"Santa Beagle must be stopped." Mors declared, running a hand through his graying blonde hair.
Tony Fryar knew who Santa Beagle was, of course. Actually, he knew what Santa Beagle was; no one knew who Santa Beagle was, except the man himself.
Before Fryar could possibly answer, Mors raged on. "For the past four Christmases some man has run through this mall, completely naked except for a large dog mask which completely covers his head, and a big red Santa hat that has a white ball on the end. He runs through this mall, eluding the security, for about an hour. Then, just as it seems we have him cornered, he vanishes. The biggest outrage is that he is hung like a bull on steroids." Mors leaned forward. "This year, we must get him. You are my new security chief, Mr. Fryar. I hired you in March because the last man to hold your position failed to catch Santa Beagle twice. This streaker has made a mockery of my mall, he is becoming something of a folk hero here in Fairfield, and every year more people flock here specifically to see him degrade the premises."
"Isn't it good that a lot of people come to the mall?" Fryar asked hesitantly. He was a hesitant looking person. Five eight, a hundred and eighty pounds. Blond hair and brown eyes, mousy glasses. Despite his appearance and manner, Fryar was a good security chief. He had come highly recommended. "Wouldn't that drum up business?"
Mors frowned. "I don't mind the extra business, of course. Nor do the companies who rent here. But I don't want it at the expense of looking like a buffoon."
I don't think you need Santa Beagle to do that, Fryar mused to himself. Aloud he said, "from what I've heard, he will do it any time from the 15th until Christmas Eve."
"He has done it during that time period in the past, but you can't take anything for granted. Today is the 8th, I want your men at their highest readiness by tomorrow. I want to see your plan to catch him by tomorrow evening as well."
Fryar wisely added, "What physical description do you have?"
"He is a white male, approximately six feet tall. No visible tattoos or scars, and from the moderately hairy chest and pubic hair we know he is blonde. He is hung like an NBA center. That is all we have. Somehow he gets into the mall with the large beagle head and hat, strips without anyone seeing him. Then, after running around like a lunatic, he somehow gets away from everybody. He changes back into street clothes, and gets out of the mall with the beagle head. Four years straight, he has done this."
Pondering this, Fryar rose. "Someone was telling me that he makes posters or something."
Mors nodded, producing a blue sheet of 8" X 10" paper. Obviously a photocopy, the top half was taken up by a crude but cute drawing of a beagle wearing a Santa cap. The legend below the dog was in fancy script. "Santa Beagle's on a rampage, fa la la la la la la la. Coming soon to a mall near you."
"We found these posted all over Fairfield, on trees and telephone poles, this morning. This prompted me to talk to you." Mors related. "He does this every year, usually about a week before he strikes. So we should have six days to prepare for him."
"That's a line from the song 'Deck the Malls.'" Fryar observed.
"I want him caught, Mr. Fryar. By any means necessary."
"We'll catch him." The security chief promised.
"Professor Forsh, did you see this?" One of the teenagers in the history class asked suddenly, waving a blue flyer. The bell would ring in about five minutes, so this was free time. Anybody could ask anything, within reason.
Mark Forsh wasn't actually a professor, but he was so universally well liked and dignified that everybody called him that. Rubbing his graying brown goatee, he accepted the flyer from the boy in the third row. "Oh yes, Santa Beagle appears ready to strike again. He is threatening to become something of a local Christmas tradition here in Fairfield, isn't he?"
"Why do you think he does it?" A girl wanted to know.
Forsh considered her with a teasing smile. "I suspect you will attend the mall every day, hoping for a glimpse of this man. Won't you?"
Face red as a ripe cherry, the girl giggled self-consciously.
Another girl piped up. "I saw him last year! I'm taking a towel this year! Good lord."
When the class settled down from giggling at that, Forsh went on. "To answer your question, streaking has been a common form of protest throughout the ages. You have all heard of the lady who rode a naked horse through town to protest taxation. As for this particular man, who knows if he is a lunatic, is trying to accomplish something, or even if it is the same person year after year."
The bell rang, and moments later the room had cleared save for the girl Forsh had caused to blush earlier. Her name was Ashley Blair, and it was obvious she was preoccupied with this Santa Beagle. Why she thought he was some kind of expert on it, he had no idea.
"Professor Forsh, what do you really think of this man?" She pointed one finely manicured finger at the flyer. "I got the feeling you were holding back."
He smiled openly. "Young lady, I think Santa Beagle is a wonderful lunatic."
Tony Fryar met with Joseph Crush, the second in command of the mall security, for lunch. Joseph was a tall man, several inches taller than Fryar, and wore his curly blonde hair down to his shoulders. He was the perfect aide in many ways, still quite young but experienced, headstrong but mature. But he seemed to feel bitter about not having the job himself. After all, Joseph had held the number two spot for seven years, plus he'd spent five more years as a regular guard at the mall, receiving the job fresh out of high school. Fryar was the fourth man to take the chief of security job since Joseph took over as second. It HAD to be getting irritating. He obviously felt he deserved to be promoted instead of outside people continually being brought in, and rightfully so as far as Fryar was concerned.
It was an awkward situation for Fryar, but he genuinely liked Joseph, so that made it easier. This Santa Beagle problem brought the tension back to the surface, however.
Santa Beagle had been directly responsible for the firing of the last two security chiefs. Each of the last two men filling that position had twice failed to catch the mad streaker, and were no longer chief. Fryar knew that if he failed this year, he would lose his job. He would not get a second change because Mors was growing more and more obsessed with stopping the Beagle. It was very likely that Joseph would finally get his shot, because passing over him a fifth time would be a direct slap in the face. The only reason Fryar had been sought after was the notoriety he received for finally catching the Easter Streaker in California after THAT lunatic had successfully gotten away 3 years in a row. Otherwise Joseph would no doubt be chief already.
So Joseph had to realize that Fryar's job hung in the balance over this. So how hard would Joseph help Fryar, knowing all that had to happen was for the streaker to succeed again and most likely Joseph would finally have the benefits, power, prestige, and pay scale being the Chief of Security at a mall provided.
Fryar didn't know how motivated Joseph would be, but he'd have to trust that man's integrity. "So, Joseph, how do you think he gets into the mall with the huge beagle head?"
The second in command scowled. "I don't know. After the second time, the security measures we used were ridiculous. Men posted at every door. Plainclothes men making circuits, the whole nine yards. But, let's face it, it's a huge three story mall with six entrances. It serves Fairfield, Lockdown, and Bleakville, and is next to a major highway. During the Christmas season, literally thousands of people walk through those doors every day. And every year more and more people show up this time of year just to witness and film him, which makes it even harder. Our monitoring cameras are not effective when there is wall to wall people. He gets through our net every year, somehow."
"But once he appears in the nude, why couldn't you coordinate your efforts via radio and monitor cameras and corner him?"
"We've tried. But every time we get close, he vanishes. I remember last year, we thought we had him cornered in one part of the third floor. One of our officers saw him run into a video arcade. When backup arrived, including me, we searched the arcade and the two adjacent businesses, but we found no sign of him, or even the beagle head. I can't explain it. One problem is we have so many people on the doors, there aren't enough to search the mall when he strikes."
"Didn't you question the people in the arcade and the other two businesses? Somebody HAD to have seen something."
"I don't doubt that, but everybody professed ignorance. The people in the arcade said Santa Beagle passed by their place. Nobody in the clothing store next door admitted to seeing him, and ditto for the shoe store next to that. Nobody on the walkway saw anything either." Joseph added, seeming disgusted.
"Why would they protect him?" Fryar inquired, curiously.
"Well, I'm sure some of them actually didn't see anything. The rest ..." The second in command shrugged. "Who knows why they would protect him? Maybe they like the rebelliousness he stands for. Santa Beagle has become something of a folk hero around here. I have witnessed cases where he is being chased and the crowds will open for him, then close back and make it difficult for the pursuing officers to continue the chase."
Fryar pondered that. "Nevertheless, we'll get him this year. Instead of having so many people on the doors, we'll have everybody patrolling the mall. He's been able to get past our door screen before, so we'll concede him getting in so we can put more effort into catching him when he makes his move."
"Sounds good." Joseph hedged.
There were eight guards during Christmas season besides Fryar and Joseph. Before, only six were necessary, but since the rampage of Santa Beagle began, two more had been added as a "special Santa Beagle Task Force." Fryar met with them all after the mall closed down for the day.
There was Samantha, a tall blonde woman who couldn't stop grinning this time of year. Though she was in a relationship, she LOVED Santa Beagle time, and her steady grin showed it.
There was Bennie, a serious, stocky black man would said he couldn't wait to catch "dog boy." He usually clenched his fists when he talked about it.
There was Adrian, a small serious woman who always wore gloves this time of year in case she was the one who caught Santa Beagle.
There was Michael, a tall thin black headed man who was the only person who didn't seem jealous of Santa Beagle.
There was Robin, a brunette who also grinned from ear to ear this time of year. She claimed that Santa Beagle grew each year.
There was Steve, a bushy headed red and gray haired man who was always joking that what they needed was a tranquilizer gun. He was the prankster and had once bought a mock up of the Santa Beagle head and sneaked it into Mors' office. He almost got fired for that, but Joseph had supposedly talked the mall manager out of it.
The two special hires for this time of year were Kelly, a five foot tall track star who claimed he could run down a car, and Gary, an Olympic sprinting runner up. Both of them were blonde.
Fryar informed them of the change in strategy and told them to start getting a lot of rest at night.
"May I help you?" Santa Beagle asked politely.
The customer placed two packs of Camels on the counter. "I also need ten dollars of gas."
The man who sometimes called himself Santa Beagle rang up the purchase, accepted the money, and keyed the pump for ten dollars of fuel. "Have a nice day."
The man watched the customer leave, then glanced around the empty gas station / convenience store. It was late, almost seven o'clock. Every day he came and watched the store while his mother ate dinner. Although a lot of people in Fairfield knew he was Santa Beagle, his mother wasn't one of them. She was ultra-conservative, it wouldn't do for her to find out.
A teenaged boy came in, calling him by name.
"Hi Roger," Santa Beagle replied.
Roger brought over two packs of gum and a candy bar, placing them on the counter. "Bark, bark." He giggled.
The man behind the counter winked. "Bark, bark." They laughed together. "Go ahead, get out of here. No charge this time, bark boy." He winked again. "Just don't tell my mother on me. She hates when I give things away."
"Thanks." Roger chirped. "Merry Christmas!"
"And a happy Santa Beagle." They joined each other in laughter again, looking up guiltily when another customer entered.
Roger left and Santa Beagle attended to the new customer. This is going to be a fine Christmas, he had time to think. A fine Christmas.
"Everybody is in place." Fryar reported to Mors the next morning. He'd already described the change from watching the doors to patrolling he mall itself. Mors had been lukewarm to the idea, but he'd already made it clear that it was Fryar's show all the way.
"Good, good." He leaned over his desk, meeting Fryar's eyes. "My wife took me to one of those endless Christmas parties last night. Apparently, everybody at the party saw these Santa Beagle flyers, and all of them got the idea to ask me about it. One joker asked me 'so, I guess that dog man is going to run naked and well endowed through your mall again?' Another man asked me if I had Abbott and Costello in charge of my security. Even the board of directors are laughing at me. THERE WAS A DOG BISCUIT SITTING ON MY PLATE WHEN I RETURNED FROM THE BATHROOM!" He shuddered. "Everyone laughed. I don't like being a laughing stock, Mr. Fryar. We HAVE to catch him this year, or I might as well sell my share of the mall and move away."
"I will do my best, sir." Fryar promised. "That's all I can tell you."
"I even learned that one of the tabloid TV shows has heard of Santa Beagle and will be flying in to do the story. They called me yesterday requesting an interview. I refused with my dignity, of course. But they'll be here, waiting for this madman to drop his trousers and flaunt himself. If we don't catch him, you know what their story will be like!" Mors warned direly.
Fryar nodded, hoping he looked sufficiently glum.
"So, as the saying goes, the stakes are higher now."
"That's a saying?" Fryar wanted to know. Privately he said to himself, yeah, instead of three towns knowing how much of a buffoon you are, the entire nation will know.
A week later, December 16th, the subject of Santa Beagle came up in Professor Forsh's class again.
"I'll bet Santa Beagle does it this week." One of the boys chirped up.
Rubbing his goatee, Professor Forsh wandered to the window and peered out at the basketball courts below. "Have you thought seriously about this?" He asked them finally. "What kind of man could completely bare himself in front of all those people? A lunatic? A man so dedicated to a specific cause that he has overridden any sense of dignity he possesses? Or someone entirely desensitized, so incapable of feeling embarrassed?"
His back to the class, Mark Forsh had the sudden, wild fantasy that all of the people in his class had sneaked out of the room, leaving him talking to himself like a slobbering fool. He turned back, finding his class all there and staring at him attentively.
"Ashley Blair." He said suddenly. "What is the thing that sticks in your mind about the mall?"
"Oh, I hate the way the clerks treat us sometimes. They, like, ignore us, or treats us like we don't have any money. We spend more money than most adults!"
"Yeah," Roger added crossly, "they call us mall rats. I've heard them."
"It really annoys me sometimes." Ashley finished, seeming embarrassed to have spoken with such passion. "Just because we are young, and like to take our time shopping, they discriminate against us or cop an attitude."
"And try to get some help from most of the clerks!" Another girl put in.
Forsh nodded wisely. "You make an interesting point. They sometimes ignore you. It's kind of hard to ignore a naked person, isn't it? If somebody likes attention, that's a sure way to get it." He raised his arms. "Hey everybody! Look at me!" His arms dropped like dying birds. "Then, once you have everybody's attention, you can make your point. Why the mall? What is the largest demographic at malls this time of year?" He pointed with an open hand to them. "Mall rats."
He paused dramatically, then added. "Or maybe this guy is just a double order of fruit salad."
Fryar drove to the mall that night at 6pm. Each of the first four years, Santa Beagle attacked the mall between 7 and 9pm. They didn't expect a deviation this year, so, for the past week Fryar made sure he was here during those peak Beagle hours.
Joseph met him at the door. "I've got a hunch it will be today, or tomorrow."
"I think he will have to do it very soon. Every day that passes, the more alert our people will be because they know he'll HAVE to do it before Christmas. I'm like you, I think it will be the next couple days."
They met the rest of the security guards at one of the mall's three Starbucks. "Okay," Fryar began, sipping his peanut butter expresso as he talked. "Just a reminder. When the report comes in, and he's on the second or third floor, I want all of the stairs and escalators monitored. Have one of you on each. That way, he will be stuck on one floor, and catching him will be only a matter of time. And no matter what happens, you people on the stairs are to remain at your post. There's no way Santa Beagle can get off the upper floors if we watch the stairs and escalators tightly."
The others fought to stay awake. This was only the millionth time they had heard this.
"And if the initial report has him on the first floor, you people on the stairs and escalators will watch the outside doors instead. Sooner or later, he will have to flee to one of the upper floors, and we will have him." Joseph added.
"Okay." Fryar continued. "Now, when we catch him, I want him cuffed and taken out immediately. Several police officers are on hand, mostly at the doors. Give custody of this mendicant to one of them as soon as possible. We want to avoid any possible ugly incidents. Santa Beagle is pretty popular."
Concerned, Joseph spoke up. "Quite frankly, the capture of Santa Beagle has seemed so unlikely that I hadn't thought about that aspect. Do you really expect trouble?"
"Not really, but you always have to be prepared." Fryar replied wisely.
7pm. Fryar wandered around the mall, talking to different people occasionally, the rest of the time he looked at displays of women's lingerie, harassed people selling Santa Beagle tee shirts, or watched people skate on the rink on the first floor. A lot of people were wearing imitation Santa Beagle heads. Any tall men wearing one were stopped and questioned, their name taken down if they cooperated.
"I'm here to see Santa Beagle!" One girl admitted seriously, causing the group with her to break out in a bout of giggling. "Not that my boyfriend is as tiny as that report said Bill Clinton is or anything like that. But I have never seen someone this huge before."
"If you catch him will he go to jail?" Someone else asked him.
"Indecent exposure is a misdemeanor." Fryar explained. "He'll go to jail until he posts bond, which will not be high. The most important things is to find out who he is. Then the mall can slap a restraining order on him and possibly even sue him. If he violates the restraining order, THEN he will really start getting in trouble."
This group glanced at each other uneasily. Fryar pondered those looks later as he walked. Was it possible they knew the identity of Santa Beagle? Possibly the streaker was related to one of them.
"Do you have a gun?" One boy asked him after Fryar explained who he was.
"No." The security chief quipped. "I'm the boss man. I order my men to shoot people."
7:30pm. Fryar ran across one of the half dozen men dressed as Santa Claus who patrolled the mall collecting money for charities. The only reason he stopped to talk was he thought he recognized the man.
"Excuse me, aren't you Professor Forsh?"
The man blinked at him from behind the fake white beard, then smiled. He reached behind his fake beard and moved his headphones off his ears so he could hear the other man. "Mr. Fryar, the new chief of security. We've talked a couple times at parties Mors' wife throws every now and again. How the devil did you recognize me in this getup?"
"Well," Fryar drawled," your glasses are pretty distinctive."
Forsh's grin widened. "They are rather large, aren't they?" He glanced around. "So, still waiting for the infamous Santa Beagle, eh?"
"Yeah, he'll show. If he does, we'll get him. This has gone on too long, and its turning into something it shouldn't."
"Hmmmm. That's an interesting comment. Care to elaborate?" The history teacher wanted to know.
Fryar shrugged. "I don't know. I keep getting the feeling that I'm trying to catch Robin Hood. One young man looked at me like I was trying to kill Bugs Bunny when I told him I would arrest Santa Beagle."
Forsh nodded seriously. "That's one unique aspect of this case. You might have the world's most popular serial streaker on your hands. The Easter Streaker you yourself caught was not very popular. Which is the biggest reason you caught him."
"But what about-." Fryar began. He was interrupted by his walkie talkie. "Six to all units! He's on level three! Repeat. The suspect is on level three next to Pee Wee Herman's Lotion Shoppe."
Fryar waved to Forsh. "Excuse me. We have our man."
"Good luck!" The teacher called after him. "I suspect it won't be as easy as you imagine it will!"
After personally checking each of the four stairways and escalators to ensure they were manned, Fryar started up one of the stairwells. About that time his radio crackled. "We lost him. He ducked into one of the stores. We're conducting a search."
"Do it quickly, before he can change!" Fryar ordered.
When he reached the third level his men were searching Icky's Perfume Shoppe. "Where's Joseph?" He asked Samantha, who was glowing from having seen Santa Beagle, if from a distance.
"I don't know." She replied dreamily. "First floor maybe. Should we order everyone out of the changing rooms?"
"If you don't find him anywhere else, yes." Fryar keyed his walkie talkie. "Six, report."
"Six here." Was Joseph's curt reply.
"Where are you?" Fryar asked impatiently, forgetting the usual radio etiquette.
"Second floor." Was the curt reply.
Another voice blared out before Fryar could say anything else. "I SEE him! Jesus God Almighty he's ... elephantine." It was Steve, sounding quite jealous.
"Never mind that, where the >:-# IS he???" Fryar demanded.
"Oh, he's on the second floor, heading toward Meat Shack."
"Six here. I also see him. He just turned into Burritoville."
"What the hell? Second floor?" Fryar turned to the others. "Come on, he's downstairs!" Huffing and puffing, Fryar led his group down to the store where Santa Beagle was cornered.
"Okay." The security chief told his men. "You two, stay at the door. Don't let anybody out, I don't care how dressed they are. Obviously, he dresses quickly and sneaks to another location, so nobody leaves this place until we have searched it."
Without waiting for a reply, he started into the store. Something occurred to him and he looked around. "Where the hell is Joseph?"
Michael simply shrugged before returning to telling people they had to wait and couldn't leave Burritoville yet. It didn't matter that her husband was waiting on his spinach and gravy burrito.
Impatient, Fryar lifted his walkie talkie. Before he could key it, the device crackled on its own. "Six here. I see him! He's on the first floor! Heading toward The Grateful Bread!"
The security chief froze. He was literally frozen by indecision and confusion. This wasn't possible. Santa Beagle was just a man, albeit a freak of nature, but still just a man. Flesh and blood. He couldn't fly around the mall like this, it just wasn't possible. For the first time Fryar began to understand why the previous security chiefs had failed miserably. His contempt for them softened. He finally found his voice. "Joseph, confirm the sighting. Could it be some dressed fan with just the dog head sticking out of the crowd?"
"Confirmed!" Was the terse reply. "Come on!!! We can still get him!"
Reluctantly, Fryar ordered his men downstairs. He didn't follow them though. Instead he climbed back up to the third floor. He wanted to look down over the entire mall and try to collect himself. On the way up he heard several people buzzing about seeing the streaker. A pack of at least a dozen mall rats were gathered near the stairs on the third floor, giggling.
Fryar stopped beside them. "Did any of you see him?"
One of the girls covered her mouth. "Wasn't he something?" Several of her friends poked her ribs and made playful comments.
The security chief turned away, looking over the safety handrail down to the first floor. He could see several of his men running somewhere, but none of them were Joseph. He raised his walkie talkie to ask for his second in command. Fryar didn't notice that the teenagers were playfully shoving each other until one of them collided with him. Squeals of laughter rang in his ears as he lost his grip on the radio and watched it fall thirty feet to the hard tile floor below. Hitting the floor with the ferocity of a bomb, the walkie talkie exploded into a deluge of wires, plastic, and mechanical whines. With one final earsplitting electronic protest, the hand radio died.
"What the hell's wrong with you?" Fryar asked hotly. "What if that had hit somebody in the head?"
One boy had an 'aw shucks' look on his face. "Gee officer, it was an accident. Besides, I looked down there first!"
A girl standing next to him suddenly squealed. "Look! Santa Beagle!"
Fryar turned, scanning the crowd. And got his first look at the slippery streaker.
He was pretty much as described. Fairly tall. Fairly well built. Blond body hair. And he was monstrously endowed. The mask was a goofy looking Beagle with real looking fur. It sported a gaping mouth that could barely contain the enormous crimson tongue, and large floppy ears that danced as the man ran. The mask was huge, at least two feet in diameter. But it was supple, flexible, unlike most of the imitation masks he had seen. The one thing about the man that had not been reported was the fact that he wore boots. Black, shiny boots. He ran at a steady, even, pace with his hands raised about his head like a marathon runner taking a victory lap.
The mall rats next to Fryar cheered, and Santa Beagle was on him almost before he could react. The security chief lunged at the streaker, but someone got a foot under him and Fryar found himself face down on the grime filled carpet as Santa Beagle pranced past him.
Spitting out a cigarette butt (cursing whoever had violated the no smoking rules), he rose to his knees. He glared at the mall rats. "The next person who interferes with me is going to spend the night in jail."
The same boy who spoke earlier shuffled his feet. "I'm sorry officer. My mom always said I was a clumsy oaf. Somehow I got my feet tangled with yours."
Ignoring the attempted diversion, Fryar watched Santa Beagle duck into the Aching Wrist Video Arcade Shoppe up ahead. The security chief leaped to his feet and ran pell mell in that direction.
Another unseen foot tripped him, sending Fryar flying into a display of health foods and pills that had been arranged just outside Fiber Boy's Health Shoppe. He noticed as he rose that he was coated with protein powder from head to toe. After a vicious sneezing attack, he looked around for his assailant.
A young girl was rubbing her ankle, no doubt injured in the contact. When she saw him looking at her, she flashed him a coy smile. "I'm sorry off-."
"What's your name?" Fryar demanded, cutting her off.
"Um, Ashley Blair." She seemed confused at his tone.
Fryar knew he had to give a demonstration or the interference would never stop. Whipping out his handcuffs, Fryar grabbed one of her arms. The girl's eyes were riveted to the handcuffs. She didn't seem to believe this could be happening. "Come on." He ordered. "Come with me, don't make me use these on you." It was an idle threat, but it must have convinced her because she followed him without any further resistance.
Practically dragging the girl, Fryar made it to the arcade approximately five minutes after Santa Beagle disappeared into it. It had seemed much longer, but that was because he'd been swimming in protein powder.
The arcade was halfway full, mostly with teenagers. Glancing warily around, still escorting Ashley Blair via his firm grip on her arm, Fryar entered the game room.
Most of the teenagers turned to watch him curiously as he scanned the room for naked men wearing fluffy dog masks. He had time to wonder if he was using Ashley as a shield against the other mall rats. Was he really that afraid of them?
"Tony! What are you doing?" Came a voice from behind him.
Fryar was not surprised to see it was Joseph. The number two man looked winded, his hair was in disarray, his uniform looked messy, and he gripped his walkie talkie in his right hard like it was a winning lottery ticket. "Why on earth are you dragging this poor girl around? What happened to your radio?"
Fryar released Ashley Blair. "I'll let you off on a warning this time." He warned lamely.
She retreated a safe distance before replying. "Screw you. You're not going to catch him anyway!"
Fryar was staring at Joseph. "Joseph?"
"What? Come on, he's on the first floor!"
"No he's not." Fryar replied flatly. "I've been a fool. We've all been played for fools."
Joseph's eyes narrowed. "What are you babbling about? Oh, wait a minute, you don't think that I have anything to do with this do you?"
The security chief snorted. "No. I was wondering for a while, but not anymore. Watch the door. Don't let anyone in or out. I'll be right back."
Fryar left him and walked over to Santa Beagle, who was standing in the back of the arcade, casually talking to several teenagers.
"Hello again, Professor Forsh."
The man smiled through his Santa beard. "Hello again, Mr. Fryar."
Joseph called out. "It just came over the radio, he's on the second floor."
Fryar didn't budge. "There's two of you, isn't there? That's how you run us ragged. When we get close to one of you, the other one shows up on a different floor. And your headphones are not hooked up to a walkman, but a walkie talkie."
Forsh gave him an acknowledging smile, as if he were a student who'd come up with the right answer. The five teenagers around him were grinning.
"If I were to search you, would I find a Beagle head stuffed in your costume instead of stomach padding? Would I discover that you had dyed your body hair blond? If I searched various bathrooms and changing rooms around this mall would I discover stashed Santa Claus costumes?"
The history teacher seemed amused. "You are good, Mr. Fryar. I'm sorry you had to go through so much trouble." He indicated the man's uniform, which was covered with brown chalky powder.
"So, who is the other man?" Fryar wanted to know.
"You know, Mr. Fryar, I'm a simple, down to earth man. Me and my younger brother live with our mother because she is nearly an invalid. We help her run the store she's owned for 35 years. Me and my brother George are close."
The security chief nodded, then glanced at the teacher's entourage. "So, how many of your students know about this?"
Forsh adjusted his Santa beard minutely. "A couple dozen, maybe. They understand what is being accomplished here, so no one talks about it very much."
Fryar admired how carefully Forsh was avoiding any admission of guilt while still answering the questions. A tape made of this conversation would be ulcers in court; Forsh had admitted to nothing. "That brings us to the point, I guess. Why?"
Moving away from the corner, Professor Forsh patted the security man on the shoulder. "Mr. Fryar, every now and then a large bureaucracy has to be put in its place. Our children need to see that they still have the freedom to express themselves in an increasingly stifled society. Besides, what else can one do with cute Beagle masks?"
Surprised, Fryar suddenly began laughing. Forsh joined in, as did the surrounding mall rats. When Joseph found Fryar in the back of the arcade several minutes later, he was still laughing.
Spying his second in command approaching, Fryar grinned widely. "Joseph, did you catch him downstairs?"
"No." The man replied, downcast. "We're still looking for him, but I think he's done for the day. I'm sorry, Fryar. You may not believe it, but I am."
Fryar led the man out of the arcade, pausing just inside to talk to an angry looking teenage girl. "Miss Blair, accept my apologies. I was a little rough with you." He gestured at his soiled uniform. "I'm sure you can see why I wasn't a happy camper." Not giving her a chance to reply, the security chief led Joseph onto the walkway.
"Looks like the job is yours now." Fryar commented.
"You're a competent man, there will always be a job somewhere for you." Joseph noted.
"I won't miss this one." He glanced down at his clothes.
Joseph glanced at him. "You seemed awfully interested in Professor Forsh. What's up with that?"
"He just made me realize how much of an ass I was making of myself. Here I am, 35 year old, covered with protein powder, cigarette butts, and ashes; chasing after a nude man wearing a Beagle mask like he's a notorious bank robber. Sometimes it takes an outside observer to make you realize how ridiculous you look."
Joseph chewed on that. "I hate Santa Beagle. We're going to catch him next year. I promise you that."
Fryar smiled to himself. The rampage of Santa Beagle wouldn't be stopped any time soon.