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Here Comes Santa Claus: Section Two

       Last updated: Thursday, October 23, 2003 23:31 EDT



    Bruckner worked to contain his glee. There was a room right across the corridor from the one being used to store presents—unlocked and unoccupied. The perfect place for the casks. Close enough to the gymnasium to do the needed damage, but far enough away that no one would smell the burning fuse until he and Berg made their escape and it was too late to stop them.

    "Come on," he said in a whisper, elbowing the door open. "We must hide these in here out of sight and lay the fuse."

    Berg nodded, but his attention was clearly back on the strange flameless lights that illuminated the gymnasium, as well as the steaming platters of food being carried in from dining hall next door. Music was playing, as good as the finest musicians he'd ever heard, but none were in sight. "How do they do it?" he wondered. "Is it witchcraft?"

    A dark-headed toddler of about three came running down the corridor and threw her arms around Bruckner's legs, dimpling up at him. "Are you Santa Claus?" she asked in German.

    "No!" He shifted his weight to break her hold. "Let—go!" he said in a fierce whisper.

    The girl laughed and pressed her cheek against his leg. "I am a good girl, Santa," she said. "I get present!"

    "How—nice." Bruckner's skin crawled as he handed his cask off to Berg and then pried the tiny fingers off his trousers. "Now, run along and play."

    Her face contorted and then she dissolved into wailing tears. "Did you forget my present?"

    "Shhh!" Bruckner glanced around, afraid of drawing too much attention. Fortunately, they were alone and Berg had already taken the second cask into the room, closing the door behind him. "I am sure you will get a lovely present, when this Santa fellow arrives, if you just do not cry!"

    A tall young woman came into the corridor, saw the wailing child and angled toward them without hurrying to sweep her up into her arms. "Hush, Berta! Whatever can you be making such a fuss about?" Her light-brown eyes regarded Bruckner over the child's dark curls.

    He realized with a start it was the same woman who had been soliciting gifts out by the fortress. "I am sorry," he said stiffly. "This child is mistaken. She thinks I am someone called 'Santa.'"

    "Oh, Berta," the woman chuckled, taking the little girl by the hand and turning away, "this is not Santa. Julie told you—Santa wears a beautiful red suit and has a long white beard and merry eyes." She gave Bruckner a not entirely friendly glance over her shoulder. "And he is much nicer. Julie says he loves little girls."

    A moment later, they were gone. Bruckner cracked open the door and slipped through. The room was dark, but there was enough light from the windows for him to spot Berg in a corner, already begin to lay the powder fuse.

    "I hate peasants," Berg muttered, when Bruckner joined him in the shadows. "They are stupid and carry disease."

    Bruckner began opening the second cask, mopping at his forehead with the back of his sleeve. He could hear people pouring through the school doors now, men, women, and children. The noise outside grew louder with every passing moment. Soon everyone would be too preoccupied to notice them at all.

    "As soon as they start serving the banquet," he said, "we will strike a spark, and then slip away."

    Berg nodded and settled on the floor in front of the casks to wait for the right moment.



    Fortunately, Julie found Gottfried and his two friends in the cafeteria next door, sitting at one of the few tables which hadn't already been moved into the gym and drinking hot tea. To her relief, he was wearing the red Santa suit, though not the hat. "What are you doing in here?" she burst out at the sight of them. "You're supposed to be next door playing Santa! Where's your hat?"

    "I did not come to wear a silly hat," Gottfried said firmly. "I came to talk with you."

    "Not now!" Julie hauled at his arm, but he was rock solid, impossible to move. "The children are all here. In a moment, they'll serve the food, and then after that, you're on!"

    Gottfried's brows knotted. "On what?"

    "Never mind," she said. "We're counting on you!"

    "I want to talk about the Alte Veste," he said. "You were there, yes?"

    The strange birthmark on his face, she suddenly noticed, seemed more prominent than she'd remembered. It looked almost like two crossed swords. "What?" she said, as his words came together inside her head. "The Alte Veste? What does that have to do with anything?"

    "You were the shooter, yes?" His blue eyes were fierce now.

    "Who are you?" She edged back out of reach.

    "You shot Wallenstein." His tone was more sure now, his manner businesslike. He stood and towered over her, his body looking rock-hard. Her heart raced. How could she have seen Santa Claus in this man? He was more like a pit bull!

    "I'll get Mike," she said, trying to keep her voice steady. "He can tell you about the Alte Veste, if that's why you're here." She turned and almost ran away.

    Footsteps clattered after her across the floor as they followed.



    In the gym, food was now being served on pink plastic cafeteria trays to the tune of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Children were squealing with delight as adults led them to their place and sat them down with the biggest portions they'd ever been served in their short lives.

    As Julie dashed through the double doors into the gymnasium, she saw three Grantville boys trying to rig up a harness for a gift suckling pig out of school jump ropes, while a pair of wondering little girls in red Christmas frocks were on their knees, staring in rapt fascination at three speckled hens scratching in vain at the polished wooden floor. Mike Stearns was standing with his wife Rebecca and their new baby daughter over on the far side of the room, looking contented.

    "Mike!" She waved, trying to keep the panic out of her voice. Gottfried and his friends were only three men and she hadn't seen any obvious weapons. Maybe Mike and some of the other men could get them out of here before they caused trouble. "Mike, I have to talk to you!"

    Her father was standing close to the Christmas tree with her Uncle Frank, admiring the lights, and she tried to get their attention too. "Dad! Uncle Frank! Over here!"

    The trio entered the room, their eyes searching her out. No! she thought hard at heaven. Please! Not here, not now, just when everyone is so peaceful and happy!

    "What is it, Julie?" Mike said, his eyes twinkling. "I already told you I won't play Santa."

    "I already have a Santa," she said, the breath wheezing in her chest, "and he's asking me about the Alte Veste!"

    "What?" Mike glanced up at the approaching men.

    "They know I was the sharpshooter at the Alte Veste," she said as her father and uncle reached her side. "I think—they must be part of Wallenstein's army."

    Mike reached under his jacket and she saw the sleek deadly shape of his pistol tucked into a shoulder holster. "It's all right," he said, stepping in front of her. "Nothing is going to happen."

    Julie caught at his arm. "I know this is serious, but please don't let them spoil the party."

    Gottfried stopped a few paces away, and drew a small box out from his Santa suit. "Jew Lee Mackay," he said, his tone very firm—like that of a man who has put up with as much nonsense as he can tolerate. The other two flanked him like an honor guard.

    "Hello, Santa," Mike said evenly. "It's about time you showed up."

    "Santa!" A trio of Grantville children, who recognized the suit, squealed and launched themselves across the gym floor. "Where's your bag?" they asked, their voices echoing. "Where're your reindeer?"

    Scattered applause rang out and more children sprang up from their places at the long tables. "Santa! Santa!"

    Gottfried stared down at them, evidently unnerved.

    "What's your business here, Santa?" Mike had his hand on the .357 magnum under his suit, but hadn't drawn it out yet. "Only our friends are invited to this party."

    Gottfried straightened and nodded at Mike, then turned to Julie. "I am General Gottfried von Pappenheim," he said. "I have been sent by Imperial General Wallenstein to find the one who shot him at the Alte Veste."

    Mike's gun came out. Julie glanced at her uncle and father, who had also drawn guns. The image of Wallenstein's shattered body falling was vivid in her mind.

    "The Duke of Friedland instructed me—" Pappenheim broke off, his head suddenly swiveling toward the entrance to the gymnasium. His nostrils flared, as though scenting something.



    Bruckner had the door open, ready for their escape. He could hear children in the gymnasium shouting. "Santa! Santa!"

    Berg cursed, as a third spark flared and died.

    "Idiot!" Already the room stank with burning gunpowder from Berg's fumbling efforts to light the fuse. The smell—if not much smoke, yet—was drifting down the corridor

    He took the flint away from Berg and knelt down. The casks were in the corner, now on their sides, with a powder train leading to them.

    He gripped the steel and flint carefully and struck a spark. For a moment, the powder hissed but, again, the flame didn't catch. Unfortunately, the long days they'd been buried had allowed some dampness to penetrate.

    Berg grasped his shoulder and pulled him around, pointing out the door. "Look!"

    The tall, powerfully built man in the red suit was striding down the corridor, sniffing with his nose. He spotted Bruckner and Berg almost immediately.

    He smiled and kept striding toward them. About the coldest smile Bruckner had ever seen. And, behind him, other men were starting to come into the corridor.

    Desperately, Bruckner looked down at the cursed fuse. No hope for it. They'd just have to escape.

    He and Berg scrambled out of the room and began running down the corridor. With a muffled curse, the white-haired man dashed after them. Glancing over his shoulder, Bruckner could see other men coming after him—and they were holding firearms.



    They almost made it out of the building before being tackled from behind and sent sprawling across the hard floor. Berg was cursing, but the blow had knocked the wind out of Bruckner and he was having trouble breathing.

    Someone flipped him over on his back and stared down at him with cold blue eyes. The muzzle of a pistol was shoved into his neck. "Who in the hell are you?"

    He could only shake his head and try to make his lungs work. Rough hands hauled him to his feet and then held him there when his legs buckled. The blue-eyed man lowered the pistol but kept it in his hand.

    To his left, he could hear Berg complaining of the rough treatment and invoking the prestige of his ancient lineage.

    Red invaded his field of vision and he tried to make his eyes focus. "There's gunpowder in that room!" someone was shouting in German. "They were going to blow up the school!"

    The blue eyes were very hard. "Who sent you?"

    He tried to take a deep breath and this time succeeded in drawing a moderate amount of air into his shocked lungs. "We are from Emperor Ferdinand," he said weakly. "We are of high rank and will surely be ransomed, if you preserve our lives."

    The man in the red suit came up. "Nonsense. The Emperor will disown you immediately. To save himself money, if nothing else. I sense two young officers haring off on their own, trying to curry favor and rise in rank."

    He had a birthmark on his face and now it seemed to blaze red, like two crossed burning swords. Bruckner blinked. He had heard of such a famous mark once, somewhere...

    "So, General Pappenheim," the blue-eyed man said. "It seems we are in your debt."

    Pappenheim! Bruckner's knees went weak again. Though he had never had the honor of meeting the famous general, everyone who had fought in this war knew of him. He was something of a legend. What was he doing here with these damned Americans?

    Berg had a cut over one eye where he'd struck the floor and his lip had already swollen to twice its size. "I demand to be ransomed!"

    A squealing pig came racing down the corridor, followed by a bevy of laughing children.



    The two would-be assassins were turned over to the custody of Fred Jordan and another deputy, who handcuffed them and hauled them away—none too gently. One of them was still shrieking a demand for ransom. The other seemed in shock and said nothing.

    Julie, on the other hand, was full of questions. She came over to Pappenheim, who was now back in the gymnasium handing out presents from under the tree after it had become apparent to him the children wouldn't take no for an answer. Over in the corner, toddlers were building a fortress out of potatoes.

    "I don't understand," she told him. "Those two meant to kill us, but you stopped them, so that can't be why you're here."

    He looked baffled. "I told you." He passed out a doll made out of straw to a beaming two-year old led up by Gretchen. "Wallenstein sent me."

    "I shot Wallenstein," she said numbly. "I hit him twice! I saw him fall!"

    Gretchen brought another child forward, a five year old with eager eyes. Pappenheim picked up a dried fish wrapped in yarn and handed it over. The child rattled off a string of incomprehensible dialect. Gretchen smiled. "He says he'll name it Fritz. It looks just like his uncle!"

    The general shook his head and moved on to piles of vegetable seeds in burlap bags. "Wallenstein was wounded, true, very badly. Now he wants to change sides. The Emperor is no longer pleased with him, after the Alte Veste—and then the Duke read one of the books we stole from you which says the Emperor will have him assassinated."

    Another happy child raced off. "So the Duke decided to make a secret treaty with you Americans and King Gustav of Sweden."

    "But he tried to kill our kids—and I did my best to kill him!" Julie protested. "Came that close, too! He can't just turn around now, say all is forgiven, and become our ally."

    Mike Stearns had been standing nearby, listening. "Why not?" he asked. "I'll sup with the devil—if it meant breaking Bohemia from Austria and tying that bastard Ferdinand into a knot. I won't think twice. Gustav Adolf won't even blink an eye."

    She was trying to think of an answer to that when Pappenheim gently disentangled a little girl who was trying to climb into his lap, reached into his voluminous red Santa pocket and pulled out the same small wooden box she'd seen him carrying earlier.

    "I brought this from Wallenstein, at his command," he said earnestly. "For the Jew Lee Mackay who shot him. Though it seems you are not actually a Jude, after all." He handed it to Julie. "There is a condition to the alliance."

    "I knew it," her Uncle Frank said. "Leopards don't change their spots. What does the bastard want—half of Thuringia?"

    Julie opened the lid. Inside the box, nestled on a bed of blue silk, was the deformed shape of a rifle bullet, the same caliber she had used at the Alte Veste. It was threaded onto a golden chain. Beside it rested the remains of four shattered teeth.

    "Oh—my—God," she breathed.

    Gretchen peered into the box. Her light-brown eyes crinkled at the corners and her face was suddenly merry. "Ha! He wants magic, General Pappenheim, doesn't he? The magic of new American teeth!"

    Pappenheim nodded. "That is his condition for the alliance. Not negotiable. American dentist to come to his estate—or he will come here—so he can chew again."

    Julie looked at her dentist father, who was as amazed as she was. "Well, Dad," she said. "I guess the alliance is up to you."

    She could see the wheels turning inside his head as he tried to make sense of this upside down world in which they found themselves, where the most sought after Christmas presents of the day were apparently a suckling pig and a pile of potatoes, dentists were held in higher accord than emperors, and a cavalry general was Santa Claus.

    She snuck a second peek at the gruesome teeth. It would take some getting used to.

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