Christmas Carole

Martin M. Clark

"Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that."
Charles Dickens.

Marley was dead.

He lay face-down in the grey snow, stabbed three times from behind. I wiped my blade on his overcoat and walked away into the shadows. Two hard-eyed street urchins had witnessed my crime from behind a water butt, but they were of no consequence. Allowing them to pick the body clean of valuables would ensure their silence if ever brought before a magistrate.

The partnership of Marley and Scrooge had been dissolved. It remained to be seen how favourably Mister Ebenezer Scrooge reacted to the news.

I left the narrow alleyway and rejoined the main thoroughfare. The Christmas Eve throng of pedestrians clogged the street, slowing my progress. Several passers-by greeted me as I made my way amongst them. I acknowledged each with a smile and a touch of my top hat, but nothing more. None of them really knew me, of course, but I have a face that many find familiar. Mere memories of childhood dreams, if they but knew it.

My entire body itched as if constrained by over-tight clothing. I longed to break free: to shout, scream, kick against the dead weight of Victorian sentimentality that threatened to crush my wild spirit. Inwardly I raged at the stultifying conservatism of my fellow pedestrians, but did nothing. I was bound by the conventions of this genre like Prometheus to his rock.

But listen closely, not for very much longer, I've got to keep control.

A random memory, a snatch of song lyrics, lifted my spirits. I hummed the tune under my breath until reaching my destination; a narrow-fronted town house showing signs of neglect. I sidled around to the back door and stood, listening for the tell-tale crunch of following footsteps, but there was nothing. I rapped softly on the door with my cane and waited.

And waited.

No lantern was lit but eventually I heard the turn of a key, a bolt being withdrawn, and the door opened a fraction. “Yes?”

The voice from within was entirely devoid of the frailty one associates with the elderly. Here was a man who mouthed malice as surely as a set of dentures. I inclined my head. “What was to be done has been done. I suggest we conclude our contract in private.”

The gap opened wider and I stepped inside, standing while my host secured the door behind me. The rasp of a match brought life to a candle stub and I regarded my client, Mister Ebenezer Scrooge. The paltry flame he held was enough to show a threadbare housecoat worn over his bed gown, pale legs thrust into mismatched slippers.

He sniffed. “You’re sure? I’ll want proof positive before parting with the sum we agreed.”

I snapped my fingers.

“Murder, horrible murder in Whitechapel! Jacob Marley found dead!”

The cry of the news vendor reached us plain enough. It’s a little trick of mine, a form of narrative acceleration I’ve found useful on occasion. The reference to ‘Whitechapel’ gave me pause, but I had no time to dwell on the apparent incongruity. “Your business partner is dead, sir. You may rest assured of that. Now, to business?”

With evident reluctance Scrooge set down his candle and lifted a tea towel, revealing a small strongbox. From this he withdrew a stack of gold sovereigns and thrust them into my hand. “Now, begone, and never-” He broke off, staring at a point over my right shoulder. “Ye Gods, what have you brought to my house?”

I dropped the coins, seized the top of my cane and twisted, freeing the slender blade housed within. Swinging around I slashed at the spot which had so transfixed Scrooge, but found nothing. Fearing betrayal I turned again and pressed the point of my swordstick against his neck. The ice-blue metal glowed softly, lending his skin the pallor of a three-day-old corpse. It also revealed the abject terror in his eyes. No attempted ambush then, but some genuine threat.

My voice was a snarl. “Out with it, man, what has you so afeared?”

He swallowed with difficulty. “Smoke from the candle. It swirled as if in a draft, but there is none. It took on the form of a face, such a face as I have never…”

I thrust him aside and bent down, snatching up such coins as came readily to hand. Leaving Scrooge I strode down the hall and unbarred the front door. Taking a moment to compose myself, I sheathed my blade and stepped out onto the pavement. My only defence lay in the company of strangers, those who could not be held to account for my crimes. I set off diagonally across the street – thankfully free of any traffic other than pedestrians. What stalked me was the embodiment of guilt, guilt that I did not feel as a consequence of my actions.

I needed to find someone, I needed to find…

An aged flower seller, muffled against the cold, making her way home. She still carried a few blooms in her wicker basket, prominent amongst them a solitary red carnation. I touched cane to hat by way of introduction and her resigned features slid into an approximation of welcome.

“And how may I serve you, good sir, on this most auspicious of evenings?”

“That carnation of yours. Grown in a hothouse I shouldn’t wonder, and expensive.”

“A fine bloom, to be sure, but one that won’t last. Perhaps a sprig of heather-”

I flicked the flower into the air using the tip of my cane and caught it deftly in my left hand. Pinching off the stem between finger and thumb I slid it into place as my buttonhole.

She inclined her head in acknowledgment of my dexterity. “Perhaps, sir, sixpence? Given the time of year and seasonal goodwill?”

In response I pressed a sovereign into her hand. “I insist you accept this as full payment, and may I wish you a Merry Christmas.”

The crone gazed in wonder at the gold coin. “And a Merry Christmas to you, sir. And may I say…”

But I had moved on, ducking into a quiet alleyway. The veneer of Victorian convention started to crack and I felt a savage grin spread across my face. I’m the Iceman, a killer, and I stalk Wonderland for those with the means to pay for my services.

Jack Frost, at your service.

I’d worked for Father Christmas to get back in his good books but it was obvious the fat bastard had welched on the deal. Eventually The Man would notice and hold him to account, but by then I’d be history. Bad things happen to those on the Naughty List, and this particular Bad Thing was hard on my tail. My random act of generosity, even born of cynical self-preservation, would hold it at bay for a while. I’d bought myself some time, but not long. The faint sound of jingle bells drew my gaze upwards. The sky was empty save for drifting snowflakes; lost souls, each following their own path to oblivion.

Not my fate. Not yet, at any rate.

I needed a gun, but the only firearms this Dickensian niche had to offer were cumbersome pistols or a comedic blunderbuss. Neither had the stopping power to see off a Bad Thing, even at point-blank range. Not that you could ever kill it. The best you could hope for was a few hours respite while it lurked in the shadows, reforming. Luckily my latest crime had drawn it like a moth to the flame, before it was fully formed and ready to torment me. I wouldn’t be so fortunate a second time.

So, there was no mileage in hanging around, even assuming I could ingratiate myself with the likes of Bob Cratchit and his family. It was time to pay the real world a visit, but without leaving any trace of where I’d gone. And for that I needed to snag a dreamer. Standing in a recessed doorway I struck my cane three times on the flagstones.

Close your eyes and set your mind free…

My dreamer was agitated, their point of view swooping between the buildings like a swallow. That meant they were on the point of waking up, but I couldn’t wait for someone more deeply immersed. I followed, letting the perspective of my mind’s eye catch up slowly. I had to take things cautiously in case that feeling of ‘something behind you’ was enough to push them into consciousness. I felt the prickle of awareness as my dreamer experienced a change of persona, my persona, but that meant I could turn and look back to where they’d come from.

A twist of silver winding back through the streets – Ariadne’s thread for the mind. I followed, my imaginary pace quickening until the buildings on either side became blurs, people beneath me mere flickers of humanity. All detail faded until I was rushing down a dark tunnel, the only illumination my path to salvation. Ahead of me I could sense a blank wall, the end of all songs, the barrier between…

The world blinked. The world became…real.

A medium sized bedroom in darkness. Central heating, street lights visible through the curtains, a figure lying in a single bed. I’m not the Tooth Fairy, I don’t get a kick from creeping around, watching kids while they sleep. There was a burble of TV from downstairs so that meant a quick exit via the window was in order. I slid the catch open but the damn thing wouldn’t budge. I propped my cane against the wall and used both hands, but still no joy.

“There’s a trick to it. You need to lift from the top, not the bottom. Otherwise it always sticks like that.”

I froze. It was a girl’s voice; young, but older than anticipated. I stood upright and turned around, trying to think of what to say. The bedside lamp came on.

“You’re Jack Frost.”

“Says who?” Instinctive denial – always my first line of defense.

“I’m Carole Geola. I’m twelve.” She had fair hair and freckles. I could see no superabundance of soft toys to indicate an immature intellect for her age.

“Twelve? But you still believe in me?”

She nodded. “Oh yeah, I’ve seen you before.”

“Somehow I seriously doubt that.” The only people who knew me were clients, confederates or victims. Sometimes two from three.

“Three years ago, when we had all that snow. My dad built a winter hide in the garden, so I could watch the animals coming in from the woods to feed. The patio doors were all covered in frost and I saw you step out of them. All white at first, then you coloured in. You wore the same red waistcoat.”

I tried to smile. “Neat trick, eh?”

Carole cocked her head to one side. “You killed a man just now. In my dream. I saw you.”

Tricky. “Ah, that wasn’t real, OK? It was just like a story you watched, with me as an actor.”

She frowned. “I could hear you in my head, afterwards. Just before I woke up. You were afraid, trying to get away. It wasn’t an act.”

Damn tricky . But maybe twelve was old enough to understand. “OK, Carole, it was real, in a way. But that man was going to die, regardless, even if I hadn’t been there. That’s just the way he was written. All I did was use his death, the circumstances of his death, for my own ends.”

“I don’t understand.” She drew her knees up and hugged them.

“Right, look, ah, stories, usually old stories, they can become real. Not real as in here, but real as in the place you go when you dream. Some fade away but others last forever, all existing side-by-side. Like, like a big theme park.”

That wasn’t half of it. Belief kept a storyline alive, feeding on each dreamer who visited it. That generally meant children, the devout and the seriously disturbed. Wonderland was an unstable mix of fairytale, religious fervour and the plain mad. It takes some getting used to.

My pre-teen interrogator bit her lip. “Stories like Twilight?”

“Ah, no, only tales written by hand, with a pen. There’s something in the ink that captures the imagination, makes it real. People wrote about me, a long, long time ago, and I’ve been around ever since. It’s the same with all the classic fairy tales, including the scary ones.”

Carole stared at me hard for a moment – looking a damn sight older than twelve – then sniffed. “You came here to hide, to get away.” A statement rather than question.

I shrugged. “There are dreams and there are nightmares, even for people like me. You visit Wonderland when you’re asleep, and leave it behind when you wake up. For me, for all of us who live there, you don’t get to wake up. Coming here - your world, the real world – is my escape. Except that I can’t stay for long.” I cleared my throat. “Speaking of which…”

“You’d better go, in case my mum looks in.”

“Damn straight.” I turned and slid the window up. It was Christmas Eve – no snow, but at least dry and frosty. My home turf. I removed my top hat, pressed it flat, and sent it spinning off into the shadows. My swordstick was another matter. I lifted it and turned towards Carole. “You give it a sharp twist like this, then pull. Careful though, it’s sharp enough to cut the air itself. Call it an early Christmas present.”

“For me? Cool.”

“You bet. Because it comes from Wonderland it’ll be there when you dream, if you need it. Sometimes a blade beats running away, hands down.” I placed the cane on the end of her bed. “Oh, and if you see Santa, give him a poke from me.” She giggled.

I eased out of the window and slithered down the drainpipe, leaving a trail of fern-leaf frosting. The garden was quiet, the air still as stone. My feet left no imprint as I walked over to the gate. Looking back I saw Carole at the open window, waving. I bowed in return, then turned away – smiling.

It’s always good to meet a fan.

© Martin M. Clark 2018 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 11:09 Wed 14 Feb 2018
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