I stared at the Jimmy Stewart lookalike. On the list of the oddest things I’ve had people say to me, being threatened with meeting Santa Claus . . . you know what, it barely cracked the top fifty.
I said, “Come out here. Keep the hands up.” I took a couple of steps back. I handed the shotgun to Luke. “Take it.”
He grimaced. “You know what, I ain’t real comfortable with guns.”
In the back of the diner, the adults were gaping at us. The kids were crying. I wanted to search this guy and see about getting us out of here. I didn’t have time for this. I set the shotgun on my booth’s table and patted the new guy down. No weapons. I put some distance between us and picked up the gun. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“Dan Wilson. Listen, we really need to leave.”
“I totally agree. Why’d you kill those two men?”
“They were going to kick you out into the street. We need to go in case someone decides to come check on them. Santa is coming. We need to leave.”
“So you’ve said.” I glanced over my shoulder. My car was waiting patiently for me. I had my keys. All I needed was the key for the diner. And if these bozos were going to toss us out, one of them had to have the key.
As if he read my mind, Dan Wilson said, “Driving out won’t work. The road’s gone both ways. It won’t be back until Christmas morning.”
“The hell’s he talking about Santa Claus for?” Luke asked.
“Good question. The hell’re you talking about Santa Claus for?” I said to Wilson.
He turned away, started walking to the rear of the diner. I raised the shotgun. “Hey!”
Wilson shook his head. I followed him, saw him reach down and rifle through the skinny guy’s pant pockets. He came up with a small ring of keys. “Will you please just shut up and follow me?” he said.
I looked behind me again. To the house that had appeared out of nowhere. To the snow. The lamps. I looked back at Wilson. “Where are we going?”
– – – – – – – – – –
We were going to his grocery store, a block from the diner. It was easier to get everyone to leave than I thought it would be. The two dead bodies helped. Revealing that I was a cop didn’t hurt.
I followed Wilson out into a sharp cold filled with slowly falling snowflakes. Every breath I took in felt like it was coated in knives. My feet sank ankle-deep into snow. They went numb ten seconds after that.
It was so quiet outside. The werewolf inside me went on high alert. Unnatural silence is not good. I looked up at the sky. Saw nothing but black. No stars. The street lamps gave everything a sickly yellow tinge.
We crunched through the snow after Wilson, keeping on the sidewalk, but close to the buildings. We passed three toy stores, four candy stores, two pet stores. If anyone else thought that was bizarre, they kept it to themselves.
The grocery store was small, more like a convenience store. Wilson led us around the back. He unlocked a sturdy metal door and waved us inside. We were in a storeroom. It was warm. Wilson shut and locked the door after us. He leaned against it. I let him get his breath back before setting the shotgun down on a stack of dog food bags and grabbing his shirt front.
I said, “Now tell me what’s going on.”
He nodded. “We’re safe. Gather around. I have a tale to tell.”
“Cut the shit and get talking.” I released him. I sat on top of the dog food bags with the shotgun across my lap.
Wilson paced back and forth, rubbing his hands together while he spoke. It was an old legend, he said, about how the Christmas Eve sacrifices started in the town.
Luke shot me a look. I shook my head. Wilson kept talking.
The story went that back during World War 2, someone in the town had a son overseas. This son sent home an old book filled with Christmas stories. No one was sure where the son got the book from, if it was Germany or France or wherever. The book was printed in English, but the kind of English that was full of ‘thees’ and ‘thous’. And there was a little something extra in the book: how to summon Santa Claus. But not the kindly old geezer who gives out toy trains and drinks Coca-Cola. This Santa was a fat, evil thing that craved human flesh. If he was given flesh, he’d give out gifts, whatever you wanted. All you had to do was write down one thing you wanted, put it under your pillow, and toss some poor sap outside to be carried away by his elves.
Of course, someone in the town tried it. He spoke the necessary incantations and waited until Christmas Eve night. That night, the town cop, who’d been out on his nightly patrol, disappeared. And the summoner, who’d written down his desire, awoke to find that yes indeed, he did have a brand new Philco radio waiting for him in his living room.
After a few years, the townspeople decided it would be a great idea to share the wealth. A lottery was created. Three people were selected to be sacrificed. Three other people were selected to get their gifts. Someone wanted the town to be hidden from the world. It happened. Someone wanted the town to appear only during Christmas Eve, so the town had a chance to bring in outside sacrifices but not get caught. I guess their gene pool was getting a little shallow after years of wanting new houses and tricycles. That happened too. So now we had an old couple, who’d wanted eternal life, lurking by the roadside and luring in victims.
“Good haul tonight,” Wilson said. “Eleven of you. Eleven gifts.”
“That is so fucking nuts,” Stuart said. “Are you seriously listening to this shit? Any of you?”
“Will you watch your mouth?” Dad of four said. He and his wife were huddled by a small freezer.
Stuart shook his head. “This wackjob kills two people, drags us outside, locks us in here, and tells us an insane fucking story, and you, cop lady, let him do all that?” He pointed at me. “You’re as nuts as he is.”
I said, “Explain the house appearing. Explain the snow.”
“Explain shit,” he spat. “Climate change, how about that? Freak fucking weather? Not noticing a house because you’re too fucking freaked out by a dude holding a shotgun on you?”
“I did not see a house when I drove here,” I said. “I saw woods. Trees. Not a house.”
“I saw trees too,” Luke said.
“Me too,” Dad said.
Stuart threw his hands up into the air. “Oh, fuck this. I am leaving.”
Wilson grabbed his arm. “You leave and you die. The elves are waiting. One for each of us. One for me, because I’m not inside my house right now, where I’d be safe. I’m here, with you all, trying to save your lives.”
I slid off the bags. “Whoa, wait. You’re safe in your house? Why are we not there right now?”
Wilson kept his eyes on Stuart. “My mother wouldn’t allow it. She doesn’t know I’m here. But it’s okay. As long as we stay indoors, we’ll be safe. We just need to make it until a minute after midnight. Once it’s Christmas morning, Santa and his elves leave. You can all leave then. You have an hour or so until the fog rolls in again and locks the town away.”
“What if we don’t make it out by then?”
“You’re trapped here until next Christmas Eve.”
Stuart yanked his arm free. He shoved Wilson back. Then he ran for the front of the storeroom. There was a swinging door that led out into the main store. He straight-armed it open and kept going. Without thinking about it, I gave chase.
The store was small but well-stocked. I ran down an aisle filled with twenty-three different brands of kidney beans. There was a small check-out counter near the front door. Stuart hopped it. He reached the door. Pushed on it. It didn’t budge.
I slowed to a walk. “Stuart.”
He twisted the lock above the door handle and pushed open the door. Cold air rushed in. He rushed out.
“Fuck!” I yelled. I jumped the check-out counter. The wind slammed the door shut.
I smelled ginger bread and cinnamon.
Then I heard Stuart scream.