I hated Christmas.
“The elf did it,” Rudolph said before he spat a glob of tobacco juice into one of Mall of America’s promenade trashcans. Dark brown liquid splattered his faux fur. The combined scent of Red Man and dark bitter animosity was overwhelming. I switched to mouth-breathing to keep my Cinnabon down.
“That’s not what I asked, and tobacco products are prohibited to mall employees during work hours, Mr…” I scanned my notes for Rudolph’s real name, still struggling against his stench. “Dickenson.” I shot him a look. “Seriously?
“Are you?” He smirked, flicking the gold MOA Security name tag on my uniform. “Rent-a-cop Holly Berry.”
I ground my molars together. Oh, yeah, I hated Christmas.
It was Christmas Eve in the biggest mall in the country, and I had been the lucky security officer selected by dispatch to investigate a theft at the Santa Experience, which included halting Santa visitations and putting me on the kill list of three hundred two-to-ten-year olds.
Thirty minutes ago the call came in that someone had stolen the Yule log, a special Christmas chocolate creation, from Santa’s cottage. The Yule log was a critical piece of MOA’s Christmas Eve festivities, having been advertised as special Santa-blessed chocolate guaranteed to grant all Christmas wishes. Every child that visited Santa today would get a piece. Now it was gone.
My suspects were Rudolph and Santa’s elf.
“According to the elf, you were out for the Big Man’s job this year,” I said, ignoring the red-nosed reindeer’s taunt and returning to my investigation.
“‘Big Man?’” He snorted. “Look at the scrawny bastard.” He gestured toward Santa Larry, sitting hunched over on a block of fake ice, his costume sagging around him. After Christmas last year, Larry had gone deer hunting for the first time and returned a vegan, dropping a hundred and fifty pounds in the process. You’d think Rudolph would have taken it as a compliment.
“Bowlful of jelly, my ass,” the reindeer continued. “He’s not fit to wear the suit. He won’t even accept the cookies. Animal products, blah, blah, blah. But does that matter? Nooo. Stupid f-ing Santas’ Union.” He stopped and his cynical gaze honed in on me in all too familiar way. What came out of his mouth was just as familiar. “Shouldn’t a real cop be handling this?”
“MOA Security is a nationally recognized — ”
“Don’t you think it’s the wrong time to be playing make-believe?”
Right, because that was what I did every day, put my uniform on to play pretend. Would it kill people to say thank you or bring me cookies?
I acidly told Rudolph to stay put and decided to give the elf, a six-foot-six Russian named Alesksei Mayorsky, another try. During my first interview of Santa’s little helper, the height and language barriers had been problematic. I walked the caution tape, only gagging once from the cloud of scents that hovered over me like a thundercloud, a nightmare mixture of perfume and dirty diapers. The holiday explosion of scents equaled a month of nausea for me. Just another reminder why I and my super freakish sense of smell would never be a “real cop.”
As I neared the elf, I noticed him speaking rapidly to someone at relative eye level. I stopped short when Bloomington PD Detective Ruben St. Nicolas came into view. Snippets of Russian floated to my ears. Figured. St. Nicolas was one of those too-perfect people. I took the cowardly way out and veered right for Larry.
St. Nicolas and I had had a mistletoe-misunderstanding last week I didn’t want to relive. I think it was more of my misunderstanding than his, making me want to avoid him even more than after the time I’d thrown up on him in the police academy during our tour of the morgue. My final display of freakishness before the academy dismissed me for ‘physical limitations’.
I was about to park myself on the ice block next to Larry when he shot to his feet. Then swayed on them. “You okay?” I asked, reaching out to steady him. His face was flushed and beads of sweat dripped from his forehead. Even his scent wasn’t quite right.
“Y-yeah,” he replied, evading my touch. “I’m on a new asparagus cleanse. Third day’s always the worst. Excuse me.” As Larry hustled for the cottage, the aroma of chocolate filled my senses and I wondered where it was coming from.
That explained it. He had always smelled like chocolate: full bodied with a soothing sweetness, perfect for blending with anything. And I had always wanted to be that anything.
“They sent you out for this?” I asked, avoiding the GQ cop’s eyes.
“Heck, no.” He laughed. “I just came to help. We wouldn’t send someone out on something as pointless as this.”
“Holly, I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Sure,” I said and walked away.
I ended up back in the cottage and the chocolate smell was even stronger. And different than St. Nicholas’ scent. It was too sweet with a homey undertone of vanilla and nutmeg… very Christmas-y. I continued to follow the scent deeper into the room and noticed small chocolate shavings dotted the carpet and presents under the tree. They hadn’t been there before. I withdrew my pepper spray, preparing to face the low-life that would steal from a holiday icon, and eased around the tree.
Larry was crouched low; the Yule log — half eaten — cupped in his hands, chocolate smeared in his beard. He glared at me. “It was those kids and their damn cookies.”
I zip-tied Larry’s wrists and called for backup. As I watch them lead Larry away, St. Nicolas came to stand beside me. “I’d say you and that bloodhound nose of yours deserve a reward.” He took something out of his pocket and handed to me.
A giant star sugar cookie.
I bit into the cookie and smiled. Merry Christmas to me.
A.M. Buxton writes adult paranormal, mystery, suspense. She has won several awards for her flash fiction, and recently appeared in Rattles Flash Fiction: At the Water’s Edge with her story “The Loch”.