On Wednesday I presented an old piece I wrote for the now defunct El Paso Manuscript Club’s annual Christmas Writing Contest for the year 2000. It was a poem written in the style of Edgar Allan Poe, and it told of the apparent murder of Lenore — a department store clerk — by an irate customer doing his Christmas shopping just a tad on the late side.
Today I present the companion piece (same contest, different category), the followup investigation of Lenore’s death as conducted by a character straight out of Mickey Spillane. There is one inside joke that requires some explanation. The reference to the word count remaining to tell the story refers to the increase in length for that year’s contest over the previous year.
A Spillane Interpretation
Of A Dickens Christmas
It was the best of times, Christmas. It was the worst of crimes, murder. She was a store clerk at the Old Curiosity Shoppe. Her name was Lenore and she lay dead upon the floor, strangled with a ribbon of rain checks by an irate Christmas shopper. The suspect’s name was Ollie, and I knew then that this murder had a twist.
It was time for the “bad cop” routine so I slipped into the role, not that it required much acting on my part. “Okay, Ollie, what’s your last name?”
“Co . . . Co . . . Copperfield.”
“This your first offense, Copperfield? Murder goes down easier if it’s a first offense. You’ll probably be looking at two to ten.”
“Weeks. Probation. This is California, you know. Now spill it.”
“I’ve never been in trouble before today. Well, except for those two incidents, one in London and the other in Paris.”
“Just what I don’t need right now, a tale of two cities. Let’s keep it simple, Copperfield. Why’d you do it? Passion? Robbery? Lust?”
I secretly hoped it was lust. I’m kind of partial to lust. Passion comes in a close second.
“No,” Copperfield whined. “It wasn’t any of that.”
Rats, I thought. Another long story with, like, no gratuitous . . . well, you get the picture. “Start from the beginning,” I prodded.
Copperfield yelled in anguish. I turned off the prod. “Come on, spill it.”
“It was my son, Quasimodo.”
“Wrong author. Save Dumas for next year’s contest.”
“Actually, that was Victor Hugo,” Copperfield corrected.
I shook my head impatiently. “Never mind. Go on. We only have 1,242 words remaining to wrap this whole thing up.”
“And last year, you would’ve only had 742.”
I’d had enough of this. I started to prod Copperfield for more information.
“Wait,” he yelled in anguish. “I’ll talk.”
I put the prod back under my coat. I yelled in anguish, then reached inside and turned it off. It was a shocking miscalculation on my part and now I was really burned. “No more stalling, Copperfield.”
“Quasimodo wanted this year’s hot toy.”
“You mean the Super Fly-A-Saur?”
“You know it?”
“Know it. Been trying to lay my hands on one of those damned, cursed, hellish things for three weeks. I got a nephew in Newark who wants one.”
Copperfield’s face twisted in horror. “Newark. How awful. Tough break.”
“Precisely. Poor kid would’ve been better off as an orphan in London. He should get whatever he wants.”
“Well,” Copperfield continued, “I didn’t even start looking for one until yesterday afternoon.”
I was incredulous. “Let me get this straight . . . . You didn’t start looking for the most popular toy of the year until Christmas Eve?” I gave him a suspicion-filled glance. “You settin’ up for an insanity plea?”
“No. It’s true. I swear.”
“Quasimodo. He got any brothers or sisters?”
Copperfield nodded. “He has a tiny brother named—“
“Let me guess. Tim, right?”
“No. Pickwick. Pickwick Chuzzlewit Copperfield. We call him ‘Boz’ for short.”
“Of course you do.” I was duly impressed. A four-fer. Very good. Tim would’ve been too easy.
It was then that my partner, Nick Nickleby, entered the crime scene. Nick was the consummate “good cop.” He never prodded the suspect. He immediately grabbed Copperfield by the lapels and propelled him into the nearest wall. “Sing weasel, or you’ll be looking at hard times.”
I grabbed Nick’s arm. “He’s singing already. Relax, would you?”
Copperfield massaged his head. “The chimes. I’m hearing chimes.”
Nick laughed. “You idiot. You hit the wall of the cuckoo clock section. Of course you hear chimes.”
“Oh, yeah.” Copperfield straightened. “Silly me.” He brushed the cuckoo bird from his mouth, removed the chain from around his neck, the weight from his left nostril, and spit out a feather. “I was in the middle of my confession.”
“Ah HA,” Nick crowed. “Then you confess.”
“He just said that. We’re way past that, Nick. We’ve already established intent and opportunity. We’re working on motive. Now, go sit down before I prod you to do so.”
Nick’s eyes grew like saucers. He quickly stepped back. “Don’t mind me. Just pretend I’m not even here. I’ll just listen while you question our mutual friend.”
I nodded approval. An obscure reference, but well placed by a relative novice. I turned back to Copperfield. “You were saying?”
“Well, this store clerk, Lenore Dorrit, led me to believe she had some Fly-A-Saurs in stock. I mean, just look at the window. They’ve got ads for it hanging all over the place. I’d been to twenty-seven stores before this and I was desperate, even though their advertised price is 1,200% above the manufacturer’s suggested retail price.”
“So, you entered the store with great expectations.”
“Precisely. Only to have those expectations dashed upon the rocks like some sixteenth-century galleon caught in a South Pacific cyclone.”
“You’re losing focus again. We did Robert Louis Stevens last year.”
“Defoe. That was a Daniel Defoe reference.”
I started to prod, but Copperfield hastily continued. “Anyway, she led me on. She enticed me upstairs in the worst way.”
“In the worst way?”
“Yeah. I mistakenly got on the down escalator. Took me half an hour to make the trip.”
“Wow. You were desperate. Then what happened?”
Copperfield pointed to the raven-haired beauty. “See those coupons?”
I nodded. “Rain checks.”
“That’s what she had.” He broke down sobbing. “I went through hell, and all she had to offer was a rain check. Can you imagine little Boz playing with a rain check on Christmas morning?”
Suddenly there was a commotion at the doorway. A little, gray-haired old man burst through the tape and brushed past Nick. Actually, the little squirt picked Nick up by the lapels and smashed him into the nearest wall.
“Get out of my way,” the old man yelled.
Nick rubbed his eyes. “I’m seeing stars.”
I shook my head in disgust. “Of course you are, you idiot. You’re in the autographed celebrity pictures section.”
“I thought I was having a religious experience.”
“Get out from under that Madonna poster.” I turned to the intruder. “And you are . . . ?”
“Barnaby Rudge. I got over here from Bleak House as soon as I heard.”
I nodded my approval. I was wondering how in the world I was going to get those obscure works into this. “What’s your connection to all this?”
He pointed to the body. “My automated sales clerk. She’s been destroyed. Who did this?”
My jaw clenched. I shook. My knees went weak. I reached inside my coat and switched off the prod again. Damned faulty switch. Someone was going to pay for this. “You mean to tell me that thing’s a robot?”
“Yep. Made for me by Dombey and Son.”
This guy was good. Really good. I’d have been lost without him. I walked over to the body. “Yeah. Now it all makes sense.”
Nick rushed over. “What? What makes sense?”
I pointed to that irritating service smile locked on her lips, the one that just drives you nuts. “She’s still smiling. She looks like a damned Barbie doll. I should have known. And look at what she was ‘strangled’ with. That roll of rain checks should’ve broken before she even started to turn pink.” I turned back to Mr. Rudge. “I’ve never seen one of these.”
“They’re brand new, different models for different occasions. The ‘off/on’ switch is in the throat. This one is the Carol model, specifically made for the holiday season.”
“Ah . . . .” I nodded knowingly. “A Christmas Carol. Tell me, why did you name her Lenore?”
“Why, that’s easy. It’s the raven hair.”
I slapped my forehead. “It’s so . . . so . . . obvious.”
I turned to Copperfield. “You’re free to go, sir. I won’t be prodding you for anymore answers tonight.”
“Thank God.” He hurried off, lest I change my mind.
Nick clasped my shoulder. “Come on, partner. Let me buy you a drink. Martini, right?”
“Olive or twist?”
My eyes narrowed. “Been there. Done that. Let’s go.”