Winter Holidays - Story 1 - A Parcel of Pups by J.B. Dane

The shop was crowded with holiday shoppers, so the fact that I didn’t look frazzled probably made me stand out. Or it was simply that I was the only guy in a dark suit, dark overcoat, dark leather gloves, and wearing dark glasses in the joint.

“Yes?” the woman who’d just slipped behind the counter queried. “Do you have a problem, sir?”

I took off the sunglasses and gave her a reassuring smile. At least, I hope that’s what she saw it as. “I was told you’re the one with the problem. Are you the manager, ma’am?”

“Ah, yes,” she said sounding more like she really didn’t want to admit to it.

I dropped what I hoped would be a magic word. “Puppies.” Handed her my card.

She took it on automatic, glanced at it, and relaxed.

If you could read over her shoulder you’d see that it said Nick Clausowitz, Lost Items Detected. You lose ‘em, we find ‘em. Specializing in missing animals.

Not that my name is Nick Clausowitz. Really, it’s Nick Claus. Number one son at the North Pole and runner up to the sleigh, reindeer, red suit and that once a year, accomplished in a single night delivery route. Dad’s still on the job and in no hurry to step down, so my position in the family firm is Pole security. We pride ourselves on making all our “customers” happy, and missing puppies prior to December twenty-fourth did not ensure that.

The case had been brought to my attention by one of the elves, Handler, who ostensibly focuses on antlered flying stock. He has a soft spot for all animals though and claimed he’d heard the pups cry for help.

That’s where I came in. I can work the outside world. The elves, not so much.

The manager looked up at me. I sorta loomed over her. Not on purpose. It was a height thing. She looked relieved now that she knew I wasn’t a Fed there to ask for embarrassing paperwork. Occasionally I pull out a fake FBI card and badge when on Pole business. Amazing how people hop to it when they think they might be in trouble. Yeah, the outfit overplayed things in this situation, but I doubted I’d have been taken seriously if I waltzed in wearing my usual well-worn jeans and holly berry red fisherman’s sweater. Mom knitted one up for Dad, Gramps, each of my two sisters and moi last holiday season. Grandma called a family intervention before she ended up with one, too.

“Let’s talk in the office,” the manager suggested and led me deeper into pet country.

The shop was in a mall and that means it was long and narrow. Cages with mammals from mice to St. Bernard puppies lined one side and aquarium compartments with turtles, lizards, snakes, and a variety of colorful fish filled the other. The far back wall was devoted to the tweeters—parakeets, love birds, and cockatiels. Not caged were a scarlet macaw, a blue crown conure, and a sulfur-crested snow-white cockatoo, all three lording it over the smaller birds and eyeing shoppers. The middle of the store was a crowded mix of shelves with everything a pet owner required. Unless the family pets were reindeer, of course. I made a mental note to visit with the larger birds before I left to see if they’d witnessed anything.

Yeah, that sounds weird to most people, but I’m a Claus. We’ve got a few tricks up our sleeves.
The manager’s office was so small, it was surprising that a desk and two chairs fit. A four-drawer file cabinet was shoved in the corner and from her eye height on up, there were shelves with toy and accessory backstock threatening to spill off.

She grabbed a pile of fliers and invoices from the visitor’s chair, dumping them on the desk before she took a seat. Then she waved me into the newly available one. “Mind your head,” she warned. “The shelves weren’t built with tall people in mind.”

Things in the elves’ headquarters weren’t either, but then we humans didn’t usually intrude on their territory.

“By the way, I’m Ynez Ingalls.” She offered her hand. We shook. I felt the tingle of family magic that told me she belonged on the Nice List. It didn’t tell me she was fretful. That was obvious. But she was dealing with holiday shoppers plus a break-in and theft. “Pardon me for even mentioning this, but I didn’t realize there were detectives who specialized in lost pets. Even if I did, one who looks like he’s a Secret Service agent sent in from the President’s limo to pick up a gift wouldn’t be what I expected.”

I laughed. “Honestly, my day job isn’t much different from that, though I don’t work for the government.” Heck, guarding Dad and the Pole secrets is tough enough with spy planes, satellites, and hackers eager to unveil us. “The pet thing is more of a community service project. Some people pick up trash, tend soup lines, coach neighborhood kids ball teams. I look for lost things. Mostly pets.” I paused, gave her the grin Mom says makes females from maidens to grandmothers want to keep me around. “A fee is due upon successful completion and is only accepted if it’s paid in brownies or peanut butter fudge.”

That relieved her. It’s easy to tell when someone’s next question will be how much will this cost me?

“I think I can afford that,” she said. “What do you need to know?”

I leaned forward in my seat. “What sort of puppies went missing, how many were there, when did you last see them, and who discovered they were gone?”

Ynez filled in the blanks. Five six-week-old chihuahuas, three females and two males. They’d only been in the shop twenty-four hours before vanishing. She’d fed and cuddled each one, then cleaned up their cage before locking the store for the night, but they were missing when the head associate opened the next morning. A photograph had been snapped of each one to post to the official company social media accounts and shared out by staff members on their media pages. I had her send them to my Yahoo email address. It’s my backup account. Kinda blows the whole Santa secrecy thing to use the in-house one in the outside world.

It was soon apparent that a list of people who would have known the puppies were at the shop would be next to impossible to create. It was the holiday season. Social media was wild with retailers. All Ynez and her crew had done was attempt to drum up business. I decided to keep my personal list short: the shop’s staff, any recently fired members, frequent visitors, delivery people. I put the breeder on the list, too. Their credentials claimed they were not a puppy mill, but it could have been a lie. I wouldn’t know until I shook their hand, and even that first impression might be off. They could belong on the Naughty List without stealing puppies or lying about their business practices.

Ynez hustled off to arrange extra break times for the sales people currently on the floor. I’d have a few minutes with each to ask questions. While I waited, there were other interviews I could do.

The three larger birds recognized me for what I was immediately.

“Whatta you doin’ here?” the macaw demanded, looking me over from head to foot. “If it’s to put me in that sleigh to freeze my feathers off before getting stuffed down a chimney, I suggest you find yourself a different chump, Claus.”

At least that’s what I heard him say. To everyone else within hearing it sounded like he was squawking.

No problem, beak boy. What I need is information. How many crackers will it cost me for you to cough something up? I asked, mind to mind.

“It’s gonna cost you more than crackers to get information out of me,” the macaw answered, shifting his stance on the large perch. As none of the parrots were caged, their flight feathers had been trimmed down, grounding them quicker than an ice storm delayed Dasher and the team.

“I’ll answer your questions for free,” the conure offered. “He’s just grumpy because some kid wanted him to talk like the parrot in the pirate movies.”

I’d be a bit testy after that myself, I admitted. Thank you for your cooperation.

“It’s about those yappy youngsters that went missing, isn’t it?” the cockatoo said. “Personally, I was glad to see them go. Yap, yap, yap. That’s all they did, and it set the rest of the furry kids barking and howling, too. When they did it late at night, this place echoed with the challenges they tossed at the rest of us.”

“Challenges! Death threats,” the macaw squawked.

“I thought they were cute,” the conure said. “So did all the people that came in to look at them. They had those big bright eyes and tumbled all over each other in excitement when a human talked to them.”

“I still say good riddance,” the ticked off macaw announced.

Did you see who took them? 

“Of course, we did,” the cockatoo said.

Can you describe them to me?

“It was dark in here, so didn’t see faces.”

“They were wearing masks,” the macaw corrected arrogantly.

Then tell me what you did see, I requested through my teeth. Yeah, I was conversing mentally, but the teeth were gritted all the same. They irritated me on the same level the customers did them. A Claus has patience running through his veins though. It’s a job requirement. I’ll bet some of our DNA strands are red and green to keep us firmly in holiday mode year-round. Any type of description will be helpful.

“Sure,” the conure said. “You’re not going to need many details though. They should be easy for you to find. They were elves.”

***

The parrots hadn’t given me much, but it was still more than the shop personnel did. If the manager hadn’t specified ten minutes was all she could spare each of them for, a couple would have talked my ear off, one gushing about how cute the chihuahuas were and another about how she had two different customers considering them as gifts. With no pups to sell, she was going to be out-of-luck on her sales quota for the week. Didn’t have to shake her hand to know she was marginal material, balanced in the wasteland between Naughty and Nice. That usually means a gift will be given but not in the right size, color, style, scent, or flavor. Mentioning it just so you know where you rank for future lists. The names on them change hourly.

The pet store had not issued any pink slips and the delivery people were familiar, having been on the route for years. That left me with the breeders, but should I waste time talking to them if the birds had been right? The macaw and the cockatoo had agreed with the conure. The thieves they’d seen had been elves.

I left the mall and dialed Handler. “You find a parking spot?” I asked when he answered.

“Did indeed, chief. Cozy spot on the roof over the department store, north end. Line of sight is blocked by the air conditioning units.”

We’d come in the sleigh. In broad daylight. Thank goodness Claus and Company had the wherewithal to go invisible. Even the invisible one needs landing and takeoff room with a team of eight reindeer. Handler had simply turned one of his pre-night-of-the-twenty-fourth flight exercises into a taxi service for me. Dasher and Prancer were usually the only stock who were up to snuff after months of sloth and tundra grazing.

I ducked between two SUVs and went frost shards to reach the waiting sleigh. Anyone nearby would think a bit of snow had been swept up by a gust of wind. Bet you’ve always wondered why no one spots Santa. Or how we do the chimney drop. Even if you don’t have a fireplace.

“Cute puppies,” I told him once we were back in the air. “Pictures in the email. One problem though.”

“Only one?” He growled the query, which meant he was unhappy. I was about to tick him off even more.

“The parrots saw it all, except it was dark, so they could agree on only one thing. The perps were elves.”

“Never!”

“That’s what they said. You think big birds lie?”

“Nicky, my lad, you can bet Legolas’s overbleached long tresses that they do.”

Handler’s never been impressed with Tolkien’s cast.

“But if they weren’t lying…”

“Reindeer shit,” he swore.

Vixen turned her head. “Heard that, little fool.”

Handler apologized but it was just words, no regret. Not that Vix or any of the other stock expected any. Considering he was their caretaker, they heard a lot of genus derogatory terms muttered under his breath.

“Who do I need to visit?” I asked. If anyone at the Pole knew the most likely elven communities to spawn thieves, he was the dude.

Handler mused, not directing the team, but they knew the way to carry the sleigh. Our destination was the Pole, home.

“There’s things to take into consideration,” he said. “Level of mischief, and the devious ability to pull off a heist.”

“Not a why?”

“That’s the easiest thing to answer. They’re being paid to do the job. If elves were involved, you can bet your last candy cane the pups aren’t in their hands any longer.”

Totally agreed with that assessment. Elves aren’t pet people as a rule. Oh, they like animals but figure they’d prefer to live in their own communities, not be underfoot outside of the pack, flock, herd, pride, or what have you.

“What you’re saying is there’s only one place I need to visit,” I said.

“One you tend to avoid these days,” Handler said.

These days. Yeah, that was a telling choice of words. Once upon a time, it had been the place I climbed out a window to visit. Back in my frivolous youth.

It was still a darn tempting place. When the pace of things kicked up at the Pole, I frequently found myself considering a late-night excursion. Even landed myself on the Naughty list more than once. A lot of onces.

“I’m going to need a change of clothes,” I muttered.

“That or a .44 caliber in your shoulder holster and one in your back waistband. Knives would be good, too. Knuckle dusters.” Real helpful, wasn’t he? Of course, I do own everything he listed.

“The pet store wasn’t the kind of case that was supposed to require any of that, buddy. All you said was ‘crying puppies’.”

“That was before you talked to those feather brains,” Handler reminded.

I crossed my arms, shoving my gloved hands beneath my armpits. The air temperature would give me the rosy cheeks of Santa lore, although I was lean rather than well padded. Claus metabolism makes flying through winter skies bearable most of the time. Knowing what my evening held chilled me to the bone.

There was no way around it. I had to visit Brokkr’s Hole.

***

When I stepped across the tavern’s threshold, not only did all conversation stop, even the old jukebox froze in mid-song. Heavy metal, of course. All eyes turned toward where I stood.

There was only one way to survive in Brokkr’s Hole. Go back to being the guy I was in the past.

A regular.

Most of the tables and chairs looked like they’d come from the Santa assembly lines in the past, the pre-molded plastic past. All were child-sized and constructed of hardwoods. The bar was taller and featured four-legged stools, also wooden and sans upholstery. Lighting was supplied by oil lamps hung from the rafters. Very few customers had to duck to miss a concussion, but I was among that minority. The floor boards creaked as I crossed them.

The woman behind the bar was a dark elf, which means she was tall. Her dark hair spilled down over elegant shoulders, only the tips of her ears pushing through the shiny mass. Her wardrobe hadn’t changed since I’d seen her last. She dressed like one of Robin Hood’s merry men. If they’d actually existed, rubbing up against her would have made them very merry. It certainly had me so once upon a time.

Her lips curved in a smirk as she poured something guaranteed to have a high alcohol content into a pewter mug.

“Nicky,” she greeted as I slipped onto one of the barstools. Her eyes slid over the black leather jacket and other biker wear I’d pulled on. All the weapons Handler had listed where concealed about my person. “Still a long cool draught of Aegir’s brew. You haven’t changed much since your last visit.”

“Neither have you, Tat-ana,” I said. “Still as lovely as ever.”

She pushed the mug in front of me. It was the mead blend I preferred. She never forgot anything.

Unfortunately.

Tat gave a moue of disappointment. “You used to say intoxicating, poler.”

“I used to be spellbound, if you recall, swartlette.”

She leaned against the back counter, elbows on the top, one leather booted leg bent to rest her foot against the shelf below. “Nicky,” she cooed. “How nice that you haven’t forgotten those delicious insults you used to fling at me. I have missed you, sweetums. But you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t need to be. If not to rekindle things with me, why have you come for a visit?”

“Puppies,” I said, expecting her to laugh.

She didn’t.

She snarled a word that was obviously a weighty ancestral comment that I had no problem guessing was not complimentary. Just to make things clear, I wasn’t the recipient. One of the shorter elves caught it and bolted to his feet so fast, he sent the chair he’d occupied tumbling.

Knew Tat was a nimble minx but the leap she took over the bar would make a stunt coordinator chew his knuckles in admiration. The elf nearly made it out the door but when he had it open a couple inches, a booted foot planted itself next to his head and slammed it closed. She grabbed the front of his jacket with two hands and lifted him off his feet. His head bounced off the wall when she pinned him there.

“I told you to leave the job alone, Gripper. It was trouble we don’t need,” Tat growled in his face.

“They upped the price for the nab,” he babbled.

“By how much?”

“Double.”

She tossed him aside as though he was an Elf on a Shelf. The table of dwarves he landed on scattered then turned on him. Two of them grabbed Gripper by his arms and legs and tossed him back before setting their table and chairs upright again. Obviously, it wasn’t their first visit to the place. Contretemps are common at Brokkr’s Hole.

“Who helped you?” Tat demanded, dragging the elf up by the collar of his jerkin.

“Nobody,” he said.

Tat snorted—in a ladylike way—at the mere idea. “One elf and a litter of squirming cur brats? Doubt it,” she said and dropped him.

Which put him at my feet. I swept him up, holding him one-handed at my eye level. I grew up with elves. I know how to scare the livin’ Grendel out of ‘em. Shook him enough to rattle his teeth, then met his eyes.

The scarlet Suit has powers and even though I’m not the one shrugging it on yet, it knows I’m next in line. It’s why I can do things my sisters can’t. And one of them is damn handy for a guy charged with keeping the Pole’s elven population in line. The recipient of one of my stares spills the truth like they knocked the spigot out of a full barrel of mead.

Gripper leaked names. One for each elf that touched a puppy in the nab. Some of them I knew personally. Others by reputation, and not a nice reputation either. While I had a source hanging like an ornament in hand, I asked the one question I’d neglected to ask the birds at the pet store.

“How’d you get in the shop? Magic?” Not that I’d sense a residue when I’d been on the scene, but that didn’t mean it hadn’t been in play.

“We had a key and the security code,” Gripper confessed.

“It was an inside job?”

“They weren’t selling puppies on the street corner, Claus. Of course, we were inside.”

Tat flicked the tip of one of his ears. A very sensitive spot for any elf. Naturally, that broke eye contact. “He means, were they someone who worked at the pet place, moron.”

Gripper managed to shrug, but he seemed generally clueless.

I dropped him. “What did the person who gave you these things look like?”

“Not an elf. One of your kind.”

A Claus?

“You know, human, but short. More like your grandma’s size.”

The senior Mrs. Claus, as Grams bills herself, isn’t much taller than some of the elves. She is also roly-poly thanks the family cookies and milk addiction.

“Just in height or otherwise as well?”

“Like she came out of a mold in the doll factory,” he said. We hadn’t had a doll factory in over two decades. Twenty-first century Claus central ordered wholesale from suppliers online. Another example of that customer satisfaction thing. Today’s kids wanted what advertisers blanketed over every network in existence.

“Your contact was female?”

“Had the voice for it. Kinda high pitched.”

Like elves his size have gravelly voices. Heck, they all sound like they’ve been breathing helium when they get excited. 

“Don’t leave the area,” I warned him, and returned to the bar and my cup of mead. But enjoying it was not to be. My phone warned that Dad was coming to town with musical accompaniment, which meant Gramps had tinkered with my ring tone. The ID said it was Handler.

“You still at Brokkr’s?”

“Still at Tat’s,” I corrected. Brokkr had sold out and headed to Hawaii’s big island years ago.

“I’ll be by with the sleigh in two shakes,” he said. “According to the Naughty list subfile, five more shops just got hit. Two batches of chihuahuas and three of cairn terriers, all six-weeks old.”

What I said in frustration probably added my name back on the Naughty List, but frankly, I didn’t care. “I’ll be at the door when you get here,” I told him.

“I’m already here,” Handler said.

I made him wait and resurrected a talent I hadn’t used since leaving college. I chugged the mead.

“Go get ‘em, tiger,” Tat purred and blew me a kiss as I left.

***

Didn’t bother with talking to staff at the newly hit shops. Considering the thieves had upped the ante they either knew I was on to them or the first nab had been a test run. Handler swung the team by each shop. It was early enough that some were still open. Those that were closed I entered via the Santa system, which isn’t always ice shards but always something capable of following a draft inside. Talked to the animals. They all agreed elves had done the job. With the clock ticking down to the twenty-fourth, I headed back to the Pole’s security office and sent teams out to collect their miscreant brothers and sisters. In other words, we raided every elf hangout north of the Equator.

The squad took care of that business. I hit the Lists. Did a family check, matching folks on one list with relatives and friends on the opposite one. While the intel system did its thing, I hit the twenty-four-hour company cafeteria. Downing a mug of Tat’s mead on an empty stomach then slipping into pet stores undetected had made me lightheaded. Fortunately, a hearty bowl of stew, bread from the French elves’ bakery, and two slices of Grams’s special double chocolate cake with thick caramel icing refortified me for the fight. My phone dinged to tell me the computer had good news for me when I was halfway through the second dessert helping.

This time when I headed below the arctic line it wasn’t in the sleigh. It was under elf magic in the SWAT transport. Just so you don’t confuse us with the mundane local police, that isn’t Special Weapons and Tactics. It’s the Silver Whinyard Aelfin Trackers. That’s been the Security department’s elite for centuries. A whinyard, by the way, is a short sword, which they still carry, though are tasked with just scaring the naughty out of those they confront, not harm them. Sorta goes against the Santa code. The scribe who wrote the first of their chronicles (we call them case files today) favored creative early medieval spelling for his caste, which is how elfin acquired the “a”. So ends the history lesson.

Our security vehicles only look like monsters to the guys piling inside. Otherwise, you could mistake them for a soccer mom’s van with the seats removed. I was the only one wearing black since I hadn’t changed from the biker duds. The rest of the team were in dark spruce green—including the vans. That’s as bad ass as we get.

Other teams were out sweeping up their puppy stealing brothers and the pups if they were still with them. My team was hitting the mastermind’s digs. A nice three-bedroom colonial she shared with a sibling. There were multicolored lights strung along the roof line, wrapped around the shrubbery, and decorating the tall tree in the front window. A wreath with a cheery script greeting decorated a cherry red front door.

The elves spread out, covering all exits, including windows. I strolled up to the front porch and did a shave-and-a-haircut knock.

There was a flicker at the observation dot in the door. What she’d see was a guy wearing the traditional red and white Santa cap with his leather ensemble. I’d added it to look less threatening. Also had that trademark Nick Claus grin in action.

A woman who looked very much like Ynez Ingalls opened the door. Key words: “very much like”.

“Sorry to disturb you, ma’am, but my car battery just died, and I forgot my cell. Could you possibly call vehicle emergency service for me?” I asked.

She looked beyond me. Saw the van at the curb with the hood up. The elves were in covert mode, either crouched in the bushes or currently see-though. “I suppose I could. Do you have a membership card or something they’ll need?”

“Absolutely,” I said and passed her mock Triple A plastic. Made sure my fingers brushed her hand as I did so. Yep. Broadcasting Naughty List vibes like a SETI dish messaging aliens.

“Do you mind waiting on the porch while I make the call?”

“Not at all,” I assured. “There is one more thing though.”

That put her on alert. She hastily slammed the door… or at least tried to. I had my foot in the way. “You’re under arrest for breaking and entering at six pet stores and the theft of two dozen puppies. You’re also under arrest for running an illegal puppy mill. I’d also arrest you for holding your sister—your identical twin sister captive and implicating her in the thefts by using her connections within the pet selling community. Unfortunately, I doubt she’ll press charges against you for tying her up. Or did you cage her instead?”

Naturally, she made a run for the backdoor and ended at the bottom of a pile of very eager Pole SWAT members.

We found Ynez bundled up in a cage in the garage. Her sister had supplied a pile of blankets and had a small space heater going nearby, but it was probably the pile of puppies that helped keep her warm.

“I didn’t know she was involved in the mill trade anymore,” Ynez said when she was back in the house and sipping on the cup of hot chocolate one of the elves shared from his personal thermos. He had a knit hat pulled down to cover his ears, so she didn’t notice he wasn’t human. The puppies made drinking difficult. They were trying to lick Ynez’s face. “She said she had to get the puppies back when the man who doctored paperwork for her was picked up for forgery. She was afraid the police would follow a trail back to her. I am so embarrassed.”

Her sister had already been taken away by the real police. There are still adults who believe in Santa, though they are few, and those in law enforcement come in handy at times like these.

“Just so you know, I’m adopting all these puppies myself. It means selling the house and moving into the country to keep this many, but they need a home,” Ynez said. “I just need to know one thing yet, Mr. Clausowitz. Where do I send the fudge?”

I promised I’d be by to pick it up at closing time on the twenty-fourth, then my team and I headed back North.

***

“Nicky!” Tat greeted when I strolled up to the bar in Brokkr’s Hole not long after. “I didn’t expect to see you back here—ever, much less tonight.”

I slipped onto the barstool. “It’s the season of good cheer, so I thought I’d spread some around.”

“Then I’ll begin,” she offered and pointed to the spring of mistletoe in the process of materializing in the rafters just above my seat. “Come here, lover,” she purred and leaned over the bar.

---

J.B. Dane’s writing career began 28 years ago in the romance market, writing as Beth Henderson. She’s recently switched to fantasy as J.B. Dane and have an urban fantasy series, The Raven Tales, under contract with the first books releasing in 2019. Oddly enough, she’s been working on a mystery where Santa is the amateur detective, though his entire family gets involved in the investigation, and “A Parcel of Pups” is a spin-off from that world.

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