So I don't have time to snigger at the idea that 20 degrees C is fatal, nor to point out that there is at least one country on the planet taking Electrofag seriously.
No smoky-drinky this weekend. It's going to be a busy one. Instead, here's a tale of caution, out of season, for all those who love free sweets.
A lot of these stories centre on the fictional town of Marchway, as do three novels I'm currently passing around publishers with more hope than skill. If you ever see a sign for Marchway, don't go there. There'll be a collection available soon. I'm working on it.
Note: This one is especially nasty. It's really not for those who are prone to bad dreams. And don't be munching confectionery while you read.
The sweet man
Ian watched the falling snow through the large, plate glass windows of the Marchway Emporium. The cold seemed to reach in, through the glass, past the displays, through the red coat and heavy padding he wore, to clutch at his heart. He shivered, watching the people hurrying through these last few shopping days before Christmas. They complained about the crowds, about the prices, about the cold, about everything. Ian shook his head. They should be thankful they have someone to spend money on at this time of year. For all their protestations of inconvenience, Ian would have traded places with any one of them. He had an ex-wife and a son who didn't know him. Ian had no idea where they lived. Nobody sent him presents, nobody received gifts with 'From Ian' on the label. He sighed. It was too late to change things now.
A truck moved slowly along the road, spraying salted sand from a disk at its tail. As it passed, Ian noticed the words drawn in the layers of grime on its rear. 'Season's Grittings'. His lip curled into a near-smile, not quite making it all the way.
"Hey, Santa, time to get busy." The officious voice was Mr. Elwood, the manager. Ian could see the man's thin, angular face reflected in the window. Thankful that the fake beard hid his sneer, Ian shuffled around to meet his boss's shifty eyes.
"Yes, Mr. Elwood. Right on it." Ian moved towards the painted papier-mâché grotto at the back of the store.
"Make it more cheerful this time. You were a miserable sod yesterday, you'll lose us customers if you keep that up." Elwood's voice carried across the store. "Even Santa can be fired, you know."
Great, keep that up and you'll lose all your customers, Ian thought as he caught the frowns of the shoppers he passed. A few wide-eyed children tugged at their mothers' skirts, most likely terrified of losing their presents if Santa got the heave-ho. The presents were the important things, to hell with Santa's income. Season's Greedings. Ian raised a hand in acknowledgement of Elwood's words, not trusting himself with a verbal reply. He may get fired on the spot, and all his preparations would be wasted.
The tired wooden chair groaned as Ian sat. It was surprising the thing could bear the weight of the tinsel and paper covering it, much less support Ian and his false belly. It held though, for this session at least. It would be enough. One more day in Elwood's crappy store, then he could finally lay all his demons to rest.
Ian closed his eyes. Once he had been a successful chemist, until the company he worked for went bankrupt. His wife, Julie, refused to move house, limiting his options for new work. Unemployment followed, bringing lack of money and its attendant hardships. His wife had bailed out before they hit the poverty line, calling him worthless and pathetic. He tensed at the irony. If she had been willing to move, there was plenty of well-paid work for someone of his abilities. When the money ran out, so did she. Moving was then no problem for her, she had fled with their baby son, Jason, leaving him with nothing.
Out of the loop for too long, work was now hard to find. Science moved fast and he had stepped out of the flow. Ian wondered if his son had even heard of him. He must be about six years old by now. Ian might have passed him on the street and not known him.
Ian lived in a single room in a boarding house, making a living on whatever jobs he could find. Today he was a store-Santa, wearing a grubby white beard and a shabby red suit, sitting in a plaster and papier-mache cave with a barrel full of sweets. Elwood was too mean to hire pretty girls to dress as elves. Ian was denied even that distraction. He opened his eyes and smiled at the barrel of sweets. He had constructed his own amusements. It had taken many days of careful preparation but today it was ready. Today all those happy-to-be-miserable shoppers and their spoilt, selfish children would have a Christmas to remember.
"Hey, Mister. Are you the real Santa?"
A small boy, one finger engaged in a quarrying operation in his nose, was watching Ian through sceptical eyes. Ian considered an accidental swipe of his hand, then caught sight of Elwood, pretending to study a display of crockery.
"Ho ho ho." Ian rocked in his seat, moving with care to avoid precipitating its collapse. "There are many Santas, small boy, otherwise we would never get around the whole world in one night." This was his own invention, spoken in a voice pitched so that Elwood wouldn't hear. "Would you like some sweets? I have to save the real presents for Christmas Eve, but I have sweets to spare." Now he was speaking Elwood's lines. The tight-fisted manager's way of avoiding giving toys to the children for the inflated fee of the grotto. If only Elwood knew how Ian had sneaked packets of sweets home every night, returning them in one batch today for this, his swan-song. Ian moved his hand over the barrel, over packets of bonbons, bags of sugared almonds, settling on a small box of disc-shaped chocolates. He handed them to the boy.
"Here, these will give you a taste of Christmas." His grin was genuine. From the corner of his eye, Ian saw Elwood's tight smile before the manager wandered away.
"Thanks, Mister – I mean, Santa. I didn't even pay to get in." With a flash of a bright grin, the boy was gone.
Ian settled in his chair, chuckling to himself. Elwood would be furious if he found out. What the hell, it was Christmas. Besides, the boy hadn't won, not even a small victory. The strychnine dose in the chocolate would send the boy into hyperactivity soon, so his parents would take him home. Then the convulsions would start, the constrictions of the chest leading to death by suffocation. No, this boy would never trouble Santa again.
The trickle of children began, the queue never growing too long. Nobody wanted to wait, they had presents to buy. Sometimes the parents accompanied the child, sometimes they left them in the queue to Ian's grotto while they browsed nearby. Ian listened to spoiled brats asking for ray-guns, dolls, games, computers, bicycles, and nodded to each, promising them anything. Then he gave them sweets.
Mercuric chloride bonbons. Cyanide sugared almonds. Atropine bitter lemons. Ian handed them out to wide-eyed children with the strict instruction to keep them until they were home. If one of them fell ill here, in the store, Ian’s game would end too soon. The doses varied; some would kill, some would debilitate, some would leave lasting damage. Oh yes, these rich bastards would definitely remember this Christmas. Let them feel the loss of a child, as he had. Let them endure the pain, the despair, the helpless anguish. For the first time, Ian revelled in his Santa role, his merry laughter booming through the store.
The sight of the next boy stopped Ian’s breathing for a moment. It was like looking into a mirror, a magical mirror that could strip away the years. The boy had the same eyes, the same nose, the same angular chin as Ian, as he had when he was six years old. Ian looked up at the boy’s mother and stifled a gasp.
Julie. Unmistakably Julie, though a little fatter. Then this must be—
“Hoi, Santa. Get on with it.” The boy’s high-pitched whine broke Ian’s trance. It was clear Julie hadn’t recognised him, and his son—Jason—was too young when they left him, too young even to have ever called him ‘Daddy’. He looked down at the boy, took in the tiny hands clenched on the hips, the pouting, petulant face and wondered what Julie had done to this child.
“Come on, Santa, we haven’t got all day.” Jason stamped his foot, shiny patent leather thumping on the worn store carpet.
“Good day to you, young man, and what would you like for Christmas?” The words came mechanically from Ian’s mouth, his eyes fixed on the sight he never thought to see.
“My Daddy has already bought my presents.” Jason assumed a smug expression. “My Daddy’s very rich.”
“I see.” Ian considered the self-important, spoiled freak that his son had become. Behind Jason, Julie wore an indulgent smile. She let the little monster do just as he pleased, and no doubt her new man, Jason’s stepfather, did the same.
Ian blinked away a tear. This boy should have been his heir, should have been calling him ‘Daddy’. Ian repressed the urge to grab for Jason, to sweep him into his arms and tell him everything. Too late now. Ian’s decisions were all made, his future settled. His fingers trembled as he reached into the barrel of sweets. Ian had never considered escape, never considered getting away with his actions today. Capture was certain, and then conviction. In his pocket, Ian’s own sweet treat waited for him at the end of the show. Liquorice, his favourite, laced with sodium azide. The compound would react with the acid in his stomach to produce a toxic gas. A high dose for a quick death. Best of all, if anyone attempted CPR, they’d get a mouthful of the gas too. Once Ian set out on that last journey, anyone who tried to stop him was coming along for the ride.
“For God’s sake, give me the sweets and let’s get out of here.” Jason thrust his hand forward, fingers twitching.
The avarice in the child’s eyes steeled Ian’s nerve. If he could perform one last service for the world, it was the removal of this appalling human being from the face of it. Jason may be his own flesh and blood, but that just made it Ian’s responsibility to deal with him. Revenge on Julie was a bonus. This was his duty. Ian selected a bag of sweets at random and handed them to the boy.
“Here you are, little boy. Now, don’t eat them until—“
The snatch nearly took the skin off Ian’s fingers. Jason tore open the bag and stuffed the sweets into his mouth. He shot a glare at Ian as Julie led him away.
Ian gaped at their retreating backs. Julie’s voice drifted back to him.
“Now, Jason, you shouldn’t be nasty to Santa. He’s very old.”
“Well, he should be replaced with a younger man. That’s what Daddy says about the people who work for him. He does it all the time.”
Julie’s response was lost in the general hum of the crowd. Ian shook himself and checked the queue. Only two more. He hurried them, watching the store for a glimpse of Julie and Jason. The sweets might take effect at any moment, and Ian had no idea which ones he had given to the boy.
The last child left the grotto. Ian put up the ‘closed’ sign, although there was still an hour left of his session. Elwood saw him, and moved in his direction.
Then the screaming started. Elwood paused, looking from Ian to a crowd near the toy section. Another scream. Elwood pointed his finger at Ian, a scowl on his face, then headed for the crowd.
Ian knew he should run, but he had to see what was happening. As he stepped from the grotto, Jason burst from the crowd, a look of terror on his face. He swiped at invisible enemies, clapped his hands against his ears, then collided with a pillar and fell over. Julie followed, the crowd hard on her heels. Jason screamed again. His legs made running motions that only served to propel him in a circle, his shoulder to the floor. Julie grabbed at him. Jason stopped running. Ian held onto the wall of the grotto, his fingers punching holes in the papier-mâché. Elwood appeared beside Julie, fingers knotted, face animated, talking in a shrill voice. Nobody listened to him.
Jason vomited, then shook with convulsions. A dark stain spread on his trousers. Ian frowned, running through the symptoms. What had he given to Jason? The red lines trickling from Jason’s ears and nose, and the thick streaks of chocolate-red still dripping from his mouth, finished the symptom list for Ian. He moved back into the grotto. Chocolate pennies. Sodium fluoroacetate. By chance, he had given his son the most vicious toxin in his collection. No odour, no taste, no antidote. Ian slipped off his jacket as he left through the staff exit. Little bastard deserved it.
The jacket, the false belly, the beard and hat all fell behind Ian as he ran along the corridor. In the stock room, he dropped the red trousers and replaced them with his own. Brown, worn, sagging, like his jacket. He reached into the Santa trousers and took out his sweet. For a moment, he held it, staring at it as though it were a loaded gun. In effect, it was, although there was no chance of missing with this weapon. All he had to do was swallow it.
Except... he didn’t want to.
Ian grimaced at his own cowardice. He had nothing to live for, but he wanted to live anyway.
Nothing to live for? Hadn’t he just enjoyed the last few hours? Hadn’t he been happier today than at any time in the last six years? Why end it now? He stood at the doorway to a whole new career, one that included automatic fame, albeit an incognito sort of fame.
Putting the sweet in his trouser pocket, Ian opened the door and peered around it. The corridor was empty. The sounds of commotion from the shop drifted through, hazy and distant. Ian made his way to the fire exit, pushed open the door and ran, thanking Elwood’s meanness for the absence of a door alarm.
He ran through drifting snow to his small room, where he packed his few belongings into his rucksack. After one final look around the place he’d called home for the last few years, he left for the bus station and a one-way ticket to anonymity.
Frank Harris tapped his fingers on his desk and stared at the man seated opposite. Frank needed reliable people, but he also wanted people who worked cheap. This man looked as though he would work for a meal and a bath. Brown, worn, sagging clothes that must have been slept in on many consecutive nights. Lank hair and beard, blank, lost eyes—but not a druggie’s eyes. Frank knew druggies, and this man wasn’t one. Frank pursed his lips. Cheap came higher on his list than reliable.
“Okay, I’ll give you a chance, but you’ll need to get cleaned up before you get into the costume.” Frank wrinkled his nose. He’d have paid the man just to leave his office. The stench was going to linger for days. “There’s a hostel on Parkway. Give them this.” Frank scribbled a note and pushed it across the table. “It tells them you have a job, if you get cleaned up. They’ll let you use their facilities.”
“Thank you, sir. You won’t regret it.” The man offered his hand. Frank waved it away.
“I hope not.” Frank covered his mouth and nose with his hand. The stink was worse when the man moved. “You understand the job? You wear the Easter Bunny suit, and you give out chocolate eggs to the children. Just small ones, and you can keep any spares at the end of the day. The job’s for four days, you get paid each day. If you don’t turn up washed, you don’t work. The costume is not to leave the premises. Understood?”
“Perfectly. I can take the spare eggs, you said?”
“If there are any. I don’t want to catch you hiding them.”
“Oh, you won’t.” The man smiled as he stood. He lifted his battered rucksack and placed it on his shoulder, with more care than Frank usually saw in these people. It was as if he had something fragile in there. “I’ll be back as soon as I’ve washed up.”
“Tomorrow is fine. That’s when we start the promotion.”
“Tomorrow.” The man opened the door.
“Oh, wait,” Frank called. “I don’t have a name for you.”
The man paused, as though recalling his name from the depths of his mind.
“Jason,” he said, his voice catching as he spoke. “Call me Jason.” He closed the door as he left.
Frank smiled. Jason, indeed. After all that time thinking, the best this guy could come up with was Jason. Frank shrugged. They all gave false names. It didn’t matter to him one way or the other. At least the guy looked harmless. Frank reached into his desk drawer and took out the aerosol air-freshener. A long blast dispelled most of the hobo stench, but something lingered. Below the unwashed, sweaty stink hung another odour. Frank sniffed.
Something industrial. Something chemical. Frank gave the air-freshener another blast. What these guys did when they weren’t working for him was none of his business.