Bud’s phone vibrated on his bedside cabinet. He reached for it and knocked it on to the floor. He swore, sat up and found the phone. He checked the display. Mac.
‘What the hell is this? It’s,’ he checked his watch, ‘it’s 2 am!’
‘You in bed already? I thought you’d be out at a party?’
‘Not many parties on an empty campsite, Mac. This better be good.’
‘Oh, it’s better than good. I knew you’d want in on this one.’ Mac left it hanging. Bud thought for a moment, then bit.
‘Ok, go on, what?’
‘Give it to uniform’
‘Reported by Chris Cringle. AKA St Nicholas. AKA Santa Claus.’
‘Mac, you are an absolute F…’
‘Bud, trust me, this one’s for real. But for all the reasons that are going through your head the Chief Constable wants this one kept to a tight circle. He took the call, he phoned me, I’m phoning you. Get dressed, I’m ten minutes away.’
Bud rolled over, dismissing the whole call as a drunken prank. Right up until the point where Mac banged on the camper door. Ten minutes after that he was dressed and in the passenger seat of an unmarked car.
And in the back seat was a vaguely familiar face. White hair, slightly longer and shaggier than fashionable, teamed up with a white beard and a red and white baseball cap, in the dark all Bud could really see was a pair of piercing blue eyes which looked like they should have a twinkle, but didn’t. Bud was still half way to saying how much of a wind up he thought the situation was when the man spoke.
‘Bud. Mac tells me you can help. I hope you can, time is running out.’
A shiver went down Bud’s spine despite the blasting heater in the car. He had never heard a voice so lost, but more than that. So old. So of its season. It came from a special place. It was a voice that smelt of cinnamon, cold like a snowy day. It held the fear of the shortest day, and the hope of warmer days to come in equal measure. Later Bud could only describe it as the sound of Christmas. His sarcastic comments dried up in his throat. His cynicism disappeared. Mac turned to him.
‘You hear it too, right?’
‘I hear it.’
‘So. We have to find Mr Cringle’s, er, vehicle.’
‘Just so I’m clear, and I’m trying really hard not to sound sarcastic here, we’re looking for a sleigh, reindeers, one with a red nose. That vehicle?’ Bud asked.
Cringle spoke. ‘If that’s what you expect to see, that’s what you’ll see. Others see a log cart pulled by wild boar. Some see a giant sack that I carry on foot. Most today see an articulated lorry with Coke logos.’
‘And, this is actually a real, physical, vehicle. Not an analogy or some metaphysical…whatever’ Bud’s vocabulary failed him.
‘It’s real. It’s as real as I am.’ Cringle saw Bud’s face in the mirror, ‘It’s as real as you are.’
Despite his usual professional scepticism, Bud believed the man implicitly.
‘And an obvious but critical question, where was this vehicle stolen from?’ Bud resisted the desire to add, If it’s the North Pole it’s outside our jurisdiction’.
Mac answered, ‘Industrial Estate just outside Derby. Mr Cringle was staying overnight after a personal appearance.’
‘So we’re headed to Manchester?’
‘Why Manchester?’ Cringle asked.
‘A load stolen from Derby? Most logical place for someone to try to get rid of the contents, and the vehicle itself. Different force, lots of routes there, big market to get rid quickly, good transport links back out again.’
‘And you’re assuming the perps saw an artic?’ Bud asked.
‘If they saw anything else then we’re all in trouble.’ Cringle replied before Mac could speak.
Both men felt the chill again despite the heat in the car. Mac put his foot down. Later he would never be able to explain why. He just knew he had to.
‘Stop! That’s it!’ Cringle shouted as they were driving through the outskirts of the city. Bud looked.
‘It’s just a shonky transit! Bud exclaimed, I’m sure they’re up to no good, but it’s not what we’re looking for.’ Mac pulled over anyway, turned to Cringle.
‘Close your eyes. Think of your 5th Christmas. Waking at 6am. Running downstairs. Seeing a house full of presents. Smelling turkey roasting.’
‘That was never my Christmas, definitely not my 5th one!’ Bud reacted. Cringle looked at him. Looked straight into his eyes. Bud felt like his memories were being read, like someone was scanning through a filing cabinet in his head.
‘The bike.’ Cringle said. Bud shivered again. Cringle frowned and shook his head. Put his hand on Bud’s shoulder. Bud tried, but he couldn’t, break eye contact. Time passed, Bud had no idea how long. When Cringle removed his hand Bud looked back at the van. He couldn’t focus on it. At the same time he was seeing the transit, the Coke Artic, a sleigh and reindeer and lots more besides. He could focus on the men emptying the contents into a seemingly derelict shop.
‘Mac, that’s it. Let’s do this.’
Ten minutes later two of the men were bloodied, bruised and cuffed. Cringle was whispering in the ear of a third. He was crying. Sucking his thumb.
Cringle shook Mac’s hand, then Bud’s. ‘I’ll take it from here.’
‘We need to process these three. We’ll need to dust the van for prints…’ Mac’s voice tailed off. ‘…that’s not going to happen is it?’
‘No, it’s not. Thank you both.’ Cringle replied. He got into the vehicle. Within seconds it had gone. As had the three men. The cuffs were lying on the floor where they had been. They checked the derelict shop. There were tracks across the floor, disturbed dust. But no sign of the vehicle contents.
‘What just happened?’ Bud asked.
‘Unless you want to be called Scully for the rest of your career, nothing.’ Mac replied.
‘Scully? I’d be Mulder surely?’
‘Mate, if this is anything but an elaborate joke on us, and if this gets out, I’m at least going to make sure I get Mulder. Which means you’re getting Scully.’ Mac said, as he walked back to the car.
Bud’s phone vibrated on his bedside cabinet. His hand reached out from the cocoon of bedding, and knocked it on to the floor. He swore, threw back his bedding, sat up and found the phone. He checked the display. A text. No sender ID. Look outside. He pulled open the curtain. The ground was covered in a light snow. He smiled. His phone buzzed again. Not through that window. Outside.’
Bud pulled on a thick coat and boots and opened the door. Parked alongside his van was a brand new motorbike. Envelope taped to the seat, his name on it. Bud tore it off, went inside, switched on the heater, made coffee then finally opened the envelope and tipped the contents onto the table. Bike keys, registration in his name and a note. 6 words.
Sorry it’s late.
Bud drank his coffee. Made another one. Stared at the bike through the window. Finally, he sent Mac a text. Merry Christmas from Scully…
© Chris Johnson 2019
This story owes a massive debt to the giants whose shoulders I stand on. Particularly Robert Rankin, Neil Gaiman and, of course, Sir Terry Pratchett.
Bud Robinson and ‘Mac’ MacDonald will be back with more of their action adventure stories. Bud’s stories are neither being written nor will they be published chronologically. For what it’s worth, this story is set significantly earlier in his timeline than Bud’s Halloween while he is an active undercover policeman, but at a time when he is between assignments.