The holiday season is upon us, which means this is my last post of the calendar year. It’s been a pleasure blogging alongside the fine folks of Maine Crime Writers – and I’d like to thank our regular readers for sitting shotgun on THE KILLING KIND’s path to publication. It’s been a wild ride, and one that shows no sign of slowing down; I’m delighted to report that last week the Boston Globe declared it one of the Best Books of 2015! (Come to think of it, THE KILLING KIND would make a fine gift for the thriller fan in your life. Just sayin’.)
I thought I’d leave you with a Christmas story I wrote a few years ago. It’s a fun little elf noir that serves as a sequel of sorts to the Rankin/Bass production of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I hope you enjoy it, and that whatever you and yours celebrate this holiday season, your days are merry and bright. See you all in 2016!
The Final Bough
Hastily Penned by Chris Holm in a Crass Attempt to Exploit the Spirit of the Holidays
I woke to the sound of slay bells.
Not that I recognized them as such at first. It’d been some time since I last heard them. During the Cabbage Patch Riots of ’83, that was. Management worked my fellow elves to the bone that year, trying to keep up with demand, and when the union finally struck, they sent a cadre of their Rock ’Em Sock ’Em ruffians to bust up the picket line. Me and the rest of the North Pole PD did our best to keep the violence from bubbling over, but our best wasn’t good enough. Ever since that day, I’ve walked with the help of a candy cane – and believe me, I was one of the lucky ones. Lots of pointy-toed shoes aimed skyward once the snow settled that day, and the bells chimed clear through to midnight, honoring the fallen.
Don’t let the red suit fool you – El Hefe’s no friend to the working elf.
Anyways, when I woke, I just assumed the godawful ringing was in my head – I’d hit the nog pretty hard the night before. Which explains how I wound up coming to in someone else’s bed.
She was a short drink of water, with a pair of getaway sticks that went most of the way to the floor. She sat beside me in the bed, wearing a saucy flannel nightgown and matching sleeping cap, her pointy ears jutting fetchingly out to either side. Not bad, I thought to myself. Now if only I could remember her name.
“I thought you said you were a cop,” she said, plucking a lollipop from a silver case and placing it between her luscious lips. “Some kind of big-wig detective, to hear you tell it.”
“I did?” I asked, rubbing sleep out of my eyes and trying in vain to remember anything of the night before. “I mean, I am!”
“Then shouldn’t you be going? Sounds like you’ve got a case.”
Damn. The dame was right. The slay bells meant one of our kind had been killed.
“Yeah,” I said, grabbing my pants, and my pointy blue police cap, its copper bell jingling. “Uh, listen – I had a great time last night…”
“Sure you did,” she said, flashing me a dazzling set of teeth – a rarity among elves. Our diet’s nothing but candy and Christmas cookies all year ’round – and it ain’t like working for Big Red comes with dental. My own teeth were pitted and scarred and too long past their last brushing, and felt fuzzy from sleep and candy both. “Of course, you passed out before anything happened. Drunk as you were, I’d be surprised if you even remember my name.”
Shit. She had me. Best to bluff. “Of course I do, sugarplum,” I said, pulling on my shoes and making for the door, beside which rested my trusty cane, “but if I told you what it was now, you’d just feel bad for trying to guilt me. Now if you’ll excuse me…”
I pushed open the door of her modest hut, and stepped out into the bitter cold. My bum hip and nogged brain throbbed in time. As the door swung closed behind me, she called to me, “It’s Holly.”
Christmas lights flashed blue and red across the crime scene; looked like my boys had beaten me here. They’d roped off the scene with crime garland, and it was a good thing; it had already attracted its share of looky loos – elves and toys both. Made sense: it was Christmas morning, so folks didn’t exactly have much else to do. Least the reindeer weren’t awake yet; all those hoof-prints can be murder on a crime scene.
I lifted up the garland and stepped under, snow crunching underfoot. “Whadda we got, Mel?”
“A damn mess,” Mel replied, his face grave. “Looks like an Abominable attack. Nothing even left to bury.”
He wasn’t kidding. The snow was a churned up mess of Abominable tracks, broken tree limbs, tufts of fur – all bright red with spattered blood. Soon as I saw it, I knew I’d never look at a Cherry Snow Cone the same again.
“Any witnesses?” I asked.
Mel nodded toward a cute little number perched atop a Yule log at the edge of the scene. “The victim’s little lady. Claims she saw the whole thing. Want me to take her statement?”
“Nah – I’ll talk to her.”
I hobbled over to where she sat. She looked up as I approached, tears brimming in her bright blue eyes.
“Hiya, dollface,” I said. It wasn’t a term of endearment – she was a doll. Eleven inches tall, with big doe eyes, a fake-looking rack, and synthetic hair of platinum blonde. “You got a name?”
“Mitzie,” she replied.
“No kidding?” I said, eyeing the sleek, expensive lines of her designer skiwear, which clung tight to her preposterous curves. “You look more like a Barbie to me.”
She looked down, her face reddening. “I’m off-brand,” she said.
Ah. Explained the tacky makeup.
“You wanna tell me what you saw?”
Her head bobbed. “It was horrible. My poor Hermey and I were out for a walk, when the Abominable just came out of nowhere! He scooped up Hermey, and ate him in one bite. Would have eaten me too, I think, if I weren’t indigestible.”
I made appropriate noises of sympathy, asked some follow-ups, took some notes. It was odd – her affection for the deceased seemed genuine enough, but something about her story just didn’t ring true. Of course, that coulda been because the dame was made of molded plastic.
In the end, I thanked her for her time, and had one of my officers take her home.
Once I left the scene, I headed over to Santa’s shop to let Hermey’s supervisor know he’d punched out for the last time. It was SOP in all cases involving elf injury or death. The big day had come and gone, so the factory floor was quiet – left mostly to the janitorial staff, though a few mechanics fussed over one of the robotic assembly arms at the far end of the room. Time was, my people were known for their woodworking skills, their exquisite craftsmanship, but those days are long gone. What kid still wants a hand-tooled rocking horse in the age of X-Box 360s? So we adapted. Went high tech. Cranked out console after console all year long, and the games to match. You wouldn’t believe how much Gates and company gouge us on the licensing fees.
Hermey’s supervisor was a barrel-chested elf with bushy eyebrows that looked as though they were always set to angry, and a severe, triangular goatee to match. A fat cinnamon stick dangled unlit from his mouth, though his snow-white teeth didn’t show any sign of stains. I was glad it wasn’t lit. Smoking’s such a filthy habit. Though I will admit that on occasion, I enjoy a pinch of nutmeg between cheek and gum.
“What can you tell me about the victim?” I asked him, after filling him in on Hermey’s sorry state.
“I can tell you he wasn’t much of a toymaker,” he said. “No aptitude for it – and no desire to learn. Why, just two months back, I moved him to Decorations and Accessories because he couldn’t assemble a motherboard worth a damn, though truth be told, he was no better at making wreaths.”
“You know anybody who might’ve wanted to hurt him?”
The elf’s eyes narrowed in suspicion – though I thought I might’ve caught a hint of panic in that look as well. “I thought you said his death was an accident,” he said.
“I said it appeared to be. But I’m required to look into every angle.”
“Ah,” he said, his face brightening in false cheer. “No angles here! Truth is, I didn’t know the boy too well. You’d be better off talking to his friends.”
Something about this case just didn’t sit right, like fruitcake in July. But it was clear I wasn’t going to find any answers here. “You got any names?” I asked him.
“Well,” he said, “he was always blabbing on about some reindeer by the name of Rudolph.”
“Look,” Rudolph said, “I told you, me and Hermey were tight and all, but I don’t know nothing about what happened to him. The way I heard it, it was an Abominable attack, pure and simple. So why you gotta come around and bother me so early? Been kind of a long night, you know?”
The reindeer was three sheets to the wind, the breath pushing past his pearly whites damn near flammable with peppermint schnapps fumes, and his nose so red from drink it glowed. Odd seeing teeth so nice on anyone who made their home at the North Pole, let alone three someones in one day. But if there was any rhyme or reason to the impeccable choppers I’d seen today, it was eluding me. Just like whatever it was that was hinky about this case.
“Look, I understand this isn’t the best time, but I’m concerned there may be more to this case than there seems. If there’s anything you can tell me about Hermey that might help my investigation, I’d appreciate it.”
“What’s there to say?” he said, either drunkenly belligerent or defensive, I didn’t know which. “Hermey was a good friend, and now he’s gone. Maybe you should be talking to his wife.”
“I already spoke to Mitzie,” I said.
Rudolph laughed. “Mitzie? Mitzie ain’t his wife. Hermey took up with Mitzie a few weeks back, lavishing her with Corvettes, condos, and clothes from the toy shop – and not those knock-off ones either, but the real Barbie deal. I told him he was nuts – he had a fine looking lady-elf at home, after all, and cute as Mitzie was, she wasn’t nothing but smooth plastic under them fancy clothes. But Hermey wouldn’t hear none of it. Guess he was smitten. Word is, his missus took it pretty hard.”
“Hard enough to want to hurt him?”
Rudolph shrugged, inasmuch as any reindeer can. “Why don’t you go ask her yourself?”
“I think I will,” I said. “His little lady got a name?”
“Sure,” slurred the reindeer. “Her name is Holly.”
Holly didn’t look too happy to see me again. Can’t say I was surprised. She also didn’t look too broken up when I told her Hermey was dead, and that did surprise me some. In fact, in any other case, it would’ve been cause for suspicion – but then, I knew she didn’t off the guy, since according to Mitzie’s report, Holly and I’d been tossing back some nogs at the time of the attack. But maybe she, I don’t know, bribed the Abominable or something. Stranger things have happened, I thought – though truth be told, that wasn’t true. Abominable snowmen may be a lot of things, but they ain’t the bribe-taking type.
“Listen, Holly,” I said, “I have to ask: did you have anything to do with your husband’s disappearance?”
“Of course not!” she said, and managed to look suitably horrified at the question. “What kind of awful person do you take me for?”
“The kind who picks up strangers in nog-joints on Christmas Eve and neglects to mention you’re a kept elf, for one.”
But Holly just laughed. “You’ve got me all wrong, detective. And you’ve got Hermey all wrong, too. Our relationship’s not like that. See, Hermey isn’t into me – not like that. His interests lie… elsewhere.”
“Elsewhere?” I asked. “You mean…”
“Dentistry,” she said. “It’s been his dream since childhood to be a dentist. When we first met, he said I had the worst teeth he’d ever seen. You should have heard him – he sounded like a love-struck fool. Back then, there wasn’t an elf would give me the time of day on account of the bad breath my periodontal disease gave me, so me and Hermey, we decided to make it official. He figured it would give him the opportunity to practice in peace, and in return, I got all my dental work for free. And now look at me,” she said, flashing me another of her dazzling smiles.
The glimmer of an idea formed somewhere in my mind, like tinsel on a distant tree. But whole pieces of the puzzle didn’t fit, which meant someone I’d talked to today was lying to me. It was time to shake the box, see what was rattling around inside. “Rudolph tells a different tale,” I said. “He claims you’re the jealous type. That maybe you had an axe to grind.”
“The only one of us with an axe to grind is Rudolph – and it’s with me, not Hermey. He’s been sore ever since last New Year’s, when he made a pass at me and I turned him down. Those fly-boys think they’re Santa’s gift to women, but if you ask me, there’s more to romance than some swagger and a giant pair of antlers. I’m sure he thought it was pretty funny, sending you here to harass me – and anyways, he was probably just deflecting, so you’d stop asking him where Hermey is.”
At that last, pieces began to click into place. Not enough to tell the tale, but an outline was taking shape, like I’d found the corners of the puzzle.
“You talk about him like he’s still around, I said. “Hermey isn’t into you. That his interests lie elsewhere. I’d stop asking where Hermey is. What do you know that I don’t?”
Holly blinked at me a moment, panic written across her face. “Nothing!” she said. “Honest, I don’t.”
I don’t know why, but I believed her. She had that kind of face. Trusting. Sweet. The kind of face an elf could get used to coming home to. “But you suspect something.”
“Yes. No. I don’t know. It’s just…”
“What is it?” I prompted. “You can tell me.”
“That chippie of his,” she said. “The one with the nice skin and the fake boobs. She’s not his type. Her teeth are plastic and flawless, and the rest of her, he wouldn’t care about. So if I were you, I’d be wondering why, exactly, he took up with her.”
I had to give it to Holly. Without her, I never woulda cracked the case.
Summer in Nyack was warmer than I expected. Even in August, the North Pole barely gets above freezing, and whenever it does, it’s nothing but shorts, swimming, and AC for me. I ain’t cut out for any climate where the mercury climbs more than halfway up the thermometer. Even the relative cool of this waiting room was making me sweat.
It’d been some months since I put it all together – since I’d answered every question but one. But that one question kept on bugging me, so I bit the flame-orange Nerf foam bullet, filled out an off-season sleigh requisition, and made my way here. To find Hermey. To get my answer.
The bored, matronly human behind the front desk called, “Next.” I was the only patient in the waiting room, so I hopped down off my chair, and hobbled caneless toward the door she indicated. I felt ridiculous in my street clothes. My T-shirt and Bermuda shorts had been made for a child, the latter with a spot inside the waistband to write my name and address, and the former emblazoned with some kind of anthropomorphic sea sponge. My shoes and hat were literally pointless, instead rounded at toes and tip, respectively. But if the lady who called me in noticed anything out of place about my height or garish outfit, she didn’t show it. Which was all the confirmation I needed I was in the right place.
The place in question was the dental practice of one Dr. Herman Tannenbaum, opened six months back. I was willing to bet Dr. Tannenbaum bore more than a passing resemblance to a certain deceased elf. And, after twenty minutes in the dentist’s chair, during which a harried dental technician made all manner of disapproving noises while she flossed and brushed my teeth, my bet paid out – in the form of a tiny, pointy-eared elf in a lab coat walking obliviously in for my consult.
“Hiya, Hermey,” I said.
Hermey pursed his lips. “Claire,” he said to the technician, “why don’t you take your lunch? I’ll take care of Mr…” he glanced at my chart and smiled, thin and humorless, “…Pine.”
Claire left without a word. Hermey closed the door behind her.
“So,” Hermey said, “how’d you find me?”
“It wasn’t easy,” I admitted. “The scene you set, you had us pretty well fooled. The cherry Snow-Cone-syrup blood was delicious, by the way.”
Hermey shook his head. “You know, you really should consider cutting back on the sweets. Your enamel is a wreck.”
“Thanks, doc – I’ll take that under advisement. Funny you say that, though, ’cause the truth is, it was teeth that set me thinking something wasn’t right. Your wife’s, on which you’d honed your craft. Rudolph’s, so he would look the other way come Christmas Eve. Your boss’s, as payment for the toys he stole so you could lavish little Mitzie with the gifts she demanded in return for her cooperation, since her teeth were fine as is. She was the key to the whole plan, wasn’t she? I mean, I checked the dimensions of her box, and it turns out it’s just big enough for an elf to fit in. Tell me, was little Abby Mitchell heartbroken when she got you under her Christmas tree instead of the doll she’d asked for?”
“You’re welcome to ask her if you like,” Hermey said. “She’s in the room just down the hall. Her overbite is coming along quite nicely, by the way, and all the work I’ve done on her was free of charge. She didn’t ask for Mitzie anyway, you know – what she really wanted was a Barbie doll. It was her parents who requested the off-brand, because they couldn’t afford name-brand accessories in this economy. If Mitzie’d been left under that tree, both she and Abby would have been sorely disappointed. And anyways, I couldn’t stand the thought of making one more wreath. Being forced to build toys when your calling lies in fixing teeth is bad enough, but being told I wasn’t even good enough for that? It was more than I could bear.”
“So you tied your final bough and then made your escape. Clever. There’s just one thing I’ve got to know. How’d you fake the Abominable attack?”
Hermey laughed. “I didn’t! I just asked nice, and he agreed to help. He prefers to go by Bumble, by the way.”
“Bumble and I go back quite a ways – nearly as long as me and Rudolph, as it happens. And believe me, he’s anything but abominable. Sure, he was grouchy enough when we first met – but you would be too, if every tooth in your head were impacted. I pulled them for him, and ever since, he’s owed me one. I figured it was high time I cashed in. So, are you going to take me back?”
I thought about it long and hard, but in the end, I let him stay. Chalk it up to the Christmas spirit, I suppose. After all, where I’m from, Christmas is a way of life. Guess the Big Man ain’t all bad if he taught me that.
Besides, old Hermey is a magician with a dentist’s drill. I may’ve returned empty-handed, but my chompers have never looked better. You don’t have to take my word for that, either – you could ask my little lady. She and I’ve been going strong for going on four months – ever since I got back from Nyack.
Speaking of, I gotta split. Christmas is coming, and me and Holly got some halls to deck.