by Micki Browning
About the Author:Award-winning author Micki Browning worked in law enforcement for over two decades and is an FBI National Academy graduate. She retired as a division commander – wonderful fodder for her current career as a writer. Her mystery, Adrift, set in the Florida Keys, won the 2015 Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence and the Royal Palm Literary Award. It is slated for publication January 2017 by Alibi- Random House. Learn more at

Always read the fine print.

Here’s the deal. I kill people. In my line of work, bosses aren’t the kind of guys you want to mouth off to and contracts aren’t always written. In hindsight, though, one clause should have rang some bells, and I’m betting I could have saved myself a whole lot of trouble if I’d just asked a couple questions—made sure me and the boss were caroling from the same sheet of music, so to speak.

It’s not like we don’t go way back, my boss and I, cause we do. I’ve got more than a few Christmas bonuses under my belt. Betcha didn’t know contract killers got bonuses around the holidays, but there’s probably a bunch you don’t know about us.

Truth be told, I’m a nice guy. I pet cats and kiss babies. You’d think I was just a regular working stiff if you met me on the street. Except you wouldn’t remember me. First off, my name’s Clarence, and unless you’re handing out angel wings, it’s not a name that sticks with people. Also, I’m average height, average weight, dark hair, brown eyes. Nothing that marks me as exceptional. Unless you knew what I did for a living. Then you’d either be looking down the wrong end of my Beretta, avoiding me, or wanting to be my best friend.

But that role’s taken.

See, I work for her already.

Surprised she’s a gal? Don’t be. Look to nature. The real troublemakers are female. Black widow? Yeah, how’d I know you’d pick that one first. Well, how about seahorses? Did you know the females saddle the males with the brood? Or how about Praying Mantis? Oh sure, all pious ’til they get hungry.

A bit off topic, I know, but at least it illustrates that I’m not a one-dimensional cad. You see, it takes smarts to be an assassin—and I’ve got ’em in spades.

Turns out, though, my boss has a royal flush. Oh, and she never bluffs.

The contract seemed pretty straightforward. Some guy named Nick had to go. Only after I surveilled him awhile, I kind of got cold feet—and for the record? It had nothing to do with geography. I mean, I knew the North Pole was cold before I accepted the job.

The money was too good to pass up, though. Gold. Half up front, half on the back end.

So, bundled in Patagonia and other Arctic-worthy duds, I set off. Turns out, it ain’t easy to get to the North Pole. Compass? It doesn’t know which way to spin. Gas stations are scarce. The last truck stop sold boiled peanuts, Rolaids, and a toothless clerk named Susie.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand this is a strange occupation with even stranger bedfellows. But that still didn’t prepare me for Susie Winkleberry, and in a moment of indiscretion, I may have revealed my plans for old Nick. Susie was all in.

Seems Susie had grown up wanting a pony. Every little girl’s dream, right? But Susie didn’t want just any pony. Shetland? Highland? Neither was good enough. No. She wanted a pink one.

Thirty years later, she still held a grudge. Turns out, she’d once dated the guy. That meant she knew stuff. Maybe not where the bodies were buried, but the more intel you knew about your target, the more likely the hit’d go smooth. At least in theory.

Bonus, she had a sleigh.

A few miles in, I’d had my fill of this particular mode of locomotion. The problem wasn’t the sleigh so much as the creatures required to pull it. Reindeer. Only there’s nothing dear about the bastards. Being downwind was particularly problematic, or in this case, aromatic.

But we made good time.

Old Nick lived at the pinnacle of the pole. We weren’t going to make it by nightfall, but Susie knew of a place we could stay.

So, we stopped at this inn. The name escapes me, but something like Three Kings or some such. I doubt so much as a prince ever stayed at this mangy place. I steered toward the tavern.

You know that line about sugarplums dancing? Reindeer crap. The only thing dancing in this place was Holly.

The innkeeper looked straight out of central casting for Oz. Made me jones for some helium just so we could have a proper conversation. The night we were there coincided with the weekly meeting of the EA.

“Hi my name is Stanislaus and I’m an elf.”

“Hi Stanislaus.”

“It’s been seven months since I made a toy.” He bowed his head. The group remained silent. Waiting. “I fingered my lederhosen yesterday. The embroidery, the buttons …” his voice cracked. “I wanted to put it on and run back to the workshop.”

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