So! It’s a tad bit early in December, by my personal reckoning at least, to be putting up my Christmas short. However, with “The Chronicles of Henry Harper” coming out next Friday, pretty much the rest of the month is going to be flooded with related material. I have two more excerpts I plan to release before then, and a trio of tie-in short stories planned to put up around the novel’s launch. Add in the holiday’s themselves, and this week was really the last slot I felt I could spare to slip the Christmas short I wanted to write into. It’s also a short I’ve been wanting to do since it first occurred to me a couple of years ago, but I never quite got around to the idea. As it is, it’s a touch more rushed than anything I would normally post, but I think it worked our reasonably well. Well enough, in fact, that I may actually followed it up with a sequel next Christmas. Assuming we’re all still here on this little spinning ball of mud in space by than, and that I’m still writing.
As for the story itself, it’s probably technically general fiction, but the concept is really more something you would find in the fantasy genre, so make of that what you will. It’s a touch longer than most of the shorts I’ve put up so far, coming in at around 5,500 words. I also had some very odd formatting issues, with spaces disappearing on me when I printed it out for proofreading, but hopefully those didn’t follow it over into the online version. Enjoy!
The Christmas Job
By Jacen Aster
Sam couldn’t suppress a grin as he locked the back door of his small dojo. He couldn’t wait for the meeting tonight, he just knew it was going to be his year. The year he finally made it off the easy-peasy rookie jobs. As he dashed through the thickly falling snow for his car, keeping his feet with one of the fundamental skills of his ninjutsu school, he spotted the impatiently waiting forms of Katie and Lyn. He struggled to keep his grin below a million candlepower at the sight, and remotely unlocked the car for them as he traversed the icy parking lot.
They were his two best female students, and finally letting them in on the secret last year meant he could use them as support for his operations. They were good, and had performed brilliantly in their first operation last winter. Of his students, only Craig was better, and Craig was good enough that he had his own assignments these days. Which, sadly, meant Sam couldn’t call him in as support any longer. On the other hand, it was another fact that would help when the targets were selected this year. After all, the people doing the choosing knew who had trained Craig.
Sam joined the girls in the car, doing a reflexive check of the back seat, making sure he’d packed the kits. He’d checked a dozen times already, and they probably wouldn’t need anything more than the uniforms, but he told himself that a thirty second check never hurt anybody. In fact, it was exactly the sort of thing that got you the best assignments. Cleanup from someone screwing the pooch was a nightmare, after all, and thirty second checks kept you from making mistakes.
After exchanging greetings with the girls, the three of them settled into a comfortable silence. They had trained together constantly throughout the year, and had long since lost the need to fill the space between them with unnecessary words. Besides, who’d ever heard of an overly chatty ninja?
Even with the snow, the drive was a short one, and the low visibility cut any need for extra stealth. They pulled smoothly into the underground parking garage of the old “Grand Hotel” and grabbed their uniforms before heading inside. No one on the outside had any idea that the building still housed regular conferences. That, in point of fact, the “historical preservation society” that had owned the hotel for nearly two centuries was nothing more than a front for their organization’s operations. They made their way inside, and he parted with the girls at the door, hitting the men’s changing room to get into uniform.
He pulled it from his bag and couldn’t help but grin as he put it on. Oh what people would think if they only knew! It was a bit of a laborious process, and there was a touch of makeup that went with it to properly sell the getup, but he sorted it quickly enough. He packed his street clothes and the remnants of the kit into a numbered locker, then all but bounced out to meet the girls in the hall. They exited their changing room at nearly the same time as he did, and he whistled with low appreciation.
They really did make good Santa’s Elves. He was particularly impressed by how natural the ears looked.
“You two ready?”
After finding one of the elders, the three of them had spent several hours milling around with their fellow members of the Order of the Claus. The time thus spent rubbing elbows had been both enjoyable and highly informative. There were no other gatherings of the order on this scale throughout the year, only smaller affairs meant mostly to help keep data on the various street urchins and runaways up to date. Those kids needed a visit on Christmas more than most, and the Santa’s and Elves added their own observations to those of the dedicated data gatherers several times a year in an attempt to make sure none of them slipped through the cracks. It was also at those smaller meetings that new members were inducted, retirements announced, and teams both formed and split. The occasional Reindeer or Elf without a team could seek a new Santa, and Santas could register their teams with the elders at those meetings. This gathering, however, was another matter entirely, for it was the regional pre-Christmas conference where assignments were given out.
As a result, all the regional Santas, Elves, and most of the Reindeer were in attendance, and everyone could take the measure of everyone else. Tricks could be exchanged, bragging could be performed, and as the crowd slowly thinned out…skill could be measured. It was an unstated rule of the elders that the easiest jobs were given out first, so the fewer left in the crowd the better the remaining talent pool was. Sam had never been able to stay this long before, and he hoped it meant he was finally getting promoted to tougher assessments.
Sure, he knew he wasn’t going to get the jobs delivering presents to the White House or Trump Tower. Breaking into those sorts of places required massive teams of Reindeer and dozens of supporting Elves to pull off, even with the order’s contacts in the secret service. But he was tired of the other Santa’s looking down on him, and he wanted a delivery route that he could be proud of this year. He was almost sure last year’s performance, when they’d added a few mid-security houses to his list, had sealed the deal. Even so, he was still nervous.
Lyn tugged his sleeve to grab his attention, nodding to the discrete display boards. Their coded number had just flashed up and he grimaced. Well, it was still early, but later than last year. Hopefully that meant they’d get at least a little bit of an interesting job. It was much earlier than he’d hoped, though, and he tried to keep the disappointment off his face. At least Craig had already gone, it would have been humiliating for his student to overtake him. Katie gave him a sympathetic smile as she joined them, leaving off what seemed to be light flirting with a Santa a few years older than her. That, at least, he wasn’t worried about. Lyn and Katie worked well with him and he doubted they’d abandon their sensei for a prettier member of the Claus.
They made their way out a side door, and Sam was grateful for the beard that hid his light blush at a few knowing glances. Perhaps he’d done just a bit too much bragging earlier. He shook his head and continued on as Katie and Lyn peeled off outside the door to a conference room. Only the team’s Santa went inside for assignments. Sam stepped through and was surprised there was no elder waiting for him.
He looked around, trying to see if it was some sort of test, but there was nowhere they could have hidden themselves in the room. Assuming they’d just been delayed, he shrugged and decided to examine the murals decorating the walls. No tours of the historic building were ever allowed to come this deep, and the murals covering the walls of every conference room were the reason. Each depicted a piece of the history of the Order of the Claus, and would have seemed more than a little out of place in the supposedly preserved building. He smirked as he brushed fingers over the mural of beginnings, depicting when the famed Order of the Claws had first begun the tradition of present delivery.
They’d been assassins back then. Assassins and thieves. No one knew the whole story properly, save maybe a few of the higher-ranking elders, but some haunting guilt had caused an odd mutation in the group. A single master of the old order had taken to sending his students out to break into homes, as practice he claimed, and to give presents to deserving children as “atonement” for their dark profession. The practice had spread to other masters, and become an accepted tradition within a few decades.
Sam ran his fingers farther along the wall, moving to another section. Eventually, the need for the ninja of the Order of the Claws had begun to die out as the modern world advanced. Less was the need for their type of training, and the original order struggled to change. As with many such factions, it slowly became more a martial school then an order of assassins, and in the 1800s a decision was made to take advantage of a legend that had grown around their yearly gift giving. It was then they became The Order of the Claus, and taught their old skills under a new onus. Charity instead of death.
Between misunderstandings by the populace in those earlier days, and deliberate warping of the stories through propaganda by the elders, the modern myth had slowly taken shape. Rein-men who held horses for quick escapes, and performed other support jobs, became Santa’s Reindeer. Secondary members of the infiltration teams became Santa’s Elves. And so on the story went, until the modern day massive operation and Sam’s place within it.
Though, the system wasn’t perfect. Lyn and Katie were evidence of that. Female martial artists had been rare when the mythos was first encouraged, and there was currently no room for a female Santa Claus. Which was important, in the event they got caught by a child. Adults could have their minds altered with a few choice drugs inherited from the original Order of the Claws, but no one wanted to risk that sort of thing on a child. Better the kid see “Santa Claus,” and be ignored by parents who might otherwise pay attention to stories of a late-night intruder. It was for this reason that his female students were currently relegated to support roles, though there were rumors of the elders looking for influence with feminist groups, in an effort to help open up the accepted mythos for future generations.
The door at the far end of the room opened quietly, and Sam’s attention immediately left the murals, zeroing in on the Claus elder that had just entered. Sam didn’t recognize the short man, but that was only a small surprise. There were at least two dozen elders for this region alone, and Sam had only met a handful of them in past years. Partly, that was on account of each elder tending to handle a different tier of Santas, and he hoped that meant his lack of recognition was a good sign. He matched the elder as the man slid into a chair on the far side of the table, and when they both were seated the older man slid a pair of thick folders across to Sam.
His eyebrows tried to rise at that, but Sam forced his expression to neutrality and opened the folders. His heart sank for a moment as he saw the folder on the right contained a run almost identical to last year, but then his heart leapt and he nearly cheered in delight at the contents of the second folder. It was high security, all the way. Sure, it wasn’t the White House run, but it was filled to overflowing with the kids of bankers, lawyers, and locksmiths. All the sorts of people who’d have the best security systems available.
He tried to calm his suddenly racing heart as he asked the elder, “I’m to choose?”
The man simply nodded, and Sam tried to look like he was seriously considering his options. The two different runs were night and day, and for a moment he wondered why. In previous years there had been no choice, only an assignment. So why was it different now? One was the typical orphans and street kids run he’d done the last few years. Easy street, anyone could take that run. He flipped through it and thought he had his answer, as he recognized many of the places in it from previous years. They were simply giving him the first right of refusal on it, as he’d might be attached to the run. Not to mention a way out, if he didn’t think he was up to the other.
Satisfied with puzzling out the hidden layer of meaning, he dismissed the easy run, sliding it back across the table. “I’ll take this one. Are there any other details?”
The elder shook his head as he scooped up the easy folder. “No, it’s all in the folder. As you’ve never done a harder run, I’ll point out that there’s a number and email for the data group in the front of the folder. They’ll be able to give you some updated details on movement patterns for the residents.”
Sam almost dragged the girls back toward the car, grinning ear-to-ear. “We’ve got a new route! A high security route!”
Lyn and Katie mostly looked amused at his behavior, but surely they were excited too. As they got to the car Katie finally asked, “So they gave it to you, just like that? I figured there would be a test or something.”
Sam shrugged. “Nope, they just gave me a choice between two options, and I took the high security one.”
Lyn chimed in at that. “What was the other option?”
He made an airy throwing away gesture. “Last year’s run to the streets and orphanages. Pretty sure they just gave me right of refusal on it, as an out in case I didn’t think we were ready.”
Katie looked strangely disappointed as she slid into the back seat. “I liked that run, why didn’t you take it again? It really meant a lot to the kids.”
“What, and give up a chance at the big leagues? This route will really make us into something. Besides, anyone can do that run, so it’s not like it won’t get done.”
Katie frowned a bit, and Lyn looked a bit uncertain as well. But he was sure they’d come around, once they realized how big this route was for them. Who knows, it might even get the two of them into the pilot program for female Santas! He wasn’t sure the program was real, but there were a lot of rumors about it tonight, and pulling off a run like this in their second year would make both his Elves shoe ins!
Sam was tired, exhausted even, but giddy nevertheless. He waited for the all clear signal from Katie, letting him know she’d set up the intercept for the silent alarm on the fourteenth floor skylight Sam was looking down into. The businessman who owned the flat had a solid system, but it relied on an outside call center for reporting the break in. With that signal disrupted, and the internal system already hacked by Lyn using the same line going the other direction, Sam was free to carefully remove the glass from the skylight. This was their last job of the night, and Sam had already prepped the hardware, triple checking everything in full knowledge of his own exhaustion. It took only a few additional moments to get one panel out, and Lyn was there with the descent gear a moment later. He dropped down into the top floor flat, somewhat depleted bag of gifts over one shoulder.
He knew where the tree and single stocking were, of course, and made his way to the tree first. He added his present for the child to the tree, then pocketed half a cookie from a tray on his way to the stocking. Much as he might have a sweet tooth, he’d already had far too many cookies tonight, and he pocketed the half purely for the sake of appearances. Maybe one of the girls still had room for another without becoming sick. He was in the middle of adding a gift to the lone stocking over the fake fireplace when he heard a quiet noise behind him.
Sam froze, for just a moment unable to believe he’d been caught.
The young voice repeated itself, even more uncertain this time. “Santa, is that really you?”
Sam’s training kicked in and he gave a great grin as he spun toward the sound. Children were fine, sort of. So long as they didn’t wake their parents, at least. It would count against him that he’d been caught at all, but they had a preplanned script for kids, one calculated to make their parents assume the child had been dreaming.
“Ho ho ho, it is little girl, but shouldn’t you be in bed?”
He eyed the girl. She was a damnably cute little thing, bedecked in sparkling Christmas pajamas and matching slippers. She couldn’t be more than eight, and maybe a touch younger than that. Her cuteness factor went up, reaching dangerous levels, as her uncertain smile turned brilliant.
“Santa!” She yelled, and darted forward.
Sam caught her, and used her momentum to swing her around with a rumbling chuckle. But on the inside, he cursed. He tapped the emergency button while he swung her, bringing the girls in to subdue the parents if the shout had woken them up. He watched Lyn and Katie drop down silently from the skylight behind the girl, and wished again that they’d been able to find out who was home. This could get bad, quickly, if someone had the presence of mind to use a cell phone to call for help, instead of the temporarily disconnected land line.
The girl launched into a rapid series of questions as he smiled down at her, and minutes passed as he managed to half-answer the dozen she asked about elves, reindeer, and cookie consumption. The last one, specifically a child using the word consumption, almost broke through his worry about the parents. What kind of eight-year-old used the word consumption? After a good five minutes, both of his students showed up looking puzzled. They tugged on the descent line to send it up without them, and he broke off the discussion in shock.
They should have left, unless there was something he needed to know that they didn’t have a signal code for. What was going on? He stamped down firmly on his concern as the little girl noticed him looking behind her and turned to see Lyn and Katie in their green elf regalia.
She sounded surprised, but Sam had gotten himself together in her moment of distraction. “Indeed, little one, my helpers have come to see what has taken me so long. I still have many houses to visit, after all.”
The change was startling.
The cheerful, excited little girl’s face collapsed from one moment to the next, and a sniffle escaped before she could stop it. And that was perhaps the most alarming thing, for she did try to stop it, making a visible effort to smile again. Katie, by far the better of his students with kids, swooped down to distract her, and Lyn slid over to Sam’s side.
“Sam, there’s no one here.”
He looked at her in blank confusion for a moment, then what she was saying processed. “What? But the kid….”
“She’s here alone. We checked every room in the flat. Twice. We even checked the closets and under the beds.”
Sam gaped in disbelief for a moment, eyes darting back to the little girl. “But, she can’t be more tha—“
Lyn cut him off. “Little Rosia is only seven. Lives with her single father. Businessman, rich, no reason he shouldn’t be here. Even if there was, he could easily afford to leave someone to look after her. We don’t know why he’s gone, so it’s possible he’s just stepped out for a few, but our surveillance doesn’t show anything. In fact, we don’t think anyone but the girl has been here in hours.”
Sam’s jaw worked, but he didn’t say anything. After a few moments to work through his racing thoughts, he stepped forward in Rosia’s view and went down on one knee. “Why are you sad little Rosia?”
She was good at hiding it, for a child, but he was an adult trained by some of the best in the art of reading people. Her lips struggled, quivering for a moment, before she crumbled and latched on to him, burying her face in his chest.
“You have to go, don’t you, to give out all the presents? I don’t want to be alone. Can Kay stay with me?”
Kay, of course, was Katie’s code name. But that thought wasn’t important. Why the hell was this kid alone?
“I need my helpers, little one. Won’t your daddy be home soon?”
She shook her head against him, but didn’t say anything more.
Sam pushed her away gently, just enough to see her tear-stained face. “Little one, where is your father?”
She looked confused for a moment. “Don’t you know?”
He cringed inwardly. Right. He was Santa Claus. Santa knew everything. “I only watch children little Rosia, the adults don’t need me anymore.”
She nodded somberly, as if that made perfect sense. He supposed maybe it did, to a child’s mind. Her face scrunched up and she sniffled, but she still answered with a sad voice as she scrubbed her eyes. “Daddy’s at work.”
Sam tried not to frown openly as he glanced at Katie over the little girl’s head. His assistant shook her head, then made a few hand signals to explain the headshake. The man’s work was closed for Christmas. Either he’d lied to his kid, or he was a workaholic who’d abandoned his kid on Christmas Eve to squeeze in a few more hours.
Strictly speaking, they ought to leave, but with a sinking feeling in his stomach Sam fished for a bit more information. “Why is he at work? Doesn’t he know it’s Christmas?”
Rosia’s face screwed up, and her next line sounded rehearsed, like she’d heard it enough times to simply echo it back. “He has to work so we can have more nice things.” The sweet little girl looked rebellious for just a moment. “I wish we didn’t have to have nice things, then he could be home for Christmas.”
Sam cringed, and pulled the girl in for a hug. It was as she clung desperately to his warmth that his heart sank completely, his earlier giddiness collapsing to a pit in his stomach. It wasn’t just the girl that did it, though she was the trigger. As she cried into his chest he wanted to curse her absent father, to blame him for his obsession. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t blame the man, for he himself was no different, was he?
He wanted to shy away from the thought, but his own habit of self-honesty wouldn’t let him. He remembered dismissing the orphanage and street urchin run, remembered declaring that someone else would do it. Of saying time again in the last few weeks, that it was more important for them to prove themselves, to make it big in the Order of the Claus. He even remembered resenting their usual mall and store appearances that took away from planning, remembered the look of disappointment on Lyn and Katie’s faces when he’d cut out early from several of them.
As his words of determination, of obsession, came back to him, his mind whirled and tossed with self-recrimination. What had he been thinking? He’d become Santa Claus for a reason, hadn’t he? Not for a challenge, that wasn’t what the school taught. It wasn’t what he himself taught, or perhaps parroted, either. No, he realized as his thoughts steadied, he’d become Santa because it made little children happy. The challenge had been fun, but he’d been taught better than to obsess over it. Hadn’t he told Craig, years ago when the man was first inducted, that the street kids they kept track of, the blankets, food and toys they gave them, were much more important than the rich ones? He remembered that, remembered telling Craig that the very best runs were the ones to alleyways and orphanages.
A single tear ran down his cheek, half from anger at himself, and half in sadness for the child in his arms. He hadn’t forgotten her plight in his inward revelations, oh no, he wouldn’t make more mistakes to compound his last. He swallowed the lump in his throat and hugged the girl tighter for a moment. Then he pushed her away.
He’d screwed up, and he owed a lot of people apologies. But now wasn’t the time for that. Now was the time to do something crazy. Something that might very well get him kicked out of the Order of Claus. Well, if it did, he’d just have to make sure it had been worth it.
“Well now, little Rosia, I think we just might be able to spare some Christmas magic for you.”
She looked up at him in confusion, and he grinned down at her.
“Do you want to know the secret of how I deliver so many presents?”
The cutely pajamaed little girl’s eyes widened, a tiny sparkle lighting them up again through the wetness of tears, and she nodded excitedly.
Sam leaned in close and whispered in her ear. “I can be in two places at once, with a little bit of magic, and I think there is just enough to spare so we can have some fun.” Her face scrunched up cutely as she tried to work through that, it not exactly being something a seven-year-old could easily grasp. But that was half the point. “Don’t worry about it little one, just go play with Kay for a little bit, and I’ll take care of the magic.” He pushed her towards a quizzical looking Katie. Rather than explain, he simply signaled for her to keep the girl busy, and made his way to Lyn.
“Lyn, do you remember that attraction on the square, the one with the sleigh ride?”
His Elf looked confused, but nodded that she did.
“I want you to go steal that sleigh, and the reindeer they had for it, of course.”
The green clad woman turned fully to him, her eyes just about popping clear out of her head. “What?”
Sam’s eyes crinkled with the enormous, wicked grin on his face. “We’re going to give this kid the best Christmas ever.”
The three elders looked only a hairsbreadth shy of murderous, and they gazed down on Samuel Walsh from a raised dais. He tried to stand upright and defiant before them on the chamber floor, but couldn’t quite manage it. He’d been led before the tribunal moments ago, and he was more terrified of their expressions than he’d ever like to admit.
There was a long five minutes of silence, each one of which felt like its own eternity, before the middle elder stood. “Destruction of both public and private property, fifteen counts of grand theft, including a damn sleigh and its costumed horses, one wrecked car, two looted toy shops, an ice cream parlor missing no less than nineteen gallons of strawberry ice cream, and four different policemen hogtied and left on rooftops. What, exactly, do you have to say for yourself, Mr. Walsh?”
Sam cringed as they used his real name, not his Santa title. That couldn’t be good. “It was for a good cause?” The speaker scowled, but Sam swore the one on the left’s lips twitched.
“You are damn lucky that we had someone on the police force in your district Walsh, or we’d have thrown you to the wolves to save the order being exposed. You’re even more lucky that no one could identify the kid. As it is, the Order of Claus has been set back nearly five million making the problems go away. You had damn well better have more to say for yourself than that.”
Sam took a deep breath, then let it out. He let the silence linger for long moments before answering. “No sir, I do not. The child was alone on Christmas, and I wanted to make her happy. That’s it. I will accept whatever punishment I am due. Even finding a way to repay the Order, if it comes to that.”
The elder on the right snorted, but said nothing. The accusing elder scowled again, and stepped back with a final word. “We will now make our decision.”
The lights in the chamber dimmed and a frosted glass pane descended to seal off the elder’s dias, leaving Sam to fret. Make their decision? What, exactly, did that mean? Were they kicking him out, or maybe throwing him to the police after all? Well he supposed he couldn’t blame them for either, if it came to that. Their wild ride with little Rosia might have gotten just a tad out of hand. Thankfully, it seemed blame was being laid solely at his feet, rather than splashing over onto Katie and Lyn. They’d wanted to come to take their part of the blame, but the elders had denied them both.
It was a long half an hour before the glass lifted and the light came back up. This time all three elders were standing. The middle one was still scowling, but the one of the left had a mischievous grin and the last one seemed to be suppressing a smile of his own. It was the grinning one, not the previous speaker, that finally broke the oppressive silence.
“Samuel Walsh, of the Order of the Claus, you are hereby promoted to the rank of regional elder, and obligated to take on the training and duties thereof. Your rank is effective immediately, but your duties will only begin when I have completed your training to my satisfaction. That said, obviously, I will be your mentor in your new role.”
It was nearly ten minutes before a shocked, pale faced Sam could make his voice work. Even then, he only managed a single word. “What?”
All three elders were chuckling now, even the scowling one, and his new mentor spoke up again. “I have to admit, yours was the single most spectacular result we’ve ever seen out of the elder’s test. I particularly liked the complaints about the horses getting sick from too much ice cream. We actually had to pay out a higher bribe to the owner because of that. Apparently, the aftermath was…messy.”
No words came out of Sam’s mouth, only spluttering half-words of confusion joined by equally confused gestures.
The elder that had been silent so far took pity on him and explained. “You actually failed the first half of the test, back when you were given the choice between a high-security run and helping a bunch of needy kids have a good Christmas. Combined with that, the sheer absurdity and lack of discretion in your solution to the second half nearly caused us to pass you over. In the end, however, no one could deny you’d technically passed, and Harry argued hard in your favor.”
Harry must be the currently laughing elder, some distant corner of Sam’s mind managed to piece together. He sat down hard on the chamber floor, and after a few long moments he finally managed. “It was all a test? What about the girl?”
The somber elder in the center spoke up, voice still disapproving. “Very real, and in a very real situation. We put her on your list for last specifically to see what you would do. Of course, you were supposed to either leave and fail or else pass by staying to cheer her up. You were most definitely not intended to take a joy ride through downtown in a stolen sleigh.”
The laughing elder managed to get himself calmed enough to speak again. “It was awesome though, and we’ll be telling that story for years. Congratulations on your new rank, regional elder, meet me outside when you finally pull yourself together.”
With that the elders filed out, and left Samuel Walsh sitting on the chamber floor, still trying to process what had happened.
Perhaps it had been his year, after all.