Gabe peered around the corner. The office door was wide open, the chair at the desk empty. It might be his last chance. He slipped off his green felt shoes, careful to silence the jingle bells attached to the toes. Sure, those bells were festive, but their jingle-jangling would alert the boss to his deception. He couldn't risk that, not with so much at stake.
Deep breath. You got this. He dashed across the open space in front of Clappy's office at the exact moment that the Christmas lights went into full psychedelic mode. Red, green, white, and (rather unseasonably colored) orange lights pulsed and flashed in frantic rhythm. Gabe was counting on the blinding colors to provide him with the cover he needed. Inside Clappy's office, Gabe squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his temples. Damned lights could bring on a migraine just like that. Good thing he wasn't an epileptic or he'd have seized by now.
When the lights returned to their ordered, uniform pattern (red blinks, then fades, followed by green and the rest), Gabe turned to the computer. This was it. If he didn't disable the NSA's access to Santa's Naughty or Nice List now, tens of millions of good boys and girls would be devastated on Christmas morning. Gabe imagined eager little ones, waking before dawn, rushing from their bedrooms, excited and giggling, only to find nothing--nothing under the tree and nothing but a nugget or two of clean-burning coal in their stockings. It had happened last year on a very small scale. The evil bastards had picked a tiny little town in flyover country to pilot the program. Those poor kids. Sure, they'd snuck cookies after bedtime and told a little lie here and there, but they didn't deserve nothing for Christmas. Nothing was for the very, very bad, like IRS bureaucrats.
Had he known about the pilot program beforehand, Gabe would've done something. He and Raphael would've stopped it. Raphael was the one who'd discovered the plot (he was the Assistant Deputy Manager for Midwest logistics, after all). But poor Raphael had made a fatal mistake. Instead of following protocol and filing a Form 12D with the Midwest Deputy Manager (and subsequently with the Assistant Manager, the Manager, the Senior Manager, the Regional Manager, and so on up the highly stratified Midwest operations chain), Raphael had gone where no whistleblower had gone before. Directly to the Big Man. Yes, Jolly Old Saint Nick himself. Unfortunately, the Big Man was sick that day and Mrs. Claus, the true gatekeeper if there ever was one, refused Raphael an audience with him. She directed him instead to Santa's senior elf, the infamous Jimmy Clapperton. Yes, Clappy, the elf who rules with an iron fist. Santa's right hand elf. The El Jefe of elves.
What Raphael didn't know, and what Gabe found out after it was too late, was that Clappy was the traitor. He'd given the NSA access to the Naughty or Nice list in exchange for an island vacation home and a lifelong supply of mint chocolate chip ice cream and Thin Mint cookies. Perhaps public health elf advocates suggesting that mint should be a controlled substance was what sent Clappy over the edge and into treachery. Or perhaps he was just born that way. Regardless, he was the enemy, and after Raphael mysteriously disappeared while running an errand to the Broken Toy Repair Shop last December 29th, Gabe vowed to take down Jimmy Clapperton. And today was the day.
"For you, Raphael," he whispered as he wiggled his tiny, elfin fingers above Clappy's keyboard.
ENTER. Whoosh. The screensaver of female little people posing in itsy bitsy bikinis gave way to a password screen and blinking cursor. Over the course of the last eleven months, Gabe had found reasons to be near Clappy's office. It helped that he was Deputy Superintendent for Tape and Ribbons; no one questioned why he was always hanging around the supply closets just down the hall. Gabe had observed Clappy's daily routine for weeks on end until he could predict when the boss would be at his computer. It was then that Gabe would stroll by, discreetly snapping photos of Clappy's computer screen as he entered his password. As a result of his efforts and tradecraft (thank goodness for "24" reruns on Amazon Prime--oh, what an elf can learn from Jack Bauer!), Gabe managed to piece together most of Clappy's password. One would think that Santa's chief elf would employ better OPSEC. One would be wrong (fortunately for Gabe).
He typed. NOPRESENTSFORYOU.
Incorrect. "Deer turd," Gabe muttered.
NOPRESENTS4YOU. No go.
"Oh, for the love of Blitzen!" Gabe peered into the hall. Still clear. In fewer than five minutes, Clappy would step out of the elevator with his briefcase and grande double peppermint skim non-GMO soy with a shot of espresso latte. Gabe's heart pounded. He wanted to flee. But he'd promised himself that he'd right this wrong in memory of Raphael. Besides, Jack wouldn't flee. No, he'd shoot Clappy in the thigh and torture him until he gave up the password. Gabe considered going full Bauer, but without a gun...and guns, of course, were illegal because violence. Toys guns, in fact, were manufactured and wrapped in an entirely separate facility. There'd been talk of ending all toy weapons production because violence. But that was neither here nor there at the moment.
Focus, Gabe ordered himself.
He thought about Clappy, about how superior he acted and how much fear he inspired. But he had a weakness--he feared losing his job. After 213 years of work, the end of his career was near. Yes, Gabe knew, Clappy feared being sent to Ye Olde Elves retirement home to whittle away his days making wooden toys that kids would toss aside like a fourth generation iPod. Because of this fear, the old man desperately tried to portray himself as hip, young, and with it (hence the convoluted Starbucks orders and yoga pants he sported of late).
If I were an evil elf who wished to seem cool, what would my password be? Gabe thought a moment, then typed again:
The screen lit up like Santa's face when he tasted a little something extra in the eggnog.
Gabe scanned through the folders on the desktop, finally settling on one that had no title. This had to be it--the secret file. If word got out that the NSA had infiltrated the North Pole, people would think that Santa was a government stooge. He'd be thoroughly discredited. Winter would be darker, longer, and more depressing (albeit less expensive and stressful for parents).
The folder opened to three subfolders: Naughty, Nice, and Forward! Gabe clicked on Forward!
"What!" He clapped a hand over his mouth to muffle his dismay. He could hardly believe his own emerald green eyes.
Executive Order 12252014 (TOP SECRET, SENSITIVE COMPARTMENTED INFORMATION): Pursuant to E.O. 12252013 (i.e., the pilot program), the President directs his operatives at the North Pole to ensure that Saint Nicholas (AKA, Saint Nick, Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle) apportions gifts in a manner compliant with social justice norms. The concepts of Naughty and Nice are hereby declared inherently unfair social constructs. Privileged individuals who do not conform to the correct way of thinking must pay the price for their centuries of oppression, repression, and suppression. Children or not, the party is over.
No! Nononono! NO! This wasn't right. This went against everything Santa stood for. Rich, poor, black, white, yellow, green or purple, if you were a good boy or girl, you were good. Period. With trembling fingers, Gabe stuck a thumb drive into the USB port and began to download the folder. Then he heard the voices. Distant, at first, but then closer.
"Good morning, Clappy."
"Good morning, sir."
"Have a jolly day, sir."
Desperate, Gabe looked around for somewhere to hide. There! He could hide up on the shelf. No one would look for an elf on a shelf.
"Come on!" he urged the computer. 90% downloaded. "Hurry!" He jumped up and down. 94%.
"Clappy, sir?" The voice in the hall was too close.
"What is it, Snappy?" Clappy growled.
Gabe gulped. 99...100%. He snatched the thumb drive, closed the folder, and control-alt-deleted the heck out of the keyboard until the logon screen reappeared. Maybe there was still time to sneak away. He leaned, head-first, out the door. Not two feet away stood Clappy, his back to Gabe. Over Clappy's shoulder, Gabe locked eyes with Snappy, the rather inept Deputy Assistant Supervisor for Tissue Paper. Snappy's mouth dropped open. Gabe shook his head furiously, causing the oversized pom-pom on his hat to thud against the door jamb. Gabe turned to dash away down the hall, but didn't get far.
"Gabriel Twinkletoes, where are your SHOES?"
He froze. His shoes? Right, his shoes! It was against Regulation 37B Subsection 54A to remove one's shoes at work. It hadn't always been that way, but then there was a rash of ornament hook-related foot injuries back in '89. Gabe suspected that several of the injured had jammed hooks into their feet themselves to get a few extra paid vacation days. No one took his allegations of fraud seriously, and subsequently, workers' comp premiums skyrocketed.
After slipping the thumb drive into his vest pocket, Gabe put on a jolly grin and turned around to face his boss. "I'm so sorry, sir. There was something in my shoe, and I took them off for a minute, then I forgot where I left them and," he smacked his forehead, "need more coffee today, sir."
Clappy's red eyes narrowed. "You know the rules, Twinkletoes. And you know the punishment." He dropped his briefcase with a thud and punched a few numbers into his phone. "Don't move a muscle."
Gabe wondered if the twitch above his eye counted. "But," he started to protest. Before he could say another word, two hulking security elves (all four-feet of them) grabbed him by the arms.
"Away with him," Clappy ordered.
Gabe resisted for a moment, but it was no use. Christmas would be ruined. Santa would be ruined. And it was all his fault.
After an hour of wailing over his terrible incompetence and misfortune, Gabe heard a tapping sound on the cell wall.
A muffled voice replied. "Is there really someone there?"
"No, you're hearing things," Gabe snapped.
"Oh, woe is me," the voice replied.
Woe is me? Gabe had only ever known one person who said that. "My friend, Raphael, used to say that."
After a brief silence, the voice on the other side of the wall replied, "Gabriel?"
Gabe jumped to his feet, stubbing his toes against concrete in the process. If he were a different kind of elf, he'd consider filing his own workers' compensation claim. "Raphael? Is it you?"
"It's me, Gabe, it's me!"
Joyful tears filled his eyes. All this time, and his dear friend was alive? Despite the dire circumstances and the threat posed by the concrete floor, Gabe did an elfin jig. Raphael was alive! Hop, skip, twirl! He'd have sprinkled glitter dust if he'd had any on him. And he hated that stuff. (The messy factor far outweighed the festive factor.)
After a brief exchange of celebratory words, Gabe told Raphael about the Executive Order and his plan to take down Clappy and the government ne'er-do-wells. "But first, we have to get out of here, Raphael. How do we get out of here?"
"Darned if I know."
Gabe sank back to the cold, damp floor. Despair set in around him like the heavy mist on Santa's sleigh one foggy Christmas Eve so long ago. Then something hit him. Literally. "Ouch!"
"Your shoes, you moron. If you don't put them on immediately, boss said he'd double your sentence."
Gabe squinted in the dim light at the guard outside his cell. "Sentence? I haven't even been charged with anything, much less had a trial."
The guard snorted and slunk away.
Gabe slipped on the shoes and shifted his feet. Something didn't sound right. Instead of the usual cheerful jingle-jangle, he heard a jankle-clunk.
If they ruined my best shoes... Gabe was feeling suddenly more litigious. He supposed imprisonment without a fair trial could do that to a fellow. Upon closer examination, he discovered that the bell on his right shoe had been flattened, leaving the ball inside with little room to maneuver.
"Son of a..." he yelped when a sharp metal edge cut his finger.
"What's the matter?" Raphael asked.
"They ruined my bell. The metal edge, you know the four pieces that meet together in the middle?"
"Yup, uh huh." Raphael sounded bored.
"One of the edges is sticking out. It's as sharp as Dasher's antlers. I could probably cut through metal with the damned thing."
"Cut through metal?"
"Yeah, cut through metal, Raphael."
"Cut through metal!"
Raphael sounded disoriented. Poor guy rotting away in the dungeon for almost a year...
"Cut through the metal, Gabriel. The bars on the cell door!"
Gabe was back on his feet. "You're brilliant, Raphael!"
He set to work immediately, but soon realized that his bell-knife contraption would never get through all that metal. He was running out of time.
Gabe examined the cell door more closely. It was secured to the wall by three rusty screws. He slipped the sharp metal edge into the groove on top of the first screw and tried to turn it. Nothing happened.
"Raphael, which way do you turn things to loosen them?"
"If I've told you once, I've told you a million times. Lefty loosey, righty tighty."
Gabe had forgotten how bossy Raphael could be. He set back to work. Inside of ten minutes, two of the three screws were out. When the third came loose, it took every ounce of elfin strength he had (why, oh why had he dropped out of the cross-fit class to take up zoomba?) to remove the cell door. But once he did, he hurried next door to see his old pal.
Raphael raised his head from the floor and smiled weakly. "So good to see you, my friend."
"I'm going to get you out of here. Just hang on a few minutes."
"No. Just go. You've got to get to Santa."
"But you have to come with me," Gabe protested.
"Too weak." He waved a hand at Gabe. Upon closer inspection, Gabe realized that his friend was skinnier than any elf should be. His legs were nothing but toothpicks wrapped in dirty, tattered felt.
"Listen to me, Raphael. I'm coming back for you. I swear."
Raphael nodded and let his head drop back onto the concrete. "Do it for the kids."
Never had Gabe run so fast. Unfortunately, his poor sense of direction and lack of GPS guidance (the damned phone was back in his cubicle) forced him to run twice the distance needed as he backtracked, turned around, and doubled back. "You'd think by now I'd know where Santa's house is," he huffed and puffed as the Big Man's turreted castle came into view.
Pound, pound, pound. Ding, ding, ding. His fist, the doorbell, his fist, the doorbell. No way Santa could sleep through that ruckus.
Moments later, the heavy oak door swung open. "Mrs. Claus, ma'am, so sorry to wake you. There's an emergency. I need to see Santa."
She touched the rollers holder her white hair and dropped her hands to her ample hips. "Young elf, you have no business coming here in the middle of the night and..."
This was no time for lectures. No disrespect to Mrs. Claus, but Gabe had to go. He ducked under her elbow and headed for the stairs.
"You, you stop!"
Gabe ignored her and began shouting, "Santa! I need to tell you something!"
Moments later, a groggy Saint Nick in Rudolph-red long johns stumbled into the hall. "What is the meaning of this?"
Gabe needed a second to catch his breath. Then he explained. It wasn't until Santa plugged the thumb drive into his laptop, however, that he fully grasped the gravity of the situation.
"Young elf, you have just saved Christmas. Not since the Heat Miser - Snow Miser showdown have we come this close to disaster!"
Gabe blushed, but quickly composed himself. "Sir, my friend Raphael, he's been in the dungeon for almost a year. He's the one who discovered the plot. We've got to capture Clappy and free Raphael before it's too late."
Oh, what fun it was for Gabe to ride in Santa's one-horse open sleigh with his special forces troops. First, they freed Raphael and brought him immediately to the clinic for hot chocolate and candy canes. Then they rode to Clappy's house. The evil elf's arsenal of ice-balls and icicle spears were no match for Santa's troops. As they dragged him from his house, he shouted, "No justice, no peace!"
That Christmas was the jolliest one ever at the North Pole. Freed of the Clappy tyranny, the elves celebrated and provided extra festive gifts for Santa to deliver to ALL the good boys and girls. In time, Raphael recovered fully and received a generous promotion to Chief Keeper of the Naughty or Nice List. Santa appointed Gabe to be his Chief Elf, a position that he didn't let go to his head (although he did buy himself a slick new pair of elf shoes with the loudest jingle bells in the land).
As for Clappy? Well, after his guilty verdict, all of the North Pole heard him exclaim as they drove him out of sight, "You didn't build that!"
The elves giggled, jigged, and called in reply, "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"