberally used to wash Christmas night away.
The radio crowed some nonsense. One of the CSI guys, Dave something, murmured a curse under his breath, digging around with tweezers in the wooden mantelpiece. Looked like everyone was in a foul mood today. Except me, of course. I hadn’t been expecting anything at all: not this Christmas, not any of the recent ones. And a big fat nothing I received. So it was all good. I repeated my mantra to myself, since no one else seemed to be paying attention. “Set your expectations low enough, and you’ll never be disappointed.”
I took some additional notes on a legal pad, and drew a quick sketch of the room, the position of the corpse, arrows pointing to possible evidence and other relevant details. Just something to make writing the report a little less painful later that night, when I’d be lubricating the end of the workday with abundant coffee and why not, another scotch and water or three. One thing I was already sure of: no amount of detail would have explained the motive of this bloody mess.
Wrapped in red and white and sprawled on the floor, the body looked like a leftover macabre decoration from a previous holiday, except it was all too real: the putrid smell, the sunken cheeks, the protruding tongue. His wide-open eyes, looked like they caught in extremis a glimpse of some divine revelation. The CSI had found the pockets of the red outfit to be empty, but there was no doubt he was the real thing. When you are Santa Claus, you don’t need to show your ID. You usually don’t get shot down either. Who would want to off Santa, of all people? Who could even do a thing like that? And why here, in this abandoned house, just one of the innumerable repossessed suburban homes that filled the valley between the two major highways? Why would the old man even stop here? Shouldn't he have been busy enough moving presents around, sliding down chimneys, delivering the goods to inhabited places making all those expectant children happy with endless copies of whatever tech gizmo the marketers had decreed to be the must-have gift of this season?
I looked around. The original carpet had been steam cleaned, giving it the color and appearance of cooked squid. The room had Corian(TM) countertops in the kitchen mounted over obviously repainted cabinets, recessed lights, one of them crooked. Looked like an attempt at quick’n’dirty remodeling to resell that place and make some dough. Bad timing, of course, to say nothing of the craftsmanship. The bedrooms still had the wallpaper wrapping of days gone by. I walked out to the patio, where a rusty gas BBQ sat there, not far from the pool, bolted to the cracked concrete. Above my head some poorly constructed, unfinished woodworking project threatened to fall on me and completely ruin the day. It looked like an attempt at a balcony, or a sun deck of some sort. Amateurs. The water in the pool was green and slimy, completely opaque. It stank like a dead fish, and as the day progressed it would just get worse. I closed the patio door, crossed the dining room back to the bloody scene of the crime. Great corner lot, pool, a couple of strategic remodeling cues, hell, I could have flipped that place easily, and done the job right. Back when times were good, I’d take on projects like this during weekends and after-hours. Now, all I had left was a mountain of debt and not even enough cash to pay the rent of my shitty studio with great views of a 405 off-ramp.
On a day like this, back when times were good, my kids would be running around the Christmas tree in their PJs, Janice would make French toast for everyone, and... I shook my head, “Get rid of it,” I told myself, “get rid of it right now.” I needed to catch some air. “Does anyone have any coffee?” I asked, to no one in particular.
“Here!” said CSI Dave, who was finally able to extract something with the tweezers, and was holding the prize up to the light, “double ought,” he added before dropping it in a ziplock bag. “Coffee is in the thermos, Thompson, help yourself.”
“Thank you, you are a gentleman and a scholar, Dave.”
Earlier there had been a confused, early-morning 911 call from a neighbor, actually the last one left there on Rovaniemi Circle. He had talked about shots being fired a couple of houses away. I spoke to him in front of his house, the middle one in the cul-de-sac. The guy there had told his kids that the noise was probably from the clomping of the hooves of the reindeers on his worn out shake roof. He looked like an average Joe, circles under his eyes cut deep from one too many sleepless nights. His kids had run downstairs, only to find the milk and cookies untouched, and the area around the tree as empty as they had left it the night before
“Daddy,” the little one had asked, grabbing his father’s sweatpants, “is Santa here yet?”
“Sure, he’s coming later today. Go play back in the house.”
We were silent for a few seconds, looking at the kid sauntering back into the house. The garage door was open, taped cardboard boxes completely filled the space.
“I knew they were actually shots, so I called the police. No one is left on this street... I got a little worried. I really wanted to have Christmas here, you know, we’re supposed to clear out by the end of the day.”
“On Christmas Day?”
“Well, we are really past due, the bank just gave us one more day because of the Holiday.”
I turned around, looked at the sun, finally clearing the rooftops at the end of the cul-de-sac. If the man was looking for a shoulder to cry on, I definitely wasn’t offering.
“Doesn’t even feel like Christmas, does it?” I asked him.
I walked out the main door, sipping lukewarm coffee from Dave’s plastic thermos cap. The woman was still in the car, talking animatedly on her cell. She saw me coming out, murmured something into the phone, her eyes making contact with mine. She hung up, got out of her Accord, and slammed the door with impatience. She was young, but walked funny, like she wasn’t used getting around on her feet.
“Look, how much longer do I have to wait? I have a long list of properties to visit.”
I had completely forgotten that the REO agent was there waiting. Corinna something. She had been the one to find the body, earlier, before the dispatcher had been able to contact anyone close to the scene.
I hesitated. “Look, why don’t I take some quick notes, and you come downtown later for a statement?”
She nodded. She was actually kind of cute, in a cold, non-committal way.
“What were you doing here on Christmas morning anyway? Isn’t it an odd time to look at properties?”
“Yeah, well, things do slow down during the holiday season... But that’s also when the squatters move in. We have to check them all, every day.”
I looked at the cracked glass pane in one of the front windows of the house. I could see the flowery motif of the disheveled wallpaper from where I was standing. “I wonder how much worse squatters could really make it.”
“It’s the principle, you know? And that’s what the agency is paying me for, anyway.”
“Ever owned a shotgun?”
She frowned. “So now I am a suspect, because I called the cops?”
“Nah, just need to ask the questions, that’s all. Look just don’t leave town for the holidays or anything, and you’ll need to come in later for a statement.”
“I have no plans to leave. I work for a living, you know.”
I raised my hand in a peace sign, took down her data, and gave her an appointment for the afternoon. Before I raised my eyes from my writing pad she was already driving away, straight into the sun.
I shielded my face, watching her turn, and black spots started to appear. I rubbed my eyes, but the spots just got larger. Then the air started to resonate with the paddle-spanking of propellers. News choppers coming from Los Angeles, like the four knights of the apocalypse. I almost expected to hear the Ride of the Valkyries booming from loudspeakers. Instead it was the Handel Messiah’ Hallelujah. My phone. I’m funny like that.
“Look, I’m sorry to call you on a Holiday...”
“I don’t care, I’m working. What’s up Samrath?”
“Well, we got wind of something, and you guys might be involved...”
“We guys can’t hear for shit because of the noise your choppers are making.”
“We’re just following Channel 7. Is it what I think it is?”
“Probably worse. What do you think it is?”
“We know it’s about the guy in red. We think he went on a rampage or something.”
“Close, but no cigar.”
“But you do know something.”
“I’m mere yards from the body.”
“What’s it gonna take, Thompson?”
“Let’s start with information.”
“I can’t tell you who the leak is, if that’s what you mean, I don’t even know for sure. We just got a lead, sent our chopper after the competition.”
“Couldn’t care less. I want to know why you thought the old guy could have gone postal. What do you have on him?”
“If I tell you, you’ll give me coordinates? Exclusive content? Maybe an interview?”
“Maybe even more than that. Spit.”
He hesitated a bit, heard him whispering something, then for a while, that underwater feeling you get when somebody presses a hand on the receiver.
“Alright, I’m gonna play nice, but I’m expecting the goods later, ok?”
I made the necessary reassuring noises.
“What I can tell you is that there are quite a few people unhappy with the guy on the West Coast this morning. We keep getting calls...”
“Doesn’t take a genius to figure that out. Let’s just say that your callers should not expect jack shit for the time being.”
“So he is...”
“Shut up and listen: I need a line on the guy, known enemies, ex-wives, gossip, any dirt you have, really.”
Samrath chuckled. “Dirt was all we had. Until now, at least. Wild rumors have been going on for quite a while about the guy being close to Chapter 11. Chinese kids are said to be making gifts for everyone else in the world, paid via some screwy Ponzi scheme, so the kids themselves would not get paid, but just move up the list and get the promise of presents for the following Christmas. Which of course never happens as he moves on to the next crew of underage workers.”
“This can’t be true.”
“We have our sources. Look, if what you are not telling me is what I think, we’ll better start re-planning the day’s broadcast, start calling some advertisers, I mean, after all people might actually need to buy the stuff they didn’t get this time around. We are talking serious cash here.”
“How can you think about money at a time like this? It’s your job and all, but it’s Santa we are talking about.” I was starting to get impatient. The load he had dropped had dug a hole in my sense of the case.
“Well, I really never believed in the guy, really.”
“Right. Thanks a lot. Just call me then, when your Kali ends up mutilated or something.”
“I’m Sikh, not a Hindu, Thompson. And last I heard, she can take care of herself quite effectively, thank you very much. How soon can you give me some information?”
“Soon,” I said, and hung up.
I breathed deeply. All this pointed in too many different directions. If it was even partially true, who would not want to whack the old bastard? Yet, I wasn’t convinced. Sure, missing gifts, wailing babies, and no power tools for Daddy. But taking up arms to shoot holes in the holiest of the holy in the middle of Christmas night... No, I knew very well that it took more than simple disappointment. A lot more. Or else I would have become a serial killer quite a while back.
The choppers were finally above us, and I hurried back into the house. Cars and photographers would soon arrive, and we needed to take the usual precautionary measures, yellow tape, holy water and all that. The next thirty minutes were almost unbearable as we prepared to withstand the siege of the media. For once I was relieved when the Chief Sanchez arrived in person, getting out of an unmarked car. He put his mitre back on, pressing it down to completely hide his conspicuous bald spot and did not look the happier for it.
The helicopters were hovering right above the house, chopping the still air of the day into bits and making enough noise to shake my dental fillings. The neighbors, who had been dragging boxes, suitcases, and assorted plastic bags out to a U-Haul, stood there, dazed, looking up at the sky, the little kid hugging his teddy bear just a little bit tighter.
“You are off the hook,” the Chief shouted, holding down the mitre against the wind from the propellers, “and don’t talk to anyone, I’m handling this. Just go back and write your report.”
I had never been happier to hear that order. I made a serious face and nodded twice. A crowd of reporters had occupied the front of the house, and the Chief turned to face them, two fingers drawing the sign of the cross in the air for the ritual blessing. Flashes went off like grenades, pointed microphones, shouted questions. The assault had begun. I recognized Samrath’ turban, I made a phone sign with my hand, pushed through the crowd heading for my car, then bailed as fast as I could.
I turned on the radio, some AM station, I didn’t really pay attention to the mindless chatter, just used it to offset the contrasting arguments in my head. Stuff like this didn’t usually happen here, and especially not during my shift. Sure, we had the occasional poltergeist phenomenon; lots of housing tracts were built over Native grave sites. Those blessed people used to bury their elders all over the place, really, but we’d track down and fine the developer, then contact the local tribal leaders, have them send out someone to perform the necessary rituals. Big scares, some damaged appliances, but seldom anyone got injured, let alone a deity of any sort. This was Southern California, after all, we didn’t have the problems other places had, no werewolves, no sasquatch lurking in the woods or herds of possessed buffalos roaming the prairies. And nothing like the random voudoun manifestation from down in the Gulf region. All the new agers who moved here in the nineties made this a pretty safe place. I mean, there are always creative ways to get injured with crystals, but one doesn’t usually call the authorities over that.
As much as I tried to avoid it, I kept thinking about the motive of the bloody, senseless killing in the house. No, this wasn’t about money. Other passions were at play here. Sure, the idea of a psycho with a shotgun was an easy explanation. But how would he even catch the old guy? Kids had forever been waiting just to see him, and were rarely able to steal but a glance of the man in red. After all, he had lots of crap to deliver in such a short time. He had to be damn fast, if you ask me. No, the way he was killed looked more like a mafia style execution, save for the shotgun. I It was hard to imagine those guys with a big twelve gauge hidden under their pinstripe jackets. No, there was something else, something in the fury of the crime— shooting an old man in the back... Some other passion had been guiding that armed set of hands. Cherchez la femme? Yeah, right, like that would apply to a guy who walks around wearing gaudy red and works surrounded by young elves. Or used to, at least.
I realized I didn’t even know where I was headed, beyond away from the scene of the crime. I drove through the hypnotic sequence of strip malls, apartment buildings, empty lots filled with garbage. It was hot now, and I lowered the windows, and it felt inconsequential, given the season, like the random lines of a half forgotten poem from my school days. The traffic was a little less stop and go than usual, and the smog cloud above the city, a little less yellow. The weak sun, still low on the horizon, would peek through the overcast skies to make objects stand out a little too sharply, then disappeared again painting everything with the color of disappointment.
This place was once named after the thousands of trees that used to fill the fertile valleys and line the soft and sensual hillsides above. Now it was lot after lot of homes, condos, gated communities. Los Angeles had swallowed the area whole. Other people thought LA was a place, but I knew better, it was a form of urban cancer affecting Southern California. And I had helped to spread it, even thought I’d make some money off it. But it was never like that, the earnings from a flip-job would disappear in the black hole of previous debts and liabilities, interest, supplies, saving my own home from foreclosure, and what about the next deal, where would the money for that come from? I needed to clear my head, bury the bad memories deep inside. On the radio, someone was already talking about the case. Some talk-show host.
“Look, the guy is dressed in red, right? And he gave away free stuff to everyone. Everyone, you understand? Now, what would you call a guy like that? I’d call him a socialist, that’s what he was, some kind of commie. What would he be giving out next year? Free health care to everyone? Gimme a break. And I’ll tell you more: I have heard from a really good source that the guy was a German. I mean, he wasn’t even born in the ol’US of A. And then we’re supposed to feel indignation when some patriot takes up arms against the red menace?”
I turned off the radio. Bunch of lunatics. But something he had said... yeah the birther fixation about Santa not being US-born. Today, after all, was a day celebrating another non-US birth. A really important one. And I never really understood the business agreement between the parties, the man in red and the one from Nazareth. I wondered if there was something important there, for the case. Of course, disturbing the higher-ups was not a good idea, today or ever. Those things went to much more qualified channels, and Cardinal Mahoney was definitely not on my cell contacts list. But I remembered somebody who was on it. Somebody in the know, who perhaps could help.
I hesitated, calling him today of all days, but then remembered that he was most likely not celebrating this Holiday. I checked theopedia.org, holding my cell up high to keep an eye on the traffic. Indeed his holiday had been quite early this year. I gave him a call.
Bookshelves filled every wall of the room that smelled of stale pipe-smoke and ink. Piles of volumes lay on the floor, and even on the one guest chair. Roger was typing away, his chin slightly raised, looking at a low angle through his horn-rimmed glasses. He waved two fingers intimating for me to sit down. I stood instead, couldn’t really move around in that place without stumbling into something, and waited patiently for his train of thought to stop at his workstation. Down below, through the wide corner windows one could guess at the blue of the ocean under the grey marine layer. It was hot up here, like it always was on top of the Santa Monicas, and I took off my jacket, looked around, then decided to just keep it draped over my arm.
Roger Friedman, chair of the Department of Religious Science at UCLA, finished his sentence, hit save, grabbed a pipe, and finally turned towards me.
“Thompson,” he said, opening his arms in a hug, entirely symbolic given the distance and the mounds of paper separating us, “what brings you up here?”
I explained the situation, as briefly as I could. He looked mildly surprised. His daughters were away at college and no one ever turned on the TV. Roger used to be my favorite teacher, back when I went back to school hoping to make it into the CSI. I had kids on the way and needed to make a decent living. All this, of course, before the real estate craze exploded, and I dropped out of college to work weekends laying down new carpet and green rolls of turf.
“Well you know, there are precedents,” he said, interrupting my reverie, “think about it, your whole Christian tradition is based on deicide. Of course, it’s still an amazingly rare act. And in this case we are dealing with an essential, yet minor figure in the Western Pantheon, a sacred part of our profane lives...”
“Look, Roger, I have a case to solve. Why don’t we get to the point?”
He fumbled around with his pipe. “The point is, I can’t imagine anyone able to actually kill the old guy. Some very steady hand was holding that shotgun. Or perhaps, it was somebody he knew.”
“Who, a disgruntled laid-off elf?”
“To the best of my knowledge, elves do not use shotguns,” he said, pointing to a series of dusty volumes right above his head, bound in green leather and engraved with unreadable runic characters, “on the other hand, I would not even expect bullets to be able to kill him.”
“Well, apparently they did.”
“So you say. Or you believe they did.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“I think the main problem here is one of belief. What do we believe in? Let’s face it, in this country we believe in violence as an acceptable form of conflict resolution. You believe that Santa has indeed been murdered. Perhaps your case is a projection of your belief. I heard from my daughter, and I understand that in Europe gift distribution was unhindered... That’s because they don’t believe he was murdered, or that something like that could even be possible. And we do.”
“Time difference,” I mumbled, after thinking about it for a bit.
“They are ahead of us, Christmas morning just arrives sooner. It’s the West Coast and the Pacific Islands that missed out. And they did because the old guy’s trail ended in a pool of his own blood in some repossessed shack in the Valley.”
Later in the car I was still thinking about Roger’s words. What did we really believe in? The right to bear arms? Free enterprise? Every man for himself? Free stuff just because we deserve it? What did I deserve, then? And the young woman from the REO company, Corinna, what did she believe in? Keeping homeless people out of empty houses? Or was that just a façade? There was something about her that didn’t square. The whole situation, her matter-of-fact lack of compassion. It was just a little too perfect, like some act she had rehearsed a little too long. Why would she do that, anyway? Was that the part of the real estate agent handbook no one ever gave me to read? One thing I knew for sure, she was somewhere in the endless city below, driving around all alone on Christmas Day. Kinda like me. I stopped on the side of the canyon road, found my legal pad, and dialed her number.
A little later we were on opposite sides of a wooden table carved with the names of thousands of previous customers. A few cars went by on the Pacific Coast Highway, right in front of us. Surfers dried off or got in the water across the road from our restaurant. The place was almost deserted, the Greek motif of the paint job long faded, but the beer cooler as inviting as any other day of the year. Although the Olympian cult was enjoying a resurgence in Southern Europe, Poseidon never really made it big here in the new world, and no one had seen him for centuries on these shores. Still the seafood was nothing short of celestial. A couple of bikers in their fifties were eating fish and chips a few tables down. All we could hear was the crashing of the waves, and the light, cool wind that tasted like salt.
Corinna shuffled her feet impatiently under the table.
She had answered at the first ring, and then I realized I had not thought of what to say. So I had told her who I was. She didn’t say anything, I had heard her breath on the other side, expectantly.
“Look, I’m close to your agency, I could come by, get your statement, save you a trip downtown. And I’ll even buy you lunch if you allow me.”
“I’m not in the office, driving around, lots of things to check...”
“Alright then,” I started, thinking, “nice try.”
“Is there anything even open for lunch?”
“Sure, lots of places. There’s this one on the PCH, Poseidon’s Cove. The fried fish is decent, the view is awesome, even on foggy days.”
“I thought this was for official business.”
Was she flirting back with me, I had wondered then.
Now she seemed distant again, maybe she thought this hadn’t been a good idea, after all. I played it cool, offered her a beer. She went for a coke, I had a Negra Modelo.
“Shrimp special looks pretty good,” I told her, pointed vaguely in the direction of the kitchen.
A bored teenager waited at the cash register, called out numbers when sizzling plates arrived through the narrow, stainless steel framed window.
She shook her head, took a sip of coke, “I’m really not that hungry.”
“It must have been hard.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, finding the body and all, first thing in the morning.”
“Yeah, it was scary. I saw who it was, and freaked out. Then, before I could even explain the situation to the dispatcher, I heard the sirens. I started to have this irrational fear, you know, that you’d find me there and think I was somehow implicated.”
“Sorry for earlier, I know I pushed you a little with my questioning.”
“An officer and a gentleman,” she teased, and I only half smiled, “it’s ok, I know you were just doing your job.” She appeared more relaxed, now. Maybe I was doing something right.
“You know, the reason I was so scared... Well, I have a little one waiting for me at home.”
“Oh, I see. Are you...”
“No, he’s gone. Long gone.”
Somehow, I felt relieved. I took her statement, had her sign it, and sipped some more beer. We watched the seagulls fighting for picking rights around the dumpster in the parking lot, talking about nothing at all. It felt good to be there. So good, that time went too fast, and she was looking at her phone, and telling me she had to go. But she looked at me with clear blue eyes, mouthing a “thank you,” and she was on her way.
She took off in her Accord, pointing North. I started in the opposite direction, still thinking about how the problem between what people expect from life and what they actually get can be easily squared just by readjusting one’s perspective. I just had a beer, and hadn’t felt better in years. Yet there was something nagging at me. I hammered my fingers on the steering wheel, engine rumbling in the background. What was it? I replayed the conversation in my head.
...it was scary. I saw who it was, and freaked out...
That’s what was bothering me. Sure, she might have thought how weirdly the dead guy was dressed. Finding a corpse in a Santa costume with two egg-sized holes burned in his back, well, it might have prompted some flights of fancy, but who would actually assume that he was the real thing?
Maybe I was getting all riled up about nothing. I needed a third party opinion.
The listed phone number for the REO agency was the one Corinna responded to. She was probably the owner and operator, working for some bank. But I did still have a couple of friends in the real estate business.
“Never heard of that agency.”
“Well, they are small, maybe it’s even a one-person operation.”
“I’m telling you Thompson, I’m the outgoing president of the Realtor’s Association, and I would know. Never heard of this lady or her office.”
“That’s not possible, Chris... I just talked to this Corinna... Let me spell you her name.”
“Alright, spell away, I’m doing a search, you never know.”
I did, and heard a few clicks on the other side, Chris mumbling something.
“Ok, well, I have your Corinna, but she’s is not an agent. Maybe I did not understand you well, or maybe you didn’t.” I could hear the smirk in her voice. “She’s actually an owner, well, sorta. I found her as the foreclosed owner on record of a 205 Rovaniemi Circle, down in the Valley.”
I braked hard, and swerved into a tight u-turn, and some guy in a mustang barely avoided me, leaning on the horn. I waved my badge in the air, pushed the pedal to the metal. My old Chevy waved across the lanes, then finally launched forward.
She didn’t have more than a few minutes on me, and I knew exactly where she was going. I could try to catch her, or perhaps even get there sooner.
I spotted her Accord parked almost a block away, just inside another cul-de-sac. I drove by slowly; it was definitely empty, unless she was hiding in the trunk. This block seemed seriously under-populated as well, just a couple of rusty vans parked along the curb and not much else. I saw one of the gates on a backyard hanging open. It might not be anything, or... I checked the GPS map on my phone. This cul-de-sac was exactly opposite to Rovaniemi Circle. She must have found a way in from the back, perhaps through some other abandoned property. I sped away, circled around the block, stopped in front of the house. The place was deserted now. The neighbor’s U-Haul was gone, and so were the media. The house still had the official seals, and the property was pretty much wrapped in yellow plastic tape. I considered calling for support.
There had been something, maybe the look in her eyes when she was telling me about her child, I wasn’t sure. In times like these I almost wish we were issued a weapon, rather than a phone and a multicultural prayer book. Still it’s better than in down the Gulf, where officers carry just a leather-bound Bible, which I understand can be of limited comfort when a gnarly zombie is gnawing away at your spleen. Of course hitting the perpetrator over the head with the Holy Book was not allowed; and in the case of zombies, not that useful anyway.
I knocked on the front door, hard, then moved quickly around the house, staying low. I pushed the fence gate open, hoping it wouldn’t squeak, then kept crawling in the backyard, around the dining room, sat on the cracked concrete patio, behind what looked like a tool shed, just out of sight. The house was built on an odd sized lot, pie shaped, and where the two fences met at the apex of the triangle several board were missing. I figured she came in and left that way, circled around the pool, entered the house from some less-than-obvious secondary entrance. I peeked in from the patio door. Not a movement inside, nothing at all. Did she actually live in there? I doubted it. Utilities were still on, but there was no furniture or anything left in the house. The CSI people would have surely found something odd. I pushed the heavy glass door, and it was still unlocked, just like I left it that very morning. I slid against the bare wall of the living room. The house was silent, and no one had come to answer my knocking, of course. The bedrooms were totally empty, and I relaxed a little. All right, maybe there was a better explanation for all this. Sure, Corinna was the owner on record. Maybe that’s the reason why she feared being implicated. Or she was just ashamed to confess it. Her car was in the neighborhood, but maybe she had been squatting at some other house in the neighborhood, had her stuff stashed somewhere around here. Maybe.
Then I heard a rustle and a creak. Rats, perhaps, up in the... The attic, why didn’t I think about it. I wondered if anyone even bothered to check it this morning. Almost let out a curse, then restrained myself. They might be listening, up there, today of all days.
Took a second quick tour of the house, looking up, and easily found the trapdoor access in the middle of the corridor leading to the bedrooms. It was totally out of reach, and hadn’t seen a ladder in the house, but I noticed the small storage cabinet on the left wall. I smiled, opened it. Just like I thought, the cabinet’s shelves were just a few inches deep, and well reinforced, a built-in ladder. I had seen a few like this in homes from the 50s I had worked on. I carefully grabbed the first step and balanced. It seemed to hold my weight just fine.
It took some pushing to get the trapdoor to move. It looked like it hadn’t been opened in years, the old paint from when they redid the ceilings acted as glue. That was actually good, there was a real chance this would all turn out to be nothing out of the ordinary. It finally popped up, and I climbed through, dreading that instant when my feet would be dangling in the void below. I hated that.
It was dark, and there was an intense unpleasant smell, like locker room and foot powder. And it was darker than the darkest night. I found myself face to face with an aluminum box. That had to be the heating system; I read some faded numbers on it. It seemed to hold up some sort of cardboard barrier. I got one knee through, then the other. I stepped in, crawling on my hands and knees. The rafters were covered in insulating material, and lots of it had come loose through the years, making it look like the remains of a giant pillow fight. I moved carefully, trying to find solid support through the fiberglass at each step. I pushed aside the cardboard, and the smell just got stronger. It was hot, really hot and humid up here, climbing up from the house had felt like pushing through some oversized human orifice. There were square objects around, perhaps old furniture or boxes stashed up there. The middle of the attic was almost walkable, but most of the space had to be traversed on hands and knees. The roof slanted down on one side while the other had a wide square opening, plugged somehow with plywood, perhaps some leftover from the many unfinished remodeling projects that seemed to plague the house. I could see the thin contour of light that marked the patch job. If I hadn’t lost my sense of direction, that corresponded with the unfinished sun deck that overlooked the pool. The middle of the attic was still too dark. There was a movement, in front of me, something small, and I tensed up. Lights shone all of a sudden, a naked lightbulb hanging low from the ceiling that blinded me like the morning sun. I covered my eyes instinctively, blinked through my fingers, and I saw him. A kid, a chubby toddler with curly blond hair and amazing blue eyes. He wasn’t wearing anything but a diaper. Not two yards from me, he leaned over the safety rail of his crib, holding out one hand to me, like he wanted to touch me. Or give me something.
“Daddee?” He asked.
Then I felt the ice coolness of twin barrels right above the nape of my neck. I raised my hands, very slowly. “Don’t do it,” I pleaded.
“You force me to. You couldn’t let it be, could you?”
“What is this?”
“What does it look like?” Answered Corinna, her voice as icy as the first time I had heard it.
“You know, it’s all right, you don’t have to do this. Come on, you are squatting in your house. Big deal. There’s probably a million families doing the same right now, all over the nation.”
“You don’t get it, do you?”
“But you would tell, and they’ll find out, eventually. They’ll lock me in, somewhere, take him away from me.”
“You did it, right, you shot Santa last night.”
“Yes, I shot the old bastard. Don’t turn.”
I had just moved my head slightly.
“We saw him right about once a year,” she continued, “and then he disappeared for good. And when he left, mom died, killed slowly by gin, until the day I found her floating face down in the pool. One day he came back. But he couldn’t save us, no one could.”
“You are not saying that... that’s... impossible.”
“You idiot. How do you think they reproduce?”
“I don’t know, we are told they are immortal. At least until collective belief sustains them.”
“Well, this one wasn’t, was he? What did the autopsy say?”
“I don’t really know, the CSI, the Christian Science Investigations team still has the body, and they haven’t told us a thing yet. You know bureaucracy...”
“Yeah, wait and hope... They’ll never tell you anything. No one ever says anything. At least the ancient Greeks freely admitted it, but since you people took over, it was all virgin births and celibate saints.”
“Look, I’m just a Religious Officer, I don’t write the Doctrine, I enforce it...”
“They are just like us, understand? Well almost like us, but if you shoot them do they not bleed? And not that this info will ever be of any use to you at this point, but when the old man got a little drunk he used to say that the Tooth Fairy was a total slut.”
“Look, now, let’s be reasonable. Yes, you might have committed a murder. Maybe you had a good reason for it, it’s not really for me to decide,” I blabbered at random, turning slowly around to face her. She would not shoot somebody who was looking her straight in the eyes. I hoped she wouldn’t.
Corinna was there, on her knees. Right behind her a small door hung open. The opening wasn’t much bigger than a fridge but I saw it had no floor, and a series of rungs disappeared in the darkness below. That’s where she had come up from, probably some closet... no, I realized, it was the tool shed in the patio. Why build something like that, anyway?
She had some old relic of a shotgun in her hands, but unfortunately I knew for sure it worked quite well. She didn’t flinch, repositioned the gun to point directly at my face. I tried to keep my cool, I was sweating profusely.
Keep talking, I told myself. “Let’s not compound what you have already done with more bloodshed.” I was moving, carefully, until I felt the plywood against my back and I couldn’t get any farther. I rose slowly to my feet, still keeping my hands in the air. “Now, you claim to be his daughter. That might even buy you some credit with the jury.”
“I claim nothing! This is just how it happens. Except this one was quite the screw-up, wasn’t he? First he had a daughter, instead of the son he needed to continue his myth. Then the financial catastrophe he got himself involved in. After my mother died he came back again, to see if he could fix his mistake. Again and again. Until this morning. And that’s when I made sure it was really going to be the last time. Happy now?”
Her finger tensed on the trigger, and I moved fast. Right where my head had been the plywood board exploded in dust and splinters. She was a bad shot, she had killed her father at point-blank. The second shot took off the lightbulb, and shivers of glass rained everywhere. The child was screaming at the top of his lungs. I had to stop her now, before she could reload. I dived in the direction where she had been, and felt the hard kick of the rifle’s butt straight in my face. My upper lip split and a good amount of cartilage was displaced in my nose. I fell back, blood rushing down my throat, making me cough. The only light in the room now came from the pellet holes. That’s when I knew exactly how a starry night in hell would feel.
She moved out of her nook, walking on her knees, incredibly fast. Skirt draped around her, she looked like a giant insect with a deadly sting. Moving, not breathing, not fast enough, I got up on my knees and went for her again, feinted to the left to avoid being socked, tried for the shotgun. I grabbed it, my left hand burning on the barrel but I didn’t let go.
We struggled for a while, I was breathing hard from my mouth, my nose leaking a bloody waterfall. I pulled: big mistake. She pushed in the same direction. The battered plywood behind me went in pieces, as we fell through on the unfinished deck. I hit the planks with my head, and she was on me, I felt her knee sinking in the solar plexus and I almost went out for good. I couldn’t recover my breath, and she was pressing the hot barrel of the shotgun on my throat. Sunlight felt dimmer and dimmer, her wild grunts echoed liquid in my head. I gathered all the strength I had left and pushed with my legs, felt the termite-infested boards cracking. And suddenly, I was free, light, floating in the air, falling. I closed my eyes anticipating the impact on the cold concrete and the darkness that would follow. Instead it was a cold splash that woke up every last bit of me, and the feeling of sinking in liquid shit. I felt stuff floating around me in the near darkness, and for a few seconds I lost sense any of direction. Then I touched the hard bottom with my hands. My eyes stung when I opened them, the sun was but a faint disk of light in a thick greenish-brown haze. The pool, we had fallen in the deep end of the pool.
There was something here, something I nearly missed diving through the water. A large structure. A wooden sled. That’s how she got rid of it. I swam towards it grabbed something to pull myself up, the leather reins, cut sharply. She probably let the reindeer go back to Lapland or wherever they were from. And all around me, a dark red cloud was spreading. I swam through it, towards the faint light above. I found Corinna’s body close to the surface, folded in two, a rod had gone through her abdomen and protruded, bloody from her back. She had impaled herself on the metal railing of the sled. I had no time to check on her, my chest felt like it was about to implode, and I resurfaced. I coughed out a lung holding on to the edge of the pool.
I sensed him before I saw him, or perhaps I smelled him first. Shiiit, that had to be one dirty diaper.
He looked down at me with those big blue eyes, the curly blond hair.
“Mommy?” he asked, worried.
He could barely stand up, how the heck did he get down there without killing himself on the ladder? He obviously had some innate talent for that kind of stunt.
I coughed some more, caught my breath, tried my best. “Mommy is gone... for a while... Nicholas. Can I call you Nick?”
He could not reply, of course, just stared at me while I tried to pull myself up from the murky waters. I thought about stopping at the drugstore, on the way home, I definitely had to pick up some diapers. And what did they even eat when they were that age? It had been so long I hardly even remembered. I thought I’d get some milk. Milk and cookies.
He was bound to like that.
This story is a part of the Spec the Halls contest for speculative winter holiday-themed fiction, artwork, and poetry. You may find guidelines and links to other entries at http://www.aswiebe.com/specthehalls.html