FP469 – Mulligan Smith in The Humbug
Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and sixty-nine.
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Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Tonight we find ourselves in a chase across the holiday encrusted streets of Capital City.
Mulligan Smith in The Humbug
Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May
Mulligan was looking forward to December 26th. He was eager to see tinsel peeking from trash cans and garland rolling down the roadway like a shimmering tumbleweed. He was sick of dodging Salvation Army Santas and the endless flow of shoppers along the sidewalk.
For the private investigator there was no mystery left to Christmas: It was simply the annual period when he was more likely to find the spouse of a client cheating at an office party than in the dugout of the corporate softball team, but this year – this year his father was travelling and the memory of his mother, who’d always been the heart of family celebrations, seemed all too close.
Even as his feet hammered the pavement in chase, thoughts of the dead woman pushed in on his mind.
In his youth he’d known the joy of a country Christmas. The house had been tiny, but Smith Sr. had hauled in a pine he’d cut from the backlot with his own hands. It was snowing heavily that Christmas Eve, so they’d settled on popcorn and a cutthroat game of Monopoly – but as dusk fell the sound of actual bells, not just those of the endless carols playing on the kitchen radio, had reached their ears.
Mr. Abbasi, their neighbour, sat atop a rough-cornered lumber sleigh, and his horses stood blowing clouds of steam into the darkening air. The sled was no show piece – it was ancient and had been used hard in its day – but Anwaar, his wife, and Saeeda, his daughter, grinned at them from beneath heavy bundles of blankets.
In the time it had taken the boy to pull on a sweater, his blue and orange parka, and a hat, Mulligan’s mother had somehow dressed in triple layers and made enough hot chocolate to supply all involved. She had thought the boy missed her wink and grin when she elbowed the eldest Smith and produced a hidden flask with which to top his cup, but Mulligan’s eyes had been sharp even at that age.
They’d ridden between the shadowed pines, beneath the stars, for what seemed like hours, and when he’d crawled into bed that night the warmth of his comforter sent him melting into his pillow.
He’d expected little the next day. His father’s lawman’s salary was just enough to keep them in Monopoly money, and his mother had yet to find a place for herself since their move earlier in the year.
So it was that, when he awoke, he was stunned to discover the space beneath their tree packed tight with brightly coloured bricks. Mulligan had recognized both his mother and father’s hand in the quality of the wrapping, yet the handwriting marking each label was clearly that of Sadie Smith’s alone.
Each one had a date and a short five or six word note. “You are the sweetest valentine,” alongside February 14th, or simply “Spring is coming” for the bland days at the beginning of March, and each signed “Love, Mum.” The count began January 1st, and for a year Mulligan had opened one a day. Inside was always a dessert’s worth of well-sealed pastry, cake, or cookies. The selections, he would realize, had been carefully selected to age well over the course of the year, and he would never understand how she had managed to make so many varied treats without either repeating herself or having flooded the house with cooking before the date.
Another change in employment had pushed his father into a new, distant, office that year, and it would be but another before his mother was dead.
He would never know the joy or mystery of that singular Christmas again, but somehow moving to the city – a place he loved at every other time of year – had somehow made the disparity of what followed worse.
There was no sense of anticipation in the city – just people trying to sell you something. Somehow when the multi-coloured lights were strung up they only served to underline the squalor of the apartment window they were hung in.
Even laying money on if there’d be snow on any given Capital City Christmas was a sucker’s bet. Just the previous year the white had held off till the night before, then, after the children had said goodnight to their yellow lawns, and their parents had snuck out to shuffle Santa’s deposits around their tree, clouds had blotted out the stars like a World War 2 bombing raid.
As the little ones had awoken the next morning their eyes had widened at what they considered a miracle, while, not far off, their elders had made hurried phone calls, to re-arrange travel plans, and determined if they had enough in the fridge to pull together a passable feast without having to shovel themselves out for a trip to the store.
This stood, of course, exactly opposite to the year previous, in which they’d had to Trick’or’Treat in heavy jackets and could have gone bicycling in shorts on boxing day.
This season, however, the weather had decided to make its intentions plain. It was just cold enough to snow almost every day of December, but still warm enough that the flakes were quickly churned into a pool of slush that soaked boots and sent long fans of cold onto the sidewalk every time a bus pulled snug against the curb.
It was in this loose mix of ice and water that Mulligan fought to keep his feet as he ran.
The crowds didn’t help. School children, freed from the bonds of their labours, lingered on the sidewalks, their attentions either absorbed in conversation with each other or locked on the glass of the displays demonstrating the year’s greatest passions. Office dwellers, their expensive shoes and pant legs in endless combat with the muck and water, worked hard to ignore the cheer of the season as they moved with annoyed self-importance between meetings or overpriced coffee counters. Overwhelmed fathers and mothers attempted to maneuver oversized packages from storefront to car trunk.
All of the trappings of the season abounded, but to Smith they seemed no more real than the mannequins in the windows. There was no sense of mystery here, there were only the usual people going through the usual motions as dictated by the changes in their shopping soundtrack.
Yet Mulligan had eyes only for one man: The fellow in red turning to sprint into an alley a half-block up from the riotous Williams-Sonoma that the private investigator was currently trying to thread his way past.
Even if the crowd had somehow not noticed the fire-engine coloured suit and trailing hat, the PI’s target was a big man, tall and with enough meat on his bones to convince people they ought to shuffle aside. Mulligan, however, was having to employ his elbows liberally.
“Yeah, Happy Fackin’ Holidays to you too, dog fondler,” a woman in a denim jacket answered as he leveraged off of her right shoulder to push past a drifting baby stroller. He was fairly sure his apology was lost in the din of the competing Christmas carols blasting from the stores, but he made the effort anyhow.
The alley – tucked between The Mongol Gourd, a teppanyaki restaurant catering to vegans, and The Sprint Store, a running equipment place that had taken over a cellphone shop without changing much of the signage or fixings – was littered with cardboard boxes, reduced to mush by the sleet, and vegetable husks that had been pushed across the pavement by winter winds.
Despite his attempt to make the same turn as the long-limbed St. Nick, Smith’s sneakers lost traction. Sliding across a patch of frozen bean pods, he came to stop against a chill brick wall. His hoodie’s sleeve, already overwhelmed by the cold, provided little protection against the rough surface, but Mulligan considered the scratches along his forearm a fair trade for having avoided landing face-first against the grating surface.
However, by the time he’d recovered from the failed course change Santa had disappeared to the left.
With a sigh the detective pushed off, again picking up speed but now almost wishing the shoppers were crowding this space as well, if only so that he might use them as handholds as he slid his way across the trash-covered cement.
The next turn brought mixed results. This new artery – a back lane that had once been used for deliveries but now saw most of its traffic from loitering staff smoking away their work breaks – was salted down to the blacktop and wide enough to keep most of the garbage piled in the corners or against the business that faced onto it.
Still, Kringle’s long legs covered twice Smith’s pace at a step, and he was turning off into an open backdoor before Mulligan could recover enough breath to shout.
It struck the detective that this was nearly the perfect metaphor for the season. Here he was, just trying to return a dropped gift, and it was the crowds, the sidewalk bell ringers, the endless howl of carols, that had kept him from accomplishing a simple act of kindness.
Where the jolly old elf was off to in such a rush Smith could not say for sure, yet, in truth, he thought it obvious. The gift box he’d scooped from the sidewalk before beginning his sprint was just small enough to be expensive, and it was an easy season in which to propose – though also one in which it was not so easy to reach pre-scheduled romantic encounters.
It all seemed a little cliche – a little obvious – to the off-duty private investigator, and he briefly considered stopping the chase and pawning the thing. He could consider it an early Christmas present to himself. Yet, even while not seriously entertaining the thought, he could feel his mother frowning at him from the depths of his memory. Though there was no one watching when he plunged through the backdoor, Mulligan still offered Sadie Smith an “I’m just kidding” shrug as he surveyed the scene.
A short hall led to the main street, but to his left a flight of grimy stairs rose to a second floor, and the heavy tread above sounded suspiciously Claus-esque.
He took the steps two at a time and entered another hallway, this one providing access to three doors – apparently apartments.
Santa stood at the furthest, waiting for Mulligan’s arrival.
“I -” said the PI, digging for the package in his hoodie’s right pocket, but before he could fish it out the man winked and stepped across the threshold.
Beyond was not a full apartment, as he’d expected, but a single room, its ceiling low at its midpoint due to the angle of the building’s roof. Lit by a single yellow bulb, he guessed the space had perhaps once been used for storage for the shops below. Now it appeared to have stood empty at least a decade.
Claus’ crossing was clearly tracked in the dust that covered the wood-slat floor. His steps moved directly towards a blank wall, and there they seemed to stop – yet, from the entrance, Mulligan could see there seemed to be something leaning against wall trim at the point where the footprints ceased.
Having to stoop against the encroaching ceiling, Mulligan reached the same spot in the windowless room, picked up the toy he found there, and turned back to the single door.
He stood a long while, one foot in the chamber, one foot without, staring at the tiny chimney he’d collected.
His mind fought with him on the matter. How could so large a fellow disappear from a room with no other openings? Surely the chimney was just a coincidence, or perhaps more likely a joke. A joke by someone with knowledge of some sort of secret exit he couldn’t ascertain.
Though it seemed a stretch, in the end he wasn’t sure it mattered. He’d lost nothing more than twenty minutes, and if he could ever convince himself to tell the tale in public it would at least be worth a laugh from Walmart Mike.
It was at that point in his train of thought that Smith remembered the brightly wrapped present.
Flipping it about in his fingers he realized there was a slip of a tag attached. He briefly wondered if he might find some hint to St. Nick’s true identity in its handwritten text.
Instead he found only the date of the following Christmas and crisp-lettered penciling that read: “No peeking, Snoopy. Love, Mum.”
He stood a while longer, his fingers tracing the familiar loops and lines with his fingernail, and his eyes began to sting even as his lips gave up fighting against his the grin pushing its way onto his face.
Smith could not say how it had happened. He could not provide even a theory. He knew only the truth of what he held.
After a year’s worth of telling the the story he would have to decide if he’d actually open the package, yet even before he’d left the building Mulligan knew the stranger had given him a greater gift: A mystery the detective could not solve.
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Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.
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