“Why couldn’t I have been Santa?” Face said.
Hannibal smirked as he sat down in the big plush chair, dressed in the traditional Santa outfit. Face meanwhile was dressed in the traditional outfit of Santa’s helpers. He didn’t seem to be enjoying the green tights.
“Because Santa Claus is the C.O.” Hannibal explained. “Why do you want to be Santa anyway?”
“Well you know how the song goes – Mommy kissing Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe.” He grinned. “I’ve seen some of the mommies waiting out there.”
“Sorry, Face, it’s the kids that sit on Santa’s lap, not the mommies.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Face sighed. He gave Hannibal a sidelong look as he started stuffing wrapped gifts into sacks. “And I guess we’d’ve needed a whole lot more padding,” he muttered. “Now the girl’s toys have red ribbons, the boys have green. Keep them straight, or we’ll have irate parents down here, demanding to know why we gave little Jenny a toy tank, or little Tommy a Barbie.”
“Red and green?” Hannibal said. “Did I ever mention that I’m colour blind?”
“No, you’re not,” Face said. “Red and green are Christmassy.”
“And pink and blue…”
“Are not Christmassy.”
“Face, this is a sting operation, not actually Santa’s magic toyshop.”
“Details are key,” Face said. “Though I don’t know why we have to open for the entire day! I hope the robbers show up early.”
“They won’t show up until the end of the day. What’s the sense in robbing us before we actually have a day’s takings to steal?”
Face grumbled to himself as he went on filling the sacks.
“Aw, cheer up, Face. You’re just grouchy because Tawnia looks better in her green tights than you do.”
That was true. Tawnia’s elf outfit was more flattering by a factor of at least ten than the ones Face and Murdock wore. Meanwhile, BA took one look at what Hannibal wanted him to wear, before retrieving a knit cap with a crude holly berry on it from his pocket, putting that on and declaring he was Santa’s security and would be guarding the back.
“Okay!” Murdock said, bounding into the room. “It’s almost nine and we have a line of little darlings waiting outside already. Tawnia is all ready to clean up any of them that are especially sticky or chocolaty. Is Santa all set?”
Hannibal straightened in his chair and the small portion of his face visible between hat, wig and beard took on a determined cast, the same expression he used to wear before heading off on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines.
“Open the doors and bring ’em on.”
This, he suspected, was going to be the hardest part of the operation. A day of going “ho ho ho” to little kids, while they earned enough money to lure the armed robbers that had been preying on this small and struggling strip mall. The owners had hired them when the police had said they didn’t have the resources to put any manpower on the case.
So, the team had taken over an empty store, turned it into Santa’s magical toyshop with some borrowed movie sets, and stuck a big sign outside. “Meet Santa $2 “.
Right now, going by the volume of shrill voices outside as Murdock opened the door, it sounded as if half the children in Southern California wanted to meet Santa. Hannibal was generally well disposed to kids, as long as they kept quiet and out from underfoot. The horde of them outside wasn’t quiet.
This would be a long day.
A little after four o’clock the customers had almost dried up. A few late shoppers still walked up and down outside and children pressed their noses up against the big window of the store to see inside, before demanding Mom took them in to see Santa. The window was badly smeared with hand and nose prints to a height of about four feet.
Tawnia was playing with an Easy Bake oven just like one she’d owned as a girl when two men rushed into the store, ski masks over their faces and brandishing pistols. Tawnia gave a little scream – just as she was supposed to.
“Hand over the cash, lady,” one of the men demanded.
“M… money’s in back…” she said, trembling convincingly.
“Yeah?” They looked at the entrance to Santa’s inner sanctum. “Then let’s go get our Christmas gifts.”
Tawnia led the way, one of the men grabbing her arm and shoving her ahead of him. She hoped the team saw that he put his hands on her. That would earn him some extra special attention from BA.
Hannibal still sat in his big chair.
“Ho, ho, ho,” he called in a round and fruity tone. “More little boys to see Santa.”
“Get on the floor, you clown!” the first robber said, shoving Tawnia towards Murdock, who stood on the left of Hannibal’s chair. Face stood on the right. “You two in the tights, do the same. You…” he waved his gun at Tawnia. “Get the damn money.”
“Oh dear,” Hannibal said, still in the Santa voice. “I think we have a couple of very naughty boys here.” He waved a finger at them, his scolding making them stare in disbelief. “But, I think we should give them a surprise anyway, don’t you guys?”
Face and Murdock reached down into the sacks that stood beside Santa’s chair and brought out their rifles, pointing them and a couple of grins at the robbers.
“Oh, shit! Run!”
The thieves turned tail; their pistols outclassed, but didn’t even make it out of the magical toyshop, never mind the front of the store. BA loomed in the entrance. Right cross, left cross and the men were down. Face and Murdock disarmed them. Hannibal hadn’t even moved from his chair. Tawnia emerged from behind it, where she’d taken cover.
“You guys, that was amazing.”
“Pshaw,” Hannibal waved a hand, dismissively. “Easy. Bag these two for the cops.” He waved a hand at the pile of now empty sacks that had held gifts, quite literal when he said ‘bag’. “I’ll go tell the clients their troubles are over.”
By the time he returned to the store, Hannibal had the rest of their fee in his pocket and a couple of glasses of eggnog and several slices of mince pie in him. The strip mall’s management had been very grateful and also had some Christmas goodies around the office.
Several children trailed in his wake. He’d have like to have a cigar, but couldn’t do that in front of his entourage. Anyway, he got the feeling that fire and this false beard should not get too close together.
The store seemed strangely quiet when he returned. He expected the team to be busy packing up the set and any left over toys – in fact, avoiding packing up was one reason Hannibal had lingered in the offices, letting the manager’s secretary press him to just one more slice of pie. And usually when the team were engaged in some menial task like that, Hannibal would expect plenty of vocal accompaniments. But the store was silent.
“Guys?” Hannibal called, his nerves on alert at once. He instinctively reached for his weapon… which he didn’t have. Damn. Of course not. He’d had small children sitting on his lap all day and some of them were more brazen pickpockets than Face. He cursed himself for not remembering to pick it back up after the job was over.
He cursed himself even more when Decker stepped out of the magical toyshop, smirking and pointing a pistol at him.
“Merry Christmas, Smith.”
“Well, it is for you,” Hannibal grouched. More of Decker’s men appeared from behind him, pointing their guns too.
“Where are the rest of them?” Decker demanded. That question cheered Hannibal up right away. The rest of the team must have spotted Decker coming and gotten away in time. They’d probably been looking for Hannibal to stop him walking into the trap, but they’d missed him.
Always the way. An easy job turns into a Charlie Foxtrot in an instant.
Hannibal glanced back towards the door. He could try to make a run for it, but Decker must have men out there. Hell, if he tried to make a run for it, Decker would probably shoot him. Except… Hannibal saw the line of little faces pressed up against the glass, staring in at the scene. The children who’d followed him here. A high-pitched voice called out.
“Mommy! Come and see! GI Joe is gonna shoot Santa!”
Decker saw the children too, and then looked back at Hannibal. He spoke, still smirking.
“Are you going to come quietly, Smith, or make a scene?”
“No. I’m going to walk out of here and the only way you can stop me is if you shoot me. Now if that happens, I may die, but it’ll be with the knowledge that Colonel Roderick Decker is about to become the most hated man in America.” He grinned at the look of dismay on Decker’s face. “It’d be worth it.”
“You think I’ll just let you walk away?”
“Then shoot me, because I’m walking.”
Decker didn’t shoot him. Yet.
“Colonel?” Crane said. “Orders?”
“I… wait a minute.” Decker glanced again at the staring children. He must have guessed Hannibal was unarmed by now, so he could just order his men to rush him. But would that be any less mentally scarring for the kids than his shooting Santa Claus dead in front of them a week before Christmas?
“Okay, good to see you, Decker,” Hannibal said, grinning again. “Have a nice Christmas.”
“Smith, don’t you dare!” Decker yelled. But he still didn’t fire. Slow, Hannibal thought. Walk slowly to the door. No sudden moves to set anyone off. Decker might still do it. Was he prepared to surrender his humanity to capture his prey?
At the door now, Hannibal turned back and smiled at Decker, who had lowered his weapon.
“Better luck next year.”
He heard the van before he saw it. It screeched to a halt out front, and Hannibal gave up moving slow and ran for it. Yelling started up from all around, Decker’s voice ringing out loudest of all.
“Stop that man! He’s a dangerous criminal!”
As Hannibal leapt into the side door of the van, Face emptied a sack out, scattering its contents in the path of the MPs.
“Hey, kids! Free candy!”
Squealing and scrabbling for the candy, the children who’d been watching the show unwittingly ran interference, slowing and tripping Decker and his men as the van roared away.
Hannibal settled in one of the seats in back laughing. “Now that’s a story I’m going to be telling every Christmas from now on. How I faced down Decker and a half-dozen, er, a dozen MPs, unarmed and just walked away. With the rest of our fee too.” He pulled that from his pocket and handed it to Face to count.
“And I got a great headline for the paper,” Tawnia said from the front seat.
“Yeah?” Hannibal said, “What’s that?”
“Army Declares Santa Claus ‘Dangerous Criminal’.”