Black Friday is here and we’re discussing the season with Lucienne Diver’s Vic & Bob from a series of short stories, including The Problem with Piskies, first published in Quantum Barbarian magazine, and Imaginary Fiend in the anthology Strip-Mauled, edited by Esther Friesner.
Tori Karacis is back in L.A., relieved to once again match her passport photo thanks to a tattoo that controls her gargoyle-esque wings. Her newest case doesn’t involve gods or an impending apocalypse. It does, however, involve murder.
Jessica Roland’s suspicions began when her brothers returned from Egypt eerily different. The terror kicked in with the ritualistic murder of her parents. Her real brothers would never have done such a thing, yet their guilt seems indisputable. What could it be? Curse of the Pharaohs? Some kind of brain-eating bacteria?
At the scene of a second attack, there’s evidence it’s the work of Set, the god of chaos, who should have been locked away a long time ago. And hello, there’s a new arrival. Neith, a warrior goddess who’s got the hots for Tori’s ex, Nick Armani.
Tori should be cool with that. After all, she’s involved with Apollo—that Apollo. Still, it’s a bit much for Neith to ask for seduction advice! Meanwhile, Set is gaining strength, chaos is leaking all over the place, and L.A. is a powder keg set to blow.
Jolly Old Elf
“Cut. It. Out,” I said under my breath.
To anybody else, I’d appear to be talking to myself. The pesky piskie—Bob, aka Bobbin, aka Kneebob, aka the bane of my existence—had insisted on coming with me to pick out a gift for Jezi, despite the fact that he was more than unwanted. Talking to myself was one thing. My lapel being yanked by an unseen hand was much more likely to draw unwanted attention.
“But, Vic, it’s Santa!”
I rolled my eyes and kept on going. I had exactly ten minutes to make it to the Black Friday sale I wanted, and I hadn’t been able to find parking anywhere near my target store. I had not been prepared for this level of insanity. Somehow I’d survived this long without a single doorbuster, and I was sure I could make it through the rest of my mangy existence the same way…if only I could afford the tablet I wanted to get Jezi on my cop’s salary. If only she deserved less… But she wasn’t just my partner, she was my friend, and I constantly fought the feeling that someday she might be a bit more.
“No, Vic.” Bob gave up on my collar and flitted before my eyes, both hands up as though he could actually stop me. “I mean, the real deal. You know in that poem The Night Before Christmas? Well, actually, technically, it’s called A Visit from St. Nicholas—”
“Bob!” I snapped, forgetting to be quiet. A pair of women walking by sped up their pace to distance themselves from the crazy man. “Get to the point!”
“Okay, okay. So, you know how the poet calls Santa a ‘jolly old elf’?” he asked, doing air quotes while actually hovering there in the air.
“Yeah,” I growled.
“Well,” he said, meaningfully, doing an exaggerated shrug toward the Christmas village that had sprung up in the center of the mall.
Despite my very best efforts, I stopped. I couldn’t help myself. Bob was a little con artist, but he wasn’t an outright liar. He couldn’t lie to save himself. It came with the whole fae gig. And if Santa…my Santa…
I looked. At first, all I could see was the trappings. Santa’s cottage had been done up like a gingerbread house with white icing details and oversized gumdrop accents. The pillars at the entrance were giant candy canes. His helper was a happy little elf with jingle bells on her curly-toed shoes and fairly convincing elf ears, but I’d seen the real thing. Even without the Sight, I knew these for fakes. The village hadn’t opened yet. She was still getting things set up and so didn’t see us. Not so the figure on the throne. I felt his gaze before I turned toward him, equal parts hopeful and afraid, something like a kid on Christmas night, sneaking out at the sound in the living room, hoping to catch Santa and yet not be spotted in return and stuck on the naughty list.
This Santa was…damn, he was the real deal. I instantly berated myself for the “damn,” like he could read my thoughts. If my mother had heard me—my die-hard Roman Catholic mother, who knew nothing about the Sight and the fae and the fact that I now turned furry once a month—she’d wash my mouth out with soap. But Santa…
This was not Santa. And damn, I was a grown man and it shouldn’t matter anyway. Just because this store Santa was a refugee from some Seelie Court…well, so was Bob, and I wasn’t about to sit on his lap. The very idea made me snort.
I was about to move on when Santa’s stomach started to shake like a bowl full of jelly, and he came out with a full-belly laugh. A ho, ho, ho, if you could believe it, that sounded absolutely natural. “Kneebob, my boy, is that you?”
Bob shot up into the air like a rocket, pirouetted and spiraled back to eye level like a drunken Tinkerbell. “Nic, you remembered!”
“Causing trouble, are you?” he asked.
Santa’s elf looked up from her preparations, dragging a barricade into place for the inevitable lines. She glanced over to see who Santa was talking to and saw me standing dumbstruck in the middle of the mall. She looked baffled. There was no way Bob’s teeny tiny voice could have come out of me…if she’d even been able to hear his side of the conversation. Maybe she thought Santa was talking to himself. Maybe it was a mall epidemic.
“Bob,” I said out of the corner of my mouth.
“Oh, right!” he said.
He snapped and made himself visible. The elf’s mouth fell open, her eyes nearly popped out of her head and she swayed like she might faint.
I cursed and bounded across the mall to get to her before she fell, jumping the snow-white chain to catch her shoulders in my hands. She barely came up to my chest, which I was used to, and she caught at my hands and they latched on, bucking me to turn my way.
“You saw that right?” she asked. Her cocoa-colored eyes begging me to agree. “I’m not crazy, right?”
“Just visions of sugar plums,” I assured her. “Sugar plum fairies. Just like in the Nutcracker. Here, maybe you want to sit down.”
I led her to a bench they had set up for parents to get off their feet and settled her into it. “Um, just wait here.”
Bob had flown right up to Santa now and was hovering before him. “Bob,” I said through clenched teeth. “You promised to be on your best behavior.”
“But…” His little lips quivered. “But, but, but…it’s Santa!”
If looks could kill, Bob would have been long since dead. I didn’t even bother to glare. Santa was watching. “Fine. Have your reunion. Do what you’ve got to do. I have to get to Big Buy to get that tablet for Jezi.”
Oddly, it was suddenly the last thing I wanted to do. I wanted to stay and hear Santa’s story. he couldn’t be the real thing, whatever that was. The spirit of Christmas or whatever. That was a Christian concept and the fae were decidedly not, but his eyes—how they twinkled!—and his laugh was so merry. “His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry.” Just like in the poem.
“No, Vic,” he said, “I’m not Santa as you think of him. I’m no saint! But I do bring toys to all the good boys and girls. What, you thought it was like in The Santa Clause with some hopped up human overseeing all the elves? Santa’s little helpers, indeed! How do you think the toys get all around the world if not for fae magic? You think reindeer fly without piskie dust?”
I looked askance at Bob, who nodded so vigorously he bounced in the air.
And then I realized…he knew my name. Santa knew my name. It was totally silly, that little leap of the heart, like I was ten years old again.
“But what are you doing here?” I asked, determined not to fanboy all over him. I knew fae. They always had an angle, even if it wasn’t always obvious. Didn’t we all?
Like my need to get to that store before time ran out. I gave a quick glance at my watch and my heart sank to my stomach. One minute past nine. I’d missed the window for the doorbuster deal on Jezi’s tablet. If I was lucky, maybe I could still get it for a less discounted price. If the store had any left.
Santa saw my look. “Don’t worry about the tablet,” he said, his eyes twinkling like Christmas lights. “I have it on good authority that Jezi’s going to get exactly what she wants this year.”
“What about me?” Bob piped in, his tiny little voice like he’d been sucking Helium.
“Now, Kneebob,” Santa said, fixing him with a look, “you know you’ve been a naughty, naughty little elf.”
I laughed. “You don’t know the half of it.”
Bob’s face fell.
“Anyway, there’s bigger trouble afoot.”
“There is?” Bob asked, almost awed. He was game for any kind of mischief, but most especially if he was involved.
“It’s going to be a pretty crappy Christmas for a lot of people if you don’t help.”
“We’ll help you, Nic!” Bob said.
“Wha-wha-” came the voice of Santa’s elf. I’d almost forgotten about her.
Nic…Santa…the jolly old elf, whoever he was, looked over at his helper, sitting on the bench staring at Bob and beyond her to the kids and their parents starting to line up at the entrance to Santa’s Village and said, “Excuse me for a second.”
He waddled over and bent to whisper something to her. She looked up at him suddenly, startled…shocked…and then…and then, the look on her face became awestruck. Incredulous. Something like the Grinch’s face when his heart grew three sizes. “Really?” she asked. “My sister?”
“Remission,” he assured her, the joy in his face mirroring hers.
She rose up and started to thank him, but he tut-tutted and held up a hand to fend her off. “Not my doing,” he said. “She’s a fighter. We’ll call it a Christmas miracle, shall we? Now, would you see to the families lining up? But give me another minute with my friends, will you? Oh, and—” he turned toward the crowd, flashing them his rosy-cheeked grin with a twinkle of his eyes, “—you didn’t see anything.”
With my Sight, I saw the push of power that went out of him, encircling his helper and all the parents waiting with their children. Interestingly enough, the swirl of magic never sank down to the children’s level. Their eyes nearly glowed as they looked at Santa and beyond him to Bob, still hovering on onion-skin wings beating like those of a hummingbird. The kids’ eyes were filled with wonder and belief. Nic wasn’t going to take that away from them. He seemed instead to be drinking it in and swelled with their joy. I almost thought buttons might pop from his suit.
His helper nodded a little vacantly and went to take care of the kids, a smile overtaking the newly slack look on her face.
Nic rejoined us, looking to me. “I’m actually here very specifically to see you,” he said. “It’s going to be a difficult holiday season for families everywhere if we don’t put a stop to it.”
“It?” I asked.
“Credit card fraud. I don’t have all the answers. I can’t stamp out all the problems, but one of the kids on my watch list, Sarah Franklin… She’s done a very bad thing. She’s been cloning cards and sharing the information. She thinks it’s just her and a few older friends that she knows, who have her convinced that they’re only taking from people into crass consumerism. People who make others come to work on Thanksgiving eve or at four a.m. the next day. And that it’s not even the people themselves who’ll pay when the fraud is discovered, but stores or credit card companies—big businesses that can afford it, but… Well, I don’t need to tell you. You’re a cop.”
“You want me to arrest her?” I asked, just as a kid yelling, “Santa! Santa!” ran up the chain barricade around the village as if he might burst right through. A bright-eyed little boy with blond curls that made him look cherubic. His mother, chasing after him, looked frazzled in contrast.
Nic smiled and waved, flashing the boy a wink, but turned right back to me. “No,” he said. “I want you to use this.” From a pocket of his suit, he whipped something out, mostly concealing it in his white-gloved hand until he opened his fingers quickly to give me a peek. It was a credit card. Gold. And for a moment, it sparkled like it was covered in piskie dust. “Buy something. She’ll scan it and…let’s just say it’s a very special card. It’ll infiltrate her system and it will shut her network down.”
“You couldn’t do this yourself?” I asked, not because I was unwilling, but because I really wanted to know.
“I have other duties,” he said, indicating the children waiting to see him. “Anyway, she needs to see you and your badge.”
“You want me to scare her straight.”
He smiled. “If it’s possible. After that, it’s her call.”
Santa’s helper had let the first family into the village. I felt the movement behind me, turned to see a beautiful little girl in a red velvet dress half hiding behind her father’s legs and peering at Santa. It was our cue to go. But…that ten-year-old boy in me didn’t quite want to leave.
But Nic had now turned from me to Bob. “Kneebob, you behave now, you hear?” he said, fixing Bob with the first stern look I’d seen on his face.
I could have told him that was a lost cause, but Bob’s head nodded so vigorously that if he was a bobblehead he’d have popped a spring. “Cross my heart and hope to—”
“Don’t say it!” I cut in quickly, before he could make some kind of oath. With the fae, these things carried weight, and there was no way he’d live up to it. Apparently, I didn’t want the little bugger out of my life that badly.
“Fly,” he said, unable to let the sentence go unfinished. “Cross my heart and hope to fly.” He blinked at me in surprise. “What did you think I was going to say?”
“Nevermind. Let’s go use this magic credit card.”
Not words I ever expected to say. Santa pointed us toward the right store, and we were off, Bob snapped his fingers to turn himself invisible again to anyone without the Sight and flew off before me, leading the way. Minutes later, I had a soft little lamb stuffed animal tucked under an arm for my niece and was standing in a line at least a dozen strong.
When we finally got up to the desk, I asked, “Sarah?” There were only two people on check-out, a boy and a girl, so it was a pretty safe, but I wanted to be sure. She looked up at me—and up, since six foot three is a bit of a hike—and blinked sky-blue eyes. I so often heard that this one or that didn’t “look like a criminal,” but criminals don’t have a look, and anyone who tells you differently is wrong.
“Do I know you?” she asked.
“Santa sent me,” I quipped, handing over the lamb for her to scan and holding my credit card at the ready.
“Sorry, the reader is broken,” she said, indicating the self-scanner facing me. “I have to swipe the card on my computer.”
I nodded and watched her carefully as she set the card beneath the counter while she finished punching buttons on her computer. Then she took up the card again to swipe down a reader mounted on her monitor. Her cloning system must work quickly. It was smooth. I’d never have noticed a thing if I didn’t know.
But now that she had my card safely swiped and working it’s magic, I flipped to my badge and placed that on the counter, making sure she saw it when she handed my card back. Her gaze flew to mine, eyes widening to where I could see the badge reflected there.
“I believe you’re on the naughty list this year,” I said, taking back the magic credit card. “But there’s still time to be nice. Santa isn’t the only one watching.”
It sounded a little creepy coming from an adult male to a teenaged girl. But coming from a cop to a potential future arrestee…
Her mouth flapped open and closed a couple of times, but nothing came out and I wasn’t going to wait around for it. I reached over the counter, took my bag and turned away.
Bob landed on my shoulder, his wings, I supposed, needing the break. “That was so cool,” he said. He held onto my ear to keep his seat, and it tickled.
“Which part—the standing in line or the paying for my purchase?”
“Vic, you helped Santa. You’re like…you’re like Santa’s little helper.
I growled, a little of my werewolf coming across.
“I’m not a ‘little’ anything.”
“Okay, fine, you’re Santa’s ginormous helper, is that better. Still, you saved Christmas!”
I rolled my eyes. “I most certainly did not save Christmas.”
“Okay, but you helped.”
I left that alone. I was feeling pretty good, actually.
Anyway, I still had presents to buy, Jezi’s first and foremost. Santa had said Jezi would get exactly what she wanted this year. I had a strange feeling he hadn’t meant the tablet…not that it let me off the hook. I wondered what it was Jezi really wanted, and I wished, not for the first time, to be part of it.
Meet Lucienne Diver!
Lucienne Diver is the author of the popular Vamped series of young adult novels (think Clueless meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Her short stories have been included in the Strip-Mauled and Fangs for the Mammaries anthologies edited by Esther Friesner (Baen Books), and her essay on abuse is included in the anthology Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories (HarperTeen). 2011 saw the launch of Bad Blood, the first novel in her Latter-Day Olympians series of contemporary fantasy, set in LA and featuring a heroine who can, quite literally, stop men in their tracks. Long and Short Reviews gave it her favorite pull-quote of all times, “Bad Blood is a delightful urban fantasy, a clever mix of Janet Evanovich and Rick Riordan, and a true Lucienne Diver original.” She can now die happy, though maybe not just yet.
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