I wrote this story earlier this year for a contest being held by my favorite writer, Joe R. Lansdale. He offered a one-line pitch and allowed submissions based off of it. His idea (brilliant as always) involved “The dyslexic who sold his soul to Santa.” The following is what I came up with:
Nick was a saint, but he was also the most ruthless negotiator I ever saw. Had to be. Guy ran a worldwide business evaluated in the amount of billions that can’t be described using the existing terminology. Collect the Forbes 400 all together and you’ve got a start. Now imagine running an organization that size, but running it as a non-profit. No perks. Everything given, nothing taken. Nick worked year-round, sleep optional. He was dedicated, a mensch. But he was as savvy as he was kind-hearted. Nick made it a point to know everything about everybody, all the time. It’s how he got where he is — sitting on top of the world.
People think they know all there is to know about Nick and what he does, but the truth is a lot more mundane than anything they’re used to hearing about him. It’s also a whole lot weirder than most of the conventional lore, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
You asked me here to talk about the time I saw him go up against the nastiest opponent you’d ever hope not to see glaring at you from the other end of a boardroom table. I’m willing to talk about it, but wherever possible, I’m going to avoid mentioning him by name. He goes by a lot of them – some he chose himself, some people made up – and some of those names bother him more than others. I’m supposed to keep track? Personally, I don’t care what bothers the guy, but I’m also not interested in having him come after me for defamation of character. Obviously he’s quick to litigate.
Let’s just agree that he’s a rotten apple. You know who I’m talking about. He’d sell out his own mother, if anyone thought he ever had one in the first place. Guy literally invented the shady deal. He makes Donald Trump look like a Pekingese with indigestion and a bad haircut. Some people find him charming – go figure – but you can’t trust a word the guy says. You ask me? He’s a creep. Just no fun at all as a party guest. Which is why he crashes them.
Reason I was in the room was, I was working as Nick’s personal assistant at the time, although as a result of my general contentious nature and as a specific result of the incident I’m about to describe, this was effectively my last day in that function. Fine, I have a bit of a temper problem myself. I’m willing to admit that. I’m in anger management for it, twice a week and three times during the holiday season. Nick still kept a place for me in his organization, moved me over to the transportation department. I’m going to be the point man over there. It’s a lateral move, and the right fit for me. I’m excited about the job. I’m telling you, Nick never gives up on anyone. It’s uncanny. The guy takes care of his people. Like I told you up front, he’s a saint.
So the day this negotiation went down, it was busy, sure – it’s always going to be busy in our line of work – but there were still leaves on the ground. We had plenty of time yet before the real busy season kicked in. All the same, there was a lot of hustle-and-bustle out on the floor. People work hard at this gig. Generally speaking, they’re happy to be there. It’s a huge operation, but it feels like home. It’s warm but not too warm, roomy and cozy at the same time. And it usually smells real nice, like a faint blend of peppermint and cotton candy. When the smell went sour, that’s how I could tell bad company was coming.
You know how when you walk past the cologne counter in a department store, your nose gets battered by the onslaught of strong smells? That’s what it’s like being around this guy. I mean, exactly like that. His natural scent is pretty foul, like a whole collection of nasty: rotten eggs, morning breath, a bully’s used jock strap, and the stuff that comes out of your nose when you cry real hard. So, like a high school kid on a first date, he covers it up with way too much cologne. Again, this fools some people, makes him seem more appealing, although I can’t personally imagine how. To me, it’s the first most oppressive thing about him.
I was going over some new flight plans with the boss when the opposition stormed into the office. When I say “stormed into”, what I mean to say is he just kind of appeared, like a black cloud. A big black cloud of bad cologne.
Our office isn’t exactly located in the warmest of neighborhoods, so he showed up wearing a turtleneck under a designer leather jacket. He had a thick mustache grown out for the occasion. Quite honestly, I think this time around he was trying to look like Shaft. Impressive appearances are big with this guy. Works on some – not with us. Nick and I, we see right through it. Plus, the voice is a big give-away. I know this statement is being recorded so I’ll spare you the whiny high-pitched imitation. But me and my co-workers, we’ve all got one. Mine is somewhere between Jay Leno and an alarm clock.
“You! You meddled in my affairs. We had an agreement.” That was how the jerk kicked things off. Accusatory. Not smart.
“Cousin! It’s been quite a while. How’s everything been? I could tell Nick wasn’t thrilled to see him, but that’s only because I know him so well. Nick greets everybody as friendly as can be.
“Don’t play sweet with me. You know what you did. You broke our agreement.”
“Agreement? Not sure what you mean. Was it a verbal agreement? I try to write everything down. So much to keep track of these days.”
Nick was doing two things here: A) Starting off with plausible deniability. B) Pointing out the fact that in our business, the contract is king. If it ain’t in blood or ink, it don’t mean squat. Once you put that signature down, it’s ironclad. But if you don’t get that signature exactly right? Doesn’t matter if every other letter is perfect: No go.
“Wipe that smile off your face. You know how this is supposed to work. You stay out of my business, I’ll stay out of yours. You want that to change?”
“No, certainly not. Why don’t you tell me what’s bothering you so much? Maybe I can help.”
“Talented young man. I’m aware of his work.”
“There’s no one who isn’t.”
“Sure. Biggest movie star in the world. He’s brought a lot of happiness to countless people.”
“He’s a household name. And as such, he’s a very valuable commodity.”
“I prefer to look at everyone equally. They’re all valuable to me.”
“Not to me. They’re all bugs under a rock. He’s just a big enough bug that some of the others will skitter dumbly after whichever direction he goes in first. I can do great and terrible things to the rest of them using his resources.”
“I don’t think so. I think he’ll find his way one day soon. His heart is in the right place.”
“His heart, as you and anyone else on the planet must be aware, has been in flux for months now. He’s had a crisis of faith and he’s been looking for answers elsewhere.”
“He’s always been a searcher.”
“Well, he found me. And I promised him the truth about how it all works. As written by me, of course. I mentioned the terms and listed my price. As, again, you must be aware.”
“Wasn’t. And you know I don’t endorse the way you go about things. Can’t say I’m heartbroken to hear that it didn’t go the way you planned.”
“You know full well it didn’t! I had the contract vetted and ready to be signed. It was on his desk. He had the pen in hand. And then you stepped in and ruined everything.”
“I’ve been in the shop all day. Even if I really could be everywhere at once, I can only ruin things one place at a time,” Nick chuckled. I loved that sound, more resonant than steel drums and more satisfying than bubble wrap.
It didn’t play with the opposition.
“Stop patronizing me with the cute-and-fuzzy act, you chubby over-stuffed buffoon! I’m not any of the moronic masses you’ve got snowed.”
“Hey! Talk to him like that again and you’re gonna find yourself outside, bewildered and using a toothpick to pluck pieces of your butt out from between your teeth.” That was me interjecting. I’m not supposed to get in between him and the big-business higher-ups, but I don’t cotton to people disrespecting Nick. Best boss I ever had.
The opposition deigned to acknowledge me: “You got an army?”
“One more step towards him and I’ll give you aches and pains to last you the rest of eternity,” I promised. “And I don’t need an army, but if you want me to call in my brothers, they’re right outside.”
“Idle threats. Boring. Mind your place, little man.”
“What’d you just call me?”
“Does the sound of my voice not travel all the way to the ground? Nick, really: I’m sure this fellow is adequate as a doorstop, but you simply must get a better major-domo. This one is just all too…. minor.”
At this point I lunged. I did. I’m not proud of it, but there are a couple buttons you can push that’ll get me going. The short thing is one of them. On a normal day, I stand at three-foot-nine. I’m stout and way stronger than I look, but I do start small. Generally it’s not an issue, especially because those happen to be common proportions where I come from, but I don’t like words like “elf” and I don’t accept being talked down to. Especially not by him.
“You want me to knock the legs out from under you, you can come on down to my ground-level world and we can talk about it,” I said, taking a step forward with both fists clenched and ready.
“That’s enough, Rudolph.” Nick’s steady hand on my shoulder calmed me down right away. I can go from zero to sixty-tantrums-per-hour in ten seconds flat, but somehow the big guy can always bring me right back down to zero. Well, almost always.
“Yes, Rudolph, exactly,” the opposition sneered. “Go sit at your benefactor’s knee. Let the full-grown adults talk.”
“This doesn’t have to be a fight,” Nick said.
“It already is,” went the opposing view.
“If that’s what you want it to be, that’s what it can be, but this isn’t where it’ll happen. Now you’ve insulted my friend and I’m going to ask you nicely to apologize and then to leave the way you came.”
“We’re not done here.”
“We are. You don’t have a leg to stand on with this line of arguing. Keep it up and I’ll serve you with another cease-and-desist.”
There was a time when the opposition was going around asking people to call him “Old Nick.” Like I said, he has a thing for nicknames, can never settle on just one. We figured he was going by “Old Nick” for a while there because he wanted to confuse any of his potential customers who have an innate fondness for my boss. Saint Nick. Old Nick. Old Nick. Saint Nick. Obfuscation. More shady business.
“That’s right. And you’re lucky I didn’t sue your pants off when you slipped my name onto that ex-New-York-City-mayor,” I added. “Seriously. A New York politician? That guy?” This remains a sore spot with me, by the way. “What’s he getting this year, boss?”
“Still coal.” Nick winked at me. He knew he had this in the bag.
The opposition scowled at Nick and sputtered, “When I’m done, you and your little sidekick here, you’re going to be so bombarded with lawsuits, you’ll be handing out presents on Skid Row.”
Out of respect for my boss, I stifled a laugh at that. It’s fun when your opponent gets flustered. But Nick doesn’t like schadenfreude – mainly because the word only exists in one language and he prefers it when people share.
Nick fixed his opponent’s gaze. “Why don’t you just let me know what you’re charging, and have your people send over the paperwork? We’ve got work to do here. Your accusations are so specious I’m not even sure I know what you’re arguing.”
The opposition collected himself for one last stab: “Cal Topper is looking for guidance. Guidance I can provide.”
“Says you!,” I interjected.
“Rudolph…” The boss didn’t need to say more. I quieted down.
“Cal Topper came to me for guidance he believes I can provide, which I will state on any official record I am willing to provide, and which there is no viable reason to suggest I can’t provide. I am nearly as old as the universe, after all. Who more qualified than me to consult on spiritual matters? I was there for plenty of it.”
“Arguable, but get on with it.” Nick wasn’t being quite as brusque as those words sound. He could even make impatience sound inviting, this guy.
“When it came time to sign the legally-binding document stating that I would provide said guidance in exchange for a mutually agreed-upon price, that being Cal Topper’s immortal soul, everything went according to protocol. Until the signature. The only thing that gives the sale validity. The signature. He writes down my name. Then he writes down his. Then it’s done.”
“And the problem there was?”
“His name, no problem. But when he went back to sign mine… The N. The blasted N! He put it in the wrong place. Six simple letters in a name, and he puts the N in the middle rather than the end. I had him. We had a deal. And he signed his eternal soul over to you instead.”
Nick smiled. “I see. That is a problem. For you.”
“You knew about it! You made it happen!”
“A heavy allegation, if it were the case. How did I do it? Enlighten me.”
“I don’t know! My people think you, by the nature of your work, were aware of a childhood learning disability he had, wherein he transposed letters and words – a mild form of dyslexia which he had thought he’d overcome. There’s precedent for this sort of gaffe. As a child, Cal Topper wrote me a letter asking me for a red fire truck. At the time, I found the irony amusing.”
“Not laughing now, are you Skippy?” (I couldn’t resist.)
The opposition didn’t even bat an eye at my comment. He was on a steady-gaining roll of self-pity: “It’s not every day I get the opportunity to obtain such an influential soul. People just aren’t offering them up the way they used to. And you snaked this one out from under me! How did you do it? A subliminal message? Did you engineer a carol to be played on rush-hour FM radio out of season? WHAT DID YOU DO?!? Satan! Santa! A kingdom lost on a letter!”
Nick crossed his arms, never letting the smile slip. “It’s sad that after all these years, you could suspect me of wrongdoing. I have to admit, however, this works out well for me. Cal Topper has a big movie coming out over the holiday, and his likeness is going to be on all the action figures we make. All I need is the merchandising rights. His soul will remain his own, his life will be his to live however he chooses.”
Nick was telling the truth, as always, but he was also taking advantage of a technicality: After all, everyone knows that the merchandising rights and the soul are interconnected.
“But let’s look at your options here, Lucy. You’ve really only got one. Chalk up a loss and walk away. Doesn’t matter how bad you wanted it: He signed the soul to me. You really want to take this to court? You may have more lawyers, but I’ve got the stronger case. Besides, forget the court of public opinion – you know full well that the bias from the judge’s bench leans heavily in my direction. Look at my resume. Look at yours. You brought death into the world. I hand out presents on his son’s birthday. This one is so cut-and-dried it’s wearing a T-shirt with my name and smiling face on it.”
The Devil, confronted with the full force of goodness’s mighty knowledge of the legal system, fumed. Flames sparked in his eyes. Literally. I have to remember to always specify whether or not I’m being literal when discussing celestial beings.
Then he turned into a werewolf. Also literally. The Devil comes in many forms, and they usually get scarier the angrier he gets. And this dude was mighty angry in this moment. Someone who started out the encounter as a dashing style icon suddenly sprouted jagged fur and gnarled paws, his torso elongating and contorting and his mouth spreading out into a dark cavern lined with teeth that headed down into a dark pit of bile where many unlucky victims had breathed their last. He leaped across the table, heading straight for Nick.
That’s when I cut in. Remember when I said the truth is both more mundane and a whole lot weirder than convention goes? Keep that in mind here. You see, there is in fact really a Santa Claus. But there’s no such thing as “Santa’s elves.” Saint Nick does have a very generous affirmative-action hiring policy that favors little people, a group too often disregarded, but we’re not magical little pixies who sing and dance. Most of us went to law school, business school, or engineering school. Some of us have show-business backgrounds. And a select few of us? Were-reindeer. Hey, somebody’s gotta pull the sleigh.
I ripped off my shirt and let the beast out, my forearms expanding and sprouting a dense gray pelt. My legs exploded into powerful haunches that were supported by hefty hooves. My face took shape, my jaw headed ever forward, and my head was spontaneously crowned by two antlers that looked like the cantilevered branches of a mighty oak.
I’m not the most artful fighter, but I get the job done. As the wolf-beast leapt through the air, I caught his throat with a swift blow. As it gasped for air, I swung my heavy forearm in an arc-like motion, crashing it down on his skull right between the ears. His face went straight down to the floor, through the edge of the boardroom table on the way. The rest of his body followed suit, smacking the smooth marble office floor and sending furballs floating off in seventy different trajectories.
My eight brothers ran in just then, having heard the commotion. Donner and Blitzen came in first, and both simultaneously stared at me and shook their heads. All those guys are always busting my hump. I don’t get it. They’re the ones who were working security at the time – I was doing their job! And besides, why did they let Old Scratch just waltz right in there if they didn’t want me to finish whatever he might start? They all know my reputation as a hothead.
The guys collected Lucy, who by then had shrunk back from his wolfly form into something resembling a cross between Woody Allen and a wet otter, and prepared to toss his unconscious form wherever they toss such infernal things.
Nick looked at that, then at the damage to his nice office, then at me, and lowered his head, putting his hand to his hairline. He sighed, and chuckled a little. Just a little. I loved that chuckle.
Anyway, that’s how I lost that particular gig.
I’m sorry – then what IS the nature of this deposition? Oh. You’re asking me if Nick had any knowledge of the opposition’s supposed negotiations with Cal Topper. Not that I’m aware. What’s that? Eyewitnesses spotted two stout little people resembling my brothers Prancer and Vixen carrying Neil Diamond Christmas CDs into the KDAY offices on the morning October 18th. Huh. That sounds to me like payola, sir. I don’t think I know anyone who would do such a thing, outside of the guy whose face I pushed through my employer’s desk, and again, I am in anger management for that outburst and promise never to do it again. What? “Do I know anything about the snowman ornament that was found on the rooftop directly facing the window of Cal Topper’s production company’s office?” No.
Why do you ask?