by Norsebard






This slice-of-life romantic dramedy belongs in the Uber/Original category. All characters are created by me, though they may remind you of someone.

Also, it depicts a budding romantic relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top right corner of your screen right away.

All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.

This story contains a tiny but of profanity. Readers who are easily offended by bad language may wish to read something other than this story.





Written: October 19th - 31st, 2021.

- I appreciate your help as always, Phineas Redux! :D

As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D


Description: In the hectic run-up to Christmas, Claudia MacCready and her Send-A-Santa Recruitment Agency are thrown into the deep end when her father is injured while working as Santa Claus at the renowned department store Spencer & Woolcott's. When the other Santas employed by the agency are unable to take over the prestigious assignment, Claudia must don the red velvet to save the day and keep the family tradition going - unfortunately, her problems don't end there. Working closely with the Human Resource manager Elaine Sutcliffe, Claudia must come up with a long-term solution that will appease the bean-counting managing director of the department store or risk losing the important contract…





Millions of people co-existed in the grand metropolis known as Greater Carlyle. Some were police officers or medical personnel, some were addicts on the fringes of society and some were ex-cons trying to get rehabilitated. Some were simple street hustlers trying to make a dishonest dollar, some had dedicated their lives to help those in need by doing the Lord's work, and some worked for large companies or owned small businesses that were meant to provide laughter and joy for the masses…


All six lanes of the busy Forty-fourth Street were clogged up with bumper-to-bumper traffic that could do nothing but creep forward one frustrating inch at a time. Thursday afternoons had always been bad when it came to traffic jams - Thursday afternoons in mid-December were nothing short of horrendous.

At least the City Council had put up various Holiday decorations so the severely stressed drivers would have something pretty to look at while they were stationary. However, the pretty colors didn't stop some people from rolling down their windows and shouting obscenities at the numbskull drivers of the other vehicles, at the semi-blind jaywalkers and the death-defying bicycle couriers who continued to zip around the city streets despite the mid-December chill.

MacCready's Send-A-Santa Recruitment Agency offered the greatest amount of color of all the mom-and-pop shops, clothes boutiques and other types of stores that lined the street. The agency had been created by Angus MacCready in the early 1970s amid a period of growing dissent with the traditional Santa Claus character. Influential voices among the young, progressive and political had rejected the old-fashioned, fat and jovial guy who brought gifts to all the good boys and girls on Christmas Morn. That children everywhere were suddenly robbed of some much-needed Yuletide magic didn't seem to register with the self-appointed spokespeople of a dull, gray Holiday period.

In the mid-1990s, Angus MacCready had passed the baton to his son Douglas who wasted no time in expanding the business to include birthday appearances, department store and shopping mall Santas as well as the more traditional fellows who stood at or near street corners ringing a brass bell and offering passers-by a jolly, ol' "Ho-Ho-Ho!" in exchange for a few dollars that would go to local charities.

It had been Claudia MacCready's turn to take the reins of the important family business fifteen years later. Although reluctant at first, she had decided to give it a try for a few years to see if she would feel at home in the unusual world - she had turned out to be a natural and had led the agency from strength to strength in the decade that followed.

Having gone past her fortieth birthday, she was at the top of her game when it came to making astute business decisions, closing deals where others could not, or sussing out the suitability of job applicants. Her personal life was another matter. Alone for far too long after her last relationship had gone sour due to her ex'es wandering eyes and hands, she had begun to worry that the fabled Book of Romance was closing for her. There had been a few flirts now and then, but nothing beyond that. As a modern woman, she knew all about the saying that modern women didn't need romance to be fulfilled, but somehow her heart didn't fully subscribe to that theory.


Claudia MacCready continued to stir a mug of tea as she pulled back from the window that gave her an unrestricted view of the street and the utter chaos out there. To fit the theme of the approaching Holiday period, she wore a Christmas-red pant suit in an elegant design. A pin in the shape of a cherub had been pinned to her jacket's left lapel while the right was home to a pair of tiny silver bells that jingled when she moved. The warm tones of the red fabric suited her perfectly and almost seemed to make her glow.

Her family's Scottish ancestors had given her fair skin, hazel eyes and reddish-blond hair which all added up to an attractive woman. Her genes hadn't provided her with the typical Scot height, though - she could only reach five-foot-seven if she wore heeled shoes.

Turning back to her office desk, she put the mug on a Holiday-themed dish mat before she sat down on a swivel-chair. She crossed her legs, folded her hands and sent the young fellow sitting across from her an expectant look.

The hands on the wall-mounted clock tick-tocked louder and louder until each movement seemed to make the office tremble. "Ah…" the mid-twenty-something youngling said; he shifted in the hard chair while his eyes darted past several items in the office until they landed on Claudia's fair but no-nonsense features. "Miss MacCready, I'd like to apply for a job as a mall or department store Santa," he eventually said in a voice that wasn't as strong as it probably should have been.

"I see."

"Ah… yes. I gave your secretary my CV, so… uh…"

"Would you like a vanilla cookie?" Claudia said and leaned forward. Picking up a cookie tin, she held it out to the young man who shook his head politely. Undaunted, Claudia took one for herself and dunked it in her tea while she waited for the job applicant to go on.

The odd situation only seemed to make the young man more nervous. His eyes went on another tour of the office across the plush, scarlet carpet, the many ornaments and knick-knacks, the peculiar moose-head clock on the wall and the row of photographs of old Santa Clauses that reached back to when the world was still in black and white.

"Very well," Claudia said in a stronger voice than the young man had expected - he stared at her with wide, confused eyes. Leaning forward all of a sudden, she pointed an accusing index finger at the job applicant. "My precious little Daisy has been waiting for ten minutes now!"


"Why are you so slow?  Don't you understand how busy I am?  Time is money and you're wasting mine, you faker!"


"Oh no… now look what you did!  You made Daisy drop her candy cane!  Great, now she won't stop crying for an hour. And you call yourself Santa?  You're a joke!  I demand to talk to your supervisor!  Right now!"

"Buh… uh… buh… oh, Gawd… oh, Gawd…" the young man croaked. His eyes had grown as wide as saucers and he seemed on the brink of tearing his hair out.

As the role-playing came to an abrupt end, Claudia picked up her mug and leaned back in her swivel-chair like nothing unusual had just happened. A smile briefly graced her features before she took a long sip of her tea. "You need another couple of years as a corner Santa before you're ready. Once you've gained enough experience, come back and we'll try again. All right?"

"O- okay…" the young man croaked as he got up from the hard chair and moved behind it. He put his hands on the backrest for support like he couldn't believe what had just happened. Then he nodded a goodbye and shuffled out of the inner office.

Chuckling, Claudia took another sip of her tea before she turned to sort a stack of files. The flip-over calendar on her desk said it was Thursday, December 16th - a week to go, give or take, until the big day.


Half an hour later.

Claudia's office echoed with the typical sound of her fingers performing a fast tap dance on her laptop's keyboard. The connector jack on her hands-free set had given up the ghost so she needed to keep her telephone pinned between her ear and her shoulder while she typed - it wasn't ideal, but the torturous month of December left her no time to stock up on essentials.

She let out a few grunts in all the appropriate places as she listened to her agency's roster manager giving her the lowdown on the number of available Santas - many were out working but an even greater number had reported in sick. On top of everything else that had happened in the world in the past eighteen months, it seemed that a nasty flu bug was doing the rounds among all the agencies. It wasn't what they needed after the disaster of the previous Holiday season, but there was little anyone could do about it.

Sudden activity out in the plenum office beyond the glass door made Claudia look up and furrow her brow. Beryl Griffith, a veteran employee who had been with the recruitment agency since the very beginning, had jumped up from her chair and was making a beeline for the door to the inner office. The look on her face proved that whatever news she brought, it wasn't good.

Claudia excused herself from the telephone conversation and pushed her swivel-chair back. Getting to her feet, she let out an "Enter!" a split second after the secretary had knocked on the door.

Beryl Griffith entered in a hurry and shut the glass door behind her. On the cusp of turning seventy-one, Beryl could be called the agency's Grand Old Dame, but nobody was brave - or foolish - enough to do it to her face. Lean and fit as a result of spending several hours each weekend playing tennis or going through an advanced cross-country hiking course for seniors, she was just as much on top of her game as Claudia was.

Square reading glasses were perched on the very tip of Beryl's nose as always, but she removed them to pinch it an inch further up than that - at the bridge. Her cheeks were flushed and she had a concerned look in her eyes; it all pointed to a potentially cataclysmic nature of the news. "Miss MacCready, I just spoke to Miss Sutcliffe from Spencer and Woolcott's… your father's had an accident-"


"He tripped over something and injured his leg-"

"God, I hope he didn't stumble over a kid…"

"Miss Sutcliffe didn't say… I'm pretty sure she would have…"

"Yeah… okay. Jeez." Claudia picked up her telephone and looked at the blank display like it would help her. When she realized it was an exercise in futility, she put it back on the desk and picked up a ball point pen instead that she promptly began to fiddle with to have something to do with her hands. "All right, I… I… Jeez," she mumbled as she put down the pen and took to rubbing her forehead. "So… where is he?"

"According to Miss Sutcliffe, they helped your father to their staff infirmary, but the pain was so bad she felt it most prudent to call an ambulance. He was taken to St. Mary's Hospital on West Twenty-eighth Street."

"Oh, no… that's halfway across town!  Couldn't they have gone to the Community Hospital instead?  Ryegaard Street is much closer than West Twenty-eighth. Dammit!  And just look at that traffic," Claudia said in a groan as she executed a frustrated wave at the bumper-to-bumper logjam that was still in place outside her office windows.

Beryl shrugged.

"All right… dammit. If Miss Sutcliffe calls again, please tell her I'll be at St. Mary's," Claudia said as she strode over to a hallstand to get her coat, scarf, hat and gloves. "I think she may have my personal number, but I'm not sure… all right?"

"Will do, Miss MacCready… don't worry too much about your father. I know for a fact the old fella is a tough, ol' walnut to crack," Beryl said with a smile to try to lighten the mood.

Claudia buttoned her overcoat before she donned a knitted hat, wrapped a scarf around her neck and put on a pair of fleece gloves. She paused to look at the veteran secretary. "Yeah, I know. Maybe we'll get lucky and he hasn't broken any bones… but I do worry about what the department store will do now they've lost their top Santa. Please check all the rosters while I'm away. We may need to call in a replacement on short notice. We can't afford to lose Spencer and Woolcott's."

"I understand. I'll get on it right away, Miss MacCready."

"Thank you, Beryl," Claudia said and put a hand on her old friend's shoulder. They exchanged a brief smile before the owner of the Send-A-Santa Recruitment Agency strode out of the office and onto the busy street.

The late-afternoon chill slapped her across both cheeks as she stepped onto the sidewalk; she needed to pull down her knitted hat and fold up the collar of her overcoat to combat it. Although there were several taxi cabs from all of Carlyle's main cab companies nearby, they were either locked in the traffic jam or already engaged. A couple of emergency sirens that wailed somewhere in the middle distance offered a clue as to the origin of the jam.

Her private BMW was parked in a monitored, underground parking garage just fifty yards further up Forty-fourth Street, but even the thought of using it to get to St. Mary's was foolish. It was obvious she needed to catch a regular street cab, and equally obvious she needed to cross over to one of the less busy streets to do so. Grunting out her frustrations, she soon blended into the bobbing stream of humanity that flowed along the sidewalk.


First catching a cab and then being driven to St. Mary's on West Twenty-eighth Street ate up more than forty-five minutes of the afternoon. The hand on the large clock inside the hospital's cold, impersonal lobby just moved to ten to five when Claudia stepped through the revolving doors.

The lobby was less hectic and crowded than she had feared, but there were nevertheless plenty of people around: patients, visitors, medical staff, two police patrolmen and several ambulance crews from Carlyle's largest providers. A short but stocky blonde from Pettersson's Nine-Nine-One Ambulance Services exchanged all sorts of inappropriate barbs with a man wearing a Sklar & Bonney uniform while their respective riding nurses spoke in a more civilized manner.

Claudia had no time for any of that. It took her a moment to spot the sign that directed visitors and relatives to a circular reception desk that had been set up in the far corner of the lobby, but once she had seen it, she wasted no time in getting over there.


Four minutes later, she hurried along a corridor that led to the section of the Emergency Room reserved for relatives. Though less impersonal than the lobby had been, the corridor was held in three different shades of gray so the people needing it to get from A to B wouldn't mistake it for anything else than it was - no more than the proverbial means to an end.

She had been issued with a piece of paper that acted as a guide of St. Mary's Hospital and a Visitor/Relative tag that she needed to carry at all times during her stay. The plastic tag had been clipped onto the lapel of her overcoat where it flopped back and forth as she moved; the clip-on mechanism was poor so she needed to re-attach it more than once or else it would have flown off.

Though the guide she clutched in her hand may have looked simple, it was anything but. Even the short distance between the lobby and the Emergency Room proved difficult, and she had to double back twice when she made wrong turns down almost identical corridors.

A strong burst of anger bubbled up inside her as she strode through yet another gray corridor, but just as she was about to let out a howl of frustration, she arrived at the visitor entrance to the E.R. Rolling her eyes, she shoved the guide into her coat pocket and entered the large waiting room.

Integrated benches and separate chairs had been put up everywhere to handle the rush of low-priority patients and relatives at peak hours, but only a few of them were in use at present. A water cooler babbled next to a plastic palm tree; a vending machine that offered healthy snacks for those so inclined sent out a hum while the light inside it flickered on-and-off in a lazy pattern. Posters on the walls reminded the citizens of Carlyle that giving blood could save lives, to look after their elderly neighbors in extreme weather and to never hesitate calling the authorities if they suspected someone of child abuse.

Claudia slowed down as she took in the scene. Her father wasn't among the people waiting there, so she hurried over to a glassy reception booth built into the far wall of the visitor zone. It was unmanned when she got there so she had to press a small button that activated an electronic bell somewhere else.

The high ambient temperature and the typically strong smells of antiseptics and various medicines hit her like a ton of bricks; the resulting headache arrived swiftly. She could do nothing about the smells, but to combat the temperature, she took off her fleece gloves, her knitted hat and her scarf and stuffed them all into the coat's various pockets. She had time to unbutton the warm coat as well before the on-duty nurse slid into place behind the speaking hole of the reception booth's armored glass.

Claudia leaned forward so she could be heard clearly through the narrow gap: "Good afternoon, I'm Claudia MacCready. My father Douglas MacCready was brought in earlier. Do you know when I can get to see him?"

"One moment, please," the nurse said as she typed in the information on her computer. A smile spread over her face as she studied the data on the monitor. "Oh!  Your father is Santa!"

"That's right," Claudia said and displayed a nervous smile that soon faded.

"He's still undergoing initial treatment by a doctor. I'm afraid I can't say how long it'll take before you can see him. I promise I'll alert you over the P.A. when I get word. Please have a seat in the meantime. We have a coffee vending machine and a few magazines to pass the time," the nurse said while she pointed at a selection of vending machines somewhere over Claudia's shoulder.

Claudia let out a brief sigh of disappointment. Nodding, she offered the on-duty nurse a brief smile before she shuffled off to the nearest available seat.


Fifteen minutes later, she closed the second dog-eared magazine she had read and put it on the plastic seat next to her. The discarded magazine joined her winter coat and a half-full cup of the worst and most bitter coffee she had ever sampled - two sips of the so-called refreshment had been enough to convince herself to forget all about the rest of the oddly-colored, and utterly undrinkable, horror.

The E.R.'s waiting room had grown more busy in the minutes following her arrival. The high-priority cases were given medical attention at once, but less critical black eyes, abrasions and even bloody noses could be spotted among the people waiting patiently. Two six-year-old twins were less patient on the whole, but they seemed to understand that their ill-appearing mother - a Latina in her mid-twenties - was unable to keep them on a short leash for a change.

Before Claudia could reach for a third magazine, her name was called over the public announcement speakers installed in the ceiling. She grabbed her coat, jumped up from the hard seat and hurried over to the reception booth to get the latest news. The on-duty nurse was the same she had spoken to earlier, and the broad smile that graced the woman's features provided a modicum of comfort.

"Miss MacCready, your father has just been transferred to the observation floor. If you can wait another five minutes, a doctor will be down to explain what's been done. After that, he'll escort you up to your father's ward."

"Oh!  Thank you. Thank you very much," Claudia said and let out a sigh of relief. She had already begun to turn around when a thought entered her mind: "By the way, my father has full health insurance-"

"The paperwork has already been taken care of, Miss MacCready. The data has been electronically processed," the nurse said as she tapped a finger on the top of her computer's monitor.

"Ah. Good. Very good. Thank you. I'll just wait over there…" Claudia said and pointed at the nearest corner of the waiting room so she wouldn't be in the way.


The promised five minutes became ten before the doctor finally showed up, but Claudia wasn't about to make a nuisance of herself by blowing her top - especially not in the presence of so many people. After a detailed briefing on her father's condition during their age-long walk up to the observation floor, she was soon able to open the door to her father's ward.

Peeking in with bated breath, her eyes fell on a plastic bag on the floor next to the first bed. The bag contained the oh-so-familiar thick, red Santa Claus coat, and it appeared the near-antique and thus historically valuable coat had simply been stuffed into the bag with little regard for its safety. Seeing it treated like that irked her greatly, but at least she knew she was in the right ward. She closed the door softly behind her and tip-toed into the room.

Only two of the six beds in the ward were in use, a fact that Claudia was grateful for. An elderly fellow slept in the bed closest to the central heating radiator down the far end of the room; he didn't even snore so he couldn't disturb anyone.

Claudia continued to tip-toe over to the bed occupied by her father. His entire costume had apparently been stuffed into the wretched plastic bag as he wore a hospital-issue gown and not the familiar red velvet. Resting safely after the drama, he had pulled the insulated blanket almost as far up as it would go - no doubt hoping to obtain even the tiniest amount of privacy. Down the far end, his lower legs and bare feet reached beyond it proving the tall man should have been given a longer blanket.

The shortness of the cover offered a good view of the dark-blue, cumbersome-looking contraption that had been attached to his right ankle. The first thought through Claudia's mind was that it looked just like a ski boot. She furrowed her brow as she moved up to the side of the bed; though the doctor had told her the ankle wasn't fractured, only badly sprained, the injury would certainly prevent the old fellow from working for the rest of the important month.

When Douglas MacCready sensed a presence near him, he opened his eyes to look around. A moment later, his bearded face cracked wide open in a grin as he spotted his daughter. "Lass!  Am I happy to see you… can you believe this mess?!"

"Hi, Dad!" Claudia said and immediately bent over to put her hands on her father's cheeks. The initial contact wasn't enough by far, so she leaned even further down to place a tiny kiss on his brow. "Ohhhh, you had me so worried… what happened?"

Douglas let out a long sigh. "I bumbled around like a stupid idiot is what happened."  Neither the ungraceful introduction to the floor at Spencer & Woolcott's nor the subsequent ride to the hospital in the back of the ambulance had robbed him of his ancestral Scottish brogue - some said his accent reminded them of Sean Connery, but he always objected strongly to that comparison because Connery hailed from Edinburgh while the MacCreadys were from Dumfries. "Grab a chair, will ya… I don't want to add a crimp in my neck to my busted ankle!"

Chuckling through a veil of tears that had insisted on springing forth though the news were positive, Claudia soon pulled over a rock-hard chair that she sat down on. Her inner reactor ran rampant from all the emotions that had blasted through her for the past hour, so she got up at once and took off her overcoat. "All right," she said as she sat down all over again and folded the coat across her lap, "now will you please tell me what happened?"

"I'd just finished the three-o'clock Meet Santa event… you know, at the big chair the department store has put up in their central square…"

"Sure, sure…"

"Well, I guess I was in a hurry," Douglas said and rubbed his brow before he reached for his daughter's hand. "I needed some coffee and a restroom break before the three-thirty tour of the store, and… uh… I didn't look where I was going. I stumbled over a stuffed toy that one of the kids had dropped next to the big chair. Down I went. It only took a second… and then thump. Hello floor!"

"Oh, Dad…"

"Yeah, right?  A bumbling idiot, like I said. The coat protected all my upper parts, but my damn ankle and maybe my knee got twisted somehow. I felt it at once when I tried to get up. Hurt like a you-know-what."

Claudia grimaced; she gave her father's hand a little squeeze to offer her commiserations.

"Two seconds later, all heck broke loose. Oh, and I smashed my almost brand-new pair of reading glasses-"

"They were seven years old, Dad."

Douglas cocked his head and stared at Claudia in a clear state of utter surprise. "What?  That can't be right!"

"Well, they were…"

"Maybe that's why they didn't work all that well anymore. Mmmm…" Despite his present situation, Douglas let out a brief chuckle before he carried on: "But anyway… kids were crying, parents were shrieking… and then the security guards and that tall, gorgeous Human Resource manager came running in which only added to the pandemonium. She called the ambulance and you know the rest. I guess she called you at the office as well."

Claudia gave her father's hand another reassuring squeeze. "Well, somebody did. I don't know if it was Miss Sutcliffe in person. I need to ask Beryl… oh, that doesn't matter now."

"No, I guess it doesn't," Douglas said before he fell silent. He chewed on his cheek while his eyes went on a small tour of the typically drab interior. The ward's depressing nature meant he would much rather look at his daughter, so he moved his eyes back to her fair, but worried, face. "At least I didn't stumble over a kid. That would have been the end of everything," he said in a somber voice.

"Thank God for small favors," Claudia said before she pulled her father's hand up so she could place a small kiss on the aged skin of his knuckles.

The gesture prompted a wistful smile to spread over Douglas's lips. He eventually nodded before he shuffled around on the bed so he could get a better look of his daughter. "Where do we go from here?"

"Well, we need to get you back in tip-top shape, Dad. But first up, we need to find someone else to be Santa over at S-and-W for the rest of the Holiday period."

"Yeah. I can't believe it," Douglas said and ran a hand through his white hair. "A fifty-year tradition down the drain just because I didn't pay attention to where I put my damn boots. I know I've said this before, but my old man had just turned eighty the final time he was Santa… and he never tripped over anything!  I'm sixty-eight and… look at this mess!"

"I blame the reading glasses," Claudia said with a faint smile.

"I blame my eyes!"

Chuckling, Claudia got up from the chair and leaned down toward her father. They shared a warm gaze for a moment before she reached under the old fellow and pulled him into a gentle hug. "Don't worry, Dad. We'll figure something out. Yeah?  Don't worry about anything. Just concentrate on getting better. Don't forget that Jonathan and his wife will be over for Christmas this year. I know for a fact that Mark and Rosie can't wait to see their grandpa again!"

"Oh, that's right!  I hope those li'l firecrackers won't run anyone ragged this year… remember last Christmas at Jonathan's place?"

Claudia scratched her chin as the R-rated horror movie from the previous year's supposedly peaceful Holiday period flashed across her mind's eye. It had taken two full weeks for her ears to stop ringing after they had been exposed to four days of boundless exuberance by the little ones. "Uh… yeah…"

The door behind the two MacCreadys opened to reveal the doctor who had been assigned to Douglas MacCready upon his arrival at St. Mary's Emergency Room. It was standard procedure that relatives needed to step outside while the patients were being examined, so Claudia took her coat and left the ward after another kiss on her father's brow.


After the doctor had left, Claudia went back inside and sat down once more. The gloomy look on her father's face made her let out a worried grunt and reach for his hand in a hurry. "Was it bad news, Dad?"

"You could call it that. He said the tender bits on either side of my right kneecap show signs of swelling. I'm going to have to spend the night here, Sugar."


"Dammit," Douglas said as he thumped his fist into the mattress, "it doesn't even hurt, it's just numb!  Well, all right, they did give me a shot of something down in the E.R., so…"


"Probably. I didn't think of that. Damn."

Claudia had already drawn a breath to speak when her father beat her to it: "Which reminds me… I asked the doctor-fella to take a blood sample so we can prove to Spencer and Woolcott's and the insurance company there wasn't any alcohol involved. I was just a bumbling idiot and that was bad enough!  He agreed and will send up a nurse in a couple of minutes."

"Good. I was about to ask you that, actually…"

"I know," Douglas said with a half-grin. "It's all listed in the set of rules and guidelines you drew up for all us hard-working Santas when you took over the family bizz. Back then, I thought it was a waste of time and money because we had been going just fine without it since 'seventy-three!  Of course I had to be the big clown who proved you right."

"Oh, Dad… never mind that now. You just tripped over something. That could have happened to anyone."  As the door opened once more to reveal a nurse who wheeled in a trolley carrying the equipment needed to take a blood sample, Claudia placed a tiny kiss on her father's brow. "Listen, I'll head back to the office now. Don't worry about S-and-W. Do you have your phone?"

"Yes, it's in my coat pocket," Douglas said and waved at the plastic bag on the floor.

"Good. Call me as soon as you know what's going to happen tomorrow. Okay?"

"I promise. Love you, Claudia."

"Love you too, Dad," Claudia said and offered her father a wink and a small wave before she took her coat and left the ward.

Out in the corridor, she came to a brief halt and let out a long sigh. Shaking her head, she dug into her coat pocket to find the guide - then she set off to find an exit somewhere in the confusing maze of identical hallways that criss-crossed the wards and floors of the old, and outdated, St. Mary's Hospital.



The cab ride back to the office was a less harrowing experience than the mad scramble to get to the hospital had been, but it still took longer than half an hour. By the time Claudia opened the door to the Send-A-Santa Recruitment Agency and whipped off her overcoat, her scarf and her knitted hat, the hands on the moose-head clock on her office wall had moved around to a quarter past six.

The reason for the agency's late closing hour was simple: they needed to stay open for the same amount of hours as their most important customers in case of acute problems that needed swift action. December had always put a strain on families and social relations, and Claudia was fully aware of the fact that her employees typically didn't get home until after ten in the evening. Everyone suffered through the twelve-hour working days during the peak season, but there was little anyone could do about it. If a department store or shopping mall couldn't get in touch with Send-A-Santa if or when they had an urgent need for an additional Santa, a Mrs. Santa or a bunch of Elves, they would simply call one of the other agencies in Carlyle. Once clients had gone elsewhere, they were lost forever - Claudia was all too aware of that.

She had barely set foot in the office before all the staffers formed a concerned mob around her to get the latest news on her father. "Whoa!" she said and took a step back. She put her hands in the air to quell the worried din that rose from her people. "You probably know that Dad fell over at Spencer and Woolcott's. He suffered a sprained ankle and a swollen knee in the accident. He's just fine beyond that, and he's in good spirits, but they're keeping him for observation over night."

A sigh of relief rippled through the people present; since the news had been mostly good, a few of those at the back returned to their desks to tend to the telephones that were ringing off the hook.

Claudia let out a sigh that matched that of her employees. "He's trying to be in a positive frame of mind about it, but you know Dad… he'll soon turn grumpy if it takes too long to get back to work. Beryl, did you have any luck scouring the roster?"

"Not yet. It's hard going, Miss MacCready. It seems the top people are all either down with the flu or fully booked," Beryl said before adjusting her square reading glasses.

"Mmmm. All right. I'll take over. How far did you get?" Claudia said as she made a beeline for her office. Beryl followed her there while the other employees all returned to their desks to get back to the paperwork.

"I made it to D, Miss MacCready," Beryl said as she closed the inner door behind her.

Another grunt - a dark one - escaped Claudia as she hung her overcoat on the hallstand in the corner of her office. The gloves, the scarf and the knitted hat were quickly stuffed into one of the coat's pockets. "You went through all the A, B and C-names without success?"

"I'm afraid so."

Claudia came to a full stop, slammed her hands onto her hips and assumed a dark, gloomy expression. She stood like that for a moment before she let out an "Mmmm!" and continued over to her swivel-chair. Once she had attached her telephone to the charger, she flipped open the laptop that soon came alive after hibernating. "Did you try Crannog's Rent-a-Friend?  They owe us big-time from last Easter."

"Oh, that's right…" Beryl said and put a finger on her chin, "we had the Easter Bunny costume and the right-sized person to wear it… and they needed it. No, I only called our regular employees and the top freelancers. Not our business associates."

Claudia nodded as she picked up her telephone and scrolled through the registry to find Crannog's. "Okay, I'll try a couple of those. Maybe we'll get lucky. I'd like you to continue with the E-names and so on."

"Will do."

"Thank you for all your hard work, Beryl… I really appreciate it," Claudia said with a wistful smile.

Beryl grinned. "You're welcome. I'm the Fairy Godmother around here, you know!" the old pro said before she left the office to return to her own list of chores.

"Boy, you can say that again," Claudia mumbled as she turned her attention to her telephone.


At half past seven in the evening, Claudia's fair face had morphed into a permanent expression of dark, grim gloominess. Crannog's Rent-a-Friend had been a bust as had every single contact in the list of names reaching all the way down to 'H.' She needed to do something other than staring at a monitor, so she got up and went straight over to the advanced coffee maker that was one of the very few luxury items she had bought for herself after taking over the agency.

After inserting a mug and pressing the buttons needed to make a caramel-flavored cappuccino, she moved into the center of the office and buried her face in her hands. The headache that had been created by the strong smells at the hospital had never left, and the muscles in her neck had joined in on the painful fun in sympathy.

Once the coffee maker sent out an electronic ding indicating it was done, she took a reusable stirrer and began to whip it around in the steaming-hot, cream-colored liquid. The caramel-flavored coffee gave her a boost and even an idea that she wanted to try at once.

The person who had flashed through her mind as a potential Santa for Spencer & Woolcott's had retired so his contact information had been deleted from her telephone. Undaunted, she accessed their old personnel records on her laptop and soon found the info she was looking for. She punched in the telephone number and crossed her fingers. "Good evening, this is Claudia MacCready from MacCready's Send-A-Santa Recruitment Agency. Could I speak to Mr. Chester Perkins, please?"

Ten seconds later, she uncrossed her fingers because she needed them to pinch the bridge of her nose in the hope of throttling the new wave of headaches that blossomed somewhere deep inside her skull. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Perkins. I didn't know. Please accept my condolences. Your late husband was a wonderful Santa. Yes. Yes, I remember him well. Goodbye, Mrs. Perkins."

Claudia threw the telephone onto the desk and leaned back on her swivel-chair. A long, pained groan escaped her; the groan only grew deeper and darker when she noticed Beryl Griffith getting up from her desk and making a beeline for the office door - once more, the experienced secretary looked as if she was the bearer of urgent news.

This time around, Beryl didn't even bother to knock. She never slowed down as she crossed over the Christmas-red carpet to put a cordless DECT telephone on Claudia's desk. "Miss Sutcliffe is calling. She's the HR-manager over at the-"

"I know who she is… thanks, Beryl," Claudia said and hurriedly picked up the handset. She winked at her old friend who remained standing in the office in case she was needed. "Hello, Elaine," Claudia continued into the telephone.

The proverbial ray of sunshine that had entered Claudia's voice during the greeting didn't go unnoticed by Beryl. She broke out in a knowing grin before she spun around on her heel and closed the door to the inner office to allow her boss some privacy.

Claudia waited until the door had fully shut before she continued: "It's great to hear your voice. I just wish it could have been under better circumstances."

'I know, Claudia. I'm sorry for the radio silence,' Elaine said from the other end of the connection. As always when the two women had a moment to themselves, the head of the Human Resource department used far more civil tones compared to when she spoke to her own people - it was no coincidence that her nickname among her department's employees at Spencer & Woolcott's was The Commander In Chief. 'You know how it is… December's a crazy time for us all. This year is even worse.'

"Yeah, tell me about it," Claudia said and let out a sigh. Leaning back on her swivel-chair, she crossed her knees and began to toy with a few things on her desk. In the old days, she would have been wrapping the landline telephone's spiral cord around her pinkie while she spoke, but the DECT handset obviously didn't have one so she had to make due with a ball point pen and a few pieces of paper that were rearranged absentmindedly. "I went to see Dad over at St. Mary's. He's all right, all things considered. He has a sprained ankle and a swollen knee."

'I know how painful those injuries can be, but it's definitely positive news. Your father really had us worried. He was definitely in pain when the ambulance crew from Pettersson's Nine-Nine-One came to get him… actually, now we're on that subject… when they showed up, I was convinced you were moonlighting as an ambulance driver-'

"Beg' pardon?  How so?"

'Because she looked just like you!  She was more buff and definitely more foul-mouthed, but… yeah. It took me a minute or so before I understood it wasn't you.'

"Huh… how about that," Claudia said and shuffled the pieces of paper around a little more. "You know, I think I may have seen her over at St. Mary's… a compact blonde was chatting to one of her colleagues when I arrived in the lobby."

'We're stuck in the Twilight Zone!'

"We must be. I can hear the theme tune!  Huh, that would certainly explain a few of the weird goings-on around the world…"

'Yeah… ah, Claudia…did your Dad get a… oh, how can I put it… oh, this is embarrassing…'

Claudia chuckled; she knew what was coming. "Yes, a blood sample was taken. I'm sure a full toxicology report will be on your desk tomorrow morning."

'Great!  You'd laugh at the color of my cheeks right now… isn't it terrible that we even have to ask for that?  The insurance companies won't get off my back over it. We have to get blood samples from the cafeteria staffers in case they spill a glass of water!  And that's not an exaggeration. It's terrible.'

"It's the same here. The rules are so complex and rigid… I mean, the Santas all need to have clean rap sheets going back fifteen years. They're all put through extensive background checks for online behavior and whatnot, and everyone has to be cleared by several government agencies before they can be allowed anywhere near children."

'Yeah… I have an entire filing cabinet full of photocopies of the certificates.'

"So do we… actually, there's been a new development recently," Claudia said and rubbed her brow. "Now, everyone has to keep an eye on when their many certificates and permits are to be renewed. If they allow them to expire, even if it's through an oversight, they are required to start over and re-apply for all of them… it's a jungle out there. I guess that's reasonable enough considering we're dealing so much with children, though. But I agree that the blood samples are too much."

'Yes. Ah, Claudia… to get to the crux of the matter… and I know this will sound insensitive, but… how soon do you think your father can return to work?'

Claudia's hand left the ball point pen and the pieces of paper alone so she could rub her brow again. Her lips briefly formed a tight line in her face at the nature of Elaine's question, but she had no right to be upset about it because she had used similar words in the past when speaking to injured employees. She wetted her lips to get them to loosen up. "I honestly don't know. It won't be for a while. Maybe the middle of next week at best. Maybe not until the Holiday weekend itself."

'Oh… that late?  In that case, do you have anyone else you can send over tomorrow?  Someone experienced whose nerves won't get frayed by the kids and their direct ways.'

Claudia knew it had been coming but the question still made her squirm in her seat. She cast a quick glance at the laptop where the screensaver had kicked in. The mouse pad was soon tapped to make the Dancing Santas go away, but the lines of text in the personnel records didn't make for happy reading.

At the same time, Elaine continued at the other end of the connection: 'We have scheduled five Meet Santas over the course of tomorrow plus the regular tours of the various floors. It's Friday so the house will be packed. We badly need a replacement, Claudia… I can't stress that enough. I hope you understand.'

"Trust me, I do," Claudia said and rubbed her eyes. She moved her leg down and swiveled around to face the laptop in the hope it would help. "Elaine, I won't lie to you. Ever since hearing of Dad's accident, we've been flat-out searching for someone to fill his boots. Everyone's either fully booked for the rest of the month or down with that damn flu that's doing the rounds at the moment. We won't give up trying, but… honestly, it's looking a little grim."

'Oh… I see. All right.'

The frustration in Elaine's voice came through loud and clear. All Claudia could do was to rub her brow and stare even harder at the lines of text on her laptop. "I imagine you're already going through the phonebook to find other agencies. I know it'll sound like a poor excuse, but I'll bet the situation is just as dire for all our main competitors."

'Oh… really?'

"I'm afraid so. The entire industry is stretched to breaking point this year," Claudia said while she tried scrolling down in the hope that something - or rather, somebody - would pop up. "Back in the old days… and I'm talking about the late nineteen-nineties, early two-thousands… we could just pick Joe Random off the street, throw a Santa suit at him and tell him to go over to your place and sit in the big chair. I'm sure you've heard horror stories involving that kind of people."


"And besides, we can't even do that now with all the background checks I just mentioned."

'So, basically… we're screwed?'

A chuckle escaped Claudia's lips as a familiar sound filtered through the connection - it sounded like the HR-manager had just smacked her fist onto her desk or perhaps the armrest of her chair. "Well, I won't say screwed, but-"

'Oh!  Could you perhaps check some of your former employees or something?'

Another chuckle escaped Claudia, and this one was darker. "I tried reaching out to one of our retired Santas just before you called. I had a brief, but pleasant, chat with his widow…"

'Oh. Rats."

"That's an apt description, yes."

Both women fell silent while they pondered what to do. Claudia began clicking through the personnel records in the hope of finding a few names she hadn't thought of yet - or at the very least get a flash of inspiration that could help her find the proverbial pot of gold at the far end of the rainbow.

'The most annoying thing about all this,' Elaine continued at the other end of the connection, 'is that come December twenty-seventh… in only eleven days, don't forget… we'll lay off most of our seasonal helpers and put the whole shebang back into storage for next year. On New Year's Eve, all of this will be a distant memory!'

"For you, perhaps," Claudia said with a tired grin, "but not for MacCready's Send-A-Santa Recruitment Agency. We also rent out busboys, skilled waiters, bartenders, kitchen staff, bakers and professional chefs. New Year's Eve is never less than insanely busy for us… and I have a bad feeling in my bones that this year might be even worse if the flu situation isn't under control by then."

'Ugh, I didn't even think of that!  Wait… would it be possible to-'

"I'm afraid it won't, Elaine. The people in those occupations haven't been cleared to work as Santas or even Elves. They've obviously been checked and approved, but only for their primary function… not for donning the red suit. Sorry."

'That's it. We're officially screwed.'

Claudia shrugged in sympathy. Although she wasn't about to admit defeat just yet, there was no denying the situation wasn't rosy. Leaning back in the chair, she swiveled around to study the gallery of old and new photographs that all depicted the agency's top Santa Clauses over the year. Claudia's granddad Angus MacCready could be seen in several of them, and her parents Douglas and Marianne appeared in quite a few as well wearing their Santa and Mrs. Santa costumes.

Mrs. Santa was the warm and caring Mother Of All who was the glue that held the entire North Pole together. Marianne MacCready had played the character for nearly fifteen years before she had been forced to give it up after being diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. She had succumbed to the illness the next summer, and the unique and wonderful way she had played the character had become part of the folklore at the Send-A-Santa agency.

'Hello, Claudia?  Are you still there?' Elaine suddenly said at the other end of the connection.

Claudia grunted and swiveled back to the face the laptop. "Oh… I'm sorry. I zoned out," she said as she leaned forward once more and went through the personnel records for the umpteenth time.

'No wonder!'


'I've just had the best idea ever… or I think so, at least.'

"Go on. I could use all the help I can get…"

'Wouldn't it be fun if you could carry on the family tradition?  Are your own security checks, permits, certificates, clearances and whatnots up-to-date?'

Claudia bolted upright in the swivel-chair and stared blankly into her office without seeing anything. A hundred thoughts blasted through her mind all at once - she was stressed enough already so the last thing she needed was to add another layer to her already considerable list of responsibilities, but on the other hand, such a solution would be the simplest for all involved.

The headache returned with a vengeance and rendered her brain utterly incapable of forming the neural pathways needed to provide the answers. "That's a very good question, Elaine… I don't know," she said and rubbed her brow. "Ah… please hold while I find out!"


Claudia left the DECT handset on the desk while she strode out of the office and headed over to Beryl Griffith's regular spot. A quick glance at the clock on the wall proved it was already quite late, but the lateness of the hour would have to take a back seat to necessity.

The experienced secretary was on the phone with someone, but she could tell by her boss' determined stride that something was up. She quickly ended the call and swiveled around.

"Beryl, please check at once if my various certificates and permits to work with children are still valid."

"Will do," Beryl said and got down to work at once.

Nodding, Claudia moved over to rest her rear on the corner of Beryl's desk. "If they are, we also need to access the Carlyle Police Department website and order an urgent copy of my criminal record."

Beryl glanced at the clock on the wall. "Their data acquisition department is closed for the evening, Miss MacCready. We can still order it, but it won't be delivered in your in-box until tomorrow morning."

"Oh, damn!" Claudia said and smacked herself over the brow. "It's an automated process!  Why isn't it automatic?!"

Beryl knew it was a rhetorical question so she concentrated on clicking through the items on her computer. After a brief delay, the requested document showed up. "Let me see… yes, your primary certificate is still valid. It expires on December thirty-first of this year so this was the last chance," she said as she used her index finger to track the lines of text on the computer.

"Good!  All right… please make a note somewhere that we need to renew it."

"Will do. May I ask what all the hubbub is for?" Beryl said over the rim of her square reading glasses.

"Miss Sutcliffe asked the simple question of why I didn't just come over to the S-and-W and did the part myself. It had never crossed my mind, but the more I think of it, the more it… well… it just seems appropriate somehow."

Beryl briefly furrowed her brow. "A female Santa?"

"Well… yes. Why not?"

"Oh, nothing. Sounds like a plan," Beryl said with a smile. She reached out to put a motherly hand on Claudia's arm. "I'll access the Carlyle PD site and order a copy of your criminal record now."

Claudia smiled and patted the hand that rested on her arm. "Thank you, Beryl. I'd be lost without you."

"You and your father!" Beryl said with a wink that made Claudia laugh out loud.


Striding back into the office, Claudia picked up the DECT handset and sat down on her swivel-chair. The Dancing Santas screensaver had returned on her laptop, but she let them continue with their traditional clog-boot polka this time. "Hello, Elaine?"

'I'm still here. Any success?'

"Yes, my certificates are still valid. A copy of my criminal record will follow in the morning, but I promise there isn't anything on it. Looks like you have a new Santa Claus, Miss Sutcliffe!"

'Oh… no, wait… I was actually thinking that you'd play Mrs. Santa. We could perhaps explain that Santa's sleigh had broken down or something so he was unavailable-'

Claudia's face fell into the same dark grimace it had been in earlier in the afternoon. She turned around once more to look at her mother's picture on the wall. "I'm sorry, Elaine… I can't be Mrs. Santa. That was my mother's character. It's either Santa Claus or nothing."

The silence went on for so long that Claudia needed to check the telephone to see if the connection had been lost. Another surge of headache rolled through her, and she needed to pinch the bridge of her nose to quell it.

'Well… it wasn't exactly what I had in mind. I don't know how to put this, Claudia, but you're… ah… not exactly a Santa type. You know?'

"I know, but a pillow here and a fake beard there… and the red suit alone will make all the difference. Trust me. It'll work."

'I might as well be honest and say I'm a little skeptical about this… but it doesn't look like we have a viable alternative. All right. You're Santa. Santa Claudia. It does have a nice ring to it, now I hear it out loud.'

"It does," Claudia said with a tired smile.

'I've made a note of it,' Elaine said after a string of clickety-clicks had come through the connection. 'I need you to be here at nine-thirty tomorrow morning. Preferably sooner if you can. We hold our daily briefing for the department managers at that time, and I'd like to introduce you to my colleagues.'

"I'll be there at nine-fifteen at the latest," Claudia said and made a note of the time on one of the pieces of paper she had been toying with. "Where can I park?"

'We have an underground parking garage for the staff. If you give me your license plate number, I'll inform the security people. They'll issue you with a one-day parking permit… we can sort out the rest after tomorrow.'

Claudia let out a tired laugh. "It's a vanity plate. R-U-D-L-F one one. It's a Christmas-red BMW."

'But of course it is… on both counts,' Elaine said and matched the laugh with one of her own. 'All right. Noted. Ah… well… see you tomorrow, then. Bright and early. I'm looking forward to be working with you.'

"The feeling is mutual, Elaine. I'm sorry it had to be as a result of such a crisis, but… yeah. I have a good feeling about it."

'So do I. Goodbye!'

"Bye, Elaine. And thank you for supporting MacCready's Send-A-Santa Recruitment Agency," Claudia said and closed the connection on the DECT handset. The telephone had become hot to the touch after the lengthy conversation, so she put it on the desk to cool off.

She leaned back in the chair and put her hands behind her head. A myriad of thoughts - good and bad - invaded her mind. "Huh. Santa Claudia…" she said in a mumble.

There was far more to Santa Claus than merely a big belly, a red suit and a white beard. It was a magical character that had the ability to create boundless joy in children and grownups alike. The rewards could be plentiful, but if a Santa was deemed unworthy for whatever reason, the fire of enthusiasm in the childrens' eyes would be snuffed out in an instant.

It was something she had often said to the people applying for jobs as street-corner, shopping mall or department store Santas: it wasn't an acting role and there certainly weren't any second takes. They needed to fully embrace the essence of Santa Claus or they would never touch the hearts of the people around them.

Taking over her father's prestigious job at Spencer & Woolcott's had never been on the cards and it certainly presented a formidable challenge - she briefly wondered if she was up to it. Her lips and cheeks were put through a strong bout of nervous chewing before she let out a grunt and settled for watching the Dancing Santas screensaver for a while.



Darkness still reigned supreme when Claudia MacCready returned to the agency's office at ten past seven the following morning. She had been home for a warm shower, a late-evening nuked Dinner 4 1, six hours of sleep, an early-morning coffee, a slapped-together breakfast and finally another shower - then she had been more than ready to get on with the day's nerve-racking, yet exciting, program.

The streets of Carlyle had presented themselves from their best side: although the metropolis was known as The City That Never Sleeps, Claudia had encountered no traffic jams to speak of and she had been in no hairy situations involving revelers who had spent their Thursday night partying hard.

Most of the vehicles she had been near during the entire trip from her bachelorette pad on West Eighteenth Street - she lived in a penthouse apartment overlooking the much-loved Victory Park that acted as a green oasis amid all the concrete canyons - had been taxi cabs, delivery trucks and the occasional police cruiser from one of Carlyle's beleaguered precincts.

Striding along from the parking garage to the office, the chilly breeze that always seemed to howl and swirl between the many tall buildings cut straight through her overcoat and her scarf. Fallen leaves, spent wrappers and other types of street litter were kicked up by the winds and flew around like dervishes. Her fingers were icy despite her gloves, and her exposed ears had grown numb though it had taken her less than five minutes to walk from A to B.

The collar of her coat was pulled up as far as it went, but even that wasn't enough to stop King Frost's freezing tendrils from caressing the bare skin on her cheeks. Shivering, she punched in the security code on the alarm panel so she wouldn't accidentally cause a major emergency at the private security company they employed to look after the office during off-hours. Once the alarm had safely been disabled, she unlocked the front door and hurried inside.

At least the old-fashioned, cast-iron radiators made sure the indoor temperature was nice and toasty - her father had insisted on installing proper heating they could depend on rather than some fancy, computer-controlled contraption that might go belly-up at the first sign of a power loss. Though Claudia had argued her case until she had nearly turned blue in the face, she had to admit that his solution was the best of the two even if it had been more expensive. Taking off her coat, she hurried over to the nearest wall-mounted radiator to warm her hands.

While she did so, she noticed the familiar, droning hum of an industrial vacuum cleaner working somewhere at the back of the office. Soon, a man wearing safety boots, a pale-blue coverall and a pair of white ear protectors came out of a hallway vacuuming the carpets. The logo on his coverall proved he was from the cleaning company the Send-A-Santa Recruitment Agency always used.

The man came to an abrupt halt and almost seemed to jerk upright when he noticed Claudia watching him from her spot at the radiator. After turning off the vacuum cleaner, he pushed his ear protectors back and checked his wristwatch at once.

"No, it's all right," Claudia said with a smile. "You're not late. I'm early. Way, way early. It's going to be a busy day."

"Oh… okay," the cleaning fellow said before he pointed at the machine. "Would you mind if I…?"

"Go right ahead. I'll just stay here for a few moments while I try to get some life back into my fingers!"

"All right," the man said with a smile; after pulling the ear protectors back in place, he pressed the Activate button which made the industrial vacuum cleaner send out its familiar drone.


After the proper circulation had finally been restored in Claudia's digits, she strode into her office and hung her overcoat and the rest of her accessories on the hallstand.

Because of the special task she was about to carry out over the course of the day, she had forsaken her regular pant suit in favor of a far simpler set: a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved sports sweater that featured the logo of the state's current College Football champions, the Saint Michel Mountain Lions.

While her laptop booted so she could check her emails, she hurried over to the coffee maker, inserted her favorite mug in the slot and pressed the buttons that would produce a Cappuccino Classico. The bright-red LED that suddenly lit up on the front of the advanced machine could perhaps be seen as an omen of things to come. Claudia just groaned out loud and selected a Latte Macchiato instead though it wasn't her favorite at that time of the day. Moving back to her desk, she scribbled a hasty note to Beryl Griffith that the coffee machine needed to be restocked.

The email with the PDF document containing the copy of her criminal record had yet to be delivered from the Carlyle Police Department despite Beryl's request the night before - that prompted another groan and even a bout of brow-rubbing from Claudia.

Instead of waiting passively for something she had no control over nor knew when would show up, she filled a saucer with a pile of vanilla cookies, took the mug of freshly brewed Latte and strode out of the inner office. She moved down the same hallway the cleaning guy had just come from until she reached a door labeled Costumes & Accessories.

The large storage room had no windows so everything was pitch-black when she depressed the door handle with her elbow. A handful of seconds went by before her elbow was put to new use: searching for, and ultimately working the light switch. The strip lights in the ceiling soon conquered the darkness and allowed her to see the full scope of their inventory.

A table off to the right promptly became the new home of the mug of Latte and a saucer's worth of vanilla cookies. Nabbing one of the treats at once, she crunched on it loudly as she glanced at the familiar sights.

MacCready's Send-A-Santa Recruitment Agency had hundreds upon hundreds of costumes that were hanging in plastic dress bags or had been folded neatly and put on lined shelves. Every kind of Christmas or Holiday suit ever envisioned could be found there, and in most sizes too. The standard, Christmas-red Santa suit was the predominant one, but there were real rarities like a hand-sewn Norselander Elf costume and an Imperial-purple, late-nineteenth-century Father Christmas coat that had been imported from Russia.

Douglas MacCready's old-fashioned ideas on how to run the agency were also reflected in how the items in storage were handled. Instead of having everything computerized like their main competitors, all the records detailing their collection of costumes were stored on pieces of cardboard held in a complex system of drawers.

Claudia had reeled at the cumbersome nature of the storage index when she had taken over the family business, but the amount of time and effort needed to bring it up-to-date was so massive she continuously pushed it off for later. Only three people at the agency knew how to employ the advanced cross-indexation method needed to find a specific costume in the vast, proverbial haystack: Claudia, Douglas and Beryl Griffith.

Since one of the three was out of action for a while and the other wouldn't show up for work for several hours, it was left to Claudia to figure out where a regular Santa suit that would match her physical requirements could be found. Sighing, she opened the first of the drawers that would provide the master indexes.


Forty minutes later, the table in the corner of the storage room where she had initially put the mug of Latte and the saucer with the vanilla cookies now held a tall pile of familiar clothing items: black boots, red pants, a red coat, a wide, black belt featuring a shiny brass buckle, a pair of white gloves and finally a traditional Santa hat that had a white, fluffy bobble at the far end of the floppy cone. Satisfied with what she had accomplished so far, Claudia took a step back and used her telephone to snap a couple of photos and even a short video clip of the clothes just to keep it for posterity.

All that was missing was a white beard and plenty of padding to make her resemble the familiar rotund shape of Santa Claus. The padding was kept separately so that didn't cause too much trouble, but the beard was another story - a further ten minutes went by before she found one that matched the shape of her face. Not only did it need to look natural even though everyone knew it was a fake, it also needed to have the correct proportions or else it would make the wearer look like either a scrunched-up Kermit The Frog or someone who had made a wrong turn at a late Halloween event.

Once everything was ready, Claudia scooped up the clothes and the foam padding and made a beeline for one of the dressing rooms that lined the back wall.


Claudia MacCready may have entered the dressing room, but Santa Claus was the one who stepped out ten minutes later - or rather, Santa Claudia. She stopped halfway back to the table to perform a few poses in order to make sure the costume would follow her every move. The posing was necessary considering she wore no less than nine sections of foam padding underneath the red coat. The large belly and the broad shoulders looked good and did what she asked of them, even when she waved both arms high in the air and let out a resounding "Ho-ho-ho!  Merr-rr-rr-y Christmas, my friends!" in the deepest register she could manage.

When everything seemed to work just fine, she whipped up her telephone to check her email. A positive grunt escaped her when she noticed the requested document from the Carlyle Police Department had finally landed in her in-box. She was ready to go to work - Elaine Sutcliffe and the rest of the upper management of Spencer & Woolcott's would have their socks knocked off, she was sure of that.


The drive to the department store took longer than she had anticipated and caused much early-morning frustration underneath her fake beard. Although the distance wasn't that great between the agency's office on Forty-fourth Street and the proud, old building on Fifty-ninth Street where Spencer & Woolcott's had stood for generations, she needed to cross over three of Carlyle's main north-south arteries to get there - Beauregard, Sunderland and Belvedere Street. In all three instances, the morning rush hour meant that the intersections had filled up beyond capacity; the resulting traffic jams were relentless.

The sudden appearance of a bright-red ambulance from Harry Barton's Fire Rescue Services that was escorted by a paramedic unit and three police motorcycles didn't help any - the rear windows of the ambulance were covered by silver foil to reflect the fact it was only used for burn victims. Even the combined might of their wailing sirens and the ambulance's Trombones of Doom couldn't provide the required gap in the traffic jam from Hell, so the official vehicles took to the sidewalk where they kicked up plumes of street dust as they raced on to get to one of Carlyle's burn centers.

The talk radio show Claudia listened to on her way to Spencer & Woolcott's was interrupted by a traffic reporter hovering high above the congested streets in a news helicopter. The young fellow holding the microphone informed the frustrated drivers in an infuriatingly loud and cheery fashion that the northbound lanes of the Twenty-sixth Street bridge spanning the railroad switching yard had been closed after an accident - the reporter's forced way of
speaking made her adjust the volume at once.

In the words of the young reporter covering the fender-bender over a soundtrack of flapping rotors: 'The streets running parallel to the accident site are already at their limit, so anyone thinking about making a shortcut might as well forget about it, settle down and keep listening to WTLK on ninety-two point six FM or one of our affiliate stations. Let's rejoin the morning show in progress, The Freudian Conundrum. Sounds like a bundle of laughs!'

Claudia rolled her eyes as she turned the volume back up after the reporter's verbal assault on her eardrums. The regular show host soon spoke on at a far more humane audio level.


When she finally arrived at the proper address a handful of city blocks north of the worst traffic jams, she drove her BMW down a concrete slope that led to the underground parking garage Elaine had mentioned in their telephone conversation. An impenetrable metal barrier painted with black-and-yellow stripes had been raised four feet up from floor-level to block the access lane at the foot of the slope.

Once the BMW reached the highly effective security measure, Claudia came to a halt and followed the instructions printed on a sign right in front of her - she was to roll down the window, turn off the engine and show her parking permit and/or driver's license when prompted by a member of Spencer & Woolcott's security team.

A blinking LED on a wall-mounted camera that was pointed straight at her proved she was being filmed. A booth had been built on the left of the access lane, and its door was soon opened to reveal two uniformed - and armed - members of the department store's security detail. Both wore black boots, dark-gray pants, black jackets and ball caps held in a paler shade of gray compared to their pants.

While one of them stepped in front of the BMW to verify that the license plate could be found on their list of approved vehicles, the other moved over to the open window. The person tending to Claudia was a tough-looking, buff, tall woman whose intense eyes and sharply defined features proved she was not to be messed with. The name tag on her uniform jacket revealed her name to be G. Falcone. "Good morning, Sir-" she said before she let out a surprised grunt at the fact she was speaking to a woman who wore a full Santa Claus costume save for the beard that rested in her lap.

Claudia chuckled at the reaction. "Good morning. My name is Claudia MacCready. I was told by Miss Sutcliffe that you've been informed-"

"Ah, yes… we have a temporary parking permit for you, Miss MacCready. Please wait," the security guard said and briefly returned to the booth. She was back within moments carrying a green card that she handed over at once. "It needs to be visible from the outside, Miss. Most put it on the dashboard or attach it to the rear of the sun visor."

"Thank you!  I'll just put it on the dashboard. Is there anywhere in particular I need to park, or…?"

"Yes," the buff guard said and pointed at a section of the parking garage where a green stripe had been painted on the drab concrete walls, "in the green zone. That's reserved for guests."

"The green zone. Gotcha. Thank you very much and Happy Holidays!"

The other security guard had completed his check of the license plate and soon moved over to an electronic panel on the side of the booth. After inserting and twisting a key, he pressed a button that made the tiger-striped metal barrier return to its passive state deeply embedded in the concrete floor.

"And a Merry Christmas to you too, Santa," the female security guard said as Claudia drove her red BMW past the booth and across the smooth floor toward the green zone. The guard chuckled at the unusual encounter before she and her partner needed to go back to work when the next vehicle drove down the slope toward them.


Claudia soon found a well-lit spot to park in and came to a halt up against the wall. A rectangular metal box with a round hole on one of the end plates - meant to trap and kill rats - had been placed barely in view down on the smooth concrete deck; it proved that even the well-off had problems with the dreaded rodents.

She briefly read what it said on the back of the green card before she put it on the dashboard like she had been told. Donning her fake beard, she moved down the rear-view mirror to study herself with a critical eye to make sure everything was lined up and looking good. It looked merely adequate rather than 'good,' but there was little she could do about that. After reaching into the back of the BMW to retrieve an old-fashioned shoulder bag that held all the usual items as well as a few specials, she walked over to an inner door where a sign said Access To Elevators.


The exact moment when Claudia MacCready started the official part of her job at Spencer & Woolcott's was five minutes past nine in the morning on Friday, December 17th. The beard, the foam padding and the white gloves were in place; the boots and the red suit were comfortable, the floppy-coned hat sat just right with the white bobble resting on her left shoulder, and the smile that spread over her face was genuine. Santa Claudia had arrived.

Stepping out of the elevator, she found herself on the ground floor of the old, proud department store. Among other things, it was home to a florist, a souvenir store, a large news agent and a Holiday-themed pop-up store selling all sorts of elegant ornaments held in a design reminiscent of the 1950s. Several racks that featured carefully selected examples of the exclusive high-end articles and mass-produced merchandise the consumers could find on the upper floors had been placed in strategic positions to maximize their exposure.

As expected in mid-December, the mad rush for finding and buying Christmas gifts was in full swing, so there were long lines at all cash registers even though extra ones had been added to reduce the stress factor among the customers and the sales clerks. It seemed most people had accepted it took a while to buy the items they had found, but a few children - and the occasional adult - had grown impatient and were wailing or grumbling about the slow state of affairs.

Smiling behind the fake beard, Claudia strolled around the ground floor greeting parents and winking at children. She stopped at the florist to marvel at the quality of the flowers, took her time to move around the aisles of the news agent and even stopped to pose for pictures for an elderly Asian couple in the souvenir store.

The first signs that things weren't exactly going to plan came when Claudia ran into a group of young children and their adult supervisors. Everyone wore a fluorescent green vest that identified them as being from one of the local kindergartens. They were literally the target audience for Claudia's Santa act, so she let out a joyous "Ho-ho-ho!  Greetings, my young friends!" while she offered them an enthusiastic wave.

Instead of laughing, squealing or even waving back, the kids just stood there with their mouths agape and eyes wide open. One little fellow pointed an index finger at Claudia while he assumed the most baffled expression any Santa had ever witnessed. "You're not the real Santa!  You're short!  And skinny!  Santa's big and fat!  And you're a girl!" the kid said in a voice that carried a strong undertone of absolute disappointment.

Soon, the other children chimed in and voiced their own opinions on the severely lacking Santa Claus in their midst. The disharmonic concert grew so loud that the adult supervisors eventually led the children away before they made Santa cry.

Claudia didn't feel like crying - more like cursing and swearing a blue streak for a good half hour if not longer. She had lost count of the number of times she had warned job applicants of the exact same issue she had just fumbled into: that children would complain loudly and insistently if they found even the tiniest bit wrong with the physical representation of their beloved Man In Red.

She could do nothing about her height or her bulk save for stuffing even more sections of foam padding up underneath the coat - she could; she had put a few spares into her shoulder bag almost as an afterthought - but she was determined to do the best job she possibly could. Screwing a new smile on her lips, she spun around on her bootheel and stomped off toward the elevator to try her luck on one of the upper floors.

Before she could reach it, her telephone began vibrating somewhere beneath the many layers of the costume. Sighing at the poor timing, she moved over to a quiet corner where she reached into her coat to retrieve it from a suede neck purse. The caller-ID said Elaine so she stuffed a gloved index finger into an ear and accepted the call. "Hello, Elaine…"

'Hi, Claudia… where are you?  The daily briefing's about to start up on the sixth floor. Please tell me you're not stuck in traffic somewhere!'

"No, I'm down on the ground floor. I've been testing the waters. The sixth floor, okay. I'll be up in a… wait, the main elevator doesn't go above the fifth floor!"

'That's right. You need to use the staff elevator which is actually marked as the private elevator. A little confusing, I know. It's over near the… oh, never mind, I'll meet you down there in two minutes.'

"Okay. I'll be waiting at the florist."

'I'm already on my way. Won't be long.'

"Can't wait," Claudia said and closed the connection. She had barely managed to get the telephone back inside her costume when she spotted Elaine Sutcliffe striding toward her.

The woman Claudia's father had described as 'tall and gorgeous' certainly resembled the description: Elaine Sutcliffe's long, elegantly-shaped limbs moved in a graceful and effortless ballet while she made her way through the many customers who crowded the ground floor.

She wore a square-shouldered, cobalt-blue pant suit that sat just right on her tall frame. The stylish jacket covered a mother-of-pearl blouse that seemed to glitter in the hundreds of lights installed in the ceiling. She wore no jewelry save for a gold bracelet that graced her left wrist, but she didn't have to as she attracted enough attention even without the support of precious metals. She kept her hair at shoulder-length, and although her formerly dark-brown locks had gained a grayish tone after the last few birthdays, it didn't detract from her strong presence.

Claudia was glad the fake beard covered the lower part of her face. The somewhat lascivious grin that reached from one ear to the other would have prompted an embarrassing question or two had Elaine been able to see it.

Beyond being somewhat acquainted on a professional level through Douglas' work there, they'd had a surprise encounter a few years back in what was probably Carlyle's best women-only bar, the Purple Sector on East Thirty-sixth Street.

They had become good friends after the chance meeting, and although several of the bar's regulars had been actively trying for years to nudge them into giving it a shot, the notion of getting involved in any kind of romantic fling with each other had never crossed their minds - however, there was no denying that a strong bond existed between them.

"Hello, Santa!" Elaine said and leaned down to wrap her arms around Claudia in a solid hug. She grinned when she had to pull the fake beard down an inch to have room to place a couple of courteous kisses on the shorter woman's cheeks.

"Hello, Elaine. I'm glad to hear that someone appreciates my efforts…"

Elaine took a short step back while keeping her hands on Claudia's shoulders. "Well, I think you look amazing!  But that can't be your father's outfit?"

"No, it's from our collection. I'd look excruciatingly silly in one of Dad's suits. He's ten sizes larger than I am. So… the briefing?"

"Is about to start," Elaine said and guided Claudia over to the private elevator on the opposite wall from where the public one was located - a key was needed, located and soon put into action.


As the lavishly decorated elevator car went skyward, Claudia took off her floppy-coned bobble-hat so she could scratch her hair. Once the hat was back on her blond locks, she began to loosen the beard's elastic bands that were wrapped around her ears.

"Wait," Elaine said and put a hand on Claudia's arm, "I think you should leave the beard on until the other managers have seen you… unless it bothers you, of course."

"It doesn't. It's just a little hotter than I imagined it would be. I'm kinda new to this beard thing…" Claudia said and took the opportunity to fan her flushed cheeks and chin.

Elaine just grinned at the comment.

Once Claudia was comfortable, she put the beard's elastic bands around her ears and adjusted the fluffy piece of fake, white fur to make it sit just right.

The sliding doors opened with a metallic whine when the car reached the top floor. The gray hallway beyond the elevator had no Christmas or Holiday decorations of any kind and was nothing more than a study in two-tone drabness - in fact, the only thing that stood out in the entire hallway was a red fire extinguisher that had been placed below an alarm box. A sign detailing a four-step plan in case of fire had been bolted onto the wall next to the alarm.

"Huh," Claudia said as she looked around. "I would have thought a department store steeped in such tradition would have put up an ornament here and there… I guess red, gold, silver and purple are considered no-nos in the top echelons?"

Elaine chuckled as she put a hand on Claudia's shoulder to guide her to the conference room. "It's to your right. Yes, the dress code among the upper management seems to dictate various shades of gray. Black socks are allowed but bright colors are frowned upon."

"Like Christmas-red?" Claudia said and tapped a white-gloved index finger against her red Santa-coat.

"I think they'll let it slide this time."

"I guess you're the rebellious type, then?" Claudia continued as she eyed the cobalt-blue pant suit. "It's a very good look for you. Excuse me for being blunt, but it certainly beats the flannel-shirt-and-torn-jeans combo you wore the other week over at the Purple Sector."

"Hey, they had a nineties theme night!  What was I supposed to wear?  And just to let you know… back in the day, I was a card-carrying member of the Grunge scene," Elaine said and leaned in to bump shoulders with Santa Claudia.

Their chuckles died down when they reached the door to the conference room. Elaine's face assumed a neutral, all-business expression as she depressed the handle and stepped inside. Claudia followed in the taller woman's tracks to present an unusually colorful duo in a sea of dull gray.

The conference room saw a large, horseshoe-shaped table made of high-quality polished cherrywood. A dark-gray wall-to-wall carpet softened everyone's footfalls, and pale-gray curtains had been drawn to block out the early-morning sun - the width and scope of the curtains offered a hint that the windows behind them were of the rather large type. Strip lights in the ceiling took care of the lighting, and they had been issued with a dimming filter to soften their typically harsh tones.

While the table had enough space to seat ten, only eight chairs had been lined up. Of those, six were in use and the remaining two were obviously reserved for Elaine and Claudia. The eyes of the four department heads and the secretary responsible for taking the minutes who sat on the opposite side of the table from the door all zoomed in on the two women as they entered.

Although Spencer & Woolcott's was still in the hands of one of the founding families, the important fellow seated at the head of the table wasn't a mere figurehead but a highly valued, and highly experienced, managing director - the family owners had all relocated to the Caribbean to get away from the freezing winters in Carlyle and the tax man whose mere presence made the blood run cold in anyone he set his sights on.

"Ladies and Gentlemen… please allow me to introduce our new Santa Claus," Elaine said and held out her hand like she was introducing a prized goose at a cattle show.

"Greetings, everybody!  Merry Christmas!" Claudia said in her best Santa-voice. Moving up her red arm and the white glove, she presented her best Santa-wave to the group of managers.

An awkward silence fell over the department heads and the secretary while they stared at the short, obviously female Santa. Claudia scratched her ear. The silence irked her, but at least it was better than groans of disappointment.

The stark contrast between her costume and the numerous shades of gray that were on display in the conference room tickled her mischievous side, but she forced herself to remain cool, calm, collected and above all professional: "Good morning. My name is Santa Claudia. Or Claudia MacCready to be exact," she said as she took off the fake beard and the floppy-coned hat. "Yes, Douglas MacCready is my father. As you probably know, he had an accident here yesterday that has rendered him unable to continue working as Santa. Because we're so close to the Holiday period, it proved impossible to find a last-minute replacement. After a brief moment of panic, I decided to don the familiar costume myself to carry on the family tradition."

The awkward silence continued until the managing director - a distinguished-looking, rail-thin, gray fellow in his mid-sixties - rose a few inches off his seat and offered her a curt nod that was clearly his interpretation of a warm welcome. "Good morning, Miss MacCready. I'm James Anthony Corbett," he said in a bone-dry voice. "We're happy you were able to take over at such short notice. How is your dear father?"

"Oh, he's fine, thank you. It seems he got off with a sprained ankle and a swollen knee."

The managing director nodded again as he sat down once more. "I see. The insurance company has already contacted us. They require-"

"Ah, Mr. Corbett," Elaine interjected while she pointed at a plain-brown folder on the far side of the table, "the appropriate test results and statements from the doctor who treated Mr. MacCready at St. Mary's Hospital can all be found in the folder there."

"Excellent. Thank you, Miss Sutcliffe," Corbett said and reached for the folder at once. "Very well. Let's get on with the briefing, shall we?"

Claudia let out a grunt before she sat down on the wooden chair that was more comfortable than it looked - she wasn't overly impressed with what she had seen of the managerial levels of Spencer & Woolcott's so far. It was an undeniable fact that she had a great deal less patience than her jovial father when it came to dealing with the clients of the Send-A-Santa Recruitment Agency, but the long-standing contract with the department store was so important that it far outweighed her own frustrations. A quick glance at Elaine netted her a smile and a little wink, and that helped calm the choppy seas inside her.


Time flew by as it invariably did. Once the nine-thirty briefing had concluded at ten past ten, Claudia only had time for a quick cup of coffee and a sandwich from the staff cafeteria before she was off on her next tour of the store. The big, looming item on her agenda was the first of the important Meet Santa events at eleven AM sharp in the central square on the third floor, but she realized she needed to knock off some rust before she would dare to venture into the proverbial lion's den.

She had in fact been a Santa a few times before, but none of those occasions counted for much in her present situation. The very first time had merely been as a cute birthday surprise for her father's fiftieth. She had been a tender twenty-two-year-old at the time and had been so nervous about wearing the red suit in front of her parents and grandparents that she had wished the ground would open up and swallow her whole. The next few times had been better, but she had never fully grown into the character - now she had no choice.

Wearing her full costume and a warm, genuine smile, she was determined to improve on her initial failure to connect with the customers who visited the department store to buy Christmas gifts and to have a fun day out and about in the big city. She would quite simply be the jolly, ol' Santa Claus that every kid between five and ninety-five knew and loved.

Her battle plan was easy enough to follow: start at the top floor and work her way down - once she had completed the ground floor, she would take the elevator back up to the fifth floor and start over. On each of the floors, she would stroll around the various departments while waving at children, greeting parents and possibly posing for pictures.


Following her plan to the letter, she moved through the fifth floor that held departments for specialized sports equipment, console games, audio/visual gadgetry and the like. She had a very low success rate there - the clientele was mostly teenagers who couldn't even be bothered to look at her - so she went down a floor to see if her fortunes would improve.

She achieved a greater amount of success in the departments for bed clothes, bedroom furniture, throws, cushions, kitchen appliances and general tableware. The customers she found there were mostly young couples who needed to buy things for their first common home; several of them pushed baby strollers where their tiny tots slept soundly. Even among such people, Claudia couldn't shake the feeling that everyone was simply staring at her rather than being thrilled by her presence.

Time was running out fast, so she made a beeline for the elevator to get down to the central square on the third floor where Elaine had promised she would bring her up to speed on the details of the Meet Santa event. As luck would have it, the elevator car was revealed to contain part of the group of kindergarten kids who had dismissed her rather vociferously earlier in the day. This time, the children all fell silent as if someone had accidentally pushed the big, red Mute button.

Claudia stared at the kids; the kids stared at her. Grunting, she stepped back from the opening to allow the sliding doors to close - she would wait for the next one.


Downstairs on the third floor, Claudia let out an insistent groan behind the fake beard when she realized the dreaded kindergarten kids had formed an orderly line at the big chair where the Meet Santa event was scheduled to take place at the top of the hour. Behind them, at least twenty other children and their parents were awaiting Santa's arrival.

She slowed down, came to a full stop and put her hands on her hips that the heavy coat and the foam padding had made completely shapeless. A long sigh and a slight shaking of the head followed. A persistent niggle at the back of her mind told her that her rapid-fire decision to jump into the thick of the action dressed in red velvet and wearing a long, white beard had perhaps been a bit too hasty.

"Is something wrong, Claudia?  Do you need to go to the bathroom?" Elaine said somewhere behind the dejected Santa Claudia.

The Santa in question sighed again as she turned to look at her friend who soon closed the distance between them. "No… I just haven't had the best of luck with those kindergarten kids there. The ones who are first in line."


"You can say that again," Claudia said and reached up under the warm floppy-coned hat to scratch her hair. "The parents are generally too polite to make any negative comments, but the kids… yikes. I'd forgotten how little filter they have. It's been a while since I've been in the trenches like this."

"Well, the old saying 'baptism of fire' springs to mind… I wonder what the equivalent of that would be up on the North Pole. A dip in the icy waters-"

"You're not helping."

"Sorry, Santa," Elaine said with a grin.

Santa's Big Chair stood in the center of a Christmas-themed display that the department store's skilled set decorators had spent an entire week perfecting. Next to the chair, a bushy Norway spruce, two coal pans with lumps that glowed cherry-red - a special effect, of course - an enclosure for a life-sized puppet of the legendary red-nosed reindeer Rudolf and finally an abundance of presents in shiny gift-wrapping brought plenty of festive cheer to the proceedings.

The central piece, the wooden chair, had been placed on a large, perfectly round carpet held in a warm red. A wooden stepladder integrated into the base of the chair helped the children climb onto the wide armrest so they could speak face to face with the Man In Red. Back in the old days, they would have sat on his lap, but that tradition had become inappropriate even with the numerous security checks and behavioral tests the present-day Santas were required to go through.

To mark the boundaries of the greeting area, a seven-foot tall wooden pole had been put up in each of the four corners. The poles were wrapped in vines of holly and other types of festive ornaments, and a large, dark-blue canopy made to resemble a starry winter night had been spread out between them. To create an illusion of twinkling stars, hundreds of LEDs that were able to pulsate at random had been sewn into the fabric.

"That looks fantastic, Elaine. I'm impressed," Claudia said as she took in the sights from afar. "You need to give your decorators a raise. They deserve it."

"Oh, I can assure you they already know their worth," Elaine said with a chuckle as she put a hand on the small of Santa Claudia's back. "It's two minutes to eleven… time to create a little Holiday magic, Santa."

Claudia's stomach churned. The challenge that awaited her caused plenty of adrenaline and general excitement to race around her system, but there would so many traps and stumbling blocks on her road that she needed to stay sharp and focused throughout. "I can do this," she mumbled before she made a big production number out of her grand entrance.

After waving to the waiting children and receiving at least a few squeals of delight in return, she climbed up onto the wooden chair and made herself comfortable with all the gravitas an elderly, but ageless, Santa Claus could provide. She grimaced underneath the beard when she realized the proportions were all wrong - even if she had worn fifty pounds of foam padding, the chair would still have made her look like a teeny-tiny Tinkerbell compared to her father and his typically bulky male colleagues.

"Greetings, my friends!" she cried in a cheery, joyous voice. "I'm so happy to see you all here today!  The Holidays are only a week away… are you excited?"

When an enthusiastic chorus of "Yes!" "Uh-huh!" and "I sure am, Santa!" reached her ears, she allowed herself to relax a little and settle into the character. The biggest hurdles were still ahead, though, and the first came in the unlikely shape of the young boy who had called her short and skinny when they had first met.

The look of pure skepticism on the young boy's face proved he hadn't forgotten their earlier encounter either. Prodded to step closer by one of the adult supervisors from his kindergarten, he climbed up the stepladder and sat on the wide armrest.

"Hello, my young friend," Claudia said in the cheeriest voice she could manage. "I'm Santa Claus. What's your name-"

"You're not Santa Claus. You're a girl. Girls can't be Santa Clauses," the boy said with such conviction it made Claudia glance over at Elaine Sutcliffe who had found a good spot at the back of the line to keep an eye on things.

Elaine made a waving gesture with her hands that told Claudia 'not to spend too much time on each kid' before she pointed at her arm - where everyone had worn wristwatches in earlier times - and then at the line of children.

Never one to give up before all options had been exhausted, Claudia decided to play along with her critic. Lowering her voice and leaning in toward the boy, she said: "You're right. I'm not Santa Claus. I'm Santa Claudia. Santa Claus is my Dad but he couldn't be here today… what's your name?"

The young boy's eyes grew wide for a moment; then he softened his lemon-tart expression and broke out in a relieved snicker that warmed Claudia's heart. "My name is Carl," he said in a voice so dead-earnest it could only have come from a child, "and I really, really hope to get a Galaxy Fighter action figure for Christmas…"

"Oh!  The Reptilian or Joon Starcrasher… or maybe Princess Venusia?"

The boy's eyes grew even wider at the news that Santa Claudia knew the Galaxy Fighter range, and he shuffled around on the armrest in a clear state of excitement. "Joon Starcrasher. I already have Princess Venusia and I don't like the Reptilian 'cos he's real scary…"

"I think so too," Claudia whispered to her young friend. While Carl snickered, Claudia glanced up at Elaine who gave her a big thumbs-up and an even bigger smile in return.

One of the kindergarten's supervisors soon approached Santa's Big Chair to let Carl know that all his friends also wanted to talk to Santa. Nodding, the young fellow broke out in a shy smile at Claudia before he jumped down onto the floor and scooted away at a high rate of knots.

The next child, a young girl, had barely sat down on the armrest before she began relaying an age-long wish list: "I love you, Santa!  I want a Fluffy Bunny dolly and an Emerald Quest video game and a…"

Santa Claudia nodded, smiled and made small comments in all the right spots of the one-sided conversation. After a while, her churning stomach settled down which allowed her to ease off a little and become more natural around the excited children - a good feeling about the whole experience blossomed within her and made her quietly confident about what the future would bring.



The rest of the Meet Santa event went without glitches. As Claudia waved goodbye to the children at a quarter to twelve to go on the next scheduled tour of the various floors of Spencer & Woolcott's, some of them were even so sad to see her go that a few tears were shed.

The hands of time had just reached half past twelve when Claudia's telephone vibrated somewhere deep inside her red Santa suit. She was on her third tour of the floors and was presently standing in the department for plus-sized clothing items and accessories on the second floor. It was located right next to a pop-up ice cream bar that had rented a space just opposite the escalators so there would always be a good flow of people walking past. In a somewhat unfortunate coincidence, the ice cream bar sold vegan, organic and low-fat products not thirty feet from the plus-sized clothes.

While Claudia dug into her costume to get to the neck purse so she could retrieve the telephone, she had to chuckle at the sight of a man's undershirt so wide and long that she would be able to use it as a ballgown - the clothing item was so long it even needed a special rack to hang on.

The ID said Elaine, so the call was accepted at once. "Hi, Elaine. I didn't get a chance to thank you for your support during the meet and greet. You were suddenly gone… I hope you didn't have to deal with another crisis or something?" Claudia said while she waved at a young tot who was being pushed around in a stroller - the young child was shy at first but eventually waved back.

'Well…' Elaine said in a hesitant fashion. 'Ah… listen… could you come up to my office on the sixth floor?  Something's come up that we need to-'

"About Dad?"

'Oh, no… no, no, it's nothing like that. No. We just need to evaluate the first Meet Santa. That's all.'

Claudia furrowed her brow at the odd undertone to Elaine's voice. Shaking her head, she reached up under her floppy-coned Santa hat to scratch her damp hair. "Okay?  I thought it went well… but when people say it like you just did, the news usually isn't positive."

'Ah, let's talk about it face to face.'

"Huh. Okay. I'll be right up," Claudia continued as she turned around to make her way over to the central area where the staff elevator awaited her.


When she was met by Elaine in the hallway up on the sixth floor, it only took her a split second to understand that whatever the topic of their conversation would be, it would be anything but positive - the concerned look on Elaine's face spelled it out quite clearly.

Instead of turning right to head to the conference room they had used earlier in the day, they turned left and went in the opposite direction in the dull, gray hallway. Elaine soon opened the door to her office and ushered Claudia inside.

Befitting her position as the head of the Human Resource department at Spencer & Woolcott's, Elaine's office was large and elegantly furnished. The pale-gray paint used on the walls, the designs of the curtains and even the type of carpet were perhaps merely functional rather than out-and-out luxurious, but those minute details were offset by her high-quality desk and swivel-chair that were both of a far more modern design compared to the overwrought cherrywood furniture found in the offices of the senior management.

To add a human touch to the surroundings, colorful, yet tasteful, framed reproductions of paintings by some of the old masters had been put up where they would best catch the eye - she had a couple of works by Monet, a van Gogh, a Cezanne and a Gaugain from his Pacific period.

A couch arrangement that consisted of a low table, a three-seater sofa and two satellite chairs had been added to the corner of the office just inside and to the left of the door. An elegant glass display cabinet next to the sofa held various eating accessories like napkins, salt and pepper shakers, mugs, cups, cake forks and proper dinner cutlery. Similar to the desk, the rest of the furniture was of a modern, straight-edged design save for the low table that had rounded edges.

"Please, have a seat," Elaine said as she closed the door behind Claudia. "Would you like some coffee?  And maybe another sandwich?"

Claudia moved over to one of the satellite chairs and sat down. The first thing she did was to remove the warm hat so she could get some fresh air to her damp locks - the beard followed at once. As she put it on the table, she was struck by how much it resembled a ball of freshly sheared wool. "Yes, please, to sandwiches, but I'd rather have an orange juice or a soda pop, if you don't mind. And nothing diet… I need the sugar," she said with a smile.

Elaine smiled back but it only remained there briefly. She quickly moved over to her desk, picked up her telephone and placed an order to the staff cafeteria for a selection of soft drinks, a pot of coffee and a tray of assorted sandwiches.

A small wad of papers that had been placed on her desk seemed to be the origin of the mounting tension. Picking up the papers, she cast a brief glance at Claudia who remained sitting in the chair with - seemingly - little knowledge of what was to come.

"The refreshments will be here shortly," she said on her way back to the couch arrangement. After depositing the wad of papers on the low table, she moved the other satellite chair around so she would face Claudia - then she sat down and crossed her legs in a detached and very business-like fashion.

Claudia furrowed her brow at the sudden change in Elaine. "Something's amiss here, that's quite obvious. I can't imagine what it could be, though…" she said as she peeled off the characteristic white gloves. "I thought everything went well. Once I'd made my worst critic come around, the other kids from the kindergarten were much friendlier to me. I established a good connection with most of them. One or two were quite shy and didn't really want to talk to me. Others wouldn't stop yapping. That's pretty normal, though… Dad's told me often enough."

"We didn't ask the children. We asked the parents," Elaine said and reached for the wad of papers. "We always conduct customer satisfaction surveys among those who visit the Meet Santa events… you might call it an exit poll… and the latest one shows that close to three-quarters of the parents, seventy-four percent to be exact, were unhappy with your representation of the Santa Claus character."

Elaine's shocking message made Claudia turn into one of the heads on Mount Rushmore - she just sat there all agape and with a disbelieving expression in her eyes. "What the fuh-?" she eventually said in a croak.

"Far worse, the parents who were the most dissatisfied with your performance said it had a negative impact on their desire to buy their Christmas gifts here at Spencer and Woolcott's," Elaine continued. Once she had finished speaking, she glanced at Claudia to gauge her reaction.

It came in the shape of a hot flash that prompted Claudia to whip off the top part of the Christmas-red Santa suit. The heavy coat was flung onto the sofa which left her sitting in a white T-shirt and acres of foam padding around her upper body. The wide, black suspenders that held up the familiar pants looked funny against the padding but neither of the women present cracked a smile.

Another few seconds went by before Claudia said: "Please excuse my crude language this close to Christmas… but that's a load of bull."

"I'm afraid it isn't," Elaine said and put the papers back onto the table. "It's right there in black on white. Genuine, candid statements from the customers we depend upon to keep the business going."

Claudia leaned back in the chair and tapped her fingers on the narrow armrest while she tried to swallow the disappointment. After a few moments, the tapping became insufficient to contain her raging emotions, so she clenched her fist and thumped it onto the wooden armrest instead. "But what the fig don't they like about my Santa?  Does it say that in your fancy survey there?"

Elaine squirmed in her seat - she knew exactly what the stumbling point was as a majority of the people who had been surveyed had spelled it out quite clearly. To quell the embarrassment that blossomed inside her, she picked up the papers once more and leafed through them a couple of times. "Well… of those who were dissatisfied, eighty-six percent of the women and a whopping ninety-three percent of the men objected to the fact that you're… ah… a woman."


"The general consensus seems to be that women should play Christmas Elves or Mrs. Santa. Not Santa Claus himse-"

Claudia's fist was thumped onto the armrest all over again, only much harder. "I don't believe it… did I enter a time warp and fly back to the 1950s all of a sudden?  I mean… hello!  Have you looked at a calendar recently?  I'm pretty sure we're well into the twenty-first century!"

Elaine squirmed again while she rearranged the papers a couple of times to have something to do with her hands. After tapping the stack into order three times in rapid succession, she realized that she was only stalling. "I understand your anger, but please don't aim it at me, Claudia… I'm just the messenger…"

"Yeah okay, but… even a majority of the women objected?  How many percent? Eighty-something?"

"Ah, yes… eighty-six," Elaine said in an embarrassed mumble.

Claudia opened her mouth to go on, but when she found that all the words waiting impatiently to be released were of the worst kind, she clammed up and folded her arms across her chest instead. Even that gesture didn't achieve the desired effect: the foam padding got in the way and prevented her from getting the most out of her grumpy state.

Somebody knocking on the office door saved the moment from deteriorating even further, and Elaine shot up from her chair like fired from a cannon. A person from the staff cafeteria soon wheeled in a serving trolley carrying a coffee pot, several cans of soda and juice, a few plates, a pile of napkins and finally a tray of wrapped wholegrain sandwiches.

Elaine was more than happy for the respite and deliberately took her time in distributing the various items on the low table. To finish off, she moved over to the glass display cabinet and took a mug, a tumbler and a set of cutlery in case Claudia didn't want her fingers greased up by the sandwiches.

Grabbing a plate and one of the wrapped sandwiches from the coffee table, Claudia never uttered a word as she removed the protective Saran wrap and began to chow down a pastrami-and-pickles special.

"Claudia," Elaine tried as she sat down and poured herself a mug of coffee, "I know it must be upsetting for you, but we need to face the facts here. Spencer and Woolcott's can't ignore such a poor survey for such a cornerstone event. Being the head of the HR department, this is my responsibility. That's why I got the figures first. Mr. Corbett will see them tomorrow morning at the latest. We need to come up with an alternative. It could be a temporary one, but whatever it ends up being, it's imperative that we get something done here. Now."

Claudia stopped chewing for long enough to cast a gloomy glare at Elaine. Grunting, she went back to the sandwich.

"Are you sure your Dad won't be able to come back at once?"

"There's no way he'd be able to go on the floor tours with an injured ankle and knee. No way," Claudia said and shook her head. The first sandwich was already gone so she reached for a can of uncarbonated orange juice that she cracked open at once. "He might be able to sit in the big chair for the Meet Santa events if I'm there to support him, but he'd most likely be cross-eyed from being hopped up on painkillers. Would that really improve matters?"

"Hmmm. No. That could potentially lead to awkward situations or even lawsuits," Elaine said and took a sip of her coffee. She gained a distant look in her eyes for a brief moment before she snapped out of it and looked at Claudia. "Incidentally… and I don't know if I should tell you… but some of the parents we asked were unhappy with the intimate way you spoke to their children. They would prefer more distance between you and the-"

"Good frickin' grief!" Claudia growled - the only reason she didn't smack her fist onto the armrest was the fact she still held onto the can of juice. The grotesque situation called for another sandwich, so she grabbed one with two lettuce leaves that framed a thick slice of an Italian-inspired mortadella sausage.

"Claudia… honestly now," Elaine said and leaned forward so she could put a hand on her friend's knee, "wouldn't it be better for you to play Mrs. Santa?  She's such an important character in the narrative. We could say that Santa was busy wrapping gifts up on the North Pole-"

"I'm not the right type for that character. My Mom was Mrs. Santa… the best damn Mrs. Santa who ever was. But I can't be her, Elaine. I just can't. It wouldn't be credible."

"But why not?  I don't understand…"

"Mrs. Santa needs to be someone completely different from me. I mean on a physical level. She's soft. Round. Warm. Grandmotherly." Sighing, Claudia focused on her latest sandwich. The lettuce leaves produced comical crunches when she chewed on them - the sounds were intruding so badly on the serious nature of the topic that each bite made her cringe.

"Well, I think you should at least try," Elaine said and finished her coffee. After wiping her fingers on a napkin, she got up and straightened her pant suit. "Claudia, I don't want to jeopardize our friendship. Please understand that this is the Human Resource manager speaking."


"I always tour the department store at this time of the day so I can speak with the sales clerks and mingle a little with our customers… you know, to put an ear to the ground and get the low-down on what's been happening over the course of the day."


"While I do that, I would very much like you to come up with a few ideas on how we can solve this challenge. If you can't, I'm afraid Spencer and Woolcott's will need to contact other recruiters. It's vital the Meet Santa events run smoothly as they form a cornerstone of our Holiday ad campaigns on all media platforms. Spencer and Woolcott's cannot accept the kind of negative response we saw in that survey. I don't have to tell you how easily something like that can blow up on social media. It spreads like wildfire."

While Elaine delivered the stern statement, she purposely avoided making eye contact with Claudia who remained sitting in the chair. Once the gloomy bulletin had concluded, she tried to soften its blow with a little smile. Although Claudia did in fact return it, it never amounted to much.

"I'll be back in twenty minutes," Elaine said before she left her own office.

Once the door had closed, Claudia put the empty plate on the low table, leaned back in the chair and let out a long groan that was a mix of annoyance and pain. She rubbed her face repeatedly before she let her hands stay there for a moment to shut out the frustrating world and hide the veil of tears that had made her eyes glisten.

She sat like that for a couple of minutes. Realizing she couldn't hide from the world no matter how harshly it treated her, she blinked away the tears and reached for her telephone in the neck purse she carried deep inside her costume. Not even the background image of her father in full Santa-costume could cheer her up - in fact, the colorful sight only added another millstone around her neck when she thought of how disappointed her failure would make him. Forcing herself to go on, the number for the Send-A-Santa office was soon found and selected.

'This is Beryl Griffith. Miss MacCready?'

"Hello, Beryl… I need your help. Badly," Claudia said and rubbed her brow. "I'm up the creek here and I just broke the paddle."

'Oh… how charming. What's wrong?'

"This Santa Claudia gig isn't working. The kids were all right with it, but the Stone Age parents here won't accept a female Santa. Can you believe it?"


"I've been given an ultimatum… shape up or ship out. S-and-W's will call someone else if we can't deliver. Beryl, we need a replacement Santa. A guy. Not in a couple of days' time but now. There must be someone who's willing to swap over from another job… or something… anything!" - Claudia pounded her fist into the chair's armrest to underscore her point.

'I'll try again, but-'

"Oh, and don't advertise this, but I'll throw in a double-up cash bonus to anyone who can start at once. And I really mean at once."

A long sigh came through the connection. 'I'll look into it, Miss MacCready. I can't give you any guarantees, though. Just today, we've had four more of our regulars call in sick. It's that damned flu!'

"Oh, man!" Claudia said and smacked her forehead.

'But one thing does work in our favor here… I just got off the phone speaking with not only Crannog's Rent-a-Friend but Larsen Rentals as well. They were both crying in my ear that they're desperately short on manpower. Their freelancers and regulars are all down for the count. They're facing the exact same problems we are.'


'And that means that Spencer and Woolcott's can huff and puff all they like, but there are no Santas available this year. None. At least not now.'

"Okay, that is interesting. Huh," Claudia said and leaned back once more. She rubbed her brow a couple of times before she continued: "I'll keep that up my sleeve as a trump card, but we still need to produce some kind of short-term solution. I, uh… I don't want to get Miss Sutcliffe in trouble. And I think it could head that way 'cos the managing director seems to be a cold fish. A real bean-counter type of fellow."

'I understand. I'll get on it straight away. I'll keep you posted.'

"Thanks, Beryl!  Talk to you later," Claudia said and closed the connection. Sighing, she reached for the can of orange juice that she had all but forgotten in the hubbub.


The tasty juice seemed to make a few pieces of the puzzle click into place in her mind. A prolonged "Hmmm…" escaped her as her thoughts moved back in time to some of her Dad's contemporary colleagues in the Santa trade. She had the name of one particular fellow on the tip of her tongue, but it refused to go any further.

The name wouldn't come to her no matter how hard she tried to rack her mind, so she activated her telephone's Internet browser app and soon accessed the personnel records through a back door portal on their website.

Although she didn't have user rights to update it from her telephone, she could view the records of not only the present employees but also those among the former regulars and freelancers who had agreed to maintain a profile with MacCready's Send-A-Santa Recruitment Agency in case they were ever needed. A green icon in the shape of a check-mark next to their names proved their various certificates and background tests had been updated recently and were still valid.

She swiped down the long list for a while until her eyes fell on the name she had been trying to coax out of its hiding place. "Flanagan, Robert Edmund!  Of course!" Claudia said out loud as the name and the corresponding record popped up on the small display.

Now that she had seen his name, her mind connected the dots and made her remember that he and Douglas had worked well together back in the old days. Unless Edmund Flanagan had fallen ill - or worse - Claudia was sure he would agree to step in at short notice once she had given him the lowdown on his old friend's predicament.

His contact info and most recent telephone number were listed in the personnel records, so she swapped over to the dialer and punched in the digits. Leaning back in the chair, she suddenly eyed the delightful sandwiches. Her stomach told her it was high time for a little nourishment, so she took one that had two different kinds of sliced cheese in it; it was quickly unwrapped and munched on.

The first attempt at establishing contact with Robert Edmund Flanagan went nowhere, so she put the half-eaten sandwich on the plate while she called the office instead. "Yes, it's me again, Beryl… I'm sorry for interrupting you. Have you had any luck?"

'I'm afraid not, Miss MacCready.'

"Listen, I think I may have found a suitable candidate. Remember Edmund Flanagan?"


"He and Dad worked really well together ten years ago… perhaps it was closer to fifteen years now, come to think of it. Anyway, I've tried calling him, but I couldn't catch him. Can you please check the full version of the personnel records to see if there's a second telephone number attached to his name?"

'Will do… please wait,' Beryl said. Soon after, the typical sounds of fingers striking a keyboard could be heard through the connection. 'Flanagan, Robert E. There are two numbers listed. The first one is area code one-nine-nine, five-five-five six-eight-'

"That's the one I already tried."

'All right. The other one is area code one-nine-nine, five-five-five four-seven-six-three.'

"Oh!  I didn't have that!  Thanks, Beryl… I'll try that right away. Bye!" Claudia said before she punched in the second telephone number. She had barely had time to reach for her cheese sandwich when a mature male voice spoke at the other end of the line:

'This is Edmund. Who's calling, please?'

The sandwich was soon thrown back onto the plate so she could have her hands - not to mention her mouth - free to hold the important conversation. "Good afternoon, Mr. Flanagan. I'm Claudia MacCready from the Send-A-Santa Recruitment Agency. We're in a tight squeeze and we're hoping you could give us a helping hand regarding an appearance as Santa Claus for the rest of the Holiday period."

'Oh… gosh, I'm honored that you remembered me, but… oh… I'm a senior citizen now. I haven't worn the red suit in, gosh, nearly four years!  And even that was at a small-scale meet and greet at a retirement home…'

"Well, we need you, Mr. Flanagan. Badly. According to our personnel records, your certificates and permits are still valid. Is that correct?"

'Yes, my son thought it was best if I kept everything, ah… up to date. You know, just in case. Wow… well… I… gosh, I need to know some details. How soon… and where?'

"Spencer and Woolcott's-"

'Oh!  Why, that's Douglas' place!  Wait… Claudia MacCre- of course, you're his daughter, aren't you?  Goodness me, of course you are… gosh, I'm so sorry, Miss MacCready… I didn't make the connection…'

"Think nothing of it, Mr. Flanagan. We haven't met for a decade or so. Yes, Dad is still S-and-W's Santa Claus, but he's had a little accident-"

'Oh no, how terrible!  Old Doug… is it bad?'

"Yes and no. He tripped and sprained his ankle. No broken bones, but he'll be out of action until the New Year, so… so… frankly, we need you to step in."

'At Spencer and Woolcott's?!'


'Oh… gosh. That's the really big show… shoot, I've never worked at such a high-profile place before… gosh, I honestly don't… oh… how soon?'

"Can you be here today?  Maybe in an hour's time or so?" Claudia said and chewed on her fingernails. She looked around for a wall-mounted clock but didn't find one. Instead, she checked the time on the telephone's though the tiny digits hurt her eyes.

'Today?  In an hour?!  No. No, Miss MacCready, I'm really sorry, but I can't. Gosh… today!  I can be there bright and early tomorrow. I can be there at seven if I have to, but not today… I'm afraid that's completely impossible.'

While Claudia and Edmund spoke, Elaine stepped back into her office wearing a worried expression. It brightened a little when she noticed Claudia speaking into the telephone, and she broke out in a wide, relieved smile when her friend offered her an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

"Mr. Flanagan," Claudia said, "please stay on the line… I need to confer with one of S-and-W's department managers. You can talk to her in a moment. All right?"

'Goodness me… this is making my head spin. Sure!'

Turning around, Claudia pressed the telephone's Mute Conversation button before she brought Elaine up to speed with the latest development. She finished by saying, "I think we got it," and handing the telephone to the Human Resource manager.

Elaine strode over to the other satellite chair and sat down - she held the telephone out so Claudia could listen in on Edmund's replies. "Mr. Flanagan, this is Elaine Sutcliffe. I'll be your contact person here at Spencer and Woolcott's. Miss MacCready has told me you're ready, willing and able to start tomorrow morning. Is that so?"

'Yes it is, Miss Sutcliffe… at seven if I have to.'

"Well, I certainly won't be here at seven," Elaine said and let out a warm chuckle fueled by relief. "You need to be here at nine-thirty at the latest for our daily management briefing. I'll introduce you to my colleagues."

'Nine-thirty… got it. I'm taking notes as we speak.'

"Do you need a parking permit?"

'No. I don't have a car. Back in the old days, a public bus line used to run right past your department store out on Fifty-ninth Street. You wouldn't happen to know if that's still the case, would you?'

Elaine chuckled again and looked up at Claudia who promptly broke out in a wide shrug. "I'm afraid neither of us has a clue, Mr. Flanagan," Elaine continued.

'Oh, it doesn't matter. I'll look it up.'

"All right. In any case, welcome to the team."

'Thank you. Gosh, working at Spencer and Woolcott's… goodness gracious me… that's like being asked to play Hamlet at the Royale!  Oh!  Before we hang up, I need to make something clear, Miss Sutcliffe… and, honestly, I think it would be best for everyone if you took it into account.'

Elaine and Claudia hastily shared a glance that was far more concerned than it had been a mere minute earlier. "Go on, Mr. Flanagan…"

'Like I said to Miss MacCready, I haven't worn the red for a long time. I'll give you all I have, my professional pride wouldn't have it any other way, but… oh… gosh, I think I'll need somebody there to be my hands-on assistant. Maybe to keep the line going and things like that. I've just turned seventy… I'm not the spry fella I used to be… and my eyesight isn't the greatest it's ever been, either. Do you have someone who could be Mrs. Santa?'

Elaine looked up at once and pinned Claudia to the spot. Her intense gaze included a raised eyebrow, but it was all to no avail as Claudia shook her head repeatedly. Even a second raised eyebrow failed to persuade the determined Santa Claudia. "I'm afraid we don't, Mr. Flanagan-"


"-but we do have one of Santa's little helpers. An Elf. A very cute one!" Elaine said with a wink directed at the woman next to her.

Claudia narrowed her eyes down into slits. She thought about shaking her head all over again but realized accepting the role would be a good peace offering on her part. She eventually grinned and nodded at the cheeky suggestion.

'Ah!  Gosh, an Elf is almost better than a Mrs. Santa. Elves can be a little bit naughty and whatnot… they're cheeky little folks, you know?  That would be a good setup for some antics and playful banter. It's a wonderful idea, Miss Sutcliffe!  All right… I'll see you at nine-thirty tomorrow morning. Goodness me, I can't wait to tell my wife and son!  Goodbye!'

"Goodbye, Mr. Flanagan," Elaine said and closed the connection. Once the small screen had returned to the background image of Douglas MacCready dressed up as Santa, she handed the telephone to Claudia who stuffed it into her neck purse at once to keep track of it. "Congratulations are in order, Miss Elf!" Elaine said with her tongue firmly in her cheek.

"Why, thank you!  Thank you ever so Elfin much!" Claudia said with her own tongue making an even more impressive bulge in her cheek. She picked up the double-cheese sandwich once more and soon munched down the final few bites with renewed vigor.



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