Harley Tyler clamped his calloused, work hardened hands over his rather delicately shaped ears as he ran, his bare nubs of nails digging into his leathered skin. Even that reinforced by the big band bass drum pounding of his heart threatening to burst inside his chest didn’t drown out the music. He dove into the tree lined alley between the Widow Cosgrove’s home and the Flannery Family abode, Mike Flannery still not back yet from his late morning milk deliveries. As he clumsily crashed into the hardened dirt path, worn away years ago by children who no longer played anywhere in Caruthersville, he cast his fear riddled blue eyes skyward. The bare dogwoods that the Widow had planted alongside her house back when she wasn’t widowed and the Flannery home didn’t yet exist seemed to glare down at Tyler, shaking their barren limbs at him. Chastising him for even trying to run.
Tyler might have lain there on his back, captivated by his own troubled imagination, until his pursuers caught up to him and rent him from pillar to post had it not been for that blasted music. It crept on the subtle winter breeze that haunted the small Ohio town from November clear into March each year, teasing its way into Harley Tyler’s head. Not anything he would have ever called music before, Tyler considered as he clambered back up to his feet, his right one already dropping into a dead run as his left one struggled to fall in step.
He exploded from between the two houses into the open and frantically looked left to right, trying to get his bearings in the only town he’d ever known. One street over on Main, the stately granite County Courthouse loomed to his right, rising three full stories above the antebellum houses before him. Plotting his course as he crossed the street between The Jenkins place and Molly’s Gingerbread Tea Room, once the regal Malone estate before the Great Crash touched even Caruthersville, Tyler tried to block out the murderous melody in his mind. Will it away. Ignore it. Pray that it was simply the hallucination of a broken hearted old man. But it wasn’t. It was there. Just like it had been ten years before.
The music carried no real tune, just discordant blasts and errant bleats of a horn thrown together haphazardly, one seeming to add power to another in an angry cadence. But Harley Tyler knew the terrible power it held, the ensnaring enchantment it cast. It was the backdrop of his nightmares for the last decade, the way it tangled itself in the wind and wafted across town. How it made adults cringe yet made children smile and giggle. And dance. Children danced to it, their tiny feet shuffling and skipping, their hands in the air, twirling and spinning. They danced to it because they couldn’t help it. Even those strong enough to realize what was happening was wrong, like Harley’s own Jimmy, the ones who reached out with begging hands to their parents to hold on to them, to make them stop, simply could not resist. At least, Harley thought desperately as he moved alongside the wall of the Tea Room pressing his angular body against the cold brickwork, it wouldn’t take any others. There hadn’t been a child over the age of one year old in Caruthersville for the last ten years.
Glancing around the corner, his eyes searching for his destination, Tyler heard what he sought before he saw it. Faint, almost nonexistent, but there. His eyes caught up, finding the spot, two blocks past the courthouse to the right. Traffic was light, after all it was an early December morning. Too cold to rummage around for morning coffee at the local diner and the stores weren’t even open for Christmas shopping until ten. He could make it, he was sure of it, even with the blasted music rising to a crescendo. As if it somehow knew he was hearing something else.
Footfalls. Behind him, trailing him like they had since before sunrise. But also to both sides of him now. Divide and conquer. A new strategy. Steps, heavy, deliberate, and in time with one another. Moving, marching as one. All dancing to that infernal music. And all to keep him from his self appointed round.
Tyler lowered his head, ready to bolt like his grandfather’s angus Bull did the day Cousin Ian lost his right eye and his left boot nearly thirty years ago. He leaped forward, his right hand instinctively clinging to his side, holding the only thing that meant anything to him now even closer to his body than his leather belt held it. His feet never touched the ground as more than a dozen hands grappled him from behind. Some clawed him like talons, others tangled in his thinning gray hair, one slapped him viciously across the mouth, ending the yell for help already rising in his throat. He struggled as his pursuers, now his captors tugged and pulled on him, dragging him away from the street. Back toward the Tea Room. And the old unused smoke house left over from the Malone years. Harley Tyler moaned through the feminine fingers locked over his mouth. The throng of men and women holding him hostage never made a sound more than breathing. All he could hear was that hellish, horrible song. Lowering his head in despair, Tyler knew that all hope was lost for Caruthersville. And maybe the rest of the world.
As his eyelids fluttered in defeat, something suddenly shimmered in the corner of his eye. A face. Drawn, empty, expressionless, just like every single young face that first appeared hours ago outside of his farmhouse window, banging on the doors, shattering glass with their unfeeling fists. But this one, this tow headed fair skinned face was not one he’d seen then. He’d not seen it other than in fading photographs in ten years. Ten years of regret, remorse, and soul killing loneliness.
“Ben?” Tyler garbled through the flesh and bone gag over his lips. Turning his head as much as he could, he saw the young man again. Hollow cheeks, sunken milky green eyes, a blank, vacuous stare. But there was more. A hodge podge line of freckles running over the bridge of his nose, the tell that he’d been his mother’s boy. A slight hook shaped scar just above his upper lip where the setting hen clipped him when he was eight and curious enough to stick his head in the coop. And the ears, almost feminine shell like commas on the side of his nearly oblong head. The same ears Harley saw every time he passed a mirror.
Harley shook his head back and forth violently, pushing against the woman’s hand over his mouth. Working his jaw up and down, he bit whatever finger he could get in his mouth. The taste of blood filled his mouth as his teeth broke skin. No yelling, no shrieking, just finally the release of the hand from over his face, as if it was simply the right reaction to a negative action, not someone about to bite her finger off.
“Ben!” Harley shouted, tears rimming his aged eyes. “Ben, it’s me! Your father!” As the desperate plea fell from his lips, Harley Tyler knew it would go unanswered. Whatever had taken his son and all the other children over five away from Caruthersville ten years ago Christmas had also snatched from Ben and the others every ounce of personality and will power they’d ever had. They were little more than fleshy puppets now, somehow Tyler sensed that. Marionette soldiers being yanked around by someone. And tied around their arms, legs, their very minds like a string nothing could break was that incessant melody.
But the music was quieter in Harley Tyler’s head now. It began fading when he discovered his son was one of the mindless multitude chasing him like hounds on a rabbit since he’d finished the letter concealed under his shirt and held tightly by his belt. It was still there, more of an irritating buzzing than the droning of doom it had been. But another sound replaced it, a more welcome one. The only beacon Harley Tyler had left to follow.
The ringing of a bell. Not a death knell like the funeral toll sounded for his beloved Rebecca three weeks after Ben was taken. But lighter, almost a tinkle more than a peal. Like jingle bells.
Turning his head to the right, Harley determined Ben was not one of the young people who had hold of him. As he looked, he saw others he thought he recognized, but also something else. Regardless of sex, size, or any other factor, each of his captors had two things in common. The same glazed over eyes and lifeless faces that his son displayed. And gray outfits, almost like military uniforms with muted purple epaulets on the shoulders and stripes of the same purple down the sides of the thick wool slacks.
Knowing there was at least one or two people in this throng between he and his son, Harley Tyler tucked his chin against his chest, closed his eyes, and bunched his shoulders, tugging so hard that the two or three people holding him pressed a little closer against him. Taking a breath so deep he felt its weight in his feet, Harley Tyler prayed silently that his son and Ben’s sainted mother would forgive him. Then he erupted.
Slinging himself backwards, Harley roared like a caged bear. The crowd that had closed around him like a fist suddenly splintered, bodies falling all directions. Nearly flat on his back, Tyler realized at least two, if not more of his attackers were beneath him. Hoping Ben wasn’t one of them, Harley fought until both of his arms were raised up near his head. Then with an echoing grunt, he shoved both arms bent at the elbow backwards. His right elbow cracked against someone’s nose, cartilage breaking with a bloody squish. The damage done by the left, knocking the breath out of someone under him, was not as satisfying, but proved sufficient. Where there had seemed to be hundreds of arms and hands of iron before binding him, now nothing remained except still bodies wrapped in wool uniforms and the spell of the music they followed.
Harley threw himself forward, then pushed his body upright and began running again, fighting the nearly overwhelming urge to stay and check on Ben, to force him away from this madness. Knowing that would be pointless and would only result in his being captured again and likely killed, Harley Tyler crossed the street. Like Lot’s wife, however, he was unable to resist and glanced back, never breaking pace. Ben was gone, as were most of his companions. The few that remained seemed disconnected, confused, unable to choose to retreat or give chase. That didn’t matter to Harley. He barreled beyond the court house, aimed like a bullet for the corner two blocks away. And for the man ringing that bell.
As he passed Garret’s Barber Pole and Caruthersville’s only news kiosk, Harley shouted at the man on the corner ringing the bell with one hand while holding a milk pail with the other. He vowed that he’d never pick on Leon Jarvis again for dressing up and asking for donations for the poor, even though the entire town of Caruthersville hated him for it every December. Harley ripped his shirt open as he ran, a single button flying in the air, and yanked the enveloped letter out into the open. The man turned, the red pointed hat with the white fur brim sitting cockeyed on his large head nearly falling off. He yanked the white bushy false beard hiding his pronounced jowls off his chin to say something when Tyler was less than twenty feet from him.
Harley Tyler never heard what Leon said. The sound of a blade slicing air around him and then burying itself in his back was the last thing Harley Tyler ever heard.
“Harley!” Leon Jarvis shrieked in his whiny alto timbre. Dropping the bell and bucket, he rushed to Harley’s side as he fell face forward just ten feet away. Looking about frantically for someone else to handle this, Leon, finding no one, fought a shudder at the sight of a gilded dagger in Tyler’s back and knelt beside him.
Harley Tyler pushed himself up, leaning on his left arm he’d bent up under his body as he fell. Barely able to support himself, he thrust his right arm into the air, nearly punching Leon in the face with the envelope clutched in his dying fingers. “Get this…” Harley Tyler pleaded, his final thoughts exactly what they’d been the last ten years, of saving his son, “Get…this letter….to Santa Claus.”
To the naked human eye, and by 1932 that had amounted to honestly maybe at the most eight people as far as the world at large knew, there was nothing at the North Pole. Swirling torrents of snow, lashing out like tendrils from some unseen frozen beast at the waters of the Arctic Ocean. Waves of water eternally fighting to cap and crest despite the frozen grip that sheets of ice, some possibly as old as the planet itself, held them in. No great unseen mountain range laced the area popularized by explorers and adventurers who considered it the Holy Grail of expeditions. No hidden plateaus harbored ancient life heated by some unknown source. The North Pole was simply a dot on a map amidst a frozen ocean, horrible wintry storms, and masses of ice shifting and floating atop a fluid foundation, pushing and even sometimes crashing into one another. To anyone flying over in an airship or unlucky enough to float far enough north for their sailing vessel to become icebound, The North Pole was barren of land and life.
That is not to say that there were not wonders and beauties of nature to behold. Descriptions made by men such as Peary, Byrd, and Amundsen filled the papers after each of their journeys northward, marvelous details about ice floes as long as the state of California and icebergs larger than the Rock of Gibraltar, rising and falling in the Ocean as if some terrible sea god were down below pitching them about. And then, as in any area new to man’s musings, there were the oddities, formations that simply had no explanation, but were somehow accepted as appropriate for their location for that fact. Like what some had referred to as ‘ice coves.’
Essentially ice floes fathoms thick beneath the water, ice coves sported massive frozen walls, rising high into the sky and some more than a hundred feet thick by most estimates. Although most of them had a single edifice protruding like a frigid finger waving at the heavens, some floes had three or four walls, each one more than a hundred feet tall, and most of them leaning in on one another, forming a sort of pyramid or dome over whatever might lie inside. One of Peary’s Inuit guides, Seeglo, told fantastic tales of entire lost tribes living within these coves, of things never witnessed by human eyes alive and sometimes squirming or even flying out of these icy enclaves. But no reports ever came back of such things, from Inuit tribesmen or their Caucasian employers.
That might have been in part due to the fact that none of them ever went far enough to see what truly lay atop the Arctic Ocean nearest the Pole. Amundsen, Ellsworth, and Nobile came very close in their fly over in 1926, but even from their vaulted view from the airship Norge, they were blind to the true mysteries the Pole held. Blind in part because of how well Nature always hides her own secrets, but also due to the fact that they, learned men they may have been, simply were not prepared for certain truths.
The largest floe by far in the entire region had either never been seen, though one could not understand how it would be missed, or more likely was lumped in with all of its brethren, even though it was literally miles longer and its walls a good thirty stories high at the point they curved inward, sealing themselves into a sort of conical dome. In terms of location, it floated atop the true northernmost point of the ball of mud, water, and humanity known as Earth and even in the years when it would be discovered, would simply be regarded as a natural wonder of the world, the largest decorative ice cube forever afloat in the cocktail that was the Arctic Ocean. Some would even jokingly cast a name upon it in scientific reports and academic journals in the mid and late 20th Century. They would call it ‘Santa’s Village’ with a wink and tongue planted firmly in cheek.
Were those scientists and researchers ever to burrow in deep enough or by chance catch a whiff of smoke that would lead them to an egress, even a crack in the protective dome of ice over the floe, then they’d learn what very few people have. They’d learn that even comments made in jest are actually sometimes fact.
In actuality, the floe was more an island of ice, its glacial roots running so deeply beneath the water’s surface that they scraped the ocean floor. Its entire mass covered nearly thirty acres of water. Surrounded by the emptiness of nearly constant winter and frigid ocean outside of it, the interior of the natural dome was nearly full to bursting. Full of buildings of varying descriptions, from longhouses made of caribou hide draped over frames of bamboo imported from India to more traditional houses and out buildings that one might see on a Midwestern American farm or dotting the English countryside. All of the buildings stood sentry around a central structure, one that owed something to various architectural influences, but was also as unique as the naturally hewn cove that hid it.
Clearly the largest structure within the ice bound compound, it served as equal parts central headquarters, production and manufacturing facility, and primary residence for the progenitor and manager of this clandestine operation. Its appearance reflected its schizophrenic utility, the front façade being very much in the style of a Swiss Chalet. Richly hued British Columbian red cedar logs crisscrossed atop one another . Windows of hand blown glass, six on the first floor, three on the second and two on the third looked out at all before them like ever open eyes. The forest green shingled roof ran the full length of the building, coming to a point just above the center of the structure. Its length, nearly three hundred feet across from corner to corner, was the only oddity to the welcoming face put forth by this most extraordinary construction. To hold what all truly lived, breathed, and happened within those walls, however, commanded enormous amounts of space.
The embrace of the red cedar logs continued beyond the façade, running the full length of the structure, nearly 500 feet. Just behind the wooden walls, though, were sheets of steel riveted together to form an inner shell, a casing for the work and wonders that went on nearly year round. Home to approximately thirty different souls at any given time, the living quarters resided in about the first third of the building. Nearly all the rest of it, at least the first two stories left behind the homey scents of bread baking and the earthy colors of brown and crimson and emerald that hugged the walls and floors of the home, giving way to gun metal gray walls, work tables, and machinery of the strangest sort. Large, massive constructs with claws, grapples, and other appendages, but not ran simply by an engine, not at all in some cases. Each of these strange machines, regardless of size, had at least one egress in its hull, about four and a half feet tall, an egress where a man or woman stood, their hands and feet, and sometimes even their heads attached to the device in some way, its movements mimicking theirs as they moved. Cutting wood, picking up completed projects, packaging them in brightly colored boxes of all sorts, and many other duties.
The tables lining the floor were full as well, full of half completed dolls and unvarnished pop gun barrels and so many other wonderful childlike items in some stage of creation. And at these tables stood a cadre of workers, similar in stature and appearance to their companions manipulating the machines. All of them short, most of them slender, and each of them wearing a sort of full body jumpsuit the color of fresh clover. Some wore their hats of the same color with white trimming rimming their foreheads and covering their ears, but most did not when inside the workshop. The air around them inside the building was kept a constant temperature thanks to the innovations of their benefactor, so wearing the hats when diligently working often left the diminutive people with a sheen of sweat coating their brown flesh, skin the color of burnished almonds.
And all of this, the work, the living, the entire function of this veritable city within a life size snow globe, all of it was overseen by one man. Often down on the floor getting his hands dirty or watching and monitoring from his open aired center of operations that occupied the entire third floor, his quarters included, the genius behind what unfolded on this phenomenal glacier was in neither location on this particular day. The man responsible not only for the unbelievable marvels that allowed nearly five hundred people to not only survive, but live comfortably in an ice mountain, but also for many innovations that those in the outside world had taken for granted for nearly a century, was not even in the ‘Workshop’ as everyone had come to call it. He was outside, forty feet from the rear of the building walking slowly through the wide open red doors, the decorative white deer heads adorning their fronts hidden, of a circular red barn topped with a gray thatched roof.
“So,” he said, his jocular bass voice rumbling up softly from his broad chest as he entered, “how is the patient this morning?”
He stood, his large rugged hands on his hips, his well-defined arms jutting out to his sides. Even beneath the thick red wool coat he traditionally wore and the white T-shirt under it, thick cords of muscle were evident, running and wrapping about his arms like iron links of chain. His eyes, the blue of pure glistening water, took in the whole of the ‘infarmary’ as it had come to be known. This barn served as the place where lost and injured animals found either on the few landmasses within a hundred miles of the Pole or on the journeys he and those within his charge sometimes made came to recover and heal, to live and survive if he and those he’d specially trained had anything to say about it.
Stalls lined the barn’s circular walls all the way around. The large open area in the midst of the building was a mix match of hay bales, feed sacks full to brimming, and three long metallic tables for surgeries and, when nothing at all could save the hurt and injured, explorative autopsies. His eyes did not dwell on the tables long, his least favorite part of the infarmary. But they had been useful just a week prior, in saving the life of the barn’s sole animal occupant at this point.
“He’s fine,” came a raspy response to the question. The wooden gate on a stall on the right slid open soundlessly and the owner of the gruff tone, a malady he’d had since he spoke his first words according to his family, stepped into the open. He was shorter than most of his people, barely three and a half feet tall. He was thinner, too, like a wizened pine fencepost with spindly legs and arms. He wore the jumpsuit like his brethren did, but atop it sat a tailor-made white linen coat, much like any other doctor would wear. His almost square head bore no cap and barely any hair atop it, simply a few wispy strands of snow white lying languidly in various directions.
Carrying a leather bound book, he wrote notes in it hurriedly with a nubbin of a pencil as he crossed the floor toward the new arrival. Making his final period with a flourish, he slammed the book shut as he walked, pencil somehow inside it, and gingerly dropped it on the second surgical table as he passed by. “Recovering as the other strays of his kind that you managed to salvage did,” rattled the little man as he shuffled up to the larger man. “Mostly, that is.”
“Now, Hieronymus,” chided the mountain of a man, his frame of six feet four inches and nearly three hundred hardened pounds casting a shadow over his oldest friend, “It’s unlike you to be vague.”
“Only as unlikely, Nicholas Saint,” grated Hieronymus Virginia, his neck craned nearly in a U shape to see the face above him, “as it is for one of your miracle medical treatments to render some unique mutation, some strange variation on what should be!” Realizing his voice had gone from natural gravel to frustrated screech, Hieronymus ran his right hand through what little hair he had. “I’m sorry, Nicholas,” he nearly whispered, his voice returning to its usual scratch, “truly I am. It’s just very nearly Christmas and other than my rounds here, Oedipus Sidney’s broken his arm again trying to improve the cargo loader for the sled. And…”
“Relax, Hi,” he gently lay a ham of a hand on Virginia’s shoulder, a rather delicate looking shoulder that in actuality was as strong as an iron bar. “Regardless of the season, you are the hardest working body in the Village. And even you have to flail and fluster at times. So,” changing subjects with a chuckle as he raised his hand to his face, his fingers teasing the closely trimmed white beard nuzzling his chin, “our boy’s developed something new, has he? I’ll wager,” he bet as he crossed the barn toward the stall Hieronymus had exited, “that it has to do with the new salve I gave you to use.”
Hieronymus nodded. “Yes, quite. I’m not certain if its due to any one factor, but the mixture of genetic material from anglerfish and fireflies-
“Yes,” Nicholas Saint interrupted, his hand grasping the stall door, “I was afraid something might be off. But the effect on damaged cells blended with that bioluminescent material on ruptured organs could not be ignored.”
“Oh,” Hieronymus Virginia laughed, “it was effective, true enough, set the tear in his liver right to healing almost immediately. But,” he chortled, “it also made sure this brute of a fellow won’t ever be ignored again, either.”
Nicholas Saint stood in the gateway of the spacious stall and looked at the infarmary’s sole occupant. Two of Hieronymus’ tribesmen had found the creature horribly wounded and dying on a jagged boulder of ice a mile beyond the Village eight days prior. No one could explain how the bleeding beast ended up in the midst of the Arctic Ocean, but one thing had been clear. It had fought whatever attacked it with every ounce of strength and bravery an animal, or human for that matter, could muster. His antlers, once as wide and beautiful a rack as any, were scratched and scarred, three points broken off, not as if they’d been stuck in something and broken, but as if they’d been ripped away. Saint and Hieronymus both spent three solid days tending the creature, treating open wounds, performing three surgeries, and applying Saint’s vast knowledge of medicine and genetics, two of the fourteen fields he was the world’s leading expert in, even though that fact was unknown to almost every single person on the planet.
Now, thanks to that as well as the genetically engineered restorative feed and fluid the patient had been consuming, the magnificent reindeer stood just a few feet away from Saint, five feet tall at its shoulder. Even though bare spots dotted its hide, hints of a healthy sheen could be seen in its lustrous, thick coat. Strips of leather soaked in liniment that would prompt bone growth bound both antlers. The animal before Nicholas Saint, just barely alive days before, turned to look at the man to whom it owed its life.
And its face glowed. Its long muzzle, nose, eyes all glowed. Bright red light poured off the deer’s head, like crimson flickers of flame.
A whistle escaped from Nicholas Saint’s lips, a whistle that Hieronymus heard as a lilting word. It was one of the many eccentricities associated with the man named Saint, one that he actually had no control of. Whenever his mind was engaged in a challenge, one that immediately defied explanation or held no answer, Nicholas would often whistle. Somehow, unexplainable even by himself, those whistles, tune and all, would be clearly understood by those in the room around him. And this oddity was one many were glad to hear because when Saint whistled at a challenge or especially when in trouble, that meant that he’d already happened on how to work, think, or fight his way out of it.
The whistle this time said one word, one of Saint’s favorite expressions. “Intriguing.”
Hieronymus harrumphed. “Such a master of understatement you are, Mister Saint.”
Ignoring the jibe, Saint approached the deer, his right hand out, palm flat facing the animal. “Easy, lad,” Saint murmured soothingly. “Nick’s not going to hurt a single shining hair on your head.”
“You’ll find,” Hieronymus said, “that the light emanating from the creature gives off absolutely no radiant heat. It is illumination, pure and simple.” Bemused, Virginia raised an average white eyebrow as Saint’s hand brushed the deer’s muzzle, the animal only retreating by a step, then nuzzling against the offered appendage. Saint had that effect on nearly every animal Hieronymus had ever seen him encounter, even beasts many believed to not be of this planet or plane. Nicholas Saint usually never knew an enemy when it came to animals and children.
Saint patted the deer as it if were an antlered Saint Bernard and the animal responded in kind, first rubbing its head against Saint’s open hand, then gently pushing beyond that and attempting to burrow against his chest. Saint chuckled, his unusual laugh rumbling up from his diaphragm and out into the open in a cheery burst. “My, friendly lad, aren’t you? Yes, you’ll make a nice addition to the paddock. A nice addition indeed.”
“Need I remind you,” Hieronymus warned in the fatherly tone he sometimes took with his benefactor and best friend, “that you already have a full stable and more than enough for the nearly useless runs you make with the eight you have now.”
“Yes, yes,” Saint countered, “this I know. But no matter. We won’t introduce him to the paddock until you’re sure he’s ready. He’ll need all his strength to deal with the games reindeer play.”
“Besides, “Virginia continued on as if Saint had never spoken, “there’s still tests to be ran on this...unique feature. It seems restricted to the head when he is awake but he literally glows from nip to noggin when he sleeps.” Fatherly gave way to learned man of science, even though the only schooling Hieronymus had ever received had been on the ice floe he currently called home. “That indicates that when he is aware, he has some sort of control over it. With time, he could possibly be taught to isolate it even more or even eliminate-“
“No,” Saint said sternly as he looked at Hieronymus, his hand still petting the deer, “there will be no eliminating it. So much gets taken away that is special in the world today, Hieronymus. This lad here, he’s special, he has something no other of his species has. We won’t be taking that away unless it proves harmful to him. So run the standard battery of examinations. “ He looked back at the magnificent specimen before him, its red light around its face already lessened, centered more around its muzzle now. “But we’ll not be seeking a cure for this phenomenon, not just yet.”
Hieronymus Virginia raised a wizened hand and opened thin lips to retort, but a blast of static noise emanating from something resembling a brass French horn attached to the pinnacle of the barn roof above them gave him stay. Both men turned their attention to the speaker, the deer raising its head in curiosity as well. They waited as the static died away, a buzzing silence of three or so seconds, then an audible click.
“Nick,” the lilting alto voice called from the speaker, “Nick, are you in there?”
Saint smiled even though the voice he thrilled to every day seemed tense, urgent. Hearing her speak, just hearing her breathe always made the man known to many as ‘Earth’s Best Hope’ warm inside like a schoolboy enamored with the girl next door. “Yes Bette,” Saint replied, shouting out of habit even though he knew the receivers hidden in the barn walls would pick his voice up clearly, “Just checking up on-“
“Nick,” the single word cracked like a terse whip, capturing his full attention, “We just received a Jingle. From one of the Helpers. Top priority.”
Saint nodded, even though she couldn’t see him, and as he was wont to do, placed his right index finger to the tip of his nose. This indicated to all around him that he was processing, that he had instantly gone into a sort of deep thought, a ‘Miracle Moment’ his wife called it.
“A helper?” Hieronymus said tentatively. That was a designation he’d not heard in-he hesitated, his broad forehead furrowed in calculation- nine years, 11 months and 21 days. Not that the people in all walks of life around the world that Saint had once commissioned to assist him in his protection of the world, many of them for their entire lifetimes and some even passing it onto their children, had been told to stand down or were no longer needed. But the threats to the world and the injustices meted out in the last decade seemed tamer, less intense than they had…before She died. Saint and his close associates, Hieronymus included, had been able to deal with the occasional mad scientist, power hungry ruler, or alleged otherworldly presence that popped up.
The slight man’s entire frame trembled with something akin to fear, respect, and disgust at the thought of Her and those who gathered at her feet, clung to her cloak tails. That had been the reason the Helpers had been commissioned originally, well back into the last century, to deal with the insidious, clever way that She and her minions worked their wicked ways. It was child’s play-no pun intended- to spread Helpers around the globe, having them work in the guise of imitators, men and women costuming themselves in Saint’s publicized image, standing on street corners, working in department stores and schools, and doing good. In more ways than anyone ever knew.
“Understood,” Saint said. His voice was different, the resonant timbre the same, but a certain chill had crept into it. An edge, hard and razor sharp. Ready for anything. “I’m on my way back to the Workshop now.”
“Nick,” Bette said, her voice still insistent, but tinged with a hint of sadness. “The Jingle. It came from Ohio. Caruthersville.”
The ruddy, healthy red of Nicholas Saint’s cheeks paled for only a moment at the words from the speaker. Memory ambushed him in broad daylight as it often did in his deepest dreams at the mention of the small picturesque town in Ohio. Mothers shouting. Fathers cursing. A strangled mix of melody and notes in the air. And not a child in sight.
Saint spoke as he charged out of the stall and across the infarmary. “Who’s near Ohio, Bette?”
“Peter’s somewhere in the Midwest,” came the reply, “and then there’s Jack. He’s in New York, helping orphans and…”she hesitated…“ministering to widows.”
Hieronymus harrumphed, trying to drive away his own feelings of unease. “Whatever he does with defenseless widows can in no way be considered ‘ministering’.”
Again, Saint ignored his friend. He was already gone at least in mind and spirit, beyond the infarmary, outside of the ice floe, boot deep in whatever horror he was on his way to face, whatever adventure was about to consume his life. Hesitating at the barn door, he said, “Contact them both. Get them to Caruthersville. I’ll take the Pogo and meet them there.” He took a breath. “And, Bette. Tell them to be careful. It’s not like everywhere else. We’re not welcome in Caruthersville. Especially so close to Christmas.”
“All right,” answered Bette, her voice softening. “Be safe, Nicholas.”
Hearing the click of the radio transmitter going dead, Nicholas Saint glanced back over his shoulder, his eyes absent the twinkle that he was known for far and wide. “Convene a Round Table, Hi. Everyone in the Village attends.”
The diminutive man nodded, then said, “Even Krampus?”
Nicholas Saint nodded. “Yes, everyone. You and Bette make sure we’re ready.”
As somber as an undertaker, a position he’d often held in the past for his own people and fallen comrades, Hieronymus Virginia asked, “And even if we are, what then?”
“Pray,” Nicholas Saint said simply. “Pray we don’t have to be.”
Jack Frost hated surprises.
He’d despised the phenomenon of being caught unawares vehemently from the first time he’d opened his eyes. Not birth mind you, Jack had no memories of that. Or childhood. Or much of anything before the pale white lids hiding his nearly translucent blue eyes fluttered and opened back in 1890. His entire body drenched in freezing water, remnants of the spit of ice he’d somehow been frozen in clinging to his skin like barnacles on a ship hull. The array of faces he on his back found himself staring up at had been a rather pleasant surprise for his first one. What followed, however, was as far from pleasant as he was from his true origins.
There were many things Jack did not know, even to this day. Who he actually was or why he’d been in the ice or how he’d ended up dressed in the garb of a Colonial American soldier. He had no understanding of how people he’d met, even on that first day, had memories of meeting someone like him, name, face and all, in the past, but someone altogether different in other ways. A whirlwind of confusion and conundrums, that’s what Nicholas Saint had called it after chasing Jack halfway around the world. Through warzones, bars, and nearly literal hellholes, Saint had pursued Jack, a man lost in a world with only a land deed shoved in his pocket that gave him his name and a single memory that that name was indeed his. As hard as Jack pushed in that first year of living again in a world he neither wanted nor remembered, Nicholas Saint fought just as hard to keep him alive. To make him want to live. And to give him purpose. That had impressed…and surprised Jack. Enough that he threw what little lot he had in with Saint and Bette and even that crotchety old sprig of aggravation and irritation, Hieronymus Virginia, among others.
So, Frost mused as he pulled the 1932 Phaeton Touring Car into Caruthersville, apparently not all surprises were patently evil.
The one he’d received just a few hours ago, however, was at the least disconcerting and inconvenient. After a long day in New York City of bringing orphans as much joy as a blue eyed gentleman with hair and skin the color of pure snow bearing handcrafted toys could, Jack had decided to enjoy the company of others in need. Particularly a rather young, extremely intriguing widow, her dear departed husband lost in a plane crash somewhere over Africa. And enjoying his evening with her he was indeed doing when the rather unique, exquisite watch that adorned his wrist began to hum, the crystalline face of the timepiece glowing a bright white. Excusing himself from the widow’s embrace, knowing that she’d be tasting the strange coolness of his pallid lips on her cherry red cupid’s bow mouth for hours, Frost cursed his bad luck, renewed his hatred for unexpected interruptions, and excused himself.
What he learned when he reached the street and used the pine cone shaped device Bette had given him to contact the Village via radio only added fire to Jack’s thoughts on revelations and bombshells. It also pushed him as if the Devil himself were on his heels to the nearest air strip. One of the thousands around the world that dropped everything when someone dropped the name ‘Nicholas Saint.’
Jack saw the Caruthersville Court House rise in front of him as he drove into the downtown area. He remembered the last time he’d been in this rather nice, humble little town. The last time they’d all been there. The day the children vanished.
Wary in part because it was his nature to be so, but also keenly aware that he was one of a handful whose rather unique face would not be welcome in Caruthersville, Jack turned right onto a side street before actually breaching the town square. Caruthers Park spread out on his left and Jack pulled the car into the graveled parking lot there and killed the motor.
He’d picked up the Phaeton at the T. Nash Auto Garage in Cleveland. Another benefit of working with a man like Saint was the ability he had to create a whole chain of garages that wound its way across the United States just so he, Jack, and others would always have a place to go and acquire transportation of the four wheeled variety. He’d enjoyed the trip to town in the Phaeton, its convertible ragtop down, the crisp winter air teasing Jack’s skin. Nothing felt better to Jack Frost than the cold, not because he particularly remembered always liking it, but more to do with some sort of response to being encased in ice like Nature’s own museum display for Providence knows how long.
Climbing out of the car, Jack took a moment to absorb the surroundings. He shoved his black gloved hands into the deep pockets of the pitch black trench coat he wore over a tailor made suit, fedora, vest and tie included, of the same color. Bette Saint had only told him that the only townsperson in Caruthersville that hadn’t wished them dead ten years ago had used a radio device Nicholas had left with helpers often, one far beyond its time and of his own invention, and had sent a ‘jingle’, a summons for help. He was closest, Bette had explained, and therefore reconnaissance and information gathering fell to him until Nicholas arrived. Jack was content with that, knowing that he’d be far more effective than that filthy dolt Peter. So, he was in town now and, as always with towns like this one, the best place to start would of course be the heart of the settlement. Main Street.
A wave of unwanted nostalgia washed over him like dirty water as he walked deeper into the tiny wooded enclave near the heart of the city. He’d almost forgotten, he realized, that Caruthers Park was where he and the others had retreated to that day. The last time they were in Caruthersville. As he passed the cobblestone circle at the center of the park ringed with wrought iron park benches, Frost closed his eyes. He could still see them, Nick, Bette, himself…all of them back to back and surrounded by those benches. And scores of murderous, mindless children.
It was early so it was no surprise that he was alone in the park. What did startle Jack a bit, though, was the sight that greeted him when he exited the manmade thicket onto Main Street, just across the street from the Courthouse.
People. Not early morning shoppers rushing for that last Christmas gift or modern Bob Cratchitts desperate to get to work to please their versions of Scrooge. A crowd, a massive throng filling the yard and steps and even the street in front of and around the courthouse. Faces mingling together into a blanket of sparkling eyes and odd smiles, all looking the general direction of the courthouse steps, at the bottom. All adult faces, Jack Frost sadly noted.
Atop the stairs was a face Jack recognized. Mayor P. Paul Plumley, a man whose appearance fit his name. Pear shaped, Plumley’s egg like head sat on no obvious neck, just seemingly buffeted back and forth between two meaty shoulders. His wide bulbous blue eyes perched on chubby cheeks, his mouth turned up into a wild grin. Four strands of faded red hair wrestled each other atop his speckled pate as the wind teased his scalp. Something was off, Jack knew it right away, about the Mayor. It was his clothes. A tacky red and green plaid suit, loud enough to serve as a Christmas tree in any department store. The suit Plumley wore ten years ago. The one he swore he’d never wear again the day that every citizen except one swore off Christmas forever.
Feeling an odd sensation of sudden warmth on the back of his neck, his own personal warning system, Jack walked toward the courthouse. He gently pulled his right hand from his coat pocket and tugged his fedora down to hide his face more. He then slid his black gloved hand inside his coat. It was an instinctive reflex anytime a situation felt out of the ordinary. And this one qualified even more as Jack looked around, his eyes taking in the Main Street businesses, the streets, everything. Empty. No cars at all. No one crowding the stoop or filling the oversized spittoon outside Garrett’s Barber Pole or bustling into McAfee’s Family Discount Store. No one anywhere else other than the courthouse. Most of the population of Caruthersville flooded about the courthouse, a sea of murmuring humanity.
“-day would never come,” whined Mayor Plumley as Jack reached the outer edge of attentive listeners, all eyes front. “When we, nearly a decade ago to the day, watched as our children were spirited away! Our hearts were shattered, our lives destroyed, our town forever changed! And all because of Christmas!” Jack winced at the barbs he knew were coming next and suddenly felt very conspicuous. Plumley did not disappoint.
“I know many of us,” he woefully whimpered, ”blame ourselves for placing our faith in people who claim to represent hope, good and purity only to learn that they were the very reason tragedy struck our humble village!” Rumbles rose from the gathered citizens. “I will admit that even I did not believe until the end, until our very future marched into nothingness before our eyes, that our supposed saviors were indeed the reason for our despair!” Plumley’s eyes darted to whatever was at the base of the steps below him and Jack noticed his smile grew even wider and more intense. “And now,” his voice became filled with genuine emotion, strangled with tears, “as if a present for our willingness to shun the lie of Christmas, to punish those who truly caused our great sadness, our children have returned!”
Plumley’s impassioned words nearly brought Jack Frost leaping into the crowd to unravel the mystery, his mind struggling to grasp what he’d heard. That impulse was quelled, however, more by the roiling assembly of cheering and clapping onlookers pushing back toward him than by any sense on his part. The crowd parted, opening up a view of the snow covered foot of the courthouse steps, so everyone could see what Plumley, still talking, was touting as ‘a true miracle’. And what Jack Frost saw chilled even his icy blood.
Lined up in four rows stood people in gray militaristic uniforms in front of the courthouse steps. Young men and women, some probably not even over eighteen yet Jack estimated. Some skinny, some muscular, some with short hair, some with long. But all clothed in the same style of uniform and all wearing a blank, almost doll like expression on their faces. Faces that even ten years later Jack Frost recognized, primarily because he saw them almost every time he slept, haunting his nightmares.
And every single of one of them stared straight ahead, their glazed eyes focused, staring straight ahead as they lifted their arms, each one extending an accusing finger. All aimed at him.
Jack Frost hated surprises.