The Dragon Done Itedited by Eric Flint and Mike Resnick

The Case of the Skinflint's Specters


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The Case of the
Skinflint's Specters
Brian M. ThomsenMarley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail . . . but that was seven years ago, and besides, I hadn't been hired to investigate Marley. Scrooge was the subject of my investigation, and after a month of tracking down lost leads, ancient archives, and absent-minded former acquaintances, I now had a dossier in front of me that could have been called "Everything you always wanted to know about Ebenezer Scrooge but couldn't care less about." I was waiting for my mysterious unnamed client to come by, "he" who had earned my loyalty by paying in advance provided that no questions were asked, and that the information could be picked up no later than early Christmas Eve morn. It was just past dawn on December twenty-fourth, and I was waiting to fill my half of the bargain so that I could go off on my usual holiday bender down in the sin dens of Whitechapel. My name is Malcolm Chandler, Mouse to my friends, and I'm your typical down-on-my-luck Victorian gumshoe, who'd probably be spending Christmas in the poorhouse if my client hadn't come through with enough of an advance to settle a few way overdue debts to some reputable establishments which had in the past shown a certain willingness to donate the services of some of their less fortunate debtors to the local treadmill (as well as a few other creditors who enjoyed the sound of kneecaps shattering). Money is good, honestly-earned or otherwise, and quite necessary for one's general well-being since London had become so tough on its debtors. I sipped from my mug of early morning grog, and hoped that my client arrived shortly. It wasn't as if I had any Christmas shopping to do or anything. It's just that I enjoyed the concept of a case closed, and as soon as I had handed over this file that was the concept to be imprinted. The warmth of my draught awakened the slumbering little gray cells that had been dormant since I closed the file the night before. They had the uncanny knack of asking my senses the most awkward questions at the most awkward times."Mouse," said the gray cells. "Mr. Scrooge is a singularly uninteresting character. Why would anyone need to know his life story?" "Shut up," I said. "Why would the selfsame person be willing to pay so much for the aforementioned information, particularly from a down-on-his-luck gumshoe like you?" "Because I'm good, and you get what you pay for," I replied. "The gentleman on Baker's Street with his physician companion is better." "Shut up!" I insisted, just managing to stifle my outburst before my client entered the office. Regaining my composure, I quickly jumped to my feet, and offered my hand to help my benefactor off with his cloak. He quickly denied the offer, saying, "The file. Do you have it?" "Right here, my lord," I offered in my classiest tone, pointing to the sheaf of pages on my desk. The client picked up the folder, and quickly began skimming through the material. As he skimmed, I scanned. I couldn't help noticing that he was dressed almost purposely to disguise his build and obscure his face. His cloak was long and drawn across the bottom half of his face like some sort of Rumanian count out for a good evening. A gentleman's silk topper covered his crown, and a muffler succeeded in obscuring the territory between his cloak and the hat. Even while he was rifting through the pages, he managed to carefully balance his masks like a sheik in a sandstorm. He must have sensed my eyes boring into him, because he quickly looked up and said, "Fine. Your services are appreciated and no longer necessary," and then, reaching into his pocket, he extracted a coin purse, and lobbed it onto the desk, saying, "Consider this an added bonus. Now forget everything you've learned over the past few weeks. Forget Scrooge, forget me. In fact, you and I have never met." "I don't even know your name," I added. "Exactly, and let's keep it that way," and with that he was gone. Any other day of the year, I would probably have just left the office at that point and headed off to the sin pits, but since I probably would not be making it back before the New Year given my current state of flush, and wishing to avoid the unnecessary difficulties that ensue when one trips over debris, I decided to give my office a slight once-over before leaving. (My underpaid secretary, Victoria of the elegant legs, had gone home to Wales for the holidays.)After removing and disposing of several left-behind corset stays from some former business acquaintances, a few tobacco-stained IOUs, and a Hogarth pinup, I came across a business card of a certain F.S. Rogers, Esquire. Since I didn't know anyone called F.S. Rogers, Esquire or otherwise, I was fairly certain that he must have been my mysterious employer. Rogers . . . the name rang a bell, but I couldn't figure out why . . . in fact, this further tickled my curiosity to the point where I quickly found myself muffled and mittened against the cold, and off down the street to the address on the card. No sooner did I arrive within half a block of my destination than I recognized my former employer heading off in the opposite direction. Doing a quick 180, I took off in hot pursuit at a discreet distance. I soon found myself in the theatrical lowlife section of town where the division between actresses and harlots, and actors and con men depended on one's income for a given week. My quarry ran into a rundown tavern called The Charley D, where he quickly joined three equally bundled and obscured figures at a table. I took a seat at the bar, yet well within earshot, being careful not to remove my muffler or turn down my collar so as to give my presence away. "Mighty cold out," said Bumble the bartender. "Sure is, guvner," I replied, watching the four figures remove their long coats. "What'll it be?" he asked. "A spot of brandy, and an extra shilling if you can tell me who that gentleman is with that motley trio." "Sure. That's Mr. Rogers, a regular patron of the arts he is." Bumble fetched my brandy and returned to serving the rest of the bar while I set my efforts to spying. The three figures my former employer was conversing with were an odd lot. On his left was a strangely androgynous, almost childlike, albino who was no taller than five one. Next to him, or her (or whatever, it took all types in the theater world) was a burly bear of a fellow who could have just as easily made a living on the loading dock or in the wrestling arena. Every few minutes the tavern's conversation would be interrupted by his boisterous laugh that threatened to shake the bottles down off the shelves and the inebriated off their perches. The third was a tall yet somewhat emaciated fellow who could have won the best-looking cadaver contest at any local poorhouse. All three listened to my former employer intently. "All of the information is in these notes," he said, and then, focusing on the wan one, he continued: "Remember, you are the past. Bring up all about that horrible Christmas season he had at boarding school, adding details like how he loved the Arabian Nights, and such. Then move into his apprenticeship under Fezziwig. Dick Wilkins was his old crony, and Belle was the girl that got away." "Yessir," the wan one replied in an asexual lilt."And you," he continued, moving on to the bearish fellow, "remember to cover his current life. All of the facts on that guy Cratchit's family will do the trick. Play up that brat Tim, the one with the gimp. The old buzzard has to wallow in guilt and regret." "What about the nephew?" the bear asked. "This guy named Fred." "Oh, yeah," my former employer agreed. "Cover him, too." Turning to the walking corpse, he finished with: "You don't say anything. Just show him those pictures and try to look creepy . . . like death warmed over." "Is that all?" the cadaver inquired. "That's it. You already have your cloaks. White for past, green for present, and black for—" "Yet to come," the cadaver interrupted. "Whatever. Just remember to show up starting at twelve, one of you on each hour. No later than that or the drug that will be mixed in his dinner will have worn off. By morning, he'll be a raving lunatic, and by New Year's, Bedlam's latest inmate." "And bonuses all around," added the bear. "Here, here!" the group replied. From my tavern stool observation post I was horrified. It was clear that they were using the research I had carefully gathered to drive an admittedly unlikable yet innocent man insane.The question was why, but it quickly all clicked in place. The nephew Fred, the son of Scrooge's sister Fantine. Fantine's married name was Rogers. How could I have been so blind? Fred Rogers, Scrooge's nephew, was my former employer. I was so busy flagellating myself for my stupidity, that I didn't even hear the bear come up behind me and put me in a choke hold. I passed out as the weight of a thousand curses of stupidity came crashing down. I came to, what must have been hours later. I was trussed up like a holiday goose, in the back area of some storeroom. Above me I heard the voices of a crowd at play, a Christmas party of some sort. My head hurt, and the more I struggled the more exhausted I became. After an enormous effort I finally managed to work the trusses off my ankles, freeing my legs from their bondage.Then I passed out again, the stupid singsong of a holiday round beating through my skull. My rest was disturbed by a lantern bearer, who doused my face with a glass of holiday cheer. "Stupid detective," a voice behind the light scolded. "All of the party guests have gone home, and now I must deal with you." "I guess so, Fred," I said, and then added with false bravado, "and, by the way, seasons greetings." "I was afraid you had put it all together, Mr. Chandler. That's why I had Barnaby escort you here. You may not remember. You were quite unconscious at the time." "Barnaby the bear," I offered. "You could have been enjoying the holiday right now, but no. You had to be nosy." "And you had to be greedy," I countered "You're Scrooge's only heir. God knows he's not going to give it to charity. Couldn't you just wait? His days are obviously numbered at this point." "With any luck, tonight's little dramatic recital will have taken care of that already. The best case is that his ticker gives out, at which point I inherit the firm. The worst case is he goes crazy, at which point I take control of the firm and he goes to the loony bin. I win either way." Somewhere in the distance the bells of Christmas dawn tolled. "There! A new day is dawning. Scrooge & Marley will now be Fred Rogers and Company," he laughed, and then added, taking a gun from out of his pocket, "and you are the only flaw in a perfect plan. A flaw that will be taken care of now."The gun was trained on me, and I was about to kiss my arse good-bye, when a ghostly bellow shook the cellar. "I don't think so," the unearthly voice cried, accompanied by shaking chains, and the sounds of ledgers and coin boxes dropping. "It's still my business." Taking advantage of this otherworldly occurrence that had temporarily distracted my former employer, I barreled forward into Fred's midsection, knocking him down, and beat a hasty escape up the cellar stairs and out a nearby servants' exit. I heard a scream that sounded like Fred's voice, but kept on running. I finally reached my office, where I eventually worked my hands loose from their bonds. Exhausted, I locked the door and passed out from fatigue, and the beatings my body had taken. The rest of the facts of the case are rather sketchy. Scrooge got up Christmas morning, and was a changed man . . . maybe crazy, but at least for the better, and not in a way that he could be committed. He became a regular humanitarian, helped out his clerk, and signed over all of his estate to charity.Fred Rogers was found cringing in his cellar, claiming that a dead man was trying to kill him. He was Bedlam's first inmate of the New Year.What can I say? It was poetic justice. Nosing around, I later heard that the word on the street was that Scrooge had joked about being visited by four spirits on Christmas Eve. Four? I thought. But Fred had only hired three stooges to be ghosts. Who could the fourth have been? The following year on Christmas Eve, I had once again managed to drink myself into a stupor and wound up sleeping it off in the office. When I came to, I felt strange . . . as if I had been visited by someone the night before. On the floor leading to my desk were scratches that could have been left by chains that had been dragged across it bit by bit.On top of my desk was an envelope with a fifty-pound banknote. There was also a short written note attached. It read: "For your trouble of last holiday season. JM." JM, I thought, who could it be? Then it dawned on me. . . . but Jacob Marley was dead, and there was and is no doubt about that. I decided not to think about it, put the fifty pounds in my pocket, and made a New Year's resolution to cut back on my drinking real soon now.   The Black BirdDavid Barr KirtleyThe black bird on the mantelpiece spoke. It said, "Nevermore." Spade looked up from cleaning his pistol. The bird, a black-lacquered falcon statuette, sat motionless. Spade placed the pistol on his desk, pushed back the brim of his hat, and approached the bird. "You talk?" Spade said. The bird watched him evenly with two small, black eyes. "Yes," it answered. Its voice was eerily familiar and echoed through the silent office. "How?" Spade demanded. "You're just a statue." The bird's lacquered beak moved as if it were alive. "Sounds like a mystery to me," it said. Spade confidently lit a cigarette. "Well, I'm good with mysteries. I just solved one." "You didn't solve squat." The bird sneered. Spade blinked. He had solved the case. The black bird was a fake—a decoy. They had scraped away a bit of its lacquered exterior and instead of priceless jewels they had found nothing but worthless lead. "What do you mean?" asked Spade suspiciously. "You never did find the real falcon," said the bird. "Don't you wonder where it is?" Spade shrugged. "The Russian has it, probably. Let Gutman and the others go after it if they want. They'll never find it." "Wrong," said the bird. "The Russian doesn't have it. In fact, it's right around here somewhere." Spade studied the bird carefully. "All right." He sat back down. "I'm listening." "This is a real mystery." The bird shook its head. "Not like your usual work—which is always about who killed who, or who's banging whose wife. That's not a mystery, Spade. That's hardly even a puzzle." Spade frowned. "Real mysteries," the bird continued, "like, why do we exist? What's the nature of truth? Is there a higher power? They don't have solutions. That's what makes them mysteries." Spade broke in. "Okay, so where's the real falcon?" The bird sighed. "It's so obvious. I would think you would have figured it out by now. You're a detective, after all." "Tell me." "Didn't you ever read The Purloined Letter? The best place to hide something is in plain view, where no one will think to look for it." Spade frowned. He walked across the room and lifted the black bird off the mantelpiece. It watched him, and chuckled as he turned it all around. Spade went back to his desk, brushed off the cigarette ash, and placed the bird in front of him. He flicked open his pocketknife and began scraping off more of the black lacquer. Underneath, of course, was nothing but lead. "You're getting warmer," said the bird. Spade opened his drawer and took out an iron file. He scraped away at the bird's leaden neck. The bird chuckled. "Oh. You're getting even warmer now." Lead filings flaked away. Spade scraped deeper and deeper. Finally, something began to emerge beneath the lead. Spade took a deep breath and blew, sending filings flying away into the smoky air. Beneath the lacquer and the lead, the bird was made of gold and jewels, which glowed and sparkled even in the dim light of Spade's office. "Congratulations," the bird cried. "You solved the mystery!" Spade got up and closed the buff-curtained windows. A faint hint of ammonia drifted up from the courtyard. "You're rich," the bird chanted. "You did it! Case solved." "Something's not right here," Spade said. He took up his pocketknife again, and poked the largest jewel. The tip of the knife sank in a few centimeters, as if the jewel were made out of chocolate. Carefully, Spade started scraping it away altogether. Beneath, there was something else. "Oh boy," said the bird. "Now you've done it. The plot thickens!" Spade scraped away at more of the jewels. "I should warn you," the bird intoned ominously, "if you keep digging into this matter, you may not like what you find." Spade ignored him. "Of course," the bird continued, "people in mysteries always say that, don't they? And does it ever happen? No way. The hero goes right ahead, catches the killer, and gets the girl. He gets his picture in the paper, and a handshake from the mayor. So go ahead, Spade. Don't listen to me. Keep digging. Everything will probably turn out all right in the end." Spade carefully scraped away at the bird's throat. The faux jewels fell away like dry scabs. Beneath lay an intricate network of tiny machinery, cogs, and flashing lights. "What's this?" Spade asked. "Microcircuitry," the bird explained. "That's what allows me to talk." "There's no such thing," Spade said. "Well," the bird exclaimed. "Look who knows so much! Just because you've never seen microcircuitry before, you presume it can't possibly exist. What a fool. Read Hume some time, why don't you?" Spade poked at the microcircuitry with his pocketknife. "What is all this?" "Computers," the bird said. "Machines. That's what it's all about, Spade. Everything's a machine in one sense or another—your body, the universe. One day, you'll probably be replaced by a machine. Who knows?" "I don't think so." Spade shook his head. "Sound improbable? Why don't you try scraping away at your own outer layer? You might be surprised at what you find." Spade absently ran a fingernail over the skin on his forearm. "Leave well enough alone," the bird said. "Just this once." "I think there's something else," Spade said. He began to scrape away at the microcircuitry. "A deeper layer." The circuits popped and sparked and fell away. The tiny motors broke and oozed hydraulic fluid. The lights went dark. "You're out of your league, Spade," the bird said. "Why don't you go back to murder, adultery, that sort of thing. That's more up your alley." "I've broken the machines," Spade observed, "but you're still talking." The bird nodded reluctantly. "Perhaps it isn't the microcircuitry after all." The last layer of twisted metal mechanics flaked away. Beneath was a soft, porous surface. "Looks like skin," Spade said. "Maybe," said the bird. Spade scraped away at the falcon's head. Its beak cracked off and fell away onto the floor. Spade carved away at its head, its eyes, and throat. "It's a face!" he exclaimed, as the shape gradually took form. "Oh. It gets better," said the bird. "It's my face," said Spade finally. A living, miniature version of his own face stared back at him from the carved portion of the black bird's head. Two brown, living eyes regarded him. "So you see," said the bird, with its miniature human face, "this is how I can talk. I'm actually alive, after all." Spade realized with a start why the bird's voice sounded so familiar. It was his own. "Why do you look like me?" Spade asked. The bird sighed. "Because our perception of things, mysteries for example, are filtered through our own consciousness. If you keep digging for truth, eventually all you find is yourself." "There must be something deeper," Spade insisted. "I wouldn't count on it," said the bird. Spade held the pocketknife towards the miniature face. The eyes regarded it nervously. "Spade? What are you doing?" Sam Spade had never failed to solve a mystery, and he didn't intend to start now. "I want the truth," he said. With an unsteady hand he began to scrape away the flesh of the miniature face's cheek. A viscous, transparent fluid oozed out. Spade cut deeper. He began to scrape away at the falcon's throat. "That's the jugular vein," the bird whispered hoarsely. "You might want to be careful around that." "Will it kill you?" Spade asked. "No," the bird answered. Spade sliced it. A thick line of blood billowed forth, splattering dark spots across the desk. Spade gasped. "Blood?" "Blood," the bird confirmed. "That's as deep as you're going to get." Spade put down the knife and frowned. "That's the answer to your mystery? Blood?" "I never said there was an answer." The bird scowled. "Quite the opposite, in fact." Spade looked disgusted. "That's not a mystery." "Au contraire," said the bird, "that is a true mystery. Real quests for the truth usually end in fits of self-destruction and bitter disappointment." "I'm not finished yet," Spade said. "Oh no? What's left to do? You've already—" The bird paused. "Uh-oh, Spade," it added, "looks like you're bleeding." "What?" Spade stuck his hand to his throat, and it came away sticky and soaked with wet blood. He leapt to his feet, ran across the room, and leaned towards the mirror. "I told you it wouldn't kill me," said the bird. "Beyond that, who's to say?" Blood oozed from a gory section of Spade's cheek, and a deep gash ran across his throat. Spade seized a cloth to staunch the flow of blood out of his neck, but it soaked through instantly. He spun around, and looked at the bird. "I said you might not like what you found," the bird said, almost apologetically, "but you didn't listen." Spade sank to his knees, his blood dripping wide, wet spots across the carpet. "No girl for you," the bird scolded. "No handshake from the mayor." It hopped down off Spade's desk and slowly walked across the carpet towards him. "I told you that you were out of your league." The bird shook its head ruefully. "I said to stay away from real mysteries, but would you listen? You've learned your lesson now, though." Spade's neck collapsed and his forehead struck against the carpet. Spade watched warily as the bird loomed closer and closer, speaking with its identical, bleeding face. Finally, it stood over him, casting a dark shadow across his eyes. "Nevermore," it answered, chuckling. "Nevermore!"   The Enchanted BunnyDavid DrakeJoe Johnson got into the little car of the airport's People Mover, ignoring the synthesized voice that was telling him to keep away from the doors. Joe was trying to carry his attaché case—stuffed with clothes as well as papers, since he'd used it for an overnight bag on this quick trip to see the Senator—and also to read the wad of photocopy the Senator had handed Joe in front of the terminal "to glance through on the flight back."The Senator hadn't wanted to be around when Joe read the new section. He must have thought Joe wouldn't be pleased at the way he'd handled the Poopsi LaFlamme Incident.The Senator was right.Joe sat down on a plastic-cushioned seat. At least the car was empty except for Joe and the swarthy man—was he an Oriental?—the swarthy Oriental at the far end. When Joe flew in the day before, he'd shared the ride to the main concourse with a family of seven, five of whom—including the putative father—were playing catch with a Nerf ball.The doors closed. The People Mover said something about the next stop being the Red Concourse and lurched into gentle motion.Joe flipped another page of the chapter over the paper clip holding it by the corner. It was about that time that I met a Miss LaFlamme, a friend of my wife Margaret, who worked, as I understand it, as a dancer of some sort. . . .Good God Almighty! Did the Senator—did the ex-Senator, who was well known to be broke for a lot of the reasons that could make his memoirs a best-seller—really think he was going to get away with this?The publishers hadn't paid a six-figure advance for stump speeches and homilies. They'd been promised scandal, they

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