Wednesday, December 31, 2008

RE: Tools of the Trade

In response to Bill's question about what actual BOOKS I keep for reference, I'm forced to admit that there aren't any. The only exception to this is the comics that I keep on hand for story and visual reference for the stories I'm working on, but I'm pretty sure that this isn't what Bill had in mind.

In lieu of that, however, I can list a few online resources that I consider absolutely critical:

Wikipedia: I can't express how much Wikipedia has raised the bar in terms of what it means to be knowledgeable. It's not enough to just know the basic facts -- you have to go deeper. In any subject on which you discourse, you must be at least as informed as wikipedia, or you're an idiot. Dictionary and thesaurus all in one. Having been caught out once or twice misusing or misspelling words in my printed work, I've gotten a lot more careful about such things, so I never have to hear from another reader, "That word you keep using -- I don't think it means what you think it means." For years, I thought "matriculate" was a synonym for "graduate." It's not.

Project Gutenberg: Original sources, especially classics, galore. When you need to go back to the source material, this is the first place to start. I spent quite some time on here trying to verify that Heraclitus actually wrote, "Only change endures." As far as I can tell, he didn't. This, apparently, is one of those things that has filtered into the popular consciousness without proper citation, like "Play it again, Sam" and "Elementary, my dear Watson."

Babelfish: I don't know about you, but I often find myself needing a phrase or two from a foreign language. The trick is that you can't take babelfish's word for it. You need to spend some time googling the result to make sure that this is something that people actually say.

These are some of the obvious ones. What are some of the less-obvious?


Tools of the Trade-

I have a friend who wants to write a novel that has a historical hook in it. At random, he asked if I had a copy of Timetables of History and if he could borrow it. I said sure and found that my copy was missing. (As my Dad used to say... "I don't know many accountants, but I have a lot of friends that are book-keepers.")

Anyway, I realized that I wanted the updated copy and went online and bought one. Most of my recent work has been from the parallel universe in my head and I have not had to interface with the real world as much. I had not realized just how much the internet had replaced the reference material I had in print when it comes to research. So here is an open question. Aside from something like a thesaurus, what are the essential books you need to reference to be able to write?



Thursday, December 25, 2008

Oh, Holy Night

Oh, Holy Night

By Bill Williams

Gulliver was sipping a beer and practicing flipping a silver coin and watching the front door to The Shining Star when Xander tapped him on the shoulder. He caught the coin, but after a few too many rotations. When he slapped the coin to the table top, it was face down showing the back of the coin that had the sun rising on the bridge over Forever Falls. He glanced at the other man from under the edge of a heavy brow. "Xander, you're pretty sneaky for an old man."

With a practiced hand, Xander flipped his cloak over the bench and took a seat at the crude table across from Gulliver. "That's a terrible thing to say Gully. I won't be old for another fifty years." He looked around and smoothed out his gray satin vest. The bar was mostly empty in the middle of the afternoon. There was a small clutch of dwarves discussing something at a round table in the corner, but they were notorious for keeping to themselves. He peeked into Gulliver's beer mug. "What are you drinking?"

He lifted the mug and swallowed loudly before answering. "The cheap stuff." Gulliver thumbed a few drops of beer out of his moustache. "Why'd you sneak in behind me?"

"Just to see if I could do it," Xander said. "I'm working at being more spontaneous." He was dressed in gray wools and satins accented with black leather boots and belts including the ones that held his knives and longblade. Like most people in the bar, there was a hint of snow on his boots that never quite came off this late in the year.

"Doesn't dressing like a peacock and sneaking around make one or the other harder?"

"Sometimes." He thought about taking his gloves off for a moment, but thought better of it.

"Well, here we are." Gulliver was so nondescript that if asked later, no one would be able to remember a thing about him without magical assistance.

Xander grinned and motioned at the server, pointing at Gulliver's drink. He watched the coin flipping. "Do you have a new nervous habit? A new quirk?"

"Don't be funny, you haven't got the chops." Gulliver rubbed the coin between his thumb and fore finger. "Actually, with enough practice, you can flip a coin and, well... Nothing. Yeah, I have a new quirk."

Xander watched the server as she moved from the bar to their table. After she dropped off his drink, he placed a sealed envelope on the table and slid it closer to Gulliver. "This is it."

Gulliver forgot all about the coin in his hand. "How do I know that?"

"That's what I was told." He sipped the drink slowly and regretted that he had not gritted his teeth to strain out the hoppy chunks.

"Look Xander, I paid for that space and paid for the business license and there is still a hold up from the neighborhood committee. How do I know that I can stop paying that blood money any time in the near future? Your people are sucking me dry."

"It's not my people," Xander shrugged.

Gulliver finished his beer and pushed the mug toward the aisle. "It is you, you rich people are killing me."

"So, you hate the wealthy, but you want to be one someday."

"Right," Gulliver growled. He ran his fingers over the envelope. "There's no seal on this."
Xander struggled to look sincere. "I honestly don't know who wants the job done, Gully. That envelope was cut out a few times before it got to me. Some times it's good not to know too much."

Gulliver sighed. "All right, all right, all right. But this had better be the last of the problems with my paperwork."

"That's life in Haliford. You can't drop dead unless you have the right seal on the right document."

Gulliver slid a finger under the edge of the paper and got ready to break the seal. "You've got to pay to play, I guess."

Xander reached out and tried to stop Gulliver's hands from across the table. "Don't open that in here."

He shrugged and put the paper inside of his vest. "Fine. I'll be doing this job, whatever it is, tonight. If I don't contact you by morning, come looking for me."

Xander used a gloved finger to pull a chunk from the beer mug. He spoke without looking up.

"Good luck." But by then Gulliver was gone. He dry-spit a couple of times to try to get the taste of the cheap beer off of his tongue. When that didn't work, he decided to go home for a proper glass of wine.

Xander was updating his Continental Map in his favorite embroidered house jacket when he heard a rapping at the window to his third floor study. He quickly looked into the darkness and motioned at the window. "It's unlocked."

The window swung wide open and Gulliver stepped into the light after kicking the snow from his boots. His clothes were bloody and he had a layer of grit on him. He managed a smile and said, "I could use a drink."

Xander chin-pointed at the wine-cabinet. "Help yourself. Don't stain anything." He went back to the flowing writing style he used for the geographic features and inscribed the term Nytherkin Island next to a smallish land mass off of the Western Coast. When he finished drawing the letters, he corked the green ink and placed the quill in its holder. "I get the occasional update from the Mariner's Guild so I can flesh out my map of the continent."

"That's great." Gulliver was pouring a second glass. "I need some advice."

"Is that blood fresh?"


"You want to tell me whose it is?"

"Some of its mine, some of its hers..." Gulliver sat on the edge of a high gilded stool. "I'll make a long story short. The note gave an address and a box to steal and a couple of words of caution. The first word of caution was to burn the note after reading."

"And the other?"

"Don't open the box."

"Did you open the box?"

"I'm not an idiot."

Xander walked over and got a new, clean glass from the wine cabinet. He motioned and Gulliver poured for him as he held out his empty glass to his guest. "That's not exactly what I asked."

Gulliver ignored him and kept going with the story. "Getting into the place was easy enough. Climb a wall. Avoid a trap or two. Thump a few guards including a very curvy brunette who was good with a sword."

"Was?" Xander leaned away from his drinking partner.

"Okay, is. I didn't kill her. She won't use a sword as well for a while, but she should be fine in a month or so. Anyway, I matched the rune from the note to the rune on the box and there were a lot of boxes there. I got back out and went to the drop location."

"And there was trouble?"

"Of course," Gulliver said. "There was a trap at the drop location and I got a ten inch spike in the leg for my trouble. But it's just good business to try to kill the last guy to touch the package. It's part of the job and I'm fine with that. Keeps out the weekenders."

"Did you open the box?"

"Yes and no."

"That's not a real answer. Either you opened it or you didn't."

"Well, the box was sealed," Gulliver said. "And I wanted to know what was in it. So, I thought about opening the box and cast one of the prediction spells. It let me see what I would see if I opened the box and the box had a little kid's finger in it. I didn't break the seal, but I did see the finger."

"Good thing you didn't break the seal."

"It's a little kid's finger, Xander. Somebody cut a kid's finger off."

Xander nodded as he finished the glass. "It happens."

Red-faced, Gulliver shouted. "What do you mean it happens? Who does that?"

"It's called an assurance or in some cases a bond of assurance."

"So, it's extortion?"

"The opposite, really." Xander poured another glass and took a deep sigh before continuing. "People with a lot of coin spend a lot of it keeping their treasures safe. And children are a treasure..."

"Are you...?"

"Let me finish. There are times when a parent might have a finger of a child removed when that child is in danger or may be in danger in the future. That finger is sent away for safekeeping. In the event that the child is stolen or killed, the finger can be used to find the child's soul or if needed to generate a new body. It is a contingency plan. An assurance."

"That's disgusting," Gulliver said.

"Sometimes the finger is regrown, so the child is more or less intact. Or it is left off as a status symbol. That depends on the parents." Xander drank quietly and remembered how he learned of the practice. He waited as Gulliver thought about the new story.

"So why would somebody take the assurance finger?"

"Why do you think?"

Gulliver's brows rolled and pulled together. "Well, you could ransom it back to the family. Or if you wanted to take the kid, then you could have extra leverage with their back door gone. Or you could replace the real kid with a finger kid. Or..."

Xander put his hand on Gulliver's shoulder to stop him. "I knew you would see some new angles."

"Either way, that kid's in trouble." Gulliver put the wine glass down and stood up.

"And do you know who he is," Xander said.

"Or she."

"Or she."

"But it was a 'he'," Gulliver said.

"Don't do that," Xander said.

Gulliver nodded. "I cast a second spell on the finger and found the kid. I know where he lives, who he is."

"You use a lot of magic for a guy that flunked out of University."

"I didn't flunk out, I was pushed," Gulliver said. He straightened his bloody clothes. "And I'm square with them now, remember."

"Yeah." Xander closed the wine cabinet. "What are you going to do now?"

"I'm headed over there," Gulliver said as he shot a wicked grin at his host. "Do you want in?"

"That's a young man's game, Gully. But I'll watch your back."

Gulliver walked to the map and pulled the quill pen from the holder. He started scratching something out on a scrap of paper. "All of that time in temple has made you soft, Xander."


Gulliver walked to the window he had entered through. "Give me some time before you come around. It might take a day or two for something stupid to happen."

"So, you're not heading right over there tonight?" Xander was smiling.

He nodded and pointed at his host. "For you, that was funny."

"Be careful," Xander said. "And wait. Just wait." Xander raised his hands and waived them at Gulliver in deliberate wide arcs. The grit and dried blood fell like dust from the thief's clothing and left two clean boot-prints in the middle of the rug. "I can't let you leave like that."

He checked the window and looked at his clothing. "Thanks."

"I have a reputation to uphold." Xander drew his jacket in close around his shoulders. "Now climb down the wall and get out of here." When the window shut, he slid the lock closed and reset the trap. He considered Gulliver's problem for a moment before going to bed for the night.

A low wind disturbed the bushes and moved the loose strands of grass around Gulliver's hiding place just outside of the gate of the third nicest estate in the high section of Haliford. He finished his piece of mince pie and put the expensive waxed paper back in the fold of his cloak. Stamping his feet out of habit, he remembered that he had put a low-level heat glamour on himself a few hours ago. Distant city bells chimed midnight as a horse-drawn sleigh full of revelers slushed by on the snowy street a few yards away. They seemed to be celebrating the New Year a week early. Gulliver concentrated and cast a traveling ear spell to check on the family. The sound of snoring always made him smile. Then there was a soft pop from somewhere in the house and the traveling ear burst. Gulliver's world went white and he was numb.

When Gulliver awoke, his right side was wet from the snow he was pressing down. He had no real idea what time it was but it was still dark and a light snow was falling. Shaking the wet clumps out of his hair, he thought he saw the edge of a spell effect at the edge of the fence. It was snowing a little heavier on the estate grounds that was clearly lit by the large full moon. Gulliver put his hands on the wall and vaulted over. He ran toward the house feeling the cold air cut his lungs. The snow tingled when it hit Gulliver's face. The snow swirled along behind him as he ran at the corner of the house. The full moon overhead gave the snow a sparkle and the yard seemed to crackle with electricity. Rounding the corner, Gulliver guessed that whatever was happening was centered on the back yard away from the street.

The grounds were well manicured with clipped grass and sculpted hedges that formed a rough maze back to the center piece of the grounds, a large sundial in the center of a manicured lawn. Gulliver quickened his pace and lept the first hedge when he saw the tiny pajammed body on the sundial's face. He cleared a second hedge and a third. When he lost sight of the sundial for a step or two, he kept on moving until he made the clearing. He hesitated a step before running to the sundial.

The boy was around seven. He had looked younger in the detection spells. Despite a rough shaking, he would not wake up. When he pried an eyelid open, Gulliver saw that the kid's eyes had rolled back up into his head. The hair on his neck stood up and he heard muffled footfalls behind him. Gulliver had time to move a step to the right before something slammed into his back and he went flying across the frozen lawn. He skidded, pushing the snow up in a pile as he slowed. When he drew breath, he felt a familiar pain in his back. He looked back to see an unusual woman behind him.

"You must be the thief that wouldn't die," she said. She stood five and a half feet tall, but the antlers made her six and a half feet in total height. Her all too human skin was pale and purplish, but that might have been the cold. She was wrapped in silky veils that could not have given any protection from the weather. They were fixed to her by a belt of rough hide that had a variety of pouches. Her bare feet were caked with twinkling snow.

Gulliver guessed that she had rammed him in the back. "You must be the bad guy."

"Or visionary. That's for the history books to decide. But you know, the winners write the history books." She was pulling a hand full of glass beads from one of the hip pouches. "My name is Grizzel."

He rolled onto his back. "And you're a tuathan." The pain in his back came back in a rush and he suspected that he had a few cracked ribs.

She laughed. "Are the antlers the dead giveaway?" She pulled her arm back, preparing to throw the beads. "Maybe you're too stupid to die." Grizzel whipped her arm forward.

"Maybe," Gulliver back-flipped to his feet and started tumbling for the hedges as the red and green and yellow glass beads flew in his direction. The beads burst with a hot red fire, green electricity and yellow ice. Tumbling, he did not take a direct hit, but he felt the bursts. Gulliver shouted from just behind the hedge. "You're not supposed to be in the city."

"Deport me," Grizzel said as she made slow motions with her pale arms. A sparkling ball of energy appeared at her right palm and she slung the sparks at the thief.

Gulliver ran along the maze trail and dove into a tumble as the sparkling energy ball flew behind him. He had recognized the spell and it was one that did not miss. The sparkles hit him square in the back and drove him into the brambles of the hedge.

A trickle of cold white energy fell from the moon and landed on the child on the sundial. Grizzel danced with glee and leapt high in the air. "You're too late, thief. You're corpse will bear witness to a new age. Maybe I'll animate you and you can work for me." She danced around the sundial and celebrated in a strange language as the beam of moonlight crackled and thickened.

"The boy is a special child and this is a Holy Night. You should feel blessed."

Gulliver picked himself up out of the hedge and ignored the minor wounds from the branches. His cloak had protected him from the worst of the sparkles. Watching the scene, Gulliver crouched and began casting a spell. Dark energy crackled around his hands and with a whoomp, a ball of darkness appeared over the kid. The falling moonlight was cutting into the dark steadily, but it was stopped for the moment. He began casting again.

Grizzel screamed and started blasting wildly at Gulliver's spot in the hedge, but she had lost track of him in her celebration. She was walking toward, away from the sundial. Surprised by the webs forming around her, she stopped in her tracks. Fire burst from her fingertips and Grizzel burned herself free. The moonlight burned through the dark sphere and lit the child in a cold light.

Gulliver tumbled from the hedges and threw a knife at the woman with the antlers, "let's see you counter that." The spinning knife caught her square in the shoulder. She threw a bit of red ribbon at Gulliver and the strip of shining cloth grew as it drifted through the air. The thief drew his rapier and stabbed the ribbin as it wrapped around his arms and shoulders and finally legs. Gulliver fell over and wriggled a bit in the snow. He managed to get onto his back with his blade out in the air.

Grizzel walked over close to the thief and leaned in closer enough to gloat. "That ribbon will squeeze you until you pass out." She pulled out a dirty little blade. "It must be my birthday," she said.

"I doubt it," a new voice said from the direction of the sundial. Xander was wrapping the child in a blanket as he pulled him off of the snow-covered sundial. "You tuathans try to summon your god at the end of every year." Xander smiled as he drew his longblade. "But you never learn."

Grizzel started to scream, but stopped when the tip of the rapier blade slid out from her chest in a perfect bloodless thrust. She coughed blood once and then fell over dead in the snow pulling the thief over with her.

Purple-faced, Gulliver leaned into her and pushed the rapier blade up to the hilt. "Get me out of this," Gulliver gasped before he slipped to the edge of consciousness.

When he fully awoke, the heavy sparkly snow had stopped and Xander was cutting him free of the ribbons. "Thanks." He enjoyed the deep breath and the headache that came with it. "You did something extra when you quick-cleaned my gear, right?"

"Yeah," Xander said. "I put a tracer on you and came this way when you got knocked out again."

Gulliver sat up in the snow. "So, you used me as bait."

"Not really. I just watched your back." Xander cut Gulliver's legs free. The thick falling moonlight had stopped when he had wrapped the child in the cloth. He went back over to the boy and lifted him up with both arms. "I'll return the child to his bed. You get the woman ready to carry off. Keep whatever you can find." The light snow started filling in Xander's footprints as he walked to the house with the blanket-wrapped boy.

Gulliver cracked his neck and smiled. He stood and remembered the cracked ribs. "Gloryhog."

Bah Humbug

By Brad Thomte

     The two men, clad only in black with no winter jackets, stood out horribly. The street was awash with last minute holiday shoppers bundled tightly in their reds and greens, moving in rhythm to some unseen winter orchestra. Each of them trying to complete the task of bringing cheer to someone or another. All of them completely ignorant of Michael and Art, as they wound their way down Robbins Ave.
     Michael looked around at the gaudy lights and displays in the store windows and, without even turning to Art said, “I hate this time of year.”
     “What on earth are you talking about?” Art replied.
     Michael kicked a snow covered coffee cup out of his way and sighed heavily. His breath was invisible, even in the cold air.
     “They’re all… happy.”
     “Well of course they’re happy, you moron. It’s Christmas.”
     Michael shook his head and sighed again.
     Art let out a sigh of his own. He knew they were about to get into a long drawn out conversation. It was one he and Michael had every year for the past countless number of years. It was one that Art has never won. And this time it was one that would delay them from eating, which was the whole reason for the excursion.
     Art, seeing the pained look flash across his friend’s face at the mention of the word, felt like poking at Michael’s apparent sore spot.
     “What’s wrong with Christmas?” He added the extra emphasis just to watch Art cringe.     “You’ve got to admit, it brings them out in droves. And they’re completely focused on their own goals, ignoring everything else around them. It makes our life so much easier.”
     The two pale men rounded the corner on to Main Street. As they turned, Michael blurted out, “Oh, c’mon. You have got to be kidding.” He backed up and gestured at the crowd gathered around an elevated stage.
     On the stage, a small barn was constructed. In front of the barn was a family of three. The father and mother were holding their infant son and talking to three strangers with gifts that were quite obviously for the newborn. An incandescent star was placed over the barn.
     “Remember when we used to dress like that?” asked Art. “Those robes were comfortable.”
     “Really? Is that all you have to say about this?” Michael turned around and headed back up Robbins. He looked at Art with absolute disgust. “Now we have to take the long way around.”
Art grinned and decided that if they were going to repeat this discussion for at least the fiftieth time, then he was going to have fun with it.
     “So what? It’s not like we’re going to get cold. So we take the long way around.” Art patted Michael on the shoulder and said, “Hey, maybe we’ll run into a group of carolers this way.”
      Michael pulled away. “Great! And maybe they’ll be singing ‘Oh come all ye faithful.’ That would just be the icing on the cake.” He started walking faster to get ahead of Art.
     “Oh, wow. That one even gives me the creeps.” Art regained his smile. “C’mon, let’s go into one of the shops and find something to eat.”
     “Really? You’ve got to be kidding. We can’t go near half of these places.” Michael stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and pointed at the decorations surrounding them. “Look.” He took a deep breath. “Angel, cross, Jesus, cross, angel, angel, Jesus, Jesus on a cross…” Michael faded off and started walking again. Art quickly caught up.
     Michael kicked at the snow like a petulant child. “Not to mention the fact that you brought us to a small town. Most of these stores are family owned. There’s no chance of being invited in by the owner.”
     “Ok, so that was a dumb move on my part.” Art looked at Michael sheepishly. “I definitely wasn’t thinking ahead. Look, for New Year’s we’ll go up to Times Square. That’ll make it easier.”
     “I’m going to hold you to that. It would be nice to actually get to…”
     Michael was cut off by Art grabbing his shoulder and pointing. Up ahead of the two was a small diner. It was trimmed with red and blue neon lights, but not holiday decorations. A pair of young ladies were exiting the front door. Both in their early twenties and over-laden with boxes and bags. They were completely absorbed in conversation.
     “Still hungry?” Michael inquired.
     “Famished. That’s as good as any,” Art replied.
     The two women rounded the corner on to Coolidge Street and disappeared. Michael and Art looked at each other and took off on a dead run. Their feet made no sound as they floated across the new fallen snow.
     Art glanced back at the diner to confirm that no one else was coming out. He nodded to Michael who was slightly behind him.
     In the blink of an eye, the two were upon the young women and had them by the shoulders. Art was the first to shift. His fangs were immediately visible to the women as they spun around to face their attackers. Michael’s face had contorted into a grotesque parody of itself as he lunged at the girl he was gripping.
     Both men buried their mouths into the necks of their partner. One woman tried to scream but was cut short by Art’s hand.
     The two men continued to feed until Art looked up at Michael and said, “Merry Christmas, Mike.”
     Michael looked up from his meal long enough to utter one word.

Our mid-morning yuletide update...

Those more perceptive of you will note that the fellow who volunteered us for this (admittedly delightful) task, the one who decreed by personal fiat that we'd all be working on Christmas Day, has so far posted the least of us.
     To really rub it in on poor Bill (the other Bill), I've taken it upon myself to invite an outside contributor, a Christmas guest if you will on this day of days where the halls of hosting are opened wide, to contribute to our Yule Day prose fest.
     Brad Thomte, a friend to both of us Bills couldn't resist the opportunity to dash off this wintery tale (which will be posted next -- therefore, in a blog's read it bottom-to-top if you want to read it chronologically, it has been posted above, rather than below this note) to further tweak (the other) Bill's so far embarrassing word count.
     And since this is Christmas Day, and he's not a member of the Clockwork Cryptera, Brad can be forgiven, just this once, for not knowing about our secret ban on stories featuring characters of a certain exhaustively-covered stripe.

The Trouble with Elves

By Matthew Sturges

Walter McGhee woke up two minutes before the alarm sounded and shuffled into the bathroom, careful to shut the door quietly before turning on the light. Margaret did not have to be out of bed for another hour and if he were to wake her now, at 6:15, there would be consequences.

It no longer bothered Walter that he was balding, or that he was overweight. He’d been faced with those realities for years and they were nothing new. His frown was just an old habit, borne of years spent sulking at a reflection that did not quite live up to its expectations. It was almost a relief in a way, these days, knowing that both his hairline and his waistline were far beyond his control. There was nothing to be done about it; that was the reality of it, and because he knew it was real he also knew that there was no use trying to change it.

Reality was a favorite subject of Walter’s. He’d spent his adult life acclimating himself to it; it was an acquired taste. Having acquired it years ago, however, he took a certain pride in pointing out to himself how reality had won out over whatever dreams and fantasies he might once have had. He had officially taken reality’s side on these issues.

Walter hated Christmas, although not for the reasons one might expect. It wasn’t the way Christmas made lonely people like him feel even lonelier, nor was it the phony good cheer passed around at the office, stinking of insincerity. Nor was it the odious burden of purchasing gifts for neighbors and coworkers that he didn’t particularly care for and who didn’t think much of him, either. Those were perfectly good reasons, but they weren’t why he hated Christmas so much. It was the Job. The Job he got stuck with every year at this time and always swore he would never accept again.

Today was the first day of the Christmas season at Harrison Bell’s, San Cibola’s largest and most prestigious department store, and Walter was now officially the mayor of Santa’s Village. His task it was to audition prospective Santas, his to ensure that the ersatz snow was sprinkled proportionally about the plastic pine trees and tiny wooden buildings, his to badger the ladies in gift wrapping to wrap the hundreds of cheap toys that would be handed out to the children on Santa’s lap over the next three weeks. And he hated it. He hated it and had hated it for ten years.

And then there were the elves.

The elves bothered Walter in a way that he could not express. He was not a particularly literate or poetic man, and to express the subtle nuances of unease that he felt when he interacted with the elves would have been beyond him. But the reason for it was simple: they were dwarfs. All of them. Small people. He didn’t know what to call them; they made him uncomfortable, just standing there in their little green and white outfits with the caps and the bells and the pointed shoes, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they were not normal. Walter wanted to believe that he was enlightened enough to look past their differences. He wanted to see the elves as human beings, indifferent to their tiny stature or their funny little faces, or their squat, waddling walks, but he couldn’t. That was another reality he was forced to accept. The elves had stirred in him a bigotry that felt cold and ancient, and he hated them for it. Walter wanted to believe that he was a good person, and these elves proved him wrong every time he looked at them. He was not a good person. The elves bothered him. Because they were dwarfs and they were not normal.

But was there more to it than that? He thought hard, plying his Buick Regal up the 101, already thick with morning traffic building between Hygate and San Cibola. Certainly there was something odd about them beyond their stature. There were eight of them, little old geezers and pudgy women who were all related to each other somehow, although by blood or marriage Walter had never quite figured out. They were paid enormous salaries by Harrison Bell’s, upwards of sixty thousand a year, and as far as Walter could tell they only worked the three weeks before Christmas. And that was with an extremely loose definition of the word work.

Most days they just goofed around, hopping back and forth on their heels, singing little out-of-tune ditties, and getting in everyone’s way. Their leader, a cranky old goat by the name of Ferisher even had the nerve to drink on the job; he carried a little flask of something around at the store and he’d take little nips off of it when he thought no one was looking.

Once, his first year on the Job, Walter tried to complain to upper management about the elves and their work habits (or lack thereof) and his general disaffinity for them. Wade Harrison himself had looked Walter right in the eye and told him that the elves were considered extremely valuable employees and he was to treat them with all the deference of visiting foreign dignitaries. Something about a crucial investor’s insistence. Harrison had gone so far as to imply that Walter was free to seek employment elsewhere if he could not abide by Harrison’s instructions on the matter. So that was that.

Walter edged the Buick into the space reserved for “Assistant Store Manager” in Harrison Bell’s underground garage. He sat, staring at the cinder block wall painted with a blue “Level A” and let the car idle for a bit. His teeth were clenched, his jaw ached. In his competitive days he’d scoffed at people who had lives like this. People who trudged into jobs they hated, day in and day out, with no sense of accomplishment or merit and no hope for ever doing any better. He tried not to think about it.

Instead, he allowed himself a moment to fantasize about Deena, the executive assistant assigned to him during the Holiday season. In just a few brief seconds, Walter was able to imagine himself in a number of wildly divergent naughty escapades with Deena, and even a few that were simply romantic or outright ludicrous, like the one in which he rescued Deena from muggers and she clung to him in breathy gratitude, her dark hair flowing over his arms as he held her, her firm round breasts pushing against his chest.

Walter’s feelings about Deena were complex. For the past two years that she’d been working with him down in Santa’s Village they’d gotten along well, and maybe that was the problem. It wasn’t just that he was attracted to Deena; he’d been attracted to plenty of women since his marriage and hadn’t ever considered pursuing them. But since getting to know Deena, he genuinely preferred her company to just about anyone else’s; and he’d become certain over the past few weeks that he was, in fact, in love with her. There were, however, major impediments to a romantic involvement. The most obvious was that he was married, although he admitted to himself that it was not his loyalty to Margaret that caused him to feel guilty when he fantasized about Deena. It was more of a vague, Freudian sense of immorality that curtailed his flights of fancy.

The second, less surmountable obstacle was that Deena apparently had no romantic interest in him whatsoever. Why would she? She was twenty-nine and beautiful; she had a new boyfriend every other week. These were men who played professional hockey and Italian playboys and bouncers at popular nightclubs. Walter could never compete with men like that, he knew. It was futile. But that didn’t stop him from dreaming about it while he rode the elevator to the lobby.

Santa’s Village was laid out, as always, in the main atrium of Harrison Bell’s, directly in front of the enormous artificial tree that rose nearly forty feet to the glass ceiling of the atrium. Santa’s chair stood at the apex of an artificial hill, so the children sitting on his lap could have an unobstructed of Powell Street, with the garlanded splendor of Oro Boulevard beyond. Oro ran two blocks straight into Olympic Plaza, where the city’s Christmas tree vied with Harrison Bell’s for ascendancy. People came from miles around to see the view from Santa’s chair, and it was not unusual for grown men to crawl into his lap and take pictures.

The Village proper surrounded the throne like that of island natives around a central volcano. The various structures, none of which were more than five feet high, appeared to be constructed of gingerbread (they were not), and included among other things a workshop, a toy vault, Santa’s House and a number of smaller unlabeled structures. Each of these tiny buildings served some prosaic function as well: the workshop was a dressing room for the elves, the toy vault actually held the stacks of hastily wrapped toys for Santa to distribute, and Santa’s House was, in reality, the john.

As usual, the elves caromed about the village juggling, doing handstands, farting, telling jokes, and (occasionally) working. Their outfits, new this year, made them look like tiny Germans at Oktoberfest; the caps, suspenders, breeches and lederhosen all of a dark forest green. Ferisher, the leader of the bunch, was leaning against the candy-striped North Pole sucking on an Orange Julius.

“Ferisher!” Walter called, crossing the distance from the elevator with purposeful strides. He approached the small man and knelt, putting his arm roughly around Ferisher’s shoulder. “I don’t think they have Orange Julius at the North Pole. You get my drift?”

Ferisher cocked his head. “You can say that again,” he mumbled, taking a noisy slurp from the straw. “All you get to eat in that place is milk and cookies, day in and day out.”

“That’s as may be,” said Walter, pursing his lips, “but I guess what I’m trying to get at is that I’d prefer it if you didn’t eat or drink while on the job, because it doesn’t look very good.”
Ferisher nodded. “Oh, I see.” He took another sip. “Well, I prefer to keep drinking it, because it’s tasty. So where does that leave us, eh?” He raised his eyebrows.

“Um, I’m going to have to insist that you put your drink away until break time, okay?”

Ferisher took a few steps away and turned his back on Walter, bending over. “And I’m going to have to insist that you take a big ol’ bite of my ass!” he called over his shoulder. He whooped. “Oh, that’s a good one.”

Walter was trying to think of what to say next when Deena appeared. Her skirt flowed across the linoleum of the atrium, brushing the floor gently as she walked. When he looked at Deena it was as though she were the only thing in the room that was in full color. Everything else was washed-out and faded.

“Hi guys!” she said. Walter swooned. Could there be anything in the world as beautiful as Deena? How could he ever be satisfied with anything less than her? How could he go home to Margaret tonight after bathing in her radiance? With a casual hand, she pushed the hair out of her face in a gesture surely designed to drive him mad.

“Well, hello, Deena. I was just having a chat with our Mr. Ferisher, uh, about the relative merits of the Orange Julius versus the, uh, Slurpee.”

She nodded slowly. “I see. And what have you decided?”

Ferisher looked back and forth from Deena to Walter, a strange look on his wrinkled little face. Then, very carefully, he said, “Well, if you want to know what I think, it’s that Walter here is correct. The Slurpee is a better drink. I’m converted!” He danced a jig, the bells on his shoes jangling.

“Really?” Deena laughed. “And here all this time I though you and Mr. McGhee didn’t get along. Well, it’s good to know the two of you are friends now; it does my heart good.” She smiled. “Mr. McGhee, if you’d like to look over the inventory reports, I have some time right now.”

Walter stammered. “Ah, the inventory. Right. You know, it’s interesting Deena. I was just reading in Business Week about the way that logistic trends affect inventory practices.”

Deena’s smile faltered a bit. “Yes?” she said.

Walter knew he should just stop talking, but he couldn’t. Whenever he got around Deena, his mouth opened and a torrent of nonsense gushed forward. He knew this. He could see it coming a mile away. He promised himself that he would stop it, take a public speaking class, read a self-help book, even tape his mouth shut if he had to. Anything to keep that perfect smile from falling the way it was falling now, faster and faster as the idiotic stream of business-babble showed no signs of ending. And yet, he could not stop. He went on and on about inventory management practices and resource allocation metrics. He explained the necessity for consistent use of best practices and the feasibility of using prime vendor management systems. By the time he found a convenient stopping point, Deena was staring blankly into space and Mr. Ferisher was hopping back and forth like he had to go to the bathroom.

“I see,” said Deena. “Well, I just remembered that I need to do something.” She turned on a pretty heel and hurried off toward Santa’s Workshop.

Ferisher goggled at Walter. “Holy Cow, you’ve got it bad, pal!”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mr. Ferisher.” Walter cleared his throat. The last thing he needed was a razzing from an elf.

“Oh, come on. We’re both men here. Look at that girl’s ass. She’s built like a brick shithouse! If I was a few hundred years younger I might take a stab at her myself.”

“Now, Mr. Ferisher, that’s highly inappropriate,” said Walter, his eyes following Deena’s curves as they oscillated across the atrium.

“Hoo boy, I sure know what you want for Christmas, I do! Dreaming about her day and night; I especially love the one where you rescue her from a burning building.” Ferisher snorted. “It’s too bad, though.” He shook his head. A tiny bell jingled.

“Why?” Walter stiffened, trying to hide his shock. “What’s too bad?”

Ferisher leaned in close. “You’ve been naughty. You can forget about it.” Ferisher turned and ambled back to his friends, one of whom had found a hackeysack and was kicking it at the children.

“Little son of a bitch,” Walter mumbled. “He’ll find out who’s naughty and who’s nice.”

It was then that Walter decided that it was his duty ruin Mr. Ferisher and the other elves. He could live with the fact that they made fun of his clothes, and that they played practical jokes on him. But this prying into the affairs of his heart was too much. He didn’t know how Ferisher had found out about his feelings for Deena, and he didn’t care. The little man had to go.

The thing about the elves, Walter learned after a few days of close monitoring, was that most everything they did was suitable grounds for termination at Harrison Bell’s already. If it hadn’t been for their special deal with the store (and he’d find out what that was all about if it was the last thing he did), they would have been fired years ago. He had to find something big. Something illegal. Something scandalous. Something that no investor, no matter how deep his pockets or his affinity for midgets, could support. Walter knew it was only a matter of time.

He began lying to Margaret about late hours and all-night decoration sessions. Margaret obviously didn’t believe him, and as the lies became more and more unbelievable her aggravation finally penetrated her shell of uninterest in her husband and she actually became jealous. Walter liked the idea that she thought he was having an affair; it made his fantasies about Deena seem that much more real. He scuttled through the empty department store at night, taking VCRs and video cameras from the electronics department and rigging them in Santa’s Village. He placed voice-activated micro-recorders from the Office Supply department under the elves’ chairs in the breakroom.

Finally, on December twenty-third, Walter found what he was looking for. The video camera hidden in the break room had struck gold.

As he’d been doing for the past three weeks, Walter rewound the evening’s tape and began fast-forwarding through it, watching hour after hour of dark inaction behind the barbed-wire of sped-up video static. Then, at 4:15 a.m. according to the camera’s time stamp, the elves entered the room in single file, carrying candles and leading a white lamb behind them.

More candles were lit; the orange light coming up from the floor lent the elves a particularly evil cast that would play well with Wade Harrison, Walter thought. Pentagrams were drawn on the floor in what turned out to be gunpowder. Pentagrams!

Then the chanting began. It was muffled and in a language that was not English, but Walter felt certain he could make out the word “Satan” a number of times here and there. He noted these with a red underline in his transcript. As they chanted, the elves began to dance in a circle, kicking their heels and twirling. Ferisher separated himself from the circle and led the lamb to the center of the breakroom, picked it up, and somehow placed it on the Formica tabletop of the lunch table.

On the tape, Ferisher could be distinctly heard saying, “Red father, in your Kingdom of ice and snow, please hear our prayer of supplication and bring us safely home.” Then he took a knife and slit the lamb’s throat. The little animal gurgled and fell on its side. Ferisher grimaced and stowed the knife, patting the lamb softly as he did so.

“Let the cavorting begin!” shouted Ferisher, and the elven couples paired off, spinning in some complicated ballroom dance. As they spun, the room filled with light, and their feet began to lift from the floor. They were dipping and swaying in midair! They turned somersaults as though floating in outer space! Laughter shone in their eyes and they were merry, as merry as they seemed able to be.

In the cold pre-dawn light of his living room armchair, Walter watched the tiny people dance with a look of wicked glee on his face.

The tape was perfect. It showed the elves, all eight of them easily recognizable on tape, performing some kind of occult ritual right there on the round Formica table. It was perfect. If Walter threatened to make this public, there was no way Harrison Bell’s would deny him. Trespassing after hours, setting fire to company property, murdering animals on tabletops, holding satanic rituals with pentagrams and all! Walter gripped the sides of his chair and laughed. He though about Deena sharing this moment with him, both of their faces alight with malice.

The next day was Christmas Eve. Historically it was the busiest day for Santa’s Village, but Walter didn’t care. He rode the elevator to the lobby thinking of only one thing: he had won.
“Mr. Ferisher, would you come see me in my office?” he said, smiling warmly at the tiny, grizzled man.

“I can see you right here, Walt,” Ferisher quipped. He nudged Walter in the ribs. “At your size I can barely miss you! Hoo hoo!”

“My office. Right now.” Walter’s voice was cold, even colder than he’d intended.

“Hey,” called Ferisher, skipping after him, “If this is about Smitty burning you in effigy, it was just a joke. He burns everyone in effigy!”

“Sit down,” Walter said, ushering Ferisher into his office and locking the door. Ferisher clambered into a padded leather chair, his skinny legs kicking like a small child’s.

“You’re givin’ me a raise, arentcha!” Ferisher clapped his hands together. “I knew treating you good was going to pay off one of these days!”

“Cut the act, Ferisher,” Walter said, leaning forward. “I caught you and your little Satanist friends having devil worship hour in the breakroom last night. I have it on tape.”

Ferisher blanched. He tugged at his collar. “Who? What? Are you talking to me?” He looked around the room wildly. “Come again?”

“I got you red-handed, you little freak. Look.” There was a television cart against the wall holding a small TV and VCR. Walter aimed a remote control and pressed a button. On the screen, Ferisher slit the lamb’s throat and the elves flew threw the air.

“How are you going to explain this to Wade Harrison, Ferisher? Because I guarantee you he’s going to see this. In about an hour, in fact.”

Ferisher stood on the chair, stamping his foot on the soft leather. “Well, that’s just . . .that’s a hell of a thing, I mean . . . you can’t just . . . I don’t . . . I’m calling my lawyer! Where are my socks? What’s going on here?” Ferisher swooned and fell backwards, slumping down the chair’s back.

“What do you have to say for yourself now?” Walter stood over Ferisher, beaming.

Ferisher sat up, sobered. “Listen pal, I’ll tell you the truth. That wasn’t any Satanic ritual you saw there. We were saying a prayer to our previous employer, the Kringle.”

“The Kringle? As in Kris Kringle?”

“You know him?” Ferisher’s face lit up.

Walter shook his head. “You’re going to have to do better than that, Ferisher. Way better.”
“It’s true! I swear on my mother’s grave! Me and the boys, well, we used to work up there at the North Pole, for the Fat Man himself! We were in the Choo-Choo Train division. You know those little trees? I made those! I was really good at it. But we got let go. The industrial revolution, Darwin, the ascendancy of post-Existentialist spiritual nihilism, Cabbage Patch dolls. It was more than the boss could handle. He had to downsize. Now we’re just holding on until we can make it back. Can’t you see? We don’t mean anyone any harm!”

“You’re one crazy little man, Ferisher. I can’t wait to see the look on Harrison’s face when you feed him that line.”

“Ahurm, well. That’s a problem.” Ferisher sucked in his lips. “See, among us elves, we have a certain sense of discretion about our, ah, practices. And it’s pretty much forbidden for us to allow Humans to watch us perform magic. So I’m going to need to ask you to never show that to anyone. Fair enough?” Ferisher hopped down from the chair, as though the conversation had ended.

“You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Generelly, yes, but not in this case.” Ferisher furrowed his brow. “How ‘bout a nice fat bribe, eh? Do you want a bribe?”

Walter shook his head slowly at Ferisher. “What could you possible offer me that would convince me not to turn you in?”

Ferisher scratched his head. He looked around the room. “A hundred coconuts? A parrot that sings ‘Moon River?’ How about a wooden toy train?”

“This conversation is over, Ferisher. I’ll have Deena type you up directions to the unemployment office.” Walter began to shoo Ferisher out of the office, but at the mention of Deena’s name, the little man stiffened and turned.

“That’s it!” he cried. “I know what I can give you. I know what you want for Christmas! You hound dog!” Ferisher glared at him. “I can make her love you, Walter. For a little while, anyway. Do you understand? I can make her do it. I know a magic spell.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Walter growled.

“I can make Deena fall in love with you, Walter. That’s what you want more than anything, isn’t it?”

Walter’s jaw dropped. “Don’t you mention her name, you little freak!”

There was silence in the office as the two men stared each other down. Finally Ferisher spoke.
“I know what you think of us, Walter. What you think of me. And if you think I give a polar bear’s turd about your opinion, you’re wrong. You’re a sad little man, and you dream sad little dreams. Now, listen up, because this is your last chance. We can throw that tape away and you can have your little tryst with the secretary, or we can do things the hard way. Which will it be?” All of the mirth was gone from Ferisher’s face, and in its place was a fearsome anger.

“Get out,” said Walter, his skin crawling.

“You’ll be sorry,” Ferisher answered simply. He left the office, his head hanging.

“Little freak,” Walter repeated. He tore the tape from the VCR and stormed out of the office, slamming the door behind him.

He stopped at Deena’s desk. “Deena, come with me. I have a meeting with Wade Harrison, and I want you to be there. It concerns your friend, Mr. Ferisher.”

Frowning, Deena stood and followed Walter down the hallway.

They were met at the elevators by Ferisher and Smitty, another of the elves. The two diminutive men stood with their arms across their chests, blocking Walter’s path.
“Get out of my way,” Walter snapped, “or I’ll kick you across the lobby.”

Deena hissed, “Walter!”

Smitty strode confidently up to Walter and grabbed his tie, yanking Walter’s head down to his eye level. Walter struggled, but Smitty was much stronger than he was. “You’ve been naughty, Mr. McGhee, and you know what happens to little boys who’ve been naughty.”

In a wink, Ferisher was at his side. “Ho, ho, ho,” he said, and touched his finger to Walter’s forehead. It was as though he had been electrocuted. His mind exploded in a shower of sparks. He watched numbly as Ferisher moved his finger downward, touching it to the videocassette in Walter’s outstretched hand. A tiny lightning bolt flew from Ferisher’s fingertip into the tape. Then, instantly, everything was back to normal.

Smitty released his grasp on Walter’s tie and Walter shot up straight. “You two are going to jail if I have anything to say about it!”

Smitty only shrugged. “Hey Ferisher, you want a donut?”

“A donut would be real nice, Smitty.” Ignoring Walter, the two elves linked arms and strolled away from them.

“What’s going on, Walter?” Deena asked, her voice shaking.

“Don’t worry, Deena. You’re about to see. This videotape will explain everything.” From a distance, Ferisher’s high-pitched laughter echoed in the hallway. They rode the elevator in silence.

“What’s this all about, Walter?” Wade Harrison was a red-faced, burly man with gray hair and wide shoulders. His office was wide and glass-walled, with a view of the bay. “What’s so godawful important you have to make a stink about it on Christmas Eve?”

“When you see what’s on here, you’ll understand.” Walter waved the tape in front of him. Harrison’s secretary was plugging a VCR into the far wall.

Walter pushed in the tape and pressed “Play” on the remote control, joining Harrison, Deena, and a few assorted members of the Harrison Bell human resources department, who’d been called in especially for this meeting, around a tiny conference table.

Harrison’s big-screen TV sprang to life, showing an apartment building in downtown San Cibola. Snow fell across the scene, reflected in the streetlights across the road. Gaily colored wreaths hung in store windows down the block. Christmas. In the background, an instrumental version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” played quietly.

“This isn’t right,” Walter mumbled, confused.

From under the table, a tiny hand reached up and snatched the remote control from the tabletop, pulling it under.

On the tape, a woman screamed off-camera. The scene panned upward, to the fourth story of the apartment building, where orange and red flames leapt from all of the windows. On the balcony, clearly visible in the light of the blaze, was Deena, clad only in a flimsy nightgown. Her long black hair streamed down her back, and her soft lips hung open in despair. She was trapped on the balcony.

“What is this?” Harrison asked sternly.

“Yes, Walter. What is this all about?” Deena grimaced at the screen.

“This isn’t right,” Walter said. He reached for the remote control. “Where’s the remote?”

The blaze roared behind Deena. She began to call for help. “Won’t somebody save me?” she cried desperately into the night.

On the street below stood Walter McGhee, dressed in jeans and a sweater. In the video he was slender, and his bald spot was not in evidence. Through his bulky attire, a strong masculine physique was clearly visible.

“Dear Lord!” cried the Walter on the screen. “She’s in trouble. Don’t worry, Deena. I’ll save you!”

From her balcony, Deena swooned. The hem of her nightgown rode up a few inches as she leaned against the iron railing of the balcony. “Oh, Walter. Please hurry!”

All eyes in the room turned to Walter, who watched the television in disbelief, his face and ears slowly reddening.

In the video, Walter raced through the burning building, dodging collapsing ceilings and flaming two-by-fours. He reached Deena’s fourth story apartment only to find the almost-naked administrative assistant collapsed on the balcony. Throwing her over his shoulder, he bounded back into the conflagration; another brief series of hazards followed and they were out on the snowy street, Walter laying Deena gently down on a bench. Her eyes fluttered and she looked up at him, touching his face with her fingers.

“My hero,” she said longingly. “You saved my life. How can I ever repay you?” Nightie askew, Deena pulled Walter’s head down against her heaving breast.

“Make love to me,” Deena said, taking his face in her hands. “I want to show you how grateful I am.”

“Of course I’ll make love to you,” he sighed. They fell into each other’s arms and the scene faded to black.

The real life Deena was less grateful. As soon as the tape ended, she stood and slapped Walter as hard as she could. “Don’t ever speak to me again, you pervert!”

Wade Harrison addressed the managers from human resources. “Would you excuse us, please? I’m going to need to relieve Mr. McGhee of his job now.”

“This is all a big mistake, Mr. Harrison,” Walter said.

Harrison reached for a pen. “You can say that again.”

From Santa’s chair, Mr. Ferisher and Santa watched security lead McGhee out of the building, shouting incoherently about Satanists and burning buildings.

“What a jackass,” Ferisher said philosophically.

Santa, a large heavyset black man with a full gray beard nodded. “I always thought that guy was messed up. What happened to him?”

Ferisher shrugged. “I don’t know. He didn’t get what he wanted for Christmas, I guess. Come on, let’s get the next brat up here. My corns are killing me.”

Timmy Gromp Saves Christmas: The Final Installment

Back when we in the Clockwork Storybook gang were producing regular material for our webzine, we'd occasionally do round-robin stories with a character called Timmy Gromp. He was a hapless kid, unloved by his parents (or anyone else, for that matter), and we seemed to delight in heaping abuse on him. Sort of like Kevin Shapiro in Daniel Pinkwater's Young Adult Novel, nothing but misery ever came poor Timmy Gromp's way.

In December 2001, I wrote the following bit of nonsense for our "holiday issue," clearly the result of watching far too many stop-motion animated specials as a kid.

Timmy Gromp Saves Christmas:
The Final Installment
by Chris Roberson

What has gone before…

Timmy Gromp, a seemingly normal American boy, has been recruited by the Council of Holidays in the effort to save Christmas. Santa Claus, beloved icon of the season, has been taken prisoner by the Anti-Claus, his nemesis and opposite number from an alternate dimension of pure evil.

Aiding Timmy in this effort is Denny S. Hopper, renegade member of the Easter Bunny Corps, who sees this mission at his one last chance at redemption. He is small, but has a big heart, and a motorcycle, and a gun.

In our last installment, Timmy and Hopper were hot on the trail of a supernatural fish with the powers of locating the Anti-Claus’ secret lair: the magical Rankin’ Bass. Unfortunately, the Fishing Chimps, minions of the dark one, beat them to the prize, hooking the Rankin’ Bass and spiriting it away before Timmy and Hopper could react.

Now, south of the border in Mexico, Hopper’s motorcycle broken down and with only hours left before Christmas, it begins to look like there is no hope.

“I don’t know, Hopper,” Timmy said, “it’s beginning to look like there’s no hope.”

“Pshaw,” Hopper answered, slamming a clip into his semi-automatic pistol with a satisfying click. “There’s always hope.”

“But Christmas starts in just a few hours, and we don’t even know where Santa is being held prisoner!” Timmy was getting agitated, jumping up and down and turning several shades of red.

“There’s always options,” Hopper said, sighting along the pistol’s barrel. He held his short arm out extended, pointed towards the far horizon, and then swung his aim in a slow arc to the west. The bunny paused when his aim tracked across Timmy, and seemed to mull something over before swinging his arm a few degrees further to the west.

The bunny finally stopped when the pistol was pointed at an ancient and weather beaten telegraph pole, on which was stapled a faded sheet of paper.

“POW,” sounded the pistol, and a shot thunked into the pole at the dead center of the paper.

“Perfect example,” Hopper said, and turning started to walk off down the road.

Timmy Gromp was confused. He called after the bunny to wait, but the bunny walked on. Timmy ran over to the telegraph pole, and squinting tried to read what he could of the faded text. It was all in Spanish.

“Dang it,” Timmy said. “Isn’t anything in Mexico written normal?”

Leaning in, ignoring the text, Timmy saw crude drawings of giant men with strange masks covering their faces, with only little holes cut for eyes, nose and mouth. The men wore skin-tight trunks and high-laced boots, and seemed to be trying to hurt each other.

This was all pretty confusing for Timmy. He just wanted to be back home, icing cookies with his parents and looking forward to the presents he’d get the next morning on Christmas day. Of course, since his parents had decided that it was the spirit of giving that really counted, and not the actual act itself, Timmy’s gifts had seen something of a decline in quality. This year, far all he knew, he’d might have gotten just a picture of a toy cut out of a catalog. Last year, after all, they’d only given him a toy’s empty box, which they’d got from the neighbors after they’d given the toy inside to their own little boy.

Still, it had to be better than this.

Sighing, Timmy shoved his hands deep into his pockets, and scuffed his feet down the road after the bunny.


“I don’t think this is going to work, Hopper,” Timmy whispered.

“Trust me, kid,” Hopper answered. “Look, if I’ve learned anything from my years as a symbolic pagan holdover representing a secular holiday with tenuous ties to a religious celebration, it’s that people will believe what you damn well tell them to believe. People are sheep, kid.”

“O-kay,” Timmy said, unconvinced. “But I still think…”

“Dónde está el Polo Norte?” said the giant man in the red suit behind them.

“Uh, we’re here, champ,” Hopper replied, chewing on the end of his cigar. He waved a stubby arm in a wide circle, indicating the show covered hills, the big inviting house and the workshops, from which streamed an army of elves and reindeer, bearing down on them.

“Bueno,” the giant man answered, taking a step forward.

“Hopper,” Timmy protested, “he doesn’t really look very convincing. I mean, he’s still wearing that mask, and I don’t think that Santa Claus normally carries a bottle of tequila.”

The fake white beard had been glued inexpertly to the bottom edge of the giant man’s red and black facemask, which he had refused to remove for any reason. In the chill wind of the North Pole, the strands of artificial hair were starting to freeze up and break off, leaving only a fringe of wisps and glue on the fabric of the mask.

The elves and reindeer had gathered in a circle around the trio, Timmy, Hopper, and the giant man. They waited eagerly, looking at them with breathless anticipation.

The giant man raised his muscled arms over his head.

“Yo soy Santos,” he said in a booming voice.

“Claus,” Hopper whispered furiously behind his hand, nudging the giant man in the leg.

“Si, si,” the giant man added. “Yo soy Santos Claus.”

There followed a protracted silence, as the assembled elves and reindeer looked at the giant man in the mask and the ill-fitting red suit with mouths hanging open.

Timmy began to suspect that this was going to be his last Christmas, even if it wasn’t for everyone else.

Suddenly, and without warning, the elves erupted in a spontaneous cheer, and swarmed around the giant man with hugs and smiles, while the reindeer leapt into the air and danced swirling loops overhead.

“Come on, Santa,” one of the elves said, tugging at the giant man’s huge hand. “We’ve got to get this show on the road, Christmas starts in just a few minutes.”

“Bueno,” the giant man said, and allowed himself to be slowly dragged to the waiting sled by the elves.

“I don’t believe it,” Timmy said.

“It’s like I told you,” Hopper answered, lighting another cigar, “people are damned sheep, and elves and reindeer are no different.”

“So that’s it, then?” Timmy asked. “But what about the real Santa Claus?”

“Shhh,” Hopper hissed violently. “You want to get us lynched?” He paused, and then added, “Don’t worry, kid. I’m sure someone’ll rescue him sooner or later. For now, just be content in the knowledge that the holiday is saved, I get to keep my job, and you get to go home, right?”

Hopper laid a stubby arm across Timmy’s shoulder, and blew out a smoke ring that hung overhead like a wreath.

“God bless us everyone one,” Timmy said sarcastically, without a trace of sentiment.

“Yo tambien,” Hopper answered, smiling.

The sleigh, loaded down with holiday toys, lifted uneasily off the snowy ground.

“Cómo se dice ‘jolly’?” shouted Santos Claus down to Hopper and Timmy.

“Ho ho ho,” Hopper shouted up as the sleigh lifted into the skies.

“Si, si,” Santos Claus shouted back. “El Ho, El Ho, El Ho.”

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Present Tense, Part Two

Continuing the story begun below...

Home is the Hero

By Bill Willingham

Breakfast was long over by the time Ethan came through the door. The children were sitting on the living room rug, three frantic engines of twitchy need, staring at the presents, straining to get at them, like greyhounds in the starring gates, but kept at an enforced distance by their watchful mother. They’d already sung too many Christmas carols, after which Hannah had read them a seasonally applicable story from one of their books. She could’ve read their latest bank statement for all of the attention the kids paid her. The call of the presents was too strong for any story to distract them.
     Then Ethan walked in, injured, horribly disfigured, and dripping blood onto the tile floors of the entranceway.
     “Don’t get blood on my rugs,” Hannah said, mildly, almost off-handedly, hardly bothering to look up from her needlepoint. “Stay there, honey. I’ll come to you.”
     “About time daddy’s home,” Matthew said. “Can we open presents now?” Then he remembered to add, “Hi, daddy.”
     “Hi yourself, Sport,” Ethan said from the foyer. It was separated from the living room by a half wall surmounted by a narrow countertop, on which some of their family awards were displayed. One side of Ethan’s face was lacerated in multiple, nearly parallel gashes, leaving little actual flesh and muscle left on that side. White bone was exposed. His eye on that side was hanging loose, dangling over the remains of one cheek.
     Hannah finished a difficult stitch, put the needlepoint back in its basket and set the basket aside. She got up from her tan corduroy chair and skiff-skiffed into the entryway in her slippered feet. “Something tagged you pretty good,” she said. Then, once she got a full look at him she added, “Oh no, your favorite hoody is ripped.” The gray Pittsburg Steelers sweatshirt was hanging on his body in rags, wet and stained a deepening red by the many open wounds underneath. His blue jeans hadn’t fared much better. There were still flecks of snow on his shoulders and in his hair.
     “Yeah,” Ethan said, looking down almost embarrassed at the ruins of his clothes. “There was a monster loose on the Thirty, near Bridgeport. Big thing with lots of big, sharp claws. Had to fight it by hand.”
     That finally got the kids’ full attention.
     “You fought a big monster, daddy?” Daniel said. “What kind?” He was quickly on his feet and scampering around the sectional wall, closely followed by Matthew and Elizabeth.
     “Sort of a dragon, I guess,” Ethan said, “except that it had six heads and about thirty legs. Think of a hydra up front, with a cross between a snake’s body and a centipede’s body behind. But all of it kind of looking like a giant green crocodile, with the different heads spitting different nasty things all over the place.”
     “Who made it?” Elizabeth said.
     “I don’t know, but whoever did, and then let it get loose, should feel pretty bad right now. He may even get censured, because there were quite a few mortal casualties. Lots of wrecked cars too.”
     “Oh, that’s too bad,” Hannah said. “And on Christmas of all days.” She stood on her tiptoes next to Ethan, to get a close look at his facial wounds, tsk tsking at them. She took his dangling eye in one hand and carefully flicked bits of dust and grit off of it with the other. “I think we can save this.” She gently popped the thing back into his eye socket.
     “Good,” Ethan said. “Save you the effort of regrowing one.”
     “Wouldn’t have been much trouble,” Hannah said. “I got a good night’s sleep, despite the early interruptions, and ate an enormous breakfast. Energy to spare today, assuming we get the spend the rest of it quietly at home.”
     “Did you kill it, daddy?” Matthew said, tugging insistently at one of the scraps of his shredded sweatshirt.
     “The monster?” Ethan said. “Had to. Too bad, too, because it was pretty cool looking. You might get to see it on tonight’s news.”
     Hannah lightly ran a finger over his face, tracing the many lines of his lacerations, and where she touched him the wounds closed, leaving pink, healthy flesh and no scars behind. When she was done with his face she began tending to the rest of him. “All of these clothes are rags now,” she said. “Not even worth washing. Matthew, please go get a trash bag from under the sink – one of the heavy ones. Elizabeth, go fetch daddy’s bathrobe, and Daniel can get a wet sponge to wipe the blood up. And you need to strip, Mister Man,” she said, turning back to Ethan, “so I can find the less obvious wounds.”
     He did.

Copyright 2008 Bill Willingham. All rights reserved.

A Taste of Sam Bowen

The Year of the Ox
By Mark Finn

Sam Bowen walked down Crane Street, his shoulders hunched against the early January chill, and tried to remember where Ping’s Place, the old neighborhood bar, was. After three passes, he realized that it was gone now, and in its place was a tourist-trap restaurant. He should go to Doyle’s, he reflected, if he wanted a drink. However, the whole of the Neighborhood didn’t exactly know that he was back in town, yet, and until he got the lay of the land, he wanted to keep it that way.

At the edge of Chinatown, Sam bought a fifth of whiskey at Ralph’s and stuck it in his trenchcoat pocket for later. For celebrating, he told himself, letting the lie sit behind downcast eyes. Resuming his walk, he strolled past Benny’s Pagoda Hut, glancing only briefly at the No Vacancy sign. It was just as well, he thought. There wasn’t any real reason to be here. Not anymore. He had found his answers, hadn’t he? Uncovered the Machiavellian curse that had decimated his family, even stopped it. And paid the price for it, as well.

In the window of the bank of Chinatown, Sam saw his own reflection and started. All he could really recognize was his eyes. They stared back at him, this older, more tired-looking him. For just a second, he realized that he looked a lot more like Robert Stonehill than he would ever care to admit. The thought made him smile, and sent him on his way, away from the reflection of the man he didn’t know.

Zhu was gone. The corner was empty, as if he’d never been imprisoned there. That thought sent a nervous tingle down Sam’s spine. Who took care of the demon? He’d always thought it would have been him. Probably someone from Chu’s organization. All of his children come home to roost, eventually.

Sam sat down in the Earth side of the Garden of the Five Elements and felt the weight of the whiskey pulling on his coat. He watched the people hurrying by, on foot, on bike, in small, beat up cars. No one recognized him, and no one cared. Cities have terrible memories. Unless you do sweeping, ridiculous changes that everyone knows about, you would not be written into its history. For everything that Sam did, so few people knew about it, and they were either dead, gone, or not really someone he was ready to meet again.

Had it been so long? Inside the Gray, yes, of course, he had aged twenty years. But out here, it was even half that time. Not even a decade. Mi Hei didn’t forget, obviously. Nor had Chu-san. But that was different. Sam glared at the four paths leading away from his bench and realized he was once again at a crossroads. No devil, nor vampire, nor grand, family obligation to deal with. Just the rest of his life. He pulled the bottle out of his pocket, stared down at the label. Kentucky. Home. “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do,” he said.

He quickly unscrewed the bottle, took a hefty swig, and immediately regretted it. This was weakness, not strength. He spit the brown liquid out on the ground and tossed the whole bottle in the nearby trash can.

Well, shit, he thought. Now what? Sam stared down at the discarded whiskey and watched the rivulets of alcohol run together around the cobblestones and creep towards the southmost path. Curious, he fished the bottle out of the trash and poured some more out on the ground. The alcohol ran quickly, trickled into a rudimentary arrow, and then puddled up amid the grime into a less recognizable mess.
Sam glared in the direction of the arrow. He could clearly see where it was pointing. Chu Sheng Kai’s home sat at the end of the block, on a slight incline, palatial and silent. To go in that direction was to invite more trouble on himself. And yet, there was a sense that he had one more debt to pay. He owed his life to this family. Or did he? Was not his previous service all part of the account that was, with his newfound freedom, marked paid in full?

No. If he went back to the Chu family again, it would be a new relationship. He was reborn, and all previous incarnations of Sam Bowen were now a thing of the past. He stood up, stretched, and sighed as only the damned can sigh as he merged back into the foot traffic on the street. Like it or not, San Cibola was his last, and in some ways, his best home. There was a place for him, here. He didn’t know just yet what that place was, but he would find it, as he found everything else, in his own way, in his own time. In the meantime, there was Chinatown. Sam allowed a small smile to creep into the corners of his mouth. His eyes wandered across the oncoming clutch of people who were paying no attention to him whatsoever. In a flash, he caught sight of a mismatched set of eyes under a dirty baseball cap. The memory came rushing back on him, even as he heard the man mutter an incredulous “Foreign devil?”

“Zhu.” There was a pop and a flash and Sam dove right, against a plate glass window of a local restaurant. The old man in the shabby clothes shimmered and fell away from the demon in clumps and chunks. Sam started. He had never seen Zhu Kwei Wu without his meat suit on. A pig-faced, barrel-chested minor demon who managed to escape the infernal regions and was subjugated by Chu Sheng Kai to serve Chinatown for one hundred years.

“I heard you were dead,” said the demon through broken teeth.

“I’m a bad penny, Zhu. I keep turning up. When did you get out?”

“Four years ago.” The demon wiped his face with a shovel-sized hand. “Weak, no power, no chi left to work mischief. No skills. Only a need to avenge myself. I went looking for you, but everyone say you died. I was looking forward to sucking your eyes out of your head.”

“Sorry to disappoint,” said Sam. The streets had quietly cleared, the citizens of Chinatown well used to such shenanigans and how to avoid them.

“Oh, it’s no disappointment, Bowen,” said Zhu. He ran a black tongue over his cleft palate. “It’s taken me years to rebuild my power. I can’t get into Chu’s house and rape his women, but I am more than a match for an ignorant white hick hedge magician such as you.”

“This isn’t exactly the conversation I thought we’d have, Zhu. Don’t you want to talk about the good old days?” Sam’s hand dropped ever-so-casually into his pocket as he spoke.

“’Good Old Days’?” Zhu howled. “You crazy fool! You taunted me daily with your questions and your insults and your very presence!” Zhu stamped the pavement with his hooves, and sparks flew up around him. “I am not an animal! I am a footsoldier in the Celestial Army of Zhang Dou’s Black Company. I am twice-born of the Earth Sow, five times a demon in the year of the Metal Dragon! You are nothing, and I will drink my fill from your empty skull!”

Zhu charged, head down, tusks up, fire gushing out of his stiffened ears. Sam pulled the finger bone out of his pocket; it was the only object out of his Bag of Hell that he took with him on his walk. It seemed silly at the time, but now he laughed at his own paranoia as he literally dropped to the pavement and made a grab at the demon’s shaggy legs. Zhu tripped and fell heavily against a brick wall. Sam rolled up into a three point stance, the finger bone in his free hand. It was long, almost a foot in length, and capped off with a sickle-shaped bone claw that greatly resembled a bowie knife.

Zhu turned, screaming, and made to leap forward, when he spied the object in Sam’s hand. “Is that…one of Xhong Di’s Fingers?”

“Not bad, Zhu. You always did know what was what.”

Zhu looked confused. “But…those fingers were lost in the bowels of Hell. Where did you find that?”

“This?” Sam brandished the bone knife. “I found it with the other nine fingers—in the bowels of Hell.”

Zhu’s eyes widened. “Impossible.”

Instead of answering, Sam stood up and pointed the knife at Zhu’s red eye. “Not at all. And now I give you just one chance, Zhu. Walk away. Leave me in peace, and I’ll not send you back.”

Zhu stood up, embarrassed, his head down. “Yes, Bowen. Good. Thank you, Bowen. I’m sorry.” He backed up, bowing deeply. Sam watched him go. Zhu turned and hurried off, the mundane disguise reforming around him. Sam walked quietly, quickly, waiting for it to reform completely, and then in one deft movement, he grabbed Zhu around the neck and plunged the knife into Zhu’s chest, working the bone point between the ribs. Zhu howled the howl of the damned, and Sam whispered the five word incantation that opened a column of glowing green smoke beneath them. Sam dropped Zhu’s twitching form into it and watched the tendrils swallow him up. The glow faded, and then the smoke dissipated, save for a smell that was all-too-familiar to Sam. He dropped the finger knife into his pocket and walked away, upwind, of the smell. It was almost three o’clock. Tea time at Chu’s house. He knew better than to miss it.

Present Tense, Part One

Since this is sort of a longish story, I've decided to give it to you in chunks, serialized every few hours over the course of today and tomorrow. This wasn't originally a stand-alone story. It was intended to be one part (a chapter perhaps) of one of the far-too-many novels I am currently working on. But, as so often happens, once written, this scene didn't really fit into the rest of the narrative, and so it was doomed to end up on the writer's equivalent of the cutting room floor. But I had enough of a fondness for the scene to rework it enough over the past few days to make it its own story, set in the same fictional world as a longer novel, which you may or may not see soon -- soon being a very flexible term in my personal lexicon.

Part One: The Ziggurat

By Bill Willingham

     Typically, the Gilbert kids came downstairs as early as they thought they could get away with on Christmas morning, just like the normal mortal children who lived in the same South Lancaster neighborhood. Ethan and Hannah Gilbert didn’t believe in segregating their children from the mortals they’d one day have to love, protect and possibly rule.
     At nine years, Elizabeth was older than the twins, Daniel and Matthew, by twenty months. They came downstairs together, after rendezvousing in the twins’ room to plan their strategy. Safety in numbers. Any repercussions for sneaking down too early would at least be spread around.
     It was dark in the living room, the morning sun being at least another hour away, but the tiny lights on the plastic tree provided all the illumination they needed. Carolina of the Deep Green had decreed that no one in the state could take living trees for the holidays this year, nor for any subsequent year, until Pennsylvania returned more to the original sylvan paradise of its name. Of course this decree only applied to mortals, but the Gilberts were determined to live as much of an egalitarian life as was possible, given the seemingly random nature of their rise into divinity. “Those who win the god lottery aren’t any better or worse than those who don’t,” Ethan had once said. “It’s just the luck of the draw.” If their neighbors were limited to artificial Christmas trees, then the Gilberts would follow suit. They were determined to raise their kids with as scant a sense of entitlement and privilege as their unearned elite status would allow.
     By the lights from the tree, Daniel, Matthew and Elizabeth, peeking desperately through the banister railings like convicts through the bars of their cells, could make out the entire glorious panorama from mid stairway. First and most obvious were the bicycles. They stood out from the tree at three of the four cardinal points of the compass, like proud sentinels on guard. There were two identical bright red tricycles with hard plastic streamlining attachments over the wheels and metal frames, in a retro 1950’s imitation of what the future would look like. They looked sleek and fast just sitting still. Those would be for the twins, obviously. For Elizabeth there was a pink two-wheeler bike with fat white tires, dark purple racing spokes, and long pink tassels flowing from the handlebars. It was standing upright, supported by attached training wheels. Those will come off in just a few days, Elizabeth silently vowed to herself.
     “It’s beautiful,” she said aloud.
     There were other presents – a vast mountain of them – wrapped in every possible combination of colors and designs. Some were under and around the tree, but the largest concentration of gifts were stacked to one side in a great and gaudy ziggurat of different-sized boxes that reached nearly as high as the tree itself.
     “He’s been here and gone!” Matthew gasped, trying, and failing, to keep his voice at a whisper. “But I heard him last night. I woke up and heard him.”
     “And I can hear the three of you,” their mother called in her decidedly unwhispery voice. It didn’t come from upstairs, where their parents’ room was located, at the end of the hall from theirs. It came from down below. “Come into the kitchen,” she added, “and don’t touch a single thing on the way here.”
     They obeyed, mindful of the consequences of not doing so, even though it was torture to pass so close to the wonderland laid out in the living room, and not even to be able to pause there for a moment. In stockinged feet they shuffled along like refugees over carpet, rugs and wood floors, through the dining room and then around the corner, passing through bat-winged doors into the fully lighted kitchen.
     Their mother Hannah was at the counter, mixing batter in a large metal bowl. She was dressed in slippers and her blue robe. Without looking at them she said, “I’m afraid Christmas will be delayed this morning, until your father gets home. So we’re going to have a full sit-down breakfast first and then, if he’s still not back, we’ll find other ways to wait patiently for him.”
     “How?” Daniel said.
     “Where is he?” Matthew said.
     “The police came to get him earlier this morning,” Hannah said.
     “Daddy was arrested?” Elizabeth said.
     “No, of course not. There was some trouble out on the interstate that the police couldn’t handle on their own, and so they asked for your father’s help. It’s part of the Gods on Patrol Program we told you about last summer.”
     “Sky Screamer to the rescue!” Daniel shouted.
     “Hush,” Hannah said, turning away to hide the smile that played along her lips. “You know I don’t like that name.”
     “But daddy does,” Elizabeth said.
     “Sometimes your father can be more of a child than you are.” She worked at the mixing bowl for a while, and then she said, “But that’s not always a bad thing, so don’t think I’m criticizing him behind his back.”
     “We don’t do that in this household,” Elizabeth said.
     “No, we don’t. Now, boys, sit at the table. Elizabeth, will you get the orange juice out of the   fridge?”

Copyright 2008, Bill Willingham. All rights reserved.

How Batman Saved Christmas

By Bill Williams

Note to ARTIST- This is a very short story and storytelling is compressed so please use the space wisely.

Page One

Panel One

In the far back ground, we see the outlines of Gotham City. This scene is set in a narrow alley in an older part of the city where the construction is the older brick and exposed fire escape type. There are two important things in the panel, one should go in the foreground and one in the near background. One item of interest is a padlocked rollup type security door, the type that covers a less secure door. The other item of interest is the lead player in our little drama. There is a second-rate thief in a third-rate Santa suit looking for a score and moving toward the secure door. Let's call him Lenny. Well, Lenny is creeping toward the security door carrying a duffel bag and a large crowbar.

Panel Two

Lenny looks around as he stands next to the rollup security door. He seems confident and his Santa-beard is hanging around chin level.

Cat (off-panel): M- rrrrrow.

Panel Three

Lenny has the crowbar wedged into the space between the hasp and the lock and is attempting to break thru the door.

Panel Four

The familiar bat-shadow falls across the floor of the little alleyway. Lenny sees this and is shocked.

Panel Five

Lenny runs like the devil himself is behind him. The crowbar is abandoned in the door and he is clutching the duffelbag like it is a life preserver as he runs into the night.

Panel Six

There is a fat house cat sitting on the roof's edge next to the little alleyway. He is throwing a shadow on the secure door which has the crowbar jutting out into the alley.

Cat: M- rrrrrow.


Okay, since I have been called out, here is one of the posts I'll be, uh, posting for the holidays. More to come soon.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

In the spirit of Christmas...

We haven't been posting much here in the past few days, which is understandable, given that we, like most everyone, have lots of last minute things to do before Christmas. And, because we here at Clockwork Central are all freelancers to boot, we don't actually get these days off, as so many who work in offices do. We have to fit in all of those last minute pre-Christmas tasks and errands around our not-to-be-delayed regular deadline service. Get it? We've been busy. Okay, those are our litany of excuses for being scarce here of late -- now to the point of this post.
Bountiful Bill Williams, obviously overripe with the Christmas Spirit (which he gets bottled and by the case) volunteered us in an article already published (therefore no chance to reconsider) to be one of many online sites that promise new content here on Christmas day. Then, understanding that forgiveness is always easier to get than permission, he informed the rest of us after the fact -- after the deed was done.
So it looks as if we're are indeed going to have new content here on Christmas Day. What is it you're going to find here? New, original prose stories -- possibly on a Christmas theme -- at least one each by each of us Tick Tock Men. And let me say right now, since he got us into this commitment, that Bill Williams' story better be the longest, best and biggest of the whole bunch, or we will exact dire penalties.
So, after you've woken up on Christmas Day, after you've unwrapped the gifts under the tree, played with the new toys and already gotten bored with them, after you've had a bountiful dinner and spent good hale-fellow-well-met time with your family and in-laws, and finally (gratefully) shuffled them out your front door, then do please feel welcome to come by here and see what we have for you.