Chapter One

E. B. SCRUDGE sat at his antique mahogany desk and tapped the little stack of pink slips into a neatly aligned pile. There were twelve pink slips in all. E. B., or Ebbie, as he was known by the handful of people who considered him a friend—usually because they didn’t know him very well—smiled as he painstakingly scrawled his spidery signature onto each and every one of the bright pink forms with his favorite gold pen.

When he finished, he glanced at the Regulator clock ticking on his office wall. The hour was growing late. He gazed down at himself as he sat behind his desk and flicked an imaginary speck of lint from the front of his vest. The Armani suit jacket that went with the vest was hanging on the coatrack by the window. Ebbie had rolled up his shirtsleeves, displaying lovely strong forearms and the gold Rolex Sky-Dweller on his wrist that cost more than the combined monthly salaries of all twelve unsuspecting employees he had just erased from the company books.

Ebbie stared through his fifteenth-floor office window at the city streets splayed out beneath him. The corner streetlights blinked on, and as darkness deepened, all the Christmas lights on the various office buildings around him twinkled merrily to life. By orders from on high, his own orders to be exact, the building he sat in would remain resolutely unlit and unadorned during the holiday season. Why make it a merry Christmas for the San Diego Gas and Electric Company? What the hell had they ever done for him? Eventually Ebbie turned away from the festive lights outside and the silent tirade against SDG&E going on inside his head. He shifted his gaze to the calendar in the upper-right-hand corner of his computer screen. December 24th. Christmas Eve.

Humming “O Tannenbaum”under his breath in a not unpleasant baritone, he set about the mundane task of stuffing each of the twelve pink slips into a business envelope and scribbling the name of each recipient onto the front. When that chore was accomplished, he attached a merry holiday sticker beside each name. One sticker portrayed a glittery snowflake. One a reindeer. One a gaily wrapped gift. One a plate of milk and cookies. One a Christmas tree. One a bright, shiny star glimmering in the heavens. One a puppy with a Christmas bow tied at its throat. One a baby Jesus sleeping peacefully on a bed of straw. One a silvery Christmas ornament hanging from an evergreen bough. One a tiny elf with a funny little hat. One a sleigh piled high with packages. One a chimney with Santa’s head poking out the top with a big sappy smile on his chubby face and a jolly smear of soot on his nose.

By the time Ebbie had finished applying the twelve cheery stickers beside each carefully scrawled name on each perfectly prepared envelope, he was smiling as sappily as the Santa on the last sticker.

Not that he enjoyed firing people, especially at this time of year—or so he told himself. But let’s face it, he also told himself (rather vindictively, I might add) these particular twelve people had it coming. He had, after all, at various times during the course of the year heard each and every one of them snidely comment on their boss in a less-than-complimentary fashion, when they thought the boss was nowhere at hand to overhear. But little did Ebbie’s employees know, their boss was always at hand to overhear, one way or another.

The Scrudge & Barley Insurance Company, or Scrudge & Barley, Inc., was located in the Scrudge & Barley, Inc., office building on the corner of 4thand C in downtown San Diego. It was just up the street from the San Diego Civic Theatre on a plot of prime California real estate that would have sold for millions had there been nothing on it but a patch of weeds. With the sixteen-story office building on site, its worth bordered on priceless. Since the death of his partner (and lover), Cornelius Barley, from whom he had inherited the company, Ebbie owned every square foot of the place, from the shadowy catacombed basement all the way up to the luxurious glass-and-chrome penthouse where he rested his head every night. Not bad for a guy in his midforties who never went to college and didn’t know a thing about insurance until Cornelius Barley, two decades his senior in age and experience, took him under his wing (and into his bed).

And since the Scrudge & Barley, Inc., office building was now his home as well as his business, Ebbie took great pains to know everything that transpired within its walls. He had spies roaming the corridors. He had hidden cameras scattered about in various strategic locations. He had microphones hidden in the walls of the bathrooms. And if all that wasn’t enough, he also had excellent hearing. Not to mention being a little paranoid (as most assholes rightly are), which helped considerably keeping the peons in line—don’t think it didn’t. It was a skill he had learned from Cornelius Barley, who could crack a whip with the best of them. Yes, Cornelius Barley had certainly known how to keep the menials in line, and Ebbie had learned every one of Corny’s tricks before the old man keeled over dead from a massive heart attack exactly three years earlier on this very night. Christmas Eve. And at this very desk, no less.

Ebbie heaved a sigh, remembering. Then he gave himself a businesslike shake and focused his attention back on himself, where he most dearly loved to keep it.

What had he been pondering? Oh, yes.

Absolute and total subservience, that’s what he required. Not to mention a goodly dose of adoration, feigned or otherwise. And God help those employees who faltered in their devotions. To wit: the twelve merrily decorated envelopes once again stacked neatly on his desk in a perfect little pile. This yearly firing of malcontents was a time-honored tradition handed down from his predecessor, and a darn good way to sweep out the chaff from the company roster.

Ebbie glanced again at the Regulator clock ticking away in the far corner, then at the digital time readout at the corner of his computer screen, and finally at the golden Rolex Sky-Dweller on his wrist. All three timepieces agreed. It was a quarter past four. The day was almost over, and the workers would be filing out of the building in exactly forty-five—no, wait. Forty-four minutes. The offices would be closed the next day. Not only would the employees of Scrudge & Barley, Inc., be free from the daily insurance grind for a while—actuarial tables, rejection letters refusing benefits, the occasional grudging payment of same—but Ebbie would be forced to pay their salaries while those same employees lounged around and ate bonbons at home and undoubtedly talked about him behind his back, a fact that irked the shit out of Ebbie Scrudge every December 25th.

With a huff of annoyance, Ebbie reached for the intercom and pressed the buzzer.

 

 

NEXT DOOR to where E. B. Scrudge sat in splendor controlling his vast insurance empire and plotting evil deeds, Willie Simpson hunkered down in a claustrophobic cubicle at a battered gray metal desk on a squeaky chair and tried to complete the long list of correspondences Mr. Scrudge had ordered him to type and send out in the evening post. Willie couldn’t help noticing there wasn’t a single Christmas card in the bunch. No, these were merely a long succession of ultimatums, threats, complaints, and promises of retribution if certain criteria concerning the workings of the Scrudge & Barley Insurance Company, Inc., were not met to Mr. Scrudge’s satisfaction.

Willie Simpson, young, handsome, and on the cusp of his twenty-fifth birthday, was innocent in more ways than he cared to admit. His blond surfer hair played at the collar of the cheap suit coat he had bought used off the rack at a thrift store up the street. He had the cutest pair of dimples, or so his mother always told him, which drilled holes in his cheeks every time he smiled, although those dimples didn’t make too many appearances inside the Scrudge & Barley, Inc., insurance complex, where he worked as personal secretary, or (let’s be honest here) personal flunky, to the big man himself.

And speaking of the big man himself, it might be mentioned that Willie Simpson was also hopelessly in love with his boss, E. B. Scrudge, and had been for a couple of years now. E. B. Scrudge was, in Willie’s eyes, a handsome, sexy hunk of manhood, even if he was an asshole. It might also be mentioned that Willie, in all his innocence of heart, if not body, performed certain other duties for his boss, when his boss was in the mood to be so entertained. And it was these other duties, these special duties, these entertainments, that kept Willie coming back to work every day.

But he mustn’t think about that now. Mr. Scrudge had shown no indication that Willie’s special talents would be needed on this day before Scrudge & Barley, Inc., closed down to allow the many employees of the firm to celebrate the holiday with their families. It looked like Willie’s own Christmas would be spent without any of those special memories to keep him feeling warm and festive. But Willie was used to disappointment. For one reason or another, most of Mr. Scrudge’s employees met with disappointment on an almost daily basis. Willie was no exception.

He also had his fair share of disappointments at home, caring for his ill mother, who was battling dementia. And her barely sixty. Willie’s father had died eons ago, and being an only child, it was left to Willie to see that his mother was looked after. One day he would need to place her in an institution better equipped to deal with her sickness. A place where they could watch her around the clock. But that time had not yet come, thank goodness. And besides, when the time did come, Willie had no idea how he was going to pay for his mother’s extra care. It was a problem Willie tried not to think about. He could barely afford to pay an elderly lady in his apartment building to watch his mother while he worked. And she was kind enough to charge him almost nothing. Willie supposed it would all work out somehow. In the meantime, he was happy to have his mother with him for as long as he could. At least her mind had not yet retreated so far into the shadows of dementia that she no longer knew her own son. And for that Willie was forever grateful.

After taking a few pleasant seconds to enjoy the sight of the Christmas lights blinking on across the city through his one tiny cubicle window, Willie Simpson heaved a great sigh. His back was aching from hunching over the keypad for the last four hours on his squeaky chair, typing up Mr. Scrudge’s correspondence. A weary smile made its way to his face when he realized he had only one more letter to type. But that briefly appearing smile did a swan dive, and Willie heaved another heart-wrenching sigh when he realized the last letter was to a Mrs. Evelyn Woozle concerning the insurance claims of Mrs. Woozle’s nine-year-old daughter, Wendy. Willie read through the correspondence twice, each time heaving another great sigh.

Over the last few months, Willie had typed a long string of letters to Mrs. Woozle from his boss. The mood of Mr. Scrudge’s letters had escalated quite quickly from incredulous to vaguely annoyed to downright furious. And now, Willie knew before he read it, here in his hand was the culmination of all the previous animosities squeezed into one cold, unfeeling missive, rather like an exclamation mark stabbed onto the end of a long, rambling, contentious sentence.

In Willie’s eyes, Mrs. Woozle’s story was a sad one. Wendy Woozle, Mrs. Woozle’s oldest daughter, was wasting away. Quite literally. And no one was sure why. The Scrudge & Barley Insurance Company had reluctantly paid for a battery of medical tests, but every test proved inconclusive, and the cause of Wendy’s illness remained a mystery. Two months ago, Willie’s boss had told Mrs. Woozle, who was a widow, that Scrudge & Barley, Inc., was tired of throwing good money after bad and informed her in no uncertain terms that one more claim in the pursuance of a cause behind her daughter’s wasting illness would, in effect, annul the family’s insurance policy altogether. He had suggested the mother feed the poor girl more often. Maybe order her a goddamn pizza. Who knew but what starvation and child neglect might not be the real culprits here?

Now, having finished reading this particular correspondence on this Christmas Eve, Willie knew this was indeed the final and legally binding culmination of Mr. Scrudge’s threats to the Woozle family. For against Mr. Scrudge’s orders, the good woman had visited yet another specialist, who had performed yet another battery of very expensive tests on her nine-year-old daughter, and those tests too, alas, had been inconclusive. As if that wasn’t bad enough, one of her other unfortunate children (she had five) had slipped from his skateboard and fractured his arm, incurring further claims for medical recompense from Scrudge & Barley, Inc. So as E. B. Scrudge, the hunky but not-so-merry gentleman in the other office, had threatened, the letter Willie now began to transcribe was the promised cancellation of all insurance benefits to the members of the Woozle family, each and every one of them, taking effect henceforth and continuing on in perpetuity (if E. B. Scrudge had anything to say about it). And “A Jolly Holiday Season To You And Yours,” the letter closed with a merry huff.

Willie began typing the letter, stopped long enough to sponge a tear from his cheek, then resumed his efforts.

He stopped typing again when the buzzer on his intercom hummed. He was being summoned.

Willie rolled his squeaky chair away from his battered desk, patted his chest to calm his pounding heart, and straightened his tie. He covered his mouth with his hand and tested his breath. He ran fingers through his blond hair to push it off his forehead. He stood, made sure his shirt was properly tucked, then plucked a tiny wrapped gift from a desk drawer. Sucking in a great gulp of air to brace his nerves, Willie stepped through the connecting door to Mr. Scrudge’s domain.

Mr. Scrudge was in his shirtsleeves, sitting ramrod straight in his chair, looking as gorgeous as ever. Thick black hair with a hint of gray at the temples, strong boxy jawline, broad shoulders, and cool blue eyes that could either freeze you in your tracks or, at moments of passion, melt you with a glance. Willie longed to run his fingers over those strong, hairy forearms as he had done so many times before, and if he had a few minutes to kill, he’d like to strip off his clothes and plop his naked ass down on his boss’s lap and stir up another hornet’s nest or two, as he had also done many times before. But his amorous imaginings were whittled to shavings that drifted onto the plush red Berber carpet at his feet when he saw the stack of envelopes on his boss’s desk. He knew what they were. A similar stack had been sitting there last year on Christmas Eve. And the Christmas Eve before that. At least this year the stack was smaller.

Willie wondered if this would be the year his own name made the pile.

“Finish the correspondence, Willie?” Mr. Scrudge asked without looking up from the letters in his hand.

“One more to go, sir,” Willie said.

“Good, Willie.” And finally Mr. Scrudge’s gaze took in Willie standing before him, shuffling his feet and holding a small, gaily wrapped package in his hand.

“What’s that?” Scrudge asked with a glower. “Is that a Christmas present? Who’s it for?”

Willie gave a little jump. “Oh. It’s for you, sir. Just a little remembrance from me, hoping you have a merry—”

“Fine,” Scrudge interrupted coolly. “Leave it on the desk, and as soon as you pass out these twelve envelopes to the proper recipients scattered about the building, you can type up that last letter and get it in the mail.”

Willie approached the desk shyly and placed the Christmas present on the farthest corner from Mr. Scrudge’s chair. He took the envelopes from Mr. Scrudge’s outstretched hand.

“Yes, sir. I’ll get right on it. Thank you, sir.”

Mr. Scrudge made no mention of the gift on his desk. No “thank you,” no insincere display of curiosity, no grunt of intrigue, nothing.

Willie jumped again when Mr. Scrudge asked, “You’re looking handsome today, Willie. In a hurry to get home tonight?”

Willie’s heart did a backflip. “No, sir. Did you need something further?”

Mr. Scrudge rolled his chair back from his desk and stroked a hand across the fly of his Armani trousers, which displayed a sizable bulge. “I think we might find a few chores for you after your daily work is finished, if you’ve a mind for it.”

Willie felt the blood rush to his head. Well, he felt part of his blood rush to his head. The rest of his blood rushed in the opposite direction, taking up residence in his crotch.

“I’ve a mind for it,” Willie stammered, and Mr. Scrudge actually smiled.

“Well, good, then, Willie. Off you go now,” Mr. Scrudge said, shooing Willie out the door with a flip of the fingers while his other hand still lay across the promising bulge in his Armani suit pants.

“Yes, sir,” Willie said, beaming. On legs weak with desire, he backed out of the office and gently closed the door behind him.

He stood outside Mr. Scrudge’s door and waited for his heart to stop thundering. Then he counted the envelopes in his hand. An even dozen. Shuffling through them once again, Willie read the names one after the other. His own name was not among them.

Willie sighed, torn between elation for the invitation to return to Mr. Scrudge’s office later, happiness at not being fired, and guilt for what he was about to do to a dozen unsuspecting workmates. Both happy and miserable, more than slightly hurt that Mr. Scrudge had not acknowledged his gift with so much as a nod of acceptance, and like the lovesick fool he knew deep down he really was, Willie scurried off toward the elevator to ruin Christmas for twelve soon-to-be-former fellow employees.