The Mother Of All Christmases
by Gary A. Markette ©2007
Snow's piling up along the streets outside my office and Melody and I are watching it. That is, we're watching it every now and then--between smootches and cuddling. It's December 18th and we're snuggled on my office futon. Sunset's long over and Treegreen's town round twinkles with moonlight and the glitz of the season. My radio's tuned to an oldies station that's playing the softer Christmas songs. I got egg nog and a blanket and a wood-burning stove. I also got an armful of sweet, warm girl and a sudden appreciation for firelit dimness and soft music. I'm just about to move from appreciation to enthusiasm when my office door bursts inward."Gavin! Melody! She's coming!" An arm-flapping whirlwind in a flowing, white gown burns its way into my office. Melody and I shade our eyes as the Angel of Death rushes toward us. Heather brings her own glow with her and the glow grows when she's excited. Too much of her current amperage and Mel and me won't need a tanning booth. "She'll be here tomorrow," she wails, "And my place is a mess. I have no clean clothes. My pantry! The bathroom! I'm still using last year's lampshades!" "Lampshades?" I blurble. I've never heard Heather wail before. I'm off balance. "Heather, sweetie," Melody says. She's less discombobled, thank goodness. "Who are you . . ." "My mother!" Heather shrieks, "My mother is visiting me for Christmas! Arrrrrggggghhhhhhh!" Every lamp in the office suddenly explodes in a shower of sparks. The volume on my radio ramps up 90 decibels and Calling Birds and French Hens thunder into the night. My computer beeps and boops and boots to a romance fiction website. Client chairs tip, desk drawers open, files catapult into the air, and my pet Gecko actually turns over in his sleep. "But," I stammer, "Isn't that a good thing?" I've got to learn how to nod sagely and keep my mouth shut. Put it in my "Daily Reminders." "Of course it's a good thing!" Heather shouts, whirling toward me, "That's why I'm so upset!" I'm blinking like an owl at mid-day, but Melody is bobbing her head. "Oh, you poor dear," she woodgies. "How can we help?" "I don't know, I don't know," and Heather, the Angel of Death, one of the most powerful entities in existence, covers her face and starts to sob.
* * * *
It's 20 minutes later and things have settled down. Melody has comforted and hugged Heather into a semblance of calm. I've straightened the office and started a pot of tea. I'd opt for beer, but times like these seem to call for tea. It's like a rule or something. "I don't get it," I say, unwrapping a teabag, "You're an angel and you got a mother?" "I was incarnated as an infant," Heather explains. "The boss thought it would help me appreciate the tapestry of human life if I experienced it first hand. My mother adopted me before I was 2." I nod, starting to dunk the teabag in a cup of hot water. "Well, that explains it," I hand her the cup. "How about a dad?" "No dad," she shakes her head. "Mom never married. She was always too busy." "Career woman, huh?" I say. Heather shakes her head again. "Mom's sole heiress to the Ashton fortune," she sips some tea. "She never had to work." I whistle low. The Ashton fortune is legendary in the Seven Counties. Clark "Smitty" Ashton's riches came from banking and investments. Several brokerage firms and a couple banks owe their existence to Smitty's vision, foresight, and willingness to cut throats. "So," I say, preparing a cup for Melody, "What kept her busy?" "Noodging me, mostly," Heather starts to cry again. Melody gives me an exasperated look and cuddles her once more. "It's all right, dear," Melody coos. "We'll help you get your place ready for her visit. When's she due?" "Tomorrow night," Heather whimpers, "She lands at Treegreen Interdimensional tomorrow night." Melody turns to me: "Gavin," she says. "There's not a minute to lose. Call Duck." "Excuse me?" "We need to clean Heather's apartment from stem to stern," Melody expounds. "We'll need Duck's muscle." "Um, Melody, Duck's not really into cleaning apartments . . ." "He can help you move the furniture. We'll sweep the rugs, dust, mop the floors, scrub all the surfaces. We'll need detergents, mops, scrub brushes . . ." "Moving furniture isn't exactly Duck's strong suit . . ." but she isn't listening. "Now, the windows: we'll need vinegar and soft cloths and . . . Gavin, why aren't you calling? It's going to be close as it is." "Melody," I start, but she's got her head together with Heather's discussing the logistics of the cleaning campaign. When she's like this, I'm just another factor to be considered. I don't mind--most times--because I love her. Duck, on the other hand . . . "This better be good, McQue," Duck's voice grates over my office phone, "I'm in the middle of something interesting . . ." giggles sound in the background. I'd called his special number because he always answers it. If you call his office or his shop, you sometimes get a very competent underling. You never get a machine, though. Duck uses people--not machines. It's one of the reasons he's the best in his straight business. "Don't know how good it is," I admit. "What are you doing for the next 24 to 36 hours?" "Well, I was planning to discuss the mating habits of waterfowl with several lady naturalists, if you catch my drift." "For 24 to 36 hours?" "I might take a few short breaks. The discussion could get lively." I glance over my shoulder at Melody and Heather. Mel is drawing a diagram on the back of an envelope. "Need you to defer the discussion, old buddy." "Why would I want to do that?" I tell him. "You're kidding, right?" "Got Melody and Heather planning the party even as we speak," I reply. "Doesn't look like I'm kidding." A pause. "Heather's involved in this?" "Her apartment gets the birthday." "Well, why didn't you say so? I'll bring the steel wool." Click. Hum. I cradle the phone. "Duck on board?" Melody asks. "Oddly, yes." "Good," she nods. "We should just make it."
* * * *
It's the next day and I'm aching. Mel, me, Heather, and Duck have just spent 18 hours cleaning Heather's already immaculate apartment. Ever clean grout with a toothbrush? Polish silverware at 2:30 in the morning? Pick lint from draperies? I'm tired, sore, grimy, and disheveled. So are Melody and Heather. The three of us are at Melody's apartment to use the shower and change clothes. No way we were gonna use Heather's bathroom after we'd expended so much energy cleaning it. Duck seems less exhausted than we, so he gets elected to pick up mamma. He showers, dresses, and sets off for Treegreen Interdimensional. Melody's in the shower now. Heather's next. I'm riding drogue and sitting in one of Mel's kitchen chairs. So's Heather. We're sharing a couple of Pale Ales and the doorbell rings. "I'll get it," I creak to my feet and stagger to the door. Can't be Duck yet. Plane won't land for another hour or so. I'm about to open the door when it does so on its own. "Hey there McQue," Stan booms, and waves his arm at me. I'm flying across the room in the next instant and landing on one of Melody's poofy chairs. Heather's up and moving at the same time. "Sit down, girlie," Stan says, drawing a funny-looking circle in the air in front of him. Heather sits, unceremoniously, in a chair next to me. "What are you doing here?" I croak. The landing was soft, but I'm tired and out of breath. "Told you I'd be seeing you soon, Gavin, old buddy," he responds, then pauses. "Oh, you thought that I meant . . . well, that may be, but no. I meant sooner than that. I meant like now, fellah. Gotta little job for you." A sudden shudder of light explodes around him. I glance to my right and see Heather robed in luminescence, upright and looming, awesome and potent and unutterably lovely. Stan brushes off his lapels. "Not bad, sweetie," he says. "But Mike and Gabe hit lots harder. Sit down, will ya? The unutterably lovely part is kinda distracting." And he waves his hand again. Heather sits once more--hard. "Now," he turns to me, "Like I said, I gotta job . . . he pauses. "What happened to you? Fall into a sewer or somethin'?" "Cleaned her apartment," I incline my head toward Heather. Stan looks surprised. "I expected better housekeeping from you, baby cakes. The two of you look like refugees from one of my . . . well, never mind. Anyway, the job: I got a spirit missing." "An escapee?" I ask, astounded. "Please," he waves this off, "When I get 'em, they stay got. Nah. This spirit's just missing. No one seems to know where it is." "Check the Internet?" I quip. "Google missing ghosties? If the spirit ain't yours, what do you care?" "Ordinarily I wouldn't," Stan says, settling into Melody's sofa. "This time, though, I do. The spirit in question is the Spirit of Christmas." There is, I think, a completely understandable pause after this. "The Spirit of Christmas?" I repeat. Stan nods. "'Sbeen missing for some time, now. I'm guessing, ten, fifteen years. Not sure when it went missing. Figure it was about the time Gilligan's Island went off the air . . ." "Gilligan's . . . " "Not that that had anything to do with it," he adds, hastily. "Just using it as a point of reference. Anyway, the spirit's missing and I want you to find it." I turn to the Angel of Death. "Is this on the level?" Heather narrows her eyes. "Well, he's right about the spirit of Christmas being missing . . ." "He's right about that?" She nods. "But why on earth he should want you to find it is beyond me." I turn to Stan. "So?" "So what?" he asks, wide eyed. "Can it," I retort, "I know you better. Why do you want me to find it." He shrugs. "Can't it be because I want to restore some goodness, some hope, some gentleness to the world in this blessed season?" Heather and Me: "No." "Bingo," he grins. "The truth is, I'm bored. This time of year used to be a real challenge for me. Even the crustiest curmudgeons used to shed some slime from the end of October through New Years. Hey, I've lost some souls I thought were sure things 'cause they 'transitioned'," here, he looks at Heather and makes little quotemarks in the air, "during these holidays. Now, I got no challenge at all." He stands and starts to pace to and fro. I do that, too. Only little trails of smoke and flame don't follow me when I do. "But since the Spirit of Christmas vamoosed, I mean, gimme a break. It's fish in a barrel, falling off a log, choose your cliche. Greed, envy, selfishness, anger--all the biggies just flow across the land from sea to shining sea. Corporate biggies, little old ladies, chief justices, nursing mommies, all over Christendom the pickings are just too easy. It's getting so I can't tell Sheboygan from Bedlam, and that won't do." I turn to Heather. "Do you believe him?" "The Prince of Lies? Do I believe him? Of course I don't believe him," she pauses, thoughtfully. "But the return of the Spirit of Christmas would be a good thing anyway. I don't see a downside." I smile at Stan. "I get 500 per day plus expenses," I say. "You'd charge me for doing this?" he asks. "A premium," I reply, "but it's Christmas so I'll give you my standard rate." "Done," Stan says, and extends his hand. I hesitate. "What? Did you expect to have to sign your name in blood?" "Damn Yankees," I mutter, "Act One." I shake his hand. It's warm and dry. "Yeah, I actually liked Silver's interpretation better than Walton's. Lewis stunk." He takes his hand back. Sits. "So. Where do you start?" "Fry your own fish, fellah," I say. "You're the client, not the boss. I'll give you updates as the investigations progress." He nods. "You have no idea where to start. O. K. No problem. I'll wait for your report." All during this speech he's fading, fading until only his grin remains. "Call me at the Wonderland Hotel." And he's gone. "I've often seen a Stan without a grin, but a grin without a Stan . . ." I murmur. Heather looks surprised. "What? I read a little, you know." Melody walks into the room in a bathrobe and toweling her hair. She looks from one of us to the other. "Did I miss something?" she asks.
* * * *
It's three hours later and I'm at The Spirit is Willing--a bistro in Hidden County that caters to a ghostly clientele. Spirits, souls, ghosts, and other ectoplasm frequent here. The menu is extensive, the wine list superb. Of course, the place doesn't actually serve food or drink--spooks neither eat nor drink--but it gives its eerie patrons a semblance of elegance in what otherwise might be a dreary existence. Customers come in, order, and enjoy the ambiance until they leave. Many of them haunt drafty, dingy, dusty places. For them, pampering trumps dining and imbibing. I'm waiting to talk to the proprietor of the establishment--a chunky, tux-suited spook wearing a name tag that says "Kevin." He's currently "in conference." That means he's holding up a finger while he gabs on a phone. I glance at my watch and wonder if Duck's returned with Heather's mom yet. They'd still been no shows after I'd showered, changed, and left Melody's flat. "Busy, busy, busy," Kevin says, cradling the phone. ""I've been on that phone all day. I tell ya, this season is the worst. Everyone and their uncle wants a table." He leans back in his chair. "Now, what can I do for you, Mr. McQue, is it?" "Yeah," I say, "I'm looking for . . ." but his phone's ringing again. Up goes the finger. Up comes the receiver. "Spirit is Willing," he announces, "May I help you?" Pause. "No." Pause. "No, I'm afraid we're booked solid on the 24th." Pause. "Well, yes, there is a waiting list, but it's very extensive." Pause. "How much?" Pause. "Well, that puts you in the first alternate circle." Pause. "And the same to you, madame." He hangs up; turns back to me. "The nerve of some, er, people. Wants to book a party of four for the second busiest night of our year and expects to do so with a pittance! Why, just this morning I got . . ." "I'm looking for the Spirit of Christmas," I interrupt before his phone can ring again. He frowns. "You and everybody else," he snorts. "That deadbeat has stiffed every specter-serving business in the Seven Counties." I sit up straighter. This is news. "You don't say?" I say. "I figured the Spirit of Christmas for a swell." "Like I said--wait a second; don't want interrupted--"He unhooks his phone. "Like I said, you and everybody else. Oh, yeah, you think: 'Hey. It's the Spirit of Christmas. Gotta have bux. No problem with credit.' So you make the sale; and you send the invoice. And the time, it just keeps passin'. That bum's into me for about 7 grand and I'm one of the lucky ones." He pauses. "Heard the Spirit was gone. Figured good riddance. Prob'ly won't get my dough, but at least I won't get conned again." "Again?" I ask. "You got conned more than once?" "Yeah, don't remind me," Kevin winces. "I fell for his spiel a coupla times. You'd do it too; it's the Spirit's specialty. Walks in, you feel good. Warm, giving, you know? You find yourself smiling, humming Jingle Bells, opening your register and handing the creep your day's profits." He leans toward me; whispers. "I even asked if I could give some more--and if you tell anybody, McQue, I'll--" "Hey, mum's the word, pal," I say, holding up a hand. "We all do things we wish we didn't. So," I lean back, "Any idea where . . ." "No," he says firmly and cradles his phone again. "And I got no more time to give you. Wish I could say good luck, but I wouldn't mean it." His phone rings. "You can find your way out?" "Sure," I say, "And thanks for your time." But I could have saved it. He's back in harness and tugging hard. I scram and set off for my next stop. I'm out the door and on my cell to Melody as I walk. She answers on the third ring. "Gavie pooh," she has caller ID, "How goes the case?" "Gotta couple new ideas," I say, "Nothing major. How's Heather's mom?" "Not here yet," she replies. "Delayed?" "No," she answers, "Duck called from Treegreen Interdimensional when he met her at the gate. Nothing since, though." "Hunh," I grunt, "Traffic must be a bear." I raise my hand at a cab. It pulls over. "Anyway, I'll call you later, Mel; on my way to a church, believe it or not." And I ring off. I turn to the cabbie. "Cathedal and Seventh," I say, climbing in the hack, "No hurry." And I settle into the usual smelly seat. As the cab winds its way through Treegreen's small downtown, I chew over what I've learned so far. Seems that not everyone's thrilled with the Spirit of Christmas. Got a rep as a welcher with some local merchants. A few of those guys can be pretty nasty about collecting debts. I'm wondering if there's a Spirit in a landfill somewhere. I shake my head. Nah. Takes more than that to get rid of a Spirit. Gotta find someone to lay it. Not many capable of laying a spirit like the Spirit of Christmas. On the other hand, if nobody laid the Spirit, where was it? Not enough info to speculate yet. Maybe after this stop. The cab pulls in front of the Church of the Terminally Joyous. I climb out, tip the cabbie, and trudge up the dozen or so steps to the church's huge front door; open it; scoot inside. There's a Holy Water font to my right in the cool narthex. I dip and do the usual--force of a very old habit. Then, into the church proper and down the center aisle. The rector is waiting near the first row of pews--I'd set up this meet before leaving Melody's. He's holding out his hand as if he expects me to kiss his ring. He's going to wait a long time. "Mr. Hanson," I say, deliberately. "Father or Rector is more appropriate," he says, frowning and lowering his hand. "Mr. Hanson," I repeat, "I'm Gavin McQue. I called about the Spirit of Christmas." "Yes," he says, "Some nonsense about it being missing." "It's not missing?" I ask. "The Spirit of Christmas is the Spirit of God," he intones. "It is present in every aspect of our lives, in every waking and sleeping moment, in the mists of morning, the falling of dusk, the . . . " I hold up my hand. Stop him. "Spare me," I say, " A buddy of mine--lots closer to your boss than you--says the Spirit is missing. So it's missing. That's not the question. The question is: where? You got any ideas?" His frown deepens. "If the Spirit were missing--not saying it is, but if it were--it's probably being held somewhere . . ." "Hostage situation, huh?" I murmur. "Must be," he nods, "it's too well known to simply disappear." "Won't wash," I shake my head. "There's been no ransom demand; no threats; no release conditions." "Not yet, anyway." "'Sbeen too long," I say, thoughtfully. "Spirit's been missing for years. Ransomers woulda hit for the dough by now. Political types woulda sent their demands. "No," I go on, "Not a bad try, but it won't do." "Can't help you, then," he shrugs, and starts away. "Maybe I'll ask some of your altar boys," I muse. He stops. "You know," I continue, "Just sit down with 'em and shoot the breeze. Of course, I won't necessarily limit the conversation to locating the Spirit of Christmas. I might point out some recent major monetary settlements awarded to altar boys because of . . ." "Go to 814 Lovecraft Lane," he snarls. "If they can't help you there, you'll never find who you're looking for." "814 Lovecraft, huh?" I respond, jotting the address into my notebook. "Got it. Thanks." "Don't mention it," he says, sarcasm adrip on every word. "Especially don't mention the altar boys." "One myself, years ago," I say and turn to leave the church. I pull my cell and start to text a cab; I got most of it just as I open the inner door. I turn back. "You know what they say," I smile, "Once one, always one. You never really leave. Maybe I'll talk to them anyway: for old time's sake." I'm out the door and grinning as I wait for a cab; one's just turning the corner. Things are progressing. I still got no clue about the Spirit's haunts, but I keep getting new wheres to look. And I managed to discombobble a self-righteous creep. I've just given the cabbie the Lovecraft Lane address when my cell rings. "McQue," I say. "Gavin have you heard from Duck?" It's Melody. "Not a quack," I quip, "He hasn't checked in with momma-san yet?" "No," she replies, "And Heather's starting to get worried. The fabric of reality is beginning to fray." "Again?" I say, "Put Heather on." Pause. Fumbling. "Hello?" "Heather take it easy," I soothe. "Your mom's perfectly safe. She's with Duck." "I know that," she snaps, the desperation peeking through, "But where are they? Why's it taking so long? How . . ." "Duck probably decided to show her around the town a bit," I interrupt. "Treegreen ain't that big, so that won't take long. Give it another couple of hours. She'll be fine." A long sigh. "Of course you're right, Gavin," Heather breathes. "It's just that she drives me a little bonkers." "A little?" I tease. "OK, more than just a little." "Well relax. She's in good hands," I look out the cab's window. We're turning on to Lovecraft. "Gotta go, kiddo. Talk at ya later." And I ring off just as the hack pulls up to 814. I pay the cabbie and step out into the afternoon. Then, I dial Duck's special number. "Work on your timing, McQue," he sounds out of breath. "Duck, where are you? Did you get Heather's mother?" "Yeah," he says, "You might say that." A giggle in the background. "How come you didn't mention she was a fox?" "A what?" "A stone fox," he huffs. "A babe. A hotsie totsie. Wait a second," More giggling. A squeal. Hushing noises. "You could tell a guy, ya know. Let him know what he's in for." "What are you talking about? What's going on?" "C'mon, McQue, even you ain't that dense "Ah, geeze, Duck. I just told Heather that her mom was in good hands . . ." "And she is," more giggling, "Well, parts of her are, anyway." "Duck, for heaven' sa . . ." "Bye-bye, McQue. Duty calls." And he rings off. I hit redial almost at once. "We're sorry," an eerily feminine voice croons, "But this subscriber is either out of range or has turned off the cell phone. Please try again later." And that's that. Duck is boinking Heather's mom somewhere; Heather is anxious because her mom is overdue; I'm no closer to finding the Spirit of Christmas. What else could go wrong? My cell phone rings. "Progress, McQue?" It's Stan. "You know you're paying for this incoming call, right?" "Yaddada, yaddada," he snips, "Progress?" "Some," I hedge. "I'm following leads." "You're outside 814 Lovecraft Lane," he says. "Call that a lead?" "How do you . . ." "Wasting your time, hotshot," he says. "Won't find anything there." "Really?" I say, interested. "Really," he stresses. "I'd give it a pass, if I were you." "Luckily," I say, "You're not me." And I turn off my cell. It rings anyway. Damned showoff. I ignore it and walk to 814's door. Knock. Wait. Door opens. "Spirit, spectre, wraith, or ghost?" asks a tenebrous shadow just inside the doorway. "Uh, none of the above," I respond, playing it straight. "Ah, a lost soul, then," the shade intones, "Well, enter and be welcome. Stay as long as you like. When you're ready, it's on the second floor." And he disappears. No. I mean he disappears. One minute, he's there, if a bit insubstantial. Next minute, he's gone, a black, spacey hole where he used to be. I stand a moment and ponder. In situations like this one, I usually call my afterlife expert. Unfortunately, she's busy worrying about her wayward--and I mean wayward--mother. I opt for a backup. "Hey Stan," I say when he answers, "What's with this 814 place?" "Give it a pass, McQue," he growls. "OK," I shrug, "I'll send you my invoice for one day's work and expenses. I got other fish to fry, anyway." A lengthy silence. Then: "Limbo," he says. "Nah," I respond. "I cha-cha a little, an occasional Fox Trot . . ." "Can it, smart ass," he growls. "814's limbo--as in a storage place for ectoplasmic questionables. Dead folks go there when they ain't been bad enough or good enough or if they're just plain confused." "Sounds like a just the spot for a swell like the Spirit of Christmas," I say. "So why'd you try to keep me from it?" More silence. "Stan? Stan? Calling all Stans," I snipe. "Why hide this? What's the big secret?" "The place is embarrassing, OK?" he shouts. "I mean: Heaven I can take. Even Purgatory, no big deal. But Limbo? It's a pain in the . . ." "Whoa, whoa," I interrupt. "You're gonna have to explain that one, pal." He pauses. I hear a crackling along the line. Finally: "Look, most of the Limbonians are wishy-washy types. Them I can take or leave. Who needs 'em? Some of 'em, though--your agnostics, your secular humanists, your atheists--really fry my potatoes." "Still lost," I murmur. "Keep talking." "Think, McQue," he says. "Most of those types should be easy pickin's for me, right?" "Sounds like it." "Well, the ones who get to Limbo aren't. Those bozos lived moral lives. What's worse, they lived moral lives just because they thought it was the right thing to do. No fear of me; no trying to suck up to the big'un; most of them didn't believe we were real. So these guys did the righteous shtick for its own sake." "Which means you couldn't get 'em," I muse. "Exactomundo," he replies. "Oh sure, they pulled an occasional shagnasty, but nothing serious. So I got no leverage with 'em when the time comes. Picture this: one of 'em buys the farm. I'm there. So's one of the big'un's group--They call themselves 'escorts,' by the way. Ain't that precious?--Anyway, out pops the deader's nishima. It sees me. It sees the escort. Talk about surprised! 'Come with me,' I say. 'I got even more surprises for ya.' But I can't grab 'em. Neither can the escort. A hole opens in reality and the three of us see the doorway to 814 Lovecraft Lane. Dead guy walks through, opens the door, and enters Limbo. I'm left standing with egg frying on my face while the escort's there looking smug." "So what happens to 'em once they get here?" I ask, interested. "Different stories. Most common one: they stay here until Judgment Day. Otherwise, they go upstairs--whatever that means. Doesn't make sense to me, but who knows? Maybe the big'un knows; not sayin' anything, though." "OK," I say, "Talk to you later." "Wait," he prods, "What are you gonna . . ." But I ring off and ignore the call-back. In I go. Big room. Dimly-lit, but not dark. Forms float about here and there. One brushes by me and a shiver crawls up my spine. I figure I got nothing to lose. "Hey," I call, cheerful, friendly, "Seen the Spirit of Christmas?" "Two rooms over," the dead guy drones, pointing to the left. "Anyway, he was the last time I saw him. Still there, I guess, unless he went upstairs." He shrugs and turns away. "Unless what?" I ask, but he's floating away and ignoring me. I turn and move in the direction he pointed. Through one passageway and another dimly-lit room; through another . . . and there he is. Seated at a card table deeply involved in a game of pinochle: the Spirit of Christmas. "Who dealt this mess?" he asks. The player to his left grunts: "Don't you ever get tired of complaining? Just play the hand." "This isn't a hand," he responds, "It's a foot." "So lead, already," his partner says. The Spirit does so and cards flip to the table. Banter continues through the play of the hand. I wait until the last trick is gathered: tap him on the shoulder. "Got set again," he shakes his head. "I'm gonna stop playing this game." He turns to me. "So, what do you want, Gavin?" I'm taken aback. "You know who I am?" "I'm the Spirit of Christmas," he says. "I know just about everybody." I nod as if that makes sense. "Been hired to find you and get you back on the job," I say. "Fat chance," he says, gathering cards and preparing to shuffle. "I like it here. Nobody askin' me for nothin'; nobody needin' to be cheered up; nobody sayin' 'bah, humbug.'" He fan-shuffles the deck; starts to deal. "No Christmas specials with has-been B-listers; no spiteful little arguments about 'Merry Christmas' versus 'Happy Holidays." He deals the last card. "No carols, no extended sales hours, no 'It's a Wonderful Life' marathons. No way I'm goin' back to that." He picks up his cards and starts to arrange them by suit. Amateur. I wait out the auction--his foes land at 3 spades. I try: "C'mon, it can't be that bad. Think of the kids." "Oh, you mean the little creeps who all want the latest video game console?" he says, losing a couple of tricks. "Or maybe the teenagers who get mad if they don't have the I-something cell phone? Kids!" He laughs and sneaks a trump onto an Ace cover. I'm just about out of come-ons and starting to contemplate force when Spirit's partner stands and starts away from the table. "Kyle," Spirit says, "what's doin'? Five tricks to go, fellah." But Kyle's not listening. He's drifting toward a doorway on the east end of the room. Through its dimness, I can just see a stairway leading up. "Oh no," Spirit says, rising and laying down his remaining cards, "Not another one. Kyle," he calls after his wandering partner, "we got these bozos, buddy. It's ten cents a point!" And he's out of his seat and chasing. I'm right behind him. "What's going on?" I ask. "Shut up," he snaps, grabbing at Kyle. But Kyle pays no heed. Passing through the Spirit's grip like smoke, he moves inexorably through the door and starts up the stairs. The Spirit stops at the threshold and looks upward. I follow his gaze and a thrill ripples through me. It's an ordinary staircase, dimly lit, cheaply carpeted, boringly standard. At its top . . . well, it's hard to tell what's at its top because of the light: a blazing ball of the coolest, most dazzling light I've ever seen. It's so bright it should hurt my eyes--but it doesn't. In fact, its glory seems to soothe and comfort my gaze and I feel like I could look at it forev . . . "Kyle, stop!" Spirit shouts, breaking my zoniness, "Come back! No! Don't! Ahhh, reindeer farts . . ." And Kyle walks into the glow at the top of the stairs. "That's what they mean," I murmur, "by 'going upstairs.'" "I lose more partners that way," the Spirit mopes. "Why do they always go into the light? What? They suddenly turn into mosquitoes? Don't they know what happens to them once they go in there?" "What?" I ask, excited. "What? What?" "How do I know?" he snipes. "Why do you think I asked?" He turns away; turns back. "Hey, you play pinochle?" I jump back, startled. "Hey, don't worry," he reassures me, "You can play without getting the urge to go upstairs. It doesn't happen to everybody--at least I don't think it does," he pauses. "Besides, you're not dead. If you went into the light, you'd just wind up back where you started--outside 814 Lovecraft Lane." I get a tickle. ". . . 'course you wouldn't be allowed back in here," he goes on, turning away. "That's another reason I won't go with you. You're only allowed to enter and leave once . . ." Tickle's stronger. " . . . So, do you play? Listen, I got some signals I like to use. If I scratch my nose like this . . ." But I'm not listening. I'm grabbing him in a chicken-wing arm-lock and hustling him up the stairs. "Hey, what the . . .? What do you think you're do . . ." Five steps, six, the light's getting closer. "Lemme go, you," he yells, struggling. He might as well give up. Once in this arm lock you got no chance. You just go along nicely--in this case, up another four steps . . . "No! No! You rotten, no good, son of a . . ." . . . and into the light.
* * * *
It's three days later. I'm in my office eating potato chips and drinking beer. I call this lunch; Melody calls it obscene. She's visiting her folks until Christmas Eve, though, and what she don't know won't hurt me. I'm about to swallow some Sam Adams when there's a flash of dark, a puff of smoke, and Stan's sitting in my client chair. "Show off," I say, and tip the bottle to my lips. Next thing I know my hand's empty and Stan's guzzling the brew. "Hey!" I protest as he sets the empty back on my desk. "Thanks," he says, "Gets thirsty, you know?" "Thought that was the idea," I mutter, and pull two more bottles from the fridge under my desk. I toss Stan one and thumb mine open. "So, how come you're here and why haven't you paid me?" I'd sent him an invoice as soon as I'd gotten back to my office. "Pay you for what?" he replies. "Spirit's sulking; says you kidnapped him; won't go out into the world. Sits in his room all day and watches reruns of Gilligan's Island." He stands up; starts to pace; I open my desk drawer. "Things're worse'n ever. No problem with repentant Ebeneezers, no sudden tidings of comfort and joy, no peace on earth goodwill to men" flames start to spring up on my carpet beneath his feet, "I'm as bored as I've ever been. Thanks a bun . . . Hey!" His exclamation comes after I spritz him head to toe with the contents of my fire extinguisher. "Fire regs," I say, watching the foam drip down his face. "Smart ass," he says, and just-like-that the foam's gone. "So, like I asked, pay you for what?" "For finding the Spirit of Christmas," I shrug. "That's why you hired me. Nothin' in the contract about what he'd do after I found him." He opens his mouth. Closes it. Opens it again. Closes. Then he smiles. "Contract," he muses, setting down his beer. "A contract! That's it! Be right back!" And he's gone leaving behind a smell of brimstone. "I take a slug of beer and chomp a few more chips. I'm just about to return his brew to my fridge when he's back. "OK, McQue," he says with a grin, "Everything's taken care of. Your fee is in your account now." "Thanks," I reply. "What changed?" "See, that's why I like you, McQue. You're sharp without knowin' it. When you mentioned a contract, I knew just how to get the Spirit back on the job. I got him to agree to a contract." "You bribed him," I guess. "Sort of," he responds, "I told him what I'd do to you if he went back to work." "What!" "He especially liked the part where you get eaten by cockroaches from the toes up," he stops. "You know for a good-guy type, he's got a mean streak." "But you can't . . . I didn't . . . how did you . . . cockroaches?" "Relax, McQue," he says, opening his beer. "The contract only goes into effect if I get you after you transition. No guarantees there. Of course," he grins, "I didn't tell the Spirit that." I take a breath and relax. Nothing's really changed. "So the Spirit of Christmas is back on the job? I ask. "Don't you feel it?" "As a matter of fact . . ." My office door opens and Duck peeks in. "She here?" he asks. "Heather's out of town," I respond, "Lucky for you." "I don't get it," he grouses, walking in. "What's she mad at me for?" "Could be because you boinked her mommy," Stan puts in. "Just a guess." Duck does a double-take; lifts a thumb toward Stan. "Who's this guy?" "Client," I say. "And you tell him my business? What, McQue, you sellin' soft core these days?" "Soft core my fanny," Stan chuckles. "You know me better, Duck," I say. "I told him nothin'." "So, spill it you," Duck says, moving toward Stan and raising a fist, "How'd you know about . . ." but he freezes in his tracks. "I really should tell you," Stan says, "cause you brightened my day. Got Heather so mad she almost violated . . . well, never mind." He touches Duck on the forehead. "I was never here. You never saw me." He waves his hand and Duck is suddenly seated in one of my client chairs. Stan turns to me. "So long, McQue. Be seein' you." And he's gone, a whiff of brimstone in the breeze. " . . . wasn't my fault anyway," Duck is saying, "Well, not all my fault. Belinda--that's Heather's mom's name, ya know--Belinda's a babe and we hit it off right away," he shrugs. "If she wants to spend some quality time dancin' the hoochie coo, I don't mind bein' her partner. She's a grown up, after all." "And that's what she told Heather," I respond. "She told Heather that?" "In between screaming and crying and Heather threatening to turn you into ground round, yeah. In fact, that's probably why you're not enriching the mortuary business." I tilt my head. "That and the fact that Heather was actually madder at her mom than she was at you." "Madder?" "Furious, incensed, enraged, irate . . ." "I get it, I get it," he says, "How come?" I pause, take a breath: "Duck, Belinda came to Treegreen to visit Heather." "Yeah?" "Heather had the whole visit planned: theater, dinner, shopping." "So?" "So . . . by the time she got finished canoodling with you . . ." "Ca-whatleing?" " . . . her visit was almost over," I finish. "That's why Heather's out of town. She went home to spend some time with her mom." "So she went there to make up," he says. "And to avoid seeing you until she cools down," I add. There's a short, painful silence. "I guess I should be sorry," Duck says. "Yeah." Another silence. "I ain't." "Yeah." Silences seem to be plentiful just now. "How come I ain't?" he asks. "Maybe 'cause it's Christmas . . ." I reply "Yeah." ". . . and you got an early present . . ." "Yeah." ". . . and you're not worm food." I say. We stand here for a while. The sweet sound of carolers wafts up from outside. Duck and I listen. "Nice," he says. "Yeah," I reply "Don't usually like carolers," he says. "Me neither," I reply. "Guess we got the Spirit of Christmas, huh?" he jokes. "In an armlock," I reply, and open another beer.
x x x
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