Silent Night

It was like being struck in the face with a handful of razor blades.

The wind whipped the snow into a crystal monsoon which seemed to swirl and eddy around the street like a polar hurricane. Despite the three sweaters, two T-shirts and overcoat which Brian Lee was cocooned within, he still shivered as the wind whistled around him. He pulled the scarf up higher, to protect his nose from the elements and continued sweeping but the constant blasts of freezing air made his task impossible. no sooner had he gathered one pile of rubbish together with his broom than the wind would send it hurtling in all directions.

Brian cursed under his breath, standing still for a moment, looking around him.

It may well be Oxford Street on December 22nd, the shops may well be gaily festooned with Christmas decorations and it may well be the season of goodwill but, standing in that near deserted thoroughfare at 4:00am. with a broom in his hand and a wind shipping round him which threatened to freeze him to the spot, Brian Lee felt abut as cheerful as a stallion at gelding time. So, this was one of the Government's wonderful new job opportunities was it? he thought irritably. Road sweeping. As he pushed the broom along the gutter he wondered what sort of job this was going to equip him for in the future. Brian was convinced that other youths were employed to fill the gutters with litter just so he'd have some work to do each day. Some of the shite which he was piling up amazed him. Empty hamburger cartons, old newspaper, condoms (used, naturally), fag-ends, pieces of half eaten food, dog crap.

A severed hand.

He almost fell over as the last of the discarded articles was pushed up onto the pile by his ever more frenzied sweeping. His eyes fixed on the appendage and, for one ridiculous second, he thought it was a joke. Some silly sod was having a laugh. That rust coloured mash which coloured the area around the wrist it was fake blood surely?

Brian knelt down and prodded the hand with the d of his finger.

It contracted, almost closing around his probing digit.

He jumped back, his stomach now beginning to somersault, the snow and wind suddenly forgotten. This was no joke.

He saw the bone protruding from the shattered stump of the wrist, gleaming whitely in the dull light cast by the street lamps. Had he managed to retain any shred of logical thought he would have realised that the hand had not lain the gutter too long, it was still unstiffened by either rigor mortis or by the freezing weather. But, all Brian could think of was getting away from that hacked off monstrosity. He turned to run, tripped over the kerb and fell forward, his hands flying before him as he tried to grasp a nearby waste basket to cushion his fall.

The bin came away from the screws which held it to the lamp post, spilling its contents onto the snow, onto Brian.

And, as he lay there amidst that rubbish, trying to scramble up, the bin disgorged its final contents.

The head rolled out into the snow and settled on the severed stump, the sightless eyes fixing Brian in an unblinking stare.

He began to scream.

* * *

"What do the police say about it?" Dave Harris wanted to know. "That's three in three days. All mutilated the same way."

"Merry Christmas," said Fiona Ford, sucking on the Dunhill perched between her lips.

"The police haven't said anything," Gene Stanley told him, brushing a hand through his thinning hair. "No official statement has been issued."

"That's because they don't know what the hell's going on," Harris grunted. "I bet I could get some information. Put me on this story, Gene."

"You've already got an assignment, besides, Dickinson and Young are doing o.k. on it."

"They've turned up nothing," Harris protested.

"They're reporters, not detectives. They're doing their jobs. They're covering developments. That's the trouble with you, Harris, you want to do everyone else's job instead of getting on with your own." Stanley looked at his watch. "It's almost eleven, you and Fiona get down to Oxford Street, you're supposed to be covering that store opening."

"Big deal," snapped Harris. "Three people get turned into mincemeat and I end u covering a bloody Christmas grotto."

"This isn't an ordinary one and you know it," the editor said. "It's a big story. The worlds first Santa Claus Grotto designed specifically for adults." He smiled. "If you're a good boy you might even get to sit on Santa's knee."

Harris didn't see the joke. He turned and stormed out of the office. Fiona picked up her camera and followed, the cigarette still bouncing between her lips.

* * *

Even Harris was impressed at the size of the store.

It was no larger than the buildings which flanked it on either side but its facade was nothing less than stunning. It looked to have been hewn from a lump of solid marble, each window and entrance decorated with gold paint, giving the building the appearance of some semi-precious stone. The snow which drifted in thin curtains in front of the massive edifice only served to enhance its almost mystical appearance.

The place had been bought over six months ago by a millionaire named Nicholas Oldman. Rumour had it that Oldman, a property developer, had paid somewhere in the region of ten million for the building which was called 'Revelations'. Four floors of Revelations to be exact, selling everything from books to sports equipment, confectionary to works of art. But, at its heart was the department designed by Oldman himself. Something previously unseen and with enough novelty value to have the country's' press swarming all over the building.

A Santa Claus Grotto designed exclusively for adults. It was this latest innovation (expected to bring in an extra two or three million pounds worth of business in the days leading up to Christmas) which had prompted the press conference to be held that morning.

Now, as Harris and Fiona stood looking up at the marble and glass front of the building they were joined by many other newsmen. Harris recognised most of them. He'd been in the business for almost twelve years, having joined a local newspaper upon leaving school. His graduation to Fleet Street, via a sports magazine and a music paper had been swift. Fiona had been a photographer with the paper for above five years, having moved on from girlie magazines. The two of them had been on enough assignments together to qualify, in journalistic terms, as partners. It was a relationship which neither had sought to pursue into everyday life as yet.

Oxford Street was the usual hive of activity, shoppers crashing into each other with armfuls of Christmas presents, trying to avoid psychotic taxi drivers as they stumbled across the road, attempting not to topple off the running boards of buses packed to the rafters. The Festive season was festering nicely thought Harris as he and Fiona approached the main doors of 'Revelations'. They were ushered inside by a tall, this man dressed in a dark uniform who smiled thinly as they showed him their press cards and directed them towards the lifts.

The store was empty, the opening time having been delayed to facilitate the press conference. Once it was over then business could continue as normal.

Harris and Fiona wandered through the perfume department, the store eerily quiet without its compliment of shoppers. Fiona's heels beat out a stark tattoo on the polished stone floor. They entered one of the lifts and Harris jabbed the '3' button. They began to rise. She checked her camera, ensuring that she had enough film. Harris pulled a jacket of cigarettes from his jacket pocket and lit one up, ignoring the sign on the wall which forbade even that small luxury. The lift finally bumped to a halt and the doors sighed open. They stepped out into a glare of lights.

The sound of rock music thundered in their ears as they wandered slowly towards a group of other newsmen who were gathered around something as yet unseen to the newcomers. TV cameras turned, the clicking of dozens of shutters mingled with the roar of the music and the excited babble of conversation. Harris and Fiona pushed their way through to get a better look at the source of all the interest.

The grotto was constructed like those which appear in so many stores around Christmas. A long tunnel, covered by sparkling tinsel and baubles, its entrance guarded by two thick velvet curtains. It curved around into what looked like an enormous silver igloo. Video screens were perched high up on either side of the structure and it was from the banks of speakers below them that the music was coming. Fiona began taking pictures which Harris merely gazed ahead, as if mesmerized by what he saw. There was a huge sleigh parked outside the igloo, complete with a Gucci stripe down the side. Reclining in the sleigh were two young women in their early twenties dressed in only the skimpiest of glittering bikinis. On either side of the sleigh stood two overly muscular men, their hair blond, their bodies glistening with oil. They wore Santa Claus caps, swimming trunks and nothing else.

"Santa's little helpers," said Harris, his attention drifting back to the girls who were blowing kisses at the watching horde of pressmen. Their hair too was blonde, the first of them bearing a mane which reached as far as her shapely backside. She winked at Harris and licked her lips in an act of exaggerated provocation. He smiled back, unable to retain his air of indignation, quite overwhelmed by the sheer awesome tackiness of the whole venture.

The music ceased abruptly and as the cameras continued to flash, a powerfully built man in a dark suit strode into view from behind a mock marble pillar. He raised his hands for quiet, wincing slightly as the cameras fired another salvo.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, smiling. "Thank you for coming today. Welcome to Revelations." His smile seemed to broaden. "My name is Paul Simmons, I'm the manager of the store." He snapped his fingers and one of the girls in the sleigh swung herself out, climbed down then retrieved a tray of drinks from behind the wooden structure. She began to circulate amongst the pressmen, offering each one a glass of champagne.

"Santa's elves never looked like this when I was a kid," a voice from the back called and the rest of the throng laughed. "We have elves too," Simmons smiled, his voice dark, almost melodious. "We have everything that you associate with Christmas but perhaps rather more unorthodox."

"Where's Father Christmas then?" called a TV reporter close to Harris.

"Inside his grotto," said Simmons. "Waiting for his visitors." The Manager's eyes sparkled, the glittering baubles reflected in those twin dark pits. Fiona took a photo and Simmons glanced briefly at her.

"Now, I don't propose to prolong this conference any longer than is necessary," Simmons said. "I know you're busy people and I have a store to run so, if you have any questions then ask."

"The grotto was designed by Nicholas Oldman, correct?" asked a reporter from 'The Mail'. "What was the idea behind it?"

"Mr. Oldman felt that Christmas had been the province of children, almost exclusively, for too long. He felt it was time to redress the balance. After all, Christmas is or should be, a time for everyone to enjoy."

"Where is Mr. Oldman?" Harris wanted to know.

"He prefers to keep a low profile," Simmons said, turning to face another question.

"But he paid over ten million for this store, I would have thought he'd be here for the opening of his biggest 'gimmick'," Harris persisted.

Simmons turned back to face him, his eyes boring into the journalist.

"You are?" he asked.

"Harris. 'The Mirror'."

"This, Mr. Harris, is much more than a gimmick," the manager said, his smile still present but, now it didn't touch his eyes.

"How many people do you expect when it opens?" someone else asked.

Simmons answered without taking his eyes from Harris.

The questions continued to flow, Simmons answered every one with an almost practised expertise.

"Do we get to see Santa then?" Harris asked.

"Not yet. He's what you might call our secret weapon" Simmons smiled. "He's not like any other Santa Claus, I guarantee you."

"So, you're not actually opening the grotto until tomorrow?" someone else asked.

"That's right," Simmons explained. "With all due deference to your fine profession, we didn't want the customers to feel too self-conscious. It was felt that this press conference could answer all your questions without interfering in the running of the grotto once it begins."

"Who decided?" Harris persisted.

"Mr. Oldman," the manager said, politely. "Now, ladies and gentlemen, I think you have some idea of what we're trying to do here so, as I said, I have a store to run, I'm afraid time is pressing."

A few more questions and the reporters began to disperse, heading back towards the lifts which they piled into, taking the swift ride down to the ground floor.

"I wouldn't mind if Santa dropped one of those helpers into my stocking this Christmas," said a TV cameraman as the lift descended. The others inside laughed. Except Harris, he was stroking his chin thoughtfully, apparently oblivious to the merriment around him. Fiona wasn't slow to spot his evident disenchantment and nudged him as they were heading for the main doors. She asked him what was wrong but Harris had no answer for her.

There was something nagging at the back of his mind, stuck there like a splinter in soft flesh, but, as yet, even he could not work out what it was. They stepped back out into the snowy street.

* * *

Paul Simmons did not look up when he heard the knock on his office door, he merely called for whoever was outside to enter and continued poring over the days sales sheets. A theatrically loud cough finally broke his concentration and he glanced up to see Tommy Johnson standing there. The doorman had his hands clasped in front of him. He looked imposing in his dark uniform.

"Can I have a word, Mr. Simmons," he said, tersely.

"Is everything locked up?" the manager wanted to know.

Johnson nodded, told him that the shop was empty apart from himself and the manager. The cleaner had finished. The store was silent.

Simmons sat back in his chair, tapping on his desk top with the end of his pen.

"It's about this grotto, Mr. Simmons," Johnson began.

"Well, I'm a broad-minded man, I was in the army for twelve years, I'm not easily shocked..."

"Get on with it, Johnson," Simmons snapped, cutting him short.

"Well, I don't think it's right. All these half-naked men and women cavorting about in the middle of the store. I mean, Christmas is supposed to be a time of worship isn't it? I mean to say, it's celebrating the birth of Jesus isn't it? As far as I know there isn't anything in the Bible about the angel saying to some half-naked tart go forth and have a look at the baby Jesus and flash your tits at him while your at it."

"Am I to gather you find the idea of an adult Christmas grotto blasphemous?" asked Simmons. "Surely it's no more blasphemous than turning a so-called religious holiday into an excuse for making millions of pounds. What are your objections exactly?"

"Like I said, I don't think it's right. Christmas is for kids. I've been working here for more than twenty years now. I've seen staff come and go. I've seen managers come and go but, well, since this Mr. Oldman bought the place things haven't been the same."

"Are you, in your clumsy way, attempting to hand in your notice?" Simmons asked, flatly.

"Like I said, I've worked here for more than twenty years but this grotto thing is the last straw. It'll attract all the wrong type of people, this store used to be respectable but this..."

"So you wish to go?" Simmons asked.

"I'm sorry to go but I don't feel I've got any choice..."

"Very well."

Johnson was shocked. He expected some opposition to his decision. Some attempt to persuade him to stay. Instead Simmons accepted his announcement as if it had been inevitable. The Manager returned to his stock sheets.

"You can drop your uniform off tomorrow," he said. "Close the door behind you."

Johnson opened his mouth to speak but found that no words would come. He gaped at Simmons for a moment longer then turned and walked out, slamming the door behind him. Jumped up little bastard thought Johnson as he stalked from the office.

Behind him Simmons sat back in his seat once more, his finger tips pressed together, his eyes narrowed, as if he were looking through the door at the disappearing form of the security man.

Johnson decided to walk the four floors down to ground level. He strode through the bridal section of the store, on through ceramics until he came to the stairs which he scuttled down, glancing around him s he did. His footsteps echoed loudly in the silent stairwell. Outside, the cold wind was getting stronger, throwing snow against the windows as if it were handfuls of sand.

Johnson reached the third floor, pausing to look at the grotto. Bloody thing, he thought.

It was as he turned his back on the huge igloo that he heard the sound of movement.

He spun round, expecting to see someone there.

There was nothing in sight. Just the leering face of a reindeer, its expression painted on to suggest that it was licking its lips.

Johnson glared at the model for a moment then turned and began walking again. Out of the toy department, through into the men's department. He strode purposefully along the central aisle, the wind outside growing in intensity.

Rattling to his left.

As if coat hangers were being jangled on a rail.

He kept walking.

To his right a suit which had been hanging from a display board suddenly fell.

Johnson paused momentarily then walked on. He felt icy fingers plucking at the hair on the back of his neck, as if each strand were being teased from the base of his scalp. He gritted his teeth, angry with himself for feeling this way but unable to force from his mind the feeling that he was being watched.

More hangers rattled and a pair of trousers fell to the ground close by.

He heard a low muttering, like some kind of conspiratorial whispering.

Johnson paused, straining his ears to pick out the source of the sound.

Silence.

Only the howl of the wind greeted his auditory enquiries.

He walked on, turning a corner.

The figure loomed before him and he almost shouted in surprise.

The dummy was wearing a track-suit, its faceless expression not enhanced by the over-sized baseball cap it wore.

Johnson felt his heart pounding harder and he felt like knocking the dummy over, angry too for over-reacting to it. His mind was starting to play tricks on him. He walked past the mannequin, heading for the second floor, emerging in the lingerie department. He passed through unhurriedly, glancing at the models dressed in basques, suspender belts and stockings. He smiled to himself approvingly.

Then one of the models moved.

The dummy lurched forward and toppled to the ground before him, landing with such impact that one of its arms broke off. Johnson stepped over it, looking round, hearing that low muttering once more.

He swallowed hard, tempted to call out, to challenge anyone who might be there but, instead, he kept on walking, through the sports department.

As he descended it seemed to grow more silent in every department. The solitude was almost unbearable, the hush deafening. He was grateful he only had one more floor before he reached the ground.

A basketball came bouncing towards him, thudding slowly down the aisle, missing him by inches.

Before he'd been suspicious, now he was convinced.

Someone was following him.

He heard a scraping to his left, saw a rail of sports-shirts move as if disturbed from beneath.

Johnson was about to move towards the small disturbance when there was more movement, this time to his right.

A bag of gold clubs fell to the ground with a loud crash and he spun round, his breath coming in gasps now. If there was someone in there with him then they were moving swiftly.

Circling him.

Either that, or there was more than one of them.

The thought caused him to break into a run, scurrying towards the last flight of steps, taking them two at a time, almost stumbling as he reached the bottom.

He turned and looked towards the head of the staircase, trying to catch sight of his pursuer.

He saw nothing but, nevertheless, he quickened his pace as he passed through the computer department, into the hardware area.

The counters were full of tools, displayed for discerning buyers. On the walls there were dozens of power implements. Saws, drills, nail-guns, chainsaws.

He heard the footsteps behind him, closer now.

Soft, skittering, almost child-like.

He turned to face his pursuer and, as he did he heard the unmistakable roar of an incredibly powerful motor. As he spun round he saw the chainsaw blade descending towards him in an unerring arc.

Johnson opened his mouth to scream but the sound was eclipsed by the lethal machine.

The barbed chain, turning at a speed in excess of 2,500 r.p.m. bit into his skull easily, driven down with effortless force. His cranium was torn open, the blade cutting through bone with a high pitched whine before ploughing into his brain, pulverizing the sticky grey-red matter, transforming it into a purulent, liquescent soup which spilled from the wound. Blood spurted madly into the air as the chainsaw powered through Johnson's head, slicing it in two. One eye was torn from its socket, falling to the floor like a rotting grape, the optic nerve twisting and curling like a living thing, like some bloated worm.

Johnson remained upright for precious seconds then pitched forward into a pool of blood, the remains of his head splitting open as he hit the ground, what was left of his liquidised brain bursting from the rent.

The chainsaw was turned off.

Silence returned.

Except for the soft whispering which now sounded like muted giggling.

Outside the wind howled as if in sorrow.

* * *

They came in their hundreds to the opening of the grotto. Queuing for hours to be allowed into the giant igloo which was being treated with a reverence normally reserved for places of Holy Worship.

Harris watched them standing there, laughing, talking excitedly to one another. All adults but, it seemed, momentarily returned to their youth and beyond. The grotto gave them the excuse to become children again.

The helpers moved up and down the line with drinks chatting and laughing with the prospective customers, the women in the crowd eyeing the muscular men with ill-disguised lust, the men in the line harbouring similar feelings towards the female counterparts. Even the odd groping hand wasn't discouraged.

Fiona took photos discreetly, both she and Harris anxious not to be spotted by Simmons who was wandering around the toy department like a duke surveying his estate. As the hands of the clock drew closer to noon the excitement reached fever pitch and, as the video screens treated those waiting to a visual feast, the music thundered even louder.

The time was at hand.

The first customer was a girl in her late teens. A little plump but pretty.

Fiona snapped her as she was ushered through the velvet curtains bang on noon.

"It's like a bloody Madhouse," said Harris, regarding the long line of people, each awaiting their turn to see Santa.

"You've got no festive spirit, Harris," Fiona told him.

"Hell's Bells," he snapped. "If this is festive spirit, thank God Mary didn't have quads." He lit up another Dunhill and glanced at the igloo.

The girl inside found that the darkness within the narrow corridor was almost impenetrable. So dark in fact that she had to put out her hands to feel her way along the pitted walls.

She giggled to herself and moved slowly along the tunnel towards the heart of the grotto. However, as she made her faltering way along she was truck by the strange smell which filled her nostrils. It reminded her of bad eggs. She coughed and put a hand to her nose. Maybe it was part of the joke she thought and pressed on, turning a corner.

It was still unyieldingly black in there and she stopped for a moment, screwing her eyes up tightly until white stars danced behind her closed lids.

Something soft touched her hand and she screamed.

However, the noise was swallowed up by the sound of rock music roaring from speakers inside the tunnel as well as out.

She withdrew her hand rapidly, her lightness of mood fading slightly. This was more like a ghost-train than a Christmas grotto she thought as she walked on, reluctant now to touch the walls for fear of what her hand might come into contact with. The tunnel had seemed relatively short from the outside. No more than fifteen feet from the entrance to the main bulk of the igloo but now, in his Stygian gloom it seemed to stretch for miles. The darkness was playing tricks on her she told herself. She couldn't be far now.

There was another turn coming up but, beyond it, she could see a dull green light.

She hurried her pace and emerged into the belly of the grotto.

Kim Turner froze, her eyes riveted to the sight before her.

The centre of the igloo was bathed in a hellish green light which came from no discernible source overhead but, this green spotlight was trained on a massive dais which rose up as if from the very floor itself. Dry ice wafted around the base to further disguise what it was mounted on. Through this man-made fog she saw figures moving. Small, stunted forms which scuttled to and fro frenziedly, moving around the dais, occasionally looking up at the occupant. Seated in a pure white throne he sat.

Santa Claus looked like a bloated leech stuffed into his red suit. As he tried to move the sheer bulk of his body prevented that act and Kim shuddered as she heard a loud liquid sound, as if his body were comprised not of flesh and blood but of a putrescent liquid held in place only by his puffy flesh and uniform.

Two of the small forms, no more than two feet in height, scrabbled up onto the dais and helped the swollen form to shift position. Then he turned to look at her, a grin spreading beneath a beard that was stained and matted. With what she could only guess.

"Yo ho ho and all that crap," he chuckled, his voice deep and rasping. As if his throat were full of phlegm. A loud laugh reverberated around the inside of the grotto and he raised one swollen hand to beckon her forward.

Kim moved towards him in spite of herself, in spite of the rank odour which was now almost unbearable and which grew more nauseating the closer she came to the seething parody of her childhood vision. Yet she moved with measured steps, coming closer to the dais, climbing up to look into the face of Santa Claus.

And she smiled at him.

Smiled despite the fact that one of the huge throbbing sores on his cheek had burst and was weeping this pus onto his jacket.

Smiled despite the almost palpable stench.

She was still smiling when he took her face between his bloated hands and kissed her.

* * *

As Kim Turner left the grotto Fiona snapped her once more, frowning as she saw the look of bewilderment on the girls face. Was what she'd seen in there so truly magical? Harris also saw the girl emerge but, before he could approach her, he saw Simmons stride towards her and shake her hand, congratulating her on being the first visitor. She was given a five pound record token and went happily on her way.

Harris nodded to Fiona and they left, glancing behind them to see the next lucky customers entering the grotto. The reporter and photographer rode the lift to the ground floor then hurried out of the store, searching for the nearest pub.

Once seated inside they sat down with some bar food and began eating.

They'd only been there five minutes when Harris looked up and saw a familiar face approaching.

Angus Dickinson had joined the paper only weeks before Harris. It was he and his companion, Bruce Young, who were covering the present spate of murders for 'The Mirror'. Both men seated themselves at the same table, watching Harris and Fiona eating.

"Did you hear there'd been another one?" Dickinson said.

Harris looked puzzled.

"Another murder," Dickinson expanded. "The police are treating it as the fourth victim of the same killer."

"How was it done?" Harris asked, a forkful of food delayed on its way to his mouth.

"Same as the others, the poor sod was mutilated. Very badly. They found him this morning, well, most of him anyway. His name was Johnson, used to work as a doorman at that big store, Revelations. In fact, the weird thing is, all three previous victims also worked there during the last three weeks. Strange eh?" He sipped his drink.

Harris didn't answer.

"How's your little adventure going?" Young asked. "Get plenty of pictures of Santa did you?" he chuckled.

Fiona raised her middle finger.

"Sit on that and spin," she said, smiling.

Young laughed.

"We're going back there this afternoon," Harris said to Fiona.

Despite her protests he would not be dissuaded and, as soon as they'd finished eating he rose and headed for the door. Fiona dutifully followed.

"What exactly are you hoping to find in there?" she asked, pulling up her collar as they reached the street. The wind came hurtling at them like a bat out of hell, flinging fine snow into their faces as they walked.

"Let's just say I'm going to pay Santa a visit," Harris told her.

By the time they reached the store's third floor for the second time that day they saw that the queue had not diminished but, if anything had grown. The helpers still wandered up and down the line, chatting, handing out drinks and collecting the two pound admission price.

Harris joined the line and instructed Fiona to take pictures of some more of those so eager to enter the grotto, both before and after they entered. She disappeared amongst the toys, glancing around for any sign of Simmons.

As Harris stood impatiently in the queue he peered ahead and saw that the next entrants to the grotto were going in together. Two men in their early twenties who bundled their way through the velvet curtains and disappeared out of sight. Steve Murray and Chris Vincent stumbled into the gloom laughing, pushing each other against the walls of the tunnel. "Where are the lights?" shouted Vincent and both of them laughed.

They made their way slowly along the corridor, using their hands to guide themselves through the gloom just like the dozens who had gone before them, turning each corner until, finally, they too came to the centre of the grotto and its hideous occupant.

"I reckon you could do with going on a diet, Santa," Murray chuckled, eyeing the bloated shape distastefully. He was still laughing when he felt a hand on his leg.

He looked down and saw one of the stunted figures looking up at him. It was slightly larger than the others, its face covered by a plastic mask. Murray noted with revulsion that there was a thick yellowish fluid dripping from beneath the mask, some of it spilling through the eye-holes but, despite this abomination he seemed quite happy to be guided towards the dais, towards Santa who was sitting smiling, spittle dripping from one corner of his open mouth. Vincent stumbled along behind, urged forward by more of the midget forms until he too was on the platform before the white chair.

"Welcome," said Santa, laughing throatily. "And what would you like for Christmas?" The laugh became almost deafening. "I mean really like. Let me see into your mind. Into your soul."

Murray moved forward, his eyes bulging wide, fixed in an unbroken stare by the tumescent form in red. It was like looking into two bottomless pits and, as he moved forward he felt as if he were falling. But Santa's hands fastened around his face, drawing him nearer to that patchwork of sores and pustules which wept their reeking fluid with rhythmic pulses. Then Murray felt lips against his only they felt like two sodden, crusted handkerchiefs being forced against his mouth, felt something probing against his teeth and realized that it was Santa's tongue. Almost without realizing what he was doing Murray opened his mouth and the bloated tongue slipped inside his mouth, writhing towards the back of this throat like a thick worm, diving deeper into his throat and then even deeper until he felt as if that monstrous appendage were filling him, inflating him. Despite the pressure inside his throat and the incredible stench in his nostrils he did not gag but merely allowed Santa to probe inside him with that massive tongue, allowed him to press his purulent face closer so that the dripping pus joined them for precious seconds, like vile spider-webbing.

Then the tongue began to retract, up from his stomach, back up his throat and finally out of his mouth.

Santa smiled and touched his cheek with one swollen hand then Murray stepped down off the dais and watched as Vincent took his place.

The whole procedure was repeated. Over in less than a minute and the two lads were lead away by the smaller creatures.

As they emerged from the grotto, Fiona snapped them then crossed to Vincent.

"Worth two pounds," she asked, conversationally.

Vincent could only nod distractedly. He and his companion pushed past her and wandered off into the crowd.

Harris also saw them go.

He was next but one in line.

Another few minutes and he himself would see the inside of the grotto.

"I thought I told you to keep away."

The voice startled him and he turned to see Paul Simmons standing there. The manager didn't look very happy.

"I paid my money," Harris said, holding up his ticket. "I've got a right to go in."

"I told you, no press on the opening day."

"Of course, you wouldn't want the whole country reading about your 'secret weapon' would you? That was how you referred to him wasn't it?"

"Leave please, Mr. Harris," Simmons said, flatly. "And take your friend with you." He turned and looked at Fiona who made no attempt to hide the camera.

"I told you I've paid," the journalist insisted, aware of the curious glances they were attracting from others waiting in the queue.

Simmons snatched the ticket from him and shoved two pound coins into his jacket pocket.

"consider yourself reimbursed," the manager said, irritably. "Now get out, before I have you thrown out."

"While I'm here perhaps you'd like to answer a question for me. How well did you know Tommy Johnson?"

"Get out," hissed Simmons.

"Or the other three people that have been murdered? The people that worked for you." Harris was backing off now.

"And who doesn't want me inside that thing?" he snapped pointing at the grotto. "You or the mysterious Mr. Oldman?" "Get out now," roared the manager, advancing menacingly.

"Come on, Harris," said Fiona, pulling him away.

"What's inside there, Simmons? What's so damned special about your Santa Claus?"

"You'll see, Mr. Harris," the manager whispered and, once more the smile returned to his face. "Very soon you'll see."

* * *

The video screens were blank and the music had ceased hours ago. Revelations was empty of people. It stood like some massive, over-decorated shrine, waiting for its commercial worshippers to return the following day. Paul Simmons walked slowly through the empty store towards the grotto, his face set in deep lines.

He pushed his way through the velvet curtains and walked down the dark corridor towards the centre of the construction, his pace never faltering, even in the cloying blackness. He finally reached the dais and stood for long seconds gazing at Santa.

The figure in the red suit looked even more bloated and swollen than before, a vast stomach distended to the point of bursting. Fingers twitched on the arms of the chair, drumming like inflated cord as the massive individual tried to move. Four or five of the small occupants clambered up onto the dais to help, swarming around the purulent form like workers around a Queen ant. A prisoner of his own obscene obesity, Santa was subservient to them, able to move arms or legs only with aid. Finally, he turned to look at Simmons, lips sliding back to reveal a row of rotting teeth. Streamers of reeking sputum hung from his mouth as he spoke, coagulating in the matted strands of his beard.

"Christmas comes but once a year," chucked the obscene form. "There were many eager souls today." Again that mucoid cackling.

"And now we need some of them," Simmons said. "The reporter, Harris and that photographer who was with him. They're getting too close, asking too many questions. I want them stopped."

The massive figure on the white chair nodded slowly, as if even that simply gesture were a monumental effort then, as Simmons watched, Santa opened his mouth wide, his lips threatening to tear at the edges. Yet still that yawning now grew larger until his entire face seemed to become one vast hole. There was a low gurgling sound and, seconds later, a vile liquid churning.

A stream of vomit, thick and noxious, hurtled from the gaping mouth of the figures and splattered to the floor of the grotto. A collage of red and yellow fluid, flecked with solid lumps spilled across the ground, moving like ink on blotting paper, tentacles of the nauseating liquid spreading in all directions, some even reaching Simmons shoes but he did not move. He merely stood and watched as Santa contracted his vast stomach once more and propelled another putrid river of intestinal waste through the air.

From the first puddle there was already movement.

Simmons looked on impassively as the vomit seemed to run together, forming itself into shapes, changing from a pus-like liquid into something more tangible, something with form. But it was a form unlike anything he'd ever seen before. And, as he watched, from this twisted, stinking expulsion of bodily pollution, he saw a head forming. Then a stunned torso. Arms. Legs.

In a matter of moments, rising like some kind of perverted phoenix, a figure rose from the regurgitated mess.

A figure very like those that now surrounded Santa.

It was followed by another. And another. Each one still dripping with the egested matter from which they had been formed. Three. Four. Five of them.

Simmons glanced at the figure on the dais and saw that Santa had visibly diminished in size. The belly was still heaving, the body was still obscenely large but there was a discernible change. Santa licked some yellow matter from his bottom lip and smiled at Simmons. The Manager nodded.

* * *

Fiona Ford took another drag on the Marlboro and peered at the photos lying in the tray of developer, stirring them back and forth with a pair of plastic tongs. The image gradually formed on the acetate and she took the first print from the tray, dipped it in fixer then pegged it up to try. Above her the single red light in the darkroom sent deep shadows spilling out into every corner of the small enclosure. It was like standing in a sea of blood.

She stopped close to the tray once more, picking out a photo of the first girl to enter the grotto. Smiling in anticipation.

And leaving it?

Fiona checked the next print. It showed the exit from the grotto but nothing else.

There was no sign of the girl. No image on the picture.

Fiona frowned and looked at the other photo she'd taken.

The girl didn't show on that one either.

Neither did the two youths she'd snapped leaving. Sure enough she had photos of them as they entered but, on all prints of the exit there was no sign of them. Of them or the half a dozen other people she'd snapped as they'd left the huge igloo.

Fiona stood in the darkroom gazing at the prints for what seemed like an eternity then she crossed to the door and flicked on the light, clutching two of the prints in one hand.

It was as she prepared to open the darkroom door that she heard movement beyond it.

Movement but something more.

A soft, conspiratorial whispering.

Fiona froze, her hand still resting on the door handle. She strained her ears in an attempt to pick out more clearly the sounds which were coming from the other side of the thin partition. They seemed to fade rapidly, as if aware of her interest. She waited for them to begin again but only silence greeted her. She opened the door slowly and pushed it open an inch or two, peering into the hall. Nothing. No sign of disturbance. Fiona told herself it had been the wind whistling around the house which had startled her but, as she ventured further into the hall she heard a loud crash from the kitchen.

She muttered something under her breath, one part of her wanting to discover the source of the disturbance, the other telling her to stay where she was. She glanced down at the phone on the nearby table and hesitated a moment. No more sounds came from the kitchen or anywhere else. She picked up the receiver and dialled Harris's number.

No answer.

She tried again.

Creaking, above her this time. As if someone were walking across the landing.

She gripped the receiver more tightly and spun round, peering to the top of the stairs, her heart beginning to pound that little bit faster now.

The phone continued to ring.

Another crash from the kitchen, louder this time.

The landing creaked once again.

"Hello."

The voice on the other end of the phone startled her to such an extent that she almost screamed. But, momentarily pushing the thought of the other disturbances to the back of her mind she recognised the voice as that of Harris.

"Dave, it's Fiona. Listen to me. Get over here now, I've got something important you should see."

"It's nearly half-past eleven," Harris protested.

"It's about the grotto..."

The line went dead.

Fiona flicked the cradle but the phone resolutely refused to show any signs of life. She slammed the receiver down, aware now of more noise coming from the kitchen. Her breath was coming in gasps but she strode through the sitting room, past the Christmas tree with its twinkling lights, through into the kitchen.

One of the cupboards had been all but emptied, its contents spread over a wide area. Jars had smashed and spilled their contents over the lino. Rice was strewn everywhere like the aftermath of a wedding.

She heard a slow rhythmic tapping and glanced down to see the cat-flap swinging back and forth. Oozing down from the entrance was a thick yellowish fluid which, even from several feet away, Fiona could smell. She coughed in disgust as she looked at the noxious excretion.

Above her she heard footsteps.

It was as she turned that she saw the first of the figures.

The scream locked in her throat as she regarded the creature with a combination of fear and loathing.

It was less than two feet tall, naked but for a think cloak of cotton wrapped around its crusted shoulders. Yet between its legs there was no semblance of genitalia, just a gaping hole which seemed to open and close like the gills of a fish. There was another of these holes in its chest, just below its third breast.

Fiona moaned low in her throat, both from the creatures vile appearance but even more so from the suffocating odour which it gave off. So rank and fetid that it almost caused her to vomit. The stench of decay.

As it raised one dripping arm she noticed it was holding a carving knife.

She took a step backwards, grabbing for a chair then, the monstrosity ran at her, knife upraised.

She brought the chair down with bone-crushing force onto the head of the creature, feeling pliant bone bend beneath the impact. It was as if a gigantic boil had been burst. Dark fluid fountained from the ruptured skull of the dwarf and it went down in a heap, the knife skittering from its grip.

Fiona dashed on into the sitting room.

There were two more of them in there.

The first had been lurking behind the sofa and now, as she came close, it flung itself at her, hands clawing at her face, digging deep furrows in her skin. She screamed and managed to throw it to one side where it slammed against the wall but, before she could enjoy this brief moment of triumph the second of them was after her, chasing her out into the hallway.

As she stumbled into the hall she heard footsteps descending the stairs as two more of the abominations came bounding down towards her.

She turned towards the front door, screaming for help, tugging at the bolts in an effort to escape this asylum, attempting to find sanctuary in the street, away from these spawn of a nightmare. But it was useless. She was trapped and, with a combined exhortation of demonic glee, they were upon her.

* * *

As Harris brought his car to a halt outside Fiona's house he wondered why all the lights were off.

In houses on either side he could see the myriad coloured glow of Christmas tree lights and the flecks of powdery snow that peppered his face served to remind him that it was the season of Goodwill. He stood gazing at Fiona's darkened house for a moment longer then strode up the short path towards the front door. As he gripped the brass knocker, the door swung open, aided by a gust of cold air.

Harris hesitated, peering into the gloom of the hallway. There was a light switch close to his left hand and he slapped at it but nothing happened. The place remained in darkness. As he stepped across the threshold he called her name and, as he did so he detected a strong coppery odour. A small he recognised but couldn't, as yet, place. The journalist pushed the door to behind him and moved deeper into the house aware now of another more pungent smell.

He slipped on something beneath his feet.

He looked down and saw that it was a photo. Harris stopped and retrieved it, glancing at the monochrome print which he recognised as a shot of the grotto at Revelations. He held the picture in his fist and called Fiona's name again but there was no answer.

Harris moved into the sitting room, more cautiously now. He tried the lights in there too but was unrewarded. Squinting in the gloom he passed slowly through the room towards the kitchen.

There was a dull thud from upstairs.

He spun round, his heart thudding hard. The journalist hesitated for a moment longer then turned and headed back towards the hall, towards the stairs.

As he placed his hand on the banister he felt something warm and wet on the wood. He withdrew his hand swiftly, cursing. The substance was sticky, like half-set glue. The smell told him instantly that it was blood and now he realized that was the source of the coppery smell. Blood. And it was growing stronger as he ascended the stairs. The top step creaked protestingly beneath his weight and he stood still, ears alert for any more sounds, eyes blind in the darkness. The door to the room opposite him was lightly ajar and, it was towards this one that he advanced, feeling strangely vulnerable without a weapon of some kind. Something told him there was danger in this house. Danger and perhaps something more.

He pushed open the door.

The room was empty.

He moved to the next.

Another bedroom, also empty.

And the next.

Perhaps the sound had come from higher than this first floor, perhaps...

He glanced up at the attic hatch as he opened the bathroom door.

She was lying in the bath.

At least what was left of her.

Fiona Ford's body had been subjected to the most horrific attentions from a selection of knives, most of which lay scattered around the small room. Her left arm lay beside the bath, clumsily hacked off just below the shoulder. Her left leg had been chopped and sliced as if by some incompetent butcher but the efforts to remove it had been unsuccessful.

Not so with her head.

It was propped up on the lavatory cistern, sightless eyes gazing ahead as if regarding the damage done to the rest of her corpse. Entrails had been ripped from her stomach and now festooned the walls of the bathroom like reeking streamers. As Harris felt the bile clawing its way up his throat he saw the final abomination.

Smeared above her on the spattered tiles, drawn in blood were two words;

SILENT NIGHT.

Harris staggered from the room, jaws clenched to prevent the outpouring of vomit but, as he reached the top of the stairs he lost his battle and retched until there was nothing left in his stomach. Bent double, his breath coming in gasps, he spat the last bitter dregs from his mouth then straightened up, his initial disgust now tempered by anger and also by the realization of what he must do. He scurried down the stairs, pausing by the phone long enough to realise that the line was dead. Besides, he reasoned, even if he did manage to call the police what the hell was he going to tell them? He knew that he must complete this particular task himself.

Harris ran from the house and slid behind the wheel of his car, jamming it into gear and driving off.

Being Christmas Eve there was little traffic on the roads leading into the centre of London. He glanced down at the dashboard clock.

11.32 p.m.

Another ten minutes and he had reached Revelations.

Harris parked his car on the pavement outside the building and scuttled towards the big doors which barred his way. He pulled off his jacket, ignoring the cold wind which swirled around him, wrapped the material round his fist and drove it forward into one of the large plate glass windows.

The window exploded inwards, huge lumps of glass crashing down, shattering into dozens more shards as they hit the floor.

The night was filled with the sound of alarms.

Harris knew he didn't have long.

He hauled himself through the shattered window, stumbling into the store itself, running along the deserted and dimly lit aisles towards the stairs.

He had to reach the third floor.

Had to reach the grotto.

As he leapt up the stairs towards the first floor he could barely hear the alarms for the sound of his own blood rushing in his ears. He dashed towards the stationary escalators, taking them two at a time, glancing up at one of the many wall clocks as he passed.

11.46 p.m.

He came to the Sports Department. Saw the racks of shotguns standing with military precision behind one counter.

Harris pulled one from its position on the wall, tore a drawer from a cabinet in search of shells. They spilled across the floor but he picked some up, thumbing them into the weapon, working the pump action to chamber a round.

Outside the sound of alarms was mingling now with the wail of police sirens, drawing closer.

Panting like a carthorse, Harris stumbled on, aware now of the chill which seemed to be enveloping him like some invisible blanket, slowing him down until it became difficult to force one foot in front of the other but he fought against this infernal pressure, staggering towards the steps which would take him to the third floor. To the grotto.

He was covered in a sheen of perspiration, despite the increasingly numbing cold and, as he reached the third floor he stumbled and fell, the shotgun falling from his grasp. Harris retrieved it and rose to his feet with difficulty. It felt as if a huge weight had been attached to his shoulders and it took every ounce of his strength to rise.

The grotto was directly ahead of him.

Standing outside, like some kind of bizarre welcoming committee were six figures.

Paul Simmons he recognised immediately.

Beside him was the massive, bloated form of Santa Claus, his mouth stretched into a vile rictus.

Three dwarves stood in front of them but it was the last figure which seemed to catch Harris' attention most readily. The main was in his forties, greying at the temples. Immaculately dressed in a light grey suit and carefully polished shoes. He too was smiling.

"Merry Christmas, Mr. Harris," said the man in the suit.

"Who the hell are you?" the journalist demanded.

"My name is Oldman. Nicholas Oldman. I own this store." Again that smile. "And everything in it." He glared at Harris so intensely that the journalist found his knees buckling. He tried to raise the shotgun, aware now that the police sirens were drawing closer.

One of the stunted creatures took a step forward but Oldman held out a hand and tapped its shoulder. It froze where it was.

"What are they?" Harris said, with disgust.

"Lost souls, Mr. Harris," Oldman chuckled. "Literally."

He shot the journalist another withering glance. "You never had the chance to see inside the grotto did you? Never met my Santa." He patted the heaving form in the red suit on the shoulder. "But many others did. He promised them something and they paid him in return. What did you ask Santa Claus for when you were a child, Mr. Harris? Things like a bike, a train set? Well my Santa grants much more potent wishes. The people who met him asked for things they might never have thought of before. One woman asked if she could kill her child. A man wanted to know what his wife would look like with her eyes torn out. Two girls wanted to find the man who had raped them. And they will. They will all find their wishes come true at midnight." He glanced at his watch.

"In four minutes to be precise."

"I don't understand," Harris said, quietly, his breath still rasping in this throat.

"They wanted their deepest, darkest wishes to come true and in return they paid. Paid with their souls," said Oldman. "And their souls became these creatures you see before you now." He touched the stunted abomination before him, rubbing its scabrous head with the same affect with which a father might ruffle his son's hair. "Their souls were ingested by Santa. Ingested, digested, stored then regurgitated."

As Harris watched, the figure in the red outfit opened its mouth and leant forward. A thick stream of vomit spewed forth, splattering loudly on the ground.

In seconds the reeking mass had formed itself into several small figures. They stood before Oldman who continued to smile.

Harris shook his head in horrified disbelief.

"Christmas is a time for magic, Mr. Harris," Oldman said. "What's the difference if that magic happens to be a little on the dark side?" He laughed and the sound seemed to reverberate around the entire store. "In just over a minute it will begin. The day designed as a celebration of Christ's birth will become a day of destruction. A celebration of my power. Not Christmas but a bloodbath. Ghoultide instead of Yuletide." He laughed, even more loudly. "But bless them, Mr. Harris, God Bless the children of the Beast. Strange don't you think, yet so obvious, that Santa is an anagram of Satan?"

Harris raised the shotgun, tears of rage and terror filling his eyes.

He fired once. The thunderous discharge slamming the stock back into his shoulder. But, when the smoke cleared Oldman was still standing there, still smiling.

The clock began to strike twelve.

Santa Claus advanced towards Harris, his long tongue lolling from one corner of his mouth, his arms outstretched to enfold the journalist.

"Merry Christmas," said Oldman, his laughter deafening as Harris was swept into the purulent arms of the figure in red.

The journalist began to scream.

"Make a wish," called Oldman.

The clock continued to chime.

© Shaun Hutson 1987