Naughty or Nice : A Laura Fleming Mystery

This obscure Laura Fleming story was written for our family Christmas card in 1999. It teams our Southern sleuth with Jingle Jangle, Private Eye.

— Chapter 1 —

‘Twas the night before the night before Christmas, and you probably think it’s mighty peculiar that neither my husband Richard nor I were suspicious that something was going on right away. Of course, nobody expects to be kidnapped.

In Richard’s case, I imagine it was Christmas spirit that kept him from worrying. He’d been pure swimming in it ever since the day after Thanksgiving. So naturally enough, he only saw the good side of it when the gate agent at Boston’s Logan Airport told us we’d been switched to another flight, handed us a new set of boarding passes, and directed us to a different gate.

Or maybe it was the Christmas magic sprinkled over the boarding passes.

I had no such excuse. None of the magic got to me because I was letting Richard keep up with the tickets, and Lord knows I wasn’t exactly in a holiday mood. The truth was that I was moping too much to notice.

It wasn’t the fact that there were so many holiday travelers in Boston’s Logan Airport that you couldn’t have stirred them with a stick, and it wasn’t that we’d spent half an hour in line, only to be sent to another gate. That’s only to be expected at that time of year. What got to me was hearing Bing Crosby crooning over the intercom.

“Not White Christmas again,” I said with a sigh.

“Just like the ones you used to know,” Richard confirmed.

“Like I never knew.”

“What gate did was it again?” he asked, changing the subject.

“Gate A-34.” I paused. “I thought the gates in this terminal only went to twelve.”

“I guess they added some,” Richard said, pointing to a sign I hadn’t seen before with A-34 in red and green blinking lights. An arrow pointed us down a narrow hallway.

“And it’s not even crowded,” Richard said as we made our way across traffic. In fact, we were the only ones in the hall. Of course, that only meant the Christmas music was that much easier to hear. Bing had given way to a chorus extolling the beauty of snow glistening.

“Winter wonderland,” I said. “Ha.”

“Laura, you know it’s not the weather that makes Christmas.”

I didn’t say anything.

He reached for my hand and squeezed it. “Remember, ‘Christmas is within our grasp, so long as we have hands to clasp.'” In honor of the season, he’d switched from quoting Shakespeare to quoting every Christmas special he’d ever seen, and he’d seen them all.

“So stop being a grinch,” I said, recognizing the source of that particular quotation. “I’ll be good.” But as I trudged down the hall, I couldn’t help thinking that it was easy for him to say. He’d had plenty of white Christmases in Massachusetts. I’d grown up in Byerly, North Carolina, and all of mine had been green. When I moved up North, I’d thought surely I’d get my chance, but somehow in taking turns spending Christmas with his family and with mine, we’d never managed to be in Boston when snow fell on Christmas. And wouldn’t you know, the forecasters were gleefully predicting six inches for Christmas Eve.

We turned a corner and found ourselves at a gate festooned in garland. There wasn’t the first sign of a line, just a tiny woman in red holding the door open. “You must be Laura and Richard Fleming,” she said. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

“Are we late?” I asked, trying to find where the departure time was posted.

“Not at all,” she said. “Go right on board, and have a nice flight!”

“Thank you,” Richard said, and it wasn’t until we were halfway down the jet way that I realized that she hadn’t taken our tickets. Or even looked at them.
A stewardess who could have been the gate agent’s sister was waiting for us just inside the plane. “Take any seat you want.”

She meant it, too. We were the only ones on board. Then I corrected myself. A short man with a trench coat and a disgruntled expression was sitting on the exit row, and when he saw me and Richard, he plopped a battered fedora on the seat next to him as if to make sure we wouldn’t sit there.

Richard started stowing our bags and coats overhead but finally I started to catch on to the fact that something was funny. And I didn’t mean ho-ho-ho funny.
“Richard,” I said. “Isn’t this is kind of weird? Where is everybody? What airline is this anyway?” I didn’t see any of the familiar logos, just a stylized sled.

“Some new puddle-jumper I imagine,” he said airily, taking a window seat.

The man in the trench coat snorted, and the flight attendant said, “Would you mind taking your seat? And don’t forget to buckle up!”
I was still suspicious, but it was hard to question her. She just looked so darned jolly. So I sat down next to Richard and obediently fastened my seat belt.
Seconds later, we were moving away from the gate, and only a few seconds after that, we took off. Though the plane was small enough to be a prop plane, the ride was as smooth as any jet I’d been on.

“That was quick,” I said. “How did we get to the front of the line so fast?”

Richard shrugged. “Maybe the pilot was a good boy this year.”

The other passenger snorted again, then glared out the window.

The flight attendant brought over a tray. “Here’s a Coke with no ice for you,” she said, handing a glass to Richard, “and iced tea for you.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Can you tell me what time we get to Charlotte?”

“Oh, we’re not going to Charlotte.”

“Is this a direct flight to Hickory?” Byerly was too small to have an airport, of course, and I didn’t think there were any direct flights from Boston to Hickory, the closest big town.

“Not exactly.” She patted my arm. “He’ll be back to explain it to you in just a minute.”

“Explain what?” I asked, but she’d gone on to give a cup of coffee to the other passenger. I looked at the glass in my hand- it was exactly what I like to drink, just like Richard’s was exactly what he drinks. “How did she know what we wanted?”

“I told her.” A chubby man in a red pilot’s uniform and cap was standing next to us, smiling through his white beard. “I see you when you’re sleeping, I know when you’re awake. Naturally I know what you like to drink.”

“I don’t know who you are, but- ” I said, starting to rise.

“Laura, look at his name tag,” Richard said in an odd voice.

The tag said Santa Claus.

— Chapter 2 —

I could tell you how he managed to convince us that he wasn’t crazy, and that we weren’t crazy, and that he really was Santa Claus, but it wouldn’t make much sense unless you were there. It wasn’t just that he looked the part, because of course every mall in America has three shifts of men with white hair, full beards, and twinkling eyes. And it wasn’t all the things he knew about me and Richard, although he did know every present we’d ever wished for him to leave under our tree. It wasn’t even his letting us come to the cockpit to get a look the reindeer pulling the plane. The fact is, after seeing him, I never really doubted that he was real, any more than I doubted Richard or I were real. Of course, I imagine he was using magic to speed things along.

If somebody had asked me before meeting Santa Claus if I still believed in him, I would probably have spouted something about the philosophy of Santa, and how he lives in all our hearts. Well, I hope he does live in my heart, but now I know that he also lives at the North Pole.

Anyway, once we were convinced, Santa said, “Laura, I suppose y’all are wondering why I’ve hijacked y’all this way. And Richard, too, of course.”

Though Southerners know that “y’all” is plural, most Northerners use it for one person. Naturally Santa didn’t know that- you couldn’t get more Northern than he was.

But since correcting him could have led to coal in my stocking, I bit my tongue.

Santa went on. “I know all about your solving mysteries, of course.”

“Really?” I said.

“Of course. How could I tell if you’ve been good or not if I didn’t pay attention to things like that? And you two have been so very good with those problems that I want you to help me with mine.” For the first time he looked less than jolly. “Somebody in my workshop has been stealing from me.”

I was aghast. That was like stealing from… Well, from Santa Claus. “Who on earth would do such a thing?”

“I wish I knew,” he said, shaking his head sadly. “The worst part is, it’s a friend.”

The short man in the trench coat snickered. Or rather, the elf in the trench coat. Once I was convinced that Santa was Santa, I figured out why the gate agent and flight attendant were so short- they were elves. So was the other passenger. His turned up collar didn’t quite hide the pointed ears that wiggled as he snickered.

Santa paid him no mind. “It’s not the missing toys that bother me, of course. It’s the fact that somebody isn’t being honest. Even if I could forget it myself, everybody else at the Pole knows, and they’re upset, too. It’s going to ruin Christmas!” He put his hands on Richard’s and my shoulders. “What I’m asking you two to do is to find out who did it, and before I leave to make my rounds on Christmas Eve.”

— Chapter 3 —

We said we would, of course, and I don’t imagine he had to use any magic for that. Nobody who’d stayed up late on Christmas Eve hoping to hear sleigh bells could have turned him down.

“I knew you wouldn’t disappoint me,” he said with a smile like mine the day I found a copy of Lord of the Rings under my Christmas tree. “I know you don’t have much time, and like the PI’s say, you need an inside man. So I’ve brought somebody along to help you. Come join us, Jingle.”

The elf in the trench coat grunted, but he got up and came over.

“Jingle, this is Laura Fleming and her husband Richard,” Santa said. “Laura, Richard, this is Jingle Jangle.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I said.

Jingle grunted.

“I briefed him while we were waiting for you, so he’ll be able to tell you everything you need to know,” Santa said. “Isn’t that right, Jingle?”

Jingle grunted.

Santa laughed, a genuine ho-ho-ho that made me smile just to hear it. “Oh, Jingle, we’ve missed you. Now you three get to work, and I’ll get us to the North Pole.” He bustled up the aisle to the cockpit.

“The North Pole,” I squeaked.

“Where’d you think we were going?” Jingle asked with a sneer. “Hawaii?”

“I just hadn’t thought it out,” I admitted.

“Nobody thinks when the fat guy’s around- they just smile and do what he says.” He snorted this time.

Just then the flight attendant announced that we were just about to land.

“Already?” I said as I fastened my seat belt.

“You think that’s fast?” Jingle said. “He was taking it easy so there’d be time to sucker you two into the job. How do you think he’d get toys delivered all over the world if he couldn’t work faster than that?”

It made sense, but I didn’t want to tell him that. So I just sat back for the smoothest landing I’d ever had. Obviously the centuries of flying had paid off.

“I hope we’re going to be warm enough,” I said to Richard as we pulled out our coats. We’d dressed for winter in North Carolina, not the North Pole.

“Tell me about it,” Jingle said with a grimace. “I was all set for fun in the sun in Miami, and here I am kissing snow again.”

“Don’t worry about the weather,” the flight attendant said. We’ve got the jetway warmed up for you.”

“Looks like the fat guy rolled out the red carpet for you two,” Jingle said as we walked. “He never bothered to keep the working stiffs warm and cozy while I was here.”

“I take it that you don’t work at the North Pole anymore?” Richard said.

“I had my fill of making cute little dollies and teddy bears before you were born.”

Richard let Jingle get a few feet ahead of us on the jetway, then whispered to me, “Jingle doesn’t like to make toys? Shame on him! That’s from Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”

Jingle turned to glare at us. “That was funny the first three or four dozen times I heard it.”

“Sorry. I didn’t expect you to be able to hear me.”

“You think these ears are for decoration?” Jingle said, wiggling the pointed ends. “I can hear a fly fart a mile away, which comes in handy in my line of work.”

“What line is that?” Richard asked.

“I ain’t no dentist, so don’t even go there,” Jingle snapped. “I’m a PI, the best in Beantown.”

“You live in Boston?”

“Yeah, I moved South to get away from the cold weather.”

I blinked at that, but Richard said, “We live in Boston, too.”

“No kidding. Who do you think dug up all the reindeer poop on you two for the fat guy?”

We’d finally reached the end of the jetway, but instead of being in an airport, we were in an enormous room that reminded me of castles Richard and I had seen in England. The stone walls were lined with tapestries of flying reindeer and Santa Claus in his sleigh, and there was a huge Christmas tree twinkling by the fireplace.
Garland and tinsel was hung everywhere.

But the thing that drew my eye was the picture window opposite the fireplace, with curtains drawn to show a field covered with the whitest snow this side of a snow globe.

“There’s your white Christmas,” Richard said softly.

I don’t know how long we stood there admiring the moon on the crest of the new fallen snow before I heard a sound behind us. I tore my eyes away and saw that Jingle was tapping his foot. “Sorry, I’ve just never seen snow like this before.”

“It’s dandy, if you like snow. Which I don’t. Besides which, we ain’t here for sightseeing. The sooner we get this over with, the sooner I can get to Miami.”

“Right,” I said, then realized I didn’t have the slightest idea of what to do next.

Jingle must have been able to tell, because he rolled his eyes at us. “Amateurs!” he said. “Do you think that maybe we should interrogate our suspects?”

“That sounds good,” I said. “Lead the way.”

“Yeah, I can tell you two will need a lot of leading,” he said with disgust.

The elf took off down a hallway much faster than I’d have expected with those short little legs, and I had to work to catch him. Richard, whose legs were as long as Jingle’s whole body, kept up easily.

“If you’re a PI,” Richard asked as we walked, “why did Santa bring us in? Why not just let you handle it?”

Jingle shrugged. “Maybe he’s still holding a grudge because of that time I had to cut rough with the Grinch. I don’t know why he cares- the guy brought back the toys, didn’t he? But the fat guy says bloody noses wasn’t good for Christmas spirit.”

“Imagine that,” Richard said dryly.

Their sniping wasn’t exactly good for Christmas spirit, either, and it certainly wasn’t the start of a decent working relationship. I said, “I’m glad you’re here to help us, Jingle. Otherwise, I don’t know how much good we could do. When we take on these kinds of things in Byerly, we’ve got all my aunts and uncles and cousins to help. I don’t know anybody at the North Pole.”

“Sure you do, Laura,” Richard said, grinning. “You know Dasher, and Dancer, and Prancer, and Vixen…”

“Where’d you get this guy, anyway?” Jingle wanted to know. “I think he’s been hitting the egg nog.”

I decided the best thing to do was to ignore both comments. “What can you tell us?”

“Oh, I can tell you lots of things.” He looked me up and down a few times. “You know, I like tall women.”

I’m only five foot two, but I guess that is tall to an elf. “The thefts?” I reminded him.

“Right. Business first, then we’ll lose the beanpole and get down to pleasure.” He winked with a leer, or maybe it was leering with a wink. Either way, I’d rather kiss snow.

Jingle said, “The fat guy was going over the reports and caught a problem. Turns out that the number of toys manufactured didn’t match up with inventory. Somebody has been lifting toys. They weren’t all the same kind, mind you. A few out of this bin, a few out of that- just the way to do it if you were trying to hide your tracks.”

“How many are gone?”

“A couple hundred.”

Though that many would have been enough to keep my stocking filled for years, it didn’t sound like much of a much for Santa’s operation. “What percentage of production is that?”

“Babe, your calculator couldn’t even figure a number that low.”

“Then how can Santa be sure they’re gone? With all the toys going through here, maybe they just got misplaced.”

Jingle stopped short, nearly causing Richard and me to run over him. “Misplaced? What do you mean misplaced? Lady, I’m talking about toys. Elves don’t misplace toys!” He glared at me for a few seconds, then took off again, faster than before. Obviously I’d hit a sore spot.

Either Jingle had told us all he’d intended to, or he was still put out with us, because he didn’t say anything else for a while. I didn’t much mind, because I was fascinated by the doors we were passing, doors with signs like Dolls: Fashion, Cars: Race, and Trains: Choo Choo. There was a whole corridor given over to Pokémon. Twice, a door opened as we passed, giving tantalizing glimpses in to the rooms where elves were working. I was about to ask Jingle to slow down just a bit when he stopped in front of a door labeled Factory Overlook.

“This is the best way for you to see the place.” The room behind the door was like a glassed-in box set at a track or stadium, where the privileged could watch races or games in privacy. Only instead of horses going a mile a minute or athletes chasing their balls, Richard and I were looking down on more elves than I could count. There were elves running assembly lines, elves sewing doll clothes, elves painting toy trucks, elves testing computer games, elves wrapping gifts, and elves making sure the other elves were doing their jobs. There were more elves than I’ve got relatives, which is saying something, and all of them were moving as fast as a mother chasing the last Red Power Ranger in the city.

“It’s incredible,” I breathed. Then I looked suspiciously at Jingle. He’d already made it plain that he wasn’t going to give us any time to tour the factory, so why was he giving us the reindeer’s eye view?

He was grinning like the cat who’d just eaten the partridge from the pear tree. “Here you are,” he said.

“Here we are where?”

“Here’s where you investigate.” He waved his arm at the panorama of elves. “Those are your suspects. Start investigating.”

— Chapter 4 —

As it turned out, it wasn’t quite as bad as that, or we’d have been there for the next ten Christmases, but it took my reminding Jingle that he was also stuck at the North Pole until we’d done our job, plus a threat from Richard to sing The Twelve Days of Christmas for as long as necessary, to get Jingle to admit that we didn’t have to interrogate every elf at the North Pole. Not to mention the reindeer and hangers-on like the Abominable Snow Monster, the Winter Wizard, the Snow Miser, and others that didn’t have their own Christmas specials.

“Okay,” Jingle finally said, “the way the numbers fall out, the toys were taken the night before last sometime between quitting time and the time the fat guy opened up the next morning.”

“How can Santa be sure that’s when they were taken?”

“Production entered their figures for the day into the system just before quitting time, and in the morning, inventory shelved the new stuff and entered in their figures. Only the two sets of numbers don’t add up.”

“Could it have been a computer glitch?” I suggested. “An early Y2K problem?”

“Babe, this place made it through Y1K with no problems- they can make it through this one.”

“Right.” I kept forgetting who I was dealing with. “Could somebody have hidden in the factory after the bell?”

“No way. The fat guy makes sure they don’t- he says it’s to make sure they don’t work too hard, but I bet the union makes sure he doesn’t sweet-talk any suckers into giving up free overtime.”

“So why does he think it was an inside job?” Richard asked.

“I’m telling you why!” Jingle snapped. “It was movie night, and the theater is right next to the warehouse. I’m betting that somebody took a detour during one of the movies, or maybe during the intermission.”

“What were the movies?” I asked, just out of curiosity.

Jingle snorted in disgust. “About what you’d expect: a double dose of Christmas pap. The first flick was The Year Without a Santa Claus.”

“I like that one!” Richard objected.

“Actually, that one isn’t too bad,” Jingle conceded. “The first part, anyway. Then they wimp out and the fat guy hits the sleigh after all. What a sap! The second was Miracle on 34th Street, which is even worse. As if the fat guy would ever take a real job. With his investment portfolio- he drops a couple of goodies in the right stocking and stock tips appear like magic.” He snorted in disgust again, or more likely this time, in envy.

“Anyway, the fat guy shooed everybody home after the second movie. He said he wanted to make sure they got their rest, but I’m thinking that he had a hunch something didn’t smell right- and I’m not talking about the fruitcake.”

At least it was starting to sound like we were working with a reasonable number of possibilities, but just to make sure, I asked, “You’re sure that nobody from the outside could have snuck in?”

“Sister, this is the North Pole! How much foot traffic you think they got around here?” Before I could answer, he added, “Besides, they were socked in that night- snow so bad even Red-nose himself couldn’t have made it through. It didn’t let up until this morning. The fat guy closed down all the auxiliary services early: the commissary, the snack bar, the mall, all the nonessentials. He only let them run the movies because they could use the tunnels to get to and from, so nobody had to go outside.”

“Okay,” I said in satisfaction. “Then our only suspects are the people who watched the movies. Who was there?”

Jingle consulted his notes. “Keebler, Peaseblossum, Cobweb, Moth, Mustardseed, JR, Ruel, Legolas, Glorfindel, Arwen, Elrond, Morlock, Helevorn, Martinala, Dian, Gygax, Corellan, Vinndálf, Herbie, Shatzi, Arni- ”

“Hold it!” I finally said. “Jingle, how many were at the movie?”

He thumbed through several pages of notes, his lips moving as he counted to himself. “Just short of two hundred,” he said.

— Chapter 5 —

“Two hundred!” I repeated in dismay. How in the Sam Hill were Richard and I supposed to sort through two hundred suspects and figure out who was naughty and who was nice? Worst of all, Mrs. Claus herself was on Jingle’s list! Sure, Santa had asked us to solve the crime, but how would he react if I told him his wife of who-knows-how-many centuries had stolen from him?

I looked at Richard, he looked at me, and we both shrugged. We’d promised Santa we’d do our best, so there was no choice but to get started. “I guess we better give Santa a status report, and then start talking to people.”

I have to admit that I was hoping he’d tell me to forget it when I explained that we were going to have to talk to two hundred suspects. Instead he said, “You do what you have to, Laura. I believe in you.”

I thanked him, but wasn’t at all sure I’d be able to deliver the miracle he wanted.

Jingle got on the phone to arrange for the first batch of suspects to come talk to us, then announced, “By the way, this room is soundproofed. Just in case we have to break a few candy canes, if you know what I mean.”

“We’re not going to break any candy canes,” I said firmly. “Or anything else, for that matter.”

“Look, girly, when you’ve been in this business as long as I have, you learn you can’t always be nice. Sometimes you have to take off your mittens and get your hands dirty. The fat guy and I may have our problems, but he knows I get the job done.” Jingle leaned back in his chair. Unfortunately, the seat had been designed for humans, so his feet were left dangling in midair.

“He might have a point,” Richard said. “Other than the ones on his ears, that is.”

“I heard that!”

Richard ignored him. “Maybe that’s why Santa teamed us with Jingle. So he wouldn’t go too far, and so we wouldn’t hold back.”

“You’re probably right. I just wish this were over.” I leaned back, smug that for once I was one of the taller people around.

“Tired?” Richard asked.

“Not really.” Then I sat back up. “No, I’m not tired!”

“Okay, I was just asking.”

“I mean, why aren’t I tired? It’s been hours since we left Boston.” I should have been drooping like a poinsettia the week after Christmas.

“Magic,” Jingle spat out. “The fat guy sprinkles it around this time of year to get more work out of the elves.”

Whatever the reason, I actually felt pretty good. “I wonder if Santa would let me have some of that for my next deadline.”

“Fat chance. He keeps a tighter grip on it than Frosty does on that old top hat he found. Says it could be dangerous if misused.”

I thought of what the average dot com would do with its programmers, given such stuff, and I couldn’t argue with him, but it did make me think of something else. “Wait a minute! Why doesn’t Santa use magic to find out who took the toys?”

“Didn’t I tell you? That’s part of what’s got him running scared. It’s bad enough that somebody is lining their toy box at his expense, but his Magic Snowball won’t show him who it was. He used it to check out everybody at the Pole, and they all came up nice when he knows at least one of them was naughty. If he can’t track who’s naughty and who’s nice, he may as well close up shop.”

This was more serious than we’d thought. “Could the toys have been stolen with magic?”

“How much magic do you think we’ve got around here? You think we just wave a wand around and make toys appear?” Jingle asked indignantly. “Elves work hard.”

“They work hard all day,” Richard agreed. “Though, of course, their work is play.”

Jingle shot him a fierce look. “If you think it’s so easy, you try it some time, buster!”

“Boys,” I said as patiently as I could. “Jingle, there’s a lot we don’t know about what goes on around here, which is why we’ve got you. Is there anybody else at the North Pole who can do magic?”

He scratched one ear speculatively while the other one wiggled along. “There’s the Winter Wizard, of course. He made the Magic Snowball in the first place, so I guess he’d be able to crack it. Only thing is, he’s off doing something hush-hush at Industrial Light & Magic. The Miser Brothers use magic, but only weather stuff. Frosty’s top hat is magic, but all it does is bring him to life, and that only works if he’s wearing it.” He paused long enough to grin, making wonder how many times Jingle had made off with that hat. “That’s it.”

It was just as well- how would Richard and I have been able to catch a magic thief anyway? “Okay, then. By the way, is there anything else you’ve forgotten to tell us, Jingle?”

“Nope.” Then he wriggled a little. “Well, I probably should mention that I used to have a relationship of a personal nature with one of the suspects.”

I was about to ask him which one when there was a knock on the door. The first suspect had arrived.

— Chapter 6 —

Before we could answer, the door opened and a tiny blonde bombshell burst in, jumped into Jingle’s lap, and started kissing him enthusiastically enough to wilt mistletoe.

“She thinks he’s cute,” Richard said.

“Jingle, baby,” the lady elf squealed in between kisses. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”

“Peaseblossum, please,” Jingle said, trying to loosen her grip. “I’m working.”

“Why don’t you ever call me? Don’t you care anymore, Jingle?”

I cleared my throat gently, and when that didn’t work, tried it more loudly. Then Richard tried. Then we tried for a duet of throat-clearing. The lady elf didn’t seem to notice us, just kept alternating torrid kisses and remonstrations with Jingle for not staying in touch.

Eventually Jingle managed to peel Peaseblossum off, and while he was tried to get her lipstick off his collar, and face, and the tips of his ears, we got started. After we were done with her, the next one arrived, and it kept on going.

It was the most awkward set of interrogations I could imagine. Not that anybody was uncooperative- in fact, they all acted delighted to be there to help us, and were so filled with the Christmas spirit that I could hardly stand it. I felt lower than a grinch for suspecting elves of stealing from Santa.

The three buzz words for solving crimes are motive, means, and opportunity, but knowing that didn’t help a bit. Nobody had a motive that I could figure out, while just about everybody had means and opportunity.

Peaseblossum, who proved that being short didn’t mean you couldn’t be stacked, flirted so much with Richard that I could tell she wasn’t above using her figure to her advantage. Keebler, the head cook, could well have been keeping things to himself other than the secret ingredients for his Christmas cookies. Ruel was the Pole’s historian, and probably knew all kinds of hiding place that had been forgotten by everybody else. Morlock, the elf in charge of the reindeer stables, had plenty of hiding places, too. As for Santa’s computer guru Gygax, he was probably in the best position to play games with inventory figures. And on it went- I couldn’t rule anybody out.

We’d only gotten through a fraction of the list when I called for a break, and Richard and I started in on a plate of cookies and a pitcher of milk that Keebler had brought us.

“Want some, Jingle?” I offered.

“No, thanks,” he said with a shudder. “If the weather hadn’t soured me on this place, the cookies would have.” He pulled a flask out of his pocket, downed several swallows of something, and sighed in satisfaction. “So? You geniuses ready to admit we’re getting nowhere and let me start roasting a few chestnuts?”

“Did I mention I also know The Twelve Days of Christmas in Spanish?” Richard said ominously.

“Admit it! You two don’t even have coals in your stockings! Why don’t you hang it up? If you don’t want to do things my way, then tell the fat guy it’s a wash so we can get out of here! Just maybe I can make it to Miami before they give my hotel room away.”

I couldn’t argue with him- he was right. We didn’t have anything, and it was getting close to time for Santa to start on his flight. There was no way we could figure it out this before he left. I wasn’t sure we’d ever be able to solve it.

Only I refused to admit that in front of Jingle, and with those ears of his, I couldn’t even whisper to Richard. Instead I reached for another Christmas cookie.
Jingle started to say something else, but Richard began to sing. “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…” Richard had an excellent singing voice, and it carries extremely well, especially in a small room. Jingle glared and covered his ears, but Richard just kept singing.

Despite Richard’s threats, The Twelve Days of Christmas had always been a favorite of mine, but for the first time, I started thinking about the lyrics. When Richard finished, and before he could start the Spanish version, I said, “You know, that’s one weird song. Why would anybody want to give a bunch of birds and such. The golden rings I can understand, but the other stuff? What would you do with it? Where would you put it?”

Richard knew I frustrated by the situation, not by the song, but he played along. “I believe those items had special significance in medieval times.”

“I suppose.” Another thought occurred to me. “So what did the lady give back to her true love. After him showing off with all that stuff, what could she give in return?”

“I could think of a few things,” Jingle said with his favorite leer. “And twelve days of that would be about right.”

I ignored him once again. “I mean, what do you give the man who’s given you everything?” Then it hit me like a well-aimed snowball. “I know who stole the toys.”

“Who?” Richard and Jingle asked together.

“They all did!”

— Chapter 7 —

“It was the Christmas special that gave them the idea,” I said to Santa a few minutes later, with Richard and Jingle listening on. My husband had been willing to go along when I said I knew what had happened to the missing toys, and when Jingle had demanded to hear more, Richard had started singing Spanish until the elf gave in and helped us track down Santa. So this was the first time anybody had heard my explanation.

We’d found Santa overseeing the last few toys to be loaded on the sleigh, and he kept using his magic to make sure they all fit as I went on.

“You remember in The Year Without a Santa Claus, once the kids are convinced that you still exist, they decide to give you Christmas presents? I’m thinking everybody watching the movie that night got the same idea, that it was time you got something in your stocking.” I’d put the pieces together when thinking about The Twelve Days of Christmas, wondering just what you could get the man who’d given you everything.

“I don’t need presents,” Santa objected. “Mrs. Claus knits me a nice pair of socks and a scarf every year, and I get a lovely dinner and all the cookies I can eat. My job is to give, not to receive.”

“That’s exactly why they wanted to give you something,” I said. “Because you give them so much. You give everybody so much, year after year. Normally they’d have gone to the mall to get you something, but you’d closed it down because of the blizzard, and they weren’t sure it would open in time for them to get you something in time for Christmas. So they figured it wouldn’t hurt for them to ‘borrow’ something from the warehouse. Nobody was likely to notice, and they could replace it later. It probably would have worked if they hadn’t all had the same idea.”

“Even Mrs. Claus?” Santa asked.

I was relieved to be able to say, “Probably not. After all, she already had your socks and scarf ready.”

Santa turned to get the last bicycles stowed.

“So Santa,” Jingle said, hitting one palm with the other fist, “you want I should make an example of these guys for you? No extra charge.”

“Of course not,” Santa said, and darned if there wasn’t a tear in his eye. “This is the nicest Christmas I’ve ever had. I intend to let every one of them give me those presents, and act surprised when they do.”

“But they stole from you!” Jingle stuttered.

“Ho, ho, ho,” Santa laughed. “Don’t be silly, Jingle. The magic snowball said they were all nice, didn’t it? You can’t argue with magic!”

Jingle clearly wanted to argue with it, but also clearly knew it wouldn’t work. So he quit hitting his palm and shoved both hands into the pocket of his trench coat. “Then can you get me out of here?”

“Don’t you want to stay for Christmas? Peaseblossum is hanging fresh mistletoe just for you.”

Jingle scowled, which was enough of an answer.

“All right, I’ll have the plane drop you wherever you want to go. Laura and Richard, too, of course.”

He hugged us all thoroughly, and apologized for not having more time to spend. Then, with a promise that there’d be something special waiting for us Christmas morning, he hopped into the sleigh, called to the waiting reindeer, and was off. He even called to the reindeer by name.

I would liked to have seen more of the Pole, maybe met Mrs. Santa, but Jingle hustled us back to the waiting airplane, saying he wanted to get out of there before another blizzard hit. As it was, I knew that it was going to be mighty hard to explain to my family why we were so late.

The flight wasn’t quite as smooth as the first, maybe because Santa had the best reindeer with him, leaving us with the trainees, but we had the same friendly attendant. She said that this time, we would have a direct flight to Hickory, so I was surprised when we stopped to let Jingle off first. After all, North Carolina is closer to the North Pole than Miami.

Jingle didn’t ask for any explanations, just grabbed his bags.

“Take care, Jingle,” I said. “It was…interesting working with you.”

“You, too. Not a bad piece of detecting.”

“Thank you.”

“For a broad, I mean. If you ever manage to get rid of tall, dark, and dorky, look me up. Height don’t mean beans when you’re not standing up. If you know what I mean.”

Unfortunately, I knew exactly what he meant. “Merry Christmas, Jingle.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Then he took off down the jetway. The last we heard from him just before the door closed and we pulled away, was an anguished cry of, “This isn’t Miami!”

The flight attendant was still smiling, but now it was more imp than elf. “Miami?” she said. “I thought we were supposed to drop him in Nome.”

“Nome, Alaska?” I said.

She nodded. “My sister Peaseblossum said that’s where he wanted to go.”

Despite my good wishes, I had a hunch Jingle wasn’t going to have a very merry Christmas after all.

— Chapter 8 —

I’d been expecting a barrage of questions from Aunt Maggie when we arrived at her door, but she just thanked us for calling to let us know that we were going to be a day late. Which we hadn’t. More of Santa’s wizardry, no doubt.

It wasn’t the last taste of magic we got that year. Come morning, as Richard and I were waking from our long winter’s nap, I heard Aunt Maggie laughing.

“Are y’all up?” she called. “Take a look outside.”

I leaned over Richard to lift up the curtain. The ground was covered in gleaming white snow, snow so white you could even say it glowed. “Thank you, Santa,” I whispered, knowing he’d hear me.

Richard just sang. “May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white.”