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Authors: Christopher Fowler

Bryant & May and the Secret Santa

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Bryant & May and the Secret Santa
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

An Alibi Ebook Original

Copyright © 2015 by Christopher Fowler

Excerpt from
Bryant & May and the Burning Man
by Christopher Fowler copyright © 2015 by Christopher Fowler

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Alibi, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

Originally published in Great Britain by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Publishers, in 2015.

A
LIBI
is a registered trademark and the
A
LIBI
colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming book
Bryant & May and the Burning Man
by Christopher Fowler. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.

eBook ISBN 9781101968970

Cover design: Tatiana Sayig

Cover images: Shutterstock

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When I was a child the highlight of the year was to visit Santa Claus at Gamages department store in Holborn. There was always a magical journey to reach him (knocked together with rotating bits of scenery and hand-rocked modes of transport) and when you arrived His Ho-Ho-Holiness would sit you on his knee and ask you if you'd been good all year. Gamages began with a tiny shop front in 1878, but by 1911 its catalogue ran to nine hundred pages. In the early 1970s it was replaced by offices and ‘exciting retail spaces.
'
It went the way of other great London department stores—Swan & Edgar, Marshall & Snelgrove, Bourne & Hollingsworth, Derry & Toms and Dickins & Jones. The idea for this story came from something that actually happened to me.

Bryant & May and the Secret Santa

‘I blame Charles Dickens,' said Arthur Bryant as he and his partner John May battled their way up the brass steps of the London Underground staircase and out into Oxford Street. ‘If you say you don't like Christmas everyone calls you Scrooge.' He fanned his walking stick from side to side in order to clear a path. It was snowing hard, but Oxford Circus was not picturesque. The great peristaltic circle had already turned to black slush beneath the tyres of buses and the boots of pedestrians. Regent Street was a different matter. Virtually nothing could kill its class. The Christmas lights shone through falling snowflakes along the length of John Nash's curving terrace, but even this sight failed to impress Bryant.

‘You're doing your duck face,' said May. ‘What are you disapproving of now?'

‘Those Christmas lights.' Bryant waggled his walking stick at them and nearly took someone's eye out. ‘When I was a child Regent Street was filled with great chandeliers at this time of the year. These ones aren't even proper lights, they're bits of plastic advertising a Disney film.'

May had to admit that his partner was right. Above them, Ben Stiller's Photoshopped face peered down like an eerie, ageless Hollywood elf.

‘We never came to Oxford Street as kids,' Bryant continued. ‘My brother and I used to head to Holborn with our mother to visit the Father Christmas at Gamages department store. I loved that place. You would get into a rocket ship or a paddle steamer and step off in Santa's grotto. That building was a palace of childhood magic. I still can't believe they pulled it down.'

‘Well, you're going to see Santa now, aren't you?' May reminded him.

‘Yes, but it's not the same when you feel like you're a hundred years old. Plus, there's a death involved this time, which sort of takes the sparkle off one's Yuletide glow.'

‘Fair point,' May conceded as Bryant tamped Old Holborn into his Lorenzo Spitfire and lit it.

They passed a Salvation Army band playing carols. ‘ “Silent Night,” ' Bryant noted. ‘I wish it bloody was. Look at these crowds. It'll take us an age to reach Selfridges. We should have got off at Bond Street.'

‘Can you stop moaning?' asked May. ‘I thought that as we were coming here we could pop into John Lewis and get my sister a kettle.'

‘Dear God, is that what she wants for Christmas?' Bryant peeped over his tattered green scarf, shocked. ‘There's not much seasonal spirit in that.'

‘It's better than before. She used to email me Argos catalogue numbers,' said May. ‘When I first opened her note I thought she'd written it in code.'

A passing bus delivered them to the immense department store founded by Harry Selfridge, the shopkeeper who coined the phrase ‘The customer is always right.' The snow was falling in plump white flakes, only to be transmuted into liquid coal underfoot. Bryant stamped and shook in the doorway like a wet dog. With his umbrella and stick he looked like a cross between an alpine climber and a troll.

By the escalators, a store guide stood with a faraway look in his eye, as if he was imagining himself to be anywhere but where he was. ‘I say, you there.' Bryant tapped an epaulette with his stick. ‘Where's Father Christmas?'

‘Under-twelves only,' said the guide.

‘We're here about Sebastian Carroll-Williams,' said May, holding up his PCU card.

The guide apologized and sent them down to the basement, where ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful' was playing on a loop along with ‘I Saw Three Ships' and ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High.' The Christmas department was a riot of fake trees, plastic snow, glitter, sledges, wassail cups, cards, robotic Santas, dancing reindeer, singing penguins, North Poles, Christmas logs, candles, cake holders, cushions, jumpers and chinaware printed with pictures of puddings, holly, mistletoe and fairies. ‘It's been this jolly since October,' said the gloomy salesgirl, directing them. In her right hand she held some china goblins on a toboggan. ‘It makes you dead morbid after a while.'

Beyond this accretion of Yuletidiana, a large area had been turned into something called ‘The Santa's Wonderland Sleigh-ride Experience.' ‘Why do they have to call everything an “experience”?' asked Bryant irritably. ‘It's tautological and clumsy. It's like
Strictly Come Dancing
. The BBC obviously couldn't decide whether to name it after the old show
Come Dancing
or the film
Strictly Ballroom
so they ended up with gibberish. Two verbs and an adverb? How is that supposed to work? Does nobody study grammar anymore?'

‘It's hard to learn that stuff,' said May. ‘English is the only language I can think of where two negatives can mean a positive, and yet conversely there are no two positives that can mean a negative.'

‘Yeah, right.' Bryant turned around. ‘Look out, floor manager.'

Mr Carraway was a man so neatly arranged as to appear polished and stencilled, from the moisturized glow of his forehead and his carefully threaded eyebrows to his shining thumbnails and toecaps. ‘Thank you so much for coming,' he said, pumping each of their hands in turn. ‘We didn't know if this was a matter for the proper police or for someone like you, and then one of our ladies said you dealt with the sort of things they couldn't be bothered with.'

‘Oh yes, we were just sitting around knitting and doing jigsaws, waiting for your call,' said Bryant. ‘You'd better tell us what happened before I'm tempted to bite you.'

The floor manager eyed him uncertainly. ‘Er, yes, well, perhaps we should go into Santa's Wonderland,' he said, leading the way.

‘I thought it was Alice who had a Wonderland,' said Bryant as they walked.

‘No, this is Santa's Wonderland,' said Mr Carraway.

‘Yes, but, you know—Alice in
Wonderland
.'

‘We narrowed it down to Wonderland or Christmasville. It could have gone either way.'

A tunnel of black light illuminated Bryant's dentures, turning him into a Mexican Day of the Dead doll. They emerged from the other end to find an immense cyclorama of the North Pole as imagined by a very gay man who had seen too many Disney films, complete with geographically misplaced polar bears and a variety of non-reality-based fauna including elves, goblins and little people in pointed hats and dirndls, some of whom were real and presumably taking time out from their busy performance schedules as gold-mining dwarves or Oompa-Loompas.

‘Mickey,' called Mr Carraway, ‘where's Father Christmas?'

‘He's gone to the toilet,' said Mickey, one of the dwarves. He looked up at the two detectives, studying each of them in turn. ‘Are you here about the lad who died?'

‘Yes,' said May. ‘Were you here when it happened?'

‘Yeah, we're here for the full season,' said Mickey. ‘We were supposed to be in panto at the Fairfields Hall, Croydon, but we got laid off after Snow White put in a sexual harassment claim against us. She said we touched her bum but we were just trying to get her into the glass coffin. She's a hefty lass.'

Just then Father Christmas came back on to the Arctic set doing up his flies. ‘Ah, the rozzers,' he said, rolling his Rs in a plummily theatrical brogue. ‘I suppose you want to know how the magic happens. Of course, I'm just filling in doing this. Normally I'm treading the boards. I had to come out of a
major
role, but who can resist helping out at Christmas?'

‘What were you doing?' asked May.

‘The Duke of Ephesus,
Comedy of Errors
, “Five summers have I spent in farthest Greece, Roaming clean through the bounds of Asia…” '

‘Whereabouts?'

‘Crawley Rep. It's a nice short play and I was in a toga so I could be in the pub by ten.'

‘Can you talk us through what happened?' asked May.

Father Christmas pulled down his white beard and scratched his chin with the end of a biro. ‘Sorry, these things get damnably hot. It was the day before yesterday, just before six o'clock, wasn't it, Mickey?'

The dwarf nodded.

‘This lad, Sebastian Carroll-Williams, about eleven, small for his age. I saw him come in with his mum. She was fussing around him something chronic. Normally that's my cue to take over and have a chat with them about what they want for Christmas. I always tell the same joke.'

‘What sort of a joke?' asked Bryant.

‘
What did the elf get while he was working in Santa's toyshop? Tinsellitis
. We don't sit them on our knees anymore, not since Jimmy Savile. We're all very carefully vetted. And we're on camera.'

‘Last year we had a Father Christmas with creeping hands,' said Mr Carraway. ‘Dreadful.'

‘Then we get them ready for their selfies,' said Santa.

‘What selfies?' Bryant asked.

‘They get a choice of outfit: polar bear, Santa's helper or toy soldier,' said Mickey. ‘Princess gown for a girl. The girls only get one choice. Me and the other dwarves put the costumes over their heads. It just takes a few moments. Velcro. We're on turnover.'

‘Then what?'

‘The photographer takes his shot,' said Santa, ‘I give them their gift and they're slung back on the sleigh. It's like processing hamburgers.'

‘What did the boy pick for his outfit?' asked May.

‘He didn't have a preference. He didn't want to be here at all. I think his mother pushed him into it, so he finally went for a polar bear. A real sense of entitlement about him. Dead stroppy. Mickey had to help him get into his outfit because he was angry and got all tangled up in it.'

‘They're hyperactive at that age,' said Mickey. ‘And they fart a lot. Nerves.'

‘What did he ask Father Christmas to bring him?'

‘A machine gun.' Santa rolled his eyes. ‘Kids. So he got a gift from the sack and was sent on his way. He took the sleigh ride back to the tunnel exit.'

‘What was the gift?' asked May.

‘I've no idea,' Santa admitted. ‘We just work from the colour-coded boxes. The girls get tiaras and cuddly toys and games, the boys get more gadgety stuff. It all comes from China. Mind you, some of the gifts are pretty good. I never got things like that when I was a kid. We encourage them to open their presents after they've left Wonderland, just so they don't get bits of cardboard all over the place.'

‘Do you know anything about what happened after the boy left?' Bryant asked.

Santa shrugged. ‘You'll have to ask Mr Carraway about that.'

‘I saw him just as he came out of the tunnel, back into the main store,' said the floor manager. ‘He was holding the torn-open box in his hand and appeared to be in a state of distress. His mother was nowhere in sight. You get an instinct about trouble.' He touched a plucked eyebrow as if securing it in place. ‘I started walking towards him and suddenly he threw the box across the china hall. Luckily, nothing broke. I went after him but by this time he had reached the escalator. I got there as quickly as I could, but it was hard to see him, being so small. He ran between the makeup counters and out into the road.'

‘Where he was hit by a number 53 bus,' said May, checking his notes.

‘He went straight under the wheels,' said Mr Carraway. ‘He never regained consciousness. The doctor reckoned he didn't feel anything.'

‘We interviewed Carroll-Williams's mother,' said May. ‘She went running after him but the store was very crowded and she lost sight of him.'

‘So the boy was fine when he left you and got back into the sleigh,' said Bryant.

‘Yeah, it only goes halfway round a bit of track. He could barely wait for it to stop.'

‘But when he emerged from the tunnel he was distraught. Was there anyone else in the tunnel with him?' May asked.

‘No, we were finishing for the evening. There were just the six of us: Mickey, me, the photographer, the kid, the kid's mother and the other Father Christmas. We were all still here in Wonderland when the boy left.'

‘Wait, I'm confused,' said Bryant. ‘
You're
Father Christmas.'

‘No, I'm
a
Father Christmas,' said Father Christmas. ‘There's two of us, working in rotation. It would be too knackering otherwise.'

‘Wait, so you saw everything from where you were backstage but it was the
other
Santa who asked Sebastian what he wanted for Christmas?'

‘You've grasped it,' said Santa. ‘I'm Edwin, he's— What was his name, Mickey?'

‘God knows,' said Mickey. ‘We get through them at a rate of knots.'

‘I'm embarrassed to say I'm not sure either,' said Mr Carraway. ‘He was only here a few days. The incident probably upset him. It must have done because he didn't come in yesterday.'

‘But you have a contact number for him?' May asked with a sinking feeling.

‘Certainly,' said Mr Carraway. ‘Our Santas are vetted very carefully.'

‘You need to find it for us as soon as you can,' said May.

Bryant was thinking. The loss of one Father Christmas didn't seem to bother him. ‘So the boy must have opened his gift as he walked out through the tunnel.'

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