He picked up the phone and dialed with panicky, convulsive stabs of his delicate craftsman's fingers. The World had one hope, one last defender capable of frustrating the unspeakable purposes of this freshly-spawned Son of Perdition... if only he was available to accept the call. A shadow devoured the feeble light in the corridor behind the booth, and Drimble's eyes read the tenebrous miasma's proclamation of doom and desecration with reluctant acuity: This ambassador of shadow heralded the approach of the Destroyer.
Santa was coming for him.
The dim, almost ghostly apprehension of a ringing phone several thousand miles away stung Drimble with an exquisite, agonizing shock of hope: ``Pick up the phone, come on, pick up the phone....'' He reached an answering machine.
``Howdy, folks! This is Nick Bourbaki. I'm not in right now, but if you'll leave a message, I'd be pleased as punch to get back to you as soon as possible. Thanks.''
Santa was twenty paces away, and accelerating toward Drimble.
The answering machine beeped, and Drimble sang out with terrified urgency,
``You've got to stop him! Father Christmas has gone mad! He's not bringing presents to the little ones this year, he's gonna do 'em all, the slaughter of the innocents, oh dear God, you've got to stop him, he's gonna do 'em all, he's gonna --''
The stiletto's blade sliced the chill subterranean air and pierced Drimble's back; Santa's merry ``Ho ho ho'' boomed through the chamber as he drove the hungry steel up between Drimble's ribs and into his lung. Instantly deprived of the capacity for speech, Drimble dropped the phone. Santa wrenched the handle of the knife sideways and, with a savage jerk, broke off the blade, which stood quivering as it registered the inner pulsations of vital flesh. A white-gloved hand reached around Drimble's head and grabbed his face. With a single, sickening snap, Santa unseated Drimble's head from its previously secure connection with his neck. The Last of the Elves succumbed to the embrace of that cold call-girl, Eternity, as his body dropped to the floor in a boneless, jelly-like heap. Santa regarded his former head toymaker with reflective detachment. Then he turned his eyes to the dangling phone. He picked it up and spoke into the mouthpiece:
``Forget everything you've heard here; he was just kidding around.''
He hung up the phone, then walked away to prepare for the glorious work of the long night ahead.
Nick Bourbaki stood silently at the center of a world poised upon the brink of madness.
This was a job for Evil Man.
Bourbaki's alter-ego played the role of anti-hero for a dying age. His super-power, the use of the forces of Evil in the cause of Good, raised some eyebrows among the purveyors of authority who sat in judgment of his crusade. His tactics -- suffocation, head-bonking, deception, rudeness -- didn't exactly inspire sentimental teardrops from the falsely noble and the idealistic. But it was a tough old world out there, and sometimes you had to fight fire with fire. He maintained the secrecy of his ``civilian'' identity, not to protect his family and loved ones (he had none), but to avoid a torrent ofthreatening phone calls and letter bombs. Only the nations' highest powers had access to Bourbaki's true identity and residence. And apparently an agent of one of those powers -- a power previously dedicated to joyous gift-giving and the dispensation of materialistic happiness -- had made urgent use of his private number this evening.
A figure materialized out of the apartment's gloom and approached Bourbaki. Ambiguity Boy, who either existed or did not exist according to the demands of the plot, strode manfully toward Bourbaki.
``You heard the message, then?''
``Yes, Ambiguity Boy. I had hoped for a peaceful Christmas Eve. A refreshing mug of eggnog, Nitzer Ebb's Christmas album, maybe the Alastair Sim version of `A Christmas Carol' as displayed on the television screen....'' ``Sadly, none of that will be possible,'' Ambiguity Boy replied. ``Where do you think he'll strike first?''
``That's something we'll have to figure out. And may the Immortals shield humanity if we're wrong. Father Christmas has access to every home on the globe... it's not going to be easy to anticipate his path.''
Ambiguity Boy's jawline set in a rigid angle of determination.
``The standard, Ambiguity Boy. Intercept and annihilate.''
Ambiguity Boy pondered the response for a moment.
``I think not, Mr. Bourbaki. For consider, Santa Claus is a demi-Immortal; he is a creature not of common tissue and bone, but rather woven from the cotton-candy fantasies and sickly-sweet materialistic cravings of a host of cultures. You can't dispatch him with the ruthless efficiency you showed when, for example, you burst the hydrophilic Drenchable Sponge Brothers via the cunning expediency of a gushing fire-hose. Why, I'll bet you could blow the back of Santa's head off, or torch his face with a flamethrower, and he'd just keep coming back for more....''
``Sounds like a hack writer's wet-dream,'' Bourbaki interjected.
``Tell me about it,'' Ambiguity Boy replied. ``In any event, we face an extremely delicate task: Not only must we stop this savage campaign of death before it starts, but more importantly, we must preserve the economic viability of the Christmas industry. Santa is, quite simply, the lynch-pin of the Christmas season. If Santa's atrocious plans succeed -- and even if the world merely learns of his descent into the murky waters of madness -- the integrity of Christmas as a commercial enterprise may suffer a fatal blow. The implications of this would be staggering....''
Bourbaki applied all his powers of intense concentration to the problem.
``I think I have an idea that might just accomplish our aims,'' he announced momentarily. ``If we're lucky. And if we can find him before he begins his gruesome crusade.''
Bourbaki's eyes glittered, his jaw clenched, and the complex chain of biochemical reactions which would transform him into Evil Man began their work deep within his body. At length he cried,
``To the Abomina-mobile!"
The Abomina-mobile sped through the night air high above the majestic skyline of Plank's End. Evil Man's hawk-like eyes pierced the darkness for private and commercial aircraft, even though the 'Mobile's sensors provided a 50-yard proximity alert (Evil Man believed in flying by the seat of one's pants.) He turned from the maze of controls before him and spoke to Ambiguity Boy. ``We must now decide how best to pinpoint Saint Nicholas' sleigh.''
``Well,'' Ambiguity Boy replied, ``we could try the Fayddeev-Popov ghost field scanner.''
``Thanks, Tom Clancy,'' Evil Man fired back. ``To tell you the truth, I don't think Dave has the technical creativity to pull that off and make it sound even halfway convincing. Let's stick to more traditional search methods. And by the way, Ambiguity Boy, the only thing in life more pointless and stale than a physics `in-joke' is a pun. You want to remember that.''
``Sorry, Mr. Bourbaki,'' Ambiguity Boy said with a quiet sneer dripping from the edges of his voice. ``Maybe we should just commandeer the Grid, as we usually do.''
``Do you really think Santa's sled and twelve reindeer are going to show up on radar?''
``Thirteen,'' corrected Ambiguity Boy. ``And I don't know. Let's give it a shot.''
``All right then. Plug us in.''
With a flick of a switch, the Abomina-mobile's on-board computer, CONCHITA, sucked the precious information from every radar system on Earth. Traffic controllers worldwide looked at their screens in horror as they went blank. For reasons that are too complicated (and contrived) to explain right now, CONCHITA's lock on global radar resources -- the ``Grid'' -- represented a unilateral, Abomina-mobile dedicated funneling of all terrestrial tracking information. Deprived of radar guidance, every aeroplane aloft that night suddenly and necessarily reverted to visual flight rules. (More than 259 mid-air collisions would blot aviation's otherwise spotless safety record before CONCHITA relinquished radar control.)
CONCHITA analyzed the flood of radar readings, looking for possible matches with Santa's sled. At length, it barfed out a promising candidate.
``I think we've got him,'' Ambiguity Boy announced. ``CONCHITA nails him at zeta-2 reticule.''
``Gosh, maybe we should start calling you `Technical Boy' instead,'' Evil Man replied with a razor-blade grin. ``Just where is that?''
``He's headed for the Tower, right here in Plank's End. And he's flying like the proverbial bat out of the Pit of Despair.''
``Hmmm... the Bentford Tower... how convenient. What would inspire Santa to begin his campaign of death high atop the tallest man-made structure in the world? It's not even a private residence. It just doesn't make sense.''
He turned to Ambiguity Boy for an explanation, but he didn't exist at that particular moment. No answers were forthcoming. Bereft of enlightenment, Evil Man banked the Abomina-mobile in a graceful curve, then headed for the Bentford Tower.
Evil Man cleared the broadcast tower's support struts, and beheld the reason for Santa's visit to the pinnacle of Man's architectural achievement. A string of floodlights had been mounted on the broadcast tower's legs in a vile burlesque of traditional Christmas lights. They spelled out a message to the innocent populace far below:
``SANTA SNUFFS LI'L SWEETMEAT.''
Evil Man stood staring at the bizarre message, the stillness broken only by the sound of the reindeer's heavy breathing in the distance.
He saw the shadow in the snow a split-second before the white-gloved hand closed around his throat.
Evil Man whirled and caught Santa's wrist as the tarnished Saintprepared to launch his trademark stiletto on its murderous trajectory.
``Good cheer to you, Father Christmas. I believe we have some business to transact before this brisk winter's evening yields its maidenhead to the thrust of Christmas morn.''
``Drink me, Evil Man,'' Santa spat as he writhed in Evil Man's grip.
``I can think of sweeter beverages to imbibe, thank you. You have a little explaining to do, Santa.'' Evil Man drove the ancient Saint backward and pinned him against one of the broadcast tower's legs. ``Just what do you mean by this sign? What exactly are you up to, if you don't mind my asking?''
Santa's face contorted in a livid mask of hatred. His eyes rolled in their sockets as he sought some means of freeing himself from his powerful opponent's grasp. Finding the effort fruitless, he turned his blazing eyes upon Evil Man and spoke.
``It's clear as an erupting pustule what I'm up to, buddy.'' A streamer of mucus peeped timidly from Santa's bulbous, cold-benumbed nose and trickled down over his lips. ``I'm the Whore of Babylon; I spread my legs and the seed of mankind planted Death in my womb. I'm going to turn enough tricks tonight to impress even the most seasoned harlot. These gifts of action-figures and dolls for Johnny and Mary, respectively... what are these absurd playtoys to me? Isn't the hungry lover's embrace of the Tomb, the ardent infestation of the Conqueror Worm, a much finer, a much richer, gift to deliver on Christmas Eve?'' Rivulets of saliva dripped from his pouty, sensualist's lips and depended in crystalline gobbets from his chin. ``I am the Beast, the Abomination that Causeth Desolation, and my Father, the Lord of Swine, requires a love-gift from me to permit His entrance onto this mortal stage. I give Him the vital loin-fruit born of every man and woman who have consorted in the Act of animal passion. I give Him the young and the innocent.''
``And what inner cataclysm erased the charitable goodwill that epitomized your demeanor in the days of yore?''
``I saw that the Christmas season is devoid of love. I opened my eyes to the hypocrisy of the people.''
Evil Man's carefully controlled temper now betrayed him, and his voice rose in a furious shout as he pressed his face close to Santa's. ``Are you developmentally challenged or something, Santa? Christmas isn't about love! It's the one time in the year when people can don comfortable masks of caring, when they can apply a soothing balm to their conscience by mouthing traditional epithets of goodwill. It's a time of materialistic pacification: An ersatz token of pre-digested, off-the-shelf appreciation to a `loved one' acknowledge their existence and keeps everyone happy so folks don't rip each others' throats out during the balance of the year. A box wrapped in bows and bright paper says `Here's lovin' ya' to a little child one regards as an embarrassing nuisance the other 364 days of the calendar. People need the emotional machinery of Christmas, Saint Nicholas, and I'M NOT GOING TO LET YOU TAKE THAT JOYOUS MACHINERY AWAY FROM THEM!'' Evil Man punctuated each word of this final, passionate declaration by slamming Santa Claus up against the tower's support strut.
``That was a lovely and inspiring little speech, Evil Man,'' Santa sneered. Evil Man responded with a vicious backhand to Santa's face, then continued,
``Have you ever been on TV, Santa? Well, we're going to have a little talk with the nations of the world in a moment. You're going to hit the airwaves presently and win yourself an Emmy Award by telling the people what they want to hear -- what they need to hear. You're going to keep them happy, do you understand?''
``And what if I refuse?'' asked Santa.
``Let me ask you something, Father Christmas. Is there anything on Earth that you love?''
From somewhere deep inside his soul, whatever humanity remained in Kris Kringle spurred his eyes to an affectionate, clandestine glance at the reindeer. Evil Man missed very little, and he spotted the glance immediately. A thin smile split his lips in a cruel line as he summoned the ethereal Ambiguity Boy:
``Oh, Ambiguity Boy, if you would be so kind as to unharness the leader of the reindeer team and escort him hither, I would be forever in your debt.''
Ambiguity Boy unfolded his essence from the dark layers of night that swathed the antagonists. The reindeer snorted and whinnied uneasily as he approached the beautiful beasts and severed the leather harness connecting their red-nosed leader to the sleigh. He guided the graceful creature over to the base of the broadcast tower, then withdrew a gleaming segment of stiff copper wire from his sleeve. Ambiguity Boy stroked the beast's fur and whispered sweet nothings in its ear as he brought the wire to within an inch of the reindeer's left eye. The copper strand's wicked point reflected merry red shafts of light beaming from the creature's nose as Ambiguity Boy nestled the tip against the folds of flesh and fur at the corner of its eye.
``The easiest entrance to the brain is through the eye, Santa. You'll take good care to remember that in the address you're about to make. All you have to do is read from the cards I'll hold up for you, and do some cheap method-acting to give your words a little heart.''
Just to make sure Father Christmas didn't exit prematurely, Evil Man bound him to the tower's support strut with a tight coil of hemp. Then he retrieved a portable video camera from the Abomina-mobile. The computer, CONCHITA, switched to a video transmitting mode marked by the same (inexplicable) universality that had proven so effective in its radar scan. The intimate little scene on the roof of the Bentford Tower now sped through the aether on electromagnetic waves emitted by every broadcast tower on the globe. The television viewers and radio listeners of each and every station (including cable and pay-per-view channels) in the world found themselves plunged into the role of delighted auditors of a speech delivered by thetrue symbol of Christmas, Santa Claus. Evil Man, functioning as impromptu cinematographer for the rooftop address, focused the hand-held video camera and framed the tarnished Saint in a tight closeup (that conveniently omitted the rope cutting into the flesh of Santa's lower torso.) Santa Claus forced a cheerful smile to spread across his face as he read from the cards Evil Man clutched in his left hand.
``Hi there, folks! It's me, Santa Claus!'' He squinted at the card, then rang out with a robust ``Ho ho ho! I'm really delighted to have this chance to chat with you all. I'm, uh, going to take a little break from delivering presents because... I need some time to myself. You know, just to get my head together. Hey, you try delivering presents for a few hundred years and see how you feel!'' He almost choked on the chuckle he squeezed from between his loathsome lips. ``But I just wanted to let you know that I'm feeling terrific, and I wanted to encourage you to support your local merchants so that this Christmas will be just as fun for the little ones as ever! After all, the little ones are what the season's all about, right?'' His eyes glazed momentarily: ``The little ones... the buttery, spotless little ones....''
Ambiguity Boy gently probed the reindeer's eyelid with the wire, and Santa Claus read the message of the motion (and of the card) clearly.
``I mean, the cute and adorable little ones! Aren't they something? Thank you; please give yourselves a big round of applause. Anyway, I just wanted to remind everyone that, even though I won't be showing up in person this year, I'm with you all in spirit, and I know you won't let me down: Keep the gift-giving tradition alive! Challenge yourselves to purchase bright baubles that are every bit as good as my elves can craft! Make a game out of it! And please remember... friends don't let friends drive drunk. It makes good sense to designate a driver for each spirited holiday celebration.
``Have a merry Christmas, peoples of the World! I love you!''
The television image from high atop the Bentford Tower faded to black.
Evil Man lowered the camera, and Ambiguity Boy released his furry captive. The reindeer skittered away with an indignant shake of its tail.
``Not too bad, Santa,'' Evil Man said. ``Not too darn bad. I doubt I could have done much better myself. Hey, to show you we're not such bad guys after all... would you care for a light yet satisfying strawberry torte?''
``You're as much of a monster as I am, you sodden puke,'' Santa ejaculated.
``I'm an enforcer, Santa. It's my job. Nobody likes an enforcer, but that's not my problem.''
``Release me now in the names of all the demons that dance on the souls of the damned.''
Evil Man's eyes twinkled.
``Oh, I don't think so, Santa. You ruined my peaceful Christmas Eve plans, after all. The message for the world you so capably delivered... that was business. From my point of view, I've fulfilled my contract as defender of the social status quo.
``Yes, the broadcast was business.
``But this is personal.''
Evil Man and Ambiguity Boy ripped down the floodlights constituting Santa's mad message. As the fallen Saint at first howled with rage, then babbled pleas for mercy, they doused him with gasoline and lashed his corpulent frame in place, high up on the broadcast tower. With the accurate and spirited toss of a jury-rigged Molotov cocktail, they set the desperately twitching Bearer of Gifts ablaze. Evil Man and Ambiguity Boy gazed with quiet contentment at the poignant tableau spread before them: As evening slithered o'er Midnight's threshold to become yet another Christmas morning in the city of Plank's End, Santa Claus burned brightly as a beacon of peace, hope, and justice for the nations.