Christmas 2013: Ruten

“So much for global warming, huh?”

I strangle the steering wheel instead of Paul, and try to remind myself him annoying us is necessary to his continued survival. “Let’s save the junk science for when I’m not rescuing a kid.”

“I’m just saying,” he says, in that damn fake Liverpudlian accent. “I mean, it’s really cold, and – ”

“You’re explaining your jokes again,” Arabella says from the back seat. “Are you really that hungry?”

As usual, her involvement in the conversation shuts Paul right up. Something about getting burned by a teenager, I guess.

He’s right, though; it’s the proverbial witch’s tit out there. Our call has us up on the west end of Los Altos, a forested labyrinth of mansions and speed traps tactically designed to keep poor people out. We’re far away from the businesses and streets and people of the Peninsula, which means we’re far away from anything that’s putting off either thoughts or heat. My windows are so fogged up I feel haunted.

The call was as specific as it ever is with our bosses, which is to say, not at all. “A disturbance,” Dr. Barg told us, which in our line of work means one of three things. The good ending is that someone had a huge argument with their mistress, or dropped a solid gold sculpture on their foot, or some other emotional outburst that local psychics just saw as an eruption on the astral plane. The really good ending is that we get there and it’s the emergence of a new psychic just going through puberty. But the likely conclusion to our maddening little jaunt up to Scrooge McDuck’s money bin is that some demon or another has stirred up shit again, probably because they feed on murderous rage or domestic disputes or something. This is the price for the days where I get paid to drink vodka and hone my ESP on the couch.

We’re about an hour in when Arabella sits up and asks me to pull over. I do as she asks, put on the parking brake, and open my mind. I feel Arabella’s tension, the awkwardness of a body changing from day to day. I feel Paul’s deep sense of wrongness, something sharp and oily. Out past that I’m getting bits and pieces, exhaustion, sadness, arousal; but as I’m swimming through the gamut of human experience I get struck full-frontal with a nuclear blast of despair, an anger that leaves me wanting to punch something just for having touched it, and a deep, cold sense of resignation.

It’s coming from the house at the top of the hill. It’s really a house on top of another house, built into the side of the hill and connected via rickety wooden stairs and a deck the size of my apartment. The place is in the Christmas spirit the way Wal-Mart is in the capitalist spirit; I see more multicolored lights than actual house, and they have a full-on inflatable Santa sitting on the deck. Maybe the demon responsible here feeds on cliches.

The driveway is up past the lower house, attached to the top one. There’s one lonely BMW in the driveway, and one lonely man sitting Indian-style in the under-decorated living room (California, the Land Where Windows Count As Walls). I park the Caprice up the hill from the driveway, and turn to Paul.

“We need a disguise,” I say.

“Way ahead of you.”

He says it right as my brain bucks. Where our car should be I’m seeing a black sedan, license plates with the stickers that say you can shove your parking laws, and when I step out of the car I’m a very white man with a very dark suit, a little wire in one ear. Paul’s Beatles-chic bowl-cut and Reservoir Dogs sport jacket disappear under a Scary Black Man from Central Casting; Arabella’s the same shade of pale, but blonde hair instead of black, a suit instead of the ubiquitous bathrobe. I shake my head, and wonder when this became my life.

The top house has the most open of open floor plans, a brick fireplace in the center serving as the only divider between kitchen, dining, and living rooms. The crouching guy is in what I guess is the living room, staring at the unlit fireplace. He’s got a huge plastic bottle of something brown and fermented in his hands, but I’m not really one to comment on his drinking habits.

“Sir?” I say, as I nudge open the front door.

The man cuts off mid-sniffle, looks toward me. I can feel how drunk he is from here; he and gravity got in an argument about an hour ago. Well, we have our survivor.

“Who are you?” he asks, and then his brain clicks in on Paul’s psychic distortions. “Oh my God, is it that serious?”

“Not yet,” I say, in my best government-issue deadpan. “This is just routine follow-up, we think the situation might be related to a Bureau case.” I turn to Arabella. “Agent McCartney, Agent Strang, please do a sweep.”

They split off from me and start walking around the house. I feel their minds brush against mine as they start picking over the memories stuffed into the house. The guy looks at me, slack-jawed and uncertain. Why did I leave myself in charge of socializing?

My name’s Randall Chatham. I’m a psychic detective. Remember the second Inquisition? They missed a few. “Agent Chatham,” I say, and hold my hand out. “FBI.”

“David Ekman – “ is all I get before he touches my hand.

His memories are annoyance, mostly, some of it bordering on psychosis. He remembers things not in the places he wants them, tones of voice from his wife he doesn’t appreciate. There are a lot of fights, which this charmer doesn’t seem to think are his fault. Then I get him coming up the driveway, coming in the door to see the mess on the kitchen floor and rushing back to the bedroom with a head full of rage that goes sour the second he sees the bloodstains on the expensive white rug, the hunched figure of his very topless wife pouring the red stuff all over the floor. She was dead or close to it when he found her – but in with the sorrow I’m getting resignation, frustration – and then he’s running off across the deck, screaming something incoherent, pelting down the stairs and…

…nothing? He’s blocked something out. I dig a little deeper, and I get that resignation I felt earlier, this feeling that this all had to happen, whatever it all is…

“Agent?”

I drop my hand away from his, frown in what I hope is a mysterious way. “Epilepsy. My apologies.” I wipe off my hands in exaggerated disgust. Real smooth there, Randall. “What can you tell me about what happened?”

“My wife is dead,” he says, like he’s remembering it after a long absence.

“Did you see who might have killed her?” I ask. That’s probably not an expert question. Whatever, I’m cold.

“I didn’t see…” He trails off, looking around like he lost something. “Whoever it was got away.” Still resigned.

There’s the rough purr of a sliding glass door opening, and the temperature dips as Arabella walks into the room. I’m so used to her twenty-four hour irony that the fear in her eyes gets my adrenalin pumping before she starts talking.

“Agent?” She nods back toward the sliding glass door. “You need to see this.”

I look back at the man. He’s got that same lost expression, the recursive gloom of someone who knows they deserve their situation and it’s just making them sadder.

“I’m going to go see what she needs,” I say, with a gesture toward Arabella. “This could be key to finding your wife’s killer.”

That brings some clarity back. “My wife is dead.”

Real eloquent guy, here. Somebody’s been in his head, which does not bode well for either of us. I follow Arabella outside; the cold makes me shiver so hard I tweak a muscle in his shoulder.

“I hate winter,” I say, as she leads me downstairs.

“It’s autumn.” She’s got a quiver in her voice. Arabella never has a quiver in her voice.

We enter the downstairs through another sliding glass door. The bedroom is at the back of the house; once again, our living room would fit in the space they use for sleeping. There’s a Pokemon poster on the wall right next to a tour poster for someone called Van Canto, aand a decorating motif I would describe as “Really, really likes dragons.”

“Take a read on the blankets,” says Arabella. She’s rather pointedly refusing to come in the door.

I hate this part. I take a deep breath, clear my mind, and grab a handful of sheet.

I’m low to the ground, and blissfully happy. I’ve got music blaring, some kind of acapella heavy metal, and I’m playing some kind of video game where I’m crushing orcs with a giant hammer. I hear the sliding door open and I call to my dad, then my mom, wondering what’s up. They don’t respond, and that pulls me out of my Dungeons & Dragons reverie. “Mom? Dad?” I’m about to get up when the monster runs into my room.

It’s huge, blurry, with curving horns and hands that no human with any luck has ever sported. It says something that sounds like a chainsaw revving as it grabs me, and I’m screaming and screaming, and I can’t figure out where my mom is, and I hold onto my blankets as best I can but that doesn’t help and then I’m being lifted off the bed and -

I toss the blanket away, stumble backwards. Arabella catches me, gives me a quick and comforting rub on my back before she puts some distance between us. My fear added to hers isn’t her idea of fun, I guess.

“What the fuck?” I say.

“Symbolic masking on the kidnapper,” she says. Like I didn’t think of that. “But none I’ve ever seen before.”

.I scratch my chin. “So the intruder murders the wife, comes down here, kidnaps the kid…and he knew well enough to mask himself.”

“Or he just happened to be carrying something with a lot of meaning,” Arabella offers.

I shake my head. “I need to get home and get drunk before I try to piece this together. Let’s go finish the world’s worst interview with our buddy upstairs.”

Paul’s already with him when we return to the top half of the house, which is not a scenario anything good comes of. Paul grins at me when I come in, which means he’s knows something that’s going to upset me.

“Wife died in the bedroom,” he says, pointing down a side hall. “From the looks of the scene she was beaten to death with something abrasive. Lots of…blood spray,” Paul says. “Patterns n’ such.” His fake British accent is at its most adorable when he’s deliberately failing to be convincing.

I slash the air in a “cut it out” gesture. “We checked out the downstairs. Looks like kidnapping.”

It is at that moment I twig to what Paul figured out. And he was right, it is going to make me very upset.

“That’s impossible,” our poor beleaguered temper problem says. “Nobody lives in the downstairs.”

Arabella doesn’t get it yet, judging by her mouth hanging open. “Your kid lives down there!”

David Ekman gives me the most offended look I’ve gotten since I graduated high school. “I don’t have a kid.”

-

Doctor Barg spent the time we were gone decorating our Christmas tree, which makes about as much sense as anything else we’ve done tonight. It’s one of the small ones, complete with a terra cotta pot; he’s decked it out with a string of lights, a couple red and green glass bulbs, and the damn Baphomet-head tree-topper. The little box I left under the tree, with the snowflake wrapping paper and the note that says “To Bell from Randy” is still the only present in the house. It’s weird what your brain can fixate on in a crisis.

I collapse onto the leather-and-duct-tape couch when we get in, put an arm over my head to avoid getting in a staring contest with the tree, and wait for Dr. Barg to finish his call to the bosses and get back downstairs.

Our bosses don’t actually have files – or phones, for that matter. Bodiless conglomerates of emotions and symbolic content don’t have much use for them, I guess. I say this by way of explaining why the weird Tuvan throat singing is droning down from upstairs, and why the whole house feels like a truck just drove through and sprayed us all with crude oil.

Doctor Barg comes out of his room after about fifteen minutes of what a rabid animal might term conversation. He’s paler than usual, his sweep of thinning gray curls glued to his skull by sweat, his whole stocky body leaning on the cane.

“The bosses are mad,” he says, in that smoker’s lung baritone we all know and love. He stops at the bottom of the stairs to stretch his ankles, letting out noises like a rusty hinge.

Paul and I trade a look, one of the few genuine ones I ever get out of Paul. The bosses being upset doesn’t bode well, for…well, reality, basically.

Arabella doesn’t take the time to worry about it. “What did they say about the boy?”

Dr. Barg limps over to the kitchen table, folds himself into one of the chairs. “The boy was nothing special,” he says, which is one of those statements that really makes me feel good about my career choices. “What worries them is the fact that a demon is the one who kidnapped him.”

“We’re sure it’s a demon?” Arabella says.

Dr. Barg shakes his head. “People can’t do the things that demon did. Wiping a man’s memory? Even Paul will kill most of the people he tries to do that to.”

“I appreciate your vote of confidence,” Paul says. He lights up a cigarette by way of protest.

“It was a demon,” Dr. Barg said. “And a powerful one.”

“Did the Google demon finally form?” I ask. It may sound stupid, but corporate identities spawn more cohesive astral entities than nearly anything else now that people don’t trust the churches.

“Google demon?” Dr. Barg gives me a slack-jawed glare. “No.” He considers a moment. “No. I doubt it. But whoever did this, they knew what they were doing.”

Paul exhales a gunmetal curtain of smoke. “Which means they could give a tin shit about the agreement.”

“And that is why the bosses are upset,” Dr. Barg says. “We need to find this demon, and we need to exorcise him before he does something harder to cover up.”

The house phone rings in the kitchen. Arabella huffs and adjusts the lapels of her bathrobe as she gets up to answer it. When you’re sixteen everything is a chore; it’s genetic fact.

“Do you want us to go back out tonight?” I ask. I’m hoping for a nice “No.”

“Yes.” I’m Randall Chatham and I exist so the universe can laugh at me. “I need you to check in with our watchers in Los Altos, Palo Alto east and west, and Menlo Park. Check in with Redwood City, Santa Clara, and San Jose if those first four don’t pan out.” Dr. Barg was never great at geography. “Stop at the Pink Poodle and talk to Boysenberry, too.”

“Christ, really?” Paul feeding on annoyance is obnoxious enough; Boysenberry feeds on sexual frustration. “We’re sure we don’t have another contact?”

“Boysenberry and El Tecnico,” Dr. Barg corrects, with a pointed look in my direction. “We’re flying blind. We need to try for any data we can get.”

“You got it, boss,” Paul says, stubbing out his cigarette in the ashtray. “Do you want us to – what is it, Bella?”

We all look toward the kitchen door. Arabella is standing there with the house-phone receiver in her hand. Whoever is on the line with her is firing off panicked questions faster than she could reasonably answer them.

“It happened again.”

-

Our second victim is in Menlo Park, Los Altos’s flat-grounded sister city. We drive down El Camino, past stores advertising sales prices higher than our monthly rent, and slide from there into a residential district made up of security gates and condos. The smallest house I see is still big enough to accidentally step on the one I live in, and there are two sports cars on the street outside it. I hate this neighborhood almost as much as I hate having to think the phrase “second victim.”

The police are still at the scene of the crime, a knot of uniform cops standing on the lawn in front of a sprawling three-story house, casting loathing glances at the two plainclothes cops jawing with the coroners and crime scene techs, a tide of blue and red lights splashing over the whole scene. I drive the Caprice past the house, turn the crorner, and wait, watching the reflection of the cruisers’ lights in a condominium window.

“You’re tense,” Arabella says, without any particular sympathy.

“I’m worried,” I say. I really don’t want to be sober for this.

“Randall has a soft spot for children,” Paul says through an unlit cigarette.

“Yeah, I strangely don’t like the idea they’re getting kidnapped,” I say. I might as well give the people what they want. “Or that it might get the Inquisition called on us if it keeps up.”

“The Inquisition will never know it was demons,” Paul insists.

Arabella bites this one. “Missing memories is actually one of the things they’re trained to look for. If they really are still active” – her nose scrunches in annoyance – “you were feeding again.”

That’s enough to put the cork in any further conversation. The uniforms drive past us a few seconds later, headed deeper into the suburbs. Rich white people in trouble sure do make cops drive faster. We wait another half an hour, then send Paul out for a “smoke break” at the corner. He gives me a thumbs up and fires up thoughts of federal agents as Arabella and I get out of the car.

The survivor this time is a weeping single mother, smearing mascara all over a green silk number that looks like it was meant for a big night out. She’s got gauze covering one cheek, and scratches that look like someone dragged a cheese grater over her eyebrow. She’s grateful to see us, her tax dollars in human form; she comes lurching over to me with her hands out like she’s going to hug me, which is not how I’d like to spend my night.

“Agent Chatham,” I say, hand out.

She burbles for a moment, then remembers her name. “Alma Allerby.”

When I touch her, I get breaking glass, loud footsteps, and a snapshot of a hardwood-floored hallway, empty until something huge, hairy, and pungent comes blood-curdlingly fast out of a side room and shoves me to the floor, wielding what looks like a fistful of hay. The first time it whips me, there are some terrified thoughts of penises and ripping dresses that don’t come true; the second hit and blood’s flecking through the air, and I’m paralyzed, afraid and doubting . One more time, and I’m just lying there, weeping, waiting for my just punishment. Then someone else shouts from down the hall, a tiny voice, and then the world goes black and watery, and all of a sudden I’m out on my lawn, talking to the police for no reason I can remember. You know how sometimes you hate being right?

“Do you have a daughter, ma’am?” I ask.

She stares at me open-mouthed. “I…no?”

Yeah. It’s like that.

I walk past her with a murmured dose of empathy, up into the house; the woman follows us like she’s on a leash. I’d make a snide remark, but the mood in the house slaps me across the face. Arabella actually gags next to me. The place has tension baked into the walls, stress and fear with a hard candy shell of shouting. I’m getting glimpses of a crying little girl, a shrieking little girl, wagging fingers and horrified phone calls and professional men with well-trimmed beards and caring faces. There are no secrets, but we like to let the normals pretend.

“What the fuck happened in here?” Paul says, loud enough for the woman to hear.

“I was attacked,” the woman says, and I can feel the babbling coming back to the fore.

I step into the hallway off the front room. Every room’s had somebody cowering in it, though when I look into the kid’s bedroom I’m mostly getting resentment, underneath all the sparkly symbolic interference from the My Little Pony posters and the Wonder Woman bedsheets.

Alma Allerby leans into the room, and looks at me in abject horror. “Do you have any idea how this all got here?” she asks me, lost and ready to weep.

I’ve got an idea forming, and I’m hoping it turns out to be wrong. I walk across the room to the bed, and stick my hand right onto one of the big gold Ws.

I get screaming, both a little girl and a woman. I’m seeing Alma from a perspective somewhere closer to the floor, shouting in total disbelief at me, and I look down and I’ve got a lighter in my hands, a burnt doll, and I’m flashing back through memories of lighting off strips of newspaper, garbage cans, firecrackers I stole from my dad’s house, a cat’s tail…

I yank my hand off the bed, and back out of the messed-up room. The woman is out there in the hallway, gawping at me. The half-smile I give her probably isn’t reassuring.

“Ma’am,” I say, “I’m…sorry to ask you this” – God, am I ever – “but, can you describe the object you were attacked with?”

She tilts her head almost ninety degrees. “Object?” She asks like I just asked the hardest question in the world.

“The…the thing your attacker was holding. The way you got those cuts.”

She blinks; then there’s the horror as she jumps back to the incident; then she takes a deep breath, and there’s some of the haughtiness I’m sure this lady prefers to exude.

“It was…” She frowns; that didn’t last long. “…he hit me with a handful of branches.”

My brain takes a long drop into cold water. “Can you describe him?”

Her lip twitches. Her eyes squinch up for another good cry. “No…”

“That’s alright, ma’am. We’re sorry this happened to you, ma’am. We will do everything we can to catch the perpetrator of this attack.” I say it all as fast as I can, backing down the hallway as I go.

“I don’t understand,” she says. She gestured toward her daughter’s room. “Why did they dress up that whole room like a kid’s room? Why is…” The waterworks are on full-force again. “I know I brought this on myself, but I don’t understand…”

I walk outside, into the cool air and the muddied emotions, where I don’t feel like slicing off my own skin to let the hate out. Paul and Arabella follow me, the former leering and the latter rushing after me, worried. I wave her off, power-walk around the corner to the Caprice and throw myself against the passenger side, stinking of flop sweat as I try to make my breathing and heart rate imitate normality.

“Are you alright?” Arabella asks.

“I am distinctly not alright.” I stand up again, wipe the sweat off my face. “Paul?”

“Yeah boss?” I’ve caught him mid-light, cigarette just starting to smolder.

“You ever met any famous monsters? Like, really famous?”

“You mean like Charles Manson?” Not right now, please God.

“Never mind. Arabella?” I touch her hand again; this time it’s more like being punched with a cattle prod. “I need you to help me do some digging when we get home. I need to know what the other missing kid is like. And we need to be on the alert, because there are going to be more.”

Paul blows out a plume of smoke. “Consider me to have asked the leading question.”

I shrug, and say one of the stupidest things I’ve ever said.

“I think these kids were kidnapped by Krampus.”

-

“I’m never going to get over it being called a Krampus.” An hour of talking about it and Arabella still says it like it’s a dirty word.

“Krampus,” I say, sprawling out on our couch. “No ‘a.’”

“Unless you’re at the Krampus festival in Austria,” Paul adds. He’s in the kitchen, blowing cigarette smoke out a half-open window. We can still smell the smoke, and now we’re all cold, to boot.

Arabella’s eyebrows hit the Lagrange point. “Krampus festival?”

“He’s actually being serious,” I say.

“I didn’t think our life could get weirder.”

A door slams upstairs. Doctor Barg comes galumphing down, half-ignoring the cane, his head shaking and his mouth muttering as he descends.

“I knew, Randall,” he pronounces, pausing to catch his breath halfway down. “I knew the minute I picked you up that you would be as much trouble as you were benefit.”

“You say such lovely things.”

“Krampus.” He actually makes it sound dirtier than Arabella does. “I send you out to look into a demon attack and you wind up hunting down Krampus.”

I throw my arms wide, as nonplussed as he is. “I just report the news, boss. We’ve got two kidnapped kids, one who was always fighting with his parents, one who’s a firebug, and we’ve got people being whipped with branches. I promise, two years ago I wouldn’t have thought this made any sense either.”

The living room feels a little like fear, a little like anger, but mostly it feels like annoyance. Once an Austrian Christmas monster got involved we all stopped knowing how to feel.

“I spoke to the bosses,” Dr. Barg says, more to Arabella than to me. “They say that they are not aware of any demon imitating Krampus.”

Cover-up already? My temper kicks in. “Are they seriously – “

Dr. Barg holds up a hand. “They acknowledge the symbolic resonance of Krampus is occurring locally. But they can’t narrow him down. He’s kind of a fad thing nowadays. T-shirts. Dolls. That sort of thing.”

I sigh. One day of psychic investigation and I guarantee you will hate the Internet. “They couldn’t track down the resonance of like, panicked children?”

“They might not be able to tell,” Paul says. “Most of the bosses have never plugged into a real body. They don’t know a kid from a dog, they just know feelings and symbols.”

“Sounds like half my grad seminars.” I rub at my face, trying to massage the stupid out of my head. “But what do we do about it? If this demon actually going full Krampus” – I just said that – “it’s going to keep kidnapping naughty children all night, and God only knows what it thinks it’s supposed to do with them.”

“Where does the real Krampus” – Arabella’s face turns inside out – “what does he do with them?”

Dr. Barg scowls. “Some stories say he takes them to Hell.”

“It’s going to have a lair,” I say. “But fuck if I know where it might be.” I raise my voice a bit. “Paul, do you know anyone who thinks they’re Krampus?”

“You think I wouldn’t brag about that constantly?”

“That’s not an answer.”

“No.” Paul’s exuding enough smug that I’m almost looking down my nose at myself.

I get up, walk over to the bottle-lined bookshelf that serves as our bar. We’re out of vodka, but we’ve got a little bit of gin to work with.

“What do we do from here?” Arabella asks.

I pour a little gin into a glass, add about three times as much soda water. No sense in actually having to taste the stuff. “I have no fucking clue. All I can think of at this point is follow the damn thing around from kidnapping to kidnapping and hope it fucks one up.”

“Where next?” Paul asks, still echoing in from the kitchen. “Woodside, maybe? Or Atherton? See if he kidnapped any more rich kids?”

Those two words drill into my brain and start strip-mining my memories. I’d love to say I drop my drink or gasp or something, but mostly I go still, stare at nothing, and try to remember why I ever thought I was intelligent.

“It skipped Palo Alto.”

“You’re having an idea,” Arabella says.

I shake my head. The circuit isn’t quite complete yet, but… “If it were hitting houses at random it wouldn’t have skipped Palo Alto, would it?”

The landline starts to ring. Doctor Barg looks like he’s just had his parole denied; he gets up leaning hard on the cane, shuffles over to the phone.

“It has addresses,” I say. “It’s getting addresses from somewhere. Addresses for something specific, something that would let him know they have kids.”

Arabella’s pupils shrink to molecules. “Their last names were, what? Ekman? Ekman and – ”

“Allerby,” I respond. My gears are starting to spin in synch with hers. “Or it could have been Ellerby, I wasn’t paying that much attentio – ”

“Alphabetical order,” Arabella replies. “It doesn’t just have names, it’s going down a list…a day care, maybe?”

“For people that rich?” Paul scoffs. “That risks putting the kids near brown people.”

“I loathe saying it, but Paul’s right.” I remember my drink is in my hand, almost take a sip. “It’s a private school, maybe. The kids are old enough to be in elementary, I think…what private schools do we have in…”

I trail off as Dr. Barg shuffles back out to the living room. I don’t let him say the big, sad thing he’s got on deck.

“Where was this one?” I ask.

“Menlo Park again.” He’s staring at me, waiting. Neither of us is in a position we’re used to, really. I’d call the current mood “awkward.”

“Menlo Park.” I shuffle through about an hour’s worth of ideas in a minute. “Doc, do we have anybody who can pull enrollment records for – wait, no. Better yet, do we have anyone who can go back to the last two crime scenes.”

“Yeah,” Dr. Barg drawls. “You.”

“Perfect.” I don’t have the bandwidth to be insulted right now. “Perfect. Yes.” I look at Paul and Arabella. “I think these kids might all be enrolled at the same school.”

“You think a teacher is doing it?” The worst part of Arabella’s question is how titillated she seems.

“I’m not sure. But we’re gonna find out. Paul, Doc, can you guys see if you can get those records?”

“One way or another,” Dr. Barg says, his expression grim. Paul looks similarly sour.

“Great. I’ll go get you a name.”

I grab my coat, don’t even put it on as I swing the door open. Arabella gets up and comes with me, knotting her bathrobe shut against the cold. Paul and Dr. Barg just watch us from the kitchen, hands in their pockets, a cigarette still burning up in Paul’s hand.

“What are you gonna do?” Doctor Barg asks me.

“I’m going to check the kid’s homework. Come on, Arabella.”

“If you get caught make sure they can’t trace you back here,” Doctor Barg calls.

“Good luck to you, too,” I say through the closing door.

I’m at the car before I realize I walked out with my drink in my hand. I look at it, and back at the house, a hundred feet of cold air and concrete away from me. I set the drink on the little scrim of grass by the curb, and then I jump into the driver’s seat. I must be learning; on an ordinary night, I’d down it.

-

Woodside is what Los Altos dreams of being in the long winter nights. The town is a dispersed mass of houses, most of them enormous, strewn across the entire face of a mountain, all buried beneath a treeline so thick and up roads so windy that I almost suspect a conspiracy.

The house in Los Altos was vacant when we got there. The kid’s room had calmed down a little since our first visit, but the panic was still there, and worse, the dull resignation. Luckily it only took me a few minutes to find the kid’s R2-D2 backpack in the closet, and only a few minutes after that for me to find a book report assignment from Miss Alhadeff of Pinehill Elementary. David Ekman, Junior goes there. So do Samantha Ellerby and the newest victim, Levi Friedman. We’re headed to the home of one Athena Geller; if Krampus is being thorough, Geller should be two or three kids down the list, which gives us plenty of time.

“This is creepy,” Arabella says, as we drive through a tunnel of branches and pine needles. She apparently went to Pinehill as a kid.

“I mean, it makes sense that it’s the kind of school Krampus would target,” I say.

Arabella glares at me. “You weren’t in that school, Randall. It was junior juvie. They treat all the kids like they’re psychopaths. I almost preferred living with the cult.”

“I really hate hearing you say that.”

I get a blast of discomfort from Arabella, and we go quiet.

I find the Geller house no problem, a three-story layer cake of brown shingles set at the end of a driveway that literally doubles back on itself. I suppose that’s one way to keep the poor people out. Driving up to the house would necessarily involve being spotted, so I drive up just far enough that I can see activity in front of the house and on the main road, and nudge the Caprice into a turnout. The cold smothers us in under a minute; I become very, very grateful for the gas station coffee we grabbed before heading up here.

Arabella turns to me in the dark. “Did you do a lot of stakeouts when it was just you and Paul?”

“Not really,” I say. “Not a lot of things were dumb enough to go after people like this. We mostly had to beard things in their dens.” I’d feel a lot cooler if that statement were anywhere close to literal.

“Mm.” She sips her coffee, her thoughts a meringue shell of idle thought over a giant pustule of fear. “How did your family celebrate Christmas?”

Not where I thought we were going. “Before I signed on for demon duty?” The question makes me dizzy; I tend not to think about the times before the big shift in my life. “The usual, mostly.” I think again about the one present stuck under the tree back at the house, and my heart starts its daily calisthenics. “Turkey. Capitalism. Fighting.”

“Why don’t you go home to them anymore?”

I want to say something badass; “protocol for investigators”; “they fear my power”; “they were killed by supervillains.” I go with “We don’t really talk anymore.”

Arabella nods, and her mood shifts into a canyon of worry. She doesn’t talk about the cult who raised her, but if you catch her relaxing you can read the damage they did on her face; what few memories I get from those times are all sharp edges, dark, gyrating forms that make her feel something far south of nauseous. She sticks her hands in the pockets of her bathrobe and frowns out of the fogging windshield at the big house, her thoughts back on the case.

“Are we sure we’re going to be able to stop this guy?”

“A demon? It’s never a sure thing. But symbols carry a lot of weight with them. We have a cross, we have chalk, we have what we’re going to need.”

“Assuming we can catch him.”

“I’m really not worried about that. Demons don’t move any faster than we do. They have some nasty mojo, but it’s not like the fuckers can fl-”

I’m silenced by high beams stabbing through our car. I slide down into my seat, gesture for Arabella to do the same, and wait as the grumbling engine comes closer and closer to us up the driveway. The high beams go out, and I’m night-blind, fumbling for an astral signature on the car. I get an image of a Model T, black and rickety, amidst a backdrop of clanging assembly lines, a city being buried under snow and rot; and inside it, I pick up something enormous, so rank I can smell it in here – curdling blood, goat hair, urine-soaked straw. I hear snarling punctuated with the screams of children. Krampus drives past us in a growling, under-repaired Ford, and I mix a few prayers in with the questioning of my life choices.

The car goes through the hairpin turn the driveway demands of it; I unlock the doors once I’m sure it’s gone all the way up to the house. My heart has climbed up to my larynx, and every part of me is being hit with tiny hammers. Arabella’s a bag of chattering teeth and banked screams next to me.

I get out, motion for her to follow, leaving the doors open so the slamming doesn’t alert anybody. I take the lead, guiding Arabella around the curves, up the final approach. There’s the dull thud of a car trunk being closed, and a lanky figure sways away from the mystery Ford, holding something huge in his hand. It’s like I can hear him growling, but it’s just in my head.

I reach behind me, grab Arabella’s hand; she gives me a squeeze to let me know she’s ready. My blood pressure shoots up; my vision blurs for a second; and I shout into the ice-cold air:

“Hey, Grampa Grinch! Your mother coddles naughty boys!”

I never claimed to be a rapier wit.

I catch a glint of eyeball as the figure turns toward us. A light comes on in the house, and the figure lets out a mindless snarl of frustration. Krampus reads wrong – I’m having trouble finding the demon inside him. I feel it, sure, a black hole of anger, past anything any person can feel; but it’s caught up in the image of Krampus, the memories of screaming children and cold, cold nights, a symbolic layer too deep for me to penetrate. What the fuck is going on here?

“We’re investigators,” I try shouting. “You’ve been caught! Just give up and we won’t exorcise – “

Bestrafen!” shouts Krampus. Pure rage hits my mind, a wall of anger and more anger that he can’t express it.

He’s trying to attack me; an intense enough emotion could get through to me, get me mixed up about whose thoughts and memories are my own. From there, he can fight for control of my brain and my autonomic processes and just turn me off like a lightbulb. I think about a locked door, iron bars, deadbolts, and the demon’s attack just breaks against it. He snarls even louder, and the same blind hate smashes into my symbolic protections again.

This isn’t how psychic combat works. Once someone knows the thought is foreign, it’s never going to hook them in. But this Krampus keeps battering at me, which is enough to pin me down defending it but not enough to actually win the struggle. That’s about when footsteps explode across the asphalt, coming closer with the speed and subtlety of a freight train. I get stuck between dodging and concentrating on the thoughts about the door and Krampus slams into me, rough canvas abrading my nose as he tackles me to the ground.

Arabella screams. What feels like a bouquet of sewing needles whips across my face, and I get a memory of Mrs. Ellerby, bleeding on the floor, sobbing to herself as she repeats two words:

“Punish me.”

I grab at Krampus’s collar and I get the memory of little David Ekman, relenting in dull despair as he’s hauled up onto Krampus’s shoulder. I see screaming children, bloodied backs, and enough anger to give a marathon runner a coronary. Samantha Ellerby, Levi Friedman, both just names on a list, both just numb faces, telling me the same thing:

“Punish me.”

He whips me again with the birch branches, and I grab on, despite the pain in my fingers. I’m hit in the hindbrain with two decades of cleaning floors, of judgmental gazes, men in tailored suits calling me “maladjusted.” But that’s not me, that’s this guy I’m holding onto. Right?

Bestrafen,” Krampus howls, his voice echoing into the woods. “Bestrafen. Bestrafen.

I’m small, very small, and being told that some children are just nasty and I need to ignore them. I’m being told that through steaks over black eyes, through ice packs on swollen knees, when I look at my hands and remember my favorite comic book they tore right in front of me.

Then I’m big, so tall, and coming home with notes and citations on top of notes and citations. My mother keeps sending me to my room, and I’m seeing a policeman, a bartender, a boss, all staring up at me in resentment, all snarling about how I could be such a bully – I go limp.

Bestrafen.”

I remember waking up to the feeling of anger, so big and so pure that I couldn’t breathe. I remember my vision going red, and my mind turning slippery as the anger moved inside of me. Anger with horns. Anger with teeth. Anger that would lash out and grind down those who deserved it.

He’s a spirit of justice. He’s a spirit of correction. The only monster here is me.

“Punish me,” I say, as the birch branches come around for another shot.

“Randall!”

A hand touches me, and I’m thinking about our house, and the Christmas tree, and how badly I don’t want Randall to die here. I open my eyes just in time for the branches to bounce off my face and roll out into the dark.

Arabella’s got the cross in one hand, waving it to keep Krampus at bay; with the other hand she’s touching me, getting a firm grip on what’s going through my head right now. I start to ask her a question, and she lets go of me, and puts her free hand on Krampus.

At first I’m furious that Krampus would look away from me, would ignore me, but then my actual thoughts part through the masochistic fog and I realize that this probably was how he killed Mrs. Ekman, and I reach out and grab onto him, memories of my last hospital stay all queued up for your psychic combat pleasure. But when I touch him, I feel what Arabella’s sending his way, and I lose what I was about to think.

I’m in the dark room, just one light on the Zener card held in front of the frowning old man with the mustache; he’s asking me again what I see. A flash of what looks like a mass as seen from the pulpit, then I’m in the isolation tank again, screaming and pounding at the steel dome over me, desperately trying to get someone to let me out of the water. More mass and I’m shivering on a bare mattress in the middle of a field, while the cultists all touch me and shout to the sky, trying to focus their thoughts on the things they think will take them away from the diet-soda lives they’ve bumbled into leading -

I pull my hand away, horrified. Krampus starts screaming again, but now it’s

Nein. Nein. Nein!”

A floodlight ignites on the side of the house, bathing all of us in white. Krampus is a gangly man somewhere over six and a half feet tall, a huge, pointy chin, a nose to match, and a few days of five o’clock shadow. He’s still dressed in a gray set of janitor’s coveralls, lousy with grease stains and blood. I don’t imagine goat horns when I scan him anymore; I imagine fear, and confusion, and I see something twisting and slithering in his psyche, bucking against the inconvenience of Arabella’s memories.

Someone comes clattering down the steps from the front door to the driveway, and Krampus turns toward the noise. I take that opportunity to grab the wooden cross from Arabella’s hand and clobber Krampus across the back of his skull.

He lurches forward, the thing inside him now an oscilloscope of panic, and I club him again. He hits the ground, groaning; I drop the cross on top of him. He should have just enough association with Satan and his buddies that he’ll have trouble getting up.

I look up at the steps. A white-haired man with a face full of laugh lines is gawping down at us, the skinny kid in the flannel shirt, the girl in the bathrobe, and the unconscious janitor. I point at what used to be the Krampus, now lolling on the ground and sobbing.

“This guy’s been kidnapping children all night. He was coming after yours next. Call the cops.”

The white-haired man hesitates for a second, but then his desire to not have to think about this too much kicks in, and he’s back up the steps. I turn around as soon as the door’s closed and start walking back toward the car, ignoring Krampus’s groans.

“You okay?” Arabella asks.

“I will be once we duck the cops and get to a fucking hospital.”

We round the bend in silence, head down to the still-open car. I’m still wishing someone would punish me, and I’m now also wishing I’d stop wishing that. Next to me, I can feel the snowball of panic rolling itself up inside Arabella. Before she can make any more small talk, I reach out behind me, and put my hand in hers. Yes, I see the cultists pawing at her, and the weird, lecherous masses; yes, she probably sees me begging Krampus to beat me with a broom like some refugee from a Freud text. I do not come close to caring.

We walk down the entire driveway like that, all the way to the car. It’s freezing when we get in; it takes two tries to get the engine going, but at least it actually starts.

When we leave the hill and get onto the highway, I see sirens bleeding red and blue in the distance, diving up the off-ramp to the same mountain road we just left. I guess there really are Christmas miracles.

-

When I wake up the next day, it feels like my face has been tied together with shoelaces. Most of the cuts just took bandages, but one required stitches, and I guess that’s enough to make my whole head feel like it’s been stretched over a skull one size too big. I take the painkillers someone kindly left on my night-stand, shovel on a pair of sweatpants and boxers, and stumble downstairs.

“Good morning, sunshine,” Paul says. He’s at the table, cigarette already in his hand.

I shuffle over to the dining room table, slide myself into a chair. It’s hot in the house, the oppressive warmth of gas heat and a gas stove in perfect harmony.  I smell something bready underneath the smoke, with acidic little hints of apples or pears.

Paul puts his cigarette out in the ashtray, waits a second, and lights up another one.

“You look like shit,” he says.

“Likewise. What’s for breakfast?”

Dr. Barg limps into view in the kitchen doorway. He’s got on his “MAN COOK MEAT WITH FIRE” apron, which means: “Pancakes. Bacon’s on the stove. Check out the papers.” He gestures toward the table with his spatula.

I grab the Mercury News, scan through the headlines. Just under the fold I see “JANITOR ARRESTED FOR MULTIPLE KIDNAPPING.” The subtitle says “Targeted students, convinced them they ‘deserved this.’” I really don’t care what we’re having for breakfast anymore.

“What are we doing about the parents?” I ask.

“We have some special operatives working on the parents,” Dr. Barg calls from the kitchen. “We’re getting their memories restored and saying we’re doing medical exams to check for physical trauma. Inquisition shouldn’t notice.”

“Well, I’m glad the important part of the whole thing is handled,” I say.

Doctor Barg doesn’t continue the conversation.

“It’s very strange,” Paul says around his cigarette. “You don’t usually see a fusion of psyches like that.”

“You don’t usually see demons and psychics,” I respond.

“You’re really close-minded, you know that?”

“Whatever.” I lean back in my chair. “You’re right, though. Demons usually steer more than that one did. I guess they found their perfect match, or something.”

“I think it was symbolic overload,” Arabella says from the stairs.

Paul and I turn to look at her as she descends. She’s in the gray bathrobe today; black one probably had to be put in the wash. Her face is a blank again, no trace of the panic from last night.

“Check out the host’s name,” she says, nudging her head toward my paper. “‘Merkel.’ He’s probably German. Maybe even – “

“ – Austrian,” I finish. “Probably had a grandpa who always talked about Krampus or something.”

“Exactly,” Arabella says. “The host was all in an uproar about the way these kids behaved. Thought they were getting away with something he was always punished for. So the demon finds this juicy ball of anger, attaches to him, and it gets mixed up with his baggage and all these Krampus stories. Combine that with the flood of Christmas symbolism the astral plane has to be getting in December…”

“Instant Krampus.” I smirk at her. “Not a bad theory. I think I’ll have to subscribe to it.”

“It’d explain how he didn’t just dismantle us,” Arabella says. She sits down on the couch, frowning at Paul’s cigarette. “A demon should have been better at psychic combat than that, but it was so caught up in playing out its role -

“I don’t buy it,” Paul says. “I mean, yeah, symbolism matters. But they idea you can tantrum a demon into submission? Please.” He coughs up a geyser of smoke to emphasize his point. “Merkel acted like Krampus because the demon wanted Merkel to act like Krampus. End of story.”

“So you were a smoker before you possessed that body?” I ask.

Paul stops with the blazing cigarette an inch from his mouth. He scowls at me, and grinds it out in the ashtray. “Merry Festivus,” he says, as he heads upstairs.

Dr. Barg deposits a plate of apple pancakes and bacon in front of me as Paul leaves. I can almost smell them through the remains of the smoke. I pick up my plate, and head into the living room, dropping into the armchair opposite Arabella.

“You doing okay?”

She glances sidelong at me at first, then gives me a longer, gentler look. “Yeah,” she lies, staring at her hands in her lap. “How about you?”

“Yeah,” I lie. Our minds touch at the same moment, and we give each other the same bleak little grin.

I let my mind wander, sitting and enjoying the smell of the pancakes, the lingering cigarette smoke, the tarry, spicy scent of the anemic little Christmas tree. I glance over at it, and my mouth pops open when I see that a second present has been added underneath the tree. It’s about the right size for a book, or a very small bottle of whiskey.

“It’s for you,” Arabella says, and she’s giving off genuine glee. “I figured you should get to exchange presents with at least one person this year. And since you got me one…”

“Your sense of equity is admirable,” I say. “Maybe I’ll get you a second gift.”

She starts to giggle, stifles it. We sit in silence for a moment, and the mood plummets back down to dark.

“You didn’t really deserve it,” Arabella says, freezing me as I start to eat my breakfast.

I look across the room at her. Her eyes are huge, and her thoughts are a tornado of panic and anger, wrapped around a focal point of those people manhandling her and screaming into the sky. She’s waiting for me to say something, and unfortunately, it’s easy for me to tell exactly what that something is.

“Neither did you,” I say.

She sighs, and little pinpricks of diamond appear at the corners of her eyes. “Merry Christmas, Randall. Thanks for stopping Krampus.”

“Merry Christmas, Arabella. Thanks for saving my life.”

Our minds touch again, both of us scanning at once; and we can feel each other, thoughts stony and shuddering, resolving to never, ever talk about that fight up in Woodside again.

God bless us, everyone.

 

Copyright 2013 Tyler Hayes

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  1. December 26th, 2013
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