Here’s a little Library story (which owes a debt to a certain Dickens story) to amuse everyone for Christmas. I wish you all the best of the season that you personally celebrate, and thank you all for reading my work!
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
Soot drifted down over Irene’s cap – and shoulders, and feet, and especially the sack at her feet – as she gave two brisk tugs on the rope leading up the chimney. Impatiently she waited for Kai to give the required two tugs in response that would signal their getaway. Being hauled up a chimney wasn’t the tidiest way she’d ever completed a mission, but when the entire house was locked up as tightly than the Bank of England, needs must . . .
The study door slowly began to creak open. A candle-flame on the other side limned the outline of the door in weak flickering light.
Irene mentally cursed. This had to be the house-owner, Wilbert Gaitnam; no servants were allowed (or willing) to stay overnight in this draughty, empty, highly secured mansion. And they certainly wouldn’t be here on Christmas Eve, of all nights. Their employer was a vicious old lawyer and banker who was well in the running for the Most Hated Man In London prize. Irene had to admit that when she was stealing books, it was much more emotionally fulfilling to do it from the sort of person who foreclosed on orphanages and threw poor families out into the street. She shrank back against the side of the vast old fireplace, pressing herself against the wall and grateful for the fact that she was wearing a practical concealing gear in basic black.
“Who’s there?” Mr Gaitnam’s voice creaked like the wind on a rusty window. “Who’s prowling around my house? I warn you, I’m armed! I have a gun! It’s loaded! It’s a big gun!”
Irene didn’t need to be a detective like her friend Vale to detect the undertones of alcohol. She saw the candlelight gleam on a miniature blunderbuss wobbling in his wizened hand.
His threadbare slippers were near-silent on the floor, which was how he’d managed to approach without her hearing, and his tattered nightshirt flapped around his knees, while the rat-eaten bobble on his nightcap drooped to brush his shoulder. White hair draggled round his face, and the thin remnants of a once-luxurious moustache drooped either side of his wrinkled chin. It was a sight she could have done without.
This complicated matters. She’d just removed one of the books in his long-untouched library – a rare copy of Poe’s Auguste Dupin Investigates, complete with all dozen short stories. Gaitnam was a hoarder and a miser. If he found any evidence at all of burglary, he’d have the entire house searched and the police brought in. Irene would certainly manage to get away with the book, but it would be so untidy.
Gaitnam ventured closer to the fireplace, peering around by the feeble candlelight, leaning forward as though he meant to sniff out the intruder.
Irene held her breath, concealed by the fireplace’s generous overhang and wide base. For a moment she thought he was going to pass her by and go on to search another part of the house.
And then he sneezed.
“What?” he barked, the blunderbuss wobbling to point directly into the fireplace. “What? Fresh soot, and this chimney not cleaned in two years? Iniquitous prices they charge, iniquitous, those boys get paid far too much . . . come out of there! Come out at once!”
Irene came to a decision and stepped out of the shadows. As the blunderbuss turned its wide mouth towards her, she said softly but clearly, “You perceive I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.”
She didn’t know exactly what he was seeing, as the gun’s muzzle drooped and his mouth opened in shock. The Language didn’t work that way. But she was sure that he was seeing what he would expect to see. And that might buy her enough time for Kai to tug on the damned rope and get her out of there.
In the interests of completeness, she added, “You perceive visions of your past, and of the happy days of your youth when you were . . .” What had he been then? She had no idea. “Not what you are now,” she finished.
Something in his face softened as he looked past her and into nothingness. Was that a tear twinkling in his eye? No, that was just the fresh soot making him sneeze again. But he did seem affected. “Lucius?” he whispered. “Maria? Little Franz? How long has it been since I felt your cold nose against my hand?”
Irene yanked twice on the rope again, hoping for a response. There was a pause, then a response of three tugs. That was Kai’s signal for Trouble at this end: please wait.
The problem was that she couldn’t wait. Perception tricks with the Language only lasted a short time, and there was no way of telling how long she had before Mr Gaitnam came back to his usual senses.
In fact, his eyes were clearing even as she felt the rope quiver under her touch. This wasn’t fair. How was she supposed to work under these conditions?
Before he could bring the gun back in line with her, she said hastily, “You perceive I am the Ghost of Christmas Present.” Perhaps the repetition of theme would help keep his mind under the influence. Now how had the story gone? “You perceive visions of happy people enjoying Christmas all over the world.”
His face went slack again and he took a deep breath that was nearly a sob. His head panned from side to side, watching some sort of scene in his imagination.
Irene looked up the chimney desperately. Unfortunately, there was no way to see what had inconvenienced Kai. The night sky above was shrouded by London’s fogs, meaning that she couldn’t even see a gleam of starlight. A headache wormed its way into her temples, the price for her use of the Language, and she considered how best to extricate herself if the chimney was unavailable. Head out of the front door while her victim was preoccupied? It’d be a bit obvious, but she could evade any pursuit quickly enough.
Mr Gaitnam blinked. His candle shook in his hand, casting rolling shadows across the room. “Spirit,” he quavered, “will the entire orphanage die of typhoid fever and burn down?”
He clearly had a few things on his conscience. Irene dug into her memory. “I see the ashes of a ruined building,” she said ominously, “and an empty yard where children once played. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the children will die.”
“No, no!” said Mr Gaitnam. His breath reeked of alcohol. “Surely that’s not going to happen – those sweet little children, those poor little children . . .”
Irene shrugged. “They’re only orphans. If they’re going to die, they’d better get on with it and decrease the surplus population.”
“Spirit!” He staggered forward, fell to the floor, the gun dropping from one hand and the candleholder from the other, and clasped her round the knees. “Tell me what I must do – wait just a moment.” He blinked. “What’s going on here –”
“You perceive I’m the Ghost of Christmas Future!” Irene gabbled quickly. As he fell back with a scream of terror, she added, “You perceive visions of how nobody will care when you’re dead, and they’ll be glad to see you gone, and your own grave waits for you!”
Now, finally, the rope jumped under her hand with two tugs. Ready to pull you up.
She swung her sack over one shoulder and got a firm grasp on the rope, letting it take her weight. But as she began to rise into the air, Mr Gaitnam looked up at her, tears running from his eyes. “Spirit, answer me! Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they only shadows of things that May be?”
When she didn’t answer immediately, he grabbed for her ankle, hand closing on it with the strength of drunk panic. “I’m not the man I was! I’ll change! I’ll honour Christmas in my heart and keep it all year long! I’ll give back the money to the little orphans!”
Irene tried to kick herself free, spinning on the end of the rope and banging into the chimney walls. Soot cascaded down on both of them.
“Your merciful pity rains down on me like heaven’s dew!” he choked, dragged to his feet and clasping her ankle as though it was his hope of salvation. “Oh Spirit, you call me upwards with your gentle touch –”
Irene wrenched her foot free and went spiralling up the chimney, shoulders scraping against the narrow walls as Kai dragged her higher. She had to close her eyes against the tumbling soot. When she finally felt his hands close around her wrists and pluck her out into the cold December air, it took a moment for her to look around and see what was going on.
Or rather, to look up.
A small personal zeppelin floated overhead, rotating in little circles. It wasn’t carrying any markings or insignia, but Irene recognised the libertine leaning out of the cockpit. It was Lord Silver, one of the most important Fae in London, Ambassador from Liechtenstein, and highly unwelcome here in the middle of what had been a carefully planned and well-organised theft.
“I tried,” Kai said wearily, brushing some of the soot off her face. “He won’t go away.”
“As I’ve told you, I can’t go away!” Lord Silver snapped. His pale hair was tousled round his head, and his red silk dressing-gown robe was highly impractical for the weather – and barely staying on. “The pilot tells me that the steering mechanism’s completely broken down. Luckily we managed to drift somewhere that I saw someone who could help us. That would be the two of you. I’m sure you’ve got perfectly innocent motives for being out on a roof like this on Christmas Eve . . .”
Irene knew that he knew what their motives probably were. Still, if they could do him a favour, he might return it by keeping his mouth shut . . . “How are you with airship repairs?” she asked Kai.
“Adequate,” Kai said grimly. The moonlight chose that moment to pierce through the fog and make his skin glow like spotless marble, and turn the traces of soot which smeared his cheeks and hands into artistic additions to his beauty. As opposed to Irene, who looked and was a sooty mess. “But are you sure this is a good idea?”
A trapdoor in the roof heaved, straining against rusted hinges. “Spirit!” a voice whimpered distantly. “Spirit, wait for me!”
“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” Irene said. “I think there never was such an idea. Lord Silver! A ladder, now!”
She and Kai hastily clambered up the rope ladder that someone in the zeppelin tossed down, as Mr Gaitnam struggled to get the trapdoor open.
The cockpit interior was cramped, as it was occupied by Lord Silver himself, his manservant Johnson, a snoring pilot, and two young women wearing even less than Lord Silver and trying to cover themselves with fur blankets.
“What happened to her?” Irene asked, pointing at the pilot.
“Some people just can’t hold their brandy,” Lord Silver sighed. “I’m a generous employer, and I wasn’t going to stint her when all the rest of us were drinking, but would you believe that she couldn’t even manage half a dozen glasses?”
Kai was fiddling with the instruments. “And what were you doing out here on Christmas Eve?” he asked, not looking up from the dials.
“My inner romantic instinct demanded a night flight over London,” Lord Silver answered haughtily. “Surely you understand the delights of icy wind against your skin as you glide across the city below, surrounded by brandy and good company, lying on the most expensive furs . . .”
“To sin with Elinor Glyn on a tiger skin, or err with her on some other fur,” Irene muttered as she peered out at the roof. Mr Gaitnam hadn’t got through the trapdoor yet. No doubt he was wishing he’d spent a bit of the household funds on oiling the hinges.
“Got it!” Kai declared. “I need someone to lean on this button here and hold this lever.”
“Don’t look at me,” Lord Silver said. “I’d love to help you, but I sprained something while I was reaching for a glass of wine at the Opera.”
The trapdoor came open, and Mr Gaitnam dragged himself out, sooty and bedraggled, like something out of a ghost story set in a cathedral and involving things crawling out of tombs. “Where are you!” he screeched at the heavens. “Spirit! Where are you?”
Irene looked at Lord Silver again, more closely this time, and could almost feel him preen under her scrutiny. White and red – it’d do. “I’ll hold the things,” she said, pushing her way through the cockpit mob to Kai. “Lord Silver, please lean out of the window and shout, “Merry Christmas!””
Lord Silver looked at her blankly. “No, seriously,” he said. “Really?”
“I said please. Don’t make me use stronger language.”
He rolled his eyes. “Very well. Just this once. Because you’re my very favourite little mouse.” Clearly he’d been hitting the brandy too. He leaned out of the cockpit, displaying a lot of bare chest and flapping red sleeves, and called down, “Merry Christmas!”
And as Irene held down the controls that Kai had pointed out, the zeppelin quietly wafted itself away over the rooftops, leaving the joyful Mr Gaitnam gambolling on the rooftops behind them.
“It’s an intriguing turn of events,” Vale said, having dropped by their lodgings on Boxing Day to wish them the compliments of the season. (Irene suspected that his landlady had reminded him. Social visits were not his strong point.) “A complete reversal of character. One of London’s most notorious misers has decided to donate half his savings to the poor. Some people say it’s a miracle.”
“What do the police say?” Irene asked innocently, pouring sherry for the three of them.
“The police?” Vale shot her a look from under hooded brows. “My dear Winters, the police have nothing to do with it. I believe that Gaitnam has a nephew – he works in the City – who’s currently demanding an immediate investigation into his uncle’s conduct on grounds of insanity. But since giving away money to the poor isn’t actually illegal, and refraining from foreclosing on orphanages is widely considered to be a good thing . . .” He shrugged.
“How appropriate to the season,” Kai remarked. “Isn’t it nice, every once in a while, to hear about something genuinely good happening?”
“Indeed,” Vale said dryly. “Of course, he did have some wild tales about being visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve, followed by Santa Claus himself bearing them away in his own private zeppelin.”
“How very Dickensian.” Irene passed around the glasses. “I take it that you yourself aren’t investigating?”
“To the best of my knowledge, there’s nothing to investigate.” And I hope it will stay that way, was the unspoken message. Vale lifted his glass in a toast. “A merry Christmas to you both.”
“To us all,” Kai said, raising his own glass.
“God bless us every one,” Irene said, and raised her glass to friendship, and happiness, and Christmas.