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Sneak Peek – “Santa Must Die!”

Enjoy this peek at Noel's next exciting adventure!

Chapter 1

When I entered the room, Santa Claus was slumped on the gold throne that sat on the raised stage at the far end. Snow drifts of white cotton fluffed up around the curled feet of the throne and trailed in tendrils across the stage. Two rows of oversized candy canes stood upright, the curled ends holding the gold rope that lined the path leading straight up the steps to the stage.

The walls behind the stage were painted a bright blue with swirling clouds. Stenciled snowflakes in multiple sizes dotted the wall. I could see a few of them peeling off.

On either side of the stage, evergreens gave off a sickly sweet scent of pine so strong I could almost taste it coating my throat as I breathed. Way too chemically to be real. Not to mention the horrid green colour and the perfect symmetry of the trees, all lined up like green triangles. When I looked closer, I could see the plastic seam on the needles like green pipe cleaners.

Having been raised at the North Pole, I had seen a lot of evergreens in my life and none of them looked that perfect, or smelled that strong.

I glanced back at the night watchman who had come to get me. The man huddled just inside the door, sweating through his beige shirt that strained to contain his belly. The black belt sagged with the weight of his walkie talkie on the left and his flashlight on the right.

“Are you sure you just checked the door ten minutes ago?” I asked.

The watchman nodded. His slicked-back, black hair shifted a little on his head. Sweat trickled down the sides of his face.

Poor guy, he probably never figured he’d ever see a Santa like this in the mall.

I never thought he would either.

I had taken this job as head security for the Christmas in July show at the Good View Mall as a favour to a friend. The head of the mall, Paul Guthrey, had liked my name and thought it was perfect for the show.

“Noel Kringle,” he said as he leaned forward across the smooth surface of his dark brown desk. “That’s perfect for this show.”

We had met in the big man’s office where he sat and grinned across at me, mouth open wide to show off all his teeth. They were so white they almost reflected in the polished surface of the desk. His brown hair was stylishly cut and parted on the left. A hint of grey at the sides looked like they were supposed to convey age and maturity. He was clean shaven with a hint of fat around his jaw line, giving him a roundish, babyish face. He wore a white shirt under a dark brown sport coat. The tip of a handkerchief poked out from the breast pocket of the coat, as if Guthrey couldn’t decide if he wanted to be formal or casual.

I nodded. I sat in the cushioned chair in front of Guthrey’s desk. The office had a sort of schizophrenic feel. On the wall behind Guthrey’s head was a large cutaway view of the mall, showing all the stores. To the right, hung certificates and photos of Guthrey with various businessmen, posing with a children’s softball team, the kids all wearing uniforms sponsored by the mall, Guthrey on the golf course, golf club raised in a ready swing, big grin on his face showing almost as many teeth as he was showing to me.

Against the other wall were two book cases full of books ranging from business to several self help paperbacks with cracks along the spine. For a man who appeared so confident in the photos and listed credentials, those paperbacks hinted at a vulnerability he kept deeply hidden.

I let a smile crack my face. I could tell Guthrey thought my name was just a gimmick.

Little did he know.

Of course who would believe there really was a Kris Kringle, aka Santa Claus, at the North Pole, or that his youngest son would leave to be a private detective? Especially a private detective with a mess of wavy brown hair and a brown, neatly trimmed beard, both with the tendency to grow fast and bushy and turn unnaturally white in the last few months of the year, giving him a suspiciously familiar look to children everywhere if he didn’t keep both under control with regular trims and colouring. Who wore black pants, a plain butter yellow shirt and a tan, zippered jacket in the summer instead of his usual long navy coat. His only concession to his famous father was his red scarf.

But July was too hot for both the navy coat and red scarf.

Guthrey would probably also be surprised to learn that I was able to use just a touch of magic to discover that Guthrey’s favourite childhood toy had not been any of the cowboy guns or big trucks his father had given him, but his older sister’s Easy-Bake Oven.

I crossed my legs. The fake leather of the chair creaked a little at my movement.

“What kind of security are you looking for for your show?” I said.

“I need someone who can oversee the guards. Most of these guys have worked shift work, out of the public eye. I need someone who can project the right image. Someone trustworthy who can talk to the parents.”

Sounded like an easy job and I could use the cash.

“Two hundred a day, plus expenses,” I said. “That’s my usual rate but for you, I’ll say one fifty.”

“That’s a little steep,” Guthrey said.

“Sometimes you have to pay a little more for that right image,” I said. “Or the right name.”

That got a laugh from Guthrey. His white teeth flashed and his jowls jiggled a little.

“Fair enough,” he said. “This is our first year with this promotion. July is a slow month traditionally and I’d like to spice that up, get folks thinking about Christmas, maybe they can get a jump on the season.” He grinned. “They can start their shopping early, then pick up extra stuff later.”

He let the grin drop, closing his lips over his white teeth. He folded his hands on the desk in front of him.

“It’s important that this first year go off without a hitch. That’s why I want extra security. If all goes well, I’d like to continue this going forward, with the stores helping out with future years’ expenses. The mall is covering it this year so I’m very anxious it go smoothly.”

“I’ll do everything I can to see to that, Mr. Guthrey,” I said.

Guthrey gave me another toothy grin. “I’m looking forward to it, Mr. Kringle.”

So much for that promise.

My loafers were silent as I crossed the room toward the stage. Great tufts of cotton snow rebounded off my shoes as I passed them. They rolled like tumbleweeds across the pebbled black and white tile.

The stairs creaked as I stepped on them. Behind me, the security guard gasped. I stopped and looked back at him.

“What?”

The man pointed with a shaking finger.

“He moved.”

I looked back at the slumped Santa. He did look like he was slumped a little more to the right. I stepped onto the stage. The wood under my feet moved a little. The Santa sagged a little lower.

The security guard let out a yelp.

“It’s the stage moving him,” I said.

I inched a little closer. I didn’t want to rock the stage too much and make the body slide onto the floor. The poor security guard might have a heart attack.

I reached the man’s side without further incident. This close I could smell the slight mothball odour from the Santa suit. The side of the collar looked a little frayed, stray threads of white showing clear against the red.

My mother would never had stood for that.

I pressed my fingers against the man’s neck. Even in the air conditioning, the man’s skin felt cool and almost waxy to the touch. For a brief moment, I wondered if maybe the man was just a dummy, but who would make a Santa dummy that looked dead?

No, the poor man was no dummy, and he was most certainly dead.

So much for a nice, easy job.

I climbed back down the stairs, careful not to jostle the stage and disturb the body. By the time I reached the security guard, the poor man looked ready to faint.

“I’m going to call a friend of mine,” I said. “We’ll see if we can keep this quiet. Just tell me, is that the man that was hired to play Santa this year?”

“I think so,” said the security guard. “I only met him once.”

I dug my phone out of my pocket. The signal was at only one bar.

“I’ll take this outside,” I said. “Stay inside the door and don’t let anyone else in.”

The guard froze. After a moment, I wondered if the man had stopped breathing.

“Just stay inside the door. You don’t have to go any closer.”

The guard nodded and kept nodding as I closed the door on him.

Fortunately Santa’s Room had been set up right next to an exit. I pushed through the double glass doors that led to the back parking lot. It was a narrow space with just one lane of cars before the concrete back wall. The blast of air conditioning followed me out but was burned off by the warm, moist July day.

Bright sunlight reflected off the car windows. Heat shimmered off the asphalt. Maple trees poked up above the concrete barrier along the back, waving bright green leaves, creating speckled shadows on the wall. I cupped my hand over the phone so I could read the screen.

A few taps and I held it ringing to my ear. After a moment, a familiar gruff voice said: “Mallory.”

“Hi Stan, it’s Noel,” I said. “If you’re having a slow day, I have some business to throw your way. Any chance we can keep this quiet?”

* * *

By the time I checked on the security guard and then returned to the parking lot, Stan Mallory had arrived.

Two police cars pulled into two empty slots along the back concrete wall. The passenger door of the closest car opened and Stan Mallory stepped out.

An average sized man of average weight, Mallory wore a white shirt over black pants that wrinkled just a little. A tan sports coat flicked aside to show the badge on his belt. His dark brown hair, cut short in a crew cut, was sprinkled liberally with white. His wide, weathered face looked calm and still.

He gave me a slight nod as he stepped up.

“Problem?” he said.

“Just a little one,” I said. “I’m hoping we can deal with it quietly.”

“Let’s take a look.”

I led the way through the double doors back into the cool hallway of the mall. After the bright sunshine, the dim lighting seemed almost black. I had to blink a few times to get my eyes to adjust.

I moved to the door to the Santa’s Room. I grabbed the door knob and turned. The door creaked a little as it opened.

To an empty room.

The throne still sat on the stage. Curled cotton snow still covered the floor. The perfectly spaced and shaped pine trees still stood.

But there was no body.

Mallory poked his head in. “So?”

I felt myself sweating even in the coolness of the air conditioning. The man had been right there. I had felt his dry skin under my fingers when I checked for a pulse. I remembered the faint, musty smell of the costume.

And where was the security guard?

Footsteps sounded from the hall. I turned as a shadow appeared on the tile. A moment later, the security guard walked in. His beige shirt was tucked in neatly. No signs of sweat stains under his arms. His hair was patted back with the hard look of shellac.

The guard stopped just inside the door. He looked around at Mallory and the two uniformed police officers.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

I stepped forward. “I told you to stay just inside the door. Why did you leave?”

The security guard frowned. He tilted his head and shifted from one foot to the other. His belt, heavy with the walkie talkie, slipped down a little on his waist, making his black pants bulge.

“Sorry?” he said. “What are you talking about?”

One of the police officers made a hrumph sound. My neck felt hot. I hadn’t imagined the body, I was sure of it. I had felt the man’s cold, waxy flesh when I checked for his pulse. Remembered the overbearing stench of the fake pine trees as I bent over the man.

It had happened.

I clenched his fists to stop from grabbing the security guard by the shoulders and shaking him.

“Mind if we take a look around?” Mallory said, in a bland, even tone.

The security guard shrugged.

I turned away from him in time to see Mallory gesturing to the two officers.

“Check around the room and outside. See if there’s anything or anyone who saw something.”

Both officers nodded, although I could swear I saw the shadow of a smirk on one of them.

As they moved toward the door, I stepped to Mallory’s side.

“There was a body here,” I said, keeping my voice low. “I swear.”

Mallory gave a slight nod. He pointed to the security guard.

“Could you show my officers around?”

“Yes, sir,” the guard said. He hitched up his belt and followed the officers through the door.

“There really was,” I said.

“I believe you,” Mallory said when the guard cleared the doorway. “But where is it?”

I pressed my lips together. I sighed. “I don’t know.”

Mallory rubbed his chin and turned to survey the room again.

“What is going on here exactly?”

“It’s a promotion for the mall,” I said. “Christmas in July. I was hired to oversee the security.”

“Uh huh,” Mallory said. “Why you?”

I looked away at the throne sitting on the raised stage across the room. I hadn’t noticed it before but some of the gold was peeling off the curled arms and dotted the puffed cotton snow scattered at the chair’s feet.

“They liked my name.”

“Pardon? I didn’t hear you,” Mallory said.

I shoved my hands into my pants pockets to stop from clenching them. I cleared my throat.

“They liked my name.” I articulated the words and heard them echo a little around me.

“Ahh,” Mallory said. “I see.”

I looked up to see a slight smirk on the detective’s face.

Oh, so that’s how it was going to be.

Great.

“There really was a dead man here, Stan,” I said. “Maybe we should concentrate on that.”

Mallory spread his hands. “Look, I believe you but there’s no body. Unless they come back with one, there isn’t anything I can do.” The smile faded from his face. “I really am sorry, Noel.”

I looked back at the throne. “Well, can’t you do some kind of test on the chair? Find residue or something?” I gestured at the throne. My impatience made my arm lash out like a punch.

“Forensic science isn’t magic,” Mallory said. “Why can’t you do something?”

I winced. Was the detective making fun of me again? Ever since I had left the North Pole, my magic had been at a minimal level. Any exertion drained me like a cheap dollar store battery.

Besides, the Santa had been murdered. Wasn’t that Mallory neck of the woods?

The detective was already moving toward the door.

Even if he did believe me, would he ever trust me enough to come when I called again?

How had someone gotten rid of the body? The security guard was supposed to be in here the whole time.

The security guard…

He had looked awfully calm and composed after being so agitated. Even if he had been able to calm down, how had he dried out the sweat stains under his arms?

That seemed almost like… magic?

I turned slowly back toward the throne. The same peeling gold paint, the same curled legs, the same faded-looking fabric on the back. I took a couple of steps closer, kicking cotton snow out of the way. When I was within five feet, I reached out my hand and opened my mind.

And felt the tickle of residual magic as it was just fading away.

Oh damn the halls.

This really was my kind of case.

Coming in 2018!