I was dreaming again – the usual dream. My plane was going down in the Kara Sea, tracer fire blossoming all around me. The cockpit was on fire. Crashing I could deal with, but I've always been afraid of fire. You would be too, if you were a snowman.
I thrashed in my webbing, trying to get loose, but there was no escaping the inexorable spread of fire. I screamed, just as always, and blacked out just as I woke up. I woke in my bed, with an empty bottle of gin on my chest, the same absence of legs I've had for the last seventy years, and the phone ringing.
I panted, the sweat refreezing on my forehead as the terror of the dream fled. I looked at the clock. Three in the morning. Who could be calling at three in the morning?
I picked up the phone. "Yeah," I said. At three in the morning, no caller deserves good phone manners.
"I trust," a snooty voice said, "that this is Sam the Snowman, Esquire, speaking. Or should I say, slurring."
"You are indeed, sir, slurring with Sam the Snowman," I said groggily. "Private Eye," I added. Never miss an opportunity to advertise, that's what I say.
"Yes," said the voice, drawing out the 's' in a disapproving manner. Already I knew this individual and I would be fast friends. "I am an employee of Santa Claus, who remembers you fondly, and trusts you remember him as well."
"Sure," I said, transferring the phone to my other ear and reaching for my pipe. "Obese guy, barber averse, disturbing relationship with kids. Owns the entire Arctic. I believe I'm familiar." Santa and I went way back. I hadn't seen him since things had gone downhill for me, in a personal way.
"Very good," said my mystery caller. "Mister Snowman, Santa would like to hire you to solve a crime. I trust you are looking for employment? My sources indicate your work habits of late have been, well, spotty."
"Your sources can suck on my fruity popsicle," I informed the jackass who thought it was okay to wake me up at three in the morning and then insult me. "And hell yeah, I'll work for Grandpa, as long as he can pay in something other than presents. What's the crime?"
"Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer is dead," said the voice flatly. "Mister Claus would like to know why, and how, and most of all – who."
I find that lighting my pipe gives me an opportunity to collect my thoughts. In this particular case it didn't work. "What?" I said intelligently.
"Rudolf, whose name only a sot and congenital idiot would fail to recognize, has been murdered," the voice said kindly. "This is, I believe, a crime. Do you solve those? Because, if not, I am certain I can find somebody…"
"Shut up, tassel-toes," I interrupted. I hate elves. I know that makes me a bigot, but I just hate 'em all. "I told you I'd take the case. I cost a hundred a day, plus expenses."
"You'll have to discuss that with my employer, Mister Snowman," the caller said coolly.
"Great," I said. "When?"
"Why, immediately," said the obnoxious one. "I regret that resumption of your regularly scheduled drinking binge will not be convenient. I trust you can find the way?"
"Put a stocking in it," I grunted and hung up.
I could find the way even drunker than I actually was. The North Pole stood up in sharp relief against the Northern Lights. I followed it, mostly not bumping into anything, through the streets of Christmastown until I came to Santa's castle.
It was still the same old place. The mansion fairly stunk of opulence and old money. An elf in a green tuxedo opened the door before I had a chance to ring the bell. Another took my bowler and umbrella. The house was uncomfortably warm for a man of my composition. I figured I could stand it for a while, though, if it meant business. I'd been short on rent for a while.
The elves saw me into a study. The Old Man, Santa Claus, sat in an overstuffed armchair by the fire. A tall elf, angular and bespectacled, was stoking the logs up. Santa looked up when I came in and smiled. The severe looking elf did not smile. Hello, phone buddy.
"Sammy," Santa said warmly, rising to shake my hand. "It's been years. So good to see you again."
"Yeah," I said. Elfy-boy didn't offer to shake hands. He also didn't give me his name. I didn't ask for it. Elves. Hate 'em.
"Would you like a drink?" Santa asked.
"Sure," I said, sitting down in a chair as far from the fireplace as possible. "Gin."
Tall elf crossed to the liquor cabinet to make my drink. "Soda? Lemon?" he asked.
"We're drinking, not cleaning the tub," I growled.
Santa gave one of his trademark deep-belly laughs. "Oh, Sam," he said, "it's good to have you around, by gum. We had such good times together. Singing, laughing…."
"Yeah, those were the days," I said. "Hey, not to interrupt the stroll down memory lane, but I heard somebody's nose has gone dark, and in a permanent sense. How about we chat about that?"
Santa went to the mantel and picked up his own drink, something tall and iced. He downed about half of it in a single gulp. Not bad form, old man, I thought. I gave it a seven.
"It was such a shock to me, Sam; you have no idea," said Santa soberly. "You know I loved that buck, loved him like my own child. We've been a hell of a team for almost fifty years now. Now that he's gone, I… I don't know what I'll do."
Tall elf watched Santa. I watched tall elf. Behind his glasses, his eyes were hard and cold. I hate all elves, but in this guy's case I figured I'd make a special exception and like him even less than usual.
"Well, you can start by calling the fuzz," I said. Of course by 'fuzz' I meant the Abominable Snowman; nobody else is that furry. Since he went tame years back, he had gotten civilized and had been serving as local law enforcement.
"Aw, the Bumble is all over this," said Santa. "Of course we called him right away. The old lady did, anyway; she's the one who found the body out back. It was terrible, Sam; you've never seen anything like it."
"Sure," I said. I didn't tell him that I've seen a lot of things in my time, and he should try me.
"That great oaf of a cop immediately bungled the whole thing," Santa went on. "Of course instead of going out and looking for the real killer, what does he do? He collects Fireball; drags him from his bed and takes him to jail!" Santa whirled and pointed at me. "I know that reindeer, Sam," he said. "Replaced Donder in the traces when he passed away. A good soldier, the very best. And there's no way he's capable of a cold-blooded crime like this. Fireball is innocent; I'm sure of it."
"Are you?" I asked. "Then, if not him, who?"
"That's just the thing," said Santa. "Rudolf was so well loved by everybody here. Absolutely everybody, Sam. I can't think of a single person who would ever want to harm the buck."
I thought I caught a hint of movement in tall elf's face. A slight change of expression? Hard to tell with elves.
"So what do you want me to do about it?" I asked.
"Find the real killer!" Santa bellowed. His cheeks were as red as, well, two red things. "That Bumble is useless for everything except hanging the star on the Christmas Tree! With him investigating the case, Fireball will surely go to the chair while a murderer goes loose. I'll pay whatever fee you want, Sam; just do the job right, that's all I ask." His blue eyes, usually merry, were pleading.
I got up and set my empty glass on a side table. "All right, I'll do it," I said. "I get one-fifty per day, plus expenses."
Tall elf frowned. "Over the phone you said a hundred," he said.
"Yeah, must've been hard to understand me with all the slurring," I said. "I'll find my own way out, gents. Good night; I'll call when I have news."
I glided down the hall back towards the front door. As I passed the drawing room, a feminine voice called out. "Sam? Sam Snowman?"
I looked in. The matronly Mrs. Claus sat on a divan. She rose and held out her hands to me. "Sam, it's been too long," she said.
"Hello, ma'am," I said, before being enveloped in a motherly embrace. Mrs Claus always was nice as pie to me. She drew me over to the divan. It was cool in that room, much more comfortable. Lady Claus gazed at me with worried grey eyes.
"Oh Sam, it's just terrible," she said.
"So sorry for your loss, ma'am," I said. "I understand you found the deceased."
"Oh, don't talk about him that way," sobbed Mrs. Claus. I fished a handkerchief out of my vest pocket and handed it over. She blubbered into it for a while.
"Mrs. Claus," I said delicately, "I've taken the case to find the responsible party or parties. Would you be able to answer a few questions for me?"
"Of course, Sam," said Mrs. Claus, composing herself. "Ask me anything."
"What time was it," I asked, "when you found the body?"
"It was just after ten," Mrs. Claus said confidently. "I know, because the clock atop the North Pole had just chimed. I had let the snow weasels out to do their business, but when I called for them, they didn't come running as usual. I went out to look, and I saw them sniffing around the runners of the Christmas Sleigh, which we keep parked in the back lot. As I got closer I saw blood on the runners… and then there was Rudolf… he had been cut – Oh, Sam!"
It took her five minutes to cry it out before I could ask her anything else. "Mrs. Claus," I said, "did you see anybody else, or hear anything suspicious? Think hard now; it might have been something subtle or small that didn't occur to you at the time, but might be important."
She looked up with wide eyes. "No, Sam!" she said innocently. "I didn't see a thing, I'm positive."
"All right," I said. I've been a detective a long time, and one thing you get a nose for in this trade is when a dame spins a yarn. There are all kinds of dames, all different, but their innocent look is always the same. And it always means the same thing – whatever she's saying at that minute is a pile of hooey.
"Ma'am," I said, "I need to get some shuteye, and then get right on the case. I promise you, I'll dig into this, and I won't stop until I've gotten to the end of it."
"Good, Sam," said Mrs. Claus gratefully. "It's so important to Nick; this has just destroyed my husband. He hasn't been the same man lately; something's been eating him the last few months. I'm afraid this bad news has just piled on the pressure even worse; I worry he'll crack. You find Rudolf's killer, Sam, and you bring him to justice."
"I will, ma'am," I said. "Good night."
I recovered my bowler and umbrella and glided out into the night. The cold air helped me resolidify after my visit inside the warm house. My mind was reeling, partially from the gin, but mostly from unexpected circumstances. Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, beloved to children, and apparently beloved to elves, reindeer and everybody else, seemed to be somewhat less than beloved to at least one person.
But why? And how? And most importantly – who?