by Jay Lake
"I love the smell of elf shit in the morning!"
Big Red's voice roared like an ice sheet giving way. The fat man was unnaturally cheerful. But then, damned near everything about him was unnatural. I'd known him since our boarding school days, when he'd been a fat boy of strange appetites and stranger passions. None of us from the old days were surprised at the man he had become.
The elves keened in their cages, enclosures too small for them to stand upright or turn around. Their broken voices wailed in a minor key harmonic that in another time and place might have heralded the rising of an omen-drenched comet, or the bloody harvest moon towering over the Wild Hunt. Their elegant, predatory beauty had been whittled away under Big Red's none-too-gentle care until they had become cankered horrors with only a stray goose feather or amethyst to recall the beauty they had once been part of Under the Hill.
"It'll never work," I told him. PR was my job in this whole deal, making sure the folks at home bought into the Santa trip.
We both raised our eyes to what he insisted on calling "the Work."
Beyond the cages a barely exposed ridge of seamount emerged from the endless ice, topped by an elaborated structure of towers, crenellations and sprawling, narrow-windowed wings. Stonemasons and electricians crawled around on the scaffolding cladding the building, as a crew ran the third of the parallel, prison-grade fences encompassing Big Red's new establishment at sufficient distance to provide overlapping fields of fire.
"Those gimlet-eyed freaks caused no end of trouble," Big Red said, dropping to something like a normal tone of voice. "Me rounding them up was the best thing to happen to Western Europe since the Black Death introduced urban renewal."
"I'm all for flushing out vermin." I tried to ignore the ever-rising wail from the cages, yelling over the caterwauling. "But you should have just shot the bunch and dropped them in a trench. This is pointless."
"Pointless?" He laughed, shaking like a bowl full of Jelly Bellies. "I'm going into the toy business. Nothing cheaper than slave labor. They got no human rights, after all. Besides, all that elf shit in those troughs." He leaned close enough that I could smell the Asti Spumante on his breath. "Worth its weight in gold as fertilizer. Better than fishmeal. We'll make millions."
Times like this, I wished I'd gone into wholesale produce with my Uncle Beauregard, like mama always wanted.
Two years later, long after he'd fired me off the Work, I ran into Big Red in Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland. There was a Fey Rights Rally going on, with a bunch of Reed College fruit loops dressed up as the seventeen dwarves or something. Word had got around, about the Santa Toy Company. 60 Minutes snuck in a camera team by bribing a supply flight crew, and the footage of the elf coffles made headlines worldwide.
I was dodging the edge of the crowd, heading to Nordstrom's and wondering who'd thought that rhyming "Santa" with "your mama" would make for a good protest chant, when I literally bumped into Big Red. He was standing outside that weird little Starbuck's at the northwest corner of the plaza, the one that looks like a Victorian elevator cage that got left behind.
"Pardon me," I started to say, then realized to whom I was speaking.
"Ah, Marty." A fist bigger than my Christmas ham closed on my shoulder. "It wasn't you that tipped off Andy Rooney, was it?"
"Hey, Red." His question didn't deserve an answer, so I added: "Nice to see you, too."
"Listen, I need your help."
"You got all the elves in Iceland breaking rocks up there in the great white north. What you need me for?"
He looked around with the sort of exaggerated care that drew the instant attention of anyone in the vicinity. "It's that elf shit. Weird things have been happening."
"Nothing weird ever happens around you, Big Red."
"Listen. I'm serious." He squeezed for emphasis, nearly dislocating my joint. "People been, um, appearing."
"You mean disappearing?"
"No...appearing. Up at the Work. People that bought elf shit fertilizer."
I had to laugh. "And the elf cages just keep growing extra weight, courtesy of the unexpected arrival of Harry and Harriet Homeowner?"
Lips like two slabs of liver worked their way through an array of responses. "Yeah. Like that."
"I hope like hell you give them first class tickets home soon as they appear."
"And you're wondering who tipped off the camera crews. Any SWAT teams break down your door yet?" I tried to shrug off his fist, without success. "So what do you need my help for? Quit peddling elf shit and get the civilians out of the cages."
"The elves keep eating 'em."
"Hoo boy. There's a public relations nightmare waiting to happen."
"That's where you come in."
Midnight Soil -- Arctic Fertilizer, wholesale to the memorial trade only. It's amazing what you can sell to grieving widows and kids too intent on contesting the will to pay attention. A nice, slick campaign packaging the stuff as grave fill, push up those giant, Alaska-quality daisies. No one notices when the cadavers teleport off to the armoires of elfland, and the dead meat keeps the evil little buggers happy. Big Red tells me they're easier to control with a little formaldehyde in their bloodstream.
Still got the Fey Rights nuts out there, but I'll give Big Red's elves this much: those nimble fingers are just as good at fine parts assembly as ever they were at notching arrows and slitting throats. Kind of takes the fun out of Christmas, though.