Santa Claus sat in his favorite “day-after” chair, the one with the extra padding he needed after the night spent in the sleigh. He was in the cozy den of his home, sitting by a crackling fire and listening to his wife play the piano. Even though the big day was over, he wasn’t napping, or even resting. That’s what people never understood: his job didn’t end on the big day, he still had all of the after-action reports and mishaps to sort through. He had been doing this job for over two millenia, but things still managed to go wrong, and this year was no exception.
He reached over to the call button next to his chair and pressed it.
“Get Bennie for me, please.”
Mrs. Claus paused in her playing and turned. “Not Bennie, dear. Not again.”
“I’m afraid so.” Santa said with a deep sigh. “I really do need to reassign that boy.”
“Isn’t he your best bell-retrieval agent?”
“Yes, but he’s so reckless.” Santa waved the form in his hand.
“It’s not his fault that your magic sleigh bells keep getting lost. Your elf engineers need to find a better way to attach them so you don’t lose them. One of these days you’re going to lose critical mass and end up stranded in New Zealand.” Mrs. Claus stood from the piano and poured a cup of hot cocoa for Santa and one for herself, adding a handful of marshmallows to her cup and a dash of cinnamon to his. She settled into the chair next to him and took a sip.
“They do the best they can, but at those speeds, they keep breaking loose, and we can’t just leave them out there in the mortal world, can we? Their magic provides extra lift to the sleigh, but it is dangerous in human hands.” Santa sipped at his cocoa and sat back in his chair, wriggling to get comfortable. “Remember what happened when that one child wished winter would never end? We nearly had a miniature ice age before we found and fixed the problem. We need to get those bells back, and as soon as possible. That’s why we formed the bell retrieval team, with our best searchers on board. That way we can get usually them back before they do any damage.”
“Bennie is a really good searcher. I know I always call on him when I lose my glasses.”
“He’s the best I’ve got, which is a problem, because he sets no limits when it comes to the wishes he grants when he gets the bells back.” Santa sighed again.
“I think it’s nice that you give the humans a gift for finding the bell. It makes it easier on the retrieval elves and it’s fun for the mortals to join in the hunt Christmas morning.”
“It works out well, most of the time, but Bennie gets carried away. I wouldn’t mind an extra doll or drumset, but he lets them ask for whatever they want and then he gives it to them, no matter how ridiculous or unsuitable the request. Look at the unicorn situation, for instance!” Santa pushed himself out of his chair and limped around the room, waving his arms.
“Honey, you fixed that. Of course we couldn’t have a live unicorn out in the world like that, and the little girl was almost as happy to have a real pony, wasn’t she?” Mrs. Claus smiled up at her husband.
“Yes, we fixed it, but the unicorn was out there long enough to infuse the world with its essence and now unicorns are on everything. Everything!”
“I like the unicorns, actually, especially the poop,” Mrs. Claus giggled, holding up a bag of the rainbow-colored cotton candy.
Santa threw up his hands and plopped back in his chair. “I know, but it takes so much out of me when I’m already exhausted from my annual ride. I just want Bennie to show a little restraint.”
“What did he give this year?” Mrs. Claus leaned forward, eyeing the report he held.
“That’s the thing, according to this report, it was something rather boring, nothing that would account for the magical cost.” Mr. Claus handed over the paperwork to his wife.
“I see,” she said, studying it over the top of her glasses. “It does sound like you need to have a talk with him. Try to stay calm, dear. Whatever it is, I’m sure it can’t be worse than the unicorn.”
Mrs. Claus gave Santa a sweet kiss and bustled off to check on the reindeer, leaving him to it.
Santa was just finishing his cup of cocoa when Bennie knocked on the door and entered.
“You wanted to see me, boss?” Bennie was a stout elf, his cheeks red and round and his belly straining the buttons of his green jacket. He twisted a green and white striped hat in his hands as he took a seat on the elf-sized chair. He looked up at Santa with a solemn expression.
“I hear you were the first to find a lost sleigh bell again this year; you certainly are a very talented searcher.” Santa smiled at the elf, who ducked his head modestly.
“Thank you, Santa, happy to help,” Bennie said, and sprang to his feet, “If that’s all, I’ll get back to work.”
“Not just yet, Bennie,” Santa said, his voice kind but firm. “I have a few questions about this report.”
“It’s all there, boss, honestly.”
“Is it, though?” Santa asked, pulling his reading glasses on and read through the report. “According to what you’ve put here, the mortal, Anne Marie McGillicuddy, asked for steak and eggs. Is that right?”
Bennie’s head bobbed up and down. “Oh yes, Santa, that’s exactly right, Santa. Steak and eggs, that’s all she wanted.”
“Hmm, that’s a rather unexciting gift, isn’t it, Bennie? Are you sure that was all?” Santa peered over his glasses. “No Prince Charming to share her breakfast with, for instance? You know the legal department does hate those cases. It’s getting rather difficult to explain extra royalty in this modern age.”
“No, Santa, she and Mr. McGillicuddy have been happily married for over ten years. She told me so herself.”
“I see, and no pots of gold, either? You can tell me, Bennie, I won’t be angry if you fudged the report just a little.”
Bennie sat up straight, a shocked expression on his face. “Certainly not, Santa, I would never muck around with pots of gold, I’m not a leprachaun, you know!”
“Of course, of course. It’s just that, well, the magic outlay was a little strong for something as simple as steaks and eggs, and I’m having trouble reconciling the two. Are you sure there isn’t something you’ve forgotten to mention on the report?”
“Well…” Bennie paused in thought and then lifted one finger in the air. “I see where we might have gone wrong, Santa. Where I wrote steak – did I happen to put down a quantity?”
“No, your report just says ‘steak and eggs,’ no mention of quantity.” Santa leaned over to show the relevant portion of the report to Bennie. “Did you perhaps provide breakfast for the entire community?”
“I don’t know, boss, Anne Marie didn’t tell me what she was going to do with the steak, but she did ask for rather a lot of it, a whole barrel of raw steak, in fact.” Bennie beamed up at Santa Claus, happy to be on the right track again.
“Oh dear, that is rather a lot of steak indeed. Still, nothing we can’t handle. However, that still doesn’t explain the amount of magic used. How many eggs did she ask for? Dozens?” Santa pulled out a hand calculator and started doing sums. This accounting business was more tiring than the deliveries.
“No, no, just two eggs, actually,” Bennie said, a note of tension returning to his voice and Santa put down his calculator.
“Two eggs and a barrel of raw steaks? Something doesn’t add up here, Bennie. Was there something special about the eggs? Something you might have left off of your report?”
“Boss, it’s just that she’s such a big reader, you know, Anne Marie…” Bennie began.
“Yes, yes, I remember. She has always been on my nice list and I’ve delivered many books to her over the years.”
“Right, so she wanted a couple of eggs out of her favorite book and I didn’t see how it could do any harm.”
“Wait, don’t tell me,” Santa started forward in his chair, eyes widening.
“Yes, boss, I found a lovely gold one and a big bronze one, too. They were huge and hard to handle, but I always do my best for our bell finders, Santa, you know me.” Bennie smiled, proudly.
“Bennie,” Santa forced his voice to stay calm, trying to keep the panic from showing in his face, “what books? What kind of eggs did you give her?”
“Dragon eggs, Santa, from Pern. I think they should be hatching any minute, now.”