Aint Christmas

[For those of you new to these characters, who are introduced in the forthcoming “Aint Pretty Detective Agency”, Aint is a Goblin, Delia is his friend and assistant, Mariel is a Cherub police officer with whom he has something of a love/hate relationship, and the supernatural crashed back into the world in a big way a few years ago. The rest of it you’ll just have to pick up…]

 

It took Delia a while to find me, because I was deep down in my lair where the sound of all that music couldn’t reach. Being her usual curious and not terribly prudent self, she crawled all the way down the passages and pushed open the door cover. I managed to stop my club a couple of inches from her head.

‘Merry Christmas to you too!’ she said, which was a bit sharp, for her.

‘Don’t mention that word to me!’ I snapped. ‘I’m still holding a Godendag!’

‘The club with a spike through it?’ she asked. ‘I thought that was a knobkerrie.’

‘For me it’s two handed, so it’s a Godendag when I’m holding it,’ I said.

‘You are tetchy!’ she muttered. ‘Christmas a bad time for you?’

‘Of course it is!’ I said. ‘The sound of church bells always caused us pain, and you know what? Turns out Xmas muzak does that too!’

‘You poor thing!’ Delia sat down. ‘Don’t you goblins have a midwinter festival of your own? Something you could do?’

‘I’m doing it,’ I said. ‘It’s very traditional, dates all the time back to before the ice went and humans were just a bad rumour. Our midwinter event is all about staying alive. It’s the middle of the darkness and the cold, the predators are at their most desperate and hungry, pretty soon the food will be running out. So you lay in stores, get a great big club and stand ready to clobber anything that comes through the door!’

‘We’ve all felt a bit like that!’ said Delia. ‘I’ve been trying to get in contact with you. You weren’t answering your phone so I came here.’

‘Tell them it’s the season of goodwill so they don’t need me.’

‘Several people have been murdered, Aint! Supernaturally! They need your help. Well the ones still alive, that is.’

I scratched my chin. ‘It’s starting early,’ I commented.

‘You know what it is? I haven’t even told you anything about it!’

‘I know what usually kills people this time of year. The big red monster waits for the stress and the desperation to winnow people down and then when things go quiet it comes for the weak, the lonely and the isolated. No wonder it’s so fat these days.’

‘You’re joking!’

It seemed as if I had horrified her, which I don’t manage to do that often. ‘Am I?’

‘But…. Father Christmas! It’s not him, is it?’

‘Plenty of things feeding off the belief,’ I said. ‘Unfortunately, the real Saint Nick ain’t one of them. He does try delivering presents from time to time, but as a middle-eastern man showing up in English-speaking houses, he kept getting beaten up and shot.’

‘But…. there’s some pagan gift-giver, isn’t there? Sinterklaas or something?’

‘I may swear by him sometimes, but no sane person would actually want to meet Odin.’

‘What about all the gift-giving! The expectation of children! There’s got to be something nice!’

‘Befana’s not bad, but she largely sticks to Italy. If I see something coming wearing the coca-cola colours, I’m either going to whack it or run away.’

‘But these murders weren’t the weak, the lonely and… what was the other one?’

‘The isolated.’

‘… that. They were largely rich and happy.’

‘Ah, that sounds more like it!’ I clapped, catching the club again before it had even fallen an inch. ‘Not sure about the happy part, but rich sounds good.’

‘You’ll take the case then?’

‘Hmph. Well to be honest hiding in here with a club is getting boring, but I’m still bringing it with me.’ I shrank the godendag down to about six inches, and put it in my pocket.

A few minutes later, I was having second thoughts. I was muffled up to the gills with scarves, gloves, layers of wools and waterproofs. Over and around the head, especially. Over my earmuffs I wore several more inches of insulation. I saw the world through a letterbox lined with ragged knitwear, but all those flashing lights were still getting through. The smog, the drizzly rain and the splatter from the street were largely kept out.

Delia held her phone in front of my face. She had typed HOW ARE YOU DOING SO FAR? on it.

‘It’s alright, you can talk normally,’ I said. ‘Volume of a human voice, it still goes straight through at this range.’

‘What?’ called Delia.

I worked my mittens between layers of scarf, snood and balaclava. ‘I said you can talk normally, I’ll still hear it!’

‘What about the music?’

‘It’s cutting out the worst frequencies. The smell’s worse.’

‘We can get you some clean woollies if you want. Plenty of stalls. My present.’

‘It’s not my clothes, it’s the pheremones,’ I said. ‘Sure even you can smell all the anger and anxiety in the air? The desperation?’

‘People are a little… busy,’ she admitted.

I skipped sideways. ‘That’s the fifth time we’ve had to dodge someone barrelling along! It’s tricky even for me in this get-up!’

‘It’ll all be fine when we actually get to the peace, quiet and family part,’ soothed Delia. ‘Ooops—sorry.’

‘I’m not jealous. It’s nice there’s someone who can kid themselves it’s good.’

‘Shall we get the bus, Mr Grinch?’

‘That’s some pop culture reference, isn’t it? Well here’s another one for you. I can see a Gremlin hanging on the outside of that bus, and I don’t want to pull a Shatner.’

Delia peered at the mud-coloured monolith of the vehicle, pulling back slightly from the splatter as it stopped. Shoppers tried to press into it despite the ones trying to get off. ‘I don’t see anything.’

‘You’re human. I foresee that bus is going to break down midway between two stops, probably near a grating so that little swine can get down to the Metro next.’

‘Hmmm. Perhaps we had better walk then. At least we can see the famous shop window on the way! I heard it’s fairy tales this year.’

What have I been telling you about fairy tales?’ I muttered but I don’t think she heard me, pressing ahead and trying to part the crowds. Xmas (I refuse to spell it properly) muzak was spilling out, so I fumbled my hands up under my head-covers to fit in some earplugs under the muffs. The stink of sweat from under those layers of clothing which people didn’t remove when they went into tropically hot shops was getting to me, so I wished I’d put my nose-clip in a handier pocket.

The drizzle was getting to them in turn, so it wasn’t too long waiting in the queue that moved along the storefront. A lot of people were wearily indulging their children to look at it, and I was indulging my human friend. The air was so thick and horrible anyway it couldn’t do any more harm… could it?

There were the cobbler and the elves, although they didn’t look like any elves that I’d ever met… Sleeping Beauty, who got woken up by considerably more than just a kiss… Snow White, who tortured her step-mother to death for revenge… Jack and the murderous home invasion… Hansel and Gretel.

‘That’s authentic but it’s really bad taste!’ I called out, pointing to the pair of witch’s legs that were sticking out of the oven and kicking. The clockwork or whatever the modern equivalent was moved in difficult little jerks, which just made it more unsettling.

Delia was saying something to a woman, who was bending down to me. ‘Oh dear, is he upset?’ I read on her lips. With the plugs in my ears it’s very hard to pitch my own voice, it must have come out as a rather high-pitched shriek.

‘Don’t worry, little one! What a beautiful child—’ She got close enough to see around my hood, and her expression dropped, mouth sagging open.

I gave her my best smile, hiding the teeth. ‘Am I still beautiful inside?’ I asked as earnestly as I could.

Delia hustled me back out to the street. As we got to the end, I pulled the plugs out of my ears.

‘I’m sorry!’ she said. ‘Some of those tales celebrate killing your relatives, what was I thinking!’

‘Plenty celebrate killing humans as well. Where are we going, anyway? This is near the police station!’

‘We’re going there first. We’re checking in with Mariel before we do anything else, stop any friction.’

‘You’re learning!’ I said. ‘Good work not telling me that first!’ I tried to run away but she caught me by the scarf.

The police station had tinsel up and paper chains over the door. The desk sergeant wore reindeer antlers over a pained, stern expression. She took one look at us and led us straight to Mariel’s office.

Inside, it was completely free of Xmas pollution other than a nativity scene and a cross on the far wall. The round tin waste-bin was full of glitter, baubles and a large wreath. Mariel herself was behind her desk, sitting in a high chair so that she was in front of her computer screen. She was working it via a device that looked like a game console and fitted into her pudgy little hands. Her dress was a very vivid pink.

I let out a breath and peeled off my insulation layers. ‘Whew!’

‘You’re not a Scrooge as well, are you?’ asked Delia plaintively of Mariel.

‘Heathen bloody filth. Especially that damn wreath they tried to put up!’ spat the cherub.

‘Where are the Three Kings?’ asked Delia, peering at the nativity scene.

‘It’s the nativity according to Luke, which is why it’s got shepherds. I’m doing Mathew next year. You need to revise.’

‘So we get to solve another case for you?’ I asked.

‘Less of your lip or I’ll ring a Christmas bell. Now come over here and look at this.’

We crowded around the back of the desk. She was on a social media site, of a sort. ‘You called us here to look at Binderfest?’ I exclaimed.

‘It’s the secure police sub-section!’ she said. ‘I do a page for all of my best cases with crime scene photos and arrest mugshots. Other police can look for clues and advance theories. This is one for the evidence in this case, so you may as well look at it.’

‘You don’t get Gremlin problems?’

Mariel pointed a finger at the screen and zapped it with a bolt of white light. ‘I had to barbecue a couple, then the rest got the message.’

I winced. Gretel et al was still quite fresh, but I did feel rather envious.

‘Here’s my first post!’ said Mariel. ‘The location of the murders!’

A screen picture appeared of a muck-mansion. Of course, being a muck-mansion from the eighteenth century, it was now old enough to seem like a genuinely nice mansion to most humans. I didn’t approve of the décor of this one. It had been covered with ropes of the glowing electric bulbs that people still insist on calling “fairy lights”, even now they can compare them to the real thing. There were also flashing outlines of the red and white seasonal figure, reindeer, snowmen, and so forth. The unusual addition was a corpse dangling in a noose of the fairy-lights. They were still glowing and blinking.

‘This was *Eric Jongleur, cousin of the businessman Noel Jongleur,’ said Mariel. ‘He died of electrocution somewhere else before being hung up there.’

Under the Binderfest picture, somebody had written a comment “Think I’ll do that for our station LOL.”

‘Nasty, but hardly supernatural,’ I said.

‘The next one is. Look away, Delia. Come to think of it, you had better get on the other side of the screen.’

She clicked onto the next post, which was indeed very gory. Delia, who was peeking between her fingers, gave a squawk.

‘This is *Clara Jongleur, Noel’s daughter,’ said Mariel. ‘Face and forehead taken off in a couple of bites. Forensics took casts of the tooth marks and they’re comparing them with stuffed animals at the museum, the idiots.’

‘It was done underneath the mistletoe!’ I laughed, pointing.

‘If this was done by your ex-associates from the Redcaps, I want to know immediately, and you’re not going near this one,’ said Mariel.

‘We’re immune to iron, not Xmas,’ I said. ‘Would be tricky to pull something like this off.’ I peered at the comments underneath. “That’s one hell of a hickey” and “Reminds me of Mandy at the office Christmas party ROFL.” So much for sharing clues and theories.

‘Noel Jongleur’s cousin *Oswald,’ said Mariel, clicking onward again. ‘Unpleasant way to go. Someone raided the Christmas stores early, cooked a lot of everything, and force-fed him until he died. It was the Christmas pudding which finally did it.’

‘Horrible!’ said Delia. ‘Is that raw bacon laid out all over the body?’

‘I like the way they propped up a turkey joint as if it was watching,’ I said.

‘I think it was supposed to be poetic.’ Mariel pointed to the explanatory notes. ‘Post mortem showed sage and onion stuffing had been shoved in the other end. Oh, that reminds me. Delia, I’m not moving on until you really are the other side of the desk.’

Delia complied, looking a bit green. Mariel clicked.

‘Ewwww!’ I said. ‘I haven’t seen anything like that since fifteenth-century Romania.’

‘Luckily for daughter-in-law *Jane Jongleur, she was killed by a broken neck first.’ Mariel’s face was screwed up like she was chewing a wasp. ‘This thing is very strong, but there’s no way to get a living woman into a fairy costume and then… mount… her on the tree like that.’

‘There’s another turkey propped up watching,’ I pointed out. ‘I’m pretty sure that means it isn’t Redcaps. A goblin wouldn’t pull the same gag twice so close together, and then there were the mixed turkey and sausage motifs with the last one. But who are these victims? What sort of person has a twenty-foot tree placed in their front hall anyway?’

Mariel moved us onto a picture of a white-haired man wearing a red and white cola outfit. ‘Noel Jongleur, head of the Noël Christmas company. Wealthy entrepeneur who made a fortune out of crackers, hampers, costumes, decorations, toys, Lapland holidays, all that stuff. These days it’s all made overseas and the money just flows in. He hosts a massive Christmas party for his extended family at his mansion Polar Towers every festival. This year, something is killing them.’

I chewed a claw. ‘Well first off they don’t need a detective or investigator, they need a heavyweight paranormal bodyguard. They need you there, or a Collapser. Failing that, get them into a dead magic zone, or at least to a Cathedral.’

‘They won’t leave,’ said Mariel. ‘We’ve had some police magicians there since the first death, but it hasn’t helped. The others got killed without anybody else hearing anything, and not a single ward being broken or alarm tripped. Yesterday it started snowing there, but the surviving family are still determined to stay, even when Jane’s husband Clive vanished.’

‘Sounds like an elaborate suicide pact. Unless they offer to pay me a lot of money, I’d say we leave them to it.’

‘Aint….’ said Delia, using that tone of voice.

‘They’re hiding something, and the boss won’t let me arrest one to find out,’ said Mariel. ‘You know how good I am at interrogations. I need you to tell me what is doing this.’

‘Could be a nature spirit taking revenge,’ I said. ‘These humans sacrifice huge numbers of trees, turkeys, pigs and so on without giving the proper thanks. Or perhaps it’s a death-curse from his sweatshops. Any factories collapse recently?’

‘Didn’t feel like those when I was out there,’ said Mariel. ‘but I don’t understand all this complex mortal stuff. You’re not bad with it.’

‘Maybe. But if I find the proverbial five hundred pound gorilla, that won’t stop it doing whatever it wants. You need to come along as well.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Why not?’ asked Delia.

‘I don’t get a choice in the matter. Christmas Eve, and Hark the fu—the bloody Herald bloody Angels stuffing Sing. I’m going to be flying a holding pattern over the Cathedral running through every damn hymn in the book, probably several times. No exceptions allowed.’

‘How much is Jongleur paying?’ I asked Delia.

‘A million pounds, half for a solve but no arrest,’ she said. ‘Fifty per cent is going to charity from source. He just rang me up at the shop and said he couldn’t get in contact with you but thought I could.’

‘Did you haggle?’

‘No, he just offered the money straight off.’

‘Damn. Next time go for double at least, if someone’s that desperate.’

‘Next time I’ll insist on three-quarters going to charity.’

‘You going to do it?’ said Mariel. ‘I hate relying on you, but at least you’re competent even if your morals are dubious.’

‘I’ll give it a sniff,’ I said, ‘but I’m back home before midnight, and there’s no way I’m going up against this thing personally. It’s a very long shot.’

‘The mansion is only on the Arbour estate,’ said Delia. ‘Mariel said we can get a lift with a police driver.’

‘You’re not going,’ I told her.

‘I am!’

‘Shouldn’t you be with your family at Christmas?’

‘I’ll be there for the morning. People are in danger right now.’

‘And if you go, there will be one more. I’ll work better knowing you’re safe, or as safe as anyone gets this time of year. Go watch the angels.’

‘We’ve faced all kinds of trouble together!’

‘Nothing this bad, and not by choice. I’m not taking you into this.’

‘I’m not agreeing with Aint,’ put in Mariel, ‘He’s agreeing with me. It’s no place for you.’

‘But—’

‘Do we have to say mean things to make you stay home?’ I put in. ‘I don’t want to do that, it would be like kicking a puppy.’

‘I’m your conscience, Aint. Without me there, you’ll run away when it gets tough.’

‘Then how’s this for your conscience. Two thirds of the money goes to charity if you stay out of it.’

‘I bet I can put you in protective custody if I have to!’ said Mariel.

Delia’s shoulders slumped. ‘You’re both really serious, aren’t you? Alright then, but I don’t like it.’

From a distance, we could see the magic weather system over the estate; a grey column of snow originated at a darker patch of cloud and descended, snaking left and right, to end with complete precision on the house and grounds.

Through the main gates, the main drive was lost under the white drifts. I told the driver he could drop me off, said hello to the other copper on the gate, and slipped off my boots and overcoat with a sigh of relief. I jumped onto the white billows and went skipping along them, my webbed feet barely sinking in.

Polar towers. What a name. There were Scandinavian pine trees sticking up through the snow, and in the distance, there were—yes—actual reindeer in a pen. Good grief. Someone had a bad case of Xmas-itis, year round. Perhaps all the post-twelth-night bad luck had built up. [Derel 12.12.14]

The mansion itself still had its glowing lights, albeit without the corpse. Were they still bent on celebrating? Someone had built a snowman on the front lawn as well, although the snow since yesterday had spoiled the shape a bit.

Oh, of course.

I bounced up to the front door. There was a miserable-looking WPC on duty; a member of the firearms squad with holy water spray, silvered-iron truncheon, UV torch and, of course, gun.

‘I think I found your missing Clive,’ I said.

‘You the consultant?’ she growled. Snow slid off her cap. ‘If Mariel says it’s alright I’ll let you in, but I don’t like it.’

‘The missing husband!’ I said. ‘Aren’t you a little interested?’

‘You only just arrived, how could you know where he is?’

‘The right kind of mind,’ I said. I scampered back to the snowman, jumped up and slapped off half its head. Underneath was another head, which had frozen solid by now.

‘Pretty sure that’s Clive,’ I said once the WPC had come wading up. ‘Unless someone else has vanished since that last Binderfest post…’

‘Damn!’ she said, and fumbled for her walkie-talkie. The digits projecting from her fingerless gloves were white. ‘Did he freeze to death?’

‘Look at the mangling of the skull, that sort of thing happens in a fall,’ I told her. ‘Guess he went walking in the air and it didn’t end too well.’

‘WPC Yates at the massacre mansion,’ she spoke into the radio. ‘Get forensics back out here, there’s another corpse. Tell them to bring a hot water bottle. It’s now double brassic.’

‘Can you get the head Jingler himself on that?’ I asked. ‘I need to speak to him before I go inside.’

‘Oh right. You need an invitation.’ She pressed buttons on the walkie-talkie and handed it to me.

‘No, that’s vampires.’

The radio crackled. ‘This is Mr Jongleur. To whom am I speaking?’

‘Aint the goblin, you hired me by proxy, and I’ve found another body in my first minute. But if I come in, you’ll need to turn off the Xmas music. I’m allergic. Except for Fairytale of New York, Don’t let the Bells End, Chocolate Salty Balls and Mad World. Or that one by Rage Against the Machine, although don’t put them on repeat.’

‘I’m sorry Mr Aint, but this is a household where Christmas will never be cancelled. You will have to put up with them.’

‘I can’t. Call it fifty thousand for the corpse, and please wire the money before you get murdered tonight.’

There was a long pause. ‘You drive a hard bargain, Mr Aint. Is classical music tolerable?’

‘Fine. See you in a few minutes. And WPC Yates should do her guarding inside the front door. The killer gets in easily and quietly, she can respond faster from there.’

‘Acceptable.’

Yates gave me a smile as I handed her back the radio; that was one ally made.

********

The hallway was huge, bigger than it had seemed on that photograph, with the double staircase going up at the end. The decorations were actually a little more restrained than I had been expecting, only a moderate amount of tinsel and some spiral streamers dangling from the posh crystal chandeliers. The biggest decoration was the Xmas tree between the wings of the stairs, and that wasn’t tasteful, because it was the same one the woman had been impaled on. The top had been cut off and another, smaller tree fixed on to match the missing peak, but I could still smell the gore amongst the needles lower down.

‘Not sure you should thank me, this is a looney bin!’ I said to Yates.

‘It’s a warm looney bin.’

A self-important expression arrived at the top of the stairs, riding on the face of a human in a suit. All the middle-aged rich male humans tend to look alike to me, so I made a mental note of the surprisingly strong jaw muscles.

I took my time making my way over to him, partly to get the scent of the house. Plenty of residue from all the death. A pleasant but overdone smell from lots of candles and polish made from high quality beeswax. Stink of mince pies. Usual human stress. I didn’t get a hint of the killer itself.

‘Mr Aint. Merry Chr—well, season’s greetings to you. What are your impressions?’

Maybe everything was getting to me and I was running high to deal with it, because my mouth went a more than usual. ‘Listen Mr J, I’m quite happy with half your money and it’s your life, so it doesn’t matter to me what you’re hiding. But if you do tell me, I stand a better chance of finding whatever’s happening.’

‘I have told the police and now I’ll say it one more time, to you. I am withholding nothing.’

‘Sure, because normal people leave up trees that have been up… you know. And insist on keeping Xmas after five murders. But like I said, half the money is still plenty. I’ll look about.’

I started down the stairs again.

‘Don’t you want to ask more questions?’ He sounded slightly offended.

‘None you’d answer yet. I’ll let you know.’

First stop was the kitchen. It was surprisingly cosy, and had been before that modern fashion for people cooking as part of their lifestyle. The spot where Oswald got force-fed to death had now been thoroughly mopped, but I skirted around it anyway, and went straight for the booze cabinet. The good stuff would be upstairs or in the cellar, but I prefer the cooking brandy anyway.

I sat on a sideboard and took a good swig that burned on the way down. There were still bowls and fruit and mince pies about even after what had happened, which no longer surprised me.

I hadn’t got a clear sense of lying from Noel, but it’s hard with humans, because they tend to convince themselves of their own stories. Noel struck me as one of those. Mind you, I had a nasty suspicion of what was happening here.

There are so few decent mysteries out there. It’s always dificult when you deal with the supernatual. What use is a locked-room murder mystery when things can walk through walls or teleport?

I sighed, slid off the sideboard, listened for a television set, and sniffed for worry-scent. I might as well try try the other suspects.

******

I followed nose and ears through to what might either be a drawing room or reception area, I wasn’t sure. The surviving family members were trying to sit and lounge about, which was hard because most of them were very tense at the same time. The effect was a little like posed wooden puppets. Some drivel was on a large-screen television, and an open fire smouldered in one wall.

Just for the sake of form, I moved quietly and dodged their sight-lines while I looked at the photos on tables, walls and so on, or sniffed things. There were a suprising number of people left. None of them were wearing black, not even the son who had just lost his wife. I tried to construct a family tree in my head, but it wound up more like a tangled bush. The killer was not only after immediate offspring. I wondered if perhaps it was killing at random, but then it could have had any number of servants, police people or investigators. It was after the family. But it didn’t strike me as something that would worry about going through anyone who got in the way.

‘Evening, everyone!’ I said. I was in a spot between two chairs that hadn’t been in anyone’s peripheral vision, and from the way they jumped, they probably had the impression I’d appeared out of nowhere. A bit juvenile of me, but I’m not a thousand yet. I doubt I’ll stop pranking then, either.

‘Oh, the goblin,’ said a serious-looking man I recognised as Timothy, the eldest son. ‘Father told us you were coming, but we don’t have to like it. This is family business, and the last thing we need is someone poking their nose in.’

‘Not even if I can save a life or two?’

‘I’m sure you are more interested in making a few bob,’ said a woman who looked like she chewed lemons for a living. Perhaps she did, if chewing lemons was a metaphor for not falling out with your rich family. ‘As for the odds of you saving a life, I don’t think many would take them.’

‘Oh, you’re right I suppose,’ I sighed. I picked up one of the big red crackers put ready on a side table. ‘For all the use I’m likely to be, you might as well throw the money in the fire.’ I threw the cracker in the fire instead, and dived behind a couch.

The explosion wasn’t too bad and I didn’t smell blood from shrapnel hitting anyone, so I stuck my head up again. ‘Good lord, that was lucky!’ I said. ‘Ah, old-fashioned gunpowder. That smell takes me back…’

They were still not looking very happy. In fact, most of them were even less happy now there was a social obligation to thank me. ‘No, you shouldn’t thank me!’ I said. ‘Whatever it is may go for something that would kill you slower next time, like the cyanide in those mince pies. Ooops.’

‘I suppose you want a bonus for that?’ asked Timothy.

‘All part of the service, wish I had an excuse to destroy more Xmas trappings. What I really want to know is how to contact these people.’ I held up the oldest of the family photos. ‘This woman and her baby. Not murdered, and not here either, it seems.’

‘Bella and Jacob are no longer part of this family,’ said Lemon Woman. ‘They turned their backs on us. We have no interest in them.’

‘Short for Isabella? What’s her married surname?’

‘Scott,’ said Timothy. ‘Now go bother her and let us deal with our own problems.’

I went back to Yates by way of the kitchen, handed her a mug of tea and a plate of sausage rolls. ‘These aren’t poisoned unless you count microwaving,’ I told her. ‘I checked.’

‘Thanks,’ she said, biting into a roll. ‘All the servants have quit, and the family themselves won’t even bring us a brew!’

‘Yeah, well if they weren’t all such gits, we’d be getting too upset,’ I told her. ‘Can I borrow your walkie-talkie? How do I get onto the support staff?’

She showed me and I clicked it. ‘This is Mr Pretty, consultant on the Jongleur case,’ I said in my best accent. ‘I need a telephone number for Isabella or Jacob Scott, estranged family members.’

‘Look pal,’ said the voice at the other end, ‘They pay me to pick up the receiver and fill in forms. What am I, bloody directory enquiries?’

I sighed. ‘Then at least get me the name of his solicitors off his front sheet.’

He did so, with a bad grace. I keep hoping for a number that has 555 in it like on all American shows, but this one didn’t either.

‘You got a work phone?’ I asked Yates. ‘Unless these radio things do phone numbers as well.’

She handed me a mobile, mouth full of pastry.

I peered at it. ‘How do you make it show buttons? It might not work properly, I still have a feud with the Gremlins.’

She took it back with an air of annoyance. ‘It’s all voice recognition these days. What name shall I call it?’

‘Eh?’

‘I have to create it as a contact, then I can tell it to connect.’

‘Ethelburgha. I think calling it Ethelburgha would be good.’

Malcolm,’ she said into the phone, frowned and waggled her finger over its screen, then held it away from her mouth again. ‘What picture do you want for the profile?’

‘Oh for Odz sake, can’t you just dial a stuffing number these days?’

‘I think phone provision was put out to tender. At least we’ve got phones. Now say the number.’ She held out the phone to me, and I did the honours in my best upper-class accent.

‘Nice memory!’ said Yates.

The screen displayed I’m not hanging around to torment you any more, I’m getting out of here. You should do the same unless you have turkey gizzard for brains. Codpiece face!

I sighed, and repeated the number. This time, it took.

‘Dial Malcolm,’ said Yates, and handed me the phone. Despite it being late on Christmas eve, Jongleur’s solicitors answered.

‘Mr Jongleur,’ I said, imitating his voice. ‘Give me a number for the Scotts, I haven’t got all day.’ Yates raised her eyebrows at me, but didn’t object.

The solicitors complied with commendable haste. ‘Thank you,’ I said, which probably tipped them they’d been scammed, and rang off.

‘No offence,’ I told Yates, giving her phone back and heading over to a reassuringly solid, retro telephone attached to thewall by a cable. ‘Take it from someone born before the renaissance, human progress is more erratic than you get taught.’

‘At least we invented radiators!’ she muttered.

I dialed the number, which didn’t have a 555 either, and waited a while for someone to pick up. ‘Is that Mrs Scott?’

‘No.’ But the voice was female, and defensive.

‘Née Jongleur? Lives may be at stake.’

‘I don’t want to be involved. They made it very clear that they wanted nothing more to do with me unless I came crawling back dancing to their tune, and putting my son in their web.’

‘Excuse me a moment while I sort out those metaphors… you may be well out of it, but something is killing the family left here. I’m sure they deserve a lot, but possibly not death, and usually it isn’t the worst monsters that get killed, at least not at first. I’m pretty sure they’re hiding something from the other police and myself. If we knew what it was, it might help.’

A long pause at the end of the line. ‘I don’t know exactly. I actually liked it when I was a child. But as I grew up, I realised. These days I work in a call centre and my son lays bricks. But no inheritance is worth that midwinter prison camp—’ The call went dead.

I shook the receiver, but there was no sound beyond a fresh squall of snow battering the leaded panes of the windows; that wind had really got up. I trudged over to Yates, who was moving out of the draft. ‘Seems there’s something to be said for modern technology after all,’ I said. ‘Lines must have come down. Let’s have that mobile again.’

Yates looked at it. ‘No signal.’ She clicked her walkie-talkie. Just static.

‘Oh heck,’ I said. ‘Get your woollies back on. I’m making a run for it, and if you’re smart, you will too. Any other coppers in the house?’

‘Just me, and I’m staying to do my job.’

‘Good luck, you’ll need it.’ I reached for the door handle, but just then Xmas music exploded out of the speakers. I howled and jammed my fingers in my ears, and tried to turn the door-handle with my feet instead. It moved, but the door didn’t. I peered into the crack down the side; massive steel bolts had just emerged from the frame and sunk into it.

‘Thor’s piles!’ I shrieked. There were at least four speakers around the hallway, and more in all the adjoining rooms; destroying them immediately was out. I waggled my eyebrows at Yates, made a few pantomimes, and finally conveyed that she should reach into the pocket that held my ear-plugs. She did so, with some trepidation. Once they were near my ears, I took my fingers out just quickly enough to grab them and shove them in.

‘Bastard!’ I spat. ‘With me still in the house, and no warning!’

‘Is it that bad?’ I read on her lips.

I pointed to my forearms, which were already showing a rash on top of my warts. ‘We’re trapped. You’re trapped.’

Noel Jongleur’s voice came over the PA, loud enough for me to hear through the plugs. ‘Ladies, gentlemen and others, I believe that we are under attack. Please join me in the drawing room.’

Yates said something, which I needed me a moment to work out. ‘What’s a drawing room?’

‘A posh living room!’ I said. ‘Make him let me out at least, or I’ll trash his decorations!’

*****

Yates checked her pistol and led the way, which I was happy about. We passed the unfortunate composite Xmas tree, went through a hallway that stank of carpet cleaner, and entered the lounge. Yates stopped just inside the door, which seemed a bit inconsiderate. I had followed her in before I realised it was because the remainder of the family were all around us pointing shotguns, rifles and even an antique blunderbus. The most dangerous thing was probably the fluid rifle that Timothy had. “Fluid rifle” is posh for filling a pressure washer with something nasty and strapping it to your back. A spray from that would be very hard to dodge, and it was probably something that would not only kill 100% of known germs, but also 100% of humans and goblins.

‘Damn this season!’ I spat. ‘I should have sensed this was coming, even with plugs in my ears. Sorry, Yates.’

If she replied I couldn’t tell, because she was facing away from me. She put her hands up. Lemon-face lady approached with two pairs of handcuffs and knew enough to put mine on first. Noel Jongleur was standing out in the middle of the room, wearing a ridiculous suit of red material with white trim, and leaning on what seemed to be an old musket with a fixed bayonet. I read his lips. ‘No dear, we obviously can do this.’

Yates and I were quickly relieved of our weapons and the contents of our pockets, which was a surprising amount in my case. In a few minutes they had us both trussed up to our necks in sacks that were made up to look like stockings, and had hung me by the fireplace. In another minute, they had established that none of their flabby bodies were strong enough to hoist a wriggling Yates up beside me, so they just propped her near the hearth instead.

Jongleur pressed a button on a remote, and the horrible itching of the Xmas music ended. One of his nephews reached up and took the plugs out of my ears.

‘There’ll be trouble for you kidnapping a police officer!’ I said. ‘Me too, probably. You ever seen Mariel in a strop?’

‘My dear fellow,’ said Jongleur in tones of what seemed genuine jollity, ‘a dome of ice has formed over the whole estate, with only a small hole in the very top, which I doubt a helicopter could get through, and the angels are occupied. We are completely cut off, and have to deal with whatever is attacking us before we face the law.’

‘At least you’ve nothing to lose by telling us what it is now,’ I said. ‘What devil or demon have you made a deal with?’

‘I assure you I have made no infernal contracts,’ he said. ‘I did call you here to investigate.’

‘I think you were hoping it was something else, and wanting confirmation before you believed the worst,’ I said. ‘The only times I’ve known something able to come, go and kill at will like this, it was when it was invited and taking those pledged to it.’ Some of Jongleur’s family were frowning at him in suspicion, but not rebellion, unfortunately.

‘There will be no more killing, at least not of us,’ he announced, and raised his voice slightly to speak to the others. ‘I have worked out what is our enemy! It is Crampus, the dark spirit of midwinter, the anti-Claus. This family has spread festive spirit and good cheer for many years, dedicated our lives to it, and he cannot abide that. He is attacking us with envy and spite. But we can fight back! We can make an offering to the real Father Christmas. The death of this evil goblin, this personification of bah humbug and stealer of presents, will please him and renew his protection. If that does not work, then we can also make a sacrifice to Crampus, to appease him. Only a normal human in this case, but the best we could do at short notice. Unless… are you a virgin, by any chance?’ he asked Yates.

‘When I get out of this, I’m going to do something to you with my truncheon that—’ Lemon lady stuck a large piece of masking tape over Yates’ mouth.

‘Probably not,’ sighed Jongleur. ‘You’re taking this too personally. It’s just business. Better gag the goblin while you’re at it, Tricia.’

‘I’m not putting my hand anywhere near those teeth!’ she said.

‘So is it sacrificial knives, firing squads, roasting on a spit, or what?’ I asked. ‘I like death by liver failure, myself. Single malt whisky is effective!’

‘It will soon be midnight in Finland,’ said Jongleur. ‘Whatever comes down that chimney first will take the sacrifice it wants. I hope it is something that fits your greed. All I had to do was wave a huge amount of money, and you came running for our use.’

‘Actually I came because of goodwill, although admittedly, not mine,’ I said. ‘Shall we play some charades to pass the time? It’s Xmas after all. I do a very good mime for Last—

‘You will call it Christmas properly!’ Jongleur’s sudden fury stung my ears afresh. ‘An ancient and noble calling. It has provided for this family and we are his good and faithful servants!’

‘Think I have more right to say Christ than you do, and that’s saying something,’ I spat back. ‘This Crampus stuff is…. wait a moment. You talked about Christmas and being his good and faithful servants. Oh, no…’

‘Oh, yes,’ he said.

‘You sold your soul to Santa?’ I groaned. ‘Can’t you spell? Your solicitor rely on the auto-correct too much?’

‘Entirely deliberate I assure you.’

‘Hey, I worked it out!’ I said. ‘Can I have my money now? Not that I’ll live to spend it of course, but I do like money.’

‘Be serious,’ he said.

‘I am serious,’ I said. ‘You got nothing to lose. I die and you live, you just cancel the cheque. The other way around, you have no use for it anyway. Or are you just feeling spiteful because you might be wrong about everything?’

‘I am certain that I will live to see another Christmas and you will not,’ he snapped.

‘You need a little perspective. I’ve been getting into scrapes like this all my life, and nothing’s killed me yet. Something will show up, it always does.’

‘That’s funny,’ said Jongleur. ‘Nothing has killed or defeated me yet, either.’

‘But with me it’s been more than nine hundred years. For you, only seventy or so.’

‘Sixty, insolent creature!’

‘Well that puts the odds even more in my favour, doesn’t it? Fifteen to one or so, I’m not great at maths under pressure.’

Jongleur frowned. ‘I think the goblin’s hiding something. Check his bonds and keep him covered, would you?’

Inside my stocking, I quickly slipped my hands back into the cuffs. Lemon lady felt them through the cloth. ‘I’ll stop talking.’

The wind outside gusted, beating hail on the windows, and the fire flared out for a moment, making some of the family jump back. If a spark fired the sack I would have to make a move, which in the face of all those weapons would not be a good thing. A new sound reached us.

A jingling. To me it sounded more like chains than bells.

‘Ah! Our patron!’ said Jongleur.

Timothy edged closer to him. ‘Father, are you sure we have not defaulted on any part of our contract?’

‘Absolutely. All terms fulfilled.’

‘Was there a way that… they could have defaulted?’

‘Timothy, I am still not certain whether the dearly departed were punished by him for some transgression, or whether some enemy of Christmas attacked them. But I do know that it was those with the least festive joy in their hearts who have died. We shall be fine. Move the welcome present closer, someone!’

Rather than us, one of the Jinglers pushed a table closer to the fire. It bore a tray of mince pies and a glass of brandy. I rolled my eyes and heaved the biggest sigh I could. Hopefully some of the pies were still poisoned.

There was a heavy thud and a scraping sound from overhead. Something had landed. Several of the family fidgeted.

‘I am pleased you all will finally get to meet our patron,’ said Jongleur, ‘I think singing “Deck the halls” would be an appropriate welcome. Everyone line up, good voice…’

The fireplace erupted. A mass of tiny figures came shooting out of the flames, trailing sparks. Sometimes they flew, other times they scuttled, leapt, climbed. They moved too fast for most human eyes, which was probably just as well because they weren’t lookers, even by goblin standards.

‘Stay calm, everyone,’ said Jongleur. ‘These are jolly Christmas Elves!’

The Elves circled for a moment in the middle of the room, talking in squeaks like bats with particularly gruff voices, then vanished out of the room. A second later they were back, carrying a huge machine that I recognised after a moment as an old, farm-sized mincing machine, in scratched and yellowed ceramic and enamel. It must have been in an outhouse or basement somewhere, because I hadn’t seen it in the kitchen. No sooner had they put it down than they were holding the arms and legs of Lemon Lady and shoving her towards it.

‘Are they meant to be doing this?’ she asked nervously.

‘We do not question Him,’ said Jongleur.

‘How jolly would you be if you were kept in slavery for a thousand years?’ I called over.

The elves picked up Lemon’s legs, making her head slam head down into the funnel. Some jumped up and down on her bottom while others seized the handle and cranked it round, wings blurring madly. The screams had a strange timbre through the metal and paint. Blood gushed and geysered out of the top of the machine as well as the spout at the bottom. Gory mincemeat splattered over an array of pie-cases the elves had arranged below the nozzle. I found it a little more amusing to look at the wide eyes and sagging mouths of the humans, although hardly to my surprise, Noel himself did not look especially upset. Or surprised.

The screams stopped and the creatures settled for a moment to dine on mince pies that were certainly neither vegetarian, nor ethically sourced.

‘Father, that was not one of our sacrifices!’ said Timothy. Suddenly, he was ringed by elves, a blur of motion. Then they dived. His feet were swept from under him, the fluid rifle was seized and the nozzle jammed into his mouth. His eyes bulged, then an elf pulled the trigger. The eyes bulged further, then exploded out of his head on jets of yellow. More slime was blasting out of his ears and nose, and the revolting odour made me gulp. Egg nog! The pressure rifle had been filled to deliver Xmas grossness at 5 million psi.

‘Let me out!’ I screamed. ‘I’m the only one fast enough to fight them and you know it!’

‘Take them if you will!’ cried Noel Jongleur towards the ceiling, ignoring me. ‘If they are to be my tribute, so be it! But I am faithful!’

‘Have it your own way then,’ I muttered, slit open the stocking with a claw, and dived across the room to my discarded things. I seized the club and snapped it back to its normal size. An elf dived at me, its little leathery face twisted in an age-old malice that made Lemon Lady look like the Madonna in comparison. I swung the godendag and caught it squarely, splattering the elf in a very satisfying way. ‘Howzat!’ I yelled.

‘Help me!’ screamed a second cousin as several elves doused him in brandy, and another started flicking lit matches at him.

‘No thanks!’ I called back. The elves were so caught up in their bloodlust that only a couple went for me as I sprinted back to Yates. I smashed their bones. It was nice to be bigger than other things for once.

There was a second to spare, so I put down the club long enough to slit the stocking, slip the cuffs and rip the tape off her face. Her mouth was set in a snarl; proper viking stock, this one. ‘I’m gonna skin Jongleur!’ she spat.

‘He’ll get his, grab your stuff,’ I said. I swatted more of the flying pests as she ran across and seized her equipment. There was now no-one left alive but us and Noel himself. The elves flew in a wide circle around him, some occasionally making forays towards us, but they did not approach my club and Yates’ baton.

‘You moron!’ I yelled at him. ‘Greed, that’s what your version of Xmas is all about! Will he ever have enough? Do you think a few words you wrote on a piece of paper mean anything to him?’

Something sounded from above that was not quite a horn, nor a howl, but something in between. The elves paused, then as one they shot back into the fireplace and up the chimney.

‘It seems I am spared,’ said Jongleur. ‘My family was unfortunate, but they must have offended him in some way. I have fed him more than anyone else, for many years. I remain useful to him.’

A rumble. Soot and snow cascaded down the chimney, making the flames hiss, spit and flicker. A scraping sound, and a fall of brick dust.

‘Are you sure?’ I asked. ‘All your toys are made far away in sweat shops by your own kind of elf. The ad campaigns are made by agencies. Even if you chair the odd board meeting, maybe the business gets done in spite of you, not because of you. Do you really do anything except suck out profit?’

Jongleur looked back at the chimney, and I saw fear in his eyes.

‘It’s not too late,’ I told him, although it almost certainly was. ‘Throw that pile of crackers over there into the fire, and unlock the house!’

Jongleur dithered, and the moment passed. There was a huge thud, and something arrived in the fireplace.

The lights flickered and went out, leaving only the candles and the dim glow of the few flames not smothered underneath it. It was huge, fat and clumsy, and it had only just managed to magic its bulk down the chimney. Now it squeezed itself out, drawing itself into what shape it could.

I do not know where the Xmas monster began, what other versions it had consumed or copied from, but it was here now. It was mostly red, because that was what people believed, but it could not hide its nature without a real effort, and right now it wasn’t trying. The red was bloody, like reindeer hides freshly skinned and worn inside out, like an ancient shaman. It had white, but it was the white of tooth and bone, ice and snow. It was fat, not just because people expected but because it had bloated and gorged, and always wanted more. As for being jolly… not all the faith in the world could make that true.

It shambled forwards, moving on all fours like a great ape. The strings of bells wrapped around it clanged.

‘I believe in Father Christmas,’ said Jongleur. ‘I believe in Father Christmas. I believe in Father Christmas…’

What passed for its face came into a pool of candle-light. It had something like a hood, but inside was nothing but a great, circular maw full of inward-facing fangs. Below it was something like beard made of spiked icicles. The mouth opened wider, and roared.

‘I believe—’ Jongleur faltered. The monster bounded forwards, seized him and lifted him up. Jongleur screamed, and then he was being jammed head-first into its mouth. It was the elves who had imagination; their master simply scoffed his victim down like a supernatural version of the mincing machine.

‘Jeesus!’ gasped Yates.

‘In the circumstances, you aren’t taking that name in vain.’

The monster stuffed the last foot into its mouth, swallowed, then dropped back onto its feet and slouched around to face us.

‘What weapons shall I use?’ asked Yates, taking one hand off her baton to feel at her belt.

‘It’s pretty much invulnerable,’ I told her. ‘This is where we part ways, I’m afraid. You see, that thing’s powered by a human birth festival. Human. It hates anyone who defies it and won’t have a part of its worship. It’ll eat you quite happily, but after devouring its pledges, what it really hates and wants to kill most is… me.’ I stepped away from her quickly, moving away from the fire. Sure enough, that lamprey-like mouth turned in my direction.

‘You want him, you murdering scum, you have to deal with me!’ roared Yates. She fired a couple of bullets into the creature. It barely noticed. All that belief made it stronger than most gods.

‘Bah! Humbug! Falalalala yourself!’ I yelled, and it charged.

It was fast. Very fast. I only just managed to dodge it, and I had to jam my club into its jaws to push myself the last couple of feet out of its way. Fortunately, it was only fast in a straight line. It crashed into the wall, and nearly through it. But there was no time to see what happened next. I was sprinting for the fireplace, the only route out of the house. I might have been able to keep it busy for a while dodging between rooms, until it finished demolishing the internal walls. But it would have got frustrated and eaten Yates at some point if I did that, then Delia would get disappointed, and give me a look.

The fire was mostly out, and burned feet are only burned feet. I went up the chimney like a rat up a drainpipe. It was big, and I didn’t even have to shrink myself. The passage of the creature had swept it and broken away the baffles I still only just got my feet out of the fireplace before the creature crashed back in and started stuffing itself up after me.

The cold air was a shock as I climbed out of the shattered chimney-pot. The weather had cleared, and fuzzy starlight came through the colossal dome of clear ice that had formed over the Jongleur lands. The land lay under drifts of snow at least ten feet deep. We were trapped inside a giant snow-globe.

Well, not trapped entirely. I was going to jack Santa’s ride.

The slaying sleigh was parked on the roof, in a mass of broken tiles. It was quite stylish. The two long skis seemed to have been beaten together out of masses of Russian sabres. The bodywork was hides stretched over a frame of what I took to be whale-bones, bound with sinew. The rear of the sledge was taken up with cages that had presumably contained the elves, but fortunately most of those were away molesting the reindeer, who I could hear honking out in the snow.

I scrambled into the front. I haven’t mentioned the creatures drawing it, because they were an unpleasant bunch. Some of them might have been reindeer once, others wolves, or even bears; it can be hard to tell the difference between animal skeletons at a quick glance. I think the elves had been swapping bones around as well, or replacing broken ones with whatever species was to hand.

I grabbed the rein-chains and shook them. The mismatched undead looked around. The one at the very front had a billowing red flame in the remains of its nasal cavity.

The chimney shook, and then there came the boom of an explosion from below. Yates had remembered about the crackers, but I rather wished she hadn’t, because the force of the blast popped the monster halfway out of the top—again without hurting it much, although it bellowed as the blast hit its rear end.

I shook the chains again. ‘On… whatever, on something, on Blitzen, on Rudolf!’ I screamed. ‘Move or I’ll kill you! Or maybe… I won’t kill you unless you move!’

I don’t know if it was that, or if the things were just terrified of the monster coming out of the chimney, because they burst into life and took off. The sledge shot off the roof and rocketed into the air. I pulled it into a steep climb, up towards the hole in the top of the dome. Those poor bone-creatures were used to pulling the huge weight of the creature, and without him, the sled had the performance of a fighter-plane. The wind blew my ears flat against my head and the icy air stung my eyes as we went almost straight upwards, through the dome and out into the open sky.

I banked over and twisted towards the lights of the city. Below, I could just see a bunch of lights and cars around the estate entrance, and caught the flickering light of welding torches, although obviously they hadn’t been working.

I risked a look back over my shoulder.

It dragged itself out of the hole in the dome, screeching. It might use a sled for convenience, but it had enough power to fly itself. It had unfolded itself into a huge batlike thing, ragged red membranes over uneven limbs. Great bony claws dug into the ice. It started to slip, but then it launched itself upwards and managed to get airborne with clumsy flaps. It still had the great ring of teeth at the front. A maelstrom of snowy winter wind formed around it, bearing it up and propelling it after us.

I cracked the reins again and put my head down. Yates would be safe now, which was more than I could say for myself. I wasn’t just a sacrifice it wanted, or something it disliked. It would be taking this personally, now.

There were only two things I knew that might stop it. The problem was that they would stop me, too. What was worse, thanks to the damn timing, one was unavailable. The University staff would have gone home, and the dead-magic zone would be too weak and small.

Much as I hated the idea of going there, the other one was even worse. But I didn’t have any option. I shouted “mush!” and directed the sled towards the Cathedral. The protestant one this year, because the angels still refused to endorse any denomination over another. The mismatched skeletons pounded the air desperately.

I thought we were pulling away, but then I noticed a red blur. It came over the horizon and was gone past us in a second. Looking back again, I saw that more of them were coming from every direction, zapping into the monster. With every one it grew bigger, brighter red, and flapped faster. It really was taking this personally. No creature can be everywhere at once or visit 10,000 people per second at the speed of light, but one that powerful can have hundreds of avatars at the same time, conducting its business in different places. Now, it was cancelling the others out, gathering its power in one place.

For the first time, I realised there was a real possibility I was not going to make this. But you never survive by admitting that, so I turned back and lashed the reins again.

I was over the city now, getting closer to the Cathedral. The air above it was aglow with a mass of hovering angels, wings wafting slowly as if they were synchronised swimming rather than flying. In their luminous dresses and tiered formation, they looked like a particularly chintzy chandelier. Most of them wouldn’t come near this world at any other time of year. The first strains of carols stung my ears.

There were quite a lot of humans still in the streets, ranging from late shoppers to revellers and the crowd watching the angels. Quite a few of them had turned and were pointing up towards me now.

I took a hand off the reins and rummaged on the floor. I flung several chewed bones, a couple of skulls, and a set of thumbscrews over the side. ‘Happy Xmas kiddies!’ I called.

I don’t think they noticed, because now the red and white thing was nearly upon me, propelled at the head of a whirling, horizontal tornado of snow. The mouth of the tornado was also the mouth of the creature, a maelstrom of whirling teeth. It made a last lunge as I dived at the Cathedral roof, and the back panel of the sled vanished.

I hit the wall of sound, angel-song all around me. Holy music of this intensity is like being stabbed with a supercooled samurai sword, an actual pleasure in comparison with the burning, smothering, sickly-sweetness of normal Xmas music. I still managed to haul the reins and we crash-landed onto the gables, skis biting into the snow and ice. I blacked out for a moment and went skidding down to the parapet. The pain was everywhere now, digging in to me, but I dragged myself to my feet.

The monster had pulled up short, beating wings wider than the Cathedral itself to hold itself up. This close, the music had to be hurting it as well. It did not want to come closer, but it had no choice. The sleigh was part of it, one of its sacred tools, as essential as Thor’s hammer or Mercury’s shoes. And the sled was disintegrating as the carols washed over it. The hides were turning grey and crumbling. The skeletons were beginning to fall apart. If skulls can ever have an expression, I think these were looking relieved to be finally free.

The monster gathered itself, and lunged forwards. By rights I should not have been able to move by then, but pure fear propelled me up the roof. A huge bulk thudded into the shingles, talons dug through tiles. I staggered along the ridge-line towards the main tower. Below, the red mass was now glistening as blood erupted from its surfaces. Its weight was finally dragging it down. There were screams coming from below, but the heavenly choir above us had not missed a beat. They probably had not even noticed, the serene sods.

The Xmas thing tried to haul itself up again, stretched a limb out for the sled, but slumped back. It was even less holy than I was, and that was saying something. The angel-song was dissolving it like hot water on snow.

‘You know where you can stick your jingle bells!’ I yelled at it and tried to shake my fist, but my arm wasn’t working properly.

The creature wailed one last time, and fell apart. It disintegrated into a mass of red and white slush, but even that evaporated into nothing as it poured over the gutters and spouted out of the gargoyles. The last of the sled crumbled into dust, swirled briefly, and vanished. It would not be surfing midnight about the world collecting any more victims this year.

There was no time to glory. I had spotted a door at the base of the tower, but I didn’t have the strength to get there. Falling off the roof might work, but as I tried to jump forwards, my legs gave way. I landed on my back, staring up at the circling angels above me. The pain seemed to have overloaded my receptors, and I was going numb. Looked I wasn’t going to get out of this one.

I would have liked to celebrate a round millennium, but nine hundred and forty-nine isn’t bad. I died having killed a terrible monster, at least temporarily. If it was good enough for Beowolf, it was good enough for me. As for regrets, you can’t really avoid them, not if you actually do things and survive them; and dying alone can happen to the best of us.

Hallucinations are funny things. I was trying to concentrate on the apparition of my mother, but what she said sounded more like a door opening, and then just as everything was going dim, an angel broke formation and dived down through her face.

I came back to myself slowly as two voices belted out Anarchy in the UK. One had rather more enthusiasm than skill, the other had an enormous amount of skill and was taking great pleasure in disregarding it completely.

I let the music wash over me, singing back to life and balming my abused aural passages. There was magic in those voices, and it was actually benevolent.

Iyyyyyyyy…… want to beeeeeeeaaaaaah! Anarkeeeeeyyyyy!

I managed to open my eyes as they started the song again. Delia was kneeling next to me, stroking my face with organic wool gloves. Mariel was sat on a wheelie-bin. I noticed that she ended both of the first lines with Anarchist, which was understandable.

‘He’s alive!’ Delia broke off singing. ‘He’s alive!’

‘You sound like Frankenstein if you say it twice,’ pointed out Mariel.

I looked from one to another, and past them. We were in an alleyway nearby the Cathedral. The other angels were still up there but we were in a little bubble of silence, which only another angel would be able to manage. ‘You… saved me!’ I managed. Well, I defy you to be witty on waking out of a coma.

‘We certainly did!’ said Delia. ‘Happy… well, whatever you call it.’

‘I needed an excuse for a toilet break.’ Mariel glared at me, daring me to disagree.

‘I….’ I tried to say something, but my breath seemed to be catching in my throat, and there was a dreadful watering in my eyes. It wasn’t an after-effect of my injuries, it was something worse.

Christmas always gets you some way.

THE END

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