The wind blew cold on this December night in Grand Rapids and that was just how the Two Nicks liked it. Chilly, cold enough to cast a light fall of snow and dust the grass with frost, yet not quite a bone chilling, soul rattling arctic wind. No, a gust that cold… it might mean other things were on the prowl, older things that neither of them wanted to deal with at the present time.
This night of nights, it was a difficult few weeks. If that doesn’t make much sense, steel your minds for the concept of beings beyond the realm of mortal time progression and comprehension. Secrets kept for those who know how to wield them, be it for better or for worse. Such a dichotomy fit the Nicks like a velvet, fur lined glove.
Their journey was more than half over, the relatively new world of the west comprising of their final stretch. At the current time, the deer were parked upon the top of a single story, flat roofed domicile providing ample space for them to take a well earned rest. It was important for all parties involved to conserve energy for what good is a time anomaly if you don’t take advantage of it?
The younger, yet larger of the Nicks sat on the front bench of the cherry red sleigh as he let out a mighty sigh and stretched back. He was old, yes ancient even, and even his eldritch bones were privy to the passage of time. This route wore the worst on him yet he did his best to maintain his trademark demeanor. Unlike… well, unlike the other one. Big Nick decided to indulge in his one vice, a long, sleek and ornate pipe. He tamped a bit of tobacco into it, passed his hand over the tool and it lit aflame. There he sat amongst the chill, puffing and contemplating. Whatever brief serenity he could afford was stricken to the waste as his passenger began to stir. Beside the wide, red robed bedecked man there sat a bundle of Earthen refuse, a bundle of twigs and dirt. It rustled currently and from the waste emerged Nicholas Bell, the Child Snatcher, Big Nick’s partner (for lack of much better term) and associate. Bell stirred from his bed, shaking the earth and the twigs from his triple pronged antlers. Big Nick frowned and dusted off the mess flung unceremoniously upon his coat. The chains draped upon Bell’s antlers clinked, clanked and clunked as he stretched out. The night was silent save for the breeze, the light puff of Big Nick’s pipe…and the hushed moaning from his companion. Big Nick rolled his twinkling eyes.
“Bell, you’re sulking again. You know I don’t like it when you sulk,” Big Nick accosted. He straightened his regal Mitre hat and took another puff. Nicholas Bell sighed.
“I’ve just been thinking,” he said, wistfully.
“That’s a bad course of action,” came the retort.
“Oh shut up,” Bell snarled baring his well worn, sallow teeth. “I run things through my mind, you know? How many years have we been doing this?”
A wry chuckle was his answer.
“It just gets to me sometimes, you know? See your visage – modernized and inaccurate, yes – always portrayed as the gift giver, the saint, the very essence and manifestation of good and kindness.”
“Maybe that’s because I AM, Bell.”
“But what about me, Nick?”
“They recognize you too. You should be honored your name is becoming more prevalent in the western world.”
“Always the same,” he sighed shaking his antlers in disdain. “I’ve become a mockery of the old ways. They always see me as an uncaring, devilish lout fixated on murder and bloodlust.”
“AND they should know that I only take those who deserve it. I’m not some mindless beast. The TaskMasters saw fit to assign us these roles, to work as a team. You’re the good and I’m the bad, sure I accept that. But there IS worse. Like…”
“Don’t mention the Sinterdaan,” Big Nick said. “We don’t need that kind of competition tonight. What brought all this up? Was it that kid in Pittsburgh?”
“Maybe,” Bell said softly. “I mean, did you see how excited he was to see you?”
“That changed pretty quick…”
“Well yes, children are not meant to bear witness. Their minds are not sophisticated enough to comprehend…”
“Well that was a very nice looking home. I’m sure the child will receive the best mental health care his parents can afford.”
“So you’re admitting you brought ruin to that boy’s mind?”
“The child was supposed to be asleep. They all should be. Curiosity drove the cat insane and such.”
“So, SAINT Nicholas, you’re admitting that you brought something other than joy and happiness to a child?” Bell challenged.
Big Nick stiffened. “Through no fault of my own! What are getting at? Damn it, I was enjoying a nice restful smoke.”
Bell chuckled wryly to himself. “Give me a go.”
“What’s that now?’
“You heard me. Let me try this house.”
Big Nick sighed and set aside his pipe. “This is how it works. This is how it has always worked. I descend into the home. I leave the presents for the children, I bring the magic and instill the wonder. If I catch wind of a sinner child within, then I call you and you do your thing.”
“The…swatting of the child with my reeds and the kidnapping to later feast upon their mortal soul?”
“Do you realize how bad that sounds coming from your mouth?” Bell asked.
Big Nick threw his gloved hands up in frustration. “I don’t understand the problem! You’ve never had a problem with this before!” The outburst caused a stirring from the deer. “Now look what you’ve done.”
“Don’t try to blame that one on me too, Claus! Variety is the spice of life! What harm could it do to let me try one house? Who knows, maybe I’ll be better at it than you…”
Big Nick shook his head in indignation. “Fine, OK, fine. If it will shut you up… and if the TaskMasters find out about this, you’re getting the full blame.”
“Agreed,” Bell said. He rubbed his taloned, furry hands together in anticipation.
Big Nick stood up, removing his coat and revealing his large, white haired barrel chest and considerable gut beneath velvet red suspenders. He set his Mitre aside and handed the coat to his companion. If there was any discomfort towards increased exposure to winter’s icy grip, the old man didn’t show it. He caressed his white beard as Bell stood up and, after a brief struggle, donned the red coat.
“Be careful, damn it,” Big Nick snarled. “Now some ground rules: You’ll do nothing down there but your – MY – appointed duties. Leave the reeds up here, no swatting. Leave the basket too, no capturing or kidnapping and certainly no eating the children. You get in, do your thing and get out. Understand?”
“So by no eating children you mean…”
“Oh just get it over with!”
Big Nick settled back in the sleigh with a harrumph as Nicholas Bell reached for the empty sack. Saint Nicholas’ magic imbued Arcane bag was red velvet and tied off with a glittering gold cord, quite the opposing figure to Bell’s own wicker basket. The basket had straps for him to wear it as a pack and just enough room to cram in several unruly children for later consumption. Currently his tools of the trade were concealed within his den and Bell pondered if he was making a mistake. Why shouldn’t he continue the same routine he had for eons upon eons? What made him want to change his mind? But then… why not give this a go? Perchance he could develop a reputation befitting a being such as himself? Maybe those who so rightly feared him could also come to revere him? A just figure handing out rewards to the good and punishment to the wicked. What would be so wrong with that?
With these thoughts swirling about in his furry head, the being leaped out of the sleigh and set off towards the red brick chimney. He turned back before his descent.
“Old friend, thank you for this opportunity,” he said, gratefully.
“Just don’t screw it up,” Big Nick huffed grumpily. “My reputation is on the line too, you know.”
“I won’t let you down,” he whispered more to himself than anyone else.
The time was nigh. Nicholas Bell perched upon the chimney and gazed down warily into the abyss. How did that fat man pull this off? Just another trick in his arcane wares, one to which the Child-Snatcher was not privy too. His antlers, that would be the most difficult part. Nicholas Bell closed his yellow eyes and… dropped…. and stopped about halfway down. His antlers had become wedged in the brick work, exactly as he feared.
“Ah, damn it!” he howled. He could have sworn he heard Big Nick chuckling from up above and reminded himself to give him a good wack upside his jolly head later. Bell struggled from side to side until he heard the tell tale crack. He plummeted the rest of the way down landing in a soot strewn fireplace and sporting one less prong on each antler. Damn, those took a long time to grow too. This was off to a bad start…
Bell ducked low, his slender frame brushing past the fireplace… immediately knocked a glass picture frame to the floor. Shattered glass, the clanking of his chains, his muffled cursing. All audible motions privy to elicit a certain response in one who does not expect to be awoken in the night by a home invader, no matter how benevolent their intentions may be.
He scanned his surroundings. Quiet, dark. As he had expected. The host family had been kind enough to leave the festive tree alight, a warm golden glow that guided him to his destination. Five red velvet socks (what was it with this night and red velvet?) hung from the fireplace, each with an embroidered initial lovingly painted in golden glitter glue. Ahead of him, a kitchen nook branched off into the darkness with an entry way beyond and to the right, another hallway undoubtedly leading to the bedrooms. He kept a wary eye on each, just to be safe.
What was he supposed to do first? Ah yes, the socks. The Arcane sack had manifested the appropriate holdings and Bell reached in with a grimy claw to withdraw bare candy canes and sweets of various kinds. With not real technique or aforethought, he simply grasped handfuls of goodies and shoved them into each sock. That wasn’t so hard. He consulted his mental checklist. The offerings must come next.
He stalked over to a small glass table set up alongside the tree. He was keenly aware of the thud his hooves made upon the bare wooden floor but there wasn’t much to be done. Surely Big Nick’s big black boots were no less cumbersome? Upon the table lie the traditional offerings. A glass of milk which he supped greedily. Carrots curiously enough. He had heard of this offering although the deer rarely indulged in such; thus he ignored the vegetables. Cookies, ah yes. Shaped in the traditional modernized icons of the Night of Nights and decked out in all manners of refined sugar and fat inducing yeast. And yet….tantalizing. Nicholas Bell leaned closer and immediately recoiled. Unleavened dough! What were these people playing at?!
He grunted in disgust. No matter, time for the tree. He turned towards the small douglas fir and gazed at it thoughtfully for perhaps a moment too long. He remembered the old days, the days of magic most primal and sufficient. He remembered the fires, the feasts, the revelers clad in the fur of their fresh kills. He remembered the worship, the adulation. The fear. Yet it was a fear in the guise of respect .. and those days were gone. Now he found himself the subject of parody, of entertainment and… it was all just so disrespectful….
He shook his two pronged head. Now was not the time to reminisce. Now was the time to prove his worth. Nicholas Bell unceremoniously upended the bag and spilled out the manifested gift wrapped counter-offerings. He didn’t know what the packages contained; video game consoles most likely and no doubt the latest trendy fashion dolls for which the children would have begged their parents. Big Nick and his workforce, yes they heard the pleas. Yet things were not as so commonly believed. The popular image of little rosy cheeked elves merrily crafting toys and baubles was a fallacy. No, Big Nick’s workforce were not quite so merry. In fact, nobody even knew what they looked like as they kept themselves enshrouded in robes made of tree bark the whole year long. These unnamed people, they were a warring tribe and Big Nick provided them safety from the boggarts that plagued their land in assistance for completing his foretold task. Thus they magicked up the best representation of modern day gifts via an ancient force unknown even to the Child Snatcher himself. It was a symbiotic relationship and the end result was exactly what Nicholas Bell was haphazardly placing beneath the modernized, brightly lit dryadic symbol of warmth and merriment.
He stood up, stretching. The bag was empty, indicative of the completion of his task. He had no idea how the fat man managed this. He could almost find a newfound respect stirring in the pit of his lean, furred stomach. After all, his task was menial in comparison, simply appearing to spirit off the wicked of the world in the occurrence that Big Nick should actually encounter any. It was honest, backbreaking work achieved via the means of the otherworldly time anomalies. That was the reason why it was warned for children to remain in bed. To the untrained, unmatured mind of a little one, the image of the man in red, streaking about the room like a hurricane of festivity could be too much for their minds to bear. White, frost bedecked hair, an twinkly eye here, a cherry red nose there coalesced into a body-horror funnel of sights hereto unseen and never to be witnessed. A Mitre hat suspended upon a balding head, not quite the inaccurate image to what they were so accustomed. True, they might know who this visitor is, they might have an inkling. But innocence be forever dashed upon those who would gaze into the world of magic to which they were not intended.
Nicholas Bell, however, had none of that. No magic aside from the Earthen wares gifted to him. Quite personified in his (formally) regal antlers…. which, as he stood proud and weary now entangled themselves within the bauble bedecked branches of the tree. Bell took a step back, inadvertently wrenching the tree down. A crash, a pop, a hiss. A curse.
The room was plunged into darkness as the pungence of a frayed electrical outlet permeated the air, a sour miasma indeed. But then, something else. An unmistakable scent. It was the stench of a sinner. Bell pushed the tree upright, cast aside all qualms for his blunder and inhaled deeply. To some, it would be an unholy melange of sour and burn. To the porcine, olfactory appendage of a Child Snatcher, it was profoundly delightful. Like… strawberries. Or something sweeter still.
It rode on a wave of innocence and then the being in the guise of Saint Nicholas knew that he was made. Two spritely figures, aloof yet curious at the spectacle before them. Clad in nightgowns, small and lithe, wreathed in the shadow that Nicholas Bell himself had established.
“Dad?” came a small voice.
Bell sucked in his breath. What to do, what to do?
Oh shit, what to do? He knew the children couldn’t see him. He knew their sanity would be protected but he also knew that ancient rules were set and they had been swiftly shattered.
“That’s not Dad, Sherry, look, he’s too tall,” came another.
“Holy shit, it really is!”
Bell balked at the words emanating from these forms. Young and female, yet not quite as innocent as one would perceive. His nose told him that.
“Santa?!” One of the girls cried. She took a tentative step forward yet the other (kin no doubt, sister most likely) held her at bay.
“What if it’s a weirdo? Like someone here dressed as Santa to kidnap us?”
“Oh yeah… hey mister, who are you? I’ll get my Dad and he’ll kick your ass!”
Bell snapped out of his stupor. He took a step forward, making sure to stay in the shade. The wicked scent lingered yet all he saw were two small girls. This was interesting. What to do? Oh, here’s a good idea…
“HO HO HO!” He cried aloud, his voice rasping in the dark.
One of the girls – the one named Crystal – rushed forward. Bell braced himself for an enraptured hug. He wasn’t used to contact, yet alone gestures of admiration. Braced for a hug, received a sharp sting.
Crystal withdrew, her blonde hair sparkling with sweat and adrenaline. She held up a silver dinner fork, still wet with Bell’s essence.
“Little bitch!” he yelled.
“Hey don’t call me a bitch! Get out of our home!”
Nicholas Bell growled softly, a bestial mistake. The girl gasped and stepped back. His cadence was more savage than a man’s could ever hoped to be and the children had no doubt noticed.
“Crystal, he’s not even human!” the one called Sherry cried.
Bell hesitated. What to do? Kill them, yes? No. That would lead to potential exposure. Run for it? And admit defeat to these cherubim? Not likely. Well, then… let’s play the jolly card.
“I’m so sorry, little girl. Forgive me for raising my voice,” he said, sweet and silver.
“Who are you?!” Crystal demanded, waving her fork menacingly.
“I am not the one you call Santa Claus, true, little Crystal,” He said. He was grateful for having heard the girl’s names for he lacked the panoptical knowledge of the fat man in red. “However, I am an associate of his.”
“What did you do to Santa?!” little Sherry cried. Tears began to streak down her porcelain face.
“Oh now, now,” Bell raised his claws in a gentle motion. “I didn’t do anything to my dear friend. You see, this Night of Nights, it tires him out so. Sometimes he needs a little rest and he sends me, his friend Mr. Bell in to leave presents and goodies for good little girls… like yourselves.” Even as he said this, the sweet sin stink continued to waft.
“Do you think we should trust him, Criss?” she asked her sister.
“I dunno, Sher. Maybe we can give him a chance. He looks pretty cool. Like that guy on Jenna’s heavy metal CD.”
“There’s another?” Bell asked, glancing left and right in alarm.
“Our big sister, Jenna. She’s asleep upstairs. She says Christmas is “the rancid stench of commercialized bourgeois bullcrap” or something like that.”
“And your parents…?”
“Sleeping too. Hungover, probably too much eggnog at the Miller’s house next door.”
Bell grunted. “You’re a curious little girl, aren’t you?”
“That’s what the school psychiatrist says,” Crystal responded.
“It’s true, she goes twice a week when she’s not suspended!” Sherry piped up. Crystal quickly shushed her.
“Oh don’t worry,” Bell assured. “Santa told me you’ve both been good little girls. I left lots of presents and candy in your stockings too!”
“Wellll,” Sherry trailed off with a giggle. Her sister gave her a good natured swat on the arm.
“Hm?” Bell’s interest piqued.
“Don’t tell him! We don’t know if we can trust him!” Crystal warned.
“I’m gonna tell him!”
“Girls, either tell me or not,” Bell sighed. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.”
“’Kay!” Sherry chirped. “Crystal killed Mr. Tiger! He is – WAS – our cat!”
Nicholas Bell took a moment to let this marinate in his shaggy head. His maw dropped open in silence and he took solace in finally knowing where the oh-so-sweet strawberry pungency had wafted from.
“Excuse me girls, just a moment.”
Bell set down the empty sack, backed away and pulled himself back up the chimney. Upon the top of the house, Big Nick was busy relaxing. On this Night of Nights, he knew he wouldn’t see his beloved for quite some time and thus was always willing to procure a few…provisions…from the Arcane sack. Undoubtedly, a certain type of reading material was often requested from certain individuals and the sack was often wont to replicate their desired smut. This is what the gift giver in red busied himself with as Nicholas Bell pulled himself back out of the chimney. His face was puffed and red as a cherry as he pored over the centerfold. Bell announced himself with an exaggeratedly loud snort causing Big Nick to leap in his seat and hurl the reading material into the air. The chill wind caught it, blowing it off the roof to his lament, undoubtedly proving quite the perverse prize for whomever should stumble across it in the frozen, dew licked, morning.
Big Nick let out a mighty harumpf and composed himself. “Yes, yes, Bell. All set I take it? It’s about time to be heading out.”
“No, no, not yet Nick, I have a question.”
Big Nick sighed and clenched the bridge of his wide nose in between his gloved hands. “Very well, what is it?”
“Um, OK, so here’s the thing. I know you said no Child Snatching but… well, one of the girls here, she’s been very naughty. Like, VERY.”
“Yes, I know. The oldest one. Trust me, I know,” Big Nick snickered.
Bell cocked his pronged head and frowned. “NO! No… ahem…one of the younger girls…”
“What, what’s the matter? Did she kill someone?”
Bell leaned against the brick protuberance. “Not a person, no.”
“Ah, an animal,” Big Nick sighed and reached into the refuse pile alongside him. He presented Bell with his reed pile and basket. “I’m going to let you make this call, Bell. Use your judgment. I trust you.”
Bell nodded and licked his mouth with his serpentine tongue. His face was chapped; the air was growing colder and he knew they’d have to leave very soon lest they face The Other One. He tentatively grasped his tools of the trade and lowered back into the chimney.
“Very well, I’ll be… right back,” he said hesitantly.
“Make it quick, damn it,” Big Nick complained. “I’m freezing my sugar plums off.” He blew into his gloves and rubbed them together and over his suspender bedecked belly in exaggeration. As Bell descended, Big Nick glanced over the eave of the house to his lost reading material and sighed forlornly.
Back in the dimly lit house, the two girls were shaking the presents under the darkened tree as mischievous children often do.
“I wonder if it’s the strychnine I asked for?” Crystal giggled, wiggling a small silver package.
“Criss, noooo,” Sherry smirked. “Santa wouldn’t bring you something like that! It’d probably one of those finger climbing monkey dolls.”
“SANTA wouldn’t. But this guy – The Grinch or the Bumble or whatever the hell he is – he just might!”
On cue, Nicholas Bell tumbled back into the room, tools of the trade in tow. He landed right on his tail, unfurling it in the process to no cries of shock or surprise whatsoever. He cleared his raspy throat, stood up regally, composed himself and swept the red coat back over his form. “Girls, I have returned from on high and I verily bear thee good news on this Night of Nights.”
“Why are you talking like that? You sound like that British yoga guy that Momma spends every weekend morning with.”
Bell shook his head for the umpteenth time, deciding to cast away any attempt at grandeur. “OK fine, damn it. I just spoke to Santa.”
“Santa’s here?!” Sherry cried, delighted.
“Yeah and he’s kind of pissed off, so let me do my thing,” Bell replied, annoyed. “He says that you girls have been pretty naughty-”
Drooping cherubic faces.
“-BUT not so naughty that you won’t get any presents. So there you go, I already left all your stuff. “
“Well then, off I go. And if anyone asks, tell them that Nicholas Bell, the Child Snatcher really isn’t all fright and fury.”
“Yes sir!” Crystal said enthusiastically. “But I – we – have one more Christmas wish.”
“Oh get one with it,” Bell said grumpily.
“Can we… can we come with you and Santa?”
“Yeah, can we?!”
“NOPE”, instant response.
“What, why not?” Crystal demanded. “That’s how it always works in Christmas stories!”
Bell had had enough. He crouched down and leered closely, making sure his entire devilish visage was aglow in the moon washed gleam from the Night itself. Sherry gasped and stepped back but her sister steadied her, defiant in the face of a nightmare fiend. She raised her fork tines forebodingly.
“Little girls, THIS is not your traditional Christmas story,” he sneered. He leaned closer, snorting his hot, sour halitosis on the children. Crystal stood her ground impressively. Bell suddenly smirked, exposing his worn yet sharpened teeth. “I like you girls. You’re little cuties, aren’t you?” He pinched Crystal on her chubby little cheeks.
She swatted him away. “Don’t do that, damn it!”
He smirked again. “I have to be going girls, but you remember what to say?”
“Yeah,” Sherry said, emboldened by her sister’s courage. “You’re not all… what was it?”
“Fright and Fury.”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
Bell nodded, the chains around his now two pronged antlers jangling merrily. He bowed in respect to the girls and turned away. His serpentine tail swept past the girls in a grand flourish, ruffling their hair and causing Sherry to giggle. “Oh and one more thing. You both ARE very naughty. Crystal dear, you are what some would call a “Red Flag”. Keep those impulses in check. Sherry, honey, you are known as an accessory or an accomplice. Both of you behave or next year, well, I just may have to show you what happens to the TRULY naughty children.” He tapped his basket for effect. The girls nodded, never breaking eye contact with the being in the red coat.
Bell looked back up the chimney and then back to the girls. A gleam shone bright in his equine eyes, the gleam of mischief and ill woven thoughts, of sour seeds planted but left not to wither, only develop on their own accord. Though it physically pained him to do so, Bell snapped off a few reeds from his lashing bundle. He presented them to the girls. “Remember, naughty but not TOO naughty.”
With that, he scrambled back up the chimney as a spider does in its gossamer weavework. The girls looked up the brick tunnel as their bizarre visitor vanished upwards and they waved a farewell with their new prizes.
“Merry Christmas, creepy devil guy!” Sherry called up.
Crystal’s slipper bedecked foot clinked on something. She bent down to pick up something hard, solid, slender but most importantly sharp. Bell’s broken antler piece sat weighted in her delicate hand and she knew that she had indeed received a most fortuitous gift; a new tool of whatever trade she damn well pleased to ply.
As Nicholas Bell scurried out of sight, the girls scamped back into their home and into the hallway. Crystal held her finger up to her lips as she shushed her sister. They opened a door adjacent their own bedroom to a slumbering form. Reeds in hand, they crept forward and imparted their own brand of mischief on this most magical of winter nights.
Back on the roof, Bell turned back and glanced down the chimney at the commotion below. A feminine scream echoed from within the house.
“OW! DAMN IT, WHAT ARE YOU GIRLS DOING?! OW! YOU’RE GOING TO GET IT NOW!”
Bell snickered and crept back into the sleigh. He hurled his basket, the remnants of his reed pile and the empty Arcane sack into the back of the vehicle. Big Nick had his eyes closed, hands resting on his mighty girth. Bell sunk into the seat next to him and began to sink back into his refuse. Before descending entirely, he gave Big Nick a big swat on his big belly. Big Nick bellowed and leaped awake, a move that startled the deer into animation as well.
“Alls well, I take it?” Big Nick asked, composing himself. “How did you fare? Want to try the next house?”
“Saint, I’m going to leave this to you I think,” Bell smirked. “You seem to have a pretty good grasp of it.”
“Very well. Then give me my damn coat back!” Big Nick yanked the coat off his companion and shouldered it back on. He glanced into the yard one last time as he picked up his reins.
Bell followed his gaze to the magazine lying below. “I thought you were giving up the Elven smut, Nick. Tsk tsk, now what would Sara think?”
“That’s enough out of you, asshole,” the good Saint snorted. He cracked his reins causing the deer to alight into the air with annoyed grunts.
“Very well, I shan’t tell a soul,” Bell said. “On one condition.”
An annoyed sigh.
“Check that damn list thrice. OK?”