The Reindeer Conundrum

an excerpt

December 23 5:00 A.M.



"Mr. Rudolph?"

The reindeer adjusted his black, horn-rimmed glasses, but did not look up from behind his desk. "I asked not to be disturbed." He used a tone of voice that could freeze an elf faster than an arctic cold front at the height of a blizzard at the North Pole.

"Sir, it's a shifting issue."

Rudolph sighed. He checked his computer screen for a moment and then hit send. The new even more hoof-friendly mouse pad was a blessing of enormous proportions.

Rangifer, his secretary, stood next to the offending elf. Rangifer shook his antlers and said, "Sorry. He said it was an emergency." Rangifer had worked for him for many years. If he said it was important, then it probably was.

It was barely five a.m. and Rudolph had been in front of his computer since four. He'd only gotten three hours of sleep. It was December twenty-third. In less than twenty-four hours, Santa would have to be on his way. There were a million things left to do.

"It's okay." Rudolph turned to the interloper and glared. "What is it this time?"

"Teenagers, sir. Um, ah, and gifts."

"Who was in charge?"

"Blitzen, sir."

Rudolph could have guessed.

The interrupter was an elf: second class, reindeer division, shifter sector x-1, monitor q47. Rudolph made it his business to know the names, not just the ranks, classifications, and numbers of all the elves who labored in his division. This one was Ralph.

Young reindeer, male and female, loved to show off their shifter powers. The simple embarrassments of shifting gone wrong were too numerous to mention, and there'd been a few tragedies when the far too young tried to do far too much. If they brought a problem to his level, Rudolph knew something was very wrong and could escalate to a first-class-disaster very quickly.

Rudolph was not in charge of Reindeer Rearing, but he was the head of the Deer Shifting Division, which meant he had to put up with young reindeer far more often than he cared to. Being part of an operation that handled the complexity of getting several zillion gifts distributed once a year to all kinds of kids was enough of a pain in the neck. He couldn't stand dealing with both human and reindeer youth most of the rest of the time.

But it came with the job. That's what they did, when you were competent, you got promoted. Lead a sleigh one year, and poof, the next thing you knew, you were in charge of half a damn department (tinsel and candy canes that first year), and not long after that you were stuck in a desk job in a leadership position. When mostly what you wanted to do was to shift into being a cow in a herd in Iowa with plenty of lush grass to eat. This time of the year, those thoughts always came to Rudolph.

He glanced up at his wall with all the pictures taken with him and that damn nose and with all kinds of celebrities from around the world.

He was stuck with the red nose. Forever. It wasn't a skill. He wished it had been. He often tried to tell himself that it was an accident, but in his more honest moments, Rudolph did admit what happened was kind of, well, mostly his fault. He had been young, playing around with shifting, and he'd got the damn red nose when he turned himself into a clown. When he'd shifted back, all of him being a reindeer returned, but the red nose had stayed. Even after that Christmas Eve, he'd tried for years to get rid of it. He'd consulted every possible expert, but he and the nose were wedded together. No matter what he shifted into, when he was back to his real form...Yep, the red nose was too.

No luck. Rudolph, red nose. Screw it.