The Battle of Dume Towers.

I had to wait until my fingers grew back before typing this one.

On Christmas Eve, we were ready. Click had hacked into the NASA Santa-tracking satellite and discovered that it was reporting twenty minutes behind his actual location at any time. Cunning old devil had ensured nobody could catch him, but he had not reckoned on extraterrestrial intervention.

Caligula and I were on the roof with crossbows while Click waited downstairs with the fireplace net, the gin traps and the anaesthetic-laced sherry. We let Santa land his sleigh and disappear into the chimney before shooting his reindeer.

That’s where things started to get a bit strange.

Caligula and I both hit our targets but all the reindeer did was turn their heads and stare at us. The one with the big red nose snorted and hundreds of heavily-armed elves poured out of the back of the sleigh. They had lights and tinsel and marshmallows and fluffy clouds and egg-nog and good cheer. They also had submachine guns and machetes.

Caligula curled into the foetal position, teeth bared and fingers extended. I can’t blame him, he is only a child and cannot be expected to cope with marshmallows and good cheer at his age. I reloaded and fired but one bolt at a time wasn’t enough. I could only kebab three at a time so I was soon overwhelmed and lost all the fingers of my right hand to a piece of exceptionally sharp tinsel.

Later I learned that Click had failed to net Santa, who had then cajoled Click with a merry ‘Ho ho ho’ and offered to share his mince pie and sherry. It was over a day later that I actually found this out because Click was sedated and in a drunken stupor when I found him. Santa, apparently, is impervious to alcohol and anaesthetic.

So he escaped with his bolt-proof reindeer and his army of chuckling green-clad miniature monsters. I lost the bet with Senga and had to pay her three gold coins. I did say I was good at haggling, didn’t I? Senga was the only one to get a present from Santa. It was a gold coin. The sarcastic old swine, he must have known somehow.

The bullet-holes in the roof will need sorting out and I’ll make Click deal with the residual marshmallows and tinsel. He can sweep them off the roof. They’ll probably help to keep the Ferals at bay until the swamp swallows them. If it can.

So once more, I have failed to capture Santa. It wasn’t all bad. Santa has to abide by rules like any other supernatural being. Caligula, Click and I had, in his book, been very naughty indeed so the coal we received will heat this place until the spring.

It’s more than three gold coins’ worth at current prices. I think I’m still ahead on the deal.

An army of elves and Kevlar reindeer. I hadn’t considered he might cheat.

You can’t even trust Santa these days. What is the world coming to?

A different Christmas.

After a gruelling day in the lab, training Click in the correct way to skin, trim and butcher an estate agent, I did not expect to be faced with a murder mystery. Yet that is exactly what I found.

There is a dead tree in my living room. Not only has it been mercilessly severed at the part that normally joins the ground, the corpse has been draped with shiny fronds, glass balls and little lights. I had to admit that when it came to hiding the evidence, someone had gone about it in entirely the wrong way.

Naturally, such wanton brutality coupled with obvious inexperience led me to suspect Caligula but then he generally eats whatever he kills. He has not been known to decorate corpses before. Click had an alibi, he was with me in the lab. That left only Senga.

Therefore Senga must have stalked and killed this tree all on her own, dragged it indoors and draped it with shiny things. I was impressed at her skill in selecting one of the less dangerous forms of plant life in the swamp, subduing it and manipulating the corpse. I gave it a poke to make sure it was dead, then went to find her. If she is going to kill things, she would be better to restrict her tendencies to things we can eat. It’s all very well having a herbicidal maniac around the place but tree soup isn’t particularly nutritious.

I thought it best not to open with an accusation, so I casually mentioned the dead tree in the living room and asked if she had noticed it.

“I put it there,” she said. “Do you like it?”

I know that tone of voice. It’s the one that leaves the last part of the sentence unspoken – ‘because if you don’t…’

“It’s very nice,” I said. “Did you kill it yourself?”

“Kill it? No, I bought it. It’s plastic so it won’t go rotten unlike those stockings you insist on hanging up. Shouldn’t you take the feet out of them first?”

“You did what?” I could barely believe my ears. She bought a tree? We are surrounded by free trees and she spent money on one? The woman had evidently lost her mind, or had been beguiled by the shiny things in Old Morag McStench’s Shiny Things Shop.

Ah, now that was a likely explanation. The tree was covered in the sort of shiny and pointless things old Morag sells to the gullible, and to those she can snare with her enchantments.

Senga sniffed. “I spent a few coins, that’s all. You have plenty. You won’t even miss them.”

“The reason I have plenty of them is that I don’t spend them. Those coins are Father’s and when he finds a few missing he’s going to be angry enough to invite that banshee over again. Last time he did that I went a week without sleep and ended up stitching my own ears closed until it left.”

“Oh don’t be silly.” Senga pulled an enormous dead bird from the cupboard and slapped it on the table. “Your father has been dead for years. He can’t take it with him.”

“No, he can’t, that’s why he’s staying here with it.” I examined the bird. “What’s that for?”

“Tomorrow’s dinner.”

“No, we are having reindeer.” I checked the time. “I hope. I’d better get Caligula and Click ready. It’s time to lie in wait on the roof.”

Senga laughed. “You won’t catch him. You never do. I bet you five gold coins we’ll be having turkey tomorrow.”

“Four,” I said. Oh, I’m certain we can get him this time but haggling just comes naturally.

“Done,” she said with that infuriating little smile of hers.

I would have argued further but time had run out. I still had to open the gin traps and set the trip wires and get Click and Caligula onto the roof with crossbows (atomic blasters were disallowed because I am not interested in eating reindeer mince) and hide our footsteps in the snow before Santa arrived.

A dead plastic tree in my living room, a team effort for Santa capture and the risk of losing four gold coins.

Maybe I’m getting old, but Christmas doesn’t seem the same any more.

In print again.

The Horror Zine has a new issue out, and this one includes my ‘Claiming Number Eight‘ short story. I was never sure if that was horror or SF. Somewhere in between, I suspect. Or maybe both. I suppose horror tales will still be told in the future, so one day it won’t be SF any more. Anyway, I’ll let the readers decide for themselves.

Remember to look over the rest of the fiction, poetry and art. The art is best viewed just before bedtime to provide inspiration for dreams.

I need darker dreams. Lately they have been plagued with puppies and bunnies and sunshine. I wake up completely devoid of cold sweat and haven’t had a good scream for ages. It’s just wrong.

Perhaps I should see a psychiatrist. Then again, maybe not. Cousin Phalanges once went to a psychiatrist and has never been seen since. I hear they shrink people.

I wonder how it’s done?

Educating Click

Senga is warming to Click now that he can speak. He passed her today and even though she had a frying pan in her hand, she didn’t hit him. It was an unexpected but pleasant surprise for him. He ducked anyway.

Caligula thinks Click is great but that’s down to the atomic blaster episode which will not be repeated.

I have only a couple of weeks to get Click to understand the ongoing Santa battle. I hope he’s a quick learner.

Death and aliens.

I was busy filling in the holes in the walls when Death showed up.

“I heard shots,” he said.

“He missed me. Not by much, but he had an unfair advantage. My assistant gave him an atomic blaster to play with.” I finished adding the jagged surface to match the rest of the wall and wiped my trowel clean.

“Atomic blaster?” Death’s skull tilted. “Assistant?”

“It’s a long story.” I led the way into the kitchen and put the kettle on. “I found a new assistant in the swamp. Well, really, the Ferals found him and chased him here. He’s clever, but not too communicative and has no understanding of infant-rearing. Caligula is only just over a year old. Far too young to be playing with advanced weaponry. He should be practicing his crossbow and working his way up gradually.”

“Quite so.” Death leaned his scythe against the wall and settled into a chair. “Where did you get hold of an atomic blaster?”

“Click made it. He’s good with his hands. I have confiscated it and given Click a sound beating.”

Death took a small computer from his robes and tapped the screen.

“You use computers?” I put a jar of kitten blood on the table. It’s good to have something cute to brighten the place up, and I find a dash in my tea staves off the cold weather.

“I didn’t like it at first, but it beats carrying around those books. Six billion names occupies an awful lot of paper. This thing is so light I hardly know it’s there.” He shook his head. “That’s odd.”

“What?” I filled the teapot and brought it to the table.

“He’s not in here. No record of anyone called Click and no record of anyone else living here. Just you, your wife, your son and your father.”

“I don’t think my father counts as ‘living’ here.”

Death clacked his teeth. “Until he’s collected, he’s registered as living here. I know it makes no sense but I don’t make the rules. Any sign of your father lately, I wonder?” He might have smiled. It’s hard to tell.

“He hasn’t manifested for some time.” I poured tea. Milk, sugar, rat poison, kitten blood and stirring fingers were all present and correct. “You can’t just write him off, then?”

“No. There’s only one way to get your name out of this–this–” he waved the little computer “–this thing here, and that’s by scythe. The odd thing is, your new assistant isn’t in here at all. I think I’d better take a look at him, if that’s all right with you.”

“No problem.” I went to the door of the kitchen and made a series of clicking noises.

“What have you employed, Dume? Some kind of dolphin?”

“No. Well, he’s the right colour, but he doesn’t have any fins. All he can do is click, and it’s all he responds to. I have no idea what I’m saying to him but I generally click and point and he gets the idea.” I returned to the table and poured another cup of tea for Click. “I had wondered if he might be one of those illegal immigrants I keep hearing about. Perhaps that’s why he’s not on your list?”

“Makes no difference where anyone moves to. My list updates itself. There’s no escape. No, if he’s not in there, he never was and that could have all sorts of awkward consequences. If there’s one who hasn’t been registered, then how many more might there be? I have to get him on the list before anyone in the office finds out or I’ll be in trouble with the boss.” He shook the computer. “This would never have happened with my old books.”

“What does that thing run on? Solar power?” I sipped at my tea and wondered if I could persuade him to let me look at that little machine. An accidental delete could work wonders.

“Solar? Hardly. I don’t go out in the sun, Dume. I don’t tan, you know, and it makes me brittle. No, this runs on soul power. It’s very economical and environmentally friendly and it finds a use for some of the more, ah, useless souls. The lawyers and the politically correct did get all vocal about it, so I told them the louder the spirit, the more juice for the computer. They haven’t said a word since.”

Click appeared in the doorway and did his inquisitive click sound. I waved him in and pointed to the empty chair with the cup of tea in front of it. He skirted the table, watching Death all the way, took a seat and extended his proboscis from his tiny mouth into the tea.

Death faced me. “I think I know why he’s not in my list, Dume. What you have here is an alien.”

“Legal or illegal?”

“Well… ” Death sat back and regarded Click. “Neither, really. I don’t mean ‘alien’ as in ‘foreign’, although I suppose he’s as foreign as it’s possible to get. No, this thing is from another planet. Not human. Out of my jurisdiction. Not my responsibility.” He sighed and reached for his tea. “That’s a relief. I thought my records were messed up. Have you any idea how long it would take to audit them all?”

“Quite some time, I’d say. What do I do with him now? I can’t have officials appearing at my door every five minutes. My freezer space is limited and I really don’t need any more black suits or sunglasses.”

Death added a splash of kitten blood to his cup. “I’m glad I’m not Cat Death. He has to pick up every one of his souls nine times. Dog Death’s job is much easier. All he has to do is whistle and shout ‘Here boy’ and they come running. Then again, his rubber bone doesn’t look as good as my scythe. There’s also his nasty habit of drooling whenever he sees me, which is disquieting. Sorry, what were you saying?”

“What do I do with Click? Can he be taught to communicate or should I let the Ferals have him?”

“Best not let the Ferals have him. If he dies here, his people’s Death will muscle in on my territory again. It’s happened before and every time, I have to argue territorial matters with him. Damn, that Death is tedious and pompous. No, better you keep him until his people come for him. He won’t be noticed here. The village has odder looking characters and much more repellent ones too.”

“Yes, but he can’t speak Village. They can be a bit wary of strangers. Truth be told, they’re a bit wary even of me.”

Death sipped at his tea and shuddered at the kitten blood hit. “I can fix that.” He put down his cup and stood. Click’s eyes widened, no mean feat with eyes like his, and he clung to his chair as Death approached. Death placed one bony hand on Click’s head, there was a blue flash and Click slumped onto the table. Death resumed his seat.

“I’m not surprised the villagers are wary of you, Dume,” he said. “You do experiment on them and eat a few, after all.”

“Only once in a while.” I tried to assume the Professor’s haughty look and failed. “Usually there are enough visitors to keep the freezers filled and they are healthier than the villagers anyway.”

Death raised his hands. “I’m not judging you. I appreciate the business.”

Click groaned. This took me by surprise because normally even his expressions of pain come out as clicks. He sat up, blinked, moved his mouth and looked confused.

“He can’t click any more.” Death leaned on the table and faced Click. “It’s one or the other, I’m afraid.”

“Click…hear…you.” Click jumped at the sound of his voice. So did I. It sounded like a rusty flute. “Click speak Earth.”

Death turned to me. “It’s a bit pidgin now but he’ll improve with practice. You know the best part?”

I shook my head.

“When he dies, his people’s Death won’t be able to communicate with him.” Death took out his computer again and checked it, then roared with laughter. “He’s on my list. He’s mine now.” Death ran one phalange over his teeth and stroked it in the air. “Yes! One up on Grey Death! The miserable git.” He stood, picked up his scythe and pointed the tip at Click. “You are a honorary human, Click. When the time comes I have a place for you. You won’t ever be used as soul power because while you’re around, that snooty swine will have to concede that I win. I have one of his and with the human half-assed attempts at space travel, it’ll be a long time before he gets a chance at one of mine.”

Click and I looked at each other and simultaneously said “Um…”

Death coughed and shook his robes into place. “Sorry. Got a bit overexcited there. Anyway, best dash. Souls to collect, you know.” He strode to the wall and vanished through it.

There followed a long silence, eventually broken by Click.

“What just happen?”

“I’m not entirely sure. Now that you can understand me though, understand this. Caligula is dangerous. He can’t help it, it’s genetic. Never give him weapons. Okay?”

“Caligula your child. He not hurt you.”

I produced the deepest sigh of my sighing career to date. “You have much to learn about Dume life, my friend.”

At least now, thanks to the rivalry between our respective Deaths, he is capable of learning.