The hallway is like maze, a new door every five feet or so, and it seems to go on forever, but he never even pauses as he walks: left, right, left, straight, another right. He moves with determination, with purpose. It’s too late in the year to dilly dally, and there is too much on the line.
“Where we at?” He asks. He doesn’t aim the question at anyone in specific—he knows that someone who knows will answer. He’s a big man, in more ways than one. His presence is almost a solid thing, and his character, his personality can either lift you up higher than you ever imagined, or crush you down lower than you ever knew possible.
“Production, equipment, all of that’s fine. We’ve got supplies, rendezvous points, it’s all taken care of.”
“Excellent.” Still walking, striding, burning through the halls, a man on a mission.
“There’s just one thing.” The big man glances down, saying nothing, never breaking stride, waiting to find out what this “one thing” is, but not waiting patiently. “It’s the, ah, the faction”
It isn’t anger, really, it’s just very intense frustration. He doesn’t get angry, but you don’t want to cross him. Finally, he says, “I thought you said it was taken care of.”
“It was.” That look, burning upon all those around him, shaming them, scaring them. “Well, we, uh…we thought it was.”
“What’s the problem?”
“In short? They’re still out there.”
He stops walking, suddenly, and although no one crashes into him, or into each other, the scene would still look blatantly comical to an outsider. No one in the hall feels anything close to humor. It’s deadly serious business right now, the fun and games are for later. If things don’t go well, the fun and games will be much, much later.
“What kind of forces are we talking about?”
“Not much, really, but any resistance is too much.”
“Cut the shit, Bert. What kind of trouble am I lookin’ at?”
“Riley took about twenty guys with him, and we’ve lost another sixteen since then. They’re mostly old-timers and newbies, it shouldn’t be that much of a problem, but they know your route, your schedule, and every detail about your trip. They’ve had access to very delicate information.”
“What ‘delicate information?’”
“All of it.”
He stands silently, thinking things over. Everyone else in the hall stays silent, not even daring to breathe. “Why didn’t we see this coming?”
“Honestly? It just never occurred to us.”
Walking again. “Keep a tight perimeter around this place. I don’t want anyone coming in.”
“What about out?”
“I’m not a dictator—anyone can leave. Just let it be known that they will not be coming back. As for the others, we’ll let them be, if they’ll let us be. Perhaps this whole thing has just been blown out of proportion. But if they cross me, I’m not going to hesitate, Bert. Riley’s your brother, and you’re my best friend. But if he comes for me, I’m sending him back to you in a body bag.”
“’Tis the season.”
“Yeah, it is—and I’m jolly as fuck, until you start gummin’ up my shit.”
He opens the last door and walks into the stable. Bert stops, double and triple checking the list, making sure that everything is perfect—this year will be hard enough without clerical errors. He hears the man talking, “Watch yourself tonight, Rudolf—they’ll go for you first, seein’ as how you’re the most obvious.”
His name is Riley Winters, but most everyone calls him Bean. It’s a nickname he has hated from the beginning, but that fat bastard was the one that gave it to him, so of course it stuck. He’s hated the big man for a long time, but he never actually planned on going AWOL. In all honesty, this little insurrection just sort of happened. He got pissed off, and didn’t mind telling anyone around all about it. Come to find out, there were some others that were unhappy, too, and Bean discovered he had the charisma to nurture “unhappy” to “pissed enough to split.”
One thing led to another, and here they were. He lights up a cigarette and sits down on the edge of his bed. Smoking was strictly prohibited at the Pole, and Riley can see why—anything this cool has got to be against the rules. Smoking is only one of the few joys he has discovered since “relocating” to NYC.
He pulls the list out of his pocket, scans down until he finds the name he’s looking for, and dials the phone number. Santa doesn’t just know if you’ve been naughty or nice—he knows where you live, what your phone number is, and all of your e-mail addresses. And that’s just to start.
“Hey, is this Kara? Yeah, It’s Riley—we spoke yesterday? Yeah, I’m still down for it. Do I bring the cucumbers, or do you have some?”
He’s basically flying blind. Not literally, of course—Rudolf’s got his nose so bright, which means no problem leading the sleigh tonight. But he’s going without his list, which is a first. He’s been doing this for a while, though, and his memory is amazing, so he doesn’t figure on it being much of a problem. It’s the principle of the thing, though.
“When people have an entire song made up about how you have your list, you should probably have a freakin’ list,” he mumbles. Blitzen turns and looks at him questioningly. “Nothin’. Just keep your eyes on the road.” Blitzen rolls his eyes, and Donner laughs. This is an old joke between the three of them, because the only thing that Donner and Blitzen can see are the asses of Comet and Cupid.
That little bastard Bean. Lazy little shit. Eight months out of the years, the elves don’t have to do jack. All he asks for is four months of work, and he thinks that that’s very reasonable, especially considering the kind of pay most of the elves are bringin’ in. Sure, it’s hard work. And sure he’s right there, making sure that nothing gets effed up—that’s his job.
And their jobs are to come in and make toys for all the good little girls and boys. Simple, right?
But not for Bean. Oh, no. he has to throw a fit, talking about how he’s been passed over for promotion ten years and running. Never mind that he shows up drunk most of the time, reeking of cheap booze and cheaper penguins. Never mind that the guy would have been fired from any other job out there—mythical or not—years ago. Never mind that he got caught embezzling. The only reason he didn’t get tossed out on his ass that time was because he was Bert’s brother. Bert never asked for the favor, but you could tell he really wanted it. And contrary to what that son of a bitch Bean says, the big man is all about helping out his employees.
And then the little creep has the gumption to try to form some sort of a picket line, protesting his demotion. Gathered up a few of his beer buddies, and they’re out there with signs, raising shit in the middle of an ice storm.
Last straw, bucko.
Santa had calmly walked to the factory doors, flipped them all the bird, and locked the doors. And that was the end of Bean…or so he had hoped.
But nope. The little shit popped up again a couple weeks later, e-mailing all the other elves some distorted story about how Santa was out to ruin him because he was getting close to retirement. How it was easier to just force someone to quit rather than pay them their rightful benefits, blah blah blah.
Most of the elves knew this for the complete bullshit it was, but some of the newer guys began the protest anew. So long, suckers—don’t let the candy cane door hit your ass on the way out.
And that handled the problem, right? Wrong. Seemed like it at first, but then about a weeks ago, the letters started showing up.
Threatening letters, talking about how there was no way that the fat man was going to make it through the Eve. Letters filled with curses and pictures of the reindeers’ families. A receipt, all alone in the envelop, for thirty long-distance marksman rifles, equipped with laser scopes. Draw your own conclusions.
“Do you think it’s such a good idea, you going out?” Bert had asked, shortly before takeoff.
“Do you know what would happen if the children didn’t get their presents?” It was a rhetorical question—they had all seen the tapes as part of the hiring process. Without rewards for being good, humanity wasn’t really worth a shit—as demonstrated in the movie. Every year, there’s at least three of the new-hires that run out of the film room, vomiting into their hands.
“I’m not saying that we don’t deliver the presents. I’m just saying maybe someone else should go. This is why we have back-up plans.”
“First of all, this is not why we have back-up plans. We have back-up plans in case I die of natural causes, not in case some little shit monger decides he wants to throw a fit and toss his balls around.
“Second of all, none of the replacements are ready. You still have the best record, right? And you run at forty-two point eight. That’s too may hours, Bert. Don’t get me wrong—that’s an incredible time. But it’s not good enough for the real deal, and you know it.”
“All seven of us replacements could go—separate teams, using our own deer. We could knock it out, Boss.”
“I’m going, Bert, and that’s final. Don’t you worry about me—I wasn’t always a jolly fat man, you know.”
Bert raised his eyebrows in question, but Santa had just smiled and climbed into his sleigh.
Now, thousands of feet above the world, he started wondering if this had been the best decision. How many stops tonight? He wasn’t sure of the exact number—numbers never did much for him—but he knew it was a couple billion, at least. And any one of those stops could be an attempt on his life.
He smiled to himself. Just like the good ole days…
Riley is cracking eggs into the pan when she comes up behind him and kisses him on the neck.
“That was amazing,” she says.
“”It sure was.” He smiles up at her, flips the eggs in the skillet. He can’t remember her name. He has worked his way down to the N’s, though, so it’s probably Nancy or Nina or something. He waits until she gets into the shower, then he dumps the eggs into the trash, cleans out her wallet, and leaves the apartment.
It’s time, which is almost too bad. When he first left the North Pole, he couldn’t wait for The Eve. He couldn’t wait for vengeance. But he’s having fun now, and he doesn’t want to stop.
Oh, well—he’ll still have the list after business was taken care, and then he won’t even have to worry about the consequences. And besides, once he starts thinking about the business that needs to be taken care of, he realizes that it’s almost as exciting as what he has been doing for the past few days.
He walks under the subway turnstile without being noticed and reaches the platform just as his train pulls up. It’s nice being a magical elf in the city. People can’t see him unless they know what they’re looking for, or unless he wants them to, which is convenient on so many levels that it’s unreal.
He dodges through the moving forest of legs, not waiting for passengers to unload, and finds a seat. Even though the people don’t see him, they won’t attempt to sit down. He doesn’t understand why this is, and he doesn’t care. All he knows is, it allows him to sleep until he reaches his destination. He leans back, closes his eyes, and dozes off.
It’s been three hours, and not a peep. In fact, he’s actually breaking his own record tonight—probably due to the adrenaline. His eyes are already getting tired, though, from scanning the night for any sign of trouble. He’s not as young as he used to be, that’s for sure.
He gives the reins a tiny flick—imperceptible to anyone or anything except the reindeer—and begins his next decent. The animals are tense tonight, too, and he knows that it’s going to be a long night for everyone. He thinks again about Bert’s offer to take his place, and decides that if all of this nasty business gets handled this year, he might pass on the mantle next season. Maybe he really is getting too old for this shit.
Not this year, though: he could never forgive himself if one of the elder elves was hurt or killed in an act of violence that was supposed to be aimed at him.
The reindeer drop to hovering altitude—about thirty feet, and he bails out of the sleigh, trailing a rope behind him. He lets go of the rope about halfway down—it’s just for getting back into the sled—and pushes it far enough away so that he won’t get tangled up in it.
Contrary to popular belief, he doesn’t park on the roof. He smiles to himself, thinking about the noise caused by thirty-six hooves and a giant sleigh touching down on a roof. Santa or not, that shit be noisy.
He hits the street rolling, and is up and running across the first lawn in a flash. He doesn’t leave even a single mark in the snow, and he has the lock picked in a fraction of a second. The alarm is no problem, and he’s in and out in a matter of seconds. In and out, in and out, in and out—the entire town has been be-gifted within minutes. The reindeer are waiting at the designated spot, the rope hanging down just within reach. He dives for it just as they take off, scrambling up as they fly.
He looks at his watch when he’s seated comfortably in the sleigh—still ahead of schedule.
Maybe he isn’t too old for this shit, after all.
“You all know why we’re here,” Riley says. He’s pacing back and forth in front of them, smoking a cigar. The cigar looks gigantic in his little hand, and he wonders for a second if it makes him seem less commanding. He didn’t think about it when he stuck the damn thing in his mouth, but the last thing he needs at this point is a bunch of elves trying to control their laughter. He puts his hands behind his back while he paces in front of them, hiding the cigar for the moment.
The warehouse is massive, much bigger than he really needed, but it just feels right to be conducting this kind of business in a warehouse. The entire place is dark, except for the oasis of light cast by the hanging bulb above them: a circle of about twenty feet in diameter. They’re standing in a line in front of him, a small army made up smaller “men.” He tosses the cigar to the ground, steps on it, and stares at them.
“We’ve had a good time these last few weeks. Living life like we’ve never been able to, it’s been a good time, right?” Most of them just stare at him. A few of them nod. No one smiles, though. Not tonight. Tonight is serious business, and there isn’t any room for smiling.
“This fun, these good times, could all end…unless we end it first. I’ve picked New York because this is the most difficult city on his route. People packed and stacked, he’s got to cover so much in so little time, and there are shadows all over this city. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy—the old bastard’s quick as shit, and tough as nails—but this is our best bet. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think we could pull it off. I would have gone underground, lived out the rest of my life hoping that he never decided to come get me.”
He pauses in his speech, stops pacing, and eyes each of them carefully. “It’s going to be dangerous, and I’ll be surprised if we all make it out alive. But we can pull it off. Anyone scared to go through with it, you let me know right now. I don’t want to get out there, be counting on you, and realize that you’ve high-tailed it.”
No one moves, and Riley is kind of proud of them. Most of this is just bullshit—they’ll probably all get killed. It’s all part of his plan. Too bad, but you don’t take on the big man. You just don’t.
“Okay. Let’s saddle up.”
He leads them over to a large wooden crate and kicks the top off of it. He reaches in and hands each of them a back pack full of video and audio equipment as they file by. “Keep these packs with you at all times. The only thing we’ll need out of them right now are the headsets, in order to keep up communications. The rest of this gear is for Plan B.”
“You still haven’t told us about Plan B,” one of the elves says.
“No, Marco, I haven’t. And I’m not going to. If this plan doesn’t go as expected, the survivors will have to go underground. I’ve done my best to make sure that we’ll still be able to live in relative comfort. That’s why you’ll need your packs, and that’s why you’ll need the headsets.” He opens a demonstration pack and pulls out the headset to show them. “I’m not telling you what the Plan B is because if anyone gets captured, I don’t want them screwing it up for the rest of us.”
“What if you get captured?”
Bert stares at Marco. It’s a hard stare, he can tell, because Marco withers immediately. “I won’t get captured,” Riley says. He spares another few seconds on Marco, then pulls a small plastic box out of the demo pack and holds it up. “Which brings me to my next point.”
He pops open the box and takes out the pill inside. “Cyanide. If it seems a little too extreme, it’s because you have no idea how serious this whole thing is.” But they all know. “If you get captured, feel free to chomp down on this little bad boy. I’m not going to order you to, because I don’t care if you do it or not. These things are for your benefit only. Like I said, I’m not getting captured. No one’s ever tried this shit before, so no one knows how the big man is going to react if he catches us, but you can be sure it won’t be pleasant. Remember that business with the Tooth Fairy?”
“There’s also a grappling hook in here, some smoke canisters, and some various components that will only come into effect in case of Plan B. Any questions?” He looks back at Marco, but Marco has no questions.
“Good. Follow me.” He leads them over to the weapons rack. There’s all kinds of hardware for them to pick from, but it’s all been miniaturized to fit in their tiny hands. It set Riley back hundreds of thousands of dollars to get this stuff, but if things go well, it will all be worth it. “Pick what you want. Uzi’s, M-16’s, pistols, swords, knives, whatever. I want you well-equipped, but I want you mobile, as well. The success of this plan depends on both of those things.”
He waits for them to equip themselves. The only noises in the warehouse are the various clicks and snaps of weapons, and an occasional grunt as one is lifted. When they’re ready, he steps to them.
“All right—let’s go over the plan one more time.”
His night has been going better than ever, but for the past hour or so, he has felt his stomach tightening with apprehension. His skin feeling tighter. The hair on the back of his neck standing on end. Bad things are coming—he had been a fool to hope that this thing would blow over.
They’re flying low now—only about two feet above the water. This city has never been an easy one to approach on a flying sled, but after the events of 9/11, it’s become next to impossible. Ellis Island speeds by, and he grabs his bag.
This is the second year he’s tried approaching this side, and although it hurts like a bitch, it’s not as bad as coming in from the other way. He drops out of the sleigh, which is traveling approximately eighty miles per hour. He hits the water hard, skims across the top for several feet, and finally sinks down into it.
Four minutes later, he’s pulling himself up the bank, cursing and sore, but basically okay. He takes just a second to shake the water out of his ears, and then he’s gone.
They’re all in position. He has put a stop to radio communication, and it’s all about waiting, now. The plan, as they all know it, is this:
Santa brings his fat ass through this alley, going to the rat-hole apartment at the end. Right before he gets there, they open fire. Riley had thought about waiting until the old bastard had dropped off his goods, but decided that he might smell a trap and bolt through the back. Of course, this place doesn’t have a back way, which is one of the many reasons that it’s the perfect place for an ambush, but you can never be too sure, you know? There’s no telling what cards the old guy might have up his sleeve.
Riley’s men are positioned at various parts of the buildings that make up the alley, staggered on the first three floors so as to not chop each other down in crossfire. A final unit will creep into the mouth of the alley once Santa’s in place, sealing it off.
There’s always the chance that he’ll bolt into the apartment, but Riley doesn’t think so—it’s not like him to risk the lives of children to save his own ass. Just in case, though, there are two more elves waiting just inside the front door.
They whack him out, and then they move on to live out their lives as happy little elves.
That’s the plan as they know it. What none of them know is that it will be a cold day in hell before a plan like this works. Riley has seen the big guy in action, and as much as he hates the old fuck, he has to admit that the man can move. Highly-skilled military men wouldn’t have a chance of hitting him, much less a bunch of elves that just learned how to use the weapons. And it would take a group twice this number falling in on him all at the same time to even make him work up a sweat.
They don’t have a chance.
Riley looks at the detonator button in his hand. What none of the others know is that this isn’t about them going off and living the good life. This is about taking out The Man. Each backpack is lined C-4. The explosive is sewn between the cloth layers, and although it’s not super-hidden, it looks good enough that none of them have noticed. When making his purchase, Riley had been assured that he had more than enough fire power to level a city block. Which is pretty much what he’s aiming for. Anything short of that, and that bastard Santa would have a chance of making it out alive.
“Got ‘im.” It’s Marko. He’s at the top of the alley, and is the only one permitted to break radio silence. And he is only allowed to say the two words that he has just whispered.
Riley looks down from the roof of the building with his night vision binoculars, and sees a blur. It takes him a moment to catch back up, and he sees Santa moving down the alley. And then he suddenly stops running. Looks up. Directly into Riley’s eyes.
There is fire in his eyes, rage, hatred. Riley almost freezes.
“Move in,” he says, and gunfire erupts. Half a second later, Riley pushes the red button on the detonator, and the world explodes.
The feeling in his stomach has gotten worse, and he knows that whatever’s going to happen is going to happen soon. This burg is full of perfect attack spots, but he can’t just hang around checking every corner before stepping around it. This is the city that pretty much makes or breaks his schedule—you get through this one on time, it’s all downhill. He dives across the street, undetected by any human eyes, and runs down the alley. That’s when he hears it. “Got ‘im.” He hears it from the elf behind him, as well as the earpiece. The elf is closer, btu where is the earpiece? He stops, turns, and scans. He sees Riley, standing on top of a building, a good two blocks away.
“Chicken shit,” he says, and then the world explodes.
He stakes out the area for a full two weeks, through all of the emergency teams, investigative teams, reporters, and tourists. Nothing is discovered, of course—that was part of the plan, too. Enough explosives to wipe out all traces of anything. In the end, the officials decide that it must have been a broken main that had filled one of the abandoned buildings in the area entirely with gas.
Riley doesn’t care about that, though. It’s not like they would ever suspect that one of Santa’s elves had gone on a rampage on Christmas Eve. What he’s waiting for is to see if anything comes out of the wreckage.
He has packed enough food so that he never takes his eyes off of the area, and he has enough high-tech equipment to track any movement at all, even from a mile away, which is where he ass is parked. He watches computer and video screens all day every day, monitoring every sound, every movement. Anything that could be a jolly old fat man creeping back into the world.
After two weeks, Riley abandons his hideout. He burns the place to the ground.
He stops by one more abandoned building, this time to gather up his new life. None of the others were supposed to live through Christmas, but he sure as hell was. What’s the point, if you’re just gonna die?
He loads up two suitcases—one that’s full of clothes and one that’s full of gold pieces—and hails a cab.
“Did you really think I wouldn’t know?”
Riley smiles into the mirror. Behind him, there is nothing but darkness, and yet that’s where the voice is coming from.
It’s been six months. Long enough for him to think he got away with it, long enough for him to get paranoid about it all over, and long enough for him to think he got away with it again. He’s been moving from one tropical island to another—every three weeks or so, he takes off. All part of the master plan.
“Obviously I thought you wouldn’t know—otherwise I wouldn’t have even tried it.”
Riley stares into the mirror, hoping to at least see a bit of movement. Home-free or not, he was still practicing down at the firing range every day, and he was still perfecting his quick-draw. Just a bit of movement to give away the location, that’s all he needs.
A shadow steps out of the shadow, right beside him. ‘Don’t try it, Riley.”
Riley’s hand is whipping out the pistol in a flash, and he’s squeezing the trigger before he realizes that he no longer has a hand. He hears the clatter of the gun on the tile floor. The thump of flesh shortly after that seems dull in comparison. He looks down at his amputated hand, and fights the urge to vomit.
He has another pistol, but he doesn’t really feel like slapping leather at this point—something about seeing your good hand flapping around on the floor can really take the gunfighter out of you.
Instead, he turns to face the shadow that just cut him. He recognizes the voice, but not the figure. “Looks like you lost some weight.”
He is no longer a jolly fat man. Instead, he is trim, buff, and angry. Gone is the red suite. Instead, there is only the black jumper that covers him from head to toe.
“Looks like you gained some,” the shadow says.
“Yeah, living the good life, I don’t have to tell you.”
“No you don’t. You’re right—I was living the good life, too. I got spoiled.”
“Well, then, I guess this worked out best for everyone.” Riley’s trying for an air of indifference, hoping to come off carefree, maybe innocence. “You learned your lesson, I’ve learned mine—now we can go our separate ways.”
“Not that easy, Riley. You killed that family, and you killed those elves.”
He’s not getting out of this, he knows it right then. No more words. Riley dives away, drawing as he does it, hoping to get off at least a couple of shots. He knows he can’t kill the old man, but is it too much to ask that he at least wing him?
He lands on the motel floor gracelessly; his gun is lying five feet away, still nestled in his belt, still with his hand wrapped around the handle.
He looks down and sees that he is only a torso at this point.
“You know, I always heard rumors about where you came from, but I never believed them. Who ever heard of a ninja getting fat?”
The shadow pulls off its mask. His face is a scarred mess. “Like I said—I got spoiled. Thanks to you, I realize my mistake.”
“Thanks to me? You sure got a funny way of expressing gratitude.”
He pulls the mask back over his head, but his eyes are still blazing. With rage, with justice, whatever. It doesn’t matter now.
Riley closes his eyes as the sword descends.