In the weeks leading up to Christmas, private detective Noel Kringle provides security for the prestigious Bengali Foundation's yearly Toy Stash.
While his name's close association to Santa Claus creates excitement for the toy drive, its truth causes other problems. As the days count down, his hair and beard change colour and shape, leaving Noel scrambling as he tries to stop looking like Santa Claus.
But when Troy Bengali, head of the Bengali Foundation, turns up dead, buried under the mound of toys, Noel's hair colour becomes the least of his problems.
Now Noel must fight to clear his accused associate's name as he searches for the real killer.
A killer with a list to kill, and checking it twice, drawing no difference between naughty or nice. Leaving only death behind.
Mystery with a dash of fantasy, Noel Kringle mixes Christmas, and sleuthing, in a tale of magic and suspense.
The snow outside wasn't terribly frightful but it was coming down steadily. Big fluffy flakes that drifted across the street as I walked. It had been snowing for the last hour or so, enough that a thin layer crunched under my boots.
Briefly, it reminded me of the North Pole, then a taxi zoomed by, spraying slush into the air. It seemed to hang for a moment before landing with a splat on my navy pea coat.
Before it could stain, I lifted my left hand and made a slight, flicking gesture. Nothing anyone around me would notice but it was enough to draw the snow off my coat. A moment later, the slush dropped to the sidewalk beside me.
Snow had never been a problem for me. I didn't have quite the control that I did when I lived at the North Pole but I still had enough magic to keep it off me.
I was Noel Kringle, youngest son of Kris Kringle, aka Santa Claus, hurrying to my latest job guarding the Toy Stash collected by the Bengali Foundation.
It was December 10th, the Toy Stash still had ten more days before Troy Bengali and his staff would gather them up and distribute them to needy families around Toronto. Ten more days for people to donate and, as a special commemoration for the foundation's tenth year running the Toy Stash, the Bengali Foundation was matching each donation.
As I walked along King Street toward the foundation's office near York, I wondered if any of the people around me were dropping off donations. Men and women hurried by, bundled in coats, scarves wrapped around their necks. Mittens and gloves clutched purses or plastic bags, handles of briefcases or large, paper shopping bags. The chill wind tugged at the wisps of hair poking out from under knit hats or around the edges of parka hoods.
Breath hung in the air like moist patches of fog. The air carried the crisp, cleanness of winter, even with the cars streaming by, belching exhaust.
Clouds crowded the sky above us, darkening the late afternoon to almost twilight. The sharp edges of the office towers softened in the snowfall. The granite and marble courtyards were hidden under rolls of snow.
Everything looked different and magical. My favourite time of year.
Then I noticed a woman giving me an odd look as she walked past. Casually, I glanced at a darkened window as I passed.
My wavy hair, usually brown, had started to turn white.
My beard, also usually brown and usually trimmed along my jaw line, was also whitening, and beginning to get bushy.
Damn the halls.
I had just dyed and trimmed both just over two weeks ago. I was going to have to do it again. And fast.
Like right now fast.
I glanced at my watch. My appointment at the Bengali Foundation was in fifteen minutes. I didn't have time to deal with my wayward hair and beard. I was going to have to take drastic action.
I pulled out my cell phone, an old flip phone since my magic interfered with smart phones, and opened it. I didn't bother to dial since the person I was calling didn't have a cell phone and wouldn't use it even if I gave it to him.
Fortunately he would hear me without it.
"Venir," I said. "I need your help. It's an emergency. Meet me in the drug store at Bay."
I closed the phone and tucked it into the pocket of my navy pea coat. Just a few more steps. I ducked my head. Trying to avoid looking at the people who were starting to take closer looks at me.
I really needed to get a hat. And it wasn't going to be a red one.
I hurried into the drug store just as one man lifted his hand to point at me. He'd had the beginnings of a big smile on his face. He probably loved Christmas.
The aisles sped by as I almost ran down the length of the store. I skidded to a stop as I reached the hair dye aisle.
Halfway down stood my associate, Venir, an ex-Christmas Elf.
He was just over four feet tall and wore a boy's large khaki parka, unzipped, over a pair of jeans and a charcoal grey sweater. A dark green knit hat was perched on his head, hiding his large pointed ears. Wisps of his white hair curled around the edges of the hat.
His hands were stuffed into the pockets of the parka and I knew one of them would be clenching an unlit cigar. I never let him smoke in my office and there was no smoking in stores.
He did a double take when he saw me.
"Boss, your hair… your beard…"
"I know," I said. "You gotta help me with this fast."
He pulled his hands from his pocket. Sure enough the left one clutched the stump of an unlit cigar. He spread them in a helpless gesture.
"None of my magic is gonna work on you," he said. "You know that."
I sighed. I did know. The closer we got to Christmas, the more my hair and beard would take on the attributes of Santa Claus. I would never take over that job, my older brother KJ was in line when my dad retired, but my body didn't know that.
One of the challenges of being the youngest son of Kris Kringle. Not that I would have it any other way.
But the timing was damned inconvenient.
"You need to help me colour it," I said. I poked around the shelves until I found a spray-on dye. I pulled two cans down and handed them to Venir.
"Go pay for these and meet me in the alley two stores over," I said. "We'll have to work fast."
"Gotcha, boss. I'm on it."
He clutched the cans to his chest and hurried toward the cashier.
I headed back out onto the street.
It had darkened as the sun, hidden by the clouds, had gone down. Yellowish streetlights created dim shadows but it was enough for me to slip into the alley unnoticed.
I found an overhang half way down and stood under it, waiting for Venir. I brushed the few flakes of snow from my hair. When I rubbed my chin, I felt the length of my beard.
I should have told Venir to buy scissors too.
A moment later, the Elf appeared at the mouth of the alley. He moved toward me, carrying a white plastic bag. When he reached me, he pulled out a hand mirror.
"I thought you might need this too," he said.
"Great thinking," I said. "Let's do it."
He took one can and I took the other. I crouched down so he could reach me and we got to work.
I sprayed my beard while he worked on the back of my head. As I watched, the white hair disappeared under a misting of brown. The stench was acrid and chemical smelling, making my nostrils crinkle. Too much of this stuff and I'd be flying for my meeting.
Either that or I'd die from the chemical inhalations.
Before that happened, I finished colouring my beard and moustache. Through the mirror, I could see Venir starting on the left side of my head. So I got to work on my right.
The fumes made my eyes water. I blinked rapidly and kept spraying. The bright, almost glowing, whiteness disappeared under a flat, bland brown. It didn't look at all natural but it was going to have to do, at least until I could get real dye and do a proper job.
One that I hoped managed to last as long as this one.
Sure, and dad would miss every other stocking this year.
It would never happen.
Venir finished before I did. A final few sprays and then I was done. I waved my can at him.
"Check to make sure we got everything," I said.
He poked all over my head. I heard the occasional spritz of spray. He lifted the hair over my right ear.
"You sprayed the top of your ear, boss," he said.
"Just leave it," I said. "Any place we missed?"
"Nope. Looks all brown ta me."
I handed him my can and stood up. My knees cracked. I shook out my legs to get the blood flowing again.
"I have to get to my meeting," I said. "Meet me back at the office after you pick up some more of the dye I like."
"What about what you got on?" he asked.
"This won't last long," I said. "I'll need to do the whole thing again sooner rather than later. Make sure you get the Benson Brown 312 that I like."
He nodded. The plastic bag crinkled in his hands as he shoved the mirror inside. I headed for the front of the alley. Snow crunched under my feet as I followed the tracks I had made walking in. When I reached the mouth of it, I turned.
"Thanks, Venir," I called back. "You really saved my butt."
The Elf looked up, surprised. For a brief moment, the melancholy look he'd been carting around for the last month vanished and a smile bloomed across his face.
I wanted to stick around and encourage more of that look but I was already late for my meeting. I gave him a wave and headed off.
The Bengali Foundation was another block away. In the darkness of late afternoon, the dark grey of the building looked almost black. The first two floors took up almost the entire block, then a thinner tower blossomed upward, stretching thirty storeys into the sky. In the darkness, I could only see the first ten or so storeys, the rest were lost to the clouds and the encroaching night.
A wave of heat blasted me as I pushed in through the double glass doors. I felt sweat spring from my forehead almost instantly as I hurried across the expanse of lobby and toward the bank of elevators on the left. A grey granite desk stretched between the two banks of elevators, manned by two security guards. One was watching something below the counter, probably the monitors. The second one smiled and pushed a clipboard across the counter surface in my direction.
"Can you sign in please, sir," he said. The tone of his voice insisting it wasn't a question.
I took the pen from his hand and scrawled my name and then tenth floor where I was meeting Troy Bengali. I hesitated when I got to the time slot.
"Can you tell me the time?" I asked.
The security guard, an older man of about fifty-five, reached into the breast pocket of his light grey shirt. I noticed the slim silver chain that ran out of the pocket and down beneath the counter. As he started to pull his hand out of the pocket I felt a tingling along my skin. My magic.
An image of a train flooded my mind. Black engine gleaming as it chugged around a circular track. A young boy sat in the centre, a blue and white conductor's hat perched on his head. He held a pocket watch in his hand that he checked from time to time, making sure the train ran on time. It was his favourite Christmas present ever.
"Sir," the loud voice broke into my thoughts. "I said it's almost six thirty."
I blinked. The security guard stood in front of me, a puzzled look crinkling his forehead and accenting the lines around his eyes. I could almost make out the boy in the man's face.
"Thanks," I said. I scrawled the time down and slid the pen back to him.
I pulled my hand away before he reached for it. I didn't want my magic to pick anything else up from him.
The bank of three elevators reflected back my newly brown hair and beard in brushed silver. I unbuttoned my coat and unwound the red scarf from my neck. The heat almost made me feel flushed.
I only had to wait a moment before the far elevator on the left dinged and the doors opened.
I stepped inside and was surrounded by mirrors.
Under the bright lights, I was able to get a good look at the slapdash job Venir and I had done. The flatness of the colour made my hair look muddy. My normal waves looked plastered down my skull. I tried to poke at them, tried to lift them up but my hair crunched in my hands.
I would blame it on the weather.
The elevator dinged on the tenth floor and the doors slid open. As I stepped out, I took one final glance in the mirror.
And noticed a thin line of brown dribbling down my left temple.
Damn the halls, the heat was making the hair dye run!
I dug in my pockets and found a crumpled napkin from my early morning bagel. I wiped the drip away. It didn't return.
For the moment.
This meeting was going to have to be as fast as humanly possible.
I headed down the hall toward Troy Bengali's office.
Plush grey carpet led the way. The walls were a rich taupe sponged on and textured. Dark wood doors lined the hall. Silver name plates were inlaid into the wood spelling out names and positions, most of them vice president of something or other. At the end of the hall was a simple name plate reading Troy Bengali. No position listed. Not that he needed it to be when his family ran the foundation.
I knocked on the door when I reached it. A moment later, the door sprang open and Troy Bengali stood there.
He was a short man, maybe five foot two inches. He had olive skin and black, tightly curled hair cropped short on his squarish head. A thick black moustache spread above his upper lip but never managed to cover it. His brown eyes were so dark they were almost as black as his hair. He wore a well tailored navy suit with a dark grey tie. A smile spread across his mouth.
"Noel, come in, good to see you."
He stepped back and I entered his office. It stretched out before me. The same plush grey carpeting covered the floor. To my left was a seating area with a dark grey leather couch sitting along the wall. Two matching armchairs faced it across a dark, polished wood coffee table.
Just past that, a large wall unit took up the rest of the wall, filled with books, plaques, and certifications of the good work of the Bengali Foundation.
Sheer grey curtains covered the wall opposite where I stood and I knew they covered floor to ceiling windows that overlooked the lake to the south. But with the view lost to darkness, the curtains worked to reflect the light back into the room.
Troy's desk was to the right of the door. It was a large slab of glass on metal legs. A closed laptop sat in front of the dark grey, leather armchair. Two plain, grey chairs sat in front of his desk. That was where I had sat two weeks ago when Troy hired me to help guard his Toy Stash.
This time, Troy stretched a hand toward the seating area to the left. I followed his direction and sat down in one of the armchairs. The leather sank beneath me. I breathed in the rich scent. The leather on the arms were soft under my hands. I leaned back, enjoying the feel of it.
This was about as opposite of my office as I could get.
Troy sat down on the couch across from me. He stretched his arm across the back of the couch and crossed his ankle on his other knee.
"How are the donations going, Troy?" I asked.
"Fantastic," he said. "Just fantastic, Noel. People are really getting into the spirit of it this year. I couldn't be happier. And I have you to thank for it."
"Oh?" I said. "Why me?"
"That sign we put up under the donation sign, security by SC Private Investigations, Noel Kringle, President. It gives people the idea that Santa himself is watching over our toy drive and they want to get in on it. We're already almost double the donations from last year. It's just fantastic." He chuckled. "Of course, we have to match all those toys so it's going to be a stretch for our bottom line. But that's the kind of stretch I like making."
"Glad to hear it," I said. "So you're happy with Palle taking these shifts?"
"Oh yes, he's just great," Troy said. "He has a very regal bearing, and his size doesn't hurt either."
I smiled at Troy. He didn't know the half of it.
Palle Gudbrand, the newest addition to my private investigations firm, was a troll enchanted with a masking spell that made him look like a tall, burly man instead of his usual, light-green skinned, nine foot tall troll self, with huge tusks coming out from either side of his mouth and his pointed ears on either side of his bald head. He was still a troll under the masking spell and he could appear as a troll when he wanted to but while on a case, I insisted he keep the tall, burly man persona.
I nodded at Troy. "That's great."
"There's just one problem," he said.
I kept the smile on my face even as I felt my chest tighten. "Oh?"
"We're getting so many donations we can't keep them in our back lobby anymore." He chuckled. "What a problem to have. But we'll have to move them into the front lobby. There's enough space near the left wall for triple the size so I don't think we'll have any problem but it does mean I'll need more from you."
"What's that?" I asked.
"I want you to supervise the move of the Toy Stash, then I'm going to need two staff with it during the daytime office hours. It's not that Palle isn't doing a great job it's just that the stash is getting so big."
"Of course I understand," I said. "Not a problem. I'll take care of it."
Troy grinned. "I knew you'd say that. So do you think you could move the stash tonight?"
I felt the smile frozen to my face. Move all those toys tonight?
I opened my mouth to suggestion something else but Troy gave a small hopeful smile. I could feel the tug that he wanted this most for Christmas.
What could I say?
"Okay," I said.