Pink Santa is a Christmas novelette of twelve chapters, posted serially by me, your frequently flummoxed host, Cheeseburger Brown.
I have spent my day chasing infinitesimal sound bytes of Pakistanis through a hall of mirrors, hunting videographed phrases that may or may not exist.
I cannot remember which statements I've melded together out of shorter phrases and which ones are genuine, and I think the digital editing system forgets, too, because sometimes I can't find what I'm sure was there on the tapes, and other times things I think I imagined turn up some tucked away timeline.
Yes, it's true: I've got too much footage to review, and as a direct consequence I've lost my grip on reality.
I dream of Indians on greenscreen, telling me about their traditions. It's not a restful night: the long sought Golden Segue remains elusive.
Enough about me. Let's have more about Santa Claus:
At 66 Industrial Crescent Road loomed the factory for Baron Toys International, its colourful sign with bubble letters and happy faces standing in rude contrast to the grey concrete walls and tall stacks pouring black smoke into the sunset sky.
The smoke dwindled as the parking lot emptied. All of the workers were going home to have supper with their families. They looked tired as they drove their cars in a patient line to wait at the stoplight on the corner. Each of them listened to a different radio station, twisting the knob to avoid having to hear any Christmas carols.
The sun sank away. The factory grew quiet. The parking lot was empty.
Eight figures in black stole out of the bushes and crept quietly up to the fence, taking a moment to find the hole Brother Walenty had cut earlier in the day after bypassing the alarm. The eight figures squeezed through the hole and jogged across the parking lot right up to the factory building, where they paused to catch their breath.
"I'm not as young as I used to be," wheezed Brother Paolo.
"I have shoes at the orphange that run really fast," said Mike. "But I'm not wearing them now."
"That's okay, Mike," said Brother Dominick. "You're doing fine. Brother Paolo -- don't push yourself. If you need to hang back, hang back."
Brother Paolo shook his head. "I've got my second wind now," he promised, checking the speed of his heartbeat by feeling the side of his neck.
Young Brother Walenty had hooked up a small electronic device to the passcode box beside a thick metal door. He adjusted some controls on the device and then nodded to Brother Dominick. He said, "We're in."
The door clicked unlocked and opened.
Inside was factory it was dark. Their footsteps echoed off the concrete floor and the metal machines on every side. Half-built toys and parts of toys lay on the still conveyor belts, surrounded by pipes and wires and warning signs with yellow and black stripes. It was not a very cheerful place.
Everyone froze when they heard the sound of claws clicking on the floor. Brother Xavier waved them all back and took a step toward the sound. A dog growled from the shadows. Brother Xavier knelt down and rubbed his fingers together as he cooed, "Hey, Monsieur Dog -- come 'ere, Monsieur Dog."
A large, mean-looking doberman pinscher walked up to Brother Xavier. Chloe grabbed Brother Dominick's sleeve. "He'll get bitten!" she whispered.
Brother Dominick shook his head. "Brother Xavier has a way with animals. Don't you worry, Chloe."
Indeed, Brother Xavier was now patting the doberman's head. The doberman was wagged his tail. "Who is ze nice dog?" asked Brother Xavier, so the doberman licked his face.
He gave him a little piece of meat he had in his pocket from the Chinese buffet, and then the doberman trotted off to enjoy his snack.
Brother Walenty unrolled a map and held a little flashlight over it as the other Santas gathered around to look. "Brother Lo, I want you at the resin mold washer," said Brother Dominick. "Brother Gunther, I want you on the paint machine."
Brother Lo and Brother Gunther scampered off into the shadows. Brother Dominick peered at the map again. "Brothers Xavier, can you manage to snag the conveyor system? Good. Brother Paolo, change all the shipping labels on the outgoing cargo. The rest of you are with me: let's get to the office."
Chloe and Mike followed Brothers Dominick and Walenty up a rickety metal staircase and into a dark office. Brother Walenty turned on a lamp, revealing a few desks with computers on them surrounded by filing cabinets and bookshelves full of folders. Mike asked, "What are we doing in here, Santa?"
"Gathering information," he said as he pulled a few folders off the shelves and opened them up. He spread out the papers on a desk and Brother Walenty took pictures of them with a tiny camera: snap, snap, snap. "We want to know what Baron's planning next," he explained.
Brother Walenty woke one of the computers by slapping the spacebar. The screen lit up and he started clicking around with the mouse while Chloe and Brother Dominick read the labels on the bookshelves to find more folders. Mike watched Brother Walenty on the computer as he hugged his fuzzy sock friend. "Can I ask you something?" he asked.
"Sure," said Brother Walenty. His face was lit up by the blue light from the computer screen.
Mike asked, "How did you get to be a Santa?"
"Well, do you know where Poland is?"
Mike shook his head.
Brother Walenty said, "It's a country in Europe, on the other side of the ocean. I used to live there, and I lived all alone. I lived in the streets -- eating garbage, stealing, shivering -- it was not a good way to live."
"Did your mommy and daddy find you and give you food?" asked Mike.
"No," sighed Brother Walenty. "I didn't have a mommy or a daddy. I was an orphan."
"I'm a orphan, too," said Mike.
"Well, one day I met a man who was very sick. He was all by himself, living in an old leaky building. I didn't know who he was or what was wrong with him, but I brought him blankets and soup until he started to feel better. Then we became friends, and he asked me if I wanted to help him make kids happy. I said 'yes' and then I helped him carry oranges and chocolates to kids in the hospital."
"You go to a hospital when you're sick," Mike chimed in.
Brother Walenty nodded. "That's right. And then we got caught by the nurses who tried to take us to the police. We ran away, and then he said I was so good at helping that maybe I wanted to help more. I said 'yes' so I asked me if I wanted to become a monk."
"What's a monk?" asked Mike.
"I am," replied Brother Walenty, squinting at the computer as he typed something into it. "We all are. We're brothers in the Order of Saint Nicholas, one of the oldest and most secret monasteries in the whole world."
Mike thought about that. He asked, "But what do monks do?"
"They make special promises," said Brother Walenty, "and then work hard to never break those promises. In the Order of Saint Nicholas, we promise to do everything we can to make things just a little bit better for kids all over the world."
"That's a good promise," noted Mike.
Brother Walenty agreed. "It's one of the best promises there is," he said. "It's a promise we've kept for a thousand years."
Suddenly the smile disappeared from Brother Walenty's face. Mike was worried. "What's wrong?" he asked. Brother Dominick and Chloe came over with more folders and Brother Walenty turned the computer screen so they all could see it. Mike gasped. "Hey, that's you!" he exclaimed. "Brother Mominty, how come you're in the computer?"
"Oh dear," said Brother Dominick. "Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear."
"What?" asked Chloe.
Brother Walenty hit a key on the keyboard and the screen showed a fuzzy picture of Brother Dominick, then a blurry picture of Brother Gunther and Brother Lo. Brother Walenty wilted on his chair. "Oh no," he whispered. "Mr. Baron knows."
At that moment the lights over the factory floor came on one by one. Mike could see the Santas looking around, pausing in their work on the machines. They all looked up to the office, wondering what to do. A loud alarm bell began to ring.
"Oh dear," said Brother Dominick again. He rushed over to the metal railing, cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, "Brothers: disappear!"
Mike thought that his Santa was probably casting a kind of spell to help the other Santas turn invisible. He felt awed to be protected by such power.
Suddenly, the door on the opposite side of the office burst open. Mr. Baron walked in surrounded by security guards with buzzing walkie-talkies. Mr. Baron held a walkie-talkie, too, and when Chloe cried, "Oh no!" they heard the words come out of her mouth and then again out of Mr. Baron's walkie-talkie a split-second later.
"The girl is bugged!" gasped Brother Walenty.
"I'm not a bug," said Chloe, and so did Mr. Baron's walkie-talkie.
"No indeed, Chloe," chuckled Mr. Baron as he walked slowly across the office. "You're not a bug, you're a mole. And a very good job of it you've done, too. Thank you, Chloe. Thank you so very much."
Chloe turned pale. She was horrified to think she had somehow helped Mr. Baron. "I didn't do anything!" she cried.
"I know you didn't, dear," said Brother Dominick, squeezing her shoulder. He opened up her knapsack and dug around inside until he found a tiny little microphone attached to a battery. "Mr. Baron put a radio inside your bag," he explained, tossing it away. "To spy on us."
Mr. Baron nodded. "I knew I couldn't trust an urchin like you," he said to Chloe, showing his long grey teeth. "I knew you'd bite the hand that fed you sooner or later. I knew you had something to do with this lot. And here you are, breaking into my factory like a gang of criminals."
"We're not crinimals!" shouted Mike, wagging his fuzzy sock friend menacingly. "And you're a bad man!"
"No," said Mr. Baron smoothly, "I am a business man, and I'm an honest man. I don't break into shops or factories to destroy toys. I don't tell lies to children or put them in danger."
"Santa never lies," argued Mike.
"On the contrary," scoffed Mr. Baron, "these people do nothing but lie. They're terrorists. They're religious radicals. They'll say anything to get their way, and they'll say anything to make you help them."
"No," said Mike, "that's not true. They're really Santa Claus."
The security guards laughed. Mr. Baron nodded with a tight smile, his thin mustache twitching. "Is that so?" he asked. "Well then, Santa Claus, why don't you help your little friends escape justice with some magic? Isn't that what Santa Claus is famous for?"
"Yeah!" shouted Mike. "Show him your magic, Santa!"
"Um," said Brother Dominick. Mr. Baron snickered.
Mike turned around to look at Brother Dominick. "Come on, Santa!" said Mike. "What are you waiting for? Make him disappear or make us fly or something. Quick!"
"Um," said Brother Dominick again. He shrugged sheepishly. "I don't know how to tell you this, Mike, but we're not magic."
"Not even a little bit?" asked Mike, frowning.
"No," sighed Brother Dominick. "Not even a little bit."
Mike didn't know what to think. How could the real Santa have no magic? Just then Brother Walenty spoke up from behind the computer: "Perhaps not," he agreed, "but we are very clever."
He typed something into the keyboard quickly and a new, buzzing alarm sounded on top of the ringing alarm. A second later white foam started gushing out of nozzles on the ceiling. A recorded voice spoke out from hidden speakers, saying, "This is a fire control. Please proceed to your nearest emergency exit. This is a fire control."
Brother Dominick suddenly swung Mike up onto his shoulders and Brother Walenty picked up Chloe. They ran across the office and flew down the metal stairs, which became more and more slippery as the white, fluffy foam poured out all over them.
"Get them!" yelled Mr. Baron.
The two security guards tried to run but they slipped on the foam and fell to the floor, their shoes squeaking loudly.
At the bottom of the metal stairs Brother Dominick and Brother Walenty grabbed the railing to keep themselves from falling. "Merry Christmas!" called Brother Dominick to the foam-covered security guards as they flopped out of the office and skated on the stairs.
"Whoa!" cried one security guard.
"Look out below!" cried the other, and then he accidentally knocked over the first guard and slid down the steps on his bum.
The brothers were very good at skating, so they skated on their soft black shoes across the foamy factory floor. They had almost reached the door when Mike noticed the doberman pinscher snuffling at something in the corner, and the something groaned and moved. "It's Brother Paolo!" said Mike, pointing.
Brother Paolo looked like he was made of marshmallows. He tried to stand up but cried out in pain and slid to the floor again. The dog whined. "I think my hip is broken," moaned Brother Paolo sadly.
Brother Dominick and Brother Walenty picked up Brother Paolo between them. The kids threw open the big metal door and raced out into the night. In the distance they could hear the sound of firetruck sirens and police sirens, and they were quickly coming closer. "Move, move, move!" urged Brother Dominick, huffing and puffing under Brother Paolo's weight.
They hid in the bushes while the firetrucks and police cars sped past, then crossed the street and sat down on the loading docks of a warehouse. Brother Gunther ran up a moment later. "All agents are clear," he reported, panting heavily.
"Brother Paolo needs a hospital," said Brother Dominick.
"Brother Walenty and I can take him," said Brother Gunther, stroking his red and grey beard seriously. "We have a way. Can you take care of the children, commander?"
"They are my charges," said Brother Dominick as he nodded. "Go quickly now. Wait for my signal tomorrow. Bless you, brothers."
As they watched Brother Paolo hobble away supported by Brother Gunther and Brother Walenty, Mike's Santa shook his head in dismay. It began to snow little flakes of ice that hissed as the wind pushed them around the corner of the warehouse. Brother Dominick closed his eyes, then fished a pill container out of his pocket and took two small white pills. After a moment he opened his eyes again and sighed.
"Are you okay?" asked Chloe.
Brother Dominick nodded wearily. "I just had to take a little medicine. I'm fine. It's nothing."
"Are those vitamin medicines?" asked Mike.
"No, Mike," said Brother Dominick as he took a deep breath. "It's medicine for my heart. Now let's get moving, kids. We can cross that field back there and get to the bus stop."
Chloe looked worried. "Why do we have to take the bus again? Don't you guys even have a car? And how come you have to take medicine? Are you sick?"
Brother Dominick tried to smile but he was too tired, his wrinkled skin hanging on his face as if it were wet. "I'm not sick, dear Chloe," he said quietly, "I'm old. I've been a Santa Claus for a long, long time."
"Isn't there anything you can do to stop Mr. Baron?" she pressed.
"Maybe," said Brother Dominick, "and maybe not. We don't have pixie dust to sprinkle around to make everything better. We are only men, child. We do what we can."
Chloe didn't have anything else to say. She didn't even know what to doubt. She felt empty.
Mike wiped his runny nose on the sleeve of his coat and hugged his fuzzy sock. Brother Dominick rubbed his hands together and shivered in the cold. For once he seemed to Mike just as he seemed to Chloe: an old man trying to do a crazy thing, with nobody but two lost kids for friends.
"Come on, children," said Brother Dominick at last. "Let's get going before we freeze."
Sadly and slowly, the three of them shuffled across the snowy field as they shielded their faces from the ice pellets falling from the dark sky.