Claus of DeathMichael M. JonesIt began, as these things always do, with a woman. She strolled into the dingy, cramped room I laughingly call an office these days, pausing at the door to cast a contemptuously dubious look around at the mix-and-match Salvation Army decor. I could just imagine how it all looked through her eyes: the scarred mahogany desk overflowing with papers and empty coffee mugs, the dented green file cabinet on which sat a single fern barely clinging to life, bare wooden floor, the couch with its assortment of stains and old cigarette burns, the mismatched wooden chairs, and the faded paint on the door that read, Nicholas St. Claus, Private Investigator. Yeah, I knew just how this lady would look upon her surroundings and despair. I knew her tastes, and this was as far away from them as you got. I couldn't even imagine what she made of me, so I slammed the door on that line of thought immediately.In fact, before I even looked directly at my visitor, I opened the minifridge I kept behind the desk, and pulled out some liquid courage, a half-empty bottle of spiked eggnog which had kept me company through the long Christmas nights. Splashing a liberal amount into the nearest coffee mug, I drained it quickly. I needed it. Courage was all I had left. Like some bizarre reverse Wizard of Oz, the lady'd stolen my heart, messed with my head, and caused me to leave home once and for all. My hand shook, and I took that as a sign to pour another shot. The lady started to speak, but I held up my free hand, stopping her words in their tracks. I tossed back the drink, and slammed the mug down on the table, pinning down an overdue electricity bill. "Hello, Ginny," I said. Where my ex-wife is concerned, I wanted the first word, and whenever possible, the last. "Hello, Nick," she replied, not waiting for an invitation before settling down gingerly on the seat closest to my desk. She crossed her legs, her little black skirt riding up to grant me a highly enjoyable view of smooth, pale skin. My hand tightened around the empty mug. No, two shots was already pushing it on an empty stomach. She went on before I could find the right words to ask her what the hell brought her down from her ivory tower to my hole in the wall, the hole I'd crawled into five years ago and hoped never to emerge from again. Ginny was by far the last person I'd ever expected to see in here. "I need your help," she said. Words I'd never thought to hear, followed by words I'd often heard only in my most bitter fantasies: "Jack's dead, Nick. He was murdered. And I need you to find out who did it."Jack Frost. The guy who'd been nipping at more than Ginny's nose since I left, and some time before that. My former protege turned rival. My replacement, in more ways than one. Funny. I'd always thought I'd feel a lot better with him dead, but Ginny's cold, matter-of-fact words left me feeling just a little emptier inside, like someone'd taken an ice pick to my heart. I looked up to meet her eyes, truly seeing her for the first time in half a decade, and my power instinctively rose to the occasion, telling me everything I needed to know about her. Within a heartbeat, I knew exactly how she'd been nice, and how she'd been naughty. I knew if she'd been bad or good, and what she'd have gotten in her stocking if I still filled stockings on that one magical night of the year. I thought of peaches to go with the cream of her skin, a gold necklace to match her hair, and sapphire earrings to match her eyes. I thought of—aw, Hell, I had to stop thinking along those lines. But it had been a long time, and I was still a man. I looked closer, and within another heartbeat, I could read between the lines, and see the true anguish in those eyes. She was keeping it together for appearances' sake. Calm, cool, and collected, like an ice sculpture, but brittle. She was going to tell me everything she knew, take advantage of our shared history and the embers of my love for her, and then she was going to go home and shatter with grief. Her presence here meant that she had no one else she could turn to. I sighed mentally, took all of those old feelings and desires and bitter memories, shoved them all into a tiny box in the back of my mind, and locked it. Leaning forward, I tried to sound professional as I said, "Tell me everything, Ginny."And she did. Her recitation of the facts was mechanical, her voice controlled tightly, and I watched her knuckles grow white as she clutched the arms of her chair. There wasn't much to tell, really. He'd been melted with a heating spell, a very focused, very personalized bit of magic that hit the guy where it counted, counteracting the magic that had brought him to life and granted him human form in the first place. Ginny, no expert when it came to spellwork, could only tell me that it had been long-range, possibly even delayed release, something that struck out of the blue while they were in bed. I read between the lines, and gathered that they hadn't exactly been asleep at the time. God, what a mental image. One I didn't need. But anyway, no muss, no fuss, exit Jack Frost as a puddle of water, stage left. With a little better timing, it might have taken days for someone to notice his absence. I wondered if the killer'd wanted Jack's demise to be noticed immediately.Once Ginny'd finished telling me what little she knew, we haggled briefly, over terms of payment and compensation. We both knew I was doing this as a favor, in memory of what we'd once shared, but neither of us were foolish enough to say so. Things between us were . . . complicated on both sides. She'd broken my heart, but in the end, I wasn't entirely blameless. There was plenty of pain and anger to go around, but real feelings still existed also. It was a mess. My payment for this case, though, would keep me in rent and 'nog for a while. It was a relief when she left and I could lock the door behind her and shut out the world.It took an hour or so, but finally, I felt ready to get to work. I grabbed my overcoat (still bemoaning the recent loss of the old red-and-white parka, but that fur trim had proven way too flammable for my own good, and that's another long story) and left the office. Going down two flights of stairs and out the front door put me out on the streets of Holiday, and onto the case of Jack Frost's murder.Holiday, Alaska. Sitting right on the border between where the mundane world ended and the magical one began, it was a frontier town where the Northern Lights cast dark shadows, and beings both mundane and supernatural ended up when they had nowhere else to go. It was the ends of the Earth for people like me, a refuge for the weary of heart and heavy of soul. It was also the closest island of civilization to the realm I'd once ruled, and saw a lot of traffic from the North Pole's inhabitants. Somehow, I just couldn't see myself living in warmer, sunnier, more pleasant climates. Everyone in Holiday had their reasons for being here. Everyone had their secrets, most of them dirty and sordid and downright unpleasant. Lucky me, I knew most of them already.My first stop was The Confessional, which, while not the only bar in town, was the only bar worth visiting for people in the know. I'd been drinking there for a very long time, which made me as much of a regular as anyone ever got in a place like this. The Confessional was a dark little place, an afterthought shoved up against the back of St. Peter's, an old church of indefinite denomination that catered to just about anyone willing to believe in a Christian god. In one of those strange twists that so characterized Holiday, the priest at St. Peter's and the bartender at the Confessional were one and the same, with Father Aaron saving souls one day a week, and serving spirits the other six, and you had to be careful what you let him know and under what circumstances, for while he respected the sanctity of the church's confessional, anything else he heard was fair game. This early in the day, the place was fairly empty; in Holiday, most people don't get down to serious drinking until after sunset. I bellied up to the bar, parking my butt on my usual stool down at the end. Father Aaron finished polishing a glass, and came over to check on me. We exchanged our usual snappy repartee, acknowledging that yeah, we were both still alive and kicking, and yeah, that life of celibacy was still working out for him, which I found amusing since rumor has it that before he put on the collar, he was quite the ladies' man. We weren't what you'd call friends; I had a rather dubious relationship with the whole Christian faith, and my roots were all too pagan. But we had an understanding, and got along fine for all that. He was one of my best sources of information in town. Over a stiff eggnog, I outlined the problem."Yeah," allowed the good Father, nodding thoughtfully and scratching at his chin. "I seem to remember hearing something of a hitter here in town. Supposedly one of the Mysteries," he added somewhat disparagingly. He wasn't too big on the mystic, for all that many of his patrons came from one supernatural tradition or another. "Didn't pay it much mind, on account of not my business." That, we both knew, was patented bullshit. Father Aaron remembered everything, assigning it a value in his mental bank, and all it took to get him to share was knowing his prices."A hundred bucks to the poor box," I said thoughtfully, "would go a long way, right?""Two hundred would buy a lot of hot soup and blankets," agreed Father Aaron, amiably.We settled on one-fifty, which I wrote off as expenses, and Father Aaron agreed to arrange a meeting for me with the hitman, an out-of-towner called Mr. Tuesday. On my way out, I stuffed my "donation" into the box Aaron'd helpfully set out by the Confessional's door. "Thank you. Thank you very much," Father Aaron recited as I left. Next stop was the factory itself, a place I returned to with an extreme reluctance. I'd built it from the ground up, and nurtured it for a long time, and just thinking about it tore the scabs from my heart. The good memories had all been overlaid with bad ones, such as me catching Ginny in bed with Jack and too much tinsel. Yeah. Not a very merry Christmas, or a happy New Year. It didn't take me long at all to get there; one of the little magic tricks I still possessed was an ability to get where I wanted to go without actually crossing any distance. I hated it; these days, it made me queasy and reminded me of happier days. Walking was better for me anyway. But short of a magic sleigh, there weren't many other ways to get where I was going. The factory doesn't exist in the real world.Suffice it to say, nosing around the place was a mistake. There was nothing new to be learned there. Everyone loved Jack. He'd brought modernization to the factory, and it hummed like a well-oiled machine. Things had changed drastically since the old days, had been changing well before I left. It had become impossible to manufacture all the toys kids would get on Christmas. Hell, you couldn't even fill up the stockings with fruit and baubles anymore. The population explosion in the past century combined with the rise of an industrialized, consumer-oriented society meant that our role in the holiday had become almost entirely ornamental. Ironically, the more I'd become a cultural icon, the less I was actually needed. The world wanted the image, not the man. Ultimately, we'd abandoned the old system. Now the factory worked to gather magic from all over the world year-round, distilling it into "the Christmas spirit," which was then infused into little objects and ornaments and redistributed to spread the cheer. Warm fuzzies, Christmas miracles, happy family reunions, that sort of thing. Random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.Yeah. Pretty abstract, I know. I never could wrap my mind around it. That's about the time I brought Jack on board and let him handle business matters along with Ginny. I was a hands-on kind of guy, clinging to the old ways, such as actual gift-giving and the annual Christmas Eve Ride. Is it any surprise I let my attention slide on the other matters? It's certainly no surprise that I missed what Jack and Ginny were up to behind my back. I think, on some level, I didn't want to know.I nosed around the factory long enough to be made profoundly uncomfortable. I conducted a few half-hearted interviews with some of the senior staff, the elves that had been with me since the early days, the ones who'd moved up in the ranks and successfully weathered the transition of methods and management. The longest of those interviews was with Gunter, one of the Germanic tribe who'd first come to work for me back when I needed skilled craftsmen and dedicated laborers. These days, he had an office all his own, and an official position as head of Magic Distillation, making him one of the busiest, most important people there. All courtesy of Jack's restructuring of the company's internal workings. I spent fifteen, maybe twenty minutes with him, all of it forced and awkward. As I finished the interviews, I allowed myself to admit that in some ways, I was hurt that so many had stayed on despite the change in regime; I'd half-hoped more would have left with me. But why risk a good job in a dwindling market? Just for old times' sake, I poked my head in the reindeer quarters, which were pretty much ceremonial these days, and then I called it a day. I had enough. Everyone'd liked Jack. Great guy, very charismatic, very hip. Knew all the latest slang and fads. The more I heard, the more I felt like an old fossil, one who'd overstayed his welcome by a century or two. The more I was confronted by the radical changes brought about in recent years, the more it twisted in my gut. People were doing just fine without me. Any hope I'd had that they'd all been pining for my return was dashed. Sure, they were polite and welcoming, but . . . It wasn't the same anymore. Honestly though, I didn't know what I'd hoped to learn here anyway. I hadn't stumbled across any books entitled Melting People For Fun and Profit, at any rate. It looked like my best bet was to meet with Mr. Tuesday, and see what he had to tell me, willing or no. With any luck, he'd be the link I needed to get to the heart of things.I departed the factory weighed down by my thoughts, the suspicion that I'd missed something nagging at the back of my mind. I wanted to dismiss it, call it the disconcerting feeling of being back in old surroundings and finding everything changed, the familiar turned unfamiliar. Such was my mood that when I exercised my little spatial twist to transition back to Holiday, I accepted my stomach's lurching as just another attempt by the world to make me miserable. Of course, there was no rest for the weary; a message waited for me on my answering machine. Father Aaron had come through for me. Mr. Tuesday was willing to meet me tonight, at eight. According to my clock, that gave me just enough time to clean up and trudge on over.That's how I ended up back at The Confessional, this time tucked away in one of its tiny booths, nursing yet another spiked eggnog and nibbling unenthusiastically on a plate of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies, one of Aaron's house specialties. I'd arrived just a few minutes early, wanting to get settled in before my "guest" arrived. I'd dug up a little about the man who called himself Mr. Tuesday, rummaging through my files. Like me, he was one of the old gang, a Mystery fallen upon hard times and forced to find another line of work to keep from vanishing altogether. Probably Norse, if his pseudonym was any clue to his original identity.Lost in my thoughts, still puzzling over who had the motive to want Jack out of the picture, I wasn't paying attention when Tuesday slipped into the seat across from mine, silently. He was a sharp man, both in features and in clothing, well-dressed and almost painful to look at. Hard angles and cold eyes made his face one I'd never forget. As he rested his arms on the table, I couldn't help but notice the way his right sleeve draped loosely, calling attention to his missing hand. Yeah. I offered my left hand to shake, trying to downplay how his arrival had startled me. He shook it, and then leaned back in his seat. "Nick St. Claus. I have to admit, your request surprised me. I can't even imagine how naughty someone must have been to require my services."I was glad he didn't waste any time. After the way today had beat me down emotionally, and kicked me where I'd be sure to feel it, I wasn't in a mood to beat around the bush anymore. Leaning forward over the table, I replied, "I didn't call you because I want someone killed. I called you because someone's already dead, and you were in town when it happened."Tuesday arched an eyebrow, and watched me, evenly. "Is that so?" He took a cookie, and bit into it, fiercely. Once he'd swallowed, he continued. "And this concerns me why?" Screw it. I knew how he wanted to play this, but I was in no mood to play cat and mouse with an old-god-turned-professional-killer. I steepled my fingers, and met his icy eyes with my own, once again unlocking that coil of magic deep within my mind. With a familiar mind, it's easy and gentle, my power slipping right on it. Mortals are even easier, their minds defenseless, and children practically scream their secrets to any who'll listen. No, with Tuesday, it was hard and focused and violent, like a drill going through concrete, and later I'd feel ashamed of myself for it. I broke through his barriers before he caught on, and read his soul mercilessly, finding every stain and secret. Who he'd killed, how, why, all the sordid details. I discovered that while he was in town to eliminate a problem, it wasn't Jack Frost. I dug just deep enough to discover he was contracted to knock off a local Mystery-turned-drug lord, and then I retreated. I didn't care what happened to Frosty; that icy bastard and I had history as well, none of it good. The important thing was that Tuesday knew nothing at all about Jack's murder, and I was back to square one.The abuse of my power left me exhausted and dirty inside, too tired to react with anything other than grudging acceptance when Tuesday responded by sticking a gun in my face. Hell, I'd earned it. "What the hell?" he exclaimed, features turned ugly with rage. Yeah. Serves me right for pissing off an old war god. "You've got three seconds to explain before I ventilate your skull, you ass. You've got some nerve, rummaging through my head. I should empty yours for it."Eyes closed, trying to banish the new headache and erase the image of the cold metal oblivion positioned inches from my face, I explained as succinctly as possible. "My ex-wife's lover got killed, and she hired me to investigate. I was an idiot to take the case, and it's been eating me up inside ever since. I'm done, Tyr. I'm all torn up, and tired of the whole thing. Go ahead and shoot. Hell, let's do this outside, so Aaron doesn't have to clean up the mess."There was a long pause, and the metallic clunk of a gun being placed on the table. "Relax," he ordered. I opened my eyes, and caught him watching me with pity in his eyes. "You're a mess, Nick. But believe it or not, I understand you. I'm not happy about what you did, but . . ." He shrugged. "We all do stupid shit from time to time. Look, obviously I didn't kill your guy. You're barking up the wrong tree here. If this is your idea of detective work, you need a new job." No kidding. I never claimed to be a great detective. I fell into the job when I first came to Holiday. But Tuesday wasn't done. "My advice to you is simple: Ask yourself 'who benefits?' Who gains from having your guy out of the way?""I've already done that," I protested, knowing what I said was a lie. I hadn't thought that deep, because honestly, I didn't want to be here, doing this, and it showed. I'd gone about this like a drunken man in the dark, stumbling through the motions sloppily, picking my angles of investigation almost at random, and had gotten nowhere. If I wanted to see this thing through, I'd have to go back, try harder, look deeper, and most likely, learn something I didn't want to know about someone I liked.Tuesday looked disappointed. "Don't lie. Nick, you're a decent guy who's made a few really bad choices. But you could make a good detective, if you actually tried, rather than wallowing in self-pity and stupidity. I remember you from the old days. You were one of the greats until you let it all slide. Don't be a loser." He stood up, grabbing his gun. "I have to work to do. So do you." A pause. "Oh, by the way. If you ever try that shit with me again," and here he tapped his forehead, "I'll make sure your death is slow and painful.""Hold on," I said quickly, my mind racing. "One last piece of business.""Shoot," he said curiously. I told him what I needed, and though surprised, he was willing to oblige, fairly cheaply. Then he was gone, the bar seeming empty in his wake. Father Aaron watched the door shut behind Tuesday, before glaring at me in disapproval. I mumbled my apologies, not wanting to hear his thoughts on the matter, and left as well. I had to return to the factory, one last time, and put an end to things.As I closed the distance between myself and the factory, letting the cold crunch of frozen snow underfoot punctuate my thoughts, I ran through the list of suspects, thinking about what I'd seen, heard, and learned during my first visit. I threw in all the niggling suspicions and gut instincts, some of them going back years, and let it all simmer. By the time I twisted through space and arrived at the factory, I knew where I had to go, and who to find.Gunter was in his office, like a good little workaholic, a quality which had led to his current success. "Evening, Gunter," I greeted him, entering and closing the door behind me. "Mister Claus!" he replied, clearly startled. He jerked a hand across his desk, sweeping a pile of papers into an open drawer, slamming it quickly. "What are you doing back? Do you need something? Have you found out who killed Mister Frost yet?"I nodded, sadly. "Yeah. I know who did it. What I don't know is why, Gunter. Why'd you go and kill Jack Frost?"Just like that, the cards were on the table. He'd known he was busted the second I entered, and looked almost relieved to have it out in the open. "For you, boss," he said promptly. "I did it so we'd get you back. I knew that if Mister Frost was killed, Miss Virginia would go to you, and you'd take the case, and then you'd have to come back here, and maybe we could go back to how things were before. You don't understand, it's just not the same without you.""Oh, I understand completely," I agreed. "I know things have changed. But you really couldn't have expected it to work, could you? It seems a bit . . . well, simplistic. Kill Jack so I'll return?""I knew once you and Miss Virginia saw each other again, you'd patch things up. Especially with her in need of comfort," he explained earnestly, eyes wide and hopeful. "Please, boss. We all want you back."There it was. It was too easy, too pat. Too much like what I wanted to hear. He was trying too hard. "It's not that simple, Gunter. You can't heal the past so easily."He continued to cajole me, half desperate, half pathetic, and I watched him lie to my face, his eyes flickering back and forth rapidly. I knew he was hiding something, and while he talked, I reached deep with my power, uncoiling it like a snake in the sun, slow and subtle. It was easy; I'd known Gunter for centuries, and the only reason I hadn't done this earlier was because, well, it was Gunter. I didn't want to suspect him. I hadn't wanted to see into his heart. We'd worked together for so long. But I probed, and unraveled the threads of his soul, letting his sins spill out for my perusal. He'd been very, very naughty. "Oh, Gunter," I said, suddenly bone-weary and ready to cry. "I wish you hadn't been so obvious."He blinked. "I—what?""I know everything, now. How you've been embezzling magic from the factory for years. Abusing your position. It was easy when I was here, I gave you free rein and things were simpler. Jack, though, he liked paperwork and checked up on things. He found something, didn't he? Noticed some discrepancies and dug until he found your secret stash. So you killed him, but you were too hasty, and things didn't go as planned. Sloppy. Impatient." I recited the facts dully, taking no joy in how his expression went from indignant to resigned. "You didn't expect Ginny to turn to me and drag me back into this mess. You thought you'd have more time to clean up your tracks with someone who didn't know you. Another day, and you'd have been in the clear, I bet. And here I am, stumbling through your half-assed coverup, and whoops, it's all over." "Like you even cared about Jack Frost?" snapped Gunter. "Come on, boss, you wanted him dead as much as anyone. You should be dancing on his grave, not pointing fingers at me! Merry early Christmas! Jack's dead, and you didn't have to do a damned thing!" His tone turned agreeable, wheedling. "And you know, you could walk away. I know you want to. For old times' sake. We split the magic, you turn your back, and you never see me again. You're happy, I'm happy, end of story.""You're right," I agreed reluctantly. "I wanted Jack dead. I really thought it would make me happy. He stole Ginny, took the company, replaced me, and did better than me in every regard. I hated him with a passion, especially at first." I jammed my hands deep into my pockets, shaking my head. "But I don't feel satisfied. Just hollow inside.""So what now? Arrest me? Come on, Nick, we could all come out on top if you take the deal!" insisted Gunter. I could tell he was getting antsy, especially with me blocking the only exit. I saw his fingers twitch, and felt magic stirring in the air. Yeah, he was desperate, and lord, I was tempted to take the offer. Walk away from this train wreck and never look back."What it boils down to," I said slowly, "is that I hated Jack, but dammit, he made Ginny happy, and when you killed him, you hurt her, and that's the one thing I can't stand. It's why I left in the first place. You made Ginny cry, Gunter. You killed Jack, stole from the company, and made me walk waist-deep in the shit of my life. You've been extremely naughty." And before he could finish whatever spell he had on tap, I pulled Tuesday's gun from my pocket. I was all out of coal, so I filled Gunter with lead, instead, in the twinkling of an eye. He dropped before the last shot finished echoing in the small room, and I tossed the gun onto his corpse, done with it.Just like that, it was over. I left the room, and went to go find Ginny and tell her how it had all gone down. I was going to get my money, and then I was taking a long vacation to somewhere warm and far away. I was tired of being cold.