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Valley Azure

The Invisible People The Wodehouse Murder Case Twas the Night Before Christmas


Contributors Authors Clement Clarke Moore

Fraser Sherman Jacob Peppers Managing Editor Brett Peterson Layout Design Chris Taney Editors Andrea Jakeman Daniel Friend Special Thanks Brett Peterson

Credits Cover art by petermilli Creative Commons license, some rights reserved. Flickr.com: petermilli.

Table of Contents

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Twas the Night Before Christmas

... and all through the house.

What happens when your book becomes a reality?

The Wodehouse Murder Case

I was one of the invisible people

The Invisible People

57 7 39

7


Letter from the Editor Azure Valley – it’s our broadest imprint, and it’s a lot of fun, but the magazine itself has been hard to pin down. Do we include only short stories that are true to life? Do we include our other general fiction stories here? Where do funny, silly, and lighthearted stories go? After much deliberation, we decided to make Azure Valley the home for all of the stories that don’t fit in other genres. Thus, this issue of the magazine was born: a comedic piece set in a whimsical version of late-1800s England, a heart-wrenching fictional story set in contemporary America, and a reprint of a classic poem in celebration of the Christmas season. That said, the magazine itself is still changing and growing. In the future, stories like “Invisible People” might find their way into Burgundy Grove, and stories like the Wodehouse Murder Mystery Case might play a larger role in populating the imprint; we’re still exploring the Azure Valley too! Whatever Azure Valley becomes, we hope you will join us on the adventure, and that you will have as much fun reading the magazine as we have putting it together. Happy reading, and merry Christmas! Brett Peterson Editor, TM Publishing


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THE WODEHOUSE

MURDER CASE Fraser Sherman

T

he night I first glimpsed the face of Suzanne Bing, I had no idea what her beauty would lead to. True love. Heartbreak. The revelation of my deepest secret. And the sight of Augusta Featherington dead on my Aunt Letitia’s first-floor landing, a Malayan dagger in her heart and vinegar smeared on her forehead. Now that I have your attention, I hope you’ll allow me a spot of exposition. To my friends, I’m Monty; to the rest of the world, I’m Montague Throopville of the Ilford Throopvilles, man about town, fine baritone, and above-average scholar of the dark arts. You may have seen the glowing reviews of my Gentleman’s Guide to the Unspeakable Cults of London in the Times’ book section last autumn. I share a very comfortable bachelor flat with Tench, a firstrate gentleman’s gentleman with an encyclopedic knowledge of hangover remedies and a nodding acquaintance with every vendor of secondhand arcane books in the city. Thanks to Tench, I’ve managed to purchase breathtakingly rare volumes that would otherwise have fallen into the hands of that untalented ass, my former chum Pongo Tiffin. I once considered Pongo my boon companion, until circumstances revealed to me that under his Byronic dark looks and affable manner lay TM Magazine - 7


THE WODEHOUSE MURDER CASE a foul, selfish schemer of the lowest order. As I first discovered the night we attended a delightful, little musical, Don’t Touch, It’s Delicate, and a certain dark-haired chorus girl caught my eye. •

“No, the one second from the left.” Fool that I was, I insisted on drawing Pongo’s attention to the curvaceous,

to the Merlin without me? That’ll give you more time to hone your summoning incantations, and you certainly need the practice.” I flicked my finger on Pongo’s top hat for emphasis. “And how much did the judge fine you last month for violating the Infernal Powers Act? You’ve got to read up on the latest amendments—” “As I recall, Monty, you

A certain dark-haired chorus girl caught my eye. raven-haired beauty I’d spotted wearing a racy, little, sequined bathing suit. “Absolutely eyepop inducing.” “Oh, Monty.” Pongo shook his head in the annoyingly world-weary way he had. “A wizard making a fool of himself over a chorus girl? So clichéd!” “I’m simply contemplating an amusing diversion for a night or two, you fathead. I know we’d planned on a late supper, but why not head off 8 - december 2012

didn’t have a problem with my skills when I transmuted the paint for the dining hall into vintage bubbly.” “If you’d managed to confine the transmutation to a couple of cans it would have been magnificent.” Instead, he’d turned all but three cans into champagne. As the Merlin Club treasurer refused to purchase more paint, we’d been stuck with a combination of mauve and burnt umber on the walls for the next six


Fraser Sherman months. “In any case, I’m off to spend a few minutes playing Stage Door Johnny.” I wasn’t that surprised when Pongo opted to follow me, given the number of delectable blondes we’d seen dancing on stage with my quarry. This only goes to show that divining motive in real life is much harder than in mystery stories, for to my surprise, Pongo turned down inviting smiles from many a comely miss as we waited for the young chorine I had my eye on. When she finally stepped out, she was dressed down in a modest, white frock, a clear sign she had nobody else ready to squire her around. Not only that, she had a book tucked under her arm—and with a thrill, I saw it was the latest of the Professor Wodehouse mysteries, The Owl Died at Sunset. I was just about to compliment her superb taste—not to mention the dark curls cascading over her shoulders— when a heavy hand fell on my arm. “Excuse me, sir. Do

you realize your car is parked where it shouldn’t be?” “What?” I turned to discover a burly policeman scowling at me from under his helmet and politely removed his hand from the sleeve of my suit. “Don’t be absurd, my good man; I came here by taxi. Now, if you’ll excuse me—” I turned back to the brunette, then the hand returned to my sleeve and yanked me back with irresistible vigor. “Sorry, sir. I must insist.” “I say, constable, hold on!” I replied, struggling not to fall despite being pulled off balance. “It’s not my car, I tell you. Pongo—” “Oh, Monty,” Pongo said, then turned to the exquisite girl with a sad smile. “It’s so dreadful—things like this happen to him all the time.” “They do not—” I protested, but I’m not sure she even heard me. Despite my objections, the bobby dragged me across the street to where a Dusenberg blocked a driveway. A taxi driver was beeping his horn burgundy grove - 9


THE WODEHOUSE MURDER CASE from the far side, as if the sound would levitate the car out of his path. By the time the real owner showed up, looking much the worse for several stiff whiskies, Pongo and the young brunette were long gone. A quick scan of the astral plane with my mystic awareness— the “third eye,” as it’s popularly

10 - december 2012

called—showed the usual tangle of occult influences seen in London on a Friday night, making it impossible to track them. I returned home in the most miserable of spirits. “I don’t know why I should feel miserable,” I said as I sipped the nightcap Tench whipped up for me and contemplated the end of my


Fraser Sherman

Left: Flickr.com/Kyle May

cigarette. Tench—tall, bald as a coot, solemn as a judge— stood by with a sympathetic look, or as much of a look as he’d allow himself. “To a libertine like myself, one woman’s like a bus, correct? If I don’t catch her, another will be along soon enough.” I heard my man pointedly not saying anything. “Tench, I take it you disagree.” “Forgive me, Master Montague, but if you do, in fact, have any penchant for sybaritic conduct, it’s been notably absent in the four years of our association. You devote almost all your time to your acclaimed magical research or your, er, other writings—” “Don’t be ridiculous, Tench.” Admittedly the success of my work had made it increasingly demanding, but there was . . . there was . . . of course! “You’re forgetting Euphronia Brooks. If she hadn’t fallen so hard for Pongo, I might have . . .” My voice trailed off as I recalled how he’d taken her out while I was wandering around in

impenetrable darkness, the result of an “error” in one of his spells. “Is it possible that Pongo magically arranged that contretemps with the bobby tonight? Distracting me from that sweet young girl so that he could leap upon her like a jungle cat, a—a Felis lecherous, if you will?” “I’m surprised you didn’t consider that possibility at once, sir. From gossip among the other valets of the Merlin members, I’ve learned that when one of Mr. Tiffin’s friends finds a woman attractive, he likes nothing better than to descend upon her as the Assyrians once descended upon the Israelites. Though with fewer spears and more champagne and roses, of course.” “Well yes, I know what he’s like, but . . . dash it, Tench, I never thought he’d do that to his bosom chum!” But clearly it wasn’t my bosom that he valued. “He’ll have her wrapped around his finger in a trice, then he’ll drop her as he always drops his conquests, burgundy grove - 11


THE WODEHOUSE MURDER CASE and she’ll swear off on men for months, if not years. Not that I care about the outcome, of course. Why the devil should I?” Once again, Tench said nothing. •

It was two weeks later, at Frankie Nettle’s party, when I discovered I was no better at deducing my own motivations than I was at guessing Pongo’s. I knew Pongo was going to be there, but the sight of the little brunette on his arm— tricked out in a very modish blue dress with a slit that showed inviting glimpses of leg—surprised me. For Pongo to stick with one girl for a fortnight was like eternal love for most men. Over the next hour, I found myself admiring his good taste. Something about the raven-haired young damsel—whom he introduced to me as Suzanne Bing—made her so pleasant and charming to chat with. Despite their many charms, chorus girls 12 - december 2012

tend toward the shallow, but Suzanne was genuinely interested in other people—not to mention having some idea what was happening in the world outside the London theater district. Unfortunately, her charm was counterbalanced by the starry-eyed looks she kept bestowing on Pongo, and the way she began so many sentences with “Pongo and I.” I spent the hour scanning her with my third eye for any hint of a love spell but found nothing. Of course, knowing the legal penalties, even an ass like Pongo wouldn’t dare attempt that, but I couldn’t help hoping . . . Suddenly, the realization they were a genuine affaire de couer seemed too much for me; rather than watch her fawn on that odious oink, I stepped out onto the balcony. The familiar London street noises of surging traffic and laughing couples seemed only to mock me. Fitting a cigarette into my holder, I conjured a spark to light it, that I might


Fraser Sherman smoke under the cold, uncaring stars. “Mr. Throopville? Are you all right?” The soft, musical voice made me jump. I turned to see Suzanne standing there,

be sorrowful about.” I had an odd suspicion I was lying, but I suppressed the thought. “It is awfully nice of you to ask, but some shoals of life a man must steer by himself.” “Is that a quote from

Rather than watch her fawn on that odious oink, I stepped out onto the balcony. sans Pongo. “Miss Bing—” My mind blanked completely, so it was all I could do to offer my cigarette case. “Er, care for a gasper?” “I would love one, thank you.” As soon as she’d placed it in her own holder, I touched my finger to the tip to light it, then she continued. “Pongo’s out fetching a taxi. I thought I’d take a moment to see if you were all right. You’ll probably think I’m silly, Mr. Throopville, but all night I’ve had the feeling you were bearing up under some secret sorrow.” “Monty, please. And, no, of course not. I have nothing to

Amanda Plumley? It sounds exactly like Professor Wodehouse’s advice to Horace Blumquist in The Poisoned Viscount.” “Why, yes, now that I think of it,” I said, quite impressed. “I saw you reading one of her novels—” “Oh, I adore them!” She was positively beaming. “Honest to gosh, The Owl Died at Sunset sent chills up my spine. I don’t see how I can wait three more weeks until The Hangman’s Secret comes out, can you?” My heart swelled with joy, though I did my best not to show it. “They are rather burgundy grove - 13


THE WODEHOUSE MURDER CASE good, aren’t they? The critics, they just don’t appreciate—” “Oh, who cares about critics? I’m sure she doesn’t!” Suzanne dismissed that possibility with a wave of her

should have been working on the galleys for The Philosopher’s Stone and You, but instead I was pacing up and down, smoking endlessly, pausing only to accept

She was positively beaming. holder. “Great artists never do.” The intoxicating sensation of having this lovely young thing call my work art—yes, that’s right, I’m Amanda Plumley— lifted my heart. For two minutes, tops. Then Pongo, having captured the taxi, showed up to collect her. His expression, as they left, looked as smug as a cat that had snuck a couple of budgies right out from under its owner’s nose. I went home a quarter-hour later. Without Suzanne’s presence, the party seemed as cold and lifeless as the barren wastes of Tartarus.

yet another gin and tonic. “If I told her I was the author—” “Such an admission can never pass your lips, Master Montague—not without dire consequences.” “The direst, I know.” It’s all very well for me to pen a tome of cosmic secrets, or for cousin Beedle to dash off his pretentious literary bilge (I couldn’t get more than five pages into The Universe Weeps for Me), but writing popular fiction? Pandering to the masses, as my father used to put it? Quite beyond the pale for a family with our artistic pretensions. No one in my family has uttered Grandmama’s name • aloud since they learned, at “It’s so unfair, Tench.” I the reading of her will, that

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Fraser Sherman she’d been the pseudonymous author of the luridly popular Green Dwarf penny dreadfuls—not that any of my relatives objected to inheriting her money. I reminded myself repeatedly that a thoroughgoing rogue and sophisticated man about town such as myself could never become attached to some snip of a girl, no matter what Tench thought. Somehow it didn’t help. •

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Auntie,” I said into my crystal ball a week later. “I can’t stop thinking about Suzanne.” “It’s obvious, you idiot.” Aunt Lettie’s image gazed pityingly out at me. “You’re in love.” “I am not an idiot. And a dashing blade such as myself disdains love.” “‘Blade’ my new hat! I’ve never seen you go out with a girl if you weren’t developing finer feelings for her. I know it’s not fashionable in our set,

Monty, but you’re actually something of a romantic.” “Stuff and nonsense! Even if I were, I’m certainly not such an idiot as to fall for a girl who loves someone else.” “It won’t last, not with Pongo.” She tucked an errant strand of platinum-blond hair back under her outrageously pink turban. “Once he drops her, at least you won’t have to watch her cooing over him.” “He’s been with her three weeks now; that’s a record for him. Given we move in the same circles, wherever I go, I’ll keep running into them and hearing her darling laugh and seeing her smile—” “Why inflict such pain on yourself?” She jabbed a long, elegant finger toward me. “Have Tench drive you down here to Essex and spend a fortnight in the country. Out of sight, out of mind, right? I’ll let you have first crack at the new issues of Best Blasphemous Crosswords and Occult Secrets Monthly— and I’ll throw a party next weekend.” burgundy grove - 15


THE WODEHOUSE MURDER CASE I had to admit, not seeing Suzanne’s sweet face and Pongo’s hateful phiz did seem an appealing escape hatch. Next morning, Tench got out the Rolls, and we motored down to Sackville’s End, Auntie’s estate in the Essex countryside. At breakfast two days later, I learned that by so doing I’d only enmeshed myself further in my web of suffering. “Auntie, no!” My eyes were sharp and accusing, or so I hoped. “You can’t have invited Pongo and Suzanne to the party!” “I didn’t have a choice, Monty.” Sitting across the breakfast table from me, she looked apologetic, but her voice was firm. “Old ‘Gouty’ Tiffin’s my nearest neighbor; I had to invite him. I had no idea Pongo was visiting and that Gouty would insist on using the party to introduce his son’s fiancée to the neighborhood.” “His fiancée?” The delicious kipper I’d been noshing on became wormwood and gall in my mouth. “It’s barely been 16 - december 2012

a month!” “It does give new meaning to the phrase ‘whirlwind courtship,’ but perhaps it’s a good thing. If Pongo’s finally settling down, well, lots more fish in the ocean for you, right? A woman’s like a bus and all that—isn’t that what you like to say?”


Fraser Sherman Below: Flickr.com/onnola

I left the rest of my breakfast uneaten and went out into the garden to smoke and brood. There was no getting around it: I had no interest in catching the next bus. There was only bus in the world that I wanted to travel on, and that loathsome rotter Pongo had bought all the tickets. I’d written more

than a dozen novels about the bloody art of murder, but for the first time in my life, I truly understood what drove some men to do the deed. •

“It’s the most woeful mess, Tench,” I said, pacing up and down the corridor rug on the

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THE WODEHOUSE MURDER CASE third story of Sackville’s End. Giddy laughter and faint trails of tobacco smoke floated up from the crowded ground floor, where Aunt Lettie was holding court. “I can barely stand to be near them!” “I have not seen you so distressed, sir, since you ran into that plot hole in Two Graves for the Duchess. And the riddle you face now seems far more insoluble—ah, Miss Bing. A pleasant surprise.” I sprung around, forcing a smile onto my face as Suzanne appeared at the top of the staircase. “Suzanne?” “Monty, you’ve been up here all evening—are you all right?” She laid a tentative hand upon my arm. “It seems to me you grow sadder every time I see you. Pongo says I’m being silly, but I wanted to check.” “I’m . . . a little out of sorts, perhaps.” I smiled at her hand, then into her eyes. She was so kind. “Truthfully, I was thinking about motoring back to London tonight, but—” I gestured out the window at the gray mists that blocked out 18 - december 2012

the view of the setting sun and, indeed, anything more than half an inch from the window pane. “We’d break our necks on the local roads in a pea-souper like this.” “Pongo says he can navigate it, but I agree with you,” Suzanne said. “It reminds me of the fog in The Hangman’s Secret—” “Indeed,” Tench said. “Also The Poisoned Viscount, The Owl Died at Sunset, The Vinegar Killer, No Tears for the Undertaker—” “There’s no shame in Miss Plumley using a genre convention, Tench,” I said. I’ve learned you can’t expect a man who reads Dickens and Tolstoy to appreciate my work. “Just be glad we’re not stuck in one of Plumley’s books. If we were, now that the fog’s cut us off from the outside world, before we knew it, we’d hear a bloodcurdling—” “AIEEEEEEEEE!” “—scream.” It had come from the first floor. Suzanne and I rushed down the stairs as one, Tench


Fraser Sherman somehow keeping pace without going beyond a stately walk. We stepped out onto the landing as Pongo led the crowd up from the party. He and I stared at each other from opposite sides of Augusta “Gussie” Featherington’s corpse—she lay in a pool of blood with what I recognized as a Malayan kris thrust deeply into her heart. “Suzanne!” Pongo leaped over Gussie’s body, which I thought in rather bad taste, and buried Suzanne’s face against his breast, oblivious to the fact she’d already seen the body. “Letitia, there’s been—a murder!” “Pongo, you can’t be serious . . .” Aunt Lettie, towering over everyone in her ruby-bedecked, black turban, pushed her way to the front of the crowd and froze, one black-gloved hand covering her mouth. “Don’t worry, Suzanne, my darling,” Pongo said, clutching her close, as he backed around the corpse. “We’ll get you away from here, back to

Tiffin Manor and then—” “Don’t be absurd,” my auntie said. “We can’t leave until the police show up and get our statements. Mary, go call them at once.” A housemaid disappeared down the stairs. “Did anyone see anything?” “I—I—” Suzanne lifted her face off Pongo’s chest; he tried to push it back down, but she shoved herself away. “No, Pongo, Lettie, don’t you see that stain on her forehead? It’s just like Amanda Plumley’s The Vinegar Killer! A dagger in her heart, the mark smeared on her forehead, the fog cutting us off outside.” “Suzanne,” I said, “that’s absurd.” But even as I spoke, I knelt down and sniffed at the dark Cupid’s-bow mark on Gussie’s forehead. “Only you’re right—it’s the vinegar kiss!” “Madam!” The housemaid reappeared with a melodramatic tone that would have done credit to many an amateur theatrical company. “I tried to call, but the phone line—it’s been cut!” burgundy grove - 19


“My crystal ball then,” Auntie said, striding into her study, but then she froze in the doorway. “Smashed. Just like in the blasted book!” “Do you remember what happens next?” Veronica Babbingham said in horrified tones. “One by one, pretty, young party guests die by ancient weapons 20 - december 2012

from the family’s collection, until Professor Wodehouse unmasks the killer as the hostess.” “I remember,” Suzanne said, studying the body despite Pongo’s efforts to tug her away. “She murders women who still have hopes of finding love— the vinegar represents her bitterness at withering away into

Above: Flickr.com/Karen Roe

THE WODEHOUSE MURDER CASE


Fraser Sherman

lonely spinsterhood.” Every eye on the landing turned toward my never-married Auntie. The expression on her face quickly convinced them to look somewhere else. “Now see here,” she said. “I don’t have a weapon collection unless you count my greatgrandfather’s blunderbuss. And I’m not a bitter spinster!”

Everyone assured her insincerely that of course they’d never thought of her that way. And if they had the slightest idea of the hijinks she got up to whenever she visited me in London, they certainly wouldn’t have. Lonely wasn’t in it. “Well, if the police aren’t coming,” Pongo said firmly, “I think they can bally well take my statement tomorrow. Fog or no fog, I’m taking Suzanne and my father home.” “Wait a second.” I held up my hand and strode to the window, opening my third eye. Given the murder, the fog suddenly seemed like an unlikely coincidence. Peering through the glass, I saw thick, powerful strands of enchantment running through it. “Just as I suspected, the fog is conjured. Undoubtedly by the murderer.” “Well, I’m sure I can find my way.” Pongo looked slightly wild-eyed at the thought of being trapped in the house. “Pater, I insist you and Suzanne come with me away burgundy grove - 21


THE WODEHOUSE MURDER CASE from this house of death.” “You daft, boy?” Gouty studied the fog with his own third eye, nodding as he saw the truth of my words. “The killer might be waiting outside, like Lord Cholmondley’s brother in The Poacher’s Secret. Even if he’s not, you wouldn’t get fifty feet beyond the gates without going off the road.” “I’m not letting Suzanne stay in this house with a mur-

strike as long as we’re in plain sight of each other. And the practitioners among us can prepare some magical surprises in case he attempts it anyway.” There were murmurs of enthusiasm at that, so I said nothing, only grimaced at Tench. Not only was the killer’s wizardry head and shoulders above most of Auntie’s guests, we wizards just aren’t men of

“I’m not letting Suzanne stay in this house with a murderer!” derer!” Pongo looked so desperate, for the first time I began appreciating the depth of his feelings. “Father, I insist—” “No, wait!” Suzanne said, snapping her fingers suddenly. “Remember, the murderer always killed the girls in the book when they were alone. If we gather everyone together in the dining room—” “Young lady, that’s positively brilliant,” Aunt Lettie said. “The killer can’t possibly 22 - december 2012

action. Douglas Fairbanks makes our sort look dashing in the movies, but in real life, if the killer popped up and shouted “Ha-ha, it’s me!” we’d be more likely to magically wrap the Persian rugs around ourselves and hope he didn’t see us. “Wait, this won’t work,” Pongo protested. “What if they—” He paused. “You know, if someone has to—visit the, er—” “We go two by two,” Aunt


Fraser Sherman Lettie said, ignoring the titters the question provoked. “Tench, will you work out similar arrangements for the servants?” My man inclined himself with gracious dignity and headed down the stairs. With a grunt, Gouty started to totter back to his room, but Aunt Lettie stepped into his path “Sorry, Alexander, we all stay together. For all we know, the killer’s read more than one of Plumley’s books.” “Oh, my goodness, Mr. Tiffin—she’s right,” Suzanne said. “You’d be a perfect target if he starts cribbing from The Robin Redbreast Riddle!” Suzanne’s knowledge of my oeuvre warmed my heart, but as we descended to the ground floor, I began thinking furiously. Why would some mage use my books as a map for murder? Misdirection, I realized at once—something mystery writers understand as much as any stage magician. With everyone thinking about the bizarre circumstances of the

killing, nobody was questioning who in attendance might want to kill Gussie. “Of course, between the jealous women and the broken-hearted men, half the guests here had a motive to do that little flirt in,” I whispered to Tench after his return from below stairs. “But the police are bound to focus on the motive and ignore the fancy trappings, so what good do they really do?” “And no one here but you and Mr. Tiffin has the level of ability to conjure a fog such as this, sir.” Tench stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I suppose—” “Trying to figure it out, you two?” Pongo, Suzanne on his arm, slipped up next to me with an annoyingly nervous laugh. “You think you’re Professor Wodehouse or something?” For half a second, I wondered if he knew the truth, but nothing about his manner suggested that. “Of course not, Pongo,” I said. “Wodehouse has it easy: All he has to do burgundy grove - 23


THE WODEHOUSE MURDER CASE is stumble over the clues his author throws down for him. It doesn’t work like that in real life. We’re lucky your—” I made myself say it. “fiancée has such a cool head. Keeping us all together should thwart whoever the bounder is.” “I still say we should go back to Tiffin Manor!” Pongo said with a stamp of his foot. “Dash it, Suzanne. As my future wife, you should get used to obeying me now as you will in the future!” I heard something from Tench that might have been a smothered laugh. Then, from over near the bar, we heard a bloodcurdling groan. I crossed the room in record time to see that fossil Anthony Sweeting-Smythe drop a glass of scotch, clutch at his throat, then crumple to the Aubusson carpet between Gouty Tiffin and Morrison, Aunt Lettie’s butler. I picked up the glass, sniffed it, and detected something I’d written about but never smelled in real life: the odor of bitter almonds. “Cyanide!” 24 - december 2012

“Bloody hell!” Gouty shuddered. “I was about to have the butler fix me a whiskey when Sweeting-Smythe shoved in front of me, the cheeky devil. Could have been me!” “A near miss,” I said, opening the whiskey decanter, sniffing, frowning. No scent. Then a moment of insight came to me. I reached out to the ice


Fraser Sherman Below: Flickr.com/Dinner Series

bucket and lifted the lid. The odor of almonds wafted up. “The poison’s in the ice cubes.” A buzz raced around the room as a gratifying number of people recognized the modus operandi of the killer in The Poisoned Viscount. But with that recognition came the realization that we weren’t safe in a crowd after all.

“Curious,” Tench said. “As I recall, the critics dismissed that story on the grounds that the killer sought revenge on Lord Rutherford alone, but chose a murder method that ultimately killed four unintended victims. Why would tonight’s villain duplicate a flaw in the Wodehouse books?”

burgundy grove - 25


THE WODEHOUSE MURDER CASE “Possibly the killer doesn’t read the critics,” I said. I did, and it irked me to remember they’d been absolutely right. “Or possibly the fiend doesn’t care whom he murders, like the mad wizard in that mystery Sayers wrote a few years back.” I hated that book, myself; a fictional murderer with no rational motive is just a cheat. But in real life? Was it possible such fiends actually existed? Several minutes of discussion followed as the servants carted Sweeting-Smythe out of the way, and we tried to figure out who might have dropped some poisoned ice in the bucket. Unfortunately, everyone had been popping back and forth to the bar, and half the room probably had enough talent to stuff ice into a pocket or purse without it melting. The discussion soon devolved—inevitably, given our set—into a proposal that the best safeguard against poison was to open Aunt Lettie’s reserved stock and drink 26 - december 2012

it all quickly. After Auntie flatly ruled that out, the topic switched to exposing the killer, and I had to explain to that twerp “Wombat” Lister that, unlike Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express, real wizards cannot cast a truth spell and find a killer without hours of preparation. I adore Agatha, but she does fudge the details sometimes. At the same time I debated Wombat, I kept racking my brain for answers. I felt an obligation to expose whoever was using my books to kill, but I had no idea how. SweetingSmythe was a tedious ass who cared for nothing but collecting matchbook covers; who had a motive to kill him and Gussie both? Or could it be misdirection again, like that one book of Agatha’s where the murderer only wants to kill one person but murders more to confuse the police? “Monty, what do you think?” Suzanne, her cigarette holder trembling slightly in her hands, came up to me, smoothing her silver gown


Fraser Sherman over her delightful curves. “You know Miss Plumley’s books. Which one will the killer employ next?” “Well, we know the killer’s in the room with us, so that

inheriting anything just yet.” “Changed the will?” I said, trying to sound as casual as possible. But if there’s one thing a mystery writer knows, it’s that changing a will goes

“Well, we know the killer’s in the room with us, lets out the blowpipe murders from Secret of the Shrunken Head or the locked-room deaths in Two Graves for the Duchess. I suppose the best bet—” “The best bet is to go home where it’s safe.” Pongo, glaring at me, slid an arm around Suzanne. “I’m a dab hand behind the wheel; it’ll be fine.” “Pongo, you have enough speeding tickets to stuff a mattress,” I said, outraged he’d risk Suzanne’s neck just because of his own cowardice. “I’ll hex your car engine if you so much as try to start it.” “Yes, you young whippersnapper,” Gouty grunted. “Just because I changed my will doesn’t mean I want you

with murder like fish goes with chips. “Not disinheriting my old chum, surely?” “Perish the thought!” With a beaming smile, Gouty clapped Pongo on the back. “After all those escapades, he’s finally getting married. I always told him that when he settled down with a sensible girl, I’d write him back in.” “You didn’t tell me that, Pongo,” Suzanne said. I could see from her expression and her glance at the ice bucket that she’d had the same thought as I did, but I could also see that she dismissed the idea. Understandably so; it was absurd to think of Pongo plotting a murder. Still . . . Before I could ask any burgundy grove - 27


THE WODEHOUSE MURDER CASE probing questions, however, Tench tapped me gently on the shoulder. His look said it wasn’t for public proclamation, so I followed him to where Aunt Lettie stood, casting purification spells on the canapés. “Sir, Madam,” Tench said, “I thought that it might be wise to confirm the number

28 - december 2012

of guests present—I’ve already counted the servants—before leaping to assumptions about the murderer being among us in the room.” He couldn’t quite resist a dramatic pause before continuing. “And?” Aunt Lettie said. “Who’s missing?” “Quite the opposite, Madam—we have one too


Fraser Sherman Below: Flickr.com/longhorndave

many. Not counting the two corpses, we should have thirty-two guests, but I count thirty-three.” “I presume you didn’t see anyone unfamiliar or out of place in the crowd,” I said. I didn’t bother asking if he could have miscounted. This was Tench, after all. “A concealment spell,”

Auntie said. “Slick enough that nobody notices there’s someone around they don’t recognize. I can’t see anyone—” “Allow me,” I said, opening my third eye again and scanning the room. There. Sitting unobtrusively in one corner, nursing a vodka tonic, I saw a man who . . . well, on the physical level, he just invited you not to notice him. He was, if you will, actively forgettable. On the astral level, he was neither a man, nor forgettable. And as my gaze fastened upon him, he looked up, smiled and rose to his feet. Enough of his concealing glamour fell away that the chattering crowd gave him their full attention. “Bravo!” The gentleman— I use the term loosely—set down his glass and applauded politely. “I bet Belial twenty guineas you’d spot me before the night was out, but I never dreamed even you could unmask me so soon.” The rest of the glamour fell away, and looking upon his true form—or as close as we could burgundy grove - 29


THE WODEHOUSE MURDER CASE perceive it and not scream— the guests grew deathly silent. “Mr. Throopville, allow me to introduce myself. I am Mephistopheles.” “The Mephistopheles?” Tench said. It was the only time I’d ever seen him impressed. “The very archfiend immortalized in Goethe’s Faust? It— it’s an honor, sir.” Nobody else in the room looked honored. They looked either terrified or drunkenly confused, except for Pongo, who wore a clenched-teeth scowl of fury. “The honor is mine,” Mephistopheles said. “Meeting

“Er, yes, I suppose—” I saw much more of his true form than anyone else in the room, and I thought it very desirable not to offend him. “So, er, I’m flattered to learn I have admirers in your neck of the woods, but why exactly are you reenacting murders from my books?” “Part of the bargain I made with my summoner, of course. In return for certain favors, he agreed to invite me to a country-house party, just like the ones you write about. Of course, the only way to make it as much fun as in the stories was to add a few murders—I

The old duffer bought it, and ever since, Hell’s been awash with mysteries. the preeminent mystery writer of the age, I mean.” He gestured in my direction, saw the crowd looking blank. “Surely you know who walks among you? Amanda Plumley, my favorite writer! May I call you Monty?” 30 - december 2012

was debating which ingenious method of yours to use next when you unmasked me.” “So you’re serious, Mr. Mephistopheles?” Suzanne was speaking to him but staring at me as if the sun had risen upon my brow. “Monty writes


Fraser Sherman Below: Flickr.com/angelocesare

the Professor Wodehouse novels? And you like them too?” “This is what His Supremacy Below expects us to read for entertainment,” Mephistopheles said. A fiveinch-thick, official document appeared in his hand. “The complete British excisetax laws. But after Christie came out with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, we convinced Lucifer that, as an account of humanity’s brutal penchant for inflicting death on each

other, it was perfectly appropriate reading for the damned. The old duffer bought it, and ever since, Hell’s been awash with mysteries. Rinehart, Allingham, Carr, Sayers—but yours are far and away the favorite. Take our minds completely away from the everyday suffering and hellfire.” “I see.” I had a plan now, but would it work? “So what service, exactly, did Pongo Tiffin demand of you in return for your invitation?”

burgundy grove - 31


THE WODEHOUSE MURDER CASE “You know perfectly well I can’t divulge any details of what he—” Mephistopheles’ jaw dropped and he applauded again. “You tricked his name out of me! Just like Professor Wodehouse.” “Pongo?” Suzanne stepped away from him with a gasp. “So you are the murderer!” “He’s the murderer!” Pongo pointed dramatically at Mephistopheles. “You can’t believe a word he says—that’s what they do down there, they lie!” “And it’s sheer coincidence your father almost drank cyanide right after changing his will?” Suzanne looked as if she wanted to run from him, but she pluckily stood her ground. “Though that was rather a long shot.” “True,” Mephistopheles said. “That was one of your weaker plots, Monty.” “I’m aware of that,” I said through clenched teeth. “I’m assuming you had to improvise because Pongo couldn’t convince his father to return to Tiffin Manor.” I pointed 32 - december 2012

dramatically myself, at Pongo. “What was it going to be? Tragic crash, broken neck, you and Suzanne survive?” A cold thought seized my guts. “Or was she doomed too? After all, you had no use for her once you’d gotten the will changed, did you?” “You make me sound as though I planned it from the first!” Pongo’s face wore the injured expression that had gotten him out of many a scrape in the past. “It started as a joke—I’d sought to summon Ix, the minor pox demon, to give my father a few dozen boils on his bum.” “What?” Gouty tried whacking Pongo over the head with his cane, but his son ducked out of reach. “Devil take you—er, no offense, Mephistopheles—and I’ve told you not to use words like ‘bum’! It’s common!” “Dash it, Pater,” Pongo protested, “how many times have you written me out of the will now? Me always having to wonder if you were going to pop off before you could write


Fraser Sherman me back in again? It was only a harmless prank, but I misread ‘IX,’ as in the ninth circle of Hell, as ‘Ix’ and—well, look who showed up!” I looked over at Mephistopheles. “Pongo couldn’t possibly have com-

“—I agreed to bump his father off. He didn’t press me for details, so I was free to devise the most entertaining scheme possible.” “No details?” I stared at my former friend, whose injured expression, I thought, was wear-

“Pongo couldn’t possibly have compelled a fiend of the ninth circle to appear. pelled a fiend of the ninth circle to appear. Why would you answer a summoning from one of the world’s prize chumps?” “Well, I knew he was your friend,” the demon prince replied. “I rather hoped I’d be able to cadge an autographed copy of a couple of your books out of you if I gained an entree into your social circle. Of course, I had to offer Mr. Tiffin something, so in return for my attendance at this delightful soiree—your chef does your credit, Miss Throopville—” Aunt Lettie forced a polite smile.

ing rather thin. “How many times have I told you—the terms of any pact have to be specific! Gussie and Sweeting-Smythe are dead because of your sloppiness, to say nothing of what you were going to do to poor Suzanne.” The sight of her lip trembling as she stared at the man she thought loved her broke my heart. “Why murder her?” “Well, I certainly wasn’t going to marry a chorus girl,” Pongo said, slightly indignantly. “I’d thought I’d just break the engagement, but then I realized there’d be less scandal if I broke her neck.” And then, against all reason, he smiled. burgundy grove - 33


THE WODEHOUSE MURDER CASE “But what you’ve overlooked is that Mephistopheles here is still bound to murder my father.” “You wretched miscreant!” Gouty hurled the cane at his serpent’s tooth of a son, but Pongo ducked nimbly. “When I write you out this time—” “You won’t have the chance, Pater. Lord Mephistopheles, the only method of murder I will agree to now is that you drag this entire house and everyone in it but me down to the fiery depths of Abaddon to fulfill our bargain!” Pongo’s words almost sparked a panicked flight, but hellfire manifested at every exit. “I’m afraid I can’t let you leave,” Mephistopheles said. “I’m dreadfully sorry to cut short your literary career, Monty, but rules are rules.” “But wait a second!” I said. “Pongo, don’t you think the police will suspect something when—” “I’ll make up a story!” he said with the desperate air of a man going completely off his bonce. “I’m very good at that, you know that!” 34 - december 2012

And as the flames rose higher around us, Tench cleared his throat. “Master Mephistopheles, I have been reflecting on recent amendments to the Infernal Powers Act of 1924. I do believe Mr. Tiffin directing you to perform ‘acts of an unlawful nature involving grievous bodily harm’ means his power to bind you to his service is now null and void.” “What?” Pongo shook his head. “No, I read the amendments—well, some of them— and that only applies if the demon carries out commands that go against its wishes. No demon ever objects to acts of evil!” “Actually I do rather object to this one,” Mephistopheles said. “If I kill Monty, it’s the end of the Wodehouse books and they’d never speak to me again down below. Dash it, I’d never speak to me!” “What?” Pongo ran a hand through his hair, snapped his fingers. “Very well then, my command is—” Before he could give a more palatable order, Suzanne snatched up Gouty’s cane and


Fraser Sherman whacked Pongo across the shins. As he howled out, hopping on one leg, she cracked the stick down on his noggin. He dropped to the floor like a poleaxed ox. “Swift thinking!” Mephistopheles nodded approvingly at Suzanne. “Good thing you were around, these society types are no use in a crisis. Now, after this is all over, ask Monty again

Wodehouse books. But the fact that my deductive skills had actually saved Aunt Lettie and exposed a real-life murderer made it hard for them to object. Though cousin Beedle hasn’t spoken to me since he realized how many more copies my books sell than his do. Becoming engaged to a former chorus girl—it took her a while

“Ask Monty again about his secret sorrow. This time he’ll tell you.” about his secret sorrow. This time he’ll tell you.” The fires flickered out and slowly he began to fade too. “I left my copies of your books up in your room, Monty. If you could possibly autograph them, ‘To my best chum in Hell, Mephistopheles,’ I would be ever so grateful . . .” And so it all ended happily. Well, I imagine Pongo wasn’t too happy getting hung for murder, but I can’t say he didn’t deserve it. My family was appalled to discover I was a best-selling writer, even though they all loved the

to get over Pongo’s betrayal, but get over it she did—hasn’t gone over well with everyone either. But anyone who doesn’t like that Suzanne is my heart’s desire can bally well lump it. And overall, the adventure at Aunt Lettie’s has improved my social life: Having “Amanda Plumley” as a guest gives any party quite a cachet. Plus of course, Tench seeing one of his literary heroes, so to speak, admire my work, has somewhat subdued his occasional sarcastic comments. Only somewhat, but I treasure even the small victories. burgundy grove - 35


While I know I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, Pongo Tiffin was a thoroughgoing rotter who almost succeeded in murdering the woman I love. But there’s no question my life has worked

out jolly well because of his evil schemes. So when people discuss what a blackguard he was, I turn away without a word and

order another whiskey.

36 - december 2012

Below: Flickr.com/AMagill

THE WODEHOUSE MURDER CASE


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THE invisible People jacob peppers

H

i, my name is James Bradshaw. I’d say my friends call me Jimmy, but I only have the one. Tommy is a tall, skinny, red-headed guy who is a firm believer that Captain Kirk is one of the greatest people of our time—book Kirk, not Shatner Kirk, the distinction, at least to Tommy, is vital. He also believes that intergalactic space travel is not only possible, it’s already happened. As to his reasoning on either of these two points, you’d have to ask Tommy himself—but I suggest you don’t. As for me, I am of average height and weight for a senior in high school. I have brown hair and brown eyes, and although I don’t share Tommy’s enthusiasm for phasers or Vulcans, I am no star athlete or homecoming king. You see, me and Tommy are of the invisible people. We walk among you—we eat, sleep, and talk among you—but are rarely noticed. We are the people whose names you forget over summer break, the ones who argue about video games instead of football scores, and who actually wear the clothes our grandparents get us for Christmas. We’re also virgins. Still, I don’t mind. After all, invisible people rarely get their heads dunked in toilets or their clothes taken when they’re changing out for gym. Tommy and I coasted through high school, making easy A’s, letting people cheat off of our papers, and debating who was going to be the next dungeon master in our weekly game. Over all, we’d had a pretty good senior year—despite the fact that Tommy had taken to talking like Yoda more often than is altogether healthy. That was, until a week ago, when our lives as we TM Magazine - 39


THE invisible People knew them were irrevocably changed. Tommy and I were sitting in the back row of desks in Mr. Garmen’s class, talking and waiting for everyone else to finish their reading in The Count of Monte Cristo, when Kevin Windell, who sat in the desk in front of mine, raised his hand. He was the muscular, handsome, and, of course, popular quarterback of our school’s football team. He was the type of person who had always been big for his age, the type of guy who was invariably successful at any sport he played and the kids in our school loved him for it. Suffice to say that Kevin was, in essence, the exact opposite of me and Tommy (he was the homecoming king). Mr. Garmen, our heavyset, balding literature teacher adjusted his glasses with a finger, “Yes, Mr. Windell?” “I don’t understand this guy. I mean … he sits in prison for what, fifteen years, and when he finally gets out he goes through this huge hassle about 40 - december 2012

pretending to be somebody else so he can get the people back who betrayed him.” Mr. Garmen nodded and waited for a moment, “Is there a question there somewhere, Mr. Windell?” Kevin grinned, displaying perfect teeth. “Well, why not just kill them? I mean … if he just killed them already he could go out and do whatever he wanted. Seems pretty dumb to me.” He started laughing then and, as if on cue, the rest of the class aside from me and Tommy laughed with him. Mr. Garmen sighed and glanced around the class. His eyes settled on me. I looked down at my desk, but it was too late. “Mr. Bradshaw?” “Yes sir?” I asked as I felt my face get hot. “Why do you think Dantes acts as he does?” Silently cursing Mr. Garmen for asking me, I opened the book to a passage I’d underlined in preparation for our assignment. “Well, sir, err … I believe that punishing his enemies was what he wanted


jacob peppers more than anything else. At one point he said, ‘I wish to be Providence myself, for I feel that the most beautiful, noblest, most sublime thing in the world, is to recompense and punish.’”

Yoda voice. “Princess Leia’s not real,” I whispered back, to which he frowned and gave me the finger. Eventually, everyone went back to reading. Tommy and

“Punishing his enemies was what he wanted more than anything else.” “I’d rather have a huge house and plenty of women any day,” Kevin whispered, loudly enough for everyone to hear, and the class burst into fits of laughter again. “Very good, Jimmy. Very good,” Mr. Garmen said, as if Kevin hadn’t spoken. “I’m glad to know that some of you, at least, are learning from the assignment.” When I looked up, Kevin had turned around in his desk and was frowning at me. When he turned around, I sighed. Sometimes I wondered if Mr. Garmen hated me. “Toilet water on you already I smell,” Tommy whispered in an annoyingly convincing

I were engaged in yet another debate over what would happen in the Comic-verse if the Juggernaut (an unstoppable force) clashed with The Blob (an immovable object), when the door opened and a young man walked in. “Excuse me?” Mr. Garmen said, as he lifted his ponderous bulk out of his chair. The stranger wore khaki pants and an unbuttoned blue blazer. His tanned face, with black hair and brown eyes, seemed somehow familiar. He appeared to be in his twenties and his chiseled, immaculate features reminded me of some of the famous movie stars my mom and dad like burgundy grove - 41


THE invisible People to watch on tv, like James Dean or Cary Grant. The girls in the class giggled to each other, Kevin frowned, and me and Tommy looked at each other and shrugged. “Is this Mr. Garmen’s senior class?” the man asked, unaware or unconcerned with the reactions he’d caused. “Yes,” Mr. Garmen said, adjusting his glasses, “I’m Mr. Garmen. I wasn’t aware of any visitors this period. May I see your visitor’s pass?” In answer, the man reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and, in one smooth motion, withdrew a metallic object. There were three rapid flashes and the nearsilence of the room was shattered by three ear-splitting cracks. It wasn’t until I saw the bullets tear through Mr. Garmin’s bulk, sending blood and chunks of flesh splattering against the chair and wall behind him, that I realized the man had drawn a gun. Mr. Garmin fell back into the chair, knocking it over and crumpling to the ground. 42 - december 2012

That’s Dirty Harry’s gun! I remember thinking. He just killed Mr. Garmen with Dirty Harry’s gun! Someone in the room started screaming and then we all did. “Shut up,” the killer said. His voice, barely audible over our panicked shouts, was so cold, so passionless that our cries stopped nearly as quickly as they started. Except one. The shrieks were loud and piercing and interrupted only by her panicked breaths. She had long, dull brown hair and thick glasses. I knew her. It was Gail—she was one of us, one of the invisible people. Her wide, wild eyes followed the stranger as he strolled to her desk. “Shut up,” he said again. Her eyes bulged in her head, but her screams continued, as if they were a reflex she couldn’t control. Without another word, the killer lifted the .44 to Gail’s forehead and pulled the trigger. The force of the concussion pitched her backward and her lifeless body crashed to the floor. Her brown, dead eyes were wide


jacob peppers with surprise. Terrified whimpers filled the room, but none of us dared to release the screams of fear and outrage that pressed against our throats. “Now then,” the stranger said as he walked to the front of the room and propped up against Mr. Garmen’s desk, staring out at our pale, tearstreaked faces, “maybe we can have some peace and quiet.” He grinned, displaying a perfect, white smile that most movie stars would kill for, but his eyes were as cold and as dead as those of poor Gail or Mr. Garmen. “So, kids, we’re gonna play a little ga—“ He was interrupted by three loud knocks. Through the small window in the door, I could see that old Mr. Brown, the

turned and fired the remaining two shots into the wood surface of the door. There was a grunt as the bullets punched through the wood. Then there was silence. The killer heaved a sigh and licked the thumb and forefinger of his left hand before running them over his eyebrows. It was an odd gesture, and one that I was sure I’d seen somewhere before. “Sorry about that, kids. It’s so hard to get a little privacy these days,” he said, as he walked over and locked the door. “Now then, where were we? Oh yes, I remember.” As he spoke, he fished six flat-tipped bullets out of his pocket and loaded the gun. We watched, paralyzed. “We’re going to play a little game.” He continued,

“I’m going to go around the room and ask you a question. If you get it wrong, you die.” high school principal, stood “I’m going to go around the on the other side. Without tak- room and ask you a question. ing his eyes from us, the killer If you get it wrong, you die. If burgundy grove - 43


you take too long or if I think you’re lying, you die.” He smiled that winning smile again, “Who wants to go first?” No one spoke. “No volunteers? Very well, I’ll choose.” The room was split into two-desk rows on either side. He walked over to my side of the room and pointed the gun at Donald Brooks, a 44 - december 2012

heavy-set kid in the front of the row beside mine. “”What’s your name?” He asked, his smile vanishing. “It’s D-D-Donald,” the boy stuttered. His thick, red cheeks were covered in sweat. “Like the duck?” The man asked with a smile. The boy’s head nodded in sporadic jerks, but his only answer

Above: Flickr.com/QuinnDombrowski

THE invisible People


jacob peppers

was a low whimper. “Take it easy, Donald, you’ll live longer. So, are you ready for your question?” The boy took a deep, calming breath and nodded. “Alright then, Donald, that’s more like it. Now then, what is the name of this high school?” Donald let out his breath in relief. “Blayton.”

The killer frowned. “The sign out front says Blayton High School. Not Blayton,” he said as he raised the gun. Donald cringed and closed his eyes, and in seconds the smell of urine filled the air. The killer took a disgusted step back, “There wasn’t any call for that, my man. I was just fooling with ya. Now how do you think you’re gonna get one of these fine ladies to go on a date with you now that they’ve seen you piss yourself?” The killer shook his head at the indiscretion and moved to the next person. Marge was a skinny, prettyfaced girl. She wasn’t the homecoming queen (that was Jenny who sat beside Kevin) but she was the homecoming queen’s best friend—a member of the elite. She didn’t look like it now. Tears flowed freely down her pale face and she shook as the gunman approached. “So frail, so gentle, our little Mrs. Earnshaw,” The killer said with a smile. “Oh well, fair is fair. Whose classroom is this?” burgundy grove - 45


THE invisible People “Mr. Garmen’s.” Marge whispered, her eyes never leaving her desk. “Wrong!” The killer shouted his face twisting with rage. She cringed, letting out a whimper as he leaned close to her. Abruptly, he straightened and smiled, “You really must learn to keep up with current events. This is my room now.

Tommy and I glanced at each other uneasily. It was impossible that the killer could know that Kevin was the quarterback for our school’s football team. After all, it was a large high school and Kevin wasn’t the only big guy in it. My heart sped up as I was hit with a sickening realization. This wasn’t random murder.

It wasn’t random murder. The killer wanted this classroom Do I need to prove it to you?” Marge shook her head fiercely and he laughed. “Close enough, little lady, close enough.” He flashed a grin to the classroom at large before he turned to Kevin and frowned. “Well, you’re a big son of a bitch aren’t you? How much you weigh big fella?” “Two ten.” Kevin mumbled, avoiding the man’s gaze. “Is that right? Well, I bet the girls just love you don’t they? What’s your name, quarterback?” “Kevin.” 46 - december 2012

The killer wanted this classroom, in particular. In the face of the sudden violence and death, I’d forgotten the first thing he’d asked. “Is this Mr. Garmen’s senior class?” he’d said. And he’d called Marge Mrs. Earnshaw. Her last name wasn’t Earnshaw— it was Brown. The only Earnshaw I’d ever heard of was the Earnshaw family from the Wuthering Heights, the book that we’d read before starting The Count of Monte Cristo. I surreptitiously glanced around the room.


jacob peppers Mr. Garmen had already put the books up—there was no way the killer could have seen them. With a building dread, I turned back to the stranger. “…for your question?” The killer was asking. Kevin nodded dumbly. “You know what? How about we try something else. You’re a big guy, Kevin. Probably work out a lot don’t you?” “Yeah.” “Well, I tell you what we’ll do. Stand up.” Slowly, Kevin got out of his desk, but his eyes stayed on the floor. “Would you like to be a hero, Kevin?” He didn’t answer. “I said,” the killer shrieked, his features twisting in fury, “would you like to be a hero, Kevin?” “S-sure.” The man smiled, “Of course you would. Well, I’m gonna give you the chance, champ.” He tucked the .44 behind his belt. “If you can take me, then you get to go free, you and everybody else. You’ll save everybody. Hell, they’d all love you even more then. Not that

you have any problem getting yours now, eh?” He said, winking at Jenny. “I’m not sure—“ “Sure you are!” The killer exclaimed, spreading his hands out wide in invitation. “You’ve got me by what, a good thirty five pounds? A guy like you, I guess you’re probably used to beating on people smaller than you. I can’t imagine you having too much trouble.” “But—“Kevin glanced around the room, as if in search of help. The killer frowned. “This is your chance, Kevin. If you don’t take it now I’m going to pull this gun and I’m going to shoot you in the face. Your parents will have to have a closed casket ceremony and nobody in this room will remember what you look like now—they’ll only remember what your face looked like after it had been shattered by a .44. Do you want to be shot, Kevin? Is that how you want to be remembered? As the guy who was too chicken-shit burgundy grove - 47


THE invisible People scared to get out of his desk and save them?” Kevin let out a growl like a cornered animal and charged. The killer whipped his hand behind his back, drew the pistol, and shot Kevin in the leg, shattering his knee, before the quarterback got close. Kevin’s growl turned into a scream. His leg gave out beneath him and he crashed to the ground. The killer laughed and knelt beside the wounded boy. “N-n-not f-fair.” Kevin gasped in between sharp intakes of breath. The stranger laughed again, “Not fair? Do you think it’s fair to these other boys that you’re so much bigger and stronger than they are? Do you suppose it’s fair that you can do whatever you want to them and they can’t stop you?” Kevin’s eyes were closed against the pain and he clutched his leg with both hands as childlike whimpers issued from his throat. “Kevin. Hey!” The killer said, slapping him in the face. “Don’t you pass out on me, 48 - december 2012

boy. You still haven’t answered my question. Now think of this as a memory test. Keep your eyes closed. Oh, and Kevin? I really wouldn’t cheat if I was you.” Kevin moaned and jerked his head in answer. “Good. Now, tell me this. How many students are in this class?”


jacob peppers Below: Flickr.com/~Steve Z~

Kevin’s brow furrowed in thought. Several seconds passed before the killer spoke, “Consider this a timed test, Kevin. You’re running out of time.” “Twenty … Twenty three!” Kevin exclaimed. “Tsk tsk.” The killer clucked, shaking his head. He raised the gun and brought the thick,

heavy handle down with a vicious jerk. There was a loud crack and Kevin screamed. Blood spurted out of his nose as he twisted in agony, but the killer straddled him, pinning his arms and brought the pistol down again. There was the sharp crack of breaking bone and Kevin choked and gagged and spat up several teeth.

burgundy grove - 49


THE invisible People The killer stood up, looked at his work, and smiled. Kevin’s once handsome face was now a shattered ruin. Desperate sobs echoed around the room. The killer took a deep breath, licked his thumb and forefinger, and smoothed his eyebrows. With a shock, everything tumbled into place. I remembered where I’d seen it before. “Shut up!” The killer shouted as he kicked Kevin viciously in the face. Kevin’s head whipped to the side under the force of the blow and his cries of pain changed to quiet, desperate whimpers. “Well, it seems that Kevin needs help.” He said, flashing his perfect, evil smile. “Let’s see, who’s next? Oh, you there, in the back.” He walked over and stood beside me. I forced myself to meet his eyes. I’d read somewhere that it was important to meet a predator’s eyes, that looking away was a sign of weakness, of vulnerability. Somehow I doubt that the author had ever tried looking down the length of a 50 - december 2012

.44 magnum into the eyes of a murderer. The killer grinned, “Look at this. You’ve got some balls on you don’t you, buddy?” I struggled to keep my hands from shaking. “Right now, I don’t think I could find them.” The man laughed, it was a charming sound full of genuine, contagious mirth. It made my stomach roil. He gestured at Kevin with a thumb, “He a buddy of yours?” I jerked my shoulders in a shrug, “Not really.” “Oh?” He asked, affecting surprise. “How about I make you a deal. I’m gonna ask you Kevin’s question. If you get it wrong, I’ll kill him. If you get it right, I’ll let him go, how’s that sound?” “You’re going to kill him either way.” I said, sure, as I said it, that it was the truth. The killer frowned, and I could feel Tommy giving me a What the hell are you thinking look, but I pressed on, “How about if I get your question right, I get to ask you one?”


jacob peppers The stranger broke out into a radiant grin, “You are a funny little bastard, aren’t you?” I shrugged. “Alright then,” he said, “this should be interesting. Go ahead.” “Twenty four. There are twenty four of us.”

I shrugged. Sam was the kid in our class who was always in trouble. The one that the teachers whispered there was no hope for. He wasn’t one of the invisible, lucky ones. His thick bifocals, acne-covered face, and short temper were

I’d read somewhere that it was important to meet a predator’s eyes His eyes widened and his mouth opened slightly in surprise. Finally, he nodded. “You’re right. There are twenty four.” “Can I ask mine now?” He tilted his head at me and furrowed his brow. “Alright,” he said, sounding, for the first time, as if he was unsure of himself. “What happened to your brother?” I asked softly. The killer took a halting step back. The gun in his hand started to shake. “What?” “What happened to Sam?” “How could you … how could you know that Sam was my brother?”

enough to turn him into a punching bag for almost all of the high school student body. He was supposed to be in Mr. Garmen’s literature class, but he was constantly in suspension, so we never really saw him. He’d come back for a day several weeks ago. Kevin and several of the other kids had made fun of him, as always, and as always they managed to conceal their taunts from Mr. Garmen. Sam was not as subtle. Over the course of forty five minutes, the jibes continued and Sam grew redder and redder, angrier and angrier until, finally, he burst out of his burgundy grove - 51


THE invisible People chair and tried to stab Kevin with a pencil. The problem was, Sam was smaller than I am. Kevin easily took the pencil from him and pushed him to the ground, laughing all the while—the room, minus me and Tommy, laughed with him. They were both sent to the office. Kevin got sent back to the room, and Sam got sent to suspension. That was the last time I’d seen him. “What’s your name?” The stranger asked shakily. “I’m James Bradshaw.” His brow furrowed in thought, “James Bradshaw … Oh! Jimmy! You’re Jimmy Bradshaw! Sure, Sam talked about you.” The killer grinned, “He said you were a good guy.” I tried to keep the surprise off of my face. Abruptly,

Against all these pieces of trash!” He growled, sweeping the gun across the room. “It’s because of them that my brother’s dead!” He screamed. “What?” I asked, feeling my own breathing quicken. The killer turned back to me, his lip trembling as he spoke, “He’s dead. He’s dead because of them!” “I’m … I’m so sorry.” “It’s okay. Or at least it will be. Once they’re all dead.” “Them?” I asked, my gut twisting. He intended to kill the entire class. Apparently, he misunderstood my thoughts, “Of course!” He exclaimed, wiping his eyes. “I wouldn’t kill you, not now that I know who you are. You were his only friend.” Guilt gnawed at me. Friends?

That was the last time I’d seen him. the stranger’s grin vanished and he indicated Kevin with the gun. “He said you took up for him against that bastard! 52 - december 2012

I’d barely ever talked to Sam. As for the time I’d stood up for him, it was one of those rare moments of insanity that


jacob peppers typically ends with black eyes and embarrassment. “Y-you shouldn’t kill them,” I blurted. The killer’s eyes flashed in anger, and I realized that I may have gone too far. He stared at

stared at me, undecided. “For Sam.” I said. The mention of his brother’s name convinced him. He nodded. “You’re right, Jimmy. Of course, you’re right. We’ll do

I realized that I may have gone too far. me for a second, and I felt that I could see my life or death in those eyes. Finally, he spoke. “You’re wrong, Jimmy. You’ll see. Once all these cruel little monsters are dead, the world will be a better place.” I nodded slowly, contemplatively, “Maybe you’re right. Maybe that would be best.” The killer grinned, “Good!” He raised his gun and pointed it at Kevin, still lying helpless and wounded on the floor. “Wait!” I shouted. The stranger turned on me, his eyes narrowing, but before he could speak, I went on. “Sam wasn’t the only one that he picked on, you know? He made all of our lives hell. Let me do it. I want to do it.” He

them together—it’ll be great. Come here.” He gestured and I walked up and stood beside him. The eyes of the students followed me in disbelief and fear. “Here you go,” the killer said. He patted me on the back as he handed me the gun. It felt heavy in my hands. It felt like the realest thing I’d ever known. “Get the son of a bitch.” The killer said. “Oh, and be careful, Jimmy. That gun kicks like a mule.” Kevin’s eyes stared out of his ruined face. I glanced around the room at the other students. They were all tormentors in their way. The big guys, Kevin and his friends, used their muscles to push people like me and Sam around, to burgundy grove - 53


THE invisible People make us look stupid and weak in everyone’s eyes. Sometimes the girls laughed, sometimes they said that Kevin should stop, but they never really cared. It was all just posturing to them, all just an act. But it wasn’t an act to Sam, or me, or Tommy, or any of the other kids who had to check their drinks for spit or their hair for gum every day. It was our lives. It was enough to make anyone a little crazy. The gun felt good in my hands. “All of them?” I asked. The killer nodded, smiling his movie-star smile. “You got it, buddy.” Without giving myself a chance to think, I swung the gun up and fired. It kicked more than I’d expected, nearly leaping from my hands as the bullet thundered out. The shot took him in the gut and he screamed in surprise as he was knocked to the ground

by the force of it. He clutched his stomach with both hands and they were soon stained crimson. “Why?” he hissed. “T-they should pay for what they did!” I felt tears in my eyes. “I’m sorry about, Sam.” I said, and I pulled the trigger again. The gun barked and the second shot took the killer in the chest. His body jerked with the force of the impact and then he was still. My hands trembled and the gun fell to the ground. All around me, the students let out a breath of relief and started shouting and clapping me on the back between tears of relief. I won’t say it didn’t feel good—it did. Tommy walked up to me. “That was the bravest thing I think I’ve ever seen, man.” He said, sans Yoda voice. I shrugged. What was there to say? I wasn’t brave—

I was invisible.

54 - december 2012


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Twas The Night

Before Christmas Clement Clarke Moore

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care

TM Magazine - 57


Left: Flickr.com/Alan Cleaver

Twas The Night Before Christmas

In the hope that St. Nicholas soon would be there. The children were nestled all snug in their beds, 58 - december 2012


Clement Clarke Moore

While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads. And mamma in her kerchief, and I in my cap, Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap;

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter, I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter. Away to the window I flew like a flash, Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash. burgundy grove - 59


Left: Flickr.com/Dazzan

Twas The Night Before Christmas

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow Gave the lustre of midday to objects below-When what to my wondering eyes should appear 60 - december 2012


Clement Clarke Moore

But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer. With a little old driver so lively and quick, I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came, And he whistled and shouted and called them by name-“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer! Now, Vixen! On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Dunder and Blixen! burgundy grove - 61


Twas The Night Before Christmas

To the top of the porch, to the top of the wall! Now, dash away! Dash away! Dash away! All!�

As dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly, When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky, So up to the house-top the coursers they flew With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas, too. And then in a twinkling I heard on the roof

62 - december 2012


Clement Clarke Moore

The prancing and pawing of each tiny hoof. As I drew in my head, and was turning around, Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound. He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot,

Right: Flickr.com/popofatticus

burgundy grove - 63


Twas The Night Before Christmas

And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot; A bundle of toys he had flung on his back, And he looked like a pedlar just opening his pack.

His eyes--how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry; His droll little mouth was drawn up in a bow, And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.

64 - december 2012


Clement Clarke Moore Right: Wiki Commons

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath.

burgundy grove - 65


Twas The Night Before Christmas

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf, And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself. A wink of his eye, and a twist of his head, Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work, And filled all the stockings— then turned with a jerk, And laying his finger aside of his nose,

66 - december 2012


Clement Clarke Moore

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose. He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle; But I heard him exclaim ere he drove out of sight,

Merry Christmas

“

to all, and to all a good-night!�

burgundy grove - 67

Azure Valley: December 2012  

Murder in a whimsical England, the benefits of being invisible in a very real America, and a reprint of a classic Christmas story.

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