My Favorite Elf
It was another one of the Old Man's cracked ideas. He got them fairly regularly, and it was generally a good idea to try and be out of the office when one hit. Today was not my lucky day.
"Chad," the Old Man began; he sounded peeved. "Chad, this is a sticky one, I can't give it to just anyone."
"Thank you, sir."
"That's why I've given it to Jill."
"But you'll be needed, too."
Typical. The Old Man would never bill a client for one operative when he could invoice them for two.
"Jill's not here?"
"She's at the locus in quo." The Old Man loved his Greek. Or whatever.
"She's gone loco?"
"She is already on the client's premises." He beamed superiority, though by now you'd have thought he'd have got tired of showing me how much smarter he was. I knew that.
"And where's that?"
He grunted, and tossed down a glossy red-and-green advertising flyer. In big letters, dripping with icicles, it just said "Darcy's".
"The department store? She's shopping?"
He narrowed his eyes at me. "You know, some day I may actually make up my mind whether you've got enough brains to continue working for me..." he trailed off, probably wishing for the hundredth time that I wasn't his nephew. "At any rate," he resumed briskly. "It's Industrial Espionage! Skullduggery amid the hustle and bustle of the holiday season."
"Something being stolen?"
"Children," he rumbled.
I raised an eyebrow. "Wouldn't that be more like kidnapping?"
"They're not being kidnapped! Would I call a bird-brain like you if-- never mind. They are being stolen: children waiting in line to see Santa at Darcy's Holiday Haven are being lured away to see the Snow Queen's Village at Grumble's Department Store, next door, instead."
"If I knew that..." His face was turning the same purple it used to get while choking down Aunt Edith's meatloaf. "All we know is that, at some point while they are visiting Holiday Haven, they are being enticed into heading next door to visit the Snow Queen at Grumble's, instead. Next thing you know, Santa looks up, the line has disappeared... and no pictures are being sold, no souvenir keychains, no glass photo ornaments. No one's going for reindeer rides or throwing coins into the penguin fountain."
I thought of asking him what penguins needed coins for, but it didn't seem the best time for that.
"What do you need me to do?"
"What I need you to do is stay out of Jill's way, but I doubt it'll be that simple. The fact is, she can't cover all the entrances and exits, twists and turns... so we need another set of eyes."
"Is she undercover there?"
"Of course." He lowered his voice, and glanced around. "She's an elf."
"Shh!" He glared at me.
"But, sir, I'm too tall to be an elf!"
He smiled. "Precisely."
I had to duck my head; it was hard getting the antlers through the door. In fact, with the antlers, and the boots I wore under my "hooves", I now stood something like seven feet tall. The costume was old, and hot and itchy, too. I half suspected the Old Man had known that.
In any case, this was my cover: I was Undercover Rudolph. And, so it was, a few hours later, after a crash-course in reindeering, I was making the rounds of Holiday Haven.
The place was a wild maze of colorful decorations, oversized pieces of candy and toys, that twisted and turned for three upper floors of the store, with the stairs winding around a huge pole in the center that was currently painted like a candy cane, and went all the way down to the ground floor.
Jill was there, elfing. She seemed to spend a lot of time looking over kids' shoulders and around corners, hoping the culprit (or prits) would do something to give the game away. Not that easy, I thought to myself. This kind of scheme isn't dreamed up by amateurs.
She wasn't the only elf in the room, of course... but she was the first one you'd notice. With her short, shiny blond hair and big blue eyes, she downright sparkled in her green velvet jumper-- and the shapely legs under her red velvet skirt didn't hurt the overall impression either. From her pointy red cap to her shiny red boots, she was a helper any Santa might have found work for.
I sidled up to her, trying to look as inconspicuous as a slightly moth-eaten seven-foot-tall two-legged reindeer can.
"What have you found out?"
"Look, Chad, we have to make this quick... elves and reindeer aren't supposed to fraternize." It did sound a little odd when you thought about it. "Anyway," she went on, "I've worked out the times when it seems to happen most--"
"Oh, how cute. You find talking reindeer."
I saw Jill grimace as I turned to look over my shoulder... and nearly dislocated something trying to turn the rest of my body with it.
There was an elf there. Oh, sure, the place was full of elves... but not like this one.
"Hi, Rudolph!" she smiled at me. "You maybe guide Santa's sleigh tonight?"
I would have liked to answer; part of the reason that I couldn't was that the damn Rudolph head was stuck and I was struggling to get it off... the other part was that I was just too stunned.
She was tall and well-shaped: every square inch of her green velvet top was hugging an absolutely delectable curve. Long, lush black hair hung to her waist, and smelled of sandalwood shampoo. Her face had the look of an especially cute and wily fox. The dark almond eyes, light-toffee skin, and wide, white smile made the lower part of my costume suddenly feel a bit restricting if you get my drift. I finally got the damn head off, and was taking big gulps of air.
"Hello, Ling." Jill's voice sounded pretty darn cold. "Do you mind? This is a private conversation."
"Oh?" A dark, delicate eyebrow arched upward. "Maybe I ask Santa how he like his elves jingling their bells with reindeer on duty?" She stepped closer, looked up into my sweat-streaked face, and laid a hand on my chest. "Or maybe you just think you keep Rudolph all to yourself? Great, big reindeer " her eyes glittered as she ran her tongue over her lips. "I like big. I like things very big."
"Hommina-hommina-hommina" I Ralph Kramden'ed at her, and her silvery laugh seemed very seasonal.
"So. Your name really Rudolph?"
I was still trying to answer when Jill grabbed my arm and dragged me off. She gritted her teeth. "We have to get back to work. I've gotta take some pictures. Stop prancing and start looking around."
Her glare was like a cold shower, and I did my best to collect myself and put my head back on.
For the rest of that day, Jill and I had trouble getting time to compare notes together. Of all the elves, the one that interrupted us the most was Ling. She seemed to have an instinct for finding the two of us together.
"Hi, Jill." She always greeted my partner first, as though she'd been keeping an eye on her. "You spare Rudolph for a while?"
Jill narrowed her eyes. "You're working the register today-- what do you need a reindeer for?"
"Oh, not reindeer." She ran slender fingers along my arms, up to my shoulders; she was giving me goosebumps even through the costume. "Drawer is stuck. I need big, strong, man to get it open for me."
Jill rolled her eyes at that, which disappointed me a bit. Couldn't she see that this poor young thing really needed help? And what harm could there be in that?
After that, Jill seemed especially disgusted when we met for lunch, so I left her alone in the afternoon.
It had been made clear to me that reindeer were supposed to have a pretty good sense of direction (flying all over the world and all that), so I'd be bound to disappoint someone if I didn't know how to help people find Toy Central or the Nutcracker Nook. So, that afternoon, as I memorized the twists and turns of the Candy Expressway and the infamous Blitzen's Corner, I kept an eye open for anything suspicious, but I'd never seen a more innocent-looking place in all my life. I began to think more and more that we were wasting our time here-- that the answers were next door, at Grumble's. I went to find Jill, to suggest we try a different approach; with the mask on, it was hard to see anything that wasn't dead ahead of me, and as I turned back down the aisle, my legs collided with something metallic, and I went sprawling.
I'll say one thing for the costume-- it padded my fall nicely. I sat up to see what I'd tripped over: it was a handcart. The handcart was big and red-- the kind with four wheels: two large ones at the bottom, and two smaller ones at the back, so it could be used lying flat, as a dolly and it was filled with presents.
Something was decidedly wrong here presents? LEAVING Holiday Haven? I got to my feet just in time to see an elf backing around the corner, as though looking to see if she were being followed-- the long hair just caressing the cute butt
She jumped like a jack-in-the-box, and whirled around; even with the cap, her hair danced fetchingly around her face.
"Oh, hi, Rudolph." She laughed faintly. Her face was flushed. "I I was just " She was looking wildly around.
"Did you see anyone trying to swipe these presents?"
"Did I see ?" Her voice trailed off a bit. She stammered for a second, and her shoulders sagged a bit. "Oh, Rudolph I have to tell you--"
"What's all this?" She was interrupted by a harsh, gravelly voice, and three enormous balls of Styrofoam, stacked one atop the other, waddled towards us.
"Frosty!" I had been introduced to the store's undercover security man earlier that morning. He stalked up to us, a no-nonsense snowman if ever I'd seen one.
"What's going on here with these presents?" He demanded.
"I was just asking--" I began.
"Oh, Frosty," Ling sighed. "Rudolph was just going to help me put these presents away."
I suppose the snowman narrowed his eyes; it was hard to tell.
"All right, Rudolph. Get to it, then."
"But I she "
But Ling had scampered off, leaving me with the hand truck and a suspicious snowman. I shrugged and started wheeling the presents back.
"What was she doing?" Jill snapped at me when I told her. "Where was she taking those things?"
"Well, I don't know--"
"Didn't you ask?"
"Frosty interrupted us."
"Look, Chad--" she threw her hands up and sighed.
"We're not getting anywhere, are we?" I asked glumly as we sipped on our Santa's Special Soda.
"Maybe." Jill looked thoughtful. "But I'm more convinced than ever that this is an inside job."
"Not so fast. What about the locus in quo?"
"I give up. What about it?"
"Well... " I'd never asked the Old man that question, so I had no idea what the answer should be. "What I mean is-- shouldn't we go see where all the kiddies are ending up? That might give us some clue as to who we should be looking for."
"I told you-- it's someone here."
"But there's no proof! I say we put in some overtime tonight and check out the competition."
"Sure. Let's go see what this Snow Queen has that's so special."
She opened her mouth, took a breath... and paused.
"Incredible as it seems, that actually might not be a bad idea. Whoever it is must be working with a partner over there. OK, after work, then." She went back to elfing, I posed for pictures with the kids, and after we got off work and changed clothes, we headed next door.
Grumble's display was every bit as big and noisy as Darcy's. There were differences-- polar bears instead of reindeer, toy soldiers instead of gingerbread men... and of course, their big attraction, the Magic Land of the Snow Queen.
It tended more to snowy white colors, rather than the reds and greens all over Darcy's, but it sure was stuffed with kids-- there had to be twice as many as we were handling at Darcy's. And a lot of their parents were carrying Darcy's bags! No question-- someone or something was luring them over here.
At Jill's suggestion, we slipped quietly past the harried security folks and worked our way around to the back of the village, down a darkened corridor.
We turned the corner, and Jill smashed hard into my back, because I had stopped dead in my tracks well, it's only natural to be brought up short by your first sight of The Snow Queen.
She was a tall, green-eyed redhead. Her white outfit was leather ("pleather", Jill suggested), right down to the thigh-high white boots. It laced and tucked and clung in places and ways that I'd have refused to believe if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. I don't know about the kids-- but I'd have no trouble understanding why every dad in the state would rather come here than to see Santa.
"I usually see my visitors in my Ice Parlor." Her smile was amused, and her voice had a light accent-- Irish, I thought.
"Awfully sorry," Jill spoke briskly. "We must have taken a wrong turn."
"Oh, I danna know about that." The green eyes sparkled at Jill. "You may have wound up in the right place, after all."
"Look, I think we should be going," I tried to put in.
The Snow Queen didn't even glance in my direction, as she went on. "Me name's Mona Murphy " she extended a white-gloved hand to Jill. "And you are ?"
"My name's Jill Taylor." My partner returned the handshake.
"Jill." The redhead seemed not to notice me. "Come to ask for a Christmas present?"
"Oh, ah, well, we just lost our way. We'll be going now."
"Must you?" Disappointment and mischief were in the green eyes. "Won't you stay and sit on my lap, then?"
"Look, " I beamed at her, drawing myself up to full height. It was time to turn on the charm. "We really have to be "
"Until next time, Jill?" And she was gone.
Well, that settled that.
"Told me what?" Jill asked as we made our way back to the public area.
"There's our culprit."
"What are you talking about?"
"She was acting very strange, if you ask me."
"Didn't you notice how she didn't seem to be looking at me at all? Spent all her time studying you? I call that more than a little bit odd."
Jill gave me a strange look. "Well, I suppose you could be right," she said. "But then..."
"Oh, come on. Have you ever seen anyone behave more suspiciously?"
"She was just being polite." Jill's cheeks were reddening.
"Polite my reindeer hooves! She suspects us. She knows we're on to her!"
"What on earth are you talking about?"
"The kids! The toys! Santa! It's all clear now she's behind it all."
"Raving, am I? Let's just test her, shall we?"
I lowered my voice. "Invite her to come spend some time with you seeing Holiday Haven. Tell her you'll give her the special tour."
"Spend some time with her?" Jill's voice softened. "Well, maybe "
"Maybe nothing. Tomorrow!"
And, amazingly, Jill actually went along with my idea-- second time in a row! She invited Mona Murphy to take some time to see just how we did things at Darcy's-- as if she didn't already know, the lying minx!
I was ready. Near dinnertime, when breaks were taken and shifts changed, I let Jill handle greeting our "guest", while I got the security camera ready. She had changed out of costume, but I was still in Deep Reindeer Cover.
But that Snow Queen was a clever one. For almost an hour, she and Jill walked the place, Mona's arm lightly on Jill's. Playing the innocent, of course but I knew it was just a matter of time. I couldn't hear their conversation, though, and Jill never gave me the "heads-up" sign, so I guess Mona was playing things pretty close to the bustier.
I gave Jill the agreed-upon signal, and she excused herself to go tend to some sort of elf business.
Left alone, Mona glanced around for a bit then quietly slipped off in the direction of our back storeroom.
Aha! How would she have known this without inside information? Why Jill couldn't see it was beyond me, but there was no time to wait for my too-gullible partner. I headed down the corridor behind Mona.
She stepped back into the large room, and seemed to be surveying the boxes of ribbon, wrap, and packing materials there. She picked up a couple of boxes that were on the big red handcart and set them aside on the floor.
"All right, Murphy! That'll do. Your little game's up."
The redhead turned, and goggled it hadn't occurred to me till just then that she hadn't seen me in costume before.
"What are you talking about?"
"Don't play dumb." My voice sounded hollow and funny inside the reindeer head, and I reached to try and take it off, but the catch was stuck, and it only lifted partway off near the top of my neck.
"Look, I'm not playing anything, so. Jill asked me to--"
"Oh, right. Try to implicate my partner in your schemes. Won't work on me, doll."
Her mouth twisted sourly. "I'm not your doll and you must be that eejit she had with her last night."
"You're not making this easier." I gave up on the head and reached out a paw for her arm
"Don't touch me!" she shouted.
"Or what? You'll call the police? Somehow I doubt that." That got her. Her pale face went whiter, and she stammered.
"Look, I just want to--" and before I could react, she'd launched a kick right at my family jewels. Fortunately, the costume was so big and baggy she aimed low, and I caught the kick on my thigh.
"I knew it!" I tightened my grasp on her arm. "Afraid of the police, eh? Don't make this harder on yourself."
"Let me go!" She yanked her hand out of my mittened paw, and grabbed up a bag heavy with Christmas ornaments.
"Oh, no, you don't!" She was reaching for something in the bag, and I decided not to wait to see what it was. I feinted right, moved left, and in a moment had her in a bear hug.
"Let go of me!"
I tightened my hold on her, spinning her around to face away from me. She was still scrambling for the bag, so I grabbed hold of her arms and pulled them back.. I was a lot stronger than she was, but she was sure no fading flower, and I knew I was going to have to do something about those hands. I used one of my hands to hold her wrists together, while I tried to dig around for my cuffs. It was no good, though-- with the paws on my hands, I couldn't work them!
She was still fighting as I looked over and saw the box of packing materials-- on the top was a roll of heavy green ribbon-- felt, with wire inside to stiffen it. I grabbed at it, and used one paw to control her arms while the other began to wrap the ribbon around her wrists. The wire allowed the ribbon to shape itself to her contours, and after I'd wound it around three times, her hands were pinned.
"Goddam it!" She pulled at her helpless wrists, then tried to kick backwards at me. I dodged, but lost my balance, and the two of us fell heavily to the floor, her squirming form underneath me.
She gasped, the wind knocked out of her. I flattened her down on the ground, and turned my attention to the legs that were flailing at me. She hadn't connected yet, but with those heels, she could do a lot of damage with just one kick.
I grabbed at the soft leather of her left boot and tried to hold her leg still enough to wrap some of the ribbon around it.
I don't know if you've ever had 120 pounds of shapely leather (well, OK, maybe pleather)-clad female wiggling and squirming under you while you sat on her butt, tying her up, but I had to admit it was a darned stimulating experience. As I used more of the heavy green ribbon to immobilize her legs, I could feel fine, strong muscles beneath the soft leather of the boots. All the writhing and tugging at her bonds wasn't doing much to aid her in escaping but it was doing plenty for me! I could feel the looseness in the crotch of my costume diminishing rapidly.
"Grrrrr!" She growled at me, finally getting her breath back. "Ya'd better be lettin' me up, boyo, or I'll--"
"Call the police? Way ahead of you on that one!"
"HEEELLLLPPPP!" Her voice rang out.
"Calling for confederates, eh?" I knew it was best not to take chances-- she might well be only the most visible member of a pretty desperate gang.
"Ya damn eejit! I'm not--"
Save it for the judge!"
With her hands and feet tied, I guess she got frustrated, and suddenly leaned her head forward to try and bite me!
"You asked for it! I snapped at her. I dug around in the box, and came up with one of the big, red fabric-covered Christmas balls. Without giving her a chance to move her head away, I popped the ball between her teeth.
"Hhhrfrgggg!" she flailed her head back and forth, red hair everywhere, but I took more of the red ribbon and tied it around her head, holding the ball in place in her mouth.
"There." I stood up, and smiled down at my newly-wrapped Christmas parcel. "Now, to get Jill and show her how you duped the poor girl."
And, suddenly, the room took on a light scent of sandalwood. I had to admit that I felt a bit giddy at that-- Ling? Was she here? Did she see me in action? Apprehending the culprit, getting to the bottom of the mystery...
I had only begun turning around to look for her when things went very painfully dark; I don't even remember hitting the floor.
I've enjoyed waking up to a pair of beautiful eyes gazing at me but having them glaring daggers at me was a new experience.
My head was killing me, and as I rolled over, I could feel a knot at the base of my skull.
I blinked a couple of time, trying to clear my head, and for a moment, I couldn't quite recall how the Snow Queen came to be lying, bound and gagged, on the floor beside me. She was shaking her head furiously, and making pleading sounds through the gag. Still trying to put two and two back the way I had found them, I decided she might be having trouble breathing, and unwrapped the ribbon from around her head. The thick cardboard ball was soaked with her saliva, and the fabric covering was damp and soggy as I pulled it from her mouth.
"You feckin' eejit!." She didn't sound as grateful as I'd expected she might, and her accent had less of a lilt in it that it had before. "What the hell did you tie me up for?"
My head was starting to clear, and I had an answer for her.
"You tried to kick me! Listen, you Santa snitch, I'm onto your game. Luring little tykes away from Santa for your own tawdry holiday spectacle, And I guess your pals must have turned on you, leaving you here after they conked me."
"Jayzus!" she moaned. "I've not seen the gel that koshed you before in me life."
"A girl? A girl hit me?"
"Yes! Now untie me!"
"Mother of god, I've told you I don't know! A little Asian thing with the look of a not-too -trustworthy weasel on her face!"
Weasel? Fox? Ling?!?!?!
"Now will you get me out of here? Get me out of here or she and the little blond chippie will be gone, too!"
"Your little friend that she had trussed up like the Christmas goose!"
"Jill!" I looked madly around.
"There they go!" Mona raised her head off the floor as she shouted at me, and I turned to see a green-clad form dashing down the back corridor, dark hair flying behind. It was Ling, all right, moving at top speed-- and dragging something behind her. Something red, with black wheels, heavy packing tape all around it.
"Oh, my god!" She had Jill! Jill was taped to the hand truck, and though I only caught a glimpse, she must have been pretty well-fastened not to fall right off the thing-- and there must have been a fair amount of it over her mouth, too, since I could barely hear the humming sounds she was making.
"Don't just stand there!" The green eyes were blazing at me again. "Get me out of this!"
I turned my head for a split second... then muttered "Sorry," and headed after the fleeing Ling.
"You son of a bitch-- get back here!" Mona's voice followed me angrily as I took off down Peppermint Parkway.
Ling was making good time. She knew the lay of the land: the hairpin turn at Parent's Despair (where parents get their first good look at the line ahead of them to see Santa), the loose floor tile that makes navigating Blitzen's Bend so tricky
Even dragging the handcart, she had a good head start on me, and I had no idea how close her car might be. And Jill! Christ, the Old Man would kill me if I lost her!
I short-cut through the penguin pond, sloshing heavily in my costume; with the mask open in back, I somehow managed to get a fish down the back of my neck as I blundered out and back onto the floor.
I made it down two floors, starting to breathe heavily. I was knocking shoppers aside with every second step, trying to at least do it in a sort of festive manner.
"Rudolph! Hi!" A kid yelled at me just seconds before I bowled him over.
"What the hell?" his dad screamed at me as I ran past.
There was no choice-- I could see Ling now three floors below, and heading for the underground garage; I'd never catch her... unless-- I took one look through the mask's eyeholes, got a running start and leaped off the circular staircase, grabbing hold of the giant candy cane that the stair case wound around.
"Oooff!" the impact made it hard to hang on, but as I started to slide down the pole, at least the costume kept me from getting rope burn-- or peppermint burn, I guess-- as I slid crazily down to the ground floor.
I hit the floor, and let go of the pole. I was dizzy and a bit nauseous as I tried to get my bearings and head for the garage. As I turned, wobbling, a huge white form suddenly blocked the doorway to the garage.
"Hold it right there, Rudolph. What the hell are you doing?!"
Frosty! Of all the times for him to be on the ground floor!
He had his gun out, aimed at me, but I was out of time. I had to pray that my hunch was right-- that he'd never actually use the thing. I took a deep breath, lowered my antlers, and charged him.
"Stop!" he shouted and waved the piece, but thank god I'd been right-- he didn't pull the trigger. My antlers caught him right in the gut; I felt one of them crumple, but he went down, too, grunting, and I bounded over him, scooping up the gun, and racing for the door to the garage.
"Jill!" I suppose it didn't make a lot of sense to expect an answer from a gagged woman, but I don't think Ling would have answered me either.
And, indeed, I didn't get an answer, but I did hear the sound of a car starting, and three rows down, I saw a van pull out into the aisle, heading for the exit ramp. My feet still damp and sloshing, I took off in pursuit.
The lot was crowded enough that she couldn't get up a lot of speed right away; still, I was gasping as I drew alongside the van. Ling was accelerating as I staggered, falling behind. Frantically, I threw off one glove and my fingers fumbled with Frosty's gun. Almost bent double, I aimed and fired the one shot in the thing, taking out the left front tire. The van careened crazily against the wall, and slowed up. I made another dash, pointing the gun I prayed she'd still think was loaded. Instead of surrendering, though, Ling leaned out the window, and turned back to look at me.
"You got to choose, Rudolph!" Her voice was still the music of silver bells. "You got to decide-- who's your favorite elf?" And she flipped a switch, throwing open the rear door-- and I saw the handcart start to slide out the back of the van, with Jill still attached to it!
There was a grinding sound as Ling started the van moving forward on the blown-out tire, but I had no time for that-- Jill was bearing down on me at increasing speed; bound to the handcart like that, she bounced crazily up and down. I spared one last glance at the fleeing van, the shining dark hair that I could see through the window, and ran to meet Jill.
I ran too fast. Too far. The thing slewed madly, and went racing past me, Jill's gagged screams Dopplering in the echoing garage. No chance to go after Ling-- I raced to catch up with Jill before she came to a sudden halt against a wall or a car.
I got one hand on the edge of the handcart, and felt as though my shoulder'd been dislocated as it whipped around on its ball-bearings. I grunted, pulled off my feet and sent tumbling, and slammed back-first against the wall, while Jill and the handcart slammed head-first into my stomach.
I moaned, and slid out from under the thing. Half-sick, I was about to start cutting Jill free when I heard a grinding sound. I looked back toward the door we had come through, and saw that Frosty had the security panel open, and was leaning on the buttons-- the sound I'd heard was the gates closing.
There was a screech of tires, the scraping of metal on metal and suddenly the van was racing back down the ramp, towards us. I couldn't see Ling's face, but Jill's eyes were popping, and she shrieked into her gag as the van bore down on us. I kicked out, hard, and sent the dolly spinning wildly across the garage, out of harm's way. I flattened back against the wall, nowhere to run, hoping Ling would have enough sense not to pancake us both, when with a horrible grinding sound the bare front wheel gave way, and the van teetered before crashing over onto its side. Ling scrambled out through the window, but lost her balance and tumbled down, landing on her butt, looking up at me.
"Hold it." I pointed Frosty's gun at her. Still unloaded, of course, but she didn't know that.
She smiled at me. "Hi, Rudolph. You going to wrap me up for Christmas, too?" Her voice lowered. "Bet I'd like it better than bitchy redhead did."
I could feel my face flushing.
"I think maybe you like it, too."
I didn't answer, but finally got my other glove off, and was able to get the cuffs out from my belt. I told her to stand up, and took her shoulder; the muscles under the green velour felt firm and lithe. I pulled her arms behind her back, and she let out a little gasp. She shook her head, and let her hair brush against my hands as I fitted the cuffs on her.
Cops came running up, now, Frosty yelling to them and gesturing. Fortunately, he'd seen Ling try to run us down, and was able to explain to the cops that she was the one that needed to be in custody, not the guy in the soaking-wet reindeer costume.
One of the cops started to lead her away. She turned to look back at me over her shoulder.
"Shame, Rudolph. You the best-looking reindeer in the place."
I had taken off the costume for the last time. We were in the Darcy's security office. I was sipping coffee, and trying to look less of a fool than I felt. Jill was nursing a black eye, and regarding the Old Man, who'd been dragged down here by the cops for some explanations.
"Me give them an explanation!" he howled. "How about you two?!?"
Jill sighed. "I'd told Mona I had an errand to run; actually, I had seen Ling sneaking around back behind the present storage area, and I followed her. I got interrupted by some lost kids, though, so I was a couple of minutes behind her when I got to the storeroom.
"When I came around the corner, I saw Ling bending over Chad with the blackjack in her hand. Mona tried to yell through her gag to warn me, but that unfortunately warned Ling that I was there, so I couldn't take her by surprise. I was able to knock the sap out of her hand as she turned around, but I hadn't expected her to have martial arts training. She got in a good kick that sent me flying, then another one knocked my legs out from under me before I could right myself. She didn't take the time to go back for the sap, just grabbed me by my hair and bashed my head on the floor. While I was seeing stars, she rolled me over on my back onto that hand truck and used the strap to fasten me in place. Before I recovered enough to struggle, she had grabbed the roll of packing tape and started taping my body to the dolly. When she had me secure enough that I wouldn't fall off, she stood the cart up, and used more tape to wind around and around the cart-- around my breasts, waist, thighs, calves-- I was practically a mummy! About his time, my head cleared enough to try to call for help, but she grabbed my hair again and held my head still while she wrapped a couple of yards of the damn tape over my mouth, and around my head. She wrapped it over my hair so tight that I could barely even move my head-- I couldn't see if Chad showed any signs of getting up, or if Mona was getting loose. All I knew was that Ling had me, and was planning to take me for a ride-- a last ride, probably. She seemed like a pretty desperate character."
"And this Mona had nothing to do with it?" the Old Man sputtered.
"Nothing!" Jill seemed especially vehement about it. I spoke up.
"All right, but if Mona wasn't involved, why did she act so suspicious when I mentioned calling the police?"
"She's in the country illegally," Jill sighed. "She was afraid she'd get deported. In fact, she'd begun to suspect something strange was going on with the huge increase in kids, so that was why she took me up on the invitation to come visit." Her cheeks reddened. "Well, one reason, anyway " she mumbled.
"So Ling was " I was too disheartened to finish the question.
"A smart cookie!" the Old Man rumbled. "She had somehow tumbled to what Jill was up to, and when you came along, Chad, she decided to try and make you the fall guy."
Jill looked at me sympathetically. "You weren't the only one she fooled."
"You were on the right track all along, Jill," the Old Man said. "In the van, we found it all-- plans to ruin Darcy's for good. Ling was stealing presents, and using them to entice families to come next door to Grumble's. She had been hired by the Chock a Block chain of stores, who wants to buy old man Darcy out and a few more stunts like this, and the value of his store would drop so low he'd have to sell!"
Jill smiled. "And now, he's so grateful that he and Grumble have decided to combine their Christmas villages, instead of competing. And I've agreed to stay on for the rest of the season to help with security."
"So I guess you'll be seeing more of Mona, huh?"
Jill blushed again at my question.
"And " I hesitated "I don't suppose she wants to see me anytime soon, after what I did to her."
Jill laughed. "She'll get over it. Maybe we'll have you over for New Year's Eve."
At that, the Old Man shooed us both off to head home.
I took one last walk through Holiday Haven seeing the lights and tinsel, the trees and candy I knew I'd never look at those things in quite the same way again.
And Ling? Well, she got what was coming to her, I guess but I was sure disappointed that she turned out to be a saboteur, thief, and kidnapper. Even after everything that happened, she was still my favorite elf.
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