Bo Kaier Drabblecast Christmas Cover Tim Pratt SantaNorm closes out the year and existence as we know it, due to the phenomena known as “The Continuation,” with the Drabblecast annual holiday Tim Pratt story, an original commission called “How Lovely Are Your Branches.” Enjoy!

Somebody was murdering people, but the killer’s name wasn’t showing up on my naughty list. That got me curious, so I poked around. There was nothing left at the crime scenes but dollops of sap and scattered pine needles, which felt less like sloppiness and more like a signature. I was in New York trying to track down the killer, but first, I needed a drink.

 

How Lovely Are Your Branches

Tim Pratt

 

Somebody was murdering people, but the killer’s name wasn’t showing up on my naughty list. That got me curious, so I poked around. There was nothing left at the crime scenes but dollops of sap and scattered pine needles, which felt less like sloppiness and more like a signature. I was in New York trying to track down the killer, but first, I needed a drink.

The bartender, who had a beard to rival mine, rolled his eyes. “I’m telling you, we don’t have eggnog.”

I sighed. “Just check the fridge.” I was in one of those bars with reclaimed wood everything and unshaded Edison bulbs dangling from the ceiling at random intervals, called Antler & Branch or Shard & Stone or something like that. Not divey enough for my tastes, but I wasn’t here for comfort. I was meeting a witness.

The bartender made a big show of bending down and looking around and then came up, frowning, holding a frosty pitcher. “Huh. Somebody else must have made this. I didn’t know. Sorry.”

“Not a problem. Just don’t skimp on the bourbon.” There’s always eggnog when I want it. One of the perks of being me.

I took my drink and swiveled on the stool. My witness was in a corner booth, alone, brooding over a cut-glass decanter. He seemed drunk enough to say things he might regret later. I went over and slid into the seat across from him, sucking in my belly so I wouldn’t jostle the table. “How are you,” I said.

He barely lifted his eyes. He had dark hair, dark eyes, a pinched mouth, and looked like a complainer, but even so—he was on my nice list. He had a misanthropic streak, but he also had a good heart. “Sorry,” he said. “Normally the whole Santa-Daddy-Bear thing would intrigue me, but I had a crap day, and I just want to drink alone.”

“The cops didn’t believe your story.”

He leaned back now. “Are you a reporter?”

I shook my head. “Name’s Bishop. I’m in private security.” That was sort of almost true. “I’ve been investigating some murders and assaults, and I think your story might be related.”

He laughed mirthlessly. “I saw a Christmas tree attack someone. Or… a guy dressed up like a Christmas tree, obviously, but… you’re investigating that?”

I sipped my nog. “I have just one question. How was the tree decorated?”

The witness frowned. “It didn’t have ornaments or lights or anything on it if that’s what you mean. No angel on top.”

“What made you call it Christmas tree, then? The shape?” I sketched a triangle in the air with my hands.

He looked thoughtful. “No, it was honestly kind of a mess, branches sticking out all over, but it was pine, and…. I guess there was this sort of garland,wrapped around it, though.”

“Color?”

“Mmm, red and green stripes? It was dark in the alley, but yeah.” He tapped the side of his glass. “There were Christmas things on the garland. Snowflakes, maybe candy canes, I don’t know.”

That fit. I hate being right. “Thanks. I’ll pay your tab.”

I started to rise, and he grabbed my wrist. “So I’m not crazy? You know who did did this?”

“Let’s say I know how they’re doing it, and that’s a start. You’ve been a great help.” I disentangled myself and settled back down at the end of the bar. I closed my eyes and expanded my vision. I’m not actually all-seeing. All I can see is people, and even then, I have to make the effort to look. I cast my roving eye across the city, but I didn’t see murderous Christmas trees in the vicinity of anyone. I opened my eyes, and the timing was good, because I got to see someone special in person.

Dawn walked into the bar. It was mid-afternoon in New York, so she wasn’t at her brightest, but her dress was the color of burnished gold, and her eyes were shining. She’s a morning person (technically, she’s a sun god) and I mostly work nights, so our relationship is a little tricky, but we make things work. She slid onto the stool next to mine and I caught the bartender’s eye. “She’ll have a tequila sunrise.”

Dawn took my hand in hers. It was warm. “Why are you in New York, Bishop?”

“Oh, you know. I thought I’d sit on the big chair at Macy’s. Or maybe ring a bell in a doorway for a it.”

“You know you can talk to me,” she said. “I can handle the darkness. I push it back every day.”

Talking to her always helped me figure things out. “There’s some weird stuff in the world, Dawn. One of the weirder things is this scarf, about six feet long. It changes color and design, but these days it’s red and green, patterned with reindeer and snowmen and holly leaves and mistletoe. Nobody knows where it came from. The most plausible theory I’ve heard says a sorcerer got hold of a some snipped-off threads from the skein of the Fates and wove those into the scarf, but who knows. What matters is what the scarf does.”

“Strangle people to death?” she guessed.

“Maybe indirectly. If you wrap the scarf around anything at least vaguely human-shaped, that figure comes to life—or a semblance of life—to do your bidding. One guy used it to animate a statue of a woman, once, and actually married her. Some kids back in the ‘50s found the scarf and used it to make a snowman come to life and dance around, and it was fine, because they just wanted a playmate. The scarf got lost after that, and nobody’s seen it since.”

“I heard it was a hat.” A hangdog man a couple of seats down the bar gestured at the top of his head. “Magic hat, brought a snowman to life. There’s a song about it.”

I gave him my most lump-of-coal stare. “You believe everything you hear in a song? There’s a song that says I’m jolly. Do I look jolly to you?”

“I’ve seen jollier,” the guy muttered, and slouched away.

I turned back to Dawn. “I think somebody used the scarf to animate a creature made of pine branches. Which seems like a deliberate provocation, to me. That creature is killing people on my naughty list.”

“Taking out your intended victims before you get to them?” Dawn said.

“I’m afraid not.” Some years ago I retired from giving gifts to good children and began to focus on giving justice to bad adults, using my abilities—to slow time, to enter any residence, to fly on my sleigh—to make sure those who preyed on people, especially children, couldn’t prey on anyone ever again. “I hunt people on the naughty list, sure, but I take out serial killers and violent offenders… this murderer is killing people who shoplift, or steal from the stock room at work, or cheat on their taxes. Worse, whoever it is has found a way to hide from me. They aren’t doing the killing—their animated tree-thing is—and that magic screws with my vision. The bad guy isn’t on my naughty list, because they aren’t doing the killing personally, and the tree isn’t a person, so I can’t see it with my special vision.”

“But now you have a lead?”

I shrugged. “I’ve confirmed my theory that the scarf is involved. The killings have all happened in Manhattan so far, one every day since December sixth, so—” I cocked my head. My traveling eye had been passively scanning, and it saw something: a tree in Central Park, but this one was moving, creeping up on a woman out for a run. She was on my list: she scammed people on auction sites to supplement her income. Lump-of-coal-worthy, but not a killing offense. “Gotta go.” I kissed Dawn’s cheek, and she patted mine and told me to be safe.

Rudy was waiting for me around back in an alley, head down in a garbage can. “Come on, girl.” My sleigh is painted black, there are no bells on it anymore, and no one sees it unless I want them to. I took the reins and Rudy lifted off. We cruised across the city, past tall buildings and over plazas and squares, unseen by the afternoon crowd of shoppers, commuters, and tourists below. There wasn’t snow on the ground, yet, but it would be along in a few weeks, and it was plenty cold. That’s okay. I like the cold. I embrace it.

We settled down in Central Park. The runner was rounding a bend on a deserted stretch of trail, and the tree-thing was moving to cut her off. I leapt off the sleigh and slowed time so I could intercept it.

A memory rose up from deep in my mind, one of the exploits of Saint Nicholas of Myra. I’m a creature composed of stories, and I never know which ones are true, but the tales of Saint Nicholas run strong in me, and there was an account of him using an axe to frighten demons out of a cypress tree. I wished I had an axe. I settled for my enchanted carving knives instead, one in each hand.

The creature was roughly humanoid, made of lashed-together boughs that gave it “legs” and four “arms,” each with a multi-fingered hand, talons made of sharpened wooden stakes tempered by fire. Its head was conical like the top of a Christmas tree, and my witness was wrong: the thing did have ornaments on it, a pair of red glass baubles that served as eyes.

The scarf was there, too, wrapped around the thing’s “neck,” one tasseled end of it dripping with blood.

The tree came at me with its claws extended, driven by the rage or cruelty of its unknown controller, twenty blackened spikes reaching out to pierce my eyes and my belly.

But,come on. It was a tree. My boots are heavy, and I kicked the thing into splinters, branches snapping and popping, as I slashed out with my knives, severing its reaching claws. Those blades mostly cut flesh and bone nowadays, but they were made to slice through wood. I took the thing apart, and when it fell, I crushed the baubles under my heels. (Then I sighed and picked up the fragments so no kid playing in the park would cut themselves.)

I unwound the scarf from the twitching mass of branches, and it stopped twitching. I looked around, and the jogger was gone—she never even knew how close she came to getting staked through the heart. I carried the scarf, sticky with sap and blood, over to Rudy, and held it up to her snout.

Rudy is the only reindeer who came with me when I left the North Pole, and her nose is good for lots more than just lighting the way. There was no better tracker in the north. Rudy took a deep sniff of the scarf, then jerked her head south. I climbed into the sleigh behind her. We coursed silently across the city and off Manhattan island, passing above a bridge as the skies grew dark. We settled down in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, near the old well house. (I had a vague memory of scaring demons out of a well, once, too.) I stowed the sleigh in the trees and fed Rudy a candy cane. She dipped her antlers in the direction of Lookout Hill. That seemed symbolic, too—since I am the ultimate lookout, in a way—but maybe I was just feeling overly mythic that day.

I went into the trees, knives in hand, and caught the scent: thick, pungent, goat-y. I knew who I’d find even before I found him, seated on a fallen log, birch staves across his hairy knees, hands tipped with blackened nails, long tongue lolling, long horns curling. “K,” I said.

Over the years I’ve had a lot of companions. Belsnickel, Ruprecht, Peter, the elves… and K, of course. Krampus, the dark figure who doled out punishments to the bad children, or even carried them away. I’d noticed him growing more popular in recent years, going from a regional oddity to the subject of books and films and pageants and parades. Nowhere near as famous as me, of course, in my various incarnations, but still: he was growing stronger, and he’d used his new strength to kill. “Why, K? Why murder shoplifters?”

Krampus rose, leather harness creaking, black iron bells jingling. He pointed at me with a twisted finger. “You did this,” he rumbled. “I am the dark side of you. You are the open hand, and I am the closed fist. You are reward, and I am punishment. But then you became dark. You took up your knives. You hunted evil people and killed them. What, then, is my new purpose, defined always in relation to you?” K spread his hands wide. “I had to change myself to fit. If you punished people, I had to punish people more, and worse, for lesser crimes.”

“K, that’s….” I wanted to say it was insane, but I could see the logic. If your role is to be the villain to my hero, what do you do when I turn into, at best, an antihero? “Why the scarf? Why not do your own dirty work?”

“I knew you would oppose me,” K said. “I did not think you would find me so swiftly. You have acquired new skills, in your new work.” He set his birch staves aside and stood with dignity. “Now I suppose I am on your naughty list, and you will slay me with your knives.”

I sheathed the blades. “We were never enemies, K. Maybe we can work something out.”

“You would have me serve you again?” I couldn’t tell if K sounded hopeful about or disdainful at the idea.

“My knives are enchanted,” I said. “I named them Comfort and Joy. The touch of Comfort makes you feel at peace, and the blade of Joy reminds you of your happiest moment. Even if that moment is one ordinary people would find horribly vile. The people I dispatch don’t feel any pain—they die as happy as they’ve ever been. I’ve often wished I could be a little more cruel, and make those people feel some of the suffering they’ve inflicted on others. I’ve never been able to bring myself to go that far, though. If I did that, I’m afraid I’d stop being me, in some fundamental way.”

I can be cruel,” K said. “I can deliver suffering.”

I thought about one of the targets I’d been contemplating. There was an island, owned by a billionaire, who brought his millionaire buddies in for parties that weren’t what I’d call festive. A lot of people got hurt, humiliated, and even sometimes died there.

I imagined flying low over that island, skimming over the mansion, and letting Krampus jump off the back of the sleigh. I pictured him landing in the middle of one of that monster’s garden parties—bells ringing, tongue lolling, branches whipping, chains lashing… and I couldn’t help myself. I shook with laughter.

I tried to tell myself that Dawn would approve. I could outsource my darker impulses, and that would make me brighter myself, right? But I didn’t really buy it. Just like when Krampus used the magic scarf to kill people, it was still ultimately K causing the deaths. Maybe I’d regret all this in the morning… but for now, it was night, and my nights could be as long as they needed to be.

“Come on, K,” I said. “Let’s go make merry.”

Play



Source link