Polterheist

By: Laura Resnick

Raves for the Esther Diamond series:

1


I became convinced that something strange was going on at Fenster & Co. when a singing tree tried to strangle me.

Prior to that, I’d had my suspicions, of course. But my attention really got focused on the subject when the mechanical arm of a fake tree suddenly twined around me and squeezed like a determined python—while several of the thing’s other limbs violently knocked away anyone who tried to interfere. The real clincher was when the tree’s animated eyes glowed red with demonic fire while it growled in a low, gravelly voice, “Kill . . . kill . . . I want flesh! And blood.”

Okay, that was more than just a mechanical malfunction, and no one was going to convince me otherwise—though NYPD’s Detective Lopez, as was his wont, certainly tried.

My name is Esther Diamond, and how I came to be dressed as an elf who never feels the cold, performing musical duets with an animated tree (much too animated) in retail hell, is a fairly standard tale of woe in my profession. I was in an Off-Broadway play that closed right before Thanksgiving, and although I’d had several auditions that autumn, I hadn’t been cast in anything.

Meanwhile, Bella Stella, the notorious restaurant in Little Italy where I usually worked as a singing waitress when I was “resting,” was temporarily overstaffed with musical theater students who were home from college for the holidays. So Stella, the owner (and bereaved mistress of Handsome Joey Gambello, who got whacked right there in the restaurant a few years ago), could only offer me a handful of shifts until they all went back to school. Although the wiseguys who ate at Stella’s tipped well, the income from a few scattered shifts wasn’t covering my rent. So when the opportunity arose to work at Fenster’s through Christmas Eve (I use the word “opportunity” in its most abstract sense), I took the job.

Fenster & Co. was a well-known landmark in the competitive retail world of midtown Manhattan. Shopping at this upscale, family-owned department store had long been a tradition for New Yorkers and tourists, and Fenster’s famously extravagant Christmas displays had made the place a mainstay of the season for decades. Generations of kids had visited Santa Claus at Fenster’s. Indeed, generations of them seemed to be present on the day I was homicidally assaulted by a caroling tree.

I was hired late in the season, weeks after jobs like this were usually filled, because my predecessor had stopped coming to work. Actually, a number of seasonal staffers and benighted performers had stopped showing up for their shifts. By the end of my first shift at Fenster’s, I found the employee exodus easy to understand. The dense crowds shoving and stepping on me, the discomfort of my skimpy costume as December winds whipped through the store via the busy entrances and exits, the long hours on my feet, the fascistic management policies and humorless floor managers, and the seasonal hysteria of holiday shoppers and their overtired children were enough to make any sane person stop showing up to work here. But I gritted my teeth and stuck it out because I needed the money. Pluck and dreams don’t pay the rent—especially not in New York City.

On the day of my arboreal asphyxiation, I was industriously working my way through the various duties of my twelve-hour shift (the attrition rate among the seasonal staff ensured that I was able to sign up for quite a few overtime hours).

I started my shift by assisting Santa Claus, who spent every day enthroned on the fourth floor from opening until closing. With thousands of kids per day coming to see him (not all of the children hygienic or calm, and not all of the parents well-behaved), portraying Father Christmas was such a stressful job that we always had two Santas in the store, so they could swap out regularly with each other throughout the shift. Only one Santa at a time was allowed on the floor—out in the public area of the store where people could see him. The “relief” Santa relaxed in the break room while the “floor” Santa listened to Christmas wish lists and posed for photos. Elves kept things running smoothly by ensuring that the relief Santa was ready to start working the moment his counterpart stepped off the floor.

The two-Santa system was also designed to ensure we never had a day like today.

The store opened at ten o’clock in the morning, by which time I had donned my costume, left the ladies’ locker room, and was pacing in front of Santa’s empty throne, which was placed prudently near the fire exit and at the very back of Solsticeland—Fenster’s immersive multi-cultural extravaganza, which was erected every year to celebrate (and profit from) the holiday season. It was a true test of stamina for parents to get all the way to this spot, since it involved wending their way, with kids in tow, through a marathon maze of elaborate exhibits and retail displays stocked with every conceivable toy, gadget, and trinket that money could buy. The delights of these items were demonstrated by elves whose job was to convince young children to go tell Santa, loudly and within their parents’ hearing, that this was what they wanted for Christmas.

Sure, seeing Santa was free, but there was plenty of cost involved.

As usual, despite the considerable distance from Fenster’s main-floor entrances to this section of the fourth floor, and notwithstanding the dense seasonal obstacle course which separated the store’s escalators from the spot where I was standing, eager children and cranky parents descended on me like the Golden Horde only minutes after the store opened for business that day.

First in line was a wide-eyed, pink-cheeked, little blond boy who clung shyly to his mother’s hand. At her nudging, he politely bade me good morning, then asked, “Where’s Santa?”

Good question, I thought, glancing at the empty throne. Another reason we had a couple of Santas working every shift was so that this would never happen. With two dozen children already lining up at the throne within minutes of the store opening, we were currently Santaless.

I gave a meaningful look to Candycane, the other elf assigned here this morning. She nodded and went in search of a Santa.

Assuming that she would be back with one in tow within minutes, I smiled perkily and explained to the gathering throng, using suitably melodramatic tone and gestures, “There was a big snowstorm in the North Pole last night. Santa woke up to find his sleigh buried in snow! So he’s going to be a little late getting here today. He said to tell everyone he’s very sorry about this. But he’s on his way here right now!”

As more parents and children piled into the area, a father said snappishly, “Santa’s late? He’s late? What do you mean by ‘late’?”

Ignoring him (I had learned quickly that, whenever possible, this was the best strategy with irate parents at Fenster’s), I asked the little blond boy who’d been the first to arrive, “What’s your name?”

“Jonathan.”

I gasped. “You’re Jonathan? Really?” When he nodded, looking startled by my excited reaction, I said, “Oh, Santa especially wants to meet you. He told us so when he phoned in to say he’d be late.”

“Santa has a phone?” a little girl asked with interest.

“A smart phone,” I confirmed. “He just loves it.” Then I bent over to tell Jonathan, “Santa said he’d heard you were coming today. He said, ‘Tell everyone I’m sorry I’ll be late—and, please, especially tell Jonathan not to leave before I get there. I really want to meet him!’”

Jonathan’ pink cheeks went bright red with delight. Then, overcome with emotion, he buried his face against his mother’s coat. She patted his back as she smiled at me and said that, in that case, they would certainly wait for Santa.

“How late?” the same irate father demanded. “Five minutes? Ten?”

“Look! There’s Rudolfo!” I cried out. No, I had no idea why our red-nosed reindeer was Italian. He just was. “And Twinkle is with him! Yay! We can have a song while we wait for Santa!”

Rudolfo, played by a pudgy middle-aged actor with roving hands, was sort of a giant, fuzzy-brown sock puppet with massive felt antlers. Twinkle, dressed in a traditional red and green elf costume, was an accordion-playing college kid who defied management policy by wearing his glasses when in costume on the floor. He insisted he couldn’t see without them. Judging by their bottle-bottom thickness, I believed him.

My cry of delight had startled the pair as they were passing us on their way to their assigned post elsewhere in the fourth floor’s seasonal wonderland.

“Please, Twinkle and Rudolfo,” I called merrily. “Give us a song while we wait for Santa to arrive! Santa is late today due to a snowstorm in the North Pole.”

“How late is he gonna be?” demanded the fuming father. “I don’t have all day for this.”

Rudolfo recognized my problem and shifted course to start working the crowd that was lined up at Santa’s throne. He shook hands, patted cheeks, and posed for pictures while Twinkle, fiddling with his accordion, came over to join me beside the elaborate empty chair.

“Santa’s not here?” Twinkle muttered, peering at me through his thick lenses. “He’ll catch H-E-double-hockey-sticks for this. Whose shift is it, anyhow?”

“Moody Santa, I think,” I said.

This being a short-term job, and all of us in costume for it, we mostly knew each other by our floor names: Twinkle, Candycane, Rudolfo, and so on. To differentiate between the half-dozen Santas on staff, we used descriptive monikers: Moody Santa was a morose new graduate of the Yale School of Drama who hadn’t expected this to be his first professional job as an actor; Wheezy Santa suffered from allergies; Diversity Santa was my friend (and, years earlier, had been my boyfriend), an African-American actor named Jeff Clark who’d been hired recently to replace Giggly Santa after he stopped coming to work.

“Who else is scheduled for this morning?” asked Twinkle. “Where’s the back-up Santa?”

“I don’t know.”

With two Santas assigned to the shift, why wasn’t one of them here? Why hadn’t Candycane come back yet—either with a Santa or with an explanation? I figured Santa was at least ten minutes late now (this was a guess, since elves didn’t wear wristwatches). Fenster’s was inflexible about its punctuality rules for employees. And with a growing crowd of excited children and restless parents around me, I feared that Santa’s tardiness could prove to be life-threatening for an innocent elf who was just trying to earn some honest overtime wages.

The bell on the end of Twinkle’s red stocking cap jingled noisily as he said to me, while bobbing his head emphatically, “You know they’ll dock Moody Santa’s pay for this. He won’t like that. Really needs the money. Student loans, dontcha know. Yale Drama ain’t cheap.” He snickered.

“Yeah, whereas you and I dress like elves for love alone,” I said. “Come on, play something, Twinkle.”

When he started playing Handel’s “Messiah,” I gave him a sharp enough nudge to unbalance him, which halted the music on an off-key wail of accordion chords.

“Something the kids can join in singing,” I clarified. “How about ‘Deck the Halls’?”

Twinkle rolled his eyes but complied. I started singing, and Rudolfo joined me in leading the children in several verses. Then we sang “Jingle Bells” (I accompanied the accordion by rhythmically shaking the bells on my festive boots), “Frosty the Snowman,” and—of course—“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” During this rendition of his signature tune, our fuzzy companion mimed and hammed it up shamelessly. It kept the kids entertained, so I was in favor of it—until Rudolfo used the song as an excuse to embrace me from behind, his reindeer-clad hands clasped over my breasts. Under the guise of doing a little two-step dance, I stomped hard on Rudolfo’s hoof and kept on singing as he staggered away.

As soon as the song ended, I could hear a toddler crying, a child whining about wanting to see Santa right now, and a couple of mothers complaining about the wait.

“Where’s Santa?” a child demanded.

“Yeah, where is Santa?”

“How about another song?” I said brightly.

“No! I want Santa!”

“Where’s Santa?” a high-pitched voice shrieked somewhere at the back of the still-growing line. “You said Santa was here!”

Jonathan, still clinging to his mother’s hand, piped up, “Santa is coming! He’ll be here soon. He’s coming to see me.”

That kid deserved to get every single thing on his Christmas list this year.

“Jonathan is absolutely right,” I assured the seething throng. “Santa will be here any minute. He’s so excited about meeting all of you! Especially Jonathan, who Santa heard has been a very good—and very patient—boy this year.”

“I’ve got shopping to do!”

“I want my money back!”

“What money?” said another parent. “This is free.”

“And it damn well should be, since there’s no Santa!”

“I want Santa!”

“Where is Santa?”

“I WANT SANTA!”

Under my costume, a drop of cold sweat trickled down my back. I recalled the advice imparted during my training: Never let them sense fear. These Christmas crowds will descend like a pack of ravening wolves if you reveal any weakness.

I took a steadying breath and glanced at Twinkle. His forehead was shiny with sweat now as he stared glassy-eyed at the restless masses Rudolfo was trying to humor and soothe. I nudged the elf, who flinched violently in startled reaction, making his pointy ears bobble.

“Another song,” I urged.

“No, it’ll never work,” he said, his voice cracking with fear. “We’ve got to retreat. Now.”

“No!” I said. “We hold the line.”

“But what if—”

“We hold the line,” I repeated firmly. “Now play a jolly song, damn you!”

By the time we finished “Good King Wenceslas,” it was clear we were on the verge of disaster. More children were crying and whining, parents were bickering shrilly, and even young Jonathan was starting to look unhappy.

Someone started a chant, which began spreading through the crowd: “San-ta! San-ta! San-ta!”

“It’s not safe here,” Twinkle said desperately. “We’ve got to fall back.”

“No, we can’t.” I gestured to Rudolfo, who was at least thirty feet away from us, trying to cheer up weepy toddlers and angry parents. “We’d be leaving the reindeer alone and exposed out there.”

“He knew the risks when he signed on for this job,” Twinkle said ruthlessly.

“We can’t just abandon him,” I argued.

I was startled by an officious voice coming loudly from behind me. “Where is Santa?”

I whirled around and found myself facing Miles, the floor manager. As always, he was wearing a gray suit, a nametag, and a censorious scowl.

“Miles! Thank God you’re here,” I said with relief. “We don’t know. Where is Santa?”

“Don’t say ‘God’ on the floor,” Miles snapped.

“Santa never showed up,” Twinkle said, raising his voice to be heard above the dull roar of the restless crowd.

“And where is Candycane?” Miles demanded. “Isn’t this her shift?”

“Candycane went to find a Santa and still hasn’t came back,” I said. “Something’s wrong.”

Twinkle said, “We’ve got to cut and run before it’s too late!”

“You will stay right where you are,” Mile ordered.

“But what if—”

Miles looked at his watch. “Santa is nearly thirty minutes late. I want an explanation!”

“I’m sure you do, Miles, but you’re obviously not going to get one from me or Twinkle,” I said reasonably. “We have no idea what’s happened to Santa. Our pressing concern right now is, what do we do about all these people?”

“No, our pressing concern is,” Miles said crisply, “where is Santa? I will go find out. You will keep these people entertained.”

“What?” bleated my companion. “No! We’ve got to—”

“That’s an order, Twinkle,” Miles said coldly. “Play something. And you . . .” He looked at me. “Sing and dance. Be merry. Or we’ll have to rethink whether you’re really elf material, young woman.”

“Now that was just unkind,” I said as he walked away.

“What do we do now?” Twinkle asked with panic in his voice.

“Steady on, Twinkle. This the moment that every elf is destined to face.” I clapped him on the back. “Today is the day you find out whether you’re really made of sugarplums.”

“What?”

“Let’s do another song.”

He sighed in resignation. “Which one?”

“‘Twelve Days of Christmas,’” I said decisively.

The song was interminable, so I figured Miles would have enough time to go out and kidnap a Santa from some other store before we finished performing it.

I started singing the first verse, trying to get the children to join in—and ignoring the groans, boos, and tears that greeted my efforts. Beside me, Twinkle trembled a little, which made him miss some notes.

The more experienced elves at Fenster’s had warned me never to let the line for Santa’s throne get too slow. And now it had been at a complete standstill for a half hour. We were dicing with death.

“Life is cheap in the throne room,” battle-hardened Santa’s helpers had advised me. “When the first kid breaks formation and rushes for that chair, you’ve had it. Just run for your life—and don’t go back for stragglers. Once a six-year-old with blood in his eye leads the charge, it’s every elf for himself.”

While singing about turtledoves, golden rings, and swans a-swimming, my wary gaze roamed the crowd, trying to spot the loose cannon, the inevitable ring leader, the child whose patience would snap and lead to a stampede.

And then it happened.

The rumble of rebellion started at the very far end of the Christmas queue, among people who were so far from the throne that they were out of my sight line. But I could hear them. Oh, yes, I could hear . . . and I felt paralyzed with fear.

Rudolfo, who was still farther away from us than safety or sense dictated, heard it, too. He stopped his merry little dance and stood straight and stiff, gazing in the direction of the ominous shrieking and shouting.

Twinkle’s hands froze on the accordion and the instrument went silent. “This is it,” he croaked out. “Here they come.”

“Rudolfo!” I cried. “Fall back! Retreat!”

We heard a long, piercing, horrified scream somewhere at the back of the seemingly endless line of visitors. It was picked up and passed along by others. Within moments, most of the crowd was screaming hysterically.

“You break right, I’ll break left,” shouted Twinkle, abandoning his accordion lest it slow him down. “Good luck!”

“Wait a minute,” I shouted back, even as Rudolfo fled the scene. “Listen to that.”

“Go!” Twinkle gave me a shove.

The crowd broke at all once, everyone running in different directions, people screaming and shouting.

Little Jonathan ran straight past me, his face white with fear now. His startled mother lost sight of him, looking around in panic as she shouted, “Jonathan? Jonathan!”

“They’re not attacking,” I shouted in confusion, clinging to Twinkle’s arm as he tried to escape. “They’re scared—or startled.”

“Who cares? Let go!”

Twinkle threw his whole body weight into trying to break my hold on his arm. I released him, and he flew straight backwards and then hit the floor in an ungainly sprawl. I winced as shrieking children trampled him without hesitation or mercy.

I leaped out of the path of the stampeding crowd and climbed onto Santa’s throne for safety—which was when I realized that they weren’t rushing it. Or me. They were fleeing from something that was coming in this direction.

“Twinkle! Get up!” I shouted.

“I’m . . . trying!”

While the elf fought his way out from beneath the squealing children who were scrambling over his prone form, I rose to my feet, stood on the throne, and peered over the heads of the chaotic crowd, trying to see what had incited the mob to this hysteria.

Whatever I had expected to see (a raging fire? armed robbers? a pack of wild hunting poodles?), I was unprepared for the alarming spectacle that met my gaze. “Good God!”

My friend Satsy (aka Saturated Fats, a cabaret performer), known at Fenster’s as Drag Queen Santa, was racing toward this spot as if his life depended on it, arms outspread, screaming in terror, his Santa costume torn, singed, and smoking sinisterly. Although Satsy’s ultra-long, glittery purple eyelashes were still in place, his usually glamorous eye makeup was smeared and running, making him look like some sort of goth monster—especially with his white Santa beard sticking out sideways from his head and flapping madly as he ran. Given that Satsy was a large man—tall and heavyset—his overall appearance was terrifying, at the moment, as was his screaming sprint straight in this direction.

No wonder kids at the back of the crowd had gone berserk and started the stampede. If I were six years old, I’d be fleeing in terror now, too.

I supposed the adults could also be forgiven their reaction, considering the stress already inflicted on them by the season of joy. The sudden screeching arrival of Lunatic Monster Santa had probably just been the tipping point for them.

I jumped up and down on the throne as I shouted, “Satsy! Satsy!”

Much of the shrieking crowd had vacated the area by the time my friend reached this spot. I saw that he was soaked with sweat, which probably explained why his makeup was running and his Santa beard had come unglued. He was panting so heavily he couldn’t speak—but also, thank goodness, couldn’t keep screaming. As I stood on the throne, staring at him in dumbfounded alarm, he sank to his knees before me, his head bowed as he wheezed and gulped in air.

“What’s going on here?” Miles demanded, pushing his way past the last of the stampeding throng. “And why is Santa worshipping that elf?”

I glanced at Miles and realized he meant me.

Twinkle pulled himself together and started crawling toward me and Satsy, his glasses crazily askew, his pointed elf ears and stocking cap lying trampled on the floor behind him. “That was the second scariest experience of my life,” he said in a shaky voice. “My entire life!”

I hopped off the throne and knelt beside Satsy, helping him turn around and slump into a sitting position with his back supported by the chair. I patted his smoking red costume, making sure no part of it was on fire. There were singed bits and scorch marks, but Satsy didn’t seem to be burned. Meanwhile, Miles shrilly demanded explanations, which none of us were in any condition to provide. And Twinkle, babbling nervously in the aftermath of mortal terror, was recounting the scariest experience of his life, which seemed to involve a fantasy role-playing game and an angry alpaca farmer—but I wasn’t really paying attention.

Satsy was still sweating and hyperventilating, Miles still demanding explanations, and Twinkle still babbling when Candycane joined us. She saw Satsy and gave a startled shriek, then realized he wasn’t a grotesque monster, but just a very disheveled Drag Queen Santa.

“What the fuck?” said the dainty elf.

“That is a warning offense,” Miles snapped, pointing an accusing finger at her. Profanity was strictly forbidden on the floor. “This is going on your record, Candycane.”

Candycane looked worried, since this was her second warning. Official warnings could go on your record at Fenster’s for a myriad of petty offenses, and store policy was that the third warning led to automatic termination of employment.

“Oh, lay off her, Miles,” I said as I patted Satsy’s back soothingly. Twinkle and Satsy were both still semi-hysterical, and we could hear terrified children wailing and parents shouting all over the fourth floor in the wake of the stampede. “These are exceptional circumstances.”

“There are no circumstances under which an elf can use that kind of language with impunity!” Miles said shrilly.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” I muttered.

“You are dangerously close to receiving a warning yourself,” he said.

“Hiring and training an elf takes at least two days, and Christmas Eve is only three days away, Miles,” I pointed out. Our holiday employment would end when the store closed on the evening of December 24th. “So it’s too late to replace any of us, and we’re already so understaffed that most of us are working overtime. Do you really want to lose more elves now?”

“Hmph.”

I turned to my traumatized friend and asked, “Satsy? Are you all right? What going on?”

“As for me, I like alpacas,” Twinkle was saying. “I guess. I mean, I don’t dislike them. Anyway, I meant no harm, and I tried to explain that . . . But you can’t really reason with an enraged farmer who’s waving around a cat-o’-nine-tails.”

“Huh?” said Candycane.

“Jonathan? Jonathan!” a mother was calling—and I realized whose mother it must be. The frightened little boy had fled the scene well ahead of his parent, and she evidently hadn’t found him yet.

“Oh, my God,” panted Satsy. “Ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod!”

“What happened?” I prodded.

“I thought I would die!” Satsy wiped his sweating face with his sleeve—thus smearing his makeup even more and ruining his furry white cuff. “I thought I’d die in there!”

“I thought I’d lose an eye,” said Twinkle. “Or a very valued appendage.”

“Where?” I asked.

“The field where we were jousting on the alpacas we’d liberated,” said Twinkle. “Well, trying to joust.”

“You should stop talking,” I told him. “Satsy, where did this happen? And what happened?”

“I was trapped in the freight elevator,” Satsy panted. “Esther, there is something evil in there!”

“Evil?” I said alertly.

“Evil,” he repeated significantly, his spookily smeared, long-lashed eyes meeting my gaze.

“I see . . .”

Satsy and I had a mutual friend who specialized in confronting Evil.

“Jonathan!” I heard a worried mother calling out again from elsewhere on this floor. “Jonathan, where are you?”

“Wait, why were you in the freight elevator?” Twinkle asked Satsy, finally distracted from his jousting-alpaca tale. “You’re not that fat.”

“Really,” I said to him, “just stop talking.”

“There was growling and laughing and flames . . .” Satsy shuddered and made a terrified sound. “I thought I’d die in there!”

Since he started hyperventilating again, I decided not to press him for clarifying details at that moment.

Miles looked at his watch. “We’ve got to get things back on track.”

I looked away from Satsy long enough to realize that the manager was right. Despite what had just happened (and despite the fact that security guards ought to be flooding this floor now in response to the noise and chaos, but were nowhere in sight), I could already see many people lining up nearby to visit Santa—presumably not the exact same people who had just fled in panic.

Miles said in exasperation to Satsy, “And you obviously can’t work until you’ve cleaned yourself up. Go to the break room and compose yourself.”

It would clearly take more than a little composure to make Drag Queen Santa presentable again. He was a sweaty, smeared wreck, and his costume was badly damaged. But Satsy nodded and, with help from me and Candycane, rose shakily to his feet.

“Where is Santa?” Miles demanded of Candycane. “The other shift Santa, I mean.”

The elf said, “He didn’t show up for work.”

“What?” Miles snapped.

“I couldn’t find Moody Santa anywhere. Then I found out that he never clocked in,” said Candycane. “He’s not here.”

“What?” Miles repeated.

“I gather he didn’t call in sick?” I asked.

“No,” the manager said darkly.

“Ah,” I said.

This was by now a familiar problem. My old boyfriend, Jeff, and I had both been hired to replace AWOL employees, and more staffers had disappeared from our ranks since then.

“Oh, well,” I said to Miles. “I had the impression that Moody Santa felt his role didn’t really challenge him artistically. I guess this was bound to happen.”

“We need a Santa, not levity! And we need one right now!” Miles gave Satsy a ruthless appraisal, then said sternly, “You’ve got exactly five minutes to get cleaned up and get seated on that throne, mister.”

Satsy shook his head weakly. “I can’t.”

“That’s an order!” Miles said.

I argued, “Can’t you see he’s in no condition to greet children and defend himself from crazy parents?”

“I insist you get to work in five minutes!”

“So fire me,” Satsy croaked, looking far more like a Halloween ghoul than a Christmas tradition.

“You’re being unreasonable,” I said to Miles, putting my arm protectively around Satsy’s bulk. “Post a sign and some elves to explain that Santa’s been called away on a Christmas emergency. Maybe that will hold off a seasonal riot and give you time to find a fresh Father Christmas.”

“Jonathan! Jonathan!” The boy’s mother was starting to sound frantic. I realized that we should alert security that he needed to be located. If we could locate security, that was. Those guys were never around when you needed them. “Jonathan!”

Miles glared menacingly at Satsy for a long moment, then his shoulders slumped and he sighed. “Yes, all right, this Santa obviously can’t work this morning. You and Candycane escort him to the break room, make sure he’s all right, and get the costumer to do something about his outfit. I want him ready in time for the afternoon shift!”

“I don’t think he should work today,” I said, still wondering what had driven Drag Queen Santa into such a frightened frenzy.

“Nonsense!” said Miles. “The show must go on!”

“But—”

“It’s all right, Esther,” said Satsy, starting to regain control of himself. “I need a little time, but I’ll be able to work later.”

“Are you sure?”

Satsy nodded, his beard flopping askew against the side of his head. I reached up to remove it.

“I’ll call Rick,” said Miles, pulling a cell phone out of his pocket. “At least he can always be relied on.”

Rick was a grad student in psychology, rather than an actor or cabaret artist. We called him Super Santa because he was amazingly good with crying kids, shrill parents, high-strung elves, and cranky managers. He was also punctual and always eager to work extra shifts; like me, he needed the overtime pay.

“You’ll need a relief Santa for this shift, too,” I said to Miles, thinking of someone else who needed the extra money. “Call Jeff Clark.”

“Which one is he again?” Miles frowned. “It’s been a revolving door of Santas this year.”

“He’s the black guy,” said Twinkle.

“Diversity Santa,” I added.

“Oh, right,” said Miles with a nod. “I’ll call him next.”

“You really think he’ll show up?” Twinkle asked me. “That guy hates this job.”

“So do I, and I keep showing up,” I said. “He’ll come in, if he’s available.”

Miles was holding the phone to his ear, evidently waiting for Rick to answer his call, as he told me and Candycane, “I want you two back on the floor and working as soon as you get this Santa settled down. I don’t want any more prob—”

“Eeeeeeyaaaahhhh!”

We all froze and looked in the same direction. I realized that the high-pitched, blood-curdling scream had come from a child at the same moment that I heard his mother shrieking frantically, “Jonathan! Jonathan!”

And my day was just beginning.

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