To continue celebrating the release of the new Dan Shamble, Zombie P.I. novel, TASTES LIKE CHICKEN, I’m posting another free Shamble story, just in time for the holidays. Dan and his team have a very important case, to retrieve Santa’s stolen “naughty and nice” list before all gift-giving is ruined!
I will leave this story up for a week, and you can read it here for free. Of course, if you prefer to read it on your own device, as well as helping to support the author, you can download your copy for 99¢ at the following links.
NAUGHTY & NICE
Santa Claus was an unnatural. That made perfect sense—I just hadn’t thought of it before.
The jolly bearded guy in the bright-red suit came into the offices of Chambeaux & Deyer Investigations, desperate to hire my services. It’s not often, I suppose, that Santa requires a detective—particularly a zombie detective.
“I need your help, Mr. Chambeaux,” Santa said.
I extended my gray hand to shake his black-gloved one. “At your service.”
I assessed my client-to-be. Santa carried a voluminous cloth sack over his left shoulder; it was limp and empty at the moment, rather than bulging with brightly wrapped gifts. His bloodshot eyes were as red as his suit. His cheeks were pale, and his face seemed less plump than the pictures I had seen on a million Christmas cards.
“It’s a crisis.” He looked around with haunted eyes. “I’ve been robbed!”
In the Unnatural Quarter, we see all sorts of clients. After the cosmic supernatural event called the Big Uneasy, all manner of legendary creatures had reappeared: ghosts, vampires, zombies, werewolves, ghouls, and other creatures that go bump, growl, or thud in the night. Why not Santa, too? Somebody who can slip down billions of chimneys in a night—without incurring a single home-invasion charge—would fit right in.
“We’ll do everything we can to help, Mr. Claus,” said Robin Deyer, my earnest lawyer partner, as she came out to greet the new client. “Is this more of a legal matter or an investigative one?”
“Oh-ho-ho, I definitely need a detective, and I came here because Mrs. Claus and I have heard about Mr. Chambeaux.”
I was surprised. “We don’t even advertise up at the North Pole. How did you find out about Chambeaux and Deyer Investigations?”
“Actually, we’re local. My powers only manifest during the holiday season—it’s not a full-time gig up in the cold. The rest of the year Mrs. Claus and I run a nice little bed-and-breakfast in the Quarter. Everybody around town knows the zombie detective to call when they’re in a bind.”
When I first moved into the Unnatural Quarter, I was a regular human P.I., trying to make a living like anybody else. I catered to clients who, though they sometimes looked like monsters on the outside, still had very human problems. Even after I got myself killed on a case, I climbed out of the grave and got back to work, still with Robin as my partner. Most unnatural aren’t even bothered by the bullet hole in the middle of my forehead, and I’ve stopped being self-conscious about applying morticians’ putty to cover it up.
Sheyenne, our office assistant, flitted up to Santa, beaming her gorgeous smile. “May I take your coat, Mr. Claus?”
Not only is Sheyenne extremely smart, competent, and efficient, she’s beautiful on all counts. She’s also my girlfriend. On top of that, she happens to be a ghost, murdered in the same case that saw me dead. But even through all that, we stuck together. It’s a testament to the strength of our relationship.
Santa decided against removing his red coat. “No-ho-ho! It’s part of my traditional image. The coat is made of magical material that keeps me comfortable no matter the temperature. That way I never have to take it off until the season’s over. Traditions are important, and never more so than around the holidays.”
Sheyenne leaned closer and whispered, “For the record, I never stopped believing in you.”
He regarded Sheyenne with both wonder and mirth. “Strangely enough, I didn’t believe in ghosts—until a few years ago.” Santa sneezed, then turned back to me. “Mr. Chambeaux, I’m not going to kid you. There’s more riding on this particular Christmas than ever before, and I’m coming apart at the seams. I need you to find my stolen property before Christmas Eve, or there’ll be no joy to the world, no ho-ho-ho, no holly jolly, no Feliz in the Navidad, no Frohe in the Weihnachten, no Merry in the Christmas. You see how serious this is?”
“I think I do.” I really had no idea, but I didn’t want to look dumb in front of Santa Claus. “What exactly was stolen?”
“My list!” He was distraught—which was not at all the sort of attitude I expected from a man famous for his rumbling belly-laugh and infectious good cheer. “My list of who’s Naughty and Nice! Without that list, I won’t know which houses to visit, which Johnny deserves a model train set and which one gets a lump of coal, which Susie deserves a doll and which one gets a boring sweater. If I can’t figure that out, Christmas definitely won’t be the most wonderful time of the year.”
“Don’t you keep a photocopy?” Robin asked. “Or an on-line backup?”
Santa was horrified. “And break Christmas tradition? Millions of children believe in me and the way I do things, just so. They have dreams about Christmas, and it’s my responsibility to safeguard those dreams.” He shook his head again. “If I modernized, there’d be an uproar—not to mention countless bugs in the system—and then you can bet the Easter Bunny would hack into my database and start grabbing my market share. No, everything’s done by hand on a very long roll of parchment, the names of every single boy and girl written with a goose quill.”
That must have been the world’s largest two-column spreadsheet. “And how exactly was it stolen?”
“Someone broke into the offices of my North Pole headquarters. It’s our busy season, all of my helpers doing double shifts, decking the halls, dashing through the snow. Our packaging department is a madhouse, full of complete sets of lords a-leaping, partridges, pear trees—and everybody wants five golden rings. We still have an overstock of last year’s fruitcakes, and I don’t know what to do with the figgy puddings. I was sure there’d be a demand for those again.” He wiped a gloved hand across his forehead.
“It’s very hectic. I was taking a break with Mrs. Claus. She had made a fresh batch of eggnog, and this time of year she spikes it rather heavily. I slept like a baby … and when I went back to the office the list was gone!” He tugged on his beard. “It had to be an inside job.” He paced back and forth, scuffing his black boots on our all-weather carpet. “I checked with all the line supervisor elves and every single one of the toy builders. This time of year they work around the clock without even restroom or cigarette breaks. But everyone had an alibi.”
“Could you have been targeted by Homeland Security?” Robin asked. “Or some other law-enforcement organization monitoring your research as to who might be on a Most Naughty list?”
“I can see why they might want that,” I said.
“Not at all, I have a close cooperative relationship with government agencies, considering all that airspace I fly over—and my work has to be done in a single night, so I have no time to mess with clearances. I even let NORAD track me every year. No, that list is in the hands of someone who means no good, mark my words … and no human could have gotten through my security. It had to be an unnatural.”
He hung his head and seemed so sad that I wanted to sit on Santa’s lap and give him a hug. He continued, “That’s why I came to you, Mr. Chambeaux. If I don’t get that Naughty and Nice list in time, I can’t stop thinking about all those poor children who’ll be disappointed, all those broken dreams, all those undelivered presents. It’ll destroy their faith in Christmas … and they just might turn out to be naughty next year.”
I was determined to solve the problem. It’s not every day you get a chance to save Christmas—and not just because Christmas only comes once a year. “Don’t underestimate how relentless a zombie can be, Santa. I’ll find your list. If I have any questions or developments, how will I get hold of you? Do you have a business card?”
“Much better than that.” Santa reached into a pocket of his red jacket and pulled out a bright green ribbon with a jingle bell attached. “Just ring this, and I’ll be there. Even if I’m otherwise occupied, I have an answering service that can get hold of me.”
The pink had come back to his cheeks, and a droll smile lifted his lips. “Oh-ho-ho, if you solve this case, there’ll be something very special under the tree—for all of you.”
Relieved and encouraged, Santa slung his empty sack over one shoulder and prepared to go. He closed his eyes and touched a finger to the side of his nose.
When nothing happened, he looked around our offices. Finding no chimney, he chuckled. “Sorry, I’ve been so worried about Christmas being ruined, I forgot how I arrived!” He left through the front door instead.
Although I knew I might have to go to Santa’s North Pole seasonal offices to see the crime scene, I decided to search in the Unnatural Quarter first, which was much more convenient. (Riding up to the Arctic for hours in a freezing open sleigh sounded worse than flying in a middle seat in Coach.)
I started with someone who kept a similar list—primarily a Naughty list.
Officer Toby McGoohan is a dedicated beat cop, but his penchant for telling off-color jokes to the wrong people had gotten him transferred to the Quarter. McGoo is also my BHF, my best human friend. We help each other on cases. We commiserate about life and unlife over beers at the Goblin Tavern.
I found him outside one of the Talbot & Knowles blood bars, which are frequented by vampires who need their daily caffeine and hemoglobin fix. Some fanged customers drink straight blood, while others go for berry-flavored blood frappés or, now that the weather had turned colder, steaming cinnamon-spice hot clotties.
“Hey, Shamble,” McGoo said, tipping his blue cap. “What do you get when you cross a snowman with a vampire?”
“What?” I groaned in advance.
“Frostbite.” He persists in telling me jokes. I haven’t been able to convince him they’re not funny, and he hasn’t been able to convince me that they are. As a special favor, I did promise I would try to laugh at some of them. But only some. “What’s new and exciting in your world?”
“I just picked up Santa Claus as a client. Somebody stole his list of Naughty and Nice kids.”
McGoo’s eyes widened. “Well, that’s a miracle on …” he glanced up, looking for a street corner, “32nd Street. If even Santa isn’t safe from criminal activity, we are living in troubled times indeed. What does the list look like?”
“Long roll of parchment, millions of handwritten names. Two columns labeled N and N.”
McGoo shook his head. “I’ll keep an eye out, but we’ve got real problems of our own in the Quarter.” He lowered his voice. “Kids are going missing, Shamble—a lot of them. We’ve received a rash of reports.”
A vampire couple came out of the blood bar, chatting away. One held a to-go carrier with four cups of blood drinks marked with Type A (extra hot), Type O negative, and two with Type B positive (and a hand-drawn smiley face).
McGoo called, “Excuse me, can I see those for a second?”
The vampires turned, surprised. “What is it, Officer?”
“Your blood drinks. I want to show my friend something.”
McGoo indicated the to-go cups, the first of which showed the printed picture of a young vampire boy who had been turned when he was maybe twelve years old. Big letters said “Have You Seen Me?” Printed below the photo were the vampire kid’s name, pre-turned age, and last-seen data.
The second cup showed a zombie boy with an incongruous smile beneath his sunken eyes. The third was a scruffy-looking full-furred werewolf, and the fourth showed a human girl in Goth makeup wearing an off-the-shelf gloomy expression.
After he thanked the vampire couple, they left. I shook my head. “That’s troubling, McGoo. I think I recognize the werewolf kid. He was part of the gang at the rumble a few months ago, Hairballs versus the Monthlies.”
“Yeah, he’s not the only rough one. Some of the missing children are straight off the Wikipedia page for Juvenile Delinquent. Not all of those photos were in a family album—a few are from mug-shot files.”
“Some of the disappearances could just be runaways,” I suggested. “Visiting some nice old lady’s gingerbread house in the forest.”
“For the record, Shamble, she wasn’t a nice old lady—I worked on that case,” McGoo said. “Not all of the missing kids have records. We’ve got grieving parents or foster-parents who want to find their missing little angels. I don’t know if the cases are related, or just a coincidence.”
“I don’t believe in coincidence,” I said, wondering if this might also have something to do with the stolen Naughty and Nice list. “But I didn’t believe in Santa Claus either, and now he’s my client. Let me know if you get a lead on my case. I’ll do the same if I hear anything about the missing kids.”
McGoo nodded. “The Quarter’s getting nervous—put your mind to it, see what you come up with. You’ve got a lot of space in that big empty head of yours.”
I tapped the bullet hole in the middle of my forehead. “A little extra space maybe, but it’s not empty.” I tipped my fedora at him and left.
My first order of business was to figure out who would want to steal the Naughty and Nice list, and what anybody would use it for. In order to brainstorm, I invited Sheyenne to lunch.
Being a ghost, Sheyenne doesn’t eat, not even their special “ephemeral” plate, and I don’t need much sustenance. (I’ve avoided brains, because I don’t want to turn into one of those zombies who are an embarrassment to the rest of us.)
The Ghoul’s Diner, though, was a place to hang out, and Sheyenne likes it when we go out on lunch dates. Strolling down the sidewalk toward the Diner, we free-associated. Sheyenne wore a bright smile as always, and those blue eyes could make a man’s heart stop beating, or start beating, depending on which condition he started from.
I wondered aloud that maybe the Big Uneasy had made the Grinch manifest as well, but Sheyenne doubted he’d reached a worldwide cultural status similar to vampires or St. Nick. I disagreed, because I had grown up on the Grinch; still, I conceded that he seemed too obvious a cartoon villain.
I then postulated that the perpetrator could be a Lorax with self-esteem issues, upset that Arbor Day didn’t have the stature of Christmas, Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, New Years … or even Kwanzaa, for that matter. I didn’t know if Loraxes were real, either. I seemed to be in a Seussian rut.
A light dusting of snow came down, reminding me that I had to find Santa’s list before Christmas Eve, or he would suffer a worldwide toy-distribution crisis. Festive decorations were already strung up in the streets of the Quarter: barbed-wire tinsel looped along windowpanes and awnings, colorful wreaths hung from nooses on gallows lampposts.
Before we reached the Diner, Sheyenne and I stopped on the street where crowds had gathered and traffic halted for an early holiday parade. And it sure wasn’t the type hosted by Macy’s.
Elves capered and danced at the front of the parade, diminutive creatures dressed in pointed floppy caps and bright red outfits trimmed with white flocking. The costumes resembled a traditional Santa’s elf suit, but these were cheap knockoffs that fit poorly with seams showing and with some of the white trim missing.
These elves were not the cute, smiling, industrious workers who stocked Santa’s shelves and made the North Pole a cheery, if formerly imaginary, place. No, these elves came from the G-side of the family, having more in common with gremlins, goblins, and gnomes—pointy, stretched-out features, gray skin, and long ears that looked as if they had gotten caught in industrial picking machinery. When they smiled like good elves should, they showed alarmingly pointed teeth.
Behind the prancing elves came a bizarre motorized sleigh crawling along at pedestrian speed so everyone on the sidewalk had an appropriate opportunity to wave. Palm trees adorned the back of the sleigh. On a big wicker chair sat an elf with all the usual elf features (from the G-side of the family), but he wore a white rhinestone-studded jacket, trimmed in Christmasy green and red. He had slicked-back black hair, sideburns that extended halfway down his pointed chin, big garish sunglasses, and oddly out-of-place blue suede shoes.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said to Sheyenne.
“He’s for real, Beaux. That’s Elfis—I’ve seen his ads. You know, ‘Santa Claus is coming to town, but Elfis will get there faster?’ He’s a celebrity on the cable-access channels.”
I’m a decent enough detective, but I can be clueless about pop culture.
Elfis waved at the crowd and picked up a handheld Vegas-style silver microphone. “Thank ya very much. Santa’s got competition this year, boys and girls, naturals and unnatural. The holidays should be for everybody, not just kids who pass some arbitrary naughty-or-nice test. Even naughty kids deserve presents, don’t they?”
From the sidewalk crowds, a smattering of natural and unnatural children cheered—kids who knew they were included in the Naughty column, no doubt.
“Santa Claus has had a monopoly on the Christmas season for far too long —but I intend to undercut his position. Elfis Industries has wider distribution, more fairness, and less discrimination. More transparency in holiday gift-giving! We’re going to expose all those ‘secret admirer’ gifts for what they are. And no more bribery with milk and cookies. Everyone deserves a present, and I’m the one to give it to them. It’s time to put the kitsch back into Christmas!”
His elves began handing out candy canes, traditional red-and-white striped ones, blood-red ones, and black ones. A witch dressed in a midnight-blue gown and pointy cap stood by her young son who looked as if he might grow up to be a powerful necromancer. The boy ran forward to take a black candy cane, but his mother scolded him. “I told you not to take candy from strangers!”
The boy pouted. “He’s not a stranger, Mom—that’s Elfis!”
“Oh,” the witch said, and handed him back the cane.
The motorized sleigh rolled by, with Elfis in his sequins and sunglasses waving from under his palm trees. He called out, “Who needs the cold? I have nightmares about a white Christmas! Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow—but somewhere far away! Stick with me, and the holidays will have a warm and sunny glow.”
After the parade passed, Sheyenne leaned close to me. “So that’s why Santa is so worried. He’s got competition this year. And if his rival does a better job satisfying the customers …”
“Then Santa Claus won’t be coming to town anymore,” I said. “We might have our first suspect. Elfis has a motive to sabotage Santa’s work. I better go talk to him and find out if his intentions really are as pure as new fallen snow.”
I could tell this case was going to spell T-R-O-U-B-L-E.
After Sheyenne and I had a quick lunch at the diner (pink slime was on special), I went off to continue my investigation.
The headquarters for the competitive holiday operation was an office building in front of a fenced compound of airplane-hangar-sized structures, no doubt where Elfis manufactured and stored all the toys he planned to distribute ahead of his business rival. According to Sheyenne, Elfis’s ads promised delivery by Christmas Eve Eve.
The sign at the front entrance had giant letters painted like candy canes, surrounded by yellow suns: “North Pole South: We’re Better Because We’re Closer to the Equator.” Around the doorway was strewn blue sand or fake snow, which seemed incongruous … until I remembered “Blue Christmas.”
When I entered the front door of North Pole South, I heard many busy bodies working in the back, but the reception counter was empty except for a fist-sized fake rock sitting on top of an index card that said “Ring bell for service.” I picked up the stone and realized it was hollow. When I shook it, a tinkling chime rang out.
A female elf receptionist scurried out of the back, smiling sweetly with her pinched face. “I see you found our Jingle-Bell Rock,” she snickered. “Very clever, don’t you think? Elfis came up with it himself.” She shuffled papers and handed me a temporary-employment application. “Looking for part-time holiday work? Many positions available.”
I shook snow from the brim of my fedora. “That would be a conflict of interest. I’ve been retained by Santa Claus.”
The receptionist’s eyebrows rose. “I’ll let Elfis know you’re here.” She took back the Jingle-Bell Rock and punched an extension on her phone. “He told us to expect an overture from Mr. Claus.”
“Overture?” I asked. “I can barely hum a tune.”
Elfis agreed to see me, probably out of curiosity; at least it got me through the door.
The chief elf’s back office was bright and stiflingly hot. A large tropical mural covered the far wall. Wearing only a towel around his waist, Elfis lay back on a chaise lounge under a pair of heat lamps that could have been used to keep food warm in a restaurant. Standing on either side, a pair of Egyptian mummies gently fanned him with palm fronds.
Elfis lifted his sunglasses and sat up to regard me. “Dan Chambeaux, Private Investigator … that seems an odd choice for Santa, but I knew he’d send a representative before long. He has no option but to open negotiations. I suppose he wants to suggest some kind of merger and keep a token title for himself? Frankly I’d rather just buy his operations outright.”
He waved for the mummies to back away. “Would you like some refreshment? I can get one of my boys to make you a mai tai or piña colada. Or, if you want to be more traditional, I have chestnuts roasting on an open fire.”
Chestnuts weren’t the only things roasting. “I’m surprised you keep it so hot in here,” I said, tugging at my collar—and zombies don’t perspire.
Elfis explained, “I want to change the paradigm of the holiday season. It’s too cold, too snowy, too wintry. You really think shepherds prefer to watch their flocks in the snow? They’d rather be skiing. And if I want something frozen, I order a frozen margarita.” He laughed, but it sounded more like heh-heh-heh than ho-ho-ho.
“Now then, let’s talk about sending old Saint Nick into retirement. Here’s my offer: I take over all his operations, but I let him keep his North Pole annex. He and Mrs. Claus get a nice pension, run their bed-and-breakfast, maybe do a few public appearances for old times sake, but I license his likeness and the brand. I’m dreaming of a profitable Christmas.”
“There’s been a misunderstanding, Mr. Elfis. That’s not why I’m here.”
The elf slicked back his hair, adjusted his position on the chaise lounge. The mummies came forward again to fan him vigorously with the palm fronds. “Well, then, I’m all ears.”
“Santa Claus hired me as a detective because something very valuable was stolen from him.”
Elfis seemed completely uninterested. “Really? And what would old St. Nick find valuable? Can’t he just wiggle his nose and make another of whatever it was?”
“It’s more of a matter of administrative records gone missing,” I said. “I’m investigating the theft.”
Elfis snickered. “You must mean his list. Anal-retentive, if you ask me.” He slid his sunglasses back down on his face, scratched his sideburns. “And you think I had something to do with it? Why in the world would I need a list like that? I explicitly don’t discriminate. I give presents to all kids, without scoring them on social behavior. What gives Santa the right to make a subjective decision about who’s Naughty and Nice? Judgmental jerk, if you ask me.” He sniffed. “I plan to take discrimination out of Christmas gift-giving, make it equal for all. What would be my motive for stealing the list?”
I did have a theory. “You’d hamstring Santa’s activities, make him look incompetent, while gaining brownie points for yourself.”
“I don’t have brownies, Mr. Chambeaux. I have elves. There’s a difference.”
“That doesn’t address my theory.”
“Look around you, Mr. Chambeaux. I’m sabotaging Santa’s work by perfectly traditional means—undercutting prices, faster distribution, more transparency in my operations. I don’t need a list for that.”
One of the mummies served him a cool drink in a hollowed pineapple, complete with a colorful umbrella. “Thank ya very much.” Elfis took a long refreshing sip. “Tell Santa if he wants to come to terms, I’m having a holiday special. His decision. Either way, it’s time he faced some competition.”
Elfis reached down beside his chaise lounge and pulled out a baseball-sized knot of thorny leaves, like a wadded tumbleweed studded with berries. “Here, Mr. Chambeaux—have a free sample. Part of my effort to put the kitsch back into Christmas.”
He tossed it to me, and I caught it. “What’s this?”
“Our new McMistletoe. Cheaper to manufacture, no preservatives needed, non-poisonous, non-habit-forming.” He spoke at such a fast pace that my ears could barely keep up. “It’s not intended to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure any disease. These claims have not been evaluated by the FDA.” He grinned. “But our McMistletoe is just as effective as real mistletoe. Try it out, you’ll see.”
I pocketed the mistletoe in my jacket’s other pocket, because it didn’t seem right to tuck it beside the jingle bell that Santa Claus had given me. “I’ll try it,” I said, though I doubted Sheyenne would be impressed.
I was already disturbed about the missing children McGoo was investigating, but I didn’t see the actual pain until the Tannenbaums came into our offices.
Mrs. Tannenbaum buried her face in her husband’s broad chest. “Our baby boy!”
Both of them were werewolves—the Monthly variety, so they passed for normal except on full-moon nights. They seemed like a nice couple with modest lives, middle-income jobs, probably had a home that was not extravagant but one they were proud of.
Robin hurried forward to comfort them. “Tell us what happened.”
Mr. Tannenbaum pulled a wallet from his pocket and showed us a snapshot. “This is our son Buddy.” The kid was of the full-furred persuasion, the type of werewolf who maintained a long muzzle, sharp fangs, moist black nose, and facial fur throughout the month.
“That’s his school portrait,” Mrs. Tannenbaum said with a sniff. “He was just about to graduate sixth grade.” Sheyenne flitted in with a tissue for the grieving woman.
I studied the snapshot. Buddy Tannenbaum’s black lips were curled in what I assumed was a smile, but might have been a snarl. What kid didn’t make a goofy face when sitting for a school portrait? “Not much family resemblance. Adopted?”
Mrs. Tannenbaum snuffled loudly. “He came from an abused home, and we took him in. Poor Buddy! We wanted to show him all the love and affection he deserved. But one day after school, he didn’t come home to do his chores.”
Her husband continued, “He often gets preoccupied with friends—he has a strong social life. And what’s a chore or two around the house? No need to bother the boy with them. I can do the vacuuming and take out the garbage while my wife cooks dinner.”
“On the night he disappeared, I made a fleshloaf with tomato sauce and onions. Buddy’s favorite!” Mrs. Tannenbaum wailed, which came out as a trailing howl. “We had to eat it ourselves. We had leftovers for two days.”
“Two days? Your son vanished and you didn’t report it for two days?” Robin shot me a look, and I saw that furrow of concern on her brow.
“We thought he might be staying at a friend’s house,” said Mr. Tannenbaum. “He sometimes does that. We try not to be overprotective. A boy needs his space and … a wolf has to run free.”
“Can you find him?” Mrs. Tannenbaum said. “We didn’t want to go to the police because … because we want to keep his record clean. He’s going to go to college someday, and it’s really a private matter.”
“You can count on our discretion, Mr. and Mrs. Tannenbaum.” I doubted Buddy’s disappearance was unrelated to the other children who had vanished.
“Can you give us the names of his friends, or places where he liked to spend time?” Robin asked.
Mrs. Tannenbaum considered. “He likes to hang out at the comic-book shop. Just Dug Up Collectibles, I think it’s called.”
“I know the place,” I said. “I’ve been there.”
In a fit of nostalgia, I had gone in to browse some of the old comics I’d bought and guarded so lovingly when I was a kid. One day, while tidying up my room, my mom gave them all to a thrift shop, and they sold for a nickel apiece before I could run down there to save them. A few months ago, when I looked in Just Dug Up Collectibles and saw the outrageous prices those issues were now selling for, I left the shop in despair and never went back….
“Is there anything else I should know? Anything that might help?”
The Tannenbaums looked at each other, as if uncomfortable, hesitant, then both shook their heads.
Sheyenne whisked in and made several color photocopies of Buddy’s photo before returning the snapshot to Mr. Tannenbaum, who lovingly tucked it back into his wallet. “I’ll also submit this to the Talbot & Knowles blood bars,” Sheyenne suggested. “They can include it with the other photos of missing children.”
Mr. Tannenbaum looked uncomfortable. “I’d prefer to keep this out of the public eye.”
“We already talked to the blood bars,” snuffled Mrs. Tannenbaum. “They said they were overbooked for the next two months until … until …” She began sobbing.
Mr. Tannenbaum completed the sentence. “Until Christmas.” He patted his wife on the shoulder. “Please find him soon, Mr. Chambeaux. We have very important Hanukkah traditions, and Winter Solstice, too.”
She sniffled again. “The holidays just won’t be the same without our dear Buddy. Please find him, Mr. Chambeaux. Such a dear, dear sweet boy.”
“That kid is an unholy terror!” said Adric the comic-shop owner. He barely glanced at the picture of Buddy Tannenbaum. “He and his friends are monsters—and I don’t mean that in a good way.”
The wall behind the counter was plastered with autographed 8 × 10s of Adric posing with D-list celebrities. He was a gray-skinned, pot-bellied zombie, not nearly as well-preserved as the special variant-cover issues he kept bagged-and-boarded on high shelves. His complexion showed some signs of putrescence as well as fresh acne, which made him doubly unfortunate; although the undead suffer from numerous physical maladies, few are afflicted by zits.
Adric wore a powder-blue Star Wars T-shirt with R2-D2 and C-3PO on the front, and it was much too small for him. I deduced that he’d bought the shirt when he saw Star Wars first run in theaters; in the years since, his body had enlarged considerably, though he probably told himself that the shirt had shrunk.
Adric handed me back the photo. “That kid and his friends are always in here stealing things, vandalizing, harassing customers, and of course never buying anything. A bunch of deadbeats and undeadbeats.”
I frowned. It seemed Buddy Tannenbaum was not the upstanding young werewolf his parents imagined him to be. “He’s gone missing. When was the last time you saw him?”
He snorted. “I kicked out the whole wild bunch two weeks ago—caught them shoplifting one time too many.”
I had another thought. “So, does that mean you keep a list of, say, who’s naughty and who’s nice?”
“Nah, this is a comic store. We get all kinds in here. That Buddy Tannenbaum and his friends, though—they’d definitely go in the Naughty column.”
As he talked, Adric used a box-cutter to slice open a cardboard case of new arrivals like an eager coroner working on his favorite autopsy. He opened the flaps and began pulling out shrink-wrapped Christmas ornaments, clumsy-looking figurines of werewolves, vampires, scaly demons.
Frowning in disgust, he held up a crudely painted vampire with red marks smeared across his face. “Look at these! My customers want quality. The catalog said they’re hand-painted, but this looks like it was finger-painted, or claw-painted.” He shook his head. “Maybe even flipper-painted.”
Adric dug into the box, pulled out a larger figure, a well-muscled werewolf in a cop uniform, holding an enormous Magnum pistol. “Does this look like Hairy Harry to you?” The rogue lycanthropic cop from the UQPD was something of a folk hero, even though he’d retired from the force.
“I wouldn’t pay a premium for it,” I said. I noticed the figures were labeled Elfis Originals! Collect Them All!
Adric kept pulling figurines out of the packaging, then rolled his eyes as he lifted out six genuine Elfis figurines, each wearing a white sequin jacket, brushed-back black hair and sideburns, and big sunglasses. “What? I only ordered one of these.”
Next, he removed a larger box showing a scaled aquatic gill-man labeled “Special Limited Edition Creature! (Comes with free lagoon!).” With his stiff zombie fingers, Adric pried open the package, removed the scaly figurine along with a tiny black plastic basin. Apparently, the user was supposed to fill it with water.
“Special Edition? Ridiculous! Look at this: ‘Limited to 1,000,000 Units.’ How the hell does that make it collectible? I’ll be lucky to sell six … well, five, because I’ll keep one for myself.”
I tried to get back to the reason I’d come there. “Have you seen any of Buddy’s buddies? Anyone I could talk to? His parents are distraught.”
“No, and good riddance. Maybe they all ran off to join the vampire circus.” Adric continued setting out the Elfis Originals holiday ornaments. “Mark my words, his parents will have a lot more silent nights this way. Just imagine what a handful that werewolf kid is gonna be when he hits his teenage years and hormones kick in.”
He looked up at where two young zombies were pawing over back issues of The Crypt-Keeper’s Funniest Capers. The zombie teens had their mouths open and they moaned in laughter at the panels.
Adric yelled, “Hey, you! Be careful with those—you get decaying flesh on any of the pages, you bought it.”
The zombies looked up at him, moaned, then went back to the comics, noticeably exercising greater care.
I picked up a fine-print catalog listing of the Elfis Originals ornaments and collectibles and pocketed it for future reference. I thanked Adric and left.
When Santa Claus returned to our offices, he looked even more anxious than before. His face was sallow, almost jaundiced; his flowing white beard looked scraggly, with a thin brownish stain from where he’d been hitting the pipe a little too often. He had lost enough weight that his red jacket was gathered in folds around his waist with his wide black belt cinched tighter. I saw that he’d even punched a new hole.
“Usually when I visit, people set out milk and cookies for me.” He sounded disappointed, beaten down. “I’ll be glad to get back to running the bed-and-breakfast, but I have my duties first. I can’t do my rounds without that list of Naughty and Nice.” He slumped into a chair beside Sheyenne’s desk and let out a sigh. “I tried to write a new one from memory, but my mind isn’t what it used to be—too many bitter cold nights out in a reindeer-powered sleigh. I won’t kid you, Christmas Eve is a hard night—a real nut-cracker. After it’s over, I crawl into bed and sleep for a week.”
“My accountant says the same thing about Tax Day,” I told him.
Santa adjusted his floppy red cap. “I haven’t heard you jingle my bell, and time is running out. It’s beginning to look a lot like a screwed-up Christmas.”
“I’ve been investigating,” I reassured him. “Particularly your rival Elfis. He makes no secret of the fact that he wants to take you out, but he insists he doesn’t need your list to do it. What can you tell me about him?”
Santa’s face fell, as if his heart had shrunk three sizes that day. “That elf deserves a lump of coal in his stocking on Christmas morning. Unfair business practices, inferior materials—do you know that his silver bells are made of cheap aluminum?” He frowned again, let out another sigh. “I try not to think ill of people, but I’d like to take a thick candy cane and go thumpety-thump-thump on his head. He’s ruining traditions by taking away the incentive for children to be Nice. Just look at the rude manners in chat rooms on the internet.”
My heart went out to him. “I’m looking into his North Pole South operations, and Robin is studying his business practices. I haven’t found any evidence that he arranged to steal your Naughty and Nice list, but I’ll keep digging.”
After rummaging around in the kitchen, Sheyenne flitted into the main room, carrying a plate with three stale chocolate-chip cookies and a glass of milk. “Look what I found for you, Santa!”
He brightened. “’Tis the season to be jolly—so I’ll try my best.” He pulled a paper ticket from the pocket of his red jacket. “Could you validate this for me? I’ve got my reindeer and sleigh parked on the roof.”
“Of course,” Sheyenne said, and stamped his parking ticket.
Santa took the rest of the cookies “for the reindeer” and slipped through the door just as Mr. and Mrs. Tannenbaum hurried in. They looked anxious, and my heart sank, wondering how I was going to tell them that their darling Buddy wasn’t the sugarplum they believed him to be. If the young werewolf was getting into so much trouble, how could the parents not know? Were they willfully oblivious to the fact that their angel came straight from the dark side?
“We weren’t entirely honest with you,” Mrs. Tannenbaum said, then looked away shyly. “We have something else that might help.”
Her husband said, “I convinced my wife that we needed to give you every detail if we want our Buddy back. Our son is more important than our shame and embarrassment.”
“We thought you might be able to solve the case without it, and then we wouldn’t have to admit … admit—” Mrs. Tannenbaum’s lower lip quivered. Her eyes flashed golden, and I could see a hint of werewolf coming to the fore.
“Buddy’s given us difficulties before,” Mr. Tannenbaum admitted. “He’s an unruly kid. I think it comes from his full-fur blood. Trouble in school, trouble with vandalism. He’s even run away from home a few times.”
“But he always comes back,” Mrs. Tannenbaum interjected. “He’s a good boy at heart.”
I asked, “Do you think there’s any possibility that he’s just run off again?”
Both Tannenbaums shook their heads. “Not so close to Christmas. He would have waited to get his toys first. He’s a troublemaker, but he’s a greedy troublemaker.”
I didn’t know if that was the best kind or the worst kind. “The information doesn’t help a great deal at the moment, but I’ll keep asking around.”
The Tannenbaums looked at each other. “Oh, that’s not what we meant to tell you, Mr. Chambeaux. We were reluctant to say anything about what we did because … because, well, it’s not exactly legal.”
That’s never a good phrase to include in a sentence. I braced myself.
“We had to do something because Buddy ran away so often. So, the last time we took him in to the vet …” Mrs. Tannenbaum swallowed hard, then lowered her voice. “We had a tracking chip implanted in the base of his skull. Nothing anyone would notice, mind you, but … just in case.”
I perked up. “A tracking device? Then we can pinpoint his location right away!”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Tannenbaum. “Do you think that might help you find him?”
I slapped my forehead, and it made a hollow popping sound from the bullet hole there. “The cases don’t solve themselves,” I said, “but I do need all the information.”
“The tracking signal has a very limited range,” Mr. Tannenbaum said. “Quite discreet, but not terribly useful. Still, if you get close enough …”
The Tannenbaums looked sheepish after they gave me the secret frequency and serial number of the tracker. “Just bring our little boy home, please? That would be the best present we ever had.”
When we began our search, I decided to take police backup—McGoo—just so I could say I was being sensible. I didn’t want to go overboard, though, because there was a better-than-even chance Buddy had just run away with his juvenile delinquent unnatural pals. Still, if Buddy’s disappearance was connected with the other missing kids, McGoo would want to be along.
Then Robin insisted on joining us. With such a three-pronged approach, how could we not be prepared to solve any problem?
She had frowned in disapproval when she heard about the implanted tracker chip, claiming that it violated the civil rights of an underage werewolf. But McGoo had seen enough troublemakers in his work, and he was more inclined to try the “terrified straight” approach. Robin finally conceded that if the tracker meant we could reunite the full-time fuzzy kid with his once-a-month fuzzy parents, then all was for the best.
With the tracker’s frequency and serial number, Robin downloaded a free but highly rated Track Werewolf app for her smartphone. She bundled up in a wool coat, and we all set off into the snowy night to find Buddy, leaving Sheyenne in charge of the office.
We wandered around the Quarter for a frustrating hour, following false signals (a garage-door opener and a universal TV remote control). I was beginning to think that we might not pick up the tracker’s limited-range signal until after we had already found the subject in question. We were lost and frustrated; what had seemed to be an easy solution was turning out to be a headache and a waste of time.
Then Sheyenne called us and saved the day. She had found an update for the Track Werewolf app, which dealt with certain bugs and user issues and increased sensitivity. Once Robin installed the update, we found a strong signal. We were closer than we thought.
The signal led us straight to the tall smokestacks and gigantic toy warehouses behind Elfis’s North Pole South complex.
Holding her phone, Robin took the lead, guiding us along the chain-link fence to the back service entrance of the gigantic manufacturing warehouses. The temperature was dropping, and fluffy snowflakes drifted down. Not a creature was stirring, not even the ones that usually stirred at that time of night.
Approaching the back guard gate, we found two burly golems wearing security guard uniforms. Their clay bodies were stiff and hardening in the cold, but one perked up. “Do you hear what I hear?”
The other said, “Do you see what I see?”
Now alert, the golems prepared to block our way, both of them focusing on McGoo’s uniform, the dark blue police shirt, trousers, and cap. “That looks good on you,” said one of the golems.
“We both wanted to be cops, but couldn’t pass the tests,” the other explained.
I knew why, but I didn’t embarrass them by pointing out the reason.
McGoo said, “We’re searching for a missing child, and we have reason to believe he’s inside one of the warehouses.” He held out a copy of Buddy’s picture.
“Kids just can’t stay away from toys,” said the first golem.
Robin held up her smartphone, showing the app. “And we have electronic evidence he’s in there.”
The golems were again intrigued. “Is that phone one of the new models?”
The other said, “Does it have Angry Vultures on it? Or Curses with Friends?”
I knew if the golems started playing games on Robin’s phone we would never get past the gate. “We need to have a look, bring that boy back to his parents.”
The first golem had a stony expression on his clay face. “Sorry. We can’t let you inside. Elfis is very strict.”
The other golem looked intimidated. “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good.” In tandem, they shook their smooth clay heads and pointed upward. “Security cameras.”
Time for Plan B. I removed a folded sheet of paper from the inside pocket of my jacket and showed it to the two golems. “We have a duly authorized search warrant to enter the premises, signed by Judge Hawkins herself. This grants us unfettered access to all parts of the North Pole South warehouses so we can find and rescue the young man.”
The first golem guard took the sheet of paper and studied it intently, while Robin shot me a questioning glance. She craned her neck to see what the guards were looking at. McGoo could barely keep the smile off his face.
The other golem took the sheet from his partner; they both had frowns on their clay faces. “All right then. We’re security guards, sworn to uphold the law.” They opened the chain-link gate for us. “Go on inside. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
Robin was perplexed, but she glanced down at the blinking light on her Track Werewolf app. Buddy was definitely close, inside the big factory building ahead of us. With his best I’m-an-authority-figure gait, McGoo marched away from the guard golems. Robin hurried alongside me. When we were out of earshot, she asked, “What was that all about? When did you get a search warrant?”
“It wasn’t a search warrant,” I said. “It’s the fine-print listing of Elfis Originals I took from Just Dug Up Collectibles.”
McGoo worked at the warehouse door; it was unlocked. “Golems can’t read,” he said. “At least most of them can’t. That’s why they couldn’t pass their UQ Police Department exams. Good work, Shamble.”
Robin was astonished. “Then we got in here under false pretenses, and I have real ethical problems with that. We’re trespassing.”
“We’re rescuing a missing child,” I said. My boundaries were a little more blurred than Robin’s, but I did manage to get things done.
Robin was about to continue her objections when McGoo opened the loading dock door. The dark, noisy factory hangar was worse than the worst New Year’s Day hangover. It was a true holiday of horrors.
I doubted children opening their gifts on the morning of Christmas Eve Eve (if Elfis and his minions delivered on time, as promised) would want to know where their presents really came from.
We were seeing the ugly side of holiday cheer: appalling labor conditions, thick smoke, clanging hammers, grinding gears, and jets of steam venting from pressure valves. Foul water trickled out of rusty pipes overhead. A labyrinth of rattling conveyor belts rolled toys along to packaging lines. Sparks flew and blazing fires roared out of open furnaces fed with black coal that poured from supply hoppers in the ceiling. A separate set of conveyors dumped defective metal toys into a smoldering furnace. It was as if the Island of Misfit Toys had an active volcano.
Robin looked around in horror, shocked by what she saw. McGoo’s face was stormy with anger.
Most appalling of all, though, were the kids shackled to the assembly line, hunched over the conveyor belts, red-eyed, dirt-smeared, waifish. They toiled at assembling dolls, painting action figures, stuffing collectibles into boxes. There were werewolves, zombies, ghouls, even human children, all looking dejected and haggard.
As I scanned the faces, I recognized many of the kids featured on the Have You Seen Me? pictures from the Talbot & Knowles blood bars. I saw one gray-furred werewolf boy, mangy and yet somehow still cute, chained to a station where he was applying black button eyes onto Raggedy Ann dolls. Either he was confused by the instructions, or the dolls catered to an entirely different type of unnatural, because he sewed three eyes on each doll.
“That’s Buddy Tannenbaum!” I said.
The boy heard me even over the factory din. He turned, his tongue lolling out of his mouth, and his eyes lit up upon seeing us. He dropped the doll onto the dirty factory floor and leaped toward us, but was brought up short by silver shackles that bound his wrist and ankle.
“I’ll be good! I promise!” he yelped. “I won’t be naughty anymore. I don’t want to be on the list!”
Robin was ahead of us, grim and determined. “We’ll get you out of here, Buddy. Your parents hired us to find you.”
“My mom and dad? But Elfis said they didn’t love me anymore.”
“Of course they love you,” Robin said. “Parents love even naughty kids.”
A steam whistle blew. More coal dumped out of the feeding hoppers, and the furnace burned brighter.
Then the elves came—evil elves, and ugly enough that they might have been disowned by even the G-side of the family. They carried cattle prods painted like cheery candy canes; others brandished icicle spears that dripped in the intense heat of the factory floor.
McGoo and I drew our guns and stood next to Robin. The ten elves closing in didn’t look afraid of us at all. Too late, I realized that they were just a distraction.
Two other hench-elves stood up from behind the conveyor belt and hurled snowballs at us—icy snowballs with rocks in the middle. Cheater snowballs. (I did say they were evil elves.) Their aim was supernaturally true, and with one hail of hard snowballs, they knocked the guns out of our hands.
Then the hench-elves closed in, wielding icicle spears and candy-cane cattle prods. They overpowered us, shoved us to the factory floor, and used tough strands of satin ribbon to bind our wrists. We were going to have a black-and-blue Christmas. An evil elf even slapped a coordinating stick-on bow on each of us before they herded us toward the back of the factory.
“Elfis is going to want to see you,” said one of the guards.
“Oh, by gosh, by golly, that was on my Christmas wish list,” I said, which earned me a jab from one of the cattle prods. Since I’m a zombie, it takes a lot to shock me, but the experience was still unpleasant. I was more worried about McGoo and Robin, who could indeed be permanently damaged.
Elfis was at a raised supervisor’s station near the warmth of the big furnace, sitting on a high director’s chair with a small worktable beside him. Black dust from the coal hoppers left a gritty film on everything, but somehow it didn’t affect his white sequined jacket or his blue suede shoes. He was perusing a rolled parchment filled with names—countless names, sorted into two columns, one marked N and the other one marked N. He muttered to himself as he used a large goose quill pen to check off names.
“Naughty … yes, got that one. Naughty … yes. Naughty … we have a very high success rate.” Then he sneered at a line, crossed it out vigorously with the nib of his quill pen. “Somebody slipped up—this kid’s in the Nice column! People tend to notice when nice kids go missing.” A supervisor hench-elf scurried off to rectify the error.
Elfis picked up a bullhorn and began shouting toward the factory floor. “Listen up, kiddies! I have plenty more applicants to choose from, so if you want to be promoted in my criminal organization, you’ve got to produce, produce, produce! Only the best can survive this boot camp—also known as the Holiday Season! If you work hard, you’ll be real henchmen by Easter.” Elfis then started to laugh. “We’re going to put that damned bunny out of business, too!”
He slid his sunglasses up on the bridge of his narrow nose as his fiendish hench-elves pushed us forward. He seemed surprised to see us. “Mr. Chambeaux and friends—have you come to negotiate on Santa’s behalf again? Well, it’s too late. I’ve already got the holidays sewn up in a body bag, and now you’ll never stop me.”
When all else fails, when things look grimmest, I like to state the obvious. It puts villains off guard and usually gets them talking—too much. “You said you didn’t have Santa’s list of Naughty and Nice. That was dishonest.”
He held up a long finger. “No, that was misleading. I said I didn’t steal the list in order to earn brownie points or to make Santa look incompetent. I stole it strictly for my own purposes.” Elfis waved the parchment, showing us the long list of names. “It’s a recruitment tool, like a screening folder for job applicants. Santa already identified the naughty children for me, the ones suitable to become part of my operation.”
“But you put them to work as slave labor,” Robin said.
Elfis shrugged. “Well, they are naughty. Even criminals need to know the consequences of their actions. You do the crime, you pay the time. Community service for my community.”
I struggled against the satin ribbons binding my wrists. It reminded me of my childhood, trying to snap the ribbons so I could open my presents. Now, as then, the ribbon had supernatural strength.
Elfis leaned forward, opening both of his hands to warm them at the nearby furnace. The conveyor belt continued to clatter, dumping defective toys into it, plastic ones as well as metal. “It’s so nice to be warm for a change. And you three will be all toasty, too. I’m afraid I can’t allow my plans to be foiled—or tinseled. Into the furnace with them!”
The hench-elves swept forward like a blizzard of evil. Even though I’m a zombie, I had no desire to be cremated. And speaking for my two human friends, I knew that neither Robin nor McGoo wanted to tour the interior of the furnace either. I had to get us out of there.
Zombies, for all of our fragile bodies and flesh that’s prone to decay, have very strong teeth. Some zombies use them for ripping into flesh and bone; now I discovered that my teeth were excellent at cutting Christmas ribbon. I tore into my colorful satin bindings, snapped the ribbon—and I was free.
But I couldn’t fight all those armed hench-elves. Thinking of only one thing that might save us, I jammed my hand into my jacket pocket and grabbed the loop attached to the emergency jingle bell.
It wasn’t much of a jing-jing-jingle—but it was enough to summon Old Kris Kringle.
The flames in the furnace brightened, then made a coughing sound. Black smoke swirled out, and with a whoosh of hot air Santa Claus slipped down the smokestack and made his dramatic entrance. The conveyor belt came to a screeching halt as the jolly guy in the magic red suit (which also proved to be non-flammable) emerged from the furnace like something out of The Lord of the Rings. He planted his gloved hands on his hips and bellowed, “Ho-ho-ho! Who’s been a naughty boy?”
Elfis nearly jumped out of his skin and scrambled down from the director’s chair so rapidly that his sunglasses clattered on the floor. With the empty cloth sack over his shoulder, Santa stalked forward like an avenging angel—and not the type that goes on top of a Christmas tree. He spotted his lengthy rolled-up list on the worktable and seized it, holding it up like a baton. “You have gone too far, Elfis. And now you’d better cry, because Santa Claus is coming to get you.”
The hench-elves were panicked. They dropped their candy-cane cattle prods and icicle spears and cowered. Their teeth chattered as if they had gone caroling naked on a cold winter’s night and no one was offering wassail, or even hot cocoa.
Elfis tried to run, but Santa quickly caught up with him. I couldn’t believe how fast the old bearded guy could move, but he had to have a secret power if he could hit millions of households around the world in a single night.
McGoo held up his bound wrists for me to bite the ribbons. Now that was showing a measure of trust! “Good plan, Shamble.”
“I call it Santa ex-Machina.” I picked bright green satin out of my teeth, then turned to free Robin as well.
Santa had cornered Elfis by the big coal hoppers, and the evil elf had no place to go. Santa didn’t need any help, but I was part of this, too—and I had a bone to pick with anybody who wanted to throw me and my friends into a furnace.
Next to me, one of the cowering hench-elves still had a sack filled with the icy rock-filled snowballs. I grabbed one and hurled it with perfect aim, proving that not all zombies are disoriented and uncoordinated. My snowball shot struck the release latch on the coal hopper just above Elfis’s head. The trap dropped open, and Elfis looked up just in time to see a black avalanche dump down on him. He was buried under lumps of coal.
Robin, McGoo, and I rushed over to Santa, who gazed with satisfaction at the mound in front of him. “Coal is what Elfis deserved … although I’d hoped he would turn his life around if given the chance. Such a disappointment.”
“You knew Elfis beforehand?” I asked.
Santa nodded. “He was one of my toy laborers, assigned to my workshop for community service, but he escaped, broke the rules of his North Pole parole. I was going to report him, but not until after the holiday season was over. It’s a busy time of the year, you know.”
We heard a groan, then a stirring. We moved the coal blocks away to reveal an Elfis now entirely covered in black dust. He plucked in dismay at his ruined jacket. “I guess I won’t be having a white Christmas.”
Santa unslung the sack from his shoulder, tugged it open, and strode forward. “Here comes Santa Claus.”
Elvis scrambled backward when he saw the yawning sack. “No, Santa! Please! No!”
“Naughty children get what they deserve.” Santa snatched Elfis, stuffed him into the sack, and cinched the opening shut. The captive kept squirming, but could not get out. Santa tucked his rolled up Naughty and Nice list under one arm. “Thank you all. I’ll start checking these names, see who deserves to be sentenced to the North Pole for a few years.”
“Sentenced to the North Pole?” Robin said.
“Oh-ho-ho, this list doesn’t just show me who gets presents and who doesn’t. The naughtiest of the naughty have to help me spread holiday cheer. Parents write me, too, you know. ‘Dear Santa, please help me with my child who keeps acting out.’ We have a community-service program up at the Pole, where naughty children can learn good behavior by doing good works.” He had a twinkle in his eye. “There’s a long waiting list, but our success rate is remarkable.”
“Except for Elfis,” I said.
“Some nuts are harder to crack than others, but a few days of shoveling out the reindeer stables usually makes them a little more cooperative.”
Moving with supernaturally swift footsteps, Santa stalked around the factory floor, grabbing the cowering hench-elves one by one and stuffing them into his sack, which was obviously much larger inside than it was on the outside. It needed to be. How else could it hold a world’s worth of toys?
With the bulging, squirming load over his shoulder, he turned to Robin, McGoo, and me. “I’ll let you free the children.” He turned to the shackled waifs on the now-still production lines. “Ho-ho-ho! Have you all learned to be nice instead of naughty?”
A chorus of the enslaved kids affirmed that they had indeed learned their lessons. Some, including Buddy, even volunteered to do community-service work up at the North Pole—after they recovered back home with their loving families.
Santa went to the coal furnace, shifted his heavy sack. “I won’t forget you on Christmas morning, Mr. Chambeaux. Or you either, Ms. Deyer, or Officer McGoohan. And now, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good”—he pushed down his black glove so he could double-check the time on his wristwatch—“a good night.” He tossed the squirming bag ahead of him into the mouth of the furnace, touched the side of his nose, and vanished up the smokestack.
“Elfis has left the building,” I said. “But the kids are still here.”
The three of us spent the better part of an hour freeing the natural and unnatural children from their shackles. When Robin unlocked his chains, Buddy Tannenbaum threw himself into her arms. “Thank you, thank you! Can you take me back to my Mom and Dad now?”
“You’ll be home for Christmas,” I promised.
For a lot of families, it would be a happy holiday season, except perhaps for those who had ordered their gifts from Elfis Industries and were expecting delivery by Christmas Eve Eve….
While McGoo called for backup to shut down the factory and secure the crime scene, Robin took down names and developed a plan to reunite the kids with their parents. I called the Tannenbaums directly, and Buddy’s parents rushed right down. It was a wonderful reunion, with the werewolf kid nuzzling his parents and promising he would be good.
It was Christmas morning in the Chambeaux & Deyer offices—and we found surprise gifts waiting for us, brightly wrapped in colorful paper with holly leaves and berries, wreaths, and little snowmen. Since we didn’t have a chimney, Santa could only have delivered the presents by breaking-and-entering, but I wasn’t going to press charges.
“Looks like Santa was true to his promise,” I said.
Grinning, Sheyenne brought the gifts into the conference room. “If you can’t trust Santa to keep a promise, who can you trust?”
I hadn’t put anything on my wish list, but Santa Claus was supposed to know exactly what a person wanted or needed. I had to admit I was curious.
“You first, Robin.” I nudged the thin, rectangular box with her name on it. As a lawyer, Robin tried to remain cool and businesslike, but I could see the sparkle in her brown eyes as she tugged the ribbon aside, and politely worked at the tape. When she couldn’t get it unwrapped, she used a letter opener to slash the paper with all the finesse of a well-practiced serial killer.
Inside was a single yellow legal pad and a sharpened No. 2 pencil. Her excitement dimmed, though she remained smiling. “I can certainly use these. And not every lawyer gets to use a pencil and legal pad from Santa himself.”
“There’s a note,” I pointed out.
Robin pulled a slip of holly-fringed stationery from behind the second yellow sheet, skimmed the hand-written note, then read aloud as her smile grew. “’I don’t normally give magical gifts—I don’t want to establish a present precedent, but I am so grateful for your efforts. After checking my list and the footnotes I made throughout the year, Robin, I know that your work delights you more than anything else. This special legal pad will never run out of paper, and the enchanted pencil will take notes for you so you can have your hands and mind free to concentrate on your client. Ho-ho-ho, best, S.C.”
Robin’s smile was wide. “I can’t wait to try it out!”
Excited, Sheyenne picked up the box with her name on it. She used her poltergeist abilities to undo the bow, pull the ribbon aside, and then, giggling, ripped the wrapping paper to shreds. She opened the box to find an envelope inside—with both our names written on it.
“It’s something the two of us can use, Beaux!” With luminous fingers, she opened the flap of the envelope to find an embossed, official-looking certificate inside. “Oh! An all-expense-paid romantic weekend for us at the cozy North Pole Winter Wonderland Bed and Breakfast! Off-season only, it says.”
“Now that has definite possibilities,” I said, imagining a wonderful time away with my girlfriend. We would have to be creative to overcome the supernatural difficulties that precluded us from touching, but I was up to the challenge.
“Open yours, Dan.” Robin handed me the very small box with my name on it.
Judging by the size, I thought it might be a new pair of cufflinks or a tie clip, but who was I to doubt Santa’s wisdom or imagination? Zombie fingers are not the most adept at unwrapping small gift boxes, and Santa’s elves had used way too much tape, but I managed.
I opened a hinged, velvet-covered box to reveal a small plastic cylinder labeled “Magic Lip Gloss. Use Sparingly.” I wasn’t disappointed so much as confused, not sure what Santa had been thinking. “Lip gloss?”
Sheyenne made a delighted sound and snatched the tube out of the box. “I think it’s for me, Beaux—and that means it’s for you.” She popped off the cap, extended the lip gloss, and applied it to her widening smile. “A special film for my ghostly lips that might just allow a kiss….”
She leaned closer, but I told her to wait. “Just a minute, let’s do this right.” I slipped a hand into my jacket pocket and withdrew the wadded and prickly tumbleweed ball of the McMistletoe artificial substitute that Elfis had been trying to bring to market. I raised it up over my head. “This is supposed to be as good as mistletoe.”
Robin was skeptical. “With all the quality that we’ve come to expect from Elfis Industries?”
Sheyenne’s lips glistened invitingly from the magic lip gloss. Under the McMistletoe, she came very close, and her ectoplasmic lips brushed against mine. Yes, I definitely felt a warm tingle.
“I think it works just fine,” she said.
Copyright © 2013 WordFire, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the copyright holder, except where permitted by law. This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously.
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
Don’t miss the new Dan Shamble novel, TASTES LIKE CHICKEN—in hardcover, trade paperback, and eBook.
In 2010, Rebecca and I launched WordFire Press as just a small company primarily to reissue some of my old out-of-print novels as eBooks, which were just starting to become popular. When that went well, some of my author friends asked if we would do the same with their backlist books, and our catalog really started to grow. We got some of Frank Herbert’s classic novels, the political masterpieces by Allen Drury, then books by Tracy Hickman, Mike Resnick, Jody Lynn Nye, Mike Stackpole, Todd McCaffrey, and others. Alan Dean Foster gave us a new novel, and we started doing works by newer authors as well.
We are the eBook publisher of both Clockwork Angels and Clockwork Lives, my steampunk fantasy adventures written with Neil Peart from Rush. And when Kensington decided they didn’t want to publish a collection of my Dan Shamble, Zombie P.I. short stories, we decided to do it through WordFire, and we are reissuing ALL of the Dan Shamble books under our imprint.
StoryBundle offered us a way to spotlight some of our books with this Super Spotlight, 17 different titles that highlight our range of titles and authors. You can get all 17 books for a minimum price of $15—but feel free to pay what you feel they’re worth. The bundle only runs Dec 6-28.
A part of the proceeds will go directly to the worthy Be a Santa nonprofit run by our dear friend Patricia Tallman (from Babylon 5 and Night of the Living Dead). Thanks for helping to support our small publishing company. Our authors sure appreciate it!
I put in my own DEATH WARMED OVER, the first novel in my Dan Shamble, Zombie P.I. series. I hope you find it hilarious! There’s also the fun and exciting MONSTERLAND, by Michael Okon, the Goonies meets Jurassic Park with monsters. And JB Garner has INDOMITABLE, the first in his entertaining superhero trilogy.
If you like unusual detectives who *aren’t* zombies, there’s Brooks Wachtel’s beautifully illustrated and innovative LADY SHERLOCK and David Boop’s noir SHE MURDERED ME WITH SCIENCE. Or maybe you prefer werewolves with PTSD? Then try Julie Frost’s PACK DYNAMICS. In other Fantasy and Urban Fantasy, there’s GRIFFIN’S FEATHER by J.T. Evans and FIRST CHOSEN by Todd Gallowglas. DEATH WIND by Travis Heerman and Jim Pinto is a weird western horror novel, while Mike Baron’s BANSHEES proves that death doesn’t have to put an end to sex, drugs, and rock & roll.
If you want a lot of short stories, we have two anthologies, A FANTASTIC HOLIDAY SEASONS, with everything from zombies for Thanksgiving to aliens at Christmas: perfect reading for this time of year. Award-winning Mike Resnick has AWAY GAMES, a collection of his stories about sports and science fiction. And MAXIMUM VELOCITY, science fiction adventure stories, the Best of Full Throttle Space Tales.
In the edgier, dark thriller category, Jeff Mariotte’s EMPTY ROOMS and Colum Sanson-Regan’s THE FLY GUY will keep you awake at night better than espresso at midnight. Aaron Michael Ritchey’s post-apocalyptic adventure DANDELION IRON is about a strong young woman trying to lead a cattle drive in the West after the fall of civilization. And THE CROWN AND THE DRAGON is a colorful epic fantasy with (as the title suggests) crowns and dragons, as well as a few swords and magic.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. We hope you’ll enjoy these books and check out some of our other titles at wordfirepress.com. Thanks for your support of our small publishing house, our authors, and the wonderful Be a Santa organization. Remember, the WordFire Press Super Showcase RUNS ONLY THROUGH DEC 28.
Click Here: WordFire Press Super Showcase
At long last, the zombie detective is back for his most fowl case yet! TASTES LIKE CHICKEN comes out tomorrow (Dec 1), but to get you started, here’s the first chapter!
You can order now in hardcover, trade paperback, or all eBook formats.
Some monsters are friendly. You learn that while working as a private investigator in the Unnatural Quarter, where you never know what size, shape, species, or temperament your clients might come in.
Some monsters want to live their daily lives without undue hassles, just like anybody else.
Some monsters even eat cookies and are adored by children nationwide.
But some monsters eat people. They’re vicious, violent things that deserve to be called monsters.
The demon Obadeus fit into that last category, without question. And McGoo—Officer Toby McGoohan, beat cop in the Quarter and my best human friend—had tracked Obadeus down before he could murder again. I was along for backup, moral support, and, if necessary, a diversion.
Serial killers are bad enough, but a bloodthirsty demon serial killer, now that’s not a good thing at all. Obadeus’s death toll now stood at nineteen, and since demons can be a little OCD about round numbers, we knew he would strike again just to make it an even twenty.
Fortunately for us, although not for his numerous victims, a monster with so much enthusiasm for killing isn’t very good at covering his tracks. Some supernatural psychologist or monster profiler might speculate that Obadeus wanted to be caught, deep down inside. I had a different theory: he was just too lazy to clean up his messes.
We had tracked the demon down to his lair, which Obadeus called his “man cave.” The place reeked. The walls were decorated with dripping blood and flayed skin or pelts from his victims, both human and unnatural. I didn’t envy the crime-scene cleanup team, or the landlord who would have to make the place ready to rent again, after McGoo and I took care of this creep. At least Obadeus wouldn’t get his cleaning deposit back, so there was some justice in the world.
The big demon bolted from his blood-soaked lair just as we arrived—which was a lucky break, because McGoo and I didn’t exactly know how to arrest a serial-killer demon from the Fifth Pit of Hell. I had no idea where the pits of hell fell, on a scale of one to ten, but pit number five must be a nasty place if it had spawned something like this.
Obadeus was ugly, with a capital U-G-L-Y. He had a leathery hide with knobs, warts, scales, and leprous patches, a face full of spikes and tendrils, triangular pointed ears, and a jaw that extended all the way to the back of his head filled with enough fangs to keep an orthodontist in business for life.
“Ick,” McGoo observed. “He makes vampire bats look cute.”
Whether Obadeus was insulted, or enraged, or just shy, he spread his thorny wings and lurched toward the door of his lair, where the two of us happened to be standing. Letting out a roar that sounded like a cow caught in a barbed-wire fence, Obadeus charged past, knocking both of us aside like bowling pins, and smashed out the door. He ran off into the streets.
“We must be scarier than I thought,” I said as the demon fled. “He could have torn us limb from limb and sipped our entrails through a straw.”
“Law enforcement carries great weight.” McGoo drew his Police Special revolver, and I pulled my .38, which I considered to be just as special, even though it didn’t have the word “Special” in its name. We set off after Obadeus in hot pursuit.
It was the dead of night in the Quarter, which meant the streets were busier than at any time of day. Though the monster’s great wings got in the way as he bounded out among the pedestrians, they also generated a tailwind for him as he flapped them, giving him a boost as he ran.
“Make way!” I shouted. “Killer demon on the loose!”
Werewolves, vampires, and witches scattered. Obadeus charged along, batting them aside.
I put on a burst of speed, which isn’t always easy for a zombie. McGoo fired his revolver in the air. “Halt! In the name of the law.”
Apparently Obadeus didn’t respect the law as much as McGoo hoped. He kept running.
“You missed,” I said.
McGoo pointed his revolver ahead and shot straight at the demon’s back. The bullet ricocheted off the pellet-hard skin and chipped the bricks on a nearby building. “Not much difference even when I don’t miss.”
We sprinted past the closed-down Recompose Spa, which had formerly been the closed-down Zombie Bathhouse. Though the doors were barred and the windows dark, a pair of gaunt gray-skinned zombies stood outside the entrance, bare chested and wearing only white towels around their waists. They stared at the locked door, their faces slack and expressionless. They’d probably been there for days waiting for the place to reopen.
With such blotchy and decaying skin, the zombies were long past an easy restorative treatment. Though I was running after a hellish demon covered with the blood of nineteen victims, I had to frown at my fellow undead. Though they were waiting at the spa, they clearly hadn’t taken care of their own corpses. I’m a well-preserved zombie myself, and it doesn’t come easy. I take pride in my human-like appearance, even though my flesh-colored skin needs a touchup now and then. Some people even consider me handsome, at least in dim lighting.
I placed one hand on my fedora, so it wouldn’t blow off as I ran. Wind whistled through the bullet hole in my forehead. One of these days I was going to get it filled in again, but not now.
As Obadeus stormed past the bathhouse and spa, the waiting zombies stood in his way. With a sweep of his massively muscled arm, he smacked one of them in the head—which not only cleared the sidewalk for Obadeus, it relieved the zombie of his head. Detached, it rolled and bounced in the gutter, still making breathy, offended noises. The other zombie watched his companion collapse in two different directions, then turned back to the door, as if still expecting the spa to reopen at any moment.
“That’s twenty!” Obadeus crowed in triumph.
“Doesn’t count,” I replied. “He’s still alive and kicking … sort of.”
“Darn!” the demon grumbled. Despite his vicious crimes, Obadeus apparently didn’t like to use harsh language.
We kept running, but the monster was pulling ahead.
“Hey Shamble, I have an idea,” McGoo wheezed. His freckled face was flushed. “Get ahead of him and let him bite you—the arm or shoulder will do well enough. While he’s distracted, I’ll put handcuffs on him.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” I told him, without wheezing. I wasn’t out of breath because I didn’t need to breathe, strictly speaking. “Let’s not listen to any of your suggestions.”
An old man was sitting on a bench reaching into a bag full of dead flies, which he tossed toward a flock of bats that swooped around, nabbing the treats out of the air. Obadeus roared, and the old man fell off the back of the bench. The bats scattered.
An animated skeleton pushing a grocery cart out of a small market tried to clatter out of the way, but the demon maliciously snatched him by the rib cage, hooking a long claw beneath his sternum and swinging him around before smashing the skeleton into the brick wall, shattering him into a pile of bones. I wasn’t sure if that counted as victim number twenty. With the undead, it can be difficult to determine the exact point at which a murder is committed.
Obadeus roared and kept running.
McGoo fired his revolver again—I think he just liked the sound—and we continued our pursuit.
O O O
A killer demon running amuck didn’t cause as much panic as you might expect. The Unnatural Quarter is full of strange creatures, some warm and fuzzy, others scary and fuzzy. Obadeus was arguably on the hideous end of the spectrum, but when the world is full of monsters right out of legends and superstition, most people aren’t too judgmental.
Several years ago, when the reality-bending event called the Big Uneasy changed all the rules, humans had reeled in shock to see the return of vampires, werewolves, ghosts, succubi, banshees, even elves and fairies.
Not everyone viewed this change with a sense of wonder.
Eventually, most of the monsters gathered in the Quarter, where they could be themselves and not feed upon humans. Statistically speaking, unnaturals were much like anyone else: decent, law-abiding citizens with a few bad apples among them. When I was still alive and ambitious, I had set up shop as a private investigator, realizing that even vampires, werewolves, and mummies still got divorced, faced blackmail, needed to recover missing items, and so on. The usual caseload for a P.I.
My partner at Chambeaux & Deyer Investigations, Robin Deyer, is a young firebrand, a bleeding-heart human attorney who wants to see justice for unnaturals. Officer McGoohan, after too many politically incorrect jokes in his old precinct, found himself transferred to walk the beat in the Quarter.
Like any disadvantaged ethnic group, the unnaturals faced prejudice from outside humans and had to work hard to maintain a good image. In order to temper their predatory tendencies, Monster Chow Industries mass produced tasty food for all types of unnaturals. Their major factory on the edge of the Quarter delivered enough synthetic flavored protein, at reasonable prices, to keep the monsters from eating people. And not being eaten kept the rest of the people happy. The world should have been full of peace and harmony.
But some monsters—like Obadeus—were feral, primal throwbacks. They liked killing people. They were a menace to society. As Obadeus’s horrific murder spree continued, panic spread even outside the Quarter.
An old werewolf was found entirely skinned, his pelt taken as a trophy. A vampire piano player who had never harmed anyone, except occasionally making bad choices in his song selections, was found decapitated, his mouth filled with garlic pesto. Five humans were gutted, their organs displayed in full Jack-the-Ripper glory. Witches were impaled with their broomsticks. An amphibious creature was locked inside a solar tanning bed until she had dried into jerky.
It was horrible. All of law enforcement was desperate to catch the killer.
And we had found him.
O O O
As we kept running, McGoo fired a shot from his other revolver, the police extra-special, which was loaded with silver bullets. At least those rounds made divots on Obadeus’s scaly hide. But such minor wounds only annoyed the demon more, and he was already very annoyed. Snarling, he flapped his bat-like wings and leaped up to grab a fire escape ladder, but the ugly demon was so massive that his weight ripped the fire escape stairs from the brick wall. The entire structure came clattering down around him like the bars of a cage. Obadeus ripped the bars free and lurched to his feet just as McGoo and I caught up with him.
Flustered, the burly demon ducked into a wide, shadow-filled alley, from which we heard squawking and clucking and saw a flash of white feathers. A panicked wild chicken flapped its wings furiously as it tried to lift off the ground. At the end of the alley I saw a rickety pile of coops with the doors open, chicken wire strung across the opening. A dozen more birds strutted around squawking.
Feral chickens, the worst kind.
But even though rampant feral chickens have become an increasing problem in the Quarter, this wasn’t the problem that concerned me at the moment.
Obadeus snarled at them, and the chickens scattered back into the garbage-strewn shadows.
Finding himself cornered in a dead-end alley, the demon from the Fifth Pit of Hell turned, hunched down, and spread his bulging arms. He extended his claws, and thrust up his wings. Obadeus snarled at us with a face full of fangs exuding bad breath.
Caught up in the desperate chase, McGoo and I charged into the alley shoulder to shoulder. Each of us had our guns drawn, knowing they were totally ineffective. The bloodthirsty demon was trapped, and he knew it.
We had him exactly where we wanted him.
“Uh-oh,” McGoo said.
“Now what do we do?” I asked.
ORDER YOUR HARDCOVER, TRADE PAPERBACK, OR EBOOK COPY USING THE LINKS BELOW
Only a few more days to the release of TASTES LIKE CHICKEN, the first new Dan Shamble, Zombie P.I. novel in more than two years! I hope you’re excited as I am. Here’s a Dan Shamble story, “Road Kill,” which tells of Dan’s first encounter with the Hemoglobin Gang, who are main villains in TASTES LIKE CHICKEN.
Sorry you missed the free week of the story, but if you still want your copy, you can support the author by downloading for 99¢ at the links below.
And for more free stories and other sneak previews, please sign up for my readers group at WordFire.com.