Welcome to Chapter three of my Grimm Agency short story, “Special Delivery. You can catch up on the first chapters here
Contrary to Nicolae’s claim, someone was doing her damnedest to leave, and in case it wasn’t clear, that someone was me. Before, I’d avoided the tunnel leading back to the bunker, but with Nicolae behind me, I figured whatever lay ahead couldn’t be worse.
And I was almost right.
When I ducked past a deerskin flap into the heart of the bunker, I froze. A roaring fire kept the temperature so hot Death Valley would have cooled me off. But what put a stop to me were the mounds and mounds of shattered bone fragments. Small skulls, which could have been chipmunks or gnomes lined the walls, large skulls with antlers ringed the ceiling. The only thing that could have struck a deeper would have been a mound of presents. With a glance around the room, I located a silver mirror, tarnished and black. I rubbed it with my sleeve and made an emergency call. “Grimm!”
“Marissa,” said Grimm. “Oh, this mirror tastes foul. You only have moments before he catches up. The mythology of Saint Nicholas says the man is effectively immortal, which is why he’s imprisoned and not dead.”
“That doesn’t explain why you’d ever open his cell,” I spat back. “That freak is insane.”
Grimm glanced to the sides of the room before answering. “There are few rules of the universe I haven’t found a way to bend or break, but one cannot make a door which never opens, or a lock which has no keys. And so, each year, for one night, the old ways open.”
And my mind caught on what he’d said. “Ways. As in plural.”
Before Grimm could answer, I’d wrapped my cloak of horrors tightly and thrown the bar back from the door. And out into the snow I went.
The blizzard wailed outside like a thing alive, at a level that made it hard to know left from right, but all I had to do was keep one hand on the concrete wall and keep moving. The workshop lay behind the bunker, and earlier, I’d seen what was obviously a stable. When I gauged myself to be at the right point, I lunged off through the snow. The snowstorm made it impossible to gauge depth or distance. I could only hope the shadow ahead was, in fact, the stable.
With each step, I plunged further and further into darkness and blinding white. And with each step, my terror rose. What if Nicolae was already out here, tracking me? What if I’d gauged wrong and the stable was actually behind me now?
I’d die without seeing Liam again. My boyfriend, and the man I spent my favorite days with. The thought that I’d die here, so far away from the people I cared about galvanized my determination. I stuffed the fear inside me, compressing it into a white hot rage to fuel each step forward. And so I slammed face first into the stable door. A few fumbling minutes later, I pried one open.
The smell hit me first. Zoo combined with sewer and allowed to stew. The stench of urine burned my eyes, but the same cozy torches in Nicolae’s workshop burned here, revealing my salvation: The remains of a wooden sled.
No fancy affair, no wide runners or well worked wood. No, this sled had been hewn from rough timber and rested on coarse iron runners, a working man’s sledge. At the back lay a burlap sack, dripping with manure. The golden bracelet on my wrist began to tingle and then burn; meaning Grimm was trying to reach me. I took a hay blade from the wall and tilted it to get a reflection
“Marissa, I know what you are trying. This simply won’t work.” Grimm glanced around “We need to find a place where you can fortify.”
“Against Mr. Ha-Ha-Ha? For a year? I’ve got to get out of here.” I opened a stall door, and found a group of miserable animals that could only be a reindeer. More than anything, they resembled a tick-ridden mule deer with stubby horns. “We hook these guys up to that sleigh, and I’m taking the old highway out of crazy-land.”
“Can’t be done,” said Grimm. “Only elves can harness that sleigh, and the elves fled after the Christmas Slaughter of 1807.”
I swung the blade on pure instinct, and nearly took Bonnie’s head off. “Oops.”
“I could harness a few reindeer. But what’s the point?” Bonnie glanced to the sled. Elves stood at least three feet tall, which meant Bonnie would need to work triple time just to keep up, but it was worth a shot. What he needed was motivation. I mouthed words to Grimm, pleading. All I needed was a little postage.
In answer, the bracelet on my wrist tingled and itched, dissolving into sand, which fled in lines up my arm, through my sleeve, and onto my forehead, where it burned like fire.
Bonnie took one look at me and stepped away, a look of pure awe in his eyes. I glanced at my reflection in the blade and swore. Across my forehead lay a Kingdom postage seal.
“That’s legal postage,” said Grimm. “And I’ve paid for guaranteed holiday delivery. Get her home, or I get my magic back.”
Bonnie’s brow furrowed and he crossed his arms. “Well, technically, that would cover the first three ounces. We gnomes are very good at judging postage, and I’m guessing she weighs…” His voice trailed off as I gave him a glare that said he could quickly be out in the blizzard again. He swallowed hard and blinked twice. “I think, in the spirit of the holiday, we’ll call it good!” Bonnie said, and dashed to the sled. I’d seen gnomes get hopped up on espresso once when a shipment of chocolate coffee beans got spilled. The result was a blur of movement, cursing, and triumphant shrieks.
“Can he do this?” I whispered to Grimm.
Grimm shrugged. “Technically, gnomes and elves are related. But then again, technically, so are humans and sea cucumbers.”
The thing was, the sleigh didn’t have a harness. At least, I didn’t think it did. As Bonnie dashed back and forth, threads of light formed from the tow bar on the sleigh. With each pass, they grew thicker, twisting together to form straps and yokes made of red and green light, which hung suspended like drifting smoke.
“Deer!” Bonnie shrieked. I hurried to prod one of the animals forward, a process I repeated again, and again. The sled harness only held four reindeer. I figured the others were Nicolae’s snack food. In less than twenty minutes, four reindeer stamped their hooves and crapped in new places. I fought the wind to throw the stable doors open, and ran for the sled.
“Bonnie, can you make this thing fly?”
He mounted the dash beside me. “If that’s the only way to delivery you, I’ll make it fly if I have to flap my wings to do it.”
I shook the reins and shouted, urging the deer forward. We scraped across the barn floor, and then, as the runners caught snow, the sleigh picked up speed. Faster and faster, far faster than any livestock should have been able to pull. The cloak of horrors offered me slight protection, so I wrapped it around me and Bonnie, and shouted, “On Masher, on Lazy, on Tick-farm, and Mangy.” We wouldn’t be making an appearance in children’s books, but if they got me out of there, I’d find them a zoo if I had to buy one.
For one moment, the snow cleared. Just ahead of us stood Nicolae, knife in hand, screaming.
We never even slowed down as I ran him over. I mean, you can’t really turn a sleigh on a dime, or I’d have gone back and run him over again. The man was a stocking full of crazy.
“It’s time,” said Bonnie, slipping out of my cloak and standing on the front board. “Up, Up and Away!”
“Wrong catch-phrase!” I shouted, but the wind tore the words from my throat. And the sleigh rose. Working for Grimm, I’d seen impossible things. Done impossible things myself, often seven times before breakfast. But a wooden wreck of a sled pulled by four malnourished caribou flying—this was true magic
Ahead, waves of blue and green lit up the sky. I thought they might be the northern lights, but the waves rose and rounded, becoming a ring of blue and green fire. Bonnie shouted again, urging the reindeer on—and with good reason. Now, beyond the ring of fire, a patch of normal sky lay. A patch of sky turning grey with dawn’s first light.
Grimm had warned me about this more than once. That time outside normal dimensions had a way of passing at its own rate. A couple hours of terror had become at least ten in the real world. And at dawn’s first light, the path home would close.
“You’ve been very naughty!” screamed a voice beside my head, and then someone yanked me backwards.
Even if there hadn’t been exactly two human sized creatures in this world, the stench of alcohol and body odor would have given away Nicolae’s identity. He looked down at me and when he grinned, a rotten tooth fell out and bounced off my cheek. “I might have been wrong. Someone is leaving here. Me.”
The tunnel of blue fire swallowed me, combining blue with blurry spots as Nicolae choked me. But I’d had more than my share of self defense training classes. I drove both hands between his arms, forcing his elbows out, and then, before he could react, seized his head. Fingers in the ears, thumbs in his eyes, and I smashed his head down into mine, earning me a sweat breath of air.
With it came the will to see (and still not celebrate) another Christmas.
We burst from the tunnel of fire, and it disappeared, leaving only a hollow ring of clouds where it had been. The sleigh, on the other hand, had undergone a transformation of its own. Now I could imagine it looking good on any Christmas card. Sleek rosewood, polished till it shone, with a high back and curled runners. And up ahead, the reindeer would dwarf Clydesdales. Only the harness remained unchanged, whipping fibers of light. Bonnie glanced back with a grin. “She’s a beaut!” And his grin turned to gaping horror.
I didn’t wait to turn around. Most of the time, that’s just giving whatever is behind you a chance to make its move. When I moved, I lead with my elbow, slinging it around, straight into Nicolae’s gut.
Which he had. Nicolae stood with a look of sheer horror on his face, gasping for air. The leather jerkin he wore had changed to a crimson felt suit with white fur lining, and his belly now needed its own zip code. “What is this? How can man survive in snow and ice in this?” But the best part was when he fumbled for a cigar and came out with a pipe.
In the next instant, I learned a lesson I’d never forget: When a short, bald, fat man turns as red as his suit, he’s going to attack you. With a squeal more fitting a pig than a human, he lunged for me, but this time, I was ready.
I waited for him lunge, not pushing him back, just to the side, and let him hit the console. Fast as he landed, I hit him in the back, driving my knee into his shoulders. This was kill or be killed, and I’d never really liked Christmas to begin with.
With all the power of a man driven mad, he shoved himself back, crushing me against a sack, which instead of reindeer crap, now held a mountain of presents.
I fought to push him off, but his weight made it impossible. He rolled, keeping me pinned, and grasped at me with stubby fingers. “Merry Christmas,” he hissed, pushing my head back. “You let me out of my prison. I couldn’t have done it without you. Do you have any last wishes?”
I glanced once more to the mound of presents beside me and formed an insane idea. Less an idea and more of a suicide mission, if I was honest, but I had nothing to lose. “I want a present.”
Nicholas nodded. “Done. All these are yours. Now, are you ready to die?”
I considered it a real possibility, but not for the reason he suggested. See, birthday parties, balls, Christmas, it didn’t matter. Grimm once commented that I seemed to be the universe’s antidote to celebration of any kind. My third birthday party ended with the first and last swarm of army ants in New York state. My fifth one, the skating rink caught fire before imploding. And my fifteenth Christmas, Dad put a puppy under the tree. What I unwrapped was an extremely angry hedgehog, which bit me twice, then electrocuted itself chewing on the Christmas tree. The fire department arrived before the house was a total loss. Liam knew my rule before he knew my birthday: No celebrations, and definitely no presents.
A thunderclap split the sky, drawing Nicolae’s attention for a moment. The mountain of presents above me wavered from side to side, then toppled. As it rained presents, I leaped out of the sleigh and snagged a the runner as I fell.
Above me, Nicolae screamed, a mix of rage and terror. The sleigh shook from side to side, while minor explosions rocked it. Several presents sailed over the edge, releasing a swarm of bees, a phone bill at least six hundred pages long, and an otter who leapt from the box, snapped at my heel, and disappeared into the darkness.
At last, the noise died down, and I wrestled my way up. Nicolae lay in the sleigh seat, his face swollen and red, while Bonnie fought with the reins. Bonnie waved to me, causing the sleigh to tip to one side. “That was some mess.”
“Is he dead?”
“Could be. The poison dart frogs, the puffer fish, and a live power line all got him. I’m not checking.”
My rule was never to check on anything that looked dead. Too often, it turned out to not be. My preferred way, if I had to check, was to run it over a few more times and see if it moved. Still, the little gnome could barely control the sleigh, and Nicolae took up most of the front seat. So I did the smart thing, slipping the now empty present bag over his head, then pushing him out of the sleigh with my foot.
He caught on the side rail – too many gallons of milk and semi loads too many cookies. I wedged myself against him and pushed him off. As he flopped off the side, his eyes shot open, and he grabbed me by the cloak of doom. “We die together.”
I grasped the sleigh console and kicked, but with his weight, I slipped closer and closer to the side. Bonnie looked from side to side, fretting. Then he threw the reins down, and leapt onto my shoulder, screaming “For the honor of the tenth legion! Semper Deliverus!”
— That’s it for this week. Tune in next Tuesday for the conclusion of “Special Delivery.