TO KILL A ROCKINGHORSE
by James Powell
In the annals of Canadian private detection no one is more revered than Gladstone Tydings. A church-going family man with grandchildren, he possessed a gaze that was far from steely. (In fact his countryman jazz pianist Oscar Peterson dedicated his “Lake Louise Blues” to those eyes.) The detective scorned fisticuffs when polite reasoning served as well. If Canadians wondered why his adventures were so unsung beyond their borders Tydings himself was too modest to even speculate on the subject.
On a morning in mid December Tydings’ secretary Abigail came into his office and with an incredulous tuck in her cheek announced that Santa Claus was outside and wanted to see him on an urgent matter. “Please show the gentleman in,” said Tydings.
Canadians claimed a close relationship with the North Pole. (Some even maintained the presents Santa brought to the children everywhere should be counted as part of Canada’s aid to the undeveloped peoples of the world.) Perhaps this explains why Santa imitators became so numerous at this time of year. Beyond street corner bell-ringers collecting for charity or the department store tribe, and other ersatz jolly old gents who hit the bar scene to ask unescorted young ladies if they’d been naughty or nice. (In recent years these last numbers had fallen off sharply due to the efforts of the Slay Belles, a murderous sisterhood bent on ridding the world of old bores with worn-out pickup lines. Some said that at their meetings the Slay Belles wore the fake beards of their victims in their belts as scalp-like trophies.) Some Santa imitators even visited p. i.’s with wild stories of Maltese Christmas trees encrusted with precious jewels. Hence the rolled-up newspaper the detective always kept in his in-box at this time of the year.
Abigail returned with a white-bearded gentleman in a dark three-piece suit to find Tydings working on his newspaper’s crossword puzzle. Offering the man a seat Tydings explained, “You catch me at a quiet moment.” Then tapping the puzzle with his pencil he said, “Before we begin would you happen to know the name of Hiawatha’s bride?”
Without hesitation his visitor answered, “Minnehoho.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Tydings respectfully now knowing he was speaking to the real article, or at least one of them. The original Santa had been shot down over Europe making Christmas deliveries during World War Two. Since then the North Point Academy at the Pole had turned out respectable replacements who underwent rigorous ho-ho drills that carried over into their regular speech. “Now how can I help you?”
“If you can’t, Mr. Tydings,” said his visitor, “there will be no Christmas this year.”
The detective blinked and forced a smile. “I’m sure it can’t be that bad, sir.”
“The Toy Works with all the children’s presents are in lock-down,” said Santa. “My elves have gone on strike. You see they believe that someone is out to kill every last rockinghorse.”
A chill went through Tydings. Canadians knew the high place rockinghorses held in the hearts of Santa’s little helpers.
Thousands of years ago when the many peoples crossed the Bering Straits from Asia to fill up the Americas the early arrivals moved southward to the choicer lands leaving the late arrivals the less desirable northern regions of ice and snow. The elves came last of all because of their short stride were forced into the least desirable northern wasteland, a tiny corner close to the North Pole they might have perished if it hadn’t been the location of a rare arctic tar pit where the skifoot, the tiny shaggy-haired arctic pony (hippus slalomicus) whose coats and wonderfully long, curved hooves allowed them to range the difficult terrain all year long. By domesticating skifoot the elves were able to scrape a hard living from their surroundings. Racing the creatures on downhill zigzag runs became the elves enthusiastic pastime and as, it turned out, their prosperity. These events became so popular among their larger neighbors, the Nanooki and the Yukoniklasti, that they could charge admission in walrus tusks. Then during the hardest winter months when the elves kept their ingenious little hands busy carved this ivory into intricate little objects, toys, chess sets, and little replicas of their beloved skifoot that they sold to the Asian market.
Then in the Nineteenth Century disaster struck. Whalebone corsets for ladies charmed the fashionable launching a thousand whaling boats to kill the mighty sea behemoths. Later came a sad discovery, skifoot hooves made the best corset. Before long the hunters came. Despite the elves’ valiant attempts to protect them, the hunters slaughtered every last one.
The only person who came to the elves’ aid was a neighbor, old Kris Kringle a prospector who had come up from the south to work an abandoned hard rock gold mine hoping to find left-over nuggets. Shouting at the hunters to pick on someone their own size Kris rushed into the fray with his short-handled pick. But he was quickly overcome and left bloody and broken in the snow as the hunters dragged off the carcasses cheered on by the lady camp-followers who had come with them.
But Kris was not left alone. Goody Two—Shoes, the camp follower with a heart of gold, insisted on staying and caring for the wounded prospector. With the help of the elves she was able to get him back to his simple living quarters at the mouth of the abandoned mine. A few days later the hunters broke up camp to return south. The other ladies pleaded with Goody to come back with them. But Kris still needed her care and she refused. So they left her now faced with their own problem. The authorities required each band of camp followers to have at least one with a heart of gold and they knew it would be a long process for them to find another.
The elves mourned their beloved mounts. But life must go on. At first they survived on their ivory, carving until the tusks had almost run out. By now Kris recovered from his wounds and he and Mrs. Kris, as the elves now called Goody, made an interesting suggestion. Why didn’t the elves use some of the hefty timbers shoring up the mineshafts and carve them into the little objects they had been making out of ivory. Deciding it was worth the try the elves used the last of their tusks to buy a team of six domesticated reindeer from the Nanooki and dragged a couple of the beams away. Although the wooden objects were not as valued in Asia they did find a market to the south. In return for the timber the elves insisted Kris accept some wooden carvings of skifoot he particularly admired. These he sent off as Christmas presents for his grandchildren. At the time he told the elves he wished he was rich and lived long enough to give a toy to every child in the world at Christmas time.
Soon he was giving the elves the excess of the many knitted gifts he received in return: argyle sox the elves cut neck and armholes in and wore was pull-over sweaters, and knitted scarves they cut into capes which they learned to swagger about in.
Then one day down in the mine Kris discovered the taking out of the last batch of beams had caused the ceiling to collapse in one of the oldest shafts and something glittered in the rubble. He dug a sample out and sent it off to be assayed and it turned out to be a metal that had never been seen before. Metallurgists named it kriskringlite after its discoverer. No one knew what to do with it at the time. Then almost overnight it was found to be essential in the manufacture of Christmas tinsel and tree ornaments which were just becoming popular. Not long afterwards the Crimean War broke out and kriskringlite proved also to be essential in the making military medals and insignias. Orders poured for the precious metal.
Now Kris’s mine was back in business. He couldn’t afford to give the elves any more of the wood holding up its shafts. But he could bring other wood up from the south, suggesting the elves make life-sized images of skifoot. These became very popular in Canada and farther south under the name “rockinghorses.”
The rockinghorses gave generations of Canadian boys the outthrust chins that have since come to characterize the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the girls with their sidesaddles the grace of carriage and shy sideward glance famous around the world.
Back in Tyding’s office Santa said, “First they killed off our skifoot. And now they’re killing off the replicas, too.”
“I assume you are referring to the fire last week at the Antique Rockinghorse Stampede Show in Calgary,” replied Tydings.
“There’s more,” said Santa. “In the last few years my elves tell me the few remaining skifoot miniatures and rockinghorses in museums have disappeared. All this brings me here, Mr. Tydings because my elves hold you in very high regard since you solved the case of PlumBob SweetPants. I might add my own admiration as well for the work you did in our naughty-or-nice investigations.”
Tydings bowed modestly. PlumBob had foolishly stolen twenty Christmas puddings from Bangers and Mash, the toney English restaurant in downtown Toronto last Christmas Eve, much too late to resell his haul. Tydings had captured his man by alerting emergency rooms to watch for a man with acute indigestion and brandy on his breathe.
“I hope by telling my elves that you are on the case I’ll be able to get Christmas back on track,” said Santa. “But knowing you’ve done work for the Carousel Company I wanted first to make sure you wouldn’t have a conflict of interest.”
The Carousel Company had started in Canada several generations ago when the family of that name had invented the cheery circular ride so popular at county fairs and carnivals. The early merry-go-round menageries included rockinghorses as well as the swan two-seater for the less daring. But more recently when the company moved from carousels to coin-operated creatures outside supermarkets and in shopping malls the rockinghorses had been replaced with bucking broncos. Awhile back Carousel’s creative people wanted to add antlers to turn the broncos into reindeer for the Christmas season. But they were a family oriented company and there were questions about the reindeer floating around so Tydings was hired to investigate. It was not a difficult case for the detective for in those times he was on good relations with Elf Intelligence at the Pole which assured him that Dancer and Prancer were only good friends. And as for why the other reindeer wouldn’t let Rudolph join in any reindeer games it wasn’t bullying, just tough for them to play with an animal who wore a monocle and constantly clicked its rear hooves and bowed from the neck.
“I don’t understand how all this involves the Carousel people,” said Tydings.
“You see, my elves have gotten the notion that Carousel has been taken over by people from outer space. To their way of thinking no one from here on earth would want to harm such lovely toys.”
Tydings assured his visitor that there was no conflict of interest and took the case. After Santa left he sighed and reached to the bookcase behind his desk and found the copy of Baedeker’s The North Pole and Its Environs. The volume’s Germanic thoroughness was daunting. But while Santa spoke it occurred to Tydings he might find the answer to what had happened to the skifoot miniatures that the elves had fashioned with the mine shaft wood he’d given them. And yes, he discovered, according to Baedeker those timbers were Sitka elm, sturdy wood frequently used in construction above the Artic Circle, it’s susceptibility to Dutch elm disease making it useless below.
Tydings had encountered this disease early in his career when he was called into to investigate when one of the sixty-foot tall northern Indian totem poles in the main stairwell of the Royal Ontario Museum disappeared over a weekend leaving nothing behind but a small pile of sawdust. By the time the detective arrived a museum tree expert who identified Dutch elm as the culprit. Ever since then all Sitka elm items in the museum were kept in airtight disease proof displays.
This included the skifoot most Torontonians know from their visits to the museum as children. It shows a life-size replica of the creature coming to the edge of the Artic tar pit. The elves had secretly carved this replica with loving care using the last of the beam wood Kris had given them. Their most prized creation, they had presented it to Kris one Christmas. Mrs. Kris had thought it fitting to donate it to the museum in her late husband’s memory after his death. The museum had even included a wooly hummingbird perched on the skifoot’s shoulder, little birds fed on the earwax of the polar bears until the weather grew too cold and they flew to the tar pit and made do with skifoot earwax. Many marveled at the tar pit bubbles in many sizes.
As the tree man escorted Tydings out of the museum and they passed skifoot the detective had asked him how those delicate tar bubbles in so many sizes had been made. He smiled as if this was a much-asked question. “Light bulbs of various wattages,” he replied, and opened a small door to a narrow crawl space beneath the display showed him the screw-in bulb bottoms.
Eliot Carousel, his contact at the company agreed to see the detective that very afternoon. Tydings explained how some people believed Eliot’s company might be behind the disappearance of rockinghorses.
“Well, when we donate money to museums to promote displays of contemporary toys,” admitted Carousel, “we aren’t surprised if our own items are included. If a museum must then put other items in storage to make room, well, that’s their decision.”
Then Tydings asked, “What would you say to the charge that, how shall I put it? That whoever is doing this is not from around here?”
Eliot brightened. “I hope you are not accusing Slotco?” he said in his family’s roundabout way, naming their big American competitor.
Tydings spent that night babysitting the grandchildren to give his family the chance for a ladies-night out. Besides it would keep him from worrying. After all, if he failed to solve Santa’s case he’d surely go down in history as the man who might have saved Christmas but wasn’t up to the job.
Last summer he had taken the kids to one of the Royal Ontario Museum after-hours Saturday tours for children escorted by parents. It centered on the dinosaur exhibits and was interrupted here and there by two long Chinese dragon-like files of students under canvas decorated with dinosaur skeletons, each lead student holding up a papier-mâché tooth-filed head. These creations chased each other from room to room to the sound of xylophone music, evoking screams from the tiny audience. As a grand finale to the tour the two dinosaurs collided. Tyrannosaurus Wrecks.
Now his grandchildren told him that their other grandpa had just taken them to see a new tour at the museum called “In the Footsteps of Big Skifootski” and how exciting it had been. Tydings was suddenly all ears. Somewhere along the line someone in a shaggy coat and long, curved shoes fitted with roller skates would come gliding out of nowhere and had to be chased away.
Next morning Tydings arrived back at his office to find an email message from Ramsbottom, chief of Intelligence at the Pole. Tydings wasn’t surprised. In the newspaper coming over on the subway he had read that the Calgary authorities believed the Rockinghorse Stampede fire had been caused by children playing with matches. Indeed Ramsbottom’s message was a single name, “Scumbaggins.”
This notorious elf fugitive had worked in Procurement at the Pole. Just as Santa gave presents of the finest quality to the good little boys and girls so the coal he gave the bad ones had to be of the highest bituminous quality. Over time this caused a world shortage of such coal. Scumbaggins reasoned that the naughty parents of naughty children, knowing how righteous neighbors checked local garbage after Christmas to identify such children, stored this new coal with their own secret caches. Armed with a list of the naughty over the years Scumbaggins found many owners of these secret troves eager to sell the stuff back to the Pole. Perhaps these contacts with naughty humans wore Scumbaggin’s elfness thin. In any event he started pocketing a share of the money involved. Discovered, he was sentenced to hard labor at the Pole. He later escaped together with some other prisoners and fled south for a life of crime. (Perhaps influenced by his work with coal-laden denizens of Hollywood denizens he called his gang Scumbaggins the Great and Selected Short Subjects.) Had he now turned to avenging himself on the Pole by destroying every trace of its beloved skifoot ponies?
Years before Ramsbottom himself had come to vet Tydings for his naughty-or-nice work wearing a child’s snowsuit, elves favorite disguise at that time of year. Having been careful to read up on elves in his Baedeker the detective knew how sensitive they were about their size. It also gave them severe cricks in the neck to make eye contact with humans. Baedeker advised sitting on the floor when dealing them. But Tydings had a better idea. He had delighted his children when they were young with hand puppets and became adept at throwing his voice from puppet to puppet. Now with a little rehearsal he found he could do a reasonably good job of throwing his voice to his kneecap.
Ramsbottom was very impressed with this talkative body part. After that he often dropped by for a chat when in Toronto. This was how it had been so easy for Tydings to find the answers to the Carousel’s questions about the reindeer. But usually their discussions had to do with naughty-or-nice. Tydings insisted there were gray areas. Ramsbottom believed they must be consistent. But one time, escorting the elf to the door, Tydings let slip, “Isn’t consistency the hobgoblin of little minds?”
Ramsbottom’s angry glared made Tyding’s kneecap ache for days, And after that when he called the Pole he was shunted off to one of Ramsbottom’s underlings.
But now they were back in contact again. In his reply to Ramsbottom Tydings told him about the museum’s last Big Skifoot tour before Christmas when, he was sure, Scumbaggins would make his move against the most precious skifoot of all. The elf Intelligence chief agreed. But he insisted the apprehension of the evil elves must be an elf operation. Tydings saw the logic of that.
Ramsbottom and his crew of Christmas Seals, Santa’s own elf paramilitary cadre, landed their polar tram pod on the museum roof and met Tydings in the lobby. The detective was only there in a parenting capacity. Among the others waiting for the tour to begin was a small child-like group escorted by none other that the Big-Ding-Dong herself, the leader of the Slay Belles. Seeing her Ramsbottom told Tydings’ kneecap that he had always feared this terrible anti-Christmas alliance of Scumbaggins and the Slay Belles might come to pass.
All elves were masters of children disguises going back to the days when they did the naughty-or-nice investigations. They all had collections of buck teeth, appliqué rosy cheek patches and spray-on nose freckles. Ramsbottom even brought a childish giggle that startled Tydings when he heard it for the first time.
The tour began at the skifoot display. Their museum guide told them the story of these little creatures of the North so essential to the elves survival and how humans slaughtered them for corset glue. Somehow, he explained, this caused this human museum to be haunted by a giant ghost called Big Skifootski. And he asked the children to report any sightings of this hairy long-hooved creature but not to be afraid because it could be chased away with a simple shoo-shooing hand gesture which he demonstrated. And perhaps if they did it hard enough, he suggested, they might drive the ghost away forever.
From skifoot they visited other parts of the museum, the children looking carefully around them and practiced shoo-shooing as they went.
Several times during the tour the ghostly creature glided into view down a long hallway or out from behind a crowd suits of medieval armor or rows of upright mummy cases riding on curved rockinghorse legs fitted with roller skates. The children shouted happily and ran shoo-shooing after him.
Tydings observed that Scumbaggin’s group seemed to anticipate these arrivals and suspected they’d taken the tour before in preparation for what they had to do.
Now someone in Scumbaggin’s gang shouted in a child-like falsetto, “There goes Big Skifootski!” He and the rest of his crew rushed down a hall that led back the way the tour had come. But a second later the roller skating ghost himself popped out out of an ancient sedan chair up ahead sending the children rushing the other way.
Ramsbottom led his people quietly after the villainous elves, signaling Tydings to stay behind. Yes, this must be an elf operation.
He would later get to view the Christmas Seal films made for Santaland tv of the evil elves being overpowered and Scumbaggins himself being dragged out by his ankles from beneath the skifoot display armed with a wooden mallet to knock the bottom off one tar bubble light bulbs and a hypodermic to injecting Dutch Sitka Elm disease into the display. If they had succeeded the elves’ treasured skifoot would have been reduced to sawdust before Christmas. Then the villains could march to the Pole where the other elves, having turned their backs on Santa, would greet Scumbaggins as their new leader. No more toys. Then all the precious kriskinglite, so much in demand now in these times of war and conflict would be his. (Here dub in Scumbaggins’ diabolical laughter.)
But the plot had failed and even now the Christmas Seals were hustling him and his crew up to the roof and podded them back to the North Pole.
At the end of the tour Tydings followed the parents and children outside. As he left Tydings found himself holding open the museum door for the Big Ding-Dong to precede him. If this was an elf operation maybe she was outside their jurisdiction. Whatever her crime the detective decided she was outside his as well. Let he who was without fault cast the first lump of bituminous coal. And then let him explain where it came from.