The Dead Elf
Copyright © 2016 by Alice Webb
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Cover illustration © 2016 by Alice Webb
The Dead Elf
Alma Easter pulled her reindeer scarf a bit tighter and clutched the gift bag through her thick gloves as she stepped off the bus on to the winter streets. It was still dim and the fairy lights strewn through the trees sparkled merrily, lighting up the speckles of frost still clinging to the branches from the night before. The grass was stiff with ice too and made a satisfying crunch underfoot as she took a shortcut through the park.
It was very cold and really far too early for a woman of Alma’s delicate age to be out of the house. But she was a great believer in only being as old as you feel, of keeping active so you stay active, and of visiting her favourite bakery just as the cakes were being taken out of the oven. Especially now, finally Christmas season again, which meant the Spiced Double Chocolate Yule Log of Joy was back on the menu. Layers of gooey chocolate sponge goodness, flavoured with the subtle taste of spices, encased in a thick layer of chocolate. It even came with a sprig of white chocolate holly on top. That was certainly worth getting festive about, even when you had long outgrown the excitement of presents (except for one present, that is – the traditional hideous bobble hat and matching jumper for her great nephew).
Alma smiled as she approached the bakery door and savoured the warm smell of cakes and loaves before she went inside. There was a boy at the till, only old enough for a few wispy hairs to have started sprouting on his chin.
‘Good morning Madam. How can I help you?’
‘Spiced Double Chocolate Yule Log of Joy please. Four slices.’
‘Oh,’ he pulled a face, ‘I’m really sorry but that won’t be ready for another half hour. We’re running a bit late but we’ve got croissants if you’d rather have that?’
Alma decided to ignore the gross implication that croissants could match up to chocolate. ‘A bakery running late? It wouldn’t have anything to do with the Winter Wonderland last night, would it?’
Winter Wonderland was the annual Christmas market that started innocently enough with hog roasts, frankfurters and hot chocolate, and quickly escalated to a spiced-ale-induced street party that lasted to the early hours.
‘It would,’ he admitted, ‘it only really calmed down at like four, so it kept us up all night.’ He gestured his head to upstairs.
Alma guessed that meant the family lived upstairs. ‘So half an hour for the yule log, did you say?’
‘I’ll just check.’ He disappeared out the back for a few minutes. ‘Yep that’s right. Maybe say forty minutes to be safe.’
‘See you in forty minutes then.’
The bell jangled when Alma shut the door behind her. She resumed her walk along the frosted streets, heading into the heart of the shops. She had been planning on visiting Clifford’s Department Store anyway; it didn’t make much odds if that happened before or after the cake.
Only the most enthusiastic shoppers were out at this time, and there were fewer still inside Clifford’s itself. A few people in knitted jumpers wandered the aisles of stationery set up near the front and a little girl dressed like a fairy screamed at the lost-looking instore Santa Claus before her mother scooped her up. As Alma travelled further back the shelves amassed decorations, ornaments and other bits Alma deemed ‘useless tat’. She did spend a bit of time admiring the selection of teapots before deciding that her own teapot worked perfectly fine and, besides, she had a tea cosy that fit it perfectly. She considered the lift – guilt-free laziness was one of the perks of being old – before opting for a slow and steady journey up the stairs.
Harold Fern, the reason for Alma’s visit, was in the jewellery section. Though technically old enough to retire, Alma doubted that Harold ever would – it would effectively demote him from manager of a department store to feeder of five cats. She joined him by the large windows that stretched from the floor to the high ceilings, and admired the view of the twinkling lights along the high street.
‘Fancy seeing you here,’ she joked.
‘I know, what are the odds? So what do you want with me?’
‘Sarah asked me to drop this off,’ she handed over the gift bag, ‘since she’s gone down to her daughter’s now.’
He groaned. ‘We said we weren’t doing presents so I didn’t get her anything. What is it?’
‘Don’t ask me. I don’t know.’
‘Don’t pretend that you haven’t already looked, and felt it too. What is it? It’s not one of those pinecones she’s sprayed gold again, is it?’
‘I’m insulted and shocked that you think I’d look and okay it’s a picture frame. I’d say a glass one, from the weight and the corners, and I’d–’
Alma stopped when she heard a crash from above. A green blur flashed by the window. She dashed forward and pressed her short fingers up against the glass as she gazed down to the street below. There on the pavement was what looked like a small pile of clothes, a mixture of green, white and red.
‘Harold,’ she said, ‘is there an elf that goes with your Santa downstairs?’
‘Yes, Matt tonight I think, why?’ He tucked his clipboard and gift bag behind the counter before joining Alma at the window. He took a sharp breath between his teeth before snapping into action. ‘Julia,’ the girl arranging the hats looked up as he ran towards the stairs, ‘call an ambulance and come with me. Roger,’ that was to a blonde twenty-something year old, ‘you too. Grab some towels or tablecloths too.’
‘I’ll catch up,’ Alma called as they ran down the stairs. She doubted there was anything that could be done for the elf now. She might be wrong (she hoped she was wrong), but she could not think of many people who had survived a fall of a few storeys on to solid concrete – and she had met some pretty special characters over her lifetime. Either way, pulling a muscle running would help no one. The shop felt eerily quiet as she briskly walked after Harold, and the familiar warbling carols took on a new and tragic undertone.
Nearly everyone on the ground floor was gathered by the doors and windows, staff and customers huddled into little groups of hushed mutterings and whispers. Only one person hadn’t moved from his plastic green throne, though his eyes were gazing the same way as everyone else from under his faux fur hat.
‘You okay, Santa?’ said Alma, making him jump.
‘Sorry, I’m not seeing kids right now,’ he muttered.
‘I know. I asked if you were alright.’
‘Oh yeah yeah,’ he looked at her quizzically for a moment before looking back out the window. Up close the string of elastic keeping his beard up was obvious, badly hidden in his white wig. They stayed in silence until Harold came back in. ‘Harold, is it true? Is it Matt?’
‘I’m afraid so,’ Harold walked over, looking white and drawn. He clutched a tea towel in his hand, the crisp white material splattered with drops of crimson.
‘I don’t believe it. I mean, he’s been down, but no more than usual. And is he?’
‘There’s no pulse. We’ve called an ambulance and Roger’s on the phone to 999 – did first-aid training at his last job – but honestly, nothing can be done for him. It’s for show, really.’
He unwrapped the tea towel from his hand and inspected a deep cut running along his palm, the blood already beginning to fill the gash again. Soon it would be dripping.
‘Put pressure on it,’ said Alma. ‘Now tell me, what happened?’
‘My fault. I was stupid, went straight for Matt and didn’t see the broken glass and put my hand straight down on it.’
‘I mean, what happened? Out there.’
‘Oh, right. His name is Matt Miller, just started working as the Christmas elf. Chris recommended him.’ Harold nodded towards Santa. ‘Looks like he must have jumped out of the staffroom window.’
‘Did he start later then?’ said Alma, ‘He wasn’t down here when I came in.’
‘No, he’d gone to the loo,’ said Chris.
‘But quite a bit of time passed between when I went by and,’ she looked out the window to the street, ‘this. Were you not worried? Or was he always a bit flaky?’
‘No, not at all,’ said Chris. ‘Really reliable. To be honest, I thought he looked ill, he was a bit pale, and he said he didn’t feel great, so I sent him up to have a paracetamol and five minutes’ rest.’
‘That wasn’t your decision to make,’ said Harold, and his voice was involuntarily beginning to rise. ‘Your attitude has just been bang out of order lately. You don’t think that the complaints about Santa and his lazy elves is the last thing I need to worry about on top of everything else? I just don’t know–’
‘Come on,’ said Alma. ‘That isn’t important now. We were going to check the staffroom, weren’t we? Remember?’
‘But I … fine.’ Harold stalked away and Alma followed, after giving Chris a reassuring look.
‘You were a bit hard on him,’ she said as they waited for the lift. The doors opened and they stepped inside.
‘Was I? I guess it’s just not what I expected of him – he was so good when he started, and reliable. But there have been a few murmurings about them lately and now if he’s starting to think he’s got more authority. I mean, he is just a Christmas Santa.’
‘Maybe Matt was really seriously ill? If he was then surely you’d prefer he was upstairs than throwing up on the children?’
‘Maybe,’ Harold admitted, ‘I hadn’t seen him today so I wouldn’t know.’
‘Harold,’ a middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair approached them before they opened the staffroom door. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Billy. It’s not your shift today, is it?’
‘No, just shopping. Gotta keep the missus happy, you know what they’re like, and she keeps on that she needs yet another handbag to go with her other fifty. So what’s going on? I saw the crowd downstairs.’
‘Didn’t you look?’ said Alma.
Billy shrugged. ‘Probably a teenager that nicked something. It happens.’
‘I’m afraid it’s much more serious than that,’ said Harold. As he told Billy the sad news Alma looked around the shop floor. It was empty except for them, since the accident had stopped anyone new from entering and anyone who had popped in before had either bought their goods or was part of the downstairs spectators. Her gaze drifted to Billy, whose broad frame was layered in baggy hoodies and scarves. In the warmth of the store she had nearly forgotten how cold it was outside.
‘That’s awful,’ said Billy. ‘Hey, you should probably know, I heard shouting earlier.’
‘Shouting?’ said Alma.
‘Yeah, I think it was Matt, now I think about it, coming from the staffroom. I heard him shout “Get out” and “You shouldn’t be in here” but then it went quiet so I guess I forgot about it. Could it be to do with it?’
‘It might be,’ said Harold. ‘Can you hang around in case the police need to ask you about it?’
‘Sorry no, you know what the missus is like if I’m late. But you have my number if you need me and I’m in tomorrow.’
‘Another Christmas helper?’ muttered Alma as they walked away.
‘You guessed it. We take on a lot of seasonal staff.’ Harold punched the security code into the staffroom door before pulling it open, and they were suddenly blasted by the jolly voices of carols. ‘Sorry. You know I don’t get it. Staff complain about hearing Christmas songs in the store, and then they play them in here.’
‘It’s a bit different when you’re obligated to listen,’ Alma smiled, ‘especially when it’s the same twenty over and over. But that is very interesting.’ She slowly followed him up a narrow steep staircase that curved around the corner. ‘I didn’t think much of him, by the way.’
‘Billy? Like I said, we take on a lot at Christmas so we can’t be too picky, but he’s alright, always in on time and we’ve had no proper complaints. It’s funny that you say that though, Alma, because he’s a suspect in the thefts we’ve had. Just a hunch though, since our cameras are still down and I can’t just go accusing people left right and centre.’
‘Don’t staff get searched?’
‘Of course they do. But if they had turned up anything we wouldn’t have a theft problem, would we?’
‘No need to get snappy. You don’t pay my wages.’
‘I’m sorry. It’s been a lot of stress.’
They stopped talking when they reached the staffroom. The room itself looked immaculate, with the chairs tucked in and the notices and staff rotor pinned on the board at perfect ninety-degree angles. Alma expected nothing else of a store under Harold’s eye. There was a tin of chocolates – all the caramels were sadly gone – open on the small table and a half-empty tall glass of water besides an unopened packet of paracetamol. She shivered. It was cold because of the cruel wind blowing through the smashed window, which made her very glad of her gloves and reindeer scarf.
‘Matt’s exit,’ said Harold grimly, motioning to the window. ‘So why are we here?’
‘To satisfy my curiosity,’ replied Alma, ‘which you will be glad to hear is now satisfied. Let’s go back down. I’m freezing here and you know how us old ladies get about the cold.’
‘Of course I know, since none of you are shy about telling me.’
Harold nearly hit Julia with the door when they went back on to the shop floor, as she had been diligently arranging the jumpers directly behind it.
‘There was no point in me staying down,’ she said in response to their questioning looks, ‘since Roger had the phone anyway. So I thought I might as well do this, what else can I really do?’
‘Good idea,’ said Harold.
They shared a sad smile.
‘You work on this floor, don’t you?’ said Alma. ‘So were you here earlier? Did you see Matt this morning, when he went back up to the staff room?’
‘How did he seem? Was he acting weirdly?’
‘Not really I guess. Actually, I know he was fine because he chatted to me before he opened the door.’
‘Oh? What about?’
‘I can’t remember. Nothing important. Oh, wait, it was about a bauble he was going to buy tonight, of a glittery reindeer head. I thought it sounded awful but he laughed and said that’s why he liked it. Apparently his parents are really rich and have a massive classy tree or something?’
‘He was chatty then?’
‘Oh yeah. Seemed very jolly, more than usual even.’
‘I see,’ said Alma. ‘Sounds about right. Thanks. Jumper display looks great by the way.’ She led Harold down the stairs and muttered to him, ‘I think I’m getting a picture of what happened.’
‘We already know what happened? Matt threw himself out of a window.’
‘If you were going to commit suicide by jumping off a building would you really throw yourself through a pane of glass first?’ she said. ‘Really? Come on, we need to talk to Santa again.’
Chris was still sat in his Santa’s chair, still looking a bit lost. His beard had fallen down under his chin and he looked up glumly when he saw them approaching.
‘Matt was drunk, wasn’t he?’ said Alma. ‘Left over from Winter Wonderland, maybe?’
‘Of course not. He’d get fired for that.’
‘Exactly. That’s why you sent him upstairs claiming he was ill, to give him a chance to sober up. And why the glass of water was needed, but not the paracetamol – that was for show. Since he wasn’t ill, didn’t have a headache, he was just jolly. You were hoping a bit hydration would help him sober up.’
‘No, he was more than jolly,’ said Chris. He sighed. ‘Guess it’s not like he can be fired now, right? Yeah he was drunk. I didn’t notice right away, since he didn’t stink of it, but I knew it when he started mouthing off to the customers. Made a little girl scream at him. He mouths off a lot when he’s drunk, you know, likes to pick fights and says a load of crap to get a reaction.’
‘Hardly appropriate for children,’ said Alma.
‘Hardly appropriate anyway!’ said Harold. ‘I–’
‘Wait,’ said Alma. She looked at a man weighed down with heavy jackets walking towards the exit. ‘Where’s Billy going?’
‘Home I’d imagine,’ said Harold. ‘He’s not working today, remember?’
‘Yes I do.’ She strode over to him with a smile plastered on her face, deliberating standing between him and the door. ‘Hello again! Did you not get your present for your girlfriend?’
‘The handbag. You don’t have a shopping bag.’
‘Oh yeah, that. I’m going to come back another day for it.’
‘I see,’ Alma smiled brightly. ‘You know, I’ve just come up with a good solution to Harold’s shoplifting problem.’
‘Then you should talk to Harold about that, not waste my time.’
‘That’s the point. I need to start with your pockets, to prove a theory I’ve been playing with about how the missing goods could be transported out. You don’t mind humouring an old woman trying to show her friend up, do you?’
‘I would mind as it happens so move out of my way.’
‘It will only take a minute. Not even that, more like thirty seconds. And, since your pockets seemed to be quite bulky, bulkier than when I saw you earlier in fact, I don’t mind paying the whole 5p to get you a carrier bag to say thank you. So go on, please, for an old lady.’
‘I … um …’
Billy suddenly dashed for the door, dodging around Alma and pushing the security guard out of the way. Unfortunately for him, the security guard was built like a tank, didn’t budge in the slightest and instead tripped him up as he went by. Billy went down like a brick between the alarm barriers, making a respectable thump.
‘Why did he run?’ said Harold.
‘Because he’s the thief,’ said Alma.
‘He can’t be,’ said Harold. ‘The alarms didn’t go off.’
‘Of course they didn’t – he works here. He removes the security tagging while he’s working, hides them in the staffroom and then collects them later when he’s not working so he can leave through the front door.’
There was an exclamation from the guard when a necklace spilled out of Billy’s pocket.
‘And just how did you know that?’ said Harold, watching the guard take him to the back room. ‘And quick, before I get the police.’
‘Looks like you won’t have to.’ One of the officers who were already outside had seen the commotion. ‘But I’ll still tell you how I knew. Billy said he heard shouting from the staffroom, but even the screeching Christmas carols can’t penetrate that door. So he had to have actually been in the staffroom to have heard it, or just made up the story entirely. My guess is that he went up to get the stolen goods he had stashed earlier and Matt, who was still a bit drunk and argumentative, guessed what he was up to, claimed he knew more than he did, maybe said he could prove it, who knows. Either way, he provoked Billy, and it ended up with him going out the window.
‘It will be interesting to see how he tries to explain away hearing the argument,’ said Harold, ‘or how that necklace got into his pocket.’ He sighed. ‘I need a strong coffee. One for you?’
‘No thank you, I’ve got an appointment to keep. Good luck.’ Alma looked at her watch. If the bakery had sold out of the Spiced Double Yule Log of Joy she would not be so joyous.