I recently wrote a collection of short stories called Masques & Capes: An Imaginary History — adventure-mystery stories about superheroes. The idea was to imagine a Canadian superhero comic book universe, a multi-generational continuum stretching from the mid-20th Century to today. And so, as part of the collection, I decided to write a Christmas-themed story. And in the spirit of the season, I figure I might as well post it on-line for any as would be interested. Now the point of my collection was to write mostly self-contained tales (after all, they take place years, even decades apart) but some characters bled over into more than one story. In this case, the characters here had appeared in a couple of earlier tales in the book — but I think it’s easy enough to pick up on the threads and the inherent nostalgia of two old friends reuniting after many years. There are usually two ways of writing Christmas tales in the context of an adventure series — sentimental or silly. I decided to try a bit of both with a tale that is both low-key and bittersweet and larger-than-life and, well, comic book-y.
‘TWAS IN THE MOON OF WINTER TIME
or: A Last Christmas for The Loyalist
by D.K. Latta
The vintage silver-grey sedan with the custom-modified bulbous hood pulled up to the curb, the snow beneath the winter tires squeaking slightly as it eased to a stop. It settled there for a moment, the engine clicking quietly to itself as it cooled in the late December air. Then the driver’s door opened and a tall man stepped out, his breath forming fleeting white clouds around his head. Garbed in a heavy long coat, he was handsome with regular, even features and mouse-brown hair.
He stared up at the house before which he had parked. A pine tree on the front lawn was draped with Christmas lights, as were the eaves of the two-storey home. Two plastic reindeer guarded the steps leading to the porch, one listing crookedly from the previous night’s wind.
A gentle dusting of snow drifted down from the afternoon sky, adding to the layers already carpeting the distinctive red Prince Edward Island soil.
“You looking for Santa Claus, mister?”
The tall man turned to see a child of about eight looking stiff as a statue in his heavy blue parka, a striped scarf cinched tightly around his head by a conscientious parent.
“Bit early, isn’t it?” the tall man asked. “He won’t come around till tonight.”
“Nyah,” said the child. “I seen him a few times already. I even wrote to the paper. I figger you were maybe a reporter come to see.”
“Sorry. Not me.”
“Christopher Jeremy Winger!” shouted a voice from down the street. “How many times have I told you to pick up your sled?!?”
The child tried to look toward the voice but was unable to turn his head. So he swivelled his whole body and obediently waddled off in the direction of the shouts.
The tall man chuckled, then looked back toward the house. He was not a man normally prone to nerves, but he felt a fluttering in his stomach. Steeling himself, he strode up the walkway — stopping only momentarily to right the tilted reindeer — and rang the doorbell. After a moment he felt the subliminal tremor of an approaching occupant. And then the door opened.
A plump, middle-aged white woman with hair cut short stood in the vestibule. She was dressed in a turquoise sweater over green pants. Her eyes widened. “Oh. My. Goodness. Michael!”
He smiled. “Hello, Red Ensign.”
They embraced, briefly, then she hastily ushered him in and closed the door, tut-tutting as she did. “Don’t want to heat the whole out doors,” she said as if just for the sake of something to say. “And I’m no longer the Red Ensign. Just plain old Margerie Ciccone.”
“You look good,” he said.
“Liar,” she chided.
He shrugged. “You look good for your age, then.”
“I’ll buy that,” she said with a grin on her round face. She had been barely a teenager when they had fought Nazis decades ago, he as The Loyalist, she as the irrepressible Red Ensign. “You barely look a day older.” A slight exaggeration, she realized, but he certainly didn’t look decades older. “I guess I’m not surprised — not knowing you’ve remained active while the rest of the so-called Daring Dominions long since surrendered to age and hung up our fighting togs. You always were stronger, able to recover from injuries faster. Me, I had no ‘super’ powers, just my gymnastics and my chain mail tunic.” Then she squinted up at him. “Mind you, the sideburns are new. Very hip.”
He self-consciously touched the side of his face. “You don’t like?”
“Just promise me you won’t grow a Tom Selleck ‘stache. I think that’d be too weird. Come on in,” she said suddenly remembering her duties as a host. “I’ve got some hot chocolate simmering.”
Kicking off his snow capped boots he followed her down a narrow hall lined with smiling family photographs. They emerged into a living room decked with garlands, snow globes on the mantel over the fire place. The Christmas tree stood before the picture window, only half dressed.
Michael paused by a bookshelf and picked out a hardcover which he turned over to see a picture of his host staring at him from the back. She appeared younger than she was now. He looked at the front, the title: “The Girl in the Red Shirt: The Autobiography of The Red Ensign.” There were other books next to it on the shelf, also with Margerie’s name on them. “You’ve done all right,” he said.
“Can’t complain,” she agreed. Then spying what he was holding, she added, “Though the writing doesn’t pay as much as you might think. My agent never could find me a U.S. publisher, which is where the big money is. The memoirs of a Canadian Masque lacks a certain cachet down there. And it was the sale of the memoirs that opened the door for the rest of my writings. The European sales remain pretty steady, though — especially in Holland. I was in real estate which is what paid for most of this,” she gestured around her at the house.
“Your family?” he asked, realizing the place was quiet.
“The kids and grandkids will be arriving tomorrow — though some of them are coming in from out of town and won’t get here till Boxing Day. And I’m divorced these days so it’s just me for today. How about yourself? Any plans for the holidays?”
“This and that.” He shrugged non-committally — the universal fiction offered by those spending Christmas alone.
“You hear from any of the old gang?”
“I still talk to Double Whammy from time to time, when I can.”
“Well, of course you would,” she agreed. “And Claude?”
He shook his head with a certain ruefulness.
He looked away. “No.”
Her eyes twinkled sadly. “I guess I always hoped you two — well, it was just the school girl in me, still holding out for a fairy tale ending.” Realizing things were turning maudlin she patted his arm and said, “Let me grab that hot chocolate, then we can get down to business. I wasn’t sure if any of my old contacts could get hold of you, but I’m glad you came in answer to my call. Because I think I stumbled upon some trouble — of the old kind…”
“That house was empty for many months,” said Margerie as the two stood next to the Christmas tree peering at the house next door. “I think the owners over-priced it given the market and its condition. Uh, sorry,” she grinned, “professional reflex. Anyway, about a month ago a new owner moved in. The first thing that struck me as odd was one day I just noticed the For Sale sign was gone — no “Sold” sticker left out for a few weeks. Like it was a snap purchase. Then the moving vans arrived — including an ambulance.”
“The new owner seemed to be an old man, chronically ill. That itself seemed odd. People usually sell their homes when they get old. They don’t buy a new one. And then there were lights at night. As if people were working into the wee hours. But, as I say: the owner’s bed ridden.”
“Odd,” said The Loyalist neutrally. “But odd doesn’t mean dangerous.”
“I’m retired from the real estate game but I still have some friends, so I made a few calls. The owner’s name is John Bland Smith.”
The Loyalist raised an eye brow.
“I know — right?” she said. “That still didn’t take me anywhere though. But I do a lot of volunteering — must be a carryover from my costumed days. I even walked in the first Terry Fox Run last year. As such I spend a lot of time at the local hospital,” she tapped her finger to her nose, “and I know my way around the offices there. I figured a guy that sick has got to have records, equipment and medicine requisitions on file. I did a bit of snooping.”
“Margerie,” he cautioned, “you could get into a lot of trouble doing-”
The tall man paused. “What?”
“Mr. John Bland Smith is actually Professor Emile Zorgon.”
The Loyalist looked out the window at the silent house as snow flakes danced and drifted about like figure skaters on an invisible rink. “I haven’t heard from Zorgon in years. I assumed he was dead.”
“Apparently not. The quintessential mad scientist is still holding on, albeit by the proverbial thread. But you’re right — it’s been so long I’m guessing that’s why he could use his real name on medical records and no one’s picked up on it.”
“Still — why not just call the police?”
“Well, we know what he used to be up to, but I don’t know if there’s any active police jacket on him. Besides, I figured you’d want a crack at him. He was one of your arch foes as I recall. Besides — I’m a bit nervous.”
He looked at her.
“Him buying a house on his death bed and moving in next door to the former Red Ensign? I’m supposed to be believe that’s just a coincidence?”
Night draped a soft cloak over the outskirts of Charlottetown, perforated with little holes to allow tiny flakes to spiral to earth. The freshly fallen snow boldly reflected the moonlight, giving the evening a crisp luminescence. It made it an ideal, cheery vista for a Christmas Eve stroll for lovers to wander the streets, catching faint strains of carols wafting from unknown origins.
It was not ideal weather for the man known as The Loyalist to secretively investigate the possible demesne of a notorious villain from decades past. The Loyalist had donned his traditional garb. Not just his long coat, but also a face concealing hood and the powdered wig with a pony tail that enhanced the period motif that accompanied his Masque identity.
He crunched furtively through the snow about the three story house, the lower windows dark. The only glow emanated from a third floor window.
It was entirely possible this was all a mistake or a misunderstanding, he reasoned. Possibly there was simply another Emile Zorgon. Or perhaps Margerie had muddled the files. It was possible that she was too eager to find a mystery to solve, nostalgic for the days when she lived the life of an adventurer. After all, she had mentioned she had retired from her job. He thought she seemed young to be doing that. Perhaps she was experiencing a mid-life crisis.
However he owed it to her to check out her concerns. But not at the expense of a possibly innocent old man’s peace of mind.
There was a convenient three legged TV antenna trestle that formed an impromptu ladder running up the side of the house past the glowing window. Instead of seeking a ground floor entrance, and breaking into the house, he thought he might be able to assess the situation without disturbing anyone inside. He tested the sturdiness of the metal trestle, the cross staves still tangled with brittle, dead vines. Then he started climbing, snow shaking free as he did and raining down behind him almost like sugar from a cake decorating shaker.
The old antenna groaned at one point and he paused. But it held, so he resumed his ascent.
Within moments he had successfully clambered up to a level with the lit window. Holding to the trestle with one hand he leaned over and peered through the window. Using his sleeve he brushed aside snow from the pane.
Inside was a bedroom. A king-size bed was in the centre of the room and under a layer of quilts and blankets rested an old man. Briefly The Loyalist recalled that Mi’kmaq legend said when the creator, Glooscap, slept he used Prince Edward Island to rest his head. They called the country’s smallest province the “cradle on the waves.”
Not that the wizened figure was in any danger of being mistaken for a deity.
His head was bald save for a few lonely strings of dry hair and his features were gaunt. His nose and mouth were covered by a clear plastic breathing mask and an assortment of tubes and wires ran out from under the blankets and linked to various machines that monitored his life signs. A shaded lamp was in one corner of the room, casting a soft glow over the sleeping man.
It had been years since he had seen Emile Zorgon. The memory he had of him was of a robust man with a shock of red hair bursting from his scalp in full mad scientist coiffure. But there was no doubt that, accounting for the years, and the obviously terminal health of the man in the bed, that he could very well be looking at his old enemy. It was enough to make him pursue his investigation to the next level.
He cocked his head, detecting a murmuring voice inside. But the old man appeared asleep and he had thought the room otherwise deserted. There was a steady rhythm to the delivery, indicative of a monologue rather than a conversation. After a moment he relaxed and smiled beneath his mask, recognizing the tones. Someone had left the radio on, perhaps to provide the old man some sense of companionship, and the CBC was doing its annual Christmas broadcast of Allan Maitland reading “The Shepherd.”
He was sorry he was missing it.
He grabbed the window latch and with a flick of his wrist snapped the lock. If he was wrong, he would make reparations. Swinging open the window on its hinges, he flung a leg over to the sill, pushed off from the trestle, and slipped inside the room. He hastily closed the widow, though the drop in temperature would be easily detected.
As he turned toward the sleeping man, he saw that it had been — for he slept no more.
The whites of his eyes had a yellowing tinge and the lids glimmered wetly. The old man breathed laboriously as he stared at the cowled man, the radio murmuring quietly to itself. The old man’s breathing took on a hiccuping aspect that, for a moment, made The Loyalist think he was having a heart attack. Then he realized it was something else.
“Hello, Emile,” he said levelly.
“Loyalist,” hissed the old man, his voice muffled through his mask, and hushed by the hum of his surrounding machines.
“I’ll admit, I didn’t expect to find you like this.”
“Alive?” croaked the old man. “Or dying?”
The Loyalist shrugged. “Both, I suppose. Or that we’d meet again on Christmas Eve of all times.”
“It’s my Christmas present to myself. I was afraid I’d die before you came.” Sensing the tall man’s confusion, the old man laughed again — though his chortling degenerated into a series of wet coughs. After a moment he said: “Surely you suspected a trap? I couldn’t find you — even after all these years you remain a man behind a mask. But the Red Ensign — she went public long ago, long after she gave up crime fighting. Her I could find. And though her — you.”
Slowly the Loyalist nodded, realizing it made sense. Moving in next door to Margerie Ciccone, employing the deliberately conspicuous pseudonym of John Bland Smith just to arouse her suspicions. Margerie had suspected Emile was up to something — that’s why she had summoned him. She just didn’t realize she was supposed to suspect that. And she had been wrong about who the actual target was.
“To be a trap, you need something to spring it. With all due respect, Emile — you don’t look in much shape to pose a danger to me, or to anyone. I assume you have caregivers — let me guess: ex-cons? Former Nazis?”
The old man shook his head, though even that seemed too much effort for him. “Legitimate nurses. I gave them the night off when my video cameras recorded your car pulling up outside Red Ensign’s house earlier. I told them an old friend would be coming by to look in on me. I knew tonight would be the night.”
“So what do you hope to accomplish with just you and me?”
Again there was the strained half laugh, half cough. “You forget — it’s Christmas Eve. That means there’s always…St. Nick.”
The Loyalist stiffened, hearing a weird clanking behind him. From the dark shadows of the room emerged a bulky shape that moved stiffly, issuing wheezing, rattling noises like an engine. As it moved into the pool of light cast by the lamp he could make out the flash of red velvet, then a bushy white beard.
Above the beard: a face plate of metal with gleaming glass lenses for eyes.
“My robot designs were never very human-like,” admitted the old man. “But the advantage to the Christmas season is if you wrap anything in a Santa Claus suit, people tend not to look too closely even if they glimpse it through the windows puttering about the house.”
“Ho-Ho-hick-Ho-Ho!” echoed the robot mechanically. And then gas spewed from the white beard.
The Loyalist, taken off balance, inhaled involuntarily. Immediately he felt his knees grow spongy beneath him. As he pitched over, his last thought was a wry one: “Well — this was unexpected.”
Icy wind whistling in his ears awoke The Loyalist.
If being gassed by a simulacrum of Santa Claus had taken him by surprise, what he awoke to was equally perplexing. He was strapped to some sort of flying sleigh, small rocket nodules along the sides firing jets of flame through the night air as the bizarre vehicle raced across the sky. He twisted and strained against the bonds that held each hand and foot, then craned his head around to see the robot in the Santa suit sitting at the front of the sled, steering.
It worried him that he was no longer surprised by the bizarreness of the situation.
Ruefully he recalled the little boy outside Margerie’s house mentioning having seen Santa Claus in the neighbourhood. He’d have to remember to pay more attention to children in the future. Assuming he had a future.
“Where are you taking me?” he shouted over the wind and the roar of the rockets.
“To-your-death,” rattled the robot, as though the words meant nothing to him. Which they probably didn’t. The Santa robot was just a tool, not a sentient being. “Death-by-immolation-will-occur-upon-impact.”
Presumably that meant the sled was heading for some collision — perhaps with a building, or to crash into the ground once its fuel was expended. Emile Zorgon was definitely Old School, dreaming up ridiculously extravagant, insanely fussy schemes for such rudimentary purposes. How much would building the robot have cost? The sled? How many hours working out the technical details, plotting trajectories? Just so he could crash it in a mad revenge scheme to kill a man he hadn’t seen in years.
The Loyalist cast his eyes about him, briefly hoping this really was outfitted like Santa’s sleigh and he might find a sack of presents that he could raid for something to effect an escape. But no. It was possible Emile had not actually intended the death sled as part of any Yuletide motif.
He studied what was available. One of the rocket nodules was just close enough that, if he could free his foot, he might be able to kick it, either knocking it off or at least twisting its angle. Unfortunately, that would simply bring the sleigh down all the quicker — which wasn’t advisable while he was still bound. What he needed was something sharp or hard that he could use on his straps. But the only thing that wasn’t bolted to the sleigh, he realized, was the robot itself.
Then it occurred to him that, given Zorgon’s poor health, the man couldn’t really have been doing too much hands on work. It must have been the robot who had built the sled, Zorgon directing it with verbal commands; the mad scientist was in no shape to pull levers or even to use a keyboard. So perhaps the robot had been programmed to take orders, at least regarding maintenance of the sleigh. It was a slim chance, but the only one he had.
“Robot!” he barked. “The rear left leg strap is frayed. Replace it immediately.”
There was a whir, a click, and the robot rose from its perch and strode jerkily toward the rear of the sled. Unthinkingly it loosened the strap about his left foot and immediately pulled a spare from a pouch on the side of the sled that The Loyalist hadn’t even noticed. Without giving the robot the opportunity, he lashed out with his free leg. The robot pitched half over the side of the sled, leaning into the backblast from the rocket. The sleeve of its Santa suit burst into flames. Then it reeled about, attempting to gain its footing. The Loyalist, seeing an opportunity, savagely kicked its metal shin, sending the robot pitching over next to him — the flaming sleeve landing across his arm. The Loyalist screamed as the heat singed him, but was rewarded by a loosening of the binding as it burned. With a wrench, he tore his arm free.
He now had one arm and one leg free.
Even as the robot struggled to regain its footing, its defensive protocol kicking in, he used his free hand to unfasten his other arm. Then he employed both hands to wrench the remaining strap off his final leg. He struggled to his feet against the wind and the turbulence. Simultaneously the robot reared up before him, looking like a grotesque effigy of Santa with its inhuman metal face and one arm scorched.
They were flying over downtown Charlottetown, directly over a department store’s roof. With only a couple of metres between sled and surface, now was as good a time as any to bring her down, he knew. He kicked out with all his might, tearing one of the rockets clear off the sled. The vehicle lurched and plunged. Its nose dove into the snow covered roof top, grinding across the surface, the back of the sleigh rearing up. The Loyalist went flying through the air, managing to tuck and roll as he went. He hit the roof hard, but successfully rolled end over end through the padding of fresh snow.
The roof spinning around him, he struggled to gain his feet — just as the Santa robot slammed into him, still operating on a program to kill him. As they stumbled back, wrestling with each other, he felt something crack beneath his boots. Too late he realized the snow was camouflaging a skylight window.
The glass shattered beneath their combined weight and they plunged into the building. He twisted in mid-air, riding the robot down, letting it take most of the impact even as snow and broken glass rained down on them.
The mechanical thing continued to sputter clicks and whirs, lashing out at him with its arms. The Loyalist punched it again and again, pounding its face and chest. “Enough!” he shouted, until finally his fists crashed through its casing, crushing its face. The machine hissed, burbled, and went still.
Shuddering with the exertion, The Loyalist slowly looked up.
He was in the midst of plywood buildings evoking a mock Alpine village with Teddy Bear citizenry propped about. A man in a Santa Claus suit was sitting in a plush, high backed red chair, his mouth agape, his eyes wide, with a child upon his lap wearing an identical expression of shock. Sitting back on his heels The Loyalist realized he was surrounded by mute children and gawking parents all lined up to see Santa Claus one last time on Christmas Eve. He glanced down at the mangled humanoid shape dressed in a scorched and torn Santa suit. Then he looked up at the crowd.
Struggling wearily to his feet, he said, “Remember, kids — don’t be naughty.” As he limped through the dumbfounded crowd he added, “And stay in school.”
It took him twenty minutes to get back to Emile Zorgon’s house. For ten long minutes he stood on the moonlit street, snow shyly piling up on his broad shoulders, and stared at the house and its single lit room.
Then he trudged up to Margerie’s door
“I don’t understand?” Margerie said, helping him to sit down on the couch. “You aren’t going to confront him? Let him know he failed?”
The Loyalist had dragged off his hood and the light from the hearth played across his even features. “He’s dying. Emile Zorgon, sad, sick little sociopath that he is, wanted to kill me — so much so that as death loomed for him, he devoted his last weeks or months to laying a trap for me. But all I want is to make sure he doesn’t hurt anyone. I’ve accomplished that. I’m alive. His robot is destroyed. And if he’ll die a little easier thinking that he’s killed me — well, I guess I can give him that.”
“Well,” she said, sitting in a chair across from him, “that’s got to be the weirdest Christmas present anyone’s ever given.” Then a wistful expression crossed her round, plump face. “Though I can sympathize with him. I mean, not the wanting to kill people. But the wanting to reconnect with the past. The truth is, even I wasn’t entirely sure if summoning you was just a false alarm — but I really wanted to see you again, Michael. For one more Christmas.”
He smiled at her warmly. “I’ll try and keep in touch more. We can-”
“No, Michael,” she said softly. “This is the last Christmas we’ll have.”
He stared at her, his lips still turned in a slight smile even as a sadness crept into his eyes. “You don’t volunteer at the hospital — do you? You go there for another reason. And that’s why you’ve retired from your real estate job.”
“It was kind of ironic.” She smiled impishly, suddenly unmistakably reminding him of the girl in red chain mail he had known decades ago. “I participated in the first Terry Fox Run for cancer research last year — and eight months later I got my own diagnosis. Still, if it was good enough for Terry, I can’t complain.” She shrugged. “I’ve only got a few months.”
They sat in silence for a long moment, snow flakes gently tapping against the window while the radio softly played carols.
“It’s been an amazing few decades, though,” she said finally. “Back in the day — you were convinced that better things could happen, that Canada had it in itself to be better. I didn’t really understand what you meant then — but you were right. The country has grown, it has matured. I’ve lived to see it. But I feel bad…for you.”
“Because I have to leave you. We all seem to leave you. And you’re left to carry on, bearing the weight of it all.” She cocked her head, listening. “There — that’s you. In the song.”
He frowned, unsure what she meant. The radio was playing The Huron Carol.
“‘Wandering hunters heard the hymn,'” she quoted, a twinkle in her eyes. “You’re the wandering hunter, always out there somewhere in the dark night, always listening for our hymns.” She rose to her feet and held out a hand. “C’mon, Papa Bear, help me finish trimming the tree — I can never reach the top branches anyway.”
He hesitated, then took her hand.
She squeezed warmly and then, suddenly, laughed. “Oh my gosh — do you remember that Christmas? Was it ’40? ’41? You, me and Claude had been following this trail of bank robbers who dressed as Elves…”
Smiling as she reminisced, he let her guide him to the tree for one last Christmas…
Excerpted from the collection Masques & Capes: An Imaginary History by DK. Latta