The traditional carols were playing over the loudspeakers of Harpers as the shoppers milled round, taking care of their last minute purchases. From the manager's office, Ben Harper, the youngest of the family, was watching on the closed circuit television screams as the money flowed through the cash registers.
"Looks like another good year, Ben" the woman sitting opposite him said. Like Ben, she was in her late forties, dressed in a checked Ben Sherman jumper and grey culottes, the knee length reddish brown leather boots on her legs clearly visible. Her light brown hair was cut in a bob, but the smile on her face lit up the room.
"Yeah Jennie, I think we can safely say the Harper empire has met their targets for this year," Ben said as he turned to look at her. "Mind you, I think the Santa's Grotto this year has been a big part of that business."
"What do you expect when you are attracting the men as well as the women," Jennie said as the screen switched to an overhead shot of a snowy scene, a red hut sitting in the middle. The area was gated off, and standing at the gate was a tall, thin dark haired woman dressed in a red mini dress with white fur trim and a wide black leather belt around her waist. She was opening the gate to those who had paid, and showing them up the path, but each of the men who passed could not help looking at her long legs, the black wader boots covering them almost to the hem of her skirt.
At the side of the hut was another young woman, dressed in a green short sleeved dress and wearing a pair of false pixie ears. A green cap was perched on her blonde hair, and she smiled at everyone who arrived as she showed them to where Santa was sitting. Her feet were in a pair of green boots which came halfway up her calf.
"I have to admit, they have been a big hit," Ben said as he turned round. "The guy does the whole day, but there are two pairs of women who do the rest of the work."
"Is this his last day?"
"Well, it is Christmas Eve, Jennie. What do you think?"
Jennie laughed as she stood up and pulled her grey leather jacket on. "Very true. Look, I have to go and pick Alex up from the station. Don't be too late home."
Jennie walked down to the shop floor, passing the grotto as a sign was put up saying "Closed for Lunch" From inside the hut, Santa watched her walking towards the exit, nodding to his two assistants as she left the door. Both quietly left, as he sat down and took out a mobile phone.
"Alex!! Over here!!"
Jennie waved at the young woman as she walked down the platform, pulling her case behind her. Alex Harper was twenty years old and studying for a degree in law at university. This was the first time she had been home for some months, having spent the summer interning at a law firm, and as she rushed up to hug her mother it was clear that she had been missed.
"Mum, it is so good to see you," Alex said as she finally let go and stood back. She was wearing a long brown suede coat with a light trim, but from underneath the hem it could be seen that a pair of expensive black leather boots were covering her legs and feet.
"Come on," Jennie finally said as she grabbed her daughter's case, "Let's get you home before it starts snowing again." They trudged through the car park, chatting excitedly to each other as they did so, before Jennie opened the trunk of her car and put the case in. They didn't notice the car that pulled away as they set off; following from a distance as they travelled down the suburban road.
It took about half an hour to reach the Harper residence, set some way off the road in the outskirts of town. As the garage door opened and Jennie drove in, the car that had been following them drove past the house and turned the corner.
As the garage door closed, another door in the wall opened and a middle aged woman, with dark skin and wearing a grey coat dress same out.
"Welcome home Miss Alex," she said as Alex climbed out of the car. "Good to see you too, Juanita," Alex said with a smile as she hugged the maid. "Would you get Alex's bags please, Juanita," Jennie said as she walked towards the door. "I'm sure she would like to get unpacked in her room."
Walking through the kitchen to the hallway, she hung her jacket in the closet and watched as her daughter followed Juanita up the staircase, the two women talking excitedly to each other. She then walked back towards the kitchen with the intention of getting a drink.
"Are you enjoying your course, Miss Alex," Juanita said as she watched Alex take off her coat and place it on the bed. She was wearing a black mid-length skirt with a dark red floral pattern on it, and a black silk blouse underneath.
"It is certainly challenging, Juanita," Alex said with a laugh as she sat on the bed. From downstairs, the doorbell could be heard as it started to ring. "Excuse me, Miss Alex," the maid said as she closed the door and headed for the staircase. Walking across the floor, her flat shoes noiseless on the wood, she opened the door and said "Can I help you?" The reply was unexpected, as the damp cloth covered her nose and mouth while the two new arrivals forced her back into the hallway. Juanita's eyes opened with shock, before the sweet smelling fumes had the effect of forcing her into a deep sleep.
The two women looked at each other before they picked the sleeping maid up and carried her into the front room, leaving her on the couch as they went in separate directions.
"Who was it, Juanita," Jennie said as she heard the door to the kitchen open behind her. The fact that Juanita had not answered was surprising to her, but even more surprising was the click of heels on the polished floor, given her maid usually wore soft flat shoes. "Juanita?" She started to turn, but instead felt a cold prod in her back and heard a female voice saying "Don't move unless I tell you, Mrs Harper."
"Having a nap. Now, this gun in your back is my assurance that I mean business. Do you understand?"
Jennie nodded as she said "Please, just take what you want and leave us alone."
"All in good time, Mrs Harper. Now, slowly, bring your hands behind your back and cross your wrists behind your back."
"You don't have to do this," she whispered, but the prod in her back changed her mind and Jennie slowly brought her hands round. As she crossed her wrists, the pressure in her back disappeared but instead she felt a thin plastic strip pass over her wrists, and heard a rasping sound as they were suddenly brought tightly together. She gasped as she felt the strip biting, even though it had been kept over the cuffs of her jumper.
As she was turned round, Jennie got her first look at her assailant. "You?" she said as she was taken by the arm and forced out of the kitchen, the clicking of the heels of both women's boots resounding as she was frogmarched into the front room.
"Who are you?" was all Alex said as her bedroom door opened and her unexpected visitor walked in.
"I've come from your father's store," she said as she looked back at her through the fringe of her blonde hair, "with a special message for you."
"He sent an elf to deliver me a message? That's typical," Alex said as she turned back and started to unzip the case she had hefted onto her bed. "All right then, what's the message?"
The last thing she expected from somebody who looked so slight was to be attacked, so when she was suddenly forced down, her head buried in the open case, and the woman hissed "Don't move a fucking muscle unless I tell you, bitch" she was taken completely by surprise. Alex felt her wrists been pulled behind her back, and then heard a rasping noise as they were held together by a plastic zip tie.
"Move," the woman said as she pulled Alex up and forced her ahead of her out of the bedroom, down the stairs and into the front room. The sight that was waiting for her made Alex gasp out loud.
Her mother was seated on the floor, her knees raised and the cuffs of her pants riding up towards her knees. A thin white plastic strip was around her ankles, clearly visible on the brown leather, and holding them tightly together, while her hands were pinned somehow behind her back. She was looking up at Alex, mouthing "I'm sorry".
Standing next to the couch was a tall, dark haired woman in a red minidress with fur trim. Her legs were enclosed in black leather boots that went almost up to the hem of her dress, while a wide leather belt was around her waist. There were some incongruous things about her, however – the white latex gloves she had on her hands, and the zip tie she was using to secure the wrists of the unconscious Juanita together behind her back.
"Sit her next to Mrs Harper," the woman said as she crossed Juanita's ankles and passed a zip tie around them. As she heard the rasping sound of the tie being tightened, Alex was forced to sit next to her mother and watch as her own ankles were pulled together.
"Mum," she whispered as the blonde haired girl stood up, "Is it my imagination, or are we being robbed by an elf and a Mrs Christmas?"
"I wish it were, Alex," her mother whispered back, "because I recognise these two women. They've been working in the grotto at your father's store."
"You're kidding," Alex said as the two of them watched Juanita been turned onto her back, and her head placed on a pillow on the arm of the couch. "So why are they here?"
"All in good time," the dark haired girl said as she picked a roll of white material up from the coffee table. Alex could see there were more zip ties lying there as well. "We're jest going to wait for a phone call."
The security guard closed the door on the last customer and locked it behind them. "Well done, everyone," Ben called down from the stairs as the staff gathered round. "There are drinks and snacks in the staff room waiting for you – we'll join you as soon as the cashing up is done." He turned to a small, grey haired woman standing next to him. "Olivia, how long will it take?"
"A short while, Mister Harper," the cashier said as she turned to a younger woman standing next to her. Both were wearing grey blouses and trousers, with grey scarves around their necks. "Come," she said, "Sooner we get started, sooner we get finished." As they walked off to the office, they were watched by Santa, his two other assistants standing next to him in their outfits.
As the floor cleared, he nodded to them and watched as they walked towards the rear of the building, their bottoms moving in the tight red skirts they both had on.
"That bloody hurt!"
"Tough titty," the elf said in reply to Alex's outburst. She had been forced to sit back to back with her mother, and watched as her legs were lashed together over her skirt with another plastic strip. She assumed the same thing had been done to her mother, which was indeed the case. Now their arms were being bound together above the elbows, while on the couch Juanita was starting to slowly open her eyes.
As she saw her employer and her daughter sitting on the floor, and realised they were tied up, she tried to call for help, before realising that lengths of white adhesive tape had been pulled over her mouth. She glared around the room, saw the two intruders and a series of sounds came from under the tape that may have been extremely fruity in Spanish.
"Listen," the elf said as she walked over to Juanita, "Your one chance of staying alive and not choking is to calm down and shut up. Understand?"
The frightened maid looked at the blonde haired woman in the green dress, then at Alex and Jennie before nodding and stopping her struggling. "Be brave, Juanita," Jennie said as she felt a very long tie being tightened around her waist, pulling her close to Alex as well as her wrists against her back.
"Why the hell are you doing this," Alex asked again as Mrs Claus walked in front foe hr and checked the plastic bands around her legs.
"All in good time, girl," she said as the telephone started ringing. She nodded to the elf, who walked out of the room. Jennie could hear a message in muffled tones, before she returned with the tape from the answering machine.
"Call him," she said as Mrs Claus took out a cell phone and dialled a number.
Ben was staring in disbelief at the scene in the cashier's office. Olivia and her assistant were lying face down on the floor, their heads raised as they tried to talk to him through the scarves that had been pulled between their lips. Their wrists and ankles were lashed together, and then tied to each other with plastic strips. Over them stood the two assistants from the grotto, both carrying guns as they looked back at the store manager.
"Ho ho ho – merry Christmas, Mister Harper," he heard a man say, and turning slowly he saw Santa walking in with his red sack. "I see my little helpers have already taken care of things here."
Reaching into his sack, he pulled out a pistol and pointed it at Ben, who raised his hands slowly. "This is a Christmas collection, Mister Harper – we're taking your earnings and giving them to the poor and needy."
"And who are they?"
"Us," Santa replied with a smile. He picked up the office phone, dialled a number and said "It's me – call back in five minutes," before replacing the receiver. "As I said, Mister Harper, this is a robbery, so keep those hands where I can see them."
"You don't honestly think you can get away with this, do you? The store is crawling with security staff and the closed circuit television..."
"... is switched off – Melinda her is very good with electronics." One of the girls smiled at Santa as he said this. "At any rate, you are going to escort me out of the building, and you are not going to raise the alarm in any way."
"Why on earth would I do that?"
As he said this, Ben could hear a cell phone ringing. The other assistant reached into her top, drew out a phone and looked at the screen, before handing it to Santa. "Here s why, Mister Harper," he said as he handed Ben the phone. He looked at the screen for a few minutes, before handing it back, saying "You Bastard" as he did so.
"What, no Christmas spirit," Santa said as he handed the phone back. "Anyway, fill Santa's sack, Mister Harper."
Alex grunted as the wad of cotton was stuffed into her mouth, silencing her as she watched the strips of tape being ripped off and smoothed over her mouth. Behind her, she could hear her mother moaning through her gag, which had been applied a few minutes earlier after the phone call had ended.
Juanita could only watch in mute horror as the two intruders helped themselves to a drink and sat down, their feet resting on their captives' legs as they talked between themselves. Jennie was struggling slightly, trying to find some freedom, but with little success.
"Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas everybody," Santa called out as he walked through the gathering, Ben Harper walking beside the two female assistants as they headed to the door. "Have a great day everyone," he called out as they left the building, the security guards opening them for the party as they departed. A large black van was parked outside, the side doors open and waiting for them.
"Inside, Mister Harper," Santa said as he stood to one side. Ben glared at him before climbing in, the others following before the door was slammed shut.
The elf looked up as the horn was heard outside the building. Looking through the drawn curtains, she said "Time" as she and Mrs Claus picked up their gins and left the three women in the room alone.
Juanita watched as the light was turned off, leaving the room in darkness as the sound of something driving off outside came through. As her eyes adjusted, she saw her mistress and Alex sitting on the floor, their hands down as they accepted there was no way they were getting free without help. Slowly, carefully, she rubbed her cheek against the cushion her head was lying on, trying to start to prise loose the edge of the tape.
As the party music was playing, nobody noticed at first as the door to the room opened. One by one, however, people stopped and turned as they saw Olivia inching her way into the room, hopping on her feet as she came in and a saliva soaked scarf down around her neck.
"We've been robbed," she called out as she leaned against the wall. "Please, for god's sake somebody call the police and stop that Santa!"
"Madre de dios," Juanita finally exclaimed as she eased the tape away from her mouth. "Miss Alex, Mrs Harper, stay calm. I will try and find something to cut you free with."
With some effort, she managed to get herself into a seated position and slowly stand up. Jennie and Alex watched as she took short hops across the floor, inching her way towards the corridor tot eh kitchen.
The patrol car pulled up behind the black van, parked in the viewers' area of the drive-in cinema. Stepping out, the officer shone his flashlight into the cab area, before walking round the vehicle.
"Control, can you do a licence check for me," he said into his radio as he walked round. His attention was suddenly taken by a banging sound coming from inside. Drawing his weapon, he waited for a moment before throwing the rear doors open.
Ben Harper stared back at him. "You've got to send someone to my house" he screamed as he saw the officer there, "they have my family hostage."
The two officers found Juanita on the kitchen floor as they burst in, sawing at the band around her wrists with a kitchen knife. "Please," she said as she stared into the lights, "take care of my family."
Three Months Later
"I'm telling you, this promotion has been one of the best ideas we have had in years."
Dennis James watched as the children gathered around the two girls dressed in yellow dresses and flat shoes, handing out Easter eggs as their parents shopped in the stores. Behind them was a man dressed as an Easter bunny, handing out leaflets for the upcoming sale.
"Well done, dear," his wife said as she pecked him on the cheek, before turning round. "I'll see you later."
The Bunny watched as she walked off, her leather trousers squeaking, before nodding to his two assistants who slowly set off after her.