If you’re like me, you were disappointed the first time you saw him. You expected the Easter Bunny, shining white fur and perky ears and a big bow tie and somehow encompassing everything that was good about spring and candy and being a kid and those very first flowers peeking out after the snow had passed.
Nicotine stains marred the white velvet of his long-phlanged, clever paws, which had the slight tremble of the over-caffeinated, and those ears weren’t perky at all, but lay in a nervous droop as though they’d given up. The bow-tie hung at a neglected angle and a smell of sweat like the reek off a man on the fourth day of a three day bender came from him. His teeth caused the lisp, set beneath a twitch of a nose and bloodshot, dispirited eyes that regarded me with a look that I couldn’t read at all.
He pointed and I slid into the indicated seat.
“We’ve only got a few minutes before the others get here,” he said. “I need to tell you — when they talk about the…problem, it reaches much higher than they’re saying. You’re going to have to keep that in mind.
I frowned and started to say something. He forestalled me with an upraised paw.
“You’ve got a lot of questions, I know. And at some point I can answer them, but there’s no time right now.”
His liquid eyes implored me. “Do you trust me?”
I answered automatically. “No.”
That surprised him. He settled back in his chair, staring at me.
“Everyone trusts the Easter Bunny,” he said. “What kind of fucked up childhood did you have?”
“What do you want from me?”
He leaned forward across the table. His breath was coffee-rank and I noticed a tiny silver ring piercing his ear, down near the base, in the soft fleshy pocket there.
There was something about him, something I’d never felt from a supernatural before. An aura that made the hair along my forearms stand on end and sent a shiver chasing down my tailbone to collide with the chair’s red leather padding. Was it because he was a demi-god, as close as I’d ever come to any of them?
The door opened and we both looked up. I blinked, seeing who it was.
Santa Claus himself. Kris Kringle. Pere Noel. The right jolly old elf. He wore the traditional red outfit trimmed with spotless fur, his curling, full beard so white it almost glowed.
And behind him someone else I recognized. The Tooth Fairy.
She hadn’t looked anything like people expected. Or rather…well, this is how they explained it in Supe 101. The demi gods are, as far as anyone can tell, created by human beliefs. And they look like the version that’s most believed in, which is why Santa wore a form that would have been familiar to anyone who ever bought a Christmas card.
The Tooth Fairy though, people just weren’t so sure about. There’d even been horror novels written about her, and a couple of movies, and so she just looked like a short, muscular woman in a sleeveless black t-shirt that matched the color of her close-cut hair. Her lips were set firmly together as though she wasn’t particularly happy about something, while Santa looked a lot more happy. Downright…well, you know. I said it once. Jolly.
Holy cow. I was standing in a room with not just one, but three, demi-gods.
And they were all looking at me. Santa walked to the Bunny’s left and sat, putting a folder on the table in front of himself. The Tooth Fairy did the same on the right, minus the folder.
“You’re early,” Santa said to the Bunny, who shrugged.
“Just got here myself,” he muttered. “Barely said hello.”
Santa nodded and turned his attention to me.
“Miss Amme,” he said. He extended a hand across the table. His skin was dry and soft, and made the hairs on my arms abandon any thought of ever lying down again. “I believe you know who I and my associates are. We are the Holiday Consortium.”
I couldn’t help saying the first thing that popped into my head, even though I regretted it immediately. “But the Tooth Fairy doesn’t have a holiday.”
That elicited a bare-toothed expression from her. It took me a few seconds to realize she was attempting to smile, and clearly unpracticed in it. It made me wonder how many kids had woken up to see that face and screamed.
Santa tapped a fingernail on the folder in front of him. “The name is a holdover from an earlier group. And not what we’ve come here to discuss. You come with an impressive skill-set. We want to hire you.”
“What’s the position?” I asked. At least as supernaturals they wouldn’t be asking me to buffy. It may seem like I worry about that a lot but between sponsored ones and rogues, there’s a lot of buffies out there. It’s the number one cause of violent death, in fact.
“It’s a little bit like being a Buffy,” Santa Claus said.
“A lot like it,” the Tooth Fairy corrected him.
“Almost the same,” the Easter Bunny added. “Only perhaps more dangerous.”
I stared at them. “What could be more dangerous than being a buffy?”
“It’s a matter of what you hunt,” Santa said. “Buffies hunt vampires, werewolves, demons, that sort of thing.” He shrugged and flicked an invisible speck off the folder’s surface. “Ghosts. You know.”
“And I’d be hunting?”
“Call them corporate gods. Entities created by an excess of belief in an advertisement. Such as Ronald McDonald, to name the most famous one.”
I blinked. “Those are pretty rare, aren’t they?”
“You’d think.” He shrugged. “Perhaps it’s because someone has been taking care of the incipient ones before they grow to become a problem. That’s where you come in.”
Killing gods? Were they crazy?
He saw the doubt in my eyes. “We are capable of augmenting your natural abilities, Ms. Amme, if you agree to act as our agent. We are gods ourselves, after all.”
Demi-gods, technically, according to everything I’d read in school, but I wasn’t going to contradict either kind to their face. It doesn’t matter if the amperage of the lightning bolt frying you is at the demi or full god level – you’re dead either way.
“Your agent hunting corporate gods,” I said.
He nodded. “Let me explain.”
As he did so, I could feel things getting revised in my head. What he said was at odds with what I’d been taught. At odds in a big sort of way.
Okay, here’s the official version.
Gods are created by people’s beliefs. Everyone’s been pretty careful to stay off the topic of God with a big G, but He/She/It is the elephant in the room that we all factor into our equation, along with possibility that there’s gods with an even bigger G somewhere.
Why hasn’t anyone paid more attention to that? Because, I think, it’d mean changing their lives too much. We’d all been content to bumble along without knowing and now that we did, we were all trying not to pay too much attention to it.
Anyhow, there were a few corporate gods, like Ronald McDonald. But not very many, and the explanation for that was that people viewed advertising with a certain cynicism that was the antithesis of the sort of belief that created a god. Very few ever achieved the amount of power that was necessary to create an actual god.
Or so I’d been told up till now.
“So let me get this straight,” I said. “Any piece of advertising has the potential to create one? Any?”
“Technically, yes,” Santa said. His manner had slipped from kindly grandfather to a fussy and overly precise business-man, the sort of bureaucrat I’d always hated to deal with. “But the Holiday Consortium has certain safe-guards in place to prevent most of them.”
“What sort of safeguards?”
The fingers inside the white gloves steepled. “Magical ones. Think of them as a sort of enchanted pest-killer. It removes the ones that are below the level of sentience. It’s a kindness, really. Otherwise they just blunder around causing trouble. We’ve suppressed the knowledge of the Bob’s Big Boy incident of the 50s, but trust me – no one wants a repetition of that.”
“So the ones I would be disposing of are above the level of sentience?”
“In most cases, just barely,” he said. “But yes. Will that be a problem? Your file says that you’ve disposed of several types of sentient supernatural creature in the past.”
“Ones that meant harm to people, yes.”
“Trust me, Ms. Amme, these creatures can cause more harm than your garden-variety vampire.”
“You said you would give me powers to overcome them – how would that work?”
He slouched back in his chair. The Tooth Fairy had been listening intently throughout all this, but the Easter Bunny seemed to be paying little, if any, attention. Instead he was staring down at his paws on the table’s surface.
“We will imbue you with a very small portion of our power. I would suggest a trial run. There is such a menace brewing right now, a grotesque and hideous monstrosity of the kind that only your advertisements could breed.”
I studied him. I was pretty sure there were plenty of advertisements out there with his image on them, so who was he to be casting stones?
“A trial run with your powers?” I wasn’t going to be facing some sort of supernatural I’d never dealt with before unless I had something up my sleeve.
“Indeed,” he said. He pushed himself away from the table and stood. The Tooth Fairy did the same. The Easter Bunny remained seated, staring down at his hands, until the Tooth Fairy tapped him on the shoulder. I was still trying to fit what he had said earlier with what Santa had told me. What had he meant about the highest levels? was there something that Santa had left unsaid that I should know about? I tried unsuccessfully to catch his eye as he rose.
“Come with us, Ms. Amme. We must invest you with your powers and that requires the use of an Artifact.”
I gulped as I stood and fell into line behind the three of them. An Artifact was major mojo indeed. I wasn’t sure that I really wanted to get that close to one, let alone have it used on me. magic can have a way of going wrong, and when it’s powerful magic, it can have devastating consequences. Ask that poor woman who tried to use those magic coffee beans.
Harriet would have been thrilled to death to be walking with them, I thought, and felt a little pang again. I’d thought I’d be able to mend that fence, if I really tried. Maybe a secret knowledge that I couldn’t had been why I hadn’t tried until desperation and a burning building pushed me to it.
This situation might have excited her, but something about it didn’t feel right. What was I getting myself into?
“I’m not sure this is going to work for me,” I said, stopping in the doorway.
Santa stopped in his tracks as well, swiveling to face me.
“Are you quite sure that’s what you want to say, Ms. Amme?” he said softly, in a tone that said, “I’m phrased like a question, but you really should be reading me as a threat.”
Unfortunately, I’ve never reacted well to threats. So I didn’t move, just looked at him, waiting to hear what would come next, because it was clear as daylight that something was going to come next, something he thought would change my mind.
“There are some minor corporate gods that have survived our winnowing, here and there,” he said. “Some because they’re grown too powerful or cagey, like McDonald. Others because they performed some service or were deemed harmless. It would be a shame to call in a marker on one of them. Perhaps one like Lady Sunshine, the trademark of a small soap brand of the forties.”
He paused, smiling at me as though he’d just handed me a puppy.
“Why would I care about Lady Sunshine?” I asked.
His smile grew even broader.
“Why indeed?” He turned and started back down the hallway as though he knew I’d be falling into step behind him. The words trailed over his shoulder.
“Because she’s your mother.”
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