“My family and I are trying to enjoy a succulent turkey dinner, if you don’t mind,” I told the bereaved man as he shouted his lungs out over the aroma of deep-fried olives and chocolate-chip stuffing.
“I barely escaped with my life!”
“You should have gone back for some soap,” I chided, mocking his overpowering odor. “Who are you and what do you want?”
It was about that time the actors I’d hired to portray my loving family demanded their time sheets signed. Unwilling to acknowledge the last few minutes, I fired them all but agreed to give them glowing reviews.
“I’ll ask you again,” I grunted as I dragged the old man to the children’s table, “why are you here?”
“Name’s Cane. Candy Cane. AKA, Chris Kringle. Father Christmas. Jolly Old Saint Nick.”
“You’re clearly mentally unbalanced,” I said, taking a huge bite out of an onion.
He paused to gather his words. “Listen, you’re the only one I could turn to. Your arch-foe, the evil Doctor Vernal Infernum has taken over my workshop! He plans to use my elfin technology to put evolutionary decelerators in everyone’s stocking this year — transforming people into cavemen!”
I blinked. “I’ve never heard of this guy, and I’m pretty sure what you described is impossible.”
He kicked over a high-chair with a plastic baby in it and beat his chest. “I swear by the northern lights!”
No man had ever sworn falsely by the northern lights. I was tempted to believe these wild allegations, but one thing still troubled me.
“So… we’re heading off to the north pole, then?”
Smiling, Santa pulled a gilded dagger from my knife drawer and compared it to a similar saber in his hilt. “Keep dreaming, Krispy Kreme. My workshop’s at the south pole. You think I could keep up toy production if I was dumpin’ all th’ toxic waste over an ice sheet?!”
It checked out. My sources in the military had told me conclusively that the Santa workshop had been moved — information only someone with level 8 clearance or a handful of rogues (elves who had escaped memory-wipe, a few arms dealers) would know.
“How did Infernum find out where you were?”
Flashing teeth rotted by hatred and gingivitis, he tucked a one-bullet pistol into the brim of his ostentatious hat. “A mole. After we crush Infernum, I’m gonna put together a list of anyone who could’ve done it; tear their lives apart to find the culprit; dispense a little ‘polar justice’. Then punish the rest fer bein’ on the list.”
The last three weeks had been quiet and distressful. Santa and I had booked passage on a tugboat commanded by a Popeye look-alike who took issue with my payment plan: old comic books.
“They’ve appreciated in value, I tell you!” I told him. “This is a classic, in mint condition.”
Much as it pained me to lose such a valuable part of my collection, I’d been willing to part with Alan Moore’s 1986 masterpiece, Head Case.
It was a brilliant limited series that was never written in our universe. It begins when Archie Andrews meets a sudden and violent death at the hands of an unknown assailant. Jughead Jones breaks down at Archie’s funeral, his lifelong disdain for socialization revealed as the internalized realization that humanity is by nature unable to overcome its base instincts to achieve true enlightenment.
In twelve emotionally-rocking issues, Riverdale is uncovered as a haven of drunks, decent people down on their luck and nihilists who all wanted Archie dead for a variety of good reasons.
Can Jughead find justice for his friend? Or will he be next victim? Even by the last issue, the killer’s identity is unknown.
“And you don’t want it?!” I asked, not believing this nautical giblet.
“Look, fella, I only take money.”
“Fine,” I shouted, dumping a pile of rubies at his gnarled feet. Good thing I always keep some handy.
“We’re getting close now,” Santa murmured as I snaked up behind him. He’d named me his chief bodyguard after I’d used a tin pie plate to disarm an assassin at McMurdo Station. “I can smell his evil.”
“That isn’t evil,” I pointed out, sniffing ardently. “That’s our stop.”
Though Santa couldn’t see the tunnel entrance beneath the fresh snow, my GPS flashed bright orange. Santa puffed another inch off his hand-rolled Havana.
“You sure these tunnels won’t collapse?”
I slammed him against the railing. “The mole-men of the antarctic — the greatest architects in history — incompetent?! FOOL!”
He flipped me overboard onto an ice floe, shooting the drifting berg with his grappling gun and shimmying down on a zipline. “I’ve never heard of these ‘mole-men.’”
I rubbed my dislocated jaw. “They’re native to Australia. When the Koalas arrived, they were hunted like animals, forced to flee their ancestral lands. They used electromagnetic pulse grenades to send the Koalas into a dark age shortly before the human invasion.”
“Then that strange fossil unearthed at Perth—”
“The seven foot Koala robot? One of many industrial machines used by the Koala empire in its conquest of the outback,” a bizarre voice wailed from the mainland.
As the ice floe touched down, we sank it with explosives to cover our tracks. A mole-man operative was standing by to take our coats and offer us hot towels.
“Santa, allow me to introduce Jimmyantha of the mole-men. She’s a mole-woman. Saved my life during World War II — stashed my unconscious body in a torpedo casing and shot me into space. I owe these gentle people a great debt.”
“Hey,” Santa said, putting out the contraband cigar with his beard. “What, are ya livin’ under a rock?! I had no idea there’s man-moles in the ice.”
“Santa, no!” I yelled, trying to keep his murderous wiles in check. “Don’t strangle her!”
They both looked at me with a dazed look. Santa, he had an eyebrow raised. Jimmyantha, she drooled as most mole-men do when fear grips their rodent hearts. Wretched abominations.
“This way,” the ungodly monster gestured, following a helix stairway down into the bowels of Antarctica. I had flashbacks of Dante’s Inferno. “It’s nice to be able to help out an old friend. Infernum has been on a rampage, pillaging the mole-men villages and whatnot. It’s good you’re here.”
“Are you sure we can trust these… things?” I whispered.
Santa shrugged. “They’re your friends.”
The old man was losing it. I’d never laid eyes on such a creature.
The caramel apples were the best part of mole-man city, the capital of Molesylvania (or whatever they called that rat-hole underground country). Oh, the spectacles! Millenia-old ice sculptures carved by long-forgotten artists, sautéed penguin by the ton, and street dancing on par with the finest Californian buskers.
“I’ve never felt more at peace or accepted by society,” I beamed, pushing a child into an oncoming parade. Lost in the ensuing commotion was any mention of how out-of-place I looked. Truly, an advanced people.
“We’ve been working for a month, since we got your phone call,” Jimmyantha whistled, smacking her foreleg on a brand new support tunnel. It would soon be demolished — but today it would lead us into the Santa Fortress.
“Stand clear!” The loudspeaker boomed. Ice and confetti blew every which way as the final tumbling block cracked, opening the road to victory.
An army of mole-men mercenaries marched in, metallic muskets masking our mission as mere mercurial mayhem.
“Move,” I seethed, prodding Santa onward. Intrepid mole-men would take care of the brainwashed elves while we located the Sanctum Infernum…
“THERE!” Santa swung his pick-ax at the iron wall farthest from the underground watchtower (which was already smoldering). Light spilled from the crevasse, bathing the cavern in a luminous yellow glow. Tearing the rest of the wall like tissue paper, the mighty, mighty Santa Claus strode in, head bobbing, ready for a fight.
Perched high atop an ominous platform, Vernal Infernum let out a contrived laugh. “I hope you’re not claus-trophobic!”
The schemes for world domination I could handle. But puns like that were just obscene. Given the time, I would’ve prepared a stern lecture on how ineffective bad wordplay makes a villain, but the floor was already opening. Lava pooled below in swirling currents of fiery death.
“I really regret adding that retractable lava floor,” Santa lamented, beads of sweat drenching his unibrow. “I can see why the realtor cautioned me against it. A shame I MELTED HIS FAMILY.”
With a groan, the floors stopped moving. “Cheap elfin labor!” Infernum exclaimed, summoning his robot warriors with carefully-honed psychic control.
Santa and I stood back-to-back as the maddened Infernobots prepared for psychic-robot battle. “Think you can keep ’em occupied?” the old man whispered under his breath. “I’ve got a plan.”
“Why don’t you step down from your ivory tower and go toe to toe with the rabble?!” I yelled with a righteous rage. The robots buzzed with anger; they coveted my free will and ability to taste food, such as peanut butter. And also, human emotion.
“Insolent worm.” Infernum lifted a flaming pike, adorned with the head of a dissident mole-man. The fiend! Butchering the mole-men like common koalas — I’d make quick work of him!
I engaged my former colleague (Vernal Infernum was my advisor at the New York Institute of Advanced Book Learning) in combat, dodging his deathstick while landing a few devastating blows of my own. Lance. Parry. Squat. Roll. Pow! I jabbed him right in the right temple. He fell like a sack of overripe turnips. The only wounds I suffered were a minor cut and, also, my arms and legs fell off.
Confused, the robots turned to me to fill the leadership vacuum. Knowing only strength and cunning in their leaders, they assumed I would bring them a new golden age. Hauling Infernum by the hair, I pledged to be a just and benevolent ruler, and their monotonous applause ushered in a new era of peace and prosperity for exactly 32 seconds.
At that point, Santa’s heat ray (crafted in the craterous valleys of San Serriffe by a deaf man with a blind seeing eye dog) had melted the outer casing of the polar reactor. Like a row of ornate and expensive dominoes, the robots collapsed, their power source gone.
“A shame they’re so dangerous,” I quipped. “They’d make quite a nice present to some giant child.”
Santa clamped his meaty hand on my shoulder. “You bet, Skippy. I’m glad I could get here in time to stop Infernum single-handedly and save you.”
He gave my shoulder another violent squeeze that let me know his account of what happened was the absolute truth, and that any conflicting stories would be met with force.
And that’s the story of the year Santa saved Christmas while I was there.