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Chapter One

“Excuse me, Joey.”  Nick looked down at the six-year-old sitting on his lap listing his Christmas requests.  “I’m very sorry to interrupt you and I PROMISE that I will hear everything you want to tell me, in a few minutes.  But I need to take care of some naughty behavior right now.”  He stood and turned to deposit the child on his winter throne.  “You sit right here and wait for me, okay?”  Joey’s eyes were as rounded as they could be as he nodded, and Nick gave him a smile meant to reassure him.  “That’s a good boy, thank you for being accommodating.”  Then he raised his head, turning to look at the line of children and parents waiting their chance to talk with him.  “I apologize everyone.  I need to take care of some naughtiness.  I will be back in a couple of minutes.”  He gave them a brief smile and strode off towards the little gingerbread house where the elves worked, stripping off his gloves as he went.  “Elf Marcie, LANGUAGE!” he roared as he stepped inside.  “You are being very naughty!”  The door closed and the crowd could no longer hear his exact words but they could tell that Santa was very displeased and was scolding the miscreant.  Shortly afterwards they heard thuds, easily interpreted as a hard hand landing heavily on a covered bottom, the accompanying yelps from the unhappy elf leaving no doubts that a spanking was being administered.

The people waiting in line displayed an assortment of reactions.  A couple pulled out cell phones or lifted their camcorders to film the gingerbread house and the sounds emanating from it.  Two mothers took their children’s hands and led them away as they protested.  Several more parents crouched down to talk quietly with their children, taking the opportunity to point out Santa’s strong feelings about bad words.  Sadly, a few, intent on their electronic devices, never noticed what was happening or their children’s uncertain expressions.

Nick emerged and pulled his gloves back on as he moved along the line, making a point of speaking with each family, as he headed back to his throne.  “I’m sorry about that, Joey.”  He picked up the child and sat down, settling the boy back on his knee.  “Thank you for waiting so patiently for me.  I really appreciate that.”

“Did you spank her, Santa?”

Nick looked in the child’s eyes and saw no fear, only curiosity.  “Well, Joey, how would you feel if you were in Elf Marcie’s place?  Would you want everyone to know what happened to you if you were being naughty and your mommy or daddy had to deal with your behavior?”  The boy shook his head.  “That’s right,” Nick agreed.  “It’s a private matter that other people don’t need to know about.  But I do want you to remember just how much I don’t like hearing bad words, okay?”  There was an eager nod and he gave the boy a quick squeeze.  “Good, now let’s get back to your list, shall we?  So far you told me a sled, a GI Joe, a puppy and a mountain bike.  Now, I want to make sure that you know I can’t bring you everything you ask for, I won’t promise that; but I do like hearing a nice long list so I have lots of ideas for what will fit in my bag.  What else were you thinking of?” And Joey launched into his recital again, the interruption quickly forgotten in light of more important matters.  Nick listened carefully, asking clarifying questions as necessary.

Inside the gingerbread house, Elf Marcie was back behind the camera, intent on capturing the special moment of Joey sitting on Santa’s lap, quickly printing the photo and placing it in a greeting card, courtesy of Nickson’s Department Store.  The printer had been giving her problems all evening; more times than not she had to reprint the photos as they kept coming out smeared.  This had been the cause of her swearing as she had just had three unsuccessful attempts to print Joey’s picture with Santa.  Her bottom throbbed from the spanking she had just received and she was very grateful that the heavy velvet of her elf dress had blunted it as much as it did.  She hoped that she never discovered what it would feel like to receive a spanking like that on her bare bottom!  After Nick had finished spanking her, he had unplugged the printer, rapped it with his knuckles and plugged it back in, assuring her that she shouldn’t have any more problems, before opening the door and going back to meeting with his adoring audience.  She sure hoped that he had fixed it, although she couldn’t imagine how his actions would make a difference.  But then, she’d never had much luck with machines.

Nick continued to give each child his full attention, making sure that the last one in line felt as important as the first one had.  When at last, he sent the final one off with a candy cane and the photo card, a good half hour after the store had closed, he stood up from his throne and stretched out his back.  He watched the night manager trotting towards him, after pausing to stop and talk to the last family as they were escorted through the store by an employee who would unlock the door and let them out.  “How bad is it?” he asked quietly when the man finally reached him.

“The press is here; both the local paper and the local cable station, and the Boston paper and all the Boston television stations.  Undoubtedly they will pass their material along to their national affiliates.  Santa, Nickson’s Department Store Santa, spanking an elf will be big national news tomorrow morning on all the channels.  Couldn’t you just have let it go?”

Nick shook his head.  “If I could hear her from here, I’m positive everyone in line could as well.  I had to make sure that the children knew in no uncertain terms that bad language is not acceptable.  I spoke with each family present to confirm that the children weren’t upset.  They all accepted it pretty calmly and most of the parents thanked me for teaching the lesson.  No one actually saw the spanking, just heard it and I never admitted that a spanking occurred.  I deflected anyone who asked by saying it was a private matter with Elf Marcie.  Do you think I should meet with the press and give an official statement as Santa or should I change back into my business suit and meet with them as the acting store CEO?  Marcie’s still here, right?  I don’t want her talking to them until I’ve met with her, we need to present a united front.”

“I wish Mr. Nickson were here; I don’t feel like I should be making this decision.  You’re the big boss while he’s gone.  You decide.”

Nick clapped the nervous man on his shoulder.  “Don’t worry, I have no problem accepting full responsibility for handling this.  I just wanted to know what your thoughts are.”

Mr. Strathmore straightened, taking on an aura of self-importance.  “Oh.  Well, I can see pros and cons for both sides.  On the one hand, it might be good for Santa to explain himself, but then it might be bad.  On the other hand, it might be good for Nickson’s Department Store to issue an official statement, but then it might be better to distance the company from what Santa did.”

Nick nodded sagely.  “And that’s why you are where you are today, Thomas.”  Night manager and never going to advance any further, he thought to himself.  “Thanks for your input.  I’ll meet with them tonight as Santa and tomorrow as the CEO.  Would you please make sure that everyone knows that I am the only one speaking with the press?  And I’m certain that no one will have a problem keeping Santa’s alternate identity secret, right?”  The other man nodded.  “I’m going to speak with Marcie now and then you can send in the press.  Santa will meet with them right here.”

Marcie watched Mr. Strathmore scurry past the gingerbread house and shook her head at the sight, giggling.  She had never believed that people really scurried like authors sometimes said in books, until she started working at Nickson’s and saw the night manager in action.  Since the decorative little building was used for storage and technical work that wasn’t very festive, the windows were filled with an opaque material that prevented anyone from seeing inside, and unfortunately, from seeing out.  Instead, there were strategically placed peepholes disguised in the ornate gingerbread trim to allow the employees inside the building to monitor what was happening outside.  She turned back to the peephole to see if Nick had left yet.  She wasn’t eager to run into him again tonight and had decided to remain out of sight until the coast was clear.  He wasn’t in the limited field of vision and she shifted her position to try to see from a different angle.

“Looking for me?”  He was behind her inside the hut.

She squealed as she jumped and turned to face him, her hands automatically reaching back to cover her bottom.  How had he opened the door and come in without her hearing him?  “Um, I was just getting everything ready for tomorrow.  That’s me, dedicated employee, always putting in the extra effort to make things perfect.”  She patted the table of supplies.  “I guess everything is good, I should head home now.  See you tomorrow.”  She tried to inch past him, but he didn’t give her enough space, his large body seeming to fill the small room.

“Marcie, I’ve taught you the lesson about your language and now you have a clean slate.  As long as you remember that lesson, you have nothing to fear from me.  Now I want you to tell me what you plan to say to the press and the public when they ask you about tonight.”

She looked up at Santa.  Somehow, when he put on the suit, Nick truly became Santa.  In previous years when Mr. Nickson had put on the suit, you still knew it was Mr. Nickson, not Santa, his mannerisms, his voice, gave him away.  But when Nick put on the Santa suit, he was different.  He was Santa; nothing remained of Nick, the mannerisms, and voice, even his facial features, behind the beard seemed changed.  “Um, do I have to talk to them?”

He shook his head.  “No.  You are under no obligation to speak with them; you can say ‘no comment’.  But they aren’t likely to leave you alone until you do speak with them, so it’s probably best if you think carefully about what you want to say ahead of time instead of speaking off the cuff when you can’t take the harassment anymore.”

“What do you want me to say?”

Nick decided to sit on the edge of the table so that he didn’t tower quite so high above the diminutive woman.  “Why don’t I tell you what I’ve said to the people who were here and you can see if it helps you at all?”  She nodded at him, grateful that she didn’t have to strain her neck looking so high up.  “First of all, no one saw me spank you.  They heard you swearing, they saw and heard my reaction up to the point that I closed the door and then they heard sounds that they believe was a spanking.  All I said was that I dealt with your naughty behavior.  When people asked point blank if I spanked you, I said that it was a private matter with you; suggesting that they wouldn’t like everyone to know what happened if they had been in your position.” 

She smiled.  “Thank you.”

Nick smiled back.  “You’re welcome.  Good manners will take you far, little elf.  Now, tell me what happened when you handed them their photo greeting cards.  Did they mention the spanking?”  She blushed and he knew that his heart was in danger.  She was just so darned cute.  He chuckled.  “If you reacted like that, you’ve confirmed everyone’s suspicions.  But go ahead and tell me.”

“I didn’t confirm anything with words; I can’t help it if I blush easily, it’s my fair skin.  Most people were embarrassed and wouldn’t meet my eyes.  A couple mumbled something about being sorry.  One asked if it hurt; but I didn’t have to respond because her son ran off and she had to chase him.  Two told me I deserved what I got; but they said it quickly as they took the card and left without waiting for me to say anything.”

“Hmm, I like that phrase.  ‘Getting what you deserve’ is ambiguous while admitting that you were wrong to swear.  I hope you do plan to admit that swearing is wrong?”  She bit her lip, lowered her head and nodded.  There was that cuteness factor again.  Nick was surprised to feel his cock reacting.  He had never had a sexual response while wearing the suit before; he hadn’t even thought it was possible.  He’d have to ask his cousins about it.  “Good girl.  We want to send the right message to all the children out there; bad language is unacceptable.  Santa doesn’t allow his elves to swear.  Exactly what Santa does about it, doesn’t need to be clarified.  I’m about to meet with the press tonight as Santa.  Tomorrow as the acting store CEO, while Mr. Nickson is out on sick leave, I will give an official statement.  Why don’t you stay in here and watch what happens tonight.  Then, if we need to and you are agreeable, we can trot you out tomorrow, or later, in civilian clothes.  You’ll have seen how the press is acting and you’ll have a better idea of what to expect.  What do you think?”

“I think you’re right, Santa, I mean Nick.”  She blushed again and wouldn’t raise her eyes.

He patted her shoulder in a paternal manner.  “You were right the first time.  When I’m dressed like this, I am Santa and you should call me that.  Never, ever think of me out of character; we don’t want to chance damaging anyone’s beliefs.  Now, I want you to stay in here until I come as Nick to get you and then I’ll take you home to make sure the press doesn’t harass you.  Remember to keep quiet.”  He uncoiled as he stood up from the table, his presence, once again, seeming to fill the space and he left, closing the door firmly behind him.

Santa waited patiently on his winter throne while the cameras and microphones were set up.  A couple of the print reporters tried to ask him questions, but he shook his head and remained silent.  When he decided that everyone was ready, he finally spoke.  “I will answer one question from each person here, going in the order of niceness.  Peter, your work with the Big Brother program has been commendable.  What is your question?”

The local cable television cameraman’s head popped up and looked around in astonishment.  “You’re calling on me, Santa?”  All the other cameras abruptly changed direction to film him.

Nick smiled gently.  “Yes, Peter, your goodness is so strong it is just shining off you.  What would you like to ask me?”

The man blushed and shook his head.  Ignoring the reporter who was frantically whispering in his ear, he said, “What I’d really like to do is thank you for the train set you gave me when I was eight.  I played with it every day for years and as a result of that I majored in engineering in college and now I help design bridges.  It is an awesome job and I wake up every morning eager to go to work!”

“I’m so glad to hear that, Peter.  You’ve thanked me many times over the years, but this is the first I’ve heard about how happy you are with your job; that is great news!  Now, even though you are a volunteer for the local cable station and didn’t expect to find yourself serving as a reporter, you should ask me something.  Some of your colleagues are getting very impatient.”

Peter looked around at all of the other members of the press.  Almost all of them were suggesting questions to him, some mouthing their questions, others shouting, a couple had scribbled words on their notebooks and were holding them towards him to read.  It reminded him of a feeding frenzy on one of the nature specials about sharks.  He shook his head in bewilderment.  “How do you stand this, Santa?”

Nick didn’t try to hold his laughter in and his ‘Ho, ho, hos’ rolled out in waves as he held his belly and finally had to wipe the tears from his eyes.  “Thank you, Peter!  Your concern for me is the perfect example of your goodness and why you outshine everyone else here.  You are right, this press attention is not pleasant and I am very sorry that I need to be here doing this instead of making notes about all the requests I heard from the children tonight.”  He paused and looked directly into the cameras.  “Children, don’t worry about the delay in making my notes, I won’t forget what you told me.”  Then he looked back at Peter.  “I stand it because I must.  Sometimes things happen while I am working and people have questions.  I try to do what I can to bring happiness to people and I believe that the questions a child has should always be addressed.”  He shrugged.  “None of you are children now, but you were once; and I still respond to the children I remember and I remember every single one of you.  John, you are up.  What is your question?”

A reporter from one of the major Boston television stations started to form his question, but Santa shook his head, holding up his hand to stop him.  “No, Jonathan, you are lower on the list.  I’m asking John.”  He nodded to a man wearing a ragged trench coat, which had seen better times many years ago, who was standing off to the side in the very back of the group.  He stood up straighter and opened his mouth, but was interrupted.

“He’s not even employed by anyone, he’s freelance!  Why are you letting him go next?” a woman holding a microphone complained.

Santa sighed.  “Edith, your poor manners and arrogant self-importance are going to keep you from ever breaking into the national arena.  You need to mend your ways!  I will give you this answer without considering it as your one question because you need to learn humility.  John is next because he has worked in his local soup kitchen every Thanksgiving Day and every Christmas Day, every single one, for the last thirty years.  I believe the only time you’ve been in a soup kitchen was the story you did about Thanksgiving five years ago and the station didn’t air it because you filmed it the day before Thanksgiving, attempted to pass it off as the actual day, and was caught and reprimanded.  Now apologize to John.”

She gaped at Santa, stunned.  After a long moment of silence, the reporter standing next to her elbowed her in the ribs.  “Hurry it up, Edith.  I want to finish this story up and get home to my family; it’s getting late.”  Others added their voices in agreement.

She stamped her foot.  “Fine!  I’m sorry!” she huffed and turned her shoulder towards the man, not quite presenting her back.

Again, the laughter rolled out of Santa.  “You did that just like you did the day when you were five and were caught trying to take Tommy Bishop’s cookie off his lunch tray.  As I said a few minutes ago, I remember every single one of you as you were as children, and John, I’m very sorry to say that’s about the best apology you can expect from Edith.  What would you like to ask?”

“Based on what I’ve just seen, I’d like to privately ask you a question that doesn’t pertain to this news story, if that is permitted,” the man stated, careful to not raise his voice and make it a question.

This time Santa chuckled.  “I’m not a magic genie trying to trip you up!  That is very astute though, John.  Yes, I will answer your question privately, but not tonight, it is getting very late.  Come see me tomorrow after I finish working.  Christine, you’re next.”

“What happened today, Santa?” she asked promptly.

“My elf assistant was experiencing difficulty with her equipment, got very frustrated and used bad language.  I reminded her that children could hear her using words that no one should ever say.  George?”

“Yes, sir!  Did you spank her, as some people have claimed?”

Santa sighed.  “I am very disappointed that everyone is displaying so much interest in a private matter that is none of their business.  The only thing that anyone needs to know is that I do not tolerate bad language.  Preston?”

“Are you saying that those people are lying?”

“Lying is very naughty; so is making false accusations.  Sometimes people think they know something when they have actually extrapolated from an accepted fact that may not be accurate.  I will not say more on this private matter, other than to point out that the only people present were Elf Marcie and me.  No one else knows for sure what happened and that is as it should be.  Elf Marcie is entitled to her privacy and I will not take that away from her.  Whitney, your turn.”

“Um, can I ask my question privately, too?”

He studied her and then looked up at the group in general.  “I’d like to remind everyone that I do not have any special powers that tell me the future.  There is no point in thinking that I can give you investment advice or the next winning lottery numbers.  I know what John plans to ask me and I can give him a fair answer.  Whitney, you are vacillating between two questions, only one of which I can answer.  I will let you decide if you want to save your question until tomorrow, as long as you understand that my answer may be ‘I don’t know.’  Decide now and let’s move on.”

“Thank you, Santa.  I will wait.”

He nodded curtly.  “So be it.”  He frowned as he studied the group.  “It’s getting harder to discern the levels of niceness in the rest of you.  Please consider being more charitable, or at least curbing your naughtiness.  Scott, go ahead.”

“You say that you don’t have magical powers to tell the future; what magical powers do you have?”

Santa sighed.  “I agreed to talk with you all out of innate politeness.  When someone comes to see you, it is only right to meet with them.  It is getting very late and in the interest of conserving time, I have limited this to one question from each person.  I remind you that I am not obligated to answer everything or even anything that is asked.  Throughout my long history, people have wondered what powers Santa Claus has.  I will say only that I know if you have been naughty or nice and I can travel around the world in one night delivering gifts even when there isn’t a chimney to go down.  Jonathan, now it is your turn.”

“I apologize for mistaking my turn earlier, Santa.”

“Thank you, Jonathan; you are remembering your manners.  Your mother will be proud.  What do you want to ask me?”

“The whole world will see at least some segments of this press conference.  What do you want to tell the children who will be watching tomorrow?”

Santa beamed a smile.  “Thank you for asking me that Jonathan!”  His eyes locked on the cameras again.  “Children, today we had some naughty behavior with bad language and the lesson everyone learned is that Santa doesn’t want anyone to use certain words.  If you are feeling very, very frustrated and regular words aren’t helping you, try using a special word, like ‘slush’ or ‘bells’ that doesn’t offend anyone.  Remember that you should always try to be as good as you can be.  I understand that no one can be perfect all the time and everyone makes mistakes, at least sometimes.  The important thing is that you try.  What you do when you want to correct your mistakes or naughty behavior is very important and makes all the difference.  Do your best and that will be good enough.”  He smiled reassuringly.  Then his eyes left the camera and narrowed as he focused his attention on the last male reporter.  “Jason, your behavior has been very naughty recently and I would prefer not to give you any answer, but I promised and so I will.  However, I cannot say strongly enough, stop what you are doing and make restitution!  Now, what is your question?”

“Do you think it is appropriate for parents to spank their – no wait!  I have a different question.  Can I be redeemed?”

Nodding, Santa smiled gently.  “I know the naughtiness of your recent behavior is weighing heavily on you, but I remember the younger Jason who would sit for hours with his Grammy. You listened to her tell the same stories over and over and still managed to laugh in the right places, every single time as if you’d heard a brand new joke.  I remember the year you used your birthday gift money to buy a present for your sick friend instead of yourself.  I remember the time you told the other boys to stop teasing the new boy on your baseball team when you saw that he was about to cry.  You have love and patience, generosity and kindness in you.  Find them and you will shine with goodness again.”

Jason had dropped his head and covered his face with his hand as he listened to the answer.  When Santa finished speaking, he raised his head, tears glinting in his eyes.  “That new boy became the best friend I ever had.  When he was killed last year in a car accident, my world became a dark place.”

“You have mourned a long time and used that loss as an excuse for doing the wrong thing.  Now it is time to use that loss as a reason to do the right thing.  Do it to honor Sam.  You know what he would want you to do.”  Santa’s eyes drifted over to Peter and he nodded as they exchanged silent communication.  Then he sat up straighter clapping and rubbing his hands together briskly.  “All right, Edith.  I want you to know that your general behavior has not been so naughty that you should have been last; it was that temper tantrum that put you there.  What is the final question for this press conference?”

She looked around at all the other members of the press as they prepared to pack up their equipment, but were hesitating, waiting to see if some unexpected information was about to be uncovered with her astute question.  It was her big opportunity, perhaps her career changing opportunity.  She puffed up with her importance, squaring her shoulders and giving Santa a steely look.  She opened her mouth, prepared to nail the interview with the single most important question of the night.  And closed it again as her mind went blank and no words came to her.  Some of the others chuckled as she flushed with annoyance.

But Santa applauded her; his gloves thudding together to make a sound eerily like the one that had been heard coming from the gingerbread house earlier that evening and had started all the speculation.  Several people noticed the similarity and made sure to record the sounds.  “Very good, Edith!  I am proud of you.  You weren’t sure of the right thing to say and you wisely chose to say nothing.  You also should come to see me tomorrow when I finish working; and I will help you by answering the question you couldn’t come up with here tonight.”

Her eyes met his and she nodded slowly as she read his reassurance.  “Thank you, Santa.  I would like that very much.  But you have asked three of us to come see you tomorrow after you finish work.  Will that get too late for you?  Would you prefer for me to come the next night instead?”

He smiled at her.  “Yes, Edith, thank you.  That is a very good idea and a generous offer to wait an extra day.  I appreciate that.  Please come see me on Sunday night.”  He made his gaze general to include everyone still in the area.  “Travel safely everyone and think carefully about what you heard and what you learned tonight.”  He nodded to the nearby store employees.  “Make sure everyone gets to their cars without incident.”  He waved, turned and strode towards the nearby door in the wall that led to the back corridors of the store.

 


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