CHEESEBURGER BROWN: Novelist & Story-wallah
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Girls Can Be Santa Claus, Too
A Christmas story from Cheeseburger Brown
CHAPTERS 1|2|3|4|5|6
Pink Santa, a Christmas novelette by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming


Mike got up in the night, because he had to pee.

He had neither a father nor a mother to care for him, so Mike lived in an orphange. The orphanage was very old and it smelled like a sticky shower curtain. At night the orphanage was very dark, but Mike knew his way to the washroom by touch.

In the washroom he was surprised to surprise Chloe. They surprised each other. Both Mike and Chloe gasped. Mike said, "What are doing in the boy's bathroom?"

Chloe said, "Shhh!"

She was teetering on top of a stack of books. Mike recognized The Wind in the Willows, Watership Down, A Wrinkle in Time and Winnie-the-Pooh. Chloe had built a tower out of the books next to the wall, and she was stretching to reach the windowsill up high.

"What are you doing?" he whispered.

Chloe frowned at him, then lost her balance and accidentally kicked at the stack with her dangling feet. Books flew everywhere, skidding into the corners. Chloe was left hanging from the windowsill by the tips of her fingers. She yelped.

"Oh my gosh!" said Mike.

They heard thumps and bumps from the floor above them, and then muttering adult voices. The nuns were awake!

"The nuns are awake!" cried Chloe.

Mike was scared. He didn't want to get in trouble. "What should I do?" he asked.

Chloe said, "Help me!"

So Mike got below Chloe, and she put her feet on his little shoulders, then hauled herself up to sit in the sill. She turned the lock and grunted as she pushed open the window, letting in a puff of cold, winter air. It started to snow inside the washroom.

They could hear the nuns in the corridor outside poking into each room and calling for Chloe. They sounded very angry.

Mike started to cry.

"Shhh!" hissed Chloe again.

"But I don't want to be in trouble," whined Mike, sniffling through his sobs.

"Be quiet!" said Chloe.

The nuns were getting closer. The lights in the corridor came on.

"I don't know where to hide!" squeaked Mike.

Suddenly Chloe dangled her arms down from the sill, grabbed the top of Mike's pajamas, and used all her strength to pull him up. Mike scrambled onto the sill and squeezed in beside her. "What are we going to do?" he wanted to know, his breath making little puffs of steam in the cold air by the window.

"We're going to escape!" said Chloe.

"Where's escape?" asked Mike.

"Escape isn't a place, it's a thing to do. I'm running away. Are you coming?"

Mike crinkled his brow. "Where?"

"Out. Away. Far away. Come on -- quickly!"

Mike didn't know what to do. He started to cry again. Chloe squirmed through the open window and dropped down to the metal fire-escape below. She looked up at him. "Are you coming or aren't you?" she asked.

The door of the washroom began to open. Long, adult-sized shadows were cast upon the floor. Sister Bethany was carrying her special paddle which she used for spanking the backsides of children who broke the rules.

Mike panicked when he saw the paddle and dove through the open window. He landed on top of Chloe who said, "Oof."

They tried to stay perfectly still and perfectly quiet. They heard Sister Bethany say, "The window's open in here. Did somebody leave this window open?"

Chloe and Mike stayed crunched up in a little ball on the fire escape, hoping Sister Bethany wouldn't see them when she looked outside. She called, "Chloe! Chloe!"

"What's going on?" said Sister Joanna from inside the washroom.

"I think Chloe Blair has escaped again," said Sister Bethany. "Send Alfred around to check the alley."

Chloe tugged on Mike's pajamas. "Let's go! Hurry!" she whispered.

They padded down the rickety steps of the fire-escape and hopped into the soft snow in the alley beside the orphanage. Mike was happy that his pajamas had little socks built into them.

Chloe took Mike's hand and pulled him through the alley, his short legs working hard to keep up with the older girl's quick pace. They came out into the dark street and rushed past the front doors of the orphanage just seconds before Alfred the janitor came out, tying closed his robe. "Who's out here?" he called into the empty street.

Chloe and Mike rushed away.

It was very cold outside. Mike used his free hand to clutch at his bits. "I still have to go pee," he whined.

"We'll be there soon," said Chloe, tugging him along.

"But where are we going?" he asked.

"Don't worry," said Chloe. "I have a plan."

* * *


At the end of an alley running off Yonge Street were the loading docks for the Hudson's Bay Company, great bays with metal doors which opened to receive cargo from big trucks. The big trucks carried all sorts of things that people might like to buy inside the stores, like scarves and mittens and lamps and dishwashing machines.

No trucks came to drop things off in the middle of the night, but somebody was there anyway: it was Chloe and Mike.

"I'm cold," said Mike. His teeth were chattering.

"Be quiet," said Chloe.

Everyone at the orphanage had visited the big department store earlier that day. For a special treat the children has been taken to visit Santa Claus to tell him their Christmas wishes. Mike had been a little shy and scared until he actually got up on Santa's knee and noticed that Santa's beard was just pretend and his belly was just a pillow stuffed under a red shirt. "You're not really Santa Claus," Mike told him.

"Merry Christmas!" bellowed the man pretending to be Santa.

"And you smell kind of bad," added Mike.

The man called out "Next!" as he gently but firmly pushed Mike off his knee and waved at his grumpy teenage elves to bring him a new kid.

After their visits with the pretend Santa the kids all had to wait around behind his cardboard gingerbread house with one of the grumpy teenage elves while the nuns ran around the store looking for Chloe, who had run away again.

Chloe had been at the loading docks, talking with a truck-driver named Yves. "Don't worry," Yves told the nuns, "she's not making no trouble at all." But the nuns punished Chloe anyway.

Her backside was still smarting, hours later as she stamped her feet to keep warm in the snowy alley. "Ah-ha!" she cried.

Mike shivered. "What ah-ha?"

"This," she said, pushing open a tiny square of rubber next to the big metal doors. "This is the cat door Yves was showing me."

"What's a cat door?" asked Mike.

"It's this," said Chloe, "a little door for a cat to use. They keep a cat in the department store to eat mice. Yves said they lock the cat door at night, so I broke the lock off when he was talking to Sister Bethany. Now we can go in."

"Do you want to visit the pretend Santa again?" asked Mike.

"No," said Chloe. "We're going to live inside the store. They have everything in there -- beds, toys, candy -- everything. Good idea, huh?"

"Yeah," agreed Mike. "I want some candy."

Chloe nodded. "Let's go."

The kids squeezed through the cat door and stood up inside the loading dock. It was dark and Mike felt scared so he tried to hold Chloe's hand. Chloe groaned. "There's nothing to be afraid of. Don't be a baby."

"I'm not a baby -- I'm five."

Chloe put her hands on her hips and said, "Well I'm three bigger than five so that makes me in charge, and I'm ordering you not to be scared anymore."

Mike considered this. "Okay," he promised, even though he still felt a little bit scared.

They found their way out of the loading docks and into the dark department store. The shadows of mannequins wearing winter sweaters loomed over them from all sides. The shuffling of the kids' footsteps seemed very loud.

They couldn't find the washrooms to Mike peed into a pot of red flowers by one of the cash registers. When he was done he zipped up his pajamas. At the same time Chloe unzipped her knapsack and took out a little doll with a dirty plastic face. She was hugging the doll and whispering to it when Mike turned around. "Who's that?" he asked.

"This is Polly the dolly," said Chloe. "She's my best friend."

Mike thought about his teddy bear, Wah, who was still back in his bed at the orphanage. He started to cry, so Chloe led him into the clothing department and gave him a package of fuzzy socks. Mike cuddled one of the fuzzy socks and put his thumb in his mouth.

"Better?" asked Chloe. Mike nodded.

Their next stop was a booth where popcorn was made with all sorts of funny flavours, like dill or cheddar cheese or ketchup. There were bags of popcorn under the counter, so they each took one. Chloe chose barbecue-sauce flavoured popcorn and Mike chose candy-floss flavoured popcorn, and they ate from the bags until they felt sick. Then they drank water out of the penny fountain.

"When are we going home?" asked Mike, who had rolled up one sleeve so he could fish for pennies in the fountain. They were hard to catch, and seemed to jump away from his fingers before he could scoop them up.

"Never," said Chloe.

"Never?" repeated Mike, thinking about poor Wah the teddy bear all alone.

"No, not even ever," said Chloe. "If we go back there I'll have to go to another Foster home. When you get bigger they'll send you to one, too."

Mike was curious. He asked, "What is one?"

Chloe sighed sadly. She said, "A Foster home is some house they put you in with grown-ups who are mean to you all the time, and always trying to make you do stuff. And then even if you do start to like it there they take you out and put you in a different one with even meaner grown-ups."

Mike was shocked. "You should tell the nuns," he suggested.

"Duh," said Chloe. "The nuns are the ones that make it happen. They know all about it. It's their idea."

Mike was too surprised and worried to say anything more. He could not imagine the nuns, who had always cared for him, being a part of something so awful. He sat on the steps by the fountain and hugged his fuzzy sock for comfort. Then he yawned.

"Come on," said Chloe, taking his hand. "We have to find a place to sleep."

The place they found was a display of winter camping supplies set up on a platform covered in rolls of white felt that were supposed to look like snow. They took two of the rolls inside the big tent so they could unroll them and use them as blankets. Chloe also found some toques and scarves they could use as pillows, setting up one pile each for herself, for Mike, and for Polly the dolly.

They were just about to settle down to go to sleep when Mike felt a little tickle. "I think I have to go pee again," he said.

Chloe groaned. "Again?" she asked, annoyed.

"I think so," said Mike.

"So go," Chloe told him.

Mike didn't move. "I'm too scared to go by myself," he said quietly.

Chloe was not happy. She unzipped the tent and they both squirmed out again. Mike found another pot of red flowers and tried to pee into it but it turned out he didn't have any pee. "I guess I didn't really have to go," he said.

Chloe said, "Shhh!"

Mike zipped up his pajamas and turned around. Chloe was staring across the store, her eyes searching the shadows by a rack of ski boots. "What are you looking at?" asked Mike.

Something moved by the ski boots.

Mike grabbed Chloe's hand. "Is it the cat?" he whispered.

"I don't know," Chloe whispered back. She hugged Polly.

The kids began crossing the open aisle toward the camping display to get back into their tent. They heard another noise and started to run. Just then a tall shadow stepped out into the aisle in front of them, blocking their path.

Chloe screamed and the shadow gasped in surprise.

Mike tried to run away to hide but a strong hand reached out and grabbed him by the shoulder. Mike was turned around. He squeezed his eyes shut against the harsh, bright light of a flashlight. "Let me go!" he squeaked, trying to pull away.

The hand let go. Mike fell down. He saw the man's big black shoes and how his black pants had a stripe running down the leg like a police officer. Chloe yelled, "It's a security guard -- run, Mike, run!"

He heard Chloe's footsteps rushing away. Mike tried to scramble to his feet but the slippery bottoms of his pajamas skated on the smooth floor and he fell down again. "Chloe, help!" he cried.

The flashlight beam swept across him, and a second later Mike was picked up by two strong arms. He wriggled and squirmed but he could not escape. He covered his face with the fuzzy sock and closed his eyes.

"Well now," said a deep voice, "what do we have here?"

Once again, Mike felt like he needed to pee.

* * *


Mike peeked out from behind the fuzzy sock he clutched. He dared to look into the face of the security guard who was holding him off the floor, and what he saw made him smile.

"Santa!" cried Mike.

The security guard frowned. "How did you get in here?" he asked gruffly.

"Through a cat door," explained Mike, "which is a small door for cats to use."

"Where are your parents?" asked the security guard.

Mike said, "I don't have any parents."

"Where do you live?"

"Saint Anne Mother of Our Lady Orphanage South, sir."

The security guard grunted. "What are you doing here?"

"Eating popcorn and sleeping," said Mike. "My friend Chloe ran away. She's eight."

The security guard shook his head and sighed. The part of his face Mike could see was wrinkled and lined; the rest of his face was covered by a big white beard. He did not look very jolly. He wiped his hand over his eyes and said, "What else can go wrong tonight?"

In answer a loud squeaking sounded. The security guard looked around in time to see a cart full of flavoured popcorn zooming toward him out of the dark, its squeaky wheels spinning. His eyes opened wide in surprise just before the cart bowled him over, popcorn spilling everywhere.

Mike landed on top of the security guard. He looked up to see Chloe racing toward him. "Come on, Mike -- run!" she cried, grabbing Mike's hand and pulling him to his feet.

The kids scampered away as quickly as they could. At the penny fountain they paused to catch their breath. "Are you okay?" asked Chloe.

"Why did you knock Santa down?" Mike wanted to know.

"That's not Santa," said Chloe.

Mike frowned. "How do you know?"

"Don't make me tell you," replied Chloe darkly. "It's just a thing eight-year-olds know about that five-year-olds don't. Trust me."

Mike wasn't sure what to think. He ate a piece of caramel popcorn that had stuck to his pajamas. He said, "Yum."

"We have to find a new place to hide so he doesn't find us," said Chloe seriously. She sighed. "I thought the security guards went home to sleep at night."

"Santa doesn't need to sleep," said Mike. "He's magic."

Chloe rolled her eyes. She took Mike's hand and they went exploring to find a new hiding spot. They passed by racks of skirts and slacks and then wandered through a big room full of refrigerators and ovens. They were about to move on to the next section of the department store when Mike saw something that made him forget all about the Santa security guard. "Toys!" he cheered.

There were toys on tall shelves, toys in displays, toys lining the walls, toys upon toys lined up on racks up and down the aisles. Mike had never imagined that there were so many toys in the world.

He was about to run into the section when Chloe grabbed his shoulder to stop him. "Wait," she whispered. "Listen!"

They heard footsteps. A moment later they smelled popcorn. The Santa security guard had somehow guessed they could come to the toy section, and he had gotten there first. Chloe and Mike peeked out from behind one of the shelves to see him. Mike asked quietly, "What is he doing?"

"I don't know..." said Chloe.

The security guard was playing with toys. He sat down on the floor and zoomed a toy firetruck around in circles until it broke apart, little plastic wheels popping off and bouncing away. The security guard took a notebook out of his pocket and wrote something in it with a pencil, then picked up a doll house and opened and closed it until the hinges cracked. He made another note in his notebook.

"Guards don't care about toys," reasoned Mike. "He is Santa."

"Don't be silly," said Chloe. "Let's get out of here."

"But Santa Claus likes kids," said Mike. "Maybe he could help us."

Chloe frowned as she watched the security guard break another toy. "Mike, for the last time, that is not Santa Claus."

Mike stuck out his lip. "How come?"

Chloe told Mike to sit down on a low shelf next to a toy pony farm. He did. Chloe walked around in a little circle in front of him for a moment, not saying anything. Mike cuddled his fuzzy sock. Finally Chloe looked Mike right in the eyes and said, "Mike, I really didn't want to have to tell you, but I think I do have to tell you."

"Tell me what?" asked Mike, his voice muffled by the sock. He was scared by Chloe's serious voice. Sister Bethany always used a serious voice when she was going to tell you something you wouldn't like.

"Mike," said Chloe slowly, "there is no such thing as Santa Claus."

Mike snorted and then giggled. "Don't be silly," he said.

"I'm serious," said Chloe. She was not laughing.

"So where do Christmas presents come from?" Mike challenged her.

"Grown-ups buy them," she answered. "They buy them from a store, like this one, and then wrap them up and lie about where they came from."

Mike became worried that Chloe was telling the truth. He shivered. "Why would grown-ups lie to us? The nuns say lying is a sin."

Chloe said, "The nuns lie to us all the time. They probably lie more than anybody."

Now Mike was very worried. "You're just trying to scare me, like Hallowe'en," he told Chloe. "But I'm not even scared because you're just being mean. Right?"

"Wrong," said Chloe. "That guy is just an old man with a white beard. He's not Santa. He's just a regular grown-up. And if you let him he'll catch you and you'll be in the biggest trouble you've ever been in in your whole life."

Mike started to cry.

"Be quiet!" hissed Chloe, but it was too late: the security guard heard Mike's sniffles and looked up. "Run, Mike!" said Chloe.

Mike kept sitting on the shelf beside the toy pony farm. He shook his head. He was too sad to move.

"You're such a baby!" said Chloe.

Mike hid behind his fuzzy sock. Chloe ran away alone. When Mike looked out from behind the sock he saw the security guard with the white beard standing over him, hands on his hips.

"Am I in the biggest trouble ever?" asked Mike, his nose running.

"Not from me," said the security guard. He knelt down on one knee and put a big hand on Mike's little shoulder. "Don't cry," he said. "Everything will be alright, little fellow. You'll see."

Mike wiped his nose with his sleeve. "It's nice that you're nice," said Mike.

For the first time the old security guard smiled, the wrinkles around his eyes pressing together. "Of course I'm nice," he said. "Being nice is my job. What's your name?"

"Mike Zhang," said Mike Zhang.

The old fellow shook Mike's hand and winked. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mike Zhang," he said.

"But who are you?" asked Mike.

He chuckled, his eyes twinkling. He said, "Why, I'm Santa Claus."

* * *


When Chloe woke up in the morning she was very stiff. She had slept inside a cupboard in a fake kitchen, and now she had a pain in her neck. She rubbed her neck as she blinked and yawned, looking around at all the appliances. Through the windows she could see the pink light of sunrise shining on the tall buildings outside.

She hugged Polly the dolly. "I guess we're all alone now," said Chloe. "I hope Mike is okay."

Polly had nothing to say, because she was just a doll.

People who worked in the department store began to arrive for the work day, so Chloe hid behind a rack of aprons with funny sayings on them. She watched the workers set up their cash registers. They chatted with one another, wondering about the popcorn cart toppled over in the sporting equipment section. "Maybe the cat did it," said one girl.

"I doubt it," said an older woman.

Older people were always doubting things, Chloe knew.

At nine o'clock they unlocked the doors to let in the shoppers, who quickly filled the store. Chloe came out of her hiding place and walked around with the shoppers, holding Polly close. Chloe's tummy was grumbling because she was so hungry, and it was making her cranky.

She decided to walk to the toy section, where she had last seen Mike, to see if she could find any clues about what might have happened to him.

The toy section was very busy, but it wasn't shoppers running between the aisles: it was people in business suits, carrying clipboards and talking on tiny telephones. Chloe noticed that the toys the security guard had broken were gone, and the display he had taken them from was covered in a shiny piece of red fabric.

Two very busy grown-ups were standing around the cash register, scratching their heads over a pile of money in which every bill had been folded into the shape of a different animal: a duck, a horse, a fish, a dragonfly. One of the grown-ups pointed to the money and said, "You know what's funny? This is exactly the cost of the missing toys."

The second grown-up chortled. "An honest thief? I doubt it. It's probably just a coincidence."

"Still," said the first grown-up, "I wonder who would fold money into shapes like this. Isn't it strange?"

"It's bizarre," agreed the second grown-up.

Chloe kept walking. At the end of the section workers were setting up bright lights on high stands, all pointing at the red fabric covering the toy display. Another man was putting a camera on top of a tripod while his friend plugged the camera into a wall socket. "Okay, people!" called a busy business man with a tiny telephone, "Mr. Baron will be here in five minutes for the rehearsal. We have five minutes, people."

Four minutes and fifty-nine seconds later a tall, thin man in a dark suit with a grey tie walked into the toy section. Everyone stood up straight and smiled. "Good morning, Mr. Baron," they each said as the tall, thin man walked past them. He did not say "good morning" back to anyone and the expression on his face made him look like he had just bitten into something that tasted awful. He had a mustache so thin it looked like somebody had drawn it on his face with a marker.

"Where's the child?" asked Mr. Baron sharply, looking at his watch.

"Um," said one of the business ladies, "the talent has a cold, but we'll find a new child in time for the press conference. Don't worry, sir."

Mr. Baron looked down his long nose at the lady as his frown became even deeper. "Don't worry?" he repeated, his eyes narrow.

"Um," said the lady again. She was having trouble with her smile.

"Go home," said Mr. Baron.

"Pardon me?" asked the lady.

"You're fired," said Mr. Baron. "Get out of here."

The lady's smile disappeared. Tears gathered at the corners of her eyes, and then she turned around and ran away. She was very sad that Mr. Baron had taken her job away.

Mr. Baron looked around the toy section and saw Chloe. "You!" he barked. "You're a child, aren't you?"

Chloe gulped. "Yes sir," she said, nodding.

"Do you want to make some money?" asked Mr. Baron.

"I'm hungry," said Chloe.

"Well then," replied Mr. Baron, "we'll give you some money and you can buy food. That's how money works. Where are your parents?"

Chloe said, "They're not here."

Mr. Baron's frown twitched upsidown for a second, making his thin mustache push up into his nose in a funny way. The man behind the camera told Chloe to stand on a little X of tape on the floor. Mr. Baron stepped up and pulled Polly out of Chloe's arms. "What's this?" he asked.

"That's Polly my dolly, sir," said Chloe.

Mr. Baron snorted. "Looks like garbage to me," he said, tossing Polly into the trash bin beside the cash register. Before Chloe could say anything Mr. Baron shoved a new doll at her. "Here, take this one," he said. "It's much better. You're a very lucky little girl."

"I want my dolly back, please," said Chloe. She was trying not to cry. Everyone was looking at her.

"What's that?" said Mr. Baron. "Nonsense! This is a Baron Toys Doll. It's brand new. It costs over sixty dollars. Why don't you play with it and see how you like it?"

Chloe looked at the doll and wrinkled her nose. "She smells like plastic," said Chloe.

"Why don't you show us how it looks when you give it a hug, honey?" suggested the man behind the camera.

Chloe gave the doll a hug and its head popped off. "Oh my gosh I'm sorry!" cried Chloe. She reached down and picked up the head. The paint had scraped off the doll's eyes where it hit the floor. "She's wrecked," said Chloe sadly.

Mr. Baron grinned, showing a mouthful of long, grey teeth. "Nonsense," he said again. He grabbed the broken doll from Chloe, threw it into the trash bin with Polly, and then took a new doll from the shelf. "You see? Good as new!" he said, offering the new doll to Chloe.

Chloe frowned. "But that's a different doll," she said.

"No no no," said Mr. Baron quickly. "Not at all, child. It's the exact same doll, except this one isn't broken. That's the beauty of the whole idea. You'll never have to worry about broken toys again if your parents get you a subscription with my company."

"What's one of those?" asked Chloe.

"Well," said Mr. Baron, "a subscription means whenever your toys get broken you get a new one, exactly the same, right away! Isn't that wonderful?"

Chloe was confused. She looked at the new doll in her hands and frowned. "But it's not the exact same," she said, "it's a different doll."

Mr. Baron patted Chloe on the head and mumbled to one of the grown-ups, "She's not very bright but she'll have to do. When do the reporters arrive?"

"Half an hour, sir," said the grown-up.

"Fine," said Mr. Baron. "Don't let the child out of your sight. If her parents show up, pay them something."

Mr. Baron rushed away followed by some busy businessmen talking on tiny telephones. A shop girl set up velvet ropes to block off the area where Chloe stood next to the covered display, but Chloe ducked under so she could get to the trash bin to fish out Polly and the broken doll head with the scraped eye paint. The poor doll had only been hugged once before being thrown into the trash, which made Chloe sad. She took Polly and the broken doll head and hugged them both. "You two can be friends," she whispered.

A grown-up put a hand on Chloe's shoulder. "Don't wander away," said the man behind the camera. "You're going to be on television. Isn't that exciting, honey?"

Chloe tried to smile. "Do you have anything to eat?" she asked.

The man patted his pockets. He said, "Do you like gum?"

Chloe sighed.

* * *


Wet clumps of white snow fell from the cloudy sky and turned to grey mush on the busy city streets. Horns honked. There were people everywhere, and they were all in a hurry.

Mike watched the hub-bub through the front window of the small, steamy restaurant where he sat at a counter beside Santa Claus. Santa was dressed as a security guard. "What do you usually have for breakfast, Mike?" asked Santa.

"Oatmeal," said Mike.

Santa suggested Mike try bacon and eggs and pancakes and toast instead, and Mike agreed. There were faded, greasy pictures of bacon and eggs and pancakes and toast on the wall and Mike thought they looked delicious. While they waited for the food to arrive Mike looked out the window at the people on Yonge Street.

"Everybody's going to work," said Mike.

"Yes they are," agreed Santa. The waitress brought him a cup of coffee and he said, "Thank you, miss."

Mike asked, "Do you have a work, Santa?"

"I'm working right now, Mike," said Santa, nodding. "I'm watching the department store across the street so I don't miss the press conference."

Mike asked, "What's a press conference?"

Santa explained, "It's when journalists -- reporters -- come to hear about a thing or see a thing so they can tell everyone about it on the radio or in the newspapers. This press conference is about new toys."

"I like toys," observed Mike thoughtfully.

"Me too," said Santa. "But these toys aren't good toys. They're toys that break, so you always have to get a new one. It's a very sneaky and unkind thing to do to children, I think."

Mike nodded. "I think that, too."

At that moment another Santa Claus walked in to the restaurant, making the little bell above the door jingle. Instead of being dressed as a security guard he was dressed as a grocer, but he had a long, yellow-white beard, a round tummy and twinkling little eyes.

He walked up to Mike's Santa and tapped him on the shoulder. They whispered a word to one another. Next the new Santa put a rolled up note in Santa's palm, nodded, and then turned around and walked out of the restaurant.

"Who was that?" asked Mike.

"Santa Claus," said Santa Claus.

Yet another Santa Claus walked in next, this one dressed up in big red pajamas with white furry trim just like the pretend Santa and his grumpy teenage elves. He was wearing a red toque, and carrying a bell and a bucket full of money. Mike leaned in close to hear him whisper, "Saint Nicholas."

Mike's Santa whispered "Saint Nicholas" back, and then the new Santa asked if he needed any money. Mike's Santa shook his head to say no. The new Santa nodded in a friendly way and then left the restaurant. Once on the street outside he rang his bell and held out his bucket so people could put money in. "Ho, ho, ho!" he sang.

Mike's Santa winked at Mike. "Before you ask," he said, "that was Santa Claus, too."

The waitress put two hot plates of bacon and eggs and pancakes and toast on the counter in front of Santa and Mike. Mike forgot all about the other Santas; he was lost in the delicious steam rising up from his plate. He let Santa tuck a paper napkin into the top of his pajamas, then he picked up his fork and started shovelling the wonderful food into his mouth. "Yum!" said Mike.

Santa ate his breakfast with one hand and used the other hand to unroll the note the first Santa had given him. He read it quickly and then surprised Mike by popping the note into his mouth and chewing it up. He made a face when he swallowed, then he sipped his coffee. "Ugh," said Santa, sticking his tongue out.

"You shouldn't eat paper," said Mike.

"I couldn't agree more," said Santa.

When they were done Santa left a little collection of paper money folded into shapes -- a snail, an airplane, a hat -- just like the pile he'd left in the department store's toy section and outerwear section after he had found a winter coat for Mike. Santa made Mike zip up the winter coat before they left the restaurant.

"Are we going to the press conversation now?" asked Mike with a little burp.

"Before we go to the press conference," corrected Santa cheerfully, "I have to change my clothes. So, naturally, we're going into the subway."

"Oh yeah," said Mike even though he didn't understand what Santa meant.

They walked down the dirty steps from the street to the subway station. A man dressed as Santa Claus was playing a guitar on the landing. He had an open guitar case at his feet with a few coins in it. He was singing a song about a snowman named Frosty.

Mike tugged on Santa's jacket. "Hey, it's another Santa," he whispered.

"Nah," said Santa, ignoring the man playing the guitar. "He's not one of ours."

Mike and Santa stopped in front of a wall of small square lockers. Santa fished around in his pocket for an orange key, which he put into one of the locks and the locker popped open. He pulled out a blanket which he asked Mike to hold up like a wall with his arms stretched out wide. Mike held the blanket while Santa stood behind it and took off his pants.

Mike's arms started to get tired. When Santa told him he could drop the blanket Mike sighed with relief, then gasped to see Santa transformed: he had changed his clothes and now instead of looking like a security guard he looked like a dapper businessman in a fine suit.

"Wow!" said Mike.

Santa checked his watch. He said, "Let's go."

The press conference at the Hudson's Bay department store was all ready to begin. There were lots of bright lights on tall stands, all pointed at a table covered in a red drape. Mike held Santa's hand as they gently pushed their way into the crowd of reporters and business people. Mike thought it was strange how so many of the people were chubby old fellows with white beards.

An unhappy young man came by and checked Santa's press pass, which was a little card that said it was okay for Santa to be there. "Does the kid have a pass?" asked the unhappy young man.

"He's here so we can get a child's impression of the new toys," said Santa, even though it was a lie. "Say hello to the nice man, Mike."

"Hello," said Mike.

"Fine, whatever," said the unhappy young man. He walked away to check the press passes of the other people in the crowd.

A few minutes later a tall, thin man with a dark suit and a big frown under a thin mustache stood up in front of everybody and raised his hands for attention. He had a little microphone clipped to his tie, so when he spoke his voice was very loud. He said, "Attention please, ladies and gentlemen. Ladies and gentlemen: your attention."

A guy took a picture of him with a big flash. When people stopped talking the man cleared his throat and continued. He said, "My name is R. P. Baron, and as you know, I have had the great honour this year of assuming the leadership of Baron Toys International."

Lots of people clapped, so Mike clapped too. Santa did not clap.

Mr. Baron went on to say, "Baron Toys has a long and proud tradition of dominating the market for juvenile play, and that's a tradition we intend to uphold now and in the future. To show you our latest innovation to assure that future for us and our shareholders, I'd like to call out my young assistant. Miss Chloe?"

Mike gasped with surprise as Chloe stepped up beside Mr. Baron. Mr. Baron gave her a toy clown on a trapeze to play with, and it quickly broke. Mr. Baron gave Chloe a brand new toy clown on a trapeze and Chloe made an unhappy little smile. Some people in the audience clapped.

"Toys by subscription," said Mr. Baron, patting Chloe on the head. "By paying a simple low monthly fee parents can rest assured that their investment in our products is secure, now and in the future. Immediate replacements are guaranteed -- no more disappointment. I will now take your questions."

Santa put up his hand. Mr. Baron nodded at him.

Santa said, "Dominick Kringle, Toronto Star. Mr. Baron, doesn't the idea of toys by subscription ignore the fact that children bond with the toys themselves, not just with the character or idea behind them?"

"Nonsense," said Mr. Baron. "This is all about not having to worry. Children come to know their toys as something they can count on, rather than being heartbroken over losing something that cannot be replaced. I think you'll find that children will be as delighted as their parents. Right, Chloe?"

Chloe nodded. She had been promised a hot lunch if she said "yes" to everything Mr. Baron asked.

Another gentleman with a white beard put up his hand. "Santos Hernandez, National Post. Mr. Baron, has your company given up on toys that can stand up to rough play?"

"Not at all," said Mr. Baron, "Baron Toys makes products that meet or exceed industry standards for quality and durability. That's my promise the families of the world, children and parents alike."

A new hand went up. "Stan Claussen, Globe and Mail. Mr. Baron, can you still make that claim while your company is abandoning over a century of making toys out of wood and metal in favour of plastic parts?"

Mr. Baron said, "The industry as a whole is moving away from wood. Baron Toys doesn't want to be a part of cutting down the rainforests of British Columbia."

While the audience of Santa Clauses went on asking Mr. Baron pointed questions, Mike waved to try to get Chloe's attention. "Chloe!" he whispered. But Chloe did not see him. She stood beside a bright light on a tall stand, clutching her knapsack and looking at the floor.

Meanwhile, the press conference had become unruly. The real reporters were upset that the Santa Clauses were getting to ask all the questions. Some people were shouting. The unhappy young man who had checked their passes was talking quickly into a tiny telephone. One of the reporters barked out over the noise, "Mr. Baron, have you rigged this press conference with fake reporters? Mr. Baron, who are these bearded men?"

Mr. Baron was furious. His thin mustache twitched.

Another one of the real reporters pointed at Mike's Santa and yelled, "I've never seen you at my newspaper before! Who are you?"

"I think it's time to leave," said Santa, taking Mike's hand.

"But what about Chloe?" cried Mike.

"Later, Mike, later," said Santa. He pulled Mike out of the crowd and walked quickly through the department store. The other Santas all walked off in different directions.

"Santa, where are we going now?" asked Mike.

"I have to get to a phone," said Santa Claus, looking around. "Did you notice any payphones in this place, Mike?"

Mike shrugged. "What's a payphone?" he asked.

"Sugar!" said Santa.

"Yum," said Mike.

Santa found some pay telephones near the penny fountain. He put a coin in the slot and picked up the receiver, pressing it into his big white beard. He touched a bunch of buttons and then, after a pause, spoke into the telephone the words, "Saint Nicholas."

Mike asked, "Are you calling the North Pole?"

Santa nodded. He cupped his hand over the telephone receiver and whispered, "This is Agent Kappa-Kappa West Nine, calling from a public line. I have a coded report ready for oral transmission to the Order."

Mike blinked. He thought Santa sounded like a spy. But the next thing Santa said even more strange!

He said, "The lizard is king, I repeat: the lizard is king. The temperature is high, and the barometer is dropping. Six eggs for seven foxes, three geese per nest. All umbrellas are open and oiled. I've got a little wart on my finger, however. Report ends."

He hung up. Mike said, "You're kind of a silly guy, Santa."

Santa shrugged. "That's true," he said.

"What do we do now?" asked Mike.

"We wait for the phone to ring," he said. "It never takes long."

They sat down on the edge of the penny fountain. They scooped pennies out of the water and then threw them back in. Santa was really good at it, and he made Mike giggle by making funny faces when he threw. Santa also seemed to have a good time.

* * *


High above the Eaton Centre shopping mall was a tall white tower with shiny blue-green windows. Chloe looked out of the blue-green windows at the grey and snowy city. It was so far below her that the cars looked like toys, and the people looked like bugs.

Chloe was in Mr. Baron's office at Baron Toys.

A friendly, plump lady with brown skin and white, curly hair asked Chloe what she would like to eat, and Chloe said she'd like to have a grilled cheese sandwich and a pickle. "I'll see what I can do," promised the friendly lady.

Chloe waited alone.

When lunch did arrive the friendly lady said, "I'm sorry, sweetie, no grilled cheese. Mr. Baron ordered you a veal sandwich."

Chloe poked at the strange sandwich on her plate. It had all sorts of weird stuff sticking out of it and the bread smelled like pizza sauce. She wrinkled her nose.

Mr. Baron walked in next, and took a seat behind a giant desk. "Thank you Mrs. Green," he said to the friendly lady. "That will be all."

"Do you need anything else, sweetie?" Mrs. Green asked Chloe.

"She'll be fine," said Mr. Baron, answering before Chloe could even open her mouth. "We'll call you if we need anything."

Mrs. Green nodded and walked out, leaving Chloe and Mr. Baron sitting in front of their funny sandwiches. Mr. Baron picked his up and took a big bite. "Aren't green peppers divine?" he said.

Chloe tried not to make a face. She hated green peppers.

Mr. Baron took another bite and chewed thoughtfully. "So," he said after he had swallowed, "what have you asked Santa Claus for this year?"

Chloe crossed her arms. "There's no such thing as Santa Claus," she said.

Mr. Baron looked up, surprised. "Is that so?" he asked.

"It's just a lie grown-ups tell kids," said Chloe. "To make them be good."

"Well," said Mr. Baron slowly, "sometimes there's a bit of truth behind some lies."

Chloe furrowed her brow. "What do you mean?" she asked.

"The fact is, Chloe," said Mr. Baron, "is that I'm Santa Claus."

Chloe snorted. "I think that might be a lie, Mr. Baron."

Mr. Baron chuckled. "You're right, it is a lie -- but it's still true."

"How?" asked Chloe.

"Every year," explained Mr. Baron, "children all over the world get lots of wonderful toys each year at Christmas, don't they? That's why children love Christmas, isn't it? Well, where do you think those toys come from?"

Chloe shrugged.

Mr. Baron said, "The answer is that I make them. I run Baron Toys. My workers work at my factory to build the toys, and my drivers drive trucks to take the toys to stores. Without all the work I do, there wouldn't be enough toys at Christmas. So you see, in a way, I'm Santa Claus because I make Christmas possible."

Chloe thought about that. She poked at her sandwich for a moment, and then said, "Okay I guess so, but then you could say that I'm Santa Claus because and I'm a kid, and kids wanting toys makes Christmas possible, too. You couldn't have Christmas without kids."

Mr. Baron put down his sandwich and smiled at Chloe with his long, grey teeth. "You're more clever a girl than I first gave you credit for, Chloe," he said, using a paper napkin to wipe sauce off of his thin mustache. "And you're quite right: Christmas does need kids as much as it needs toys. So I suppose we're both Santa Claus in our own ways, aren't we?"

Chloe nodded.

"That's right," said Mr. Baron. "Now, tell me, Chloe: what's the worst thing about Christmas?"

"Do you mean besides the stupid lies grown-ups tell?" asked Chloe sassily.

Mr. Baron ignored her tone. He said, "Yes, besides that. Isn't it when you get a wonderful toy for Christmas that gets broken and then you can't play with it anymore?"

"I don't know," said Chloe. "At the orphanage we usually get toys that other kids have already played with, and they're usually already a little bit broken when we get them."

"So you understand!" said Mr. Baron. "Broken toys are no fun."

"I guess so," admitted Chloe.

Mr. Baron said, "My job, Chloe, is to make sure kids have toys that aren't broken, so they can play and be happy. That's a good thing, isn't it?"

"Yeah," said Chloe.

Mr. Baron's telephone rang. He pressed a button on the telephone and then Chloe heard Mrs. Green's voice coming out of it. She said, "Mr. Baron sir, I've just spoken with the girl's guardians."

"Ah, very good," said Mr. Baron. "Will they be coming to pick her up?"

"Actually, she's a runaway, sir," said Mrs. Green through the telephone. "The poor child lives at Saint Anne's. It's an orphanage."

Mr. Baron smiled again, which made Chloe shiver. He said, "Excellent, excellent. This is going to be a great story for us. Imagine the headlines: Baron Toys reunites lost child with nuns for Christmas!"

"Um, yes sir," said Mrs. Green quietly.

"I'll take her there myself," said Mr. Baron. "Mrs. Green, have a map printed out for me. And have my car downstairs as soon as we're finished lunch. And call the press to tell them about the orphan. Maybe they can meet us at the orphanage."

Chloe cleared her throat. "But Mr. Baron," she said, "I don't want to go back to the orphanage. I hate Saint Anne's."

"Nonsense, child," snapped Mr. Baron. "Now be a good girl and finish your veal."

Chloe couldn't hug Polly the dolly because she was inside Chloe's knapsack. So Chloe hugged her knapsack instead. She bit her lip so she would not cry. She did not like veal, and she did not like Mr. Baron. She felt trapped, alone, and scared.

Her heart started to beat very fast inside her chest.

Mr. Baron finished talking to Mrs. Green and pressed another button on his telephone. He ate the last bite of his veal sandwich and licked some icky sauce off his long fingers. "I think you're going to be on television twice in one day," he said to Chloe as he chewed, "what do you think about that?"

Chloe rolled her hands up into fists. "I don't want to back," she said quietly.

"Nonsense," said Mr. Baron.

"I don't want to go back," Chloe said again, "and I don't think you can make me."

Mr. Baron's thin mustache quivered. He put down his napkin. "You're a very rude little girl," he decided. "I'll have you know what I'm a grown-up, and a very important grown-up at that, and you most certainly do have to do as I tell you."

Chloe looked at the open door. "I think I'm going to go now," she said.

Mr. Baron shook his head. "I've been very kind to you -- letting you go on television, giving you a sandwich, and so on. Don't you agree that you, in turn, should be kind to me?"

Chloe slipped down off her chair and started inching toward the door. "Yeah, thanks for everything, Mr. Baron. I have to go find my friend Mike. He's just little. He can't take care of himself."

Mr. Baron didn't move. "The best idea would be to sit still," he growled, "and wait quietly until it's time for you to be taken home."

"No thank you," said Chloe. She turned around to run out the door, but crashed into a security guard with a walkie-talkie in his hand.

"Whoa there, missy," said the security guard. He could not be mistaken for Santa Claus, because he had orange hair and he looked very mean.

Chloe stomped on his foot with all her might.

"Yeow!" yelled the security guard as he stumbled backward. Chloe ran away. She ran past Mrs. Green's desk and past Mrs. Green, and then turned left and ran down a narrow aisle between rows of cubicles where workers worked.

She heard Mr. Baron shout, "Stop that child!"

The workers stood up from their desks to look around, but Chloe was short enough to be hidden by the walls of their cubicles. She rushed along right under their noses, turning right and then left, then turning right again. The cubicles were a maze!

Chloe heard the elevator ding and ran toward the sound. She dodged a photocopier and accidently upset a cart of mail, then pushed around the big bum of a lady with a big bum and jumped in front of the elevator. It was full of busy business people and the doors were closing.

"Wait!" cried Chloe.

The busy business people looked right through Chloe, as if she weren't even there.

"Help!" cried Chloe. "Mr. Baron is going to get me!"

This brought out the sympathy she needed. One of the busy business men stuck his briefcase between the doors. The doors stopped closing and opened up again. Chloe dashed inside the elevator. "Thanks!" she said.

"Mr. Baron is scary," agreed the business men. Several of the others nodded.

Chloe figured more security guards would be waiting for her on the first floor so she got off on the second floor. A woman said, "Can I help you?" but Chloe zoomed right past her and through more cubicles, following the emergency exit signs on the ceiling to a fire-proof staircase. Chloe knew that many big buildings had such staircases, and they usually emptied out into an alley.

She threw open the metal door, which made a high pitched alarm go off. Chloe put her hands over her ears against the noise and ran down the concrete stairs. At the bottom was another metal door. Chloe jumped up and kicked it open without uncovering her ears, then burst out into the snowy alley.

The weather was slushy and grey. She tried to catch her breath as she went along, panting. The alarm was still buzzing inside the building.

An old man with a yellow-white beard was sleeping on a piece of dirty cardboard between two green garbage bins. He looked up as Chloe stumbled down the alley. "Hey girl, hide in here!" he said, waving a grubby hand with long, dark fingernails. "I'm Santa Claus."

Chloe heard feet stomping down the stairs, and then the metal door began to open again. In a panic she dove into the space between the green garbage bins, pulling up a piece of the old man's dirty cardboard bed to hide herself.

Two security guards ran by. They didn't see her.

Chloe breathed a sigh of relief and started to get to her feet. The old man put one of his grubby hands on her arm, holding her back. "Why don't you stick around for a while, girlie?" he asked. His breath smelled like poo and house paint.

"No thank you," said Chloe, pulling her arm away. "I have to get out of here."

She tried to step out into the alley but the old man got a hold of her knapsack and jerked her back again. "Come keep me company in my hidey hole," said the old man as he licked his lips. "You have to stay here with Santa."

"Let me go!" yelled Chloe, tugging on her knapsack.

Suddenly the old man was hit by two slushy snowballs. He coughed and sputtered, blinking at the snow in his face as he let go of Chloe's knapsack. Chloe leapt away. Two more snowballs flew through the air and splattered in the space between the green garbage bins, raining ice down on the grabby old man.

Chloe spun around to see who was behind her.

Mike Zhang stood beside the white-bearded old man from the department store, each of them with one more snowball held in their pink, chilled hands. Mike said, "You're a good aimer, Santa!"

Santa winked and looked down at his last snowball. "It's a standard issue weapon," he smiled, "for the Order of Saint Nicholas."

* * *


Confronted with an impossible proposition, Chloe did what she thought was the most grown-up thing to do: she doubted stuff.

Her central doubt -- the doubt that made her feel the least dizzy -- was her doubt that the old man with the big white beard could be telling the truth about being Santa Claus. She didn't know who the old man really was, but she felt good about being sure that he wasn't Santa Claus any more than Mr. Baron had been.

Mike and Chloe were riding the bus. The bus jostled around a lot so Mike and Chloe held on to greasy metal poles so they wouldn't fall down. Mike's Santa was sprawled out on a seat. For the tenth time Mike said, "No but yes, Chloe, it's really true."

Chloe rolled her eyes. "You're just little, Mike. You don't even know about anything."

"Okay but still, it's really true," said Mike. "He's Santa."

Chloe made a very adult doubting frown. "Mike, one day you'll be eight and you'll know that every grown-up thinks they're Santa."

Mike considered this seriously. Both kids looked over sideways at the old man with the white beard, his head on his shoulder as he slept. He snored, but it was hard to hear his snoring over the noise of the bus.

It made Mike feel sad that Chloe couldn't believe in Santa Claus. Believing in Santa Claus had brought Mike a lot of comfort lately. "So why don't you run away again?" Mike dared to say.

"I can't. I'm taking care of you," tried Chloe.

"Bologna," said Mike.

"What?" asked Chloe.

Mike said, "Santa is taking care of both of us, Chloe, and you know it."

"Mike," groaned Chloe, "he isn't really --"

"I don't care," interrupted Mike. "He's my friend. And I'm going to help him stop the evil Baron. And then we're probably going to fly to the North Pole and eat candy and dance with elfs. And you won't be able to come because you don't think Santas are real, but I'll be able to come and everyone will be nice to me."

Chloe asked, "Is that what he promised you, Mike?"

"No," said Mike. "I figured it out all by myself."

"You figured out that I can't come because Santa isn't real?" asked Chloe, smirking at the five-year-old.

Mike nodded. "Because you don't believe Santas are real, yeah."

"Santa," corrected Chloe. "There's only one. I mean, only not one."

Mike shook his head. "Nuh-huh. There's lots of Santas. Look, there's some now." He pointed to a couple of bearded fellows waiting at the bus stop. One was a very, very old man wearing a puffy red fishing parka and the other was just a regular old man wearing a grey rain-coat. Both of them had long white beards. The bus slowed down, stopped beside them, and the doors chuffed open.

The bus driver called out, "Industrial Crescent Road!"

Mike's Santa blinked and snorted. "Are we there?" he mumbled.

They got off the bus and Santa smiled as soon as he saw the other Santas, who smiled in return. "Brother Dominick!" grinned the ancient fellow in the fishing parka, squeezing the shoulder of Mike's Santa and looking down at Mike and Chloe. "And friends, I see."

"Brother Paolo, Brother Xavier!" Santa cried, clasping the hands of the other two Santas. "These are my good friends Mike and Chloe. They'll be helping us out tonight. What's our situation?"

Brother Xavier blinked at Mike's Santa through a pair of thick spectacles and spoke with a heavy French accent. "We're all set up for ze incursion at ten ho'clock, commandeur. Frere Walenty should return from ze security office at any moment, and then he'll brief ze whole platoon over dinner."

"Splendid," nodded Mike's Santa. "Where do we eat?"

"Chinese Buffet," answered Brother Paolo solemnly.

"Yum!" cheered Santa.

A short time later Mike and Chloe found themselves sitting in a dim back room of a big Chinese restaurant, scribbling with crayons on paper placemats that had pictures of dragons on them. Old Brother Paolo tucked a napkin into his shirt and sipped at his glass of water. Brother Xavier squinted at a menu. Brother Dominick, Mike's Santa, stood up and waved as a cluster of other bearded men appeared at the door. "Come over and sit down!" called Mike's Santa.

Brother Walenty was the youngest Santa Claus Mike had ever seen. He was so young that his beard was brown. The hair on his head was brown, too, and it had a little bald circle shaved into it on top. He was thin, and dressed up as a security guard. He winked at Mike as he took a seat.

The other two Santas were wearing stained jumpsuits like car mechanics. One of them was bald-headed and had streaks of red in his grey beard, and the other fellow had narrow eyes, and he had white stubble of the exact same length on his head and on his round, copper-coloured face. Mike's Santa introduced them as Brother Gunther and Brother Lo.

"Our mission tonight is simple," said Mike's Santa, Brother Dominick. "In the name of Saint Nicholas we're going to foul the machinery of this key factory for Baron, and thereby hamper the roll-out of their dastardly new line of subscription toys."

Everybody went quiet when the waiter came in. He had black hair and wore a fraying tuxedo. "Buffet, okay yes?" he asked, and everybody nodded. He filled up the water glasses, bowed, and walked out again.

Chloe spoke up, causing all of the Santas to turn their heads at once. "You guys are going to break into a factory and wreck the machines?" she asked sharply. "Isn't that against the law or something?"

Mike's Santa cleared his throat. "Naturally, money for repairing the machines will be left in the office to cover all damages. We know the factory is empty so no one will get hurt."

"But it's still against the law, isn't it?" pressed Chloe.

Brother Paolo folded his hands on his paper placemat. "Some laws are more important than the laws of the land, child," he said.

"Who gets to decide that?" challenged Chloe.

"Each of us," said Brother Dominick heavily. "Every time any of us makes a choice, we choose a standard to decide. Sometimes it is the head, sometimes it is the heart. Our Order serves the heart." With that said he stood and looked slowly up and down the table. "Now let us attend to a matter of the belly: brothers, let's eat."

Everyone stood up and filed into the buffet hall where two rows of food-filled trays lay steaming in wait. The lights over the trays were decorated with fake bamboo. On all of the walls were faded posters of China: a long wall, a palace with a curly roof, a habour full of boats.

Following the lead of Brother Dominick, Mike and Chloe each took a warmed plate and stood in line. Mike hopped up and down so he could catch a glimpse of the different foods in the steam trays. The Santa Clauses muttered prayers and then licked their lips. "Ho ho ho!" giggled Brother Paolo.

Chloe asked, "Brother Dominick, who are you guys, for real?"

"We're members of the Order of Saint Nicholas," he replied, "for real."

"I doubt it," said Chloe casually.

"Do you like chicken balls?" he asked Mike. Mike nodded, so Brother Dominick scooped some onto his plate. "Chicken balls?" he asked Chloe, gesturing with the tongs.

Chloe wasn't listening. She said, "You can't honestly expect me to believe you guys know who's naughty and nice, can you? Mike's only five, but I'm eight. I know when grown-ups are lying."

Brother Paolo chuckled in a friendly way. "We never lie," he said.

Chloe pointed to Brother Walenty's security guard outfit. "Isn't it a lie to pretend you're a security guard when you're not one?" she asked, raising one eyebrow.

"We never lie to children," said Brother Paolo, correcting himself as he filled his plate with stir fried vegetables and nuts.

Mike, Brother Dominick and Brother Paolo moved along in line, shuffling away to the next part of the buffet. Chloe stood where she was, her empty plate hanging at her side. "So what do you guys do besides wreck factories? Do you want me to believe that on Christmas Eve you zoom around to every house in the world, squeeze down the chimneys, and leave presents for every kid?"

Brother Xavier touched her shoulder gently as he helped himself to some sweet and sour spareribs. "Not at all, petite," he told her, spooning extra sauce onto his plate. "We do not confine ourselves to just ze Christmas Eve, non. We work all ze year long!"

"So how do you know who deserves presents and who doesn't?" challenged Chloe.

Brother Lo gave Chloe a little bow as he scooped up some pork fried rice. "Young miss, we serve the neediest. We do not know who is good and who is bad, but we do know who is sad. We offer the gift of hope to those who are farthest from the light of love."

Chloe put her hand on her hip. "How do toys do that?"

Brother Gunther considered this as he sniffed each tray, deciding what to eat, his red and grey mustache twitching. "To tell the truth we do not usually give toys, because the neediest boys and girls make their own. We give chocolate and oranges. We give sausages and candles. We give fresh water and incense."

"So they won't be hungry?" asked Chloe, furrowing her brow.

Brother Gunther shook his head. "No, so that they don't stop dreaming. We try to fan the flames of hope wherever it threatens to go out, because if a child has no hope they have no future."

At that moment Brother Dominick returned, having visited every tray and filled a plate for himself and a plate for Mike with delicious, hot Chinese food. He put his plate on the edge of one of the trays and knelt down beside Chloe, his knee joint cracking loudly. "Chloe my dear, you must understand: we cannot make the poor rich, and we cannot make the starving fat. But we can be servants to their most impossible wishes, so that they continue to believe that impossible wishes can come true. Sometimes all it takes to keep hope alive is one unexpected act of kindness: a fruit, a bell, a bow -- a symbol that the whole world isn't against them."

Chloe looked down. Very quietly she said, "The whole world is against me."

Brother Dominick smiled in a sad, slow way. Then he took a chicken ball dripping with orange sauce and placed it on Chloe's empty plate. "I'm not against you," he said gravely. He stood up and took a step back.

"I'm not," said Brother Paolo as he stepped up and put a piece of broccoli on her plate. Then Brother Xavier gave her a sweet and sour sparerib and said, "I'm not, either." Brother Lo put a little scoop of pork fried rice next to the rib, and Brother Gunther made a small pile of noodles next to both of them. "We're not," they said. Finally young Brother Walenty ambled over and gave Chloe a cube of green Jell-o. "I'm not against you, Chloe," he said shily. "Do you like green?" he asked.

Chloe nodded. "Green is yummy," she said.

Brother Dominick gestured downward. "Look at your plate, Chloe."

She did, then looked up again. "It's full," she said.

"Which fills you with more feeling?" he asked, looking her right in the eye. "The food or the fact that friends found the food for you?"

Chloe blushed. "Friends," she whispered.

All of the Santa Clauses smiled warmly. "Eat well, dear," said Brother Dominick.

They returned to their table and sat down. As the Santas dug into their food Brother Walenty talked about how they would have to fool the security systems to get into the factory without the police being summoned. He handed out some notes on little pieces of paper; the Santas read the notes and then dipped them in sauce and ate them.

"How come you don't have white hair?" Mike asked Brother Walenty.

"I'm too young," said Brother Walenty, his watery blue eyes twinkling.

"Brother Walenty is a novice," explained Brother Dominick. "We don't usually let novices out into the world, but this is an exceptional case. Brother Walenty is quite a computer expert, and we need his talents if we're ever going to prove that Special Operations can make a real contribution for the Order."

Mike squinted. "Who's Special Operations?"

"We are," replied Brother Paolo. "Taking on Baron Toys is outside of our usual mandate. We are an experiment."

"But something has got to be done!" cried Brother Gunther, thumping his fist on the table. "Experiment or no experiment, this work is important."

"Hear, hear!" agreed Brother Lo.

Chloe looked up from her noodles. "But what's so bad about Mr. Baron's toys, anyway? He told me he was helping to make sure kids always have new toys."

Brother Walenty shook his head. "No, Chloe, I'm afraid it's worse than that. I've seen the schematics for these new toys: they're made to break. They break on purpose."

Chloe was shocked. "Why?" she asked. "Why would anyone want the toys to break?"

"Money," said Brother Xavier darkly. "It's halways about ze money."

Brother Dominick nodded. "It's to keep the parents paying more subscription fees, Chloe," he said sadly. "It's business instead of play, dollars instead of love."

Brother Paolo said, "If Baron succeeds, we will have even more children to include in our work. We didn't used to have to worry about the ones who had loving parents to take care of them. But now, with toys like these -- we might."

"Baron threatens the spirit of play itself!" yelled Brother Gunther, slamming his fist on the table again. "It's rotten, I tell you: rotten!"

All the Santas nodded.

Chloe didn't know what to say. Mike brought her a fortune cookie. She broke it open and took out the fortune, which read: GIVE AS YOU HAVE RECEIVED, AND HAPPINESS WILL FIND YOU. "What does mine say?" asked Mike.

Chloe read it. "It says, Chloe sure is glad to have a friend as nice as Mike."

Mike giggled. "It doesn't really say that," he said.

"No," agreed Chloe. "But it should."

When dinner was finished the Santas pushed their plates aside and began talking about their plan in detail. Brother Dominick kept checking his watch. One by one the Santas went into the washroom and changed their clothes -- they came out dressed in black, with soft shoes and hoods.

Mike said, "You Santa guys sure do look ready to be sneaky."

Brother Dominick folded a hundred dollar bill into the shape of a teepee and put it in the middle of the table. He took a deep breath. "Santa Clauses, Sinterklauses, Pere Noels, Babbo Natales, Kerstmen, Father Christmases, Chalas and Saint Basils: the time is upon us. We are blessed with the presence of two children pure in spirit, and our mission is just. Saint Nicholas himself will smile on us, I am sure."

The Santas, now dressed as ninjas, raised frosty glasses of milk in toast. "To Saint Nicholas!" they called in concert. "To victory!"

"To the Order," agreed Brother Dominick. "To joy."

They drank.

* * *


At 66 Industrial Crescent Road loomed the factory for Baron Toys International, its colourful sign with bubble letters and happy faces standing in rude contrast to the grey concrete walls and tall stacks pouring black smoke into the sunset sky.

The smoke dwindled as the parking lot emptied. All of the workers were going home to have supper with their families. They looked tired as they drove their cars in a patient line to wait at the stoplight on the corner. Each of them listened to a different radio station, twisting the knob to avoid having to hear any Christmas carols.

The sun sank away. The factory grew quiet. The parking lot was empty.

Eight figures in black stole out of the bushes and crept quietly up to the fence, taking a moment to find the hole Brother Walenty had cut earlier in the day after bypassing the alarm. The eight figures squeezed through the hole and jogged across the parking lot right up to the factory building, where they paused to catch their breath.

"I'm not as young as I used to be," wheezed Brother Paolo.

"I have shoes at the orphange that run really fast," said Mike. "But I'm not wearing them now."

"That's okay, Mike," said Brother Dominick. "You're doing fine. Brother Paolo -- don't push yourself. If you need to hang back, hang back."

Brother Paolo shook his head. "I've got my second wind now," he promised, checking the speed of his heartbeat by feeling the side of his neck.

Young Brother Walenty had hooked up a small electronic device to the passcode box beside a thick metal door. He adjusted some controls on the device and then nodded to Brother Dominick. He said, "We're in."

The door clicked unlocked and opened.

Inside was factory it was dark. Their footsteps echoed off the concrete floor and the metal machines on every side. Half-built toys and parts of toys lay on the still conveyor belts, surrounded by pipes and wires and warning signs with yellow and black stripes. It was not a very cheerful place.

Everyone froze when they heard the sound of claws clicking on the floor. Brother Xavier waved them all back and took a step toward the sound. A dog growled from the shadows. Brother Xavier knelt down and rubbed his fingers together as he cooed, "Hey, Monsieur Dog -- come 'ere, Monsieur Dog."

A large, mean-looking doberman pinscher walked up to Brother Xavier. Chloe grabbed Brother Dominick's sleeve. "He'll get bitten!" she whispered.

Brother Dominick shook his head. "Brother Xavier has a way with animals. Don't you worry, Chloe."

Indeed, Brother Xavier was now patting the doberman's head. The doberman was wagged his tail. "Who is ze nice dog?" asked Brother Xavier, so the doberman licked his face.

He gave him a little piece of meat he had in his pocket from the Chinese buffet, and then the doberman trotted off to enjoy his snack.

Brother Walenty unrolled a map and held a little flashlight over it as the other Santas gathered around to look. "Brother Lo, I want you at the resin mold washer," said Brother Dominick. "Brother Gunther, I want you on the paint machine."

Brother Lo and Brother Gunther scampered off into the shadows. Brother Dominick peered at the map again. "Brothers Xavier, can you manage to snag the conveyor system? Good. Brother Paolo, change all the shipping labels on the outgoing cargo. The rest of you are with me: let's get to the office."

Chloe and Mike followed Brothers Dominick and Walenty up a rickety metal staircase and into a dark office. Brother Walenty turned on a lamp, revealing a few desks with computers on them surrounded by filing cabinets and bookshelves full of folders. Mike asked, "What are we doing in here, Santa?"

"Gathering information," he said as he pulled a few folders off the shelves and opened them up. He spread out the papers on a desk and Brother Walenty took pictures of them with a tiny camera: snap, snap, snap. "We want to know what Baron's planning next," he explained.

Brother Walenty woke one of the computers by slapping the spacebar. The screen lit up and he started clicking around with the mouse while Chloe and Brother Dominick read the labels on the bookshelves to find more folders. Mike watched Brother Walenty on the computer as he hugged his fuzzy sock friend. "Can I ask you something?" he asked.

"Sure," said Brother Walenty. His face was lit up by the blue light from the computer screen.

Mike asked, "How did you get to be a Santa?"

"Well, do you know where Poland is?"

Mike shook his head.

Brother Walenty said, "It's a country in Europe, on the other side of the ocean. I used to live there, and I lived all alone. I lived in the streets -- eating garbage, stealing, shivering -- it was not a good way to live."

"Did your mommy and daddy find you and give you food?" asked Mike.

"No," sighed Brother Walenty. "I didn't have a mommy or a daddy. I was an orphan."

"I'm a orphan, too," said Mike.

"Well, one day I met a man who was very sick. He was all by himself, living in an old leaky building. I didn't know who he was or what was wrong with him, but I brought him blankets and soup until he started to feel better. Then we became friends, and he asked me if I wanted to help him make kids happy. I said 'yes' and then I helped him carry oranges and chocolates to kids in the hospital."

"You go to a hospital when you're sick," Mike chimed in.

Brother Walenty nodded. "That's right. And then we got caught by the nurses who tried to take us to the police. We ran away, and then he said I was so good at helping that maybe I wanted to help more. I said 'yes' so he asked me if I wanted to become a monk."

"What's a monk?" asked Mike.

"I am," replied Brother Walenty, squinting at the computer as he typed something into it. "We all are. We're brothers in the Order of Saint Nicholas, one of the oldest and most secret monasteries in the whole world."

Mike thought about that. He asked, "But what do monks do?"

"They make special promises," said Brother Walenty, "and then work hard to never break those promises. In the Order of Saint Nicholas, we promise to do everything we can to make things just a little bit better for kids all over the world."

"That's a good promise," noted Mike.

Brother Walenty agreed. "It's one of the best promises there is," he said. "It's a promise we've kept for a thousand years."

Suddenly the smile disappeared from Brother Walenty's face. Mike was worried. "What's wrong?" he asked. Brother Dominick and Chloe came over with more folders and Brother Walenty turned the computer screen so they all could see it. Mike gasped. "Hey, that's you!" he exclaimed. "Brother Mominty, how come you're in the computer?"

"Oh dear," said Brother Dominick. "Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear."

"What?" asked Chloe.

Brother Walenty hit a key on the keyboard and the screen showed a fuzzy picture of Brother Dominick, then a blurry picture of Brother Gunther and Brother Lo. Brother Walenty wilted on his chair. "Oh no," he whispered. "Mr. Baron knows."

At that moment the lights over the factory floor came on one by one. Mike could see the Santas looking around, pausing in their work on the machines. They all looked up to the office, wondering what to do. A loud alarm bell began to ring.

"Oh dear," said Brother Dominick again. He rushed over to the metal railing, cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, "Brothers: disappear!"

Mike thought that his Santa was probably casting a kind of spell to help the other Santas turn invisible. He felt awed to be protected by such power.

Suddenly, the door on the opposite side of the office burst open. Mr. Baron walked in surrounded by security guards with buzzing walkie-talkies. Mr. Baron held a walkie-talkie, too, and when Chloe cried, "Oh no!" they heard the words come out of her mouth and then again out of Mr. Baron's walkie-talkie a split-second later.

"The girl is bugged!" gasped Brother Walenty.

"I'm not a bug," said Chloe, and so did Mr. Baron's walkie-talkie.

"No indeed, Chloe," chuckled Mr. Baron as he walked slowly across the office. "You're not a bug, you're a mole. And a very good job of it you've done, too. Thank you, Chloe. Thank you so very much."

Chloe turned pale. She was horrified to think she had somehow helped Mr. Baron. "I didn't do anything!" she cried.

"I know you didn't, dear," said Brother Dominick, squeezing her shoulder. He opened up her knapsack and dug around inside until he found a tiny little microphone attached to a battery. "Mr. Baron put a radio inside your bag," he explained, tossing it away. "To spy on us."

Mr. Baron nodded. "I knew I couldn't trust an urchin like you," he said to Chloe, showing his long grey teeth. "I knew you'd bite the hand that fed you sooner or later. I knew you had something to do with this lot. And here you are, breaking into my factory like a gang of criminals."

"We're not crinimals!" shouted Mike, wagging his fuzzy sock friend menacingly. "And you're a bad man!"

"No," said Mr. Baron smoothly, "I am a business man, and I'm an honest man. I don't break into shops or factories to destroy toys. I don't tell lies to children or put them in danger."

"Santa never lies," argued Mike.

"On the contrary," scoffed Mr. Baron, "these people do nothing but lie. They're terrorists. They're religious radicals. They'll say anything to get their way, and they'll say anything to make you help them."

"No," said Mike, "that's not true. They're really Santa Claus."

The security guards laughed. Mr. Baron nodded with a tight smile, his thin mustache twitching. "Is that so?" he asked. "Well then, Santa Claus, why don't you help your little friends escape justice with some magic? Isn't that what Santa Claus is famous for?"

"Yeah!" shouted Mike. "Show him your magic, Santa!"

"Um," said Brother Dominick. Mr. Baron snickered.

Mike turned around to look at Brother Dominick. "Come on, Santa!" said Mike. "What are you waiting for? Make him disappear or make us fly or something. Quick!"

"Um," said Brother Dominick again. He shrugged sheepishly. "I don't know how to tell you this, Mike, but we're not magic."

"Not even a little bit?" asked Mike, frowning.

"No," sighed Brother Dominick. "Not even a little bit."

Mike didn't know what to think. How could the real Santa have no magic? Just then Brother Walenty spoke up from behind the computer: "Perhaps not," he agreed, "but we are very clever."

He typed something into the keyboard quickly and a new, buzzing alarm sounded on top of the ringing alarm. A second later white foam started gushing out of nozzles on the ceiling. A recorded voice spoke out from hidden speakers, saying, "This is a fire control. Please proceed to your nearest emergency exit. This is a fire control."

Brother Dominick suddenly swung Mike up onto his shoulders and Brother Walenty picked up Chloe. They ran across the office and flew down the metal stairs, which became more and more slippery as the white, fluffy foam poured out all over them.

"Get them!" yelled Mr. Baron.

The two security guards tried to run but they slipped on the foam and fell to the floor, their shoes squeaking loudly.

At the bottom of the metal stairs Brother Dominick and Brother Walenty grabbed the railing to keep themselves from falling. "Merry Christmas!" called Brother Dominick to the foam-covered security guards as they flopped out of the office and skated on the stairs.

"Whoa!" cried one security guard.

"Look out below!" cried the other, and then he accidentally knocked over the first guard and slid down the steps on his bum.

The brothers were very good at skating, so they skated on their soft black shoes across the foamy factory floor. They had almost reached the door when Mike noticed the doberman pinscher snuffling at something in the corner, and the something groaned and moved. "It's Brother Paolo!" said Mike, pointing.

Brother Paolo looked like he was made of marshmallows. He tried to stand up but cried out in pain and slid to the floor again. The dog whined. "I think my hip is broken," moaned Brother Paolo sadly.

Brother Dominick and Brother Walenty picked up Brother Paolo between them. The kids threw open the big metal door and raced out into the night. In the distance they could hear the sound of firetruck sirens and police sirens, and they were quickly coming closer. "Move, move, move!" urged Brother Dominick, huffing and puffing under Brother Paolo's weight.

They hid in the bushes while the firetrucks and police cars sped past, then crossed the street and sat down on the loading docks of a warehouse. Brother Gunther ran up a moment later. "All agents are clear," he reported, panting heavily.

"Brother Paolo needs a hospital," said Brother Dominick.

"Brother Walenty and I can take him," said Brother Gunther, stroking his red and grey beard seriously. "We have a way. Can you take care of the children, commander?"

"They are my charges," said Brother Dominick as he nodded. "Go quickly now. Wait for my signal tomorrow. Bless you, brothers."

As they watched Brother Paolo hobble away supported by Brother Gunther and Brother Walenty, Mike's Santa shook his head in dismay. It began to snow little flakes of ice that hissed as the wind pushed them around the corner of the warehouse. Brother Dominick closed his eyes, then fished a pill container out of his pocket and took two small white pills. After a moment he opened his eyes again and sighed.

"Are you okay?" asked Chloe.

Brother Dominick nodded wearily. "I just had to take a little medicine. I'm fine. It's nothing."

"Are those vitamin medicines?" asked Mike.

"No, Mike," said Brother Dominick as he took a deep breath. "It's medicine for my heart. Now let's get moving, kids. We can cross that field back there and get to the bus stop."

Chloe looked worried. "Why do we have to take the bus again? Don't you guys even have a car? And how come you have to take medicine? Are you sick?"

Brother Dominick tried to smile but he was too tired, his wrinkled skin hanging on his face as if it were wet. "I'm not sick, dear Chloe," he said quietly, "I'm old. I've been a Santa Claus for a long, long time."

"Isn't there anything you can do to stop Mr. Baron?" she pressed.

"Maybe," said Brother Dominick, "and maybe not. We don't have pixie dust to sprinkle around to make everything better. We are only men, child. We do what we can."

Chloe didn't have anything else to say. She didn't even know what to doubt. She felt empty.

Mike wiped his runny nose on the sleeve of his coat and hugged his fuzzy sock. Brother Dominick rubbed his hands together and shivered in the cold. For once he seemed to Mike just as he seemed to Chloe: an old man trying to do a crazy thing, with nobody but two lost kids for friends.

"Come on, children," said Brother Dominick at last. "Let's get going before we freeze."

Sadly and slowly, the three of them shuffled across the snowy field as they shielded their faces from the ice pellets falling from the dark sky.

* * *


R. P. Baron awoke in a good mood.

This was in and of itself quite remarkable, and the rumour moved quickly through his household staff until even the girl who came by to walk the dogs knew about Mr. Baron's uncharacteristic cheer. "Maybe he made another million dollars yesterday," she guessed, and then she grumbled as one of Mr. Baron's yorkshire terriers peed on the kitchen floor.

"That's what you get for lolligagging," said the chef.

Stewart the butler was more surprised than anyone. "He didn't even yell at me this morning," he told everyone in the kitchen. "Maybe he's got a girlfriend."

They all quieted when Mr. Baron came downstairs and took a seat in the dining room. The chef set toast and boiled eggs on a tray and Stewart walked the breakfast out to Mr. Baron. "Where's my newspaper?" asked Mr. Baron.

Stewart unfolded a copy of the National Post from under his arm and placed it on the table next to the eggs and toast. Mr. Baron picked up the newspaper and shook it flat before flipping through the pages. He was about to stick a piece of toast into his mouth when he froze, his eyes glued to the page.

"Is everything all right, sir?" asked Stewart.

A wide smile slowly crept over Mr. Baron's face, and then to cap it off he made a low, chortling sound that Stewart guessed was laughter. "Oh ho ho!" chuckled Mr. Baron. "This is rich. It's too good to be true."

"What's that, sir?" asked Stewart.

"Look!" replied Mr. Baron, turning the newspaper toward the butler and tapping the page.

Stewart leaned forward to read a headline that said, POLICE SEARCH CONTINUES FOR MISSING ORPHANS. "Missing orphans, sir?" said Stewart politely.

"This is perfect," said Mr. Baron. "The police may not be able to do much about last night's break and enter at the factory, but when I tell them the missing children are with the culprits they'll fall over themselves to capture those coots!"

Stewart frowned. "Coots, sir?"

"Santa Claus!" cried Mr. Baron, gesturing with his toast. "I'm talking about Santa Claus and his gang of criminal ragamuffins, of course."

"Are you feeling quite well, sir?" asked Stewart.

"I feel splendid," said Mr. Baron sharply. "Who wouldn't feel splendid when presented with the chance to crush his enemies with one fell swoop?"

"Enemies, sir?"


"Would that be the orphans or Santa Claus?"

"The whole lot!"

"Um," said Stewart awkwardly. "Perhaps I had better call Doctor Porter..."

"Nonsense," snapped Mr. Baron. "If you want to do something useful why don't you fetch me a cup of coffee? And get me a telephone: I must update the police."

The police constable Mr. Baron spoke to was also concerned about Mr. Baron. "Why didn't you mention children in your report last night, Mr. Baron sir?" asked the constable through the telephone. "That's rather a large oversight."

Mr. Baron said, "I didn't think they were important. But now I realize they are the catalyst that will see those Santas jailed!"

"Santas, sir?" asked the constable.

"Yes, of course," replied Mr. Baron hotly, "the criminals who broke into my factory! Can't you keep anything straight?"

"It says here they were dressed as ninjas."

"Ninja Santa Clauses," corrected Mr. Baron. "You'll know them by their beards."

"Um," said the police constable.

Even though it was Saturday Mr. Baron had a lot of things to take care of, because later that night his entire family was coming over for a holiday supper. Mr. Baron wanted everything to be just right. He was very excited to talk to his father about how much money Baron Toys had earned under his leadership, and he was sure everyone would thank him for the wonderfully expensive gifts he had asked Mrs. Green to buy from the finest boutiques.

Since he was so busy he was very irritated to have to Dr. Porter call to arrange a meeting over lunch, but since he had known Dr. Porter for many years he agreed. Mr. Baron met Dr. Porter at the Senator Grill where they ordered veal sandwiches and tall glasses of bitter beer.

"Your staff says you've been behaving erratically," said Dr. Porter seriously as he sipped at his drink.

"Nonsense," replied Mr. Baron. "I'll fire them all!"

"Now now R. P.," said Dr. Porter soothingly, "they're only trying to help. Your people are concerned about you."

"Ridiculous," said Mr. Baron. "They should mind their own business."

Dr. Porter said, "Your welfare is their business, R. P."

"So what if it is?" snapped Mr. Baron.

"Talk to me about Santa Claus," said Dr. Porter.

"Why do you want to talk about that scheming nogoodnik?" asked Mr. Baron.

"Indulge me," said Dr. Porter.

Mr. Baron grunted and shifted position in his chair. "What do you know about him?" he asked.

Dr. Porter looked confused. "About Santa Claus? Just the standard stories, I imagine -- red cheeks, button nose, fat belly, jolly laugh -- that sort of thing."

"There's a lot more to it," said Mr. Baron. "First of all, there's not just one of him -- there's hundreds."

"Hundreds of Santa Clauses?"

"Indeed," said Mr. Baron, nodding. "And they're all against me. Why, just last night a pack of them broke into my factory to smash my machines. They're terrorists, I tell you."

"They're against toys?" asked Dr. Porter.

"They're against business!" shouted Mr. Baron.

"What did they look like?"

"What sort of a question is that?" growled Mr. Baron. "They were old men with white fluffy beards, naturally."

"Red suits with fur trim?"

"No, actually, they were dressed like ninjas."

"I see..." said Dr. Porter thoughtfully, furrowing his brow. "And how long have these ninja Santa Clauses been making trouble for you, R. P.?"

Mr. Baron did not answer him. He had been distracted by something over the doctor's shoulder. Mr. Baron's eyes narrowed furiously. He threw his napkin on the table and stood up. "Hey!" he yelled across the restaurant.

Dr. Porter turned around. Behind him was a fellow dressed up as Santa Claus, going from table to table to ask for donations to feed the needy. He stopped to look at Mr. Baron, confused about why he was being yelled at. "Me?" said the man dressed as Santa.

"You stay away from me!" continued Mr. Baron angrily. "You and all of your ninja friends. I've already talked to the police about those kids, I'll have you know."

"Ninjas?" echoed the man dressed as Santa.

A waiter in a crisp white shirt scampered over to Mr. Baron's table. "Is there something the matter, sir?" he asked.

"There certainly is!" hollered Mr. Baron, pointing. "I want that man out of this restaurant immediately."

"Look, buddy," said the man dressed as Santa, "I'm just collecting some donations here. You don't have to give if you don't want to. Nobody does. I'm just asking around, is all."

"He's lying!" cried Mr. Baron. "It's a trap!"

"A trap?" said the waiter nervously.

The man dressed as Santa shook his head. "I think you've got me confused for somebody else, buddy."

A vein on Mr. Baron's forehead quivered. "You're supposed to be Santa Claus, aren't you?" he demanded.

"Well, sure..." said the man.

Mr. Baron turned to the waiter. "You heard him! He's one of them. I insist that you throw him out this instant, or I shall call the police. I'll call the police on all of you!"

The waiter didn't know what to do. He looked to Dr. Porter helplessly.

Dr. Porter stood up from his seat and put a gentle hand on Mr. Baron's arm. "R. P., you're making a scene," he said softly. "Why don't we go back to my office and I'll give you some pills to help you calm down?"

"I don't want any pills," snapped Mr. Baron. "The only thing that will calm me down is knowing that all of the Santas are destroyed forever!"

A little kid eating lunch with his mom and dad was listening to Mr. Baron shout, and he started to cry. "Please don't let the nasty man hurt Santa Claus," he blubbered to his parents, "or I'll never get my train set."

"I don't want any trouble," said the man dressed as Santa, holding up his hands.

"It's too late for that now," promised Mr. Baron darkly. "You're in for a world of trouble, fat man!" With that said, Mr. Baron tried to jump over the table to get to the man dressed as Santa, who ran away. Mr. Baron and Dr. Porter's table turned over, spilling veal sandwiches and beer everywhere.

Mr. Baron got to his feet and chased the man around the salad bar few times until he was restrained by the restaurant manager and a couple of waiters. "Sir!" said the manager over and over again. "Sir! Sir!"

The man dressed as Santa took his donation bucket and left the restaurant with a frightened glance over his shoulder. Dr. Porter had a quiet word with the manager and asked him not to call the police on Mr. Baron, because Mr. Baron was having a very bad day and just needed some rest. The manager agreed, since Mr. Baron spent so much money at his restaurant. He didn't want Mr. Baron to be angry with him.

Mr. Baron rode in a taxicab to Dr. Porter's office and agreed to take two little white pills which Dr. Porter said would make him feel better. "You're simply under too much stress," said Dr. Porter. "I know this is a very busy time of year for your business, R. P."

Mr. Baron was grumpy. "Bah!" he said.

"I think you should go home and get some sleep," suggested Dr. Porter.

"Impossible," declared Mr. Baron. "The Christmas party begins at six!"

Dr. Porter frowned and said, "I want you to come and see me again tomorrow, R. P. I'm concerned about you and this fixation with Santa Claus."

Mr. Baron grunted. "We'll see," he said, stroking his mustache.

Once he was back home in his giant house Mr. Baron went from room to room to make sure everything was ready for his family to arrive. He found dust on the mantel and yelled at the maid, and then yelled at the chef for preparing to make mashed potatoes instead of scalloped potatoes. "I'm surrounded by idiots!" he cried in frustration.

With an hour to go before the guests arrived Mr. Baron retired to his study to have a glass of sherry and smoke a cigar. While he waited for Stewart to bring him those things he decided to watch the news on television. What he saw upset him very much.

The reporter said, "Toy tycoon R. P. Baron went on a rampage in Toronto's Senator Grill today and, strangely enough, the apparent target was Santa Claus himself. Imagine that! Maybe Baron Toys doesn't like competition, ha ha ha. Baron's doctor, Dr. Geoffrey Porter, is quoted as saying that Baron is under tremendous stress as his company prepares to roll out their new line of subscription toys, coupled with stressful preparations for a large family dinner at the Baron Estate tonight."

Mr. Baron switched off the television in digust. Stewart arrived a moment later with his drink and smoke. "Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?" asked Stewart.

Mr. Baron puffed on his cigar as he lit it, rings of grey smoke drifting up to the ceiling. "Yes," he mumbled around the cigar, "as a matter of fact there is, Stewart."

"Yes sir?" said Stewart.

"Santa Claus is coming," said Mr. Baron slowly, watching the smoke twirl, "and I want you to be ready for him."

Stewart cleared his throat. "Shall I leave out cookies and milk, sir?"

"No, you idiot!" roared Mr. Baron. "I want security. I want every door watched. I want dogs on patrol at the gates. I want cameras and motion detectors. I want every single possible thing done to ensure that Santa Claus will not disturb this dinner." He puffed on his cigar, frowning. "See to it personally, Stewart. I'm counting on you."

"Yes sir," said Stewart.

Mr. Baron nodded and said, "That will be all," and then turned his chair around to face the window, chomping angrily on his cigar.

Stewart poured a glass of sherry and then quietly tiptoed away.

* * *


On Saturday morning the children awoke feeling much less jolly than Mr. Baron had. They were crammed together into a narrow bed with itchy blankets in a room chocked full of narrow beds with itchy blankets, all filled by other people who were not feeling very jolly, either. They coughed a lot. The whole place smelled like farts and liquor.

Mike sat up and rubbed his eyes.

He thought he was back at the orphanage, so he spent a moment feeling around the bed in search of Wah the teddy bear. It was only when he found his fuzzy sock friend instead that Mike remembered that they had slept at the YMCA.

"Hey Chloe," he said, touching her shoulder, "where's Santa?"

Chloe blinked and yawned. "Saint who?" she asked sleepily.

"Santa Claus," said Mike. "You know, Brother Dominick."

Chloe sat up and looked around. She crinkled her nose. "I smell pee," she said.

They got out of bed and put their coats on, then padded toward the end of the big sleeping room. Some other people were waking up, too, but they didn't look at Mike and Chloe. Mike's Santa was sitting on the end of one of the beds, talking to a man who was crying. The man had greasy hair and his fingernails were so dirty they looked black. "What's wrong, Santa?" asked Mike. "Why is that guy being sad?"

"Hush now," said Brother Dominick softly. To the sad man he said, "Bless you, my son. Go forth and sin no more."

"Yes, yes," said the man, wiping his nose on his sleeve. "Thank you, Father."

Brother Dominick eased himself up from the bed and waved at the children to follow him. They walked out of the sleeping room into a hall where people were lining up to get some soup. They got in line. Mike tugged on Santa's pants. "Why is everybody sad here?" he asked.

"The people who sleep here have no home," explained Brother Dominick. "They're like orphans, even though they're grown-ups. They don't have anything to eat, and they don't have anyone to care for them. Some of them are sick, and some of them have children of their own they're worried about."

Mike bit his lip. "But why was that guy crying?"

"Most of these people are good people," said Brother Dominick, "but some of them have done some bad things. Sometimes when life is difficult all they do is think about the bad things they've done, and it makes them feel worse."

"And you make them feel better?" asked Mike.

Brother Dominick nodded. "Anyone can make them feel better, as long as you're willing to let them know you care. There isn't much that's worse in this world than feeling all alone, and feeling like it doesn't matter to anyone that you're sad. Wouldn't you say, Chloe?"

Chloe looked surprised, then nodded seriously. "Yeah," she said. "That's right."

"It's a simple thing to do," said Brother Dominick, "but it isn't always easy. It's simple because all you have to do is care a little, but that can be hard because it can make you feel sad, too."

"So what do you do with their sad once you've catched it?" asked Mike.

Brother Dominick sighed. "You hope you're happy enough to carry it, and not let it weigh you down."

Mike blinked, hugging his fuzzy sock. "Are you happy enough, Santa?" he asked timidly.

Brother Dominick tried to smile. "Today, my boy...maybe not."

Once they each had a cup of chicken soup the three friends walked outside. The day was bright and clear, the blue sky without a single cloud in it. The sunlight was warm and it was melting the icicles hanging from the buildings, making rows of little drips all along the sidewalk. Chloe and Mike moved out of the way but Brother Dominick didn't seem to mind the drops falling on his white-haired head as he walked along.

"So," said Chloe, slurping her soup, "what happens now?"

"We're going to the hospital to visit Brother Paolo," he replied.

"But what about Mr. Baron?" she pressed.

Brother Dominick shrugged. "He knows about us. We've lost our secret. With him ready for us, I don't think there's anything we can do. Mr. Baron has a lot more money than we do, and he can use it to defend himself."

"So kids are going to get those cruddy toys that break on purpose?" cried Chloe, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk.

"I'm afraid so," said Brother Dominick, eyes down.

"But, but -- you can't let that happen! You're..." Chloe trailed off, then frowned and said loudly, "You're Santa Claus."

Brother Dominick seemed surprised. He looked up at Chloe and Mike who were watching him intently. "What did you say?" he asked quietly.

Chloe blinked. "I said you can't let that happen."

"No, the other part," said Brother Dominick.

Chloe swallowed, then said sheepishly, "I said you're...Santa Claus."

A little bit of the jolly rosiness came back into Brother Dominick's cheeks, and his mouth looked like it may even curl into a small smile. "Chloe, are you telling me that you believe? You believe in Santa Claus?"

Chloe said, "I don't know what's true, Brother Dominick, but I know what's good. And you do good."

Brother Dominick reached out and squeezed Chloe's shoulder tenderly. "You're a wise girl," he said. "And you make an old monk's heart feel light."

"We have to try," said Chloe with conviction. "We just have to."

"Yeah," agreed Mike. "If we don't, who will?"

Brother Dominick began to nod. "You're right. Both of you. You're absolutely right. We can't give up, can we?"

"No!" cheered Mike and Chloe together.

"Alright," agreed Brother Dominick, standing up straighter. "Let's get to the hospital and visit Brother Paolo, then we'll come up with a new plan. We won't let Mr. Baron ruin Christmas. We can't."

"Yeah!" hooted the kids.

Brother Dominick, Mike and Chloe ran into a new problem once they reached the hospital: Brother Paolo was not in his room. The other people sharing the room were all asleep and couldn't be asked for help, so Brother Dominick decided they would have to go searching.

It didn't take them long to wander into a dayroom where Brother Paolo sat in a wheelchair surrounded by a ring of sick or injured children, all of whom were staring with rapt attention as he told a story. He said, "...And so the tree was decorated, and it was the tallest, most wonderful Christmas tree there had ever been. The children held hands and sang carols, and they didn't mind the cold one bit because of the warmth in their hearts. The end."

The kids clapped and giggled. "Tell another one!" begged a boy with his legs in plaster casts.

"Yeah, tell us another story!" added a girl with a patch over her eye.

Brother Paolo looked over at Brother Dominick. "I must take a break, friends," said Brother Paolo. "I have visitors."

He turned his wheelchair around and rolled over. Mike ran up with wide eyes. "Are you okay, Brother Polo?"

"I'm fine, I'm fine, little Michael," said Brother Paolo with a wheezy chuckle. "I just need to spend a few weeks off my feet while my hip gets better." To Brother Dominick he added, "I hope someone's been found to cover my territory while I'm healing."

"Don't worry about it," said Brother Dominick.

"Where's your territory?" asked Chloe.

Brother Paolo smiled. "Oltre Giuba, in Somalia. That's in Africa."

"Africa has lions who live there," noted Mike.

"Quite so," agreed Brother Paolo.

They had lunch together in the hospital commissary, sitting in orange chairs at yellow tables under buzzing fluorescent lights. Brother Dominick paid for everyone, and before he handed the money over to the cashier he folded the bills into the shapes of a tiny house, a spoon, and a hockey stick. The cashier frowned. "Why's it all in funny shapes?" she asked.

"To be funny," said Brother Dominick.

"Har de har har," said the cashier without laughing or smiling.

As he ripped open a paper envelope of pepper to pour on his pasta Brother Paolo turned to Brother Dominick and said, "So, I trust you will be getting together with the rest of the platoon next. Tell me, what's your plan?"

"No, no," said Brother Dominick softly, stirring his stew but not eating it. "I've sent them all back to their regular duties. I can't justify wasting more of their time on Special Operations missions doomed to failure."

Brother Paolo scoffed. "You're always so dramatic, brother. It was a set-back, that's all."

"The children won't let me give up," said Brother Dominick. "So I've promised them we will try. But we'll try just we three."

Brother Paolo drew his mouth into a thin, grim line. "You expect to fail," he said.

"You were there last night," said Brother Dominick. "You saw what happened. We're all lucky not to be in prison. I can't lie to children...when I estimate our chances I'm being realistic."

"Reality isn't good enough for hope," said Brother Paolo. "You're young, so you can be forgiven, but understand me, brother: you've allowed Baron's heartlessness to dim your fire. With your feet on the ground like that you'll never get anywhere unlikely."

Mike giggled, because he thought it was funny for one old man with a white beard to call another old man with a white beard "young." Mike said, "Maybe Santa needs his flying reindeers."

Brother Dominick sighed. "My boy, the truth is that reindeer cannot fly. If they try to fly, they get hurt."

"Not regular reindeers," agreed Mike, "but Santa's special reindeers do fly. I've seen it on shows. There's Rudolph and Donna and Blister and Cutepid and Basher and Halley's Comet."

Chloe put down her pickle and rolled her eyes. "That's just TV, Mike. It's not real. It's just pretend. It's special effects and stuff."

"But they're magic," insisted Mike.

"Mike," said Brother Dominick heavily, "I said we brothers never lie to children, didn't I?"

Mike nodded.

Brother Dominick nodded back seriously, then stared over everyone's heads, squinting into the fluorescent lights, as he said, "There is no such thing as magic. What we manage to do, we do with our hands and our voices. We cannot wave wands to make wishes come true. This isn't a Harry Potter story."

Mike felt desperate. "That's not really true, is it, Brother Polo?"

Brother Paolo pushed his tray aside and folded his hands on the yellow table. He cleared his throat and said, "Michael, I wish Brother Dominick was wrong, but he isn't. God's laws are absolute, my child. Like all things and creatures we can only live according to the ways of His realm: gravity causes every one of us to fall."

"I don't understand," said Mike glumly.

Brother Dominick explained, "The laws bear no exceptions in this world, Mike, because the laws are the world."

Mike scratched his head.

Chloe frowned. "You guys don't make any sense," she said loudly, banging her fork down on the table. "There is so real magic, and you know it. That's what you try to get kids to believe in when you do something nice for them -- that impossible things can happen. That's what hope is, isn't it? Wishing for impossible things because you don't want to know better!"

It seemed like everyone in the commissary had been caught up by Chloe's exclamation. Other chats faded away, and the doctors and nurses and patients sitting nearby leaned in to hear what the old men with white beards would say to the outspoken little girl.

Brother Paolo chuckled. "She's a sharp cookie, this one," he said, gesturing at Chloe. "Hope is the heart's imagination. Like all imaginations it thrives on the unlikely."

"You're right, Chloe," agreed Brother Dominick, "that is just the kind of magic we try to make."

Mike looked up hopefully. "So some magic is real, Santas?"

"Yes," said Brother Dominick, his beard bristling and his eyes sparkling. "I stand corrected. There is magic in this world, Mike, and it lives through those who keep trying to do impossible things -- or at least very, very unlikely things."

"Like stopping Mr. Baron!" cried Chloe.

"Well, yes," agreed Brother Dominick, becoming more serious again. "That is indeed very unlikely, which is just our problem. I'm willing to try -- but try what?"

Everybody put their chins in their hands and thought very hard. Nobody said anything for a few minutes. Finally Brother Paolo said, "Our lunch is getting cold. Let's eat, and hope inspiration finds us in the afternoon."

The afternoon, however, turned out to be much tricker than the morning.

The trouble started as they were wheeling Brother Paolo up to his room to have a nap. When they came out of the elevator the Santas looked at each other with worried expressions: over the usual ward announcements from the nurses they could hear the squawk and squelch of police radios.

Brother Dominick peeked down the corridor, then jumped back. "It's the civils," he whispered to Paolo. "Fudge."

"Yum," said Mike.

Next, they heard one of the police constables ask a nurse, "Have you seen an old man with a white beard and a robust build accompanied by two young children?"

"Oh no!" said Chloe. "We're trapped."

Brother Paolo held up a finger. "I have a plan," he said. "Follow me!"

After a visit to the opposite end of the ward to enlist the help of some of Brother Paolo's new friends, and then a stop in the children's dayroom to collect more children, the plan was put into action...

The police found themselves delighted to come across a bearded old man accompanied by two young children. "Freeze!" yelled the two constables.

They were less delighted a moment later when they turned around to find a second bearded old man, also accompanied by two kids. One of the kids had an eye-patch over her eye. "Uh, freeze?" suggested the constables, frowning.

"Is there some problem, officer?" asked one of the old men.

"I hafta go pee!" cried one or two of the children.

One police constable turned to the other, who shrugged. They were very confused!

Just then, a doctor with a white beard turned into the corridor pushing a wheeled gurney. The patient on the gurney was covered by a sheet up to the neck, and she moaned as the doctor stopped the gurney suddenly to avoid crashing into everyone else jamming the way. "Whoa!" said the constables.

"I need to get this patient to the operating room, STAT!" grumbled the white-bearded doctor.

"But this corridor leads to the lobby, Doctor," said the constable.

"The operating room is in a different hospital," explained the doctor. "She's being loaded on an ambulance. STAT!"

"What's wrong with her?" asked the constable. He noticed how the patient had the head of a young girl but her body was as long as entire gurney. He furrowed his brow, puzzled.

The doctor said, "She's got a rare bone disease. Her legs are too long."

"Poor kid," said the constable, waving the gurney onward. "Go on, get her to the ambulance, Doctor. Make way!"

"STAT!" added the doctor.

The constables held back the pair of bearded old men and young children in order to let the bearded old doctor pass through with his extra long young patient. The doctor wormed the gurney between them and then, as he prepared to turn the corner toward the entrance of the hospital, the lower half of his patient suddenly sneezed.

"Bless you," said the doctor.

"Thank you," said the patient. And then the patient's hips said, "Yeah, thanks Santa."

The police constables spun around, their mouths open. "Hey!" yelled one of them, pointing at the spot where the doctor and his gurney had been before they had raced off toward the lobby. "Freeze!"

Chloe and Mike sat up on the gurney as Brother Dominick rolled it past the triage nurse, past the reception desk, and then right into the waiting room. "Whee!" squealed Mike.

Brother Dominick pushed the gurney right out the front door and onto the sidewalk. The kids jumped down. "Let's go!" said Brother Dominick, throwing off his doctor's gowns.

They ran.

When they stopped running they were blocks away. Chloe and Mike waited while Brother Dominick leaned against a shop window to catch his breath. It was a store that sold televisions, and the the kids noticed that the televisions were showing a picture of Mr. Baron! "Santa, look!" cried Mike, pointing.

Brother Dominick went inside the store, and Mike and Chloe followed him.

Inside the store they could hear the sound from all of the televisions, and the reporter was saying, "...Baron went on a rampage in Toronto's Senator Grill today and, strangely enough, the apparent target was Santa Claus himself. Imagine that! Maybe Baron Toys doesn't like competition, ha ha ha. Baron's doctor, Dr. Geoffrey Porter, is quoted as saying that Baron is under tremendous stress as his company prepares to roll out their new line of subscription toys, coupled with stressful preparations for a large family dinner at the Baron Estate tonight."

Brother Dominick got a faraway look in his eyes. A moment later he actually giggled!

"What, Santa?" asked Mike, pulling on Brother Dominick's jacket.

He said, "Mike, Chloe -- maybe we can do this."

"Really?" cheered Chloe.

Brother Dominick winked. "I have an idea. It's a very unlikely idea, but I believe we can do it. After all, we must try."

"What are we going to do, Santa?" asked Chloe as she broke into a wide grin.

"We're going to Mr. Baron's house!"

* * *


On the Bridle Path beyond tall iron gates the Baron Estate was aglow for the holidays, its every arch and gable decked out in winking Christmas lights and every threshold festooned with boughs of plastic mistletoe.

As the sun set the estate's driveway became a traffic jam of delivery trucks, catering vans and taxis. Mr. Baron himself was stationed at the front doors, greeting each cluster of guests as they stamped the slush off their boots and handed their parcels to footmen dressed as elves.

"Aunt Melody, how wonderful to see you!" crooned Mr. Baron jovially. "Uncle Nathan, you're looking fabulous! Come in, come in."

Around the back of the house at the staff entrance was a line of very busy people ferrying in cakes and candies, and among them was poor Mrs. Green trying to balance a giant armload of wrapped gifts. "Oh dear!" she said as she slipped on a patch and ice and juggled the gifts to keep them from falling.

Someone caught her arm, and helped her find steady footing. "Thank you!" she said, and then turned around to see Santa Claus, complete with a fur-trimmed red suit, black boots and a flowing white beard.

"Ho ho ho," said Santa Claus. "Watch your step, Mrs. Green my dear."

Mrs. Green smiled. "I hadn't realized Mr. Baron had hired a genuine Santa Claus this year," she said.

"Well," said Santa, "someone has to hand out all of those lovely gifts you've bought."

Mrs. Green hugged the gifts to her. "I hope I haven't forgotten anyone on Mr. Baron's list."

Santa smiled through his beard. "Don't you worry, my dear," he said, "I've brought some gifts of my own. No one will go wanting."

Mrs. Green looked at Santa's little wagon filled with two large sacks and a collection of boxes. One of the sacks jiggled. Mrs. Green seemed puzzled. "Did one of those presents just hiccup?" she asked.

"It must be a talking doll," said Santa quickly.

"Of course," agreed Mrs. Green. Then she said, "I wonder why this is taking so long!" She craned her head around to try to see to the front of the line.

As the line advanced the situation at the staff entrance became more clear: two burly private security guards were stopping everyone at the threshold to ask them questions and examine their packages. "Let me see your purchase order," said one of the guards to a baker.

Despite the fact that the guards were standing under a bough of mistletoe they did not kiss.

"I'm not sure I have anything I can show them," Santa Claus said quietly to Mrs. Green. "I was hired over the telephone. I'm filling in for a fellow who came down with the flu."

"Don't you fret," said Mrs. Green, "I'll vouch for you. Who made the arrangements with you?"

Santa hesitated. Finally he said, "Chloe."

Mrs. Green furrowed her brow. "I don't know any Chloe at the office..."

"Chloe is a little girl," added Santa Claus. "She said you were very nice to her. She said..." he paused, and then leaned closer to one of the sacks in his wagon. "She said you tried to arrange a grilled cheese sandwich for her."

"Oh my goodness," exclaimed Mrs. Green. "Chloe from Saint Anne's? There's an alert out -- the police are searching everywhere for her! Do you know where she is?"

Santa said nothing, but one of the sacks in his wagon fidgeted. Mrs. Green looked up sharply. Santa gave her a sheepish smile. "Mrs. Green," he said very seriously, "I think you are aware that your employer is not as well acquainted with the true meaning of Christmas as would be ideal."

Mrs. Green looked around quickly, then nodded agreement.

Santa continued, dropping his voice to a whisper: "Let me trust you with this secret, my dear: Chloe has brought me here tonight in order to help Mr. Baron understand what the holidays are really all about."

"Who are you?" asked Mrs. Green nervously.

"I'm a friend to everyone who loves Christmas," he told her gravely.

"This is very peculiar," she Mrs. Green. "I don't think I can vouch for you. I could lose my job. What are you going to do?"

Santa reached over and picked one of the gifts out of his little wagon, and handed it to Mrs. Green. "Peek under the paper," he said.

She did. "Why, this is one of our toys. It's a Baron toy."

"That's right," said Santa. "What we'd like to do tonight is to make sure that every member of Mr. Baron's family receives a Baron Toys gift."

"But Mr. Baron told me very clearly where I was to shop," said Mrs. Green, casting a worried eye at the staff entrance as the line advanced. "He wants the finest of the fine for his family -- expensive collector toys, every one of them."

Santa sighed. "Doesn't it seem odd to you, Mrs. Green, that he doesn't consider Baron Toys products to be good enough for his own family?"

Mrs. Green had to admit that it was odd indeed. "There's no denying that," she said. "Is that all you intend to do -- to switch the presents?"

"That's it," said Santa. "I think everything else will take care of itself."

They were almost at the staff entrance. Mrs. Green looked back and forth between Santa Claus in his red suit with white trim and the unsmiling security guards flanking the door. "I don't know what the proper thing to do is," confessed Mrs. Green, hugging her packages.

Santa Claus touched the side of his nose and winked. "You must do what you feel is right, of course," he told her.

The security guards faced Mrs. Green and Santa Claus. "Name and purpose?" asked one of the guards. Santa looked over at Mrs. Green.

She said, "I'm Natalie Green, Mr. Baron's executive assistant, and this gentleman is tonight's Kris Kringle. We're quite behind schedule and we don't have time for any shennanigans."

"We've been ordered to check every package," said the second guard.

"Nonsense!" barked Mrs. Green in her best imitation of Mr. Baron. "There's going to be big trouble unless these presents are under the tree by six o'clock, and I'll tell you right now that trouble has your name on it." She awkwardly managed to pull a small telephone out of her purse. "Shall I call Mr. Baron right now to sort all this out?"

The guards looked at each other, shrugged, and then waved Mrs. Green and Santa Claus through the door. "Merry Christmas!" called Santa.

"Let's keep it moving, pops," said the guard.

"Ho ho ho!"

A moment after Santa and Mrs. Green disappeared inside the house Stewart came upon the line and scanned it with his sharp eyes. "Anything unusual?" he asked the guards in a cold, clipped tone.

"Not really," said the nearest guard.

Stewart nodded, pulled his overcoat tighter around him, and then continued his patrol around the grounds.

In the mud room of Mr. Baron's giant house Santa pushed his little wagon behind a rack of coats and then gave the kids the signal to come out. Mike and Chloe pushed out of the burlap sacks and breathed a breath of fresh air. "Goodness!" exclaimed Mrs. Green. "There are two of you!"

"This is my friend Mike," said Chloe. "He's helping save Christmas."

"Hi," said Mike.

Mrs. Green watched in baffled wonder as the kids got busy unloading boxes of Baron Toys products from the wagon. "Now," explained Santa Claus, "we need to switch the gifts you've bought, Mrs. Green, for these ones. I suggest you leave so that you don't get in any trouble with your boss."

Mrs. Green nodded but she did not leave. She wrung her deeply lined, brown hands together and then touched the tiny silver crucifix hanging around her neck. "I want to help, too," she said at last.

So Mrs. Green helped Mike and Chloe unwrap the boutique boxes and put the glossy paper in place over the Baron Toys boxes, making sure each label stayed in place. "This one is for Mr. Baron's third cousin twice removed," she said, passing over a box. "It's a hand-carved wooden doll house."

"Let's replace that with a plastic Baron Toys Dollyshack Subscription Starter Set," said Santa.

Mrs. Green grabbed another box. "This is a robot puppy from Japan."

"Swap it for a Baron Toys Pound Friend."

"What about these die-cast soldier toys?"

"Operation Desert Storm Action-Play Platoon Lite."

"And this arts and crafts set?"

"Baron Toys Disposable Crayon Factory."

When the exchanges were complete Mrs. Green gave Santa and the kids a sharp salute, then took a big breath and carried the gifts away to the livingroom to put them under the giant Christmas tree. "Come on," said Santa. The three friends left the mud room and cut through the busy kitchen, then turned down a corridor lined with suits of armour standing in mahogany niches along the walls.

"I think somebody's following us," whispered Chloe urgently.

"Quickly now, children," urged Santa. They rushed past the suits of armour and turned into another hallway lined with hanging tapestries.

"It's a maze!" said Mike. "Where should we hide?"

They could hear footsteps approaching from behind them. "Mike, hide behind these curtain things!" cried Chloe, slipping behind a tapestry and making it push out in a conspicuously girl-shaped bulge.

Mike and Santa spun around to see a man walk into the hallway, blocking their only route of escape. The man was wearing a butler's tuxedo beneath his dark overcoat. His eyes narrowed. "Stop right there!" he commanded.

Chloe quivered behind the tapestry.

"Maybe you can help us," said Santa, "we seem to be lost."

The butler walked closer, his eyes fixed on Brother Dominick and his festive costume. "I know who you are," he said crisply. "Mr. Baron told me to be ready for you."

Brother Dominick opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. Mike hugged his leg, hiding behind the furry trim of his red coat.

"You're the ones who have been working against Mr. Baron," continued Stewart the butler in a cold voice. "You're the ones who tried to sabotage the factory."

He came to a halt right in front of Brother Dominick, so that they were practically touching nose to nose. Brother Dominick said, "What are you going to do with us?"

Stewart hardened his mouth into a thin line. He grunted, "Come with me."

Brother Dominick and the kids had no choice. There was nowhere to run. Reluctantly, they followed the butler as he led them through another maze of corridors filled by works of art. They went up a spiral staircase and down another corridor, then the butler opened a door and gestured at his captives to go inside.

It was a washroom that smelled like pot pourri. Brother Dominick was puzzled. "Why are we here?" he asked.

"Because," said the butler, picking up a sharp razor that glinted under the washroom lights, "unless we get that beard shaved off Mr. Baron is going to recognize you right away."

Chloe said, "You mean you're on our side?"

Stewart gave her a prim little smile. "Now now," he said, "let's not dawdle."

"But Santa can't shave off his beard," protested Mike. "That's what makes him Santa!"

Brother Dominick knelt down on one knee next to Mike. "My boy, looking like Santa isn't important. There are lots of people who look like Santa at Christmastime. What matters is acting like Santa, and I can do that no matter what I'm wearing and no matter what's on my face. Being Santa is about doing, and we know what needs to be done, don't we?"

Mike nodded, but he still seemed worried. "Will it hurt Santa?" he asked the butler.

Stewart shook his head. "Not one bit," he promised.

"Well..." said Mike. "Okay."

Downstairs in Mr. Baron's massive livingroom all the members of his family had gathered to open gifts. A man was playing carols on the grand piano accompanied by a woman with a violin. From the kitchen wafted the smells of a delicious dinner: turkey and stuffing, yams and yorkshire pudding.

Old Mr. Baron Senior sat in a big cozy armchair surrounded by his sons and daughters and cousins, with a blanket over his legs and a cane with a shiny top leaning at his side. The relations had all brought their children, and they were dressed in their best clothes.

Old Mrs. Baron, Mr. Baron's mother, called the children to sit down in a big circle as she began taking gifts from beneath the tall, tall Christmas tree. She read out the first label, "This one is for Virginia," she said. "Come here and take your present, darling."

Mr. Baron was holding a drink, standing next to his father's chair. He flashed a big smile at everyone as he stroked his thin mustache.

A little girl in a green dress stood up from the circle of children and approached her grandmother. "There you are, sweetheart," said Old Mrs. Baron, handing a gaily wrapped gift to Virginia.

Virginia sat down and began unwrapping the box.

"This is something really special," Mr. Baron whispered to his father. "It's a collectible."

"Oh, indeed?" said Old Mr. Baron politely.

Virginia reached inside the box and took out a plastic doll, just like the one Chloe had held when it's head popped off in the department store. Mr. Baron frowned. "It's a dolly!" giggled Virginia, holding it up by the arm for everyone to see.

Mr. Baron looked very confused. "That can't be right..." he muttered.

Just then the doll's arm tore off. The doll dropped to the floor and its head cracked. Virginia looked down. For a second her mouth was fixed in an O-shape of surprise, but it disappeared as she began to wail. "Dolly!" she cried.

Mr. Baron rushed into the middle of the circle, accidentally knocking over one of his nephews. "Don't carry on now, Virginia -- we'll get that taken care of by tomorrow morning."

Virginia looked up, tears running down her cheeks. "You can fix my dolly?"

"Even better," said Mr. Baron, "we'll replace it. You'll get a whole new dolly! That's how Baron Toys works, child."

"But...what about my dolly?" asked Virginia, cradling the broken doll in her arms. "She's hurt."

"That's not even what you were supposed to get," Mr. Baron said, stomping over to the Christmas tree. "Now where's your real present? Let me see here. There must have been a mix-up." He dug through the pile, tossing gifts aside after tearing their paper back to peek at the boxes underneath. "I don't understand at all...this is all wrong! These are all our toys."

Old Mr. Baron leaned forward in his armchair and frowned. He tapped his cane on the floor. "Now why should that be a mix-up, son?"

Mr. Baron was becoming quite agitated. "These are subscription toys. They're meant for the mass market, not for us. It's all about a sustained revenue stream through pay-in-advance replacement packages!"

Old Mr. Baron shook his head. "What?" he exclaimed.

"Don't worry," said Mr. Baron. "Someone will get fired over this, let me assure you."

Old Mr. Baron leaned on his cane and slowly rose from the armchair. Everyone grew quiet as they watched him carefully hobble over to the Christmas tree. Stewart tried to help but Old Mr. Baron waved him off angrily, leaning down to scoop up a gift. He unwrapped it to reveal a Baron Toys Police Patrol remote-control car. The wheels fell off as soon as he slipped it out of the box, bouncing to the floor and rolling under a pastry cart.

Two of the younger kids crawled under the cart to chase the little wheels. They upset the cart, which crashed to the floor and spilled pastries everywhere. The man playing the piano and woman playing the violin fell silent as a brace of elves rushed out of the kitchen to clean up the mess.

"Oh, son..." said Old Mr. Baron sadly, shaking his head. "This is not good at all. No sir, not at all."

Mr. Baron looked desperate. "But, Father!" he exclaimed; "Have you seen our financial reports this year? I've tripled our profits -- tripled! Baron Toys is making money hand over fist. We're going to be number one in North America!"

Old Mr. Baron sidled over beside Virginia and gave her a hug. "Come sit with Grandpa," he cooed to her. She wiped her nose on the sleeve of her green dress and leaned against her grandfather. Old Mr. Baron looked up at his son. "R. P.," he said seriously, "I can see that it was a mistake to put you in charge of our family business."

"Father, didn't you hear me?" cried Mr. Baron. "I said I've tripled our profits!"

Old Mr. Baron sighed again. "Son, do you know what a toy company actually makes?"

"Well of course!" snapped Mr. Baron. "We manufacture products for the juvenile play market."

"Wrong," said Old Mr. Baron. He pulled himself up on his cane and stood, facing his son face to face. Everyone was watching. Old Mr. Baron licked his wrinkled old lips and said, "A toy company makes children happy."

"But, Father!" whined Mr. Baron.

Old Mr. Baron held up his hand to silence his son. "Tell me, R. P., does this child look happy to you?"

Virginia sucked a string of snot up her nose and looked at her uncle, her eyes puffy from crying. She was still cradling her broken doll.

Chloe couldn't stand to watch anymore. She burst out from under a table of cakes and ran straight into the middle of the ring of children who were staring open-mouthed at the discussion between the two Barons. Chloe unzipped her knapsack and pulled out Polly the dolly.

"Here," she said, holding Polly out to little Virginia. "This dolly's name is Polly, and her arms don't rip off."

"She's pretty," said Virginia.

" can have her," said Chloe, wiping a tear away from her own eye. "Um, she likes to eat pretend crackers and drink pretend apple juice. She's a really good friend."

Virginia took Polly and gave her a hug. "I like her," said Virginia.

"Yeah," said Chloe, "I like her, too. Merry Christmas, Virginia."

"But what about the broken dolly?" Virginia asked.

Chloe showed Virginia the broken doll head inside her knapsack. "I tell you what," said Chloe, "she can live with this broken dolly, and they can both be friends with each other. Maybe I can even fix them, if I learn sewing or something."

"Your bag is a dolly hospital," observed Virginia.

"Yeah, it is," agreed Chloe. "Don't worry: they're not sad in there."

Virginia started to smile, but stopped as Mr. Baron rushed over and grabbed Chloe's knapsack out of her hands. "You're a thief, girl!" he shouted. "Nobody told you that you could keep this product."

Old Mr. Baron held up a liver-spotted hand. "Now now, R. P., let's try to stay calm."

"You don't understand!" yelled Mr. Baron, looking around the room. "This girl was with the people who broke into your factory, Father, to try to stop us from making our shipments on time. She's a criminal!"

Something had caught Old Mr. Baron's eye. He was staring across the room to the door to the kitchen where several members of the household staff had gathered to see what all the commotion was. Beside Stewart the butler stood a rotund old fellow with a wrinkled, cleanly-shaven face and sparkling blue eyes. He was wearing red pants and a stretched T-shirt that said BARON TOYS CHARITY PICNIC 1991.

Old Mr. Baron squinted. "Dominick?" he said. "Could it be you?"

Brother Dominick nodded. "It's been a long time."

Mr. Baron's face turned purple. "That's him!" he screamed. "That's the leader of the terrorists who broke into our factory! He's kidnapped this girl and brainwashed her! Stewart: call the police at once!"

Stewart didn't move. Old Mr. Baron shambled over and shook Brother Dominick's hand, and then pulled him into a hug. He turned back to his son with a dark, dark expression his face. "R. P., this man is a member of the Order of Saint Nicholas."

"I know, Father. He tried to --"

Old Mr. Baron held up his hand for silence again. "Our company has been donating toys to the charitable works of his order since my father's time," he said gravely. "If the spirit of Christmas truly lives anywhere, it is in the brothers of Saint Nicholas."

"They tried to sabotage us," sulked Mr. Baron.

"I told you about them so you could help them," said his father. "And now you want to have this man arrested? I simply can't believe what I'm hearing. Have you lost your mind, son?"

Mr. Baron said, "Business is business, Father."

"No, son," said Old Mr. Baron, "business is a means to an end. And I think you've shown us all here tonight that you've lost sight of that end. Dollars and cents aren't any good by themselves -- it's what you use them for that makes good things happen."

"But what about the shareholders?" asked Mr. Baron desperately.

"The shareholders have children, too," said Old Mr. Baron. "And I think they will be happy to know that I'm relieving you of duty. As much as it pains me to do it, son, you leave me no choice: you're fired."

"I'm..." Mr. Baron stuttered, his mustache quivering. "I'm -- what?"

"You're fired," repeated Old Mr. Baron.

"But Daddy!" whined Mr. Baron. "You simply can't!"

Old Mr. Baron fished his wallet out of his pants and opened it up. He peeled out a handful of bills. "Now, why don't you run out and buy these children some real toys? They don't need collectibles any more than they need plastic junk that breaks."

"You want me to" said Mr. Baron, shocked.

"Yes, I do."

Mr. Baron called for Mrs. Green, who timidly peeked out of the kitchen. Old Mr. Baron shook his head. "No, son. I don't want you to delegate. I want you to find the presents. I want you to choose each one, and to decide what will make each of your nieces and nephews and cousins most happy."

"But I have no idea what children like," protested Mr. Baron. "I'm a grown man, Daddy!"

That's when Mike popped up from the under the cake table, brushing chocolate icing off his face. He said, "I'll help you, Mr. Baron. I'm a kid. I know what kids like."

"You..." said Mr. Baron slowly, "you're the one who called me a bad man."

"That's okay," explained Mike, "I forgive you."

"...You forgive me?" echoed Mr. Baron, his mustache drooping. "I don't understand."

Brother Dominick chuckled. He took Mike's hand and put it in Mr. Baron's hand. "Don't fret, Baron, you'll catch on. Mike is a very good teacher."

And so Mike and Mr. Baron drove off in a taxicab to do some last minute shopping, and everyone else sat down at the diningroom table to enjoy a wonderful meal. There was gravy and cranberry sauce, ginger ale and wine, and crackers with little prizes and paper crowns inside. Old Mr. Baron wore a purple crown, and Chloe wore a pink one.

"Ho ho ho!" laughed Brother Dominick. "This is the best Christmas dinner ever!"

Mike and Mr. Baron returned in time for dessert, their arms laden with bags and boxes. When the children had opened their new presents everyone gathered around the grand piano and sang carols. Mr. Baron hovered on the edge uncomfortably at first, but Mike took his hand and pulled him closer. By the last song even Mr. Baron was singing along. "Fa la la la la, la la la laaa!"

Mr. Baron presented bottles of champagne to Mrs. Green and Stewart. "Thank you," he told them awkwardly. "Thank you for doing the right thing tonight, and helping me learn something."

"You're welcome, Mr. Baron," said Mrs. Green with a wide smile.

"A very merry Christmas to you, sir," added Stewart.

The hour was late. Mr. Baron's brothers and sisters and cousins bundled up their sleepy children and packed them into cars for the drive home. Mr. Baron stood by the front doors to wish everyone good tidings and to apologize for his earlier outburst. Little Virginia awoke in her mother's arms to say, "Merry Christmas, Uncle R. P."

Finally Old Mr. and Mrs. Baron themselves shuffled up. Old Mrs. Baron gave her son a kiss and squeezed his hand, and then Old Mr. Baron said, "I'm proud of you, R. P."

"You're proud of me?" replied Mr. Baron, confused. "Why?"

"Because it is hard to be a good man, but it is even harder to change into a good man," he said. "I want you to continue running our company for me."

"Really?" exclaimed Mr. Baron, his eyes wide.

"Absolutely," said Old Mr. Baron. "I know you've learned a lot tonight, and I know you'll run things right from now on."

"Oh Daddy, I will, I will!" gushed Mr. Baron. He pulled his father into a tight hug and kissed the top of his balding head. "I promise."

"Merry Christmas, son," said Old Mr. Baron, wiping his rheumy eyes.

Mr. Baron was so excited that he wanted to find little Mike and little Chloe right away to thank them for helping him change, but the house was empty. He wandered around from room to room to find them, but all he found were members of the staff cleaning up. He told them all to take the night off, and then resumed cleaning up all by himself.

He swept the floor. He loaded the dishes in the dishwasher. He put the leftovers away in the refrigerators. And when he was all done the house was very clean, and Mr. Baron felt clean inside, too.

He poured himself a glass of sherry and stood out in the front yard while a gentle snow fell all around him. He thought about how things would be different at Baron Toys from now on, then raised his glass in a toast. "To the Order of Saint Nicholas!" he called out, laughing.

A dusting of snow collected on Mr. Baron's head, but he didn't mind one bit. He had never felt so full of the Christmas spirit in all his life.

Later, the clouds moved aside and Mr. Baron saw the stars.

* * *


It was the day before Christmas.

Brother Dominick, Mike and Chloe strolled up Yonge Street surrounded by busy shoppers and honking cars throwing sleet up onto the sidewalk. They sipped their cups of soup and smiled, kicking up flurries from the snowbanks and whistling along to carols playing from the speakers of clothing stores.

They walked into the Hudson Bay Company's department store and wandered to the penny fountain. "Well, children," said Brother Dominick solemnly, "it's about time I got moving."

"Are you going back to the North Pole now, Santa?" asked Mike.

Brother Dominick nodded, scratching his stubbly face where his beard was growing back in. "That's right, Mike. But I think I have to make a couple more Christmas wishes come true before I go."

"Like what?" asked Mike.

"Well," said Brother Dominick, putting his hands behind his back, "do you remember Brother Walenty?"

The children nodded.

"Brother Walenty was just a little boy when he helped out the Order, and now he's a novice monk on his way to becoming a full-blown agent." Brother Dominick looked at Mike significantly. "The Order is always in need of boys who truly understand the true meaning of Christmas."

"It is?"

"Yes," said Brother Dominick. "Mike, how would you like to come back with me to the North Pole? How would you like to be Brother Michael?"

Mike gasped. "Me? A Santa?"

"That's right. It isn't always an easy life, but it is a good life, and a meaningful life. You're just the kind of boy we know will keep the promises he makes, who will work hard to make children happy."

"Really?" asked Mike.

"Really," said Brother Dominick, nodding. "All I have to do is make the call," he added, gesturing toward the payphones along the wall. "What do you say, Mike?"

Mike bit his lip and cuddled his fuzzy sock friend. He looked around the mall at all of the people rushing to and fro, his eyes lingering on kids being carried by their parents, begging to be let go so they could run over to throw a penny in the fountain. Mike watched as the parents gave their kids pennies and smiled to themsleves while they watched their kids run.

"Santa," said Mike, "I want a fambly."

"The Order is very much like a family," said Brother Dominick.

Mike shook his head. "I want a fambly with a mommy and a daddy. That's what I wish for on Christmas, Santa. A real fambly who would let me live at their house, and be nice to me, and play with me."

Brother Dominick looked chagrined for a second but he smiled quickly to cover it. He reached out and ruffled Mike's black hair. "That is a fine, fine Christmas wish. And I'll do everything I can to make it come true for you."

Mike smiled. Chloe tugged on Brother Dominick's sleeve. "What about me, Santa?"

"Do you want a family too, Chloe?" asked Brother Dominick.

"No," said Chloe. "I want to become a Santa."

Brother Dominick blinked. "Um...but, my dear --" he stammered.

"What?" asked Chloe.

"Er..." mumbled Brother Dominick. "It's just that -- well, you're a girl. All of the monks in the Order are boys."

Chloe put her hands on her hips and stuck out her lip. "So?" she challenged, fire in her eyes. "Who says there can't be a girl Santa Claus just because there hasn't been one yet? I could be the first one!"

"Well..." said Brother Dominick, rubbing his chin.

"Come on!" pressed Chloe. "I saved Christmas, Santa! You know I did! We all did it together!"

Brother Dominick wore a thoughtful expression. He began to nod, and then he smiled. "My dear Chloe, you're absolutely right. You've shown a generosity of spirit and a dedication to action as good or better as most of the brothers I've ever known, and that deserves to be rewarded." He put his hand on her shoulder and looked into her eyes. "Chloe, the Order of Saint Nicholas would be honoured to have you."

Chloe grinned, then paused to ask, "Would it be okay if I don't want to wear a red suit?"

"Of course! What colour would you prefer?" asked Brother Dominick.

"Pink," said Chloe.

"So it shall be, Pink Santa," said Brother Dominick warmly.

He made his telephone call back to headquarters and a few more calls to arrange the journey, then all three got into a taxicab. Brother Dominick explained the itinerary to Chloe. "We'll pick up documents from an agent in Montreal, then take the train to New York City. From there we'll catch an airplane to Miami, then change planes and head to Bogota. From there we'll get on a train to Ushuaia in Argentina and onto the ship."

Chloe scratched her head. "But Santa, why are we going south? Isn't the North Pole up north?"

"No, my dear," explained Brother Dominick. "Remember the rules of magnetism: like polarity repels, and unlike polarity attracts."

"I don't understand," admitted Chloe.

"The north end of a magnet points to the Earth's southern magnetic pole. That means..."

Mike gasped. "That means the North Pole is in Antarctica!"

"Exactly," smiled Brother Dominick. "The last place people tend to look for it."

The taxicab pulled up the curb beside St. Anne Mother of our Lady Orphange South with its familiar stained concrete steps and murky, yellowish windows. Brother Dominick told the driver to wait for a moment while Chloe and Brother Dominick got out to see Mike off. Brother Dominick said, "Don't worry, Mike. I have a feeling you won't be staying here for very long."

"Do you really think I'll get a fambly?" asked Mike.

"Our best agents are making arrangements as we speak," said Brother Dominick with a broad smile. "In just a few days you're going to be introduced to the Cuthbertsons. I'm assured they're the nicest kind of people, and I know they want very badly to adopt a little boy just like you. That's their Christmas wish."

"I'm somebody's Christmas wish?" echoed Mike.

"You certainly are," confirmed Brother Dominick. "So as you receive, you'll be giving, too."

Santa gave Mike a tight hug, then climbed back inside the taxi. Chloe shuffled up next and gave Mike a kiss on his forehead. She said, "When I ran away I thought I was going to have to be all alone. I never thought I'd be lucky enough to have a friend like you. Thanks, Mike."

"Awww," said Mike sheepishly. "I'm going to miss you, Chloe."

"I'll visit," she said. "I promise."

"Okay," agreed Mike.

Chloe stood back, and then pulled out of her pocket the pink paper crown that had come from her dinner cracker at Mr. Baron's house. She fixed it on her head with special dignity, and then waved broadly to Mike. "Ho ho ho!" she pronounced in a deep voice.

Mike giggled. "Goodbye, Santas," he said.

The taxicab pulled away, mixing with the downtown traffic and disappearing in seconds. Mike watched after it and then climbed the steps to the orphanage. He reached up on his tip-toes to open the front door, revealing Sister Bethany standing right there.

Mike cringed because he thought she would yell at him, but instead Sister Bethany scooped him up and embraced him, covering his chilly cheeks in kisses. "Mike! Oh, Mike! We were so worried about you! Thank God you're back, thank God!"

"Better thank Saint Nicholas, too," said Mike. "He helped."

Sister Bethany paused. "But what about Chloe? Do you know anything about Chloe?"

"Yeah," said Mike. "She's happy."

"But where is she, Mike?"

"She's with Saint Nicholas."

Sister Bethany got a faraway look in her eyes. "Really?" she whispered. "So the Order takes girls now?"

Mike was startled. "Yeah," he replied. "Yeah, they do take girls now." Then he furrowed his brow. "How do you know about the Order, Sister?"

Sister Bethany smiled sheepishly. "Once, when I was young..." she trailed off, and hugged Mike closer. "Nevermind that right now. Let's get you inside. We're having baked apples and singing carols. How does that sound to you?"

Mike grinned. "It sounds really good."

Sister Bethany put him down, and together they went inside, hand in hand.


One Small Step for Santa | Night Flight Mike | The Reaper's Coleslaw | The Barrington House | Plight of the Transformer | And Bananas for All | The Salt Moon Robots

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