Written for Sailorhathor in Yuletide2010
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through SQ
Not a creature was stirring, not even the mistletoe;
Cameras were hidden on the chimney with care,
In hopes that a mythological figure of questionable etiology soon would be there…
"There's something wrong with the elves."
Alva paused, caught between concern and basic politeness as he considered how best – or at least how most tactfully – to phrase a reply.
He decided to just get to the point, it usually served him well; he stepped down from the shelf ladder and turned to face Paul. "Did you hit your head again? Because there are the cumulative effects of previous injuries to consider and even an apparently minor incident involving hard-rind fruit could …"
He trailed away under Paul's unwaveringly sincere expression, before coming to a finish with, "It's just… elves."
After a moment, he smiled wistfully. "In my youth I was quite determined to uncover evidence, but sadly I was forced to conclude that activity ascribed to the fair folk could be attributed to far more mundane preternatural phenomena."
Paul's mouth twitched into a tiny smile. "Sorry, I have nothing new on the fair folk - I'm talking about the holiday elves at the store grottos."
The smile faded.
"Eight of Poppi's parishioners have asked him to pray for their kid or brother or sister, all of them are working as elves in the stores. And it's different stores. I asked around, there's way too many of them sick for it to be coincidence."
Alva dropped into his chair and considered the relevant angles from behind tented fingers. "Their work involves quite a high risk of infection," he suggested. "They're coming into contact with huge variety of –"
"So do people who work in stores or diners." Paul interrupted, shaking his head. "Nowhere else is reporting anything like it."
"Marcia's daughter's down with the flu," Evelyn said from the doorway as she unwound her scarf. "She's an elf over at the Burlington Mall. She's pretty sick, that's why Marcia's not been in to clean."
Paul and Alva looked around and then nodded as if they'd actually noticed the fine layer of dust that had been accumulating.
"Right," Alva said. "Of course. Send her our best."
Evelyn smiled and stripped off snow-covered gloves. "I did. And her Christmas bonus, and some flu remedies my great-grandmother swore by."
"Excellent." Alva beamed. "So, Paul. As this is your area of interest, what avenue of investigation do you suggest we take?"
"Well, two of the sick elves keep saying the same word over and over – Eegeer – so I started looking into it a little and –"
"Ægir," Alva supplied, with a slightly less horrifying accent.
"Right. There's the usual mythology, but once I started trying to get to original sources, Latin and English weren't so helpful. I was hoping maybe you could translate. Do you speak Scandinavian? Or … runes?"
He pushed the detritus of Alva's desk aside and dropped a small, but strangely heavy-sounding leather-bound book in front of him.
It wasn't one of his own books, Alva was sure. He reached a hand out to touch the worn cover; the gilt of the title was so faded he could barely make it out, but it definitely wasn't English. Some kind of runic alphabet – Futhark, perhaps.
"And I don't hit my head that much," Paul added belatedly, sounding aggrieved.
"You hit your head yesterday afternoon," Alva pointed out distractedly, and squinted as he tried to make out a character or two.
"Twice," Evelyn agreed. "And once last week, with that melon."
"I didn't hit my head, he dropped a book shelf on me." Paul raised a hand to rub at the ghost of a bruise, and then frowned slightly. "You're counting?"
She shrugged. "Some people play Bingo."
Without looking up, Alva nodded solemnly. "If you're knocked unconscious by some kind of large sea mammal and she calls 'house', don't take it personally."
Paul narrowed his eyes. "Back to the elves."
"Fine, fine." Alva waved a hand and then carefully opened the book to its illuminated first page – a definite Christian influence, though he was sure the runes predated that particular meeting of cultures.
The figures draped around the border of the pages, at first glance at least, conformed to the popular image of elves: slender, pointed ears, and so on. The runes within were still frustratingly unclear – familiar, but not legible.
"The Scandinavian elves – or Álfar - aren't the original elves," he said, mostly for something to do while he studied the text. "You have to go further back into the etiology of Norse mythology for that. There's fascinating speculation that the entire myth is simply a race memory of the Anunna or Igigu, but -"
"In Norse mythology, the first elves were associated with the Vanir, right? They were beautiful and had powers, that was about it?"
Alva looked up with a pleased smile. "Someone's been doing his homework, I'm impressed." He realized an instant too late what that sounded like, but Paul didn't seem to take offence, so he hurried on. "Yes, the original elves had nothing to do with tiny toys for good boys and girls.
"There is some precedent for their being the makers, though: as legend has it, the All-Father had power, the Vanir had knowledge and the elves had skill."
"But then when Christianity –"
"Christian mythology." Alva widened his eyes innocently. "Go on."
Paul bit the inside of his cheek and nodded. "Fine, when Christian mythology was introduced, the elves became mostly female and they were less benign. They could cause epidemics and blights, bad luck, stuff like that."
Alva nodded thoughtfully. "Like a sudden plague of flu, you mean? But really, it's not unusual for the meeting of two cultures or religions – or both – to have a profound effect on the landscape.
"In the case of Christianity, sweeping changes to how women were viewed and treated, something that would in turn have been passed on as they came in -"
"Elves, Alva." Evelyn sounded amused; he coughed and gave a fleeting smile.
"I digress. Well. While the Teutonic variation has endured in popularity, most cultures have their own legend. I suppose … what's your point, Paul?"
"I don't know yet. Ægir. Why Ægir?"
"Ægir is a sea god, nothing to do with elves."
Paul stared at him expectantly; he stared back. "What?"
"I'm waiting for the 'but…'"
"No buts. Obviously there's a Norse, or at least Scandinavian, connection … but why Ægir would be associated with the Álfar, I have no idea."
"I may." Evelyn stopped in front of the desk, head bowed as she rifled through her purse. "I took Matty to an exhibition yesterday. They have a Grotto too.
She pulled out a crumpled leaflet and handed it to Alva. "The Ægir's a ship: a replica of a restoration of Leif Erikson's long boat, or something like that. I wasn't really paying attention, Matty was mostly there for the stuffed whales.
"The Ægir sailed from – " she barely paused – "Agmajsolik to Boston a couple months ago."
Paul looked nonplussed. "Why?"
Alva smiled as he skimmed the glossy flier. "Why not? An exploration of - and apparently an adventure in - Scandinavian folklore, history and culture, I see." He looked up at Evelyn. "A bearded man in a horned helmet features prominently - he seems very educational."
She rolled her eyes. "Just look at the back."
"Santa's Grotto: a real Norse Christmas." He looked up again. "So I assume Woden will be popping by to leave some bloody pelts and fat under the old evergreen? Or can we expect Hertha to make an appearance in the fireplace?"
Evelyn pursed her lips, as if giving it some thought. Finally she shook her head. "No, I'm pretty sure they mean candy canes shaped like reindeer and fake fur hats with plastic horns."
"How disappointing. Ah." He smiled and resumed reading about the exhibition Santa and his green-suited, pointy-eared helpers. "We have our... we have… huh."
He narrowed his eyes and drew a magnifier slide from his pocket, then held it up to the glossy image of the replica boat.
Paul came closer, looking over his shoulder. "What?"
"We have our elves. Look." Alva tapped at the prow of the boat; hidden amongst the swirls carved into the wood was a five-pointed star.
Paul frowned. "It's a pentagram?"
"In this context, I'd say it was a type of Alfkors, elf cross, to ward away evil elves. One kind. The other must be made from several kinds of special silver, consecrated by moonlight … really a quick pentagram is a tad more convenient." Alva looked to the holiday surveillance equipment; it didn't seem quite so interesting as it had before Paul's arrival.
He turned back. "You know, I've always been fascinated by -"
"The exhibition closes in five hours, Santa's Grotto in three." Evelyn handed Alva his coat. "Behave or you get coal."
Alva pulled his coat on and patted down his pockets for his scarf and gloves. "You don't want to come?"
"Do I want to drive through five neighborhoods in a blizzard? It's tempting, but I think just I'll catch up on the paperwork and watch the phones - call if you need something."
She waved as they headed for the door and managed not to grin until it had shut behind them.
Later, when she'd filled every form out in triplicate and retrieved them both from police custody (after promising her ex-Sergeant - a good man, who really didn't deserve them - that she'd never let them out unsupervised again) it wasn't quite so funny.
"I'm surprised," Paul murmured as they paused next to the screening room to drink coffee that tasted old enough to be historically accurate.
Alva raised an eyebrow in askance.
"I thought you'd be… " He looked around at the plastic helmets, fake fur and brightly colored primer boards filled with cartoon illustrations of smiling Vikings pillaging nothing whatsoever. "…more vocal."
"You thought I'd be taking the so-called curators to task?" He snorted quietly and then swayed back to avoid a gaggle of children. "Later. I want a closer look at the ship first."
The Ægir, still smelling faintly of salt and the wind, was afforded the pride of place in the center of the hall, where the ceiling was three stories high and gave those on the galleries above a better view.
Alva didn't stop as he reached the surrounding rope, just ducked underneath and went directly to the prow.
The guard didn't notice, but he was starting to turn; Paul planted himself in the way and smiled brightly. "Hi, Paul Callan, I was wondering if you'd mind answering a few questions?"
He pulled a battered notepad out from his pocket and a pen from the other, and tried to look attentive.
The man hesitated. "There are press packs in the media center."
"Oh, no – I'm doing a piece on, on the kinds of pressures involved in being responsible for security in an environment like this."
The guard looked around at the horde of children, the harried adults, the fixed smiles of the staff and the looping music, and Paul had to admit, it wasn't exactly the kind of high-stress –
"You have no idea," the man hissed intently. "No idea. It's war in those aisles. War. My buddy went out there this morning and I haven't seen him since."
Paul blinked and made a random mark on his pad. "Go on," he managed.
"Never mind." Alva's hand gripped him firmly at the elbow and Paul was forced to follow or have them both falling into the family of stuffed whales.
He stumbled, righted himself and shook off Alva's hand. "What is it?"
"I'm drawing no conclusions, you understand," Alva muttered as he jammed his hands in his pockets and made a line for the exit. "Not of motivation nor intent."
"What?" Paul looked back, half expecting to see an invasion of pixies.
Alva's mouth thinned and he frowned unhappily. "The Alfkors has been scratched away. You'd expect some wear, naturally, but there's been a clear and deliberate effort to remove it … or possibly get under it. Either way, I think we should –"
A scream cut him off.
It wasn't the excited shriek of a child or the half-laughing sound of a woman who'd turned a corner and found herself face to face with one of the Leif-a-likes, but the full-throated, wild sound of terror.
Paul began making his way towards it half a second before the rest of the crowd began to push in the other direction. He wavered against the tide and then forced his way to the relative shelter of a booth.
Alva was lost to sight, although Paul thought he saw a flash of the man's hat, making its way towards Santa's Grotto. Keeping one hand on the wall, he followed it.
Ignoring the chaos still erupting around him, Alva knelt by the red-suited figure that was lying in front of the polystyrene snow throne. Without hope, he touched two fingers to the unfortunate man's neck and, feeling no responding jump of a pulse, leaned forward to brush his palm over the blankly staring eyes.
A hand dropped on his shoulder and he looked up, startled.
Paul's face was pale. "What happened to him?"
"Nú er blóðugr örn ... á baki ristinn…" Alva murmured vaguely, then shook his head and spoke definitely."No. The blood eagle was almost certainly pure invention: historical propaganda to prove the savagery of the pagan."
Paul stared down at the body, chest clearly misshapen even under the padding. The blood pooling around it formed an indistinct shape; he tried not to see the talons of a bird. His expression tightened. "Not any more."
"He, he started choking," a voice stuttered from behind the fake snow-drift. "And coughing. And then – then …"
Paul peered around the fake snow set. One of the grotto elves was curled in as tight a ball as she could manage; trembling with her arms wrapped tightly around her knees.
She didn't really look so much older than the kids who'd been queuing to have their moment with Santa, probably a high school senior earning a little holiday money.
He offered his hand and after a moment's hesitation she moved enough to let herself be drawn out; her own hands stayed in clenched fists, he didn't blame her.
"I'm Paul," he offered gently. "What's your name?"
"Aleesha." She sniffed. "Leesha."
"Okay - Leesha - the police and EMTs are going to be here really soon. You're going to be fine."
She nodded shakily; her attention began to stray to the corpse, she blanched and it jerked back quickly. "What – what happened to him?"
Alva stood, closing off the view completely. "Nothing that will happen to you, I assure you. Was there anything you can remember at all? It would be very helpful."
She shook her head and a fresh stream of tears flooded down her cheeks. "I don't even know his name. You think he has kids?"
Paul frowned. "He's not the regular Santa?"
"Klaus called in sick …"
Alva's eyebrows rose. "Klaus? Klaus what?"
"Witterson." She sniffed. "Klaus Witterson."
"Thank you, Leesha – you've been very helpful." Alva patted her arm awkwardly. "Just one more thing: has anyone been unwell here?"
She nodded, looking a little lost at the change of topic. "Most of the elves. They had to hire a whole bunch of us new last week. Flu, I guess."
Paul glanced behind them. The area was nearly clear now and the security personnel who'd been doing their best to funnel people safely from the hall were advancing.
Now probably wasn't the best time to get caught up in police questioning. He tugged on Alva's arm. "We have to go."
Alva offered an apologetic smile to the girl and then hurried towards the fire exit, already hanging open from the previous exodus.
They piled out into a snow-filled alley next to the building. No sirens, but the flashing lights of the police cars and ambulance painted the frosted bricks in blues and reds.
Alva pulled on his gloves. "I think we need to find Mister Witterson as soon as possible."
Evelyn leaned back in her chair and stretched the kinks from her back. The office was warm, weird seemed to be taking the holiday off, and her sitter had checked in: Matty was happily making paper snowflakes.
All was well.
She reached for the phone when it rang. "Sodalitas Quaerito."
Paul sounded slightly winded, but she couldn't hear any screaming. She smiled. "Enjoying the exhibition?" A distant wail suggested she'd relaxed too soon, she straightened. "Wait, are those sirens? "
"Long story. We're trying to get an address for a Klaus Witterson."
"I'll see what I can do … don't get arrested, okay?"
Paul huffed a laugh. "We'll try."
There was a jostling sound and Paul's cell crackled; he came back with a whisper. "We have to go. Look, the guy could be in danger, we need to find him."
His cell cut out.
Evelyn turned her attention to the computer and tried to ignore a flutter of worry.
Paul felt there was something more than a little uncomfortable about following a young woman, however suspiciously she was acting. He tried to tell himself it was for her safety as much as anything – a witness should be protected and the police officers had only taken a perfunctory statement and then let her go – but the fact remained they were two men stalking a young women home.
That she seemed to become another person when she'd thought no one was watching probably wouldn't hold much water.
Alva, on the other hand, seemed mostly concerned with attempting to remember the finer points of the works of someone called Snorri Sturluson as he drove slowly through the streets after her.
Leesha walked for several blocks, her stride confident and apparently unhampered by the slippery sidewalk. Despite still being in her relatively thin uniform, she didn't seem to be bothered by the cold and bypassed opportunities to catch a bus or cab.
After Paul's cell went to voicemail for the third time and Alva's didn't pick up at all, Evelyn gave up and – promising herself the hottest bath in the world later – stepped out into the snow.
It wasn't a long drive, but it was growing dark already and the snow was obscuring the world five feet beyond her headlights.
The hottest bath in the world and at least a quarter of a box of chocolates.
Klaus Witterson had an apartment in an old building in North End, nestled next to Copp's Hill. Evelyn hadn't been able to get an apartment number, but suspected the apartment on the third floor, blazing with multi-colored lights and sprayed with fake snow, may be a place to start.
She slipped out of her car and grit her teeth against the sudden, biting cold.
On the opposite sidewalk, a figure with a long white beard and dressed in red stood under a streetlight, a large bag of feed in his arms. He stepped out into the road and she pushed him from her mind, until a car loomed up out of the white blizzard.
The car stopped with a screech and a flurry of tire-spun snow; Paul and Alva flung themselves out of the doors and towards the fallen figure.
Evelyn was barely a step behind them. "You ran over Santa Claus." She looked down with horrified eyes. "Coal! Coal forever!"
Alva scowled. "Just because an old man has a long white beard and he's wearing red and, yes, perhaps he's a touch on the portly side … and he's apparently carrying reindeer feed … does not make him Santa Claus! And I didn't run him over, he ran into me!"
The man's eyes blinked open and he sat up suddenly, then groaned and clutched his head. Alva patted his shoulder conciliatorily while Paul hovered behind, ready to field if he fell back. Evelyn took the man's hand. "Are you okay? We can call an ambulance." She looked up to Paul. "Call an ambulance."
"No! No." The man shook his head slowly. "No hospital. Help me up." His voice was rough, but not weak and he didn't seem dazed or confused. Warily, Paul extended a hand. Evelyn took an arm and Alva the other and between them, they got the man to his feet.
"Mister Witterson? Klaus Witterson?"
The man stared blankly over the fullness of his beard, and then seemed to catch up. "Yes, yes. Klaus. That's me. Klaus. Where's Leesha? She was calling me, I heard her …"
"I don't know - we lost track of her. Are you sure you're all right, sir?"
"I – I'm not sure." Witterson looked around. "Klaus, you say?" He absently tugged on his beard and then blinked and looked down. "What's this? What am I wearing?"
"Ronald?" The woman's voice was thin in the muffling wind, but the snap of it carried anyway. They looked over to see someone, thick coat and gloves, brightly coloured hat pulled down to meet an equally brightly coloured scarf, struggling through the snow towards them. "You leave him alone!"
Paul held his hands up. "Ma'am, I assure you, we're only trying to help – Ronald?"
The woman made it over and began patting the man down. He stood there sheepishly. "I'm all right, Sal."
"Saliha," she corrected firmly, as if it were something she had to do often. "Did you take your medicine? You didn't, did you?" She swung around to point a finger at Alva. "You're lucky he wasn't hurt!"
Alva looked as if he were about to protest his culpability, but skipped ahead. "We're looking for a Klaus Witterson, it's very urgent."
"I'm Klaus," the man protested.
"No, you're Ronald. We get this every year. Every. Year." Saliha began to usher the man inside, and he allowed himself to be herded.
Paul followed. "Ronald – Klaus – why didn't you go to work today?"
Ronald's forehead furrowed. "It's Christmas Eve, I have to – to get things ready. It's important."
"The actor who replaced you…"
"Larry." Ronald nodded. "Excellent Santa."
"Right." Paul decided to take the better part of valour. "Ronald, do you know anyone who would want to hurt you or Klaus?"
"Besides you people?" Saliha tugged at Ronald's arm to get him moving again. "Come on, let's get you inside."
Alva laid a hand on her arm. "We mean Klaus – Ronald – no harm, but we believe someone does. It's vital we find out who, and I think Ronald knows."
Saliha sighed as Ronald laboriously began to climb the stairs back up to his apartment. "Ronald? He's a sweet old man, who would want to hurt him? He doesn't know anything."
"Then maybe Klaus does." Ronald looked back over his shoulder and Paul thought he saw something flicker in the man's expression. "Can we talk to Klaus, Ronald?"
Alva glanced back to the main foyer and winced. "No, I think we've taken up quite enough of Ronald's time. Terribly sorry about the car. Evie, do you think you could just stay and help Saliha get Ronald settled? Paul, come with me and let's just … just let's back away calmly and slowly."
Evelyn frowned in confusion, but nodded. "Of course."
Alva kept a firm grip on Paul as they headed back towards the car; as he seemed genuinely worried, Paul didn't try to shake him off. "What's going on?"
Alva nodded towards a group of figures gathered across the street from the apartment building. After a moment, Paul recognised Leesha. She was still in green, but this wasn't the felt costume she'd worn at the exhibition. It moved in shadow and light; silk, satin and he thought he saw glints of gold and silver.
The group stepped forward into the arc of the streetlight. There were six of them, three men and three women, and they shared slight builds and above average height, but it didn't seem like Nordic heritage was a requirement.
He wasn't going to be the one to say it, he just wasn't.
"Elves," Alva said for him.
"Once," Leesha agreed, mouth curved in a smug smile. Paul usually felt himself a reasonably good judge of when people were playing him – it was a job requirement – and he hadn't had that sense in the exhibition hall.
As if she'd read his mind – and he wasn't going to discount that – she smiled and said, "Leesha is gone."
"Ritual possession," Alva breathed.
"No." Alva glanced across. "Yes. But not by demons - not in the ecclesiastical sense. By spirits." He nodded to Leesha, still more fascinated than worried. "You found a mind that was open, didn't you? Ronald."
Leesha nodded, eyes half-lidded with remembered pleasure. "Open and waiting for us; beautiful."
"You came on the ship … how? The cross was there when it sailed."
The elf beside Leesha, currently inhabiting a young man, smirked. "It wasn't to keep us out, it was to keep us in. But Klaus believes, believes so strongly he heard us calling. He released us."
Paul grimaced. "And to thank him, you started to make the city elves sick."
"Wouldn't you? Parodies, laughing at us. They've forgotten respect; they will learn it anew."
Alva canted his head. "But why kill Larry? And the blood eagle, what was that?"
Leesha shrugged. "We're what they – what you – expect us to be. We can change. We can adapt. And we will, we'll teach them how much they should love us."
"Only if you have time, and I don't think you do," Alva mused. "I think you killed Larry because you were angry and why were you angry? Because he wasn't Ronald …" He looked up sharply. "Why do you still need Ronald?
They shifted angrily, Paul answered for them, absolutely certain. "Because he's a focus. Belief. Klaus lives it - completely lives it. And soon, that ends. Klaus goes back to plain old Ronald and you …"
"He's ours now," Leesha hissed, the unworldly elegance evaporating like mist for just a second in her fury. Sharp features and yellow eyes; teeth too large and nose too small, her fingernails clawed into talons.
Paul and Alva backed up a step, and then another, as they aimed for the car. Paul mentally said a heartfelt, if unplanned, prayer that neither of them slipped and fell, because the elves would be on them.
He wasn't sure why they hadn't struck already, but could only guess he and Alva weren't a threat – weren't worth their time. That wasn't really the good news it should have been.
"If they change and adapt to popular belief, shouldn't they be in the North Pole?" He asked, barely moving his lips.
"Unfortunately, I don't think they're feeling that adaptable. Come on, off we go."
"Should be fine for the moment. She and Saliha are looking after Ronald and I believe these ladies and gentlemen are inclined to be well disposed towards anyone caring for their meal-ticket. Off we go." He scrabbled at the lock of the car and pulled the door open without looking away from the elves.
Paul ducked inside, expecting … what, he wasn't sure, but nothing happened. When he looked up again, the elves were gone.
Once they were safely, if slowly, driving away, no longer in immediate danger of being attacked by Santa's little helpers (and it was at times like these Paul was glad he no longer had to write extensive reports), Alva craned his head back to look up at the brightly lit window fading into the distance. "Interesting."
Paul stared at him, and then dug out his cell phone and hit redial. Evie picked up after a second. "He's fine, what's going on?"
"Good, okay. Listen, he's got …" He winced. "Elves, he's got elves."
"You say that like I should be calling pest control."
"I don't think they have an extermination company for that." He considered. "But maybe you could go ahead and look anyway."
"What's Alva doing?"
Paul glanced over to the driver. "Staring into space, muttering to himself."
"We have the weirdest job in the world. I'm just saying."
Evelyn laughed quietly and then sobered. "You think the elves will try and come up here?"
"I don't know, but –"
Alva's hand reached out and snatched the phone away.
"- never mind," Paul finished, to himself.
"You need to carve an elf cross," Alva instructed. "A pentagram, on the door and the window sills. Be careful."
Paul caught the cell he threw back. "Where are we going?"
"Back to the Ægir, it's the only lead we have. Ronald will be safe enough for the moment and I still want to find out what's so special about this ship
"I'm sure there were many more convenient methods to ship a group of elves out than a replica boat."
"Not replica." Paul gripped his seatbelt as the car sped up and took a corner at more of a slide than a turn. "Restored."
"Well, yes, but how much of it could possibly be the original …oh, of course."
"Under the Alfkors." Paul grinned. "Go."
Alva pressed harder on the accelerator.
Evie studied her handiwork on the doorframe dubiously, not entirely convinced a few scratches were going to do the job. She could hear movement in the hall outside and tried to convince herself it could be other residents walking up and down out there … whispering in a Nordic-sounding language.
Except probably not.
The world's hottest bath, a box of chocolates and half a bottle of wine.
Saliha was beginning to look at her oddly. Despite her matronly behaviour, she'd had turned out to be roughly Evelyn's own age once she'd divested herself of the hat and scarf.
That had made making conversation slightly easier, but she was growing more and more suspicious and Evelyn was finding it increasingly difficult to keep her from leaving; there were only so many cups of Ronald's coffee they could drink.
"So, you're a nurse?" She struck out desperately.
"No, I'm doing postdoc at BU." The woman shrugged and looked awkward. "I just keep an eye on Ronald for my mom ... what did you say you and your friends were doing again?"
Evie winced, and turned it into a not-particularly-convincing smile. There was still rustling outside. "I said we were carollers, but that's not … strictly true."
Saliha failed to look surprised. "Uh huh. Carollers are usually less murderous."
Evelyn carefully put her mug on the side and stood straighter. "We're investigators. We look into events that other agencies or organisations aren't equipped to cover.
"Our investigation led us to Ronald, he literally ran into us, and now we're extremely concerned he may be in danger. If you could just stay here until my colleagues call back, that would be really … really helpful."
Saliha narrowed her eyes, and then looked back at the sound of a tap at the door. She turned that way, "Who is it?"
"Leesha," a voice called out. "I forgot my bag, can you let me in?"
Saliha took a step forward; Evelyn dropped a hand on her arm. "I don't think that's Leesha."
Saliha wavered, just as the door shuddered against a blow.
"Let me in!"
The exhibition hall was still surrounded by police cars; the ambulance had departed, but a CSI van had taken its place.
Alva and Paul made their way back to the fire exit they'd escaped from, it was firmly closed. Alva squinted up at the roof. "We have to get in there."
Paul followed his gaze and was less than enthused. "Can you call any of your contacts?"
"I left messages with a couple while you were checking around the other side, no one's gotten back to me."
There was a fire ladder; they could probably reach it if they were creative. "I really hate this idea," he said.
"Me too." Alva linked his hands and bent to make a step. "But, nonetheless…"
Saliha crouched in front of Ronald, talking rapidly to try and soothe his agitation as Evelyn hurriedly carved more pentagrams on the door, more on the window frames. She looked around, trying to see any other way in.
Her gaze settled on the A/C unit just as the final screw dropped to the carpet.
"So, I was wondering. Alva." Paul huffed as they lay on the roof, catching their breath.
Alva turned his head. "Yes?"
"Alva. Sounds like -"
"No relation, I assure you. Come on."
They dragged each other to their feet and, slipping and sliding, made their way towards the roof door.
The elf who crawled his way through the hole of the A/C did it unnaturally gracefully, almost as if it were boneless; some kind of snake.
Evelyn swallowed down the wave of nausea and hefted the bayonet she'd grabbed from its place by the door. "Don't come closer, I'm warning you."
The elf crossed to the main door and pulled it open, splintering wood as the lock stayed in position and the door gave.
Leesha swept regally in, court following behind her. "Did you really think you could keep us away, little thing that crawls and cries?"
Later – years later – it wouldn't be the elves that stuck in Paul's mind, or the desperate effort not to fall off the roof, or the rush of adrenaline as they forced the lock on the door.
It would be the look on the police officer's face when he discovered two men dismantling a Viking long ship with their bare hands.
"I can explain," Alva said, with impressive confidence. It bought Paul the time he needed to give one last tug and pull the silver ring from the timber of the masthead and out into the light.
It was perhaps six inches across, and there were two horizontal lines and two vertical, forming a chunky kind of cross. In the center of those was another circle containing a pentagram.
"Put that down." The guard's hands shook, but he held his gun firmly enough. "Put it down and get over here."
Alva ignored him as he studied their find. "It's an Ella cross. They didn't appear until hundreds of years later, in theory. I don't understand."
Paul shook his head. "Does it matter?"
Alva's cell rang, he answered it, listened for a moment and then nodded. He held the phone towards the guard. "It's for you."
The man reached for it reflexively and Alva sprung in its wake. "Go!" He called back. "Get it into the moonlight!"
From behind the elves, Saliha stepped in and swung an old baseball bat with practised force. It caught the back-most elf across the shoulders; he yelled and dropped to the floor.
While they were distracted, Evelyn stepped in and brought the bayonet up to Leesha's throat, then grabbed her firmly to keep her close. "Tell them to get back."
"The girl's still here with me," the elf gasped. "You won't hurt her."
Of course she wouldn't, but Evelyn didn't think anyone else needed to know that. "I think Leesha would understand."
The elf stiffened and Evelyn smiled grimly. "Tell them to leave."
The elf grinned back up at her, perfect teeth sharpening as Evelyn watched. "Kill them both."
Saliha swung her bat again, this time a dreadlocked elf caught it with a lazy smile. He leaned towards her as he pulled it from her grasp. "Strike one."
Moonlight was easier said than done. The thick layer of frost and snow over the windows were letting almost nothing in and at the far end of the hall, more guards were rushing in.
Paul took off running towards Santa's Grotto, aiming for the fire exit.
It was still closed and he could hear the sound of security gaining as he tried to force the door open. He fell through under the force of gravity and, more painfully, being tackled to the floor.
His head bounced once on the concrete and, distantly, he was at least glad it wasn't a sea mammal.
Evelyn growled as she pried the hands that clutched at her hair away, and then kicked out at the closest warm body. In her peripheral vision she saw one of the elves bend double with a pained cry as Saliha's knee rose sharply.
Behind her, she heard Ronald roar something in a language she was damn sure wasn't English, but she couldn't turn to look. He didn't sound fearful, though.
He sounded … furious.
The window brightened as if a car had driven past, but the glow intensified until it was painful. Her eyes began to water and the elves began to shriek.
It disappeared abruptly and Leesha slumped in her arms. After a moment the girl's eyes fluttered open and she looked up, scared and confused. "What happened?"
"It's … it's a really long story. You're going to be okay." She looked around at the ring of equally confused faces. "Everyone's going to be okay."
Saliha stood slowly, adjusting her hijab back into a semblance of order. "Where's Ronald?"
Evelyn looked around and did not – absolutely did not – hear a jingle of bells. "He did say he had things to do…."
Evelyn opened the door to the office and ushered both men in before her. Neither were the worse for wear for their stay in the cells, and while Paul was still wearing a plaster over one eye, at least he was focussing now.
They hovered in his vicinity while he found a chair and dropped into it, just in case.
"Well," Alva smiled. "I think we all deserve a day off."
"It's Christmas Day." Evelyn crossed her arms and scowled. Alva's contacts may have gotten the charges dropped, but she'd still been the one sitting in the station at 3 am, trying not to look any of her ex-colleagues in the eye. "I'm going to go spend it with my son and if you get arrested again, you're staying there until New Year."
Alva grinned unrepentantly and handed her a couple of small boxes. "Happy Christmas, Evie."
Her expression softened and she unbent enough to kiss him quickly on the cheek. "Your gift is with Paul's on my desk, don't forget to feed the mistletoe. She turned her attention to Paul. "You sure you don't want to come to dinner?"
"Ah, thanks, but I promised Poppi I'd come by." He leaned forward to return her light hug. "Say hi to Matty for me, okay?"
When she'd left, Alva reached down to his bottom drawer and pulled the bottle of whiskey and a couple of glasses out. He looked questioning; Paul nodded and settled himself more comfortably.
It wasn't like he was actually concussed. Anymore than usual.
He spun the chair as he waited, but dropped a foot to stop it just half way around, eye caught by a flashing red light on the bookcase. Next to it, there was an old fashioned sock, lumpy with fruit and nuts, and a sprig of holly.
He gestured to the little scene. "Light's on - did the mistletoe escape?"
Alva blinked. "No, it didn't."
The red light on the motion detector blinked festively back.