I don’t know why I bother coming in to the oﬃce the week before Christmas. The week before Christmas, no one wants to know what little secrets their brother/sister/husband/lover/coworker/whatever has. I sit on my butt in at my desk, pretending to wait for a call and actually getting some sleep.
But that was last week. This week I’m a new woman.
The week before Christmas, if a wife ﬁnds a three-hundred dollar reciept from the jewelry store a block from where her husband works, she keeps her mouth shut and waits expectantly. The week after, if no three-hundred-dollar item turns up, she either tells her husband why he’s sleeping on the couch, or she comes to someone like me to ﬁnd out where he has been sleeping.
And you’d be amazed at how many would rather deal with ‘someone who understands what it feels like’ than another male.
Not that I’d understand: marriage and detective work don’t mix. At least, not the way I do detective work.
So, December 28th (it usually takes them a few days to work up the curage to ﬁnd me) I’m sitting at my desk. I’ve got my ‘detective suit’ on: slightly ratty, not-quite-masculine, not worn-in, but almost worn-out. I could easily aﬀord better, but I can’t aﬀord to look like I can. I need to look capable and accessible for whomever walks through the door.
My red hair is styled precisely, and my makeup (not that I need much…) is applied with equal care: I need to look world-wearied, like someone who has seen it all, but not like I saw it this morning. I may have seen it all, but I’ve come back.
And I’ll do it again for you, my next client.
That’s the image I’m trying to protrey as my door opens for the ﬁrst time this morning. 9:30 in the morning: Early. A good start to the new year.
Older couple. Odd, but ok. Probably called in on behalf of their daughter-in-law. “Hi, welcome to Fischer Detectives. I’m Verity Fischer, how may I help you?” I said, standing and shaking their hands.
They waited until they took their seats before saying anything besides the polite. Not a problem: Those seats are comfortable for a reason.
It might be interesting to know how many times I’ve seen that ‘nervous-check, who-goes-ﬁrst’ glance. Then again, maybe not. ‘Mother’ started. “Its about our son.”
Ok, cheating wife instead of cheating husband.
“He, um, got a new girlfriend.”
I nodded as if I understood so far. Vegeful ex? But those usually come themselves, and just need me to point them to the police.
They were going to need some prompting. “And you dissapprove?” It was a safe question.
“No! No! She’s wonderful, really. Smart, funny,” The father cut in, “Beautiful as the day is long.” There had been problems about that, between these two. Mother regained control. “It’s just that… She’s appeared right out of thin air! I’ve never heard of her before this, not a peep from our son, and suddenly she’s moving in with him, and I can barely get her name out of her.”
Ah. Find the dirt on the golddigger. Ok.
I nodded sagely. “So you want me to ﬁnd out who she is, where she came from.”
Visbile relief, on both their parts. “Yes, could you?”
Of course I could. And of course it would take a small fee, plus possibly expenses, and a retainer up front (which would count towards the fee). They left with a smile, sure that I’d put all their worries at ease.
Right. And my DD’s were one hundered percent real, nevermind the doctor’s bill from a high-priced clinic specilising in adding ‘extras’ to the human body.
If they felt there was something worth coming to a PI over, there was probably something ﬁshy about the girl.
Actually, that stopped me for a moment. That could be an explaination, after all. Mermaids were desperate to get out of the water: The great All-Tales-True event hadn’t created many mer<em>men</em>. Husbands were in short supply underwater. As were malls, cars, credit cars, and most other modern conveinces.
All-Tales-True day had not made my life any easier. Well, it hadn’t made just about anybody’s lives any easier, but, well, mine was the one important to me.
Bad enough that now a spell could track down a missing person in a few minutes, or see what someone had been doing two weeks ago, tuesday, at four am, but I now regularly had to deal with devils, vampries, werewolves, aliens, and all manner of other assorted beisties. And, to top in all oﬀ, all those ‘detective noir’ novels counted as tales, so my detective agency, which had been working quite smoothly as a respectable business, thank you, was suddenly always nearly-broke, and I was in danger every other case.
I’d thought about quitting, but then I’d read the novels where the detective quits. At least I hadn’t picked up a nicotine habit.
First stop: Google. Really. You’d be surprised how many detective cases can be solved just by going to Google, especially since they’ve upgraded their PigeonRank technology to use magical pigeons.
Besides, this way I could stay in the oﬃce and wait for another customer. I’d given my receptionist the week oﬀ.
Well, I’d given myself the week oﬀ. Apparently IQ points and detective’s receptionist no longer could be used in the same sentice without ‘negative’ being worked in there somewhere as well. At least that could wear oﬀ.
By the end of the day three things were apparent: First, that my advertising was working. Second, that it was a good thing I’d stayed in the oﬃce.
Third: Something was up.
That nice old couple was just the ﬁrst of a long line. About half were parents/friends/co-workers and other hopefuls wondering about sudden new girlfriends with no history in people’s lives. A quarter were the expected: People wanting to know exactly who some gift had been for, anyway?
The last quarter were interesting. They were mostly sisters, or best friends, but the one who summed the theme up best was the lesbian girlfriend: “I just want to know why she’s suddenly all over him! She hates him!”
I hadn’t had much Google time, but none of the ‘girlfriends with no history’ that I’d typed in had given any useful hits. And none of the guys who were suddenly irresistible were known users of magic.
Time for other avenues.
‘All Tales True’ day did have one distinct beneﬁt for my line of work. It had taken me a couple of months to ﬁnd it, and another to earn my place, but Benny’s Tavern was almost worth all the other headaches to me.
“Miss Verity, what can I do for you?” Benny himself ran the bar. Of course. And his troll of a brother (actually, half-orge in this case) was the bouncer, and no one ever violated the peace. At least, not for very long.
“A glass of the usual, Benny. And information, if you’ve got any.” He’d have some. He always had some. That was the perk.
The downside was I had to have a drink. In theory there should be one drink in the place that was excellent. I hadn’t thought to ﬁnd it, and now I had my ‘usual’ established. Vodka, straight.
Hey, I’d wanted to establish a tough image.
“One shot, coming up.” I waited. Drink ﬁrst, or he wouldn’t know anything.
I took a gulp. “So, have you heard anything about people suddenly gaining new girlfriends?”
“Hmm. New girlfriends… Not much, beyond that a lot of lucky guys appear to have gotten their wish for Christmas.”
“So it’s starting to sound like. Any ideas on how or why?”
He looked straight in my eyes, holding for a long time. “Nope. Not a clue.”
And he went oﬀ to other customers. Apparently that was all I got.
Either I asked the wrong question or… No. I asked the right question. I’m sure of that. Benny’s willing to help; he knows his role, and PI’s have to spend money to activate whatever it is that means he’s got the goods, so it’s helping him. He wouldn’t have shot me down like that if I’d just been asking the wrong questions.
Which meant that he’d given me enough to solve the case. But just enough. If I could do the legwork.
So… ‘a lot of lucky guys appear to have gotten their wish for Christmas.’
Two questions in there: What did the guys actually wish for, and how did they get it.
Time for legwork. I left twice the cost of the drink on the bar, waved, and headed out.
A hunch was forming in the back of my head. I had two choices: I could follow the hunch, or I could try to verify it. If my hunch was correct, verifying it would be a waste of time. If my hunch wasn’t, trying to verify it would probably tell me what was real, whereas following it would probably get me in trouble and waste my time.
So, which was more likely to be a waste of time and eﬀort?
If it had been a few years ago, I would have veriﬁed. It was less work, and would keep me from walking into a bad situation.
I’d been reading detective stories since then. And in detective stories, the really good detective always follows the hunch.
So, the only question remaining was: How was I supposed to get to the North Pole?
Plane tickets got me as far as northern Alaska. Expensed a dozen ways, they wouldn’t even be that noticeable.
Then I asked around. No man is an island, after all. There had to be some way to get the rest of the way, some routine run…
I was just hoping he didn’t do his shopping in Norway. And that magic didn’t actually cover everything he needed.
A few discrete inquiries, and a couple of unmentionable promises, and I had a lead. A group of ‘unusual people’ came through once a week or so, picked up supplies, then headed north.
That was all I got from my sources. Besides that the unusual people tended to wear red, white, and green. Not uniforms, exactly, but matching.
I’d actually come prepared for that. Although I hadn’t planned on green being part of the colors. I should have guessed. On the big guy got to use all-red.
Again, the smart thing would be to scout it for a week, then be ready the next. But the story thing to do was to stow away immediately. Especially since they were coming into town that night.
I went to the hotel, changed into the outﬁt I’d brought for the occasion, wrapped in a heavy outer coat to hide it (and to keep warm: whomever had designed this hadn’t planned on it actually being used outdoors in the snow, no matter what it was made of. They’d have covered more if they had), and went to the pickup point.
They showed up right on time. A whole ﬂock of them, packed into a sleigh the size of a late-90’s SUV. Pulled by (what else?) eight reindeer.
I so hoped I wasn’t going to get frostbite. Some sensitive places were exposed by this outﬁt.
At least the outﬁt, with the ears, looked like it would ﬁt in, mostly. I was a bit tall, but I couldn’t hope for everything.
I waited until they were bargaining with the shopkeeper (and trying to pick up everything at once), then hid my coat, and slipped over to the sleigh. Then I hid myself. (Not easy, let me tell you. Still, I managed.)
The sleigh was magically warmed. I was grateful.
You don’t want to hear me recall the boredom of the ﬂight. Or the arguments of the elves on the way up. Or their singing.
Their singing is happy and cheerful the ﬁrst dozen times you hear a song.
The ride was smooth. Too smooth: I realized about halfway through that it was a ﬂight, not just a ride.
Anyway, we arrived, and I waited as they unloaded. And then I waited some more, to make sure they’d left. And then I waited again, just to be sure I wasn’t jumping the gun.
Then I waited some more as I tried to ﬁgure out how to tell my muscles to move again.
Since no one was in sight when I managed to get out, I took a moment to stretch the pins and needles away.
I’m not going to bother describing the sight around me. It was as impressive as expected, and you’ve seen the movies. It looked like that.
Time to ﬁnd the fat man.
Once out of the garage/loading area, I dropped all pretense of stealth: My outﬁt blended in well enough, even if I was a little taller than the average resident. Better to just walk around and act like I knew what I was doing.
Ok, I’ve just done one amazing night’s work, and now I’ve got 12 months oﬀ, where would I be…
Hopefully he had paperwork or something ﬁrst.
Well, since this place basically existed because of him, head for the center of everything.
Yep. That was it.
I came around a corner, into a great huge open square, and there was the doors in front of me.
I could attempt to describe them. It’d sound like a gingerbread cottage, or a Christmas tree. It’d sound gaudy, overblown, overdone, and ugly.
They weren’t. They were… Well, exactly what they should be.
I had to force myself to remember that not only wasn’t I a tourist, they didn’t actually get tourists here, so standing gawking was likely to get me in trouble.
At least the doors were in use: the elves were passing in and out constantly, on whatever business they had.
I walked though.
I could give you a tour of the mansion, but let’s get to the point, shall we?
He was in the top of the tallest tower, in an oﬃce that allowed him to see the entire town.
“Nice place you have here.” I said, walking in, and taking the visitor’s chair. It was comfy.
“Thanks. I do try.” He must have lost a bit of weight since he last had his picture painted. And the coat was probably in a closet someplace. “Would you like some cocoa? Cookies? Milk?”
Ok. I’m the detective. I’m supposed to be the one with the sangfroid. “Cocoa, please. And I’ll never turn down cookies.”
“Of course.” He turned, pressed a button, and waited. It took about three blinks for an elf to appear with a tray, a plate for me, a plate for him, and two glasses. I took mine, he took his. “Cheers.”
I took a sip. It was amazing hot cocoa.
Enough of this trying to out-poise each other. “Ok. I want to know what you have to do with people suddenly getting new girlfriends. Sometimes out of apparent thin air, sometimes out of people who were not interested a few days earlier. At all.”
He laughed. Yes, that laugh. It’s almost unbearably charming in person. “And what interest is it of yours?”
I’d kept a card with me. Don’t ask me where I’d stuﬀed it. I presented it: ‘Verity Fischer, Private Investigator’.
The lecher appeared to know where I’d stuﬀed it. “Impressive. And you managed to track them all to me?”
“Call it a well-founded hunch.”
“So you heard people were getting their wishes for Christmas, and decided to ask the guy who makes wishes come true if he had anything to do with it.”
“Something like that.”
“You know the hardest part about my job, Verity? I may call you Verity, right?”
Honestly, he could call me anything he wanted. There probably wasn’t a more charming man on the planet, and that was working on me.
After all, all the tales about him say he is. Charming, funny, kind, and nice.
I took another sip, to wash down a cookie. “Sure. And no, I don’t know.”
“You’d think it easy, really. I mean, I was just another impersonator, before all-tales-true. Working malls, riding in parades, listening to the kids. I enjoyed it. And I was good at it. Good enough to make a living full-time. So, all-tales-true comes up, and I’m working at some ad agency in New York, and when I’m done I just go up to the roof and take the sleigh home. Didn’t even think about it until I landed.”
“Anyway. It sounds easy: Take in the lists, check to see if they’ve been nice, and if they have give them what they need, based on what they want. The elves make it, and the sack… Well, I can always pull what I need out.”
“But it’s not that simple. Just because I can give something, doesn’t mean I should. And sometimes granting one wish prevents another. I have to keep that in mind. If it work things right, of course, I can grant several wishes with one action. But I still have to make sure everyone has ‘earned’ it.”
“What does all this have to do with guys getting new girlfriends?”
“I’m getting to that. And mostly they are more permanent than girlfriends, or will be. Anyway, this is the reason I mostly work with kids: Their desires are simple, and so I can give simple solutions to them. They want a playset, they get a playset. Simple. And it doesn’t interfere with what their brothers or sisters or best friends or anything get, usually. Adults, it gets more complicated. Most of their simple desires, they need to get for themselves, and the complex ones…”
“Ok, I can see that.”
“Good.” That famous twinkle came into his eye. “Come with me.”
I had to humor him.
Down two levels and through a secured door. Although the security was laughable, really: just a basic keypad.
It looked like a kid’s dream of a fantasy computer room. With candies. As part of the machine. Someone appeared at my side with another cup of cocoa. I took it automatically, taking a sip.
“This was my solution, or part of it at least. The Multi-Element, Recipient and Receiver Yules machine. Given any request, or any combination of request, it can work out the optimal set of gifts, accounting for naughty/nice, need versus want, and a multitude of other factors.” He turned back to me. “More requests at a time take longer, of course. It can do a half-dozen in about a month; luckily we don’t need to deal with ones that complicated all that often.”
A gumdrop rolled down a chute, and fell into some part of the inner workings of the machine.
“Ok, impressive. But what does that have to do with what we were talking about?”
“I wanted you to know the reason. Or at least part of it. You see, two years ago, I realized I had a problem.”
“What was that?”
“Well, the elves are fun and all, but they are essentially magical constructs. Absolutely amazing at what they are here for, but not really up to much else. Not much for conversation, for instance. And… Well, I’m kinda stuck up here most of the time. Plus, the stories either say I have a wife, or that I would have to ﬁnd one. Somehow. That was left up to me.”
“So, I put in my own request, and asked how to fulﬁll it. A wife, to come up to me here.” He checked to see if I was following. I took another sip of cocoa. “It needed entries of all kinds of things, and when it ﬁnished it had a list of requests I needed to grant.” He picked up a list, handed it to me.
It might have been my case list. Men granted wives, some from nowhere, just showing up on their doorstep as it were. Others from people they knew, who would ﬁnd themselves suddenly irresistibly falling for someone they hadn’t bothered to spend ﬁve minutes with before.
“I double-checked the women who’s hearts would be changed. They were all far into the naughty list, and every one — every one — of the guys is at the top of the nice list.”
“How many cups of cocoa have you had?”
I looked at the empty goblet in my hand. It was the second, I think. Third? “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Let’s just say, they are ﬁlled with Christmas spirit.” He leaned down to kiss me.
There was no way I could resist.
Nor did I want to.