Part 2 of 3:
Elsewhere in the city that night, a party was being held: in the police station of all places. But not everyone attending was filled with Christmas cheer. Officer Peter Gumption had rather more worrisome thoughts on his mind. He sat nursing them limply on the couch. An attractive blonde twenty-something sat on the arm-rest beside him.
“You haven’t touched your eggnog, Peter,” said Sally, Peter’s fellow officer and date.
“You can have it,” he said, passing her the tumbler. “I want to stay alert. Besides, my stomach …”
Sally raised an eyebrow. “You’re not still worried about you-know-who, are you? You’ve done everything you possibly can, and then some. Isn’t having APB’s out at all the sewerage treatment plants enough?”
“But the sewer overflows we’ve had—”
“Which you’ve only mentioned five times today. You had a look, didn’t you? The bastard’s probably been washed out to sea. Good riddance.”
Peter shook his head. “It’s not as simple as that. The sea didn’t stop him the first time.”
“Then with any luck he’ll get swallowed by a grouper fish, or meet with some sockthirsty pirates.” Sally thumped Peter in the shoulder and grinned. Peter retained his pensive stare and rubbed his arm where she’d hit it. “Oh, come on, don’t mope. Let’s hit the dance floor. Listen, the DJ’s playing Devo.”
“I know. I wish he’d turn it down: the six o’clock news is about to start.” Peter fumbled with the remote for the lobby television. He turned up the volume to compete with the revelry.
“You’re impossible, Peter! It’s Christmas Eve! No horror-film scenario ever played out on Christmas Eve.”
Peter’s eyes were glued to the tiny telly. “What about Black Christmas, or Gremlins?”
“Oh. Yeah, you’re right. Gremlins, what a great movie … Gizmo was so cute.”
“Sure. Before he transformed into a hideous green monster and went on the rampage.”
“Gizmo didn’t turn into a Gremlin! Only the other Mogwais did. At the end of the movie Gizmo was taken back to the pet shop owned by that creepy oriental guy. I had nightmares.”
Peter’s mouth was hanging open now as the TV vied for his attention. “I’m sure if you researched it,” he said, “you’d be hard pressed to find a holiday that was exempt.”
“Exempt from what?”
“From horror-movie scenarios. I bet there’s a director out there somewhere holding auditions for a psychopathic Easter Bunny. So forgive me if I’m not convinced.”
“Fine,” said Sally, downing the eggnog in one fell swoop. “Sit there and chase your bottle ghosts. I thought it would do you good to get out of the Records office, but you may as well bugger off back to it. I’m going dancing. If you want me, I’ll be making some other guy think he’s God’s gift to the dance floor.”
Sally stood up and waited for some kind of reaction.
“Have fun,” said Peter absently.
“Grr!” Sally turned on her heel and stormed off. “If I ever get my hands on that goddamned sock I’ll throttle it!”
“That doesn’t work either!” Peter called after her. He turned the volume up two more notches and set down the remote. As the evening news unfolded, he absently fiddled with a pendant on a silver chain around his neck. It was a ‘cat’s-eye’ – part of a periwinkle’s shell. More recently, it had been part of Mr. Sockforahead ….
* * *
Mr. Sockforahead glanced around the room. “First we’ll need a weapon of some kind. It’s no good taking on Santa empty-handed. We’ll search this lot and see what we can find.” He nodded towards the handful of dozing homeless people.
Tom looked them over. He hadn’t seen a sorrier bunch. “Bums don’t steal from bums,” said Tom. “It’s an unwritten rule.”
“That’s only because they don’t usually have anything worth stealing. You have that lighter, so maybe one of these cast-offs has a service revolver or a Bowie knife.”
“A Bowie knife? We’ll be lucky to find a P-38 can-opener.”
Mr. Sockforahead began snooping in the nearest man’s pockets. He burrowed right in with little fear of being noticed. Small insignificant objects rained onto the floor. Tom winced at every clatter.
“Don’t be so hasty,” said Mr. Sockforahead, from the depths of a coat pocket. “You never know your luck in the big city.” He emerged and gave Tom a blank stare. “Help me out, why don’tcha.”
“All right, all right.” They wandered to the next sleeping form. Mr. Sockforahead repeated his haphazard pocket explorations while Tom proceeded with almost paralytic caution, alert for any change in the man’s rattling snore that might signal wakefulness.
“Whoa!” said Mr. Sockforahead, turning his attention to their next prospect. “I think we just hit pay dirt.”
They came to a cot bearing what was very clearly – even in the dim light – a portly man in a long pink dress. He had a messy mop of black hair, a waxy complexion, and enough makeup on to sink a battleship. He lay sprawled on his back, sleeping soundly.
Tom and Mr. Sockforahead exchanged glances.
“He ain’t no bum, I can tell you that much,” said Tom.
“You sure? He seems to be mostly posterior.”
“Just some freak that missed his train, I’ll bet. Ah, look – there’s a suitcase under the cot.”
Tom knelt and between them they slid the suitcase out. Plastered across it was the name: ‘Harry S. Truman.’ There were also several stickers bearing the likeness of the former U.S. President.
“Truman, huh?” said Tom. “I was always more of a Reagan man. At least he was funny.”
“C’mon, let’s open it. This oughta be good!”
They each flipped a latch and Tom gingerly lifted the lid. Mr. Sockforahead dived in and rifled through the contents. Tom instinctively shielded himself in case of imminent explosions.
“It’s full of propaganda,” Mr. Sockforahead reported. “I don’t see anything else of— Whoops!”
There came a buzzing sound from inside the case, and Mr. Sockforahead quickly closed the lid. Tom felt his heart do a backflip.
“Well, one of those might come in handy once Santa’s in our clutches,” said Mr. Sockforahead while the thing continued its muffled buzzing, “but I’d feel like a complete knob threatening him with it.”
“This is nuts,” said Tom, getting up and nudging the case back under the cot. “I’ll have a stroke at this rate, then it won’t just be my hand that’s numb.”
“Aw, c’mon. You’ve gotta admit this is more fun than what you’d be doing without me.”
“I might’ve finished my soup in peace, for one thing. I might’ve even slept through Christmas without—”
“Ho-ho-ho!” came a booming voice from the direction of the soup kitchen.
“Hey, how about that?” said Mr. Sockforahead. “It sounds like we won’t have to go Santa hunting after all. He’s come straight to us.” Mr. Sockforahead regarded Tom’s face. It had grown ashen. “What’s up, Tom? You look like the Ghost of Christmas Past just shit in your pyjamas. Come on, we’ve got work to do.”
Tom backed towards the wall, wheezing. “No. I can’t go out there.”
“Don’t flake out on me now. We were making progress.”
Tom coughed and got control of his breathing. “You’re right, sock. I’ve let this go on far too long. But what are we going to do without a weapon?”
“We’ll improvise. Now let’s go spoil Christmas!”
Tom straightened up, flexed his shoulders, and with a nod to his comrade in knitwear, marched into the light. Then he froze in it like a deer in headlights. Santa Claus had come to the homeless shelter, all right, but he hadn’t come alone. He’d brought the local news crew along to film his every move.
“I’ll need your other hand for a second,” said Mr. Sockforahead, oblivious. “Don’t worry, you can have it back when I’m done.”
Tom felt his free hand go numb, and panic gripped him. It had never occurred to him that he might lose control of his entire body to the sock puppet. He watched helpless as his phantom hand reached into his pocket and pulled out an empty bottle. The next moment, the bottle struck the nearest homeless man on the noggin. The man wavered for a moment, his soup-spoon to his lips, then he slumped forward, catapulting the contents of his bowl into the air. Each piece of mechanically separated chicken, sliced carrot, and soggy noodle stayed suspended in space for what seemed like a lifetime. The spinning bowl clattered to a stop on the floor, and in the silence that followed, Tom realised all eyes were once again upon him.
“Damn,” said Mr. Sockforahead, examining the unbroken bottle. “They always shatter into lovely jagged points in the movies.”
“Y-you’ve killed him!” Tom managed.
“Nonsense! He’ll have a hell of a headache when he wakes up though.”
Mr. Sockforahead swung the bottle again. This time it connected with the back of a chair and made a lovely tinkly sound as it shattered. Tom’s eyes widened as he watched his own hand brandish the jagged remnants, gleaming evilly in the TV camera’s lights.
“I’ll need your feet now, Tom,” said Mr. Sockforahead.
Already the numbness was creeping up his legs ….
* * *
Peter was growing increasingly impatient with the dross that passed for news. The woefully obvious freak weather patterns had been covered in depth. If he saw one more old lady slip over on the sidewalk he felt liable to knock a few over himself. Now the weather report was on, and every second word out of the weather-lady’s mouth was snow.
The lack of Mr. Sockforahead sightings made the poison of doubt creep into his mind. He glanced in the direction of the party. Bodies flailed about under coloured lights in time to an eighties hit by Dead Or Alive. He found his foot tapping. It stopped under his disapproving glare.
“We interrupt the weather report to go live to the Salvation Army Hostel on the West Side, where I’m told an unusual hostage situation is underway,” said the news anchor. “Gary?”
Peter’s eyes darted back to the screen as a shaky image filled it. The roving reporter filled most of the frame, but a little behind him stood a man in a Santa costume, with what appeared to be a broken bottle held to his neck.
“What started out as a mission of kindness has turned ugly down here at the hostel. Santa Claus had come to spread a little Christmas cheer to the homeless on Christmas Eve, only to fall victim to a homeless man’s personal vendetta.”
“Do you have any idea what the man’s problem is?”
“It would appear that he’s mentally unstable, Richard. He has some kind of weird puppet on his hand.”
Peter’s eyes widened. Some kind of weird puppet! “Get out of the way, man!” he shouted at the screen.
There was a scuffle behind the reporter, and at last the camera focused on the action. There was Santa, with his jolly beard and padded suit, but his eyes were pools of fear. The man holding the broken bottle to his neck seemed just as frightened: his face a mask of shock. His other hand, which had been momentarily hidden, sprang into view and Peter’s worst fears became confirmed.
“Hey, am I on live TV?” said Mr. Sockforahead. “Just my luck – I have an opportunity to reach millions of viewers and I look like shit. Welcome to the Mr. Sockforahead show! He slices, he dices, and he’s part of this complete breakfast! Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater, if you’re out there, come and join the party! It’s not the same without you. Bring your girlfriend! We’ll have a few laughs – at your expense, of course. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have a bone or two to carve from Santa here.”
Peter didn’t stay to watch what happened next. With a sense of purpose running through his veins, his sagging body became taught and ready for action. He leapt from the couch and raced into the melee of the dance floor.
“Sally!” he called, searching the bobbing faces. He caught sight of her over near the bar, dancing with a bald man who had two left feet. He grabbed her by the hand and spun her ’round.
“Peter, so you’ve come to dance with me at last?” she said.
“Sorry to disappoint you, but we’re needed elsewhere.” He led her towards the door.
“Hey, slow down! What’s the rush?”
“Do you need me to spell it out?” said Peter, rounding on her.
She looked him in the eyes. “Oh, God …” She slipped into her jacket and together they hurried out into the street, where the first few flakes of snow were falling. They would get a white Christmas after all, but with it the promise of something far worse than Gremlins.
* * *
As Tom and Mr. Sockforahead backed towards the dormitory, a figure rushed towards them with a yell. Tom turned to see the man from the soup-kitchen bearing down on them with a taser in his hand. He cringed, but Mr. Sockforahead wasn’t fazed. In one quick movement Mr. Sockforahead dealt the man a head-butt while Tom’s hand dropped the broken bottle and snatched up the taser.
“Oh look,” said Mr. Sockforahead. “It’s the negro from the woodpile. What’s this thing?”
The man raised his hands and backed away. “Now, don’t be hasty,” he said. “I just didn’t want anyone to get hurt, you understand?”
“Sure! No hard feelings. I’m sure it won’t hurt a bit.”
With that, Mr. Sockforahead fired the taser. The lead hit its former wielder in the chest, and the man convulsed and slumped to the floor. Santa panicked and tried to free himself from Tom’s headlock.
“Don’t move, Santa, or I’ll give you a taste of this thing too!” Santa ceased his struggling. “If anyone follows us,” said Mr. Sockforahead, “Santa skips Christmas and goes straight to Boxing Day. Got it? You lot go back to enjoying your soup.”
The occupants of the dormitory were all awake now, sitting up and staring bleary-eyed at the nightmarish spectacle that had entered the room.
“Everyone out! You too, Sleeping Beauty!”
They hurried from their cots in a confused jumble. The man in the pink dress clutched his suitcase tightly to his chest as he fled the room. No doubt the reporter would pounce on them for their fifty-cents-worth.
“Right, have a lie down, Santa.” Tom found himself shoving Santa onto a cot and pocketing the taser. “Tie him up, Tommy boy.”
“I want nothing more to do with this!” said Tom. “You’re insane, sock! Or worse, I am.”
“Nope, you were right the first time. I may have been a bit heavy-handed there—”
“But I’ve acted with your interests at heart, I truly have. And true to my word, I’ve given control of your hand back, haven’t I?”
Tom found himself rubbing his face with it, and realised it was true.
“So, what shall we do with our fat, jolly friend here? Roast his chestnuts on an open fire? Shove a few gift-wrapped boxes up his keister and see how he likes it?”
“Please!” said Santa. “I’m not the real Santa, you must know that?”
“Psht. Of course we know that. What do you take us for?”
“My name is Harry Asphalt. Look, I’ll take the beard off and you can see for yourself.”
The beard came off, but Tom knew the man the moment he heard the name. He stepped to the side of the cot and regarded the ragged, lined face with its sagging jowls and parson’s nose.
“Harry Asphalt,” said Tom. “You don’t recognise me, do you?”
“Why should I recognise a … wait a minute. You … you used to be Trisha’s man, right?”
“She was my wife all right.” Tom grabbed him by the fur-lined trim of his Santa coat. “You’re the bastard that was sleeping with her behind my back!”
“Hey – hey now.” Harry put his hands up. “I’m not saying what I did was right, but I ain’t seen Trisha for years. She got tired of me and pretty soon I found myself in your shoes.”
“Is that so?”
“Honest. She was a piece of work. You ought to be glad you’re shod of her.”
Tom let go and Harry slumped back on the cot. “What about my son?” he said.
“I haven’t seen him since I left. He was a fine boy, though. Resilient. I reckon he’s done all right for himself in spite of her.” Harry sat up, dug through his pockets. A dog-eared pack of cigarettes came to light. “Don’t suppose you have a light?”
Tom sat down on the cot opposite and pulled out his lighter. “It’ll cost you one of those cancer sticks.”
They lit. They puffed. Mr. Sockforahead looked from one to the other and gave them each a hefty punch on the nose. “What d’you think you’re doing?” he said.
“Making my peace, what of it?” said Tom. “It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”
“Without so much as a punch to the stomach or a knee to the groin? What about the years of hardship and worthlessness you’ve been through?”
“I’m as much to blame for that as he is.”
“That’s as maybe, but I’ve got a few things I’d like to get off my chest.” Mr. Sockforahead turned to Harry. “What’s all this about nailing socks to the wall?”
“Gonna need that hand of yours back, Tom.”
End of Part 2.
Joshua Blanc is the author of Tales of Elves and Trolls: The Crystal Goblin, a fantasy novel for all-ages. His no-holds-barred Mr. Sockforahead stories have appeared on TheWeirdCrap since 2000, making this year Mr. Sockforahead’s tenth anniversary. For more of Joshua’s eccentric wit, please visit: www.manitouslair.com. For more of Mr. Sockforahead, be sure to visit the My Strange Stories archives.