Dec 31, 2021
Ho Ho Ho and happy new year (almost)! I wrote a holiday story about one of my favorite pairings from my Marla Mason series, the amoral Crapsey and the cursed Squat, monsters who hunt other monsters. You don't need to know the Marla books to understand this story, though, because I am considerate like that.
How Crapsey Saved Christmas
Crapsey scowled at the town square, a snow-covered lawn that boasted a gazebo and an immense fir tree, both decorated with hundreds of dazzling twinkle-lights. The distant sound of carol singers drifted to his ears, and he smelled woods moke and nutmeg. “What is the point of all this?” He wound his black scarf around his neck another turn and hunched his shoulders against a fresh winter gust.
“It’s just Christmas,” Squat said. Crapsey’s companion, who was short but nearly as wide as he was tall, didn’t appear to notice the cold. He was wearing layers of coats and scarves, and had a knit cap squashed down on his head, but he pretty much always dressed liked that, even in Las Vegas at noon in the summer.
They were not in Las Vegas, and it was not noon in the summer. They were in an ostensibly charming little town called Werstadt, the kind of place that seemed to exist solely to provide antique shops and apple-picking opportunities for tourists, and it was the night of Christmas Eve. They were working.
Crapsey and Squat were in the problem-solving business, specifically supernatural problems, more specifically supernatural problems that could be solved with extreme violence. Their employer had sent them to this little town to hunt down a rogue sorcerer who was experimenting with portals to dimensions full of things that had more tentacles than eyes and more eyes than an old potato.
Said employer had no qualms about sending them to work on a holiday. It wasn’t like the two of them had other plans. Squat had been cursed—literally, by the legendary chaos magician Elsie Jarrow—to become unbearably loathsome to anyone who spent time with him, and as a result, he was a walking body horror with a terrible odor and a tendency to eat people (and other living things).
Crapsey was Squat’s best and only friend, because Crapsey had seen a lot worse than Squat, and things like unbearable loathsomeness simply didn’t faze him.
“I just don’t get this whole holiday merrymaking thing.” Crapsey leaned against a lamppost that was supposed to look like a Victorian gaslamp. “You know how I used to live in a horrible parallel universe, ruled by malevolent entities who feasted on human misery and suffering?”
“You never mention it,” Squat said.
“Yeah, well, back home, it was always Fimbulwinter, and never Christmas.”
“I thought the horrible monsters took over your world when you were a child, though, and before that, your world was pretty much like this one. You must have had some holidays before things got weird.”
Crapsey shrugged. “I was a homeless kid. If I ever had that kind of hot cocoa, stockings by the fire, tree with ornaments, getting gifts thing, I can’t remember it.”
“You never got a gift?” Squat asked.
Crapsey gazed at the lit-up tree, and his eyes took on a faraway cast. “There was this one winter. I was in a shelter—they stuck me there after my foster family kicked me out for stealing, because it was the holidays and the rest of the system was all clogged up. The shelter had a tree, and there were presents underneath it, stuff people had donated, and they handed the gifts out to the kids on Christmas morning. I stared at those boxes all covered in wrapping paper and I was willing to give believing in Santa a try. I had my heart set on this one particular thing, and I thought, ‘If I get it, I’m gonna be good for the whole next year.’”
“I think you’ve got your Claus and effect backward there,” Squat said.
Crapsey ignored him. “And then the morning came, and one of the shelter ladies handed me a package, I remember it was red paper with candy canes on it, and I ripped the paper off, and you know what was inside? A baseball. They just wrapped up whatever got donated and handed it out at random, and that’s what I got. What was I gonna do with a baseball? So I chucked it at the shelter lady’s head and ran off.” He shook his head. “Christmas was dead to me after that. Of course, soon it was dead to everybody. By the next winter, the only things hanging from tree branches were severed heads.”
“What were you hoping to get as a gift?”
Crapsey said, “A genuine Boker Kalashnikov switchblade with a black hardcoat anodized 6061-aluminum handle with inlays of certified imported cocobolo wood and a PVD-coated 440C blade.” He sighed. “I saw one in a pawn shop window. I used to go and look at it every day.”
“A little kid shouldn’t have something like that, Crapsey. You would’ve stabbed your eye out.”
“Somebody’s eye, anyway.” Crapsey stomped snow off his boots and said, “Where is this guy?” They didn’t have a location for the rogue sorcerer’s lair, since he’d masked that magically, but the boss’s clairvoyants said their target walked through the square every day just after nightfall, going from a diner to, presumably, wherever he called home.
“Oh, he’s over there.” Squat gestured across the square. “I caught his scent a minute ago. He’s looking at the big tree and giggling.” Squat was invulnerable and immortal (part of the curse, so his suffering would never end) and had extremely acute senses, which was why he tended to wear earmuffs and kept a scarf over his nose all the time. He kept a scarf over his mouth for a different reason. It tended to unsettle people.
Crapsey caught sight of the guy—he was a slight man wearing a giant barn coat and an old-timey nightcap—just as he began tromping away, muttering to himself as he went. He was carrying something in his right hand, and after a moment Crapsey decided it was an empty wadded-up black plastic garbage bag.
“Should I go eat him?” Squat asked.
“The boss wants us to check out his wizard pit or whatever and destroy any extradimensional crawlies or gaping portals hanging around. So let’s follow him, and then you can eat him.”
Crapsey and Squat were fairly noticeable people, but they were draped in some borrowed magics to muffle their footsteps and thicken the shadows around them, and the old guy wasn’t looking back much anyway. They trailed him for a couple of miles through a series of residential neighborhoods and into a small wood, the remnant of whatever old forest had been cut down to make room for the town.
Crapsey and Squat were both creatures of cities, so they stumbled over roots and tried to curse quietly when jostled branches dumped snow on them. Fortunately, the trail was well traveled and clear, and after about fifteen minutes among the trees, they reached a shambles of a cabin that appeared to be held together by moss and owl shit.
Squat sniffed. “He’s in there. His chemical makeup has changed, though. He’s either scared or excited now.”
“You think he heard us coming?” Crapsey said.
Squat shrugged. “Does it matter? It’s not like we do a lot of sneak attacks.” He strode forward and kicked the front door off its hinges. Squat could kick through a brick wall, so the door wasn’t much of a challenge. Squat stomped inside, and the old guy yelled something defiant, and Crapsey watched the space beyond the doorway from a safe distance outside. Electricity crackled in a cascade of bolts, and green light flashed, and the old man cackled, and then stopped cackling, and then said, “Oh, shi—”
Crapsey smoked a cigarette to give Squat time to finish up, then ground the butt under his heel and sauntered into the cabin. The place wasn’t too devastated, really—a table was knocked on its side and a bookshelf on its face, and there were a few scorch marks on the walls and some disgusting puddles on the floor.
Squat was sitting on the couch, his horrible mouth safely hidden behind a slightly singed scarf. He held up the old man’s wadded black garbage bag and turned it around and around in his hands like it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
“Did you get any good powers when you ate the old guy?” Crapsey asked.
“I can see extradimensional shit,” Squat said. “Like, this bag—it’s a portal to a pocket universe. Not very big, I don’t think, maybe the size of this room, but still. It sparkles. The old guy tried to climb inside the bag before I got hold of him.” He looked around. “There’s, like... sparkly glowing smears, too, here and there. Residue of stuff from other realities.”
“That should help us find any of his leftovers. We’d better hurry before you finish digesting the guy and lose your sparkle-vision.”
They tore the cabin apart, and didn’t find anything of substance, until Squat noticed an unusually straight line of residue on the floor under a rug. They tore up the floorboards and discovered a ladder that led to a basic subterranean lair.
Crapsey got the lights on, and they surveyed the space: a finished basement with an L-shaped work bench that covered two walls, tools hanging on a pegboard, a map with stuff drawn all over it, and... a gift-wrapping station, complete with several wrapped boxes. Crapsey walked over, drawn by the shiny ribbons and bright paper, but when he picked up a box, it was light, and when he tore it open, it was empty. “What is this, some kind of Christmas prank?”
“Dunno,” Squat said. “But there’s extradimensional goo all over the paper and stuff.” He went to the map and cocked his head. “This is a printout of part of the town. He marked a bunch of houses in one of the neighborhoods... yeah, we walked through there. It’s the one with houses arranged around a rectangular park, some kids built snowmen in there, remember? Weird.”
Crapsey grunted and sorted through some documents on the bench. This sorcerer wasn’t just old, but old school, so he’d made his notes in actual writing on actual paper. After scanning through a bunch of pages with way too many exclamation points and underlined words and eldritch sigils, Crapsey groaned. “Here’s the deal. Our target accessed an alternate dimension and removed several... he calls them ‘larvamorphs.’ Basically, they’re parasitic monsters, ranging in size from like cantaloupe to watermelon. They either shapeshift or have a psychic field that enables them to blend in with their surroundings, to take on the shapes of nearby objects.” Crapsey cleared his throat and read. “’Place one in a cupboard full of canned goods, and it will transform itself into a container of soup. Place one in a garden, and it will transform itself into a flower. If you subsequently move them, they retain their borrowed shape, presumably to avoid alarming their prey.’” Crapsey looked up. “You gotta move them with gloves, though, or tongs or something. As soon as the parasite touches bare flesh, it grabs onto you and climbs up and oozes into your faceholes. After that... well, it looks like, the host dies and the parasite does, too. The old guy experimented on a few people. They’re buried out back. But he had this theory that the parasites were trying to integrate with human brains, and that adult brains ‘lacked the necessary neural flexibility.’ Whereas children, whose brains aren’t fully developed yet, would be more welcome hosts, and allow the parasites to ‘complete their life cycle and reproduce.’”
Squat looked at the gift wrapping station. Then he looked at the map. “You’re telling me this guy wrapped interdimensional parasites in bows and put them under the Christmas trees of families with kids?”
“He didn’t have to box them up. He wrapped a bunch of presents, put ten parasites among them, and the parasites turned into wrapped presents. Then he stuck labels on the parasites with the names of the children in those houses. The tags all say ‘From Santa.’”
“We gotta get those gifts.” Squat tore the map off the wall.
“Look, fire is simplest,” Crapsey said. “All the houses he targeted are on the same block. A few gallons of gasoline, that propane torch in the back, boom, done.”
“We’re not gonna burn a bunch of houses down on Christmas Eve, Crapsey.” Squat was driving their moving truck, the only vehicle they’d been able to rent in this town so close to the holidays.
“If even one parasite gets out, they’ll breed and take over the world. You know how these things are.”
Squat was unmoved. “We’ll find another way.”
Crapsey sighed. “We can, I dunno, get the people out before we set the fires, since you’re feeling so festive.”
“It’s ten houses. Families with between three and six people in them, based on the sorcerer’s notes. Getting the presents out would be easier than getting the people out. Besides, we don’t even know if fire kills these things. I gotta eat them to be sure.” Nothing could survive Squat’s digestive system, as some supposedly immortal beings had been briefly alarmed to discover.
“Okay, fine. We’ve still got one of those area-of-effect sleep spells the boss gave us for the Oslo job. It should cover the block easily enough.” The device looked a lot like a bug bomb, and released magical soporific mist. “We knock everybody out, and then we can just break into the houses. You can use your goo-vision to find the parasites, gobble them up, we leave—why are you stopping here?”
Squat parked the truck around the corner from a dark secondhand goods store. It was nearly midnight, and this was the kind of town where businesses closed early on Christmas Eve anyway. “I was in this place earlier today, looking for scarves. I saw something we can use.” He climbed out of the truck and disappeared around back. Crapsey kept watch for cops or passers-by, but everyone was nestled all snug in their beds. After a few minutes, Squat returned. He was wearing a pair of glittery red antlers on his head, and he was holding....
“What the hell is that?”
“A Santa Claus outfit. Should fit you.” Squat shoved the bundle of red cloth and white fur at him.
“Why would I dress up like Santa Claus?”
Squat started the truck and drove toward the infested neighborhood. “We can’t just kick doors down, Crapsey. These are nice houses. Even if everybody inside is asleep, there are gonna be alarms, the cops will come, we’ll have to take off, and we might not get all the parasites first. So we have to go in sneaky, and being sneaky is your department. I’m a regular murderer—this calls for an assassin. Also, the sleep-bomb is designed to work on adult brains. It has a lesser effect on adolescents, and is totally useless for people under eleven or twelve. You gotta read the documentation. Our don’t-look-at-me spells don’t work as well on kids either—children see more clearly and believe their eyes. The issue doesn’t come up, usually, since we don’t do a lot of child-adjacent work. But this time... we need a different plan.”
Crapsey groaned. “You want me to put on this stupid red costume and sneak into these houses, and if a little kid happens to wake up, they’ll see me in the suit and think I’m Santa Claus, instead of screaming for mom and dad?”
“The older and more cynical ones might think you’re mom and dad in a Santa suit, but yeah, basically.”
“How am I supposed to sneak in?”
“Chimneys are the traditional method. All these houses have them. I noticed when we walked by.”
“This is stupid. You just want me to look like an idiot.”
“Can you think of a better way? You’ve got those... augmentations... and one of them lets you go all boneless and weird. You used it to crawl into a fortress through a four-inch sewer pipe once. You can handle a chimney.”
“Fine. I go in, I get the parasite—” Crapsey brightened. “Ha, your plan doesn’t work, because I can’t recognize the parasites. I didn’t eat a dimensional wizard, and even if I had, it would have given me indigestion, not temporary super powers.”
“True. You have to steal all the presents, and bring them to the truck, and I’ll sort through them and find the parasites and eat them. Be sure to leave your gloves on, though. You don’t want these things shoggothing through your sinuses.”
“Still no good.” Crapsey grinned, triumphant, even though he knew that being triumphant now meant they’d have to come up with some other plan. “I can get myself back up the chimney and out, sure. But how am I supposed to get myself and an entire upper-middle-class family’s load of Christmas presents up a chimney? I don’t have a shrink ray.”
“No, but you have this.” Squat tossed the black garbage bag that contained a pocket universe at him. “No matter how full that gets, you can still wad it up and stick it in your pocket.”
With that, Crapsey was defeated.
They parked the truck halfway down the infested block, next to the park. The houses here were handsome, brick, with slanted roofs and two-car garages. They all twinkled with lights that reflected on the snow. The park was nice, too, with a kiddie playground at one end and a lot of trees, including a big fir that was decorated with oversized silver and gold baubles, though it wasn’t lit up like the one in the Werstadt town square. They got out of the truck, and Crapsey reluctantly put on the Santa suit over his clothes. The outfit was baggy, but it fit, more or less. The hat kept his head warmer, at least, so that was something, but the fake beard was scratchy.
Squat walked around him, taking it in. “You look like if Santa got seriously into meth, but in a dark room, through a kid’s eyes, close enough.” He sat down on the edge of the truck’s open cargo compartment and waved a hand. “Up on the rooftop, quick quick quick. It’s already well after midnight, and kids get up early on Christmas, so we’ve only got a few hours.”
“I will get you for this.” Crapsey trudged toward the first house. It was two stories, and all the windows were dark, except the one holding the illuminated tree. Crapsey’s old... Mentor? Boss? Tormentor? His employer in the horrible alternate dimension he’d once called home had torn off his jaw and replaced it with a magical prosthesis, etched with magical script. (It was magically disguised to look like a regular jaw, at least.) Those enchantments endowed him with various abilities his late boss had found useful, each activated by a different obscure code word. He muttered, “Festinate,” and tingled all over as the density of his body shifted. He wasn’t light enough to fly, but he easily scrambled up the brick side of the house, finding finger and toe-holds among the bricks, until he reached the roof.
There was no smoke from this chimney. These fancy houses all had central heat and air, probably, and none of them seemed to be burning Yule loges. He said, “Snollygoster,” and winced as his muscles shifted, his bones jellied, and his skin hardened. He slithered headfirst down the chimney, getting soot all over his red suit, and oozed out onto the hearth. Then Crapsey reconstituted himself and pulled on his gloves.
The room was all twinkles, most coming from a fir tree ten feet high in front of a big window, hung with glass ornaments and white lights. There were four oversized stockings hung over the hearth. There were a dishearteningly large number of wrapped boxes in various sizes under the tree.
Crapsey sighed, opened his magic bag, and began stuffing the presents into its endless maw. He made short work of the gifts, muttering to himself, and nobody woke up or noticed him at all. He wadded up the sack, shoved it into a deep pocket, and then sighed. He opened up the bag again, and dumped the contents of the stockings into it as well, just in case. He took a last look around. The tree seemed oddly forlorn with no gifts under it, but then again, it was a dead tree in a living room, so it was never going to look natural to him. He transformed and slithered back up the chimney.
The next three houses went without trouble. After making himself lighter, he was even able to leap from one rooftop to the next without returning to the ground first, or making too loud of a thump. These residences had big back yards, but were fairly close together side-to-side. He slithered down chimneys, denuded living rooms of thousands of dollars’ worth of presents, and slipped back out again.
He was in the fifth house, just opening his sack to shove an entire bicycle with a big red bow on it inside, when a little girl voice behind him said, “Santa?”
Crapsey’s blood froze. The sleep spell was good, but a child screaming in terror would probably wake the parents, and that would lead to all kinds of trouble. He turned slowly, smiling a rictus grin, and said, “Ho, ho, ho, little girl.” There was no way this was going to work.
He wasn’t good at guessing the ages of children, but he doubted she was in school yet. She was wearing pajamas with tiny dancing Santa Clauses all over them. She looked... delighted. She pointed at the coffee table. “Me and mommy made you cookies, Santa.”
Crapsey glanced over. There was a little plate of sugar cookies in the shape of reindeer, and a glass of milk. He vaguely remembered hearing about that tradition, now that he thought of it. He’d seen dishes in the other houses, and just assumed the occupants were slobs. “Thank you, uh, little girl.” He picked one up and took a bite. It was all butter and sugar with frosted icing, and he loved it; having spent most of his life in a nightmare world where the sweetest thing you could get was an occasional beet, sugar was one of his great weaknesses. He gobbled another one, then said, through a mouthful of crumbs, “You should go to sleep.”
“But I’m thirsty, and mommy wouldn’t wake up to get me glass of water.”
The spell was holding that well, at least. Crapsey led the little girl into the kitchen, filled a cup with water from the tap, and handed it over. She drank it, solemnly, while staring him dead in the eyes. Visions of the little girl with tentacles wriggling out of her nose and mouth and eyeholes danced in his head. “Okay, kid, back to bed, or it’s lumps of coal for you tomorrow.”
She giggled, for some reason, and then gave him a little wave and disappeared down the hall.
Crapsey stole all her shit and went up the chimney as fast as he could.
The next two houses were uneventful (and he ate the cookies, too). In the one after that, a little boy looked at him wide-eyed from the stairs, but Crapsey was feeling more confident now, so he just winked and put a finger to his lips and made a shooing gesture that sent the kid back to his room.
By the time Crapsey finished his appointed rounds, his whole body ached from going boneless so many times. The delight of the cookies only slightly made up for the discomfort. It was nearly dawn when he climbed into the back of the truck with Squat.
They slid the door down, turned on a work light, and Crapsey upended the bag. A flood of wrapped gifts came pouring out, covering the floor of the truck, forming a drift of paper and ribbons and bows with Squat in the center. He rubbed his belly, squinted, and then pulled the scarf down from his mouth.
Crapsey backed up against the door as Squat went to work, plucking items from the heap and popping them into his mouth. Some of the larvamorphs tried to escape when they realized what was happening, and seeing a box decorated with pine trees slithering across a heap of other presents was deeply surreal.
Squat chased the little monsters down, though, all ten of them, and finally swallowed the last. He sat back against a wall of the truck and pulled his scarf up. “It would be nice if these turned into cheeseburgers on the way down, but it was more like eating a bunch of live lobsters.”
Gross. “Did you get any powers from them?”
Squat grunted, and shimmered, and turned into a very short, very stout Santa Claus in a sooty red suit. Fortunately, a big bushy beard covered up his mouth now. “How’s that? We’re twins.”
Crapsey snorted laughter. He was exhausted. It had been a long night. “Let’s get out of here. The sleep spell’s worn off by now, so we should leave before those people wake up and realize they got robbed and call the cops.”
Squat said, “Just leave with all the presents? You want to ruin Christmas for all those kids?”
“It’s more that I’m indifferent toward them, I guess?”
Santa Squat shook his head. “Come on. Think about when you were little. When they handed you that box at the shelter, and you thought, you dreamed, for just a moment, that you’d get that knife you wanted. Think of that moment of hope. Don’t you want those kids to feel that?”
“It’s good to learn disappointment early,” Crapsey said. “If you think I’m crawling back down all those chimneys to put things back, you’re cuckoo. There’s no time anyway, the sun is coming up. I guess we can chuck the presents into the street....”
Squat rose, went to the back of the truck, opened the door, and grabbed armloads of presents. “Come on. Let’s stick these under that tree in the park, the one with all the baubles.”
Great. Squat was impossible to argue with when he set his mind on something. He was literally an immovable object. Crapsey started hauling presents and piling them up in the park. The boxes were bedraggled, in the snow—ribbons limp, bows askew, paper torn. But they looked a lot better than the forlorn trees inside the houses did with nothing underneath them. Once the truck was empty, Crapsey turned and said, “Let’s get—”
But Squat was standing in the street, holding an oversized silver bell in one hand, and a megaphone in the other. He must have taken those from the store, too. Squat began clanging the bell over his head and yelling through the megaphone. “Attention people of Werstadt! Christmas is saved!”
Doors began to open, and parents in robes peered out. “You were nearly the victims of a terrible crime!” Santa Squat boomed. “My friend and I were driving past on our way to volunteer at a soup kitchen when we found a burglar loading this truck with stolen gifts! We chased him off, and now we’re giving the presents back to you!”
The parents were understandably wary, but the kids came pouring out, running toward the park in their pajamas even though they weren’t properly winterized. Squat started picking up presents and shouting out names, and kids would say “Me, me!” and he’d hand the gifts over.
Squat looked pointedly at Crapsey, who sighed, picked up a box, and read off the name. The little girl who’d discovered him walked up to him shyly; her name was Susie, and she hugged him around the legs before she took the box he offered her.
“Christmas is still stupid,” Crapsey muttered.
Some of the parents joined in, handing out gifts, and others wrestled the kids into coats and scarves. Somehow, nobody called the cops. That was almost enough to make you believe in something.
A dad holding a cup of coffee sidled up to Crapsey and said, “So, this burglar you chased away... was he furry and green, by chance? Maybe sounded a lot like Boris Karloff? Had a little dog with antlers?”
Crapsey said, quite honestly, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Eventually all the gifts were passed out, and Squat yelled, “The Santa Brothers have to get to the shelter! Merry Christmas to all!”
“Merry Christmas!” the whole crowd boomed, and Crapsey had to move fast to avoid getting hugged by any more children.
They couldn’t take the truck, of course, since it was “the burglar’s,” so they set off across the park on foot. “Wasn’t that nice?” Squat said.
“We’re gonna have to steal a car,” Crapsey said. “Or are you going to refuse to do that, too, because it’s Christmas?”
“We’ll find a driveway with a couple of nice cars in it,” Squat said. “And leave the one we take where it’ll be recovered easily. That’s pretty festive. Hey. I got you something. I couldn’t believe that store had one, but I checked in the case, and there it was. Total Christmas miracle.”
Squat handed Crapsey a small box, inexpertly wrapped in the paper bag they’d gotten from a burger joint the day before, tied together with bits of string. Crapsey said, “You shouldn’t have. I mean that. Like, I actually mean it.”
“Just open it, Ebenezer.”
At least the box was too small to hold a baseball. Crapsey tore off the greasy paper and opened up the flat box and—
“It’s a genuine Boker Kalashnikov switchblade with a black hardcoat anodized 6061-aluminum handle with inlays of certified imported cocobolo wood and a PVD-coated 440C blade,” Squat said. “That’s what you wanted, right?”
“That’s... yeah. That’s right.” Crapsey had to walk away for a minute and stand by a tree, looking at the snowy ground until the tears in his eyes and the ache in his heart subsided. He turned back to Squat and said, “I am going to stab so many aberrant abominations to death with this thing, buddy.”
“It’s the season of shivving,” Squat said.
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