19 days until Christmas, guys and dolls! Here’s an excellent Christmas thriller by the lovely Gina Denny to get those bells jingling. Gina usually writes adult science fiction and fantasy, but she certainly manages to put the ‘thrill’ in ‘thriller’…
by Gina Denny
I spit on the cement floor, blood-tinged spittle dangling down my chin. Slowly I shake my head, trying to clear the fog away. There’s no way to tell how long I’ve been handcuffed to this chair, but if I’ve counted right – a big “if” – I’ve blacked out three times since they started their interrogation.
Sweat trickles between my breasts, pooling in the underwire of my bra. Both my eyes are so bruised and swollen I can hardly open them, and there’s a steady stream of blood in my mouth, but that trickle of sweat bothers me more than anything. I want so badly to readjust; I absentmindedly start to move my arm forward for what has to be the fifteenth time, only to be stopped by the fact that both arms are both locked behind my back.
One of my captors sprays me with that infernal bottle of his. Cold water right to the face. I recoil and shake my head harder than I meant to. I stop and wince as the pain throbs through my skull.
“What’s that for?” My voice comes out hoarse, like I have a bronchial infection. A bronchial infection would be more fun. “I’m already awake, idiot.”
“The big guy’s coming,” he answers, his squeaky voice grating on my nerves. I will never, ever get used to that sound. “Just wanted to clean you off.”
They all laugh at that. Such a tinkling, merry sound. Goosebumps pop up all over my arms and I wince, suppressing a shiver.
I sit up as straight as I can and spit again, this time rubbing my chin against my exposed shoulder, trying to clear the spittle and blood away. Squaring my shoulders, I scowl at the door, ready to prove that even the big guy can’t break me.
His belly precedes him through the door, covered in bright red cotton stretched so far it looks to be in danger of shredding to pieces. His heavy black boots thunk on the cement – he has to be making that sound on purpose – and his scent wafts around the tiny little bunker-like room. The intoxicating smell of sugar and cold fights away the stench of blood and sweat and fear and I hate him for it.
I want to smell my own body, not his artificial version of happiness, dammit.
“Clara,” he booms, sounding way too jolly, considering his surroundings. “They tell me you’ve decided to play nice.”
“They’ve been very persuasive,” I say through gritted teeth. My heart pounds and I hope they attribute it to fear. Stupid preternatural elves, always noticing the little things. That’s how I got caught in the first place.
Santa strokes his ridiculous beard, watching me through those watery blue eyes.
“All right, Clara. I’ll listen. But you have just five minutes to tell me what happened.”
“No,” I say. The elves all freeze. Nobody disagrees with the big guy.
“No?” His jolliness disappears, replaced by the sort of cold disbelief that comes from a parent when their child lies to them for the first time. “I get called in here because you said you were ready to talk. Am I to understand that you are not, in fact, ready to come clean? That I’ve wasted my time in coming here?”
“I want to write it down.”
His eyes narrow, and one of the elves makes a scoffing sort of noise. “You think I was born last century? That kind of trick might work with mortal men, but you’ll have to be a little more creative to trick a man who’s been doing this longer than your country has even existed.”
“It’s not a trick,” I lie. “I need to know that you’re going to protect me. I need to know that my words won’t be twisted or forgotten—”
“We’ll videotape your statement—”
“That can be edited,” I snap. “I want it in my handwriting, on one single sheet of paper.”
“A single sheet?”
He pursed his lips, pushing his bushy mustache away from his gin-blossom covered nose
“That’s all it will take, I swear.” I hold my breath, praying to whatever gods let this guy exist that this would work. The silence stretches around the tiny cement room, taut as rubber band, ready to snap. Santa’s eyes stay narrowed, boring into mine, and I will myself to meet his gaze.
“Alright,” he says after a long moment, nodding to the elf nearest him. “One sheet of paper. Ten minutes. And this better be good.”
I sit slump in my chair while they get things ready for me. I want to look tired, weak, unable to fight. There is a big freaking deal about what type of writing instrument I’ll be given – Keelie says I should be given a pencil in case I make mistakes, which she’s just positive I will make dozens of. Teegan doesn’t trust me with lead, and in the end I’m given a ballpoint pen without the lid.
Like the lid is what will give me the edge I need.
A small table is brought in and placed before me. Santa himself stands on the other side of it, his feet shoulder width apart, arms crossed atop his enormous belly, scowling.
Teegan unlocks my cuffs and I steel myself.
Santa sees it. Fear registers in his expression, just the split second before I swing the chair into his fat, red face.
The cuffs still dangle from my right hand, clanking on the metal chair, as I swing the chair around, smashing it into Teegan’s face, too. Keelie doesn’t bother fighting, but instead just runs out the door.
I was unconscious when they brought me down here, but I can’t imagine I’ve got more than a few seconds before she reaches an alarm of some kind. I know Teegan wasn’t armed – he complained about it enough times while they were bringing me in – so I skip him and go straight to Santa. I run my hands over his girth, mentally recoiling at the sweat and the stench of pecan pies, until I find it. Tucked into the back of his velvet trousers, beneath the waistband. I pull the handgun out and check that it’s loaded just as the alarm sounds.
The already dim lights go out entirely, leaving nothing but a single emergency beacon to guide me from the cell.
I step out into the hall, following the same direction Keelie ran, figuring that’s the best chance of getting out of here.
Or, you know, running head-first into a horde of elves that are armed to the teeth and know this place better than I do.
I hold a hair trigger as I jog down the hall, keeping my shoulder to the wall. The hall ends in a T, and I pause. I want to listen for any sounds of pursuit, or some sort of clue as to which way I should go, but my blood is whooshing in my ears, and that damn alarm is still bleating out its weird honking noise every two seconds.
After a mental game of eenie-meenie-mienie-moe, I take the left branch. It’s just as dark as the hall I’ve left behind, but there are fewer doors. I move a little more slowly, not so much out of caution, but more to stop my heart from hammering and allow my breathing to slow a bit.
I pass two more opportunities to turn off and swear out loud. How big is this place?
The alarm stops, and I freeze. The silence is deafening, pressing in from all sides. Before I can resume my escape, I hear them.
Their leather-soled boots and feather-weight bodies make the softest of pitter-pats on the cement floor, but they’re just audible in the sudden void left by the silenced alarm. They aren’t moving quickly, which means I’m safe for the moment – if they knew where I stood, they’d be coming a lot faster. I hold my breath and listen, but I can’t tell which direction they’re coming from.
I back up a few steps, into one of the turnoffs, and I wait.
I let myself breathe. Slowly, in and out, while I wait for my chance. The elven footsteps creep closer. They creep past the hall where I hide, pressed against the wall in the clammy darkness. After they pass by, I count to ten in my head before stepping out of the hall, heading the opposite direction.
I take off at a light run – not as fast as I could be going, but it’s quieter, less likely to attract elven ears.
Something hits me in the gut and I go down, tripping all over myself as I hit the cement. The gun clatters out of my hand and I lose my sense of direction before something smashes into my face. It’s hard, but doesn’t hurt as bad as the fall did. An elf, stomping on me; his fists wouldn’t hurt at all, but his stupid boots help.
He stomps again, and I roll away, scrabbling on the ground, searching for the gun. I don’t want to shoot an elf – none of them could survive the wound – but if it’s the only way to get out of here, I will.
The mystery elf kicks me in the face again, connecting with my nose, and white flashes blink in my vision. Not that I could see much anyway, but the pain is enough that I fear my nose is broken. I bring my hand to my face, feeling the blood, and I’m kicked again, this time in the gut.
I grunt and roll away before he can kick me again. I’m pulling myself to my feet as the lights flare back on, flooding the hall with fluorescent light, forcing me to blink.
“No! Shut it down!” the elf says into his Bluetooth. He’s wearing thick, greenish goggles, and I realize what a disadvantage I’m at as soon as the lights shut off again. As we’re pitched into darkness, the elf tackles me, and we tumble to the ground again.
He’s small – but he’s learned how to use his size to his benefit. He’s like a clingy toddler, holding on no matter how I writhe to get away.
A sick feeling builds in my gut, but I have no choice: I swing my elbow back and connect with the elf’s face. I knock the goggles, and the elf swears but doesn’t let go of my back. He grabs ahold of my neck just as my fingers brush the gun on the floor. His arms squeeze around my throat and my body panics. My eyes feel like they’re bulging out of their sockets and my mouth opens and closes, trying desperately to grab oxygen that can’t make its way to my lungs.
The gun skitters out of reach and I give up. I claw at the elf’s arms around my throat, crushing my larynx, but he’s wearing a Kevlar uniform and my scratching does nothing. I attempt to pry his arms away from my neck, even just a centimeter, but I’m too weak. The interrogation, the lack of sleep, and fighting for my life has left me unable to defend myself properly against a man the size of a six-year-old.
Unable to think of anything else, I push myself up to stand.
My lungs burn and my eyes water; the elf squeezes tighter. He kicks his legs wildly, trying to wrap them around my midsection, but he’s too short. His ankles don’t ever meet each other, but his kicking will leave bruises all over my hips and abdomen.
Lightheadedness sweeps over me I take my chance.
I slam backwards into the wall – the elf between me and the cement. The back of my skull smashes into his face and he cries out in pain. Whoever is on the other end of that Bluetooth is going to know what’s happened; I need to get this over with.
Again, I crash backwards, over and over, relentless bashing the elf against the unyielding surface, until his grip slackens. I wrench his arms from my neck and let him drop to the ground. He hits the floor, groaning incoherently, and I take off running. Stealth has gained me nothing, Santa’s handgun would be useless in the dark, and I just need to get the hell out of here.
Light shines into the hall, flaring suddenly as someone opens a door at the end of the hall. Elves are silhouetted in the doorway, half a dozen of them, and then the door slams shut, leaving us all in darkness again.
I can’t face them, and I can’t go back the way I came.
I duck my shoulder into the nearest door, realizing a split-second too late how stupid this decision is. I’ll be blocked into another cell and it will be only a matter of time before they find me.
As soon as the door shuts behind me, I can tell this cell is different. Even in the dark, I can feel it’s bigger, cleaner, and less neglected than the one I was interrogated in. It smells of Christmas – peppermint and sugar and cheer.
I creep forward, hands stretched out before me, but I swear there’s something gleaming in the dark. My hands stop on something hard, smooth, and huge. Before I’ve had a chance to begin guessing what it could be, it comes to life beneath my fingertips. Snowflake designs etched into the ancient wood paneling sparkle and glow, as if lit from within by a magic as old as time. The silver running bars glisten, and a bundle of jingle bells, shaped like a bunch of grapes, reflect the same magical light.
I don’t hesitate. I jump into the driver’s seat, and watch the controls come to life. I jab them – first the ignition, then the liftoff. The wall behind me opens up, revealing the dazzling white landscape beyond.
Elves pour in through the door I just came through, but the sleigh is already moving. Bullets whizz past me and I duck beneath the dash, hoping their treasured sleigh is worth more than my information.
The sleigh pulls through the open wall out onto the pristine snow and I squint into the sunlight. The ice and snow are blinding; the bitter cold snaps and bites at my exposed skin. Behind me, Santa roars, but his voice is drowned out by the sleigh’s engine as it lifts up off the ground.
The sleigh rises at an alarming rate, the wind whistling in my ears, anticipation rising in my belly.
I hazard a glance back at the ground. The elves have all lowered their weapons; I was right, the sleigh is too precious to them. Santa stands among them, his face bloodied and swollen, and I laugh as I pull away into the sky.