train in railway

“Disappearance on the Polar Express” by Axel Kelly

The dining car was silent as Detective Inspector Mary Christmas of the Polar Police entered. She glanced at the assembled passengers, swallowing nervously as she paced through the broad aisle. I’m pretty sure I know who it is. But I need to keep them busy until the search is done…

“I say!” The harsh squawk cut across her thoughts. Turning, she carefully examined the passenger who was glaring at her. Colonel Gobble was quite the largest turkey she’d ever seen. A former mascot for a British Army regiment, he was here to lobby on behalf of the Association of Turkey Elders. He hoped to convince her grandfather to publicly condemn the consumption of turkeys at Christmas. “I say, by jingo! How much longer are you goin’ to make us wait here?”

Mary’s eyes narrowed. “As long as necessary.” Her reply was blunt and to the point. “A crime’s been committed – that’d be reprehensible anywhere, of course, but here?”

“In horrible taste, certainly,” Aafelas, the leading Elf union leader, remarked. “Though what makes you think one of us did it?”

“Quite.” That came from a besuited man in the corner of the carriage – Mary’d forgotten his name already. His only connection to Christmas was that he represented a certain soft drinks company with links to the season. “I mean, Krampus exists. So does Ja–”

He was cut off as another passenger glared icily at him. “I was right here!” Jack Frost bristled. “I’d like to make it abundantly clear that this kind of racist profiling is exactly why Christmas is in the sorry state that it is!”

“I’d like to make it clear that neither I nor the corporation are racist.” The man in the corner was looking through his Blackberry, furiously punching buttons. “And why is there no reception here? I need to talk to my lawyer after this man’s slander…”

If you would let me finish?” Mary spoke firmly. As he subsided, she continued, “There’s no sign of entry onto the train from the outside. We’ve checked thoroughly. Which means that one of the people on this train must be responsible for Ms Sitka’s disappearance.”

She hoped fervently that she was right about this. Ms Sitka wasn’t just one of the biggest manufacturers of eggnog in the world, she was also a prominent Dryad. If she weren’t found, then there’d be a lot of trouble.

“I do hope you’re not accusing me,” the soft drinks representative said sternly. “We’re one of the biggest contributors to your grandfather’s…”

I’m speaking…”

“Well, I’m just saying – without us he wouldn’t have that fleet of decorated trucks, or our advertisements that people get all nostalgic about every Christmas.”

Mary sighed.  I swear – they think they invented Christmas. “Whatever about that, I’m considering who committed this foul crime. We have four suspects. The Colonel here…”

“How dare you!” the turkey burst out, gobbling in utter fury. “I served me country, I’ll have you know!”

“Jack Frost…”

“Oh, I see. Just because I’m all spiky and white-cold, you assume I’m capable of murder.” 

“Hah!” Aafelas burst in. “She never mentioned murder. You’d only know that if you’d murdered her! Come on! Own up.”

“You, Aafelas…”

“Hey!” 

Or the man from our corporate friends.” As the man just looked quietly at Mary, she began pacing. “Now, the key to this case was always going to be motive. At first, I thought that only you had a motive.” 

That got his attention “Wait – what? I have a motive?”

“Ms Sitka’s a rival drinks manufacturer. She’s sponsoring a lot of goings-on up at the North Pole, and of course nog’s much more Christmassy.”

“I beg your pardon! If it weren’t for us, your grandfather would still be dressing like a medieval bishop. We gave him his lovely, bright-red robe with its snow-white ermine trimmings.”

“The point is, if we decided to drop the sponsorship association, that’d really cost you. And,” Mary added firmly, “it’d also be bad publicity for your company – Christmas is maybe the only time anybody likes you people anymore.”

She continued as he spluttered, “And then, of course, we have you.” She turned to Aafelas. “You’ve been trying to take Elves back to a more traditional image, haven’t you? Your union has made a lot of demands recently – a return to traditional footwear instead of fancy, pointy shoes; the right for union members to carry bows and arrows; an end to foolish capering and the like. A lot of the Dryads support your wish to return to your roots – so to speak – but Ms Sitka is too Christmassy for that and she’s a very persuasive leader in the Dryad community. If she disappeared, though, people might be more likely to support you.”

What? That’s just plain ridiculous!”

“As for you, Mr Frost,” Mary continued, “well, you’ve more of a personal motive, I reckon. You’re don’t tend towards being a particularly jolly soul, do you?”

“I resent that! Just because I show my enjoyment in a more reserved fashion, in a sober mien, and just because I prefer a quieter, less garish Christmas, you think I’d kidnap someone?”

“That’s fair enough, don’t misunderstand me, I’m exactly the same – I’ve never liked the glitz and tinsel.” Neither did Granddad, if she were honest. He had to do a certain amount for the sake of appearance, but he far preferred a quiet evening around the fire with his family, exchanging gifts and playing board games. He wasn’t into those huge, showy affairs with gigantic trees and all the razzamatazz that went with Christmas nowadays.

“Still and all, she was pretty overbearing from what I’ve heard. Trying to make you wear glitzy suits and tinselly Christmas hats?” Mary shook her head. “Rather unpleasant for a retiring gentleman such as yourself.” She paused for a moment, then said thoughtfully, “On the other hand, the Colonel here also had a motive.”

“How dare you!” that worthy burst out, literally flying into a rage across the aisle.

“She’s totally upmarket when it comes to Christmas dinners, and definitely not a fan of those vegan substitutes you’ve been trying to push. Getting rid of her would help your cause, given what an influencer she is.”

“I… well, it would… but I didn’t!”

Mary raised a finger. “No. I know you didn’t. There’s just one little factor that I haven’t mentioned yet – Ms Sitka herself!”

What?” Jack Frost shouted in disbelief. The others stared, nonplussed.

“Well, as we’ve established, the three of you,” Mary indicated Frost, the Colonel and Aafelas, “have strong reasons to dislike Ms Sitka. But the fact is, she doesn’t much like you either.” She scrutinised Frost. “She thinks that you’re ‘insufficiently full of Christmas cheer’. According to the train attendants, she considers you a ‘relic’ who shouldn’t be associated with the modern holiday.”

She turned to Aafelas. “And you Elves, pushing to go back to your traditional, not-so-very-Christmassy roots, and our friend Colonel Gobble trying to promote vegan alternatives to the traditional holiday feast – she’s totally against all of that.” She took a deep breath, then said, “The really interesting thing is, although she seemed to compete very publicly with your company sir, that wasn’t really the case, was it?”

The executive gasped, “Wait, what? Yes, yes, of course it was!”

Mary smiled. “Oh no. No, it really wasn’t. I had my suspicions, so I asked a few friends of mine to do a little digging. It turns out that you and Ms Sitka signed a deal last month whereby, in return for a very large payment, your company has acquired exclusive rights to bottle and sell her non-alcoholic eggnog.” 

Mary eyed the man carefully. “Your employers and Ms Sitka share a passion for the lucrative, tackier side of Christmas. Christmas lets you sell huge amounts of your products, after all. Given that they’re so vile and sugary, you kind of need the Christmas push.” Eggnog especially…drinkable custard, yuck.

“People like these three threaten your operation. If we concluded that they’d done away with Ms Sitka, everything would change. All these ideas for a truly traditional Christmas would vanish and, thanks to sympathy for poor Ms Sitka and outrage at the heinous crime that had been committed, the tacky commercial Christmas model would remain – to the great benefit of you two mega drinks producers.”

The representative folded his arms. “Do you have any proof to back up this ridiculous assertion?”

“That should be arriving right about…” Mary began.

“… and get your hands off me! I’ll be speaking to your superiors about this!” came an aggrieved shriek. 

“…now,” Mary finished. 

Turning, she watched as her deputy, a gorgeous-looking Krampus with polished horns, appeared through the door, dragging a Dryad who was dressed in some of the most revoltingly-tacky Christmas clothes ever. “Ms Sitka, good morning,” she said cheerfully. “Well, where was she, Talia?”

“In Mr Brown’s room…” Talia began, nodding towards the soft drinks representative.  She kept a firm grasp on Ms Sitka. 

They locked me in!” Ms Sitka burst out, pointing to the Colonel, Jack Frost and Aafelas.

“…in a hidden compartment that she could easily open from the inside…” Talia continued smoothly.

I knew nothing about that!” the man said urgently.

“…in Mr Brown’s wardrobe-trunk,” Talia concluded.

Mary looked from one to the other. Mr Brown, she thought, no wonder I couldn’t remember his name! “Well then, you’re both under arrest for wasting police time and for attempting to pervert the course of justice.”

“You can’t do this!” Mr Brown burst out. “Your grandfather needs us! Christmas is nothing without its commercial side.”

Mary paused, then looked at him. “No, I’m really happy to say that you’re completely wrong. Christmas is about many things, but at its heart is sharing and giving to the people you love. Beyond that it doesn’t matter. Make a big splash or be more restrained in how you celebrate it; do it the traditional way or make new rituals for yourself and your loved ones. At the end of Christmas Day – and of every other day – it’s the kindness and generosity you show to the people you love that matters.”

“HERESY!” Ms Sitka shrieked, as Talia handcuffed her.

Mary shrugged. “BTW, grandfather hates the red-and-white clothes that you people foisted on him. How can he be expected to deliver in secret when he’s dressed up like a blooming fire engine? I’m willing to bet that he can’t wait to get back to something more traditional.”

Axel Kelly got bitten by the writing bug very early in life, though he’d like to think his writing has improved since he started. He also got bitten by the sci-fi and fantasy bugs early in life too, thanks to his family. Originally from West Cork, he now lives in Dublin, working for the Civil Service. Axel has been a member of Cupán Fae for two and a half years and has contributed to Cupán Fae Anthologies: Dublin’s Fierce City, Fierce Mighty, Fierce New World, Fierce & Proud, and Fiercepunk.

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