An excerpt from the title story, “The Usual Santas” by Mick Herron
Whiteoaks, the brochures explained, was more than a shopping center: it was a Day Out For The Whole Family; a Complete Retail Experience Under Just One Roof. It was an Ideally Situated Outlet Village—an Ultra-Convenient Complex For The Ultra-Modern Consumer. It was where Quality met Design to form an Affordable Union. It might have been a Stately Pleasure Dome. It was possibly a Garden Of Earthly Delight. It was almost certainly where Capital Letters went to Die.
More precisely, it was on the outskirts of one of London’s northwest satellite towns, and, viewed from above, resembled a glass and steel rendering of a giant octopus dropped headfirst onto the landscape. In the gaps between its outstretched tentacles were parks and play areas and public conveniences, and at each of its two main entrances were garages offering, in addition to the usual services, full valet coverage, 4-wheel alignment and diagnostic analysis, as well as free air and a Last-Minute One-Stop-Shop. Cart stations—colored pennants hoisted above them for swift location—were positioned at those intervals market research had determined user-friendly, and were assiduously tended by liveried cart-jockeys. From ten minutes before dusk until ten after daybreak the area was bathed in gentle orange light, the quiet humming of CCTV cameras a constant reminder that your security was Whiteoaks’ concern. And in a hedged-off corner between the center’s electricity substation and one of four home-delivery loading bays—perhaps the only point in the complex to which the word “accessible” did not apply—lurked a furtive row of recycling bins, like a consumerist memento mori
As for the interior, it was a contemporary cathedral, sacred to the pursuit of retail opportunity. There was a food mall, a clothing avenue, an entertainment hall; there were wings dedicated to white goods (“all your domestic requirements satisfied!”), pampering (“full body tan in minutes!”) and financial services (“consolidate your debts—ask us how!”). There was a boulevard of sporting goods, a bridleway of gardening supplies; a veritable Hatton Garden of jewelers. No franchise ever heard of went unrepresented, and several never before encountered had multiple outlets. Whiteoaks’ delicatessens carried sweetmeats from as near as Abbotsbury and as far as Zywocice; its bookshops shelved volumes by every author its readers could imagine, from Bill Bryson to Jeremy Clarkson. The shopper who is tired of Whiteoaks, it might easily be asserted, is a shopper who is tired of credit. During the summer, light washed down from the recessed contours of its cantilevered ceilings, and during the winter it did exactly the same. Temperature, too, was regulated and constant, and in this it matched everything else. At Whiteoaks, you could buy raspberries in winter and tinsel in July. Seasonal variation was discouraged as an unnecessary brake on impulse purchasing.
Which was not to say that Whiteoaks ignored the passage of the year; rather, it measured the months in a manner appropriate to its customers’ needs. As surely as Father’s Day follows Mother’s, as unalterably as Harry Potter gives way to the Great Pumpkin, time marches on; its inevitable progress registering as peaks and troughs in a never-ending flow chart.
For there are only seventeen Major Feasts in the calendar of the Complete Retail Experience.
And the greatest of these is Christmas.
At Whiteoaks Christmas slipped in slowly, subliminally, with the faint rustle of a paperchain in early September, and the echo of a jingle bell as October turned. Showing almost saintly restraint, however, it did not unleash its reindeer until Halloween had been wholly remaindered. After that, it was open season. Taking full advantage of its layout, the complex boasted eight Santa’s Grottos—one per tentacle—each employing a full complement of sleigh, sacks, elves, snowflakes, friendly squirrels, startled rabbits, and (counterintuitively, but fully validated by merchandise-profiling) talking zebras. And, of course, each had its own Santa. Or, more accurately, each had an equal share in a rotating pool of Santas, for the eight Santas hired annually by the Whiteoaks Festive Governance Committee had swiftly worked out that no single one of them wanted to spend an entire two-month hitch marooned in Haberdashery’s backwater, or worse still, abandoned under fire in the high-pressure, noise-intensive combat zone of Toys and Games, while another took his ease in the Food Hall, pampered with cake and cappuccino by the surrounding franchisees. So a complicated but workable shift system had been established by the Santas themselves, whereby they chopped and changed each two-hour session, swapping grottos three times a day and generally sharing the burden along with the spoils. This worked so well, so much to everyone’s satisfaction, that the first eight Santas hired by the Governance Committee remained the only Santas Whiteoaks needed, returning year after year to don their uniforms, attach their beards, and maintain an impressive 83% record of hardly ever swearing at children whose parents were in earshot.
Santa-ing was not an easy undertaking. It was not a task for sissies. And while the Usual Santas didn’t always do things by the book, by God, they got the job done!
And each year, once they’d managed just that—after the shops had lowered shutters on Christmas Eve, and Whiteoaks slumbered, preparatory to the Boxing Day rush—the Santas met in a hospitality room adjoining the security suite, and relaxed over a buffet provided by the grateful merchants of the quarter, and exchanged war stories until the hour grew late, and generally luxuriated in the absence of children.
But however relaxed they grew, they kept their beards on. And remained zipped inside their red suits. And never addressed each other as anything other than “Santa”; and in fact, would have been unable to do so had they wanted, because while they might, for all they knew, be friends and neighbors in civvy street—might drink in the same pub, or regularly catch the same bus to the same football ground—on duty they remained in uniformed character, and always had done. This had started in jest but had quickly hardened into custom. Not long after that, it calcified into superstition. In their dealings with toddlers and hyperactive infants, the Usual Santas had suffered in undignified, frequently unhygienic ways that had bonded them in a manner few civilians could hope to understand, but on every other level they were strangers to each other. And with this, they were perfectly comfortable.
Until, one day . . .
Copyright © 2017 by Preface by Peter Lovesey; Contributions by Mick Herron, Cara Black, Stuart Neville, Helene Tursten, and others. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.