I’ve been away from the Friday stories for a while, mostly due to MA deadlines, but I really wanted to do a Christmas Friday story. Especially since I wanted to do one last year, but was stopped by having to voyage pointlessly back to London to replace my smashed glasses. (Don’t ask.)
So, here it is! To make up for last year (and because I ran over quite badly), it’s longer than usual. Ta-da.
Clear Present Danger
By Nick Bryan
‘So what’s he protesting?’
‘Meaning what, Jobson?’
‘Well, Sarge, what the hell’s his point? Israel/Palestine? War in Afghanistan? Public sector cuts?’
‘Oh, right.’ Sergeant Conroy glanced at the message again, in case he’d missed some subtle meaning. ‘No, it says the over-commercialisation of Christmas.’
‘Jingle fucking bells.’
‘Very festive, Jobson. Now stop mithering and get a move on.’
Their car trickled slowly up Oxford Street, siren on loud, until Jobson and Conroy finally got out and walked. Despite their bulky police uniform and high-vis jackets, people seemed determined to keep pushing past them with full elbows.
That could’ve been because it was Christmas Eve, and last-minute panic shopping was rife, but they knew that was only half- true. It was also because a huge number of their colleagues had cordoned off a well-known department store after the terrorist threat had come through.
Conroy steered his way delicately around a group of old ladies, whilst Jobson smashed directly into a tourist, knocked her over, and only stopped to help when the higher-ranking policeman turned and gave him a look.
And, finally, they reached the police line around the store. The huge windows zoomed out of sight, climbing up the building in a range of stained colours and bright displays, making their recently refurbished police station look like a decaying shed. The Christmas display, towering out of sight, contained a hell of a lot more festive cheer than Conroy was likely to see in his house tomorrow. In short, this was how the other half lived.
Meanwhile, in the centre of the building, customers and staff were still spilling out, most of them screaming a little. Shopping bags were banging against each other and children looked scared. It was calmer than he’d imagined it, though. You always expected town centre at Christmas to be worse than it is, don’t you?
‘What’s happening?’ Conroy asked no-one in particular, and a nearby constable obliged.
‘We’ve nearly got everyone out; the bomb squad are trying to find the device.’
‘Are they looking…’
‘In the Christmas presents, just like the note said.’
‘So Santa’s Grotto, then.’
Meanwhile, Jobson made his way to his friend Phil from Special Branch, who had set up an impromptu tent down the road. Everyone was giving the front of the shop a wide berth, except for the lucky policemen in charge of shepherding out the Christmas shoppers.
Phil was, as ever, wearing black suit, black tie, closely sheared haircut, the man clearly fancied himself the international super-spook, even though Jobson knew he rarely left London and spent half his time telephoning the same four informants to find out if the IRA were back yet.
No doubt due to the spy training he’d never had, Phil heard him coming. ‘Constable Jobson, how may I help you?’
‘What’s up with this shit, Phil? You got any gossip?’
‘Well, it’s too early to be certain, there are a lot of variables…’
‘Come on, Phil, don’t give me that wank, I have to go and “guard the perimeter” in a minute, and it’s freezing cold out here. I’m only wearing one pair of pants.’
‘Fine. I can report that the elves are crying.’
Jobson blinked. ‘Is that some kinda Christmas secret agent code?’
‘No, Jobson. The teenage girls who work as Santa’s elves are not holding up well under interrogation. One of them, asked if she’d seen anyone tampering with the presents next to the grotto, burst out in tears and begged us not to waterboard her.’
‘Are you gonna?’
‘Only if she acts suspiciously.’
Suddenly, another suited bozo with a chubbier face dragged Phil inside to talk to someone, leaving Jobson kicking his heels outside. Well, he thought, perhaps he ought to go and take his place on the line now, answering questions from tourists and telling shoppers that, yes, the bomb threat did mean they couldn’t pick up their caviar today.
Sergeant Conroy, unfortunately, had more responsibility than just standing around in a circle. Having gotten the lay of the land, he took up his leadership position, as close to the shop as he could, and barked queries into his radio.
‘Bomb squad? Any luck with those presents? Over.’
‘Sergeant, no, nothing, we’ve scanned them all, a couple we even shook to work out what was inside, nothing. Over.’
‘Have you searched the rest of the store? Over.’
‘We’re just starting now, sir. Over.’
‘Good. Keep me posted. Over and out.’
Conroy took his hand off the radio, and tapped his foot angrily. Was it a hoax? A childish attempt to cause maximum disruption? He sighed. The press would have their balls for this. “DUPED COPS CLOSE DOWN OXFORD STREET ON XMAS EVE – DEVASTATED SHOPPERS GO HOME TO WEEPING BABIES.” It didn’t bear thinking about.
And then his radio sparked up again. ‘Sergeant Conroy? It’s the Special Branch tent, could you come over? Um, over.’
Thank god, he thought. Maybe one of those bored teenagers had finally admitted to calling the hoax in, so he could punish someone and go home.
‘Be right there, over.’
Trying not to appear overly desperate, Conroy paced over to the tent and swept the entry panel aside. In the disappointingly pokey inner sanctum, several men in suits sat at trestle tables with clipboards, whilst a gaggle of teenagers in elf costumes were shaking and holding each other in a corner. Opposite them, on a plastic stool, was Santa, glaring defiantly from behind the beard. It felt like he’d stepped into a festive Guantanamo, drawn by some imagination-starved political cartoonist.
‘What’s happening here? Do you have news?’
One of the identical suits looked up from his paperwork. ‘It appears we have a confession, Sergeant.’
Conroy’s mood perked right up. ‘Really?’ He glared at the sobbing elves. ‘Which one was it?’
‘It… well.’ And instead he pointed at Santa. ‘It was him.’
‘Oh, seriously?’ Conroy loomed over Father Christmas, who stared him down. ‘So you called in a hoax? Why? Did you want a longer lunchbreak?’
‘No no, it’s not a hoax.’ Santa grinned through the cheap beard. ‘The bomb’s in there.’
And Conroy’s adrenaline jumped even higher. ‘Where is it?’
‘One of the presents, like I told you in my message.’
Conroy leaned in, so close to Santa that the beard tickled his chin. ‘Which. Fucking. One.’
Santa just grinned, and Conroy turned on the Special Branch clones. ‘What the fuck?’
‘Yeah,’ the lead one shook his head, weirdly calm, ‘that’s all we could get out of him.’
‘Can we,’ Conroy rolled his eyes, ‘… make him talk somehow?’
‘We’re Special Branch, not MI5. All the waterboarding gear is back in the office.’
At that, there was a strangled squeal from one of the elves.
Losing patience, Conroy dashed back into the street. All was deserted for a long way. Unless the explosion was nuclear, there shouldn’t be casualties. Finally, he looked at his watch, then back at the print-out of the note. Their two hours ended in ten minutes.
‘Bomb squad, come in, over,’ he sighed into his radio, ready to tell them to leg it and let events take their course. These people could afford to rebuild a couple of floors, but he couldn’t afford to sacrifice ten explosives experts.
‘Sergeant, we’ve scanned every present in here, no sign, anything else you want? Over.’
‘Yeah, if you can’t find it, better withdraw, I don’t want any…’ He stopped, his vacant stare at the building front coming into focus.
In fact, he paused for so long that the radio buzzed again before he could even say “over”. ‘Sergeant?’
Conroy was staring at the pile of presents in the window display. The only ones in the whole damn building that no-one had scanned for explosives. He looked at his watch again, before reaching back up to the radio resignedly. ‘Bomb squad, change of plan, go to the back of the store, exit via the staff door if you can find one, over.’
‘Aye-aye, sir. Over and out.’
And as Conroy waited nervously for the big festive bang, Jobson snuck behind him. He was wearing a riot mask he’d “borrowed” from a fellow officer, just to avoid being recognised. Another disciplinary for deserting his place on a perimeter would be bad news for his career, but he was just so bored.
‘Hey, Phil.’ Once he was finally inside the tent, Jobson swung the flap closed behind him and pulled the heavy plastic bucket off his head. ‘It’s me. Is it true?’
‘Is what true?’
‘That it was Santa! The bomber!’
‘Oh, indeed,’ Phil nodded, ‘that is the guy.’
In case Jobson had forgotten what Father Christmas looked like, Phil pointed across the tent at the man in the red fur-rimmed jacket and cushion belly. The beard had finally been taken off, and he was handcuffed to a tent pole, which combined into a nightmare vision. A shaven, imprisoned Santa Claus.
Leaving Phil fiddling with papers at his desk, Jobson put on his best official police face, the one he used when knocking on doors or ordering donuts, and went over to the suspect.
Santa’s eyes, red-rimmed, turned on Jobson. Even without the beard, it was a chubby, friendly face. He didn’t look like a fundamentalist, or any other kind of mentalist.
‘Yes? What can I do for you, son?’
Jobson fought back the urge to sit on his knee. ‘I was just wondering, um, what was your point?’
‘Yeah. Why did you plant the bomb? Was it really the over-commercialisation of the whatever?’
‘Oh, well,’ Santa nodded, a smile slowly emerging, ‘I was just a bit down, you know.’
‘So you decided to kill some kiddies?’
‘Oh, no,’ and he looked appalled at the suggestion, ‘I’d never want to hurt anyone. That’s why I sent a precise warning. I just wanted to give us all a Christmas happy ending.’
‘There are massage parlours in Soho who’ll do that without the jail time.’
‘But I warned you, and you got everyone out! And everything was so miserable and I wake up before going to work and read about everyone falling apart and…’ Santa was close to crying now, which made Jobson quite uncomfortable. ‘Everything’s just shit, officer. Maybe it’s the economy, maybe it’s the world we live in now, but it’s Christmas and I just don’t feel it. And I’m Father Fucking Christmas.’
That, Jobson thought, was not something he’d expected to hear Santa say.
‘So,’ he continued, ‘I planted the bomb and let everyone get clear. Some good news people can get behind, isn’t it? Police save department store customers from bomb.’
‘You realise we haven’t managed to defuse it?’
‘I don’t care about broken windows, Sergeant.’
‘Right. You’re utterly nuts, aren’t you?’
Before Santa could answer that one, there was an almighty bang outside. With one last glance back at chained up Saint Nick, Jobson turned and dashed from the tent into the street. As he arrived outside, he took a quick look around to make sure he wasn’t meant to be helping anyone, but it seemed fine.
The window display had burst outwards, and tiny shards of glass were floating through the air, drifting towards earth at varying speeds. There was a massive hole at the back of the display, through which something was clearly on fire. Good job the men with the hosepipes were already on standby.
As the roar of the explosion faded away, though, Jobson heard one of the teenage elves shout ‘Wow! Awesome!’, shortly before a kid in the audience started going ‘Mummy, mummy, is it snowing?’, whilst pointing at the cascading glass and window-display glitter. Jobson sighed and shook his head. He hoped Terrorist Santa hadn’t heard that, he’d just feel vindicated.
Seconds later, Conroy realised Jobson had deserted his post and gave him a festive disciplinary.
All copyright Nick Bryan 2011, the title pun totally didn’t come before the plot, please do not steal, email me if you like, and merry Christmas, everyone! Thanks for reading.