The Elf that Came in From the Cold

UCD City was asleep. The gin joints were shut. Hoods and flatfoots and gumshoes alike were all in their holes. Snow fell like a silent movie, blanketing the usual street noise of passing cars and fighting alley cats. Christmas neon flashed on every second apartment. Behind the lopsided shutters of my one-man agency I poured myself another lonely egg nog.

The doorknob of my front door jiggled. I thought nothing of it—probably kids on holidays up past their bedtime. Suddenly the door burst open, and an elf tumbled in, clutching a mobile phone. His eyes screamed silently as he reached toward me.

“Merry …”

He hit the floor. Only then did I notice the kitchen knife protruding from his kidneys.

A silhouette of an elf at the doorway

I heard footsteps downstairs. Leaping over the elf’s body and flying down the staircase railings, I spied a shadow fleeing the building. I made it to the street, breathless, in time to watch twin tail lights screech around the corner. Another win for the bad guys. The neighbourhood fell silent and lonely again.

Footprints were melting into the muddy slush: size 12 at least, probably boots. I glanced up at the window to my room where a dead elf lay.

I was definitely going to be on the naughty list again this year.

*    *    *

Most of the dark red wasn't an intentional part of the elf's costume—it was now pooling on my floorboards. I was no stranger to crime, but this was heinous: a dead pixie on my doorstep on Christmas Eve? Hardly a Merry Christmas.

What had he been trying to say? “Merry!” What did that mean? Merry Christmas? How was that a dying man's secret this time of year? And why to me? I'd consulted with Santa's Workshop much earlier in my career—half a lifetime ago. But I’d had nothing to do with the operation since.

There was a buzz from the smartphone in his little hand: a SnapChat message. I swiped the screen before thinking what I was doing, and deserved what I saw.

A SnapChat photo of Santa, bound and gagged

It was Saint Nick himself, bound, gagged, and seated on a stool. He looked haggard and beaten, and two armed men stood over him. Good grief—who would dare mess with Santa? Was all of Christmas in jeopardy? I cursed as SnapChat erased the photo. Evidence and answers were slipping through my fingers. Damned ephemeral messaging!

I rifled through the elf's pockets, and turned up a Sharpie marker, some half-finished sketches on a bunch of post-it notes, the elf’s company RFID card, and a sealed envelope.

I wrapped the envelope in a plastic bag, and pinned it to the outside window ledge. Then I took a closer look at the rest of the items.

Printed on the RFID card was the elf’s name and position:

Zachary Kringle
Chief of Operations
Workshop Division
Santa’s Workshop Inc.

Not a junior then. I sifted through the post-it notes. The sketches were pretty basic—an early concept for some sort of board game similar to Snakes & Ladders, with additional cards that formed part of the mix. The sketches were annotated—process, iterate, collaborative—obviously some new gift idea he’d been working on. Too bad he’d croaked. It looked like a good game.

I retrieved the sealed envelope from the bag on the windowsill. The gum was now frozen stiff, making it easy to open the envelope without damaging it. There was a photo inside. I recognised the face instantly.

Mary Christmas.

A polaroid photograph of Mary Christmas getting into a black car

The elf's words made more sense now: “Mary”, not “Merry”. Panic hit me like ice water. Could the Mary I knew really be behind such a brutal crime?

Mary was as curvy as always. Not a young woman, but a plenty real one, like someone had poured her into her clothes and forgot to say when. It had been taken recently, and with a zoom lens: she was getting into a black car while her minders stood around. Behind her, the corner of a warehouse partially hid a dockside crane.

I had my lead.

There were two things I needed to do right away. The first was a simple task. I sat on my desk looking at the elf and called Uncle Xavier, the only straight cop I knew in homicide. Xavier worked old-school, and although we didn’t always see eye to eye, we both knew the way the game was played. I spilled my story but conveniently omitted the photo—I would confront Mary myself when the time was right.

The last few hours of downing egg nog had made my brain as lazy as an old dog. So I shrugged on my hat and trenchcoat, packed my trusty 357 snubnose and hit the icy pavement to clear my head.

*    *    *

A dead elf, a captive Santa, Mary Christmas and a mystery warehouse: not much of a brief. I remembered a project I'd worked on with an engineer at Path-E-Tech Management. As the engineer said himself:

“We interviewed hundreds of users, and turned all their suggestions into features. As it turns out, every user we talked to was an idiot. And their dumb suggestions ruined our product. In hindsight we should have talked to people outside the building.”

Not the best attitude, but it does say something about user research outside the obvious. And that’s exactly what I planned to do.

A pile of cardboard and old blankets moved as I walked past. “Help an old graphic artist fallen on bad times?” a voice croaked from within.

“You see anyone come past here in the last half hour?” I asked.

A hooligan in a turtleneck poked his head out. “Just a short guy—real shorty he was, and a gorilla. Jumped into a car and took off that way.”

I flipped him a few coins. He grinned in appreciation.

“Thanks man, Merry Christmas”, he said.

“Yeah. Merry Christmas.”

No elf I'd ever met had size twelve boots and looked like a gorilla. Someone outside the Workshop had stabbed him in the back—someone who didn't want Christmas to run the usual clockwork. But who? And why was someone sending a SnapChat of a nicked Saint Nick to the elf? Did they know he was dead? What would happen if Santa wasn't released in time? These were the questions that needed answering.

I grunted. Two billion unhappy kids is what would happen. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

I talked to anyone who would listen: lovers buying last-minute gifts, retailers and late-night carol singers. And when my first coffee-stained notebook was full, I turned south—I needed to triangulate my findings with a different technique altogether.

*    *    *

I stopped at a local toy store and made my way towards the back. Two figures behind frosted glass moved like a puppet show, and I stepped behind a giant cuddly Pink Panther to eavesdrop. I waited patiently, catching only snippets of information, but enough to make out something about global shipments. I was on the right path.

The silhouettes left via a back door, and I waited until I heard the door slam. I stepped from my hiding place and into the back room. I fumbled with the lock on the drawer of the desk where they’d been seated. The lock was no match for my expertise with a paper clip, and once it was open I found the jackpot: the store manager’s journal.

My greedy eyes ran over the entries from the past few weeks. I felt dirty—it wasn't my usual method of conducting a diary study, but it sure delivered the goods. I tried to ignore the personal and stick to business: names, meeting times, summary notes … I struck gold with a purchase order form for a toy shipment. It listed a warehouse address down on the waterfront. I took a quick snap using my camera phone.

There was a creak behind me and a torch blinded me.

Our hero is held at gunpoint

“Grab some air, pal” a gruff voice barked from the shadows. I raised my hands.

I turned to look at him. I didn't like his face. When he said his name was Skinny I didn't like his name either. But the secret to being a great detective is to listen more and talk less—I kept my trap shut.

Two goons loomed behind him: dull eyes, flat heads, black hats, and no brains at all. I looked uneasily at their hands. They were big—as big as plates of pork ribs, and twice as greasy. I knew exactly what was coming next.

With a nod from Mr Skinny, the other two moved in and started to work me over. I braced myself for the blows, and winced as they rained down on me. Then my world went dark.

*    *    *

The thing about getting licked by goons is that if you're lucky enough to wake up, you'll always be missing grey cells. I was a veteran now. I hoped what I’d lost in intelligence was more than made up for by experience. At least that’s what I told myself when returning the favour to some gunsel. When you’re on a case, you need to defend your thinking, and can’t pull punches.

I dragged my sorry ass to a joint where I knew I'd find a few fellow gumshoes. Donna was there, absent-mindedly sorting cards into groups. Patrick was there too, cradling a rye as he always did. He had a reputation for drinking anyone under the table, especially after a “UX fail”. He'd made a game of it, they said. But this time I didn’t feel like playing.

I accepted a glass of hooch but waved away their questions. All I wanted was quiet companionship. They got the gist and went back to cards and drinking.

My body was bruised, but my thinking was as sharp as ever. If Skinny and his goons wanted me out of the way they could have left me alone to just drink myself to death. Why didn’t they finish me? They obviously didn’t know why I was there.

After resuming my balance I returned to my office and stared at the post-its stuck between strips of peeling pink wallpaper.

Outside the snow had turned to rain. Someone somewhere was blowing a horn as mournful as a turkey in December. It went nicely with my mood.

The post-its were grouped with all the nuggets of info I’d collected so far. I had an affinity for mapping out thoughts like this since working with the feds. I added my new findings: the waterfront warehouse address, and the dates from the journal.

But there wasn't yet enough to work with—I couldn't draw any threads, and I reluctantly realised what I had to do. I preferred to work alone but there was no way this could be solved without getting another set of eyes on the case. And there was only one person who could help, even if she was too close to the furnace.

I picked up the phone and dialled her number for the first time in years.

*    *    *

Mary Christmas crossed her legs. She knew they were good.

“I’m just not that kind of girl,” she snarled. “I played your game once, but now I do things differently. Sorry—you’re on your own.”

I hinted that I knew she was in up to her neck with the impolite crowd.

“I don't like to see cheap hoods messing with a sweet kid like you, Princess.”

She went bright red, and I should have seen the slap coming. I nursed my jaw and just let her fume.

“Careful, Mac”, she said. “Don't be a dick.”

I let the obvious comment slide.

A close-up portrait of the enigmatic Mary Christmas

“That elf died on my doormat, and those goons don't mess about either.” I reminded her. “I'm just saying ... don't go there.”

She knocked back her shot and glared at me. “No” she said, “don't you go there. If I were you, I'd take the easy option and go back to your two-bit sleazy dive. Forget any of this ever happened!”

They were the same words as the Dear John letter she'd written me all those years ago. I was obviously still learning.

We looked at each other sadly over the table. “Lucky I'm not you then,” I said, and this time I was the one to walk out.

*    *    *

Something woke me to the world of cigarette smoke and last night's leftover fruit mince pies. It was the office phone.

“Mac here,” I mumbled.

“Sit this dance out, Mac,” snapped a voice. Not Mr Skinny—he was older, more sure of himself. A Danish accent?

I waited for him to continue, but the line went dead.

Perhaps it was someone working with Skinny? Maybe the higher-ups were starting to show concern.

The thought gave me a mild sense of satisfaction. But the other side definitely had all the cards—and all the eyes. Time to get up and work. I pulled the blinds shut and prepared myself a Mexican Hot Chocolate. Taking a long swig, I turned back to the notes on my wall.

It was going to be a long night.

*    *    *

“You're not to work this case any more, Mac. You're fired!”

Uncle Xavier was none too happy that I’d been doing my own investigation, especially as I wasn’t off the suspects list.

“Maybe you've fired me, but I haven't fired me!”

The fuzz were on my case, the goons were hitting on me, and Mary was playing hard to get. I had to crack this before someone caught up, or Christmas would be cancelled and I'd be making licence plates.

I hadn't started this thing, but it was up to me to finish it.

Luckily, I had a plan.

*    *    *

Anyone that knows me will say I'm a sucker for punishment. I keep going back, failing again and again. Most people think I'm nuts, but you actually learn a lot from failing. More than winning the first time, at least. I never had the brains to win first time, but if I made my mind up I could stick to something like superglue. And I always came through in the end.

My limpet-style antics were about to pay off again. “Follow the data,” they say. My coffee-stained notebook contained multiple statements from Christmas shoppers stating that new toy store stock always seemed to be available in store on Wednesdays. Tonight was Tuesday.

The old waterfront warehouse that Santa’s Workshop had used before going digital back in the ‘80s was long abandoned. Were they planning to open operations again? That'd explain the elf's involvement. And if Skinny and his goons managed to squeeze Santa for his trade secrets, they’d have a monopoly on Christmas.

I was battling with barbed wire in the fence when a waft of perfume cut through the stink of grease and bilgewater and rotting fish. I sighed and sat pretty. I knew that smell. Mary strutted around the corner like she owned the place. Which I guess she did—the three minders she had with her underlined that fact.

“You’re getting rusty” she said to me, looking at the wire.

“You know me. I like to get stuck into things.”

“Tangled up in a mess, you mean.”

“It’d help if you gave me a hand rather than just standing there.”

The worry in my own eyes was reflected in hers.

“You’re gonna need this.” I handed her the elf’s RFID card.

Peering through a window, we saw a warehouse filled with crates of toys, puddings, holly, tinsel, and Christmas decorations. Either Christmas had been postponed, or these were next year’s goods.

One entire wall was covered with notes and sketches: annotated blueprints, moodboards, experience maps. This was a major project. I recognised some of the sketches from those I’d taken out of the elf’s pockets.

I stopped short when I saw the broad back and shoulders of a red-suited old man, sitting in the corner, bound and helpless. He turned to face us. His face said a lot. Those eyes would’ve even made a bloodhound sad.

*    *    *

Mary swiped the elf’s ID card, and the massive doors of the warehouse rattled open, revealing four figures. I’d have bet any money the biggest wore size 12 boots. He dwarfed the three others, especially the skinny runt at the front. I nodded in recognition at the two goons and they nodded back. They both packed Chicago heaters. Things were getting crowded.

Mr Skinny reached for the bulge inside his coat. He revealed the top corner of a Samsung Galaxy S6.

“Don’t make me use this.” he drawled.

What was he going to do—SnapChat me to death?

I made a beeline for Santa, and managed to untie him before the goons stitched a neat burst of holes just in front of our toes. Santa didn’t flinch. He shook the ropes free and flew at the gorilla, catching him off guard while he reloaded.

The two large men rolled across the floor while I fired a Hail Mary at Skinny and his goons to distract them. For an old guy, Santa could give plenty.

Their fisticuffs interspersed with gunfire in the cavernous warehouse was deafening. Bullets flew like wasps. Mary's men were solid but I was running low on ammo. I ducked behind a shipping container of Buzz Lightyear figurines, and crouched beside Mary. She pointed across the floor at a row of crates—one crate in particular looked like a single shove would topple it.

“If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, you’re crazy.” I whispered.

“This is nothing compared to ballet school!” she chuckled. She made a dash for it and covered the gap in less than a second—quick enough to reach the opposite side before the goons noticed. I wasn’t going to be left huddling there like a sissy, but they were watching me now, and I’d have to hightail it. I dug deep and sprinted towards Mary, throwing in a Commando roll for old time’s sake. I landed safely beside her, but my hat and coat now had some extra ventilation.

“Right as rain.” I grinned, feeling more alive than ever.

We leant into the crate and felt it start to set off a domino effect, the smaller crates crashing into ever larger ones. It was a giant, slow-motion tsunami. I couldn’t hear it over the chatter of the Tommy guns, but I was surprised the goons couldn’t feel each crash. Too late for them now anyway. Fifty tonnes of toy blocks makes a God almighty noise when it lands. It also turns goons into pancakes.

The dust settled as Xavier's men arrived, sirens blaring, late to the party as always. At least we'd saved Christmas. Santa's global delivery project would meet its annual deadline once more.

“You’re one helluva mental model, Mary.”

“You old dog,” she grinned.

I’d certainly learnt some new tricks. Not sure I’d be up for putting them to use any time soon, though. This caper had almost done me, and I longed for the slow life.

A sprig of mistletoe and holly from the firefight dangled from a girder above us.

“Tell me you had nothing to do with this,” I pleaded with Mary. “Even if you lie, I'll believe you.”

She smiled and we kissed, but I knew it was for the last time.

The End.

Luke Chambers

Luke Chambers

General tinkerer, web tailor, user-centred design soldier and tall-ship sailor, Luke Chambers is a proud co-founder and Producer of this here, and also of UX Mastery, an online training resource with tips, tools and training for aspiring UX designers. Throughout his day he listens, sketches, tells stories and explains to people the 'why' of the design that happens behind the visuals. 

Matthew Magain

Matthew Magain

Matthew Magain runs visual communications agency Sketch Group, where he leads a team of talented copywriters, illustrators, and graphic facilitators with the shared vision of bringing the world’s stories to life through sketching.

Matthew lives in Melbourne, Australia, and is guilty of purchasing large amounts of LEGO and using the excuse of “it’s for my daughters.”

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