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A Christmas story and Mary Sue in one! Plus email spam.
Prologue: The Problem
Like an overripe beefsteak tomato rimmed with cottage cheese, the corpulent remains of Santa Claus lay dead on the hotel floor. Dressed in a food-stained, ill-fitting red suit that barely fitted over the bulging belly, limbs carelessly outflung, it seemed as if he'd merely had a drop too much to drink and passed out on the floor, but the relaxed appearance was belied by the pool of blood thickening around the white-haired head.
How and why the man had gotten in, he could not bring himself to imagine, given that the door was still locked when he came in, and the body was far too large to fit in a chimney even if the room had been equipped with one. Worst of all, judging by the putrid wave of stench, featuring eau de puke and stale beer, that had hit him almost like a physical blow as he opened the door, it had probably been in his room long enough to ensure that all his belongings were thoroughly perfumed.
Simon pinched the bridge of his nose, massaging slightly. He could feel a migraine starting, and thought longingly of a cigar and a cup of good coffee. He couldn't wait to see the headlines the media would come up with when they got wind of this. On second thought, he'd gladly spend the rest of his life in blissful ignorance. There were some things man was just never meant to know.
It was a dark and stormy night. One of the sort he would much rather have spent curled up in bed at home, or watching some cheesy horror flick with friends over beer and chips. Maybe poker. But no, he had to be on yet another fantastically ill-timed police seminar that just happened to coincide with yet another nut's latest escapades, or perhaps it was the presence of his pet jinxes, Jim and Blair, that brought all the resident, visiting, or just plain potential psychos crawling out of the woodwork with their best efforts, just so that The Great Sentinel and His Hippie Guide would have something to do.
Surely that was a subject worthy of study... He could see the book now: "Sentinels: Their Effect on Crime Levels" by Simon Banks. He was sure it had to be worth at least a Nobel Prize or something.
To return to the immediate, not to mention biggest, and altogether rather malodorous problem at hand, what the hell had happened here? More to the point, why did it have to happen in his hotel room? He really could have used the cigar right now, but if it set off the smoke alarm and people rushed here to find him smoking a cigar with a dead Santa in his room, they would probably start thinking strange things. He couldn't really chew on the cigar either, since he did realize that opening his mouth at this juncture would probably be a very bad idea even if he wasn't a Sentinel.
He supposed he really ought to call the cops, never mind that he was one himself, and sighed. God, why him?
Solution 1: Mike's Story
Mike Hardware was the kind of private eye who didn't know the meaning of the word fear, a man who could laugh in the face of danger and spit in the eye of death - in short, a moron with suicidal tendencies. As such, he proved to be relentlessly unimpressed by the large, growling, red-faced Sentinel clearly intent on his slow, painful demise by ass-chewing. However, his innate fearlessness might have been contributed to by the presence of a smallish, irate Guide who was restraining said large Sentinel with admirable ease, dividing his rapid-fire chatter between the two.
"Jim, will you quit that and let me talk to the guy," hissed Blair in as low a forceful whisper as he could produce, clinging on to his enraged Sentinel for all he was worth. "I know he's an idiot, but he can't answer our questions while you're trying to kick him around the room!" In a more normal tone of voice, he addressed the inanely cheerful private eye, who was eyeing them with calm good humor. "So, you were saying you know who killed the man who was found in Room 421?"
"No." Mike shook his head slowly, a patronizing smirk on his bland face, as if he was speaking to a particularly slow child. "I said that I know why he died."
"Why he died?" Blair frowned, and leaned more heavily on Jim, who glared at him but subsided. "Do you know who he was then?"
"No," he reiterated patiently, " I said that I know why he died."
Blair tried to refrain from rolling his eyes, and clapped his hand over Jim's mouth before he could harangue the annoying man about the seriousness of the matter again. "So, why did he die?"
"Ah," sighed Mike, a far-off look in his muddy brown eyes. "Now that is a long story... Let's get something to drink while I tell you everything I know."
One week ago...
As a scientist, Throckmorton knew that if he were ever to break wind in the sound chamber, he would never hear the end of it. Luckily, the possibility of that unfortunate event ever coming to pass was finally out of the question. He could enjoy baked beans with his dinner again! Not only that, his secret sonic weapon was complete at last! With it, he would finally be able to achieve his lifelong dream of...
No, this was not the time to gloat. Sobering as he thought over all the important things he had still left undone, he set down the weapon carefully, and hurried out, locking the door securely behind him. His poor goldfish must be so hungry!
Absorbed in his concerns, he did not take much notice of the shadowy form that crept purposefully through the main gate as he left in his Volvo. He had bigger fish to fry than some random burglar. Figure of speech only, of course. He'd never hurt a scale on Goldie's delicate little body! He put the furtive visitor firmly out of his mind, speeding swiftly homeward. The shadowy form moved on as well, just as single-minded in its determination.
Andre, a simple peasant, had only one thing on his mind as he crept along the east wall: Andre creep... Andre creep... Andre creep....
It had been far, far easier to get onto the grounds of the research facility than his employer had suggested, but still, he did not want to take any chances of discovery by being distracted. He kept creeping along, only vaguely aware that he'd passed the entrance, and made two more circuits of the building before he finally got in.
Once he was in, he had the passing thought that he really ought to check the List Of Things To Do Once Inside, but he did also need to make sure he remained undetected, and he dared not divert too much of his attention from creeping.
Creeping is always a very serious matter.
On the other hand, if he didn't know What He Came To Do, he'd never get anywhere for sure, and he would eventually be caught no matter how much energy he devoted to creeping. So he crept to a dark corner and settled down to try to figure out just what his employer had written on the List Of Things To Do. He knew he would need a lot of time for that part, being illiterate. But yes, he had patience. He'd find a way. Eventually.
"Is this story of yours going anywhere?" demanded Jim impatiently, interrupting Mike as he began to relate Throckmorton's conversation with his goldfish.
"I was just getting to the good part," protested the unexpectedly loquacious private eye, taking another gulp of his beer, which Blair had thoughtfully provided using Jim's card. "Goldie was like a daughter to him, you see, because fish don't care about Christmas, and he always-"
"Get to the point." Jim's flat stare told him that the promised ass-chewing was only deferred, not forgotten, and Blair's equally hard look suggested that he was on Jim's side, and indeed considering the pros and cons of helping. Mike squinted meaningfully at his empty beer, but they only stared stonily at him until he sighed and shook his head.
"It's just the season, you know," bemoaned the rather tattered-looking man, running his hands through lank, greasy hair, and wiping them on his pants. "God, I need a bath, but the heater's broken again and the water's too cold."
At the reminder, Jim leaned back slightly and sniffed discreetly at Blair's mussed curls. The strong, clean scent of the herbal shampoo Blair used filled his nostrils, effectively clearing away the unwashed smell of the man sitting opposite them. He'd never thought he'd be grateful for Blair's choice of shampoo, which had far more chemicals in it than any normal, non-herbal-type shampoo, but the combination worked quite well to knock his sense of smell out. "Go on," he said encouragingly, refreshed. Blair shot him a suspicious glance, and sniffed at a lock of his hair with a slight frown.
"The rooms in that part of the hotel have connecting doors, you know. The poor fellow probably got drunk, wandered into the wrong room after heaving up his guts in the toilet, then fell and hit his head." He heaved another gusty sigh, and stared wistfully at Blair's unfinished beer. Blair pushed it to him, and he drained it with evident appreciation, his face turning red.
"So, you think that's what happened, huh?"
"Yeah. Simple as that. No great mystery." Belching thunderously, he slouched comfortably on his chair, and began to snore.
It seemed a reasonable enough answer. They might even have accepted it had Simon's Santa not been the third one found dead in this fashion in as many days.
"I think we've been had," sighed Blair morosely as he got to his feet.
"You'd better refund me for the beer, Chief," muttered Jim.
Intermission: Obligatory Blair-Owie and Jim-Comfort Scene
"Where's your partner?" For a moment, Jim stared at Simon as if he'd gone insane, then he turned around and did a double take as he realized that Blair was no longer behind him.
"Where'd he-?" It was rather amusing the way Jim looked all around the crowded hotel lobby, as if he were a harried mother expecting her wayward child to pop out in front of him any instant, but Simon knew the sentinel was probably extending his senses to search out his wayward guide. On the other hand, by the puzzled frown on Jim's face, his first impression might well have been accurate. And considering how closely Blair tended to stick to Jim...
"Well, can you find him?" demanded Simon impatiently, trying not to survey the area himself, feeling his anxiety grow the longer Jim stood frowning. If it had been anyone else who'd gone missing, neither of them would have been particularly concerned, given that it seemed only inebriated Santa Clauses were being targeted. But Blair...
Jim tensed, and took off running without warning. Simon cursed and hurried after him. They arrived, panting, at the conclusion that Jim really had no idea where they were headed when Jim took them on a circuitous tour of the hotel grounds that finally led them back to the lobby where they had started their mad dash.
"What did you think you were doing?!" Simon glared at the few luckless souls stupid enough to gawk at the two big men who had gone on an impromptu race through the hotel for no discernible reason, and they hastily averted their eyes.
Jim winced, as much because of the volume as anything else, and continued to look around him. "I thought I might be able to tell where we got separated, and track him from there. But it looks like he was with me all the way. In fact, I can still smell his shampoo--damn!" Jim found his way to the nearest wall and, to Simon's amazement, began to quietly pound his head against it. "Damn, damn, damn, damn!"
Then an alarm went off. "The elevator broke down," Jim murmured with a look of revelation. "He's in there."
"How did you know that? Did you hear him or something?"
"Trouble. He must be in the middle of it."
Simon considered the explanation for a moment before nodding his acceptance. "Right. If he didn't find it himself, he'd have followed you into it. Makes sense." Jim glared briefly, then turned his attention to the elevator, tuning out the shrilly shrieking bell, listening for the familiar, reassuring sounds of his Guide's bodily functions: breathing, heartbeat, digestive system...
Yes, his heart was beating a little fast, a little stressed, but nothing out of the ordinary; no panic attacks or anything-
"take it easy, man, don't do this - calm down!"
What the... Jim ran up the two requisite storeys to get to the level Blair was on. He heard the shaky voice as he scrambled up the stairs, muffled by the heavy elevator doors and intervening walls, Simon puffing behind him.
lubdublubdublubdub- "No! Stop!"
-crash of breaking glass-
"No! Get away from me! Help! Jim!"
"Blair! What's going on in there?!" He pounded on the door frantically. "Blair!"
He began to try to pry the door open.
"You have to wait for hotel management to get to it, you know," said a kindly old lady. "It won't take long; I've been trapped in this very same elevator before."
He ignored her, and motioned for Simon to help.
"OW! I can't believe you killed them! No, wait, Jim, don't open the door yet!"
With a mighty heave, the two of them wrenched the door open, and half a dozen large spiders scuttled out, scattering in all directions into the curious crowd gathered at the elevator lobby. Screams and stomping filled the air as people tried to flatten or flee from the panicked arachnids.
Blair stumbled out with a shell-shocked look, staring first at Jim, then Simon, then at the confusion all around them, fine spider hairs sprinkled over his clothes and a very squished looking specimen on the front of his shoe, while his fellow passenger stomped frantically on a sad-looking splotch in a corner of the elevator.
"Jim, I told you-"
"I know, don't say anything."
They stood in awkward silence a little longer.
"My foot," moaned Blair piteously.
Jim patted him comfortingly on the shoulder. "Want to go for some Chinese?"
"Spiders and elevators," muttered Simon under his breath. "It could only happen to Sandburg."
Solution 2: Marilee's Tale
With a curvaceous figure that Venus would have envied, a tanned, unblemished oval face framed with lustrous thick brown hair, deep azure-blue eyes fringed with long black lashes, perfect teeth that vied for competition, and a small straight nose, Marilee had a beauty that defied description. Confidently, she strode up to the curly-haired young man, tapping him on the shoulder, which made him jump and whip around irritably.
"What is it now, Jim-" he began to snap, and froze, his mind shutting down as he realized it wasn't Jim but a stunningly beautiful woman.
"Hi, I'm Marilee Sue Arsoll, please call me Marilee," she said in her rich, melodious voice, extending a graceful hand to Blair as she flashed pearly white teeth in a dazzling smile all the brighter for the brilliant florescent light reflecting off her teeth. Hearing Blair's quick intake of breath, Jim was immediately on alert, quickly turning to see who had accosted his Guide.
"Uh, hi, I'm Blair, how can I, I mean, we, help you?" Blair managed to stammer, and for once, Jim didn't have the presence of mind to make his usual table-leg comments, stunned almost into a zone by the tiny, incongruous fleck of broccoli he could just see between her perfect white teeth... "Jim," hissed Blair through his teeth, jabbing him in the ribs with a well-placed elbow as he aimed a friendly, interested smile at Marilee, "stop staring at the broccoli."
"I believe I have some information that might be relevant to your case," purred Marilee, and Jim blinked and refocused as her full, red lips blocked his view of the errant bit of vegetable.
"What kind of information?" he asked, a little skeptically. "And why did you come to us instead of the local police?" Mike Hardware had approached them in much the same way. However they ran things in this city, security had to be really bad if everyone knew more about the situation than they did, even if it wasn't their case.
She flashed another of her broccoli-decorated, dazzlingly zonable smiles.
"Jim! Will you stop staring at the broccoli? Jim, come back- Look, I'm sorry, Marilee, he's had a very long week, and- Yeah, sure, Jim, you back with us?" He blinked and nodded, a little too quickly. "Could we find a place to sit, and get him some coffee? Then we can talk more comfortably. Yes, great, that's good, thanks."
"What happened?" He tried not to weave too much as Blair guided him at a safe distance from Marilee as she walked ahead to find seats.
"I told you not to look at the broccoli, man, I can't believe the way you just kept staring at her mouth! I don't know what she thinks of you now."
"Damn it, Chief, how could I not look? The instant she shows her teeth I just zoom in on it. Green is not a color that occurs naturally in human mouths."
"Couldn't you, like, dial it down or something?"
Jim stopped short at that, pulling Blair to a halt as well. "Sandburg. I don't know how you think this dial business works, but I do not have a broccoli dial."
"Broccoli dial?" asked Simon as he strode briskly up to join them. "Never mind, I don't want to know."
"Simon!" Blair exclaimed with evident relief. "There's a lady who says she knows what's going on. I think you should talk to her. She makes Jim's senses go crazy. Just don't look at her teeth."
"Her teeth? Jim's senses?" Simon glanced askance at Jim, who did look terrible: he was dazed and irritable at the same time. "Don't tell me."
Flashback to a year ago...
Stanislaus Smedley, a man always on the cutting edge of narcissism, was about to give his body and soul to a back-alley sex-change surgeon to become the woman he loved. It would be the best Christmas present he had ever received, since no one else knew his dreams as well as he did. He gazed lovingly into the mirror for one last, lingering look, then returned his attention to the nervous receptionist.
"What do you mean he can't do it today because he needs to play Santa for his grandchildren? We had a deal! Get him in here now, or I'll make sure the kids find out who Santa really is!"
Terrified and appalled, she nodded and reached for the phone.
Marilee shook her head at the memory. "It was a disaster." Her rich voice broke with emotion. "The surgeon was drunk, and in such a hurry to get back to his grandchildren he botched it totally. Poor Stanley was a horror, and he couldn't bear to look at himself. And he blamed it all on Santa Claus's existence. He swore revenge, no matter how I tried to convince him that all he needed to do was to get a respectable surgeon to fix it."
Simon chewed on his cigar, and privately plotted to keep Jim on desk duty until he retired. "And then what happened?"
She sighed, and sipped at her coffee delicately. "Actually, I'd thought he'd gotten over it already. The surgeon I introduced him to did a beautiful job. But he got so upset again when the decorations started coming out everywhere, and Santa Clauses started appearing on every street corner. He was convinced they were out to get him. I haven't been able to find him since the killings started."
"So you think he's the murderer?"
"Yes, I'm sure of it!" Her smile was radiant, and Simon found himself once again deeply fascinated by the tiny green flaw, but struggled to maintain his composure.
"But you don't know where to find him, so how does that help us?" he asked, his eyes fixed on the speck of broccoli.
"Oh, but I do know the kind of Santa Claus he will be hunting," she said earnestly, leaning forward to emphasize her point. "You have to protect anyone who's too fond of liquor - it's only the drunk ones he can't stand."
"Right," Simon nodded, mentally adding up the number of flushed Santa Clauses he'd seen that night - about four? And another half-dozen who had just gotten into costume and hadn't enough time to get drunk yet. Then he thought about trying to convince the local police to watch fat men carousing, discounting the possibility that this woman was a crank. "Thanks, Marilee, you've been a great help. We really appreciate your coming forward like this," he told her as sincerely as he could fake.
He was rewarded with another blinding smile.
Resolution: What Sarah Saw
Although Sarah had an abnormal fear of mice, it did not keep her from eking out a living at a local pet store. She just tried her best to keep her eyes on the customers as much as possible, and they were usually pleased with the attention. If no one was about, it was a simple matter to watch the activity on the street, like everyone else did during the quieter times.
It was close enough to Christmas that shopping for gifts was mostly done, especially so in the case of pets, since no one really wanted to be remembered as the scum who gave the kids the puppy or goldfish which died on Christmas morning. A few days were usually sufficient to determine if the new pet would keel over inopportunely. So, she fixed her eyes with stoic patience on the street, trying to not hear the tiny squeaks coming from within the store. To the uninformed eye, it would seem as if she was deeply lost in thought, but in reality, she was keenly, painfully aware of the slightest rustle. She would probably have heard a fly land on her sandwich if the weather had been warm enough for flies.
It was the woman who caught her eye first, of course. She was a wondrous sight to behold, as lovely as Sarah was mousy, and when she began to speak, Sarah found herself checking reflexively for a halo and wings, so beautiful was her voice.
"Andre, tell me that Throckmorton didn't see you following him."
"Throckmorton didn't see me following him, ma'am" Andre parroted obediently, his honest, simple face blank with confusion at the strange command.
The pain in the angel's voice when she sighed could have broken hearts, but for some reason her companion seemed intensely fascinated by her mouth, and Sarah felt a moment of indignation on her behalf. The worthless lout! "Did Throckmorton see you following him?" she clarified with a touch of exasperation, frowning.
This even Andre could understand, and he grinned in excitement like a child who had unexpectedly accomplished a difficult task. "No he didn't, ma'am. I followed him all the way to the men's room, and waited outside for him. But he hasn't come out yet. I think he must have a bad stomachache like Santa did. Maybe he pointed that whiney gun at himself too. I hope he didn't fall down and hit his head. Santa died of it, you know."
"Oh, Andre. I do hope the police are watching the Santas." She looked and sounded so terribly sorrowful that she might well have received news that the Apocalypse was nigh, but Sarah was no longer moved, feeling her blood run cold as she realized what they were discussing. She picked up the telephone, and dialed with shaking hands as the two departed.
Epilogue: What Happened After
"And I thought we got strange cases in Cascade," Blair mused, shaking his head in disbelief. "Man, I'm so glad this wasn't our case to solve." Jim grunted non-committally, watching the clouds scudding past below.
Simon was chewing on his cigar with vigor, having had much reason but little opportunity to do so the past four days. It was probably fortunate for all that the conference had ended when it did, and the fact that the police had so little to do with actually solving the case, much less apprehending the perp, didn't help matters any. To make things worse, Throckmorton's weapon had not been found with him, though witnesses had noticed a stunningly beautiful woman and a big, foolish-looking man leaving his room shortly before the police had received the anonymous tip-off on his location. And no trace could be found of their mysterious private eye.
"Do you suppose there's any chance that... you know, Gabe, Mike, man, what are the odds?" speculated Blair cheerfully, his eyes bright with excitement.
"They must have better things to do than that." Jim sniffed at his peanuts with a jaundiced expression. Still smelled of shampoo. "What would that make Rafe then?"
"I don't want to hear it," barked Simon shortly, and turning on his side, he jammed the pillow over his exposed ear and tried to sleep.
Just beyond the Narrows the river widens. It was a nice place to settle, and Andre thought the name was extraordinarily clever, being so apt, and said so, not understanding Marilee's dislike. She was a strange lady, his employer, but she was kind, and rarely impatient with him, which was a rare quality. For that alone, he was glad he'd finally managed to get the stomachache-gun from Throckmorton after they'd tracked him down. He still didn't know why Throckmorton hated Christmas when there were so many good things to eat and presents to open, but he was glad that Marilee had given him a taste of his own device in the head and left him drooling for the police to find.
There were many ways to give stomachaches or to kill, but his weapon was no longer one of them, and he wouldn't be making any more either. Andre grinned, at peace with the world, and helped himself to another slice of Marilee's delicious chocolate cake, closing his eyes to better appreciate the rich flavor. Life was good, especially since Marilee preferred vegetables, which meant more cake for him.
Smiling at the sight of a contented Andre lazing in the sun, Marilee sprinkled a little fish food in the bowl. Goldie surfaced immediately, gulping bread as fish always did. She felt sorry that she'd had to scramble Throckmorton's brains; after all, they'd been friends for so long. At least she could look after his fish for him. It was a small sort of penance she did not mind accepting.
She always felt somewhat guilty that she'd not foreseen his breakdown, though the fact that he'd changed his name and given up his dream of becoming a woman should have been more than fair warning. He'd always hated Christmas to begin with, since his father, a professional Santa Claus, had always been at work when all the other families in the neighborhood were celebrating together. But she hadn't wanted to see it.
"I don't have so many friends that I wanted to know that one of them was going around the bend, " she whispered. "I hope you stay with me for a long time, Stanley."
Stanley looked quite bored and somewhat detached, but then penguins often do.
The sun oozed over the horizon, shoved aside darkness, crept along the greensward, and, with sickly fingers, pushed through the castle window, revealing the pillaged princess, hand at throat, crown asunder, gaping in frenzied horror at the sated, sodden amphibian lying beside her, disbelieving the magnitude of the frog's deception, screaming madly, "You lied!"
And so, our heroes and dear readers likewise undeceived, we must move on. I'm sure this unfortunate episode looks much better after the exciting events of the final season. Hopefully, in time, that sad period too will come to look better... or perhaps we should hope it does not, if it means they must face even worse things. They've had a nasty time of it this past few years after all, haven't they?
Inspired by two things:
1. One point for each interesting use of sentinel senses.
2. The following uses of sentinel senses will SUBTRACT a point from your stories:
- Scent of shampoo
- Sound of heartbeat
- Jim "magically" knowing where Blair is (use his senses instead)
- Jim "magically" knowing what Blair is thinking/feeling (use his senses instead)
- Use of the 'dials' metaphor
These are the 10 winners of this year's Bulwer-Lytton contest, wherein one writes only the first line of a bad novel. (Victorian author Edward George Bulwer-Lytton is famous - or is it infamous - for writing the novel that began, "It was a dark and stormy night.")
10. As a scientist, Throckmorton knew that if he were ever to break wind in the sound chamber, he would never hear the end of it.
9. Just beyond the Narrows the river widens.
8. With a curvaceous figure that Venus would have envied, a tanned, unblemished oval face framed with lustrous thick brown hair, deep azure-blue eyes fringed with long black lashes, perfect teeth that vied for competition, and a small straight nose, Marilee had a beauty that defied description.
7. Andre, a simple peasant, had only one thing on his mind as he crept along the east wall: Andre creep... Andre creep... Andre creep....
6. Stanislaus Smedley, a man always on the cutting edge of narcissism, was about to give his body and soul to a back-alley sex-change surgeon to become the woman he loved.
5. Although Sarah had an abnormal fear of mice, it did not keep her from eking out a living at a local pet store.
4. Stanley looked quite bored and somewhat detached, but then penguins often do.
3. Like an overripe beefsteak tomato rimmed with cottage cheese, the corpulent remains of Santa Claus lay dead on the hotel floor.
2. Mike Hardware was the kind of private eye who didn't know the meaning of the word fear, a man who could laugh in the face of danger and spit in the eye of death - in short, a moron with suicidal tendencies.
1. The sun oozed over the horizon, shoved aside darkness, crept along the greensward, and, with sickly fingers, pushed through the castle window, revealing the pillaged princess, hand at throat, crown asunder, gaping in frenzied horror at the sated, sodden amphibian lying beside her, disbelieving the magnitude of the frog's deception, screaming madly, "You lied!"