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The Reindeer Conundrum Part Four
by Mark Zubro; illustrated by W.S. Reed

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The Reindeer Conundrum written by Mark Zubro and illlustrated by W.S. Reed is a Christmas story with a message from the very heart of the holiday. It appears in the anthology Shifting Through the Snow from MLRpress. These are shifter stories connected with the holidays. We'll be serializing it in our online editions for the next five weeks. Beginning December 8, it will be available on line as an ebook and a paperback.

The Reindeer Conundrum part four.

December 23 11:10 A.M.

Rudolph said, "Santa is missing."

"Ahhh," said Alfir. "I was afraid the rumors were true."

Rudolph told the story then asked the obvious, "Do you have any notion of where he'd go at a time like this?"

Alfir sat back, sighed, closed his eyes and thought. After a few moments, he opened his eyes again and gazed at Rudolph. He said, "This is just unprecedented. I don't know what to say. I'm not sure where to start to look. Pulks said he couldn't trace the shift?"

"He wasn't going to even try, I don't think, until I insisted."

"Have you talked to Tarandus?"

"He's next, then Mrs. Claus. I'm dreading that conversation. I don't know if I want her to say yes she knows all about it, and he's not coming back, or if she doesn't know anything."

"She could know, and he'll be back in plenty of time."

"There's tons of things to do before he leaves."

Alfir spoke softly. "I know." He sipped eggnog. "You don't think Tarandus and Blitzen and a few others are trying to take over?"

Rudolph shook his antlers. "They are awful creatures, although I keep telling myself Santa keeps them on so he must see some good in them."

"You know he's never fired anyone."

"I've heard."

"Not while I've worked here, or ever, as far as I can tell. He has one of those kindly talks with them and everything is better."

Rudolph said, "I don't know how he does it."

"Part of the magic of being Santa."

"I wish there was more of that to go around."

Alfir said, "I wouldn't put it past Blitzen, Pulks, and Tarandus to be behind all this."

"I don't know. Blitzen seemed pretty shook up."

"Or Tarandus picked himself an idiot partner in crime, which should tell you something about Tarandus's abilities."

"I can't see him trusting Blitzen. But what would Tarandus have to gain?"

"You've heard the rumor that he's wanted to take over Christmas Eve duties himself?"

Rudolph's jaw dropped open. "No!"

"The other elves pass that tidbit along to me every year. Tarandus thinks he could do a better, more efficient job."

Rudolph said, "It's already a monumental task."

"And not getting easier, but who can account for ambition? Tarandus has more pride and ego than an alpha-male wolf. It's not just reindeer. Don't forget there are always a few elves who want to be a bit above themselves."

Alfir responded to Rudolph's shocked look. The old elf said, "Don't believe everything you read in Tolkien." This was a reference to an old joke among them, and Rudolph realized his friend was using it to try and ease the tension of the moment. But this time Alfir continued, "And even in Tolkien, the elves weren't perfect. They had egos and flaws." Alfir shut his eyes for a moment then said, "We all do."

Rudolph sighed. "I don't know if it's worse to think he did this by his own choice, or by others taking him."

"If it was his choice, he no doubt had a good reason. Or at least we must give him the benefit of the doubt. He is Santa."

"Where do I look?"

"Did Pulks say he was going to do a complex-wide search?"

"Blitzen said he had. Pulks claimed he would. You know checking things twice."

Alfir said, "I'll have my elves do a third check."

Rudolph shut his eyes and sighed again.

Alfir said, "You and Santa were close."

"Since before that foggy night. He was always kind to me. Never made fun of my nose. And now, he didn't confide in me."

"He knew you'd try to stop him."

Rudolph realized this was an echo of what Grandcandaus had told him. He said, "I wish I had a clue where to look."

"What does he love?"


"We all love that."

Rudolph thought for a moment then said, "Kindness."

Alfir's eyes glittered. He spoke in a soft voice. "That is the key to Santa. Find the heart of that, and you'll find him."

"Where is that?"

"In your own heart, I think. Then imagine where his might have led him."

They sat in silence as the fire continued to warm the room until Alfir spoke, "And don't forget to check the library. I've spent many happy hours down there reading and browsing. So few of the young elves and reindeer go down there now. Everything's got to be on their phones." He sighed.

Rudolph stood up. He was glad for the comfort of his old friend. He said goodbye, snarfed up a last chestnut, and left.

1:30 P.M.

Tarandus was the meanest reindeer and one of the oldest in the complex. He had one artificial leg very much like Pulks. Reindeer legs were fragile things.

Rudolph strode purposefully to Tarandus's office and walked in. The elf assistant looked up. She said, "Do you have an appointment?"

"It's an emergency."

"Then we should have heard about it from Pulks. You've always prided yourself on not following the rules." The elf assistant was named Joyce. Most times, she seemed nearly as old and mean as Tarandus.

Tarandus had built his reputation for being difficult at endless meetings in which the ultimate put-down was something in the nature of, "That's not very Claus like" or "What would Santa do?"

Or he'd make cruel jokes about less gifted reindeer calling them a bunch of shiftless reindeer. If others made them, such remarks were an easy way to get yourself demoted or even exiled.

You couldn't shift from your conscience or your consciousness. An exiled shifting reindeer was monitored to the point where each step felt like a walk inside a prison. Rudolph thought they deserved it.

Tarandus got away with his meanness, year after year. Rudolph never understood why, although he had long since noted that Tarandus never made the remarks in Santa's presence.

Another of his favorite put-downs was to tell you what you had just said was NSFC. One young reindeer had made the mistake of having the temerity to ask what that meant. Tarandus had explained the entire gamut of "Not Suitable for Claus."

Tarandus also had opinions about the schooling for reindeer who shifted. He didn't think they should concentrate on reindeer history, but more on finding food in the cold, keeping moving in the cold, and staying warm in the cold. But his worst obsession was about making the tests for selection on who filled administrative jobs or who could conduct technical training even more onerous.

Rudolph said, "Please."

This seemed to discombobulate Joyce. Perhaps she was expecting a rude fight. She disappeared for a few moments, came back, and said, "He can give you five minutes."

Rudolph said, "Thank you," and walked back to the office, which he thought of as the most sterile that he'd ever been in. There were metallic barriers between sitting areas that seemed more like stalls, bright electric grids instead of real fire in fireplaces, hay strewn on the floor, and the temperature kept uncomfortably cold.

When he entered, Tarandus was munching on hay from a manger. He stopped chewing, looked at Rudolph, and walked over to his desk. Rudolph was not offered a beverage or anything to eat.

As Tarandus clumped over, Rudolph heard his loud knee clicks. Whether in a larger herd or in a meeting of two reindeer, those noises were designed to show relative position or dominance. On the short amble to his desk, Tarandus's knees did a series of double clicks. If it made the reindeer feel better, Rudolph didn't care. That Tarandus needed to show such a display, Rudolph found more sad than anything.

Tarandus sat and said peremptorily, "You know everyone's heard. The angels are going to begin broadcasting the news."

"From on high?"

"From everywhere."

"You wouldn't have something to do with that?"

"I'm not responsible for what the angels do."

Rudolph said, "Maybe you're part of what went wrong."

"You think I helped Santa escape?"

"Who said anything about escape?"

"I'm just asking questions."

"That's just yulesteria fueled by people like you."

"We're the ones fighting for Santa."

"I don't recall him asking for help especially from anyone like you." Rudolph found himself settling into a pointless, raucous debate with a diseased mind. He had tried to teach himself not to do it. Rudolph asked, "Did you kidnap him?"

"No. There are choices to make, decisions to be made. It's not like this is the first time we've ever prepped for Christmas."

Rudolph said, "It's the first time Santa wasn't here. We need to step up and show we can handle this in a mature, definitely non-hysterical way."

"We're having issues in quality control. Santa just doesn't pay enough attention."

"He's had tons of work for years."

"He should diversify."

"Let you become Santa?" Rudolph asked.

"I'd be excellent for the job." Tarandus pointed at Rudolph. "There's all kinds of things he's been doing wrong for years now. It's accumulated. Caught up with him. For example, he should pay attention to the graffiti."

"And change what?" Rudolph asked.

Tarandus looked nonplussed and shook his antlers. He'd had more and more public clashes with Santa Claus in recent years.

"He's too soft on these kids. And that kindliness? Bah! Reindeer-waste! What's that all about? He should warn them that he'll put them on the naughty list or better yet threaten to throw them to the polar bears. That would teach them."

"That doesn't make sense in terms of what we do here or how we think of ourselves."

"Maybe you don't make sense."

"Does being less kind really help?" Rudolph asked.

"You'd be amazed how well it works."

"And you think fear really works? After all we've seen around the globe, you want to try that here? What is wrong with you?"

"Watch it, Rudolph!" The warning note in Tarandus's voice was unmistakable.

"Or what? You're going to put me on a naughty list?" Rudolph wanted to laugh, but he knew that would make Tarandus furious. He wasn't sure what Tarandus might try to do, but he didn't want to find out, and he didn't want anything to do in the slightest way with encouraging or inciting violence.

Tarandus rattled his antlers.

Rudolph was not deterred. He said, "Don't you rattle your antlers at me. You've been part of making Santa's job harder. Always complaining that things are going wrong. Always complaining that others could do things better. You've always got a thousand criticisms. You've been in charge of quality control for years. What have you done in all that time to improve quality?"

Tarandus replied with a long rant about how Christmas was always better years ago.

When he finished, Rudolph smiled. "But isn't that the way it works? When people were kids and they believed, it was an easier, happier time in their lives. You want to infantilize the planet?"

Rudolph found himself being drawn into the very argument he didn't want to have. He let Tarandus go on again at great length and then said, "What are you willing to do to help find out where he is?"

"I don't have time to help. My staff and I have a very few hours left to prepare for Christmas Eve."

"Are you sure there's going to be a Christmas Eve without Santa?"

"Well, that's your problem to produce him."

"You mean you've been planning for his absence? People might take that as proof that you are part of somehow keeping him from being here."

"Ha! You've got your own addled fears. We can make Christmas Eve be what it is supposed to be. Why don't you go find a herd and migrate? Or better yet, why don't you go somewhere and be naughty and let the real workers deal with real problems."

"You're acting like a yulehole." Rudolph stood up. "I'm going to find him. He'll be here."

He didn't bother to listen to Tarandus's reply.

On his way to Santa and Mrs. Claus's quarters, Rangifer called. "I've got Pulks's search report. No luck. Sorry."

Rudolph thanked him.

As Rudolph walked down the corridors, he thought he detected a different sense from the complex. Was word spreading? Worry blossoming? Fear taking over? He must hurry.

2:00 P.M.

The Claus home was a north woods delight built of first growth pine logs culled before all the ships of traders around the world began to demand them for their masts and spars. Some of the logs were as big around as Rudolph even with his antlers at their greatest extent. A forest of pine trees surrounded the structure. They were decorated with the smallest of twinkling white lights, all carved out of crystal and sparkling as if they'd become facets of a million stars. Inside it was a warmth of woven rugs and candles in sconces. On the tables were wreaths in the center of which were red, gold, orange, blue, purple, and pink candles all lit. Comfortable chairs and couches surrounded the four gigantic fireplaces.

Rudolph didn't think about it much, but one of his most wonderful comforts was that unlike most north woods places, there were no stuffed dead animal heads hung on the walls.

Mrs. Claus greeted him at the door. Her smile faltered. "He really is gone?"

"I fear so."

"You'd best come in."

She wore a red suit and a Santa hat. She looked like everyone's grandmother on Christmas Eve who had just baked her last batch of cookies and could now sit with a cup of tea, nibble a cookie, and talk with a few dear old friends. The whole house smelled like you were just inside the front door of a bakery on a spring morning awash in sunlight.

Mrs. Claus offered tea. Rudolph accepted. It was what Mrs. Claus always served. For her reindeer guests, she kept a supply of their favorite fresh lichen or as in this case, mushrooms, a particular treat. So with his drink and a mound of mushrooms on his plate, Rudolph sipped and nibbled.

When they both were settled with tea and treats, Rudolph gazed at Mrs. Claus. "You knew?"

"He hasn't been home. The only night he never comes home is Christmas Eve. I've been worried."

"Have you called anyone?"

"Sometimes the days before Christmas Eve, he's gone for hours on end. There's just so many things to do. So, I waited. I checked his tracking device, but it was off."

Rudolph produced it and placed it on a table.

She put a hand to her lips. "Oh, dear."

"It was found in Blitzen's office." He told her the story.

When he finished, she said, "You've talked to Tarandus?"

"He is not easy for me to talk to."

"Not for anyone. Being in charge of Quality Control isn't easy, poor thing. You know who's responsible for so many children getting sweaters and socks instead of toys?"

Rudolph shook his head.

"Tarandus. There's always someone near the top who's responsible."

"Does Santa know?"

"I discovered it quite by accident. I haven't had the heart to tell him. They've gone round and round for years on issue after issue. Like Santa refusing to have any part of shoddy toys, even though it's cheaper, just a million things. Tarandus, poor reindeer, is the kind who thinks he knows what's best for everyone." She sighed. "You know Santa saved him?"

"I beg your pardon."

"His leg was crushed, gone, useless. There was talk of destroying him, but Santa wouldn't give up. You know how he hates for any creature to be in pain, but he saw something in Tarandus. Santa sees the good in everyone."

Rudolph stammered, "I try to see the good in everyone."

"You're a very good reindeer, Rudolph. Some animals and people are more difficult than others. Santa has a special gift that way. That whole naughty and nice list. Santa started it as more of a lark, but then it became a thing, and after that a burden. I think he wanted to do away with it. He didn't want to be associated with any punishment, but it takes time to change things. Always does."

Rudolph got back to the investigation, "Has he ever talked to you about shifting or transporting?"

She sniffed. "Only as a dream. Like it was a special thing for reindeer, and he was so glad you had the ability."

"Has he been depressed lately?"

"I've thought about it. Nothing specific I can think of, but I know he's been down the last few years. He covers everything with that jolly, ho, ho, ho, but I know him well. I knew something was wrong. He'd give off little wistful sighs as he heard each increase in fear from every corner of the planet. All the mean, awful things people have done to each other, or threatened each other, or made each other fearful. The naughty list wasn't doing it, and that was mostly for children in the first place. It made him feel bad." She sighed again. "Made me sad as well."

"But people have done hideous things through many long years: torture, wars, holocausts, so much evil."

"He's been down worse this year more than I can remember. He's had a tough year. Too much naughty throughout the whole world. Adults, of course, worse than ever, but kids too, following their parent's example." She took a handkerchief out of her sleeve and dabbed at her eyes. She resumed, "But through it all, all that horror, there always seemed to be a gleam of hope, that nice would triumph. I'm not sure he thinks that anymore."

Rudolph said, "I'm sorry."

She sniffed. "You were always one of the bright lights of his life these past few years, and no, not just for the foggy night, although, of course, we were grateful. We all were, but more for your kindness. You're his closest friend among the reindeer. You know he thought highly of you even before that foggy night?"

"I didn't."

"He's not as expressive as he should be with those closest to him. Put him in the middle of a thousand children, and he's a star, outgoing expressive." She shook her head. "With a friend talking quietly by the fire? Not as open as he should be. He's more like men than is sometimes good for him, or me."

"Maybe he's as much as he's able."

"You are a kind reindeer and most understanding. I'm glad you and he are friends."

Rudolph blushed. "Thank you, ma'am." He cleared his throat. "Do you have any idea where to look for him?"

"I've thought and thought. I've been everywhere even down in the library. I just can't think where he'd go. It has to be somewhere safe and quiet, I'm sure."

"Maybe he'll just come back."

"He wouldn't leave all of you the day before Christmas Eve madly scrambling and worrying."

"But he did."

"Oh dear." She dabbed her eyes again. "He couldn't have been taken. No, that's not possible. Everyone here at the Pole is too dear."

So much for thinking well of people. Rudolph tried, but there were just those who it took too much effort to see what good might or might not be there.

"I'd like to take a look around his office to see if I can find any clues."

"I looked, but you're welcome to try." The checking-it-twice syndrome.

"And I know you've gone to the library, but I'd like to check there as well."

She nodded. "He often goes there when he's troubled. You should hunt as best you can, so that we've done that twice as well."

Rudolph finished his tea and mushrooms and stood up. He turned to Mrs. Claus and asked, "What should I say to him when I find him to get him to come back?"

She sighed. "I know what I'd say. That his contribution of love and happiness and joy is needed more than ever."

Part One: .

Part Two: .

Part Three: .

Part Five: .

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