A3Writer: Christmas Storytelling
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Friday, December 29, 2017

Christmas Storytelling

Instead of a flash fiction, I have collected my Matt Allen serial from the past year to put them in one convenient post (albeit an extremely long one).

Christmas Storytelling
A Matt Allen Serial
The Wait

            “Come in, Nikki,” I said. It didn’t freak me out to invite her into the office, anymore. The fact that I didn’t freak out was beginning to freak me out, but that was another matter.
            My invitation popped the invisible bubble of the consecration, and Nikki walked in. She took off her sable coat, hanging it on my tree in the corner with my hats. She wore a dark green blouse and pencil skirt over hose and heels. She looked like she was there for business. She sat down in one of the two chairs in front of my desk, and looked at me.
            “What?”
            “Nothing,” she said.
            “Do you have a case for me? Want me to break out the chess board?” Business was slow; it always was around Christmas. The supernatural waned at this time. Belief in Christmas tended to dampen their powers, which was another reason it was odd to see Nikki out and about.
            “No case, Matthew. And I’m not in the mood for chess at the moment.”
            “So why are you here?”
            “For your company.”
            “You want to talk? About what?”
            “No conversation.”
            “You’re just going to sit there.” It wasn’t a question.
            “For now, yes.” She gave me an amused smile.
            She wants to sit. Fine. I have to finish up the report for Collins, anyway.
            I went back to my laptop, typing up the narrative of the report from my end, careful to avoid any direct references to the supernatural. Though Collins did head up his own task force specifically for these kinds of cases, the higher-ups didn’t like to see it in reports as it wouldn’t stand up well in court.
            As I typed, I could feel Nikki’s eyes on me, and I would occasionally glance up at her. She still sat with that amused expression as she relaxed in the chair. Finally, the pressure was too much for me. “Why are you staring at me like that?” I said.
            “I’m waiting,”
            “Yeah, I got that part. Waiting for what?”
            “I’m not sure.”
            “Nikki, you’ve been hanging around me for a week, now. You’ve brought me to work, several days, taken me home, we’ve gone out every night this week. Even gone with me to investigate crime scenes with the cops. I thought this morning you were finally done with it, but here you are. What is it?”
            Like we’re married or something.
            I have noticed a pattern, Matthew?”
            “What pattern?” I closed the laptop, curious.
            “For the past few years, something odd happens to you around Christmas.”
            “What? I don’t start acting weird. Well, weirder than normal. I like Christmas is all.”
            “I didn’t say it was your behavior. I said something odd happens to you.”
            “She’s right, Boss,” Jessie said from my door, coffee in her hands.
            “Like what?”
            Jessie set down a mug for Nikki, then myself. “Well, like me.”
            “Let us also not forget the department store with your niece,” Nikki said.
            “Cassie?”
            “Or last year on the street where I received a letter from medieval Germany.”
            “She’s right, Boss. Jen would agree with us, too, if she hadn’t gone back to South Dakota this year.” Jessie grinned, then looked back toward the outer office, frowning, and she left.
            “Okay, yes, things may happen around me, but it’s not me. I’m not doing it.”
            “Nevertheless, you are a focal point.” Nikki said, suddenly serious.
            “So, what, you’re just hanging around to see what happens this year?”
            “Precisely. Two times may be coincidence, but three is the beginning of a pattern, and these are only the instances of which I am aware.”
            “I don’t know what to tell you, Nikki, but if you want to waste your time, then—What’s that?” I asked, looking at Jessie.
            “It was a little boy,” she said. “He just came in and handed me this box. It’s addressed to you. No return address.”
            “A boy. Perhaps eight to ten years of age? Sandy hair with a big smile?” Nikki asked.
            “Yeah, that’s him.”
            Kid, you’re going to have to start aging or people will catch on there’s something about you.
            I motioned for Jessie to bring it over. It was an average-sized package, but it wasn’t taped up. Instead, it was wrapped in plain brown paper, tied with twine. The only marking was the label on the front with my name in neat script. I recognized that script.
            I used my knife to cut the twine, then neatly sliced the paper, butting the box free. Instead of a box with folding flaps, it had a lid. The lid was white, but the box itself was fire-engine red. Nikki leaned forward, intent. Jessie was grinning, almost bouncing on her toes.
            Underneath the lid was a folded paper and some tissue paper wrapping something else. I picked up the paper, reading it.

Dear Matt,

            I told you this might be coming. You’ve been really good. So I officially name you as a Helper.

Nick

            My eyes bulged, and I read it three times. The note was short, but the implications were huge. I set the note down, and saw Nikki’s hand hovering over the tissue paper.
            “I cannot get closer to it,” she said.
            “Huh?” Jessie’s grin fell in confusion.
            I just nodded. I opened up the tissue paper to reveal a Santa hat.
            “That is not some cheap prop found at a drugstore,” Nikki said. “Do you still deny?”
            “I can explain,” I said.
            Nikki leaned back, folding her hands in her lap. “I look forward to it.”
            “Me, too,” Jessie said.
            Oh, boy.

Where to Begin

            Nikki leaned back in her chair, regarding me with the lazy eyes of a cat. She crossed her legs, spent a moment arranging the skirt of her dress, and then folder he hands in her lap expectantly.
            Jessie had pulled up a chair to the side of my desk, practically bouncing with excitement.
            I still stood with the red and white Santa hat in my hands. I sat down and rubbed my chin.
            “Do not try and weasel out of this one, Matthew,” Nikki said tersely. “You promised an explanation.”
            “I’m not trying to weasel out of this, I’m trying to figure out where to start.”
            “At the beginning.”
            “Yeah, thanks for that. That’s the problem. The beginning isn’t the beginning. It just leads to the beginning.”
            “You are stalling. Tell the complete story.”
            I set the hat down firmly on the desk, and took a deep breath. “Okay. This is going to take some time, so buckle up. It was shortly after Max and I got a divorce.”
            “You were married!” Jessie nearly fell out of her chair.
            “No,” Nikki said evenly. “I believe he means when he and Maxwell went their separate ways and divided up the city. Matthew came here, and Maxwell kept his old office.”
            “Oh. Oh, I get it, now.”
            “Like I was saying,” I continued. “He kept Shadow Valley, Dante, and Shoreward. I took Meriville, the Grind, Fairhaven, and the rest.”
            “The Ritzy digs I believe you called them once,” Nikki said.
            I nodded. “Anyway, I got hired to find a Nativity.”
            “You mean the thing they put on at Christmas?” Jessie asked. “How can you steal that?”
            “Well, this one wasn’t performed by people. They had, well, dolls, little statues, I don’t know what you want to call them. It was put outside of the church for people to see all the time. It was supposed to be a small job for a friend of a friend of my minister. I thought it was probably some kids, so I started canvassing the neighborhood, asking the people at church if anyone ever harassed them. . . .

A Simple Case

            “Mrs. Cavanaugh,” I asked the octogenarian, “What can you tell me about what happened?”
            Despite her advanced years and blue hair, she didn’t need glasses, and her mind was surprisingly agile. “Well, young man, it’s like I told Reverend Michaels. I was finishing up the books from the collection, settling the budget for our Christmas Program in a few days when I heard some noise outside.”
            “What kind of noise?”
            “Squealing tires. Like when someone stops too quickly, not when they hit the gas. My Frederick used to do that to me. He was a real hot-rodder back in the day. We even used to have drag races. I would even start them. I tell you, back then I—”
            “Mrs. Cavanaugh,” I broke in, “the noise?”
            “Pish, young man, you shouldn’t interrupt a woman at my age having a good memory.”
            “I’m sorry.”
            “No harm done. Anyway, I went to the window and opened it. I couldn’t see the front lawn where the Nativity was, but I saw the car. It was an older one, kind of blocky, not like those fast-looking ones today.”
            I scratched the information down along with a note to look for cars from the eighties, the height of the square and unimaginative car designs.
            “There were four of them, and they ran back to the car with their arms full of the nativity. They stuffed what they could in the trunk, then climbed into the car with the rest. Why, two of them had to hold Joseph outside the windows as they drove off.”

Boring Detective Work

            Mrs. Cavanaugh gave me some good information with her descriptions of both the kids and the car, but I didn’t exactly have access to police databases. I had to canvass the neighborhood and go on stakeouts. Fortunately, the neighborhood was on my side to find out who was responsible. I just had to do the legwork. I was able to narrow it down to—”
            “Matthew,” Nikki interrupted, “I am rapidly losing interest.”
            “You said you wanted to hear the story. I’m fine not telling this. Believe me.”
            “I believe you are intentionally drawing out the minutiae to stall for time.”
            “Despite appearances, my job is boring, punctuated by moments of traumatic terror.”
            “Do not dally, Matthew. Get to the point.”
            “Okay, sure,” I shrugged. “So after the demons were banished I find this card on my windshield—”
            “Demons!” Jessie squealed.
            “Do not be deliberately difficult, Matthew, you have enough natural inclination without that.”
            “I just want to tell the story how it should be told,” I said.
            “Then continue, but without the tedium, please.”
            “I’ll do my best.”

Tailing Suspects

            After two days of boring stakeouts, I finally had a lead. After midnight, I saw the car Mrs. Cavanaugh had described, and the guys in it. They struck me as typical teens: looking for trouble.
            They didn’t know I tailed them to their hangout, a house for sale just a couple of streets away from the church.
            Explains how they go away so quick and how no one really knew they were here.
            The garage door opened up for them, and they went in.
            “Smart,” I said to myself. “No sign of an alarm system, just a key box on the door. They go in, reprogram the opener, and they’ve got a cozy hideout for all of their activities.”
            I parked a few houses down, then approached, doing my best to blend in with suburbia.

            “Why would you have to blend in?” Jessie asked. “You have a house out that way, right?”
            “I didn’t at the time,” I said. “I used to have an apartment in the rougher part of Meriville. Suburbanites were pretty foreign to me at the time.”
            “Oh,” she said. “I used to think the suburbs were so boring. I wanted to be in the city.”
            “I prefer the excitement of the city, particularly the night life,” Nikki grinned.
            It was slight, but I saw Jessie fidget when Nikki said night life.
            Yeah, that probably brings up unpleasant memories. Move the conversation on.
            “Excitement is overrated,” I said. “Especially when I expected to just deal with teens playing a prank on the church.”
I pointedly avoided looking at the hat. It was starting to bother me. Nick had threatened the helper thing before, but I hadn’t expected it to come with a supernatural uniform, not that he asked me what I wanted.
“Well, do continue, Matthew.”

The Hideout

            The house was one of dozens of cookie-cutter places, but I didn’t know the layout, and I didn’t have the benefit of the garage door opener to get inside. When I got close, I veered around the side of the house near the garage. I figured the backyard would likely have too many windows to deal with, but the garage should be empty, now.
            Unfortunately, I didn’t have a key, and I was never any good with a lock pick. I tried to force the door, but it didn’t budge, and kicking it open would either break my foot or make too much noise.
            I made my way to the backyard cautiously, sticking close to the house and peeking into windows whenever I could. Fortunately, the little hoodlums wanted the place to still look empty, so they didn’t have any of the blinds open to the backyard. Still, they could be in any one of those rooms. I couldn’t go up and put my ear to them, either, since they might see my shadow thanks to the insanely bright lamp in the alley.
            I crouched low and used an app on my phone to record. I just pressed the mike against the glass. It was no laser microphone, but when playing it back, I could hear if there was noise on the other side of the glass.
            From what I could tell, they were in the back bedrooms. That made sense because they could have a TV on without broadcasting to the neighborhood they were in there. I crept along the back porch to an arcadia door. These doors were infamous when it came to security. I didn’t have to deal with pins in a lock, I just had to flip a latch, and I had tools to help with that.

            “You carry stuff like that with you?” Jessie asked.
            I quirked an eyebrow up at her. “Well, yeah. I am a detective.”
            “Isn’t that illegal? I mean what about warrants and stuff?”
            “I’m not a cop, and yes, it is illegal, but they’re also tools of the trade.”
            “You should really take the time to become more proficient with them, Matthew,” Nikki smiled. “I have also heard that bobby pins are excellent and surreptitious tools for infiltration.”
            “What can I say? I just don’t have a delicate enough touch.”
            “Oh, I—”
            “Ahhh!” I interjected. “I thought you wanted to hear this?”
            She smirked at me.

Breaking In

            I slid the tool in, working it between the door and the guard that was there to prevent exactly what I attempted. The steel was thin, but strong, hardened just for these purposes. My fingers, though, were not used to it. Minutes ticked by as I fidgeted with the lock, knowing that at any time one of them could—
            I froze as I heard a sound from inside the house. I left my tool in the door, and took quick steps away and around the corner. My heart pounded, and I had to make myself take long, calming breath so I could hear clearly. A light flicked on, and I could hear voices yelling back and forth, but it was too indistinct to make out.
            After a few minutes, and a growing fear they were going to come outside, the light went off. I waited two more minutes for my veins to stop throbbing and my hands to stop shaking from the sudden burst of adrenaline.
            I went back to the sliding door to try again. After a minute, I heard the click, which, to me, sounded like a large snap. With a smooth, even pull, I got the door open, and slid it closed behind me.
            I kept low, ducking under the kitchen counter as I made my way to the hall. So far it didn’t seem as if they had heard me, and I aimed to keep it that way. Down the hall, lights flickered, like from a TV. I was about to head to the garage when I heard them speaking. I didn’t understand it, but the language sounded familiar. My partner had mangled his way through it often enough that I had come to recognize the sounds: Hebrew.

            “Hebrew? Like, the Bible?” Jessie asked.
            I nodded. “Interesting enough for you, Nikki?” I smirked.
            “That depends on what they were saying.”
            “I have no idea. I don’t speak Hebrew, even now.”
            Nikki let out a long, patient sigh. “you would be truly something if you had applied yourself, Matthew.”
            “But you’d never know it because we wouldn’t have met, then. Besides, there are things that can’t be unlearned. I’d prefer not to know exactly what they were saying. I got the gist soon enough.”
            “So why are you interrupting yourself, now?”
            I shrugged. “Dramatic tension?”
            “Dun dun dun!” Jessie said.
            Nikki sighed again.

TMI

            The sound of Hebrew pulled at me. I couldn’t think of a logical reason as to why they were speaking Hebrew down there. I took cautious steps towards the source of the sound, one of the back bedrooms. The light that I thought had been from a tv, wasn’t. It couldn’t be. The flickers were too often, and always the same colors. They were using lamps or candles.
            Are they doing some kind of ritual? How would they know how to—
            A particularly large flicker cast light into the hall, and I could see on the wall an inverted pentagram and Hebrew writing around it. Worse, the diagram had run, like wet paint or—

            “Blood!” Jessie’s eyes bulged, and she leaned so far out of her seat, it was a wonder she didn’t fall out of the chair.
            I nodded.
            “Baphomet?” Nikki asked.
            “That’s what I thought at first, but it was slightly different. I didn’t know that at the time, though.”
            “How do you attract these cases, Matthew? It should have been a simple prank by teenagers, but you managed to stumble on the one group who had successfully contacted a demon. What are the odds?”
            “Well, you’re only asking about the story related to the hat. I get dozens of boring, ordinary cases where people think there’s something supernatural going on, but there’s not. You should look through them some time. Or maybe you want to go on a stakeout some time where nothing happens?”
            “Hmm, I still think the odds are particularly high for something supernatural occurring in proximity to you.”
            I shrugged. “Occupational hazard, I guess. You want to hear the rest of this?”
            “Yes!” Jessie yelled.
            “By all means,” Nikki said.

Wishes

            The pentagram with its lettering freaked me out. What had started as a prank by bored teens turned into a legitimate case with real danger.
            Gun’s back home, so’s the holy water. Even with them I wouldn’t want to be here. Need to get Rich and maybe a few others, perform an exorcism. Would that even work, though? I don’t know what these kids believe, if anything. Jewish ceremony might work. Wish Max was here, he might be able to tell me.
            I crept closer, sidling close the hall wall while I kept my ears peeled. The voices became more distinct, and I started to recognize the cadence and pronunciation of the words as Hebrew. Maybe. If it was, it was an older form or some kind of dialect. I had no way to tell which.
            I got as close as I dared, not quite peeking around the corner. I couldn’t risk that one of them might see me, and all hell would break loose, maybe literally.

            “Incidentally,” I said, “if either of you are looking to get me a Christmas present, I could really use one of those tiny periscopes. You know, the kind for looking around corners. I saw it in a catalog.”
            “The Spy Emporium Catalog?” Jessie asked.
            “That’s the one,” I smiled.
            “Done,” Nikki said tersely. “Get back to the story, Matthew. My life might be infinite, but my patience is not.”
            “I’m just saying, if you were looking for a last-minute gift idea—”
            “Matthew!”

Discovered

            I got as close as I dared, and I glimpsed part of the room, enough to make out black candles—store bought—and a concrete floor painted with geometry and symbols. I backed away. Getting closer wouldn’t do me any good, just put me at risk.
            Gotta find the Nativity.
            I started peaking in the other rooms, using my flashlight to quickly search. No luck.
            Did they destroy it? Just take it and heave all of it into a dumpster? That would make sense unless they’re planning something bigger. Doesn’t matter. I need to search everywhere.
            The bedrooms, except for the room they were in, were all clean. The farther I got from their chanting, the better I felt, so I moved more quickly, looking into the front of the house, but there was nothing. Off of the kitchen was the utility room. Nada. The utility room led to the garage. It was the last place except for the master bedroom. If it wasn’t in the garage, I’d have to wait for them to leave again.
            I turned the knob, trained my light, and looked. I saw their car, exactly as described and, there, off to the side, in a heap, the Nativity.

            “Eeee!” Jessie squealed.
I goggled at her. Nikki looked on with confusion, a half-formed question on her lips.
“Sorry,” Jessie apologized. “I just got excited. You found it.”
“Yeah, that’s the easy part. The hard part is coming.”
“Escaping with your prize,” Nikki supplied.
I nodded.
Nikki sighed. “I suppose it’s a good thing I left my evening open. We shall be here all night.”
“Should we order food?” Jessie asked, obviously missing Nikki’s intended dig at my slow pace.
“Sure thing,” I grinned.

Interlude

            “So what are we thinking? Sandwiches? Pasta?” I asked.
            “Matthew,” Nikki tried to sound patient and failed.
            “Pizza!” Jessie said.
            I pointed at her. “Yes. Antonia’s! Get the menu.”
            Nikki sighed as Jessie leaped from her chair to dash into Jen’s office and grab one of the many takeout menus from the collection.
            “Check the deals!” I yelled.
            Nikki folded her arms and began to drum her fingers on her arm, fixing me in a death stare. She was quite good at it since she was, well, dead, but it didn’t faze me.
            She started all this, after all. I could’ve just had the box and taken it home with me to discover the hat on Christmas, as intended. Now the time I would normally spend freaking out about it is explaining the first step in how I ended up with it. How mad is she going to be when I tell her there’s more than just this story?
            “Jessie, no garlic bread! We have a guest.”
            “Aww!”
            “We’ll survive. Go for the meat lovers.” To Nikki I said, “You’re not a vegetarian, are you?”
            “I’m about to become very carnivorous.”
            Jessie bounded in with Jen’s laptop, and the webpage for Antonia’s. “We can order online,” she grinned.
            “A fine idea, so, where was I? Right, the garage. . . .”

Trunk Space

            The Nativity was all there, though a bit beat up. Joseph’s face was smashed in, and it Mary well, there was an odor I preferred not to think about the origin of. I couldn’t take the whole bunch in one go, since it was just me. The garage door was like any modern garage door with a motor on it, and it would be audible anywhere in the house, so I had to go out the side. I tucked Baby Jesus into an arm and moved out the side door. I took my time, trying to blend into the night as I walked back to my car. Parking so far away had seemed like a good idea then, but now it seemed too far, and it was. I wouldn’t be able to hoof it back and forth for each piece.
            I tossed the baby into the passenger seat and started my engine, keeping the lights off. I crept the car up on the house, pulling up in front of their driveway. From there I started loading each piece into the car, trying to figure out a good way to cram them all in. The wise men were too bulky. My back seat was already piled full of Mary, Joseph, a shepherd, and a couple of sheep.
            I shoved them roughly into the trunk, knowing I was on borrowed time. All it would take is one of them checking the garage to know what I had done, and I couldn’t believe they were just going to leave the things in a heap. They had to be doing some kind of symbolic sacrifice, otherwise, what was the point of taking them?
            The last wise man wouldn’t fit, and I had to throw him into the front seat with Jesus.
            Just then, the garage door started moving. I jumped, and ran around my car to get in, but I saw one of them. He looked seventeen with ripped jeans and a black tee shirt. His hair had been gelled into spikes, impervious to gravity.
            He snarled at me, and I saw some sort of red flash in his eyes and mouth. Then he lunged into a run, heavy boots crashing into the driveway—

            The office door banged as someone knocked, and Jessie let out a yelp and fell out of her chair.
            “I’m okay!” she jumped back up, cheeks flushing with embarrassment.
            “I suppose our meal has arrived,” Nikki eased back in her chair, her crossed leg bobbing as she kicked it idly in mild irritation.
            “Don’t worry, I’ll keep going between bites.”

Pizza Party

            Jessie devoured her slices with the vigor of any ravenous post-teen. I was more moderate in my approach, but still wolfed down a full slice of pepperoni and mushroom without saying a word to continue my story. Nikki indulged in a slice of the same, though she took tiny bites, nibbling at it. She never did eat much when it came to meals; for her it was more social nicety than necessity. Her real meals required different fare.
            That thought helped chase my hunger away, especially as a glop of sauce fell from my bite and onto a napkin. It was too thick, and yet the imagery was crystal clear in my brain, which sent the message to my stomach.
            “Right, so where was I?” I asked.
            “Gmfw tmems hi maawer,” Jessie said around her pizza.
            “I believe you had just secured your passengers in the vehicle,” Nikki said.
            “Mmhmm!” Jessie nodded vigorously.
            “Right.”

            I shut the door, and then heard the garage door opening. I whirled to see a guy ducking under it, then snarling several curse words at me. I ran around the car, and jumped into the driver’s seat, saying a quick prayer that now, out of all the times when I needed the car, that the engine would start immediately.
            It did. I slammed it into gear and tore off down the street. Unfortunately, I saw their car back out of the garage and turn after me. I was in the middle of suburbia in the evening. I was easy to spot as most people had gotten home an hour or so before. That and there were only so many directions to turn.
            I didn’t do high-speed chase scenes well. And with every corner, I had to slow down, allowing them to catch up. They didn’t seem to care as much about the corners as their tires squealed around every turn.
            I didn’t know where I was going, turning automatically, skipping some side streets and taking others. I floored it, trying to open the distance, but my Taurus was no match for their car. I felt the ram from behind as I started a turn. The wheel got away from me and I had to slam on the brakes to avoid plowing into a block wall. I spun the wheel hard, now, fishtailing and then aiming at the wall on the opposite side of the street.
            The guy boxed me in. Couldn’t go forward, and couldn’t go backward. So I ditched the car, taking baby Jesus in my arms and running. It seemed stupid, foolish, and every other kind of idiocy I could imagine, but I ran with the plastic savior in my arms. I saw the community center up ahead. The lights were on, and the sign out front proclaimed, “Christmas program rehearsal tonight”
            If I can reach there, they can call the cops.
            I snuck a glance back and saw the boys running after me. No, running wasn’t the right word. It didn’t look like a human run. More like an animal loping along. I didn’t see any glowing eyes or anything, but I could tell that something was in them. Something bad.

            “Wait a moment,” Nikki interrupted, leaning forward. “Are you telling me that these boys had become demonically possessed?”
            I ticked off my fingers. “Circle drawn on the ground, ancient Hebrew text, moving like some kind of animal. Yeah, I think that’s what I’m saying.”
            “Wow,” Jessie breathed. “Really?”
            “I must confess I find your story dubious, Matthew,” Nikki sat back, glowering.
            I shrugged. “I didn’t want to tell this story in the first place.”
            “Why would they steal a Nativity? Demons must have a higher agenda than that.”
            “So you’re an expert on demons, now?”
            “No, but this doesn’t make sense.”
            “Okay, looks like we’re going to have to have a time out to talk about demons. Pass me another slice, Jessie. Are we out of root beer?”

Demons 101

            “Right. So, Demons 101,” I said, popping the top on my can of root beer. “First thing, you know all those movies, especially The Exorcist?”
            “Is that the one with the soup?” Jessie asked.
            “Yeah, that’s the one. Forget ‘em. They’re pretty much universally crap. Doesn’t work that way.”
            Nikki tilted her head, looking at me with skepticism. “And how did you become an expert on demonic possession?”
            “Says detective on my door, don’t it?” I jerked my thumb toward the hallway. “It does, right? Sometimes people scrape that off.” I looked over, verifying that it was still there.
            “Titles do not bestow knowledge, take if from a duchess, a marquess, and a goddess.”
            “Wow,” Jessie said. “you’re all of those?”
            “Other lifetimes, dear Jessica. Other lifetimes. And I can assure both of you that the declaration of a title did not come with details on what that entailed.”
            “Sure, sure,” I waved that away. “But I’ve got experience with this. It’s piecemeal, but it does all come together. You remember Renee Carrigan?”
            Nikki was stone-faced, either not remembering or caring.
            “No,” Jessie said.
            “Before your time.” To Nikki, I said, “The succubus? Remember her, now?”
            “My memory is clear,” Nikki said icily.
            “I read about her!” Jessie broke the glacier in the room. “Jen said it was required reading. I think she just ran out of things for me to do, though.”
            “Right. So, anyway, I bring up her because she’s recent, and you experienced this. I’ve learned that when it comes to demonic possession, it’s not surrendering the driver’s seat. More like a shared partnership.”
            Nikki frowned, her eyes scrunching in thought.
            “It’s not 50-50. It never is. But the host is always in there somewhere. Sometimes it’s 90% host, 10% demon. Other times it’s reversed. Usually it’s more equitable.”
            “Then why is it that possessed people are so difficult to exorcise?”
            “This is why I bring up Renee. See, the thing is, most possessions are welcomed. The person invites the demon in. You know something about invitations. But instead of the home, it’s the body. And once someone comes in, it’s a lot harder to kick ‘em out. Even if the host changes his or her mind, it’s tough. It’s much tougher if the host wants to hold onto the demon.”
            “And is this why the attempt to exorcize the succubus from Renee failed?”
            I looked at a spot on the desk between us, remembering what happened to Father Nate, and a flood of regret sucked at me like an undertow.
            “No,” I said slowly, “That was . . . that was my fault. I should’ve realized Nate wasn’t in a good place to do that. He tried to. . . . Yeah.”
            Nate left the priesthood after that. Haven’t heard from him, since. Hope he’s okay. Need to try sending another email to him.
            The silence hit me, and I glanced up. Jessie frowned, an expression halfway between sympathy and confusion. She didn’t know enough of the details of the case to understand, but she saw I was unhappy.
            Nikki looked considering, but it was softer than her usual weighing looks. I couldn’t tell exactly what that look meant on her. On someone else I might say she was empathetic, that she knew something of what I was going through.
            “Anyway,” I began, leaning forward again, “exorcisms aren’t easy, no matter what. And there are different kinds of demons. Some more animal-like than others. I don’t know the full low-down on the different kinds—I’ve never needed to know—but there’s a lot of ‘em.
            “Where was I going with this?”
            “Their agenda,” Nikki prompted.
            “Oh, right. So, like I was saying, there’s this blending, and it’s not like there are telepathic conversations between the two, more like urges. You know how sometimes you’ll get up and go into another room, but you don’t know why you’re there until you grab the thing you wanted?” They stared at me blankly. “Okay, that’s just me, then. But, yeah, so imagine there’s this urge to do something and get something, but you can’t completely identify it. You just go get it. I have no doubt that the demons want something related to this Nativity, but probably not the Nativity itself. That would be where the teens’ desire to pull pranks kicks in.”
            “I see,” Nikki nodded.
            “Good, because I don’t think I can come up with another way to explain it again. Does anybody want this slice?” I pointed to the last piece of pizza in the box.

The Chase Scene

            I bolted, still with the plastic Jesus under my arm. I didn’t immediately hear any car doors open or shut, so I must’ve surprised them by jumping out of the car. My brother Paul had been the track star, not me, and while I was still in decent shape, I was not a demonically-fueled teenager. They would catch me unless I went all-out.
            I sucked air in and out, pumping my arms as hard as I could and lengthening my stride to eat as much pavement as possible. The community center closed into view. I approached it from the side, my eyes fixed on the door that I prayed someone had the sense to unlock just in case a detective being pursued by demonically-possessed teenagers needed to use it.
            I pushed down on the lever and pulled hard. It flew open so fast I staggered back a step, but then I surged forward. I felt a moment of triumph as I went inside, confident that had won the foot race. The inside of the door was lit, and I could see ropes and curtains. I was back stage, and could hear the rehearsal of the Christmas program as someone announced over a microphone,
            “And there was no room in the inn. . . .”
            Perfect timing. I can walk in with Baby Jesus right on cue. I’ll need that long before I can stand upright.
            I hunched over, struggling to breathe, and my muscles felt like jelly. My lungs rasped and my vision wobbled in time to my heartbeat, a fact which intrigued and disturbed me at the same time. After a few moments, I managed to get my breathing under control, and took halting steps to where I could walk onto the stage, peering at the gathered people. The Nativity took up the far side of the stage, and the choir, mostly youths, filled in the side closest to me. My chest still burned, but I made myself stand upright, trying to figure out when best to walk onto the stage.
            Hands seized me from behind, and then I was sailing through the air. I landed hard on my right foot, which buckled underneath me, and I yelled out in pain. First the ankle, protested, then my knees and shoulder as I tumbled raggedly onto the stage before ending in a slide. I halted up against some of the choir, taking note of one man’s argyle socks above his boat shoes.
            More hands came around me and helped me to my feet, but I promptly fell down again when my ankle refused to support me. A general murmur of confusion passed through everyone there until microphone feedback silenced everyone.
            “Pathetic fools!—”

            “What’s with that look?” I asked.
            Nikki glared daggers at me. “You’re lying,” she said flatly.
            “What?”
            Jessie’s eyes darted back and forth between us, but she didn’t say anything.
            “There is no way that your attackers were that cliched,” Nikki finished.
            “Come on, this is standard villain dialogue. There have been whole books written on this. It’s practically mandatory.”
            “The truth, Matthew.” Her foot bounced more quickly, a sign of her extended irritation.
            “It’s not anywhere near as entertaining. Let me tell you, angsty teenagers really don’t sound good when delivering threats.
            “I prefer this to be an accurate story rather than a colorful one.”
            “Right, okay. You asked for it. Keep in mind this was a while ago, and I don’t remember every little thing they said, okay?”
            “I know your memory is better than you claim, but very well, be as precise as you can.”

The Climax

            “Shut the freak up!” one of the demon teens screamed—

            “Okay, now what is it?” I asked.
            “Freak?” Nikki arched an eyebrow.
            “Yeah, Boss,” Jessie added. “Even I don’t buy that one.”
            “Well, yeah,” I said, “but you both know how I am about swearing.”
            “I believe you take issue with blaspheming more than simple cursing,” Nikki explained.
            “Just because I don’t take religious issue with other forms of cursing doesn’t mean I approve of it. It’s not like dropping the F-bomb is going to add to the story in this case. You know what he’s really saying.”
            “It’s still kind of weak, Boss,” Jessie said.
            “Okay, I am not going to sit here and drop bombs for the next twenty minutes as I tell this story.”
            Jessie held up her hands defensively, then gave me a ‘just yanking your chain’ grin.
            Nikki gave a slight shake of her head. “Very well, carry on.”

            “Shut the freak up!” one of the demon teens screamed through the community center. I couldn’t tell which one, but he was clearly angry, but then most teens were.
            “We mean freaking business!” yelled another one from what sounded like the other side of the stage.
            “We’re not freaking leaving until we get what we freaking want!” chimed in a third, from the front of the stage.
            I sat up, trying to see through the sea of legs for their location, but fortunately two people helped me and held me up, my ankle still too tender for any kind of weight. I was afraid I would see guns in their hands, but was only slightly relieved they had baseball bats. One had gone the extra step to wrap barbed wire around his bat. It was enough of a threat to cow the entire group, especially with so many kids in the room.
            “We weren’t going to take it this far, but now, we’re going to freak all of this up!” barbed bat said. He was tall and stocky with menace in his voice and a tattoo of a skull on his neck. He wore a tank top that showed off muscled arms and torso. He looked as built as a linebacker, and there was no way that people wouldn’t get hurt if they tangled with him.
            Especially me.
            “Call the cops,” I whispered to the men holding me up.
            “Before any of you idiots get any stupid ideas about calling the police,” barbed bat continued, “throw all your phones off the front of the stage.” Some people hesitated. “Every person I catch with a phone is going to get my freaking bat shoved up their freaking rear!”
Cell phones sailed through the air, landing in the first rows of seats. I added mine to the mix.
Not like the cops will get here any time soon, and I don’t want to provoke these guys more than necessary. Guess I’ll have devise something clever to get us all out of this. Good thing I’m Matt Allen, genius detective—

“Matthew!” Nikki slapped a palm on my desk.
“Geez, you really know how to kill a story,” I said. “Fine, I’ll tell the version where the hero—and that is me—is more or less real. It’s not as fun, though.”
Jessie unsuccessfully tried to stifle a laugh.

Looking Bad for Our Hero

            “What are we going to do with them, Bruce?” One of the teens called out to the leader.
            “You freaking butthole! Don’t say my name!” Bruce, the one with the barbed wire bat said.
            Bruce is evidently in charge, which is not a good sign. He seems like he’s going to start popping people with that bat. If someone did get 911 off before tossing the phones, the cops will have a hostage situation, and I’m guessing that the demon in him is going to go down the collateral damage route rather than let people go.
            “You freakers are just some little witches for this holiday crap, aren’t you? Well it ain’t gonna happen.” He held up the plastic Jesus, tossing it high in the air and whacking it with his bat. He didn’t connect very well, so it glanced off and ricocheted into the rows of seats.
            His fellows jeered at that, while the group cringed, seeing their own fate. The one teen who spoke up earlier, pointed at the rest of us.
            “Look at ‘em. They’re pissing their pants.”
            “They should.” Bruce said. “Pinky, get the gear. We’re gonna show ‘em what to be afraid of.”
            No one moved or responded.
            “Pinky!” Bruce whirled on the guy at stage right.
            “Wait, I’m Pinky? When did we decide that?”
            “When you wore that freaking pink shirt, Gary!” Another laughed.
            “Freakers, shut up with the names!” Bruce said. “Just go get the gear. We’re going to show ‘em.”
            “Sure thing, Bruce, er, sorry.”
            “Freak me sideways!”
            Gear could only be summoning supplies. I don’t think these guys have the mojo to bring in anything really powerful, but there are different ways of summoning. Whatever is in them is dangerous, and they might try and possess other people. Gotta do something.
            I didn’t have the proper weapons on me, and I was in no condition to fight, anyway. Plus there were too many innocent people around. I started scanning my surroundings, looking for something to use, something to neutralize these teens when I heard a whimper from my knee.
            A little girl clutched her mother, arms wrapping around the woman’s legs. The mother tried her best to comfort and shush the girl. The girl, maybe eight, was a breath away from full on sobbing. I caught her eye for a bare instant before it disappeared back into her mother’s skirt, but that look pleaded with me to help, somehow.
            I scanned the faces of other people, and most of the adults tried to look brave, but I could see the worry in shifted feet and nervous fidgeting. Here and there other children glanced back, shielded by their parents.
            I looked down, sighing heavily, and I saw the answer.

            “Dun dun dun!” Jessie said.
            “Jessica!” Nikki snapped. “It’s bad enough I have to deal with his constant interruptions.”
            “Sorry,” she said, but it was clear she wasn’t sorry.
            “This is your bad influence,” Nikki glared at me. “I know you have corrupted poor Jennifer, but did you have to spread it to another innocent?”
            “No. Just, no.” I pointed a finger at myself. “Nice guy, I’m on the list and have the hat to prove it.” I pointed at her. “You, bloodsucking vampire, AKA corruptive influence. The bad habits Jen has picked up from you—”
            “Are not infuriating when it comes to telling stories.”
            My mouth was open to continue pressing the attack, but I closed it. “Okay, you may have a point there. Hammett and Chandler I’m not, but I’m not selling fiction. This happened. Now, I’m almost done, so let’s get back to it.”

Carols

            Everywhere the stage was littered with fallen sheet music for the Christmas program. I glanced to the two men keeping me on my feet, and whispered. “Sing.”
            “What?” the man on the left looked at me as if I had gone insane.
            I probably am.
            “Sing.”
            I sang, starting into “Silent Night” in a soft voice. The men beside me started to sing in a softer voice than I did, but we were heard by those around us, and it started to spread.
            The effect was immediate. Bruce whirled, his face angry and yet also pained. “Shut the freak up! No freaking singing, or I’ll freaking bash your freaking heads in!”
            That cowed some people, but I kept up. The man on my left nudged me to shut me up, but I kept singing, this time a little louder, and it picked up, mostly by the women, especially the mothers with children clutching at them.
            Bruce and his boys took a step back. The others didn’t seem to know what was going on, but Bruce gritted his teeth and stepped forward again.
            I changed songs. “O come all ye faithful,” I began.
            There was some awkwardness as we changed tunes, but soon all fell into line. This time everyone was driven back two steps.
            “Bruce! What the freak is going on?” one asked.
            “It hurts, man!” another complained.
            Bruce, though, grit his teeth even harder and held his ground. He gripped his bat with white knuckles. I didn’t know for sure, but I thought it was a struggle for him to hold onto the bat, not a sign he was going to start swinging.
            We finished the first verse, and I steered us into “Hark the Herald Angel Sings.”
            Two guys crumpled to their knees, dropping their weapons. Bruce went to one knee, struggling to maintain, and a ripple went through him. Muscles tense and flared, and he got back to his feet. He took a swing of his bat, but he was too far away from everyone, and no one stopped singing.
            One voice rang out through the singing crystal clear. I turned to the source, a woman in her early twenties. Around her, the singers were strongest. With help, I hobbled her way.
I bent to her ear, and said loud enough to be heard, “Lead everyone. Joy to the World, next. Really belt it out, everything you’ve got. Can anyone play?” I asked, pointing to the piano.
As soon as I pointed, a woman beside the piano nodded, still singing, and sat down.
Bruce hadn’t been idle, either, taking halting steps towards the singers, who all backed away, but kept singing. With each step, the teen’s features twisted in pain and rage. The evil spirit inside writhed against the song, and I could see Bruce’s lips moving, too.
If that’s an incantation, we could be in serious trouble. He doesn’t have any materials with him, but he might intend to sacrifice Bruce’s body.
We reached the end of the verse, and the woman called out to everyone, “Joy to the World,” looking especially at the piano player.
The piano player slammed fingers onto the keys, the sound exploding onto the stage only to be drowned out by the collective voices, especially of the woman, as we sang.
Whatever words Bruce had been speaking died on his lips as he completely crumpled to the stage. He shuddered like he was having a seizure for a few moments, but then it stopped, and I felt something . . . wrong, drift out from his direction, and then it fled entirely. Bruce was out, and so were his boys.
The woman looked at me, and I motioned for her to continue, as I hobbled with the men next to me to collect the weapons. Someone else with initiative scrambled down the stage to grab a phone.

            “The end,” I said.
            “That’s it?” Jessie asked. “But what happened?”
            I shrugged. “The cops came, cleaned everything up. Bruce and his gang were taken away. The Nativity recovered, and they held the Christmas program as scheduled.”
            “Wow,” Jessie breathed. “Jen never told me that one.”
            “I never wrote it down,” I said.
            “Why not?”
            I frowned. “I don’t know. Just didn’t feel right to for some reason.”
            I looked to Nikki, who also frowned.
            “What?”
            “None of this explains that.” She nodded to the hat still on my desk.
            “Oh, well, Christmas morning I found a letter, well, a note, under my tree.” I got up and went to one of the filing cabinets and pulled out the bottom drawer. I pulled out an unnamed file and read the note. “Matt, work on your singing. Nice job. –Nick.”
            I returned everything. “I thought that Nick was the name of someone in the program, but after questioning everyone, it didn’t belong to any of them. It wasn’t until later that I figured it out.”
            “Well, I believe I have my answer, at least as much of one as I will probably get.” Nikki stood, gathering her coat. “Though perhaps something else will occur tomorrow. I will see you then, Matthew.”
            My eyes widened. Nikki, like most of the supernatural, tended to keep a low profile during Christmas. The belief power flying through the air tended to weaken them, just as during Halloween she was strengthened.
            I smiled. “Sounds good to me.”

The Next Day

            Nikki, good as her word, showed up at my place Christmas morning. She didn’t look her usual stunning self. She looked tired and run-down, and lacked the usual sparkle in her eyes. Given all that, though, she had attempted to be in the spirit of the day, dressing in a red and white dress straight out of White Christmas, the part at the end. The dress flattered and hugged her without revealing. As usual, she was elegant.
            I took Nikki by the hand and brought her inside, as direct an invitation as was possible to give.
            “An interesting sweater,” she commented.
            I wore my jeans, but also had an overly-large Christmas sweater. Instead of the usual Santa or reindeer, Ebenezer Scrooge proclaimed “Humbug. Bring me more humbugs!”
            “Cassie’s present. When she learned what humbugs were, she insisted.”
            Nikki smiled as I showed her to the couch.
            “Well, Matthew, it has been some time since I have been anywhere for the yule holiday. I’m unsure of the etiquette, now.”
            “Not like I have a huge family and routine, here. Jen and I usually do something. Jessie’s family always invites me over, but they’re going upstate to see some other relatives. I’ll call Cassie and my parents sometime, but other than that, I usually just watch some movies and enjoy the day. Sometimes my neighbors will invite me over or send their kids over with a present.”
            “No other strange goings on?”
            I shrugged. “I have a different barometer for strange than most people.”
            “I sensed you were hesitant to speak about some things in front of Jessie. Is there more to the story?”
            “No,” I said quickly.
            “Matthew, in case you haven’t noticed, I am tired. I’m sure you can play games and manage to obfuscate the truth in my current condition, but is that in the spirit of the day?”
            “That is a low-down dirty trick.”
            She smiled.
            “Okay, there’s nothing more to that story, but there are other . . . stories is the wrong word.”
            “Episodes?”
            “No, that’s not it, either.”
            “Instances?”
            “Good a word as any.”
            She sighed, heavily. “Please tell me that you will not be as long in the telling of these incidents as the last.”
            I shook my head. “I don’t remember all of them, to be honest. And they’re just tiny little things. That was the first of them, but they kicked into high gear after I found Jessie one Christmas. After that, for a few days leading up to Christmas, and usually a day or so after I will do something, and then see this kid.”
            “Like what?”
            “Just small things. Participating in a Secret Santa, stopping a thief from making off with one of the buckets of a bell-ringer, singing carols to some of the elderly from church. Even telling some kids that Santa’s real and they should write letters. Sometimes I see the kid out of the corner of my eye. I’m not always sure he’s there or I’m seeing things.”
            “Who is this child?”
            “I don’t know,” I shrugged.
            “Matthew, you went out of your way to keep me from touching him, and he also dodged around me. You must know something.”
            “I suspect, but I don’t know anything. I think that’s kind of the point. I know more about Nick than the kid.”
            “It is a strange thing to know a man who actually knows St. Nicholas.”
            “Well, when I say know, I mean he has at least communicated with me.”
            “You have seen him in-person?”
            “Seen, yes. Talked to, no. He was at the department store a couple of years ago. You remember? the one with the Russian dad?”
            I had never seen Nikki caught entirely by surprise. Her eyes goggled, and her mouth hung open in disbelief. “He was there? I stood not fifty feet from him and did not know it?”
            I shrugged. “It’s not like there’s a radar for supernatural-types.”
            “You misunderstand, Matthew. Around certain churches or even people I will become weak. I can use that as, as you say, a radar. I should have noticed such as he was that close by the belief energy surrounding him.”
            “Guess you know what it’s like to be me, now.”
            “That’s a discomfiting feeling.”

Extra Gifts

            “So, do you want your present?” I asked.
            “You already gave me a fresh sprig of mistletoe, days ago.”
            “Doesn’t mean that was your only gift.”
            “I’m afraid I didn’t have the foresight to bring you another gift.”
            I shrugged. “I didn’t get you a gift to get one.”
            “I suppose this is why you received the hat. Speaking of which, why are you not wearing it?”
            I looked away, trying not to frown, but knew I didn’t keep it completely from my face. “I’m not anxious to take on the responsibilities, especially not knowing what they are.”
            “You do seem to incur more responsibilities of late.”
            “Anyway, let me get your gift.” I went to the tree looking under the lower branches. I had a few gifts there, most of them a care package from Ma, but Jen had given me a couple and had made me promise not to open them before Christmas.
            I picked up the envelope with Nikki’s name only to see there was another underneath it, but I hadn’t written the name. Instead, it was in the same handwriting as her letter from last year. Underneath that was one for me.
            Guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Nick left gifts under my tree.

Christmas Letters

            “Looks like you got two, only one of them is from me,” I said, returning to the couch.
            Nikki’s eyebrows knit together in thought, considering the two envelopes. “Is this from . . . ?”
            “Looks like his handwriting.”
            She set my letter aside and gently worked the envelope flap open, taking care as if she intended to re-use the envelope. She pulled out pristine paper lightly scented with chocolate, nutmeg, and peppermint, taking me back to frigid Boston mornings and Ma’s hot chocolate.
            She unfolded the letter, and I leaned away, concerning myself with my own letter. I wasn’t as neat, and used my finger like a blunt knife to tear open the envelope. Mine wasn’t so much a letter as it was a note.

Matt,

            Merry Christmas! So, you’re officially in, now. I’m sure you wondering what all of your responsibilities are, but, trust me, you’ve got a handle on it. It’s nothing more than you’re used to; it’s why you got the job in the first place. And just so you don’t think I’m singling you out, I’ve got thousands of Helpers around the world.
The job is basically the same, though I might put your unique skills to use, too. You’re good with traveling, right? It won’t be first class, more likely reindeer class. Ha! I’m joking. Or am I? Guess you’ll have to wait and see.
I know your day job can get pretty involved, but you also have less work during the Season, so it should all pan out.
Well, this ran longer than I wanted, so I’ll cut it short. Again, Merry Christmas! (Ho ho ho™)

P.S. You’ll get a new hire packet with some forms and info about your pay and benefits.
P.P.S. Ha! Pay and benefits. That’s another joke, but you’ll see.
P.P.P.S. You will have one job to do fairly soon. Probably take you until the start of the new Season.

Hot Chocolate & Memories

            “I had no idea Nick could be such a jerk,” I muttered.
            “Hmm?” Nikki said, all her concentration on her letter.
            “Nothing.”
            The awkward silence stretched on for a moment. I really wanted to know what was in Nikki’s letter, but it would be rude—potentially dangerous—to read over her shoulder, so I didn’t.
            “Want any hot chocolate or something? I’m afraid I don’t carry any O+ to spike it with.”
            “That will be fine, Matthew.” She said absently.
            I could bring her holy water and she probably wouldn’t notice. Must be some letter.
            I busied myself in the kitchen making the hot chocolate according to Ma’s recipe as best I could, but I didn’t have any peppermint candies or extract. Instead, I crushed up some Wint-O-Green Lifesavers and stirred a bit into one mug. I tasted it, didn’t die, then smiled as it tasted really good.
            Ma will hate that I improved on her recipe.
            My stomach rumbled, so I made some old-fashioned cinnamon toast to go with it. It was the perfect Christmas morning repast for the lazy bachelor and his vampire guest. I returned to the living room with the tray, putting a mug topped with whipped cream in Nikki’s free hand.
            She drank reflexively, at first confused by the taste, then smiled slightly at the taste.
            “This is very good, Matthew. I expected coffee because of your obsession.”
            I shrugged. “It’s Christmas.”
            “Yes,” her voice became slow and thoughtful. “Yes, it is. Even when I was a girl, we were expected to outgrow St. Nicholas and Kris Kringle. Life was too harsh to spend our wishes on fancies that could never happen. I still got gifts, when my parents could find the means, but I knew they were not from a supernatural gift-giver, for such could not exist. I still remember the last gift I got from my father, when I was nine, a wooden doll he had made by hand. It must have taken him months to carve the face just so.
            “And later, it did not occur to me to believe that Nicholas might be real, just as I was a vampire. I was firmly on the naughty list, as it were, and I just continued to write it off as childhood fantasy. But now, now I have this.” She offered me the letter.

Wish List

            I took the letter, which was more of a note than mine had been.

Sabrina,

            I paused, glancing over at Nikki. Very few people knew her real name. I wasn’t surprised by Nick knowing it, but it was still jarring to see it in print. I knew it would be even more jarring for Nikki.
            She nodded at me. I continued reading.

            I never had a way to reach you before; I’ve missed you. But that’s changed thanks to our mutual friend. You may not be able to sit on my lap any longer—not because you’re too big or too old (I’m older than you, ha!) but for other reasons—but you can always write me a letter. Matt can help you with that, and I’ll be sure to get it.

Nick

P.S. You could be a little Nicer in the coming year

            I read it again, picking out a few details, filing them for later, not about Nikki, but Nick. The guy was still an enigma to me.
            “Wow,” I said.
            “I have no idea what to write, Matthew.”
            “Well, we have plenty of time,” I sipped my hot chocolate.
            “I suppose so.” Nikki stared at her mug, unaware of the whipped cream moustache we both wore.
            “You seem lost in thought.”
            “The implications in this, Matthew. Nicholas is real and has asked me to write him a letter. He intimates that he misses me, and that he wishes I could sit on his lap like all the other little girls of the world. What am I supposed to make of this?”
            I shrugged. “Welcome to my world. I find it’s better if we don’t obsess about the good stuff. This has to be a good thing, Nikki.”
            “And what of yours? Is that a good thing?”
I shrugged. “It’s a job. I get to help you, at least,” I grinned. “But you could be nicer, particularly to me.”
“I have not heard you complain about my naughtiness.” Her voice became smoky, and she sat up thrusting her chest out and putting a hand on her hip. “‘I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way,’” she quoted.
            “Right. I’m going to petition Nick to get that kind of naughtiness moved over to the Nice list.”
            I clinked my mug to Nikki’s. “Merry Christmas, Nikki.”
            “And to you, Matthew,” she smiled.

The Last Gift

            Nikki and I sipped at our hot chocolate both looking at each other’s letter from Nick. I wondered at the scope of Nick’s power. All of the legends were quite clear that he had lists and knew every girl and boy, but for him to make specific reference to missing Nikki had some odd implications.
            Does he have perfect recall? His note says he misses her, which implies actually knowing her. And he confirms that she can’t sit on his lap. And he never had a means to contact her, so his power would be dangerous to her. And in mine, he specifically mentioned the Season. Does he have power beyond the Season, or is it limited to only that time? I wonder—
            “What of your gift, Matthew?”
            I blinked, refocusing on her. “Huh?”
            “You must be pondering some riddle to be so forgetful.”
            “Oh, right! Sorry about that. It’s nothing. Just a detective’s overactive brain.”
            “I think I would like you to share those thoughts with me, sometime, but for now I want my gift.”
            I grinned. “Sure. It’s not as flashy as Nick’s.”
            I passed her the envelope.
            She opened it delicately, though not as delicately as Nick’s, and then unfolded the printouts.
            She read the first, looked at me, and then moved on to the other two sheets. She held the two sheets side-by-side.
            “What have you done, Matthew?”
            “Well, I got you a year membership to this genealogy website.”
“Yes, I got that part, but these charts?”
“You brothers’ family trees. I know you were interested in what happened to them, and you found out, but I thought you might like to know that you do have relatives still out there. Oh, and I, uh, falsified information about your branch.” I pointed to one part of the tree. “I managed to find another woman with the same name, and made her into you. If people go looking for your name through genealogy, they’ll come up against a blind alley.”
She ran her fingers over the names. Not all of the branches were filled out, but I had found some that lived today for each brother.
“I don’t know what to say, Matthew. This is . . . I don’t have the words.”
“I had some free time between cases,” I shrugged. “It’s good to keep the skills sharp.”
She set my letter aside, and took my hand in both of hers. She was cool to the touch, a feeling which initially repulsed me because it meant she wasn’t human. I hadn’t completely gotten over it, but now I treated it more as a quirk of who she was.
She caressed my hand tenderly, almost as if she was afraid I would pull it away from her. She opened her mouth, closed it, and then repeated the motion, all while staring down at my hand.
“Nikki?”
Her name snapped her eyes up to mine for an instant, and then she was looking back at my hand, but she mustered herself and met my eyes again, a small, sheepish smile on her lips. “In all my hundreds of years, I’ve never received a gift like this. I have been given riches, titles, power, songs of flattery, and even worship, but never something like this. I will cherish this, Matthew.”
“Uh,” I stammered. “It was no big deal. Like I said, a little time between cases was all. I mean, I didn’t even spring for the fancy charts they could print out and ship.”
“All of those other gifts were from people who ultimately wanted something from me. I think this is the first time when I received a gift that was truly for me.”
My lips twitched into a wide grin. “Well, if you want me to—”
She slapped a hand over my mouth. “You will not spoil this moment with your sarcasm.” She pulled her hand away. “Merry Christmas, Matthew.”
“Merry Christmas, Nikki.”