Chapter 4: Nine Ladies Luring
I’ll admit, I was taken off guard. I know that at that moment, the last thing I planned to do was pull the trigger. The other men were somewhat bewildered as well, for understandable reasons.
My thoughts ran frantically through my head in search of a plausible explanation. So far, every elf that we’ve encountered has tried to kill us. I think it’s safe to operate under the assumption that this one is trying to do so as well. If this is the case, any second now she is going to pull out some very large, highly lethal weapon and kill me.
Inexplicably, this did not will me to pull the trigger. The elf, who did not look as though she had experienced a second of fear in her life, looked at my gun with an amused expression, and placed her index finger on the top of the barrel.
“Is the rifle absolutely necessary?” she purred. “You can see I’m not armed.”
Admittedly, the clothing she was wearing could not have concealed a paperclip, let alone a pistol. Of course, we had learned the hard way that this did not mean a great deal. Beyond which, even a totally unarmed person could be dangerous, with the right training.
With difficulty, my thoughts arranged themselves into a coherent order.
First and foremost, you are a soldier, I thought to myself, and that means being ready for anything, playing it cautious, and keeping to the mission. Your men are going to take their cues from you, so you’d better give them properly. I caught my mental balance, and found the questions for suspected enemy collaborators.
“What is your name, function, and why are you in this part of the compound?” I managed, in the sternest voice possible.
The elf batted her eyelids, trying to push the gun further downwards. I held firm. She continued, unperturbed.
“My name is Snow. I work in the confections department. Evidently, I’m here in case someone needs to greet over-excitable gentleman who happen by with semi-automatic weapons.”
I was very careful not to let my expression change. Let them talk, that was always the strategy. You could tell a lie the same way you could tell cancer… it kept growing unchecked.
But “Snow” didn’t seem too keen to volunteer further information. She merely tilted her head to one side, and drew the candy cane through her lips again in such a way that I could almost hear my men break into a sweat.
“Either sound takes some time to reach you, soldier boy, or you’re incredulous.” She smiled brightly, and then backed away from the door, beckoning, “Come in and see for yourself. I’ll call my sisters, in case you think I’m concealing them.”
Somewhat uncertain of myself, and watching for any sign of a trap being sprung, I stepped through the door. The room was well appointed, with a sweeping staircase, red plush carpeting with mahogany accents, and soft lighting. In the far back, I could see a metal, semi-triangular door shaped much like a Christmas tree, with the same candy cane and eye logo stamped on it as I had seen on the tanks. But it was clearly very tightly sealed, and Snow stepped in front of it before I could see any more.
“Girls!” She called up the stairs, “We have some guests in from the hall,”
From upstairs, there emerged a suspiciously cheerful round of chuckling, whereupon eight more, equally scantily clad elves paraded down the stairs, all of them walking in the sort of way that caused heat stroke to most men at distances up to twenty yards.
Snow turned around, and pointed to her sisters, in a row, as though they were door prizes.
“Meet Peppermint, Sugar, Cinnamon, Spice, Gingerbread, Juniper, Holly, and Cheer,” she said, as her supposed sisters curtseyed their barely existent skirts in a row. Then she turned to me, still smiling, and said, “And as you can see, none of us is pointing a gun at you. Will you please put that thing away?”
I still harbored my suspicions. That routine was too perfectly choreographed for it to be spontaneous, and I couldn’t imagine that they had regular visitors in. On the other hand, this much preparation, even if meant only to slow us down, meant that the next step would probably be infinitely less pleasant. What I needed to do was find out what Snow was hiding. That emblem on the door did not look friendly, and I knew perfectly well from the briefing what Mr. Kringle had actually been doing. But I’d need to dispel this Toyland fantasy at the right time.
I threw the rifle over my back, but rested my hand, seemingly accidentally, on the stock of my holstered pistol. Snow did not seem to notice. I kept my eyes focused on hers as my men slipped their rifles back. They didn’t waver for an instant.
She clapped her hands and grinned. “Lovely. Will you boys be staying for dinner, then?”
* * *
I could nearly have bought the eight sisters’ choreography, but a dinner table with eleven additional places open was pure fiction. Snow explained it by saying that elves often had very large families.
Dinner was something referred to as “Roast Beast.” Inquiries into the matter revealed that this was in fact an unhappy creature bioengineered specifically for meat production up at the pole. It had a body mostly composed of useless muscle tissue, and combined the best qualities of a duck, a cow, and a pig. At least supposedly.
I did not eat any, until Snow noticed, and gave me her odd little grin.
“If you’re worried about the meat, it’s harmless. But if you really think it’s poisoned, I’ll gladly try some, for you.”
I didn’t say anything. Instead, I cut a square from the roast personally, because I was no fool, and deposited it on a small plate. I then delicately handed it to her. Without any reservations whatsoever, she popped it in her mouth, chewed quickly, and swallowed it. Still not totally convinced, I finally asked Dorhaise for a general antidote pill to take. Snow took no offense, but I swore that I saw her expression flickered.
But I had not come to the North Pole to exhibit social niceties. I was here to get rid of Kristopher, and keep my men alive. And that was what I was doing.
Over dinner conversation, I found out a number of interesting things. One was that bioengineering and technology were large industries in the North Pole. I also learned that there was a combined population of elves well in excess of 3 million, according to Snow, and that confection and toy manufacturing was primarily managed in the North Pole, but that actual production occurred in any number of major companies for which Mr. Kringle had a voting majority via various outlets. As for his relationship with world governments, they were suddenly very unhelpful.
In fact, the most interesting things were what they didn’t say. They regarded Kristopher with a mixture of reverence and fear bordering on being a god. The slightest criticism of him was brushed away as lightly as possible, as though their lives depended on it. They would certainly not entertain the suggestion that he had used his dominant world position to extort governments, or that his annual run was a ritual reminder to the world, every year, that he could send whatever he wanted into the population’s homes, and that the governments could not do a thing about it.
“I’m interested to know why we were attacked so forcefully,” I said, holding a wine glass tactfully between my fingers as I put it down.
Snow looked up, and laughed a perfectly coordinated little giggle, covering her mouth as she swallowed. “Naturally, Sugarplum. If you’re here, you went through an armed compound. What would your reaction be if we blew a hole in the wall of one of your bases at home? I suppose you’d be perfectly serene about it?”
Her sisters laughed the same perfectly arranged laughs. I didn’t move my facial muscles.
“I lost one of my men in that battle.” I said, not moving my hand from the glass.
Snow did not seem concerned in the least.
“So? Grow him again when you get home,” she said, dismissively.
I narrowed my eyes slightly, trying to parse the sentence. She seemed to be surprised at my response, catch herself, and retreat.
“I’m sorry for your loss. But you clearly attacked our base.” She said, more soberly.
I nodded, and lifted the wine glass again. I considered my next sentence carefully.
“Well, after all,” I said, “we do what we are instructed to.”
I held her gaze. This time, I was certain I saw something flicker in her eyes. But she didn’t show it. There was barely a tremor in her voice when she replied quietly,
“Don’t we all, SugarPlum.”
* * *
Snow and company showed us to private quarters. Once more, a coincidental eleven prepared. I could see a twelfth room, clearly, but it had been blocked off. In the privacy of my mind, I referred to it as “Pearson’s Room”, because I was certain that was exactly who it had been meant for.
Snow showed me around the room while I worked through a new gambit in my head. I was a married man, although I didn’t wear a ring because it didn’t pay to advertise your family to enemies. It had been a while since I dated, and this tactic was going to need some planning. As Snow was pointing out the bed warmer, I judiciously closed the door, and cleared my throat.
Snow turned around, looked at me, and for the first time, did not instantly grin.
I closed my eyes, and then started in a quiet voice.
“Snow, I’m sorry if I’ve seemed brisk, or rude, with you. Believe me, in other circumstances, I would not have to be so cautious.”
“That’s alright, Sugarplum. But I’m here to show you that we aren’t doing anything nefarious up here. We’re just defending ourselves.”
I nodded, and then turned my back to the door. I paused for a second, and then cut in as she started to continue her tour.
“I believe that you aren’t doing anything nefarious up here, Snow,” And I turned to face her again, meeting her huge green eyes with my stare, “I don’t think, given a choice, you’d harm me any more than I’d shoot you. I know a femme fatale on sight, and your sisters might qualify, but you don’t.”
She seemed shocked. Her eyes were wide, and her mouth dropped open a little. But I had come too far to stop now. I advanced towards her, holding her gaze, and half- knelt in front of her, so that my head was almost even with hers.
“I believe that, if you were being forced to do something, or if you knew more about Kristopher then you’re letting on, or if you knew we were in danger, you’d tell me. Right now, in fact, while no one could hear you.”
The words hung in mid-air. I waited for the after-effect.
I got it. A tiny hand swung around in a short arc and backhanded me.
Snow bit her lip, and seemed to return from the verge of tears. She breathed out again, and seemed to control herself.
“Listen, Soldier boy. Your theories are up a pole, and you won’t win bonus points with me by insulting my sisters, or Santa. You spend a lot of time messing about with things you know nothing…I mean, for goodness…” then, grasping for words, she rose herself up to her full height, and took two steps towards me, sticking a finger under my nose, “Don’t mistake our hospitality, Soldier boy, for weakness. If you have any sense, you’ll go to sleep, stop making trouble, and go back home with your men tomorrow. Good Night!”
And with that, she stepped around me, opened the door, and slammed it behind her, leaving me to wonder if I had made a large mistake.
* * *
I didn’t sleep, however, because I was planning an escape. I got into bed, fully clothed in case I was being watched, and my weapons nearby. After lights went out, I counted off twenty minuites from the last noise I heard. Just as I was about to go collect the boys, a noise in the hallway startled me.
But it was a very soft noise, indeed, as though the girls’ bedroom door had been stealthily opened. I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep. Soon enough, the door to my room opened, and two tiny feet padded across my carpet. Then, in front of me, I felt a small, warm shape move under the covers. A foot like an ice-cube brushed me on the leg, and then a hand touched my shoulder.
I swept a hand up, trying to protect my neck, and found myself holding Snow instead.
She was unarmed. I loosened my grip, and she adjusted herself in the bed.
After a while, she spoke. “I wish you hadn’t taken an antidote too, Soldier boy. You made it very complicated. He told us that you could just regenerate, like us. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. You’d die for real.”
I nodded, silently. So they HAD been trying to poison us.
“Believe me, I didn’t know. I was just doing what I was told to, and…”
I hushed her.
“Snow, you didn’t come down here just to confess. What are your sisters going to do?”
She looked at the door, then leaned close, and whispered in my ear.
“They plan to shoot you all while you’re sleeping, in ten minutes, give or take.”
I grimaced in the darkness.
“Then there isn’t a minute to lose. Snow, is there a way out of here?”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry, Sugar Plum, but no. The only door out is heavily guarded, and locked magnetically…” she paused, seemed to remember something.
“But there is a vent shaft that’s fairly accessible. I suspect that it goes somewhere nasty, though, or it would be better guarded.”
I swung my legs out of the bed.
“It’ll have to do, wherever it goes. Snow? Rally my men, and gather them downstairs. We need to check out.”
* * *
Snow proved herself to me, in those next minutes. With no more noise then a rambunctious nitrogen molecule, she roused and rallied my men into a fully armed cadre in the downstairs living room, and still found time to unscrew the wall panel.
It was just about large enough to squeeze through, but she was right, it was impossible to tell where it went. There was a six foot drop, followed by heaven knows what.
With the assistance of Snow, I helped to ease each of my men down into the chute. But as I was preparing to go down after them, Snow stopped me.
“Soldier boy? I hate to tell you this, but you’re going to have to shoot me.”
My heart stood still. I shook my head, and tried to adjust my ears.
“Snow? Did you just say that?”
She was holding back tears.
“I did, Sugarplum. Look, you’re dealing with the most advanced bio-chemical complex on earth. They’ll pop into my occipital nerve and check, and you have no idea what they do to traitors. Even if I committed suicide, they’d know, and they’d bring me back specifically to torture me. But if they see you with a pistol…” She paused, and then started again, more quietly “…No questions asked. They’ll bring me back to life, and I’ll have gained first hand experience with the enemy.. We both need an airtight story, Soldier boy. They’re going to know exactly what the last thing I saw was.”
And then she bit her lip. And this time, when she spoke it was very quiet indeed.
“But they won’t know the last thing I felt,” she said, “Your file says you’re married, so tell your wife to forgive me.”
And then she kissed me. I was completely lost, for a moment. Her lips tasted of peppermint and sugar, and it seemed to last for hours. At last, she let go, and stepped back, ten paces.
“Alright, Sugarplum… I’m ready.” She said, holding her hands at her sides.
* * *
I jumped down into the tunnel, after my men.
Hafton caught me and helped me up.
“About time, sir. What was that shot?”
I looked at him, tried to clear my mind, and made the answer sound light.
“Just finishing up the escape plan. Any idea where we are?”
“No, sir,” Hafton said, kneeling down and shining a light down the duct, “But there’s really only one way to go before that elf’s friends come after us.”
We took approximately ten steps, voluntarily.
After that, the air systems turned on, and swept us right into the mouth of Hell.