HOME FOR CHRISTMAS
Penumbra Papers #5.25
It’s Beginning to Look…
Stars glittered like snowflakes in a snow globe. The moon, looking slightly smushed, decorated the horizon as the sleek private jet banked for landing at the New Orleans Lakefront Airport. The dark waters of Lake Ponchartrain rippled below. Sinjen reached over and took Sade’s hand, giving it a little squeeze. For a woman so fearless in every area of her life, it amused him that she was always tense on landings and take-offs. Still, it was a good excuse to be a little romantic.
A red fireball flashed by the window and the jet suddenly nosedived. Curses spilled from Sade in a torrent so rapid every cuss word ran together in a long string that lasted as long as she had breath. The plane righted, banked slightly in the opposite directly and leveled out.
The pilot’s apologetic voice came over the loudspeaker a few moments later. “Sorry about that, boss. Whatever the hell that thing was, it took the tower, us—” He broke off as radio traffic chattered in the background. He returned to his announcement a couple of minutes later. “That sucker took regional air traffic control by surprise too. General consensus is that it was a real UFO. Welcome to the weird that is New Orleans.”
Only then did Sade breathe again. “Damn fuckin’ lucky that he’s a werewolf.”
Sinjen smiled. “True dat,” he agreed, getting into the NOLA spirit. Most magicks had better reflexes than humans and werewolves had excellent ones.
“And so much for a week of rest and relaxation. It’s going to take me that long to get my heart rate back to normal.”
He squeezed her hand. “I’ll see what I can do to distract you.” He leaned in, captured her mouth and continued to kiss her through the pilot’s announcement that they were making the runway approach a second time, followed shortly by “We’re on the ground.” Sinjen broke the kiss as the engines whined down to nothing and the flight crew opened the hatch for them to descend into the balmier temperatures of December in New Orleans.
The historic art deco terminal was festooned with Christmas lights as they walked down the steps to the tarmac. A black Suburban, with a big red nose on the hood and reindeer antlers attached to the roof, idled close by. Luggage was transferred quickly and they were soon ensconced in the back seat.
The drive to the French Quarter was uneventful though colorful. New Orleans was always up for a party and Christmas was a big one. White light glowed around the main entrance to their hotel. The doorman, spiffy and matching the season in his tailored green coat, opened the back door with white-gloved hands.
“Welcome to the Hotel Monteleone.”
A Lot Like Christmas
The lobby was filled with green trees and white lights. The pillars were wrapped in evergreen garlands and more lights. Music and voices trickled out from the Carousel Bar as they passed by on their way to the front desk. A bellman followed behind with their luggage.
The desk clerk, her dark hair snugged into a sleek French roll, smiled at them both, her gaze lingering on neither of them for long. This was one reason the Monteleone was one of Sade’s favorite hotels in the world.
“Mr. St. John,” she said with a smile. “Ms. Marquis.” The clerk blinked. “Or are you here on business?”
Sinjen answered before she could. “We are here for pleasure this time. She doesn’t like it, but she is a miz this trip, rather than a special agent.”
Sade elbowed him and amusement lit his eyes. The clerk winked at her. “I’ll call you agent when he’s out of earshot.”
“I heard that,” Sinjen said, adding a teasing gruffness to his voice.
“Your suite is ready,” the clerk continued smoothly. “The Eudora Welty.”
Sade’s forehead crinkled as she glanced at him. “Uhm…”
Once again, the clerk stepped smoothing into the breach. “Both the FJ Monteleone and the Hemingway are currently booked through the New Year. We’ve made renovations to all our suites to accommodate special guests such as yourself, Mr. St. John.”
“Good to know,” Sade grumbled. As a vampire, Sinjen was solar-ly challenged. His apartment in Chicago was protected by steel shutters set to open and close on an automatic timer or manually. She wasn’t surprised the most luxurious suites were booked. This was New Orleans. The Crescent City had always been more open to the weird and the wonderful. While the human population might not have been aware of the magicks’ existence until the Veil ripped, they were open to people like the voodoo queen, Marie Laveau. Magicks had always deemed New Orleans to be a sanctuary to their kind. No one group could lay claim.
The current Legate of New Orleans was a gargoyle Sentinel Sade knew well, Roman Montagne. Back when she was a toddler, Roman had been dispatched often to rescue her from one realm or another due to a feud between Oberon, King of Seelie Court, and Mathias DeVries, her godfather, who happened to be a master vampire. Sade’s father, a human, worked for Mathias. Her mother? Well, Tracie Lord was once a Vegas showgirl, one who set her cap for a king, and his name wasn’t Elvis. She’d tricked William Marquis, Sade’s father, into a one-night stand and then did her best to persuade her magick lover that the child was his. To say Tatania, Queen of the Seelie Court, was not a happy camper, and therefore Oberon was miserable would be an understatement. Thus, the cold war be vampire and fae ignited with the human child caught in the middle. Fun times. Not.
As a result of those shenanigans, Sade grew up in the unique position of having a foot in both worlds—human and magick. When the Veil ripped, she was in the unique position to step into a newly formed FBI unit, Magical Activities, Grievances, and Inhuman Crimes unit. MAGIC for short because the gods knew the government did so love their acronyms.
She served in the New Orleans field office as a young agent. And she’d met Sinjen on a case in Chicago. Funny how she kept getting drawn back to New Orleans. She’d provided backup to Roman and his little witch, Verity, when a crazy-assed sorcerer decided to use rogue gargoyles to take over the world. Fun times. For sure.
They’d almost reached the elevators when a voice that reminded Sade of a nail scrapping down the paint job of a high-end automobile brought her to a halt. It wasn’t just the voice, it was the little ball of fire the teenage girl was juggling. Sade shoved her carry-on pack into Sinjen’s arms, flicked back her leather jacket, and bore down on the girl with her hand on her weapon.
The girl didn’t see Sade coming. She was watching down the short flight of steps leading to street level and taunting the tall, good-looking man standing there.
“Princess Nerine,” the man growled.
“That’s right, Xan. You need to remember that. I’m the princess and you are so not the boss of me.”
Xan’s gaze flickered to peer at the wrathful human bearing down on his charge. His eyes widened and he couldn’t decide if he should be afraid or worry about laughing out loud.
Sade reached around the girl and popped the teen’s hand so that the ball of fire slammed into her chest. Sade held that hand in place until the flames extinguished. “No,” Sade explained in the princess’s ear. “Xan is your royal guard. He gets turned into a giant S’more sans the chocolate if anything happens to you. On the other hand, I’m human. And as the Senior Agent in Charge of the FBI’s MAGIC unit, I am the boss of you, even in a sanctuary city like New Orleans. And you can bet your sweet Manolo shoes that I will be making a report of your actions to the Legate of New Orleans and your Drakon.”
The girl’s face paled. “You can’t say anything to Nikos.”
“Why can’t she?”
Sade glanced up and her eyes turned the color of glittering emeralds Nikolas Constantine, Drakon of Clan Kholikikos, found so fascinating.
“Why me?” Sade implored.
Nikos flowed across the floor just inside the entrance and looked like he glided up the first three steps, the landing and finally the next two steps until he reached the level of the lobby. Blue fire flashed in his eyes as he scrutinized the scene. He’d been angry at first, that Xan had not preempted the human from manhandling the princess. Then his brain caught up to his eyes. That human was Sade. Nerine had been creating a scene, as per her usual MO, and Sade was right. Xan was caught between a rock and a flow of lava.
“Consider your report made to me, Agent Marquis. And I will follow-up with the Legate to ensure that no more incidents occur during our stay here.” Nikos was in full Drakon mode. He was chief enforcer for the Klan and only the king could pull rank on him.
The dragon’s gaze lingered on Sade a bit too long to suit Sinjen. He stepped closer to Sade and leveled an icy glare on Nikos. Blue ice clashed with blue fire. Neither one moved as the atmosphere thickened with their magic.
“Just shoot me now,” Sade said to Xan. The dragon shifter offered a wry smile. As third to Nikos, he totally understood.
Xan stepped forward. “To your room, Princess.”
Sade moved so the girl could sulk her way out of the lobby. She didn’t crack a smile as Xan passed, rolling his eyes. She couldn’t decide if the teen’s actions or the roiling testosterone caused his reaction. Probably both.
“I didn’t know you were here,” she said, facing Nikos.
“Am I to report the royal family’s whereabouts to you?”
“A little warning when you plan to be in the States would be helpful, yes.”
“I’m quite capable of protecting the royals. I do not require the assistance of the FBI.”
“Why are you here?” Nikos realized he sounded blunter than he’d intended. “I admit your presence here is a bit of a surprise.”
“Yeah, I bet.” Sade continued to hold the dragon’s gaze but she leaned closer to Sinjen so that her arm brushed his. He was all but vibrating. A discreet cough broke some of the tension. She glanced over at the bellhop who still waited near the elevators with the luggage cart. She turned away slowly, not breaking the eyelock. “Keep a leash on the kid, Drakon,” she said before turning her back. She snagged the back of Sinjen’s jacket and tugged. When he didn’t immediately turn to follow, she shrugged and kept walking.
A moment later, a cold breeze tickled the back of her neck. Sinjen’s presence. They didn’t speak in the elevator. The bellman wisely kept his silence. As the doors opened on their floor, they followed him to the door of their suite. Sinjen used his keycard to open it, and ushered Sade inside. With a great deal of alacrity, the bellhop dealt with the luggage, tipped his cap at the large tip, and shut the door behind him.
Sade paused on her way to the bedroom and slowly banged her head against the wall. “Why me?” she asked again. She loosed a creative string of curses and for once, Sinjen did not chide her for her language. That was so not a good sign. She ended the tirade with, “Bigfootedlittledickedslimyfirebreathinglizards.”
Sinjen stared at her for a long moment and then laughed. Loudly. A deep belly laugh that turned into guffaws. She flashed him a narrow-eyed look of irritation. He held up his hands, palms out. “My sentiments exactly.”
She smiled then and breathed normally. “Hard question for you.” He arched a brow, waiting. “Food first or sex in the bathtub first?”
Sinjen didn’t hesitate. He shed his clothes as he crossed to her, took her hand, and led her to the luxurious bathroom with a large garden tub. “I’ll order you room service later.”
“I do like the way you think.” Her voice came out muffled as he was pulling her sweater over her head, revealing her lean curves.
She never did get room service.
The phone burped. Sade’s hand appeared from under the luxurious comforter and patted the bedside table. The phone brrpped again. Her head appeared and she opened bleary eyes. She found the phone and got it to her ear.
“What!” she snarled.
“Agent Marquis, please hold for Director Bailey.” Alice Cooper, the director’s very efficient assistant, gave Sade no choice but to do as ordered.
“Marquise.” Bailey’s voice erupted from her cell phone’s speaker. She winced and glanced at the time. 6:52 a.m. It was barely dawn but Sinjen appeared dead to the world.
“Director.” She had to clear her throat.
“Did I wake you?”
“Uh…” She blinked several times and pushed to a sitting position. She glanced over at the vampire sleeping next to her. His eyes were open. Okay, so not dead. Yet. “Actually, sir—”
“I understand you are taking some well-deserved vacation time but something as come up.”
Sinjen rolled over and Sade was suddenly aware that something had definitely come up. She cleared her throat again. “Sir?”
“We have a missing person case.”
“Missing person?” She urged her brain to crank into a higher gear. This conversation remained fuzzy. The FBI didn’t do missing persons, not unless kidnapping was involved. “Has someone been kidnapped?”
“No.” A heavy sigh through the phone. “We don’t believe so.”
“Jurisdiction?” Sinjen murmured as he kissed along her rib cage.
“This comes straight from the Oval Office, Sade.”
Uh oh. Now the Director was using her first name. Things had just gone from bad to worse. “President Wynn?” The Elven president had been instrumental in setting up the FBI unit Sade now headed up when the Big Rip happened and his “secret” persona as a Magick was revealed.
“Yes. One of his people is missing.”
“Someone on his staff?”
A hesitant silence followed. “Not exactly.”
Sade pushed her touseld hair off her face and slapped Sinjen’s hand away from her bare breast, mouthing, “Don’t start something you can’t finish, bucko.” She held her phone so he could see the time. The vampire ginned wickedly. Ignoring her bed partner, she tuned back into the conversation on the phone.
“No. No one on the President’s staff.”
“Then who’s…” Her voice trailed off as her brain churned the information, seeking a logical answer. “What do you mean then, Director, by one of his people.” She put a verbal air quote around those words.
“An Elf is missing?”
“Yes. A jolly old Elf.”
Sade moved the phone from her ear and stared at it. “Say that again?”
She blinked several times and choked back a laugh as she pictured the white-bearded fat man in an Hawaiian shirt and board shorts. “So Santa took an unscheduled vacation.”
“You keep saying that, boss.”
“He’s supposed to be at his workshop. It’s almost Christmas. He doesn’t clock out until New Year’s.”
She hadn’t meant to ask that out loud. “Any idea where—”
“NORAD tracked his sleigh to southern Louisiana.”
“You think he’s here in New Orleans?”
“That’s why I’m calling you.” Bailey cleared his voice. “You have a week, Sade, to located and return Santa Claus to the North Pole in time for Christmas Eve.”
Do You Hear What I Hear
Sade stared at the cup of café au lait the waitress set in front her. Without looking up, she said, “Better keep ’em coming.”
“You want beignets each time, boo?”
“Nope. Just the caffeine.”
“Nope. Long morning.” She picked up the cup and saluted the waitress. “You are my angel.” She drained the cup and set it down as the legs of the chair across from her scraped against the linoleum on the floor of the Café du Monde. “Roman,” she greeted.
“Sade.” The Legate of New Orleans lowered his bulk into the small chair with a delicacy that belied his size. He’d been a gargoyle Sentinel before taking his current position.
The waitress magically appeared with another plate of beignets and two cups of café au lait. “Legate,” she greeted. “Is Miz Verity comin’?”
“Not today, Holly.”
She glanced between the gargoyle and his human companion. Her eyes widened. “OMG!” She lowered her voice as other patrons turned to look. “You’re her.”
Sade couldn’t decide if the girl was accusatory, surprised, or excited. She arched a brow.
“You’re that special FBI agent.”
Taking a long look, Sade realized what she’d missed before. The girl, who was likely twice as old as Sade herself, was a magick. Her long hair covered her ears but the button nose and slight upturn to her eyes pointed toward elven ancestry.
Holly dropped her voice and leaned closer to the table. “Are you here on a case?”
Sade had two choices—lie, tell a partial truth, or spill the beans. Okay, that was three choices. “Are you an Elf?”
The girl backed up, eyes flaring in surprise. “I…uhm…” She glanced around with a slightly panicked expression. “Is my glamour slipping?”
“No. No, not at all.” Sade offered what she hoped was a reassuring smile. Given it was early morning and she was operating on what amounted to no sleep, she wasn’t sure she pulled it off.” At the relieved expression on the Elf’s face, Sade continued. “I was here on vacation when…something came up.” She cut her eyes to Roman, asking him silently what he thought of this tactic. He gave her a slight nod. “Do you know…” She paused, checking out who was within earshot and might be listening. “A…certain jolly old Elf?”
Surprise suffused Holly’s face again. “Uncle Kris?”
“Well, yeah. On my mama’s side. She hated the cold so she came here to N’awlins ages ago.”
“Understandable,” Sade agreed. “Uhm…have you seen him recently by any chance?”
Holly pondered the question. “Not since…” She rubbed her chin. “Mardi Gras. He was here last year for Mardi Gras.”
“So not recently?”
“Holly!” A sharp voice rose above the buzz of conversation blanketing the coffee shop. She waved at the man behind the counter and pointed at Roman then Sade. The guy’s face lit up and he flashed her a thumb’s up. Good to know that schmoozing with the VIPs was allowed.
The Elf returned her attention to Sade. “Ya know, though…” Her voice trailed off as a thoughtful look took over her expression. “I did see Comet comin’ in last night.”
“Yeah. At least I think it was Comet. I doubt it was Donder or Blitzen and I know for a fact that Rudolph isn’t fond of our southern clime.”
Sade blinked and mumbled the names. “You mean the reindeer.”
“Well, yeah. How do you think Uncle Kris gets around? He hates technology. The dude is all about the magic.”
“You saw a flying reindeer?”
“Well, no, silly, I saw his trail. Magic, remember? Uncle Kris likes to put on a show so he lights up the sky like a skyrocket. Only way bigger.”
Sade closed her eyes, remember the near miss with the UFO as they approached the airport last night. “I appreciate your help, Holly. If you happen to see your uncle, would you tell him I’m looking for him? I’m staying at the Monteleone.”
“Sure ’nuff. Be happy to, ma’am. I’ll be back with more café au lait in just a bit.” She hurried away, dancing through the customers crowded around tables like a snowflake on a playful breeze.
“I take it you got a phone call too?” she asked once they were alone—relatively speaking.
“Last night. The President said he’d requested you.”
Sade stuffed a beignet into her mouth, chewed, brushed powdered sugar off her fingers and took another swallow of coffee. “Before I get yelled out for my lack of manners, how’s Verity?”
Roman’s eyes creased at the outer corners even if his lips didn’t lift into a smile. “She is fine. And Sinjen?”
“Dead to the world at the moment.” She took another deliberate bite before adding, “And don’t ask. We’re fine.” At least she hoped they were. Her last case had put a real crimp in their relationship.
“And the dragon?”
She rolled her eyes. “We bumped into him while checking in. I cannot believe that fu—er—fussbudget is here. Do dragons even celebrate Christmas? I mean…Yule, maybe? Heck, are they pagans? Or…” She gave him big eyes. “They’re Greek, right? Maybe they do celebrate Christmas. Like maybe they’re Greek Orthodox or something.”
Roman shook his head and did smile now. “Christmas is a time of magic for all, Sade. Human and magick alike. We all appreciate the chance to gather for good food, good fellowship, and exchanging gifts as much as anyone else. We might celebrate the longest night, the birth of a child, the lights burning in the temple for eight days, or any other form of celebration that occurs this time of year.”
She sipped her coffee and finally said, “Huh. I hadn’t thought about it that way.”
“So where are you going to start the hunt?”
“Since the charter Sinjen and I arrived on last night almost collided with Comet, I’m headed to the airport.”
Holly appeared with a red and white striped sack and a to-go cup. “For Miz Verity, Legate.” Roman accepted the offerings as Sade reached into her pocket but Holly waved away the money. “On the house, ma’am.”
Sade peeled off a twenty and placed on the table. “Excellent service is a gift that should never go unappreciated.”
Away in a Hangar
Sade should have waited for Sinjen to wake for the night but she was working on a pissed-off head of steam. She was on fucking vacation for chrissakes. With Sinjen. Just the two of them. In a romantic suite in a romantic hotel in a romantic city during a romantic time of year. What part of on vacation did the President, the Director, and the whole fucking Federal Bureau of Investigation not understand.
As a result, she caught a cab to the airport. The airport manager was not happy to see her but he didn’t argue with her badge. He assigned her a security escort and they went from building to building and checked all the hangars. Nothing. The guard smirked as he drove her back to the main building.
She narrowed her eyes at him, studying him intently. He blinked under her scrutiny.
“You look familiar,” she eventually said, drawing out the suspense. He attempted to keep ;the smirk on his face but he had a difficult time doing so. She glanced at his name tag. “Frost? Please don’t tell me your first name is Jack.”
“Nope. It’s Noel.” He drawled his name so it came out sounding like knoll.
Sade spelled it out. He blinked again. And swallowed. “You any relation to a sweet little elf who works at Café du Monde?”
He huffed out a big sigh. “Not exactly.” He wouldn’t meet her gaze. “But sorta.”
She’d be the first to admit she had no idea how Elven family lines were drawn so she asked the most important question. “Where is he?”
“Holly’s Uncle Kris. And what is he to you?”
Noel looked both startled and guilty but he didn’t speak. She held up her badge. “Do you know who the President of the United States is?”
He nodded, big eyed. “Yes’m. President Wynn.”
“Can you read my ID?”
He leaned closer and perused her badge holder which also contained her ID info. His lips moved. He straightened. “Yes’m.”
“And who am I?”
“Special Agent in Charge Sade Marquis of the MAGIC Unit.”
“And why do you think I’m here?”
“Uhm…lookin’ for Uncle Kris?”
“Bingo. I’m here at the express request of President Wynn. Now, I’ll ask again. Where is he?”
Noel shook his head. “No idea.”
“Noel?” She drew out his name so it sounded like the Christmas carol.
“I don’t,” he protested. “I just check in on the reindeer to make sure they have plenty of hay and water.”
If there’d been a nearby wall, Sade would be standing before it banging her head. “Do you expect to see him anytime soon?”
“Do you know who the Legate of New Orleans is?”
Noel’s eyes grew as round as saucers. “Yes’m. Of course. Lord Montagne.”
“You know how to contact him?” The guard nodded. “Good,” Sade added. “If Santa, Kris, Father Christmas or whatever effing alias he’s using shows up, you call the Legate. Immediately.” She gazed deeply into his pale blue eyes, her own green ones sparking. “Do you understand?”
“Yes’m. If Uncle Kris shows up, I call the Legate.”
“Good. Now which hangar is he using?”
Before his brain caught up with his hand, Noel pointed to a smallish hanger at the very end of the service area.
Sade caught another cab back to the French Quarter. She the driver drop her off on the corner of Dauphine and Conti. She slipped through the door and stopped just inside to let her eyes adjust to the dimmer environs of Déjà Vu Restaurant & Bar. Movement across the room caught her attention. Jon Martine intercepted a group of tourists headed for the booth that Sade had claimed years ago when she lived in an apartment above the bar as a newly-minted FBI agent. She tossed him a wink and slipped in behind the group to claim her seat in the corner—the one place in the bar where she could see every door and window.
Jon appeared with a white ceramic mug and a pot of coffee. He poured and gave her a look. “I expected you for breakfast.”
She had no clue how he even knew she was in town. Jon was not a magick. He was full human. But he knew things and was the best damn waiter in all of New Orleans. “I had to meet Roman.”
“And the Legate couldn’t be arsed to walk a couple of blocks?”
She snorted out the sip of coffee she’d just taken. “I guess not. We met at—”
“Yeah, yeah. I see the powdered sugar. Whatever. You want a real breakfast or lunch?” He shook his head and walked off before she could answer.
A few minutes later, he appeared with a massive burger dressed with bleu cheese and a pile of fries. He slid it toward her and refilled her coffee cup. “You need the iron, cher, havin’ that vamp in tow.” Then he disappeared.
Sade had finished about half the burger when Jon reappeared with a second plate—another burger but chili cheese this time, and a side of onion rings. She looked up just in time to see Caleb Jones, her sometimes FBI partner, striding across the room. He slid in beside her and thanked Jon as he put a huge glass of unsweet iced tea down for the werewolf.
He growled. She shut up. They ate. One he finished his last onion ring, he leaned back into the booth. “I got the call too. Adele and I are staying at the Holiday Inn Chateau Lemoyne.” It was located just over a block away from Déjà Vu.
“Shopping. With Verity.”
“Don’t be. I hate shopping.”
This was true. Her too. “Did you know there are Elves here?”
He looked around. “Where?”
“No, doofus. Here. In New Orleans. I’ve met two today.”
“Propitious, given our assignment.”
“I guess. Damn dude almost crashed my plane last night.”
Now Caleb looked interested. “Seriously?”
“Fu-reaking yeah.” She’d just noticed the little girl standing at the end of the booth. She shifted focus. “Can we help you?”
The child shook her head, sending pigtails flying. “Nope. Are you the FBI lady?”
Sade cut her eyes to Caleb. He shrugged, as mystified as she was. “I am. Why?”
“I have a message for you.” She stood up straight, squared her shoulders, and recited in a singsong voice the first two verses of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” At the end, she shook her finger. “So you better be nice.”
Before Sade—or Caleb—could react, the girl pivoted and skipped out the door, disappearing into the December sunshine along Conti Street. She gave big eyes to Caleb, who returned them in kind. “What the everloving fuck just happened?”
You Better Not Pout
Sade filled Caleb in over their burgers. They went dutch on the bill and then headed off in different directions to tug some separate threads. Since New Orleans was a sanctuary for all magicks, the population was varied. Caleb went to touch base with the werewolves. Sade knew Roman was reaching out to the gargoyles and fae. Verity, when she returned from her shopping trip—or during it—would be questioning the witch community. That left the others to Sade. She knew a troll who could be reasonable, and there was a larger elf contingent than she realized. The dragons? She wasn’t touching them with a 10-foot reindeer antler.
As dusk fell early, she headed back to the Monteleone. Sinjen would be up soon and he could ferret out those magicks more comfortable in the dark of night. She also wanted to make a return trip to the airport just to make sure that Noel hadn’t tipped Santa and the old dude took off on her. She figured both the Director and the President would make her stay on the trail even if Ol’ Saint Nick skipped town.
Sinjen was waiting for her in the lobby. She updated him and outlined their evening’s itinerary. He agreed, provided she ate. He knew her so well. They walked down the street to a little place and she grabbed a muffaletta sandwich. They strolled toward Jackson Square. Sade ate, Sinjen checked with his sources. The sandwich was filling, the news from the dark side wasn’t.
“We’ll check in with Roman and then I want to hit the airport again. We might be able to pick up a clue there.”
Roman was gone but Verity passed along more discouraging news. Various parties were aware that Santa was in town but no one had seen him and no one had a clue where he was or why he was there. As they headed toward Decatur Street to catch a cab, Verity called from the balcony above them.
“Don’t forget the party tonight!”
“Roman will send directions.” And with that mysterious non-answer, Verity disappeared inside.
At the airport, Sade went straight to the hangar. The pedestrian door opened at her touch and the two of them slipped inside. A soft glow suffused all but the corners of cavernous space. The sound of a hoof stamping on concrete drew her to the jerry-rigged corral at the back. Eight reindeer stared at them, unblinking and rather sullen. A sleigh was parked nearby—red with gold filigree and silver runners.
One of the reindeer snorted and shook his impressive rack of antlers at her. “Ease off, buddy.” She had no clue how sentient the reindeer were but she could almost smell the magic wafting off them. She held up her badge and identified herself. “I just need to find Santa to talk to him.”
The reindeer all exchanged looks. Sade exchanged a nervous one with Sinjen, who just looked amused. The leader snorted again and inclined his head toward the sleigh. Sade slid over to it and looked into the front seat. A pair of white rain boots sat on the floorboard. She glanced at the reindeer.
“Is this a clue?” Her phone pinged with a text from Roman. Their presence was requested at St. John’s Bayou Park for the Legate’s Christmas party for area magick children. PAPA NOEL TO MAKE APPEARANCE. Sade’s gaze slid to the boots and she mouthed the words, “Papa Noel.” The Cajun version of Santa Claus. A bag in the cargo area of the sleigh caught her eye. She opened it and discovered a cache of apples and carrots. Still cautious, she approached the corral and emptied the sack over the top rail. “You rock!”
Then she had Sinjen by the hand, dragging him to the door. They caught a cab and headed to the nearby park. “Get us as close as you can to the Singing Oak,” Sade requested.
“You got it, cher.” Their cabby was more than happy to comply.
Sade stared, slightly horrified and greatly amused. Nikos Constantine, Drakon of Klan Kholikikos and bane of her existence, stood surrounded by screaming children. He wore dungarees and white rubber boots, like the gator hunters on “Swamp People.” His shirt sported red and white vertical stripes and a wide-brimmed straw hat adorned his head. His stern—and handsome—features were partially obscured by a black handlebar mustache and a white beard. A bonfire burned on the bayou levee behind him. She knew it was him because of the icy blue glint of his eyes.
Choking back laughter, Caleb refused to meet her gaze. They’d both lose it if they made eye contact. “Any volunteers to put him out of his misery?”
Sinjen raised a hand. “If it means I can disappear the bloody dragon forever, I am most happy to oblige.”
“No.” Sade glowered at the vampire. “Leave him alone, Sinjen.” She turned to the werewolf. “And that goes for you too, Caleb.”
Ariel chose that moment to arrive in a cloud of glittering gold faerie dust. Caleb burst into a sneezing fit. “Sorry, not sorry,” the Fae said with absolutely no remorse. Then he snapped his mouth shut as he stared at the nearby spectacle. He let out a long, low whistle. “What in the name of Oberon?”
“It’s the Concilium Magicae Christmas party for local magick children,” Roman explained. “With Santa MIA, the Drakon was pressed into service. Who better to wrangle the alligators that pull Papa Noel’s boat?”
Sade snapped pictures on her phone. “Evidence,” she explained to the gargoyle, with a wicked grin. “We all know it didn’t happen unless there are photos.”
The dragon’s gaze fixed on her. She snapped another picture. He snarled and smoke curled from behind his mustache and beard. Sade wondered if they were real. Could dragons put on glamours like other magicks? She made a mental note to ask someone—besides the dragon—who might know.
At one point, Sade found herself handing a cup of Christmas cheer to Nikos. “Don’t pout, Mr. Grinch. You’ve put smiles on a lot of faces tonight.”
To prove her point, the two youngest royal dragons ran up, each wrapping arms around one of Nikos’s legs. “Papa Noel!” They chirped. “We love you.”
Sade pretended not to notice the fond look on his face and the softening of the hard glint of blue in his eyes.
As the party progressed, Sade cornered Roman. “So, Santa sometimes plays the Cajun version of himself?”
“Not since I’ve been Legate but the Elves who organize this party hinted. When he didn’t show, we had to…” He glanced over at Nikos.
“Shanghai the dragon?”
“Pretty much,” Verity said with a laugh. She surveyed the year. “So, the gangs all here.”
Verity used her chin to point out various people. “Caleb and Adele. You and Sinjen. Ariel. Roman and me.” A sly expession spread across her face. “And your pesky dragon.”
“He’s not mine.”
“He bloody well thinks he is,” Sinjen growled from behind her.
“FYI, Christmas Eve dinner at our place. Tomorrow night.” She waggled her index finger at each member of what Sade secretly referred to as the Scooby Gang. “Everyone.”
Merry Christmas to All
Caleb watched Ariel walk very carefully across the living room of the Legate’s private quarters. The Fae held a glass of milk in one hand and balanced a plate of cookies in the other. With great precision, he bent and placed the items on a low table near the fireplace. He straightened. Looked at the fireplace. Studied the table with the milk and plate. Adjusted the glass. Took a step back. And repeated the whole process only moving the plate this time. Then he perused the scene once more.
Exchanging glances, Caleb, Roman, and Sade were all fascinated by Ari’s actions. It was Caleb who lost patience first. “Dude, seriously. What are you doing?”
Ari didn’t look at him, keeping his focus on the table. “What does it look like I’m doing?” There was a touch of sarcasm in his voice.
“If we knew that, Ariel, we wouldn’t be asking,” Nikos said.
The Fae blew out an exasperated breath. “I thought it was obvious.”
“It’s not, Ari, so please explain it to us, um-kay?” Sade, sitting behind Ari so he couldn’t see her, rolled her eyes.
“I’m setting a trap.”
“A trap.” Caleb stuck a finger in his ear, tugged, then shook his head. “Did I hear that right?”
Ari narrowed his eyes and all but hissed. “Do you know nothing of the legends?” He smirked. “Oh, right. You were raised in a kennel.”
Adele, Caleb’s very human wife, threw herself over the back of the couch and wrapped both arms around the werewolf’s neck. Neither her force nor momentum hindered his lunge. Ari raised his hand but jerked it back as Roman’s little witch snapped her fingers at the Fae.
“You will not shed faerie dust in my house, Ariel Daoine.” That brought Caleb up short. He, like all werewolves, was extremely allergic to faerie dust. Verity pointed at him. “Sit.”
He growled until Adele slapped him on the head. “You heard her.”
Caleb sat. He was smart enough to not be an idiot. Any man who took on the witch and his wife? Might as well slap that stupid sign on his forehead then and there.
Verity headed to the table. She picked up the glass and handed it to Ari. “Drink.” He frowned at her. She shoved it closer to his chest. “Warm milk sucks. And Papa Noel? He don’t drink such stuff.”
Without a word, Ari took the glass and downed it in a series of long gulps. He held the glass out to her.
“You got that out of my kitchen, you trot yourself back in there and wash it, dry it, and put it back in the pantry where it belongs.”
Ari disappeared, glass in hand. Verity picked up the plate and offered it around. “Papa Noel? He be more likely to grab a bowl of gumbo and maybe a praline. Down here in Cajun country, we don’t leave treats out for him.”
Curious, Adele perked up. “What do you leave out then?”
“Nothin’. Papa Noel gets around in a boat pulled by gators. We light bonfires on the levees so he can find his way. Like we did last night at the Christmas party.”
Sade popped a cookie into her mouth, chewed and considered. “That’s assuming that the Kris Kringle we’re after is the same as Papa Noel.”
Adele and Verity stared at her. Sade held up her hands. “Whoa. Back off. I grew up in the house of a master vampire. We had the big tree and presents but to my knowledge, Santa never paid a visit. And how does he get all over the damn world in one fuckin’—”
“SADE!” Five outraged voices chided her simultaneously.
“Oh, whatever,” she groused.
Sinjen huffed out a breath. “He’s a magick, Sade. That should explain things.”
“Yeah? Easy for you to say.”
Ari returned to the room just in time to have the now-empty plate shoved into his chest. Without a word, he accepted it, turned on his heel and returned to the kitchen. Sade leaned toward Verity.
“Psst. What’s your secret?”
Verity blinked several times. “My secret?”
“Ariel never gives you shiiii—” She bit back the word. “Guff. He never gives you guff. How? Why? Inquiring minds want to know.”
Verity curled the fingers of her right hand toward her palm as she lifted it to blow on her nails. Then she polished them on her very ugly Christmas sweater. “Trade secret.”
Roman threw back his head and laughed, a deep, grating sound reminiscent of a rocky landslide. “She hexed him.”
“I did not. I don’t do black magic.” Verity puffed up with righteous anger. “I just made him think he was.” She waggled her eyebrows.
Sade, just taking a sip of café au lait, snorted coffee out her nose. Sinjen sprang out of his chair and offered her a handkerchief. She dabbed at her face and had to wipe tears. “Oh please tell me that you did what I think you did.”
Verity smiled archly. “Let’s just say that he almost lost his title as the King’s Seducer.”
Ari returned and the group settled back, talking, laughing, and occasionally just watching the flames snap and crackle in the large fireplace. Sade finally leaned forward and studied her phone. “Gotta admit I’m fu-effing surprised my phone isn’t blowing up.”
“Why?” Verity asked.
“It’s Christmas Eve and no Santa Claus. I figure the President ha given the Director an earful today. This isn’t exactly a shining moment for me.”
“You aren’t the Canadian Mounted Police, Sade,” Ariel said. “You don’t always get your man.”
“Maybe not, but I always get my magick—” She cut off her sentence as the lights in the room dimmed. “What the hell?”
In a puff of smoke, the jolly old Elf himself appeared before the fireplace. He looked…determined. His gaze focused on Sade, then moved to Sinjen. He nodded, a quick businesslike gesture, as he surveyed the living room. Caleb, with Adele curled next to him, occupied one end of the overstuffed leather couch. Roman sat in a huge leather armchair with Verity perched in his lap. Nikos stood at one end of the fireplace, one hand resting on the mantel. Ariel stood in the doorway holding a tray of champagne glasses.
“Where the fuck have you been, Santa?” Sade demanded, ignoring the calls to watch her language.
“Oy. And you wonder why the switches and coal,” the bearded elf sighed. He rubbed his forehead. “To answer your question, I’ve been right here.”
Sade glowered at him. “Right here. Like the invisible man?”
Santa made a face that resembled the chainsaw dude on the insurance commercial. “I don’t usually hang out in private homes. I just drop in to visit from time to time.”
“Do you know how many people have been looking for you?” Sade remained persistent.
“Do you know how many wishes I have to fulfill,” the old man retorted, glowering back.
“It’s fu-reaking Christmas Eve.”
Santa Claus, aka Kris Kringle, Papa Noel, St. Nickolas, Father Christmas, and a host of other aliases, grabbed his belly, threw back his head and ho-ho-ho’d. “So it is. Good of you to notice. And my final wish is done.” Every eye in the room focused on him. His voice softened as she chided fondly, “Sade, Sade, Sade. What am I to do with you, child?” He spread his arms. “You are no longer the little girl shuffled from pillar to post. This is your family. And where else should family be on Christmas but together?”
In the stunned silence that followed, he tapped his nose with his finger tapped it in the universal sign of “It’s a secret but now you’re in on it too.”
The lights dimmed again and in another puff of smoke and with an echoing call of, “Merry Christmas to all!” the jolly old Elf disappeared.
And To All a Good Night
At the sound of sleigh bells, everyone ran out to the balcony overlooking Jackson Square. Snowflakes swirled in the air. SNOW flakes. In New Orleans. People stopped. Stared in wonder. And turned their faces up to the sky where not a cloud was visible and stars shone like jewels.
Holly, wearing her Café de Monde waitress uniform. She was dancing and whirling as she approached the sleigh with eight reindeer. A huge creature stood guard over the sleigh. It waved at Sade.
“Noel?” she asked. He nodded, as if he’d actually heard her. She glanced at Sinjen. “He’s a fucking frost giant.”
Santa poofed into the driver’s seat and Sade noticed the bulging red bag in the back of the sleigh. A blinding red light appeared in the sky, arrowing straight for the Square. People gasped and ducked for cover but it didn’t crash. Well, not much, anyway. A ninth reindeer landed and took up his place at the head of the hitch. Noel harnessed him and gave the base of his antlers a good rub. The reindeer’s nose throbbed red like a warning light.
The snow fell in bigger flakes and covered the sidewalks and plants in the square. A hush fell over the gathered crowd, which had been humming with excitement until that moment. The reindeer gathered themselves, moved forward several steps and then launched into the air, the sleigh following.
Sinjen softly quoted, “ And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name. Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen! To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall! Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!”
He put his arm around Sade and she leaned into him. He kissed her temple. “Merry Christmas, darling Sade.”
They watched the sleigh swing around and buzz low over the Square, and everyone heard, “Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!”
Down below a group of carolers began to sing “Silent Night.” The doors of St. Louis Cathedral opened wide, spilling light across the wide promenade seperating church from square. The bells chimed and people entered for Christmas Eve services.
“Family,” Sade murmured, looking at each person on the balcony. Even the bloody dragon. Yes. It was good to be together. “Merry Christmas,” she said louder. “And to all a great nigh!”
🎄🎄🎄Merry Christmas, my friends. May all your wishes come true!
Soundtrack: Just because I like these songs, and yeah, they might have given me some inspiration
Prologue and Chapter 1: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Chrismas
Chapter 2: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
Chapter 3: Do You Hear What I Hear
Chapter 4: Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town
Chapter 5: You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch
Chapter 6: I’ll Be Home for Christmas
Epilogue: Carol of the Bells