I nearly denied it - but then had to wonder. Bastien had been in trouble off and on with our superiors, his Seattle venture last year a desperate attempt to restore status. If he were pressured enough - threatened, even - to tell me he'd been transferred longer than he actually had, would he? Especially if he thought it was harmless and knew of no nefarious reason behind it?

"But what nefarious reason would be behind all this?" I muttered, not realizing I'd spoken my thoughts aloud until Roman straightened up again.

"That's what we have to figure out. We have to figure out what's happened to you that would've gotten someone's attention - and that happened recently, to spur such a fast response. We know about your slacker record. And we know about Erik looking into your contract."

I blinked. "Milton."

I quickly told Roman about Hugh's information, about Milton's secret assassin status and trip to Seattle lining up with Erik's death. I also told him about briefly mentioning Milton to Jamie. Roman leaped to his feet.

"Jesus Christ! Why didn't you tell me about this sooner? I could've investigated Milton while you were gone. Shit. Now I'm trapped here under bowling duty." Nephilim had the same travel limitations as lesser immortals. They had to physically travel to places. No teleportation like greater immortals.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I wasn't thinking. I didn't connect it. And I didn't get a chance to ask Jamie more about Milton. He wasn't around the rest of the time I was in town."

Roman was nodding along with me as he paced. "Of course he wasn't. I'm sure they made certain he was unavailable before he could tell you any more. And explain again why your initial conversation with him didn't go that far?"

I shrugged. "He was drunk. He got distracted by a debate over gin with Luis."

"One that Luis initiated, no doubt."

"I - " I thought about it. "Yeah. I guess he did. But you're not saying . . . I mean, that's idiotic. Using gin as a distraction to cover up some plot?"

Roman's sea green eyes were gazing off in the distance, thoughtful. "It's not the most ridiculous distraction I've known a demon to use. He could've brought up bowling."

"Not that again."

Roman snapped his attention back to me, frustration all over his face. "Georgina, how can you be in denial about this? How can you refuse to believe that Hell is playing some larger game here? After all you've seen and been a part of?"

I shot up, angry at the insinuation that had been creeping along here, that I was too oblivious to see what was going on. "I know! I know they're capable of it. I know they can use means both ingenuous and simple - like gin and bowling - to get what they want. I'm not denying that, Roman. What I just can't grasp yet is the why. Show me that, and I'll get on board with any crazy scheme you want. I need to know why."

Roman came to stand in front of me, resting his hands on my shoulders as he leaned close. "That is exactly what I intend to find out. And when we do, I have a feeling we'll have blown the lid off of the biggest conspiracy Hell's had in centuries."

Chapter 10

In centuries? I thought that was kind of an exaggeration. But I wasn't going to argue any further with him, not when he had that zealous look in his eyes. It was one I knew all too well, which in its mildest form resulted in recipe experimentation and in its severest led to immortal killing sprees.

With all the schools on winter vacation now, Santa was no longer just doing evening duty at the mall. I had drawn a day shift for Monday and finally left Roman for bed so that I could get an early start. He acknowledged my good night with a nod, lost in his own brooding. Despite how hard he'd grilled me, I knew he was thinking about the same question I'd demanded of him: why would Hell want me out of Seattle so badly that they were willing to create a dream scenario for me?

I had no answers for it that night or the next morning. I arrived at the mall bright and early, in my foil dress, only to find a mob of parents and kids already lined up there waiting for us to open shop. Walter-Santa, I was pleased to see, was actually drinking straight coffee this morning, with no mention of alcohol. Of course, he was most likely getting rid of a hangover from last night, and I didn't doubt that the requests for "something harder" would start by noon.

"Santa wishes his pavilion wasn't under the mall's skylight," he remarked, furthering my hangover suspicions. He settled himself into his chair - much to the gathered children's delight - and winced unhappily up at the sunlight spilling through the latticed roof of the "holiday gazebo." He turned back to me and Grumpy. "I don't suppose we could get a tarp for that?"

Grumpy and I exchanged looks. "I don't think they sell tarps at this mall, Walt - Santa," I told him. "But maybe on my break I can score some sheets from Pottery Barn for you."

"Yeah," said Grumpy, repressing an eye roll. "I'm sure we can find something very tasteful."

Santa nodded solemnly. "Santa is grateful to have such dutiful elves."

We opened the floodgates. I was working right next to Santa today, meaning I got a front row seat for some of the more outlandish requests. I was also the one who got to remove screaming children, despite parental protests and pleadings to "just keep her there until I get the picture!" All the while, I kept thinking that instead of doing this, I could be in Las Vegas right now, working through Matthias's routines and listening to Phoebe's jokes along the way.

Of course, that isn't to say I was entirely scornful of the whole experience. I liked Christmas, and I liked children. I wouldn't have signed on for this job if either of those weren't true. But in watching these families - especially little girls with their mothers - I just couldn't shake my worries for the Mortensens. If I thought too much about them, I started to tear up. So . . . yeah. Cynicism was preferable at times. It kept me from getting lost in my own despair.

When my shift ended later in the day, I discovered I wasn't the only one going home. Grumpy put up a SANTA ON 10-MINUTE BREAK sign, much to the dismay of those waiting in line, and Walter followed me as I headed out to the mall offices. It was hard not to smile at the reaction of kids who just happened to be out shopping with parents and hadn't come to specifically see Santa. Children came to a standstill, mouths gaping and fingers pointing.

"You've been pretty good today," I told Walter.

"It's easier when Santa knows he can go out for a drink at dinnertime," he told me.

I frowned. "Are you going home? Oh. Of course you are. You've been here as long as me." Elves had always moved in and out of shifts, but Santa had stayed constant. Now, with us pulling longer hours, Walter couldn't be on the clock all the time. "Do you have a replacement?"

He put a finger to his lips and winked at me, refusing to say anything while we were in public. Once we were out of sight, in the administrative offices, I got my answer when we found another Santa sitting in a chair, leafing through a Victoria's Secret catalog. He looked up at our approach and set the magazine down.

"Is it time?"

Walter nodded and turned to me. "Vixen, do we look the same?"

"Of course," I said. "You're both men in red suits and white beards."

"Look closely," he scolded. The other Santa rose, and they stood side by side. "Details matter. Anything a child waiting in line might notice when Bob goes out to take my place. Beard alignment, glasses, fit of the coat . . . it all matters. One small detail is all it takes for those kids to realize they've been played, that there are two of us."

"And if they realize that," added Bob, using the same British accent Walter always did, "then the illusion is over. They'll know they've been tricked, that there is no one, true Santa."

"Wow, you guys take this seriously," I said, a little astonished. So, I did a closer assessment, making a few minor adjustments. I straightened Bob's hat and fixed the way some of his beard's curls were arranged. At last, I nodded. "You're good to go."

Bob looked at Walter expectantly. Walter took off his hat, beard, and glasses, revealing an ordinary-looking man with thinning salt-and-pepper hair. "Only one Santa can exist outside this room," explained Walter mysteriously, watching Bob go. "It's part of the magic."

"This was kind of sweet," I remarked. Off the clock now, Walter immediately produced a flask from his locker and began guzzling it. I wondered if the two Santas shared the same addiction. "Creepy, but sweet."

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