He tired of looking at Dunder and Blixem's brown eyes. Over the years, he stared at them so much he could identify them by their exposed sphincters beneath their upturned tails. It was the view of the sleigh driver as he careened against the midnight blue of the night sky, reindeer asses. With the deer butts and their gaseous expulsions, November’s reconnaissance dry run from the Pole to the States bordered on intolerable. They were necessary. This was the time to sort out any unforeseen circumstances that may hinder him in his December missions.
Even as a veteran pilot, it took time to relearn air travel without instrument panels, going by the stars, and an innate navigation sense in his gut. The only tech accompanying him was the radio communication devices he needed to speak with air traffic control towers and military personnel and his IFF transponder. Since the Towers came down, the process went from a minor distraction to a full-on nuisance. He missed the good old days. The times he flew without anyone bothering him. Where the only concern he had was the kids who turned their wishing eyes to the heavens in hopes of catching a glimpse of him on his way to their rooftop.
He had the white hair and beard, the twinkle in his eye, and the cold night air at fifteen hundred feet gave him rosy cheeks, but he wasn't willing to get fat for this job or any other. He smiled as he looked at the flight suit he had on. Forty years later, and it still fit. The red suit only came out on the night of nights, which wasn't tonight. With the November dry run, he was jolly ol' John Trafalgar and not Santa Claus.
With the Canadian/United States border getting closer, the bile tapped danced up his esophagus. Mixed emotions about missing home and remembering his first homecoming left him at the same time with feelings of happiness and wanting to vomit. The signs and yelling stung him most as he stepped off the plane with his gunny slung over his shoulder. Disappointment and hurt filled the holes left by the fleeting hope and excitement of leaving the jungles behind. He still twinged, thinking of the twisted, angry faces and the venomous words as he walked across the runway. He was home without a welcome. He served his country, but it changed while he was sweating beneath the rainforest canopy praying to make it through another day. It plummeted him deep to his bottom and took years for him to find a single joy.
The box squawked at him from the floor, “You're now entering restricted airspace. Turn around immediately.” His right eyebrow jutted toward the cold moon overhead. That’s new. Since 1980 this was his route, and this message was not the one he got at this point. It couldn't be for him, he decided. The voice squeaked at him again, “I repeat, you are entering restricted airspace. You are not approved to enter this zone. Please alter your course immediately.”
A synapse deep inside his brain popped. Who in the holly did this person think he was speaking to? The night sky he scanned looked correct, but maybe he was off course. He looked at the north star. He was not off course. What the hell are these idiots talking about? The moon burst into flames in his eyes as his temper erupted. His flesh coiled around the hard plastic as he tried to press the communication button through the radio mic. He gritted teeth. Clench-jawed, he said, “This is SC-0001. What in Tannenbaum are you talking about? I've got clearance to enter this zone.”
“Repeat, SC-0001. Your clearance is revoked. You are about to enter restricted airspace.”
“Revoked! No way! I didn't fly three thousand miles looking up the hind ends of eight reindeer to get turned around because of an oversight by some No-Load. I'm coming through.” The bite in John's voice went deep in the young man's ears.
“SC-0001, this is Lieutenant Colonel Church. Your clearance has been revoked. If you persist on your present course, we will be forced into taking action against you. Desist, now.”
It was a different voice coming across the radio, more forceful with an authority only gained by experience. “Listen here, hinge-head. If you want to be the man who hurls a SAM at jolly old Santa Claus, this is your night. I’m coming through!” Dropping the radio microphone back into his cradle, he whipped the reigns propelling the eight trusty reindeer to full gallop toward the imaginary borderline on the horizon. He pulled down his goggles as his back compressed the supple red leather of his sleigh’s seat to the wood backing with the G-force of the deer thrust. Envisioning some old bureaucratic fart racking his brain over how to handle this situation, he laughed. “Ho, ho.”
Airman Waddell looked at Lieutenant Colonel Church for some sort of direction or, at least, an indication of what he should do. The wrinkles on the brow beneath his snow-white eighth-inch hairs made Church's forehead an ocean of frustration. His steely gray eyes darkened with every passing second. The officer struggled for a way to bring this situation to an end. An end good for his reputation and the fat man in the clouds. “Sir?”
“God damn it, Airman, give me a second.” Church turned his back to the Airman waiting for his command. He rubbed his temples as he ran the possible scenarios through his mind. Shoot him down with a Surface-to-Air missile would be the most satisfying but challenging to explain the fireworks. These days, everyone subscribed to some kind of conspiratorial mindset. Giving them ammunition would find him in the center of the attention. The explaining of shooting him down seemed a more significant issue than letting him through and answering to his superiors and others.
“Yes, sir.” Church didn’t break from his thinking as Waddell sat watching the bogey blip ever closer to the border. Time necessitated some kind of action, and the Airman needed his order. “Sir? Approximately two minutes until, what was the call sign, SC...”
“Santa Claus, Waddell, Santa Claus enters our airspace.”
“Is that what we're calling bogey's now, sir?” Waddell said. His voice cracked as the confusion over what he heard began to sink in.
“That son-of-a-bitch!” Church turned his back on the radar and folded his arms. “Waddell, get the boys up there. We'll escort him down.”
“Sir? Who's him? And why are we not shooting him down?”
“Don't ask questions! Do it!”
“Yessir!” Waddell felt a need to pop to his feet and salute, but he stayed in his seat and began to execute his orders.
“Waddell, I'll be in my office.”
The headlights on the black Lincoln lit the road, and the lines ticked off one by one. Hitchens couldn’t help but drift into a kind of hypnosis as they floated toward him. The way they floated with their iridescence against the black lulled him into a thoughtless state. This was as close to magic as the world got for him. The tricks the mind plays on you could fool you if you didn’t keep yourself grounded like the illusion on the road in front of him.
He hated being a passenger on these long rides. He preferred to drive, but Watterson won out in their argument at the Flying J two states from here. Hitchens had been drifting off before they stopped, and the fatigue was winning out, so it only made sense for Watterson to take the wheel. Damn it, sometimes logic and reason were a bitch. Hitchens glared at Watterson’s face as he watched him focus on the road as they neared their destination. Reason, it always wins, god-damned reason.
“You were dozing off, so you can stop with the scowling looks.” Watterson smiled as he hit the turn signal. “Besides, we’re here.”
Watterson felt a glint of happiness at his partner's annoyance. They had been on the road for almost two days, and any small thing helped. They got their orders, and with no notice at all, they hit the road. The first few hours were fine, but then came the talking. Incessant and pointless, Hitchens continued non-stop. It actually got worse when Watterson turned the radio on in a brief reprieve of silence. Turns out Hitchens knows the lyrics to every single song ever written in every single genre and is not ashamed of singing out-of-key and off time. So annoying him felt good, real good.
The car lurched to a stop at the gate as a Senior Airman stepped to their window clipboard in hand. “Good Evening. What can I do for you, gentlemen?”
“So professional.” Watterson appreciated this all the more after this long ride. “We are here on official business. I don’t believe we will be on your manifest, but if you could call Lieutenant Colonel Church and let him know we are here, I’m sure he will clear everything up.” Watterson pulled a card from his breast pocket and handed it to the guard. “Thanks, we will wait right here.”
Church could hear the order to scramble fighter jets to escort Claus into the base as he exited the control center. He rushed down the gray halls to his office. This didn't feel normal. He slipped up too. SC-0001's pilot was classified information. Damn it, Stephen, Damn it, tap-danced all through his head. Opening the door to his office, he heard the call of his red hotline beeping. He had his orders, and it seems now he carried them out, someone was anxious to see what the reaction was.
“Lieutenant Colonel Church,” he said into the red receiver standing at the back of this metal desk. He winced as he heard the voice on the other end. It was rough, ragged, and dry, like a corpse speaking from its desiccated throat. “Yes, I've scrambled our airmen, and they are on course to intercept now. Yes, SC-0001 will be on the ground here. Yes, I will meet your men at the gate when they arrive. Oh, they're almost here? Hold on, hold.” Church snatched his other phone as he set the red receiver on the desk. “Security Gate G, now.” A single bead of sweat rolled down the wrinkled brow of the Lieutenant Commander onto the upturned handset. “You've got two gentlemen with you now? Hold on.” Church picked up the red handset. He now had a black handset and a red one on either ear. “What's their names?” He said, meaning to speak only into the red receiver but spoke into both. His response came in stereo.
“Agents Watterson and Hitchens.”
“Have someone escort them to my office.” He said into the black receiver as he placed the red one back on the desk. Damn it, Stephen. Damn it. He hung up the black phone and picked the red one back up. “They are on their way. Okay, I will let them run the show once the package is on the ground.”
The sleigh rocketed across the border. John had a glint in his eye. He knew this was going to be a rough ride. You don't buck Uncle Sam without getting a bruise or two. He didn't care why or how. Without any notice, his practice flight over the good old U.S. Of A. ended up restricted. He was going to finish his flight and get back home or die trying. His radio squawked again. “SC-0001, This is Lieutenant Colonel Church. You are in restricted airspace. Jets are en route to intercept. We are ready and prepared to answer your entry as a hostile act and respond in kind. Do you copy?”
“SC-0001 Here, I read you. Shoot me down then!”
“SC-0001, I don't want to, but if you persist, you leave me no options. I'm sure this is an oversight, but my hands are tied. Please follow the jets in, and we will sort this out on the ground.” He needed a stiff drink and some Pepto after saying those words. He just told Santa Claus he was going to shoot him down.
Santa hung up the radio, his confidence shaken. This was the night of the dry run around the world. What was happening? Was anyone else having issues? His communication capabilities only allowed him to speak with the countries he was traveling through. He looked over his shoulder toward the North Pole. A nagging feeling crept in. He had been in a similar situation before, flying a secret mission in hostile territory. That time he got shot out of the sky, and he spent months in a hot stinking hole or suffering interrogation by the enemy. He hoped the North Pole knew what was going on.
He saw something rush across the shimmer of the northern lights. The formation lights of the fighter jets came closer. What could he do? He pulled back on the reigns. Tonight he couldn't outrun them. In a month, they wouldn't even catch a whiff of Prancer's farts, but now the reindeer didn't contain the power to keep the jets in the rearview. The jets came on both sides of the sleigh. Looking at the pilots in the cockpits, they both signaled for him to go down.
“SC-0001? SC-0001? You read me?” It was the Lieutenant Colonel.
“Yeah, you coal gifted so and so, I read you. What in the nutcracker is going on?”
“The jets will escort you in, and we will figure it out from there. You suited up?”
“Mistletoe and Holly! I'm not suited up, you know that Stephen, like you know you wanted Chatty Cathy on your pivotal Christmas but asked me for an Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle.” John smiled at the momentary silence.
Lieutenant Colonel Church choked a bit, then he thought of the contents of his lower desk drawer. How could he open that drawer and smile after tonight? He gathered himself, pushing the button on the microphone in a soft tone. He said, “SC-0001, you coming in?”
“Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen Comet, Cupid, Dunder, Blixem, whooooaaaa.” He pulled back on the reigns, gave a thumbs up to the pilots, signaling he would follow them. “I'm coming in, but this better get fixed quick. I'm on a tight schedule.”
“SC-0001 Copy that. We'll have you back in the sky in a jiffy.”
“I'm holding you to that.”
The sleigh and jets circled back to Bangor. Flanked on either side with fighter jets, the sleigh hit the runway. Sparks from the landing sleigh, landing lights, and emptiness filled the typically bustling area. Tonight, It was devoid of personnel, save for the Lieutenant Commander and the two men in black suits with white shirts, black ties, and dark sunglasses. John jumped from the sled as the reindeer pulled it along the runway still.
“Thank God you came in SC-0001.” Church meant it, but maybe he should have stayed silent. John Trafalgar's blood got hotter and hotter with each step, and each step came faster and faster until he was at a full sprint barreling towards the three men on the asphalt.
“SC! Slow up!” Church barked at the charging man. The long white hair and beard fluttered in the cold night air as he gained speed. His hands now hammers as he clenched them in their black leather gloves. “Hold on. Stop where you are!” The order from the Lieutenant Colonel held zero authority, more of a pleading.
“NAUGHTY!!!” John shouted over the crack of his fist against the cheek of the officer. Church dropped like Santa's sack down the chimney. Bleary-eyed, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Francis Church's vision fuzzy from the concussion, watched as the hulking form of John Trafalgar hovered above him.
“Mr. Trafalgar,” Agent Hitchens said. “We need you to come with us.”
John stepped back, his wild eyes abated to shock. Who was this that knew his name? He stared at the two men standing beside the fallen Air Force man. The one who spoke, Richard Hitchens, was a thick human being, the suit tailored well enough to hide the extra dozens of donuts he carried around his waist. John could tell he was a capable combatant and his extra girth only helped have his potential opponents underestimate him. The other man was lithe and tall, but again something told John he was a capable warrior. Charlie Watterson, the tall, lithe one, slipped a hand into the interior breast pocket of his jacket and produced a card.
“Mr. Trafalgar. We are here to speak to you, and we need you to come with us. I'm...” Watterson said.
“Charlie, not Charles, Watterson,” John said, then shifting his eyes to Agent Hitchens, “Richard Hitchens. I know. What do you need from me?”
“Just to speak. We need some information, and we know you have it. The sooner we get this started, the sooner you can be on your way.” Agent Watterson smiled, his teeth white, straight, big, and perfect. He extended his arm, offering the card again. Claus Regulation And Management Protocol of the United States, Agent Charlie Watterson.
“So you got a card from VistaPrint.com. Cool,” he said with a dubious tone and rolling eyes. It was clear to the agents, he needed more convincing.
“We are a new task force recently formed to streamline and facilitate your relationship with our citizens. We recognize your importance to the world at large and, in a more specific way, to our sovereign nation, but in a post-9-11 world, you've been a bit of an oversight. We are here to take care of that. With the current political climates, we need to take a proactive approach to all potential ramifications of exposure of you from a mythical personality to a real-world personality. So if you'd come with us, we could get this wrapped up and get you one your way.”
“That's a mouthful you said there. I think we need to unpack that bit by bit. I need a little more than a crappy business card, and you're saying a bunch of garbage to kumbaya with you. This isn't a pow wow, and I'm not the ambassador of the North Pole. I've got work, and you're getting in the way. So how do you feel about stepping aside, or I can drop a few of these Oh Tannenbombs on you like old hitch head on the ground there?” John clenched his fist, hoping they'd challenge him. Decades had passed since punched someone. He forgot how much he'd liked it. A donnybrook on the runway suited him fine.
“If that's how this is going to play out,” Agent Hitchens said. He produced a taser gun from his pocket and shocked John Trafalgar. He jolted and became rigid as he fell next to Lieutenant Colonel Church. Hitchens brought his wrist to his mouth, “The quarry is incapacitated. The present will be delivered within the hour.”