Niles, the lead elf in the wooden toy division and union president, couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. “You’re canning us? And on the day before Christmas?”
Santa Claus sighed sympathetically. “I had hoped to do this through attrition, Niles, but it’s been six hundred years since an elf retired. And things had to change.”
“Had to change? What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about globalization,” Santa said. “It’s a fast world these days. If you can’t adapt, you go under. That’s how it is.” He patted Niles on the head. “I’m sorry. We’ve been operating at a loss.”
The elf batted Santa’s hand away. “Are you crazy? We’ve always operated at a loss.”
“Yes, on finite resources. It couldn’t go on forever.”
“Without elves, who’s going to make the toys? Who’s going to take care of the reindeer?”
“The reindeer are already gone, air-freighted to a retirement pasture in Lapland. As for making the toys, the same subcontractor who is streamlining the transportation division will be handling that.”
Santa pointed out the window toward the warehouse. Niles put his hands on the sill and looked out. Standing next to the warehouse was a building on stilts. Stilts that shivered in the cold. No, they weren’t stilts at all. They were chicken legs. It was a little house standing on enormous chicken legs.
Niles said, “Gross. What is that? It wasn’t there when I came in.”
“It moves with absolute silence, even quieter than the sleigh. And as for capacity, well, you can see that I’ll need to make far fewer trips.”
“What is it?”
“The hut of Baba Yaga, the Russian witch.”
“A witch? You’re replacing us with a witch?”
“I know it seems an unlikely alliance,” Santa said as he sat down behind his desk, “but she backed up her proposal with some attractive numbers. If you take a look at this spreadsheet…”
“You know where you can put that spreadsheet,” Niles said. “You may have timed this so we can’t go on strike, but that doesn’t mean that we’ll take this lying down!”
Santa pressed a button on his desk. “I’m sorry you feel that way.” The office door opened and two security guards came inside. “These gentlemen will escort you off the grounds.”
Santa watched the elf go. Other pairs of guards were escorting other elves. Santa shook his head and sighed. Was he making a mistake? He looked at the spreadsheet numbers. No, this was how it had to be. It was a fast world now. If you couldn’t adapt, you’d go under. He sat behind his desk thinking, then got up to warm his hands by the fire. Then he paced.
Perhaps he’d feel better if he went to Baba Yaga’s hut for some tea. He needed to discuss the night’s work schedule with her, anyway. He stepped outside, closed the door behind him, and found, when he looked up, that the hut of Baba Yaga was gone. And it wasn’t just somewhere else on the grounds. He checked the elves’ dormitory courtyard. He looked behind the empty reindeer stables. The hut had vanished.
Worse, the toy warehouse was empty. There was no positive interpretation that Santa could give this situation. Baba Yaga wasn’t just taking a load of toys for a test run. It would have taken multiple trips to empty the warehouse. Santa had been ripped off. Without reindeer, he had no way to pursue the witch.
“I’m ruined,” he groaned. He put his head in his hands. He wept. And he heard…sleighbells.
Santa looked up. A troika drawn by three black horses approached. A man in a blue coat trimmed with fur held the reins. There was a beautiful young woman on the seat beside him, and a man in a black business suit next to her. “Ho, ho, ho!” the driver said. His beard was as long and white as Santa’s. A bag of presents lay in the back of the troika. “Having little bit of trouble?” the driver said. He gave the reins to the girl and stepped down. “You need help, da?”
“Who are you?”
“You don’t know? Russian counterpart, Ded Moroz.” He held out a bony hand.
“Make fun all you like, but you need me. You made contract with witch Baba Yaga. Big mistake. Snegurochka and I always have trouble with her at Christmas. She is big present thief, that Baba Yaga.”
“Snegurochka. My lovely…granddaughter.” Ded Moroz indicated the girl. She smiled at Santa with a smile that said many things. One thing that it said was that she was not Ded Moroz’s granddaughter. “We knew if you accepted Baba Yaga’s offer it would create trouble for you.”
“You knew this was going to happen? Why didn’t you warn me?”
“In business you do your own due diligence, da? We have experience dealing with witch. You want help?”
“You can get the presents back? We can save Christmas? Then of course I want your help!”
“Good. This man is attorney. He has papers you must sign.”
“Merger agreement. Santa Claus becomes wholly owned subsidiary of Grandfather Frost.” Ded Moroz pointed to himself.
“Wholly owned… You’re buying me out?”
“Don’t worry. Your operations change little in first few years. Eventually, you retire with nice pension to dacha on Black Sea.” He nodded at the attorney, who got down from the troika and opened his briefcase.
“But, but I’m Santa Claus! I can’t retire! Who will bring presents to all the good children?”
“Times change,” said Ded Moroz. “Capitalist system rewards best service. I bring presents on Orthodox Christmas and New Years Day. Kids get presents from me just for being kids, not for being nice. Also, they don’t have to write me letters, so everything is easier for them. Grownups like me, too. Ded Moroz is more fun at parties. I like vodka. I bring Snegurochka along.” He winked. “She is fun at parties, too.”
“But,” Santa said, “I’m the tradition in many parts of the world.”
“Global marketplace now. You move fast, or you fall behind. You sign now.”
The attorney gave Santa a sheaf of papers and a pen. “Sign here and here and initial every page,” he said.
Santa took the pen in a trembling hand. He hesitated. Then he signed.
“Ho, ho, ho,” said Ded Moroz as he opened a bottle. He filled a glass for everyone.
Snegurochka smiled a pretty smile. “S Rozhdestvom Hristovym!” she said, lifting her drink.
“Yeah,” said Santa. He slugged the vodka down. “Merry Christmas to us all.”